Tag Archives: sunset

Victoria Falls

December 19, 2012

Today is our last full day in Africa. We’ve experienced so much – from wine tours to scenic drives to leopard, giraffe, lion, rhino, and elephant encounters – that it feels like we’ve been here for a lifetime. Yet, it’s been so magical that it feels as if no time has passed at all.Leopard

We’ve been completely present here in Africa – no email, no Facebook, no cell phones. This is the longest period of time I’ve been “unplugged” and yet, I feel entirely connected. Monkey babies

We began our day with an excursion to Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The width, in conjunction with the height, of Victoria Falls forms the largest sheet of falling water in the world. The spray from the falls often rises more than 1,300 feet. We’ve been able to see the spray from miles away since we’ve  been in Zimbabwe. Victoria Falls

The falls truly are spectacular. We walked about a mile and saw the continuous flow of water the entire length of our walk. In some places it felt like the water was pouring uncontrollably over the edge. In other places, the flow felt more controlled, more consistent. Victoria Falls

Feeding into the falls is the Zambezi River, which looks like a huge, still, flat, body of water. . . until it reaches the edge and forms Victoria Falls. Vic Falls Zambezi

We saw a surprising number of people tempting fate, ignoring the danger warnings, and hanging near the edge of the viewing points. I didn’t experience any fear, but I do have great respect for the power of nature. Watching an elephant knock down a tree directly in front of us and hearing a lion’s roar from nearly 8 kilometers away – all in less than 24 hours – gave me an even greater reverence for nature. IMG_2950

Vic Falls Warning Sign and People

We spent a decent amount of time at Victoria Falls. I found myself spontaneously meditating several times. The sound of the water, along with the balance of beauty and strength, absorbed me. The quietness of my mind was punctuated by the sound of water crashing into the river below.

We learned about geographic changes to the falls in the past, as well as some forthcoming. Each time an island or piece of land falls down with the force of the falls, it changes the landscape and flow patterns of the water. It can take many lifetimes for this to occur, but as our guide described the developments, it was easy to look out at the falls and clearly see what he was describing.

After getting sufficiently soaked from the spray of the falls, we turned to head back to the lodge. On our way out of Victoria Falls park, we came across a large troop of Baboons. We didn’t seen any of the infamous, mischievous Baboons when we were in Cape Town and those we saw during our stay at Lion Sands were not in direct contact with humans. The baboons at Victoria Falls park have a lot of contact with humans and therefore can be quite. . . interesting.

We hadn’t expected to see the baboons, so I was surprised to turn the corner and see a gigantic male, lying spread eagle, with a smile on his face, taking care of some sexual urges, adjacent to the sidewalk. As I turned my head, I saw we were surrounded by baboons. Some of them jumped from tree to tree as we walked by, others approached us on the sidewalk. One baboon was not happy about having his picture taken and jumped out of a tree toward the head of the woman who had a camera in his face.  IMG_9987 IMG_9993 IMG_9998

We left the baboons and boarded our van back to the lodge. As usual, my friend and I weren’t ready to go back to the hotel, so we asked the driver to drop us off at the artists village. The moment we stepped off the van, we were surrounded by artists showing us their works.

I met a man named J.J. who carved a beautiful bird statue out of stone. The man next to him had made various stone sculptures including elephants, leopards, figurines. I wanted to purchase dozens of them. Speaking to the artists and seeing the results of their hard work was amazing. I envisioned carrying my luggage, which had already increased by one duffle bag, during the remaining three flights. Unfortunately, I had to be selective with my purchases.JJ Stone Birds

I bought two stone statues and then went inside a building where dozens of women were selling goods. Some locals had advised us to support the women as much as possible because “they’re the ones who take care of and feed the children.” We took their advice to heart and spent a great deal of time with the women.Wood spoons

I ended up purchasing several sets of carved wooden serving spoons, some wood dishes, stone dishes, and necklaces. Necklaces

At one point, I looked over at my friend and laughed. She had at least 20 handmade bags draped from her arms and was surrounded by women holding up dozens more bags. “Make a decision!” one of the women commanded, jokingly. My friend’s “decision” ended up including 11 bags and several other items she purchased as gifts.

