Monday, January 30, 2012

Places You Can't Go Anymore

     The world was never completely open to the traveler. I will not try to go back through history to enumerate the multitude of places that were unwelcoming in ancient or middle aged times but what has happened in the Third World over the last couple of decades makes voyages to some places which were available before quite undesirable, if not impossible, to visit now. Obviously places where there is revolution or armed rebellions are in that category. Syria, Libya, Burundi, Gaza and other places where tourists have not been an important source of income are especially undesirable today. But Tunisian tourism was coming along before the recent rebellion there and, for Egypt, visitors have long been a large component of the economy. One can still go to those places but many fewer do and the danger is far greater than it was before the Arab Spring. Central Africa was also a relatively untouristed area because of the difficulty getting around but the Hutu-Tutsi struggle and its reverberations in the entire area have made the whole region treacherous for potential visitors. If one is intent on visiting the remaining gorillas, it is still possible. The motivation to do so has to be considerably higher than it was a decade or more ago. Just watch out for those other guerrillas. The current violence in Nigeria makes that West African country a fearful place to visit as well.  It should be obvious that important countries like Iraq and Iran currently draw very few tourists to their great ancient sites and marvelous mosques. One may go to those places but not for personal pleasure these days.
     Of course, things do vary from year to year. The civil war in Columbia has enabled more visitation in the last few years. Although it is not a Third World area, urban centers of Spain are much quieter now that the Basque separatists (ETA) are less active. Myanmar may be become less of a political dilemma for potential tourists because of developments over the past several months or so. It has welcomed travelers of late but tourism has been minimal because of the unwillingness of many travelers to support the repressive government. Some of the small countries in West Africa are now visitable while others are less so. It is a fluid and unpredictable area. One might hesitate to go to the Ivory Coast these days, a country with magnificent crafts, an interesting Colonial past and a lot to see. I am glad I got there in time. Mali has become more violent near the desert area and the Tuareg people who occupy that region are in open revolt. How can one go there and not visit Timbuktu? Sounds like the fifteenth century when Westerners were banned completely from that mysterious city. Sri Lanka's civil war has finally ended although there are occasional, isolated incidents there. One can surely visit that beautiful island at this time but I am glad I did not wait for peace to arrive. The country is now more ready for me but I am not so ready to travel that far any more.

     South America and Mexico change from year to year. The good news is that Columbia is now accessible and reasonably safe- quite a difference from just a few years ago. Peru has been more stable also although the great tourist sites were always a distance from the fighting between the the Maoist insurgency and the violent military forces that engulfed the country. Many of us went there in spite of that bloodshed because there were places that just had to be seen and no solution to the problems seemed to be on the horizon. Glad we were wrong about the country settling down. Mexico, a country I have visited a dozen and half times or more, is now beset by drug wars and crime which has plagued visitors as well as residents. In urban areas there was a high rate of crime for many years but one could still travel with care. Now, it depends on where you want to go. There are sections of that fabulous country which as are safe as ever and other areas where the drug cartels are in charge and beheadings are taking place with regularity. I cannot list now all the desirable areas and all the places where danger lurks, but there are many news sources on the Web to inform the traveler. So far, the Mayan areas and the Yucatan in general are relatively untouched by the violence.

     The traveler who can wait is often rewarded. Well within memory, it would have been quite unwise to visit Chile or Argentina unless one wanted to reward vicious dictators. Even more recently, Guatemala and Honduras were off the tourist track. If one wanted to see Copan or Tikal, you would have had to dodge bullets from every direction. Now the jungle where Tikal lies features quite a few bandits along the roads but they pose a risk of robbery, not usually a high risk of life or death. As always, the trick is to go where you can when you can. Don't wait for the planet to settle down and make way for the traveler. Excitement and danger sometimes go hand in hand and Third World adventure is surely no exception to that fact. Happy travels.

