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Thursday 22 August 2019

Spriritual Retreats - Awakenings, Tantra, Goddesses and Other Stories



Dear Readers,


Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at the Travel Trend of Spiritual Retreats and Holidays.  We’re going to look at both spectrums:  the really luxurious ones, the really serious ones and the really budget ones.


Today we’re starting with the really budget ones.


But first, what do we mean by Spiritual Retreats?  Is it just for people who like humming?  Or those who like to wear harem pants and bandannas (see previous Blog post on Australia – they are a species)?  Or is it more widespread and mainstream than we realise?  Where did it start?  And what does it offer us today?  Or is it just another package holiday packaged (lol) slightly differently? 

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Is “Retreat” the right word?  The idea of a Retreat began as far back as our documented history goes.  Retreats can mean different things to different communities.  They are often seen as integral (such as nuns at Roman Catholic convents frequently going on retreat – personal experience, don’t ask) to such communities as Islamic, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist.  Especially for Hindus and Buddhists, meditative retreats are considered as a way of deepening powers of concentration and insight.


For the Christian Church, retreats were established by St Ignatius of Loyola (what a name!) in his “Spiritual Exercises” and later Pop Pius XI made him patron saint of spiritual retreats.  Many Christians across the spectrum organise a retreat once a year.


For Buddhists retreats may be solitary or in a group, silent or full of conversation, often in remote or rural locations, some even in darkness!  For Christians the whole idea is to take time out of one’s daily life to specifically reconnect with God.  This can be for a few hours, up to a month.  The idea is a founding one in the Faith:  taking time out from daily life into the desert for instance, such as Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days.  Retreats nowadays can be individual or in groups, to churches or specific retreat centres with group activities and dormitories.


For Roman Catholics this is similar, and in addition they have another take on the idea called the “19th Observation” whereby you continue your daily life, setting aside a few hours each day to reconnect with God.  For Sufis (Islam) retreat can often mean complete seclusion, preferably for 40 days, constantly repeating God’s name.  This practice is known as Khalwa and is still practiced by authorised sheikhs…


So that’s the theory, but we want to know more about Retreats as a Travel Trend, not a religious one.  It turns out this is, of course, a massive Travel Trend.  Too enormous to separate, we are going to investigate the “Spiritual Retreat” as one, to take in mindfulness, yoga, spirituality et al because they tend to touch on one another anyway.  Dear Readers, whether it’s budget or luxury, the “Spiritual Retreat” touches on our own goal at the beginning of this Blog:  bringing you something a bit out of the ordinary, and taking you out of your hamster wheel of daily life, even if it’s just reading from your ipad on the sofa!

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The ultimate budget retreat is to do it yourself:  pick a destination which ticks the boxes but isn’t necessarily stupidly priced such as Nepal or Cambodia rather than Thailand or the Maldives, or Texas or Colorado rather than Hawaii or California.  Readers, you should look at where you are, because it should be about embracing the great outdoors, so make the most of the surroundings, look for remote places with cheap local transport such as Turkey.  The whole idea should be to travel and embrace the places you’re in.  Especially if it’s your first time, and the whole idea of a “Spiritual Retreat” intrigues you but sounds a bit intense at the same time, you can look at the option of “combos” such as yoga and surf holidays in Portugal or Bali.  It doesn’t have to be just one discipline and that way, you get to learn to surf/cook/write at the same time. 


Have a look at www.bookretreats.com as this is really your bible if you want to do find somewhere to stay retreat-wise on a budget.  What’s really interesting is that they offer budget retreats in places we have already covered in this Blog:  Byron Bay in Australia and Ubud in Bali.  You see, dear Readers, it’s not all as esoteric as you may think, and really, once you start to explore this topic, it really is open to all.  Because we know these places anyway, you and I, dear Readers, I thought, why not?!  Let’s have a little road trip to retreat in Byron Bay and Ubud:

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Byron Bay, Australia:


The first, rather obvious, snag is that you need to get there.  Now, let’s assume that you’re backpacking or travelling anyway…Basically Bookretreats is like Air B&B so you contact host etc in the normal way on the website.  We found this one (https://bookretreats.com/s/yoga-retreats/byron-bay) for 3 days and 2 nights at $574 (USD) so that’s about £468 which arguably could be considered quite expensive for someone who is already travelling on a budget.  Would I have spent that sort of money whilst backpacking?  Questionable…It’s for people who need time to themselves, to disconnect from everyday noise and reconnect with nature.  This, interestingly, is a women’s only retreat, so safe for lone female travellers.  Participants will enjoy walks through the rainforest, yoga, workshops, chats around the campfire (am I losing you?) to leave feeling relaxed and refreshed.  You stay in an eco-lodge and enjoy vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free food (have I lost you?).

