• 11 Feb 2018

    What to do in Paris Once you Have Seen the Touristic Landmarks

    Paris, Pont Alexandre III, Alexander III, bridge, Seine, river

    Paris is one of those destinations you do not visit just once in a lifetime. The first sojourn is – unavoidably – consumed in exploring the standard touristic landmarks, but, once this is completed, the city opens her arms – sometimes in an elegant and coquettish way, other times, in a crude and unrefined manner – inviting the visitor to an initiation process that leaves none untouched.

    The more I travel around the world, the bigger my desire to experience life through the eyes of the locals. And, although the City of Light is still (to me) a mystery not fully deciphered, I have developed an indicative list of preferences which I share below for all those wishing to explore the city a bit deeper.

    1. Spend some time in the numerous parks

    Park, Paris, Tuileries, Garden, pathway, Palais Royal

    Paris is full of small and large parks dotted with statues, benches, and fountains, their narrow pathways shaded under the protective canopy of plane or chestnut trees. Stories reverberate in every corner: from the footsteps of Jean Valjean and the first amorous heartbeats of Marius and Cosette in the Luxembourg Garden to the various scenes captured by the Impressionists in their effort to grasp the meaning and behavior of light, color, and shadow in a frame.

    Promenade through the same paths, and stretch (like the locals) on chairs and chaises longues at every (rare) appearance of the sun. Read a book, listen to the humming chatter among friends, follow a game of petanque, or, like me, just sit watching the sky (which, for some reason, always seems broader in Paris) and the fast-changing cloud formations that make the weather so unpredictable in the city. Make sure you add les Tuileries, le Jardin du Luxembourg, and the garden of Palais Royal in your agenda and allow enough time to enjoy the experience.

    Garden, park, Paris, France, fountain, pond, basking under the sun, Tuileries

    statue, marble statue, Palais Royal, Paris, Park, Garden, jardin

    1. Visit the local food markets, the boulangeries, and the patisseries

    cheese, France, Paris, french cheese, window, market

    Despite the attractiveness of the plentiful bistros and brasseries, do not rush to spend all your time (and money) there. Search for a local market and amble around the various food kiosques, spending (naturellement!) more time at the cheese corner. A nice seller may help you (with some cheese-tasting) to choose from the various options, and you will leave with small precious packages to devour over a picnic lunch. Once you have also selected a few fresh fruits and vegetables, pass by the nearby boulangerie (baker shop) to grab your freshly baked, still-warm baguette (ask for la tradition which is my favorite) and, if you want to feel like a real local, start munching the top of the bread while you are still walking. Finally, since no meal is complete without dessert, do not omit to choose something from the mouth-watering variety offered in every boulangerie-patisserie. Although croissants, eclairs, and fruit or lemon tarts are a “must,” do try la religieusela tropezienne, or a gateau basque as well. No risk of getting disappointed by any choice!

    sweets, patisserie, Paris, France, crepes, lemon tart, tart, chocolate

    1. Get involved in some of the art events offered daily by several museums or galleries

    Museums are not usually my first choice when visiting a city for just a few days. I get too fascinated by the real life around me and too engaged in understanding the subtle details of the town to prefer the rather static environment of an exhibition. However, passing by Paris without getting involved in any of the numerous art events that are organized by museums or galleries is as if one has neglected a crucial aspect of the city.

    Avoid the big crowded institutions and choose instead a small museum or a temporary exhibition where you can spend a couple of hours lost in the world of art. The most significant benefit is not the artistic enlightenment per se but the deeper understanding of France’s historical and cultural background, especially over the past couple of centuries. Most exhibitions are currently curated in a storytelling style, transporting the visitor to a parallel reality which is as virtual as a movie and as tangible as the presented art objects. The dialogues, think-tanks, and additional analyses complementing each exhibition are indicative of the level of the ongoing exchange of ideas, the character of the city, and the Parisians’ perpetual attempt to keep digging deeper into the wonders of human creativity.

    1. Stroll around Le Marais District

    Marais district, Paris, France, cafe, street, architecture, old neighborhood, Parisian

    Le Marais is a historical (and aristocratic) district that will undoubtedly steal your heart. In my mind, it represents the ideal Parisian neighborhood, as if coming out of a book or a movie. Start from the St Paul church and allow yourself to get lost among the narrow streets with the old buildings, the cafes, bookstores, boutiques, and antique stores. On the way, you may wish to rest at the cozy tea shop of Mariage Freres (a gourmet tea company founded in 1854 by the Mariage brothers). Prepare to spend quite some time just choosing your tea among the various intriguing options (especially if you are a tea lover like me), and do not neglect to taste a cake or two. Last time, I chose the green-tea madeleines which were simply divine and would highly recommend them. Your steps may later lead you to Place de Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris and one of the most beautiful in the city. As you walk under the arcades, you will frequently stop in front of the windows of the several galleries, and, if you are not already full, you will be tempted to sit at one of the brasseries. Many well-known politicians, aristocrats, and artists resided in this square during its 400 years of existence, Cardinal Richelieu at No. 21 (from 1615 to 1627) and Victor Hugo at No. 6 (from 1832 to 1848) to name just a few.

    Green tea, Madeleine, green tea madeleine, Paris, Marais, district, Mariage Freres, tea shop, tea house, dessert, sweet

    Place Vosges, Paris, France, old neighborhood, fountain, architecture, park, garden, arcades

    1. Do not leave Bastille out of your plan

    Bastille, avenue, district, neighborhood, old neighborhood, architecture, Paris, France

    Paris is much more than just its fancy center with its luxurious arrondissements. If one wishes to understand further this fascinating and controversial city, one needs to venture into other neighborhoods that may be a bit off the beaten track for the typical tourist. La Bastille represents an easy first step, since it has turned, over the last few years, into a hippie-style area with several opportunities for entertainment. Just a few decades ago, it used to be a wood-processing and furniture-making neighborhood, occupied by the respective merchants and workers. Today, under the general process of gentrification that has changed the face of many neighborhoods in Paris (and elsewhere), Bastille is what the locals call a “bo-bo” district (i.e., “bourgeois – bohemian”). Relatively affluent residents moved away from the center of Paris towards less developed urban areas, renovating them, but keeping at the same time a friendlier quality of life and a rather “bohemian” style. Walking down the streets of Bastille, away from the Haussmannian influence of the center, one can enjoy the simpler facades, that, yet, emanate style and elegance.

    Pass by the old La Pause Café (I did not find its ambiance very interesting, but the cafe is famous especially after featuring in a movie), or Le Bistro du Peintre (which is similarly old and well-known, with an amazing art-deco interior); search for various expressions of street art in corners and nooks; spend some time people-watching; pass by the flea-market which, like any flea-market around the world, may have precious treasures hidden under piles of uninteresting paraphernalia; and do not leave before a quick visit to the Blé Sucré that is considered to be the best patisserie of the neighborhood.

    Bastille, Bistro des Peintres, bistro, Paris, France, old neighborhood, haunt, neighborhood, district, art-deco, interior

    1. Go to an evening concert in Belleville

    Once a working-class neighborhood, Belleville has turned over the past few decades into a colorful, multi-ethnic district with a relatively alternative character. Street art and large graffiti are quite dominant, while the artistic ambiance of the community is reinforced by the ghost of Edith Piaf who was born and grew up there, numerous other artists, and several features in the French and international cinema. The area has not been immune to gentrification, and its style has been influenced by the ongoing changes. Still, it remains quite unusual and, as such, it was recognized in 2016 as “one of the most unique neighborhoods in the world.”

    I attended a concert of manouche (gypsy) jazz in a small brasserie (where the music was much better than the food). The jolly ambiance and the ongoing change of musical ensembles on the tiny stage of the restaurant gave the night an entirely different feel.

    manouche jazz, jazz, gypsy jazz, bistro, Belleville, cello, guitar, musicians, evening, Paris, France

    1. Connect with initiatives like L’ Alternative Urbaine to discover some of the most authentic neighborhoods

    L’ Alternative Urbaine is an association for social and occupational inclusion that uses urban walks as a pedagogical support and re-mobilization of people who are unemployed or face other precarious conditions. Joining one of their tours gives the visitor the opportunity to connect with some of the most authentic corners of Paris through the eyes of the locals – and the amateur guides can share a point of view to which we would otherwise remain oblivious.

    1. Ramble around Bois de Boulogne

    Bois de Boulogne, park, paris, France, lake, english garden, island, chalet

    Allow some extra time to explore Bois de Boulogne, one of the biggest parks in Europe and the second in size park in Paris (being slightly smaller than Bois de Vincennes). There is so much to do there that it is impossible to fit everything in, in just one day. Roam around the English landscape garden with the numerous lakes, or explore the Chateau de Bagatelle with its beautiful formal French gardens; visit the zoo or the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, a complex of greenhouses holding a hundred thousand plants. Take the boat towards the cute Chalet des Iles for a coffee or tea, or walk towards the Hippodrome. Visit the Luis Vuitton Foundation with its futuristic architecture or the GoodPlanet-Domaine de Longchamp Foundation where you can watch the HUMAN documentary and TERRA exhibition. Above all, enjoy the enchanting landscape and the interaction with the joggers, dog-walkers, or painters that you will undoubtedly encounter along the way.

