Spark Spotting in Uganda: Sawa World

The “problems” I’ve been blogging about here are definitely “first world problems”: low-cost travel, best mobile technology, staying active in retirement.

But I’m reminded that there are still a billion people in this world trying to get by on a dollar per day. This grinding poverty persists despite huge amounts spent on private and government foreign aid since World War II.

“Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo

Some say what’s needed is more aid – and more aid might help with specific problems, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. However, especially in Africa, there’ve been voices questioning the efficacy of government-to-government aid, and other forms of top-down “first world” solutions. In the post-War decades, there was development economist, Peter T. Bauer and his “Dissent on Development.” More recently, Zambia’s Dambisa Moyo published “Dead Aid”, so titled in reference to the famous “Live Aid” concerts. She argued that these programs have primarily served to keep populations beholden to charismatic dictators living high on Western largesse. It’s a sobering assessment. And while Moyo was more positive about the micro-finance movement, others have called into question a solution that facilitates widespread debt among the poorest of the poor.

At the same time, economists such as Peru’s Hernando de Soto Polar have suggested that the poor of the developing nations have the ability to lift themselves out of poverty, if only they could gain access to the civil and legal protections that we take for granted in the West. I suspect there’s much truth in that.

Still, I’ve often wondered if there might be ways to offer effective assistance. That’s why I was excited to learn of a small, young organization called “Sawa World.” Bearing the byline, “Solutions from within,” Sawa World’s summarizes its mission as follows: “We find inspiring innovators (Sawa Leaders) living in extreme poverty, that have created local solutions that are already working. Local youth ensure these successes are shared so others living in extreme poverty can replicate them.”

Training a Sava Youth Reporter

Training a Sava Youth Reporter (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

Sawa World’s original point of leverage was to secure training in New Media for unemployed youth in the poorest countries, and encourage them to publicize the ultra-low-capital successes of local homegrown entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs so that others could emulate them.  That model has evolved based on extensive feedback on its effectiveness.  Over time, their video and outreach teams progressed to capturing these solutions step-by-step, to be shared with others in the community. Rather than take advice from well-meaning foreign advisors who lack local context, hopeful entrepreneurs can see that they already have the knowledge and resources to succeed, right in their own communities. Recently, Sawa World has focused on helping the most promising of these new entrepreneurs, dubbed “Sawa Sparks”, find local training opportunities.

Sawa Leader

This young man became an entrepreneur at 10, has trained 6000 others (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

The Swahili word “sawa” can signify “equal, right, true, good, or ok,” and perhaps all of them apply. The Sawa World approach is to focus on the poorest of the poor, those earning less than $1 US Dollar per day, and highlight “Sawa Leaders” who, from those same conditions, have been able to create a better living for themselves and others in their communities. Even the ability to earn an extra dollar or two a day makes an incredible difference. As Sawa World founder Daphne Nederhorst says, “$2 to $4 means that they can actually now pay their school fees, they can pay their basic necessities, and can pay their rent.”

The organization initially started work in five of the poorest countries: Haiti, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Zambia. After some initial success, the founder decided to focus on one country while she ensured that her business model was as scalable and self-sustaining as possible. She wanted to make sure that every dollar donated to Sawa World would produce the maximum benefit in terms of self-sufficient entrepreneurship among the poor communities she was targeting. Ideally she would like Sawa World to be completely self-financed.

Sawa Youth Reporter

Sawa Youth Reporter at work (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

Uganda’s extreme youth unemployment rate – more than 60% by some estimates – made it an obvious choice. Sawa World looks for vulnerable, unemployed youth, and through local media organizations, trains them in audio-visual production, digital video editing, multimedia design, social media, and outreach & impact tracking methods. (If that sounds counter-intuitive, remember that, worldwide, more people have access to cell phones than to power or toilets.)

