Monday, October 15, 2012

Stan's Final Journey

Dr. Stanley C. Diamond has embarked upon his biggest journey yet.....sadly, he passed away on Saturday, October 13th, 2012.  Below is his obituary as it appeared in the local paper.  Thank you for following Stan's blog.  He enjoyed sharing his experiences and knowledge with the thousands of you all over the world.

Dr. Stanley C. Diamond, 80, beloved husband and soul mate of Beverly for 52 years, loving father of Dr. Gary Diamond (Rivi) and Jodi Finkel (Dr. Len), adored Bebop of Ross, Gabby, and Harrison Finkel and Orian and Yahel Diamond.  Lifelong educator, including 16 years as teacher and director at Akiba Lower School, where he was fondly referred to as "Mr D". Founder and director of the Mill Creek School, at the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital.  He enjoyed 32 years at summer camps in various roles. 

Stan was active in the Civil Rights movement.  He founded the local chapter of Congress of Racial Equality, and participated in sit-ins and other acts of protest, including marches on Washington.  He was involved in Freedom Rides and founded the Coordinating Council for School Integration, which was an extensive coalition of local organizations designed to end segregation in the Philadelphia Schools. He was on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council.  He was one of the first recipients of the Sylvia Cohen Award for inter-group work in the community.  Together with John White, Stan co-founded the Mt. Airy Coalition for Youth.  In 1983, he organized the first Northwest Interfaith Movement (NIM) celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which has remained an annual celebration in the community.  Stan also participated actively in the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which was housed at Germantown Jewish Center.  Stan was the member of the executive committee of the Interfaith Coalition for the General Welfare, working with the homeless and needy.  Most recently, he was the recipient of the Rev. Richard R. Fernadez Religous Leadership Award to honor his extensive volunteer work in the interfaith and civil rights communities.

Stan thoroughly enjoyed bicycling and tennis.  He was an avid traveller, visiting over 75 countries, prize-winning photographer, and an accomplished author.  He published many articles on education and travel, and recently published a book on third world travel entitled, "What's an American Doing Here". 

Stan was most proud of his loving wife, and cherished children and grandchildren.  His goal in life was to leave this world and those people he touched better off for his having existed"

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Along the Mayan Trail

      Since I have been to Mexico and Central America a good number of times, I have had the opportunity to visit most of the areas where the Mayan civilization flourished and have been lucky enough to explore the major sites where the culture was most fully in evidence and the buildings were the best preserved remnants of their legacy. While my voyages in Mayan areas has failed to make me a fan of that very violent and war-like culture, one cannot help admiring the achievements of that long disappeared civilization. The fact that the major sites the Mayans left for us are not very far away and are relatively accessible to us gringos has made my explorations easy. I enjoy visiting Mexico and Meso-America generally so spending time viewing the amazing buildings and wonderful stellae and sculpures enhanced the travels I have made in those parts of the world.

     While origins of the Mayan culture can be traced back several thousand years, the population of these people increased significantly about 800 BCE as the earlier Olmec Indians began to disappear from the area and continued for some 1600 years more. The Mayans controlled some or all of the lands of the Olmecs, the Totenacs, the Mixtecs and other Indian cultures during that long span of history. Their civilization stretched from the Yucutan all the way down to what is now Honduras. They built large cities which became centers of their religion and their commerce and government
and then abandoned those places for occasionally unknown reasons. Lack of water, wars, disease, and other likely catastrophes caused the people to uproot themselves and move to other sites. We need to remember that the Yucutan itself is a riverless area. The cenotes or deep, watery wells supplied the water needs of the area as they do today.

