Thursday, March 31, 2011
In Feb. 2004, I visited Thailand for the first time and was blown away by the beauty, the history, the scents (a mix of jasmine, incense and spice), the delicious food, the kind and friendly people, the incredible sights and the underlying sense of serenity, even in a frenetic city like Bangkok. The temples are a perfect example of this interesting mix. Filled with curious tourists, bustling tour guides and frantically snapping cameras, the temples are also a haven for the devoted Buddhists of the city, who seem not to be disturbed in their prayers by the buzz of activity that surrounds them.
Wat Pho (pronounced what-po; "wat" is Thai for "temple"), is the largest temple in Bangkok and the most visited as it houses the largest reclining Buddha in the world (46 meters or 150 feet in length and covered completely in gold leaf) as well as a popular Thai massage school, where students practice their skills on tired, grateful travelers at a reduced rate; massage classes are also offered to foreigners. The temple is vast and filled with breathtaking religious art and sculptures and can be overwhelming, but English-speaking guides are available and well worth the small fee. There are also palm readers, astrologers and Buddhist monks, who for a small donation, will provide a blessing for safe travel and a happy life.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
In January 2004, I stopped over in Bali, en route from Thailand to Australia. Bali is the only Hindu island of Indonesia (92.3% of the island's residents follow Hinuduism, as opposed to the rest of Indonesia, which is primarily Muslim). Bali is famous for its arts, its beaches, its lush rice paddies and its music and culture. Not being much of a beach bunny, I decided to stay in the center of the island in Ubud, the artist's colony of Bali. Ubud is very different than the packed party beaches of Kuta and Legian. The atmosphere is more tranquil, the scenery greener and the people much more laid back. Several times a day, the Balinese place small woven baskets filled with leaves and flowers such as jasmine and frangipani on the sidewalk or steps of their homes and businesses. The baskets are meant as offerings to Hindu gods and ancestors and are constantly refreshed; as a result, the air is always filled with a beautiful floral scent.
The name Ubud comes from the Balinese word for medicine "ubad" since the town was originally a source of medicinal herbs and plants. Most of the ancient health and healing arts are still practiced today and are a mixture of religion and traditional medicine. When Europeans started to arrive, the town developed a thriving artist community which continues today. Ubud is also home to the famous Ubud Monkey Forest with its Hindu temple, where 340 Crab-eating Macaques live freely. Take care when visiting the reserve though; the monkeys are incorrigible thieves (their favorite items are tourists' sunglasses and hats) and trouble-makers who like to frighten visitors by baring their teeth, yelling at the top of their lungs and jumping on people from trees.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
This photo taken by Luis was chosen by BootsnAll as its photo of the day today. I'm so proud of him! It was taken in November 2006 in the colorful neighborhood of La Boca in Buenos Aires, Argentina. La Boca (meaning "the mouth", in reference to its position at the mouth of the river, Rio de la Plata) is famous for its history, its tango dancers and its football team, the Boca Juniors, which produced the football superstar, Diego Maradona.
Weekends are lively in La Boca, with a "feria artesanal" (an outdoor market where local artisans sell their crafts), tango demonstrations, restaurants and shops. Between 1880 and 1930, 6 million immigrants from Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Russia, France and Spain arrived in the area to work the docks and create a new life for themselves and La Boca retains much of that European character. Although the main street, el caminito, and the central blocks have become extremely touristy, the rest of the neighborhood is a thriving part of Buenos Aires life with a culture and pride all its own.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
In October 2001, I visited a friend in Vancouver for a week and one night she told me about the white Beluga Whales living at the Vancouver Aquarium. Having never seen a white whale, I was anxious to visit, so we headed over the next day. The aquarium is situated in the stunning 1,000 acre Stanley Park (10% larger than New York City's Central Park), that sits between Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean. The park hosts over 8 million visitors a year, and besides the aquarium, is home to a seawall used for running, cycling and walking, a Theatre Under the Stars, and pitch and putt golf course, a swimming pool, beaches and sports fields.
