Monday, June 5, 2017

Warning! This Island Can Be Hazardous To Your Health!

Wait! That title sounds awfully familiar. I'm experiencing that creepy sense of deja vu.  In fact, I remember writing a previous blog post with a similar name. What gives???

What gives is that authoring a blog called Amber Jones Adventures requires a certain amount of, to put it bluntly, adventuresomeness. Excitement. Risk. I can't expect to retain my reputation--and readers--with only a few days of sandy beaches and blissed-out Downward Dogs.

In New Zealand, I solved that problem with paragliding. In Hawaii last week, I noted plenty of opportunities to risk life and limb.
The most challenging activities on the Big Island are probably 1) jumping off the high cliff at South Point into the sea, and 2) hiking at the foot of Kilauea volcano in search of fresh lava that burns your boots and swallows small mammals (and occasionally people). But hey, I did those 18 years ago, on my first trip to the Big Island. I needed a fresh challenge.

Fortunately for me, even beautiful Hawaiian beaches pose a few risks: sharp coral, rip tides, overpowering currents, and stinging jellyfish.
Behind the signs, Hapuna Beach beckons--a luxuriously long expanse of pure white sand on the Big Island. On the beach, I encountered preparations under way for a half Ironman.
Dozens of athletes were in the water, braving the risky conditions to train. Naturally, I dove in and joined the pack, prepared to wrestle with a deadly undertow. While the 20- and 30-year-olds prepared for their 70-mile bike ride, 13-mile run, and one-mile swim, though, I conked out after only a half mile in the water, and the currents failed to sweep me away. The worst thing that happened--I am sorry to report--was bruising my toe on a small piece of coral.

The next beach offered a more inviting scenario for adventure. The black-sand beach at the bottom of Waipi'o Canyon is a long way from civilization and can be accessed only by a hike down a steep cliff. Swim at your own risk; the surf is strong, there are no lifeguards, and an ambulance can't negotiate the four-wheel-drive trail.
Imagine my consternation when I returned from a walk on this lonely, remote beach and couldn't find my friend Sally! (Finally, an adventure...?) I knew she had gone in the water--alone. I searched for clues, and found the wet rock where she had been sitting, just 10 minutes earlier.
I frantically scanned the water, prepared to swim out and perform barely-remembered, convoluted life-saving maneuvers. Suddenly I heard a voice behind me, emerging from the woods. It was Sally; everything was fine. (Shucks.)
Onward, to the next potential adventure: the botanical gardens, At first glance, these lush, overgrown acres appear benign. Aside from allergies, how can a bunch of exotic tropical flowers hurt you?
Ah! But this garden has its share of both pretty flowers and lurking danger. Turn the corner--and watch your head, lest you be crushed by a shower of falling mangoes or coconuts!
Alas, nothing hit me on the head at the gardens, though I did get a few mosquito bites. (Risk of dengue fever...?)

On the plus side, adventure-wise, the resident volcano, Kilauea, continues to spew fresh burning lava, the most recent eruption getting well under way by 2008 and continuing as recently as April 2017. You can view a recent lava flow here.

The Big Island is built of lava. In some places, the lava is old and gray, sprinkled with soil, and plants have taken hold. In other places, the roads cut through massive fields of recent black lava flows.
Hazardous, right? You know the island poses some serious health and safety risks when the airport is located next to the volcano.
Alas, I was unable to stay on the Big Island long enough to search out the latest red-hot lava on which to test my mettle--and burn my fingers and toes. I had a plane to catch.

With the limited time I had left, I had to settle for a lesser challenge--battling the wind. Remember, wind is my nemesis! On the Big Island, there is plenty of it--easily enough to knock me off the edge of the cliff at the edge of Pololu Canyon.
Once again, however, I avoided the worst. Posing for photographs on the upper rim of the canyon, I felt the wind in my hair, right back in the car, without mishap.
As you can see, the potential for exciting adventure abounds on the Big Island. For once, however, I managed to avoid it, enduring an entire week of boring, safe vacationing with little harm to life, limb or spirit.

In fact, the biggest risk, for me, of vacationing on the Big Island might be the risk of falling in love with it and wanting to move. Now that could cause some serious consternation!

Yoga in Hawaii: Ah, Sweet Bliss!

To all those doubters out there who (based on this blog) think that Amber Jones never takes a NORMAL vacation, that every trip has to be a wild and crazy ADVENTURE: Not true! Last week, I took a normal vacation.

Well, almost.

I signed up for a Yoga in Daily Life retreat on the Big Island of Hawaii. We stayed at a remote lodge festooned with flowers and geckos, overlooking the sea. What could be more paradisaical than that? (Detroiters: note the make of our rented wheels!)

