Walking Kherson, Ukraine

Ushakova Boulevard

When I hear news about Ukraine, I don’t think of global politics. I think about a man who sold me honey at Kherson’s outdoor market. I think of my former co-workers. I think of the bread lady at the kiosk down the street who would only sell us the very best of what she had to offer. Kherson, Ukraine was my home for nearly a year, and today I would like to take you on a walk down its main street as a tribute to a precious way of life.

Ushakova Boulevard in Kherson, Ukraine runs straight from the railway station to the Dneiper River quay. Along its sides, many of Kherson’s important buildings have stood for decades. The street is lined with broad pathways and sidewalks, covered by enormous green leaves from chestnut trees in the summer, made dangerous by ice and snow in the winter. If you walk one street in Kherson, it should be Ushakova, and it should be in early summer.

Like many post-Soviet railway stations this one impresses you with complex walkways leading from the arriving trains. There are overhead walkways, round and about walkways and zig zags. Follow the other passengers, and you will eventually find yourself in the building’s reception area, filled with high ceilings, wooden walls and Cyrillic-lettered notices. Head out the station’s entrance, and you have found the city’s Grand Avenue – Ushakova.

Near the station, the buildings that line the street are Lenin-era buildings, gentler than the newer concrete-block buildings. The Stalin-era buildings, the concrete ones, were built unemotionally, to last. The Lenin-era buildings were built with love, wood, and high ceilings. Many are beginning to slowly crumble, waiting for someone to decide their future.

Soon, you pass by one of those newer concrete buildings, and notice that even it is beginning a slow crumble of neglect. Other buildings on your walk, the Music College for example, are sturdy, well-tended and vibrant.

There is an extravagant Naval College and a long, industrial-looking post office. From your sidewalk, you peek through an open lot and see a beautiful little Orthodox church. Tall feathered stems from grasses wave between you and the church, surrounded as it is with a graveyard that grows field grasses high during a quick and vigorous spring.

Ushakova here becomes a true boulevard. Benches for sitting divide two wide walkways that line each side of the street. The traffic lanes of the street are narrow compared to these pedestrian walkways. More buses than private vehicles fill the avenue. But there are many, many people – like you – walking. To keep up with your Ukrainian sidewalk companions, you’ll have to quicken your pace. If you want to sit and watch for a while, pick a bench and rest.

But don’t stop long, for farther down the boulevard is Lenin Square. When I was taking this walk, in 2010, a huge statue of Lenin stood in the middle of the expanse of concrete. It is no longer there, having been pulled down during the Maidan protests of 2011-2012. Even empty, the size of this rectangle of concrete will impress you. Massive public areas, like this one, are here and there around Kherson. Once a city of 500,000, now retreating to near 200,000, this amount of common space feels overwhelming.

All along Ushakova, you have passed restaurants, many with cafe tables along the sidewalk. Now, as you reach the pedestrian street of Suvarova, you see there are many more, as well as shops and perhaps some sidewalk artists and vendors.

The avenue here begins a steep descent to the Dneiper River. There is a beautiful wharf walk along the river that runs through a park that is allowed to grow wild with spring grasses, then – just in time – trimmed with weed whackers in a fit of tidiness.

Something invades your peaceful river thoughts – the Hotel Fregat. A futuristic design sixty years ago, the building and grounds now look like a sad mockery of the 1960’s. It hasn’t fallen into disrepair, just fallen wildly out of fashion. Maybe a little disrepair, too.

But the river is glorious. Ushakova ends here, at the wide, powerful, decisive Dneiper. Large and small outboard motor boats can take you back and forth to the islands just across the current. Yachts sail by, but not often. Enormous commercial ships ferry goods occasionally. Most of the time, you can stand here at the quay with just you, your thoughts, and the steel-colored waves.

