A trekking adventure in West Papua, formerly known as Irian Jaya, a place where some people still hunt their food with bows and arrows, challenges preconceptions and produces unexpected insights for intrepid traveler Barbara Brown Allen.
Mageru pulls over to the side of the road, parks and idles the Land Cruiser. We are still a few hours away from arriving back in Addis Ababa. He looks over to me, pats the steering wheel and says “I am a little tired. You can drive.”
This does not strike me as a generosity I should accept. Although I am confident in Canada, Ethiopian driving doesn’t exactly rev my engines. “Oh…I don’t think so, honey. The driving here is very different from my experience back home.”
by Chris Pady
While visiting the town of Derge (rhymes with reggae) in eastern Tibet, my partner, Michele, and I learn of Palpung, the area’s largest and most important Kagyupa (White) sect monastery, locally known as the “Little Potala Palace”.
Yet despite Palpung’s reputation, we have no luck hiring a guide through any of the town’s hotel staff, shopkeepers, or restaurant owners. Finally, we bump into an English-speaking monk who promises to arrange everything for us. “Meet here at 7 o’clock tomorrow morning”, he instructs, pointing to a designated spot. Nothing about the arrangement spells certainty, yet we’ve got nothing to lose.
by Chris Pady
I balance perilously on my teammate's shoulders, wondering what to do next. The crowd below me grows impatient. I would love nothing more than to wipe the beads of nagging sweat scurrying down my face in mini rivers, but my hands are covered in greasy grime. The cacophony of blaring music and people screaming is so loud that I can barely hear myself think.
I was an easy target, strolling happily towards the temple outside
As a seasoned traveler, I’d seen my share of touts. Overly
I learned long ago to avoid eye contact. Keep walking. Say nothing to encourage them. But from the moment my plane touched down in Burma, I felt no need for such guardedness.
Unkempt little bodies jump from stone to stone. Lithe and agile. Darting now towards, then away from the never-ending stream of tourists flowing over the raised wooden causeways of Beng Mealea. They claim the messy jumble of unrestored stones of this temple, 40 kilometres east of Angkor, on the ancient royal way, as their playground. Nearly nine centuries of heat and humidity have played havoc with the precise placement of the blue sandstone blocks. Gone is the former wealth and glory of the mighty Khmer Empire. In its place poverty reigns.
At each consecutive temple I visit they keep buzzing around me in swarms. Irritating little mosquitoes. Sometimes noisy and persistent, other times quiet and watchful. Even if I try, I cannot seem to avoid their persistent onslaught. “Lady! Lady!” Dirty little hands push tacky souvenirs I don’t want in my direction. I am determined not to make eye contact. I don’t want to see them. “Only one dolla!” I hasten my pace, and keep my face stern. I focus on the beauty and splendour of the temple in front of me. They give up, and turn their attention to their next victim.
by Sasha Hill
When I think of Vietnam, I think of the motorcycles.
My travel partner, Sierra, and I marveled at the sea of them, flowing in a colorful mass around the city streets. We zeroed in on individuals: tiny young women in heels, families with three generations along for the ride. What for us was a cultural statement of rebellion, of reckless daring, was for them just a means of transportation. My grandpa had once punctuated his description of my mother’s “wild” young adulthood by recounting a story of how she once rode a motorcycle up the East Coast with a friend. “I bet she never told you that”, he concluded, in dramatic satisfaction. If he could only see the middle aged Vietnamese ladies, demure in their business suits and protective masks.
Vietnam was the final stop before we crossed the Pacific to home, after eleven months on the road, from Peru to Asia. We’d brainstormed the trip when we were fourteen, and spent four years planning and saving up.
It was Sierra’s idea to rent the motorcycle. The trip itself was her idea. My role was usually to follow along, checking her only when the ideas got out of hand. Like when she proposed we schlep down from Granada, Spain to Meknes, Morocco a day early on no sleep to make it in time for a Halloween party. Sometimes I regretted my all too responsible reactions. Rent a motorcycle? We had no experience! What if we crashed? And right at the end of our trip.
But I found myself saying yes.
Descending the steep, narrow plank, inch by inch, hand over hand along the long pole, I thought: “This better be one hell of a cave!” Exploring the other-worldly interior of Hang Trong Cave was to be one of many surreal experiences I was to have traveling along Ha Long Bay in northeast Vietnam.
