Most years have a theme that jumps out, a thread that binds it and resurfaces just when you’ve forgotten all about it. It could be great love or financial hardship or a life-defining health issue.
What’s harder to grasp is a year that goes by without peaks significant enough to shine, or with so many small protrusions that choosing one above others would do the year an injustice.
I found 2018 confusing, because each upswing was met with a challenge and each low with a corresponding resolution. If “confusion” sounds too ethereal, then perhaps “roller coaster”, but without the sharp intakes of breath. That’s particularly galling given that at the end of last year, I chose this word for 2018: CLARITY. So much for predictions.
One of these peculiar “high-lows” was turning 65, with everything that implies – I catch a sharp breath when I notice birthdays are accumulating faster than I can count them, a realization tempered by the anticipation of a new year of doing things better, more deeply and yes, with more possibilities than ever.
So in the spirit of confused forward movement, as I mull the year gone by I realize…
My feet barely touched the ground
That was brilliant, because, you know, travel. But it also meant long periods away from home and I do enjoy being home.
I traveled extensively and intensively, much of on assignment to write about human rights – but I love my work so please don’t think there’s an iota of complaint in this sentence.
My travels were neatly contained in two regions: Central and Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia, both of which brought me joy and wonder.
My Eastern European travels began with Krakow, which – exceptionally – I visited with my partner Anne. Since I normally travel solo this was quite a switch and truly fun, because Krakow is that kind of city, filled with things to do and fun to be had. I also visited Auschwitz, on my own this time, a somber reminder of the darkest side of humanity, coupled with the faint hope that as a species we have learned our lessons.
I visited Serbia, where I met refugees stranded by Hungary and Croatia’s version of the anti-immigrant wall, forced to leave their homes because of wars fought in their name but without their consent.
Serbia also startled me, in part because I strode into the unexpected, my only images shaped by long- ago newscasts of war. I was taken by this country and its people, and after spending a week working in Belgrade, I headed north on an architectural hunt to visit the early 20th century gems in Novi Sad and Subotica (rhymes with pizza).
I switched trains in Budapest and stayed just long enough to have dinner at the New York Café, styled the “most beautiful café in the world.” The setting was dazzling, full of gold and glitter. The food was fine but the service nondescript, as befits an establishment where tourists in flip-flops and shorts queue for their selfie. (Bring back the dress code, I say.)
What do you think? Is it the most beautiful?
In-between assignments I rode to Romania with a single intention: to visit Transylvania. I hit the high notes in Sibiu and Brasov, visited the requisite castles and jostled the thick crowds – but I was mildly disappointed and have yet to write about this part of my trip.
I rode the delightful Soviet train to Moldova, where despite a heavy work week writing about disability and about the Roma, I was able to get myself to a place I’d wanted to see for years: the unrecognized country of Transnistria, which looked like what the the Soviet Union must have looked like before brand names and designer shops.
Moldova charmed me. Of course sunny summer weather helped but the fact that it’s a small country and everyone seemed to know one another made social life simple – I was often handed from one friend to another and delighted in the pride Moldovans feel for their country.
Not satisfied with the Soviet train to Moldova, I rode yet another Soviet train from Moldova across Ukraine to Kiev, which I liked but didn’t fall in love with, although there is plenty to see. I would like to return to Ukraine but next time perhaps I’ll visit Lviv.
2018 Travel, Wave Two
My second batch of travel was a five-week writing assignment to Southeast Asia.
I started in Bangkok, where I met up with old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen since I lived there as a foreign correspondent nearly two decades ago. One of the redeeming values of social media is the ability to stay in touch with people, however tenuously, so that when you pop up on their doorstep two decades later you’re not quite an alien from another world.
A lot of food was involved…
In Bangkok, I worked on forced disappearances and impunity, particularly topical in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination. It was a fitting introduction to the issues I’d be tackling in Cambodia: torture, illegal evictions and prison reform.
