15 December 2013

Zanzibar and the Definition of Exotic

The folks at Merriam Webster list several widely disparate definitions of the word exotic. For example, one definition is “introduced from a foreign country: not native to the place where found.” Does that mean that camera wielding Thais, or fanny-packed Americans are “exotic people” in a place like Rome? The second definition is more straightforward: “Foreign, Alien.” I suppose this definition is the most utilitarian, as it is all-encompassing. Star Wars is full of exotic creatures. Balut and durian are exotic foods. A third definition involves dancing, although I doubt it is foreign or alien to the patrons, proprietors or dancers of the trade.

My favorite definition of Webster’s though, is by far the best: “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual…” For a little kid entranced by books about sea journey, trade-by-sail and far-flung adventure, the very word “Zanzibar” has always meant all of those things.

Last month, on a much-needed week-long breather from my Juba pressure-cooker that I work and live in, I joined the millions of travelers who have come before me in being dazzled, awed and enchanted by this impossibly fertile land that lies just off the coast of Tanzania.

Zanzibar is actually made up of hundreds of small islands, but the main island where I landed, Unguja, is about 50 mile long. The turquoise waters stretched out below the plane as we descended off the short hop from Dar-es-Salaam.

My luggage decided to spend an extra evening in Addis to visit with friends, so I continued alone with my carry-on along the horrible road north to my hotel; located at the tip of the main island. A torrential rain storm arrived with me and caused me, my elderly driver and his elderly vehicle considerable discomfort as we limped through small rivers and ponds that had emerged in the so-called road. At least there were no pesky wind shield wipers to slow down the aerodynamics of the ancient Peugeot.

I won’t bore you with my tales of my week long vacation. I devoured excellent seafood and a few books, ran into a friend and her visitor (who went to one of the high schools I attended, believe it or not), took in some mind-shattering sunsets and partied with some 20-something dive instructors. Plodding barefoot on the white sugar beach in the starlight, I found some of the most textbook-perfect seashells I’d ever seen.

One thing I will bore you with is the two days of diving I did off the coast. The first day, quite groggy, we boat dived just a mile or too out from Nungwi, a fishing village recently infested-invested by resorts, on the Hunga Reefs. I sucked up way too much air too quickly and half-hypoxic, followed a sea turtle. *sigh* I always see sea turtles when I’m diving! (If I didn’t trust so in science, I’d begin to suspect their endangered-ness). The second day was far more interesting. This time, the boat traveled close to an hour to the spectacular Menemba Reef. If there was a postcard that I wanted to send to friends living in Duluth, Minnesota in February to make them jealous: I’d take a picture of this scene of a small tropical island surrounded by the loveliest aquamarine color that exists in our universe. The first dive was on an excellent wall of color. But the last dive of this trip was among the finest ever: a strong current pushed us along an underwater river as we encountered first a forest of coral, that tapered out onto a sandy desert dotted with oases of coral islands among a watery Sahara. Along the way: an awakening seahorse, a gigantic spider lobster hiding under a rock (like Shelob in the Lord of the Rings) and psychedelic sea slugs.

Each oasis was its own unique, self-contained ecosystem: with its own school of fish and distinct type of coral. Thanks to Dominik from Germany for the excellent underwater pics.

On my last day in Zanzibar, I spent the day walking around Stone Town (the capital of Zanzibar) with a local guide who described the tumultuous history of this long-bustling port town of the resource wealthy islands. Optimally located on the sea route between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, it was occupied variably through the centuries by Persians, Portuguese, Arabs, and the British. Zanzibar played host not only to the spice trade, but also to the slave trade, and the inter-imperialist wars of the 19th and 20th centuries.

(This is only a sample of the excellent pics I snapped on this journey: Zanzibar sure awes in color, but jaw-dropping gorgeous in black and white)

My guide also showed me the slave markets on the grounds of the Anglican Church, including the terrible basement cells in which the slaves were chained: an ineffaceable monument to the wickedness and cruelty of man.

