Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back to Colorado today!

Out on the Mongolian plains I thought a lot about many things. All that vastness provides a great environment for day dreaming and reflection. One of the things that I worked to remember was the story of The Hobbit. When I got to UB, the book was waiting for me from my dad and I read it in a day. At the end when Bilbo is finally coming home after being away a year with many adventures and the slaying of Smaug the dragon, he recites this poem:
"Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known." --J.R.R. Tolkien

I can feel the miles I have carried my back pack. All the way around the planet (left through LA, returning through NY). But I feel satisfied, grateful, and excited to see my people again. Home!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Leaving Europe for NYC

[Photo by Bianca Akkermans]

Tomorrow I will get on a plane in Holland, stopover in Iceland, then come to NYC. The travel time is about 11 hours, though I arrive in NY only 6 hours after I leave here. In this past week I connected with women I met earlier in this trip, which gave me 3 windows into different Dutch lives.

First I stayed with Mariel, whom I met in Mongolia. She lives in student housing and is very close to finishing her graduate degree. I was able to really rest and unwind at her place after a whirlwind of sightseeing in Amsterdam. We had a fun afternoon and evening cooking a fancy (and somewhat experimental) Indian meal for 2 of her friends. The 4 of us filled the cozy kitchen, and the conversation nicely complimented the food (they were kind enough to converse in English so I could join in).

Next I stayed with Bianca and her partner Antoinette. Antoinette is a military physician and Bianca is a physician’s assistant. I met Bianca in Chomrung (Nepal) while trekking. We had kept in touch some as I traveled and she and her partner were kind to open their home to me for 3 days. They live in an upscale neighborhood with neat gardens and tidy postage stamp yards. They are avid cyclists and usually commute by bike to work. They are both world travelers and their beautiful home is decorated with sculpture, lighting fixtures, and gorgeous photographs from their adventures.

Bianca took me to see the town of Elburg, where the Van Den Bergs come from. It looked a heck of a lot like all the other little medieval villages I have been seeing since I visited Cesky Krumlov. It felt a little too spruced up for the benefit of the tourists who come from primarily Germany and Amsterdam. Like a Disney set of a village, rather than a place people really live. The highlight was seeing a man making rope in the traditional way. He was wearing wooden clogs and twisting and stretching long multi-strand jute cords. I kicked myself later for not going and talking to him about what he was doing. Felt I had somewhere more important to go, but that was the best thing and I didn’t know it until later.

We had a relaxing Sunday, with summer sunny weather. Bianca and I took an easy bike ride along the canals near her house. Antoinette is quite tall and her bike fit me really well. Caught a bug or two in my teeth because I was smiling so much as I rode. Felt free to be zipping along the waterways and farmlands. We walked around Utrecht which is now my favorite European city. It is compact, and much easier to navigate than Amsterdam. It feels like people really live and work there, using the cobblestone streets and old houses along the canal. Next trip to Europe I hope to have more time there. The next day we drove to see Kinderdike, a UNESCO heritage site of older windmills. One of them was open to see inside, and the whirling blades of the mill set all sizes of wooden cranks and gears inside in motion. Sails on each arm caught the ample breeze and it was going quite fast, making creaks and groans like an old ship. Every level of the living quarters had moving parts that were connecting the blades with the water wheel below. To my annoyance, this made me quite seasick, and I couldn’t stay inside long. Once out in the fresh air, the open green landscape dotted with windmills set me right again.

The last person I visited was Marjolein. I met her on the Nepal trek. She is a quiet beautiful woman with lively curious eyes. We share many interests, including Buddhism and nature. She and her daughter live in a home that feels like a beach house, complete with shells, beach glass, and other objects that Marjolein finds at the seaside. We reconnected as we walked through Amsterdam, and as we shared a couple of tasty meals and cups of tea at her place north of the city. I enjoyed bringing the threads from Nepal and Mongolia all the way to my last stop via these new friends. (Thanks Mariel, Bianca, Antoinette, and Marjolein!)

It feels strange to say I am coming back to the States tomorrow. I have been on my own timeline, independent of life Back Home. I will be stepping back into a “program already in progress.” Catching up with people and places I hold dear. Working on the next stage of this trip, which is writing about it, giving presentations, and working on a book. I end this entry with gratitude. Thanks to all of you that have traveled with me through my writings. Thanks to Spirit for a safe journey full of lessons but devoid of serious mishaps or injuries. I give thanks for being able to complete what I set out to do. These and more are the gifts I bring home in my backpack. Tomorrow. (And as I post this, tomorrow has become TODAY.)

Friday, October 8, 2010


Blue skies, fluffy clouds, the pleasant ringing of bicycle bells, crossing bridges over canals with swans floating by…Amsterdam is very different than any place I’ve ever been. The weather has been unseasonably warm, and I had nearly 3 days of summerish weather to do my main sightseeing of the city proper. With an I AMsterdam pass, in 48 hours I was able to run around and see all the main museums and take a canal tour. The unlimited public transport included in the pass was a huge plus, too.

