More than twenty years after his death, some Colombians still think of him as a hero, call him a saint, a savior, the Godfather, and even Robin Hood, although most refer to him as El Patrón, The Boss. I use less kind terms. I even refuse to write his name. He doesn’t deserve any ink. I left Colombia in 1992 to escape, among other things, the culture of fear he created to protect his business. His ruthless cocaine monopoly turned my beautiful home city, Medellin, into a barbaric war zone that earned it the title: Murder Capital of the World.
The "King of Cocaine" was the leader of the Medellín cartel, controlled most of the cocaine in Colombia, was responsible for 80% of the global cocaine trade, and built his wealth by flooding the U.S. market with the drug. At the height of his power, he was estimated to be worth around $30 billion, which is probably why, to change the laws of extradition, he offered to pay off the national debt of Colombia, which stood at $10 billion at the time.
My city had eyes and ears everywhere and all belonged to him. His hit-men mercilessly killed anyone who tried to stop him. He was responsible for killing about 4,000 people, including an estimated 200 judges and 1,000 police officers, journalists, and government officials. His gangs’ high-profile assassinations, which were often carried out in the open and with no concern for the lives of innocent passers-by, brought Colombia to its knees and made him effectively untouchable. His message to those in power was Plata o Plomo, Silver or Lead, which colloquially translates to: Either take the bribe or take a bullet - and we knew that he would keep his word.
He was not a philanthropist. If he did any good at all, he did it to win over the hearts of Medellin’s poorest and most marginalized residents. His most efficient recruiting method. He gave money to churches and hospitals, established food programs, built parks and football stadiums, and created a barrio, a neighborhood named after himself. He used his obscene wealth, ruthlessness, and popularity to get himself elected to Colombia's Congress. By 1991, he had gained one too many enemies and was under threat of being extradited from Colombia to the United States. He then made a deal with the Colombian government in which he offered to give himself up—instead of facing the American justice system—on the condition that he would build his own jail. The kingpin had a custom luxury prison built called La Catedral, The Cathedral, more like a resort, which housed a football pitch, a casino, a nightclub, a spa, a waterfall and a telescope that allowed him to look directly into his daughter’s house when he was on the phone to her. He walked out of La Catedral after a year.
Forbes once named this drug-runner the seventh richest man in the world. He made Forbes' international billionaires list 7 years in a row (1987-1994). He used planes, helicopters, cars, trucks, and boats to smuggle cocaine into the USA. When in the late 1980s, Colombian authorities seized 142 planes, 20 helicopters, 32 yachts, and 141 homes and offices, he bought two submarines for transporting his cocaine. He even smuggled cocaine into plane tires. Depending on how much product American pilots flew, they could earn as much $500,000 per day. He made so much money that he bought a Learjet specifically for flying his cash. And when he ran out of luck and he and his family were in hiding, his daughter, Manuela, got sick. To keep her warm, he burned about two million dollars.
As you do.
All this long-winded story is just to talk about Manuela, or La Manuela, the lakeside mansion he built on the shores of Guatape Lake, and named after his daughter. He owned whole chunks of the country, but La Manuela was special to him, not only because of the spectacular views of the lake and the picture-perfect vistas of the mountains, but also, because it was his favorite party place. La Manuela housed a Miami Beach-style nightclub, tennis courts, stables, and an Olympic swimming pool. It was built with double walls to store cocaine and money. To La Manuela, he flew singers, actors, politicians and even his favorite hamburgers. It was the place from where the cartel boss ordered assassinations while riding one of his pure-bred horses, or aboard a yacht, or swinging in a hammock. But by 1993, his luck ran out, La Manuela was bombed by rival Cali Cartel, and eight months later, he was shot and killed while fleeing police in Medellín.
