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