The whole municipality of the Old Quarter of Stone Town should be an UNESCO World Heritage Site. What a superb mixture of mosques and churches; Indian, British and Arab architecture, bustle and calm! Hiring a guide to see this town was a brilliant move on my part: Stone Town is a tangle of tight alleyways, hidden passages and intimate side streets. Attractions: the market, the busy port and Freddie Mercury’s boyhood home.

Eagerly, I took copious pictures of doors, just like I did when I was in Morocco back in April. My guide explained to me why Indians installed decorative spikes on their doors: to keep elephants from scratching their bums on them and breaking them.

I was sad that I only spent the day in Stone Town. When I return to Zanzibar, I’d like to wander the alleyways, browse the woodworking shops and enjoy a morning cup of coffee on a rooftop watching the sun rise above this sublimely exotic cityscape.

Zanzibar, strikingly, excitingly and mysteriously different, and so much more, for all of time.

17 November 2013

Counting Elephants

If, in a year from now, someone asks me: "Is your life sufficiently unpredictable, full of surprise and adventure?" All I need to do is to think back to a few weeks ago when I spent the day flying 200 feet over South Sudan in a Cessna. "Yes," I'd say, smiling to myself, "You never know when you'll be counting elephants."

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), one of USAID's implementing partners here, has spent the past six years protecting the fragile remains of this country's biological crown jewels. Supported by several donors, WCS's efforts are dedicated to, among other things, collecting valuable data via aerial surveys, collaring and GPS tracking of wildlife as well as developing a professional, effective and fully-resourced cadre of park rangers to prevent poaching. Data collected during aerial surveys for example, is used to not only maintain a critical database of wildlife movements in this vast country, but is also used to recommend and establish boundaries for new protected areas and corridors for migrations.

So one morning, WCS invites my colleague and I out to occupy two vacant seats on the plane, assist in wildlife counting, and well, and hold a five hour meeting in a facility equipped with a reinforced undercarriage, expanded fuel tanks, spectacular views, natural air conditioning but no restroom. It was in fact, an invite to an aerial presentation of the last frontier of Africa, narrated by an experienced biologist who is also a commercial pilot. Well, let's just say it would have been imprudent to decline the invitation.

We took off heading due north, across the villages which dot the northern outskirts of the capital. We started our journey low, at around 400 feet, but would soon descend to 200 feet, which is prime wildlife viewing altitude. After a mere ten minutes flying from Juba, there were barely any signs of civilization below. Out in the bush, we flew over a tiny village. A mother and her child looked up and waved. I waved back.

It was only about 45 minutes before we saw our first herd of elephants. The plane banked hard left and we circled around the pack of 150 or so elephants. When we first saw them from afar, the pack was spread out in a wide formation across the tall grass. But as we circled, the sounds of the engines frightened them and they receded into tight clusters, like mighty wagons in the Old West, with larger adults in the outer circle and the smaller and younger elephants in the middle. While most of the pack was running from the airplane, with my binoculars I caught the glimpse of some larger ones standing their ground, perhaps even charging towards the strange iron bird that was interrupting their breakfast. I felt happy to be safely up in an airplane, and not down there on their carpet.

We left them after a few minutes to return to their grazing.

The plane then bound northeast towards the White Nile, which snaked out in wide, gorgeous curves. Below, we saw small fishing settlements situated on stilts on the side of the river. They might as well have been on a watered moon orbiting the earth. Out here, there was nothing of man, except them to speak of.

"Down there! Hippo!" the biologist called out. I didn't see anything at first, but as we circled, I could finally make out two pinkish-grey humps in the water. How he saw them as we passed them by at 100 miles an hour is beyond me. With my specs, I could just discern their snorting with annoyance as they submerged. Another quiet Friday morning ruined by the curiosity of science.

We then happened on a bachelor party; a scattering of grazing male elephants. They largely ignored the plane, and listless in the mid morning sun, appear as if they had been up all night reeking havoc on the grasslands.

The third pack of elephants we encountered was much larger than the first, and also paid us less attention; retaining their relaxed, wide formations.

