Best Retreats 2022: Wilderness Road Experience with Author Angela Correll

All great stories start with “What if?”Author Angela Correll

After the rush of the holidays, winter is a time to slow down, to get still, to sit by a fire in a quiet place where we can listen to longings and hear our hearts speak. For many of us, this requires getting away. We need a respite to reflect, recharge, reset. And if there’s been a stirring in our souls, if we’re seeking something different, a place to consider new possibilities. A place to ask, “What if?”

In mid-December, I drove into a town that had inspired the book I was reading. It looked like the set of a Hallmark Christmas movie and the community described sounded Hallmark-close and friendly, too. I couldn’t wait to meet the author who has created a one-of-a-kind experience. I did. After the weekend I drove out of town feeling rested and inspired to take on whatever the new year brings. 

Please listen to this conversation I had with Best-selling Author Correll in this special edition of Travel People: Living Authentic Lives, Finding Kindred Spirits, Fulfilling Dreams.

In a new year when we try to focus on the positive, she inspires us to see problems as possibilities, to create something for our souls and others, to remember what matters most, and to embrace our roots and spread our wings. 

We met  in Stanford, Kentucky where she lives on a farm with her husband, Jess. The novels of her May Hollow trilogy –  Grounded, Guarded, and Granted– are based largely on life in this small town with a big heart. She and Jess are the creators of the Wilderness Road Hospitality Group that has built a stronger sense of community here. In Part 1 of the interview she explains how they went from milking goats to saving and renovating historic homes. How they built two restaurants, an Inn, and are building another. Angela talks about the importance of close community not only in Kentucky but in a Tuscan village, Montefollonico, where she and Jess have a home and are renovating rentals for retreats and vacations.

Like Annie and Jake in her trilogy, Angela and Jess have quite the love story. Their travel experiences are the stuff of fairytales, and they enjoy the best of all worlds with homes in Kentucky and Tuscany.  What I love most is that while she was still a single woman who lived in Lexington with good friends and  a job that provided amazing travel experiences, she felt a pull toward another life. She wanted to live on a farm. She knew that nature feeds her  soul. She says she knew God was turning her in a new direction, but had no idea how she’d get there. God fulfilled the desires of her heart in ways she didn’t expect.

Lisa, our mutual friend who is also a writer and Italophile, introduced us by email because she though we had a lot in common. Angela and I both went to The University of Kentucky, lived in Lexington, and lived on farms. Our grandfathers were farmers. We grew up in small Kentucky towns. For her, it was Danville. For me, Hopkinsville. She strives to write about the “good, true, and beautiful” for a mainstream audience. No matter how much we love travel and exploring other countries, we recognize our native language — SouthernSpeak.

Angela’s books have been adapted to the stage for sold-out performances at the Pioneer Playhouse, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater. Their themes — navigating family, romantic love, purpose and passion, our need for community— are universal. Like Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town or Jan Karon’s Mitford series, her books are timeless.

We’re not super easy to get to. We’re an hour south of Lexington’s small airport but we think that’s part of the charm. When you come you’re going to pull away from everything. You can let your blood pressure drop, be fully present, and receive peace. –Angela Correll

I finished Grounded while I was on her stomping ground. Spending time with her characters felt like Old Home Week (a southern church tradition of my childhood that meant dinner on the ground or potluck in the fellowship hall). I recognized some of Annie’s grandmother in both of mine – one that fried country ham, then simmered it in water to make it tender every Christmas morning. Another who watched Billy Graham specials and tucked me in under quilts.  I recognized generational struggles over the need for dishwashers, cable, and the internet. Over expressions like “You can’t expect a man to buy the cow if he is getting the milk for free.”

Her grandmother’s farmhouse with its creaking floors took me back to the homes in the country of 3 great-aunts. They, too, gathered eggs from ornery hens and didn’t lock their doors. Stripping tobacco, guns and gardens, Blue Willow China, Bluegills and the Farmers’ Almanac. “Widow Women,” “young folk,” “up North,” “down South”… all reminders of my childhood. The comfort food sent me back to Nashville on a mission to make break green beans, cook them with new potatoes, fry up some crappie, bake a chess pie, and chase it all with sweet tea. 

Her reference to Genuine Risk, the 1980 Derby winner the year I married, took me back to Lexington when I lived on a horse farm. So did this description of Wildcat Mania.

The restaurant walls were covered with black and white pictures of local celebrities. Featured prominently were the University of Kentucky basketball and football coaches, and some of the players, both past and present. Even Hollywood stars like Ashley Judd, George Clooney and Johnny Depp were proudly featured Kentuckians. The fare was fine Angus steak, grass-finished and locally grown, served in an atmosphere of dark paneled walls and white table linens.

A romantic, I cried and was satisfied at the end of her first book, but I appreciate that the story didn’t stop there. She wrote a trilogy as if to ask, “What if … a fairytale ending of boy gets girl isn’t the end of the story? Aren’t relationships more complicated?”

Career struggles, abandonment issues, financial troubles, gossips, family secrets, depression… it’s all here. But there’s something about this place that is so familiar and comforting that I listen to the Audible versions as bedtime stories. Maybe because I spent a weekend in the world of the novel where people care for each other, stop and talk on the street, remembered my name. Maybe because in a world of troubles and negativity, I need to stay grateful and focused on the positive this year.

The Stanford Inn includes the cottages but in the works are additional lodging spaces including more hotel rooms (larger than the current Inn rooms) on Main Street. 

If you need to finish an artistic project– book, painting, documentary–on your own or want the direction/support of a group, listen to Part 2 of the interview where Angela discusses her writing journey and options for retreats and creative community in Stanford and Italy.

Part 2 of Podcast Interview with Angela Correll on Writing and Writing Retreats

May Hollow Trilogy by Angela Correll in her Soaps and Such Store, Main Street, Stanford, Kentucky
Esther’s Wellhouse
Amy at Esther’s Wellhouse gave me a great massage. See her in video. She drives an hour from Lexington to work because she loves it here.
I grew up on Rutland’s Barbecue in Hopkinsville, KY. My dad brought it home from work. I’ve been partial to Western Kentucky Barbecue but this at the Bluebird Restaurant was AMAZING.
Sara, House Manager of Bluebird, who made me feel at home every time I dropped in.
Savannah was my sweet server at Bluebird. She lives in Pulaski County but drives to Stanford. Since the renovations of the Wilderness Road Group, the town has changed. She said there wasn’t much here when she was a kid, but now “everything is in Stanford.”
Sarah with Hot Cider at Kentucky Soaps and Such
The store was full of people of all ages gift shopping and catching up.
Many books by Kentucky authors (and many selections from Italy)
The weekend lives on… loved my coffee cup from this collection and the soaps at Kentucky Soaps and Such
I wrapped these soaps from Kentucky Soaps and Such and used them as decorations/gifts on my Christmas table. Inside each, I placed a question the recipient asked the other family members and answered. We all learned new things about each other.

Thank you Angela and Wilderness Road for incredible hospitality. As always, opinions on this blog are my own.

2022 Best Destinations: Fort Myers, Florida for Winter Holidays and All Seasons

Do you have post-holiday letdown or New Year’s Eve dread? Do you feel deflated — like a Christmas yard decoration lying in a heap upon the ground?

