Finding Center: Three Cincinnati Labyrinths to Explore along an Inward Journey

Winter was wearing thin on us, and although it had not been a savage season in southwest Ohio, time was stretching long and thin while the city of Cincinnati marched along with the pandemic drum beat. After a tiresome election cycle and a disengaged holiday season, January brought an attempted coup and heavy gray clouds that barely allowed any sun to filter to the ground. Although January marks the two year anniversary that I left Northern California to relocate to Ohio, I still prefer to live every day as if I am travelling. The people, places, and experiences are temporary and are to be savored with the same appreciation as if I were trekking through Serbia with my backpack and gear. This perspective gives me patience through the hardship of my daily assignment, and fresh eyes to view the problems and solutions around me. I am currently staying here, but I am only passing through, as we are all only passing through, perhaps for three days, or maybe for 75 years.

Identifying stillness and silence has nurtured this connection with transiency. We are always shifting and adjusting to fill the spaces around and within us. When I am centered, I can feel the space within me, and have learned to accept the temporality of what feels more solid. Walking meditations in a labyrinth is one way to connect to stillness and silence.

Labyrinths have been around for over four thousand years, and labyrinthine symbols date back to the Neolithic age. Through shifting the mental constructs of linear time and space having origins only between two separate points, they aid in the traveler’s discovery of their true Self. They guide the seeker into a compression of time and space.

On one particularly bleak Sunday, I decided to venture into that sacred space of my center. Using the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator, I filtered the search function to find ten labyrinths within a 10 mile radius of my zip code. The World Labyrinth Locator is an online project of The Labyrinth Society. Launched in 2004, it is a database that contains over 6050 labyrinths across 85 countries. These are my three favorites in the city of Cincinnati.

Labyrinth at Smale Riverfront Park in Downtown

Labyrinth at Smale Riverfront Park. January 17, 2021.

This outdoor labyrinth is a permanent feature of Smale Riverfront Park. It is located between the Roebling Bridge and the Black Brigade of Cincinnati Monument. The total distance from entrance to center and back is half a mile. When I began the journey, I was the only one walking. Within ten minutes, a young girl on a tricycle who was on the Ohio River Trail with her father saw me and wanted to explore as well. Although they didn’t seem to understand the purpose, they at least opened their perspective enough to wander into a circle that perhaps they had never before noticed.

Labyrinth at Unity of Garden Park

Labyrinth at Unity of Garden Park. January 17, 2021.

I traveled to a new area of the city to walk this labyrinth, located behind the Unity of Garden Park church. Designed to represent the mythic Phoenix who rises from its ashes to fly away, symbolizing healing and transformation, I felt an alignment of time and space while weaving through the pathways and visualized a peaceful transition from the chaos of 2020, and into a more stable 2021. The words, “May Peace Prevail on Earth,” mark the beginning and end, printed on a post in four languages.

Labyrinth at New Thought Unity Center

Labyrinth at New Thought Unity Center in Walnut Hills. January 17, 2021.

Located in the beautiful and historic Cincinnati neighborhood of Walnut Hills is the New Thought Unity Center with it’s outdoor meditation garden and labyrinth. The Cincinnati Magazine from October 15, 2020, gave the labyrinth a bit of publicity. In this online article, Larry Watson, the center’s head prayer chaplain explains the installation’s purpose of creating and releasing an intention, whether “a concern, belief, sadness, emotion, pain, anger, shame.” The process of following the path gives space to reflect on the intention before releasing it. Watson explains that, “working into the center, through the labyrinth, gives us time to be comfortable letting it go.”

More information on labyrinths:

Labyrinth Resource Group

Mythology

Walking the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice

Three Important Lessons Learned through the Adventure of Randonauting

Image by Ajay kumar Singh from Pixabay.

Randonauting is the word that defines travel to an “anomolous experience” using the new app called Randonautica. Randonautica describes itself as “the world’s first quantum random adventure game.” It challenges its players to clear their minds, focus their breathe on an intention, and then generate coordinates on a map that aligns with the experience they are seeking.

The mechanics of the app are relatively simple. Each user is gifted 30 Owl Tokens to use during the time cycle of sunrise until the next sunrise over the Giza pyramids. The first step is to set a distance radius that you want to travel. Since I like to walk, my radius is within two and a half miles of my current location. After setting a radius, you think about what you want to find. This is your intention. When your intention is clear, you generate the coordinates. The app then connects to Google Maps and you follow the directions to the destination.

I first heard about Randonautica while watching YouTube videos during the early days of the pandemic. At that time, it was an app only available through TikTok, and the users were describing sinister and malicious experiences. They were discovering indigenous burial sites, possessed dolls abandoned along gravel roads through the backwoods, and other disturbing oddities. I was curious, and wondered, is the darkness inherent within the app itself, or is it a case of attraction? Are the users seeking frightening experiences, and then finding them?

In November, 2020, a new version launched and became available for a free installation through the Google Play store. I installed it, and decided to initiate my own explorations. So far, I have generated five Anomolies, and successfully completed three of them. This is what I have learned, not only about Randonautica, but also about the energetic attraction that forms the material reality of life.

