Have Pen, Will Travel
There is nothing to set my writer’s genes all a-quiver like a little travel. Not that I write much while travelling, I am generally too distracted and on sensory overload to put two words together sensibly. But I will jot down a few notes in my trusty leather journal with my favourite pen, and I cannot help but wax poetic in my head as I trot up and down ancient cobbled streets, ride a bike along the sea, climb the Eiffel Tower on a night glistening with the rain of hours past and the promise of more to come.
Near every summer I pack my bags for a trip to my country of birth to see family and friends. I leave the incessant heat of Texas behind for the cool, balmy green of Danish forests and the bracing sea air full of the tantalizing scents of salt and seaweed. For years, that was as far as I went, but as I…matured, shall we say…I realized I was missing the opportunity to explore further. And one should never miss an opportunity to explore further, as someone once said. (That someone might have been me and I just said it.)
Apart from the new experiences and impressions that abound, travelling lends space and perspective to the everyday life, and as busy as that gets, Lord knows perspective is a welcome thing. For several years now I’ve been slaving over my new book, Each Wind That Blows, writing and re-writing, surfing the waves of blissful inspiration only to wallow in the shallows of writer’s burn out, completely lost in the forest and shrubbery of my many, many words trying to describe a few simple things. I’m down to the final edits and it’s so close to done I can taste it. So near and yet so far.
A little travel is just the thing. To be blessed with the opportunity to, thanks to conveniently placed friends and family, travel in Europe, even better. Because Each Wind That Blows takes place in Kenya, and when I need a break from reliving that story, Europe is just the thing. It’s not just the landscape and the people that are different and afford me a clean break from Kenya. It’s the ‘vibe’.
Kenya grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. All of Africa does. And if it doesn’t, then…well, I don’t know what you are made of. Sterner stuff than me. I am helpless before Africa’s allure. The vibe of Africa is a deep growl rumbling in her cavernous furnaces miles underground, a passionate and primeval chant throbbing in the ochre earth that sucks you in and spits you out, all burned up, twisted around, and begging for more.
Africa asks you questions to which you will have no answers but to which your bones will respond with an intense sense of longing, as if once you knew the answers and lived their meaning, as if those most ancient of peoples from whom we all descend, our global ancestors, live in those bones and are speaking to you. You yearn and hunger to meet that truth again. You go a little mad for a little while.
Then, if you’re a writer, you start to write. You start with the little questions and follow them where they lead, into ever bigger and often, more painful, questions. Then you get lost and, if you’re lucky, take a trip to Europe to clear your head.
Enter the cool, spacious vibe of the age-old country of Denmark, a tiny country with a huge history. The beech and oak forests reaching for a blustering sky, bright blue with scuttling clouds of white and sudden iron, thunder threatening on an otherwise sunny day destined for the beach, the trees remaining calm and unflustered. I love these trees with a deep and abiding passion, trees whose own ancestors once covered this cluster of peninsula and islands since before the days of the Vikings. Beech and oak to calm me, silver birch and weeping willows to wake the poet in my soul. The sunwarmed scent of pine and fir mingling with the peculiarly clean smell of sand and sea to tease my senses. The rippling sea to hypnotize and remind me, all is not what it seems and much is hidden from my curious eyes. Patience, Grasshopper, patience.
Here a crumbling ruin, the mysterious remains of a fortress built by Vikings. Here a small patch of cobblestones alongside a forest trail, revealed to remind us of times gone by, ye olde road to the big city. Castles and churches with centuries to their name, quaint old houses with thatched roofs and leaning doorways, their brightly painted walls billowing and bulging under the weight of their hundreds of years and the many, many stories they could tell.
The vibe of the earth of Denmark is cool and calm, knowing and wise, dispassionate, but ever so present, waiting, watching. I reach for her and I am instantly calmed, confidence in the unknown and my ability to face it, enhanced. Sometimes, I think I spot a Viking or two from the corner of my eye. They’ve got my back, these, my long gone, ever present, ancestors.
Thus restored, they wave me off to Paris, a city content and intent upon itself. Broad, imposing boulevards declaring still the ambitions of a genius general gone mad emperor. Narrow twisting streets whispering of a medieval past, mansions and castles and churches and monuments and palaces and gargoyles and statues and museums and parks and gardens and avenues lined with massive trees, all declaring their undying passion for and alliance to, the grandeur of the days gone by, to a country that spawned the first notions of liberty, equality, fraternity. It’s raining all the time but nobody cares. We are in Paris, after all, and the weather does not get to be a character of note when you are faced with the overwhelming character of Paris herself.
Little shops and cosy bistros, fancy dames and lads galore, the houses of Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, Dior. Marais, Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, the Tuileries. Notre Dame, Louvre, Sacre Coeur, Le Arc de Triomphe. The calm expanse of the Seine slicing through it all, a vein of serenity amongst the hectic flesh of a city that first drew breath in Roman times. It’s overwhelming, enchanting to the point of mind numbing. The view from the Eiffel Tower, caught after catching my breath after climbing the 669 steps to the second platform (elevator be damned, I’m working off another French delicacy) laying it all out in sudden clarity, the height lending perspective and order to what feels like a massive jumble on the ground and on my little folding map, already fraying at the seams. A city of lights spreading out before me in the glittering aftermath of all the rain, her history as much a part of her beauty as all the sights. Age before beauty. Perspective is everything.