There’s a way to flip your mood, stretch yourself like a starfish, and feel happy as a clam. Ok, cliches aside…

Even if you’re not a beach person, celebrating the new year on the southwest coast of the Sunshine State has many benefits. Booking a stay in Fort Myers, Florida, “The City of Palms,” is a really great plan. 

If you’ve joined my two-year expedition down the southwestern coast of Florida, you know that I’ve fallen in love with this area of the state. Here I’ve found the white sand and clear aquamarine waters that I played in as a child on the Panhandle’s Emerald Coast. But I’ve also found educational, historical, and cultural treasures. I’ve felt welcome in a community that still marvels at manatees and dolphins and salutes sunsets with bagpipes, conch shells, and guitars. 

Built in 1901 as the Bradford Hotel, The Arcade Theatre opened in 1914 as a Vaudeville house and in the 1920s became a movie theater.

Why Travel?

If wellness is a goal for the new year, multiple studies have shown that merely planning travel gives our mood an instant boost. Amy Blankson, author of The Future of Happiness and authority on health and wellness in the digital era, explains in Psychology Today:

The anticipation and sense of hopefulness for better times can keep us motivated and excited for the delayed gratification of a getaway. This ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ often has a long-term mood-boosting effect and can help us relax as it puts us in the mind frame of a more soothing future.

And about that light…

Sunlight provides Vitamin D and releases higher levels of serotonin which lowers anxiety while elevating mood, focus, sleep, and immunity. (I can attest to the power of perpetually sunny skies. While living in Marrakesh, Morocco, I felt happier and had more energy year-round.)

Travel is also a way to reconnect with people we love as we create shared memories of precious moments. Solo travel provides opportunities to reconnect with ourselves and Creator as we discover (or remember) our passions and purpose. It can also push us to make new friends.

A getaway provides escape into a new world where we can try on another life, explore, learn. It provides not only adventure but also perspective. Miles create distance from our problems, sadness, or stress. We can rest, recover, rethink, and reset when we see the Big Picture. Sometimes this means rising above obstacles and changing our focus literally. I’ll never forget the beauty I saw and gratitude I felt looking down from a balcony on a Spanish hillside or out from ramparts on the African coast. Morocco taught me the gift of rooftops whether places to gather or to be alone. I started 2021 by looking down on the lights of Sarasota from a rooftop New Year’s Eve party at Art Ovation Hotel. I ended it by looking down on Fort Myers from Beacon, the appropriately named rooftop of the luxurious Luminary, another hotel in the Autograph Collection® of Marriott International. (No surprise that their 2022 Rooftop NYE Party quickly sold out, but you can still see fireworks and the Ball Drop at the New Year’s Eve Downtown Countdown. )

View of Fort Myers Bridge from Luminary Hotel Rooftop

Finds in The Franklin Shops on Main Street, Fort Myers, reminded me that travel inspires us to…

Inspiration found in Franklin Shops, Main Street, Fort Myers

Why Fort Myers?

If you like winters with sunny skies and 70 degree temperatures… a walkable downtown with eclectic shopping and dining outdoors on rooftops, by the river, or along a red-bricked Main Street… art galleries, live music, museums, theatre, symphony, opera, or ballet… Spanish Floridian, Art Deco, or Modern architecture… inspiring and beautiful places like the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, … then this is your place. Seriously, the downtown area is one of the prettiest I have seen.

Main Street Fort Myers, Florida
The original Ford’s Garage (located on Main Street just a few blocks from the Edison and Ford Winter Estates) is the place for craft beer and a burger. Vintage Fords and gas pumps give it a 1920s service station feel while the copper bar recalls the Speakeasys.
And speaking of Speakeasys, Capone’s
You could make a day of exploring vintage and consignment shops here.

Other Reasons to Choose Fort Myers for a Getaway

Location

Approximately 20 miles from downtown Fort Myers are Fort Myers Beach located on Estero Island, Sanibel Island, and Captiva Island with world-famous shelling, wildlife preserves, and an “Old Florida” feel. And if you’re up for a vast adventure, The Everglades, an UNESCO World Heritage site, is only two hours away.

Fort Myers Beach Photo Courtesy of Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel

Attractions for All Kinds of Travelers in All Seasons

In 2021, MSN, Travel & Leisure, HGTV, Fodor’s Travel, Fishing Booker, Country Living, U. S. News & World Report, Yahoo Life, Coastal Living named Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva as top getaways for many reasons, such as uncrowded family-friendly beaches and outdoor spaces, tropical beauty, charm, island living, wildlife, shelling, fishing spots, and other hidden treasures. And I can vouch for its allure for couple, family, friend, or solo getaways because I’ve experienced all of them there myself.

My romance with Fort Myers Beach started in 2020. In April 2021, my daughter and I recharged and reconnected on Captiva Island. In early December 2021, I returned for an unforgettable writing conference and community event (more on that later), then ended the week solo in downtown Fort Myers at Luminary. 

Located In the historic Downtown River District on the Caloosahatchee River, the AAA Four Diamond luxury property — the first in the area of the Autograph Collection® of Marriott International — first lit up the waterfront and city in late 2020. The hotel, decor, and restaurants are named for visionaries and innovators (such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford whose winter estates are within walking distance) who converted Fort Myers from a cattle town to a historical, cultural center. Today snowbirds, locals, and tourists flock to the 12th floor rooftop bar nightly to do what’s customary in these parts, watch legendary sundowns with a drink or meal.  My room was perfect. I felt like Kate Winslet in The Holiday when she raised some fancy window shades with a remote, read in bed, and took a dip in the pool below. The shower/bathroom was the largest I’ve seen in a hotel suite and the branding throughout was very Gatsby.

Sincere thanks to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, Luminary Hotel, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, for your hospitality. You fed my mind, body, and soul with art, beauty, random roaming, and coral skies of hope.

Planning Your Trip

To plan your trip, start here.

I’ve used Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) twice and Dolphin Transportation and Punta Gorda Airport (Allegiant Air) once, both about a 30-minute drive from downtown Fort Myers.

When you arrive, you can also pick up the Southwest Florida Guide to the Arts: Gulfshore Life with a listing of events and coupons in the back with discounts.

Just a few of Hundreds of Happenings in 2022

Florida Rep‘s A Doll’s House, 2 and Driving Miss Daisy

Gulfshore Opera‘s A Night in Italy, Songs of Ireland, Tosca

Broadway Palm Dinner Theater‘s Singin’ in the Rain, Escape to Margarittaville, and In the Heights

Gulfcoast Symphony concerts from Led Zeppelin to Frank to Billy Jo

In March, the Fort Myers Beach Shrimp Festival and Parade

In May, Fort Myer Film Festival

In June Captivaville

More here

Sarasota County Part 2: Where Locals and Tourists Go for Health, Wellness, and To Give Back

Disclosure: Thank you VisitSarasota.com and partners for the hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.

