Under The Leadwood Tree

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I had an intense need to touch the ancient, giant Leadwood tree in front of us. With a formidable silhouette against the deep blue African sky, the tree’s trunk is massive in diameter. It stands alone at the intersection of two dirt paths in the Sabi/Lion Sands Game Reserve near the Kruger National Park. Teeming with wildlife around us, I know getting out of our open Land Rover in the middle of the bush after just spotting a large troop of baboons and a leopard on the hunt might seem a bit foolish. However, the power to run my hands over the pale grey bark and trace the deeply cracked rectangular pieces of the trunk is far stronger than my fear of being prey. With our ranger’s blessing and his rifle loaded and ready if needed, I approached the almost 2,000 year old tree with reverence. Considered by native tribes to be the ancestor of man and animal, its fissured façade reminds me of the parched and cracked desert sand waiting for the rain to seep into the crevices to bring new growth.

Larger than life up-close, I slowly ran my fingers over the hard wood and allow its rough exterior, alike to reptilian scales, to softly scuff my skin. Because of its density, it is the only wood that sinks in water and whose ash when mixed with water, is used as bush toothpaste. Unshed tears were stinging my eyes and I used the massive trunk to shield me from my kids and fellow bush goers watching from our Land Rover. My kids already think I’m a bit different and I certainly will remove all doubt if they see a tree can make me cry. Overcome by the sheer wonder of a tree older than many civilizations, I wished it can whisper its secrets of longevity. I longed to linger under its whitish branches and let its wisdom of survival seep into my bones.

My South-Africa journey has taken some twists and turns this past week. Introducing my teenage kids to the harsher side of my country’s history has proven more taxing than I anticipated, demanding on me that is, and less so on them. I grew up under an Apartheid government where there was no freedom of the press and I left South-Africa in 1990, the year Mandela was freed. It left me uneducated and ill-informed about the cruel truths regarding Apartheid and what it was like living under its regime as a black person. Our tour guide took us to the poorest section of Soweto, the black township that grew mostly because of the large scale evictions of black people from whites-only neighborhoods in the Johannesburg area.

Although I have passed by many shack towns on various continents including India, Africa and South-America, I have never stopped to learn how to live in such complete destitution. We met Gladys, who graciously invited us into her humble home. The walls and roof were made from nailed together corrugated metal sheets and offered no insulation from the freezing cold nights in winter or the suffocating hot days of summer. The ceiling height was barely 6 feet and I could feel my claustrophobia squeezing me between the dirt floor and sagging roof.

Without any power and running water, her two room home included an area where three people were sleeping on the ground and a space for cooking, eating and sitting. But it was spotlessly clean and she was proud to show us around. She had a small vegetable garden where she was growing cabbage and onions. Water had to be carried from a communal faucet down the road and was shared with about 100 families. In the far corner of her small yard was the outhouse – a deep hole in the ground that never gets cleaned out. I was struck by her smiling eyes and how although her house was simple, it was cozy and filled with love and family. We met her 6-year old granddaughter who attends the local pre-school. Desperately low on funds, its survival depended on the goodwill and handouts of the community and tourists visiting. I could see my kids were struggling with the reality of how a large part of the world outside of our fortunate lives exists daily.

As we continued to our next stop, our guide challenged us with why “Vilakazi” was the most famous street in the world. Without access to Google, I had to confess I had never heard of it. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, lived just down the street from each other during a very dark time in South-Africa. This section of Soweto was significantly nicer than the neighborhood we just came from. The brick houses were mostly built post World War II with metal roofs, two to three bedrooms, with plumbing and electricity. Mandela’s home was still very small and several bullet holes and smoke damage from petrol bombs told a violent story of the struggle waged on this street for freedom and equality. I’m sure a Nobel Peace Price was the furthest from both men’s mind in the early 1960s.

Our last stop in Soweto, the memorial for Hector Pieterson, left me with a lasting sorrow for my people, both white and black. I was a 10 year old kid in 1976 and lived in the privileged whites-only area of Pretoria during the Soweto Uprising when 10,000 black children were marching in protest against the Apartheid government forcing all schooling to be in Afrikaans, in spite of the fact that Afrikaans was not taught in any black school. Although unarmed; it did not stop the police from opening live fire against the children, killing several hundred in cold blood. Hector Pieterson, only thirteen years old, was the first casualty and the photo of his bloodied body being carried by an older boy, when leaked to the world, left people across the globe speechless. One could argue that it was the start of the international campaign against Apartheid. Living in complete ignorance as the media was controlled by the government, our white lives were un-interrupted and continued to flourish.

Our final stop was the Apartheid Museum, austere and simple, inside its somber walls the story of Apartheid is depicted in all its gruesome reality. On display was another example how a regime can dominate when it wielded weapons, with the power and threat of death and torture. I can plead ignorance as I didn’t know what was unfolding in the world outside my “Whites Only” existence during the 1970s and 80s. However, when walking outside in the sunlight, I could not shake a feeling of shame for my white Afrikaner heritage. Simultaneously, I was intensely proud and grateful that Mandela led our country to a democracy. Although his name, struggle and story of 27 years a prisoner were all unknown to me when he was freed, he will always be my hero. The world has known many remarkable people, but Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he is lovingly called by his tribal name, is a giant amongst giants. I hope as generations pass, the terror of this time can be reconciled in a South-Africa where everybody enjoys the same opportunities and freedom.

