Category Archives: Life

Cycling in Vietnam – Central: Hue & Hoi An

Day 8: We awaken to continuing dismal rain today, but our spirits are rescued by the amazing variety of food at our buffet breakfast at the Romantic Hotel: full Chinese breakfast, plus full American breakfast, plus many varieties of exotic fruit. We head out from the hotel with our newly fitted bicycles and plastic raingear, determined not to let the rain stop us. Unlike the last bikes, these don’t have disc brakes, but we’re told to expect fewer hills. Still, the unrelenting rain makes both roads and tires slick, so we exercise some caution.

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Wherever we cycle, we pass neighbourhood temples like this one outside Hue

After tasting water apples and milk apples at a local market, we visit a lady at her home who is making incense – placing sticks into a metal contraption that coats the upper part of the stick with a perfumed clay. She can turn out over 1000 sticks an hour. We all try our hand at it, but with the exception of Don, who’s a whiz in a workshop, our host has good reason not to be impressed. There must be many artisans like her, because incense is everywhere in Vietnam. It is thought to form a bridge between earth and heaven, and is used by millions requesting spiritual intervention with their earthly challenges. Upon passing temples and pagodas, we usually feel its sweet smoke catch in our throats.

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Rainy-day Rose Tries her Hand at Incense-making

Our guide Hoa teaches us a lot about the thirteen Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty (that reigned from 1802-1945). Note: the word “Nyugen” is almost impossible for us English speakers to wrap our mouths around. Our group of six had six different pronunciations, even while sober and with our wits about us. Only Paul seemed to be able to provide a version that Hoa didn’t cringe at! “Very clear!” he would beam, “You should study Vietnamese.” (Paul explained that his pronunciation was somewhere between “Just like it’s spelled,” and “Wynn,” with a slight emphasis on the second syllable.)

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Typical Pagoda Altar

The first Nyugen emperor, Gai Long, reigned from 1802-1819 and unified the country. The nation officially became known as “Vietnam” during his reign. The 13th (and last) Nyugen emperor, Bao Dia, abdicated at the end of WWII, transferred power to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and lived out the rest of his life in France. (By this time, the Democratic Republic controlled only the South, while Ho Chi Minh’s communist party ruled the North.) Many of the emperors had many concubines, and therefore many children. The emperors would allow only eunuchs near their concubines, so those that were granted this equivocal privilege had high status, as did their families. A significant percentage of hopefuls, however, did not survive the enabling amputation.

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The Middle Staircase was for the Emperor Alone

We visit the Thien Mu Pagoda on the Perfume River, the Imperial Citadel, and the Mausoleums of Tu Duc (1848-83) and Khai Dinh (1916-25). Tu Doc had over 100 wives and concubines, but his childhood illness denied him children, so he adopted a son. He was buried someone else in Hue, and the 200 laborers who buried him were beheaded afterwards, so the location is still a secret. Khai Dinh collaborated with the French regime in the mid-1800s and was very unpopular with the Vietnamese people. This collaboration led to 100 years of French colonial rule, and 40 years of war before Vietnam was officially reunited in 1975. (Various follow-on wars continued the blight on the next 36 years.)

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Trying Out for Boy Emperor

The rain has kept the tourist count lower than usual, but bus loads of tourists still arrive, arrayed in multi-coloured plastic ponchos and carrying hotel umbrellas. Inside, they do the usual tourist things such as posing for photos on some past emperor’s throne.

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These Incense Coils burn for Two Weeks

Meanwhile, Hoa teaches us the correct way to proffer incense in the pagodas – apparently, many native Vietnamese don’t know the whole story. The petitioner bows three times with the incense, once for the earth, once for the heavens, and once for the human being. Then she respectfully places the incense in the burner. Once again, Paul gets full marks for his technique. Hoa wants to make him an honourary Vietnamese.

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Hoa Tests our Incense Offering Technique

Soaked to the skin, we cut our day short and return to our hotel. We can see that Hoa is disappointed that we may miss the Heavenly Lady Pagoda, but as we tire from cycling in challenging conditions, we realize our margin of safety is impaired. It’s a real shame, as we can see that a sunny day would have made Hue perhaps the most beautiful cycle of our entire trip. We struggle not to let the gloom overtake us. Fortunately, the Romantic Hotel has a good price on massage, so Paul and I enjoy a side-by-side relaxing hour for about US$15 each.

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Will we ever see the Heavenly Lady Pagoda?

Hoa tells us about “weasel coffee,” a brew made from beans that have gone through a civet cat, but we have yet to do a taste test against un-pre-digested coffee, so we don’t know if the extra cost is worth it. We continue to try out new beer. Huda and Halida seem to be topping the charts. Ba ba ba remains at the bottom.

