Once Upon a Time…

…far far away, in the land of rolling hills and rocky cliffs, lived the Von Trapp family. Okay, okay. I know, my posts are enough of a novel as it is… But, Salzburg, the city that served as the storybook setting for the movie The Sound of Music is, well, something out of a storybook. Churches, shops, jewelry stores, banks and apartments of old Austrian design are huddled between an alcove of towering cliffs and the banks of the Salzach river. Europe’s best-preserved castle, Festung Hohensalzburg, rises from the peaks of the most prominent rocky crag, guarding and protecting the winding cobbled streets that twist and turn along ornamented buildings below. Signs of gold, red, yellow, green and blue sway overhead the cobbled lanes, hanging from intricate iron brackets. Then, suddenly the tight, winding streets open up into cozy piazzas marked with elegant fountains and enclosed by grand cathedrals, theatres, opera houses and government buildings. For me, it was love at first sight. Salzburg, the home of Mozart, has captured my heart.

When I arrived in Salzburg Monday afternoon, my cs host Silviu accompanied me on a stroll through the charming city. He introduced me to the main landmarks so that I might be able to easily navigate my way around the next day, when I more thoroughly explored the city on my own. One of my favorite landmarks was the old “car wash.” An ornamented wall with paintings of gallant horses served as the background to a decorated fountain that was surrounded by a bigger trough of water with steps leading into the bowl from opposite ends. This is where carriages and horses would be washed during the first half of the twentieth century. That night, we relaxed to the smooth sounds of the sax at Jazz It, a local dive near Silviu’s apartment.

Silviu is an intriguing character. His strikingly handsome face and piercing blue eyes are largely shrouded by a long mane of hair and a full scruffy beard that gets bushier at the chin. His look matches that of one of his biggest interests: death metal. Silviu, a Romanian, thoroughly enjoys nights of heavy metal, head-banging in dark dives. Yet, outside of the metal bar scene, Silviu is perfectly comfortable in the subdued setting of a jazz lounge or in the academic and artistic setting of the university café that’s popular with music students (where we ate at earlier that afternoon). His manner is gentle, even a bit tender. His eyes speak of compassion. His thoughts, though, speak of distrust, a distrust in anything that can’t be explained by the physical world around him. Silviu is a self-described cynic and agnostic.

Silviu is also an open man, however, and willingly discussed and debated ideas on hope, humanity and God with me. Silviu has traveled to India – where there exists a world, which many say, is a far cry from the conveniences and comforts of Western civilization. Thus, Silviu certainly has experiences from which he can draw sound arguments that support his ideas. I too have seen the different worlds of the Cambodian people and the villagers of Vietnam and Laos. So, I can understand many of his arguments.

And that was Silviu’s only qualm with engaging me in debate. He didn’t want to come across as a person who wanted to pull me away from the hopeful optimism and spirituality that marks my own personal views of the world and of humanity. I continually reassured him, though, that challenge is good. Challenging debates help us fully measure just how much faith we do possess in our supposed beliefs. They help us identify the areas where the foundation of our faith might be weak and faltering.

It turned out, Silviu and I couldn’t really stray from these debates whenever we spent more than ten minutes together, even when others joined us in our activities. Our exchanges were always respectful and completely amicable, and we usually wound up sucking those around us, no matter how hesitant they might be, into the debate.

My exchanges with Silviu were leaving me with a lot to ponder and consider and were quickly flagging places where my faith needed further exploration and instruction. And that was okay, because I had a lot of time for self-reflection the next day. Silviu had to work on his doctorate’s program at the university, so I set off to discover more of Salzburg. First, I met with a cheerful young cs student for lunch. Cordi’s sweet disposition and easy smiles were like a refreshing breeze after the deep, dark discussions with Silviu. Cordi took me to a little café popular with students in the old city, called Picnic. Then, we went to a new 60s café she had just discovered, called Afro Café, for desert. Both places had a fun, easy-going atmosphere. After sharing tales of our travels and adventures and our plans for more to come, we parted ways. She was off to statistics class. I was off to wander the city.

