The Universe In A Moment At Ryōanji

It’s a Sunday morning in Kyoto and I am sitting on the long wooden steps of the hōjō, the abbott’s residence of Ryōanji Temple – one of 1,600 temples in this historic city.

At my feet is the temple’s famous karesansui, or dry rock garden. In a small rectangle of white gravel, measuring just twenty-five by ten meters and raked to perfection by the monks each morning, fifteen stones have been arranged in such a way that they are never all visible from the same vantage point.
At first, I move up and down the veranda, craning my neck to spot every stone. At the same time, much moves with me: the weather, shifting from bright sunshine to wintry wind in a matter of minutes, as well as the crowds, also shifting in and out, debating in a dozen languages whether or not they can spot the fifteenth stone.

But what never move are the stones themselves – and I realize that perhaps this is the test of Ryōanji, and its secret.

“Every moment has a little universe in it,” says my friend Don, who has brought me here, and indeed I am struck by how the entire world can be felt in this moment, even when seated for hours in the same spot. Despite that elusive stone, there is still much to be felt and experienced: all the nationalities represented by other tourists, all the centuries of time embedded in the moss and gravel, all the groups of students from across the country, who are delighted when I manage even one word of Japanese.

Inscribed on a nearby stone washbasin, which dates to the 17th century, is a four-character message that reads, “I learn only to be contented,” or, according to a different translation, “What one has is all one needs.”

Here at Ryōanji, I can feel this to be true – that with or without the fifteenth stone, the moment is always, forever, enough.

Travel’s Three Gifts: Notes from an Indonesian Island

The first time I meet Rai is at the morning market in Sampalan, the largest town on the Indonesian island of Nusa Penida.

She says hello to me from behind mounds of mangos and bright green chilies at the stall she runs with her mother. Despite the heat, she wears a purple hoodie zipped to the neck. We chat for a while, her brown eyes glowing, her dark hair pulled back from her face.

I see her again the next night, at a dance lesson in her village. After the lesson finishes, she asks, “You come to my home?”
And because I have no other plans on this Saturday night, I say, “Why not?”

Rai sits behind me on my motorbike and directs me down an unlit gravel lane. The farther we go, the more the road disintegrates beneath my wheels. I apologize each time we hit a bump.

“Candace,” she chides, “every day I am taking these roads.”

When we reach her house, her family is seated on their concrete front porch. I’m told to call her fisherman father Bapa, and her mother Meme. Her brother Putu and sister-in-law Kadek are also there. Putu is 21, his wife 20; already, Rai tells me, they have lost two children. One died “in belly,” another at 13 days old.

When I try to find the words to say I’m sorry, Kadek smiles an impossible smile and says, “No problem. It’s okay.”

“Tomorrow you can help me selling in the market?” Rai asks.

Again I say, “Why not?”

“And tonight, you sleep at my home?”

For a moment, I mumble something about my homestay at a modified hostel in Sampalan. And then it hits me – I’ve just been offered an actual homestay.

Rai goes to take a shower, and afterwards asks if I’d like to take one, too. Bapa warns me — it’s only a “manual shower,” and the bathroom is outdoors, open for all to see, its walls barely reaching up to my chest.

Still, it’s far enough from the house – and lit only by the glow of Rai’s flashlight – that I soon let go of modesty and strip down, dipping a plastic tumbler into a bucket and feeling the water cool my sticky skin. I tilt my head back, take in the incandescent sky above me, and thank the universe for this moment.

Because that’s the first gift travel gives me – the gift of discovery, and the thrill of encountering a world so completely different from my own.

We set our alarms for 4 a.m., and I lie beside Rai on a foam mat on the floor. Her parents will sleep in the living room. After they turn off the TV, the only sounds are the occasional calls of a gecko and the ticking of a heart-shaped clock on the cinderblock wall – and Rai’s quiet breathing next to me.

I glance to my side and see that the frangipani blossom she’d picked earlier is still tucked behind her ear. I am slow to fall asleep, kept awake by gratitude and wonder at finding myself so at home here.

Because that’s the second gift that travel gives me – the gift of belonging, and the thrill of journeying so far from home only to find a home in such a new place.

