Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Travel Highlight You Will Never Forget

     There are countless wonderful sites around the world that beckon the traveler. One place I would recommend from my many years of globe trotting is Varanasi, India, the ancient city of Benares. I often call India "a wonder a day" travel location and that notion surely applies to this city along the Ganges River which is considered the holiest site of all by the many millions of Hindus who populate the country.

     One gets up at dawn for an uncanny and unforgettable experience along the river. We arose as the mosquitoes outside dive bombed our glass door to the garden, got dressed and met our guide outside. In the dim light of early dawn, we all descended the hill from our hotel to the riverside. We were not alone, even at that early hour. Alongside us were Indians heading toward the heart of their pilgrimage. They were silent and serious as they made their way down the path. It was still relatively dark when we reached the riverside.

     We boarded the small row boat that was arranged for us and headed toward the middle of the Ganges. The only sound we seemed able to hear was the splashing of the oars. As we looked back we saw the large steps or Ghats slowly filling up with Hindu devotees many of whom were fulfilling a lifetime dream by immersing themselves in the holy water. Our boatman put a small candle on a tin plate to float it down the river as an act of devotion as had many others.  The sparkle of the candles stretched down the river as far as we could see.

     As the sun rose slowly in the distance, the spirituality of our experience became overwhelming. The Ghats were filled with thousands of worshippers, the old run down hotels on the riverside loomed above the scene and fires were set for the many cremations that were to be done that day. It is a Hindu dream to be present there and to perform absolutions in the river or be cremated along its shore in Varanasi. Hindus who are able to do so will bring a dying relative to the riverside, stay with them until death, and then place their body in the fire. That is their ultimate act of devotion. For us, the whole experience was like a dream. Although we have been present at many religious ceremonies and activities, we were never quite so enveloped by any other scene. It would have been worth the long journey to India for that experience alone. It was truly a traveler's highlight.

Bedouin Girls, Beach, Sinai, Egypt

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Another Gem in Mexico

Mexico City is another very convenient destination for Americans who are seeking knowledge and adventure and don't want to be tripping over too many of their compatriots along the way. I know that many folks fear violence in Mexico but most of that is in the border towns and Mexico City is not especially dangerous for a city of over 20,000,000 people so long as one takes sensible precautions. I love the place. My wife and I have been to Mexico about 20 times over the past several decades and each area offers its own special qualities and interests. Mexico City has more sites of interest than anywhere else in the country.

The giant central square of the city, called the Zocalo, is a day or two undertaking in itself. It is usually filled with vendors especially around holidays, the large Cathedral sits at one end as is customary in Colonial design, the beautiful National Palace beckons covered with Diego Rivera's murals of the history of the country, and the architecture of the buildings is interesting all around the square. Not far off the square is an Aztec dig and museum that are beautifully done and well worth an afternoon's visit. The Art Museum and many restaurants are nearby as well. If you come at holiday time, you will see the square filled with people, vendors, dancing Indians and every which thing.

What does one do after that visit? Head out to Chapultepec Park where the spectacular Anthropology Museum sits. It happens to be my favorite museum in the world. The displays are dramatic and tasteful and the artifacts cover much of the pre-Colonial times in Mexico. It is a wonderful treat. There are other nearby museums but this one is not to be missed. Mexico has a flair for developing attractive and informative museums generally.

Another compulsory visit in the city is the Church of Guadalupe where Indians come in from the hills and perform dance ceremonies to worship and ask favors. It is the holiest site in the country. Some years back a new church was built to acccomodate the traffic and it is a very interesting building.

Then I would go to the amazing site of Teotihuacan not far outside the city where pyramids rivaling Egypt stand at the two ends of an ancient and mysterious city. There are buildings where the paint from two millenia can still be discerned. The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest at the site, can be climbed and the view is dramatic. This is a most interesting pre-Colombian site. These are among the many offerings this city offers the traveler in search of adventure.

Chichen Itza, El Castillo, Mexico