In the 1992 movie Indochine, credited with putting Ha Long Bay on the map, Catherine Deneuve describes it as “the most remote outpost of Indochina.” Today, the bay still retains that end-of-the-Earth, Lord-of-the-Rings-on–water quality.
The almost 600 square miles comprised of thousands of karst islands, caves and inlets, which we visited as part of a trip with Myths and Mountains tour company, create a solitary natural environment that belies description and inspires awe. I kept thinking how many times can I use the word surreal in one travel article?
The boat we called home, replicating an old Chinese Junk, was basic, but we dined well and huddled about the crew as they studied tidal charts to determine our daily itinerary. Inflatable canoes, powered by guides, were our vehicle of choice for purposes of exploration. Cave opening too small to navigate? No problem –- just let some air out of the canoe. Very versatile.
by Jules Older
On our last visit to Japan:
- An American businessman told me, “A bunch of hippies got together for three days and took drugs.” He was talking about Woodstock.
- We looked out the window of our ryokan and gazed upon a 13th-century pagoda. On the television in our traditional Japanese room, man was taking the first steps on the moon.
- And our twin daughters were conceived on a futon in Tokyo.
* * *
It was to Tokyo we were returning, decades later. Our friends – Eipan and Hirame, Eiichi and Hiroko – still lived there, and it was way past time to re-une. And we wanted to see the city we’d been so taken with all those years before. How had it changed? How had it not?
When I tell Hirame on the phone that I’m looking for changes, she says, “Expect to see a lot of blonde Japanese.”
I chuckle. “Not your daughters, I bet.” Despite his years as a grad student (and my roommate) in New York, Eipan is very traditional, a samurai businessman with a 6th degree black belt in Judo. I can hear Hirame’s quiet smile all the way from Tokyo. “They’re brown-hair Japanese.”
It doesn’t take long to spot other changes, other sames. First stop on the bus trip in from the airport is the La Floret Hotel. As the bus doors open, a young woman in a sharply pressed uniform bows deeply. Score one for the same. On the other hand, where the massive hotel – and dozens like it – now stand, there used to be only small shops. The Tokyo skyline has pushed skyward.
At our friends’ home, there’s a similar mixture. We still take off our shoes at the door, but Hirame greets us with a kiss, not a bow. The ofuru, the ubiquitous Japanese hot tub, still awaits, only now it’s kitted out with bubbles, programmable water jets and digital temperature controls that can be operated from the kitchen.
story and photos by Paul Ross
Getting to Myanmar (Burma) is a trip, but getting around while in-country can be an adventure.
During 18 days of travel, we rode in human-pedaled trishaws, rickety horse-drawn carriages, vintage trains, and boats of every imaginable size, shape and color. Squeezed into crowded truck-busses, we joined indigenous commuters, and used the smattering of Burmese phrases we picked up along the way to interact and become part of their day. In turn, they became part of our memories.
Much more than transportation, these conveyances provided an intimate glimpse of everyday life, a profound sense of place, and an authentic connection to this rapidly changing country.
Traveling with Eldertreks, an adventure travel company for travelers 50 and older, my wife, Judie, and I were able to step outside the tourist bubble and travel with the locals.
Here's the visual proof.
An old converted bicycle, with its five-inch seat not constructed with wide-beamed Americans in mind, and a bumpy dirt road make for a colorful experience, especially if you add in the black and blue marks on your backside. The peddler/driver's friend rode along, balancing on the bike's peg, as either a human GPS or a spare "engine." Far from "the days of Raj" luxury (the Brits colonized Myanmar as well as India), the trishaw is a practical taxi in a bustling, developing country and ––like all taxis everywhere–– it's best to negotiate the fare in advance of the trip. You want to help the local economy but--
The bakkie went over a large pothole and I was jolted awake, the shock making me inhale deeply and sharply. The air was hot. My throat and eyes stung from all the dust. The unbending road ran like a dagger through the heart of the desert. There was nothing else. Just us, the road, the desert, the sky and the burning sun, and the great weight of my hangover forcing itself in on my shriveled, raisin-like brain and lungs. I wondered for a second if we were heading towards the end of the world.
