Monday, November 28, 2011

Reading with Purpose

 Earlier this year, I had a very powerful experience that has stayed with me, and the story of which ties in beautifully with the focus of this year's Passports With Purpose fundraiser.

It all happened in Calcutta, India, when I went to Mother Teresa's Ashram.  No words can describe the overwhelming emotional impact of visiting not only the Ashram itself, but the nearby orphanage established by Mother Teresa.  In her words, it is a refuge for...

"The hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone." --- Mother Teresa
 
Before entering the orphanage, the nuns laid out one simple rule:  "please don't pick them up."

I stepped into a room where knee-high children with big brown eyes surrounded me, reaching their arms up to me, longing desperately to be held and carried.  This was tough. I wanted to hold them, to touch them, to love them, to let them know they were loved.  I wanted to smother them with affection and motherly care. I wanted to embrace them.  But I could not pick them up!

How was I going to engage with them? What could I do to connect without attachment?

I stood dazed and numb for a moment, towering over them. Then, one child came forward with something in his hand. It was a book.

From his hand to mine, a book. 

I looked over at the nuns were sitting on the only bench in the room.  They did not move to make room for me; so, taking the book from the child's hand, I sat down on the floor right where I stood.  The kids climbed onto my lap and leaned over my shoulders and touched my hair and watched my face as I was able to engage and connect with them without ever picking one up. The nuns lost sight of me as I was engulfed in a sea of curious children, and there in my hand, a book.

This was an undertaking not for the weak of heart, and all I could think about was finding my strength in compassion and focusing on the power of love. Pure love. The Mother Teresa kind of love - love for all, and attachment to none. Because I was so moved by the emotional investment these children placed in me when I sat amongst them, I had to focus that love on one thing. The book.

Fortunately, it was a basic board book, with only one word on each page.  BALL. CAR. BOY. GIRL. And so on.

I read each page as if I were reading a love letter. With each word, there was a little drawing to illustrate it, but when I read the word, there was only meaning. LOVE.  Word by word, page by page, I read, and the children listened. I read, and the children watched. I read...and the children felt loved.

I somehow made it out without adopting a dozen children - although not without shedding a dozen tears. Photography was not permitted in the orphanage and I would have left the camera anyway.  These children just wanted to be loved. And read to.

So there I found my own little room to read on the floor of an orphanage in Calcutta.  At that moment more than any other in my life, I realized the incredible power of the gift of reading. 

By sharing my story, I hope that you will be inspired to share the gift of reading wherever you are, and wherever you go, in your travels and in life. To that end, please join me in the annual Passports With Purpose travel blogger fundraiser, kicking off on November 30.  The goal is to build two libraries in Zambia. 

Where to start? Keep reading! Check out these 2011 blogger participants who use their gift of writing so that others may know the gift of reading. Be inspired by words, and purposeful in action. Let's do this!



Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Our African Wedding Story

November 25 marks the anniversary of a dream come true. This is the story of our African wedding as it unfolded in the pages of my hand-written travel journal. 


November 24, 1999     Ngorongoro Crater.  Full Moon.

Fur blankets drape a king size bed in the Kimba Suite with glass doors overlooking Ngorongoro Crater. The moon is full and bright, and the lake below glows silver in her reflection.  We are on the rim, 8,500 feet up, and below is a vast caldera crawling with wildlife. This place is spectacular.  There are simply no other words to describe it.

[Earlier in the day, we had stopped at a rest point overlooking the crater. As I took in the view and held back tears of joy that I was actually here, my fiancĂ© informed me that this is where we will get married. Not next year…..but tomorrow! He left only one small detail of planning up to me. What time. Since we had a full day wildlife safari scheduled and I didn't want to miss one moment of it, my decision was easy. Sunrise.]

November 25, 1999     Ngorongoro Crater.     OUR WEDDING DAY!!!

As the sun rose and crept over the opposite rim of the crater, we were whisked off escorted by Shawnab, Francis and Shaibu. The moment we emerged from our room, Shawnab took my camera bag and handed me flowers. The other cameras flashing as we walked through the lobby was the sign of a very special event, which I soon came to realize was our wedding.  I don’t think either of us had any idea just what a production this would be. Apparently we were the first non-Maasai to get married at Ngorongoro Crater, and the first wedding of any guests to the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge.

We were escorted out to the jeep with colorfully dressed hotel employees following and surrounding us, then we all piled into jeeps and drove by caravan to the beautiful large fig tree which stands tall and majestic on the rim of the caldera. Visible from most parts of the crater, this tree would mark the location of our very special event.

