Frank Lloyd Wright Fans Pick Oak Park

Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois —A great architect is not made by way of a brain nearly so much as he is made by way of a cultivated, enriched heart.*

Visitors to Chicago will recognize the windy city has had many a great architect leave their mark here. Perhaps, none as much as Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Many who appreciate architecture head just west of Chicago, to Oak Park, Illinois.  For this is where the highest concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style buildings are, anywhere.

—Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.*

Born in Wisconsin, he was a precocious teen. He dabbled in civil engineering studies at the University of Wisconsin. After just two years, he moved to Chicago (in 1887) where he found work with “the father of modernism,” the great Louis Sullivan. The budding architect got married and moved to Oak Park in 1889, in part, to feel closer to the green landscapes he knew in Wisconsin, versus the big city. He was just 21 years old.

—Harvard takes perfectly good plums as students, and turns them into prunes.*

Wright lived in Oak Park, with his wife and six children, for 20 years.  His own home and studio were among his first projects in Oak Park, but he soon was hired by many others to build in his newly adopted community. Much of his work was done outside his day job.

Frank Lloyd Wright may have been considered an architectural renegade at the time. He eschewed the expected. Moreover, he sought to integrate nature with everyday living, bringing the outside, inside.

—Nature is my manifestation of God. I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day’s work. I follow in building the principles which nature has used in its domain.*

Wright’s work is typically identified by the simplicity and visible geometric lines. Horizontal and vertical.  His color palette was drawn from the different hues found in nature. In all his work, he strove to work in harmony with the landscape. So much so, that his own home studio was built around a willow tree that rose up through the ceiling.   

—Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.*

Another aspect of Wright’s architecture is the distinctively Asian feel. Wright first visited Japan in 1905, the year he began work on Unity Temple, which is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. His structures were influenced by Japanese temples, pagodas and gardens.

Plan Your Visit

There are many ways to appreciate the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in Oak Park. Bike tours.  Walking tours.  Bus tours. Mix-and-match tours. Or solo walking or driving tours. Day, or night.  Check with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust for times and days tours are available. 

Oak Park, easily accessible on the rapid transit Green line, or a 20-minute drive from O’Hare Airport, offers visitors 25 Frank Lloyd Wright designs within walking distance of the home and studio where the celebrated architect lived for 20 years. 

For those with an extra day, add on a visit to The Rookery, downtown, and The Robie House, in Hyde Park. The former is a stellar example of Wright’s interior design works. The latter is one of the eight Wright masterworks on the World Heritage list.

*All quotes, from Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple

Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois Frank Lloyd Wright Reinvented Church Architecture

Having lived and traveled extensively in Mexico and South America, I’ve had my share of visiting churches. In Puebla, Mexico, a town I’ve been to multiple times, they say there’s a different church for each day of the year. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to places I’ve visited in India. Pushkar has 400 temples.  A relatively insignificant number compared to the 23,000 temples or shrines purportedly scattered throughout Varanasi which is just a few miles from where the Buddha gave his first sermon. 

Regardless of size, or denomination, most houses of worship seem to shout out that they are centers for prayer and devotion to God.  Perhaps, that’s why Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple intrigued me. Set in Oak Park, Illinois, just west of Chicago, the Unity Temple is very simple. There are no colorful stained glass windows. No steeples or bell towers. In fact, no majestic ceilings, or intricate carvings. Not even any visible signs of the church organ. The temple is void of paintings, statues, altarpieces, crosses, or other visual symbols associated with religion. 

Rather, Frank Lloyd Wright communicates the essence of the Unitarian Universalist religion through his architecture. For those unfamiliar with the Unitarians or Universalists, think Ralph Waldo Emerson. Radical, spiritual, non-denominational. Together now, the Unitarian Universalists focus on seven principles such as justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. 

Unusual in Wright’s days, from 1886 to 1891, the Oak Park pastor was a woman. She was also a close friend of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother.  In 1905, lightning struck the church spire.  By dawn, the traditional Gothic-style building was ruined. 

The minister responsible for the reconstruction of Unity Temple wanted the building to convey wisdom and truth, and encourage community and honesty within the walls.  He wanted to break the concept of religious buildings.

Enter, Frank Lloyd Wright. An up-and-coming architect. His home and studio were just a few blocks away. However, he was in Japan soaking up culture and architecture there.  No one was better apt to design this temple than Wright. His father was a Unitarian minister while his progressive mother, Anna, was a universalist. Most importantly, he was an out-of-the-box thinker.

The Building Blocks of Unity Temple: Simplicity. Nature. Openness.

Horizontal and vertical lines and slats of wood, accentuate square and rectangular earth-tone blocks. Zinc-detailed Tiffany-like windows break up the floor-to-ceiling concrete. The entrance is in a small Japanese-style garden courtyard on the side of the building. The facade is basically one large block with windows close to the roofline.

Unity Temple is in fact, two separate buildings joined by a large foyer. The larger of the two spaces is for classrooms and community events. The smaller space is the sanctuary. 

“Wright wants you to go exploring,” the Unity Temple tour guide explains. There are no door handles. Doors and even the stairwells are somewhat hidden.

Wright maximizes space in the chapel through sub-levels.  As you first, enter, ground level, you may feel compressed, by the floors jutting out above and below. However, at the main pews, there is a feeling of expansion. The use of the different levels that sneak in and out also ensures that no one is ever more than 42 feet away from the pulpit, or far from each other.

Although Unity Temple is one of Wright’s earlier works, it has many of his trademarks, such as connection with nature, and building block visual elements. Interestingly enough, the clear-cut cubism and simple lines resulted from one of his childhood toys. He learned spacing and geometry from Froebel educational block sets from Germany. He once said that every time he built something, he felt the blocks in his hands. 

“The maple wood blocks . . . are in my fingers to this day…These primary forms and figures were the secret of all effects . . . Mother learned that Friedrich Froebel taught that children should not be allowed to draw from casual appearances of Nature until they had first mastered the basic forms lying hidden behind appearances. Cosmic, geometric elements were what should first be made visible to the child mind.”

