The Coziness of Winter

I admit that updated articles on here have been sparse lately, since my travels and experiences have been of a limited nature this winter. My routine since Dec. has been eat, drink, work, ski, snowshoe, repeat. To many people, this may seem extremely boring and tedious, but I admit that there is a unique beauty in the winter season that I feel is worth embracing to the fullest. Winter is, for many people, a very introspective season. Its a time to withdraw a bit, simplify your life, and to rest and renew. Of course, having a winter sport that you can indulge in helps immensely, and for me, the unique beauty of snow and ice in the woods is something to embrace , rather then be repulsed by. The day to day rhythm of winter time though, tends to be less hectic and pressured than other times of the year. Since there is less to do out of doors, and often, people aren’t as inclined to be out and about often, daily routines become comforting, familiar, and perhaps a chance to let go of mental and physical clutter. One aspect of winter that I have been surprisingly thankful for, since I moved to a four season climate, is the fact that the cold , harsh months give me added appreciation for the times of year when the environment is more pleasant for being outside. Growing up in a warm season climate was wonderful in many ways, but it also became a bit boring, and the seasonal variety I now have where I live is worth embracing for its unique beauty. I do think that it takes a bit more conscious effort in the Winter to appreciate the season for what it has to offer, but I think , if you are able to do so, it will add enjoyment to a season that so many people dread. Even travel in winter can be a deviation from the norm, especially if you visit a familiar place  in a different season, snow or no snow, it can seem like an entirely different experience, often with less crowds. I have loved being able to explore my local hiking trails (Northern Idaho) in summer and winter, on foot and on snowshoes, as I get a unique experience each time. In summer I may finish a day by hanging out at the local lake and watching a sunset, while in winter I might have a fire going and be enjoying a book, or perhaps a bath before bed. There are times that I actually look forward to winters gifts, as I know that both change of seasons, and rest, is good for the soul.

Food and Drink Safety

The more you travel, the more you learn the value of being very careful what you eat and drink, at least in countries where sanitation and safety standards are more lax or less enforced than more developed nations. We all have tolerances for “experimentation” when we we travel, and that indeed extends to food and drink consumption. It is easy to forget, especially if you are someone who was raised in a developed nation, that most countries on this planet still have issues with public food and drink safety. I believe strongly that one should immerse themselves in their surroundings when they travel, but there is also prudency in not taking that to an extreme. I have developed a travel philosophy of my own that treads a middle ground between being adventurous and conservative, and I think it could be a wise course for many of you. My philosophy has been shaped by the fact that since I was 19 years old, I have battled a series of up and down health issues. At times, I have felt relatively robust, and at other times , far more fragile. A major issue of mine has been digestive and gut problems, so you can perhaps see where I would want to be somewhat cautious in regards to gut health. I never want to advocate someone allowing health concerns to stand in the way of travel opportunities, but there certainly are times that it may be best to “baby” your body, especially since exposing yourself to foreign bacteria and parasites (not to mention pollutants) while you are even slightly ill, can compound negative health effects. As an example, I visited India this last August , and I came down with an undiagnosed food borne infection. Taken alone, this would have been not such a big deal, but I had reacted a bit strangely to a vaccine a couple months earlier, and I elected to take anti malarial pills that may have been causing side effects. When you add in the fact that India is a very polluted country, at least in many of the major cities, it is understandable that my body may not have been in the greatest shape to react to an episode of illness. Sure enough, the day before we were about to fly home, I and my companions spent some miserable hours in the hostel suffering through severe digestive upset. That episode of illness has taken me almost two months to bounce back from, and even as I type, I am still working out getting my system back to “normal.” Having been through this experience, and also from various other learning episodes I have undertook, I have created some simple guidelines for food safety abroad. Here they are:

