Saturday, June 30, 2012

Travel Tales: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Lesson #1: Always Double-Check Your Tickets and the Schedule

100_3726.jpg by Kathy SterndahlMy girlfriends and I got on the train in Lucca headed for our next destination in Cinque Terre. We had already enjoyed our lunch of pecorino cheese with a bottle of wine and were just watching the scenery go by out the window.
When the view opened up between the mountains, I noticed steeper, taller, more rugged mountains in the distance. I knew right away that something was wrong. There were no mountains that large near Cinque Terre.
I had just begun to explain the problem to my friends when an employee came into the car to check the tickets. I explained in my halting Italian that we were pretty sure that we were on the wrong train. Fortunately, she spoke English and was very understanding, but the only remedy was to get off at the next stop and purchase another set of tickets back to where we had started and then to purchase more tickets to Cinque Terre.

When I traveled in Japan, I made a habit of pointing to the train and stating the name of my destination with a question in my voice. I found that just about everyone understood what I was asking and could tell me yes or no.

When I went to Spain and Portugal, I traveled all day and night from Guadalajara to Madrid. I had the day to enjoy Madrid and got on a train that night for my trip to Lisbon. I had been too excited to sleep on the flight over. That excitement kept me going the whole day in Madrid, but I was ready to sleep when I got on the train. I thought I had booked a bed for the night, but I was wrong. I got to travel all that night sitting up in a hard molded plastic seat.

Lesson #2: Be Prepared for Lost Luggage

My daughter flew from Boise, Idaho, to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, when she was in the fourth grade. She had flown many times, but never alone. The people from Space Camp met all the kids' flights as they came in, so I wasn't worried about her. What we did not expect was that her luggage would not arrive until five days later.
She was a kid, but it could have happened to anyone. Fortunately, I had ordered her a jump suit like the astronauts wear. That was the only thing she had to wear for the next five days. From that time on, I always carry a change of clothes and anything important in a carry-on bag.

Lesson #3: Learn Some of the Local Language

In 1991, we flew to the Soviet Far East, a.k.a. Siberia. It was a new program and the area we visited was not used to having foreign tourists. We were with a guide much of the time, but when we set out on our own, communication was almost not existent. One day we were wandering around when my daughters decided that they had to use the bathroom. We were far from our hotel and could find no signs for a public restroom. I tried asking but no one understood either restroom or bathroom. Finally, I began asking people if they spoke English. Many claimed that they did but no one understood my question.
I didn't give up, though, and and hour later, I finally found a young teen who understood. It turns out that the word I needed was the French pronunciation of toilet. Who knew? I guess I should have. Now I learn at least some basics of the local language when ever I travel.

Lesson #4: Never Carry More Money than You Need

I learned long ago to hide my passport and credit card and cash in a travel wallet well hidden under my clothes. But, of course, that doesn't work for the cash I need for the day. If I dig it out of hiding in public, anyone will know where it is. On our trip to Italy, we kept our personal money hidden but had a kitty that we all put money into whenever it got low. We paid most of our expenses from the kitty. We had just put in more money before we left the hotel in Rome and I was carrying the kitty. I used some of the money to buy metro tickets. The next time I reached for the money, it was gone. I was pretty sure that the guys in line behind us got it and I was very upset. But at least it was only the money for that day.
I see so many people wearing those travel wallets right out in public with the strap around their necks. They obviously don't get it. Everyone around knows exactly where their money is, and all they have to do is grab that strap and tighten it around your neck. Be sure to keep it well hidden out of sight. We often even wear a decoy fanny pack with just a bit of money that we can hand over to anyone who might decide to rob us. We make it seem more real by adding cards that look like credit cards at a glance.

Lesson #5: Learn Something about the Local Customs

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, I had stopped by the market to buy some rice and.fruit for lunch and was planning to have a picnic at a museum a few miles outside of town. As I walked along the road I discovered a Buddhist temple that I hadn't noticed before. Carrying my lunch bag, I went inside and wandered around a bit. Because the monks are not supposed to have anything to do with women, I was surprised when one of them approached me and began talking. I notice that he kept looking down at my lunch bag. That seemed kind of odd and made me feel uncomfortable, so I soon left.
Later, I found out that the monks depend on the local people to bring food to the temple sothey have something to eat. My monk was assuming that I was bringing food to them in my bag. I wished Ihad known because I could have easily taken an extra bag to donate.