Wright was given a budget of $40,000 to build his first masterpiece out of concrete blocks. After four years, he’d spent more than double that. Apparently, still a bargain for churches of that era. Recent restoration cost $25 million.

Accolades for Wright’s Monuments

The congregation’s Board of Trustees recognized this was indeed a work of art. Upon its completion, they thanked Wright, saying, “We believe the building will long endure as a monument to his artistic genius and that, so long as it endures, it will stand forth as a masterpiece of art and architecture.”

UNESCO, two months ago, named Unity Temple along with seven other Frank Lloyd Wright sites as World Heritage sites.  The only other Chicago area Wright building with World Heritage Status is the Frederick C. Robie House (1908-1910), located in Hyde Park.

History, Unburied at the Alamo

Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, Texas

San Antonio’s World Heritage Sites

San Antonio is unique for having five World Heritage gems, all within a ten-minute drive from the city center. The San Antonio Missions.

“The San Antonio Missions are also an example of the interweaving of Spanish and Coahuiltecan cultures, illustrated by a variety of features, including the decorative elements of churches, which combine Catholic symbols with indigenous designs inspired by nature,” the UNESCO World Heritage website states. 

“The complexes were built in the early eighteenth century and as a group, they illustrate the Spanish Crown’s efforts to colonize, evangelize and defend the northern frontier of New Spain. In addition to evangelizing the area’s indigenous population into converts loyal to the Catholic Church, the missions also included all the components required to establish self-sustaining, socio-economic communities loyal to the Spanish Crown…the widespread sharing of knowledge and skills among their inhabitants, and the early adoption of a common language and religion resulted in a people and culture with an identity neither wholly indigenous nor wholly Spanish that has proven exceptionally persistent and pervasive.”

While each of the missions is steeped in history, the Alamo has long been an icon for San Antonio. On May 10, 2019, the Texas Historical Commission (THC) designated a large portion of the Alamo Complex and Plaza, a “Historic Texas Cemetery.” Yet, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) is refusing to acknowledge that cemetery designation. In large part, because the Alamo is a tourist destination, and lacks rows of headstones. A final vote will take place on July 19. In Paris. Texas that is. 

Mission Heritage Tours Unearths Forgotten History 

American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions* Executive Director, Ramon J. Vasquez has been leading Mission Heritage tours for several years. These aren’t your ordinary cursory tourist views of San Antonio.  Rather, The Mission Heritage Tours seek to tell the untold story. The Native narrative.  
“We’re helping people to understand the reality. To tell the complete and accurate story. Go far beyond the movie images of John Wayne’s “Battle of the Alamo,” explains Vasquez. According to Vasquez, the Texas government is still viewing San Antonio through horse blinders. Vasquez, last weekend, told a tour group how history is being wiped out. “Our families’ contributions are being minimized and ignored, from the American Revolution to this very moment.” After hundreds of years of professed equality, there is still widespread discrimination and disrespect toward the Native peoples.


Texas is Whitewashing History

The GLO is refuting that the Alamo is a cemetery precisely because it is a tourist site. And, there are no headstones. Historic evidence is shelved. Logic, too.  
“We are talking about burial grounds from the 1700s. The GLO is discounting people because they are indigenous to Texas, materially less off, or because they couldn’t place a granite monument up that would last 300 years. The GLO is saying our ancestors are not equally deserving protection under the law,” adds Vasquez. “That disregard may be detrimental and threatening on potentially all historic cemeteries and sites.” In fact, his people, the Tap Pilam Coahuitecan Nation have been fighting to protect these burial grounds for more than 30 years. As such, the Tap Pilam tribal community has done quite a bit of research. Among their sources are the San Antonio Archdiocese’s historical files that include baptismal, marriage, and burial records.  Moreover:

  • Eight different institutions, plus City of San Antonio historians and archeologists recognize the Alamo as a cemetery. 
  • The Alamo Complex and Alamo Plaza are considered cemeteries under the law. 
  • The statutory protections provided by the Texas Legislature and entrusted to the Texas Historical Commission for their administration were intended precisely for sites such as the Alamo Cemetery.
  • The Texas Legislature established a Historic Texas Cemetery designation for recognition, protection, and preservation of such sites. 
  • The burial grounds were on Jose Juan Sanchez Navarro’s map in 1836. 
  • Alamo Plaza was registered in 2005 by the Texas Historical Commission and listed in the Cemeteries of Bexar County
  • Additional records document unbaptized Indians buried outside the walls of the Alamo.  
  • Bodies were found on what was the Southern wall. 

“Our community leaders and experts are being ignored,” says Vasquez. “It is another assault against people of color, who were the original inhabitants of this land. They want to plow under the very people that built the Alamo.” 
By 1731, the imposing Mission San Jose had already been built thanks to the labor of hundreds of Native Americans. In 1745, Spanish documents listed at least 600 people buried at the Alamo. 100 years later, hundreds more perished (and were interred) at the Battle of the Alamo and the Siege of Bejar.  “Our history is a gift to the city of San Antonio. Yet history is disregarded,” states Vasquez.  “We have the names of those buried here. Our families have struggled for generations to preserve the final resting place of the first families of San Antonio. We cannot bury history. It is a family obligation to those that have paved the way. We have to preserve it for future generations. We are fighting for the descendants of the first Spanish settlers…the first Indian families…our Catholic families, and the families of the Defenders of the Alamo…all of whom are buried here. We’ve been defending our constitutional rights since the beginning, and protecting those rights for members of our families that have served and are serving today.”


*In 1994, the Tribal Council of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation established American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions. The non-profit works for the preservation and protection of the culture and traditions of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation and other indigenous people of the Spanish Colonial Missions in South Texas and Northern Mexico. Seeking to honor and pass along their family traditions and respect their sacred grounds, AIT has participated in the Alamo Plaza Study Committee since the beginning.


