Peace at heart, peace with our global home

In three days, on September 21, the world will be observing the International Day of Peace. This year’s theme, Climate Action for Peace, is multi-layered, calling for us to recognize that human conflict and environmental negligence will impact our lives and those of future generations, and that they are tightly interwoven.

Imagine if there were no pollinators. Bees around the world are in dire straits.

How would we grow enough food for our exploding human population without bees, and how would plant-eating animals survive? In a global food shortage scenario, who would have access to the limited supplies of food? Would it be the average person, working to make ends meet, just like you and me? Likely not.

What would happen to the flowers that fill our gardens with beauty, the balm of nature that can ease our stress and bring joy to our lives? What if there were no roses to stop and smell?

Outdoor sports as we know them might disappear, like your favourite golf courses.

While things like golf courses may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, they are just one of the many, many pleasurable things in our world that we take for granted. Imagine a world where there was no green space to play in.

Each year, since 2001, the United Nations asks all nations and all of us for one day “to put down … weapons and reaffirm their commitment to living in harmony with one another.” There are many days when that seems like a really tall order, but amazing things have happened when enough people get behind a movement. Governments don’t change until the people of those countries start to speak up.

For each of us personally, let’s get back to a social climate of kindness and respect, for each other and for all the other creatures and plants that share the only home we all have.

Here are some of my favourite photos from around the world, both near and far — I hope they inspire you to realize how badly we need to protect the climate that allows these beautiful places to exist. It’s an unnervingly fragile balance.

Samburu Reserve, Kenya
Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Andes Mountains
Floating reed islands, Lake Titicaca
Royal Botanical Gardens, Ontario
Lake Muskoka, Ontario
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Lake Pukaki, New Zealand
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Sugar cane, Mauritius
Linden tree in bloom, my back yard

Exploring outside the box – Andean cloud forest

Machu Picchu is one of those superstar archeological sites that people want to tick off on their bucket list, for good reason. It is an amazing site — the photos you typically see don’t come anywhere near what it’s like to be there in person.

A lot of people want to get there by hiking the strenuous Inca trail, but the tours I see offered most often are quick one-week excursions that give you a couple of days in Lima, Peru’s capital city, a day or two in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and a quick day trip to the Machu Picchu site by train to the engaging little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly called Aguas Calientes, where trekkers tend to base themselves and buses leave for the winding drive up the mountain atop which sits the ancient citadel that was lost and forgotten for many years until Hiram Bingham made his famous discovery in 1911.

But Machu Picchu sits amid the Andean cloud forest, a truly wondrous habitat that almost no one ever stops to look at.

When we went, we opted out of the 4-day Inca Trail hike and chose to spend two nights at a magical place called Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set at the edge of Aguas Calientes in its own 12 acres of beautiful and peaceful cloud forest.

Now, normally my hubby and I eschew costly high-end accommodations, which we often find to be glossy and unauthentic, in favour of smaller places saturated with atmosphere and in great locations for exploring.

For this trip, there were a lot of places we wanted to cover — there’s so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. I found an adventurous, budget-friendly 3-week tour that included all our must-sees, from the Ballestas Islands to the Nazca Lines, to Colca Canyon to see the massive Andean condors to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and finally the mysterious and rarely-visited ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

All the lodgings were basically 3-star, clean, basic but well-chosen for their proximity to area sights, They were all very authentic; we felt like we were embedded in Peruvian life.

Our hotel in Lima, Hotel Maury, had an unprepossessing exterior. The rooms were unremarkable, but the bar off the lobby was woodsy with wonderful murals that made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to the glamorous era of Eva Peron.

The location was fantastic — just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Mayor, where most of the main sights in Lima were ranged around, with pretty parks and a wide assortment of delicious restaurants. One morning we heard music drifting in from outside while we were at breakfast, and went out the front doors to find a parade passing down the street right past the hotel. All we had to do was stand on the sidewalk and watch (no idea what the unusual costumes represented, but it was fascinating to watch).

In the little town of Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, our overland truck shoe-horned itself down a narrow side street and burped us out in front of a tiny yellow-walled place that looked more like someone’s home from the outside.

The interior climbed up a maze of staircases around a small central courtyard, and was decorated in wood and Peruvian textiles.

The rooms were basic but comfortable enough and clean. Off the main lobby there was a wonderful little restaurant that gave us our first taste of a Pisco Sour.

