Sunday, June 23, 2013

Where You’ll Fear to Tread

They say that the core of the Navajo spirituality is balance. Balance with nature. Balance within the soul. In everything they do, the Navajos strive to restore balance and harmony.

I am still fuzzy on who chose who first: the Navajo nation – the Utah/Arizona/New Mexico land? Or the other way around? You may travel there and you may never get to speak to a native, but when you look at their surroundings, savor their food, marvel at their art work, you’ll see the spirit of harmony in everything around them. And it slowly seeps into your own soul.

We took a trip around Utah, yet again, a couple of weeks back. This time, we included the Monument Valley area, which we had never seen before. We were travelling with some friends, all huddled in a car, all chatting about our boring lives and travails. The chatter came to a sudden stop as we approached the Monument Valley Tribal Park. We all subconsciously felt like something beyond our imagination or understanding was about to happen.

We paid our fee (similar to a state park fee), we parked our car, we walked into the hotel to check in, and there – beyond the lobby windows, the vast valley opened up. It was so majestic, so splendid, so beyond words … we were afraid to breathe. We felt like we were in a temple, and we were afraid we’ll disturb other people’s prayer time. 

The iconic trio: West, East Mittens and Merrick Butte, right outside our hotel - before sun setting 

The View Hotel is perched atop the mountain that borders The Valley to the West (I think). Its view, from every room, is the whole display of beauty and rocky majestic-ness that this natural park offers. There are small, uninteresting windows opening to the West in this hotel. Every room, every common area (restaurant, store, lobby) open to the East, so that you can take in the beautiful scenery. 

A room with a view: The View Hotel, hanging off the cliff, above Monument Valley Park 

I will not pretend that I have even an iota of the talent that would be able to render in words what beauty was before my eyes in this place! I will just tell you that this is one of the very few places on Earth that moved me to my core, and left me completely helpless and empty. 

The Mittens, while the sun still lathers everything in light 

In face of such grandeur and beauty one feels small and unimportant. All my fears, personal daily dramas and ambitions are insignificant and futile. I am not sure what it is that had such an effect on me. The territory is vast and red desert. The vastness is again understated. As far as your eye can see and beyond, there is nothing but flat red rock. Very little vegetation, almost not worth mentioning. Then, scattered on this plateau, there are the giant rock formations, some springing over a thousand feet off the floor of the valley – true altars for various gods, it seems.

Their shape is one thing to marvel about, their colors in the various lights of the sun is another. The stark contrast between the nothingness of the valley and the somethingness of the mesas and buttes is what is surprising and amazing at the same time. 

The road towards Elephant Butte and the Camel Buttes 

You go to Greece and Italy and you visit the ruins of ancient temples, with nothing but their columns still sticking up into the world. It’s the same thing here, only here, God and nature built them, to begin with. That’s where the humility and smallness you feel come from, I guess, too.

We got there around sunset. We drove a bit on the dirt road of the park, that takes you closer to the rock formations, but we turned around, in a thick cloud of red dust, after a mile or so of very harsh and bumpy driving. The bumps and rocks we drove over were completely worth it, though! You can take a Navajo guide to drive you the entire length of the road (17 miles), or you can do most of it yourself. However, you not only need a 4 wheel drive car (which we had), but you need lots of clearance underneath.

Elephant Butte in the eerie light of the sunset 

After the drive, we gathered on our room patio, with drinks and cameras, to take in the view and watch as the sun was setting behind us, casting unreal shades on the formations before our eyes. The whole valley went from burning red orange to muted mustard yellow to dark brown in an hour or so. Every five minutes, the valley looked different, and grew short lived shades that were coming and going with no explanation whatsoever. 

Looking at the sun setting through the Three Sisters formation 

If there is one word that could describe the whole view while all these changes were happening, that word would be “harmony”. Nothing, not an air bubble, not a fleeting doom, not a pebble, not a wall, not even a shade of a color was out of place. It all sang beautifully in unison, in the grand opera theater of Monument Valley, beyond our railings.     

Mitchell Mesa casting an enormous shadow over the valley floor, towards Elephant Butte 

We were all in awe! The hand of God at work, right before our eyes! I cannot explain why a set of rocks in the sunset light is breathtaking and life changing. But it just is. You’ll just have to travel the roads and see for yourselves.

Millions of years were passing before my brain’s eyes, as I was watching the spectacle: how these rocks came to be, alone and resolute in the middle of nothingness, standing stubbornly for millions of years and facing the same sun. Then, a closer history, of the American Natives – how they found this land and how it spoke to them. How they figured, as I figure now, that some of these mountains are sacred and they belong to a higher being they ask for protection and balance. The long years of pain the Navajos went through, all looking at this beauty and praying on each rock that tomorrow will bring something better. All of these thoughts moved the last fiber inside of me, with shivers of piety and respect.

