Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Tour du Mont Blanc Trek: A tour through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps

         I have been waiting for my daughter to grow big enough to go outdoor adventuring with me and this past summer, her 8th and my 45th, seemed a good time to go for it. We'd been skiing and hiking loads but only taster trips really. Now we  were ready for more. Since we were going to be leaving my post in Rome and moving very far from Europe,  a fitting way to end our two year stay in Italy was due. We needed the time to say, arrividerci to Italy and Salamat Pagi to Indonesia. We decided to hike the trekkers' classic--the Tour Du Mont Blanc. Even now, months after my toenails have grown back and my body has fallen once again from fit to flabby, I still get excited thinking about our Alps journey, from the first spark of the idea in 2014, to the shaky last steps of our 7-day, 95km trek last summer.

On of our daily itinerary cards. This was a long day.
        But if I am sticking to my purpose for this blog, this won't just be a showcase of awesome adventures--you won't just see the triumphant summit shot here. If I am true to my word and my heart--the good, the bad, and the ugly will have equal billing.  I want to catalogue challenges because, in hiking just as in life,  the direct route is never as straightforward as it first may seem and unexpected challenges often crop up along the way. A 26km day hike will have some low points. And, I want to make the point that-- it is, in fact, OK to mention the challenges. It is ok to stop and acknowledge the exhaustion or the sore feet while also reveling in the awe-inspiring views.  The social media phenomenon of only saying the good stuff worries me. Why are people so afraid to say, hey--this is hard for me! Or to admit that, sometimes--I am really struggling. What is wrong with a bit of honesty? Now I'm not talking about whinging--I'm talking about dropping the b.s. I'm talking about seeing a situation for what it is and having the courage to overcome whatever challenges that chapter of life throws at you. I'm talking about having the chutzpah to admit when you are down and need to seek support. That's what I'm talking about.

Niamh soaking up the sun at a much needed rest stop on day 5.
          I read a lot of Buddhist philosophy. Pema Chodron is my comfort in chaotic times lately because with her--there is no b.s.--there is no shame in acknowledging suffering, or anger, or weakness. Like other philosophers or spiritual leaders of her ilk, she encourages people to accept, even embrace, their flaws and their struggles as moments to teach them what they need to know. She maintains that until you acknowledge the anger or root of your frustrations, you cannot overcome it and it will keep limiting you.  Trekking is like that--you have to face the challenges in order to adapt to them and adjust your route.  The view is all the sweeter because you worked so hard to get to it. The accomplishment feels all the greater because you know exactly what it took to achieve it. Chodron is known for sharing a story about a woman pursued by tigers who must leap out into the abyss and dangle from a vine. Far below the woman, more tigers wait for her to fall. Meanwhile a mouse is chewing on the vine from which she hangs. While dangling with tigers above and tigers below, the doomed woman notices a clump of strawberries growing out of the cliffside--she grabs one and pops it into her mouth--savoring it. Chodron reminds us that life is like this--there will always be something sucking your attention and energy away from the good stuff. Be sure to take in all those things, but don't miss the strawberries! There is always something worth savoring if you let yourself see it. I guess that is what writing this blog is about for me--making sure I remember all the strawberries in our life since it seems we always have the tigers above and below!

Navigating the snowiest pass on the route. I had a couple of heart in throat moments.

The Frenchman and Niamh

      I was discussing the tiger story with a friend of mine and he said--the trek was your strawberry! This Mount Blanc trekking trip was a gift to my daughter too. At 8 years old, she has experienced more of life's realities than most do in adulthood. She has weathered everything from coping with an absent father to fleeing a war. Along the way she has developed the resilience required to navigate this transient international life we have been living. She has dealt with the heartache that comes with saying goodbye many, many times and the more recent lesson of learning how to cope with not being accepted and embraced for who you are and what you offer.  It is for these reasons that I seek out activities that will give her the most profound sense of self I can. It is my way of arming her for life's trials. If she can say to herself--'I hiked nearly 100km through the Alps in 6 days when I was 8 AND I loved it!'-- then she can tell herself she has the fortitude to make it through all kinds of challenges--physical and emotional. I want her to know what lies within and make the best use of it. This should help her to truly believe that what she thinks of herself matters a lot more than what others may think of her.