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Guardian of the Pagoda

Day 9: After another amazing breakfast on our second day in Hue, we travel by van to the Heavenly Lady Pagoda. The grounds are beautiful, even in the continuing rain. They are also well kept, unsurprising since the resident monks’ daily chore-filled regimen appears to start before four in the morning.

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Monks’ Schedule includes several Karate Sessions

Leaving Hue, a brave two of our number cycle through the still-rainy countryside, and we stop for a delicious Vietnamese pancake, home-made by Chef-in-training, Lori. The rest of us pace the riders in the comfort of our van. A truck-load of bicycles follow should we change our minds.

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Lori made some Excellent Pancakes from Tiny Eggs

In fact, the rain lets up just in time for lunch at a seaside “a la carte” restaurant. This is the only meal on our tour that isn’t “set menu,” and a surprising number of us end up with french fries somewhere on their plates; often fried in coconut oil, Vietnamese fries are a tasty treat. This is perhaps our only meal of the two weeks that doesn’t include spring rolls.

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Tiny Eggs at the Market (for pancakes?)

With no rain after lunch, most of us start a climb via lightly-traveled road to the top of the 500-meter high Hai Van pass, where the successful cyclists are warmly welcomed. The ocean views are spectacular, even under the clouds, and we can imagine the vistas with azure skies. Our guide Hoa, who is admittedly not a cyclist, also makes the summit.

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Hoa and Paul celebrate their 1650-foot Ascent

He claims he’s paid double for this day – over 80 km of cycling – and I’m not sure he’s joking. This exertion is followed by a short van ride past the five-star beachfront resorts of Da Nang, to the ancient city of Hoi An. We have another nice dinner in a touristy area near the river, streets alight with silk lanterns, but our appetite for spring rolls is beginning to wane.

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Dragon in Chinese Temple in Hoi An

Day 10: On our last day in Hoi An, we visit a Chinese temple, one of many where individuals and even companies pay large amounts of money to purchase a spiral incense contraption that will burn for a fortnight. We have a tour of a silk factory where women product beautiful tapestries and clothing for sale.

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Not About to Give up our Day Jobs

While beautiful, Hoi An is the most touristed place we will visit in Vietnam. Crowds are everywhere, and other tourists on bicycles are more dangerous than locals on scooters. A friendly behatted pair carrying traditional fruit baskets ask us if we want to see how heavy they are. (Quite.) We take turns being photographed staggering under the weight, followed by buying some fruit at several times the market (rates – the extra covers the photo op, I guess.

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Art made from Bamboo Roots

Sometimes the impromptu stops are the best. While in Hoi An, we came upon a temporary roadside shelter, where a few older men where offering a feast to their ancestors. The food was laid out attractively under the canopy, and some of the old men played on simple musical instruments. Wondering what would become of the offering, Paul posed the question to Hoa, and he assured us that, once the ceremony was complete, the men would enjoy eating the food themselves.

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Local Offering to the Ancestors

Good to know. On our rides, we’ve seen many modest Vietnamese homes, overshadowed by temples and tombs far more opulent than their earthly abodes. Between richly endowed temples, tombs, pagodas, schools, and communist party buildings, there doesn’t seem to be so much wealth left for day-to-day living.

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Feasting Ahead

Our final ride is a cycle to Cua Dai beach following the ever watchful lead of Mr. Tien, Hoa’s cyclist alter-ego. Mr. Tien speaks little English, but we all feel a deep connection to his friendly demeanor, and he is an expert cyclist and ride leader. We understand he has planned many of our cycle routes in Central Vietnam.

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Mr. Tien shows us the East Vietnam (a.k.a. South China) Sea

Cycling back to our Hoi An hotel for our final night before flying south, we stop to watch some preschoolers giving their parents an outdoor dance recital in front of their school. One of the teachers invites us inside the gates, where we smile and make goo-goo eyes at the cute little youngsters. It seems a wonderful way to end our too-short visit to Central Vietnam. Paul says he’d like to spend more time in this part of the country, but tomorrow early we fly to Saigon. So early, in fact, that the hotel staff obligingly offer to open the entire breakfast room well before the advertised hour. As with almost all the hospitality staff in Vietnam, they seem so eager to serve their clients in any way possible.

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These Kids were Great Performers

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Heavenly Ladies at the Pagoda

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Going Nomad

Once again, the months have vanished. I’m going to call it a period of consolidation.

Since last summer, we’ve embarked on a series of changes, triggered while Cheryl and I jogged a deserted forest road in the early morning sun. “I think it’s time to retire,” she said.

Within a few days, our plan was hatched. We decided to move out of the city and put almost everything in storage in the small coastal town where we were currently holidaying. That way we could move into temporary digs in our new hometown and scout out the area.

