All posts by Deena Milgram

Finding the Zen of Travel and Letting the Destination Take Over

Fish peddler in Simon's Town, South Africa.
Fish peddler in Simon’s Town, South Africa.

It’s a challenge to find what creates the pulse of a new city in our travels. The essence that really makes an area alive for me takes considerable time to recognize, and then takes even longer to actually find. I know that it’s breathing somewhere close by, but remains elusive to my untrained eye. Nor can every local I meet put their finger on this indescribable essence that defines their city or country.

Of course, what I naively call the core is different for everyone, be they local, expat or tourist. I’m not at all sure what I’m even looking for when I ask someone to reveal the secret to me. It takes NSA-style probing, and often I only scratch the surface of what’s waiting to be discovered.

Cape Town at night.
Cape Town at night.

I have a blurry preconception when we arrive at a new stop in our travels. My expectations have been colored by snippets I hear on the news, something I remember from a documentary or gems I discover from reading other people’s blogs. But what do I, or anyone, really know from the information that’s out there?

I dream of learning the country’s language, however difficult, joining groups particularly native to the area, attending courses about the history or geography of the area, going on wild and exotic safaris or meditating in a secluded mountain monastery. I try to find the essence of a place by exploring and reaching out in every direction.

Penguins of Boulders Beach.
Penguins of Boulders Beach.

There are a number of ways I search for the pith of each place we visit. Couchsurfer hosts can sometimes have their finger on the pulse of the area. Often they are familiar with some distinctive local flavor outside of usual tourist attractions like watching a performance of taishū engeki theatre or visiting the red-light district in Osaka, Japan. Chance meetings with locals in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, trains and buses have shown us parts of a country that we would not have otherwise discovered. Stopping someone on the street to compliment them on what they are wearing has led to not only being lead to the store where they bought their item, but to lasting friendships. Friends of friends, and sometimes even friends of friends of friends have so graciously also given us insider knowledge of their area.

When I arrive somewhere, I find so much of it unexpected, at least in the way I naively imagined. I was so shocked when I didn’t find origami or Suzuki instrument training in Japan.DSC03267

“Letting the destination take over” is what I strive for in my travels. It’s akin to the method of the Zen master who declines to teach a disciple how to hold the bow and shoot the arrow. Only if the archer can somehow achieve the right state of mind, will he be able hit the bull’s-eye. Like the archer, I need to relinquish conscious control when travelling and allow everything around me to guide me.

“If you want to travel the Way of Buddhas and Zen masters, then expect nothing, seek nothing, and grasp nothing.”  –Dogen


We’re Human Be-ings, so Why Do We Act Like Human Do-ings?

I’ve been indoctrinated into the culture of speed and busy-ness. Sometimes, I think I’ve hurried through life without really living it.

Rainbow over Bo Kaap, Cape Town, South Africa, seen from our balcony

Why is it so hard to slow down? Speed is fun, right? Slowing down could be equated with being lazy or not being mentally alert, or worse, with getting old.

I constantly busied myself with something. I filled my head with distraction all day long. Was it so I didn’t need to ask myself whether I was happy or content with my life? If I put those questions to the back of my head, then I didn’t have to think about them, isn’t that it?

Doing nothing, or even just doing one thing at a time, seems to be taboo in the Western world. At the gym, I sought out exercises that work the most body parts simultaneously so no time was wasted. I listened to Ted Talks rather than music in order to build mental acuity. Never mind that I couldn’t remember most of the content, I could just listen to them again. I told myself that this is preparation for a time in the future when my mind will benefit from the brain training I do now.

Racing through meals, I ate standing, sitting at the computer or watching a film. I didn’t taste the food. (It all tastes like chicken anyway!) I’d even found ways to prepare meals faster. I would hardly prepare anything from scratch any more. Prepared food is the answer to a hurried life!

Concert by the Quingshui Cliffs
Concert by the Quingshui Cliffs in Taiwan

Realizing how many training years that Tai Chi requires, I strived to find ways to master it faster because I certainly don’t have a lifetime left to me. Regretting that I hadn’t learned to dance decades earlier, I searched for ways to fast track those lessons as well.

