Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Coming Home

     Who would ever have thought that one could shower without making sure to keep their mouth closed? Not the folks who travel in the Third World. Ah, the sweet sound of a toilet that fills, flushes and empties clean. And toilet paper and a seat! Fresh pillow cases and clean sheets welcome me at night time. After each journey I spend time pondering the wonders which abound in my house. How about the pleasure of selecting a restaurant to go to that evening? That is another wonder for whichever one I select the food seems to have familiar names and is served on plates that look washed and carefully handled. What about the streets I drive on where ruts, if they are present, are usually marked and relatively few in number!  The drivers have their lights on - headlights that is, not just the parking ones, so I can see them coming well before we pass one another. Even bicycles have reflectors. The streets themselves are lit and there is often a yellow line to mark the paths for drivers. Oh the pleasures of home!

     In additions to the plethora of hazards of Third World travel, there are a multitude of inconveniences one must also endure. Cold water showers are not surprising to me anymore. Doctors and dentist offices are not necessarily meticulous. As a matter of fact, they can be open stalls looking out onto bustling markets. If you are driving a car, it may not be in shape to get you where you are going. Unless you are driving, transportation may be limited to overfilled buses or crowded trains. Many local residents travel by hanging on to the outside of public vehicles and, I suspect, praying a lot. Restaurants and food stalls customarily lack proper refrigeration and sanitation. This is especially the case where the people are very poor. Dangers to travelers or shoppers or just about anyone are unprotected (one finds regulations rare and usually unenforced if they do exist.) There are few inspections of bridges or road conditions or just about anything. Even more rare are warnings about potentially dangerous places or activities. These all  make the trip more adventurous and exciting but they also have their downsides as you can imagine.

     When I get home or to some other highly Westernized setting, I leave most of these hazards behind me as well as most of the inconveniences. Yet being home is, in a way, a continuation of the travel experience. The lights all work. The refrigerator and freezer and dishwasher, all things we take for granted even though we use them every day, become items of wonder. The warning signs on roads seem like luxuries when we realize that so many people in the world have no such guidance. Window screens are another example of home return appreciation. For the most part they separate humans from insects in a remarkably effective way. I realize how much I appreciate this one simple artifact and how much I prefer the separation between my bedroom and nature. Everywhere I look around me, I marvel at the comforts I have. After traveling in far away places, I take far less for granted and I become so much more aware of the things that make my life easy and predictable. Unfortunately, that feeling does not last very long so I have to travel once more in part to refresh my enjoyment at eventually being back in my own house and my own neighborhood. But surely one aspect of any trip to distant places is the return and the opportunity to appreciate anew the comfort I have built around me. Most of the non-travelers that I know just never think about such matters. You can learn to enjoy the awareness of the presence of safe water or the warming effect of central heating systems in wintertime or the absence of unwanted life forms crawling or flying about to revel in the availability of such artifacts. This renewed sense of the multitude of luxuries that surrounds us is one more benefit of the kind of travel I do. In addition to the excitement in the travel, there is also the comfort of eventually coming back home to be appreciated to as we look forward to every journey through the Third World. Just another exotic travel bonus!

Barber Shop, Rural Ghana

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Driving in the Third World

     All things being equal, I prefer to self-drive when I travel in the Third World. Doing so provides the most flexibility and best views when I can stop any place and spend the time I want there. Sometimes, if the next destination is along a complicated route which would be hard to follow or you need language skills you don't have in order to make the trip or the route requires some other skill or knowledge you might not possess, it is good to have a local driver behind the wheel. Actually that arrangement lets you spot events off the road and find the best photo opportunities. Either way, the tourist has the most control over the trip. That is, if all goes right. There is no guarantee that the voyage will be uneventful however. I do confess that there are some places so forbidding on the road that I won't get behind the wheel in spite of any convenience that might offer. If people drive on the opposite side of the road, I find I need to concentrate more and miss some of the sights although that depends on the place. Ireland, though not Third World, with its narrow roads and multitude of tight circles is one example of this. I even found the the gears were reversed in my rental car there and that made for disorienting moments from time to time. But generally the things that dissuade me from getting behind the wheel are unusual traffic obstacles (India- cows, dancing bears, carts and rickshaws for example) or dangers (Pakistan-  rough, unmarked highways, lurking bandits or terrorists) or lunatic drivers (Rio and a few other centers of road calamities.)

     I wrote earlier about a trip along the Silk Road in China which included two flat tires, both occurring many miles from any place they could be repaired. Fortunately, the driver carried a pump to put air into the tire with the slower leak so we were able to limp into the next town stopping and pumping, stopping and pumping. It was a close call on a lonely and rather dangerous road but we made it. That's not the best driving experience I have had but it was probably not the worst. I remember riding in another junker in West Africa along a road which went through an unpopulated and barren area and having the car stall on us. We had put gas into the car some fifty miles earlier and there must have been something unwelcome in the gas. It turned out that the driver knew a mechanic in the next little town about thirty miles ahead. He decided to bring him back to the car in the hope that he could repair it. He hitched a ride to the other town but our guide was able to start our car in the meantime, ride a bit until it stalled again, and repeat the process until we hobbled into the town not far behind the driver's arrival there. He had already secured the services of the mechanic who then disassembled and cleaned the carburetor and put it back into the car. (He charged us $7.00 for that service. I wish he lived closer to my home.) The ride was smooth from then on. I asked the driver where the next mechanic was located. He said about 200 miles ahead.

     The experience of getting lost is another driving hazard in strange places. My first such experience occurred in Jamaica many years ago. I was driving through the countryside and took a questionable path into the hills. We twisted and turned, enjoying the scenery, until the road hit a dead end in a mountainside village where the folks were not particularly happy to see us Americans. The country was not too friendly to tourists at that time and we felt quite threatened by the people who mulled around us. The road had ended right there so a quick turnaround and a descent back to the main road was the next step. We made that without further incident. I also remember getting terribly lost in the hills of central Mexico. We were again ascending a steep, climbing road when the path ended right at the edge of a cliff. Somehow, I managed to turn the car around but my level of confidence was not high. It was hard to feel comfortable, especially as the sun began to set. Getting lost has become a recurrent adventure for me when I am behind the wheel in the Third World.

     Another hazard is running out of gas. In many of the places I have driven there were very few places along the road to fill up. Usually the gasoline comes out of a bottle purchased in some small, all purpose store, often the only one in the town. Sometimes there is no town. I was on a deserted road in southern Mexico and badly underestimated the opportunity to get gas along the road. The result was a long drive in a deserted area as darkness enveloped us while the gauge showed empty. We must have gotten some fifty miles out of the vapors in an empty tank. I managed to schedule in a couple of such adventures in my travels. It is so titillating to drive on empty in an area where safety is a concern under the best of circumstances. Not that it is only the Third World where one can have interesting rides. Recently, in the south of Spain, we drove our van down a small street in a little town which we stopped at to walk around in and found that the road ended right at the edge of a steep cliff. It was too narrow to back up so we decided to turn the van around in a street which could not have been much more than about six inches wider than the van. After assistance from one of the street residents and about forty or so backups, we finally got out of that mess.

     The foregoing does not exhaust the opportunities for special driving experiences in far away places. Running into the flood in China and getting stranded in the mountains as I wrote about earlier is another. Driving over a road covered by a slick glacier is a bit challenging. An overnight drive on a narrow road in fog so thick one can barely see the front of the car is an exciting undertaking. So are drives along high mountain roads with no lights, no markings, and no guardrails. If one is lucky, adventure is just a few miles ahead. The trick is to keep it at least that far away.

