Revised Bucket Lists in the Time of Coronavirus

The dream of many is to quit, or cut back on, work and rev up travel plans. However, this is the age of Covid. While active older adults are more likely to have the freedom and disposable income for greater getaways, they are also in the higher health risk categories than the younger crowd. 

For many seasoned mature trekkers, destination bucket lists have changed. The Coronavirus has kept people apart for nine months, and the ties of families and friends are stronger than the desire to ride the bulls, climb a mountain, or bask in the sun. As a result, the top priorities for getting back on the road or in a plane may not be to exotic destinations, but to wherever loved ones reside.

Maria, Michele, and Nancy live in different states and have unique travel profiles. But what the three women, each in their 60s, share in common is their love of exploration and visiting new places. Plus, they enjoy creating travel wish lists and plotting out details well in advance. 

These well-traveled women agree it’s far too early to schedule any getaways, but when they do, visiting with loved ones will be at the top of their lists.

Cleveland Outshines China

Maria lives in Buffalo, New York. She always has a list of dream vacations. In 2019, her wish list included China, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Australia, Lebanon, India, and Stonehenge. Today, it’s a far different map, and all accessible via I-90. After nine months of social distancing, getting together with loved ones trumps all other destinations. Move over Stonehenge and Lebanon. Make space for Ohio and Illinois.

Maria and her husband are “just hoping to be able to see family again.” Their youngest attends grad school at Case Western in Cleveland, while another daughter, son, four grandkids, and siblings live in places like Batavia, Aurora, DeKalb, and Crystal Lake — locales far outside of Chicago for which there are no Fodor’s or Frommer’s guidebooks. 

Until she feels ready to travel, which won’t be for quite some time, Zoom takes the place of a jet. Most recently, Maria’s family coordinated weekly game nights connecting up to 11 people from five households spread across three states.

“We’ve had a first birthday (party), a 90-year-old birthday (celebration), and holidays over zoom. Not ideal, but better than nothing. It’s important that we see each other,” Maria says.

Dallas versus il Duomo

Michele is a retired San Antonio school teacher. As with most active older adults, she expected to globe-trot more once she said goodbye to her classroom commitments.

When she was teaching middle schoolers full time, she traveled, on average, just two weeks a year. Upon retirement, she upped her touring to six weeks a year. Among her favorite places were Greece and Italy.

Today, her bucket list is reconfigured to head to facilitate sharing time with friends and family. 

The thought of another European escape is more like a wild dream now. The very vibrant and healthy retiree says, “Back in early Covid days, I thought of exotic places. Now I want to see my people.” 

The timeframe is still too iffy to start planning, but the people and places are secure on her bucket list. The first trip she will make is a jaunt to nearby Dallas to visit relatives. When she feels more comfortable with air travel, she will enjoy quality time with loved ones in Chicago, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and New Orleans. 

“I’m not sure if it will ever be safe enough to return (to Europe) since I’m not as young as I used to be.” Her primary concerns are people not getting vaccinated and another pandemic. “I will likely always be masked when I travel by air from now on. I’m pretty freaked out about traveling. Period. That’s so sad since I loved it so much in my past life.”

Heaven is Where Your Loved Ones Are — and Boulder Junction, Wisconsin

Nancy and her sweetheart are passionate travelers from the Midwest who share many of Michele’s and Maria’s thoughts about future travel. Too many questions are unanswered for Nancy to feel safe traveling now, or even to make reservations. Things that we took for granted, like using a public restroom are stopping Nancy from getting beyond her dream list for now.

Once the kids became adults, Nancy checked off all 14 of the presidential libraries in the United States and logged long-distance bike travel in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Vietnam, Italy, Spain, France, Canada, Costa Rica, and many U.S. locales. An art historian and aficionado of aesthetics, she has a collection of thousands of images of flowers from her travels around the globe.

“Typically, we don’t let our suitcases cool off between travels. Now they are just gathering dust,” Nancy says. “Travel is our greatest fantasy, these days. We play ‘where do you want to go?’ constantly. In between, we reminisce on favorite places, meals, sights, lodgings, and experiences. ‘Remember the Flamenco dance concert in Seville? Ah, the sculptures in the garden at the Rodin Museum, in Paris. The production of Shakespeare’s, Corolanus, in Stratford, Ontario, was incomparable,’” she muses.

Similar to Maria and Michele’s re-molded travel priorities, domestic trips, and visiting family is at the top of the bucket list these days. Nancy’s family is scattered so she has plenty of places on her list from spending time with her son in San Francisco to siblings and cousins in Omaha, Georgetown, Texas, Denver, and Kansas City.

Nancy is a lucky one as her designated heaven on earth is just a five-hour drive from her sweetheart’s house.

“My absolute favorite place on earth is Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. I always say, ‘Why go to heaven when you can go to Boulder Junction?’ It is the heart of the North Woods, where tall pines, silver birch, endless pristine lakes, hiking trails, loon calls, and pine-scented air fill my tanks. We’ve been going there every year since 1997 to recreate the memories of attending camp in the late ’60s and early ’70s.  2020, the rabid year, broke that golden thread. So, the top of the list is returning to Boulder Junction.”

Austin’s Street Food Scene: Vegan Soul

Sassys Vegetarian Soul Food, Austin, TexasOne of the many things that make Austin — well, Austin — is the street food scene. Nestled away throughout the city are food trucks, often within small trailer parks. These al fresco diners feature a great variety of options to quench your thirst or tastebuds. Despite the makeshift and tattered mobile kitchens and dining areas, the food is just as good as if it served on china and white tablecloths.  

