2015

An Ode to travel - Inbetween Hours and unseen days...

ugly fish a frying

This isn’t a story of sun lit beaches and crystal blue waters or the scent of incense wafting on the breeze.  This isn’t about a carefree woman swishing a white scarf behind her whilst whimsically leaving a trail of footprints in pure, white sand. This isn't turquoise waves, or heat that "envelopes you like a blanket"  or another yoga posture silhouetted against the caramel of another setting sun. This isn’t picture postcards or self congratulatory social media posts or a pininterst board or an insta - gasm of travel porn. 

This isn’t mountain ranges hazing into the distance or the starfish fronds of a palm tree against twilight, this isn’t the pink stuccoed walls of strange crumbling colonial buildings or the peeling paint of another continental town.

This isn't the travel pretty and this sure as hell ain’t the travel  beautiful. This isn't the perfectly swooshed cappuccino set against geraniums and rusty railings of another picture perfect coastal town looking down upon a crescent of navy and another nestled picture perfect town.

This is an ode for a love of travel that never gets spoken about.  That in between land that internet and social media forgot. The in-between time that every hungry wanderer still gets a frisson from. 

So this in an homage to the unsung. The in- between hours. 

This is the bleary, nauseous feeling of another 14 hour night bus and the road side cafe that you get chucked out at at 4 am in the morning. This is for early morning dust, and a strange city coming to life as another stray dog tries to piss against your backpack.

This is for the long days and dreary nights on cramped train cabins and bleary mornings stacked with rucksack in roadside cafes waiting for another connection.  No idea where you are, not sure when you’ll be leaving.  This is for the wanderers who already know you can’t get lost if you don’t know where you’re going.

This is for the hotel with the mother lying on  a stained mattresses at reception nursing a baby ; the click of the plastic fan in another roadside cafe and  the smell of bleach. For the boy mopping the floor with vinegar from an old cola bottle. This is for the stray dogs,  parading around town, holding their early morning mothers meeting, giving out orders for the day and then split, scram.  This is for the shop with 70 litres of condensed milk and three types of corn syrup, the crushed together packets of old cigarettes, the bunches of herbs trodden into the floor, the range of gizmos and gadgets in the window,  the nodding cat with its shaking paw high on the wall. This is for the shy kid serving me in the store with the fake Oreos and dove soap bars squashed in moldy packets between sacks of grain, tupperwares of bread rolls, and pork scratchings in cellophane. This is for the whiff of tobacco and mothballs, the stench of fish on the wharf, or a small boy curled up asleep in the shiny shank of a supine water buffalo. For the whisp of smoke from a fire lit before dawn outside a hut, for the sleepy shuffling eye lid heavy hours where dirt streaks tiles and floors smell of disinfectant.

This is for the tuk tuk drivers lounging in their seats, women swatting flies with plastic bags on sticks across the purple trays of offal, taxi drivers wiping sweat from their brows and the old crone that fixes you with her one good eye,  sat bent beside her cardboard tray of chicklets. This is for the dirty, dusty,  inglorious queasy hours of travel when the bus stops for no reason and every one gets out and stares at the engine or the driver throws a bucket of water at it, or there’s a crash up ahead and you watch as a mom holds her child up to piss by the side of the road and sunflowers push through the open window and someone tries to sell you some corn. This is for the blinking, Jesus and mary swinging in the taxi window and the driver who crosses himself at every turn in the road. This is for the loud tinny music from an old transistor radio, or blaring from the bus with its incessant, jangly beat that never ends christ how i hate love miss that music. This is for the ubiquitous blare of football from another tv screen, the  stink of gasoline dirtying on the pavement, for the stray cat and its one winking eye,  the caretakers and the cleaners, the stench of rotting fruit as rubbish mounds up in the kerbside, and the blue streak of dawn rising on another tired city as people gather for work, the graffiti, the tin cans,  the empty garages and the endless roads.

This is for formica table tops and the grains of rice sitting in moist salt shakers , the thick sweet coffee served in a plastic cup with a bloop of condensed milk stuck to the bottom or the crusted rim of a tomato shaped ketchup bottle served with chips half cooked. This is hours spent typing up notes in airport cafes and an arse sore from plastic seats. The dirty, salty, scratches on a backpack hauled onto a boat and slopped with sea water, the hours, minutes, days spent squashed into buses with mens jeans and arms too close to me and a box of chickens squarking. This is being crammed into the backs of lorries sitting on sacks of pretzels, of barrels of water slopping and the gentle nudge from the eels within, the thick purply  hunks of raw meat that get crammed on a crate beside me and for women’s hips pushed into my own, shyly looking at my skin from under eye lashes for women wrapped in scarves  blatantly looking at my skin and laughing, pinching it, pointing at it, thrusting their children into my arms. For snot nosed kids gazing over shoulders, or puking in corners, for watery eyed babies.  This is for the great swathes of travel time that no internet meme, postcard, social media post or insta filter ever remembered to tenderly curate. The in-between hours of travel on the road, that still shoots a thrill of tiredness and adoration through my aching, hungry body as i sit slumped propped up by my bags in another road side cafe waiting for a connection at 4am in the morning. 

I love every dusty, itchy, bloody, chirping, stinking shrieking, queasy, rushing bleary eyed bloody beautiful second of it. 

 

An Ecuadorean Rose and a Story of Should to Could..

Bill walks past and sits himself down opposite me at the writing desk. In his late fifties, to early sixties he reminds me of a friendly Grizzly Adams. Heavy set, with thick greying beard and kind, twinkly blue eyes he’s looking at me with a face wrinkled with concern. 