With our hands and our bags full, and our wallets empty, we caught a ride back to the lodge. We laughed as we spread out all of our purchases on our beds. How will we get all of this home?!?dish

Spoons

As most of our days on this trip have been, today was jam packed with activities. Fortunately, we had time to grab a quick bite and a cocktail prior to our sunset river cruise on the Zambezi. We’ve made some good friends on this trip and it was fun to be reunited with them during the river cruise. Everyone was in a celebratory mood, enjoying every last moment of our time in Africa.

When we boarded the boat, we light-heartedly asked for clarification about which direction we’d be traveling. Earlier today, we witnessed the force of the Zambezi River as it rushed over Victoria Falls, we reminded our captains. They quickly soothed us with unlimited cocktails and some appetizers.

As we cruised around the Zambezi, we saw a baby crocodile lounging on the river bank. We were able to pull the boat fairly close to shore so we could observe the little croc for a while. Baby Crocodile

As we continued up the river, we came across several hippos. Our guides informed us that we couldn’t get quite as close to the hippos. They reinforced what we learned at Lion Sands – hippos are very territorial and can become aggressive if you enter their territory.  We watched the hippos from a safe distance and then cruised around the river some more.Hippo

We also saw impala prancing along the river banks and some birds we hadn’t previously seen. Impala

Bird

By the time our river cruise concluded, everybody on board had more than enough drinks. Our next activity was to take part in a special dinner, featuring traditional African food, dance, and drumming. Rather than get dropped off at our rooms, we asked the driver to take us all directly to the Boma, where our dinner would take place.

We were the first ones to arrive at the Boma, so there was only one thing to do – have some drinks at the bar, while we waited for the restaurant to open. The remainder of the night was exceptionally entertaining. We sat at a large table, with the friends we made on the trip. At the instruction of our server, we blindly drank the most disgusting drink any of us had ever tried. We laughed at our ignorance afterwards. “We should have known it wouldn’t be good when he said, ‘don’t smell it’,” our new friend, Ben, reminded us.

We ended up turning the disgusting drink into a phenomenal people-watching game. Each time people sat down to dinner, we watched their faces as they too blindly drank the disgusting drink. It was hysterical to witness the domino effect of their expressions as, one-by-one, they tasted the drink.

The food was served buffet style and there was plenty of it. There were meats and stews that were new to us. Having been adventurous with the drink, some of us were a bit more reserved with the food, veering away from things like the worms. Nonetheless, there was great variety and we were sufficiently fed and hydrated.

As we neared the end of our meal, a group of drummers and dancers came out and performed in the center of the room. Boma Drummers IMG_3162

When we finished our meal, they handed everyone in the restaurant a drum. Have you ever walked into Guitar Center on a Saturday afternoon? Imagine a couple hundred people banging on drums at the same time.

It sounds as if it could be painful, but it was hysterical and a lot of fun. It was amazing to witness how everyone – no matter their age – became a child when they had the drum on their lap. Nobody waited for instruction nor a “go” signal. Everyone just started banging away. Eventually, the leaders reigned us in and had everyone in the restaurant drumming at their command. It was a blast.

When we got back to the room, we looked at our luggage, alongside our numerous additional bags of gifts, and laughed again. We’ll pack up tomorrow. It’s time to get a good night’s sleep. We have 48 hours of travel ahead of us and tonight is the last time we’ll be able to lie in a bed until we get back to Los Angeles.

Advertisements

Traveling To Zimbabwe: Lessons Learned From The Animal Kingdom

12/18/12 

male lion Leaving Lion Sands was exceptionally difficult. Our time in the bush was remarkable and enlightening. Being among the animals, observing their behavior in their natural habitat, with a knowledgable guide, was a spectacular way to continue to learn about and appreciate the animal kingdom.

There seems to be a lot of order in the bush. Everything these animals do and consume has an important purpose and is paramount to the survival of their species and others. There is no waste.