Sarasota County: Part 2

Wellness is one of many reasons U. S. News and World Report named Sarasota, FloriDa the #1 Place 2020-2021 to Retire and the #16 Best Place to Live.
LOVE LOVE LOVE Pineapple Yoga + Cycling Studio

So how are those 2021 health and fitness goals going? January 1, I kicked off  the new year making wellness a priority at Pineapple Yoga + Cycling Studio–a highlight of my Sarasota County trip

While vacationing on the west coast of Florida the previous two winters, I saw happy, fit folks of all ages everywhere. Snowbirds love this area–maybe now more than ever– because, unlike the northern parts of the state or most of the US, it’s warm enough to socially distance outdoors all year. Only an outside studio could have coaxed me into a class the morning after celebrating New Year’s Eve, but I’d missed my yoga studio in Nashville, closed due to Covid now for almost a year. I had just restarted the practice that gave me peace, joy, and community while living in Marrakesh, and though I’ve done some online classes since the pandemic started, it hasn’t been the same.  So I traded my comfortable bed at Art Ovation Hotel for one of the bikes they provide and took off on empty but sunny streets.

I enjoyed the ride through the Burns Court neighborhood. When I arrived at the studio–a haven that Claudia Baeza has created in Sarasota–I  instantly felt welcome,  energized. Something also seemed very familiar…like a Moroccan coastal yogi retreat.  

Please watch the video below to understand why, meet some amazing ladies, hear about a haven for locals and tourists…and a model for giving back.

I understand why locals love Pineapple Yoga + Cycling Studio, named in Sarasota Magazine Best New Yoga Studio 2019 and in SRQ Magazine, Best Local Yoga Studio 2020. On-demand classes, online teacher training , studio and live streaming, and here’s just a few events: history yoga classes, Dock Yoga at Marina Jack on Valentine’s Day, Poolside Yoga at the Moderns Sarasota Hotel, Moving Meditation at the Ringling Museum, Throwback 90 Outdoor Yoga Party. AND… check out other experiences offered on beach, boat or paddle board here. Take me back please!

Best of all, staying fit and having fun funds the Dharma Footprint Project so others can, too–so many incredible programs for those listed here AND their care-partners : Yoga and Cycling for Parkinson’s, Love Your Brain™ Yoga (LYBY) for those who have experienced a TBI (traumatic brain injury) or concussion, Y12SR yoga with 12-step programs for addiction recovery, Trauma Sensitive Yoga for Anxiety and Depression, Yoga for Veterans, Yoga for Differently Disabled.

I loved meeting Claudia, a kindred spirit. If you saw the end of the video, stay tuned… when the coast is clear we just may team up in Morocco for a writing and yoga retreat!

Some of Sarasota County’s many wellness opportunities, outdoor sports, adventures on the water and an unbelievable list of gorgeous beaches and parks make for a healthy 2021 body, mind, and soul.

Here’s a few I’d like to try:

Canopy Walk at Myakka River State Park 
Mangrove Tunnels

My podcast guest, Morgan Henderson, talked about the fun her boys had on this family field trip they did during remote school. 

Quick Point Nature Reserve at Longboat Key
Epic Equine Experiences

Photo Credit Epic Adventures

Turtle Beach Campground Waterfront Siesta Key
Bike Tour and Siesta Key Sunset Tour
And of course, my favorite thing about Sarasota County…. miles of beaches for walking, running, shell gathering … exercise, mental health, peace.

Siesta Key, Named #1 US Beach, Photo by VisitSarasota.com

 

 Where to Eat for Health and Wellness

After my January 1 class, I biked through a park, around the corner, and up Main Street for brunch.

 

Main Street, Sarasota, Florida

 

Sarasota has been named the Best City for Vegans in America.
My son. has been vegan for a few years and has opened my mind and tastebuds to some delicious dishes. Lila, recommended by locals, was a great choice. Pronounced Lee-lah, translated as fun, whimsical and creative, the eatery lives up to its name.

Grilled Tofu with Lila’s Dragon Sauce

Ginger Margarita, Macro Bowl with Chickpeas, Brown Rice, Fermentlicious Sauerkraut,  Avocado, Cucumber, Warm Kale, Togarashi, Tumeric-Tahini Vinaigrette. Dessert wan a cappuccino before I hit the road and biked back to the hotel.

I love that Sarasota County  is  known for  Clean Conscious Eating. Here are more suggestions.

MORE ON PINEAPPLE STUDIO and BEACHES HERESARASOTA COUNTY, FLORIDA, BEST OF ALL WORLDS: PART 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feedspot Names Southern Girl Gone Global a Top 35 Baby Boomer Travel Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2021

Thank you, Feedspot, for naming Southern Girl Gone Global on  your Top 35 Baby Boomer Travel Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2021.  

Feedspot is a content reader that simplifies life by combining websites and blogs you follow into one space. They also match brands with 100k influential Bloggers in over 1500 niche categories for marketing.

I’m honored and humbled to be listed with bloggers I admire for their adventurous spirits, humor, and commitment to inspiring and equipping those planning to travel or live abroad.  Just a few mentions from the list…

Are you dreaming of living in Portugal or Scotland? Of visiting there for a month?  Check out the recent posts of Life Part 2 where a retired couple living in Porto, Portugal gives us the costs. I LOVED Porto (and not just because J.K. Rowling juggled teaching, having a child, and writing the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Lello Bookstore, inspiration for Hogwarts.)  Also see their posts on Sicily (where a lot of us were meeting for the Travel Writers Exchange last March until Covid shut it down 🙁 . One day…

Also see stunning shots of Utah and the Free Boomer Walking Tour of Prague, a city I also love, on  My Itchy Travel Feet

Been streaming or rereading the Lord of the Rings trilogy and ready to head to New Zealand?  Albom Adventures has the scoop.

Barbara Weibel of Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel is a lady I’d like to hang out with for awhile. See all she has done since 2007 when she followed her passions and found true joy.

I love the idea of traveling with my brunette sister. Check out how that’s working out for these two on Blonde Brunette Travel sisters. 

And this lady–Suzanne Fluhr–of Boomeresque has entertained, informed, and inspired readers for years. She has built a community of female boomer bloggers and I’m happy to call her my friend.

2020 Vision from Lessons Learned

Reflect, then project. For those of us who thought we’d be farther along in 2020 in some area(s) –education, career, relationships, health, finances, savings, freedom, peace–think again. Rather than be discouraged, let’s look back with gratitude at how far we’ve come! Make a list of what you did accomplish in the last decade. Identify steps you took in the direction of where you want to go and what you’ve learned along the way. Just as important as getting to destinations/ outcomes for the lives we want is moving closer to the people we want to be. 

Girls get a sports, arts, and health education at Project SOAR in Marrakesh, Morocco.
Project Soar, featured by Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn Initiative, is a Joy Zone in Marrakesh, Morocco. Volunteering there and writing their story was one of many blessings the country gave me.

What words best sum up your last ten years? For me they were change, journey, faith, and let go. Before 2010, I spent 17 years in the same house 3 streets from the school where I taught/my children attended K-12. After 2010, I fled my too-silent, empty nest; lived in 2 countries abroad; traveled to 15 more; taught at 7 schools; and became a travel blogger, writing coach, and full- time university lecturer. During this time of transition, I thank God most for relationships; for my time in Morocco; and for other travels–Christmas with my children in Marrakesh and London, New Year’s Eve in Venice, Easter from Prague to St. Petersburg, and springs and summers in Spain.

