adventure · Creative Writing · love · Poetry · Travel

For the Women who Lost Themselves. {Poem}

She lost herself in tumbling streets,

beside canals lit with fireflies flickering like stars.

She walked among couples, hand in hand,

whispering the secrets of the chosen into ears, and necks, and lips.

 

She lost herself in alleyway bars,

with milk-crate stools, and tumblers of warm amber

that burnt away the memories of another’s touch.

Men’s dark eyes watched her move across the cold stone floor,

longing for the warmth of a pretty girl’s smile.

 

She lost herself, in lakes and rivers and oceans,

drowning in the turquoise caress of water on skin,

fingers tangled in foamy waves.

She danced with mermaids to the bright song of the moon,

stardust in her hair and freedom in her heart.

 

She lost herself, in words,

her own and others.

In worlds where villains never win,

and love conquers all.

She dreams of the places where life goes on,

long after she has left them,

and there is peace in that. 

 

Author: JoJo Rowden
Image: Unsplash
Editor: Lieselle Davidson

 

Originally published at Elephant Journal here.

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love · Marriage · Travel

Our Fairytale Chateau Wedding

 

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JoJo & Cam

I met Cam in India ten years ago, on a graduate training program with the company we had both joined; he was from Sydney, and I was from London. Our holiday fling turned into something more serious, and we decided to give long distance a go. After six months apart, I moved to Sydney to be with him, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Cam proposed in a photobooth, which he had decorated with balloons, streamers and photos of us. He even remembered the red rose and a princess tiara on the seat. I just thought that it was part of my birthday celebrations, and it wasn’t until he gave me the coins to count out, that I turned back and saw the gorgeous Tiffany & Co. ring he held out to me. The camera flashed just in time to capture my utter shock!

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Our engagement snaps!

I always wanted the fairytale wedding, so getting married in a castle seemed the perfect choice. We knew that our guests would be coming from all over the world, so we decided to pick a beautiful destination, where people could relax and make a real holiday of it. We asked Marry Me In France to find our perfect venue in the land of wine and cheese. The Chateau Cazenac was everything I had dreamed of, and I fell in love with it instantly. It’s nickname is the fairytale chateau – so it was obviously meant to be!

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My dress was a Ronald Joyce design that I found whilst with my mum and sisters in the UK. I knew it was the one when I put on the veil and burst immediately into tears, then turned back to tell my mum, only to find her already crying and nodding in agreement. I wanted something with a dramatic back, and I loved the beautiful beadwork that I attached for a more glamorous look in the evening. As my Mum helped me to step into my dress, ‘Kissing You’ by Des’ree began to play, and I was completely overwhelmed with emotion.

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I left my dress a surprise for my Dad. He waited for me at the bottom of the Chateau’s spiral staircase, and the look of absolute pride on his face is an image I will treasure forever.

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We held the ceremony on the lawn outside, under the trees. It was touch and go as to whether we would be able to as it showered on and off all morning. But we made the call 15 minutes before show time, and the sun shone gloriously throughout.

Our wedding planner Louise (from Marry Me In France) was sensational. Every detail had been covered and executed to perfection. She was the first one on site in the morning, and one of the last standing at the end. I was so grateful because organising a destination wedding is pretty difficult, but she gave us brilliant advice, and answered my millions of questions with the patience of a saint! Everyone commented on how chilled out I was on the morning of the wedding, and it’s really because I knew everything was under control, and all I needed to do was turn up and tell my man how I felt about him.

My little sister did my hair and make-up. I’m so lucky to have such a talented hairdresser in the family, as I trust her implicitly, and knew that she would make sure that I looked perfect for my big day. We did two hair trials prior to the wedding, and I felt like a total princess when she was finished. She also did the hair for the entire bridal party, including an elaborate up-do on herself. She seriously amazes me.

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We wrote our own vows, so there were plenty of tears during the ceremony. I almost lost it a few times. It was important for us to make promises to each other that were heartfelt, and to let our playful side shine through at the same time. Our celebrant Roland was great fun and worked with us to make sure that the ceremony was exactly as we wanted. I walked down the aisle to ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

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Our friends are a huge part of our lives, and we wanted them to have a special place in our ceremony too. We had three readings: ‘A Gift From The Sea‘, ‘A Lovely Love Story‘ and my favourite passage from ‘His Dark Materials‘. We also asked our parents to be part of a French wedding tradition, holding out a white ribbon across our path, to be cut before we walked back down the aisle as man and wife. The idea is that the couple cut the ribbon and walk into their new life and show that together they can overcome any problems they may encounter in their married life.

