An Enchanted Expedition In Kyoto

I have just returned from two and a half wonderful weeks in Japan, leading an intrepid, engaged and enriching group of eight travelers through Kyoto and Shikoku. The trip turned out to be full of magic and delight, but as I began the journey, before I knew how it would turn out, I had turned for inspiration and encouragement to the memory of an earlier journey – my very first time as a tour leader, when I had led two American travelers on an autumn tour of Tokyo, Kyoto and rural Honshu. Here is a tale from that initial tour:

On our first full day in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto, we began with visits to three back-alley shops where traditional tofu delicacies, delicate fans and tatami mats are made. Then, when the husband of the couple I was accompanying mentioned that his mother used to love lacquerware and had a considerable collection in California, our local guide perked up. ”Oh, then I know just where we must go,” she said, hailing a cab. ”Zohiko!”

From the moment we walked into its hushed confines, Zohiko seemed more a museum than a retail store. Three men and a woman in crisp dark suits greeted us with bows. The ground floor consisted of two spacious rooms elegantly arranged with wooden shelves and mounted display cases showcasing an extraordinary assemblage of lacquerware. There were exquisite soup bowls and small plates, flower containers, round boxes, square boxes, sake sets, green tea cup saucers, large serving trays and small personal trays, multi-layered boxes and decorative plates, all in sleek black, red and gold, adorned with intricate flowers, rolling waves, fluttering butterflies and bending grasses.

I lingered for a long time studying a set of five black soup bowls, each with a different gorgeous rendering of pine, bamboo, apricot, chrysanthemum and orchid. A strikingly simple pure red tray with two soaring gold cranes in one corner held my eye. And if I’d had enough money, I would have bought a spectacular rectangular black container with layer upon layer of gold depicting a glittering seascape with a single, pine-crowned island in the distance and thin-winged birds flocking on the horizon.

The manager noticed me admiring the last and as we were talking, I mentioned that my companion’s mother had been an ardent collector of lacquerware in America and that discovering Zohiko was a special treat for us. ”Well, then you must come upstairs!” he said, and called to two be-suited associates.

Suddenly, we were all being escorted up a discreet stairway in the back of the showroom to another room with further elegant displays and beyond that a small area where 13, 4-inch by 5-inch, wooden trays were laid out, lacquered and polished to different degrees, illustrating the stages in the creation of lacquerware. One of the assistants began to explain in English, but the manager, clearly so gratified and excited to have foreign guests with a real interest in his own passion, couldn’t stop himself and took over, speaking in a mixture of English and Japanese that our guide translated. First, he showed us the trunk of a lacquer tree from which the sap is extracted. Then, picking up each tray in turn, he described the lacquerware-making process: the selection and shaping of the piece of wood, the laying down of a linen cloth to prevent warping or cracking, the numerous applications of layers of lacquer, followed each time by polishing, first with a whetstone and in the penultimate stage, with soft magnolia charcoal. At this point the assistant reappeared with printed one-page explanations in English and pressed them into our hands with a bow. In the final stage, I read as the manager spoke, ”a coat of clear lacquer is rubbed over the surface with cotton and the piece is polished with deerhorn powder and vegetable oil until it takes on a brilliant luster.”

The manager finished with a smile that mixed relief and glee. As we applauded and bowed and began to head for the stairs, he bent to consult with our guide. ”Wait a moment!” she announced. ”We are having a very special opportunity!”

The manager then summoned another assistant, who led us down the stairs, out the shop’s front door, around the side of the building and through a parking lot into a long, low warehouse. As we entered I caught a whiff of wood and paint. He led us up some narrow stairs to the second floor and a cozy room, about 8 feet square, where a man of perhaps 50, clad in blue jeans and a red and white striped shirt, was sitting cross-legged on a cushion. In front of him was a low red-painted stand, as high as his knees and about 2 feet wide by 2 feet deep. Neatly arranged on this stand were a dozen brushes, a bamboo tube, an engraving tool, three blue-and-white sake cups with paints inside and a tiny plastic bag containing gold pellets.

