Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Living Local, Going Global

Our lives have changed….again.  We began this odyssey over two years ago, climbing volcanoes and snorkeling in seas, finding ourselves, as we blogged last June, coming full circle to Gunnison, Colorado and Western State Colorado University.  We have been so lucky to have spent the last six months with a terrific, talented, and dedicated group of graduate students and faculty determined to leave the planet a better place than the one we find today.  The previous two years had given us a perspective of the importance of choosing how each hour of the day is spent, and neither of us can imagine a better group of colleagues and students with whom to do so as we “work.”

Part of our work and self-renewal is to travel.  We are in an enviable place where we are graced with meaningful work in an amazing community as we “live local,” and, just as the digits drop to the
negative degrees, can “go global.”   Our first stop was one for which we have hungered during the past two years.  We dropped into Oaxaca, Mexico to visit Karen and Stuart, two people we met for what was too short a time in Peru, and have remembered ever since.  In part, because of Karen’s kind gesture of sending her hiking socks along with Sally in her time of need, it should surprise no one that Jess is now literally wearing the shirt off of her back.  Karen and Stuart are an adventurous and generous duo who have seen much of the world, especially Latin America, and now nestle for part of each year in the arms of an amazing community of nationals and internationals in the gourmet capital of Mexico.  Oaxaca is especially well known for its chiles and chocolate, often lovingly mixed into mole.  Sacks overflowing with roasted cacao, cinnamon, and chiles are clustered in shops lining the streets as customers give instructions to men grinding pastes of the fragrant combinations and people of all ages line up for chocolate beverages, both cold and hot.  Chocolate is the blood that runs through this city’s veins in rich courses tracing its history and forecasting its future.

We have spent an amazing week in the embrace and tutelage of our knowledgeable and kind hosts, learning about their favorite small restaurantes, or the best stools in the market for guanabana nieve, or local hiking trails and spectacular world heritage sites.  And, the greatest pleasure has been learning about the lives of two people we will always treasure  as terrific friends.  However, the road is enticing us onward and our bus tickets are hot in our pants pockets as we head south towards Guatemala.  We will pause to linger in Chiapas, initiating 2015 by staring at canyon walls towering over us then board a bus to the border and onward to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.  We will head west toward Belize where we will linger for much of January then slowly turn southward hoping to spend part of February in Panama.  For March and April, we will be exploring Costa Rica, six weeks of it as camp hosts and University representatives at the fabulous Finca BellaVista treehouse resort community.  As always, we welcome the companionship of our friends looking for adventure and willing to eat fried tarantulas with us!

Images from Oaxaca, Mexico and are of Karen gazing at an image of the stained fingers of an indigo dye maker near the Chiapas border; a worker making chocolate paste in one of an incredible number of chocolate shops, and Karen and Stuart Carter and us in a wonderful Oaxaca Lending Library.  Posted 30 December, 2014.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Full Circle


Two years have passed. We began our worldwide two year trip on June 8, 2012 and it feels like both yesterday and a lifetime ago.   More coincidentally than planned, we have finished it on June 7, 2014. On our last night, surrounded by an old friend and new ones from four different countries, we watched the sun set over a meandering river in Bangkok.  During our two year journey, we hoped to learn with humility and give with grace as we answered the question "How do we continue to grow?"  Our hope was that the 7 billion souls and the lands they occupy would become our teachers. Each of the 365 days in the following two years was filled with new lessons and experiences.  We sought to learn as children do, with few preconceptions, with wonder, with excitement and with passion.  We knew some lessons would be harder, some would frighten us, and a few would bring us to tears.

In the end, we underestimated how special the journey would be. We have cried tears of wonder and tears of pain. We have stood in absolute awe before some of the greatest sights on earth.  We have felt the earth tremble as glaciers rumbled across its face.  We have watched volcanoes smolder and have seen the footprints of invisible snow leopards in fresh Himalayan snow.  We have gazed across salt flats and tundra plateaus possessing unearthly beauty. As we drifted through the darkness deep within the earth, Glowworms lit our way as did the stars of the milky way on the top of Chilean mountains.  We stood below the rooftop of earth, not once, but twice, gazing into the
dangerous crevasses of both the south and north faces of Mount Everest.  We have hovered above giant cuttlefish and whale sharks as they swam lazily below us.  We have stared mother grizzlies and orangutans in the eye.  We have gazed on the faces of deities in over a dozen countries, some living, some surreal.  We have walked bare foot through piles of dung and blood-red betel spit in respect for the customs and cultures of those whom we visit.  We have been burning hot, achingly cold, and every state in between in almost 20 different countries and on four different continents.   In each place, our hearts have been forever changed by the people who shared these sights with us, some leading us to them, others discovering them by our sides.  New friends and one special old one have accompanied us in our odyssey.  And some of our favorite new friends were not human, rather animals that touched our hearts and souls.

We are both smaller and larger than we were when we left our jobs, our friends, our family, and all that was comfortable and familiar.  While we have learned much about the world, we learned the most about ourselves and each other....and we are not ready to stop learning.  In fact, we hunger for greater lessons and new opportunities to grow.  The first will come as we seek to help others realize their dreams.  We did not know where we would "land" after we sold our house and most of our possessions and began this journey two years ago.  Interestingly, we have come full circle and will return to our professional passions and to our community in Gunnison, Colorado, the place we call home.

