Spend a week walking around Prague and you'll see it has no bad angles.
Eight-hundred years ago in the Bohemian town of Kutna Hora, the abbot of Sedlec after returning from a trip from Jerusalem sprinkled dirt from the Holy Land over the cemetery of the Sedlec Monastery. Word of the holy cemetery spread throughout and it became the most famous and most coveted burial ground in all of Bohemia and Central Europe. Hundreds of wealthy people sent their remains to Kutna Hora to be buried in the holy ground of Sedlec and once the plague took hold of the region, the bodies literally began to pile up.
In the fifteenth century, a church was erected in the middle of the cemetery to store the bones and in the late nineteenth century, it was time for a redesign. A Czech woodworker, rearranged the bones to decorate the church, recreating the patron family's crest, garlands of skulls, goblets made of femurs, and even a chandelier made from every bone in the human body, which was unfortunately taken away for restoration when I visited.
Chandelier or no chandelier, I couldn't leave the Czech Republic without seeing this grotesquely fascinating landmark--especially since Kutna Hora is only an hour away from Prague by train. You might read about piles of bones usually as props to enhance the maliciousness of evil witches and dragons, but you can't understand the magnitude of "a pile" until you come face to face to face to face with four immense mountains skulls.
The ossuary holds the remains of an estimated 40,000 people. I'm not usually one to get excited about math, but when you consider the average lifespan in the middle ages was 40 years, that means that inside this small church are the remains of 160,000 years of lives lived.
Charleston is a city that has skipped a couple of generations in American history. What was once a thriving port city turned run-down town, is having its comeback moment. Visitors won't see the neon signs or modern architecture of the 1950's that have taken their place in the historical landscape of other American cities. In fact, the only sign of Americana you'll see, are the classic cars parked on the streets outside Charleston mansions. Instead, you'll find a city that has been put on pause, preserved since the late nineteenth century. Three-hundred year old homes are just as they were, their doors and house-fronts abloom and elegant piazzas eternally bathed in sunlight.
Wandering the streets of Charleston means wandering the canals of the city's history, anchored in the present by only the modern decor of the its restaurants. Though a beautifully clean and colorful city, its worst history is not to be forgotten. In the Old Slave Mart Museum, the story of the slave trade that built Charleston unwinds itself. A walk past the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a mass-murderer took the lives of nine innocent people, reminds us that history is never done.
His brother was killed by a lion, Solomon tells me. We are standing twelve feet away from a cheetah inside the Karongwe Preserve in South Africa. Black markings streak down from the inside corners of his eyes to the start of his whiskers. The white fluff of his chin is dotted with blood. His paws are wrapped around a half-eaten impala
I am still shaking. Solomon did not tell me we when he asked me to get out of the jeep and follow him off the road into a wooded area that we would be peeking through the curtains of a cheetah's dining room. Every step seemed close enough to me, but Solomon kept motioning me closer, repeating that we were safe. I looked at him like he was crazy, but he was my safari guide and I had to trust him. The cheetah eyed us cautiously while tearing away strips of meat from the impala's rib cage. When we had stepped too close, he jumped to his feet. Taking two steps forward, his eyes found mine and I turned away, ready to run.
Don't run, Solomon said. Just take pictures.
The camera shook in my hand. I had been clicking this whole time, looking at the cheetah through the fingernail-sized glass of the viewfinder and then back with my own eyes. I could hear him smacking his lips.
I didn't run, not that I would have stood a chance. The moment I turned around, my sweater snagged on a prickly bush and I am embarrassed now to think how even my death by cheetah would have been totally graceless. But I didn't run and he didn't chase me. After assessing that I was neither a threat nor as tasty as an impala, he sat back down and got back to his meal. I took more pictures.
His brother was killed by a lion, Solomon says. A few months ago. They used to hunt all the time together. But now he is alone.
His brother? I asked.
When my brother died, my world fell apart. Then, I got my dream job.
When the e-mail came, I called every one of my family members to tell them I got it. And when they had all congratulated me, said goodbye, and hung up, I stared at my phone and cried. There was only one person left in the world to tell and I could not. I would never be able to tell him anything again.
