Weekly Modern Heroine: Kathryn Alvera
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My Modern Heroine of the Week is restaurateur Kathryn Alvera, a woman admired for her courage, outstanding achievements & philanthropy. Read more about Kathryn ‘s fearlessness in opening 3 successful Chicago restaurants - most recently taking on the daunting buildout of the Marchesa building which dates back to the late 1870’s & was a piano bar in the early 1900’s which was shut down for “playing jazz on a gramophone”. Kathryn does it all with determination, grace, humor & generosity.

Kelsey Kreiling
Modern Heroine- Mary Segall

A heroine is defined as “a woman admired or idealized for her courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities.”

As I create heroines in my novels I reveal their courage and noble qualities by the choices they make.

Every day we all make choices – be they big or small – and each has consequences.  Sometimes what seems like a small choice can set in motion consequences which change lives.

That journey started for Mary Segall when she chose to say to her fifteen year old son Devon, “Sure, I’ll help with your community service project.”

Mary had recently completed her animal healthcare internship when she began asking friends and colleagues about their favorite charities. She kept hearing about  Canine Companions for Independence which provides assistance dogs free of charge to adults, children and veterans with disabilities.

Like Mom’s do, she did her research and was impressed by everything she learned.  As Fate would decree, CCI was having one of four yearly “Graduations” open to the public.  Mary and Devon didn’t know what to expect. What they found was an emotionally charged ceremony.

CCI Graduation is the culmination of two years of hard work, love and dedication by many, but perhaps the most important are the Volunteer Puppy Raisers who have kept the dogs in their homes providing basic obedience, socialization and care for most of that time.

Now the puppy raisers pass the lease of their highly trained assistance dogs to their new “forever person.”  It is the beginning of a partnership between a human in need and a canine that will provide endless service and companionship.

“It was a heartwarming dream come true for the recipients and their families,” Mary remembers.  “Seeing how the dogs would open up opportunities and possibilities for the recipients, we fell in love with the concept.”

A long application process, interviews, home visits and training sessions followed.  “Devon and I were just doing this eighteen month project,” Mary says. “We didn’t think about another or what came next.  Then we got Rumba.”

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As every animal lover knows, pets quickly become part of the family.  Older son, Garratt, and husband, Ray, were not immune. All fell in love.

Of course they could cuddle and play with Rumba but as volunteer puppy raisers they had CCI rules to follow.  The approved obedience classes were no chore to attend but a delight as Rumba excelled. At home Rumba caught on quickly to basic commands and got a gold bone for good manners on Mary’s monthly report to CCI.

“As the months passed, the whole family got involved in walking Rumba, feeding her and taking her to Vet appointments.  We made friends with other CCI volunteers at our organized outings to help with our pups socializations. We laughed and cried comparing notes on how our pups liked the recommended diet.  We all dreaded thinking about the rule that we must return our pups upon request. The thought of turning in Rumba became torture for me and my family,” Mary admits. “Once I heard Devon and Garratt plotting how they would start slipping “people food” into Rumba’s prescribed  diet so she wouldn’t pass her final training with CCI and we could keep her.”

Mary had to remind herself and the boys of the joy they had witnessed during Graduation which inspired them to become Volunteer Puppy Raisers.  Someday Rumba would change a life.

They stayed the course and the time came when they turned in Rumba to CCI for six months of intense specialized training.

“We all cried,” Mary says.  “We lived for the monthly reports of how she was doing.  We knew this was the beginning of learning multiple specific commands to help the recipient who had been chosen for her.”

That recipient was Michelle Kephart.

On holiday hiking in the mountains, Michelle suffered a horrible fall.  She was airlifted to a hospital in Reno where the doctors found her broken neck would leave her a paraplegic.  After weeks in the Reno hospital she was transferred to a rehab facility in Denver. During her three months there, she met a Volunteer Puppy Raiser who introduced her to CCI.

“I wanted to live,” Michelle says, softly.  “And I wanted to live with independence. When I learned about CCI I knew this could make it possible.  I applied and hoped every day I would be accepted.”

Two and a half years later she received the call from CCI and asked to come to their headquarters in Santa Rose, California.