While breakfasting with friends – two local and two from Australia – we hatched a plan to take advantage of our lightened state and travel Down Under. We hadn’t been to Australia since our four-year-stay in the mid-80s, and there was a lot we didn’t see then. Soon, the six of us were planning six weeks in northern New South Wales and Queensland, including time based in our Aussie friends’ “intentional community” and a 2400km AirBnB road-trip down the coast from Cairns.

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Our friends at “Shedders” have sparked considerable media attention.

Our friends’ three-couple home north of Sydney will be fascinating to visit and get to know in some details. As we’ve discussed here, the communal lifestyle has piqued our interest, but we’ve yet to figure out how best to implement it in our new hometown.

Cheryl and I decided to add some other countries before and after Australia, and we soon had a different group of six enrolled in an organized Vietnam cycling adventure including Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City. For a romantic wrap up, the two of us will join a two-week small-group tour of Bali and Lombok in Indonesia.

When we return from this 10-week adventure – our longest trip since Costa Rica – we’ve booked two months of an AirBnB in our new hometown.   Following that, we’ll be doing a local 10-day cycle trip and a weekend kayaking adventure on southern Vancouver Island with our old outdoor club. Hopefully, by June we’ll know where we’re living after that. But in three weeks, after a dozen years at the same address, we’ll officially be nomads.

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We’ll live first in historic Townsite – Sept. 2013 photo by Robert Dall

Since the summer, the days have dissolved into an endless round of decluttering and packing.   We’re finally finishing up the decluttering project begun almost two years ago, having reduced our volume of “stuff” by more than half. I’m looking forward to spending some months with just a few bags and the everyday essentials, although Cheryl and I have had frequent set-tos about what constitutes “essential.”

There’s also been an endless series of tasks involved in severing our ties with our current hometown, where we’ve lived pretty much continuously for 28 years. Earlier on, most of them involved work, but in the past few weeks, more of them have been in the nature of “goodbye dinners” and the like. It’s bittersweet, and reminds us how important it will be to “find our tribes” in our new community come May.

But today, the focus is on our upcoming trip, buying SIM cards, and entering all our trip details in TripCase. Only 20 more sleeps, and only three more work days left for Cheryl.

Cheryl’s anticipated freedom has already had some effects. You may have noticed that my voice has been the dominant one so far on this blog, and that lately it’s been hit and miss. During our upcoming trip, and the new-home adventures after that, we’re planning on returning to more frequent posting and sharing the load more evenly. Let’s see how we can do on collaborative posts.

Cities, Cities, Cities

Much of our travel both past and planned centers around rural adventures: sailing the Cyclades, or cycling Provence or Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands or Vietnam north to south, for example. Visiting cities has often been an afterthought.

Still, besides Vancouver, the beautiful and fascinating city where we’ve lived these past three decades, we have stumbled on some interesting cities in our recent travels. We blogged about one favorite: Ljubljana, Slovenia. On that same Dalmatian cycling trip, we were also surprised at how much we enjoyed wandering around the Croatian capital of Zagreb. When we do visit cities, we prefer to explore them on foot; we greatly enjoyed our pay-what-you-want tours in Paris with Discover Walks. Often we just like to wander.

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While visiting Zagreb, we couldn’t miss the Museum of Broken Relationships

Sometime, though, when a guide is not available, it’s nice to have an alternative. Returning from Buenos Aires, some friends recommended GPSmyCity, which offers over 5000 app-guided walks in over 470 cities worldwide. We will likely try them out during our upcoming travel. Covered cities we will visit include Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Sydney, Cairns, and Brisbane in Australia, and Denpasar in Bali, Indonesia.

Recently the folks at GPSmyCity contacted us with a special offer to our readers. The first 20 readers who comment on this post nominating their favorite city attraction will receive a promo code for one of their full-version city walk apps. Each such code allows a free download of the app, which normally costs US$4.99 at the App Store. So leave a comment with your nominated attraction, and if you qualify, let us know how you enjoy your GPSmyCity tour. (If you nominate an attraction in one of our upcoming destinations, you’ll also win a special place in our hearts.)

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One of the guardians of Ljubljana’s Dragon Bridge.

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Don’t forget to nominate your favorite city attraction below.  First 20 get a free promo code for a GPSmyCity city app of their choice.  In your comment, please also specify: iOS or Android, and your choice of city.  (One code per email address.  Offer expires March 5, 2016.  Codes will be emailed by mid-March.)

Kedging for Fun and Non-profits

In sailing terms, kedging is the process of moving a ship forward by sending an anchor out ahead of it, and then pulling the ship forward by hauling on the anchor. This slow and laborious process can be repeated indefinitely.

“Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond”

As the book “Younger Next Year” explains, the same process can be used to pull yourself through the slow and laborious process of a daily exercise regime. The idea is to set a physical stretch goal that will keep you moving forward when the couch is softly calling.

Last year, I had used our upcoming fall cycling trip to the hilly Dalmatian Islands as my kedge, and the thought of those climbs got me out riding our local hills on many a summer’s day.

