Travel

01_06_Nicaragua_02The Pacific coast of Nicaragua has quickly become the playground of the rich, with surf, sand and sunsets.MARIANNA JAMADI/MUKUL BEACH, GOLF & SPA

Newsweek, Dec. 2017:

After covering the too long, too mean presidential campaign, I fled New York City for Nicaragua.

Witnessing the collapse of the American system has an edgy vibe I've always found compelling and even sexy, but I now realize it's much more fun observing institutional mayhem in places where (a) it's hot outside and (b) you can check out early and hop a C134 back to high ground.

The last time I paid attention to Nicaragua was in the 1980s, when the ostentatiously austere Colonel Oliver North was helping President Ronald Reagan covertly fund the rightist Contra death squads in their civil war with the Sandinistas, while his Farrah Fawcett-haired secretary Fawn Hall was shredding incriminating documents. As far as I was concerned, Central America--other than Costa Rica--is still, "Send lawyers, guns and money--Dad, get me out of here" territory.

But "Nica," as the natives call it, is now postrevolutionary. During the decades of the left's bloody effort to throw off a succession of dictators and their American-backed death squads, the literacy rate nearly doubled. Agrarian reform temporarily gave peasants a couple of acres and a rifle each. That experiment ended in national bankruptcy, and the oligarchs were invited back in. Nicaragua now has some peace, and a little prosperity. It also boasts thrilling apolitical diversions, like world-class surfing, "ash-boarding" down one of 17 volcanoes, zip-lining over jungles and sipping tropical cocktails made with the national rum at infinity pools overlooking crashing surf in the sunset.

The nation's few pockets of extreme luxury prove the leftists didn't completely succeed in their scheme to redistribute the wealth. One of the oligarchs who hid out in Miami and then came home to reclaim what was rightfully--capitalistically speaking--his, was Don Carlos Pellas, Nicaragua's first billionaire. Thanks to his love for Nicaragua and his vast wealth, visitors from El Norte and elsewhere can now live like Central American plutocrats at a five-star resort he carved into a Pacific mountainside.

Monkey, jaguar, lizard and mosquito ruled Nicaragua's Emerald Coast when Pellas, the fifth-generation descendant of 19th-century sugar and transport barons, first sailed past it on a yacht as a young man. Ten years ago, he bought 1,600 acres around the cove and carved out a vacation community called Isla Guayaquil. In the center, he planted a luxury resort. He named it Mukul, the Mayan word for "secret."

The cove is secret no more, at least not to wealthy Nicaraguans, who have bought second homes here, right near the mansions Pellas built for himself and his wife. Nor is it a secret to world-class surfers, who come for the wicked waves and warm water, and savvy travelers.

Or make that, intrepid savvy travelers with a little Cuban Hemingway in their souls. As in Costa Rica, its neighbor to the south, Nicaragua's roads are rather quaint. The two-lane road from Nicaragua's main airport to the Pacific coast is either an eyelid-peeling game of chicken with oncoming trucks or an eye-rolling slog in traffic. The best thing about this road is that it goes right by one of the country's coolest diversions: Masaya, an active volcano and one of the very few on the planet that is safe to peer down into. The approach to Masaya's lip is a switchback ascent from jungle up into surreal, apocalyptic light. After the first swerve, you can see the sulfurous yellow clouds above; then, after another turn, silhouetted against them is a huge black cross planted in 1520 by Spanish friars who thought it would keep the devil down in what they believed was one of the mouths of hell. We drove all the way up and walked to the edge, joining a small crowd Instagramming the bejesus out of a vast canyon, at the bottom of which was a pit of orange, bubbling lava.

On our way coastward again, we zipped in and out of the passing lane, swerving back and forth past men on horseback, pedicabs, semitrucks and corrugated-metal one-room houses, many with a cow, donkey or pig tied to a tree out front. Fields of corn and sugarcane in the rich volcanic soil stretched for miles in all directions.

Two hours later, we pulled up at Mukul's central palapa, an open-air reception lobby with white wicker rocking chairs and spacious couches under a thatched roof built on massive, varnished, old tree trunks. Pellas opened his pet project three years ago, so the warm, friendly waiters and other staff haven't been serving high-maintenance rich people long enough to be stiff or pretentious. Mukul's manager says Pellas offers them classes in English and hospitality and also gave the community free health care, potable water and a soccer academy. (Mukul offers visitors the chance to spend a couple of hours at the local schools and talk to the kids in English, the lingua franca of the capitalist world.)

As a tangerine sunset tinted the Pacific, a waiter handed us the national drink, the Macuá, made of orange, lemon and pineapple, and a shot of Flor de Cana, the Pellas family rum. Dinner was alfresco, beneath a swatch of thatch, with solicitous waiters serving sizzling steak tacos and the Pacific pounding sand a few yards off.