For six months a year we have been given an amazing opportunity to participate and teach within a new community of learners.  This summer, Western State Colorado University opens its doors and hearts to an inaugural group of graduate students seeking a masters in environmental management.  As we have traveled the world, we have seen so many needs and have realized there is little time for humanity to change its path of global annihilation.   We grew up in the nuclear age, ducking and covering, afraid of weapons of mass destruction.  What we did not know to fear were the consequences of the daily cumulative actions of seven billion people.  A stunning percentage of the planet is stripped of its resources, laid bare to the ravages of changing climate, with little local life remaining on the land beyond the poor who have no other place to go.  Everywhere we travel, including in our own "backyard" we see environmental challenges that must be met.  We are humbled beyond all measure to have a chance to help educate those who are stepping forward to meet these challenges with new voices, important projects, and increasingly sophisticated ideas about how to address our past mistakes and create new futures.  For six months of each year, we will be face-to-face with this emerging community and for half a year we will continue to travel, connected to our newest community and building bridges to additional ones in distant lands.

We named this blog "One hundred stories" and hoped to write at least that many during our two year adventure.  We have written only sixty so far.  It is not that there was a dearth of stories; each day was typically filled with several.  We simply found that we were often consumed with living the stories rather than writing them.  We hope to continue this blog and plan on finishing a blog posting about travel tips soon!  This adventure has finished, but the next one has already begun.

Posted in Los Angeles, California. Images are of a Nepalese woman telling Sally about her woes, the Uyuni Salt Flats of Bolivia, and of a poor family trying to catch small fish in Cambodia. 





Friday, June 6, 2014

Two paths

Two paths lie before communities we have visited in Bolivia and Cambodia.  The paths are both physical, having been laid stone by stone, as well as political, involving choices made by the governing bodies.  The paths have the same intended goal: to improve a particular area for tourism.  However, what makes us reflective is how the process of creating the paths reveals so much about people and place.

We first introduced our blog readers to Isla Taquile in Lake Titicaca almost two years ago with a story about 17 sheep.  Our homestay hosts were saving money to buy enough sheep for their island wedding celebration and were 17 sheep short of the total needed.  One element of the a Taquile society we did not write much about was the political structure.  Each of the small island districts was led by a senior married male, and there was one overall leader for the entire island. An individual's profession, where they were live, and when they were to marry were decisions made by the male leaders and the male villagers in weekly meetings.  Consensus among the married men was used to decide actions important to all.  A few years prior to our visit, the community decided to adopt tourism as a viable economic benefit for everyone, and, to assist in that endeavor, built a beautiful stone path from the beach to the highlands that would meander around homes, playgrounds, and small markets.  Each family was responsible for constructing and maintaining a 10 meter stretch.  These people who dressed with such impeccable pride in traditional hand woven clothes and knitted hats also laid each stone with artistic care.  One of the most amazing paths we have enjoyed in our travels, we encountered numerous villagers moving along its many fingers, tipping hats to each other and sharing bags of coca leaves in a formal dance of tradition and greeting.  Our host family showed great pride in the project and believed it helped provide for families in a variety of ways.  Few tourists have actually tread on the path.  We were two of only five for the two days we were there, but people greeted us with smiles and dignified grace as we traversed its stone steps.

In Cambodia we were, at first, delighted to find a stone walking path along a relatively undeveloped two mile
stretch of beach overlooking the Bay of Thailand.  However, the path precipitated questions, for us, about the repression and inequality in this country.  We had read the history of the vast depletion of the resources during and following the period of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam invasion in the 1970's and '80's.  Cambodia had been home to some of the most prized hardwood in the world, but selling the forest became a national pastime for whoever was the ruling authority during that time. Some estimate that, in three decades, 95% of all the native trees were removed.  Even when world pressure led to moratoriums, the current leadership would provide favored cronies with "concessions" to plant Eucalyptus trees and remove the native trees.  They argued that they were no longer logging, rather, farming trees.  If local villagers protested, the army was dispatched to guard the logging operations.

With a majority of the forest gone, the government turned to a new money making scheme, selling the cleared land to both foreign and domestic development corporations.  There was just one minor
complication.  People lived on the land.  So, for the past decade, the government has solved that small problem by simply removing the residents!  Initially, with military personnel acting as enforcers, residents were simply herded onto trucks and dumped elsewhere as heavy equipment bulldozed their small dwellings, usually in a single day or night.  During the past few years, however, given the howls of protest and the complexities of dealing with hundreds of thousands of landless refugees, the government has begun to offer small payments to those "displaced" or to build new villages.  The unfortunate dilemma is that the confiscated land was usually near resources such as lakes, the sea, or tourist areas, whereas the new village locations are usually the places no one has wanted to live.

We were, at first, delighted to have a quiet footpath to walk along the beach until we heard about the villages that were removed from it in the past year.  We drove by one of the places, a few kilometers away, where the people had picked up broken wood and tin from the bulldozers and tried to piece together their lives again.  The poverty was intense, the scene heart wrenching.