Every trip back to my country includes a few days on safari in the bush. My spirit needs to be nourished by the smells, sounds and sights of the wild Africa I love. Seeing nature the way it was created, melts my troubles and allows me to refocus on what matters most: being with the people I love and living my life presently and to its full potential.

I reluctantly stepped away from the Leadwood. Having never before paid much attention to the native trees myself, I know my fellow safari goers are eager to search for the Big Five and have little interest with my obsession to embrace an ancient tree that is part of the bush landscape. After being witness to more than 6,000 season changes, I hope this magnificent specimen will see many more, and I certainly will always remember the precious moments I spent in the company of its silence.

As night was falling, our tracker was flashing a spotlight into the veld to pick up any nocturnal creatures. My own eyes were searching for bush babies. I’m fond of their giant eyes, old man’s fingers and the cries that give them their name. The crisp winter air prevents them from showing themselves to our search light and instead we feasted our eyes on the magnificent night sky. Without any light pollution from nearby cities, the Milky Way revealed its glory, Venus and Jupiter were shining brightly side by side and my beloved Southern Cross was glowing overhead.

Much to my surprise, the uneven dirt path in front of us was suddenly lit with many bush paraffin lanterns. As we turned the corner, we entered a magical fairytale. The entire bush was lit with lamps hanging from trees and stands. It was our dinner surprise! Enjoying a real bush dinner in the middle of the African bush without any fences or obstacles to keep the animals out! I was delighted when we stopped at our table under another massive and majestic Leadwood tree. Unlike the one earlier in the day, this one was still growing and its spreading canopy of pale green leaves created a natural shelter.

With a massive bonfire in the center of our camp to scare away our four legged friends, we feasted on authentic bush cooking. Tender wildebeest loin, authentic Boer sausage, lamb chops and an array of vegetables and salads rounded out the feast. The rangers kept close eyes on our surroundings in case a hyena or other predator felt like visiting. Soon a group of black African women were singing acapella and sharing their native songs with us. Encouraged to join their singing and dancing around the fire, my heart was bursting with happiness.

One day I would like one third of my ashes to be placed inside an ancient Leadwood giant in the Sabi/Lion Sands. I like the thought of spending a few thousand years sharing stories with my latest bush best friend and let its hardwood protect me from the elements.

Jungle Pearls

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The rain is pelting down on my tent. It’s a first for me, hearing the pouring rain lashing out against my tent like an angry animal looking for food. I’m very proud that I have mastered the art of pitching it even in the dark by the faint light of a headlamp. My rain flap is keeping me perfectly dry but even while the rain is pouring like buckets from the sky, the heat is sweltering inside my tent. I’m stripped down to the bare necessities and still little rivers of sweat are forming in the many crevices of my skin and running down to form small puddles next to my deflated sleeping pad. God, it’s humid. I’m so hot. I’m so dreadfully tired. My feet are a total train wreck – raw, bleeding and throbbing to the touch. My foot bones feel like they have been slowly crushed between two heavy duty clamps. The effort to walk back from the dining tent to my simple shelter for the night was almost unbearable.

Our camp tonight once again is in the jungle and although next to a beach, there is no reprieve from the oppressive jungle heat. My Garmin is telling me it is 2am. I have been awake for hours unable to sleep as my sleeping pad sprung a leak earlier. As the novice camper I am, I didn’t pick my tent site well and am paying the price. I missed the memo that one should remove rocks and stones from underneath your tent seeing that you will be sleeping on said pointy and very sharp objects. Without a working pad, I’m in for many hours of misery. The rocks are digging into every inch of my aching body and I’m not succeeding to mold my form around their unyielding and hostile shapes.

Today was humbling. Not all miles are created equal and after Day 1 my blistered feet could attest that Costa Rica is not for the light weight, the wannabe and the unprepared. I switched on Day 2 to the shorter distance but still struggled to make it to the end. I found myself often collapsed on the dense jungle floor wishing that a snake or spider would rescue me from the misery of having to get up and keep moving. Which is worse, the desert or the jungle? In my opinion it depends in which one you find yourself. Both are relentless and push you to the border of your capacity, both physically and mentally. My collection of blisters grew and my respect for my environment increased tenfold, which brought us to today – Day 3. The majority of the damage to my feet occurred on Day 2 when we crossed several jungle streams and river estuaries and my feet remained wet and muddy far too long.

(Side note: Small attention to detail . . . You can wing your way through 26.2 miles on a road race but 140 miles through the roughest terrain possible in the thick of the jungle when it’s ungodly hot and humid … yeah, not so much. Henda, it’s time you show up fully prepared every time and quit bullshitting yourself about your readiness.)

February 1st, 2014 was a memorable day on many levels. It was the first time ever that I ran 10 miles in 10 minutes per mile without walking or stopping. But it was also the day I tore my ACL dancing in 4 inch boots to where I needed full ACL reconstruction in April, 2014. Bummer. Ok. . . It sucked. Ok, ok . . . It was devastating and it wrecked my athletic year. Digging out from the surgery/rehab was dreadful. I had the best surgeon possible and thanks to his guidance, I showed up at the Chicago Marathon in October. Untrained but determined to finish in the allotted time allowed and bring home some race bling, aka a finisher medal, I was unfazed by 26.2 miles in a single day race. Worst case I could walk the whole course in 6.5 hours.

Apart from finishing within the official time, I took away two very special memories from Chicago. Around mile 9 I ran into a blind man running the race with a guide. I paced with them for a few miles and was really humbled. How remarkable! Bloody Hell! I need to adjust my gratitude and training level significantly!

