There’s a most excellent state of being that’s been sadly, almost criminally, neglected in our feverishly passionate age. I refer, of course, to the art of indifference. I do not mean the cruel and cold variety that turns a blind eye to the suffering of others or shirks one’s duties, oh no, but the breezy, nonchalant kind of indifference
There’s a most excellent state of being that’s been sadly, almost criminally, neglected in our feverishly passionate age. I refer, of course, to the art of indifference. I do not mean the cruel and cold variety that turns a blind eye to the suffering of others or shirks one’s duties, oh no, but the breezy, nonchalant kind of indifference that allows us to amble through life with a delightful lack of concern. This essay, then, is my modest attempt to sing the praises of this underrated virtue, and if it leaves you untouched, well, that’s quite fitting, isn’t it?
Take a moment to reflect upon our culture’s obsession with passion. We’re constantly bombarded with the message that passion is the key to success, the path to fulfillment, the secret ingredient in the recipe for a meaningful life. “Find your passion,” they say, “and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Well, I’m here to tell you that I tried this, and all it got me was a procession of half-baked projects and a host of unfulfilled ambitions.
Yes, I once jumped into the fiery pit of passion, with results both comical and tragic. I thought I’d pen the next great English novel—twelve attempts later, I have a collection of first chapters that would make even the most patient publisher tear their hair out. In a passionate flurry, I turned to photography, only to discover that the world doesn’t need another pretentious monochrome portrait of a rusty bicycle. I attempted to learn Italian, dreaming of reading Dante in the original—now my Italian vocabulary extends to ordering pasta and making polite comments about the weather.
And who could forget the jazz band? A few weeks of fervent practice and grand dreams of jamming like Coltrane, and all I had to show for it was a disgruntled neighbor and a saxophone that now serves as an expensive dust collector. Passion, it seemed, promised much but delivered little, leaving me a jack of all trades and master of none, hopping between hobbies like a particularly dissatisfied kangaroo.
But indifference—oh, there’s a path less trodden. Indifference isn’t glamorous; it’s rarely extolled in rousing speeches or uplifting Instagram quotes. In fact, it’s mostly scorned or, fittingly, ignored. It’s never been the subject of an inspirational TED talk, and you won’t find a shelf full of self-help books titled The Power of Indifference or Find Your Meh. But hear me out—indifference, my friends, might just be the secret to a more serene life.
Why, you may ask? Well, indifference offers a liberation that passion does not. It frees us from the anxiety of always needing to be engaged, always needing to care, always needing to “do something”. It rescues us from the tyrannical expectation of having an opinion on everything—from the Middle East conflict to whether pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping.
With a healthy dose of indifference, we can amble through life, observing the world with detached interest. We can stroll through a park and appreciate the rustling leaves, the children’s laughter, the sunshine filtering through the trees, without feeling the need to capture the moment for our social media followers. We can simply exist, unburdened by the need to “make every moment count.”
Indifference allows us to attend a dinner party and remain blissfully disengaged from passionate debates about politics, dietary choices, or the merits of postmodern literature. We can sip our wine, nibble our hors d’oeuvres, and respond to passionate outbursts with a noncommittal, “Is that so?” Imagine the serenity of a world in which we could simply listen without feeling the need to take a side, to protest, to change someone’s mind.
And what of art, you ask? Surely, art requires passion? Well, consider this: with indifference, we can visit a museum and stand before a grand masterpiece of modern art—a jumble of colors that is supposedly a commentary on existential despair—and say, “Hmm, interesting. I wonder what’s for lunch?”
Now, I know what you’re thinking. A world characterized by indifference would be a world devoid of progress. “Without passion, there would be no innovation, no art, no change!” you cry. And perhaps you’re right. But let’s not forget the flip side of this coin—without indifference, we would be a world perpetually embroiled in passionate conflict, a world without pause, without respite, without the chance to simply let things be.
So, I say, let’s hear it for indifference. Let’s toast to the blissful freedom it offers, to the quiet rebellion it embodies. Let’s celebrate its soothing balm in a world frenzied with fervor. Whether we care deeply about our toasts or not is, of course, quite beside the point. And so, I raise my glass—whether I’m passionately fond of the drink inside it or not—and say: “Here’s to indifference. Long may it continue to not particularly matter.”
The street is lined with trees that must have been planted many decades ago, so large and massive are they. I ask Carmen if she knows what kind they are, but she shrugs, “Just trees”.
“Over there are palm-trees—Palmeras,” she says and points at a large roundabout with all kinds of
“They’re nice, but I like those large
The street is lined with trees that must have been planted many decades ago, so large and massive are they. I ask Carmen if she knows what kind they are, but she shrugs, “Just trees”.
“Over there are palm-trees—Palmeras,” she says and points at a large roundabout with all kinds of
“They’re nice, but I like those large leaf trees that provide cooling and shade when you walk down the street on a hot afternoon.” I look at the
enormous crowns that almost touch the windows of the old houses on the
“It must be pleasant living in those apartments overlooking the street.
I mean those houses are practically pieces of art in their own right,” I say to her and point at the decorated balconies with wrought iron railings.
Carmen glances up at the carved
facades and shrugs again, “Those apartments are very expensive. Some of them have belonged to the same families for generations.”
I stare longingly at the high windows with the ornamented arches and wonder what it must be like to look down on the people going about their business. I walk through this part of town
every day on my way from the subway and enjoy admiring the affluence here before turning into the side-street where my flat, that I share with three other people, is
In front of our building, Señora Gonzáles is busy sweeping the street. She exchanges a few words with
Carmen, but she speaks too fast for me to understand what she is saying. It is clear though, that she is upset about something.
“She was talking about the heatwave,” Carmen explains to me as we walk up the stairs to our apartment. “She says it’s causing the trees to shed their leaves although it’s only
the middle of the summer.”
“Yeah, that’s sad.”
I look out into the backyard where some boys are playing football,
despite the hot weather. When the sun sets, the old people will come out and sit on the benches, talking till midnight.
“I think we should go to a bar
tonight,” says Carmen. “No sense sitting at home in this heat.”
In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the wrongfully exiled Prospero muses that life is nothing more real than a reverie caught between two long sleeps. Here, the Bard lands on something that storytellers have grappled with since we first sat around a campfire to hear a tale.
There are so many elements of daily life that go far beyond the
In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the wrongfully exiled Prospero muses that life is nothing more real than a reverie caught between two long sleeps. Here, the Bard lands on something that storytellers have grappled with since we first sat around a campfire to hear a tale.
There are so many elements of daily life that go far beyond the narrow limits of realism as we have come to understand the term today. Real life is filled with prophetic dreams, spiritual epiphanies, déjà vu, eerie coincidences, synchronicities, and still more first-hand experiences that test the assumptions of so-called realism. And so narratives that contain only the sepia tones of Kansas and never the bright colors of Oz can end up falling flat as the plains.
The fantastic, it might be said, is a critical element to revive realism, to bring it out of its clinical stupor and into a more vivid, Technicolor state. And if we look through the history of literature, we see the fantastic serving this role in an ever-evolving relationship with realism.
Before we trace this history to find the many ways the fantastic can aid and uphold the underlying values of a more genuine “real” than realism, it’s important to mention what we aren’t talking about. There is, of course, a difference between the kind of fantasy we will be analyzing and that of Tolkein, Lewis, or Rowling.
This much more recent form of fantasy literature (much of it directly spawning from The Lord of the Rings) acknowledges itself as an escape from the world. Even Tolkein, whose work was often compared to his traumatic experiences of the First World War, vehemently denied any connection between his Middle Earth and our Earth. Lewis, for his part, was making self-aware allegories to the story of Christ, while Rowling quite clearly crafted escapist fiction for children threaded with coming-of-age relatability.
You could argue that a work like The Lord of the Rings contains profound truths that resonate with our world, but it would be much harder to say that it is meant to illustrate our world directly.
What we’ll be looking at is the use of the fantastic not as a way out of what is real, but as a direct route into it.
Let’s begin our examination with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Published in 8 CE, it already contains within it a sophisticated and robust use of the fantastic as a means to express what is real.
To make Ovid’s use of the fantastic even more on-the-nose for our purposes, the introduction of magic occurs — as the title suggests — in moments of transformation. Mushrooms are turned into humans, crowns are turned into constellations, and all the while the characters of the stories must navigate these shifting realities as best they can.
For Ovid, the fantastic is a way to highlight the central wonder of existence and its only seeming constant: change. As Heraclitus might have said to Ovid a handful of centuries before on a peninsula not so far away, “You can’t step in the same river twice.”