    Bois de Boulogne, Paris, France, lake, arrondissement 16, boats, reflections, clouds, Paris, France

    Luis Vuitton foundation, fondation luis vuitton, futuristic architecture, Bois de Boulogne, art, architecture, Paris, France

    1. Discover the most enchanting cafes in museums

    Besides their exhibitions and their occasional architectural interest, museums often hide another treasure: a café-restaurant with an ambiance so magical that it can be an amazing experience by itself. Search in Paris for these bijoux which promise not to disappoint you. For example, the café-restaurant at the Jacquemart-André museum is the actual dining room of the family that built the house, and you can savor a salad, coffee, or a piece of crunchy mille-feuille under an original Tiepolo ceiling. On the other hand, at the Quai Branly museum, you will enjoy a much more modern surrounding with a breathtaking view towards the Eiffel Tower. Exploring the hidden trail of such beautiful cafes is an adventure by itself – and a most gratifying one!

    Jacquemart-André museum, cafe, restaurant, museum, Paris, France, Tiepolo ceiling, original dining room

    1. Take the train and spend one day out of Paris

    Nogent-sur-Seine, France, countryside, French countryside, picturesque houses

    Within a couple of hours distance from Paris, there are several incredibly picturesque towns, usually with a well-preserved castle worth visiting. Paris is almost like a state within a state, so venturing for a day into the countryside can offer a more holistic experience to the traveler. Either choose a destination in advance or – for some extra adventure – go to one of the main railway stations and jump on the first departing train. The train journey in France is an experience on its own, especially if one comes from a country where the network that connects all towns and cities is not as efficient or friendly. The moment you cross the outskirts of Paris, you will immediately feel the difference. It is not just the landscape which is, of course, covered with lush forests and far-reaching fertile fields, reminiscing several Impressionist paintings as if nothing has changed over the past 150 years. It is the contrast between Paris and the rest of France which is unmistakable and gives a hint about the internal complexities of the country.

    As an example: during my last trip, I visited Nogent-sur-Seine, a quaint little town just one hour away from Gare de Paris-Est, nestled (as the name implies) by the banks of the Seine river. It has kept its 19th-century atmosphere intact, with its charming residences, traditional timber-framed houses, and a substantial artistic inheritance, since it has been the birthplace of Marius Ramus, Paul Dubois, Alfred Boucher, and Camille Claudel (all famous sculptors of the late 19th century). The town is also known for having inspired Gustave Flaubert for his novel Sentimental Education.

    Since it was raining heavily, I spent most of my time in the Café de Bellevue (which has excellent cuisine and very reasonable prices) and in the newly-opened Camille Claudel museum which is truly inspiring. There are several other attractions (including a nuclear power plant that fumes next to the river in total contrast to the rest of the landscape!) and beautiful trails to follow into the surrounding fields – which, due to the weather, I will just have to explore another time.

    Liberty statue, Seine river, Liberte, sunset, Paris, France

    Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou

    Complement this article with more cultural trips in Italy (A Road Trip Through my Favorite Tuscan Villages), Lebanon (Hidden Treasures in the Old City of Tripoli), and Greece (A Tour to my Seven Favorite Churches in the Historical Center of AthensExploring Samothrace: Personal Tips and Preferences, and A Journey through the Historical Landmarks of Samothrace).

  • 17 Jan 2018

    Seven Temples in Asia to Add to the Bucket List

    Nepal, hindu, Makadum, temple, shrine, spiritual, cultural trips, adventure, hiking

    The world is crowded with temples, humble or extraordinary, where people flow together to bestow their prayers, acknowledge their fears, and ask for divine support in their dreams. Built at the convergence of meridians of higher energy and spirituality, many of these holy places also indicate political power, highlighting earthly and selfish motives; yet, all of them enclose the echo of the human heartbeat, the essence of laughter and tears, and, hence, they have been, and will forever remain, revered and sacred.

    While traveling and hiking in Asia, I crossed paths with the following temples which, for some reason, left a permanent stamp in my memory. Some are landmarks – and rather touristic – others are more ascetic and secluded. And although the hidden gems might seem more appealing – or, at least, more mysterious – every place is majestic on its own, sometimes for reasons I cannot understand but can deeply feel.

    1. Jela Dzong, Bhutan

    druk path, bhutan, hiking, adventure, monastery, fort, Buddhist, tibetan,

    Jela Dzong (a fort and a monastery) dates back to the 16th c, strategically located at an altitude of 3,450m on the mountainous path between Paro and Thimphu (the two largest cities of Bhutan). Through the centuries, the travelers could pause there to pray, rest, and replenish their supplies. Like all places in the country, this monastery is also surrounded by a legend, according to which, Zhabdrung – the founder of Bhutan – being chased by the Tibetan army during the 15th c invasion and accompanied by the protective deity Mahakala, managed to escape to the mountains. At the precise location, the deity saw that Zhabdrung was safe, and, as a result, separated from him (apparently, “Je” means “separation”).

    Today, Jela Dzong is rather deserted and in ruins, and is not regarded as the most famous or beautiful temple in Bhutan. I think it has never been. However, during our hike on the Druk Path trail, imitating many travelers from old times, we stopped among the wrecked walls to pray and rest. There, under an unexpectedly beautiful Buddha statue, among wafting incense and a couple of monks, we meditated at the sound of Om-Mani-Padme-Hum, and although our bodies got quickly cold on the barren ground, our hearts warmed up next to the spirits and deities that reside there for ages. Coming out of the building, escaping from the large pieces of ice melting from the roof and falling loudly at dangerous proximity to our heads, we watched the sun shining brightly, the wind flapping through the Tibetan flags, the rhododendron buds breathing open welcoming the upcoming Spring, and the sacred Himalayan peaks rising proudly above the clouds. The blessing hummed in our soul for the rest of our trip, and, I believe, it is still there, for we all shiver and tremble in inexplicable joy whenever we recall those few moments at Jela Dzong.

    druk path, bhutan, himalayas, rhododendron, spring, blooming, adventure, hiking

    1. Tengboche Monastery, Nepal

    nepal, monastery, tengboche, himalayas, everest, blessing, Buddhist, hiking, adventure, mountains

    Nestled at an altitude of 3,867m in the Khumbu valley of Eastern Nepal, Tengboche Monastery is accessible to the numerous hikers but not to the mere tourist. Built in 1916 at the site where Lama Sangwa Dorje, a clairvoyant spiritual master, left, a few centuries ago, a footprint on a rock while meditating, it is today part of the “Sacred Sites Trail Project” of the Sagarmatha National Park (a UNESCO Heritage site). Being the only shrine on the path to Everest, it has gained tremendous sentimental value for the Sherpas and mountaineers who attempt to summit the tallest peak in the world. Even though it is still vibrant and prosperous (as indicated by its 60 monks), the Tibetan monastery has been destroyed twice: at the 1934 earthquake, and in 1989, in a fire caused by a malfunction in the electric circuits. With the support of the international community, it has been restored, and, in its chilly rooms, surrounded by famous Himalayan peaks, all Everest expeditions receive the necessary blessing with incense burning and mantra chanting.

    Unavoidably, every hiker towards Everest or Everest Base Camp passes by the monastery twice, since the trail is linear and not looped. Both times, reaching the holy site is something that needs to be earned through managing steep ascends on treacherous paths. For our group, though, Providence kept an additional surprise: a snow storm of unexpected vigor and tenacity that lasted for almost two consecutive days, erased all paths, prohibited our visit to the monastery on our way up, and turned everything into hostile icy mud on the way down. My memories connected with Tengboche include a delirium of joy upon the sight of the deep fresh snow, and the taste of a juicy yak steak at the cottage next to the monastery while drying up around a heater operating with dried yak poop. Then, on our descent, frost and hostility awaited us in a lodge challenged by lack of electricity, but also hope because the hardest part was behind us, and Namche Bazaar, green slopes, and civilization were now finally close.

    Nepal, himalays, tengboche, monastery, Buddhist, everest, adventure, hiking

    1. Temple of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam

    vietnam, hanoi, temple of literature, adventure, cultural trips, hiking

    Built in 1070, the Temple of Literature in Hanoi is one of the several temples in Vietnam dedicated to Confucius and scholars. It consists of five courtyards constructed in linear form, i.e., one after the other, while maintaining the traditional components of balance and serenity. In the first two, the scholars could relax and disconnect from the outer world while resting among trees and gardens. The third courtyard includes the Thien Quang well, introducing the element of water to reinforce the harmony of the place. It is only after traversing this rectangular pond that the visitor can enter into the true sanctuary of the temple: the Stelae of Doctors, the fourth courtyard with the building where Confucius and his four disciples are worshiped, and the fifth courtyard, added in 1076, with the Imperial Academy.

    vietnam, hanoi, temple of literature, confucious, stalae of doctors, adventure, cultural trips

    The Stelae of Doctors is an impressive area which includes 82 remaining steles of carved blue-stone turtles, erected to honor talent, bearing the engraved names of the 1307 graduates of 82 triennial royal exams. The Turtle is one of the four holy animals in Vietnam, a symbol of longevity and wisdom (the other three being the phoenix, the dragon, and the unicorn); touching the heads of the steles used to be an act for good luck. Although today this is forbidden as the turtles remain out of reach, the area maintains an imposing energy that enfolds the visitor and cannot be overlooked.

    The Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university, constitutes the most thrilling part of the temple. Many students lived and studied there, underlining the importance that was given to education. Emphasis was placed on the teaching of the Chinese language, literature, philosophy, and history. A series of exams led up to the royal Đình Examination (Thi Đình), during which the monarch himself posed the questions to the finalists.