There she began two week Team Training where she and Rumba learned proper care and handling of each other.

“This was my first glimpse of Michelle and Rumba as they were in team training and pre-matched.” Mary remembers.  It always brings tears to my eyes.”

Mary and her family were reunited with Rumba and met Michelle at breakfast on Graduation Day.  “In that moment I could tell that Rumba was with someone special and that she already knew how special Rumba was and that they loved each other.”

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As Mary and Devon passed the leash to Michelle the whole family felt confident this was a perfect match.

“Having Rumba in my life has given me independence and I feel in control again.”  Michelle laughs. “She’s testy like a kid. Playful but so sweet. I love her.”

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“Mary and her family are my extended family.  She helped me get my driver’s license and finding a used adapted van.  She is so supportive of me and Rumba. Because of her I have my life back.”

CCI continues to be a huge part of Mary’s life.  She has raised many puppies and each is still torture to let go.  Ray has also become a puppy raiser and is so involved he often takes the pups to work with him.

“He has almost as much fur in his car as I do,” Mary laughs.  “Our journey with CCI has been magical. In some ways I think doing something special for someone you don’t even know opens your eyes to even more special things others are doing.”

Mary has found what she loves doing which has changed her life and the lives of others in need.

“Yes, I made a choice which led me here.  Those I am helping did not have a choice in their disability but they choose not to be victims of their circumstances.  They are my heroes and heroines.”

Mary, you are mine.

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Kelsey Kreiling
Introducing- Modern Heroines

When the Chicago Tribune asked me to write a response to a well-known commentator calling the President of the United States a “Retard”, I believed it was important to share my personal experience.

In the years since the article first appeared the outpouring of support and others sharing their stories of facing challenges has been over-whelming.  And inspirational.

I want to tell these stories of Modern Heroines.  They are all around us and each month I will introduce you to an astonishing woman.

I welcome your response to my original article AND welcome your suggestions for stories of women you know who make the world brighter.

We are all on this journey together.

The Chicago Series: All I Want Is You
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Yes, I write about real people but I change the names to protect the guilty – the innocent don’t need protecting!  Chicago is full of fascinating characters – come meet them in my Chicago Series! Begin with the sexy fun of Talk of the Town ( chosen as a Cosmopolitan Magazine “Red Hot Read”) – the mystery deepens in A Black Tie Affair – and you have it all plus happy endings in All I Want Is You!


ALL I WANT IS YOU

“4.5 stars!  Get ready for fun, mayhem, mystery and romance in this more-genres-for-your-money read.  Bodine has filled her book with quirky characters and a fabulous Windy City setting. A flawless narrative and fantastic love story round out the latest from this talented author.”  ROMANTIC TIMES BOOK REVIEWS

SHE’S STEALING HIS HEART

Vintage boutique owner Venus Smith is stunned to realize her newest acquisition comes with a larcenous legend.  Stolen years ago, the antique mermaid brooch belongs to the Clayworth family. The right thing to do would be to return it, but that means facing Connor Clayworth O’Flynn, the sexy department store heir Venus has had an unrequited crush on since childhood – and the man who helped ruin her father.

ONE KISS AT A TIME

Connor knows that Venus has never forgiven him for what happened between their families.  But business isn’t personal, even though Venus’s father’s betrayal still cuts him like a knife.  So when Venus proposes a deal – she’ll return his family’s brooch if he helps clear her father’s name – he reluctantly agrees.  As action-packed days turn into flirtatious fall nights, it isn’t long before old memories resurface … and new desires ignite. Can two young lovers leave the past behind?  Or must they first admit that all they’ve ever really wanted … is each other?

The Chicago Series: A Black Tie Affair
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Yes, I write about real people but I change the names to protect the guilty – the innocent don’t need protecting!  Chicago is full of fascinating characters – come meet them in my Chicago Series! Begin with the sexy fun of Talk of the Town ( chosen as a Cosmopolitan Magazine “Red Hot Read”) – the mystery deepens in A Black Tie Affair – and you have it all plus happy endings in All I Want Is You!


