Greece: Volunteering for Syrian Refugees

     “Tell me, what is your plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver

I love that question. My friend, Alice Mendoza, a retired 40 year Bainbridge Island public school teacher regularly quotes it from her mother’s favorite poem. Alice admires Eleanor Roosevelt and each year her students had the privilege of learning how the former First Lady of the United States promoted and modeled the importance of community and global service. Alice also spent two years teaching in an international school in Morocco shortly before she retired. And so it was no surprise when she announced two weeks ago that she was traveling in February to the island of Lesbos in Greece to volunteer with Seattle’s Salaam Cultural Center assisting with the Syrian refugee crisis. She’s using her one wild and precious life to help save the wild and precious life of others.

Lesbos is the nearest island to Turkey and for the overloaded and/or defective rubber rafts carrying the flood of refugees, its the first safe haven that many of them reach after a dangerous six hour crossing of the Aegean Sea. They arrive scared, cold, wet and hungry; some of them with immediate medical conditions. Some don’t live through the dangerous trip. It’s winter on the Aegean and Alice’s update today reported that several babies died of hypothermia on the rafts that landed this week.

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A variety of NGOs, including the Salaam Cultural Center and their volunteers, along with the people of Lesbos have managed to create a temporary infrastructure that tries to accommodate the refugees’ needs as they arrive by the boatload, sometimes thousands in a given day. In January of 2016 alone, 18,000 refugees made the trip. Lookouts watch the Aegean Sea 24/7 for signs of incoming rubber rafts. Once the raft lands the shaken passengers are given dry clothes if the volunteers have a supply, food and a medical checkup if needed. This is where Alice will be volunteering. They’re then bused to the port on Lesbos and put on a ferry for an eight hour trip to Athens for more formal refugee processing. A social media global campaign has been mounted on behalf of the Greek Islands to award them the Nobel Peace Prize.

Alice is self-funding all of her expenses, but set up a GoFundme account here to raise $10,000 to buy needed supplies for the refugees as they land- childrens’ socks, shoes and hats; dry sweatpants, raincoats, warm coats and thermal blankets. I donated; its the least I could do with my one wild and precious life. She got the Senior Center on Bainbridge Island to knit warm hats to take and has been speaking to groups to raise funding and awareness. Alice was an elementary teacher and knows in her volunteer capacity in that short window of time she has to comfort a traumatized child whose language she may not speak, she needs a translator. Beanie Babies. I have boxes of them (a collection discarded by my peregrine son when he moved on to collecting real pets). Tiny bean stuffed translators; all of them are accompanying Alice when she leaves in February.

Tell me, what is your plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver


Ecuador:Go!Clown With Patch Adams

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This happened two days ago. You know that Facebook feature that randomly posts photos of your past life? Facebook posted this. This actually happened six years ago and it made me laugh as hard two days ago as it did when Patch Adams (that’s him on the right in the photo) and his merry band of clowns tried to kidnap me in Ecuador. When I didn’t go willingly they insisted on a group nose-picking pose.

It happened because I was traveling with my peregrine son through Ecuador which found us passing through Quito for an overnight stay three times during the trip. We stayed in the Mariscal area, a touristy but easy place to find cheap food, a good latte and information from fellow travelers. It also had La Casa Sol, an inexpensive guest house that let us safely leave bags of non-usable stuff as we ventured on multi-day trips that took us from the tropical jungle to the chilly mountains. When we arrived the last time late at night after a day long bus ride, the guesthouse was filled with clowns. Lots of them. Uber enthusiastic, red-nosed, horn-honking clowns. My peregrine son looked about and announced he was leaving to find another hostel. I stayed. I was too tired and too curious.