>The artist was cupping a red lacquered bowl in his hand. Taking up one of the brushes, he dipped it in a rectangular silver palette that was looped on his left thumb and began making fine brushstrokes. After a few minutes, he put that bowl aside and picked up another red-lacquered bowl. Inside this bowl was the white design of a flower. He took up a different brush, and began to lightly trace this design with transparent lacquer. When he had finished, he very intently tapped finely pounded gold dust from the bamboo tube onto the lacquered area. He then gently brushed the gold dust off with a clean cotton cloth, studied the bowl and carefully set it aside, then took up the other bowl and red brush. ”Repeating this process over and over again,” the assistant said in an awed whisper, ”he will create the kind of bowls you see in our showroom. It takes many months – sometimes even a year – to make one bowl.”

We watched the artist tip, tip, tip with his brush, careful, unhurried, moving from bowl to palette and back, seemingly at one with the grain of the wood and the flow of the lacquer. I thought about how this artist came to this workshop every day, week after week, year after year, practicing his craft, focusing on a single bowl, a tip of the lacquered brush, a tap of the bamboo tube, an intricate whole of red and black and gold. I thought of the generations of artists who had practiced this same craft before him, an unending stream of tap and tip and gleam. We watched and watched, and journeyed to an ageless place, sharing an unexpected gift from an ancient sage: the concentrated grace of his hands and his eyes, the quick dip of the fine-tipped brush and the slow liquid strokes on the bowl, the sheen of the lacquer, the glitter of the gold, the pungent scent in the air – a precious piece of Kyoto to hold in our minds, then and now and everywhere.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Silgeo]

Lonely Planet’s ‘Travel Writing,’ Edition 3.0: Soliciting Your Input

I’m in the process of updating Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. The second edition was published in 2009 and, as you well know, a few things have changed in the world of travel writing and publishing since then!

As I’m trying to shape my focus and hone in on the most essential evolutions and updates, I’ve realized that I should seek the advice of a vast team of informed and impassioned experts: all of you who care about travel writing and travel content!

So, if you’ve read my book – and if you have, thank you very much! – I would be very grateful to hear any suggestions you might have for the most essential material to include and areas to cover in the new edition. And if you haven’t (well, you don’t know what you’re missing!), I’d still value hearing from you too.

It’s clear to me that in addition to covering changes in the world of print publishing, I need to focus more broadly and in depth on the explosive evolution of online publishing – the limitless proliferation of websites and blogs as well as the advent of tablet magazines – and of social media as a platform for both editorial communication and entrepreneurial promotion.

As part of this, I need to address at least briefly the marketization of travel writing and the evolution of the traditional journalist-industry relationship, with sweeping new variations in sponsorships, partnerships and press trips. In this regard I also want to try to present a balanced perspective on new (and old, and everlasting) ethical issues and considerations – and of course, consistent with the framework of the entire book, to put all this in the context of creating quality travel writing and content.

I need to address changes in book publishing as well, and the rise (in number and in credibility) of self-publishing options.

And I need to cover changes in technology and tools, and how travel writers – content producers – are using and adapting technological innovations to create compelling content.

If you are engaged in the world of travel writing/content, do you agree or disagree with the above assessments? What subjects would you add? What areas should I be sure to focus on? What examples should I be sure to include?

Thank you for considering these questions. I very much welcome any input you may have.