Since Nick died, every happiness in my life is followed by the sadness that I can never share it with him. During the worst year of my life, I was showered in great news. I got the job, I would be allowed to travel, and I was going on a safari in South Africa for work. My life fell into a pattern. Get good news. Call everyone. Then, find a quiet place to cry. He would never know how happy I was and how quickly I would trade it all away to have him back.
Since losing my brother, I have scoured bookstores and blogs looking for my own story. I looked through grief books and fiction, searching for stories that matched my specific situation. Nothing was good enough. It didn't count if a sister lost her younger brother. It didn't count if the brother died of a long illness. It had to be my story: a twenty-something-year old girl losing her oldest brother to a drug she never even knew he took. As you might have expected, I didn't find very much.
But as I watched the cheetah dig his fangs into the corpse of the impala,I finally felt what I had been looking to feel in those books. This creature was nothing like me, but we shared a common wound. He would never be able to share his kill with his brother, but he was content. He finished his meal and leaned back into the grass, falling asleep in the sun.
A lion had killed his brother and something equally vicious had killed mine, but there we were. Him, taking a rest after finishing a big meal and me, having one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
He began to snore and I knew that we were both going to be okay.
If the humidity hanging in the halls of my apartment is anything to go by, another New England summer is in full swing. In fact, I can even say it began a couple of weeks ago when I kicked off the Summer by heading down to Providence for PVDFest, a three day art festival where local and international artists take over the streets. It wasn't my first time in Providence, but it was my first time really seeing Providence, being able to walk freely around town, trying out all of the delicious restaurants, and even gliding romantically down the city river on a gondola.
With excitement for the art festival pulsing throughout the streets, the city's true colors were on display. From the giant murals that met me at every corner, the echoes of poetry from some distant stage, or to the parade of delightful oddities that came barreling down Washington Street, these streets which on a lesser day (one without giant dinosaurs roaming through them) might be called "quaint," had come alive.
But the city was not outshone by the excitement of the festival. Instead, it acted as the perfect cultural backdrop, complete with historical significance, classic Americana, and incredible food. In Providence, it doesn't matter if you're dining at the hottest restaurant in town (Persimmon when I went) or heading to Olneyville New York System for a 2am hot wiener, you're in for a treat.
Can you describe a cave as beautiful? They're dark with rough edges and sharp formations pointing up and down like a set of skinny teeth and it's impossible to tell how many bats might be laying in wait in their darkest corners. Perhaps worst of all caves are moist. Brush your hand across the slick walls and you'll feel the moisture sticking to your fingertips. It hardly seems like a place you would call beautiful, but that's the word I found in every description of Mammoth Cave National Park. Beautiful stalactites, beautiful and murky rivers, beautiful formations. I wasn't sure, but I was on my way to see for myself.
"Why Kentucky?" just about everyone had asked me when I told them about my upcoming trip. "They have caves," I'd say explaining Mammoth Cave, the world's largest cave system and Kentucky's little known natural wonder. 400 miles of linked passages made up the park and those are just the rooms that have been discovered and charted. Looking at the cave map was not like looking at any map I had seen before. Two-dimensions couldn't accurately portray the passages and chambers that flowed out in all directions like veins suspended in zero-gravity. Though it's not likely the ancient mammoths every set one wooly foot in the cave, its name was justified.
As we walked through the cave, yellow lights illuminated the rocks and in the more precarious spots we held on to metal bars for stability. The caves had been outfitted for the utmost safety of the visitor and for good reason. Though we passed through many chambers with smooth and even floors, we came across plenty of precarious drops and dark abysses and I felt thankful for the rails and our guide leading the party ahead.
As the lights cast shadows on the formations, I saw what was so beautiful about them. They were the fossils of rain drops--moving water cast in stone. In fact the whole cave was a monument to the underground rivers that once cut through Kentucky's limestone valley, carving out the caves we were now standing in. I've felt small next to oceans and mountains before, but nothing compared to this feeling as I stood 200 meters deep inside the earth's crust, inside the skeleton of a once great river. And when our guide turned off the lights, for just a moment, we experienced the calm dark quiet of the underground. We heard nothing but each other's breath and the distant dripping of water becoming stone. It was what it was--beautiful.