These young “citizen journalists” then scour their communities for inspirational examples of success, using their training to spread the word so that others can replicate their business models in the provision of water, food, shelter, education, health care, environmental protection, and gender-equal opportunity. To date, 253 young people have been trained as Sawa Youth Reporters, and together they’ve identified dozens of Sawa Sparks, and produced 100 videos. Over 16,000 people have been directly affected, and many times more indirectly.

New entrepreneur

A new entrepreneur learned how to make these bags at a recent event (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

Scores of new entrepreneurs have been trained and inspired to start their own operations in very short order, growing or producing essential commodities such as banana chips, briquettes from organic waste, chickens, clay stoves, herbal soap, honey from beehives, lemongrass tea, mushrooms, paper bags, paper beads, pineapple jam, rehydration salts, sanitary pads, and wallets. The most influential Sawa Leaders have provided training in how to make all of these items, often employing many others in the process. Sawa World reports, “Olivia Damali Sserabira has empowered over 46,000 vulnerable women in urban and rural settings in Uganda by providing employable and income generating skills training in eleven different areas through her organization, the Peace and Hope Training Centre.”

As promising as this is, Sawa World continues to search for even more effective ways to spread local business and technological knowledge where it will do the most good. For the past couple of years, the organization has sponsored a Sawa World Day in Kampala, Uganda. The idea is to bring community leaders together with vulnerable youth who can instantly learn skills to improve their livelihoods.  Nederhorst had hoped to more than double last year’s attendance. “The impact that we want to have is that we want to host 10,000 vulnerable and unemployed youth from Uganda and the East African region and empower them with local, simple skills that allow them to start a small business the next day.”

New entrepreneurs

Training new entrepreneurs at a Sawa World event (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

She didn’t quite meet her target, but almost 5000 did attend Sawa World Day in Kampala in April 2015. Since the event, on the Sawa World Facebook page, there have been reports like the following: “This is Ritah from Uganda. She became homeless at a very young age when both of her parents died. Most recently a friendly lady in the community invited her to the Sawa World Day. There she learned how to make earrings and necklaces. Within two weeks she made 40 pairs and raised her income by 150,000 Ugandan Shillings ($50 USD). She also offered free trainings to 15 other orphaned girls in her community and now has a safe place to live.” Their statistics suggest that half of the attendees were able to do something similar within a matter of weeks.

New Entrepreneur

A woman shows off her new business just weeks after Sawa World Day 2015 (photo courtesy Sawa World)

It sounds like Daphne Nederhorst and Sawa World are onto something sustainable and scalable. As she says, “This allows other impoverished people to feel inspired and to replicate the solutions in their own communities. And it allows the Sawa Youth to find leadership in their communities, and in themselves – to become the Sawa Leaders of tomorrow.” As an indication that they believe they have honed their model, the Sawa World Team was recently invited to host a training in South Sudan, a new country on the brink of mass starvation.

Daphne Nederhorst

Founder Daphne Nederhorst talking to local change makers (photo courtesy Sawa World)

Others are beginning to recognize this success. Nederhorst was a semi-finalist at the 2013 Forbes 400 Summit of Philanthropy at the United Nations. This year, Sawa World won the Saville Foundation’s Pan-African Award for contributions to development in Africa, and was featured on Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

If you want to help out, check out their Donation page, where they list what you can enable with amounts as small as one dollar. (One DVD capturing a practical solution of a Sawa Leader: marketing material to support their work.) If you happen to be in Vancouver, Canada, you can visit their small shared office a few blocks from Science World. The day I visited, volunteer office manage Brittney Fehr was excited about her upcoming self-financed trip to Uganda for Sawa World Day, 2015.

If you happen to be in Kampala, sounds like you should have no trouble finding their office.

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Hiking “The Wave” in Arizona

(See Part One of this adventure here.)

Lucky 13

The unfortunate have filed from the lottery room leaving the winners to celebrate.