We arrived at the spot which was still embraced in fog. As the gentle early morning winds nudged up the crater wall, the fog lifted and revealed the incredible setting for our ceremony.

For the wedding party, I was accompanied by three beautiful women in colorful Swahili dress, and my groom was accompanied by three handsome men also in traditional Swahili attire. Waiting at the site to welcome us with song, the local Maasai villagers!  We were introduced to the magistrate - a small man who had traveled by foot from his village to officiate our wedding. Knowing we were westerners, he had dressed in his very best western attire for the occasion - denim blue jeans, a red holiday sweater, and a Reebok baseball cap.

It all happened so quickly, full of colors and sounds and songs and smiles.  And languages! The magistrate first spoke in his tribal language, which Killian then translated to Swahili for our witnesses, and then in English for us.  As he handed us the certificates, he explained...

"There are three types of marriages: one that is monogamous, with one; one that is polygamous, with many; and one that is potentially polygamous, the first of many. You must declare which type of marriage you are making here today."

Giggles and laughter ensued, as we gave considerable thought to "potentially polygamous",  just for kicks, knowing that it would only translate into one type of marriage back home. We marked the box, signed our names, exchanged vows, kissed, and toasted with champagne. All the while the cameras flashed and every one in attendance seemed to have a Swahili blessing to shout out! But the recurring word "paparazzi" strewn throughout the Swahili words was unmistakable, followed by buckles of laughter - apparently the hotel manager took great pride in being asked to take pictures with my camera for us.  Had we understood more Swahili, we'd probably have been laughing a whole lot more, but as it was, we could not keep from wearing ear to ear grins. My cheeks are still hurting.

After the signing, vowing, and legalities were done with, we were presented with gifts from the Maasai guests. I was adorned with a beaded bracelet, and my husband a beaded necklace to wear, indicating he is married. Then I was handed a stick which only married women can carry. My husband was also given a stick, more of a beaded club, which he was to use for cattle raids. Then I was presented with a gourd, decorated with beads and a leather handle.  They explained that this is used to hold blood and goat's milk to "nourish little ones." Thankfully, I was not expected to drink it until "later....when it is time....."

The cake arrived, and we managed to cut small pieces to exchange...but chewing it was another feat. Then a breakfast buffet awaited, with the hotel chef preparing eggs to order, and everything from cereal to fresh fruits to coffee. We could barely eat with all the excitement, not to mention everyone watching our every move and taking pictures...our wedding paparazzi party.

After breakfast, the Maasai continued with celebratory song. The men wore red kangas and had elaborately decorated earlobes and necklaces around their necks. The "elder"male leading the group had tinges of red henna in his hair. For the most part, they all stood around leaning on their sticks. The females were much younger - it seemed only the unmarried girls were allowed to attend. They sang beautifully; it was as if the melodic voices rang out from their hearts, as their faces and lips barely moved at all. They wore around their necks wide beaded disk necklaces, which flapped up and down to the beat of the men's drumming. Strings of beads adorned the girls' foreheads.

I felt truly honored that these were our wedding guests, who had allowed us to marry on their sacred land of the Ngorongoro Crater next to the giant ancestral fig tree. We were, in fact, their guests. And what an honor it was. A very special honor for which we were extremely grateful.

The wedding party escorted us back to our jeep, which they had cleverly decorated with a "JUST MARRIED" sign on the back window.  Brilliant. They all squeezed into the back of the jeep with us, on laps and in bundles, singing a traditional wedding celebration song, including each of our names in the verses.  A few remaining staff chased the vehicle waving palm fronds, singing, and laughing. It was so joyous, we were surrounded with music, smiles, and positive wishes and energy.

Upon arrival back at the Serena Lodge, EVERYONE was standing outside to welcome us as husband and wife. The Maasai danced again, creating a directional path for us to walk while onlookers cheered and took pictures. We felt like royalty.  After a few steps I could no longer contain myself, and the tears began to flow - tears of overwhelming happiness and gratitude. 

We were lead, escorted, and followed by the bouncing Maasai, the singing hotel staff, and the colorful wedding party attendants to the lobby, where even more hotel guests watched and congratulated us. We sat to sign the guest book as "Mr. & Mrs." while the young Maasai girls bounced and sang behind us. Then the entire party lead, escorted, and followed us back to our Kimba Suite, bouncing so heavily that there was concern the board planks of the walkways might break! At last we reached our door, where we turned and thanked everyone with hugs, teary eyes, and endless "Asenteni" (thanks). 

What happened once we closed the door was just priceless. A split second of silence, broken by a giggle, joined by some snickering, growing into roars of laughter, then bursting loudly into song.  It seemed the ceremony was to involve one more element, for which they felt thundering song, drums, dancing and voices RIGHT OUTSIDE THE DOOR would be most conducive.....