This year, I elected to participate in a late-August two-day bicycle ride to raise funds for cancer research. However, the real fun began when I elected the optional “challenge” route of 290 km (180 miles.) The longer Day One would be close to double the longest ride I’d ever done.

As I started my training rides, I soon realized that my trusty hybrid cycle was not up to the task. At a top average speed of perhaps 22 kph, I’d be at risk of not finishing before dark. I also wanted to join the local road-riding club for extra weekly motivation, and they had a “no hybrids” policy. So, in April, I acquired an entry-level road bike, the first since my 20s. Shortly after that, I persuaded myself to try “clipless pedals” – so called because the cyclist’s shoes are clipped into the pedals – go figure!

As anyone who’s had their feet attached to the pedals can tell you, a few slow-motion falls are to be expected, especially on days with high cross winds. It hurts a lot less if you land on flat ground rather than a roadside planter. Ouch!

Trying out the new "clipless" pedals

Trying out the new “clipless” pedals

As spring headed towards summer and I worked my way towards 225 km a week, I inched my average ride speed from 22 to 24, then 25, and finally 27 kph. That was the point I’d told myself I’d be ready to join my first group ride. An informal ride was advertised for Tuesday morning: “Pensioners’ Easy Ride.” That sounded good.

I arrived at the meeting point with a slightly bloodied knee – remember those cross winds? The collection of sleek carbon-fiber machines looked intimidating, and some of those “pensioners” must have taken very early retirement. For 20 km, I managed to keep them in sight – although it nearly cost me a lung – after which, they disappeared from view. At the end-of-route coffee stop, they gently suggested the “other” club might be closer to my speed.

Towards the end of the summer, I did manage to get out with the “other” club a few times, and while the rides kept me moving, I was able to hold my own. Good thing! I had my hands full learning the hand signals and other techniques for riding in close formation. This was a very different style of riding than what we do in our recreational club, and I came back from a few “white knuckle” rides with aching fingers.

Fellow riders on the bike trail into Cascade Locks, OR

Fellow riders on the bike trail into Cascade Locks, OR

Meanwhile, our recreational club kept Cheryl and me busy this summer with a number of great rides including a three-day circuit of Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, a multi-day exploration of the BC wine country around Oliver, and a couple days of riding on Washington’s Whidbey and BC’s Pender Island. I knew my training was starting to have an effect when fellow riders remarked on how my hill climbing had improved, and sometimes complained that my “easy” pace seemed to be quickening.

Despite all this, by August I was growing concerned that I still hadn’t proven to my own satisfaction that I could do the ride at month end. So I pushed myself to do longer rides, and ten days ago, I completed my longest ride ever. Although I was still only at 75 percent of Day One, I knew I still had the reserves to do that last 25 percent — and before sunset to boot. Not a moment too soon, as our training advisors soon told us it was time to taper down for event day.

Now, with the ride only a few days off, the kedge has done its work. It got me out cycling on the days I otherwise wouldn’t: when it was too hot, or sprinkling, or when my road bike needed repairs and I needed to take my hybrid. It got me out earlier, later, and longer. My attitude towards hills shifted from “OK, if I have to” to “Bring’ em on – I need the practice!” A 70-km cycle went from being a full-day’s outing to a shorter morning ride.

Cycling Friends, on the ferry to Lummi Is, WA

Cycling Friends, on the ferry to Lummi Is, WA

It got me trying new things such as close-formation riding on a new type of bicycle. I met a whole new set of people I wouldn’t have found otherwise. And it kept me focused on my goal while dealing with a number of mechanical problems such as bent derailleurs, broken spokes, and the need to replace a wheel. And ergonomic problems – I had to hire a bike fitter to implement the recommendations of my physiotherapist. It’s definitely helped my fitness, including loosening a couple of joints that had been over-tight since last October.

This particular kedge has also done something else. It’s allowed me to raise several thousand dollars towards cancer research. For many riders, the fundraising part is the hardest – and many struggle with it. In my case, a number of generous friends, associates, and family members made the job painless. All I had to do was keep them entertained with my painful cycling pratfalls.

Taking a break from cycling on Pender Island, BC

Taking a break from cycling on Pender Island, BC

With only a few days left, I’m looking forward to my weekend ride – forecasts of showers notwithstanding – and already wondering what my next kedge will be. While Cheryl and I plan a 400-km cycling trip in Vietnam early next year, it doesn’t seem solid enough for the purpose. So, I’ll have to come with something else. Stay tuned. I’m off for an evening training ride.

What experience have you had with your own kedges?

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Transitions – Part II

It was a different kind of travel these past months.

In January, I reported that I was transitioning to “advancement” a.k.a. retirement.

The transition has gone according to plan, … mostly.