Walking Morro Bay’s Park Ridge Trail

Over the shoulder of the town of Los Osos is the Pacific Ocean. Shielded by a sand spit, Los Osos hides from that deceptive and ill-named body of water that is not peaceful even when it appears calm, as today. I walk at low tide east from the Pacific and watch the ocean’s fingers snake their way to the back of Morro Bay until the sand sucks out the sea water and becomes a soupy mess. It pulls your shoes off if you venture out in a kayak at the wrong time of the tidal day and need to step out to unstick your ride.

But today, as I walk away from the coast, I head toward Park Ridge Trail in Morro Bay State Park. It’s nice to watch the ocean from a distance. The path rises and falls around a hill that gives a magnificent view of the saltwater marsh in the shallow end of the bay.

Imperfect wildflowers lay along the path and up the hillside. Taller than me, the golden yarrow shines bright and the tiny baby blue eyes brush my boots. Some plants are vivid today, but remind me that the wildflower season is past prime. Cow parsnip, morning glory, sticky monkey flower, milk thistle and purple salsify are saying their goodbyes.

The hills today still carry the mist from the coast, making the air mild and my cheeks refreshed. The sun here is powerful and insistent, but waved away by the breeze. A green blush on the hillside won’t be here next time I walk this path. Even today, weeks since the last rain, the hills are streaked with golden. A change has come about from winter’s green. The waving ends of aging grass and flowers sway over the crest of the hill, a fading springtime pastel against the blue of a balmy sky.

I walk on a path that has been visited recently by a run of bicycles and many feet. A diligent maintenance crew has kept the main paths broad. Smaller, happenstance cutaways lead to places I didn’t prepare to see today. Most are made by adventurous hikers who know the area better than I. Once I get past the first hill, I realize how broad and expansive is this parkland. There are a dozen break-off paths, some posting legitimate signs: Quarry Trail, Crespi Trail, Chumash Trail. The named trails are blazed by the park maintenance crews, but many others are side-lined single walking jaunts that lure me to break the rules. But I know it’s best in all ways to stay on the cleared paths. Safer for me and safer for the creatures who live here on the hillside.

I see some of these: little rabbits, a couple quails, a buzzard flying above. I hear others:  a scampering away as I turn a bend, a swish around a tall bush, several bird voices I can’t identify. I also see many off-shoots of trails that these creatures have made, so small I am not even tempted to change my route. Running under, next to and through thorny vegetation, they seem to head toward a cleft of water that I hear but can’t see.

Getting to know this area, I have been so entertained by the sea: the constant sound, the soothing beach sand, the shallow tides I can slip my toes into every day year-round. I have been facing west for years, in wonderment at this ocean home. Happily today, I am discovering a walking buffet to the east. I can’t wait for my next ramble through these coastal hills, and wonder why my feet have been so long in walking this way.

Tumwater Historical Park

On a crisp autumn afternoon, I step onto a public pathway and fall in love with fall.

I’ve always tried to call the season by its proper name: autumn. I think it was never a true season for me. I lived in places where there were no real seasons, or where the change from one time of year to another was more like summer-winter (and a small winter at that.) Well, there was once that wild weather year in Ukraine, but that is best forgotten. Here, in Tumwater Washington, USA, there is a true autumn where leaves really do fall and weather straddles that divide between summer’s and winter’s extremes. Fall is here, not just autumn, and I can’t wait to see this season progress.

Today I step for the first time onto the path in Tumwater Historical Park, and there is nothing but delight all around. Breathe in, and the crisp smell of water-plants-mulch-dirt-leaves-flowers-moist air gives a refresher that must be more healthy than a million daily vitamins.

Photos do that wonderful trick of being perfect without any magic from me – not that I know how to put magic into pictures. The water reflects the image of perfect trees, perfect geese, perfect ducks, perfect buildings. Around the curves in this path, bushes arrange themselves into perfect arbors and before I can wish they were there, docks jut into the lake for me to walk upon.

