A Gentle Reminder (Part Two)

18 12 2017

(Continued…)

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The first temple that we visited was in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was a simple, neighborhood temple, one of dozens in the area. It wasn’t for tourists, and there were no signs in English, but the intensely brilliant colors and gold leaf coating the building drew us in. There were no monks there at the time, but there was a large tree trunk wrapped in giant swaths of colored fabric, and the base of the trunk was protected by a short wall, painted with colorful depictions of religious characters. It was topped with burning incense, candles, and several imperfect, white lotus blossoms that looked like they had fallen from a nearby tree after a squirrel took a bite. It was stunning, and yet completely commonplace.

The next temple we visited was a true destination- the Golden Temple. It was a breathtakingly beautiful complex with layers of intrigue. We slowly meandered up a steep set of stairs lined with little huts selling trinkets and items for offering to Buddha. At the very top, the temple unveiled itself, with four distinctly sculpted walls framing in the courtyard with ancient stories. I frequently stopped to admire the ornate architectural details and the gilded sculptures. And, yes, I DID bang the gong that hung from its own pagoda- it was taller than me!

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There was a large area in the center for honoring Buddha, and rows of people seated on the cobblestone floor, praying. I watched Bethany make her offering and receive her blessing. I was nervous, because I am not Buddhist, and I didn’t want to offend. It reminded me of attending a Catholic mass as a 12 year old, with my best friend, and how disappointed I was when they told me I wasn’t allowed to take communion like everyone else because I was not baptized. As I watched the elderly monk lean forward and grasp her two hands in his, a smile never left his peaceful face, and I knew that, even if I faltered with the customs, my heart would be received with love.

images (2)As soon as the monk finished tying the knot on my wrist, he paused, closed his eyes one last time, and placed his palm over my pulse. Seconds later, we exchanged bows, and I got up to leave him seated on the stone. The monk’s presence was palpable. He filled the courtyard with a sense of love and calm, and when he directed that energy into me, I could genuinely feel it. The string on my wrist served as a simple reminder of this love and kindness that we all aspire to be vessels for.

By the time we made it to Cambodia, my wrist was graced with multiple strings of various colors, each one carrying not only a blessing, but a memory. It was not until Cambodia, however, that my heart filled with the most memorable encounter, with a most amazing monk.

~~~

424389_412929122123051_1929217999_nThey say that you can get ‘templed out’ in Asia. That was not the case for this grrrl! Having studied many of these ancient temples in architectural history classes over a decade earlier, it was a dream come true to get to see them in real life. Such is the case for Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom, the two most well-known temple ruins in Cambodia. (You’ll recognize them from Tomb Raiders and Indiana Jones movies). Little did I know, these are just two of dozens of temple ruins in the area! It was a feat to see as many as we could in just 3 days, without becoming so utterly exhausted and overheated that the adventure becomes a chore.

312484_412884435460853_1548089458_nWhile on a 2-day ‘slowboat’ down the Mekong River just a week earlier, another couple, traveling generally the opposite direction as us, had told us about their strategy for experiencing Siem Riep. Get up early, hire a tuk-tuk for the day, explore the temples, drink water and snack until the afternoon heat becomes unbearable, then go back to town for  good lunch with A/C, then go sit in the pool to relax and recover from the heat of the day. For just $24 a day, we stayed in a stunning 5 star hotel with an infinite pool, and did just that!

On our very last day, we had worked our way out to the far flung, less visited temple ruins. There was one, the story goes, that was actually designed by a woman. Unlike the more popular destination temples, which are being constantly maintained and rebuilt, these ones were truly crumbling into history. Walking through the temple, it felt like being on a disaster recover team. Every time I ducked under a threshold into a new space, I was in awe at how these massive and mesmerizingly beautiful columns were simply strewn about, fallen and broken. It seemed as if a herd of behemoth brontosauruses had been chased through here, massive tails thrashing about, toppling over everything in their path. The rooms with fully intact columns were far more rare here, yet even the scene of crumbling disaster was something to behold. The voluptuous female figures carved into the stone now rested horizontally, after a few thousand years of standing in perfection.

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As we reached the heart of the temple, we ascended to the top, climbing over stubborn weeds and ancient steps worn down from time. I stepped into a dark tower, following the trail of sandalwood whispering with the breeze. There, half in shadow, half in light, was a figure seated on the stone floor, leaning onto one extended arm. Wrapped in robes, the bright light reflected off the dingy white stones onto her dark, shaved head. Her face was as wrinkled as the ocean, and her eyes shined like stars. She must have been in her 80s or 90s, but her energy hit me like a heavyweight champion. Never had I felt such a powerful force emanating from a person! She was… indescribably awesome. The scene burned into my mind, and I was so thrilled to find this woman. It felt like our entire journey led us here.

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As we boarded the plane in Thailand, I looked down at my wrist. The strings were powerful, but that last one was simply amazing.

~~~

One year ago, it felt like our country was crumbling. I started to wonder if, someday, thousands of years from now, they will uncover us deep in the jungle, and wonder what happened to our civilization. What led to their demise?

15697343_1397671346982152_6921785271375302890_nI was devastated and depressed, and the timing could not have been better for the trip we had planned to go to Sri Lanka. There, after wrapping up my conference, we immersed ourselves into the Sri Lankan culture and wilderness. It was there that I got up at 1am to hike the pilgrimage to the top of Sri Pada, to be at the temple on top of the world and watch the sun rise.

Today, one year later, I look down at the white string tied to my wrist, and I can remind myself that the sun always rises. There will always be a tomorrow. There is always hope.

IMG_4736 (1).JPGThis blessing may bring me luck, or it may not. But it serves its purpose. I am reminded daily that life is too short to focus on the negative. I need not want for anything. I am truly, completely blessed, and I work to keep reminding myself to share my love and light with others who may need it.

 

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A Gentle Reminder (Part One)

16 12 2017

I still recall the very first time I saw someone with a string adorning their wrist. It was a young man, in his thirties, if I had to guess.

 

I was on one of those giant Boeing 747 airplanes, the ones with two aisles and nine seats wide. We were departing from Detroit Metro airport. My wife sat on one side, and a gentleman arrived to take the seat next to me. It was going to be a very long flight- the longest I’d ever been on at that point in my life- 24 hours! We each took several minutes to get comfortable; I inflated my neck pillow, pulled out my tiny ipod and earplugs, and tucked them safely inside my zippered jacket. I clipped my collapsible bottle of water to the seat pocket in front of me for easy access, and pulled out my journal and a pen.

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As we prepared for takeoff, I turned to the man, “So, what’s your final destination?”

“Beijing,” he replied, “What about you?” He was dressed nicely, which made me think he was traveling for business.

“Bangkok,” I gleefully shared, “We’re on our honeymoon!”

I went on to explain how we planned to explore Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and the totally out of character way that we were playing it all by ear. I was nervous but excited about what unknown things were about to unfold for us in this completely foreign part of the world.

 

He also loves to travel, both for business and pleasure, and he shared with me some of his favorite experiences in other countries. He’d already been to Thailand and loved it! He was far more traveled than I, and seemed teeming with the same kind of excitement that I get when I get to immerse myself in another culture.

 

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As our first meal arrived, we rearranged our belongings and prepared our tray tables. As his jacket sleeve shifted back toward his elbow, I spotted a thin, red piece of string emerge from beneath the fabric. I noticed it right away, because it seemed so out of place on a man so well quaffed. The string was tattered and stained, visibly dingier than what I could tell had once been a vibrant bright red. In contrast to his manicured hands and polished cufflinks, I knew that this odd adornment must have some other purpose. So, I pried, “What is the string for?” What he responded with changed my life.

~~~~

 

The question caused an instantaneous smile to crinkle his eyes. “What’s this string for?” he chuckled merrily. “This is a blessing, given by a Buddhist monk.”

“Really,” I was stupefied, “what does that mean?”

HIV positive woman in Thai village

Buddhist monk Phakruvivit Pachanukul puts a religious string bracelet on the wrist of Sam Kaurwiriyatrakun, an HIV positive woman in the village of Toong-sa-tok in northern Thailand. She is a member of a women’s cooperative, supported by the monks of the local Hualin Buddhist temple, which sews clothing for sale in Japan and other foreign countries, yielding important income for the women and their families.

He went on to explain further. “When you visit a temple in Asia, there will sometimes be a monk there. When you approach, you bring an offering – it can be a coin, or incense, or a lotus flower- and the monk will say a blessing for you as he ties this string onto your wrist, wishing you health and happiness. It is very auspicious, and is said to bring you good luck for as long as the string lasts.”

“So what do you do if the string breaks?”

“You go back.”

 

I mulled this over in my mind. I am not a religious person, but my wife is Buddhist, and many of the practices are very much aligned with my views of how we should be in our lives. I had never heard of this practice before, but it seemed so perfectly Buddhist.

 

Unlike a 24 karrot gold cross hung from a necklace- professing one’s religion to others-, this worthless strand of cotton is the epitome of humbleness and servitude. There’s no bling in caring.

 

~~~ To be Continued…

 





Curitiba by Night

25 10 2017

I’m worried about the place you are staying,” Sandra told us as we loaded our backpacks from the airport into her SUV. It’s not a safe part of downtown, and there is lots of drugs and crime.

Well, that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear as I arrived in a foreign city for the first time, ready to check into our AirBnB. Our friend, Sandra, was a well-dressed, 50-something Principal of an architecture firm, whom I had met a couple years earlier at a GreenBuild Conference in Philadelphia, and stayed in touch with via Facebook. Our host was much younger, in her late twenties, and renting out a room in her 2 bedroom flat in downtown Curitiba. She had good reviews, and I felt like she was honest that there might be some sketchier neighbors nearby, which did not surprise me for a downtown location in a major metropolis.

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When I found out that I had been accepted to be an international speaker at GreenBuild Brasil, I immediately reached out to Sandra to let her know that I would be visiting her country for the first time. She offered to pick us up from the airport and show us around for the afternoon, as well as giving us a tour of her Architecture firm. She, too, would be speaking at the conference, but was thrilled that we were able to take a few extra days to come visit Curitiba before heading to Sao Paulo for the event itself. As a grad student, I had studied Curitiba for its groundbreaking push towards sustainable mass transit and green spaces nearly 40 years ago. I wanted to see how it had held up over time, and to experience the city first hand. Sandra was the perfect person to share the city’s history and Architectural highlights with us on our short stay.

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After our tour by car, with several stops and recommendations on what we should come back to see on our own, we drove back downtown. Up a narrow alley with nothing seeming to be open, there were four or five ‘street kids’ sitting on the sidewalk with nothing to do. They reminded me of some of my stoner friends in high school. Although it was daylight, we could see that this might get a little sketchy after dark. Sandra dropped us at the curb of the 16 story apartment building, and waited to be sure that we could get in through the locked gate. Our code worked, we waved goodbye and “See you in Sao Paulo!” before heading through the courtyard to find our way to our AirBnB.

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We let ourselves into the flat where we were staying, greeted by a sweet guard kitty. We got settled, and started developing a plan for our remaining 2 1/2 days. Shortly after 6, our host came home from work and greeted us. Her English was stunning, which made sense once she told us that she is an editor. Her walls were lined with books, mostly in English, and stacks of classic albums. We hit is off right away, and she rattled off some places she thought we might enjoy. She had plans that night, but offered to have us join her for a party Saturday night, which we gleefully accepted.

 

At night, the streets came alive. What appeared to be abandoned storefronts opened up, twinkling with fervor, as locals lazily strolled in for a late afternoon capereina. Narrow alleys were laced with strings of lights, and echoed with laughter and the primal drumming of a street artist. We explored just a few blocks from our place, nervous about being targeted as tourists. Every place we stopped in was unique and atmospheric. Our Portuguese was not great, but it was hard to find people who spoke English, so we made due with simple phrases, crude translations, and gestures.

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When our host confirmed her plans to meet some friends out later, we were so happy to be able to join her. There was an afro-beats dance party at an arts collective about a mile away. It was just past the more populated areas we had already explored, and definitely not an area we felt comfortable walking to by ourselves- especially at night.

 

We all got dressed up and ready for a night out. Brazilians seemed to take going out fairly seriously, and dressing up was absolutely expected. I did the best I could with the few travel-friendly dressier items that I had packed. I was more concerned about being dressed comfortably so I could dance all night. Together, the three of us set off into the night to walk a little over a mile to our destination.

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With our host’s confidence, we were able to really take in the night time experience. I peered into dark alleys, keeping my party in my peripheral vision. I stared into illuminated dive bars, traced the architectural details with my eyes, and inhaled the sundry scents of Curitiba. The event was apparently quite popular, with a line around the block of an ambiguous building. I would have never guessed what was inside.

 

The large hall was filled with beautiful, exotic Brazilians of every size, color, and style. Never have I seen a culture so truly varied and integrated! We almost fit in, except for our American dancing style. We samba’d and shimmied, and broke out into full on singing when Michael Jackson songs blasted through the crowds. We stayed up dancing until the wee hours of the morning, and walked home in comfortable exhaustion. It was exactly the kind of local experience that I seek out, and made Curitiba truly memorable.

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Disappearing Countries (and what you can do about it)

3 12 2016

This December, I will be standing in a country that is expected to disappear. Why? It is at severe risk due to climate change. The entire country of the Maldives– a chain of 1,200 islands no more than 4 feet above sea level- is expected to vanish beneath the ocean in my lifetime. One of the most photographed places in the world, I want to see it before it’s literally gone.

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As a sustainability specialist, I’ve been reading about ‘global warming’ since the 1990s, in middle school science class (when it was still a highly debated topic). Today 97% of all scientists are in agreement that climate change IS happening, and IS caused by human actions (according to NASA, and every renowned expert). The effects are evident in the steep rise of extreme weather events, acidification of the oceans, melting glaciers, and globally rising ocean temperatures, which are leading to higher sea levels. NOAA tracks and records the weather events each year, and in 2015 alone, we can see how the weather events are increasingly dramatic, with records being broken all over the globe. And this is only a partial list.

