Thursday, January 1, 2009

525,600 Minutes

How do you measure a year? In the Pulitzer Prize winning play Rent, the La Boheme inspired characters consider several ways of measuring the 525,600 minutes that make up a year: "In inches, in miles, in laughter and tears", they suggest.

If my years are marked by geography, stamped by places traveled, and measured by the latitudes and longitudes navigated, then 2008 was a banner year. Back and forth I crossed these skies - and the weft and warp of travel wove a remarkable tale of destinations both discovered and revisited, friendships made and rekindled, the enchantment of ancient and mystical landscapes explored, and the endless and unbridled joy the natural world renders.

But travel is paradox and the stories the intrepid traveler returns with do fail if they do not remind us that our journeys cannot transcend our very human world. My travels this past year were no exception - the heartbreak of poverty was everywhere -- so too the preponderance of human greed -- and from time to time I shuddered with raw grief at what seemed a cruel and careless world. Traveling is about learning to see - and every languid smile of a hungry human and every slash and burn mark through a once fecund forest empowers my every step to walk this world with greater purpose and reminds me that travel is indeed transformative.

From the simple to the sublime here are a few memorable moments of my 2008 travels marked by the months that these 525,600 minutes passed through:

Sunsets in Hawaii in January

Sunrises in the Caribbean in February and March while it continues to snow back home.

In April, coming face to face for the first time with the America's past in Normandy. And finally really understanding what it means to be a hero.

Any trip back to Greece, where I once lived, is always a welcome pleasure. In May we cruised between islands and countries watching a thousand years of history unfold in a matter of a few hours.

May also brought a trip to my favorite city in the world - Istanbul. It is here that the haunting and melancholy call of the muezzin to the faithful reminded me that travel is often a spiritual quest.

The world's natural wonders never cease to amaze me. These spectacular falls of Iguasu in Brazil have eluded me for years. They more than lived up to their reputation when I finally got there in June.

Roof-top birding with old friends in Rio

One of my first trips out of the country was to Rio de Janeiro in 1987. Roberto Cortes was the Brazilian guide I was assigned to work with. Even though I only spoke one of his eight languages, we became fast friends. Over the years we met wherever our paths crossed: again in Rio, in Geneva, in Santa Barbara and at home in Santa Fe. We have remained friends for more than two decades but I had not seen him in many years until my June visit to Brazil. Relationships often transcend language and culture -- and these friendships are the greatest souvenirs of travels abroad. Returning back to visit special places and special people is always one of the great joys of travel.

Probably the biggest surprise all year was discovering the hidden simple beauty of Beijing while working there for six weeks in July and August. Those magic moments were unexpected and unending, and something spectacular was always just around the next corner or in the least expected of places.

The experience of working with my Chinese little sisters will stay with me the rest of my life. If they are the hope for our future - indeed we are in good and capable hands.

In August in China, the sense of One World, One Dream was ever-present and universally felt. Say whatever you want about the Olympic Games -- but the sheer scale by which people from all over the world, from all walks of life, come together for a common ideal does more for world peace and human understanding than any amount of arm chair finger pointing and boycotting will ever come close to accomplishing.

In September, in Oklahoma, a river runs through it...

and blogger-buddy road trips to southern Oklahoma with the Motmot, who I met right here at the Faraway, Nearby in 2008, rank high atop the highlight list. The geographical complexity of Oklahoma, with landscapes in eleven life zones - sweeping prairies, cross-timbered hills, pine-covered mountains and miles of shoreline -- ensures that adventurous travel will always be possible even in the most daunting of economic times.

In the October, travels took on a completely different form and function. I traveled to places once thought only accessible in the farthest reaches of my imagination.

The stark geographical beauty of Albania was often overwhelming -- its deserted beauty and lack of sun seeking tourists was a welcome contrast to the usual maddening crowds of the Mediterranean.

The subtle beauty of Siberia was as intoxicating as the crisp, clear, smooth vodka served at every meal.

Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world and contains twenty percent of the entire earth's fresh water. The spirit of place is personified by the unique complexity of Baikal.

Perhaps the greatest travel moment of the year: an unexpected midnight ride, by the light of a bright, corpulent October moon, to the Buryat Kingdom of Siberia to meet the crown shaman of Lake Baikal. She is just one of many healers of water that I would come in contact with during my travels this fall. She has an uncommon grace and beauty similar to her ancestral cousin, the Dalai Lama. I will treasure or new-found friendship and the wisdom she passed on to me for a long time to come.

Nicaragua is indisputably one of the most impoverished countries in the world. In November, at the invitation of a friend, I joined a group of photographers there -- coming together on behalf of Empowerment International -- with the hopes of being able to make a difference in a child's life through the persuasive power of the lens. The experience was profound and the spirit of these people is personified in a rare and remarkable grace, the likes of which I'm not sure I've seen before. It's mind-boggling when one finally comes to fully understand how much can be learned from people who seem to have so little - but therein lies one of the greatest gifts of travel.

The spirit of place and the people here is indomitable.

And the astounding beauty of Nicaragua is not only expressed in the eyes of its people -- but also by the texture and color of everyday life.

From Granada in Nicaragua - south to Lima and then east to Puerto Maldonado and the Tambopata Forest reserve in the Peruvian Amazon. Travel as a means of income is completed for the year and its time to participate in a little global community service project for Earthwatch Institute. I join those who have come from all parts of the globe, from all walks of life, to honor this enormous forest and, if only for a brief period of time, to serve and to protect it. It proves to be a once in a lifetime experience. The majesty and spectacle of the natural world continues to pierce my little human heart to the center core of my being.

December skies...

and open roads...

always brings me back home.

I wish you a very happy New Year.

all photos ©2008 TR Ryan
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