“I really enjoyed our walk yesterday but I’m sorry if I said anything to upset you…” he says. 

I’m absolutely mystified.

We’re staying at the Meditation Centre in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. 

Run by ex miltary, Bernie it encourages longer term stays (you only book by the week or month,) and I like the communal aspect. The rooms are next to each other with tables, chairs and hammocks outside that look out onto the gardens and tranquil, green hills of this sacred valley famous for its health inspiring properties! 

 

Meditation Centre Vilcabamba

 We all sit down and breakfast together (a choice of fresh fruit, yoghurt, oats or eggs and potatoes) in the morning, take part in a guided meditation at noon if we desire and generally have the option to keep ourselves to ourselves or socialise when we feel like it.

Yesterday Bill and I took a little stroll around the small town and then joined some of the other guests at a local juice bar. 

I was a little distracted about leaving the group early to head back to the centre to meet a chico for a date.

Its still so difficult for me sometimes, putting my time before someone else's that around fifteen minutes before I leave i’ve disappeared into my own dream world that make many people misinterpret or indeed, perhaps accurately decide, i’m being aloof.

I have my own insecurities and have often interpreted a person’s behaviour personally. I can see in this instance Bill has interpreted my distraction as dissatisfaction with his company. Its a timely reminder to always try and put myself in the other’s shoes, to endeavour to stay present when i’m in people’s company and give them my full attention.

I assure him that my distraction has nothing to do with him and chat moves on to his struggle around taking a decision about when to return home.  We discuss how paralysing it can be to make any kind of decision when the cold hearted, voice of the internal judge and critic in kicks in with its negativity and relentless shoulding. 

I grew up  with (and still experience when in contact with my family)  a relentless battering ram of  “shoulds.” 

“You should do this,”  

“You should do that,” 

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

 As if there is some model of perfection that I, in all my glorious and human fallibility, is constantly failing to live up to. 

Subsequently that’s how I internalised my own inner voice and its a relentless task master, constantly evaluating the degree of perfection within myself and to what degree i’m successfully living my life, and not letting up for a second. The bastard. 

I’m either a hero or a failure and the black or white thinking that makes any decision right or wrong creates a mental cage that then filters out the whole breadth or different shades of grey of other opportunities, possibilities and choices that I could take in between when making a decision. 

“Try replacing “should” with “could” whenever you notice yourself doing it,” says Bill. 

“For example I should have gone to university to get a degree, becomes I could have gone to university and got a degree” 

Saying the “should” out loud lets me become consciously aware of it and that its just one voice, one opinion. Changing the word to “could” gives the power back to me. 

“I could,”  implies we have a whole, wide, range of decisions to choose from  and reminds us of our own free will and responsibility for our decisions. 

Rather than berate myself with an implied judgement about the quality of the decision that  i’ve made,  “I could”  provides a simple, gentle reminder of “what is” and “what was.” A way of moving gently from judgement to compassion. 

In the gardens of the Meditation Centre there are wild, pink, roses climbing around the walls. 

“Ecuador is known for having the most beautiful roses in the world,”  Bill tells me. 

As we are  at the Equator they are the only roses to grow upwards with long, strong, straight stems. The roses around the rest of the world have to lean, and crook their branches to reach the light of the sun. 

“There’s a metaphor in there somewhere if we look hard enough”  I joke.

“Is there?” asks Bill, “well I think I’ll leave you to find it! ”

 

And find it I do. Although i’m not sure I can take any of the credit. 

A day later I see a quote from Ram Dass, the author of “Be Here Now” about trees in a forest.

When we’re walking through the forest, Dass explains, we see all different types of trees and shrubs. Some get the light through the canopy and others don’t get any. Some grow differently as a result; they are twisted or leafier or just grow low to the ground. We don’t judge any of those trees as bad or lesser just because they get less light and their stems are more twisted. 

Roses have always been my favourite flower, along with wild flowers such as poppies, anemones and forget me nots. I love the velvety petals and deep rich scent and not for one moment did I ever stop to judge the English roses rambling in my garden back home as being any less beautiful or complete for their crooked stems or winding, indirect path they took to grow towards the light.

END


A Magical Fairy Kingdom, Organic architecture and a Lesson in Surrender

MonteSuenos is my new favourite place.  I was just set to leave Vilcabamba, this little sacred valley in Ecuador close to the border with Peru when I discovered this fairy grotto, princess palace of a guest house named appropriately enough... Mountain of dreams.

Three weeks later and so far I’ve managed to haul myself away for 3 days, returning for my birthday because I could honestly think of nowhere prettier in the world I’d rather spend my 40th.

A guest house and artist studio designed, built and created by the artist Meredith Miller and her late husband the NASA astronaut, physicist and lecturer Brian Leary, this magic kingdom manages to combine all of my favourites fairy tales in one, part Wonderland, part Secret Garden and part Neverland -  this is childhood dreamscape that doesn't want to grow up.

Dragon room and Tower Room with Meditation space at the top..

A 10 minute taxi ride out of the sleepy town of Vilcabamba and up a winding road high into the hills, MonteSuenos is surrounded by the mountains and the incredible, restorative energy of the Andes. The three houses and its gardens are one big organic explosion, one long love song to Pacha Mama / Mother Nature.