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350-maldives-cabinet-thumb-436x292-3236The Maldives aren’t alone in this risk. While sea level rise does not increase uniformly around the world, changes are happening everywhere at varying rates. It’s not just about melting glaciers, either. If you think back to middle school science class, you learned how temperature can cause molecules to either shrink together or expand. When the oceans heat up, they expand. The only place to expand is up, and onto land.

 

Everything close to the water is at risk. This includes Micronesia. And the sensitive Florida Everglades. And NYC. Basically the entire eastern coast of the U.S. (National Geographic has an interactive map but you have to have a paid subscription of $1/month). Will they disappear next year? No. But governments are already working on climate change mitigation plans to deal with the harsh reality that is clearly heading their way. The Maldives have been on my radar for about 8 years, and seeing this beautiful country in person- before doing so requires scuba gear-  will be checked off my bucket list in 2016. By 2050, it’s expected that the entire population of the Maldives will have been relocated to either Sri Lanka or Australia, which will certainly be a very different experience. sea level rise map.png

 

So, what’s the point here? Go travel? No. Well, yes, if that’s your thing, but be sure to purchase carbon offsets for that jet plane.

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The point is that there are THOUSANDS of treasured places at risk due to climate change. Sea level is just ONE example of how climate change negatively impacts millions of people. But the solutions are plentiful.

  1. Talk to Trump. Of course, tell Trump that the head of the EPA should not be a person who chooses to ignore scientific facts, and an overwhelming consensus on this extensively researched topic. A climate change denier has no place heading the EPA.
  2. Paris Climate Treaty. This decades-long culmination resulted from extensive negotiations between 196 countries to try to find a way to slow down this globally destructive process. If Trump pulls out of this treaty, it will have a domino effect, and the whole thing will fall apart. This means things will only get worse even faster.Sign the petition to voice your concerns.
  3. Do Something Different! Every single day, we make choices and take actions that emit greenhouse gases (GHG). Even the most saintly environmentalist has a carbon footprint, so don’t feel guilty and throw your hands up in despair. Learn more about where GHG comes from. Any action will make a difference. Choose to avoid styrofoam by carrying your own reusable container to the restaurant for leftovers. Walk or bike instead of driving. When you do drive, plan your trips to run errands as efficiently as possible, and invite a friend to join you for a fun carpool! Insulate your house and buy LED bulbs to save money and reduce coal burning. Learn to cook plant-based meals, or start growing your own herbs or veggies. Buy secondhand whenever possible, saving money and giving new life to a product instead of extracting raw materials to manufacture more stuff!
  4. Spread the Word. Talk about it. Make it fun! Invite friends to a challenge together, to learn new behaviors, to become informed. Being an active part of saving our planet is a rewarding feeling, and particularly powerful today.

 

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You Should Care About Cameroon Too

22 11 2015

Today ends an exhausting, but invigorating, week-long conference called GreenBuild, hosted this year in Washington DC. We packed up our bags, thanked our AirBnB host, Elizabeth, and walked three blocks to the Metro stop to catch the yellow line to the Ronald Reagan International Airport. It is SO great to be in a city with effective mass transit!!

 

8be5e319-12fb-4de6-afb8-bff157787b43-metrostation1_606Unfortunately, they are doing some repair work to the Metro over the weekend, and the Yellow train never came. After waiting 20 minutes, and watching the digital board update with only green trains, I finally gave up and opened up the Uber app on my phone. So much for that reduced carbon footprint I was bragging about. In less than 2 minutes, Nathaneal pulled up in a new Toyota Corolla and we were on our way to pick up one more passenger to carpool to the airport.

 

As the car took off like a wizard on a broomstick, I noticed the eerie, twinkling sounds that were all too familiar. I was back inside Hogwarts Castle, winding my way through the incredible creation at Universal Studios, pushing Kurtis’ wheelchair through hairpin turns and scanning each new room for hidden treasures. As it turns out, Nathaneal loves classical music, including the compositions of John Williams, especially while driving “to keep from getting angry.” Our driver chatted away and I noticed that his eloquently spoken English was delicately laced with a lovely accent.

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Our new friend moved to America nine years ago from Cameroon. His mom calls him “her American boy,” and always vowed that she would find a way to send him to school in America. He loves it here, although there are some cultural differences that he still doesn’t get. Nathanael explained, “In Cameroon, when I say you’re my friend, it means I will be for you in thick and thin. And if I am bored, I just go over and knock on my friend’s door, but if they are not here, I just go on to another friend’s house to see if they are home. But here,” he shook his head, “after I do that 2 or 3 times, my friends tells me they don’t like this, that I need to text them first, but I don’t understand.”

 

We talked a bit about how it’s different being an adult instead of a kid, as Bethany recalled doing the same thing growing up. She also supposed that technology has changed things, because it’s just so easy now to give someone a warning so they can clean up or get dressed. But, the more I thought about it, Nathanael was right.

 

In my neighborhood, Fountain Square, I finally have the tree-lined sidewalk filled with kids riding bikes in packs, just like I’d always imagined as a child. I know my neighbors. And, although I do have their phone numbers, which I use  most of the time if I want to share something, sometimes it is just so much nicer to walk two blocks down and knock on a friend’s front door. Sure, they might still be in their pajamas, or they might not be home. But there is something so lovely about interjecting an unexpected smile into someone’s day. Instead of wondering, “Is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses AGAIN???” a knock on the door starts to make me wonder, “Oh, who could that be?”

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When I got home, I wanted to look up more information about Cameroon, to educate myself on the place Nathanael called home. Sadly, the first things that pop up are tragic. Today, four suicide bombers led an attack (three of them female) and killed four innocent people, wounding dozens of others nearby. It was claimed by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The people who died were not terrorists. It could have been Nathanael’s mother who was injured. These victims are just like me. Sure, their culture has differences. That’s what I love to learn about. That’s why I travel.

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It’s hard for me not to make comparisons between this Cameroon attack and the Paris attack. My Facebook feed this past week has been filled with far too much anti-Syrian hate. People claiming that they should “go to a country with a more similar culture” (read: religion). But refugees don’t get that choice. When your daughter runs home from school, terrified of being abducted or murdered on the way home, and your family members have lost their home in a bombing, and the dinner table is empty because your government has collapsed, all you can muster is the courage to say goodbye to the only place you’ve ever known, in the hope of finding a safe place to lay your head at night. A place where your child can sleep without night terrors.

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So, Governor Pence, Governor Snyder, is Cameroon next? What about Beirut? What about Iran? Or North Carolina??? Who else are you going to arbitrarily ban from seeking safety in your state? These refugee families don’t get to pick where they land. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) does. The system takes 18-24 months to permanently relocate a family, and the UNHCR is the one who looks at all countries’ capacity to help, and distributes the refugees across the globe. Why don’t we “make other Islamic countries take them,” as some have ignorantly asked? Well, you can’t ‘make’ a country offer help. But we can do the right thing. We are a country of immigrants. We landed on this soil without a place to call home, and WE accepted food and aid from the Wampanoag tribe in 1621.

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And, by the way, those Paris attackers? They were Belgians. Yes, born in Brussels. So, if you want to ban entire groups of people based on extremist activity, you’ll have to also ban people traveling from Europe. And Africa. And Asia. And South America. And, really, the North Pole, too, because Santa is really just an expert and B & E, the sneaky bastard. Hell, let’s just dig a giant tunnel underneath Mount Rushmore and we can all pile in, seal up the opening, and be safe from all those crazy freaks out there! Or, you could quit being so paranoid and go get to know your neighbors. Invite them in for a cup of tea. Quit being such an asshole, ‘cause you’re giving Americans like me a bad name.o-BORN-THIS-WAY-CAMEROON-LGBT-UNDERGROUND-facebook





Dear Knob-heads: Let’s NOT Die in the Woods this Weekend!

1 11 2015

In case you haven’t met me, I love hiking. I love camping. I love hiking AND camping. So, I thought, isn’t it about time that I went camping WHILE hiking? Yes, indeed it is.

 

‘Thru-hiking,’ as it is known, is not something that you just wake up one day and go do. Unless you’re a 17-year-old boy. They don’t know any better. But for the rest of us, it takes practice, preparation, and good gear. It’s taken me years to accumulate enough lightweight, quality gear to feel like I could realistically load up everything it takes to live onto my shoulders and travel through the woods without falling to my death. If you don’t enjoy packing for a normal trip, this process of packing for a thru-hike will blow your mind. Not only does it require a tent, sleeping bag, pillow, sleeping pad (if you are so inclined), but also socks, a mug, a stove, a lighter, a pot, spoons, water, food, toothbrush, safety gear, spare socks, ways to see in the dark, clothing for all temperature swings, more spare socks, a knife to fend off rabid wolves, a compass, a map, emergency hand warmers, ibuprofen, and one last pair of socks just to be safe, in case the first pair gets a hole, the second pair gets wet, and the third pair gets thrown at the pack of rabid wolves to buy time while you realize in which of the 37 zippered compartments on your pack your knife is hiding.

 

This year, our friend, Summer, asked us if we had ever hiked the Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana, and if we would be interested in going on a trial run thru-hike there with her. Like us, Summer is perfectly outdoorsy, but never managed to cross over into the realm of extreme survivalism that inspires thru-hiking. Bethany & I jumped at the chance to finally attempt what we had been wanting to do for years!

 

Water Drops

12088368_10208117798572935_6934933217593447015_nWe met over coffee to look at maps and plan our route. I texted questions to Diana, our resident expert, who had been test hiking all across the state all summer long in preparation for her big cross-country hike in New Zealand this winter (well, winter here- summer where she’s going). I am used to more desert hiking, and so we often plan our routes around rivers so that we can easily make more potable water whenever we need it. Diana warned us that this was not possible on the KT (Knobstone Trail), so we would have to plan on ‘water drops.’ With the help of another friend, Jennie, we strategized how much water we would need for three people per day. Despite Jennie’s military expertise, we dialed down our rations, knowing that we would not need water for shaving or- scoff- showering. We are tough women! Besides, this trip is in mid-October, which means that the sweat-drenching humidity of Indiana has finally passed, and our main concerns are about the cold nights.

 

Ticktastic!

Tick biting - with its head burrowed in my skin - engorging on blood. Likely female Brown dog tick, Rhipicephalus sanguineus. Hard for to ID; with her head buried in my skin. Can see pink inflammation around the bite. Camping and hiking. One of few which can complete its entire life cycle indoors. More common on dogs; in kennels, homes, than outdoors.

On a recent trip to Red River Gorge, KY, we were resting atop Double Arch, and chatting with the folks having lunch nearby. Another hiker, having learned where we are from, started telling us all about how her eagle scout son and his friends were just on the KT in August. She paused, looked at her friends, and said, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this.” Okay, lady, now you HAVE to tell us. “Well, they ended up cutting their trip short because they all got ticks. I ended up pulling about 60 of them out around his butt.” Umm……… I’m sorry, SIXTY?!?! Sixty. There were SIXTY ticks on this poor boy, and on his butt, no less!!

 

pant legsNaturalists that we are, we decided to be prepared. We were grateful for the chilly fall weather, as we tucked our pant legs into our calf-high hiking socks, hoping to confuse the little bastards. I sprayed my shoes with the strongest stuff I could find in our house, which isn’t saying much. It was probably mostly tea tree oil and sage, stirred with a dash of unicorn tears, but at least it had the word “tick” on the bottle. We never saw a single tick the entire 4 days. Good thing too, since my fingers were so numb from the cold that I could barely untie my shoelaces, let alone properly check for ticks before going to bed.

 

Leota Trailhead

The KT is a total of 58 miles long, but the Delaney Loop is closed until further notice. Knowing that we only had 3 full days, we decided to hike the northern half of it, which would have been about 20 miles, not including the Delaney Loop. Not knowing any better, we planned to start at the Leota Trailhead, near the middle of the trail, and hike our way back north to Delaney, where our second car was waiting for us. We arrived on Thursday night, just an hour before dark. We loaded up our packs, extended our hiking poles, and set off into the woods.

 

12096270_970875966328361_8168649366688444138_nNobody told us that Leota is basically the steepest, most intense part of the trail. Although you may not think of Indiana as having any mountains, what we do have is endless, undulating, tree covered hills that are 200-300 feet tall. It’s like somebody buried an entire family of giants back there. Over the entire course of the KT, you end up ascending 20,000 feet in elevation gain…. up, & down, up, & down. Yet you never climb to more than 1,000 feet above sea level. I was SO happy that Summer had heeded our warning and purchased her own set of hiking sticks, because I had also offered to share one of mine with her if she needed it, and I definitely was grateful to have both of my hands firmly wrapped around the cork of my poles. With just one, I’m sure that I would have been found in a tangled ball at the bottom of one of those hills, shaking a leave-covered fist towards the trees, mumbling, “Damn you… Leota… damn you…”

 

12088498_10208117510485733_1819092549892675723_n12122935_10208117526206126_3557328629597749795_nWithin minutes of starting our journey, we passed another trio of campers who had already set up for the night. Three large men in their 40s, circled around a large fire, waved as we proudly strutted past. “Yeah, we are just as cool as you, “ I thought smugly to myself. We knew it was going to be getting dark soon, so we only hiked in about a mile before settling down for the night. We crested a hill and found a split in the trail, unclear which way was the right way to go. I looked to my right, and, with some trail magic, discovered what was clearly someone else’s old campsite. A stone fire ring was flanked with two large logs, perfect for sitting! Without much hesitation, we all agreed to stop here for the night, and figure out the trail in the morning. I set up the tent for Bethany & myself while she unpacked the Jetboil camping stove to boil water. A short while later, we settled in for a peaceful night of sleep, listening to the wind rush through the treetops. I imagined the force it would take for any one of the infinite number of thin trees around us to come crashing down atop our tent as we lay sleeping. Then I heard the sounds of a helicopter buzzing over our heads, clearly searching for a lost hiker who had been reported missing after foolishly starting a 4-day thru hike at the worst trailhead of them all. The helicopter moved farther away, but hovered, circling, endlessly into the night until I finally managed to doze off.

 

What in the Blazes???