Things “work” in the bush. We learned about various animal calls that signal a predator is in the area. The waterbuck call we heard alerted waterbuck – as well as other animals that could be in danger – that there was likely a leopard in the area. Birds and monkeys also have sounds they make when they encounter other animals. There are many layers of communication in the bush, each working together as a system that feels more sophisticated than the internet.

Elephant CrossingThings appear to be more organized than we humans are used to. I inquired about the elephants: “Why does it seem like they have a predetermined plan that they’re all aware of and on board with?”

“Because they do,” Landon replied, shortly before explaining how elephants communicate utilizing various frequencies that we cannot hear.

The magnitude of the experiences we had in the bush makes it feel as though we should be able to overcome any challenges we face. If people begin to tune in more to each other and their environment, to communicate and cooperate the way these animals do, the world will be much better off. That’s something I think many of us know intuitively, but witnessing the potential every day helped solidify it.

Big elephant lookEvery now and then today, somebody would exclaim, “We saw an elephant knock down a tree!” – ensuring we all remember the mind-blowing experiences we shared. As we ventured into the city of Johannesburg last night, we wanted to make sure we didn’t forget our time in the bush. We’ve been supporting each other in this mission to remember the feelings, the lessons, the beauty, the grace, and the strength we’ve witnessed during the past few days.

We didn’t have to think about anything when we were at Lion Sands. All meals and drinks were included. We were told when we needed to show up for meals and game drives, and had plenty of time to relax in between.

The bustle of the airport, buzzing with holiday travel, lugging our bags around, standing in long lines. . . It was quite overwhelming. Our night in Johannesburg was a shock to the system. We weren’t ready to be in a city again and we couldn’t wait to leave.

This morning we boarded a flight to Zimbabwe. We’re starting to feel the impact of taking 9 flights in 14 days. Smart carts, customs, baggage weighing stations, passport check points, transfers from airports to hotels. . . It’s exciting at first, but as we near the end of the trip, there are times it feels exhausting.

“I’m so happy you’re here!” I’d say to my bags any time I felt the weight of carrying them around. I’m truly grateful that none of our luggage has been lost during all the shuffling. It’s been a good reminder that any discomfort we’ve faced has been the result of something good. Another flight equals another mind-blowing destination. Less sleep equals more adventures. I continue to remind myself of this until I’m once again overcome with the excitement of day one.

We arrived in Zimbabwe around 1:00 pm and checked in at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The lodge is very nice, overlooking an active watering hole. We were still a bit rattled from spending last night in a big city and found it harder to settle in here.

After lunch and a cocktail we decided to embark on another adventure. We visited the activities desk at the lodge to get a sense of our options. We chose to take a “sunset wine train” excursion to the Victoria Falls bridge. It turns out this was a fantastic decision.

We had a wonderful time, as the train leisurely took us through a rainforest, while guides pointed out monkeys and warthogs. We watched artists carving wood and stone along the side of the train tracks. Warthog Zimbabwe

When we got to the top of the Victoria Falls Bridge, we learned a bit about its history. The bridge was part of Cecil Rhodes’s plan to build a railway from the Cape to Cairo. The railway never made it that far, but the bridge still stands, connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia. IMG_9838

As sunset neared, our wine train hosts opened a gigantic bottle of champagne and poured unlimited refills. With our champagne in hand, we watched the sunset on one side of  the bridge as a rainbow formed above the falls on the other side of the bridge. It was one of those moments that felt like a fairytale. Champagne at The Bridge

Rainbow Falls

rainbow fall

Sunset

We marveled at the fact that we drank champagne in “no man’s land” – the patch of land between Zimbabwe and Zambia. We smiled each time we walked back and forth along the bridge, venturing in and out of two countries, while watching the sunset and rainbow over Victoria Falls.

We’ve been in three countries today – South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Not bad considering we only took one flight. Countries IMG_9854

Journey Along Cape Point Route, South Africa

12/12/12

Cape Point DriveMonday we enjoyed a self-guided, aimless, walking tour of Cape Town.  Yesterday we embarked on a drinking tour of South Africa. Today we set out to discover the beauty of South Africa by driving along the pristine Cape Point Route. There’s been no time for jetlag – and little time for sleep – we’re intent on making the most of every moment we have here in Cape Town.