Cheryl’s resolve to go on working was thwarted by a meltdown at her employer. In March she resigned, and is now looking for a year-long contract. Despite the unexpected tightening of finances, I’ve been fairly good at not abandoning my Declaration of Self-Actualization in favour of going back to work. I wish Cheryl could join me in this new endeavour, but for now, she’s committed to being a working woman.

i-Minds by Dr. Mari Swingle

i-Minds by Dr. Mari Swingle

You may recall that my transition was to have three distinct phases: Endings, the “Neutral Zone”, and the New Beginning.

My journey through the “Neutral Zone” was interesting. Limiting Internet usage to four evenings a week proved highly challenging – life is so Internet-centric these days! But I mostly succeeded, and it gave me a new sense of freedom, not to mention more time. Among the many books I read was “i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behaviour, and the Evolution of Our Species.” It definitely added to my rationale for taming the iBeast.

For the last five days of my Neutral-Zone period, I engaged in a “mostly silent” retreat at the seaside Krishnamurti Centre of Canada in rural Metchosin, BC. I knew nothing about Jiddu Krishnamurti before I went, and chose the location primarily as it offered a nearby opportunity to spend some time in contemplation. I spent most of the time strolling in the gardens or on the beach, or contemplating views like this one. However, I did read one of Krishnamurti’s shorter books, and found his stuff intriguing. Somehow I’d missed him in the 60s.

View from the Krishnamurti Centre of Canada in Metchosin, BC

View from the Krishnamurti Centre of Canada in Metchosin, BC

I returned from my retreat energized and at peace; work was a distant memory so the “Endings” were done. I was ready to leap into the New Beginning. An opportunity for a jump start presented itself in the form a weekend “New Warrior Training Adventure”, run by the ManKind Project as a “modern male initiation.” And that it was! I returned from the weekend part of a new community and ready to take on the next stage of my “advancement.”

I’m happy to say that I’ve started my 3rd Act Career – although there may be no money in it, … or not for a long while. I’ve started a practice of working every day on writing a novel, something I’ve wanted to do for years. On an author friend’s recommendation, I began with the system outlined in “Writing a Book in 30 Days: A 60-Minute Masterclass.” At my current rate of progress, I’m estimating 30 months will be barely sufficient. But I’m having a lot of fun. My nascent plot spans three continents, so Cheryl and I are both looking forward to the location research projects.

Camp Pringle - one of the locations of the ManKind Project's New Warrior Training Adventure

Camp Pringle – one of the locations of the ManKind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure

Since my writing muscles are now engaged daily, I’ll likely limit future posts this year to travel reports. While we decided to postpone any overseas travel until next year, we have a pretty full schedule of outdoor activities closer to home. This month, we’ll be hiking in Utah, and cycling some of Washington State’s coastal islands. Stay tuned!

Cycling will be a big part of this year’s activities. For my “kedge”, I’ve signed on to do the two-day 175-mile loop of the local Ride to Conquer Cancer. Since Day One will exceed my longest-ever ride by about 80%, I’ve to a lot of training to do. I’m out at least three days a week, and expect that to rise as the August ride date approaches. I’ve invested in a faster bike so I can ride with a local club later this season.

Cycling in the Valley

Cycling in the Valley with the Outdoor Association

While my novel file is growing and my average cycling speed is creeping upwards, a few of my other projects stalled. When the decluttering was about 30% done, we realized we weren’t likely to downsize this year, and put the project on hold pending the autumn rains. On the training side, I managed to pass only one of my two assessments, leaving the other to be rescheduled during those same autumn rains.

For now, the weather is great for some beautiful spring rides.

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“Freedom from the Known” by Jiddu Krishnamurti

Travel at the Speed of Thought

For the past few days, I was reminded that, even close to home, one can immerse oneself in cultures that seem very different from one’s own. In this case, I’m not referring to an ethnic culture. In our everyday life, we encounter cultures built around occupations, or interests, or dispositions. Often they have their own specialized languages – sometimes we call them “jargon.”

Visiting such a culture can create an experience very similar to visiting a foreign land: our curiosity is piqued; we have to pay attention to a language we may understand only slightly; we’re trying to understand how they “do things here.” Just like visiting a new place, this can bring presence, aliveness, and excitement.

Can you travel into this young man's thoughts?  Try it!

Can you travel into this man’s world? Try it!

I hope to be able to write about my recent “trip” before long, but I have not yet processed its many inputs, so it will have to wait. But there are many ways to travel.

I was reminded of an exercise I did a few years ago. I was shown a random photo of an elderly woman standing in front of her barn, and instructed to put myself in her mind. It was a fascinating exercise, and I felt as if I’d traveled to another time and place.

If you want to give it a try, grab a photo somewhere, or use this one.  Don’t think about it too much.  Just do it. Let me know how it goes.