This also points to the wisdom of alchemy that would come much later during the Renaissance, an era when European thinkers dusted off their Ovid and Heraclitus. In alchemy, inner transformation is described as a kind of magical process — one where the subtle, mystical features of the material world must be changed so that their gross, physical presentation can change.
In Ovid’s stories, transformation crosses all known boundaries, be they animal, vegetable, or mineral. There are even leaps from the profane to the sacred. If we look around, we know that these miraculous changes really do take place. All life on earth likely came from a common ancestor, and from this soup came upright beings who recognized within this chaos the shimmer of divinity.
Such insights are grand, even cosmic. And they touch on arcs and narratives that diminish the perspective of individual humans to the point of absolute incomprehensibility. The fantastic — typically in the form of a god’s caprice — is Ovid’s way of encapsulating that in a story. It works, not because it makes those enormous processes understandable, but because it honors their place beyond our understanding.
Rather than trying to solve these great mysteries, Ovid uses the fantastic to declare the mystery itself as what is true.
While Shakespeare tapped into profound existential questions about human life, he often did so with the help of the fantastic. This is particularly true in his greatest works.
Hamletfamously begins with the apparition of the recently deceased king. Though Prince Hamlet learns of the murder of his father by talking directly to his ghost, he still can’t quite come to grips with the revelation. This is partly because he is apprehensive to believe the reality of a ghost. And yet, this event is enough to begin the action. Over the course of the play, Hamlet is torn between the part of himself that knows the ghost is telling the truth and the other part that needs to prove it by some other, less fantastical, means before seeking revenge.
In Macbeth, the title character and his wife are only able to confront the demands of fate and the inevitability of death thanks to the three Weird Sisters who tell him of his future as usurper of Macduff’s throne. The question becomes clear: if the witches never told Macbeth he was destined to become king, would he and his wife have taken the treacherous, blood-soaked road to the throne? The fantastic acts as the burning knowledge that he will, he mustbe king — the overwhelming ambition that drives so many who have come to power.
Shakespeare can lean even further into the fantastic with works like A Midsummer’s Night Dream, but it is in the two tragedies mentioned above that we find the most alluring for our purposes. Because it’s in these examples that the fantastic is used in a way that makes the characters more recognizable as humans just like us.
Hamlet’s indecision conflicts with his knowledge of his father’s murder. Macbeth’s guilt conflicts with his knowledge of his fate to rule in Macduff’s place. In both instances, the fantastic element provides that kind of knowledge that we all come with when we are born. These are those innate understandings that we can’t shake, the impulses caused by instinct, psychology, or the stars we were born under.
This is a magical kind of knowledge that we’ve all experienced. And so to render it comprehensible from the stage, Shakespeare gave it the fantastic forms of ghosts and witches. Those are characters that can speak in iambs and follow stage directions.
They embody what psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist would refer to as right brain thinking, the kind that uses the gestalt of a situation along with inborn wisdom to simply know. And one could say that the anxious vacillations of Hamlet and Macbeth represent the over-rationalizing that left brain thinking is heir to.
Shakespeare was not the last European writer who found ghosts a perfect vehicle for that element of life that is more real than real. Gothic literature helped create the modern ghost story, and it did so with a fairly clear epistemological argument that upheld non-rational forms of knowing as equal, if not superior, to rational ones.
That is to say the Age of Reason had its discontents, and for inspiration in their counterattack, the Romantics looked back past the Renaissance to the Middle Ages. There in the so-called “Gothic” times (as in post-Roman), they saw everything they adored: a love of aesthetics, a more spiritual conception of the world, and a connection to the emotions.
The writings of the Romantics introduced Gothic literature to a steadily growing readership. These tales began with works like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. In that story the fantastic is, well, quite fantastic. But later writers would reel this in for a more calculated effect, finding ghosts to be the perfect vehicle for the intrusion of knowledge and the force of the past on the minds of the living.
The success of this bled into all forms and genres of literature. Charles Dickens’ 1843 masterpiece A Christmas Carol even does this. The protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old business partner and three more mysterious phantoms. Each gives our hero important knowledge of his own life and its effect on those around him. (An angel would play a similar role in the 1946 film and fellow Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra.)
Being the Victorian era, ghosts were also often used to show madness in its many forms, as in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Here, the supernatural presence of ghosts and demons eventually resolve into stress-induced hallucinations and real people. The fantastic, then, is the temporary stand-in for things that stand within reach of the senses but just beyond what the mind can grasp.
The Gothic eventually used the fantastic to characterize all that we cannot know. The things we don’t know and might never have the capacity to understand can still be active forces in our lives, and so they can be turned into characters. Henry James accomplished this with harrowing precision in his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. In this novel, ambiguity is used for maximum effect, with ghosts amplifying the incomprehensibility of things like death and human cruelty.
While the fantastic can be incorporated to describe cosmic, spiritual, and psychological states of knowing, it can do all this while alsoproviding sociological nuance — as it does in magical realism.
Much ink has been spilled over the legitimacy of a term like “magical realism.” For instance, it is conspicuous how many of the works that fall into this category are by writers from South America, calling into question how much magical realism is simply fantasy written due south of the United States. Yet within even this controversy, we see how the fantastic works to describe the lacunae of understanding between civilizations.
The trademark of magical realism is the presence of the fantastic in an otherwise real setting, treated as if it were part of the everyday. Gabriel García Márquez’s short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” from 1968 is the perfect example of this. The humans in the story deal with this angelic figure in all-too human ways, never being distracted by his possible origins in heaven long enough to enter a bout of religious ecstasy.
By using the fantastic in this way, Márquez describes a clash of civilizations. He does this by illustrating the cohabitation of two ways of knowing — a cohabitation that marks the South American experience (and indeed the experience of people all over the world) where Western and non-Western ways of seeing and understanding the world must now live side-by-side.
For magical realism, the intrusion of the fantastic only works in one direction. The reader recognizes that an angel falling from the sky is quite an amazing, reality-bending event. That the characters of the story are not overawed by it brings us into a mental space where two ways of knowing exist. There is one that sees the angel as a miracle, the other that sees it as simply an event like any other, maybe an opportunity to make a bit of money. In the same way, between two ways of knowing, things can be generated that appear both miraculous and mundane — depending on the worldview.
The fantastic elements will spark something in the reader, and that reader will then have to reconcile the lack of surprise in the characters. Over the course of a literary work, one assumes the reader might settle in, able to hold both of these views at the same time.
The examples above show us plenty of instances where the fantastic is used to create a literary experience that does not deviate from reality. Instead, the fantastic is the best way into it.
That might make us question, then, the method of strict realism as a literary mode. Is it not itself a form of fantasy? By eliminating essential elements to the human experience of life, is it not a fantasy by omission? Is it not the long held fantasy of industrial reasoning that yearns for a world that is totally scrutable and therefore totally controllable?
Strict realism feels less than real when we see the fantastic as a carrier of truths far too big for those pre-twister moments with Auntie Em at the farm, when we see the land of Oz as a reality always living underneath Kansas.
The illusion of realism, that it can capture what really is (nothing more and nothing less), reveals itself to be just that, an illusion. Or as Prospero might say, it is ”melted into air, into thin air.”
“I recognize the lion by its claw,” my friend Hector said and banged knowingly with his knuckles on the iron railing of the pedestrian bridge, crossing a muddy river in the town of Girona in northern Spain, some thirty kilometers from Barcelona. “Meaning?” I asked. “This bridge was designed and built by none other than Gustav Eiffel, the
“I recognize the lion by its claw,” my friend Hector said and banged knowingly with his knuckles on the iron railing of the pedestrian bridge, crossing a muddy river in the town of Girona in northern Spain, some thirty kilometers from Barcelona. “Meaning?” I asked. “This bridge was designed and built by none other than Gustav Eiffel, the creator of the famous Eiffel-tower in Paris,” Hector said, and waited for me to show some sign of being impressed. “Wasn’t he French?” “Yes, he was,” confi rmed Hector. “But he was commissioned to do work outside of his home country, since he was considered such a great engineer.” “Wow,” I said and tried to sound enthusiastic. I leaned my head sideways in the hope that this would help me to spot some connection to the famous tower. “Yeah, I can see it now. There is defi nitely a likeness,” I said, and took a few photos on my phone, while Hector was busy looking at an inscription on the railing. The people of Girona sure were proud of their famous bridge. “When does the restaurant open? We don’t want to be late,” I said, trying to get Hector to focus on the actual reason why we came to this town. “Yes, we’ll go there now. It’s just around the corner, in the center.” Girona is famous for its restaurants, many of which have been accredited with Michelin stars and are fully booked for months in advance. We had managed to get a reservation for lunch in a so-called fusion restaurant and we didn’t want to be late, lest our table would be given away to some walk-ins. I fi nally managed to drag Hector away from the bridge and we made it to the restaurant on time, where we had some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. Expensive but fabulous. On our way back to the car we crossed the Iron Bridge again, but this time Hector was so exhausted from all the eating that he didn’t give it any attention.