I ambled along snapping pics of the winding cobbled lanes, ornamented churches and the towering castle. Along the way, I munched an original Austrian Brez’l and bread from the oldest bakery in Salzburg. Before too long, I found myself in an old cemetery with unique graves. Some of the graves and headstones were monuments gated in arched alcoves, similar to the gated alcoves that the Von Trapp family used to hide from the Nazi soldiers. This cemetery backed right up to one of the sheer cliffs surrounding the city and from there I could spy old houses formed straight out of the sides of the rock. How cool would it have been to live on the side of a cliff?!

I spent a long time in the cemetery… thinking and taking pictures. It turned out to be the same cemetery that Silviu has pictures of hanging on his wall in his bedroom. Eventually, I wandered away from the ancient bed of the dead and headed up the side of the cliff toward the Festung Hohensalzburg. I had planned to hike up to the castle and see first-hand the best preserved castle in Europe, but my curiosity veered me off course and the next thing I knew was I was wandering down a path along the rocky crags… away from the castle. I still got some great views of the city… and, I was able to take in the landscape, the smell of the surrounding evergreens and limber, the calls and chirps of the birds, alone and in peace, instead of with a throng of tourists on the terraces of the castle. I was more than content with where my wandering feet had led me. I had found myself amidst the pages of a fairytale storybook…

Later that evening I met up with Silviu. He and the couchsurfer he would be hosting that night were at a local brewery. Silviu says the brewery scene is the epitome of the truly local Austrian experience. You grab a litre or half litre mug from the shelf, pay for the beer, bring the receipt to the barman at the tap and fill up your mug. You can also stop along any one of the stands along a strip of shops selling Austrian sausages, brats, breads and more. Before too long, Silviu and I were back at the questions and debates, and our fellow cser pitching in from time to time. A metal head like Silviu (though you wouldn’t think it from his preppy style of dress), the cser tended to side with my host.

By midnight, I was on the way to the train station to catch my train to Bern, Switzerland. My train left at 45 past the hour and arrived the next morning around eight. I would do my best to get some shuteye, before another full day of wandering in more lands of the fairytales…

Uninhibited African Beats

My head was still in a deep contemplative fog when I arrived in Graz, and that wasn’t a good mix for trying to find the connecting train from Graz to the small village outside of Graz where Claudia lives. Long story short, a major bout of absent-mindedness meant I added two hours to my journey back to Claudia’s house. It wasn’t so bad though. I was able to indulge in more of my books, thus plunging even further into my absent-minded fog. ; ) It also meant I had less time to get ready for the Multi Kulti Ball though. By the time I got to Claudia’s, I was in a rush!

The Multi Kulti Ball is a yearly event that’s meant to showcase the international culture thriving in Graz. Persian, Latin, Asian, European… it was all there. But, it was the African beats that lured Claudia and I in first and we bounced to those beats throughout the night. Oddly enough, all the books I’ve been reading and that have been impacting me so much lately have strong passages about deserts. As the African drum beats mingled with the tales from exotic sand dunes already swirling through my mind… the call for me to journey into the desert swelled within me like a sand storm, sweeping through all the little nooks and crevices of my mind. I couldn’t help but think that I should have simply stayed in Cairo when I stopped over.

My blood is pulsing, calling for more adventure. I’m coming home. But I can tell you right now, I won’t be home for too long…

Check out the videos. Look at life sparking out of the musicians’ hands and smiles, out of the girls’ dancing, out of their eyes.

The Grandeur of Vienna

It was late, half past eleven, when I finally met Vincenc in Vienna. So my first hours in that thriving city of European crossroads were spent getting acquainted with Vincenc while he and I scurried about in the windy chill of the night, catching the various trams and busses we needed in order to find our way to the warmth of Vincenc’s small dorm room. Vincenc is a student from Kosovo who has been living, working and studying in Vienna for the past six years.

It was a tight squeeze in Vincenc’s room. The extra mattress took up what little floor space there was. But, it was comfortable and cozy and a warm refuge from the windy, Viennese chill.

I accompanied Vincenc to a local coffee house near his work the next morning. From there, he explained how I could use local transportation to get to Schonbrunn, Vienna’s summer palace. Unfortunately, I was visiting just as winter had only begun to fade away, thus I was missing out on the palace’s true glory: intricate mazes from trimmed hedges and large, stately expanses of flowers in delicate design that backed up to a rolling hill of kelly greens. Yet, despite the bare-branched trees and bushes, the freshly turned beds of earth that were still void of any buds or flowers, the magnificence of the palace was unmistakable – its poise and elegance evident no matter the season. I spent a good two and a half hours wandering around the palace grounds, before rushing off to meet Vincenc back at the coffee house.

