A Dog Sled Journey in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

 

In a few weeks I will be riding in a motor coach heading towards the north woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Aboard will be 35 other women who want to dog sled and snowshoe through Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The trip will involve four travel firsts for me: transport in a motor coach, a large group, women-only, and dog sledding. Thoughts thrash through my head while anticipating my dog sled journey. I think of the advantages firsts.

Waterfall in Michigan Upper PeninsulaTraveling in a motor coach

I’m told that motor coaches have an onboard bathroom, reclining seats, tinted windows, movie monitors, door-to-door service, efficient fuel savings (carbon imprint relief) and a reasonable cost. I will add that being in a confined space for hours offers the chance to build camaraderie among fellow travelers. The last time I traveled by bus was Chicago to Salt Lake City upon graduation from college. I went to see my boyfriend Rudy, who was living in a state-subsidized forest ranger hut in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. But this is not a public bus. It’s a reserved luxury motor coach.

Large group travel

Advantages of traveling in a large group can also include less cost. Group fares to attractions and accommodations are often less than those purchased individually. There’s also the safety in numbers factor. When adventure travel finds you on remote snow-covered paths unreachable by car, it’s comforting to know someone is behind or ahead of you. Being with women who don’t get lost, can read a map or are familiar with the area brings comfort. Sharing laughs with new friends is always welcomed. Strangers are sometimes better to travel with than friends. Expectations are fewer and surprises greater. Curiosity, not familiarity drives the show. Personality conflicts and privacy issues may be a concern. In a large group, I think it will be easy to avoid any antagonists. A single occupancy room will offer respite from the group and provide time alone.

Women-only travel

At the top of my advantages list for women-only travel is the support, encouragement and respect women often offer to each other. Most women are social creatures. They like to talk. They tell their stories and ask about yours. While in India, I met Sonya from Switzerland. She was recovering from several traumatic events in her life. She was very sweet, wounded and open about herself. I recognized in myself how emotionally guarded I had become. She opened me up, just by sharing her story and some sights in India. Traveling with like-minded adventurous women is fun because we can all be whoever we want to be or hope to be. Some people think women-only travel is safer, but I do not. In some travel situations, it’s safer to be with a man.

Upper Penninsula Michigan

Dog sledding

Dog sledding is action packed. Physical challenges within a natural environment are ideal for me. There are many ways to move from one place to another. By dog sled will be a thrill. I love dogs and will have to leave mine behind for this trip. After watching the dog kennel’s videos on YouTube, I believe the dogs are well treated and loved by their owners. I don’t think it will be like when tourists ride sad-eyed, sandy camels in Morocco just long enough to take pictures or pet dolphins trapped in a bathtub park in Florida.

Packed in the storage bay of the motor coach will be my travel bag and snowshoes. My purse will hold a book and some snacks. I don’t know if I will have a window seat. In the end, or in this case, the beginning I can only guess what it will be like when I arrive and am surrounded by ice caves, waterfalls and old growth forests covered in snow. The trip will not be what I am now imagining. There will be smells and sounds in the forest. The women and dogs will have names. They will show me Michigan in a way not anticipated by me.

 

 

Tell Me Where You’ve Been

Orchha cenotaphs in northern IndiaWhere have you been? That’s the first thing I want to know when I meet people. What were the moments you most remember while traveling? How did travel change you? However, I live in a part of the world where most social encounters begin with a person’s name, their occupation and place of residence. It’s awkward to fit my travel questions in. People are suspect. Why do I want to know this? These people have retained some semblance of a private life. People are hesitant. They’ve been bored listening to other people tell their travel stories. They don’t want to be boring. People are hurried. They don’t have time for something that requires them to pause and reflect. I understand, but still I want to know.

I want to know how traveled changed you because I notice the changes in myself. When I walk into a room I feel a bit different from everyone else. It’s not that my physical appearance makes me stand out. I’m not unusually tall or small, beautiful or ugly. I’m socially competent, not an extreme introvert or extravert. What makes me feel different is where I’ve been.

Chances are that no one in the room has sailed on the Ganges River in northern India in a small wooden boat powered only by two young men with bamboo oars. The primitive boat, the water, the temples, the campsite, changed me into someone who knows first hand this part of the world. It woke me up. You don’t have to travel far to experience this feeling. When I walked down a long road seldom used by pedestrians in the town where I live, I learned that walking is very different from driving even when on familiar ground. Afterwards I felt different among my neighbors and towards my town. I am not alone in this feeling of transformation through travel.

My travel experiences have made me more confident about who I really am. There’s some science behind this feeling. I started researching the psychological effects of travel. Here is some of what I learned.