And today, I am witness. I thanked not only God and nature for all this beauty. I thanked the Navajos and even the White Man for preserving it and keeping it whole. I thanked my parents for giving me life and for sending me into the world to explore such beauty. I thanked my husband for driving me there. And thanked God once again for giving me the brain and the heart to understand and appreciate it all.

After the sun set, the valley looked just like a stage after the performance closed: the d├ęcor was all there, untouched, deserted and dusty. The spotlights were off. The players went home. The silence was heavy and overwhelming. That’s the thing about the desert: there are no sounds. There are no trees to swish, no stream to gurgle nearby. It’s silence and you. And you have to figure out what you’re going to do with yourself now, all alone and lost. 

 The Mittens and Merick Butte, right before the sun set - last glimpses of light ...

The people who inhabit this area are just as surprising and interesting as the world around them. The food they cook is deliciously home made and so deep in flavor and rich in ingredients. My husband is not a fan of hominy, but if you’re going to find good hominy, you’ve got to let the Indians make it for you – he loved it, here. The green chili chicken stew with blue corn tortilla is absolutely to die for – best comfort food I have ever had! 

 Navajo coziness: our room at The View Hotel and the green chilli and chicken stew at The View Restaurant

Everyone was so nice and laid back, always willing to please in small and unintruding ways. They all have a wisdom about them, carved sharply in their features. They look at the world with different, mature and astute eyes, deepened in thought and insight not accessible to us, regular humans. They have a seriousness that’s not in the least off-putting, but rather calming and soothing about their gaze.

On our way out of the reservation, we stopped at a small hut where a Navajo girl and her grandfather were selling jewelry made by hand right here, in the park. The Navajos are renowned silversmiths, we have learned. It’s the first time I saw silver beads threaded on silver thread – no fishing line there, no cotton thread. It gives the jewelry more firmness, while it preserves the fragile look about it. 

The girl apologized that the jewelry looks dirty with what might be perceived as dust. She explained that it’s not dust, but that they blessed it with corn pollen, for good luck, as many people ask them to bless their “gifts”. I didn’t find it dirty at all – the pollen was left behind and what I brought home was beautiful, shiny, clean silver.

The grandfather talked to us, too. He wore a huge silver buckle, with a giant turquoise stone in the middle, to hold up his Levi’s jeans. He wore a straw cowboy hat, too. He told us he was tired. He had gotten back from Flagstaff (Arizona), where he has a grandson that graduated from high school – so he went there to witness that with the boy’s family. Times have changed, I guess. Old and new live happily here, as well. 

The crafts hut, inside the Tribal Park - check out the flag. 

Driving away from it, I felt like leaving a church. I had left all my prayers and deeper thoughts locked in that place, entrusted them with God and those people who will make sure they reach Him. 

"When the music's over: turn out the lights..." 
(click on the picture for a complete album of the pictures of all the magical places we saw on this trip)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

It’s because of Them

I'm sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.” (J.D. Salinger)

I try every day to see the beauty in people. I try, as my sister has always assured me, to find  the “good side” of everyone – as she’s sure there is one. And thus I go through the day and think that there is more than what we see in everyone, and that we never quite know the true and full story of everyone. I try to tell myself not to judge and especially not to comment out loud. Because we just never know.

But, man-oh-man, some days this is hard to do! Some days, it takes all my might to settle down my hot blood and not to jump out of my skin and punch someone in the face. Or at least give them the lip!
Because people seem just so clueless sometimes.

I still remember, as a little girl, yelling at a 6+ft, 300lbs man (my best friend’s dad) for insulting my dad! I was probably 10 or so, and was fearless. That little girl still comes out today, every once in a while, and I start yelling (almost literally, sometimes) at the injustices of the world and people’s stupidity!

We went on a week long tour of Utah last week, and we were travelling through public places every day. We visited national parks, full of all sorts of people, all ages, all nationalities, all kinds of background. We shared dining rooms, buses and trails with all these people. Most of them were respectful of their surroundings and their fellow humans. And then, there were those who were not.

I wish there is a crash course in being an integrated human, before they launch us into the world. A crash course where they teach you about your personal space and how that affects others (everyone!) around you. A crash course on general respect, not just towards people, but towards landscape, buildings, “things”, in general, as well. And this course should be mandatory. And then, they should have a test. And if you fail, you should not be allowed to leave you stinky house! You should rot there, forever!

Lots of people trampled my nerves last week, but there were at least two of them that really, really, really bugged me. They annoyed me so much in fact, I thought there for a minute that they might call the cops on me if I should intervene to adjust their behaviors!  

We took the bus in Zion National Park. It’s a tour bus, with a hop on - hop off schedule, that stops at some of the most interesting view points in the park. It has no air conditioning, but the sun roofs are wide open and all the windows too so the cross ventilation is great. It gets hotter than 100F every day in the summer in this park, in the middle of the desert, so, you can imagine how some air is needed from somewhere when you’re cooped up with 50 other humans in such a small space.