In both communities, leaders decided that a path would be built.  Each community had a political process foreign to us.  Yet, the outcomes felt so vastly different.  One place had the sense of living the saying "a rising tide lifts all the boats" and the other broadened an already enormous chasm between the ultra rich and the unimaginably poor.  For us, one lesson has been to more deeply understand what lies beneath our feet as we tread new ground in places so different from our own.


Images are of the path being built on  Isla Taquile in Lake Titicaca, the path along side Oteras Beach, Cambodia, and the "new houses" of those forced to make way for the progress along Oteras Beach. Posted in Bangkok, Thailand.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

She named him Lucky

She named her new born son, Samnang, or "Lucky," an inconceivable choice on the night he arrived sometime in April of 1975.  She gave him life, afraid for her own and her family's.  No nurses could help her, soldiers fighting nearby could be heard, and within days of his arrival, he and his family were refugees, fleeing the Khmer Rouge.  Maybe she had a precognition and knew he would be the only one of her family of seven to survive.

We met Lucky at our bus station. Our accommodation, the Battambang Resort, sent him to fetch us to their peaceful place among rice fields near the town of Battambang.  It was not so peaceful four decades ago as his dad, a local police commander, knew it was time to hide his identity and flee northward with his family.  They, along with millions of other refugees, were swept up by the revolution.  Lucky's oldest brother was only 12, his three sisters 9, 7, and 5.  The family was split up as refugee children 5 and older were sent to distant child labor camps.  His siblings worked at making fertilizer by collecting cow dung from the rice fields and mixing it with vegetation.  They were worked hard, fed little, and one by one each starved to death.  His dad successfully hid his identity for a year and a half, but someone finally recognized and reported him.  His previous occupation, like those of teachers, administrators, and doctors, was now a death warrant.  He was taken away and never seen again.

Lucky and his mom were now alone, with his mom required to perform hard labor in the fields each day.
 She hid the young toddler in pits in the ground as the Khmer Rouge soldiers would bayonet crying babies who distracted their mothers from their fieldwork.  As the Vietnamese arrived, the now four-year-old boy and his mother escaped to a series of refugee camps, first near, then over, the Thai border.  Some had no support, but by 1982, Bangphu, where they ended up along with thousands of other Cambodian refugees, received support and supplies from other nations.  Lucky started to realize the meaning of his name at Bangphu when camp workers mistook him for a girl and gave him and his mother two ration cards.  Only girls and women received the cards that brought servings of rice and canned fish to the struggling family.  He vividly remembers and is forever grateful to the personnel of UNBRO (United Nations Border Relief Organization) who brought food and some stability to his war-torn life.  At the camp where he was to live for 9 years, he was able to go to primary and secondary school, learn some English, and eat much more regularly.  Despite the hospital there, his mother's bloody coughs led inevitably to her death when he was 14.  By 16, he was a migrant worker in Thailand, digging potatoes for a few months.  A family of opium dealers took him in to watch their children, promising him a dollar a day which he never received.  Leaving them a few months later, he followed others across the narrow trails through heavily land mined forest between Cambodia and Thailand, fearing even stopping to lie down to sleep.

Back in Cambodia, Lucky was finally reunited with cousins, aunts and uncles he had never met.  His life continued to improve with hard labor as a tree cutter then slowly working his way to buying his first tuk-tuk.  He practiced English by listening to radio free America and with tourists.  With time, he met his wonderful wife and now they have a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter.  At 35, his mother's choice of his
name became fully realized.  An Australian family taking a tour with him became interested and invested in his life.  They helped him build a nice home and to acquire a new, fancy tuk-tuk when his old one died.  He cannot believe his "luck" and pictures of these special friends adorn the walls of his small, but beautiful new home.

Visiting his home, watching him play with his son, made us remember how "lucky" most of us really are who were born in a wealthy nation with significant peace and prosperity.  Unlike our new Cambodian friend, Lucky, we know the date of our birth.  We have albums full of family photos.  We have never had to face imminent starvation and the despair of being completely alone.  Though we may feel like we are walking a tightrope at times, there are no real land mines to face if we misstep, just imaginary ones.  We are lucky.

Images are of Lucky with his new Tuk Tuk, family and having a traditional Cambodian breakfast with Sally. If you would like to contact Lucky he can be reached from the Battambang Resort or at +855 12687098 (international) or 012687098 (local). Posted at Battambang, Cambodia.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Darkness Falls

 As we travel, we tend to visit the places that make us feel good.  We love the vast, mind numbing landscapes; gorgeous and unique animals; pristine or at least somewhat intact ecosystems; exotic cultures; and, most of all, warm, kind people.  But part of our journey and commitment to "learn with humility" occasionally takes us to the dark side of humanity, to places where unspeakable cruelty to others or the planet shakes us.  Gives us pause.  Makes us cry.

