A guest post by WanderTours participant, Barbara Pfleeger
Q. You have quite a history of travel; can you tell us how you got started?
Much of my early travel revolved around white water sailing and was concentrated in the Bahamas and Caribbean Islands. I was a young school teacher who had little extra money for anything except necessities. Having my summers free allowed me to crew on sailboats and see some beautiful places.
The real adventures didn’t start until my early forties when I met Stephen, my late husband. An Air Force career and endeavors in international marketing had given him a zest for travel beyond anything I had ever seen. His stories about exotic and far off places intrigued me and I wanted to see them too. We had many long talks about traveling together and where our adventures would take us. I’ve found that planning a trip can be almost as much fun as going because I tend to read so extensively about the destination. We had some trial runs, not venturing too far, as I didn’t even have a passport yet. After our first really big trip to Egypt, Zimbabwe, Israel and France for thirty-five days, I was hooked on travel and engaged! Lucky me, I had a tour guide and a future husband.
Q. What were some of your most memorable trips? Why?
Many of my most memorable trips involve going to destinations that are home to endangered or unusual wildlife. A recent jaunt to Uganda and Rwanda to track chimpanzees and mountain gorillas comes to mind. Tracking chimpanzees involves moving quickly over hilly jungle terrain trying to follow the chimps as they scamper on the ground and swing through the trees. This resulted in mostly watching and little photography because of poor lighting. It was fun to watch their silly antics, but my favorite part of the trip was the gorilla tracking in Rwanda.
The gorilla population here represents about half of the 800 or so left in the world, the others being in nearby Uganda. I did two days of steep trekking at high altitude through a thick, muddy jungle of burning, stinging nettles. This allowed me to visit two different gorilla groups for an hour each.
It was very physically exhausting and a real challenge to my sixty-five year old body. The spine-tingling reward of seeing eye to eye with magnificent creatures who share 98.6% of our DNA was well worth it all. I was amazed by how close we got to these gentle giants. The highlight was seeing a six-day old baby being caressed so carefully by its mother. These gorillas are extremely endangered and I felt so privileged for the opportunity to spend time with them. The experience was very emotional! Since returning home I have adopted an infant gorilla through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.
Another memorable trip also revolves around mine and my husband’s love of wildlife. We spent four days at the Panda Research Center in the Wolong Nature Reserve in China, working as assistants to the panda keepers. This proved to be more challenging than we expected because of the language barrier. We resorted to a lot of creative sign language making for humorous exchanges of instructions and numerous faux pas.
Our duties consisted of doing everything involved in the care of a giant panda, hauling bamboo, cleaning cages, feeding, and assisting in performing medical exams. During our breaks, we would hurry to the baby playground area where the two year old ankle biters were and play with them. It was like playing with a room full of toddlers with tiny sharp teeth. Although hard work, it provided a great learning experience about giant panda research, breeding and conservation. Unfortunately, in 2008, this area was destroyed by a devastating earthquake and this experience is no longer available.
Our trip to Nepal still stands out in my mind as the most memorable. We started our trip with a visit to India in order to see the Taj Mahal. We toured Delhi and Agra before flying to Kathmandu. We stayed in the Thamel area to get the full effect of the excitement and stimulation surrounding the trekker’s mecca. We met up with our trekking group and flew to Pokhara to begin our trek in the Annapurna Range, a part of the larger Himalayan Mountains pushing up to separate Nepal and Bhutan from Tibet and China. Our days were met with cold crisp mornings followed by sunny, blue skies punctuated with billowing clouds. The beauty of the mountains and friendliness of the villagers made the trekking time pass fast. We slept in comfortable tents, had great food and woke to our porters bringing us hot tea and warm water to freshen ourselves. One special reward was sunrise high in the mountains on New Year’s Day of the new millennium.