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Lou organised our flowers with a local florist. She was delighted that I wanted to go for something with a real pop of colour, rather than the more traditional pale pinks and whites. We opted for deep fuchsia and purples in peonies, roses, lisianthus and alliums, which stood out against the navy of my bridesmaids’ dresses. There were some very special people missing from our celebrations; my stepdad Colin, Cam’s stepdad John, and our grandparents. I carried them with me, attached to my bouquet, and close to my heart.

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Our photographers were Mckinley-Rodgers, and they were absolutely brilliant. Pen and Cam are a super-fun couple, who made us and our guests laugh constantly on the day. They are based in Newquay, in the UK, but are soon moving back to Australia. We went to meet them for a coffee whilst on a visit home in the year before the wedding. They set us at ease immediately, and we knew that we had found life-long friends in the two of them.

Their style is very candid, and they captured the story of the day so beautifully. Even the afternoon rain showers didn’t faze them, and they managed to get one of the most impressive shots of the day inside, in an impromptu ‘Vanity Fair’ style shot of the bridal party in the Chateau kitchen.

The multi-talented pair also captured a video of our day, which makes me cry every single time I watch it. It really brings alive some of the most precious moments, in a way that stills just can’t. We absolutely love it!

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We didn’t have a specific theme, but we were going for a romantic, rustic vibe. The venue was so beautiful we didn’t need to go overboard with additional decorations. We used vintage keys for our seating plan, and Luminous Event Lighting did an amazing job with candles, fairy lights and uplighting on the chateau itself. I’m a massive literary nerd, so we named the tables after books. As Cam told everyone in his speech, our own story and table name, Mr and Mrs Swords is a tale still in the process of being written.

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We decided to embrace our destination and chose to have a cheese tower, rather than a wedding cake. The catering, including the tower, was prepared by Chez Amis. Everyone told me that I wouldn’t actually get to eat much at my own wedding, but the food was so delicious, so I made absolutely sure that I did.

We had a sweetheart table for the two of us, which gave us a chance to enjoy a few private moments together during dinner, as well as slipping away for some photographs when a beautiful mist rolled in over the hills, and again later, when we were blessed with a truly spectacular sunset.

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Our first dance was to ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ by Frankie Valli. We had thankfully taken lessons with Sydney Dance World, so we felt ready to have some fun with it. I loved the dips and lifts, and the way that my dress swirled out around me as Cam spun around. All of our guests joined in with the chorus and it really set the tone for the night ahead. We danced until 3am, and couldn’t believe how quickly the night had flown by. We didn’t want it to end!

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My favourite memories of the day were the moments that we spent laughing with each other and our loved ones. We took several moments to just stop and soak it all up, and were completely overwhelmed by the amount of joy and love in the room. All these people that we adore were under one roof, smiling and dancing and laughing, and all because of our love story. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect gift on our wedding day.

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Ms Chinoiserie Says: Congratulations JoJo and Cam; your beautifully romantic French chateau wedding was straight out of a fairytale!

Photographer: Mckinley Rodgers / Bride’s Dress: ‘Erin’ design by Ronald Joyce. / Hair and Make-Up: Rebecca Cheri / Ceremony and Reception Venue: Chateau Cazenac / Wedding Planner: Marry Me In France / Ceremony Officiant: Celebrants In France / Catering and Cheese Tower: Chez Amis / Dance Lessons: Sydney Dance World / Cinematographer: Story Catchers Films

Originally Published on Polkadot bride.com:

http://www.polkadotbride.com/2016/11/jojo-and-cams-fairytale-chateau-wedding/

http://www.polkadotbride.com/2017/06/in-love-with-my-romantic-venue-jojo/

adventure · Travel

From Mist to Memories: Tracking Gorillas in Uganda

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It’s dark when we wake, and hard to leave our snug nest of blankets to step into the early morning chill pervading our cottage.

Peering outside we can see the mist has rolled in overnight, an eerie ghost, disguising the mountain peaks in smoke-like cloud.

We dress quickly, with nervous anticipation. We have no idea what to expect today, but our fingers are firmly crossed for a sighting of the mountain gorillas we have travelled so far to see. We know that this may be a once in a lifetime experience to see these beautiful primates in their natural habitat.

