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What is the same everywhere?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2018 in oneness, travel

 

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This Is Not a Garden: Thoughts on Ecology and Immigration

I’m taking a series of gardening classes and this first one is about ecology. My brain is out of practice at paying attention to an instructor for three hours, and it’s already decided this first session is not what I came for. I’m consumed with figuring out how to grow more than three tomatoes a year and I can’t see how learning about ecosystems is going to help. My mind tries to wander off into some other odd territory.

To stay focused, I dutifully draw my own version of this triangle the instructor is discussing, explaining what kinds of plants will thrive in what sort of situation. As I finish, something clicks. Not about plants, but about humans.

Yes, I get how the adaptable plants win in a harsh environment. Witness the dessert cactus, the marshy sea grass and the northern lichens.

In places of havoc and tragedy, where death is frequent and unpredictable, I can see how plants that put most of their energy into procreation survive as a species. Ferns, ground covers like clover, and the common dandelion persist amid fires and flood.

I’ve labeled the top of my triangle “lucky plants” but these are not the instructor’s words. The top triangle is a well kept garden, given plenty of water, sunshine and fertile soil. The instructor says if you remove human care, the plants will not all stay in their neat rows in the proportions the humans have selected. Some will thrive and some will dwindle, and which does what is determined by how aggressive the plant is. Yes, in a place where life is easy, over time the more aggressive plants win.

I think humans have some sense of this and, to our detriment, some of us have taken to applying this philosophy to our politics. Allow me to explain with a diagram.

True, we have our own societies which have adapted to harsher climates around the world. The dessert, the far north and the Australian Outback all present challenges. When the situation is extreme enough, human populations face little competition for their niche.

Yes, historically, populations at the mercy of ongoing wars, and of natural disasters like frequent floods, wide-spread disease or famine, have tended to have more offspring, in hopes of having some survive.

It’s at the top of the triangle where I think we run into trouble.

First, I don’t think we begin to understand how the plant kingdom is interconnected and really works. So, this particular view of ecology may not be fair or accurate as far as plants are concerned. But even if it was ….

…. we’re not plants. We lack the gift of the plant kingdom, to obtain all we need from the sun and the soil. In return for having to devour other life to stay alive, we get mobility. With that comes the chance to rapidly alter our locations and to shape our environment.

We’ve got these terrific brains that get us in all sorts of trouble, but also allow us to improve our landscape and increase our resources. We can think our way into trouble, but we can also think our way out of it.

We have hearts. I don’t mean in the literal sense, though those are great, too. We have empathy and compassion and somewhere deep inside a sense of the way we are all interconnected. In our souls, we don’t want a life of ease at the expense of having others suffer. We aren’t oak trees crowding out the pines or killing off the grass. We can pretend otherwise, but a healthy human feels sadness at another’s loss.

We need to understand that we don’t live in a garden and we don’t have to beat others off with a stick lest they try crowd us out of it. We need to build our policies based on the philosophy of being entirely capable of working with others to make the our environment better and safer for all. With the sense and compassion that are our birthright as a species, we could have a planet in which we all thrive. So put those sticks away.

Class is ending and I gather up my notes and doodles. No, nothing in today’s class is going to help me grow more tomatoes. However, I think I might have a great idea for my blog.

 

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2018 in being better, oneness, peace

 

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Happy Peace Day, Safari Guides Leonard and Marcos

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.”

What could we say. A wonder of the world? We were lucky to have a ride back to camp at all, so off we went to watch the wildebeests cross the Mara River.

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.”

 

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2017 in Africa, peace, travel

 

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Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door

I knew when I began my first book that my main character would develop a telepathic link with a woman who lived far away. It didn’t realize that my love for places that are difficult for me to get to would continue on into the remaining five books in the collection, with each book each containing events occurring in a remote part of a different continent. But that is how they turned out.

Two things about far away places appeal to me. One is how different they are. The other is how similar they are. I think I like the second fact even better.

The modern and independent young Nigerian woman I write about in x0 has a run in with her village’s older practitioners of traditional medicine, known as dibias. In order to make her conflict as realistic as I could, I researched the history of traditional medicine in her Igbo culture, and enjoyed what I learned. It did not surprise me that mixed in with the sorts of superstitions that plague humans everywhere, was both wisdom and centuries old knowledge of ways to heal the human body.

I tried to include the point of view of the dibias, and to accord them respect, even while my character was in conflict with them. And yes, I loved learning about the ways of others that were so different than my own.

But I never forgot how half of my story ended up taking place in Nigeria in the first place.

It’s a country I have yet to visit, which makes it an odd setting for a beginning novelist. But I began the book right after taking a new job in the Houston office of a Nigerian company. They were cramped on office space, and several of us were crowded into a large workroom. Most of my co-workers were young Nigerian scientists and engineers and over the ensuing months I became seeped in their conversions, their food, and their memories of home.

Did I hear about things that were exotic to my ears? Occasionally, and some of those are in the book. But far more often what I heard were things like this as they made their phone calls home.

“Yes, mom, I am eating well. I know. Vegetables.”

“Of course I miss you, dear. It’s just that last night you caught me still at work, trying to get something done. I had a big presentation today.”

