Why Do We Do It?

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Rough day today.  I’m going through something that I know a lot of other women are dealing with as well. My self-esteem is at rock bottom. Weight is an enemy that I fight on a daily basis. I confess I’m tired of it. I’m tired of feeling fat — and worthless as a result.  I realize that this has been a chronic feeling for most of my life going back as early as I can remember. 

I know I’m not the only woman who has had these feelings haunt her. I’ve watched too many of my friends cry about it, crash diet through it, take pills over it, and feel defeated when those things fail. We learn to hate ourselves when we can’t get our weight down to some imaginary size that to us means we’re good enough.  I am furious on behalf of all of us who were conditioned from childhood to equate our value with our smallness as if that were the only thing that mattered…as if it mattered at all. 

I look over photos of myself all the way back to high school when my measurements were 36” 26” 36” and I remember feeling humiliated by my size even then.  I remember a story my mom used to tell about me from when I was 6 years old. I was worried because I thought my knees were fat. (My legs were so thin at that age, I suppose my knees looked big by comparison. Photo to follow.)

Why does our society do this to women? Why do we do this to our girls? Why don’t we instead speak to our girls of contribution and power, of strength and health instead of judging them for their size…instead of teaching them by our example to try to be less?  Why do we praise women for how small they have gotten —  or how much of themselves they lose? 

Right now I hate the thoughts running around inside my head. And I hate the realization that this tape has been playing for decades upon decades.

When will I grow up?   Will I ever?

If I could change anything about myself it would be that. I know this post is short and it’s not the most fun to read, but right now this is what I’m dealing with…and I’ll lay odds I’m not the only one.

(NOTE: I’m adding some photos to the bottom of this article that were taken at times I was sure I was fat — just to show how insidious and how insane this issue is.  The final photo was taken on my wedding day. When I went to a bridal boutique to pick out a wedding dress, the sales lady smirked and told me that I was FAR too big to fit in any of the store’s samples…I left in tears. Of course I eventually found a beautiful dress in another shop, but by then I felt horrible about myself. Looking back at this last photo taken on my wedding day, I wonder how I could have let that idiot make me feel so ugly  and so worthless just because she thought I was “huge.”    Each and every one of these photos reminds me of the old saying, “I wish I were as fat as the first time I thought I was fat.) 

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Soulmates

 

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You know that feeling you get when you’re able to spend time with someone you haven’t seen in years? Someone who genuinely loves you for exactly who you are? Lucky me…I got to do that yesterday! Leon and I spent an entire day with one of my favorite people in the world, Carlton D. Baker II, and his wonderful wife, Michele. I’ve known Carlton for about 35 years. We met at my sorority house at Southern Methodist University right after I pledged. (He was a little brother for the sorority, and one of the first people I met there…I’ve loved him ever since.)  Anyway, he and Michele were vacationing in Paris and took 14 hours away from that incredibly romantic city to spend a day just hanging out with us in London. We did all sorts of fun, touristy things that Leon and I don’t normally do. All in all, it was a simple, perfect day.

The weather was clear and sunny (wellsunny for London, anyway!) Since it wasn’t terribly cold, walking around the city was actually fun. We had a full schedule of things to do together, all of which allowed us to talk the entire time. Honestly, it doesn’t get any better than that.

We met Carlton and Michele’s train at St. Pancreas station. Then the four of us caught the tube over to Covent Garden where we poked around in antique shops, bookstores, and even art galleries. Michele bought herself a set of vintage “Alice in Wonderland” prints in a Lewis Carroll bookstore filled with dusty, old first editions.

We almost walked right past a tiny, old hat shop, lined floor to ceiling with fedoras in every color. Carlton is a total “hat guy” so we all went inside to play dress up. I tried on a teal-colored Trilby that made Leon stop dead in his tracks. He said it made me look just like Catherine Zeta-Jones in the movie “Red 2.” The next thing I knew, out came his credit card. (I’m guessing he has a secret thing for CZJ.)

One of the nicest parts of the day was getting to know Michele a little better. I’ve always loved her simply because of how happy she made Carlton, but this visit gave me the chance to get to know her better, and I saw first hand how cool she really is. She’s one of those great 1940s-style women, like a black & white film star who’s a true “broad” in the best sense of the word (picture Barbara Stanwick). Completely comfortable in her own skin, she’s down to earth and easy to be with. Michele is calm and smart and pulls no punches. Best of all, she’s a beautiful example of what confidence in a woman should look like. Needless to say, I liked her…a lot.