The aquarium itself houses pavilions such as Pacific Canada, Arctic Canada, The Wild Coast and The Amazon Rainforest and is the home of six Beluga Whales. The Beluga Whale can grow to lengths of 18 feet (5.5 meters) and can weigh between 2,400 and 3,500 pounds (1,100-1,600 kilos). The whale's distinctive features inlcude all-white coloring that is rarely seen among other marine animals, the ability to change the shape of its head by blowing air through its sinuses and the uncommon (to marine animals) ability to turn its head laterally and exhibit numerous facial expressions, making it a favorite with visitors.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Our thoughts and wishes are with the Japanese people this week, in the hope that they find the courage to survive the tragedies that have befallen them and that they persevere to rebuild their beautiful country and their lives. This photo was taken at a Shinto shrine in the historic city of Kyoto in December 2003 and shows the Ema or wooden prayer plaques on which the Japanese write their prayers and wishes to have a healthy family, to succeed in education and their career, give birth to a healthy baby or to find love. If they are lucky, the Kami,which Shinto followers regard as the spirits or natural forces of their faith, will grant their wishes and answer their prayers. We sincerely hope that the Kami will be deeply generous and benevolent in this crucial time of need for Japan.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
Firefighters arrive in Sendai on Sunday, two days after the devastating earthquake (photo courtesy of AP Photo/Kyodo News)
On March 11th, an earthquake of 8.8 magnitude hit the north of Japan closest to the city of Sendai. The damage, injuires and loss of life are extensive, with death toll numbers expected to reach 10,000 and property damage in the billions of dollars. The initial earthquake was followed by numeorous aftershocks, tsunamis and serious damage to the country's infrastructure, including an important nuclear plant.
Although locals are always the hardest hit by natural disasters or political uprisings, it can be even more confusing and terrifying for tourists, who find themselves unexpectedly trapped in an emergency situation far from home without contacts, knowledge of the language or customs, or knowing how to protect themselves in a disaster. These tips are not meant to frighten anyone away from global travel (after all, disasters and protests happen at home as well), but will hopefully provide some help with preparation and maintaining a calm state of mind, which can go a long way toward alleviating the stress of a seemingly unmanageable situation.
Smoke pours from an industrial complex in Kamaishi (photo courtesy of AP Photo/Kyodo News)
1) Arm Yourself with Information Before You Leave Home: when traveling to a foreign country, especially one with geographical or climatic instability such as Japan or Iceland, do as much research as possible before booking your trip. Check, for example, that you will not be arriving at your tropical paradise destination in the middle of cyclone season, or that you are aware of what the locals do when an earthquake or tsunami hits. Research has never been faster or easier with sources such as Google, the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings site, Britain's Foreign & Commonwealth Office Travel Advice by Country or a reliable news outlet such as The New York Times, CNN World, NPR or the BBC World. It is also a good idea to contact your airline or travel agency beforehand. Note: keep in mind that news organizations in general tend to exaggerate threats for ratings sake and that airlines and tour organizers tend to downplay threats as they have a vested interest in keeping your business.
Residents of Sendai stand in line for water at a local schoolyard ((photo courtesy of AP Photo/Kyodo News)
2) Carry Emergency Supplies: always have the following in your backpack or carry-on: a first aid kit, snacks, a bottle of water, sufficient cash in a hard currency such as U.S. dollars or Euros (it's doubtful that you will be able to get to a working ATM in an emergency), copies of your passport and visas, phone numbers and email addresses (travel providers, U.S. consulates, medical services, family and friends, local contacts), a cell phone or hand-held device and chargers, prescription medicines, toiletries.
3) Safety First: when disaster strikes, quickly and calmly get yourself out of harm's way as soon as possible. In a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tsunami, get to high ground or a hurricane shelter. In political turmoil, go to a hotel or private home as far away from the protests as possible. Listen to local authorities; they are the experts on the situation. For balance and more extensive information, connect to an external source such as international news coverage, the U.S. State Department or your hotel, airline or travel provider for further instructions on how to stay safe. If you are injured, even in a small way, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
A woman walks by cars damaged by the tsunami, Ofunato (photo by AP Photo/Kyodo News)
4) Keep a Level Head: if, despite your best efforts, you find yourself in an emergency situation, stay calm. The worst thing to do in either a natural disaster or political uprising is to panic. Many unnecessary problems are caused by the over-reaction of frightened tourists since they tend to rush and overwhelm local resources, especially transportation and communication hubs and spread (albeit understandable) fear and anger to other tourists and locals. Even though communication infrastructures are the normally the first thing to be adversely afffected in disasters, satellite cellular phones and land lines in some areas are often still in operation. As soon as you are able, connect to travel providers, the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate or the consulate of your home country, and family and friends to let them know that you are safe and to help yourself establish a sense of normalcy and communication with the outside world. Use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to stay abreast of developments.