This summer, as I took a boat ride around the lake, the site of La Manuela struck me hard. A decaying ruin, neglected by the government, sitting on prime land and surrounded by gorgeous water. There is nothing but graffiti-covered walls and charred remains of what once was a drug-fueled empire. What’s left of the mansion can’t be demolished and the land is not for sale. They are there for the passers-by to assess the price of avarice. It is a reminder of the thousands of Colombians—innocent or not—who lost their lives to this narcoterrorist during the savage 80s and 90s. It is proof that there are some things money can’t buy, even if your net worth is $30 billion.
I don’t watch Narcos, the TV series. Shame on Netflix for giving this man airtime, for immortalizing a ruthless drug-runner who brought down a plane full of innocent people and set car bombs in stadiums, shopping malls, government buildings and police stations. He needs to disappear from TVs and big screens, to be dissociated from Colombia. He doesn’t need to be revived by money-making show producers so that irresponsible celebrities, such as rapper Whiz Khalifa, are inspired to go to Colombia to be photographed delivering flowers at this drug lord’s grave, face enveloped in a cloud of weed and all.
Enough is enough.
It was a glorious afternoon in Reykjavik. The writers conference I was attending was over and finally I had a few hours to myself. I hit the streets and developed a spontaneous routine: walk without direction, get lost, take lots of pictures, breathe in the fresh air, recognize a landmark or two, find my bearings again. Repeat.
The sun broke through the clouds painting the grey sky with a layer of deep baby blue. I peeled off two layers of clothing, sat on a bench in a park and basked in the sunshine. I felt truly content. Could I live here? I asked myself as I snapped pictures of an intergalactic rainbow unicorn painted on a wall in the Old Town area. Maybe. Maybe not.
Later, I walked to Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland. In a couple of weeks, the Hallgrimskirkja’s choir would perform J.S. Bach, Mass in b-minor. I wished I could stay just to hear the two massive organs reverberate inside this 270-feet structure. On my way out, I noticed the four archangels, Gabriel, Michael, Rafael and Uriel, inlaid on the inside of the door.
As I walked along Austurstraeti Street, a pedestrian party strip, I was thinking about the four archangels when I spotted D. T. He was a few yards in front of me, wearing electric blue jeans, a red tie and a fashionable black jacket. I squinted in the sun, put on my reading glasses, and looked closely. A group of four locals wearing D.T’s face cutouts, horse played in the street. The scene didn’t amuse me. After all, I was in Iceland, 2800 miles away from the Washington circus, and this distance made me feel entitled to forget about this global tragedy named D.T. for a day or two. Then a fifth man with a Putin’s face cutout joined in. Okay, so they were making fun of the two presidents. Fine. Time to relax and appreciate a display of local humor and political perspective. They pushed one another, they wrapped the red tie around its wearer’s neck, then they had a group hug. Donald the Clown, listen up, Iceland is making fun of you, I thought. I took my camera out and just when I was about to snap the first photo, a group of American tourists joined in the fun. The two women posed with the group while their male companion, who had stood in front of me completely blocking my view, snapped away.
I wanted to ask the local men what their real views of D.T were, but the American women started to chant: Build the Wall. Build the Wall. Build the Wall. Build the Damn Wall. Their photographer joined in the chant, and so did the four D.Ts and Putin. Were all of them drunk, high, or just cruel and stupid? The chant grew louder and the chanters got more creative. Make the Mexicans Pay. Make Mexico Pay. Make them Pay. I looked around and it dawned on me that I was, most likely, the only Hispanic in the vicinity, and although I’m not Mexican, their callous chant insulted me. Did they see me? And if so, did they think I was Mexican and were therefore spitting their venom at me? And what if they didn’t see me? What if they also thought that D.T. was a global tragedy and were simply letting out some steam by imitating the stupidity of his followers at a rally? What if I was being too sensitive?