Working with slow internet speeds ironically sped things up by forcing me to multitask. While waiting for sites to load, I could review Kanji charts or make never-ending lists of things I wanted to research online when the speed improved.

Meditating on a river that feeds Liyu Lake.

I’d figured out how to fill every bit of available time. I’ve been a champion of not wasting a second. I’m even good at making excuses for all my never-ending activity. I’d fallen into the path of Human Doing-ness.

Traveling has taught me there’s no need for constant busyness. I’ve learned to stop for the sunset seen from our balcony over the bay in  Ahmed, Indonesia;  for the end of the rainbow in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town that could be seen from our bedroom window;  for dolphins jumping off the starboard rail while sailing the English Channel;  for the sound of rain falling on the ancient grave markers of the spiritual mountain of Koyasan, Japan;  for the live Halverson Passacaglia (my favorite) played against the crashing waves with the 7900-foot Quingshui Cliffs as a backdrop.

Can I slow down? Can I choose the here and now? Can I find a way to become a ‘human being’ and not a ‘human doing’?

New Zealand sunrise

Magical Castlepoint

Castle RockCastlepoint, New Zealand, located on the eastern shore of the north island was actually named by Captain Cook himself, because the rock at the southern end of the bay resembles a castle.

We spotted the Whakataki Hotel just outside the ridge of hills that hides the beach. Unbelievably, this hotel offered free camping in their back yard for RVs, or a mere NZ$5 per night if you wanted to use the well-equipped kitchen and hot showers. This was an absolutely brilliant alternative compared to the sterile option of the postage-sized camping spot for ten times the price at the ugly Castlepoint Holiday Park down the road.DSC02628

The Whakataki Hotel is not just close to the action; it is the action in this little town of less than 2000 folks! Their lively, neighborhood bar and restaurant is the busiest local bar scene in town. We enjoyed the fresh draft beer and (unlimited) fast internet. (Very few places in New Zealand have free, let alone unlimited, internet.) We met the rowdy sheep shearers drinking away the money they just earned, the regulars eager to explain the nuances of rugby and cricket, and the friendly locals wanting to know who we were and what we thought of their quaint town.

Coincidentally, the Castlepointers were having a fishing tournament for ladies only. What entertainment!DSC02631

On Saturday night, the award ceremonies were attended by the fisher-women and their cross-dressing cohorts. Yes, really! The local tradition for the Battle of the Babes fishing tournament is for the men to cross-dress at the awards night celebration! A rock band played oldies all evening. We danced the night away even though Ivan didn’t have a dress for the event.

We walked around the lighthouse and hiked the manicured trails on the hills that surround the bay. We explored the wide expanse of beach alongside the lighthouse where the fishing contestants were wading into the surf in the hopes of reeling in the winning catch. They braved the fierce crashing waves threatening to wash them off their stance and pull them out to sea.DSC02592

At one low tide, we made our way to the rock caves beneath the lighthouse. We were forewarned that the caves are guarded by giant seals. We didn’t want to encroach their personal space because although they look like cute stuffed animals in the photo, they really were fiercely huge  and threatening creatures.

One long-time resident, Jolly, befriended us because we seemed a little different from the average tourists, I guess. He was determined to show off the local products and gifted us some very delicious hogget chops from his freezer and a freshly caught crayfish that was huge. We ate well!

We’ve added this friendly town of Castlepoint to the possible locations to settle if we can’t move one day.DSC02641



I Was A Chicken Sexer

DeenaPaddyWhen I first traveled to Israel (some years ago now), I worked on a kibbutz that had many chicken incubators. First assembling boxes for chicken storage, I worked my way up through the ranks of chick beak trimming, inoculating and finally, I was awarded the position of chicken sexer. It’s a delicate procedure requiring sensitivity. A heavy-handed grip will end the chick’s life in an instant. The chick’s insides have to be squeezed out to check for a small ‘nib’ positively identifying it as a male. So I was a chicken sexer. I failed to mention that on any of my previous dating profiles.