                                                Bridge, Central Sumatra, Indonesia

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Through the Door Marked E

     There is something about being in the kind of place we call exotic that is like no other experience I can imagine. The word is generally used to describe things which are foreign or strange and that certainly fits many of the places you can visit in the Third World. Exotic denotes cultural settings where folks still live in traditional ways, dress in traditional clothes (although that is changing rapidly), eat unusual foods, and, most of all, demonstrate different values than we are accustomed to in the West. I have written about exotic burial customs, about forms of hospitality quite different than we are used to, about religious practices totally foreign from ours, about safety and security concerns quite unlike those in Western societies, and other such basic differences. Of course, unusual languages alone contribute to a sense of otherness in certain places. On the Island of New Guinea one could experience almost 800 of those dialects alone. All of these and more examples of diversity add up to exoticness. When we walk through the door marked E instead of the one with the V for vacation or the S for safety or the one with the H for home and comfort, we venture into another world, a parallel experience where the unexpected is common and the unknown lies just beyond the next turn in the road. There is something so exciting and stimulating on the other side of door E that only the timid and disinterested are likely to pass it by.

     Once one passes into the Exotic, the newness and the unfamiliarity of what surrounds us calls for us to experiment with new behaviors. That place demands that we increase our alertness and our spontaneity and our energy to cope with the novel demands that are placed upon us. Why do some of us try that door. Partly because we find differences refreshing and exciting. Many tourists already have lives filled with adventure but even those persons can occasionally use more stimulation, can achieve a higher level of challenge and self-exploration. When we are in isolated places among folks who do not know us, who are less inclined to take care of us, we need more from ourselves at every turn. That enables us to test ourselves in more ways and to discover more about who we are.

     What does one do climbing a jungle path and meeting half-clothed, angry looking men with weapons along the way? How does one summon the moxie to cross a crevice or a creek with only a frail looking rope bridge or log in the road? How does one deal with a desperate child tugging at your sleeve seeking a coin or a candy? What is the coping mechanism for dropping into a hotel and finding there is no hot water available or the lights are so dim that reading is impossible though the day has ended and the time for bed is hours away? How does a traveler find the right route with no language clues or discernible directional signs or proceed with an empty gas tank to a place whose distance is unknown? How do you manage in an airport when you don't speak the language and you don't have your luggage? What do you do when your very life is in danger from armed robbers or hostile natives? I have had to manage all of those circumstances and I have survived to write about them, to tell their narratives to my friends and family and to feel the accomplishment that comes with success in the face of challenge brought on by being in the unusual and sometimes intimidating world of exotica. Thanks to plugging through such difficulties, I have become a bit more courageous and a less worried person. Those changes in my makeup have helped me to navigate more than a few situations I have encountered even on the near side of the doors, events in my normal, daily life.  I am much more inclined now to take the door marked E, not because I know what the other side holds for me, but rather because I know what skills I will be taking through that door.

Facing off with the Komodo Dragon

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fun on the Road

     Although I have written about the value of Third World travel for personal growth in several of my past blogs, I do want to emphasize that travel should be fun also. If you don't have fun on the road, your motivation to keep going will flag and you will have wasted one of the real potential assets of the whole undertaking. I recall an abundance of moments which strike me as just, plain enjoyable. Such happenings are always desirable though they are hard to plan for.

     The first such event that jumps to my mind was an unexpected thrill I had at a popular diving resort on the island of New Britain some miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea. We stopped there because we understood that the nearby reef (an extension of the Great Barrier Reef of Australia) offered some really fine snorkeling as well as the presence of some interesting cultural groups on the island. The first morning of our stay there we went out in a boat with a group of scuba divers to the heart of the reef.  The divers got out at one site and my wife and I went into the water a few hundred yards away to do some wonderful snorkeling. We when got back into the boat, the captain asked us if we would like to scuba dive as well. We had taken no classes, had no license and were both significantly nervous about the prospect of learning in deep water off a remote island. But we could not say "no." It was too exciting an offer. About 20 minutes or so of instruction and a guarantee that the captain would take us down and stay with us led us to strap on a tank and jump back into the water. As it turned out, after about fifteen minutes of descent, my mask filled with water and I indicated I had to come up. The captain was disappointed but he left my wife sitting on a rock about 20 feet below and took me up. She felt quite lonely down there, especially since she did not know how she would ever be found and could not swim one bit. I guess I had just not gotten his instructions quite right. Must have missed the part about clearing the mask if water gets into it. When they returned to the boat, I was ready to try again and did so with more success. The diving was great. We found ourselves keeping company with several reef sharks, many rays and a few other impressive denizens of the deep. It was one of the most exciting and enjoyable moments of our travels.

     In a recent blog, I wrote about our moped experiences in Southeast Asia. The one in Vientianne, Laos was pure fun. We rented a moped one evening with a plan to spend the next day motoring from temple to temple and town to town in the area. The problem we ran into was a heavy morning rain. I was inclined to hand in the moped and do the touring by taxi but my wife said that the whole town was on the street on mopeds so we could manage just like they did. She found a large umbrella in the lobby, rode on the back of the moped with the umbrella covering most of us and we had a ball. She was right. Most of the town residents seemed to be on the road much in the same way we were and we laughed the entire day.

      Camel rides can be fun too. I have been on camels in the Sinai Desert, the Sahara and Rajasthan, India to mention a few such experiences. Of these, our ride into the Sahara from Timbuktu accompanied by a Tuareg guide was probably the most fun. We rode quite a few miles out of town and then got off for a desert walk. At one point we came upon a group of Tuaregs who had become aware of tourists in their area, gone back to their tents and brought back artifacts to create a small market. We did buy some nice things from them leaving all of us satisfied but it was truly an unusual and enjoyable experience. The fact that they were all armed with knives was one inducement to our making some purchases. Our second most enjoyable camel experience took place at the Camel Fair in Pushkar. We got to the fair grounds stadium early enough to obtain good seats to see the horse and camel competitions but as the time passed we were virtually crushed by other arrivals and could barely see what was happening. What could we do? We decided to rent two camels for the afternoon which we parked right next to the ceremony giving us private, well placed viewing and enabling us to have about as good a vantage point as was possible. Our camels were happy not having to drag us around and we had the best time.

     I wrote earlier about a piece of luck I had on the Island of Lombok one day which surely qualifies as unadulterated fun. At our beach hotel one evening, I asked the waiter if he knew of any local events which we might witness while we were there. He replied that there was to be a wedding in his tribal village the next morning and, if I wished, he would take the day off and accompany me there. That offer was irresistable; we were off to my adventure early the next morning. Along the way, we stopped at fascinating markets I would otherwise been unaware of and we toured much of the island. Unfortunately, it turned out that the wedding was to occur a day later than the waiter indicated. No problem. Instead we went to his village, visited his family in their small, tent-like home and I got to see more of real life on Lombok than I would ever have imagined. It was a traveler's dream day, an abundance of fun.

     I am not sure if my wife would classify it as fun but there was a day in the Copper Canyon I will never forget. In the evening in our hotel dining room, I overheard a Mexican family planning a horseback ride through a colorful area of the Canyon the next morning. Since my wife had ridden horses on several occasions, I told her about it and she decided to join their group. The next morning I had planned to do some hiking with a youngster I met on the train whose mother worked at our hotel. I am no horseback rider so I left my wife off with the group that was about to ride through the hills. The only problems were the that the man in charge spoke not a word of English nor did anyone else, the older woman I assumed was going with them was not going at all, my wife's horse had a knack of going to the edge of the mountain scaring her to death, and another horse which was not behaving well needed to be tied to the leader's horse so, since she was dependent on him, she went back and forth all morning. At the end of her ride when I asked how it was, I got a look which I will never forget. Did I mention that she was afraid of heights? I really enjoyed the hike. She almost left me. I laughed the rest of the day.

     Getting totally soaked in the spray of Victoria Falls in Zambia, bumping into people we knew in Puebla, Mexico or folks who lived right near us on an elevator in Cold War Budapest, finding celebrations in unexpected places, noticing that our lunch was looking at us in a small Greek restaurant that had no English menu, encountering the same salesman at the Kenya-Tanzania border who recognized us and remembered the good deal he gave us the last time we came his way and let us know immediately that we would not get that deal again, and many other such circumstances were all a great deal of fun. If you are open to it, fun just happens helping to make travel one of the most enjoyable activities one can ever undertake.

