Tuesday, October 6, 2015

From the Danube to the David

I may have died and gone to heaven. I just ate the most delicious, hearty, whole-grain bread I've ever tasted in my life, on the way to Vienna airport.

It surpasses my previous all-time favorite, genuine Irish brown bread (available only in Ireland; not those wimpy imitations in Irish-American pubs).

I will never forget October 2015 in Austria for the world peace conference, time with my guru, and brown bread. 

Onward now for the second leg of my journey: flight to Florence, Italy, where I am only passing through to meet my friend Becky further south. Will pause long enough to drink in the graceful milky curves of Michelangelo's David. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Yoga: A Path to World Peace

I don't believe in taking ordinary vacations. Just ask Pope, who is always trying to get me to do the usual things (like sailing across the ocean to Cuba...).
This time, I travelled to Vienna, Austria, to participate in a world peace conference at the United Nations.

I often travel for Yoga in Daily Life events. Ours is not an ordinary American-style yoga center a la fitness classes operating under the yoga umbrella. We are an international spiritual and humanitarian organization with a living guru descended from a long line of gurus.

Some of you may remember my journey to the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago. I accompanied Swami Maheshwarananda, who is my personal guru and the founder of my yoga system, Yoga in Daily Life; at that conference, I supported him with public relations work.

Read about Swami Maheshwarananda's formal title and accomplishments here:

He is also the founder of a world peace council, and succeeded in lobbying the United Nations in Vienna, Austria to host an NGO (non-governmental organization) conference--the first NGO event held under that roof, apparently, so quite a coup. The conference theme was "Yoga: A Path to Peace," i.e., inner peace leads to outer peace and, on a large scale, can change the world. Official description of the conference here:

The official event occurred on a Friday. The unofficial conference activities continued over the weekend with a seminar in Strilky, in the Czech Republic, where Swami Maheshwarananda, 800 Yoga in Daily Life practitioners, a few of the conference speakers, and VIPs from India gathered at a large, rambling manor house, undoubtedly of a former aristocrat or lord, now converted into a large, rambling ashram. 

It is a beautiful setting, with apple trees, an organic garden, trees, and dorm rooms in the converted manor house. Yoga and meditation seminars are held here frequently.

At the seminars, Swami Maheshwarananda leads us in practicing meditation and asanas and imparts wisdom, spiritual knowledge, and advice for a happy, healthy life.

On this occasion, we also heard from speakers on the scientific research on yoga and meditation, the global requirements for reducing conflict and achieving peace, and the relationships between religions.  

As the only US delegate, I spoke to the audience about the popularity of non-traditional yoga in the United States, its entry into the White House via Michelle Obama, and how yoga practitioners in the US can help to promote peace.

Sunday afternoon many of us returned to Vienna via carpools, and I am now ensconced in the Vienna ashram, discussing the future of the world with Swami Maheshwarananda; practicing asanas with Slovenians, Slovakians, Austrians, and others; and washing dishes.
After four intense days serving my guru, his cause, and his ashrams, practicing yoga and meditation, and rushing around, I claimed a need for a break and today headed out for a few hours to see the glitz and glamour of Vienna.
To my surprise, news of my impending arrival had preceded me, and the city had rolled out the welcome mat.
I went out of my way to see the mighty Danube before heading back to the ashram to again leave the outer world outside and re-immerse in the inner world. The only downside of the day's journey: my brand-new mini tablet computer was lost, probably stolen out of my backpack on the subway or when I was busy looking at golden statues or elaborately carved facades.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Welcome to London

Ah, Heathrow. Where else can you whittle away half your life connecting to a flight in a different terminal? Not as long this time (1-1/2 hours, including 47 minutes of walking and a 17-minute bus ride) as last time (3-1/2 hours, including a     1-hour wait trapped in an underground lobby waiting for a bus to the other terminal, and TWO security checkpoints after that; throw that Evian you purchased for $3.39 at Dulles right down the drain). 

Ah, Heathrow. Where else can you walk for half an hour without finding a restroom?
Only ten more minutes when you spot this sign! How do the elderly and infirm survive airports?

Heathrow is a shopper's haven--if you want to plunk down big bucks. Where else can you buy diamond earrings and watches between planes? 
Well, maybe Paris or Singapore.

Still an hour to wait after finally wending my winding way to Terminal 3. Try in some Gucci shades, anyone?

Or just find a comfortable spot to rest the knees and ponder the indignities of flying. And massage the black circles left over from a too-brief nap on the overnight flight.
British Airways is a dream compared to US airlines. Leg room, smiling attendants, and a mini toothbrush on every seat. I had a whole row to myself.

But. The armrests don't go up all the way!
So walk the endless halls of Heathrow, gazing longingly at the door to the World Club Lounge, settling for the crowded waiting room designated for the poor and hungry, wishing mightily for a quiet room and Serta Comfort Rest.