The following morning, we arrive at the market when the chickens are still asleep in the trees. Yet we’re far from the first ones here. Women are setting up their stalls with flashlights held between their ears and shoulders like telephones. They roll back the sheets of blue plastic that covered their tables overnight. Rai complains of moths eating her tomatoes.

Like a pot coming to boil, the market slowly heats up. Sandals begin to slap against the dusty paths, plastic bags rustling as they’re filled with corn and cassava and grapes the size of golf balls. While Rai sells produce – carrots and chilies, garlic and red pearl onions – I stand next to her, helping where and when I can.

For the next three days, I return each morning, until the day comes for me to say goodbye and depart from Nusa Penida.

I’m still in touch with Rai – through Facebook, of course – and every now and then I’ll get a message from her, asking how I am. I smile each time, remembering the market and the manual shower and how it felt to fall asleep in the damp darkness of her home.

Because that’s the third gift that travel gives me, and it’s the reason I’ll never stop traveling – the gift of connection, and the thrill of weaving an invisible web around us as we move through the world, and the world moves through us.

The connections that keep each journey alive forever.

In The Lagoon, At Midnight

The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man …
The trade wind gets into your blood and you are filled with an impatience for the unknown.

– William Somerset Maugham

It was the last place I expected to feel lonely: on a little coral atoll in the South Pacific, home to the Tahitian black pearl farm where I would be volunteering for a month.

And during the day, I didn’t. Mornings were spent on the lagoon, in a long silver jon boat as I helped three men haul in baskets of oysters. The baskets hung deep below the surface on a network of ropes, swaying lightly like shirts on a clothesline, waiting for a breeze. Afternoons found us back on the farm, a rag-tag sort of building that was perched on stilts over the reef. We’d talk, make lunch, play Yahtzee, drink a hundred cups of instant coffee.

Only at night, when the men returned to their rooms and I was left to my own devices in my bungalow for one, did the loneliness creep in, the one ghost I can never quite shake no matter where I am in the world. It was too perfect – this bungalow whose bright blue exterior matched the turquoise lagoon just steps away, this rickety bridge connecting my atoll with the farm, this narrow island called Ahe, where the only thing marking our days was the sun itself, bright, golden, omnipresent. All of it served only to remind me that I had no one to share this with.

One day after lunch, the farm’s manager, an attractive Frenchman named Lucien, asked if I wanted to go to the village with him. I jumped at the thought of movement, at this chance to see more of Ahe beyond the farm.

As we set out across the lagoon, he stood in the back of the boat, one hand on the motor, the other holding a beer. We cut lightly across the water, skipping even, but a bump from a larger wave sent sea spray flying into my face. I turned around. Lucien cocked an eyebrow and bit his lip into the hint of a grin. I wasn’t sure if it was him or another wave that made my stomach do a flip. I leaned back on my arms and stretched my legs out in front of me, feeling lucky to have my own private chauffeur across a crystalline sea.Since I’d arrived on the farm, it had been Lucien that my mind always returned to, like a favorite spot in the sun. He had one gold hoop in each ear and a thin, scruffy beard. His hair was sandy brown, short but with a playful curl up top that he ran his fingers through now and then. A single tattoo, a band of Polynesian design, wrapped around the top of his left arm. Above all else, he was tanned and remarkably so, his skin the shade of well-steeped tea. But what drew me in the most were his eyes, flickers of amber that seemed to hide nothing.

I’d never seen him wear anything but shorts, not even shoes, but I liked to imagine he had a T-shirt or two tucked away in his room, faded and a bit tattered around the neck. He had been living on Ahe for ten years and before that, in the capital of Papeete for another ten. He was born in France, near Paris, but his father’s job led them to leave when he was a young child. They had spent a few years on Martinique before moving to French Polynesia.

Lucien seemed kind, tutting only when the boat’s motor wouldn’t start in the mornings. It wasn’t just how he carried his tall frame or the strength with which he swam up from the line, bearing all those heavy oysters to the surface. It was the way he cradled Mec, the farm’s playful orange cat, in his arms like a child, the way he was the first to leap up from the table when that stupid cat caught his paw in a basket and wailed like the world was ending. It wasn’t Lucien I was falling for, but the idea of him, a man living out his life simply on an island, farming pearls, drinking coffee no matter the time of day. A man without ghosts, whose contentment depended upon nothing more than a full pouch of tobacco and a book of crossword puzzles.

