Fitting In Staying Fit on the Road

Traveling Workout Equipment

When I travel, I am often away from home for a month or more. During that time away from my home based routines, the thing that suffers the most is exercise. Even though I might be walking several hours a day, or doing physical labor as a volunteer when I travel, it’s not the same as exercising for fitness. When at home, my weekly workout schedule is something like this: 2-3 one hour workouts at my gym, a one hour session with Crystal, the best trainer in the world (http://crystalfittraining.com), and yoga on the other days. By yoga I mean a gentle 20 minute session at home or one hour on Fridays at my local library, also gentle. I sometimes substitute a trail hike for a gym workout.

So that is my usual routine. Do I cheat? Yes, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of laziness. In May, I spent almost ten days on my couch due to a lingering chest/head cold. That first trip back to the gym was a killer. It is not easy to climb out of a slump. Which is exactly how I feel when returning from a long trip.

In February I wrote about how jet lag is lasting longer for me. I’m sure that the time difference (12 hours) and distance on that trip (Thailand) was a factor. I had lengthy recoveries when returning from South Africa, Morocco, China, and others. I now think age and interrupted routine also factor in. While I can do nothing about distance, time difference, or my age; I can loosely replicate an abbreviated version of my exercise routine when abroad.

On my just completed trip to France, I decided to test this idea. Did it work? More importantly…did I actually stick to my planned protocol? Is my jet lag less pronounced? Did I jump right back into my exercise routine at home?

Before I left for France, I saved links to YouTube videos for a few different 15 minute yoga and exercise workouts. I knew 15 minutes was an attainable goal. A goal of a one hour, or even a half hour workout after a day of sightseeing, eating, and writing would just be setting myself up for failure. After all, it was France! To keep it simple, I got advice from Crystal and googled hotel room exercises, since the only equipment I was packing was a yoga mat and a resistance strap.
In a previous blog I described my first day in France – picked up the rental car and drove most of the day, making stops in Giverny, Rouen, and finally stopping for the night in Honfluer. Two hours sleep in 38 hours. Did I really need to exercise that first night – no. But I knew if I made excuses the first night, I was doomed. So I pushed myself and did it. In all honesty, wherever I travel I am usually on an “arrival high” the first day, so that helped. The next night it was 15 minutes of yoga. On the third night, I was out late in Mont St Michel and had climbed to the top of the Abbey there. It was a warm night and there was no air conditioning in the hotel. So I gave myself the night off.

Once I got to Paris and settled into my apartment, I had the space to keep my yoga mat and resistance strap rolled out in the living room as my constant reminder. And it worked the first night; I completed my 15 minutes. The next afternoon, while strolling the gravel path along the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower, I took another kind of trip. The kind where your foot connects with a big rock that sends you flying, followed by gravity smacking you down. There was a fair amount of blood, but no hospital worthy injuries. This did mean, however, that my knee required bandages, elevation, and ice packs, instead of yoga poses. So I took two days off from exercise. On the third day, I had to modify my routines, but I did manage yoga or regular exercise during the remainder of my stay in France.

This lovely family picked me up off the ground at the Eiffel Tower

So after two weeks at home, what is the verdict? The results are mixed. Jet lag lasted for almost a week, which is my typical experience when returning from a trip of that distance and time difference. Routine exercise didn’t do a thing to improve the duration of my adjustment to Eastern Standard Time. But my regimen did pay off in the time it took to get back to my home based workout routine. My normal slack off period of two weeks after a long journey was reduced to three days! I am back in the swing of things. And a good thing too. Because while in France, I ate…a lot, in a country where butter is the first listed ingredient in most dishes.

Even the ice cream is a work of art

C’etait tres magnifique!

Paris – Memories and Cafe Writing

It was a clear, sunny June day in Paris. A soft breeze from the east ruffled tree branches on the boulevard. As I drove through the city, I could feel the tinge of excitement and nostalgia fluttering inside me. I was returning to the city I had fallen in love with 40 years ago, but not as the young novice traveler of my youth. I now have five continents and 30+ countries under my belt and I worried that the thrill of Paris would be lost this time around.

Linda, Madeleine, Kathy

 

 

 

 

I arranged to attend a weeklong workshop aptly named Paris Café Writing, run by Patty Tennison, who divides her time between Paris and Chicago. We spent our mornings with coffee and croissants, learning and writing in various cafes in the heart of Le Marais. Le Marais as you may know is a wonderful Paris neighborhood located in the 3rd and 4th arrondisements. It’s tree shaded streets are lined with shops, cafes, and old apartment buildings, adorned with frilly Juliet balconies. Most of our afternoons were free, so I used that time to revisit the sites of my long ago sojourn in Paris.