The four of us wandered around Covent Garden a while longer, ending up at B Bakery where we had reservations for High Tea. Every single bite was delicious: soft, buttery scones with clotted cream, bacon sandwiches, passion fruit & mango tarts, raspberry & chocolate macarons, butter cookies with cream cheese frosting, dark chocolate mini-cupcakes. (And I thought the French were the kings of pastry!)

After we were completely high on sugar, we walked to Windsor Pier so we could show Carlton and Michele Parliament and Elizabeth Tower. Then we all boarded a boat for the slow cruise down the Thames to Tower Pier which lets off right at Borough Market. We did a bit of the farmer’s market thing and then hugged goodbye at least three or four times before finally separating for the time being. We even made plans for them to come back sometime in the next year when they can actually stay with us for a few days! I can hardly wait.

This visit reminded me how important it is to cherish your soulmates, those few people throughout your life who always see your soul, rather than your looks — who always speak to the best part of who you are. Those are the people who make you feel like you are perfect just as God made you.

True soulmates can float into your life in a romantic way, of course. But they can also find you as family or even friends. The wonderful thing is that you can have more than one soulmate in your lifetime. I’ve had a few, and Carlton is definitely one of them. Every minute spent with him is something I treasure.

I have a question for you. Who have been your soulmates over the years? Take a moment out of your day to write or phone them. Take the time to tell them just how much they mean to you. If you’ve lost track of them completely, google them and try to reconnect that way.

Believe me…telling someone how much you love them will always make you feel grateful. And that…is a very good thing.

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Notes: If you’d like to know more about B Bakery, here’s a link to their website:   https://b-bakery.com

 

Crazy Travel Stories – The Maldives

 

 

Inspired by my friend, Marti Baker, who is also a world traveler, I decided to write down some of my crazier travel stories. Here’s the first.

On our New Year’s trip to the Maldives last year, our adorable pilots showed up in flip flops and shades. They flew the plane barefoot, texting on their iPhones the entire flight. (I found this charming rather than terrifying, probably because I knew at some point I would be writing about it.)

Then during the water landing, they basically “crashed” into the water — so hard  that I was thrown across the aisle and landed in the lap of the man next to me.

There I am, with my head IN his lap and I look up…eye to eye with his wife. All I could do was say “I’m just so sorry. So sorry.”

THAT…was a moment.

Elephant Nature Park

 

Left to right and top to bottom: One of the elephants munching on some greens, some shady spots and sprinklers for the elephants to play in, me -kissing my beautiful Kabu, me with Lek and her husband, Darren who run the park, Lek being hugged by one of her babies, Sri Prea, (Navann’s mum) flirting with me in the meadow one afternoon, me feeding Kabu while she was nursing a foot infection due to an injury she suffered in the logging industry, and finally, me getting ready to shovel truckloads full of elephant poo. (Trust me, it was a lot more fun than it sounds!)

FOREWORD
Question: How can you possibly communicate an utterly life-changing experience in a short web article?
Answer: You can’t. I’ve tried for months to write something that could communicate how profoundly my life was changed by the week I spent volunteering at Elephant Nature Park animal rescue, and I finally realized it’s impossible. All I can do is give you a glimpse of a sliver of the power of that place. So…that’s what I’m going to do.

If it will help, I can tell you that if you were to ask me the absolute best thing I’ve ever done in my life, I’d have to say it was traveling to the jungles of northern Thailand by myself — to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park for a week. It was, simply put, the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had in my life and it fed my soul to a breadth and depth that I didn’t know was possible.

Being a part of this special place, even for just a week, was so profound that it’s taken me months to be able to put my feelings into words. In fact, I haven’t written a single article since my visit there.  I was too intimidated to try to communicate the “perfectness” of that hauntingly beautiful, other-worldly place.  At the same time, I couldn’t make myself write about anywhere else until I had paid tribute to it.