    Today, students take their ceremonial end-of-the-year photos in the temple. During my visit, the fourth and the fifth courtyard were buzzing with life, and lines of young Vietnamese women with, surprisingly, only a few men, posed for group photos in front of the main buildings: flower wreaths on the heads, broad smiles on the faces, and the afternoon breeze winnowing casually through the ao dai dresses.

    vietnam, hanoi, temple of literature, imperial academy, confucious, adventure, cultural trip

    1. Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

    China, Beijing, Temple of Heaven, adventure, cultural trips

    Hordes of tourists flood the open spaces among the various buildings, posing for photos with the Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests – the familiar round-shaped temple – in the background, squeezing at the entrances for a hasty peek inside (maybe another photo too), or yelling “hello” while standing at the center of the Circular Mound Altar to confirm the quality of the famous echo effect. Thousands of Chinese occupy the benches and corners of the vast garden area, some enjoying a calm tai chi sequence, others playing with a gymnastics’ silk ribbon, or competing over a mah-jong game. Kids chase each other, the elderly smoke heavily and gossip, and life is vibrant in this complex of temples.

    Since the early 15th c, emperors – the representatives of heavenly authority on earth – have been standing in the same spots in much more seclusive ceremonies, to offer sacrifices to Heaven and pray for abundance in the harvest season, confident that the echo effect carries their words clearly to the welcoming ears of the gods.

    Heaven is dominant in the royal-blue tiled roofs and the circular shapes of the constructions; Earth, represented in the square and rectangular patterns, merges with Heaven in a balanced connection and unification. The complex’s design is based on the use of sacred symbols, embodied, for instance, in the utilization of the number 9 (which represents the Emperor) and its multiples for the stairs and structure of the Circular Mound Altar, or the number of pillars in the Hall of Prayer of Good Harvests (four in the center, twelve in the middle, and twelve outside representing the four seasons, the twelve lunar months, and the twelve Chinese hours respectively). Ceremonies were held twice a year, at the solstices, and attention was paid to the accuracy of the most minute detail since even a tiny mistake was perceived as a bad omen for the months to come.

    Despite the noise and the ongoing rush of people pushing and dashing around, I have found this temple one of the most peaceful and serene areas in Beijing. Maybe it is the mystic symbolism of the place that energetically conveys the feeling of life in harmony. Or, perhaps, the abundant blue that joyfully and placidly rolls on the roofs and dribbles on the ground. I have stood silently amidst the cacophony of the loud crowds, and, for a few moments, every sound faded away, and only vision remained, vibration, and a feeling of connection with Heaven through the ether that stands, as a conductive element, in between the immortal souls.

    China, Beijing, Temple of Heaven, cultural trips, adventure

    1. Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran

    Iran, Persia, Isfahan, Lotfollah, mosque, cultural trips

    The vestibule leading to the central chamber of the mosque was dim, sunken in gloom, and peculiarly twisted. My eyes tried to adjust, still carrying the brightness of a sunny autumn day. I followed the flow of the crowd that squeezed its way through the narrow path and was propelled into the main hall. There, under the stunning dome that emerged out of the darkness soaring with the loftiness of veritable elegance, I stood in awe and almost fell on my knees to surrender to the power of the Divine.

    Sheikh Lotfollah mosque was built at the beginning of the 17th c during the reign of Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty. One of the four main attractions around the Naghsh-i Jahan Square in Isfahan, it easily stands out with its eloquently decorated dome reflecting everlasting grandeur under the sunlight. It was meant to be used only by the royal court and not the public (unlike the Imam Mosque nearby, on the same square); hence, it does not have minarets, and its structure is much smaller, limited to one dome, without interior iwans or courtyards. An underground corridor (not in use today) was connecting the Ali Qapu Palace (across the square) with the mosque, ensuring that the women of the harem would be protected as much as possible from any exposure. The winding dark corridor leading to the dome chamber is an architectural device: on one side, with its L-shape, it solves the challenge created by the fact that the entrance iwan and the mihrab could not be aligned (as a result, the dome does not stand exactly behind the entrance, as can be observed from the outside); on the other hand, it reinforces the humility in the heart of the faithful, before the latter reaches a state of ascension when standing under the dome.

    Words are poor to grasp the essence of this dome’s splendor. Rings of bands, ornamented with arabesque designs and decreasing in size as they move towards the center, guide the eyes of the worshiper towards Heaven. There, a peacock – a symbol of awakening, spirituality, guidance, and protection – is discovered, its head painted at the center of the homocentric circles, its long tail formed out of the beams of sunlight coming through the dome, resting elegantly on the adorn surface: a manifestation of the physical and spiritual elements in permanent union. Turquoise cable-form designs connect the low dado with the base of the dome, a link between Heaven and Earth. The asymmetric symmetries, the balance of movement and stillness, the toying of glazed and non-glazed tiles, the attention to every detail that plays its individual, subtle, yet eloquent role, the acknowledgement of perfection’s elusiveness – all, concepts repeated in the designs of the famous Iranian carpets as well – reinforce the ennoblement of the spirit and the cleansing of the human heart.

    Isfahan, Iran, Persia, Lotfollah, mosque, cultural trips

    1. Kirinda Rajamaha Viharaya, Sri Lanka

    Sri Lanka, Kirinda, cultural trips, buddhist

    The humble, white stupa is located on the top of a rock overviewing the sea. At its bottom, the waves from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean crash loudly on the flat formations of the rocky beach, in the familiar wildness of a primordial song, painted in the unfamiliar – to me – malachite colors of the Asian waters.

    The temple is simple and modest. As per the myth, in the 2nd c. BC, King Kelanitissa (or Kawanthissa) was forced to sacrifice his daughter to calm the enraged waters that were flooding the island (possibly an ancient tsunami). Consequently, Princess Viharamahadevi was put on a boat and left alone at the mercy of the waves. Miraculously, the story has a happy ending, with the sea levels receding and the princess surviving, landing on the beach of Kirinda, where she got married to the local king. The temple is dedicated to her and commemorates the story of her sacrifice and survival.

    We climbed several slippery, stone-carved stairs to reach the shrine, passing by a few cows feeding freely inside the holy area, and a sizable statue of a standing Buddha, recently erected, ensuring that the temple will not be missed. At the top, and after walking anti-clockwise several times around the sanctuary in prayer and meditation, I lied on the rocks, tasting the salty wind on my lips, gusts messing with my hair, my back firmly in touch with the earth, and my core open to a receiving state of gratitude. Sometimes, the energetic presence of the four elements surrounding a temple is enough for the worshiper to experience ecstasy and bliss.

    We ambled down the hill, towards the beach and the small fishermen’s village. Stalls of dried fish and decorative animals made out of shells lined up on either side of the small dirt path. The sea was dominant everywhere; it seemed there was no other sound but its rumble: a song, a moan, and a howl merged into one voice. It was a moment of peace.

    Sri Lanka, Kirinda, Buddhist, temple, cultural trips

    1. Pura Desa Puseh Batuan, Bali, Indonesia

    Bali, Indonesia, pura desa batuan, hindu

    Bali, the “Island of a Thousand Puras,” is a spiritual haven, dotted with thousands of shrines, lavish or modest, sprouting in the center of every village and the entrance of any small shop or house.

    Pura Desa Puseh, situated in the highly artistic village of Batuan in the Gianyar region, is neither the biggest nor the most important temple on the island. However, it was the first one I visited and, hence, its impact remained clearer and its memory much more compelling than other Balinese shrines which might be aesthetically superior. Built at the beginning of the 11th c, it belongs to the type of temples (Pura Desa) reserved for the founders of a village and the worship of Brahma and Vishnu. Centrally located, it stands as the religious and ceremonial heart of the region, with traditional dances performed twice per month to please both the gods and the increasing number of tourists.

    The entrance is a split gate guarded on either side by the Dwarapala spirit: two mirroring statues representing good and evil and the balance between the two – a message that the existence of the one is impossible without the presence of the other. The gate leads into an open-air worship area with several buildings and innumerous statues. The ornamentation of all constructions, influenced by the Indians, the Dutch, and the Chinese, is breathtaking. The whole sanctuary seems to be vivid, dancing at the pace of the cosmic rhythm, protected through bulging-eyed spirits, playful and apperceptive to the joy of life. The statues impersonate ancient figures, demons, and mythological creatures, entangled with lions, elephants, lotuses, and other floral patterns in a festive confusion. Carved out of the ashy, volcanic sandstone found in the local river banks, they encompass the power of lava, the breath of water, the stability of the stone into which they dry as time passes by, and the lightness of the air enclosed in the perspiration of the material and the grace of their movement. Leaving the temple, one feels infused with comfort and elation, confident that communication with the spiritual realm has been achieved while respecting the earthly essence of our humanity.

    Bali, Indonesia, Pura Desa Batuan, hindu

    Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (except for the photos of Tengboche Monastery and the dome of Sheikh Lotfollah mosque)

    Photo credits of Tengboche Monastery: © Ibrahim Al Rekhais

    Photo credits of Sheikh Lotfollah dome: unknown

    Author Konstantina Sakellariou

    Repost from: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/seven-temples-in-asia-to-add-in-the-bucket-list/

  • 14 Dec 2017

    Five Backpacking Trails of Moderate Difficulty and Amazing Beauty

    Inca trail, Inca settlements, Peru

    There is something delightfully delicious hidden at the core of every backpacking (i.e., multi-day hiking) trail. The almost monotonous repetition of steps over a few days in a row brings peace, clarity, and solace in the heart and mind – the way meditative processes always do. The stamping of the feet on the ground echoes like an intimate conversation with the Earth who turns from a mere base into a divine Story-Teller and talks in archetypal riddles. And, although at first, a hiker may feel a bit awkward – as if wearing slightly misfitting clothes – in an environment so far away from our urban awareness, gradually, the vibrational gravity of nature sets a tempo to which all beings get synchronized, creating a unity beyond what our conscious minds could ever fathom. Ultimately, every such trail is nothing less than a sacred pilgrimage: a path towards wisdom, a treasure-hunt adventure, a holy grail out of which we are offered the drink of immortality.