The first morning on the trail went off without a hitch. I woke up before dawn and laid in my comfy sleeping bag, excitedly thinking about all the miles we were going to accomplish today. We’d looked at the map with our headlamps the night before, and decided that it was just 7 miles to our first water drop, but if we were really feeling good, we might make it 12 miles on our first full day. We’d play it by ear, of course. All we really HAD to do was get to our water.

 

start ktWhen I couldn’t stand it anymore, I finally got up and out of the tent. I quietly foraged for branches to build a fire while my camping mates slept in. I saw two young men walk by, carrying only a small lunch-bag sized vessel. You know, those super geeky disc golfer bags, where you would unzip the top and instead of finding a PB & J, you’d be awe-struck by the fact that there are 17 kinds of frisbees they can justify buying to play this game? It looked like that. I waved hello as they walked past, and I pondered what they were doing here, in thru-hiker-land.

 

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A bit later, when Bethany & Summer had risen and were diligently working on making coffee, we saw another group of thru hikers walking past our site. They were heading back towards Leota, where we started last night, and paused to look at the trail markings. I told them they were headed in the right direction, since they were obviously heading opposite from us. About ten minutes later, we saw the same three guys walking back towards us.  At that point I paused to ask where they were headed. Apparently, they were the same guys we passed right after we got on the trail, and they were already somehow lost. “Great,” I thought, “this surely bodes well for us newbies.” They seemed to find another trail that looped them backwards, which none of us could quite figure out.

 

1506754_10208117801613011_6877198851640560601_nThe trail was severely damaged by a tornado in 2012, and apparently more recent summer storms left much of the trail tree-strewn and rerouted. When we were done with breakfast and ready to hit the trail, we followed the path of the earlier trio, hoping to learn from their mistakes. There were marks on the trees to guide us, sometimes white circles, sometimes white rectangles, and sometimes simply the letters “KT” scrawled in white spray paint. As the dappled sunlight fell across the bark, it was frequently difficult to discern whether there I was seeing a faded white blob or just sunshine reflecting into my eyes. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, the forest itself was conspiring to confuse us. Patches of the forest were also polka dotted with some sort of bark lichen that grows in the EXACT SAME size of white circle. I lost track of how many times I asked, “Is that a white dot or just fungus?”

3 round lichen

 

 

With each mile marker we passed, Bethany took a picture to recognize our accomplishment. My calves were aching from the climb. As the tallest one in our party, I frequently hiked ahead, and would stop to wait for Bethany & Summer to get back within line of sight. At that moment, my hiking poles became marionette props, resting against my armpits as I lowered my back horizontally in order to relieve the pressure from my shoulders. Each uphill began to wear on me, as I felt my glute muscles burning to lift my weight up a 45 degree slope. At least I think that was why they burned. That’s not a sign of ticks, is it?

 

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At some point, several miles in, I stopped to scan for the next white dot, struggling to see the path. Ahead of me, those two young men from earlier that morning came strolling down the hill, still carrying that mystery bag. Maybe they had a human head in it, and had just finished burying it in the woods where noone would ever come looking. I waved hello again as we passed on the trail, and prepared my legs for another steep climb. This one was a doozy. It just kept going up, and up, and up. At least the path had finally widened from a deer trail to something wide enough to drive an ATV on, so I could weave a bit to avoid the washed out ravines, and find firmer footing.

 

By the time I got to the top of the hill, I was relieved to see that we had ascended to a ridge, and the trail appeared to continue along the ridge for a while. Yay! Bethany and Summer arrived at the top and we all took off our packs to rest for a minute. I jogged ahead to scout out the trail,  which seemed pretty clear, although there were not more white dots. Unlike the other parts, this was obviously not worn by 4-legged animals, and we all agreed that, because it was so clearly the trail, the nice folks at the DNR must have decided not to bother painting the white dots.

 

climb hillAnother 20 minutes down the trail, we got to a valley where the path disappeared amid the low growth of the creek basin. To the north, I could see a lake that I recognized from the map. Except, I thought the trail went a ways south of the lake, not right up to it. Bethany pulled the map and compass out again, and we examined it more closely. I was positive now that the trail we had been on- while clearly some sort of man made trail- was not THE trail. According to my very sophisticated orienteering skills, developed in 9th grade OSMTech, the KT was running due south of us, just on the other side of that ridge. We himmed and hawed. None of us wanted to retrace our steps back to the last white dot we had seen, because we knew it was way back where I had seen those boys coming down the monster 300 foot hill. Bethany wanted to climb directly up the ridge to our south to try to find the trail. If we followed the creek bed, we decided, it would take a little longer, but we would eventually intersect the trail again, while still moving in the right direction. And we would avoid climbing another steep hill for no reason.

 

After just 5 minutes of hiking up the dry creek bed, over fallen trees, through thickets of prickers, it became obvious that this would be a slow go. We needed a machete. All I had was my handy dandy pocket knife and some really cool hiking sticks. I had visions of us being lost in these woods, running out of water. I had opted out of packing my water filtration gear because it was extra weight and we planned ahead with the water drops, so this is how we would die. Drinking contaminated water from an unnamed lake, in the middle of Clark State Forest. I gave in, and suggested that we turn around and go back. Bethany wanted to trudge on, refusing to admit defeat, but Summer’s desire to live won out over her super agreeable nature, and she voiced her preference to backtrack as well.

 

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At the end of the day, we finally made it to our water drop as the sun was setting. I collapsed onto a beautiful spot by Elk Lake, watching the sky fill with honey colored clouds as I strapped a light to my forehead. We were near another trailhead, and I had just enough reception to power up my phone and check how many miles my FitBit thinks we did. In theory, it was supposed to have been 7 miles from Leota to Elk Creek, and we had started a mile or so in. After all the missed turns and retracing our steps, up and down, and up and down… my little FitBit is convinced that I just completed 12 miles. So, we met our goal… we just didn’t get as far as we hoped. But, I was proud, and tired. And a little bit scared that we still had 2 more days to go.

 

astronaut dustThankfully, it turns out that Day 3 was a bit less strenuous than Day 2, and Day 4 was an easy walk in the park compared to Day 2. Of course, by Day 4, we were all half frozen, with open wounds, aching shoulders, blistered feet, and ready to be 30 pounds lighter. We concluded our trip with delicious Mexican food from a local restaurant- NOT made by reconstituting dehydrated astronaut dust!!- and uploading pictures from our phones to Facebook. That’s when I learned about these things called “Blazes.” Apparently, when you see two of them marked together on one tree, you’re supposed to know that the trail is turning. Sometimes they even show you if it’s turning left or right. That might have been nice to know. And, FYI, Sectionhiker.com, I would like to challenge your comment that “Two blazes should never be visible at once,” and “Most trails are over-blazed.” A little more blazing would have been helpful on the KT. We only got off trail another 6 times. At least we learned that when we get to a fork in the trail, always choose the deer path, and steer clear of the two-tracks.SURVIVED





Saturday in Sao Paulo (Part Two)

9 09 2015

11863253_10207677214278603_1144298162982304423_nAfter enjoying a refreshing, lime caipirinha near the top of the food truck alley, Bethany and I decided to keep wandering up Augusta. We stopped in a store that worked like an artist collective, and had a long conversation with a man in his 30s selling his screenprinted photographs of Sao Paulo on t-shirts. We passed an antique shop/ bar surprisingly filled with Route 66 Americana. We kept wandering, and identified the Blitz Haus building in daylight. Then we paused in our tracks.

We heard the sound of several ‘pops,’ and the smell of sulphur in the air. We were walking past an 8 foot tall corrugated metal construction fence on our left, covered in graffiti, and could see people standing up the block with signs written in Portuguese. On the other side of the street, there was a row of police officers, around a dozen of them, lined up neatly like dolls in a display window. They were not moving, they just stood there, backs to the wall, watching calmly from across the street.

“I think we should cross,” Bethany said. I nodded back, “Si.”

11873456_10207677216158650_6690853518186474290_nAs we stepped back up onto the sidewalk on the other side of the street, she asked one of the officers in her broken Portuguese whether it was safe for us to keep walking.

“Securitas?” while gesturing.

Without hesitating, he replied with a simple, “Yes,” and so we decided to continue. We paused for a minute, with a small crowd of other onlookers, to try to discern what was happening. A protest of some sort, but we weren’t sure what. There was music coming from behind the fence, and young people ducking down to squeeze through a hole in the metal barricade. We couldn’t see what was on the other side, but the flow of visitors going in and out was fairly steady.

11914876_928128913936400_7568490999787016423_nAs we left behind the mysterious happenings, dusk was settling in. We decided to walk to try to find an 80s dance bar that was on the screenshot of my phone’s map. It was clear that we were not going to get on the Metro and explore other parts of the city after dark, so wandering close to Augusta felt like a safe compromise.

The street split up and changed names, as we twisted downward into a less populated area. Storefronts were all closed up for the night, and few pedestrians passed by, leaving us with a desire to get back to something less deserted. We descended down a long flight of wide stairs with one man sitting on the steps 30 feet down, then up a street that we thought we knew the name of, based off the partially accurate GPS feature of my phone that worked without service. We passed by a tiny convenience store where the owner and his male cohorts all sat outside drinking their beer, and thought about asking the name of the street, but opted to just keep walking to be safe.

As the major street disappeared into a tunnel, we turned left and headed back uphill. I saw a plaza with steps leading up to another street above us, and we went that way, hoping to return to Augusta. As we crested the stone steps, we found a bustling sidewalk with more refugees selling sunglasses from impromptu stands. Bethany found a pair she liked while we heard the story of a young man from Africa who came here 3 years ago to escape. He was one of the only street vendors we met who spoke English, and that explained where he learned it.

11892218_928128950603063_8976573084823619351_nWe started to make our way back south toward Augusta, when we heard a faint sound of music. There was a large stone church and a tree-lined street to our right, so we decided to follow it. At the other end of the block, the urban forest was intersected by a dedicated bike path, which then gave way to a plaza filled with tables of happy denizens. It reminded me of a biergarten in a lot of ways.

A row of small storefronts framed the opposite edge of the plaza, and one restaurant was serving platters of beer to every table while Brazilian samba music flowed through the crowd of dancers. A 5-piece band played song after song as we found the one empty table and ordered drinks. Bethany and I watched the crowd, and grooved to the music, along with 100 other locals. Not one word of English was spoken, as we gleefully observed the diverse crowd of Brazilians. Every age, every race, every color, all intermingling. Bethany carefully studied the large older man who paced slowly from brim to brim, tossing short comments to wait staff, and occasionally sitting at an empty table with his drink. She looked in her phone to find the Portuguese word for ‘owner,’ and then asked him if this was his establishment. “Si,” he said, forcing a wrinkly smile as an afterthought. He’s likely retired, we supposed, but doesn’t trust anyone else with his business, so he watches the crowd like a hawk.

Back on Augusta, night had fallen like a thick blanket. We were glad that we never strayed too far from the one street we knew, keeping a close eye on our surroundings as we walked. Up ahead, I saw the glow of activity from that protest site from earlier. This time, there was a young woman with some sort of bicycle contraption, carrying a generator that powered neon colored lights that illuminated artwork and pamphlets. She was speaking to a couple of kids in their early 20s when we approached. The police had left, and Bethany tried to ask her what was going on.

The woman explained that this was a block of undeveloped land that had been treated as a neighborhood park for decades… until last year, when a developer purchased and wanted to build on the land. The people of Sao Paulo protested, demanding the government designate it as a park and keep it that way for the neighborhood. The group organized, and has been occupying the land non-stop since last December, in order to protect it. We saw two more people duck under the metal fence and asked if we could see the inside too.
11889502_928129023936389_199324839091889453_nBehind the divide, it was much darker. It was a grassy lot with a few mature trees. Not much else that we could see in the night. There was a rented security guard with an attack dog protecting the gate from the inside. As we went to leave, a crowd arrived bearing torches and singing. It was a very eery feeling to be a small part of something like this in a foreign country. We’ve been told many times by citizens here that the government is corrupt, and I can’t help but wonder what the chances are that they will persevere.





My Last Saturday in Sao Paulo (Part One)

3 09 2015

sau paulo cityIt’s our last night in Brazil. Ten days ago I had never been in South America. I’d also never felt 22 million people surround me in a metropolis so unimaginably large. Sao Paulo is the 13th largest city in the world, according to the interwebs, and after spending 7 days here, I definitely do not doubt this. And I definitely have no desire to see the other 12.

The city proper has something like 12 million people thickly spread across a concrete sea of low-lying favelas (the semi-permanent government solution to mass encampments), peaked with 25-story tall skyscrapers. The skyscrapers are a mix of residential towers and financial offices, interspersed throughout the endless vista. Helicopter pads top each tower downtown, like  Amazonian canopies from which loud, metal creatures take flight throughout the day, buzzing the denizens of the underbrush as they hunt for their next prey.

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When I arrived, I met up with another American friend, also speaking at the GreenBuild conference. We were equally floored by the vastness of it all. The extreme rich and the extreme poor living side-by-side, with no buffer. The disregard for the pedestrian, or those who might choose to travel by bike, was utterly apparent outside the tourist district and the lush green Parque Ibirapuera. We had experienced first hand the dominance of the automobile while trying to walk to find a grocery store. The prospect of living in this city in an intimate, sustainable community seemed impossible.

sao paulo apt 2We were warned by locals to be wary of crime. “Don’t carry a purse or a bag- even in broad daylight.” “Be very careful if you go out after dark.” As a woman, I have learned to be extra cautious when traveling, because being pick-pocketed is one thing, but personal safety is not something I ever want to fear. My male friend shared his own cautions, as he was advised to hire bodyguards for his own protection. I was floored by this extreme- people seriously pay for this level of security?!?!– but I respected the genuine concerns for our safety. As a frequent traveler, I don’t think of myself as an easy target. I don’t carry bags. I keep my money split up and tucked discreetly in multiple places on my body. I don’t stare up in wonder while walking down the street admiring landmarks. and I don’t ever look at a map in public. I also don’t dress like a tourist. A foreigner, perhaps, but not a tourist.