Door County, Wisc.: Arts & Culture

It’s hard to imagine that a strip of land that extends 70 miles and has a year-round population of only 28,100 would consider itself a mecca for the arts. But, then again, Door County isn’t your typical sleepy rural community. Rather, it is one of the Midwest’s premier tourism destinations, attracting more than 2 million visitors per year. And, of course, many of those tourists want to enjoy arts and culture.

Door County, which is comprised of many townships, islands, and inlets north of Green Bay is the “thumb” protruding from the lower east side of Wisconsin along Lake Michigan. Among the cultural institutions here, are multiple playhouses, museums, and more than 100 smaller galleries. Additionally, free, live music can be found five nights a week at six venues, as part of Concerts in the Park.  

Front Row Seats on the Bay

Nonetheless, it’s still hard to imagine that one non-profit theatre “in a garden” can accommodate 621 guests. That’s almost the size of the entire town in which it resides. Fish Creek, Wisconsin. But, Peninsula Players is a popular destination. It has been a part of Door County’s cultural scene since 1935, offering more than 500 plays in 84 seasons. In fact, this is the oldest professional resident summer theatre in the country. As such, people return to these comfortable theatre seats year after year. Some, generation after generation.

What makes the theater experience even more special is its setting in the woods. The theater is designed with walls that can slide open to better appreciate the natural surroundings. Peninsula Players is a gem of a playhouse set on 16 forested acres along the shores of Green Bay. To stave off chilly nights, the theater has radiant floor heat. Finally, given the structure of the state-of-the-art contemporary pavilion, designed by an award-winning Milwaukee architectural firm, no performance has ever been canceled because of the weather. 

Each season, Peninsula Players unveils five new productions, from comedy to who-dun-it to thought-provoking. Greg Vinkler, the company’s artistic director, selects a diverse variety of plays to feature each season. “If an audience member saw all five shows (which many do), I would like each experience to be completely different.”

High Caliber Artists

Vinkler, an actor based out of Chicago, has performed in 51 productions during his 31 years here. Additionally, he directs several of the shows each summer and surrounds himself with award-winning talent. From Actors’ Equity Association actors, regional designers and stage managers. When not in Door County, Company members work in regional theaters from Los Angeles to New York, as well as in TV and film.

“The artists of the 2019 company are exceptionally talented and very versatile,” praises Vinkler.

Among those is Chicago-based Penny Slusher. Slusher is appearing in three of the Peninsula Players’ 2019 productions: “A Murder Is Announced” (July 10-28), “Silent Sky” (August 21-September 1), and “George Washington’s Teeth” (September 4-October 20), a zany comedy. In addition to her frequent roles in Chicago theatre, including the Writers Theatre, The Goodman, Northlight, and Steppenwolf, she has acted at festivals in Australia and Ireland and has several movies in her list of credits.

Like many of the Peninsula Players actors, she enjoys spending summers in Wisconsin. “Door County is host to more than a few top-notch theatres,” she says. “If folks are unaware of that, then I would highly recommend attending a production here.  This is an ideal spot for enjoying theatrical experiences because these venues are surrounded by the great outdoors – a perfect blend of art and nature.”

This is Slusher’s third season with Peninsula Players.  She notes that the theatre has a long history of attracting talented actors, directors, designers, and of course actors. “On a par with any you may find in Chicago, New York, or London,” she adds.

Other Stages

A tad larger than Peninsula Player’s pavilion, with 725 seats, is the Door County Auditorium in Fish Creek. Open since 1991, this summer’s lineup features  Roseann Cash, Mavis Staples, Lyle Lovett, and the Righteous Brothers. Other nearby cultural venues are American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Northern Sky Theatre in Ephraim, Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay, and Birch Creek Summer and Fall Concert Series. 

Visit the Door County Wisconsin Visitors Bureau for an up to date listing of cultural events.


Sleep in an Island Lighthouse

Wisconsin Secret in the Lighthouse

It could be the name of a Nancy Drew mystery book. The mystery: Unravel the tale of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse’s missing fourth-order fresnel lens. Props: authentic journal entries from past generations of Rock Island “Keepers of the Light.” Your Clues: You’ve gone back in time to a remote island in La Porte des Morts. 

Adventurous souls can take advantage of what the Door County, Wisconsin Visitor Bureau calls a “coveted” opportunity on a “primitive 912-acre pedestrian-only island home…” on Lake Michigan. Travelers in search of unique accommodations, off-the-beaten-path,  can play the role of the “keepers of the light” at Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse completed in 1836. For one week, nature and history lovers can sleep, dine and read in the same quarters as prior lighthouse keepers. 

Lighthouse Keepers for a Week

While there’s no paycheck for this modern-day keeper of the light (now called docent, since the light requires no upkeep), the benefits are notable.

1) The most obvious is the opportunity to act as the old-fashioned lighthouse keeper, ponder the mysteries, and relive the lifestyles of those who were here in the days before TVs, planes, computers, and cars. (‘Cuz you won’t be seeing those here.) 

The very first lighthouse keepers were David Corbin and Jack Arnold. Not entirely alone, they shared the property with their dog and horse. Corbin, who manned the lighthouse from 1837 until his early death in 1852, is buried a short walk from the lighthouse in a tiny graveyard with ten others.

2) Secondly, relish the fact that the oldest lighthouse in Wisconsin is yours (albeit only for a week). The lighthouse was built, after the completion of the Erie Canal, to protect merchants and ship owners headed to and from Green Bay, Wisconsin.

3) Next, consider yourself the mayor pro tem — and schoolmaster– of an uninhabited island state park that boasts ten miles of hiking trails and 5,000 feet of beach. Throw your weight around in the off-limits-to-visitors basement, once used as the island schoolhouse. (Nobody’s gonna talk back to you, teacher.)

4) As if all the above aren’t reason enough for you to seek a week here, there’s one more bait. Free digs from a page in history. Not just a sleeping bag or cot. Rather, a traditional full-sized bed in one of three bedrooms. So, if you can’t decide which of your besties would make the best co-Keeper of the Light, share the experience among six friends or family members. 

