Ten-minute freewrite from today, based on a prompt by the inestimable Jena Schwartz.

I bought one and stole the other, and not in that order.

Eyes, they are called. Oculi. Thick wooden rounds incised and painted with a star and crescent moon. Affixed to the bows of the wooden fishing boats, dhows, so common off the coast of East Africa. Looking out and across the sea to ward off evil spirits and danger.

I was in Lamu, a town on Lamu island, in Lamu archipelago, in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of Kenya. My boyfriend? Lover? Amorous pen pal? I still don't know if ever we figured our terminology out. It didn't really matter, although it seemed to, then.

Anyway, he, a Peace Corps volunteer, and I, the pal to his pen, had flown east on a tiny puddle jumper for a few days off the mainland in a mysterious, enchanting place.

I was falling in love/lust/wanderlust romance with the tan, pony-tailed man who'd brought me here, who fed me fresh fish curry, and held my hand as we walked throughout Lamu town with its erratic electricity supply and dark corners and the joo-eece (juice) stand near our inn. 

But I'd flat-out given my heart to the creaky boats that listed dramatically when the tide went out and stood back to attention when it rolled lazily back in. The dhows. And that is how I found myself scouring blinding white beaches for their skeletons one August afternoon in 2001.

I told him I wanted an eye to remember our trip. Like so many men who, when faced with a "problem" work like hell to "fix" it, he did. We finally found my treasure, hanging from a tetanus-promising nail coming loose from the dhow's sun-bleached, time-worn hull.

But whose was it? Not mine, certainly. But could it be? We wrestled with this quandary for what was probably not long enough. Romance won, the promise of memory won. He pried it loose and placed in on my palm. Possessively, my slender fingers curled around it. Mine.

In town later, I bought another. To "cancel" out my theft? To make amends? Have a matched set?

Neither love nor lust made it, but the memories did. And so did my eyes. They hang on my library wall now, tokens of adventure in what seems a lifetime ago, under a framed photograph of a working dhow, floating upright in an azure sea.

40 in forty: Travel as much as you can

More than a decade ago, I went to East Africa. It was a remarkable three weeks in southern Kenya with a boy I loved. He spoke Swahili fluently, and I knew even then that I was experiencing a rare trip, a life-changing one I'd never forget.

In Nairobi, I ate sukuma and ugali (sauteed greens and corn meal mush) and roasted ears of maize sold from street vendors behind steaming carts. I drank cold Tuskers and shot pool. I scooped doro wat with doughy injera as an Ethiopian belly-dancer beguiled us.

On safari, I saw the Big 5. I visited an elephant orphanage and saw the wildebeest and flamingo migrations. Thousands of rickety-looking animals fording a river because instinct told them they must, even as crocs lay in wait. A whole lake turned pink by plumage. A black rhino and her darling baby. Great cats stretching and tending their young.

On the small island of Lamu, I devoured curry made from just-caught fish, vats of fresh "joo-eece" (juice) from the fruit vendor next to our inn, and chicken with fiery pili-pili sauce at a the home of a lovely Muslim woman, Hosna, the boy knew.

After lunch she invited me to try on one of her burqas before taking a stroll through the neighborhood. "Everyone knows you're white and foreign," she said, even though I was covered head to toe. "They look at your feet. Can you feel them staring?"

Was it strange? Yes. Was it a tremendous learning experience? Absolutely. Do travel and trying almost always enlarge our senses of the myriad possibilities and respect for differences in the world? Most definitely.

I remember being spat at while living in Amsterdam. An American friend (living in Amsterdam) and I were walking through a park, and a Dutch woman heard us speaking English. She spat and my friend retorted in angry Dutch, stunning the woman and relieving me. 

I remember being stuck at the horrid Holešovice train station in Prague, waiting and waiting and waiting. I called it "Holese-shit" and Tom and I laughed for days. The baths in Budapest, the disappointing Sacher tort in Vienna offset completely by the magnificent Klimts at the eponymous museum and the Muchas at his museum too.

I can still taste the rhubarb pie at that diner somewhere by Woodstock, VT. I remember the post office in Quechee, not far from the gorge. The redwoods in Northern Cal, the lunar-like beaches north of San Diego. 

I remember accidentally getting off to TGV train in Biarritz instead of San Sebastian. Shit. I spoke Spanish, not French. My friend was waiting for me so we could haul it to Bilbao to see the new Guggenheim museum there. I cobbled together a few phrases dredged from the depths of my mind, got to Spain, ate incredible tortilla and reveled in the opalescent undulations of Gehry's titanium masterpiece. The Rioja wasn't bad either.


It seems to me that as people age, they take one of two paths: the safe, familiar one, or the road less traveled. I plan to always take the latter, and I beseech you to do the same in all ways that you can. Do not close off, don't limit yourself. As best you can, speak to locals. Drive, walk, fly, train, in your own country and far beyond. Jump, ask, learn, try, be humbled and uncomfortable, enjoy something you didn't know you would. Keep growing!

Travel is a superb education, possibly the best. We leave tomorrow for Rome, and although I'm exhausted (so tired that I again forgot the correct documentation for the DMV which, naturally, I only realized once there. For the third time. I still don't have a license. I give up until we get back.), I can't wait to jump the border and fly toward a new adventure.

When in Rome...

Trying new things on for size: micro-seasonal eating and other traditions

For those who grow their own food or eat with the seasons, you well know the difference between a plump tomato just plucked from its vine and still warm from the sun and its sad wintry counterpart, the mealy, pale, flavorless orb. The former needs no ornamentation, the latter requires a dramatic amount of it.

I've learned a lot by eating seasonally. What's available in my garden or at the farmers market is what's at the peak of freshness because it's what grows well at that given time.

I've also learned a lot by eating in an even more micro-fashion; the old When in Rome. What's available fresh in any given city or area -Gullah food in coastal South Carolina, for example- or what is traditionally served on a given holiday in a certain part of the world -the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes in Italy, place-specific stuffings on Thanksgiving Day in America...

Although St. Patrick's Day in the U.S. is most definitely a uniquely American variation on its real Irish counterpart, celebrating the day because it's also Oliver's birthday, has led me back to the annual delight of a corned beef and cabbage feast. 

Literally, I make this once a year, but it's a culinary way to mark this bit of time in March. It's a way to make Ol's birthday mean that much more, linking it to a tradition and country larger and beyond him and us and our family. It's an excuse to read books, study traditions and learn more about a culture, people and language we might not otherwise. 

Sometime during the week leading up to March 17, we start toasting each other with Sláinte (meaning Good Health in Gaelic), talking about the whys and hows behind the celebration of St. Patrick, learning a bit more each year about Ireland and its history, and looking forward to visiting that country some day.

The capstones are Ol's party and our family dinner, and even though the boys still don't like turnips, still prefer raw cabbage to poached, and the unyielding fact that we have zero Irish ancestry, I like the tradition of the whole thing and appreciate the ways in which food can enlarge perspective and understanding and palate, all in one delicious bite after another.

We gain so much by seeking to experience new and unfamiliar tastes and experiences, places and tongues, people and systems of belief. Doing these things is the path to greater understanding: of self, other, and the countless ways we're all connected. If we don't do so, we stagnate and become smaller, closed, less engaged and committed to the greater global community than we can and should be.