It turned out my charming hostel was hosting a Go!Clown mission, part of Patch Adam’s global outreach program at his Geshundheit Institute. I’d seen the 1998 movie based on his life starring Robin Wlliams so I knew something about the back story. But when you’ve just come out of a week in the remote Amazon jungle to discover you’re the only non-clown in a hostel full of them (always in costume and character….always!) it requires some re-entry time no matter how famous the sponsor. Which is what I was doing the following morning contemplatively sipping my coffee in the breakfast room when blown soap bubbles landed in my cup. I moved over a chair to let three clowns join me and sat on a whoopee cushion. I had inadvertently become an audience of one for their rehearsal of the day’s activities. What I discovered in between their magic tricks and making of balloon animals was that the group was headed to the Quito Womens’ Prison for the day to bring joy and happiness to the inmates. Later that afternoon I happened upon them on the main drag of touristy Mariscal performing for confounded backpackers. And even later in the evening in the sitting area just outside my room earnestly debriefing the day under the guidance of Patch Adams himself using the Institute’s educational philosophy about problem solving. And that is when I quit being disgruntled that I was surrounded by constant clowns. This was a volunteer humanitarian mission born out of a philosophy that spontaneous play in sad places (prisons, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, places that have been ravaged by civil war and trauma) incrementally heals the mind and body.

The next morning Hunter “Patch” Adams wandered into the breakfast room before the rest of his volunteers and I had a chance to meet the person underneath the clown costume. The 1998 movie never did produce the dream he had when he allowed the rights to his life and mission to be made into a movie. He wanted enough attention and funding to let him build a hospital that implemented his model of medical therapy on the 300 acre West Virginia Geshundheit Institute. He wanted the Go!Clown missions, which were annually in Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru and Russia to expand to other countries despite the fact that he was already traveling 300 days a year doing lectures and leading the missions. And he had a new idea – to include traumatized U.S. military veterans on the clown missions to provide a healing opportunity for them.

The rest of the exuberant clowns honked, tooted and danced into the breakfast room to leave for their day’s work at two Quito hospitals. They tried to get me to join them but we had a flight home that morning and so the photo op happened. Two days ago when Facebook memory prompted me, I checked the Geshundheit Institute website. He’s still fundraising for that hospital. He’s taking Go!Clown missions to other countries. And last year a group of military veterans donned clown costumes and joined a mission.

Vancouver, Canada: Indigenous Tourism

It began with my search engine attempt to find reasonably priced accommodations in downtown Vancouver, Canada over the U.S. Thanksgiving Day weekend. An intriguing name rose to the top of the search engine feed: Skwachays Lodge: Aboriginal Hotel and Gallery. Hmmm. Located on West Pender Street across the street from Vancouver’s Millenium Gate entrance to Chinatown, the hotel was not only reasonably priced but within walking distance of almost everything we wanted to see. Owned and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society, the hotel had the added attraction of not only a fair trade gallery of art by First Nation artists, but each room was decorated by a team of Native artists and interior designers with unique indigenous art. Finding Skwachays Lodge inspired a theme for the weekend’s trip- what other Native owned businesses could we support while in Vancouver?

Skwachays Lodge is the first Native owned urban hotel in Canada and had just celebrated its one year anniversary when we were there in November, 2015. Originally the Vancouver Native Housing Authority bought and renovated the building to be used for housing for indigenous people seeking medical treatment at Vancouver area hospitals; but when it got less use than anticipated, the Housing Authority turned it into a boutique hotel for tourists and art studio and living space for indigenous artists. Eighteen suites on the top floors are for paying guests.

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Each suite has a theme and lovely name such as the Sea Kingdom Suite, Moon Suite and the Wilderness Teachings Suite. Our’s was the Northern Lights Suite featuring two beaded metal wall hangings by Nancy A. Luis, one of a black bear and another of two wolves singing to the moon woven into a dream catcher. A wall mural painted by Jerry Whitehead of a procession of powwow dancers beneath the Northern Lights greeted us every time we entered and left the room. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, you can appreciate the details and art of the suites here.

Proceeds from the hotel support the indigenous artists who live on the other floors of the hotel and their studio spaces which are located there as well.  “You arrive as a guest and leave as a friend,” said the front desk clerk who checked us in and then showed us the breakfast room (pointing out the single slab cedar breakfast bar), fireplace and seating area to read, sip a glass of wine and meet the other hotel guests, all of them drawn by the experience of supporting the unique dual mission of Skwachays Lodge.

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It was Thanksgiving, we had a travel theme and so we asked the staff at Skwachays for a dinner recommendation. They suggested the Native owned Salmon and Bannock Bistro on West Broadway. The small restaurant was packed. Indigenous art hung from its red walls and the menu was all tasty aboriginal dishes from local ingredients including bannock, bison tenderloin, game sausage and Indian Candy (salmon smoked and candied). The restaurant serves wine from Nk’Mip, British Columbia’s only First Nation winery.

