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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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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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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Healthruptcy

14 09 2017

healthruptcy

noun   /   health-rupt-cy    /    \ ˈhelth-(ˌ)rəp(t)-sē \

1the quality or state of being forced into bankruptcy due to one catastrophic healthcare incident places a large financial burden on a person or family without the actual capability of paying off the debt. 
2utter failure or impoverishment
 

Example: I literally live in fear of healthruptcy, and am losing sleep over the very real risk of this happening to me. And I actually have health insurance. 

health care bill

American Health Care is Broken

Today Bernie Sanders proposed an aggressively pro-access health care bill, that would expand medicaid to younger age brackets, utilizing a multi-year phase in of expanded coverage. Democrats who opposed similar bills just 8 years ago are now in support. This bill has as much a chance of being approved as Sperry Glacier has of surviving climate change past 2030.

 

What’s changed?

I’m not going to get into all the politics of why the new administration has failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or how the original passing of ACA was a massive compromise by Democrats to appease Republicans, or how- like most brand new programs- there were huge failures in the rolling out of the ACA. Regardless of all that history, the facts are clear. Americans are suffering from skyrocketing rates of Healthruptcy. And most of the rest of us are now stricken with Healthruptcyphobia. 

 

The American Dream…

The fact is, our insurance markets are out of control, which is slaughtering the American Dream. Health care costs, partly because of onerous reporting requirements, have skyrocketed higher than Space X. Most Americans are considered lucky to have ‘catastrophic’ coverage that requires them to pay the first $5,000-20,000 out of pocket before insurance even kicks in, and now, what used to be commonly covered by your employer, is now a new living expense for American families. Six percent of your gross income, on average, goes toward this. (Check back later this week for a separate post on how this has personally affected my family after a tragic car accident).

Or, in my case, I take 16% of my gross monthly income and set it aside for health care costs.

SIXTEEN PERCENT! That’s as much as I pay for housing!

 

The New Normal?

We are the only developed country in the world that does not provide universal health care. And you know what? It’s hard to be healthy, happy, or productive in life when you are constantly living in fear of healthruptcy. Every major study on happiness clearly shows that developed countries where people don’t live in fear of a healthruptcy have the happiest people in the world. (We could have another discussion on why poorer countries are also happier than developed countries, but that’s outside this scope of conversation). 

 

All the countries shown below in green provide free access to health care for all citizens, as a shared cost that all citizens contribute to through taxes:

map insuranceAnd you know what? Happy people also live longer! Win-win!!

 

…But it’s a flawed system!!

Will taxes go up? Absolutely. But will my taxes go up by more than that 16% of my gross income that I’m already paying? Doubtful. Especially once the market adjusts to reflect cost benefits of buying in bulk.

brexit-lemmingsAre there problems with universal health care? Sure! But they are nowhere near as dire as the healthruptcy cliff Americans are heading towards if we don’t move towards a better solution.

And, P.S., here’s the underlying reason why every other developed country already does this:

WE ARE ALL HUMAN.

Would you walk past a child crying with a bloody knee? Would you not help a wounded soldier limp to safety? If you recognize that it’s for the betterment of society to pay taxes to educate our next generation, even when you don’t have kids yourself, then you understand what it means to be part of a community. To deny another living creature the basic ability to be free from pain and stay healthy is just not the right thing to do.

 

As Bernie said:

“Health care must be recognized as a right, not a privilege. Every man, woman and child in our country should be able to access the health care they need regardless of their income. The only long-term solution to America’s health care crisis is a single-payer national health care program.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders

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Sri Lankan Angels

19 01 2017

cambodiaAlong our journey, we met some truly amazing people! Some of them were fellow travelers, some were locals. I mentioned in a previous post how much the people of Sri Lanka ended up transforming my opinion of their country for the better. Now I’d like to elaborate with a few short tales from our trip, exemplifying the goodness of humanity. After all, they’re the reason why I love to travel.

 

A Local Lifesaver

While I was immersed in the International Conference for Sustainable Built environment (ICSBE) one day, Bethany was working on lining up logistics for our post-conference travels. She spent a frustratingly long time standing at a ticket counter at the train station, trying to arrange a train to get us back to Colombo at the end of our trip, after realizing how impossible it is to buy a last minute train ticket the week of Christmas. The ticket person was growing annoyed by translating everything into English for her, and answered her questions with curt & confusing responses that only lead to more questions. She finally managed to understand that she could buy a ticket from the end of the line all the way back to Colombo, which would allow us to have a reserved seat, but get on at any stop along the way. Since we didn’t yet know which beach town we were going to end up in, this was a wonderful option. She managed to get the two tickets booked, and took her printout and her growing appetite to a nearby cafe for a long overdue lunch of rice and dhal.