                                                 Ready to Enter the Mine, Potosi, Bolivia

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Material Gems of the Third World

    In an earlier blog, I wrote about how I have surrounded myself with memories of my travels in the form of artifacts- paintings, masks, carvings, and other travel mementos. For me the purpose of collecting such items is to remind myself where we have been and to revive memories of our travel experiences. A collector views such items differently however. They are judged by their intrinsic worth. There are wonderful works of art created in one place in the world only that are valuable for the labored and highly aesthetic craftsmanship that they require as well as the hours and energy and beauty that they represent. Such items can be expensive, even for Westerners, although they are surely not as accessible nor as reasonably priced anywhere else in the world other than the locale of their creation. Collecting can be a sidelight of travel for those with an interest in art or the possession of objects that no one else has. I would personally find my travel distracted by seeking out unique objects to place on my walls or my shelves in part because I would not want to spend the time shopping that this would require or endure the worry about getting them home intact and undamaged. Yet I understand people's desire to bring home objects of great beauty or unique design. For that reason, I suggest here a few places where unusual and talented workmen labor (usually at very low wages) to create rare objects. I encourage the shoppers among us to make sure that these artisans receive a fair wage for their efforts. Cooperatives where such objects are sold tend to have better quality merchandise and to pay the artists more equitably.

     Third World craftsmen are quite aware of the existence of collectors who visit their area. They often create rough and inexact replicas of the products of their culture to dupe buyers. Collectors need to become rather expert in evaluating the crafts they are interested in if they are shopping for value. As a person who collects masks for memories rather than show, I have no need to be an expert, yet I find that many places feature tourist masks worth little which represent only the desire of Westerners to bring them home. If you don't care about this or just want them to decorate a wall, no problem. If you prefer authenticity and talent, you have to be careful. Choosing from hundreds of inferior masks in the markets of Chichicastenango or Abidjan does not a positive memory make. Finding a mask maker in a little town in Borneo or Mexico who has just created a piece of work for an upcoming ceremony that has meaning for him and is unlike any other you have seen is exciting and meaningful. By the way, if you share my interest in masks and their place in cultures, you would not be surprised to know that West Africa offers the most extensive array of choices and the greatest variety of materials and forms. Papua New Guinea is next, followed by Mexico. Well-crafted masks may also be found on the islands of Indonesia, the specialty stores of India or Nepal, or anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
      There are many other artistic creations that are specific to certain places. The most varied of these are oriental rugs but information about the qualities that make a particular one valuable is definitely required so the collector needs to become a virtual expert to make a wise selection. Southern and central Asia are the most bountiful and productive places to shop for a rug with Turkey following closely behind. My favorites are Iranian tribal rugs but Indian silk rugs, the beautiful woolen pieces from southern China and Tibet and the intricate and delicate creations from Pakistan and the surrounding area are also lovely to choose from.

      One collector's item is even more convenient and more accessible than rugs or masks- woven goods. Weaving is a major craft in many countries and the variety of techniques enables the collector to specialize and find spectacular pieces of work in out of the way places. One example of this was my discovery on the island of Lombok of two distinct styles of weaving which were specialties of that area although they may be found in a few nearby cultural areas as well. The first was Songket Cloth, a style of weaving with silk or cotton woven by interlacing the cloth with threads of gold or silver. These pieces are generally used for fancy dress in places like Sumatra and Bali and Lombok and can be shimmeringly lovely. There is sufficient variety among them to make for a impressive collection. In the same area of the world, Ikat Cloth, a cotton based product which is colored by waxing part of the cloth before dipping it into colored liquid to make the pattern is one of the artistic products. It is a very intricate process which lends itself to producing unique and often very valuable and detailed examples. But fine woven goods can be procured all over the planet. From the market town of Tarabuco, Bolivia to the hill villages of Vietnam and Thailand and Laos, there are outstanding examples of finely woven materials, each style unique and interesting. I even discovered lovely cloths in Burma made by weaving a strand extracted from inside the lotus flower stem in the same way one would work with silk. The degree of care needed for this process is extraordinary.

     Another fine craft is lacquerware; the choice is between Vietnam and Burma. Both places feature very finely painted, detailed examples of this craft. Another place to obtain exceptional examples of fine lacquer pieces is Kashmir where papier mache is molded onto a light wood frame and incredible miniature painting is done by craftsmen using a rat's tail and gold paint to decorate their elaborate creations. And of course there is fine art as well which may be found anywhere by luck. For well done Batiks, East and West Africa and and Southeast Asia are the places to buy. It is good to remember that many of these crafts, while they may be rewarding to collect and show, are the products of families handing designs down from generation to generation for countless years. That is especially true for rugs. The collector is bringing home perhaps one or two hundred years  of accumulated experimentation and skill. That is valuable in and of itself.

 Bronze Tribal Figures from India

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Marvelous Markets of Asia

     I wrote some time ago about a few delightful markets in the Western Hemisphere but Asia hosts even more extensive and varied opportunities for the shopper and for the tourist in general than anywhere else in the world. Some cities are actually markets themselves or at least originated for that purpose. This is especially true along the Silk Road stretching over the entire span of Asia where caravans took a full day to travel from one market town to another. In Pakistan the route follows what is now called the Karakorum Highway, a rough and precarious road which curls precipitously through some of the highest mountains in the world. Peshawar was one of the stopping places along that path and continues to be a center of commercial activity offering exciting opportunities for the adventurous tourists. One might hesitate to explore the city at this time however. The path then heads up through the mountains but today that area belongs to the Taliban and their friends so a pleasant visit to Besham or Gilgit or one of the other old  Pakistani market towns is inadvisable. The situation changes after the Chinese border is passed. One of the greatest markets one could ever visit is not too far after that. It is the city of Kashgar where an amazing variety of peoples from miles around gather on market day to sell almost anything imaginable. One can see vendors making ice cream while youngsters watch in fascination awaiting their turn to taste their favorite flavor. At the next table there might be a man tossing dough artistically preparing Uygur noodles much as a pizza maker in Naples would work his magic. Nomadic Khyrgiz bring their horses or camels to market while countless carts haul hay or building wood or other goods to be sold. Knife makers and hat makers, shoemakers and barbers line the streets and stalls for miles. Tajik, Han, Khyrgiz, Uygur and Uzbek speakers bargain among themselves in this sprawling assemblage of stands and stalls and booths. It is a wonderful place to visit. Additional old towns from the Silk Road can be followed all the way to Xian, China's ancient capital. If one heads out toward the West through Uzbekistan, other great cities that were markets along the Silk Road like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent offer wonderful tourist delights.

      The first exciting market I encountered in Asia was the Night Market in Chang Mai, Thailand. It opens as the sun goes down and fills with locals and tourists buying just about every kind of cloth imaginable, munching the goodies displayed all over on tables, and just having fun and socializing throughout the night. Bangkok also has an exciting market which is thick with people every night. The most surprising market I came upon was on a trip in Southern China. We had just left Lake Erhai in Yunnan and were heading to the city of Dali when the traffic stopped and we were surrounded by carts and bicycles and pedestrians, all of which were carrying goods for a multitude of uses. The people there were Bai farmers, there were no tourists in sight and the grounds were full of piles of wood for building, tools for farming and cooking, piles of hay for the animals and hundreds and hundreds of animals for sale. It was unquestionably the most kaleidoscopic scene imaginable primarily due to the brightly colored dress of the people assembled there. The Bai use red as the base color of their attractive outfits. I was transfixed by the scene as I walked through the market but I was definitely as much of a curiosity to the people there as they were to me. There was not another foreigner in sight.