Each of the bedrooms includes true-to-era bedpans. However, lighthouse docents can do their duties in a comfortable outhouse knowing that they’re sitting inside a historic treasure. Indeed, this supersized non-portable potty is the oldest stone building in Door County. 

The lighthouse is decked out in furnishings reminiscent of the 1800s. Likewise, true to history, there’s no running water or electricity. However, there are solar panels to power up a cell phone, and the outhouse is equipped with toilet paper and an antibacterial hand wash. (Upping the star ratings a bit.)

5) Finally, except for when you are guiding visitors through your temporary home/museum, the tip of this island is basically yours alone. Plenty of peace and quiet.  For most city folks, this is true isolation. Unless you have your own private boat, you have to jump from one island to another, from the Wisconsin mainland, to get here. The pier from which the Jackson Harbor ferry shuttles passengers to and from Washington Island is a 1.25-mile hike away from the Rock Island lighthouse. Primitive campsites with pit toilets, and no public showers, are about 1.5 miles from the lighthouse. Since there are no vehicles or even bicycles allowed, most of the sounds you’ll hear are from the birds. Likewise, most of the lights you’ll see are from the stars.

The lighthouse watchers have plenty of books to read, many of which expound upon the history of Rock Island. And, the view from the top of the lighthouse is a perfect place for a cozy chat or a place to meditate. It also makes for an amazing hideaway for kids.

While this kind of a getaway may sound too good to be true for those for whom a traditional hotel is not their ideal, it’s more accessible than you may expect. The role of the lighthouse docent is open to anyone affiliated with Friends of Rock Island. That translates to a $15 registration fee or $30 for a family membership. 

Anita and Mark Theiler had camped on the island a number of times before it occurred to them that the job of lighthouse keepers would be a real treat. They applied and won a summer slot. 

“We both love to camp at Rock Island,” explained Mark. “And, she loves history. This particular lighthouse is unique in that it is so well-restored and so historic. Plus the fact that we take up residency for the week!”

Seasoned campers,  living off the grid didn’t deter them. While there’s an old-fashioned stove in the lighthouse, Anita raved about the grilled chicken they made for dinner on the fire Mark built one night. Then, thanks to a portable solar panel they brought, they bathed in warm water.  

“The organization that runs the docent program is an excellent group,” Mark said. Which translated to a great experience for them. 

Room With A View

Mark ticked off some of the highlights of their week in the lighthouse.

“Meeting people from all over the world. I  even learned two Chinese words.”

“The gasps and wows from people when they ascend to the 150-foot level in the lantern room.”

“The absolute peace at 6 a.m., waking and looking out over Lake Michigan.”

“No TV. Lots of books and the lack of distractions to complete them.”

As Mark mentioned, the light at the top of the lighthouse is a focal point for visitors. Inside a nine-sided wooden lantern room is a shiny Art Deco-looking meter-high fresnel lens. As part of what could be the Secret in the Lighthouse, the original fourth-order Fresnel lens went AWOL. Apparently stolen. Ships, however, now pay attention to a modern solar-powered light that flashes every four seconds from a nearby structure.

Know Before You Go

  • The Rock Island ferry operates Memorial Day through October. The last ferry returns to Jackson Harbor at 4 p.m., and the hike from the lighthouse to the pier can take 30-minutes or more. 
  • The closest regional airports are Green Bay or Appleton, Wisconsin.
  • Bring everything you’ll need for your stay, or you’ll be on the ferry back for additional provisions. 
  • Solar-powered well water is at both ends of the island. 
  • Fishing is allowed, and swimming at one of the beaches is popular during the warmest summer months.
  • Don’t expect cell phone or internet signals.


Five Reasons to Visit Pushkar, India

Pushkar, IndiaPushkar, India: A Pearl in Rajasthan

Pushkar may not be on most people’s itineraries. Yet, it’s a favorite spot, or repeat destination, in Northern India for some.  Here are just a few reasons why.

1) Size matters

Most places on the Northern India tourist trail are overpopulated and highly contaminated. Furthermore, many cities are known to be rife with dangers for women, in particular. 

But, Pushkar, is a charming small town. According to the 2011 census, there were 1,204 people living within 242 households in the village itself. Of course, extrapolated population figures today are considerably higher. Nonetheless, this has a rural community feel. In the meantime, compare Pushkar’s size to the three or four million residents of Jaipur, and 20 million in Delhi.

During one 12-month period (2017-2018) the small town welcomed 43,124 tourists. That figure is like a pinhead compared to the number that flows through Jaipur or the Taj Mahal. 

Finally, there are tuk-tuks and auto taxis to shuttle you around. However, for most, this is a place easily enjoyed by foot. 

2) Time matters

While much of India moves at lighting speed, Pushkar has a slow flow vibe. You can spend hours at an outdoor cafe. Stroll in and out of temples. Even better, you can meander to and around the lake all day. Then, rest up as evening approaches at the Sunset Cafe. Sit inside, on the patio, or just hang out on the beachfront to enjoy a tag team of musicians performing when the sun starts to go down.

Furthermore, for shoppers, this is a buyer’s mecca.  The market has a bit of the Jerusalem shut feel There are winding walkways and myriads of stalls. Plus, the food will transport you to Israel. There’s plenty of falafel, pomegranate juice, and Hebrew signs. Conversely, Pushkar is far much more chill than Jerusalem. No aggressive salespeople. Everything is eye candy. And, not hard on the wallet.  Clearly, the locals respect the income from the tourists and repeat visitors. Hence, no price gauging. 

3) Age matters

While Varanasi is undoubtedly the oldest continuously inhabited city in India, Pushkar is just a few notches down that ladder. On the other hand, according to legend, Pushkar was created by the gods. Whenever that may have been, it would certainly pre-date most tourist sites.