Cathedral, Merida, Mexico

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cultures Through the the Masks

      At the top of my stairs stands a large mask from Papua New Guinea called a gable mask. In the jungle region of that country these masks are placed on the front of special buildings (spirit houses) to ward off the likelihood of bad spirits entering. Since I placed the mask there I have not had any bad spirits pass it so I guess it serves the function for which it is designed. This mask has a special memory for me. I bought it soon after I entered the Sepik River area of the country at a small market in one of the towns along the river. It was much too bulky to put into a suitcase, though it was not heavy, so I wrapped it inside a plastic bag and dragged it around with us for a couple of weeks until we got home. At the time, I was not certain it was worth all that effort but I am am quite convinced it was now that I have enjoyed it for quite a few years. I have mentioned the fact that I collect masks in my Third World journeys as artifacts which remind me of the places I have visited and the experiences I have had. They fill the walls of my dining room and kitchen, my foyer and halls and enable me to relive so much of what I have seen and learned. But their real meaning lies in the function they perform in the cultures where they were created.

      In West Africa where the greatest diversity of these creations exist, masks are used for ceremonies of many kinds and their varieties include depictions of human and animal faces as well as other figures which have specific meaning to the makers such as snakes and birds and other representations of spiritual significance. At dance ceremonies in Africa one might well see young masked men who are unidentified appear from the nearby forest, dance their assigned parts and return to where they came from to complete their tribal initiation rites. These dancers hide their identities behind masks so that the dance is the focus rather than the individual performing them.  The spirit worship of West Africans as well as several other peoples around the world is symbolized in these ceremonial objects. They are also fine representations of traditional art often created with great skill and detail. 

       Among the other masks in my collection are depictions of Colonial figures, animals and other subjects carved in Africa or Mexico, another center of mask making. Since I have been to Mexico many times, my masks remind me of the variety of Indian tribes that still carry forth many of the traditions of their history. Quite a few of these masks are palpable representations of old, spirit worshipping cultures influenced by the Conquistadors who imposed Catholicism yet allowed such traditional art and notions to flourish. Similar masks exist in some areas of South America where celebrations like Carnaval motivate mask makers to continue to carve and experiment with their artistry.

      But masks, though they may be influenced greatly by the traditions and values of a particular group, may also be just artistic objects. A few of my masks are simply lovely craftsmanship. One of the first masks I ever bought was carved in the Berber area of Morocco, hardly a major mask-making location. While it is only tangentially related to the culture where it was made, it is definitely a lovely piece of art. In places like India and Nepal, many masks represent gods. Some of these are used ceremonially while others decorate temples and pagodas and walls in homes of the reverent, well-off citizens. And some of the masks I encountered were the product of wonderful serendipity. A passing mention to the captain of a small ship I was on in Borneo resulted in an unplanned stop in a small village on the Mahakam River where I secured a wonderful mask created for the upcoming celebration of an event there somewhat like our New Year's celebration. A brief walk from my modest hotel on the little island of Sumba east of Bali took me to a store which was full of antique, interesting masks created by the tribe that inhabits that area. One of my favorites is a mask of a bearded man I bought in that store for next to nothing. Whatever their use or purpose may have been before I bought them, these wonderful artifacts decorate my home and constantly bring me back to some of the most wonderful places and fascinating experiences I have ever had. The gods and the devils, the dogs and birds, the alligators and tigers all follow me as I walk through  my house. What a sublime byproduct of my travel.

Rangda Dance Mask, Bali, Indonesia

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Few Things I've Learned from Travel

     Did you know that Peru is directly below the East Coast of the United States? I may have had an inkling of that even before I started to roam the world but superficial knowledge is different than having a palpable understanding of the world. Flying into Lima as opposed to Rio makes one understand physically how much farther east South America lies from its northern neighbor. One can learn an enormous amount from books and lectures and other such sources but only experience paves the way for such knowledge to actually become part of you. It is that kind of  awareness that the tourist gains along the way. Anyhow, that is one of the things I have learned. There have been a lot more revelations.

