Braided Streams

Reflections | Travels | Interests

Patagonia

On the bus ride to Puerto Natales, the bright landscape flies by: yellow grasses, rheas grazing, miles and miles of barbed wire fence, scrubby trees that look like neglected apple orchards. The town is an end-of-the-earth place, with simple, colorful houses and lots of end-of-day sunlight.

We take a bus to Torres del Paine National Park. There are views of the towers, snow-capped peaks, colorful valleys, lakes and lagoons. We board a ferry bobbing in a narrow lake of pale aqua water. It starts to rain almost as soon as we begin our hike, big fat drops that hit us like needles. But atop the ridge, there are incredible views of the lake, first with white caps on gray waves, later with pale blue hues. Closer to the glacier, bright blue icebergs float in the water. The glacier is brilliant white and blue with interesting textures at its calving face. All the way, the wind blows against us, threatening to knock me over.

Small wooden bridges lead us over rushing streams and through valleys where we are sheltered from the wind and where magenta and white foxglove bloom. Dandelions, daisies, and clover grow along the trail. Above, the snow-capped peaks are at times brilliant in sun and at other times shrouded in gray clouds. A caracara stands twenty feet from us, hopping along the ground on white legs, foraging for insects. A woodpecker drums at a fallen log, its black crest comically flipped back behind its head. A gray and bronze culpeo lounges near the side of the trail.

We walk back the way we came in misty morning light, stopping with a view of the glacier to find a rainbow stretching from Gray Lake to the glacier. We reach the place where we began the day before, then continue along the aqua blue lake, climbing grassy and flowery hills and dipping into a valley with silvery, skeletal trees. In the distance, the white trees rise up like the teeth of a comb in the mountain’s shadow. The lake is now dark gray, with white caps on the waves, and clouds move over the mountain peaks where glaciers slide down their slopes. In the forest, vegetation changes from bony trees to their living relatives. Shrubs with tiny white flowers line the path, holly-like. The trail grows muddy and the trees grow taller and closer together until we reach a suspension bridge over a gushing, glacier-fed stream. The wind blows the bridge and the water roars as we cross. Past the bridge, the stream splits in two to feed a lake below.

In the morning, the forest feels like a tropical montane rainforest. It is bright but drizzly, everything is lush and blooming, birds are everywhere, and when we come out of the trees, the views are of greenery and waterfalls and the aqua lake. The trail winds downhill until we reach a rocky beach of black and beige stones, where the aqua waves crash on the shore. The colorscape is perfect. I sit on the wet rocks and watch the waves before continuing on the trail.

The day grows hot—the sun is out and the sky is super blue—and three Andean condors soar above us. The view is always of the lake and the mountains in the distance, with hilly trails and stream crossings and suspension bridges and wildflowers. We stop a lot to lay in the sun and absorb the view.

Our last day hiking is very uphill. We walk along a glacial stream and through the forest, thickly green with a dark-dirt trail. Three Magellanic woodpeckers fly between old trees. Big rocks form both a stream bed and steps to climb, and soon we are above treeline, where the wind is whipping. We climb up a steep sandy hill and across a boulder field. It is cold and snowing at the base of the towers. They rise from a pool of seafoam green water, and there are misty clouds and snowflakes.

When we get back to the bottom, the big moon rises behind the clouds and hares jump through the meadow.

Valparaíso

I’d always wanted to visit Valparaíso because of one of Sting’s songs:

Chase the dog star
Over the sea
Home where my true love is waiting for me
Rope the south wind

Canvas the stars
Harness the moonlight
So she can safely go
Round the Cape Horn to Valparaíso

In the evenings, we drink wine on our balcony overlooking the lit-up cerro, with the stars and the moonset.

The city is all stairs. At the top of the cerros, there are views of the harbor and all the buildings and rooftops below you. Elevators built in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries bring passengers to the tops, but the elevator to the top of our cerro is out of service, so we have to use the stairs: 160 steep steps up to get home.