Having yesterday won the right for today’s hike into “The Wave”, we awoke still lauding our good fortune. From yesterday’s misstep, we could see how easy it would be to get lost for a few hours on a hot afternoon, and run out of water. People die on this hike. Taking the ranger’s advice to heart, we had the “10 essentials,” including almost a gallon of water each, a compass, and a couple of copies of the BLM map. The map shows compass bearings at half a dozen points along the way, as well as photographs taken from each point. Much of the path is unmarked and over bare rock, so it’s important to navigate by the suggested landmarks. Along the way, the route passes from Utah into Arizona, but there’s no sign marking the border.

The Wave Trailhead

Near the trailhead en route to The Wave.  They can always find me from the air with that shirt!

We had a nine AM start from the parking lot that served the North Coyote Buttes. The May air was still brisk, but the sun was already hot. The directions were good, and we had little trouble staying on target for “The Wave”, about 90 minutes distant. From most of the high points along the route, you can see the distinctive cleft in the rocks above the destination. During wetter times, this cleft is apparently a waterfall. It didn’t hurt that Darcy had been there five years before – Marty had unfortunately been Number 11 that day.

Route to The Wave

This is what much of the route to The Wave looks like.

The desert landscape is surreal. The colors of the hills range through every shade of red, yellow and brown. The shapes are equally striking: one set of hills resembled either a row of giant Hershey’s Kisses or perhaps mega-dinosaur coprolites. Although we didn’t see any, there are signs of dinosaurs in the Jurassic era rocks. Looking down, we could see hundreds of fossils; they resemble ancient brain corals, but are probably be something else entirely. In the few areas they could get a foothold, wildflowers were in bloom in pink, yellow, and lavender.

Wild Lavender

Wild lavender grows in a patch of sand showing tracks from the past day or two’s hikes.  The wind will erase them.

Suddenly, we were there.

Arriving at The Wave

Suddenly, without warning, we’re at the entrance to The Wave.

It’s impossible to do “The Wave” justice with either words or pictures. Being in the middle of it is magical. It’s a small smooth-sided twisty gully with undulating stripes of shades of yellow and ochre. By leaving early, we arrived at “The Wave” before the majority of the day’s twenty hikers. Of this we were glad, as being there alone enhanced the visual experience. By the time we left, there were about a dozen people wandering around the area, and it felt almost crowded. But there was a certain camaraderie amongst the lucky few allowed in.

Cheryl in The Wave

Cheryl stands in one of the side channels to The Wave’s main gully.

After eating a quiet lunch while taking in The View – eyed by a cautious raven – we spent an hour or so exploring the area above “The Wave”. While not as stunning as the gully itself, there are plenty of interesting features within a few hundred yards. We were surprised to see a number of small pools of water nearby, and even more surprised to see they were teaming with tadpoles, insect larva, fairy shrimp, and even a few small fishes. We could only imagine that the water table below the now-dry waterfall was sufficiently near the surface to prevent the ponds drying up within hours in the hot sun.

Standing water near The Wave

Teaming with life, a pool of standing water just above The Wave.  The water is very likely brine.

This water is apparently a remnant of the history of the formation. The gully was originally carved out by streams that cascaded down from the cliffs above, but in more recent time, the watercourse has shifted, and the gully has been sculpted by the prevailing winds. During our lunch, there was a good breeze blowing through it. The layered rocks themselves are sandstone laid down over 150 million years ago. At that time, this area was the center of an enormous equatorial desert of reddish sand. Much later, water leaching through the rocks would sometimes bleach iron from alternate layers, resulting in the dramatic stripes.

Proof for Posterity

Our companions and we standing in the main part of The Wave.

Heading back required a similar process using waypoints and compass bearings. The BLM map included photographs and readings for the return journey as well. One would think that retracing one’s steps would be easy, but it’s good not to get too cocky when close to home. The ranger had told us yesterday that more people got off the path on the return journey, especially where the path veers left to go over the saddle near the end of Coyote Buttes. Veering too soon could lead us into a steeper descent than we’d like. Veering too late could have us down in the lowlands where it would be harder to orient ourselves. Or even lead us to the sheer edge of Buckskin Gulch, which would present challenges of its own.

