Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away Place

I remember visiting Yellowstone as a teenager and being upset that I was not allowed to take even one tiny little insignificant rock home as a souvenir.  Up to that time, I always brought a rock home from places I enjoyed. What difference could my little memento make?

Then I looked around. Thousands of people were here with me, and if I was the only one who ever took a pretty stone, there would be no problem. But what if half of them wanted rocks, too?

It was something of an epiphany to realize that while a never-before-seen insect or two on ones front porch is interesting, ten thousand such insects on the porch is frightening. Maybe even a plague. It was more of an epiphany to understand that it works pretty much the same for humans as for bugs. Take one or two of us out of our home environment and put us somewhere else, and we’re interesting. But if thousands of us suddenly plop up somewhere new, we become a problem. Maybe even a plague.

Today, I am an adult who loves to travel, and my books and my blogs reflect my belief that peace and compassion are byproducts of visiting places far from our own. However, in a world where many now have the means and desire to explore far away places (which is good), we risk harming every place to which we swarm (which is bad).

Back when I wrote z2, main characters Alex and Lola had to visit Guatemala and Belize as part of the plot. As I researched their vacation, I came upon the concept of ecotourism and immediately wanted my characters to embrace this idea. This was the result.

As the van from their lodge left the lowlands the next morning and entered the mountainous area of western Belize, Alex thought that the vacation portion of this trip had pretty much ended. So he was surprised by the breathtaking beauty.

The lodge itself was nestled in between two small waterfalls and surrounded by tropical forest. Even just standing in the parking lot Alex could see wild orchids growing and brightly colored parrots flitting about. It was a fantasy set in a version of paradise.

“Why don’t you tell the world that this place is so gorgeous?” Lola was exclaiming.

“Many tourists are a mixed blessing,” the driver smiled back at her. Of course, Alex thought. We bring money, something the region sorely needs. But we also bring us.

The lodge that Lola had selected advertised its allegiance to sustainable ecotourism. In the past Alex had honestly paid very little attention to that concept. But now, looking at the array of spectacular plant life in front of him, and remembering the clear struggle for life he had seen while diving around reefs only a few days ago, he was proud and happy that Lola had persuaded him to spend the extra to be staying at a facility that at least gave some conscious thought to the problem.

A few days ago I got introduced to a documentary being made by relatives of a friend of mine. He is from Easter Island, and they are working to finish a film about the challenges caused by having a massive number of humans decide to put a visit to Easter Island on their bucket list.

It looks like it will be a thought-provoking look into how our common yen to visit far away places has consequences, and how we would be well-served to keep them in mind. Enjoy the video below and check out their Kickstarter page to learn more.

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see As Far Away Places Edge Closer, Caring About Far Away Places, The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places, and Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door.)

I see ghosts.

I like to find the ghosts when I travel, and learn what I can from them. They’ve always come to me, not as shivers in the nights, or flashes of fear or wails of terror. Rather they waft gently into my imagination, almost always in the daylight, often becoming characters standing in a queue in my brain, waiting to tell me their story.

img_3260The ghosts I see are often tired, sometimes sad, but seldom angry and never at me. Not once have they made me afraid.

“Listen. This is how it happened,” they begin. And if I am lucky and have some time alone to live within my head and listen to them, they tell me their stories. What they describe often surprises me, and I know from somewhere deep inside that I am not making up these tales.

I must work to hold on to what they say, because their words quickly become mist in my brain, disappearing as soon as I turn my attention elsewhere. Their stories are much like the memory of a dream, fading quickly as one wakes. If I manage to remember one or more of their narratives, inevitably that day will be one of the best days that I have on my trip.

img_3283I started out this journey in Marrakesh Morocco, one of the many places in the world where the ancient and the new co-exist peacefully. My lodging is inside the Medina, a medieval walled city in which the buildings blend together into a continuous whole with a maze of narrow roofless hallways and short tunnels providing access. Some of the walls nearest to my Riad, or place of lodging, exist in various stages of decay or demolition, giving this part of the Medina a touch of post-apocalyptic style.

