Monday, October 15, 2012

Stan's Final Journey

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Along the Mayan Trail

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

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

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

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

Temple of Eagles and Jaguars
Chichen Itza, Yucutan, Mexico

Monday, September 3, 2012

Where Will My Artifacts Go?

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

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

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

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

Maskmaker, Rural Bulgaria

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Photo Journey

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

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

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

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

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

Kuna Indian Woman,
San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunday, August 12, 2012

It is a Matter of Taste

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

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

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

The Coastline, Mazatlan, Mexico

Friday, August 3, 2012

Roads to Remember

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

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

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

Along the Karakorum Highway
Pakistan-China Border

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A World of Ceremony and Ritual

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 14, 2012

An Experience Worth Working For

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

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

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

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

New Afghan Friends near the Khyber Pass, Pakistan

Thursday, July 5, 2012

No Luggage! So What!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Collecting Memories

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

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

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

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

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

My Protector, Mopti, Mali

Monday, June 18, 2012

My Top Travel Sites

     I am often asked what my favorite place to visit is. That is not an easy choice to make but I find it harder to answer than listing a group of top places because a singular impression is so conditioned by the circumstances of one's experience. A variation in weather condition, who else is with you, the time of day can all affect the quality of any visit. So let me offer several places at the top of any list for extreme pleasure and delight.  As I wrote in an earlier blog, my first choice, a place that occupies such a clear and indelible place in my memory, is Varanasi on the Ganges in India. At dawn the empty steps or Ghats which lead to the river begin to fill with pilgrims who have come to make their oblations in the "holy" river, small rowboats head out into the water with memorial candles which are then floated out from their hulls and countless crematory fires are lit for the sacred disposition of dead relatives who have been brought from all over India to their final resting place. There is no place I have ever visited which touched my spirit so intensely and movingly as this ancient center of culture. But on to the next several.

     It is a long trip to site number two, all the way across the Pacific Ocean and still farther, namely to the abandoned city of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. The rolling terraces, empty stone houses and buildings, and ghosts of farmers and warriors past envelop the stranger as does the fog that descends in the afternoon after morning visitors have reboarded their buses and returned to the hotels from which they came. It is easy to imagine life in this hidden and mysterious Inca stronghold. Just add a little of your own imagination to the surroundings and let yourself drift into another world.

     For my next thrill, I have to choose from several of the very primitive areas where traditional people make their lives in ways so different from ours that one is figuratively transported to a much earlier time in the development of civilization. It is the contrast that captures the visitor's attention, the incredible variations in the way mankind has learned to meet challenges to keep alive and enrich whatever form that life has taken. On such visits we come to understand that our way of being is only one possibility out of countless options that exist. My choice for this adventure takes me back across the ocean to the island of  New Guinea where a plethora of traditional groups speaking some 400 languages have created a seemingly countless array of religious practices, dress, customs and use of their environment. They have adapted there to life on the rivers, in the jungles and on high mountains. There is a conglomeration of such tribal practices in a number of areas of the world. I found distinctive tribal life in the Orissa region and other rural areas of India and in parts of West Africa which were almost equally fascinating. Ethiopia, villages in Vietnam and other sites in Southeast Asia also qualify but I will stay with New Guinea for choice number three.

     It gets hard to pick another place because I am torn between sites where the buildings are so spectacular or beautiful and places where my experience was so penetrating. I would travel next to Myanmar (Burma) which only recently became a reasonable place to visit because of the evolving politics. There are a number of sites there; my favorite is probably Yangon, the recent capital. It is there that one can wander through the Schwedagon Pagoda, a highly revered, Disney-like array of varied and artfully carved temples and other buildings. There are other fascinating pagodas in Myanmar but I find the walk around the Schwedagon to be my favorite due to its incredible architectural variety.

      One more recommendation for Third World thrills is the Zocalo in Mexico City, one of the largest squares in the world. I love to go there because it is such a wonderful place to explore the art and history of that country without having to wander far. A short walk from the center of the square leads to the magnificent National Palace, a beautiful Colonial building decorated by the great murals of Diego Rivera which depict the entire historic span of the country. Nearby is the stately cathedral, perhaps the most interesting in the New World. Another couple of steps brings the tourist to a dig and museum of the city which once existed right under the Zocalo. These are the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the remains of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan which existed there before the conquistadors arrived and conquered the land. Not only is the content of the museum interesting but, like most Mexican museums, it is exhibited artistically and tastefully. We are also not too many steps from the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the pilgrimage site for devotees of Meso-America's most famous saint. You won't wear out much shoe leather in this fascinating place. I'll be back to you with another set of favorites sometime in the near future but these are a great start.