The hotel staff became our resource for cultural experiences as well. In addition to all of the art, there was a smudge room on our floor which can be used by hotel guests with advance reservations through the hotel. We hadn’t done that so the staff recommended the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art to see the works of Canada‘s acclaimed Haida artist and other indigenous carvings, paintings and jewelry. The gallery is like a museum with touch screens that explain the art and often artists at work. The hotel advised us on how to use the city’s extensive mass transit system to get to the Museum of Anthropology located on the University of British Columbia campus.

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MOA, the Museum of Anthropology, is home to Canada‘s best collection of indigenous art and artifacts.  Even the architecture of the building was inspired by Northwest Native post and beam structures. Full length windows in the Great Hall help showcase many towering totem poles and wooden carvings. The museum also features indigenous cultural artifacts from all over the globe in room after room of display cases and pull-out drawers all tastefully displayed and explained. To do the museum justice takes most of a day.







How India Begot Spain

The instructions for the 30 day India non-extendable tourist visa are clear. I must have proof that I’m exiting the country at the end of my visa or I may not be allowed to enter the country at the New Delhi airport. Hmm.

I’m a month away from my trip to India as a volunteer in a humanitarian project. I’m well into my normal pre-trip mode. I’ve been doing guidebook research to get a general sense of where I’ll be (England’s Rough Guides publications are my favorites for their more detailed descriptions and budget travel advice). Though I’ll be mostly traveling with a small group on a guided itinerary, I like knowing some facts before arriving. My advance reading always includes travel memoirs to get a more personal sense of the country. Because it’s India and women traveling there need to be particularly aware of cultural differences, I’m reading female authors. The annual anthology, The Best Women’s Travel Writing is always a good start. Also the owners of my favorite local travel store, The Traveler, on Bainbridge Island carry a well curated collection of guidebooks and memoirs and are generous with advice. Since my final week will be spent working in one of Mother Teresa’s hospitals or orphanages, my online research has focused on what that experience will be like. In spite of all my pre-trip reading, I try to enter a country in a state of modified tabula rasa – open to the newness of my journey and as free of preconceived notions as possible.

What I hadn’t done (I realized while completing the online 30 day India visa) was to make a plan to return home. Unencumbered by the boundaries of work and limited vacation days my peregrine self had focused on the getting there and the experience of being there but not the getting out of there. Which is how India begot Spain.

I have a love affair with Saudi Arabia’s Emirates Airlines. Heavily subsidized by the Saudi government it’s an airline that still treats it’s international coach passengers with elegance (real silver wear, plates and menu choices) and grace (more legroom, soft, muted colors and interesting in-flight entertainment). Because of the government funding, it’s also often less expensive than any other airline. It has a direct flight from Seattle to Dubai. And as a partner with Alaska Airlines, allows use of Alaska frequent flier miles. It’s taking me to India. Where could it take me cheaply away from India if 1) I could continue traveling in March and April, 2) I didn’t want to stay anywhere in Asia as March begins their season of heat and humidity, 3) I didn’t want to go anywhere in Europe that required packing winter clothes and 4) I really need to improve my Spanish?

Valencia, Spain (…..via Madrid). Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, is located on its eastern coast with the geography of a subtropical Mediterranean climate. It’s March weather is temperate and it has the added bonus of having an annual two week festival in March, Las Fallas, that celebrates the end of winter. It also has language schools. And my search for accommodations found an inexpensive, charming Airb&b apartment in the historic district that the owner will rent to me for a discount because I’m staying a month. But then Valencia begot Salamanca, Spain.

In doing some research for a Spanish language school, I also discovered a volunteer opportunity near Salamanca. In return for me practicing English with students taking a week long English immersion class, I would get a free week of accommodations and meals at the 4 star mountain resort where the course was being held. I applied (I was a high school English teacher). I got accepted. I’m going. And I still haven’t planned the return trip home.