Other tourists make their way through the maze, along with Moroccan men of all ages. More of these Moroccans are young than old, most are clad in jeans, often talking and joking with friends. There are less Moroccan women to be seen. The older ones move quietly with their eyes down, often wearing flowing clothes and traditional head coverings. The younger ones are more of a mix, sometimes blue jean clad and bareheaded, and laughing with friends of both genders. The ghosts of these walls are quiet, at least as I make my way through the crowds in the middle of the day. I wonder if there is too much noise and activity here for them to be able to make themselves known.

The Medina itself is so confusing to the uninitiated that an entire cottage industry arose provide guidance to lost tourists. Helpful, hopeful men will ask anyone looking foreign and vaguely confused where they are going, and then will proceed to direct them towards it and ask for payment. Some are more persistent and demanding than others, so the savvy tourists now keep their eyes firmly on their smart phones, following their own blue dots while they wave the entrepreneurs away.

img_3322Inside the buildings are ornate tiles and woodwork that reflect centuries old crafts from this region. Often the most beautiful of these are saved for the lovely courtyards found in the center of most buildings. Visitors quickly figure out that not only is the courtyard the most pleasing place to sit, it generally has the best internet reception, too. We fill the pretty courtyards in the public places, and the ghosts stay silent here as well. Now I wonder if maybe there are simply too many of them here for any one of them to make themselves known.

It is not until I and my travel companions are on the road, driving through the coastal dessert between Agadir and Essaouira, that the ghosts finally find me. As I stare out the window at the desolate landscape that reminds me of Western Kansas where I was born, I feel their gentle tug.

img_3366See us, they say. I look at the scraggly argan trees scattered around the rosy beige rocks and hard mud and I see a robed figure moving in the distance. I squint to see better, blink in the bright sun, and it is gone.

I look for more like it. None appear, but I’ve opened my mind now and I hear them in my head and feel their presence.

“We are the soft people, ” they say as I feel the flow of their movements, their clothes.

Not soft, I think. Not the way that soft implies weak, at least. My brain searches for a word that better translates what it is feeling. The gentle people? No, they are strong, surviving in an unforgiving environment. They are soft only like a well rounded rock that pounds the grain into flour, as opposed to the blade of a knife that cuts the meat. They are the “not sharp” people, except that sharp has other nuances related to intelligence in my native tongue. I search in vain for a purer word, one that only has the meaning that I seek, but the best I can come up with is the feeling of something hard that has been worn smooth by the very harshness in which it survives.

img_3346I ask them to tell me their stories, but they are beginning to fade already, much too soon. Perhaps it is because my concentration has wandered, seeking the perfect word, or maybe it is because my two travel companions in the front seat have begun to talk, bringing me out of myself. Or maybe these soft people have no words for me. Maybe with a language and culture so different from mine, they don’t even know how to start.

As they dissipate into the warm sun-filled air, I feel them go, a presence lighter than air as they move over the dessert ground.

“Your world may be harsh, but you are not mean people at all, ” I think. One, an old man who hobbles and is the last one left, turns to look straight into my eyes. He answers me clearly.

“We have no use for the mean people either,” he says. Then he too is gone.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetMy Way, That’s Why you Make the Trip and It’s an angry world in some places on my other blogs.)

 

Our brand is crisis?

14469652_564576230393957_3537145904902612686_nThere is nothing like coming back from vacation to help you see life through new eyes, particularly if you’ve been lucky enough to spend a chunk of time somewhere that is quite different from the world you inhabit on a daily basis. If you have such good fortune, you will likely be asking questions like these: Why do we move so fast? How come we are always going somewhere? Why do we get so antsy when we lose our almost constant input from numerous electronic sources? Okay, may I should just speak for myself when it comes to the antsy part, but you get the point…

I was also surprised at how difficult it was to receive almost no world news for days, and more surprised when I came back to the campaign rhetoric going on in my own homeland. My house was as comfy as ever. A salad from the local farmers market was still a treat. The wine we brought back was delicious. So what is everyone so upset about, I wondered. To hear the ads slathered around the swing state in which I live, we are suddenly on the verge of destruction. Quick, duck and cover. It’s awful, what-ever-it-is, and it’s coming fast.

Really?  Right before we left on vacation my husband and I happened to watch the movie “Our Brand is Crisis.” It came out in early 2016, stars Sandra Bullock (a favorite of mine) and Billy Bob Thorton and it tells the tale of two opposing U.S. campaign strategists as each tries to help a Bolivian candidate win the highest office in the land.