Soft, feminine, undulating lines make up the buildings, the walls are painted baby pink and  interspersed with  higgledy piggledy Incan stlyle stones.  Winding spiral staircases curl up fairy cottage turrets complete with mushroom shaped rooves that glint with mirrored mosaic under the sunlight. 

Meredith still makes art from a studio in the main house - great,  magical trails of feminine forms that drape out of the canvases in glittery swirls and are embedded with soil from the sacred sites of the Andes and the healing vibration of crystals from the area. Like her art,  nature curves its way inside and out of the houses. The  gold, dappled trunks of Eucalyptus trees form latticed walls and beams to support the rooves.  Slate hewn from the mountainside mosaics the floor. Crystals, dream catchers and huge hunks of drift wood are used to decorate inside and out . Straw roofed huts puntucate the winding path up to the top of the mountain and there are hammocks aplenty with space for dining alfresco in the gardens. 

Meredith Miller

The natural elements come into their own in these surroundings, an open fire burns in the living room of the main house on chilly mornings, and there are bonfire pits outside to keep cosy whilst shooting star gazing at nightime.  A rushing waterfall has been built deep into the mountainside and decorated with moss and ferns and  a stone seated amphitheatre used for movie nights and events overlooks the hillsides.

The flower beds are immaculately maintained yet retain the soft, tendrily overflowing feel of a Secret Garden waiting to be discovered, splashes of bright orange marigolds, bright yellow trumpets and the scent of jasmine and wild roses attract butterflies, bees and humming birds.

Meredith had no experience in architecture when it came to designing Montesuenos, which she did wtih the help of her husband and an Ecuadorean team of workers. And even more brilliantly she had no plan either for how it should look. The outcome is the explosion of her following her creative instinct and letting the building evolve naturally. Something she calls Organic Architecture.

Views from the top

As the daughter of an architect and someone who spent many years working in property marketing, I spent countless hours poring over blue prints, master plans and checking the dimensions on floor plans of some of the largest projects in London. Yet I can't describe how happy it makes me to be in a building that required none of the above, and was allowed to grow naturally and indeed, organically out of the imagination of this remarkable artist.

There’s a lesson in here too for me,  about surrender. What's possible when we give up control and trying to follow our own plan and instead let life lead us where it will, and accept that the universe might have something bigger in mind.  Sometimes the force and flourish of that creative spark has the energy to create something of a scope and scale we could never have begun to imagine for ourselves, not in our wildest dreams. 

Rooms start at $25 per night with a 3 night minimum stay and includes a healthy breakfast of fruit, granola, yoghurt and eggs. There is a communal kitchen with free tea and coffee if guests wish to cook.

Views from Tower Room
One of the beautiful headboards, designed by Meredith
Bath with a view
Meredith's Art

 

END

 

The Interview: Building Belief & Inner strength with South Pole trekking Sandra Floate.

I meet Sandra in the beautiful botanical gardens of Bella Tiamantini - a Botanical Gardens set in the humid heat and jungly backdrop of Santo Domingo, Northern Ecuador. The gardens are run by a delightful old couple Don Marcos and his wife Estrella who are committed to rescuing and nurturing over 1000 native plant species from deforested areas of the Amazon, in oder to protect plant diversity in Ecuador.

 

 I have turned up at the gardens by myself and am not sure what I'm letting myself in for. With relief I see there is another English speaker amongst us! 

Sandra is a softly spoken Aussie from Melbourne with a flush of blond curls around her face, twinkly blue eyes and rosy cheeks. She is sitting outside the concrete breeze block guest bedroom on a plastic stool helping Estrella shell corn.

Welcoming me with a warm smile she speaks with an endearing shy humility about herself and quiet enthusiasm for her time volunteering with this delightful family. I'm about to turn 40 and as the conversation drifts to this milestone of a birthday I ask Sandra (now in her mid fifties) how she felt about turning 40. Apparently she felt that she'd lost some of her physical shape and fitness due to being a full time mother. What did she decide to do to regain her fitness? Renew her membership at the local gym? Nope. Sign up for an extra Pilates class? Nope. No ladies, Sandra Floate decided to go to the South Pole....! 

As a sensitive introvert myself I'm fully aware of the magnificent adventures, physical feats and courageous acts us quiet ones are capable of.. .however I have to admit to still reacting with some surprise when this gently self effacing woman drops into the conversation that when she turned 40 she once led an all female expedition of mothers called The Ice Maidens, on a trek to the Antarctic. 

Excuse me, you did what???? 

Time for an interview! 

WW: OK would you like to start by giving me a little bit of background?  a brief life story! You were mainly based in Melbourne is that right? 

SF: Yes I was born and bred in Melbourne and went to school there. After leaving school I did a diploma in advertising and then travelled for 2 years to Asian and Europe and worked in Londo for a year as a nanny, and then to India, Nepal and then in Australia met and worked an Indian.

WW: How old were you when you were married?

SF: I was 25 and I had two children in my mid thirities and worked in our family business cabinet making business, my husband and I had been in business for 30 years.

And then when I was 40 I did an expedition to the Antarctic. Which is 3 years training for 2 weeks on the ice.

WW: And had you done any training, hiking or professional trekking before then?

SF:  No I was a mother! ...I'm a skier and a snow skier and I've done that all my life so I've always loved skiing i learned to do cross country for Antarctica. We went out and found women and they had to be mothers.

WW:  So you decided to do this trek and they had to be women and they had to be mothers!? 