Cambodia has both....significant culture, beauty, and a dark history and challenging present.  Most people fly in and visit the unequaled ruins of Angkor Wat, touring sites from what many say were the peak of Khmer civilization now centuries past.  In doing so, they avoid the lands, especially those near the northwest and southeast borders, seeded with millions of unexploded bombs and land mines. Cambodia has the highest percentage of land mine amputees in the
world, and it is not just people who lose limbs.  We watched an elephant amputee hobble on its prosthetic as well.  Everywhere we visit within the country, limbless victims are seeking and needing help.  Most of the land mines were laid by either the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970's or Vietnam soldiers during their decade of rule in the 1980's.  Other unexploded bombs are legacies from the U.S. and other countries that carpet
bombed the country in the early 1970's during the Vietnam War. Three decades of war have left a legacy of fear and real danger.  Many farmers are still afraid to enter their own agricultural land in small villages as most land mine victims meet their fate in fields.

This is a country that has experienced genocide during our lifetime.  While we were in high school or getting our first jobs after college from 1975 to 1979, Cambodians experienced the massacre of between 20 to 30% of their population at the hands of an extremist Communist group of their own countrymen, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.  Can you imagine one out of every three or four people you know being brutally murdered in "Killing Fields" or dying of starvation or disease?  Over one third of the country's population was expelled from homes in the cities and forced to work with little food and no medicine in the countryside.  We visited one of the hundreds of mass graves, or killing fields, near Phnom Penh.  As we listened to the audio tour, we stared at fragments of human bone and clothing still emerging from the ground.  We stood before 9,000
skulls while listening to the voices of the actual guards talk about how they would beat the prisoners to death since bullets were too valuable to "waste" on such things.  And we broke down a bit when we saw the tree against which infants' heads were smashed.  The Khmer Rouge was a brutal, ugly regime that targeted the educated in particular.  Even wearing glasses was a sign of being an intellectual and marked the person for certain death.  When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and subsequently ruled the country for over a decade, they chose one of the the defecting Khmer Rouge soldiers, Hun Sen, as the country's new leader.  Despite significant international and UN investment beginning in 1993 and continuing to this day, the same leader, Hun Sen, has been elected lord prime minister and supreme military commander in every election since 1993.  He has been the de facto ruler for more than three decades.  The Khmer Rouge was a functioning organization almost to the final day of the 20th century and its leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998 at the age of 82 before he could be brought to trial.  Today, Cambodians lack educational opportunities, clean water, and basic health care as compared to their neighboring Southeast Asia countries.  Many of their current teachers have little education, never having attended more than primary school.  Some estimates suggest that over one quarter of the current population is still suffering from PTSD and that domestic violence is actually rising rather than declining.

Yet, there are heroes.  There is light even in this dark place where people suffered so much in the past decades.  We met one of the boy soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, Aki Ra, at his land mine museum and
orphanage.   As a child soldier, he laid thousands of land mines.  He has now created an organization to defuse and remove the mines, an educational museum for world travelers, and an orphanage to take care of children affected by land mines.  We also met people working for The Wildlife Alliance, an organization helping to provide for animal victims of land mines, such as the fortunate elephant we witnessed with its own prosthetic.  This organization is also dedicated to strengthening policy measures preventing the habitat deforestation, a practice that reached its heyday with Pol Pot's leaders as they sold timber to Thailand and elsewhere and still continues today.  The organization also has an anti-poaching militarized arm to stop the trade of endangered wildlife and pet species.  Many of our heroes are less obvious on the world stage.  Despite being in a country better known for corruption and bribes, we have experienced kind, caring individuals who have helped us, rather than cheated us, even when such would be easy.  We meet young people taking college classes.  And everywhere, NGO's are at work, trying to provide infrastructure that has yet to emerge from the government.

Not all of our lessons are gentle as we travel the world.  Sometimes, we venture to places that frighten us, disturb us, and make us want to turn away.  Yet these are also places that most need global citizens to better understand them and, where appropriate, to give with grace.

Posted in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Images are of us listening to the horrors of the killing fields; a pile of used prosthetics at the orphanage; the tree used to kill infants near the mass graves of mothers; Aki Ra and his collection of defused land mines and other armaments.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Shangra-Li


When Sally was a child, she watched a black and white movie, "Lost Horizons," starring Jane Wyatt.  Back then, there was no color TV and no amazing special effects, so the movies had to be especially well done to capture the imagination.  This was the first time she heard of "Shangri-La," the mythical city high in the snowy, remote Himalayas.  She was hooked.  As she grew older, she continued to explore this mystical land by reading books about the Dalai Lama and his palace, the Potala, in the secluded city of Lhasa high in these mysterious mountains of Tibet.  She dreamed of some day visiting this place that seemed so far away and so out of reach.   We had always known Nepal was on our travel list but Tibet seemed beyond our reach, like the mythical city of "Shangri-La."  We had heard that visas were challenging to get and were unsurprised that the borders were closed to Tibet when we arrived in Nepal.  We applied anyway, and found out just 12 hours before we were to depart for Tibet that our visa was approved.

We traveled overland with a Tibetan guide and driver who met us at the border.  Our route took us along the "Friendship Highway," one of the most fascinating and scenic highways in the world.  We traversed several high mountain passes (several over 17,000 feet), viewed spectacular glaciers and stupendous mountain ranges (in addition to the Himalayas along the Nepal/Tibet border) and spent hours driving across the Tibetan Plateau's windswept, barren, and achingly remote landscapes.