The encouragement to relax and enjoy your vacation begins at the airport, with welcoming displays of flowers and women who, hour after hour, day after day, calmly and methodically sew strings of flowers into beautiful leis.
The island is ideal for yoga. For five days I meditated at sunrise, performed asanas (yoga exercises and postures) on the lanai (porch), ate delicious vegetarian food, watched sunsets, relaxed, blissed out. Pretty darn close to normal, right?
The most exciting moments were encountering the dishes prepared by our hired chef, a local Hawaiian with a taste for mystery and creativity. We encountered poi, a local (and somewhat distateful) dish made of taro; Thai spring rolls; Morrocan chickpea stew; and delicious, ripe mangoes and papayas.
At the conclusion of the retreat, I felt...cheerful! Relaxed! Even blissful! (Those who know me well know how rare that is.) With a few vacation days left, however, I felt compelled to recapture my true nature by attempting some amazing feats, starting with...beach-going and sightseeing. Not terribly adventurous, but worthy of a few qualms in the pit of the stomach, given the local cautions.
The island abounds with opportunities for danger and intrigue: Getting caught in a rip tide. Probing the massive black lava fields for fresh, hot lava flows that burn your boots and swallow small mammals. Jumping off cliffs into the sea. Helicopter tours.

Being a responsible senior citizen now that I have topped 60+, however, I opted for easier stuff--way at the bottom of the adventure scale, despite the signs. Swimming and sunbathing with my friend and fellow yoga practitioner Sally S. at stunning beaches. Attending a luau with Sally and her husband.
Moving slightly to the right on the adventure scale, Sally and I undertook a semi-strenuous hike down a 25-degree slope to a black-sand beach in the Waipi'o Valley. Worth every aching ligament and twinge in the kneecap! The views were stunning, the water warm and clear, the fine black sand sublime.
Next we drove over to the local seahorse factory and--at great risk of wrinkled fingers!--stuck our hands into a salt-water tank to hold the nimble creatures. This commercial farm aims to reduce and replace ocean harvesting of seahorses for the pet trade, by producing them on shore instead. 
Moving a bit further to the right, the three of us boarded an inflatable boat to go snorkeling at Honaunau (also known as Place of Refuge and Two-Step). I snorkeled there 18 years ago in the company of locals, before the Age of Internet allowed its charms to be broadcast to the world. At that time, it was deserted. I saw walls of colorful coral intertwined with fish and came face-to-face with a giant sea turtle. Best of all, I swam with a pod of wild dolphins. Talk about adventure! As the dolphins glided past me, their fins inches from my midriff, I was sure I was going to become sliced meat. Shark bait.

This time, the excitement was way down the scale. Our boat captain sped us a mile or so out to sea to cavort with a pod of pilot whales. We had to stay in the boat.
At Honaunau, the reef was less colorful, the fish less plentiful than my previous time. Like reefs around the world, this one is succumbing to global warming, ocean acidification, and overfishing. I saw a couple of innocent-looking needlefish (but--their long sharp noses have been known to poke holes in boats and eyes!), a baby sea turtle, and a small reef shark. Best of all were the schools of vibrantly colored yellow, blue, turquoise and orange reef fish, with names like threadfin butterflyfish, Picasso triggerfish, and yellow tang.
(Fish photos from Internet sources)
Finally, the riskiest adventure of all: I boarded a plane, turning over the Mustang keys to Sally and her husband. As I climbed into unsettling thermals, headed for the mainland, they set out to continue our Big Island adventure--with tours of astronomy observatories, volcanic craters, and lava fields.

Not one to settle for too much cheerful tranquility for too long, however, I vowed to Sally that I would present to my blog readers both the pros and cons of a Big Island vacation--the opportunities for blissful, calm, normal vacation activities (as noted above) and the opportunities for wild and crazy adventures that are sure to ruin your day. For more on the latter subject, see the following blog post.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Yoga in Cuba--Who Would Have Guessed?!

Of all the places in the world where I could practice yoga and spend time with my esteemed spiritual master, I chose Cuba. Thanks to President Obama, the US relationship with Cuba has brightened, and some travel is now permitted.

The US Department of Treasury's website, question 11, describes the change: "OFAC has issued a general license that incorporates prior specific licensing policy and authorizes, subject to conditions, travel-related transactions and other transactions that are directly incident (sic) to people-to-people educational activities." Easy to understand, right? Um, no.