A change of routine is good

New environments and experiences recharge the brain, allowing us to open our minds to new places, people, and ways of doing things. Adapting to differences can broaden one’s personality. You may become more emotionally resilient to everyday changes because your brain has had some practice with adapting.

If your life has become like the movie Groundhog Day, where the same things happen each day, you’re existing on autopilot. People may think this makes life easier, but introducing novelty by traveling sparks creative thinking. It makes each life an original. The rewards from engagement are many. Beware of passivity.

Getting away from everyday life with its on-going commitments reduces stress. The less stressed you feel, the more relaxed and open you are to whatever may come. This effect lasts for days and even weeks after traveling. Once you feel it, you are more likely to keep it in your life.

Tall tree forest preserve

Look ahead

Just anticipating going somewhere enhances mood. Studies at Cornell University and the University of Surrey showed that having a vacation planned made people happy in a way that possessions do not while also increasing optimism about their health and quality of life. Happiness comes easier and lasts longer through experiences rather than purchasing a product.

Come together

Traveling with a significant other can strengthen the relationship. You face the challenges travel may bring together and appreciate the wonder together, creating shared memories and sometimes a common interest. Even when traveling solo, observing others no matter how exotic a place you find yourself in, creates a sense of we are all in this together. A smile, laughter, music, dissent are universal languages. You see yourself through other people’s lenses. Sneakers, blue jeans, fair skin and blues eyes are exotic to people who rarely see western travelers.

 

What’s past is present

What we remember from a trip can catapult us into feeling more confident in future decisions and endeavors as well as more empathetic. If I did it then, I can do it again. Or, I did that so I can do this. Memories often pop up that connect me from where I’ve been and where I am now. A grateful glance from a Buddhist monk visiting the U.S. shows he appreciates the bow I give in respect to the robe he is wearing. Shambles of bent over trees along a beach remind me of where a tsunami hit a decade ago. Standing in the plaza of buildings built centuries ago I watch the same shadows change. I see the eyes of animals, the wings of birds, the woven basket made by a young village girl. I remember the flirty flicks of wrists by native women in Sri Lanka. They were trying to get the attention of cars passing by in order to sell their handmade baskets, jewelry and ceramic pots. I thought of these women during the Women’s March in Chicago this past weekend. Who in that crowd of 300,000 people knows or cares about these women? I do.

Chicago Women's March 2018

When the Path and Purpose of Travel Changes

Climbing stairs to reach the Jetavanaramaya Stupa in Sri Lanka.

This year I will be using the train more as a metaphor than a mode of transportation. Passenger train systems are limited. Many of the places I wanted to travel via train were either not on the route map, too expensive compared with other modes of transit, or took so long to reach that it was unmanageable. That’s not to say that this is the end of the line for me traveling by train. I have been a train enthusiast for most of my life. That wonderful first moment of sitting down in a comfy train seat heading out to somewhere I’ve never been before, and handing control to the train crew, will always grab me. I am a five-minute walk to a commuter line that brings me right to the heart of Chicago, a world-class city where the Amtrak station serves as a transportation hub for the entire country. I am fortunate to have such an option. However, train travel is no longer enough. I don’t want to be limited by where the train tracks lead. My path and purpose for traveling has changed. Continue reading

Discovering the Buddhist Way in Sri Lanka

The Polonnaruwa Vatadage“It is better to travel well than to arrive” – Buddha

The shop stalls in Negombo were packed with beads, Batik dresses and bright blue elephant pants that added a burst of color to the streets. “You’re friend just bought a skirt,” called out one of the shopkeepers in English. I laughed at his assumption that all ivory skinned people on the street must be friends. At the same time I knew my own assumptions would be challenged while traveling in Sri Lanka, especially because I was traveling with a new friend, Bhante Sujatha, a Theravada Buddhist monk and native of this country.

Known by many as the “loving kindness” monk, Bhante’s physical stature is small, more like that of an adolescent boy. His smile is boyish too, at times impish. I met him at the Blue Lotus Temple in Woodstock, Illinois, where he is the abbot and founder. Ordained in Sri Lanka at the age of eleven, he has been living in the United States for 20 years. For the past six years he has taken a small group of Americans to visit his native country. I readily accepted his invitation to join them. Continue reading

Walking Barrington

It was 6:45am when Susan McConnell and I stood on the corner of Haegers Bend Road and Lake Cook Road in Barrington Hills, Illinois. Sprinkles of sunlight hit the pavement. The air was cool and pleasant. The sky spread its blue hue for as far as we could see. It was a good day for a walk. Sometimes travel doesn’t need to include flights, trains or cars, nor exotic places and people. The walking journey, or spaziergang as the Germans call it, is a chance to slow down, observe, and refresh one’s outlook. As residents of Barrington, Illinois Susan and I had driven down Lake Cook Road thousands of times. Yet we had never walked its length and knew of no one who had. After traveling across the world this past year, I longed to explore my own backyard. Continue reading

Traveling to Totality

Solar Eclipse viewing hill in Du Quoin

Solar eclipse watchers on a hill at Du Quoin State Fairgrounds.

