Gustato spiritu, desipit omnis caro.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

(published in National Geographic Adventure;
anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2004;
winner of the 2004 PEN Award in Journalism and the Lowell Thomas Gold Award)

I. Rutshuru, Eastern Congo

“How are your gorillas?” Colonel Bonane asks. The leader of the RCD (Congolese Rally for Democracy) rebel forces terrorizing eastern Congo, he steps out of a night so complete and starless that it is as if the darkness itself has produced him. Well over six feet tall, wearing camouflage fatigues with a green beret folded neatly under an epaulette, he has the powerful, arresting physique of a warrior. All of us—including the park warden, a Congolese mountain gorilla conservationist named Vital who acting as my interpreter, and an RCD official sent to monitor me—stumble out of our plastic chairs, give deferential bows, smile lavishly and painstakingly. We need the Colonel to like us. This man can, with a word, save or destroy us.

Bonane is pleased by our display, entreats us to sit down, make ourselves comfortable. “And you,” he demands in French of me. “Why are you here?” There is instant silence around the table; his officers level sharp, steady stares at me.

Vital jumps in, explaining that I’m a writer come to Congo, to their war, in order to see the mountain gorillas. Or, at least, what’s left of them. I don’t reveal my own, deeper interest: that I’d like to know what motivates people, such as the late Dian Fossey, to save these animals in an area of the world that seems hell-bent on its own destruction.

(published in National Geographic Adventure)

I will never forget what it was like. The overwhelming misery. The certainty of never-ending suffering. No one to help you, no way to escape. Everywhere I looked: darkness so thick that the idea of light seemed inconceivable. Suddenly, I found myself swirling down a tunnel of fire, wailing figures calling out to me in agony, begging me to save them. Others tried to terrorize me. “You will never leave here,” they said. “Never. Never.”

I found myself laughing at them. “I’m not scared of you,” I said.

But the darkness became even thicker; the emotional charge of suffering nearly unbearable. I felt as if I would burst from heartbreak—everywhere, I felt the agony of humankind, its tragedies, its hatreds, its sorrows.

I reached the bottom of the tunnel and saw three thrones in a black chamber. Three shadowy figures sat in the chairs; in the middle was what I took to be the devil himself.

“The darkness will never end,” he said. “It will never end. You can never escape this place.”

“I can,” I replied. All at once, I willed myself to rise. I sailed up through the tunnel of fire, higher and higher until I broke through to a white light. All darkness immediately vanished. My body felt light, at peace. I floated among a beautiful spread of colors and patterns. Slowly my ayahuasca vision faded. I returned to my body, to where I lay in the hut, insects calling from the jungle.

“Welcome back,” the shaman said.

(published in National Geographic Adventure)

If you are an American traveling to Iran, of course you want to visit the United States Embassy. You must see it. Consider it. It was the place overrun by young Islamic revolutionaries in 1979. The place where 52 blindfolded, manacled embassy personnel were paraded in front of the international community for 444 days by student militants. It’s the place that saw the end to all diplomatic relations between the two countries, ruining President Jimmy Carter’s chances for reelection and ushering in the Reagan Era. It’s here where, as an American in Iran, you realize how special you are—that you’re a member of that bizarre, intriguing fraternity known as the Great Satan.

“My European clients don’t ask to see this place,” my guide says to me unhappily.

He doesn’t understand the reason for my coming here. To him it’s merely an inconvenient, unpleasant place to visit, overrun with secret police who don’t appreciate tourist calls—especially not by Americans. Should I get out of the van to take a photo, there’s a chance my camera would be confiscated and I might even get arrested. In which case he’d be obligated, as my official keeper, to try to extricate me from the mess. I’m aware of my vulnerability in coming to Iran, a police state where hating America is the official policy, and where the U.S. still has no diplomatic representation. Have problems here as an American, and you’re entirely unprotected.

(published in National Geographic Adventure)

Above all else, you must believe.