There wasn’t a hint of restlessness about him, and in this he was unlike any man I had ever known.

When a two-storied building appeared on the horizon, with a real roof instead of thatch or tin, I knew we’d reached the village. Children were swimming in the water as we pulled up; Lucien cut the motor and moved past me to the bow, taking a rope in his hands to moor us along the quay. I didn’t know why we’d come, or for how long, but was happy simply to follow him.

We walked through the village down a side street, past a primary school, cemetery, and nurse’s office. “The cycle of life,” Lucien said. He knocked on the door of the house behind the infirmary, home to a French couple named Hélène and Guillaume who had lived on Ahe for three years. Hélène was the village nurse, a petite woman with silky brown hair. Her government salary meant that Guillaume, with his goatee, paunch and thick dark ponytail almost as long as his wife’s, didn’t have to work.

We spent the evening around their kitchen table, beer flowing as always and me the only one not smoking. “Are you okay, Candace?” Lucien kept asking, and I kept assuring him I was fine. Actually, I was more than fine, sitting quietly, blissfully, with a fluffy white cat named Bon Bon on my lap. Lucien told me they were being unfair talking in French, that they all knew some English, but I didn’t mind. As they talked in a language I couldn’t understand, I wondered what it would be like to belong here, to belong to Lucien, who sat tall across from me and seemed almost to be pulling his stomach in, as though to flatten it. I toyed with the idea that he was trying to impress me. It was working.

Guillaume showed us pictures on his laptop of a recent fishing trip to a neighboring island. I shifted seats around the table for a better view, placing myself closer to Lucien. When it grew dark, the couple got up to make dinner. “It’s only chicken and pasta,” Guillaume said as though apologizing, but he and Hélène served us warm fresh baguettes and shaved Parmesan, and they felt like delicacies.

Hélène brought out wine, boxes of red Zumuva – “It is great … it is Zumuva!” the cartons read – and a French liqueur that tasted of sambuca. For dessert, Guillaume had baked delectable chocolate soufflés in little bowls, using only sugar, chocolate and eggs. Lucien grew affectionate, kissing my hand, leaning in close. When he spoke to me, I had to work to hear him over Hélène and Guillaume’s banter.

“What?” I would ask.

He’d angle himself even closer, the smell of cigarettes strong on his breath. “I said, ‘Are you okay?'”

It was midnight when Lucien and I tumbled down Hélène and Guillaume’s front porch, talking smack as we walked, drawn to each other like the opposing poles of two magnets. We lowered ourselves into the boat but started drifting from the quay before Lucien could untie us. He crouched over the side and used one hand to paddle towards shore. I made fun of him from the comfort of my seat.

“You won’t be laughing in a minute,” he said.

On the way home, the motor slowed halfway across the lagoon and I turned around, afraid we’d broken down.

“Wanna go for a swim?” Lucien asked.

“I will if you will,” I said, sounding like a kid on the playground.

“Is that a dare?”

The words were barely out of his mouth before he was in the water. My heart rolled its eyes as I pulled my dress over my head and dove in after him.

“Over here,” Lucien said when I surfaced, one hand holding onto the side of the boat, the other extended in my direction. I took it and let myself be pulled towards him. My face looked up into his, full moon silhouetting his head. Suddenly, I saw that there wasn’t any question of a kiss, that the entire day had been leading to this moment, that it was obvious our lips would eventually find each other’s. I opened my eyes, wanting to take in the full moon and the sky incandescent with stars, this solitary lagoon in the middle of the Pacific, this beautiful Frenchman I had my arms wrapped around – easily the most romantic situation I’d ever found myself in, and probably ever would.

Instead, there was only one thing I could think about: I’d never kissed a smoker.

And yet the unmistakable taste of tobacco was nothing compared to the salt water I kept swallowing in what I could only assume were unhealthy amounts. Treading water while making out proved as impossible as patting my head while rubbing my belly. My legs had a way of looping up behind Lucien toward the surface; it felt like slow motion swing dancing. After a few minutes, he pulled me back into the boat and we sat for a few seconds drying off. For the first time on Ahe, I was freezing, shaking even.

“Is it because you are wearing these wet things?” he asked, tugging at the top of my swimsuit. It was an old bikini, one whose neck and back ties had long ago formed unyielding knots.

