India Bound in February

To date my blog posts have been about the road once traveled but I’m regularly asked how I prepare for a trip. How do I decide where I’m going? What do I read beforehand? How do I pack when I travel solo and inexpensively? I’m going to India for at least a month in February followed by at least another month someplace else TBD. It seems a good time to periodically post about my preparations for the trip.

India has never been on my bucket list. It seems too massive geographically and culturally to really wrap one’s travel head around on a visit of any length. But I have two longtime friends who, in 2008, started and continue to support a pIndiarivate humanitarian project in India called The India Group and they  convinced me to fund the school tuition of Amandeep, a six year old boy in the project. 

Paul and Richard are consummate travelers who’ve hosted me at their condo in NYC and their riad in Morocco. They’re also compassionate and interesting and I love that they embrace Mother Teresa’s theory of change – that its better to make a humanitarian difference by doing a small thing well then to be overwhelmed by the scale of the world’s problems and do nothing. In fact, as I write this, Paul is in India traveling 14 hours by train to accompany a young girl who desperately needs reconstructive surgery and her parents to the nearest decent hospital for the first surgery visit. Nearly two decades ago, the two of them began a school in a tourist area on the Caribbean coast of Mexico when they realized the maintenance and cleaning employees at their condo brought their children with them to work because there was no school. Their project there has successfully provided a K-12 education for many children and funded and graduated some of them from college.

India 2In short, there are many reasons I decided to go to non-bucket list India. Paul and Richard take a very small group of their supporters to India in February to visit the families supported by the project and help make decisions about next steps. I’ll get to meet and spend time with Amandeep and his family, talk to the teachers at his school and help make decisions about his education. See him in the photo? Second row from the top, second from the left? The trip involves some sight-seeing with the group led by Paul and Richard whose friendship and travel tastes I treasure. And the final week will be spent working at one of Mother Teresa’s facilities – a hospital or orphanage. India 3At a time when it feels the world is paralyzed by fear of terrorism and the unknown of the superpowers engaging in politics, it feels right to wage my own small resistance to fear and hopelessness by doing what I can to make a tiny difference.”Doing small things with great love since 2008. The India Group


Salt Lake City: Speakeasies?

20151125_101629The business card for the upstairs joint – a tiny downtown taqueria called Bodega with a couple shelves of groceries- had a colorful picture of Jesus holding a loaf of bread and a bottle of Negra Modelo. The business card for the downstairs establishment was plain white with a Braille imprint, a phone number and street address (sans the name of the city). When I ran my finger over the raised dots, one of the taqueria’s regulars leaned over and whispered confidentially, “It means blind pig.” And then he pointed to an unobtrusive, unmarked door near the cash register.

Now mind you, I was in Salt Lake City, Utah for the first time in over 50 years. Though raised Catholic (remember?) I did much of my growing up in the heavily Mormon city of Idaho Falls, Idaho. Salt Lake City was a very conservative, non-drinking large town back in the day. Today it’s still the center for the Church of Latter Day Saints, but it also has a hipster culture, craft brewpubs, a booming start-up economy and multiple travel reviews that describe the city as trendy. And I was on that road trip with my twenty-something kiddo that I mentioned in my previous blog post. And he picked Salt Lake.

Blind Pig, was an illegal after hours gambling and drinking joint in Detroit in the 1960’s……a throwback to the Prohibition era speakeasy. And trendy Salt Lake, located in Utah, the state with the nation’s most restrictive alcohol laws, has embraced the speakeasy culture in a hipster salute to those restrictions. Prior to 2002 when Salt Lake hosted the Winter Olympics, purchasing alcohol was difficult, an influence of the Mormon Church whose members are forbidden to drink. During the Winter Olympics, the state relaxed its enforcement of alcohol laws though cover charges and membership fees were a requirement for bars to serve. By 2009, the state recognized its tourist industry would benefit from a more relaxed approach and so many of its remaining laws were lifted.

20150922_184430_Richtone(HDR)Back at the Bodega, I wondered if I needed a secret password to get inside the speakeasy.  I explained to the guy behind the counter that I was a travel blogger who wanted to have a drink at the blind pig and he signaled to go. Through the door and down two flights of stairs it was another world. Moody, dark and tastefully decorated with quirky memorabilia befitting a secret basement cocktail venue in a historic building in a state that formerly frowned upon imbibing, the speakeasy known as The Rest was enchanting.