It had all been a terrible accident really. I knew almost nothing about Namibia except that there were a lot of sand dunes, and without a few too many drinks to lubricate the imagination and fire the yearning for adventure, it probably never would have happened. The truth is though, I could probably say the same about a lot of my trips over the years, especially the most interesting ones.
It had all started in what might loosely be called the ‘town’ of Springbok, a little way back across the border. I was there on a job and had confessed my ignorance of Namibia to a local Afrikaans prospector’s son named Rico, who I had got talking to at the local bar. His head was similar in size and shininess to a watermelon, yet still looked disproportionately small for his enormous frame.
Now there I was in the back of his battered old vehicle hurtling northward away from the South African border like a bat out of hell, still not entirely sure where I was headed or why. And good old Watermelon Head was at the helm up in front of me, his equally large wife bumping along in the seat next to him and occasionally barking what I could only imagine were strong Afrikaans expletives at her husband. But still he went bravely on, potholes and abuse or no, taking me ever deeper into the burning heart of the unknown.
"It can be a difficult journey. If you have a cold, cough or sniffle, don’t even bother lining up. Good hiking boots and a walking stick are a must. Bring plenty of water. Be sure to stay at least 25 feet away. Remember these are wild animals. If we need to carry you out, that will cost an extra $300."
I was already intimidated by the pre-trek briefing and we hadn’t even started on our mountain gorilla expedition, which was part of a 16-day tour to southwestern Uganda sponsored by ElderTreks. The 25-foot rule, I learned, was for both their protection and ours. Sharing 98.4 percent of our DNA, the gorillas are very susceptible to human-borne illnesses. We were carriers and they had to be protected from us. They were wild animals and we had to be protected from them. A fair quid pro quo. Thus, eight humans a day are allowed to visit a gorilla group for no longer than an hour. Works for us; works for them.
This is not exactly a drive-by photo op. With a vigorous trek of 1-7 hours, depending upon where the gorillas are that day, you have to REALLY want to see them. But even with visitation restricted to an hour, it is usually well worth the effort.
Squeezed between napping young people in a tour van, I doubted that this Virgin del Carmen dance festival weekend was a good idea. I’d finished my bottle of water. The driver was swerving down rough roads toward a Peruvian village 3,200 meters high. Weak and dehydrated from several medications, I felt nausea with each lurching switchback.
When I planned this July weekend in remote Paucartambo, I imagined the fun I’d have. Tripping around in my long, ruffled skirt—while sipping a pisco sour--I’d hitch up my skirt and join Peruvians, dancing in the street.
Paucartambo, jammed with visitors for Festividad de La Virgen del Carmen, had limited lodging options. In the rear of the van, my back-up bottle of water was buried under luggage. Trucks, vans, cars, carts and visitors with daypacks blocked our way. We parked near a school so we could camp there for the night, but could not unload. After an hour in the parking lot, a tardy local woman unlocked the school room. I unzipped my duffel and gulped all the water I could hold.
Before I left home, my younger sister, Judy, who seldom travels, had shared her concern. “Isn’t Peru a developing country?” she asked and then began scolding, “You’re 78 years old! And you’re going to Peru?”
During the six-block walk to the plaza, we strolled past market stands stacked with alpaca blankets, fuzzy sweaters, striped ponchos and ear-flap hats. We were clearly in Peru. Two-story buildings with blue balconies overlooked the plaza on all sides. Standing on the sidewalk, I strained to see costumed performers parading down the street. My sister had said, “What if something happens?” Yet, as I surveyed the crowd, the festival scene looked safe enough to me.
by Jane Spencer
“Guess what? I rode an elephant in Nepal!”
My five-year-old grandson was not impressed. “You rode one of those dirty, smelly things?” He’s very sensitive to unfamiliar odours and textures.
“Well, we gave her a bath,” I elaborated, over the phone.
Weeks later, I was still thrilled with my visit to Chitwan National Park in Nepal. The park, located in the terai or subtropical lowlands of the country, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a diversity of ecosystems (forests, ox-bow lakes and flood plains), animals (rhinos, sloth bears, deer, crocodiles), and birds (hornbill, kingfishers and peacocks). Elephant numbers there have grown to fifty. They live in a protected environment in exchange for safari labour, with a guarantee they won’t be transported to zoos or hunted for ivory.
