Coming of Age on the Road

Cindy Johnson Suplick

At  23, I jettisoned modern conveniences to live simply, out of a backpack, traveling through 40 countries in search of meaning. I hit the road then because I knew life would be more complicated later.

In the 1970’s, the American peace talks with North Vietnam broke down, the conservative Silent Majority reigned, and the Equal Rights Amendment was lost. Disillusioned with our country, my husband and I bought one-way tickets to a faraway place to work, travel and experience the real world at street level.

Finland was a mecca for our teaching and architectural skills. We lived communally in a rustic rented cottage on the Baltic Sea.  On the weekends we roamed the vast Lake Region of bays, inlets and islands in dense pine forests. We visited a Finnish family cottage in the outer archipelago, where we took saunas in the buff, then ran naked shrieking across the snow to plunge in a swimming hole chopped in the frozen water.

Restless, we donned backpacks to travel Europe and beyond for six months by train, bus, hitchhiking, motorcycle and bicycle, camping along the way. We were joined by free spirits from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, all seeking adventure at budget prices. Vivid memories are etched of the ‘standing room’ seating for the Vienna symphony, fragrant fields of Edelweiss in Austria, a horse-drawn gypsy caravan along the Loire, and the hazy stench of coal smoke masking bleak Soviet built apartment buildings in Bulgaria.

Striking East, we found a Bhutanese fellow driving to Bhutan who wanted the company of passengers.  After 3300 miles and a couple of crashes, we got out in Herat, Afghanistan. We holed up in a hotel looking out over a 4th century B.C. castle built by Alexander the Great. Camel trains and colorful horse taxis traveled the roads. Children pitched hashish and cheap trinkets in the streets.

We headed West on native buses through Iran enduring frequent military searches for contraband, then the Orient Express to Istanbul and finally 3rd class boat passage to Crete, where we spent a wonderful Christmas in a Greek Taverna replete with dancing, singing and smashing glasses in the fireplace.

Our last leg was bicycling through England, soaking tired feet in the Avon, bathing in hot springs at Bath, and repairing nightly to pubs for camaraderie.

I had sought the far reaches for the sights and excitement. But it was the simple pleasures that linger: the waves lulling me to sleep, the celebratory midsummer solstice, the tender smile of a ragamuffin child.  Life is grand, but it need not be lived grandly to be happy.

 

Myanmar – The Land of Splendid Golden Stupas

Overview

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is an archaeological wonder with its thousands of bell shaped glittering gold leaf Buddhist shrines called stupas, terracotta temples and rustic teak wood monasteries visually dominating the landscape. The languid Irrawaddy River supports the agricultural heartland, where simple fishing villages on stilts and “floating farms” are juxtaposed with an occasional 5 star hotel resort.|

StupasGold leafed Buddhist shrines called “Stupas” dot the country’s landscape

Aung San Suu

Aung San Suu Kyi, the popular new leader, brings hope of liberalization.

An emerging liberty has cautiously spurred a Myanmar Spring among the people, bringing renewed religious freedom, a rebirth of traditional practices and a return to Buddhist tranquility. There is guarded excitement and energy over the 2016 election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party. This allows her to handpick the next President from her loyalist circles. There are pictures of her everywhere, even in the remotest villages. She is known as ‘The Lady,”


Ethnicity, Industry and Economic Conditions

Myanmar is bordered by Bangladesh to the west, India and China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. Most of the 45 million population and agricultural lands are found along the Irrawaddy River. The other regions are characterized by mountains, high valleys and plateaus. Ethnically, the Burmese account for about 70% of the population. Other major ethnic groups include the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chin, Wa and Mon.

For most of its 50+ years since disengaging from British colonial rule, Myanmar has been bogged down in turbulent strife among its myriad ethnic groups in one of the world’s longest running civil wars. Recently the conflicts have abated along with the iron fisted military control.

Harvesting apples on a floating garden

Agriculture accounts for 60% of the country’s GDP, with rice as the main product. Although the country has substantial gem, oil, and natural gas reserves, extraction and processing capabilities are limited. Myanmar is the world’s second largest supplier of illegal opium and heroin, and a growing exporter of amphetamines. Money from the illegal narcotics trade plays a crucial role in the national economy, and keeps the military regime solvent.

In stark contrast to the abundance of glittering golden Buddhist stupas, colonial mansions and luxury cars, one-third of the population is living below the poverty line. In Yangon, the poor erect bamboo squatter huts on available grounds while rubbish and garbage litter the streets. But the people are resilient, gentle, humorous, engaging, and considerate.

Tourism
There is a small tourism industry, concentrated in a few areas dominated by travelers from the UK, Germany, Japan and France.

The primary attractions for visitors are the sheer architectural wonders of the countryside coupled with the agricultural and artisan ingenuity of its beautiful people.  In addition, it is still relatively untouched by Western ways.

With travel restrictions recently lifted, Americans are beginning to travel to Myanmar, but there are still snafus. The best way to reach Myanmar is to hire a local tourist agency to help you with the bureaucratic hurdles. The Visa application asks the name of your tour agency as well as the locations and hotels where you intend to stay. My Myanmar visa was checked three times before I was allowed to board the first leg of the international flight. My credit card company refused to accept charges from Myanmar locations (a “restricted country”) although earlier they had cleared me for travel charges there. In-county air travel, services and native goods are relatively inexpensive.

“Benevolent Bird People” are an example of the country’s unusual cultural and artistic inhabitants.

Climate
Myanmar has what can be described as a tropical monsoon climate characterized by lots of sun and rain and high humidity. The temperature in February was routinely in the 90’s and swelter- ing. Touring holy temples was part of the daily routine, and all are required to wear respectable clothing which covered the knees and shoulders, plus shoes and socks must be removed in order to enter. My pants were too warm, so I spent $8 to purchase a native outfit of beautiful paisley “silk” made from lotus threads. Comfortable sandals are a must. Women wear lightweight, versatile sarongs, and paint their cheeks with a creamy base made by rubbing a moistened porous stone into sandalwood, which serves as an inexpensive sunblock. The food is a mix of Indian, Thai and Chinese cuisines, with lots of curries with fish or chicken, pickled tea leaf or starch salads and rice, but nothing remarkable. If you like me have a sweet tooth, Asians do not typically do desserts well, at least to western standards. Beware, we all got traveller’s diarrhea, so take along a remedy for that possibility.