Elephant Nature Park, is a true rescue, not just some tourist factory that markets itself as a sanctuary while still chaining up the animals and offering elephant rides. ENP is a tangible “heaven on earth” for rescue elephants, more than 72 of them, in fact. Not only that — they also house more than 530 rescue dogs and 80 water buffalo. In addition, they have a separate rescue in the mountains for the over 200 wild boar that would have been killed if not for the sanctuary’s intervention. The main park, however, is where the elephants and water buffalo roam freely through the grounds together with about twenty of the more senior, rescue dogs gleefully chasing each other through the grass. It is a magnificent sight to see all of these different animals (and people) nosing up to each other and spending their days lounging in the sun.

This “Garden of Eden” is the brainchild of a remarkable woman named Lek Chailert. A five foot tall, 95-pound powerhouse of a woman, she started fighting for the rights of working elephants years ago, and the culmination of her vision is Elephant Nature Park– a world-renown conservation project and preserve. When I call her “remarkable” I mean it quite literally. While I was there, I learned she had broken her hip months earlier but had absolutely refused to take time off to treat her injury. There was no way she was going to stop feeding, coaxing and tending to her elephants one-on-one, due to her deep and abiding belief that bonding with these beautiful animals is the best way to gift them with a new life, helping them to trust not only their environment, but humans again — after all the gross abuses they suffered in their lives before arriving at ENP. She was still in great pain and walking with a cane while I was there, but every day she still went out to “play” with her elephants, and every single one of them adores her. When they see her, they come running.

Lek makes sure that Elephant Nature Park has everything these magnificent animals need in order to recover and thrive. The first thing that happens when a new elephant arrives is that they get their own, private caregiver called a mahout, whose entire job is to follow his elephant around 24 hours a day, and simply be his buddy. But that’s only the beginning. The park itself is designed to cater to the elephant’s every need and desire. There are sprawling grasslands, concrete swimming pools, big, cooling mud baths, and many long, winding foot paths to walk. (Did you know that elephants will walk along a dirt path when there is one available in order to preserve the grasslands of their environment? Well, they do.)

The entire preserve is covered with bright green meadows, peppered with lush trees and dotted with watering holes, tire swings, and shady spots. There’s even a crystal clear river where the elephants bathe with the help of the volunteers. It is a breathtakingly beautiful home for these rescued elephants where they are given plenty of fresh food, medical care and best of all…freedom. Freedom they’ve never before experienced. These elephants have been exposed to untold horrors, but whatever their age or circumstance, here they’ll get to live out the rest of their days in freedom and security.
Elephants are not solitary creatures. When left alone in the wild, they live with their families their entire lives. But since this is a rescue, virtually every elephant here has been ripped from their family and forced into hard labor. One of the most important things that happens when these elephants arrive, is that they are encouraged to form new families with the other rescues, families from whom they will never be separated from again. They will roam around the grounds of this sanctuary together in peace — for the rest of their lives.

Here, the air is clear and the ground is soft. The food is plentiful: always clean, ripe and fresh. Truckload after truckload of pumpkins, melons, bananas and cucumbers are delivered every day. The staff at ENP even makes rice balls each day for the elephants who have lost their teeth as a result of either torture or neglect. The kitchen keeps the menu constantly changing so the animals don’t get bored. (Can you believe that?)

This park is a place where every animal feels peace, sometimes for the very first time in their lives. Here, they are safe and loved — respected and valued. When you volunteer here, you can’t believe the amount of love you feel pouring out of you. Just standing next to an elephant is pure joy. When you get really close to one, they always look you in the eye. You see a depth of understanding there — a recognition. They acknowledge that you’re sharing their space with them and they take the time to really see you, to feel who you are. It’s not like looking into the eyes of any other animal — they are truly with you while you are there, and they are in no hurry to leave you. If you pay attention to them in those moments, you’ll learn how beautiful it is to just be with someone…sharing space together.

Standing there, eye to eye with one of these huge, calm, compassionate creatures makes you feel connected not only to yourself and to them, but to God. It gives you a sense of your place in the world. It’s simply impossible to be unmoved by these beautiful animals — and the woman who gave them a chance to simply “be.” Once you’ve actually seen an elephant just be an elephant, you never want them to do anything else. The idea of their being forced to perform tricks or give rides…or even the thought of their being torn away from their families to make someone a few bucks makes you feel sick inside.