The cocktail list was clearly composed by a craftsman and I asked the bartender to concoct his two favorites. The place filled up with regulars over the next hour including the owner, a former east coast businesswoman who came west to care for her ailing father and stayed. The changing culture of Salt Lake was a draw and wanting a place where locals could gather who didn’t subscribe to church’s policy of alcohol abstinence (hence the name The Rest) she invested in the burgeoning bar scene.

Salt Lake City is every bit as trendy as though travel reviews claimed.







The Travels Familia

It was frigid and flakes of snow were falling but my son,  Zach and I still posed on a tiny traffic median strip in downtown Portland, Oregon as evidence that we’d been to the Guinness Book of Records certified tiniest park in the world. Mill Ends Park, also known as the only leprechaun colony west of Ireland, is a landscaped concrete circle two feet across in the middle of a busy street in downtown Portland. On that cold November day we were its only visitors though Zach’s research indicated that the park had at various times hosted a swimming pool for butterflies, a miniature ferris wheel and a flash mob of plastic army figures during the 2011 Occupy Portland movement.

Samsung Pics 2616Portland, the setting for the quirky television series Portlandia, is a city proud of its unconventional reputation and so it was no surprise when my unconventional son, Zach, suggested a Portlandia themed trip to Portland for his 26th birthday and assigned 10 episodes to watch before catching the train from Seattle to Portland.

We have traveled many Zach-inspired and researched trips over the years and in doing so, I have discovered that setting aside my adult driven trip itinerary to see the sights he wanted to see has resulted in some of my most memorable travel experiences.

Our first such adventure was the result of a bribe to get him to finish his 5th grade report on the state of Iowa. “If you research and plan a trip to Iowa” I promised, “we’ll go there over spring break and do the trip.” Travelling to and through Iowa the first week of April when everyone else was fleeing to beaches or ski hills for spring break was a cheap road trip in turned out. And who knew the state has the world’s largest popcorn factory and ice cream capitol? It’s also the home of the president of the International Fainting Goat Association (we went to her farm….fainting goats are real), the site of Field of Dreams, Bridges of Madison County and Music Man, the home state of John Wayne and Herbert Hoover and where the only member lost during the Lewis and Clark Expedition died.

Now that Zach is a well-traveled, fully launched adult, we still find time for an occasional joint adventure and while much has changed since he was 10 years old (he can drive, he can pay for his own expenses and we can explore a place independently as two adult traveling companions would), his choices of what to see are still some of my favorites. This spring because he had vacation time from work to burn up and I was doing a meandering road trip to a conference in Las Vegas, he offered to be the co-pilot and joint planner. We alternated who decided the itinerary each day. He’s an archaeologist by profession and avid outdoorsman and wanted to see national parks (Mazanar, Crater Lake and Zion in particular) and archaeology sites enroute as well as a friend in Salt Lake City. I wanted to visit places where I grew up and went to school (Idaho Falls, Idaho), an artsy community in NE Oregon (Joseph) and attend the conference. We did it all. 

One of its many highlights was a night in Salt Lake City’s speakeasy bars (the next blog post).




Costa Rica: Backroads Eco-Tourism


One of the advantages of volunteering my services to a friend’s ecotour company (see here and here) is that when I’m in Costa Rica, I get to tag along on their scouting expeditions to check out potential new trips. It was on one of these expeditions that I found myself gaping at the bounty from a remote, organic farm with a family (mother, father and baby) from the Pyrenees Mountains in France who had hiked down the rugged road I had traveled by SUV. They were volunteering and wanted to open a similar operation in France. Dona Noire, the matriarch of the farm, picked out a parachute looking seed pod from a table laden with colorful fruits and vegetables and peeled back the outer layer to reveal a tiny yellow fruit inside. “The fruit of love, ” she said and handed it to us to eat. “This will be your breakfast juice tomorrow and after you drink it I will show you where it grows.”


The following morning she led our small group through her lush garden pointing out not only her plants (she grows incense among her flowers and fruits) but also how the farm recycles ordinary items instead of buying materials. Used tires form steps and garden beds. Used rubber boots become the insulating base for the house. Broken glass gets mixed into concrete for benches. Discarded stuffed toy animals get turned into garden scarecrows.