Then there was this fan that kept popping up along the course. She was big, bold, very blond and memorable. And … she was wearing this big neon T-Shirt with daring letters and had a humungous sign to match that said “DO EPIC SHIT!”  Yeah, let’s do epic shit. What a great motto! I’m all in!

(Side note: You guessed it. My “Epic Shit” the week after the Chicago marathon was that I paid for my entry to run The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica the end of January 2015. It’s one of the revered “tough” races in the genre – 140 miles, 6 days, rough terrain, rainforest, mountains, extreme heat, river crossings, extreme humidity, beaches . . . yeah, epic no doubt. But I needed something big to reassure me that my knee was just fine.)

Day 3 started with an eight mile stretch down a solitary beach, Playa Ballena. With no shade in sight, the sun was as much a predator seeking your weak spot as the rain and rocks just hours later in the friendless confinement of my tent. Until I can add speed to my racing repertoire, I will always find myself alone most of the time. Few crazy ones as slow as I am will show up to dare to attempt the ultra endurance stage races I am drawn to, that are my “epic shit”. My therapist and I often contemplate the attraction that these races hold for me, but that is another story . . .

Playa Ballena is not just an area where the humpback whales come during the winter, but the beach forms an actual gigantic whale’s tail visible from the air. It witnessed my physical struggle but also watched the demons inside my head fight for supremacy. The days leading up to the race, I read Eckhart Tolle’s “New Earth” and needless to say, it was a turning point on many levels. I fully embraced the concept to remove unhappiness from my life instead of seeking peace and happiness. I knew to achieve this goal means removing myself from situations and people that make me deeply unhappy. I had to be willing to let go and I had to realize that to yield is an expression of strength. The willingness of changing my happiness by removing me from an unhappy situation was not a sign of giving up or failure, but instead, the most powerful action I can take on my own behalf.

The waves were crushing around me in their never-ending ocean symphony, their foaming breakers sparkling white against the backdrop of deep blue and brilliant turquoise water.  The ocean breeze was softly caressing my face and thru the tears that were streaming down my cheeks, I was watching the tiny sand crabs frantically bolting into their burrows. Their beautiful and intricate sand balls covered Ballena’s beach like hundreds of priceless pearl necklaces strewn upon the golden sand. And like the oyster that creates a stunning gem deep inside its soft tissue from a small grain of irritation, I know that I can also overcome my struggle. “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us” – Joseph Campbell.

After the night on the rocks in my tent, when dawn broke on Day 4, I knew that I won’t be starting. It was hard to let go of my desire to finish, but I knew my stubbornness needs to learn when to bow and exit left. I stayed with the group and supported my new friends in their quest to reach the finish line on Day 6. “Tuesdays with Morrie” was my company on Day 5 in the shade of a palm tree overlooking the Osa Peninsula. The book is a beautiful homage to a great man and I could not have picked a better moment or place to get to know Morrie and Mitch.

During the celebration dinner on the beach at Drake Bay, my blood chilling screams caused much commotion. I almost took out our entire table that I was sitting at when I flung the blend of flapping wings and countless feet that landed in my lap as far as I could. Much to my chagrin it was only a giant bush cricket (katydid). My new Costa Rican friend, Ligia, took my hand and explained that the local name is “Esperanza” meaning “hope” and that it is considered very good luck when one lands in your lap. The jungle had a very special message and a specific messenger to send me on my journey home. It was telling me that I will find the courage to do what I had to, the strength to do it with kindness and grace, and the wisdom to know that it was right for me.

The next morning, as we sped across Drake Bay by boat back to Sierpe, once again my tears were mixing with the wind and ocean spray, but this time it was with the knowledge and acceptance that although I left without a medal and a finisher shirt, I brought home something far more rare and extraordinary: the infinite understanding that if you cannot let go, you will be dragged.

My Seven Deadly Sins

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My dinner for one tonight is grilled wild Alaskan salmon served over simple greens and shitake mushrooms with a glass of the Seven Deadly Zins. It is not an expensive red but I enjoy it because it is an old vine, has a nice play on words and tastes good. In my real estate world, I run into greed often and I know that no one of the seven sins are above the other, but greed must be the one that can corrupt and cause more harm to others than sloth, gluttony and vanity. I realize that lust, envy and wrath certainly can do much damage but I’m just an expert witness in what greed can do to the inherent goodness of a person.

My music choice tonight is “Nora Jones Radio”, courtesy of Pandora. I love her velvet voice washing over me like a soothing shower of warm water, stroking my worn out and tired mind. Four years ago writing was an agonizing affair. English is a second language and expressing myself caused much distress. Until I thought I may die prematurely when I was diagnosed with breast cancer when my kids were 8 and 10. I feared that I would only be a faint memory as time passed and I wanted them to know my story, my thoughts, my beliefs, me . . .and to do that I had to write . . . so I did. I’m telling them my story by having a conversation about my journey. It is honest and from my heart. Not fancy and with little pretense. It is a gift for them and although they are still too young to understand, one day they will.

Writing has become a stress release as well. I enjoy sitting down after a long day and just let my thoughts roam. I know that food is often part of my conversation and it is because I do love the intense pleasure and comfort that good food and wine invoke in me. I’m unwilling to rank one sense over the other, but I would certainly miss “taste” very much.

