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

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