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.

Charmed

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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.

Sounds of Silence

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The thought of a little mano-a-mano time with myself seemed like a great idea and where better than Prague, The Golden City, Paris of the East? The city became the place to rid my head space of clutter accumulated over time, and I arrived with the desire to realize a tidier self. I travel often but it had been 22 years since I last found myself on an island by myself, or more accurately, it was 1989, when I backpacked solo thru the Middle East during winter and Ramadan.

I spent most of that time in Turkey. I traversed the country on buses: from Istanbul to Ankara, Cappadocia to the Black Sea, south to the coast and the old city of Ephesus, and mostly off the beaten path. Though not Muslim, I followed the custom to eat before sunrise or after sunset, out of necessity, as few eateries were open during the day. I seldom ran into people who could speak English and to the locals then, a western woman by herself, in jeans, were peculiar and to be avoided.

(Side note: I remember taking the Arab bus to Jericho and mistaken for an American; two girls, my age, invited me back to their house in old Jerusalem. It sounded like a good idea as I was lonely for company. I ended up in the Arab quarter, sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor with their whole family, sipping tea and doing a lot of smiling. When the minarets sounded nearby to indicate the end of the day; we dined on fatty boiled lamb and bread. To this day I still shudder a little at the taste and texture of boiled fat. Only later did I understand that the purpose of the invitation was to meet their brother. He was fluent in English and his hatred for Israel was tangible. After hours of his tirade, I found my way back to the bus stop where we started. Grateful for my safe escape, I made a silent promise that ideology would never consume or cloud my judgment.)

As a mature 23-year-old back in 1989, my life was much less complicated, and my mind much less burdened with the art of living a life lived well. Spending time with me was far less complicated. On my countless other trips, I was seldom really alone for long periods.  In Africa I have friends, on dive trips there are other divers present, in India I had a driver, fellow endurance racers and more friends to share the experience with. Mostly on other travels I had enjoyed the presence of my family to share the discovery of new places. Even during my days climbing El Misti volcano in Peru, I was in the company of a well-meaning guide who looked after me.

The bus arrived from Germany in Prague as the early dark of winter was settling over the city. I caught glimpses from the bus window of the splendid buildings lining the river whose name was yet unknown. My hotel, The Golden Wheel, was in the old city, 500m from the Castle and the Charles Bridge on Narudova Street per their website. Now, I’m certainly no expert in distance marking, but having been a 400m sprinter back in the day, I would say that it was unquestionably the furthest 500m from two points I ever imagined. Adding a steep climb to part of the way, and my legs were mistaking the trip as another one of my crazy endurance races.

The hotel was located in a building dating back to the 15th century and my room was charming and cozy with all the luxury I would expect from a 4 star hotel in Europe. Only later would I come to understand what a special location Nerudova Street was and that I would end up spending much time at the buildings and Cathedral I could see from my two small windows in the ceiling.

One of the unintended consequences of a solo journey is a vow of silence. Inadvertently, your conversations are limited to the brief interaction with waiters, street vendors and hotel staff. When you choose not to participate in the “tourist attraction” offerings, you also isolate yourself from just about all the tourists signing up for the quick excursions around the city. Now add to this quiet cocktail a country whose language is completely foreign; trust me that you not only hear the voices in your own head, but you actually start to converse with them.

Resisting a guidebook as I wanted to discover Prague without any preconceived suggestions and interpretations; I was armed with only the small map that the hotel receptionist handed me. I decided that Prague and I will acquaint ourselves through the art of walking. Although I packed five pairs of shoes, in the end I only wore my North Face après-ski boots. Fur lined and with sturdy soles, they carried me across the ancient cobble stones of the old city.

For many hours each day and over many miles, I walked. And I watched, saw, listened and heard the narrative that this gorgeous city wanted to share with me. When you remove the distraction of conversation and are willing to just wander without a guide and when you surrender to the sound of silence and quiet the voices in your head, you can write a book “Stumbled Upon in Prague”. To be continued . . .

My Unbearable Lightness of Being

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Packing in less than 15mins for an overseas trip? Yup, that’s me. Although “packing” implies order and organized, whereas my style is more to cram, stuff and fill my suitcase with things I know I won’t need but that I don’t have time to sort through. The size of my suitcase typically dictates the level of unnecessary belongings I drag with me.

Why do I leave the crucial act of packing to the last-minute you may wonder? Almost always late, the race to catch a plane constantly overshadows my ability to pack efficiently. Or maybe more accurately, each time I severely underestimate the time needed to do packing justice. Squeezing a million things into the hours before a departure undermines both my desire not to rush and to have a well packed suitcase. Sigh.