So, on our last night here, we decided it was finally time to go out after dark. We had heeded the warnings, we felt like we were now more familiar with the culture and the city, to some extent, and we felt comfortable going out for a night on the town. Even my portuguese had improved significantly in just 10 days, since nobody speaks English (except the very rich and well educated, who were rarely the ones we were trying to ask directions from).

IMG_9860With a screenshot of the metro map saved on my phone, and a the names and addresses of a couple of restaurants and bar, we headed out early in the afternoon with nary a plan. There was a dance club, called Blitz Haus, that was supposedly a lesbian bar, which wouldn’t open until 8pm. Although we were prepared for it to be empty until well after our bedtime, we at least wanted to stay out late enough to see what it was like on a Saturday night in Sao Paulo. So, as the winter sun eased into the 5 o’clock hour, we looked for places to explore in the tween hours.

Along our travels, from Brazilian AirBnB guests who stayed with us in Indianapolis, to new friends we met on the flight to Brazil, we had been told that we might enjoy Augusta Avenue, and so that is where we started our adventure. We had walked part of it the day before, after turning south off Paulista Avenue, and found an average mix of local shops and restaurants, some touristy, some genuinely independent. Nothing stood out as particularly interesting. Tonight, after emerging from the metro station, we headed north.

11094334_928128867269738_6094179952429941875_nLong lines wrapped the sidewalks outside several vegetarian restaurants that we had read about and recognized the names of as we passed, and it was just after 5pm. I was surprised at how many more people were out tonight compared to during the day Friday. Vendors had set up along the streets to sell knock off DVDs and cheap sunglasses. We stopped at 4 or 5 tables so that Bethany could try on countless pairs of sunglasses to find a cheap and functional souvenir, with no luck. We decided to keep walking up Augusta a mile or so, so that we could see the dance club in daylight and decide if we would still feel safe going there at night.

Along the way, we finally saw another openly gay couple, which reassured us a little that we were in the right part of town. Although marriage has been legal in this country for two years longer than it has been in the United States, we have definitely felt people stare at us as we held hands down the street. It is a little surprising, in a culture where you greet everyone with a cheek-to-cheek kiss, that our affection would be so noticeable, but it certainly was.

While the shadows started to cover all parts of the buildings around us, ample light twinkled from storefronts and cafes, luring us onward. I heard a faint yet boisterous sound of music growing louder as we crossed another street. From the mid-block void between two large buildings, a beautiful scene emerged- laughter, lights, beats, and a bounty of colorful visual feasts. The alley was lined with carts and trucks and bicycles, each vending some narrow niche of edible delicacy, from Indian gyros to handmade chocolates. People streamed in and out of lines, and as I looked deeper into the narrow space, the alley flowed uphill and the joyous atmosphere continued.

11896216_928128817269743_2868753340446398802_nWe turned into the alley and flaneured our way to the top of the hill, where a handful of picnic tables were set out in front of a food truck specializing in alcohol. We decided that this was a perfect place to stop and take in the culture while we waited for the Blitz Haus to open. So we stopped. I ordered a Caipirinha sem açúcar, and Bethany was lucky to find that they had red wine. Everybody else drinks beer here, even in the chilly 80 degree days of winter. I could have spent hours there, watching, listening, reading the foreign yet familiar Portuguese signs and artwork.

11855825_928128653936426_5675676341151794366_nIt was rich with diversity, and intriguing to try to discern what everything meant. I watched the interactions of strangers, straining to hear what they were saying over the speakers that were streaming English songs from before I was born. I smiled gleefully when I was successful at understanding the general meaning of a sentence. The two of us were the only ones anywhere around speaking English, which was pretty much how our entire trip in Brazil went.

11855776_928129060603052_3474473024532461096_nA bit later, we joined a table with two Brazilian men who were also a couple. And they spoke English. We quickly found ourselves wrapped up in conversation and waxed philosophically about equality, human rights, and the healthcare systems here and afar. Into the darkness of the evening, we enjoyed the company of these two sweet souls, until it was finally time to keep wandering.
PART TWO WILL FOLLOW….





Caving in Vang Vieng

19 02 2015

The Midwest is frozen. With highs in the single digits around here this week, another massive snowfall is slated to fall this weekend. February may be waning, but winter is still going full force.

It’s this time of year that I relish in warm memories to keep me sane.

Winter is also the time of year when I get caught up on all of my indoor hobbies, like sewing or collaging photos in my collection of photo albums. Recently, I was donning my double-sided tape and glitter pens, as I finally placed my photos from Laos. It was 2012 when we were there on our true, month-long ‘Honey-Moon,’ and I made enough memories to last me a lifetime.

546778_411245945624702_1231613780_nVang Vieng

Halfway between the bustling capital city of Vientienne, and the French-influenced Luang Prabang, sits a small town of Vang Vieng. Nestled between steep mountains, this village has one way in and one way out, along a winding, 2-lane road that they like to call ‘paved.’ We arrived on a 10-person minibus (a van whose driver clearly wanted to make it round trip and home in time for dinner). We stopped at a small guest house with an open courtyard ringed with individual buildings for the rooms. Our new German friends, who we met in Thailand, ended up staying at the same place as us, so we dropped off our packs and walked to town together for dinner as the sun was already setting behind the mountain.

The town center is actually pretty developed, with a jarring contrast of bars and restaurants each blaring bad dance music and selling cheap plastic souvenirs targeted at 20-something college students from Australia and Europe. Even when we found a place to eat that was geared towards a more mature crowd, we could still hear the music thumping from the place next door, whose storefront was completely open to the street. As we ate, we read more in our guidebooks and travel apps about this place.

Apparently, when the borders opened to Laos, this sleepy village became a prime destination because of it’s amazing mountains and the lazy river that flows through. Things quickly escalated, as young people flocked here to get drunk on an inner-tube or go rock climbing. Alcohol abuse and drug use were quickly running rampant, and several tourist deaths were starting to become normal. The government quickly shifted gears, to try to market it differently- no longer as a party town for rich foreigners. The excessive drug and alcohol use has tapered off, but the remaining business owners seem to be confused about who they are selling to, now that more nature lovers are coming here.

vientienne siem reap 457The next morning, we slept in- a treat for me, since I usually wake up with the sun no matter what time zone I’m in. The steep height of the neighboring cliffs kept our room in a pool of shadows until late morning, and we were enjoying the leisurely pace of things here. Our new travel companions, Timo and Inez, came here to climb, so they set about their day renting ropes and gear. We knew about some caves nearby, and were looking forward to the free bike rental that came with our room. We ate breakfast outside (also included in our $18/night room), under the shady canopy of the main common space, where Laos soap operas played on a television mounted to the wall behind the bar. While we ate, our host had her husband pull out a couple of bikes for us to use. They were single speed cruisers… with baskets. Ohhhh, yeah. I asked about bike locks and they smiled, “You no need here.”

Searching for Darkness

It’s pretty difficult to get lost in Vang Vieng, with the mountains framing your horizon, and just a few dirt roads peeling off from the main road. I had written down directions to the first cave, but we had to rely on the infrequently posted, hand painted (and often peeling) signs to show us our turnoff. Bethany and I proceeded to pedal down the main road, where trucks and cars swooped into the oncoming lane to give us plenty of room. I thought it would be scary to bike on this main road, but, unlike in the U.S., biking is the most common form of transportation here, so those with automobiles were incredibly respectful and cautious of people on bikes. We set off, the warm sunshine shining on our backs. I tried to take pictures with my phone as I cycled, and we had to stop a couple times due to livestock in the road. It felt like we had been biking a while- longer than I expected- when we finally looked back and saw a sign that said “Vang Vieng 20 km.” That’s when Bethany looked at me and said, “I told you I thought we missed our turn.”

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We turned our bicycles around and started peddling back toward town. From the opposite direction, we saw a sign for a different cave, and decided to try that out. We pedaled down a dirt road for a mile or two, and came to a parking lot with a few tour buses haphazardly parked. We rushed ahead of the group and crossed a small bamboo bridge. We followed the wooden signs until we saw the cave. It held a large, 17 foot long reclining Buddha, and there was a large island in the middle where people could choose a fortune reading. We removed our shoes, I wrapped my exposed shoulders in a sarong, and we entered. We watched as Laotian people pulled one, read it aloud, and gleamed with joy. We wanted to understand, but we barely spoke enough Laos to get by. Thankfully, as we were lingering and about to leave, someone who spoke English asked us if we wanted them to read ours to us. I grabbed the cup, shook out my fortune, and handed it to the kind stranger. We struggled in broken, woven languages, and smiled at the fortune, though not really sure what we had just been told.

vientienne siem reap 329We took a few photos of the cavern and the sculptures, then turned to leave. There was another cave, a real cave, down another path, so we followed those signs. We grabbed our bikes and walked for a while, then got back on and road over the bumpy, winding dirt path. We enjoyed the quiet, meandering through a sparsely treed area, with the massive rock looming before us, guiding the way. Eventually, we got close to the base of the rock, and then saw a small shade structure with a few teenagers hanging out, blaring loud music from a boombox. They explained to us that we must pay the equivalent of $0.50, which was what we had read ahead of time. Then they loaned us a cheap headlamp, and pointed us to the entrance of the cave. Bethany tried to say she would pay them double to turn off the music so we could enter this sacred place in peace, and eventually they did turn it off for us. We looked at the headlamps they gave us and tried them on. Thankfully, we had our own, much brighter headlamps with us.

We walked up to the face of the cliff, the opening was obvious, but there was no actual sign. We ducked slightly to walk into the opening, and were faced with nothing but darkness. We saw glimmers of gold reflecting back at us, and turned on our lights. Before us was a large seated Buddha, barely illuminated by the sliver of daylight shining in. We admired the statue, which was again quite large. Then we turned our heads to the left and saw only endless blackness. “I guess the cave continues,” I stated. We walked on, exploring stalagmites and stalactites. We stepped through narrow passages, and heard the sound of distant water rushing. We paused, unsure of whether it was safe to continue.

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The sound of water quickly grew louder as we pressed on into the darkness. It was odd, to get so far into a cave, and to be utterly alone. I’ve been on cave tours before, in Kentucky or Indiana, but never once had I been simply pointed towards a cave without a guide. I verbalized the natural fear that crept into my head, “you know, if something happened to us in here, nobody would ever know where to look for us.” We recognized the risk, and decided to just go a little further. We’d been exploring for about 45 minutes, and  we had no idea how far this cave actually went.

We stumbled upon the source of the water sound. A small stream crossed the floor of the cave, then sharply turned and disappeared into a hole in the wall to our right. I tried to shine my light inside the hole to see where it went, but all I could tell was that the echoes implied a very steep fall downward. At that point, we realized that we had NO idea how far up, or down, this cave had already taken us. After about an hour, we decided to head back.

Emerging from that mountain was surreal. We left the dank, dark, isolation and were plunged back into the lush, forested meadow.The teenagers had turned their music back on, we handed back the lights we didn’t use, and counted our blessings that nothing unexpected had occurred in there.

There were 4 more caves on our hand drawn map.

The sun was still up, as it was only just after noon, so we mounted our bikes, and off we went. We decided to intentionally get lost. There was a split in the path, and we had no idea where it might lead us, but with the mountain on our right, we felt safe in our adventure. We bicycled through a tiny cluster of houses made from thatch and bamboo, along an irrigation canal, past farm fields growing rice. We saw cows and chickens roaming freely, and waved back at the small children who seemed so excited to see us rolling past their homes.

We had no clue where we were headed, and, frankly, we didn’t care. It was so freeing to feel unrestrained by roads, or signs, or rules. We just were pedaling in the sun, and smiling. Eventually, we did see another hand-painted sign for a cave, so we followed it back to another remote area. We paid our admission fee to the elderly woman standing near the entrance, and she smiled profusely at us, possibly the only visitors she’s had all day. We didn’t see another white skinned person the whole time we were back there, away from the main road. It felt like this place was here just for us to see and appreciate the hidden treasures that the denizens of Vang Vieng were keeping.

We saw two more caves that afternoon. Each was equally desolate. They required climbing down on progressively questionable handmade ladders, branches strung together with twine. Some were slippery with damp condensation from the cave below. Never once did we see another soul. The caves were remarkable, each with different formations. Some were chilly; some felt warm and humid. We became comfortable navigating the dimly lit darkness by ourselves, holding hands, and only able to tell when the other was smiling by the sound of our lips squeaking against our teeth.

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We paused in every cave, to take a few minutes to sit still in the absolute darkness. I could hear my breath echo as I strained to listen to the silence. It was utterly beautiful. Nothing can describe what it feels like to be there, surrounded by thousands of pounds of solid rock, not a sound to be heard except the infrequent drip of a stalactite, and the heartbeat of my love.
vientienne siem reap 427When we bicycled home that afternoon, the valley was already in the shadow of those magnificent formations. My heart felt so full, I was grinning like a schoolgirl in love. And… I was.

Despite the misfortunate beginnings of tourism in this area, it is a nature lover’s paradise. Quiet, stunning, peaceful, and I’d go back in a heartbeat for a full month of exploring.





Going Shoeless in Laos

23 11 2014

734808_409663145782982_653643432_nAfter a full day of traveling on the slow boat down the Mekong River, our group of 100 locals and adventurous visitors stopped for the night at a small Laotian village called Pak Bang. It was dusk when we arrived, and we quickly found our way up the steep hill, past the men and women holding signs for rooms, to a small inn where we had a room waiting for us (at the steep price of $8). We were hungry, and ready for food, but wanted to explore the tiny village with what little light we had left.

398036_409663169116313_790757319_nAs we got checked in to our room, the English-speaking grandson of the owner told us that we would get a discount off dinner if we chose to dine at their restaurant as well. The village only had one road, about a mile long in total. After a short walk through the village to examine our other options, we decided this was the wisest choice. At least we knew we could easily translate “fish sauce” to avoid an unpleasant meal.

We walked back to the inn and followed signs for the restaurant around the sandy courtyard. We saw a wide open doorway, bathed in warm yellow light from inside, with a pile of shoes just outside the door. I paused, momentarily confused. Was this the owner’s room? 1748_409662782449685_1220354557_nI peered inside and saw that the space opened up to the river on the other side, and was filled with tables and chairs. In all the places we had traveled in Asia, we were very accustomed to taking off our shoes before entering a Buddhist temple, but this was the first time we had seen shoes outside a regular business like this. “So, no shoes in the restaurant?” I asked Bethany. She shrugged her shoulders and we leaned down to untie our laces.

