Meditate with Monterey Bay Aquarium

It’s no secret that meditating reduces anxiety and depression and improves immunity—and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to bolster our physical and emotional health. Research has also shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression, according to Harvard Health.

A southern sea otter named Abby in the Sea Otter Exhibit. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

So I was thrilled when I opened an e-newsletter from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California informing me that during the time that the aquarium is closed to the public for the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re hosting video meditations (they call them “medit-oceans”) featuring a soothing, 10-minute guided meditation you can do while gazing at some relaxing ocean imagery. (You can join the medit-ocean live at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time, Monday–Friday. You can also find the meditations on YouTube or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Facebook page at any time that you need some nature-based relaxation.)

“This is a stressful time, but connecting with one another digitally and sharing our love of the ocean centers us when so much feels uncertain. We hope you, too, will find some relief and community online with us.”  

                                               —Monterey Bay Aquarium

Glorious “Relax-ocean”

Two young visitors admire the aquarium’s Kelp Forest exhibit. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

This morning, my husband and I participated in the first of a series of live, online “medit-ocean”: a 10-minute video treat gazing at Pacific sea nettles, a type of jellyfish that stings. (You can see a photo of the Pacific sea nettles at the bottom of this post.)

A very calm woman’s voice instructed us in deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualizations. I especially liked the part where she instructed us that every time a thought—or a worry or a fear—pops up, just to visualize attaching that thought to one of the undulating sea nettles and then watch it float away.

After 10 minutes I felt refreshed—plus I had an appreciation for and fascination with the Pacific sea nettles after having watched the animals’ graceful tentacles—some long and thin, others flutey and lacy. There will be different animals featured for different meditations, so I’m eager to get to get better acquainted with the sea life!

Be There Now with Live Webcams

If medit-ocean isn’t your thing, there are other great online ways to explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whether you’re in a Manhattan skyscraper, on the Arizona desert, or in the snowy Rocky Mountains. Via webcams and videos found on the Aquarium website  and their Facebook page, you can literally experience the wonders of the ocean no matter where you are.

Monterey Bay Aquarium has ten live web cameras to choose from, including:

Penguin Cam: Resting, preening, or swimming, these inquisitive African penguins are hoot! They’re fed to make sure they get their daily vitamin, and sometimes by tossing food into the water to stimulate foraging behavior. Watch for underwater acrobatics as the penguins dart and dive to catch their fish.

African penguins on exhibit in the Splash Zone. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

Sea Otter Cam: Be delighted by the antics of our sea otters or mellow out to the hypnotic drifting of our jellies. including playful sea otters (humor is good for your health)

Kelp Forest Cam: Watch fish and small sharks glide through the swaying kelp forest

Sea Jelly Cams: There’s one live camera for the underwater dances of the reddish sea nettles and another for the hypnotic moon jellies that drift like slow-motion dancers.

A flamboyant cuttlefish in the Tentacles exhibit. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

Shark Cam: You’ll spot sharks, rays, and other fishes as they cruise through the rocky reef. Among the types you’ll see are Sevengill sharks, leopard sharks, spiny dogfish and the elusive Pacific angel shark. The Aquarium’s 90-foot-long hourglass shape gives big sharks plenty of room to glide and turn. Watch carefully and you might see big skates and bat rays pass by the window!

Coral Reef Cam: This Baja coral-reef community teems with colorful tropical fish, including the Cortez wrasse, scrawled filefish, and Cortez angelfish. In the wild, coral reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth.

A cluster of strawberry anemones. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

This is how I’m getting my infusion of the miraculous animals and sea plants in the oceanic ecosystems until I can travel again. When it’s safe after the pandemic, Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the first places I hope to head.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels to California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium: Monterey Bay Aquarium: Saving Oceans One Fish at a Time 

Though sea nettles are jellyfish with a sting, their flowy motions are perfect for a tranquil meditation. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Vibrant Women of Guatemala

I visited Guatemala in 2008 for a writing and yoga retreat, held at a yoga center on stunningly gorgeous Lake Atitlán, which is surrounded by volcanoes. A Nahuatl word, Atitlán means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors,” and the Maya believe Lago de Atitlán is the umbilicus of the Universe—the birthplace of the soul.

I soon discovered that the soul of Guatemala lies in the strength and creativity of the women whom I met and photographed.