We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Who knew that changing batteries, loading rolls of film, cleaning lenses and packing filters for a full day safari in the crater would be such a festively celebrated activity?! ;-)

[The End of the story...the wedding story, that is. But the heartfelt gratitude endures and grows with each passing year. I never lose sight of the blessings in my life and my travels, and though years may fade the pages of the journal, they add glue to the binding.]

THANK YOU for reading my story, and sharing in the joy, wonder, and appreciation of a dream come true, a dream made possible by people in a far away land.  Gratitude means counting my blessings, big and small, extraordinary and ordinary....and I have far too many not to pass along, share, and give back in whatever way I can.

This year,  I will again be participating in the travel blogger's fundraiser event, Passports With Purpose. The funds we raise are going to make a big difference to the lives of people in a far away land, with the building of two libraries in Zambia through a partnership with Room to Read. Full details are forthcoming, meanwhile....

Here's wishing you a heart full of gratitude for blessings big and small, on Thanksgiving Day and every day. Asante sana.



Thursday, November 10, 2011

Andean Skies

Could the skies possibly get any more blue? I'm wondering about this as I have just returned from another part of the world where the skies took my breath away, and where I was awed and mesmerized by looking up.

I'm certain that the high altitude has something to do with the deep clear blues of Andean skies, but a blue sky on it's own is just that, a gorgeous blue sky. What makes the blue skies of the Andes all the more interesting to photograph are the clouds that float through, changing shapes and transforming the scenery as they pass. Sometimes the clouds form dark ominous storm fronts, other times they dance through as puffy white "happy" clouds. Both are stunning against the backdrop of the Andes mountains and plateaus.

As a follow up to the popular post African Skies, I present here the Andean Skies, showcasing new images from my recent journey through Peru from Cusco to Puno aboard the Andean Explorer Train.











Thursday, November 03, 2011

For the Love of Elephants - Sheldricks and Amboseli



“It is easy to love elephants….because they will love you back”
- Caretaker, Sheldrick’s Elephant Trust

The anticipation was growing, and by the time we pulled up the dirt road at Sheldrick’s we could hardly contain ourselves. The day had come, the moment was near - we were all about to meet our adopted baby elephants face to face!

Two days before I left home to lead this very special Travcoa's 2011 President's Journey: Grand Safari to Kenya & Tanzania, my September 2011 issue of National Geographic arrived in the mail, featuring an entire article on the very elephants we were about to meet, titled Orphans No More. The baby elephant featured on the lead page was in fact Travcoa's own adopted elephant, Shukuru!

We gathered round the feeding stations where caretakers held big full bottles.  Then, the first group of baby elephants came happily down the path toward us.


It all happened so fast - these were the youngest bunch, still learning their way, and the next thing we knew there was milk everywhere as the babies eagerly emptied the bottles fumbling and slurping for every last drop.



Then, they were escorted out as quickly as they came.

But wait! The next group was not far behind, and these babies had been around longer and had somewhat better manners as more of us got to hold bottles and meet our own adopted elephants.



Then these adorable kids were allowed "playtime" to wallow in the mud for a bit while we watched and took pictures and oooh'ed and awwww'd.  They were simply so darn cute we just wanted to bring them all home with us.  I somehow I managed to keep myself from running in to the mud to play with them....that probably would not have been so great for my camera, which I was using to make possibly the cutest elephant video ever:



Wait, there's one more baby elephant bow....
 


They are a tough act to follow, for sure.  The good news is, you don't have to travel all the way to Africa to foster an orphaned elephant! You can read all about the elephants and select your own online here, at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Orphan Project.

But should you already be in Kenya,  then there's no better place to learn more about elephants in the wild than Amboseli National Park, and a visit to the Cynthia Moss Research Station (Amboseli Trust for Elephants).  If we could have stayed all week, we'd never have tired of hearing stories from Field Researcher Vicki Fishlock, who hosted us and enthralled us with her knowledge and enthusiasm.



Of course, there is no shortage of opportunity in Amboseli to observe elephants in the wild, and sometimes the encounters are quite close!



Whether up close or from a distance, spending some time watching a matriarch and her family is a real treat, especially when there is a very young one at her side.





I think I could go back to Africa again and again and again and never tire of watching elephants. But for as much wonder and heartfelt joy that I get watching elephants in the wild, nothing will ever compare to the few precious moments experienced with the orphaned elephants at David Sheldricks. That was truly one of the greatest highlights of my life. And guess what....I'm already planning a return in 2012.