The Practice of Humility

In our fast-paced digital, increasingly technologically oriented world, it is so easy to take things for granted. As a practicing therapist, I often encouraged my clients to practice ‘mindfulness’. We spend so much time and energy focusing on the past or the future, leaving little time to really capture and enjoy the present.  Frequently we see what we expect to see. Our attention may be focused in one direction, so we might miss what’s right in front of us. I need to remind myself of this.

My husband and I fight. My son’s a butthead. Too many rainy, gray days discourage me from enjoying activities. The internet’s to slow. My dog is in pain. I worry about my children’s futures. I’m anxious about the economy.  When did that sagging skin appear? I’m overwhelmed by the violence, poverty, and hatred in the world.  The list is endless. See how easy it is for negative thoughts to manifest themselves?

 I remind myself of the serenity prayer. “G-d grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Truer words were never spoken.  It’s time to focus on the positive aspects of my life. Truly there is much for which I am grateful.

My family is healthy. While our house need a lot of work, I’m happy we have a house in which to live.  Seeing the mountains on the horizon is spectacular. My husband is supportive. I have the freedom to espouse my views. I’m appreciative that I have choices…what or where to eat, what do read or watch, which car to drive, where to go. I have the means and ability to travel.  I’m thrilled to have the privilege of glimpsing other cultures.

Travelling to Myanmar was a humbling experience. With a repressive military government for almost 50 years, the country suffered enormous hardships and world isolation. It is inspiring to witness the dawning of the modern age arriving in Myanmar. As in much of the world, there is  tremendous poverty. Many don’t have indoor plumbing. Health insurance is non-existent. Most people don’t get past middle school. In spite of those hardships, the people are friendly. They are quick to smile. Tourists are welcomed. Rather than focusing on what’s missing, they appear happy for what they do have. Family is important. Parents care for, and make time for their children. It’s safe for women to travel alone. What I did not see was the omnipresent sense of entitlement that is all too pervasive in our culture. We had a wonderful opportunity to meet and talk with some locals. The common thread is optimism for the future.

So I am truly blessed to be born in a relatively stable part of the world where opportunities abound. I’m grateful for having had loving parents who gave me a sense of belonging, the ability to question,  and showed me the importance of education. I’m indebted to my family for their unwavering support and encouragement.  I’m thankful to enjoy laughter. The happy smiles of my grandchildren as they play are heartwarming. Taking  the time to look, I see reasons to feel gratified everywhere. With every fiber of my being, I am truly grateful to be alive. 

I’d love to hear about what makes you feel blessed.

The Joy of Freedom
The Joy of Freedom

 

Taunggyi Fire Festival

Taunggyi Fire Festival, Myanmar
Taunggyi Fire Festival, Myanmar

 

This fire balloon festival, lasting 7 days, is held every year in Taunggyi. Celebrating the end of the rainy season, it coincides with the first full moon after Buddhist lent. The hot air balloon competition, day and night, attracts tens of thousands of visitors.  Teams prepare for months creating intricately designed paper balloons.  Daytime is more sedate…a great time for families.  Hot air balloons in the shapes of animals such as parrots,  cows, elephants are launched. There are also stalls with games, rides, and plenty of food.

Nighttime is when the real excitement occurs. Men danced with each other as they waited for the next balloon preparations to commence. Some balloons are attached with hundreds of candles. Fifty kilos of fireworks are attached to other  paper balloons,  setting off a sparkling array of blues, reds, oranges, yellow, and purple light shows as the balloons are launched. Visitors beware! This can be dangerous. Our guide warned us to be aware of which way the wind was blowing, and cautioned us about getting too close. Thinking he was being overly cautions, I only listened with half an ear.  As we watched a balloon being fired up to launch, suddenly the wind shifted. The balloon hadn’t quite launched when the fireworks were triggered sooner than planned, shooting out arbitrarily into the crowd.. Adrenaline surged as people stampeded to get to higher ground. Luckily no one was hurt. The firemen on site got the situation under control. From a safer distance we watched the balloon soar upward, spraying it’s dazzling array of fireworks in it’s wake.