SF: Yes, we found women and they had to be mothers because there are many constraints when you're a mother to be able to go out and train. You need a sympathetic partner, because men can go off and work and then train in the evening but women  can't do that when they've got children, they cant just walk out of the house and say "well i'm off to go train" five nights a week so you needed a certain sort of sympathetic partner as well to accommodate the expedition.

WW: But it was part of the expedition requirements that everyone was mothers? why was that? 

SF: Because the English group that did it (it was first done by an all female group in Britain)  some of them were mothers and some of them were single. We based our group on 5 english women that did it, and one of them was a mother, and there were different problems for mothers, we had to go away at weekends and leave our children or train at 5am or train while eveyone was asleep and that's hard.  If you have a family you've got to find time train. When you are working part time or full time its very difficult to find the training time. So because the three or four of us had kids we all had to realize the dififciulties in having an expedition as well as the constraints around doing it around family, and having the money. It started as 5 but there were 3 in the end because they drop off.

WW: I can imagine! (laughs)

SF: We all started of from zero fitness.

WW: It seeems like an extraordinary thing to suddenly decide to do...what prompted it?

SF: Just one of the women always wanted to do it an expedition to Antarctica and so she asked around and  I said yes and then a couple of others said yes, and then we just went along with the process without really understanding what that process was... 

WW: Did you know it would take 3 years?

SF: No we just knew it was a lot of training. Then we needed to find all the sponsors, doctors, physios, runners, gym membership...we had 40 - 50 sponsors in the end, plus Quantas (major Australian airline) who came on board.

WW: In order to raise the funds to do it? 

SF: To raise the funds to do it, to get us to South America, tro get us to SA to bring our canoes ( we didn't have sleds we had canoes) because they are round so they are very easy to use. Then we had to tap into...because it's  such a small population who had done expeditions we had to tap into that community. So for example we had conversations with Eric Phillips and Peter Hillary to give us guidance on the best way to do it and complete it. 

WW: And did you also do it for charity?

SF: Yes we raised money for the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne. In the end the flights, our gear (sponsored by Mountain Design)  so we probably raised about $300,000. 

WW: That's incredible, what a fantastic achievement.

SF: But the flight costs from Chile to Antarctica is probably about $80,000.

WW: Oh wow, just to fly to Antarctica? 

SF: When you are in the base camp at Antarctica and you go out to the South Pole they've got planes there. If you have a problem they can come and pick you up.

WW: how long did the expedition take? 

SF: It was supposed to be 10 weeks but we didn't get to the south pole just to Antartica, we only lasted 2 weeks. 

SF: We always dreamed to get the South Pole but we didn't get there. We didn't dream it enough... you know you have the image in your brain? It was hard enough just to get to Antarctica, leave our children do all the hard work and the training, get all the money. 

WW: and what happened that meant you had to cut it short after 2 weeks.

SF: At the end of the training there were only 2 of us left out of the 5. We needed one more person and she only joined us 9 months previously. So we didn't have that bond that you needed and she turned inot a bit of a loose cannon. She hadn't as much experience in the snow as us and we had problems with her breathing and her hypothermia. So she was very physical but she hadn't had enough snow and ice training.

WW: Did you have to have another person?

SF: Yes it's best with three. Because if something happens like you fall down a crevasse or something and there's only two people  - you're only leaving one person to make a decision on what to do whether or not to leave you.  Whereas if you have three people you have two people to take that decision.

WW: Oh gosh I see, because of the probability of having to make a  life or death decisions. How do you prepare mentally for that?

SF: We had an Englishman, Roddie, who was a former SAS teacher who would do meditation with us...he was former SAS but turned Buddhist.

WW: Wow he sounds like a good person to talk to. So you would visualize scenarios that could happen?

SF: Yeah we had a lot of discussions around all of the scenarios that could happen, with other people that had done expeditions. Unfortunately also, Quantas airlines lost our gear.

WW: Oh no!

SF: Yeah! So we were 2 weeks in Chile instead of 3 days before we got going, so by that time we were very apprehensive. We had been raring to go so we were really uptight by the time we got going. You only have a certain window of time. Because if you start your expedition too late and you're not quite at the pole they have to come and get you to fly you back to Chile, so we were very stressed by the time we got to Antarctica to do this trip. 

WW: Was there anything at that point in your life that prompted it? Or was it just your friend saying "I'm going to Antarctica do you want to come along?" I'm trying to work out what the appeal was?!

SF: The appeal was, I was reaching 40 and didn't have any fitness because i'd spent all my time looking after children.

WW: How old were your children?

SF: They were 12 and 9. And feeling like I was running out of time and that I might not be able to get fit for something like this. 

WW: I'm turning 40 tomorrow...(laughs)

SF: The possibility of even considering it was way off the planet. But you just start with something and see where it leads to. To know that we actually got there and got onto the ice. We had two trips to New Zealand also in preparation on the Fox Glacier. 

WW: And you were called "The Ice Maidens" - brilliant.

And what lessons did you learn emotionally, how did you overcome challenges in preparation or on the trek? 

SF: Yeah it was very stressful. So it was about being safe because we had children.

And we were looked on differently because we had children. We got emails saying "you shouldn't be leaving your family! blah blah blah" 

Mentally to do these trips -  at 40 and beyond is best. You'll find most expeditions are with older people because you have to have that maturity as an adult to take it on. 

WW: That's interesting isn't it you wouldn't think that would be the case, that you would need to be young and physically fit foremost.

SF: Yeah look at Ralph Fiennes he's just done a night one - he's 65? and he thought he'd do Antarctica in the dark in winter. I mean, that's bizarre!  But there's no limit to your physical age, he's just thinking "I can do that." 