It was my first time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, which many of my friends complain has changed unrecognizably. I did visit the Foreign Correspondent’s Club for a drink and looked out on the Mekong, wondering if perhaps the view was the one they knew.
The time off I had was spent visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which I have also not written about yet but which touched me deeply. I didn’t go to the Killing Fields – the museum was more than adequate in bringing to mind the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Quick on Cambodia’s heels I was off to one of the few places I’ve ever had to look up on a map: Dili, the capital of East Timor, where I was writing about the country’s health system. As we came in for a landing (it took three flights from Cambodia) I admired the gently curving bay of white sand and palm trees. On land, reality is grittier and this is a poor country, emerging from years of war and a violent struggle for independence. But it was a delight to walk through, with few enough visitors that seeing a red-headed stranger would elicit a greeting or at the very least a smile.
I thoroughly enjoyed Dili, although it’s not what you might call a tourist destination – which is part of its attraction. It does have excellent diving off the coast, coffee plantations inland and a rather unexpected statue of Christ, donated by Indonesia as a gesture of goodwill back when East Timor was still Indonesian.
It won’t be like this for long, though. Seaside restaurants are opening faster than their signs can dry and a market sells (quite authentic) handicrafts to tourists.
Upon leaving I transited through Singapore long enough to do my favorite thing there: dash to a food court and eat. I managed to grab a plate of Penang Laksa before closing time, sleep four hours and still catch my flight to Hanoi, my last stop before starting the long journey home.
I fell in love with Hanoi (if I ignore the number of times I was ripped off by taxis) and with its Art Deco architecture, its many lakes, irresistible food and Communist memorabilia. It’s a walkable city, as long as you don’t mind taking your life into your hands each time you cross. I’ll be writing about this too… so many stories, so little time!
Another trip, not mine
There was another trip in my year – but I didn’t take it. My partner Anne (in a rental car) and my brother Cemil (on his motorcycle) decided to travel the Dempster Highway in northern Canada, a muddy gravel road that opened this year for the first time to all-weather traffic. Until recently, you could only reach its final outpost, Tuktoyaktuk, in winter when ice made it possible to cross rivers.
It was the trip of a lifetime, with bears, snowy mountains, tundra, camping in the wild and, finally, the Arctic Ocean. Wish I’d been along… but Anne took these great shots.
I felt the passage of time
In small creaky ways, in 2018 I felt those minor things one has to get looked at and that invariably end with dreaded diets or stern doctor’s orders (at least I hope that’s where they end up). I lost a good friend this year, Calle, who worked with me at UNAIDS and lived in a village down the road, so after retirement we saw each other regularly.
At home, a heat wave hit France and kept us without rain for six weeks, doing its best to kill my garden (it failed); I threw my shoulder and my elbow, which made life as a writer great fun (it’s all fine now); and I did a lot of reading.
I decided to make room in my life for books because as a writer my writing can only improve by reading other writers. I took on the Goodreads challenge, but whether I succeeded or failed is a matter of perspective. The challenge involved reading 52 books over the year on a variety of themes. I threw myself into such disparate genres as science fiction and anime. I loved it! But I didn’t make it to 52… I did, however, read a grand total of 19 books, and that’s 19 more than the previous year. I’d consider that a success, wouldn’t you?
A sucker for punishment, I’ve signed up again this year.
As for travel, I have plenty planned: in February I’ll be in Malawi writing a report on health, in April I may be in Portugal walking the Portuguese Camino, and in June I’m headed to Italy and possibly to the US – Washington DC to see my family and Texas for a conference. I’ll be visiting at least four countries for my human rights writing work, but I don’t know which ones yet.
There’s a wonderful proverb in French: “L’homme propose, Dieu dispose.” Roughly translated it means Man proposes (the French, sexist as ever!) and God disposes. So yes, I’ll make the plans, throw them out there, and watch where they land with anticipation and interest.
Predictions for next year? Sure, why not… let me see… crystal ball… I’m going to go for SERENITY. We’ll see how that worked out 12 months from now…
It’s all good! Happy 2019 to all!