Intention matters.

While exploring my consciousness and how it overlaps with the physical world using this app, I wanted to avoid encountering an angry ghost or otherwise dark and dangerous presence. I kept my intentions aligned with “high frequency” motivations, and explored themes of gratitude, friendship, forgiveness, progress, and warmth. The “gratitude” exploration sent me directly to a large, old tree in the forest. “Progress” sent me to a cliff at the periphery of the Vine Street Hill Cemetery, overlooking Interstate 75.

“Progress” generated and explored on Saturday, December 5, 2020.

I was with a friend during the exploration of “Forgiveness.” He is the one who identified that intention. When I attempted to generate the experience, the app was unable to find a coordinate. It instructed me to either expand my radius, or select a different intention. I altered it a bit, searching for an experience of an Open Heart, and was then mapped to a location alongside a busy street. My friend, with his guilty conscience, talked on our walk about how he was unable to forgive himself for the culmination of all his actions. Perhaps that is why the app was unable to generate a site of forgiveness for us to find.

Feelings are stronger than words.

Our brains generate about 40 thoughts each minute. Most of these thoughts come from our subconscious mind, and it is impossible for our conscious mind to regulate and control them. While attempting to attract new opportunities and experiences in life, it is often easier and more effective to focus on a feeling instead of a thought or a word. To ask for one thing, while feeling the exact opposite, will generate the feeling instead of the thing described. At least, that is what I experienced with this app.

“Gratitude” generated and explored on Thursday, November 26, 2020.

During my attempt to find “Friendship,” my first intention was “Community.” Since living in Cincinnati, I have felt isolated with a limited social support network. I have practically no community in Cincinnati, so I wasn’t too surprised when the app told me that it couldn’t find “Community” in my radius. I cleared my head, and tried again, with the same results. Then I altered my word to “Friendship.” However, although my brain though the word “Friendship,” what I actually felt was the fear of being a stranger. I was understandably suspicious when the app generated a location to a parking lot of an apartment building well-known for its high crime rates. Although I embarked on that journey, I didn’t finish it. I listened to my intuition, and knew that I would find something disturbing or unwelcomed at the final destination.

Expect interference.

It seems to me that technology is evolving toward a trend that minimizes the separation between thought and form. Time and space have always been fluid, and now, through technology, we have even more agency over its relativity. However, the technological devices are still limited in their capacity to absorb the “psychic energy,” for lack of a better term. During my five Randonautica adventures, my phone has malfunctioned on three of them. On my quest toward “Warmth,” it repeatedly shut off, insisting the battery was low, but the battery was at 47%. While searching for “Friendship,” my Google Map app repeatedly rerouted, even though I was on the only road to the destination. Before heading to find the “Open Heart,” both the Randonautica app and the Google Map app failed and froze. I am not much surprised or shocked at these interferences. I believe there is much we do not understand yet about magnetic frequencies and psychic energy, and how they interact together. Our devices have not yet caught up with our creative capacities.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Some users claim the Randonautica app is evil. I disagree. It’s a tool for exploring how our own brains understand and connect to the outside world. I would recommend using caution, and consciousness, while embarking on an adventure though. Like any tool, it is powerful, and capable for both creative and destructive ends.

Three Works of Travel Writing to Ignite Your Imagination (while we patiently wait for the pandemic to run its course)

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay.

Bread and Ashes

British writer and adventurer Tony Anderson transports his readers through the remote mountain villages of the nearly impenetrable Caucasus Mountains. The families he encounters are rugged survivors of the war in Abkhazia and Ossetia, and of a long history of tribal and civil war. At the time of his journey in 1998, peace in the region lingered in a balance between ongoing Communist collapse and oppression, and youth looking forward to a hopeful future of democracy and opportunity. This is a narrative of people celebrating life amidst uncertainty, and sharing food regardless of their own hunger. It outlines the history, describes the language, and illuminates the local customs from the mysterious and ancient isthmus positioned between the Black and the Caspian Sea.

Bread and Ashes by Tony Anderson. 1998.

The Yellow Envelope

When American author Kim Dinan received a divine message to travel, she was seemingly happily married, successful, and ambitious. However, she described a yawning emptiness inside of her that more material wealth could not fulfill. At first, her husband Brian was not interested in walking away from the life they had acquired in Portland, Oregon, to set off into the vast unknown world. Kim was persistent though, and eventually convinced Brian to sell their belongings, including their cars and their house, and to embark on an open-ended journey outside of their comfortable existence in the United States.

A gift from friends prior to leaving Portland shaped the dimension of their travels. They received a yellow envelope with $1000, and were told to give it away to people they met. The yellow envelope included three rules: Don’t overthink it, share your experience, and don’t feel pressured to give it all away. The intentionality of the gift inspired a conscious awareness within Kim and Brian that they might not have experienced otherwise. 

The journey ahead of them after departing from the United States was at first difficult. They were both habituated toward comfortable patterns in life and with each other. How they had defined their relationship and their personal values no longer fit within the construct of hardships of travel such as hunger, poor infrastructure, no routine, physical exhaustion, and lack of privacy. They were both forced to reexamine their own identities, as separate individuals and as a couple.