When I hurried into Coffee Day, a bit late, I found Vincenc surrounded by friends. We spent an hour there in the coffee shop chatting and trading stories before Vincenc, another couchsurfer – Roger, Vincenc’s friend – Arber and I headed out to explore some of the city center. Vincenc possesses a wealth of knowledge about Vienna. It’s incredible how much he knows about Vienna’s history, culture, and politics. Unfortunately, Vincenc’s excitement in sharing the richness of the city means he jumps from one landmark to the next, barely leaving time to digest its significance, let alone time snap some halfway-decent pictures, before rushing off to the next attraction. I must say, we got a lot in, in just one evening. I also have to add how impressed I was with Vienna’s university. I haven’t seen too many of the Ivy-league colleges in the U.S. first-hand, but I would venture to say that the grandeur of the University of Vienna (the oldest University in the German-speaking world) easily surpasses that of any American university.

Where we ate dinner that first night is a perfect example of why couchsurfing is really the best way to indulge in the hidden treasures of a given city. Vincenc took us to a small family-owned restaurant that served a small buffet of Pakistani cuisine. The restaurant’s motto: “Eat as you wish. Pay as you wish.” For two and a half plates overflowing with food I paid just 6 euros… and I had even dished out a little more than everyone else since it was my first time. You couldn’t beat that! I would have never found the cozy little restaurant on my own or in some tourist package. After dinner, we met back up with Vincenc’s other friends for some drinks at a local bar. The bar was rather smoky though and I was still fighting jet lag, so I was pretty low-key. I enjoyed the great company, but I was grateful when I finally got to plop down on the mattress in Vincenc’s room and fall into a deep sleep.

On day two, I met up with Roger while Vincenc went to work. Roger and I had planned to go sightseeing, but lunch took a bit longer than expected and we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon of cooking, talking and reading before meeting up with Vincenc at Coffee Day again. This time it was just Vincenc and I for round two of the blitz like tour of the city center. That evening, I enjoyed a home-cooked Italian dinner with tortellini and sangria. Giorgio, another couchsurfer, hosted me, Vincenc, Roger, Arber and two of his friends in honor of my visit to Vienna. I must say, I’m getting spoiled by all these dinner parties! I expect nothing less for my return to the U.S.! Kidding… I’m kidding.

Friday, my third day was full of beautiful landscapes and introspective contemplation. I set out for a prominent hill just outside the city as Vincenc set out for work. The hill offers an incredible view of Vienna’s sprawling European metropolis. Distinctly European. There were just a handful of skyscrapers, none of which were too grand. That’s because, until relatively recently, a law in Vienna regulated buildings to a height no greater than the city’s Dom (main church). That’s why European city landscapes are such a cozy picturesque with a sea of red, brown and black tiled roofs dotted with islands of church steeples and ornamental government buildings. After taking in the Viennese landscape, I planted myself on a nearby bench and cracked open one of the books I was currently reading, The Zahir. As I mentioned before, the last few books I’ve been reading have left me considering what I don’t know and reconsidering what I thought I knew… among other things. Their words have been urging me to look more closely at myself, who I am, what stories and personal histories define me, which stories and personal histories I should perhaps let go of… I still have to share the passages that have stuck with me. I’ll get to them in a post or two.

In the meantime, my contemplative mood stuck with me as I headed back down the hill and worked my way through the public transportation system to the Danube River. In most city squares, you feed the pigeons. At most lakes, ponds and rivers, you feed the ducks. Along the Danube in Vienna, you feed the swans. I’ve never seen so many swans at once before… at least twenty, perhaps even thirty. Even when huddling while being fed, these stately birds are poised and elegant, just like Vienna it seems. And that’s what they’re doing… huddling. Not clustering. Not in a frenzy. Just gliding into a cozy huddle near the breadcrumbs floating on the water’s surface. Every so often, one swan would expand its broad wings, as if stretching to keep things from getting too cramped. But never was there a feeding frenzy. Further along the Danube, the swans dispersed. Now, there were open runways and I glimpsed a couple swans racing across the miniature river waves, that were dancing in twirling pirouettes.

