Walking the Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Shortly after dawn on Sunday, Daniel Dejean and I set out to walk the Cape Cod Rail Trail (CCRT), not just to walk on the trail, but to go the entire 22.3 miles.

I like to walk long distances at a brisk pace, but I was worried about going with an accomplished marathoner, one who would probably be bored with my pedestrian pace. But Daniel seemed quite happy to walk instead of run.

In the beginning we had the trail to ourselves. Perhaps others were deterred by the hour or the temperature just below freezing? In any case, it was heavenly. We enjoyed the exercise, the views, and the conversation. For equipment, we took along one not-smart phone and a fancy watch that didn’t work.

Taccuino Sanitatis

Taccuino Sanitatis

For six hours, we saw a side of Cape Cod that you miss completely if all you know is Route 6, the beaches, or the residential streets. Since the trail is elevated, it offers a better view than that afforded by many forest trails. We saw natural wetlands and cranberry bogs, salt marshes, meadows, forest, creeks, the bay, and the back sides of houses, churches, and businesses. There’s a winery that I didn’t know about.

We talked about what we each liked and didn’t like about life on Cape Cod, music, art, movies, growing up, religion, Borges, Deleuze, Piaget, and OULIPO. We also had good stretches of silence, just listening to the birds and the wind, or walking without listening at all. Amazingly, we avoided the political discussions that seem to dominate the ordinary day.

A long walk imbues your body with a rhythm that offers peace and balance. We joked about Daniel’s fancy electronic watch, which told us all kinds of things, but seemed incapable of  communicating the time of day. We saw it as very postmodern, or perhaps Buddhist, in its rejection of our chopped up daily lives.

Setting out

Setting out

Our overall pace was 3.6 mph. That’s faster than Google walks, but still fairly relaxed. Around 17 miles we each began to feel the stress on our bodies. Daniel revealed that he feels the stress at the same point when running a marathon. It’s interesting that it occurs at the same distance, but of course half the time when running.

As the sun rose, we began to see more people. There were people walking their four-legged masters, babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, couples, groups, and solitary walkers. Each of them were experiencing a slice of Cape Cod that is hard to find in any other way.

I don’t know that any of them planned to walk the entire route as we did, but I’m sure they each felt some degree of balance as articulated by Taccuino Sanitatis. This is an 11C Arab medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad which sets forth the essential elements for well-being, including balance of activity and rest, food, fresh air, and state of mind. Daniel pointed me to that.

Before the railroad came, Cape Cod was accessible only by boat or stagecoach. Passenger rail service from Boston to Provincetown started in 1873 and became a major factor in the Cape’s growth as a summer resort area. But when the car bridge over Cape Cod Canal opened in 1935, passenger rail service soon came to an end. The cars were a boon for tourists and tourist services, but they also began to destroy much of what makes the Cape so special. Residents and visitors who see the Cape mostly from their cars or selected recreational areas miss a lot.

The rail corridor was purchased by the Commonwealth in 1976. A portion of that was converted to a rail trail, which now runs from South Dennis to Wellfleet with side trails going off to Chatham and other areas. Daniel’s uncommunicative watch told us that the trail on the rail bed was a way to step back in time, to connect to some of that earlier Cape Cod life, and to experience a more balanced way of life.

Urdaibai Bird Center

The Urdaibai Bird Center is a nature museum for enjoying the world of birds. It offers a unique observatory of marshland in the heart of Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve in Euskadi in northern Spain.

The Center is called a “living” museum because what it has to show depends on the life of the marshland and the birds who choose to visit. You can see some of that in the webcam below.

As the Northern Hemisphere winter approaches, food supplies for birds dwindle and most begin to migrate south. Coming from as far west as Greenland and as far east as Russia, they head towards western Europe, then down towards the border between France and Spain. With the Pyrenees blocking their path to the east and the Bay of Biscay a barrier to the west, they funnel through a narrow path that takes them through Euskadi, the Basque country of Spain.

Education programs linking children throughout the world

Education programs linking children throughout the world

This is the East Atlantic Flyway, a bird migration system linking breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra with wintering grounds in Mauritania, and stretching from northern Russia to southern Africa.

The Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve preserves an age-old oasis for these birds. From here, they head south through Spain, many going to the Doñana National Park in Andalusia, across the Mediterranean to Morocco, then down the west coast of Africa to wintering grounds in the Senegal and Niger deltas, with some going as far as South Africa.

The constructed marshland

The constructed marshland

The Urdaibai Bird Center has exhibits, AV shows, interpreters, and more to explain all of this. In addition, they have observatories from which you can see the birds who are there on a given day (as in the webcam).

The birds are wonderful to see and their stories are often amazing. The migration routes sometimes extend thousands of miles. One especially interesting case is the red-backed shrike.

Red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio)

Red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio)

Like other birds this shrike heads south from northern Europe, stops over at Urdaibai, and then goes to southern Spain. But instead of heading directly south to the west coast of Africa, it turns east to Italy, or even Greece, then turns south through central Africa. Further breaking the mold, it returns by a different route. It goes further east, through the horn of Africa, Arabia, and Turkey, before turning west.