      The discoveries of written language, astronomical observations and incredible architecture are what make visitation to the major sites so fascinating. One can start with Uxmal and Chichen Itza in the Yucutan as well as smaller sites to get an idea of the architectural beauty the Mayans achieved without the use of wheeled carriers for the great stones they built with and without the true arch and keystones which are almost universal in equivalent buildings in other parts of the world. Temples like El Castillo and the Palace of the Magicians are central to the cleared, cluster of impressive buildings in that area of the Mayan culture. Further south in Chiapas we come to Palenque where the jungle has encircled the great site with its many structures of palaces and temples and an impressive group of buildings nestled alongside the forest. A drive through the neighboring country of Belize takes the traveler to several small, yet still quite interesting sites, until that path terminates at Tikal in Guatemala, one of the most impressive locales of all. The encroaching forest that encircles this great center with its towering temples and central plaza reminded me of Ta Prohm in Cambodia where one can witness nature even today slowly enveloping some of man's most elaborate creations.  In both places the battle between the mighty roots of the jungle trees and great pillars that hold up the buildings created there hundreds of years ago is dramatic and adds to the fascination of the site.

     While there are a few more places the Mayans constructed for the ages, the last of the major treats is in Honduras to where the empire's border stretched. In the structures at Copan in Honduras one can get perhaps the most informative view of the classical period up to the beginning of the tenth century. This group of buildings was unearthed toward the end of the nineteenth century and it contains an acropolis with a monumental stairway and a host of sculptures and glyphs that provide perhaps more insight into the now extinct Mayan culture than any of the other great cities that sit along this amazing path. And all of this is but a couple of hours away. Don't rush to fly over the oceans until you have trodden the jungle trails to the south of us.

Temple of Eagles and Jaguars
Chichen Itza, Yucutan, Mexico

Monday, September 3, 2012

Where Will My Artifacts Go?

     As I have written earlier, my house- the walls, the shelves and the tables- are covered with artifacts from my many years of travel. Yet I don't expect to travel any more and, even if I do, I surely will not return laden with additions to my collection. All of our travel items were bought either because of their appeal to us or the memories they represent, or they became additions to the examples of art and culture I shared with the audiences I lectured to about the Third World. They all remind me of delicious past pleasures and experiences and/or contain palpable information to help folks understand what my travel in Laos or Belize or Ecuador was all about.

     But that is all over. My wife and I sometimes joke about the sale that will be held after we leave this house where everything will go for a dollar an item (an artifact dollar store with lots of bargains). That may not really be a joke. These artifacts will never be worth to others as much as they are to us. They will be regarded as bargains, picked up at a house sale in the neighborhood. How fortuitous! No story will accompany my gable mask from New Guinea and no future owner will ever imagine the countless evil spirits that were turned away because it stands at the head of our stairway.  If we had just picked up travel items for our own memories, there would not be such a plethora of them in our home, yet the additional small but worthy additions collected to enhance my lectures and covering about two dozen travel experiences are also articles of value, at least to us.

     Because, the stories that accompany them are at least as important to me as the objects themselves, I am working to have at least my roughly one hundred masks kept together as a collection after I can no longer enjoy them. Each one is already labeled with its tribal origin, locality and other pieces of information. Just the placement of such a collection in a site where one might peruse them and learn about mask making or tribal life in the world would be very satisfying to me. The group of rather unique examples of Indian tribal metalwork would also be significant enough to make an informative and attractive display. Getting these placed in the best sites for educating the viewer are current efforts on my part. Suggestions, anyone?

     It is interesting to contemplate the remaining power of the items on my walls and tables and in the travel bags assembled for lectures. When someone visits our house, they are very often fascinated by these and tend to peruse them with interest and inquiry. I walk along explaining the origins of each item and what it represents. That will not be the case forever. A collection, an interaction, and exchange of information and a lovely conversation will be lost. Where does all that go? I guess it disappears in the mist of the future but it has earned its worth quite fully in the present and the past.

Maskmaker, Rural Bulgaria

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Photo Journey

      I am not an exceptional photographer but whatever I have learned about that craft is a product of my travels in the Third World. Developing skills in such an interesting undertaking is a very welcome byproduct of my voyages. Over many years of visiting different parts of the world, I have taken a multitude of photos which I brought home to share with my family and friends, much as most tourists do as a matter of course. Who does not take a camera with them for beach visits or voyages with friends? That is what I did for many years. It was only some 20 or so years ago that I upgraded my camera to an SLR with two lenses so I could expand on scenes I was unable to capture before. I had always had a decent sense of how to frame a scene but I surely lacked any of the other skills that go into photographic expertise. On one occasion however, I was at my local camera store picking up some 8" by 10" prints to frame for my walls at home when the clerk commented about how I had captured some really fine shots. There was a woman standing next to me in line who looked at the prints and suggested I had some real talent and should consider joining her camera club. I eventually took her advice and that changed my investment in photography from a casual interest to a serious pursuit.

