Sunday, December 28, 2014

Third World Travel Troubles and Why You Should Go Anyway

Various maps depicting Third, Second and Third world countries differ. I don't know this map's origin, but a current map might put more countries into the "in transtiion" category. On this map: Gray, advanced economies, not considered Third World; yellow,  in transition, sometimes considered Third World; green usually considered Third World.
I've been thinking hard about how to write about the discomforts—and the joys—of traveling in  the world's "least developed" countries, those pictured above in green. I know that the disadvantages loom large, but despite the drawbacks, I believe the rewards of Third World travel outweigh the bad stuff.

Does spending 18 recent days in Nepal and the same amount of time in Uganda in 2013, make me a Third World travel expert? No, but I do have experts at my disposal, plus, you can be certain, I will insert my own semi-informed opinions. But first, the generally agreed-upon drawbacks to Third World travel:
Third World realities that can mess with you
  1. Poverty. You cannot ignore it and it can make you feel terrible, helpless, and guilty. 
  2. Poisonous water. You can't drink from taps, must take care not to open your mouth in the shower, which is, by the way, a major luxury. Plus you must be aware at all times of food that may be contaminated with water. Even with care, water-borne bad bugs can have their way with you if they manage to get in. I know this all too well.
  3. Hard beds. Unless you are separating yourself from the culture by staying in super pricey hotels, your bed is going to suck, by cushy Western standards. Your blow-up airplane neck pillow can come in handy.
  4. Connectivity. Internet access is hit and miss, even in hotels touting Wifi.
  5. Bad roads. Mostly, they're terrible, especially in rural areas. Don't try to rent a car or drive yourself. Street maps, road signs, road names, traffic control devices (such as stop lights or signs) are as rare as cloth napkins at McDonalds. Outside of, and sometimes IN cities, roads are typically one lane, eroding, full of potholes, blind corners, limping overloaded buses, and motorcyclists with a death wish.
  6. Unreliable power. In Kathmandu, Nepal's capital city, electricity goes missing for approximately 12 hours a day in something they call load-shedding. Don't look for a hairdryer under the sink, an unimaginable waste of electricity. Some hotels and businesses fill in with generators.
  7. Air pollution. In Kampala, Uganda's capital city of nearly 2 million, the primary cooking method is wood or charcoal, as it is in rural areas. Most people boil their drinking water for an hour, so tons of particulates spew into the air daily. The Kathmandu Valley, population 5 million, has cleaned up the air recently by disallowing two-cycle motorcycle engines, disposing, somehow, of trash that used to be burned. However,  the day after we left, the airport was closed due pollution-caused poor visibility. 
  8. Toilets. Prepare to squat at least some of the time. Our $35 per night hotel in Kathmandu had flush toilets, although we had to pour a bucket of water down ours to make it work. In Uganda, our upscale hotels were equipped with modern plumbing. On the road, however, it was the bushes or some really bad squat situations in gas stations. 
  9. Crime, panhandling, begging. Worse in some places than others, but when you travel to areas where wages are under US $2 a day, your stuff looks pretty good. And you sure don't need it.
  10. Border-crossing hassles/bribery. One of the experts, Chris, has paid a lot of bribes. I've only crossed borders on airplanes.
  11. Being white and therefore rich, a stereotype not easily escaped.

My Third World Travel Experts
Chris Korbulic, 28, my son, professional kayaker and photographer exploring rivers—and cultures—in countries including: Nepal, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Laos, India, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Pakistan, and many more. I've listed only countries that are considered least developed, less developed, or in transition.

It's important to say that my thoughts on why a First-Worlder should travel in Third World countries, are, obviously, coming from a privileged middle-class white dude. Also this is travel, not vacation, so the goal isn't to relax and come out feeling rejuvenated. It's to see and experience totally foreign places and people and maybe even suffer a little for it. After a good travel, you'll feel like you need a vacation. 
Traveling in Third World, or "developing" countries, or whatever PC label you want to call impoverished places with more poverty and misery than we could ever comprehend, is important. 
And it's fun. There aren't nearly as many rules or enforced laws, which can be great, but can also make travel a logistical nightmare. Also cultural taboos are often just as important as laws but much harder to recognize. 
In the US, we think we're deprived. We're not free enough, rich enough, safe enough, we don't have enough time. But we are actually so safe and free and rich that we manage to create danger and chaos and misery for ourselves where it mostly doesn't exist. 
And then we create stereotypes. For example, everyone in Pakistan must be a terrorist or always scared and hungry. Wrong, actually. In my experience, Pakistanis showed overwhelming kindness and hospitality to us weird kayaking foreigners, and they took great joy in what I perceive to be pretty miserable conditions. They also seemed to have rich family lives. 
If you're lucky and you travel just right, you won't just see misery and hunger and thirst and danger, but you might actually experience them, and with your First-Worlder goals of learning about yourself and the world and empathy, your experiences will teach you much more than your eyes ever could. 
When you return home, you might recognize the great quality of life you are privileged to enjoy. And hopefully you'll feel richer, freer, and safer than before, because you are.  
Another travel danger; you might come back and sound like a self righteous a-hole too proud of your travel experiences. Chris Korbulic
Kara Blackmore, 20-something, a cultural anthropologist working as a writer and cultural consultant in Uganda for going on five years. A Cambridge graduate, she's traveled much of Africa, and many other countries, and is a contributor to a popular guidebook to Uganda. She's a good friend of Chris', and when we traveled to Uganda in 2013, she arranged our itinerary and spent a few days with us, including bush camping.
Kara is talking about Uganda below.