It seems every square inch of each cerro is packed with ramshackle buildings or cement stairways or walls. It all seems very unkempt. Pablo Neruda writes:

What nonsense
you are
What a crazy
insane port
Your mounded head
disheveled
You never finish combing your hair

The city is old, but imbibed with a spirit of creativity and freedom. We pass succulents, dogs laying in the street, people smoking weed on stairways, sunlight and blue sky, shadows of sea gulls. Colorful boats rock about by the wharf, buses whiz by, street vendors sell cups of fruit and leather bracelets and artwork depicting the city. Our days are filled with small cafés, art museums, and walking by murals outside—every cement wall, staircase, and side of a building is painted with colorful murals or graffiti. At every step there is something to look at, ponder, or appreciate.

We go to Pablo Neruda’s boatlike house. His study, on the fifth floor, looks out at the sea like a crow’s nest. There are maps on the walls, stone mosaics, stained glass, a brass bed. We sit on the terrace in the sun with a cat who needed attention.

At Viña del Mar we walk along the sea—cloudy, cool breeze, salty air. Waves thunder and spray.

San Pedro de Atacama

In northern Chile, in the driest desert in the world, we sleep in a 200-year-old building where llamas were once kept. The roof is thatched and the walls are adobe and the floor is dusty. The center of San Pedro de Atacama is nearby. The plaza is sunny, and there are big trees in the courtyard and huge dogs lying in the shade. People dressed as flamingos walk around on stilts as we stand under the shade of a pepper tree.

We drive south to the high-altitude, salty lagoons: Miscanti y Miñiques. There are mountains to the east and shimmering salt flats to the west. Scrublike vegetation and yellow-green tufts of grass grow in pale and rocky soil. The road is mostly straight through the pastel desert until we climb higher in altitude; the road curves around hills and trenches as altitude sickness sets in.

We walk downhill to Laguna Miscanti on a dusty, rock-lined path. In the distance are mountains with snow on their peaks, and between us and the mountains is the salty lagoon of dark blue water. A few yards from the path are four vicuñas, not terribly shy but not very interested in coming closer. They watch us, and one lies down in the sand, yawning. Andean coots bob on the water, and three species of flamingos, tall, bend their necks to the water in search of food. An Andean gull lands beside us in the sand.

Laguna Miñiques is uphill from here. The ground becomes rockier and the tufts of grass are more numerous, and small birds chirp and flit among the rocks. The lagoon is in a depression surrounded by mountains, and the sky and water both seem bluer. There are more flamingos and coots, and a pair of Andean geese.

Valle de la Luna is closed, so we drive down a desert road and park in the sand. The sun sets over the mountains in the west while the volcano to our backs turns purple in the light. The sky darkens and the first stars appear. A pitbull from the nearby village lies down with us, on the lookout, our protector, and we relax and watch the stars—through binoculars, they are an infinite sparkly spattering. The constellations move above us. A few shooting stars pass by as the night gets colder, but the ground stays warm.

Rainbow Valley, to the north, is more mountainous, with funny poofs of cactus dotting the landscape. We turn onto a dirt road, which takes us through empty territory to Yerba Buenas, a petroglyph site dating back to 1400 BCE. We walk in the hot sun around rock formations, red against blue sky. Throughout, creatures are carved into the rocks—foxes and flamingos, llamas and cats and men. A herd of llamas passes by, shaking dust from their coats.

We drive alongside a small river up windy mountain roads to the oasis town of Rio Grande. It’s a step back in time, and donkeys bleat amidst lush green vegetation while the river gurgles by. Large cacti stand on the mountain slopes and the valleys bring more of those desert pastels to life. We watch the sunset again at Coyote Lookout, this time over rocky red valleys. The wind blows at our faces.

There are two green holes in the ground, one on either side of the road, with no life but a few bright blue dragonflies. In the distance: desert, mountains, salt flats, nothing. We continue on to a huge salt flat where some of the first life on earth was discovered, where the rocks are alive, built up by bacteria and minerals. The salt flat looks like an icy lake, covered in snow, but the heat and sunlight make the whiteness hazy. The salt crackles like the popping sounds of a frozen lake. The rocky ground around us is covered in salt, and the sun beats down. We see flamingos at the edge of the water, and I catch one flying in my binoculars, the black edges of its wings visible.