My Colombia New Years Eve

It felt like a war zone. The traditions that were part of Pasto, Colombia’s New Years celebration – so quirky and charming in the daylight – had transformed into rockets, exploding body parts and burning pyres at midnight. Yes, the body parts were made of paper mache but given a Girl Scout childhood shaped by the U.S. advertising campaign of Smokey the Bear (“Only YOU can prevent forest fires”) I was certain real body parts were going to be lost that night. Also that the entire city would go up in flames. Only later did I learn that Colombia outlawed New Years fireworks in 2009 because so many children were getting injured, but this was 2012 and we were in the southwest corner of the country where word of a ban had clearly not traveled.

The peregrine son and I had arrived in Pasto on New Years Eve day after spending Christmas in Medellin and in preparation for Pasto’s five day Festival of Blacks and Whites. We knew the town also had an  Ano Viejo celebration that resembled the ones they have in Ecuador which we’d missed in our travels there.  Ano Viejo, “Old Year” gives participants the opportunity to rid themselves of anger, grudges and failures of the old year before welcoming in the new year.

Traveling from the airport into town we ran into blockades of young men dressed as women. Symbolically they represent the widows of the paper mache effigies which will explode at midnight. They asked for coins to let us pass, part of the good-natured buildup to the evening’s celebration.

Traditionally each family creates a life-sized paper mache doll called a taitapuro or carrancho the day after Christmas and displays it outside their house until New Years Eve. Some families pose the effigy on their car and drive it around on New Years Eve Day. As midnight approaches the family recites the grievances of the past year and at midnight they burn the effigy.

Commerce and media have influenced the celebration and now there are entire markets of paper mache dolls. You can buy a whole doll or body parts to make your own. You can also now buy dolls that look like cartoon characters, politicians and movie stars.

We each purchased a doll (Sponge Bob Square Pants and Wonder Woman) and then crossed the street to a cantina and bought them beer – their last meal.

DSC00598Just before midnight we walked up to the main plaza with matches to burn our doll and that’s when the street explosions began because the more boisterous celebrants put fireworks inside their effigy. Its not enough to gently burn it, it must be blown to smithereens.

As we made our way in the dark through the funeral pyres of effigies and active blasts we were beckoned by three young women into the doorway of an apartment building for safety. And then invited upstairs to their extended family’s all night New Years celebration where we were pressed to eat food (lentil soup, a tradition that brings good luck in the New Year and 12 grapes which brings luck each month.)  And we were taught to salsa dance by the grandmother. There was much toasting of the family members and of us, as their guests…. multiple times. Somewhere in the bleary hours of the New Year I learned of another Colombian New Years tradition – wearing yellow underpants, preferably backwards. For peace and happiness in the New Year.





Ecuador: Christmas Eve Day’s Pase del Nino

A theme is emerging in my December posts about how the Christmas holidays are celebrated elsewhere. Right below my Halloween birthday, the holiday season around Christmas ranks second on my list of favorite celebrations. Sometimes I’m home for Poulsbo’s very Scandinavian December and sometimes I like to venture further afield as I did here and here to experience the festivities elsewhere. It’s interesting how religion often shapes the most exuberantly celebrated days of the Christmas season, particularly in Catholic majority countries. In Ecuador, its Christmas Eve Day. While here at home, December 24th is filled with last minute shopping and the opening of gifts, Ecuador celebrates Christmas Eve with Pase del Nino, a religious procession from the neighborhoods to a central church or plaza in the city in honor of the birth of Jesus . The day culminates at Misa de Gallo, midnight mass or literally translated as Rooster Mass.

In Cuenca, Ecuador where I landed for a Christmas, the celebration is called Nino Viajero, “the traveler child”. It’s an all day colorful procession with 50,000 participants from Cuenca and the surrounding villages and over 200,000 spectators whose route passed the hostel we were staying in allowing a close street view of everything. Cuenca claims it is the largest Pase del Nino in all of Latin America. We (my peregrine son and I) got up early for the 10AM parade start assuming it was something akin to parades back home where people stake out spots early on the parade route. We hung out alone for a couple of hours. The crowd showed up just in advance of the procession.

The pase had women and girls in colorful dresses and elaborate hats riding horses, often adorned in their own equine finery.

Everywhere there were beautiful children dressed as shepherds and angels, some in the procession and others watching with us on the street.

There were Santa Clauses and dancers. Also lively brass bands. The procession is a combination of Catholic and indigenous traditions and has lately been heavily influenced by media. There have been years when costumed cartoon characters are part of the parade.