I've added a few images from our trip. MK
The traffic: Go because you will see what can fit on the back of a bicycle or motorbike.
Watering trough via bicycle.
The local food:  Go because the immigrant Ethiopians make it delicious and the Belgium bakery takes the cake.
The malaria: Go because if you get it you can empathize with people and have the best diet plan ever. This could be said for amoebas too. 
The cost: Safari travel ain't cheap, but the reward for being in what Hendri Coetzee would call "nature's VIP lounge" is well worth the price.
Lion cubs on our early morning safari after bush camping.
The poverty: Seeing disparity is uncomfortable, and we should travel to remind us that the great things are so simple and the simple things are so great. 
Collecting water from the Nile River with handmade
fence as protection from giant crocodiles. Not your
everyday advanced-economy experience.
Go anyway because the colors in the art will make you feel alive. 
Go anyway because seeing charismatic mega fauna in their domain is soul restoring, like tuning your internal radio to a David Attenborough station.
A great thrill in my life, taking this photo.  
Go because something will surprise you in ways you could never imagine.
One incredible surprise...

after another... 
Go because, just when you think it is the best day ever, there is more.
                                             Kara Blackmore
True. Always more. Awe. Ahhhh. Always.

Michele Templer, 66, Peace Corps Volunteer, Swaziland, Africa. Michele is two-thirds of the way through her two-year commitment, and writes an excellent blog about living as a local in a rural Third World country. I give her, and other PCVs, huge credit for displacing themselves for two years on behalf of the human race.  Her blog address.  I asked her why she believes others can benefit from visiting the Third World. Here, she's talking about Swaziland.
Why go? You mean, of course, besides the unimaginably beautiful scenery, rugged, untamed, rolling in all directions? And besides being the different one, the outsider, the one who attracts stares and curiosity, the one who is seen as a stereotype...(A "rich" white person.)
So perhaps it's the self discovery, when our givens are questioned. It's not the expected challenges - unsafe drinking water (never brush your teeth without bottled water in the hand not holding the toothbrush), unreliable electricity and internet, and questionable public transport. 
No, I think it's the givens that slip off the wallpaper and come smack us on the nose. Things like the social cues and expectations that we take for granted and others don't. Like being aware of time, for example, and being places "on time." If you say you're going to show up, do it. Say no when you mean no. Offer emotional support when someone is hurting. If you see someone who needs help, give it. These are my givens, and they're not universal.
Children are to be encouraged and praised. They eat first, and if there's not enough, the adults eat a little less. Especially the older adults who aren't as active.  And children do not exist solely to fetch and carry for adults. Not givens. 
The differences in personal space and attitudes towards it.  
And then there are the things that rankle. The women carrying unbelievably heavy loads, often with children on their backs, while the men walk unencumbered. 
The manual labor that in the States is done by machine. 
The time needed for just the basics of life - cooking on wood fires requires fetching and cutting wood and inordinate amounts of scrubbing pots, for example - and doing ALL the laundry by hand, weeding between the rows of maize with hoes or cattle harnessed with ropes around their heads and horns, everyone working in the fields.
It's the patriarchal culture (it occurred to me today that most of the developing countries are patriarchal - makes you wonder about the economic effect of oppressing women, doesn't it?). 
So how do these things make someone want to travel to a developing country? I think it's about not being aware of givens until they are no longer givens. It's more than discovering how others live, it's finding our own beliefs and exposing our own blind spots. And, of course, along with incredible adventures, and self-awareness, such travelers come home with a deep appreciation for all that we have...Michele Templer

My two cents
Traveling in developing countries is worth the trouble because the brain, body, and psyche shift to adapt to the extreme foreignness. Shifting is good. It dissolves complacency. As Michele points out, being in a developing country challenges our "givens".  Such displacement made me rethink everything I thought I knew about religion, money, longevity, discomfort, death and dying, endurance, politics, spirituality, relationships, childhood, nature, animals, generosity, intelligence, curiosity, antiquity, education, health, history and human nature. How's that for a list?