That evening I got to take pleasure in one the city’s defining characteristics: the music of Austria’s classical prodigies Mozart and Strauss. Vincenc works for an online ticketing agency, so it was just a matter of making a phone call to secure us tickets for the live classical concert that’s popular with tourists. Like I said, I was delighted! It was my last night and I really felt as if I was leaving the city on the right “note”. (Yes, the corny pun intended.) The evening of classical dramas and melodies lightened my contemplative mood from earlier and I hummed in amused delight as I remembered Wednesdays spent in old Catholic school hallways listening to my parents practice with the church choir, Sundays spent with those same voices belting out hymns from the church’s choir loft, and later, Thursdays practicing with my own singing group that preformed classically-themed Disney productions. I recalled the poignant experience of singing with a trained, professional choir. I participated in but a small piece of the production of Carmina Burana. But, as my voice sang in harmony with all those other powerful, resonating voices, I felt as if I was inside the music. Yes, the hills of Austria are alive with music and their notes ring true and clear throughout the Danube river valley in Vienna.

On Saturday, I left the classical poise of Vienna. But, thanks to Arber I was able to bring some of Mozart and Strauss with me on my laptop! That night though, I would be bouncing and writhing to very different beats. I had plans to attend the Multi Kulti Ball in Graz with Claudia!

Appendix:

I LOVE traveling by train! It really is such a shame the US has not properly developed its passenger railway system. I was listening to Mozart Symphony No. 40 In G Minor when I was chugging past little Austrian villages tucked between the corners and bends of the foothills of the Austrian Alps. It was ride of bliss… looking out the window of the train and comfortably encountering the Austrian countryside while listening to the world-renowned Austrian composer on my way from Vienna back to Graz. Truly, one of life’s little treasures…

On yet, another train ride through more Alps, foothills and valleys (this time Graz to Salzburg), I looked up from writing and see a lone mountain coated in a creamy frosting of early spring snow. It’s actually a warm spring day, but just several hundred feet up from the green valleys and purple evergreens are jagged, slate-gray, rocky peaks sprinkled in the snowy frost. They’re alluding to a chill that hasn’t quite lifted despite the day’s sunny warmth.

When a Mountaintop Might as Well Have Been the Moon

Article published on Google News about the first person to ever reach the Summit of Mt. Everest. Just thought it was interesting since I’m slowly making my way to that particular moutain.

EDMUND HILLARY, short of breath in the freezing wind, took “a few more whacks of the ice ax” and surmounted the top of the world, Mount Everest, as high as anyone can aspire and still be rooted on terra firma. At the time, May 29, 1953, it was a magnificent achievement of human daring and endurance culminating an era of crossing oceans, penetrating continental interiors and reaching the ends of the earth.

Keren Su/Corbis
Dreams Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay stood atop Mount Everest in 1953, 16 years before men walked on the Moon. Hillary died last week.

In retrospect, when Hillary, who died last week at 88, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, stood on the summit of Everest, it seems as if they were making the last “giant leap for mankind” of pre-space age generations.

The world’s tallest peak, which had defeated all previous climbers, killing several, had seemed not much less forbidding and unattainable than the Moon. But who was seriously thinking then about flying to the Moon? That was the stuff of science fiction, and the drawing-board dreams of rocket scientists who were hard pressed to come up with intercontinental missiles. Sputnik, the first man-made Earth satellite, was four years away. Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn were still flying airplanes. Youngsters in those days feasted more often at the tables of Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingstone, Amundsen, Peary, Byrd and Lindbergh.

It is tempting to think of the conquest of Everest by Hillary and Norgay as the moment we reached the crest of a divide in exploration. In the spirit of the lone pilot and hardy band of yore, this was an undertaking by two heroic individuals. But the successful Everest climb, with its team of a dozen climbers, 35 Sherpa guides and 350 porters, anticipated Mission Control at Houston and the mobilization of aerospace contractors on this side of the divide.

Echoes of Hillary can be heard in the astronauts who followed. They are kindred spirits speaking the same language of awe. Hillary, describing the view from the summit: “The whole world around us lay spread out like a giant relief map.” Glenn, as he approached the end of his orbital flight in 1962: “I can see the whole state of Florida just laid out like on a map.”