 

jaffna-express-train-ticketAt the cafe, Bethany chatted up the man who smiled and seated her for her meal. He was the owner, and proudly shared that he had actually been to the U.S., to study at university! His English was unusually good, and he proceeded to chat with her while she waited for her order to be cooked up, then left her to enjoy her meal. As her blood sugar resumed its happy-go-lucky levels, Bethany started packing up to head back to the hotel, and pulled out her ticket for one last look before departing the Old Town of Kandy. In a moment of sheer horror, she saw that the printed ticket, which she had paid full price for, had the WRONG CITY as the destination. As printed, it would not get us back to Colombo, where we needed to fly out from. She was immediately embarrassed, knowing that there had been a sign at the ticket counter clearly stating that purchasers are responsible to check their ticket BEFORE they leave. Her emotions fluttered between bursting out in tears and screaming in frustration, in a manner that surely was visible to any onlooker.

 

citrus-cafeThe owner of the Citrus Cafe walked over with her change of rupees in hand, and could see her look of despair. He kindly asked what was wrong, and she dumped her terrible story out onto the table. With one felled swoop, he reassured her that he would help her to get the problem resolved. He spoke quickly to his staff in Sinhali, grabbed his keys, and told her that he would drive her back down to the train station and talk to the ticket person.  Within just a few minutes, he had managed to get them to correct their mistake, and she walked out a second time with a train ticket to Colombo.

 

That evening, we booked our next 2 nights at the guest house above the Citrus Cafe, and ate dinner there two nights in a row. (I’ll share that it was not a very nice guest house, with mold on the walls, but it was cheap, and we were grateful enough to endure it for 2 nights).

 

Sri Pada Selfies?

Traveling as a light-skinned person in Sri Lanka, it’s pretty hard to blend in. Add to that my braided blue hair, and it was impossible. Many people smiled and told me, “Nice hair!” when they did a double take to watch us walk past, but no place was I so popular as in Delhousie. I imagine that they get a fair number of young, adventurous tourists from
across the globe, and have probably seen their share of unusual kelly-hairstyles. In our travels, however, I had seen nobody else with a head full of braids (or dreads), and nobody else with such colorful ‘do. Many times along our trek, we would be taking photos and either offer to take photos of someone else (a couple or solo traveler), or ask someone to take our photo together. In almost every case, when I offered to take the photo of a Sri Lankan person, they would smile, and reach out their arm with their camera. I would, in turn, extend my hand to take their camera for them, and they would say, “No, no!”  Then they would turn the camera around, scootch up next to me, and take a selfie. One guy even looked at me and said, “Sunglasses!” insisting that I put on my stylish shades for the photo. Each time it made me laugh, because all they wanted was a photo with the strange foreigner, and then they would scurry off, in some cases to show their friends. I wonder how many photos of me are floating on the internet from that one adventure…

 

I wish that I had thought to turn around and take my own selfie each time mine was taken by a stranger. But I did manage to take some of my own, hopefully with a little more respect for the person I was asking.

 

15622296_10211763388310400_6221069219264689183_nMy favorite is ‘Brenda.’ The night before our bike hike to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), we wanted to scope out the start of the trail, so we wouldn’t get lost in the darkness of the night. Bethany and I walked down the dirt road, past a gauntlet of makeshift booths selling a mix of sweets, warm clothing, and plastic junk. The road kept winding, until it came to a bridge. Across the bridge, we could either go left or right. We looked at the light poles for a clue, and turned left, where we ran into another couple of foreigners who were being given advice from a local guide for their own trek. We listened in as he told them, “… there will be a fork, make sure you go left.” We got a little worried that the trail would not be as clearly marked as we anticipated. The only guidance we had was that the trail was lit, and that we saw the Buddhist flags threaded above the path periodically.

 

Without ever finding a clear “Trail starts here” sign, we gave up and turned around to go back to our guest house and get some rest for our journey. “I’m sure that it will be clear when we see a stream of pilgrims making their way to the trail head in the dark,” I hoped.

