Category Archives: travel

>In Search of Whirled Peace


As someone who’s been pegged a whirling dervish on numerous occasions by friends and foes alike, it was no surprise my announcement of an assignment to go cover the real-life spinning mystics was met with chuckles, chortles and knowing winks all around. Not that anybody ever meant to imply I was a Turkish dancing mystic and follower of a charismatic philosopher-poet born in 1207…

Many of us who came of age in the sixties have at least a passing acquaintance with Rumi, aka Mevlana, via his aphorisms that adorned so many inspirational posters of the Hippie era: “Reason is powerless in the expression of love” and so forth. I was lucky enough to have witnessed the dervishes in action at the LaMama Theater, an experimental company in Manhattan’s East Village where I worked in the eighties. Their music was hypnotic and evocative, the precise symmetry of their movements captivating as they spun in tight circles under tall felt hats, their white weighted skirts forming undulating cones and the entire spectacle instantly converting our dusty little auditorium into some exotic middle eastern bazaar.

Later, I learned Rumi was a respected Islamic scholar and theologian who proclaimed the way to enlightenment was through a meditative trance-like induced by spinning. His teachings evolved into what Turks call the Mevlana Sect. Beyond that, I knew nothing. So when a choreographer friend mentioned he had received a grant to travel with his company to the interior of Turkey to dance with the dervishes, I jumped in with both feet and soon found myself boarding a plane bound for Istanbul en route to Konya to continue my education about this sect of whirling seekers.

Konya, the site of the 13th century mosque and mausoleum of the Mevlana Rumi himself, is described in my guidebook as one of the most religiously conservative cities in Turkey. We arrived there mid-morning, and the site’s turquoise minaret, gleaming against the gray of an early spring sky, beckoned from blocks away. The call to prayer was just subsiding and the courtyard of the shrine was filled with pilgrims of all ages, each patiently donning plastic over-shoes in order to enter the mosque where Rumi and his disciples are entombed. (It became a museum in 1927, four years after the establishment of the Turkish Republic.)

Rumi’s faith held Muslim, Jew and Christian in equal regard. He advocated tolerance, positive reasoning and charity, and did not ascribe to an orthodox Muslim doctrine, which has garnered him followers among many sects and creeds.

Inside, the tombs were topped not with gravestones, but rather enormous stone turbans. Candles hung from the ceiling, inside large hand-blown glass lamps. Elaborate carpets covered the floors, and the murmur of praying filled me with a numinous sensation. Pausing for several minutes at Rumi’s place of honor, I began to sense an aura of contentment settling down on me.

The walk from the mosque to the conference center on the outskirts of Konya, where our whirling workshop would take place, revealed the city to be a jumble of modern industrial buildings; ancient architecture, including numerous religious monuments; and small shops. Carpet stores abutted barbershops where men wrapped in hot towels peered out, their faces slathered with cream. Turkish children whooped in schoolyards surrounded by fences with rusting bicycles tethered to them. Tiny businesses sold figs, walnuts and olives; kiosks plied delicious warm pide bread. Doner kebab stands offered sliced lamb or chicken stuffed into the bread’s pockets along with onions and tomatoes.

At the conference center, Ahmet Calisir, the leader of Konya’s semazen—their dance is called the sema, hence they are the semazen—began to enlighten us. Through a translator, he spoke of the pressing need, especially in these times, to connect to the earth and to our own immortality, and to recognize that we are not the center of the universe. He began to unfold the deep symbolism of the sema, how it hearkens to a mystical journey, our spiritual ascent toward perfection, and how the spinning represents a turning toward truth and away from the dangers of egotism. It also honors the commonality of all beings, reaffirming a fundamental condition and scientific truth of our existence: Whether we are planets in a solar system or electrons in a single atom or flighty journalists in between jobs (as I was), we all rotate.