Before arriving in South Africa, I had never heard of "the big five." Sure, I had heard of lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos, and buffalo as animals, but I was unaware they had formed their own rock band. They are so categorized because they are the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. Elephants can trample you, rhinos are born with swords attached to their heads, buffalo are totally unpredictable, and though lions and leopards make cuddly stuffed animals, the real ones are equipped with fangs and claws. It seemed like a tourism campaign and I was determined not to be drawn in. I told myself I was just happy to be there and if I saw a couple animals, that would great too. But once I saw my first elephant, and then the herd of buffalo, and then the lions, it was over. There were only two of the big five left, the hardest to spot, and in an instant I totally got it. The big five isn't just a tourism gimmick, it's a challenge of luck and I won the jackpot. I saw each member at least twice and came close to seeing the little five (the baby-sized version of each animal), but the lion cubs eluded me. I was tempted to photo collage these photographs together, mimicking the style of every big five t-shirt at the safari gift shop, but decided to save the project for a rainy day.
On my recent trip to South Africa with G Adventures, we had the opportunity to visit one of the G Adventures supported projects, the Hope Africa Children's Day School. In Shalati Village, located just outside of Kruger National Park, there was no pre-school and many of the older children would end up missing school to take care of their younger siblings while their parents went to work. But now with the help of G Adventures and Planeterra, the Children's Day School offers a place for the community's youngest members to come, learn, and play. It's through the donations of every G Adventures tour that visits the school and the support of Planeterra, so that the school is able to grow and satisfy its specific needs. Recently, a water tank was installed to supply running water and there are plans for a vegetable garden, which will not only teach the kids about agriculture and supply food for their lunches, but the school will also able to sell the extra food in the community. This is a wonderful example of sustainable travel at work.
When we arrived, the children, all under the age of 5, were hard at work learning basic English words and songs. With a lot of tour groups coming through, they are used to visitors and were ready to show off what they've learned.
Then it was playtime! We followed the children out to the playground and almost immediately, I made my first friend. Since the kids are so used to visitors, they really love having their photograph taken and would come right up to me asking me to "shoot," a word they've picked up over time. Knowing that the kids here were used to being photographed, I decided to bring along my Instax instant camera, so I could give away some of the pictures I took. The first girl was a bit confused when the photo popped out the top and when I tried to give it to her, she even tried to put it back in the camera. But soon, the other kids had caught on to the fact that I had a crazy fun toy that was spitting out presents and I was swarmed. The cover photo here is the only record I have of any of them. Photos would disappear as quickly as I took them and you could see kids running around showing off to their friends. We made sure the teacher collected them all, so there would be no fights about who gets to keep them.
Playtime was a huge success but before I could load a second roll of film, it was over and time to say goodbye. The teachers wrangled them together for a photo in front of the mural and then they waved us off from the doorway.
Maybe it's the long wall that wraps around the city's silhouette, but there's something about Segovia that just feels whole and also small. You can see the whole city in less than two hours, but only if you don't take the time to marvel at the grand aqueduct or the formidable Alcazar. You have to approach the ancient roman pillars and touch the stones with your own hands, because Segovia is not a city for rushers and people with checklists. It is a city for people who wonder. Don't just stop in on your way to somewhere else. Take a day to really see Segovia because even if you never read one guidebook or pamphlet, you'll get lost in this city's deep history.
For the holidays this year, my family decided we would go to Brazil to spend Christmas and New Year's with my mom's side of the family. This would be the first time I'd celebrate a major holiday outside the US, but lucky for me I never felt away from home. I have been traveling off and on to Brazil for a long time and every time I go back, it feels like I'm resuming a second life.
I was too jet lagged (and slightly sick) to take photos during Christmas, but for New Year's my family rented a large ranch in the country for four days and I had plenty of time to swim, nap, drink and get my feet muddy on the volleyball court. On New Year's Eve, we all donned white and covered ourselves in neon paint. I can't say I know many families that throw their own raves, but I'm glad I'm part of one.
We watched the countdown on the screen of someone's iPad and at midnight, fireworks from the neighboring ranches lit up all around us. The dogs were barking at the sky as we jumped from person to person, wishing each other a happy new year.
Our days at the ranch were filled with barbecues, sunbathing, and music provided by my uncle/resident DJ. We had no Wi-Fi and nowhere to be. I can't think of a better way to have spent the first days of a new year, surrounded by good food and silly people. (Below you'll see my brother's attempt at fishing in the backyard river. He caught a leaf.)