The balloons launch approximately every 2o minutes. During the break we meandered through the stalls. The scents of fried food and incense fills the air. Different genres of live music can be heard…from rap, to pop, to more traditional Myanmar melodies. Beer, rum, gin, and whiskey are sold almost everywhere.  Many of the games are typical of carnivals and fairs. For a few Kyet (pronounced chet) you can try your hand at winning prizes. The Ferris Wheel was quite an interesting site. It’s powered manually. With increased fascination we watched as 10 young men climbed up the spokes of the 50 foot structure, using their bodies as momentum to power the wheel.  Hearts thumping we observed some of them swinging from the bars as the wheel spins toward the ground, as others, upside down, swayed between the bars.  To  stop, they dangle from the back of the chairs to slow down the force. Dang….that would never fly in the Western world.

All in all, the festival was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. In the Shan state, the mountain town of Taunggyi is about an hour ride (longer with traffic) from Nyang Shwe/Inle Lake. Transportation can be arranged for about $12.00.

dscf2590dscf2455dscf2579dscf2491

Ferris Wheel at Taunggyi Fire Festival
Ferris Wheel at Taunggyi Fire Festival

Rebranding Myself in New Orleans

20160919_214042-3My nerves tingle with apprehension and excitement. The omnipresent nagging doubt competes to trump any sense of anticipation that manages to snake through to my consciousness. Can I really do this? Can I learn to write? Can I turn my love of travel into something more? I am finally on my way to New Orleans for an intense three-day workshop for aspiring travel writers. Always at different locations, Great Escape Publishing sponsors this event yearly.

New Orleans often evokes savory images of Creole and Cajun cuisine, jazz, Mardi Gras, voodoo, and vampires. Rich in history, the Big Easy offers entertainment and activities for everyone.  Luckily many of the attractions are located in or near the French Quarter.

The participants range from millennials to baby boomers. Some are experienced writers who have already been published. Others, like myself, are newbies. Many are retired, or simply seeking a career change. A love of travel binds this diverse group. Throughout the workshop the tone remains encouraging, fun, professional, supportive, and inspiring. With so much to experience and so little time, it is difficult to decide what to do.

Great Escape Publishing packs tons of information into three full days. We learn to target our writing to our intended audience. We explore ways to find unique and interesting story angles to those well-worn stories that have been told scores of times. We discover the importance of query letters, and where we send our pitches. We learn to look for a publication’s writer’s guidelines. We hear from editors about what sells and what doesn’t. We learn how to research. We learn the importance of taking decent photographs to go with your stories. One of the highlights of the weekend showcases the success stories of previous workshop attendees.  

Travel writing involves research. It can be time consuming. It can be frustrating. But let’s face it…it’s not rocket science. And it can be fun! Imagine the adrenaline rush of seeing your first byline! I’m not there yet, but working on it! While most travel writers will not get rich, there are opportunities to acquire various perks. Some of these might include free or reduced lodging, meals, entrance fees to various attractions, and free press trips.

The conference’s busy schedule does not allow for ample time to see New Orleans unless we extend our stay.  That can be difficult when you have other obligations. In the evenings we have time to sample some of NOLA’s famed nightlife.  One day we have the morning to explore. Again, with so many intriguing possibilities, what to do?

On our free morning, I opt for our ‘Save Our Cemeteries’ tour of the oldest existing cemetery in the city, St. Louis1. Aside from the sweltering 90-degree temperature, 90 percent humidity, the tour is an interesting glimpse into NOLA’s history. Monique, our quirky guide, is entertaining, funny, and knowledgeable.  The cost is $20.00. To reserve the tour, visit the website: www.saveourcemeteries.org.

My last night in New Orleans I take a haunted pub crawl tour. Only in New Orleans can you openly drink your booze while strolling down the city streets. Our guide, John, intersperses history and ghost stories in an entertaining, amusing style. The tour can be booked through www.ghostcitytours.com for $50.00 (plus bar tabs).

You’ll never go hungry in New Orleans as long as you have money. Top quality restaurants abound. Muriel’s, in Jackson Square, is top notch.  The quality and friendliness of the service, the décor, the building’s history, and the food presentation, meld with the enticing aromas of Creole cooking to create a truly enjoyable, relaxing environment.  The menu offers gluten-free and vegetarian options. The scrumptious food is cooked to perfection. Sundays from 10:30-2:00 they offer a jazz brunch. Check the website out at www.muriels.com.

