Stories from the vine

Urban Interlude

There’s a short hike right in the middle of Edinburgh, a dormant volcano called Arthur’s Seat. We began as the sun set, a group of four from the hostel, boots laced and bodies bundled into our winter coats.

As we climbed, the elevation muffled the city sounds. We left the sun behind, let it dip below the horizon and with it, time, as we rose above the city. Only the wind was left to hush us rhythmically along.

In the dark, we peeled off coats like they were trappings of our urban selves and climbed and climbed with empty minds, sweating bodies along sweating earth.

Timelessness was a dew on the rocks, and we lay at the top and coated ourselves in it. The city lights winked at our achievement, Bravo, you’ve made it.



Edinburgh noodling

Edinburgh’s January sun sets by 4:30. Overcast skies and the sound effect of shoe soles on cobblestone exaggerate the slumber of winter. The streets are dreamy and tired. Insulated. Historical castles, squares, alleys, bridges, walking paths that go below the city streets and weave their way from center to suburbs, all grey and green and grey-green and new to me.


Do you understand potential energy? I remember the lesson in images from 12th grade physics class: a girl holding a ball, a car on a hill, an arrow in a flexed bow. The energy possessed by a body by virtue of its position relative to others. A pressure like water boiling in the muscles, restless energy that builds in the thighs, the calves, and the feet.


I’m in a hostel with dozens of other young travelers. We’re not sure what we’re looking for, but potential energy is what we find. Potential energy, when we ask ourselves why we keep moving, a matter of time and space from precipice to body at rest.

Meanwhile in London…

I got a chance to meet Michael Chabon this week! It went approximately like this…

The Distance

Leaving home was so much harder this time.

In July, I set out fueled by convictions and fresh resolutions. Everything had a reason. I was part of a larger plan. I had a new haircut. I left home feeling light.

Then in August, news of my uncle’s death brought with it the first whispers of uncertainty. All I wanted for a moment was the texture of the comforter from my parents’ bed, to bury my face in it, roll over, and float like on an ocean between the two jetties of my parents’ bodies. Instead, I had a phone.

Whenever you try to explain distance between two people, at some point somebody will invariably say, with technology these days…

And that somebody would be right about technology these days, except do you really want to skype someone who’s mourning? So the way I found out my uncle died was over the phone, and the way I comforted my parents was over the phone, and the way I realized how heavy the distance can make a person feel was over the invisible threads stretching thin to deliver me home.

I didn’t feel alone, but I felt like a deserter.

Then in December, the body of a young classmate from college turned up. Shortly after that, a dear family friend went too.

Somewhere along the way I started saying, X more days until I’m home for Christmas. It was a secret anxiety fluttering against my abdomen that left me feeling a few degrees further from invincible.

When I did get home the dog had been put down, and maybe it seemed to be about me at that point. Like death was lurking, teasing, leaving its creepy residue all over life. People tend to say, “You just never know.” What I felt was the sad, private question, who’s next? 

The loss was enough for July’s fresh resolutions and convictions to dry up by January. It was almost enough to keep me home, except that staying home wouldn’t really be about familiar comforts or peace of mind. The desire to stay home came from the impossible dream of freezing time, to avoid loss or guilt or fear.

Whatever way we decide to live, all those things will still be around. Time moves on, and life remains unpredictable, curious, chaotic, and uncomfortable. The best way I know to live is to keep learning, and the thing that keeps teaching me most is travel. So here I am, counting my blessings, gathering my strength, setting out on the next leg of the journey.


Travel is…



Travel is sleeping in a 9-bed hostel room where the whole world seems to be in transit. Travel is sweating out both pride and humility in a tango class with a room full of strangers. Travel is all the ways my obsessive planning can and will go wrong. It’s my dumb expression over how many words on the Argentinian cafe menu my translation app won’t translate.

Travel is like lifting the top off a pot of boiling water to release some of the pressure. And then it’s the homesickness that creeps in like a haunting, like nostalgia, like yearning for the smell of my living room or just one bite of my dad’s homemade apple pie, unmatched the world over.