As Pisco is on the ocean, there was fabulous fresh seafood to eat for dinner.

But once in a while you stumble across a place that’s truly magical and worth a splurge. That place was the Inkaterra hotel below Machu Picchu.

Sitting along the banks of the Urubamba river, the hotel consists of several buildings tucked into the lush cloud forest. As you can see from the photo above, the property is not flat, so for anyone with mobility issues, this might not be the ideal spot.

If you can manage the walking, though, you’ll be treated to your own cozy casita furnished with hand-made Peruvian wood furniture and warm woven blankets for the night chill.

The hotel makes its own toiletries from botanicals on the property.

You can book a privately-led tour of Machu Picchu with one of the hotel’s excellent guides.

But after that mainstay, leave yourself some time to explore the hotel’s cloud-forest surroundings, a rare treat.

The hotel has a wonderful little spa that you might want to visit to work out some high-altitude kinks.

Meals at the hotel are delicious. They also make an excellent, if very potent, Pisco Sour, by the way.

The hotel even has its own small tea plantation, and you can drink its teas during your stay, as well as visiting the plantation and making your own bag of tea.

There are birds everywhere — although snagging a photo of a zippy little hummingbird is a challenge.

If you can, visit in November. Why? Because it’s orchid season, and the hotel has 372 species of wild orchid on its grounds. Wild orchids look nothing like the cultivated varieties you see in florist shops. The wild varieties come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Orchid walks are a complimentary activity at the hotel, led by knowledgeable guides who will show you all the wonders of the orchid kingdom.

Inkaterra has also runs the Spectacled Bear Project, rescuing South America’s only native, and endangered, bear from the pet trade and rehabituating as many back into the wild as possible.

The rescued bears spend several months at the Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, learning how to forage for food and all the other skills they need to survive in their natural habitat. You can visit the resident bears with an onsite guide as they get their tutorials within a large enclosure (visitors have no actual contact with the bears). They are adorable.

This past April veterinarian Dr. Evan Antin visited the project on his Animal Planet show, Evan Goes Wild.

The Inkaterra hotels in Peru continue to win awards, and since we visited in 2012 they have become part of National Geographic’s Stays of Distinction, which unfortunately has roughly tripled the stay rates over what we paid. Nevertheless, I would rate a stay at this hotel a very worth-it splurge. You might also want to check out Inkaterra’s volunteering opportunities.

If you can only manage a week in Peru, so be it, but do your very best to spend more time and research all the fascinating sites beyond its most famous landmark.

World Elephant Day

When you think of Africa, what animal do you think of most? A good bet that it’s an elephant – their distinctive shape with widespread ears is such an iconic symbol. There are Asian elephants as well, which have smaller ears and a large twin bump at the top of their heads.

This is a special early post this week in honour of World Elephant Day.

African elephants are a wonderful sight in the wild. These massive creatures – they can weigh up to 12 tons) can be surprisingly silent when they choose – we have spotted them emerging from the bush unexpectedly without us even having been aware that they were moving about.

When watching them on safari, they are remarkably laid back as long as you don’t impinge on their personal space. A good safari guide knows how close to get without making them feel threatened.

If you do get a little too close, they will usually mock-charge by running towards you with ears flared and trunk raised, perhaps even blaring through their trunk. In certain situations they can get quite pissy, however.

There’s a large resident herd in Chobe National Park in Botswana, and most safari-goers embark on a short cruise on the Chobe River to see them trudge en masse down to the river for a drink and a bathe. There’s also a large and rambunctious resident troop of Chacma baboons. On one occasion we were watching the elephant herd peacefully roaming the river’s edge when the baboons decided to join the party. The baboons were making lots of noise and running all over the place, which really irritated the elephants, who proceeded to stamp up and down the river front, blaring loudly and shaking the trees with their trunks. The baboons were unrepentant, scampering around and creating chaos for several minutes. Eventually they seemed to tire of the game, leaving the elephants in peace once more.

In Kenya in Aberdare National Park, at a wonderful treetop lodge called the Ark, we watched animals at the watering hole while we were having afternoon tea in the lounge on the second level. We were highly entertained watching the water buffalo do end runs behind the back of a feisty teenage male elephant who seemed to feel that the watering hole was his and his alone and tried to evict them, with little effect.