Could you imagine going to a church on Sunday and everyone taking off their shoes? This is exactly what we discovered in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. While I have always believed in taking off shoes in the home, it never occurred to me that this would apply to other buildings as well. Temples, I also quickly understood. But restaurants? Shops? I was very surprised. We learned to simply remove our shoes whenever we saw other shoes sitting outside.

A Long History of Shoelessness

Many other cultures, far older than my own, have had this policy as a social norm since shoes were invented. Modern day countries such as Japan, Russia, Korea, Turkey, Thailand, India, Scandinavian, and European countries like Germany have the custom of removing shoes in homes. This is also the case in most Middle East countries and some African countries.

shoe sign3It is absolutely mandatory to take off ones outside shoes in most Asian homes, and even in some public places and business establishments – like traditional restaurants, inns and hotels, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and grade schools and kindergartens.

In Japanese architecture, homes are designed to have an area near the entrance called a genkan, which is one level lower than the rest of the house. Here, you remove your outside shoes and place them so the toes are facing outwards towards the door. You then are usually supplied with a pair of slippers, though socks are also fine in their own house or at a friend’s house.

734282_409663845782912_1649442926_nToilet Slippers?

When we were visiting the famous White Temple in northern Thailand, there was a long line of toilets outside, each with a door onto the sidewalk. At the front of the line, was a large bank of black rubber sandals. Although I did not understand, I watched as each person before me removed their shoes and donned the slippers to enter the toilet room. I suspect this was more to keep my shoes clean, rather than to keep the toilet room clean. Once it was my turn, I saw that they were squat toilets (no seat, just a ceramic base to stand on while you squat) this made some sense to me. Apparently, some inns or restaurants also have separate slippers just for the toilet room, which you are supposed to change into before entering, although this practice is slowly disappearing.

The Role of Shoes

bare feetIn Mesopotamia, (c. 1600-1200 BC) a type of soft shoes were worn by the mountain people who lived on the border of Iran. The soft shoe was made of wraparound leather, similar to a moccasin. Shoes were invented to protect our feet from the elements. A nice perk was that it meant that your feet stayed cleaner, and as dirt floors became outdated, you actually could keep your indoor floor clean!

The health benefits of removing shoes in modern society are pretty clear and numerous:

  • EPA conducted a “door mat study” showing that 60% less lead dust and other chemicals were brought into the home by removing shoes and using a front door mat. There was also a reduction in allergens and bacteria tracked into the home.
  • Shoes pick up and carry into your home pesticides, fertilizers, traces of gas fumes, industrial pollution, and animal waste.
  • Bacteria brought in from shoes can cause stomach and lung infections, especially in the young, sick, and elderly.

shoes mudBeyond health, there are many other reasons why shoes come off:

  • Your feet can breathe, relax, and return to their natural state. This is healthier for your feet and more comfortable.
  • You create a more relaxed, informal atmosphere in your home.
  • You have to sweep and dust your home less.
  • Psychologically, this act of removing shoes separates the home from the rest of the world, and can be an important ritual for brushing off the worries of your work day.

With all these good reason for removing shoes, it made me wonder. Why doesn’t everybody do this?

The American Way?

shoe benchWhen friends come over for to my home for the first time, sometimes they pick up on the cues (the row of shoes by the door, the bench to sit on, the cubbies of slippers), but sometimes they don’t notice. I wait until they’ve fully entered my home and we given our greetings, then I politely ask, “Would you mind taking off your shoes?” Most of the time, people look down and realize their oversight, and often apologize, as if they’ve offended me in some way.

Occasionally, however, I can see that someone is uncomfortable doing so, and when they respond, “I’d rather not,” I simply let them do what is most comfortable for them. I may not know why, but it’s not my place to push. My reasons for removing shoes are mostly for comfort, cleanliness, and to prevent scratches on my nice wood floors.

Why is it that we Americans have gotten away from this predominant cultural norm? Do we see wearing shoes as a necessary part of being presentable, like wearing shirts and pants? Is going barefoot akin to walking around shirtless, or walking around with your fly unzipped? Is it simply too informal? Does it come from the south, where there is a stereotype about southerners that involves not wearing shoes and/or a shirt equating to being a “hillbilly” or a “redneck?” Signs on stores that say “No shoes, no shirt, no service” may help reinforce this idea.

sock monkery slippersThere may be concerns about embarrassment as well. Some people may have fears of foot odors, or exposing their ugly feet. I have definitely found myself regretting my choice of socks on occasion, when I realized as I was removing my shoes that my thin socks had sprung a hole.

There may also be more practical concerns. Perhaps wearing shoes prevents elderly people from falling and breaking a hip. Or, also in the south, Cowboy boots don’t have laces, straps or buckles. They aren’t the easiest thing to get off if you’re not a limber person, and if we didn’t have a bench to sit down on, it would be quite challenging to remove.authentic_womens_cowboy_boots-e1358885688446

I’ve been in people’s homes where the floors were so dirty or messy, I was actually afraid that walking around sock-footed might result in a wet sock, or a stabbed sole. Here in the north, winters can be very cold, and in many homes the floors can be downright chilly! I’ve learned to bring my own slippers to visit friend’s homes, in case my feet get cold.
Regardless of the reasons, I doubt that we are so different from the rest of the world- our problems SO unique- that we could not adopt this norm. Just remember what your grama told you- never leave the house without clean underwear- or clean socks- because you never know where the day will take you!





Lost in the Canyon

15 11 2014

kb leaving mooneyAfter scaling a cliff to get down to the bottom of Mooney Falls, I was pretty sure that the worst was over, but unsure of what lie ahead. Our path out to Beaver Falls- the fourth and final of the named falls in the canyon- began by simply sloshing through the river. We had been warned that the mileage marked on the maps was way off, but we felt like we still had plenty of energy left to explore more.

Within minutes of leaving the roar of Mooney Falls, I could hear other sounds again, and realized that we were not far behind another group of adventurous hikers. Two young couples appeared to be in their twenties; the women hiking in shorts and swim tops, while the guys hiked shirtless, but wearing backpacks. They came into view as the ground heaved upward and slowed their pace, our shared path blocked by a massive drop. I heard them murmuring as they figured out how to climb over, and the guys went first, rather easily. The second guy paused when he realized that his girlfriend’s legs were too short to jump down the steep drop on the other side. He grabbed her from below and hoisted her down safely, doing the same for the second woman, and then he looked back at me, paused, and asked me if I needed help. I politely declined. I figured that if we couldn’t get down on our own, we sure as hell were not likely to get back UP without anyone else around, and I wanted to be sure that we were not making a mistake by continuing.

It took me a couple minutes to figure out my approach, after a couple of failed attempts to climb down. We were about 7 feet up on the boulder, but that wasn’t the scary part. The landing pad was a narrow ledge, just a few feet wide, and if I missed my target, I would be falling another 20 feet to the river floor below. I would have to duck under another rock outcropping as I jumped down, making it particularly awkward and difficult. There was no easy handle to grab onto, and no way to slowly climb down. I just had to lower my body as far as I could from the top, then jump. Bethany froze behind me, watching me calculate my mental math. She was terrified that I was going to fall to my death, and began stammering and questioning if we should turn back.

As I blindly poked my hiking stick below me to assist myself, my feet failed to find anything but sheer vertical wall. I craned my neck to get one last look at where I was about to jump to, and let go. My heart racing, I landed safely with a soft thud, and immediately backed away from the close edge. I tried to play it cool to calm Bethany’s nerves. She was noticeably frightened, though relieved that I was safe. Now the fear shifted to her own safety. She was realizing that she could not make the same leap, with an extra 6 inches to make up for her height. “It’s okay,” I cooed, “I’m going to grab you by your legs and lower you down slowly.” She got more agitated, and at first I was a little offended. “Trust me,” I responded to her expression. She explained that her fear was in response to a vision of me trying to help her down, losing my footing, and sliding off the perilous ledge.

After everything we had already been through to get here, I was not willing to give up. It took a few more minutes of coaxing, but we did eventually get Bethany safely down, where we paused for a minute to embrace. We were in the good reality, but these ‘adventures’ in hiking were starting to exhaust our nerves! We are both stubborn and logical. We may never come back to this remote village again, we were sure, so this was our one chance to see what most visitors do not. We trekked on.

hike mossAhead, our path was much easier. We strode through low growth along a dirt path, discovering countless tiny waterfalls, all different and unique. One was made from a ball of stone, as big as a Geo Metro, which had been sown with a vast array of colorful, delicate mosses. A stream of water poured over the ball evenly, trickling across the surface until the last curve turned under, and the water could no longer cling to the moss, falling gently below. It sparkled with  thousands of tiny droplets, in a hundred tiny, waterfalls, each a single stream wide.

We waded in and out of the river, crossing whenever the trail turned to cliff. It went on and on, through a lush green field strangely devoid of trees, and over rocky outcroppings that capped each end. There were no signs. No arrows. The skin on my achilles began to chafe as the wet-dry-wet mileage took its toll. We began to wonder if we would make it. How far had we gone? Did we miss Beaver Falls? There were so many falls, after all.

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We were grateful for the occasional hiker who passed by, so we could track our progress. I began to wonder if we should turn back, knowing the trail home meant scaling up that enormous cliff by Mooney Falls. Daylight was already starting to wane in the valley.

Finally, after what felt like hours of hiking in and around the river… we found it! The increasing roar of water was met with echoing sounds of laughter. Our bodies slumped with relief, as we approached our final descent.

b beaver fallsBeaver Falls is made of three tiers of falls, each between 10-20 feet tall. We had also been told of a secret “green room” that you can swim to if you are brave enough to swim under the rock wall at the base of the middle tier. By the time we got there, my sense of mortality was pretty ripe, and I had zero interest in testing my luck searching for underwater treasures. Bethany’s feet were throbbing, so she had no more ladders in her. She stayed at the top level, soothing her weary feet in a cold, shallow pool.

kelly beaver falls 1I couldn’t not go further. I left my bag with Bethany, and walked ahead towards the ladder. I walked across wooden rungs to the edge of the water, then climbed down another set of ladders. There was space to sit on a rock ledge alongside the center pool. It was the most lavish, decadent spa-like setting I have ever been in. I removed my shorts and set them on the rocks next to someone else’s bag. I stepped into the water. It was cold… refreshing… invigorating! It got deep quick, and I plunged my whole head under water, then swam towards the base of the falls. No matter how hard I tried, I could not reach the falls, forced back toward the edge of the lower falls.

For a split second, I feared that I would be pushed over the edge, down a 20 foot drop to the lower pool. Then I remembered the natural lip formation that protected me, creating the incredible depth to the pool. The calcium in the water had created a built-up rim, like the edge of a tub. It was many inches thick, and I watched the water flowing just over the top of it.

I sat there, arms resting on the calcium ridge, leaning over the waterfall cliff, surrounded by rushing liquid, marveling at the beauty all around me. I felt like a pearl in a clam. I was literally sitting at the precipice of Beaver Falls, with a 20 foot fall directly below me, and a 12 foot cascade behind me. The water roared with so much white noise that I could close my eyes and pretend that nobody else was there. It was just me, and the river. It was magical.

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I wished that we had another day, so that I could have stayed here and watched the moonlight glistening off the water. I didn’t want to go back. My feet were tired, and I could feel the blisters that needed attending to, but as long as I stayed in the water, nothing hurt me. However, Bethany was not there by my side, and I knew that she was waiting for me. Our hike back would surely take longer, now that we were sore and damaged.

We said goodbye to the falls, and headed up canyon. The scenery had completely changed, as midday fell to dusk. I no longer stopped to take photographs at every bend, as I began to worry about daylight. I took pictures with my mind. My tired, achy mind. We stopped only to add bandages to our feet, and to engulf chia bars for the energy to make it back. The last few miles between Beaver Falls and Mooney Falls felt like an eternity.

IMG_6374Bethany’s pace was much slower than mine, and I had to stop every 15-20 minutes so as not to lose sight of her. We tried to follow our route back, but ended up in unfamiliar areas. At one point, we had come up through the river, but went back over the cliff. I found myself at the bottom, questioning which way to go, as my feet hit water again. I looked back up, waiting for Bethany to crest the top, to see if she wanted to try another route. I thought she was just 20 feet behind me, and should be there any second. While I waited, I waded out into the water to look upstream and downstream, to assess how deep it got. I went back to the shore. Still no Bethany. I began to get worried, but it was a steep climb back up to where I had come from, and I didn’t have the strength to do it twice right now. Had I missed her? Did she keep going while I was wading in the river? I called out her name, but got no reply.

I looked up at the cliffs, which had grown a dark shade of crimson with the evening shade. I began to worry. I waded back out into the water, shouting her name, both upstream and downstream. Because of the constant sound of the river flowing, I could not hear anything. I didn’t know what to do. Should I keep going? Backtrack? What if she went a different way and was heading back without me? There was no cell phone reception in the canyon, and no way to know how to locate her. I began to panic.

I screamed Bethany’s name again, and heard a faint, distant whistle. Thank goodness her pack had a plastic safety whistle built into the clasp! I splashed through the river bed, certain that if she could see the water, this was her best chance of finding me. There she was, about 60 feet ahead, up on a cliff, with no path down. We shouted over the roaring water to figure out who should stay and who should move. When I finally got to her, I was furious, and relieved. “If she had lost me, I would have never forgiven her,” my cranky logic concluded. My fear manifested as anger, and it took me several minutes to calm myself down. “She is safe. It’s all okay. We are in the good reality,” I told myself.

We hiked on in silence. Partly due to frustration, partly due to exhaustion. The climb back up to the top of Mooney Falls was easier than the climb down. We barely stopped for anything, we were so ready to be done. I was sad that we were already at the end of our day, and she never even got to see Havasu Falls, which I had enjoyed the night before.