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Ubud, Bali:


Here, for 4 days and 3 nights you can go on a Healing Retreat (https://bookretreats.com/4-day-healing-yoga-holiday-in-ubud-bali) for $300 (more reasonable) and you will leave the stressors and habits of your daily life in order to focus on your physical, mental and spiritual well-being.  You have 3 nights’ accommodation, massage, meditation, breakfast and airport pickup.  Ubud, if you research it, or indeed, if you’ve been, is now a sort of backpacker/yoga/harem pants mecca…so you can’t really walk down the road without tripping over some sort of a retreat or another. 


Really, for beginners, people on a budget or people who just want an authentic experience, in our research, dear Readers, Bookretreats covers it all.  How about this one for size:  https://bookretreats.com/8-day-celebrating-the-goddess-tantra-meditation-retreat-greece/ I mean, seriously, if you’re going to do a retreat, Readers, go all out and do a tantric one…why not?!  For $261 you can accelerate your inner evolution…Tantra:  we’ve all heard of it (American Pie 2, anyone?!), but what does it mean?  It’s a direct way, apparently, to open your life to a deeper level whilst still carrying on your everyday routine.  This is a traditional tantric meditation retreat and is open for 12 days, although you can just do 8 if that’s more convenient for you.  The idea is to be on retreat but to enjoy Greece and the beaches etc in your free time.  The retreat, known as Tantric Sadhana, extolls the idea that the subtle energy, Kundalini Shakti (the energy of awakening) is gradually activated, leading to an expansion and awakening of the individual’s consciousness.

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What about the Goddess?  I hear you cry:  we worship her, apparently.  Japa Yoga is practiced (repeating different mantras to induce a specific state of meditation leading to purification and awareness), Yantra is used which is a tantric diagram which increases the effect of your meditation and Yagna is practiced in parallel with Yantra which is the act of offering food as a sacrifice into the fire.  Serva is encouraged whereby guests help with the preparing of food and cleaning and Hatha Yoga is also offered.


You have 2 meals a day (vegetarian, nach) provided, and you can meditate for up to 6 hours a day.  Plus enjoy the beautiful Grecian scenery and daily life.  I am actually quite sold.  I mean, if you’re going to go on retreat, you might as well go all out and do something like this.


Have a look, there are lots of fabulous budget options to choose from, and they also do combos so you can learn to surf at the same time and there are thousands of different retreat options to choose from.


However, in the spirit of budget, you don’t have to travel abroad.  There are some fabulous retreats in the UK you can do.  Should you fancy one, have a look at https://helloamygarner.com/spiritual-retreat-in-the-uk/ she’s really inspiring and has some great options for UK retreats such as the Barn Rural Retreat Centre in Devon from £190 per week (https://www.sharphamtrust.org/mindfulness-retreats/the-barn-retreat) and Glastonbury Abbey House in Somerset from £48 per night (https://www.glastonburyabbey.com/abbey-house.php).  However, possibly even better, dear Readers, is the following:  FREE RETREATS!!  Yes, in the UK there are such things.  Have a look at this link and you’ll find a whole list of them:  https://www.prosperitykitchen.co.uk/main-posts/free-meditation-retreats/ which is amazing, but I think, thanks to our research into this area together now, you and I, we can see that the spirit of the retreat and indeed the whole idea behind most spiritual principles certainly isn’t money, it’s healing.


It even brings us on to the philosophical question that is this:  retreats, due to their very history, their very nature, should be free, or certainly not profit-making, just enough money to cover the basics, because they are about you as a person, your mind, spirit, body, and not about the money.  So they shouldn’t be tainted with excess and “luxury” because surely that dispels what a retreat is all about?


Yes, we’re going to look at the luxury end next, but I would put this to you, dear Readers, are the budget-end retreat go-ers actually getting a more authentic experience?  Are they getting to the grass roots, paying way less money, sometimes even nothing, but is the outcome in fact infinitely superior?


What are your thoughts, Readers?  We’d love to know.  Now, let’s go worship some Goddesses!!

Sunday 11 August 2019

Ecotourism...it all started with a loo...



Dear Readers,


As promised, we wanted to bring you a more “out there” Travel Trend this time.  Whilst mulling this idea over, it came to us…on the loo.  I kid you not, dear Readers:  an “eco-loo”.  In interesting experience and not an entirely unpleasant one.  It made complete and perfect sense.  I won’t go into the mechanics of it now, Google it if you really want to, but it’s not as gruesome as it sounds, and actually a lot cleaner and certainly a lot kinder to the environment.  So today, thanks to our epiphany on the loo, we have decided to bring you “Ecotourism”, the history, the principles and some examples of the magnificent tours you can take.