After you have shared even one genuine moment with an elephant, you will forever be on their side — praying for their happiness and grateful just to have been a witness to their easy, quiet strength. And you will be forever grateful for the work that Elephant Nature Park is doing. So…

As it turns out, heaven really IS a place on earth, at least for elephants. And it’s nestled among the northern mountains of Thailand, just about an hour and a half from Chiang Mai. 
 I thank God for the opportunity to have witnessed their lives there, even for just a moment. (If you ever want to shake up your life — or just feel like you’ve visited the Garden of Eden for a week or so, do yourself a favor and volunteer at Elephant Nature Park. You’ll never look at the world the same way again. I guarantee it.)

Notes:
To make a donation or volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, click on their link: ‪https://www.elephantnaturepark.org‬

Goodbye, India

 

 

For a year now, I’ve been living in a culture completely different from any I have ever experienced, and it has rattled me to my core. The past year has shown me how brutal and unfair life can be…but it has also shown me great beauty.  It is true that there is a casual disregard for suffering in India which is heartbreaking to witness. But there is also a calm acceptance of one’s situation at any given moment which in itself brings a deep sense of peace.

India is a remarkable country filled to the brim with contradictions. Yes, it is challenging. India is chaos, utterly and completely. Nothing about this country is logical — It is loud, crowded and difficult. But there is also a haunting, timeless beauty here, especially in the people who are, almost without exception, curious, open-hearted and completely accepting.

One thing I ams certain of…I am the better for having lived the adventure of her.

I will write more articles on my time here, but as my plane leaves in just a few hours, I wanted to say goodbye properly.   So…Here are a few of my favorite memories from our year in Asia.

 

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Elephants: What You Don’t Know, Can Hurt Them

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(The first photo is an elephant family in the wild. The second: a parade of working riding elephants. The third is Kabu, my favorite girl at Elephant Nature Park Rescue. Note her front left leg: injured as a baby, born into a lifetime of work in the logging industry.)

I love elephants. Beautiful examples of living in the moment, elephants are utterly at ease in their own skin. The longer you watch them, the more aware you are that beauty and gracefulness have nothing to do with size. (Made me feel so silly for being self-conscious about the 15 pounds I keep wanting to lose.) Perfectly content with who they are, they don’t let anything interfere with that sense of peace. They amble around with that slow, casual walk of theirs, completely unhurried, knowing that life is about each moment of the journey…not the destination.

Everyone knows that elephants are also capable of colossal strength, but few people notice that they almost never use that strength to harm others. That alone is a simple, almost perfect life-lesson in coexistence and compassion. Every one of us could use a little more of that.

A year ago when my husband and I moved to India, I couldn’t wait to see these glorious creatures up close. To get to know these Gentle Giants who are so much a part of Asian Culture. They completely fascinated & inspired me. Turns out I’m not alone.  In fact, millions of people around the world admire and adore these animals and will pay just to be near them. As a result, elephant attractions are big business here in Asia, and just like any business, they are driven by profit. As a result, no one seems to care what happens to elephants once they are forced into the trade. When it comes to business…Money drives the day.

These animals deserve to have someone speak for them and they deserve to have people listen. What I’ve learned about the life of a “working elephant” isn’t pretty–in fact, it will break your heart, but I wouldn’t ask you to read this if there weren’t something you could actually do to make things better…and there is. Just give me the next 5 minutes of your time and then decide for yourself. We might not be able to change the world, but we can certainly make a difference to them…and a big difference at that.

I beg you to read this article even if you are as tender-hearted as I am. I will soft-pedal the violence so that it isn’t too graphic. I will attempt to give you the most objective, clear-headed version of the situation possible. PLEASE have the strength to read it. Only by knowing what is happening and by spreading the word can anything begin to change for these wise, loving creatures. Terrible things can happen in the shadows. The only way to fight the darkness is in the sunlight.

First, Some Context…
An elephant’s life span is about 80-90 years of age, and since the herds are matriarchal, a female elephant’s life will revolve around her family until the day she dies. A typical elephant family usually consists of a mother, her sisters, daughters and their babies (calves). Much like human matriarchs, the females of the family will protect the young, nurse the injured, and grieve over the deathbeds of those they love and lose along the way.