 

As we were walking back up the dirt road, I saw an elderly woman with dark skin and white hair. She looked me straight in the eyes and smiled, so I smiled back, assuming our languages would not allow us to exchange pleasantries. As we kept walking in the same direction, I sensed that she was still focusing on us, and slowed down to take a photo of something along the way. As she caught up to us again, I turned towards her, feeling that she wanted to say something to us. To my surprise, she spoke to us in English, and proceeded to walk along beside us as we slowed our pace. We strolled leisurely, as she asked us if we were planning to do the hike, and whether we had a guide. We said that we did not, and Bethany added, “we will let our hearts be our guide.” I suspected that the woman was trying to sell us something, but instead she paused, looked at us both, and replied, “you- no need guide.”

 

She went on to explain that she IS a local guide for the hike, which amazed me that a woman her age would be capable of such a strenuous journey, let alone multiple times a week. She clearly saw something in us, and wanted to impart her knowledge. She shared advice on some of the things we would see, and warned us not to give money to the monks along the way. “The journey is free,” she said, “but those monks, they…” she motioned with her hand to mouth like drinking from a jug, then shook her head disapprovingly. “OH!” we responded in unison, surprised to even fathom that a monk would drink alcohol. “No pay them,” she reiterated, “only donation at top, if you want.” 15590096_1397670863648867_1701599906302630025_n

 

When we got to our guest house, we asked the woman what her name is. “Brenda,” she told us. We introduced ourselves at the end of our lovely conversation, hugged the woman, and said goodbye. “Oh, wait!” I exclaimed, with my sudden epiphany. “Picture? Okay?” She smiled, and I took my selfie with Brenda, who I will fondly remember for years to come. She might not still be there next time I return to Sri Lanka, but she will definitely live on in my heart.

 

 





Travel in Sri Lanka: Tuk-Tuks, Buses & Trains, Oh MY!

1 01 2017

 

Life is about cherishing the good times and overcoming the bad. Every bad experience leaves us with perspective, and perhaps new knowledge or insights related to ourselves or those around us. Without fail, my experiences have shown that HOW you get somewhere is often equally memorable as where you are heading.

 

thailandOn my first trip to Asia, I learned to embrace the art of unplanned travel. While it was uncomfortable at first, it was my gift to myself, to liberate my need to know every next step, in order to embrace the unknown paths that would undoubtedly find me. So, after researching everything about Sri Lanka, I again chose to only book the bare minimum, leaving the rest up to destiny. As it turns out, that might not have been the best idea.

 

mirissa-xmasDespite being a predominantly Buddhist country, the week of Christmas is a huge holiday for Sri Lankans. Although they celebrate Christmas in a strictly secular sense, many richer Sri Lankans in the big city work for international companies, who give employees this week off to be with family. So, the families head to the central mountains and the southern beaches to enjoy the winter break. This means that all the train seats available to reserve in advance are sold out… which means we were left in Kandy with no clue how we were going to get to our next destination.

 

The Train to Hatton

While my conference was wrapping up, my wife had a day to research our options. She figured out how to take the local bus into town to the train station, where they confirmed that there were no tickets left for purchase. The only choice we had left was to simply show up the morning of, and hope to get lucky, or to pay exorbitantly more money to hire a private driver to take us one way into the mountains. So, we loaded our packs onto our backs, hitched a tuk-tuk to the train station an hour early, and crossed our fingers.

 

15589830_10211698209520971_3362054281497370108_nAmazingly, we got the last two tickets remaining in 3rd Class! We were ecstatic, though we didn’t exactly know what to expect. Our train ride to Kandy 4 days earlier had been booked in advance, which means first class, reserved seats, A/C, & wifi! They even served us snacks and hot tea. (Try drinking tea on a Sri Lankan train… it’s like sipping coffee while horseback riding).

 

img_2808We braced ourselves for the worst case scenario, we planned our locations strategically so that at least one of us could rush onto the closest rail car and attempt to secure a seat. If we failed to do so, we could at least sit atop our backpacks on the floor for the duration, right? The train pulled up, and people began to cluster for the doorways. We couldn’t figure out how to tell which cars were 3rd class, and had to thrust our piece of paper towards an official in order to get a finger point in the right direction. We climbed on board, and it wasn’t too bad… people were sitting calmly in seats, there were even a few open here and there. We started to ask if they were free, when someone asked us what our seat numbers were on our ticket. Seat numbers?? Bethany looked more closely at the faded monotone print, and, sure enough, it said, “9 & 10.” As it turns out, what we had purchased IS 3rd class, but it’s 3rd class RESERVE, which means that we had guaranteed seats!! We were thrilled to enjoy a comfortable ride, making friends with strangers, and listening to the drumming and singing flowing from passengers packed into the unreserved car directly behind us.