I walk under Interstate #5, a phenomenally busy highway, without noticing any traffic noise. Maybe it’s there, but my attention is pulled ahead to Capitol Lake and a perfect view to the State Capitol building. The pathway is just busy enough with fellow walkers to keep me company, without blocking my views or making me run from crowds.

Walking is a physical venture. Sometimes that is enough. Every once in a while, though, a walk comes along and offers more than simply putting feet to ground. That this one came during my first fall here is just perfect.

Walking for Blackberries

Sharp flashes of brightness hide behind branches and foliage. Shining in the sunlight, the fruit lay dark against the green leaves of the hillside vines. Wild blackberry harvest is coming.

Being new to this area, I hadn’t known exactly what would spring from the vines I had been walking by for almost five months. First, I saw the woody clipped vine, then small new green buds, then tangling arms of leafy berry vines. Knowing USA’s Pacific Northwest is famous for its berries, I hoped for the exotic salmon berry. But I also knew that blackberries were better at growing in the wild. Then, as I saw the black globs mounting bigger and more numerous against the vines, I knew I could celebrate the abundant blackberry, tart and sweet.

But I didn’t know the berry-picking etiquette in this neighborhood of hillsides owned by everyone. For several days on my walks, I watched people inspect the vines. A few days later, the first neighbor returned with baskets. A day after that, I counted eight different pickers taking berry bounty from three different areas of hillside vines. On my next walk, I brought along my own small basket.

I knew to be careful. As a child, I had picked wild berries in the hills of the Northern Sierra Range in California. As an adult, I savored the Southern Sierra mountain berries. The vines guard their sweet fruit with hairy stickers that sting with more fury than their size should be able to hold. Did I see my neighbors wearing gloves? I should have remembered that little trick to berry-picking. But my small supply of fresh-picked berries gave me only one sting. I escaped home with a nice supply of shining blackberry harvest. Berry, berry good.

Today, I walk again along the sidewalks that border the berry hillsides. I haven’t brought my basket, thinking that berry harvest is a rapid season and I may have missed my chance for a second pick. I turn onto a slightly different path than my usual and begin a walk around a gravel section of a neighborhood park. There are vines alongside the path here, and I notice the dark berries have been harvested. But as I walk closer, I also see that a second offering of green globs hide behind the leaves, waiting to ripen. Berry goodness will deliver a second offering, just one more welcome to the neighborhood.

Walking the urban forest

It’s heaven-sent. During this time of boundaries closing tight, someone had the foresight to keep pathways open. A person I don’t know, about 20 years ago, designed an urban forest to help me today celebrate the natural world. More precisely, someone made it so the forest that was already here wasn’t swallowed up entirely by new homes. I am a lucky sort today, because that space is where my walk takes me.

The pleasure of being able to step from concrete sidewalk to crushed granite path into soothing coolness gives me a moment to pause. It’s a quiet walk, no others within ear shot. Perhaps it’s the time of day – mid afternoon – when every creature takes a rest.

Except me. With each step into the shade, the distant freeway traffic hum, the occasional whirr of small airplanes, the in-and-out of neighborhood inhabitants, all these usual every day sounds are muffled, then fade, then are gone. A simple quiet surrounds the magic of light passing through a split branch of moss-covered old pine, the tender changes in green from tiny leaf to stem to vine, and the delicate yellow and pink of blossoms I haven’t yet named.

The route is adventurous. The trail veers down and makes me evaluate my mountain climbing skills. It’s a mini-mountaineering escape in a twenty-minute time capsule. Other walkers have slipped, leaving their mud tracks in three-foot long skids. I decide to scoot over to the edge. I side-step my way down, cushioned by a layer of old pine needles, crushed brown leaves and the wisdom of being in my sixties with no desire to see if I can recover from a slide down 30 feet of forest. Luckily, this particular path is kind. It exits the forest onto a separate side street and into the neighborhood without needing a return hike back up the slick incline.