And there were food offerings – whole stuffed pigs, slabs of beef, whole roasted chickens and fruit and vegetables adorning floats.

maxresdefaultThe parade accompanies an 1823 statue of Jesus, the traveling child. Unique to Cuenca, their statue of the Christ child was taken to Bethlehem and to Rome for the blessing of the Pope in 1961 and has since been called the traveling child. The parade ends beyond a park in the central part of Cuenca late in the afternoon giving both participants and spectators a chance to go home to prepare for Rooster Mass.



Colombia: The Hostel Christmas Mom

It occurred spontaneously without any of the pressure that normally accompanies the buildup to and carrying out of the holiday season. And it happened in the most unlikely of places – a youth hostel in what was formerly the most violent city in the world – Medellin,Colombia.

I’ve blogged previously about my do-over in Palenque and the non-ending of the world celebration in Guatemala. Also the joyful five day Festival de Blancos y Negros in Colombia. Somewhere on that trip between confirming that the world was going to keep spinning in Lake Atitlan and getting covered with espuma in Pasto, Christmas Eve and Day loomed on the calendar. And my peregrine son, Zach had joined me in Guatemala to launch his own three month backpacking trip through Central and South America. We needed a place to land for  Christmas enroute to southern Colombia.


Medellin, Colombia had been recently featured in travel publications as an up and coming place to visit and live. Formerly the 1980’s stronghold of Pablo Escobar, the head of the brutal Colombian drug cartel, Medellin had rebooted itself after the death of Escobar with a new reputation as a haven for expats and tourists. The city also knows how to celebrate the holiday season with an extravagant multi-million dollar show of holiday lights all over the city and along the Medellin River so we’d have something festive to do when the city closed down while families gathered for two days. I booked The Wandering Paisa, a hostel that sounded promising because its owners were two brothers from Seattle. It had a tiny private room with bathroom for me and a dorm for Zach allowing us to have our own age-appropriate hostel experience. I could retreat to my room with a book or sight see on my own while he hung out with the younger dorm crowd.

We arrived late on the evening of December 23rd and after dumping our backpacks, I checked out the hostel. Clearly and by a significant margin, I was the oldest guest. The group on the couch made space for me to watch Game of Thrones which they’d been binge watching all day and I’d never heard of. Someone asked if I wanted a beer and because I was sure there was no pinot grigio or pouilley fume to be had in the hostel’s tiny bar, I nursed the beer through two episodes of grisly deaths and a back story that everyone but me knew. I started feeling sorry for myself. It was Christmas and I longed for a tree, Its A Wonderful Life, caroling and hot buttered rum. Before Zach left to go bar-hopping with the hostel crowd, I told him I was going to move into a nearby hotel (one with a Christmas tree) the next day. We could meet for Christmas Eve dinner and to exchange gifts and anything else where he wanted to join me.

Late the next morning when the first of the late night crowd wandered into the kitchen, he informed me they’d discussed my plan to move at the bar the night before and decided it couldn’t happen. It was Christmas. They were young international travelers – all away from home. They needed a Christmas Mom. He promised I didn’t have to do anything; they’d do all the cooking for the Christmas feast. The Hostel Christmas Mom. Who could resist that?

On Christmas Eve Day I bought wine and table decorations. That night, all of us piled into taxis and went to the Medellin River to walk through the lights. On Christmas Day while a crew of them worked in the kitchen, I gathered mismatched tables and chairs from all over the building and decorated our makeshift long table. The Hostel Christmas Mom wasn’t about to be a slacker when it came to mothering on Christmas Day.

Everyone dressed in their cleanest, least wrinkled clothes for dinner – a non-traditional assortment of wonderful food washed down with copious amounts of wine. There were plenty of exchanged travel stories and jokes and good-natured teasing. There were multiple languages. There were toasts to the people who would be leaving the next day to travel onward and there were plans hatched by those staying on for things to do over the next few days – all with insisted invites for me to join them. No solo sight-seeing or book reading for me. It was lovely. It was a Christmas to remember. It still ranks as one of my top three Christmases. After dinner everyone left to head for the bars while I crawled into bed. The next morning I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee and couldn’t find the coffeepot among the piles of dirty dishes. And so, while my hostel children slept, I filled up the sink with hot water and began doing dishes. Because, I was, after all, The Hostel Christmas Mom.