Meanwhile, here’s what the elderly woman was thinking…

Remembrance Day

Shutter’s broken outside the guest room, Jim. Heard it banging away in the gale last night. Guess you’ll have to take a look if it’s fair tomorrow.

Oh, what am I saying! You’ve been gone these six years now. Won’t likely be doing any more fixing for me, I suppose. If I can’t do anything with it, I’ll have to give Pat a call and see if her Roger can come over with his toolbox.

Haven’t seen so much of Pat and Roger lately. I figure they’ve got other things to attend to. Roger’s fixing up that back bedroom so there’ll be more room at Christmas. You know, they’ve got seven grandkids now. The youngest came just last Spring – cute as a little garden mouse he is. Bit of a handful already, if you ask me. Must have known that when they named him after our Tommy.

Damn! Just spilled tea leaves all over. Let me get a broom and set things right…

He would have been fifty the other night. Our Tommy fifty! Can you believe it, Jim? He would have married that nice girl Selena when he got back. There’d be grandkids. Maybe great-grandkids, cute as that little garden-mouse grandson of Pat’s: a house-full of happiness to keep the memories in their proper place.

I sometimes can’t believe I ever turned fifty myself. But I remember the day like I could smell it. You came in the door with that parcel all wrapped up, and told me we were going to the city for the weekend. Surprised me completely, you did, booking that fancy hotel room down by the river. And it was a beautiful sweater you gave me, even if it was the warmest night of the year. I used to feel you next to my skin when I was wearing it.

But that was a long time ago. I found that sweater in the bottom drawer after you’d gone, when I was cleaning up. I didn’t want to get rid of it, but I figured the memory needed to move on. Besides, it didn’t fit any more.

Some memories won’t move on, though, Jim. Not that I haven’t tried to make them. You remember that crazy song about American Pie that Tommy used to play on the record player all the time? He used to dance around the room – called it dancing, anyway – and sing about Chevies and levees and something about a day for dying. A catchy sort of tune, I guess, though it sure went on. Sometimes, when it gets real quiet here of an evening, I swear I can still hear it playing in the other room.

Got a letter from Pat’s boy Alec the other day. He was going on about some Christmas truce back in World War One. Said for four months, the soldiers on both sides refused to fight. Found they had more in common with each other than with their commanders. Alec wondered how it would have been if he and the other boys had refused to fight. Made me real mad to read that. I didn’t want to write back to him for days.

He’s a good boy, though, Jim. Just wants a future for those little nephews of his.

Alec came back from the War kind of all turned around, you know? Didn’t smile so much – laughed a bit louder than he used to. Started hanging around with those peace groups. I know you thought he was disloyal. God’s sake, maybe we both blamed him for coming back at all!

Wait a minute! I’m so distracted tonight I forgot to plug in the kettle. There! Got it. Now where was I? Oh, yes.

Jim, this is going to be hard. You won’t like it, but you’ve just got to hear me out.

I think Alec’s right, Jim. It wasn’t right what happened. Wasn’t right that Tommy’s life got used up that way. He wasn’t just a means to some do-gooder’s dreams. He was a living, breathing boy of 19, with a whole damn life ahead of him! He never got a chance to move on past 19. He just got stuck there for me. I aged, we aged – and we had to move on. But Tommy couldn’t go with us. I guess that’s what a life stolen from you feels like. All that time, we were growing and changing and tasting life. And Tommy was still singing about American Pie.

What’s that, Jim? Yes, it’s just a little water in my eye. You know, he would have been fifty the other night.

There, see what you’ve made me do! I’ve gone and put too much water in teapot again.

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Travel, Allophilia, and World Peace

From time to time, I ask myself “What is this thing about travel? It’s a lot of hard work, and usually costs more than staying home. So why do we do it?”

The answer usually isn’t long in coming: I’ve enjoyed and profited by the different perspective that meeting other cultures provides. Travel is one of my favourite activities for satisfying my incessant curiosity. It engages me fully: most of the time when I’m visiting some place new, I find myself solidly in the present moment. And in every culture I’ve visited, I’ve found some aspect I like better than my own.

Similarly, learning other languages has let me see where my own language constrains my view of reality. Knowing different ways of thinking gives a certain freedom from one’s own unconscious inherited biases. Plus you get a whole new set of proverbs.

Hiroshima destroyed

Destructed Hiroshima with autograph of “Enola Gay” Bomber pilot Paul Tibbets

Recently, I got to thinking about the connection between international travel and world peace: “See the world, while helping to prevent World War III!”

A possible WWIII had been one of my personal bugbears since watching – in my teen years – a 1960s documentary depicting the horrors of an atomic attack. With the war in Vietnam heating up, it didn’t seem so far-fetched. The decades that followed offered little indication that wars were going out of style: the Cambodian civil war, the Iran-Iraq War, the Rwandan genocide, the Afghan conflicts, the war on Iraq, the Ugandan civil war punctuate a long list of lesser conflicts. Today there is conflict in the Ukraine, not to mention ISIS. The world’s nuclear missiles have yet to be mothballed.

