18 September 2012

Proust Travel Questionnaire*: Author Erin Reese

Traveling steerage class across the ocean to India's Andaman Islands was a new high—and low—for author, astrologer, spiritual counselor, world traveler Erin Reese. Take a moment to ponder the realities of steerage class in India—first class travel is often rough there—where dining and sleeping and toileting and vomiting all meld together in one disease spawning space. It's really the sort of thing only someone—say an author who can spin such ghastly experiences into tales that become bestsellers on Amazon.com—should try.

Erin's most recent journey—she's been traveling since January—took her across three continents and to a bunch of cool countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Thailand and, like all other beings with natal honing, back to her spiritual home, the Motherland, India.

The indomitable Erin Reese inaugurates Wandering-Lotus.com's new Tuesday column, The Proust Travel Questionnaire*, which was inspired by Vanity Fair. Erin's road wisdom goes way beyond your typical travel tips.

What is your idea of the perfect travel itinerary?

Itinerary? What’s that? I jest, but the whole point of unbounded travel for me is to BE somewhere. I’m not a doer. I’m an experiencer. I simply live in places, smell the air, see the horizon, and interact with the local life and the travelers that I befriend along the way. I’m more interested in observing and learning how local people do simple things–going to market, looking after children, tending to health needs, getting from point A to point B, eating in local joints, navigating banks and bureaucracies, and so forth–than visiting memorials of the past or checking out typical tourist haunts. The way I travel can be summed up in one word: intuition.

Where, in the world, are you happiest?


Where did you meet the greatest love of your life (so far)?

Arrivals, Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, India. For me (so far), the greatest love of my life has been a nation rather than a single person.

What is the worst thing that could happen to you while traveling?
Could happen, or has happened? I’ve been through some pretty rough stuff–downright 
dangerous–and survived all of it. If you’ve been an intrepid solo traveler as long as I have, things are bound to happen in the wilderness of humans and Nature. Over the years I’ve spent on the road, I’ve been conned, attacked and robbed. I’ve been locked up, I’ve been sexually harassed, stalked, groped, and threatened. I’ve been circled by snakes, I’ve gotten fleas, lice, scabies, and parasites. So to imagine the worst? The mind can run wild.

What destination has brought out the best in you?

Mumbai (Bombay). This is the magical city where I met my spiritual guru, Ramesh Balsekar. 
He was the sage I was seeking but didn’t know it. I spent large chunks of time in Mumbai the last two years of my teacher’s life, before he took mahasamadhi in 2009. Most people avoid Mumbai (it’s loud, dirty, intimidating, and expensive; people are packed like sardines) as I did initially until Grace took me there against my own free will. But once I got into the spirit, the cultural implosion that is Bombay came ALIVE and revealed her secrets. By the way, for a good contemporary non-fiction read, I recommend Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

What destination has brought out the worst in you?

I must have a selective memory because I can’t think of a place that had such a bad impact on me. I’ve been in a dozen places where I’ve hit a wall, wondering what I am doing there, which made me cranky and miserable. One such place was Kerala.

What must-haves do you take with you regardless of destination?

Notebook and pens, earplugs, Petzl Zipka head lamp, Nalgene water bottle, Swiss Army knife, well-tested walking sandals (preferably Birkenstocks or Chacos) and a few Ziplocs. Most importantly, an open mind and no expectations.

If you could travel with anyone in history, who would it be?

The rishis of ancient India. The original rishis were sages and seers with great siddhi powers. The yoga destination spot of the Himalayan foothills, Rishikesh, gets its name from the rishis themselves. They literally downloaded universal wisdom from the ethers, including metaphysical principles of yoga and consciousness, ayurveda, alchemy, and healing, and even Sanskrit starting with the first primordial sound of OM.

If you could go anywhere, where would you go?

I’d rewind the clock thirty or forty years and travel overland from Europe to India, venturing 
through all the nations that are too war torn to safely travel in now.

What is your ideal length for a single voyage?

One month to get to know a new town, city, region. Three to six months to get to know a new 
nation. Three to six years to be gone long enough to un-know your own nation and see your roots objectively.

Who does your hair when you're on the road?

I do! I hate it, but I do it.

Who are your favorite travel writers?