I found it a good movie, though not a great one. The characters are all well written and well acted, however the dirty tricks that make up most of the plot are only mildly interesting, and the overall tone has an odd moral ambiguity until the end, when it takes a sharp turn into easy schmaltz. I’m kind of okay with easy schmaltz, actually, but the transition is a little jarring.

I later learned that the movie was based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary about the real 2002 election in Bolivia.  If true, it’s a much sadder story than is conveyed, and the characters, in my opinion, should have been shown less as sexy and smart and more as ethically repugnant. But hey, that’s me. I don’t have much of a sense of humor about some things.

The movie came to my mind after I got back from vacation, because of its central premise which is conveniently placed in the movie’s title. If you want attention, if you want action, you need to persuade people that there is a problem. A big problem. It’s how you make people buy things. (Your acid reflux is serious.) It’s how you get them to donate money, and vote. Scaring people into doing things works.

The only problem is that you end up with scared people.

Image result for political ralliesThere are some places in the world that are almost literally on fire right now, but I don’t live in one of them and I bet you don’t either. Don’t get me wrong, I fully recognize that we have plenty of things in our society that are screwed up and that we need to fix. My list is probably different than yours, and quite possibly longer. (It’s that “not much of a sense of humor” thing.) But surely we can agree that we are not in a crisis. We really aren’t.

Others, many others with all sorts of beliefs, have a vested interest in convincing us that we are, but we can refuse to be manipulated by all of them. So please, take a breath. Look around. Find some small thing to appreciate in your life and then go ahead and find another. Once your feeling calmer about it all, consider tuning out the pundits who are determined to work you into a frenzy. The people of Bolivia would have made much better decisions if they had done so.

Now, once you’ve found that calm place, you should definitely vote. After that, the antacid tablets are optional.

(For other oblique election commentary see my posts Everything is Going to Be AlrightWe need to talk about this, just maybe not so much, and Is it over yet?)

(For more vacation-inspired epiphanies see The Moon Rises on my c3 blog, Happy International Day of Peace, Alberto and Maria on my x0 blog, and That’s Why They Play the Game on my d4 blog.)

On the Road

What is your dream vacation? I’m headed out the door on mine, and it is surprising how few of these I have taken. I’m talking about going somewhere I’ve never been; somewhere far enough off well-traveled roads that no one I know has ever been there. Except for my travel companion, I won’t know a soul. I have no plans for what to do when I get there, and no real expectations for how this will turn out. There is enough time, a whole week, for exploring and relaxing and seeing what will happen.

The truth is that I love out of the way places. I keep tucking them into my books, from the town of Flores on Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala in z2 to the to northeast corner of Greenland in d4. You can’t get too remote for my tastes.

charles-kuraltOn the other hand, my traveling companion, who is usually referred to as my husband, is noticeably agitated about this dive into the uncharted, combined with a notable lack of advanced reconnaissance.  I agree that it adds potential for problems, and I try to think of why such an adventure calls to me in a way that sight seeing and visiting loved ones and going and laying on a beach somewhere simply does not.

And I remember Charles Kuralt.

When I was a kid, we watched the evening news with Walter Cronkite. On a good night, the broadcast would include a segment called “On the Road” where this older, balding guy would wander into some town in the middle of nowhere and, always, discover a fascinating story to tell. I loved him, loved his travels and loved his stories. One could say I’ve spent much of my life trying to become Charles Kuralt, and I don’t know why. I even seem to have moved to his home state of North Carolina.

What was the charm? Maybe it was finding something you could not predict. Perhaps it had to do with taking a step back from busy life, and enjoying, for example, the simple pleasure of watching 8000 dominoes fall over.  See for yourself in this video from 1983.

Will I make discoveries like this on my vacation into the unadvertised, non-simulated nooks into which I go? Oh, I hope so. I really hope so.

Good luck charms and dancing Indians

sunsetI’m not a very good tourist in the sense that taking city tours and visiting museums and churches falls low on my priorities. Last week I got to visit New Mexico. I enjoyed amazing sunsets and wonderful food and time with friends and bought a little local Navaho jewelry and I was ready to go home. None-the-less, there I was at the Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art.