Regardless, Pushkar is mentioned in both the ancient epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Then, much later, in the 11th Century, an Islamic scholar mentioned the holiness of Pushkar. 

The largest influx of tourists comes for the annual camel fair. This is one of the oldest festivals in India. Pushkar Mela, as it is called, will take place October 30-November 12, 2019. 

According to one of the tourism representatives, the camel far attracts many from France and Spain. The Atlantic, in a pictorial, said, “One of the oldest and largest camel fairs in the world, Pushkar has grown to become an important attraction for foreign tourists in recent years. Aside from the trading of livestock, the fair includes music, sports, and other events such as the “longest mustache” and “Indian bride dress-up” competitions.”

4) Location matters

Pushkar is definitely off the beaten path. Yet, not completely isolated. Pushkar is about 150 kilometers west of Jaipur, and 200 kilometers east of Jodphur. Hence, it’s right on the track for those seeking adventures in Rajasthan. Both Jodphur and Jaipur have airports, but the largest international airport, Delhi, is still accessible. 

There’s an “express” train from Delhi to Ajmer. While it’s a more comfortable and upscale train than most, there are about eight stops on the way. The total ride is a good, seven hours. From Ajmer, it’s a 20-minute inexpensive taxi ride into Pushkar. It’s definitely worth the time to get far from the noise and air pollution of Delhi or Jaipur.

5) Praying matters

This is a Mecca for pilgrims. There are temples galore here. But, then, this is India, where temples are always everywhere. 

However, Pushkar supposedly registers 400 temples.  That number, in and of itself is pretty high, even if some of the temples are store-fronts. But, when you consider the overall Pushkar population, it’s incredible. We’re talking two temples for every house.

The Brahma Temple is one of the oldest. Dating back to the 14th century, it is one of the few that survived the sacking by one of the Mughal emperors.  Furthermore, it is one of the only Brahma temples in the world.

Additionally, there are different types of temples, including a large Jain temple on one of the main roads. One temple, Savitri, sits atop a mountain. To get here, beyond the comfortably long walk, you take a gondola up the cliff. Not unlike the ski lifts in Colorado or Utah. Similarly, you get a great view of the small town and surrounding areas from the swinging cable car.

Whether it’s admiring the temples from the outside or watching the devotion from inside, the sacredness fills the town. It’s even more evident at the lake. Pushkar Lake is a gem. It is surrounded by 52 ghats or holy bathing steps. It can take at least an hour to walk around the lake, especially if you don’t have a guide to keep you from getting lost. While tourists don’t typically immerse themselves in the water, it’s a beautiful space to soak up the spirituality of age-old customs. And, say a few prayers of your own. 

Home-cooked Meals at Jaipur Homestay

cooking class in Jaipur, IndiaFor many years I’ve been racking up miles on airlines, rental car companies, and hotels. Sometimes, the perks pay off. But, in reality, I’d much rather do without a concierge, maid service, and points, and stay in a real home in a real neighborhood. During two weeks of solo travel in India, I stayed only at homestay and hostels. Beyond the big price savings, I got so much more out of these accommodations. 

Homestay as the highlight in Jaipur

As I was planning my trip to India, everyone said that Jaipur had to be on my list. I had no desire to go, as I prefer less touristy places, and smaller cities. However, due to train schedules, I ended up spending three days in Jaipur.

The first day, I didn’t even want to leave my homestay abode. Totally not my MO to be locked inside. But Jaipur wasn’t welcoming on a number of fronts. First, the pollution aggravated my bronchitis and congestion. Second, the intense traffic jams and sounds of the buses, cars, and motorcycles contrasted sharply from the peaceful smaller town I was visiting just prior. Third, the residential neighborhood I was in didn’t appear to be “strollable” to anyplace of interest. Finally, I have to admit, I probably didn’t really want to be in Jaipur anyways. 

On my second day, my hosts arranged an inexpensive car service with a trustworthy English-speaking friend of theirs. That was a god-send. He took me to all the top spots and waited for me so I wouldn’t be stranded.  He dropped me off at a lunch spot he recommended, and also somewhere to exchange dollars.  All in about six hours.

Yes. Everything was lovely. Yes, I’m glad I got out of the house. Yes. I got nice photos. Yes. Now I can put a check mark on all the tops spots. Rajnagar Palace. Albert Hall. Hawa Mahal. Jantar Mantar. The City Palace.

However, that day fared as “normal” for sightseeing. Looking back, I’d say my home stay was not “normal.” It was “special.” 

Feeling at Home in Someone Else’s Home

My hosts, Nadya and her husband, Yusuf, were welcome breaks from the tourist holes.  Nadya repeatedly referred to the place as “your house.” They were ever so helpful and accommodating. Nadya even packaged me a delicious, nutritious meal to take on my long train ride to the next city.

Plus, both were highly educated, interesting, and used to interacting with people from all over the world. 

In fact, if I’d had more time in Jaipur, I could have learned so much more. About so many things. Yusuf is a university professor, actor, documentary filmmaker, and cultural anthropologist.  His specialty was Rajasthani gypsies. 

High energied-Nadya is a scientist. But I spent more time with her in the kitchen, sharing recipes.  I don’t know much about science. However, I have a keen interest in learning how to make vegan, gluten-free Indian food. While it’s the norm for Indian meals to be vegetarian, ghee in particular, is widespread so that vegan meals are not always easy to find. Furthermore, while wheat is commonly used, there are plenty of gluten-free alternatives that make dishes higher in protein. And, tastier.   

Nadya’s dishes were wonderful and hard to replicate. Like most good cooks, she has no written recipe, nor does she use measuring cups or measuring spoons. Nonetheless, here are my notes for Nadya’s vegan gluten-free paratha and poha.

Nadya’s Paratha (pan-fried flatbread)

Paratha, spelled many different ways, is normally made out of wheat flour. I will never forget on one of my trips to India, seeing huge mountains of dough, on the street, and a tortilla-like conveyer belt that spitted out fresh, hot paratha that was then stacked about 18 inches high.  There are so many different types of “bread” in India, yet in the United States, we seem to only know Nan. Paratha can be made plain or stuffed with veggies like cauliflower, or herbs or spices. In other words, it can be used to accompany your main dish, or this can be your full plate.