I honestly don’t read much standard travel writing, preferring literature for inspiration. That 
being said, notable trips in print that have touched me include Ram Dass’ spiritual travel tale Be Here Now, solo female travel writer Rita Golden Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad, friend Garth Cartwright’s music-travel feast More Miles Than Money, and two fiction writers that wrote great road tales: Jack Keroauc (On the Road, The Dharma Bums) and Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). For its ingeniously-captured sense of place, I adore Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Also, the quick-read little book Are You Experienced? by William Sutcliffe captures first-time Indian backpacking naiveté so well it’s a guaranteed laugh-your-ass-off ride.

Where would you like to live?

That’s a good question! I’ve been without a stable home for over ten years now, traveling 
between Berlin, India, and the San Francisco Bay Area. I like where I’m living now: between three continents, and on the move. I live in a Mobile Om.

What is the quality you most like in a travel companion?


What traits do you look for when connecting with either locals or other travelers on the road?

I'm drawn to connect with other travelers who show respect for local customs (dress, 
manners, etc.) without putting on holier-than-thou airs. I also enjoy connecting to travelers and backpackers who come to me through my work as a spiritual counselor. People who are on the road a long time need guidance to make decisions and to make sense of all that is whirling and swirling around them. I’m grateful to be able to be of service to these folks when they’re at a crossroads, no pun intended.

What is your greatest travel extravagance?

When you travel like I do, there aren’t many things that one could consider extravagant. But 
my biggest splurge is coffee. I’ll scrimp on thirty or forty rupees here and there over a meal and then, smilingly, spring for twice that amount on a cappuccino.

What do you consider your greatest travel achievement?

Crossing the ocean to the Andaman Islands in a steerage class ship and surviving a Robinson Crusoe jungle endurance test without getting killed, or killing myself, in the process. I did lose my mind. And that was the best part.

Click here to buy Erin's first book, The Adventures of Bindi Girl: Diving Deep Into the Heart of India.

Click here to read a review of Bindi Girl.

17 September 2012

Volunteer Travel American-Style

Babysitting Phouka
Volunteers at International Animal Rescue in Goa, India, are treated to lunch promptly at 1:00 p.m. Conversation around the huge dining table, which is set on a terrace overlooking the Goan backwaters on one side and a tropical garden replete with swimming pool on the other, is always a linguistic smorgasbord. That’s because IAR attracts animal lovers from around the world who donate their time on behalf of India’s most plighted beings in return for fun, friendship and a travel experience that allows them to leave their destination better than they found it.


You face the same dilemma every time you pack your bag: seeing the world is mind-bending, brilliant and a fail-proof way to shift your perspective — but how do you leave behind more than just a carbon footprint? While teaching English in Africa, eco-trekking the Amazon rain forest or volunteering on a permaculture farm Down Under are all well and good, you don’t need a passport to combine traveling with giving back. After all, to paraphrase one famous globe-trotter, when it comes to meaningful travel experiences, there’s no place like home.

What: Make it a double feature
Where: Woods Hole Film Festival, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
How: woodsholefilmfestival.org

Follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, Edward Hopper and countless other artists and nature lovers with a visit to the quintessential beach destination. Besides the obvious draw of summer on the Cape, an added bonus for film enthusiasts is the Woods Hole Film Festival, which showcases the works of emerging independent filmmakers.

Photo Credit: Common Vision
“Plenty of people come here to volunteer,” says Judy Laster, festival director. “Some people schedule their vacation to coincide with the festival.” Volunteers at Woods Hole (from college kids to retirees and everything in between) staff the various movie venues, take tickets, hand out programs and give rides to people in need of transportation. The festival’s alumni have gone to show their works at the Sundance Film Festival. Woods Hole is also known for being the point of departure for the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.

What: Plant the future
Where: Fruit Tree Tour, Along Interstate 5, California
How: commonvision.org

For intrepid travelers able to commit to a three-month project, Common Vision offers a trip that takes you up the gorgeous California coastline and back, while teaching kids how to plant and care for fruit trees that they’ll cultivate in their schoolyards.

Twenty-five Fruit Tree Tour volunteers travel in a fleet of psychedelically painted, vegetable oil-powered, biodiesel-engined school buses stopping at pre-scheduled schools, largely in underserved urban areas. Kids are taught the entire process of planting — how to shovel, pick, plant 10 to 50 trees — and the impact their work has on themselves and their community. Volunteers discuss topics most of the children have never heard of before — nutrient cycles, soil microlife, the importance of fresh food, tree biology and drumming.

You could also lend a hand to the group by bringing mulch to a community planting near you. If you lack a green thumb, fear not; A two-week training period precedes working with the school children. “Volunteers become tree-planting experts during the course of the tour,” says Megan Watson, Director of Operations for Common Vision.