It was a sunny day and the sun was baking the tops of our heads while sitting in the bus seats. 102F for the high that day! So, this gentleman pulled out an umbrella, to make some shade for his wife and himself, sitting next to him. (I know – how thoughtful, right?!). We all felt jealous that we didn’t have an umbrella ourselves. Everyone starting taking pictures, all in good humor: “what a great idea” – we all said.

Until this lady and her husband and 2 year old boarded the bus. She demanded that the sun roofs be closed shut. She asked her husband several times that he would close them now! He ignored her. Then, she almost yelled at the man with the umbrella to close it: “Close that now! You can put my eye out! I can’t believe this! An umbrella on the bus! Unbelievable!”.  No “please”, no “sorry, sir”, no “would you mind?”. Just “do it”. “Now”.

What was unbelievable to me, and everyone else, probably, was not only the fact that she had a hat with a pretty wide brim on her head and a huge pair of sunglasses covering her whole face (put what eye out?! The one hidden behind all that?!). She was also sitting down, in her seat, while the umbrella was way high, over the heads of the people in front of her, 5-6 feet at least away from her. What was unbelievable was that her own husband was carrying her 2 year old child in an aluminum carrier, on his back, which had nothing but a metal frame sticking out in everyone’s faces, about 4 feet away from his back. Whether you were standing up behind him or sitting down in the chair, the carrier’s frame was in front of your face, which could put your eye out, because there was no human watching the carrier’s whereabouts in the back of this man!

We all had to dodge his carrier as he moved and twirled around the bus in search for the perfect spot, where he and the kid were comfortable and the wife could see her treasure, as well. They took, in all, the room of four people, but one umbrella, above one person’s head was too much for her to handle! Unlike the child carrier, the umbrellas was really not invading anyone’s space at all.

On the same day, we went on the river walk trail, starting at The Temple of Sinawava, the last stop on the bus tour. The trail runs along the Virgin River, and is full of wildlife. Lots of bugs, lizards, squirrels, deer, birds. Even wild turkeys say “good day” to hikers right on the trail. This 11-12 year old kid was running along the trail, pushing his little cousin around, from one end of it to another, with a rubber gun in his hand. I watched him, as a rubber gun is hardly a commonality on a wilderness trail! He was looking for lizards, to shoot them with the gun. He found one, shot, and missed – in fact, his rubber snapped and fell limp on the ground. The failure only made him angrier. He grinded his teeth, and looked feverishly for a rock, then, from 2-3 feet away from the poor thing, stoned it. I could not handle this anymore, and yelled, along with another lady who watched the whole thing just like me: “Don’t you do THAT, kid!!”. We went on about how this is a park and protected environment and how the lizard didn’t hurt anyone, and how he should respect nature.

His mom just heard our screaming at him – she was completely oblivious to the whole episode. She waltzed into the altercation, fake bleached hair, fake boobs and Paris Hilton glasses covering her face, going in a slow, Valley linger: “and what exactly did he do?!” Oh, I had so many problems with that! First, don’t bring your son to the national park with a gun; then, explain to him the basic rules while he’s in here; then, be around and watch that he actually listens to you. He was, like I said, old enough to know better. But he would not know better, even if he were 32, if someone (his mom, maybe?!) didn’t teach him first! All she did after both I and the other woman told her about the stoning was to tap him on the shoulder and say “Honey, you need to think what you’re doing next time!”. Think of what, exactly, I told myself: she’s delivering no content to the kid. Think of what?! I am sure he’s thinking: “sure, mom, I’ll think of squishing the darn thing with my foot next time, instead! That’ll be surest to kill it!”. There is no thinking to be done without a frame of reference, in my opinion.

And I could sit here and list all the other annoying things people did all week long. Taking up too much room in the dining rooms, to the point that you had to walk around whole sections of tables in order to get out of your own chair, because they were blocking whole areas up with their “lounging” slouch; moving 2-3 times around the restaurant because one table is too small, and one is too close to the entrance, and one is not in the shade enough and another is too far away from the atmosphere, and  … And so on and so forth.

I am not sure whether this is a sign of getting old, but I notice these ungrateful, self-entitled, spoiled egocentric bothers more and more lately. And it’s also becoming significantly harder to keep my mouth shut!

I wanted so badly to physically hurt the woman with the umbrella problem as well as the fakely bleached blonde in a trance. Just to give them the same rude, hurtful treatment they dish out to the world.

And this made me realize: as much as I love traveling, I’ll probably stop doing it at some point. It’s either being miserable when all these brats (and there are more and more of them as our culture keeps encouraging instant gratification and entitlement in everything we do!) are working my nerves and intruding on my personal space and values, or going to jail because I’m going to hurt them right back just to prove a point.

I’m afraid there will be a day when I’ll have to make a choice there. And I am not looking forward to it.