Lesson #6: Make a Reservation for Your First and Last Nights

Remember that trip through Madrid to Lisbon? When I finally got to Lisbon that next morning, I didn't have a hotel reservation. I also didn't have a current Lonely Planet or other guidebook to help me find one. (By the way, I also NEVER travel without a current Lonely Planet any more.) It took many hours of wandering from one hotel to the next looking for a place that I could afford and that had a vacancy.
I prefer to travel without too many commitments. I want to have the freedom to change my plans if I find out about a better option. But I've learned that it is best to have a reservation for the first night I arrive and to know how to get there from the airport. Also, I want to make sure that I can get back to the airport easily when it's time to leave the country, so I also make a reservation for that last night. The rest of the time, I take my chances and rely on recommendations from fellow travelers.

And So Much More...

This is getting really long, so I'm going to stop. Just a few more hints from experience:
  • Travel really light, especially if you are on the move. A few coordinated outfits and a bathroom sink can go a long way. (You probably won't see those people again, anyway.)
  • Don't try to cover too much ground. Take the time to get to know a place before you move on.
  • If you get sick in Europe, don't panic. Emergency health care is free. But travel insurance is also a good idea.
  • Don't assume all airports will be open all night. I hurried to be at the Florence airport two hours ahead of schedule, only to find that it didn't open until 45 minutes before the flight. (And I almost decided to check out of my room and spend the short night at the airport!)
I hope these hints will help you to avoid some of the travel mistakes I have made along the way. The main thing for me is that none of my mishaps were serious enough to ruin my vacation.

Thanks for reading this!


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Gratitude = Happiness

A few months ago I ran across this video about gratitude that I keep going back to over and over again.

Exactly what is gratitude, anyway? One definition I found is "a heightened awareness of your connection to everything else."

It really made me think about how everyone and everything on this planet is connected. We all need each other.

I decided to set aside some time at least once a week or so just to remind myself of some of the wonderful things I have in my life and to realize just how lucky I am to be able to experience this life. This makes me focus on the good things in my life and reminds me of all the reasons I have to be happy.

We Are All Connected to Each Other

Just think of the endless list of all the people you are connected to in one way or another:
  • the people who made the materials used to build your house and the people who built it
  • the people who made your furniture, your bedding, your linens, your curtains
  • the people who planted, cared for, and harvested the crops that make the food you eat
  • the people who work in the store where you bought your food
  • the people who made the cars, trains, buses, planes that you use and the people who make them run
  • the doctors and nurses who work to keep us healthy
  • the teachers who teach our children
  • our parents and their parents and everyone who came before us

Show Your Appreciation

Remembering to show your appreciation to as many of these people as possible can go a long way toward sharing these good feelings. We can't really thank everyone personally, but why not "pay it forward" with simple acts of kindness. I know these phrases can be used so often that they lose their meaning, but actually making the effort to make a connection to a stranger can help make both of you feel better than you did before.

Little things done enough times can add a lot of happiness to the world and costs so little. What does it cost to let someone in line in front of you? Or invite someone to merge into traffic in front of you? Hold a door open - for a woman or a man.

In Japan, before eating, the custom is to say itadakimasu, which means "I humbly receive." It is a thank you directed toward the person who prepared the meal but also to everyone who had a hand in growing or making all the ingredients plus to the sun for sharing it's energy, the earth for nourishing the plants and to God or mother nature for making it all happen. Of course the word alone means nothing unless the speaker takes the time to think about what is being said. 

Be sure that you don't take it all for granted or allow yourself to feel entitled. Remember what Joni Mitchell sang, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."


As I was preparing to write this blog post tonight, I ran across something called The Gratitude Experiment. Like 1,537,876 people before me, I signed up to be a part of their experiment. You might want to try it, too. They send 42 short daily emails related to gratitude.

And, finally, check out this post at my favorite blog, Zen Habits, written by Leo Batauta. He has 250,000 subscribers that must agree with what he has to say.