One of the many signposts along the route. 
    Hiking the Tour is as much a physical as it is a mental challenge. In the months of planning and preparing I did, I read a lot about hiking the Tour with children. The last thing I wanted to do was force Niamh to do something that she would find too daunting and then never want to hike again.  The Tour Du Mont Blanc bible is the Cicerone two-way guide. It is a detailed description with routes for an 11-day circuit of the 170km( 100 mile)  circular route through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. After reading it I knew that some of the stages might prove too difficult for an 8-year-old so I contacted Mount Blanc Treks who helped tailor and adapt the route to a 6-day, self-guided highlight trek that would skip some of the snow-covered, highest passes and more technical aspects of the route. The great thing about this trek is that, because it is a hut-to-hut trek, one need carry only a day pack. This makes it feasible for a 45-year-old mom and her 8-year-old --without using up what is left of the cartilage in my knees. If I am honest though on some of the steep down-hill sections, I'm sure I came close. Trekking poles saved me.

 The strawberries and the tigers:  I asked my daughter for moments that she loved on our trek, she said, 'I remember looking back down deep into the valley back to where we started that morning. It was so far!' I asked her how this made her feel at the time, she said, 'Proud, tired, happy.'   I asked her what was one of the toughest moments. She described hiking up a very long, very steep Roman road.  It was a long road but thankfully it was shady. We learned to appreciate the shade as we were very fortunate to have clear, sunny skies every single day we hiked. We finished just as a major heat wave was hitting Europe.  I'm not sure how we would have managed with wind and rain on some of these high trails.  We couldn't have asked for better conditions for an 8-year-old's first trek.

Niamh and the hiking buddy she made along the way.
       We  experienced some hAngry moments when we would run out of our peanut m&m trail mix. There were moments when trekking poles were thrown too.  On our third day, we didn't make it to our refuge because I made us turn back due to a steep and snowy pass and tired legs. I was afraid we wouldn't make it before dark to our destination. SO we hiked back to a high altitude refuge we had passed an hour before. No phone. No internet. But hot food and a shelf-like bunk ( no mattress) were all we needed. It wasn't the best night of sleep but it was one of the best views to wake up to. The next day two lovely older Frenchman-- on their 30th annual trek together-- helped me guide Niamh down the steep and snowy pass to the refuge we should have been at the previous night. 

Niamh communing with the locals at Refuge Mottets.
                                          Throughout our journey we were greeted with smiles and hearty, Bonjours! Bonjournos!  And everyone had some words of amazement and encouragement for Niamh. I took for granted how strong she is for her age. Many well-seasoned hikers were impressed with her fortitude and her sunny spirit. We hiked with two young Israeli men one day who were doing the entire trek and camping the whole way so they had very heavy packs and they hiked 12 hours a day. (We bumped into one of the Israelis six months later on the street in Wellington, New Zealand).  The two entertained Niamh along the trail and we shared a pizza with them in Courmayeur when we had a rest day. Toward the end of the trek, we managed to find a family on the trail with an 8-year-old  and a ten-year-old and so we hiked along with them on our last days. Niamh and the younger boy, Hudson, became fast friends. He was like a billy goat and pulled Niamh along with him. She had been faltering before we encountered them and they swept her along with their energy and enthusiasm. People looked out for one another as a rule and gave kindness and support without hesitation.