 

Hatton to Dalhousie

15541932_1393960027353284_5754440423933363127_nFrom Hatton, we had to take a bus or hire a driver to finish the journey through the mountains to the tea village of Dalhousie (pronounced ‘Del-house’). This is where the steep pilgrimage climb to Adam’s Peak begins. It looked fairly close on paper, just about 40 km or so, and we knew that a bus would be much cheaper, so we set off from the train station to figure out where to catch the bus. We crossed the tracks to what looked like a main road lined with shops, and walked into the town, assuming the bus station wouldn’t be far. Hatton is a small city, bustling with people and traffic, with mostly Sinhali signage. We originally thought we would stop someplace for lunch, but only saw ‘short eats’, or street food vendors. While we enjoy the fried samosas, dosas, and rotis greatly, we were really hoping for an actual restaurant to set our packs down and get our bearings. After a few blocks, we grew flustered, and I tried to ask someone for directions. Most small town Sri Lankans can understand some English, but cannot speak it, so my question was answered with a simple gesture- an outreached arm with a finger pointing in the direction we were heading. I looked at Bethany, we shrugged our shoulders, and kept going. A few more blocks down, I asked someone else. I got the same response. Finally, at the opposite end of town, the neverending facade of open air shops peeled back to reveal an enclave of tired buses, churning and groaning as they maneuvered around each other like coy in an overpopulated pond.

 


15665546_10211763329908940_9146162320501730702_nBethany found a ticket booth and asked which bus to Dalhousie. The man replied, “No, no one bus to Delhousie!” We tried asking a different way. “No bus! Maskeliya bus!” Finally, we understood that we must take TWO buses to get to Dalhousie, first to Maskeliya, then transfer to Dalhousie. Phew! Another man walked up, listening to our conversation, and tried to guide us to the right bus. This interim town was not at all on our radar, so we had no clue what name we were looking for. We boarded the empty bus, picked seats close to the driver, and waited. We still had no tickets, but this appeared to be okay. More people got on, including several people carrying baskets of baked goods and sweets to sell to weary travelers. After not too long, the driver started up the bus, and the conductor guided him out of his narrow slot, through the bus yard, without hitting any other moving targets. Once we were on the road, the conductor came by to collect our fares… a whopping 150 rupees, or about $1 total!

 

Trick or Tuk-Tuk?

img_2840The path may have looked short, but the mountain roads are anything but straight. The practically single lane roads wind along the edges of lakes and tea plantations, pausing frequently to let trucks and cars squeeze by on hairpin turns. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside, and the topography was simply stunning. It took what felt like an hour to travel 19 km to Maskeliyae waiting to get to the next bus station so we could figure out our transfer, when all the sudden a man boarded the bus and started yelling for us, “Tuk-tuk?” We were thoroughly confused and told him no, but then the conductor appeared, waving at us to get off the bus.Nobody else was getting off here, and I was nervous that something weird was happening. Our big packs had been stored in the back of the bus, so Bethany followed the conductor to go retrieve them, while I waited with one foot on the bus, scared that it would take off with our packs still in the boot! Once I saw that she had them safely on the ground, I disembarked to join her. The next bus was supposed to be just up the road, but this tuk-tuk driver was very adamant about giving us a ride. “Much faster!” he persuaded us with his smile. b-thailandWe asked how much, and, although it was many times more expensive than the bus, it was still only $5, and we were already running much later than we had planned. We negotiated the price a little lower, and gladly accepted his ride the remainder of the way. He promised to stop for photos along the way, and even pulled over to lead me down a hidden path, which revealed a beautiful waterfall known by locals!

