Interview with John Vourlis (’88)

“A vacation with an altruistic twist sounded very intriguing. I checked out the itinerary: Grand Norling Resort Hotel, Mt. Everest flight, Lumbini—the birthplace of the Buddha, Chitwan National Park—home to elephants, rhinos and tigers! Not one, but two Buddhist monasteries.”

1. How did you come to visit Nepal, and in particular travel with the Yoga for Freedom group? The arrangements/itinerary seem to combine aspects of spirituality, adventure, sight-seeing, volunteerism, cultural immersion. What especially appealed to you?

I found out about the Yoga For Freedom trip in a yoga class at Cleveland Yoga, in Beachwood, Ohio, where many of the travelers practiced.  It was around Christmas of 2009, and one of the teachers there mentioned a trip that was taking place the following summer to Nepal.  It was a part of the world I had always wanted to see, so I filed that little bit of information away in the back of my brain as something I might want to do. 

When I first heard about the trip, I was working as a freelance writer, splitting my time between Los Angeles and Cleveland. I headed back to LA  for business not long after that class, and soon forgot about the trip, until one day an ad for it popped up on my Facebook page. 

I clicked on the Facebook ad, and realized that this must be the trip the yoga instructor in Cleveland had mentioned. I sent an email to Jesse Bach, the trip organizer, asking him if there were still spots available. He wrote back with an introductory letter and brochure.

From: <Jesse Bach>

To: <John Vourlis>

Date: Sun, Jan 24, 2010 9:00 am

Well this might sound like it was planned, but it totally wasn’t. I just opened my e-mail this morning [and] the first message was an unfortunate cancellation; a member of Yoga for Freedom had to drop out. The second e-mail was you . . .

Attached to this e-mail is our brochure and description letter;  . . .fill out the application and send it to me . . . so I can hold [a spot] for you . . . .

– Jesse Bach

The brochure read, “Yoga for Freedom: One traveler, two lives forever changed. . . . This trip is life changing for all people involved; the traveler as well as the child who this trip will support.” A vacation with an altruistic twist sounded very  intriguing.  I checked out the itinerary: Grand Norling Resort Hotel, Mt. Everest flight, Lumbini—the birthplace of the Buddha, Chitwan National Park—home to elephants, rhinos and tigers! Not one, but two Buddhist monasteries. Yoga twice a day, morning and evening. This trip sounded amazing. I wanted in. So I immediately filled out the form, sent Jesse the initial deposit check, and with that I was on the list to go to Nepal.

2. Can you give us an elevator pitch version of Nepal—a place of beggars, beauty, electric power schedules, prayer flags, stupas, Maoists, monks, poverty, political unrest, pagodas?

There’s a section of the book, near the beginning, I entitled, “Why Nepal?” All of us on that trip got asked that question often, before and after the trip. That chapter sums up all the contradictions, all the beauty and wonder and amazement and fascination that this little Third World country half way around the world held for me:

Going to Nepal isn’t like traveling to Disneyworld or hiking the Grand Canyon. It’s not like going on a tropical vacation or a ski trip to Aspen. Things we take for granted in the United States, like electricity, refrigerators, and air conditioning, are extreme rarities in Nepal. Garbage collection, traffic lights, and street signs are almost non-existent . . . . Nepal may be a small country, but it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. You can take in spectacular vistas of the highest mountains on earth one day, and the next day join an elephant safari through lowland jungles where you can see rhinos and tigers in the wild  . . . . Nepal is also one of the most spiritual places in the world. Monks are as common in Nepal as teenagers in a western shopping mall.

3. In part, this trip helped to support the children in the Nepal Orphans Home, some of whom were rescued from the Kamlari system, a kind of slavery. What are the long range plans for these children?

 Let me quote straight from the webpage for NOH:

Established in 2005, Nepal Orphans Home (NOH) is a charitable organization administered in North Carolina, with operations in Nepal. NOH operates four children’s homes for more than 130 boys and girls in the Kathmandu Valley. The children are orphans or have parents unable to provide for them. Most of the children in the homes are girls, since they are more likely to be subjected to abuse and deprivation in Nepal.  More than half of our girls have been rescued from lives of bonded servitude. . . .  Michael Hess, has committed his life to . . . giving them a chance to grow up with an education and health care. Along with these basic rights, the children experience a happier childhood, a safer environment, three meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and suitable clothing . . . . Our mission is not just to rescue children from abject poverty, but to enable the children to develop and realize their potentials.

