Primrose Hill

On the northern front of London sits Primrose Hill, a well-to-do neighborhood bubbling up from the touristy beacons around it, a refuge for the nouveau riche from the surrounding masses.

The neighborhood Primrose Hill is capped by a knoll of the same name. At more than 250 feet high, the proper Primrose Hill rewards its breathless climbers with an equally breathtaking view of the below capital city. The skyline sweeps from Westminster to points south and east, new skyscrapers dwarfing–but yet not overtaking–the building silhouettes of centuries past.

For months I lived in Primrose Hill’s shadow. And though I made frequent trips to Camden, and Hampstead, and everywhere between, I somehow never walked those 20 minutes to one of the highest points in London.

I finally made the plunge this year, and I hiked up that deceptively named “hill” to see all that London had to offer. The sky was hazy, the breeze cold. And I finally saw my city as I had never seen her before–from above.

Legend has it that it was from nearby Parliament Hill that Guy Fawkes intended to watch Parliament explode. This Bonfire Night, swing by Primrose Hill instead, and watch London come alive with color.

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Coming to Terms with Cairo

“Mmmuhm, mmmuhm,” the old woman said, blocking my exit through the bathroom door. Her withered hand reached out, cupped, begged.

“Mmmuhm.”

It was 2007, and my friend and I had just arrived in Cairo. It had been an exhausting day of travel that had begun multiple hours earlier at Dulles International Airport and had already seen us spend time walking around London and suffering through a turbulent ride over the Mediterranean. We were tired, jet-lagged, and ready for bed.

Immediately after touching down in Cairo, we waited in a long line–full of people with different standards of personal space–to collect our visa stamps. Then another line of smushed bodies, for customs. And then the baggage carousel, where hordes of people milled about and we waited and waited for the metal ribbon to start turning.

We popped into the bathroom near baggage, not sure how long baggage would take nor how long the drive to the hotel would be. As we walked in, an old woman unrolled a tube of toilet paper and handed us each a few pieces.

The first stall was a squat toilet and the first such device I had ever seen in person. “Oh, nooo,” I thought, my dainty inner monologue firmly shaped by Western sensibilities.

When I saw that the next stall held a “regular” toilet, I was relieved.

But there was still something wrong with it. Buttons and levers were splashed across the cistern like paint on a modern-art canvas.

Which was the right one? I heard my friend’s toilet flush and thought, “Well, if she can figure it out, so can I.” And so I pulled a lever at random.

It was the shower.

As water began dripping from the ceiling, and I stared bleary eyed at the sea of knobs before me, I thought I might hate Egypt.

Finally I found the right button and joined my friend at the sinks. The old woman from before was now standing close to us. We tidied up and began to walk out the door.

She slid in front of it, hand out. “Mmmuhm.”

We pressed on, not understanding.

She would not budge. “Mmmuhm.”

We had not found an ATM yet and had virtually no money on us. My friend fished around for an American bill and handed it to her.

The strange woman accepted the money, then reached her hand out to me. “Mmmuhm.”

“That’s for both of us,” my friend tried to tell her.

“Mmmuhm.”

“I don’t have anything,” I desperately added.

“Mmmuhm.”

Not knowing what else to do, we shoved past her and back into the baggage area. Worry set in that we had broken a social custom, that airport security would soon appear to whisk us away.

As we collected our luggage and boarded our bus, I felt a cold ball of terror coalescing in my stomach. Two weeks we had to be in this unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar toilets and people and manners. I spent the whole ride to our hotel regretting my decision to come and fervently wishing I could just go home.

It can be downright frightening to realize you’ve left your safety zone. Especially when you’re cashless, exhausted, and soaked in mystery shower water.

World Tourism Day

This Sunday is World Tourism Day, a time when countries across the globe will come together to recognize the cultural, political, and economic value of tourism.

Every time we travel, we take a piece of the destination home with us, and we leave a piece of ourselves there–both landscapes forever altered by our simple act of boarding a bus, or a train, or an airplane.