Surprisingly, in this desolate, bitterly cold, gorgeous landscape, there were small communities of native Tibetans scattered throughout, usually working what appeared to be barren fields.  Families worked together to plant barley seed with yaks or ponies yoked to a hand plow.  The dirt had to be mixed with a large amount of topsoil transported from lower elevations hundreds of miles away to make a viable planting environment before the plowing could be done.  It was very labor intensive, and the cold temperatures and constant, stiff, chilly wind made it seem like an unlikely endeavor.  Perhaps it was the blessings given on the first day of each planting season that made the villagers' hard won fight with the earth fruitful.  We were invited to eat treats and briefly participate in one such blessing ceremony when we stopped to watch from the road.

Everywhere we drove, there were prayer flags strung across the highest points along the road.  Their colorful ripples in the ever present wind became our constant companion, and we were also encouraged to help string new ones on auspicious days or at special sites.  Tibetans believe that these offerings in holy places of power are especially strong prayers which will eventually be carried away by wind and/or water to all sentient beings.

We moved "off the beaten path" in our two-wheel drive van on a four-wheel drive road to the Everest Base Camp to get a spectacular view of the Queen Mountain.  She is especially magnificent at close range.  During the backcountry drive, we encountered small bands of Tibetan nomads.  We marveled at the thought of living in these altitudes in their tiny canvas tents placed temporarily next to rock walls about three feet high as we watched the scattered groups moving their yaks to "greener" pastures.  The cold temperatures, barren landscape, and the constant, frigid, stiff wind gave us the impression that this was an impossibly difficult life.  Yet, these nomadic people were warm and welcoming, sticking out their tongues at us, their way of happily greeting strangers.


After a week of traveling, drinking gallons of smoky, yak dung flavored boiled water, and staying in some of the most "basic" lodging we have encountered in two years, we finally reached the completely modern, Chinese city of Lhasa which little resembled the Shangri-La of Sally's memories and dreams.  While Lhasa was unremarkable as a whole, it had incredibly special places and people which would have fit right into the imaginary city of Shangri-La.
For example, the Potala, home of the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama prior to his exile in 1959, was much more than we had ever imagined.  An incredible architectural achievement when it was completed in 1694, this structure is almost as impressive today as it must have been back then.  It is enormous, towering above the city at an altitude of 12,139 feet, and the three hour walking tour we took along side pilgrims and tourists allowed us to access only about 2% of the entire structure!  We both felt saddened following our tour.  The palace is gorgeous but it is an empty and lifeless husk without the presence of its religious leaders.

In contrast, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, constructed in 642, was alive with devout pilgrims, heavily visited by locals and a warm, special place.  It is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet.  We observed Tibetans here, and at the Potala, walking circuits around the structures once, three times, or 103 times.  Most carried necklaces of prayer beads, counting each bead as they chanted a mantra.  The hum of soft voices chanting as we joined pilgrims on their dawn circuits will be a powerful memory played in our minds across our lifetimes.  Three times we would walk, sometimes in astonishment at what we witnessed from these deeply devout Buddhists.  Many of them carried prayer wheels, twirling them constantly as they walked, softly mouthing their prayers.  Others were prostrating themselves (from a standing posture, bending their knees and placing their hands on the ground, kicking their legs out behind them so they are lying on the ground, then sliding their hands on the ground to a position above their heads, coming back up to a kneeling position, and then standing with clasped hands held high in prayer).  Many do this every day for months until they have done it 10,000 times.  We even met a group of Tibetans who had traveled, prostrating themselves for hundreds of miles, as they covered the distance from their home village to Lhasa!  We cannot imagine what strength of body and will it takes to accomplish such a feat in this high, cold environment.  If we had to describe the Tibetan people with one word, we would say they are devout, much more so than any culture with which we have interacted during our journeys.  Despite decades of oppression, torture, and systemic attempts to eliminate their spirituality, they remain strong in their faith.  In them, we saw an almost mythical people, the people of Sally's childhood dreams.

Posted in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Images are of the Potala Palace, the north face of Mount Everest, nomads near Mt Everest and Buddhist pilgrims at the Jokhang Temple prostrating themselves 10,000 times.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Censored!

The smiling young Chinese border guard asked us "Do you have any books?"  We paused, as the enormity of the question drove home what we were about to experience for 10 days.  We have crossed many borders during the past two years.  In some, guards are searching for drugs and, as in Bolivia, the body searches can be very complete.  In others, such as Australia,  guards are seeking to prevent introduced species from wrecking fragile ecosystems.  Almost all are seeking to exclude dangerous weapons such as explosives or firearms.  As we stared at the young uniformed man before us, we realized with dawning sadness that books, ideas, and access to global social networks are the most dangerous imports into Tibet.

