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Tag Archives: #travelforpeace
I’ve just spent a week in Paradise. Okay, technically is was Costa Rica and my paradise was created by a genuinely loving but also savvy retreat center. I was fed fresh picked fruit, gently steered away from news and conventional entertainment, and encouraged to walk through lovely gardens and reflect. It worked and I did.
I also knew I was in a paradise created for those with the cash and support system to allow them to go on this sort of retreat. The idea of having people less fortunate than I conspire to create an idyllic week for me would normally give me at least some first world heartburn, but it didn’t. Here’s why.
I’m lucky enough to know more about this place and the people who run it. Human beings simply don’t come more compassionate. Employees are rewarded and respected and most have become family even if they didn’t start out that way. The degree of affection they have for each other is well beyond what any staff could be coached to fake.
The center, known as La Montaña Azul, is dedicated to sustaining the local environment. Located along the Talari River southeast of San Jose, the retreat has allocated 95% of its land (116 acres) as a natural sanctuary to protect the river and its flora and fauna. In addition, its proceeds support the local schools, help maintain the roads, and allow the center to provide free classes for the community. It’s hard to argue that you are doing harm by forking over your hard earned vacation dollars to this oasis of love.
This visit was my fourth one. I come here to study qigong, an ancient Chinese form of moving meditation that emphasizes energy flow and has helped both my writing and my wholeness as a human being over the last five years. I’m a different person without qigong, and not nearly as pleasant a one.
At this particular visit, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the center has taken on a new cause. They wish to bring about world peace. One might argue they’ve been slowly working at that all along, but this new approach is rather specific.
They have joined forces with an international group known as Peacebuilders. This amazing organization is striving to use restorative practices like meditation to keep young people out of the criminal justice system, to assist those of all ages in prisons and to further social justice. Though it has a presence in many countries, Peacebuilders is based out of Toronto and most active in Canada, where the organization began.
In Costa Rica, efforts are concentrated on the prison system. Inmates with sentences of forty or more years are trained in meditation, voluntarily spending hours a day in the program. The results are amazing. Recently, several such prisoners were certified to instruct others, as the program grows.
La Montaña Azul’s involvement began when the diminutive older woman who is manager and part owner of the retreat center walked, without guards, into a locked room filled with some of Costa Rica’s most hardened criminals. She laughs as she confesses she thought the guards were coming in behind her. The prisoners listened to her offer of an alternative, and today the retreat center provides instructors, resources and funds for the program. Guests at the retreat are asked to provide funds also.
You know we all did. After a week in Paradise, world peace seems like a totally reasonable goal. I hope the feeling will last.
Do we travel to see what we expect? Or to be surprised? Is it the Eiffel Tower that looks exactly like the pictures that draws us, or is it our silent amazement at how we never knew how beautiful the sunset is over the Atlantic in Morocco?
It’s some of both, I suppose, but after my recent trip to Peru, I offer a third alternative. I think we also travel to see what is the same, and to remind ourselves of how much we have in common. Of course we go to see what’s different there, but we also go to see what is the same everywhere.
Take the popular business of local cooking classes. Humans like food. Most of us like to prepare it and all of us enjoy eating it. While the exotic nature of learning to make a new dish is some of the appeal, I’ll argue that much of the enjoyment of these classes is sharing a love of good food with ones hosts.
I was lucky enough to take not one, but two, cooking classes recently in Peru. The first, in Lima, featured local seafood dishes like this crab causa made from the amazing local yellow potatoes. The second class, in the mountains of Cusco, gave us the opportunity to waltz around in aprons and hairnets while enjoying a spectacular 360 degree view. I loved what was new about each experience, but the underlying appreciation of cooking made it work.
I was also lucky enough to get some time to wander around Cusco. Many people will use such time to shop, others will seek out monuments or buildings of historical significance. I do some of that, too, but if it’s a nice day, I also like to find a small local park and sit in the sunshine. Part of that experience is sharing it with the locals. We’re humans. We all like a soft breeze and blue sky and the chance to do a little nothing while we enjoy it. It’s nice to enjoy a beautiful day with others.
