Turkish Delight


In between Europe and Asia.


Oh, baklava.


Spices and nuts and fruits and spices for days!


Cai. And more baklava.


Vintage Kazakh rugs.


More charming spices.


And two old friends taking a snack break.




Give me all the shawarma.


More baklava.


And coffee!



In ISIS Holes


A few months ago, I was able to go into one of the cities held by ISIS for two years in the Nineveh Plains outside Mosul.


It took a complex set of negotiations to get in and pass through about five checkpoints held by different groups. There was an Iraqi Army checkpoint. There was a Peshmerga checkpoint. Then there were three various Christian militia checkpoints, including the militia who held the town.


Once in the city, the devastation left behind by the ISIS fighters was clear.


Crumpled buildings, charred roofs, broken glass.


But mostly, decimated ancient Chaldean churches.


The Christian communities in this part of Iraq have histories dating back to the first century. Many of the Chaldeans speak Syriac, an ancient language similar to Aramaic.


Now their churches, formerly filled with marble and glass, are in ruins.


Every cross was torn from every roof or steeple.


Ceilings were blackened, saints defaced.


The sanctuaries are filled with trash and rubble.


The ISIS fighters apparently used this church courtyard for target practice. Its floor was littered with bullet casings and store mannequins stood in as targets.


On the way out, we stopped at a monastery. It caught our eye because ISIS had removed the ornate wrought iron cross from the dome of the monastery and dragged it up the hill behind.


When Christian militia retook the monastery earlier this year, they put up a simple wooden cross on the hill overlooking the site.


Inside the monastery, the militia soldiers now guarding the building showed us the escape tunnels ISIS fighter had dug into the building and its grounds.


One of the men motioned me into the tunnel, and I followed him in the winding darkness along the tunnel floor.


We came up to a metal door, which led into the monastery. Then we turned and went another way, and we popped out on the other side of the hill, looking toward Mosul itself. We could hear the sound of the bomber jets overhead, as the Iraqi army battled ISIS for control of the city.


Today, ISIS is nearly driven out of Mosul, and some of those who were driven out of their homes are planning to return. There’s little to return to, though. No water or electricity. No businesses or schools. Empty husks of homes, stripped of anything of value.

I don’t know how this story ends. But I hope that it some day comes to restoration.

How to Fire Pit So Hard


When we bought our house, I had visions of the brick pizza oven we were going to build near the back patio. Turns out, brick pizza ovens are pretty far down the list of house projects in terms of both time and money when you have a 1939 house that needs some love and repainting.

Last fall/this spring, we finally accomplished the goals of replacing the driveway and back patio. That meant the way was cleared for the fire pit of our lounging around a flame dreams.

We have a stack of cinder block left over from the last residents of our house, so at first we tried to go cheap and free. But it was ugly and I wasn’t sure the cement blocks would stand up to the heat over time. So one weekend, we go our rock on.


The first step was to dig out and level the area where we wanted the fire pit. Start with sand for stability.

I bought three of the stones I wanted from Lowe’s, measured and figured out how many stones we’d need. I also decided three layers stones would look best. Then I beat it to Lowe’s to count out those rocks onto the pushcart, simultaneously trying to keep the 3-year-old from wandering off or crack her head open after doing too many flips on the pushcart handle.


Next up: set the first ring, along with a level and a rubber hammer to pound them down.


We used construction adhesive to lock those babies in place. We didn’t do this with our planter out front, and yes, sometimes the kids take a tumble off a wiggly rock.


Then, layer and level as you go. Alternate the stone placement in a “brick” pattern. (Where one stone is centered on the seam of the two beneath it.)


We did a final step, which I’m not sure was necessary, but gives me peace of mind. We recycled the old heat-proof bricks that were in the deteriorating built-in grill next to the house and lined the inside of the fire pit with them.

Finally, more sand to fill in all the cracks and keep things from shifting.

We spent around $100 for this project, not including the tools we already had and those heat-proof bricks.


We tested it out and the following evening grilled some leftover Peeps.


Awww, yeah!


Then, even though the idea was to keep things inexpensive, I was lulled into buying four Adirondak chairs that will hold up to all this crazy Oklahoma weather. My wooden ones from last year are already cracking.


Since then, we had approximately 12,000 inches of rain in April and our backyard alternates between pool and mud pit. And we’ve dealt with water in the basement…

But as soon as it dries out, we’ll be fire pitting so hard.


Where to Shop: Quito


Now, if you’re doing the full-blown Ecuador tour, you should go to Otavalo. It’s about an hour north of Quito, and it really is the centuries-old marketplace for the indigenous people.

The central square is lined with booths with artisans selling just about everything under the sun. On some weekdays, there is livestock and fruits and vegetables. But all the time, you’ll find all the scarves and handicrafts to satiate your soul. Be sure you bargain; they start at the tourist price. You can get there by bus or private car.