Despite her exhaustion and pain, I convinced Bethany to just hike down to the bottom of Havasu Falls with me for a minute, so she could at least say she was there. She watched as I swam in the pool, the water now a shadowy blue. It was chilly without the sun, but still felt amazing. Bethany said she was heading back, but told me to stay as long as I wanted. I wished she would stay with me, but I understood her needs were different than mine.
IMG_6238After she left, I was all alone. I was surprised that nobody else was here to enjoy this time with the falls. The cliffs around me were all dark, though the sky above was still a soft blue. I stared at the waterfall, mesmerized. My eyes would catch a pocket of water as it leaped over the top, following it all the way down until it plummeted into the pool below. I could have watched water falling for hours. I breathed deep, aware of the smile on my face that seemed to exist without any effort. I closed my eyes and listened. A breeze brought goosebumps to my bare skin, and I pulled my towel closer around my shoulders. A single bird flittered into my periphery, landing in a nearby tree. She sang for me. She sang with the waters. She sang with the ancestors, whose spirits rest in the rocks beyond. This, is why I am alive.





Heaven in Havasupai

18 10 2014

Canyon hiking in the desert is not like other hiking. It means that you are prone to unique weather patterns, and while significant rainfall is rare, flash flood potential is very real. Before we enter into any slot canyons or wash hikes, we seek updates on flash flood warnings. Up until this point on our trip, we have been extremely lucky with blue skies and dry trails. This morning, however, I awoke in our motel room to the soothing sounds of rumbling thunder. This is not a good thing when you are about to embark on a 10 mile hike down into, and through, a rural canyon, with nothing around but a remote tribal village at the end of the 10 mile hike.

 

We still have a 2 hour drive ahead of us to get to the Havasupai Hilltop, where the trail head starts. grand canyon sunset 1We barely made it this far last night, after leaving Antelope Canyon and following the detour around the major road closure. The detour led us past the Grand Canyon, where we paused briefly at sunset for a quick kiss goodnight. We drove on. Through the inky blackness of the desert sky, we finally found the neon glow of our charmingly renovated Route 66 motel.

 

Information about today’s hike is sparse. The Supai tribe is very negligent when it comes to providing useful information for visitors, so I still didn’t REALLY know what to expect. My mom kept asking me about the hike, and whether there were going to be any more steep, narrow cliffs. I couldn’t exactly answer, and I was hesitant to look too hard, for fear that the answer would be yes.

 

We packed up before dawn and hit the road, stopping for coffee along the way. I searched on my phone for more details. I found another online review, and learned that we had to hike down 2,000 feet in the first mile. Is that too steep? Hmmm. My mom was getting nervous about whether or not she would be willing to do this hike. We agreed that, if she felt uneasy once we got there, she could take the rental car and drive back to civilization, picking us up two days later.

 

As we eat breakfast, the rain pours against the diner’s wavy glass windows. I pull up the radar map on my phone, between bites of potatoes and sparse cell phone reception. I gulp. The system is HUGE, and extends all the way up from Route 66 to the Havasupai canyon and over the entire Grand Canyon, down to Flagstaff. I begin to get nervous about whether or not we will even be able to start our hike down into the canyon, let alone make it safely to the Supai village.

 

If the trail is flooded, I know, we will be totally out of luck. Our reservation at the Supai ‘lodge’ had been made months earlier, and they were absolutely unwilling to allow changes or cancellations. I had no idea what to do. Bethany pulled up the phone number for the Supai lodge and called. Nobody answered (which is normal). I began to imagine the worst case scenario- we drive another 2 hours only to find the canyon flooded, with no way to cancel our 2 night reservation at the remote village, and no idea what to do. As we sit there in the diner, sipping coffee refills, Bethany keeps calling, and finally gets through. The woman who answered the phone in the village said, “It’s only light rain here. There’s no problem with flooding.” I look down at the radar on my phone again and, although I am still doubtful, I chirp, “okay, let’s go do this!” Off we went.

 

HIKING DOWN INTO THE VILLAGE

supai hilltop 2Remarkably, after driving over an hour through the downpour, we got to the hilltop and the rain had stopped. The skies were still dark and impending, but mostly off to the east. The hilltop is about 2,000 feet up, with an amazing panoramic view of the canyon. Before we do anything else, we walk over to the edge so my mom can peer down and make her decision.  The trail is a good 6 feet in width- wide enough to accommodate two passing strings of horses and pack mules. It switches back and forth above itself, so that even if you fell over, you would only fall down one layer. My mom agrees to go down.

 

We load everything we needed on our backs for 3 days, extend our hiking poles, and begin hiking down. The path is rocky, but mostly worn down to a thick layer of sand that drifts between my toes. (Yes, I hike in Chacos). It is a beautiful hike, with the same view seeming like countless new views with every leg of the switchback. We slowly dip deep into the canyon over the first hour. The landscape continually transforms as we hike further, unfolding around us with each bend in the dry wash floor. The first five miles felt pretty good, and I am grateful for the cloudy skies. We stop occasionally to take photos, but I’m surprised we don’t see more hikers. Maybe 10 others? By mile 9, my shoulders are aching from the weight of my backpack (my mom’s backpack, actually), my back is sweaty, and my feet are pale with dust. Eventually, the canyon comes to an end. I walk up to the first sign I’ve seen so far, which reads “Supai Village,” with a hand painted arrow pointing left down the intersecting canyon. We have been hiking for 5 hours, and we are all ready to be done.

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Inside the village, the roads are still sandy, meandering, and mostly used by horses carrying down the packs of visitors. There are no cars, or bikes, but there is a helicopter pad used by locals and tourists. Buildings here are a mix of trailers, shacks, and some wood framed homes with multiple, custom additions. Things are dusty, and in disrepair, with dogs running wild throughout  the canyon. It is about what I expected. Despite the $35 per person daily charge to just BE on their land, and the expensive cost of the motel room, there are no signs of the Supai people getting rich off of tourism.

 

As my mom and Bethany putz behind me, I walk ahead to try to figure out where the lodge is in the tangle of unnamed roads and paths, I’m afraid that we missed a turn. I ask a villager for directions, only to turn around and discover that I have lost my two companions. After waiting a few minutes for them to appear, I walk past the store, the school, the church, and see the lodge. There’s a white guy sitting at a table on the front porch. He looks even more tired than I feel. “Checking in?” I ask of his large pack. “Yep. They said she went to the store and will be back soon,” he says, pointing at the closed door and teasingly lit up ‘open’ sign. I laugh, and sit down to wait.

 

Once we get checked in, we walk through the courtyard to our second floor room. The three of us collapse on the two full beds, shoes and all. Laying down for 10 minutes felt amazing! I recover quickly, and, although my hiking mates are done for the day, I decide to go out to explore. I want to see what the big waterfall hike will look like for the next day, since getting to the village was only the beginning! The real reason we are here is to hike even further down the canyon to see some of the amazing waterfalls. Most people don’t see all four, but I am hopeful we will have time.

 

In the pale, waning light of dusk, I make it out to the second falls- Havasu Falls- and am pleased to find that the visitor reviews of this portion are fairly accurate. I don’t go any further, knowing that it will be dark soon. When I return to the hotel room, I share my snapshots of inspiration to get Bethany and my mom excited about what we get to see tomorrow. Even after turning my 10 mile day into a 14 mile day, I can hardly wait!!

 

navajo fallsThe next morning, after a restful night of sleep, we pack plenty of chia bars and soy jerky, water, and band-aids, and head out for a fun day of exploration. The named falls, in order of distance from the village, are Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Beaver Falls. I suspect that my mom might not make it to Beaver Falls. I have heard that the last one was hard to get to, involving some wooden ladders and some steep climbs, but it’s a little unclear exactly where those are, or how many miles it really is to Beaver Falls. Some people have complained that the hand-drawn map was not correct, and it’s an additional 1-2 miles more than the map leads you to believe. We will see!

 

Our game plan is to head to the farthest falls first, then slowly make our way back and enjoy each spot with the time we have left. It’s supposed to be 5 miles out to Beaver Falls, so we expect to make it there in a couple hours. The elevation of the canyon floor continued to fall lower as we head out from the village, with a pretty gradual grade the first 2 miles. The trail meanders past Navajo Falls, a multi-tier cascading set of falls, the highest at 15 feet.

 

havasu fallsHavasu Falls is just a bit further, and as we crest over the hill, it suddenly appears off to the right, a roaring mirage below us. The trail splits in two, and we can either wander down to the bottom of Havasu Falls, where the flowing, turquoise pools are speckled with people in colorful swimsuits, or we can continue on toward the campground. We march on.

 

We walk through the area designated for camping, which is basically anywhere that isn’t riverbed. The pattern of water flow diverges, and weaves its way through in an army of little, babbling brooks. It is nearly 4 miles until we come upon the third waterfall, Mooney Falls. Much like Havasu Falls, the promenade is from above, and the falls plummet down from the clifftop on our right. Mooney falls is much taller, and we can hear the falls as they echo off the cliff walls. Unlike the last one, the trail does not split up, nor is there an obvious, easy path to continue on. We walk over to the edge, and I am in awe. The water falls a tremendous height, roaring with power as it carves out the rock at its base. This is the one where people used to cliff dive, because the pool below is deeper than you can ever imagine.

 

mooney falls b topThe cliff wraps around, and our easy path suddenly morphs into a rocky outcropping of steps. My mom bravely decides to try it, but warns me that she might have to turn back. Within the first 12 feet, the path folds back under itself, and there is barely a trepidatious foot of width left to the path. “Well, Mom,” I smile back at her, “I totally understand if you want to stop here.”

“Yeah…,” she laughs nervously, “I think I’ll head back. See you girls back at the hotel!”

 

Bethany and I continue, unsure of what to expect. I use my left hand to grip the rock wall, my right on my hiking pole. The trail begins to feel more like a multiple choice test, with spray painted arrows on rocks showing different ways you can climb down to the next level. In just 10 minutes, I snake my way back around to the point where I can once again see the falls, obscured now by the trees. The trail stops, with a sign that warns of the potential hazards. I turn to my right and see an orange arrow pointing at a large black hole in the wall. This is my only choice.

 

mooney falls descend riskThe second that I duck my head into the cave, the sound of the waterfall dulls to a dim echo. I pull out my cell phone to light my way, advancing down onto subtle steps that had been carved into the stone. I can see the light from the exit up ahead, and as I erupt back into daylight, I can clearly see the falls. The path is now framed with a heavy metal chain bolted into the rock wall, acting as a rail to prevent an accidental fall over the edge. There is nothing below me now but sheer cliff, and air.

 

In just a couple more strides, another tunnel immediately takes me back into the dark, but this time when I emerge, there is no trail. There is no guardrail. Instead, it goes down. Thick, heavily worn wood is formed into a ladder, likely a dozen years old, which is chained to the rock at my feet. Shit just got real. Mist from the falls, still  a few hundred feet away, settles lightly on the chains. I pull the straps for my poles over my wrists, letting them swing loosely at my sides. I take a deep breath, look back to be sure I haven’t lost Bethany, and I begin to climb.

 

kelly mooney falls climbAs I descend, I can’t see more than a few feet to anticipate what is coming up next. How far will it go on like this? My hands are wet from the cold metal, and my knuckles are pale from my tight grip. I find myself recalling my basic ladder safety tips. Three points of contact at all times! Release left hand- grab wooden rung- release right hand- grab- release left foot- feel for next secure footing- repeat.  I realize how tight my muscles are and try to tell myself to relax. Then I laugh at myself inside my head. “Relax?!?! Yeah, right!” The rungs are slippery, and I am climbing down blind. If I mis-step, it could be disastrous. I look up periodically to check on Bethany. She is slowly following me, and I can tell that she is equally fear-stricken.

 

It felt like forever for my legs to finally reach solid ground. My quads tremble with relief, and I take a minute to just look up at what I have accomplished. For a split second, I feel myself filling with dread, knowing that, “we still have to get out the same way.” It is like rock climbing, except we have no harnesses or safety gear.

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Bethany is still 30 feet above my head, moving very slowly and deliberately. A logjam of people have accrued behind her, waiting, because there is no place to pass. Her large backpack makes her top heavy, and the uneven load is definitely slowing her down. I am grateful she didn’t lean back too much and lose her balance.

 

When she finally reaches the canyon floor, we both sigh a breath of sweet relief. “Holy shit that was intense!!” “I can’t believe we just did that!” Had I known how treacherous the hike would become, I likely would have turned back too. Thankfully, I didn’t.

 

Money Falls is breathtaking, and worth the ‘hike.’ The force of the water is so strong, that groups of young men are taking turns swimming at full speed towards the frothy white rapids, only to be pushed right back to where they started. The group of adventurers who made it this far is small, and only gets smaller as we look on. Despite our plan to hike to the end and then make stops on the way back, we agree that we have totally just earned a break! We spot a picnic table sitting empty in the middle of the river, with a foot of clear blue water rushing beneath it. We sit down, resting, eating, in awe of what stands before us. It is so powerful!bk mooney picnic
The last leg of the hike is the part that remains least known. Most people never make it this far. The trail is easily an extra 1-2 miles further. When we get up to head out, I can’t even tell where the trail is, as water flows everywhere I look. A young woman guides me, “Just follow the river, you can’t get lost.” Great. Can’t get lost. That sounds like a challenge to me! And with that, we walk ahead, through the shallow river.

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Spanish Hugs

24 03 2014

Recently we hosted a young, international family in our home in Indianapolis. What ensued was a brief, but beautiful series of interactions, with rich cultural exchange.

 

catalan spain mapThe woman, Maria, booked one night to stay with us, explaining that her husband had been gifted a single ticket to go see a basketball game in the Circle City (Indy), and they would be driving over from Cincinnati, Ohio for the event. She also mentioned that they are a Spanish couple, with their 17 month old daughter, visiting the U.S. on a one year teacher exchange. Because it was only a one night booking, I did not spend too much time going back and forth via email to get to know them first. I simply clicked “pre-approve” for their selected date.