This trip was particularly more last-minute as I was buying the suitcase 30mins before I had to leave for the airport. Even my 10-year-old daughter called to ask me when I will be home to pack! Between 7 pairs of pants and jeans, a furry jacket, a down jacket and my ski jacket, short and long-sleeved T-shirts, sweaters, 2 little dresses, tracksuits, leggings, 5 pairs of shoes, shirts and enough socks and underwear for about 10 days, I will be dragging a heavy suitcase around for a week. But its winter and you just never know what you will need. Sigh.

(Side note: I do a little better when I have to pack the whole family up for a trip. Although, I still see the complete horror in my assistant, Kay’s eyes, when I confessed that I have packed for my kids’ two week summer camp from the back of the car, while driving them to summer camp. Hey, that took special skills: name-marking, sorting and packing clothes, towels, toiletries, and linens for two kids, with their trunks, for two weeks, from the back of a Suburban.)

When I then confess that I only decided on this latest trip last-minute, still lack complete hotel reservations as I’m boarding my Dallas to Frankfurt flight, without any agenda, and with only a train ticket to Prague from Frankfurt; you can see that packing a well thought out suitcase is the last of my worries.

Prague? Why Prague? Really? In the winter? Yeah, I know . . . They don’t eat turkey over Thanksgiving. But it was time for me to step away and spend time with myself. It was time to give myself the space where I could hear my thoughts. And there was another side to my desire to step off the Dallas grid.

(Side note: I’m very afraid of heights in man-made structure . . . high buildings, elevators running on the outside of buildings  . . . and often I put myself in a position to experience that level of fear and to see if I can overcome and control it. I recently went up the elevator at Reunion Tower in Dallas as well as the Top of the Rock in NYC. And each time, I learned again that I was afraid. But I tried anyway.)

My love to travel to remote and off the beaten paths took a beating after my semi heart attack while in Peru in 2009, 30 days after my breast cancer diagnosis. Not only was it extraordinarily scary but it also attached a very high level of fear to the exact thing that I loved to do: to travel far away from the comfort, security and support I enjoy in Dallas.

I recently heard a presentation about how a life threatening medical condition removes our sense of safety about the world and how we fit into it. I certainly understand that and agree 100%. So coming to Prague also meant me testing myself to see where my fear meter was about having something happen to me while far away and by myself. I know . . . very weird . . . But it is an interesting experiment as we cannot simulate the same emotions of anxiety and insecurity when we are in a familiar place surrounded by people and places we know. So my week in Prague alone will continue to unfold on my journey of self-discovery.

It got off to a very rocky start as the 9 hour plane ride certainly terrified me and I was convinced that I would not make it – well, to my defense – it was an extremely bumpy flight. By experiencing the very feelings which I fear most, I am more able to accept, process and manage it. It reminds me of my own vulnerability and brings a self-awareness to my life and its limitations that is a fresh reminder for me to keep my focus on what matters. It also helps me to understand other people’s challenges and struggles. And above all, it allows me to use my own logic to overcome the demons still hiding in my head.

As it turns out, the second half of the journey to Prague is on a luxury Eurobus and not the train. I’m sipping sparkling water as the Eastern European country side unfolds past me through thick layers of fog. I will allow Prague and the journey to reveal itself.  I’m following the advice of a friend to keep things simple and allow the adventure to determine the plan, to forgo expectations which can be false, misleading or disappointing. Without a guidebook, I plan to discover the City of Spires, layer by layer.

I do travel light even if my luggage is bulky and disorganized.

Breathing Thin Air

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Just Quit! You made it far enough!” the voices in my head urged. “Henda, la cima es muy cerca, seulemente 60 minutes mas!” the encouraging voice of my Peruvian mountain guide pressing me to continue. Success can be so close, yet so far away . . . Climbing El Misti volcano to its peak at 19,100 feet was so much harder than I ever thought.   

The last 60 minutes before I reached the summit were excruciatingly difficult. I could see the top just above, but instead of a straight vertical ascend; we had to crisscross the steep mountain face in an endless array of switchbacks.  The Himalayan 100 race taught me how much I hated switch backs and El Misti volcano confirmed that they can bring me to my knees every time. Exhausted, the ice-cold wind gnawing at me, and with 73% oxygen saturation; my lungs were starved for air.  

Inching forward and upward, counting 30 steps at a time, then allowing myself 30 breaths of rest, hunched over my Leki sticks; so grateful for their support. Tunnel vision was all I could pull out of my reserves – just focus on the next 30 steps and nothing else. 30 steps forward, 30 breaths of rest  . . .  