irst, we would watch the dervishes perform then they would assist our efforts to replicate their swirling dance. I was champing at the bit for the active part, even in the face of such a patient teacher as Calisir. We sat cross-legged as the ancient music of the ney, a reed flute, and the kudu drum invaded our thrumming modern psyches. The dancers began at a markedly slow pace, arms crossed. As the crescendo built, they released their arms to heaven and earth, their eyes rolled up into their brows and they spun faster and faster, slipping magically past each other, never colliding. I was in rapture, with whirling skirts flying just inches past my nose and nimble feet, tightly laced in thin black leather boots, crisply pivoting at barely arm’s length. The dervishes’ sikke, those tall felt hats, somehow remained fixed. By now, I knew they represented the tombstone of the ego, a renunciation of worldly attachments.

The dance lasted perhaps thirty minutes. When the music subsided, the semazen calmly took their places against the back wall, hands crossed to opposite shoulders, sweat rolling down their cheeks yet breathing sedately.

Rising with my friend’s troupe, I was self-conscious about my age and lack of a dancer’s physique. My unquiet brain taunted me with self-doubt. We assumed the stance and the music began. Omar, a baker by day, and Hassan, a plumber, adjusted our arms and feet as we attempted to find the orbit and singular thread evinced by these practicing mystics. Many of us faltered or tipped; some clung to a wall for spatial solace. I wobbled, plopped onto my backside, and took a moment to revel in the spin of the room.

We were privileged to witness another miraculously calming performance by the semazen and were then asked for our reactions to the entire experience. Sensing no need for a clever response, no impulse to swoop in and deconstruct the scenario or come up with a definitive string of witticisms, I remained uncharacteristically silent. I realized that with real whirling comes focus, balance and the connection to a greater sensibility than anything my left brain could parse.

The next day, I was awakened at dawn by a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. As I lay in bed in my little room at the Hotel Rumi, across from the mosque, I felt myself still spinning. It was not the residual rocking of a seasick ship passenger but a constant, steadying, internal movement, like the ticking of a well-oiled clock. I could pause again to acknowledge my newfound connection to all things that revolve and spin and find their centers.

>Travel: Vice of Choice

>In my house, we say travel is our vice of choice, which means a voyage takes precedence over trinkets, gadgets, fancy dinners or fashion. Apparently we are not in the majority because in late March, the U.S. Passport office announced that the applications for passports dropped by 25% auguring that many consumers have decided to dedicate their hard earned dollars to other corners of the market.

My neighbors and I are all tightening our belts and staying up nights worrying about mortgages, groceries and college tuition. My little family is not flourishing the way we were a few years back, but still my dreams wander to travel and the huge benefits I accrue from far-flung trips.

I just returned from ten days in Tunisia. This trip was fueled, on the surface, by a writing assignment on a wonderful former fashionista who now works teaching design and business skills to artisans in the developing world. Inspirational stuff right there, but what made it mind expanding and debt worthy, were the conversations I encountered in every corner of the small Islamic country of Tunisia.

Conversation was facilitated because French is a common language. Most Tunisians possess a basic grasp, lingering as a shadow from French colonial times, and I have my exuberant, rudimentary high school Francais. I love to talk and somehow people babble back: shop keepers, taxi drivers, waiters and the artisans in the market. For me this is the miracle of travel.

Yes there are deserted Roman cities, which inspire with efficiency, and the elegance of design from over two thousand years ago. The palimpsests of central heating, non-skid streets, theatrical acoustics and gob-smacking, mosaic beauty are reason enough to travel to Tunisia, but for me it is the conversations that glue us to each other as members of a tribe that is larger than country, religion, gender or ethnicity.

We are human. We long to connect. So when a cab driver in Tunis took me back to my hotel after a day ogling mosaics at the Bardo museum, I was overjoyed when he turned off the engine and asked if we could talk. He wanted to know why Americans have such a negative image of Arab people. Did all Americans really think that all Arabs were terrorists and evil? It was heartbreaking and important.