       I had a lot of beginner's luck in the club competitions I entered after I joined. Most of that I ascribe to the subject matter of my work. My New Guinea witchdoctor or mudmen and Peruvian llama herders were just such wonderful things to photograph, it was hard not to get a decent picture wherever you pointed the camera. I began to think if myself as a decent photographer as I delved more deeply into the technical aspects of camera work. Yet I think it has always been the interesting subjects who surround me on my adventures who account for whatever succcess I have had. I have never sought out high quality lenses or professional camera equipment of any kind. On my trips, I carry a bag with an additional lens, a separate flash, a small tripod and a few extra batteries. Most of the accomplished photographers I know are likely to add another camera body and lot more sophisticated equipment but my focus has always been on the travel so I do not burden myself carrying a big, accessory bag the way some others do.

      Another difference between me and my competitors at the camera club are the number of photos I take and the amount of work I do with them afterwards. I have learned some Photoshop but I use it to get my shots clearer and sharper and brighter, not to rearrange parts of the photos or seek perfection in the quality of what I photograph. It was only after a trip to tribal India, however, that I came upon the major distinction between me and certain dedicated camera addicts. I met a man about my age who proclaimed that he had won many prizes and whose wife lauded him as a very superior and widely published portrait photographer. Since that is my favorite kind of photo I was immediately interested in his work. And it was good. He invited me to join him in touring the red light district and another area in Mumbai where we met on our way to a tribal tour. I went along with him. I found it quite disconcerting and intrusive when he occasionally leapt out of our cab to point his camera right at the women, something I might term "zoo photography." His subjects were not happy to have such attention nor were some folks at our next stop who were sitting along the street and begging alms from strangers. He did not ask for permission for his photos nor did he show any sensitivity to the privacy of his subjects. That is not the way I photograph nor is it a courteous or respectful way to deal with people. I lost my interest in his photography quite rapidly and quickly understood how he came to take such good portraits. He was insulting and rude. Not for me.

      I have seen others behave the same way and wanted no part of that whatsoever. The same man asked me to take a walk with him along the street of the next town we stopped in. I had not yet learned my lesson so I acceded to his invitation. What followed was his practically pushing his camera right into the face of passers-by without even an acknowledgement that normal behavior would have required at least a request for permission to take a photo. Embarrassed and insulted Indians walked past us rapidly, unquestionably feeling on display for the pleasure of a very rude traveler. We his prize winners worth that price? Absolutely not. My lack of willingness to do "rude" photography has not prevented me from winning some prizes and using my photos for many travel lectures with success.
I will settle for that.

      I cannot think of a single photo I took before or after that experience without clearly obtaining permission from the person whose face I wanted to capture or whom I failed to engage in some conversation to bring us closer. I make it a point to avoid scenes of poverty, illness, desperation and other circumstances which most people take no pride in and prefer not to share with others. I will just have to settle for second prize, I imagine. That is a price I am willing to pay. For me, the tourist footprint is more important than his pleasure.

Kuna Indian Woman,
San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunday, August 12, 2012

It is a Matter of Taste

     I read an article the other day about the ten best places to visit in Mexico. When I finished, I had this question floating about in my mind, "Whose ten best places?" If I were a beach goer or wanted to stay in the most secure and popular locations in the country, the article would have been informative. But the suggestions were hardly the ten most interesting or informative or entertaining places in that fascinating country. What stood out for me immediately was the omission of Mexico City, one of the richest and most varied travel destinations in the world. Yes, in the world! And it did not make that list. Just to note a few things that are located within easy reach of the center of Mexico City we begin with the Zocalo itself, a central square that is the most impressive in the New World. It is encircled by the Metropolitan cathedral, the array of colonial government buildings including the National Palace which houses Rivera's famous murals of the history of the country, and the Templo Mayor, one of the finest digs in pre-Colombian times where the  city of Tenochlitan once stood before its destruction by the conquistadors. Add to these the nearby Palace of Art, the Museum of Anthropology which is my favorite museum in the world, and the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe where Indians come on pilgrimage from the distant hills in full regalia to dance and to celebrate the saint they revere, and more. This was not on the list. I had to wonder if the author was ever there. One can also take the short drive from the center of Mexico City to view one of the great archaeological sites of the world, the ancient, mysterious city of Teotihuacan. The pyramids uncovered there are are almost as grand as those in Egypt. It is strange to me that anyone could leave this historical landmark off any travel list.

