Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lakesides of the Third World

     If you like to voyage in watery areas, investigate the many wonderful lakes that abound in the Third World, places of amazing cultural scenes, volcanoes, fascinating villages and practices and exquisite beauty. In our hemisphere, my favorite is Titicaca which sits between Peru and Bolivia. This is the highest navigable lake in the world at about 12,500 feet. A delightful train ride through the Andes takes the traveler to Puno, the main lakeside port of Peru. A brief reed boat ride to a nearby island takes visitors to one of the many, populated artificial islands of the Uros Indians. The Indians fashion these islands solely using the reeds that grow abundantly in the lake. The residents live on these small islands and make their living from catching fish which are then traded at the shore for their other needs and for food. They also weave interesting objects which they sell on the mainland and to visiting tourists. This is an amazing traditional culture and a mini-trip not to be missed. But there are many additional islands on this vast lake. My favorite is Taquile, a hilly island where another traditional society offers the wanderer incredible variations in dress and a cooperative where fine woven articles are sold. Be ready for a good climb if you visit this site however.

     Closer to the Bolivian side of the lake is the Island of the Sun, a hilly, unpaved terrain where one can still see many early Inca buildings. Not far away from there is the Island of the Moon, a former Inca nunnery. Even the nearby town of Casablanca from which one accesses the two islands is interesting. For one site of interest, stop at the big church on the square where you can have your vehicle blessed by the local priest on the weekends. Bikes, motorcycles, trucks and buses are all eligible. Bring a small offering to the church as a thank you gift.

    An even more beautiful site is in nearby Guatemala. Lake Atitlan is a deep caldera, surrounded by cone shaped mountains including three volcanoes. This is a Mayan area though the thirteen villages on the lake vary in their dialects, their culture and their dress. People speak one of two ancient Indian languages which are rather distinct from one another. Most of the villages are accessible from the lake. A public boat takes visitors to three of the more commercialized ones but more independent travelers can rent their own boat and pick and choose the towns which interest them. The return trip to Panahachel, the most popular tourist base can be rough in the afternoon. Our boat seemed to fly up onto and down from the waves that the wind had stirred up. Make your day trip an early one. There may not be a more beautiful lake in the world. And it's not very far away.

     While Asia offers many lake adventures, my favorite is Lake Erhai (Ear shaped lake) in Yunnan Province in the South. The best way to access this spectacular site is from Dali, the nearby Bai Tribal city. The Bai people wear traditional costumes and have festive and colorful markets to visit and they are only one of the colorful Chinese minorities in the area. On the lake itself, there is a large tourist boat (far too large for my taste) which takes people to several sites including an island with a very popular Buddhist temple. Another treat for the visitors is the cormorant fishing on the lake. If you have never seen how these captive birds are used by Chinese fisherman, you will find this just fascinating.

      Another amazing Third World lake is Inle Lake in Burma (Myanmar). The lake supports islands of fishermen as well as markets and temples galore. Most of the buildings are fashioned from bamboo and stand on stilts seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Vegetables are grown on floating islands and cared for by the fishermen of the lake during daytime lulls. In the evening, the lake fills with fishermen who row their boats with one leg while the other is placed on the gunnel of their boat. They toss their nets from this position as well as propel their boats. This athletic wonder goes on all night. It is not an easy life but it is colorful and takes place in a very pretty environment. Additionally, this lake is right in the middle of several minority groups, each of which offers a different culture to observe and learn from. It is a totally fascinating site.

     There are innumerable other places which rival the ones above. I will mention just one additional place that I found especially beautiful. Lake Van is the largest body of water in Turkey and is located in the less visited Southeast of the country. Unfortunately, the water is brackish and the fishing consists of only one small species which the people do take advantage of.  The lake is dotted with islands but the thing that I remember best are the cliffs and mountains that surround it and the especially intense colors of the sunsets one can see at the end of the day there. It, too, was one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited. Try a lake vacation. I think you will like it.
Irriwaddy River, Burma

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Choosing the Right Time

     Wonderful, unique happenings abound in the Third World but it takes a bit of research to access them. I strongly recommend a search of holiday celebrations, memorial events, religious festivals and other special moments to be in a particular destination. All things being equal, it is more exciting to be in Salvador, Brazil during Carnaval or at least around Carnaval time to see the wonderful decorations and experience the lively spirit associated with that event. Carnaval dates and places are easy to ascertain but more obscure events take some tracking. When my wife and I decided we wanted to visit tribal societies in India, our research unearthed a celebration we had never heard of. It was called the Bhagoria Festival and it took place in several villages in Madya Pradesh, primarily in the tribal area of the Bhils and Bhilalas. It involved thousands of tribal peoples assembling in dusty towns, dressed and decorated colorfully and imaginatively for the celebrations, a horde of young men and women dancing and flirting and playing music on flutes and drums-all the trappings of a cultural get-together. The festival, we discovered, was an opportunity for young people to meet prospective spouses from other villages and overcome the distances and isolation caused by the sparse, rural nature of their living circumstances. The festival was worth the entire trip. Of course, we did have to stay in tents on the grounds of a local Maharaja to experience this party, but that inconvenience was a very small price to pay.

      I also mark our Bhagoria experience by the celebration of my 69th birthday in the dining tent where we and other members of our group met each day. (We almost never travel with groups but we had no choice in this case.) In the city where the group met right before our stay in the little village where the festival was held, some folks who knew it was my birthday bought a cake and kept it well preserved for my surprise party. It was a birthday I will never forget. Doing something special on a day which is already special to you is a doubly exceptional experience.

     There are happenings like the Bhagoria Festival all over the world. Almost every culture sponsors celebrations and parties of incredible diversity. These events not only offer a chance to see the people of the area but also to interact with them and take photos of various activities. In Mt. Hagen, a city in the hills of Papua New Guinea, there is a festival where the attendees paint themselves and wear meticulously fashioned, feathered wigs and all sorts of creative jewelry to distinguish one group from the other in a competitive setting. It is incredibly colorful and exciting. In India and Sri Lanka, there are Periheras or parades associated with some temple or other featuring dozens of painted elephants and bands and paraders of all kinds. In Southeast Asia, there are water festivals annually and events like Diwali and Holi are lively opportunities for visitors to India to interact joyfully with folks on the street.

     The difference between being someplace on an ordinary travel day as opposed to the unique time when there is a cultural celebration is probably best illustrated by my favorite festival of all- the Camel Fair of Pushkar in Rajasthan, India. Pushkar is a quiet town of some 15,000 or so inhabitants customarily. During the week of the fair, the visitors swell the population to over 200,000, not including the 50,000 or so camels that are brought to sell or parade or compete in the races. This great animal gathering is combined with a holy day for the God, Brahma, that brings many pilgrims into the city for purification in the lake. It is an incredible event which should be a travel destination for the curious and adventurous but only at festival time. Check out what is happening around the world before you go. You might want to organize your trip around those special events.

Bridge We Crossed, Sumatra, Indonesia