My most valued possessions are the wealth of memories I have collected over a lifetime of traveling, seeking adventure, fun and spending time with people that matter to me. But above all, I’m deeply grateful that I experienced being a mother. The unconditional love and precious relationship I have with my daughter and son are what matters most to me. They are my most treasured bunnies and I will die for them.

Considering my worldly possessions, my bracelet collection severely lacks in costly stones and diamonds. Instead, I accumulated them from across the globe, many times for just a few dollars from street vendors, and their worth for me is greater than any gemstone. Each holds a treasured memory and I love to glance at my wrists during the course of a day and remember when and where they joined my motley crew.

I found the exquisite silver filigree one, circa early 1920’s, in a tiny little shop on Nerudova Street in Prague one very cold November night in 2011. I passed the shop on my way to a special concert at St George’s Basilica near the castle. For more than 1,000 years the walls of St George’s Basilica have stood witness to people seeking solace within. How fortunate was I to stumble upon a music concert of Vivaldi, Mozart, Bizet, Handel and Brahms right as dusk was setting over the city. The music filled the austere space but half way through the concert, my feet and fingers were frozen and I could not help to wonder how people kept warm there in 920 AD.

Exiting the Basilica, night had fallen and I saw the Cathedral in its nocturnal illumination for the first time. Ok, I know I declared my love to the Charles Bridge in an early blog post, but certainly I can share my love! It was utterly spectacular. And I saw it without the gazillion tourists rushing to catch the next stop on the tour. Did I say spectacular? Let me find the ways I can sing about its beauty – oh, wait, I cannot sing. Seriously, it was astonishing, brilliantly, fabulously stunning. And it was just up the street from my little hotel that dated back to the 15th century. Inspired by the beauty that surrounded me and the music that caressed me earlier; I entered a small antique shop and fell in love for the third time that day. The bracelet was solid silver and several intricate filigreed Egyptian scenes circled its delicate frame. It was more than I wanted to spend and I reluctantly left it behind. But I could not let it go. Every day I passed by the shop and decided that if it was still there on my last day, then I would bring it home to Dallas. I always wonder about the women whose wrists it had encircled for the past 90 years. How did an Egyptian, silver work of art ended up in that little shop in Prague? And how glad I am that it now resides in Texas.

Another favorite I seldom wear today because it has become very fragile, I bought for $2 deep in the heart of the Peruvian rain forest from a very old Inca man. We visited their primitive hut and spent a couple of hours learning about their rituals and customs. In its center the wooden hand-carved bracelet has a woven pattern that reminds me of a complex spider web. Very thin strips of corn husks were used to create the pattern and it has slowly become unraveled. When I wear it today, I always remember the fateful events post my breast cancer surgery that led to a heart attack and my stay in an intensive care unit in Arequipa. The bracelet reminds me how we can overcome so much when we allow ourselves to confront our demons.

My oldest bracelet dates back 50,000 years and I found it in another little shop near Denali in Talkeetna, Alaska. It is also solid silver and has oval shaped disks of wooly mammoth ivory tusks. As the tundra has slowly been melting, these tusks are coming to the surface and the locals use it to carve beautiful pieces. I love this bracelet because it reminds me of the majestic beauty of Alaska. It ties me to the beauty of a land so wild and large where I could feel the presence of nature everywhere. Every day it reminded me that it only tolerated our presence briefly and that nature could reclaim its legacy at any moment. It was alive with large scale animals and it has been the only place outside of Africa where I felt the presence of nature so close. It is not for the soft and faint hearted and your spirit must be large to rise to the occasion of living there. If you let it, it will allow your spirit to soar alongside the bald eagles. Alaska inspires you and leaves you knowing that you must hurry back.

(Side note: My next trip to the untamed land of the north was in the dead of winter to chase the northern lights! I wrote about their brilliance in “Gifts and Gratitude“)

Of course no collection of mine would be complete without several pieces from South-Africa. Most of them are inexpensive beaded leather straps bought next to roads or in local markets, but I do have a couple made from woven elephant hair. I also bought a thick copper one from a street vendor in Johannesburg and I try not to think that the copper was probably stolen phone wires that were melted down to peddle to tourists! I do own another very thick and chunky one that I bought at the curio shop while on safari near the Kruger Park. It’s carved from antelope antlers and inlaid with solid silver. Wearing it can be risky as the silver easily snares clothing, but it is a favorite too.

My salmon tonight came with a twist. Whole Foods had fresh king salmon as well as fresh ivory kings tonight on offer. I love all fish but after spending much time in Alaska, wild Alaskan salmon holds a very special place on my plate. Like my bracelet, the Kings take me back to the remote lake we fished in deep in the Alaskan wilderness and only accessible by private seaplane. Our bush pilot was a rugged native that detoured to fly us over an ancient glacier and across wild summer tundra filled with moose, brown and grizzly bear. From that trip we brought back 70 pounds of halibut and salmon. After six months of Henda’s fish dishes, my kids suggested we switched back to beef!

I tasted both pieces of king salmon side by side and concluded that the ivory king was a little too mild for me. I like my king salmon with all the robust and strong flavor promised within the deep color of its flesh. I know that only 1 in 1,000 salmon yield ivory and although I always embrace the unique and one of a kind, in this case, I prefer the common over the rare. In closing, as I raise my glass to the Seven Deadly Zins; my life is too short for any of the deadly sins, except for my version:

Lust – The strong desire to live life with all my might

Gluttony – To savor the intense pleasure of good food and wine every day

Wrath – My anger flares intensely when the innocent suffers

Envy – I have none – What is the point?