After exploring a bit in some ornithology journals, I learned that individual red-backed shrikes break the pattern even more, often following idiosyncratic paths and ending up hundreds of miles apart in South Africa.

It’s behavior like this that makes the work of a bird center like Urdaibai both challenging and wonderful.

Mira Rai

Mira Rai (Wikipedia)

Mira Rai (Wikipedia)

A short while ago, while in Kathmandu, I had a beautiful walk in Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park. Later, I read that Nepali runner Mira Rai had been in the same spot two years ago. She was jogging on the hilly trails, then joined other runners, chatting and laughing. They invited her to enter her first race: the Kathmandu West Valley Rim 50K.

If you zoomed through this text so far without a jaw drop, you may need some additional background. The Park’s trails are well maintained, but few people jog there, much less while chatting and laughing. It’s more a place to walk or climb slowly, with frequent stops to catch breath. And if you do decide to run competitively, start with a 5K, not 50K (31 miles).

Rai had never competed in a trail race before. She didn’t have any food, water, or hi-tech athletic gear. But she entered this one. Despite hailstones and rain, Rai, the only female competitor, completed the race.


She had the one big advantage that most successful people have: She worked hard. Growing up in Bhojpur, a remote mountain village in eastern Nepal, she had chased goats, gathered firewood, and carried heavy sacks of rice and buckets of water up and down steep hills. Like many other Nepali girls, she dropped out of school (later than many, at age 12).

A BBC article quotes her:

“I would run to the market – three hours away – buy sacks of rice, then run back and sell them for profit,” she says, flashing that wry smile. She forgets to mention that the bags weighed 28kg (60lbs), and she was just 11 years old.

After that first race, Rai had a long string of running achievements, including the Mont-Blanc 80 km, where she set a record. She’s received well-deserved international acclaim for these many accomplishments.

When she was injured early this year, she began to train other village girls and now organizes running competitions in her village for young girls. She uses proceeds from Mira, the film about her life to provide equipment for them. That film was a finalist in the Banff Mountain Film Festival this year.

Rai herself is now a finalist for National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. Although there are nine other excellent candidates, I had no hesitation in voting for her.

As my friend Chris pointed out, the world of running will be in for a big awakening if Nepalis start to take up competitive running.

First PENN conference, Kathmandu

15232068_1685659911459594_7389935162873165852_n
The First Annual Conference of
Progressive Educators Network of Nepal (PENN) held on Friday was a big success, thanks to collaborators from King’s College, Kathmandu Living Labs, Karkhana and Teach for Nepal. The theme for this year was “the community is the curriculum.”

15355647_1684340441591541_5119271557140173330_nThere were about twice as many people as we expected, but more importantly, many people directly contributed with activities or presentations, and everyone seemed to be engaged and committed to continuing the effort.

I was very fortunate to be a part of this. As the foreign visitor, I was officially the “lead facilitator,” but I felt that I was the one who was learning. I also shared quite sincerely that I can’t recall another such meeting with the same level of commitment or willingness to listen and learn from one another.

15267728_1684346728257579_116754909530787023_nWe talked about the issue of importing ideas from abroad. But there are impressive things underway here in schools, colleges, and informal learning that could be a model others around the world.

I’d like to add that when I heard the initial plans for my trip to Nepal, I couldn’t quite believe that it would all come together: workshops, community inquiry in a village, and a national conference.

15220016_1684347144924204_2798198498524614991_n But that all happened better than I expected. The reality went beyond the original plan and came to include multiple organizations, trips to excellent schools, and the creation of PENN.

I want to both thank and congratulate Umes Shrestha, Narottam Aryal, Nama Raj Budhathoki, Swastika Shrestha, Pavitra Gautam, Aakriti Thapa, Krishnakumar KC, Amrit Poudel, Shisir Khanal, Raj Poudel, and so many others.

(Now, I’m thinking of all those I just left off the list, some of whom made perhaps even more major contributions. Please accept my apology, but especially, my thanks to all.)

You can see more of the activities pictured in this facebook album.

Nisarga Batika School

Learning math through games

Learning math through games

On the US Thanksgiving Day, I was sorry to be away from family and friends, and looked in vain for a stuffed turkey. But i had something else to be thankful for.

I was hosted for the day at Nisarga Batika School. I was thankful for the warm visit and also that there are at least some schools like Nisarga Batika. At the same time it made me sad that not all students have such great opportunities.

Teachers at the school are eager to find ways to improve, but as of today, the school would be the envy of some of the best progressive schools in the US.

Backpacks of the little ones

Backpacks of the little ones

The school’s philosophy statement begins:

is a thriving community of learners who engage in education that is holistic, relevant and meaningful. As an experiential learning school, Nisarga Batika offers an environment where each individual looks upon the world as their classroom and values self-motivated learning as a way of life.