But not before I walk through the section I have named Fern Gully. How did these living things survive an ice-and-cold winter? They sit to the side of the trail, ferns more delicate than the tatted-lace doilies my grandmothers’ mothers used to make. Right now, just entering full summer, they have uncurled finger-tipped leaves with hairy undersides in shades of the forest that change as the sun passes by.

Now, the trail feels like the backward beginning of my stroll: into the full sun, onto crushed granite, then hard cement sidewalk. It’s easy to think that the walk, so simple and small, was just a mind’s adventure, just a moment to escape a worried planet. I wonder if I’ll be able to find these peaceful footsteps next time I need an escape. But I smell the lingering pine and cedar, and don’t have to look back to know it’s really there.

As my walk ends, I step through a baracade of trees that reach up 100 feet and into my backyard. The fat leaves of a tree I still cannot name hang down to shield the sun. Climbing onto the small hillside of my back yard, I am home.

Thank you, urban planners. You made today’s walk a welcome relief  in an up-and-down world.

 

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Walking Quito, Ecuador

 

 

A cab from the bus station takes us toward the center of Quito, where we will be staying for several days. With over two million residents, it is no surprise that this city has neighborhoods of normal busy-ness, where life goes on along graffiti streets with too many vehicles. I think we are driving through most of these neighborhoods on our ride today, and marvel at the new yellow school buses, the traffic lights that impose order and the general rush I notice in the streets. We pass through bleached-out urban spread and then up-up-up to the high plateau of historical Quito. 

Once we reach Hotel Casa Gardenia, in the center of the city and settle in, my impressions change. Urbane, international, less hurried, welcoming.

But all those descriptions of Quito – the bustle and the serenity – surprise me. 

The last time I was here, traveling in a pack of two or four or six hamburger-starved young Americans, we sought out Rusty Burger the moment our feet hit the last step of the bus. We ate hamburgers translated into the South American experience and called them glorious. We stayed at a ramshackle hostel that was often packed to the brim with Peace Corps volunteers – like ourselves – and young back-packing world travelers from countries I had never been to. The streets of Quito I came to know 40 years ago had been a mixed-salad of old cars, old horse carts, aging homes inside tall stucco walls, and newer buildings along one section of a street near the hostel. It was a small landscape that I came to know well. I visited the historical section of the city only once or twice, after I had eaten my fill of homesick hamburgers.

Today, our hotel, built into an ancient building, lies along a curving and narrow cobbled street, and is guarded from that street by a thick wooden door from Colonial times. But inside, a modern glass-and-chrome structure offers a massive picture window that frames the entire central square in one gorgeous view. A storm approaches as we check-in, then passes by, cleaning our perspective and setting up our visit to be just as new and refreshed as the view itself. 

Our location offers an easy walking-tour visit to old Quito. We start out holding a tourist map and head down, down the narrow street. It contracts so much at one point that we have to yield for cars. At another passage, the sidewalk has steps that simply dissolve into a gutter from the 1700’s. We walk through a tunnel of stonework from that era, as modern cars compete with us for space.

Then we are at the central square. People call it the Grand Square (Plaza Grande) and Independence Square (Plaza de la Independencia). Ancient stonework continues from the street, but the square itself blooms with color from plantings of flowers mixed with grassy sections and lush trimmed bushes. People are everywhere: walking along, and sitting on the grass and on benches. Massive two- and three-storey buildings line the square, each with a historical purpose: the cathedral, the presidential palace, a grand hotel.

The building that attracts us most is the Archbishop’s Plaza, and the reason we choose this place is predictable. We are in search of food. Inside this former residence of Quito’s archbishop is a beautiful warren of tourism. The interior of the building holds several patios, one with a quintessential fountain, another with a zigzagging covered walkway. There are hallways linking the interior patios and enough entrances and exits to confuse any visitor. And there are restaurants.

We have a hard time deciding which menu to choose, and end up taking a table on an upstairs outdoor patio and eat a wonderful humita ( similar to tamales.) Another rain storm passes as we eat, and the patter of the rain into the interior courtyard is exactly enough to bring a pause to the day, but not enough to change our plans.