A BLACK TIE AFFAIR

A Black Tie Affair is a charming romantic romp I thoroughly enjoyed…Sherrill Bodine has found a way to open a glamorous world everyone can delight in.” BLOGS.PUBLISHERSWEEKLY.COM

SUITED FOR SEDUCTION

Fashion curator Athena Smith will do anything to get her perfectly manicured hands on the Clayworth family’s celebrated couture collection for her exhibit.  So when she’s called in to make sure the gowns are the real deal, she’s ecstatic …until a dress she’s examining turns out to be loaded with toxins (talk about killer threads!) and Athena faints, only to wake up face-to-face with the One That Got Away, notorious Chicago bachelor Drew Clayworth.

Drew still believes Athena betrayed him all those years ago, and he’s sure he can’t trust her.  But when the priceless gowns go missing, she offers to help track them down. Reluctantly allied in the quest, Drew and Athena are soon stunned by the barely restrained passion still sizzling between them … and memories both bitter and sweet.  Is their new partnership just a business arrangement? Or is this something more than … A Black Tie Affair

The Chicago Series: Talk of the Town
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Yes, I write about real people but I change the names to protect the guilty – the innocent don’t need protecting!  Chicago is full of fascinating characters – come meet them in my Chicago Series! Begin with the sexy fun of Talk of the Town ( chosen as a Cosmopolitan Magazine “Red Hot Read”) – the mystery deepens in A Black Tie Affair – and you have it all plus happy endings in All I Want Is You!


TALK OF THE TOWN

“What a hoot!  Laugh-out-loud rollicking romance…Juicy gossip, fashion advice, delish recipes, and sexy romps; Talk of the Town is destined to be the talk of romance readers everywhere!” SingleTitles.com

GOSSIP QUEEN DETHRONED!

Darlings, what a to-do at the Daily Mail today!  After fifteen years as Chicago’s gossip guru, Rebecca Covington has been demoted from divulger of secrets for the city’s elite to headlining recipes in the Home and Food section.  Apparently, a touchy senator is threatening legal action for Rebecca’s latest extramarital scoop. But Windy City rumor has it that new CEO and dreamy Pierce Brosnan look-alike David Sumner downgraded Rebecca in favor of fresher, younger blood on the social beat.

Industry insiders expect Rebecca to fight her denouement and inquiring minds have already seen the feisty maven trading quips and searing glances with her arresting new boss.  Rebecca swears she’ll reclaim her shining star status, but can the dishy diva even cook? And how can she ignore David’s arousing effect on her sensibilities?

Don’t miss a trick, darlings.  Sparks are going to fly.

The Regency Series: The Duke's Deceit
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The Battle of Waterloo was such an important event in the regency period I felt compelled to write about the circumstances surrounding it and bring to life Lord Matthew Blackwood, an idealist with the heart of a lion.  His love story and marriage to Miss Serena Fitzwater is a whirlwind before he is called back to Wellington’s staff but when he returns he is not the same man. Exploring that relationship with all its complexities was an exciting adventure into the meaning of true love.

It was not until Serena confronted her brother-in-law, Richard, soon to be the Duke of Avalon with “it is my fondest wish that when your tiny heart is finally given, the lady crumbles it to dust” that I knew what his story must be.

Two very different brothers each fighting their demons and the women who will give them the strength to succeed.


THE DUKE’S DECEIT

IT HAD BEEN AN INNOCENT LIE, BORN IN THE FACE OF DESPERATION

When Mary Masterton informed the handsome stranger that they were engaged, he had no reason to doubt her.  After all, his head injury had resulted in complete memory loss. Mary, however, remembered clearly the stable fire and the mysterious rider who had saved her horses  … and who had unwittingly become her fiancé to thwart the advances of a vile and loathsome suitor.

His signet ring became their clue to his true identity: he was Richard, Duke of Avalon and when he insisted that Mary accompany him back to London, she vowed to reveal the truth… even though she had fallen hopelessly in love.  If only the truth were as simple as deceit.

The Regency Series: A Soldier's Heart
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The Battle of Waterloo was such an important event in the regency period I felt compelled to write about the circumstances surrounding it and bring to life Lord Matthew Blackwood, an idealist with the heart of a lion.  His love story and marriage to Miss Serena Fitzwater is a whirlwind before he is called back to Wellington’s staff but when he returns he is not the same man. Exploring that relationship with all its complexities was an exciting adventure into the meaning of true love.