    Rarely can a one-day or two-day hike reach such depths. It is the time spent on the path that truly unveils the magic, so, what may initially appear as a challenge is one of the most substantial advantages of the experience. The length of a trail, though, the unpaved passages, the arduous ascents, and the steep descents may be daunting for many. The potential lack of adequate amenities, especially as far as shelters and restrooms are concerned, is often discouraging and unnerving. However, there are trails of only moderate difficulty and, yet, unsurpassable beauty, available for those who would like to get a taste of such an expedition without having to train too vigorously in advance or get too uncomfortable on the way. Below, I share my experience on five favorite backpacking trails that, I believe, should be on everyone’s bucket list.

    1. The Great Wall of China

    Great Wall, China

    All travelers to Beijing have spent a few hours on the Great Wall of China. Hiking on its ramparts though for a few days in a row is an entirely different and much more fascinating experience: there is a sense of freedom – as if riding a mythical beast – and a false feeling of dominance over forces that, in reality, are too strong for our human nature. Solid and renovated at parts, crumbling and ravaged at others, the Great Wall is not merely a symbol of power: it breathes power and emanates intensity, perpetually reverberating the echo of soldiers, peasants, and horses.

    Duration

    Given the size of the Great Wall, the duration of such a hike is up to the discretion of the hiker. I spent six days trekking on the parts that extend only a few hours away from Beijing, and felt quite satisfied and fulfilled. A few more days would not have made a big difference; instead, they would possibly be just an unnecessary stretch.

    Amenities

    china, great wall, home stay, guest house

    Overnight stays on the Great Wall are forbidden, so every night we receded in one of the nearby villages, staying at small family-run guest houses which, although basic, were clean and comfortable, with proper restrooms, shower facilities, and free Wi-Fi. Compared to many other trails, this was pure luxury. As a cultural experience though, these visits to the villages would rate rather averagely. The interaction with the locals is limited due to the language barrier and the short time spent in their proximity, while I also found the lack of colors and the dominance of grey quite dull.

    Difficulty

    Great Wall, China, Steep, stairs

    There is no altitude challenge on this hike, and the trail is, for the most part, very well defined. The biggest difficulty is the extremely steep inclination which often reaches up to 70%, the endless number of crude and uncomfortably high stair-steps, and the wave-like path that is almost never flat and smooth.

    Unique advantages

    Great Wall, China

    Spending a few days on the Great Wall guarantees several hours of absolute serenity, as one stands almost alone, humbled amidst the grandeur of the surrounding structure. These moments become even more precious when compared to the clamor and cacophony of the overpopulated touristic parts of the Wall, which, unfortunately, are unavoidable. Prepare for stunning panoramas, otherworldly sunrises, compelling sunsets, and a thriving natural landscape. And, when rising on the top of the towers stretching your eyes to embrace the vastness, you will be able to grasp to its fullest the strategic and historical importance of this enormous construction, as well as the human ego that, inevitably, has left its stamp on the stones.

    1. Sapa Region in Northern Vietnam

    Sapa, village, trek, North Vietnam

    The Sa Pa region is situated in the North of Vietnam, next to the borders with China. A mountainous area with numerous villages and different ethnic tribes, Sapa is a backpacker’s heaven. The paths indolently unfold through rice fields, water streams, and bamboo forests, while the interaction with the locals is always colorful – literally and figuratively!

    Duration

    Sapa is a broad area, so the length of any hike is, once again, at the discretion of the hiker. I spent six days trekking from village to village, which was pleasant and satisfying.

    Amenities

    Sapa, village, North, Vietnam, lodge, homestay

    Each night, we were hosted by a family who had turned their abode into a guest house (with respective accreditation). In these lodges, the upper-floor storerooms are usually transformed into sleeping rooms, with mattresses (placed on the floor acting as beds) and mosquito nets; the kitchens are adequately equipped with utensils, and the restrooms (which are in the yard, separate from the rest of the house, with squatting toilets and, sometimes, warm water for showers) are relatively renovated. These lodges are plain huts, comprising of wooden planks put together in a rather loose way, with big gaps in-between that allow the cold and humidity to pass through. Still, one sleeps on a decent mattress with a roof over the head, and the occasional hot water is a real luxury.

    Sapa, village, accommodation, bed, homestay, hut, mattress

    Difficulty

    Sapa, north, Vietnam, rice fields

    These trails are very comfortable. The only difficulty we encountered was due to the continuous rain that had turned the paths into a muddy and dangerously slippery terrain. The mud was so thick and sticky that, most of the time, we felt we were skating on the surface, while, every night we had to scrub it off our shoes before going to bed.

    muddy hiking boots, Sapa, Vietman

    Unique advantages

    Sapa, village, kids, playing, Vietnam

    This trip is mainly a cultural exploration since the travelers have the opportunity to go through the areas of the Black H’Mong, the Tay, the Giay, and the Red Dao people – all with their individual clothes and jewelry, separate origins, and distinct financial sustainability. There are areas that are more barren, and others that are lush and fertile. The locals’ behavior changes depending on the productivity of the land: sometimes they are silent and remote, other times, smiling and communicative. One cannot but admire the colorful presence of the women who, though quiet, are resilient and hard-working, having an impact on the economy of the area and the cultural experience of the trekkers.

    Sapa, Red Dao, Old woman, North Vietnam

    1. The Druk Path (the Path of the Thunder Dragon) in Bhutan

    Druk path, bhutan, trail

    The Druk Path follows the footsteps of an ancient trading route that connects the two largest cities and valleys of Bhutan: Paro and Thimphu. Hiking along mountain ridges, praying in old monasteries, fishing in mystical lakes, and conversing with the forest deities are all included in this adventure that is destined to enchant every visitor, luring him on the same path again and again.

    Duration

    It takes six days to complete the trail, walking at a moderate pace that allows the hiker to reach each camp in the mid-afternoon hours.

    Amenities

    Camping, tents, Bhutan, Druk Path

    This trip is a pure backpacking experience, which means that one sleeps in tents, and nature serves as a restroom (though at the camps we had our portable toilets as well). Showers are unavailable, warm water is prepared only for morning ablutions, and proper sleeping gear is necessary as the nights on the mountains are quite cold.

    Difficulty

    Druk Path, Bhutan, mountain ridge

    In general, this path does not include very steep ascents or descents. Still, as it stretches along the ridges, it reaches an altitude of around 4,000 m., which is not to be taken lightly. A good physical preparation in advance, a slow and steady pace, and consumption of plenty of water are necessary to avoid the frustration and dizziness of mild altitude sickness.

    Unique advantages

    Druk Path, Bhutan, lake, mountains, clouds

    There is something extraordinary about Bhutan which is hard to define in words. It may be the myth about its gross domestic happiness, its unspoiled nature, the serenity along the paths, the subtle spirituality that almost urges the traveler to hum “Om Mani Padme Hum” at the tempo of the hiking pace, or the small number of visitors that makes everyone feel like an explorer discovering untouched territory. Do not postpone your traveling plans for too long: although still pristine and exclusive, Bhutan is not immune to change and, despite its government’s efforts, it may soon evolve into a touristic destination.

    1. Summiting Mt. Toubkal in Morocco

    Mount Toubkal, Morocco, summit, Atlas Mountains

    Atlas Mountain is North Africa’s greatest mountain range and Mt. Toubkal its tallest peak with an altitude of 4,165 m. (the tallest in Northern Africa and the Arab World). The path that we followed started from Aguersioual (a short drive from Marrakesh), and passed through traditional Berber villages, waterfalls, the Imlil valley and village, shrines, and gorges, before zig-zagging up towards the summit.

    Duration

    If one aims only at summitting Mt. Toubkal, this can be achieved in just two days. Otherwise, hiking the numerous trails of the Atlas Mountains can take much longer and depends on each hiker’s preferences. Our expedition lasted for four days, which, including the summiting accomplishment, was more than enough for me.

    Amenities

    Morocco, Atlas Mountains,

    Dining room in a lodge in a Berber village

    While on the trails of the Atlas Mountains, we stayed at guest houses in the villages and they were all clean and comfortable with shower facilities and warm water. On the night before the summit day, though, everyone must stay at the Toubkal refuge where rooms and dining tables are shared with all guests in communal harmony, with no separation between men and women. There is a friendly ambiance of comradeship in such lodges that surpasses the mild discomfort, and, in my memory, it represents one of the best moments on the trip.

    Atlas Mountain, Morocco, Mount Toubkal, summit, accommodation
    Beds at the mountain refuge

    Difficulty

    Mount Toubkal, Morocco, Atlas Mountains, summit day, snow

    This is not just a trail that reaches an altitude of 4,165 m; it is a trail with a summit day, which translates into a very early start in the middle of the night, a vigorous push to the summit, and then a protracted descent that stretches beyond the mountain lodge all the way down to Imlil. Summit days are always very long and tiring and, admittedly, they are not my favorite – despite the motivation of a tangible goal and the satisfaction of conquering a mountain peak. Additionally, the path during the summit day is covered in snow, and frequently one has to wear crampons. The rest of the trail though is of moderate difficulty and very manageable by anyone in decently good physical condition.

    Unique Advantages

    Atlas mountains, Morocco, picnic lunch, bread

    Besides the obvious advantage of ticking an important summit off one’s bucket list, this is a cultural adventure. The Berber villages are wild and untamed: pockets of rich history that have been influencing the broader region for centuries. Connecting with the land, the myths and prejudices, the financial challenges, and the potential opportunities over a glass of Moroccan tea or a table with warm bread, olives, and tajine is rewarding on its own.