Cathedral, Zocalo, Mexico City, Mexico

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Let the Fun Begin

     When does a trip start? I would consider the beginning of any travel to be the moment a vague intention to journey somewhere turns to action and the potentiality of the trip becomes a reality in my mind. For me that can even be way ahead of time- the discovery of an article about some place I have not visited that looks alluring or the casual mention in a conversation with a fellow traveler of some exotic location I had never thought about before. More specifically, however, the start of a trip for me occurs when I start to look for information about a place that has been in the back of my mind as a destination. That is what I call early intention and the planning is truly the beginning of any voyage.

      Once I have begun to research a place, either in books or on the Internet, my voyage is underway. Each new fact I discover usually makes me more eager for that upcoming trip and each finding begins to fashion the itinerary. The more I learn, the more I look until I have mapped out the journey to ensure that I stop at all the places of interest along the way. I search for out of the way, uncommonly visited sites, crafts that coincide with my interests, unusual places to stay along the routes, etc. One activity in my planning is a book store stop or online session to find authors who live in and know intimately about the places I intend to go. They are the masters of focusing on the cultural highlights and revealing the mysteries I am likely to encounter. So these folks and the many specialists who live in or specialize in the areas I am traveling to are my next source of delight. I may read a novel or two by one of the local authors and I will unquestionably get into an exciting dialogue with some tourist agent or other. So I keep on learning.

     Of course, one can even mark the beginning of a trip with making the definitive choice about where to go, how much time to spend in each place and even where to stay. That requires either an individual search for the required information from a direct source or from some third party agency which makes such reservations. A commitment to go somewhere for a given period of time means you have locked in the trip. You are on your way. The trip has actually begun. In real-life terms, the first financial payment for the trip is the concrete beginning. The final payment to complete the arrangement is the penultimate step in the series of actions that makes the trip a reality rather than just one's idea or intention. Needless to say, once all that has occurred, the actual physical passage to the desired place can mark the beginning of a trip. The drive to the airport is the final passage that can be considered a beginning. A book or two about the place tucked into your carry on and a few vouchers in your fanny pack depending on how much structure you prefer and you are definitely on your way.

       So the fun can begin very early and can and should continue through the trip and well afterward in the memories and the collectibles you return with. It begins with any of the first steps enunciated above. It should continue, not only with the actual experience of the voyage, but all of the wonderful events that follow. When you share it with your friends, when you read something more about the place you have gone, when you look at the trinkets on the shelf that you have returned with, the trip continues. It is part of you forever.

Village Dancing, Cote D'Ivoire

Friday, June 1, 2012

Believer or Not- God is Good for the Traveler

     The abundance of books by atheists in the last several years has surely enlivened the intellectual debate about the existence of god. Whatever position one takes on this matter, however, it is hard for the traveler to overlook the inspiration of a belief in god or gods that has motivated the creation of some of the loveliest buildings in the world, as well as some wonderful dance, rituals and music. Add to that the vast variety of interesting ceremonies that communities share for prayer and tradition and you have a enormous array of fascinating sites and scenes that contribute to the traveler's pleasure. I find that atheist authors, however serious and accurate their reasoning and arguments may be, often overlook the contribution that religion has made to enrich the diversity of customs awaiting the traveler's viewing.

     One can begin almost anywhere to find the many great examples of architecture that were inspired by a culture's belief in god(s). In the Western Hemisphere alone there are the amazing monuments to the perceived god figures of the Mayans and the Inca, as well as the Teotihuacanos and others who preceded them. Their worship of snakes or birds or other representations of the supernatural are permanently represented by the remains of glorious temples and pyramids that have withstood the ages since their creators built them. One needs only to view the vast Pyramid of the Sun bequeathed to history by the Teotihuacanos whose culture has long since vanished or the elegant temples left for our pleasure by other residents of Meso-America.