After the meal, we continue walking downhill to the city market. The two-story concrete structure contains fruits, vegetables and every imaginable meat. Cascading boxes are hidden behind multi-colored produce: purple and yellow potatoes, orange- and white-speckled corn,  light red-skinned plantains. Because there are ingredients, there are also food stalls. Fresh juices, roasted whole pig, llapingacho (stuffed potato patties.)

There is so much more to see, and we have some days to catch our memories of this city we had loved. Forty years later, I am joyful at discovering this modern transformation of Quito. Eating hamburgers from home seemed important at one time. And maybe that is a good personal memory. But Quito itself is so much more than Rusty Burgers, and I am very happy to know that now.

 

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Walking Otavalo, Ecuador

 

It’s been 40 years since my two feet walked this ground. The cement umbrella-ed artisan booths are still here. An aura of tranquil living impresses me – now as before – and it runs counter-point to the dramatic setting. Clouds still curl over the mountains. Something about the high-altitude air makes visitors feel they’ve never been clean before. But surrounding the market I remember from years ago are now rows and layers of canvas-covered awnings that expand the market to two or three times the size it was.

If you visit Otavalo, today as 40 years ago, it is likely for the artisan market. I had made the trip several times from my home in Colombia as a young woman in my twenties. I ate huge pancakes and drank my first kefir and orange juice in a hippie restaurant just across the square from the booth where I bought wool yarn for the blanket I would crochet. The hippie restaurant is no longer there, but before I venture out too far, my husband and I eat in a fabulous modern cafe. Then we set out to follow our memories. Will I find the same style of woven wall art that, 40 years later, still decorates our home? Will I find skeins of rough wool yarn, so natural that bits of dry grass and seeds are part of each creation?

Ruanas are still for sale, and as numerous. These long, sometimes very thick wraps of woven wool that have slits to fit your head through were ever-present and worn by everyone when I lived in the region. When I bought my own, from this outdoor market in Otavalo, and learned how to wear it with ease, I had finally felt at home with my South American experience.

Five times today, I circle the market, walking to relive my past. I stroll the rows across, and the rows up and down. I get lost in a tangle of tables where people sell items they no longer want next to the alley where you can buy sewing machines that were already second-hand when I was last here. Finally, I buy a new ruana, stash it in a bag, not sure if it is really the one I want, but knowing I need to go through this ritual.

On the few days of the week when there isn’t a market, the square in the middle of this town is empty, aside from the concrete circles with the odd umbrella covers. To me, these circular remnants are a wonderful touchstone, one thing that hasn’t changed, sturdy and reliable. Everywhere else I walk on this market day displays how the world has changed: cell phones and a million chargers for sale on top of a plastic folded table, warm wool sweaters and gloves and hats that are knitted by machine, wall-hangings in colors so bright I know there is modern chemistry in their dyes.

I want to buy some natural yarn, and think I will start a new project while we travel. I pick a craft woman, one among so many, and enjoy the back-and-forth of negotiations. The price is so good that I want to buy more than I can pack into my carry-on suitcase. I need a crochet hook, and can’t remember the word in Spanish. I try to describe what I want. The woman understands and takes me at a run into an alley where, in a brick-and-mortar shop, everything I could possibly need is for sale. The yarn I buy is soft and so warm my fingers are soothed just by the touch.

We walk to the odd-and-ends section of the market. My husband searches through tables and tables of screws and bolts, ancient watches, and finds a coin from last century to purchase.

It’s all a wonder: the stroll, the shopping trip, the search for memories.

I pull the ruana from the bag and put it on, walking away from the Otavalo artisans, comfortable again in this place of mists and mountains and forty-year old magic.