And thank you very much for reading my blog. I appreciate all my readers very much. (I've had some problems with Blogger tonight. I have my fingers crossed that this will come out as I wrote it.)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Gardening in Paradise

I inherited my green thumb from my Grandma Peggy. As a child, I loved to just hang out in her small backyard. I'm not sure what the attraction was, but I suppose it reminded me of The Secret Garden.

As an adult, I've turned every yard I have owned into something special, but it has never been so easy as here in Mexico.

The seasons in the central highlands of Mexico are not what I was used to growing up in the western U.S. Our winter is usually quite dry, while the summer is when the rain comes. The hottest, driest months are mid-April to mid-June. When the rainy season finally arrives in June, it starts with a bang. The plants think it is spring and start growing faster than you can imagine.

Something is blooming in my yard year around, bringing wonderful scents blowing on the breeze that flows through my house. The lime (lemon???) blossoms start with the new year, followed quickly by the Jasmine that is climbing my back wall. When that is almost finished, the Gardenia starts and lasts the entire summer. Then the Jasmine comes back for a second time.

I have some roses and other showy flowers, but I rarely pick them for the house. They last much longer if they stay on the bushes outside, and I can see them just fine from the house.

Instead, I cut bouquets of my herbs and put them in a vase in the kitchen. They add a wonderful smell and I can cut what I need as I cook.

All of the hard work of clearing and planting is over. Weeds are not a problem because there is no room for them to grow.
I just have to trim things back now to prevent them from taking over. I hate to throw the trimmings away because most of them willl grow if they are stuck in some soil, so I give away as much as possible. Sometimes I just hang bags of plants on my front gate with a sign begging people to take them for free.

I also have a large covered patio at the back of the house and three smaller open patios plus the front walkway. In fact, I can see a patio and it's plants from every room in my house. All of them are full of more plants in pots. One of the patios also holds a fountain/fish pond, so we are serenaded with the sound of running water.

When I am working in my garden, it is like a working meditation. One hundred percent of my attention is focused on my plants. I have to set an alarm if I have an appointment because I lose track of time so easily.

I can think of no better way to relax than to lie in my hammock outside and watch the lizard family run along the wall and the butterflies and hummingbirds flying from flower to flower. I can hear the water in the fountain and the birds in the many large trees next door. The scent of the flowers can be overwhelming at times unless I'm nibbling on a leaf of one of my herbs.

Thanks for reading my blog!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Travel Tales: Cuenca to Banos, Ecuador

 Terry and I decided to go to Ecuador a couple of years ago to find out why so many people were considering leaving Mexico to live down there. A good friend and former travel buddy of ours had recently made the move to Cuenca, so we went to visit her.

My first impression was that the thin air at 8300 feet does not agree with my asthma-handicapped lungs. Even Terry complained that he was getting out of breath turning over in bed. I managed okay as long as no one expected me to walk very fast.

Second impression: it is really cold in Cuenca! Since the equator runs through Ecuador, we just never expected to to be that cold. Somehow, it hadn't registered in our heads that all the pictures that Regina posted online showed everyone wearing double layers, jackets, hats, and scarves. I bought a hat and gloves and then we got by wearing most of our clothes all at the same time!

Cuenca is a huge city and it has some very pretty scenery. My favorite place was the cathedral, just a few blocks from our hotel. We never got to go inside, but the architecture was wonderful from the outside. Every time we approached it from a new direction, I had my camera out again.

Even though I get to see markets overflowing with fresh produce every day in Mexico, I can never get enough of it. This market in Riobamba had multiple types of just about every kind of fruit and veggie. I can see six different kinds of bananas in this photo. The red ones at the center are fantastic! 

We were now at 9,023 feet, but I was getting just a tiny bit used to it.

When we left Riobamba, our bus took us over the flanks of the Volcano Cotopaxi, which was erupting right then. Because the lava was running over the usual road to Banos, the bus had to take a detour, but the scenery was so beautiful that we didn't even care.  (It was a little spooky, though, that the clouds were covering the top so we couldn't see what was going on so near.)