In the isolated rural community of Providencia in the Los Santos region of Costa Rica the residents have had to make do with what they have as both an economic and environmental necessity. Located about three hours from San Jose, the community is reached 12 kilometers off the Pan American Highway down a narrow, winding, dirt road that borders Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, the newest addition to Costa Rica’s expansive park system.

The earliest settlers in the lush river valley were workers building the Pan American Highway in the 1930’s. While hunting for food they followed the Brujo River and found a fertile valley with wild blackberries that could sustain their families. Declaring that it was providence that led them to their discovery they built houses, grew food and named their tiny community Providencia. In 1946 more families came over the mountains into the valley and, as the story is told by their adult children, lived under a rock overhang for two years while planting gardens and building houses. Those early pioneering families still live in the same four neighborhoods that form Providencia de Dota – La Roca, La Piedra, Zapotal and El Centro.


Struggling to make a living, the residents of Providencia have turned to rural tourism as an income source. Dona Noire, her husband, Oscar Aguilar and their three children, operate Armonia Ambiental Lodge, in their abundant organic farm that brings in volunteers annually from all over the world to work and learn sustainable agricultural practices. EcoTeach trips use this rustic dormitory styled lodge for many of their tours. Up the road in La Piedra, Ana and Enrique Calderon Aguero also run a small lodge and restaurant, La Cabina la Piedra and operate a small coffee plantation. Their neighbor, Flora Valverde Elizondo has learned to produce juices, jams, nectars and salsa from both the wild and cultivated fruits and vegetables in the area which she sells out of her home along with handicrafts made of recycled newspaper. Her neighbors teach tourists how to make newspaper handicrafts.





Within the last decade Providencia has been discovered by the international rock climbing community as a prime location for bouldering (climbing small 20151118_162505_001rocks without the aid of ropes). Organized and supported as a national sport by the Costa Rican Mountain Sports Federation, Costa Rican climbers have consistently dominated Central American rock climbing competions, a record that has been noticed by the climbing community and so a small but developing adventure sport tourist infrastructure is Providencia’s latest effort to bring economic stability to the community. Providencia guides offer bouldering, hiking and mountain biking. An annual Bouldering Festival is sponsored each February.

In the future some residents of the community hope to use the rich rain forest and cloud forest ecosytems that can be found in Providencia to open a small biological research facility that will bring in not only scientists, but also volunteers who will teach English and research and science skills to Providencia’s youth. Such an initiative will provide more opportunities for the next generation to obtain or create jobs that allow them to remain in the area and continue its proud history as an enterprising, self-sustaining community.


Costa Rica: Part Two of Guide Training – The American Dictator of Nicaragua

20150131_062349The 2015 EcoTeach Guide Training included a two-day field trip for the guides to check out a potential new accommodation and tour experience in the Saripiqui area of northeastern Costa Rica. The new accommodation, Sura Farm, is a small family run operation using natural agricultural practices, with tilapia fish ponds, dormitories for overnight groups and much potential for group activities such as planting and picking pineapple, making pineapple juice and catching and learning to cook tilapia as well as understanding the agricultural philosophy of natural versus organic practices.

The evening of our arrival the guides had a briefing session to prepare for the next days boat trip up the Sarapiqui River to follow the route of an infamous conquest in Costa Rican/Nicaraguan history.


William WalkerIn 1855, William Walker, an American soldier of fortune came to Nicaragua to pursue his goal of spreadingslavery to the southern continent. Taking advantage of the internal political turmoil and civil war in the country, he and a small band of other soldiers of fortune (called filibusters) invaded and captured the powerful city of Granada and Walker promptly declared himself President of the country. The US administration under Franklin Pierce recognized his government giving Walker the legitimacy to overturn Nicaragua’s existing anti-slavery laws and make English the official language. The governments of nearby Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, concerned about Yankee imperialism and Walker’s intent to spread his view of Manifest Destiny, joined forces to remove him. The turning point in the battle to oust Walker’s army began on the Sarapiqui River in Costa Rica when Costa Rican troops chased Walker’s army up the river into Nicaragua where the  Battle of Rivas occurred ultimately forcing Walker to flee back to the US.