A big obrigada to these wonderful people for making this holiday so special.
Since September, I have been working for SmarterTravel and between adjusting to a new 9-5, doing some freelance photography on the side, and everything that pops up in between my blog might have been a little neglected in the second half of the year. But that's not bad news by any means. I am still traveling and photographing and it looks like the new year will hold a lot more of that, so I hope you'll stay tuned.
When I began working at ST, I had just booked a flight to Italy for a month that I knew I would have to give up. But since the airline couldn't refund me, I decided to change my itinerary instead and go somewhere for a week. So I decided to visit some of my study abroad friends in Madrid. It's been years since I'd seen them and they offered me their couches in Spain even while we were still tramping around in New Zealand. It was a fantastic trip in a country that was even more beautiful than I imagined it to be. The following photos are from my day-trip to Toledo with my friend Alvaro. (More on Madrid, Segovia, and all the other amazing Spanishness later).
Toledo might be the most impressive city I've seen. It's not as big as New York or Madrid, but it is old and feels incredibly whole. The entire city is a World Heritage Site and when you walk through the streets, it's impossible to disagree that every stone and bannister of the city is essential to Toledo's identity and deserves protection.
This photo of Toledo's famous cathedral was taken through the reflection pool. Although it might look like regular dirt and brambles sitting at the bottom, the natural-looking texture is actually carved into the stone.
Vermont has been on my to-do list for a long while now and this past weekend, I finally decided to get away from Boston and see another side of New England. I booked a cozy Airbnb in the mountains that promised a hot tub and fresh pastries and dragged my boyfriend Alex along for the ride. I wrote all about my weekend for Smarter Travel, which you can read here. This post is for the photos that did and did not make it in that article at their full resolution and not whatever Instagram does to them. I also got to play with my new Instax camera that prints out retro Polaroids instantly, which was a lot of fun and very gratifying.
About a month ago, a couple of friends and I decided to visit the New York Ren Faire on the weekend, which is somewhere I have always wanted to go. When we got there I quickly discovered that food and water were overpriced, but the Mead (aka Honey Wine) was especially tasty and they filled your cup to the rim. Learn from my mistakes: too much cheap alcohol and not enough expensive water on a hot August day will definitely lead to dehydration. Despite the mini-hangover I would experience later, the Faire was both corny and enchanting. Though the dragon in the pond is fake and the Faire the Queen's loyal subjects are only kids home from college for the Summer, the passion is real. We saw some great shows, a fascinating falconry demonstration, and hundreds of beautiful hand-crafted objects from corsets to ceramics. The following photos are taken on the same afternoon.
I have a very important announcement to make: After a trip to Philadelphia, a trip home, a trip back to Boston, a move from one side of Brighton to the other, starting a new job, quitting my waitress job, and exchanging of flight to Rome for a flight to Madrid, I have finally truly slept and can finally write. Since my life has been pretty scattered, the photos here are what I've been able to take during my spare moments, whether it be practicing night shots with my tripod or focusing in on the little things.
My life has changed drastically in the past few weeks and that's going to mean a couple of changes for this blog. For starters, I have very happily just begun my Social Media and Editorial internship with Smarter Travel, which means my travel writing has found another home on the web. I still plan on using this blog for my own personal travel narratives, but I think I might shift my focus on using this space to display my photo essays. I've got the weekends off now that I've left my cocktail job, so I can focus on my photos a little bit more.
Free weekends also means more time to explore New England and I've got some ideas cooking for the Fall that I hope to show you soon.
And another thing. Some of you might know that I was planning a month-long backtripping trip to Italy in October and sadly/happily, I had to cancel that because of my new position. However, I am able to take a week off and will be going to Madrid instead to reconnect with some old friends, eat tapas, and take siestas. Oh and I guess I'll be writing, taking photos, and absorbing the culture too. But more importantly for my emotional health: tapas, siestas, and amigos.
Despite the empty state of this blog lately, I promise there are a lot of exciting things to come.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was founded by the art-obsessed woman for which it was named for. It is one of the most unique museums in Boston. After marrying Jack Gardner in 1874, Isabella and her husband traveled to Europe where their love of art-collecting sparked. They were inspired to travel more extensively, searching the world for precious artifacts. Though most of their collection was acquired during early trips to Europe, they also traveled to and collected work from the Middle East and Asia.