The next morning, we woke just after dawn to the sound of coffee and cookies being delivered to the porch of our bohio, a large, one-bedroom villa perched cliffside with a wraparound porch and a small soaking pool on the deck. Every morning, a waiter drove up the steep hill in a golf cart, ferrying what he called a "rooster breakfast." While we sipped and nibbled and stretched, a trio of white-throated jays convened on the railing, pecking at cookie crumbs we tossed their way. Far below, the ocean was a glassy pink.

After breakfast, we hit the beach. I lay on a lacy hammock under a tree and read, alternating between Mary McCarthy's The Group, about the sexual and intellectual adventures of a set of Vassar graduates in the 1930s, and Lost Tycoon, a mind-blowing chronicle by Harry Hurt III of Donald Trump's personal and professional excesses. I occasionally gazed lazily down at my companion, who was surfing with a pair of Australian instructors. I sipped another Macuá. I squinted at a sailboat silhouetted on the sparkling horizon, framed on both sides by the vast cliffs that form the cove. I noticed the cliff off to the right was pocked with a large grotto and lazily thought of pirates hiding in there with barrels of rum, playing cards with profane pet parrots and a few monkeys on their shoulders...and then fell into a jaguar-black sleep.

In addition to long, languid loafs in palm-shaded hammocks, Mukul offers golf on a course designed by David McLay Kidd, who designed the Castle Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, an impressive fact that meant nothing to me since I don't golf. I was much more interested in the jungle along its edges, from which emanated the unmistakable hoot of howler monkeys.

Our morning checkout came way too soon, but at least I'd been off Twitter for a few days. We shared our last "rooster breakfast" cookies with the jays, had one last stroll on the sand and one last dip in the warm surf, then loaded up.

By midnight, we were back in New York, in a bleak, bitter JFK Airport taxi line. I had picked up a nifty Nica straw hat along with a tan and some sand in my pockets--oh so different from what the gun and drug runners packed home in the '80s but still a piece of Nica. I regretted not having had the time to ash-board or meet the rum baron so I could ask if he needed an English tutor for his kids.

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New York Times Sept. 6, 2016:

A few days after first grade ended, in June 1967, I boarded a train pulling out of Union Station in Chicago with my parents, younger brother and baby sister. My father, a University of Chicago Ph.D. candidate, had decided to bail out of academia and move to San Francisco, where he planned to devote himself to writing poetry and where, coincidentally, the Summer of Love was about to commence.

The counterculture meant nothing to me then, but that summer in San Francisco was to be historic. Over the next few months, tens of thousands of young people across America left their own cities, parents and schools and hitchhiked to the area around the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets to tune into drugs and music, and tune out of "square" society. They converged there, having heard about free food and free love. In that summer of 1967, Haight-Ashbury transformed into the epicenter of the counterculture movement.

Read the rest of the journey here.

Canary Islands telescope

Way, way out in the Atlantic Ocean, at a point where one of Earth's four cold water currents meets the searing African desert winds, nights are dark as prehistory. Once the sun sets on the volcanic archipelago known as theCanary Islands, a misty net of extraterrestrial white light blankets the sky from horizon to horizon. Until dawn, every ray of visible starlight in the entire Northern Hemisphere and much of the Southern Hemisphere gathers overhead. That sprawl of sky over a small island speck on the black ocean suggests, like few other experiences, the nanosecond that is human life.

Such black nights and clear skies have beckoned astronomers to install some of the world's most powerful telescopes on volcanic peaks in this archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa. As scientists use these state-of-the-art observatories to search out signs of the Big Bang, at sea level 8,000 feet below, tens of thousands of mostly British pensioners and brides-to-be on "hen parties" are getting drunk and sunburned.

Five million tourists annually visit this Spanish territory from colder climes to bask in Europe's only subtropical weather. The port at Tenerife, the largest island, is the third-most-visited cruise ship destination in Europe.

Read the rest here.

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As world leaders started heading to Paris to discuss climate change, I boarded a plane last night going in another direction: south to Antarctica. From 30,000 feet, on a clear, moonlit November night flying south from New York City, the density of the lights along the eastern seaboard form a stunning lace trim along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Each of the twinkly whorls and grids represents millions of Americans living along the sea, populating a megalopolis stretching from Boston down to Richmond, and points even further south.

The heartbreaking beauty of our great eastern cities from the sky at night sometimes brings tears to my eyes. It's moving to behold what we, the thinking animals, have built and placed against that great black void of cold water.

All that, and even the jet from which to view it, we have accomplished in little more than a century. But the pace of human progress brought its own fragility, in the form of climate change.