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So, we ask, what is “Ecotourism”?  The dictionary tells us its tourism directed towards exotic, of threatened, natural environments, intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife.

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But why is it relevant?  As places such as Cornwall and Thailand now either try to dissuade tourists or even close their beaches to tourists, it’s clear to see the negative impacts that mass tourism has had on our traditional holiday destinations.  What are we doing about it?  How are other countries handling it?  Let’s find out:


There are hundreds of names used for Ecotourism such as Sustainable Tourism, Conscious Travel etc but they all refer to the same movement.  That movement was started back in the 1970s with the ethos that the travel industry as a whole should be more environmentally friendly, support the local communities it visits and most of all PROTECT the natural and cultural heritage of each destination.


The whole idea underpinning Ecotourism is that it has to benefit financially the indigenous people, not just preserve the environment.




It all began with the Sierra Club’s Outing Programme as far back as 1892where members were taken to the Sierra Nevada to see its natural wonders and “become active workers for the preservation of the forests”.

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Ecotourism started in earnest in the 1970s where the term was coined, apparently, by Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, to describe travelling to remote areas to enjoy both their beauty and culture.  By 1984 he’d founded Ecotours.  Megan Epler Wood was also a large part of the early movement and ensured that people visiting the Columbian Rainforests were bringing benefits to the locals.  She started the International Ecotourism Society and when she left, was replaced by Dr Martha Honey who maintains that over the years, the ethos of Ecotourism has remained the same.  She states that it now encompasses such important factors as animal welfare, human trafficking, child sexual abuse, carbon offsets, the Slow Food Movement, organic agriculture, travel philanthropy and fair trade.


Ecotourism Today


Ecotourism is now considered one of the fastest growing sectors in the travel industry.  Did you know, in fact, dear Readers, that it sees an annual 5% growth and in fact, accounts for 6% of the World GDP?!  Is this sounding a bit like an A-Level Geography lesson?  I’m sorry, we’ll go travelling in a minute…


The ethos and thinking behind Ecotourism is the same, come what may.  As it has seen such growth economically, the original principles need to be adhered to.  These include education of both locals and tourists alike; making sure that any facilities built are low to zero impact; using the money to go back into the areas to prevent such things as deforestation; using the money to benefit the locals; making sure the locals’ rights are protected.


So that’s the theory of it…And noble it is, too.  But what we really want to know is, where can we go?  Well, there are an increasing plethora of places, as you can imagine, dear Readers, so we’ve taken some examples of places you may not have thought of to give you some exciting examples:


British Columbia, Canada

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Go native with Maple Leaf Adventures (https://mapleleafadventures.com/destinations/canada/) who offer life-changing adventures in this amazing part of the World.  They don’t build structures so it’s a build nothing leave nothing idea.  They respect the system they’re visiting such as an estuary where bears need to focus on eating without being disturbed.  They restrict the number of guests they take.  They have protocol agreements with the indigenous population to ensure economic stability.  Complete immersion in the environment along with the locals is encouraged so the guests can get the best possible experience.  Maple Leaf have formed committees to ensure sustainable tourism is maximised at all times but also sustainable bear watching!  Trips include “Great Bear Rainforest” where you explore fjords and rainforests, seeing bears and other wildlife or “Spirit Bear” where you are immersed in the local culture and of course their spiritual beliefs.  “Broughton Archipelago (Whales and Totems)” allows the exploration of 200 islands where you can see orca and humpback whales and learn all about the local coastal cultures.

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Interestingly, during research of all these destinations, dear Readers, one discovers that the top Ecotourism destinations, or certainly the most exotic, are also the most spiritual.  It’s really important to Ecotourism that the tourists understand and immerse themselves in their local spiritual cultures as well as the environmental ones.  One could indeed argue the spirituality of the locals is why these places have managed to survive with their environments intact and the next one is an excellent example of this:



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In recent years, Bhutan has become synonymous with Ecotours.  Probably because the country itself controls every aspect of its tourism.  Did you know that they impose a 200USD fee per person per day?  This includes food, accommodation, local transport, guides etc, but everything is controlled.  From this charge, however, the money goes straight into health and education for the locals, along with infrastructure and development of tourism for the country.  Bhutan is a mind-blowing place, and very, very spiritual which is why the environment there has been kept so pristine by the indigenous populace.  The mountains, rocks, rivers and trees have been preserved and revered as they are considered the home of deities and gods.  Bhutan Mind Vacation Tours (http://www.bhutanmindvacation.com/) give you everything “Bhutan” and more, and in traditional eco-style, arrange for visitors to volunteer to help the local community.  They arrange for you to stay with the locals, you can explore, viewing some of the highest mountain peaks in the World.  You can do a “Yoga and Wellness Retreat” or go on an adventure tour of the “Land of Happiness” with mountain flights, white water rafting, hiking, visiting dzongs and Buddhist gompas.  You can do a “Pilgrimage and Spiritual Journey” tour in the ultimate place for serenity, participating in Buddhist rituals and offerings.  All in all, the opportunity is there, delivering the original principles of Ecotourism.