It was not until Serena confronted her brother-in-law, Richard, soon to be the Duke of Avalon with “it is my fondest wish that when your tiny heart is finally given, the lady crumbles it to dust” that I knew what his story must be.

Two very different brothers each fighting their demons and the women who will give them the strength to succeed.


A SOLDIER’S HEART

NOTHING IS FAIR IN LOVE OR WAR, ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY ARE ONE AND THE SAME

The boldness that made Lord Matthew Blackwood an excellent soldier had readied him for his chosen battle of the heart.  Blissfully, no fight was necessary. Miss Serena Fitzwater surrendered quickly to this handsome stranger who captured her body and soul.

A storybook courtship, a whirlwind marriage…then sadly, Matt was called back to the war.  But the wounded hero who later returned was no longer the fairy-tale knight of Serena’s first flush romance.  This was a stranger.

In truth, Serena, too, had changed.  The naïve young bride had blossomed. And now, the true battle of hearts would begin: for they must take the threads of yesterday and weave a new beginning.

The Regency Series: Scandal's Child
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The men of the Regency period are all irresistible!  I loved Dominic, the Marquis of Aubrey, the moment he came to life in THE RAKE’S REDEMPTION.   His love story with Juliana will touch your heart. I did not realize I would fall so madly in love with his half-brother, Jules,  Comte de Saville, I HAD to give him his own book SCANDAL’S CHILD and a love with Kat which matched his passion and spirit. The glamorous regency period and the machinations of cupid are an irresistible combination!


SCANDAL’S CHILD

TRUE LOVE IS OFTEN SCANDALOUS

As her brother and sister prepare to make their Society debut, Kat Thistlewait vows to sit on the sidelines like a proper young lady.  Fate has other plans, though, and when Kat tries to save her mischievous twin brother she lands herself in a compromising position with battle-scarred and world weary French nobleman Jules Devereaux.

Knowing that no lady of quality would ever overlook his imperfections, Jules agrees to marry Kat in order to save what little reputation she has left.  A marriage of convenience isn’t what either desires. A daring duel which puts all in danger exposes the truth - love grows from the most unlikely of beginnings.

The Regency Series: The Rake's Redemption

The men of the Regency period are all irresistible!  I loved Dominic, the Marquis of Aubrey, the moment he came to life in THE RAKE’S REDEMPTION.   His love story with Juliana will touch your heart. I did not realize I would fall so madly in love with his half-brother, Jules,  Comte de Saville, I HAD to give him his own book SCANDAL’S CHILD and a love with Kat which matched his passion and spirit. The glamorous regency period and the machinations of cupid are an irresistible combination!


The Rake’s Redemption

LOVE CAN COME CRASHING INTO YOUR LIFE WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT

It was not in Juliana’s nature to lie.  Yet, the only way to lure her exhausted overworked brother to London was to insist she was on the marriage mart again … though her heart would forever belong to her dear Will who died in battle a month after their marriage.  Only Fate could have foretold the curricle accident that found her gazing into the blue eyes of Dominic Crawford, the Marquess of Aubrey.

Imagine a mere kiss leaving her senseless!  After all, she was no green miss . . .she had been married.  It was that kiss, so different from Will’s that awakened feelings Juliana never knew she had , toward a man with a secretive manner and dark past who might never love her.

Zanzibar!
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Zanzibar.  For me the very name stirs feelings of adventure and mystery and conjures up visions of waterfront palaces of Sultans and the labyrinth of narrow lanes weaving through Stone Town filled with exotic sights, smells and sounds.

I was not disappointed when I finally arrived on this Indian Ocean island.

Officially part of Tanzania, Zanzibar lies only 20 miles off mainland Africa but is a world apart in atmosphere.  Here, African, Indian and Arabian cultures come together in Stone Town, a maze of narrow streets that has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its architecture which reflects centuries of sea trade between Africa and Asia.