Even the ice cream is a work of art

A quick note here about getting around in Paris (I turned in my rental car once I arrived in the city). Before I left home, I downloaded the free Paris transit app, RATP. Once in Paris, this app synced with my Google Maps App to create an extraordinary tool for easily navigating the city. I would enter a destination in the app and Google would tell me several ways to go: walking, driving, bus, train, metro. The app is so specific that it is nearly impossible to make a mistake or get lost. Within 4 hours of my arrival in the city, I was hopping buses and metros with confidence. On the rare occasion that public transit is not convenient (toting luggage, accessibility issues), your Lyft and Uber apps from home work just fine in Paris.

Back to the workshop. Patty Tennison has taught at the graduate level and she has taught beginners. Her versatility enables her to easily adapt to her participants. She limits the workshops to eight writers, but due to last minute cancellations, our group was reduced to an intimate class of four. It was a unique, friendly, and open group representing the UK, Illinois, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. In addition to the morning workshops, Patty and her husband, Joe Prendergast, guided us on an informative walking tour of Le Marais, hosted a wine and cheese tasting at their apartment, arranged meals at wonderful restaurants, and a jazz night for our entertainment. We were encouraged to practice our French whenever possible, but English is perfectly fine too.

As part of the program, Patty conducted private one on one sessions with each writer. We had previously submitted a piece we were working on and Patty used the one on one to provide feedback and answer questions with each of us. My session with Patty on its own was worth the trip to Paris. I was really struggling with a subject and the brainstorming with Patty gave me a new perspective that will hopefully turn into the beginning of a book.

Because I frequently travel solo, adding in a volunteer purpose, or a learning activity, positions me to form new friendships with like minded people. We become part of the communities in which we are helping or learning. France was no exception and I hope to travel with or visit each and every writer with whom I had this wonderful experience.

A few weeks before I left home for this trip, I wrote a short piece about my first trip:

It was late June, 1977 and I was a 23 year old traveling to Europe for the first time. Not just anywhere in Europe, but the city of light….Paris. In the pre internet days of the 1970s, trips were planned with real travel agents. My best friend, Helen, and I saved for a year in order to get to the place we had dreamed about since we were high schoolers. Our agent helped us reserve our flights and a six night hotel stay on the left bank. We left home with little more than our suitcases and a sense of adventure. What we knew about Paris we had read in books. We had no metro maps, cell phones, email, or internet searches….just our naïve intuition that we would be fine.
Helen and I were counting on my high school French to navigate the city. Unlike today, there were not many English speakers in Paris then. While many Parisians turned up their noses at my American accented French, we managed to find most of what we were looking for. We marveled at the Eiffel Tower, Arch de Triumph, and the Champs Ellysees. We somehow found our way to the Palace of Versailles and walked, wide eyed, through the gardens and gilded halls. We chuckled at the miniature size of Napoleon’s bed in one of the palace bedrooms.
Then there was the Louvre. No one seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time will ever forget it. It is my most vivid memory of that trip. It is, of course, smaller than you expect, but no less riveting…..that smile, and Da Vinci’s magnificent talent on display.
There were smaller moments too. Like the little French boy at the Arch de Triumph who showed me his toy sailboat as we sat together on sun warmed stone. And the art student in Montmartre from whom we purchased two sketches. He smiled proudly as we departed to the rain washed cobbled street outside his school. The food! Someone once told me that French food at the time was really just average meat or fish topped with stunningly delectable sauces. Maybe so, but to our inexperienced palates, it was all heavenly.
The people….well, they were French. The women, rich or poor, were chicly dressed and seemingly annoyed by our presence. Because we were young and unaccompanied, the men were friendlier, more willing to overlook our status as Americans. One evening we attended a performance at the Moulin Rouge. For reasons unknown to us the maitre d’ and his handsome assistant marched us straight up to the best table in the house. We gazed at the burlesque dancers and performers under the glow of stage lights.
July 4th dawned bright and sunny. Helen and I determined that the most American thing we could do to celebrate independence day was to go to McDonalds for a burger. As I recall, it was the one and only McDonalds in Paris at the time. The burger, unfortunately, was grey in color and lacked any hint of flavor. The special sauce, in this case, did nothing to enhance this
 mystery meat.
Our next meal at a tiny café in the Latin Quarter more than made up for it. We sat at a street side table and people watched until the sun began to set. We toasted the French love of wine and butter, their sense of style, and their romantic language. The next day, we bid au revoir to Paris, its museums and monuments, can can dancers and artists. It would become a dreamy memory in the intervening years, always beckoning, still magical.