The Yellow Envelope by Kim Dinan. 2014.

Wild East

In the early 2000s, Canadian journalist Jill Lawless accepted a correspondent position at a news outlet in the remote and isolated foreign capital of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. At that time, Mongolia’s media was newly privatized from beneath Communist oversight, and her role was as much a consultant for how to run a newspaper under freedom of the press, as she was a journalist with the UB Post. Lawless was in Mongolia during a time of exciting political and cultural transition. Wild East is less of a travel memoir, but rather essays and shorter narratives of creative non-fiction that describe her adventures in reporting. Even so, it provides a compelling narrative into the historical moment when Mongolia dropped it’s isolation and began to connect to China and Europe on its journey toward modernization.

Wild East by Jill Lawless. 2000.

Indigenous Ohio: Relics of Colonization and a Neglected History

Yesterday was Indigenous People’s Day in the United States. Indigenous People’s Day started in Berkeley, California, in 1992, 500 years after Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. It is a counter-celebration of Columbus Day, the US Federal holiday also on October 12, which serves only to sanitize the violent history of colonization across North and South America.

The land of Ohio has a powerful relationship to the Indigenous People who lived in this area for many thousands of years before the European people arrived. The word “Ohio” is itself derived from a word in the Iroquois language for “good river.” That is fitting as Ohio is home to several networks of rivers and tributaries. Also, Tecumseh, the leader of the Native American Confederacy, was born in Ohio. Tecumseh fought to the death to unite the Indigenous People of what is now Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, to secure a hunting ground and a territory, protected against European colonization.

Portrait of Tecumseh.

The British were allies with the Native American Confederacy, and during the Treaty of Ghent, the British implored the US Government to return that land to the Indigenous People. However, Ohio was granted statehood in 1803, and then after Tecumseh died in battle in 1813, Indiana followed in 1816, and Michigan in 1837. What remains of the long-standing Councils and the multitude of tribal communities that inhabited the land are relics in museums and several sacred burial grounds.

Recently, I explored three such burial grounds, called “mounds” or “earthworks.” The earthworks are places of ceremony, social gathering, worship, and burial. Although Ohio has many numerous earthwork sites, those I visited are all located in the southern end of the state, between Cincinnati and Athens.

Mound City Group

The Mound City Group is one of six Hopewell National Historical Sites. This 13-acre space is enclosed with a 4-foot earth wall, and is home to 23 mounds. The largest mound is 17 and a half feet high, and 90 feet in diameter.

Mound City, September 24, 2020.

The mounds are what remains from the Hopewell culture, who is thought to have lived in the area from 1-400 AD. Historians and archaeologists speculate that each mound used to house a ceremonial building, based on clues such as artifacts, clays, and ashes. After the building was purposefully dismantled, the mound was constructed.

Map displaying all six Hopewell National Historical Sites.

History almost lost this site. After land pressures in the mid-late 19th century, it was plowed over for farming. Fortunately, two historians had mapped the original site, and it was successfully reconstructed in the 1920s.

Seip Earthworks

Seip Earthworks is another one of the six Hopewell National Historical Sites. It is 120 acres of two circles and a 27-square acre astronomical alignment. Sadly, many of the geometric earthworks were destroyed during colonial expansion. Tim Anderson Jr’s drone footage from 2016 is a birds-eye view of what has been preserved, and is now part of the National Park Service.

My visit was fairly short, but I did take a peaceful moment to prepare morning coffee over my propane backpacking stove and to bask in the fresh autumn sunlight.

Interpretive signage at Seip Earthworks, September 24, 2020.

Fort Hill Earthworks

I almost bypassed this site, in favor of continuing on to my final evening of camping, but it ended up being my favorite, and most adventurous, afternoon. This site apparently has two earthworks, one at the top of Fort Hill with 33 gateways and 1.5 mile circumference; and a second, more difficult to locate, Circle Earthwork. I opted to trek along the Buckeye Trail to find the less accessible mound.

Trail map at Fort Hill Earthworks.

After perhaps two miles along a steep and uneven path, I was on a narrow trail overgrown with spider webs and vegetation. I waved a stick in front of me with each step to avoid spiders in my hair. Eventually, the trail abruptly ended in a field. A farmer was baling hay in the late afternoon heat, and I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn. I stumbled a bit over the uneven soil, and then finally noticed a slightly elevated area of earth to my right. I had found it, the Circle Earthwork. I felt satisfied and accomplished.

Mushrooms growing along a sparsely traveled trail at Fort Hill Earthworks, September 24, 2020.

We can’t change the course that history followed, but we can choose which version of history we honor: the brutish violence of colonization, or the powerful energy of a movement toward reclamation that is very much alive. We can choose our heroes, and how we name the victors.

Dreaming the Future of Travel into Existence from an Unlikely Campground in Ohio

Preparing the fire for dinner.

