What is that Woman with a Taser Thinking?

I had one of those worst ever travel days yesterday, with three separate you’ve got to be kidding incidents. Okay, by the end of event two I wasn’t at my best, but at least my belief in trying to put myself in the other person’s shoes got me through the first, and potentially most serious of the three.

You see, I’m not a person who likes to be told what to do. I’ve had a problem with TSA and airport security since the start of this millennium, largely because of what I considered petty enforcement of rules taking priority over common sense. (You’re going to take away my tube of mascara? Why? Oh it’s a 3.6 ounce container and 3.4 is the limit. Right.)

Yesterday I got the full body scan thing and it showed something suspicious around my chest. Turns out my shirt had sequins there. None-the-less, the lady had to feel around my boobs. Okay. Protocol also required her to check my hands for explosive-making residue. Much to my surprise, and hers, I came up positive.

“Have you been around fireworks? Fertilizer?” she asked. I hadn’t. I was taken aside, and two other women were found: one to do a considerably more thorough pat down of me and the other to make sure the first one adhered to policy.

This is the point where I normally would have started to loose it. But for some reason, I noticed the person doing the patting was as nervous as I was. This was all happening at a little airport in South Carolina, and I bet they don’t get a lot of women setting off alarms. This woman was being so careful, trying so hard to do it right. I started to see the incident through her eyes. What exactly was she supposed to do? Say “Oh you seem like a nice person, so just go ahead and get on the plane?”

You know, they don’t have the greatest job in the world. I don’t want people with bombs to get on planes either. It’s good they have some protocols in place, and good they’re trying to do things right.

I started to talk to both women a little, even joke a tad. They weren’t exactly chatty back (protocols, right) but the situation became less tense. I figured out the one woman was not only checking me for devices (of which their were none), but her gloves themselves were part of the process, as they would be checked at the end for suspicions residue, too.

The gloves were checked, and they triggered a second, more serious alarm. I was baffled, but it was clear to me the TSA people realized they had “A Situation.” All of my carry-on luggage was emptied and closely examined. All my electronic devices were wiped with cloths designed to detect … something. Once all my possessions were cleared, I was taken away to a small room with three women. My entourage was growing.

One began asking me the sort of questions I’d ask if I was trying to figure out if someone was lying. “Who are you going to visit? How long has it been since you’ve seen him?”

Then we began the serious pat down. The patter had obviously been told to explain everything before she did it. “I’m now going to run the inside of my hands down your buttocks.”

“You don’t have to tell me. Just do it.” Actually, hearing about it first was creepier than having it done.

“No, I do have to,” she said. That’s right. Protocols, partially designed to protect suspects like me. I should be glad they’re being followed.

“How about I just take off my shirt and pants,” I offered. “Seems like it would be a lot simpler.”

Three sets of eyes widened. “Oh no. Please don’t do that. That’s not the procedure.”

Right.

Luckily, this third exam was deemed to be negative, so I’ll never know what the next step in the procedure was.

They were very polite as I gathered myself back together. The whole incident took about half an hour. Had I cut it closer, I could have missed my flight because of this. No one apologized to me, but I guess they had nothing to apologize for. They were doing their job. Their job has a noble goal.

Also, no one could tell me why I’d set off a residue alarm twice. I haven’t a clue.

I do know that if my fascination with empathy hadn’t led me to try to see the incident through their eyes, it could have gone quite differently. That particular headline reads “Woman Ends Up in Federal Prison Because of Incident Caused by Sequins on Shirt.”

Of course, if they’d been belligerent or mean, all that empathy stuff on my part could have fallen by the wayside. Lucky for me, all three of them seemed to be trying to see it through my eyes too. Funny how well that works out.

 

 

 

Building Peace on Blue Mountain

I’ve just spent a week in Paradise. Okay, technically is was Costa Rica and my paradise was created by a genuinely loving but also savvy retreat center. I was fed fresh picked fruit, gently steered away from news and conventional entertainment, and encouraged to walk through lovely gardens and reflect. It worked and I did.

I also knew I was in a paradise created for those with the cash and support system to allow them to go on this sort of retreat. The idea of having people less fortunate than I conspire to create an idyllic week for me would normally give me at least some first world heartburn, but it didn’t. Here’s why.

I’m lucky enough to know more about this place and the people who run it. Human beings simply don’t come more compassionate. Employees are rewarded and respected and most have become family even if they didn’t start out that way. The degree of affection they have for each other is well beyond what any staff could be coached to fake.