When their house in Boston's Back Bay became to small for their growing collection and after her husband's sudden death, Isabella worked with architect Willard. T Sears to create this museum, which would open her once private art collection to the public. After purchasing the building in the Fenway neighborhood, Isabella worked for years to install her art and make sure everything was up to snuff with her personal aesthetic before the museum would open in 1903.
In the name of art-making, I've decided to not only share these photos but also share my process of taking them and talk about some of the challenges I faced shooting in this very striking and unique location.
When visiting the museum, it is clear that Isabella's classic touch has been preserved through all these years. You get the sense that everything is just how she left it. Between the arrangements of the galleries to the stunning courtyard, which is the only part of the museum in which photography is allowed.
This museum posed a lot of challenges for me as a photographer since I was limited to only shooting in the courtyard. In addition, I shot these photos on a Monday afternoon in the Summer, which meant there were many people out enjoying the art and getting in my shots.
I spent most of my time waiting for my fellow museum-goers to pass before I could grab the shot that would capture the empty look I was looking for. In such a small space, this was even more difficult to do.
I also found the lighting to be difficult to work with at first. The courtyard is chained off, so you are not actually allowed to stand in the sunny part of the room and must shoot from the shadows. This made it difficult to find the right balance of exposure.
However, the lighting issue led me to realize that these photographs would be more effective in black and white. The stark differences between light and dark became a major element of the photographs instead of an editing nuisance.
Because the courtyard is so small and getting wide shots without any people in them required a lot of time only to take photos that already existed somewhere on the internet, I decided to begin focusing small.
The museum is as much about the details as it is the architecture and since I couldn't photograph any of the galleries, I did what I could with the sculptures in the garden.
Getting up close really allowed me to add more texture to the series as a whole and better represents what the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum stands for. This place is not only about one woman's huge collection of artwork, it's about her love and dedication to each little piece in her collection.
The creation of this museum required care and love for the art, which is apparent as you walk through the carefully maintained galleries and through the meticulously manicured courtyard. It is a lovely place to visit and truly a shining gem of historical Boston.
Since leaving my home state four years ago, I've put up with a lot of jokes. Yes, we have a lot of highways and reality television shows. And actually yes, I have met Tony Soprano. (James Gandolfini visited my middle school once.) But there's a lot more to New Jersey that is hidden to those who never stop to really look around.
Yesterday, I took a hike through the Apshawa Perserve, which is located in West Milford, NJ. From the car lot, it is a short and serene romp to the Butler Reservoir. With a good friend and a borrowed dog, this was the perfect place to get away from the noise-- a very good place for some much needed reflection.
New Jersey isn't known for any mountains, so the trail remains relatively flat.
There's nothing like the refreshing smell of pine along the way to rejuvenate.
This goofball named Stanley was the first one to find the lake.
This other goofball followed shortly.
The most stunning part of this location was the cover of lily pads and water lillies.
It was fascinating to observe how lillies flowers grow. Beneath the surface you can see one spiraling up from the mud, just about to bloom.
Lots of love and a big thank you to Lauren and Stanley for joining me on this little adventure at home.
As some of you may know, my dear brother Nicholas Ditaranto passed away one week ago. I am heartbroken and very much in shock. I am still trying to pick up the pieces and adjust to this brand new world, but I wanted to post something. I haven't been able to write much in the past few days, but I have been thinking a lot about an essay I wrote about visiting my grandmother's grave in Brazil. The faveiro pods featured in the story can be seen in the photograph above. Coincidentally, my mother brought some back for me on her last trip to Brazil.
Eventually I know I will be able to write about my brother, but for now I hope this essay is enough.
It was a long drive to the cemetery, so I tipped my head against the cool glass of the window and lazily stared out of it as the Brazilian countryside flashed before my eyes. Rows of coffee plants were followed by a field of sugar cane, then a herd of horses or white cows, and then another field of sugar cane or coffee plants. Sometimes the highway cut through a hill and walls of reddish dirt rose and fell around the car, obscuring the view only for a few moments. Other times we would be driving along the brim of a valley filled with varying shades of green and creeks that crisscrossed through the patches like a cracks in a ceramic bowl. And if I squinted, I could just about make out the brown and white specks grazing in the field.