The Indo-Arabian architecture of the old Stone Town building housing the City Market is the perfect exotic backdrop for huge mounds of luscious fruit, fish caught only moments earlier squirming across the stone floor, while men sit playing bao, a traditional board game, and women in their bui bui, Islamic cover-alls, shop and pause to chat.  The sights, smells and sounds are intoxicating and I could have spent the entire morning wandering through the market, bargaining for fresh fruit and sampling cooked on the spot shrimp, but the mystery of Stone Town drew me out into its narrow streets.

Passing large carved doorways concealing opulent courtyards – browsing through shops and stalls selling local crafts, African jewelry and ebony carvings representing shetani, spirits that take on animal or human forms in Zanzibari witchcraft (Zanzibar is a renowned centre of voodoo) – I made my way to the site of the Great Slave Market.

Arab Slave Traders made Zanzibar the hub of slave trade in all of East Africa.  On the site of their old market a beautiful monument has been built in honor of the decree by the Sultan of Zanzibar on June 6, 1873 that stopped the slave trade in Zanzibar, thus ending a dark time in its history.  The underground chambers still remind where men, women and children were held before they were sold on the market. There is a pulsating feeling of lingering ghosts in the shadowy chambers with patches of sunlight filtering in through narrow windows to warm the cold stone floor.

Newly intrigued by the Omani Sultans of Zanzibar, I made my way to the Palace, now a museum.  The last Sultan ruled prior to the 1964 revolution and there are many relics of the family life they lived while in power.  The staircases creak under my feet as I explore the top floors and there is a soft swoosh of fans cooling the high ceiled rooms crammed with large paintings of past Sultans and one particularly beautiful portrait of Queen Elizabeth II as a young woman when she visited with Prince Philip.  The Palace/Museum staff are delighted to talk about the times of the sultans and about the virtues of life in Zanzibar with its peaceful union of so many different cultures. From one docent, I get a recommendation for the best Indian Restaurant in all of Zanzibar.

When I travel I enjoy meeting and talking to the locals who are always eager to help guide me to their favorite haunts.  The docent’s directions to Silk Route takes me through the streets of Stone Town to the end of Shangani Street, around a deep curve to an arched doorway with a small wooden sign swinging gently in a welcome breeze.  Three flights of white washed steps loom in front of me. At the second landing I am greeted with a cool towel and told to proceed to the third floor restaurant. It is a large white room with arched windows cut into stone and through which the Indian Ocean glistens bright blue in the powerful sunlight.  There is a murmur of several languages being spoken above the whirl of overhead fans.

Without requesting the best available table in front of an open window with a view over the rooftops to the ocean where several traditional wooden dhow boats plow through the waves, I am given it.  The owner comes to greet me and makes recommendations from the large menu. I choose my favorites, Butter Chicken and cheese naan. It is perfectly seasoned and as delicious as I had been told. So much so, I splurge and order a second order of naan and add their homemade chutney.

When I compliment the chef and bid all a farewell they suggest I stop for a drink at their most famous hotel, Zanzibar Serena, located a short distance away.

Half way down Shangani Street, I enter the historical stone building which is the exotic world of the Serena Hotel.  From the turbaned doorman to the beautifully carved wooden doorways and lattice work to the tiled floors, it is exactly what I hoped to find in a hotel in Zanzibar.  The air is perfumed as an elegant graceful hostess leads me through the arched ceiled hallways to the quiet bar open to the white coral sand beach and the Indian Ocean.

While sipping perfectly chilled champagne, I gaze out at remnants of coral stone walls glowing amber in the late afternoon sunlight.  Not only did Zanzibar not disappoint, it has made my list of favorite places I have found on my travels. I’ll be back.

Zanzibar Serena Hotel, Shangani Street, Zanzibar, Tanzania  E-mail:zanzibar@serena.co.tz Website:www.serenahotels.com



travelKelsey Kreiling
Words to Live By

(Originally published in the Chicago Sun Times, October 2012)

As an author, I understand and respect the Power of Words. I know how words can both uplift and inspire or wound and destroy.

Recently I was wounded when a well-known commentator called the president of the United States “a retard.” This cruel thoughtless word holds a particularly strong power over me because I am the daughter of a woman who is labeled “retarded from birth”.