What: Spread yoga everywhere
Where: Street Yoga, Portland, Oregon
How: streetyoga.org

You don’t need instructor certification (or even access to a studio) to help change a child’s life through yoga. At the Portland-based Street Yoga organization, volunteers work with community organizations to provide free yoga andmeditation classes to kids who need them most. In their two-and-a-half-day trainings Street Yoga will teach you to teach kids to strike a pose.
Photo Credit: Street Yoga

The typical Street Yogi is an 11-to-14-year-old who is either homeless, at risk for homelessness or living in an unstable environment. Classes are held in juvenile detention lockdown facilities, alcohol/drug rehab centers and the Community Transitional School, which makes it easier for homeless kids to succeed academically, emotionally and socially.

Volunteers who have trained with the organization have a wide range of yoga experience — from novice to expert. In addition to locals, trainees are often out-of-towners eager to start similar programs in their own cities. Some of Street Yoga’s classes include “mindful expression,” like this sage advice from one 12-year-old street yogi that now graces a poster on the classroom wall: “Let your inner strength awaken.” If Street Yoga enables you to internalize that mantra and take it back to the streets of your hood, we’d call that a trip well-spent.

What: Ride free
Where: Miwok Livery Stables, Golden Gate National Park,
Mill Valley, California
How: miwokstables.com

Whether you’re an expert rider or a first-timer, get to know one of the 25 school horses at Miwok stables and you’re likely to agree: Contrary to popular belief, man’s best friend is the horse.
Set in Golden Gate National Park, near the ocean, Miwok is ten miles — and a world away — from San Francisco. Students of all ages come to Miwok to enjoy group classes, private lessons and trail rides. The stable also offers six-week riding courses geared toward women recovering from breast cancer and inner city youth.

With indoor and outdoor rings, riding at Miwok is an all-weather activity. Stable owner Linda Rubio stresses safety, so all riders are required take a private evaluation lesson before riding alone or working around the horses. But anyone who’s willing to help out with painting and repair work on the barn and fences is welcome.

“If you come out to Miwok and safely learn something about horses and have fun, I’ve done my job,” says Rubio. And if you contribute some elbow grease to the stable, you’ve done yours.

What: Eat, Pray, Love
Where: Various Buddhist centers around the country
How: dhamma.org

A trip to Dharamsala, India, admittedly sounds more exotic than a quick jaunt to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Yet, if you’re looking for a meditation course that can help you develop a sound foundation for your daily practice, you’ll find the same technique — Vipassana — is taught in both places.

Buddhist in origin, Vipassana — or “Insight Meditation” — is one of India’s most ancient practices. In the U.S., it is taught at centers around the country, from a lakeside urban retreat in Minneapolis to a serene meditation center at the base of Washington’s Mount Rainier. The ten-day residential courses are perhaps the antithesis of the typical western vacation: participants follow a prescribed “Code of Discipline,” waking up at dawn for marathon meditation sessions, eating two simple vegetarian meals a day, abstaining from sex, drugs and alcohol and, most notably, observing “Noble Silence” — as in no talking, gesturing, note-scribbling or even eye contact — for ten days. Evenings are generally occupied by a talk from one of the centers meditation teachers, followed by an early lights out.

Traditionally, Vipassana courses are free, with participants encouraged to give a donation at the end of the session based on what they can afford. Some centers allow for participants to donate by volunteering their service: cleaning up after meals, serving food or helping out around the center.
Choosing to embark on a Vipassana sit is a little bit like committing to run a marathon — not a decision to take lightly. But while the experience is rigorous, Vipassana promises rewards far greater than your average Spring Break: nothing less than the purification of body, mind and spirit.

What: Answer the call of the wild
Where: Mission Wolf, Westcliffe, Colorado
How: missionwolf.com

“If you’ve made the journey and can find the place, you’re welcome to stay and help out,” quips Mission Wolf director Kent Weber. He’s only half kidding — set among a forest of aspens, with breathtaking Rocky Mountain vistas, Mission Wolf is as much a secreted sanctuary for people as it is for the 25 wolves who call it home.
Photo Credit: Mission Wolf

The refuge rescues wolves that people foolishly acquired as pets. “It’s impossible to keep a wild animal happy in a cage,” Weber says. At Mission Wolf, the wolves roam freely behind fences meant to “protect the wolves from the people.”