I looked up the Code of Federal Regulations, 31CFR §515.565(b), seeking greater enlightenment. Despite the fact that several friends recently returned from visits that sounded more like tourism than educational activities, I wanted to to make sure I wouldn't be hauled off to jail or, worse, interrogated in a bare room with one-way mirrors--in Spanish.

Satisfied that I would be honoring the letter as well as the spirit of the law, I flew to Holguin, a city in eastern Cuba that most Americans have never heard of. JetBlue handled the sticky details: medical insurance, visa at the airport in Florida, departure tax.

My reason for travel: meeting Cuban yoga practitioners, supporting the Yoga in Daily Life (YIDL) center in Holguin, and participating in the visit of YIDL's founder and leader, Parahams Swami Maheshwarananda. Many of you know of my involvement with this international, humanitarian organization that does much more than just teach yoga classes.

Some highlights of the week:

The City.  Holguin is a small working-class city of down-to-earth, enterprising people. If you peer beyond the brightly painted buildings on the main square, grit and disrepair are standard. Money and jobs are scarce.
The people are spirited, energetic, and resourceful. They find ways to make money, such as our AirBnB hostess Maria, who not only rents rooms but manages a band and takes other odd jobs. Three of us from the US shared her comfortable apartment with hot shower and real flush toilets (which were not everywhere...). She showed us around and helped us solve every problem!

The food markets are poorly stocked -- chickens from China, corn meal, liquor, and packaged crackers and cookies. However, lots of fruit and vegetables are sold from horse-drawn and bicycle-drawn carts.

People line up by the dozens at the ice cream shop and the shoe shop. Regardless of economic circumstances, stylish shoes are important in Holguin.

Unlike the photos of classic cars in Havana at the other end of the country, transportation in Holguin is mainly on foot and by bicycle and horse.

There are dozens of bike taxis. And here we are traveling downtown in a horse taxi.
A few old American cars hang out in the town square, mostly taxis. We paid less than a dollar for a horse taxi across town, and $50 for a four-hour excursion in an old Ford.

The Official Visit.  In honor of Swami Maheshwarananda's visit, the local cultural center organized a superb program of entertainment and talks. Local musical groups and a children's chorus entertained our yoga master. In addition to Cuban songs, the children learned and sang YIDL spiritual songs--in the Sanskrit language--just for him! The children also performed a skit from the Ramayana, the ancient holy book of India.

The Yoga Center. In Holguin, the beautiful orange yoga center stands out in an otherwise decaying neighborhood.
Inside the center, dedicated yoga students and teachers greeted the master and sang spiritual songs. In return, he delivered spiritual lessons and lectured about being disciplined in our practice.
Outside the yoga center, our group planted a peace tree in the city's botanical garden and enjoyed a respite under a shade tree.
I joined five other European and North American participants in renting a taxi--a Lada, one of the old cars in Holguin--to travel to the botanical garden. I found out later that most of the Cuban yoga students hadn't shown up because of lack of transportation and the money to hire a taxi.
Twelve teacher trainees, who studied very hard for many months, took the difficult, 4-hour exam for certification as a YIDL teacher. I served as exam monitor, sweltering in the heat of a school classroom while they labored over the written test.
The Music. Besides the official program, we enjoyed various forms of music. We decided to forgo the nightclubs and cultural concerts, which all seemed to start after 11 pm. However, flamenco guitarist Jose, a close friend of our AirBnB hostess, regaled us in our kitchen.

On the street, I asked a strolling mariachi band to play for me. I gave them a huge tip, which caused genuine astonishment--possibly because Holguin is not a tourist town...?
In the town square, two young ladies waiting for the disco to open at 11 pm practiced their English with me and bought me roasted peanuts for about a dollar. Knowing the economic hardship of many residents, I offered to reimburse them, and they gratefully accepted.
The Tourist Experience. Though it wasn't my primary goal, I squeezed a little sightseeing into our yoga-centered week. Two of us hired an old red Ford for a hot, bumpy ride to the bleak, forgotten seaside town of Gibara, with its faded pastel buildings and dusty, worn natural history museum.

Next we slowly lurched down a rutted dirt road for 18 kilometers to the bleak, barren beach at Calentone, featuring a few rustic seaside shacks. A bit disappointing, though we did swim briefly. The Ford's cushy leather bench seats made the trip tolerable--despite the lack of air conditioning.
We made our way back to the airport in the Lada we had rented earlier, complete with broken door handles, ripped upholstery, and an English-speaking driver (formerly a schoolteacher, he found he could make more money as a taxi driver). We paused on the Hill of the Cross to drink in the sunshine one more time and gaze fondly over the site of our Cuban experience.

Note: More on our visit to Cuba is recorded in two articles I wrote for the international YIDL website here and here.