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Taking in Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is breath-taking in terms of magnitude of the landscape:  volcanos, glaciers, deserts, you name it.  Blue Green Adventures (http://bluegreenadventures.com/) reflects the original Ecotourism principles in its tours, ensuring zero visitor impact and creating as much local employment as possible in all facets of its tours.  It’s dedicated to educating its guests in all things Ecotourism and showing them first-hand how it works.  For example you can do a Whale Watching Tour where an eco-camp has been created on the Brunswick Peninsula in Southern Chile.  Here you can see humpback whales, Chilean and peale dolphins, penguins, sea lions and many sea birds.  The camp has been designed to minimize impact by building permanent tents on platforms with wooden gang planks linking them to avoid plant and soil destruction which is a really clever idea.  There are tents for lectures and dining and the camp creates its own energy and disposes of its own waste in a way that avoids contamination and pollution of the environment.  You can go on kayaking tours, or trekking, or even visit the penguins in Antarctica, all completely ecologically friendly.

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Probably not an obvious place, but did you know that Rwanda is one of the cleanest nations in the World?!   They were the first to ban plastic bags!  They plant millions of trees a year, and have a revolutionary “Green Fund” which only supports projects which facilitate the country’s green economy.  Eco Tours Rwanda (https://www.ecotoursrwanda.com/) will bespoke you a Gorilla Tour or Safari, a Wildlife Safari, Cultural Tours, Local Community Tours and more.  The Gorilla Tours will take you to Volcanos National Park from 1 day to 2 weeks.  They arrange for visitors to stay in Eco-Lodges which are not only sustainable, but have room service (my kind of Eco-touring, I’m not going to lie, dear Readers).  From here you can go Gorilla trekking, Golden Monkey trekking and more, but all supporting the local community.  There’s also Rwanda Eco Tours (http://www.rwandaecotours.com/) which is also worth a mention as it’s run by locals with all the benefit of local knowledge and again, the opportunity for Ecotourism to benefit the local community directly.  It’s also benefited the wildlife, as they have actively stopped poachers of the beloved yet endangered mountain gorillas.  They really care and they really make an impact.  They’ll bespoke you a tour, or you can do one of their scheduled tours and meet the people of a million smiles.

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Something told me to research Belize, dear Readers.  It’s long been somewhere I’d love to visit, and interestingly enough, Belize is at the forefront of protecting biodiversity and natural resources.  The Belize Barrier Reef is a protected site, and the second largest in the World.  Bottom trawling (scraping the bottom of the seabed with fishing nets) and offshore oil drilling within 1 km of the reef have been banned.  The ecotourism industry in Belize is so strong and offers so much:  bird watching, scuba diving, diving, kayaking, rafting, hiking, snorkelling, fishing.  You can see whale sharks, jaguars at the World’s only jaguar reserve “Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary”, and scarlet macaws.  Naturally Belize (https://www.naturallybelize.co.uk/holidays/belize-jungle-and-beach-itinerary) offers tailor made itineraries such as “Jungle and Beach”:  3 nights in a remote jungle lodge in tropical rainforest on the edge of a lagoon and close to the Mayan Ruins of Lamanai and 5 nights at the Luxury Chabil Mar near Placencia Village.  In the jungle you’ll see Howler monkeys, crocodiles, toucans and other birds.  In Placencia you’ll relax on a beach, taking a fast boat to the outer cays to experience the magnificent coral reefs, tropical fish, sharks and stingrays if you’re lucky.  You can also visit the jaguar reserve, all for £2385 all inclusive.

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We could go on, but we won’t.  I think you get the idea.  Of course, you don’t have to go so far flung, you can visit Ecotourism destinations in Slovakia, Croatia, Ireland, Romania and Lithuania to name but a few.


So in conclusion, what do we think, dear Readers?  It’s certainly something different, isn’t it?!  It is perhaps, one could argue, a sort of cross between an organised tour and backpacking…but sustainable at the same time.  I, for one, am sold.