    1. The Classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru

    Inca trail, Peru, starting point, 82 km, Cuzco

    Several Inca trails lead to Machu Picchu; however, the Classic one that starts at the 82nd km (or the 88th km) from Cuzco is among the most popular. It passes through cloud forests, dense jungle, old Inca settlements, and small farmhouses, while it is populated with many llamas, deer, rare bird species, sacred snakes, peaceful Spectacled bears (which unfortunately I did not see, as they are, indeed, elusive), spirits, and ghosts.

    Duration

    This is a 4-day trail which, in the beginning, ascends towards an altitude of about 4,000 m, and, on the last day, descends steeply towards Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes (the Machu Picchu village). Once at Machu Picchu, many buses connect the archaeological site with the small town, however, on the day that we arrived (which was a national holiday) the queues were so long that, despite the frequency of the itineraries, it seemed impossible to take any ride. We finally hiked down to the village cutting through the slopes on a well-defined path that takes around one hour to descend.

    Amenities

    Inca trail, mesa tent, camping, Peru

    We camped all the way to Machu Picchu: three amazing nights under the stars, the milky way, and the Crux, overviewing the valleys, talking about spirits and eerie presences, influenced by the energy of the path. There are some, relatively decent, restrooms along the way but we also had private portable toilets at our camps.

    Difficulty

    Inca trail, Peru, passage

    On the second day, the path ascends towards Warmi Wañusqa, or “Dead Woman’s Pass” (a pass that resembles the shape of a supine woman), at an altitude of 4,200 m. This is the toughest day, as there is a significant gain in altitude that may cause temporary dizziness. However, as soon as one traverses the pass, the trail descends and, with the most difficult part behind, the hiker can enjoy the grandeur of the surrounding landscape.

    Unique Advantages

    Inca trail, Peru, llamas, panorama

    This trail has been officially labeled as a pilgrimage since this had been its purpose for hundreds of years. Although the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu are the desired destinations – admittedly, of great importance – for me all the treasures were hidden along the path. Visiting the sites without stepping on the footsteps of the Incas seemed almost inconsequential. There are unspeakable beauty and energy on this land – something elusive and yet strong; an intangible presence that transcends time and space, building bridges of knowledge and transformation that seem to go beyond the boundaries of our rational understanding. Experiencing it first hand is probably the ultimate objective – the real destination – of this adventure.

    Inca trail, Peru, sunset, mountains

    Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou

    Original Post: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/five-backpacking-trails-of-moderate-difficulty-and-amazing-beauty/

    About Konstantina Sakellariou

    Konstantina is the Chief Initiator of the Transformational Journeys. Having traveled the transformational journey herself, she brings her new knowing, her constant thirst for further discovery and her love for the unknown, into every trail.

    Konstantina has a 20-year corporate experience. She has acquired several executive positions and she been involved in entrepreneurial initiatives as well. She has worked extensively in the professional services sector, with emphasis on human talent, while she also has experience in the banking and the governmental sectors. She has been involved in projects on life-long learning and informal education, on youth development and on international business expansion.

    In 2013, and after her hike on Mount Kilimanjaro, she decided to take a one-year sabbatical leave in order to explore the path of self-discovery. Her cycle of 7 adventures that fell on her own trail of the Hero’s Journey is described in her book“The Unusual Journeys of a Girl Like Any Other“.

    Ever since, she continues to hike, to write and to explore, determined to live a life of consciousness and creativity.

  • 30 Nov 2017

    7 Cities to Fall in Love with by Konstantina Sakellariou

     

     

    Despite the raw charm of every hiking trail or any wavy sea road, there is something intoxicating about exploring a city. It could be the diversity of the individual creations quilted into colorful patchworks that cover, protect, and enhance the history of mankind; the synchronized drumming of countless steps thudding on the pavements, bonding with the pace of a beating heart; or just the anonymity, the numerous choices on entertainment, the effortless connectivity with the rest of the world – even a city’s noise and ruthlessness.

    It is easy to list the major metropolises of the world that are already part of every traveler’s bucket list. However, here are seven, more alternative towns and cities one should visit in a lifetime – and, perhaps, even live there for a while, hoping to connect with the psyche of the community and the unique tapestry of the past, present, and future.

    1. Cuzco, Peru
    peru, cuzco, incas,
    Cuzco, Plaza des Armas

    Cuzco was for almost four centuries the capital of the Inca empire (12thc. – 16th c. CE). Nowadays, it has been officially declared the Historical Capital of Peru and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nestled in the mountains, at an altitude of 3400m., it leaves every visitor literally breathless upon arrival.

    The Inca footprints are not very visible in the city. Coricancha, the most important temple of the Incas – the naval point of their empire, dedicated to the Sun, covered, once upon a time, in sheets of solid gold, and hosting for centuries the mummies of the deceased emperors – lies today in ruins, most of them covered by the Christian church the conquistadores built on the same site using the rocks of the pagan shrine. One can better admire the eminent civilization by visiting the site of Sakaywaman, just a few kilometers outside the town, reading in parallel the detailed descriptions regarding the Inca lives and achievements in the pages of “The Royal Commentaries of the Inca” by Garcilaso Inca de la Vega, a veritable royal descendent.

    The historical center of the town bears a strong Spanish influence, evident in the central Plaza des Armas (a regular square name in every Peruvian city), the cathedral, and the other buildings crammed on either side of the narrow streets. Moon around, absorbing the vibrant colors of the city; observe the numerous ladies who pose for photos in their local outfits next to their llamas in exchange for a few coins; fumble through piles of traditional artefacts in search for something that feels, even faintly, as part of the lost Inca treasure; or leaf through relevant books in the few bookstores. Visiting the various cafes and restaurants is a treat on its own, given the artistic creativity and ingenuity each place exhibits – not to mention the flavorful, mouth-watering dishes of the Peruvian cuisine.

    Peru, Incas, ancient civilizations,
    Cuzco

    In the evening, many cafes or small clubs host live bands with traditional music, dancing, and singing, while one can indulge in a few pisco sours. And, if the visitor walks past the mains square on a clear night, she can observe the illuminated statue of Christ on the nearby hill: a white figure floating in the darkness with hands reaching out towards the town, offering a permanent divine blessing to a sacred city and humanity.

    1. Thimphu, Bhutan
    bhutan, Buddhist, gross domestic happiness, himalayas
    Thimbu from above

    Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is a small city of fewer than 100,000 people. It lies peacefully within the pleats of the valley of the Wang Chuu River, at an elevation of 2250 – 2650m, which makes it the third highest capital in the world by altitude. Despite being the political and administrative center of the country, Thimphu relies on Paro, the second-in-size town in Bhutan, some 50 km away, for an international airport.

    Bhutan, himalayas, Buddhism, gross domestic happiness
    Traffic policeman roundabout in the center of Thimphu

    The city is not ancient, and, hence, does not offer renowned palaces or temples one cannot enjoy in other Buddhist countries. Still, it is a precious jewel, a place with an ambiance so unique and peaceful, the visitor has trouble parting with. Just walk in its streets which are barely big enough to handle two lanes of cars and the increasing traffic; muse upon the colorful buildings and the animals or phalluses painted on the walls for protection; exchange smiles and friendly handshakes with the locals; follow the orange wakes of the passing priests; and enjoy the mountainous air and the feeling that Providence gave you an opportunity to step back at a time when everything was pure, simple, and noble.

    1. Isfahan, Iran

    “Esfahān nesf-e- jahān ast”: Isfahan is half of the world.

    Iran, Persia, Imam mosque, ancient civilizations, islam
    Naqsh-e Jahan square

    It only takes a few steps in the city for the visitor to understand that this is not just a flattering Persian proverb. Isfahan’s beauty, energy, and ambiance are sublime, and it really feels as if a large part of the world has been embroidered in the flying carpet the city represents.

    Twice a capital in the long history of Persia, Isfahan witnessed the rise and fall of several empires and eras, and felt the influence of the Achaemenid Empire with Cyrus the Great, the Parthians, the Sassanids, and the Seljuqs, to name just a few. The city reached its peak in the 16th and 17th c. CE with Shah Abbas the Great, and, besides its economic importance, it is known for its significant role in Iran’s culture, as expressed through its music, fine arts, architecture and engineering. Over the centuries, Isfahan has been a testament to Persia’s embracing of diversity, welcoming in its neighborhoods large communities of Armenians and Jews (according to the 10th c. Persian historian Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamedani, the latter found that Isfahan’s soil and water were of a quality similar to that of the Holy City of Jerusalem).

    Isfahan, Iran, Persia, ancient civilizations
    Khaju Bridge

    Stroll around the Naqsh-e Jahan Square where the sophisticated elegance of Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque outweighs by far in my eyes the imposing presence of Imam Mosque; bargain with the small shop owners in the bazaar over a minakari pot; ready yourself for protracted negotiations and several cups of tea if you are interested in purchasing an Iranian carpet; and embrace the fragments from Heaven that have fallen around in various shapes and designs of bright blue: the famous blue of Isfahan. In the evening, do not neglect to cross the Khaju Bridge, where the lights toy with the shadows of the playful Iranian youth, and songs caress the old walls in reminiscence of love and passion. And, if you are invited by the friendly locals who picnic in the parks to share a cup of tea and a piece of barbari bread with tomatoes, cucumbers, and maast-o khiar, thank your good stars for offering you a taste of how beautiful life can be.