Tibetan horns taunted the air—ululating, oboe-like sounds meant to catch the sins of the crowd and send them heavenward. The people around me gaped at the giant spread of embroidered silk as it slowly lowered from the fortress roof, revealing a montage of Tibetan Buddhist deities. Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion. Maitreya, the Future Buddha, a Jesus-like savior prophesied to lead humanity from suffering. The tondrel, easily 40 feet high, laboriously hand-stitched, filled the entire end of the courtyard, its silk gleaming before the candlelit dais.

There was the sacred moment never to be repeated. In that single hour on that single day of that single year, a miracle was supposed to occur. The Bhutanese monks were calling on the most compassionate gods of the universe to take away our anguishes, our regrets and sins, and to purify us. Now, when we died, the Lord of Death’s judgment would be kinder. The next lifetime, easier. But only if we believed.

The feeble candlelight barely held back the night. I stood closer to the tondrel, the horns shrilling more earnestly.

I thought of why I’d come to Bhutan—the real reason, the reason I’d told no one about. I tried to clear my mind of all doubt and, like the rest of the crowd, made a wish. We waited. And watched. As the rising sun sent its first rays over the mountains, striking the top of the tondrel, the sounds of the horns stopped abruptly, almost belligerently.

(published in National Geographic Adventure;
anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2003
and The Best Women’s Travel Writing)

In the beginning, all my journeys feel at best ludicrous, at worst insane. This one is no exception. The idea is to paddle nearly 600 miles on the Niger River in a kayak, alone, from the town of Old Ségou to Timbuktu. And now, at the very hour I have decided to leave, a thunderstorm bursts open the skies, sending down apocalyptic rain, washing away the very ground beneath my feet. It is the rainy season in Mali, for which there can be no comparison in the world. Lightning pierces trees, slices across houses. Thunder wracks the skies and pounds the earth like mortar fire, and every living thing huddles in its tenuous shelter, expecting the world to end. Which it doesn’t. At least not this time. So we all give a collective sigh to the salvation of the passing storm as it rumbles its way east, and I survey the river I’m to depart on this morning. Rain or no rain, today is the day for the journey to begin. And no one, not even the oldest in the village, can say for certain whether I’ll get to the end.

“Let’s do it,” I say, leaving the shelter of an adobe hut. My guide from town, Modibo, points to the north, to further storms. He says he will pray for me. It’s the best he can do. To his knowledge, no man has ever completed such a trip, though a few have tried. And certainly no woman has done such a thing. This morning he took me aside and told me he thinks I’m crazy, which I understood as concern, and so I thanked him. He told me that the people of Old Ségou think I’m crazy, too, and that only uncanny good luck will keep me safe. What he doesn’t know is that the worst thing a person can do is to tell me that I can’t do something, because then I’ll want to do it all the more. It may be a failing of mine.

I carry my inflatable kayak through the labyrinthine alleys of Old Ségou, past the small huts melting in the rains, past the huddling goats and the smoke of cooking fires, past people peering out at me from dark entranceways. It is a maze of ancient homes, built and rebuilt after each storm, plastered with the very earth people walk upon. Old Ségou must have looked much the same to Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who left here on the first of his two river journeys 206 years ago to the day—the first such trip made by a Westerner. It is no coincidence that I’ve picked this date, July 22, and this spot to begin my journey. Park is my guarantee of sorts. If he could travel down the Niger, then so can I. Of course Park also died on this river, but so far I’ve managed to overlook that.

(published in National Geographic Adventure magazine;
anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2006;
winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Foreign Reporting)

“You come, Madame,” the man says to me.

He wants to show me something—something “special.” And maybe it’s the sincere look in his eyes, the supplication, the knowing, but I follow this complete stranger across Tripoli’s Green Square and through the stone gate of the ancient medina, or historic Arab quarter. It’s my first night in Libya; I arrived only three hours ago in a country that’s still a mystery of culture shock and conjecture. So many people told me not to come here. Terrorist cells, they warned. Al-Qaeda. Don’t forget the Lockerbie bombing. And of course Muammar Qaddafi, global pariah, former patron of every rogue cause the world over. The U.S. State Department advises extreme caution.

It all gives me the shivers, like entering a house that’s supposedly haunted. I keep looking over my shoulder. Can people tell I’m American? My shoes, maybe? The brand of my jacket? Such paranoia.