Sloth – I think they are very cute in the wild and “laziness” will never describe me

Vanity – Mmmm . . . as long as one sticks to the good side of it and pride

Greed – I have so much fortune, need little and want less . . . life is too short . . .my greed is wanting to live a quality life for as long as I can.

Gifts and Gratitude

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Maria Callas’s beautiful voice is caressing me this morning and the blend of it, along with the daring and bold way the sun is illuminating the freshly washed world after days of rain, is a wonderful cocktail.

Named “Grace” in Yiddish and a verb “to happen” in Icelandic, ”Henda” certainly does not allow me much anonymity in the online world. A few keystrokes on Google will lay out a roadmap for any stranger to know much about me. However, our online personas are just one facet of the sum of our parts. To really know me, you must spend time with me, talk to me and listen to the story that is uniquely mine. Like peeling the layers of an onion, online data today is just that, the thin outer skin.

You will discover that finding the splendor in ordinary moments and everyday life is important to me. I’m told that I struggle to accept that the mundane dictates most of our day-to-day. True. I decline to accept. Instead, I seek out the magic in each day and allow the mundane to co-exist. Each day that I live is a gift I shall never take for granted. I know that my two very close encounters with my own mortality shaped my thirst to drink my life from a gushing fountain instead from a glass. My gratitude that I learned early to live without reservation is boundless.

When we sit down and talk you will learn that I struggle intensely with the Christmas season. I find it deeply commercialized and wish that so many business bottom lines were not tied to the spending habits leading up to Christmas. I have a desire each year to spend time in a country that does not celebrate Christmas just so I can escape the sheer frenzy of so many people’s urgency to buy and buy and buy. This year I wanted to take my kids somewhere to show them the magic beyond the distraction of commerce. I wanted to install in them a sense of wonder and an understanding of a gift not measured by any monetary value. I wanted to blow their minds.

A few layers deeper, you will realize that I don’t find God in a church. Instead, my cathedral exists on mountain tops, under a desert night skies and witnessing the glory of a sunrise or sunset. It’s the lavish gift that nature bestows on me that allows me to embrace the glory of God and the magnificence of creation. It’s in that space that I can hear my thoughts and find comfort in my heartbeat. I can be silent. I intentionally seek out these moments daily and it’s their greatness that overshadows the ordinary of every day.

The aurora borealis (northern lights) has been on my bucket list for a long time. Before scientific explanations, they were perceived as omens and prophecies. Their radiance stirred as much fear as it instilled wonder, and they became part of our superstitions and fairy tales. I had a profound need to witness nature’s most impressive light show personally. It was my gift to my children this Christmas.

Elusive and as natural as air; finding them takes special effort if you don’t live in the far north. But often the journey to discover a Wonder can be equally rewarding. We arrived on Christmas Eve in Yellowknife, the capital of the far Northwest Territories of Canada, just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and it was -35F. Frigid, icy, freezing, frosty . . . sorry, none of these words accurately describe what “cold” feels like! My eyelashes were frozen after a short walk down the block and little icicles quickly formed around the hairs in my nose.

I rented arctic gear for us as the warmth of our own ski-clothes was utterly inadequate. Even then, you find yourself dressed four layers deep under the bulk of your outerwear. After an hour outside on a snowmobile, I had to bite back the tears as my feet and hands were hurting so much from the cold.

(Side Note: Yellowknife sits on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North-America at 2,014 feet, and the 10th largest in the world. Each winter an ice road is made linking Yellowknife with Dettah, a fishing camp that has been occupied by the Dene people for hundreds of years.)

At 9pm on Christmas Eve we drove 30 minutes out onto the Great Slave Lake on snowmobiles to a little cabin away from the city lights. Optimum aurora viewings require clear and cold nights, with prime time between 10pm and 4am. Without any guarantee that there would be any aurora, my expectations were high and I could only hope that my Christmas wish would come true. After about an hour, faint green ribbons were crossing the sky. Elated, I rapidly started taking pictures, hoping to capture their beauty. Slowly they intensified and my camera was able to display reds surrounding the green that were not visible by the naked eye. The frigid air caused you to linger for brief intervals outside before you had to seek warmth inside the cabin.

At 10 minutes past midnight, Christmas morning, the sky burst alive with a light show my imagination could never envision. The solar wind that collided with Earth’s magnetic field at that moment produced a magnificent array of colors. Red, green, violet and orange ribbons were twirling and skipping above the frozen tundra. Covering the entire night sky and dwarfing the stars, it was as if the glory of God was dancing across the heavens. I wanted to reach up and hold them close. But like true Wonders all I could do was allow myself to be swept into a visual and sensory celebration of life.

My camera ran out of battery power earlier that night. I’m glad, because no picture could ever capture what we witnessed. The images are forever burned in my mind and I shall often enjoy the memory of a Christmas night like none other. My gratitude for this gift is endless.

I have seen the sunrise over Mount Everest and Machu Picchu, listened to the thunder of Victoria Falls, gazed upon the Taj Mahal and recently camped at the remote North Rim of the Grand Canyon. If we continue our conversation, you will find that seeking out the Wonders of our world bring me much joy, but that it is the small miracles of each day that matters most.

Agony and Ecstasy

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Zen music is softly piping into the room and my face is gently cradled in the doughnut pillow of the massage table. My sore muscles are eagerly awaiting the expert touch of the therapist and the promise of relieve from the hell I inflicted on every part of my body the day before. The spa menu at La Posada in Santa Fe reads like the who’s who of indulgence: Rejuvenate, Spirit of Santa Fe, Renewal, Restore  . . . After much contemplation I selected “Rejuvenate” and surrendered myself to 80 minutes of pampered bliss.