Okay, it is a wonderful museum in a beautiful city. While my husband wandered off in search of the history that fascinates him, I looked for something that would interest me. Ah. The marquee pointed to an exhibit on good luck charms from around the world. That had promise.

charmsI spent a little time inspecting carved figures from Brazil and Russia and Ethiopia and India before I began to notice what was the whole point of the exhibit. Humans, of every continent, race, and religion, hope for good fortune. They want to live long and healthy lives, safe from danger. They will ask their gods and beg the fates to protect their children. They want love.

I stared long and hard at the charms from Syria, and those from Iran and Pakistan as well. It is so easy once the drums of war begin to forget the humans who wear these charms. If only we could watch as they pressed them into the hands of their sons and daughters, knowing the silliness and futility of a tiny amulet and yet hoping against all odds that it might somehow tip the balance in a cruel and unpredictable world.

My husband finds me photographing the exhibit. He raises an eyebrow, but lets me be when I explain “blog post”. We wander outside as we hear music.

The adjoining Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is offering a live program and we sit down to watch. We enjoy the native American drummers, and we are delighted when they are followed by three young dancers who do their families proud as they perform a traditional dance involving corn.

dancersNo one in the crowd finds the three children and their dance anything but adorable. That is wonderful. My mind wanders back in time to when native American children would not have evoked such a response from a crowd of largely European descent. Is it a good thing that not only does our animosity fade over time, but our memory of it mostly does as well?

Of course it is. Centuries of hate that neither side can let go of yield the worst of circumstances for all parties. No matter how horrible past atrocities are, or how unfair historical outcomes were, continued hatred is never a better a situation for any of those moving into a more fair and peaceful future.

I think of the good luck charms from Syria. The one piece that we do, desperately, need to remember, I think, is that the fears and angers of today will pass as well. At least they will if we are lucky. Perhaps we can behave with more compassion and understanding  if we remember that cultures that are all too easy to vilify now as we steel ourselves for a fight will once again seem interesting and benign another day. It is our good fortune that things change.

We need to remember the people, all of the people, holding on to their amulets wishing for good luck.

 

On the Road without Advil or Tums

I love to travel. More accurately, my brain loves to travel. My body finds hours in an airline seat difficult, nights on strange beds rough, walking over rocky terrain challenging and new foods unsettling. So while my mind is having a great time, I’ve learned to pacify the rest of me with analgesics and antacids that I seldom have to take at home.

Because I have no intention of traveling less as I get older, I have pretty much resigned myself to an increasing regimen of over the counter helpers as my aging body keeps pace with the wanderlust in my soul. I mean, this is not a problem that gets better, right? Backs only get more cranky and stomachs only get more particular with the years, or so I have been lead to believe. In other words, this is one kind of change that is predictable and not good.

click to learn more about qigong

click to learn more about qigong

Through a series of odd flukes, two months ago I found myself attending a week long seminar on qigong, an ancient Chinese practice which is related to Tai Chi and bears similarities to yoga. Please don’t ask me how I could just sort of end up at a week-long retreat doing something like this, I know that is weird but it happened. To my surprise, I took to the exercises. They seemed to combine everything I had ever liked about Pilates, Lamaze, yoga, dance, and stretching into a simple fifteen minute routine. So, with only one exception, I have done this exercise every day for two months now.

I did it because I really like doing it. I have no ailments and no aspirations. It simply feels good. About a month ago I had to do something a little bit physically challenging, at least for me. I spent quite a bit of time up on a stool painting two walls bright turquoise and I was a little surprised at how well it went and how good I felt afterwards. Interesting.

But it has gotten weirder. I’ve not only spent the past week traveling, I’ve spent it visiting my in-laws. I and my king-sized husband have slept on four different beds in six nights including an eight-year-old’s tiny pink canopy bed, and a futon never made to hold the two of us. I’m in New England and am inhaling anything with lobster and experiencing cold brisk air almost never found in Texas.

The title of this post has of course given my punchline away. My back feels great. The budding arthritis in my hips brought on by cool weather has yet to show itself. My digestive system could not be happier. I haven’t touched a tablet of anything on my travel kit. My husband actually described me as “spunky” out on a tennis court today and that’s not usually the adjective that comes to mind.

Qigong? Some strange alien formula in my bath water that is reducing my aging process? A kind of placebo effect brought on by my own hopefulness? Don’t know. Hope it lasts. Going to keep up with the qigong (and with bathing) in hopes that it does.