As placid as elephants can be when you’re viewing them from a safari vehicle, any time that baby elephants are present, the adult elephants will be more protective, and male elephants in musth (heat) are essentially hormone-crazed and very dangerous.

If an elephant is in the road you’re travelling on, it owns it for the duration. Don’t ever try to bypass the elephant (as this tourist in Kruger National Park found out the hard way back in 2014).

It is amazing to watch them in the wild, doing what they do naturally, whether congregating for a sunset drink, bathing in a muddy puddle, or wading through the water to tear up great mouthfuls of vegetation for breakfast.

Elephants – in fact, all animals – are a gift, and we are privileged to be able to spend a little time with them in places like Africa. You can find out more about one of the world’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures, and how you can help ensure that other generations can continue to be amazed by them at the World Elephant Day website.

If you’d like to travel to Africa yourself and would like more information about where these images were taken, or about going on safari, please email me at liontailmagic@gmail.com.

Luray Caverns – Mother Nature Wins!

Hi folks — feeling a bit under the weather today, so this week’s post is a celebration of Mother Nature, who IMHO always wins the contest for artwork. Case in point: Luray Caverns in Virginia. The Caverns were discovered in 1878 and became an overnight success (after millions of years of formation, of course). Although not the largest cave system in North America, Luray is very walkable and superbly lit for visitors to enjoy the many spectacular formations.  I hope these photos inspire you to visit!

DSC00295-001The caverns range from small to massive

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Formations, some dry, some still wet and forming, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. This one is called The Fish, for its resemblance to a string of caught fish at a market.

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This odd formation is called The Eggs.

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There were so many fascinating formations we couldn’t recall the names of all of them.

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Many formations are still dripping, and have formed large pools below. They form stunningly perfect reflections in the still waters — so perfect that you have to look really closely to understand that the bottom part of what you’re seeing is a mirror image.

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One of the really cool things is a cave organ. It plays a slow and soft electronic tune which resonates through the chamber by…DSC00322-001

…small armatures that gently strike some of the stalactites. Visitors have to be very still to enjoy the soft music.

Visit the website for more information about this wonderful adventure.

Rainforests — Rescue Me!

You know you’re having a true jungle moment when a monkey sits on your head.

P_B2 074Maria the spider monkey (names have been changed to protect the innocent) loves to steal visitors’ plastic water bottles. She lives on Monkey Island, a sanctuary in the Madre de Dios river in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. She is an inquisitive and agile monkey.

Our group was gathered around a feeding platform as Maria eyed us all curiously and our guide talked about rescuing Amazonian primates from the pet trade. I was leaning casually near the small plank scattered with food bits while Maria played with a plastic bottle, when unexpectedly she scampered across the plank and decided that my head would make a good perch. In a flash my vision was blocked by black fur, and a long, very strong tail wrapped snugly around my neck – so snugly, in fact, that I had to wedge a finger between her tail and my skin to be able to breathe. I could hear cameras going off all around me.

Well, like I always say, you haven’t lived until you’ve had a monkey’s butt on the top of your head. After a few minutes on my head, Maria decided she needed a different viewpoint and climbed onto someone else’s hair.

A once-in-a-lifetime experience. And in a few decades, a never-in-anyone’s lifetime experience. Our rain forests are being deforested at such an alarming rate and so many species are dying out completely that nations around the world have declared an international Climate Emergency.

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Coming in for a landing into Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon, it wasn’t hard to spot the scars of clear-cutting.

It’s making the news in a big way now. You may have been seeing some of the headlines, such as Nature crisis: Humans ‘threaten 1m species with extinction’.

According to Rainforest Rescue, we are, on average, losing an appalling 150 species each and every day! If you were to think of that in terms of ‘man’s best friend’, dogs, that would be roughly the equivalent of every single dog on the planet being wiped out in three days.

When I was a child, I mourned the loss of famously extinct species like the Passenger Pigeon and the Dodo bird, which I would never see because of the stupidity of earlier humans who didn’t understand the impact of what they were doing. You’d think that, as we evolve as a society, we’d have learned something.

Every species on this planet is critical to the ecosystem that it lives in as well as our global ecosystem. The disappearance of these thousands of species will have an impact that continues well into the future.

Animal species also help keep our plants alive by pollination, dropping fruit pits to germinate in new areas, and transporting seeds in their fur. Without this continuous regenerative cycle, we are doomed.