I told him that many Americans, know that good and bad people populate all countries, all races and all genders. I told him I believed that more things connect us, rather than separate us. Maybe it is conversation in the present tense and the simple vocabulary from which I carefully parse my words, but there was a power to this conversation that doesn’t happen when we banter at a dinner party or yell back at the evening news.

When I was attending the workshops that Aid to Artisans sponsored in Tozeur, a small walled city in the south, I had another opportunity to converse. I rose early one morning and hired a caleche pulled a scrawny horse named Pamela Anderson and driven by Petit Omar.

I had read about the distinctive brickwork that faces many buildings in the medina and the newer city and I wanted to see the brickfields.

So we clomped along talking about farming, and the fancy hotels that had closed down because of the dwindling economy. I learned how dates are hand fertilized, how the lettuces are planted under the massive date trees in the oasis where 200,000 palms flourish. “Is farming like this where you live?” We talked about family farms and factory farms, and as we trotted along a dirt road, little kids and adults waved, yelling OBAMA! OBAMA! They knew I was American and I was happy to be embraced for a potentially positive administration.

When we arrived at the brick fields Pamela Anderson pulled up under a tree. I walked over to inspect the wood forms, but the barefoot worker only wanted to talk about Obama. “ Are you as hopeful as we are?” he asked, “Do you believe this will change the world?” I hedged my bets, as I am not sure what one man can do. I said that, but then I realized that the conversations, which inspired me in EL Kef, Tunis, Dougga, and Tozeur all took, place one on one.

It saddens me that travel is so expensive and often seen as an expendable luxury, because I see travel as the staff of life. For me, money spent traveling comes back ten fold. The lessons learned and the goodness spread returns and multiples back home.

>Beyond The Brain We Know

>It is Saturday, which means little when one is immersed close to drowning, in a project of passion. The work piles up and it has to be done. Calls must be made, parties planned, singers scheduled, invites printed, calls made to recalcitrant wine donors and tricky plans made to hang lights, and make dances in a theater space often unavailable for rehearsal at the same time as actors. It is a logistical nightmare, even with all the artistic stuff removed. Making an opera full of sound and fury and tiny set and major light and dance and props and found costumes. And I know you all get it.

But add to this my most insane decision to make all the opening night gifts from clay. This means going into the pottery studio on Chambers Street to throw on the wheel the bowls or cups, or pitchers or planters. Then these have to be trimmed, then fired once, then glazed and fired again. At any point, just like theater they can fall apart. Quit on you like a cast member or you budget. Explode in the fiery kiln or have the glaze run and stick and look more like an elementary school gift that only a mother can love.

So this morning I was going into the studio early. After all the phone calls to new singers, scheduling confabs and dropping off postcards at local markets and restaurants. I was going to sit at the wheel and spin and ruminate. Of course I had a list of all the other things I had to do, and silly as it may seems, calling my kids in France was on the list. I hadn’t wanted to hover so I haven’t called in a few days. I have my special super cheap, bought in a bodega, cardboard calling cards that require dialing many numbers, a skill I am particularly poor at, because my extreme dyslexia often messes me up mid-dial and have to start over. So I was waiting until later.

But I kept getting jangled in my head by my daughter. I do think of her often, but there is a certain buzz that is a real call. So I braved the multiple digits, had to redo twice since the first cards were used up. Tossed them and began again. I got her on the fifth ring and she was laughing. “Hey, it’s your mama.” She is still laughing, so I ask, “What’s up?”

“Well, I was thinking of you so so much and I thought I have to stop thinking about her because I can’t talk right now and I was trying to cancel the thoughts, like hanging up mid-dial, but I guess it didn’t work.”