Past volunteers include a 65-year-old retired nurse, a 20-year old college student from London and four women in their 70s who spent a week fixing water lines. Volunteers lodge in teepees on the property, even during the winter when ten feet or more of snow is common. “Some people stay 30 minutes, some stay a few months,” says Weber.

Mission Wolf employs as many sustainable practices as possible — solar energy, bio-diesel fuel, greenhouses, white construction, recycled educational equipment and the like. Weber asks that visitors “don’t put a burden on the refuge.” Volunteers who stay more than two weeks are provided with food and a kitchen. Shorter-term guests are advised to bring their own chow.

Mission Wolf is open 365 days a year from 9 a.m. to sunset, and is free to visitors. “Hanging out with the wolves is a spiritual experience,” says Willis. “It’s phenomenal what goes on here.”

What: Run away with the circus
Where: Frequent Flyers Productions Aerial Dance Theatre,
Boulder, Colorado
How: frequentflyers.org

You can combine a visit to Mission Wolf with a completely different — yet no less thrilling — Colorado experience: dancing upside down. At Frequent Flyers Productions, students — some of whom are dancers and circus arts performers, others who just want to fly — come from all over the world to take classes in low flying trapeze and perform in Cirque du Soleil-like aerial shows.
The nonprofit enlists volunteers to help out with performances throughout the year, particularly during August’s International Aerial Dance Festival, the only festival of its kind in the world. Whether watching the pros or attempting to take flight yourself, you’ll leave with “the inspiration that anything is possible,” says Nancy Smith, founder and artistic director.

13 September 2012

The Most Delicious Cookies EVER

Photo Credit: Whole Foods Market

Cookies—I happen to know a lot about cookies. Although prone to hyperbole, I can truthfully say I've eaten thousands of them. Maybe millions. Hundreds in one sitting. My love for cookies runs deep, beyond taste, wafting over all my senses as I savor the cookies' aroma, appreciate its beauty and the sensual stickiness of its soft, luxurious dough.

Further evidence of my devotion: I own two T-shirts featuring Cookie Monster.

So, when I say this recipe creates the BEST cookies ever, believe me.

As far as cookies go, these are healthy, unless you consume quantities. The batter freezes well and tastes delish raw. And since the batter is egg-free, it's actually safe to eat unbaked.

Parents will love these easy-to-make snacks which contain plant protein, healthy fats and no refined sugar. As  a healthy alternative to packaged sweets, they also save money.

For travelers, these goodies pack and journey well, and can replace a meal since the balance of protein, healthy fats and unrefined carbs boosts energy while maintaining healthy hormone levels. Far superior to packaged meal bars and way tastier than granola, be sure to pack these babies for flights, trekking and ski trips. 

Trust me, you will love these cookies.

Chloe's Cookies

1 cup almonds
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup oat flour
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup canola oil
Cinnamon, to taste
Nutmeg, to taste
Apple butter,  apricot or other jam, or almond butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil cookie sheets. Grind almonds in food processor or blender. Grind 1 cup of rolled oats. Mix almonds, ground oats and oat flour and spices. Add maple syrup and canola oil. Make balls of dough. Press center with thumb. Add dollop of apple or almond butter or jam to thumbprint. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes, until golden brown. Check at 15 minutes to avoid over baking. Yield: 4 dozen cookies.

12 September 2012

Indraloka's Animal Communication Workshop

Steven and other participants offering healing energy
I'm a young soul. I know this for sure because every now and then I meet someone whose being and behavior are on a level I find so utterly awe-inspiring and alien to my own thought processes I become aware that I'm in the presence of an old soul. That happened to me recently at the "Communicating with Animals" workshop held at Indraloka Animal Sanctuary in Northeast Pennsylvania.

This particular old soul arrived in a young body. Thirteen-year-old Steven introduced himself simply by saying he planned on becoming a veterinarian. He spoke clearly, using an economy of words, but with a confidence that belied his age. Watching him I knew he was not a typical young teenager. He seemed completely at ease with the group of adults and also with the menagerie of animals that reside at Indraloka. He wasn't embarrassed by the "sharing" portions of the workshop. His clear eyes made direct contact when he spoke, and he told his truth without looking for approval. He was so calm, it was easy to forget he's a kid.

Steven had recently celebrated his birthday. His father, Tim, who also attended the workshop, told the group what Steven had requested for his present. The Poconos community in which Tim has a vacation home owns horses, one of whom was being euthanized because his teeth had rotted and were extracted, making him difficult to feed. Steven asked his dad to pay for the horse's care as his birthday gift.