      Of course the most spectacular features of the Mexican landscape are the Mayan religious centers some built a thousand or 1500 years ago. The one small and relatively insignificant mention of these was Tulum, perhaps because it was near Cancun and more easily available. But one of the ten best choices- hardly. It is a minor site and not worth going out of the way to see. Omitted were the spectacular ruins of Palenque, Chichen Itza (the Castillo) and Uxmal (the Palace of Magicians), as well as many places in the Yucutan which are far more interesting than Tulum. The great underground series of wells or cenotes used by the Mayans for their sustenance makes for many beautiful visits in the countryside. If one tries to travel through Mexico without seeing the great pyramids at those sites, the most important destinations in the country have been missed. The vast variety of architecture from Mayan times and from the Olmecs, Totenacs, Mixtecs and other Indian cultures make a trip to Mexico worthwhile in itself. That notion did not make the list either nor did the beautiful museums Mexicans have built to highlight the sculpture and arts of those cultures get mentioned. I consider the archaeological museums of Mexico to be the finest in the world.

     Another important and fascinating site is Oaxaca where colorful handicraft villages fill the surrounding area and a variety of interesting architectural sites are located. The central square or Zocalo of this town is lovely. The Copper Canyon with its beautiful vistas, its thrilling train ride and the cave dwelling Tarahumara Indians should not be missed either. The city of Puebla features a multitude of fine colonial buildings and a gigantic local market one can get lost inside of. I could go on but I should mention the beaches. Many of those are familiar to Americans. These are relatively accessible and are rather inexpensive and more attractive for the most part than those along the American coastline. While these get and deserve mention, they are not among the most interesting or productive destinations in Latin America. Puerto Escondido at the top of the list in the article is a simple, moderately attractive and partially developed resort. It is better thought of as a side trip from Oaxaca. Mexico is a great place to visit but be careful whose best locations list you follow

The Coastline, Mazatlan, Mexico

Friday, August 3, 2012

Roads to Remember

     Driving along Third World roads, usually in a relatively broken down buggy, is occasionally a nerve wracking experience. I have mentioned a few such occasions in earlier blogs but these are frequently part of my travel experience. In some places, the vehicle provided is lacking in such amenities as good tires, clean oil and gas, etc. That makes the prospect of getting where you are going somewhat iffy. Along the Karakorum Highway (a misnomer if there ever was one) that connects Pakistan with China, it would be exceptional if one did not encounter a series of hazards. The road itself is laden with surprises like avalanches, dislodged rocks, the absence of any warning signs or directions and very few sources of auto sustenance. At one point, about 16,000 feet high, our van came to a glacier which crossed the road we were on. We had to get out so that the driver and guide could push our vehicle to a dry spot some 200 or more yards ahead. The alternative would have been to basically retrace our entire journey. Not a welcome interruption. We made it. After crossing the border, our Chinese car was about as beat up as any rental vehicle one can imagine. In that stretch of road, we wound up with two flat tires between towns. Fortunately, the driver had an air pump which he used for the second flat stopping every few miles until we limped into our destination and were able to get the car serviced. I suspect there was no inspection of the rental vehicle before our driver picked the car and us up at our previous hotel.