 

‘Bad Trees’ en route to Nuwara Eliya

img_2951The Tuk-Tuk driver also gave us a price to drive us back the next day (after we were to climb SriPada overnight- more on that in a future post), though it seemed a bit high. In our exhausted, aching state after hiking from 2am-10am, we opted to skip the unknown of missing a train back in Hatton, and hired a car to drive us all the way to Nuwara Eliya. It was money well spent! For 6,000 rupees (about $40 for both of us), we had a comfortable ride the entire 3 hours, saving at least 2 hours of total travel time with all the transfers required to go by bus. Our driver, Sameer, was very friendly, and although he could not answer many of our questions, he was proud to stop and show us things along the way. At one point, still making our way around the beautiful lakes, he stopped and pointed, “That tree!” Huh? I stared, not understanding and shrugging it off. “Bad Tree!” he insisted. I furrowed my brow and squinted at the trees, trying hard to understand. “BAT Tree!” I looked one last time… OH!!! My gosh! The trees were filled with hanging bats! It was so weird to see bats in daylight, I asked him to wait for me to change to my telephoto lens so I could see them better. There were hundreds of them! It was incredible! Proud that he managed to finally get us to understand, we continued our journey, with a deeper friendship.img_2952

 

Searching for South

img_2853The rest of the central mountains are known for relaxing holidays, beautiful waterfalls, and some milder hiking destinations. Originally, I wanted to hike Horton Plains to a place enticingly called World’s End. But by the time we arrived in Nuwara Eliya, my aching calves had morphed into full rigor mortis. I was still hopeful that a good walk would benefit our muscles the next day, but we still had to figure out how to get from Nuwara Eliye down south, to our next destination. Despite everything we read, we were still hoping to find a magical train that would slice through the center of Sri Lanka to get us quickly and comfortably to some  much needed relaxation along the beaches. Unfortunately, this invisible train does not exist, so our only options were to take the bus, or hire a driver. This part of the journey is much farther, and a driver can cost upwards of 20,000 rupees ($90-130), which was not in our budget. Luckily, there’s a government bus! Our AirBnB host in Nuwara Eliye kindly helped us to figure out the current bus schedule, which changes frequently, but calling his friend to get the latest details. We could catch one bus the entire way to Mirissa, but it leaves at 8am. That means, no time to explore anything else in this area, unless we want to stay another day. We debated, but our exhaustion kicked in, and we opted for the beach instead of another night in the crisp fall weather of the mountains.

 

The Wheels on the Bus…

The next morning, our host offered to drop us off at the local bus station, just 5 minutes from his house. He previously said he was busy, but- totally unrelated to the fact that his dog had bitten my foot the night before, I’m sure– he suddenly had time to help us out! He not only drove us to the bus station, but dropped us off in front of our bus, then promised to go park his car and come back to make sure we were all set. The conductor helped us load our packs into the boot, and we climbed on board the bus, about 45 minutes early. It was completely full. The few seats that looked open were being saved for family members with bags and coats. I looked at Bethany with horror, as I realized what this could mean. This bus ride is scheduled to take 7 hours. SEVEN. With no seats available, this means that we have no choice but to stand in the aisle, gripping the overhead bars through the winding mountain roads. We started to have a conversation about whether or not we were willing to do this. Is there a later bus? Not a direct one. Should we wait another day? The thought alone exhausted me. Just then, our host popped on board the bus, aware of the situation. “Don’t worry, I’ve spoken with the conductor, and he says that when you get to Elle, there will be two seats for you.” Elle is about 1 ½ hours into the bus ride. Okay, that’s doable, I thought. We thanked our host for his help, as we were literally the only foreigners on the bus, standing out like candles in a chocolate cake.

 

An hour into the ride, we slowed down more than usual, and I leaned over the seat backs to my left to try to catch a glimpse. While normally this vantage point would have me peering into a canyon, since the drive on the left there, I saw a car between us and the edge of the road. There were several, which we were inching past on the right, where oncoming traffic had stopped. Then, I saw the cause of the delay. There was another bus, just like the one we were one, sitting on its side, hanging just barely over the edge of the road. I saw no people standing around, so it had either just happened, or been there a while. It put the fear right back in me, and- I hoped- in our driver too, as we continued past the wreckage, through yet another hairpin turn.

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Six hours later, we were approaching the coastline… still standing. By then, we were quite friendly with our neighbors, with no personal space left to speak of. With each stop, the conductor squeezed through the aisle, pressing us against the seated passengers nearby while we sucked in everything that we could. Every 10-15 minutes, I would switch arms, feeling my biceps burning with each unexpected swing or heave of the bus. I shifted wait frequently from left leg to right, stretching upward onto my toes to give my calves some momentary relief. Just one stop before Mirissa, someone stood up to get off, and we slipped into the empty seats. The immediate relief sent out an audible sigh.
Memorable? Yes. And, believe me, when I got to our next guest house, that bed could not have felt any more well deserved than it did that day. Since we saved so much money riding the bus, we proceeded to spend those hard-earned rupees on drinks ocean-side.