When my mother Gwendolyn Buckles was born at home in 1924 or 1925-  the date has always been debated- she appeared to be an adorable healthy baby. It is vague at what exact moment our family doctor told my grandparents that baby Gwen was mentally retarded, but for as long as I can remember everyone else simply called her “not right”.

What is neither debated nor vague is my grandparent’s decision at a time when children like my mother were often hidden away or institutionalized. They chose to rear Gwen exactly the way they were rearing her brother and how they would we are all their children: Gwen would have everything, do everything her siblings and cousins enjoy. She would have the normal life they wanted for her.

When my grandparents discovered she was pregnant, male progenitor unknown, they made another decision they chose to allow going to give birth. Also unknown: the possible mental condition of the child, me.  

From the time I was five years old I became not only my mother's playmate, but the keeper of her secrets and her protector. I helped make thousands of choices for her which shaped her world and set the course of our lives. I had to choose how to protect her when she heard cruel taunts of “being a retard.” I can still see the confusion in her watery blue eyes and hear her tearful voice asking me, “I ain’t stupid like they say, am, I Sherrill Lynn?”  I told her “No, they're the ones who are stupid and cruel and you should never listen to anything they have to say.”

I had to choose how to protect myself when my school friends asked, “Are you a bastard? My mommy and daddy say you are.”

Now the term “bastard” seems archaic, a relic of a less enlightened time. Then why haven't we left their label “retard” behind us?

We have banished derogatory terms for ethnic groups, race, sexual preferences and we censure those who are thoughtless enough to use such words. Yet we haven't banished this cruelest of terms against the developmentally challenged who are helpless to defend themselves.

Long ago, out of my personal experience and love for my mother, I chose to teach my children the power this word has to wound, and through their love for their grandmother, they have spread that truth. Please join us and finally making this cruelest of terms a relic of our past which will surely make a brighter future for all of us.

Author Sherrill Bodine speaks from the heart in taking Ann Coulter to task

She writes in the Chicago Sun-Times about her mother, who was "labeled 'retarded' from birth."

Chicago author and Service Club member Sherrill Bodine tells a compelling story in today's Chicago Sun-Times.

In a guest column, she criticizes a “well-known commenter” for calling the president of the United States “a retard.” She was referring to political pundit Ann Coulter.

Ms. Bodine, who writes romance novels with a Chicago twist, tells her own story in the Sun-Times — that she is the daughter of a woman who was “labeled 'retarded' from birth.”

Ms. Bodine's grandparents gave their daughter (Ms. Bodine's mom) all the opportunities they could at a time when children with Down's syndrome were often hidden, she explains.

“When my grandparents discovered she was pregnant (the male progenitor unknown), they made another decision: They chose to allow Gwen to give birth. Also unknown: the possible mental condition of the child. Me," she writes in the Sun-Times.

Ms. Bodine goes on to talk about life growing up with her mom. “From the time I was five years old, I became not only my mother's playmate but the keeper of her secrets and her protector,” she writes. “I helped make thousands of choices for her which shaped her world and set the course of our lives.”


Kelsey Kreiling
Memories of Mysterious Myanmar
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I had to travel half-way around the world to discover through Myanmar Astrology that since I was born on a Wednesday and my husband on a Saturday, we are the perfect match – destined to have a lifetime of happiness – which might explain how we’ve endured for so long!

Thus began a voyage of enlightenment into a country isolated from the world for decades because of military rule and only recently opening its borders as a democracy.

As most visitors do, my adventure begins in Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar.  Traffic is chaotic until we turn down a quiet tree lined street in the Embassy Quarter and pull up to the Belmond Governor’s Residence.  The elegant teak mansion dating from the 1920’s is set in extensive gardens with lotus ponds and an amazing fan-shaped pool blending into the lush surroundings.  Music coming from a party at the Sri Lanka Embassy across the road completes the sense of slipping back into a bygone era when Myanmar was known as Burma.

Yangon is home to many fine buildings and temples that are well worth a visit but the mighty Shwedagon Pagoda cannot be missed!  Gleaming with gold leaf, its Umbrella and Vane studded with jewels topped by a Diamond Orb totaling 1,800 carats, it looms over the city.