[Photo Credit: S. Lee]

A Long Lesson From A Short Walk On The Karakoram Highway

I’ve just come home from a whirlwind week in D.C. and L.A. Both trips were wonderful. In D.C. I had energizing meetings at National Geographic Traveler and hosted an exhilarating onstage conversation with the amazing Alexandra Fuller, author of (among other books) Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, an extraordinarily evocative and moving memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. In L.A. I gave a talk about Gadling at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show and shared memorable moments with Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, Andrew McCarthy, and the Times’ terrific travel editor, Catharine Hamm, among many other notables of the travel world. I got back to the Bay Area just in time to emcee the February event in the wonderful new Weekday Wanderlust travel reading series in San Francisco, and then to teach a wanderful travel writing workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

I’m not complaining. I’m grateful beyond words for these opportunities — but now that they’re over, I realize that I’m also exhausted beyond words. (And yes, I know I probably shouldn’t have stayed up until closing time at the rooftop bar of the Standard Hotel in L.A. – but that was research!) And when I survey the Kilimanjaro of emails that need my slogging-up-the-scree responses and the queue of articles lined up like planes at O’Hare awaiting the fuel of my words for take-off – well, if the state of my metaphors is any metaphor for the state of my mind, I’m in big trouble.

At a moment like this, I know just what I need to do: take some deep breaths and transport myself back to an adventure I took three decades ago in northern Pakistan — specifically, to one afternoon on a stretch of the wild, gritty, avalanche-threatened, pothole-punctured Karakoram Highway between Hunza and Gulmit, not far from the Chinese border.

My tour group had been bumping by van along the Karakoram for a few hours when we came to a road-closing avalanche about 15 minutes from Gulmit. Our guide set out to walk to Gulmit to get another van to pick us up, and told us to wait in the van.

We waited, and waited.After a while, waiting for another avalanche or rock slide to sweep us into oblivion seemed pretty silly, so I decided to set out on foot for Gulmit, too. There wasn’t much chance of making a wrong turn — the next intersection was four hours away.

And so I walked, as alone as I have ever been, into an awesomely uncompromising landscape: a rocky, gray-brown world of sere, monumental mountains, boulders looming by the side of the road, and — whenever I stopped to listen — absolute, ear-ringing silence.

As I walked, my footsteps feebly scrunch-scrunch-scrunching into the implacable air, I imagined the traders, missionaries and adventurers who had wandered that same trail before me, and wondered what dreams and doubts had filled their heads.

I thought too about the companionable people back in the van and about the warm food that awaited at the Silk Route Lodge, but most of all I thought about nature and time, about how my life was like one grain of sand on the slopes of one of those mountains.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I imagined straying off the path and scrambling crazily up a scree-slippery peak; I tried to absorb the silence; I strained a handful of pebbles through my fingers.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I considered the clouds, a scraggly tree, a boulder twice as big as me.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I listened to my own breath coming in and going out; I listened to the pounding of my frail and all-too-human heart.

In one sense, nothing much happened: Eventually I reached the warm waiting room at the Silk Route Lodge, and the others arrived by van a half-hour later.

But in another sense, everything had changed: I had seen the strangeness of the world, the rawness and beauty and sheerness of it; the age of the Earth; and our essential solitude — how we are born and die alone. I had seen the smallness of man and the largeness of the human spirit that dares to create and to love.

I had realized just what a precious gift life is, as are the people with whom we share it; and I knew that one day in the future, when life seemed about to avalanche out of control, I would stop and say: “Savor the world one step at a time, just like you did on the Karakoram Highway.”

[Flickr image via Marc van der Chijs]

­­Waiting In The Pythion Of Time

­­

One of my prime New Year’s resolutions for this year is to put together an anthology of selected pieces from my own writing career. With 30 years of narrative stories and reflective essays to sift through, I figure there must be enough material for at least a very slim volume.

As part of this process – or perhaps just as a very clever way of procrastinating the hard work of getting started on this process – I’ve been reading through old journals and letters recently. This can be a dangerously detouring pastime, of course, but sometimes it turns up one of those little seeds that blossom into a whole world I had forgotten.

So it is with a letter I have just come across, written in the winter of 1976 to my parents from a Greek border town called Pythion, where I was waiting for a train to Istanbul. Sometimes it is just such global synapses – way stations – that unencumber and inspire us.