Upon our return to Kathmandu we began preparing for the purpose of the trip. After eight and a half years it was time for a wedding. We had made arrangements prior to our arrival to be married by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the Buddhist abbot of Ky-ning Shedrub Ling Monastery in Boudhanath just outside Kathmandu. Boudhanath is home to a large number of Tibetan Buddhists who fled from Tibet during the Chinese invasion. The huge Bodnath Stupa dominates the skyline and many monasteries dot the surroundings. Our Buddhist trekking guide, Gyamcho assisted us in getting ready for the ceremony and served as our only witness. The Rinpoche was well versed in English and talked with us about our commitment to each other. After several minutes of chanting and prayers we were ready to be blessed as husband and wife. Stephen and I were both moved to tears by the simplicity, genuineness and feeling of spirituality. We happily left the Monastery with Gyamcho and went to dinner. He presented us with our first wedding gift, a golden statue of a sitting Buddha. To top off an already fine trip, we flew to Bali for a week to lounge in our blissfulness.
Q. Why did you decide to do a trip with WanderTours?
After caring for my husband through a long illness, he passed away. Some months afterward I remembered something he had said to me just weeks before he died. “I hope you don’t stop traveling because I’m not going to be with you,” were his words. I had promised him I wouldn’t. I had not thought much about it and it hit me hard. Still grieving, travel was the last of my thoughts, but then I started thinking. Where would I go? Who would I go with? My girlfriends were mostly married, busy working and not big travelers. I did an Internet search for “women only travel” and found Wanderlust and Lipstick, WanderTours’ big sister.
Wow, what a name I thought! I liked it, it was me. Then when I read about the company and Beth, the owner, I liked it even more. She had done an adventurous solo motorcycle trip from Seattle to Panama. I had ridden across several US states on my own motorcycle. Not quite the same, but I thought she’s my kind of woman. The Bhutan cultural trip caught my eye because Bhutan had always been on mine and Stephen’s radar, but we had gone to Nepal instead. We had been studying Buddhism for some time and I felt Bhutan would be a good fit. Soon I called Beth and told her about my situation, voiced my concerns and asked a million questions. She intently listened very patiently, answered them, and put me at ease. After a lot of thinking and consulting with my closest friends, I decided it was a go and I’ve never regretted it.
Q. What was your experience on that first trip to Bhutan?
This was the first time I had ventured out to travel on my own since Stephen’s passing. I was still pretty raw, but tried daily to remember my Buddhist teaching about impermanence and attachment. It’s hard to put into practice when you’re in so much pain. I thought Bhutan, with its strong Buddhist roots, would give me an opportunity to become more immersed in these thoughts. I managed to get myself excited about the adventure by reading a large library of books about Bhutan. I knew I had a couple of paramount things I wanted to accomplish on the trip. I wanted to have a small vile of my husband’s ashes blessed, hike to Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest) and scatter them from the top.
After spending a night in Bangkok our group was on a flight to Paro, the embarkation point in Bhutan. After a somewhat hair raising flight through steep mountains, we left Paro and took to the curvy roads through beautiful mountains and breathtaking countryside of deep valleys and beautiful forests. After traveling through the capital city of Thimphu, and eastward toward the Bumthang area, we came to the beautiful Kurjay Monastery. The monastery is very significant because Guru Rinpoche meditated there many years ago and left his body print in the rock, which the monastery is built around. It is still visible to this day. We spent time observing the beautiful paintings and architecture of the building. Afterwards, our guide, Tshering conferred with the abbot, requesting a blessing of the ashes. I was so honored that I had such a wonderful group of women to share such a poignant moment with me. They showed so much compassion.
We spent several more days touring the area, taking day hikes, and observing all the magical and mystical places. Our accommodations were always very clean and comfortable. I really liked the national dish, ema datshi, a very hot combination of chilies with cheese. Bhutan is so hard to tell someone about because it is so different from anyplace I have ever visited. It’s a country which bases itself on Gross National Happiness. This translates to cultural preservation, equitable social development, conservation of nature and promotion of good governance. They have forgone many capitalistic gains in order to preserve the happiness of their people. Their Buddhist practices have resulted in a people who are kind, gentle and very compassionate toward each other and their visitors.