Returning southwards, we crossed Jonglei State and we shown some interesting points of interest of the human species. Not the least of which was the massive skeleton of a canal building machine that had been rendered inoperable by RPGs of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army back in the early 80's. I could hardly imagine a better monument.

From the air it was also easy to see some unfortunate effects of man's interaction with the natural world, some of it instigated by nature and some of it inflicted by man. We happened on flooded villages [see cattle collecting on the dry portions of the remaining ground] and dissected pieces landscape evidenced by seismic oil exploration.

We flew across a vast, uninhabited fluorescent green landscape for some time before the plane started banking widely. Our biologist-pilot, endowed by our creator with some supernatural sense of wildlife detection was excited. Below us, the ground was moving. We had happened on the Great Migration of 25,000 white-eared kob accompanied by a smattering of tiang.

For twenty minutes we swooped over a plain completely covered from horizon to horizon with the stampede of these small and fast creatures. It was not unlike a Fourth of July in a world turned upside down. Instead of fireworks above across a night sky, the daylight explosions of color were born of the wildlife cascading below us in every direction. As we would descend, our new orange-brown friends would flee in all directions, setting off secondary explosions of white birds and black birds across a green canvas. [Yes, friends, I know these pictures do not do you, or the experience of seeing you, any justice whatsoever.]

As we returned to Juba (AKA "diamonds scattered across a green carpet"), the smile was indelible on my face. I had witnessed a tremendous wonder of the natural world largely ignored or unknown by the world of man.

There are no rhino left in South Sudan, and zebra haven't been seen for years. Giraffe are rare. Here in the last frontier of Africa, nothing must be spared to ensure that we never stop counting elephants.

14 October 2013

A Brief Unburdening in Ethiopia

Breaking out northeast from South Sudan on an Ethiopian Airlines turboprop, there was much to dispense with on my first vacation. First there was the load of an occupational hazard: that annual build-up of tension and stress that accompanies the end of the fiscal year. Second, the turbulence and political preoccupations brought forth by the shutdown of my country's government. There was also the caged existence of life on a compound and work in a fortress; an abrasion on the spirit imperceivable, but the weight of which, when the wheels of the plane retract, can be felt lifting with every meter of ascent above the floodplain floor.

Ethiopia requires no branding campaign. In the family of nations, its coat of arms is famous. Injera is leavened from Wellington to Washington DC. The Lion of Judah roars from rooftops in Rome, Kingston and Rio De Janeiro. I've always been fascinated by this great nation in east Africa that had formed sophisticated systems of written language, arithmetic and social order before the Coliseum was erected, when my ancestors were still painting their faces blue and spending their days stalking deer.

I'd never been to a place before where the people had rethought the very concept of time. In Ethiopia, 6am is midnight. This is a little confusing at first, but yet it makes perfect sense: the day begins at sunrise, and ends when the sun rises anew. Everyone may rejoice at the dawn and birth of another day on planet Earth in Ethiopia, but back home in America, all but the late-night revelers and the third-shifters snore their way through the shredding of the calendar.

After a brief evening in Addis, I awoke early to hop another turboprop - I was heading north to the highlands to escape the thick marsh air of the Nile lands.

This time of year, Ethiopia is an Ireland of Africa. A hundred shades of green reflect from the fields and glens of Gondar shimmering a magic canvas of light and color into the cabin during the mid morning flight. In the course of the half hour hop from Gondar to Lalibela, the landscape turns quickly from green flat to green hilly, then to army colored cliffs and sepia painted plateaus.

I picked Lalibela to spend my long weekend because I wanted mountain air and dramatic scenery specifically. I heard there were churches carved out of solid rock there, but it wasn't really the destination I was seeking, rather than the journey. In Lalibela, I was pleasantly surprised to find both quite appealing.

The first thing I noticed on the drive to town from the airport was the waving. Everyone waved. Children leading goats waved smiling from the side of the road. A woman paused in her laundry and waved. Three men talking by a store stopped talking to wave as my van rolled by. I waved back, enjoying the feeling of being in a place where people have not tired of tourism, and tourists are an attraction. Only in some of the most remote places in the world: Liberia, Guatemala, Georgia do strangers still wave at strange passers by - finding familiarity solely in our own humanity.