As Coronavirus ravaged businesses across the country, the food trucks in Austin weathered the storm better than many other dining establishments.  Most Austin food trucks were among the first eateries to re-open after Covid lockdown restrictions were modified. By their nature, the food parks assure diners there won’t be any stagnant air. It’s also easier for people to social distance themselves. It’s not uncommon for the trucks to have a six-foot space at the order window separating the staff from the customer. That’s the case of one, very unique dining concept.

Sassy’s Vegetarian Soul Food

Most vegans tend to stay away from Southern fare, as there seems to be an abundance of pork, pork fat, and other animal products in pretty much everything. Not Sassy’s.  This food truck menu tempts you, regardless of if your dietary restrictions or preferences. It’s soul food, minus the high levels of cholesterol, sodium, or saturated fat. But chock full of flavor. 

Sassy’s trailer is conveniently located at 1403 E. 7th Street, east of I35, north of the river, and south of the university. Owner, Andrea Dawson stopped eating animal products for digestive health reasons. But, she didn’t want to give up her taste for soul food. She searched for vegan soul cuisine in Austin and came up empty-handed. Not to be discouraged, she chose to stir up her own creations. She found a retiring food truck, bought it, and began serving up the food was craving.

She says most of the items on her menu mimic the taste of her family dishes, but without the meat or pork products.  

“I consult my mother on many of the dishes who helps me with the preparation of items. I substitute where needed. The key is in the seasonings.  I use very little straight-ahead salt, but I vary the taste with spices that may not normally be found in some dishes but compliment it very well.”

Although one guest said she wanted to eat everything on the menu, the hands-down best seller is Chicon and Waffles. Chicon (the name of a street where she first opened the trailer for business) is chicken-flavored seitan. It’s a filling dish that people order for any meal. Since the waffles are egg-less, it’s a real treat for those who love their waffles, but who nix the eggs.

Sassy’s doesn’t hold back on the standards like black-eyed peas, baked sweet potatoes, cornbread, collards, cabbage, and kale. All are smothered, or sauteed, in vegan butter. No holding back on the butteriness or creaminess, Dawson whips up a scrumptious Cajun Mac and cheese with sausage. But, the cheese is replicated from nuts, and the sausage is a plant-based alternative. 

Praise for Sassy’s

Dawson says, “The ones that warm me are when non-vegans are dragged here and are blown away.  I am just tickled.  I had one person rave about the Poke Chop Sandwich (made from ground mushroom, wheat meat, and soy) because pork chops were something they thought they’d never enjoy again but mine was very close, that felt very validating.”

Sassy’s attracts all types of diners. 

“I have lots of regulars that have been here from the very beginning who have seen how the menu has evolved over time. Young people who want to eat a healthier alternative than their parents. Older adults are now being told to modify their diets. And lifelong vegans looking to vary their choices,” she adds.

For those not familiar with the food truck culture in Austin, this is a great way to sample not only soul food but East Austin. Sassy’s is open this fall Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 to 8 p.m.
with outdoor eating areas within the yard.

Treat yourself to healthy treats in Austin

Nada Moo! vegan ice creamEverybody loves ice cream.

There’s nothing cowing about NadaMoo! ice cream. NadaMoo! Is the brand of vegan and gluten-free coconut milk-based frozen treats sold in 9,000 retail locations in the U.S. and Canada. The family-owned business got its start in 2004 by an Austin resident whose ice cream loving sister had dairy and gluten intolerances.  That sisterly devotion creation, by luck, was swiftly picked up by Whole Foods, fueling its growth and popularity.

For folks visiting Austin, while there’s no ice cream factory tour, you can stop by the only NadaMoo! shop in the country. What they call the “flagship scoop shop” opened in 2018 on South Lamar, just five minutes from downtown Austin, and five minutes south of the first Whole Foods store in the nation. Given the brand name recognition, it’s common for out-of-towners to swing by when they are in Austin to sample the coconut-based products.

The scoop shop has more than a dozen mouth-watering flavors like peach cobbler, marshmallow stardust, and caramel cold brew and cookies, along with favorites like organic vanilla, organic chocolate, or organic chocolate mint.

“There are some other vegan ice cream shops throughout different parts of the country. We, however, are the only nationally distributed plant-based ice cream brand with at least one scoop shop location,” says NadaMoo! President and CEO, Daniel Nicholson.

If you swing by the NadaMoo! storefront, you can pick out a cone or cup, just like at a traditional ice cream store. What’s more, if you liked your treat, you can purchase pints from the coolers, where you have 16 flavors to choose from. Additionally, the staff can whip you up all sorts of shakes and floats. Some are mixed with soda, coffee, or espresso. Others, add in cereal crunchies, sprinkles, chocolate chips, or cookies. All are vegan and gluten-free, even the cookie dough.

Although the shop is a favorite among plant-based consumers, the ice cream creations are equally tasty among those with no dietary restrictions.

“We love our customers. They span all ages and races and ethnicities. We believe all people are NadaMoo! people. It is our aim to penetrate every household as a solid option for ice cream lovers of all generations who are simply looking to do better for themselves and for their families and for the planet when they decide to indulge in ice cream,” adds Nicholson.