In an elephant herd, each mother has a nanny (also sometimes called a midwife) who is usually a sister or the best friend of the mother’s. The bond between a mother and her nanny is lifelong. It is a very intimate and deep connection. They choose each other months before the baby is born, and the nanny is the one who makes all the preparations for the birth: gathering bedding, clearing an area for delivery and in general, loving and caring for the mother during labor. She is there at the moment of birth, pulling the baby underneath her own legs as soon as he drops, so that the mother doesn’t accidentally harm him in the throes of labor. She is also the one who gently nudges and pushes the baby onto his feet as soon as possible so that his lungs will inflate fully, he will recover quickly and he will be less vulnerable to predators.

From the moment of the baby’s birth, the nanny and mother raise him as a team. Whenever they walk, they keep the baby in between them, protecting him from unseen predators. They almost never let the calf out of their sight…not for years. If a baby trumpets or shows any alarm, they run to his rescue immediately. When there is danger, they always protect the baby — even at the risk of their own lives. Their devotion never wavers; it’s what every little kid would wish for.

For protection and comfort, the calf spends the first few months of his life constantly walking beneath the bodies of the mother and nanny as they wander along…back and forth, back and forth. As a result, all of his baby hair (the cute, wiry hair on his head and back) rubs off, leaving him looking almost polished and new. It’s adorable. (I’ve seen beggars in Asian markets asking people if they want to buy a bag of food for their “pet” baby elephant. These baby elephants usually have hair, which means that the baby was stolen from his family when he was only weeks or months old…before his baby hair had a chance to rub off from contact with his mother.)

If left in the herd, each calf is protected, nurtured and socialized as a part of the family for years. They will play, test their boundaries and learn how to interact with others. Whether boy or girl, each of them grows and develops under the watchful supervision of mother and nanny. There is only one major difference between the boys and the girls. During puberty, at around 12-15 years of age, the males (bulls) will become more aggressive to the other members of the herd. When they start pushing, bullying and becoming a threat, these young males will be pushed out of the herd by their own nanny in order to keep everyone safe. At this point, the bulls, now considered young adults, will leave, either finding a group of other bulls and living a more nomadic life with them or choosing a more solitary life on their own.

The females remain behind, their lives continuing to revolve around family. They are the caregivers, the nurturers. They will devote their lives to the herd until the day they die…bonded together over their commitment to the family and each other. But their most powerful connection is always to the babies.

Back To Business…
As I said earlier, elephants are big business. They are used for industries like logging, tourist attractions, elephant rides, even circuses. Female elephants are preferred by the trainers because they can be force-bred over and over again for decades while continuing to work non-stop (thus supplying even more elephants to the trainers over time). Since the elephants die as a result of the stress, loneliness and backbreaking work they are forced to do, these industries need a constant supply of new elephants in order to stay in business — for that they turn to the hunters and trainers.

How Do You Choose?
Which elephants are the smallest, the most naive and the easiest to manipulate and therefore “train?”  The babies, of course. But, how do you “catch” a baby elephant when his mother and nanny are so protective of him?  Sadly, it’s usually by killing his family.

It stands to reason. If the mother and nanny will fight to the death to protect the baby, cut to the chase and eliminate the fight altogether. There are several ways the hunters can kill the baby’s mother and nanny. They can shoot them outright. They can even dig a huge hole and then drive the elephants toward it until they fall in, then pull the baby out, leaving his guardians to die of starvation in the pit. Sometimes, however, with this method the baby will become fatally injured in the fall, so quite often they do something even more horrible. They create an enormous mud pit — with mud so thick it’s like slow-drying concrete. Then they can drive the elephants into it, and pull the baby out afterwards, leaving the mother and nanny entombed in mud to die of thirst days later — the entire time, screaming for their baby.

This is every bit as hard on the babies as you can imagine. Elephants do indeed have long memories and a deep capacity for love. They develop strong, intimate bonds, often creating lifelong friendships based on deep emotional connection. They love…deeply. As a result, the grief of being ripped away from their mothers under such terrifying circumstances is unimaginable. That trauma will haunt an elephant until the day he dies.

The Crush…
What happens to the babies next? The hunters need to break them in order to make them “trainable.” Please note, this is NOT like breaking a horse. Every “trick” they want the elephants to perform is against their nature, so they must completely destroy the babies’ will to live in order to get them to submit. They do this through a technique they call “the Crush.”