     It is in Asia and Europe, however, where the most significant sites stand in testimony to the importance that notions of god played in the cultures where such buildings now paint the landscape. In some cases, these great edifices remain in use by contemporary religions. Examples of overwhelming religious centers exist in every corner of our largest continent. In India alone, one can visit the amazing ancient temple of Konark or the currently active Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. The erotic temples at Khujaraho, the extraordinary caves of Aurangabad, and the Buddhist temples of the North are all more than worth an intense visit. In nearby Myanmar there is the sumptuous Schwedagon Pagoda, Buddhism's answer to Disney world, as well as an assortment of deserted pagodas on the plains of Bagan. China's fantastic pagodas include the Yellow Crane Tower on the banks of the Yangze River and the Temple of Heaven near the Imperial Palace. In neighboring Indonesia the powerful structure of Borobudur which claims to be one of the seven wonders of the world and has more than 500 enclosed statues of the Buddha looks out over the plain to the glory of Buddhism while the ancient Prambanan Temples mark the earlier Hindu settlements that were founded nearby.

     In Nepal, Bhutan, Cambodia, Tibet and other places in Asia, there is a plethora of great buildings erected to testify to the religious devotion of the people who created them over the centuries. While much of the dancing and art and music have disappeared over the years, one cannot imagine the great structures of Asia being lost in history. I need not mention the very familiar sites in Europe which stand in memory to Greek and Roman worship as well as Christianity or the many beautiful mosques in Turkey and the Middle East which depict the glory of Islam. Whatever flaws or doubts one associates with religious belief, it is impossible to dismiss the beauty that devotees of one or other of the great faiths, past or present have created for our everlasting pleasure. 

The Sphinx and the Pyramids, Egypt

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Little Imagination

     Lots of places we Third World travelers visit seem to be just heaps of stones from buildings or dwellings that no longer exist, or ancient caves or holes in the ground or age old ceremonies whose true nature and meaning have been transformed over the years and are now lost in the mist of time or perhaps significant monuments that once stood at the center of great civilizations which died and vanished long before our visit. What we need to bring with us to such places is whatever imagination we can summon. We need to reconstruct in our minds what may have appeared in such places when they were at their cultural apex. That is not always easy to do. We sometimes can find clues in the stories we hear or in the writing on stones and stellae that describe what once existed there.

     Macchu Pichu, for example, is merely a set of terraces with what may appear to be occasionally random stones aggregated in some organized fashion at the edge of each parcel of farm land. It takes a little time and a modicum of meditation before half clad Inca warriors appear in full regalia and workers fill the land, furrowing, planting, harvesting and tending domesticated animals. There may well be llamas treading the trails through the site (there are actually a couple who roam the grounds). The clouds that once rolled in to cover the mysterious city still appear in the early afternoon and lend an aura of mystery to the scene below. The quiet that surrounds the site when the morning tourist groups return to their original destination comes once again to open the gates to our imagination. The more we know about life at the ruins and the purpose of the city atop the mountain, the more we can conceive of the once brightly colored housing and busy buildings and hills that fill the landscape. If we can even begin to reconstruct what we are seeing in line with our understanding of life there when the city was alive, we have entered an ancient and beautiful world. It takes a bit of effort, but that is what the tourist who visits the impressive ruins of the past must offer to make his visit meaningful.

     At now deserted places like Tikal and Copan, Borobudur and Khujaraho, Xian and Giza, Angkor Wat and Djenne, we must add for ourselves the colors and the decor that have faded over the ages. We must supply the parade of workers and the array of soldier-guards, the shoppers and sellers, the artists and strolling citizenry. We must remove the winding tree trunks that have grown in cracks in the stone facades or have twisted themselves around structures and engulfed them in the jungle habitat.We can do that if we prepare ourselves and if we concentrate on what we actually know about the niche in man's history that the site occupies. When we do so, ruins come alive; shopfronts fill with flowers and goods; activities spring from doorways and fill walking paths. It is then that we have visited the past and made our visit a travel through time to gain a glimpse of some past civilization.