A little breathing room on a fast train dipping into darkness under the sea and I have barely caught up to myself before I reach London, all edgy and trembling with life. The East End, restored after decades recovering from the devastating bombings during World War II, bustling with fresh energy, flower markets and artisans, foods from around the world and the accompanying people in all manner of dress. A sunny day on and alongside the massive River Thames, feeling diminutive as I pass by the imposing Tower of London, under ponderous bridges and by the House of Parliament with all its spires and ornate detailing. These old cities remind me they just don’t build like that anymore, and more’s the pity.
The massive river is alive with boats, ferries and speedboats tearing up the calm waters, and this nature chick is about bursting at the seams after ten days in two of the most vibrant cities in the world, the impressions and experiences all blooming into one giant, milling chaos that leaves no handhold for Kenya’s grip, never mind time to worry about a book. Who the hell cares. What book?
It’s just what the doctor ordered and so is the eight hour journey to Dublin aboard the train and ferry. Quiet and serene, the train bumbles up the north coast of England and Wales with blessed few stops, the scenery going from pastoral and kindly like a farmer’s wife’s cheeks to wild and ragged, the sea and mountains of North Wales vying for attention in an everlasting clash of the titans.
A few stops along a man sits down across from me, the table between us soon host to his laptop from which he reads aloud under his breath, sounding out the words. I look up from my book and startle to see a kindly Asian face smiling back. Fu Manchu beard, long blue-black pony tail, a beautiful red silk mandarin jacket with one stubborn loop that refuses to stay put around its corresponding button. His unlined face is open and friendly like that of a child, his questions likewise. His heavy accent is a little tricky to understand, but I soon gather he is from Nepal, a teacher of yoga and Buddhism, here to teach a summer course at a northern English University. He has opened centers for the teaching of yoga and Buddhism in major cities around the world. At least, that is what I think I gather.
I find myself on a train through the English countryside on my way to Ireland, discussing reincarnation, the Chinese invasion of Nepal and the finer points of religion versus faith. When he gets up to leave a few hours later, a stop or two before Holyhead, I am startled again when the rest of his outfit is revealed. Under his fine red silk jacket and above handsome slippers he is wearing khaki shorts revealing yoga chiselled calves. That’s travelling for you, in a nutshell. You just never know what you’ll find around the next corner and it’s often not what you’d expect.
The fine ferry Ulysses leaves Holyhead for Dublin on a bright and sunny afternoon, the sea a placid, glistening mirror to the empty sky above. I am relieved, for sadly my ancestry has not afforded me the seafaring belly of a Viking. The wind is fresh and cool, but wrapped in my jacket and scarf I sit on the dark green deck in perfect happiness for the better part of three hours, soaking up the sun and the vast horizon, feeling the limitlessness of the open sea, the endless possibilities of a life lived boldly. Anything could happen. I might even write a deeply personal book. A book about Africa and a childhood there that left me with more questions than answers, a loss that left me reeling, a life coming apart and a return to Kenya after thirty years that started as a lark on horseback and ended up changing my life. Yes, it could happen. I might even finish it. If I ever leave Ireland, that is.
Lord, I love Ireland. She looms out of the mist and it is little wonder she inspires such myths and legends. The Emerald Isle indeed, she glows like a fine gem in the soft gleam of the setting sun as the ferry draws closer. I face into the wind, breathing deeply, all the way down to my toes. Seagulls circle way below the deck line, gleaming white and impossibly graceful. I am so ready for this. It is my second visit and I have been as eager to return here as I was to return to Kenya, which is saying a lot.
They are nothing alike and yet they have much in common. A penchant for strange, mysterious histories and a wild, thrilling edge to their wilderness that calls to me on a soul-deep level I cannot define, that makes me want to toss it all away and set off into the unknown with just a walking stick (or better yet, a horse AND a walking stick). Ireland’s great hills and deep lakes, sweeping shores and craggy cliffs, her air of mystery and deeply buried secrets echo softly in the parts of me I don’t know or understand, much like Kenya. It’s irresistible. It’s a different kind of call than Kenya, more magic than primeval, more mythical than ancestral, but it’s a call all the same, and the same parts of me answer.
I am blessed with fine weather but even if it had rained every day of my sojourn there, I would barely have cared. The rugged Ring of Kerry and that of Dingle, the rolling beauty of Cork and the strange, distant view of the windswept Blasket Islands, (inhabited until the 1950’s), rousing, heart wrenching music at the local pub as some twenty local musicians came and went, all added up to one splendid thing – total escape, utter replenishment of the soul.
On my last day in Killorglin, we go out on the lake in a small boat, the water glassy and black as polished obsidian. The little boat leaves smooth, serene ripples that turn to mercury in our wake, and takes us to visit waterfalls and crumbling old towers, monasteries and age old universities on deserted islands and the far shores of the lake. The clouds hang low over the deep green hilltops, a smattering of rain comes and goes leaving us moving through a fine mist that feels friendly and welcoming on my cheeks. I can breathe deeply and fully, all tension leeched from my spine. That is when I know.
I almost feel ready for that final push. Ready to face Each Wind That Blows and see it through to the end, and on to new beginnnings.