  1. Know your current state of health, and “experiment” with food accordingly
  2. Be cautious with street food, and select restaurants based on solid safety reviews
  3. Fruits and vegetables are often safer than other foods, but the water they are cleaned in can be contaminated
  4. Meat dishes can be problematic in certain countries. Going briefly vegetarian can be wise
  5. Learn to politely refuse offers of food if necessary, learn to negotiate this (I have even gone as far to pretend to eat food offered to me, but kept hidden in my palm)
  6. Vaccines and medicines are never 100 percent effective
  7. Never be without packaged food if traveling in a poorer country or a rural area  (I made this mistake in India)
  8. Purchasing a water filter may be beneficial, but nothing is guaranteed. Soft drinks may be safer to drink, depending on the location
  9. Even if safe to eat , fried, fatty, and spicy foods can be hard on the digestive system
  10. Expect to get sick via food or waterborne illness at least once when traveling. Please don’t let this fact keep you from having adventures. Travel is still one of the most life-affirming experiences one can have, so take reasonable precautions, but have fun, and immerse yourself in other cultures in whatever ways you can.

Rendezvous with Shiva

Not far from the central Indian city of Damoh lies a small, but significant temple built to house worship of the Hindu Lord Shiva, the Destroyer. This particular temple is said to contain a stone which is a remnant of Lord Shiva’s Phallus, removed in pieces during a cosmic marital spat, and landed, quite appropriately in India. I had the honor, I would say, of being guided into Lord Shiva’s temple by the guardian of the grounds. The guardians’ demeanor was very matter-of-fact, as to him, the proceedings that were to take place were all in a days work.  The atmosphere of the temple was less that of a Catholic cathedral and more that of a roadside tent holding a purported saintly relic. The grounds were wet, dark, grimy, and in some ways, reminded me of a carnival exhibit more than a Holy Temple. After being introduced to the five or so minor idols, we were led into the inner sanctum of residence for the stone-Shiva. This figure, we were told, was honored and worshiped via fire, incense, and the deafening report of drums and cymbals. This was to be initiated on the clock, coinciding with unveiling of the Shiva-linga (Sanskrit term). From a cultural standpoint, I was fascinated the process, having never been exposed to any Hindu rituals or practices this intimately. Standing in the wet, steaming temple, ears plugged due to the amount of noise being produced, I began to tire of the spectacle as it went on, until I noticed several local devotees enter the Temple and prostrate themselves rather violently before the Idol. I realized at that point that this was a relationship borne partly out of fear of the god and its power.

For many devotees in India, paying amends to the god of the moment in person is a methodology for appeasement against potential negative effects of the gods wrath or disfavor, even with deities that are purportedly arrayed against the forces of evil. This fear was manifested in the attitude of the worshipers, whose movements indicated not solemn respect and reverence, but a trembling before the essence of Shiva. While certain sacred Hindu texts like the Bhagavad-Gita speak of an attitude of enlightened respect for the role of the Gods in the fabric of the cosmos, they do not mention much in the way of exact methods to worship said deities. This creates a situation where believers can be paralyzed by the ever-shifting nature and lack of ability to know if one is doing what is proper in being Hindu. Our temple guardian even mentioned that he prays to Jesus Christ as one of the many deities on his list. My mind is overwhelmed in contemplating how one would keep up on this responsibility. Hinduism is a fluid, evolving, religion, and of the world’s major ones, is the only polytheistic religion. This makes Hinduism very unique but also in many ways, difficult to understand and grasp. Returning to the Shiva temple, I remember wondering how much time and effort was spent by the devout Hindus in attempting to please their Gods, any of which could potentially cause disfavor if not honored properly? It struck me how, despite nationalist identity, that Hinduism in the form practiced by a not insignificant number of Indians, is an obstacle to societal progress in India. Interestingly enough, some Indian politicians, including the nations first Prime Minister, could be considered what one would call “Hindu Atheists.” Jawarhalal Nehru himself stated, “The ideology of Hindu dharma is completely out of touch with present times.” The rendezvous I had with Shiva, or more appropriately, Shiva’s followers, gave me a greater appreciation for Nehru’s sentiment.