In other words, practically everything is called into question. The world as I thought I knew is not the same world I temporarily inhabited. Travel of any kind makes for a different reality, but Third World travel is in a class by itself.

And then there's the beauty and awe factors, the reasons most people travel to Third World countries. In Uganda, I did not expect wildlife to be a big deal because I have seen pictures of lions and elephants and hippos etc. etc. for decades, and who hasn't?. But the wildlife had me gasping.  I was brought to tears. I now dream of giraffes.

In Nepal, it was the mountains and the landscape that brought me to my knees. And the incredible antiquities in the numerous World Heritage Sites, but also along city streets and in shops.
And, of course, foremost, the wonderful and warm, bright and beautiful people who treated us with incredible kindness and care. Nepalese may be the most welcoming people on earth.

Observing the vitality and resourcefulness and, at times, joy, of the people in both countries humbled me. Could I live as well as they do were I in their circumstances? Could I be as strong? As graceful? Laugh as much?

Like my son Chris said, I hope I don't come off as a "self righteous a-hole too proud of my travel experiences." PK and I agree; we are proud of the wonderful experiences we've had, especially in Nepal and Uganda. The stark differences between our world and the one(s) we're visiting don't make us smug about where we come from. On the contrary, they make us question how much we need and what being "happy" means.
PK says:  Being brought almost to tears by the joy around you, while seeing, at the same time, conditions that might bring despair in our world, make you question what matters. 

Indeed it does. 
And that's why you should "go anyway."

Being a Traveler in Uganda - my favorite post about Africa (tough choice)
Gorilla Tracking 
Chimp Tracking
Rafting the Nile
Bush Camping
Uganda, Best Travel Day Ever (well, tied with first post)
Murchinson Falls National Park Wildlife

Feeling the Love in Nepal
Fear, the the Truth About Ziplines
More posts about Nepal in draft.

More to come about Nepal!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Take Charge of Aging with Yoga! Splits Are a Bonus.

Splits at 70? Not a big deal. Seriously. Not.
Good party trick? Yes.
I'm taking a quick diversion from Nepal stories to expound about something as near and dear to my heart as travel or gardening. That's yoga. I bring this up because of the hubbub created by a recent photo of me on Facebook doing the splits at my surprise 70th birthday party. (Even though I am 69 for another week!)

I fell into the splits at the mere suggestion that I could. And yes, I am having the time of my life, even with the "older than dirt" birthday hat and the blazing candle sunglasses. And even in full-throttle exhibitionism. I should be ashamed, but I'm not.

The reason I can do the splits, touch my toes, do a push-up, hold a plank position for two minutes, put my socks and jeans on standing up, squat to pick weeds, flush airport toilets with my toe, lift heavy casseroles from the oven,  etc. etc. is because I practice yoga. But my point is, I am nothing special!

I've been in a yoga class with many of the same people-of-my-approximate-age for nearly 15 years.  I've seen them become stronger, more flexible and more balanced, the opposite of what might be expected as the years "just roll by like a broken down van" as Bonnie Raitt sang.
Here's Irene, seventy-something, one of about 15 people who show up regularly for a yoga class in Rogue River, the tiny Oregon burg near where PK and I live. Irene is one of five in the class who easily does the splits.  Many others are close.  The oldest class member is 85, with others in their 50s, 60s or 70s.

Yoga is my fitness strategy, my conditioning regime, my mental health fix. If you've never practiced yoga, you may think it's easy, just a bit of stretching, quiet time with your dreamy thoughts and a bunch of  granola chompers ooommmiinng under dim lights. You would be wrong.
Yoga can be physically and mentally demanding. If taken to its edge, it can be the most challenging thing you've ever done. I'm on the front end of yoga even after practicing for close to 20 years, and am grateful to have discovered it, even as I recognize that I know so little. I'm still on the physical side of yoga practice, but I experience at times, a deeper reality. I'm thinking meditative practice may be in my future.