The volcanic soil is very fertile and the volcano gets lots of rain, so it looked just like a huge green patchwork quilt had been spread over it.

A bit further on, we saw farms that almost made me want to  move there to have one. One place in particular must have had 16 to 20 different fruit trees with vegetables planted in between. 

I could just picture walking out of my house and down the hill a bit to pick my fresh produce for the day. I came to my senses when I remembered that I would have to walk back up the hill to return to my house. Maybe I could hire an indigenous family to tend the crops and bring me a "variety box" every day. Wait a minute - I guess I could arrange that in Portland without having to buy the land or hire the family. 

Once we got around the volcano, we arrived in the town of Banos. At 5900', Banos isn't too much higher than my home in Chapala. It sits in a steep-sided valley with farms running up both sides. Most of these farms are so steep that they have to be worked by hand. I can't even imagine walking from my home in the valley to my field at the top of the hillside, let alone plowing or whatever while I was up there.

Banos is famous for its hot springs, so many people, both Ecuadoran and tourists, go there to enjoy the hot water. It also has many waterfalls falling down those steep mountains.

I really liked the built-in wash tubs just below one of the hot springs in Banos. Each "sink" has a pipe with running water and a drain in the bottom. They plugged the drains with rags or wads of paper and also stopped the water flow the same way. Unfortunately, they still have to carry the wet heavy clothes home to hang them up to dry.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012


Yoga is part philosophy, part spiritual, and part science. It is not a religion; Yoga's followers come from every religious belief, including atheism. Sixteen million Americans were practicing Yoga last year.

What is Yoga all about?

There are four different "paths" of Yoga. Karma Yoga focuses on selfless service. Jhana Yoga is more philosophical. Bhakti Yoga is devotional and includes chanting, mantras, and prayer. Raja Yoga is more scientific and health oriented, focusing on concentration, mind control, maintaining a healthy body and good posture, and regulating the breath.

Hatha Yoga, a type of Raja Yoga, is the most popular in the US, but there are many different popular styles of Hatha Yoga. It seems like every studio has developed its own style. These are some of the most popular:
  • Hatha Yoga is generally slow-paced and gentle
  • Vinyasa matches movement to the breath
  • Ashtanga, Power, or Flow Yoga is very physically demanding - aerobic yoga
  • Iyengar focuses on holding poses for long periods of time
  • Kundalini emphasizes breathing in conjunction with movement
  • Bikram, or Hot Yoga is practiced in a studio at 95 to 100 degrees F
  • Viniyoga is adapted to the abilities of each student

What Yoga Really Is

Many people think of Yoga as a bunch of very limber people twisting their bodies in all kinds of impossible poses. Actually, most of the asanas can be adapted for people of all abilities, but that's only one part of Yoga.

Asanas - The different positions are designed to work the entire body. The stretches keep the spine and all of the joints flexible. Because they are a weight-bearing exercise, they help to strengthen bones and muscles. Many of the asanas aim at improving balance, minimizing the chance of falling.

Meditation - An estimated 20 million Americans meditate regularly. Meditation can involve repeating a mantra or focusing on healing a part of your body, or even just your breath. It allows your brain to take a break from daily stress and multi-tasking. Meditation helps maintain brain cells and preserves memory function.

Breathing - Deep breathing improves lung capacity, which can improve endurance. Slow, deep breathing stimulates the release of oxytocin, causing a relaxation response and leading to less stress, a better ability to focus, and a happier mood.

Vegetarian Diet - Many people who practice Yoga follow a vegetarian diet, mainly because it is more humane. They believe in eating to live rather than living to eat. According to "Yoga, Body and Mind" from the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center, "The human body needs food for two purposes - fuel for energy and as raw material to repair itself." In addition to avoiding meat, it is recommended that we eat mindfully: eat slowly, savoring your food; eat only enough to curb your hunger; maintain a peaceful attitude while eating; and show appreciation to everyone and everything involved in the production of the food.

Why Do You Need Yoga?

So why should you consider doing yoga at this stage of your life? Yoga has been proven to improve the health of its practioners in many ways. For those of us at or nearing retirement age, our bodies have already been on a downhill slope for quite a few years. But it is not too late to make some changes.