As I wander about, I find myself drawn to small cafes and coffee shops the world over. My favorites look remarkably alike for all their differences. A mix of locals and tourists are there for the WiFi, and for a certain lack of being hurried or expected to buy much. There are flyers on the walls for local events and often hippie beads and lots of plants. These are my people, I think. And it’s comforting to find them everywhere.
Here is a little slice of home I found on a side street in Cusco. Great coffee, a lovely pancake, and all the time in the world to eat it.
I also sometimes find this commonality in bars and taverns, and in shops and stores, and it makes me smile inside.
We enjoyed visiting a wonderful park in Lima called the Magic Water Circuit, filled with 13 illuminated fountains that dance and display colored light shows at night. This park is located in what was once one of the more rundown and dangerous areas of the city. Today, tourists and locals stroll through it together marveling at how pretty moving colored water can be.
One of my favorite parts of the visit to the park was how it reminded me that few things bring more joy than watching children play. If there is anything you can find everywhere, it is the laughter of children. (Okay, maybe crying babies are just as ubiquitous, but they are not as much fun.)
When this park opened, it had a problem keeping children out of the fountains, especially on warm evenings. Given the complexity of the equipment needed to make the displays, they had to find a solution. Wisely, they solved their problem by making a fountain specifically for play. Children, teenagers and even a few adults venture into the lit mist, squealing as they do it.
I chose to stay dry, but as the sound of laughter filled the park, it reminded me that relishing what humans have in common is one of the reasons I travel.
I just missed seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World a couple of weeks ago, and at the time I didn’t even want to be there. I guess that is how wonders sometimes go.
I and my traveling companions had a rough long drive on bad dirt roads to get to Masai Mara, a large Kenyan game reserve contiguous with the Serengeti. We were off on the adventure of a life time. But, our van broke down on the way, so we also had a couple of hours standing by the side of the road while similar vans and jeeps bounced by us and the zebra watched from a distance as we stood in the dust. Adventures don’t always go as planned. Finally, our unflappable guide Leonard flagged down another van.
An equally amenable guide named Marcos, and his two tourists, took us into their fold and got us to our camp. The next day, Leonard, who would not be deterred from seeing that we got what we came for, drove us deep into the game reserve in our newly repaired vehical. We saw lions and elephants, rhinos, water buffalo and even the elusive leopard before our van broke down again.
Now, Leonard is a man who spends most of his days driving people as close to lions in the wild as he can. He puts up with their complaints and inane requests while he figures out where to best park his van so it won’t get trampled by the elephants. He troubleshoots his vehicle as easily as he scans the bushes for cheetah before he directs his squirming passengers to quick run behind the vehicle and pee as fast as they are able.
I should note that he maintained a straight face every time our party of four women dissolved into giggles as we did this. He pretty well defines calm.
But, we could tell that even he was a tad concerned by this second, more remote breakdown. Soon, he was on the radio calling for a tow truck, and somebody to help with us.
After awhile, a van came by and, of course, it was Marcos. He, and his two less-than-thrilled clients, had not been far away when they heard the distress call. “Don’t worry about it,” he assured us. “We help each other out here. Next time, Leonard rescues my people, right?” His people responded to that with nervous little smiles.
“We just want to go back to camp,” we told him. “We’ve seen everything today.” Continual car trouble is exhausting business. But Marcos had a dilemma. His people, a young couple from Mexico, both grad students in the U.S., had come to Kenya wanting to see one thing more than anything else. And it happened this time of day, on the far edges of the reserve along the Mara River near where we were. We had to go along.
“It’s one of seven wonders of the world,” Marcos whispered to us. “They want to see it very badly.”
Now, Marcos hadn’t been exactly accurate. In November 2006 the USA Today and the television show Good Morning America created a list of New Seven Wonders chosen by six judges and the Great Migration of the Serengeti and Masai Mara was picked as one of them. This migration included this thing our new travel companions wanted to see, which was the wildebeests swimming across the river.
Turns out wildebeests are timid creatures. Deep in their instinctual hearts they know they must cross the river to get to greener grazing. They also know that while they are safest as a large group, no matter how large the group is, crocodiles will eat some of them as they cross and rhinos will attack others. Not all will not survive the crossing.