There is also a shared fluency in the matter-of-fact tongue of those who accept the risks of their calling. Hillary, encountering a widening split in the ice underfoot: “It was a nasty shock. I could look down 10,000 feet between my legs.” An Apollo 13 astronaut after an explosion in the rear of their spacecraft: “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

A difference comes to mind, and it is troubling when seen from both sides of the divide. Sir Edmund lamented the hordes scaling Everest; once 118 people were reported to make the climb in a single day. Space enthusiasts have an opposite complaint: no one has landed or walked on the Moon since 1972. But spaceflight in the shuttle, though risky, has become almost commonplace, enough for senators and other non-astronauts to take an occasional ride.

At least once the two who epitomized exploration before and after Sputnik held a summit meeting of sorts. In 1985, Sir Edmund and Neil A. Armstrong, the man of the “giant leap for mankind,” flew a twin-engine plane over the Arctic and touched down at the North Pole. Oh, to have listened in to the man on the Moon with the man atop Everest, together in a cockpit, again looking out on a stunning but forbidding landscape.

So About That Parisian Magic…

****I´m not in Paris anymore… far from it. But, finally, here´s a bit about my stay in that incredible city.**

Loic is going to change the world. What am I talking about? He already is changing the world. He surrounds himself with people who are going to change the world… hence, he hosted me. ; ) I’m kidding. I’d like to think I will have a part in changing the world though. If I surround myself with more people like Loic, I’m confident I will.

Loic met me at one of the many train stations in Paris on a bright and sunny November afternoon. He greeted me with a radiant smile that lights his entire face. First, we hiked back to his apartment, with my ridiculously American amount of luggage in tow. There I met Loic’s roommates Juan and Karim. The apartment is nothing more than two small bedrooms, a tiny little hallway, a small bathroom and a tiny kitchen. Loic ushered my luggage into one of the small bedrooms, explaining this would be my room. He, Juan and Karim would all share the other bedroom while I was visiting. Incredible. Not only did they offer practically half the apartment for my sole use, they did it in a way that you really could believe it was no trouble, that it was honestly their pleasure.

Next, Loic and I set off to discover the magic of Paris. That’s not all I was to discover though. In transit, the more I talked with Loic, the more I found what a truly rare and inspiring individual he was. Yet, maybe not so rare. Loic recounted story after story about meeting incredible people who are doing incredible things for others. Right now, Loic works for an organization that helps young entrepreneurs make their ideas a reality. A reality in such a way that is not only ethical but one that is completely rooted around improving each of the lives that the company might affect… it’s customers, it’s employees, it’s owner and employer. Loic and I saw eye to eye on philosophy after philosophy. I thought he could read my thoughts or something. I think discovering Paris as I was discovering an individual such as he, is a big part of what made Paris so magical for me.

That first evening Loic and I tackled a lot of must-see monuments and landmarks in Paris. The Bastille, the outside of the Louvre, the Champs Elysees, Concord, the Grand (ferris wheel?0), The Arc du Triomph, The Eiffel Tower and The Seine River. There was an absolutely exotic moon (which, I believe is the same moon Ben was captured by that night millions of miles away in Asia) and despite the incredible monuments we were surrounded by, Loic and I found it difficult to tear our eyes away from the moon.

After the whirlwind tour of some of the most renowned landmarks in the world, Loic and I had dinner at what Loic described as the typical French café where we dined on the typical French food. The waiter at Café Literateur served us an array of meats, cheeses, breads and spreads while Loic amazed me with story after story of his adventures in this sweet fairytale life. His face was truly alight as he recounted tales of being welcomed into intimate circles of growth, leadership and trust in Denmark, and crossing the Western Sahara with no friends save those he met along the way, even though both the Moroccans and the Africans living on either fringe said it couldn’t be done. These stories were simply incredible and so much more than the few words I written to allude to them. But, I couldn’t even begin to do them any justice by trying to elaborate. They’re Loic’s stories and he should tell them. And anyone who can, should get to know this admirable man.

We shared stories and then, it was time to share more adventures. We went to go meet some of Loic’s friends at a crowded and quite smoky, typical French bar. His friends were just as inspiring as he, all involved in projects that will change many lives. Each of them showed a strong interest in me, in what I was doing. They all spoke English without a hint of hesitation. So, just a few hours in Paris shattered whatever stereotypes I might have been clinging to about the supposedly rude and unfriendly French. I’m not going to lie, I did actually halfway believe I would be met with a little French disdain thanks to the “stereotypes,” but I was welcomed with the exact opposite throughout my entire trip.