     I have discovered that all people have the same basic needs even though the forms can vary greatly. There are houses built of palm and houses built of stone and others of wood or bricks or ice. They are all creations to protect us from the sun and the rain, but their design rests on the imagination and traditions of those who built them as well as the materials available in the area where they are located. We all need to eat in order to live but what we eat depends as much on circumstance and habit as it does on available food sources. Snakes and eels are not universally part of the diet. Guinea pigs are treats in certain places and unimaginable food in others. Even in a culture like Vietnam, there are folks who eat either dogs or cat yet consider the other repugnant.

         Every culture has its own customs and taboos and the visitor should be aware of these before voyaging to a new society. There are places where one symbol means OK and places where the same symbol is a gross insult. In some places one eats with the right hand and never touches food with the left. In others, eating with your hands would be considered quite gauche. Don't touch Koreans you are conversing with and don't use a handkerchief in a restaurant in France or your behavior will be considered rude. I found that Muslims and others remove their shoes before entering a holy space while the Japanese do so before they enter a home. I could go on and on with this list. One would never learn about such differences by staying home. They may not seem significant to the non-traveler but they have been quite interesting to me.

     While it seems that most of the people in the world require some spiritual base, if not an organized set of religious practices, the ways that need is satisfied could not be more varied. There are some who decorate skulls and stack them on shelves for ancestor worship. Others ambush natives from the next village to bury their severed heads with their ancestor's to serve them in the next world. Some folks bow to statues, others to rocks and stone. There are folks who consider washing oneself unholy while others wash thoroughly before prayers and still others who say a blessing before they wash in the morning. Such variations are what helps to make travel so fascinating.

      I have learned about the incredible variety of religions practiced in the world at large. Being among the practitioners is quite different than reading about their philosophies. In Orthodox churches and in mosques there is no furniture; but Orthodox stand during their ceremonies while Muslims kneel and prostrate themselves. Orthodox churches are filled with colorful paintings and icons of saints; Hindu and Jain temples feature lovely statues in addition to wall decorations; Muslims forbid the representation of living beings in their holy places. Zoroastrians leave the body of their deceased in open areas to be eaten by birds and other creatures who return the flesh to nature. Most other religions bury their dead in graves but these can be either above ground or below according to custom. In some areas there are people who choose to bury their loved ones in small houses which are replicas of dwellings for the living; in other places the bodies are burned and the ashes scattered. All of these variations are minor compared to the ideological differences that underlie them but they do make travel a bit more interesting. I would have been incognizant of most of these customs hanging around in my own neighborhood exclusively.

      So what does knowledge of all these tidbits contribute to the traveler's life? For me they enlarge my awareness of the world and make it more interesting. They feed my travel desires. They enrich my sense of man's creativity and imagination. They increase my wonder. Such discoveries are lots of fun and downright delightful. One more reward of travel off the beaten path.

                                                        Monks at Lunch, Myanmar

Friday, January 6, 2012

Third World Sites Not To Be Missed

     Most travelers are quite familiar with famous places in the West. St. Peters, Notre Dame, the London Tower, the Prado Museum, Red Square and countless other such sites are commonly visited by Westerners. America and Europe offer enough of these to last a lifetime of travel. But what is their equivalent in the Third World? The answer is a plethora of far older and often more magnificent places where man or nature have exercised their creative force. We are all at least cognizant of some of the major Third World Sites. A natural wonder is the magnificent Victoria Falls where the Zambezi River rushes over a mile and a quarter in width and whose torrent in the greatest water flow in the world comparable only to Iguassu Falls of South America. Then there are the Taj Mahal in all its marbled glory, the Great Wall of China, the magnificent Blue Mosque of Istanbul and other places we have some familiarity with. But the Third World contains far more sites of man's historical glory and earth's endless variety.