Christmas Break with Cole and Taylor in Marrakesh Medina

 

New Years Eve in Venice

 

St. Petersburg, Russia with the Model UN delegates from the American School of Marrakesh

 

Canals in Amsterdam
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

 

Cies Islands off coast of Vigo, Spain

 

Bratislava, Slovakia

 

Belgium Waffles
Brussels, Belgium
Montemartre, Paris

 

Surfer in Portugal
Miramar Beach, Portugal

Our Maker customizes journeys each of us need for seasons of life. Whether they require us to cross continents or make discoveries in our own backyard, all lead home– to the people we were uniquely created to be. God gives us the desires of our hearts when we delight in Him (Psalm 37:4) so He can fulfill them. He delights in giving us good gifts (Matthew 7:11). What dreams has He given you? In ten years, where do you want to be? What’s your word for 2020 that expresses what you most desire to be or do? Is it a noun–courage, strength, laughter, vulnerability, hope–or a verb–enjoy, explore, create, focus, dream?

I share some lessons I’ve learned/relearned/am still learning over the past decade as invitations to reflect on your own. Please share in a comment what life has been teaching you on your journeys and where you hope to still go in the new year and decade ahead. 

Lesson #1: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”–George Addair

In January of 2014, my friend, Julie, started a blog. She was moving to Belize to dive, and posted the quote above. I knew those words were true. I’d battled Fear, Fiercest of Dragons, all my life. Studying the Enneagram over the last few years taught me that everyone does. A personality test profiling nine types according to strengths and struggles wasn’t that new. What was new was finally understanding why we are the way we are. Each number is driven by core values/desires/needs and fears. Everyone has fear, but we don’t all fear the same things nor deal with those fears in the same ways. Recognizing and appreciating our differences can help us navigate and deepen relationships. (If you haven’t taken the test, this one costs $12 and is probably the most thorough, but there are other good free ones online like this one.)

When, like heroes in books and movies, we set out on a quest, we meet Fear spitefully guarding the treasure– joy, confidence, freedom–whatever it is that we seek. Sometimes the dragon looms large before us, stradling our path with the breath of a blowtorch trying to force us back. Angst and Anxiety, fear’s more subtle forms– can be harder to identify although more people than ever say they suffer from both. Stress can also ambush us from within, threatening our mental and physical health. It can literally short-circuit our nerves, causing them to burn through our skin. This Christmas I experienced this condition for the second time — “Jingle bells, Jingle bells, SHINGLES all the way!” (I also learned that this can happen at any age. Three of my friends were diagnosed with shingles while in college.)

When anxiety gets me down, I get frustrated with myself because it seems by now I should have mastered the whole fear thing. Maybe that’s because over the last decade, I was more determined than ever to slay fear once-and-for-all. 

In 2013 I booked a bedroom in a Costa Rican jungle beach house owned by Lisa Valencia, an expat who’d left her empty nest in Montana for a more economical, adventure-filled life. Her book, like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love, inspired me to believe I could change my life, too. I’d always wanted to live abroad, and with an empty nest and bank account I was curious about a place where healthcare might actually be affordable. I’d traveled with students and done service trips in Europe and South America, but this time I’d go it alone.The trip didn’t go as planned, but it prepared me for an expat life a year later.  Steps we take in faith toward a dream can lead to unforeseen, scary territory, but rather than detours, they are necessary legs of the journey. They don’t throw us off course but help us stay the course and find the desired destination.  

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Over the years my friend Sherry, who I visited in Ecuador, and my friend Sally, a nurse who raised her family in Niger, sent me Matthew 11:28-30: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. I wanted that.

Braving waves and living freely/lightly in Costa Rican surf

I also wanted to be the woman in Proverbs 31:25: She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.  In Morocco, like few times in my life, I fully experienced both. Moving solo to Africa sight unseen and trusting my most precious gifts–my grown children and other family members 4400 miles away– grew my faith. I had to trust God with all because (other than our choices and despite our best efforts), we humans control little. Most days, I felt my faith cutting through fear like a lightsaber. Even when blind-sighted, I was able to sing in the dark and when sad, I could find joy

Bird in Morocco
Birds abound at Marrakesh’s La Mamounia. Even when life grows dark, there’s comfort is knowing His eye is on the sparrow and me.

I thought I’d defeated fear for good. Then I moved to the Dominican Republic. I felt I was drowning in two tsunami waves–one the first month after I landed, the other the last month before I left. After moving home to Nashville, I also felt afraid. The supernatural peace I felt in Morocco couldn’t be sustained. Life is seasonal, and I realize now that this side of heaven, we will never be permanently fear-free. Just when we think we’ve beaten fear like in a video game and moved onto the next level, a stronger version of the monster appears. But with each bout we can grow stronger. Grace enables us to ride fear Queen Daenerys-style.  In darker seasons I find peace in the 365 forms of “Fear Not” in the Bible, and test my thoughts with 2 Timothy 1:7: “God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.” I trust His character and protection, the One who over the last seven years sustained me through earthquake, illness, a mugging, a van accident, a hurricane, and an assault. We can’t see what lies in wait, but He can. 

Lesson #2: Each of us has a life story and gets to be the leading lady or leading man of it.

In the movie The Holiday, an elderly friend and famous Hollywood producer, Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), advises Iris (Kate Winslet) to let go of a man who doesn’t love or respect her. 

Arthur: So, he’s a schmuck.

Iris: As a matter of fact, he is…a huge schmuck. How did you know?

Arthur: He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.

Iris: You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life…Arthur, I’ve been going to a therapist for three years, and she’s never explained anything to me that well. 

Palais Namaskar in Marrakesh, Morocco makes walking in one’s own story feel epic.

We are free to live our own story– to choose where to live and how to serve others with the gifts God gives us. I’d taught Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey for years, but it wasn’t until teaching Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist while in Marrakesh that I recognized each stage in my own journey. Like heroes in books– Ulysses, Frodo, Luke Skywalker, Mulan–we real folk are sometimes called to adventures that require us to leave everything familiar. Unchartered territory is daunting and can cause us to refuse the call. Coelho, in his introduction to the 10th Anniversary Edition, gives four reasons why: 1) We’re told since kids what we want is impossible. 2) We fear the defeats we’ll experience on the path. 3) We fear success. 4) Love–for me, the obstacle. 

Coelho explains: “We know what we want to do, but are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream. We do not realize that love is just a further impetus, not something that will prevent us going forward. We do not realize that those who genuinely wish us well want us to be happy and are prepared to accompany us on that journey.” I am forever grateful to my daughter and son who supported me 100% when I told them I wanted to apply for teaching jobs abroad, my sister and brother-in-law who gave me a sendoff party with family and friends, and my Mom who kept in constant touch the three years I was gone.

When moving abroad we cross the threshold into a new world with the help of mentors–those like my friend, Dana, who’d taught in Casablanca and blazed the trail before me. On the path we meet allies and traveling companions. And ordeals. (See Lesson #1.) But if we stay the course, we find our treasure–an elixir–that transforms us, and we return to share what we’ve learned with others, inspiring them to follow their dreams, too. Coelho said, “People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.” I’m a romantic but know realistically that finances, family responsibilities, and illnesses can put dreams on hold. Some of my coworkers in Morocco raised their kids, then began international teaching as their second act. Others chose to raise their children in international schools where they taught abroad. Travel blogger friends now work their way around the globe as digital nomads; others use Trusted HouseSitters and Mind My House to country-hop. The world brims with possibilities to live the lives we want.

Lesson #3: Let go.

One of my greatest struggles has been with the empty nest. Moving abroad forced me to create a new normal so I could outrun it for awhile. School breaks–that Christmas in London and summers at home–we spent quality, intentional time together. I wasn’t prepared for the delayed pain that hit full force when I returned to Nashville–the place we’d lived together.  Releasing my children was HUGE because, as a mom, I’m a Stage 5 Clinger as much as a Gypsy Soul. The last decade I’ve also learned/am learning to let go of…

  • Expectations of how life and people “should” be. Plans are great, but life can derail them. How we react is the only thing we can control. Decades earlier, divorce made me let go of my idea of a “perfect family.” For years I feared my children and I weren’t just on Plan B but benched for life as the B Team. We realize now how close we became as the 3 Musketeers. I’m also learning that basing our happiness on how others act and react is a setup for frustration and disappointment. We can know our limits, respect other people’s boundaries/choices, and choose with whom to be in relationship and to what extent. 
  • Judgement–Travel teaches us flexibility. Living cross-culturally makes us let go of rigid constructs of what life should or should not be. I’ve taught behind what some, sadly, would call in my polarized home country ‘enemy lines.’ Working over the last decade with colleagues, students, and families in a Bible Belt Christian high school and university, a Caribbean Catholic high school, an international high school with coworkers from 20-something countries and students who were mostly Muslims,  a liberal public high school, and a public community college and university has taught me one thing. Our same Maker creates us more alike than different. Regardless of where we live on the map, most people love their families, value faith, and want to live happy and free.  
Ladies I met in Vilnius, Lithuania on my Birthday in 2015

 

Players in Prague
Children at Cologne, Germany Christmas Markets
Russian Performer in St. Petersburg
Ladies and children in Chefchaouen, Morocco
Sledding in the Atlas Mountains an hour from Marrakesh, Morocco

Learning to play basketball at Project SOAR
Watching Die Hard3 in El Fna Square at Marrakesh Film Festival
  • Material things–Downsizing the amount of “stuff” in our lives clears space for what we really want. Living out of 4 suitcases for three years taught me how much I really need. I like Thoreau’s approach to minimalism and simplicity: The cost of a thing is how much of life I’ll be required to exchange for it– now or in the future. 
  • People–Family is forever but time spent with friends can be seasonal. This is especially true in the expat community where friends bind fast and furious. International teachers by nature want to see the world, so after serving a two-year contract, many move on. Likewise, while expats are abroad, friends at home are also transitioning through new seasons. Priorities, addresses, interests change. Thankfully technology can keep us in touch, and I was able to reconnect with these friends when I returned to Morocco Summer 2018.
  • Old Stories–Some old stories–the ones we laugh about– keep us connected, and some connect us in shared pain. However, some stories we tell ourselves or others tell about us are unhealthy. They block us from moving forward. People can victimize us, but unless we are physically restrained, we can break free. Once we do, internalizing what the perpetrator did still holds us hostage.
  • Assumptions–We all have bad days or seasons when we speak or act from a place of pain. As discussed in the The Four Agreements, our lives are happier when we only believe what we know to be true and refuse to take things personally.  
  • Perfectionism–Though some life experiences follow the journey model, most are not linear. They spiral. We find ourselves confronting over and over our most challenging issues, and sadly, we still sometimes fail. Growth is learning from past mistakes, knowing our triggers, and adding to our skill set so we can better handle adversity. When we do mess up, we can make amends and treat ourselves with the kindness and patience we extend to others.  We can lean on God and give ourselves what we need when depleted– H.A.L.T. when feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired–rather than demand others fill these needs.

Lesson #4: Embrace.

Once we’ve let go of what we don’t need in our lives, we have free hands to hang onto what we do. Hang onto…

  • Beauty breaks for the soul. Most of the women I know live with passion and purpose. They are what southerners call steel magnolias–curious, creative, courageous. They contribute and grow. I know, too, they often feel overwhelmed. Exhausted. Stretched to the limit. Whether in our backyard or on an extended getaway, we need time to listen to our hearts–to explore, breathe, just BE. Self-care was foreign to me until I became a single mom with two young children. Wise women advised me to take timeouts–to put on my own oxygen mask– when my son and daughter were away. The solo travel and moves abroad I did in the last decade wouldn’t have happened had I not learned how to make the most of time alone decades prior.  I started with baby steps– lunch out with a book on a pretty patio, exploring a museum, or seeing a film in the theater alone. In the 2000s those moves became strides–an annual overnight stay at a B and B, learning Latin dance, leading students and volunteering on trips abroad.  Beauty and adventure infused me with superpowers I needed as a mom, teacher, and creative. All of those mile markers moved me to Morocco. Wandering and dwelling in beauty creates calm. So do centering practices like yoga, meditation, prayer. 
  • Creative Community. Spend time with people who inspire you to do what you were put here to do and realize fully who you were created to be. Releasing a book or album or any other project creatives feel called to do can be a long, lonely process without traveling companions to remind us of our mission and cheer us back to the path when we lose our way. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and in The War of Art advised well— stay away from chaos and  ‘crazy makers’ who distract us from our work. 
  • Curiosity. T. H. White in his The Once and Future King, a retelling of the King Arthur Legend through the lens of WW2, explains the gift of education. In it, Merlin tells young Arthur: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old … you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting… Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” Online courses, podcasts, and audio books make learning-on-the-go possible. Exploring new territory, like Josephine Baker’s Moroccan home, taught me about a woman who is now my hero. 
  • Your True Identity/Value. My friend-since-I-was-five Sally, created a jewelry line based on photos of my adventures. She knew me when high school dances ended with Chicago’s “Color My World,” and we prayed that one day someone would be our happily-ever-after. After both of our marriages ended, we saw God make mosaics from the shards of our lives. An Italian friend told me once I was meant for a grande amore. We all are. God calls us to a love story–one with Him full of adventure. The jewelry line she created is called Chérie, which in French, the language of Africa, means “cherished by God.” Thanks to Sally, women can wear the lessons I learned on my journey–Choose Adventure, Walk in Faith, Seek and Find, Follow Your Heart– and feel connected to a global, cross-generational sisterhood of seekers. See the line here.
Cherie jewelry line
Cherie line on Etsy

Lesson #5 Expecting the unexpected, enjoy the moment. Our health and that of our loved ones is not a default blessing. Without health, our dreams— like travel— can die. Take your shot when you have it. For many of us, that’s between when kids leave the nest and parents need our help. Most things cost more than the price tag, but experiences, unlike things we eventually Goodwill, we take to the grave and are priceless. And that old adage—“You find love when you aren’t looking”— for me proved to be true. I am thankful someone I hadn’t laid eyes on in over 30 years found me, has made me laugh like no other, and also values roots and wings. 

Fort Meyers Beach January 2020

For 7 More Life Lessons Realized in Venice, go here.

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Life Lessons for 2020

Rising from Travel Trauma

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As Brene Brown says, “Soft front, strong back, wild heart.”

Last spring when my friend Caroline offered me her holiday home as my private writing retreat, I was thrilled. Though we’d never met in person, we’d been in contact since 2016 just before I left Morocco. After I moved to the Dominican Republic, she bought the house and sent me photos of each phase of its restoration. I was returning to Marrakech in June and couldn’t wait to finally step into the haven she had designed. She’d be working out of the country but would leave the key for me.