Despite my somewhat negative impression of the Shiva temple worship, I can understand why Indians would want to protect Hinduism as a whole, and Hindu nationalists dislike of attitudes and symbols of western domination is not unfounded. Doubtless, many missionaries and others in the past, British or not, would have witnessed the Shiva temple demonstration, seen it as something supposedly demonic or evil, and made attempts to eradicate it.  Unfortunately, this attitude ends up creating mistrust and resentment, which we witnessed earlier in our trip after some run-ins with Indian law enforcement. (I’ll leave that for another post.)  In my view, the attitude displayed by the worshipers at the Shiva temple is a symptom of ignorance, poverty, lack of education, and lack of exposure to much of the world at large. A not insignificant portion of India’s population still lives in small villages or cities in the countryside, and hence, are isolated from the reach of more modernizing influences. I was very impressed at the efforts that the mission in NAME WITHELD that we visited had put towards serving the needs of the local community. The leaders had established a hospital, nursing school, children’s home, and bible school all to serve the local community. We had a chance to visit the hospital, which was in the surrounding town, and I was inspired by how they had taken the Biblical command to “heal the sick” to heart. Motions like these are ones that resonate with people, and when they realize that people can do good when motivated my love rather than fear, perhaps people would be attracted to that appeal. That being said, fear and tradition are very hard influences to break, and there are many Indians that would likely attend chapel, accept Christian charity, and worship at the Shiva Temple all in one mix. In some ways, this is emblematic of the essential paradox of India.

As I sit in my room back home, thousands of miles away from Damoh, surrounded by first-world distractions, I realize that in some ways, I and the Shiva worshipers are not all that different. While the power of Shiva may have an inordinate influence in the lives and minds of some Indians, don’t many Americans worship Idols such as reality TV, celebrities, smart phones, etc…? Aren’t our lives in many ways, controlled by the Dollar God, the Fame God, the Peer Pressure God? While we may not be prostrating before our smartphones every night, the element of control is in some ways, the same. We are all indeed, human, subject to human fear, human envy, greed, and everything else under the sun.

 

* I want to mention that I am not trying to claim that Hinduism is an inherently evil religion, as many commonly held doctrines such as nonviolence and respect for living things are morally admirable, however the fluidity and lack of structure that can be present in Hindusim leads to a wide variety of practices and interpretations of belief.

Crater Lake

From where I currently live in Northern Idaho, Crater Lake is eight hours away by car, but the drive is easily done in good weather, and includes some surprisingly beautiful scenery. Being on the Eastern side of the Cascades as one is when they travel through Bend, OR, you have amazingly clear views of Mt. Hood, the Three Sisters, and other spectacular peaks. Since the Eastern side of these mountains is drier than the Western side, the skies have a tendency to be clearer and the weather can often be warmer. The approach to Crater lake is relatively easy to drive, as the more difficult mountain roads are not traveled until one actually enters the Park boundaries. It is interesting to note that the vicinity of Bend is where the terrain changes from drier, arid high desert to more forested foothills, and then the slopes of the cascades themselves. The area surrounding Crater Lake has been distinctively marked by volcanic activity, and indeed, the Lake itself occupies the remnants of an ancient Volcanic site. An ancient volcano called Mt. Mazama used to occupy the vicinity of the lake and its surrounding slopes, until a collapse led to the formation of a water filled crater, 1,949 feet deep. Crater-Summer_cropto_500x200