Gazing down on those lights from the porthole of a jet brings home just what catastrophic sea level rise means.

Scientists believe that as the frozen Poles melt, which they are doing at a phenomenal rate, the sea will, like a glass of water into which ice cubes are dropped, surge upward and overflow its edges, extinguishing the lights and the great cities.

Read the rest here.

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It is still Earth, but Antarctica is an alien land. In his book Future of Life, Nobel-winning American biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote of Antarctica, "On all of the Earth, the McMurdo Dry Valleys most resemble the rubbled plains of Mars."

Antarctica is not as uninhabitable as Mars, but almost. It's also a place that tricks the eye, it's a trompe l'oeil of nature. On land, the whites stretch on forever, and snow, peak and cloud mingle so voyagers lose track of the difference. At sea, icebergs loom out of the fog like Gothic castles or the Sphinx, or simply abstract art, open to interpretation. But if the icebergs are Picassos, their positioning with backdrops of Alpine peaks and melted marshmallow, meringue and dollops of cream are pure Dali.

Here while the mind and eye are tricked, the body suffers extreme discomfort, from seasickness to frozen hands to frostbite and death, which might explain -- logically -- why Antarctic exploration always includes some element of the uncanny.

Ernest Shackleton and his two partners managed a death-defying sail across 800 miles of rough sea in an ice-crusted lifeboat then trekked across an island mountain range for several days to finally reach help at a whaling station. After that insane feat, the men admitted to one another that they had all sensed the presence of a "fourth man" -- an unseen someone walking beside them the whole time.

T.S. Eliot was moved to mention the mystery man in his modernist classic, The Wasteland.

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

-- But who is that on the other side of you?

More recently, in 2012, polar explorer Felicity Aston became the first woman to ski solo across the Antarctic Continent. In 63 days alone, she started talking to the sun -- and it talked back. Eventually, she had entire conversations with it.

While voyaging around the Antarctic Peninsula, I posted the above, and some other journal entries on the website Medium. Read them all here.

01/26/16

The Big Melt

Antarctica

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In all mythic, transformational trips--acid, ayahuasca, Mars or across the river Styx--the voyagers must, at some point, face down their deepest fears. For expeditions into Antarctica, the most deeply strange place on Earth, the Drake Passage is where that happens.

This tumultuous realm--where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans converge at a latitude where water unimpeded by land flows in a continuous circle around the globe--was first sailed by Sir Francis Drake, the storied 16th-century English naval explorer. Winds and swells in the passage are commonly "hurricane" on the Beaufort scale. Its harrowing reputation prompted a 19th-century theory that the Drake Passage was a planetary drain leading to the South Pole, a notion Edgar Allan Poe used to terrifying effect in his short story "MS. Found in a Bottle," in which a cargo ship passenger narrates the destruction of his vessel and the events before his death.

Read about Antarctica.

11/09/15

In Assisi

JP-ASSISI1-articleLarge.jpgASSISI, Italy -- For centuries, pilgrims have trekked to Assisi to walk the same steep and narrow lanes on which a rag-cloaked radical monk named Francis preached an antimaterialistic message 800 years ago, rocking the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

But lately, those visitors have included a new sort of pilgrim.

Read the full article here.

AntibesThere's a reason why the Dutch have a saying, "living like a god in France," and if you want to understand it fully, spend a few days in Antibes or Juan Les Pins, sipping a cocktail in the soft-pawed night. Here's my story in the Times on the glorious little Mediterranean peninsula that inspired and soothed, for a time, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

05/01/14

Out of Africa

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for nyt.jpegLagos.jpgAfter some delays, I got my visa and headed over to Lagos last month. In steaming equatorial heat, I met members of the petro-state's micro-elite. I'm afraid words can't do justice to the Chief's birthday party, but I tried. Here's the story for the New York Times.

04/09/14

Into The Jungle

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I wrote an essay about a trip up the Amazon in Peru, exploring my ambivalence about nature. Besides anaconda, spiders, giant ants and sloth, I encountered river people whose lifestyles are as close to organic as one can find in the modern world. Read the whole story here.

I went to the Amazon jungle, brought back jungle viagra, piranha teeth, caught and released a rainbow catfish, and snapped many sloth pictures. I almost slept in The Mick Jagger Room at Casa Fitzcarraldo.