 

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Walking Bogota, Colombia

With one more step retracing my younger self, I arrive in Bogotá. Eight million people strong, over a mile and a half high, at the foot of the most impressive mountains any city can boast, this place should intimidate anyone. Buses racing back and forth, mild adherence to sidewalk safety, a reputation for violence. For the last six and a half years, I have lived in a lazy fishing village on the mild coast of California. Bogota, Colombia? I should be terrified of this place.

I really should be. During the time I lived here in the late ’70’s, US Ambassador Diego Asencio was kidnapped and held for 61 days. Fellow Peace Corps volunteer Richard Starr had been kidnapped before I arrived, held for three years and released during my stay. At times, buses I rode stopped unannounced on the side of highways, let out all the passengers, with drivers stating that a transportation strike had been called. Fifty-odd Colombians and me, often in the dark, struck out over fields, walking miles in a direction I vaguely remembered as being toward home.

Back then, I lived in a northern barrio of Bogotá where the terrorist group M-19 had roots. When soldiers were sent to search for terrorist group members, women from the neighborhood would stand at street corners and wave people safely away from where the soldiers were patrolling. The US Embassy was barricaded downtown and I lived on the outside of its safety net.

But I simply was never afraid. This was a city that may have had political issues and over-reaching violence, but I never saw it, and to this day acknowledge my luck. Regular people lived regular lives, and I felt no threat and no personal animosity aimed at me. I bought my bread from the German bakery, I rode to work on buses – usually with no problem, I went to language school in a beautiful tree-covered neighborhood. Maybe there was a Bogotá with a different world-wide reputation. But there was also my Bogotá: long streets to walk, buses whose routine I needed to learn, spectacular cloud-filled skies, sidewalk food stalls, regular people.

And I am back for the first time in 40 years. We had stayed at the Tundama Hotel on our first night in Bogotá in June of 1978, my husband and I and over 100 other new Peace Corps volunteers. In a strange wave of sentimentality,  we had tried to find the hotel online to reserve a room and really re-live that experience. But, the Tundama is gone, and without an address, we may never know the reason why.

We stay at the Tequendama Hotel, a classic downtown business hotel where we can venture north, where we had lived, and south, where we had worked. I hope to visit other places for which I have no address. How far will my faulty memory take me?

It’s an interesting way to travel – striking out to see those idiosyncratic places that aren’t on anyone else’s list of tourist sites. We walk south on Carrera 6 and – without intending – find the old theater where we used to buy fresh-roasted potato chips to eat during the movie. It still stands there, in the middle of a city-block of buildings, but is wrapped with no-trespassing tape, and no movies are advertised. We turn toward the steep mountainside roads and walk through Parque Nacional, which is exactly as I remember it – a wild forest in the middle of an urban tangle.

From there, we step onto Carrera 7, catch a bus and visit Unicentro – the shopping center where we used to meet friends. We walk most of the long way from Unicentro to our old neighborhood. We recognize the overpasses, the view east to the mountains, and some older buildings. We catch a bus back downtown and find Avenida Caracas. We walk and walk and walk following the bus routes and past the graffitied buildings, trying and failing to find one of the children’s centers where we had worked.

But we do find a city that has built beautiful new neighborhoods and has added an impressive transportation system. We stop along Carrera 7 in an unfamiliar restaurant and eat familiar arepas and ajiaco.

Bogotá gives us a visit that helps me recall the glorious beauty of the region, the pride of the people.

But as for my personal memories – something just isn’t quite right. Maybe I can blame it on the altitude sickness that rocks me on this trip. At 8,600 feet, I feel dizzy, head-achey and muddle-minded. My own recollections seem from someone else’s life.

Who was that young woman who lived in such a challenging place? If I had had a daughter, I would have been immersed with anxiety at the thought of her experiencing the life I lived here. But it was me living in this unusual place, and I was then and still am quite normal and usual. Even in the challenge of the late 1970’s, I felt my life was routine, unremarkable.

The whole experience of going back reminds me that life, always, is just one small step at a time wherever you are.