Sometimes getting my hands dirty appeals to me…

In Bali, I wanted to climb into the rice terraces and plant rice alongside the farmers. It looks so pretty from afar, but those berms separating the fields are actually very narrow, unstable mud walls with drops between some fields as much as four feet. My balance is not good at times, so I really struggled to stay atop the berms no wider than my foot as I followed the farmer across many fields until we stepped down into a warm flooded terrace, knee deep in mud.DSC02054

He showed me how to section off a quantity of seedlings and bury them in the flooded substrate. This was all done with mime since he didn’t speak a word of English. He watched and grunted approval as I squelched through the mud bending over to plant and getting stuck with each lift of my leg.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m strong enough…

The strength and balance of the women in Bali is amazing. They carry 2 or 3 concrete blocks on their head and climb hundreds of stairs continuously during an 8-10 hour day. I can hardly haul my own body up stairs. When I came upon a bunch of women carrying blocks along a relatively level path, I jumped to join them.

DeenaBlock_1They were quite protective, making sure I didn’t have too much weight on my head. I set off with my heavy load. Okay, it was only one puny block. We seemed to walk forever.

I concentrated on my footing and was happy to be able to balance even this burden. We wound through the dirt paths into the hidden villages. After about a mile, we finally arrived at the community temple they were working on.

DSC01662As proud as I was to have gotten that far, I tripped on the final stretch and fell. My block broke! We offered payment for the broken block, which ended up being a sizable donation to their temple. Everyone took a break to pose for the group picture.

And sometimes a job just looks like too much fun…

We were camping behind the Whakataki Hotel in Castle Point, New Zealand, where sheep shearers filled the hotel bar every evening after work. I figured that shearing a sheep would be a true New Zealand experience.

DSC02685It turns out to be back-breaking work. The sheep resist being grabbed by their front legs, manoevred and flipped onto their backsides to be hauled out of the pen. Its hard to imagine them as big furry stuffed animals because they seem to weigh a ton when they are struggling. With the sheep set on their behinds and tucked between my legs, cutting off their woolen fleece with clippers was a thrill.

DSC02681My back was aching after only one sheep though, so I had little interest in handling the large, unruly rams who were next in line even though the pros joked I wouldn’t have to bend down as low to shear them.


My high school guidance counsellor never mentioned the variety of jobs that exist in the world. It’s just another reason why travel appeals to me.


A Not-to-be-Missed Restaurant in Ubud, Indonesia

We rarely rave about a restaurant, and we rarely rave about a coffee shop, partly because we’re both pretty good cooks and baristas. Here’s one exception:

Homemade prawn sausage, chicken consomme infused with local seaweed, shaved radishes, sunset clams and nasturium
Homemade prawn sausage, chicken consomme infused with local seaweed, shaved radishes, sunset clams and nasturium

Locavore, a restaurant in Ubud, Indonesia, was started by three friends working in different restaurants who decided to create a niche for fine Indonesian cooking . Their concept is unique in Indonesia: Nouvelle cuisine made with local ingredients.

All the dinner seatings were booked for months in advance. We were lucky to be able to make a lunch reservation even though it was low season.

DSC01807Since we didn’t want to eat too much, but wanted to taste everything, we ordered one prix fixe with beverage pairings and an extra entree.  (We’ll forgive that the wines and liquors were not local. Grapes wouldn’t be good in this climate anyway.)

In addition to the five course lunch, the restaurant also served sourdough bread with original dips and a few other plates that were not listed. There was a wow factor in everything we were served including the drinks. That’s an enviable record for any chef.

This is the most original restaurant we’ve ever enjoyed anywhere. The combination of finely honed chef skills, local tradition and local foods creatively presented is completely successful in Locavore Restaurant. If you plan to travel to Ubud, make a dinner reservation well in advance! It’s on Jalan Dewa Sita. We loved this place.