Recently, I was in that inspirational and exhilarating space of planning for a week away from the responsibilities and tedium of daily life. Some may call this a vacation, but for me, these times of freedom and creativity are more akin to a pilgrimage into an unfamiliar space, over-flowing with magic and self-discovery. In the “before times,” I used these respites to explore the archaeology of an ancient civilization in the desert beyond Guadalajara; to wander the Jewish quarters of Prague and Rynek Glowny in Krakow; or maybe to explore the freeways of America from the backbreaking seat of a Greyhound bus. Whatever it was I had planned, it was created in an elemental alignment with my INFP personality.

However, this year, and perhaps for every year moving forward through whatever timeline is unfolding from the current space of chaos, I am grounded. My American passport may never fold into another border agent’s palm, and bus stations are questionable, even in the most sanitary of times. Additionally, the speed of uncertainty and the weight of instability felt like inertia on my tired shoulders. To travel far and fast would be as restful as wading through two miles of thigh-high mud. I needed something simpler.

Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio.

When I first arrived in Cincinnati, I was surprised at the diversity of Ohio’s landscape. The Appalachian mountains extend from the southeast into the southwest; gorges and waterfalls dance alongside mountain roads, carved like caverns into the landscape; and thick forests of evergreen and deciduous trees offer access to miles of both easy and strenuous hiking trails. I packed my car for a week of camping, and ventured eastward toward Hocking Hills State Forest.

After five days of traversing over rocks and into gorges, of baked goods in Amish country, and reflection at sacred burial sites of the Indigenous people who used to inhabit the land, I arrived for one final night at a state park about 100 miles outside of Cincinnati. It was called Pike Lake State Park, and was a laid back place with children playing innocently on bikes while their adults kicked back over fire pits and Tom Petty music. Most guests were in large campers, and from all appearances, they had moved in to settle for the fall. Twinkle lights hung from tree limbs, and dinner was prepared outside over full cooking range. That evening, I set up my modest tent, and sauteed green beans in canola oil over my single burner propane stove designed for the back country.

The next morning as I prepared my coffee over the same propane stove, my neighbors, who were three women that I assumed were mother and daughters, invited me to join them with their fire. They told me how they had trouble getting it to light the night before, and one of the men from the next camp came and rescued them from the chill. They said they considered the fire a group effort, and they wanted to share it with me. I happily accepted. I had assumed that I would journey through the entire week without any new connections. It is easy to meet people at an international travelers’ hostel; but far more difficult at a quiet American campground.

My neighbors at the camp. We shared stories around a fire.

Like all travelers gathered at a fire, we exchanged stories of inspiration and experience. The older woman is a photographer in Dayton, and the younger women are her friend’s daughters. I shared a bit about myself, and we all talked about religion, faith, service, purpose, and dreams. After I disclosed that I was engaging in personal growth and seeking answers to existential questions in my life, the older of the three women asked me the sacred question. “What did you learn?”

Bonnie preparing coffee for her two travel companions.

I shared my insights into travel, and of the depth and richness of beauty I had witnessed here in my current backyard. While camping among pine trees reminiscent of the undergrowth in the Humboldt Redwood forest, I had initiated a bit of a love affair with the Great Lakes region. It’s abundant water, it’s lush and fragrant landscape, and it’s biodiversity– even the insects and spider webs– are perhaps under appreciated in the traveler’s imagination. Maybe it is an undiscovered traveler’s market, with plentiful ecotourism and adventure opportunities. Caving, climbing, canopy walks, kayaking, and hiking was everywhere; the colder season will bring snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and hiking beneath a sparkling clear sky in a night silent beyond the sound of my boots crunching over fresh snow. With so many farming paths and winding country roads to explore around me, it might be many years before I board an airplane again.

Money, Travel, and American Scarcity: Conversations and Perspectives from Central Europe

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The river Ljubljanica as it passes through Ljubljana, Slovenia’s, Old City.

Perhaps the three most divisive topics of conversation in the Western world are money, religion, and politics. They are like a dirty triad. At your next (post pandemic) dinner party, start a discussion about money, religion, and politics first; and then slowly merge into the issues of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, and observe which theme creates more tension among your acquaintances.

Travelers love to talk about money, about how much they are spending or not spending; comparing exchange rates; negotiating a balance between the cost of the high season, and the savings as locations transition into the shoulder season; and about which nations and regions offer the most opportunity for the least financial investment. Money is like air. It is not noticed until it is in dwindling supply.

In September, 2018, while sorting through my belongings in a hostel in Ljubljana, and preparing to store my valuable items in my locker, I noticed that another traveler was watching me unpack. The space was very crowded, and he was waiting for his turn at the lockers. He noticed as I tried surreptitiously to transfer a roll of random bills from my backpack to my locker, and he said, “Ah the United States…” with wide eyes. What he didn’t know is the cash valued maybe $75, and appeared like more than it was. It was mostly American singles and Hungarian Florint, with a few Euros on the top. Since my arrival into Europe, I have been spending from the same pile of “money” exchanged from US dollars into Hungarian Florint into Euro into Croatian Kuna. I no longer know how much that money is worth; I had lost track of the economic equation between my labor and its value. It had been exchanged too many times.