    1. Fez, Morocco
    Morocco, ancient civilizations, medieval capital cities
    Fez – Panoramic view

    Few cities have aged so elegantly and managed to preserve their authentic colors in the wrinkles of their alleys, like the old medina of Fez. The city, whose importance has been effervescing for centuries in the cauldron of history stewing with so many spices that it is impossible to summarize the turns and twists in just a few lines, now stands as a rich heritage site, sustaining its traditions through the several guilds that operate almost untouched by time.

    The medieval capital of Morocco, the so-called “Mecca of the West” and “Athens of Africa,” is the largest car-free urban zone in the world. Once the visitor crosses through one of the large portals and, leaving behind the more sophisticated Jewish neighborhood, finds herself within the protective encircling of the old walls, a world from the past unfolds as if the centuries have stalled in the crossroads. The ancient city includes numerous quarters that are characterized by a prominent trade or guild: the vegetable market with coffins full of aromatic and colorful produce; the meat market with camels’ heads and hoofs dangling from hooks at face level with the passersby; the traditional leather tanning factory run by the same families generation after generation, still using pigeon poop for the softening of the leather, red poppies, indigo, saffron, and green mint for the coloring; the knife-sharpeners with their manually operated wheels; old apothecaries selling more herbs than modern medicine, argan oil, soaps, scrubbing creams, and essential oils presented in those old glass bottles that were used decades ago in the pharmacies of the West; and textile shops where, on traditional looms, strings from the cactus leaves are woven into what is known as the “Moroccan silk.” Beware: entering any store is a time-demanding experience since you will unavoidably go through an educational tour regarding the goods offered and their origin, before having to face the lengthy selling process from which it is extremely tough to get out intact.

    Within the town’s labyrinth of alleys, occasionally so narrow that one person can barely go through or, other times, wide enough to allow a couple of mules and a handcart to squeeze through, one can indulge in traditional Moroccan restaurants (I have eaten the best pastilla there, and the tastiest Moroccan-style lamb stew with plums). Finally, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, declared by UNESCO and the World Guinness Records as the oldest existing, continually operating university in the world, being also the first educational institution to award a degree, stands as a proud testament and reminder of the rich religious and scholarly heritage of the city.

    Morocco, ancient civilizations, guilds, medieval cities,
    Inside the old medina of Fez

    My last memory of Fez is on the terrace of a renovated riad in the evening: the smell of jasmine oil emanating from my still warm skin after a Moroccan hammam, a thin rain tiptoeing on the glass roofing of the courtyard, and the canvas of the old medina unfolding with dots of light interspersed in the dusk. I almost cried with the beauty of the moment, and just when I thought my heart could not take any more, the call for prayer rose and echoed in the dome of the sky, as if coming from the most profound depths of the soul of the earth.

    1. Ubud, Bali (Indonesia)
    Ubud

    I do not belong to the tribe that has fallen in love with Bali. Ubud, however, is a bijou of serenity, and a visitor can only be blessed there with the fortunate strokes of serendipity. The healing power of the town starts with its name, which is based on the Balinese word “ubad” meaning “medicine.” The various medicinal herbs of the region are not only available to the few initiates but, today, are included in the different recipes of fresh juices and salads, served in picturesque cafes and restaurants next to statues of happy Buddhas, ponds of peace, and lotus buds.

    Happiness rolls joyfully through the surrounding rice fields and finds its way into the Tek Tok dance performances, the canvases of the displayed paintings, the mischievous games of the monkeys in the sacred Monkey Forest, the Balinese food, the hands of the masseuses, and the smiles of the people who, despite the increased tourist waves, still do not speak enough good English. The few roads are protected under the curves of the penjors, and one should pay attention not to step on the countless canang saris that dot the streets, the entrances of shops, and the doorsteps of all houses. There is a lot of love spread out with abundance, like butter and honey on a toasted slice of home-baked bread, and it is shielded from the evil spirits by long lists of customs and traditions, incantations and prejudices, songs, gods, statues, and shrines that decorate the prime spot of every house, garden, or store.

    Bali, Indonesia, island, culture, art, spiritual, dance
    Ubud

    Do visit the temples, the museums, the art galleries, the cafes, and the gardens. Stand next to elaborately carved, dancing statues; pose among the lotuses; explore each day using all five senses to the maximum. Laugh at the dogs that invariably start barking in the middle of the night as if sounding the alarm for an upcoming Demon attack. Look straight into the moon, and wait for the moon to smile back. Above all, do not forget to fall in love with life.

    1. Chania, Greece
    Crete, Greece, ancient civilizations, medieval, Venetian, ancient Greek, minoan,
    Chania

    Chania is the second-in-size city of the Greek island of Crete and, to me, the most scenic and charming town in the area. Inhabited since the Neolithic period, it was already a major hub of the Minoan civilization (3650 – 1400 BCE), and remained prominent throughout the tides and ebbs of time: over the Classical era of the Greek Civilization, the Byzantine epoch, the period of the Venetian dominance, the Ottoman Empire, and the most challenges pages of the history of modern Greece.

    Every passerby – be he a conqueror or just a visitor – did not just leave a footprint. On the contrary, they all got incorporated into the essence of the city: the long frothy lace of the seashore; the Venetian-style harbor; the lush slopes and fields; the narrow alleys of the old town; the Omalos plateau; the ghosts, legends, and tales. They wore with pride the black sariki on the head, held tightly a musket, ready to fire in celebration or defense, and were finally reborn through the womb of the city – a womb that has been fertile for millennia, giving birth to prosperity, knowledge, education, and some of the most prominent men and women in history.

    crete, greece, ancient civilizations, minoan, venetian, ottoman, ancient greek civilization
    Chania – Entrance of port

    I have visited Chania several times, but my most important memories come from my childhood when I spent a full year there. It was the time the color of the sea left a permanent stamp in my gaze, and the taste of the land still ferments inside, allowing me to carry something of magnificence with me forever.

    1. Sapa, Vietnam
    Vietnam, ethnic groups, hmong, chinese borders,
    Sapa town

    When I arrived at Sapa town in Northern Vietnam, after a fun – though a bit uncomfortable – night on the train from Hanoi, I found rain, clouds, and the Black Hmong women wrapped in their colorful outfits, stalking us to sell some of their artefacts. When I left, the town was dipped into a fog so thick that we almost had to grope our way through the streets (missing our hotel a couple of times due to lack of visibility). Hence, I did not see the beautiful lake next to which the town seems to rest, and was not able to take any photos of my own. Despite the circumstances, Sapa was one of those places that managed to get under my skin and cast spells that caught me unawares.

    The town is perched among the mountains of what is known as the “Tonkinese Alps,” next to the Chinese borders, and spreads out an arras of rugged, authentic beauty. The valley was originally inhabited by people we know nothing about who disappeared leaving numerous petroglyphs that form some kind of 15c. CE cadaster. Today’s inhabitants (mainly the Hmong and Dao), came later from the Chinese highlands.

    Vietnam, lao cai, ethnic groups, hiking, adventure, rice fields
    The lake of Sapa town

    The few streets are crowded with minibusses struggling to squeeze through the limited space, and representatives of the Black Hmong, Dao, Giay, and Tay ethnic groups, all with their district dress code, their joyful colors, and their tireless efforts to sell – admittedly charming – artefacts to the tourists. Shops with hiking gear, silversmiths, a vegetable market, and welcoming cafes and restaurants offering Vietnamese culinary delights, warm wine, a fireplace, and, unexpectedly frequently, Italian pizza and pasta, pretty much complete the picture. It might not seem much to an outsider. Yet, it is a small diamond, a bit rough around the edges, shining through the slippery mud of the surrounding rice fields and mountains.

     

    All photos (except the port of Chania, the ones of Sapa, and the map): © Konstantina Sakellariou

    (Photo credits for the photo of Chania port, Sapa, map: unknown)

     

    Original Post: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/seven-cities-to-fall-in-love-with/

     

    About Konstantina Sakellariou

    Konstantina is the Chief Initiator of the Transformational Journeys. Having traveled the transformational journey herself, she brings her new knowing, her constant thirst for further discovery and her love for the unknown, into every trail.

    Konstantina has a 20-year corporate experience. She has acquired several executive positions and she been involved in entrepreneurial initiatives as well. She has worked extensively in the professional services sector, with emphasis on human talent, while she also has experience in the banking and the governmental sectors. She has been involved in projects on life-long learning and informal education, on youth development and on international business expansion.

    In 2013, and after her hike on Mount Kilimanjaro, she decided to take a one-year sabbatical leave in order to explore the path of self-discovery. Her cycle of 7 adventures that fell on her own trail of the Hero’s Journey is described in her book“The Unusual Journeys of a Girl Like Any Other“.

    Ever since, she continues to hike, to write and to explore, determined to live a life of consciousness and creativity.

  • 09 Nov 2017

    Conscious Traveling: Lessons and Understandings by Konstantina Sakellariou

    It is three years since I left my last corporate position, determined to launch into a less predictable and more adventurous lifestyle (*). Extensive traveling was not part of a formal plan – I did not have any plan anyway. I ventured into the unknown with a taste of fear in my mouth and a flame of faith in my heart, mustering the courage to dive into an intangible flow and let the current take me to vast oceans and new shores. Little did I know that I was about to turn into a modern (female) Ulysses, landing on several exotic countries and filling my travelogue with experiences I never thought I would have. And, as months passed by, traveling became not just an integral part of my identity (even though I had been a frequent traveler since childhood), but, mostly, an indivisible part of my consciousness. On a perpetual quest for Ithaca – the mysterious home which is permanently luring the voyager deeper into the corners of the psyche – I do not travel anymore for recreational purposes, nor for business: I travel to keep exploring myself through the heartbeat of the lands and the eyes of humanity.