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

This woman, wearing a traditional Mayan hat, met our water taxi at the dock of the town of Santiago Atitlán. Widowed during the Guatemalan Civil War, she supports herself by selling her beadwork to tourists. © Laurel Kallenbach

Years after taking these photos, I’m still awestruck by the colorful clothing and warm, wise faces of these women, many of whom speak the traditional Tz’utujil language.

Many of the women I met live in Santiago Atitlán, a thriving town that’s accessible by water taxi from other parts of the lake. The majority of the residents are indigenous Mayans. In pre-Columbian times, this was the capital of the Tz’utujil people, a Mayan sub-culture.

Our group visited the parish church in Santiago ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Our group visited the Church of Santiago Apostol, a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlán, where these three girls giggled at meeting us American women. ©Laurel Kallenbach

While visiting, I got a chance to meet and photograph a few of Guatemala’s indigenous women artists who make the most amazing textiles on the planet. Most of them support their families by creating beautiful weavings in the ancient Maya tradition.

It’s courteous to pay a small amount of money to photograph a women wearing an ornately embroidered huipil blouse. And I loved taking a picture of women whose handiwork I bought. Doing so helps me remember each individual face that goes along with the scarves, tablecloths, and purses I purchased. That year for Christmas, many friends and family members got a beautiful, handmade souvenir from my trip to Guatemala—along with the accompanying snapshot of its respective creator.

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a "huipil" embroidered with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo wears a traditional head-covering and “huipil” embroidered by her mother with Guatemalan birds. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Handcrafting textiles isn’t the only way indigenous Guatemalan women support themselves and their families. On our trip to visit Santiago Atitlán, our group hired tour guide Dolores Ratzan Pablo, who speaks Spanish, Tz’utujil, and English.

Dolores lived for several years in America after she and her then-husband, shaman Martín Prechtel, fled the pueblo during the violent Guatemalan civil war to live in the United States. Dolores shared her insights into the culture of Santiago Atitlán, including the unique fusion of Catholicism and ancient Maya religion. She took us to the Church of Santiago Apostol, the shrine of the Mayan “trickster” deity, Maximón (who drinks liquor and smokes cigars), and to the  workshop of her mother (pictured below), who creates fantastic works of textile art.

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. © Laurel Kallenbach

The mother of Dolores Ratzan Pablo wove this red table runner that I bought. She had her own humble shop in Santiago Atitlán where she displayed all her textile art and demonstrated the backstrap loom. © Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the women in Santiago Atitlán were affected by brutal, government-backed violence during Guatemala’s civil war, which lasted from 1960–1996. Indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala were especially at risk. In 1981, Roman Catholic priest Stanley Rother (from the United States), was assassinated by right-wing death squads. In 1990, the Guatemalan Army opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians.

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

These Mayan women came to Villa Sumaya, the yoga retreat center on Lake Atitlán to sell their artwork. © Laurel Kallenbach

Though many women sell their textiles at the town mercado (market), some take their work to places where tourists come. The women above got permission to bring some of their best work to Villa Sumaya, a retreat and wellness center located in Santa Cruz la Laguna on the shores of Lake Atitlán. I have one of their brilliant-blue woven cloths on my dining-room table.

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women carrying their wares on the streets of Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

After leaving Lake Atitlán, I spent a couple of days in the colonial town of Antigua, where visitors can find bright, indigenous clothing, popular over centuries, alongside fancy modern hotels. As you can see from the picture above, some spots in the old Spanish part of town still have cobblestone roads. Boutiques often sell traditional Maya handicrafts, but there are also textile cooperatives where women can display their art in a large space.

Weaver woman in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

Woman weaving on a traditional Guatemalan backstop loom in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Trama Textiles Cooperative in Antigua, I watched this woman weaving on a traditional  backstrap loom (see above). The loom is light and portable so that she can work in a tiny, single-room house. The loom, often made with sticks and rope, is easy rolled up when not in use.

Trama Textiles Co-op consists of about 400 women, forming 17 groups of weavers from five different regions in the western part of the Guatemalan highlands. It’s an association of women that promotes artisan development in backstrap loom weaving as a way of providing women with a livelihood in a country with a high rate of crime and violence against women and children.