On the recommendation of a friend of a friend, we connected with a phenomenal guide named Marion Ellis.  As with all the amazing people we’ve encountered in South Africa, Marion is more than a guide – she’s a friend and a tremendous host.

Marion met us in the lobby at More Quarters and suggested we go back to our rooms to gather hats and jackets. It’s summer in South Africa and Marion wanted to ensure we had everything we needed to protect us from the scorching sun and high winds.

As Marion led us along the gorgeous coasts of Cape Town, she shared history and insights about the development of each area.  We made our way through Camps Bay, Clifton Beaches, Hout Bay, Noordhoek, the gorgeous Chapman’s Peak Drive, Scarborough, and the Cape of Good Hope, before stopping for a picnic lunch (champagne included).

beach view We absorbed Marion’s verbal history of each point along the route as we stood outside, taking in the views. This was a very impressive and impactful way to learn more about South Africa.  Marion was born and raised here. She has experienced the development of these regions first-hand and has vast knowledge and wonderful stories to share.

We learned about some of the informal settlements and how the government and people are working to provide infrastructure and public services to those communities. One of the things that struck me most was the sight of thousands of shacks adjacent to some exceptionally nice homes in well-off neighborhoods.  In many places, in other countries, the poor often reside in certain neighborhoods, generally out of sight of the extremely wealthy.  It makes it easier to ignore the issues when you can’t see them.

In parts of South Africa, however, there’s no escaping it. Day in and day out, the hilltop views of some of the country’s wealthiest, those who have running water and numerous luxuries, are obstructed by shacks that appear to be barely standing. The issues here can’t be ignored and it was extremely interesting listening to Marion’s accounts of how they’re trying to tackle these challenges.

ElandWe also learned why there are two lighthouses at the Cape of Good Hope, what the city is doing to manage the baboons, and the vast ecosystems of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans which intersect here.  As we were leaving the Cape of Good Hope, Marion pointed out two eland.  Eland, the largest antelope, are shy animals so we were quite lucky to see them.  Marion suggested we journey to see the old bushmen cave paintings of eland the next time we come to South Africa. “The bushmen revered the eland,” she noted.

During a coffee stop earlier in the day, the kind man who’d been driving us around all day shared some of his personal history with us. I’m witholding his name in case he’d like some anonymity. The man was from an area called District Six. His grandfather had worked hard and built a house in the area, where our driver and his family lived. Beginning in the late 1960’s, under the apartheid regime, the 60,000+ residents of District Six were forced to leave, their homes bulldozed.

The apartheid regime then declared District Six a “whites-only” area and relocated the former inhabitants to poor, gang ridden communities. At the age of 19, this man was uprooted from his home, separated from his family, and forced to leave behind the life he knew and loved. The home his grandfather worked so hard for had been destroyed.

He had tears in his eyes when he finished telling the story. “Did you ever consider leaving South Africa?” we asked him. “No. I love my country,” he replied with honor and grace.

Boulders Beach PenguinsAfter lunch, we headed to Boulders Beach to see the penguin colony.  The penguins settled on the beach, in a residential neighborhood, in 1982, much to the dismay of the human residents. The penguins are protected, however, and Boulders Beach is a great place to view them in  their natural habitat. We did notice some entrepreneurial  human residents who had converted their garages into mini businesses to capitalize on this relatively recent tourist destination.

Penguin ReflectionOne of the things I’ve come to appreciate about South Africa is that the animals appear to have the right of way.  There seems to be an awareness and respect that we – people – are the visitors in the animals’ habitat. I’m often upset by the removal of wild animals from “suburban” areas in Los Angeles.  Where are the animals supposed to go as we continue to build on their land and force them out of their natural habitat? It’s inspiring to witness some of the fair, respectful, wildlife policies in South Africa.