     All of us have some ability to picture the past. I remember many years ago walking through the ruins of the Forum in Rome and the marble floors of the temples at Paestum or Santorini. It was my responsibility to paint the bricks and complete the columns so that the sites could come alive for me. Visiting the remains of ancient cultures requires preparation and knowledge. The more we know, the more we see. Grab that guidebook and study it as you go. It is truly an amazing experience to have a long disappeared place come to life before your eyes. Many travelers tend to drift aimlessly and unfocused through the aisles of the world's museums or the piles of stones left to us by long gone ancestors and, if that is your predilection, sobeit. Yet you can add a great deal to the depth and value of a journey by learning about where you are headed beforehand and adding your own dreams and cultural memories to the places you traverse.

Palace of the Magicians, Uxmal, Yucutan, Mexico

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Joys of Central America

     I wonder why Central America isn't flooded with tourists from the States. Of course there are quite a few Americans in Panama where we were the builders and managers of the Canal for close to a century and a location many families who worked there have chosen for their retirement. In Costa Rica and Guatemala one is likely to bump into gringos as well but there are more European and Latin American tourists than from the U.S. I assume the situation is due to a knowledge gap as well as the general timidity of American travelers to explore new places.

     Costa Rica and parts of Panama feature filtered water as well as most of the comforts of the area of the industrialized world we are more familiar with and are easy to travel in even for the fussiest vacationist. Costa Rica even features self contained resorts so one need not venture into the "dangerous" unknown nor encounter too many surprises. Both countries also feature great traveler delights. Costa Rica is replete with wonderful water and jungle experiences. There are smoking volcanoes, zip lines, and endless hiking paths. The bird life is a as rich or richer than anywhere in the world. Panama not only houses the fascinating Canal but also jungles and islands where indigenous, traditional Indian tribes still maintain enough of their traditional cultures to make a visit educational and interesting.

     It is the rest of Central America where few Americans are encountered. They are outnumbered by Europeans and Latin Americans who visit Guatemala abundantly and are also much more likely to wander through the neighboring countries in that area. Of course there is still a problem with crime in Guatemala, a sure cause for American avoidance, but the country features some of the most interesting colonial architecture in Latin America. The Peten jungle in the North contains one of the spectacular deserted Mayan sites, Tikal. The most colorful market in our hemisphere, Chichicastenango, sits in the rolling hills in the center of the country. And beautiful Lake Atitlan with its smoking volcanoes is not far away. What more could a tourist hope for? Belize is also rather easy to travel about in and parts of the country are rather well developed. The Caribbean area, however, is a place where there is an abundance of poverty with many folks housed in simple huts not dissimilar from places in Africa. Yet the country is worth a visit for its several Mayan sites and its fascinating caves, some of which one can tube through on a lazy afternoon. The beautiful island of Ambergris Caye is but one of the comfortable and attractive islands the country features and offers the visitor just about as much as anyone needs on vacation.

     Then there are Nicaragua and Honduras. The former is the more interesting destination for tourists who are willing to brave the challenges of the Third World. Earlier political struggles have kept tourism quite low though things have settled down.  In Nicaragua there are interesting islands, lovely colonial villages like Granada and a coastline that equals Costa Rica's yet is far less developed and quite a bit less expensive. Some Americans have been purchasing land along the Pacific coast in the expectation that tourism will increase considerably. Honduras, a former outpost of the United Fruit Company, is also a bit challenging. There is less for the tourist to visit there than in Nicaragua but there are wonderful Mayan stellae in Copan, the southernmost of the important Mayan sites; there are white sandy beaches and great snorkeling on the Caribbean side, and the island of Roatan has become a common port for the cruise ships that ply that part of the world.

     In short, for Americans who prefer a short plane trip (no more than five hours to just about any site), a touch of Third World adventure, some fine natural sites in jungles, lakes and mountains, and friendly people, Central America should be a consideration. From extensive rain forests to volcanic lakes, from some of the finer beaches in the world to impressive variations in animal and plant life, there is much to do and see. With no wide oceans to cross, the nearness of the area makes it a good choice for week long trips. As the memories of recent wars fade and the popularization of some great travel destinations increases, I anticipate that our close by neighbors will be seeing more gringos in their midst. In the meantime, you can take advantage of inexpensive, interesting locales without tripping over too many folks from your neighborhood.