During my week in Ljubljana, I met a Bulgarian from Turkey, who was living and studying International Business in Slovenia. We met at a coffee shop when he noticed I was reading a book in English. He asked if I spoke English, and I responded that yes, I speak English very well, and he then wanted to practice with me.

Although I appreciated his intelligence and inquisitive mind, I fully disagreed with his attitude toward global capitalism. Most of his discussion involved how much clothes cost in Europe compared the the United States, and why the United States is the greatest country on the planet even though Americans as individuals tend to be lazy. I wanted to explain the complex nature of American society to him, but nuances are lost in translation.

At another point while wandering the streets of Bratislava, I noticed that everyone around me was very well-dressed, and their hair and skin were shiny and polished. I felt exposed and vulnerable in my Chacos and second-hand dress, wrinkled and worn after a long day of travel from Budapest. I began to search for other people who appeared more “common,” and finally I observed a group of four people seated at a lower-end restaurant in the central tourist district where most of the eateries are quite expensive. Their clothes were sloppy, and their bodies were a tad out of shape. As I walked closer to pass their table, I heard from their dialogue that they were Americans. Even if the United States government is the most powerful in the world, the American people are not the wealthiest. Even if some of the wealthiest people on the planet are Americans, the general “American” is not economically wealthy. Even if the US offers vast opportunity for some, that opportunity is not available to most. As we approach the 2020 election, this wealth disparity is even more apparent now.

After leaving Ljubljana, I traveled to Zadar, switching buses near the Croatia-Slovenia border. It must have been on the Croatian side because the WC required Kuna to enter instead of Euro. I was in a hurry, and would have given an entire Euro instead of the 3 Kuna it requested, but I was sent away in search of an exchange kiosk. Apparently, in 2018, Croatia still did not accept the Euro. After accomplishing that chore at an exchange kiosk, I returned to pay the price. I handed the attendant a coin that had a 5 on it, hoping for change and entrance. The man looked at what I gave him and said, “This. This is nothing.” “Nothing?” I responded. “No, nothing. 5 Kuna,” he repeated, holding up his hand to indicate five. “5 Kuna.”

Confused, I dug around in my pocket for other change, money that I guess is worth more than nothing. I found a larger coin with a larger 5 on it, and handed that to him. He laughed and said, “Yes, 5 Kuna. That other one, nothing. 5 Lipa.” Feeling foolish and way too American, I sneaked off to the WC, and then to find WIFI to learn about Croatian currency. Apparently, 100 Lipa equals 1 Kuna, so then five Lipa is really not worth much at all.

My experience with life in the US is that nobody ever has enough money. Even with a bank account of $100,000, ownership of multiple cars, a house, and with two incomes, a family will complain that they are broke. So much dialogue around money that I hear is spoken from a framework of scarcity. That leads me to question if it is ever enough. Our shopping lists are always growing, and new products are constantly thrust at us in an enticing array of flashing lights, colorful images, and beautiful people. It is the twisted truth that we are never among the singing, dancing ones, because they are not real.

Before leaving Budapest after three months in Central and Eastern Europe, a Romanian-Hungarian student enrolled in a PhD program in Physics showed me through some less traveled roads in the city. He was raised Catholic, and I was raised Protestant, and we both agreed that “God” is a far greater concept than the human brain can ever understand. After establishing that I understand both the theory of relativity and the theory of thermodynamics and how they apply in idea and practice within our version of reality, he described four other universes within the multiverse. The multiverse are the possible universes that parallel the one in which we live. One such universe maintains all the existing laws of our universe, but with opportunities for different outcomes following an action. Maybe this creates a possibility to redefine our relationship with value, meaning, and life in the Western world. Money itself is valued relative to the nation in which it is earned and spent, and currency is really only a number in an electronic bank account. If indeed other universes do exist and are accessible from ours, I feel like the first outcome we should begin shifting is from our philosophy of scarcity, toward a philosophy of abundance. Then we might see a new material reality, with greater value on life, relationships, travel, personal growth, death, and everything else that resides between it all.

Four Reasons to Visit a Waterfall on Your Next Road Trip

Waterfalling is the word to describe searching for waterfalls. I love waterfalls for their simplicity and vibrancy. I have visited many spectacular waterfalls on three continents, and each has been uniquely different. It is not just the waterfall itself that I love; it is also the story of adventure as I embarked on the journey to find them. In Bosnia, I visited the second highest waterfall in Europe, and also formed a close bond with three other amazing women along the way. My adventure to Puerto Iquazu to visit Iguazu Falls on the border of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil was my final stop after five months in South America before returning to Bogota, and I felt like I was gazing over the edge of the world and my life. Now during this pandemic, I am sorting my way through the terrain of the Ohio River Valley woodlands, and observed Lughnasadh with a flower wreath at Charleston Falls in Miami County, Ohio. Waterfalls are spaces that offer significant healing for us humans. Let’s keep learning from them.

Our Love Affair with Waterfalling (1)

Three Hostel Booking Tips for the Solo Female Traveler

While traveling, I always stay in hostels. However, travelling certainly looks different as we pass through this time of pandemic. Bunk hostels are no longer open, and the common areas are off limits. I have seen some hostels that are open, such as the Cleveland Hostel, but the space is significantly cut back. Like many others, I know that I am hopefully anticipating when it is indeed safe and acceptable to travel like we had been before time stopped in January 2020. 