Tibet, or the rooftop of the world, has an interesting history including periods of jostling for independence from Monguls, Chinese, Thais, Nepalese and the British.  While it has experienced war, during the last two to three hundred years, it's people were better known for their study of philosophy, meditation, sentience, and the nature of existence.  Prior to 1950, Tibet was an autonomous nation with a rich Buddhist culture where most families had at least one son or daughter who were dedicated monks or nuns.  Thousands of monasteries existed; even small villages of a few houses far away on the vast Tibetan Plateau had their own small monasteries or nunneries decorated with prayer flags, food offerings, and incense.  Tibet had a history of isolation which led to a very strong and unique cultural identity which was only gradually allowing change in the middle part of the 20th century.  All that changed when 40,000 armed Chinese invaded in 1950.  By 1959, the embodiment of their God of Compassion, the 14th Dalai Lama, had to flee to India, in all probability never to
return again.  Even possessing an image of him is illegal in Tibet.  Most of Tibet's senior religious leaders are exiles.  Tibet was particularly impacted by Mao's cultural revolution and for a decade beginning in 1966, almost every one of the tens of thousands of monasteries were destroyed, monks and nuns were killed, imprisoned, or forced to marry, and people were forbidden to practice their faith.  In the decades that followed, there has been a slow return to allowing some freedom of religious expression; however, Tibet is now occupied by hundreds of thousands Han Chinese immigrants who have been encouraged with significant salaries, interest free business loans, and prominent positions to help modernize the "backward" Chinese province. Meanwhile, most Tibetans continue to experience many barriers to economic, political, and cultural power. The Tibetan quarter of the almost mythical city of Lhasa currently occupies less than 5% of the capital.  Lhasa is a modern Chinese city with scattered hints of its past cultural prominence.

We were surprised at the level of constraint and monitoring we observed.  In a trip of over a thousand miles, we rarely traveled for an hour without multiple stops by Chinese police and military who examined our visa, passports, and our guide's and driver's identification papers.  Getting permission to visit Tibet can be challenging with the country's borders frequently being closed to all foreigners.  When open, the rules change each year about which country is allowed visas, what group compositions can be allowed, which areas may be visited.  We asked one day to deviate from our approved path by 1.6 miles and were told how we could
not as the police would stop us.  Passports are required to access the web from internet caf├ęs or to check into hotels or visit tourist sites such as the Mt. Everest base camp.  Getting on the Internet, where email and other communication is monitored, was not very productive.  All social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Words with Friends, YouTube, etc. are blocked.  Chillingly, so are education sites with web addresses ending in .edu.  Uploading photos, documents, or credit card payments are all blocked as are downloading items.  No Amazon Kindle books here!  Cameras were everywhere, as were the riot police, police guards, metal detectors, and plain clothes agents.  Taking photos of the police, soldiers or guards is a serious offense in Tibet and could lead to a visitor's expulsion from the country.  The result is very disturbing for people raised in a free society.  We found mainland China to appear to be a freer society.  The decades of oppression are obvious as current Tibetan culture is a fragment of its former glory.  Our guide's language was peppered each day with the phrase "That is impossible" and we were to come to realize how limited his possibilities were.  While we faced censorship, he faced a lifetime of constraints.  However, he thought of himself as lucky, knowing his parents had faced much more.

In the end, despite more than 6 decades of Chinese occupation, we met some of the most passionate pilgrims, free nomads, and kind souls we have encountered on the planet.  Our next blog entry will describe the wonders that remain embedded within the people and place known as Tibet.

Posted from Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Images are of a Tibetan pilgrim completing a circuit in Lhasa; monks from the Sera Monastery who are currently allowed to practice their Buddhist religion; and of the ever present Chinese riot police marching below the silent and empty Potala, home of the exiled Dalai Lama.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Little Steps

 "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" ~Lao-tzu

How do you reach an altitude greater than 3,000 feet above the highest Rocky Mountain peaks?  Little steps.  Each day, you make small leaps in elevation going 1,000 to 3,000 feet higher.  Each physical step you take is spaced carefully apart, slowly, regularly, conserving energy as the oxygen diminishes from the air you breathe to less than half of what you are used to.  Up and down valleys you travel with these small steps. At first, you are in the crush of those heading toward the Everest Base Camp, but after three days, you turn aside toward Gokyo on the road less travelled.

And as you trek, you walk carefully on cliff edges alongside soaring raptors and wander in the shadows of geological giants, following in the footprints of snow leopards.  The omnipresent sound of bells give warning of approaching yak trains all day.  Yak dung coats your pathway and feeds the fires each night in tea houses providing you some measure of warmth.  Its smell is always present, sweeter than your own body odor after days without water for bathing and showering.

Each night you sleep under heavy blankets in rooms with temperatures indistinguishable from the outside frigid air.  You place batteries, devices and water in your bed with you so that some remains unfrozen for the next morning's hike.  You carefully maneuver through the black ice surrounding the squat toilet as you void the gallon of water you have consumed to prevent altitude sickness.   Your room is lit by a dim solar light which fades as the battery charge diminishes long after you have fallen into a deep sleep.  Each morning's bitter coldness is staved off by hot tea and trekking.   You breathe through your nose and neck gaiter carefully conserving your warm moist air as you take each step.  You nod in greeting to those locals struggling under loads larger than you have ever carried in your life as they move from one small habitation to the next, bringing goods and trekker supplies along the way.  Their steps are large as they carry loads of over 100 pounds to places several days' walk from the nearest road or airport, accessible only by foot or by the all too frequent rescue helicopters.