Laguna Cejar is surrounded by bunches of prairie grass, with cottony flowers and insects buzzing and a few more flamingos visible between the blue and the salt. I love the way the grass smells beneath the sunlight. We walk across the salt, beneath the sun, to another lagoon, where flamingos and plovers and other birds feed in the salty water. On the edges of Laguna Piedra, the salt is mucky. We enter the water, which is cool and deep. The sky is blue and the purple-pastel volcano is mirrored in the water. We float, looking at the mountainscape beyond us. When we dry in the sun, we try to wipe the salt from our bodies.

Northwest of town, we go to Pukará de Quitor. We pass by the ancient ruins—stone walls and building foundations—in favor of a hike to the top of the mountain. We walk gradually upward, switchbacking, as our view of the volcano gets better. We see more and more of the surrounding area—a lush riverbed, green San Pedro, the red desert leading up to the volcano, canyon-like rock formations, great sand dunes. The temperature and the lighting, an hour or so before sunset, is perfect.

Down a semi-steep driveway into the canyon, a thermal stream runs through lush grasses, forming pools in layers. A splintery boardwalk winds alongside the stream. We head to the hottest pool, steamy in the cold morning air. We swim down a narrow gully lined by grasses to the place where the hot water pounds down.

Up steep and winding roads, the canyon walls are covered with boulders and cacti. At the top of the mountain, the road levels out and we reach a lagoon speckled with at least two hundred flamingos. We sit in the sand on the side of the dusty road and watch them through binoculars as they bend their long necks and dip their pink faces to the water. A few fly, landing in the water after leaving rippled footprints on the surface.

We drive through a lush green area, where a farmer herds llamas and sheep. At another lagoon, we identify coots and ducks that swim on the algae-flecked water. There are vast, sandy hills in the distance, where vicuñas graze on sparse vegetation. The Andes rise tall to the east, changing color and shape as we view them from new angles; the clouds leave dark splotches of shadow on them.

It takes an hour and forty minutes to make it to El Tatio, the third largest geyser field in the world, since we stop so many times. It is cold at 15,000 feet, so we bundle up to walk around the geyser field. The geysers steam and spray and bubble and gurgle. They leave mineral deposits behind, puddles of earthy colors, and my feet are warm from the  heat of the ground. We get into the hot murky water at the thermal pool and watch the Andes.

On our last night in San Pedro, we head east on Route 27 toward the volcano we’ve been looking at all week to watch the sunset. We listen to Fleet Foxes and drink red wine as we watch the sky change color; the sun goes down and the volcano glows and the salt flats in the distance shine like mirrors.

Vermont Studio Center

I'd written very few stories since middle school. I remember writing at least one in a creative writing class in high school, and a few more in an environmental fiction workshop in graduate school. Feedback from my teachers was honest (this needs more development, this ending is a bit of a cliché), but also somewhat discouraging, and I never really tried to get better at this type of storytelling. But I had the feeling that my creative nonfiction essays were trying too hard to be essays, and that instead, they should be written as fiction.

I wrote my first story in years this past fall. Set in The Bahamas, where I lived for a year, the story deals with themes of friendship, place, and displacement. It came out in two short bursts, a rush that felt quite good—something that we wish always happens when we write. On a whim, on the deadline day, I submitted this story and some other materials to the Vermont Studio Center. A month later, I found out that I was one of 1,300 applicants, and that I had been accepted.

The Vermont Studio Center provides the time and space for writers and artists to focus on their craft. For the month of April, I would have a bedroom, meals, nonstop coffee, and a writing studio overlooking a small river in Johnson, Vermont. My studio had its own thermostat (this was nice, because April in northern Vermont is still very much winter), a writing desk, and a reading chair. The river rushed by, ceaselessly, and one writer pointed out that this flow was great inspiration for her writing work.

 
 

In my application, I wrote about a novel I wanted to write. It's about a young woman named Ava. Ava's mother was a field ornithologist in Australia, but she was killed in a car accident when Ava was 13. Ava is now 20, and she has decided to travel to the Atherton Tablelands in Australia, where her mother did her research, to discover who her mother was as well as the place that her mother loved. When I traveled in Chile in January, on a long bus ride, I dreamed up an outline for the novel, so when I arrived at VSC, I was ready to get started.