I knew Jerusalem would be hot in the summer. I was completely unprepared for the relentless arid heat and the wavy shimmer in the air as if a mirage might appear vertically in front of me at any time. My husband and I have brought our three girls to visit my aunt Haya. She’s been to visit us a number of times over the years, however this
I knew Jerusalem would be hot in the summer. I was completely unprepared for the relentless arid heat and the wavy shimmer in the air as if a mirage might appear vertically in front of me at any time. My husband and I have brought our three girls to visit my aunt Haya. She’s been to visit us a number of times over the years, however this is our first visit to Israel. We arrive at her second-story walk-up apartment in Ramat Gan to a handdrawn welcome note on the door. Haya ushers us into her lightfilled and much cooler apartment. We’re introduced to Frankie, her cat, who instantly bonds with our youngest daughter. After unpacking our suitcases we wander out onto the patio and gaze out at the hills. In one direction there are buildings and rolling hills with trees and greenery. In the other direction there are fields and goats. We can hear their bells clinking as they wander and forage. There’s something peaceful about the setting which feels almost as if we’ve stepped into the past. A couple of days later, after we’ve managed to shake off the jet lag induced by the seven-hour time difference, we decide to wander into the Old City. Approaching the limestone walls it again feels as if we’re stepping into a different time. As soon as we walk through the gate we’re greeted by the sight of a tea vendor walking slowly down the street holding a tray with small cups of mint and a teapot of hot water. The sharp piquant scent of mint catches our noses as he wanders by. Haya laughingly tells us that the shopkeepers will provide cups of tea for free. However she warns us that if they invite us to come in and sit down and they serve us tea we’d better be prepared to bargain pretty hard because they’re about to sell us something. As we wander the streets of the Old City we notice an electric feel to the air. Surrounded by a variety of languages there’s a different energy and pace to the city. It’s blisteringly hot making it easy to understand why people are moving so slowly. The heat is so intense no one wants to rush. In fact, some of them don’t seem to want to move at all. We walk past a shopkeeper sitting on a bench fanning himself outside his emporium. “Want to come in and let me rip you off?” He asks. We laugh, shake our heads, and continue on. As we walk down one alleyway there’s a delicious smell emanating from somewhere. Haya says it’s the ovens where the sesame seeds are being roasted for tahini and guides us there. We stop for a bit to watch the workers with their huge wooden paddles deftly shifting enormous piles of sesame . seeds inside what looks like an oversize pizza oven. As we stand there we realize we’ve been assaulted on all sides by delectable smells, hints of spices, baked goods, and more. And we’re hungry. Haya announces that she’s taking us to the best falafel stand in the universe, we’ll get lunch. Wandering away from the sesame seed ovens we wend our way through twisty alleyways, up and down stone steps, and through stone archways, until we arrive at a tiny out-of-theway, hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Abu Shukri. The five of us look at it in disbelief. This is the best falafel stand in the universe? Really? Haya assures us it is and gently shepherds us inside where we are greeted with a tantalizing aroma that has us all salivating. She places our order at the counter and we find a place to sit. A short while later our food arrives looking beautiful and smelling mouthwateringly delicious. It turns out to be a revelation of how amazing a simple meal can be. We start with fresh hummus that includes whole chickpeas generously drizzled with a peppery delicious olive oil and fresh parsley, a plate of falafel hot and freshly made. They have a wonderful crunchy outside and a tasty crumbly inside, plus there’s soft, warm, freshly baked pita breads that relegates any other pita I’ve ever had to the cardboard category. The meal is accompanied by an Israeli salad made with intensely flavorful tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, and aromatically sharp red onions. The six of us dive into the contents of the platter, chatting and laughing as we devour the meal. Satiated to that point of two bites past full, a deeply satisfied contentment emanates from all of us. There is nothing so wonderful as a meal that is delicious enough to nourish you on many levels. Quite frankly this meal spoiled me for falafel, hummus, and pita for yearsto come. It took a very long time for the memory to fade to the point where I was able to eat these things again and not mourn that it wasn’t from Abu Shukri.
* * * * *
Fifteen years later I return to Jerusalem on a solo visit, unencumbered by children. I’m taking a break from a full life to spend time with my beloved aunt. My previous visit was an energetic adventure to an exciting new place with activities every day leading us all over the country. I realize this visit is a slower, more mindful visit. It is also the first time in my entire life I will have an extended period of just-us-time with my aunt. Since my last visit, Haya has moved into Jerusalem proper. Walking from the bus stop to her apartment, I note a greengrocer down the street with an abundance of colorful produce spilling over the trays by the door. There’s also a sweet-looking little restaurant and a grocery store across the street from her building. I’m a little sad not to see the hills and the goats, yet also delighted with this walkable neighborhood that seems to have what she needs very close to hand. After I get settled, Haya asks me what’s on my list of things to do while I’m in Jerusalem. I share that my most important thing is to simply spend time with her. After that, I’d very much like to go to the Kotel, The Western Wall. And then I tell her I must go back to, “the best falafel stand in the universe”. All these years later I’ve forgotten the name but not the taste. She laughs and says, “Do you mean Abu Shukri? I haven’t been there in years. That would be lovely.” Three days later, we make our way to the Old City. We decide to go to the Kotel first. Making my way over to the wall, my hair covered in a borrowed scarf that’s been shared at the entrance, I stand in front of the wall. I can feel the energy of those who have stood there before me. I’ve already written my prayers and carefully folded them. Reaching into my pocket, I pull out these tiny white pieces of paper, gently pushing them into the cracks in the wall along with the countless others. Putting my hand on the wall, I bow my head and let the energy of this place wash over me. I’m surprised to find tears welling up in my eyes. Although I’m Jewish and have a spiritual practice, I’m not highly observant and rarely go to temple. Yet somehow being here, now, in this place stirs some forgotten whisper of spiritual resonance and seems to connect me to those who have come before. Eventually, I feel a sense of peace settle over me and a few moments later. I release my hand from the wall and walk back over to Haya. Leaving the plaza, we head out to find Abu Shukri. We get lost. With all the twisty turns and not well-marked alleyways all over the Old City, if you don’t know where you’re going it can be difficult to find specific destinations. We ask directions three times. I’m reminded again of how Israelis don’t seem to like to admit they don’t know where something is. The directions go something like this, “Walk that way, take two rights and a left, then ask someone else.” We’re getting pretty hungry at this point, so luckily we do eventually find the restaurant. To my delight, the place still looks just as much of a hole-inthe-wall as it did the first time I saw it. I’m amused by the difference in my reaction. The first time I was dubious and somewhat leery; this time I’m all in and grinning at the prospect of the meal ahead. The entrance is tucked into the alley and sits halfway between sunlight and shadow. The walls are hung with an assortment of art all in a line while the front counter is loaded with containers and a collection of pictures fills the wall behind it. The intervening years have done absolutely nothing for the décor. Their reputation, as evidenced by online recommendations in the New York Times, Trip Advisor, and more, has apparently not encouraged the owners to “fluff it up” and try to make the space more appealing to tourists. They have a good thing going and surely know it. It even smells just as I remembered, although the memory of it didn’t come back until I was confronted with the scent again at entering the place. I’m salivating before we even get to the counter to place our order. The meal does not disappoint. Haya and I once again indulge in hummus, falafel, pita, and fresh salad, enjoying the food, each other’s company, and a delightful wide-ranging conversation. And once again, we rise from the table with a full stomach, a delighted mind, and a contented heart. Abu Shukri is thousands of miles from where I live. I do plan to one day get back there. For now, I remember it fondly and have to content myself with making my own hummus. ☐
Sitting in the heart of the Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland’s geological playground, the Fagradalsfjall volcano paints a vivid portrait of nature’s untamed might. This fresh volcanic marvel, an addition to the nation’s already rich catalogue of over 130 volcanic mountains, stands out as a fiery exclamation mark on Iceland’s icy landscape. T