Once again, Bogotá gives me a gift of extraordinary beauty and ordinary life.

 

 

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Walking Back Home – Pasto, Colombia

 

 

It had been our plan for forty years to someday, somehow return to a place we had called home. The city is off most travelers’ maps. It’s never been on any magazine’s list of desired places to visit. And it’s so far off the North American travel radar that I wondered if even we, having known and loved this place years ago, could find our way back.

Of course, it is possible to go. There are paved roads passing through, and airlines fly to a near-by airport. Wikipedia says 500,000 people live there now. Five hundred thousand? How did that happen, I ask myself? I remember a very small city with a Colonial-style town center and unpaved streets running up toward the hills that circle the town. I remember the isolation, the unpredictable roads and the difficulty of getting there. I remember the Trans-America Highway, which runs past the town, being closed twice a day for the parade of cows going to and coming back from the grassy pastures along the sides of the Galeras Volcano.

Could we tolerate the travel that it takes to get back to our old home? The roads can be dangerous. I had ventured out many times by bus and remembered well the steep drop-offs and the hair-pin turns. Though I never experienced anything of the sort, travelers are now advised against nighttime journeys in this region because of robberies and kidnappings. Since moving away, I had laughed at seeing the regional airport on one infamous list: most hair-raising airplane landings. It was time to find out how far we were from our younger selves, who had reveled in this place so long ago.

Pasto, Colombia. Could I take a walk back home?

I start at Bogotá’s airport, with an eager pacing stride back and forth while waiting to board the flight. It is 766 km (476 miles) from Bogotá to Pasto; air travel is the best way to cover the distance. And yes, when we land, both my husband and I recognise how close to the drop-off edge of the run-way we come.

Many of the turns in the road on the long ride from the airport are familiar. The most significant, just before we get into town, appears ahead and I feel like I am 24 years old again. I know this spot.

But then we take the turn, and a huge city reveals multi-storied, cemented, squared-off apartment complexes littering the hillsides. Suddenly I am lost, and I wonder how on earth things have changed this much. I have been gone a long time.

The taxi leaves us off in the historic middle of town. This part of Pasto, I know. I take my rolling suitcase in hand, heave it over the familiar cobbled roadway and walk up to our residencia. The colonial facade is exactly the style I remember, sitting along a street that is exactly the same as I walked forty years before. I push open the double wooden door and am welcomed into an open interior courtyard. This is the Pasto I recall. We leave off our travel gear and head to the streets.

The annual Blacks and Whites Carnival (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos) is taking place all around us. I walk into the streets with hundreds of other Pastusos and am enveloped with a sudsing of white foam. Yesterday, black oil paint would have been streaked onto my face by the fingers of friendly strangers. Today, salsa music blasts from boom boxes on the open trunks of cars parked on the side streets and everyone – EVERYONE – holds spray containers of white foam, randomly dousing each other with the wet white powder. No one gets angry at this overly-intrusive act of joyful aggression. I walk among the crowd and begin to relive my past.

Down the street, I see a familiar corner, and head that direction. It’s funny how significant the simple things in life are in restrospect. I walk up to the super-market where we shopped so long ago. Not the central park monument or the large governmental buildings, but the place where I bought my bread draws my attention. It has the same concrete steps, the same railing, the same street sign. But the store has a different name: ‘Sarin’s‘, as I remember, is now ‘Exito‘.

On the sidewalk, I buy bottled water from a woman who might be the daughter of the flower salesperson from forty years ago. I walk farther along the street, trying to escape the crowds, and come to the corner where I used to turn on my way home.

Along the way, I recognise the two-story wooden building with the garage-like doors. I remember the two-toned colonial home that was on the street before my own. But as I walk to where I thought I used to live, things seem to have changed. We didn’t have addresses back then, but before we left for Colombia this time, I thought I had found my old home on Googlemaps. But suddenly, it isn’t where I thought it had been. Maybe I should walk to the next block.