Think of what Yoga can do for you. Increased flexibility means you can bend over to pick up a golf ball, work in the garden, or get something out of the bottom drawer. Stronger muscles and bones let you stay more active, and reduce your chance of injury. Improved balance lessens your chances of falling and breaking a hip or other bones. Reduced stress lowers blood pressure, improves mental function and strengthens the immune system. Improved breathing and blood circulation help ward off many of the denerative diseases that slow people down as they age.

Give Yoga a Try

Yoga is not an "all-or-nothing" thing. Each and every small step you make in the right direction will improve your well-being. Chech your local phonebook or the internet for a beginning Yoga class near you. Or go to your local library to check out a DVD or book for beginners. My favorite teacher/author for beginners is Rodney Yee.

One last piece of advice - don't overdo it! Take it a little bit at a time. Make changes in small steps. Avoid injuries that might force you to stop before you even get started. Every little bit counts!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Success: Is it Luck or Hard Work?

Will you succeed? Yes you will indeed!
Ninety-nine and three-quarters percent guaranteed!
                                             - Dr. Seuss

It's Luck

I've heard people say that successful people got that way because they were lucky. They just happened to be in the right place at the right time. There might be something to that, at least for some successful people, but I doubt it happens very often.

Over the years I have known a few quilters who, frankly, made quite unremarkable quilts, yet, somehow, they became quite famous in the field. I've always wondered how that happened. What did they do differently than the many other quilters out there who were much more skillful but rarely noticed? I don't have an answer to this question, but I suspect that they must have just known the right people in the right places.

Maybe It's Positive Thinking

Richard Wiseman, Ph.D., author of The Luck Factor, claims, "Luck is determined by your attitude toward life, by what you put out into the universe and how you respond to the results."

To me, this means that a person has to be ready and willing to drop everything and take the plunge when an opportunity presents itself. Sometimes, the opportunity that comes along isn't even what you were looking for. Do you turn it down and hope it find exactly what you expected or do you go for it?  

A positive person, someone who sees the bright side of life, is more likely to notice the opportunities that come their way and quickly act to take advantage of them. An optimistic person expects success. They are always watching for anything that can help them reach their goal.

A person who is negative is less likely to expect success. They may not even notice an opportunity if it was right in front of them. They let it pass them by and then complain that nothing good ever happens to them.

Hard Work?

But maybe there is more to it, according to Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point. He points out that many successful people have really worked very hard to get where they are.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both worked many years before they were successful. They were obsessed with computers from the time they were teenagers. They did almost nothing else.

The Beatles took jobs that required them to play for hours and hours at a time, seven days a week (maybe even eight?) They had to have a huge list of songs they could play. It wasn't as if they were practicing in the garage for a few hours after school.

Gladwell says that the "Tipping Point" seems to be right around 10,000 hours of work. He points out that many very famous people all busted their butts to earn their success. They worked for years to achieve their dreams. And they never gave up.


I think the secret is to make a plan and stick to it. Here is a list of things that should help make your dreams come true, whatever they might be:
  • Define your goal. Think about what exactly you want to achieve. Become an artist? Retire early? Move to Italy?
  • Believe in yourself. Remember that just about anything is possible. One step at a time. Start small and work yourself up to the harder stuff.
  • Get educated. Study it until you know it well. Learn as much as you can. Practice, practice, practice.
  • Intention. Put yourself out there. Let people know what you want. Network. Who knows where that opportunity might come from?
  • Visualize success. Imagine yourself doing whatever it is you are reaching for. Watch for opportunities.
  • Persistance. Don't give up. Don't let fear of failure keep you back. What's the worse that can happen? Have a Plan B.
  • Be ready for whatever comes your way. Take chances. Go with the flow; there may be more than one way to get there.

And most of all... Good Luck!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Travel Tales: May in Florida

I thought I had my blog all under control before we left on vacation. I had pre-written quite a few posts and planned to add some smaller updates from my iPod Touch while we traveled. It turned out that things didn't go quite as smoothly as I'd hoped because I rarely had internet connections and the updates didn't work very well.

Now that we are back, I'll get everything back to normal as soon as possible. In the meantime, I'll tell you about our trip.