Most patrons would never know NadaMoo! is not a dairy product. It’s rich and creamy because coconut milk has a saturated fat content similar to that of cow’s milk, but without the negative side effects to one’s health, or the environment.  Another plus, the sugar content and glycemic index are
lower than most frozen desserts because pure agave syrup is part of the winning recipe.

While the scoop shop is located in a fairly packed 1800-square-foot brick and mortar location, there always seem to be empty tables out front for those who want to enjoy their favorite flavors and combos right on site. For travelers who prefer to stay in their hotel room, NadaMoo! partners with Uber Eats, Favor, Prime Now, and Postmates for delivery service.

Costa Rican Biodiversity

Zoo Ave and LaSalle museum in Costa Rica
It’s no surprise that people from all over the world head to Costa Rica to get close to nature. Part of the attraction is to get close to birds, animals, insects that aren’t normally in your own backyard. The biodiversity, bolstered by a strong tourism infrastructure, and environmental laws, makes it a natural for people to want to spend time in a country where more than 25 percent of its land is protected as national parks or reserves.

According to the Costa Rican Embassy in Washington, D.C., the country’s “biological heritage, the product of millions of years of evolution, presents us a spectacle of a nature not processed and undomesticated. Its natural wealth, both in species and ecosystems, is partly explained by its geographical position.”

Pretty much anywhere you go in Costa Rica, you can spot an interesting animal, insect or bird, amid lush vistas. While many tourists travel from one edge of the country to another in search of biodiversity, some treasures are right by the capital. One is within walking distance from the old airport (now a lovely museum) in central San Jose. The second is near the SJO airport in Alajuela.  

Largest Collection from the Animal Kingdom

First off, La Salle Museum of Natural Sciences is open seven days a week.  Second, it’s on the edge of La Sabana Park, which in and of itself should be a destination for travelers. 

La Salle is not a mega modern or fancy place. There are no interactive displays or award-winning architecture. Nonetheless, La Salle is said to be the best museum of its kind in Latin America.  With the exception of the dinosaurs displayed, the thousands and thousands of living creatures displayed are real. Just not alive. 

Somehow, they squeeze more than 70,000 specimens into this small museum. For example, La Salle boasts one of the best collections of shells and mollusks in Latin America. Approximately 15,000 examples represent nearly 5,000 species.  Next, the entomology wing showcases 8,400 butterflies representing 1,200 species. As with many of the collections here, most of what’s exhibited is representative of Costa Rica. However, there are intricately-patterned winged varieties from Malaysia to Sri Lanka. 

As the sizes of the specimens increase, the numbers displayed decrease. Consider that there are 1,400 birds and 400 mammals in this quiet museum, along with fish, reptiles, fossils and minerals. 

It’s a very unassuming place on the outside, and inside. The ticket office fits behind a small open window. There are a few items on display for sale, including 3-D dinosaur puzzles, coloring books, and other souvenirs. Within the office, is a portrait photo of Franklin Chang. Why many may not recognize his image, for Costa Ricans, he’s an icon. Likewise, for many Hispanic Americans, his face and name are well-known.

At the age of 18, he arrived in the U.S. with no knowledge of English. And, just $50. He ultimately earned a Ph.D. from MIT. By 1981, he became a NASA astronaut and tied the record for the most space shuttle missions.

Today, a U.S. citizen, he often makes public appearances at schools and large events to encourage kids interested in science and technology. However, he doesn’t forget where he came from. The woman in the office at the museum says with pride that Chang graduated from La Salle, the educational institution that established the museum. Furthermore, Chang was instrumental in the expansion of the natural sciences museum.

When Chang was just a kid, one of the school’s science teachers collected life science specimens. Gradually, he needed more and more space for his collections.  His passion spread. As a result, students and friends of the school began to donate more specimens. Hence, all the items at La Salle are authentic. Furthermore, none of the animals were harmed or killed to be on display. 

Certified Animal Sanctuary Minutes from the Airport

Next off, an exceptional place featured on Animal Planet. The Zoo Ave Rescue Center. What makes this even more of a don’t miss destination, is the fact that it’s just 15 minutes from SJO, the largest and busiest airport in Costa Rica. While SJO is commonly called the San Jose airport, it’s actually located in Alajuela, where Zoo Ave is. 

Zoo Ave, originally a zoo, was converted into a non-profit sanctuary in 1991. Its founder, hoped to create a more positive environment for the animals, nurse them back to health, release them when possible, and at the same time educate the public.

Here, there are more than 125 animal species on a 34-acre oasis.  Just as at the La Salle museum where none of the animals were harmed or exploited for the sake of visitors, none of the animals at Zoo Ave were harmed or captured for display purposes. Rather, these are all rescued animals, and the center strives to return as many as possible to the wild.  Signs throughout, showcase the number of animals released to their natural habitats. Among the more than 50 animal species that Zoo Ave cared for, and freed, are 480 black-faced solitaire birds. As such, Zoo Ave is certified as part of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).

According to the Worldwide Zoo Database, “Every year Rescate Animal Zooave in Alajuela admits approximately 2,800 orphaned, injured and confiscated wild mammals, birds, and reptiles. Some animals are too vulnerable to be released back into the wild and therefore require long-term care. Over the years tens of thousands of shrubs and trees have been planted, this is an ongoing effort and a great deal of care and effort goes into the continuous restoration of the Wildlife environment where visitors are able to see and enjoy the wide range of animals in their natural habitat.”

Also open daily, the center is family-friendly and wheelchair accessible. The admission fee is a bit steep, but the donation supports the non-profit endeavors. Additionally, you can purchase souvenirs, or have a bite at the Zoo Ave restaurant.