Sitting in the heart of the Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland’s geological playground, the Fagradalsfjall volcano paints a vivid portrait of nature’s untamed might. This fresh volcanic marvel, an addition to the nation’s already rich catalogue of over 130 volcanic mountains, stands out as a fiery exclamation mark on Iceland’s icy landscape. The crimson glow of its eruptions pierce through the cool Icelandic sky, unfurl ng an astounding spectacle of fiery brilliance. Since its recent awakening, Fagradalsfjall has proven to be a powerful magnet, pulling in legions of tourists and locals alike. The lure of witnessing this raw, destructive, yet strangely captivating spectacle has proved irresistible to many. As awe-inspiring as it is, however, the sight of the burgeoning crowds around the volatile site stirs a sense of deep concern. From the adrenaline-fuelled thrill-seekers to tourists ill-prepared for the harsh and unpredictable conditions, it is clear that many underestimate the potential danger lying beneath the volcano’s mesmerising facade. The Reykjanes Peninsula, a region famous for its geothermal springs and rugged, lava-strewn terrain, is no stranger to the vagaries of volcanic activity. This is a land carved and moulded by the fiery temper of the Earth’s core, but the eruption at Fagradalsfjall, with its increasing volatility, presents a novel and complex set of challenges. The region’s dedicated rescue teams, despite their renowned courage and expertise, now face an unprecedented situation as they navigate the harsh, ever-changing terrain and manage the influx of intrepid yet often foolhardy visitors. The Fagradalsfjall eruption site is approximately an hour’s drive from Reykjavík, the nation’s capital, making it more accessible than many of Iceland’s other volcanoes. This ease of access undoubtedly plays a significant role in the escalating visitor numbers. The anticipation of the approaching spectacle is palpable amongst the travellers as they wind their way through the country’s scenic routes towards the volcanic site. However, the accessibility of the site also exacerbates the inherent risks associated with such volatile natural phenomena. The unpredictability of volcanic eruptions, combined with the escalating number of visitors, has created a situation fraught with potential danger. The words of the brave rescue workers who are stationed at the site provide a chilling insight into the grim reality of the situation. Extracting individuals who become trapped in the fiery flow of lava is an incredibly complex and perilous task. Such rescue attempts typically necessitate aerial evacuation, a high-risk operation that isn’t always feasible given the capricious weather conditions and the volcanic ash plumes. The stark truth is that the chances of successfully rescuing individuals trapped by the relentless, molten lava flows are precariously low. Another alarming aspect of this natural spectacle is the wildfires ignited by the volcanic eruption. The once frost-kissed terrain, now scorched by the blistering heat, has given rise to wildfires that are relentlessly spreading across the landscape. Firefighters labour against these flames day and night, their valiant efforts often masked by the dense, choking smoke billowing from the fires. This smoky shroud has swallowed the hiking trails leading to the eruption site, obscuring visibility and further heightening the risks for the visitors. The grandeur of Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall is both a beauty and a beast. Its jaw-dropping spectacle is offset by the potential danger it represents. Every billowing smoke plume, every erupting fountain of lava, while a sight to behold, also serves as a sobering reminder of the perils inherent in volcano tourism. As the fiery display continues to mesmerise and draw in crowds, it is crucial for each individual to remember the volatility and unpredictability of this grand spectacle. The allure of such awe-inspiring natural wonders is undeniably compelling, but safety should never be compromised for the thrill of adventure. In the face of such raw power, caution, respect and preparedness are paramount. ☐
“You’ll be safe with us”, the guys had said when I voiced my concerns about travelling alone as a woman in Morocco. I had met them on the ferry from Tarifa and they seemed like two decent blokes. Although being from France, they spoke English fairly well and looked like average college student travellers with their rucksacks and sleeping
“You’ll be safe with us”, the guys had said when I voiced my concerns about travelling alone as a woman in Morocco. I had met them on the ferry from Tarifa and they seemed like two decent blokes. Although being from France, they spoke English fairly well and looked like average college student travellers with their rucksacks and sleeping bags. Pierre and Jean-Luc. Those were their names. They came from a small town near Toulouse and they said they’d been to Tangier before. They knew the city and all the cool places you needed to visit. And – best of all – they had contact to some local people and promised me that we would get invited to their homes and experience some local atmosphere. And now we were here, in this shady looking house at the edge of the Medina, the old city centre of Tangier. Local atmosphere, my foot! The Frenchies had dragged me with them to a local kif-seller and were lighting up huge pipes containing some illegal substance that I didn’t care about knowing more about. “I’m out of here,” I said and started to get ready to leave the place. “I’m going back to the hostel”. “Ok, whatever,” Jean-Luc said. “You think you’ll fi nd the way back on your own?” “I don’t know. I just want to leave.” I tried to open the door, but it was locked. “Open up and let me out,” I hissed at the Arab who had let us in earlier with an overly forthcoming ‘Welcome my friends’. The man moved slowly across the room and took a large key from under his kaftan and opened the door to let me out. All the while he sneered contemptuously at me. I took a last look at Pierre and Jean-Luc, who were sitting on a couch amid a mountain of colourful pillows, sucking on their pipes and staring emptily into space. I stepped out into the night and wondered how to fi nd my way back to the Riad hostel, where we had checked in earlier that day and where all my stuff, including my passport, was stored. I tried to recall the way we had come here, but on our way we had made many stops and I really wasn’t sure even in which direction the city centre was. Besides, it was getting dark and the streets in the Medina were not lit up by street-lights. I decided that it was no use standing there, but that the only way was to keep going and see if my luck would not carry me to my destination. I marched on through the labyrinth of winding alleys, running again and again into dead-ends which forced me to turn back and try another way. At times I thought I heard the noises from the Bazar, that was located near the centre, and smelled the food that was being sold there, only to wander off further away and run into another dead-end. It was completely dark now, and the only light to go by came from the windows in the old houses. After running around the maze of tiny streets, without seeing another human being, I spotted a group of young men standing at a corner in front of some kind of Hole-in-the-wall coffee shop. They stopped talking when they saw me approach and started calling out to me, fi rst in Arabic and then in broken French. “Ou est le Petit Socco?” I asked them, in the hope that they would tell me how to get to the main square. The men just laughed and pointed in three different directions, asking if I wanted to hire them as guides. “I just need to get to the main square, the Petit Socco, where my hostel is located,” I said, not sure if they understood English, but too nervous to ask them in French. One of them, the oldest in the group, motioned with his head in the direction of an alley leading to what I assumed would be the right way and hurried on, muttering a few words of appreciation. But I had not gone far when I noticed that one of the men from the group was following me. “Where you going?” he asked. “I show you.” “Thank you, but I’m just trying to get back to the main square, the Petit Socco,” I replied. “I show you. No worry, I show you,” he said, and kept on walking beside me. I wasn’t sure what to do. One the one hand, it was clear that I was lost and needed some guidance to fi nd my way back. On the other I felt apprehensive of the man, who insisted that he was “my friend” and that I should “no worry.” “Is it far to the Petit Socco?” I asked. “No, no. Not far. I show you. No worry.” But worry I did. I was here at the mercy of this overly friendly Moroccan, wandering the dark and winding alleys of an obscure and unfamiliar town, with no means of escaping, should he attack me and try to force himself upon me. I cursed myself for having broken every rule of common sense and safety for solo female travellers, and stories about women being raped and murdered fl ashed before my eyes. To my relief, we soon turned into an alley that was alive with people and open shops and coffee-bars. My self-appointed guide kept talking and asking me all kinds of questions that I answered as evasively as I possibly could. “Where you staying? Where your hostel? “It’s near the main square. Is it still far?” “You alone in Tangier? You travel alone in Morocco?” “I have some friends waiting for me at the hostel. They are there right now, waiting for me.” We walked on and after a while I started to notice places that seemed familiar. We came to a street with shops, selling leather bags and all kinds of fancy items to the tourists, where I had strolled through this afternoon, mesmerized by the sight of hand-woven rugs and carpets, hammered metalworks, argan oil and colourful piles of spices. “I think I can fi nd my way to the hostel from here,” I said. “No, no. I show you.” “I think it’s down here,” I said, picking up my pace, hoping to get rid of the fellow. “Yes, yes. Here. I show you.” He was clearly not going to disappear and I knew he was expecting a tip for his unsolicited guidance. I took out a ten dirham note, the equivalent of one Euro and handed it to him. “That’s for you. Thank you for your help.” But he just looked at me with disdain and made it clear that this was not what he had expected for his services. He wanted me to pay ten times the amount and when I refused, he turned from being my “friend” to being quite aggressive and persistent. When I tried to walk away, he followed me shouting all kinds of insults at me, making it look to bystanders as if I had cheated him out of the agreed payment. Luckily for me at that moment I spotted Pierre and Jean-Luc, on their way to the hostel. “Hey, guys.” I shouted and waved to them, making it clear to my obnoxious guide that I had detected some back-up. This worked and the hustler fi - nally backed off and left me alone, although not without shouting some obscenities at me as I hurried away. “What happened to you?” JeanLuc asked. “You just disappeared.” “Yeah, you were suddenly gone,” Pierre added. “We had no idea what became of you.” They were clearly still stoned out of their head, and didn’t feel like explaining myself to them. I went into the hostel and up to my room, where I tried to calm myself down after the unpleasant experience I’d just been through. “Don’t panic now,” I told myself. “Don’t let this incident turn you paranoid and ruin travelling for you. Keep your wits about you and you’ll be alright.” Eventually, I fell asleep and when I woke up the morning after, things looked brighter. I went downstairs to have breakfast and after two cups of stimulating coffee, I mustered up the courage to talk to some fellow guests, a couple from the Netherlands, who had been travelling in Morocco for some weeks and had experienced similar harassment from self-appointed guides and street hustlers. “You have to be fi rm with those guys,” the woman said and the man agreed with her. “Yeah, just tell them to buzz off,” he said and laughed. I laughed too, feeling relieved after having been able to talk to sympathetic people, who themselves had been through similar experiences and knew what was going on. That afternoon I continued my journey, taking the train to Marrakesh and from there to the ancient city of Fez, promising myself to be more careful and to choose my friends more wisely in the future on my travels. .