1 big bunch of fenugreek leaves 

2 scoops each of millet flour, corn meal, and chick pea flour

Pinch of oregano seeds and salt. 



Finely chop the fenugreek leaves.

Mix the flours with corn meal.

Add fenugreek, oregano, and salt. Slowly, add water until you get a good consistency of dough. 

Oil hands. Form lemon-sized balls with the dough. Pat with both hands, like a pizza into round disks. Can use a rolling pin, if desired.

Place on a hot frying pan. Lightly toast both sides.

Eat warm with cilantro chutney, or with any other dish.

Nadya’s Poha (Rice flake cereal)

As much as I love Indian gluten-free spicy donuts (vada) and lentils (dal), my Ayurvedic doctor doesn’t want me to eat them. Poha, on the other hand, is very easy to digest. According to an article in India Times, poha is the perfect meal for those with digestive issues. Morning, or night time. Plus, poha is high in iron and B1. 

There are many different ways to make poha. Almost all are vegan and gluten-free. Poha can be eaten hot, or cold, and is filling. Perhaps what I like most about it is the textures of the different ingredients, together.  Following is Nadia’s recipe, followed by suggestions for other ingredients to include. 


Plenty of dry poha (dehydrated flattened rice flakes)

Finely chopped purple onion

A few curry leaves

A handful each of peas and pomegranates

1-2 green chiles

A pinch each of mustard seeds, anise, and turmeric

Sesame oil


Rinse the poha two times in water, and drain. 

Saute the chopped onion, curry leaf, peas, green chile, mustard seeds, anise, and turmeric in the oil. 

Add the poha to the frying pan. 

Stir and let sit for three minutes. 

Top with fresh pomegranate seeds. 

(Options: add chopped peanuts or cashews and/or grated coconut)

Note: Read about an interesting off-the-beaten path homestay in Nicaragua.

Varanasi, India: Twain’s Words Still True

arati at Varanasi, India

Varanasi is an incredibly sacred place for Hindus.  Originally called Kashi (city of light), the British called it Benares, and both of those names are still used for what is the oldest city in India. 

I took a sleeper train to Varanasi.  Once inside the train car, I  relaxed for the next 14 hours or so. The windows shut out the sounds of the hordes of people standing, sitting, and sleeping on the platforms. As is the case with almost all my train travels in India, I enjoyed chatting with my berth mates.

“In other countries a long wait at a station is a dull thing and tedious, but one has no right to have that feeling in India. You have the monster crowd of bejeweled natives, the stir, the bustle, the confusion, the shifting splendors of the costumes–dear me, the delight of it, the charm of it are beyond speech.*”

They say Varanasi is an extremely chaotic town. 

“The city is as busy as an ant-hill, and the hurly-burly of human life swarming along the web of narrow streets reminds one of the ants.”*

Many admit they don’t enjoy being here. Some encourage travelers to not visit until they’ve already gotten their feet plenty wet in India. And then, there are those that fall in love with Varanasi. Those that expect to stay a few days, and extend their time here a few months. 

“Benares was not a disappointment. It justified its reputation as a curiosity.*”

Even though I’m not a fan of huge cities, I thoroughly enjoyed Varanasi. I tuned out the one million inhabitants and tuned in to spirituality.

“It is the headquarters of the Brahmin faith, and one-eighth of the population are priests of that church.”*

Each morning, I woke several hours before dawn and headed to Assi Ghat (the southernmost of the dozens of ghats). This is the site for communal morning prayer, yoga, and traditional Indian music performances. Two days in a row, for aarti (morning prayer) I sat far from the main stage. However, my spot was better than a front-row seat.

I was seated alongside the schoolgirls who were leading the prayer chants. Additionally, I watched them set up the flower and chalk arrangements, and was shoulder to shoulder with all when the Brahmin came to light the fire and lead prayers. I was so thankful for these experiences and felt at one with the young girls to whom the task of public prayer must have been an incredible honor.  

Again, I was totally feeling the spirituality. In the smoke. In the flowers. In the robes. In the chanting. Then, it was time for yoga. As a yoga therapist, practicing on the Ganges was definitely special. However, what made my experience unforgettable was one woman out of the several hundred people. 

The first day, I staked out my spot near the front. Once we began, to my embarrassment, I realized I was surrounded by men. And a few stray female foreigners.  The second day, I headed to a tent-like covering that was obviously for the women.

“The Ganges itself and every individual drop of water in it are temples.*” 

I guess I must have been one of the few foreigners that morning, in this area. The lady next to me kept staring at me. I didn’t mind…too much. I followed the Hindi instructions of the teacher fairly well. Fortunately, I know most of the Sanskrit words for different types of breathwork and poses. So I never had to look at my staring lady beside me for cues. I stayed in my little yoga world, and let her stares pass right through me.

At the end of class, it was time for laughter yoga. This was my time to make friends with the lady who seemed very uncomfortable next to me. I kept looking at her, pointing, and exploding with belly laughs and smiles.  I got her to smile, too, which made my day.

Manikarnika Ghat is about a 40-minute leisurely stroll along the riverfront from Assi Ghat. This is where cremations take place. Hence, it’s a hot spot, in more ways than one.

All India flocks thither on pilgrimage, and pours its savings into the pockets of the priests in a generous stream, which never fails. Religion, then, is the business of Benares, just as gold-production is the business of Johannesburg.*

I’m warned by locals not to get too close as the odor can be overwhelming, and the smoke is not good for the lungs. A young Californian I chat with has done his homework. He seems to know all the quirky stories about Varanasi. He tells me that the main funeral pyre has been burning for 3,500 years. And, only men are allowed to cremate their relatives.