Now I need to return to NOLA when I have the time to truly explore this unique city. Next time I will take my family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Glimpse of New Orleans History Through It’s Cemeteries

20160917_110048 

It’s a typically steamy 90 degree September morning in New Orleans. Armed with my trusted GPS, I embark on foot to join a group of would-be travel writers for a tour of the city’s oldest extant cemetery. After getting lost zigzagging the same streets, drenched with sweat, I finally find the group of eight awaiting the last straggler. With a huge smile, the quirky, purple haired woman clad in a black and white sundress emblazoned with a skull motif, introduces herself as our guide, Monique. Monique embodies the very essence of what I consider New Orleans.  Her funky, individualistic style, wry sense of humor, warmth, friendliness, and professionalism symbolize the essence of the Big Easy.

Entering St. Louis 1, established in 1789, Monique informs us that, because of vandalism and tomb desecration, the archdiocese has decreed that the public cannot enter it unless escorted by a licensed tour guide.

Winding our way through the haphazard aisles and vaults, our footsteps crunch on the stone and seashell paved pathways. Interspersed among well-cared for plots are fragile, crumbling, and craggy tombs sporting varying states of disrepair.  The distinct architectural styles of the above-ground vaults represent the ethnic diversity of the city’s history, including Creole, Chinese, Dutch, and French.

The murmur of other tour groups is heard in the background. Monique regales us with interesting tidbits of NOLA history. Standing in front of Marie Laveau’s tomb, we learn about the myths surrounding the famed Voodoo priestess. Our next stop is an ‘orphan tomb’ etched with X’s. Unscrupulous and unlicensed tour guides would claim Laveau, was buried there. They would then perpetuate the rumor that she would grant your wish if you drew an ‘X’ on the tomb, and completed some ritual. If it’s granted you need to circle your ‘X’, and leave an offering.

Pausing in front of the tomb of Bernard de Marigny, a wealthy aristocrat who inherited his money. Rumor has it that he gambled away all his fortune. ‘He’s best known for introducing the game of craps to the U.S.’, explains Monique.

A large pyramid shaped vault belongs to the actor, Nicholas Cage. One Another vault is engraved with the words ‘closed forever’.  ‘If you upset a person who owns the deed to a family tomb, he or she can close that tomb forever, so that after the deed owner is buried, no one else in the family can rest there’, clarified Monique.

Other notable people buried here include Homer Plessy, a civil rights activist who challenged segregation, and William Claiborne, the first American governor of Louisiana.

As we continue walking, just outside of the original walls, we come upon a grassy area. The chirping and trill of birds’ floats into my awareness.  ‘This is the heretic’s section where the ground is unconsecrated. The church considered Protestant heretics’, reveals Monique.

Save Our Cemeteries, in conjunction with other groups, strive to repair and restore the decaying tombs and vaults. To book a tour visit the website www.saveourcemeteries.org. The tour costs $20.00.

Fair and Festival:  Pushkar’s Amazing Contrasts

 

Every November during the harvest full moon in the Rajasthan province of northern India, the Kartik Poormina festival coincides with the Pushkar Camel Fair.  What results is an explosion of visitors and a fascinating study in contrasts.

In the sand dunes just outside of town, excitement abounds as we prepare to join the Pushkar Camel Fair. The pungent scents of animals, camel dung, and unwashed bodies intersperse with the aroma of delicate spices from food stalls, permeating the air before we even enter the fairgrounds. Soon the dust soaks into every pore.  Soft sand seeps into eyes, noses and mouths, creating a lingering thirst.

The fair is a major trading event for camels and other livestock, including goats and sheep.  While a sizable portion of the grounds is dedicated to horse trading, the camels steal the show.  Valuable in rural desert areas in India, camels are used for transport and agricultural production, including dairy products. Tribal people also use the meat, hair and bones for food and clothing.

Tan, brown, and black camels are everywhere. Regal in their finery, the best are bathed, then elaborately decorated with nose rings, bells and bangles.  They model beaded and floral necklaces of deep purple, emerald green and hot pink.  Black or henna-orange tattoos adorn their faces, necks, rumps and tails. Their hides are shaved with elaborate geometrical patterns. One of the camels, with long eyelashes that many women would kill for, sidles up to my companion, longingly staring at the lovely lady through intelligent eyes as they pose together for a photo.