This is no longer amazing is us. Perhaps others think it is bunkum, a lie, a good yarn to evince closeness, but it is a scientific as any other unproven fact. The earth still revolved around the sun even when folks said it didn’t. And many scientists have been exploring all the portions of our brain we don’t ever use and it just sits there waiting to be discovered and believed in. This is one of those parts. A way to communicate beyond words, and cheap paper phone cards and emails, and text messages and Hallmark cards. It is such a deep, and vibrant communication that even a quick touch where we laugh at being babe to make each other call is wonderful.

I know my son Henry has the ability to some extent, but he is happier believing that the earth is the center of the universe and doesn’t want to believe in magic, or communication beyond the phone or email. Sometimes he enjoys its wacky nature but mostly he wants, “Nothing but the facts, Mom.” I bet in his lifetime there will be scientific data to shore up why Willi and I can call across time lines and phone lines and reach other more clearly than if there was an email saying “Please call me.” That I can ignore, but the buzzing, unanswered shout-out from the south of France while climbing the steps of a cathedral is something I can’t and will never ignore.

>Kindness and the Survival of the Fittest

>Oct 30-31 2007
Galapagos Islands
Early a.m.

I am here in the cradle or spiny nest of the theory of evolution; and as one tramps around the unwelcoming island landscape, observing sea lions, red and blue-footed boobys and Darwin’s celebrated finches, you can do nothing but think about evolution. Evolution for us as a species, and for all the endemic birds, reptiles and mammals I will never see again after I leave these strange, some say enchanted islands.

Before I arrived here I compiled a tiny library: Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Beak of the Finch; Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands by Edward Larson and of course Darwin’s own The Voyage of the Beagle. I attempted to read a few before arriving and have devoured the rest as we “sail” from island to island in a noisy yacht that roils and racks from side to side literally giving me a sleep where I toss and turn (AHH, so is that’s where the phrase comes from!) But when I am not reading and tossing we are taking the zodiac, a small dingy, to the islands.

The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, stretch for more than 50,000 square miles across; that is roughly the size of Florida. In 1959 the government of Ecuador set aside 97% of the landmass as a national park known as The Galapagos Marine Reserve. A part of what makes the Galapagos so special is that they are located at the confluence of two major ocean currents: the Humboldt Current from the arctic and the Cromwell Current from the equator. The swirling hot and cold temperatures give rise to a wild diversity of habitats and specially adapted creature. This eco system is home to 3000 kinds of plants and animals about 20% are endemic, meaning found nowhere else in the world.

We have been to the island of Genovesa, where in my books, naturalists Peter and Rosemary Grant have undertaken a twenty-year study of the incredible changes in the beaks, behaviors and lives of the Darwin finches. These unique creatures, and how incredible to use the word unique without it being hyperbolic, but rather a precise discriber, exist nowhere else in the world and hence the changes that happen to them can be deconstructed and followed. In science, the finches can be very effective predictors.

Some of the finches observed by the Grants made evolutionary changes in leaps and bounds due to a period of drought, followed by the El Nino pattern of nearly deluge like rain which caused the populations to dwindle and then spike. These abrupt changes provided the ability to observe the survival of the fittest intimately.

The Grants observed that as the drought took hold, the myriad types of seeds normally available dwindled down to only large hard seeds, difficult to crack open and hence only the birds with the big tough beaks survived. When the rains finally came the birds were ready to mate again. They had missed an entire year because the finches only mate after rain when the males build nests in the cactus and sit on the highest points, singing to attract females. So after the drought, at the first mating opportunity, meaning rain, there was a population of large, surviving males that greatly outnumbered the females.

So the giant finch males took to singing and the females had the pick of the songsters. They mated and bumper crops of eggs and hatchlings and fledglings ensued. This continued until the population of the Genovesa Island exploded and the mating went on and on. But then the ecological swing came. Like the stock market, good luck, or rainy weather, unless you live in Seattle or Scotland, all things have seasons or swings. And the flip came on Genovesa and drought returned.