And travel is seeing my parents for the first time in months. Travel is realizing that home has something to do with the moment at the airport where they’re sure to squeeze my body between them and hold me like I might float away again if they let go, and even though I have a flight out in January, travel is believing that if they don’t let go, I might not leave.


I did a 5-day hike in Patagonia

And this is how it went…

As an inexperienced or “unseasoned” hiker, it would be accurate to say I had no idea what I was getting into. Some people I met along the way said that I was brave for doing a trek like that alone. I believe the word they were looking for was uninformed or perhaps naive. That last one tends to apply to a lot of my adventures.

An important lesson I quickly learned was that as much as I might’ve read about what it feels like to do a first multi-day hike, I couldn’t really know until I was in it. And with no practice hikes leading up to the big day (big 5 days), I was in for a lot of firsts.


Two things to understand about Patagonia:

Wind. Holy hell there’s a lot of wind. I spent the third day hiking through a storm, and I thought several times that I was going to be tossed over the side of a cliff.

This wasn’t your average Saturday morning nature walk in the park.

The Torres Del Paine route could get rugged. On the free talk one of the hostels was giving before I left, our speaker cited a guide, complete with full hiking pack, literally getting lifted off the ground and moved meters away. Patagonia isn’t messing around when it comes to wind.


Hills and Mountains. Remember that thing I said about reading but not knowing? Well. Anyone with any experience hiking a lot of ups and downs through the mountains will tell you that the downs become just as hard, if not harder, than the ups. It’s true. With that much extra weight on my body, I was feeling like every joint from my hips down was going to give out— knees, ankles, even toes. By the fourth day, I was more eager to reach uphill stretches than downhill ones. I wouldn’t have believed anyone who told me that would happen, but there it was. I could handle my heart and lungs having to work harder, but my knees on the downhill were just done.


That said, of all the travels I’ve done in my entire life, this hike was in my top 5 experiences at least. But I appreciate and celebrate it in the way one might appreciate and celebrate parenthood. There are times when all you can do is get through it. You make a lot of mistakes, get hurt and also transformed, learn in what often seems like the most difficult ways possible, and spend a lot of time asking yourself, Why?? But the moments where you understand the answer to that question make every other moment worth it and maybe even beautiful.


Also, sorry I just compared a 5-day hike to parenthood. Not the same thing. Obviously.

Moving back to the fun part: how Patagonia kicked my butt.


From day 2 to day 5, I was asking myself if I’d really get to the end. I spent hours imagining excuses for cutting the trek short. Sections of trail were treacherous, even for seasoned hikers, and my tennis shoes weren’t close to cut out for the job, and there were, after all, really pumas sighted on the hill overlooking the second night’s campsite.


Tennis shoes were a truly horrible decision. I didn’t have hiking boots because I wasn’t planning on doing a hike when I left home in July. More experienced hikers said a new pair of boots would take too long to break in (read: my feet would be covered in painful blisters) and an ill-fitting rented pair would also be a bad choice (read: more blisters).


So I avoided the blisters! Yay! I also slipped down a muddy stretch of steep trail thanks to no traction, slipped crossing a rapidly moving stream and perfectly landed my knee onto a rock, and spent a lot of time hiking in soaked tennis shoes with my sad, wet feet. But, like, I avoided the blisters. It’s better, right? They said it would be better?!

Honestly, I have no idea. All I know now is that I’m buying hiking boots and breaking them in before my next hike.


In the end though, I made it. Despite falling (twice) and thanks to the timing of the major bridge collapse mid-trail (the day after I’d crossed it) I was able to complete all 5 days, about 100 km, the rushing river crossings hopping stone to stone and the trails along mountains with sheer drops and howling winds. I finished intact, with only a swollen ankle and a limp.


My daily hiking times ranged from 4.5-8 hours, starting off “easy” and building to the longer days. The park had indoor cooking kitchens (big rooms with a few long tables and a sink) at each camp to prevent outdoor fires. These became the social spots after the day’s hiking.