Virtually every elephant being used for logging, elephant rides, circuses, temple ceremonies and tourist attractions has gone through this process, which is all the more heartbreaking when you remember that most of the elephants put through this are babies that have just lost their mothers, their families and everyone they’ve ever loved. They are terrified and confused, feeling utterly alone — literally for the first time in their lives.

During the Crush, these young elephants are chained — tied down from 12-15 different directions in such a way that they can’t move more than an inch or two. For the next three to seven days, they will not sit; they will not lie down. They will even be unable to take one small step from side to side. They are quite literally “trapped” for the duration of this process. Other techniques used during the Crush are starvation, thirst and sleep deprivation, so the calf will not be allowed one bite of food, one sip of water or any sleep at all for days…not until the Crush is over.

What happens to the elephant during the Crush? The men will torture these babies non-stop in order to crush their spirit. (No doubt, that is where they get the name for this process.) You see, once the elephants have lost their will to live, they will accept anything that happens to them later. Since the hunters and trainers prefer female elephants to males, I’ll use a female as my example here.

So it begins…
For the next three to seven days, these men will systematically torture the terrified baby relentlessly. They will beat her, hack at her with machetes and throw rocks at her. They will burn her and gouge holes into the soft skin under her neck and behind her ears. They will yell…and hit…and punish, day and night, for the next three to seven days. They will bang pots behind her head to keep her awake and heighten the stress. Remember, for the duration of this process she is tied down so tightly that she is completely unable to move. She will not be allowed to lie down, to sit or even to sway back and forth to dissipate the stress. The chains tied around her ankles will rip the flesh off of her legs…all the way down to the muscle. There will not be one moment that this poor animal won’t be tortured and terrified until this process is completed.

The torture itself is the goal, you see. Once they kill the baby’s will to live, they can make her accept anything the trainer will do to her later. (It’s important to note that some babies don’t survive this process.)

Elephant Suicide…
Many elephants will actually commit suicide during the Crush — if given the chance. I had no idea that could even happen with an animal, but it’s absolutely true. You see, elephants have big brains. They’re smart so they have the ability to comprehend the hopelessness of their situation even at a young age. As a result, they can’t be left alone for even a moment and their trunks must be tied away from their bodies — or they will escape the only way left to them: either by stepping on their own trunks until they suffocate or biting through their trunks until they bleed to death. These babies will actually see suicide as their only way out…and they will take it.

If denied that escape, they will simply give up the will to live and then be ready for the next stage of training. You’ve heard that old adage, “An elephant never forgets.” Well…that’s actually true. Elephants have incredibly long memories. So, they will remember this torture for the rest of their lives and it will haunt them — forever.

The worst part of this whole thing is that the Crush is only the beginning of their new normal. Next comes the “training” and the back-breaking abuse. This abuse will continue for the rest of their lives.  If they’re lucky, they’ll die soon. If not, the abuse and the loneliness could go on for another 80-90 years.

If Only…
If people stopped paying money to go to carnivals or circuses to see elephants dance on their hind legs, twirl hula hoops, or spin around on one foot…If people stopped paying money for elephant rides or elephant paintings when they come to Asia…If people contributed their time or their money to a real elephant rescue like the one where I just volunteered…If people stopped for just a moment to think about our responsibility to the world we live in…If any or all of these things happened, elephants might just stand a chance. They might remember how to be elephants again. They might look on human beings with love and gratitude, instead of abject fear. Because in addition to all their other qualities, elephants are incredibly forgiving…Their compassion runs as deep as their memory.

What You Can Do…
None of that can happen without your help, and you can help — with very little effort actually. Just share this article everywhere you can. Tell your friends not to spend money for elephant rides when they vacation in Asia. (Suggest that they take a day to volunteer at a legitimate elephant rescue instead — that’s so much more fun anyway.)  Since money is what their abusers care about, that is where the battle is won. Sign a petition…Donate money to legitimate elephant rescues…Volunteer. There are so many ways we can make a difference.

And remember…Sometimes the stories we want to hear the least, are the ones we need to hear the most.  Let’s make people listen.