     On another occasion, we had an interesting stop in West Africa when the car stalled somewhere in nowhere land and there was not even a village in sight. It was a dangerous stretch of road our guide stated and not a good place to be stranded. As I described in an earlier post, the recollection of our driver that there was a village up ahead with a mechanic in it was life saving. He hitched a ride and corralled the mechanic while we kept starting the car and moving along a few feet at a time. We met in the village, the mechanic skillfully cleaned and replaced the carburetor and we were on our way. Just another short way stop between villages. Some of the roads themselves which connect villages in remote places can be quite lacking as well. There is a road that circles Lake Toba in Sumatra which takes one through a series of picturesque towns and colorful farms. One spot was enough to bring a measure of trepidation to the hardiest traveler. It was a bridge over a small river which apparently did not make any of the recent repair lists. It consisted of two tracks semi-covered by a few planks of wood. The rest of the space was open. We got out and tiptoed over the boards on the bridge while our driver and guide worked together to bring our car across the precipitous planks which had to be carefully maneuvered so that the vehicle did not fall into the river.

    But these are only dramatic instances of everyday occurrences. I wrote about the flood in China earlier and other such experiences but there are many places where the signage is insufficient and getting stuck on a mountainside or missing a turnoff are common. We have reached the end of a rural roads in Mexico or South America and had to turn back a considerable distance. We have driven basically with no discernible gasoline in our tank because we did not know the actual distance to the place we were going. With a guide, the tourist faces eventful and unplanned emergencies all over the Third World. Without one, getting lost is commonplace. So just get in the car, head for your destination and hope that fate is good to you.

Along the Karakorum Highway
Pakistan-China Border

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A World of Ceremony and Ritual

     An amazing aspect of Third Word travel is the variety of rituals and ceremonies one comes across, especially in areas where tribal peoples aggregate. The most dramatic of these we encountered in our travels was the time we stumbled onto a curing ceremony being conducted to help a young child recover from a high fever. We came upon a group of middle aged women assembled in a field somewhere in the most rural section of the state of Orissa in India. We learned that the participants belonged to the Kondh tribal group and that they had come together to magically disburse the child's disease. We secured their tacit permission to watch them at work as well as to take photos. It was as if we were invisible insofar as they were concerned. The sequence of events included the leader of the group (the head medicine doctor of the village) imbibing something which helped her reach an altered stage of consciousness, the slow and painful disembowelment and sacrifice of a pigeon and a chicken, the appearance of the sick child and his mother from the nearby woods, the smearing of the birds' blood and innards on the child after the birds were sated with rice and totally content, the child's father making an appearance with a small bow and arrow to scatter the disease away from his son, the bathing of the boy with bottles of water and the eventual return of the family to the wooded home whence they came. There are more details but you probably would not believe me anyhow. I could hardly believe my own eyes.

     On another trip to India, my favorite destination, we encountered an almost equally incredible event. We visited the Meenakshi Temple in the southern city of Madurai. In the evening, the Brahmans take the symbol of Shiva, the god of destruction, and carry it all the way from one side of the temple to the other to place it within the shrine of his wife, Meenakshi, so that the two gods may bed down for the evening. In the morning, the ceremony is reversed. The shrine is carried in a palanquin by a cadre of Brahmans accompanied by a group of musicians and followed by a few faithful devotees who chant along the way. We had no idea that this went on every single night of the year but we were surely thrilled that we had come across it.

     Throughout the African continent there are countless ceremonies which mark religious or family occasions. In Benin, I attended a couple of voodoo gatherings in villages along our travel paths. I remember one that was especially dramatic. The drum-accompanied dancing was a common background for such events and there was almost always an elder who led the way. In this particular one, an older woman priestess started the dancing after coming out of the village fetish house and drinking some undefined liquid at the same time. It was not long before she floated away in a deep trance and had to be carried back and laid down in the fetish house to recover. The entire village reverberated with the music and the participants included some as young as two years old who entered the dance circle and performed admirably. Some of the little ones on the periphery played with traditional toys that kept them busy including pet birds with a string on one of their legs. The entire scene was surreal. In other such ceremonies we saw men and women drink and dance themselves into another world, drink blood from sacrificed animals and carry a goat's head in their mouth as they circled a fire. The whole region is filled with such happenings.  Voodoo variations exist in the new world also, especially in Brazil where Candomble and other forms are practiced. The ceremonies there are a bit milder but drink, dance and spirit figures are major parts of the religion.