Few are out tonight. It’s the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day Muslim holiday that marks the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan. The store-keepers look at me curiously as I pass, and I touch my hair before their glances: most Libyan women wear headscarves and long coats to hide the shape of their bodies. Libyan men wear whatever they please—Western clothes, usually, though some prefer the traditional North African jelabia: baggy pants and a shirt reaching to the knees. An old woman passes, wrapped head to toe in a white garment, a burnus, held tightly over her face, a single eye peering out at me through the folds. Otherwise, the medina is mostly deserted, the small stores like lighted vestibules in the dark and cavernous depths of the Old City.

The man urges me down a dim passageway, but I pause at the edge of the shadows. Where are we going? I demand in French. What do you want to show me?

Something special,” he insists, beckoning.

(published in National Geographic Adventure)

I am camping alone in the Huichol Indians’ sacred peyote desert of Wirikuta, and I hear a sound I can’t account for. A strange rumbling that starts whenever I move, like the sound of a great wind, though there is no breeze, only the kind of silence you find in deserts—a silence so complete that speaking feels like blasphemy. The Huichol believe that the souls of their dead come here. They think that the gods are everywhere, watching. Huichol primeros—first-timers to Wirikuta—who come on one of the annual peyote pilgrimages, don’t see the desert I see but an indescribably brilliant paradise where only the most powerful gods live. They must cover their eyes from the brilliance, and so the shamans lead them blindfolded and conduct a special ceremony so that the primeros can witness it safely. The magic, I have been told, is otherwise too much for them.

I see no magic. Only the mesquite, the creosote bushes looking half dead, the prickly pear, agave, and yuccas of this part of Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. There is no sign of any kind of paradise. Just desert scrub. But then again, I have been taught my whole life that magic does not exist. It has been relegated to the imaginings of childhood, to the Tolkein novels and the tales of Narnia. But I look hard now at the mesquite, the prickly pear. I try to imagine a paradise full of gods. The dusk settles upon the desert, sealing me in beneath a wrap of fog. It becomes cold, and I retreat to my sleeping bag and pull it around me. I hear the rumbling again, and terror holds me. I turn on my side and hear it again. And again as I turn my head…

I laugh. I’ve been frightened by the sound of my own inner ears.

(published in National Geographic Adventure)

I would like to know what brings me to such moments of irony: When I am least able to flee, a bear comes. And not just any bear, but the first one of my trip. He is a slow, lumbering giant, a world-weary emperor with golden fur and tiny eyes that squint at me with myopic curiosity. I can’t ride my bike or run, having injured my knee, so I stand and watch him in return, though he is barely a hundred feet away.

I try to remember what I’ve been told—that I should move away slowly and make a lot of noise; if the bear follows, I should stand my ground. I push my bike forward, its overstuffed rear panniers knocking against my leg. These bags contain the essence of the past few weeks of my trip. Sixty-four pounds of fears and hopes rolled up in the sleeping bag and tent, stuffed between the soiled clothes, siphoned through the water filter into liquid I can drink, safely. I have carried them 800 miles across Alaska, through mountain passes and snow and then-90 degree sun that teased the Arctic tundra with warmth. And now, four days of riding from my goal at the Arctic Ocean, my body has had enough.

The bear follows. He takes a diagonal path, huffing at me. My moves dictate his: we slow down together, we speed up. He appears casual, as if in no hurry. He stops, he sniffs the air; he stares and squints and snorts. He allows for distractions: a quick rip at a blueberry bush, a detour around some stunted firs. But his course stays sure, with me at the other end of it. I do not have the courage to stand my ground, so I push bags and bike more quickly, my knee swelled like a melon but its pain dwarfed by my growing fear. The bear is about 80 feet away from me now. Seventy feet. Too close. I stop to pull out my canister of bear spray. Sixty. My life does not flash before my eyes—that is silly conjecture. There is nothing but each moment arising, separate and distinct, with adrenaline giving frantic commands. I obey. I lean my bike against me, holding the canister. Fifty feet. Forty-five. I pull out the safety pin.

