Category: Travel

In May of 2010 I visited Syria. I went on my own, but organized transportation between cities and hired guides to visit key historical sites.

The Theater in Bosra is now used by snipers and houses rebel forces.

The Theater in Bosra is now used by snipers and houses rebel forces.

The Syria I visited was both beautiful and fascinating — Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, the Citadel of Saladin and Palmyra were living links to a past that I had only been able to imagine.

There was a major battle in a city in the desert area of Restafa where I met  this young entrepreneur who sold me this hand embroidered treasure.

There was a major battle in a city in the desert area of Restafa where I met this young entrepreneur who sold me this hand embroidered treasure.








When I see the images of what is happening and has happened in the last four years, my heart breaks. I don’t want to forget the Syria and the Syrians I experienced during my visit.

Palmyra, that for centuries was the crossroads of the world, has not escaped the relentless destruction of the civil war.

Palmyra, that for centuries was the crossroads of the world, has not escaped the relentless destruction of the civil war.

The Grand Mosque in Aleppo and the bazaar that abuts it have sustained significant damage.

The Grand Mosque in Aleppo and the bazaar that abuts it have sustained significant damage.




I fear these young men no longer have the same easy smiles and open curiosity

I fear these young men no longer have the same easy smiles and open curiosity



This post is my attempt to remind myself and others of what has been lost and what is being lost as this tragic war drags on.

Issues of citizenship, nationality and belonging have been in the news recently. The great ‘immigration debate’ rages as Americans try to wrestle with exactly when someone becomes “American”. But these questions are not just abstract legal issues or economic ones. They represent an essential component of how we define who we are. For the vast majority of people in the world, this poses no problem. But for some of us  – and our numbers are growing — questions arise.
Citizenship is a legal term, it refers to a country within which you, as a citizen, have certain rights and for whom the government has certain responsibilities. You can have, as do  I and many I know, dual, triple or even quadruple citizenship. You can get citizenship through birth, from your parents, from your spouse or through legal means such as naturalization. Citizenship is conferred differently by different countries. In some, it’s fairly difficult to attain. In others, quite easy.

Nationality is less precise. According to my American Heritage Dictionary, nationality is “the status of belonging to a particular nation by origin, birth or naturalization.” or “a people having common origins or traditions”. But what nationality are you if you’re born one place, of parents of another country and grew up yet somewhere else? Nationality can be defined by others. The Chinese government reserves the right to claim as Chinese nationals all ethnic Chinese from any community anywhere in the world, regardless of how long it has been since any family member has ever set foot in China. A friend of mine who was of Japanese descent – several generations ago – found it very difficult when she visited Japan because she found that there was an expectation that despite her foreign ‘citizenship’, upbringing etc. that she would continue to be fully and completely ‘Japanese’ including how she walked, talked and moved. She told me she grew tired of being criticized for how she stood while waiting for a subway.

For me, questions such as “Where are you from?” Or “What are you?” always provoked a feeling of discomfort. Where was I from? I was born in Brazil, spent little time in the U.S. growing up so certainly I didn’t feel as if I was from the U.S. But did that make me ‘Brazilian’? Not really. My parents were from the United States, I received a largely U.S. style education, and spent much of my adult life representing the U.S. overseas. So I must be ‘American’.

I spent only four years of my first 18 in the U.S., the rest I was in Guatemala, Cuba and Brazil. When I was a teenager I was so rabidly, wholeheartedly and fanatically Brazilian, that my American parents, fearing I would lose my American identity entirely, insisted in my returning to the U.S. to go to college. When they moved to Tunisia during my college years, I ended up with no family or roots to return to in Brazil, so I settled into life in the U.S. Ironically because I wanted to get back overseas, I ended up becoming an American foreign service officer and took as my job ‘explaining America’ to the rest of the world But I never relinquished my Brazilian citizenship and I always maintained a brazilian heart.

My latest ‘identity crisis’ was triggered by  the World Cup. The World Cup tested my national loyalties. I have now lived and worked in so many countries – in North America, South America, Africa and the Far East – that I have emotional ties to them all. When Spain faced Tunisia, who should I root for? When the U.S. faced Ghana? (Sorry, but I just had to root for the Africans on this one). What about when Brazil faced Ghana? How I envied those friends whose loyalties were clear.
But then I remembered two important points. First, while it may be confusing and at times lonely feeling no strong sense of belonging to one place, I get such great joy from feeling connected to so many places.  As the World Cup went on those who rooted so passionately for one team, lost so much after their team was eliminated. But I just kept finding a new team to which I had an emotional attachment.