Back to the present and my desire to relive my Paris experience of forty years ago….well it didn’t happen. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Your eyes and heart see and feel things differently after 40 years of life experience. There is nothing like seeing the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Mona Lisa the first time. That thrill is a one time opportunity. This visit was more about living in Le Marais (in an apartment instead of a hotel), slowing down to sit in a café all morning, strolling the parks and streets, finding inspiration in my surroundings. That is not to say I didn’t go to Versailles, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. I did, and so did thousands of others. The sites are more crowded, more touristy than they were in 1977. But that was okay too, because this time was about living, eating, writing, and absorbing all there is to like  about Paris today. It is still magical, but in a more grown up and laid back way.

 

 

 

I promised in an earlier blog to list some of my favorite places to eat in France.

Le Drakkar – traditional bistro, 27 Rue St Jean, Bayeux
Le Moulin de la Galette – Cafe and creperie, 38 rue de Nesmind, Bayeux
Café de la Mairie – street side café, 51 rue de Bretagne, Paris
Le Petit Chatelet – restaurant with a view to Notre Dame and next door to the famous Shakespeare & Company Book Store, 39 rue de la Bucherie, Paris
Au Grand Turenne – café, 27 Boulevard du Temple
Le Blanc Cassis – café, 6 Dupetit Thouars, Paris
La Coupoule – fine dining and if you are celebrating a birthday they will make it very special, 102 Boulevard Montparnasse, Paris
Mollard – fine dining and expensive, but the Art Deco and old world charm is worth the splurge, 115 rue Saint Lazaro, Paris

Lastly, I thought it would be fun to show a side by side of photos from both 1977 and 2017. Hope you enjoy!

 

Bayeux and the D-Day Beaches

After a much-needed overnight rest in Honfleur, I began the drive to Bayeux. Bayeux would be my base for visiting the D-Day sites, but it is also a very interesting and picturesque town on its own.

Dating to Roman times the town of Bayeux included the residence of an early Roman Catholic bishop in the 4th century, and was captured by the Vikings in 880. While a Norman stronghold for many years, it was eventually taken by various other forces, including the English.  Bayeux survived these invasions as well as the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, finally returning to the French in the 13th century.

In 1940, the German army occupied Bayeux. Four years later, it would become the first town liberated by the allies after D-Day.  Miraculously, it was spared any major damage during the war.

Bayeux is home to a magnificent tapestry of the same name. It is displayed in Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. The fact that it is in such good condition after nine centuries defies logic.  It is really more an embroidery than a tapestry as can be seen in the photo. (No picture taking allowed in the museum, so this is a stock photo). It depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England involving William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

Bayeux also boasts a beautiful cathedral named, wait for it…..Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux. The French are so enamored of the Blessed Mother. The Romanesque architecture of the original 1077 structure can still be seen in the core of the church, but after a damaging fire in 1160, the exterior Gothic style was added. Construction and additions would continue for a few hundred years.

Bayeux oozes with the charm of quaint old buildings and cobbled streets. It straddles the Aure River, which provides tranquil photo ops, centuries old water wheels, and during my June visit was bursting with blooms and color.

To visit the D-Day sites, I chose a tour with Bayeux Shuttles.  I could have easily driven myself, but all recommendations suggested hiring a guide. And I’m glad I did. Lloyd, Bayeux Shuttles’ tour guide extraordinaire, is a young World War II enthusiast who hails from Wales, where he spent years as a re-enactor, all the while studying everything he could about the war.
In fact, he is so obsessed that he turned his hobby into a career and moved to Normandy a few years ago to conduct tours of the D-Day sites. Without his commentary, a visit to the beaches would not have come alive as it did with Lloyd. Bayeux Shuttles also offers short films in their vans on the way to the sites. The films are a nice complement to the guide’s information and add a very human touch as they incorporate interviews with actual D-Day soldiers. Bring tissues.

Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc, where the 2nd Ranger Battalion landed on June 6, 1944. The landing and climbing scene is depicted in the film, The Longest Day. Naval bombardment at Pointe du Hoc began at 5:50 AM, and the craters are still there, interspersed with the destroyed/damaged German army’s concrete bunkers.