We watched the penguins for a while and I was blown away by how they communicate.  It’s one thing to watch National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.  It’s another thing to stand 5 feet from penguins and observe their behavior.  We watched penguins approach one another and cock their heads as they squawked at each other, in animated conversation.  We saw two babies hounding their mom for food and watched several penguins swim and emerge from the ocean.

Next we headed to Kalk Bay where the brown sands of the Indian Ocean were present.  We learned that from atop Table Mountain, you can tell which ocean you’re looking at based on the color of the sand.  The Atlantic’s fine white beaches are a sharp contrast to the rust-colored sands of the Indian Ocean. Marion took us to a great gallery and shop in Kalk Bay so we could see the work of some local artisans.

As happened during yesterday’s wine excursion, we were not ready for our tour to end. On our way back to More Quarters Marion called Table Mountain Park.  “Is the mountain open?” she inquired.  Due to high winds, the mountain is often closed, so it’s important to check in advance before venturing to this landmark. “It’s open.  You should seize the moment and go up Table Mountain for sunset! It  may be closed tomorrow, so go while you can,” Marion suggested.

Table Mountain SunsetWe were exhausted, but we’re in Africa and we didn’t come here to sleep.  So, we dropped off our stuff at the hotel and took the cable car up Table Mountain. It was extremely crowded as a result of discounted prices after 6pm. Rather than fight the crowds for a spot at the edge of the mountain, we purchased some Pinotage, found a quiet table, and watched the sunset peacefully.

The cable ride car back down the mountain was spectacular and something I hadn’t expected.  With the sun now below the horizon, Cape Town was lit up beautifully against the night sky.

Before heading to bed, we popped into a great bar near More Quarters, Asoka, for a nightcap. There, we were introduced to one of the most delicious drinks I’ve ever had – vanilla vodka, shaken with fresh passion fruit, passion fruit puree and vanilla sugar. They serve it straight up, with a shot of champagne on the side. Two of those and it’s time to call it a night.

Tomorrow is our last day in Cape Town.  We don’t have any scheduled activities, just time to explore and enjoy the city. I have some friends who live here I’m going to attempt to connect with. I can’t wait to share my adventures with them and to hear and learn from their perspectives as well.

If you plan to visit Cape Town, I highly recommend you connect with Marion Ellis at Cape Insights.  She will make sure you get the most out of your time in South Africa, taking you on amazing custom tours and adventures. You’ll learn a lot and have a wonderful time!

Cape Insights
+27(0)21 424 0018 (GMT+2)
info@capeinsights.com

Doing More For Polar Bears

November 14, 2009
Churchill, Manitoba

Today was our final day in Churchill.  It always seems to come to a close too quickly.  As we ventured out, another group arrived to take our place at the Studies Center.  Depending on the weather, it’s possible the bears will only be on land for another few days or a week before the ice freezes and they’re able to commence their hunting and feeding season.

Churchill Candlestick Sunset

Churchill Candlestick Sunset

When we were reunited with our peers last night, those of us who went on the tundra buggy yesterday learned that the rest of the group also experienced a magical day.  They too were treated to a bear approaching the bus in close proximity and a display of bears sparring just off the side of the road.  And, of course, the candlestick sunset was in view to all those who were fortunate enough to be outside last night.  Unobstructed by large buildings and developments, Churchill sunsets are spectacular and seem to overtake the entire skyline, not just the West coast.

Another bear visited us at the Studies Center last night.  Most of us were upstairs for the evening’s class and did not see the bear.  However, a few members of our group, too tired to focus on the evening’s lessons, were resting in the quiet lounge and were again surprised by a bear that pressed its face up against the window.  J.D, Logan, Deborah, and David notified Studies Center staff about the bear and were able to capture a few pictures before the bear was scared off once more.  I saw some of the pictures and if any are emailed to me, I’ll post them here.  Again, the zoo imagery struck me with irony.  Although Studies Center staff couldn’t allow the bear to remain in such close proximity, I was happy we got to experience the feeling of being locked behind bars while a large, potentially dangerous creature observed us curiously.