      In most of rural Asia, markets are held on specific days so one goes to site A on Wednesdays and Site B on Sundays. I was most aware of that when I was visiting Inle Lake in Burma. Everything on the lake is either floating or on a small patch of grassy land no more than a couple of hundred meters long. Each day when I left my hotel, our little boat went to one market or other each of which was the central trading place of one of the diverse minority groups that live there. The dress of the people changed from one locale to the next, the goods varied distinctly, and the market hopping alone was worth the entire trip. It was surely more exciting than any mall one might explore at home.

      Of course, large cities have more permanent markets organized by the goods which are sold there. In Karachi, for example, there is an entire market area where only dates are sold. Just imagine rows and rows of stands all selling the same item. I could not figure out how people made choices in such a setting but I assumed there must have been a method. A block or two from the date stands was a section of the market featuring just metalware followed by another that featured cloth. That's the way it is throughout Asia.  I especially enjoyed the wonderful food markets that abound on the continent. In places like Hanoi or Port Moresby or Manila; people assemble, interact and buy and sell in vast food centers. One can get close to folks in such places and learn something about their way of life almost as well as in their houses. That is probably why I love markets so. Asia is certainly the place to visit them.

Dumpling Steamer Sales, Kashgar, China

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Monuments to Man's Cruelty

     Along the travel path, especially in the Third World, there are a few stops that are unnerving but necessary and instructive for anyone who wishes to understand the full range of man's behavior toward his fellow man. These are evident but not customarily on the tourist itinerary, especially if that route is developed by an agent wishing to put the best face on his country and make his client's journey as pleasurable as possible. I won't try to list all of these sites here but I will mention a few that were extremely poignant for me.

     We can begin with sites of arguably the most horrendous event in recent memory by visiting any of the many concentration camps that still dot the countrysides of Germany and Poland and neighboring areas. I was able to visit Dachau during a stay in Germany and, a bit later on, Teresienstadt in the Czech Republic. Dachau was an extermination camp and provided an eerie reminder of one of the great crimes of history with its bare and depressing barracks and its multitude of ovens to remind one of the ten million or so who perished during the time the Nazis were in power. It is a place of prayer, a place of horror and a stark reminder of what man remains capable of at his very worst. A camp is a must stop for a tour of Central Europe but you will probably have to go a bit out of the usual route and make arrangements yourself for a visit.

      Another place the inquisitive traveler should surely not miss is the Slave Coast in Ghana where the imposing castles still stand that were once the homes of provincial governors who supervised the capture and sale of millions of Africans. In the courtyards of these buildings one can see where the next slave girl was chosen to be paraded, washed and sent up to do the bidding of the governor. One can visit the horrific circumstances where the victims where housed while they awaited transport to the ships that stood offshore prepared to take them to their death on the sea or to a life of captivity and servitude, the paths that these unfortunate people trod to make their way to the rowboats that would take them to the ships in deep water, the places where resistant captives were crowded into a contained, inescapable room and left to die of starvation or disease as a penalty for lack of cooperation. This was truly the place of no return. A trip to West Africa is not complete without a stop at such sober settings in Ghana or their equivalents in Senegal or Benin.

      Another great crime of separation and discrimination- and there are quite a few to choose from- is South Africa's experience with Apartheid. I do not need to describe here the repressive system of laws and abuses which characterized that period in the country but there are several places where one can get insight into what those times were like and how people suffered through them. There are museums in several cities in South Africa which depict the period but the most impressive memorial for me was the prison on Robbins Island off the coast of Capetown where many leaders of the African National Congress were held for countless years. The most famous resident of the prison was Nelson Mandela, the man who walked out of confinement to eventually lead a democratic and substantially forgiving nation. Listening to the descriptions of life there by the guides, former prisoners themselves, and standing at the entrance to the cell where Mandela spent so many years was a moving, incomparable experience.

      And then there is South Asia, most specifically the dramatic and relatively recent horror site called the Killing Fields in Cambodia where so many innocent victims perished under the rule of Pol Pot, the leader of one of the most appalling governments in history. What makes this place so vividly palpable and even overwhelming to the visitor is how naked the paths are where the visitor treads. On the fields themselves where innocent people were slaughtered and left often unburied are mounds of skulls and shards of bones which crunch under your feet. You are truly there. The prisons and the photos of that period are almost too accessible. It is surely another place for contemplating how constantly guarded we must remain to avoid such cruelty in the future.

     Sometimes we need to get well off the beaten track in order to locate the sites where killing and barbarity were the norm. An example of this is what remains of My Lai near the coast of Vietnam. In that place the all too familiar slaughter by American troops of a group of farmers living and working in a rice village took place. The bullet holes in the trees, the underground shelters where the people cringed as grenades were dropped inside, the statues erected to honor the victims, the modest and friendly guides who are descendants of the horror all testify to the events that transpired. This is not at all the only memorial to the warfare that took place in Vietnam but it is especially dramatic for Americans who served in the war and return to the site for deeply personal reasons.

     Should we visit such places as these on our vacations? Only if we want to grow into more sensitive, caring human beings committed to eliminating the possibility of more of the same happening on our watch. And only if we wish to understand the totality of human history including its underside. If we miss these sites, of course, we can always visit Somalia or North Korea or Darfur for first hand experience.

ETA Basque Demonstration, San Sebastian, Spain

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Travel on the Rails

      One common way to travel independently is by train. That is not often the fastest way, nor the least expensive, and it can even be boring under certain circumstances. At the same time, trains offer different experiences, many of which are memorable. I generally prefer to travel by car so that I can stop where I want and see as much of the countryside as possible. For night travel and for longer distances, though, trains are often a viable option. The quality of the accommodations varies greatly so one must be prepared for a bit of the unknown. I have ridden trains on many occasions but will reflect on a few notable excursions here.

      Sometimes trains can be the only way to get from here to there. At least two of my trips fit that category including the Copper Canyon voyage in Mexico and the colorful trip from Cuzco, Peru to Macchu Pichu. The Copper Canyon train in Northern Mexico is a trip in itself. The train skims right alongside the ridge of the beautiful Canyon for a good ways passing through dozens of tunnels through the mountains. One can stop along the way to explore several varied towns of interest. The indigenous inhabitants of the area are mostly Tarahumara Indians, a shy cultural group many of whose members still live in caves as they have done for hundreds of years. Hikes or horseback rides along the edge of the canyon in the cool mountains are delightful activities. There is both a local train and a newer tourist-oriented luxury option. The local train still features armed guards between cars for protection from thieves and the passengers are most often folks who live there. Colorful vendors laden with snacks board briefly at each station. This was another instance of choosing between serendipity and security. I rode the local train and my choice was one I will never regret. The trip from Cuzco to Machu Picchu in the heart of Peru is also quite beautiful. I was lucky enough to get a seat right in the front to look out at the Andean countryside through a panoramic window. What a magnificent couple of hours! Of course a trek over the Inca Trail would have been lots more adventurous but my body was not fit for that at the time.

      The train trip I remember most vividly however also traversed Andean heights and it was the only time I rode on the top of the car rather than inside it. That route starts in Riobamba, Ecuador and ends in the lovely, colonial city of Cuenca. It is known as the Devil's Nose train because one of the sharp turns in the mountains features a formation that has come to be known by that name. You will have to decide for yourself if it deserves such a designation. You grab a cushion, climb up the ladder on the back of the car, settle yourself on the top where there is a low railing, and experience a trip through the Andes like you never imagined. Along the way there are brief stops at stations in small mountain villages where the passing of the train is the highlight of the day. As I looked out at the residents of these isolated villages, I could not help but wonder what life holds for them from moment to moment in their high mountainous retreats. The ride itself was one of the most thrilling travel experiences I have ever had. I would do it again at the drop of a hat (or in this case, a sombrero.)