5) Join Forces with Locals and Other Tourists: I am constantly amazed when traveling at the kindness of strangers. Often, especially in emergency situations, other (non-official) citizens and fellow travelers are the first and best source of support, information and assistance. Locals are especially helpful, as they know their own country well and have often dealt with the same type of situation many times before. Other travelers can offer a surprising amount of comfort and emotional or practical support. During a crisis, many tourists band together to share hotel rooms, transportation and to charter private planes and split costs. As always, trust your instincts. Although the vast majority of people are well-intentioned and trustworthy, there will always be a small percentage of those who do not have your best interests at heart; stay alert.
Korean travelers scrambling to leave Japan after the earthquake (photo courtesy of Yonhap/http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/)
6) Don't Move Unless You Have To: although the natural instinct is the get out any way you can as soon as you can, this can often put you into an even more dangerous position. You will do a lot more good organizing your departure from a quiet, safe hotel room far away from the epicenter of a disaster than trying to fight your way through the smoke, flames and panicked crowds of city streets trying to get to the airport or train station. Aside from the danger of navigating the streets, transportation hubs are often the first places targeted by protesters, especially in political coups. In the case of natural disasters, the airports are needed to quicckly bring in emergency supplies and medical personnel. It is a much more sensible option to keep communication lines open and wait out the first few days of turmoil and high emotions in a safe place. Leave as soon as the situation has stabilized and a flight or train departure can be safely arranged.
Friday, March 11, 2011
After arriving in Auckland, New Zealand in March 2004, I was almost at the end of a four month trek through Asia and the Pacific and needed to decide between visiting the North or South Islands. After much debate, I chose the North Island since I would be able to cover more ground and was very interested in visiting the amazing geological and marine sites there. Whitianga, the main settlement of Mercury Bay situated on the Coromandel Peninsula, seemed like the perfect jumping off point. Although small, with a population of less than 4,000, the town offers a wide range of activities: water sports, skydiving, animal parks, golf, whale watching, diving, snorkeling and kayaking tours.
I opted for a full-day kayaking tour to Te Whanganui-A-Hei (aka Cathedral Cove), a marine reserve covering nine square kilometers (3.5 square miles) and home to crayfish, snapper, coral reefs, mollusks, blue cod, black angel fish, kelp forests, sponge gardens and anemones. In season, breaching whales and dolphins can also often be seen. Although the cove can only be reached by foot or by boat, it is so popular that it nonetheless receives over 150,000 visitors a year.
After kayaking out to the cove and stopping for a Kiwi-style cappucino break on the beach, our group paddled on to Hot Water Beach, which gets its name from thermal springs located beneath the sand. Our guide showed us where to dig a hole in the sand, which immediately filled with hot water, creating a kind of natural jacuzzi, the perfect way to relax after a long day of kayaking!
Thursday, March 10, 2011
In September 2006, two months after Luis and I first met, we decided to do a very brave thing for a new couple and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu together, an arduous trip under the best of circumstances. It was a true test of any relationship and luckily we passed it (more or less) with flying colors, having fallen out only once when we arrived at the town of Agua Calientes.
There are several trails to Machu Picchu and, since we had not booked in advance, we were assigned to the longer 5-day trek because the traditional trail was full. Hiking up the Andes Mountains for a week with acute altitude sickness can be challenging to say the least; I would go so far as to say that it was one of hardest things that I've ever done. I was in tears every evening, collapsing on the ground, bone-tired beyond any imagining, not knowing how I was possibly going to tackle the next day's hike.
But I got up relunctantly every morning and trudged on and somehow, miraculously, and with the encouragement of Luis and my fellow hikers, I did it, I arrived at Machu Picchu on the 5th day just in time to see the spectacular dawn break over the ancient city. I dropped onto the soft grass on my back, eyes closed, lying amongst the grazing llamas, unable to move, and as the pale yellow rays of the morning sun slowly washed over my face, I realized that I had experienced one of those perception-shaking moments in life when you understand deeply that you can rise to any challenge if you persevere and if you have a strong support group to cheer you on. I have often thought of that trip when I feel that I've reached my limit, I've exhausted all possibilities and can't possibly go on. The truth is, now I know that I can.