The next day Loic and I got a late morning start in our quest to get me more acquainted with this fantastic city. He took me to one of his favorite spots, Le Sacre Coeur (The Sacred Heart) poised on top of Montemartre, where he likes to go in the summer and just read. I must agree. Montemartre has calming and relaxing atmosphere about it. I just stood at the top of the stairs, taking in the view, the sounds, the beauty. Finally, I turned toward Le Sacre Coeur and walked inside. It was grand and beautiful, like so many other old world Catholic churches. After staring wide-eyed a bit as a wandering tourist, I did think to pause for a moment at one of the side pews and reflect on the overwhelming experiences that are so completely enriching my life right now. I took a moment to just say thanks.

Then, it was time to go meet Antoinette. Remember her? The one with the absolutely inviting smile and alluring laugh whom I met in Bruxelles? Her father lives in Paris and we happened to be in that magical city at the same time, so we decided to meet before she hoped on a train to go back home. We met Antoinette and a fellow couchsurfer that was actually in Brussels the same time I was. We all met at the ??? with an incredible view of the Eiffel Tower, where I grabbed some amazing photos the night before. We also met one of Loic’s friends there. We had a good-sized group going. I went to grab a day shot of the Eiffel Tower before we took off and I was stopped by a rather inviting and charming Frenchman named Michael. He was so animated. He’s from the south of France and urged me to go see it if I got a chance. He said Paris is not France and I needed to discover true France. He had a passion for France and he loved to talk about it and share it. I love listening to people talk about their passions. Finally, Antoinette came and stole me away… otherwise I think Michael would have kept me there for at least another hour just chatting and enjoying the incredible surroundings.

Shortly thereafter, Antoinette had to leave us so she could catch her train back to Bruxelles. After grabbing some more picturesque shots of (???) Bryan, Loic, and I headed to a small house party at a friend of Loic’s place. Laurent’s apartment was very chic… thanks to his wife as I was told. They were a warm couple eager to share their home with us. There was about 8 of us and we all just spent hours in the small living room chatting and playing games.

****and then I arrived in Saarbrucken, Germany and fell in love with its genuinely local and rustic Christmas spirit before making last minute plans to hitch a ride with Julian and Maria on their way down from Holland to Austria. I’m going to have to forgo the craft I usually try to put into my writing in order to catch up on adventure after adventure. At the moment, I am on a train from Salzburg, Austria to Graz, Austria. I will be staying in Graz for a longer period of time with a woman and her daughter. In exchange for free room and board I’m just asked to speak English with the little girl, Lisa, and watch her from time to time. I will also us the time to slow down a bit, catch up on work and make plans for my next bout of travels. So, back to Paris…****

Laurent is one of the people I was talking about when I said Loic surrounds himself with people who are going to change the world. Laurent is dedicating his time to developing a restaurant that will operate solely on employees who are considered “hard to employ,” meaning criminals, those repeatedly getting fired, etc… The point is to invest the time to train these people and arm them with skills not just in cooking and the restaurant biz, but in life. Laurent is so passionate about this project, that was clearly evident when he told me about it. Everyone at that small apartment party was absolutely a joy to spend time with and they made me feel as if we were all old friends and I had always belonged right there with them.

Several hours and several drinks later, Loic and I finally took off to head back to Loic’s apartment… but, of course we had to stop at Le P’tit Bar just around the corner from his place. This bar is a tiny, dark, slightly musty bar with old stone walls that reminded me of walls I would find in the bowels of a castle. The clutter of an old woman living alone is everywhere… and an old cat loafs lazily on one of the few stools. The tiny, old woman at this bar has been there for nearly 50 years. It was her husband’s bar… and now that he has passed away… it’s hers. When Loic and I entered, we seemed to have roused the old woman from sleep. Without hesitation though, she took her place behind the bar and began serving us. Loic and I chatted with her for a bit, Loic translating of course. Then, an old Frenchman, a regular, came in and joined us. Next, it was a group of Italians with their Sicilian-French friend as their guide. The Italians were delighted to discover I spoke their sing-song language and we all instantly became friends, sharing many laughs, jokes and just plain silliness. Loic and I had meant to just have “a beer or two” in that tiny, old little bar. But, it was well after four in the morning before we finally made it back inside his apartment. That entire evening was just fantastically Parisian.