Finally, butterfly lovers should also check out butterfly gardens in San Jose.

World Bhakti Yoga Festival

World Bhakti Festival, Dallas, 2020The Dallas yoga community is preparing for something special this leap year weekend. The first World Bhakti Festival takes place Feb. 28, 29, and March 1 at Westside Wellness. The festival includes a free admission fair on Saturday with local vendors, healers, and plant-based food and drinks, as well as a variety of free traditional yoga and meditation classes, and education workshops. However, the main focus of the festival, as the name implies, is Bhakti: the yoga of devotion.  

This is the first yoga festival of its kind in Texas. What’s more, it’s open to people of all ages, all abilities, all religions, and all socio-economic levels. So, it’s a good opportunity for a road trip, regardless of your connection to Bhakti Yoga. Especially given the diverse offerings, affordability, and comfortable venue.

About the Venue

Since the festival is centered around devotion, it’s appropriate that the venue is within the oldest continual congregation in Dallas.  Westside Wellness is actually a holistic healing center nestled within the Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) complex. The six-acre campus includes a zen garden, a one-acre wifi-equipped dog park with its own lending library, a community vegetable garden, and a soccer field. Additionally, this is a popular wedding venue with a neo-classical sanctuary with a pipe organ, and a separate chapel or “little church.”

Westside Wellness is just an eight-minute drive from Love Field Airport (DAL), and another eight minutes to the Museum of Geometric and MADI Art.  About a ten-minute drive, and you’re at Reunion Tower, Uptown Katy Trail, Dallas Museum of Art, the World Aquarium, or Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Find more to explore in and around Central Dallas to round out your road trip or weekend getaway. 

About Bhakti Yoga

According to one of the three World Bhakti co-founders, Lavanga Latika Devi Dasi, “Bhakti is inherent in traditions all over the world.  It’s actually the string that holds them (religious traditions) all together.  The heart of Bhakti is learning to see how we are actually more alike than different.  When we sing in Kirtan (musical expression of Bhakti), there is no us and them. By awakening our relationship to the Divine, we can then see how we are all children coming from the same source.”

Bhakti has been gaining steam across the U.S. along with the rise in the spiritual but not religious population. Bhakti festivals are popping up across the U.S., in part fueled by people’s love for music. At the Bhakti festivals, devotion is primarily expressed through the form of Kirtan music. Basically, chanting of the holy name, prayers and mantras, swaying and even ecstatic dancing to the beat of the drums — or electric guitar. 

Bhakti resonates with everyone, as music is a universal language, and expression. As a result, music will be an important component of the leap year weekend activities at World Bhakti Festival.

Visitors can attend the entire weekend. Or, register for specific days or events. A portion of the World Bhakti festival proceeds benefits a non-profit that helps women navigate the emotional, mental, physical, legal, and technical obstacles after the loss of a spouse.

Lineup Highlights

Following is a partial listing of la carte options. 

Friday 7-9 p.m. The festival kicks off with a concert with headliner Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band preceded by Stefanie Tovar. Tovar, inspired by Johnson, has been a presenter at the Sedona Yoga Festival.  Johnson, a favorite among yoga teachers and Kirtan enthusiasts, leads a band that was the first of its kind to play the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Wild Lotus is steeped with soul-stirring versions of ancient mantras that reflect a fusion of New Orleans roots, rock, gospel, and world grooves.

Saturday 6-9 p.m. The second extended concert night features Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band along with Bhakti House Band. Both Bhakti House and Wild Lotus bands share styles that range from funk to country to gospel and R&B. They are both high energy, and at the same time, very introspective. The two bands routinely travel across the country to lead in small intimate groups, as well as mega-venues.

Kristin Brooks, of Bhakti House Band, says Johnson “brings a very Southern, soulful vibe to his music. Texas culture is already filled with deep devotion—-it’s simply finding the entry point into the Texas heart–and anything with a little bit of that gospel vibe seems to do the trick.” Wild Lotus’ “Unity” album debuted #1 on the iTunes World Music Chart and #3 on Billboard. In the meantime, Bhakti House Band’s sixth album, a late 2019 release of “Roots to Revolutions,” ranked #5 on iTunes and #1 on Billboard.

Saturday 9:30-11 a.m. and 2-5:30 p.m. Johnson, who owns two yoga studios in New Orleans, leads two Bhakti on the mat classes that weave in storytelling and music by the Wild Lotus Band. The morning session incorporates a dynamic yoga flow, and the afternoon class features poetry writing. In both, Johnson re-creates stories from yoga mythology to bring more meaning and depth to the songs and chants shared.

Saturday 11:45-12:45 p.m. In between Johnson’s sessions, Ashley Ray offers a Shamanic drum meditation. Ray is a Certified Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Holistic Psychotherapist, and Energy Worker. She blends contemporary, traditional and Indigenous healing practices to guide others to healing, awakening, and enlivening mind, body, heart, and soul.

Saturday 2:30-3:30 p.m. For a new twist to Hatha, Kirsten Joy Burch guides Tantra yoga with meditation. Burch is co-founder of World Bhakti and director of operations and development for Westside Wellness. Additionally, she is the owner of Living Yoga Dallas and the founder of PraniLife Consulting. 