It was ten pm and the sun was still up. A wave of exhaustion came over me as I walked towards my bed and breakfast on Fischersund street. I wished it was dark. I wished I could remember this moment and say: Oh, it was so dark, I’m not sure if I saw what I think I saw. But it wasn’t dark and I had seen and I had heard the idiots of Reykjavik with painful clarity. I walked mindfully, focusing with every step I took on the four archangels on the door to Hallgrímskirkja.
on, let's say, a slow kiddie ride at an amusement park. I can't help it. The moment the ride starts going up, no matter how silly it is or how slow it goes, the tears start running. But today, as I'm about to hover over the city of Grenoble--France, I'm psyching myself up. I look at the ride and think: Piece of cake. I can do this. My heart thumps loudly under my rib-cage. I can hear the whoosh of blood rushing about inside my ears. We haven't even bought the tickets for the cable car and I'm about to pass out. Get a hold of yourself, woman. I want to see Grenoble from above and this cable car is the easiest way to accomplish just that. I look at the plastic bubbles: they are impressive. They look safe, sturdy, fun. I focus on fun. My knees feel weak. Like they won't carry me past the ticket office. Don't make a scene. Breathe normally. Don't hyperventilate. I distract myself thinking of the rewards: At the summit (1000 feet above the town) is a 19th-century fortress, La Bastille. I'll explore the fortifications, take great photographs, breathe fresh air, find and follow secret paths up the mountainside, and maybe, if lucky, spot Mont Blanc. I will my feet to walk and the moment I step into the bubble, I know I've made a terrible mistake. I'm terrified of heights, of free falling, of being sucked back down into an invisible vortex of mean gravitational pull. It's not like I don't know real danger. I do, trust me. Think guerrillas in Colombia, a mob of rowdy pilgrims in India, angry elephants in Kenya, Saddam Hussein threatening with invading the country I was living in...I know danger. Yet, I remain my worst enemy and nothing makes me crumble as fast as this irrational thing called acrophobia.
I've been brave in the past. I've had fleeting moments of courage during which I've looked at fear straight in the eye and cursed it, middle finger sticking up in the air. Take the Eiffel Tower and its three lifts (North, East and West pillars). Of course I wanted to go all the way up (again app. 1000 feet), who wouldn't? I closed my eyes and stepped into the first lift. The little voice was screaming inside me: Open your eyes. Enjoy the scenery. What's the point of going all the way up if you're not going to see anything? I didn't pay attention. When the elevator stopped I opened my eyes and made the mistake of looking down. People on the ground below me appeared dwarfed and distant, and the tears, which by now were freely flowing, made everything around me go out of focus. The other two elevators were open design glass bubbles that left me no option but to shut my eyes, my mouth, my ears, an empty attempt to deprive myself from any sensorial awareness of the heights I was reaching. By the time I stepped out of the last lift, I was paralyzed. I leaned against the first wall I found, grabbed a rail behind me, and shed many Acrophobia-induced tears.
The bubble car opens up and there its is: Grenoble in all its splendor. It's a beautiful sight. But, the wind starts picking up and so does my paranoia. What if I get swept away, whisked up in the air, and dumped 1000 ft below like a rag doll? It's an irrational thought, I know this much, but that's the thing about phobias. They are immune to logic. They don't belong in the rational world.
Breathe fresh air. Check. Snap some pics. Check. Look for Mont Blanc. Check. Time to go back down. The idea of climbing down on the cable car morphs into the absolute certainty that the wind will knock my bubble down and I will free fall and crash onto the river below. I can't swim. Quickly I discard the bubble as a means of transportation down the hill. Instead, I walk the path to the rear of the Bastille for almost an hour and find fantastic little places such as a memorial to the soldiers who fought in WWII and a monument commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Grenoble in 1944. I also stumble upon abandoned tunnels, old tree houses and a fantastic arch called Jardin des Dauphins. All hidden gems that I would have missed if I had been courageous enough to take the cable car down.
Is it a monastery, an island, a castle, a medieval village, a world heritage site, a pilgrimage destination? Mont-Saint-Michel is all of the above. And more.