These women are carrying a float during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

These women are bearing a religious float of Mary, Queen of Heaven, during a Holy Week procession in Antigua, Guatemala. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I happened to be in Antigua for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in 2008, so I got to see the grand procession in the streets of this Spanish-colonial town (founded in 1542), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Though men are typically float-bearers, the floats of female saints and the Virgin Mary are the domain of the women. What strength and faith!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my journeys in Guatemala:

Market beneath the ruins of El Carmen Church in Antigua ©Laurel Kallenbach

This open-air market in Antigua is at the feet of the ruins of El Carmen Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The church was built and destroyed by earthquakes several times over the centuries. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

5 Reasons “Outlander” Fans Will Love Scotland’s Isle of Lewis

Outlander-coverCan’t get enough of the stunning scenery from Outlander? The Isle of Lewis, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, has loads of history and spectacular vistas that will satisfy those who love this romance/ adventure TV series.

1. Magical Stone Circle

The ancient stone circle called Craigh na Dun that transports Claire into the past is fictional, but the real circle that it was built to resemble is Callanish stone circle on the Isle of Lewis.

Built from multi-ton stones that were dragged for several miles across the land, the Callanish circle is situated on a hilltop with a view of Loch Roag and the mountains to the south. It’s not hard to imagine this beautiful and scenic circle as being a magical portal through time. These standing stones have been part of this windswept landscape for more than 4,000 years, and during all those millennia, they’ve remained the constants as people farm the land and wage wars and fall in love. To read more about Callanish, click here.

Callanish with woman visitor ©Laurel Kallenbach

A woman inspects one of the Callanish stones on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis. ©Laurel Kallenbach

2. Scottish Heather

One of Scotland’s national flowers, the pink-purple flower of hardy heather is well suited to Scotland’s rugged, rocky hills. One legend surrounding heather is that it grows over the places where fairies live. And some Highlanders attached a spray of heather to their weapons for luck. Scottish heather has had plenty of medicinal uses through the ages, including as a remedy for digestive problems, coughs, and arthritis. In Outlander, heather is just one of the botanicals that Claire Beauchamp uses in her healing practice. The Scots’ love of heather is exemplified in a Season 1 episode in which a man is fatally gored by a wild boar. As he lies dying, Claire asks him to describe his home. He tells her that the heather is so thick he could walk on it.

Scottish heather on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

Scottish heather on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

3. Old Broch Tower

In Outlander, Lallybroch (also known as Broch Tuarach) is Jamie Fraser’s estate, which includes several crofts (see #4) on the ancestral land. A “broch” is an Iron Age fortress-like round-tower unique to Scotland. Not far from Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis is Dun Carloway Broch. Few brochs as well preserved as this one, and you can feel some of the Fraser clan’s heritage in its mossy stone walls. This one overlooks the nearby coast.

Dun Carloway Broch ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dun Carloway Broch ©Laurel Kallenbach

4. Crofts (small farms)

A delightful scene in Season 1 of Outlander involves Jamie collecting rent from the tenant crofters soon upon his and Claire’s arrival at Lallybroch estate. Jamie proves to be a bit too indulgent with a few of his less reputable farmers. A croft is essentially a small agricultural unit, usually a part of a landlord’s larger estate.  On Lewis, you can see crofts and visit a historic “blackhouse”—one of the old farmhouses with no chimney that was always so smoky that the ceilings and walls turned black.

A farm on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

A farm on the Isle of Lewis ©Laurel Kallenbach

5. Hills, Lochs, and Beaches 

Outlander features gorgeous cinematograpy of the Highlands, with craggy hills, lush forests, and placid lakes. Lewis has no shortage of scenery with rocky outcrops, hills and mountains, plus overlooks of the wild Atlantic coastline. In fact, aside from small villages and the town of Stornoway (where there’s an airport if you prefer to fly rather than take the ferry from the mainland), most of Lewis is peat moorland, freshwater lochs, silver-sand beaches, and flowering meadows. These beautiful, wild places are perfect for hiking, bird- or whale-watching, fishing, boat trips, cycling, or scenic driving.

Cliff Beach, Isle of Lewis. Photo courtesy Visit Scotland

Cliff Beach, Isle of Lewis. Photo courtesy Visit Scotland

For more information, see Visit Scotland’s Outlander map of film locations. Or visit the Isle of Lewis information site.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

Originally published June 2016

Read more about my travels in Scotland:

Valentine’s Hint: A Romantic Stay in a Swiss Castle

Dear Sweetheart,

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, and I’ve been waxing nostalgic about that trip we took 20 years ago to Switzerland. Remember that sunny August day years ago, when we visited picturesque Lake Thun in the Interlaken region?