 

Women apply moistened sandalwood to their cheeks, which serves as an inexpensive sunblock

Religion
The Myanmar people practice Theravada Buddhism, where it is up to each individual to seek salvation and achieve Nirvana. Our guide told us that religion in Myanmar is more “theo- retical,” owing to the government putting many restrictions on religious freedom after a bloody uprising of 1988. The abundance of stupas and temples built over the centuries were funded by rich Buddhists from Myanmar and other countries to insure personal passage to Nirvana. Bronze plaques at these sites tell the story of family or state donations. Between the ages of ten and sixteen, many young men become Buddhist novices and go to live in a monastery. While most remain for only a short period before returning to the sec- ular life, some become fully ordained monks. Myanmar has more monks per capita than any other Buddhist country in Southeast Asia.

Stupas represent Buddha’s holy mind and are built to purify negative karma and to accumulate merit. They contain jewels, precious texts and holy relics such as replicas of sacred Buddha’s teeth and hair.

 

Gold leaf adorned Buddhist temples are centers for a wide variety of community religious and secular functions.

Buddhist temples are more than just places of worship. The temple serves as a religious school, a community center, a guest house, a place where the government and other agencies post information, a site for sports activities, a center for welfare services for those who are poor or ill, a morgue, and a center for music and dance. The temple also provides economic services such as making loans and renting lands and homes.

Tour Itinerary
Our starting point was Yangon, Myanmar’s largest and most commercially important city which appears both provincial and pastoral. Our tour included the downtown area, reminiscent of the city’s British past as Rangoon, where well-preserved colonial buildings are situated among ancient pagodas.

Shwedagon PagodaYangon, formerly British Rangoon, retains well-preserved architectural remnants of its colonial past.

Next we visited the revered Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2,500 year old wonder of the religious world which Kipling described as a “golden mystery.” Shwedagon’s gold-leafed dome sparkles with 4,531 diamonds – and is crowned by a single diamond of 76 carats.

It was also the site of political protest: in 1946 General Aung San addressed a mass meeting de- manding “independence now” from Britain. In 1988, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed another crowd of 500,000 Burmese demanding democracy from the military regime. This move- ment was called the “second struggle” for independence.

Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda is a 2,500 year old wonder of the religious world with 4,531 diamonds on its dome crowned by a single 76 carat diamond

On to Bagan, which is one of the richest archaeological sites in all of Asia. Who needs a museum? Of the over 10,000 pagodas, temples, and monasteries built over the centuries on the plains bordering the Irrawaddy River, 2,200 are still standing. Bagan captures the very essence of Myanmar’s Buddhist culture. We observed the ancient art of making laquer ware, a predominant artistic heritage that entails covering objects made of bamboo or wood with a liquid made from tree sap. We watched skilled artisans craft containers, tables, screens, and carved animal figures. The process preserves, strengthens, and waterproofs objects of decorative art.

The ancient art of lacquer ware entails covering objects made of bamboo or wood with a liquid made from tree sap.

There are plenty of fun and interesting things to do in Bagan. We visited a few markets, took a short boat ride and then a horse carriage ride up to one of the more prominent temples to see the sunset.

Leaving Began, we traveled to fabled Mandalay, the former royal capital of Amarapura made famous by a Rudyard Kipling poem. It was once a center of commerce and is still a repository of ancient culture.

A famous land mark is the iconic U Bein Bridge. Built of teak posts, it is a pedestrian walkway that spans lovely Taungthaman Lake.

We visited jade and marble markets, a Mahamoni temple where 24 carat gold leaf was being pasted onto Bhudda, and a tranquil nunnery, where poor families send their daughters for housing, food, clothing and education, and to pre-empt sex trafficking.

Nunnery

A tranquil Mandalay nunnery, where poor families send their daughters for housing, food, clothing and education, and to pre-empt sex trafficking.

While touring this country, it becomes evident that there is every conceivable configuration of Buddha replicated many times over. He is represented as reclining, long ear, short ear, emaciated, sleeping, in prayer, achieving nirvana and even depictions of a “dead” Buddha. Most are truly unique and beautiful. The latest addition to showcasing Buddhas is with LED “halos” around Bhudda’s head, a juxtaposition of ancient and modern which I found rather amusing.
Reclining BuddaA reclining Buddha is one of the myriad ways in which the religious deity is depicted in public displays

After Mandalay, our next stop was picturesque Inle Lake, with its shores and islands home to 17 villages on stilts. The inhabitants are mostly native Intha people who are primarily farmers and fishermen. We visited one of the lake’s improbable floating farms. They dredge up river mud to create rows for planting and use bamboo poles to secure it. Plants such as beans, squash, cucum- bers, peas and tomatoes ‘climb up’ the poles as they grow.  Quite a gardening feat!

Paddle rowing to net fish on Inle lake

Fishing here is unusual as well. The Intha locals row their flat bottomed boats using one leg and an oar so their hands are free to work with the cone-shaped fish nets. They lower the net to entangle and trap the fish. They also slap the water with their oars to stir up the fish to the surface for easier netting.

Inle Lake has several lotus (like cotton) weaving mills as well as boat making shops. Fishing or larger transport boats are hand made from teak wood using lacquer to seal the seams in the 


The “Jumping Cat” monastery on stilts in Inle Lake where cats used to be trained to jump through high hoops to entertain guests

We also visited the “Jumping Cat” monastery, a modest structure on stilts in Inle Lake. It used to be that if you dropped some cash in a “cat’s” donation box a monk would then have a bunch of cats jump through fairly high hoops. Today, the cats are no longer trained to jump, as they were getting exhausted by the throngs of tourists who came to gawk at them.

A Happy Ending
Our last stop was a few days at a lush all-in- clusive Ngapali beach resort on the Indian Ocean. There we enjoyed ocean swimming (no snorkeling reefs), beach lounging, Thai massage & spa, and Continental as well as Asian buffets. A relaxing end to our    Bhu- ddist immersion adventure. Thwa dau mal (goodbye) Myanmar. May peace and democracy be in your near future.

Sources:  Lonely Planet, Wikipedia, Countries and Their Cultures

Slovenia On Foot – The Jewel of the Alps

Map of Slovenia

I have traveled in over 40 countries, many of them off the beaten path – including Martinique, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Crete, Elba and Montenegro. For those who want to venture beyond the guidebook shelves at the book store, there is a treasure trove of nooks and crannies around the globe for the adventurous traveler. Slovenia presents a wealth of them.