This depth makes Crater Lake the seventh deepest lake in the world, and the resulting clarity and brilliant blue color of the water is something that I found absolutely mesmerizing. Having seen images in the past of Crater Lake from many viewpoints, I was still surprised by the size of the lake. Upon first approach, I realized it was not the small, pond like  body of  water I had imagined, but was a sizable lake of impressive symmetry, ringed on all sides by steep, rocky slopes. Due to this inherent instability, there is only one designated trail that reaches the lake surface itself. On the third day of our stay, one of my companions and I decided to explore a little bit on foot. We started by ascending Mt. Scott, due to its status as the highest mountain in the park. I am a fan of ascending high points where I am if possible, due to the physical challenge and the potential views offered. True to form, Mt. Scott offered full views in all directions of the surrounding area, although the lake itself seemed a bit less majestic due to distance. The trail, while a gradual ascent, did provide an altitude challenge, as the summit was just under 9,000 feet high. The next challenge we undertook was to hike the trail down to Crater Lake itself. While situated at lower altitude than Mt. Scott, the return trip back to our car proved a bit more exhausting, perhaps due to being already fatigued. It is worth noting that if one runs into ‘fitness’ trouble going down, than going back up will be a rather difficult journey. Crater Lake is not, by any means, a warm lake, and one may last roughly two minutes or so in the water before the cold would begin affecting you (In mid-Summer). That being said, the lake water is refreshing on a warm Summer day, and the clear water that gives way to a brilliant blue several yards from shore is best appreciated close up. There is a tour boat that gives rides around the perimeter of the lake, and to the small conic island situated in the lakes’ Western half. We passed on the boat tour due to what we felt was an excessive ticket price, but for those willing to spend, it is the only way to see the lake by boat, as private vessels are not allowed, nor would it be feasible to launch them, so leave your kayaks and canoes at home. One of the advantages to having Crater Lake as a focal point to a National Park is that the road access to many very worthy viewpoints is easy and convenient. This makes this park an ideal visitation spot for families with young children or elderly members. It is worth noting that quite a few stretches of road in this park are narrow and windy, so one should be prepared to drive cautiously. As visually beautiful as Crater Lake NP is, the park  still caters best to those planning to stay in one of the three permanent Lodging options. RV and Tent campers, like my group was, need to do a bit more planning ahead to make the trip work. Campsites fill up very quickly in Summer months, and although sites become available each day, you may find yourself having to camp outside the park if you arrive too late in the day. Another thing to consider is that there is gas inside the park , but the nearest stations outside the park are an hour or so away. Other than this, the main logistical issues are standard with any camping trip. Just be smart and come prepared, and you will have a wonderful time. All in all I highly recommend that people visit this park at least once in your life, as you will not be disappointed.

Charleston or Savannah?

Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA are two of the most charming and inviting cities in the Coastal South. It is not uncommon to see these two cities compared to one another as far as worthiness in visiting, and ultimately, it does boil down to opinion, but I would like to give my two cents worth in hopes that any future visitors can be better informed in decision making. Out of these two cities, I was more captivated overall by Charleston than Savannah. That being said, the aspects that make both of these cities similar are more numerous than those that make them different. Both cities are small/medium in population, with impressive histories behind them, seeped in Colonial, Antebellum, and Civil War history. The surrounding lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia are one of America’s most unique geographical areas, with hundreds of hidden bays, estuaries, inlets and marshes.