polar bear close up

Polar bear close-up

We saw a few bears today, including another that walked right up to the window of our bus.  The bear got so close that we were instructed to close our windows.  After some bear observations, we pulled off the side of the road to build an igloo.  Chuck instructed us about how to cut and stack the ice to create the igloo structure.  Once built, we took turns crawling inside the igloo to get a sense of the warmth and cover it offered from the elements.  Chuck told a story about an igloo he built a couple years ago.  He said that it was so cold and stormy out that as soon as he completed the igloo an Arctic fox darted inside and curled up.

igloo building

Building an igloo

It was noticeably colder today, with fog and snow drifting around us.  We took a walk through the forest while Chuck pointed out the vegetation and various food sources it offers Arctic critters like hares and foxes.  We picked and tasted crowberries.  This forest outing was more pleasant than last year’s version that had us standing in 30 below temperatures, among several feet of snow.

On our way back to the center we stopped by a crashed plane that remains untouched among the rocks and terrain of Churchill.  The plane has been nicknamed “Miss Piggy” and ironically crashed in 1979 while carrying a large load of soda rumored to be Coca Cola (a company that adopted polar bears as its mascot) over the region.  I’m not sure why the plane hasn’t been hauled away, but it’s quite a sight to see lodged among the rocks.

We went back to the Studies Center, had a nice meal, and gathered our luggage.  Our departure from the Studies Center was delayed briefly when, once again, we were visited by a polar bear. After the bear moved out of the area and we could safely leave the Center, we headed for the train station. We passed by our igloo on the way to the train station and pulled over to have another look.  It was dark outside so Chuck crawled inside the igloo and illuminated it with a flashlight so we could get a sense of how it would look with a fire burning inside.  We boarded the train, most of us expressing sadness to be departing the wonder of Churchill and the polar bears.

I was heartbroken to be leaving.  Throughout the duration of our stay, we learned more about the political issues in Churchill that make it difficult to further protect the bears and prosecute some of the unscrupulous people that are exploiting them.  Tourism generated by people wanting to see the polar bears is the primary source of revenue for the town, so people are resistant to further regulate tour operations.  There’s a lot that needs to be done for the polar bears of Churchill, both locally and globally.  There are initiatives I’d like to become more involved in, some that are more challenging to take on from a distance.  Having witnessed the corruption of some tour operators and photographers, I began contemplating what it would be like if all humans left the Churchill area and let polar bears live undisturbed.  The bears would still face the threats of our global impact on the Arctic region, but it seems several unnecessary day-to-day stresses would be eliminated without our presence on their land.

On the flip-side, it could be argued that studying the bears is a necessary means to help sustain their population.  And I know from personal experience that my encounters with polar bears have sparked positive lifestyle changes in those I’ve shared stories with and those whom have read my blog.  I certainly intend to make this annual journey for as long as the trip is offered and the bears are in existence.  At the same time, I’d love to see some additional regulations implemented by the town of Churchill.  Perhaps they could institute limited visitor permits, impose a tax on tour operators to accrue more funds to help study and sustain the bear population in the area, fine and prosecute those who bait bears for personal gain and profit . . .

bear eyes

An important question

The vivid dream I had that sparked my initial Arctic expedition one year ago involved an interaction with the last polar bear on Earth.  He was sitting on the last piece of remaining ice, looking at me as if to say, “What are you going to do?”  As I looked into the eyes of the polar bears we encountered during this  year’s journey, I saw them asking the same question.

I intend to become more informed about the local issues in Churchill. I intend to find out how, as the people bringing an influx of revenue-generating business to the area, we can further influence additional changes to help protect the polar bear population in Churchill.  I am also committed to further personal lifestyle changes to minimize my impact on climate change, as well as becoming more informed and involved in the global issues that threaten the sustainability of the polar bear population.

What are you going to do?