For now, here's how I see it. Yoga poses go from easy to challenging to seemingly impossible (as doing the splits appears to many people). The objective is to be able to hold poses, which may require significant strength, balance, and flexibility, and separate yourself from the discomfort to concentrate on ..... something else. I'm not there yet. But I am able to breathe and sink more deeply into poses. And it feels good and has made me stronger and more confident all around. The same has happened to people in this class of what could now be called Yoga for Seniors! Although the teacher would never call it that because really, it is yoga for all ages and conditions.
Here's Lori Armstrong, a mere 59, easily doing the splits. But then, she IS a former gymnast.
Kay, 70, is SO close! She'll be doing the full splits sometime soon. It took me about FIVE years! And that's something else about yoga. Regular practice is key to everything that requires mastery. It took me years to do the splits, so how long will it take me to open my hips? I need to work harder.
Lyn, 69, is an accomplished yogi and the splits are no prob!
Teacher Denise Elzea, who is about to turn 65, and former student Lucille Sava, 72, who moved away since this photo was taken, are both super flexible and strong. 
Donn-Glenn Harris, 85,  can't do the full splits, although he is close! But he can hold the plank position for a couple minutes and do many other yoga poses. Did I mention he's being treated for cancer and has other daunting health issues? He is also a former martial arts practitioner, which prepared him for yoga when he started practicing with Denise at age 70. What has yoga done for him? He says: It opens me. Aging makes us tight, closed, drawing inward. Yoga expands the joints, the muscles, the heart and the mind. It gives us room to breathe and to be.
This is a relatively simple pose with the idea being to keep a straight line from your back foot to your extended hand. It's more difficult than it looks. Not to name names, but people in this photo have had, within a few months or few years,  brain surgery, lung cancer surgery, and knee replacement surgery. Others in the class have had heart surgery, and/or are being treated for cancer. One man, not pictured, is deaf. Another is a polio survivor, struggling with its cruel aftermath. At our relatively advanced ages, class participants have chosen to defy their bodies regarding whether it's time to throw in the towel. No towels have been discarded!  These yoga practitioners have taken charge of their own aging. 
I've had many yoga teachers, and I love them all, but Denise is the only one whose classes regularly include the splits. I'm grateful to her for keeping this difficult pose in her repertoire because so many of her students have mastered it, or are coming close. It  isn't that doing the splits is the be-all, end-all yoga pose. Not at all. Many poses are far more difficult, in my opinion. And no single pose is the barometer. But she stuck with splits through the YEARS and hence has a bunch of senior citizens who can either do the splits or are on the verge.

The "boat pose" challenges the abdominal and thigh muscles.
Lori doesn't have a tight muscle in her body.
Kay, 70,  can almost do the splits, plus, she has recovered from a frozen shoulder to be able to do this pose and make it look easy! (It isn't.) 
Teacher Denise loves seeing her students progress.  She says: The amazing thing is, most are stronger, more balanced and flexible than they were many years ago.
Denise has a lot to smile about. She started offering yoga classes in Rogue River about 15 years ago. I was there, and remember many classes with just a few students. Sometimes, just me! She hung in there and now has about 25 people who regularly show up, averaging about 15 per class. Perseverance and stamina are yoga objectives, and she has demonstrated both traits physically and mentally.

A You Tube video about a 94-year-old yoga teacher has been making the rounds, and Denise, 65, fully expects to be teaching in 30 years. She announced this to the class, and said, "I expect you all to be here with me." Jim, whose wife is in her early 70s, said, "I'll be here! Rita will bring me in my urn." 

We all collapsed in laughter. That's part of yoga, too. Not taking yourself too seriously and never missing an opportunity to connect with humor.

Yoga for awesome seniors? Absolutely! Fifty or better? Get thee to a yoga class!
Student Donn-Glenn Harris and yoga instructor Denise Elzea.
Yoga opens me. Aging makes us tight, closed, drawing inward. Yoga expands the joints, the muscles, the heart and the mind. It gives us room to breathe and to be. Donn-Glenn Harris, 85.

Another post about aging avoidance: Is 90 the new 70? Ask Pauline.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Feeling the Love at a Government School in Kathmandu, Nepal

This is one of my all-time favorite photos of PK, taken in a situation we could not have imagined. That's the great thing about foreign travel. It is not unusual to end up in a "situation you could not have imagined."In this case, it was our second day in Nepal, and members of our small group were the guests of honor at a school's graduation ceremony, and PK had just been warmly introduced. The ceremony had, in fact, been POSTPONED for four months in anticipation of our visit. Well, not "our" visit, but the visit of one person. That would be Catherine Wood. Going to Nepal with Catherine was kinda like going to Mexico with the Pope. At every place she's touched in Nepal, she and her entourage are treated like royalty. How did this happen? I'll keep the story short, although it spans nearly 14 years. I will say that our most poignant and meaning-packed experiences in Nepal occurred because we were riding on her coattails, errrr, cape. I plan at least one more post about Catherine's work in Nepal.  More "graduation" photos below.
Catherine Wood being greeted at the Bhotechaur Health Clinic, 2014.
Catherine Wood may seem like a typical fun-loving blond with better than average smarts, but she's not at all your standard pretty woman. She's one of a handful of extraordinary people I know personally whose determination, diligence, leadership and love have profoundly changed lives for the better.

