A Fine Line to Travel


When Dawn and Phil Fine plan family vacations with their daughter, Noe, 13, it has to be somewhere they’ve never been before. And not a typical family choice. So far, they have visited 40 countries, including Haiti, Iran, Israel, Palestine and Vietnam.

Dawn said, “My dad has always been interested in cultural anthropology, and I grew up visiting remote tribal areas around the world. Ours are never relaxing vacations, but I love all the new experiences, sights, tastes and smells. Being somewhere new also forces us to reflect on our common humanity as well as our cultural differences.”

For their most recent vacation, the Fines took Noe’s friend (who also lives in Topanga), Marley Gazaryants,12, along with them. They flew to Paro, the capital of Bhutan, and travelled through the country by car.

“In Bhutan, it was interesting how their religious beliefs and mythology, natural environment, national identity, and cultural history are all indistinguishable and merged into a common and accepted belief system,” said Dawn. After nine days there, they flew to Kathmandu and Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.

Noe (pronounced like Zoe), a student at A.E.Wright Middle School, Calabasas, takes up the story. “There was a tiny village with a beautiful lodge by a river. But the best part was that all around there were elephants roaming through the grassy plains. They are so cute and friendly, but Marley and I didn’t only get to look at the elephants, we took a bath with one. It was the most amazing and thrilling experience I have ever had throughout my travels.

“We held his long, strong ears and sat on his trunk as the elephant raised it over his head and put us on his back one by one. Marley and I were concerned about hurting the elephant, but my parents and the owner assured us that it didn’t hurt him. The elephant brought us to the river, then it waded in and a big splash of water hit us in the face. The elephant had sucked up water into his trunk and sprayed us. He continued for a while, until he surprised us again by flopping on his side, and Marley and I fell off. The owner showed us how to wash the elephant by splashing it with water and rubbing its body.

“The elephant seemed almost as happy as us to be washed. It really surprised me how obedient and well trained he was. We sat comfortably on his back as he gave us a ride back to our hotel.”

As they do on all their trips, the Fines had researched items they could take to help the communities they visited. Weeks before they left for Nepal, Noe and Marley, along with other Topanga girls, made reusable sanitary napkin kits under the guidance of Jane Donaldson at Sew Topanga.

“We gave the kits to Jane’s friend, Nasreen, in Nepal,” said Dawn. “Each kit included a reusable pad holder, two reusable pads, soap and underwear—all in a handmade cinch bag. The Nepali women were impressed that the girls had made them. The kits will be taken to local schools to educate the girls there.”

Girls are often banished to a shed during menstruation with no support or explanation as to what is happening to them. Noe and Marley didn’t meet many girls their age, but heard stories of the responsibilities some have, especially in rural communities where “girls living high in the mountains have to walk three miles down to the river every day and walk back up with fresh water for the village,” said Noe.  

Nevertheless, she thought Bhutan seemed like a good place to live. “I loved it, because it was so beautiful, and everyone was nice. It’s safe there. The food is really good, and a lot of their food is vegetarian. In Bhutan, you’re not allowed to kill an animal, even for food, which I love because I don’t eat meat.”

A student at Lindero Canyon Middle School, Agoura Hills, Marley also loved her Asian adventure. She said, “Like Noe, the part I enjoyed the most was bathing and riding on the elephant. Also, the jungle safari in Nepal, seeing exotic animals such as rhinoceroses and monkeys. It was an experience I will never forget. My favorite country was Bhutan, because it was peaceful, and everyone was so kind. I would definitely live there if I get the chance.”

As this piece is being written, the Fines are currently in East Africa. “Ethiopia has been on my short list for years,” said Dawn, who runs a wholesale jewelry business in Topanga with her father, Gary Schulberg.

“We happened upon an amazing online flight sale and grabbed the tickets on a whim. Once we started looking into what there is to see and do there, we realized how much the country has to offer. It’s rich with natural, historical and cultural wonders.”

The next time any Messenger readers want to travel, may they take inspiration from the Fine approach.


Claire Fordham

Fordham worked for the BBC, ITN and Sky News in the UK and wrote a weekly anecdotal column for Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun. She currently writes regularly for Huffington Post, The Malibu Times and the Messenger Mountain News. See "A Chat with Claire Fordham" on this website under Podcasts.

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