    Here are some of the lessons and understandings I collected during these first years of my conscious traveling adventures:

    1. Traveling is a process through which I recover long-lost parts of my soul

    Bhutan, spirituality, soul searching

    There are some countries, cities, or regions with which I instantaneously develop a special relationship, while with others, our connection remains at the levels of a mere acquaintance. There is no rational reason behind this inexplicable chemistry – as there is no way to predict with whom we are falling in love. But, just like there are some individuals who play a unique role in our lives helping us to shed light onto the obscure corners of ourselves, there are also regions in the world that hide – in a fairy-tale kind of way – secret tools and archetypal messages offered to us as keys to unlock doors that have been firmly shut for several lifetimes. I have often imagined that during the original moment of universal birth when, with a Big Bang, a sphere of energy expanded into an immense cosmos, the old souls of our beings also exploded into several fragments which we are called to collect and reassemble over the course of our existence. Some of these fragments are hidden in people, others have settled in various lands and are calling us – when the time is right – to rediscover them. So, traveling helps me to become the “whole” person I am supposed to be, extending far beyond the limitations defined by my passport or my upbringing.

    1. Every trip is a full cycle along the Hero’s Journey
    hero's journey, cycle of adventure, ordinary world, magical world, threshold
    Photo credits: unknown

    There is a consistent pattern in every trip that follows the stages of the archetypal Hero’s Journey. By stepping onto the path that takes us from our everyday world to our perceived destination, we have already answered the call for adventure and entered the mysterious realm where all powers are enhanced, and everything is possible. Our initial adjustment to a new place is our crossing of the threshold, and, as the days unfold, we move, consciously or subconsciously, through a series of experiences that prepare the psyche for the ultimate revelation of the journey. By the end of the trip, we are not the same person anymore: we have evolved into a new being that returns to the ordinary world carrying knowledge and gifts that are to be our precious inventory for any next undertaking. Ultimately, trips are not a way to spend the holidays, a collection of photos, or a ticking-off of destinations: they are cycles of learnings within the bigger cycle of our life’s adventure.

    1. I have grown to appreciate the importance of returning home as a grounding process

    going home, sunset, UAE, Abu Dhabi, wetland, reserve, lake, wildlife

    Often, the return to the ordinary world – the end of the trip – is perceived with sadness, since a long-anticipated and enjoyable experience has reached to its end. However, I have discovered that this return to the physical home is not a necessary evil but an integral part of the learning process. Without the grounding forces that the comfort and familiarity of my home represent, I cannot decode the messages of the trip and risk remaining lost somewhere in-between the mysterious and the ordinary world, like a soul that did not complete the passage.

    1. I have discovered that we are more alike rather than different

    Korea, Seoul, kids, alike, no difference

    Despite the efforts of many forces to highlight the differences among various people, the things that connect us are far more than those that keep us apart. Human beings make similar wishes, fear similar disasters, look at the vastness of the universe with the same awe, and tell almost identical stories. The closer one looks at the history of distinct regions, the more the boundaries that separate us fade away and the borders of eras or intercultural influences become difficult to distinguish. We are, after all, a universal tribe with common origins, still reverberating the echo of the Big Bang, our human biography perpetually blending and interweaving.

    1. Traveling renews my hope towards the kindness and humanity of people

    Oman, Omani man, man, help, kindness, hospitality

    In every country, I have been greeted with small acts of kindness and generosity that come from the heart and do not aim at any particular gain. In Oman, a taxi driver helped me for no fee as I had run out of Omani rials; in Paris, a bus driver and several passengers, noticing that I was a foreigner, tried to translate for me in English an announcement made in French; in Thrace (Greece), a farmer stopped his work and, at his own initiative, took me with his 4-wheel vehicle closer to a lake so that I could take better photos of the flamingos; in Isfahan, a young Iranian girl – a tourist herself since she was living in Shiraz – was keen to exchange contact details and invite me with broken English to her house next time I would visit her hometown; in a Berber village in Morocco, an old woman allowed us into her home for tea and bread; and in Lebanon, a lady was keen to invite us for lunch just because we peaked through her open door and said “hello.” Despite some minor bamboozling incidents that may be unavoidable while traveling, people never cease to surprise me with their inherent kindness, continually renewing my hope and faith in the goodness at the heart of humanity.

    1. I learnt that empathy and understanding could only be experienced, not taught

    Iran, women, Necropolis, cultural interaction, see through different eyes

    When meeting face to face with people from different countries within the context of their homeland, sharing for a while the same paths and challenges, eating the same food, and listening to the details of their history, it is impossible not to see through their eyes and get an understanding of their point of view. People are rarely aggressive or extremists in mass. Usually, their side of the story represents the difficulties they have faced (which, often, remain unknown to a foreigner), or, may even be entirely different from what is being projected globally through mass media and political propaganda. It is only through personal experiences and interactions that fear or hatred can be diminished and a feeling of peace (both internal and external) may be restored.

    1. I have been taught to find beauty in small things and details

    inca trail, little bird, hiking, adventure

    When being out of the comfort zone, nothing is taken for granted and every little detail matters. A clean toilet, the possibility for a warm shower, an unexpectedly comfortable bed, a sign with the right directions when feeling lost, a welcoming smile, a breeze, sunshine, the shadow of the clouds, a bench by the side of the road, the song of a bird: everything takes enormous proportions and becomes joy, a memory, a landmark on the journey. Appreciation and gratitude get honed, and we are reminded that life is not a series of carefully planned and controlled incidents but a rosary of gifts and surprises.

    Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless stated otherwise)

    Original Post: http://www.myunusualjourneys.com/three-years-of-conscious-traveling-lessons-and-understandings/

    (*) More details about Konstantina’s story are included in my book “The Unusual Journeys of a Girl Like Any Other

     

    About Konstantina Sakellariou

    Konstantina is the Chief Initiator of the Transformational Journeys. Having traveled the transformational journey herself, she brings her new knowing, her constant thirst for further discovery and her love for the unknown, into every trail.

    Konstantina has a 20-year corporate experience. She has acquired several executive positions and she been involved in entrepreneurial initiatives as well. She has worked extensively in the professional services sector, with emphasis on human talent, while she also has experience in the banking and the governmental sectors. She has been involved in projects on life-long learning and informal education, on youth development and on international business expansion.

    In 2013, and after her hike on Mount Kilimanjaro, she decided to take a one-year sabbatical leave in order to explore the path of self-discovery. Her cycle of 7 adventures that fell on her own trail of the Hero’s Journey is described in her book “The Unusual Journeys of a Girl Like Any Other”.

    Ever since, she continues to hike, to write and to explore, determined to live a life of consciousness and creativity.

  • 08 Mar 2017

    Women of Rahhalah – Happy Women’s Day

    On the occasion of International Women’s Day we would like to celebrate and extend our gratitude and appreciation to all the women with whom we have shared beautiful moments and journeys together. Since this post is too small to portrait each one of you individually, Rahhalah’s female team is thanking you for your support and continuous trust!

    Meet the women behind Rahhalah:

    Suzanne Al Houby – Founder & CEO

    Some women are born warriors, exploring the untrodden path, and paving the way for the generations to come. Suzanne, the first Arab woman to summit Mt. Everest and all Seven Summits, broke through the barriers of a corporate life and re-invented herself again and again on mountain peaks, rainforests, lakes, and rivers, demonstrating exemplary resilience, passion, persistence, and gentility. Blending her Palestinian inheritance with her Gulf experience and international exposure, Suzanne already acts as a role model for the younger generations, especially in the Middle East. Her constant desire to offer back to the community is evident in the culture of Rahhalah and the social projects Suzanne has led, initiated, or supported in any way throughout the years. Today, she stands as an inspiration for all on what a woman with a dream can achieve and the change she can bring in the world.

    Konstantina Sakellariou – Chief Initiator Transformational Journeys

    Determined to live a life of consciousness and creativity, 3 years ago, Konstantina decides to leave behind her over 20 years career in the corporate field and start a new chapter in life: This of the self-exploration that inspired her to write her first book “The Unusual Journeys of a Girl Like Any Other”. Besides her authoring aspirations, Konstantina is also Rahhalah’s Chief Initiator of the Transformational Journeys which she personally curates. Always smiley and inspiring, Konstantina is magically spreading her wisdom and light through her pen.

     

    Stani Aziz – Operations Manager

    Little could ever be achieved without the quiet, gentle, and effective presence of Stani who, remaining in the background, organizes and coordinates all communications and logistics. Calm, efficient, and smiling, she represents the very essence of a woman’s spirit and, even though she prefers to stay away from the spotlights, she generously spreads sunshine in our hearts.

    Caterina Ciacatani – Social Media Marketing Manager

    The youngest member of our team and Rahhalah’s Digital story teller, Caterina, is a serial traveler who aims to explore every corner of the world. Coming from a small village in the heart of a mountain of a greek island, nature is in her blood. Determined to live an authentic life as less exposed on Social Media as possible, her biggest challenge is to create less Insta-stories and more real ones!

    “To all the movers, the makers, the hustlers, the shakers. To those who shout loud, who stand strong and when needed those who quietly move on. To those who build empires, move mountains, push boundaries, raise babies, make memories and refuse to take no for an answer. You are ladies paving the way for a new generation who are ready to play. Stand tall and stand proud for all that you are. Not what media says you should be or could be. But the you that is here, standing now and amazing.”

    Happy International Women’s Day!

     

     

  • 16 Feb 2017

    We Know Nature Makes Us Happier. Now Science Says It Makes Us Kinder Too

    New studies show being in nature may increase your willingness to be generous, trusting, and helpful toward others.