 

 

 

 

Lt. Col. James Rudder and his ranger battalion were tasked with scaling the cliff and dismantling the German positions. Lt. Col. Max Schneider’s 5th Ranger Batalion would later join the 2nd. The Germans had previously moved their guns southward from their original positions. Despite fierce resistance, the rangers found and destroyed the guns….but at a terrible cost. After two days of fighting, only 90 of the original 225 rangers were still able to bear arms.

The French government transferred the area to the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1979 and Pointe du Hoc is well maintained. It includes a visitor center where the story of individual courage and sacrifice is on display. An array of interpretive exhibits and multimedia puts the battle of Pointe du Hoc and the D-Day landings in perspective as one of the greatest military achievements of all time. A short film documents interviews with surviving soldiers. Again, bring tissues.

Omaha Beach is a short drive from Pointe du Hoc, but a very different experience. It is not managed as an historic site so to speak. There are several memorials to be seen, but this is also a beach community. Built into the hill behind the beach road are summer vacation homes, restaurants, and shops. Still, while standing on this wide expanse of beach, looking out to the English Channel, one can feel the spirit of the brave soldiers storming the beach and running into a ferocious enemy.

Les Braves is a war memorial located on the shores of Omaha Beach in the village of St. Laurent-sur-Mer and was installed to honor the fallen American soldiers. It was commissioned by the French government to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion Of Normandy. Intended only as a temporary art piece, the sculpture still stands on the shores of Omaha Beach, primarily due to local public interest and petition.

Our final stop of the day was the American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach from a bluff. I had purposely avoided looking at pictures of the cemetery before my visit.  I wanted to experience it fully, in the moment. I was unprepared for the stunning beauty and grandeur of the site. My first surprise was the semi circular colonnade that greets visitors. It’s pillars flank the soaring statue representing The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves – a reminder of the relative youth of those who died here. The grounds are park like, with walking paths under the shade of trees and sculpted shrubs.

Then there is the spectacular view of the water below, waves cresting on Omaha Beach. A stone structure in the center of the cemetery provides a place for a prayer or reflection. And yet, the rows of simple white crosses are what I found most moving. Each one is stamped with the name of the deceased, their rank, branch of service, hometown, and date of death. Each one is someone’s child, brother, parent, husband, sister, from a small town or a big city in America.

There are 9,387 Americans, including four women, buried here. Carved into the graves of the unknown is the epitaph: Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.

There are some well know soldiers interred at the cemetery…Theodore Roosevelt, Jr, Preston and Robert Niland (of Saving Private Ryan fame). First Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith from Low Moor, Va, while not well known to most of us, showed enormous courage before he died on June 6, 1944.  He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Here is a brief synopsis of his actions on D-Day from the First Division Museum:

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. 1st Lt. Monteith landed with the initial assault waves on the coast of France under heavy enemy fire. Without regard to his own personal safety he continually moved up and down the beach reorganizing men for further assault. He then led the assault over a narrow protective ledge and across the flat, exposed terrain to the comparative safety of a cliff. Retracing his steps across the field to the beach, he moved over to where 2 tanks were buttoned up and blind under violent enemy artillery and machinegun fire. Completely exposed to the intense fire, 1st Lt. Monteith led the tanks on foot through a minefield and into firing positions. Under his direction several enemy positions were destroyed. He then rejoined his company and under his leadership his men captured an advantageous position on the hill. Supervising the defense of his newly won position against repeated vicious counterattacks, he continued to ignore his own personal safety, repeatedly crossing the 200 or 300 yards of open terrain under heavy fire to strengthen links in his defensive chain. When the enemy succeeded in completely surrounding 1st Lt. Monteith and his unit and while leading the fight out of the situation, 1st Lt. Monteith was killed by enemy fire. The courage, gallantry, and intrepid leadership displayed by 1st Lt. Monteith is worthy of emulation”.

 

 

 

 

There is a subtle feeling of gratitude in the towns and villages near the D-Day sites. American flags can frequently be seen flying from random homes and gardens. An American visitor can expect a warm welcome and a solemn nod of respect.

 

Wandering Normandy – Day One

I last visited France in 1977 when I was 23 years old. It was my first trip to Europe and there was no Internet, so no economical way of staying in touch with family at home. My friend, Helen, and I left from Philadelphia with little more than a hotel reservation and our heavy suitcases…. no wheeled luggage back then. At the time there were few English speakers in France and few Parisians seemed to understand my high school French. But we muddled through and I fell in love with the beautiful city of light.