Counting Shooting Stars: Big Sur

Sunset in Big Sur, November 29 2008

Sunset in Big Sur, November 29 2008

For all the good times, defining moments, and magical experiences I’ve had (and there have been many), it’s always a blessing when another comes along.  I just returned from a long weekend in Big Sur.  It’s been tradition during the past 3 Thanksgiving weekends to drive up the coast and attend my friend Shiva’s yoga retreat. It’s something I look forward to every year. But this year, having literally just returned from back-to-back trips to the Arctic and Turks & Caicos, I actually considered not going. I wasn’t sure I felt up to more travel and was enjoying my time at home.  I also felt completely relaxed and re-treated (or so I thought).

Thankfully I listened to the other voice in my head – the one that reminded me how important it is to disconnect from the phone, computer, and daily routines, and to reconnect with myself, friends, and a more natural rhythm of life.
 
I drove up the coast Friday morning and was immediately at ease, with the ocean by my side the entire way. I turned my phone off before I officially went off the grid and dropped completely into the experience.  Life still happens without a phone – in fact, it happens without interruption. I took my time driving up the coast and found a little beach town to get lost in along the way. 
 
Saloon in my newly discovered beach town

Saloon in my newly discovered beach town

The town had one main street, only 5 blocks long. There was an old saloon and a restaurant that looked like a pirate ship.  I ate lunch at the pirate ship restaurant, and sat on the upstairs deck outside, overlooking the ocean.  The town was simple and charming – if I ever dissapear, it’s possible I took up residence there.

 
 
 
 
 
Elephant seals sunning themselves

Elephant seals sunning themselves

As I continued driving I noticed an Elephant Seal viewing area on the side of Highway 1. In the dozen times I’ve made this drive previously, I never noticed this turn-off.  It’s easier to pay attention without the cell phone! I pulled over and checked out the elephant seals.  They can weigh up to 2 tons and are NOT pretty animals.  It was odd to see all these huge beasts lying on the beach – they looked almost prehistoric.  There was one little, white seal who was loving the sun and appeared to be smiling as she scratched her head with her fin and then settled back to sleep – she was pretty cute.

I arrived at the retreat center around 3:30 and went straight into the hot springs.  The hot springs overlook the ocean and provide instant relaxation.  As it turned out, all my friends decided to take a leisurely drive up to Big Sur, so we all arrived “late” (between 4 and 6pm instead of 2pm).  With no phones, we just trusted we’d find each other there whenever we all arrived.  And of course we did. We connected at dinner and then went dancing in the dance dome.  After we finished dancing we each picked up an instrument (my friends provided the live music) and started jamming.  We were just playing, free-form and having so much fun.  I looked around at this group of 10 particular friends I hadn’t seen in a few months and just smiled. It felt like home to be reunited.  Also, while this was billed as a “yoga retreat,” this group of friends inherently makes the dynamic more of a party.  Y’know when you have a friend who you have too much fun with (not that there is such a thing); that person whose eyes light up when he looks at you and says “uh oh, trouble is here!”?  Well, there were 10 of us who feel that way about each other so needless to say we  had a lot of fun! After dancing and our impropmtu jam session, we went back down to the hot springs for a couple hours (they’re open 24-hours).  We caught up and relaxed some more. 
Saturday was probably my favorite day of the retreat (although they were all fantastic) and one of the most fulfilling nights of my life so far.  We had a wonderful breakfast, practiced yoga, ate lunch, and then went down to the beach.  There was a 4-6pm yoga workshop and session but none of us ended up going.  Some went surfing, some went to the tubs, some of us just sat on the deck and watched the sunset.  We reconnected at dinner and had some wine.  At 7:00pm I headed down to the massage room for one of their signature massages, with the sound of the ocean waves crashing all around me.  When I emerged from the massage room our yoga group was in an enclosed room with hot tubs, candles lit, singing.  The acoustics were phenomenal.  Now comes the really good part…
Counting Shooting Stars

Counting Shooting Stars

Ambika, Joey, Kishan, Janet, Kristin, and I gathered in another room on the property, sat in a circle and caught up for a little while.  We laughed and plotted our night’s activities – sleep was NOT on the agenda.  After everybody else went to bed, the 6 of us returned to the hot tubs, reunited with our other friend Matt, and soaked for a couple hours. At about 2am Ambika and I went upstairs to the deck, pushed a couple massage tables together, laid down, and looked up at the stars. There were no city lights obstructing the view and so many stars that it almost looked like there was more light than darkness.  And then we saw a shooting star. “Let’s count shooting stars!” I said and Ambika agreed. 