The sounds of diverse languages, children’s shouts and revved-up motorcycle engines create the hum of background noise.  The occasional roaring of irate camels rises above the din, drawing our attention to men cleaning camels’ ears or piercing their nostrils.

Herders’ tents, carts, mopeds, and cooking fires dot the landscape.  Visitors ride on camels’ backs. Hitched to carts, elaborately embellished camels wear long, flowing fabrics festooned with fancy tassels and decorated with pastel-colored beads and silver coin ornaments.  Nearby, men in traditional garb of vibrant turbans and white dhotis talk animatedly on cell phones.

Transient shops offer an array of handicrafts and local Indian products. Disheveled young gypsy children hold out their hands, begging for money.  Swarms of pesky children and adults peddle their trinkets, relentlessly pursuing visitors. Forewarned not to engage these hawkers lest they attach themselves to us like leeches, we dutifully ignore them.  Ashok, an enterprising twelve-year-old boy, switches tactics and soon becomes our escort, shooing away beggars while answering questions and sharing information.  With limited formal education, he has been dealing with tourists since age seven and speaks smatterings of a dozen languages.

Amidst the herding and selling, a festive, carnival atmosphere flourishes.  We are transported into a unique and intriguing culture where multiple Ferris wheels spin on the midway while an array of musicians, dancers and snake charmers perform on schedule. In the coming days, visitors will be treated to various contests, including one in which men vie for the title of “Longest Mustache” and women enter bridal competitions.  Some camels are entered into races, others into beauty pageants.

In contrast to the simple herders’ tents scattered between the bands of camels, temporary, yet elaborate tent cities offering limited Wi-Fi, meals, hot showers, heat, electricity, and even massages spring up on the outskirts of town to accommodate the influx of vacationers.

As our time is limited, we take the easy walk from the fairgrounds to Pushkar proper, shifting our focus to Kartik Poormina, the religious festival dedicated to the Lord Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.

The ancient town of Pushkar is one of most sacred sites for Hindus. According to legend, Lord Brahma created Pushkar when he dropped lotus flowers to earth from his hand to kill a demon, resulting in the formation of three holy lakes where the petals fell. The town is surrounded by hills on three sides and sand dunes on the other. Eating meat and drinking alcohol are strongly discouraged within the town limits.

One of the few Brahma temples still in existence today, Jagatpita Brahma Mandir, Pushkar is located here. Before visiting the temple, devout pilgrims descend one of the fifty-two ghats (sets of steps) situated around the lake to take a ritual dip in the sacred water.

At Vara Ghat, our guide Dependra warns us against unscrupulous priests who offer ritual prayers and blessings to foreigners in exchange for money. If the foreigner refuses to pay or the money is deemed insufficient, these priests loudly curse the foreigners and their families. Not an auspicious way to continue our journey!

In the open plaza on the upper level of Vara Ghat dozens of Langur monkeys can be seen everywhere. Some climb walls or hang from electric wires. Others groom each other.  Several play or eat.  A few languish in the sun. A mother langur cradles her very alert and anxious newborn. Dad comes, scoops up the baby and huddles with his family.

Prayers, chants, footsteps, and hawkers selling their wares mingle with the odors of garbage, diesel fuel, exotic spices, fried foods, freshly baked naan, curries, and falafel.  Stray dogs are ubiquitous.

Dressed in orange, a sadhu (holy man) punctuates prayers and chants by ringing a large brass bell that hangs at the entrance to the ghat.  Holy cows lie beside cars or walk nonchalantly down the street, seemingly certain that traffic will swerve to avoid them. As the afternoon progresses, throngs of sadhus, families, and women in vibrantly colored saris or salwar kameez of every imaginable pattern sashay purposefully down the main street on their way to the Brahma temple.

As the sun begins to set behind the mountains that surround Pushkar, we prepare to leave the town.  This has been a truly unforgettable travel experience. The amazing blend of commercial and spiritual, of chaos and serenity, the incredible scents, sights, and sounds weave a timeless, intricate and unforgettable tapestry as colorful as the photos that fill our cameras.