The churches of Lalibela are a sight to behold. Petra is famous because it is carved out of rock. Yet at Petra, the edifice is only carved at the front of a cliff face. In Lalibela, the churches are carved in total: all four sides and the interior in a four story free standing church, out of solid rock. The effect on the traveler is similar to any of the storied feats of human engineering: the Mayan ruins at Tikal, the Golden Temple at Kyoto, the Parthenon in Athens; except that the churches here are not as well known, so the surprise in impression is that much more enjoyable.

The churches are grouped in two distinctive clusters; every church is vastly different in style, substance and character. They are connected with a network of water run off channels, tunnels and semi-covered pathways. My local guide and I accompanied several pilgrims in a tunnel that was completely dark that connected two of the churches. My guide explained that the tunnel was symbolic of man's ascent to heaven; darkness in the turbulent material world is followed by the brilliant light of emerging from the tunnel into the second church.

In the holiest church, a 20 foot tall pillar in the center of the room was covered by a cloth stretched tightly around it from floor to ceiling. My guide explained that on this pillar was inscribed the past, present and future, and no man has set eyes on the pillar since it was created. In every church, in the Ethiopian tradition, there is cordoned off by large drapes a "holy of the holies" section where only the priests are allowed. The desire to peek was insatiable, so much the better that we moved on in earnest.

I was lucky to be in Lalibela during the Saturday market. What color and products were brought forth from the fertile countryside! Goats, plastic sandals, onions, pots and pans, belts, piglets, used shoes, furniture and tomatoes. I shared a coffee with my guide at a local brewshop: the proprietress lovingly roasted coffee beans on a metal plate over an open fire. After they were roasted to a deep raw umber I watched her place the pan of bean by the entrance door to cool, leaving the irresistible scent pliable to seize unwitting wanderers like the Sirens of Capreae. What aromatic advertising genius!

That evening, after a fantastic Ethiopian dinner, I stopped in at a famous local bar, Torpido, to imbibe in some delicious honey wine, or "Tej", and witness local dancing. Two young people danced smiling with impossible energy. Dancing was done fully with the shoulders, intersected with bouts of terrific pulsating moves that only can be described by this Yankee as Ethiopian breakdancing.

The national costume is very interesting. The traditional Ethiopian garment is the white garment covering the head and body worn by men and women. Plastic sandals are standard issue (my guide informed me that no, they aren't manufactured in China, but made by an Ethiopian company). However, green shorts and matching green collared short sleeved shirts covered with pleated tassels and white buttons are the traditional countryside dress of local men and boys. Most people carry a walking stick, shepherd's crook or cane. Also, I counted at least twelve persons wearing Obama t-shirts.

On the final day of my excursion, my tour guide dropped me off along a dusty road with three locals, two Italians and two donkeys. Unburdened by our luggage thanks to the donkeys, the company proceeded down the road out into the countryside. We passed through quiet farms and sleepy villages, where women smiled and children waved and beckoned hello. We forded a rushing stream where cattle napped lazily on a rocky island, paying us only minor interest. Up into the foothills we climbed, then up a small mountain and over a plateau until we reached a wide, generous valley beaming copper and olive. Out on a point was a group of huts where we would spend the night. Below, the village of Genet Mariam, of its namesake monolithic church.

After a hearty lunch of lentils and injera, we hiked out, beyond an ancient fig tree, over to greet the church and its medieval captions. Upon exit, we ran into an impromptu bible class and the church's sentry, who donned a smile and an AK-47.

That evening I shared beers with my new friends in the hut as we listened to Miles Davis on my I-Phone. Wanderers from the village happened in and made themselves mud wall flowers draped in white.

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of fresh ground Ethiopian coffee, scrambled eggs with local honey and flatbread, I bid adieu to the Italians and hiked down the hill to the road, where a car picked me up and deposited me at the airport. The Italians would be continuing on across an ambitious week long excursion up several mountain summits.