After a quick breakfast, our guide drives us to the starting point, where we are briefed about the day ahead. There are only around 880 Mountain Gorillas left in the world, with half of that number found in the Uganda and Rwanda National Park areas. The gesticulation period for a gorilla is 9 months and each mother will only birth one baby every 4 years or so, in order to breastfeed them throughout that time. Increasing their numbers therefore, is a slow process.

Conservation is a massive deal here. If you are sick, you are asked to show the true heart of conservation-and give up your place on the trek you have dreamed of and planned so carefully for. Devastating, but necessary: gorillas are susceptible to our human diseases, and it would be horribly unfair to put them at risk.

We are only permitted to spend an hour with the family, once we find them. This ensures that they get enough space from humans, without us overstepping their boundaries. They are not aggressive animals by nature, unless you threaten or agitate them, and we certainly don’t plan on doing either.

The cost of our permit (though fairly high at $600 USD each) is plowed back into conservation and the local community. The Ranger explains that the pygmies that lived in the forest have now been displaced by the Government’s conservation policies, due to their tendency to hunt the gorillas for meat. I am torn between conflicting feelings: sadness for a culture forced out of their homes, and relief that the gorilla’s only predator is no longer a threat to them. It’s a hard contradiction for me to balance.

The track is long and winding. The hills are pretty brutal and we are each given a walking stick to make the hike more manageable. We are put into a group with others of a similar age and fitness level, because each route has different terrain and lengths, and we will hike until we find the gorillas, even if it takes us 12 hours.

The trackers are out ahead of us, communicating back to the ranger which way the gorillas are headed. It’s impressive to hear about the signs they use to understand the gorillas movements: droppings, flattened grass direction, broken branches, leftover food. Our group is flanked front and back by armed soldiers. The sight of the guns makes me feel uneasy, but the ranger assures us that the guns are only used to fire a scare shot in to the air if animals turn aggressive. There are more than just gorillas in this area, and wild animals are, of course, unpredictable.

We push on, over tree branches and through deep sucking mud. We slip and stumble all over the place, mirroring the footsteps of the person in front. The cicadas sing and their steady hum is punctuated only by birdsong and our laboured breathing. The ranger tells us to watch out for the elephant footprint ahead, which has already filled with muddy water, and would have us knee deep in muck if we stepped into it. I can’t stop staring as I pass it.

After 3 hours we are told that the gorillas are now close. It’s time to leave our backpacks behind and scramble deeper into the rainforest. The trackers go ahead, cutting through vines and branches with machetes. It’s not called the Impenetrable National Park for nothing.

There are several moments where I am massively grateful to be young and fit. As I literally haul myself up and down escarpments, with only mulch underfoot to support my weight, I wonder how many people are forced to give up at this point. A thorn in my socks distracts me, and I look down to free myself, before realising two giant safari ants are caught in the cotton and are biting me ferociously. The tracker bends and plucks them off me with his bare hands, and I smile my thanks gratefully.

The ranger halts our procession and indicates to his right with a nod of his head. I look up and time stands still. Meters away, sits the majestic silverback looking out across his domain. There is nothing between us, and if he wanted, he could reach our group in one minute flat. I am in awe of his colossal size. Muscles ripple across his dark shoulders and chest. He almost doesn’t look real. He turns his huge head and looks directly at us. Those solemn eyes look straight into my soul and I am instantly mesmerised.

He pays us no heed and we whisper and shuffle to get a better view. I snap a few pictures and remember the advice I read earlier in the trip- to just be there in the moment, watching through my own eyes, rather than the lens of a camera.

The big guy is calm. The literal translation of his African name is ‘Peace’ and in the cool dark canopy of his forest, it is easy to see why. This is his kingdom, and he permits us to pay our respects to him.

The trackers cut more branches so that we can all see properly, making gorilla grunting noises as they work, to let the silverback know that we are friends. Now and again he thrills us with a response to them. When he has had enough he hulks himself upright and ambles on massive knuckles into the undergrowth.

We sit stunned, grinning at one another. But our encounter isn’t over yet. The trackers lead us deeper into the foliage, pointing out the baby gorillas that now clamber and swing from branch to branch. We are instructed to stay as one group. If we split up and surround the family, they will think we are trying to capture them. They have long memories, and the fear of poachers is deeply ingrained.

I can’t explain the way I felt in that moment, watching them. The way their age-old faces looked intelligently back at me, wise and all-knowing. The way they played, tumbling and somersaulting for our attention. It was poetry in motion, a natural magic, and I know that my re-telling will never do the memory justice. And that’s ok. Some experiences were never meant to be bound by words or photographs anyway.