I do recommend entry with a guide even though maps of the pagoda are available in many languages.  All material reminds visitors that the dress code for visiting temples and pagodas is no shorts, covered shoulders, plus shoes and socks must be removed on entry.

Our guide, carrying a small black book which turns out to be a 100 year calendar, leads us to our appropriate Buddha’s.  Mine – Wednesday – is represented by an elephant and my husband – Saturday – is a dragon. We bathe our Buddha’s in clear water for a blessing and then strike the large bell, its deep bong echoing through the vast complex, to share our blessings with all there.

Everywhere I wander, in the pagoda and on the streets, I find the Burmese people very friendly and helpful - especially when I enter a local small three story mall seeking a hair salon for a quick fix after dusty days of travel.  The receptionist speaks English and tells me I must wait my turn. Dutifully I join dozens of men, women and children doing the same. In a few minutes I am ushered into the shampoo room which consists of several long massage tables and told to take off my shoes, lie down on my back with my head slightly off the table. For the next 25 minutes I experience utter bliss as my hair is not only shampooed three times but I am given a head and neck massage worthy of the best masseur.  To add to the pleasure, another young woman gives me a hand and arm massage. Highly recommend you treat yourself to this unique pleasure!

Totally relaxed I am ready the next day for my very early flight from Yangon to Bagan, one of the main visitor attractions in Myanmar and one of the greatest historic sites in Southeast Asia.

My first sight of Bagan is the breathtaking vista of over 3,000 temples, most built between the 11th & 13th centuries, dotting the plain beside the Ayeyarwady River.

We stroll through the bustling morning market at Nyaung, with its stalls piled high with exotic fruits and vegetables and typical Myanmar products such as betel leaf ( which the Burmese chew) and thanaka wood that is made into Thanaka Cream.  This is the first time I notice several Burmese women and children wearing a yellowish white paste all over their faces. I am told Thanaka is a unique feature of Myanmar and widely believed to keep skin looking young, supple and elastic plus protect from harmful UV-A rays.  Hoping for the best, I rub some onto my cheeks before proceeding to the jetty to board my ship, Belmond Road to Mandalay, anchored in mid-river.

We are greeted with cold glasses of champagne (a good start) and led to our state room which is larger and better appointed than I had expected (additional points!).  After a brief rest we head back to visit one of the most significant pagodas of Bagan, Ananka Temple. This architectural masterpiece was built in 1090AD and contains four gilded Buddha statues standing 30 ft tall.  I roam through several other temples but am warned away from the many damaged in the 2016 earthquake which rocked this part of Myanmar.

As daylight fades I hurry up a hill to watch a glorious sunset over plains peppered with hundreds of ancient pagodas.  Then, after dark, we stop at a small temple near the jetty to participate in an exclusive candle-lighting ceremony organized by the ship.  Each candle we light is offered for world peace – a wish shared by all in the international group onboard the Road to Mandalay.

The next morning several options are offered for exploration.  Unfortunately, I did not book in advance for the Hot Air Balloon Ride at Sunrise which I discover was essential so miss the opportunity.  Hint: book early! Instead of biking or taking a horse cart ride I choose to visit Taung Be Village near the jetty to participate in one of Belmond’s Social Contribution Projects – a free health clinic established by the ship doctor, Dr Hla Tun.  

Each week when the ship arrives in Bagan hundreds of patients, many coming from as far as the Chinese border, gather to be treated.  The clinic is on the grounds of the Nat-Htaunt Monastery and has volunteer doctors from around the world – the morning I visit I am pleased to report it was a doctor from Wisconsin USA seeing patients.

I am honored to meet the Chief Abbot, Ven Sam-Va-Ra and when the interpreter explains why I am visiting, he smiles and encourages me to write about the clinic and the work they do to help the Burmese people

As we sail along the Ayeyarwady River I see how simply they live.  The shore is dotted with farms and often farmers can be seen in their ox drawn carts moving from field to field.  At the water’s edge, families wash their clothes and bathe their children. There are no loud noises, no chaotic traffic here in the countryside.  When the ship anchors mid-river for the night the silence is serene and the sky blazes with stars in the utter blackness.