"He never asks for anything for himself," Tim said, his voice nonplussed. I got the feeling Tim was reluctant to take credit for his son's character. But I know that even old souls need the proper nurturing to evolve into extraordinary people.

If I were the betting kind, I'd bet Steven matures into a person who makes a difference in this world. His experiences at the animal communication workshop already bear witness to this destiny. Here's an example that's difficult to translate, but warrants an attempt. At one point workshop participants, seated in a circle, were attempting to communicate with Izzy, a Rottweiler, who lives at Indraloka. We were given a set of questions to ask Izzy, but Steven says he had a hard time concentrating and the only thing he could come up with was the thought, "What time is it?"

Gazing at Izzy, Steven noticed that the dog trotted over to a woman who was sitting in the 11 o'clock position and gave her a big wet kiss. Then Izzy strode over to another woman seated in the 8 o'clock position. Discerning Izzy's motions at if they were a clock, Steven read: 11:40.

"Dad," Steven nudged his father, whispering, "What time is it?"

Tim looked at his watch. It was exactly 11:40.

Rather than announcing this to the group, Steven had shared this very clear communication only with his father. "Dad, stop!" Steven implored later as Tim described his son's academic achievements and snippets of conversations he has with his older brother.

Old souls don't need to toot their own horns. Their actions speak for themselves.

Indraloka Animal Sanctuary, a 501(c) nonprofit, located in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania (3 hours from New York and Philadelphia, 4.5 hours from D.C.) offers year-round workshops and retreats. Tours are available for a $5 donation. Please call ahead: 570-763-2908.

You can also find Indraloka on Facebook.

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11 September 2012

The Traveler's President

Photo Credit: Salon.com (9/10/2012)
Am I better off today than I was four years ago? Hell, yes. At least when it comes to traveling.

As an American traveler during the George W. Bush Administration I faced constant complaining from the international community. "How could you have elected him?" people I met hissed at me, incredulously. "I didn't," I'd whine. "In fact, we didn't." I'd apologize, hang my head, wish I spoke another language. Even in the wake of 9/11, Bush managed to decimate world sympathy.

Traveling in Sikkim a group of Russians berated me over Bush. "I did not personally install him as president," I shouted back. "I don't like him any more than you do." Earlier in my trip an elderly man had told me that the last good president the U.S. elected was John F. Kennedy. "That's right," I agreed. "And look what happened to him." Who would dare even try to be a good president knowing the fate that awaits such idealism?

"We hate George Bush, but we love Americans." I heard that a lot in Kashmir, a region of the world intimately familiar with terrorism and its consequences. "Thank you," I'd mutter, grateful to be recognized as a person who had more in common with Kashmiris than Bush republicans. Eventually I learned to respond to that most uncomfortable of questions—Where are you from?—with lies. "Canada." Or if the questioner suggested I was from say, England or Australia, I'd readily agree and quickly change the subject.

Lying doesn't work, however, when an Indian army border patrol guy asks where you're from while holding your passport. That's when I discovered San Francisco is viewed as its own little realm by the international community, a place so wonderful and magical even George W. Bush couldn't destroy its reputation abroad. "San Francisco, show us your Golden Gate," the army officer crooned at me. No one doesn't love San Francisco. Hailing from there, I realized, took the sting out of being an American. Having a San Francisco address made international travel easy.

And so does Barrack Obama.

I happened to be in Antibes, France, during the 2008 election (I'd voted early via absentee ballot). When McCain conceded, the streets of that seaside town, sleepy during the off season, burst into an enormous rain-soaked party. The French were elated.

The next day, something even more unlikely than French people seeming happy occurred. As an American, I was no longer persona non grata. I no longer faced derision simply for being from the U.S. despite dressing in jeans and running shoes and a pale yellow T-shirt that implored, "Be Happy!" Being a citizen of the country that had just elected Barrack Obama as president made me instantly likable.

Last year in Bali, locals frequently quizzed me about my feelings for Obama, watching me closely for my reaction. "Love him," I'd proclaim as they nodded and smiled in agreement. Osama Bin Laden was allegedly executed while I was living in Bali. The Balinese, famously gentle and serene, celebrated. Obama gave them a sense of justice and closure for the 2002 and 2005 bombings in Kuta.

Economically I'm worse off today than I was the day Bush left office. I still blame Bush, even though I don't think Obama is a particularly effective president. I can't think of one single issue that has moved forward in any meaningful way during the past four years. Still, I'm totally gonna vote for Obama again.