The hour passes in wonderment. I’m literally sat on the forest floor; filthy, sweaty and being feasted on by bugs, but I don’t care. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone in the world right now. As we turn to leave, one of the family clambers up into a high tree- a sentinel watching over their lands.

We wave a final goodbye, and head off, back into the mists.

Image: Author’s Own

First Published on Elephant Journal here.

adventure · Travel

Letting Go of Our Preconceptions: A Lesson From Bosnia.

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I’ll admit that when my husband suggested Bosnia as part of our three month honeymoon adventure, I hesitated.

My initial thoughts flew to abandoned buildings, water dripping on to rusting corrugated iron, and walls riddled with bullet holes. I googled ‘landmines in Bosnia’ and immediately wished that I hadn’t. 

I mentioned our plans to my sister, who voiced my own concerns incredulously. “Bosnia? That sounds…dangerous?” 

But I had been waiting for an adventure, and here was one just asking to be had. I was fed up of letting media images and fear dictate where I could wander. More research promised that Bosnia and Herzegovina (to give the country its full name) was full of natural beauty, a vibrant culture and low violent crime rates. I felt reassured that we were being responsible, safety-wise, and was ready to head off of the popular tourist track to see for myself.

We hopped onto our waiting coach from Dubrovnik, following the glistening ocean along a dramatic coastline. The coach was pretty empty, which felt telling to say the least. 

As we reached the outskirts of Mostar, I began to feel a little nervous. The ghosts of war hang heavier around these parts. The roadside is punctuated by individual graves and street graffiti calls on us to remember those years of chaos. 

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The ruined buildings stand solemn, creeping with lush green plants through now empty window frames. The abundance of natural life is a stark contrast to the destruction wreaked here. ‘Danger‘ and ‘Do Not Enter‘ signs remind us that despite the rebuild efforts, the scars of the war remain visible, some 20 years later. 

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Our cab driver is a jolly man, who slips interchangeably between German and English. We discover that he took his children to Germany during the war to keep them safe, but he, unlike many others, decided to return to his homeland once it had ended. Approximately half the population made an escape at that time, especially those with inter-religious/cultural marriages, who would have been forced to fight against the family of their loved ones. It suddenly feels much more real to me; no longer nameless faces on the news, but living, breathing families with lives that were seriously impacted by the violence around them.

A local man, Sacha, guides us around. He is warm, funny, and there’s no subject off limits. “People will tell you we have made no progress,” he tells us, “they just like to complain. We really have moved forwards- socially, economically and politically. Not as much, or as quickly as we would like, but enough to be proud of. Things here are changing.” 

After our tour ends he invites us to accompany him on his walk back to his office, beyond the old town. There are less tourists out here, and it feels like we are seeing some of the ‘real’ Mostar. We pass construction sites, schools and monuments, before crossing the old front line dividing the Christian and Muslim sides of the city. “That wouldn’t have been safe to do 15 years ago,” he explains, “you would have been killed on sight. But no one blinks an eye now.”

Sobering to say the least. 

After a farewell fit for old friends, we leave Sacha and pass a cemetery. There’s something strange about this one and it takes me a few minutes to work out what it is. The realisation hits me like a punch to the stomach. Every single year of death marked is 1992. Many of these war victims were just kids, their pictures captured in stone for eternity. My heart aches as we walk silently among them.

Later we return to the old bridge through the comforting hubbub of old town. Architecturally, the bridge is stunning: a single arch defying the laws of physics. We sit awhile, watching the white stone rainbow float over the river Neretva. It is a proud symbol of reconciliation and communities connected once again. 

Crowds of locals gather here, singing, talking, eating. Two men laugh and gesticulate wildly to each other. Even without their native tongue, I understand the universal language of the dare. They egg each other on until both are removing their shirts and shoes, leaping (with their trousers still firmly in place), into eight-degree water.  Everyone cheers and claps, as they swagger proudly to the shore, posing for photographs. 

The biggest excitement comes when the Mostari, the keepers of the bridge, leap from the tallest point of the bridge, at around 24 meters high. My stomach leaps into my throat as they plummet to the surface. For a fee, you can be trained to do the same and earn a lifetime membership as a Mostari. Not for me thank you very much.