Coastline, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Israel Surprise

     It is a long time since I first visited Israel- December, 1967 to be exact. If that year doesn't strike a bell, I will remind you that it was the year of the Six Day War in which Israel won control of what was then the "Occupied Territories." That territory has since become part of what is expected to be the independent nation of Palestine or, alternatively, Judaea and Samaria by the religious settlers who hope to maintain control of the land. Whatever the case may be, another part of the conquest was the occupation of Gaza, a piece of land nobody seemed to want very much. When I arrived on vacation from teaching in Rome the year of my visit, I rented a car and my family and I began to travel through the war-torn countryside past disabled tanks, pitted roadways and bombed out military sites. The Arabs were subdued so visitors could go just about anywhere they wanted. It was post-victory, pre-political antagonism time. Except for the occasional but brief interruptions of roadblocks (brief unless one was Arab that is) it was possible to drive into parts of what was once Jordanian or Syrian or Egyptian controlled locales. We got to visit Hebron and Jericho, for example, inadvisable places for Americans to visit today. We got to explore the remains of East Jerusalem after the long Arab occupation. We even drove into the former Syrian hills where so many shells had been fired from its gun emplacements.

      What would happen next, we wondered. I remember well a conversation I had with a group of folks in a kibbutz. They were full of victory and proud they had been able to fend off so many forces of course. Their answer to the conquered land issue: We will just sit on the land for a while, make a deal toward permanent peace and get rid of it after a couple of years. How far off target that prediction turned out to be! But spirits were high at the time and anything seemed possible. I wonder what the people who participated in those conversations might think some 45 years later were they still here and able to ponder the aftermath of the conquest.

      I guess we shared some of that delusion as my wife, my infant daughter and my young son explored the country. There were Israeli troops just about everywhere so there was an aura of stability and safety most of the places we went. That is except for Gaza. We roamed around independently to all corners of the little nation and even decided to drive into the sliver of land recently taken from Egypt. We motored into Gaza City, parked our car, took out the stroller for our infant daughter and started our leisurely walk down the main street. We did have to fend off a plethora of youngsters with rags who offered to wipe down our car. As we strolled along, we became increasingly aware of how distant and hostile the inhabitants seemed to be toward us. Slowly we felt people encroaching on our space and eventually we felt threatened. That was one of the few times in my travels that I sensed imminent danger. My wife and I decided to return to the car which we did quite hurriedly, keeping our children close and shutting out distractions. We got in, revved up, and moved out as quickly as possible.

     It is amazing to me as I recount this experience that I could have been so politically naive and foolhardy in my travels, especially with my children at my side. I tend to discount risks and travel without very much worry but Gaza was simply not the place to be. Residents there were angry, humiliated and hopeless. And we were visiting. I learned a good bit from that incident and have never again intruded into desperate places where people wanted to and deserved to be left alone and where I might be perceived as the enemy. When I am in areas laden with political anger and resentment against government, I disappear into the setting or I simply avoid it altogether. I have since had many opportunities to melt into the background of scenes that unfolded around me. Memories of my Israel experience sometimes lead me toward more caution than I might exercise otherwise. The Gaza visit was 1967 but it occurred only yesterday in my mind.

West Bank, 1967, Occupied Territories, Israel

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Stroll Through Downtown Istanbul

      Istanbul is perhaps the easiest city for accessing tourist destinations just by walking around the center of town. Sites that cannot be reached that way are near the Bosporus and its inexpensive public ferry which plods the waterway regularly. Thus, the city is not just one of the most interesting places in the world; it is arguably the simplest one to get around in. I suggest that the traveler find a place to stay in the center of the city (although, of course, hotels are more expensive there than ones further out), get a map, put on his walking shoes and then just roam about. As soon as you hit the street in the central area, the city jumps out at you. There is activity everywhere. Outside of India, it is the busiest city I have ever visited. Water sellers with old time costumes approach to sell you their wares. Kids walk by with flat boards on their head piled with delicious herbal breads. People hustle and bustle everywhere. You are definitely in Istanbul.