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601_b2f627fff19fda463cb386442eac2b3d.jpgMy daughter and I took this amazing trip into the Arctic Ocean in June, getting up next to walrus and polar bear in bays and inlets only accessible thanks to the dreaded polar ice melt blamed on man-caused climate change. I hope these animals survive.
Here's the story in DuJour Magazine.
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Winged Skull and Basin for Holy Water

Image by Curious Expeditions via Flickr

nyt.jpegVisitors to Italy tend to seek its sunny, Dionysian side -- vino, pasta, opera, Renaissance art, George Clooney on a Vespa. But, like a chilly draft on a hot day, Italy's gothic angle offers intimations of darkness that make a moment on the piazza even more delicious. Consciously or not, anyone sipping prosecco at sunset in Rome or Naples savors an extra spoon of dolce in their vita thanks to the contrast between the beauty of the present and the proximity of catacombs, ruins and sites of ancient suffering.
Read the rest of the article in the New York Times.

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On a visit to their X-rated painted tombs, I learned that the Etruscan funerary orgies were so wild, even the Romans outlawed them. My travelogue in Time, here
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One thing I wish I could bring home from Italy but cannot: the gonging of church bells. Here in Perugia, they mark the quarter hour with a primeval sound intended long ago for people who couldn't read, people who had no access to clocks, serfs who needed to get up in the morning and pray. Now the bells serve a different purpose: I do need to get up and make breakfast for recalcitrant schoolchildren, go to work, return home, check e-mail, make dinner. I don't need these bells to tell me the hour--I have a BlackBerry, a cellphone, and watch--but they clang out a larger, deeper measure of time, the mortal one. Continue reading at Slate

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I envy my bilingual friends, but I must admit my ugly-American monolingualism never really hindered me. I've traveled all over the Middle East and what I couldn't understand there, translators could. We spent two years living in Paris, where I wrote a book about an Englishman. Nestled inside a bubble of expat Anglophones, I learned just enough French to amuse butchers and bartenders. Whatever else they say about Paris, most urban French know some English. Continue reading at Slate.
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10/05/09

La Dolce Vita?

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Six months ago, I was living in New York City with my husband and two kids, toiling alongside my tribe of New York media working women. I had an amusing job that paid for various indulgences, and deflected the indignities of subway rides and wartime urban anxiety with regular acupuncture, pedicures, and moderately priced wine. Then I was offered a contract to write a book in Italy about the notorious trial of exchange student Amanda Knox, accused along with two young men of murdering her British roommate, in what Italian authorities have called a drug-fueled orgy. Continue reading at Slate.
07/01/09

Chili Dog to Go

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An American family heads to Mexico for a lazy getaway and winds up bringing home a four - legged souvenir.
As originally planned, our midwinter Mexican vacation was supposed to be a sedate, even sophisticated affair: nesting in a sun-dappled house in historic San Miguel de Allende, strolling the cobbled lanes, sipping coffee on the square next to the apricot-colored 17th century Parroquia and snagging cool art treasures made of pressed tin. After a few days of colonial elegance, though, our kids were utterly bored, and even I was longing for a Pacific beach--seven hours away by car. So before sunrise on a morning halfway through our vacation, we piled ourselves into a rental car and drove off vaguely westward. The highway took us across the high, dry plateau 6,000 feet above sea level, and then slowly downward into the green fields of Michoacán, Mexico's breadbasket. By eight o' clock, we were in the midst of a giant marshland populated by hundreds of thousands of migratory birds wintering in the south. Through the car windows, we bore witness to a primordial scene out of the Garden of Eden, myriad bird species eating breakfast and a few fishing boats setting out for the day with the so-called butterfly nets that the Aztecs used.
Continue reading here.
03/01/03

Exit to Eden

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Shadows of man-size leaves dapple the stones as my husband and I tread up a jungle path to our "Rejuvenation" treatment at the Banyan Tree on Mah`e island in the Seychelles.  We arrive at a tropical aerie overlooking the Indian Ocean, where our feet are bathed in mint water and we sip bowls of ginger tea.  After being scrubbed with crushed rice, apples, and honey, we bow our heads under outdoor showers while turmeric soap is poured down our backs.  The massage lasts an hour.  Outside, the surf is distant thunder.
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After a long winter with a new baby, my husband Erik and I needed to get away, preferably to another dimension. So we were relieved and grateful to get The Call. On ADVENTURE's $1,500 we could go someplace warm and do something athletic - preferably mountain biking, an activity that had been curtailed by the arrival of baby Felix. And nine months of being chained to feedings and changings made us eager to travel with the barest outline of a plan. We opened the atlas and zeroed in on Turkey.
03/01/99

Iraq

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Last fall, nina burleigh visited her cousins in baghdad for the first time, in hopes of better understanding iraqis' love-hate relationship with america. But weeks later, as the bombs began to drop, her own loyalties went to war

My first night in the Middle East, I feel as if I'm falling asleep on the dark side of the moon.  There is a smoky kerosene smell and a mullah calling "Allah akbar" (God is great) from the neon green rim of a minaret.  My flesh will take days to arrive in this time zone.