But the next block isn’t familiar either.

I retreat to the town center, where only the names of the stores have changed. Here, I can view the town as I remember it from the safety of the residencia‘s tiny balcony. The festival goes on in the streets below me, now with a thousand friendly revelers, and I have a momentary feeling of having found my old home.

I have five more days to find the exact house where I lived. But as I step closer to the edge of the balcony – music so loud my head pounds with the beat, the cobbled streets now completely white with the powdery wet spray – it doesn’t seem I need to feel any closer to my once hometown of Pasto.

 

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Walking Valencia Peak Trail

It rises 1,347-feet from the ocean to the crest of the mount. Central California’s Valencia Peak in Montano de Oro State Park lies just a few miles away from my home in Morro Bay, and just a few rational thoughts away from a trek I should take. But my family has a now-and-again tradition of taking hikes during holidays, and many of those treks challenge the concept of what I should be doing at close to 70 years of age. I have done this walk before, so I already know that today will be complicated by a rocky path, gut-wrenching views straight down, and a slick granite dome that I will have to cross to reach that last, highest step in the climb. I don’t live dangerously with any amount of ease. But I am determined today to at least be in the vicinity of the top of the peak.

My husband and son must be mountain goat people. Or perhaps neither likes to entertain the thought that there are events that should be thought about and reasoned with, rather than plunged into on a whim. Mesquite brush blocks my view for much of the early, easy part of this venture. My two companions walk ahead of me, chatting as if there was no mountaintop ahead of us, ignoring the growing distance between what they can do and what I can do.

I shouldn’t complain about physical abilities. I can exercise every day. I can take a long walk in dry sand every afternoon. I can still bend over to touch my toes, and I am very grateful for all those not-yet-lost skills that make my life easier. But I can’t keep up with my husband and son, and wouldn’t feel it’s a smart thing to do if I could. They are apt to stand at the edge of sea cliffs and play as if no ground beneath their feet will ever give way. I have always been the one who pulls them back so they will survive and one day have a chance to appreciate how un-smart it is to stand so high above water coursing over jagged rocks.

Today, our challenges lie eastward. Rocks and sand begin to tumble away from the path as we hit the grades heading away from the tides. Mounds of granite begin to crop out from the path and bits and pieces crumble away. The disintegrating stone gathers into crevices in the trail and creates 1/4 inch of unsteady dry mash between me and the earth.

“Mom? You okay?” I hear several times. Yes, I’m okay. But how much farther? What if I wait and the two of them can tromp the rest of the way while I sit and enjoy the view? I suggest it to my son, who seems disappointed. I want to tell him that he might be just a bit more distressed if I fall over the edge of this ever-increasing lift from sea level. But instead we all continue on, them picking up their chatter again and me not slipping around as much as my complaints would indicate.

We walk above cloud cover. Then, the clouds follow us up the hillside and we walk inside a bubble of cool steam. There is no perspective and no way to gauge how much farther to the next bench. There are really only two resting places, I think, and maybe we have already passed one. I plan to sit and let my two companions continue on when we reach the next bench, because my trepidation at the height of the mountainside has become replaced with a long-lost sense of vertigo. I am walking into something I can’t see away from something that is no longer there.

Three times I think we are at the top. Three times I continue on, urged by my son that it is really, really right up there, just around the corner of the trail where he and his dad are walking.

When I make it, the view is fabulous. I stand back from the two of them, watching them look out over the edge, safe in their sitting-down perch, still chatting, still secure that the ground will always hold beneath them.

Like life itself, this walk becomes a competitive game of philosophy versus reality. When you have walked as much as you can, endured as many cross-backs as you should have to, do you then jump across a slick granite path to reach some ultimately theoretical goal? Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. But today, even though I am tempted to just refocus the camera to seem as-if  I am on the edge of the mountain height, I take that last step to claim the territory I am walking. Maybe next time, I’ll find a bench and wait.

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best photo in the world

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