        Because of the people we met all along the way, we never felt lonely or bored or sad.  We never once doubted what we were doing. We were often tired and our muscles were sore yet we were happy. Everyone we encountered was so thankful for the opportunity to be on those trails. Sure people spoke of blisters and sunburns yet they were all quite content. We met so many friendly, interesting and intelligent people along the way and saw so much astounding beauty that if my feet hadn't hurt so much I think I would have gone around the whole thing again. I hope that someday we will!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Leaving Libya

“Do you know that there’s a halfway world between each ending and each new beginning? It’s called the hurting time, Jean Perdu. It’s a bog; it’s where your dreams and worries and forgotten plans gather. Your steps are heavier during that time. Don’t underestimate the transition, Jeanno, between farewell and new departure. Give yourself the time you need. Some thresholds are too wide to be taken in one stride.” 
― Nina GeorgeThe Little Paris Bookshop

        My daughter and I have had many endings and new beginnings-some planned, some highly anticipated, others unexpected or dreaded.  It is fair to say that I have greatly underestimated transitions between each farewell and new departure. With each goodbye, you lose a little of yourself. I read this book after my mom died last August. It spoke to my grief. We were in Bali waiting for a work visa to come through for my current teaching job in Papua.  I know, tough life. 'Stuck' in Bali.  But my daughter and I had driven directly from my mother's memorial in New York to Logan airport to board a flight to Indonesia. The delayed work visa had already held us up for four weeks, so at the time, I felt a sense of urgency to get there-- to get started, to get settled. I was torn between my grief and sense of duty to stay and my sense of being completely unsettled and unmoored.  I was given the impression that the visa MUST be coming soon.  We rushed to Bali to wait for what I thought would be just a few more days. We ended up with 6 more weeks of suitcase living,  of financial stress, of uncertainty, of living week to week, unable to plan ahead, totally alone and overwhelmed with grief,  all in a holiday paradise.  The experience brought me back to another taxing time of uncertainty, another waiting time, another halfway world. That time occurred after we fled Libya in 2011 at the start of the revolt against Gaddafi's regime.
Niamh in the Sahara, Ubari Lakes region, November 2010.

         February 21st marks 5 years since I fled Tripoli, Libya with my three-year-old daughter.  I was employed by the American School of Tripoli, a small, international community school. Friends and family questioned my sanity when I announced we would be moving there.  Libya conjured images of Lockerbie and  Gaddafi's Amazon guards in their heads.  Indeed, life in Libya was a challenge and required people to seek one another out. It was too difficult to manage day-to-day things sometimes there without help, support and advice from others. Consequently, it was one of the places where I have felt the most at home and part of a supportive community because people were genuinely caring.

Niamh meeting a little girl in the market area
      There were power outages on a daily basis. The internet was there in word only most of the time, and to drive there was to take your life in your own hands. I was told that the motto there for drivers was, 'If there is pavement, fill it up.' The shop and road signs were entirely in Arabic so elaborate, hand-drawn road maps were photocopied and shared. Mile markers and directions like, 'go past the first mosque and then two olive groves and then the third set of two speedbumps not three and then make a right,' were the norm.  The hardships and stress were balanced by the adventurous and inclusive community. People organized caravans to explore the beautiful Mediterranean beaches, or the Roman ruins at Sabratha, or a Troglodyte cave dwelling, or even expeditions to the desert. By February, 7 months into my contract, I was thinking long-term. I could see a future there. Niamh was happy in preschool and we were making life-long friends. And then, I was throwing toothbrushes, underwear, my diplomas, and a teddy bear into a tiny green suitcase and we were running away. Listen to the radio interview about that at the link here.

Radio Interview with PRI/NPR about evacuation from Libya

        But fleeing wasn't the end of it and it wasn't the worst of it.  I didn't know where to go or what to do for weeks. Thankfully, our school continued to pay our salary and our benefits and provided our travel allowance. My head of school, despite her own uncertainty, did all she could to provide references for all us. I found myself wandering Europe and North America with my three-year-old and my battered green suitcase in tow. We stayed with kind-hearted friends while trying not to wear out the welcome, run out of money or have a nervous breakdown. And through it all, looking for a new job--writing e-mails to schools and having skype interviews--trying to sound cool and calm. That was life for four months. We went from Malta to Milan, back to Malta to Ireland then to Vancouver then Seattle.  