WW: And because he's thinking he can do that he can?

SF: Yeah and because he's older he can, a lot of them are older, late thirties, forties. It's better. 

WW: This is a very small example in comparison but it's made me think of the time that I did Kung Fu in China with a bunch of 18 years. And I did the Shaolin, and it was the same kind of thing, I was really trying to push my myself and I was pretty out of shape and I was crap at it (laughs) but I did it. But lots of people in the 18 - 25 category would come try it for a bit and then drop out because it was too hard and they couldn't be bothered. Just before I joined 7 people dropped out of the Shaolin Kung Fu class so as a then 37 year old woman everyone was expecting me to fold, but out of sheer mental determination (and some may say stubbornness!) I persisted. When you get to a certain point you're proving it to yourself and that mental discipline isn't necessarily always there when you're younger.

WW: Did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn't realized before?

SF: Yeah lots and lots. Mostly mental strength. I"ve had to keep applying that. When I got back my daughter got sick and was very ill for 6 or 7 years. So i had to apply mental strength to keep her well and sane for the years that she was ill.  

WW: And how did what you learnt on the trip help you do that?

SF: Finding that inner strength that I had, that we've all got. Always being tested emotional, physically and needing to push yourself that little bit more. 

SF I had that strength, emotional strength to get through because it was an awful time. If you're children die or get sick its awful.

WW: What did she have?

SF: She had chronic fatigue and then depression because her body shut down and wasn't working.

WW: How did it change you? 

SF: Yes it changed my life.

W: How?

SF: I wasn't ever a team player and never played in teams, so with an expedition you have to rely on your team members because they may have to save your life. And that you can do just about anything if you're physically able and believe it. Believe in wanting something badly enough that you can do it.

And making other people believe that you can do it. So that you're getting that people behind you. There was a group of people behind you another group of people helping you to get to the goal.

WW: And your husband was supportive.

SF: Yes very much. 

WW: Great. So now, we're meeting in Ecuador...so that was 10 years ago for you...I was 45 years when I did it. Did you do any travelling between then and now?

SF: I went skiing in Japan and a brief trip to Vietnam, but otherwise no...no. 

WW: So what prompted you to suddenly go to Ecuador in your mid fifties?

SF: Because I wanted to volunteer in Ecuador and by this time my children were old enough so that I could actually leave them.

WW: And why Ecuador?

SF: The first time was with a friend because it had the Andes, the Amazon and the Galapagos in one country and because it was small. It was supposed to be the 10th year anniversary of our expedition to the Antarctic and i was supposed to come here with Michelle from that trek. We were going to go to Siberia to see lots of volcanoes but we wouldn't have had the culture and in Ecuador we got the culture, the sea, the mountains and the jungle,

WW: And that was a 10 week trip?

SF: No that was a month or 5 weeks and 10 year anniversary celebration of Antarctica. And then  I decided to come back as a volunteer as I felt comfortable here the first time.

WW: And at that point, was that when you were splitting up with your husband ?

SF: No but i was thinking about it, so travel was a way of getting time out from family and friends and husband to think about things.

WW: What advice would you give to women wanting to travel in their forties and fifties who are a bit frightened of going to a country solo.

SF: Sometimes its good to do a quick trip, and then go back. If yo feel comfortable in a country do a quick overview first for a holiday and then go back and see it more in depth. That's what you did isn't it? 

WW: Yeah it wasn't deliberately planned like that, but that is what ended up happening. I started travelling five years ago when I took a month of extended leave off work to travel South America. So I started by doing group tours as well so I wasn't completely by myself. 

 

SF: Yeah i started travelling when I was 21 and did a couple of years by myself so I already had that inner strength and belief at that age that I could do it and knew at this age I could do it again.

WW: And now you're trying to combine your time between Ecuador and Australia?
SF: Yes by helping out here with volunteering.

WW: How do you support yourself when you're travelling?

SF: I work in Australia and save up to travel. I prioritize the money and go without certain things knowing that i'll need to save up for airfare. I met a lady a few years ago and what she said to me really stuck in my mind...I was just turning 50 and she was 65 and she said? 

You are in the best years of your life right now, after you've had children is the best time you've got left. Because you're still relatively fit, Its a time for yourself  again. You get your time back without commitments and family. 

WW: And you took the decision to split from your husband is that right?

SF: Yes I've made the decision to separate because my husband didn't want to back me in this volunteering.  I felt in a marriage when you get to an older age with a  partnership you should be able to take time to explore other things that you want. Life is for living it's not long and you don't have a lot of good years, they go quickly. Soon you won't be able to . 

WW:  You're volunteering for Bella Tiamantini, what has that brought you? Why were you drawn here?

SF: Because of the garden and the family and i thought i could offer western eyes to help with their project and enjoy a different lifestyle. 

WW: And how do you see the next 20 years for you?

SF: One of travel and splitting time between countries and learning new languages.

WW: Perfect! Thank you Sandra! 

 

 

END

 

 

 

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The Interview: Kicking Fear to the Kerb with the Globe Trotting Granny - Connie Giffin

Connie Giffin

If you've ever been plagued with doubts that you were too old, too broke, too scared or just too damn late to discover your purpose in life and put everything you have behind living it... then this interview is for you. 