I left Kazakhstan for Russia one dripping, cold Sunday morning, by train. I carried a rucksack and a clutch of books—one by the 17th-century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho. T he Astana-1 station was obsolete in a thoroughgoing way. The trains were Soviet-era and looked like they hadn’t been washed since. The luggage—everything from
I left Kazakhstan for Russia one dripping, cold Sunday morning, by train. I carried a rucksack and a clutch of books—one by the 17th-century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho. T he Astana-1 station was obsolete in a thoroughgoing way. The trains were Soviet-era and looked like they hadn’t been washed since. The luggage—everything from duffels and suitcases to re-purposed cardboard boxes— strained against twine and tape and other jerry-rigged solutions from those who couldn’t afford much else. Even the station’s name was faded: several days prior, the city had been rebranded Nur-Sultan, similar to the name of the country’s longtime autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev. The man had just announced his resignation from formal offi ce. In reality, he retained total power. His more sycophantic deputies had moved to immediately rename the capital in his honor, something like restyling the city of Washington “George”—or, in a more modern treatment, “Donald.” Mist shrouded the city that morning. Nur-Sultan and its menagerie of gaudy wildly expensive architecture, built to celebrate young nationhood as well as Nazarbayev himself, lay obscured and grim. The weather was enough to stymie the capital’s vainglory. It was a fi tting condition for leaving, the fog like a curtain drawing slowly between its buildings and myself. T he 83C train left at 11:00am precisely for Moscow, where we would arrive three traveling-days later. We would cover roughly 2,100 miles, or the distance from Washington, DC, to Bozeman, Montana. The train would average less than 40 miles per hour. I noticed the heat as soon as I boarded, hoping the air conditioning would blast to life once in motion. Hardly! The heavy air densifi ed the longer the doors stayed closed. Dirty condensation ran down the windows. The car was incubated not just with heat but with the body warmth of a full service, adults and children and grandparents all stuffed into the same sweaty boxes. Only the clacking spaces between train cars, smelly from their second function as a smoking zone, offered respite. I changed into running shorts and a teeshirt, struggling for modesty under my bunk’s narrow blanket. On the fl oor I laid two-year-old slippers I’d bought at IKEA for $4. In my four-bunk compartment were two youngish women, one Asian and the other a Russian blondinka in a red faux-Versace tracksuit. Staring into their phones, neither spoke the entire day, except when they got off at Petropavlovsk. The blondinka offered a fl avorless “Pryatnavo vechera”—“Have a nice evening”—and quit the train. My phone worked no better than the climate control. I couldn’t call or text my wife to say I’d boarded safely, as I’d promised. In the aisle a metal bar stretched along the window, fi xed at gut level. I opened and laid my travel journal on it. The height was perfect for taking notes, I thought, and I jotted out my impressions since Astana-1. I planned to read up on the stops in the guidebook I’d brought. I knew a little Russian, but hardly enough for conversation. I was the only foreign traveler, as far as I could tell. I sought out the dining car at 1:00 pm, books in hand, telling myself that a two-hour wait from departure would cultivate the time-stretching patience I would need for this trip. Passing berths similar to mine, some doors locked tight but others wide open, I watched how the Kazakhs and Russians did rides such as this. Some read. Many poked at their phones. Others slept or looked out the window. Few spoke. The dining car was empty, except for the fi ve-person staff—all ethnic Kazakhs—who chatted as they loitered. I couldn’t believe the car was empty, at lunchtime, at the start of a long ride, in vodka country. After having to wave for service I ordered some kind of chicken cutlet and a large beer. The staff spoke always in Kazakh, switching to Russian only when a non-Kazakh entered the car. I set my travel journal next to Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. I had never read his work but the world recommended it. Basho took some getting used to; he didn’t release the wallop of description and adventure I admire most in journey narratives. Yet I plodded on, feeling almost duty-bound to see what the fuss was still about, four centuries after his death. Something in the introduction primed my interest. “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo,” Basho wrote. “And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself.” In my case “going to the pine” meant visiting Kazakhstan and Russia, in that order and with a slow train in between. That Basho was neither Kazakh nor Russian mattered little to me. It was the universal lessons of his writings, I was told, the guidance for traveling less as a tourist than as a seeker and a student. My interest in the post-Soviet world stems from the timing of my birth, and therefore my life. I was a Cold War baby, in that era’s fi nal years. In school I loved history and languages. Having lived in Europe, I knew the continent is defi ned, on its eastern fringe, by the epochs of imperial, Soviet, and contemporary Russia. So, I wanted to see the country—and why not a former satellite, too? I was “going to the bamboo,” I realized, even as the train traveled west. A walk through the hard-class cars helped me understand the train, and its people. Beyond the dining room’s empty tables stretched a half-dozen platzkartny cars, which offered only benches for sitting or sleeping. Platzkartny fares were rock-bottom. I’d heard about hard-class cars in Soviet times, and knew they still existed, but seeing them was a more visceral matter. Or should I say, smelling them. The car’s humid stink rushed out as I drew the latch. On the benches lay pyjama-ed people, dozing or staring at screens and landscapes. Plastic food containers, clearly brought from home, lined up on the fl oor. The passengers’ faces looked like sketches on the theme of resignation. Riding in hard-class was not about passing the time, but enduring it. A man propped up his head with a prison-tattooed forearm. A wide, tanktopped babushka whispered in Russian to her daughter, sitting opposite. The daughter’s own skinny-legged child curled up against her, barefoot and sleeping. The view enriched my sense of just what level of comfort in which I was traveling. At home much later, in my after-work Russian language course, my middle-class Muscovite teacher expressed dismay that I had traveled so long by train. “Three days??” she asked, incredulity thick in her words. I responded yes, it had not been that bad. And I thought of the resigned, sweating peoples in platzkartny class. I spent much of that fi rst evening standing outside my berth, notebook against the rail. The vastness of Kazakhstan began to register only then. Groups of wild horses faded in and out of view. Hour after hour of bowling steppe fl owed past, the brown and white earth undulating like oceans. Nightfall brought us to Petropavlovsk, a Kazakh town whose name exaggerated the Slavic Christianity of the land. “Peter-and-Paul-Ville,” I thought, my Russian slowly conjuring sense. The train all but emptied. The Asian stepped off after the blondinka, as did every other rider in my car save two. When I tried the exit door, just to see, a security offi cer appeared out of nowhere, barking. Sniffing dogs paced the platform. The train attendant explained, in dumbed-down Russian, “Not you, and not me, either.” Even the bathrooms were locked. The train had become a long and skinny holding cell. Guards in Petropavlovsk, and immediately again on the Russian side of the border, scoured me with questions. “Amerikanyetz?” “Tooreest?” They shouted about drugs. “Narkotiki? Kokayeena? Marikhwanna?” I responded honestly, and lawfully: Amerikanyetz, da, Narkotiki, nyet. I grew seriously nervous when three offi cers, all in heavy jackets and Gorbachev hats, occupied my compartment. I was still in running shorts. They had billyclubs. They probably stayed 20 minutes. One reviewed the photos in my phone, repeatedly demanding, “Shto eta?”— “What is this?” He saw images of Astana-1, some accidental pocket pictures, and a shot of the train schedule, posted in the aisle as public information. A single sharp command from their mustachioed supervisor cleared my space instantly. The men vanished like djinns. The attendant handed me back my passport, the stamp still fresh from Petukhovo, a map-dot village and the fi rst Russian stop on the line. The train rolled on thirty seconds later, pushing deeper into the steppe and the night. I sat silently, recovering my breath, grateful to be alone.