Picture this: about one thousand years ago, Aubert, the bishop of the town of Avranches (France) had a vision (or ate funny mushrooms), in which the archangel Michael commanded him to build a church atop the island out in the bay where Normandy and Brittany merge. These were warring times in Europe. There were dukes in Normandy, French Kings, enemy English forces; there was political upheaval and religious turmoil. The idea of a military fortress/Benedictine abbey far out into the sea, appealed to the French. And so it was built. Medieval monastic structures, learning centers, religious shrines, and of course, ramparts (to keep the English out) were added. By the year 1000 bishop Aubert’s vision had been fully crystalized, and then some.
Fast-forward 1014 years. And here I’m, wearing my traveler’s sandals, awestruck, and giddy with sated wanderlust. I’m not a pilgrim here, nor am I an academic. I’m just a woman traveler, an obnoxious tourist with an obnoxious camera, taking obnoxious pictures of everything around. The architectural details of the monasteries are every bit as interesting as those of the museums, restaurants, boutiques, bars, street lamps, and garbage cans. I can’t help myself. I know taking pictures of the cobblestones paving the steep road up the mountain is ridiculous, but the thing is, the roads haven’t been restored. This cobblestone street I’m photographing was walked on by zealous crusaders, pilgrims with bloody knees, self-flagellating monks, warrior Vikings, barren women, unwed mothers carrying unwanted babies, all of them with reasons, desires, quests, so many kinds of lust. On this ancient street, I feel old and wise. I feel like I’m part of history, like my being here among other travelers integrates me into a deep-rooted collective of wanderers. But it’s freezing cold, my camera battery is dead, I'm hungry, a Japanese tourist sets a gigantic tripod in front of me blocking my view of the street, and the beautiful moment is gone.
The view from our room is picture perfect. Three nights after Valentine's Day, it's full moon. Naturally, I take pictures of the moon too. Of roofs, the fantastic low tide--the waters withdrawn 25 km from the shore—of people walking down below, of birds flying, as if on command, straight across the white moon, and right at this moment I want to cry. I think of our children and siblings, all settled and living their own journeys. I think of our friends, the ones we left in Florida, Colombia, Kuwait, the ones we have made in Qatar. I think of the women who dance with me in Doha; their pony tails heavy with sweat, their laughter, that awesome joie de vivre we experience together inside the dance studio…and of course, I want to cry. Which would have confused my husband immensely. This trip was, after all, his idea and his gift, a realization that makes me want to cry even harder.
I’m caught up in a moment of French bliss.
Literature of the place says that after low tide, the sea waters rush back in to the bay at “the pace of a galloping horse.” I like the sound of it. During the 100 years’ war, the dramatic tides kept the English from conquering the island. Instead, they kept the monastery under siege for a long time. Fifteen years to be exact. And the French being French never surrendered, never opened the ramparts, never raised the white flag. They held on to their Frenchness and came out at the end of it all, hungry but triumphant. This place was also a prison during the French revolution. There was human suffering, decay, death. I'm reaping the rewards of someone else's blood and tears. Yet, the world I see out this hotel window is peaceful and perfect.
Mercifully, war and destruction are things of the past. Modern Mont-Saint-Michel is flush with cash, crawling with wealthy tourists, expensive restaurants, and quaint but overpriced inns. Truth be told, the prices of food and wine at the local restaurants, is what truly makes me want to cry.
Santorini, one of the most beautiful islands on this planet. A Greek landmass listed as one of the places to visit before you die. And it’s true, you shouldn’t die without having walked the streets of Santorini.
The island is deserted during the winter months and because of a combination of freezing temperatures and complete absence of tourists, the ferry service from mainland to the island, attractions, hotels, and restaurants all close down. A fact that I’m sure is pointed out on travel guides and brochures, exactly the sort of thing we never buy beforehand. Maybe for this very reason, we ended up staying in a hotel located, not in the scenic Santorini I had on my mind with picture perfect spots, blue domed-churches, quaint white Mediterranean houses, flowers in every imaginable color, and the sapphire waters of the Aegean Sea, but in the opposite side of the island. Don’t take me wrong, it was picturesque yes, but not the white and blue island baking under the sun I had dreamed about.