Note:
In my next article I’m going to introduce you to a brave woman in Thailand who has spent her life rescuing and defending Asian elephants. We’ll go inside the sanctuary she’s created. In the meantime, you can learn more about her work and consider a donation through their home page:  https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

Dubai: Land of Wild Imagination

I’ll be honest…I really didn’t think I would like Dubai. I had conjured up images in my mind — of women forced into wearing hijabs, afraid of making eye contact…and me, getting myself thrown in prison for being a loud-mouthed American female.

Dubai is nothing like I expected. It is fun here…there’s no other word for it. Women run around town in mini-skirts, shorts, designer dresses and high heels. Gastronomy and shopping here are Olympic sports. What’s more, the architecture and man-made islands here are simply unbelievable.  (As a Fine Arts professor, I’ve used several of the architectural achievements here in my classes for years as examples of the kind of breathtaking architecture and construction that are possible given enough imagination, attention to detail and unlimited funds.)

My husband, Leon and I visited Dubai twice in two weeks: the first time was for a client meeting that Leon had to negotiate — and the second, a short vacation with my close friend Leesy and her two kids (our godchildren).

FIRST GIRL DAY:
Our first visit was nothing short of perfect. We arrived on Sunday at around noon, and Leon went to a prep session for his client meeting the next day, while the hotel driver took me to the Dubai Mall to spend the afternoon. I wandered around the huge mall for a bit and then met up with Indu, one of my friends from Kalari Rasayana. It was so lovely to see her in her own element, looking so happy and beautiful. We sat for a long while at Angelina’s Cafe where we chatted over perfect French croissants and cappuccinos. Then she left to do some shopping for her new granddaughter while I went to the 10,000,000 gallon aquarium for a “behind the scenes” tour.

THE PERFECT DATE NIGHT:
After his meeting ended, Leon joined me in the mall, and we ambled over to the 7pm “Dancing Fountains” show in front of the Burj Kalifa. The show was beautiful and fun: all sexy Arabian music and dancing waters. Then we made the loooooong walk around the fountains to the Armani Hotel (located inside the Burj) to have dinner at their Italian restaurant there called “Ristorante.” While sitting in comfy, overstuffed chairs on the terrace there, we watched the fountain show once more, this time from three floors above with the Burj itself rising 160 stories up…behind my chair. It was one of those “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening” moments that you never forget.

As if that weren’t perfect enough, the hostess of the restaurant suggested that we go to the Atmosphere Lounge to enjoy the view and have a couple of signature cocktails. She got us reserved seating and ushered us to the private elevator that leads to the highest restaurant in the world (on the 124th floor of the Burj Kalifa). They gave us a table with an incredible view…the city lights laid out like a flying carpet at our feet. It was the most easy, laid back, beautiful night we’ve had in years. If any of you have the chance to go to Dubai, do yourselves a favor and copy this night exactly. It is heaven…absolute perfection.

SECOND GIRL DAY:
The next day, Leon had his big meeting so we split up again, each to do our own thing. I got to meet my friend, Jan’s beautiful Italian wife, Rosenda, for lunch. (I can’t believe that after spending a month in a hospital in a remote section of India, I flew to Dubai within two days of my discharge, where I got to hang out with TWO different new friends that I had met through that same hospital. I mean…what are the odds?!?!?!)

Rosenda and I hit it off immediately. She is not only gorgeous, but smart, interesting, extremely loving and almost zen-like in her quiet calm. We had the best “Girl Day” ever: first a fun lunch at the only health food restaurant in Dubai, then window shopping for jewelry at the souq — where I found a gorgeous sapphire and diamond pendant that we both fell in love with. After admiring it a bit, the two of us went cruising over to the Gallery Quarter to wander through gallery after gallery. Before we knew it, the day was over. What a beautiful “first date” with a new gal-pal.

OUR SECOND VISIT:
The second time we visited Dubai was only two weeks later — when we went back for a long weekend with my close friend, Leesy, and her two children, Zach and Maddie (our godchildren) while they had a two-day layover after visiting us in India. We stayed in the Atlantis on Palm Island as the kids really wanted to spend a full day at the water park. It was a total zoo there — completely packed with people from all over the world. Leon and I tend to favor small boutique hotels that are quiet, elegant and far less crowded, but the Atlantis was all about service, and the kids loved it, so all in all, it was great fun.

FINALLY…COW!!!
The first thing we did when we arrived was eat a burger — the first beef I’d had in seven months (since moving to India) and every bite was heaven! Then…all five of us piled into a touring jeep and went on a Desert Safari.