Rain forests are majestic and magical places. Ancient remedies climb over each other in the undergrowth, bananas and mangoes grow wild, tree trunks transmit sound so far that local people use them as geolocators. To walk through the forest is to immerse yourself in the lungs of our planet as they breathe and pulse around you. I’ll let some of my photos speak for themselves.

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A butterfly investigates my husband’s hiking boot.
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The rain forest embraces our Amazonian jungle lodge.
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Let’s play ‘Spot the parrot’!
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Lush wild banana trees

Rain forests are in severe danger, as are all of their inhabitants, from millions of plants, animals and insects to the many tribes who’ve called the forests home for centuries. We have no right to take that gift of life away from them.

You can help. You can visit these incredible treasures to understand what they mean to the world ecosystem, and to all your children who’ll have to cope with the wreck we are making of this planet, and you can sign petitions to pressure governments to stop mining interests and rapacious developers.

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Local people as well as corporations destroy riverine habitats through indiscriminate mining

Petitions work. One such petition needs 200,000 signatures quickly: “UNESCO World Heritage: tell the palm oil barons to back off!” All it takes is a few moments of your time to make a difference. The, maybe one day in the future, your children will be able to find their own wild and incorrigible Maria monkey to have a close encounter with.

 

Awe and the expansion of our internal universe

When I started thinking about this piece, I was really thinking about the nature of things that appeal to us. I love tales of the supernatural, and I love Halloween in particular as a time to celebrate the supernatural and bring a little of it into our workaday lives.

There’s a reason that stories like The Wizard of Oz, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Narnia, Dracula, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Goosebumps and the Harry Potter books, are all so popular. It’s not just that they feature the supernatural and people living exciting lives – that’s part of their surface appeal. I believe the deeper appeal lies in that they allow ordinary people (and, through them, the reader) to be heroes. If you look at every protagonist’s journey, they all get to fight evil/monsters and become something larger than what they were at the start.

By reading their journeys, we experience the same emotions they do, and imagine ourselves in their shoes. In the really great stories, we experience awe.

Awe is an intense emotional state where we’re transported into a new universe – a place apart from our ordinary lives where we are engulfed in a larger consciousness. Awe makes us understand that our daily little problems are just that; that the political issues in the world are ridiculous posturing and power plays by leaders who rarely genuinely care about the people they are supposed to be serving. We get a glimpse of how magnificent life can be if we rise above all of the daily garbage.

We can experience awe in different ways.

Awe is a fundamental appeal of religion. I remember, as a child, trying to understand the world and the place of religion in it, having been raised as a Catholic and going to mass dutifully on the first Friday of every month to ensure my place in heaven. I loved the quiet parts of those early Friday morning masses – the soft flicker of candles, the hush of a nearly empty church when I could absorb the beautiful stained-glass windows transporting me to a time centuries ago when people got to meet Jesus in person.

One night I had a profound religious moment—I was thinking about the universe, and imagining what would happen if you had a giant blackboard eraser and started erasing us, and the planets, and the stars in the sky. What would you have left, I wondered, and it struck me that that was where God lived. I was so excited that I had to share it with my mom, who I was trying to comfort for some reason. I’m not sure I was able to explain it very well to her, at the age of about nine or ten years old, but it has stuck with me to this day.

A shared sense of awe can bring people together in powerful ways, and so the dark side of religion comes out when a religious leader begins to manipulate followers for his or her own ends. I’m still very spiritual, if not a frequently practising Catholic, because I prefer to believe that there is something beyond our short lives on earth, a more expansive universe where goodness exists for its own sake. However, as our spiritual leaders on earth are just human, like the rest of us, it’s critical that we apply objectivity to what they’re preaching, and can recognize when their teachings are oppressing any segment of their followers. Everyone on this earth should be equal.

Awe can be found throughout nature. A glorious sunset, the vast firmament of stars above us (hard to see when masked by city lights; if you’ve never appreciated them you should find a dark-sky preserve and take a look!), the power of waves pounding on a beach, the beauty in flowers and butterflies…

Humans and animals can fill us with awe, when someone does something amazing for the benefit of others, or delivers a powerful musical performance, or a pet saves its owners lives by alerting them to fire.

These moments of awe reaffirm our belief in goodness, a belief that gets battered daily by the news. It’s even worse now that we have news at our fingertips. The job of reporters is to attract our interest, and they rarely do it with feel-good stories. As a society we’ve gotten so caught up in the superficial stimulation from electronic media that we don’t take the time to cultivate the deeper emotions that come from quiet reflection and moments of awe that are all around us.