The guides were first briefed by one of their colleagues who is from Nicaragua who explained what Nicaragua teaches about that period of his country’s history. It was a passionate and detailed presentation. In Nicarugua it’s a major event in their history taught in schools. The battles are celebrated as holidays and Walker is referred to as an invader and a dictator.  My role was to explain the U.S. version of the events since many of the tour groups who use the eco-tour company are U.S. school groups. I was a high school history teacher and had never heard of William Walker. Internet research turned up some details. Apparently, other than Tennessee, where Walker as born (a modest Nashville memorial is erected to him and The Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History calls him “the Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny” who conquered Nicaragua) his invasion is not part of the history curriculum in U.S. schools.

20150131_084101The following day our group was accompanied up the Saripiqui River by a local historian and retired university professor who showed the guides the battle sites along the river. On our way up river we stopped at the home of a large, extended, economically impoverished family to deliver clothes, food and school supplies the guides had collected for them and later in the day we also delivered school supplies and clothes to the community association to distribute to the local school and needy families.

For more details about EcoTeach’s tours and prices



Costa Rica: Inside An EcoTour Company Guide Training. Part One

It was 8AM. The students were ready with notebooks, tape recorders and electronic tablets. The biologist showed a video clip, then pointed to the photos in her PowerPoint explaining the optimal conditions for temperature and water and passed around different types of coral fragments while the class peppered her with questions as they took notes. This could be a graduate level university marine biology class but instead, it’s the annual EcoTeach training for its guides and day two began early with a two hour in-depth lecture on the lifespan of various coral and fish species and the importance of marine life conservation.

Samsung Pics 1275As a regular traveler who occasionally relies on tour companies in my trips, it never occurred to me that tour guides go to school. So when EcoTeach asked me to do a small presentation at their guide trainings, I jumped at the opportunity to go through the entire training to see what a group of experienced tour guides do for their professional development.

Costa Rica tour companies vary in their requirements for guide certification and training. EcoTeach guides must have previous guide experience and maintain certification in both basic first aid and wilderness first aid. EcoTeach conducts at least one annual 4-5 day training for its guides on a variety of guide requested topics and one follow-up end of season training day. The first annual training occurs in January before the next season begins, allowing the guides and the United States and Costa Rica offices to debrief the previous year and make changes for the next tour season.

Samsung Pics 1304 Some years EcoTeach offers additional training as it did my first year of attending. The guides wanted to update their first aid cards and so we went through an intense multi-day wilderness first aid course that included role playing with realistic looking injuries and an end of course performance test. Not being a guide, it was initially intimidating, but the EcoTeach guides were encouraging and I emerged from my end of course performance exam to their applause as the very proud recipient of my own wilderness first aid card.

This year the guides began their four day training by reviewing the completed season. Then, as they did in the previous year’s training, they heard a presentation from a guest local guide they partner with on some of the tours. This year it was Pedro Rajos Morales, a local guide from the Boruca indigenous community who EcoTeach uses when groups tour there. Pedro’s informative lecture was a follow-up to the 2014 EcoTeach training when guides heard from a university professor about the archeology of the area in Costa Rica now inhabited by the indigenous Boruca and Bri Bri communities.

Following the marine biology lecture the guides met the drivers from the new transportation company EcoTeach will be using which included a lively driver/guide/office question and answer hour. It never occured to me how critical the working relationship was between guides and the drivers who transport groups. Guides had lots of questions about how the drivers would handle specific situations and likewise, drivers had similar questions of the guides in order to understand the EcoTeach philosophy of driver/guide as a team.

For more details about EcoTeach tours and prices

Paris: A Nose by Any Other Name Is A Perfumer

In Paris one’s olfactory senses are on pleasant overload. Boulangeries emit the scent of buttery croissants and fresh bread. Clothing boutiques smell like violets and inside the Metro train a veritable fusion of floral, woodsy, citrus scented Parisians go about their daily transit.

It was my nose that led me to the newly opened Paris Musee de Parfum when I asked a shopkeeper what perfume she was wearing. I’m not a perfume wearer but 20151019_175342_LLSthe violet scent was so…well, Parisian. She pointed to the Frangonard store across the street and encouraged me to visit its museum. Frangonard is a classic French perfumery house with its factory and expanded museum located in Grasse, France, the center of the French perfume world. Historically perfume was created to mask the body odor of the French nobility who bathed only twice a year. The Frangonard Paris museum showcases both the historic and contemporary art 20151019_175324_LLSand science of creating “la parfum” in a series of displays but its factory tour in Grasse lets you watch the bottles being filled, soaps packaged and the workers going about their jobs. Before any of that occurs, though, comes the creative genius of the Nose (“le Nez”) or more technically, the Perfumer who creates the scent.