By the evening I was sweating in a hotel steamroom in Addis, and by the next, I was back in Juba, feet up, devouring a biography of Benjamin Franklin while sipping Kenyan black tea with lemon - unburdened like the donkey up on a ridge in the Ethiopian highlands, minus a modest, but rather heavy American backpack.

01 September 2013

Reorientationing in America

It’s a dark, stormy Sunday afternoon in Juba. The torrential rains are finally falling here in South Sudan. The rains have been slow to fall this year – but not as languid as my diligence in updating my blog. This weather is a perfect excuse to catch up on things.

Sections 901 and 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 stipulate: “The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” Translation: you have to spend five or six weeks on paid vacation (but at your own expense) in the 50 states every two years. But rarely is vacation mandatory, except with the federal government. So let’s just call it reorientationing.

So as mandated by Congress, summer of 2013 produced for me tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles and hotel points, several dozen fond memories with friends and family, some nice long hikes, an underwater encounter with a psychotic sea lion and one very long credit card bill.
It all started back in Kyiv, where, my employer released me to go on home leave. My friends at post threw a going away party on a Soviet-era tram car and we took off to the sounds of Michael Jackson into the forests of Pushcha Voditsya. The golden Ukrainian lager, the brown bread, the garlic infused pig fat, the tomatoes, the shiny onion domed spires of St. Michael’s were in my rearview mirror on that Friday morning. Four years in Ukraine: a brief, smiling episode – no, era, - in my existence here.

When leaving forever, it’s best not to pause on the doorstep for very long. But in Kyiv’s shiny new airport, Terminal D, I had one final run in with the Soviet complex of the variety that did its due diligence in keeping my feet moving on threshold. The KLM ticket agent informed me that since I had two bags, I would have to pay for excess baggage fees on one of them at the airport baggage fee desk behind me. In this line I waited for one hour with a dozen others as the young woman behind the desk painted her nails and talked on her mobile phone, laughing. It is Ukrainian custom that you cannot shake hands over the threshold of the door.

One of my bags didn’t make it on the transatlantic out of Amsterdam to Atlanta, but they put it on the next flight and I elected to wait in the bar in BWI, for the hour or so it would take to board the flight arriving behind me. I sat on the bar stool, ordered a Sam Adams and sighed. This airport, BWI, was the airport of my youth – the happy place where I first flew on an airplane – where I dreamed on making a career out of the air: hopping from one end of the world to the other, living out of my bags and seeing strange exotic places. Since then, air travel itself has lost a great deal of its patina, yet I still love it after all these years. And the dream was no longer a dream. I had made it.
My bag finally arrived, damaged.

I spent a splendid weekend in Baltimore. It was perhaps one of the best weekends I ever had in the first city that I had ever been in my life. I went to the aquarium, was wowed by its Australian section and passed through the shark exhibit that had been there when I was six. At Lexington Market, I ate enormous oysters in the half shell with an ice cold plastic cup of Natty Bo just before I bought a kosher corned beef sandwich for the road. I had hard shell crabs at my Aunt’s house for dinner one day, and brunch with all you can drink bloodys at a Cuban joint on the water with cousins the next.

I had more than a week to kill before I had to be in the mountains of Georgia with family. So, I went to Seattle.

Getting to Seattle from Baltimore proved to be slightly problematic. Storms rolled in on that afternoon and my flight was cancelled. The most attractive option was to rebook on a flight out of Dulles the next morning. So I booked a hotel near Dulles. But getting all the way from BWI to Dulles quickly only has one real option: hire a taxi for a hundred bucks, or rent a car for about the same after gas and hassle. Since I was on reorientation at my own expense, I decided to do it intrepid traveler style on the cheap: public bus to DC metro at Greenbelt. From Greenbelt, take DC metro to L’enfant Plaza. Then take public bus from L’enfant to Dulles. Then take courtesy hotel shuttle from Dulles. Total price: $16.50. Everything went smoothly until the bus to Dulles broke down alongside the highway. I was marooned on bus, aircon failing fast with a nice family visiting from Dothan, Alabama. The whole adventure took nearly five hours.