I advocate touring in a group on foot – walking, hiking, or trekking. This up close perspective is not only preferable to scenery flying by out the window of a bus or car, but the exhausting days become a catalyst for evenings of bonding, bonhomie, celebration, singing, dancing and unusually good cheer These elevated spirits in turn permeate interactions with people you encounter along the route. The locals sense a refreshingly different disposition than the people who step out of cars or off buses.

On September of 2015, I set out for Slovenia. The country is an infrequently traveled destination that rewards visitors with sublime crystal lakes, picturesque Alpine meadows, aquamarine-colored whitewater rivers, and rugged limestone mountain ranges.

On this trip, I joined up with 10 hikers from Minneapolis, Chicago, and Massachusetts to explore the countryside on foot, hiking around a series of Bed and Breakfast accommodations throughout urban and rural locations. From this up close perspective, we got an intimate sense of the country’s history, landmarks, wildlife, botanical treasures, culture, food, drink, singing and dancing.

History
Slovenia is a small country that despite its tumultuous past, has successfully come into its own since independence in 1991. It is now a flourishing economic, political and cultural hub in Central Europe.  Nestled between Croatia, Italy, Austria and Hungary the populace has been dominated by foreign rule since the Celts established the first state in the 3rd century BC.  They were ruled by the Roman Empire for centuries, then overtaken by the Franks and briefly, the Turks.  Compulsory education was established under Marie Therese’s Hapsburg reign in the 18th century. With the ensuing flowering of literature, art, political and financial clout, Slovenia began to claim equal footing in cultural circles with other European nations.

Monastery Ruins in SloveniaMonastery Ruins

World War I was devastating for Slovenia, as a 3 year battle was waged on the Austro- Hungarian side of the border formed by the Soca river.  Numerous bunkers, trenches and roads rutted from armaments still scar the countryside.  The Austro-Hungarian army conscripted several hundred thousand Slovenes, and the ensuing battles caused 30,000 deaths on native soil. Hundreds of thousands more were resettled in refugee camps in Austria and Italy.  After the war Slovenia was sliced up and absorbed into Austria and Italy.

Kobarid Museum – View from the Trenches WWI

In 1921 the kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed by Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, with Slovenia being the most prosperous, industrialized and westernized.  During World War II Slovenia was the only European nation to be completely annexed once again by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Hungary. In Kobarid Slovenia, a young Ernest Hemingway collected the wounded in his ambulance and immortalized the last battle for the front in “A Farewell to Arms.” In 1945, Yugoslavian liberators created a federal communist state which Slovenia joined as a socialist republic.  Yugoslavia did enjoy broader freedoms under Josep Tito than the USSR-controlled Eastern Bloc countries.  I travelled the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia quite freely in 1973, and  it was a marked contrast to the tight military controls exercised in Hungary and Bulgaria. Finally, in 1990, Slovenians walked out of the Serbian controlled Yugoslav Congress, effectively causing it to cease as a national party.  In 1991 Slovenia held free elections creating a multi-party democracy.  Subsequently they were welcomed into the United Nations, NATO and the EU. 

Despite past transgressions, the country remains the jewel of the alps; incredibly picturesque, accessible and not nearly as tourist-trafficked for adventurers as the French, Italian, Austrian or Swiss Alps.  I find the Slovenians quite genial and resilient, perhaps because they have successfully weathered a turbulent history.

The Adventure
Recovering from breast cancer surgery just 4 months previously, I got the news that I needed follow up surgery to remove additional tissue. I had signed up for the trip before I got the surprise diagnosis, and deliberated back and forth whether I should go. But mentally I needed this trip to fortify myself, so I got the authorizing letters from various doctors saying I was fit to do it. I struck a deal with my surgeon to take a couple of weeks off from cancer treatment to take this plunge.

I would have accompanied my husband, Foreign Service daughter and her spouse to New Zealand in early October, but I had a wedding which conflicted with their timing.  So I was able to join an REI tour to Slovenia’s Julian Alps instead. This was to  be a hiking or “trekking” tour. It had been four years since I trekked 60 km in Bhutan and a year since I solo backpacked the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. 

Ljubljana Presnerov Trg Square

Ljubljana Prešernov Trg Square

The capital city of Ljubljana was our gathering point, and I arrived a day early on to explore the Old Town, Prešernov Trg square overlooking the linden-lined terraces along the Ljubljanica River, the Modern Art Museum, and the Kastle featuring a unique puppetry exhibit. I dined at an outdoor restaurant that served traditional dishes such as kranjska klobasa (sausages), fragrant sauerkraut, štruklji (rolled dumplings), venison and rabbit among other offerings, all washed down with Lasko beer or sparkling water.

Kastle Puppetry ExhibitKastle Puppetry Exhibit

Our tour mates convened the next afternoon with native guides Alesa and Nina.  Nearly everyone in our group of 11 had met the previous year on an REI tour to Mount Blanc, France.  We had so much fun together we decided to replicate the experience in Slovenia. From Minneapolis we had a surgeon, family practice doctor duo, a dentist and dental hygienist couple, a stock market research analyst, a widowed Norwegian dad raising 3 daughters and a retired marketer (me) .There was a software developer and an event planner husband and wife from Chicago and a Massachusetts couple who were a nurse and nurse anesthetist.  In terms of professional expertise, we had all of the bases covered medically.  I appreciated having these resources at hand for bandages on blistered feet and electrolyte tablets for muscle cramps.

 REI Slovenia Tour Mates (Cindy in the shorts)

This was a group of rigorous hikers and riotous partiers!  The cookies, chocolate, chips, beer and wine came out every afternoon after we finished hiking.  Then dinner with the guides and often dancing with the Brits or the Slovenes, with singing and international toasting contests.

My companions were all in their late 40’s to early 60’s, younger than me and incredibly fit. Two couples were going biking for 3-4 days in France or the Czech Republic after Slovenia.  Several were half marathon runners.  Not me, but I am a YMCA workout fanatic.  Nonetheless at age 66 I invariably took up the rear, lagging about 5-10 minutes in summiting, but I did successfully complete all 8 days of it. A highlight was the thrill of white water rafting on the clear, emerald blue waters of the Soca River. I couldn’t see without my glasses, but it was captured on video for later enjoyment.

Day 1
The first afternoon we went for a two hour walk around pristine Lake Bled, a glacial lake fed by thermal springs.  There is a church-topped islet and a cliffside medieval castle basking in the autumnal afternoon sun.  Afterwards we enjoyed the local confection of Cream Cake and traveled to our next event, a day’s hike on the ridgeline toward Mt. Rodica.