Hostels are the perfect way to connect with other travelers and to acquire free resources like city maps and knowledgeable staff. They are also typically centrally located within walking distance of train and bus stations, and other lively areas. The fully stocked kitchens with free food shelves and free breakfasts are another bonus. Hostels do have down sides though, and one of those is sharing space with strangers, and navigating their messes, their noise, their expectations, and their social dynamics.

Morning Journal
The Not So Hostel in Charleston, South Carolina.

Some hostel spaces are conductive for socializing. They provide large common areas for group seating, they offer in-house alcohol service, and someone/a man is always lingering in the co-ed 20 bed bunk dorms waiting to strike up a conversation with whoever will listen. These hostels are perfect if you are traveling with your 15 closest friends, and if you don’t mind the smell of stale beer on an unknown man’s breathe in the bunk below you.

The Balcony
The Guest House Bistrik in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

However, as a female who frequently travels alone, I’ve learned how to identify hostels that are more likely to create social spaces conducive for casual conversation with healthy and conscious travelers. I don’t want people (primarily men) to assume that I am actively searching for some type of companionship. As an INFP, I am perfectly content wandering the planet alone. I am experienced enough as a solo female traveler to know what to look for when booking a hostel.

ALCOHOL. What is the relationship between the hostel and alcohol? Does the description point out its close proximity to bars or the party district? Is a bar located inside of the hostel? Are people in the online marketing materials obviously drinking and partying? This factor can really make or break the experience in a new location. Think about the problems that alcohol invites: disrespectful behavior, sloppy kitchens and bathrooms, late nights coming into and out of the bunk dorms, unconscious noise, and unintelligent conversation. Don’t get me wrong, a beer or three is one thing; but all night and all day intoxication is another thing entirely.

GENDER EQUALITY. How are women depicted in the online marketing materials? Do women work as staff at the hostels, or are all the images of men? Are the bathrooms separate, co-ed, or gender neutral? What are the social expectations regarding non-males in the culture, and how does the hostel environment maintain or challenge that paradigm? Read the reviews. When I was booking a hostel in Belgrade it at first met my qualifications. It had a rooftop patio, no alcohol service, and was owned and managed by a local. However, I changed my mind when I read the reviews. An American woman in my age group who was traveling alone reported feeling uncomfortable because she was the only female visitor, and all the staff were men too. That sounds awkward and isolating at best, and subtly hostile at worst. Hostels create and define community like any other shared space, and if you identify as anything other than a straight male, it’s worthwhile to find a host who will create a welcoming environment.  

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT. Does the hostel support local merchants and residents, or are all its resources through corporate-owned tourist companies? Which events are on its visitor calendar? Does it offer any service learning opportunities or volunteer projects? Is a local managing and operating it?  Although chains like HI provide perks and abundant traveler resources, supporting a locally-owned hostel enriches the economy much more directly, and contributes to positive community development. A larger share of the profit stays within the family who owns the property, especially if only local currency as cash is accepted. The downside is that a local owner might not speak English, or speaks only very limited English, but what’s the purpose of international travel if not to struggle with communication?

Hostel Mostel
The Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnova, Bulgaria.

When I travel, I like to meet open-minded travelers who like myself are seeking opportunities to understand themselves and the world through a healthy, conscious, socially progressive, and compassionately inter-sectional lens. I understand that others travel for different reasons, and the party hostels get plenty of guests. But if your dreams are hitched to a more mindful star, these tips are worth the research.

The Politics of Food

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Travelling immediately creates a personal vulnerability that dislodges us from our familiar and comfortable space. Disorientation must be an accepted item on the packing list to carry as international and cultural borders are crossed. Having navigated overnight bus rides and long walks through new cities with directions scribbled on scraps of napkins, I learned how to sustain myself from the most basic personal care, like brushing my teeth or a hot shower. When access to our typical nourishment is unavailable, well-being requires resourcefulness, adaptability, and the alchemy of gratitude for what has been discovered instead of feeling only the hunger of what is missed.

I am not a nationalist, and I stand beside my critical evaluation of systemic race, class, and gender oppression in the United States; however, social analysis aside, I totally loved returning to Chicago from three months in Central Europe and the Balkans, to bask in a Panera Bread with free WIFI and blasting heat, savoring a tomato soup bread bowl and a large, whip cream covered hot chocolate. While travelling, I missed access to whatever quantity and quality of food I desired, and felt physically hungrier in the Balkans than at other point in my near memory. I am a very open minded person, and will try almost any type of food. Only once in my travels have I declined a food offering. In Poland in 2017, I was not mentally able to eat pig lard spread on a piece of bread.

Bread, pickles, and lard
Bread, lard, and pickles are a standard at every Polish meal.