Here is part of what I wrote:

*****

I took the 10 p.m. train on Tuesday from Athens and arrived in Thessaloniki around 11 a.m. the next morning. In Thessaloniki I was informed that the Istanbul train had left earlier that morning, but that I was in luck – there was another, special Wednesday-only train leaving for Istanbul at 13:10. When that one arrived, I learned that it traveled only as far as the border.

Still, that seemed better than nothing, so I had a very pleasant ride through Thrace with a compartment all to myself, and arrived at the border – poetic Pythion – at 2:30 a.m. Pythion being off-limits to foreigners, I was invited by the sole stirring being to sleep in the station’s waiting room, which I did rather comfortably until 8:30, when I was awakened simultaneously by a policeman demanding who I was and someone shouting in German that the train for Istanbul was leaving in 5 minutes.

I scrambled down the platform to the train, the policeman chasing after me, only to discover that the train had come from Istanbul and was bound for Athens.

And so I sit in the Railroad Buffet at Pythion, eyed by a suspicious policeman who can’t imagine what a foreigner would be doing here if not trying to uncover state secrets, and contemplating 10 hours of warming my toes and fingers by an old pot-belly stove in one of the more obscure of the obscure corners of the world.

Situations like this make me question the nature of reality. I am sitting on a hard wooden bench at the end of a long, stained table in a dirty, cold, deserted Greek border town, scratching out letters under a layering of turtleneck, work shirt, sweater, raincoat and scarf, and eating peanuts and figs to keep warm.

This is certainly one kind of reality, but is it any more real than that envisioned for me by my friends in Athens, who imagine me right now walking under minarets through crowded streets from Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque, or than the picture you may have of me right now (discussing me halfway across the globe even as I write these words) walking through sunny Athenian streets to the gleaming pillars of the Acropolis: Is my here any more real than that there?

I am here, but in a few weeks I will be at the Acropolis, and in 24 hours I will be wandering Istanbul’s alleys. Maybe all three are concurrent realities?

At any rate, last night, when I was sleeping happily somewhere in northeastern Greece, I had a dream that all my traveling was just a dream, and that I was actually still living in Connecticut, and in my dream I woke up from my dream (of traveling) and felt this tremendous relief and joy to be home and still so young as not to have to worry about being out and alone in the world.

Then, a split second later, I woke up from that dream – and found myself sweaty and disheveled in a humid train compartment speeding somewhere through the Grecian night.

And so I wonder about this pithy waiting room in Pythion – is this too a dream from which I am about to awake? And who/what/where will I be then?

*****

Now, three and a half decades later, I read these words, and life’s border towns and way stations come back to me: the raggedy, muddy-streets-and-strung-light-bulbs place where I spent an itchy night between India and Nepal; the misty, barbed-wire swamp where I once longingly looked out from Hong Kong toward then-forbidden China; the snow-locked sentry post between Pakistan and China; the dusty honky-tonk of Tijuana and Nogales.

I think of a one-cafe town in the middle of Malaysia where I was stranded between buses, and a patch-of-grass “taxi stand'” in Indonesia where cicadas serenaded me for hours while I waited for a ride; I think of a slumbering French railroad station where I passed an afternoon reading Proust and pondering the tall grasses that waved dreamily in a drowsy breeze, and a high Swiss village where I ran out of gas and francs, pitched a tent in a frosty field and watched the moon dance to the music of Van Morrison.

As I think back on all these places, one truth becomes clear: They were all way stations to adventure. They were the gathering of breath and coiling of muscle before the great leap into the unknown. They were the portals to wonders unimaginable and unforgettable.

And so, at the beginning of this new year, I find myself in the Pythion of time again. Just now the station master has come and checked my ticket, stamped my passport, waved me toward the platform. And here comes the train – I can see it now, all steam and gleam!

Already the pulse quickens, the mind races ahead once more: What lessons lie ahead, I think; what wonders are in store?