The plus was that I got to fly across my country in daylight, seeing pretty parts of it like Idaho and Montana that I had never seen before. Seeing Colorado from the air on my way to San Francisco in 2001 was why I eventually moved there in 2003. As we descended into the Seattle area, seeing it all in the morning light pretty fairly convinced me that I will perhaps wind up moving out there some day.

Originally I was going to rent a car and drive up to the Cascades for a little hiking, but the storms in Maryland squashed my schedule and therefore my hiking plans. So I stayed in Seattle at a crappy little joint near the Space Needle my first night, but moved to a really nice hotel for my 2nd and 3rd nights. The Arctic Club is pretty much the coolest urban hotel I’ve ever stayed at on my own dime - a converted turn of the century men’s club, complete with pictures of members on the wall, wood paneling and glass doors.

Reorientationing requires constant eating. It doesn’t say so explicitly in the Foreign Service Act of 1980, but I’m pretty sure Congress meant that federal employees must use their hard earned cash to stimulate the economy. It is not difficult to follow this portion of the law, particularly in Seattle. For example, the very best oysters on the planet Earth come from this portion of the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, it is not just an overblown stereotype that coffee in Seattle is truly mind blowing. My first brew was from some neighborhood place in Belltown, Uptown Espresso, where I tasted the best cappuccino I ever had. And talk about stereotypes, the barista was both sullen and pierced! Also - Chinese Food – I ate two nights in a row in Chinatown – Kau Kau BBQ and Shanghai Garden. For American Chinese restaurants, I give them both four stars. Down on the waterfront, which will be so much nicer once they sink that awful expressway underground, I had some good groan-inducing fried oysters and fish at Ivar’s.

Reorientationing is all about quality of life: do the familiar things that make you feel good, places and people you find interesting, activities that relax you or make you feel comfortable. For me, that meant swimming laps at the Downtown YMCA in Seattle and hiking the fern fields of Discovery Park.

I hadn’t had my fill of Seattle, not even a coffee drop’s worth, but time was ticking away like the tide and there were people to see. So I hopped an early morning Amtrak down to Portland to spend the weekend visiting friends in that strange and gorgeous place.
Portland was roasting under a heat wave, but it was a nice change in climate from cloudy Seattle. I rented a bike to see it all from the proper point of pedal. It had been years since I had been on a bike: an unfortunate circumstance for someone who spent years on two wheels. I forgot how wonderful it was to ride around a bike friendly town. I met some old friends from Peace Corps for beers.

I tried to swim at a local outdoor pool, but it was warm, cloudy and crowded. Off I went, back East to Atlanta, with no regrets.

In Atlanta I spent the night on the 69th floor of the Westin Downtown, a high rise hotel skyscraper in the center of the city. I’d only ever flown through ATL in transit, so reorientationing allowed me time to linger for the evening to get a sip of this sweet, syrupy city. A friend of mine picked me up and we drove out to a brew pub to catch up over a late night. By 1:00am, I was back in my hotel room, looking out over the lighted Atlanta skyline from my glass tower perch.

The next day, I drove north to the Georgia-North Carolina border to spend the week with family at a mountain golf retreat called Sky Valley. It rained the entire weekend, but we certainly managed to eat and drink well, which is really never a problem in the American South. There was smoked pork, fried okra, stack tomato salad with peas and basil with fresh North Carolina shrimp. Another night we ate pizza, wings and Greek salad to the sounds of a live bluegrass band at a local roadhouse.

The next stop was Florida – again to see family, eat, drink and be merry, but on the Gulf. Also on the list was to visit beaches, which we did for four days in a row and I got completely sunburnt. St. Petersburg’s North Shore Pool is about as close as any to be my home pool for the time being – at least by the letter anyway. It’s certainly worthy: a 50 meter crystal clear outdoor pond open year round and located right on Tampa Bay. Then there was the best of St. Pete meal circuit: margaritas and tacos at Red Mesa Cantina, Mexican at Tijuana Flats, and Buffalo Grouper sandwiches on Clearwater Beach. On the last day, we ventured out to Siesta Key, one of those dramatically wide, white sandy beaches that the Sunshine State is known for.