In 2008 Connie Giffin believed she'd found and was living her life purpose. A  successful, self employed, entrepreneur in her late sixties she was looking forward to handing over the reigns of her three successful businesses to her successor so that she could enjoy retirement and quality time with her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

All that was about to come crashing down when the financial crisis liquidated her clients, her companies and most of her assets and life savings -  over night. Left with nothing except her "financially shaking rocking chair." She decided she needed a new life purpose.  On the brink of her 70th birthday Connie became a student again and embarked on an 18 country tour of the world to research models of best practise in holistic education*. The aim?  She's driven by  a desire to redefine the educational system,  a legacy that won't just benefit the lives of her own family but children everywhere 

I meet Connie in the beautiful Andean hills  of Vilcabamba, in Southern Ecuador. A place nicknamed, appropriately enough, "the Valley of Longevity"  as some of its inhabitants have lived to a 129! Now 72 years young Connie holds a  BA in psychology from Prescott University, a Masters in experiential education from Prescott and is currently working towards a PHD in eco  - psychology, with Akumai. She's got smart, cropped grey hair, twinkling blue eyes and a Southern lilt to her voice that means when she talks about growing up in the forests and lakes of her grandfather's farm, I could listen all day. But make no mistake there is an assuredness and steel beneath the eyes and a voice that means business. Well it's not every great grandmother in their 70s  that loses everything only to reinvent themselves, travel the world and is now gearing up to publish their first book!  Ladies, meet Connie Giffin!

WW: Connie you've had a remarkable life, talk me through your career arc to how we come to be sitting here today. 


CG: From the age of 17 I worked in the corporate world climbing that good ol' corporate ladder. I was a central Office Manager for the Belle and Howe corporation and then in 1976 I  left all that behind me and opened my own first business which was an art gallery. 

After that I took up a traveling sales rep position in Arizona for a national photo company and five years later my former husband and I started another business creating steel and concrete cast stairs by which point I was in my forties. After that I went back to college to finish my Bachelor of Arts in Education, which I completed in 1998. 

WW: So you didn't go to university when you were 18? 

CG: Well I started studying for it when I was 18 but I didn't complete it until I was in my forties. I studied for it at night school which was the only thing I could afford on my income at the time,  but I was always determined to complete it.  And guess what...it happened.

That's one of two things I've carried from childhood. Education is the way to success and nature was my nurturer and counsellor. After I completed that qualification I moved to Colorado and opened my own mortgage business and did the design and build of monolithic homes. 

WW: And that's what you were doing when the financial crash happened?

CG: All I financed was eco - homes, earth friendly properties. That means anything sustainable that no one else would finance. Even though they were more sound, no one would touch it because they weren't conventional so that's what I financed for 9 years.

And I had my art company - a framing company; and an interior design business. I had all three companies going until the big financial crash when i lost all three.

WW: And you were content at that time with the businesses you were running? 

CG: I believed i'd found my life purpose and suddenly all of that was taken from me, if it hadn't of been I probably would have continued on. 

WW: Do you think we can have different life purposes at different stages of our lives then? 

CG: Well obviously it happens! 

At the time I provided a service that was very much needed and there was nothing like it in the US and people were desperately trying to make changes in their lives and build sustainable homes. So at least it was a beginning, i hoped it would be carried on but I hadn't planned to be the one to carry it on. I actually had a buyer for it and i was going to work with her for a couple of years and then sell the business to her, but then suddenly we had no business because we had no lenders. I lost my business, my income, my properties, everything.

WW: I can't imagine how scary that must have been. What happened next, did you start looking for other work? 

CG: So when it was all gone I stumbled around for a while. I applied for work but at my age I could not find a job, or any source of little income and had very little to live on.

WW: What did you do?

CG: I sort of wandered around lost and eventually had the good fortune to do  enough to do a programme with Barbara Marx Hubbard, called the Agents of Evolution. Through that programme, I discovered I didn't want to spend the rest of my life sitting in what I called my "financially shaky rocking chair" I wanted to get up and do something that benefited humanity and I wanted to do something for my grandchildren. 

The more I thought about it and the more I gave myself some time to let it all settle, I concluded that the way to help my grandchildren was through education. I knew we needed a new educational system but beyound that i didn't know what.

WW: Incredible. So take me through the steps from deciding you wanted to commit to a new purpose - one where you started to look for a new educational system and how you actually started down that path, a path that led you through 18 different countries!? 

CG: There was a college got in touch with me.  They thought that they'd developed a course that I was actually looking for back in 1999 when I completed my BA with them (Prescott University.)

WW: Wait, they contacted you 15 years later??  I'm not sure the administrative systems of many universities in Britain are that organized! (laughs)

CG:  It shocked me! But you know i'm a great believer that when you follow the path you're supposed to follow: the people, the path and the things you need are put before you.  I laughed and shared that I had just lost everything: money, business, properties...everything and I was desperate. He said that in those circumstances the student loan programme could probably grant me about $130,000 dollars. 

I'm very much against our young people having huge financial debts however for someone my age the repayment was really in my favor so I considered it seriously and then checked 44 other different colleges around the US hoping that from 1999 - 2011 they had also become more experiential.  To my dismay they had not, so i woke up the following morning and said "ok, then."

I called Prescott University and said here's the deal:

"I have a new purpose in life and it comes first. I need to hep the children and I need to do that by creating a new educational system.

If you can accept me back on those terms I really need a college as a background for my work and research and I know the college background will open up a lot of doors for what I want to do. 

WW: And so part of beginning to create this new educational system was to research best practise and see what's already out there?