Secondly my sense of belonging in the U.S. as a whole may be tenuous at times, but I do very much feel a part of Miami.  After all, Miami is  the community version of me. So many loyalties, so many identities, so many citizenships. I could hardly have found a more appropriate place to live.

And finally as I fret about my multiple identities I can’t help but be aware of the millions of refugees that don’t have any — no citizenship, no nationality, no home. So now I’ll stop worrying about my crisis of too many identities and  focus on ways — however small — I can help those who have lost all  of theirs.

Let the Story Lead You: Spain

I grew up traveling — lived in different countries, visited others. It’s a pattern I carried into my adult life.  And I was particularly lucky that I had parents who really knew how to travel.  They were adventurous, curious and open. That doesn’t mean they climbed the Himalayas or hitchhiked across Patagonia.  But they were readers. And through their reading they learned about new places, people and cultures. Often they would then venture forth and experience them in person.

They’d always have one real guidebook — given my father’s complete inability to get from point A to point B without visiting points D, K and L first.  But the books they used to guide them were memoirs, travelogues and novels.  I vividly remember the first time I became aware of their ingenious travel secret.  They were living in Spain and we had decided to do a cross-country trip from Barcelona to Madrid.

For that trip we used James Michner’s Iberia,  a memoir of his time in Spain during the nineteen-sixties. The writing is amazing. His images breathtaking.  Spain had changed enormously by the late seventies when we took our trip. But using him as our guide gave us so much appreciation of what was enduring and what was changing.

When we got to Granada,  I found an old copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of the Alhambra.  It was a weekday and past tourist season, so I had time to roam or linger with little disruption. As I sat in the cool shade near of one of the courtyards reading “The Legend of the Three Beautiful Princesses,”  I was transported back in time. I could see the valley they gazed over. I had walked past the fountains of the gardens in their gilded cage. I could picture their escape. What a magical afternoon.

If you venture to Spain, I heartily recommend you consider reading Iberia and Tales of the Alhambra before or as you go. There are lots of other books, of course. Here are some of my personal recommendations:

Two classics set during the Spanish Civil War:
Homage to Catalonia  by George Orwell
For Whom the Bell Tolls  by Ernest Hemingway

And a couple more modern contributions:
Shadow of the Wind  by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (translated by Lucia Graves), again partially set during the Civil War. This is a rich, lyrical, mystical, very Spanish work — I personally enjoyed it most in the audio version.
Madrid Tales  — an anthology of Spanish short stories translated by Helen Constantine and Margaret Jull Costa. Not all the stories will appeal, but they are a great initiation into modern Madrid, and Spain.

Happy reading and bon voyage.





Cheetah, Namibia

Don’t get so stuck in the fast lane of life you forget to just be.

I am addicted to traveling. I admit it. I jump at the chance to take a road trip. I yearn to revisit old haunts or set off on new adventures. I love big cities, untamed wilderness, dry deserts and frozen tundra.  

Of course these days the act of traveling — of getting from point A to point B — is often an exercise in endurance and superhuman patience. And I have been known to sit in an airport and swear I’ll never travel again.

But I could never give up marveling as I watch men haggle over a squirming sheep —  “See the thick hair.” “Ah, but look at the poor teeth.” Acting out a scene that hasn’t changed in hundreds, maybe thousands of years, except for that cell phone the buyer is using to check in with his boss.

I have too much fun losing myself in the mazes of souks and bazaars. Where spicy aromas and brilliant colors mix with electrical supplies, dishwashing liquid and paper goods.

And I get such joy catching a glimpse of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket as I drive through the south (really how great a name is that).

Traveling reminds me just how enchanting what others consider mundane can be. And conversely how exciting my everyday life may seem to others.

And that helps me appreciate my life just a bit more, even when I’m not traveling.