Westward bound again, I headed out to Denver to unwind. The thin dry air lightened the weight of my skull as soon as I left the terminal. I breathed a massive sigh of relief - I felt like I was home.
Matter in this universe consists of concentric rings – from down to atoms all the way up to galaxies. It’s only natural that in order to feel normalcy, we must close these rings from time to time – return to the place we started, back to the past in order to move forward with the future.

Walking down my old trails in Boulder, I marveled at how much time had happened on me since I settled in this place my home ten years ago. I met up with friends. I went to a couple of the watering holes I frequented when I was in my early 20’s. I hopped the late bus to Denver. I slept in on Saturday. I rode a bike down the Platte River trail. I drank margaritas from the Rio Grande and Wahoo’s Fish Taco - I ate a Ralphie burger at My Brother’s Bar and a Chicago dog at Mustard’s Last Stand. But other than that, my plan to do very little of anything but chill out and relax succeeded resoundingly.

A short hop to Vegas is all it is on airplane from Denver – little more than an hour across the Rockies gets you to the City of Sin – which is less than what it takes to get you from the gate at LAS to your rental car.

One of the pictures I had in my mind of home leave was this: driving across an open expanse in the American West through the mountains and desert. Originally, I had planned to do much of it in a car – but the time and expense were soon overwhelming, so much of this trip had been condensed to aircraft. But the feeling of freedom in guiding a vehicle over open spaces at 80 miles per hour is exhilarating, and in that I was not mistaken in putting Zion National Park on my agenda.

I only really had an afternoon on one day (visiting the Emerald Pools) and a long morning on the next (Angel’s Landing) with which to enjoy Zion. But even a few seconds in the park suffices in making one understand why it has such a magnanimous reputation among National Parks. I really don’t have the time or patience to think of the right words about Zion. Go visit it yourself.

Angel’s Landing is a hike that is approximately 5 miles and manages an elevation change of 1,500 feet. These would not be impressive statistics for a hike if it weren’t for the last ½ mile which is along a narrow saddle with a 1,400ft drop in either direction. But there is a chain to keep you steady.

Back in Vegas, I stayed at a high end hotel in a four star room and endured Las Vegas for two nights. The last time I was here I was 13 years old, so this time on the strip was pretty different. I must say that the fountains at the Bellagio must be among the top man made concoctions on earth – as is this lady’s mojito at the stand in front of Caesar’s Palace. Other than that, meh. I lost $150 at the slots, drank an awful slushie daiquiri thing in a gigantic plastic cup, was tortured by a cascade of terrible food. That was enough for me. Leaving Las Vegas… …is easy.

Sun gently streamed onto the balcony of my hotel room porch when I arrived, the weather was a spectacular 74 degrees and holding, yet I spent the bulk of my first hours sitting in rush hour traffic – yes I was back in Southern California. I was silly enough to arrive at LAX on a Friday afternoon – that day of the week that is known throughout the human universe as the worst traffic day in any city in the world, and here I was in the worst city for traffic in the world. But the kimchee alone in Koreatown was worth the drive from Santa Monica, much less being able to chat with an old friend that I hadn’t seen since the 20th century. That’s the thing about Southern California: people are willing to stomach the misery of life in their cars because when they get to where they are going, it’s paradise.

On the Santa Monica pier, there was a hundred person yoga class, which I always thought was kind of counter point, but seemed to work its zen just fine on a Saturday morning. I walked along the beach towards Venice, and took it the fine Californian beach scene. How different everyone was from a beach in Florida, the waterfront in Portland or a pool in Vegas. My, my - what a country!

I left Santa Monica, heading north through Malibu. I remembered Malibu being so much less crowded 20 years ago then what it was now. There were so many cars parked along the side of the road, it felt like an intercity rock concert. I stopped in Thousand Oaks to have dinner at my Aunt’s before driving onwards to Ventura to board a dive boat.