Sunday 1:30-4 p.m.  Closing out the weekend is a workshop for yoga teachers. Johnson, for many years, has attracted Bhakti enthusiasts from across North America to attend his weeklong immersions in New Orleans. Now, he and the Wild Lotus Band members are presenting a mini-version in Dallas. Their entertaining and informative workshop focuses on infusing music and chanting into a yoga practice.


The Finest Museums in The World vs. Nature

Nature's playgrounds: Belize beachChicago’s Museums — Masterpiece Playgrounds

Born and raised in Chicago, I felt I was a lucky child. Some of the greatest museums were on school field trip agendas.  Plus, I fondly recall many outings downtown with my mom. We’d take the elevated train, and The Art Institute was just a few blocks from the “el” stop. It was so enormous. We could go several times a year, and still not see everything.

Not too far south from The Art Institute were the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum of Natural History.  Then, many a kid’s favorite was the Museum of Science & Industry. Before the popularity of children’s museums, this place was a Disneyland for a child of the 60s. It was always teeming with school groups. Around the holidays, there was a display of several dozen uniquely decorated Christmas trees representing a different country.  Even back in the the days before technology, this museum was a real treat. 

Yes.  I was fortunate, I felt.

Looking back on my childhood, I figured anyone NOT living in the Chicagoland area was somewhat culturally deprived. Of course, I had heard of a few museums in those rare cities that were even greater, in my child’s mind, to Chicago. But, overall, I suspected kids my age not living in Chicago would be jealous of the mammoth institutions we could easily visit.

Nature’s Museums

Over the years, I’ve lived in other countries, and traveled extensively. While I cherish museums, I recognize — and can be jealous of — kids that find their own museums in nature.  Especially in those places with no stoplights, no movie theatre and no toy store.  There may be a lack of entertainment and education as we perceive it, yet there’s great creativity and resourcefulness.    

I marvel as I watch these kids play, unchaperoned. Their childhood is filled with a freedom to explore nature, naturally. Completely different from a guided tour using the buddy system, or walking behind stanchions and around glass casings.  Don’t get me wrong. I still love museums, and feel so fortunate every time I find a new one.

However, some kids that might be limited from visiting museums, have unlimited access to nature’s museums, aquariums, and art institutes. The best books and schools, typically, don’t ingrain an appreciation for nature, nor the need to be creative and resourceful, to the level that living it does.

For example, in Belize, each day as I read my books from a folding chair on the beach, I smile seeing kids enjoying nature’s museum.  Some, just barely out of diapers, are playing in the sand. Climbing trees.  Plucking flowers.  Splashing in the shallow water.  

There are no parents within view shouting them warnings.  No sunscreen or insect repellant. No floaties.  No water bottles.  No towels, umbrellas or beach chairs.

So different from many of today’s kids in the U.S. Our society tends to hover over our kids, protecting them from the many real dangers.

In this small town in Belize, I have no concern for the kids’ safety. They aren’t really alone. There’s always one slightly bigger kid to look out for the next. Plus, within earshot, there have to be plenty of villagers manning their outdoor kiosks, boats, or pushcarts. Most likely, everyone knows where the little ones live, and who their parents are.

Similarly, I witness that same sense of joyful play in Costa Rica. At one part of the beach, there are the hard-core surfers defying the dangerous Caribbean tidal waves.  Watching the spins, flips and flying boards are a bunch of tough-looking guys. Possibly the wanna-be hard-core surfers, or friends of the gutsier guys braving the sea. 

Around the bend, I take a seat atop a stone ledge. Listening to the sounds of the waves, and enjoying the tranquility, I notice youngsters at play. I guess they are big brother and little sister. Their creative play is darling. They find makeshift toys. Tell make-believe stories.  Bark like dogs. 

Again, like in Belize, these two kids look completely unchaperoned. In the 45-minutes that I’m waiting for sunset, there is never the voice of a parent telling them to be quiet.  No one yelling to get closer to the shore. Even though they never escape the shallow waters. Nobody tells the older boy that he is too rough, or obnoxious, with his sister.

Actually, I get the feeling she would tell him, herself, if that were the case. As the sun begins to set, a handsome man with an athlete’s build appears at the shoreline with a surfboard above his head. He prances around with the kids in the water. Then, they follow him joyfully to a young lady who’s been near me the whole time. Apparently, she’s the mama. What strikes me most is how she never hovered over the kids, but let them just have fun in nature’s playground.

Kids should be kids. Have fun in their own back yards. So now, who’s jealous of whom? These children may not have the latest in smartphones or gaming devices. They don’t need them. They have much better ways to play, learn and communicate with one another. 


Alone in the Rainforest

Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica
Early riser that I am, I am the first person in the Cahuita tropical rainforest. Well, second. The park employee is opening up the area.  Wanting a guide to show me around, I wait more than an hour before one arrives. No worries.

I practice yoga in the welcome center gazebo until the first guide arrives. It is a beautiful delay. Downward dogs, warriors, and twists, overlooking the Caribbean. Perfect start to what ends up being more than four hours walking through Costa Rica’s 2,700-acre Cahuita National Park.  Most of it, in solitude. 

A Guided Walk Sandwiched Between Stretches of Solitude  

As much as I recommend hiking through the forest alone to feel the majesty of this park, a guide is definitely worth the money. I hire Ronald. He was born in Cahuita some 60 years ago. Ronald has finely-attuned eyes and ears. On this 90-minute walk, he spots so many examples of the richness in the biodiversity, that to me just blend into the backdrop.

For example, he beams his red penlight up a tree. I see bumps in the bark. Murciélagos, he says. Bats.