Trekking back from The Wave

Beginning the trek back from The Wave, distracted by visions of cold beer and nachos at Escobar’s.

Sure enough, as we headed up the hill, we began to disagree about the exact route. It’s interesting to see how the brain starts to see patterns and resemblances wherever it looks, and soon each of us was sure of the correct saddle – except there were at least three of them. Soon, two other couples caught up to us and added to the disagreement. I was quite convinced we had gone past the correct saddle, while others thought we needed to go farther still. Six of us eventually continued up the route we were following, and the other two opted for another route. None of us were too concerned about getting lost as we could see the large limestone hills that we knew to be behind the parking lot. Still we knew we could easily spend a couple of hours wandering around in the growing heat.

Death in the Desert

A reminder that not everyone survives out here in the desert.

As we came down the other side, it was clear we had not returned by the same saddle we’d come up. However, by following to the left the small wash at the base of the hill, we soon got back to the trail, which is clear enough at that point. The rest of the trip back to the car was uneventful. But even in hindsight, I doubt we four could all agree on exactly by which route we’d returned.

Flowers in the Sand

Away from the bare rock, more desert flowers blooming in mid-May.

As we left the parking lot, we passed the ranger coming in for the afternoon. Since each car needs to display a copy of its permit, there would be a good indication of who had not returned by nightfall, and in what area they would be. So if you get lost, someone might come looking. However, if you don’t feel comfortable with that possibility, it’s recommended to hire a guide for the hike. And take lots of water.

Celebrating our Luck

Celebrating our luck in winning the chance to hike into The Wave in Arizona.

At the end of the day, we still felt incredibly lucky to have won the lottery to visit “The Wave.” With our chances having been about one in twenty, we hadn’t really expected this outcome. We heard a rumour that if you fail to win a spot, and return to try again each subsequent day, you will be awarded an additional ball each day, up to a maximum of five balls. That would probably give you a fifty-fifty chance of getting in by the fifth day. However, I was not able to find a reference to this online. Another option is to enter the online lottery for one of the other ten spots, something you need to do several months in advance. Good luck!

Cheryl and the Terrain

Cheryl posing in front of the unforgiving terrain that guards The Wave.

On the way back through Las Vegas airport, I finally got to try my luck at the slot machines. Gambled and lost a dollar and that was enough for me! I guess I’d used up all my luck in Kanab.

Notes in the Margin:

A few days before our trip, we received an unusual request through the Couchsurfing site. A young couple in Poland were getting married, and the bride’s brother was creating a video with best wishes from all over the world. We offered to send our greetings from our home town, but thought it would be a nice touch to send personal greetings from Zion and “The Wave” as well. So we had some extra fun putting those together on the hikes.

Unlucky Seven

What?! I knew I should have bet on 13.

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Bye for Now!

Waving from The Wave – all the way to a Polish wedding!

Lucky 13 Wins in Vegas, … er, … Kanab, Utah

We didn’t win in Las Vegas, but we came up lucky while hiking in Utah.

Friends Darcy and Marty had planned a return visit to some of the areas they’d visited years before, and asked us to come along. Since Cheryl had no new contracts pending, we took up their offer at the last minute; one of the perks of the “No Pension Will Travel” lifestyle.

From Observation Point

The expected view from our first destination.

We flew discount airline Allegiant from Bellingham to Las Vegas. Their prices are low, but watch those extras. The default seating arrangement appears to ensure that couples are not together, and there’s an “upgrade” charge to move even one seat over. The rumoured fee to use the toilet was hyperbole.

We arrived in Vegas in the late evening, giving us just enough time for a driving tour of The Strip. This was mainly for my benefit, as the other three had each been to Vegas several times before. I remarked how much Las Vegas resembled a “Disneyland for Adults.” However, I missed my chance to thwart the one-armed bandits; early next day, we headed out for the three-hour drive to Kanab, Utah, planning a stop in Zion National Park for a hike up to Observation Point.

Observation Point

Part way up, Cheryl contemplates the remainder of the ascent to Observation Point.