At dawn we sail on to Myin Mu, the northern most point for cruising this trip.  During the early months of the year the water levels of the Ayeyarwody drop creating a narrower channel for navigation near Mandalay necessitating the ship mooring at this riverside town 30 miles south of the city.

Always on my travels I find seeing the natural life of a country and contact with the local people the highlights of my visits.  This is true in my tri-shaw ride around the town visiting markets and families of bamboo weavers. And again in the afternoon walking through the picturesque farming village of Alacapa, experiencing the warm friendliness of the people and glimpsing a life-style unchanged for centuries.

Because of the river level we must drive into Mandalay.  On the way we are rewarded by being stopped by a parade which consists of a wedding party, a group attending an ear piercing ceremony and families celebrating their sons being inducted into monkhood.  It seems a fitting prologue to arriving at Kuthodaw Pagoda, a UNESCO listed site with 729 stone tablets inscribed with Buddhist scriptures.

The sights of Mandalay are many and varied: streets of the marble quarter where artisans sculpt Buddha’s of all sizes; outdoor workshops of bronze casters creating statuesque Buddha images and ceremonial gongs; the famous UBein Bridge, one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites and too irresistible not to walk across; Sagaing Hills, the spiritual center and home to hundreds of pagodas, monasteries, nunneries and Buddhist learning centers; and finally Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, its high vantage point offering a spectacular panoramic view of the city.

It is fitting to leave my ship in beautiful Mandalay to fly to Inle Lake which proves to be the most unexpectedly fascinating sites of all my travels.

My plane has no assigned seats – everyone is on their own!  The flight is short and my transit through the tiny airport at Heho is swift.

It is an hour’s drive to the edge of the lake and the Inle Princess Resort – offering 46 guest chalets crafted by Intha carpenters from bamboo and reclaimed hardwood.

Almost immediately we board our private open air long tail boat to explore this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, ASEAN Heritage Site, National Wildlife Sanctuary and a national Wetland Sanctuary.

The Intha people row standing up with one leg wrapped around an oar.  Our “leg rower” takes us away from the resort jetty and we drop him at his home on stilts before our driver fires up the engine for our first day on this vast water world.

Birds soar overhead, the Elephant Head Mountain Range surround us in this photographers dream of calm waters dotted with floating vegetation, fishing canoes, and entire villages built on stilts.

For three glorious days we explore by boat to visit silk weavers, admire endless floating gardens where fruits and vegetables are grown.  We stop at the small market of Indein to visit the Sagar Pagoda complex with dozens of small stupas, which are in very bad condition but I can still see fascinating Buddha images.  There is a traffic jam of local boats as a farmer bathes his two water buffalo in the channel leading into this floating village.

The day we visit the big five day market in Nanpan is a true insight into the life style of the ethnic Pa-O, Danu and Intha people who come to sell their goods.  The market contains everything! Endless stalls are piled high with fish, meat, vegetables, fruit, sweets, pottery, fabric, electronics, iPhones from Korea, plus barbers, a dentist, tailors with treadle Singer sewing machines, and a pharmacy where no prescriptions are needed to purchase drugs from China and India.

This beautiful, unique and fragile world truly enlightens me into the Myanmar culture and touches my heart.  I leave you with a few truths and tips for your journey to mysterious magical Myanmar.

  • The Myanmar people are friendly, helpful and polite

  • Respect the Myanmar people and their unique traditions.

  • Don’t take any photos that may make people feel embarrassed.

  • Do smile

  • Don’t point with your foot (In Myanmar the feet convey messages.  Pointing with your feet means disrespect)

  • Wear appropriate clothes when visiting religious sites

  • Do tuck away your feet (When you sit, your legs should not be stretched out and your feet should never face the Buddha)

  • Don’t touch anyone on the head (The head is the most esteemed part of the body.  To be touched on the head is considered aggressive)

  • Don’t kiss in public

  • Don’t disturb people praying or meditating

  • Calling with your finger up means calling for a challenge

  • Visitors may experience electricity outages – please understand about the electricity situation in Myanmar

  • Don’t touch the robe of a monk

  • Do not go where you are advised not to go (Myanmar is slowly opening up and more destinations will be accessible in the future)

  • Relax and enjoy your holiday! We did!

travelKelsey Kreiling