My personal journey of awe, the one that turned my entire life on its head and brought me to this place where I can help others experience awe for themselves and enter a larger universe, took place in Africa.

My husband and I had decided to celebrate our silver anniversary with a safari. I spent several years researching and planning, but by the time we left our home for Africa we were numb. Within the space of two years we’d had a death in the family and had to put both of our beloved dogs to sleep. My job had changed dramatically when my manager suddenly departed to pursue a different career, leaving the rest of our small department to flounder in deep waters. I remember walking around London, England, our first layover and a place we both love, feeling as if I was completely wrapped in cotton batten, insulated and separated from the outside world. It was a strange feeling.

Neither of us had great expectations of the trip – we try to experience each of our adventures as they unfold. We arrived in Africa just flowing with the current. Our safari guide met all of his seven guests at the small airport in Maun, Botswana, and loaded us into two small bush planes for the flight to our first bush camp deep in the Okavango Delta. Our little plane chugged along at 1,000 feet, low enough for us to see elephants and giraffes grazing among the acacia trees. When we landed on a short strip of sand in the middle of nowhere and piled into the open-sided safari truck for the hour-and-a-half drive through the bush to the camp, we were engulfed by the smell of the wild sage bushes – salty, pungent and unforgettable – scattered among the thorny acacias, tall and short palms, and towering termite mounds. Sights, sounds and smells bombarded our senses, and the cotton encasing our emotions started to disintegrate.

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That night, we lay in our dome tents under the vast African sky, listening to the sounds of fruit bats and tree frogs all around, with nothing between us and the wild except a bit of canvas and meshing. Wild animals could easily prowl right up to our tents if they wished, and we’d been advised to go carefully and in pairs to the toilet tents during the night if we absolutely couldn’t wait until morning. I remember lying on my cot, snugly tucked under a duvet, and experiencing the awe of being in that legendary place. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, and it shredded the last of that awful, numbing shroud that I’d been living in for so many months.

Our safari was filled with amazing moments – staring into the golden eyes of a lion lying at the side of the road just a few feet away from our truck, watching an elephant spray muddy water over itself, seeing a leopard in the wild, watching a troop of baboons romp and squabble. When we visited Victoria Falls I just stood with my mouth hanging open – having lived in the vicinity of Niagara Falls for most of my life, I was prepared to be only mildly impressed. But watching millions of gallons of the Zambezi River thunder over the Falls with an almost deafening roar, and seeing the resulting mist billow a thousand feet into the air, we were awe-struck at the power of Nature.

We fell in love with lions when we went on a nature walk with two young rescued males, Langa and Loco. We walked the bush with them, held their tails and scratched behind their ears, watched them explore their world. They were utterly adorable and showed us another side beyond the majestic predator they would one day become.

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It wasn’t only nature that wowed us – our safari guide, with his vast bush knowledge and cheeky sense of humour, all the staff at the four bush camps we stayed at and the lodges in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and the many other Africans we met, became like family. Their warm welcome and passion for their countries, their lack of materialism and deep relationship with nature, left an indelible impression on us.

By the end of the trip both my hubby and I were loathe to leave. We experienced intense culture shock arriving back home, and it took me a long, long time to find a way to integrate that experience into my regular life.

In the end, I decided that I wanted to help other people experience moments of awe and beauty, to understand what an incredible planet we live on if we take those first steps to transcend all the pettiness and materialism that seeps into our lives from outside forces.

We are one race of people, the Human Race, sharing our planet with animals, plants, insects, mountains, forests, oceans and rivers, sunsets and rainbows, and every part, down to the tiniest piece, is essential.

It’s easy to understand that, when you look around you and let awe in. It’s impossible to understand that when your face is glued to an electronic screen or your hearing is muffled by a headset. While I love a good computer game as much as the next person, and am, of course, bringing you this message through your computer or mobile phone, our attachment to electronics is increasingly isolating us from our fellow inhabitants on this grand planet. I believe we can trace a lot of troubles in our society to that source.

If you want to live in a larger world, one where you can see the best of humanity instead of the worst, where nature will fill you with both peace and awe in equal measure, where the universe can truly be seen in a grain of sand, a flower petal or the wings of a butterfly, you need only take those first steps along that path.