I don't think any man or woman capable of being elected president of the U.S. will make life better, more prosperous or healthier for the middle class. No matter who is elected this fall, the wealthy will come out on top and the middle class will be further squeezed. It's the way the wealthy want things: two classes, rich and poor. I accept that. There is only one area where the president of my country has a direct impact on my life and that is when it comes to how the rest of the world views him or her.

I'm a traveler and Barrack Obama is a damn good president for Americans who enjoy wandering around the world.

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10 September 2012

Travel Tip: Solo Travel

In Gulmarg, Kashmir, alone but never lonely
I travel alone more often than not, which has plenty of advantages and one big disadvantage: solo travel  is more expensive. When you're on your own, there's no one to split room costs with and no one with whom to share a car or jeep rental. Solo travel costs, even to relatively inexpensive locales, can easily spiral out of control. I've incurred a $1,400 phone bill (pre-Skype days) while traveling alone because I was lonely and recklessly phoned friends in the States. I spent $300 on a jeep ride that should have cost less than half that price because I was worn out and would have paid anything to get from point A to point B.

But I learned from my mistakes. Here are some tips for making solo travel more satisfying and affordable.

Choose your destination wisely. Traveling to South America alone? Choose Uruguay over Brazil. Uruguay, I'm told, is safer, prettier and much less expensive. For beach bumming in Bali, choose Candidasa over the better known beaches of Sanur, Kuta and Nusa Dua. Candidasa offers uncrowded, unspoiled beauty even during the height of the tourist season and costs far less than its more famous counterparts. And it's still close to Ubud, Bali's thriving cultural and spiritual epicenter that is always teeming with travelers.

Seek out community. All of my crazy spending occurred as a result of traveling off season in remote destinations. With no other westerners around, I felt isolated and off-balance. Now I know to choose destinations that offer built-in community. For example in India, Ashtanga yogis flock to Mysore year round, Buddhists and fans of the Dalai Lama swarm to Dharamsala. Built-in community not only insures you'll never be alone (unless you want to be), it also offers you opportunities to join up with other travelers for segments of your trip.

Make sure your mobile is travel ready. When traveling to a developing country, get your phone unlocked and purchase a local SIM card immediately upon landing in your destination. Alternatively, buy a cheap cell phone while you're there. Skype-able internet service is not always a given.

Volunteer. My most rewarding travel experiences came as a result of my volunteering at a local nonprofit. I babysat infant monkeys in Goa and worked as a receptionist at Bali Adoption and Rehabilitation Centre in Ubud. I met amazing people through volunteer work and had a ton of fun.

Peruse Lonely Planet. The guide most chosen by backpackers offers tips no other guide can match. Through Lonely Planet I learned about shared jeep rides, where I could show up at the center of a tiny Himalayan town—Pelling, for example—and for 70 rupees (less than $2) share a ride to another tiny Himalayan town five hours away. I worked my way from Kashmir to Sikkim via shared jeeps. Lonely Planet features comprehensive cultural information and the most practical travel tips. However, for accommodations, best to avoid anyplace mentioned in Lonely Planet. Overexposure by the guide offsets any perks the place offers.

Be smart. In conservative countries, dress like a local. Remain friendly, but not too friendly. Don't wander around alone at night in developing countries or anyplace that's remote. Bring a business card from your hotel or guesthouse with you so you can indicate where you need to go should you be unable to find your way back on your own. Register with your local embassy.

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06 September 2012

Channeling Dr. Doolittle

Indra teaching us how to communicate
Participants of the "Communicating with Animals" workshop at Indraloka Animal Sanctuary in Northeast Pennsylvania were given a list of questions to ask Duncan and Nugget, two 1500+ pound pigs who share a new home built for them by architecture students of Scranton's Marywood University.  Leading the workshop, sanctuary founder, Dr. Indra Lahiri, suggested questions that reminded me of Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire: Do you like your house? What is your favorite food?

Upon hearing answers fellow workshop participants elicited from Duncan and Nugget, I realized I misheard the final question. Instead of asking what the pigs wish we (meaning humans) knew, I asked them what they wished they knew.

"How to get in and out of my yard so I could go in to the barn and get food whenever I want without mom knowing," was the answer I got.