We are welcomed with smiles everywhere we go. A copper smith shows us his workshop and gives me a gift when I buy some of his work. The hotel staff go above and beyond, carrying my heavy case up and down stairs, despite my protests. Beautiful strains of traditional song drift over to us as we eat hearty home cooked meals and we talk and joke with restaurant owners. There is joy here, and laughter comes easily, made even more poignant by the tragic history that is never far from my mind. 

As we head on to Sarajevo, we pass some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen, anywhere. Mountains soar above a turquoise green river, picture perfect. The media never shows us this side of this beautiful country and I start to feel ashamed for having lived in ignorance for so long. For letting the news reels of burning buildings and tanks influence my impressions.

And yet, isn’t this all part of the joy of travelling? Expanding our horizons? Overcoming our fears and preconceptions?

I have learned a valuable lesson from this vulnerable, beautiful place. I decide that I will always seek to explore with my own two eyes, and come to my own conclusions, safety permitting. All I can do is share my findings in the hope that they inspire others to do the same for themselves.

Hvala ti Bosna. Until we meet again. 

~

Author: JoJo Rowden

Image: Author’s own

Originally Published on Elephant Journal here.

adventure · Travel

How to Have an Adventure Every Damn Day.

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For as long as I can remember, there has been a part of me that longs for the sublime.

adventure · Spiritual · Travel

Unplugged: a Gift to Myself.

JoJo Rowden

Silent trees stand solemn, guarding the secrets of the ancients.

Ripples on the river, lazily chasing each other across a mirrored surface.
There is no urgency here.
Time stands still,
And I, with it.

A symphony of birds are my alarm clock,
My soul awakens gently
Stretching itself out towards the tendrils of sunshine
That creep below the tent canvas in a crescendo of dawn colour.

It’s hard to imagine myself now
Pushing through corporate streets of grey and black.
Miserable faces in a crowded prison.
Slave to email and time, confinements of our own creation.
Always connected to the Mothership
Instead of Mother Earth.
We poison ourselves, slowly, digitally.
We forget who we were
Before the world told us who we ought to be.

I remind myself to slow down, to heal.
To breathe in the crisp air deeply, Jasmine Star and wet grass
Exhaling the city smog and all of it’s responsibilities.
Refreshing my creative heart
Instead of browser windows.

I revel in myself; my thoughts and my dreams
And I am aware once again
That alone is not lonely.
My company is a treasured gift
That I give happily to others
Yet not to myself.
Today is different.
Today I am my own bestfriend.

Here, among the patriotic colours of the forest,
Shimmering golds and greens sing of the true heart of this country.
There are no meetings to schedule,
No places to be.
Just me and my yoga mat
Beneath a cloudless cobalt sky.

First published on elephant journal here.

adventure · love · Poetry · Spiritual · Travel

Finding a Message in a Bottle. {Poem}

 

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The secrets of the universe sheathed in glass, shielded from prying eyes.

Her small fingers wrap longingly around the delicate bottle, cradling it gently to her chest.

She knows that once she lets the world inside, there can be no return to the ecstasy of her unconscious imaginings.

Only the rugged cork guards the tantalizing mystery, preserving the magic inside.

The possibilities are endless and she entertains them all.

 

Azure waters creeping softly onto snow-white sand banks,

Embracing the desolate shore with foam tipped fingers.

Perhaps it contains a tattered map; a trail to rubies and luminous pearls,

Hidden long ago by breathless visitors.

A forgotten island, where stars sparkle brighter than gemstones ever could.

 

Maybe it is a letter from a stranger to his estranged lover.

Words that caress and soothe her troubled heart, that still beats for him.

Silken whispers of her radiant eyes and lustrous hair,

And how they enrapture him.

Promises of eternity, and a plea to meet, that never found her.

How long did he wait for her among the wildflowers?

 

Neither of these seem quite fitting to her.

A beloved recipe then?

A legacy from another lifetime, a window to a war-torn world of hardship.

Passed down from a silver haired grandmother with a knowing smile.

The gift that will be appreciated only after she has left this world behind;

A note scrawled in the margin that the secret ingredient

Is always a dash of love.

 

She can wait no longer.

She releases the genie from the bottle.

The soft note flutters in the ocean breeze, a sailboat on the wind of life

And the secret of the sea shows itself in all its beauty.

“Everything you can imagine is real.” 

 

She nods, serenely, eyes glistening with blissful tears.

She knows what to do.

She starts to wade into the furious ocean, and lets the waves crash over her

Trusting in the possibilities unknown,

that live in all of us.

~

Photos: Susanne Nilsson/flickr

First published on EJ here.