It was my first safari and my first contact with elephants. Our group of four was guided to a platform with stairs which we took turns mounting, before lowering ourselves into a box frame roped around the elephant’s girth. The elephant trainer, or mahout, wielded his sharp metal hook and shouted an order, then we were off into the grasslands to search for one-horned rhinos, and maybe, if we were lucky, a Bengal tiger.
by Laura Fuller
Ron’s blue eyes were bloodshot and watering when he returned to the group. His cheeks were sunburned, his hair sun-bleached. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his white hooded sweatshirt, an act of 13-year-old toughness. He and Mary had volunteered to eat the goat’s kidneys, not because they’d wanted to, but because peers’ opinions outweigh adolescent reason. Mary now smiled proudly in a pack of incredulous girls. Ron fought to put the texture of warm, raw goat kidney behind him and move on with his life, but I could see that he was struggling to gain control of his gag reflex. Kyle offered to walk with him back to the tents, stoically, so as not to make Ron feel weak.
I watched them walk away, their shadows long in the evening grass, and turned back to the other 20-some seventh-graders, all of them perplexed as to how to receive this cross-cultural gift. They were outlined against a horizon of royal blue Tanzanian sky, high above tufts of trees and shrubs on the rocky terrain below. The high rocks on which we stood began to glow reddish in the setting sun. This, I predicted, was both the height and the conclusion of my short, ridiculous teaching career in Dubai.
The kids had all chosen to observe the ritual slaughter of this goat, not wanting to be cowardly among the courageous or rude to the Maasai guides. After sixteen hours of Serengeti driving from the nearest city, we were lucky to have the Maasai patrolling our campsite’s perimeter every fifteen minutes at night to ensure our safety. They silently taught our students to carve spears and showed us the soft cave in the bush where they held their councils.
The seventh-graders, from Dubai – who actually came from all over the planet – were upper-class, elite, and as such, polite and appreciative. They were first inquisitive: goat slaughter? And then horrified: goat slaughter.
by Elyn Aviva
We were on Malta, a tiny island at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, within sight on a clear day of Sicily and Mount Etna, and we were confused.
Since our first day on the island, Gary (my husband) and I had been experiencing generalized confusion. For example, we had been told that everyone spoke English—after all, Malta had been an English colony for over 150 years—but street signs were unpronounceable, and our taxi driver didn’t seem to understand a word we said. He replied to our frantic queries in something that sounded like a mixture of Arabic and Italian. And it turns out it was. Sort of. Maltese is a Semitic language, brought by Phoenician settlers 3000+ years ago, so it sounds vaguely Arabic. And because Italy has had such a pervasive influence on Malta—in part because of proximity, and in part because for decades the only television channels available were Italian—Italian words and cuisine are prevalent.
But our linguistic confusion was superficial. Much more confusing were the temples, the fat ladies, and the cart ruts. We had come to Malta to see the massive Neolithic stone temples, recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Some of them date back 5,500 years—or maybe 10,000 or 12,000 years, depending on whom you believe. Ggantija, on Malta’s tiny neighbor island Gozo, is thought to be the second oldest temple in the world, after Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. It predates the pyramids by millennia. Some writers believe the Maltese temples are oriented to astrological alignments that existed 12,000 years ago, not 5,500—and might even have been built by extraterrestrials.
by Adams Jones-Kelley
Love can make you do many things.
It can make you laugh.
It can make you cry.
It can make you build the Taj Mahal.
The epic tale surrounding the construction of the Taj has all the trappings of a Hollywood fiction – tragedy, romance, betrayal, murder – but this fable is true, and is one of history’s great tragic love stories.
The story goes that at the ripe old age of 15, Prince Khurram, who would later become Shah Jahan, fifth Emperor of the Mughal Empire, married 14-year-old Arjumand Banu Begum, and fell desperately in love. He gave his beloved the name Mumtaz Mahal (Jewel of the Palace,) and over the next seventeen years they had fourteen children, six of which survived past childhood.
The seventeenth child died during birth, taking her mother with her.
The Shah was so devastated by the death of his wife that he locked himself away for eight days with no food or water. Legend has it that during this time the image of the Taj Mahal came to him in his dreams, so he emerged from isolation, organized a board of architects, and within a year construction commenced.