Months before the trip, I started envisioning myself wearing a kaftan again, journaling mornings on her rooftop couches and clicking afternoons on my laptop in her jade courtyard. The color she chose for the entrance tile and kitchen reminded me of the Emerald City. Appropriate, I thought, because Magical Marrakech had been Oz where I’d lived over the rainbow for two years. I  couldn’t wait to return.

I imagined scouting the souks in her neighborhood for wedding quilts–my most prized Moroccan treasure– and eating next door at the hotel she frequented. As I’d done before, perched on ramparts above the African Coast, balconies on the Mediterranean Sea, and atop other medina guest houses, I’d watch sunsets. And as the moon rose, though a female solo traveler, I’d feel safe so high in the dark. The panoramic views at sunrise and star-filled heavens at night– beauty breaks for the soul– would give me new perspective. I’d feel protected, closer to my creator, and thus more creative.

 

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An inspiring place to write is always top of my list when choosing accommodations. When traveling with children to Florida beaches, I’d book stays with pretty ocean or pool side patios where I could work before they woke up. Writing for me is a sacred space, and to do so in an Edenic location makes my heart sing.

But like Amanda Wingfield, despite all my  “plans and preparations,” things sometimes went awry. My 2013 trip to Costa Rica to write like Hemingway in a Caribbean jungle was rattled off course by an earthquake and ER visit. On the 2016 Girl’s Trip to Tuscany rather than writing in a vineyard villa the flu or pneumonia forced me to bed. I then finished the week like the walking dead. Spring Break 2017 in the Dominican Republic I was to write on a terrace by the sea. Instead, a man  hiding in the jungle in a mask marred my sense of safety for the two months I had left to teach in the country.  God protected me and I’m forever grateful, but I’d discover in Morocco over a year later that like Michael Myers in the Halloween film, fear had stowed away in my luggage to stalk me.

I felt him, faintly, in the distance when I met Moni in Madrid on my way to Marrakesh but thought I was just rundown  from a rough interim teaching gig or exhaustion from the last two years. Seeing her would be good medicine as would be seeing Kate and Jasna in Morocco where, before, I’d  felt so free. But while making my way one afternoon back to a hotel I was reviewing, I thought I was lost. Though I’d shopped and riad-hopped for two years in the medina, turning onto a deserted street–like the stretch of beach where the man grabbed me–I became terrified. I hurried on–as it turned out, on the right route–and turned down another deserted alley where I knew the hotel entrance would be. When a man on a motorbike turned down the same street, I began stabbing my key, hands shaking, to hit the hole. I stumbled over the threshold and pulled the bolt behind me. In  my room, I shook and cried. Was this what people call post traumatic stress?

The next trigger was when I went to Caroline’s. Kate said she’d see me settled  but couldn’t stay. We took a taxi to a part of the medina we weren’t familiar with, then were told by the driver we’d have to walk the rest of the way. A young man heard us talking about the hotel where we would get the key and pointed down a narrow street.  Though the hotel was there and the riad just around the corner, by the time we unlocked the door I was racked with anxiety.

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Two of Caroline’s friends from London stopped by to give us the tour. They said they were staying next door until the next day and while Marylynn, a flight attendant, chatted with Kate in the salon, Martina, a hair stylist, took me up three more floors. She unlocked each gorgeous bedroom and the stairway to the roof.

“Caroline said to choose the room you like best.”

“They’re all so pretty,” I managed to say. I tried not to start crying. And failed.

“I apologize. Something bad happened to me in the Dominican Republic. I love Morocco. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Caroline was so sweet to offer me her home. I wish you two were staying here. ” I was thinking, I AM VERY, VERY AFRAID. I DON’T WANT TO BE ALONE. Somehow, she knew.

“Listen. We will be right next door. You can wave to us from the roof.” She kindly smiled and nodded, shaking her curls and, now animated, pointing to the neighboring restaurant.

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“We are going to dinner there and you will join us.  We leave tomorrow so I have to do a bit more shopping. My daughter’s getting married and I need to buy some things to take home. Relax and we’ll be back in a couple of hours. We’ll have some Prosecco on your rooftop and head over. Tell me what you’d like and I’ll make you a reservation. We’re having lamb. Do you know tapping? I’ll show you how to be free from those bad vibes.”

And with that the three women were gone. Caroline checked in by phone to be sure all was well, and I unpacked and shortly Martina and Marylynn returned. We talked children, travel, tapped, and toasted the sunset. Then laughed, a lot, over dinner. They were fun and so very sweet.

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Caroline’s Rooftop

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Marylynn (left) and Martina (center)

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They walked me back to the riad, and the next morning, before we met for breakfast, I took photos of the hotel to remember yet again time I’d been able to depend on the kindness of strangers. I hated hugging them goodbye, but we have stayed in touch and hope to meet again on one continent or another. I’d love to host them and Caroline in Nashville.

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The remainder of my stay whenever I was afraid, I prayed. I wrote of how God had protected me–in the DR and throughout all of my life–and thanked Him for a place where He had again given me roses in the desert.

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I knew last summer my time for living in Morocco had passed, but I hope to return there often. Next June I hope to show others on a writing retreat this place that moves me and so many.

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In Caroline’s home lines from The Wizard of Oz.

And on the last night at Caroline’s, I climbed to the rooftop. I’d been saved from a predator on a faraway shore. I could have been harmed, even died, but he hadn’t taken me down, made me too afraid to be alone or to travel.  Fear had almost made me miss staying in Caroline’s lovely home and meeting her friends.  God was still protecting me and blessing me with people who make me feel less alone. I had fresh hope that one day  I may travel with not only amazing women friends but also someone else.

I felt him out there. Not the guy I’d dreaded, but the one I’ve been waiting  for. The one who waits for me.  And then I found the poem below by Hafiz Shirazi, a 13th Century Persian Poet.  I twirled and smiled.

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I SAW YOU DANCING

I saw you dancing last night on the roof
Of your house all alone.
I felt your heart longing for the
Friend.
I saw you whirling
Beneath the soft bright rose
That hung from the invisible stem in
The sky,
So I began to change into my best clothes
In hopes of joining you
Even though
I live a thousand miles away.
And if
You had spun like an immaculate sphere
Just two more times,
Then bowed again so sweetly to
The east,
You would have found God and me
Standing so near
And lifting you into our
Arms.
I saw you dancing last night near the roof
Of this world.
I feel your soul in mine
Calling for our
Beloved.

Riad Melhoun Makes Dreams Come True

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From the moment I walked into Riad Melhoun, I was treated as an honored guest and  friend. Maybe I loved the experience of this stay because the blend of Arabic- Andalusian architecture and music felt so familiar after living in Morocco and visiting southern Spain often.  Like Santiago who traveled from Andalusia to Tangier in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I’d journeyed to this mysterious country where dreams and destiny converged. As I was warmed by the traditional welcome, mint tea, I gazed into the shimmering pool which reflected a silver service, an exotic hookah, and a woman forever changed by two years in this place.

Maybe I loved Riad Melhoun because it, too, is a reflection of art and history– wood carvings, stucco, and design inspired by the Bahia Palace nearby and the Medersa Ben Youssef.