Lake Bled in Triglav National Park

Day 2
We took a gondola and then a ski lift to the Mt. Vogel ski area.  Riding high in the cable car affords a spectacular view of the surroundings – oak and hornbeam forests at lower levels transitioning into massive beech forests with touches of larch, spruce and dwarf pines in the alpine elevations.  The mountain views are stunning from the ridge. We hiked 10 miles in 5 –6 hours with a 2000 foot elevation gain.

Ridge Lake Ridge Lake toward Mt. Rodica

Alpine wildflowers have made amazing adaptations to cope with harsh weather.  They entrap rapidly draining precipitation, attract rare pollinators with colorful and fragrant flowers and provide enticing food for animals.  Varieties here include edelweiss, bellflowers, orchids and gentians.

Each night except one we spent at a pleasant small hotel or pension with continental/English breakfast then often dining at a good local restaurant for dinner. We are reminded by our bus driver, Tomas (who dances a rousing polka) that if you drive anywhere in Slovenia for 1 ½ hours you hit another national border.

Joan and the Leopard Boy at the mountain hut

Day 3
We trekked from Lake Bohinj to a rustic mountain hut near Mt. Bogatin.  A series of steep switchbacks took us up out of a box canyon and into lovely alpine country.  We were on the lookout for unique local fauna such as chamois, brown bear, or alpine ibex, but no sightings other than squirrels, the occasional black grouse, or peregrine.  We stopped at a hut for lunch, joining other hiking groups, but continued upward in the afternoon.  The day’s trek was 11 miles, 5-6 hours and an elevation gain of 3,000’ feet. That night we shared the hut with a group of young Brits bent on dancing and singing with whoever in our group would join them.  There is always bonhomie among fellow hikers.

Lake Bohinj

Day 4
The weather was BAD….a torrential downpour with lightning that dropped more than 3 inches of rain in just a few hours.  We had to descend and it took about 5 hours because of slippery paths.  Unfortunately, the storm obscured what would have been a stunning view of the Gulf of Trieste, the Dolomites in Italy and the Austrian Alps which had been our plan.  We all used newspaper and hair dryers to take care of soggy boots.  Our hotel that night had a sauna and a pool which was a great relief for weary bodies.

Day 5
We visited a haunting WWI commemorative museum in the morning, reminding us of the desolate bunkers and largely unmarked cemeteries we had seen in the mountains. 

Kobarid MuseusKobarid Museum – WWI Armaments

At lunch after much teasing about his dancing skills, our guide Alessa donned an Austrian Tyrol hat and Lederhosen , brought out an accordion player and danced the polka with Joan, our party instigator.  Soon everyone joined in.

In the afternoon, most of us opted for rafting the amazingly clear, emerald blue Soca River.  Wet suits were a given, and the rapids were tough at times and unusually rough at the highest elevation due to the area rainfall.  Our Scottish guide and skipper regaled us with stories of wild rafting escapades. While our run was hair raising, there were no casualties.

We spent the evening in Koberid, scene of the 1917 Battle of Caporetto and as mentioned earlier, Hemmingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” At night we dined on seafood that was exquisite: fresh mussels from mussels farms close by, sea bass, prawns, pasta, polenta, yellow beans, roasted vegetables and sorbet for dessert.

Piran Slovenia

Piran, Slovenia

Day 6
We began to wind down, hiking the vast meadows from Livek to Mt. Matajur on the border with Italy. We had breathtaking views of Slovenia’s Krn ranges as well as the plains of Friull and the Gulf of Trieste.  Our day ended in Piran, a picturesque Adriatic fishing village.  We hiked 7 miles in 4 hours on dirt paths and through green meadows with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet.  That evening we dined on goat and wild boar, which were surprisingly tasty.

Day 7
We explored the open market in Piran, replete with WWI helmets, antique crocheted items, vases, old trunks, antlers, and all sorts of what is best described as ”junk.”  There are a number of affordable Slovenian fashion shops as well. We strolled along the beach from Piran to the Bay of Strujan where we took a look at how sea salt is produced.  We passed through a pedestrian tunnel that took us to Portoroz for further exploration Late morning we boarded a traditional fishing boat and spent the afternoon cruising the Slovene coastline.  It was too cold to swim however with air temperatures at 60 degrees.

For dinner we had mussels, black ink risotto with squid, sea bass, octopus, French fries and green salad with cabbage and tomatoes.  Then we got into a “shot” contest instigated by a table of Germans, with a few of the challengers ending up on the floor to gales of laughter.  We had a final dessert then reminisced individually about our trip over a candlelit square, with the stars overhead. We gave heartfelt thanks to our guides Alessa and Nina.

All in all, a most satisfying adventure— with exquisite scenery, rugged hikes, wonderful food and hospitality plus amiable companions— to an oft-overlooked European gem of a country.

 

 

 

 

Australia: No Worries Mate!

The Aussie’s are undeniably a cheerful, easy-going and obliging lot.  Maybe it’s because they are a relatively young nation (they became a Republic in 2001, snipping their last ties with Britain) and they come from humble origins.  White settlers were British prisoners sent into exile in Australia, after they lost America as a dumping ground for undesirables. As one tour guide explained, “There is a felon in every family”, but they were largely petty thieves.

Old Sydney Prison PosterAustralia’s Penal Colony Origins     

There is a reason Australia, the sixth largest continent was chosen by Britain for banishment of undesirables. It is for the most part a vast desert — only 5% of the land is habitable and 80% of its people live in the principal cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane. The rest, called “The Outback,” is the most dry, flat, dessicated, infertile and climactically aggressive land of all the continents.
Outback Vista
Because of its island isolation, 80% of all of the plants and animals that live in Australia live nowhere else, so it teems with exotic species.  They have

 

“The Outback,” is the most dry, flat, dessicated, infertile and
climactically aggressive land of all the continents.

the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and the largest monolith, Uluru rock.  They also have more things that will kill you than anywhere else, including poisonous snakes, spiders, box jellyfish, octopi, stonefish and a deadly variety of tick.

The Uluru Monolith

Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is a massive sandstone monolith in the
heart of the Northern Territory’s Red Centre desert, 450km
from the nearest large town, Alice Springs.

So naturally it appeals to the adventurous, outdoorsperson such as me! I visited for a month with daughter Kate in 2009, before she headed off for a career with the U.S. Foreign Service.