The center, known as La Montaña Azul, is dedicated to sustaining the local environment. Located along the Talari River southeast of San Jose, the retreat has allocated 95% of its land (116 acres) as a natural sanctuary to protect the river and its flora and fauna. In addition, its proceeds support the local schools, help maintain the roads, and allow the center to provide free classes for the community. It’s hard to argue that you are doing harm by forking over your hard earned vacation dollars to this oasis of love.

IMG_5816This visit was my fourth one. I come here to study qigong, an ancient Chinese form of moving meditation that emphasizes energy flow and has helped both my writing and my wholeness as a human being over the last five years. I’m a different person without qigong, and not nearly as pleasant a one.

At this particular visit, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the center has taken on a new cause. They wish to bring about world peace. One might argue they’ve been slowly working at that all along, but this new approach is rather specific.

They have joined forces with an international group known as Peacebuilders. This amazing organization is striving to use restorative practices like meditation to keep young people out of the criminal justice system, to assist those of all ages in prisons and to further social justice. Though it has a presence in many countries, Peacebuilders is based out of Toronto and most active in Canada, where the organization began.

In Costa Rica, efforts are concentrated on the prison system. Inmates with sentences of forty or more years are trained in meditation, voluntarily spending hours a day in the program. The results are amazing. Recently, several such prisoners were certified to instruct others, as the program grows.

La Montaña Azul’s involvement began when the diminutive older woman who is manager and part owner of the retreat center walked, without guards, into a locked room filled with some of Costa Rica’s most hardened criminals. She laughs as she confesses she thought the guards were coming in behind her. The prisoners listened to her offer of an alternative, and today the retreat center provides instructors, resources and funds for the program. Guests at the retreat are asked to provide funds also.

You know we all did. After a week in Paradise, world peace seems like a totally reasonable goal. I hope the feeling will last.

 

What is the same everywhere?

Do we travel to see what we expect? Or to be surprised? Is it the Eiffel Tower that looks exactly like the pictures that draws us, or is it our silent amazement at how we never knew how beautiful the sunset is over the Atlantic in Morocco?

It’s some of both, I suppose, but after my recent trip to Peru, I offer a third alternative. I think we also travel to see what is the same, and to remind ourselves of how much we have in common. Of course we go to see what’s different there, but we also go to see what is the same everywhere.

Take the popular business of local cooking classes. Humans like food. Most of us like to prepare it and all of us enjoy eating it. While the exotic nature of learning to make a new dish is some of the appeal, I’ll argue that much of the enjoyment of these classes is sharing a love of good food with ones hosts.

I was lucky enough to take not one, but two, cooking classes recently in Peru. The first, in Lima, featured local seafood dishes like this crab causa made from the amazing local yellow potatoes. The second class, in the mountains of Cusco, gave us the opportunity to waltz around in aprons and hairnets while enjoying a spectacular 360 degree view. I loved what was new about each experience, but the underlying appreciation of cooking made it work.

I was also lucky enough to get some time to wander around Cusco. Many people will use such time to shop, others will seek out monuments or buildings of historical significance. I do some of that, too, but if it’s a nice day, I also like to find a small local park and sit in the sunshine. Part of that experience is sharing it with the locals. We’re humans. We all like a soft breeze and blue sky and the chance to do a little nothing while we enjoy it. It’s nice to enjoy a beautiful day with others.

As I wander about, I find myself drawn to small cafes and coffee shops the world over. My favorites look remarkably alike for all their differences. A mix of locals and tourists are there for the WiFi, and for a certain lack of being hurried or expected to buy much. There are flyers on the walls for local events and often hippie beads and lots of plants. These are my people, I think. And it’s comforting to find them everywhere.

Here is a little slice of home I found on a side street in Cusco. Great coffee, a lovely pancake, and all the time in the world to eat it.

I also sometimes find this commonality in bars and taverns, and in shops and stores, and it makes me smile inside.

We enjoyed visiting a wonderful park in Lima called the Magic Water Circuit, filled with 13 illuminated fountains that dance and display colored light shows at night. This park is located in what was once one of the more rundown and dangerous areas of the city. Today, tourists and locals stroll through it together marveling at how pretty moving colored water can be.

One of my favorite parts of the visit to the park was how it reminded me that few things bring more joy than watching children play. If there is anything you can find everywhere, it is the laughter of children. (Okay, maybe crying babies are just as ubiquitous, but they are not as much fun.)

When this park opened, it had a problem keeping children out of the fountains, especially on warm evenings. Given the complexity of the equipment needed to make the displays, they had to find a solution. Wisely, they solved their problem by making a fountain specifically for play. Children, teenagers and even a few adults venture into the lit mist, squealing as they do it.

I chose to stay dry, but as the sound of laughter filled the park, it reminded me that relishing what humans have in common is one of the reasons I travel.