There were so many other long-term travelers on extended holidays, or having just quit a job or finished school. And all those personal stoves on at the same time fogged up the windows and turned the kitchen into a sauna. With night temperatures dropping into the 40s and lower, this was a beautiful thing. We were spoiled with a warm shelter out of the high winds, and the tents only a short walk away. I was relieved to find that my tent kept me surprisingly warm through the night, but maybe it was also the down jacket and -3º sleeping bag.


Mornings were quick breakdowns and pack ups and breakfast with a view. A daily rhythm developed almost immediately. I filled my rain shell jacket pockets with all I’d need during the day so I wouldn’t have to get into my pack more than once. Then I strapped on my backpack full of the rest of the necessities and set out.

Never in my life have I carried so much weight so far. I’m amazed a house and sustenance could weigh little enough to carry on my back, but every day I was sore in new places. I tried not to take off my pack during hikes, because as soon as I did my muscles and bones said, we are never picking that thing up again. I reached a new level of soreness and a pain threshold that I first mistook for injury.


There were also trail sections that would’ve made me nervous without a heavy backpack, parts where I couldn’t look down if I wanted to keep going. I would’ve frozen. My first day back at the hostel in town, I tried to nap but kept waking myself up with dreams of slipping off trail edges and down the sides of mountains.

The third day of hiking was the worst, nonstop cold rain and high winds. Trails were muddy and flooding (this was the day I slipped). I had 7 hours of hiking to do, and they were 7 long hours.

But the views.


Every other day, I was able to break for lunch at some lookout point with expansive views over lakes of glacier runoff, snow-topped mountains, and rolling hills zigzagged with walking trails. No picture could capture the experience, but I did try. Each paid campsite overlooked a new, confidence-inspiring wonder of the park, and it was like I entered camp each day a new person.


The views, the tent that provided complete relief from the wind, the warmth and new friends in the kitchen. No matter how challenging or doubt-filled the hiking had been, arriving at each campsite made the next day’s work possible again. No matter how many times I told myself along the way, I won’t make it to the end, arriving at camp was what made me say, I will. 

What do we mean when we say citizen?

Trigger warning: post-election thoughts included

Between my friends and family, we covered all the bases on the ballot. We named every possible candidate in our loudest voices, watched the numbers, and reacted in kind. The people I hold closest rarely, if ever, agree on politics.

On a spectrum, I’ve witnessed: violence, anger, fear, frustration, sadness, concern, insecurity, curiosity, ambivalence, relief, support, hope, joy, certainty, celebration. I’ve witnessed them all, just among the people I know, in response to this year’s election.

Of course I wish there was more consensus about what the “right” decision might have been, but I’m also grateful for the discord.


We need people to challenge the way we think. We need to know that there are opinions floating around in the universe that differ from our own, and we need those opinions to confront us, to offend us, to take up residence in our minds and drive us temporarily insane and sometimes even into action. Growth is painful, whether physical or psychological. It requires discomfort.


Taking these differences of opinions and of people into consideration–– their necessity for growth and for our country’s existence as we know it–– has left a question rattling around my mind.

Many of the disagreements I’ve witnessed touch on rights and privileges, about what is deserved and required of different groups of citizens and non-citizens. But I think we take for granted the notion that when we say “citizen,” there’s some common ground. We think we have a shared understanding of what that means. But do we?

That term “citizen” has transformed over the course of history, even over the lifespan of this country. It’s been restricted by gender, socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability, birthplace–– you name it. Any method human beings have found to distinguish amongst themselves has had its moment of fame as a defining factor of citizenship. For all our differences, when we talk about citizens I don’t know what we mean today.


For some, this is an easy question. Born on U.S. soil. I was born to a non-American mother (at the time) and American father, but I was considered American by birthplace. Others have to rely on certain skill sets. Healthcare professionals, for example, have an easier time getting “citizenship” in a country with an aging population.