Fast forward almost 40 years and I was yearning for a return visit, but with a twist. Everything I have read and seen about the D-Day invasions at Normandy fascinated me. So this time around I wanted to venture to the cities and beaches of Normandy –  Bayeux, Honfleur, Omaha Beach, and more.

 

 

 

June 8, 2017

After arrival at Charles De Gaulle airport on a sunny Thursday, I picked up a rental car and headed west. The GPS skillfuly guided me to my first stop – Giverny,  the picturesque village where Claude Monet tended his home and famous garden. Like many sites in France, it was crowded. But if you love Monet’s work, it is worth a stop. The house is very interesting, but the gardens and pond are the stars of this show.

Then it was on to the city of Rouen, where I enjoyed the first of many meals at one of France’s ubiquitous outdoor cafes. At some point I will list the names of the cafes, restaurants, and brasseries that deserve to be named, but this little place in Rouen will remain anonymous. To stretch my legs, I decided to walk to the cathedral, one of several named Notre Dame in France. The frilly facade of Rouen’s cathedral is so captivating that Claude Monet created 30 different studies of it, capturing the light at different times of day.

 

 

 

 

By 4:00 I was cruising into Honfleur, a quaint harbor town where I would spend the night at the L’Absinthe Hotel. I had eaten lunch so late that I decided to skip dinner and go straight to dessert – crème glacée, AKA ice cream. This particular version was texturely different and very delicious. I followed it up with my first French blonde beer at a nearby cafe, and an early return to my hotel.

After 38 hours of travel with only 2 hours sleep, I will wish you good night. À bientôt.

Exercising My Funny Bone

Since I started writing in 2015, I am always looking for ways to improve. Recently I took advantage of a free workshop offered by my local library. Humor Writing is taught by Donna Cavanaugh – author, blogger, comedian – at Lower Providence Community Library. I don’t expect to become the next Erma Bombeck in three consecutive Wednesday nights, and humor writing is not my talent. I do believe exercising our writing muscle is always a good thing for, well, a writer.

Successful bloggers have several things in common, one of which is – they post daily. That is never going to be me.  I’m just not that interesting, nor do I have so much to say that I need a daily platform. A reader did point out to me that, since I usually only post when I am on the road, months can elapse between my blog posts. She tells me she forgets I exist between posts. Point taken. Hence, I decided it is ok to write about things other than travel with purpose, even on this blog known as Purposeful Travel.

So with great trepidation, I thought I would share my first attempt at humor writing. I think those of you old enough for Social Security will relate to it.  Millennials – well, I’ll just apologize now for my snarkiness. Most of you are solid citizens and not nearly as vacuous as the characters in my essay.  Regardless of generation, I hope this freshman attempt at humor will make you smile.

Reflections of an Old Lady at the Gym

By Kathy Thomas

I’m a head sweater. No, no…not a sweater for the head. I’m one of those people that when I sweat, it mostly happens to my head. If I’m really exerting myself, my armpits will join in. Add to that the fact that I am a fair skinned, 63 year old female of Irish descent, who becomes red faced during moderate labor or exercise and, well you get the picture. So it is no surprise that when I go to my local gym I am often asked if I am feeling ok. The staff seem to fear I am having a heart attack on their stair master. No, I’m not. I’m just exercising while old and Irish.

I actually really enjoy myself at the gym. I am very serious about my workout, have no time for small talk. I enjoy the fact that those of us over forty are virtually invisible to those under forty. This invisibility allows me to observe others without being detected or seeming creepy. So while I am putting in the miles on a treadmill or stationary bike, I watch the show around me. There are the New Year’s resolution crowd with their beer bellies and jiggly parts, the body builders and athletes, and the middle aged just trying to stave off an early demise. The group that provides the most entertainment are the 20 somethings who use the gym as their own little pick up bar. I am too repulsed by my own appearance to exercise in front of the giant mirrors plastered on every other wall. But the muscle bound male of the species in this age group are drawn to the shiny rectangles like Donald Trump to Twitter. They can admire themselves pumping iron while keeping an eye out for their beautiful female counterparts. Maybe that grunting noise they make when dead lifting those enormous weights is really a mating call.