For the wildest of stories, he points out the Aghori yogis. He says they tend to hang around where the burning is.  Reason being, they’re want to find human ash to cover their bodies.  The Aghoris are essentially naked. They are “clothed” in ash. Even wilder, he says they eat human flesh as a way to achieve transcendence. Flesh of the deceased, of course. One of the Aghori babas has an ashram across the river. The Californian spotted him earlier in the day, not far from the burning ghat. He tells me the baba wears a collar of skulls for ceremonies.

The Californian tells me he spent about six hours at the burning ghat. However, the cremations were not anything that really attracted me. I found so much spirituality tucked away in the narrow maze of streets. Hidden temples. Some in ruins. All, glowing, still, with spirituality.

“It is on high ground, and overhangs a grand curve of the Ganges. It is a vast mass of building, compactly crusting a hill, and is cloven in all directions by an intricate confusion of cracks which stand for streets. Tall, slim minarets and beflagged temple-spires rise out of it and give it picturesqueness, viewed from the river.*”

Evening prayers take place far from the morning arati. Essentially, I spent the entire day at the string of ghats that line the Ganges. From pre-day to post-dusk. As memorable as the daytime ceremonies were, so was evening arati. I sat alongside hundreds of people. Maybe a thousand. Among the crowd there were just a few dots of people who were obviously not India. (Most tourists take the evening arati cruise). The devotion surrounding me was not unlike the feeling I had in Istanbul mosques. The spirituality was contagious.

However, in Varanasi, the prayers are tightly connected to nature. Sunrise. Sunset. Fire. Flowers. Rivers. And, feeling connected with the other people present was critical for my experience.

The Type A-ness in me evaporated in Varanasi. I was content to sit, stroll, and just soak up the sights, sounds and spirituality.

“Benares is the sacredest of sacred cities. The moment you step across the sharply-defined line which separates it from the rest of the globe, you stand upon ineffably and unspeakably holy ground.*”

*All quotes are excerpts from Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator,”  Chapter 50.

Spontaneity in Varanasi India

Ganesha artist in Varanasi, India
Just last week, The New York Times published a surprising travel tip. Plan less = less stress. The article noted that although that sounds counterintuitive, the key is spontaneity. “For the last five years not planning more than a few days in advance has led to incredible opportunities,” the author wrote.

I’ve felt pretty nerve-wracked when I didn’t pre-book accommodations in Mexico and Spain. So I don’t recommend taking that route. At the same time, my itinerary isn’t like a football playbook. When I let things unravel, there’s time to savor the unexpected.

On my recent trip to India, I locked in all my accommodations and train/air/bus tickets. However, in each town, I asked locals about things to do. Additionally, I listened to my state of mind, and energy. As a result, one of my greatest escapades was not from tourist books. I simply followed my inner feelings. 

Going with the Flow in Varanasi

Varanasi (aka Benares and Kashi) is an extremely chaotic city in Northeastern India. Many don’t enjoy it. Some say you shouldn’t visit till you have gotten your feet plenty wet in India. And then, there are those that fall in love with the oldest city in India, which now has more than one million inhabitants. For me, it was a “must-visit” sacred Hindu spot.

Once I got off the train, I ignored my to-do list. I got into the groove. I smelled the roses.

Looking Past a Storefront

Shopping is never on my agenda. However, after early morning prayers and yoga at the Ganges river, followed by breakfast at a delightful rooftop cafe, I was drawn to a storefront. Out of all the endless shops, I stuck my head — and then shoeless feet —  in just this one. Similar to an incredible experience in Pushkar, I can’t explain what made me even look twice.

Like in Pushkar, time stood still. I bought nothing. But walked out with so much. Here’s a snapshot of what I relished, far greater than a museum or a boat ride. Getting to know real people. Interesting, kind-hearted, and talented.  

Ashok and Vijay are two of ten siblings. For generations, the males have been carving deities out of stone. Ashok ushered me into their multi-family residence beyond the shop. We chatted. Shared stories. He introduced me to other family members, young and old.

Ashok recalled how he learned to carve stones, large and small. “All time I sit with papa. Sometimes I broke (what I was carving.). Papa would say, ‘Again!’” 

He had such a gentle nature and mannerisms, you could almost visualize how he must be ever so gentle as he carves. Some of the pieces were extremely precise and highly detailed miniatures. Carving is meditative to Ashok. “Working, working, working. Stone is the energy. Nature. Mountain.  It’s power.” 

Marathon Art Man

While Ashok oozed a meditative calm, the younger Vijay was like a roadrunner with colors in his hand.   Vijay has spent 56 hours non-stop, drawing his favorite god. Ganesha. The elephant with a twisted trunk.

A back room was filled with Vijay’s drawings. Shelves, floor to ceiling, stashed with drawing pads. Piles of sketchpads filled the floor.  Tucked into a few empty corners of the walls were newspaper articles about Vijay’s work. Headlines read, “Worshipping Ganesh with a paintbrush.” “Artist eyes another Ganesh record…fashioning 3,500 images non-stop in 51 hours.”

Almost all featured sketches in this backroom were of Ganesha. I was intrigued with his devotion to this deity known as the overcomer of obstacles. Sitting on the floor, I rummaged through the most expansive collection of Ganesha. “Ganesh is the honor of God. Ganesh is the good brain, giving good luck…happiness always.”

While he graduated with a degree in fine arts, Vijay emphasized that everyone’s first guru is their mother. “Your mother is your first, first, and first teacher.” 

Apparently, he wasn’t as interested in the stonework that his father taught Ashok and the other siblings. Despite the fact that he has sculpted 21,000 Ganeshas in his lifetime, his elephant legacy clearly will be on paper.  He began praying to Ganesha at the age of four. Drawing the elephant god by age eight. He has etched the deity on seeds and grains of rice and has painted the god blindfolded at numerous public shows. 

“I make a lot of exhibitions.” Three times he was invited by the government to display his elephant gods in Dharamshala (where the Dalai Lama resides), among other places. The prolific artist may draw 100 images before he selects just one for the exhibit.