It gets confusing. If I decide to stay abroad, I can continue to hold my American citizenship. I can continue to hold it even if I commit treason, because I was born in America. But what would then make me more “citizen” than somebody who has risked everything and crossed borders for a desire to live in America? Let’s take out risk even. What about somebody who just wants to live and work in and for America? What makes them less “citizen” than somebody who shirks their civic duties? Should a born-in-America “citizen” who decides not to participate in or keep track of American politics be allowed to remain “citizen,” when somebody else more eager to participate is denied the possibility?

Should somebody who disdains their country still be considered a citizen? Should political action and involvement beyond jury duty be a requirement? How about somebody who is physically or mentally unable to fulfill certain civic responsibilities? Does religion come into play, or sexual orientation? Do those things make it more difficult for a person to enjoy the liberties and exercise the duties inherent in citizenship?


I’m asking these questions because it seems like we’re keen on reminding each other that the United States was built by every kind of person. “American” is wide-ranging and  can include anything from the melting pot or the tossed salad. And yet over the course of history we’ve had no trouble finding ways to define, distinguish and restrict.

I’m watching international coverage of riots and endorsements and thinking that a lot of what’s at stake is “the citizenry.” Whether we’re saying it or not, a citizen has all the rights and the responsibilities, to things like legal unions and protection by law enforcement, and many groups of people are wondering whether or not they’ll be included. With the struggles, arguments and discomfort characteristic of growth, I’d like to know what it is we’re growing towards, what America made of and for which people.

How to describe the feeling of visiting the home country of one’s immigrant parent (Alternate title: How I speak myself into existence)

I’m lucid dreaming. I’m on a street at dusk. I’m a curious passerby trying to peek behind the curtain of a strange house, only to find somebody familiar inside staring back. She’s me. Or a copy of me, somebody who looks like me but isn’t, a tear in my universe, a slight of hand, a slip.

The feeling is in the step patterns and the opening of hips. On these Salvador sidewalks, the women dance the same samba I learned from my mother, our feet against white kitchen tiles or muffled shuffling across the living room carpet. But I think in my foreign language— worse, I don’t speak their native one, not well enough to pass. I make mistakes, stumble, reveal an accent. My mother used to skip school for these beaches, but I know more about farm-to-market roads and the history of the Big Tex statue.


And yet I also know that avocados are a fruit meant to be eaten sweet, and that beans and rice taste better with a side of farofa. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is some of the best literary comfort food out there, and when the radio announces music from the 60’s the only musicians I need are Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. 


The strange house feeling— I don’t think I have to be a child of an immigrant to understand it. I think it might be like speaking to my grandmother and realizing I have the same shape to my chin but different memories. It’s looking into my parents’ pasts, seeing the similarities alongside the differences that validate my individuality, independence and origin. There’s no word for that. But like God in Genesis, like Scheherazade, troubadours, and wedding vows, the words are essential. I use what I can find to describe it. I tell it. I speak and create and exist.

The Promise of Magic


Imagine you’re on a beach in Salvador, Bahia. The exact place, country, isn’t important yet. Just imagine that the urban—the traffic horns, darting jaywalkers, abandoned building fronts—all of it runs right up against the sand, almost to the ocean.

People wait on the sidewalk for their buses. They stand, or sit on benches or along the wall on the other side of which is the ocean, on whose sand you stand, blinking.

From a great distance a percussion group you can’t see hammers out soulful rhythms. You’re not looking for them, but you’re listening. You’re not looking at the popsicle vendors whose voices carry and you carefully avoid eye contact with the strange men who lean against the seawall, arms crossed, alone.

Your vision is only focused on one thing, which is that if you stare straight into the blank space in between objects, if you can look just right, it’s possible to see something moving in the air. Ocean spray. You’re breathing it. You know it by taste, by smell, but less often can you actually watch the seamist dance and vibrate to the music of the city. 

Probably you remember winter, looking through the window of your college dorm towards the street lamps, and the first tease of snow dancing there, barely more than slush. Over an hour you’ve been staring for it instead of studying for your exam, in the hopes that staring hard enough will somehow cause the snow day that cancels class, and look, it worked because there’s the snow. The moisture in the air on the beach looks just like that. You stare and you feel at home in a strange place, because you recognize the promise of magic.

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