Maybe it was being shown to the superior Amessan suite, making any woman feel like a princess with the canopied bed and decorative doors opening exclusively  to the courtyard pool. On the second floor were seven other sumptuous rooms.

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Maybe it was the attention to details–matching tile sinks, arched doorways and alcoves,  stain glass windows, bedding, lanterns, soft robe and slippers, and a spacious shower.

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Maybe I felt at home because  I wrote for hours under the arbor on the rooftop. Being outdoors is paradise to me despite insects that love lush gardens, too. If you enjoy  camping out as I do everywhere I go, repellent is a suggestion.

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Truly taking pride in the details, the staff plans excursions with guests. Though I stayed on the property,  Riad Melhoun delivered my Big 3–beauty, adventure, and new friends.

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I met guests waiting for the sunset on the rooftop, like this gentleman from China who showed me how drones work.

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As the night grew dark and lanterns were lit, I went down to dinner and found my table set at the end of the pool. Thrilled, I took my seat. On the pristine cloth, to my delight, were red rose petals.  Again I thanked God for blessings as I’d done that afternoon in the memoir I am writing about moving to Morocco. It’s called Roses in the Desert.  As a solo traveler I am accustomed to eating alone. Here I felt  special and with attentive staff never felt alone.

 

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The next morning I found my place on the rooftop. Local honey is loved here by Moroccans, tourists, and bees.

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Riad Melhoun has a spacious spa where massages and hammams can be booked. I had missed hammams, Morocco’s signature treat, so enjoyed one before leaving.   This ritual originated in public bathhouses separated by gender for those with no indoor plumbing to bathe weekly. Women socialized here. Recently on tour with a local guide in Tétouan, I learned  the three most important mainstays of the medina are the mosques, hammams, and bakeries.

I love private hammams performed by a lady who instructs clients to disrobe and lie on the hot stone bench in a marble room with dry heat like a sauna. She poured water over me from a silver bucket and smeared me on both sides with savon beldi (a blackish looking soap made with olive oil). She left me ten minutes to relax allowing the heat and oil to soften my skin. When she returned, she scrubbed away the top  layer of  dead flesh (which peels off in rolls) with a kess (a mit akin to sandpaper). Next she covered me in argan oil by Sens of Marrakech (a local, organic, fragrant line of products), and left me again to “bake.” She returned, washed my hair and rinsed my body. Finally she massaged lotion into my then-baby-soft skin. She wrapped me in a robe and sat me down in a cooler room for mint tea.

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The only  problem was, I felt so relaxed after the experience I could barely walk downstairs. Thankfully, I was packed up so all I had to do was tumble into a tuk tuk to be whisked away to another adventure. so thankful Riad Melhoun was a dream come true.

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Thank you to Manager Mr. Mohamed and his wonderful staff for their hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.

 

Riad Matham for Rooftop Oasis and Supreme Sunsets in Morocco

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Upon arrival, I met the Ambassador of Riad Matham, Cous Cous the Tortoise. Photo credit  @katemoroccobespoke

Riad Matham offers guests the magic and mystery of the Marrakech medina. Built in the 16th century by a wealthy Berber family, the traditional Moroccan home provides an  intimate courtyard with seven comfortable rooms–some with private salons– named for Moroccan dynasties.  

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Photo credit @katemoroccobespoke

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I really enjoyed the large Almoravide suite’s bed, bath, and private salon. Depending on season, it runs from 79Euros to 98 Euros. Other rooms start as low as 53 Euros.

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Arabic Alphabet

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Bougainvillea cascades down three stories reminding me of Morocco’s Ozoud Falls.

Novice nomads  who lack time or energy to caravan by camel across the Sahara Desert can lounge in wide, open spaces on the roof. On pristine couches, friends sipped wine as I climbed the lookout for sunset watch with the doves.  The panoramic view is one of the best I’ve experienced–perfect for stargazing, too.

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Though tucked away on a narrow street , the riad is close to shops and major landmarks (three minutes to Museum of Marrakech, Medersa Ben Youssef, and Photography Museum of Marrakech; ten minutes to  Jema El Fna square).  Julien, owner of Riad Dar Kleta and manager of Riad Matham, gives great directions for navigating the area and makes guests feel welcome.

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I recommend wandering through nearby La Jardin Secret Marrakech (50 Moroccan Dirhams/$5 USD) where fountains and fields of lavender soothe on a summer day.  The property, dating back more than 400 years to the Saadian Dynasty,  recently opened for the first time in history to the public.

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Great Caesar Salad on the Terrace

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The view for sunsets here is incredible. I climbed the lookout for sunset watch with the doves.  Stargazing is also highly recommended.

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Perched

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Dinner can be ordered but arrange early to allow shopping for fresh ingredients. Breakfast is served by the plunge pool.

Thank you to Riad Matham for their hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.

 

Carnival in the Caribbean

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It was the Grand Finale of a month of festivities all over the island. In Santo Domingo there had been an air show the week before celebrating The Dominican Republic’s Independence Day on February 27, and this would end the Caribbean Carnival season in Santo Domingo. My friends texted to say the Malecón—the oceanfront road where the oldest parade in the Americas was about to begin—was closed. I’d have to walk several blocks to get to the restaurant to meet them. I’d seen families walking toward the parade site for miles from the Colonial Zone where I’d had lunch, some stopping to buy masks, others in costumes. My driver motioned me out, so I asked which way to Adrian Tropical. He pointed left.

I stepped out onto a side street that far ahead dropped off into the sea, but I was already swimming through waves of color.   Dominican groups gathered plumed in jewel tones, sequins, fringe, and feathers. I passed the Tainos in traditional dress (the indigenous I’d seen in paintings  last fall ), then women like cabaret dancers in larger, more flamboyant headdresses like those seen in Rio.  I tried not to look lost. I’d lived in the DR since August and was comfortable being the only expat gringa singing to bachata in my barrio’s grocery store, La Serena (Little Mermaid), but here I was a fish out of water again, disoriented by the masses and not knowing exactly where the taxi had dropped me. I squeezed past the barricades, crossed the street, and was seaside, hoping to see the restaurant up the coast. Earlier the driver got lost taking me to the Spanish Square—the biggest landmark in the city. I hoped his directions were right.

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After a few blocks of moving through the crowd upstream, I stopped and asked a lady eating street food if she knew where Adrian Tropical was. She called over two guys. I turned.

It was them. The ones my friend–her families were locals– said I didn’t want to meet.

They were completely covered in black grease—tarred but not feathered–playing the part of chicken thieves, once a common problem now satirized here. She said the Carnival parades can get crazy and that these guys tell you if you don’t give them money they’ll hug you. I’d just passed other chicken thieves—men clothed as women with bulging bosoms and butts.  Once these humps were really live chickens but now they are pillows stuffed under their dresses. The Carnival star/antihero is the “Limping Devil”–Diablo Cojuelo–symbolized by the chicken carried upside down by his feet.  Island lore is that the devil was  cast from heaven to earth for his trickery,  causing him to limp.

Looking into the eyes–the only body parts not covered in tar– of the characters representing Roba la Gallina (Steal the Chicken) made me turn chicken.

“Donde?” (Where are you going? they asked.)

“Adrian Tropical.”