     And then there is India where train travel is a very common and rather convenient way to go from place to place. Just looking around at the folks in the station where you board the train is an experience in itself. Porters carry gigantic luggage on their head. Passengers line up dressed for business or farming. A first class ticket (a term that stretches the meaning of the designation quite a bit) offers a sleeping compartment that doubles as an acceptably comfortable cabin during the daylight hours. If you are a party of one or two, be aware that the compartment contains four beds which are very likely to be full before the train leaves the station. As darkness arrives, the cabin is transformed. My wife has slept with many men on such trains and it is not her favorite way to travel in India. One can meet interesting people along the way, however, and the brief interludes at stations in small towns offer more opportunity for interaction with residents than speeding past in a car or flying over their homes does.

     If you inquire, there may be some surprising opportunities on the rails in the area you will be visiting. Ofttimes, these are not heavily advertised so you may need the knowledge of a good local agent to help you discover them. When we were in Darjeeling in the north of India, we discovered what they called the "Toy Train," a one car contraption with an engine fired by an oven in the very front. It traveled through wonderful mountain countryside and stopped at tiny villages along the way. If you think you might enjoy such an activity, ask about the opportunities that exist where you are heading. There might be a happy surprise in the offing.

The Copper Canyon, Mexico

Friday, October 14, 2011

The China We Don't Know

       If you are planning a trip to the popular sites of China- Beijing with its Great Wall and Imperial Palace, the incredible port and commercial center of Shanghai, Guilin and its limestone cliffs and misty landscape, Xian, the site of the buried army of the Han Empire, and the other most well known sites - you are in for a series of historical, aesthetic, and cultural wonders. As I write this blog, China is probably completing the construction of some new road or office building or apartment complex and the face of the country is changing stone by stone. But there is another China for those with interest in diversity and history and tradition, a China which requires perhaps a good number of additional miles and a bit more time and effort to experience. It is the China of minority life, a colorful look at age old traditions, dress, music, architecture, and customs.

      The visitor could start in the mountain kingdom of Tibet which most travelers are quite familiar with. The political dilemma of a sojourn in that province are personal. Like some other areas in China, it is a place seeking independence and experiencing oppression. Yet it is clearly a different culture. The ethnic background of the people, the religious practices and many other aspects of the province are distinct. For an even more dramatic encounter with unexpected minority life, one might wish to travel to China's far western province of Xinjiang, a massive area bordering Central Asia, Pakistan, India and Tibet. This is Muslim China. The majority of the people who live there are of Turkic or Persian descent and fair-skinned much like their Central Asian neighbors although China is encouraging hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese to move into the province to establish a working majority (a common Chinese maneuver). There are Uyghurs, Tajiks, Khyrgiz and other peoples in the area who speak their own language, dress in their own style, worship in mosques, have a distinct history and art and music and clearly oppose the rulers in Beijing. Present among them are Hui people who are ethnically Han Chinese yet practice Islam. One can see the unusual architecture of the Hui homes and mausoleums, the yurts of the nomadic Kyrghyz and other mountain dwellers, historic mosques and amazing Buddhist caves decorated more than a thousand years ago. It is an unsettled area which includes a long leg of the famous Silk Road dotted with scattered market towns and isolated farms as it runs between great deserts and high mountains .

      While there are several other sections of China where distinct subcultures exist, the largest concentration of these lie in the South in Yunnan, the part of China neighboring the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. A few hours south of Kunming where the Stone Forest is a tourist attraction live the Yi (ee) people, one of the most colorful of the minority groups. You can visit their small villages and see the unique and colorful dress that is distinctive to their group. Even further south, the mountain groups that live near Xishangbanna, home to the Dai people, share many of the customs of their neighbors in Burma and Laos. North of Kunming minority life is even more in evidence. The Bai minority group are quite a sight at their weekly markets all of them in traditional, unfamiliar dress. A walk through these markets is a photographer's dream. The ancient pagodas just outside the city of Dali are worth traveling to alone. A bit further north still is Lijiang, home of the fascinating matriarchal Naxi who have single handedly retained ancient music of the countryside in spite of repression of their musicians during Mao's tenure. They also maintain the only known Dongba Cultural hieroglyphs and lead their own singular life in the beautiful city. Past Lijiang is the fascinating road to Shangri La, the area made famous in Lost Horizons, a spectacular mountain area inhabited mostly by Tibetans. One other characteristic of Yunnan that should be mentioned is its eternal spring-like weather. A great place for sunshine, beauty and wonder.

     There are 56 recognized minority groups in China although they constitute only a small portion of the total population. If the tourist is interested, he or she can visit the Manchu in the far north and the Zhuang in the South or any of the many places where traditional peoples are concentrated. In any event, such a voyage offers the tourist a substantially different China than one might ever imagine. When we Westerners think of exotic countries on other continents, we imagine that each cultural area is homogeneous but such is not the case. Travel almost anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, or southern Asia or many sections of South America and Meso-America or even islands like Borneo or Papua New Guinea and you are in for the delightful experience of visiting people who live considerably differently from their nearby neighbors and who take pride in their membership in a group, usually more than their citizenship in a nation.

                               Local Dentist, Kashgar, China

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hazards to Remember

     In my book, What's an American Doing Here?,  I devoted a whole chapter to various pitfalls and dangers that occurred along the way as I travelled the Third World. I wrote, "So what else is there to worry about beside disease and sanitation, running out of gas or unavailability of medical care!  Well, maybe rockslides and landslides, storms and floods, frozen roads and crazy drivers, marauding bandits and slippery thieves, insurrections and civil wars, spewing volcanoes and other such precarious hazards one might stumble upon." The reality is that, although the passage was intended to be facetious in part, several of those circumstances may well be experienced if one travels long enough and in the right places. The story of one such occurrence which my friends have been burdened with my rendering of was an incident on my first trip to Burma about fifteen or more years ago.

     At the time we were there, Burma was not eager for tourists. There were few places to stay, a visa was granted for only a seven day sojourn, and transportation to and from and within the country was very limited. It seemed that there was but one plane that circled the main cities and, if you were not on it, you either did not go where you were intending to go or you made your way over slow, muddy, unpaved roads or found a seat on one of most uncomfortable trains in the world. We made our way around to some of the main sites by various transport until I developed a slight ache in my side on the way to the airport in Mandalay. By the time we reached Rangoon, I was immobilized by the extent of the pain and lay helpless on my bed in the hotel. It was so bad, we called a Burmese doctor.  Medical advances after about 1920 seemed to have passed by largely unnoticed in Burma and the doctors were hardly up on the latest techniques. The diagnosis I received was that I had strained something in my side. I was so desperate that I took the half inch wide pill the doctor gave me.  Fortunately, we had heard there was a doctor in the U.S. embassy in Rangoon who would help tourists if they asked him although it was outside his usual responsibility. I was able to get to see him that afternoon. When he heard I had been treated by a Burmese doctor he could not restrain his laughter, increasing my own skepticism and nervousness immensely.

    My American doctor was rather convinced that I had a kidney stone problem and informed me that " could not get treated for that in Burma." He recommended that I immediately head for a hospital in nearby Bangkok which had American trained doctors and the latest equipment. Our tickets to Bangkok, however, were for three days later and one did not simply exchange tickets at that time in Burma. With good luck and the help of an influential Burmese orthopedist who knew my American doctor I was able to secure tickets for the next day. In the meantime, I was sent to a clinic in Rangoon to spend the night under the watchful supervision of ten thousand mosquitoes. I was to drink lots of water but not the stuff that ran from the clinic spigots. My wife needed to make her way into town to get bottles of water that would not kill me as well as the tickets which had been arranged. No problem except for a few minor considerations that popped up.

      My wife left for town in a cab when she suddenly realized that she did not know where the clinic was that she was leaving from nor did she know its name. Her panic was not assuaged by her interaction with the cab driver who spoke not a word of English. The entire event occurred during the Water Festival, a fun-filled but crazy celebration. She got the tickets, found out from the Burmese doctor who met her there where the clinic was, bought some water and made her way out on to the street to be greeted by dozens of Burmese pouring water over her head, down her blouse and everywhere else they could. In tears, she finally secured a cab, handed the driver the instructions and made her way back to me soaked and exhausted. 