The end of the trip was nearing and I needed to concentrate my thoughts toward hiking Tiger’s Nest. We began our hike early in the morning on steep switchbacks through misty clouds. The group quickly separated and each one developed their own pace. Soon the sun came out and it got very hot. We took a break at about the half way point; the cafeteria where we met up again, drank te, and ate various items to replenish our energy. Many people stop here to take in the view and do not continue further. Not me, I was on a mission. After climbing for about another hour and a half I reached the overview where Tiger’s Nest stands directly across a huge gorge on a scraggy mountain top.
My legs were screaming, but I pressed on down a couple hundred stairs before noticing clouds beginning to form above. Then it started to sprinkle, making the slate steps very slippery. Time was closing in, I was exhausted, and we were meeting for a picnic lunch at the bottom. As the rain picked up, three of us decided to turn back and start down. Back near the overlook to Tiger’s Nest I was alone and feeling sad that I had not climbed to the top. I sat down thinking, it just wasn’t meant to be. I then removed the precious cargo from my pocket, tipped the vile and scattered my soul mate’s ashes into a gentle breeze while thinking about the great memories we had shared together. I was much in my own world when I turned to continue down the mountain. I had not noticed the sun was shining and it was no longer raining. I said to myself, “next time” I’ll make it to the top.
I felt a true healing in my soul after this adventure. It made me come alive and experience happiness in life again. I still deeply miss Stephen, but I know I can experience a good life on my own. Six months later, I was on my way back to Bhutan. I hiked Tiger’s Nest a second time. This time I made it to the top and wow did it feel good!
Q. What keeps drawing you back to the WanderTour trips?
As of now, I have done the Bhutan trip and a Seattle culinary trip. I have booked the New Orleans and Santa Fe culinary trips and the Hill Tribe Thailand/Laos trip. Five trips with the same tour company. Why? Because I know when I go everything is researched before by Beth the owner, herself. She spends a lot of time and money visiting places for the purpose of trip planning. WanderTours isn’t handing you over to someone else who does a bait and switch. They are giving you the best possible trip for the price. I like the personal attention given by them when you need it. Pat, in the office, will answer your questions or find out for you and call or email back promptly. Also, I like the camaraderie of the other women traveling. I have met some great friends and hope to meet more in the future.
Q. What’s one thing you would tell a woman who had lost her husband but was afraid to travel without someone she knew ahead of time?
There’s not really one thing I can say to adequately answer this because I feel it is a process. I could say put your fears aside and be willing to get out of your comfort zone, but that sounds so cliche and is not easy to do. I do know, regardless of the situation surrounding the loss of our beloved husbands, that we are the ones left living and we must LIVE! Give yourself time to go through the grieving. I took advantage of the Hospice free grief counseling and it was very helpful. If you find yourself stuck, seek professional help. Your husband would want happiness for you and in that, you honor his memory. Stephen and I were lucky; we had time to have those talks about how my future would be after his passing. Frequently those talks don’t take place between couples. You don’t need permission to have a happy life, you owe it to yourself. A change of scenery may be just what you need. The women you will meet on a trip are very supportive and sometimes turn into great new friends. Many have also lost their spouses and can offer comfort and be very compassionate. Lastly, remember be kind to yourself and listen to your heart.
Barbara Pfleeger traveled to Bhutan and Seattle with WanderTours in 2013 and has three tours booked for 2014. Her travels have helped her overcome the loss of losing a loved one and made her realize that it’s important to LIVE your life to the fullest!
Interested in following in Barbara’s footsteps? Join us on our Women-Only Cultural Tour to Bhutan (which includes the Paro Festival) , the New Orleans Culinary tour or the Northern Thailand and Laos tour. Give us a call (206-317-1860) or contact us via email and we’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have!