I’ve always been amazed by Costa Rica’s pin-sized ants that carry leaves a thousand times their size.  Ronald’s long spindly finger points out many of the leaf-cutter ants’ creations. Among them, enormous fossil-like cocoons. Trails that appear to be formed by people trudging through the forest. Holes that I would guess were from a snake. 

In the short period of time that I’m with Ronald, beyond the bats and ants, he finds mapaches (raccoons), cari-blancas (white-faced monkeys), caimanes and rainbow toucans. He explains that the rusty-colored water is from the tannin in the beach almond trees. Despite the reddish hue, the water is pure and clean, he assures me.

While the time on my own in the park is magical, the only wildlife I spot myself are butterflies, spiders, and a few birds.  So, while I vastly appreciate my alone time in the forest, I have to acknowledge that I’m not yet sensitized to finding wildlife. No matter how hard I may look. Plus, I like to hear a bit about things from Ronald’s perspective. When Ronald says goodbye, not far from the entrance, I continue my journey inward.

Walking Meditation

Alone. In the past hour, now, I haven’t seen a single person. The paths are fairly well marked. The first half pretty much edges the Caribbean. The second half veers away from the water but has hanging walkways.

It’s fairly dark in the park. The lush canopy forms an enormous rooftop made up of thousands of umbrellas. After a nice walk, I find one of the sole oases. There are two picnic benches under a metal roof.  No water. No bathroom. But there’s a legend map, where I note that I have another seven kilometers ahead. If I continue the journey, that is. My alternative is to return the same way I came. A little more than a mile back to the main entrance.

Not in a rush to decide if I go forward, or backward, I sit down on the bench. Eat some grapes. Soak up the abundant greenery and wildlife surrounding me. Listen to the sounds of the ocean waves. Looking to my left, and straight ahead, I watch the foamy waves in the Caribbean.  

It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am. Because I look all around me. Up. Down. Ahead. To the sides. I’ve been to other national parks in Costa Rica, but possibly the solitude of this place gives it a different feel. Rather than just walk briskly from point A to point B, I feel “in the moment.” There is a slight sprinkling of rain on my journey, and I note how the canopy of the tropical rainforest keeps me dry.  

Giant Umbrella in the Sky

Now, enjoying the scenery and the quiet at the shelter, it gets darker. And louder.  The light raindrops convert into a heavy downpour.   The clattering of the rainfall on the metal roof is soothing.  I’m enjoying hanging out right here, surrounded by heavy rains. The rainforest may be one of the driest places for man, animal, or insect, in a tormenta. All the while, the canopy and its mazes of vines, branches, and leaves are soaking up the water like a sponge. I feel blessed to be in this place. 

Costa Rica.


The National Park.

My shelter. 

In a tropical rainstorm.

After my sensory immersion break, soaking up the sound of the rain showers, inhaling the cool misty air, admiring nature’s wonders, and staying dry — a window begins to open up in the sky. Slowly, the clouds dissipate and the sun peeks out. Just barely. As it sparks fragments of illumination onto the mirrors of the waterfront, I feel re-energized. I continue on the long road. 

Cahuita National Park is an incredibly beautiful place to visit. There’s something special to being here, alone. One evening, at sunset, I chat with a Canadian woman outside the entrance to the park. She heads here, daily. Alone. That said, inquire about the days and times that the cruise ships pass through here.

Five Tips

  1. Allow plenty of time here. Don’t be on a schedule.
  2. While the park entrance fee is not mandatory, give a nice donation to help with the upkeep.
  3. Hire a guide. The local economy needs it, but more importantly, your visit will be richer for it.
  4. Bring a water bottle, and enter with an empty bladder. The only plumbing is about halfway in. Depending on how much you meander, it can take several hours to get to this spot. 
  5. For hearty hikers, enjoy the full 8.3-kilometer trail. Begin at the main entrance by Playa Blanca, and exit the other side at Puerto Vargas. Walk just a few hundred meters from the exit to a bus stop. From there, you can head back to Cahuita or Puerto Viejo. Or, hike or catch a ride another five kilometers up toward Puerto Viejo and enjoy the Museo de Cacao.

Five Facts

  1. Punta Cahuita was first settled in 1828 by a Panamanian turtle fisherman, William Smith. The town of Cahuita, on the other side of Playa Blanca, was established in 1915. When the park was delineated, those living in Punta Cahuita were relocated to the town of Cahuita. 
  2. Established in 1970, Cahuita National Park is one of Costa Rica’s first national parks. 
  3. The park includes 600 hectares of coral reefs, considered the best example of preserved coral in Costa Rica’s Caribbean.
  4. Its beaches, since 1996, have been awarded the Bandera Azul Ecológica prize for their clean, and green, conditions.
  5. The park runs along a primary migratory path for many bird species including falcons and turkey vultures.  Four species of endangered sea turtles nest along the beaches here, including leatherback and loggerhead.

Cacao in Costa Rica

cacao in Costa RicaWhen in Central America, how can you go wrong with chocolate? I’ve been to the ChocoMuseo and Mansion de Chocolate several times in Granada, Nicaragua. Great to stay, eat, browse, or take a workshop. Both Costa Rica and Nicaragua have plenty of places to get your fix (suggestions for San Jose are listed below). But, for a more authentic, and healthier alternative, off the beaten path, visit the Museo de Cacao in Limon Province, Costa Rica.