 

I had another guest checking out that Friday, and so I asked Maria if we could arrange a later arrival time. She agreed to meet me at 5pm, so that I could get home in time to change the sheets and vacuum before they got there. We’ve only been hosting in our new house for about a month, so I’ve been extra careful to have everything just perfect for our guests’ arrivals. The pillows were plumped, the guidebook was open to a list of local restaurants, and a bottle of filtered water waited for them on the window ledge, along with two blue glasses, and a little blue plastic cup for their toddler. The dogs were outside playing, and I was ready to greet them.

 

I saw them pull up, driving sloooowly the wrong way past our house. Then they saw my little 2-seater hybrid parked in front and decided this was surely the right place. They parked their car, unpacked their things, and slowly approached the front porch. They were a little unsure, because they are new to AirBnB. It’s a weird concept to pay to go stay with strangers in a strange city, at first. But they never regretted it.

 

Maria and her husband, Elliot, warmed up quickly as I welcomed them inside. They started to remove their shoes on the porch, and I ushered them in to remove them in the entry instead. I took their bag and showed them to their room.  She carried her daughter on her hip, and her smile was framed by a clearly European haircut- squarely shaping her face with a flat cut of short bangs, with wisps heading straight down in front of her ears. Her husband had a thin frame, with a casual but tidy appearance, sparkling eyes, and soft, curly hair. After a quick tour of the house, they made themselves right at home, plopping down on the large, pea green and lemon-colored area rug in the foyer. It was clearly the softest spot to let Tatiana stumble around, since the floors were bamboo and ceramic tile. I stood a few feet away, leaning into the white-painted opening to the kitchen, and we continued our conversation.

 

They’ve been in extreme culture shock where they landed in Cincinnati, she explained. He teaches science (in Spanish) in an underprivileged school in the poorest part of the city. Ironically, they are renting a house in the rich, white suburbs. The disparity was starker than they expected, and the behavior of the suburbanites blew their minds.

ohio schools“I would not have believed this if I had not seen it myself,” Maria exclaimed, “they all have to get in their cars just to buy bread!” We talked at great length about suburbia, and the link to the poor inner city schools, about mass transit, and the upsurgence of urban dwellers like us. I tried to do justice in explaining that not every city’s bus system was broken, about how I used to love riding the bus in Ypsilanti or Austin. But here, it is broken.

 

Elliott had an option to stay here for up to three years. They would have considered it if not for the dire situation at the school. He is not allowed to greet his elementary students with hugs and kisses, like he does back home in Spain; that is forbidden in the U.S. public schools, for fear of molestation and abuse. Meanwhile, the children struggle to learn, with grumbling bellies, and anger management issues, but he is not allowed to stop teaching science in order to explain simple life skills, like conflict resolution. His principal is so focused on test scores, he cannot fathom letting his teachers take on the extra problems of hunger, poor role models, and abuse.childhood_obesity_2

 

For Maria, the worst part has been the feeling of isolation. As we were talking about the sense of community that we cherish in Fountain Square (and in Ypsilanti before that), a knock came at the door. It was my friend and nearby neighbor, Jerry, who was dropping off his keys for me to watch his dog and borrow his truck. He was on his way out of town for a weekend trip to Chicago with his wife, but stood briefly to exchange a little Spanish with our Spaniard guests. After just a couple of minutes, he turned to leave, and then reached forward to give me a hug. I wished him a safe trip, closed the door, and turned back to my new guests to revive our great conversation.

 

Maria stared at me, mouth agape, with a corner smile and look of surprise. I cocked my head to one side, questioning her expression. “What is it?” I asked.

“This… this is the first time we have seen this since we have been in the U.S.!” she exclaimed.

“Seen what?” I asked, even more confused.

FREE_HUGS,_in_Hibiyakoen,_Tokyo_Prefecture“To touch another person! We do not see anybody do this here. And for us, this is so normal, to hug and kiss and be close!” she explained.

Wow. My forehead wrinkled in a look of pity. These poor people have not had a simple HUG in all the months that they have been living here! That is so sad!! This is something I take so fundamentally for granted. I surround myself with people who love to hug. I had to learn how to hug when I was 14, because I grew up in a family that never expressed love, and I could never imagine going back to a world without hugs! No wonder they were in culture shock.

 

I wished that I could have plucked them from Cincinnati and transplanted them to my neighborhood. I wished I had more than one day, to show them all the wonderful people I know, and to prove that the stereotypes were just that. I wanted them to see that, while it’s true that we drive our cars way too much, and lock ourselves inside boxes with busy schedules, there ARE people who reject this American lifestyle. I wanted to walk to the market with them and introduce them to my favorite tea guy; to sit in the park and make friends from strangers; to have wine and conversation late into the night with neighbors; but all I had was a few hours with these beautiful souls.


I_Need_HugWe had a wonderful time getting to know each other during their one night stay. They left the next morning around 9:30 am, but not before we had some more rich discussion about our opposing cultural norms. I wished them well, and asked them to please reach out to us with any questions about Indy, or Michigan, before their last road trip in June. I made some wonderful new friends that day, whom I may never see again. As they stood there, waiting to open the front door and be on their way, I smiled and gave them each a big, long, loving hug. Elliot was surprised by the closeness of our embrace, as it seemed so ‘un-American’ to him. Maria let out an audible sigh, and held me for a full thirty seconds.

 

It felt great to be the unofficial hug ambassador on behalf of my country. Send all the Spaniards you’ve got. I’ll hug each and every one of them.





New Year Traditions… Let’s Break 2018

1 01 2018

I am a fan of tradition. Traditions are the ways that we tell stories, share history, and impart morals with our community’s next generation. This is why we celebrate the arbitrary day of the year- not Winter Equinox or anything physically significant- but New Year’s Day. Long ago, our great-great-great-great-to-the-nth-degree-ancestors decided that this was the beginning of a new year and the end of the old. Similar to Loi Krathong in Thailand, and other cultural celebrations, we bid adieu to all the horrible BS that was the year past, and welcome in the promise of something better.

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As part of my tradition, I like to end the year with a clean slate. Literally. I take a hot shower and scrub every square inch of my body to be rid of the filth of the year. I even trim my hairs to have fresh, clean ends. I also like my house to have a fresh start. So I tidy, wipe, scrub, sweep, and deep clean as much as I can. This year was particularly satisfying because I am pre-menstrual, and cleaning is extraordinarily satisfying this time of the lunar cycle.

 

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On New Year’s Day, our tradition is to have a few friends over for a casual, day-long gettogether. Folks bring food and drink to share, we sit around, talking, laughing, eating, playing games. We have REAL conversations about how to make our lives and the world better in the new year. We set our intentions. There’s no drumming or chanting, but our non-ceremony is still very serious in that we believe that the first day of the new year should be focused and intentional about where our priorities set.

 

During my cleaning frenzy, no dust was left untouched this year. I actually MOVED objects to wipe with my almond-scented cleaner. For realz. Chopper dog thought we were playing a game, I was moving so fast. He scurried around my feet, excited at the prospect of whatever was clearly coming next! MORE CLEANING!!

 

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I was so efficient, that I had our trusty robot vacuum working simultaneously. Merf (we named him after a Dirty MERF that was being proposed for our city when we adopted him) was working away, humming in the next room, while I kept Chopper out of his path. I was thrown from my frenzy when I heard his needy beeping start up. Merf acts like he is dessicated of attention. “Clear my path!” he shouts, like he’s the only one doing anything worthwhile. I rolled my eyes and stopped what I was doing to walk over, knowing what I would find. This happened no less than 5 times, before I gave up and took him to recharge in his bedroom (aka docking station).

 

At one point, I was moving so fast, that the carved wooden statue of weeping Buddha slipped from my grasp and leapt off the shelf, down onto the stoic IKEA shelving unit. You know, the one that my sister-in-law, the interior designer, said, “If you ever decide to get rid of that, I want it. They don’t make them like that anymore.” Yeah… that one.

 

Buddha crashed into the top surface, then disappeared into the abyss between the bookcase and the wall. It all happened to fast, but when I looked down to find him, all I saw was this massive dent in my faux wood shelf. Buddha broke it. Buddha BROKE it. It’s like Buddha was saying, “Fuck 2017! We are not going to just sit around and whine about this shit anymore! 2018 is for making a move and letting our resistance be known!”

 

IMG_5154Well, I may not be religious, but my wife is. And clearly her Buddha was speaking to me. So, just in case I was getting exhausted, burned out, weary, or frayed at all ends… let it be known. I will NOT sit quietly and let the world crumble around me. I will NOT accept things that I cannot change, because I know that TOGETHER, WE can change things. I may not be able to move a mountain on my own, but when we move together, we can make anything happen. 2018 is going to be a year to remember. Let us restore ourselves, and then let us rise up in resistance. 2018 will be ours. 24796699_1858683254214290_8876786741059340184_n

 

 





How to Kill the Planet in 8 Easy Steps!

3 12 2017

dinosaur-fuelAfter billions of years, I think it’s about time that we realize that this planet that we reside on is truly only here to do our bidding. As such, I think we need to show it who’s boss. I am American, after all, so domination is the only solution. The problem? Well, the only problem is that those lazy dinosaurs didn’t last longer, and so we are running low on their decomposed corpse energy, so therefore, the Earth must pay!
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I know what you’re thinking. “How will I make time to properly destroy the planet? I’ve got soccer practice at 6pm!” Don’t worry, I will show you just how easy it can be to decimate the third rock from the sun, without impacting your schedule. Rest assured, no shin-kicking snots will go without their juice boxes… in fact, that’s part of the destructive fun!

 

In an effort to expedite to modern society’s 7 second attention span, I’ll even put it in the form of a list that can’t be divisible by five, because we all know that will get shared on social media more. So, without further adieu, here are the…

8 Easy Steps to Killing the Planet

#1. Avoid Using Your Legs

We all know how annoying it is to have to walk up a flight of stairs when the elevator is broken. Now people expect us to walk to lunch too?!? No way! Walking is too healthy, and might make your legs more muscley. We all know that our future is Wall-E, and the fashion trends are going to be more blobular. Therefore, we need to start practicing now if we ever hope to be in shape for space season! Plus, walking doesn’t burn ANY fossil fuels. What fun is that?

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hummerWhat you need to do is focus on doing everything humanly possible with a large hunk of steel surrounding you. Ideally, you want to do it alone. Taking the bus is a cop out. Go get in one of your cars, preferably a large SUV, and drive to lunch. Don’t get sucked into making other stops along the way because it would be more efficient. The bank can wait. Make sure that you take a separate trip for EVERY place you need to go! This way, you are able to burn as many dead dinosaurs as possible! Die, you bastards!!

futuristic-car-gadgetsPro Tip: Be sure to crank your heat/AC, charge your phone while using Google maps, blast your radio while simultaneously playing 4 movies on separate tablets, and turn on every overhead light in your car. This way, you can use just a skosh more energy!

 

#2 Use as Much Plastic as Humanly Possible

plastic recycling_636032246920960325The future is plastic. So is the past. Because plastic is made from… dead dinosaurs!!! Yay! The only thing better than that, is that plastic will NEVER biodegrade, which means that all 300 million tons of it produced each year will just keep building up in our landfills, oceans, and streets! Awesomesauce!

 

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What more can you do to help drown our planet in plastic?

Did you go to a restaurant today? Of course you did. Did they bring you a drink? You betcha! Did they forget to bring you a straw? WHAT?!?! That straw is a tiny but critical piece of our master plan! You simply must demand a piece of plastic to sip your beverage through every single time. How else would we accumulate  enough to clog drains and kill animals? If your waiter doesn’t know better, be sure to kindly request that they always bring guests a straw, and not to even offer an option to go without. It would just be tragic if someone’s lips had to touch that sterilized glass.

 

rKpPCocDid you know that you can also ask for your grossly oversized portions to go? Better yet, that toxic styrofoam (the best kind of plastic there is because it is entirely impossible to recycle!) will come in a plastic bag! Plastic bags are really the highest honor you can bestow upon the earth, as their elusively thin material makes them guaranteed to fly out of the beds of trucks, soaring into the air, where they can catch on tree branches, land on fences, or, ideally, float away down a river, to become part of the world’s 5 oceanic gyres. What’s a gyre, you will ask? Well, this is really a perfect bedtime story for your kids. A gyre is a magical place, far, far away, where allll the world’s plastic ends up. It’s a mystical place, where the currents swirl around an iceberg made of plastic, and the lonely plastic bag reunites with all of its ancestors, which break down into smaller and smaller bits, but never completely go away. So it’ll be there for generations to come! Now, there is a sad part to the plastic gyres. Some plastic does disappear, when it gets swallowed by birds and fish. Then their bellies get full of inedible garbage, and they die. So it does have a happy ending!

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plastic platesWhat else can you do with plastic? Well… everything! Vote with your dollars! You can purchase products that are wrapped in plastic. Be sure to avoid items with minimal packaging. You can also make sure to be individual sized servings instead of buying in bulk. Costco is for losers! (Unless you can buy massive quantities of individually wrapped items. Then it’s okay.) You can also ensure an ongoing supply of plastic by using disposable goods whenever possible. Plastic razors? Check. Unrefillable pens? Check! Red Solo cups for that party next week? Check and check! Dishwashing is lame. Why do you even own dishes? You could just buy plastic plates and forks and never have to wash dishes again!! Genius!

Pro Tip: What’s the best way to up the ante on your single use plastic plates? YES! Good job! Styrofoam is truly the best option because it’s cheapness is made up for with the fact that it cannot accidentally be recycled, so you can sleep easy knowing that your good deeds can’t be undone.

platic ringPlastic is forever. Seriously. For-ev-er. You should really consider replacing that engagement ring with a plastic one. It’s a much more romantic and meaningful gesture. Then, once you get married and have more babies than required to replace you on the planet, be sure to buy the next generation nothing but plastic toys to play with!

 

 

plastic bottlesLast but not least, the tried and true way to incorporate plastic into your daily habits is… the ubiquitous plastic water bottle! Can you believe that our parents grew up drinking water from the tap??? Heathens! We know now that companies can put that precious water inside plastic, and charge us way more money! Yay capitalism! Do your part by refusing to use a refillable bottle. Better yet, take your costco bottled water bounty everywhere you go, and offer it for free to other people! You’re guaranteed to be popular! At home, at work, or on the go, you’ll never be without BPAs or water, unlike those poor people in Africa who walk 4 miles to the river to get water. You should ship them bottled water too! See what a good person you are?!? Mother Teresa’s got nothing on you, hot shot!