Me and daughter Kate with Bed & Breakfast hists                            That’s me third from the left and daughter Kate far left        with our bed and breakfast hosts

Sydney is set next to miles of ocean coastline, sandy surf beaches and numerous national parks. It seems everyone is just a step away from the outdoors with business suits sporting backpacks and bicyclists rendezvousing at the Opera House.

     One of Sydney’s many breathtakingly beautiful beaches.

Long term immigration has led to Sydney’s reputation as one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse cities in Australia and the world. The city is also home to the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, two of the most iconic structures on the planet.  The economy was booming when we visited, and the Asian locals told how they came to Australia to take advantage of the much more lucrative wages and high demand for educated workers.

Sydney Opera HouseSydney’s iconic opera house is a centerpiece of its artistic reputation.

Two hours from Sydney lie the Blue Mountains, so named because the foliage and sunlight yields a unique blue aura to the surroundings. These mountains are a World Heritage Site which offers dramatic vistas over several hours of serious bushwhacking.
A trail in the Blue Mountains of AustraliaOne of the many hiking trails in the Blue Mountains, a World Heritage Site.

From Sydney we flew to Cairns, rented a car and headed north to Daintree Rain Forest and Cape Tribulation, lush and wild places with the occasional B&B and solitary Youth Hostel.  We also booked a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, which lives up to its reputation as teeming with exotic underwater fauna and flora. Unfortunately, the seas were fairly rough on our short excursion, but well worth the breathtaking sights.

The g\Great Barrier Reef in AustraliaThe Great Barrier Reef is the largest ecosystem on Earth

The Daintree Rainforest has 700 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. They include the bull kauri conifer (the largest in the world), cycads which are evergreen trees that can live 1000 years, tiny tree kangaroos and the cassowary, a colorful flightless bird that can attack when provoked.  We hired a guide for a day for a wonderful nature trek.

Australia's Daintree RainforestThe Daintree Rainforest is home to 700 species found nowhere else on Earth

The locals are innovative in capturing tourist attention and dollars.  One fellow offered ‘night hikes’ to see sleeping birds, owls, spiders and geckos.  Another couple cultivated an orchard of exotic native fruits.  They would host “fruit tastings” for a fee, with full botanical information on each fruit. Some were delicious and others were weird. They also sell ice cream concoctions with the tastiest fruits. A double dip so to speak.

From Cairns we flew to Alice Springs to go on a 3 day outback camping safari tour which included Kings Canyon, Uluru and the Olgas.  Before we departed we ate a “bush” meal of emu, camel and kangaroo at a local restaurant. Interesting once, but I wouldn’t repeat the experience.

Our Outback travel routeOur travel route in the Outback

Alice Springs was the only place where we saw a small population of Aboriginals, who generally congregated in a small park distant from the city center.  A curious ethnic group, they arrived 60,000 years ago overseas from Indonesia and successfully adapted to all parts of the inhospitable geography.  They are the oldest continuously maintained culture in the world, but also white Australia’s greatest social failure.  Genocide and disease killed off large portions in the 1800’s up until 1928 with the last murder.  Until the 1960’s the state had custody of all Aboriginal children and sought to put them in foster homes or institutions so they would better adapt to a white world.  They weren’t included in the census until 1967, and Civil Rights did not come until 1976.

By all measures of social dysfunction such as unemployment, suicide, and imprisonment, Aborigines are from twice to 20 times as bad off as the general population.  When we were there, Australia was celebrating national “Sorry Day” to apologize to their natives, and the museums were showcasing Aboriginal painters as one way to compensate.   They now constitute only 2.5% of the total Australian population.

The outback camping safari was a working trip—each day we drove to a new location, hiked for 5 hours, gathered firewood, cooked our own meals, enjoyed the occasional makeshift shower and bunked in sleeping bags around the campfire.  Feral camels abound in the Outback as they were brought over to help build the railroad.  The surplus is now exported to Middle Eastern countries. Our excursion was characterized by lots of sand, brush and kangaroos and few roads.
The most fascinating site was Uluru, a bornbardt or weather resistant rock left standing for 100 million years, when all else was worn away.  It is 6 miles in circumference and is especially noted for changing color in different lights, particularly crimson at dawn and dusk.  Spectacular!!

From Alice Springs we flew to Melbourne.  Melbourne is Australia’s cultural capital, with Victorian architecture, extensive shopping, museums, galleries, theatres, and large parks and gardens. Its 4-million residents are both multicultural and sports-mad.  Sports include Australian Football game (variation of soccer), rugby, cricket, golf, Melbourne Cup tennis and Grand Prix Formula One racing. We did a one day tour of the coast to see spectacular beach rock formations, before we headed back to Sydney for the end of our sojourn.

Australia is a truly immense country with fascinating sights and endless stories. We loved it! If you are thinking of going, I highly recommend Bill Bryson’s book, “In a Sunburnt Country” from which I have liberally borrowed many of the interesting facts cited here.  I also recommend two movies: “Tracks”  about a young woman who traveled with her camels and dog 1700 miles across the Australian desert and “Rabbitproof Fence” about two young girls who escape from a white institution to return to their Aboriginal homeland.

Navigating World History and Culture in London

Punting the River Cambridge, Cambridge, England

I first traveled to London, Stratford-on-Avon, Bath, and Scotland in the early 1970’s during my vagabond days.  It was a tour on the cheap, moving from hostel to hostel via hitch-hiking, trains, and bicycle transport.

In 2002 I returned with my daughters to tour the highlights of London and Paris. I continued to imbue them with the tour bug while they were still quite young with snorkeling trips to Mexico, Jamaica, and Sanibel Island, and of course included the Disney worlds. As Europe was their initiation into cultural travel, my daughters were inspired to study there while in college. The older daughter went to Prague during her junior year abroad, and the younger to Beijing.  They were seasoned travelers by this time.

A British Museum of Kente cloth native to the Akan ethnic group of South Ghana.

In February 2015 I returned with family for 10 days in London to take in the fabulous art treasures and antiquities gathered from Britain’s colonial period and preserved at the National Gallery, Tate Modern, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Imperial War Museum, the British Parliament and the Tower of London.  All but a few are free of charge.  The vast scope of artwork, architecture and tradition is breathtaking!

Travel around London is comparatively easy.  The underground is superbly constructed, relatively cheap and easy to use with a prepaid Oyster Card.  It helps offset the high cost of hotels, although we stayed in the South End so prices were around $120 per night with free breakfast, which is a good rate.  London is an eminently walkable town for however long your legs will take you, and there is always an underground station close by.

Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II in the British National Museum

Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II in the British National Museum

The National Gallery exhibits range from the 13th century (Botticelli)  to the 16th (Michelangelo) the 17th (Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer) and the 18th-20th, which features Western European artists such as Goya, Turner, Monet, and Van Gogh.  The museum was built in Trafalgar Square where it would be accessible to both the wealthier West London crowd as well as the poorer communities in the East End.

The British Museum houses the largest collection of Chinese ceramics outside of China and also includes many Islamic, Egypt, Rome and Greek objects. There is a colorful African art collection, a fascinating exhibit of money from ancient to modern times, and a stunning selection of clocks and watches. There is something for everyone!

 

A large colorful kite in the trendy Tate Modern

A large colorful kite in the trendy Tate Modern

The trendy Tate Modern is housed in a huge converted power station, consisting of 4.2 million bricks overarching huge display spaces.  Over 50 million visitors have come to see the structure in its first 10 years. Exhibits range from abstract modern art to performance and photographic art. Its four shops, espresso bar, café and gourmet restaurant seem to be filled to capacity day and night.

Every English sovereign has been crowned in Westminster Abbey beginning with William the Conqueror in 1066, and most of the monarchs and other notables are buried here.  It is a fine example of early English gothic, nonetheless jammed with chapels, monuments, crypts and statutory.  Most recently, Prince William and Kate were married there.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

I particularly liked the Poet’s Corner, a section of the South Transept where a high number of poets, playwrights, and writers are buried and commemorated, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer in 1556.

Although the British parliament was not in session, we opted to visit the Houses of Parliament to learn the history of this legislative body and how if differs from its American counterpart.

The Tower of London, while it houses the royal crown jewels, is primarily known as a former prison and site of execution, including two of Henry VIII’s wives.  The royal armories displaying magnificent suits of armor and mail for men and horses is worth a visit as well.

London is a haven for theatre lovers, from Shakespeare at the Globe to spectacular staging from the National to West End Fringe productions.  We saw shows from two books I have enjoyed. One was “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a drama about an autistic boy and his struggles. The other was “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers,” a drama about the underbelly of Mumbai, India.  Both were fantastic!!

A Storefront in Cambridge, England

A Storefront in Cambridge, England

I was not as impressed with the shopping.  It seems that all the American fashion chains have laid their claim to Regent Street.  I was hardly going to buy a so-so sweater from Burberry for $300!  You’re better off in the neighborhood pop up markets where, if you are very selective, you can find some vintage wear to suit your tastes.

A Classic Pub in Cambridge, England

A Classic Pub in Cambridge, England

We opted to take the rail to spend a day in Cambridge, where bicycles rule the streets and small flat bottomed boats called punts rule the river.  It is a very charming college town.

British food is a mixed bag, and in transition. Pub fare is ubiquitous and the quality is variable.  I won’t miss the meat pies, fried fish, heavy roasts, and the mealy ‘chips’ which are heavy, soggy French fries.  However, some of the nouvelle British cooking is quite good in that they creatively use a lot more vegetables such as beets, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, squash, and rhubarb.

One such nouvelle British establishment boasted fare “from snout to tail.” a place where you could share a roast fetal piglet or enjoy cuttlefish (squid) cooked in ink.  It was really quite rich.

Overall, beef, rabbit and cod and haddock are staples. Succulent desserts are sherry trifle, toffee bread pudding and “winter crumble,” similar to a fruit crisp.

Given the long, grey and cold Minnesota winters, this cultural trip was a wonderful respite.  I cannot think of another city in all of the 40 countries I have visited that has such a vast, well-preserved trove of art and architecture.

 

Far East Touring – China, Hong Kong, and Cambodia

Hooking up with our daughter and her husband in China
From left to right: Me (Cindy), hubby Mike, our daughter and son-in-law.

When a friend or relative is in the U.S. foreign service and stationed abroad, they only get U.S. home leave once a year. If you want to see them more often than that, you must either travel to their post and vacation together from there, or rendezvous at another vacation destination.

So in late September 2014 we flew to Guangzhou, China (formerly known as Canton), where our daughter and son-in-law are stationed in the largest U.S. visa processing center in the Far East.  It is also one of the oldest diplomatic posts in Chin

The center of Guangzhou

Guangzhou's bustling city center reflects the economic vitality of today's China.

Guangzhou is the capital city of Guangdong province in South China, about 75 miles northwest of Hong Kong and 90 miles north of Macau. The city is a major trade, commercial and manufacturing center. With a population of 12.7 million it is the third largest city in China. It is not really a tourist destination per se, but it is representative of China’s great economic success.  Culturally, they produce exquisite sculpture of jade, ivory, wood, and other materials. They also make pottery and embroidery folk art. The most unusual museum we toured was dedicated to leading practitioners of Kung Fu martial arts, Ip Man Tong and his disciple, Bruce Lee.  It is always interesting to see what a culture wants to showcase to the world.

The Consular work that my daughter does is very demanding, with tough visa processing quotas translating to long hours on the job.  Foreign Service workers are in turn given Chinese and American holidays off as well as other rest and recreation time, and they typically use it to travel beyond their post.

Hong Kong's limited land has resulted in a high density, vertical city of modern architecture.

Hong Kong is only a two hour train ride from Guangzhou, and my daughter and her husband spend many weekends in this slower-paced, civilized city. A former British colony, Hong Kong is a place where “East meets West”, reflecting a cultural mix its Chinese roots with influences from its time as a British colony. It is truly cosmopolitan in terms of cuisine, cultural amenities, educational attainment and entertainment.

Hong Kong is well known for its expansive skyline, deep natural harbor and extreme population density of 16,000+ people per square mile, fourth behind Macau, Monaco, and Singapore.  The city has developed into a major global trade hub and financial center.  Its limited flat land necessitates a high density infrastructure, earning Hong Kong the title of the world’s most vertical city and a center of modern architecture,

On July 1, 1997 the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, marking the end of Hong Kong’s 156 years as a British colony. Nevertheless, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy, as its political and judicial systems operate independently from mainland China, with the exception of defense and foreign affairs.

Cambodia was our last stop before returning to the Guangzhou Consulate.  The country gained independence from France in 1953, and has had a long history of warfare. The Vietnam War extended into Cambodia, and in 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured the capital Phnom Penh. This marked the beginning of the Cambodian genocide lasting until 1979. The Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, but the Khmer rouge continued to resist the change in the Cambodian-Vietnamese War from 1979-1991. Tens of thousands of people died or were displaced as portrayed in the movie ‘The Killing Fields.”