     Special rituals mark developmental moments in the lives of many traditional peoples although these are not always accessible to the tourist. A comprehensive funeral with unlimited guests, animal sacrifices, wooden effigies of the deceased and other such artifacts is common in Indonesia; such ceremonies are especially colorful among the tribes of Central Sulawesi. In the jungles of New Guinea, young men are introduced into the tribe with tattoos resembling alligator scales carved into their back with a long sharpened bone of a flightless bird. Young men in Cote d'Ivoire go to live in the jungle with elders for months to learn about their way of life of their people as do Dogon youth on the escarpments of their tribal areas in Mali. Kathakali dancers spend hours making up their faces before performing on the West coast of India. Longhouse dwellers in Borneo take in their ladders at night so their enemies don't come looking for cannibal subjects. The world is filled with such incredible and fascinating events from end to end. Just exploring the colorful rituals available to visit would make a wonderful and informative trip through the traditional world.

Chicken Eating Rice from Boy's Neck
Kondh Curing Ceremony, Orissa, India

Saturday, July 14, 2012

An Experience Worth Working For

     Some things come naturally while others take a much greater degree of investment in time and discipline and energy. Although I have put a lot of work into planning my world travel, that was relatively easy. What was far harder was learning a few languages that I could communicate with in addition to English. Many Americans assume that they can get by speaking English wherever they travel and English probably is closest of all to a universal tongue. But they must evaluate what "get by" means. If you want to know how to find a particular hotel or restaurant, the fact is that sign language and a written card with the name of the place may do the job. If you want to interact at any level deeper with people you meet in foreign lands, it takes a bit more work. The important rewards of studying a language to a level of proficiency are benefits that are difficult to imagine beforehand. I  took four years of Latin in high school. In retrospect, that was a great mistake. Although there is secondary gain from such an undertaking (you know the general belief about how Latin helps one learn Spanish or any of the other Latin based tongues or get into medical school), but the fact is that studying any living tongue directly is a more certain way to learn how to make yourself understood in Paris or Portugal in the 21st century than in Rome two thousand years ago.

     To become really conversant, I found the need to immerse myself in a setting where the language was required for communication. After four years of Spanish in my college days, I found that I could barely understand what was said to me or express myself very coherently until I spent a summer at a boarding house for locals in Mexico City. A friend of mine and I were the only English speakers staying there so there was no question about what the language of the house was. By the time I left Mexico City, about six weeks after I arrived, I could actually follow conversations and even flirt with the women who were staying in the boarding house. That was a special status in language usage, one which produced a level of satisfaction that no amount of in school study even approximated. I was a Spanish speaker (though not yet a fluent one), a bi-lingual. Forget the Latin. I did. (Well, actually, I never even learned it.)

     I enjoyed my Spanish proficiency so much that, several years later in 1957, when I went to work in Germany, I did so with a Berlitz book on German tucked under my arm on the plane. I spent most of the flight trying to learn every word I could. Most importantly there were many, many English speakers in Germany at that time. My greatest impediment to learning that language was the inclination of Germans to respond in English to my broken German. I dealt with that by not answering in English anything that was said to me. Of course, that was a bit inconvenient since my German vocabulary was so limited and my grammar so broken, but it did give me the practice and the corrections I needed. The Germans I spoke with were enthusiastic about my desire to learn their tongue and were more than patient with my mistakes. My German continued to improve enough so that, after two years in the country, I was fluent enough to pass for German in limited conversations. (That did not include two philosophy courses I attempted at a nearby, venerable university which required a level I never reached in that language.) I loved being able to converse fluently in another foreign language. My addiction to language learning continued later in Italy where I taught for a year and learned another language and one I actually loved the sound of. Unlike the guttural sounds one had to endure to speak German, Italian flowed like a song. No wonder it gave birth to so much of the operatic music we listen to today. Learning these languages as well as some Hebrew along the way has resulted in very special and enjoyable experiences. There is something exciting in mastering and using other languages for needed communication.