Regardless of my flexibility, I have definitely been hungry on my various travels. I think a few factors contributed to this. First, I travel on a tight budget and in some cities I have had a difficult time finding food that was not served at an upscale restaurant. Second, since I stay in hostels, I was limited to where I could cook and store food purchased at a market. Many of the refrigerators were packed beyond capacity with old, rotting food. At few times, food that I had purchased and labelled with my name was eaten. Once, food that I had bought and prepared for my long day of travel was ruined when a bowl of cheese water spilled on it. Keeping food at the hostels was nearly impossible. Finally, as my journey moved beyond the one month milestone, I began to miss diversity in my diet, and at times wanted to eat no more bread, no more young cheese, no more yogurt, but maybe an avocado, arugula salad, or a baked sweet potato. I do not consider myself a picky eater, but I know what I like to eat, and I definitely appreciate the large quantities of food available in the US.

KODAK Digital Still Camera
My American dinner, cooked over a fire.

Bratislava was one city where I had a difficult time finding affordable food. Bratislava uses the Euro, so I was already at a financial disadvantage. Also, I was only staying for one night before heading south to Ljubljana, so I did not want to purchase more than one meal. I arrived in Bratislava already quite hungry, having traveled a long day from Budapest, and walked to my hostel from the bus terminal which was about 45 minutes while carrying my pack. Although the Bratislava city center is a beautiful and historically preserved ancient walled castle grounds, the assumption is that tourists show up with Euros falling out of their pockets, ready to eat, drink, and party. I checked menus at perhaps 15 establishments before accepting that the prepared food was out of my reach.

Bratislava
My $16 Slovakian buffet.

Fortunately, I found a small market near my hostel, and bought a supply of food for dinner with a snack to eat on the bus ride to Slovenia. The snack was pretzel stick with hummus. For dinner, I ate rich berry yogurt, a green juice blend, and a mystery salad that turned out to be white fish, black olives, celery, and oily mayonnaise. I also purchased a carbonated water flavored with pear, cucumber, and mint. The entire buffet cost about $12 in Euro, or $16 in USD, after international transaction fees.

I discovered burek in Split, Croatia, and lived off of the flaky bread stuffed with spinach and cheese for the three days I stayed there. Split is a city with many tourists arriving daily from the cruise ships, and every restaurant is dramatically over-priced to reflect the market. I met other travellers who had ventured through Split, and they agreed that food was difficult. One Australian couple admitted to having spent about $50 Australian dollars on a couple of poorly crafted burritos, and they jokingly confessed that it was so far their worst purchasing decision along their year journeying around the world. The burek became my go-to food. The spinach and cheese, or the sour cherry, option each cost about 15 kuna each, or about $2.50. Three burek supplemented with some fruit like apricots, pear, or plums would get me through the day.

Burek
Homeade burek with spinach and cheese.

Sarajevo was where I ate the best. My guest house sat at the top of a steep hill, and a marketplace was at the base. It was an easy 15 minute walk. Also, I had private access to a refrigerator and cooking unit. I was able to store food and prepare it for the five days I stayed. I stocked up on fruit, cheese, yogurt, sausage, nuts, chocolate, packets of cappuccino, bread, and a lightly alcoholic (2.5%) carbonated grapefruit and mint beverage. During my entire time in Sarajevo, I spent about 75 marks on food in total, which is about $47 USD, and a little less than $10 per day.

Sarajevo
My Sarajevan feast.

Speaking of alcohol, I sampled two different types of local liquor. Hungary offers palinka, a fruit brandy made from fruit mash like plums, apricot, berries, and pears. In Bosnia, I tried a drink called raki, which was like moonshine and the distiller boasted that his was the only one around made from pine needles. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed either liquor, but sometimes I find myself searching the corner store for a forgotten bottle of Palina. 

What is the point of travel if it doesn’t change us or challenge us? For my 35th birthday in Prague, I ate a roasted rabbit. If someone offered me rabbit in the US, I’d politely decline. Somehow, while watching the pedestrians traverse the steep stairs through the Jewish quarter in the City of 100 Spires, I felt like a wild hare of a bed of greens with a side of buttery mashed potatoes was the ONLY appropriate food to eat. It was delicious.

An INFP Hostel Survival Kit

I don’t know what other people or INFPs experience, but from my perspective, everyday life can be rather challenging. Every noise is too loud, every light is too bright, every smell is too strong, and I can read the emotional undercurrent in every face around me. While travelling, some spaces have been nearly unbearable. I’ve endured those experiences by sinking as deeply into my own self as possible and waiting for the external environment to change until either it is less painful or I can leave. 

These are the items that I always pack with me to help create a more positive travelling experience as an INFP. For those of you unfamiliar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory, INFP is one of the 16 categories of personality type. It is on the more rare end, comprising only about four percent of the global adult population. The acronym stands for Introvert, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving. 

Hostel in Ljubljana, Slovenia. 2018.

When I travel, I stay in hostels for a few reasons. If I stay alone in guest houses, I would never have any incentive to talk to anyone else who speaks my language. That would be TOO easy. Staying in hostels gives that extra layer of challenge. Also, they are inexpensive. I travel very low budget. While travelling in the US, the hostels that are slowly popping up across the States are far less expensive than staying in hotels or in Air BnB locations. Finally, I believe it is important to consistently meet other people who will expose me to their ideas, their thoughts, their stories, and yes, sometimes even their toxicity. 