Destroyed Russiand Tanks in Cambodia's War Museum

Destroyed Russian tanks in Cambodia's War Museum, chronicling its decades long wars.

We visited the modest War Museum situated in a jungle setting. It was rife with rusted, discarded weaponry, a depressing site indeed.  Our guide had been captured by the Khmer Rouge when he was 13 and forced to fight his countrymen. When he became a casualty, he was an outcast from Cambodian society for siding with the rebels.

Today, Cambodia has a combination communist and free-market economy with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy. Our guide said that Hanoi keeps the country under its thumb. Cambodia faces numerous challenges and sociopolitical issues, including widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, lack of political freedoms, low human development, and a high rate of hunger.

These economic conditions are somewhat offset by bringing in tourist dollars. Their Cambodia’s ancient temples attract tourist dollars, but are in disrepair. Angkor Wat pictured above is by far the largest and most impressive.

Buddhist temples are popular attractions, principally Angkor Watt, a World Heritage Site. The temple complex is breath-taking but nearly overrun by the masses, with few ecological or preservation measures in place. Other aspects of Cambodian culture carefully cultivated for Western tourist appeal are dance and theater, which are colorful and imaginative, and traditional crafts.

All in all on this trip I experienced the formidable Chinese economic tiger in Guangzhou, the genteel atmosphere in Hong Kong, and the fragile, struggling economy in Cambodia, a country rich in ancient ruins.

Solo Backpacking

Solo Backpacking

Fully geared up for the ascent to Lawn Lake

Backpacking off into the wilderness or up a mountain by yourself is always fraught with challenges and difficulties, but you can ensure an exhilarating experience with proper anticipation and planning.

But first a little history. Back in the early 1970s I returned from a vagabond tour in Europe and the Near East teaching English, only to realize that this was not what I wanted to do anymore.

I eventually landed in Colorado and went to work for a company that manufactured and retailed backpacking and mountaineering gear in Boulder. It was called Holubar Mountaineering and was later bought out by North Face.

As employees we were to be experts on gear, and therefore we got to test all of the new tents, jackets, mountaineering technical gear, fly fishing rods, backpacks and cross country skis.  People who love backpacking are invariably equipment junkles. It was fabulous!!  I started solo backpacking in my early 20’s, going out for 3 days at a time, even doing a little bushwhacking.

Life, professional career and family intervened until 1990, when I took advantage of my close friend’s house as a “base camp,” which bordered on Rocky Mountain National Park.  So every few years I would strap on the old frame pack and head up a trail for a couple of days.

I was happy to discover I had this all to myself

This year much of the area had been flooded out by global warming, but I was able to get a back country permit for the 12.4 mile Lawn Lake trail in the Mummy mountain range, contingent on taking a screw top ‘bear canister’ which was a new regulation to me.  They are big and bulky but you can cram your cooking stove, cook kit, food, iodine pills, gorp and food waste in there.  I rented one from a local backpacking store in Estes Park before heading out. You stow the canister 80 ft. away from your tent to be safe. I also had to rent a stove and propane fuel container in Estes Park because I couldn’t bring propane fuel in my luggage on the flight into Denver.

Now to review a few key aspects you need to remember for successful backpacking or trekking at high altitudes:

1)     Be in good physical condition.  I work out two hours/day, six days/week at the gym. Of course you will be on the trail six to eight hours a day, so your beginning conditioning is only a starting point. You get into spectacular condition on the trek itself.

2)     Pack light!  But be prepared for summer and winter weather as early as September in the mountains.  I experienced both rain and snow. You need shorts or strip off pants, a short sleeve shirt, a turtleneck and fleece jacket, wool hat, sun hat, sunglasses, a lightweight rain jacket, a topographical map of the area, compass, whistle, trekking poles, top and bottom long underwear, a headlamp, a small paperback, and an extra pair of socks and underwear.  I pack a 5lb tent and needed it in the fall, but during the summer I probably could have gone with just a tarp.  I also have a down mummy bag and a 4 ft. long self-inflatable air mattress which is good for this 65 year old body.  Of course a small cook kit, waterproof matches, two quart size water bottles, iodine tablets, dehydrated food, trail mix, energy bars and a cook stove.  I rented the cook stove, fuel and bear canister from a local backpacking store in Estes Park before I flew to my destination.

The trail was rocky in spots, proving hazardous when I fell face first.

3)     Have enough high energy food. You expend a lot of calories on the trail.  One night I couldn’t get to sleep after trying for a few hours.  So I did my check off list—Warm enough? Tired enough? Hydrated enough? I finally decided the dehydrated dinner I consumed didn’t have enough calories, so I ate about 6 oz. of trail mix. I fell asleep immediately. Toward the end, I discovered I had cut it too close on food, as I finished off the last of it about 2 miles from the trailhead.

4)     Pack high altitude sickness pills (acetazolamide tabs 125 mg from any travel clinic).  When I do all of the above, I find I don’t need the pills until I stay at 11,000-14,000 ft. for more than a day.  Also make sure your tetanus shots are up to date.

5)     Get acclimated for a few days prior to making the climb.  As a flatlander, I hiked with a backpack eight miles a day for two days at 7,000 ft. before attempting the 9-11,000 ft. elevation.

6)     Stay hydrated.  This is essential to ward off high altitude sickness.

7)     Schedule yourself to reach the end of your trip well before it gets dark. It’s a good safety measure. I usually plan to be done by 2:00pm with my friend waiting to pick me up.

My little encampment with no one esle around. Ah serenity!

On my recent trip I saw several day hikers as I ascended 2, 647 feet, but no one was in the campsite at the lake.  Ah, the peace and quiet!!

The only hitch the whole trip was the first day about 7 miles in I tripped and fell face first on the rock trail, splitting my lip and scraping my chin badly, which bled profusely.  I rummaged around in my cook kit and wadded up some paper towels to use as a compress.  It was tough to eat that night what with the swelling.  Months later at a dental check-up they discovered that all four of my front teeth had been knocked loose!  Subsequently, I had to have two root canals and a band put on those teeth so they won’t fall out.

I still have a few years left of solo backpacking in me nonetheless.  Next time I just won’t lead with my face.

 

Carlsbad Caverns: “The Grand Canyon with a Roof Over It.”

Aptly named by Will Rogers, these Caverns underneath the Guadalupe Mouintains are some of the deepest, largest and most majestic caves ever discovered.