“Ah, Tropical! Tropical!” They happily pointed to the direction I was headed. I thanked them and turned to hurry on, almost colliding with another guy I was warned about. He was carrying a “bladder”—a balloon on a stick—to wallop people with. I felt like Candide.   No one can make this stuff up.

After 20-30 minutes  of walking I decided I’d been sent on a chicken chase. I about-faced, crossed the street, and  scanned the sky for anything familiar. I was dying to text my friends to ask where they were and to take photos of the costumed characters and creatures I passed, but I had been warned by locals to hang onto my purse and not take my phone out in the crowd.

When I saw the Crowne Plaza, I sent up a hallelujah and started sprinting until an officer checking IDs checked me.

Like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, I growled a plea. “I only have a bank card, and I just want to see the parade.”  I must have seemed scarier than the devils cracking whips in the street beside me. She waved me on. I ran up the steps, asked another security guard which way to the roof, and he pointed to the 2nd story terrace. I texted my friends who said I was only an 8-minute walk away, but the parade had started and diving into the crowd  beyond the hotel again was too much for me. I told them I’d stay put.

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I looked down and understood the extra security.  Below was the Ministry of Culture’s main stage  where participants stopped to perform. It was like being in front of Macy’s on Thanksgiving, but with three times the number marching (30,000 yearly), above the fray, and feeling a warm ocean breeze.  Here’s what I saw…

Masks were worn by the first actors on Greek and Roman stages.  Festivals were held for Bacchus/Dionysus–the god of fertility, wine, and revelry–as a reprieve from following Apollo/god of restraint, rationality, and order the rest of the year. Masquerade balls during Carnival, the most famous originating in Venice, spread to other parts of Europe and were brought to the Caribbean by conquerors.  Combined with African traditions of the people who were here and enslaved, carnival celebrations spread throughout the Americas.  The largest in the world is in Rio, the most popular in the US  is in New Orleans.  The word carnival means to give up meat or things of the flesh, a practice observed by some during lent in Catholic/Christian countries.  Thus, Carnival often occurs just before lent begins.    To consider the relationship between lent and carnival, Christianity and community, see one of my favorite movies, Chocolat,  set  in a small town in France in 1959. The main character’s Latin American roots are also central to the theme.

Have you been to a Carnival parade or celebration?  If so, where?  Which are the Must-Sees?

Santo Domingo: Oldest European City in the New World

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The Colonial Zone is the most magical part of Santo Domingo. Last weekend I had 3 wishes, so I asked the area to grant them:

#1 Take me back to Europe.

#2 Give me rest.

#3 Help me remember again why I moved to the DR.

Like a genie, it did.

A huge perk of living two years in Morocco was taking advantage of cheap flights to Europe. Oh how I miss the $60-80 roundtrip tickets to Neighbor Spain. But last weekend I went there again via a staycation in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial.

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Never underestimate seeing your city as a tourist. While home last summer, I felt again the excitement found under the Batman building along the banks of the Cumberland River while staying in the center of Nashvegas.

Likewise, last weekend I needed escape. A new perspective. Peace. Weeks go by working in my Piantini neighborhood—a maze of mega malls and stifling traffic– when I never see a wave, monument, or sunset. But then I remembered. Just an Uber ride away from my apartment where car horns and jackhammers deafen and high rise apartments smother is the Colonial Zone with its wide open spaces- -grand plazas surrounded by cathedrals,  museums, and waterfront views.

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Oldest church in North and South America and the Caribbean

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Controversial Columbus
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The old town of the first permanent European settlement in the New World offers a feel of two countries I love—Spain and Italy—perched above what drew me to the Dominican Republic—the Caribbean Sea.

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I opted for my first stay in the Colonial Zone to be at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hostal Nicolas de Ovando, built in 1502 as the home of Santo Domingo’s founder, Governor Nicolas de Ovando.

The hotel is located on the Port of Santo Domingo and the first paved street in the Americas, first called the Street of Fortress or Strength.

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Although the name has been changed several times since 1502, it is now called Las Damas, Street of the Ladies, named so because when Viceroy Diego Columbus and his wife doña María de Toledo, the great niece of the King of Spain King Ferdinand, came they brought with them Spanish ladies-in-waiting.  Here these women of high society lived and swished through the streets in gorgeous ballgowns.

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When traveling alone I prefer to be as near as possible to the action.

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Exiting the hotel to the right, I was 150 meters  from Plaza de España and Alcázar de Colón Viceregal Palace—the most visited museum in the Domincan Republic and former home of Ovando’s successor/Christopher Columbus’s oldest son, Don Diego Colón, who became Governor of Hispaniola (now Haiti and Domincan Republic) in 1509.

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Under my window was the National Pantheon of the Dominican Republic, built 1714-1746 as a Jesuit church.  In 1956 under order of then dictator Rafael Trujillo, it was remodelled as a national mausoleum.  Trujillo planned to rest here but today his assassins and other heroes of the the country are interred. 

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A highlight of my stay was when Las Damas began filling with beautiful young ladies like days of old.  On the steps of the memorial proud parents photographed daughters for a Quinceañera, 15th birthday celebration. I fell in love with this rite of passage at a friend’s niece’s party in Nashville.  While weddings are known for being the “bride’s day,” since not all women marry, I love that every girl is celebrated on her special day when she is recognized as becoming a woman.  The dress, the cake, the coming together of friends and family–most of all, the speech of respect and affirmation given by the girl’s father and godfather–makes each girl feel cherished.

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Changing directions…Out the front door to the left, past the hotel’s restaurant 70 meters away

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is the plaza of Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the oldest church built in the New World. This area is a social hub so close to the hotel it feels safe for solo travellers to venture there at night.

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As for the hotel,  the romantic in me loved viewing the Ozama River from behind fortress walls as I used to look out from my balcony above the battlement of Essaouira. Perhaps walking in the footsteps of ghosts from Genoa and living isolated much of the time on this island made me feel like The Count of Monte as he looked across the sea wondering about, wishing for life at home.

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Peering down on Andalusian arches and fountains and roaming mammoth hallways with iron chandeliers and candelabras reminded me of palaces and patios I loved in Marrakesh and Seville.

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I enjoyed  the hospitality and modern 5-star amenities of the property—swimming pool, gym, restaurant, lounge, and live music–and thought of how I’d love to fill the pool with friends and family. I took a dip at dusk and another later in the dark–something I haven’t done in years.

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Sunday I awoke in the way I’ve always dreamt of doing when in Italy.  I opened the shutters to only the sounds of church bells, birds’ songs, flapping pigeons’ wings, and horse hooves on cobblestone.

 

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A local sat on a bench reading a newspaper and I sipped coffee in bed and read this:

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak…Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They’ll soar on wings like eagles.

Below someone called to a friend in Spanish, breaking the silence, and I remembered I was in Santo Domingo. Downstairs I found breakfast by following the sound of a guitarist and ate in the courtyard.

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I wrote by the pool awhile and took a last walk before calling Uber.

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Again I thought of roots and wings. Seeing families together made me long for my children and a new nest near them. Still, I am so grateful for each day and what it teaches, where it takes us all, and I know wherever I am– uprooted in a hot city of concrete or refreshed by a night swim under a big moon–and wherever they are in Knoxville and Nashville, we three are seen, strengthened, and protected under His wings.

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