Speaking of the females…they are by far the most interesting to observe. I am baffled by their firm and slender physiques. I mean, how do you get that body without breaking a sweat? I see them saunter up to the lateral pull down or crunch machines with their coifed hair and perfectly made up faces. And an hour later, I see them exit the building looking exactly the
same. Wait, now that I think about it…I don’t believe I’ve ever actually seen one of them exercise. Well I’ve got news for them. Enjoy it while you can you selfie taking, make-up wearing twenty year old with the rockin’ bod and perfect hair. Time and menopause will knock that perky butt down to the back of your knees and annihilate your metabolism. But I have no time for chit chat now. I’m on my way to wring out my sweat drenched hair in the locker room. Then I’m going to collapse on a bench, take a nap, and wait for my red face to return to its pale natural state.

An Appointment with Retirement

On the fourth of July in 2015, I celebrated my independence from work and career and entered the uncharted waters of retirement.  It has been a fun and interesting 20 months. 

My retirement party

Regular readers of my blog know that I have spent several of those months traveling and volunteering around the world.  Travel has been a passion since I was a teenager and being able to volunteer in foreign communities has enriched and deepened my travel experiences. But what about retirement at home? How does one feel fulfilled in our own communities? In other words, how do we stay engaged and not grow old and disinterested?

Many retirees volunteer with local organizations. I chose to work with the Womens Center of Montgomery County. After a comprehensive training program I now spend one day a week at our county court house. There I am able to help victims of domestic violence navigate the courts to obtain protection orders. It is often sad and upsetting work, but it is essential. 

Me, a camel, the Sahara Desert

During my down time between trips I kept a running list of things to do.  All of those projects that would be fun to do if we only had the time. In the golden and free flowing days of retirement there is an abundance of time. I plunged into the first project with joy – turning my son’s old bedroom into a meditation and yoga retreat. I have enough skill at a sewing machine to sew straight lines and that is about it. But that means curtains and pillows are an easy task. And in an out-of-the-way yoga room I could go a little crazy with the fabric choices. The yoga room was followed by a garage redo, cushions for the patio set, a bench refinish, closet organizations, and the list goes on. My days were also filled with workouts, nature walks, socializing, and writing.

The Yoga Room
The refinished bench

 

 

 

 

So why, after my return from Thailand could I not seem to kick start my at-home life again? After I returned in early February it took almost two weeks for the jetlag to subside. There is a twelve hour time difference, and the travel time was 23 hours. And let’s face it – I am no spring chicken. But long after the jetlag was a memory I was still feeling at loose ends.  By noon most days I had accomplished little more than getting dressed and eating breakfast.  What to do?  During my working and parenting years, I lived by my calendar.  Why not live my retirement that way too? I can hear you moaning….isn’t retirement about leaving the calendar behind? Ugh, who wants to be chained to a calendar?  For many people that is true. But for this type A with a neurotic need to feel a sense of accomplishment….it was just what the doctor ordered.

Volunteering in the gardens, Scotland

The first item I put on my calendar was just a daily note that reads “Get up and do something!”  And it worked! Day One – I phoned my former personal trainer (which I’ve been promising myself for 6 months) and got on her schedule. Since then I have come up with a couple of project ideas and put soft deadlines on my calendar.  I rarely say no to a lunch or dinner outing. I am back to my workout and yoga routines and they are in my eCalendar, which beeps at me incessantly when it’s time. And, I wrote the first page of the book I have been so afraid to start. I can now cross off the calendar reminder that tells me to “write the first page.”  What a sense of accomplishment (smile). My calendar is lightly filled with enough “appointments” to keep me relatively occupied and feeling useful until I head off for the next adventure in May.

Volunteering in South Africa

 

 

 

 

This retirement prescription may not appeal to all the newly retired.  Probably most of you love the unscheduled nature of retirement. But if you recognize a little of yourself in my story, by all means, open that calendar and fill it up.

Thailand – Children, Families, Tribes

In almost every country in the world we can find similarities and differences among its people, traditions, and beliefs. Children in Cambodia often start driving at age ten and younger, no license required!  Families in Peru enjoy eating cuy (guinea pig). Siesta is routine in Spain. Families pray in churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and homes.