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#3 Gobblety Gook

Did you think I was going to give you all 8 tips at once??? Silly human! Nah, I’m going to drag this out until I get my book deal.

Peace!

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How to Choose Your Own Adventure: 6 Valuable Tips!

7 11 2017

It’s true, we love to travel. A LOT. But we would still love to travel even more than we do. Which begs the question we get asked often, “What’s your next trip?”

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Believe it or not, we actually have SO many places that we want to visit, we need a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. And we are also armed with some very key strategies to help us choose, “Where to?”

 

 

For most people, planning vacation can be pretty easy. Pick a sunny beach in Florida and book a week in January. Done. Rinse and repeat. This is swell for those people, but this just doesn’t cut it for those of us with the insatiable Wanderlust bug. It can sometimes feel overwhelming, knowing that I won’t live long enough to see ALL the places I want to see before I die. So how do we choose?

 

We’re Not Getting Any Younger

Although I’m only 37 1/2, I’m very aware of the reality that, the older I get, the harder it’s going to be to travel. Some of the most vigorous hikes will become too challenging for my aching bones. Long flights will wreak havoc with my veins. It will take me longer to recover from the energy spent simply getting there.

Tip #1: Do the most difficult hiking now. Push your boundaries while your body is at its physical peak, before it declines too far. The older I get, the more I recognize my own mortality, which can cause doubt, and make you shy away from something you wouldn’t have thought twice about in your twenties.

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I can tell you know that I’ve enjoyed several life-changing hikes, and some of them were so physically intense, I doubt that I will ever attempt them again. Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park in Utah, USA is one not for the faint-hearted! At least that hike is only a couple of miles from the starting point. Havasupai in Arizona, USA was not just scary at one point, but also tested our endurance, with 34 miles logged in a 2-night trip.

15492141_1392043570878263_2220117331010704962_nTip #2: Fly as Far Away as Possible! While these longer flights can be tougher to afford when you are younger, your body will thank you for sticking closer to home in later decades. Recently, I spent over 50 hours traveling to Sri Lanka, and when I arrived, both of my ankles were noticably swollen! This has never happened to me before, and I didn’t realize that I wasn’t moving enough while flying. The swelling lasted for 24 hours, and was a bit scary and uncomfortable. This can also be a symptom of another serious risk, Deep Vein Thrombosis. The risk of thrombosis increases on longer flights, and gets worse with age, as well as many other factors (including birth control pills!). This may seem like a weird thing to think about when you are young, but, believe me, blood clots are a serious and deadly risk. This is why you see airline passengers standing and walking around for long periods of time on flights over 4 hours.

So, next on my long-distance list? New Zealand!

The Climate IS Changing… Faster Than You Think

When we add a new destination to our travel spreadsheet, a critical factor is climate change. There are some amazing places on this planet that I may not get to before they are irreversibly changed as a result of climate change. We prioritize these destinations based on the estimated risks.

Tip #3: Prioritize Places at Risk from Climate Change. This is not a hoax. In 2014 I decided to cross off Glacier National Park because I had read about the melting glaciers. I wanted to make it there before Glacier has no glaciers left to see. It was a last minute, 4 day trip, and was not nearly enough to explore all of the amazing sights and experiences to be had there. Now my goal is to make it back before 2020 for some back-country thru-hiking. 10426120_681178748631419_2884749765749576765_n

Here’s my own list of climate-change destinations that I’ve managed to check off:

  • Glacier National Park in Montana, USA. This is one of the most stunning, expansive parks in our country, with an incredible variety of visual decadence to explore! Experts believe we have until 2020 before the last of the monumental glaciers are gone forever.
  • Everglades National Park in Florida, USA. Sea levels are slowly rising, at different speeds across the globe. As the ocean starts to take back Florida and other coastal areas, the unique biodiversity harbored in the freshwater/seawater interchange will be devastated, causing extinction of numerous creatures.
  • The Maldives.  This chain of over 2,000 islands makes up a paradise country located closest to India.  The former president of the Maldives recognized the harsh reality that their entire country- no more than 4 feet above sea level- would eventually be completely lost to climate change. He fought to take the country to being Net Zero Energy to slow climate change, but was since removed from office after a coo. There’s a great documentary called The Island President that can catch you up on their plight.

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Travel is Getting Riskier

Turkey, Istanbul, Haghia Sophia Mosque interiorIt’s a scary time in our world right now. The number of terror attacks had rapidly risen compared to just 10 years ago. I’ll be honest- it’s terrifying to think about. I don’t want to let terrorists win by becoming a fetal position shut-in, but I also take this risk seriously. When we booked our flight to Sri Lanka last year, I debated about whether or not to take the cheapest fare, which took us through Turkey, with an 8 hour layover in Istanbul. I researched heavily before deciding whether or not we would leave the airport to see some of the city while there. The day we flew out of Chicago, we were delayed 4 hours in a snowstorm, and my phone started blowing up with messages from friends on Facebook asking if we were okay. There had been a bombing in Istanbul that we had just missed.

While the optimist in me wants to hope that we will win the ‘war on terrorism’ globally, my gut tells me otherwise. I see such a rapid increase in radicalized groups and violent attacks, that I fear it will never be safe again to travel to some parts of the world. Would I love to see Pakistan? Sure! Do I think I will ever feel safe enough in my lifetime to go there? Nope. 2E81B6E900000578-0-This_table_documenting_the_increase_in_terror_attacks_in_recent_-a-67_14477001334622E893C6400000578-0-image-m-13_1447774752237

Tip #4: Don’t Ignore Political Shifts. If a country that is on your list appears to be getting less safe, pay attention! I wish I had gone to Egypt a decade ago, and don’t know if I’ll ever get to go now. I’m incredibly grateful that I got to visit Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, however briefly, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back. I’m actually flying through that same airport again next April, and have zero interest in leaving the airport next time, due to safety concerns. Before you book your flight, do your homework and know your risks. 

There are many amazing, world-renowned world heritage sites, but some of them are at risk due to wars. UNESCO catalogs all of the official World Heritage Sites, and color codes them to highlight ones at risk of being destroyed. If it’s safe to go there, don’t wait.

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Make a Plan, But Don’t Stick to It!

I’m all about research, spreadsheets, and lists, but I do not recommend you treat this as a commitment. In my Wanderlust spreadsheet, I collect links and jot down places I’ve never heard of when I read an article about someplace new. For those that I’m serious about, I actually put in a target year for traveling there, and sometimes I actually get there that year. Other times, it may get pushed back, or some new destination takes higher priority. And that’s okay. When my friend Raina moved to Sweden 7 years ago, it got added to my list, but I’m just now finally making it over there to see her!

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Tip #5: Be Flexible, and Jump at New Opportunities! When your high school friend joins the Peace Corp and moves to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso for 2-3 years… don’t be caught kicking yourself at her welcome back party because you never made it to visit her while she was there! Knowing someone in a foreign country is a perfect excuse to travel, and a great way to get a local experience!

Tip #6: Make Your Own Opportunities! If you have the travel bug, and you know this will be a lifelong need, don’t waste time wishing you could travel more… build the life you want! Do you have a dream job that would help you to travel? Apply relentlessly!

While I love my job, my travel is limited to the state of Indiana, so I only get to travel on my own time. But, I chose to combine career advancement and my love of travel, and started applying to present at international conferences. This strategy has taken me to Split, Croatia, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Kandy, Sri Lanka! I go on my own dime, using vacation time, but now I can proudly list on my resume “International Speaker” for 3 very prestigious conferences in my field of expertise. Win-Win!

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Do you have a natural ‘break’ in life, like going back to school or moving across the country? Take advantage of it! I actually delayed starting college after high school so that I could travel the U.S. for 3 months, and it’s the best thing I could have ever done. I made that choice when I was a sophomore in high school, and started saving up for my epic graduation road trip.

Are there volunteer opportunities that you can get involved with and get to travel? Do it! There are a number of ways to give back while sharing another culture. Build a school with a community, dig a well in Africa, or raise money for a good cause through travel sports! My first trip to Hawaii was done for ‘free,’ by fundraising $4,500 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society by running my first Marathon in Honolulu!

Bottom line, if you want to travel, there are a myriad of ways to achieve your goals. 

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Go grab the world by the mountaintops!

Remember, not all those who wander are lost.

 

 

 

 





Russian Roulette

1 11 2017

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Shortly after the new administration took over our country, and after I marched on Washington DC, I attended a Women in Business conference. It’s an annual event that is inspiring and empowering, and the overnight format really allows you to have some deeper conversations that really help you to connect with other women. After spending a late night in the Platt 99 bar with Cindy Solomon buying rounds of drinks, I failed to sleep in, and stumbled downstairs to get breakfast.

In the hotel restaurant, I was seated at a two-top by myself, which I was perfectly content with, seeing as how my introverted self hadn’t had a moment alone in 24 hours (awake, that is). I ordered myself a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, then proceeded to go circumnavigate the buffet like a shark, quickly honing in on the roasted potatoes and bell peppers. With a perfect balance of indulgence and restraint, I sat back down to enjoy my plate of food, when I heard another woman call my name.

 

“Kelly!” her heavy Russian accent called out, “Would you like to join us?” I smiled and obliged, moving my things to her nearby table. The invitation came from a woman I had met at dinner the night before. She works as an executive assistant in another department and the same large institution I work for, and I learned all about her recent move from rural Indiana. She introduced me to a young woman, also Russian, also an executive assistant for a large company. Both were in a very relaxed state of exhaustion, and the younger woman was enjoying a bloody Mary with her meal.

 

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Over the course of our breakfast, they were reminiscing about some of their Russian cultural heritage, excited to share with an outsider like me who is interested in culture. “Russian woman,” my colleague shared, “NEVER go outside without full face and hair done. It would be tragedy!” They both laughed. “Oh?” I questioned, “That’s actually a lot like how Southern women used to be in the U.S.! My aunt in Texas talked about how you wouldn’t even step outside to grab the newspaper without full makeup on.”

The conversation went on to share about how the younger woman’s American husband struggled to understand Russian habits. When they visited Russia, he innocently smiled and said hello to everyone they passed, while the local people glared back at him like he was an insane asylum escapee to be weary of. I shared my own observations about how people in cold climates tend to walk faster and smile less, because they are focusing on getting someplace above freezing, whereas southerners lollygag and pause for sweet conversations in the shade to prevent the inevitable perspiration. “But once you KNOW someone in Russia,” the younger woman continued, “they will welcome you with open arms, and they will feed you endless foods and drinks, and be incredibly friendly to you!” They both laughed and nodded in agreement, and insisted, “You really MUST come visit Russia!”

Russland, Moskau, Basiliuskathedrale

I smiled, as the thought perforated my mind. I do SO love getting invitations from people to visit a foreign country as a friend instead of as a tourist. But then reality flashed onto my frontal lobe, like a jolt of lightening. I hesitated how to delicately share the truth. “I’d love to see Russia someday, but it’s not very safe for me right now.” I hoped they would have a sudden realization and then nod in agreement and let it go. Instead, I got two very puzzled looks back.

 

_96558973_gayrusafp1may13I swallowed, realizing that I would have to spell it out. “Well, it’s illegal to be gay in Russia. I could be arrested and jailed if I go there.” Surely, now, they would feel sheepish about their ignorance and say something mildly apologetic before switching the subject, right?

 

“No, that’s not true,” one of them said confidently. “You heard some lies.”

olympics_are_gay_propaganda_2053775“Um, no, it’s the law in Russia. It was passed just before they hosted the 2014 Olympics. It was a really big deal because numerous athletes from other countries ended up not going to compete because they feared for their safety.”

“No, that is fake news. You heard a bad story from not good source.”

fake-news_bigNow I was a little annoyed at their insistence that what I was telling them was not factual. “No, it was not just one story. Every major news source reported the same thing. There are video clips of Russian officials talking about the new laws and the implications for LGBT Russians and visitors.”

“Really? It must have been a bad translation. Sometimes the American TV translates one things and the Russian says something totally different. In any case, you would be fine in Russia. Nobody cares.”

Okay, now I was beyond annoyed, but also curious. How could these two Russian expats, one in her 50s, one in her 20s, both completely deny a basic fact that is LAW in Russia?

130919083221-putin-protest-exlarge-169“That’s great that most people you know don’t care if someone is gay, but the fact is that the government has passed a law making it punishable to exhibit non-traditional behavior in front of minors, and I don’t really want to spend my money someplace that is so clearly against people like me. Hopefully someday things will change. I’d love to visit Russia before I die.”

Russia Gay Activists

Of courses, if I were to travel to Chechnya today, I can be caned and even punished by death for being gay. Today hundreds of gay men are being held at a secret prison- a la concentration camp- in Argun, where they are beaten and tortured. And if I exhibit any ‘gay propaganda’ or otherwise pro-gay behavior that happens to be in front of a minor, I can be arrested anywhere in Russia.  So, theoretically, simply talking about my wife in public can be grounds for my arrest, because it promotes “non-traditional” lifestyle. 

At this, they finally shrugged their shoulders and conceded.

So, with all the recent news about Russian influence on the U.S. election, I cannot help but wonder, is this what our future looks like? Will our media eventually become a watered down reflection of Putin-esque autocracy? Will Americans in the future insist that “there is no Muslim ban,” because that’s what the leader tells them, and thus that’s what they believe?

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The unwavering loyalty of these women to an ‘alternate fact’ that they had no proof of, but is easily dis-proven, terrifies me. I see similar behavior in some of my fellow Americans. The leader says X, so X it must be! We do not question the leader! Right?

 

 

Or do we? Do we resist? Do we fight for the media? For independent journalism? The choice is clear for me. I like truth. I hope you like truth too. Regardless of whether the truth supports my values or not, I still don’t want to live a life of intention ignorance.

(If you’re curious about the history and evolution on Russia’s stance on gay rights, here’s a great article).

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