THE DESERT SAFARI:
Let me just say that a desert safari is pretty much the perfect way to spend an entire evening having fun with your best friends, and that’s exactly what we did. Leesy, Zach and Maddie are our family, and we all squealed and giggled our way through the evening together. We played and laughed the entire night — doing what I believe might just be the perfect adventure tour of Dubai. The safari started with something called “dune bashing.”  That’s where they drive the jeeps kamikaze-style…right at these 50-foot high sand dunes and then climb over the top. While you’re at the top, the car starts to tip over the edge, and you can’t see anything on the other side. It feels like you are about to fall off a cliff. (The jeeps, thankfully, have roll cages, but I think that was more disturbing to me than comforting!) There is sliding and slipping and sailing through the air…and a lot of screaming (at least from all of us!)

Then we went to the camel farm to look at the baby camels with their moms. That was pretty adorable. After a short break there, we piled back into the jeeps and headed over to the private camp (complete with actual plumbing in the middle of a desert). My first stop was the camel rides. I ran, really ran, (like a little kid) to be the first in line. That was one Bucket List item checked off — first thing!

Once we had settled into the tiny, private city, Leon and our godson, Zach, went sand-boarding. Both did very well. Leesy and Maddie signed up to have their hands painted with beautiful designs in henna while I made friends with a falcon under the watchful eye of his handler. After a bit of wandering around from shop to shop, we all sat down for a beautiful dinner under the stars. At around 8:30, the live stage show began, and we capped off our evening complete with a whirling dervish, a fire-eater and a belly dancer…A marathon of fun!

DINNER AT THE BURJ AL ARAB:

The Burj Al Arab is the only seven star hotel on the planet. Frankly, I never thought I’d even see it in person, but my friend Indu and her husband, Kishore are members there so they invited us to dinner at Scape, the hotel’s beautiful poolside restaurant. All I can say is that the entire experience was once in a lifetime, and the company was the best part…by far.  Leon and I had the most wonderful time. After a gorgeous dinner on the outdoor terrace, the manager took us on a tour of the infinity pool area, the private luxury cabanas and the lounge area (complete with sand they import from Saudi Arabia because it’s heavier and won’t blow into the pool in the wind!)

After a good look around (and quite a few vacation photos taken by the manager) we took the gold-plated elevators up to the “Gold on 27” cigar bar to get a quick look before settling into the retro “Sky Bar” to have one last nightcap with our friends before saying goodbye. Dinner and drinks in a seven star hotel…Wow. Talk about a fairy tale night!

SWIMMING WITH THE SHARKS:
The most wonderful thing we did on that visit though was to go snorkeling in the huge aquarium at the Atlantis, stuffed to the gills (pun intended) with 65,000 tropical fish, 22 sharks and four different species of sting rays. Swimming with zebra sharks, grey reef sharks, bowmouth sharks, and giant guitar sharks simply blew my mind.

At one point, I felt something graze my hair and looked to my left where a three foot zebra shark was looking me right in the eye…ten inches from my face. I laughed so hard I had to bob up to the surface to catch my breath. Then the guide did the same thing. He and I laughed for so long that Leon popped up to ask if something had gone wrong. Nope…just laughing at the three foot zebra shark making eyes at me in the man-made lagoon…in a resort…in Dubai…on the coast of the Persian Gulf.

You just can’t comprehend any of it, so you laugh at the overwhelming disbelief of your life in that moment. And to see all of these gorgeous varieties of stingrays swimming next to and just beneath you as well…wow. Eagle rays, cow nose rays, marbled rays and cow tail rays just lazily floating past you as you lie weightless in the water. What a charmed experience.

A LITTLE BLING!
On our way to the airport, Leon told me we were stopping at the jewelry shop where Rosenda and I had found the beautiful sapphire necklace that she and I had fallen in love with. Long story short, he bought it for me. Now, whenever I look at that beautiful, artisan pendant around my neck, I will be reminded not only of him, but also of my beautiful friend, Rosenda who helped me pick it out, her husband Jan, my friend Indu, my “sister” Leesy, our godchildren and the magic of the amazing city of Dubai. So many memories from one tiny jewel. My own personal treasure from the land of the sheikhs.