The place is called Oia, a corner of the island carved out of the cliffs. Oia is a 1.2 mile-long scenic village of pure white buildings, cave houses, blue-roofed churches with cupolas, narrow passageways, traditional Cycladic architecture and the most outrageous sunsets. One of the most recognizable buildings in the village is the windmill, a place shown in a few scenes in the movies “The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants” and “Lara Croft Tomb Raider.” However, to me, the windmill was the most memorable part of the village for a different reason.
I was with my husband, right by the windmill, when we crossed paths with an older man. He might’ve had a salt-and-pepper beard, maybe long hair, sad eyes, trembling hands. I don’t know. I don’t remember what he looked like, but I remember why he was in Oia: to spread someone’s ashes. Someone he loved. Someone who loved him and Oia. Like the end of a love triangle. And the man told us all of this after exchanging pleasantries, as if the weight of the ashes were too much for him to bear alone. So he shared the weight of his loss with us, by the windmill, in this impossibly beautiful spot overlooking the Aegean waters. On this day, the sun shone timidly at dawn, but by dusk, the skies took on a flamboyant hue of blue. I squeezed my husband’s hand as the man told us about the ashes. The thought of a life without my partner made the windmill seem wider, taller, incomprehensible. My eyes teared in the December wind as we said goodbye to the man.
And here I am now, trying to remember who the man had lost: a partner, a friend, a lover, a child. Was it a woman or a man? Had he already spread the ashes when our paths crossed or was he about to dispose of them? And if so, did I see the urn? Was he carrying it in his hands? Was it in his backpack? Was there a backpack? I don’t know. My memory of this moment is fuzzy. All I know is that there was love and death and ashes, an older man and a married couple, all sharing a few seconds of their lives under the windmill in a place called Oia.
Death fascinates me. I find beauty in its grit and its finality, the abandonment that it subjects the living to, the silent vacuum in which it holds the living hostage for weeks, months, years, a lifetime. Death, as a concept--not as an experience--intrigues me. I admire the rituals that accompany death. The recitations, the chanting, the dismemberment, the cremation, the giving the body to birds of prey, the interment, the embalming.
When my daughter was a little girl I took her to Palermo, Italy. I don’t remember the churches or the parks or the food or the music. What remains from this trip is the indelible memory of the basement of the Capuchin monastery where over 8000 mummified human beings (mostly monks and a few laymen) are propped up against the walls. They have been dead for hundreds of years, but they are also alive inasmuch as they are still rotting. A relentless decomposition process still peels skin off bones and hollows out faces, leaving teeth exposed in grotesque grimaces.
I remember walking down the catacombs holding my daughter’s hand. She was almost as enthralled as I was by the display of dead monks in full religious attire and hooded robes, seemingly, looking down at us. We reached a fork in the catacombs, my daughter went one way and I the other. And there it was: an army of dead babies, their faces nothing more than crinkled skin and gaping mouths. There was a special room for two year-old Rosalia Lombardo whose tiny body was displayed inside a glass coffin. She is one of the best preserved mummies in the catacombs, has eyelashes, hair and resembles a life-size doll. I stared at her, an undead little girl looked back. And then it hit me. Because I had been distracted looking at a dead girl, I had lost my daughter in the necropolis. Somewhere surrounded by dead people was my daughter, my flesh and bone, the only thing I had given life to. Panic settled across my face. I rushed through a labyrinth of death calling her name out, passed hundreds of disembodied cadavers stuffed with hay that poked through their necks and fell out of orifices, until I found her. She wasn’t afraid or spooked or put face-to-face with her own mortality. Like the child she was, I found her untouched by sadness or grief, still incapable of comprehending loss. She was bored, she told me, but mainly, she was hungry.