     The first places the visitor needs to head for are the preeminent and fascinating Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia which stand directly across the street from one another. A visit to these two historic and magnificent structures makes a trip to Istanbul worthwhile alone.  Not far from these sites are the Hippodrome, the vast Topkapi Palace which houses an extensive anthropology museum, the Rustem Pasha Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. You may not make it through all of these in one day. The Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque is indeed one of the most beautiful religious edifices of the world. Its 260 windows and multitude of Iznik tiles are hypnotic while the ceiling stands out with its heavenly blue color. Outside there are six graceful minarets and the onlooker can marvel at the skillfully constructed Byzantine Dome which dominates the building. While this structure served as a mosque for its lifetime, the Hagia Sophia was originally built as a church by the Byzantines when it was dedicated in the year 360 AD and it became a mosque only after the Ottomans conquered the area. It served that function from 1453 until 1931. It was then converted into a museum by the secular government that followed the Ottoman era.  The building is one of the great remaining monuments to Byzantine architecture. Some of the wonderful Byzantine mosaics that decorated the walls have been uncovered and offer fascination for the visitor. These ancient religious creations were among the finest art of their time. The structure has been transformed or rebuilt more than once and is somewhat of an historical symbol of the city. Near the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern. This underground storage facility was built by Justinian in 532 AD, and it is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. The huge structure once held over 80,000 cubic meters of water. The vaulted brick roof is supported by 336 columns, each over 30 feet tall, and water was pumped to it through over 40 miles of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea.

      Only about one block away one comes upon the Roman Hippodrome. This ancient site was the scene of festivals and contests during Roman and Byzantine times. Its main feature is the 3500-year-old Egyptian granite Obelisk of Theodosius, brought to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius in 390 A.D. A longer walk takes one to the 1384 Galata Tower originally built by the Genoese. The tourist's next step may be a day's trip on the ship that plies the Bosporus and stops at a host of little, interesting towns along the way. One can visit the Dolmabahce Palace, one of the most glamorous, excessive and luxurious buildings of the nineteenth century on one stop and then enjoy the products of the most famous yogurt producing town in the world on another. Even for those who not especially fond of yogurt, this creation has to be sampled. Vendors board the ship with trays of yogurt and disappear as the voyage continues up the Bosporus to the Black Sea. Although the trip on the Bosporus is a great second day, the most incredible thing about this bustling and historic metropolis is the fact that one or two days of just walking about in the neighborhood of the old city covers the most important sites to see in Istanbul. I don't know of another place where that is the case.             

     While the Grand Bazaar is a bit of a walk from the center, the tourist is bound to make that trek. The glistening plates and ceramics, the spices and sweet smelling food, the color and the bustle make this a true travel highlight. My favorite site is still farther away so the tourist might want to catch a ride to the Suleymaniye Mosque. It is the mosque's simplicity combined with its majesty that entrances me. While the more centrally located Blue Mosque is better known, Suleymaniye is the more dramatic building. It was designed by the master architect, Sinan, in the mid-sixteenth century. Its great dome and four minarets dominate the third hill of this fascinating city. You can't go wrong just wandering about in an amazing metropolis which combines the best of the East and the West. I think you will find Istanbul to be one of the most delightful and interesting places in the entire world to visit.

Lake Van, Western Turkey


Friday, April 20, 2012

No Third World No More

     My aching and vulnerable body makes it impossible for me to travel to the Third World or actually anywhere with my customary abandon and relative disregard for comfort and protection. The time has arrived for careful pill packing and a far slower pace. That is the fate of every aging traveler at some point in their life. The trick is to do as much as possible when the opportunity presents itself. I still have many unwritten anecdotes about my voyages past but my current adventures are tamer and far less frequent. For example, I have just returned from a second trip to Costa Rica. Now I do not consider Costa Rica a Third World country though some of the folks living in one room shacks might disagree with me but there are passable roads to travel on, electricity and filtered water  and good sewage facilities throughout the country, artifacts that the Third World often lacks. The food is safe, schools are available to all and people vote for their political leaders. But the country is a splendid place to visit for folks looking for scenic delight, jungle adventures, Hispanic culture and cuisine and other such things. The entire country is is a bit like a self-contained resort in an underdeveloped area.