There on Genovesa was a quick-change generation of large birds, bred to crack difficult seeds and all around them they found only small plants, with small soft seeds. All of a sudden these big beaked birds with their evolved specialty is null and void. Of course there are some small outlier birds hanging out from the class of large, strong beaked birds who have survived and NOW it is their turn to shine as they can peck and feed well on the teensy seeds remaining in a parched environment. And the cycle continues. Natural selection by itself is not evolution. It is only a mechanism that, according to Darwin, can lead to evolution. As the Grants say, “natural selection takes place within a generation, but evolution takes place across generations.”

All of this has caused me to wonder, as a writer, as perhaps a too close observer of humanity, What is our destiny as a race, given these seemingly perilous times? As an amateur naturalist in this time period, I see clearly that we are egregiously ignoring global warming and the graphic postcards it sends regularly. Here are some recent messages.

Greetings From:

Hurricane Katrina
El Nino
Times Square 2006 New Year’s Eve at 70 degrees
Flash fires in California
Unprecedented glacial melting
Rogue tornadoes

We ignore these signs at the peril of, our actual neighbors and then our animal and plant co-habitants. It keeps boiling down to an overly simplistic explanation for me, and it is that KINDNESS has been bred out of modern human beings as a trait. Somehow we naturally keep selecting for self-centered GREED.

I sometimes feel so distraught when I watch the news, an activity that more and more requires a cocktail to give me one thin layer of protection from the abject destruction and persecution of the large part of the world by a tiny ruling class. Nightly I observe a disregard for the signs of an apocalypse brought on by the inability to listen and learn from those less powerful, a world that is dwindling around us.

New Orleans Ninth Ward is still a disaster zone. Darfur and the entirety of Sudan is in an acknowledged genocide. The United States continues as the only developed country with no national health care. But the spending for war augments and rages. Oil profits are beyond record as the price for a barrel tops 95 dollars and promises no near end. But we elect oilmen who ignore education and health in favor of a bellicose path and they are nearly gleeful with the fear their paths generate in a public ever more timorous.

On the Galapagos Islands, one of the most shocking revelations is that the creatures, mammals, reptiles and birds, evince very little fear or concern with the tourists trooping by snapping photos and asking for bleakish grins. At first, I thought it was just the newness of the situation, but I come to learn from lectures and reading, that these inhabitants of Isabella, Fernandina and Genovesa are so specialized that they each posses a unique niche. So the iguana, who eats the algae, is not in completion with the sea lion who eats fish. The flightless cormorant wings have atrophied, as he no longer needs to fly to escape predators, and so he can fish unfettered in a pristine pool while sally light-foot crabs watch from the banks clicking their claws like an absurd Greek chorus.

Yes, the giant Frigate birds do steal fish right out of the mouths of gulls, but the fish abound. The hawk can feast on small marine iguanas, baby turtles do languish and die on the beach, and desiccating baby seals dot the beach in Genovesa. But Darwin’s famed finches have different feasts from the blue-footed boobies and iguanas. And thus you see black lava beaches where sunbathers include mammals, reptiles, birds and the occasional human interloper, all in respectful harmony. It is impressive and makes me wonder.

Has our own human desire to have more, better, bigger perhaps caused a natural selection necessitating blindness to the needs, wails and moans of others in our backyards and across the globe? When some more radical pundits propose that we, the hyper-mobile, super rich American middle to upper class have alienated much of the world by our patterns of over consumption in every arena of our lives, it is viewed as heresy and anti-patriotic blather bordering on treason.

Today I sit writing aboard a small yacht, the Letty bobbing atop the Pacific Ocean. I eschewed the trek to the tiny island of Bartolome with the rest of my 14 cohorts from an eco-voyage, to observe what looks like the moon. I have selected, naturally, to remain shipboard and write. I am a very gregarious person who requires large doses of alone time to keep up with an inner life that often feels neglected by my attentions to others. This is my rhythm; and at heart what propels me is a desire to be kind, to do well for myself, and others, in a widening circle.