Almost twenty years later, while visiting Greece, I came across more dead monks. It was the Great Meteoron monastery, also known as, the monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ, the highest and oldest of the six Meteora monasteries, established around 1340 by St. Athanasios Meteorites. Some people believe that an eagle carried his body up the highest pinnacle - which he named Megalo Meteoro ("Great Place Suspended in the Air"), where he initially built a small church that grew over the years into the marvel it is today. There are lovely sites in and out of the monastic complex, but what I found most memorable was the sacristy, a place where skulls and bones of previous residents are neatly stacked on shelves. Just skulls, teeth and bones. They are dead. Unlike the undead disembodied mummies of Palermo, these monks are irrefutably dead.
I’m no longer holding my daughter’s hand. She is now a married woman, living her own life, thousands of miles away from me. I’m no longer marching through the dead looking for her. Twenty years later, I know exactly where she is. But there was this moment in the sacristy where I remembered losing sight of my little girl and the panic that ensued in the catacombs in Palermo, I looked into the eye sockets on the skulls on the shelves, I called her name out, and wondered if she was hungry.
The 14th century in Greece was a fearsome time of political instability, religious persecution and social turmoil. Orthodox Christianity had amassed a significant amount of enemies and monasteries had to be built in either hidden spots or on top of inaccessible peaks, such those of Meteora. By the end of the 15th century there were 24 of them, although only six of them have made it through the centuries:
The Great Meteoron --the largest of all.
St. Nicholas Anapausas.
St. Stephen which was shelled by the Nazis during World War II who believed it was harboring insurgents and was abandoned. Nuns took it over and reconstructed it.
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity.
And last, but not least, the nunnery of Rousanou/St. Barbara, where we got played by an old sweet nun who graciously let us in five minutes before closing, took our Euros, asked for a donation, and five minutes later kicked us out because it was closing time. We protested to no avail. The sweet edges of her face were now replaced by a steely gaze that could pin mosquitoes to the wall or put out fires at the other side of the world. Who knew that old Orthodox Greek nuns could be this conniving?
This complex of monasteries--built by hermits and ascetics under impossible conditions, who lived in communion with the divine and the skies in precarious conditions--is without a doubt, one of the world's most powerful examples of the architectural transformation of a natural environment into a place of reclusion, meditation and prayer.
All you have to do is walk. Just take a few steps from where you are and you’ll find yourself in enemy territory. How odd. I’m standing in the waters of the Jordan River; it runs from the Sea of Galilee, divides Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank on the west from Jordan on the east, then it empties into the Dead Sea at about 1,312 feet below sea level; the river with the lowest elevation in the world.
I don’t have a political agenda nor do I have religious reasons to be at this river where, according to the New Testament, Jesus was baptized by John. I’m simply here in the now, dipping my feet in the water and thinking that it would take me a couple of minutes to traverse this knee-high walkable water passage into Israel. I’m thinking how easily anyone could make it from one side to the other: from Israel to Jordan; from Jewish to Muslim, from there to here. I’m thinking of how ferociously both sides have fought for control over this river of milky waters. In 1951 and 1953 neighboring Syria and Israel went at it; in 1967 after the river was diverted, the Six Day Arab-Israeli War took place. At the end of it, Israel gained control over the river: with the Golan Heights, Israel had all of the Jordan Rivers Headwaters within its territory, and with the West Bank, Israel gained access to the length of the Jordan River and controlled the three major aquifers. In 1969 Israel accused Jordan of over diverting the river and aiding Palestine. There were air raids on this side of the river, destruction, fire, ashes.
The thing is, both sides need water to survive. They are both thirsty for water and power. Both sides know it and both use water as a political weapon against each other. It is an ongoing water conflict, as central to the peace process and as current as the war over land.