Okay. So it's not exactly a stretch imagining that two very large pigs would like the freedom of unsupervised access to food. And maybe my experience from attending one animal communications class doesn't qualify me as a pig whisperer. But for a few moments I felt as if I had connected with Duncan (or Nugget) and viewed life from his perspective. I saw him, a big grin spreading over his cherubic pink face, walking to the gate, unlatching it with his nose and sauntering into the barn where he opened lids of food containers and helped himself to corn on the cob and oats. I left the workshop feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Having lived with animals, mostly dogs, for virtually all of my life, I've been frequently baffled by some of their behavior. JuJu, my Lhasa-Poo, who loves going out for walks more than anything (even food) hides under my desk when he hears me pluck his leash from the closet. Why on earth would he do that? Why do I have to pull him out from under the desk every time even though once he's out he bounds toward the elevator, eager to hit the road? I still don't know the answer to that. But I bet there are a few workshop participants who would be able to find out.

Making it quite clear what he wants: a girlfriend!
When a woman who runs her own sanctuary, sheltering 30 dogs on her property, asked Izzy the Rottweiler how she arrived at Indraloka, she was told "in a blue truck." Tim, who is a contractor with a law degree, received a less prosaic response. "The hard way." Izzy told Jeanie, a young woman who described herself as extremely shy except when she's with animals, she arrived via a long, dark road and that it took hours to get there. Indra confirmed that she drove her blue truck far out into the country at night to rescue Izzy.

When my Shih Tzu, Jersey, was diagnosed with kidney failure three weeks after his brother and best friend Gus (a collie) died, I consulted a marriage and family therapist and recent graduate of the California Institute for Integral Studies, Heather King Singh, to help me communicate with Jersey. Heather had decided to focus her practice on companion animals. Initially, I was dubious, unsure Heather would be able to communicate any more effectively with Jersey than I did, but I was willing to try anything to get Jersey to eat, which he had not done since Gus died.

After meditating for about 10 minutes while Jersey sulked in the corner of her office, Heather told me Jersey wanted bananas.

"Bananas?" I scoffed. "Dogs don't eat bananas. Starving street dogs in India won't even eat bananas."

Heather returned to her meditation. "He wants bananas and pineapple." Heather was firm. "Jersey says if you give him bananas and pineapple he'd be willing to eat some of the food you want him to eat."

That afternoon Jersey ate for the first time in three weeks: a half a banana, a quarter cup of pineapple and a small jar of Gerber's chicken baby food mixed with white rice.

For the next two years, Jersey saw Heather weekly as he grew stronger and stronger, surprising his kidney specialist with his will to live. Each meeting with Heather turned into a bargaining session. "He'll agree to acupuncture if you let him play with ponies," Heather told me.

"Ponies? He won't even play with other dogs!"

"If you take him to see the ponies, he'll let you take him for acupuncture."

This, being San Francisco, where anything is possible, it just so happened that one of my neighbors spent his weekends driving pony-drawn carts. Jersey began biweekly trips to Whisper Equestrian Center in Watsonville, California, where, as a 17-pound, 12-year-old dog in kidney failure, he frolicked with ponies. The ponies' owner, Julie Mabie, looked on nervously.

But I wasn't worried at all. By then I'd grown to trust Heather implicitly.

I should have trusted her from the start. The first thing she told me upon meeting Jersey was that he loved his blue bed (Jersey's bed was indeed blue). When Heather came to our apartment, he gave her a tour. When he slipped under my desk and laid down, Heather began laughing. "Jersey just told me this is the place he's always getting kicked out of."

So true, with its tangle of wires and cords all precariously hooked up to heaps of office equipment, the only place in the apartment I didn't allow Jersey to lie down was under my desk.

When I was planning our trip to France, I consulted Heather to explain the process of getting from San Francisco to Antibes via flights to Houston, then Paris, then Nice. Is there anything I can do to make him more comfortable during the journey and during those times in France when he'd be alone while I was out?

"He wants you to bring his hot pink toy with you."

I racked my brain. Jersey had literally dozens of toys, but none of them were hot pink.

Heather went back to her meditation, which is how she connected with Jersey. She laughed. "Okay. He's says it's not exactly his pink toy and it's not exactly a toy. He wants you to bring the hot pink sweatshirt you always wear."

That sweatshirt, a gift from my friend C.J. five years before Jersey was born, was something I wore virtually every night. It was the most me thing I owned.

Jersey in Antibes, looking mighty healthy, non?
Three and a half years after meeting Heather, Jersey succumbed to kidney failure at age 14 and a half. He'd outlived his prognosis by three and a half years. His kidney specialist, Craig Maretzki, probably the most gifted veterinary internist on the planet, credited me with extending not just Jersey's life, but his quality of life as well.