Becoming a Nose requires training and/or a pedigreed history of family Noses. In France there are three schools that teach the art. Often students enter the school with a degree in chemistry or botany and spend six more years studying and fine tuning their sense of smell. A single vial of perfume can have between 20 and 250 scents contained in the three notes of a perfume – the top note that can be immediately smelled, the middle note which comes slightly later and is the strongest (the French say the “most voluptuous”) and the base note also called the trailer note.


There are at any one time, about 50 highly regarded and sought after Noses. They command a salary of $50,000 a month and work only three days a week to keep their olfactory senses highly tuned. Typically they only work 20 years.

It is possible to have a scent created just for you or to create one yourself with the assistance of a Nose at any number of perfumeries in Paris or Grasse.

Pasto, Colombia: The Foam and Greasepaint of El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos

55KBStanding on the street, I was already saturated from head to toe with white foam, flour and the blue greasepaint that a passer-by smeared on my face when suddenly an angelic looking little girl took aim with her over-sized can of foam and sprayed me with yet more “espuma.” Then she turned and doused her laughing grandfather with another squirt from her can. Such is the playful scene happening everywhere on the streets of Pasto, Colombia during its January 2-7 boisterous festival known as El Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (The Carnaval of Blacks and Whites)  – a festival designated as a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and a celebration not for the shy or faint of heart.  I had seen my share of staid festivals in other countries that required little more than watching and admiring. I had come to Pasto to take part in a tradition that required audience participation.

The five day festival celebrates the area’s multi-ethnic heritage. In addition to Dia de Blancos, the day of white flour and foam, the festivities also include Dia de Negro – when the younger crowd paints themselves with black greasepaint to honor the Carnaval’s 1607 origins that began with the threat of a slave revolt. To avoid the rebellion, the Spanish Crown gave slaves of southern Colombia’s Spanish hacienda owners an annual day off for the Catholic celebration of the Epiphany. The slave population celebrated by taking to the streets with music and dancing and by painting everyone with black shoe polish and soot to endow all hacienda residents with a common identity. While I could appreciate the historical sentiment, I was still finding flour in all my crevices and decided to watch from the sidelines.

55KB (2)Since 1928 when several traditions were formalized with a parade, additional days have been added to the week long Carnaval event blending together both indigenous traditions and Epiphany activities. January 2nd and 3rd are celebrated as Carnavelito and the Parade of La Familia Casteneda, respectively – two days of joyful, colorful parades of folkloric groups, musicians, stilt walkers and dancers from Andean villages all around the region. January 5th is Dia de Negro.

Those events lead up to January 6th – Dia de Blanco, the day everyone claimed was the craziest and most amazing day of Carnaval. I did notice the afternoon before that all the stores in the city center were boarding up their windows. Pedro, the manager of my hotel, warned me I needed extra cans of foam and protection for my camera before venturing out that day. Also sun glasses to keep the foam out of my eyes. There would be more flour and foam than had been seen in the streets in all previous days of the festival.

Surely it couldn’t be more exuberant than what I’d seen already! At breakfast I queried the owners of the nearby coffee shop. They said the parade of super-sized puppets and floats, called enormes carrosas, would be especially colorful this year – they’d been designed and built throughout the year providing jobs for thousands of local artisans. And they said the parade, which began at 9AM would last at least five hours during which time I would be pelted with flour and sprayed with foam by the parade audience. And lastly they instructed that I needed to shout, “Viva Pasto!” until I was hoarse. They weren’t kidding.

55 KB 5As with the two parades of previous days it was an interactive, audience and participant extravaganza of color, music and stunning costumes. The enormes carrosas were as fanciful and beautiful as promised and I emerged from the crowd, hoarse and caked in a ghostly white layer of crusty flour.

The festivities end quietly on January 7th, the Dia de Cuy – day of the guinea pig.  The foam, flour greasepaint vendors disappear. The streets are cleaned overnight. Exhausted tourists crowd the airport and bus stations and the residents of Pasto end Carnaval with a feast of the Andes tasty, traditional, “microlivestock” – the guinea pig.