Then again, we are such fools. From where I am--on the Jordanian side--I see a Jewish family come into their side of the river. The father wears his yarmulke; he has a wife and four children in tow. They get into the river but don't look up. If they did, they'd probably see themselves in us looking back at them. Wanting to go to the middle of this creek and shake hands, play patty-cake, patty-cake over the fence with the children, tell them that we are tired of playing war and that we are ready for time out. For our children's sake. Forever.
What is this Jordanian woman doing? Having chips? cooling down in the shade? people watching? daydreaming? It might look like she is doing all of the above, but you have to be there to understand what she is really doing.
If she climbed the hill on foot, she might be thinking about alternate routes to get down to the valley without falling; if she made it up there on a donkey, she might be wondering what she would do if her beast were to break a limb. Either way, climbing down the mountain is the least of her problems. She lives in a nearby village, where every day she has to walk to a well to fetch water; where life is hard, where all she sees as soon as she opens her eyes are rocks and sand, sand and rocks. But she gets up anyway, makes bread and tea for her family and herself, wraps in a cloth bag the trinkets she sells to tourists in Petra, and rides the donkey up the cliff, all the way to this very spot, where a bag of chips is all there is to eat under the shade of a squalid tree.
A woman and her donkey stand halfway up The Monastery, Petra’s most awe-inspiring monument and also one of the most taxing to reach. This square building, carved from a chunk of rose-colored mountain, sits on the rocky cliff nearly an hour’s climb from the gorge. The climb takes your breath away, both figuratively and physically. It's a daunting hike of more than 700 nearly vertical feet, broken by patches of about 800 ancient steps.
Along the processional way up, there are plenty of places to rest, including a holy spring, a shrine, a ceremonial dining room, and this cool ledge overlooking a deep ravine below: this woman's work place. While hikers stop at this enchanted mossy grotto to take in the views and catch their breath, the woman gets to work offering donkey rides to the summit, “Air-condition taxi, mister?”
Does she know that she is working right where the biblical Nabateans lived more than 2000 years ago? Does she know that the archaeological authorities want to shut her business down because the donkeys' hooves are degrading the sandstone steps on the route up? Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't. I don't think she cares. From where she works, she has stupendous views over the entire Petra basin and the Wadi Araba. And in the afternoon, the sun moves around enough to hit the facade of the mountain full-on before plunging into the horizon, leaving the basin suspended in a twilight moment. And I'm sure, at this moment, everything else seems unimportant.
If you want water, she has it. If you need a power bar, she can sell you one. If you feel like buying a souvenir, she has plenty of them. But nothing will be rush-delivered. You'll have to wait until she comes down from this multicolored rock--the only large semi-flat surface around--and makes it back to the little stall with the Jordanian flags you saw on your way up, all full of beautiful trinkets and no one to buy them from. It's not that she doesn't care. It's not that she doesn't want to make a sale. It's that she trusts humans, that she doesn't need her eyes on her business when The Almighty oversees everything from up there, she tells me when I ask her if she isn't afraid that tourists may help themselves to some souvenirs. And there is this other reason for her not to be at the stall: she needs to do business on her phone and that multicolored rock up there, far away from her stand, is the only place where she gets a decent signal.
The climb to the High Place of Sacrifice is steep and tricky, but an unmissable part of a visit to Petra. It's a dramatic walk, rewarded with superb views into the ravine of the beautiful Wadi al-Mahfur, and the deep-cut corridors the Nabatean engineers sliced through the rock.
I knew we were reaching the top when we spotted two prominent obelisks, both over 18 feet-high, which supposedly represent Dushara and al-Uzza, the Nabatean deities. The obelisks, despite being solid, were not placed there; instead, the entire side of the mountain-top was leveled to leave them exposed and erect. Consequently, the place is known as the Phallus of Mercy, a place visited by barren women praying for fertility.
Other than the obelisks, the other sign that we were nearing the top was her voice. A woman chanted in Arabic and whistled stridently, sending her high pitch intonations down the cliff. She was up there, walking around the platform--used in biblical times as the venue for religious ceremonies-- oriented towards an altar, on which it is believed stood a table of offerings.