Machu Picchu (meaning Old Peaks in Quechua) was originally built as a mountain estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti in the 15th century. It was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century, but the Spanish never discovered it because it is situated in a hidden place between high peaks and sits at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet. Machu Picchu is a survival story in itself, having escaped the notice of the detructive Conquistadores and remaining almost completely intact for 600 years.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
This photo of a lifeguard and friend was snapped in June 2006 on the beach at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, the largest hotel in the Bahamas. Although I was staying at a much smaller, much cheaper family inn in the center of Nassau, I decided to spend the day exploring the enormous hotel, beaches and expansive grounds of the resort. Atlantis was officially opened in 1998 and it's amenities are a list of superlatives: the most expensive suite in the world at $25,000 a night; the world's largest marine habitat at 34 acres and 11 million gallons, home to 50,000 forms of marine life; one of the largest hotel waterparks in the world, a 141 acre, 20 million gallon water-themed complex that includes 20 swimming areas, a mile-long water ride and a Mayan Temple waterslide.
Nassau, the capital city of the 700 islands of the Bahamas, is home to 70% of the residents. The city has a rich history, originally settled by the indigenous people of Cuba in the fourth century, who were followed by the Caribs, the Lucayans and the Arawaks in the 10th century, Columbus and the Spanish in the 15th century, the Puritans in the 17th century, pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries, Loyalist Americans and their African slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, and cruise ship tourists in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
This photo of the traditional sailboats on Lake Titicaca was taken from a hillside on the island of Amantani, Peru. Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America, bordering two countries, Bolivia and Peru, and also the highest navigable lake in the world at an altitude of 12,500 ft. The area is a cultural and historical treasure trove and more is being discovered every year. A 1,500 year old, 600 foot long submerged temple was found in the lake by archeologists in 2000 and includes a wall, terraced gardens and a submerged road that runs from the temple to the lakeshore city of Copacabana.
Because of the altitude, the light is incredible: almost unbearably clean, white and bright, especially when the sun is out. In December 2007, we traveled through Bolivia and Peru, stopping at the Uyuni Salt Flats, Puno and sailed the lake, visiting the fascinating islands of Lake Titicaca. Among the islands are Uros (a group of 42 inhabited islands made entirely of floating reeds), Isla del Sol (a roadless island and the site of 180 Inca ruins dating to the 15th century) and Amantaní (the most populated island and home to two mountains, ancient ruins and terraced wheat and vegetable farms).
Monday, March 7, 2011
In December 2003, I traveled across Japan and stopped in the city of Nara, the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 (in 2010, Nara celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of its ascension as Japan's imperial capital). Nara is one of the prettiest and most interesting cities in Japan, home to many historic monuments and parks, two of which are UNESCO Heritage Sites: the Kasuga Shrine and the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. It is also home to numerous significant temples, including: Todai-ji, the world's largest wooden building; Kōfuku-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple built in the Chinese pagoda style; and Yakushi-ji, which houses one of the finest collection of Buddhist art objects in the world.
The city is also filled with 1,200 tame Sika deer, who roam the streets and parks (and often the shops and temples) at will and are protected by national law. Visitors and locals buy shika-senbei (deer cookies) from local vendors to feed to the deer, who have no fear of humans and can be hand-fed. The deer were originally considered sacred, and killing a deer was punishable by death until 1637. Today they are still protected but officially designated as National Treasures.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
The Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Telmo is the place to be on Sundays when the cobblestoned streets fill with locals and visitors who come to shop the stalls of the antique market (Feria de Antigüedades) held there every weekend. Aside from antiques, vendors hawk everything from handmade jewelry to brightly colored clothing to squawking chicken puppets. Food vendors sell homemade empanadas, freshly squeezed orange juice and warm, candied peanuts. On every corner, groups of artists, performers, dancers and musicians attract huge crowds and provide entertainment for the shoppers and strollers. This couple is a fixture in San Telmo, appearing almost every week in starched and wired clothing and a damaged umbrella that appears to be windblown.
San Telmo is the city's oldest neighborhood and the reputed birthplace of the tango. The area is filled with cafes, historical sites, tango venues, antique shops, artists' workshops and old churches. Originally home to the city's aristocratic familes, the "barrio" became home to immigrant dockworkers and brickmakers in the 17th century, when the wealthy residents fled the area during the yellow fever epidemic of 1871. The neighborhood eventually evolved into a bohemian artist colony in the 1950s and today retains much of that character, although the area is becoming increasingly gentrified and expensive.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Norway has always been a seafaring nation and the charming city of Bergen is no exception. Boats and the sea are the center of activities in Scandinavia: sailing, racing, visiting boat shows and museums, boat maintainance and repair and just enjoying a day on the water. I visited Bergen in May 2005 with two friends as part of a trip to Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Estonia. Scandinavia is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth, and Bergen won me over forever.