The next day Loic had to head to work early… while I got to hibernate in my own room and recover from the previous night. That’s also when I was finally able to finish writing about Den Haag and catch up with friends, emails and work online. I did eventually rouse myself enough to emerge from my room and join Karim and Juan in their room. But, that day we were all internet addicts, each of us slaves to our computers.

I had made plans to meet another French couchsurfer though for a drink, so in the evening I got ready to go out… and that’s when I realized I didn’t have my wallet. Yeah, my wallet had quite a bit of cash, two credit cards, my license, phone numbers, etc… Just then Loic walked in and he and I went to Le P’tit Bar with a prayer and hope to find my wallet. Whew! It was there! We had a drink with the little old lady to celebrate the recovery of my wallet. The old women shared more about her life and the countless of travelers she has hosted in her bar. Despite it’s size and it’s rather hidden quality the bar is quite famous and many travelers seem to hear rumors of it and somehow end up stumbling in… from all over the world. How awesome!

Of course, losing my wallet, finding my wallet, and celebrating its recovery made me very late for my appointment with that fellow couchsurfer. When Loic and I were finally nearing the place where we were to meet, we called the cser and he wasn’t too happy. Learning we were still about 10 mins away he decided to call it all off and go home. I felt really bad about it all… it took me awhile to get over it. In the meantime though, Loic and I munched on traditional French crepes and got to stop and witness the magnificence of Notre Dame by moonlight. Talk about a consolation prize.

The next day… regrettably, it was time for me to leave. Loic and I said our farewells in the morning before he left for work, I stayed a bit longer to get my things together and chat a little bit with Juan and Karim… and then I took off for Saarbrucken, Germany.

So many people asked… why Saarbrucken? Why Thilo of course! Thilo is a friend whom I absolutely adore. I met him while I was living in Columbia, MO and working in Jefferson City, MO and he was studying at Mizzou as an exchange student. I was actually heading Thilo’s way a bit early though… he is extremely busy with his master’s thesis and with a full course load of classes. We planned a visit for the weekend… but I had a few extra days to kill, so I arranged a surf in Saarbrucken for a few days before I would meet Thilo…

More on the cozy comfort of Saarbrucken to come…

La Llaga

There is rusty metal wall in Tijuana that not only marks the border between Mexico and the U.S., but visually defines the sharp division between the two countries. Large portions of that wall, on the Mexican side, are canvassed with crosses, coffins, memorials, even altars honoring those who have died by simply trying to cross it. Los Tijuaneses know the wall as La Llaga, or “the festering wound.” And behind that wall, there is another. The other wall is taller, stronger, sterile. It is guarded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

One of our hosts, Fr. Tom, brought us to the border, to the walls. Walls that represent a horrifying amount of suffering and loss. As we simply drove by it, I couldn’t help but feel oppressed by it, taunted by it. I wanted to cross it just because it’s very presence was telling me not to. But I can cross it. Freely. And those that can’t cross it… or those that must risk everything to cross it… have a real reason to try. They risk losing their lives… so they can have a chance at living.

When we visited that wall we saw names; names just like those honored on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. And these weren’t just the names of men. I also saw the names of women, children, infants. Yet, what’s most disturbing… is this is a living memorial. More and more names belong on it each day. As we drove away from one part, we witnessed a group of Mexicans jumping over the wall in the very spot we were standing just minutes before. Seconds later they came scrambling back. But we were assured these men would have went for it if they had seen a real opportunity. Our group was baffled. Why there? Why risk it? It seems so secure.

Fr. Tom shared more of the realities of the border with us. I have some great audio but apparently blogger doesn’t offer audio hosting. I am still trying to figure out how to get audio up on this site… and I’m getting frustrated because I really want to share his comments with you.

Listening to Fr. Tom speak, I become less hopeful, more disturbed. But then Donna Eisenbath, the leader of this trip, reminded us “that walls do come down. The Berlin Wall did.”