4. What were some of the difficulties of putting this book together from the experiences and journals of 20 travelers?

First there was the challenge of combing through almost 20 journals kept over months by each of the travelers to find the nuggets that belonged in a book like this—it was always our idea that the book should be based on journals everyone kept. Then there was the even bigger challenge of stringing all those little pearls of wisdom, insight, and emotional response together into a cohesive narrative. This required me to become the narrator of the story, which demanded a great deal of care and thought both in what I wrote and what I didn’t. I didn’t want to judge the travelers, but I did want very much to relate the story of our journey in a truthful, honest, warts-and-all way.

Once I had a rough manuscript, I decided to add photographs (a couple of the travelers were not just yoga teachers but also professional photographers who took some amazing photos of our trip), and that turned out to be an even bigger challenge, because along the way to finishing the book, I had decided to self-publish it as well. I had no idea how difficult finding an affordable way to print a book with quality color images at a reasonable cost would be. It took me six months of research to nail down the right printer at the right price. Four years and 470 finished pages later, now the big challenge is to get the world to know about the book—and buy it!

5. Could you talk about screenwriting—your introduction to it, your projects?

I have been writing screenplays since around the time I was getting my MA in English at CWRU. I wrote a script based on a Thomas Hardy short story for an independent study class with Lou Giannetti, my then mentor and now good friend. Lou pointed me in a direction and said head that way, and without a clue, I did. I ended up later on at USC Film School, where I really learned the craft under the tutelage of some fine instructors like Frank Daniel and Paul Lucey. I never stopped working at the craft, and I finally got good enough to write some scripts for some pretty talented people like James Cromwell and Charles Martin Smith and Ron Underwood, guys in the business I really respect, but as is the case with most scripts, even the good ones, in Hollywood, none of the projects ever got made. I have a script now that I wrote and want to produce and direct about local Cleveland politics in the ‘70s, but the challenge with that is if you want to make a movie outside the Hollywood system, you have to raise the money yourself. So that’s where that project remains—in the funding stage. It’s easier to write a book.

6. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?

Yes, the day Roger Salomon welcomed me into the English Department graduate program. Lou Giannetti introduced me to him, and Roger was instrumental in guiding me through the MA program. Lee Abbott, who taught fiction back in those days, was also instrumental. He was a living, breathing, right-in-front-of-my-eyes example of a real working writer, and that was inspiring to me. From the time I was a young kid, I had always been an avid reader, but until I got to Case, and met Lou and Roger and Lee, I never really had the confidence to write myself. That’s where I learned that not only could I write, but that I might actually be pretty good at it.


John Vourlis has 20+ years experience working in the entertainment industry. He is currently an Adjunct Instructor in Film and Digital Media at Cleveland State University. Most recently he was a VP/General Manager at the Academy Award-winning and Emmy Award-winning motion picture specialty lighting company, Luminys Systems Corp.

John is a published author of short stories, including “A Case of Insomnia” in the Sherlock Holmes anthology Shadows Over Baker Street. John has also been writing screenplays for 20 years. He was a semi-finalist for the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting and has written nine scripts for the children’s’ educational DVD series Rainbow Valley Police Department, as well as the text for several video games.

John was recently nominated for Best Ohio Director at the Indie Gathering International Film Festival for his short film, “Rocket from the Grave.” The film also received 2nd Prize for Best Short-Comedy Drama at the festival. His company, Hometown Media Productions, is currently making a feature documentary on the game of bocce and producing a new sci-fi adventure comic book series called Time Spanners.

John has an MFA in Film Production from the highly acclaimed USC school of Cinema-Television, as well as an MA in English and a BS in Engineering from Case Western Reserve University. He worked in Space Propulsion Technology at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland before embarking on his career in film.