Hiroshima injuries

Hiroshima, Japan. 1945-08. Hiroshima street scene after the dropping of the atomic bomb of 1945-08-06

Still, being anti-war brings a certain negativity to life. Is there more to peace than just the absence of war? I was pondering this recently and wondered if the growing discipline of positive psychology had been applied to this question.

An internet search for “world peace” together with “positive psychology” led me to discover a new word: “allophila.” The neologism was coined by Todd Pittinsky, the author of “Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” when he realized there was no word to describe the opposite of “prejudice” or “intolerance.” Tolerance, the absence of intolerance, was not really it. There had to be a word for more “positive attitudes of behaviors towards the members of another group.”

Us Plus Them

“Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” by Pittinsky

In Dr. Pittinsky’s research, it turns out that decreasing intolerance does not equate to increasing allophilia. Furthermore, high allophilia seems to be much better at guaranteeing peace than does mere tolerance. As we’ve seen recently in several world hotspots, political demagogues have been able to wipe out years of tolerance in short order, sending formerly peaceful societies into internecine warfare. Perhaps what was missing was a higher degree of allophilia, manifested in terms of curiosity, comfort, engagement, and even kinship, affection and enthusiasm for members of other groups.

What organizations, I wondered, were fostering curiosity, engagement or enthusiasm for other cultures?

The obvious first answer was the original hospitality exchange, Servas International. Founded in aftermath of WWII by an American conscientious objector, the mission of Servas is “to help build world peace, goodwill and understanding by providing opportunities for personal contacts among people of different cultures, backgrounds and nationalities.” Their system of “open door” directories made it “possible for people of various nations to make visits to each other’s homes.” Servas now has official UN status and boasts of about 20,000 hosts in about 100 countries. Cheryl and I have been among those opening their doors for the past two decades.

Servas International

Peace through cross cultural understanding

Lately, Servas has been facing some stiff competition from the new Internet hospitality exchanges such as Couchsurfing. The old paper-based organization is having trouble quickly adopting the new technologies used by Internet startups, and their membership is ageing. Travelership is down.

A debate is ongoing about whether these new Internet exchanges represent the same peacebuilding ethic, or whether they’re just about cheap travel. Site names like GlobalFreeloaders and WarmShowers suggest the latter. Cheryl and I decided to join Couchsurfing as well as continue our Servas association. We have hosted and traveled with both organizations. In all cases, we try to adhere to the original vision of cultural interchange: hosts and guests interact like friends, often eating or cooking together. The Servas and Couchsurfing hosts we’ve stayed with have all done the same. It’s not just about accommodation: when we’re in that I-wanna-be-alone mood, we book a hotel or AirBnB.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Meanwhile, while Servas struggles to bring their 100 constituent national organizations into the Internet era, a Servas discussion group within the Couchsurfing site expresses two opposing views. The first tries to encourage Couchsurfers to adopt the more allophilic perspective of Servas. The second suggests this was never the intention, nor should it be. We hope the former view predominates – although we never discount the value of free accommodation.

And while travelers may view a hospitality exchange as merely a cheap way to travel, it’s hard to see what hosts get out of offering free room and board if it’s not the opportunity to connect with people from other lands and cultures. So perhaps the allophilic spirit is alive and well in the new Internet world.

Santiago de Cuba

Our boys jamming with a couple of local musicians in Santiago de Cuba (circa 2006)

Will it help? Is WWIII becoming less likely because of the humble hospitality exchange? Perhaps these words from the founder of Servas provide a clue.

“This story is not only about the beginning of Servas but the awakening of a mind on a slow overland trip from Norway to India. Confrontations with divergent cultures replaced my colored glasses with an often diamond clear vision. An ever deepening awareness from immersion in diverse ways of life shook up my ingrained assumptions. From shades of gray suddenly rainbow colors burst into my consciousness. Freed from the shackles of my upbringing and a classic American mentality I began to soar with the perspective of a global citizen. The human community emerged as a magic quilt of life styles and manners of thinking and living, a single tapestry of myriad designs unfolding before me.

“Shifting from a tourist absorbing scenic vistas to a traveler actively searching the central ideas of cultures happens gradually. At first the subtle thought/observation changes are unnoticeable. Then one discovers that a once passive and barely opened mind has blossomed into an inquisitive flower hungry for pollination. As I learned to listen with empathy, the most humble persons from distant corners of the globe became my mentors, pulling me into undreamed of chambers of thoughts and insights. I was no longer a touring observer looking in but a participant savoring many ways of life.”

Near Plitvice

Near Plitvice Park in Croatia, a 1990s war memorial stands guard over a bombed out home.

As I continue my investigation of this new concept, I have a question for you: which organizations are you aware of fostering world peace through intercultural allophilia?