      In spite of my apprehension, my family was eager for one more trip. I did not want to disappoint them so off we went. This trip was quite a change for me. As a now disabled traveler, I had to concern myself with lots of new things. My rooms needed to be handicapped accessible; I had to organize my pills in a box with each day marked on it; I could no longer do hikes or climb hills; I needed to make sure I had sufficient rest (no more all nighters for me); I needed someone to wheel me from one place to another, and so on. Costa Rica turned out to be a wonderful place for a wounded warrior still moving along the travel path. The distances from one place to another are manageable so a couple of rides of a few hours each was the total transportation I needed to weather. Even those trips were delightful with views of neat farms, resplendent vegetation and lovely mountain scenery. The rides simply flew by.

     Costa Rica is an extremely beautiful country. There are smoking volcanoes, soft and lovely beaches, jungles with zip lines and hiking trails, rivers filled with large crocodiles and with birds and iguanas and lizards perching on the tree limbs, magnificent but expensive hotels in the tourist areas, monkeys and other animals to be spotted throughout the country, white water rafting and more. It is a place worth going to even if one's travel capacity is not 100%. I was able to do some rather nice photography without walking a lot, especially from the boats that took us on the picturesque river rides. With the help of my family I was even able to ascend to the jungle canopy in a lift which took me up to the zip line although I could not join the others flying through the forest. At least I was in the company of howler monkeys and such. The biggest problem was the price of almost everything. Food at the hotels was outrageous and traveling into town by taxi or shuttle was even more. The excursions could break the bank as well. As a Third World traveler, I was not used to resort rates. This was not a trip one could easily do on the cheap and still participate in the things the country has to offer.

     All my life I have taken risks and gone to places many others tend to avoid because of the presence of the unknown and the absence of customary travel comforts. My Costa Rica trip was just another extension of such activity. A safer, more predictable journey for a body that I now need to be more careful about. But it was successful and surely delighted my family who shared my expectation that I would not venture abroad again. Glad I surprised them and myself. If you share my dilemma, evaluate carefully what you can do- and do it. It is always about seizing the day, whatever that may mean to you.

Howler Monkey with Baby, Jungle, Costa Rica

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Traveling with Friends

      We have gone on vacation with several of our friends, but traveling with them to the Third World is another matter. For the most part, it is more challenging and more complicated to go to places where one is not really certain about what to expect around the corner. We usually go alone. In the past several folks have indicated they would like to take a Third World trip with us and we have had a few successful voyages with good friends. It takes a bit of planning and one needs to evaluate a few things first. People who travel together have to be socially compatible of course. That is a sine qua non for any kind of travel but especially where the going can be rough. No complainers welcome. Pleasantness and flexibility required. Waiting at unexpected obstacles on the road or stretches between acceptable restaurants are common. Hotels may not meet usual standards but they are what they are and that is where we stay. So we start out by voyaging with those few friends who don't care too much about minor inconveniences along the way.

      Flexibility is the most required characteristic for couples who journey to out of the way places together. One may well have to change plans in midstream, move along with a piece of luggage missing for a period of time, or tolerate discomfort for part of the trip in order to access the places that need to be visited. I wrote earlier about our experience in the monsoon in the Philippines and how we had to completely revise our trip in midstream. Although most trip alterations are not so dramatic as that, we do try to do things that are unique and we often thrust ourselves into the unknown from time to time. If our companions cannot tolerate risk at about the same level, the trip may be lacking surprises and excitement. Time and travel are too precious to sacrifice the serendipity that makes the Third World so inviting.

     Personalities need to mesh during as intimate an experience as adventuresome travel. If one person does not care about time, meeting arrangements are not kept and the rest of the group may be waiting in a lobby for a half hour for the other person. That can be especially aggravating when more punctual members of the group have rushed to make sure their companions are not waiting for them. Morning people and evening people may have to adapt by modifying those tendencies when they are with others for breakfast or during an evening excursion. One sad sack can drag a group down and diminish its level of pleasure. Folks who like museums or ruins have to compromise with those whose interests are more focused on the outdoors or hiking or other more active undertaking and vice-versa. People who are shy about participating in ceremonies or activities of people in the places they are visiting may have to put themselves out more than they otherwise would. People who are germ adverse may need to just let some things go that they would react to at home.