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Unfortunately, many of the Islands that have quality ocean access are privately owned, but both Charleston and Savannah have some nearby beaches that, while not as spectacularly beautiful as other areas of the country, are still worth a few hours or so of time. What differentiates Charleston from Savannah in  my mind, is that Charleston is architecturally and geographically more inviting. Both cities contain wonderful examples of Southern Architecture, however the homes and buildings in Charleston feel more like a West Indies Port, with colorful paint, white, Grecian columns, and many Palmetto and Palm Trees scattered among them. Charleston also has an advantage in having more buildings and locations that played direct roles in episodes of American History. Fort Sumter alone is worth a visit to the city. Charleston is situated in a bay/harbor that has a direct outlet to the Atlantic, and indeed, you can stand on ramparts in Fort Sumter and gaze out directly at the ocean. Savannah, while being very close to the ocean, is situated slightly inland on a river, and its overall architectural style involves much more wrought iron, brick, and of course, the famous moss covered Oak Trees. Savannah is also a bit more spread out, as its squares and parks, begin to look alike after you have seen a few. If I had to use a phrase to describe Savannah, it would be “southern gothic.” Its a little bit less vibrant, less ‘coastal’ , but attractive in a unique manner. Savannah also lacks the amount of historical sites of Charleston, however, the city’s role in early Georgia history is quite fascinating. Neither city makes a claim to be an employment or entertainment hub, which helps keep crowds and costs down, but both of these cities are valuable attractions in their own right. Despite the differences, and regardless of the opinions of writers and travelers such as myself, both Charleston and Savannah are worth a first time visit at least. I mean, why not do both? I feel you would miss out more by skipping either one in favor of the other, until one has become seasoned in traveling that region.

So, the question remains: Charleston or Savannah? Either, really, best to quit dallying and just visit them…

‘Portlandia’ or the Whitest Kids You Know

portland-841428_960_720What struck me most about my first visit to Portland wasn’t the nature of the cityscape, which was, to my impression, nothing special, but the nature of the human environment. There are cities that are worth visiting for the people and culture, there are cities that have beautiful architecture and natural settings, and there are cities that have features of both. Portland is most definitely a city of people, hence a casual visitor needs to put in a little bit of legwork, (and jaw flapping, if you will) to really grasp the depth of what Portland has to offer. Long known for being a mecca for hipsterdom, Portland is indeed well populated by these mustache donning, thrift store clothes wearing “individualistic” herd animals, convinced that by engaging in a subculture of rather conformed dynamics, they are in fact acting against the societal norm. Of course, hipster bashing has become as much a popular movement as is hipsterism itself, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed by the feeling of being surrounded by individuals that were practicing an elaborate form of masquerade. To be fair, many of the shops and restaurants in Portland are wonderful and, admittedly, unique in a compelling manner. If you are a brunch type person, then I recommend the vibrant Cuban-styled Pambiche on Glisan St. Anyways, where was I? Oh yes…Hipsters. Navigating the streets of Portland is a visual adventure, yet the targets of one’s eyes are not architectural wonders, but rather, fashionistas of a pale sort, that admittedly, are clothed in a more appealing manner than the vast majority of Western subcultures. If hipsterdom was limited to parading about in faux-raggy threads, and avoiding the clichéd opinionated thinking associated with the trend, then I could accept the hipster’s existence much more easily. I wish it were simple to separate the hipster from Portland and to enjoy each on its own merits, but they are intertwined enough that to do so is an exercise in futility. To accept Portland, even for a short time, one must accept its “weird”, and despite opinions to the contrary, this is, when all is said and done, a good thing. After all, isn’t it true that often we express dislike over things that hit uncomfortably close to home? For all my anti-hipster blustering, I am indeed far more hipster than I would rather admit. Yes, I can be pretentious, yes, I dislike much of what is considered mainstream. I even dress hipster –ish on occasion, though perhaps that is a plus. I must be one of those self-loathing hipster types, attempting to out-snob the snobby in my mind. No, hipsters and their subculture cousins are what makes Portland well, ‘Portlandia’, and as much as we make fun of it, I think most Americans that know of Portland wouldn’t really want it any other way. Portland has its dark sides, such as issues with gentrification and the lack of racial diversity, but overall its is a pretty place, green, close to Mount Hood, and at least until the hipster species dies off, represents a slice of American culture that is compelling and interesting in its own, ironic manner.