Bergen is a medium-sized city of 260,800, on the south-western coast of Norway, but it feels much more like a very sophisticated small town. The people are warm, welcoming and friendly, the city's public spaces, its homes and gardens are clean and well-maintained and there are many good restaurants and cultural outlets. The green spaces and parks are numerous and it is situated in one of the prettiest settings I've ever visited. The city is also home to the University of Bergen, the Bergen Aquarium, the Arboretum and Botanical Garden at Milde, Bergen Fish Market and Fantoft Stave Church dating from 1150). For spectacular views of the city, Mount Floyen can be reached by funicular and Mount Ulriken by cable car.
Bergen has a very cozy feeling as it sits in a sheltered cove, surrounded by green mountains and forests. There is a higher than usual rainfall in the city, but because of this, the city remains emerald green and filled with flowers for most of the year. The town is also home to Bryggen, the old wharf and a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Friday, March 4, 2011
In Parque Nacional Cueva del Guácharo (Guácharo Cave National Park) near the town of Caripe, Venezuela, lies one of the country's most interesting geological structures and its first national monument, the Guácharo Cave. The limestone cave is one of the longest in Venezuela, at 6.38 miles (10.3 kilometers) and is considered to be one of the most complete cave ecosytems on earth. Even though is was "discovered" by German explorers in the 18th century, the cave had in fact been used by indigenous communties for thousands of years.
Luis and I visited the cave in November 2007 and spent the day exploring the tunnels, caverns, stalactites, stalagmites, strange rock formations and the colonies of guácharos or oilbirds, for which the cave is named, the only nocturnal bird in the world that feeds on fruit. A spectacular sight in the evenings is to watch the birds flock out of the cave in huge numbers in search of food. The birds are far from the only residents of the cave: bats, mice, woodlice, crickets, millipedes, fish and crabs all feast on the dropped, germinated fruit seeds that the birds drop.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
There are lots of interesting things to eat in China, especially Beijing, where city markets are filled with things that look fairly run-of-the-mill to Western eyes, such as skewered meat, chicken or pork, rice cakes, spring rolls, fried crab balls and eggplant, but other items are completely new and, frankly, a bit scary. If you have a brave heart and a strong constitution, it's a very interesting experience, to say the least (although I must insert here that I have never gotten sick on street food, only restaurant food. My theory is that, at a street food stall, everything is where you can see it, you can tell if it's fresh or not and it's all cooked to order).
In December 2003, when we visited the late night Beijing markets, also on offer were deep-fried tarantulas, crispy scorpions, fried grubs, grasshoppers, starfish, eels, octopus, century eggs, dog meat, fried honey bees and skewers of sheep testicles. There are of course lots of more delectable sounding options like Shanghai Dumplings, spicy grilled lamb, pancakes, noodles and sweet cakes and fruits. It's an amazing experience to walk through these markets: the sights, the spicy scents, the vibrant colors, the warmth of the grills and woks, the cacophony and the delicious tastes create an exotic mix of Chinese life that will stay with you for a long time.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
In September/October 2006, we traveled for five weeks across Peru from Lima to Cusco, stopping in various cities along the way, eventually arriving at the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. When we stopped in Arequipa one clear early morning, the main square was already filled with the sounds of church bells and music and colorfully dressed dancers. Many of the dancers were young, still in their teens and in high school, but belonged to dance groups that performed on the weekends.
Arequipa was founded in 1540 by the Spaniards, although it was home to the Incas and other indigenous populations for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. On the outskirts of the city sit three volcanoes: the still active El Misti, and the now extinct Chachani and Pichu Pichu. The city is also the jumping off point for the impressive Colca Canyon and Cotahuasi Canyon, two of the world's deepest canyons and the home to one of the largest birds in the world, the Andean Condor.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Spectacular Iguazu Falls, which are divided between Argentina and Brazil, are a UNESCO World Heritage site and are considered by many to be one of the wonders of the world. The group of 275 waterfalls are spread over three kilometers (1.7 miles) and stand as high as 82 meters (270 feet). Many of the cascades, including the most impressive, seemingly bottomless waterfall, La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil's Throat), can be seen in the Robert de Niro movie "The Mission".
Luis and I visited in May 2008, staying on the larger Argentine side and crossing over to Brazil for the day to see the falls more closely. Both sides have well-maintained national parks, easily walked with clean, safe paths and boardwalks, and very good transportation and facilities. It's best to take 2-3 days to visit the falls to allow for the sheer size of the area, border crossings and to visit other attractions such as the enormous and fascinating Itaipú Hydroelectric Power Station and Dam on the Brazilian side, the largest in the world, which operates daily tours.