While my mind drifted around the bowl and out over the horizon line, my mom and Vovô, my grandfather, filled the car with Portuguese. At first, I tried to pay attention and from what I could understand they were talking about someone in the family, probably one of my forty or so first and second and third cousins who was either getting married or getting into trouble, and by my mom’s sharp intake of breath, it was probably the latter. While she asked questions, Vovô answered her calmly and matter-of-factly. It’s been a couple of years since my mom’s last visit home and per usual, there was a lot of gossip to catch up on. But it was too complex a conversation for my semi-fluent ears, so I let familiar tones and syllables fill up the car around me and floated in it while I stared out the window. I gazed until I grew bored and when I grew bored, I shut my eyes. I didn’t open them again until the cracking began.
Popping noises, not so loud as firecrackers, but loud enough to rumble the car, made me shoot up with sudden confusion and curiosity. “What is that?” I could see we were rolling to a stop in front of the cemetery and as we slowed down, so did the popping.
My mom mimicked my question in Portuguese and Vovô answered, beginning, “Árvore de Faveiro.” I understood the first part, Faveiro tree, but the rest of his sentence did not come through.
“It’s a type of tree,” my mom said turning to look back at me. “It drops the dry, uh…” I waited while she searched for the word, “they’re like peapods, but for their seeds… ” I nodded, “Anyway, the trees drop them in the street and when cars drive over, they crack.”
When I got out of the car, I could see the little brown clumps that littered the road beneath the shade of the Faveiro trees. I liked the way the word sounded, looping around my mouth before shooting off of my tongue. I examined one of the pods closely; it looked like a shriveled up piece of bark. I lightly placed my heel over top of it, and then I stepped down with my full weight. CRACK. I broke a couple more, each crack more satisfying as the last. At the height of my cracking addiction, I heard more pops coming from behind me and looked over to see my Vovô with his head down, cracking the pods beneath his feet. My eyes fixated on him for a moment. In his thick glasses and a windbreaker, this was my grandfather, a man I’ve only met a handful of times and with a language barrier in between us. I barely know him, I thought, but there we were standing in the road cracking pods together.
My mom, finally emerging from the car with a bouquet, came up behind me and placed her hand on my shoulder. “Are you ready?” she asked.
I nodded. It was time to meet my Vovó, my grandmother.
The air was quiet as the three of us walked through the steel gate and the soft patting of our footsteps against the dirt path echoed. Instead of typical graveyard with headstones aligned in rows on a grassy field, like tabs keeping order of the dead, this cemetery was filled with tombs suggesting the full length of the buried coffin and jutting above the ground. The colors of the stone varied from pink to black and each headstone was carved in its own elaborate and unique style. Many had photographs preserved under glass, beneath or beside their name. Many had two names and two photographs. Many only filled up half the headstone with one name and one photograph with an empty waiting space on the other half. We passed rows of these tombs, each clashing against the next, some more elaborate with shining names engraved in stone and others plain slabs of gray concrete with a simple name plaque and a serial number painted along the side. Later mom told me those were the people who couldn’t afford better, but there was no discrimination. The concrete graves were scattered intermittently between the graves of granite and marble.
Vovô turned and we had to slide through the narrow space between graves to reach hers, rubbing our shins against the stone. Her name was engraved in silver against the dark green granite, Anna Garcia Miranda. To the side was her portrait. It was a single grave, cold stone with hard edges. “Here she is,” he told us.
At the base of her headstone was an empty vase and my mom bent down to place the flowers in it. Vovô, the cemetery, and I were silent as we watched her. The paper around the flowers crinkled as she took it off and the glass clinked against the stone as she placed the vase down and tried to set it straight. So much noise in this quiet place. “Para você, mãe,” my mother said softly. For you, mom.
The three of us stood there wordlessly and I clasped my hands in front of me. My palms were growing sweaty and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I settled my stare on the oval photograph affixed to her headstone. She had short hair, like my mom’s, a stern smile, and a mole on her cheek.
Her face I recognized from the picture at home, the one in the silver frame on the side table. In her arms she cradled me, a baby swaddled in a pink blanket and looked up towards the camera, smiling. It was the only proof that we ever existed together. Just for a brief visit, then she went back to Brazil and died a little more than a year later. I never knew her at all, not even barely.