I have stayed in multiple hostels across the countries of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania; and in the cities of Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Llubljana, Guadalajara, Vancouver, Toronto, Victoria, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, Portland, Bozeman, Chicago, Manhattan, DC, Cleveland, Nashville, Sacramento, Columbus, Charleston, Savannah, and probably more that I can’t recall at this immediate moment. Without churning the memories in my mind to calculate the exact number, I estimate that I have stayed in at least 120 different hostels. This is my hostel survival kit.

Clothesline

Clothes and towels drying on a clothesline in Cartagena, Colombia. 2015.

Before my first long-term experience through South America, I picked up a clothesline at REI and was SO happy I had it with me. Laundry facilities were difficult to find outside of the cities, and I did a lot of hand washing. Also, in the humid climate the towels after showering would have never dried without that clothesline hung in front of the fan. With the clothesline, I did not have to give any energy to worrying about my damp clothes growing mold in my pack. 

Sarong

A sarong provides extra privacy in a crowded bunk in Budapest, Hungary. 2018.

The sarong is a highly versatile item. It’s an extra blanket in overly air conditioned environments like buses, air planes, and some hostels; a towel at the beach or riverside; a privacy curtain across the front of the bunk beds in the dorm room; a skirt, a scarf, or a pashmina; or a pillow when folded. Sarongs are lightweight and dry quickly, and worth the $25 to buy one online. 

Plastic Bags in Multiple Sizes

Think like three grocery-type plastic bags, three sandwich bags, and two freezer bags. I use these for food storage at the hostels, or to pack food before a long day on the bus. One plastic bag definitely always has laundry in it, and then I keep an extra on hand in case something I own is exposed to bed bugs. Disgusting, but it has happened three times. Also, in really muddy or rainy weather, I have used pieces of plastic bags as an extra barrier between my socks and my hiking shoes. While travelling, if I accumulate more bags than what I bring with me, I don’t throw any of them out until I return back to wherever home is at that time. Many times, they are all in use somehow.

Mason Jar with Lid

Juice in a mason jar.

Here is another simple item with many uses. Coffee to go. Soup to go. Oatmeal to go. Water. I didn’t trust the cleanliness of the glasses or bowls at the questionable hostel. I collected stones at the river and needed a place to store them before I acquired another plastic bag. The hostel had (very) limited water usage and none of it was hot, and I needed to maximize my water usage. To keep the mason jar from shattering in my pack, I stuff my sarong into the center of the jar, and then fold the outer edges of the sarong around the outside of the jar. 

Essential Oils

I have five go-to essential oils that I bring when I travel. Lavender is a given. A few drops on my pillow and my eye mask helps me sleep at the hostel, and also dispels any unpleasant odors. I tend to get anxiety on crowded buses and airplanes, and lavender relieves the symptoms a bit. 

Tea tree oil is a natural disinfectant. I use it while hand washing clothes, or I pour a drop into my shoes at the end of each day. Nobody wants their boots to be the pair that stinks up the dorm room. Also once I made the error of neglecting to wash the oatmeal out of my mason jar for a few days, and the tea tree oil alongside soap and water de-funked it enough to continue using it. 

Frankincense is good for the skin, and each morning, I rub a drop of it directly onto my face. It helps moisturize my skin, eliminates bacteria, reduces anxiety, and also diminishes the appearance of aging. I’m not a vain person, but I never want to return from a trip abroad through a distant land to hear my friends and family say, “wow her years as a nomad are starting to catch up to her.”

Peppermint relieves tired feet and stimulates circulation. I use food grade Young Living brand peppermint oil, which is safe to add to drinking water. One or two drops in the morning reduces fatigue and helps me recover from any travel-related headache or tiredness. I am not much of a drinker and honestly can’t ever recall feeling “hungover,” but I have shared my oil with other people at hostels who report that peppermint relieves the symptoms of too much alcohol. If you are planning to ingest peppermint oil, be careful to purchase food grade pure essential oils that are safe to consume.

Another food grade oil from Young Living that I use is their Thieves Vitality oil. The Thieves Vitality blend is a powerful immune-boosting combination of Clove, Lemon, Cinnamon Bark, Eucalyptus, and Rosemary oils. It’s named for a band of thieves from 15th century France, who robbed the graves of those who died of the Black plague. These thieves protected themselves from the disease using this same herbal combination. The world is a fairly dirty place. Since I travel alongside the locals, I touch the same surfaces with my hands and breathe the same air trapped in the subways and metros. I am vaccinated against the Hepatitis viruses, typhoid, and yellow fever, but even the common cold can create misery when sharing a dorm, a kitchen, and a bathroom with fifty strangers. Thieves Vitality oil has helped me stay healthy under stress.

Me, feeling very INFPish at a hostel in Buenos Aires. 2016.

As an INFP, these items help me balance the external overwhelm of travelling so that I can continue to learn from what life is teaching me. They are inexpensive and simple tools with many versatile uses, and have improved the quality of my journeys so that my gentle internal world is not distracted with a harsh and formidable external environment.