A visit to the Museo de Cacao has a taste of authenticity for many reasons. First, it’s not in a major tourist hub. It’s on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, about a 10-minute ride past Cahuita. It’s in the far northeastern corner of the country, 45-minutes from Panama. In this part of the country, there are no traffic jams. No skyscrapers. No big hotels. You’re surrounded by nature. In fact, the cacao museum is bordering the 2,700-acre oceanside Cahuita National Park. You can visit the museum on your own, or, plan combo tours with stops at indigenous villages, rides up the river, and more.

The Museo de Cacao is basically a small working plantation. Before you go, you may want to understand the benefits of cacao, vs. chocolate. In a nutshell, the Europeans added milk, sugar, and other not-so-healthy additives.  Europeans also highly refined and processed what was a traditional medicine for the indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America.  There was so much respect for cacao, that, in the olden days, cacao beans were used as currency.  

From Flower to Flour

During my visit, there were no other tourists, so I had a private tour.  Albeit the shortest of their offerings.

The Museo de Cacao pays homage to Manuel Leon. He wasn’t Afro-Caribbean. Rather, he was a Chinese man. In the 1940s, he was the first to export cacao from Costa Rica. The museum reflects his commissary and the style homes in which people lived on the plantation.

My guide walked me around the small plantation. He noted that there are three varieties of cacao in Costa Rica. El criollo is a longer bitter fruit that is the predominant crop here. While cacao thrives in hot, humid climates, like this, it is not necessarily a quick cash crop.

It takes five and a half years for the cacao plant to grow to maturity. My guide pointed to the delicate flowers pollinated by white mosquitos (above).  Each cacao tree may have 100,000 tiny flower buds each year, he noted. However, only 8,000 of those flowers will become fruit; and it takes three months for the fruits to grow. My guide broke off pods of the cacao fruit, cracked open the beans, and let me taste the cacao in its many stages. He explained that after harvest, the beans ferment for six days. Then, they need to be dried.  Traditionally, sun-dried, which takes two weeks. However, with modern technology, drying is sped up to just three hours.

At the end of my tour, my guide ground up the dried, fermented beans. He put them through a hand grinding mill. Then, passed the grains on to his associate. She lightly toasted the powder, then added just a touch of water to pat a thick tortilla or “huarache” shaped cacao patty for me. While powdered milk and sugar are optional add-ins, I preferred the indigenous style. No white powders. Rather, cinnamon. Ginger. Turmeric. Nutmeg. Pepper. 

My cacao patty was the size of my palm. I nibbled a bit and saved the rest for the next day.  For those that gobble it all up, before you leave, you can purchase cacao bars, nibs, or powder from the museum’s cafe/bar. 

Of course, you can buy cacao pretty much anywhere in Costa Rica. But the highlight of the tour at the Museo de Cacao, aside from watching my flattened form of bliss balls being made from scratch, was learning a bit about the history of cacao in Costa Rica.

The Bittersweet History of Cacao in Costa Rica

The history of cacao in Costa Rica isn’t all that sweet.

First, Africans were used as slave labor.  Even if they were free men, they were indentured servants.

Second, the infamous United Fruit Company routinely stripped the country of its natural resources, without regard for its employees. Or, politics.  By the 1930s, United Fruit was the largest employer in Central America. In Costa Rica, banana plantation owners, converted some of the lands for cacao when they recognized its commercial value.

Thirdly, Costa Rica, at one point in its history had a racial divide. Literally. President Ricardo Jimenez, in 1934, enacted Article 3, Law 31 which prohibited Black United Fruit Company workers to move to the Pacific coastal operations. Furthermore, an imaginary border wall keeping the Blacks by the Caribbean was in Turrialba, 60 kilometers east of San Jose. My guide says that this  “continental divide” kept the Blacks from the white Central and Pacific lands of Costa Rica.  Today, much of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica retains a heavy Afro-Caribbean flavor.  Part of its beauty, in my eyes. Many can trace their Afro-Caribbean ancestry to Jamaica, Panama, or Nicaragua.

Finally, Costa Rica is not a major world cacao producer anymore. A plague hit the area in the ’70s making a major mark on the industry. In the meantime, countries farther south, including Ecuador and Brazil, and across the ocean, in Africa, began producing and exporting, cacao.

Regardless, Costa Ricans are proud of their cacao, and visitors can’t go wrong sampling cacao or learning more about the industry.

San Jose Based Cacao Trips

For those not headed past San Jose, La Casa Del Cacao is a coffee house that leads workshops downtown. Book your workshop in advance, and enjoy lunch or dinner before or after your workshop. Of course, there’s also plenty of items to buy, take back to your hotel, or home.

Additionally, about a 15-minute drive from downtown San Jose, Sibu has a small upscale retail shop in Escazu. It is filled with intricate more European-style chocolate treats, as well as organic high cacao content products.  Sibú leads tours of their facilities in Heredia which makes for a nice half-day trip from San Jose.

Exotic Blooming in the Desert: Orchids in Landers, Calif.

Giant Rock near Joshua Tree, California
People come to the Californian high desert for the silence. The sparse scenery. Sand and clay-colored landscape everywhere. Tranquil and serene, the Joshua Tree area is thankfully absent of many things. No skyscrapers, traffic jams, fast food joints, or sprawling shopping centers (although there is a Wal-Mart and Home Depot in Yucca Valley).