The prelude to my rejuvenation was a lovely lunch on the patio with a celebratory glass of fine New Mexican Gruet accompanied by a ceviche avocado salad and Kobe beef tacos in Napa cabbage leaves. Wrapped in my soft Spa robe in a nice shady spot next to the swimming pool, I allowed the chatter of a group of soon to be newlywed youngsters to transport me into a deep siesta.

It was a far cry from 24 hours earlier when I poured trash cans full of ice in a bath tub at the Holiday Inn Express in Los Alamos. My legs and feet were still covered in the fine black ash from the high desert I just returned from after a grueling 10.5 hour battle to the finish line of the 2nd toughest 50k (31.2 miles) race in the country – The Jemez Trail. I reluctantly forced my limbs to fold and stretch into the freezing water, knowing that the ice bath will bring relieve from the throbbing and speed up recovery from the self-inflicted inflammation of my tissue and joints. I could only hope that my neighbors would not take the screams coming from room 325 too seriously.

panoramaThe black dirt clinging firmly to my skin was a harsh reminder of nature’s fury when a mountain burns.  All day the evidence of the Las Conchas fire was unmistakable on the trail. Solitary charred stumps were the only tribute to the once majestic ponderosa pine forest that was violently destroyed by a sea of orange flames. But I was amazed how quickly new growth sprouted green amongst the black of despair, evident again of the resilience of nature.

My therapist Stacy had begun the herbal exfoliation and quickly the room was filled with the intoxicating smell of sandalwood, sage, and peppermint. While the mixture was drying on my exposed skin, she expertly massaged my feet. “Oh, yes! Please don’t stop!” my feet were rejoicing in ecstasy. Shame . . . poor babies . . . but unlike previous races, not a single blister scarred their surface. Did I finally stumble upon the elusive answer to my feet? Before the race I lathered them in Body Glide prior to double socking in Injinji toe socks and Drymax running socks. Amazing . . . From now on a tube of Body Glide will be within easy reach.

I’m not naturally an early riser and getting up at 3:15a would never be part of any daily routine. Rising at that hour with the sole purpose to eat two hours before the start of an ultra endurance race also firmly classifies me to the “abnormal” group. Although not known for routine, I’m a creature of habit when it comes to race preparation. I may pack for an international trip 15 minutes before departing for the airport, but I meticulously lay out my clothes, gear and food in a neat and orderly row the night before a race.

As I sped in my little grey nondescript rental car to the start line, I questioned the logic of a 50 mile race at this stage of my training. Am I really ready to take on the distance? Am I willing to accept the genuine possibility that this will leave me with a DNF (Did Not Finish) next to my name? On paper it sounds very attainable  . . . 3.3 miles an hour at a fast walking pace certainly can be done. But 50 miles is a very long way.

picThe 5a start meant that 167 “abnormals” were congregating closely with little head lamps as dawn was still waiting in the wings. The almost full moon’s light illuminated the landscape in a silvery glow and the mountains were shapeless black silhouettes against the horizon. Large and ominous, their sheer size reiterated that I was not in Texas. We were off. I slipped into an easy pace and kept my eyes glued on the spot that my head lamp was painting in the dirt trail. Swiftly the terrain changed to very uneven and treacherous, and my inexperience quickly caused me to slip to the very back of the pack. Oh well, it was nice to run with the group for a few miles. I almost felt that I belonged, even though, unlike my fellow trail runners, I was wearing a 10 pound racing pack and running with Leki sticks.

In front of my eyes, the black of night transformed into the deep indigo of dawn. Mother Nature held its breath with me as the imminent fiery ribbon of the rising sun was about to crack dawn wide open. I never tire watching the drama of a new day unfold and count myself lucky to witness such a grand display surrounded by the majesty of the Sangre de Christo range. This is why I came . . .  to be reminded again how singularly remarkable nature, and life, is.

My 6:15a arrival at the five mile check point put me well within my goals. Feeling strong and confident, I had high hopes that the day may exceed my expectations. Then we started to climb . . . Thesaurus has several other words: scale, ascend, scramble, rise, increase, mount . . . but I’ll just stick with climb . . . my bravado vanished like cotton candy in your mouth. By mile seven I knew that I would be switching to the 50k as the 50 milers climb this mountain twice. I reached for my iPod since I needed music to help propel myself up the steep mountain side. It was a 4,000 feet vertical ascend to the summit of Pajarito mountain at 10,400 feet and the runners resembled a chain gang slowly working their way to the top.

My heart and lungs were exploding and I was gasping for air with each laboring step. My Garmin Fenix was dutifully recording the altitude and my progress at about 45 minutes a mile. When I finally emerged from the dense pine and aspen forest, my panoramic reward was breathtaking. To my east, the vista stretched over the Rio Grande Valley towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and to the west, over the Valle Caldera Grande.

bench(Side note: On the summit of Pajarito ski mountain stands a bench with expansive views of the mountains as well as Valles Caldera National Preserve. The bench was constructed in memory of Steven Karl Yeamans, skier, biker, rafter, machinist, photographer, and all-around well-liked guy. He died short of his 40th birthday but I have been unable to find out how. I would really like a bench high on a mountain top and will make sure I designate funds in my estate for its construction. I hope my friends will come to visit, and linger, while enjoying the magnificent view. And bring a good bottle of red or a fine French Champagne and lets reminisce about all the good times we shared.)