But imagine you’re on a really tight schedule, or you don’t want to take the time to go out to Otavalo. Then, my friends, Quito has you covered with the Mariscal market. The city built market stalls on a small city block downtown, off Amazonas street, the main shopping/business drag. You can get there by trolley, bus or taxi.


Mariscal market is all of tourist-loving Otavalo plus a few inauthentic girls dressed in indigenous-wear selling organic chocolate. But who cares?


This time, I loaded up on colorful blankets, a poncho for my daughter, a flag, a traditional gold necklace, some jewelry for friends and probably more things I forgot. In the past, it’s been watercolors, scarves, more jewelry and leather goods.


There’s also ceramics, wooden artifacts and plenty of tchotchkes.

Make sure you tell everyone that the so-called “Panama hats” are really made in Ecuador. Seriously, check the label. They were popularized by men digging the Panama canal, and so got their name. But these babies are Ecuador-made.


This girl sold me my necklace. I asked all the vendors for their best price, and she not only gave me a discount, she left her stall to go get the exact style I wanted from somewhere else. There it is to the right; she’s wearing a similar one in the traditional style.


The legit Otavalan vendors drive in from their homes outside the city with all their goods. The Otavalan people are born entrepreneurs. I’ve see them all over the world, from Sweden to my little podunk Oklahoma town. And they always have those sweaters and blankets and purses, handmade in Ecuador using ancient techniques and Ecuadorian wool and alpaca.


Let me give you an idea of prices:

-$10-20 for a handmade necklace

-$5 for an Ecuador flag

-$20 for a queen size wool blanket

-$25 for a 11×14 watercolor

-$8 for a scarf

Obviously, barter with them for the best price, but don’t be rude.


I bought a blanket from this sweet lady, and she really wanted me to take more. That top photo of her is also now enlarged on a canvas and hanging in my living room above my fireplace. Every time I sit on the couch and study her face, it makes me happy to have a little bit of Ecuador in my home, through her shining eyes and high cheekbones.

In the Jungle

The last week of December, we surprised my mom with a very personal trip to the tiny jungle town –where I was born– that she hadn’t been back to in 17 years. The trip had been planned for months, and we relished keeping the secret from her.


One of my sister’s friends even spilled the beans right in front of her, but we managed to mostly ignore what she said and my mom didn’t put the pieces together.

My dad and a friend had planned a gathering of many of the people they’d worked with all those years ago, and we arranged to stay in house you might recognize if you’ve seen End of the Spear.


I had a lot of childhood memories of playing in that house, especially when it was raining. The screened in porch is just as amazing, but the traffic outside is not. The sleepy jungle town of my youth now has a paved portion of the Panamerican Highway running right through town.


Pro travel tip: earplugs. I almost always sleep with them when I’m traveling. They’re helpful for traffic, barking dogs (looking at you, Turkey), roosters (Indonesia), the 5 a.m. call to prayer (Egypt), and snoring roommates (Cuba!) They’re also useful when jet-lagged husband starts snoring.


Some of my fondest childhood memories are of running around on the base property, making various forts and clubs with my two buddies, Jonathan and David. So it was cute to see the kids run off to do the same.


There’s the house I grew up in.


We headed straight for the hanger.


I took my first steps out on that tarmac, learned to roller skate and fished for guppies in that drainage ditch.


We had to recreate a photo from 1983 taken with my dad’s sister’s kids and us. The 2017 version has my sister’s and my kids in it. They look just as sweaty and flushed as we did in 1983. Some things never change.


My dad was jazzed to show his grandkids around.



And they were just as jazzed about the airplanes.


Then while he and my husband hung around the hangar, we took the kids on a trip down memory lane.


We passed my elementary school.


And crossed the bridge that led to my best friend, Bekah’s house.


Where I also dropped my super-expensive custom earplugs, and where my friend, Norma climbed down and rescued them.


There used to be just two ways across the river; today there are four.


Uphill both ways, snow, etc.

[Shell in a synopsis: 5,000 feet of altitude. 25 feet of rain per year. 100% humidity, all the time.]


Then we hoofed it back to the hangar for our flight.


There’s the Pastaza River basin as it passes by Shell.


There’s downtown Shell.


There’s the old swimming hole, which got washed away by rains just a few days after we were there.


There’s the soccer field, the hospital, my friend Bekah’s old house and our friends the Williams’s house.


My kids loved it when pilot Dan did some “fun flying:” turning the nose up until we went weightless, coasting, sharp turns, etc. He kept it light for the sake of the kids, but I’ve heard stories of the barrel rolls my dad used to do.


We enjoyed dinner with some old friends before heading down to put the kids to bed.


Meanwhile, about 20 people my parents worked with gathered in the living room to share memories. It was fun to see their faces, most with a few more wrinkles and gray hairs, some a little wider around the middle.

And with those few connections made, it was time to head back up the road to Quito.