Ah, Heathrow. First leg complete.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Still Blue Maryland Morning

Climb aboard! Pope has toiled every day to fix and clean and upgrade Echo II. Time to test 'er out on another exciting adventure on Chesapeake Bay.
Two weeks ago, I survived an overnight sail across the bay to meet up and raft up with the Annapolis Sailing Club. Blessings: breeze, not too hot, no rain, few mosquitoes, potluck on shore, friendly crowd.
This week, we headed up the western shore to visit old friends who inhabit an island paradise north of the Bay Bridge.
Conditions were perfect for a gentle sail with Pope's favorite toy--an asymmetrical spinnaker. 

As per our usual pattern, Pope sailed/drove while I napped (or meditated or read or did crossword puzzles or prepared lunch).
We docked at Gibson Island Yacht Squadron, a private club tucked into a cove of the Magotjy River, which has the cleanest facilities on the east coast
Headed up the hill on the lovingly tended island to visit our friends the Hopkins at their impressive estate overlooking the Bay.

After an evening of fun and frolic--actually an amazing dinner and heated discussion about the Republican debate, influenced by too many Planters Punches--stumbled back to the dock to be rocked to sleep.
On waters becalmed by still blue skies, motored out to the Bay and steered for home. A pleasant breeze in the afternoon allowed us to complete the journey under respectable full sail.

To Pope's astonishment, I enjoyed the sail.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A Clear Blue North Carolina Day

It ain't France. It ain't the Bahamas. But, friends, it's a lovely week here in the Outer Banks--warm but dry, with blue skies, drifting clouds, gentle breeze, warmer-than-normal ocean temperature of 79 degrees.
Yesterday I tested my inflatable "boogie board," surfing the waves as they crested over the sandbar 50 yards offshore. Again and again I rode the surf to shore on my bright yellow surface-submarine, exhilarating in each successful run.
Then, as the waves calmed, settled into a comfy beach chair with a good book: "Nineteen Minutes" by Jodi Piccoult.
I am staying in the Barrier Island Station resort in Duck, North Carolina, as I have done almost every September for more than 20 years. There was a lively crowd here until Wednesday, two days after Labor Day, when 90 packed up their SUVs and left. Back to work? Kids back to school? Or just the threat of impending thunderstorms?  In the end, it only rained for a few hours during the night.

Now there's only a smattering of beachgoers, me, two pelicans, and the mighty ocean. A fisherman yesterday mentioned seeing a fin in the water. So today, with few people around and no lifeguard, I skip the swimming, and walk the beach.
It takes me 2 1/2 minutes to walk from the apartment over the sand dunes to the ocean--375 steps. It's 20 minutes to the Corps of Engineers' research pier and back, gripping the sand with each step.
The sand is warm, soft. I revel in the chance to feel wind on my face and walk among willets and sandpipers. Beige, almost-transparent sand crabs scatter like flies on a picnic table when you wave your hand. I search the piles of gravel for whole scallop shells that survived the pounding of the surf. Dig in my toes and let the saltwater wash over them.
Late this afternoon, a troupe of dolphins put on a show. Act I: a dozen or more, feeding offshore, gracefully arcing over the chop, the setting sun glinting off their fins. Occasionally a mad dash across the surface, throwing up spray--predator or prey? Could this be what the fisherman saw?
Act II: "splooshing" awkwardly over the sandbar into the deep trough closer to shore. So close. The small crowd of spectators somehow swells--how? Did they hear about it on the radio? 

Act III: a more violent feeding frenzy. Groups of dolphins now, thrashing hard. Broaching the surface in pairs, nipping perhaps, tangling in each other's tails. Competing? 
The curtain falls. Sunset.
One more day in this seaside paradise before my return to the hustle and bustle of home. Go gently, mighty ocean. Go gently, and grace other shores.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Swimming for Dear Life

I swam 50 lengths today, in the public pool near my house. I love to swim. Clears my head. Helps me stay fit. Mostly, though, I swim for survival.

I used to think that drowning would be a horrible death, partly because I had heard it was incredibly painful. This myth has been debunked by science; the pain is all mental, not physical.

Now that I've been on a sailboat, out of sight of land, I have a clearer perspective.

Now I believe that, if swept overboard, immediate drowning may be far preferable than being tossed into the maelstrom of the deep blue alive, fully conscious, and mentally and physically capable of contemplating the chances of living or dying. Without even a volleyball to talk to!

As early as 1878, Popular Science published a treatise by a physician describing the physiological process of death by drowning, detailing the relatively brief physical symptoms compared with the far greater mental agony. In conclusion, the author gave readers this sage advice:

"If death by drowning be inevitable, as in a shipwreck, the easiest way to die would be to suck water into the lungs by a powerful inspiration, as soon as one went beneath the surface. A person who had the courage to do this would probably become almost immediately unconscious, and never rise to the surface."

Well, well! Could I do it? I don't know. What I do know is this: if I get dumped off the boat I will likely swim for my life, even if the odds are grim, i.e., totally hopeless. I'm not as terrified of death as many people. I am far more afraid of the time spent waiting for my impending demise, watching as my vessel and lifeline drift farther and farther until they become a tiny speck on the crest of a distant wave. Oh, the agony. The despair. The panic, hopelessness, waves, hypothermia, sharks. The horrible realization that it's inevitable. Who needs it? Much easier to let go. Stick your head under, take a deep breath.