I woke feeling truly rested, though the car remained just as hot. I woke up in a sheen of sweat with one leg sticking out from the bedding. Outside the steppe had yielded to low brown mountains, their tops prickly with birch trees. Snow covered what the mud-spattered roads and village footpaths did not. It looked like West Virginia, with even greater dereliction. It was six-something, ahead of the dining car’s opening at seven. My maps indicated we were well inside the Urals, past Chelyabinsk, Miass, and Zlatoust, which had been a hub for the metallurgical industry, declining along with the local population since the 1980s. Factories, snug against the tracks, stood like defeated soldiers called to attention. Tin sheeting peeled like ice cream scoops. From one building a pipe leaned diagonally out of a broken window, thirty feet into the sky. How had it gotten there? Urals iron and copper once supported the industrial and civic progress of nations the world over. The region’s metals line the roofs of the Houses of Parliament in London and gird the Statue of Liberty in New York. Little seemed more unlikely, looking at this stretch of the Urals now. In Berdyaush a sign read, “Russia lives on the road!” I wondered if the message disclosed a kind of truth-in-advertising, an honest confession from the local populace. Did they want to leave as much as I wanted to keep moving on? If being on the road was real living, was it like dying to stay here? For breakfast I was again alone. The meal was eggs from powder and gritty rounds of sausage. I read my Basho, trying to enjoy the cups of instant coffee whose grains fl oated undissolved on the surface. On a snowy morning, I sat by myself Chewing tough strips Of dried salmon. Salmon, even dried and tough, would have been an improvement. I respected Basho for fi nding a better breakfast on the road than I had managed to do, even as I sat 15 feet from a modern kitchen and its hired staff. They sat at the other end, playing cards. K ropachevo offered a 20-minute stop around 9 a.m. The village is modestly famous for its rich array of kiosks on the platform. Women, mostly grandmother-age, hawked everything from candy and water to nesting dolls and keychain tchotchkes. “Molodoy chelovek! Pozhalyusta!” they called to me—“Young man! Please!”, continuing while my comprehension trailed. A Russian friend told me later the route is a historic thoroughfare to vacation areas further south, including the scads of Soviet-era youth camps along the Black Sea. The same friend explained that riders trade recommendations on which kiosks to shop at. I imagined the conversations: “Go see Lyudmila at the front of the platform...”, “The bottled-water lady never makes change...” and so on. As we pulled away I saw another slogan, blasted in capitals against the station wall: “The Southern Urals wish you a pleasant journey!” It certainly was, for us. But something much more tragic had occurred along the same line 30 years ago this year. We passed the site between Asha and Ufa. The facts of the accident struck me as all the grimmer since that no one aboard appeared to know it had ever taken place. In the early morning of June 4th, 1989, a pair of packed trains, carrying thousands of children and other vacationers, exploded to pieces. A nearby gas line had been leaking its contents for hours. Worse, the leak occurred in a low-lying meadow, which kept the gas pooled in a single, concen trated area. When the trains passed each other the friction created sparks, setting off an incineration waiting to happen. The train cars at the explosion’s center ceased to exist. Other cars ground to a stop amid charred trees, steel, and dirt. Early offi cial reports estimated the casualty rate as “100 or 200 or even more,” a range made woefully optimistic by later reporting. Mikhail Gorbachev himself visited the scene, telling journalists it was “real hell there.” The Soviet Army was deployed for assistance. In all, 575 people died in the ‘Ufa train disaster,’ as it became known. As many as 800 were injured. The incident is considered the worst railway accident in Russian history. In light of such a grievous loss, why is the Ufa train disaster almost unknown in the West? How could the event—and the humanizing narrative of perished children, with which people on either side of the Iron Curtain could sympathize— have been swept aside? One surpassing reason endures: the events of Tiananmen Square. The protests in Beijing, already simmering for nearly two months before the train incident, dominated global media. Chinese troops fi red on civilians the same day of the Ufa event. Amid so much news competing for coverage, the Ufa train disaster would be cut off, like its young victims, from the remembrance it deserved. From the train, I watch in vain for the place of the explosion. I knew from research that a memorial had been erected at kilometer marker 1710, seven miles past Asha and before Ufa. But I missed it, recognizing nothing as we barreled on. When I asked a train attendant what she knew of the incident, and of the nearly 600 who perished, she did not know what I was talking about. That afternoon I read something from Basho that would have seemed sentimental, even silly, had I not come through the disaster site the same day. The poet described traveling in a Japanese province where, long before, battles and acts of great valor had taken place. He lamented the ignorance of such events in his own time. “Both the actors and the deeds have long been dead and passed into oblivion,” Basho wrote. “I sat down... and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.” I didn’t weep between Asha and Ufa. Yet I empathize with anyone who would want to mourn the accident. And with those who did. U fa looked like Upton Sinclair’s Chicago. Gray soot matched the sky, as the Belaya River—the color of a slag heap—fl owed below the hillside station. Belaya means white, but the scene gave the lie to its name. A power plant droned on the riverbank. Vanilla-colored exhaust plumed from its organs. We were stopped for half an hour. I meandered outside the station, reading its signs in Russian and the regional language, Bashkiri. My guidebook called the surrounding Bashkortostan region “something of an oil khanate,” given its fossil fuel resources and attendant industry. I passed through a shantytown above the tracks, where a babushka picked her creaking way down a path of ice. I offered a helping hand but she dismissed it with a scornful wave of her own. She personifi ed Ufa: tough, old, and careworn, but nonetheless in motion. With my dining-car lunch I ordered a large beer, then another after it. Once the head waiter started playing World of Warcraft on his phone—no earbuds—I went and read for an hour. The West Virginian mountains fl owed by endlessly. After that I dawdled away the afternoon. I remember getting sleepy, cruising through the Volga River region, as I slouched on my bunk. I leafed through my guidebook in the weakening light and made notes on what I might do the next day. There was bliss in the knowledge that, tomorrow afternoon, I would slide into Moscow. I woke up after nightfall with Basho over my face. I had missed Samara, with its expansive Volga views, and the river bend where a 13th-century battle between Mongols and Bulgars altered history. I had desired deeply to take in the river, to notch a traveler’s victory and crow, “I have seen the Volga!” But town and river were gone, despite Samara’s hour-long stop. The emotional charge between Asha and Ufa, the oppressive silence of forgotten ghosts, had fatigued me more than I realized. Cursing, I turned over again, resolving to sleep if the darkness meant I couldn’t see anything anyway.