Zebras have far more crotchety personalities, and wildebeests need a few zebras to lead them. Even then, they gather together, approach the waters edge, then back off in fear. Wildebeest friends who’ve already made the crossing call to them to come, and after awhile they gather their courage again and approach the waters edge.
This process goes on for hours, as we found out sitting in our rescue van waiting. Windows had to be kept closed due to dust, engines shut off, voices hushed. There must have been twenty or thirty vans and jeeps like ours, quietly waiting and watching while the wildebeests collectively weighed starvation of the many against death by crocodile for a few. I could appreciate that it was a tough choice.
Marcos did his best to sooth us, his unwilling passengers, as fatigue set in and claustrophobia grew while his two paying customers took endless photos of the timid wildebeests. Finally he declared “This is it. They are about to do it.” Even I felt the excitement.
But he wasn’t the only guide paying attention. One of the fancier jeeps revved up its engine and took of in a noisy cloud of dust for a better view. The shocked wildebeests jumped at the sound, starred at our vehicles like they had just noticed them, and then ran away from the river as one. There would be no crossing that day.
Marcos’s calm frayed at bit. “Stupid,” he muttered. “Now they don’t get to cross, and we don’t get to see anything.”
Like I said, I almost saw one of the seven wonders of the world, and it probably would have been amazing. As we drove back to camp we passed Leonard being towed out of the game reserve and he gave us a friendly wave.
Thursday, September 21, is the 2017 International Day of Peace. I always write about it on this blog, and I try to wish happiness to someone I’ve met in the past year from far away. This year, times being what they are, I’m giving those greetings early and often. So …
“Happy Peace Day, world class safari guides Leonard and Marcos. I wish your calm patience, and spirit of cooperation were as common in my world as they appear to be on the plains of Kenya.”
Actually, I more than wish it. I think we need to get these guys involved in solving some world problems. Seems to me that we could apply what they bring to the table to at least five or six different international crises that come to mind.
So let me rephrase my wish.
“Happy Peace Day, Leonard and Marcos. May your year be filled with few engine problems and grateful customers. By the way, any chance you could find the time lend a hand to rest of us here, as we bumble around trying to figure out how to get along? We really could use the help.”
I traveled 8000 miles to see Mount Kilimanjaro, and I almost missed it. It’s true that I also came to see lions, elephants and zebra in the wild, and to have an adventure with my relatives, but Kilimanjaro was near the top of my list of reasons for making a daunting journey that took three plane flights, eighteen hours in the air, four vaccinations and sixteen days on malaria meds.
Unfortunately, the 19,341 foot former volcano that rises 15,000 feet up off the plains of Tanzania tends to be covered in clouds in August, which is something I didn’t know ahead of time. On the drive to our camp, we got to see the very top of the peak poking out above the clouds, impossibly high in the sky. At the very end of our stay, we would get to see much of the base of the mountain glowing in the sunrise. But my one chance for the best, the fullest view, happened when I was busy reading a guidebook to Kenya. I know, it’s ironic. And I should have read that book before I left home.
Earlier, I’d noticed the clearing skies overhead, and gone for a walk trying to get a better vantage point and figure out exactly where on the haze-covered horizon the mountain would appear in our camp. I couldn’t find Kilimanjaro on my walk, but I did find another tourist who appeared to be Chinese and who was doing what I was. Only he was equipped with a much better camera, and he had a compass.
He spoke a few words of English, and I speak no Chinese, so our exchange was pretty simple. He held his compass out to me, trying to remember the words for the four directions, then gave up. It was annotated in Chinese characters, but had Arabic numbers, and because I’ve worked with compasses it meant something to me. I found 180, and suggested south, he agreed happily and showed me the exact setting where I could expect to see the mountain if it ever appeared. I thanked him, we both pointed to the thick, low clouds and shrugged.
About half an hour later I was sitting on the porch to my tent, engrossed in reading, when he came running by. “Mountain! Now!”
I jumped up and followed him. Three tents down he’d left his son waiting, and as I ran to a better vantage point, the two of them hurried off with his camera, exchanging animated exclamations. I realized that he’d probably traveled as far as I had to see this, and it likely meant as much to him as it did to me. Maybe more. Yet, he’d given up a few precious minutes of his viewing time to alert me, a total stranger who would never have known about it if he had not bothered.