CG: That's right. I put together a proposal for my school and was told it was far too extensive for just one student to take on! But I did all the research myself.  I had a very flexible schedule and my purpose was to locate the most innovative models of holisitic model of education in the world, so I could see what was going on that worked. For my thesis I chose 15 of the most innovative which was a drop in the bucket of all that i’ve been in contact with but those are the ones that i spent the most time, and really felt they had very outstanding models. 

WW: And you visited communities mainly? Sustainable communities? 

CG: I started in England and had a flight ticket out of Stockholm with one date in Budapest in between. The plan was to visit communities that were doing something different, communities, schools, colleges. So I had a big list that I left here with but I left it open, and also had a list of places that i wanted to visit for my book, places such as the Eden Proect in the UK and the Plantagon in Stockholm. In the end I visited 18 countries around Europe as well as America and Canada.

As my trip progressed I realized that although a lot of sustainable communities are into education they are mostly focused on educating the outside world on environmental issues rather than creating something spectacular for their own children. 

WW: Before we get on to chatting more about the actual travel, tell me some more about the places you visited, any stand out models for you?  

CG: I visited La Cite Ecologique in Canada  -  one of the most outstanding models of education I'd seen. 

Another great place and one of the greatest participants was a small community in Northern Denmark, called (in English)  The Essential Teachers Training college. This was a group of people that some years back built the tallest windmill in the world and were told it was impossible.  I had the privelege of going to the top of it while I was there, by someone that had taken part in building it. 

They decided to create a different kind of college and teach teachers how to teach. 

I also spent quite a bit of time in Nice, France while I was there. I sat at a big dining room table outside at the hostel Iwas staying in and there happened to be a family there from Australia.  The mother had homeschooled her son who had ADHD and she'd also spent most of her life promoting homeschooling and small family farming.

WW: So homeschooling and unschooling is another example of holistic education? I was gong to ask what your views are on that? 

CG: Its exactly what we need to be doing,  we need to undo everything that the children have been learning for generations in schools. 

WW: You don't think children need to be around their peers to learn social skills? 

CG: I don't think school is the only way to learn social skills. They can learn those skills in other communities, schools are only one possibility but there could be many others.

This first evening she and i got talking and people seemed to come from all around the world to join us at the table to talk about education so I didn't have to do anything, just sit there and have dinner. 

WW: What about stand out countries in terms of education? Are some countries doing it better than others?

On the whole the Scandinavian countries put a bigger empahisis on education than other countries.

Finland was my number one country. It made a change in its priorities thirty years ago.

They had very few natural resources, their economy was suffering so they chose to invest in their greatest asset, their people. Their purpose was "to give quality to every student." They weren't trying to create a handful of geniuses, they wanted their entire population educated to its fullest potential.

WW:  When put so simply it seems like such an obvious investment and so vital. Yet how many other countries have that as their guiding vision.... similar to how great organizations to work for are also often highly successful because they choose to invest in their staff.

Now lets talk about the travel. Did you have any fears before you set off -  about going on this huge adventure as a 70 year old women travelling by herself? 

CG: No but that's a personal choice I made a long time ago.  I made a decision not to live my journey in fear. So I don't. 

 

A lot of people said: You’re goin to do what?? You can’t do that! 

and I said: Well i’m going to do that!

WW: Any countries you put on the list just because you wanted to see the sights? (laughs) 

CG: I'd say it was combined if there was a country i was interested in i might look real hard so i had a legitimate reason for being there. (laughs)

WW How did you budget and plan your trip? Did you backpack or five star it? 

CG: Well lets say this, I had no money, i had a small student loan that I could use a part of for my research, I had a very small budget.  I spent 10 weeks in Europe and it cost me $5500 and 6 weeks in canada on $1250 and that included my flights to and from. 

I travelled clear across Canada, I had a Greyhound North American bus pass which was $350 for 60 days anywhere in North America and a small discount for being a senior citizen. 

In Europe I flew in to London and back from Stockholm and I got a special first class Global Euro Rail Pass.

That took care of most of my transportation.

I could not get a student airline ticket because i was over 26. I said:  what's that got to do with anything? I am as  full time a legitimate student as you'll have anywhere else?! But they didn't agree, so I changed the booking went back to the same airline and changed one of the flights and got a lower full price ticket! 

WW: And for accommodation? Did you stay in hotels,  private rooms, dorms?? 

CG: The greatest thing i did was stay in hostels all over Europe, they're not for kids anymore. I only encountered one hostel that had age restrictions,

But the hostels were a wealth of resources. Oh I stayed in dormitories, cheapest I could find. It was nothing to be in a room with 12 people and sometimes that was quieter than with two. Sometimes you'd get put next to a nightclub, but overall I stayed in some very nice ones and was very grateful to meet so many friendly people.

WW: When I meet American friends they often say to me, Oh i'd love to do what you're doing (traveling) but if I did I'd lose my healthcare...its a bit like a golden handcuffs in the States right? How do you deal with that, I'm guessing as someone who was self employed for so long you haven't had that for a while anyway? 

CG: I don't use healthcare and haven't used Western medicine since 1982 when I ruptured a disc in my back and used alternative means to get well. That's when the doctors and I parted ways.

WW: That sounds like a whole other story in itself!  

CG Yes since I don't spend one penny on that and I ignore it all  it doesn't bother me.  I got well from a lot of serious things through natural methods. I changed my health habits and I look at my health from a preventive standpoint, its one of the reasons i'm sitting opposite you right now in Vilcabamba,  Ecuador. We are in one of the healthiest place on earth and it has all kinds of health benefits. 