      By the time we left for the airport the next day, my pain had subsided considerably. We could get not get a cab to the airport but arranged for an ambulance to take us there. Along the way, even the ambulance was bombarded with water from every angle. The Burmese apparently had as much respect for their medical establishment as we did. We made our plane in time, got to a lush, comfortable, and very inexpensive private hospital in Bangkok and spent the next five days there. Overall Loss: a couple days of travel in Thailand. Diagnosis: sprain. Result: pain gone and travel resumed. Lesson learned: anything can happen when you travel the Third World. Long term benefit: great cocktail party story. 

                                              Sunset, Irrawaddy River, Burma

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Amazing Tribal Peoples of India

     We Westerners tend to think of India as one overgrown homogeneous country, primarily Hindu, brown skinned, ambitious, poor and energetic. That may be true of the majority of Indians but it certainly does not take into account the tremendous variety of peoples, religions and subcultures that exist there. Of special interest are the forty million or so folks who are considered tribals. That figure is, of course, a drop in the bucket of the more than a billion Indians who populate the peninsula but their practices are so varied and unique that they merit a visit or more of their own to satiate the interests of the intrepid traveler. I was lucky enough to put together such a journey for myself and it turned out to be a highlight of my travel.

      Most of the tribal villages are in rural areas separate from mainstream Indian culture and often a distance from its vast cities. The more isolated these villages are, the more likely they are to have retained their differences in language, worship, dress and customs. These are primarily people who settled in India well before the Aryans arrived and the Hindu culture was established. Many of them are of Dravidian origin and practice one form or other of animist religions. The tribal villages are scattered throughout the country although there are a few places where one is more likely to encounter a variety of them. And the variations are staggering. Some folks pray to stone formations or to unique spirits, some others worship ancestors; others still wander about with bows and arrows, many of them value women equally or even above males and others provide for bride prices in contrast to the Hindu culture where dowries are commonplace. There are still many who practice animal sacrifice on a regular basis. There are tribals who are virtually naked in dress and others who are covered from head to toe and wear an abundance of jewelry, especially necklaces and nose rings made in tribal villages which specialize in such metalwork. There are patrilineal and matrilineal groups, bigamists and monogamists and even places where women take more than one husband; some communities allow easy divorce and others do not. A visit to their living areas is a veritable journey through National Geographic.

     My trip began in the state of Madhya Pradesh with a visit to the most numerous minority group called the Bhils who number about 7,000,000 alone. I wrote earlier about their colorful Bhagoria Festivals where young people meet, boys convince girls to run off with them to spend trial days in the woods and ultimately take the mates they find worthwhile to the boy's home at which time the family prepares an offer to the bride's family. In that part of India, one can also visit other tribes including the Bhilala, the Ghonds and the Nagdas.  These groups worship their own god, Bhagwan, and consider nature an object of reverence also. They pray to stone images sprayed with oil and offer liquor and animals to their gods. The Bhil's male and female dress for the Bhagoria Festival is incredibly colorful and original.

     Another concentration of tribal life is in Orissa on the Eastern side of India. One can visit there the Kutia Kondh and view the geometric tattoos on the faces and hands of the women so that they will recognize one another in the after world while the men dress in loin clothes even today. This tribe has very elaborate rituals for birth, marriage and death, all of which can be observed on a visit. Another artifact to be observed among the various Kondh clans is the way the villages are laid out. They generally are built with two rows of houses facing a central street in the middle of which stands an altar to the earth goddess who is worshipped faithfully. The clan of the Dongariya Kondh features women who wear three large nose rings as well as men who have their hair bunched up on their head and are decorated with smaller nose rings. They are a fascinating, unusual looking group but the Bonda and the Gadaba who also reside in the general area are even more singular. The Bonda women, according to legend, may not wear any clothing but they have fashioned one of the most unique ways to cover themselves I have ever seen. They are known as "the naked people." This group also practices bride price instead of dowry for the men's families.  The men are known for their violent, warlike manner and carry weapons to protect their women from relatively non-existent animal threats. The Gadaba female attire features gigantic earrings and the women are especially well known for their dancing.

      There are, of course, other places where one finds numerous tribes on the subcontinent, especially in the far North where groups such as the Nisha and the Monpa dwell and the West where nomadic tribes wander the deserts. I have yet to get to those places. Almost everywhere one goes in India, however, a tribal village lies not very far away. The people who live near cities and who trade extensively with the majority culture have become rather assimilated over the years, so the interested traveler who wishes to see the dramatic alternative life styles some of these minority villages offer needs to get going. The world grows smaller as I write this blog.

Gadaba Woman with Necklaces

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Don't Forget the Animals

     For the most part, I am primarily interested in the people and the cultures in the Third World areas where I travel, but animal life is extremely varied in such places and can bring thrills and joy to the visitor as well. Some of my most vivid memories have to do with encounters with strange beasts that one can usually only view in a local zoo and thus never come to appreciate the nature of their life in the wild. Meetings on the animal's territory may be fraught with danger but the traveler is typically in a relatively safe transport and, most often, with a knowledgeable guide at such times. The most common kind of encounter occurs on a planned safari with park rangers tracking the animals of a particular area, especially the larger ones which lend themselves to desirable photography. What one happens upon, even with the best of itineraries, is largely a function of luck. I had been on several safaris (Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa) when we took our family on a trip to a site next to Kruger Park. Nothing compared to that experience. We found ourselves about 30 feet from a formidable rhino who was peacefully grazing along and marking his territory. He paid no attention to our presence at all, fortunately, so we were able to spend a good bit of time observing his behavior. We then went in search of lions which my wife and I had seen on former trips we but we never expected to find the scene that unfolded almost directly over our heads. There in a tree, as if arranged for our entertainment, were a group of three or four young lions, playing like kittens on a large branch, pushing each other around and trying out various poses for balance.We could have spent the whole day watching them. I will not go into the rest of that trip but it continued for two days of absolute delight. At the end of our stay while we were packing our van, an enormous elephant sauntered right up to the van. That encounter was closer than I would have desired. The clearly alarmed ranger told us to stand still and not take any photos. He clapped his hands and the animal turned and left. If he hadn't, I surely would have.

     Of course, all animal encounters are not so peaceful or simple. On an earlier safari, I remember waking at night to noise outside our tent. I dismissed it as inconsequential but learned from fellow campers the next morning that a large African buffalo was walking around the tent for quite a while. He had destroyed a large bush just outside the entrance to our tent and was apparently thinking about spending the evening with us. We pretty much missed the whole event and stayed cosy in bed. On another safari, our jeep stopped to view a few elephants from not too great a distance. One of the herd did not want to be observed apparently and came rushing toward us, ears flapping and hell-bent on destruction. We got out of there fast and stopped about a hundred yards down the road- to no avail. That elephant came barreling after us again in a short time and almost reached the jeep before we could leave the area. Not peaceful at all. Usually one can get quite close to these giants without concern but that was the exception to the rule.

     The most exciting animal visit I ever made was to the Island of Komodo where the famous dragons live. As I stepped onto the shore from our small boat, I noticed lines in the sandy coastline and asked our guide what they were. "Oh, those are from the dragons walking the beach that morning. Those lines are markings from their tails dragging in the sand," he replied. That was my first palpable realization that this was the dragon's island and we were visitors to their home. No zoos there. It was calming to be with a group of about 15 other travelers- safety in numbers, I guess- as we hiked to a spot on the island where the guides were to feed the giant lizards we had come to see. They yanked a bleating goat along as a convenient sacrifice. Convenient for us, that is, not for the goat. He would serve as the lunch that brought the dragons out of their shady, wooded hideaways. Just before we arrived at the designated spot, I glanced to my right and, less than 20 feet away, stared straight into the face of one of the dragons. He was about ten feet long, dripping with poisonous saliva from a gaping mouth and he had a tail powerful enough to disable a person. We were both on the way to the special ceremony so the unnerving incident passed uneventfully.