       Southern Asia offers the greatest collection of amazing tourist sites of any part of the world. The tourist can start in Myanmar with the incredible Disney-like Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.  It is not only the holiest Buddhist site in the devout county but it shimmers with gold and diamonds from dozens of stupas large and small some of which contain relics of the Buddha. It is a remarkable experience to circle the site and view the multitude of worship places in this one location. Not too far from Yangon is the city of Bagan which features a vast field dotted with millennium old temples, each more interesting than the next. It is awe-inspiring to think of a civilization that would create such an assemblage of holy sites in a relatively short period of time. Borobudur, another sumptuous Buddhist stupa, is located in the central part of the island of Java in Indonesia. This UNESCO Heritage site  dates from the eighth century and features 72 open stupas each containing a statue of the Buddha. It, too, is one of the great monuments of Buddhist history. In the same area of the world, the neighboring country of Cambodia features relatively intact ruins of several great capitals including Angkor Wat, the one the Western traveler is most likely to know about. The ancient city was a religious and a political center of the Khmer civilization from the 9th to the 12th century and retains it external wall intact as well as many of the temple structures and an amazing collection of art and sculpture. Nearby are impressive remains of other great capitols of the Khmer people. Not far away is the area called "The Killing Fields," one of the most moving monuments to man's cruelty in recent history.

      I mentioned the Taj above but India alone has several of the most incredible sites in the world. Not too far south of the Taj is the town of Khajuraho where a host of beautifully carved erotic temples mark what was once a center of Hindu worship and culture. Still farther south are the Ajanta caves, remnants of ancient Buddhist and Jain temples carved inside granite mountains and decorated with countless paintings and sculptures. Each of these sites is a wonder in itself and makes a trip to India worthwhile. I would add one more amazing building still farther south, namely the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. Not only is this Hindu monument fascinating with its approximately 2,000,000 carvings, but the ceremonies that take place inside are totally unique. Every night Shiva beds with his consort, Meenakshi, on the opposite side of the temple after an elaborate procession carries him to his pleasure. In Varanasi and Pushkar, one can witness devout ritual bathing in holy waters by endless crowds of worshippers who come to fulfill the dream of their lives.

     When we journey through South and Meso-America we find equivalent delights.  The monumental temples and cities built by the Mayans and the Inca are as impressive as any other sites in the world. One might start at the gigantic pyramids of the Teotihuacan civilization near Mexico City and then trace the Mayan religious centers from Chichen Itza and Uxmal down to Palenque and into Guatemala to Tikal and Honduras to Coban. There are many other such sites but a visit to any of these will give the tourist a good idea of how the Mayans centered their political and religious activities in palatial cities. In South America, Macchu Pichu is probably the most impressive example of Inca culture anywhere and should not be missed. Add in Easter Island and the natural and historic wonders of the Galapagos Islands or the Atacama Desert of Chile or the Amazon River and you have as meaningful and wondrous a trip as can be imagined. 

     There is one more category of travel that the Third World offers exclusively- traditional culture. The Omo Valley of Ethiopia is one of the places in Africa where relatively few white travelers have journeyed. The lip-plate tribes of Mursi and Suri are probably worth the difficult journey alone. There are other tribes all over Africa where one can see rare customs and traditional dress and meet people quite unlike themselves. In Papua New Guinea, one can visit unusual hill tribes like the Huli and see a way of life that will disappear in the near future but remains vibrant enough to provide a great travel experience now. Pockets of traditional life also abound  in the Amazon region and other jungles in South America. Each one of these offers a very unique opportunity for the tourist. More densely populated areas in Vietnam and Indonesia contain small groups of people who still exist as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. The tribal peoples of India are in this category as well. They merit a journey through their extensive rural habitat.

     If the tourist thinks a visit to the Louvre or a view of Niagara Falls does the trick for him, so be it. If not, there is a great deal more for the traveler's delight. Just wander a bit off the beaten path.

Schwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar