Saturday, August 4, 2007

Traveling Solo Contest: Essays Ten, Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen

by Amy Novesky

Costa Rica Bliss
by Sue Ballew

If you ever need to be reminded why you got your pilot's license or what the thrill of flying is all about, try flying in Costa Rica.

This morning in the central valley at 3000' field elevation, the tropical winds are already stirring things up. The temperature is a perfect 70 degrees, and the skies are crystal clear with puffy clouds hanging over the mountain peaks surrounding Pavas Airport. I our four place Cherokee we climb out to the west over some of the most ecologically diverse forests, waterways, and wildlife in the world. Alex, my Costa Rican co-pilot, and I speak to the tower and other pilots in a mixture of English and Spanish.

With a smooth landing, (is that possible on gravel?), and comments of "excelente" from Alex, the first airport we arrive at is Tamarindo on the Pacific Coast. As I had dreamed about landing here for the last 6 years of my travels in Costa Rica, I knew this flight was going to be memorable. Although winds were gusting to 30kts and bouncing us in every direction he kept repeating "This is normal, this is normal!".

Each of the five subsequent air strips proves to be more challenging than the last. As we fly down the coast and the next strip hidden in the jungle comes into view, I ask Alex, "Are we really landing on that piece of dirt?" I finally got to try the classic textbook landing, over the 50'+ obstacle (trees) at the approach end, cut the power and drop it in to barely a 20' wide dirt and gravel strip. On ground roll for takeoff in the opposite direction, we chop the power and opt to back taxi for more favorable winds.

After rounding the southernmost point on the Guanacaste peninsula at 1500' over the white sand beaches and rain forest, I spot the last strip before returning to Pavas. With the approach end of the runway touching the surf at Playa Tambor, we descend to within 5' of the water before touching down. I exclaim, "Was that landing or surfing?"

Wow, what incredible sightseeing!

On our way back to Pavas Airport I switch frequencies to Coco Airport (Juan Santamaria Int'l), and give an exhilarated "HOLA", to my friend Hiro, Chief Controller. I feel like a local! This is real flying!


Science Finds Soul in Dharamsala by Brie Cadman

My six-month journey through India, Nepal, and SouthEast Asia happened serendipitously. Two friends planned the trip and I, twenty-four years old and dreadfully unhappy with my first job as a biochemist, was looking for an escape. They invited and I accepted, not realizing that such an adventure would be the most fortunate accident my career could ever take.

After spending two months traveling through Nepal to India, I decided to part with my compatriots. I was anxious to explore eastern philosophies towards health, and Dharamsala, a small Indian hill town home to the exiled Dali Lama, seemed a perfect place to do so. I enrolled in an Ayurvedic massage class, and learned about doshas and pressure points. My most memorable lesson, however, did not come in the classroom. It came from a cat.

This particular cat had fallen from the second story window of a crumbling building, landing in the middle of a main footpath through town. It began wailing, unable to move its back legs an desperately trying to scramble around with its front. People stopped to help but mainly stood helpless. One man tried to put its legs in a cardboard box--a makeshift wheelchair. Another tourist asked if there was a veterinarian in town (there was not). The locals, Indians and Tibetans, stopped briefly, more intrigued with the gathering of tourists than the feline in front of us.

I remember the cat, not only because it reminded me of one of my childhood pets (a tabby named Alice) but because of what a fellow traveler whispered in my ear while everyone sadly stood. "Look," he said, "we all stop to try and help the cat, but do nothing for the people."

There is nothing a scientist hates more than to have someone come to an obvious conclusion before her.

Dammit, I thought, he's right.

Everyday in town, I had walked by lepers who scooted around on shreds of cardboard, bodies sunken by malaria, and kids with racking respiratory infections. I didn't stop. Or look for a doctor or clinic. I silently anguished over the first, second, maybe tenth person, but after awhile it was as if cats were falling from windows all the time; I simply became inured to their existence, their hopeless plight downwards.

I sat in my mud hut that night and contemplated the glaring health disparities between developed and developing nations. We had figured out how to eradicate so many diseases--leprosy, dengue, waterborne infections--but our global neighbors were still suffering. The science had worked, but the societies had not.

When I returned to the states, I realized that preventing disease at the population level has a name: public health. I applied for a master's program at UC Berkeley and got in; my entrance essay discussed the health discrepancies I had seen while traveling.

Years later, on a public health research project in the Guatemalan highlands, I was again struck by poverty and disease. But this time, I was there to help.


Walking As a Ghost: My Solo Journey by MJ Pramik

The journey to Mt. Hiei began in sheer silence. The yellow bucket tram glided smoothly high above the ancient cedars. Unseen spirits rankled the universe to convey me and a young mother accompanied by her wide-eyed daughter to the top of the mountain. We did not speak. We did not know each other's language yet our nodding smiles served adequately as we began our pilgrimage up the sacred summit.