     There are many such matters which folks need to be sensitive to before embarking on a two or three week endeavor to experience some place in the Third World. It is unlikely that travel companions will make an otherwise potentially pleasant trip into a failure but an inability or unwillingness to change one's behavior or an insensitivity to others' wishes and needs can certainly make such an undertaking less enjoyable and less productive. We know our friends in the social context where we usually associate with them but travel is something else. It is hard to know for certain what people will be like on the road but one should take as full measure how that might turn out as possible before taking a risk on a diminished journey or even worse, a diminished friendship. Traveling with company can be lots of fun if the group is truly compatible and on the same page about what they want to do and what they hope to get out of the experience. My wife and I still prefer to wander the Third World on our own. That's how we do it most of the time.

Buddhas in Temple, Mandalay, Myanmar

Friday, March 23, 2012

Mali Fading Fast

     Mali has been one of the more stable West African countries over the last couple of decades but there is trouble in the north where the Tuaregs are pushing for independence and in the capital where a group of soldiers has staged an insurrection. The Tuaregs have been restless for some time, primarily for economic reasons. There is not much work in the desert anymore and that tribal group has suffered a great deal over the last few years. So what should concern the traveler about these developments other than a general concern about the welfare of other peoples? You can't go to Mali, or just about any other place, when the people are staging a revolt.

     What many folks are unaware of is that Mali is an especially fascinating place to visit. The name comes from a great empire that spread through western Africa and established several famous centers of Islamic learning from the beginning of the thirteenth century and endured for 400 years. There is much to see in the country even today. One might start with the famous place Westerners were banned from for centuries, Timbuktu. From its height as a center of trade for the many caravans that traversed the Sahara carrying gold and salt primarily and as a central place for Islamic studies in the madrases that were built there to the present there has been a dramatic change. For one thing, the desert is slowly encroaching on the city and its physical size is dwindling. For another, the trade and the studies have diminished greatly so the population has decreased from over 100,000 to less than 15,000 persons today. But the tourist can still get a feel for this historic cultural center. One can ride into the beautiful desert and visit the Tuaregs who still live in that challenging environment. Some of the mosques which served as learning centers eight hundred or more years ago can still be visited. The narrow streets still offer scenes which remind one of earlier days and even the market with its giant slabs of salt to be carried on the backs of caravan camels still exists though in greatly diminished form. This is not a place the traveler wants to miss.

     There were other centers of Muslim study when the area was the center of the Malian Empire. Djenne is almost equal to Timbuktu in interest. This is a place which rivaled Timbuktu in size and fame. Here too were places of learning and the Great Mosque which dominates the center of town is worth a visit in itself. It stands next to a wonderful market and the scene is perfect for great photography. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the building however so most tourists don't get a chance to see the construction of these sand-castle like constructions from the inside. Djenne is also the home of mud cloth.. One can see delightful examples of this craft hanging in the hot sun to dry. The most famous artists of mud cloth are native to Djenne.

     The heart of Mali is the Niger River which is also its major source of transportation and trade stretching from the capital, Bamako, to the edge of the desert in Timbuktu. A ride on one of the multitude of pirogues or panaches that carry goods and people along the river is fascinating because there are a variety of interesting and varied tribal groups living in the towns along the way.  The Bambara, Fulani, Songhai and others people the center of the country. The tribal Bobos provide much of the transportation on the river and also make the clay pots which hold the liquids that the people need and are traded for other goods. In the villages, the towns folks are welcoming in spite of the poverty and malnutrition that is evident almost everywhere one stops. Interesting and unusual mosques dot the landscape and travelers wave warmly to visitors from boat to boat on the river.

     One more absolutely essential stop in Mali is the Dogon area. This almost perfectly preserved traditional locale is an amazing place to visit. The hills where the Dogon people live which are referred to as escarpments are not easily climbed but a visit is a great experience. The people are known for their religious practices, their very unusual architecture and the art, masks and sculpture they produce. Their artifacts are greatly valued by collectors. A trip to the Dogon is not for the comfort traveler however. Get ready for a hearty day of climbing.  As is the case all over the Third World, one can anticipate that such traditional cultures will change markedly as economics and technology improve and visitors bring new ideas and customs in the regions. Mali, with its great tribal diversity, friendly people, varied crafts and colorful ports and towns along the Niger will delight the visitor. Go whenever the opportunity presents itself but not right now.

                                             Man with Fulani Hat, Mopti, Mali