“You’ve got to pass chemistry. Email me the your review sheet your professor gave you. We’ll go over it together. Tell mom not to worry. I’ll help you.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the sound of humanity, from my home town and from every one else’s home town in every far away place in the world.

You see, we have our differences, and I think that they are fascinating. But then we have our common ways of showing care and concern for those we love. And I think that commonality is even more amazing. That is why I watch with dismay as the United States turns more towards nationalist politics and embraces a fear of the rest of the world.

I no longer live in Houston. Today, I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I was interested to find the John Denver Song “Take me Home Country Roads,” being performed by Playing for Change. I’m a big fan of this multimedia music project that “seeks to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music.”

I can’t help but notice that much of the nationalist movement that concerns me so is being driven by people who live on country roads, just as I do. But a lot of the world lives on country roads, and drives home on them each day to those we care about. We all have that, and so much more, in common.

Enjoy this video of musicians from Japan to Brazil  as they sing “take me home country roads.”

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away Place, Caring About Far Away Places, As Far Away Places Edge Closer  and The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places.)

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2017 in empathy, music for peace, Nigeria

 

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No one person should have first strike capability

Every once in awhile you come across a fact and think that can’t be right. And then you find out it is. That’s what happened to me when I received a plea to ask my members of congress to discuss restricting the first use of nuclear weapons.

My first response was Oh, you mean if someone lobs a nuke at us, we tie the hands of the president so that she or he can’t strike back? Do we really want to do that?

No, I was told, the bill has nothing to do with responding to a nuclear attack. It only concerns being the one to first launch the nukes.

Queue the response: that can’t be right. So I have to ask. Did you think that the president could launch a nuclear weapon for any reason right now? With no declaration of war? All by himself? Well, it turns out that he or she can.

I admit that the next thing I did was guess that this bill had been introduced because of the rash immaturity frequently shown by the man now occupying the white house. And I admit that part made sense to me. But it turns out I was wrong about that as well.

The bill was originally introduced in 2016 during the Obama administration, with the encouragement of the Union of Concerned Scientists. This group believes that we need to have a robust congressional discussion about the wisdom of giving any president, no matter how cautious or how brash, the unilateral power to initiate a civilization-ending event. I think they have a good point.

Our current situation increases the probability of nuclear war in a real and dangerous way. It makes perfect sense to me that we should insist that Congress take these dangers seriously and that we should work to change a system that puts all of our lives at risk.

Right now both measures (known as Senate Bill 200 and House Resolution 669) are sitting in committees (Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs) while congress spends its time handling what they believe to be more pressing matters. (Don’t get me started on that.)

If you haven’t developed the habit of contacting congress yet, it is an easy and worthwhile activity. Find out who you should be contacting at whoismyrepresentative.com. Then search for them by name, go to their website, and hit contact. The easiest thing to do is to fill out their little form with your information, and then type in something simple like “Please lend your support to bringing House Resolution 669 on restricting the first use of nuclear weapons to the house floor for a vote.” A poorly paid intern will note the subject matter of your email and will tally up your opinion on it.

It’s a little bit like littering. If just you do it, it really doesn’t make much of a difference. But if five percent of the population does it, everyone is going to notice.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2017 in peace

 

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A way to wish you joy and peace

sunriseI woke up to this sunrise today,  a reminder that every day brings us a fresh chance to embrace, improve and enjoy this wonderful gift we call life.

It’s been a tough couple of months for me, and for others who want to encourage tolerance and empathy. I’m looking for positive ways to deal with my concerns about the direction in which my country is headed, and I hope that you are too. Lucky for me, my sister, who is full of good ideas, had a suggestion for me.

With her encouragement, I reviewed, edited and sorted through the 159 posts on this blog and put the best of them into a new book called “Face Painting for World Peace.” This short (121 page) volume of essays attempts to be both humorous and thought provoking as it examines what I like to call “intra-species harmony” (aka world peace) from a wide variety of angles.

The eBook is available for FREE on Smashwords, for a short time. Soon it will be published on Amazon as well, and distributed by Barnes & Nobel, Apple and other retailers, at which point I will be required to charge ninety-nine cents. This is not intended to be a money making project; I have pledged to donate half of all proceeds to “Doctors Without Borders”.

Here is the description:

I am passionate about the cause of the world peace. From early 2012 on I have maintained a blog in which I often write about empathy and peace. I have arranged these short essays in book form, to be published for Christmas 2016. A lot has changed in the world over the past four years, but what has not changed is how I continue to cherish time with those I love, and how others do the same throughout the world. This book is my holiday card; my way of wishing hope, joy and peace to every human on earth, with no exceptions.

Please download, please enjoy, and please share with others. Meanwhile, I will try to wake up every day during this coming year, catch a glimpse of that beautiful dawn, and then seek out positive ways to add my voice to the chorus still being sung by those who believe that kindness should guide our politics, our words and our actions. I invite you to sing along, too.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2016 in being better, empathy, peace, writing

 

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Happy International Day of Peace, Lahcen and Najet

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.

img_3275Still 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.

img_3290The 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.”

img_3284I 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.

img_3304I 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.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see  That’s Why you Make the Trip, I see ghosts , It’s an angry world in some places and My Way on my other blogs.)

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2016 in empathy, peace

 

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