The call of “Frou! Frou!” wakes me out of my pleasant day-dreaming as I wander. I have mistaken once again the bike street for a pedestrian sidewalk. I should just paste a sign (like they do for student drivers) on my back that says, “Warning—American.” Almost every street has a lane for cars, with a separate parallel bike lane, and then a sidewalk for pedestrians. Bikes have more rights than pedestrians. I look both ways several times before crossing any lane or street because the bikes come from thin air, warning bells dinging. There are multi-story parking garages filled to the brim with bicycles. There are bikes for cargo, bikes with shelves or seats for kids or adult friends. Bikes with big bucket-like boxes built into the frame. Tiny folding bikes can go on the public transport. It is amazing to see a city so entirely built around bikes.

I learned that marijuana is actually illegal here. I went on a walking tour where the guide said if as long as something follows three rules, laws against it are not enforced. If it is good for business, isn’t hurting anyone, and the person doing it is discreet, police turn a blind eye. The shops that sell weed are called “Coffeeshops.” If you actually want coffee, you go to a cafĂ©. I haven’t gone in, but occasionally have swooned walking through clouds of coffee smoke coming from the open windows. In the evenings, the streets fill with people in their early 20s out doing pub crawls. Several times I saw very stoned young men confounded by the task of scanning their metro card on a moving tram. When I talked to younger people on my tour, they said with some surprise that Amsterdam had so much more to offer than the red light district and weed. Really? It’s true.

As I am not a partying type, I have enjoyed learning the history of this place, seeing van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s paintings, and learning more about the Dutch. When I came through customs, the agent asked if I spoke Dutch. When I said no, he said, “So what’s the deal with the Dutch last name?” My great-great grandfather came from here. “Ah! You have Dutch roots. You may enter.”

Now I am south of Amsterdam, being hosted by a kind Dutch woman I met in Ulaanbaatar. We had a good hour-long talk in the coffee shop in UB, and I have taken her up on her offer to stay a couple of days. She has a nice room in a student housing development. We talked until late over a nice dinner, and found we have a lot in common. I was asking her if things we attribute to being Dutch in our family are characteristics she would think of as Dutch. “We take pride in finding good quality second-hand items. Refurbishing discarded furniture (found in the trash) and using or reselling it would be something to brag about.” She paused before responding. She thought the drive to make things and fix older things for reuse was more of a farmer/countryside impulse than being particularly Dutch, but that it is true the Dutch prefer making money to spending it. (I guess this proves I am only partly Dutch, as I have been doing too good a job at spending my money.)

Tomorrow I will visit another woman that I met in Nepal during my trek. She and her partner have offered to take me to see the little villages where the Van Den Bergs hail from. What a treat to have local hosts. I got the historical overview and experienced the capital, and now will sink into daily life and culture. The best of both worlds.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Wind, rock, sky, and sea

Take a moment. Check in with your senses. Be still and notice things in your immediate surroundings. Listen to your breathing. Can you feel your heart beating? What sounds can you hear? Are you really where you are? Or is your mind scurrying elsewhere in the past and future?

I have just spent 5 lovely days at a Buddhist retreat center that I found on my last trip to Ireland 10 years ago. It sits on these stunning cliffs that look out over the open ocean. Apparently there is no land between there and Antarctica. I’ll have to look at a globe. I never tired of looking at the perfect line of sea and sky covering 2/3 of the horizon.

The first 2 days I attended meditation sits and went for walks and talked to the other interesting travelers staying at the hostel with me. I met a couple people I hope to keep in touch with, in particular a Kiwi (New Zealander) named Ben. Not everyone there is Buddhist, but all are seekers and most are travelers. I learned more about work exchange opportunities and couch-surfing, so my next adventure will be much cheaper than this one was. There is a great sense of space and breathing room. The weather was very Irish coast, meaning it changed on a dime from fair to wet to fair again.

My second night there, it had been raining hard (the Irish would say “it was lashing rain, like”). The first night had been cloudy, no stars. I stayed up late with some really nice conversations and made it to bed around 12. I was wound up, even though 8 other women slept peacefully all around me in their bunk beds. I lay on my side with my eyes open. A star pierced my vision through the window across from my bed. Stars! I jumped out of bed, threw clothes on over my PJs and ran out before I even thought twice about it. As I approached the garden wall with a view of the sea and cliffs, I gasped aloud. The moonlight was shining on the sea, in bright patches that swiftly moved across the surface. The stars shone cheerfully through the holes that grew wider and wider until most of the sky was set a twinkling. The sea, which had been crashing all day, had calmed to a sound like 100 librarians saying “Shhh, shhhh” over and over, slightly out of sync with each other. No one else was up. I stood stunned. I wept at the beauty of it. I laughed aloud. Then I danced. I danced with my moonlight shadow following me all along the pebbled path. I had a perfectly amazing and free 2 hours out there. A switch flipped which opened my heart a little wider and brought with it a growing calmness that stayed with me the whole week and is with me still.

There was an opportunity to do 2 days of work-exchange, and so I worked cleaning the hostel and working in the garden in exchange for my bed and gorgeous organic gourmet food. I really hope to return there in a year or two to do that for a month. It’s one of those places where any amount of time for a visit doesn’t feel long enough. Almost everyone there was staying longer than they originally intended to.

It has been amazing to be back here. I’m so grateful I had the time to do it. Tomorrow I bus to Cork and fly to Amsterdam early the next day. Less than 2 weeks until I am back in the States. I am almost ready.