         We watched the powerful lizards hustle out of their forest hideouts to dissemble the goat and compete for every measure of meat possible. On the way back, we encountered the largest dragon I saw that day just sitting on the far side of the path eyeing our tourist line. The guide said just to continue walking straight ahead which I thought was an excellent idea. His only protection for us consisted of a small stick which I am sure would have tickled the monster into submission should he have attacked any of us. "Do they eat humans?" we inquired. "Not often" was the reply "but it does happen." I have felt safer a few feet from a sleeping crocodile or in a small boat floating along in hippo infested waters than I did during our return passage to the shore. Fortunately, I think the dragon was one of those who had just satiated themselves on the goat. He just sat there. At least in the Third World, one can interact with the animals one meets and really appreciate their behavior. Cages are not always a bad idea however.

       Of course, the ultimate animal viewing destination is on the other side of the world. The Galapagos Islands are in the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador and can easily be combined with cultural visits to Peru or Ecuador with their fascinating Indian settlements and ancient ruins The amazing thing about the Galapagos is the incredible variety of animals that dwell in the surrounding sea, on the volcanic islands and in the air wherever one goes. If you want to see the courting rituals of Blue Footed Boobies or the lovely Winged Albatross, admire the immensity of the Galapagos Turtles or step over sea lions sitting along the path before you, swim with seals or have fearless Mockingbirds land on your arm and stare up at you, this is the place to go. It is not easy to get to but more than worth it when you arrive.
Young Lions Playing in a Tree, S. Africa

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Getting Down With the People Who Live There

     If there were one word of advice I would give to fellow travelers it would be participate. Opportunities for being part of what is going on around you are omnipresent in the Third World. People in developing countries tend to be less protective of their personal practices and less inclined to secrecy than we are used to in the West. That gives us choices to be observers- to stand around and watch what goes on- or to get involved with the events that take place when we are in some exotic place. I remember many times I have faced the option to get involved or to stand apart. A few examples of this choice which have greatly affected the quality of my travel come vividly to mind.

      In the city of Vientiane, Laos, my wife and I rented a moped one afternoon so we could spend the next day touring the interesting, small villages surrounding the capital. When we awoke in the morning, it was raining hard and that plan seemed to be gone with the wind. I suggested we take the moped back and make the most of the day getting around by cab. My wife looked out onto the street and saw the multitude of moped riders slicing through the nasty weather and she suggested we do as the Romans do. We borrowed a large umbrella, hopped on the moped and drove around all day. Bev was sitting behind me holding the umbrella over both of us which at least gave us the feeling of being protected from the rain, just as many of our road mates were doing. We visited the towns and the temples and did not miss a step. It was sure more enjoyable than the cab I was thinking of renting. We had as much fun that day as on any of our many travel moments. People we saw appreciated our willingness to get out and about in the manner they were accustomed to. We got lots of smiles. It is a good thing the residents provided an example for us of how to see Vientiane.

       Another moped event also occurred in Southeast Asia, namely in the city of Da Nang on the coast of Vietnam. We had an open day in front of us and we decided to go to Hoi An which we had left off of our itinerary even though we knew it was a tempting town to visit. We again rented a moped for the day. Of course we wound up getting lost. The signs were all in Vietnamese, the roads were all in disrepair, and we were the only English speakers we encountered until well into our ride. Finally, about an hour into our misdirected journey, another moped driver saw our confusion and we were able to communicate to him our intended destination. He indicated that we were on the wrong road and instructed us to follow him. He put us on the right path eventually and we did wind up having a great day touring the old Chinese settlements in Hoi An. That afternoon we left later than we might have otherwise to return to Danang. We did make it into the city but that too was quite an adventure. I learned that mopeds did not generally include lights, especially on the back of the bikes. We came into Da Nang in the dark alongside a crowd of mopeds and bicycles, all of which were invisible until one was right on them. After finding ourselves inches from the next driver, we decided not to ride any more mopeds in the dark.

     I wrote in an earlier blog about how a visitor is viewed as an important guest at  many ceremonies in the Third World. I remember several days when our joining the festivities wound up being fun and rewarding to us and the other participants. In West Africa, we attended an event which featured stilt dancers. At one point it was explained to us that the dancers were so nimble that they could bend over and pick up something off the ground. I walked out to the middle of the ring, put a few francs on the ground and returned to my seat. The dancer who was performing went over to the money and deftly bent over on his long stilts to successfully pick it up. He then turned and bowed to me and the whole audience cheered. They had apparently enjoyed not only his skills but my willingness to take the ceremony seriously and to make a contribution to it.

     There are innumerable such memories that occur to me as I reflect on this aspect of travel but I will limit myself to just one more example of participation. On our first trip to India, we were in the lobby of our hotel and we noticed activity outside on the street. We were informed that the activities of the delightful holiday called Holi were taking place and that folks were painting one another with colored powder, yelling and totally enjoying themselves. We were advised to stay in the hotel because "it could be dangerous in the street." My wife and I immediately went back to our room, put on the oldest, most beat clothing we had brought with us and headed for the festivities. Other folks followed our example. We bought several packets of colored powder from one of the many vendors and joined the celebration. By the time we returned to the hotel, we were covered with colors which never completely washed out of our clothing. My wife endured a few breast rubs that morning but that was the extent of the danger we faced. The people who engaged us truly enjoyed our being out there participating in their holiday.  They could not have enjoyed that any more than we did. Diving in to the activities that present themselves along the way may be the best way to enrich your travel experiences.

My wife, Bev, dancing in Cote D'Ivoire

Friday, August 26, 2011

Organizing Your Third World Trip

     I am frequently asked about how I put together one of my month or so long journeys to unfamiliar places. The first, and perhaps the most essential step, is deciding what area to travel to. There are so many interesting places in the world and so few opportunities to visit them that one needs to prioritize possible destinations to make sure the most important ones are the ones we travel to. The choice will reflect the interests of the traveler, the weather at the destination, money, and the pollitical situation at the very least. Once a site has been chosen, I begin a good bit of research. The internet travel sites, guide books, novels and other sources of information help me to select specific places that appear to be interesting. After that step, I generally put together a rough itinerary that includes my desired number of days in a particular site.
Very few guidebooks or internet sites can tell you just how many hours it takes to get from Mopti to Timbuctoo or Cuernavaca to Guadalajara so the next step is to approximate the time for your itinerary and to create a mock itinerary which will be used to send out.

      After I have my mock itinerary, I put it into an email together with a paragraph or two about me, my travel and my interests. I go onto the Net to look for agentss who live and work in the area I want to visit or, occasionally, agents in the States who specialize in the specific country I intend to visit. I explain to them that the itinerary is an approximation and I tell them how much I hope to spend and what kind of traveler I am. I request the agent look over this email carefully and respond to me with any suggestions or information they have. Out of about ten such emails I am likely to get about three back that indicate the agent understands what I am looking for and could provide the guidance and help I seek. The others do not seem to get it and so I have winnowed the field. Using whatever suggestions I have received at this point, I refine the itinerary to make it more realistic and I prepare the next step.

      It is time for the next email. In that message, I send the modified itinerary, give an indication of what hotels seem appropriate, request prices, and ask for additional suggestions. At this point, I let each of three or so agents know that I have made this request to several others and that I will choose the one among them who seems to be the most knowledgable and helpful and whose pricing seems most advantageous. It is important to let each of the correspondents at this point know that you may not select them to arrange the trip. An agent works hard to get timetables, make temporary reservations and find out detailed information to put a trip together. If they don't want to do that because they are not the only ones being asked to do so, they should have that choice. Like any business person they should have the information necessary to decide if they want to do the job.

     The final step is to select the agent I want to work with and which services I want from them. I may just have them take care of internal transportation and a guide, or perhaps make a few hotel reservations or arrange for a self-drive car. Depending on the available facilities, how crowded the season is and the language challenges, I have the agent set up whatever I may not be able to do. Voila! The trip is set and I am off and running. That preparation usually does the trick.