But I know who the credit really goes to: his therapist, Heather Singh.

I'm not great at communicating with humans, so my hopes for communicating with animals are rather modest. Still, I know last Saturday I made a real connection with Duncan (or Nugget) and for that one moment I understood what he was thinking.

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04 September 2012

Wandering Around Watkins Glen

Along the shores of Lake Seneca, among the hundred or so wineries and dozens of farms, Watkins Glen, New York, claims several distinct attributes over neighboring, equally charming, towns. Built around glacier carved gorges that formed hundreds of millions of years ago when North America was still attached to Europe and Africa, Watkins Glen State Park paints a dramatic portrait. Waterfalls, caves and streams cut through steely slate walls with thickets of greenery accenting the steep precipice hundreds of feet above the gorge. A cool energy radiates, despite the late summer heat, as a tour guide passes around fossils that date back to the Pleistocene Epoch. Hiking the park, it's not difficult to imagine wooly mammoths once trod this ancient land.

A more recent addition to Watkins Glen, Farm Sanctuary also graces this Southern Finger Lakes town. Its residents—cows, pigs, goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens—are decidedly less exotic than prehistoric beasts and are in no danger of ever becoming extinct. The typical farm sanctuary resident has been mass produced by humans with little input from nature, for the sole purpose of creating cheap food.

Farm Sanctuary's visitors begin their tour with a short film about factory farming. Behind the flat screen TV depicting images of poultry man handled on conveyor belts as if they were cheap tchotchkes rather than sentient beings with maternal instincts and nerve endings that feel pain and natural instincts that register terror, despair and confusion, photos of celebrities beam benevolently from the wall of fame: Ellen DeGeneres, Ali McGraw, Ed Begley, Jr., Chrissie Hynde, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Clinton, Russell Simmons, Chevy Chase and dozens more.

Farm Sanctuary started when co-founder Gene Bauer went to an animal auction to photograph dead piles in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Dead piles are exactly what they sound like—a pile of dead livestock. Upon hearing the click of Bauer's camera (this was back in 1986, before digital), a sheep covered in feces and maggots, lying among literally hundreds of dead animals, raised her head. Bauer rescued her, named her Hilda, nursed her back to health (against all odds), and Farm Sanctuary was born.

Animals who make it to rescues such as Farm Sanctuary and Indraloka Animal Sanctuary in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania, literally go through hell to get there. I keep thinking about the book, Beatrice and Virgil, written by brilliant novelist Yann Martel, in which Martel compares the treatment of animals to the holocaust. The novel received mass criticism and ire for drawing such a parallel.

I also keep thinking about Step 1 on the road to sociopathy—torturing animals. And yet that is exactly what factory farming does on a magnitude almost too huge to comprehend.

I also keep thinking about how long it took me to become willing to give up Greek yoghurt, the last animal product in my diet. I'm ashamed to admit this, but even after I'd heard of the film Earthlings, I still couldn't imagine living without that yoghurt. Two years later, I can report it wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be.

Farm Sanctuary educates about factory farming in the gentlest possible way. Bauer is fond of quoting the Dalai Lama: "Whenever possible, practice kindness. It's always possible." He's referring to how his staff needs to treat all beings, including those who perpetrate factory farming. The film Farm Sanctuary shows prior to its tours is not sensational. Tours are peppered with facts meant to enlighten, not shock: it takes 4,000 gallons of water to raise animals to feed one human for one year, versus 80 gallons of water to raise plants to feed one person for a year. Countries with the highest dairy consumption—the U.S. and Sweden—also have the highest ovarian cancer rates. Farm Sanctuary offers food for thought for anyone concerned with their own health, the environment and the treatment of animals.

My favorite animal on the tour is a turkey named Antoinette. Until my visit to Farm Sanctuary, I'd never considered turkeys to be particularly cuddly. Antoinette set me straight. I'll spare you the details of how she wound up at Farm Sanctuary—suffice it to say, it's an unpleasant story. What blows me away is that these animals are willing to trust humans again after what they've endured.

For East Coasters looking for an autumn escape, Watkins Glen is an excellent choice. With its lakes and rivers, wineries, state park and farm markets a lot of activity is packed into this lovely destination. And if you decide to check out Farm Sanctuary while you're there, please give Antoinette a gentle squeeze between her wings from me.

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