 
 

The preface to the novel, in which Ava is introduced and the fact of her mother's death is explained, came out quickly. I read it to an audience of writers and artists and received encouraging feedback. But getting started on the first chapter was harder; I had to shift in time from Ava as teenager to Ava as young woman, and I had to find a way to get Ava to Australia without starting too stereotypically with her flight landing at the Cairns airport. On top of that, I spent the first two weeks of my time at VSC fretting about what to do with my future and applying to jobs, which was rather a great distraction from the writing process. But about midway through my residency, I figured a few things out, and I was able to produce the first chapter of the book.

 
 

Though the residency is designed to provide one with the perfect conditions for producing art, life, of course, still manages to get in the way. I envisioned drafting much more of my novel during my time there, but I still feel that it was a productive experience. I read, a lot: two books of nonfiction, one novel, one book of short stories, and three literary magazines cover-to-cover. One of these books was Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, which was the perfect book to read when feeling discouraged. "I tried to work and failed," Dillard writes. "After eight hours of watching helplessly while my own inane, manneristic doodles overstepped their margins and covered the pages I was supposed to be writing, I gave up. I decided to hate myself, to make popcorn and read." I did my share of giving up, hating myself, and reading during that month, but I also accepted that this was part of the process and wasn't necessarily a bad thing. When I wasn't trying to write, I read, and I tried to more carefully examine the ways writers did what they did. This was helpful, and productive.

 
 

There were many other benefits of the experience other than forcing myself to sit at the desk and either producing or not producing any words on the page. Our group of writers got together weekly to share a page of what we'd been working on and set goals for the week; we sat in on two craft lectures by visiting writers; we talked about how to get published; we listened to each other read and talked about our favorite books and our writing processes.

The visiting writer for fiction during the month was Gladys Swan. Gladys is also a painter, and she had her own painting studio for the month. I hadn't heard of Gladys before checking the schedule for the residency, but my mother remembered her from her time at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Gladys was Wally Lamb's advisor there; Wally had written a short story, and, as my mother tells it, Gladys told him he had too many pots on the stove, that he was really working on a novel and not a short story at all. That short story became She's Come Undone. So before I met her, I felt like Gladys was someone whose judgment I could trust.

Gladys is in her eighties, but she's still making art. Due to vision loss, she can no longer read, but that didn't stop her from engaging with the work we were doing or working on her own stories. She stood at the podium and told stories about her writing life; she quoted authors without referring to any notes; she listened to each of our stories and gave pointed, detailed feedback without needing to ask any questions about a character's name or the order of events. She was sharp, and generous with her time and feedback.

After her evening lecture, during which another writer read from her books, I purchased  a copy of Carnival for the Gods, and I read it once I got back from my residency. I have some goals, you see, to keep writing a little bit each day, but on days when that isn't working so well, I want to keep reading, to keep thinking about how a writer crafts a novel. I want to create and maintain good writing habits, always trying to get more down on the page, or spending time on revision. Gladys, and the other resident writers, gave me plenty of tips. So now I just have to keep at it.

Place-Based Books

For many years, I have loved learning about place through literature, and whenever I travel to a place, I seek out books from or about that place. I'm not sure when I started this habit. When I lived in Australia, I read books by Australian authors, and I discovered one of my favorites, Eucalyptus by Murray Bail. When I interviewed for a program associate position at SIT Study Abroad, I hoped that I would be selected for the Asia and Pacific region, as I had experience there, but when I found out I was being considered for the Middle East and North Africa programs, a region I knew next to nothing about, I went to my bookshelf. I found books like Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al-Aswany, and I started reading. This was a natural way for me to learn. So when, at SIT, colleagues and I joined together for a TED Talk lunch and watched Ann Morgan's "My year reading a book from every country in the world," I was both excited (especially by this list of books she created) and surprised that this seemed like a novel idea to my colleagues. While essays have been sprouting up on the internet about bookshelves being too crowded with books by dead white men, I'm proud that the bookshelves I've curated over time are not only gender-balanced, but place-balanced.

I've been lucky over the past year and a half to have traveled and lived abroad quite a bit. So my reading for that time has been largely place-based, and what I've read and learned has contributed to my role as an educator and as a visitor to these places. Below are the books I've read.

My next trip is to Copenhagen and the Faroe Islands. Any recommendations?


The Caribbean


Jordan

 
 

Mexico

 
 

Chile