    Logically speaking if you’re reading this article you’re a nature lover. If you’re also a hiker like us, you can understand how easily you can be hooked on the experience of the mountains and you probably love the way being in nature clears your mind and helps you to feel more grounded and peaceful.

    Nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior.

    But, even though we’ve always believed that hiking in nature had many psychological benefits, we’ve never had much science to back us up … until now, that is. Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and to increase our attention capacity, creativity, and ability to connect with other people.

    “People have been discussing their profound experiences in nature for the last several hundred years—from Thoreau to John Muir to many other writers,” says researcher David Strayer, of the University of Utah. “Now we are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature.”

    While he and other scientists may believe nature benefits our well-being, we live in a society where people spend more and more time indoors and online—especially children. Findings on how nature improves our brains bring added legitimacy to the call for preserving natural spaces—both urban and wild—and for spending more time in nature in order to lead healthier, happier, and more creative lives.

    Here are some of the ways that science is showing how being in nature affects our brains and bodies.

    1. Being in nature decreases stress

    It’s clear that hiking—and any physical activity—can reduce stress and anxiety. But, there’s something about being in nature that may augment those impacts.

    In one recent experiment conducted in Japan, participants were assigned to walk either in a forest or in an urban center (taking walks of equal length and difficulty) while having their heart rate variability, heart rate, and blood pressure measured. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their moods, stress levels, and other psychological measures.

    Results showed that those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability (indicating more relaxation and less stress) and reported better moods and less anxiety than those who walked in urban settings. The researchers concluded that there’s something about being in nature that had a beneficial effect on stress reduction, above and beyond what exercise alone might have produced.

    We evolved to be more relaxed in natural spaces.

    In another study, researchers in Finland found that urban dwellers who strolled for as little as 20 minutes through an urban park or woodland reported significantly more stress relief than those who strolled in a city center.

    The reasons for this effect are unclear, but scientists believe that we evolved to be more relaxed in natural spaces. In a now-classic laboratory experiment by Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University and colleagues, participants who first viewed a stress-inducing movie and were then exposed to color/sound videotapes depicting natural scenes showed much quicker, more complete recovery from stress than those who’d been exposed to videos of urban settings.

    These studies and others provide evidence that being in natural spaces—or even just looking out of a window onto a natural scene—somehow soothes us and relieves stress.

    2. Nature makes you happier and less brooding

    I’ve always found that hiking in nature makes me feel happier, and of course decreased stress may be a big part of the reason why. But, Gregory Bratman, of Stanford University, has found evidence that nature may impact our mood in other ways, too.

    In one 2015 study, he and his colleagues randomly assigned 60 participants to a 50-minute walk in either a natural setting (oak woodlands) or an urban setting (along a four-lane road). Before and after the walk, the participants were assessed on their emotional state and on cognitive measures, such as how well they could perform tasks requiring short-term memory. Results showed that those who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination (focused attention on negative aspects of oneself), and negative affect, as well as more positive emotions, in comparison to the urban walkers. They also improved their performance on the memory tasks.

    Nature may have important impacts on mood.

    In another study, he and his colleagues extended these findings by zeroing in on how walking in nature affects rumination—which has been associated with the onset of depression and anxiety—while also using fMRI technology to look at brain activity. Participants who took a 90-minute walk in either a natural setting or an urban setting had their brains scanned before and after their walks and were surveyed on self-reported rumination levels (as well as other psychological markers). The researchers controlled for many potential factors that might influence rumination or brain activity—for example, physical exertion levels as measured by heart rates and pulmonary functions.

    Participants who walked in a natural setting versus an urban setting reported decreased rumination after the walk, and they showed increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain whose deactivation is affiliated with depression and anxiety—a finding that suggests nature may have important impacts on mood.

    Bratman believes results like these need to reach city planners and others whose policies impact our natural spaces. “Ecosystem services are being incorporated into decision making at all levels of public policy, land use planning, and urban design, and it’s very important to be sure to incorporate empirical findings from psychology into these decisions,” he says.

    3. Nature relieves attention fatigue and increases creativity

    Today, we live with ubiquitous technology designed to constantly pull at our attention. But many scientists believe our brains were not made for this kind of information bombardment, and that it can lead to mental fatigue, overwhelm, and burnout, requiring “attention restoration” to get back to a normal, healthy state.

    Strayer is one of those researchers. He believes that being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving.

    “When you use your cell phone to talk, text, shoot photos, or whatever else you can do with your cell phone, you’re tapping the prefrontal cortex and causing reductions in cognitive resources,” he says.

    In a 2012 study, he and his colleagues showed that hikers on a four-day backpacking trip could solve significantly more puzzles requiring creativity when compared to a control group of people waiting to take the same hike—in fact, 47 percent more. Although other factors may account for his results—for example, the exercise or the camaraderie of being out together—prior studies have suggested that nature itself may play an important role. One in Psychological Science found that the impact of nature on attention restoration is what accounted for improved scores on cognitive tests for the study participants.

    This phenomenon may be due to differences in brain activation when viewing natural scenes versus more built-up scenes—even for those who normally live in an urban environment. In a recent study conducted by Peter Aspinall at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and colleagues, participants who had their brains monitored continuously using mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) while they walked through an urban green space had EEG readings indicating lower frustration, engagement, and arousal, and higher meditation levels while in the green area, and higher engagement levels when moving out of the green area. This lower engagement and arousal may be what allows for attention restoration, encouraging a more open, meditative mindset.

    Being in nature restores depleted attention circuits.

    It’s this kind of brain activity—sometimes referred to as “the brain default network”—that is tied to creative thinking, says Strayer. He is currently repeating his earlier 2012 study with a new group of hikers and recording their EEG activity and salivary cortisol levels before, during, and after a three-day hike. Early analyses of EEG readings support the theory that hiking in nature seems to rest people’s attention networks and to engage their default networks.

    Strayer and colleagues are also specifically looking at the effects of technology by monitoring people’s EEG readings while they walk in an arboretum, either while talking on their cell phone or not. So far, they’ve found that participants with cell phones appear to have EEG readings consistent with attention overload, and can recall only half as many details of the arboretum they just passed through, compared to those who were not on a cell phone.

    Though Strayer’s findings are preliminary, they are consistent with other people’s findings on the importance of nature to attention restoration and creativity.

    “If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover,” says Strayer. “And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.”

    4. Nature may help you to be kind and generous

    Whenever I go to places like Yosemite or Big Sur, on the coast of California, I seem to return to my home life ready to be more kind and generous to those around me—just ask my husband and kids! Now some new studies may shed light on why that is.

    In a series of experiments published in 2014, Juyoung Lee, GGSC director Dacher Keltner, and other researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the potential impact of nature on the willingness to be generous, trusting, and helpful toward others, while considering what factors might influence that relationship.

    As part of their study, the researchers exposed participants to more or less subjectively beautiful nature scenes (whose beauty levels were rated independently) and then observed how participants behaved playing two economics games—the Dictator Game and the Trust Game—that measure generosity and trust, respectively. After being exposed to the more beautiful nature scenes, participants acted more generously and with more trust in the games than those who saw less beautiful scenes, and the effects appeared to be due to corresponding increases in positive emotion.

    I seem to return to my home life ready to be more kind and generous.

    In another part of the study, the researchers asked people to fill out a survey about their emotions while sitting at a table where more or less beautiful plants were placed. Afterwards, the participants were told that the experiment was over and they could leave, but that if they wanted to they could volunteer to make paper cranes for a relief effort program in Japan. The number of cranes they made (or didn’t make) was used as a measure of their “prosociality” or willingness to help.

    Results showed that the presence of more beautiful plants significantly increased the number of cranes made by participants, and that this increase was, again, mediated by positive emotion elicited by natural beauty. The researchers concluded that experiencing the beauty of nature increases positive emotion—perhaps by inspiring awe, a feeling akin to wonder, with the sense of being part of something bigger than oneself—which then leads to prosocial behaviors.

    Support for this theory comes from an experiment conducted by Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues, in which participants staring up at a grove of very tall trees for as little as one minute experienced measurable increases in awe, and demonstrated more helpful behavior and approached moral dilemmas more ethically, than participants who spent the same amount of time looking up at a high building.

    5. Nature makes you “feel more alive”

    With all of these benefits to being out in nature, it’s probably no surprise that something about nature makes us feel more alive and vital. Being outdoors gives us energy, makes us happier, helps us to relieve the everyday stresses of our overscheduled lives, opens the door to creativity, and helps us to be kind to others.

    No one knows if there is an ideal amount of nature exposure, though Strayer says that longtime backpackers suggest a minimum of three days to really unplug from our everyday lives. Nor can anyone say for sure how nature compares to other forms of stress relief or attention restoration, such as sleep or meditation. Both Strayer and Bratman say we need a lot more careful research to tease out these effects before we come to any definitive conclusions.

    Still, the research does suggest there’s something about nature that keeps us psychologically healthy, and that’s good to know … especially since nature is a resource that’s free and that many of us can access by just walking outside the door. Results like these should encourage us as a society to consider more carefully how we preserve our wilderness spaces and our urban parks.

    Something about nature makes us feel more alive and vital.

    And while the research may not be conclusive, Strayer is optimistic that science will eventually catch up to what people like us have intuited all along—that there’s something about nature that renews us, allowing us to feel better, to think better, and to deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.

    “You can’t have centuries of people writing about this and not have something going on,” says Strayer. “If you are constantly on a device or in front of a screen, you’re missing out on something that’s pretty spectacular: the real world.”

    This article was originally published in Greater Good.

  • 03 Feb 2017

    Get Fit on The Go

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  • 03 Feb 2017

    Behave in Foreign Land

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