I’d been wondering what Darcy had in store for us. About my age (and just as young looking), Darcy had recently run the Boston Marathon, and won her age group in a local half-marathon. She isn’t known for shirking a challenge. As a less experienced hiker, I thought I’d check out some of the hazards of hiking in Utah. Rattlesnakes, perhaps? Yes, there are some, but some of the biggest dangers are falls, dehydration, and flash floods. All can be mitigated with careful planning. And, as with most travel, driving is probably the top risk.

Observation Point climb

Much of the ascent to Observation Point looks like this.

I did see that Angels Landing in Zion had made it onto at least one list of “20 Most Dangerous Hikes.” Then I learned that Darcy had done that hike last time. “Observation Point is easy by comparison,” she said, although I wondered about “easy by comparison.” It’s an eight-mile round trip, with 2100 feet of elevation gain, the endpoint looking down on Angels Landing. The footing is smooth, making it doable if you’re used to those kinds of distances; we made the return journey in well under the suggested time of five hours.

Wildflowers in Zion

May was a great time to see wildflowers on all four of our Utah hikes.

This was Cheryl’s first hike since recovering from a running injury, so she was monitoring her body’s reactions to the climb and descent. Happy to say, it went well, although her legs complained to her the next day about the shock therapy.

Happy on Observation Point

Happy on Observation Point

I’m prone to vertigo – it’s a family trait – and there was about 20 minutes of uphill and about 45 on the return, when I found myself hugging the cliff side. The ledge was probably four or five feet wide at this point; most people wouldn’t be bothered. Still, I kept a watchful eye on the weather. I wouldn’t have enjoyed coming down during a blustery rain storm, and the rangers were divided on whether it would rain again before it cleared that evening. Lucky for us, the clouds began to lift, and we had only expansive views to contend with.

Hey, where's the lunch?

This little guy joined us for lunch. We also saw mule deer and wild turkeys in Zion.

Our home base in Kanab was the funky Parry Lodge, on the National Register of Historic Places. The rooms and lobby are plastered with photos of the many stars who came here to film westerns, mostly from the 30s through the 60s. With reasonable prices – about half of those charged in other areas around Zion – the Lodge was fully booked every night. The service was friendly, and even included packing us five-dollar box lunches that were big enough to share. It’s a busy kitchen, so if you have special dietary requirements for your hike, it’s best to write them out beforehand.

Heading down from the Point

Watching our step, heading down from Observation Point.

The next morning, we headed over to the BLM office in Kanab to do some gambling. We really wanted to do the hike into “The Wave”, in the North Coyote Buttes which straddle the Utah-Arizona border. It’s a popular destination, but permits are limited to 20 people a day. Ten of those are awarded via a lottery the day before. With about 200 people a day applying, our odds weren’t good. Our backup plan was to do a hike in Bryce Canyon. On this day, about 45 separate parties entered the draw, from as far away as Germany, China, Saudi Arabia, and Australia. The ranger read out the

Late afternoon sun in Zion

Late afternoon sun illuminates a peak in Zion.

names, origins, and ball assignments. I wished aloud for my lucky number, 13, and we thought it a good omen when we were assigned that ball. The packed hall fell silent as the hopper was spun. I wondered what we’d do if we only won spots for half our party, but Cheryl refused to speculate. Then, the first ball out was lucky 13 and we whooped and hollered like Vegas winners. The ten chosen hikers stayed behind to get maps and detailed instructions on how to find “The Wave” tomorrow. We learned that hikers occasionally failed to find it, and many get off the trail while returning. So, listen up!

Fording Wahweap Wash

These campers returned the next day to find Wahweap Wash dry no more.

For today, with flash floods possible, we decided to avoid Buckskin Gulch, and instead headed out for Wahweap Hoodoos near the tiny town of Bigwater. There we were reminded of the need to stay vigilant. Leaving the parking lot, and crossing Wahweap Wash – now running with snow melt from Bryce Canyon – we thought the instructions and trail map straightforward. But as the morning wore on, we began to wonder if we’d made a wrong turn. Eventually, we reached an abrupt end of the wash – and no hoodoos in sight. Turning around and retracing our steps, we spent much of the time speculating on various places we might have made a wrong turn. We had a good laugh, when, about 100 yards from the trailhead, we saw the signs we’d missed directing hikers up Wahweap Wash. We had, instead, gone up Nipple Creek. It was a good lesson for tomorrow if we weren’t also to miss “The Wave.”

Hoodoo-like Peak near Wahweap

This hoodoo-like peak is as close as we got to the Wahweap Hoodoos.

We consoled ourselves with a stop at the Toadstool Hoodoos, an easy few minutes from the highway. Marty thought there were fewer hoodoos at Toadstool than he’d remembered, and we speculated on whether erosion or human agents were to blame. We later learned there has been vandalism in some of Utah’s hoodoo sites. What a shame!

Toadstool Hoodoos Trail

The approach to Toadstool Hoodoos was picturesque.

We dined that evening at Escobar’s Mexican Restaurant, where copious good food is served with ample good cheer. It’s a small place, and popular, so waits are likely. Bellies stuffed, we returned to Parry’s Lodge to dream of “The Wave” – with the occasional nightmare about failing to find it.

Toadstool Hoodoo

One of the Toadstool Hoodoos looks precarious.

Next up: Hiking “The Wave”

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Wildflowers in the Wash

With so much to see, it was hard to remember to look down, but there were flowers everywhere.

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Everything in bloom

Almost everything seemed to be in bloom.

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.

3 Days in our City of Love – Slovenia

Sometimes when you’re traveling, you just have to go in the direction the horse wants to go.

When we were on our recent trip to Croatia, we’d planned to take a side trip to Venice. The only other time we’d been in the “City of Love”, we’d been treated to two days of non-stop rain.

Romantic Venice by Gondola

“This wasn’t what I had in mind for a romantic proposal in a gondola in Venice!”

After several frustrating hours searching Google Flights and Rome2Rio, we reached the conclusion that cheap flights across the Adriatic came to an abrupt halt in mid-September. Since we were already scheduled to fly into Zagreb from Frankfurt, we opted instead to double back two hours by train for three days in Ljubljana, the capital of the Slovenia.

Slovenia - I Feel Love

The Official Travel Guide by Slovenian Tourist Board

Through AirBnB, we booked the top floor of a heritage building apartment in the old town, right on the Ljubljanica River. We were looking forward to meeting our host, Sara, and getting to know a bit more about the city. As the date of our arrival grew near, Sara decided to go on a round-the-world sojourn, and told us we’d have the entire place to ourselves. A friend would meet us there and let us in. By then we knew that the train connection in Zagreb would have us arriving in Ljubljana around midnight, so we hoped Sara’s friend was a good one. We checked the walking route from the train station to the apartment – looked at a couple Google street views – and convinced ourselves it would be safe enough, even at that late hour.

Dragon Bridge

We first crossed the Dragon Bridge after midnight, but returned late the next afternoon.

Likely the most dangerous thing we did was to walk down 20 minutes of cobblestone streets with our suitcases mimicking rolling thunder. Such unneighbourly behaviour might soon be banned in Venice – and I completely understand. (Does anyone make a suitcase with soft rubber tires?) Fortunately, no one pelted us with tomatoes, Sara’s friend was right on time, and we crashed into a comfortable loft bed in our old town apartment.

Apartment on Mestni Trg

Our apartment building from across the River, with Ljubljanski grad above.

Jet-lagged from our overnight flight to Europe, it was 11am before we awoke to a sunny September morning and a view of the hilltop Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanski grad) a few blocks distant. We decided to climb the hill first thing, get an overview of the city, and perhaps spend a couple of hours in the castle. Instead, we spent the entire afternoon: going on a castle tour, visiting the small museum, and eating at a tasty yet reasonable heritage restaurant. We learned that the area has been settled for thousands of years. Six thousand years ago there were stone-age farmers living in houses on piles in the marshes. The oldest wooden wheel ever discovered was found in this area. Exactly 2000 years before our visit, the Romans founded the city of Emona on the site of present-day Ljubljana. And we also learned that Slovenians love their ice cream – which is very good, and quite similar in style to the Italian gelato. We had our first of many in the castle.

Mural in Ljubljana Castle

A mural in the museum in Ljubljana Castle reminds us that, peasant or noble, we are all equal in death.

For the rest of the day, and the following morning, we simply wandered around the pedestrian streets along both sides of the river. The river is criss-crossed with foot bridges in the old town, and at the edge of those limits is Zmajski most , the famous Dragon Bridge. The town is a peaceful and attractive place to while away a day. With a population of less than 300,000, Ljubljana must be one of the smallest capital cities in Europe. It’s clean and comfortable, and offers many outdoor cafes and restaurants. And ice cream on every corner. On the riverside walk right outside our apartment was a wonderful cart offering homemade flavours such as black sesame, and pink grapefruit with fresh basil. I went back for seconds.

Triple Bridge (Tromostovje)

The Lower Bridge, designed in the Venetian style by Giovanni Picco, became the distinctive Triple Bridge when Ljubljana’s best-known architect Jože Plečnik added the two side bridges in 1929.

We found the people of the city friendly and helpful. The fact we knew only ten words of Slovene was no hindrance. Almost everyone we met spoke fluent English. The Slovenians liked to tell us that their home was a country of poets. Their streets are named after literary figures not generals, and the central Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg) is named after a 19th-century Romantic poet. The Slovenian poets were out in full force the morning we visited, gathered around the statue of France Prešeren for a “day of solidarity” for Edward Snowden. A placard quoted the poet and followed up with, “Hang in there, Edward, Slovenian poets are with you!”

Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg)

“Less fearful the long night of life’s denial than living beneath the sun in subjugation!” ~ France Prešeren

For the last day and a half of our stay, we elected to take a couple of day tours with a local company called Roundabout. The company offers several half and full-day tours out of Ljubljana, and is well regarded. Our first one was a long “half-day” tour which allowed us visit the famous Postojna Cave, where an electric train carried us several kilometres into the mountain. Nearby is Predjama Castle, where a 15th-century “robber baron” weathered the Holy Roman Emperor’s military siege for over a year by means of secret caves through the mountain behind the castle.

Predjama Castle

Predjama Castle is built into a cliffside cave. The baron met his end with a cannonball fired into the toilet on the far left.

We especially liked that each tour was limited to four people plus a guide. This allowed us a lot of flexibility on the various options along the way. On our second tour, we were all energetic enough that when offered a choice of a hike through Vintgar Gorge, or a boat ride to the Church of the Assumption on Bled Island, we opted for both – an excellent choice as it turned out. While the highlight of this day was a visit to Lake Bled with its hilltop castle and island church, the stops at the glacial lake of Bohinj and the medieval town of Skofja Loka were equally as interesting. Throughout both days, our personable guides were able to keep answering our questions and providing us with interesting historical detail.

Lake Bled with the Church of the Assumption

A sacred site since prehistoric times, the famous Church on Bled Island recently hosted its first gay marriage.

We enjoyed the pace of life in Ljubljana, and could easily have made a longer visit of it. Given its small size, so many of its attractions were within walking distance of our apartment on Mestni trg. We enjoyed walking down streets at random, and checking out anything that looked interesting. Returning from Tivoli Park one morning, we stopped at an open-air café near the Narodna galerija. A sign advertising evening jazz had us return after dinner for a drink and a little sax by candlelight. If you want to know where it is, we can’t help you. The place is only open in the summer, and had recently moved. Next year it may be somewhere else. So you’ll just have to go wandering and see what you find.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

View from the Castle toward Tivoli. Our apartment was on the river in the foreground, with the Triple Bridge to Prešeren Square on the right. The “square” is actually round. The open space near the left is part of Congress Square (Kongresni trg)

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