We turned it into a game, keeping track of how many shooting stars each of us saw.  After about an hour (and 7 shooting stars later), our friends Janet and Matt came up and joined us.  “What are you guys doing?” Matt asked. 
“We’re counting shooting stars,” I replied.
“We’re not just counting them,” Ambika elaborated.  “It’s a game – we’re keeping track of how many each of us has seen.”
“Ambika has 4 and I have 3,” I said.
“There’s one!!!!” exclaimed Matt.
Soon, the score was: Ambika 7, Colette 6, Janet 2, Matt 1.  Then our friend Joey joined us, which required adding one more massage table to our star gazing station.  We explained the game to him and before long Joey had seen 2 shooting stars himself.  Finally, we heard “awwww, wow…. what’s going on here?” as Kishan approached.  He took a picture of us (which I’ll post when he sends it to me). 
At one point security came by and shined a flashlight on us.  “What are you doing?” the guard asked.
 
“We’re counting shooting stars,” I replied.  Not the answer he was expecting…
“Oh wow! That’s really cool!” he said.  “Ok, you can stay here and stargaze.  Just don’t fall asleep here.”
The final score was Colette 11, Ambika 10, Janet 5, Joey 2, Matt 1.  This is one of my most favorite moments in life so far (and not because I won “the game”).  To be able to lie down, look at the sky and count shooting stars is so simple, beautiful, fun, and fulfilling.  Everybody should do it! And if you can do it with a handful of close friends, it’s even better.  It felt familiar as if I’d done it once before when I was a little girl (but I don’t think I have done it before).  It made us all feel like kids.  At one point Matt said, “This is a dream, but it isn’t a dream.  This is amazing!” It felt like we were characters in a fairy tale.  Many of our adventures involve travel to foreign countries, all-night parties, long hikes, or some involved plan.  It was a striking contrast to have so much fun and hear so many giggles engaging in the simplicity of counting shooting stars. 
“We have to come here every year. This is our thing. We created ‘a thing’ and it’s important that we always come back here together and share moments like these,” Joey said.
And we will. 
Eventually, we made our way back to our rooms – the sun was about to rise and put a damper on our shooting star game and we had about 4 hours to sleep before our morning yoga practice.
Hot springs tub overlooking the ocean

Hot springs tub overlooking the ocean

Sunday was another beautiful day.  It felt like summer, clear skies and warm – rare for late-November in Big Sur.  We had brunch after yoga and then made our way back to the tubs.  Our Sunday departure tradition for the past 3 years has been to spend the day in the tubs and leave in the evening after most of the holiday traffic has died down.  At one point Daphne and I were discussing options during Labor Day weekend 2009 – Burning Man, Spirit Bear trip in British Columbia, or a trip to the South of France.  “Well, it’s a win-win-win decision,” I said.

“And look where we’re sitting now,” Daphne reminded me as we soaked in hot tubs, suspended above the ocean.   
Message written in stone

Message written in stone

Another great part about the weekend was this place on the property where somebody left messages written with rocks.  The messages were updated several times daily.  They were messages written in stone, yet not “written in stone.” And if you didn’t pay attention, you may miss a subtle change.  It said “Like fixes like” for a few hours one day and then it switched to “Life fixes life.”  The night we did our stargazing, the sign said “Starlight” with an arrow pointing over the ocean.  You could never take for granted that the sign would be the same and you never knew when it would be updated.  There was no “schedule” that sign changed and it may have changed more frequently than we even observed. Nobody saw the sign being updated (even in broad daylight), it just seemed to “happen” and the message was always perfect.  As I was leaving Sunday, the sign changed again.  “I’ll miss you”

Sunset from the deck in front of our room

Sunset from the deck in front of our room

View of sunset from our room

View of sunset from our room