People that head here, typically, do so to convene with nature. Joshua Tree National Park is a treasure. The park is perfect for hiking, camping, and disconnecting.  That is, going beyond the reach of your cell phone tower. Others may convene with other worlds. This part of the high desert is considered mystical, by many. It’s popular among spiritual seekers, as well as for those seeking UFO sightings. However, amid the beige, brown, and rusty hues that carpet the region, it’s a rare sight to spot colorful flowers and lush gardens.

Nonetheless, hidden among the cacti and mountains is an oasis for flower lovers. Seemingly off-the-beaten-path, just a third of a mile from the UFOlogist-designed Integratron, is Gubler Orchids. Yet, for more than 20 years, people have flocked to this spot in Landers, California for the Morongo Basin Orchid Festival.  The 2019 benefit festival and judged orchid show took place October 5 and 6.  Beyond the incredible examples of the exotic flowers, the 2019 festival included live music, food and beverages, and even fireworks. If you don’t want to wait till next October’s festival, Gubler Orchids is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for greenhouse tours.

To some, it may seem as if the exceptionally diverse samples of tropical orchids were placed in the middle of this desert by extraterrestrials.  According to Gubler, however, there’s a reason why the greenhouse has such a lovely sampling of orchids that may be native to Borneo, the Philippines, or Colombia. 

“The extra sunshine builds a high sugar content in the leaves and the humidity can be set to optimum levels.  We also use fresh groundwater which comes directly from wells on our property.  This great combination allows us to grow orchids that are much heartier than those grown in other environments, thus making them transition better from our nursery to a retailer, and ultimately, your home.”

Gubler Orchids is a family-run business. The Gublers were in the orchid business in Switzerland, dating back to 1918. In 1954, one of the sons moved to California and began selling orchids from his station wagon. Today, the grandchildren run what is now one of the largest growing orchid nurseries in southern California. Tourists head to Landers where there are 43,000 square feet of orchids, including some that are carnivorous, in six greenhouses. Additionally, the Gublers have another 80,000 square feet for the bulbs (not open to the public) in Lucerne Valley, about half an hour northwest of Landers.

Landers is about an hour from the Palm Springs airport, an hour and 40 minutes from the Ontario airport, and several hours from LAX.


Go for the Zen in Chicago

Garfield park conservatory, Chicago
Even when you’re in a major urban hub, you can take a break and get away from the air and sound pollution. There are lovely green oases hidden in metroplexes i.e., Los Angeles, Orlando, and San Jose, Costa Rica.   These beautiful, quiet refuges make you feel as if you’re off the beaten path. Even if just a few minutes away. 

In Chicago, in addition to the Lincoln Park conservatory, there’s a small, almost hidden, meditation garden and Lily Pool at the north end of the sprawling Lincoln Park. There are plenty more spots in the Chicago suburbs to appreciate the greenery. Whether it be canoeing down a river, or visiting the Chicago Botanic Gardens (which are not in Chicago, but Glencoe), the Conservatory in Oak Park or the Morton Arboretum. However, one of the best gems is just a few minutes west of downtown. 

The Garfield Park Conservatory is located within the 184-acre Garfield Park. A short walk from one of the elevated rapid transit lines, or a ten-minute drive from downtown. This is a peaceful place within the inner city.  Perhaps, some of that peacefulness is because it doesn’t the same crowds as if it were in the city center. 

For example, Navy Pier receives 9 million visitors yearly. Still not much compared to Millennium Park which attracts 25 million a year. Compare that to the Garfield Park Conservatory. Nearly one-quarter of a million people, from 50 states and 71 countries, strolled through the conservatory in 2018. Of those, a large 25 percent are from Chicago’s west side neighborhoods, versus tourists. 

So, yes, it’s fair to say the conservatory is off the beaten path. It doesn’t pop up on the popular listings of top things to do in Chicago. Nor, is it surrounded by hotels, bistros, and museums.

Make the conservatory, itself, the destination. It’s open every day of the year and has no set admission fee. 

There are two acres of greenhouse space and 10 acres of outdoor gardens. In fact, it’s considered one of the largest conservatories in the country. And, among the oldest. The Garfield Park Conservatory opened in 1908. More recently, there were major redevelopments.

In 2001, Dale Chihuly’s “Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass” filled the entire conservatory with a surreal breathtaking twist on nature. His blown glass flowers, buds, and vines hung, and floated, within the real greenery. The Chihuly gardens then made their way to a dozen other botanical gardens. Today, remnants of that exhibit, “Persian Lilly Pads,” are a permanent fixture at the koi pond. 

Beyond just a place to chill out, there are plenty of interactive areas on the grounds. There’s a labyrinth, an actual cabbage patch where you can harvest your own greens, and consult their recipe book for culinary ideas. What’s more, the family-friendly conservatory has an active education program. The garden features a musical playground, and on Saturdays, there are drop-in “Fiddleheads” sessions for science-based projects and dance and play “Juicebox concerts.”  What’s more, Saturdays are also free compost workshops, where kids can learn how to make their gardens grow from the garbage. And, parents can gain practical know-how to begin their composting. 

For those that head here before the winter chill, you may be able to see the American agave, or Century Plant, that blossomed and shot through the roof. The Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-sized sprouting only happens once every 50 to 100 years before they die. The stalk can shoot up 30 feet in just a few months. In one 24-hour period, alone, this agave grew seven inches.

Take your time here. Enjoy the indoors, and outdoors. Bring your own food, buy snacks and drinks at the gift shop, or grab a meal at Inspiration Kitchen, two blocks away, and eat at the garden.