Back in my little haven of bliss, my freshly exfoliated skin was ready for the next phase of pleasure. The massage. I selected the “Buddha” scented oil and soon my limbs were just a pile of mush under the expert touch of Stacy. I allowed myself to be transported back to the moment in the race when I could almost glimpse the elusive runner’s zone.

During a race, I enter my dead zone after about a third into it. I start to lose interest and become a plodder. Music cannot pull me through and the whiny voices in my head drive me crazy with their unstoppable “Are we there yet?!” This time though, I had a secret weapon: Audio books!  The wonderful essays of David Foster Wallace about “Consider the Lobster” and “How Tracey Austin Broke my Heart” allowed me to arrive at the second to last checkpoint with a new leash on the final nine miles.

(Side note: A skill one learns growing up in South-Africa is how to squat in the bush without getting your shoes wet. And thanks to my trainer Mo, I can also hold a wall squat these days for four minutes. Needless to say, needing to pee on a trail race sometimes necessitate a fast and artful squat maneuver. Particularly when the high desert has no large trees to hide behind and the front runners of the 50 miler start to overtake you!)

finishLeaving the aid station with the end in sight, I decided it was time to flip the switch. My “finals” playlist has me trained like Pavlova’s dog and I only switch to it in a race when I’m ready to let it rip. My feet was flying over loose rocks and sand, and I could feel the power and energy surge through my body. I tackled the downhill skiing thru the loose sand on my feet but never hesitating in my quest to fly. For the next seven miles I was transported to that sacred place that real runners regularly visit when they are in the zone. During my short visits I grasp the allure and know the power of that place, both in one’s mind and in the harmonious execution of muscles, joints and bones, all working together in a symphony of motion. For now I’m happy to just stop by on the occasion.

My 80 minutes of bliss is rapidly coming to an end. My new friend Stacy gently informs me that she will be waiting for me outside with bottled water. My time in the Land of Enchantment was terrific and rewarding on every level. Maybe next year I will be ready to take on that mountain twice and write 50 miles next to my name, but today I’m content with 50k and a quiver overflowing with arrows of joy, triumph and delight.

Allow me to quote my other friend, Theodore Roosevelt: “It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at the least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.

Music Of The Night

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I’m severely handicapped when it comes to music. I was blessed with much love for it, but no skill in producing or playing any of it. I’m a liability on your team if music trivia is the category and my knowledge of songs, singers and bands borders on the edge of illiteracy.

I took piano lessons in my early twenties and still hear the desperate voice of my teacher urging me to play WITH the beat of the metronome. I think I must have been his most failed attempt in teaching someone to play even the most basic. I cannot sing, I hum poorly, don’t whistle and lack the ability to remember the name of an artist or song. Oh, but how I love listening to music! It inspires and transcends me to a place of complete happiness.

(Note to self: If stranded on an island, music must be included in the survival kit.)

There are many memories that I will hold close about the magic of Prague. However, if I was given only one word to describe its charm, it would be “music”. After all, it’s the city of Dvorak and Mozart. Music bursts from its seams and wraps you tenderly in the magic notes of the great masters. It flows, like the Vlatava river, from the buildings, the street performers, and the many people on the move, with a violin or cello case strapped to their backs. Multiple concerts nightly of the ballet, the opera, quartets, sopranos, and more are performed all over the city. And that is before you include all the great Jazz acts calling out for your attention.

Along my favorite walks in the old city, I also found my favorite street performers. They all had their specific spots and I made sure I strolled by daily. There was the blind soprano at the end of the Charles Bridge whose voice caused me to just close my eyes and be transported to another place.

50 yards down from her on the Bridge was the violin player. If I could play any instrument, I would wish it to be the violin. There is such purity in its sound and such beauty in the vibrato. In the premier spot on the bridge was a small orchestra. They covered a trumpet, violin, flute, oboe and cello. Their spectators were always large and I felt that they didn’t need my applause as much. My other violin friend played along the cobblestone road to the Castle, which was a smart move, as he had little competition. He lacked the drama and artistry of my violin friend on the Bridge, but his grey hair, bowed shoulders and the many decades etched on his face, made him a favorite study thru my camera lens.

And then there was Alex … always on the Charles Bridge. He was my favorite. During the day he was the quirky guy, the one man band, with the strange contraption and yellow umbrella strapped to his head that made the tourist stop to take his picture, laugh at his antics and applaud at his originality. But at night, when I visited the most, he was the one that played the Bohemian crystal water glasses. It was the most beautiful, haunting sound and it touched my heart on so many levels. My kids would have teased me once more how easily I can cry, and Alex certainly mastered the art to make my tears flow freely, every night, while listening to his water melodies in the below freezing night air.

He set the stage to my Prague ritual as it unfolded nightly after dinner. I would walk back over the Bridge and linger along the way at my favorite statues. The streets were deserted at this hour and I felt that I owned my private sliver of Prague, away from the indifferent tourists, and absent from the haste of the locals hurrying off to somewhere. I had plenty time and no agenda. I had the luxury to remain and listen to the voices and the music from this ancient city.

I would make my way up Narudova Street, past my hotel, to the Castle and Cathedral, which was also one of the highest points in the City. And I would sit quietly, just contemplating the world in front of me, with just the moon, stars and streetlights as companions, and I would listen to myself. Maybe I can meditate after all.