As soon as we reached the top, she grabbed my hand and led me from corner to corner of the summit. She looked rough. Her leathery skin seemed like life and the lives of others have left their mark on her face, and her hands were thick with callosities. She looked a little bit crazy, a little bit dangerous, a great deal like she was not the woman I wanted to be left alone with at the edge of a cliff. She showed me the altar and gave me the slash-throat sign, letting me know without words what it was for. She chanted some some more, whistled louder, and showed me everything there was to see up there. At some point, we held hands as we admired the vastness of Petra’s mountain terrain and from there, she pointed at the tomb of Aaron atop Jabal Haroun, in clear sight in the distance.
I don't know what she wanted from me. She didn't ask for money or water (I had neither). She just sang and whistled as she showed me around as if this mountain top were her own house. Before I started the descent she instructed me to sit next to her by the sacrificial altar. She showed me a picture of a man, caressed his face on the torn paper, and using body language told me he was dead. The hard edges of her contours softened. We sat there in silence and from there we saw the city of Petra standing in a broad valley down below. She put the picture of her deceased husband away and whistled some more.
Which animal would you like to come back as?
Come again? First, I don't want to come back; second, I don't believe in re-incarnation; third, fine, I'd like to come back as a cow. That's right. A cow. Not that I have a burning desire to be one, but if I were pressured into choosing an animal, it would have to be either a chimpanzee or a cow. The former because it is the creature that resembles my inner self best, and the latter because a cow possesses all the qualities I lack: patience, gentleness, tolerance and because cows are giving beings!
A few years ago I saw a cow give birth. She went about the business of bringing a calf into this world like it was just another day at the Florida State Fair. She chewed some grass and pushed. Got up, drank some water, pushed some more. Walked about, went: oh goody, more grass over there, and off she went to one corner of the pen. At some point, she ate while the legs of the calf were sticking out of her body.
Cows get extra points when it comes to utilitarian value. In some omnivorous societies, cows give their skin, their milk, their meat, their horns. In other highly carnivorous societies, like Colombia, cows give the same and then some. In Colombia nothing goes to waste; they eat cows stomach (menudo), eyes, tongue, brains, and even make superb sweets, the heart of which is the cartilage of the cow's legs (gelatina 'e pata).
I like big cows and I can not lie. I stare at, photograph and baby-talk to them. I love their protruding eyes, those eye-lashes--straight like arrows, the versatility of their nifty tail. I admire them too much to eat them.
Eating chimpanzee--the king of the anthropomorphic--would be almost cannibalism; eating a cow is pure betrayal.
I'm not a vegetarian with capital V. Let's say that I'm a lousy vegetarian, that I'm known for having short-lived flings with chicken and for possessing a superhuman capacity to eat lobster. Also, my reasons for not eating meat are neither religious nor health-related. I simply don't like the taste of meat. Although I have to admit, my meatless diet, started out as a self-discipline test. I wanted to know if I could go a week without meat, then two, then a month, then three months, and before I knew it, thirteen meatless years had passed. And in the process, I have lost interest in eating any quadrupedal animal, and going steadily off anything with feathers and/or scales. And if any hidden part of me still yearned for meats, these animals displayed at butcher shops in Kathmandu, uncluttered my mind.
So what's left for me to eat other than water and lettuce? Lobster, clams, oysters, squids, octopus...the options are endless, especially in Marseilles, France, where recently, a fisherman taught me a new meaning of the word FRESH.
He went to the ocean in a little wooden canoe, cast his fishing net into the cold waters, and pulled it in when it felt heavy with sea food. Put his catch in coolers filled with salty cold water and drove to the main plaza just outside our hotel. Grabbed a table, wrote the price of his catch on little wooden boards, and released his catch into the belly of the water-filled table. He was then, officially open for business.
Octopus. It's what's for dinner.