When traveling I often wonder what matters most – where I go or whom I go with. Two weeks before the solar eclipse I still had no plan. I wanted to see the solar eclipse in totality with someone I knew. I had procrastinated over the three-day, $800 dorm rooms offered at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. When I found someone who would do that, the rooms were no longer available. Then my lifelong friend Joan said she’d take Sunday off from her job at a casino in Joliet and drive down to southern Illinois with me.

It was my former neighbor and friend Dennis who convinced me that Eclipse colander experimentI must see the total eclipse. “It’s life changing,” he said. “Everything you thought you knew is put into question.” Okay, he had been drinking when he said that but he is not one to sensationalize.

Joan didn’t care if I had a plan. “We can always sleep in the car at a truck stop if we have to,” she suggested. While she’s on a tight budget, Joan was the right person to go with. She’s a lot of fun and easygoing. I found a tent in my basement and called the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds to see if they had space available. “Yes, we have lots of space. Just come. No need for reservations,” the woman on the phone said. This would be an ideal place within the path of totality. Du Quoin is about 20 miles north of Carbondale. We would avoid the anticipated traffic congestion and crowds being reported by news outlets. I had attended a rodeo at the fairgrounds so was somewhat familiar with it. Continue reading

Finding Inspiration on a Commuter Train

Commuter trainHeading toward Chicago on a Metra commuter train I didn’t notice the woman who sat down beside me until she said, “I hope you don’t feel crowded.” She had pushed a large piece of luggage toward her legs to clear the aisle. There was a Cub’s game that day and the train was packed with fans. The woman also held a small backpack. She was going somewhere beyond a day trip to Chicago.

I looked at her luggage and said, “No, don’t worry about it.” And asked: “Are you going on a trip?”

“Yes, through the Canadian Rockies on the train.” I got excited and immediately wished I was going with her. She was on her own, an adventurer, and up in years. I had to know more.

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An Overnight Train to Allahabad

Train arrives in Allahabad, India

The Bundelkhand Express #11107 arrives in Allahabad from Jhansi, India.

The train is late. We wait. It will transport us overnight to Allahabad (ALD) and into Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and one with the largest number of people living below the poverty line. My son and I have been in India for six days. We have yet to see anyone on top of a rail car. We don’t see unaccompanied children. The station in Jhansi is filled with young men, just as we have seen in the streets and shops. When I asked an English speaker about the lack of women out and about I was told, “Many women remain in the home with their families.”

It’s nearing midnight. The station has a waiting room for women only. A few elderly ladies dressed in colorful saris and some mothers with young children sit on the benches wearing forlorn faces. I don’t know if men and women travel in different compartments on this train. In Delhi, the metro trains had a women’s car. I chose to ride in one and found it comfortable – less crowded, less noisy and less smelly than the other cars. Will it matter to the men if I am sleeping in the same space as them? Will it matter to me?

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Train Ride to Orchha and Local Life in India

India passenger train vendorsMy 21-year old son Henry and I are ready to board the 10:10 a.m. daily Thirukkural Express at the Agra Cantt rail station heading for Jhansi. The train ride is nearly the same distance as Amtrak’s Downeaster that runs from Boston to Brunswick, Maine in the U.S.A. The timetables are comparable at about 3.5 hours.

A strong stench of urine wafts near the Express train car door. This is a mystery to me until later I observe a cow urinating on a station platform. Animals co-exist with the human population in India. At a snack stand in the station a monkey plays on the overhead pipes. Outside, a goat leans against the wall. Cows meander and dogs trot along what seems to be a familiar path. I like the daily reminder that we share this earth with many creatures.

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Train Travel to Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal visitorsThe Taj Mahal in Agra is one of India’s biggest tourist attractions. It is a beautiful building recognized as one of the wonders of the world. It is also a great place to people watch. People from all over the world visit the site. I happily agree to pose in pictures for those not accustomed to seeing ivory skinned westerners from America. Traveling to the Taj Mahal by train is easy, especially from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.

At the airport near Terminal 3 you can purchase a train token and board the Metro to the New Delhi Station (NDLS). The airport Metro train arrives every 10 minutes and takes approximately 22 minutes to reach NDLS. Security precautions require scanning your bags. At the New Delhi station, board the Bhopal Shatabdi Express. If all goes well you will reach Agra in approximately two hours.

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