WW: Wonderful. So you managed to tour 18 different countries including America, Canada and then Europe. What happened when you got back? 

CG: When I got back and started to  put all of it together I  started to see a pattern forming of what's really underneath the holistic framework and 6 essences of building blocks. Holisitic education was pretty well defined by Ron Miller back in the 60s.  There were 24 groups over the years that really contributed to what we consider holistic education today, for eg Montessori, Friends Association, the homeschooling method, all kinds of different groups, and Ron Miller spent a decade putting together a definition that pooled the elements from all of that and that's what we mainly look at today.

What I discovered from my research which was new was that underneath this framework were these 6 essences that were consistently making up the base for it.

And then this year I learned from one of my participants Dr Michael Cohen that underneath all of that, one of these essences holds the solution to end all human created problems in the world

WW Is that all you dsicovered this year Connie?! (laughing) 

CG: Human created suffering, problems challenges, devastation everything...

WW: Are you going to tell me what that is, or save it for your book?

CG: Oh i'll tell you its not a secret, actually there have been quite a few other people that have proposed as a solution. But what's been missing all these years... 

We saw that reconnecting to nature is how we would get back onto a sustainable path and how war/famine would end because we'd have a complete redistribution of resources and in community people would share  - but no one had really looked underneath that to say: well how do we do that?

I tell you... go spend 15 minutes a day in nature and your life will change somewhat. However what Michael Cohen discovered was 54 sensory attractions. Ways to sense things and his programme and solution is to give us the procedure of reconnecting to nature through those 54 senses, and this as applicable to a tiny child as to someone my age, and its offered as a PHD degree.

WW: Wonderful. So if people want to learn more about this how can they? 

CG: Since publishing my initial thesis I've been busy writing my first book that distills my knowledge in a way that's easy for people to understand. When the book's ready to be published i'll be selling it on my website which will also be a platform for learning that connects young people around the world and educates parents, teachers, schools and colleges on what i've discovered.

And in another remarkable sign of synchronicity,  in the time that that Connie and I are together in Vilcabamba she is approached by a major German publishing house and has just signed a contract to publish her first book. 

I'm helping Connie create her first website and if you are interested in reading more about her work in holistic education, or purchasing a copy of the book when it becomes available then drop me a note with Connie in the subject header on the link below and i'll send you some more details :) 

Contact Connie (click here)

Thanks for reading, I'd love to hear your views on holistic education, travel or any of the above, in the comments below. 

 

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Set Your Travel Intention 2015

A SACRED PLACE for 2015

This travel blog has existed in one form or another since 2012 - varying from chatty travel tips to musings and reflections. But like a landscape seen in a rear view mirror  it started off blurred and distant and has only gradually come into focus. 

Whilst much of our outward travel going forward may involve  exploring the rituals and customs of other cultures - I thought it would be nice to start 2015 with a ritual for myself before hitting the road. 

MY INTENTION FOR YOU

This isn’t just a travel blog that ticks off a sightseeing bucket list, because the travellers’ quest is never just an outside job. Its a journey that charts the inner voyage as much as the outward path.

So for this year, for myself and this blog as with any great yoga class or daily spiritual practise I thought it would be good to start with an intention.

It is my sincere intention and wish for you, that I create a safe, loving, sacred place where we can explore and share what it means to be women discovering both the inner voyage and our outward path in life - wherever that may take us.

SET YOUR OWN INTENTION

Are you planning some travel in the outer world. Are you lost, looking for a break, time out or  a different perspective. Maybe you’re you planning a trip inward, you’ve repeated another pattern, self sabotaged one last time and are finally ready to let go a limiting pattern or belief. Or perhaps, like me, you intend to do both. Learn about yourself by embarking in a spot of globe trotting. 

Why not take 10 minutes away from the hustle of your day to set an intention for your own journey. 

Create your own sacred space. It doesn’t have to be large or take up too much time away from work or your family commitments although you may have to lock them out of the bedroom for a few minutes!

Find a quiet space where you will not be disturbed. Have a notebook by your side and a pen so that you can note any insights that come up.  Light a candle, spray a little of your favourite perfume or cleanse the space with sage or incense and sit comfortably.

 

 

Quietly focus on your breath. Listen to your in breath, listen to your out breath. Imagine the in breath coming like a silver stream down through the crown of your head and filling your heart. On the out breath imagine it emanating from your heart in a silver cloud. 

Ask for support, from spirit, your guides, angels or however you see source energy.

Thank them for being with you and assisting you with this, the start of your journey. 

Set an intention for your travel that focuses on an inward goal.

Perhaps you want to develop self confidence, or trust yourself more.

Perhaps you want to rediscover your creativity or improve self discipline. Maybe you’ve decided to follow the heart’s path and understand how to truly love yourself.

Once you have an intention put your hand on the heart and ask yourself the following questions to help understand how you can use the outward world to assist you in your discovery: 

What countries are you most drawn to? 

What cities can best support your development? 

What cultures will help you on your journey.

What classes, activities orretreats can best support you in your developing your intention.


Breathe into your heart into a place of deep listening and your inner wisdom and pay attention to any images, notes, phrases or words that come up. Jot them in the notebook by your side. 

If you’d like to spend more time developing a conscious plan for travel  - provided your email address here and I can send you a free downloadable meditation on how to plan your travel with purpose and accompanying work sheet. 

I’m so delighted to have you here.

This is my travel blog for you. From my heart to yours. 

Connect with me here and join me on the journey?

Dominique X