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Which organizations foster world peace through intercultural allophilia? Please leave a comment below.

Transitions

2015 has so far been a most unusual year.

Last Fall, I made a declaration that I would be “retiring” from my employer at year end.

I use “retire” in quotes because I’ve never much liked the word. Heather at Shedders suggested “advancement”, and I much prefer that – but it always requires so much explanation!

Today I’m thinking of it as a Declaration of Self-Actualization: a declaration that I’m no longer going to organize my life around earning money – safety, on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – but instead around expressing creativity, a quest for spiritual enlightenment, the pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to contribute.

Maslow's Hierarchy

Maslow’s Hierarchy, by FireflySixtySeven [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I made this declaration with pained awareness that Cheryl and I had not yet reached our targeted level of financial independence. Being younger than I, and still at the peak of her career, she volunteered to go on working for the time-being. What a woman! That may add to the complexity of my new situation, however.

As I was contemplating how to make the transition from job to no-job, a friend recommended I read “Transitions” by William Bridges. As I had yet to complete the decluttering project begun last Spring, there just happened to be a copy unread on my bookshelves. It spoke to me.

Bridges writes about the need for a three-phase process: Endings, the “Neutral Zone”, and the New Beginning. But it was the Neutral Zone he stressed: a seemingly unproductive “time out”, the most frightening stage of a transition, yet a really important time for reorientation.

“Transitions” by William Bridges

I could sense the value of quiet reflection even as I knew I’d struggle with it at times. Realizing there’d be a pull to fill the time with time-wasters, I made a few rules for my next few months: limit Internet usage – email, social media, and news sites – to four evenings a week; similarly for videos (we’ve never had TV.) At the same time, I pledged to continue my Younger-Next-Year exercise program – at least 45 minutes at least six days a week – as well as Yin yoga weekly. I signed up for a five-evening course in mindful meditation with my son and his girlfriend. I even enrolled in a five-day silent retreat at the end of March.

I also resumed and ramped up our decluttering project, seeing it as a perfect physical metaphor for clearing the mind in the Neutral Zone. And I found it much more challenging that way than I’d expected. Every little trinket seems attached by sticky threads: this one was given by a dear departed relative; this one reminds me of that time in Rio or Venice or Perth; this book reminds me of my thought of returning to the study of architecture some day; that one was meant to be read by my kids when they got older. Eventually, I developed an ability to look at the stuff, thank it for its service, and let it go – mostly to charity stores and the like. In meditation, we learn that, when we have attachment to a thought, we just need to notice it and let it go. Decluttering must be a form of meditation: notice an attachment to something, let it go, notice an attachment, let it go, …

Perhaps unsurprisingly, decluttering seems much easier now than it ever has. Last month I sent off 30 boxes of books to a book sale – some of them had survived over a score of moves from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia and many points in between. I guess my growing detachment from physical things is a sign of approaching elderhood. In “What Are Old People For?”, Dr. Bill Thomas

“What Are Old People For?” by Dr. Bill Thomas

talks about how, after an adulthood centered on Doing and Having, elders return to the earlier childhood emphasis on Being. Sounds like fun to me.

Last week, there was a crisis. I started the week by awaking one morning and, for the first time, strongly feeling that my time was my own. But by the end of the week, I was updating my resume. Whoa! What happened here?

I’d made a promise to Cheryl that I wasn’t going to worry about my lack of salary for the next few months, at least, and here I was breaking it already. We had a serious tête-à-tête, and she re-enrolled me in the wisdom of my original intention. I trashed the proto-resume. There will likely be another one before too long – but it will be for volunteer positions, and much more fun to write.

Now I could really embark on building my retirement, whoops, self-actualization lifestyle. I dusted off my bucket list. I signed up for the mid-week hiking group and an online course on gratitude. I ramped up my efforts to complete my diplomas in Leadership and Conflict Resolution – I’d been working on the latter for over five years, but the goal is now close at hand. I had some of the completion conversations I needed to have about coming to grips with my last job. And I continued to plan some of our trips for this year. With the complexity of our current situation, we decided to defer European travel for a year and concentrate on local trips with our outdoor club this summer: kayaking in the Salish Sea, cycling Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, hiking on Mount Baker, and cycling from Oroville, Washington into British Columbia’s wine valley.

“The One Thing” by Gary Keller

And, ever so tentatively at first, I began to think about that New Beginning. What’s next? (I should have known I couldn’t do nothing for too long.)

To save me from overwhelm, another friend recommended I read “The One Thing” by Gary Keller. “By focusing on your ONE Thing, you can accomplish more by doing less. What’s your ONE Thing?” I’ve found it a good question to live into. It may save me from new mental clutter as I take on those aspects of self-actualization: creativity, enlightenment, learning, and contribution.

What transition are you making?

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