In 2002 I accompanied her to Nepal, expanding my world view, and stretching, at that time, my resources. For Catherine, the trip was key for cultivating cross-cultural relationships and laying the groundwork for longterm change. It was her third visit on behalf of the Rogue Gateway Rotary Club in Grants Pass, of which I was a member, to form an alliance with the Rotary Club of Kathmandu to rebuild, as a medical clinic, a crumbling building in a village called Bhotechaur. Our 2002 trip included hiking seven rigorous miles to the village with an architect to take measurements and confer with village leaders.

Catherine tearing up at sunrise atop the clinic this year, in what may be her last trip to Nepal.
In addition to the clinic, Catherine in 2002 was also at the front end of a separate project that began a year earlier when she was captivated by a bright 10-year-old boy named Samip, whose future she could not bear to contemplate if he, like too many Nepali children, didn't get an education. She founded the Bright Futures Foundation, which continued to support the clinic once Rotary funding ended, and also provides, through sponsorships, a top-notch private education to impoverished kids from Kathmandu and nearby villages. To date, six young people have graduated and another 12 are still enrolled at  the Galaxy School of Kathmandu. (More about this in a separate post.)

The year 2002 was also the occasion of a casual visit by Catherine, and incidentally, by me, to a "government school" in the neighborhood where we were staying with a Nepali family. Government schools are supposedly free, although families must purchase uniforms and school supplies. For most children, however, education stops after grade six, and many families can't afford even primary education.

The school principal showed us, with great pride, small dim classrooms with uniformed kids packed together at long tables with few books or other school supplies. At that time, an open trench carried waste from the school's toilets through a tiny playground. That feature is now absent, I was happy to note. This is the school where we attended, with great fanfare, the 2014 graduation.

What the school needed most, Mr. Nepal told us in 2002, was a computer for record keeping. Catherine and I put our heads and dollars together and delivered to Mr. Nepal the school's first computer.

Over the next 12 years, Catherine returned to Nepal annually (at her own expense) to shepherd along the clinic, oversee the sponsored kids in private school, and improve the public school presided over by Mr. Nepal. Through her foundation, the school was provided a computer lab, books and equipment for a science lab, a sound system for the auditorium, and scholarships for 50 girls for one year.

To say that Mr. Nepal and his school community are grateful to Catherine and the Bright Futures Foundation is an understatement. I'll let pictures tell the story.
That's me, overcome with emotion talking with Catherine, who knew what to expect but was still teary-eyed. The moment our small group entered the room, a thunderous roar issued from the students, staff, and parents. It went on and on. I got the seat-of-honor next to Catherine because I was with her the first time she visited the school. Other than that, I was completely unworthy. (Photo credit, PK.)

Bright Futures board member and Michigan resident Polly Hudson reacts to being introduced. Polly is a longtime Bright Futures Foundation board member who has taken a crucial leadership role as Catherine, for family-related reasons, steps away from the helm.

Jeff Bossler, board member and former student sponsor, from the state of Washington, reacts to being introduced. Following our introductions, the graduation ceremony began, and PK and I were stunned to be called up to the stage! Everyone in our group was, in turn, to perform graduation tasks No photos of PK or me, but I was able to capture the emotions when others in our group were called upon so unexpectedly.
 Oregon resident, Kathy Krause, who sponsors a student at the Galaxy School, participates, as we all did, in the graduation ceremony. Her job—bedeck grads with scarves.

After a dozen or so diplomas were handed out, we were treated to
impressive student performances before the ceremony resumed.
Board member and student sponsor, Charla Rolph, left, prepares to apply a bindi, a red dot, to a student's forehead. The bindi is traditional mark in some Asian cultures applied to the middle of the forehead of both women and men . It has multiple meanings, all of them positive.
Another student performance. These two wowed the audience with a Nepalese version of hip-hop
Bonnie Bossler, Orcas Island, Washington,  helps with the scarf detail.

Catherine Wood applies a bindi.

In the audience, beautiful young girls.....
And a beautiful elder,  enjoy the moment.
And like parents and friends everywhere, the phones came out for graduation photos and videos.

Previous posts about Nepal:
Fear, and the Truth About Ziplines