Pelican waiting for a handout
Terry and I spent the month of May visiting family and friends on the gulf coast of Florida. He and his brother entered an overnight Redfish tournament that first weekend. They didn't catch anything keepable but we had a good time hanging out in Homosassa.

I had a new camera to play with and the birds seemed to be posing for me. This pelican was hanging out by the cleaning station and refused to let anyone else come around to share.

Monkey Island at Homosass

Homosassa is a spring-fed river with beautiful mansions on its banks. The island in the middle is home to a bunch of monkeys that are well fed by a boat that heads out there quite a few times a day.

The building at the right in the photo is a great restaurant that served the only vegetarian meal I saw on the entire trip. It seemed like everywhere we went specialized in breaded and deep-fried everything as long as it wasn't a vegetable. Not ideal for a vegetarian!

The Super Moon
The "Super Moon" looked pretty nice from where we watched that night. I hope you all saw it, too.

We spent the middle of the next week just hanging out with Terry's father at his home in Citrus Springs.

It's like Christmas for us because we order all kinds of stuff through the internet and it's all waiting for us when we arrive. Terry has boxes and boxes of new fishing equipment and I bought a new computer and new camera.

The Suwannee River from our deck
The next weekend we drove north to the Suwannee River where we got to stay in a mobile home on stilts overlooking the water. We stayed there for two nights and spent our days exploring the Suwannee and some of the many springs that feed it.

The springs are everywhere. The water all comes out of the ground at 72 degrees and is amazingly crystal clear. Unfortunately, they haven't had much rain and all the rivers are very low.

Suwannee River spring
We took the boat up one spring-fed river that was so shallow that we had to pull up the motor and Terry's brother got out and walked the boat up to where the water came out of the ground.

It's kind of hard to see in the photo because the sun is reflecting off the surface of the water, but that dark hole in the center of the spring seemed like it was about 20 feet deep. That's where the main source of the water was. I think it would be pretty cool (pun intended) to snorkel here.

Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge
Our next adventure was a day at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. We put the boat in at a ramp near the main spring that feeds the river. Unfortunately, the tides were not in our favor so we had to be very careful so we didn't tear up the under-water grass with our propeller or hit the bottom. The river was already low and the tide dropped fast as we headed toward the Gulf of Mexico. 

It was so peaceful there. We saw only a few boats and all were going as slowly and carefully as we were.  And, most important, no airboat were allowed!

Sunning (and smiling) alligator
I took lots of pictures of birds as we traveled, but my favorite is this alligator that was sunning itself on the bank. I hope you can see him right in the center of the shot. I thought it was nice of him to lift up his head and smile for me.

We followed the river almost to the gulf and then stopped for a picnic lunch at a "rest stop" on an island. As we neared the gulf, there were a few houses along the banks - some beautiful but most quite rustic. I don't think I'd want to be in one during a hurricane.

Chassahowitzka spring-fed river
We tried to follow another river to a different spring on our way back in, but even though the tide had come back in, the river was still too low to take the boat any farther. Most of the other people on the river were in kayaks or canoes.

Too bad my camera didn't have the polarized sunglasses we had - the water was so clear that we could see every grain of sand and leaf of grass or plants on the bottom.

After three wonderful weeks with Terry's dad and his brother's family, we said our goodbyes and moved down the coast to Dunedin to visit Roger and Mickie, Terry's best friends from high school in Califon, New Jersey.

My weirdly distorted legs and feet standing in the Atlantic
Together, we all traveled to St. Augustine on Florida's northeast coast. Fortunately, we got there and back before the hurricane moved in.

I am from the western US, and although I have visited New England, I had never actually "set foot" in the Atlantic Ocean, so I got to cross that off my bucket list.

It was strange, though, to be standing facing the ocean while the sun was setting behind me. It just didn't seem natural!

About the time we got back to Dunedin on the gulf coast, the hurricane decided to cruise on up the other coast. The air got real hot and somehow "thick" so it seemed hard to breathe, but soon the winds kicked up and the air went back to normal. We had a pretty thick cloud cover for most of the rest of our trip but it didn't really cause us any problems. The sunsets, though, were absolutely amazing!