The temperature is in the upper nineties here in Miami, the air thick with tropical humidity.
So today I dream of far off lands: Antarctica, the Lemaire Channel. P1000299

One reason I love travel is that it not only exposes me to the rich tapestry of different cultures and their unique approaches to life, beauty, time, etc., but it also reminds me of how much we share. And not all of what we share is the good stuff.

It is extremely embarrassing to me that despite all the time I spent living and working in Taiwan, traveling in Japan and mainland China, studying spoken Chinese, I still find it very difficult to distinguish between not only different individual Chinese (unless I know them well), but the various ethnic groups as well.

But during my tenure in Taiwan I learned that this failing is not, as I assumed, a simple reflection of my Euro-centricity, but that Chinese suffer from a similar issue when distinguishing between those of us of European origin.

My boss in Taiwan was married to a Swiss-American. She and I were similar in height and weight. But I at the time had dark auburn hair and a ruddy complexion with freckles. My boss’ wife had porcelain white skin and pale blond hair. To our Western colleagues we were very distinct. But after two years and multiple meetings — both official and social — the mayor of the city where I served could not tell the difference between us.

Towards the end of my stay, I commented on this fact to my assistant, someone whom I saw daily. “You’d think he’d at least notice we have different color hair.” I said.

Now here’s the kicker. “You do?” She answered.

That’s when I realized that Westerners filter certain characteristics when they look at someone. We automatically consider hair color, skin color, eye color. We then move on to type of hair — straight or curly, and other distinguishing features. Chinese use othere differences: shape of face, width of cheeks, and other facial structures. After all, there’s no point in noticing hair color — always black, eye color — always dark, type of hair — always straight. Similarly we generally won’t notice shape of face, width of cheeks, etc.

Not sure what the lesson in all this is, but I’ve learned to be less judgmental of myself (and others) in this regard and to humbly realize that I’m only as individual as the person looking at me notices.

Sometimes you can’t believe your luck.

I took a break from mulling over my final itinerary to Syria in 2010 and picked up old Newsweek I hadn’t gotten around to reading.

I was fascinated with  “History in the Remaking” about Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill) in southwestern Turkey near Sanliurfa.    The site dates to about 9000 BCE (6500 years older than the accepted age of Stonehenge).   Originally thought to have been a temple, some now argue it might have been a human settlement.

In either case, it is old.  It was built before any known written language, before the wheel, before domestication of animals and before farming.  It was built by hunter-gatherers.   Its discovery has shaken up thinking about how human civilization evolved.

Then I saw it:    “south is the Syrian border, visible 20 miles away”.  I became obsessed with arranging a visit.

The site was so new that none of the travel people I was working with had ever heard of it.  But I insisted.  So despite doubts, it was arranged that one day while in Aleppo I would make the quixotic 170-mile drive to  Sanliurfa.

What an adventure.  I had spent the day before getting my fractured wrist set, so at 5:00 am I was in considerable pain and only marginally coherent when I met my driver (for the first time).  He had the necessary credentials to drive across the border, but spoke no English and wasn’t 100% sure of where we were going.

We crossed the border and got to the first major city with only normal bureaucratic delays.    That’s when I realized the driver didn’t speak Turkish and  couldn’t read the Western letters of street and highway signs.  After several circuitous attempts to get on the correct highway, he taught me how to say left, right, and straight.  I read the signs.  He drove.  We made it to Sanliurfa.

I don’t know what we would have done if there hadn’t been a sign off the main road directing us to the Gobekli Tepe site.   As it was my driver grew increasingly skeptical as we drove the 10 or so miles down the winding dirt  path.

But finally there we were.

I couldn’t stay long because I really was not well.  But as I inched up and down the dirt paths through the excavation, it was everything and more than I expected.  I had no idea how vast it was, how much there was already to see.  And even though it wasn’t quite ready for prime time, there was enough information that my mind could see what had been.  And what had been was magnificent.

As I got back in the car, my driver shook his head.  We had been on the road for about 5 hours,  now we were driving back.  I suspect he still wonders about his crazy American passenger and her weird journey.

I regret I couldn’t stay longer.  I regret I was almost too out of it to really take it all in.  I regret I didn’t buy the damn booklet about the site even if it was in German.

But I don’t regret going.   And I can’t forget my wonder and excitement at being there.

What better way to flaunt your international cool?





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