        I remember saying to an Irish friend who works for the UN that I felt like a refugee. Since she worked with refugees in South Sudan, she kindly corrected me, "You are not a refugee." she said, "You are displaced. There's a difference."  She was right, of course. I had my US passport and some money in the bank and people to stay with and my health. I was one of the lucky ones.         
         In late May I was offered a job at an international school in Bangkok and by mid June we were on a plane to Thailand. Two years later, we recovered a few small boxes of our belongings, now musty and ruined. The school never re-opened and life for the Libyans we encountered there has never been the same. I have kept in touch with many of the people we knew there, Libyans and foreigners, through the miracle that is social media. I learned that you never know  and cannot control what lies ahead, despite the best laid plans and intentions.  I am thankful for the time we had in Libya and for the friends we made there. I am learning how to respect the time between endings and new beginnings.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Kamoro Tribe, Mware

          Our school went to visit one of the local Kamoro tribes last week.  If you have read or seen Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, you may be familiar with the tribes in Papua, New Guinea that he interacted with and based his theories of the roots of inequality upon. We met with the distant cousins of those tribes here in West Papua, with the help of a man named Kal Muller. Like Diamond, Muller has lived with and studied the tribes here for decades. He has done much to educate people about the Kamoro way of life and the challenges the people face due to encroachment on their territory.  
        Diamond shares an anecdote about a tribal man asking him, thirty year ago, why the white men have so much 'cargo'.  Fair question. When foreigners first came here, the fact they had so much sophisticated cargo gave them a sense of power and supremacy over the tribes. Diamond explains his theory of geographic luck--how some civilizations have thrived simply because they were born into a place that enabled them to do so. He maintains that racial supremacy has nothing to do with it and that the tribes have had to use tremendous ingenuity to overcome great challenges to survive here in this jungle.  Diamond asserts that he could never survive the jungle without the help of the tribes and after spending a day watching them work--I have to agree. 
Niamh using an adze to pound the Sago.
Tequila chaser needed
We watched the step-by-step process of turning pith of the Sago palm into pulp. Sago starch is a staple of the Kamoro diet and the process we were shown requires some endurance.  Some of us sampled a tribe delicacy, mollusc-like creatures called Tambelo,  found by splitting logs in half. The succulent Tambelo killed my appetite so I passed on the meal of fish and crab that had been slow-cooked over a smoky fire.  

The log where the Tambelo treats are found

Not only did the tribe show us how they make their  food, they also demonstrated  how they weave and carve.  There was a lot to see and it was incredibly hot and muggy and smoky and crowded. Sensory overload kicked in sometime after the Tambelo incident. I had to step back for a bit and just observe.  When I did so I realized that the local kids, the ones who weren't involved in the spectacle, were watching us--the sweaty, pink-faced, over-dressed folks--as much as we were watching them. The security and police that were sent to protect us had their cameras out too.  
Wood Carvers at work

As I stood there,  I thought about Jared Diamond's theory about haves and have-nots and about being born lucky.  Tomorrow the tribe will not be in their grass skirts and headdresses. That was for us, to share their world with us. These people, this tribe, they know who they are, they know where they are from. Who's to say who the haves or have-nots are anyway, really? 

new friend

Friday, February 12, 2016

Papuan Perspective

Kuala Kencana, Papua, Indonesia

Kuala Kencana, Papua, Indonesia  is our latest port of call. We have been here for a few months now. It is a remote, surreal, fascinating and challenging part of the world.  Recently, our school had an outing to a local Papuan School. The excursion provided much needed perspective on life here. We live in a purpose built town, erected by the American mining company its inhabitants are all here to serve in one capacity or another. Our school is one of the most well-resourced schools I have ever worked for on the international circuit. We just don't have many students.

The Papuan school we visited was one example of what the mining company for which I work does for community outreach. The school is funded by the company and the children who attend come from various tribes in both the lowlands and the highlands of Papua. They all board there and so once they go to the school they will not see much of their families again. The students ranged in age from kindergarten to high school. They slept in bunk rooms with as many as 20 per room. The rooms for housing and learning were clean and simple but well equipped enough for learning to take place. The children welcomed us a bit coyly but seemed eager and proud to show us their school.