Driven by some unspoken energy, I found myself high above Kyoto. The map I held was decorated with Kanji characters. Mt. Hiei straddles the Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures, commanding a picture-perfect, yamato-e landscape view of Kyoto city. Directed to the tram via the Takaragaike district, and then Yase Yuen Park, by an enthusiastic hotel clerk, I sensed a quiet pull of force. This was a new sensation for me. My scientific training required that I know each exact turn in advance, each street name verified before I set out on any tour, any experiment. In addition, an unnamed fear of the world 'out there' seemed sewn under my skin. I never left home without it. I did not like traveling alone.

At the top of the mountain, the wind rustled gently with an aromatic delicacy. Having viewed each and every Kurosawa film, I readied myself for attacking samurai and flailing angry ghosts as I stepped into the forest before me. My citified shoulders in their normal hunch up about my ears readied for any assault.

In this moment, however, without plan or reason, a riveting peace surrounded me. The bark on the trees begat a vivid transcendence. I wandered along paths alone, surprisingly unafraid.

This day, these moments were a revelation. Temple after temple appeared among the columns of trees as I meandered the soft walkways, not meeting anyone. Huge wooden structures, burned to the ground in the sixteenth century by shogonate armies then resurrected by followers of their teacher Saicho, housed wooden buddhas twenty feet and more in height, all in repose.

Oranges, reds, blues--such vibrant hues poured out of every corner and illuminated the dark inner chambers. Flowers, leaves, coins, and painted pictures studded the ground surrounding the smooth, smiling carvings.

As I stepped each step I truly felt alone. The existential alone. I walked in this body on this earth. And it was a beautiful walk. Each breath felt new and alive.

I returned to my hotel on the outskirts of Kyoto. How I traveled there I do not recall, though I am certain the brightly painted tram rattled me down the sacred mountain. For over a decade now this ghostly solo walk through the forest has grounded my life. Wandering among paths cleared by 'people who illumine their surroundings'--the name given to the ascetic Buddhists who filigreed these ribbons of intertwined pine needles and loam under the fir canopy, bestowed on me a solid measure of my self. I carry the stillness and harmony of that day with me in every moment.


Reclaiming Clarity by Amy Hotchkiss

In the afternoon I smell the chilly wind moving in from the continent's edge, and it's making me restless. My cottage sits on a ridge between the long line of highway land and the vast, foggy expanses of the sea. The ripening wine grapes, the apple orchards selling early Gravensteins, the possibility of a river swim, all the stuff of traveler's dreams, here in my Sonoma backyard. Shifting air and a full moon in the sky and I'm off, driving the snaking roads to a destination close to home and my heart. I go on solo journeys not for external pleasures, but for the possibility of self-reflection and healing. I go to clear off the mirrors to my inner landscape, to open to the clarity such reflection may bring.

I head inland at dusk, the coolest time to drive, to a little-known retreat center with a nudist sensibility and the hottest, most mineral-rich waters. That's how I end up viewing Mount St. Helens' purple top ringed with white swirls of smoky clouds against a bright pink and mango-streaked sky, as I pull into the entrance booth and the evening turns magical. I then climb nimbly up the clay-and-rock driveway to unload blankets and towels into my room, preparing for a long night.

Naked on a wooden bench on a tiny deck above a cold plunge pool, I sit before the white statue of goddess Quan Yin gracing the deck. After a quick cool down there, it's back through the doorway to what I call the fish grotto, where mineral-laden, extremely hot healing elixir (h2o) pours from the mouth of an ironwork fish. I sense that whatever pain I've been holding is sliding off, stiffness moving off my neck and shoulders as a layer is released. I sigh deeply in the clay room painted with sea waves darkened by a purple sky. Someone lights the candles near the fish and I'm transported to a watery realm that feels as bottomless as my mind.

Once I've absorbed the waters, alternating hot and cold until purification is palpable, the next step in my ritual is to climb to the meditation pagoda, or Tea House, where I know I'll be alone. I take my flashlight and head up the manzanita and oak-tree lined path to the pentagon-shaped hut. I remove my shoes and duck through the tiny door. On the altar are various offerings to the divine, everything from tarot cards to crumpled dollar-bills. I will leave something precious too, this time a rose quartz stone, known for heart-opening properties. But now I sit, just looking within, while jumbled thoughts and emotions shift down my watery spine. Sitting where others have also meditated, on a mountain's ridge set above a valley, expands my consciousness in space and time and reminds me we're never really alone. When I finally walk down, tuning my own deep breathing into the sound of voices far below, I feel like a window has opened. My landscape within appears as beautiful as this land. It's time to go home, so close.

Down by a fountain near the common room, I stand and listen to a big feisty woman belt out bluegrass behind a stain-glass window, its panels projecting purplish, green, and coppery hues. Ogling Orion and the other constellations making slow rounds of the sky feels like watching a map of eternity, and makes me want to sing too.

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