(published in National Geographic in slightly different form as "River of Spirits")

The motorboat came directly toward me, at full speed. For a minute I was in denial: I was sure it would veer to the side, pass me by. But its course remained dead-set on the front of my kayak. I paddled in a panic toward the left-hand shore, only to see that it had changed its direction, was coming straight at me. I could see the cloud of smoke from its engine, hear the deafening roar of its outboard. I couldn’t think of a single thing I could do to avoid the approaching tragedy. Adrenaline took over. There was no past or future, just each moment unleashing itself in excruciating present tense.

I became engulfed in diesel fumes. The boat’s engine stopped. A large wave flung me sideways, nearly capsizing me. As I struggled to right myself, I saw a couple of men in the boat, shouting violently at me.

“Where you go! Where you go!” one man yelled in poor English.

It took me a moment to orient myself. A boat. Men yelling at me.

“Where you go!” the man yelled with greater fury.

I knew they must be the police. Virtually no one else in Myanmar—a country largely populated by subsistence farmers, where the average family is lucky to make $300 a year—could afford a speedboat, let alone the gas to run it.

(published in Quarterly West;
anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2002;
winner of the Associated Writing Program Award for Creative Nonfiction
and the Writer’s at Work Award for Creative Nonfiction)

Ambunti is the St. Louis of Papua New Guinea. Sitting on the Sepik River, it is where the missionaries come to “get a break from the bush,” while foreign backpackers find it a convenient place to head in. Tribal people pass through: women with their faces tattooed; men with the septa of their noses hollowed out, light passing through when they turn their heads. Ambunti is the gateway to all points west, the town where travelers converge to refuel and stock up before heading upriver. Here one can catch up on news, make a phone call, mail letters, even cash a traveler’s check. A small police station exists to administer law and order the old-fashioned way: with fear and a big stick. The town was settled by the Australians in 1924 in an attempt to subdue the area’s headhunting populations so exploratory missions could safely venture into the interior in search of gold. There hadn’t been much gold around to make it worth their efforts, but Ambunti became the most important outpost in the Sepik River region—a reputation it still holds today. It is the Last Stop. After Ambunti, the river goes on for days without offering the respite of human presence. Just jungle, I’m told. River and the endless green.

It is in Ambunti that I first hear about a famous Apowasi witch doctor living upriver. He has uncanny powers. He can heal the sick, curse the wicked. He speaks to the animals of the jungle, cajoling them until they walk into a hunter’s hands. But more than anything, he’s renowned for his ability to connect with the gods. He knows the proper spells, and how to lift his prayers higher than the stars until they rest at last in the right ears. The gods hear him. They answer his prayers. The lost become found; the dying, saved. He can work miracles, I’m told, and I want to find him and ask him whether the gods are watching me, helping me. I want to know what I’m doing here in New Guinea, always on the move, always traveling to one dangerous place after the next. When will I be able to stop? When will I end the searching?

(published in National Geographic in slightly different form)

People come to Basin, Montana looking for miracles: cures for rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, depression, cataracts. You name it. From the highway, though, the tiny town doesn’t seem to offer much. Just one exit to take, and a single long look shows all there is to the place: a collection of weathered houses and old miners’ cabins huddling close to the interstate, caught between the high peaks of the Elkhorn Range. Basin looks like a place left behind on a whim. No stoplights, no gas stations, no grocery stores. Were it not for its world-renowned radon “health mines,” Basin, population 300, would probably vanish back into the mountains as quickly as it came, leaving highway passersby to marvel over why anyone would live there.

Prospectors founded Basin in 1880, when it was nothing more than a collection of clapboard brothels, pup tents, and gritty saloons in a Montana that hadn’t even graduated to statehood. Law and order depended less on rules than on the strength of a man’s fist.

“They were a tough bunch of people and they all liked to fight,” says 68-year-old “Happy” Bullock. “There were cowboys on one side and miners on the other.” An “old-timer,” Happy claims Basin roots that go back three generations. He settles himself in his chair in the Silver Saddle Saloon and examines me with the patient stare of a man who’s seen more than his share of newcomers.