30 Minutes to a New, But Somewhat Familiar World


Thirty minutes. That’s about how long it takes to get from the border of the U.S. to Tijuana. That’s how long it takes to suddenly find yourself in the midst of a Feed the Children commercial. You know, those commercials that feature mangy children, dirt streaked across their faces, swollen bellies. The poverty of Tijuana was evident immediately. As we rounded the corner to the street of the oblates’ house where we would be staying, I glimpsed a mother watching her pequeño muchacho, clothed in a just a t-shirt and diapers, rummaging through the trash.

But when I looked again, and really looked instead of merely glancing, I found the beauty of Tijuana to be just as evident as its poverty. I wandered around the grounds inside the gates of the oblates’ house and found treasure after treasure. And as I wandered, I overheard one of our hosts, Fr. Salvador Chava, inform us that our neighborhood is considered middle-class, “When I first moved here, this neighborhood didn’t have electricity,” he explained. “Now they have electricity.”

Tijuana is just hills and valleys and every inch of ground is covered with houses. Some are sturdy, others are just shacks thrown together for some sort of shelter. Some are more impressive than most houses of affluence in the U.S. And those can be found amidst a cluster of shacks. I gaze up at the hills, where it seems houses and shacks are practically built one upon the other, and I can’t help thinking one big downpour could easily wash away everything these people own. A sentiment most of those in my group share. Their wealth, or lack there of, seems to be at the utmost mercy of the weather.

There is so much to tell. So much that I’ve seen and learned in just two and a half days. My days are full. What time I can spare, I share with the muchachos; the kids who already greet me with hugs so full of love and excitement that they match those of my sister, Serena.

We must carefully watch the amount of water we use. We are advised not to flush any toilet paper. The cost of draining septic tanks, something I have never even thought about until now, is a large expense for the residents of Tijuana. The city is growing rapidly, at times entire neighborhoods popping up literally overnight. The city’s water system cannot support this rampant growth, so all drinkable water is shipped in from outside sources. No one drinks the tap water here.

The first night I spotted some ninos playing futbol (aka soccer). Of course, I had to go join them. And for my simple interest in playing futbol with the muchachos, I am rewarded with big, warm hugs every time I step outside or return to the house. Those pictured with me are Adrian, Lupita and Toni. Adrian is so sweet and lovable. Lupita has a contagious laugh. Pequena Toni simply stares at us all with a huge grin, darting into our games every so often and darting back out just as quickly.

But that is just one stitch in the tapestry of life here. Forgive me for using such a cliche, but I’m tired and don’t have the energy to be creative with my writing right now.

I can’t wait to share more about our work at the oblates’ Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, hearing testimony from Mother Antonia – the mother of the prisoners, serving food at the Missionaires of Charity soup kitchen, munching on street-side tacos… and more.

Roosters crow at three in the morning… but their calls merely work seamlessly into my dreams.

He Will Deliver…

As I’ve been praying to God for Him to lead me to where he wants to use me next… He’s provided an answer to my prayers! I’ve been feeling compelled to travel and explore foreign places and cultures for as long as I can remember. Already, I’ve been blessed to visit so many wonderful places and encounter so many people, cultures and experiences. I’ve grown from each one of them. But, the more I travel the more I feel called to include more in those travels. For the past several years I’ve felt called to serve through travel. I’ve explored various options such as the military, the Peace Corps and others. I’m still strongly considering them… but, God has opened up another opportunity that I’m very excited about! My previous youth group leader has invited me to join her and her ministry in a mission trip to Tijuana the last week of July. We will be visiting a very poor community, offering whatever help we can and we will be sharing the truths about God and Christ. I think this trip will be particularly interesting in light of the growing controversy over immigration from Mexico to the U.S. It’ll be interesting to hear the stories of those struggling just across our border.

An added bonus is I’ll be working with my former youth leader to film our trip. I’m very excited about this! One of my biggest goals is to film a documentary and this trip will most certainly let me try my hand at documentary filming. I’m not looking for anything spectacular… just the chance to get my feet wet and see what I might come up with.

This opportunity is an absolute answer to my prayers… and as I said before…. I am eager to be God’s faithful servant! I’ll be compiling information on Tijuana as I find it.

Less than 20 miles south of downtown San Diego lies the world’s busiest port of entry –
the international border crossing between San Ysidro, CA and Tijuana, Mexico.

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-02-05-border-crime_x.htm