While the way is challenging, the rewards are momentous. Landscapes of Mother Earth's greatest peaks surround you, engulfing your mind, commanding your eyes, and filling your soul.  Your mind, stretched by the surreal vistas before you, can never return to the same state.  You are forever changed by what you see and what you attempt to comprehend. Each little step has added up to the journey of a lifetime and takes one to heights never imagined before.  As you stand at the summit of your journey, you see that it has been each little step of life that has led you to these persons, this place, this time, this peace.

Posted in Namche Bazaar, Nepal.  Images are of our ascent to 17,575 feet in view of Mt Everest; a typical black ice toilet experience; one of many yak dung fires to keep us warm; and one of many views along the trek.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hurts so good

Our legs shook and buckled as we headed down a short flight of stairs in Pokhara, Nepal, after our first "real" trek.  We have had the opportunity to participate in commercial treks in many of the places we have traveled.  There were the Great Walks in New Zealand, the W Trek in Torres del Pine, and the Inca Trail in Peru.  For various reasons, we either could not or chose not to walk with companies and guides in these situations.  Sometimes price or timing was a barrier; other times, one of us was sick with food poisoning or some other foreign (or not so foreign) ailment. In Nepal, however, we opted to "go for the gusto" and booked with a local Nepalese company to take us trekking.

Trekking, as we understand and define it, is walking significant distances over several days.  There is an
element of weight to carry on one's own back that can make or break the entire experience. As we approached the Himalayas, we were hopeful we were up to the distance and time requirements of our first five day trek, but we knew for certain we could not carry all of the gear we would would need for temperatures varying from quite warm to below freezing.  We have both injured our backs in the past and are limited to 20 pounds of weight at a time.  A commercially supported trek solved this dilemma for us.  While we each carried from 8 - 10 pounds of gear, our porter carried the rest (40 - 50 pounds total) for us.  This included his gear, our sleeping bags and down jackets, an extra change of clothing for each of us, our "pharmacy" and snacks, and toiletries for each of us.  We loved our time with our porter and our guide as we listened to Nepalese songs, learned phrases in the language, and exchanged cultural tidbits and teasing.  Their presence brought us so much more than logistical support.

As we trekked, we stopped nightly at simple tea houses along the route.  Some were more comfortable than others, but all were basic, even by our evolving standards.  Rooms were sparse with the beds consisting of a thin piece of foam on a board.  Some had no electricity at all, not even a simple light.  None had heat. Bedding and a pillow were always supplied, often including a thick top cover to keep out the cold at night, but in colder regions such might be washed only once a season, not day.   We knew we were living the high life when bathrooms were on the same floor and contained western toilets.  Such was a rarity with squat toilets often being a hallway and floor away.  None had toilet paper and few had nearby sinks.  A couple of places had showers if you were hardy enough to take one.  The food was plain without much spice, but it was nourishing, especially the dal baht, a Nepalese dish consisting of lentil soup, rice, and cooked greens.  Drinking water was always available, sometimes boiled, sometimes bottled, and sometimes both!

The first trekking we chose to do in Nepal consisted of walking up, up, up starting from about 7,000 feet to around 11,000 feet.  Sometimes (rarely) there was some relief to the upward slog, and always, what goes up
must come down.  During our initial 5 day trek, we spent the first 3 hours hiking moderate hills feeling pretty good about ourselves and our abilities!  Then we hit the final 3 hiking hours that first day and faced 3,200 stone steps which wound straight up the mountain.  Our days became blurs of steps, either up (which became preferred) or down (which was frequently icy and torturous), often for hours.  The steps here are like those all over the world ---- not created for trekkers; rather, historic trade routes in tough terrain connecting rural, mountain communities.  We were humbled as local people, hustled by us with loads twice as heavy as our porter's or with the intention of walking in hours distances we would need days to achieve.  One reason we loved our trek was the glimpse of remote village life it gave us.  A shy smile, a murmured "Namaste" were gifts given to us as we watched water buffalo and loose lines of mules being driven by us, loaded with goods such as chickens, propane canisters, and building materials.

When we returned from the trek, it took our legs about 3 days and a good Swedish massage to fully recover.  "Hurts so good" was what we said to each other as we tripped and stumbled our way up and down steps around the town of Pokhara.  Our next trek will test our muscle strength and endurance again and especially our ability to withstand the effects of altitude, as we will attempt to climb to about 18,000 feet.  But the rewards include the chance to stare at the "rooftop" of Mother Earth... Everest.

Posted in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.  Images include us taking a break with our guide, a line of pack mules, Sally in our first tea house room, and the view from one of our tea houses near Gorka, Nepal.






Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The first 48

As we got closer to our date of departure from the U.S., we discussed the comparison of "this time" with "the first time."  When we originally left the comforts of home two years ago to travel to places that were completely unknown to us, we felt fear, hesitancy, and insecurity as well as excitement and anticipation.  We had very little idea of how to "make it work" in places that were completely foreign to us.  As we traveled, often as locals and backpackers do, we met challenges and overcame hardships and by doing so gained confidence in ourselves and our abilities with every step we took.  Preparing for the journey this time, we felt much more confident and were relatively at ease with our abilities.....we knew what to expect.  As Kathmandu was to teach us, we were completely mistaken!