Remind me, why did I need to reach this summit? My reasons all became so unimportant and in those last minutes it was just vital not to quit. Finish the task, one step at a time. Suddenly the emergency room in Arequipa and the fear of dying back in 2009 became small dots on the arid landscape of endless rocks and volcanic sand that surrounded me.

The trek to base camp the day before was just a preface for what was awaiting. I was amazed at the speed that our Sherpa could maintain with his backpack and mine, stringed on top. His agility and strength were astounding and I was embarrassed that my 10 pound daypack was straining me. The bottom part of the mountain was an ocean of black sand dunes. With each step my shoes sunk deep into the soft sand. Fine, like fresh powder, it stuck to my skin like shimmering black dust.

Base camp was at 13,500 feet and marked by a collection of rocks to shield us from the wind. Between the guide and Sherpa, our tents went up quickly. With limited camping experience, I was grateful that others were in charge of my well-being. Dusk was upon us when I joined the boys in the “dinner” tent to test the strength of my Spanish. By now I was wearing two pairs of thermal underwear, ski pants, a thermal top, fleece, and a thick down jacket, hat and gloves. Dinner consisted of bread, spaghetti and a packet of chicken soup. I have always followed the mantra “when in Rome” and very soon I was discussing the upcoming Peruvian elections with my two dinner companions – in Spanish! I’m not sure who was more amazed! It was a little like playing Charades where I used my limited vocabulary to describe what I wanted to say and then either the guide, Jose, or David, the Sherpa, would chime in with the missing words. But 2 hours later we were visiting like old friends over cups of steaming hot chocolate and tea.         

The splendor of the night sky away from city lights has always left me in awe and that night God treated me to a special show. It was silent and crystal clear, and the stars were glittering diamonds on black velvet. Above me the Southern Cross shined like a vivid beacon, surrounded by the Milky Way, always reminding me that I can find my way home. And later, securely tucked into the warmth of my wasabi and grey down sleeping bag, my gratitude was overflowing.     

2am arrived far too soon. The long journey to the top had begun. After hot tea and bread, we started out in single file, our headlamps lighting the way. Soon my fingers were frozen – why did I bring my running gloves instead of my ski gloves? Hours later, I was still fixated on my freezing cold hands. My guide, Jose, must have sensed my misery and graciously offered his. But knowing that mine would never fit him, I reluctantly declined. Live and learn, sucker, next time I will have the right ones!

Dawn broke and I could finally grasp the expanse of the surreal moon landscape that surrounded us. As well as the tremendous slope we were up against. Ribbons of orange were bursting across the horizon and soon the sun arrived in a fiery fireball, streaking its rays across the mountains. Well educated in the art of Sci-Fi flicks, I felt transported to an alien world. There was something so beautiful in the barren and desolate isolation that surrounded us.              

Hour after hour I also watched my oxygen saturation plummeted on my oximeter. Having followed the advice of my doctor friends, I had been taking Diamox for six days and was grateful for any additional O2 floating in my blood. With labored breathing and tired legs, each step was becoming harder. The mountain was slowly pulling ahead as the favorite to win the day. But my heart rate was stable in the 90s, and my faith in its continued long-term operation was growing.    

(Side Note: To reduce altitude sickness, Diomox is recommended for those ascending from sea level to 3000 meters (9800 feet) in one day, or for those ascending more than 600 meters (2000 feet) per day once above an altitude of 2500 meters (8200 feet). It forces the kidneys to excrete bicarbonate, the conjugate base of carbonic acid. By increasing the amount of bicarbonate excreted in the urine, the blood becomes more acidic. Acidifying the blood stimulates ventilation, which increases the amount of oxygen in the blood.What exactly did we do before Wikipedia?)

The boys paced with me and as we climbed higher and higher, our stops became more frequent. Jose kept us moving along and by now I was grateful for his wise and steady guidance. His heart rate never exceeded 67 and his O2 never dropped below 80, but I wondered how well he would do running 12 miles in 104 degrees in Dallas! The landscape had become more hostile and our unstable path, a mixture of gravel, rocks and sand. Armed with just water, we left our packs under a rock for the home stretch.

Sixty minutes later I stood at the top, well, actually, sobbing on my knees is more accurate . . . but as my tears dripped into the volcanic sand and seeing Arequipa at my feet very far below . . .  when I raised my sticks in victory, I finally felt the shadows around my heart scatter. Liberated from the fear I carried for so long, I could enjoy the spectacular views and file the experience away under “special” amongst my memories. Next time I find myself in Arequipa, I will climb Chachani, the adjacent volcano at 20,000 feet. I would just need an ice axe and crampons . . . and far better gloves!

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