Where are you going for your next trip? What do you hope to learn from your destination? What do you hope to teach it?

Capturing History: Potala Palace

The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, served as the winter home for the Dalai Lama from the 7th century until 1959, when he was forced to flee the region for the safety of India. Though His Holiness is still in exile, thousands of curious visitors visit his ancestral home every year, tracking in dirt and scuffing up his floors.

Picture of Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet

Potala Palace

It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important symbols of Tibetan Buddhism.

At more than 300 feet high, the palace follows you around Lhasa, drawing in your gaze like the Mona Lisa and begging you to look at it. Its sheer cliffs and step design give the illusion that it is a natural extension of the surrounding mountains, a rocky outcrop that has always been there and always will be.

This post is part of fellow blogger Ed Mooney’s “Capturing History Challenge.” I encourage you to hop over to his site to see the other entries and also to enjoy his beautiful photography of Ireland.

Preparing for the Pope

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington, DC, in 2008, I was working near the National Mall and had virtually no interest in religion. But I learned he was going to be cruising down Pennsylvania Avenue in his Popemobile, and really, how often do you see that?

So I took a long lunch and ran through thick, sweaty throngs of devoted Catholics, Protestant protesters, official PopeGear© hawkers, and looky-loos like me to watch a little foreign man sitting behind Plexiglass. He rode by at 10 miles an hour, waving to the crowd in a halty, mechanical motion, and then he was off to his next papal adventure.

Pope Francis’ US visit later this month will draw enormous crowds. If you can go, by all means see him! Go for the history, go for the amusing anecdote. Just don’t go for spiritual fulfillment, because, when you’re shoved into a space with thousands of other bodies and you’re hot and tired and hungry, a two-second glimpse of a man in a car is not going to cut it.

If you want spiritual fulfillment, try these places instead:

1. The Baltimore Basilica

DSC_7007

America’s first cathedral was built in the early 19th century in Baltimore, Maryland. Today it is a hodgepodge of neoclassical design, modern renovations, and a spectacularly spooky underbelly. Though open to the public 7 days a week, John Paul II was the last papal visitor.

2. Cathedral of St. Matthew

Picture of the Inside of the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, DC

Located in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, many Washingtonians walk by this historic landmark every day without ever giving it more than a glance. Its plain exterior is deceptive, though, for inside boasts soaring ceilings, intricate, shimmering mosaics, and the largest pipe organ you’re likely to ever see. The Cathedral of St. Matthew is where part of JFK’s state funeral was held, and it is also a favorite for visiting popes–Pope Francis is meeting with bishops for a midday prayer here.

3. The National Gallery of Art

Picture of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC

Though DC’s National Gallery of Art isn’t bursting with papal visits, it is bursting with Catholic imagery. With everything from coinage to Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, the galleries are the ideal place for quiet, spiritual reflection.

Tuesday Tip: St Dunstan-in-the-East

Originally built around 1100 CE, St Dunstan-in-the-East has seen the best–and the worst–of London history.

Things were good for the first 500 years or so. Then came along Thomas Farynor, a baker in Pudding Lane who had skipped fire safety day at school. When he neglected to properly extinguish a blaze in 1666, nearly 80% of the city–including St Dunstan–was damaged.

The church was mended, and it was given a new steeple designed by Sir Christopher Wren. But the nave roof was too heavy for the structure, and in the 1800s St Dunstan had to be rebuilt again.

Then came along the Germans. A nearly direct hit during the Blitz of 1941 left St Dunstan in shambles.

After more than 800 years, London called it quits on St Dunstan after that bombing, and the church has sat as attractive ruins ever since.

St Dunstan is a quick walk from the Tower of London. Hidden behind a few modern buildings, the church is virtually unknown even to those who live in London, and the grounds are often deserted.

It is a peaceful respite from the nearby marauding gangs of tourists and, with a view of the Shard through one of the crumbling windows, is a tantalizing comment on the ever-changing nature of one of Earth’s greatest cities.