Not only is he prolific, but he also feels protected by a higher source. Or, rather, his Ganeshas are protected.  One of his drawing books was badly worn from critter nibblings. The edges of all the pages, possibly 50 deep, were frayed. Vijay proudly noted that no mouse ever gnawed at the images of Ganesha

“Art is the way of the life. Hidden beauty. Spiritual height,” for Vijay. It also seemed to be his drug. Regardless of what fueled him, he noted that there are messages in his paintings. Sometimes, he works to the sound of tabla drumming.

The thought behind the art is extremely important, he emphasized. “All my paintings have a story.” 

The colors all have meaning to him as well. “There is depth in light. All religions love white,” which he equated to sweetness. Black and white, too, are important. While red, for many, represents blood, it has a different meaning to Vijay. Equality. Equality because we all bleed the same color. Green is happiness. Orange is luck. While blue, not surprisingly, represents water and sky.

“I’m never disturbed. I’m an artist.”

The sense of bliss carried over to me.  I returned the next day to bring back a Ganesha sketch to remember the men I met, thanks to spontaneity and following my inner travel guide.

Ethical Tourism: Don’t Ride Elephants

Elephant Rescue in IndiaTo many, I’m an animal activist. To me, I just don’t believe in the senseless hurting of animals. That means no fishing, no hunting, no eating animal products, or purchasing leather products when I travel.

Now, something new for my list: Do Not Ride Elephants. This, after I toured an elephant sanctuary in Mathura, India that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited.

Wildlife SOS opened the sanctuary in Mathura in 2010 in response to the dire need to protect, rescue, and rehabilitate elephants in India. 

Our Wildlife SOS guide made it clear that elephants should not be toys or photo opps for tourists.   Thanks in part to Wildlife SOS, the Indian government has passed laws to protect the animals. But the role of the tourist is crucial. Laws can’t reverse cultural attitudes and practices overnight. As more tourists become aware of the inhumane treatment of the animals, there will be less of a demand for the animals in captivity.

As a result, the role of Wildlife SOS goes beyond rescuing and rehabilitating the animals. Wildlife SOS continues to lobby the government to protect the animals and educate tourists, and the Indian community about abusive animal practices.

Elephants are intelligent, social, migratory animals

Wildlife SOS has a display of “training tools.” The items on display were commonly used methods to inflict torture on elephants. This form of animal abuse is against the rules of nature, our guide told the visiting tourists. No elephant weighing thousands of pounds should be subservient to a 140-pound man.  

Elephants are long migratory animals. The roaming in the wild ensures proper gene flow.

Humans have encroached on the elephants’ natural habitat and patterns. At one point in time, “The whole of India was for elephants,” said our guide. “Now, it’s just patches,” with six out of every seven elephants being captive.

Unfortunately, once elephants are captive, they cannot be released back into the wild. They are social animals, but in captivity they are isolated.  Once out of their normal healthy environment, they can’t readapt.  “It’s like a slavery industry,” explained our guide. “These are wild animals. They should never be in the human world.  We are trying to give them as much space as possible (at Wildlife SOS).”

Keeping Elephants Healthy, in Captivity

The life expectancy of a healthy elephant, in its natural environment, is similar to a human. 60 to 70 years.

All 21 elephants at the Mathura Wildlife SOS sanctuary were rescued from unhealthy, inhumane environments. They were all in a critical state when they arrived. Emaciated. Wounded. Physically and emotionally. 

Wildlife SOS provides veterinary care, proper nutrition, and positive attention which was often sorely lacking. Additionally, the staff encourages socialization between the elephants. Several of the rescued elephants are typically partnered with their best buddies. 

Before and after pictures of the elephants are posted near their feeding zones. Reading the explanations accompanying the before shots should convince most any tourist to never ride an elephant again. Or, contribute in any way to the commercialization of captive animals.  

  • Raju was in chains for 50 years. He passed through 27 owners. “He was a skeleton when he came to us,” our guide recalled. 
  • Asha was 46 when she was rescued. She had been used to carry tourists up Jaipur’s Amber Fort. The excess weight causes joint problems and leg injuries. 
  • Phookali was a “begging elephant” for many decades. Mistreated, she was blind, and could barely stand. 

Kalpana (pictured here taking her first steps at the animal hospital)  is the newest rescue. She was mistreated for nearly 40 years. She was eating the dirt and mud surrounding her until Wildlife SOS’s ambulance transported her to their animal hospital. The ambulance, the first of its kind in India, was packed with watermelons, pumpkins, and sugarcane to nurse the blind, dehydrated, injured animal back to health. elephant

Feeding and caring for the animals is not a simple or inexpensive feat either.  Elephants consume up to 600 pounds of food and 50 to 100 liters of water daily.  Even in India, that adds up to $30 a day to feed an elephant, plus another $30 a day for medical treatment and care.  

Support ethical tourism

Wildlife SOS was established in 1995 to rescue dancing bears from captivity. Dancing bears was a 400-year-old practice. For many, the culture and financial needs kept these bears in captivity. In 1998, the practice was banned. However, the former dancing bear owners needed to find new ways to support themselves and their families. Wildlife SOS helped in that area as well, by funding new start-ups for them or putting them to work making handbags. Today, India is free of dancing bears. 

Wildlife SOS has expanded to 11 centers across India. Among them, six are for bears and one is for leopards. One bear facility, just 15 kilometers from Mathura, has 159 bears. 

Wildlife SOS USA, a 501(c)3 has a fundraising office in Salt Lake City to support the high costs required to provide the appropriate care for all the animals.  Tourists can help support Wildlife SOS’ initiatives by visiting and supporting the centers, their cafes, and their gift shops, or volunteering on-site for a minimum one-week commitment.

For those not planning a visit to India, they can sponsor an animal, make a contribution online, or buy elephant print harem pants, tie-dyed scarves, sloth bear printed bags, and other items from their online gift shop

Possibly of even greater importance, everyone, anywhere, should refuse to ride elephants.