      Additionally there is a special psychological component to learning even a bit of a language as well as a practical one. Of course, it is convenient and enjoyable to communicate with others in their language, but it is also a respectful thing to do. Not everyone can reproduce the sounds of another language well nor does every traveler have the capacity or motivation to actually study another language to the level of useful proficiency, but we can all make an effort. It is that effort that conveys respect for another culture. Germans practically applauded when I struggled with their language in a serious way as did the Italians. I eventually made an effort to learn a few words of conversation in the local tongue everywhere I went. When I was in a tribal area in New Guinea or rural India and greeted people with their words for hello or thanked them in their native tongue, it brought smiles of appreciation to their faces and immediately bridged some of the natural distance between us. It may not be necessary to take several years of college French or Russian to enhance one's travel. Learning a few key phrases and listening carefully to how people say everyday things so you can learn those expressions is a wonderful way to make new friends. A single "pleased to meet you" can be a big deal.

New Afghan Friends near the Khyber Pass, Pakistan

Thursday, July 5, 2012

No Luggage! So What!

     One aspect of Third World travel that I have mentioned before is serendipity, the willingness and even joyful acceptance of new and surprising events which happen to the traveler. The requirement to be flexible in the face of the unknown is an an absolute necessity if the voyage is to be successful. One of the great hazards on any trip is the failure of luggage to arrive at the same place as its owner. Although this is a great inconvenience wherever the traveler may be, it is especially aggravating when it happens in a place where access to substitute clothing and trip items is limited. At the same time, even a happening such as this can be a memorable and actually productive event if it is dealt with in good spirit. A good example of making lemonade out of lemon was a recent trip my wife and I took from Cairo to Nairobi.

      We flew out of Cairo on an Air Ethiopia flight that was trouble from the very beginning. We spent hours in the transit area of the airport because we were on our way from Tel Aviv to Nairobi. The hot, poorly maintained section of the building  was uninviting and uncomfortable and all the announcements were in Arabic which we spoke not a single word of. Fortunately, we met a young man who spoke English as well as Arabic so we were able to discern the various rationales announced to account for the stops and starts we made from transit to the plane itself (and of course back again.)  It must have been 100 degrees on the tarmac and the excuse for why we did not get underway included an airport strike in Khartoum (our only stop along the way), mechanical problems, and a decision about whether or not the Khartoum bound passengers were supposed to board. After all the uncertainty, we experienced a one hour stay on the plane with no air conditioning, and a decision that we would be heading directly to Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia and passing over Khartoum, we finally boarded for the flight.

      That was another adventure still. The young man who translated for us in the transit area came on board only a few minutes after us. While I was happy to see that he was making his flight, he was supposed to be on his way to Khartoum. The problem was that we were told the plane was not stopping in Khartoum. Oh, well, another change or, perhaps, a misunderstanding. When we finally took off now headed for the Sudan instead of Ethiopia, we were all quite exhausted. My wife fell asleep immediately. I probably would have also had I not noticed that there was a crack in the window right next to our seat. That did keep me up a while and I knew we would not be landing for repair. We  stopped in Khartoum, discharged the passengers who were getting off there and headed for Addis. It was there we discovered that we were changing planes there for the rest of our flight to Nairobi. My wife was very worried that our luggage would not get onto the second plane. We gazed intently out of our window from the new plane trying to discern whether or not the luggage actually transferred but could not tell for certain. I was almost certain I saw it being loaded onto our new flight. My wife was fairly sure it did not make the transfer. She was right.

     The empty, helpless feeling we experienced as the luggage pile disappeared from under our nose in Nairobi is rather indescribable. Ours never showed up. We were scheduled to go by van to Tanzania in just a couple of hours. No problem! After an hour or so of negotiations, Air Ethiopia presented us with about $20.00
 each to buy clothing to wear for the two and a half week duration of our trip. We were surely not used to shopping in East Africa but we did find a place with incredibly inexpensive and frail clothing so we were able to garner a few pairs of shoddy underclothes and socks and a couple of other indispensable items for the upcoming safaris. With those additions we knew we would hardly be the fanciest ones in our group but at least we did have something to change into after each evening's wash. We learned along the way that Tanzania and Kenya did not have friendly relations at that time, so we did not recover our luggage until we returned later to Nairobi. Off to Tanzania we went. We just made the bus.