Nonetheless, the most powerful animal instinct, the will to survive, will kick in. We're hard-wired that way.

So I valiantly head off to the swimming pool in my pathetic attempt to build up my long-distance endurance. I count the lengths, 10, 15, 20, 25, until I reach my usual milestone of a half mile. It feels good, knowing I can get that far. Notwithstanding the fact that I know darn well a half mile is peanuts in a roiling, heaving ocean. And that being tossed overboard in calm water only a half mile from shore is the least likely scenario.

On I labor, arm over arm, faster, faster. 30 lengths. 35. All the while knowing that survival is far more dependent on water temperature, current, tide, wind, wave height, storm magnitude, and big and little fishies nipping at your thighs, and, in the end, whether there are any vessels in the vicinity to pick you up, and whether they will see you (a.k.a. "All is Lost," with Robert Redford).

Today, I swam a few extra lengths. What the hell. Build up my stamina a little more.

Tomorrow, and next week, I will do it again.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What I Loved About France and Spain: Musings on our Last Day in Europe

 What we liked (that you cannot get elsewhere, at least not in the same quality)

French cheeses
French panna cotta
French flan
Other French pastries and desserts
Pear crepe

French sauces, especially the buttery ones!Brittany caramels and house-made caramel sauces
Spanish tapas (the idea, rather than the execution; some of the cheap, tiny portions of potatoes or sausages were pretty sad)
A more expensive selection in Barcelona: eggplant and goat cheese

Gazpacho—sooooo much better than at home
Oysters caught daily on coasts of Atlantic and Brittany
Daily haul at Bay of Arcachon, Atlantic coast, France

Wildflowers of every color; spring was a cool yet beautiful time to be here!
Ile Grande, Brittany, France
Meeting friends and friends of friends, some American, some English, some French
Our first night in Paris: Amber, Michele, Ann, Sally

Old castles, houses, Roman villas and bridges, and whole medieval villages made of stone
Eze, Cote d'Azur, France
Ile de Brehat, Brittany, France
St Emilion, Dordogne, France
Grapefruit, oranges, and avocadoes fresh from the trees on farm in Spain
The day's harvest at Finca La Paz, Andalucia, Spain

Big, golden yolks of just-laid eggs on farm in Spain
2-euro bottles of wine in both France and Spain
Ancient winery at Chateau St Martin in Provence, and their expensive rosés and "cooked" wine (similar to port or sherry)
 Not your typical California rosé!

Amazing marinas and harbors on Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, which Pope wants to return to!
La Rochelle, Atlantic coast, France
Crowding boats into tiny harbor on Belle Ile, Brittany, France

High quality and friendliness at small, independent, inexpensive hotels found on TripAdvisor
Hotel Launay, Ploubaznec, Brittany, France
View from our window

High quality of hostels in Barcelona
Salt-water pools instead of chlorine
Iron work on balconies and windows
A window in Paris
And some railings in Paris

Poodle plants and other eleganct touches in formal French gardens
 Eyrignac Gardens, Dordogne, France 
Barelona walking tour with neweuropetours.eu
Picasso's home in Barcelona
What we lamented (or put up with)
Finding stores and restaurants closed, again and again and again!!!
Scarcity of croissants aux amandes, one of the primary reasons Amber goes to France (these are not ordinary American-style almond croissants; they are moist, melt-in-your-mouth conglomerations of butter, sugar, flour, eggs, rum syrup, and almonds)
Failure to find one of the elusive human pyramids (castellers) during Spanish festival of Saint Joan
Weak wifi everywhere
Complicated and inconsistent car rental contracts and insurance coverage

Gavage, the process of force-feeding ducks through a 12-inch-long steel tube crammed down the throat and all the way into the belly to produce foie gras
Inserting the tube; face of farmer obscured by photographer
 The ducks flapped and struggled, with the whole tube inside, pouring whole kernels of corn straight into the tummy 
Skill of pickpockets and suspicious nature of their schemes—who is in on it?
The site of our only pickpocketing experience, in Barcelona, which had a happy endng and several unanswered questions

What we learned

Don’t trust bus schedules/maps.  Ask the driver.
You MUST MUST MUST flag down the bus driver if you want the bus to stop for you. How many times did I shake my fist at the back of a bus before I figured this out?  Your effort must be vigorous and sustained: once I waved at a bus; the driver put on the turn signal and slowed down, then kept right on rolling!
Schengen visa laws are at least somewhat lax; no one was around to stamp our passport re-entering France from Channel Islands, so no one will know how long we’ve been here. (But we still wouldn't take chances and overstay.)
Intermediate language skills are not sufficient to conduct business beyond accommodation and transportation--such as renewing a cell phone plan by phone; understanding recordings on answering machines; negotiating a refund; filing a police report.
Two months is enough to be on the road. After that things went downhill; afer two and a half months, we were tired of traveling and ready to go home.
Dancers are friendly everywhere!
 Cajun dancers, Chatillon, France