Colorado Lyfe

IMG_8414

It seems like everyone in Oklahoma wants to head for the hills once summer starts. It feels like nearly all our friends and acquaintances spend time in Colorado during summer. And this year, we weren’t going to be left out.

IMG_8412

We had a good reason: my high school classmates were gathering to celebrate 20 years since we’d graduated from school together. When you go to an international school and then end up spread across the US and the world, you simply pick a spot and meet up. We’ve been doing it for the last 15 years and it’s always a great time of catching up.

IMG_8453

I feel much closer to my high school friends than I do most of my college friends; there’s just a deep bond between us because of the way we grew up. We were the minority, the outsiders, speakers of second languages, not quite fitting in where we lived but definitely not fitting in in our parents’ home countries. So we carved out our own space, our own culture.

IMG_8503

We may not have been driving ourselves to the high school football games on Friday nights, but we had a lot of freedom to roam around our big city in the mountains.

IMG_8512

We reminisced about beach trips, about class antics, about cultural references. We caught up on siblings and family and others from the community. A couple of my classmates have weathered situations so hard they take my breath away.

IMG_8524

It was so refreshing just to be, not to have to explain myself, at least my younger self. The older self is a little changed and has more experiences that have to by layered on top of that younger self.

IMG_8458

We held our reunion in Estes Park, just outside the Rocky Mountain National Park. Note to self: next time you drive up to 11,000 feet, take jackets.

IMG_8454

My kids were miserable but we still forced them to get out of the car and explore a little. I loved the crisp weather and mostly sunny days that we had. I can definitely see the attraction to Colorado life.

IMG_8373

For some reason, I’m super into scrambling up rocks lately. I love that we can get out and move our bodies.

IMG_8555

IMG_8541

So that made our short little family hike and the l-o-n-g 8 mile hike that we did with classmates and kids really fun. Even if my feet were done by the end of it.

IMG_8461

One day we explored that little meadow above for a while, and it felt magical. But then the most-giant mosquitoes I’ve ever seen started biting my ankles.

IMG_8471

So I booked it back up the path to where my family was, and crashed down hard after I stepped in a grass-covered hole. Very literally: pride before the fall.

IMG_8362

It was a really good break: time with family, time with old friends, time in nature. It was so good to see these people again and to miss the ones who couldn’t make it.

IMG_8590

We just might have to hit Estes Park another time.

Advertisements

In ISIS Holes

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

Crumpled buildings, charred roofs, broken glass.

Untitled

But mostly, decimated ancient Chaldean churches.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

Every cross was torn from every roof or steeple.

Untitled

Ceilings were blackened, saints defaced.

Untitled

The sanctuaries are filled with trash and rubble.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.)

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

Awww, yeah!

Untitled

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.

Untitled

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.

Untitled

Where to Shop: Quito

IMG_7788

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.

IMG_7786

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.

Untitled

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

Untitled

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.

IMG_7789

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

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.

IMG_7790

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.

IMG_7792

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.

Untitled

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.

IMG_7787

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.