Seattle, Culture, and the Freedom to be Naked

 

Being a resident of the Northwest, it is an inescapable fact that the urban anchor for the region is the city of Seattle. The Emerald City’s influence ranges far beyond King County, from sports fandom to government institutions, even the most hard-line backwoodsman would have to admit being at least partially cast under its spell. As someone who in most cases prefers the pastoral over the urbane, I nevertheless make periodic pilgrimages to Seattle to get my doses of culture and shall we say, “excitement.” As far as cities go, Seattle can come off as staid and cold in some aspects, and it certainly doesn’t have the Latin warmth of Miami or San Diego, but should it? Isn’t the Rainy Northwest the perfect region for an inward focused life, one of creative endeavors, reflection, and the freedom to develop ones own personality in private, thus revealed in great fanfare when public appearances are made? I had a recent opportunity to take a road trip with some good  friends to make a short tour of Seattle and Portland, with a short detour to the beautiful Oregon coast. My companions and I were in the midst of completing a two-day pedestrian tour of Seattle’s northern neighborhoods, namely Ballard and Fremont. We planned to catch a parade in Fremont, held to celebrate the Summer solstice, but none of us really had a full idea of what the event entailed, so we simply followed the trickles of people down to the semi industrial section of Northlake Way, fronting the Fremont cut. Well, unbeknownst to us, this parade had a longstanding tradition of including a clothing optional bike ride as part of its activities. Sure enough, we were sitting under a metal roof, when the nude, body-painted bicyclists began to appear. They all seemed to be in jovial spirits, and my companions and I, despite not being used to this form of entertainment, decided to just let things unfold and “appreciate” the artistry of the participants. We engaged in some lovely conversation regarding the different levels of effort that each cyclist took in creating their body art. Some, I am sure, attempted to scoot by with the bare minimum, while others had some rather intricate designs painted into each nook, cranny and fold of human skin. It was worth noting, I might say, that very few of the riders seemed like they were in shape, as many were overweight, and as we were able to smell later, very much fans of their weed. After the bike ride was over, my companions and I wanted to go check out Gasworks Park, which has impressive views of downtown Seattle. As we made our way to the park, we noticed that a good number of the cyclists had dismounted and congregated in the very spot that we wanted to go. After adjusting to the fact that we were now mingling with nude, body-painted individuals, we spent some time looking around and taking in the view. Admittedly, the view across Lake Union at downtown Seattle was impressive enough to make me want to return. Clothed, of course.  Our visit proceeded rather uneventfully, until I was propositioned by an older man, who was wearing nothing but a sash, covered head to toe with gold body paint, to take his picture. I quickly glanced around for an escape route but alas, there was none, and I hesitantly accepted the half broken, ten year old camera he shoved in my hands. After clearing gold paint off the viewfinder, I took his picture, forced a smile, and handed the camera back to him. As I walked away, I looked down at my now gold tinted fingers and made a beeline to the nearest sink and thoroughly cleansed my hands. Ah, Seattle, you and your people…. Ruminating on the episode as we departed, it struck me that what had happened, cumulatively, was as blatant an expression of American freedom as one could expect. Now yes, the concept of “Freedom” is somewhat nebulous and ill defined, and in today’s current political climate, can be a controversial term. That being stated, what we observed in Seattle that day was an exhibition of, well, free choice. As convoluted as some of the riders’ motives may have been, at least according to my psychoanalytic mind, both the spectators and the riders present that day were engaging each other in realizing their freedom of choice. The spectators needed the presence of the riders to be entertained, and the riders required an audience for their antics. Nobody was forced to participate or attend, and natural human curiosity being what it is, I was admittedly, thoroughly fascinated. We often think of blatant displays of American patriotism as being the flag, bald eagles, fireworks, etc.. While there is nothing wrong with these symbols, I would venture to state that freedom is best acted out and demonstrated, and why can’t freedom be, well, the freedom to ride a bicycle in the nude? To have fun while doing it? To watch? To decline? If the only thing taken from me that day was a slight bit of comfort, than so be it. I would rather events like this take place un-harassed and openly than have to live in a place where this freedom of expression is shuttered. After all, I can always just wash the Gold paint off if I have to.