Light struck the tracks at Ruzaevka, the dawn a bonfi re in blood-orange. The breeze blew very cold. My unwoken fi ngers struggled to raise the jacket’s zipper to my chin. Voluptuous women in peasant dress offered harvest baskets as fertile as themselves as they stood 30 feet tall inside a banner against a building by the station. I wondered if I was still asleep, and dreaming. A sign declared we were in the Mordovia Republic, and 600 kilometers from Moscow. A group of city types paced the platform. Their clothes were in style; their Italian-looking shoes were clean. They smoked the last of the day’s fi rst cigarettes, kissed relatives, and boarded sleeper cars—no platzkartny discomfort for them. Their bearing made it feel less provincial here, but I still couldn’t get my phone to work. I envied them their proximity to members of family, when all of mine were so far away. The dining car opened at 7:02. An attendant pushed the door open into the freezing passageway, where I had been waiting, cooling off. More eggs, more gritty sausage. The same grains of instant coffee fl oated at the surface but I was determined to linger over breakfast. How else to kill time? The fi rst coffee became a second, then a third. I fi nished my notes on things to do in Moscow, the window showing more brown and white bleakness. The coffee tasted worse with each cup. More small towns brought more Moscow types. I could not discern if they lived here and worked in the city or vice-versa. I was too shy, my Russian too limited, to ask. Perhaps from the days of isolation, my people-watching overfl owed all reason. I hatched wild illusions about their lives, their disappointments. The crush of speculation felt queerly antisocial. I craved a return to inner normalcy once off the train. Potma warranted a 15-minute stop, though I couldn’t fathom why. From crumbling low buildings a few people, some urbanely dressed, walked slowly toward us. They had the peculiar Russian walk: always shuffl ing, as if ice lay underfoot, no matter the actual weather. I had seen this from Russians of every age, all the way since Petukhovo. Later that morning I noticed the fi rst fi elds without snow since we had left Nur-Sultan. A change of season was imminent, outside and within. I was deep in a limbo between boredom and anxiety to get off the train. I turned again to Basho. Where the poet had seemed sentimental yesterday, this morning he came off as frankly melodramatic. One haiku fi t the time of year but made little sense to me otherwise: Ah, it is spring, Great spring it is now, Great, great spring— Ah, great— So wrote a high chieftain of Japanese letters. I tossed the book aside. It was before noon and too early for a beer, but not for a nap. I closed the curtains against the gray sun, consoled by the free time and the freedom to do as I pleased. R yazan stood up big and dirty on the brown plain. A bulky concrete staircase stretched over the tracks. Schoolkids in backpacks swarmed among commuter trains and regional ones. Fat men from platzkartny stood around smoking rollyour-owns in down jackets, shorts, and plastic shower sandals. Their toenails matched their tobacco-stained fi ngers. My guidebook offered nothing on Ryazan, except for a point on a map scaled so large as to make it unusable. Nor was there any detail on most of the towns we’d passed up to this point. Even at 700 pages, the book had tackled a country far too vast, physically and otherwise, to corral between a single pair of covers. A little before 3:00pm the buildings began to concentrate. Moscow’s exurbs gathered themselves, like post-Soviet Transformers, toward the thickening sprawl. Some of the houses looked warm and excellent. Others sank back into the earth, still occupied. Twenty minutes from Moscow, the sun disbursed a magnanimous glow over everything. I hadn’t seen full-on sunshine since Kazakhstan. It felt like a kind of providential gesture, a sign that, at last, our destination was just ahead. I saw one walker unzip his jacket, then another. Spring, or perhaps the incubation from the suburban structures, warmed the scene. The train grew stuffi er still. I spotted an outer station of the Moscow Metro and its illuminated sign—the famous, scarlet M. The stations were sometimes beautiful, built with hope for the future, and themed from the corners of an empire which the world had expected to endure. We would arrive at Kazanskaya station, not so distant from Belorusskaya, Leningradskaya, and Kievskaya stations, among many other bywords from Soviet memory. I strained to stay patient as the city pulled us in. I packed my things, then returned my bedding to the attendant. She wished me well in Moscow; she, too, had been riding since Nur-Sultan. I dressed for the chilly weather despite the sweaty mess I knew it would make of me before stepping off. Kazanskaya’s platform teemed with the people from the train I had not seen—Tajiks, Kazakhs, Russians of all variations—and with those waiting to board. Lithe and elegant Russian women, dressed in furs regardless of age, appeared almost everywhere. Other women stood in corners, fi lthy kerchiefs tied under chins, rows of food containers lined up before them, like in platzkartny. By selling, they hoped to pay a bill or two. Students with dyed hair smacked gum, texted, and swore. Outside, a massive Soviet building—one of the “Seven Sisters” of Stalin’s time—towered ahead. Beyond the square stood two other major rail stations, shuttling generations of Soviets and Russians from the region’s remotest locations. I, too, had been drawn here. My rucksack strapped tight, I breathed a deep sigh of satisfaction as my stiff legs pushed closer to my nearby hotel. An hour later, having showered, called my wife, and changed clothes, I remembered something from Basho. Under this plum tree, Even a black bull will learn To sing a song of spring Filled with cheerful joy. Entrance to the Moscow Metro and its illuminated sig I pondered the verses as I looked out the hotel window. The height afforded condescending views above my station, literally. I almost did feel like singing, for having traveled hard, and put up with a modicum of discomfort—the heat and the food, fettered speech—to make it here. Basho exhorted his students to abandon preoccupation with oneself. “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine,” he said, “or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.” I had come from Kazakhstan to Russia, hoping to learn of the real and metaphysical traits of the lands in between. So far from home, I had been stubborn and lonely, dirty and dumb. I was the black bull from the poem. But even I had managed to learn, to explore and observe and to part with a few of my preoccupations. I locked my hotel room door, eager to explore Moscow’s streets. On them I would sing my own song of spring, for I had arrived, and after so long a journey. In me welled the cheerful joy that Basho had promised four hundred years before.
Biologists in Indonesia have recently discovered an entirely new species of carnivorous rat. Reading this news story today makes me shudder, but does not surprise me at all. The hog-nosed shrew rat. I have no doubt I lived with this research subject’s ancestor twenty years ago in our Balinese house as my husband and I prepared for our we
Biologists in Indonesia have recently discovered an entirely new species of carnivorous rat. Reading this news story today makes me shudder, but does not surprise me at all. The hog-nosed shrew rat. I have no doubt I lived with this research subject’s ancestor twenty years ago in our Balinese house as my husband and I prepared for our wedding. Three weeks until our ceremony, but this bloody rat fills my brain instead. Yuk. Gross. Maybe we should leave? Except here it’s beautiful and idyllic. And peaceful, as long as no one’s rodent hunting. Plus, I haven’t seen the rat. There’s only some possible evidence from my fiancé’s circumstantial reports. Maybe there isn’t a rat? From inside our little villa for two on this Indonesian island we’re calling home for a couple of months, I do not see rodents. I only see lotus blossoms floating in a reflecting pool by the front door, green jungle acacia and breadfruit trees, trailing vines of scented ylang ylang flowers, and large teak decks overlooking pristine lush, variegated laurel and west Indian jasmine. This oasis perches just past the rice paddies where coconut palms stand sentinel along a dirt path before it descends over the lip of a ravine to our house nestled over the edge in the jungle greenery. Arriving at the house, the sound of a stream somewhere far below greets the visitor. Sunlight filters through the Burma lancewood tree canopy, keeping the house comfortably cool in the concentrated, scented tropical air. Inside our small abode, cool white tile floors shine thanks to a staff of two young men included in the modest monthly rental fee. Pillars of indigenous teak hold up glass panels two stories high. These open on all sides, allowing the breeze to curl around the teak furniture and ruffle the petals of frangipani and champaca tucked into the arms of serene Hindu deity statues watching over the space. The house comprises one large room with unbroken views in every direction. No human-made structure or evidence of human life is visible. Off the main room, nestled against the forested ravine wall, an adjacent openair bathroom’s design hides its porcelain functionality from view. Through the glass doors, one sees only stone walls and floors with bamboo arcing from the jungle over the tops of the bathroom’s walls. Inside, I can rest on the bed draped in practical yet romantic mosquito netting, stare up at the teak-beamed ceiling and feel the moving air from languid ceiling fans. Or, on the enormous terrazzo-tiled veranda, I can flop on the antique teak divan by the reflecting pool amongst the vibrant green, orange, red, and purple ikat cotton cushions. I can hang over one of several deck railings in the warm sunshine and marvel at all the life that buzzes, crawls and flits amongst the leaves within arm’s reach. I n short, it’s a perfect place to prepare for our wedding and remain for our honeymoon, and I’m not relinquishing it to a rat! If this means I have to put up with linear arrays of ants marching across our immaculate floors towards my kitchen sink, which they think is theirs, or bees the size of walnuts buzzing around my head when I sit on one of several decks, or wolf spiders the size of my fist who wait for me every morning in my bathroom sink, then fine. If, on our little moped, I have to dodge the odd viper snake on the dirt track as I navigate between the town of Ubud and our abode, oh well. If forced to flick a black-spotted rock frog off my bed’s mosquito netting in the middle of the night, I can do that with equanimity. And if I have to think the native fruit bats that flit under the house’s eaves in the evening aren’t creepy at all, well, I am capable of that too. I’m tougher than all these things. I am bigger than them. I’m living in their world. I can be respectful of their space; I am the visitor. Since the bathroom’s ceiling is blue sky and jungle, it’s reasonable that spiders