Goat Boat, Niger River, Mali

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Strange Burials in the Third World

     There are seemingly infinite ways to honor ancestors; traveling in the Third World enables the tourist to observe a wide variety of funerary rites and even to occasionally participate in them. I am always amazed at how diverse man's accommodation can be to life's circumstances and to varied cultural beliefs about the nature of the world. Burials are an excellent example of such adaptations. I remember when my first encounter with exotic differences in this custom took place. I was in a Zoroastrian Temple in Mumbai, India. A guide pointed out a tower near the temple and explained that the Zoroastrian burial custom was to lay the corpse of the deceased person out in the open at the top of the tower in order that it be consumed by elements of nature.  We learned that the practitioners of this faith believe that the body becomes impure once the person has died and must not be permitted to contaminate the earth so they expose the body to the sun and to the birds of prey to be returned to nature. As one travels through the less known parts of the world, similarities between customs and beliefs in different and seemingly unrelated places turn up surprisingly. It was many years later on the island of Bali that we encountered an almost identical custom among the early settlers of that island. The Bali Agha, the oldest cultural group there, do virtually the same thing except that the bodies are laid out on the ground and covered with light cloths in order that they be reabsorbed into the earth from which they came. We were able to visit the Bali Agha cemetery in one of the small communities where they live but access was denied to the Zoroastrian Towers. Of course, the rest of the Balinese also observe burial practices which are colorful and interesting and distinctive, filled with dance and music, so those are exceptional as well. One has several choices on that little island alone.

     I have written earlier about the amazing funeral customs of some of the other peoples of Indonesia. The Toraja who live in the central part of the island of Sulawesi conduct perhaps the most elaborate of these ceremonies. If a person is important and/or especially wealthy, at death he or she is placed in a casket and buried in the ground much as one does in most of the world. The family saves its money for a clearly more important subsequent event, however, to which all of the townspeople and the deceased's family and friends and acquaintances are invited. The grand ritual occurs some year or two later. The ceremony may involve hundreds or more visitors from other islands and from neighboring towns who are provided  for in tents, served all kinds of food, and for whom many animals are sacrificed, etc. The expenses incurred by such grand ventures have bankrupted some families and these events are strongly discouraged by the authorities. They go on nonetheless.

     In Tana Toraja (the land of the heavenly kings) where these elaborate ceremonies are held, this event includes the placing of a carved wooden effigy of the deceased on the side of a cave in a lovely rice field covered valley to stand alongside equivalent dignitaries. These effigies are tended by the living relatives of the deceased including a regular changing of the dress on the effigy. The corpses are then interred in the caves behind each of these figures. Walking through that valley is quite a sight. In other places in Indonesia, the grand ceremony is followed by placing the coffin into a finely constructed miniature home that is a replica of those the people live in. Thus, the ancestors of the people have equal comfort in their afterlife. I have had the good fortune to be an honored guest at each kind of ceremony just because I was there to attend. My presence apparently lent additional gravity and importance to the event so I was welcomed with open arms.

     When I visited a small community of Sun Worshippers on the island of New Guinea, I saw another curious version of dealing with dead ancestors. There, on a series of shelves right in the middle of the tiny village, stood skulls of ancestors covering several generations. They had been decorated in the same fashion as the residents of the village do for themselves when they paint their faces to participate in joyful ceremonies. So the skulls are representations of those who lived earlier in the village. Many people in the Third World regard deceased relatives as the living dead, spirits that protect them from on high in the afterlife or guide them in their daily activities. They take care of these spirits out of respect but also out of fear that they could be harmed by them. 

     On the banks of the holy Ganges River in Varanasi, India, one sees many examples of the much more common crematory ceremonies for the dead. But the Hindus start early on these sacred shores. They bring their dying relatives to the riverside, construct pyres or use the ones that stand there and tend their loved ones as one might do in a hospice. After death occurs, the body is placed on the pyre and cremated with the appropriate ceremonial prayers and rituals. This is something many tourists are familiar with. Less well known is something I came across in Ghana in Western Africa. I was introduced to a common variation of burial that exists there- coffins are often carved to represent something of the person's life or the aspirations of the deceased. I have seen airplanes, bibles, books, race cars and other such items created by local carvers for the deceased to spend their eternity in. While I have surely not seen the full range of ceremonies that man has created to honor the dead, I consider myself fortunate to have experienced such a wide range of burial practices in my journeys. Such customs make travel in the Third World captivating, especially because they are so accessible to visitors who are interested in them. Not only can one observe what happens but often the visitor is deemed to underscore and augment the import of the ceremony. Doing well by doing good, I guess.

Boy in Market, Kashgar, China

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What Do We Do In Response to Poverty?

     I was lecturing at a library the other day about the Third World and a woman who had been adventurous enough and curious enough to have visited India, my favorite destination, stated that it was dirty there and she was quite discomforted by the poverty. She did not enjoy her visit because of that. At least she had first hand experience because she chose to go there in the first place. Almost all the other folks who attend my lectures use those visceral aversions as reasons not to go. Are there great pockets of poverty in India and Cambodia and Yemen and Africa and many other places? Of course there are. First of all about a third of the world's people earn less than $2.00 a day. That is poverty. At that level most people can barely afford to eat or build themselves decent shelter or clothe themselves for protection against harsh weather. They are constantly in danger from epidemics or turbulent weather or other environmental events they cannot protect themselves against. They surely have little choice about where to live and very few have access to decent education. In some places poor people are more apparent than in others. In India, because of the dense population, poverty is especially visible.

      Yet few of us actually live very far from folks who are poor, who simply scrape by day to day if they are lucky. We usually protect ourselves from confrontation with that phenomenon by zipping past such areas in our car without stopping or by circumventing the "dirty" or "dangerous" streets by riding on expressways to our destination. Poverty is something that we read about but rarely are thrust into the middle of. Not so for the traveler. In areas of Cairo or Mexico City or Mumbai, we are more likely to be walking through neighborhoods where folks live outside or are clearly in need so we have to acknowledge the existence of aspects of life and society we can avoid at home if we are so inclined. As a matter of fact, travel is an opportunity if it is viewed as such. We can more safely and more genuinely interact with folks who are poor than is the case when we are at home. Travel provides a chance to sensitize ourselves to the existence of such life and to ponder the downside of society and its implications for us and others who do not have to endure such hardships. One of my earliest travel experiences and a true epiphany was taking a young woman to her home in the slums of Acapulco and seeing the conditions under which she lived from day to day-the unavailability of clean water, the sewage floating alongside unpaved roads, hungry babies crying under fragile tents. I knew that, from then on, I would work to help such people in any way I could.

     So that is another possible reaction. Maybe we could label it the Mother Teresa Conversion.  Each time I travel to places like rural Burma or some small African village, I become more and more aware of the hardships that some people have to endure just to go on living. We read about AIDS here but there are places where as much as a third or nearly half of the residents are infected; we are conscious of the existence of hunger even in America but distended bellies and skeletal figures abound in parts of the Third World reminding us how common and how painful hunger is; we see multititudes of children and adults living on the streets of overgrown cities in underdeveloped areas and cannot avoid those scenes intruding into our consciousness. These are people just like us, born in a less fortunate place, heirs to less opportunity, subjected to the whims of their weather or economy or cultures and trapped in their circumstances. Such images and experiences have impelled me to reevaluate what I consider important and what I take for granted. Such scenes can make us more human and help us to grow ethically if we allow them to do so. Visiting poverty can be an opportunity but only if the visitor takes as much interest in it as he or she does in the beautiful buildings or colorful costumes or captivating ceremonies one comes across all over the world. More knowledge and greater intimacy with all aspects of human life can have a greater effect on us than the easier aspects of world travel could ever afford. I don't like poverty either, at home or away. That's why I make an effort to diminish it in any way I can. Visits to India help increase my resolve.

                                                         Beggar, Mumbai, India