The Big Room

Originally an ocean, the limestone reef stood 6 stories high in some places as the sea receded revealing a dazzling array of stalactites, stalagmites and other glittering formations. A wide panorama of “jewels” can be seen in rooms named the Kings Palace, the Bottomless Pit, the Giant Dome, Rock of Ages and of course The Big Room.

Map of the caverns.

Cave scientists have explored over 30 miles of passageways to date, but only 3 of these miles are open to visitors.  It is a 1 ½ mile descent, and while many take the elevator back up, a few in our party trekked back up again.

Many feel the most spectacular site is when more than a quarter million Brazillian bats in the summer spiral up out of the mouth of the cave at sunset to search for insec

 

A quarter million bats make their home in the caverns.

You can travel there year around and the cave stays a constant temperature of 56 degrees.  The park is off US  62/180, 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad and 164 miles east of El Paso, Texas.

Sources: National Geographic Travels, National Park Service

Juarez Mexico

Ciudad Juarez is a vibrant, bustling border town south of El Paso, Texas that has played a significant historical role in Northern Mexico, from its central part in the Mexican Revolution to its more recent reputation as murder capital of the world.

Juarez is located just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

The Rio Bravo del Norte river separates the two cities and combined the fast-growing population currently numbers 2.1 million people.  At over 22 million crossings, it is the largest immigration processing center in the world for the US government.

Central to its industrial base is the private maquiladoras or assembly plants which are the greatest source of employment. Originally 80-90% of employees were women due to their superior fine motor skills.  The cadre was instituted to create more jobs in Mexico to fill the gap as the American Brasseroes program of crudely treated Mexican migrant labor ended. The maquiladoras are privately held but provide training, education and other benefits to its workers.

The maquiladero workers are mostly women, due to their fine motor skills.

The city was Mexico’s largest border city by 1910—and as such, it held strategic importance during the Mexican Revolution. Villa and other revolutionaries struggled for its control (and income from the Federal Customs House), destroying much of the city during battles in 1911 and 1913. Much of the population abandoned the city between 1914 and 1917.

Over time the Revolution changed from a revolt against the established order to a multi-sided civil war. This armed conflict is often categorized as the most important sociopolitical event in Mexico and one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century. After prolonged struggles, its representatives produced the Mexican Constitution of 1917.

Pancho Villa was the most colorful and famous revolutionary leader.

However the Parfido Revolutionale Instituionale party ruled in a quazi dictatorship for the next 70 years, with Pancho Villa being the most colorful ruler—a soldier, politician, schooled in prison and eventual leader, who in his later years became an actor. He also accumulated 27 wives.

Real demoscracy has prevailed only since 2000.  President  Calderone started the ‘War on Drugs’ in an attempt to bring under control the various drug cartels.  This set up a wave of violence where more than 3100 were killed in 2010.  With a federal police enforcement push of 8,000 troops (with training funded by the U.S.) that number was reduced to 1600 in 2011 and a much lower rate in 2012.  Pena Nieto, the new President says he will continue security measures but focus on public safety. Some say that the violence is largely over because the “right ones are dead” and others attribute the relative peace to the fact that Guzman, the most wanted drug lord in the world has won control.

Sights to see include the Museo de la Revolucion en la Frontera, the large public market square,Mercada Juarez ,where you can buy traditional Mexican wares, the 17th century Mision de Nuestra Senora Gudalupe,  the Chavena Fountain, and the Federal Customs House where U.S. President Taft held an unsuccessful summit with Mexican President Diaz to try to enlist Mexico’s help in WW1. There are also many pleasant parks in the area.

The Mercada Juarez is a bustling outdoor market for food & authentic Mexican wares

Social life “blends” in a border town…..young people easily move from the Mexican to American culture more easily than inland districts. Fifteen year old girls are feted with a quiceanara, something like a sweet 16 party.  Over 90% of Juarez citizens are catholic with a 97% literacy rate and the city boasts 3 public and 2 private universities.

Museo de la Revolucion en la Frontera

Since the crime has diminished, the old night life areas are being restored and many areas of the city are safe for tourists with a local guide in tow.  The food is authentically tasty and the people warm and friendly to Americans.  Definitely worth a day’s visit and much more colorful and dynamic than El Paso.

Exploring the Ancient Ruins of the Yucatan

In March this year my family traversed the Yucatan and Quitana Roo states from Merida to Playa del Carmen, taking in Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Labnas, Ek Balam and Tulum en route.

A wild Mayan undercurrent resides beneath the scrub jungle, pyramids and rolling hills of the Yucatan state. The fame, famine and deceit flow through mighty power centers particularly the colonial city of Merida, the cultural capital. Narrow streets, broad central plazas with huge laurel trees and the area’s finest museums reside here. Our top choice was the Museo De Arte Popular, with gorgeous frescos adorning the walls. Gamboling the picturesque boulevards in general with multiple churches and European style mansions created a renaissance atmosphere. A hilarious quirk was an entertainer with a musical saw!

Mayan RuinsA short day trip to Uxmal revealed impressive ruins, ranking among the top archeological sites, and was actually built five times. Engineering feats by the Mayans include ancient reservoirs and cisterns in this hilly country, distinct from the area flatlands.

 

 Chichen Itza, albeit quite the tourist destination with hawkers everywhere, nonetheless had a fabulous evening light and sound show describing the ancient Mayan cultural birth and how it came to flourish.

Close by is the historic Labna ruins. At one point in the 9th century, 3000 Maya lived here supported by water collected by chultunes in this arid countryside. Well constructed limestone arches and ball fields (with serpent head with a human face on one wall) were impressive.

Ek Balam was by far the remote and most interesting, with only a single sleepy park ranger manning the site. It features the Acropolis, a “gallery” or series of separate chambers. The top of the pyramid sports a huge jaguar mouth with stucco skulls below. We stayed at Genesis Eco Retreat, and it lived up to its favorite rating by Lonely Planet. It features natural landscaping, mosquito eating ducks and a dip pool plus temascal steam bath, neither of which were open when we were there. The proprietor is quite charming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally we arrived at Playa del Carmen, at 100,000 the biggest city in the entire Yucatan peninsula. It is less commercial than Cancun and more European chic but is becoming more a mass tourist destination. We relished snorkeling and swimming with our trusty guide BoBo. We also visited one of the area’s cenotes near Tulum, a spectacular underground sinkhole with gigantic tree roots. You can bathe in the cool water and many pilgrims do.

It was a fabulous trip made easy by my guide daughter who is fluent in Spanish.