I laughed, a bit nervously, and laid my dress over my legs as he started the motor. At the farm, I waited on the dock as he went upstairs and came back with a fresh bar of soap. He rinsed the salt from my skin, pouring jarfuls of water along my arms and down my back, while I stood there somewhat helplessly.

“You don’t like it,” he said. It wasn’t a question. He took a long beach towel and wrapped it around my shoulders, pulling me into him. “Let’s go upstairs and get warm.”

But I stayed behind on the dock as he walked in, unable to move any closer. I didn’t know if I liked it or not; I didn’t know if I wanted to. It wasn’t that I couldn’t picture it, falling asleep to him whispering exotic sweet-nothings in my ear, waking up in his tattooed arms with only a tangled sheet to cover us. At least that would be something to do at night. But it was the idea I could picture, not the reality. It was strange to have a wish met so suddenly, for Lucien, whom I had admired so much from afar, to be here now, telling me I was sexy, pronouncing it “sex-zee.”

It seemed too easy, too quick, too convenient a solution to my loneliness here. I’ve moved countries, hiked volcanoes, jumped off bridges with nothing but a bungee cord strapped around my feet, but so often the hardest courage for me to summon is the courage to be alone, to not rush into fighting off the ghosts with whatever temporary fix I can find.

“I should get back,” I said, not sure of how convincing I sounded. But Lucien walked me home anyway, stretching his hands out behind him for me to hold in the darkness, stopping to kiss me on the bridge, on the shore of the island, on the steps of my bungalow. It was all I could do to pull away and say goodnight.

In the morning, there was no mention of what had happened. As I arrived at the farm for breakfast, Lucien walked past me to the sink.

“Sleep okay?” he asked with the slightest glint in his eye, a single flash and it was gone.

Gone like Ahe’s rainstorms that came quick and poured down hard, gone like what never would be, or maybe never was.

[Photo credit: Flickr user SF Brit]

Beneath The Almond Tree: A Moroccan Memory

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions,
and the roots spring up and make new trees.”
– Amelia Earhart

Roses aren’t supposed to let you down.

Neither are rose festivals, one of which had drawn my friend Liz and me to Morocco’s Valley of Roses this May. There wasn’t much written online about the festival, but what the guidebooks and websites lacked in details, my mind more than made up for in expectations.

Liz met me in Tangier’s Gare Tanger Ville station, where we bought tickets for our overnight train to Marrakech, stretched out our nearly 6-foot frames across pumpkin-colored leather couchettes, and woke to fields separated by prickly pear cacti, a lone figure picking handfuls of grass at dawn. We were in Marrakech long enough to catch a bus 300 kilometers east to Kelaat M’Gouna, what we assumed, or rather hoped, was a small village, its dusty air perhaps sweetened by the presence of roses.

The train had taken eleven hours, the bus would be six, but what propelled us, urging us ever forward, were our expectations of the festival, an annual celebration to mark the rose harvest each spring.

We carry so much with us when we travel, much more than the neatly (or not so neatly) folded items in our suitcases. But the most dangerous thing we bring, tucked in between regulation-size shampoo bottles and extra pairs of socks, is expectation. The moment we begin to envision a new place, to believe how it will be, is the moment that same place begins to fail us.

In the title poem from her collection, “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop writes, “Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Where should we be today?… Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them, too?” Bishop perfectly captures the traveler’s dilemma: do we risk disappointment and failed expectations for the reality of somewhere different? Or would it not be better to leave our visions intact and live through imagination – not actual experience?

%Gallery-164206%Such questions hovered uneasily in my mind as we set out from our guesthouse the first day of the festival. Crowds led us to a large amphitheater whose ring of concrete seats stretched several rows up. By ten in the morning, it was packed with flocks of young men perched on the top row, Berber women in their layers of crushed velvet and sequined chiffon, and men in colorful turbans and long white robes. Ice cream sellers hung coolers from around their necks, calling out “Hemeem, hemeem” in high-pitched voices, the rose-flavored cream already dripping from children’s chins and dancing down their arms like drops of rain on a window.