[Photo Credit: Grant Martin]

Magical Moments Of 2012: A Personal Review

As the end of each year approaches, I try to take stock of the preceding 12 months, to absorb and assess the adventures, inner and outer. Reviewing this year, I’ve been filled with gratitude and wonder to realize that this has been one of the most enriching, exhilarating years I’ve had in a long time, especially the past six months, when I managed to squeeze six special trips into an overcrowded schedule. I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing some of my most magical travel moments, and meanings, from 2012.

Festive in France

The Cote d’Azur has been one of my favorite places in the world since I first landed there in the mid-1970s. This year I was lucky to be able to savor the region for two weeks in June, visiting four places I’d never been before – Marseille, Montpelier, Sainte-Maxime, and Cagnes sur Mer – and revisiting two I’d fallen deeply in love with decades ago: Nice and St Paul de Vence.

I’ve already written about Nice and St Paul for Gadling. Among other riches of the trip, I had the best bouillabaisse of my life at the harbor-front Miramar restaurant in Marseille and was enchanted by the ambiance of student-spangled Montpelier, where a perfect cobbled square with a perfect café under a perfect canopying tree seemed to magically appear around every corner (and where the streets flowed with wine and song on the marvelous night of the Fete de la Musique). One of the most memorable highlights was spending one precious night at the Hotel Negresco two weeks before that legendary institution celebrated its 100th birthday. What an extraordinary hotel! Part priceless art collection, part history museum, part culinary temple, the Negresco – still owned by the feisty and fabulous 89-year-old Madame Augier – is emblematic of the intelligence, elegance, and artfulness that define the Cote d’Azur for me.My favorite moment of the entire trip was another birthday celebration. A very dear friend who lives part of each year in France treated me to a heavenly lunch at a renowned but well off the beaten path terrace restaurant called La Verdoyante, in the village of Gassin, about two and a half miles from the sea. I will never forget this feast. On a blue-sky day, the sun-mottled, out-of-time terrace exuded something of the atmosphere of Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette: festive people savoring a relaxing repast, with a view of rolling green vineyards and hills and a soupcon of the Mediterranean glinting in the distance. We had an amazingly flavorful succession of dishes, all artfully presented, including locally made foie gras, a delectably flaky poisson du jour served with fennel, figs and pancetta, and chevre cheese from a farm over the hill. The culinary fireworks ended with a special surprise – a scrumptious, sparkler-topped raspberry macaroon cake.

Birthday gifts don’t get any better than this: a sun-bowed, vineyard-wrapped celebration of food and friendship, a reminder of the life-riches that surround us, deepening and expanding every year.

Hawaiian Hideaway

A few days after returning from France, barely enough time to do some laundry, I repacked and rambled with my wife to Maui and Molokai on a trip I had won – won! — in a random drawing at a travel fair. On Maui we stayed at the Hotel Wailea and the Napili Kai Beach Resort and on Molokai at the Hotel Molokai. We loved aimlessly exploring both islands, stopping at beaches we found at the end of meandering paths, eating at food trucks, picnicking in parks — but especially savored the quiet of Molokai, where time truly seemed to slow down.

We wandered around the main town of Kaunakakai, poking our heads into shops, asking questions of the shopkeepers, who seemed much more interested in talking story than moving inventory. Our most memorable meal on Molokai was the mahimahi plate lunch at Mana’e Goods and Grindz, a combination country store and counter restaurant on the highway toward Halawa Valley (where you could also pick up spark plugs, videos, and sweet onion salad dressing, if needed). We loved it so much we drove back the next day for seconds.

The synthesizing moment of the trip for me was one afternoon on Maui when I sat on our patio at the Napili Kai simply absorbing the breeze that rippled the sea and rustled the palm fronds: Time slowed and slowed, the trade winds blew, the moist air swaddled my skin; suddenly a rainbow appeared, arcing from the sea into the clouds, and for a suspended moment it seemed to me that nature was offering its own snapshot of my soul. Hawaii re-taught me the value of recalibrating pace, the riches that reveal themselves when you open your head- and heart-space.