live in the sink. Raised on summer camping holidays, I’m accustomed to ants, bees and other small-ish insects. It’s the size of the flora and fauna that’s challenging. It’s a big Jurassic Park jungle. Even the shrubbery and trees – little tropical plants North Americans like me nurture in pots on our countertops… are the forest. What could this mean for the size of rodents? I can barely tolerate the thought, but it’s possible this rat’s a different kind of adversary. Based on the size of insects in the Balinese jungle, it may be the size of a loaf of sandwich bread with teeth as long as corncobs. Not some cute mouse. I’ve been able to tolerate the rat as a possibility because I haven’t actually seen it. Thankfully, I have no first-hand knowledge of this rat. Therefore, with a degree of stubbornness and delusion, I remain with my beloved in our jungle retreat. But this rat is not a being whose space I’m inclined to respect and allow to roam free in my space. So if I’m confronted with real evidence of a rat in the house, it’s the rat or me. We will not coexist. In order to endure the large roommates that I do have first-hand knowledge of, I keep practicing my breathing, learned at the local yoga treetop studio and rely on the expertise of the amazing staff who show up every morning. Primarily, and almost exclusively this consists of a young man named Rai, who introduced himself as our “houseboy” during our halting languagechallenged introductions when we arrived. Not that I’m looking, but Rai would make the best house husband. Every day he cleans, does errands, puts flowers on the divine being statues, and irons the bed sheets. Rai is a most diligent person: I had to stop him from ironing the terry cloth bath towels. Plus, he carries regional knowledge of getting ants out of kitchens. My fiancé and I have come to depend on him. With two weeks to go before the wedding, Rai’s dependability would be tested severely. I had spent part of the morning reading about Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall’s breakup. Of interest to me, because they too married in Bali—his lawyers now arguing they never legally married! Determined our own marriage will be legal, complex arrangements (because neither of us speaks any Indonesian) proceed for civil and religious ceremonies. A civil ceremony by itself is deemed illegal in Bali. No romantic just-us-on-thebeach wedding for us. We joined a local Baptist-style church, attended mandatory pre-marital counselling sessions with the pastor and a young man from Edmonton who volunteers as interpreter, and attended several Sunday morning sermons where we understood not one word. The experience overall an odd combination of hilarious and complicated. Tiring of these thoughts, for lunch I attempt my own version of nasi goreng at the kitchen hotplate, and work hard at not thinking about spiders, bees, snakes or bats. Glancing around while stirring the rice, I notice some out-of-place items on the open shelves at eye level. A box of crackers not where we’d been keeping it, with several nearby food containers knocked over. Not the work of my fiancé. Nor Rai. Ants? No. Not me… Who? Reality emerged bit by bit… the possibility dawning that here lay the truth of the rat’s existence. Kind of impossible to talk myself out of. With tentative, timid searching − the kind that didn’t actually want to find the truth − I notice a durable thick plastic container of peanuts gnawed at the corners. Uh oh… I realize some hardto-find rationed or hoarded (depending on your point of view) North American style cookies might be in jeopardy! And the rat’s existence is now undeniable. After disposing the unsecured food and re-securing precious items like the rare and expensive cookies, we enlisted Rai’s expertise. We had complete faith in his indisputable passion for cleanliness plus his ant genocide track record spoke for itself. We felt confident when he set the rat trap with smelly dried blue anchovies from Ubud’s open-air market that his efforts would meet with success. In Rai’s view, they’re a rat delicacy. We had no reason to doubt his plan and go to sleep. A rat-dream infested night passes. In the dawning light, I pad barefoot to the kitchen, ears straining for and yet afraid of rat sounds. My feet slap on the tiles, geckos click on the exterior walls, rice field frogs that prefer our verandah’s reflecting pond peep at each other. Behind this, the high-pitched hum of jungle cicadas. But no rat sounds and no rat in the trap. It looks exactly as it did last night! Rai attends to the trap day after day, nestling delicious (if you’re a rat) anchovies in its interior. They smell almost as bad as the edible durian fruit that grows wild in forests over the island and which, when ripe and cut open, spreads its aroma up to a kilometer away. I am grateful our kitchen exists as a separate small structure adjacent to our living quarters: I cannot smell the trap. To our great consternation, the rat avoids its trap night after night. But after the first night, it starts leaving defecation calling cards on the same tile of the kitchen floor. Not different tiles; the same exact spot every single night. A rat version of “Bite me!” After about a week of this, my fiancé begins to lose faith in Rai and becomes engaged himself. Now the odds stack two men against one rat. I am choosing not to involve myself. I am Switzerland, I tell myself. I am neutral. I am the calm, understanding and reassuring territory they can return to after their rat battle disappointments. My husband-to-be loves peanut butter. One might even say my betrothed has an unnatural relationship with peanut butter; his greatest contribution to the campaign involves smearing the little fishes with his Precious. He places the trap on the floor by the rat’s usual bathroom. No takers. Except now the ants return in force because they love the peanut butter and construct a supply line across the floor to enjoy as much of it as they can. Poor Rai… he’ll have to engage in more destruction. Meanwhile I continue to offer only encouragement. Male pride seems to be involved. My poor future mate has been ready since the first day for the trap to be successful. He’s ready for rat murder. Unlike most North American traps, Balinese rat traps contain their prey in a wire cage about the size of a Kleenex box. Once disturbed, a central spring-loaded bait platform causes the trap door at the end of the Kleenex box to slam shut. But to get rid of the rat the Balinese way, the mesh cage with the rat inside has to be submerged. Where, you ask? Where does my fiancé propose to have our rat meet his Maker? Will he borrow a machete and hack his way down the steep slopes of our ravine to the river below? No way. He plans to drown the rat in our tranquil meditation pond with the floating lotus blossoms! NO! Oh my gosh… the lotus blossoms, the vines of scented flowers… are they in reality a shroud for other drowned rats? Are those waters a rat graveyard? I can’t believe it. This stupid rat tramples my inner peace and ruins any notions of future contemplations by our reflecting pool. Another week passes and now, against my better judgement, three of us combine efforts to outsmart this rat. I’ve been recruited to make trips into town to find special food that might entice the rat into the cage because collective wisdom suggests the rat might be vegetarian – it hasn’t taken fish, chicken, or beef. No one has asked, but I’m NOT putting a cookie in the trap. Last night they put the trap on the counter instead of the floor and today I found it in the middle of the kitchen floor, shut, with nothing but the bait inside. Is this rat James Bond? This rat vs. human contest feels personal. It’s hard not to think it found the trap in the night, knocked it onto the floor to mock us, made his floor deposit, wandered around spreading his gross rat germs and left. And while the rat still roams free, the wedding gets closer. The pastor will marry us. For a small fee, a government official will also officiate our wedding on the grounds of our friend’s hotel. We will be married twice. The confusing myriad of paperwork involving the Canadian embassy, the local government, the church, and documents faxed and emailed from Canada seems untangled. Also, after a wee bit of controversy, we finish writing our vows. With these usual wedding arrangements completed my bridal stress should be decreasing. But it does the opposite. I’m not sleeping. Nor is my beloved. Why? He admits he’s seen the rat and reports its nocturnal activities vary beyond rat-trap-avoidance maneuvers. Nor does it restrict itself to the kitchen. While it ignores the trap in the kitchen completely, it goes elsewhere in the house. It chews the Kleenex box and a napkin on bedside tables beside our sleeping heads. Another night it stole the hand soap, gnawed on the corner of a pad of paper, and chewed through an eyeglasses strap. On a different night, I found teeth marks on my pencil, also at the bedside. I am reduced to tears thinking about the rat crawling around us. It continues to thumb its nose at the trap and at the addition of a different trap. The new trap’s design involves a small envelope-sized sticky platform with a central spot for bait: the rat walks on the sticky stuff and gets trapped. One night, amongst all the nights of the trap being undisturbed, Rai put the wire trap under a table without realizing the door couldn’t shut. The rat figured this out and took the bait! The only night out of about fourteen that the bait disappeared! Unbelievable. The next night we moved the trap one inch from that location so the door could close. We used the same bait. Wanting to be thorough, we also put out the sticky platform with different, yet delicious, bait from the other trap. In the morning, the trap box remained untouched, but the banana on the sticky platform trap vanished! I—Give—Up. I n fact, on the eve of the wedding, we’re admitting loss and packing up. Even Rai has a defeated air as he goes about his daily ironing routines. After our wedding night, we won’t be coming back. We will honeymoon around the island, and the rat will be on its own in the empty house. Which is just as well, because the night before the wedding, a tremendous lightning storm knocked out Ubud’s transformer, and we’ve been without power ever since. On the morning of our wedding, I hop onto the moped with my wedding dress flung over my shoulder. I am off to our friend’s hotel to get ready… and to leave our beautiful jungle home to the rat. But with us gone, it will have to forage for itself. No more people-food! That thought gives me scant comfort, as I navigate through the rice field with a dress flapping behind me. I t’s a saving grace I never saw the rat. Indonesia’s hog-nosed shrew rat, the article notes, is one and a half feet long and weighs half a pound. It’s cat-sized. Would a cat fit in our Kleenex-box-sized trap? Evidence points to no. The author notes the rodent’s large ears, long pointed teeth, unusually long urogenital hairs, and strong marsupial-like hind legs for jumping. But the researchers lack knowledge of the mammal’s capacity to evade Balinese traps and ruin peace of mind.