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Solo dining in a restaurant is always more effective when you have something to do. It makes the staff less uncomfortable and gives you permission to stay longer. Writing on my computer or reading a book is also my signal to others that I’m really comfortable with my own company and I don’t need their compassion in lacking a dinner companion. But in my total haste to pack for this trip (see previous blog entry), I failed to pack any books. The bookstore at the train station in Germany offered a limited selection of English reading but I did leave with “The Happiness Project” and “Who Am I”. The titles and summary seemed as if they would align with my desire to clean out and rearrange the closets in my head.

(Note to self: Start paying attention to the font size of a book, as reading in low light in a restaurant after you turn 40-something can really cause eye strain. Maybe it’s time to stop being in denial and get some “readers”!)

Armed with my trusted and worn Nike backpack, I set out with my little map, “The Happiness Project”, the quest on “Who Am I?”, gloves and a beanie. Included was my camera and 300m zoom lens, a bottle of water, my money bag and a bunch of nick-knacks that continued to illustrate my inability to even pack for a stroll without being overburdened.

The frigid air caused me brief concerns that my furry jacket may be warm against Dallas standards but that “furry”, in winter, in Prague, may need much more “fur” to stay warm. I walked south towards the Vlatava river and the Charles Bridge, not sure exactly what the evening would deliver. Plenty little cafés lined the sidewalk advertising their Czech specialties. Goulash and dumplings, duck, rabbit, and hot wine were all part of the special menus of the day.

Night was in full swing when I turned the corner and feasted my hungry eyes on the Charles Bridge. At this time I would like to take the opportunity to send a special note to the city of Prague staffer in charge of spot lighting buildings and statues:

Dear Sir/Madam, thank you for a job well done. You certainly stopped me in my furry tracks, left me speechless and also briefly gasping for air. I sincerely appreciate the beauty that you were able to present to a solo tracker searching for happiness and who she is. Much regards, Henda.

Oh, what a bridge! We fell in love upon first sight. Well, I did the falling as the bridge just silently witnessed my complete surrender to the spell it cast upon me. Fog was swirling on the water, and neither the moon nor any stars were out to detract from the pleasure of my view. Never before had I crossed a bridge over a river with such anticipation and delight. Few people were out strolling at this hour as it was midweek and really cold. Sans a guidebook, I still did not know much about the thirty statues lining the bridge. But tonight I just wanted to acquaint myself. I had all week to learn their identity and what brought them to be the sentinels on this bridge, watching us cross for seven hundred years.

Halfway across I saw a small restaurant situated right on the river, at the foot of the bridge and knew that I wanted to enjoy my dinner tonight within sight of my new stone friends. It was a little tricky to find the entrance and only later did I learn that KampaPark is one of the top restaurants in Prague. My table for one gave me a front row view of the Bridge and as it was still early for Prague dining hours, there were few patrons around.

Much to my surprise, the Czech Sauvignon Blanc was very pleasant. I love to drink the local wines and have discovered many delights in India and Peru, with a clear exception of the Zimbabwe red wine I tried at Mama Africa in Victoria Falls. That, my dear friends, will make hair grow on your teeth.

But back to dinner: I started with a wonderful eggplant terrine and ricotta cheese, on a bed of mesclun and a drizzle of caramel walnuts. Not exactly the hardy Czech specialties I saw advertised earlier, but certainly refined and delicious. My entrée was a saddle of reindeer with juniper marmalade and a cardamom sauce, accompanied by a pumpkin soufflé baked with a parmesan crust. Ok, so I’m a foodie and have deep inner longings to be a chef. Trust me when I tell you that each bite was as sublime as the view my eyes were feasting on.

My book was forgotten next to my plate as I relished in the combination of tastes that my mouth was savoring. To be quite honest, I had trouble reading by candlelight and using a flashlight App on my iPhone was really un-cool giving the setting. I was deconstructing each part of the meal so I could attempt its reconstructing from memory back in Dallas. I just kept wondering where could I find saddle of reindeer and concluded that maybe my neighbor, a hunter, can give me a loin of a Texas white tailed deer.

By now the restaurant was full and I could isolate the conversations at the tables surrounding me. I was amazed how much I could learn about my fellow diners by just listening. Next to me was a German group. I delighted in being able to follow pieces of their conversation and was amazed how much the ebb and flow was so similar to my own mother tongue, Afrikaans. It has been 25 years since I last spoke German and I had forgotten about my own fluency. It was a pleasure to know it was safely tucked away in one of the drawers in my head, ready for me to enjoy.

(Side note: In my new found commitment to resurrect my forgotten French and German; I bought in Frankfurt en route back to Dallas, a few German tabloid magazines and a romance novel in the vein of Harlequin with a “Fabio” cover. If I just spend 30 minutes a day reading out loud in both French and German, I know I can get my confidence back to converse.)

The oriental couple behind me complained in English to the waitress about the difficulty in finding the restaurant and that the owners really need to do a better job with signage. She also wanted a lot more ginger with her hot water. Sigh. I bet you they were booked on those excursions to see Prague in a day.

The nice American family adjacent brought their teenage daughters for the first time. They were debating between a French or Italian white and I wanted to suggest the Czech. They had been to Prague before and were sharing their excitement about the city with their daughters.

Afterwards, I walked back across the bridge to my little hotel in the shadow of the Cathedral. The Cathedral is another marvelous light display against the dark sky. My first night in Prague was time well spent and I looked forward to what I may stumble upon the next day.

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