      This was to be a true learning experience. First of all, we discovered that we only needed about $20.00 worth of clothing each for the next couple of weeks and that it was quite liberating to be carrying nothing with us. We learned also that we were the objects of the other people in the group's sympathy and generosity. They managed to assemble a modest assortment of t-shirts, shorts, and paraphernalia to round out the required items. We made new friends, carried less with us than anyone else on the safari and never sent luggage through again. We travel light and fancy free now. And we do generally have more clothing than the people we visit on our trips.

We Usually Have More Clothes Than
The People We Visit. Damazulu, South Africa

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Collecting Memories

     In an earlier blog or two I have mentioned bringing back things of interest from Third World travels. I wrote earlier about my collection of masks, about artifacts which I use for programs about my travels and folk necklaces which my wife loves. These, as well as miscellaneous, meaningful other artifacts and the knowledge I have gained on these journeys, have been important to me, but the most important collectibles of travel are the many memories that one has of events, places, and especially, people one meets along the way. These are precious as well as rather permanent and they are what makes the travel so worthwhile.

     As I search my many recollections of experiences, there are certain ones which stand out strongly, either because they were so memorable or moving, or because they were so surprising or scary or pleasant. Any of those characteristics tends to cement a moment in one's mind and it is a possession that just never goes away. I have mentioned a few of these earlier but here is a list of some of the most important ones. I leave it to the reader to attach the justifying adjective to the event.

     There was the boy I met in a small restaurant in Djenne, Mali, who was born unable to walk or even stand upright who had been taken to the States by a generous family that passed through his town invited him to live with them for over a year while he underwent a series of operations that enabled him to propel himself without crawling along the floor. The story he told me of his eternal gratitude and the generosity and self-sacrifice that the family from Texas provided him provided one of the most unforgettable personal interactions I ever had in my travels. There was the old peasant in My Lai, Vietnam who guided us through the little rice growing village remaining at that location while he told us the story of the bombing and cruelty which took place there during the war. His forgiveness and his commitment to the memories he carried with him were overwhelming.  I remember well the restaurant owner in Portugal who adopted me when I was younger and traveling alone and took me to the Fada cellar to hear his favorite music and to listen to him join the singers in one of the most authentic folk scenes I have ever experienced.  I can picture the young man who worked on the boat we took on the Niger River to explore villages in West Africa. After we had a conversation about the voodoo necklace that he wore, he saw himself as my protector and voluntarily walked next to me to keep village kids from "bothering me" as we hiked along.  I can picture so vividly the ovens in the Dachau Concentration Camp and the shard and bone laden paths in the Killing Fields of Cambodia as I trod through both of these sites of terror and torture.

     One can even retain niceties and courtesies from travels like the boatman on the Mahakam River in Borneo who ascertained my interest in maskmaking and stopped the boat along the river to take me to one that he knew who was in the process of designing a mask for an upcoming ceremony in his village.  One that same boat a day later, we ran into a storm, had to close the protective tarpaulin and suffered a long night of heat and insects. I guess things do balance themselves in the long run. The young woman I met in the slums of Acapulco introduced me to the kind of poverty I needed to experience for my own growth and the German tourist I met in Toledo, Spain challenged my newly acquired German skills by having me translate the words of the Spanish youngster who took us around to explain what the buildings were that surrounded us in that beautiful city. There were moments of pure frivolity like the evening I spent many years ago trading clothing for vodka and caviar for hours in what was then Leningrad. There was the discovery we made traveling with our young kids of a disney-like park which we all enjoyed for days in rural Guatemala for a quarter of the price of the original one and which we had pretty much to ourselves.

     But these were not all. There was also the sunset over the Taj Mahal and evening ceremonies in the Meenakshi Temple of Madurai. There was the boat ride on the Ganges alongside the crematoria
and the turtle release on a trip with our kids on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. There were the temple filled plains of Bagan in Myanmar, the distant Himalayan mountains viewed from the hills of Nepal and the heights of Darjeeling as well as from the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan. My eyes fill with such scenes when I close them and my brain stretches to contain the many reflections and memories I have accumulated. Those are the intangible, unforgettable moments which flood my mind as I write these words. The Third World beckons forever.

My Protector, Mopti, Mali