But there was no pageant this year as we’d read there would be, which meant no rose queen would be chosen either; all the handicrafts in the local market read “Made in China”; and the only roses we had yet to find were tightly furled buds that had been pierced by a needle, strung together in the shape of a heart and then hawked to tourists. Even Kelaat M’Gouna was far from the village we’d expected, its streets as clogged with festivalgoers and as difficult to navigate as any other big city. Liz and I shifted from the amphitheater to the market and back again, both of us filling the space with chitchat, forever avoiding one word: disappointment.

“Let’s go for a walk,” Liz said. I suggested the city gate as a destination. We’d passed it on the bus ride in, two sets of imposing square pillars on either side of the road painted a bright blush pink, but I hadn’t been quick enough with my camera to get a shot of it. Now was my chance.

We left the festival behind, the tinny sounds of CD sellers’ portable stereos slowly evaporating, the sun nearing its zenith above our heads. To our left, just beyond the town limits, dry, ochre hills rose away from us, appearing almost lunar with barely a few shrubs to break up the striated stone. To our right flowed the M’Goun River, feeding a lush riverbed of wheat fields, groves of olive, fig and almond streets, and, finally, endless hedges of rose bushes. For the first time all day, our steps leading us ever closer to the gate, I felt a sense of purpose for being here.

And that’s when I saw her. It was her dress that caught my eye first – the shade of blue I’ve always loved to call pavonine, after a vocab word from the sixth grade: of or resembling the feathers of a peacock, as in coloring. Although she was sitting in the shade of a billowing almond tree, perhaps twenty feet below the road in the sunken riverbed, she still shimmered, a few stray rays of sunlight dancing off the silky fabric that enclosed her.

She waved, as did the woman sitting next to her, a wave that soon became a beckoning, come-hither kind of gesture.

“Do you think she means us?” I asked Liz.

“Who else could it be?”

Liz was off before I had time to think, exchanging road for scrubby hillside, leaping with her long legs over a crevice in the ground. Tentatively, I followed suit and raced to catch up with her, curious about where this unexpected invitation might lead. We bowed our heads slightly beneath the low-hanging branches of the almond tree and joined them. The woman who’d waved first, the woman in pavonine blue, was named Hazo; the other was Arkaya, who was mysteriously introduced as Hazo’s grandmother’s sister, despite how close in age they appeared. They motioned for us to sit beside them on a few tattered blankets.

With her back resting against the tree, Arkaya sliced chunks of turnips, cauliflower, potatoes and onions onto her lap; Hazo sat across from us, bringing a metal pot to boil on a single gas burner and slipping in shards of sugar as large and pointed as daggers. She poured tea for all of us, teaching Liz and me how to say it in Berber – até – but no matter how it was pronounced, tea had never tasted so sweet.

For the rest of the afternoon, we hardly moved from their sides. Their sons came later, as did Hazo’s husband, a civil servant in a village 100 kilometers away. There were more introductions, more glasses of tea and more Berber lessons. Emklee for lunch, harlti for auntie, and – my favorite – zuin. Beautiful. We tried to leave before lunch, hesitant to overstay our welcome, but the idea was quickly dismissed. After the vegetables had simmered long enough with thick pieces of lamb, the air fragrant with saffron, they were served in a single bowl in the middle of the blanket. Arkaya ripped bread into pieces, and we circled around the food, our shoulders pressing together.

Tch, tch!” Hazo said. Eat, eat!

“Eat the meat!” her husband insisted, chiding us when we drifted too far from the dish.

I lost track of how many times I said zuin about the meal.

When the last drop of juice had been soaked into bread, the blankets were cleared and Hazo and Arkaya lay down. Arkaya rested her head on Hazo’s bent knees, and then motioned for me to do the same on hers. My eyes were closed and the breeze was soft, but I found comfort in more than our human nap chain; I was filled with the warmth of their kindness, with a hospitality I hadn’t expected. I wondered when I would learn not to let my expectations get the best of me – and when I would remember that the most cherished memories from a place are so often the ones we didn’t know to expect. We said goodbye, and Liz and I once again began making our way to the city gate.

Roses aren’t supposed to let you down. And beneath an almond tree one afternoon in the Valley of Roses, they didn’t.

Candace Rose Rardon is a travel writer, photographer, and sketch artist with a passion for documenting the world. She recently completed a Masters in Travel Writing from London’s Kingston University and is currently living in India. Visit her website at “Beneath the Almond Tree: A Moroccan Memory” won First Prize in the 2012 Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference writing competition.