California Dreaming

In August I ventured across San Francisco Bay – a good 40 minutes by car from my home – for the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. My journey took flight the day before the official conference began, when I led a worldly, wide-eyed group of writers on a day-long walking workshop in North Beach, my favorite city neighborhood, where old-San-Francisco Italy meets new-San-Francisco China and Vietnam. We rendered homage at City Lights bookstore, Molinari’s aromatic delicatessen, and sweet Stella’s Pastry, then talked about writing and life over paninis and lattes at Caffe Greco.

The conversations and connections that took seed that day blossomed over the ensuing four-day conference. What mysteries make sparks fly, turn piazza dialogues into life-changing detours and dreams? Whatever was in the air at this year’s conference, it begat five days of exploration and exhilaration – of the word and the world — with soul-mates old and new. The defining Book Passage moment for me came at the end of the conference, and I have already described it here, but there were many other moments of magic as well, perhaps none so potent as midnight on Saturday, when a hardy band of writers and revelers gathered around five ukulele yogis, whose plangent plucks transported me to Hawaii, France and beyond – and then back to that midnight moment in a bookstore in northern California, which suddenly seemed to contain all the world.

This five-day close-to-home odyssey reminded me once again that both travel and travel writing are vital arts, stewards of the global heart, that even in your own backyard, you can wander far-flung paths of the imagination and the soul, and that the best travels and travel writings realize a redemptive goal: to piece the inner and the outer journey, the interlocking whole.

Beached in Bali

My ten-day sojourn on Bali presented a batik of bountiful moments. I have written about two of them here, questing for indolence and discovering unexpected gamelan gifts in Ubud, but I have not yet written about the two delightful dinners on two beautiful beaches that bookended my stay.

On my first night on the island, when everything still seemed a bit surreal, I met a wandering writer friend who serendipitously happened to be on Bali at the same time. We sat at a table literally on the beach at Jimbaran Bay, our toes squiggling into the sand, swigged Bintang beers, and feasted on marvelously messy platters of grilled shrimp. We talked about books and blogs and world-weaving paths under the stars, by the susurrous sea, as music lilted down the beach on a smoke-scented breeze. Ten days later, we met again for a final dinner on a beach in Seminyak. This time the music was a pop playlist (highlighted by Adele serenading us with “Someone Like You”), the food was delicious grilled fish and beef rendang, the beach spread invitingly to the rose-tinted waves, and the oceanic sky gradually turned from bluish-red to cobalt-purple to depthless, star-splashed black.

As the hours passed, I felt like a character in a story, simultaneously in time and out of it, willing the world to slow down and in the same breath abandoning myself to the ineluctable flow. All the Balinese bounties of the week seemed to converge, and the spirit of the island – the joy and compassion and reverence for the everyday that emanated from virtually everyone I’d met – merged with a shared awe at serendipity’s mystery and wonder. Maybe it was the spell of the Bintang, but my sense of the preciousness of life – and of the opportunity that travel bestows to lose oneself to special places and people, and to grow ever bigger therein — seemed to expand and expand and expand, until it filled the phosphorescent night.

Continuities in Connecticut

For Thanksgiving, as I have every year since my dad passed away in 2008, I went to Connecticut to spend the holiday with my mom. You have to be a New Englander to appreciate the bleak beauty of Connecticut in November. The tree branches are bony and bare, the air thin, brittle, laced with winter. Yet these annual journeys are a special kind of pilgrimage for me. My parents finished building the house where I grew up, in Middlebury, just before I was born. I lived there for the first 21 years of my life, before setting off for Paris and Athens and points beyond, and they lived there for more than 50 years. My mom thrives in an assisted living facility in a neighboring town now, but as we do every year, we drove to Middlebury to see “our house” and reveled again in its spare, simple, classic Connecticut-clapboard style and in the expansive woods and fields and memories around.

For Thanksgiving dinner, my childhood best friend invited us to his home, coincidentally five minutes from my mom’s new home. It was glorious to re-immerse ourselves for a night in the footloose past – somehow symbolized for me by the image of the two of us driving in his convertible on a sultry summer night for soft ice cream, me staring at the stars as the wind whipped by and wishing that the ride could last forever. The woods were limitless then and so were the summer nights; it’s only later that we realize there were houses on the other side of the trees, and jobs and mortgages on the other side of the ride.

But still, these Thanksgiving journeys are a gift to cherish, an opportunity to honor, connect, and reflect. Like Brigadoon, Middlebury springs to life for me once a year: the rolling hills and uncut forests, white Colonial houses with black shutters, lush lawns and gardens and sheltering trees, the high-steepled Congregational Church and round town green – and the landscape of love that nurtured, and nurtures still, me and my youthful dreams.

Easter Island, Among the Moai

I returned two weeks ago from my final trip of the year – the realization of one of my oldest travel dreams: to visit Easter Island. For years this almost inconceivably remote place – the most isolated inhabited island in the world — seemed inaccessible, but I was finally fortuitously able to make the pilgrimage this year.

I spent a week wandering the island on foot, tracing old trails, talking with the guardians of sacred sites, watching traditional dances, exploring caves and coves and cliffs. I observed as a local elder instructed a half dozen Rapa Nui (the indigenous people’s name for the island and for themselves) teenagers in the stories of the island, the traditions and the taboos, the legends and the landscapes that had special mana. I learned the different theories about the moai and wondered at the great toppled figures that seemed to be everywhere. Many people have developed definitive explanations for what happened on Easter Island – which means, of course, that no one has the definitive answer. On the flight back from the island to Santiago, Chile, I serendipitously sat next to a Dutch scientist who has been studying the island for two decades and who told me that he and a colleague are going to publish a book next year that will refute the currently advanced theories. And so it goes.

What I have taken away most deeply from Rapa Nui is this: On the second full day of my stay on the island, I decided to get up before dawn to commune with the moai at Ahu Tongariki, a spectacular seaside platform where 15 statues have been restored to standing position. I was dropped at the site well before dawn, when the night was still so inky that I couldn’t see the ground in front of me, much less the moai in the distance. I stumbled slowly towards the platform, looking vainly into the dark, and then in an instant I sensed the presence of the moai so palpably that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I stumbled forward some more and suddenly the head of the tallest statue leaped into looming silhouette before the stars. The power of that statue was almost magnetic: It pulled me towards it, but not in a frightening way, more like a benevolent force.

As I got closer, the heads of the statues appeared more clearly, silhouetted presences hulking into the sky. I could feel the sheer immensity of the figures, and the power that they must have emanated over the villagers who lived under their gaze day and night. I tried to imagine waking up every dawn to their stony presence, and retiring to sleep as they loomed into the sky. Their role as a force in everyday life became clear to my core. Their mana was undeniable.

As time passed and dawn’s rays illumined them in a buttery light, their hold on me softened. Dozens of photographers arrived, setting up their tripods, seeking the perfect perspective. The site was no longer mine alone. But it didn’t matter. I’d already found the perfect perspective – and it looms within me still, a hulking silhouette of pure Rapa Nui mana in my mind.

At the end of these reflections, the theme that resonates with me is this: Anything is possible. Each one of these magical moments forms a piece of a picture-puzzle that shows the potential of life, wherever we are literally and metaphorically, to be transformed, re-inspired, completed – for the mind to stretch, and the soul to soar, and the heart to expand.

I relearned this year just how full of marvel our mundane world is. And I learned again that life follows a mysterious and serendipitous map, that confluences and convergences abound all around, and that we can choose to open ourselves to them – to leap through the door, set foot on the road — or not. I learned again that passion is the best signpost, honor the best staff, and kindness the compass that illumines the path. And that however we wander this human race, the love we give returns to us, boundless with each embrace.

[Photo Credits – Book Passage: Spud Hilton; All others: Don George]