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