Studying and volunteering while traveling is how I try to expand my world view. While in Thailand I met children and families, visited tribes in the northern hills, and once again the similarities were almost as obvious as the differences.  Here are some of the people I met…….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of these children were poor and some were not. They like performing at school, swimming in the river (even though it was sullied by elephant poo), school field trips, birthday cake, and riding toys. Sound familiar? They spoke a language I had never heard before (Thai) and some were learning a familiar language (English).  When we delivered the English children’s dictionaries to one of the schools, we sat with the children as they pronounced the English words for pictures in the books.  Then we came to the alphabet. I decided it might be fun to teach them the ABC song that we all learned as children. I got as far as A,B,C and the children started singing it with me!  They knew it already!  I don’t know who was happier… me or the kids. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Families in Thailand often live together in multi-generational homes. And they often work together too.  This mother and daughter are producing their hand dyed and designed indigo cotton fabric. Daughter stamps the design using wax, mother dips the fabric into the dye.  After the fabric is taken out to dry, it instantly begins to change from a green color to the indigo blue. After it dries, the fabric is boiled to release the wax and reveal the beautiful design. We also met the son-in-law and grandchildren who work in the business.

 

 

 

 

There are many tribes in Thailand, mainly comprised of immigrants from neighboring countries. The most well-known of the tribes are the Kayan Lahwi, also known as Padaung or Longnecks.  They settled in northern Thailand after fleeing military conflicts in Myanmar. The women of the Kayan Lahwi are known to wear the coiled brass rings that appear to lengthen their necks. The practice is losing favor among the younger generation of women and I suspect is now more a marketing tool to bring tourists to their village shops.

 

 

 

The Yao tribe originated in China and number about 60,000 in northern Thailand.  The women typically dress in long black tunics with vivid red trim. They create beautiful cross stitch and embroidered pieces. This Yao woman is showing us a cross stitch she made for sale in her village shop.

The Akha tribe also originated in China. They farm and raise livestock in northern Thailand.  The headdresses worn by the women are elaborate and the style defines their age or marital status. These tall hats are adorned with silver coins, monkey fur, dyed chicken feathers, tassels, and large beads.

 

 

 

This Hmong family are farmers and they were kind enough to invite us into their home. The Hmong originated in China and most of those still in Thailand came from Laos.

The setting may be different, but the people of Thailand are very much like people around the world. They love their families, work to make a living, and are proud of their heritage. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Death Railway – Thailand

Much has been written about the building of the Thailand Burma railway. Films like The Railway Man and The Bridge on the River Kwai depict the brutality of Japanese soldiers and the deadly conditions under which allied POWs and conscripted Asian laborers worked on the railway during World War II. A walk across the River Kwai bridge elicits images of the suffering. The heat is extreme even during this January day, the sun so unrelenting that I pop open my umbrella for relief. The POWs had no opportunity for any respite. A momentary stop to wipe sweat from their eyes could result in a beating. The solemnity of my experience here is broken only by a group of Thai schoolboys who smile excitedly as this westerner greets them in their native language — sawasdee ka —    –hello!

We travel down the road to the Hellfire Pass Museum where short films about, and photos of, the railway POWs bring me to tears. War as they say is hell, but somehow seeing these images in this setting is so much more heart wrenching than my high school history classes could convey. In the summer of 1942, World War II was raging across Europe and Asia. The allies were rapidly capturing the sea routes to Burma, forcing the Japanese to develop an overland supply route from the east to support their troops. About 200,000 Asian laborers and 61,000 allied prisoners of war built this 260 mile stretch of rail in abominable conditions. For every half-mile of track laid, 38 POWs perished.
From the museum we head to the four kilometer trail that will take us through Hellfire Pass. The pass appears suddenly, less than ten minutes into our hike. I can picture the men, with their primitive tools, chipping away at this mountain of stone. Children and grandchildren of the men who died here have visited and left behind flags and mementos in honor of their loved ones. It is another stark reminder of what we lose because of war and hate.

Elephant Nature Park – Some Final Thoughts and Pictures

As I say goodbye to Zaza, Champagne, Hope, Tubtim, and all of the other elephants at the sanctuary I feel a sense of wonder. The land, the people, and the animals that make this experience so magical will remain with me forever. I urge you to consider coming here and making a contribution of your time and labor. You will be rewarded ten fold. Some information to help you decide…..

Where: Elephant Nature Park, less than 90 minutes from Chiang Mai, Thailand

Cost: 12000 Baht, or $339 a week at the current Baht to US dollar exchange rate. Covers food, shared room, and transport to and from Chiang Mai.

ENP is not for everyone. The accommodations are rustic. No heat or air conditioning. Neither of which is necessary during the month of January. Mosquito nets are provided. There is running water – sometimes hot, sometimes not. No television, and wifi is sporadic at best. Meals are all vegan and vegetarian. I am neither, but I found every meal to be filling and delicious. And, an ice cold beer can be bought for $1.70! Bring mosquito repellant, sunscreen, and a sense of adventure.