Maybe he recognized a kindred spirit, a lover of mountains and photography, or of compasses and secrets of nature that seldom reveal themselves. Or maybe he is just one heck of a nice guy. I’ll never know. I do hope he got some great pictures.
Thursday, September 21, is the 2017 International Day of Peace. I always write about it on this blog, and I try to wish happiness to someone I’ve met in the past year from far away. This year, times being what they are, I’m starting my greetings a little early.
I don’t really know anyone from China. I’ve never been there. I don’t hear great things about it. But now I do know one man from there who bothered to tell me that Kilimanjaro was visible.
So, happy International Day of Peace, random Chinese man in tent 59. I don’t know what either of our governments are up to these days, but you demonstrated how alliances are forged. May your life be filled with many sudden bursts of kindness like the one you shared with me, at the foot of a mountain in Africa.
The Airbnb site says my hosts at the Riad speak English, French and Spanish along with the local Arabic, but it only takes a few minutes for me to realize that the claim regarding English has been exaggerated. Lahcen, the helpful house manager who greets me, probably does know several hundred words of English, compared to my several dozen words of French and two of Arabic, but his ability to answer my questions is limited. Najet, the cook and custodian who assists him, speaks some French and no English at all. Soon the three of us are communicating with gestures, key phrases and facial expressions, and it’s not going as poorly as you might think.
Still jet lagged, I get a slow start the next morning and Najet is anxious to begin cleaning my room. I am sitting in the public area getting organized for my day when she gestures to her cleaning equipment and my quarters and gives me a questioning look. I nod my consent. She pauses.
“No douche?” she asks clearly and politely. I’m sure that my eyes widen before I remember that douche is the French word for shower. “No douche aujourd’hui,” I declare, thinking that sometimes even a few words in a common language can make all the difference in the world.
When I return that evening, there are lots of things that I want to ask Lahcen. Is Najet his wife? A relative? Is he from Marrakesh? Is this his full-time job? What does he think of tourists, of Americans? But every time I start talking he nods and smiles and looks confused, which is exactly what I do when I can’t understand someone.
The next day he volunteers some information. “I love Hollywood,” he tells me. “I love your movies, but I watch them in French.” He shrugs, a little embarrassed. “In English I can’t tell what they say.” And I get that I’m like one of those movies to him. He thinks that he ought to understand me but I talk fast and use idioms and shortcuts and make no sense to him at all.
“I wish my French was half as good as your English,” I reply and I mean it. I think he understands me for once because he gives me a genuine smile back.
“I think that all of your country should learn Arabic. In school,” he adds. I’m sure my eyes widen at the idea. “And we should all learn English here. In school.” He looks at me hard for signs of comprehension. “If we could understand each other, then we would get along.”
I get where he is going with this and I have to admit that I like it a lot. I appears that my gracious host is a kindred spirit of mine, someone hoping to bridge the gap between cultures, filling it with empathy and a compassion born of recognizing our common humanity. I lack the vocabulary and the inclination to argue with him about the practicality of his plan, so I just say “I hope it happens.”
When I settle my bill, ready to move on to my next destination, I leave him and Najet a generous tip. He takes my luggage to the cab and speaks to the man in rapid Arabic. I realize that he is using part of my tip to pay my cab fare, which I also notice is a only small fraction of what the cab drivers have been charging me. I appreciate his gesture.
I remember my last encounter with people with whom I could not speak. A few months ago a couple in Portugal named Alberto and Maria helped my husband and I rescue our rental car when it became stuck on a dirt road. A few days later, when I discovered it was “International Day of Peace,” I wrote a post about them, and about how the wordless experience was so intense that Maria and I hugged each other afterwards with tears in our eyes.
I have enough cultural sensitivity to realize that a hug would be inappropriate with Lahcen, especially in such a public place. But I am equally grateful to him and Najet and I wish them both joy and peace, even if I do not know how to tell him so. I can only nod my thanks to him as we part, two souls seeking the same harmony in a fragmented world.