After spending over 30 hours on three planes and in two airports, we found we had an impaired exhaustion as we sought to deal with the world awaiting us in Nepal.  To describe the scene on a Kathmandu street is almost impossible.  A crush of diverse humanity fills the twisted, damaged and unmarked streets.  While Nepalese are supposed to drive on the left, a visitor would never know.  It is a complete free-for-all with each sidewalkless street dominated by pedestrians, pressing each other forward in a wave as the motorcycles, bikes, cars, and busses bellow toxic fumes while drivers press hopelessly on horns and gun their engines to thrust people to the side.  Small shops, with tired-eyed owners wearing grubby face masks silhouetted in dark doorways, line the streets.  And randomly, the strangest sights such as mountain people staying warm with a wood fire built in the midst of this madness or men standing on top of busses pushing aside wads of snarled electric wires play out in front of you.  We were thankful for our own face masks that reduced the acrid burn in our throats.

The homestay we had chosen was with a nice older couple who lived in what one would describe as an upper middle class section of Kathmandu.  Our room in the house was cozy, but a bit on the chilly side when we found the heater did not work.  The bathroom was well equipped, but there was no hot water and the toilet could not be flushed until the water to it was turned on briefly and off before the leak drained onto the floor.  The heater and refrigerator did not work at first, but we were soon to learn that repairing electrical appliances in a city with a possible maximum of 6 hours of electricity a day was not a real priority.  Three hours during the day and three hours at the darkest time of the night are all anyone can expect to have power in Kathmandu.

The following morning, we walked into the city to see what life was like for the rest of the populace in "another big city in a developing country."  We were stunned.  As we walked and watched, it quickly became apparent that we had not seen this level of poverty anywhere else we had traveled.  It oozed out of every nook and cranny; it was a constant companion to everyone we met.  We had a difficult time comprehending what we were seeing.   This is the first country we have visited where cell phones are rarely seen.  Lepers begging and children tugging are a common sight.  The strongest image of our first 48 hours may be that of the cremation site where over one hundred bodies are burned each day.  The rivers in Kathmandu, even the holy one below Shiva's temple, are described as toxic.  The raw sewage, heavy metals, and industrial waste did little to sweeten the smell of burned bodies.  Each day, the ashes of those fires are added to the calf-high sludge.  And as we watched a family mourn, a woman walked below them through the cold sludge, feeling for the coins that might be tossed into the water along with the remains.  Back and forth she moved, trolling for a few cents.  If Kathmandu had been our first international experience when we set out almost two years ago, we would have been frightened by it.  Now, we are fascinated and thoughtful, often cloaked in stunned silence as we attempt to process and understand what we are seeing.

Posted in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Images are of Jess with her facemask, Sally grateful for a bucket of hot water, and a woman searching for coins below a funeral ritual.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Time

Life had reached a crescendo of activity before we sold our home, possessions, and quit our jobs in 2012.  A common phrase to friends and family, if we had time to utter it at all, was "I'll call you later." How many of us have said the same to those we love, care for, and who are important to us?  Yet, so often, the months or even years pass with a few Christmas letters and hugs at funerals and weddings as our schedules keep us from greater investments of time for friends and family.  Our society is a busy one in America. We work hard, encourage our kids to keep busy, and many of us have multigenerational responsibilities that involve significant time with immediate family.

One of the joys of these past two years has been having the opportunity to visit with people.  While some of our international encounters have been well chronicled, we have been quiescent about much of the past few months back in the states. We have loved this special period in a manner completely different than the months of international travel.  We have had time, more than we have in decades, for friends and family.  We have spent plenty of it in just each other's company as we journeyed and camped in "The Mansion", our beloved camper van.  However, we have also walked in deserts, through snow drifts, on city sidewalks, and across sandy beaches beside people we care for and love.  We have packed, organized and laughed with friends in their periods of transition and change.  We have met the newest generation emerging from our families and friends and have tumbled along in their youthful exuberances.  We have had time to visit and listen to rich lifetime stories from senior mentors and matriarchs.  And everywhere, we have eaten well.  Too well!

Our memories from this period of our adventure will be filled with the smells of great meals in the best of company.  The smells of steaming tamales, vegetable soup, fresh flour tortillas, campfire hotdogs, Cajun, Mexican, Indian and Thai will be gateways into memories of conversations punctuated with laughter and/or tears.   While we have been mainly traveling in the southwest, we have been welcomed into abodes all over the country.  In those homes, we have found the time to reconnect to people we love through song, games, concerts, potlucks, and movies.  Rich spicy teas, fun spirits, and strong coffee have been the mortar binding many of these moments into new foundations of friendship and family.

Time.  It is such a valuable resource.  Yet, unlike more material resources, it cannot be saved.  It must be spent.  We are fortunate beyond all measure that it is our most plentiful resource at the moment.  And we have loved spending it with our friends and family.  We know how valuable a resource it is to all of them as well and we are humbled at how many found some to spend with us as well.  We are getting ready to head to Nepal and to explore more of Southeast Asia.  We leave with physical and spiritual strength given the nurturing and love of our family and friends.

Posted in Gunnison, CO.  Images are of wonderful food and fun with family and friends throughout the Southwest and Canada.