Lorenza, Peggy, me

There are no single rooms. I was matched with Peggy from Canada and Lorenza from Italy, both friendly, funny, caring women whom I hope will be in my life for a long time. Partly because we are so isolated here, and partly because of a shared purpose, the other volunteers become like family. Most of my fellow volunteers were Aussies, Canadians, Americans, and a handful of Europeans. They were grade schoolers and retirees, solo travelers (like me), couples, and families. We lingered on the pavilions after dinner sharing life stories, playing games, and laughing. These were some of the most interesting, friendly, and engaged individuals I have met in all my travels.

The volunteers

The work is hard. We scrubbed melons, sorted bananas, weeded and prepped new garden plots, cut grass and corn stalks (with machetes!), scooped giant elephant poo, fed the elephants, helped them cool off in the river, unloaded truckloads of melons and pumpkins, and whatever else needed to be done to support the efforts of the sanctuary employees and veterinarians. And for fun we often went to the dog rescue to walk dogs and play with the puppies.

So it is not a rest and relaxation kind of vacation. But the rewards are many….the sense of peace that comes with being around these big, gentle creatures; the unique setting and beautiful Thai countryside; the comraderie.

But my time at the sanctuary is ending and I am off to Bangkok and the next leg of the journey. Good night from Thailand.

Emma, the rescue dog

A Volunteer Adventure in Thailand

Lek Chailert, founder of Elephant Nature Park

Experience one warm month this winter — check

Volunteer with big, sweet animals — check

Visit an exotic Asian locale — check

Thailand fit the bill on all counts and as foreign travel goes, it’s a bargain. So for the month of January I will be in Thailand, followed by a few days in Cambodia in February. And the big, sweet animals? Elephants!

Zaza and me

Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants in Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai Province, Northern Thailand. Founded by Lek Chailert in the 1990s, the park is now part of the Save the Elephant Foundation.

ENP provides sanctuary for rescued elephants and it has expanded to care for dogs and other animals displaced by the devastating 2004 tsunami and 2011 flood.

img_1500One week into my stint at the sanctuary, I have learned several things. It will not surprise you to know that people who dedicate their lives to the love and care of endangered and discarded animals are selfless, hardworking, and kind. In the case of ENP, those people are the local villagers, sanctuary employees, volunteers and veterinarians from around the world, and founder,Lek Chailert. Lek has been saving elephants since the early 90s, but she will not turn away a dog, cat, pig, buffalo, horse, or a cow. And she is not some distant figurehead. She is here everyday…..talking to volunteers, feeding milk to an abandoned baby boar (hourly!), meeting with the vets and employees, feeding the elephants, and sharing her love and dedication with all.

I have learned that the work we do as volunteers is vital to the health and stability of ENP. There are seventy elephants here…..seventy! And they each eat an average of 250 pounds of food a day. That’s over 17,000 pounds of corn stalks, bananas, melons, and grass –  a day. While most forage on their own on the roughly 5 square mile property, there can be as many as 20 being cared for in the accessible areas. On any given day there are 70 – 100 volunteers cutting corn and grass, scrubbing melons, picking bananas, preparing medicines, bathing and feeding the elephants. And that 250 pounds of food? Well it becomes elephant poo…..and volunteers shovel and scoop away, without complaint. The work that volunteers do allows ENP to use their resources for all of the other costs and labor of caring for such a large and diverse group of animals.

Poo patrol

I have learned that the elephants at ENP have come from some tragic backgrounds. They have been rescued from logging camps and tourist shows where they were subjected to hooks and chains, malnourished and broken. Many had injuries or illnesses that were never treated. Some of the elephants were victims of land mines in neighboring countries, sustaining devastating injuries. At ENP they have received life saving surgeries, medical intervention, nourishment, and care. The elephants are healing and thriving and have formed loving family units that emulate the natural behaviors of elephants in the wild. Watching these dignified giants care for their young, for their disabled or elderly, is something to behold. At first you cry over the stories of their mistreatment, but then you laugh at their antics….trunk tug of wars, splashing in the river, babies rolling in the mud, and mama stealing bananas from your basket.

Poo patrol

So one week in, I can close my eyes in the cool Thailand night and dream of safe, healthy elephants.

Until next week, hope you enjoy these photos……

Students at a local school

Clearing for vegetable planting