The hope is that our school and their school can begin a meaningful exchange over the course of the school year.  Watching my daughter interact with the Papuan students made all the stress, sweat, loneliness and tears of the past months fade a bit. She declared that this was the best day yet since we moved to Papua in October ( there have been many sad days).  It was the happiest I have seen her. An hour into the visit she had a new best friend named Fani.   I know she won't remember all the trips and adventures of her childhood but I hope that somewhere in her soul she will hold that feeling she had this day--that is the excitement of overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers and finding a new friend. After all, this is why we live this nomadic life.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Where I'm From...

6 Hartwell Rd

I have been thinking a lot about Home lately. Home and what it means to have one. It's not just watching the news about the Syrian refugees that has triggered this. It's personal too. My mom died suddenly back in August. She was 80. She had been fairly healthy and then she had a stroke and that was the end. I think she would have chosen to go like that. Quick and painless. My Dad died nearly 25 years ago. So within weeks of her death, her house, our family home since 1964, was cleared out, put on the market and sold-- a lifetime of memories gone. Just like that.  If you are prone to pondering like me, this sort of thing makes you question everything.

I have been traveling all over the world for years, using teaching as a means to do so. I will share some truths I have learned on my travels in this blog eventually.   Throughout all my travels, I have never stopped thinking about that house at 6 Hartwell as my home. Even though I haven't lived there in decades and despite the fact that it wasn't the happiest of homes, it was still the place that made me who I am today. Knowing where I am from and what made me who I am, has made the rootlessness of my nomadic life easier to bear. So what happens now that my home of homes doesn't exist anymore?

And what of my daughter?  She is nearly 9. She has already lived in 6 countries and spent considerable time in many more. How will she define home? What can she say when she is asked the question, 'So where are you from?'  Since her father is Irish and I am American she usually says she is from Ireland and America-- yet she has hardly lived in either country. And so to the bigger question--Does it matter?  People often tell me that my daughter's home is with me. But what if that isn't quite enough? In my daughter's experience, you can fly to almost anywhere in the world, get off the plane and find someone you know there. She is truly a third culture kid. Seems Cool. But I can't shake the feeling that one needs to have a sense of Place to have a sense of Self.  Where are you from? I am inclined to think that knowing the answer to that question matters a lot. I am sure there is some truth to those sayings that home is where the heart is but I am beginning to think that whoever coined that term never felt truly without a home.

My mother's birthday was a few days ago. We had not celebrated any birthdays together, hers or mine, in some years. We had been estranged. But this one, well, I missed her. I felt the loss in my solar plexus. She was a teacher. She always told me I should write so, in honor of what would have been her 81st birthday, I am finally writing my first post.   Should anyone who knows me read this, they might scoff and say--but you ran away! You went off to explore! You hadn't seen your mother in years! Those people would be correct. But they don't know everything. They don't know why and they don't know the cost. I could never find a way to explain how I missed home every single day and in every single place I have lived. In my search to find words for this, I came across this word: hiraeth.

Maybe my feelings of hiraeth have more to do with turning 45 and finding myself in my 9th international teaching job posting and finding I can fit all my worldly possessions in a few suitcases as well.   Some say, ah you are really living free. No possessions to tie you down.  And yes that is true. But what I imagine most feel as those mid-life doubts begin to crop up, is that they haven't done and seen enough of what they once dreamed when they were young. For most, the idea of randomly moving to a new country every year is so daunting they would never dream of trying it. It is commonplace for me. And now, as I reach the supposed pinnacle of life, I find the thing that has been just out of reach for me is that-- settling down. The word settle always had a negative connotation to me. You're settling for what life has handed out and making it work. Now I see that as the ultimate challenge and achievement. I am ready now to make my own home, for myself and my daughter. But before I do, I want to take time to reflect on all the adventures that have got us to this point. I have a lot of ground to cover. Watch this space.

My mom and I in 1972