Discussion about paper money

Discussion about paper money

I visited every classroom and talked with children there and on the playground, where diverse activities were underway. Although that’s just a small sample, it made me feel that the school is doing as much as anyone can to realize the philosophy statement, including seeing teachers as facilitators towards goals of critical thinking, self discovery, and creativity.

If you click on the photo below, or here, you can see a series of additional photos that convey the flavor of the school, including field trips in natural settings and the vegetable market created by children for the plants they grow.

Teach for Nepal

Swastika Shrestha presenting at the PENN workshop

Swastika Shrestha presenting at the PENN workshop

Teach for Nepal (TFN) is a program in which recent university graduates and young professionals commit to two year fellowships to teach in public schools. The Fellows seek to improve education as they develop their own leadership skills.

Shisir Khanal

Shisir Khanal

TFN is a core member of Progressive Educators Network Nepal, a project I’m involved with here in Kathmandu. The co-founders, Shisir Khanal and Swastika Shrestha, have been big supporters of this initiative from the beginning, and many others involved with TFN have participated in the workshops or our community visit to Dalchoki.

Krishna Kumar KC

Krishna Kumar KC

I’ve now visited the TFN offices, met many of the TFN Fellows, administrators, and community coordinators. I’ve also observed actual classroom teaching. Throughout I’ve been impressed with the dedication, the knowledge and professionalism, and the desire to learn more and do better.

For example (and at the risk of leaving out several others), Krishna Kumar KC, Amrit Bahadur Poudel, and Nija Maharjan have been major contributors to our workshop, and absolutely necessary to the success of our extended community visit to Dalchoki.

Nija Maharjan

Nija Maharjan

The very need for projects such as TFN raises questions that people should also ask about Teach for America: Shouldn’t society as a whole assume the responsibility of full preparation and support for teachers? Shouldn’t it encourage and support teachers to stay in the profession? Shouldn’t it provide decent schools for every child?

Questions about quality education for all are even harder to answer in Nepal than they are in the US. Public schooling is limited and severely under-resourced, especially in rural areas.

In the very different economic and cultural conditions here in Nepal, Teach for Nepal is a positive force; it listens to criticisms; and it is committed to working with others. It also works closely with non-TFN teachers and the school plus community as a whole. I’ve seen little of the political agenda mentioned above.

Amrit Paudel from a deck at TFN

Amrit Poudel from a deck at TFN

In contrast to Teach for America Fellows, those in TFN typically stay in homes in the rural communities where they teach. This leads to a greater understanding of local needs and a deep personal commitment to the schools and the community.

TFN has also engaged with community members in an important student vision project. That led to an impressive mission statement,  not only for the students they serve directly, but for all children. It includes the idea that students should acquire knowledge, but also learn to “demonstrate a sense of responsibility towards people and the future of the community”. A key statement is ingrained in the TFN work: “One day all children in Nepal will attain an excellent education.”

 

Not a lonely park

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NagiGumba

The map/brochure for Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park describes it as

a lonely park to represent mid-hill ecosystem of Nepal. It is famous for globally threatened wildlife, birds, and butterflies.

I suspect a misprint, and that the text should read “a lovely park…”, which it certainly is.

There may well be lonely parts, since the park covers 159 sq km (61 sq mi), and most visitors follow one of the popular routes as I did yesterday in the Nagarjun portion of the park. What i’d say instead is that it offers a perfect blend of solitude and connection with nature interspersed with chances to interact with nice people.

(I can’t say whether people who go on these mini-treks are nicer to begin with, or just become so when they’re away from the stresses of city life, but either way they’re fun to visit with.)

Arjun and Vibatshu

Arjun and Vibatshu

Although I did see several people, especially at NagiGumba (Buddhist monastery), I was disappointed not to see any leopards, bears, thars, boars, deer, or monkeys, which reside there. I did see many birds and butterflies, mushrooms, and all sorts of subtropical  plant life. I even saw the Asian bittersweet that is so well loved on Cape Cod.

The walk up to NagiGumba is done by people of all ages, school groups, couples, and pilgrims. It’s an easy to follow trail, with steps for all the steep portions. Nevertheless, by the end of the day my knees were rubbery, my shirt was soaking wet. and I had resolved to get myself in better shape.

It was some consolation that my fitness tracker registered well over 200 floors (~3000 steps). The steps were good ones, too, with treads and risers that matched my legs. I wonder how some of the smaller children could manage it.

p1090535Along the way, I met a man who had been a mountain guide. He was walking with his 15 yo son. He gave me some good tips for hill walking. I talked with the military guards (the park is adjacent to a military camp), a couple of groups of schoolchildren, some “+2” students, and people at NagiGumba hanging prayer flags.

When I arrived at the top, I learned that there was some kind of ceremony about snakes (which I also failed to see on the trail). A monk served me slices of apples, oranges, and some pear-like fruit, which were hugely welcome after the climb.

Shivapuri Park is new (2002) and the Nagarjun portion was added just in 2009. It makes me happy to know that Nepal is able to establish these parks making possible mini-trekking in the urban area and preserving biodiversity.

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