My memory skips, because suddenly I was standing away from her grave, in the middle of the path that led to the entrance of the cemetery. Mom and Vovô were still standing by her, praying their last prayers. As I waited, I began to read the names and look at the photographs more closely.
For every name and photograph, a ghost emerged from the stone and their lives flashed before my eyes. I saw their first kisses, their long workdays, and their morning cups of coffee. I saw long illnesses and sudden deaths. I heard the cracks of the pods as their families pulled up to the cemetery. I saw them making the solemn walk to stand where I stood. I saw their tears falling at my feet and drying in the dirt. I felt my own tears beginning to rise. I saw the blank plaques next to the name of a lover, already gone. Their eyes looked across towards the empty spot of stone, waiting, waiting, waiting.
I thought of Vovô and his wife that lay cold in the ground. Was she waiting? She had a single grave and Vovô had remarried, but maybe. I looked at the two of them standing side by side. Waiting for him? And waiting for her, my mother?
At this, my imagination had become an unstoppable object, rolling down a hill and increasing in speed. It picked up the dark shards of shattered thoughts scattered in the badlands. Thoughts so sharp, they cut me up from the inside. Everyone I know will die, even me, even her. It wasn’t my first time facing these thoughts, but usually I would be lying in bed alone, moments from sleep with a pillow to catch my tears. This time I saw I saw my mom standing right in front of me and lying still in her deathbed and the crying came. How much longer did I have until I was standing at her grave, whispering prayers I wanted so badly to believe she could hear?
I rubbed at my eyes, trying to stop the tears, but I was caught.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“It’s just a sad place, I guess,” That was the best I could say, a poor translation of emotion.
She hugged me and said soothing things. I buried my face in the nape of her neck. She was soft and warm and smelled like home. Her own mother, just a few yards away, was a cold rock with hard edges and smelled like nothing anymore. I hugged harder, sniffling against her neck. How much longer did I have until she turned to ash in my embrace?
“You ready to go?”
As we drove away the dried pods slipped between rolling rubber and asphalt. The shells collapsed beneath the tires and expelled the waiting dust inside, like an uproar of a thousand last breaths.
It's no secret to anyone who has ever strolled through a park with me that I love dogs. Between the wagging tales and happy little faces, I can't help but point them out to my strolling partner and smile. So when I saw an opportunity online to go dogsledding while in Iceland, I dropped the cash and signed up right away. I thought it would be a nice break from the road to hit the snow with the dogs. And while the dogs were really cute and it was a really fun experience, there were some things I wish I had known before going into it.
What I expected: My core knowledge of dogsledding comes from what I soaked in from watching Snow Dogs and Balto, so I imagined I would be speeding across the snowy tundra while heroic music played in the background.
How it was: The dogs had to pull me, the guide, and three other passengers so I can't blame them for not going as fast as the movies. Not only did that create more work for the dogs, more people on the sled meant trying to find the correct balance of personal space with the stranger in front of you. Where exactly is the line between "Hi, it's nice to meet you." and "It looks like I'll need to wrap my legs around your body so I can stay on the sled?"
What I expected: I decided to splurge and spend a bit more on the company's Midnight Sun Tour. I imagined that we would set off with the dogs in the dark and ride all the way up to a high mountain summit to see the sun still peaking out over the horizon.
As it turns out: In the summer even though the sun technically "sets," it is light out all the time. The Midnight Sun tour is really no more special than the regular tour except that it's a little bit later in the night. Besides, it was overcast when we went and there really wasn't much sun to be seen at all.
What I expected: Gliding through a pristine landscape of soft and fluffy snow.
Well actually: The location of our tour had to be changed at the last minute due to poor weather conditions. Though we were originally supposed to go sledding on a glacier, we ended up at a small ski resort. One of the downsides of traveling before the peak of the tourist season is that Iceland isn't quite in summer mode yet, but it's not winter anymore. The glacier was too snowy and the ski resort was melting.
Though it wasn't perfect, I still enjoyed seeing the dogs so happy to run while our tour guide told us about the history of the dogsledding company, which was the first to bring the sport to Iceland. We stopped halfway through to take a break and give the dogs some belly rubs. For me, hanging out with dogs is always going to be a good time, even with the mishaps. I do wish I could have gotten some better pictures, but unfortunately with the snow and rain these are a bit blurry. Luckily, their cuteness shines through.