Back in the early 90’s, I went to summer camp on Catalina Island the same week that the Soviet Union fell apart. It was where I first learned to kayak, where I first saw Garibaldi fish and where I first thought how nice it would be to see the kelp forests of California from the sea floor. Besides that longstanding longing, I’d never been cold water diving before and Channel Islands National Park seemed to be a good place to start. Under an overcast, ominous sky, the dive boat anchored off of Gull Island: a hideous piece of rock just south of Santa Cruz Island. This was Great White Shark birthing season in the Pacific, and I was going to dive alongside their juicy seal cheeseburgers in a neoprene cheeseburger suit.

My dive partner turned out to be a Ukrainian tourist from Kyiv, and I think I shocked her when I asked her in Russian how cold she thought the water was going to be, because then she forgot how to put on a tank and assemble her gear and I had to show her.

The water felt beyond freezing cold, even with a hood and gloves. We immediately were dive bombed by a mischievous sea lion who, baring his teeth inches from my mask, was evidently having a total laugh in messing with those of us who had never dived before with large, non-human mammals before. The first dive was cold, dark and difficult – the strong tide, extra gear and new, non-tropical scenery unnerving me. The second dive though was absolutely brilliant: the kelp forests rose 50 feet in every direction, the sea floor was covered with starfish of every imaginable color and size – from big purple 18 pointed stars, to small orange five pointed stars to medium red and blue stars. Sea urchins and small crustaceans filled in what little gaps existed between the star fish. Garibaldi swam around us, unafraid. Harbor seals shyly evaded us, not so much anxious but more annoyed that we were gawking at them during their Sunday morning brunch on the bottom.

Four dives were planned, but I could only do three because of the cold. I supervised the fourth dive from the comfort of the ship’s Jacuzzi.

Back on land, the next morning I headed north along the coast, listening to the Dead’s “Estimated Prophet.” I was going to a little beach town called Santa Barbara to close another loop.

I’d last set my eyes on the Santa Ynez Mountains back in October 1992. I’d spent a year and half of some pretty consequential two years living there in Santa Barbara: a place that looks like paradise. Now I was returning to spend just a few days roaming the places of my youth in the first foreign city I’d ever lived.

Santa Barbara had only changed in one real way since I’d left her. She’d shrunk incredibly; in the course of either her age, or mine. The bustling seaside city had become a sleepy beach town: gorgeous as ever, but more like a retired movie star than a metropolitan Diva. My coffee shop was still there: Santa Barbara Coffee Roasters. It’d just opened when I arrived in ’91, just when coffee shops were starting to gain popularity - going on to become one of the defining institutions of the nineties. My coffee shop used to have a garage door, apportioned kind of like a warehouse. Now it’s furnished, but the coffee is as good as I always remembered.

I went back to my church, the Mission, where I almost became confirmed in the Catholic Church. I walked my old playground, Ledbetter Beach and even had the tarred heel souvenirs afterward to prove it. I rented a bike and rode to the Bird Sanctuary and back up to Leadbetter - and back again. I rode the Free Electrical Shuttle up State Street (it now costs $1). Everything was in its place, right where I had left it in the early 90’s. Content with that reality, I boarded a plane to Phoenix.

Back in Phoenix, I visited more family. We talked about old times as we drifted in the pool. We watched the Cubs lose to the D-Backs, drank margaritas and ate Mexican food. Then we went to Sedona, just as we had before I left to go teach in Japan for a year. The next day, I boarded a plane for DC.

The last few weeks on the East Coast were a blurred vision of meetings, trainings, errands and visits with friends and family – and of circles and loops. I went to a party on U Street and saw off a pal to Pakistan. I had dinner with family in Alexandria. Old Peace Corps buddies joined me for dim sum on Dupont Circle. I partied in Baltimore with friends from Denver. The waitress who waited on my friends and me for pizza one night in DC was the college roommate of a girl I graduated with in high school. I brunched with my friends from college and gave them advice on where to go in Vegas. I went to a barbershop in York, PA and had my hair cut by the skilled hands of the older brother of a good friend from high school. I traveled to a small town in Pennsylvania where I grew up to visit an old friend who now lives on the block between the buildings where I attended Elementary school.

Then, I was back at Dulles.