Dearest one: If you’re reading this blog post, here’s what I want for Valentine’s Day: a romantic getaway at Schadau Castle on Switzerland’s Lake Thun. ©Interlaken Tourism

We explored shops in the city of Thun by foot and walked along the medieval ramparts of Castle Thun,  where we climbed its corner towers for dramatic views over the city toward the mountains.

Later, we did the rest of our sightseeing with our feet up—on a lake cruise. As we sailed past castles surrounded by green lawns and colorful arbors, we drank in the views of the Bernese Alps and sipped a local Riesling. Or was it handmade peach ice cream? Probably both.

Floating on the lake, we daydreamed about snuggling like royals in a posh castle room overlooking the water with the mountains in the distance.

Fairytale Castle on Lake Thun

I won’t insist you carry me up the staircase to our bedroom! I know…your back. But we’ll be so happy at Schloss Schadau that we’ll levitate upstairs. ©Interlaken Tourism

Well guess what? Now our dream really can come true. One of those castles we photographed 20 years ago was recently renovated,  and it opened in 2019 as a grand hotel. It’s called  Schloss Schadau  (remember: Schloss means “castle” in German) and it has breathtaking mountain views and a romantic restaurant with pretty outdoor seating. Schadau Castle was built between 1846 and 1854 for the wealthy Neuchâtel banker Denis Alfred de Rougemont.

Located on the southern banks of Lake Thun where the River Aare flows dreamily out toward the lake, this romantic castle has views of the iconic Swiss Alps.

Schadau Castle actually dates back to 1348, when it was built as a house. In 1638 it was rebuilt as a manor house, and two centuries later, that structure was demolished and the castle-like structure I hope to stay in was created.

The estate is landscaped in the English style  with a tree garden and spacious meadows. During WWII, vegetable fields were planted to augment wartime food supplies.

And, I’m happy to report that Schadau Castle is listed and protected on the  Swiss Inventory of Cultural Property of National and Regional Significance.

Imagine sipping kirsch, a Swiss brandy made from cherries, in Schadau Castle’s lovely bar/reception area. ©Interlaken Tourism

Sweet Snoozing

This noble house may be historic, but it’s furnished with modern comforts. Each of the boutique hotel’s nine uniquely decorated rooms sound dreamy: featherbeds with satin sheets, cuddly bathrobes, Swiss chocolates on the pillows!

Sweet dreams at Schloss Schadau ©Interlaken Tourism

I’ve got my heart set on one of the corner room with two balconies: one with a spectacular lake view to the Eiger, the Mönch, and the Jungfrau peaks; the other to the River Aare. reflects the history of past eras—with all the modern amenities.

I can just picture us sitting in the chaise longue or armchairs, gazing out on the lake we explored all those years ago. Can’t you?

That could be us, kayaking on Lake Thun around Schadau Park. ©Interlaken Tourism

Romantic Dining

Delicious dishes await, served fresh from the castle kitchen. Whether it’s a decadent brunch, afternoon tea, or fine dining in the evening, we’ll dine like royalty indoors or out on the terrace. The restaurant serves culinary classics, highlighting French Mediterranean cuisine.

I know how you love your muesli in the morning, and there are fresh-baked breads, and decadent omelets as well, so we certainly will not go hungry.

And, If we can possibly tear ourselves away from the castle, there are tons of activities in and around Thun, including hiking, skiing, sledding, cycling, or a day trip by cog rail to the high Jungfraujoch, called the “Top of Europe” because at 11,332 feet above sea level, it’s Europe’s highest altitude rail station.

Well, my dear, I’m certainly yearning to return to Thun, Switzerland, aren’t you? Please address my Valentine card to: Schloss Schadau, Seestrasse 45, 3600 Thun, Switzerland.

Love, your World Traveler,

Laurel

PS: It’s not too late to book a reservation at Schloss Schadau:

Phone  +41 (0)33 222 25 00

The Rougemont Banquet Hall is available in case we decide to host a party to renew our wedding vows. ©Interlaken Tourism