Healing a Wounded Country Through Art

Photo source: https://pharecircus.org/

They call it Cambodian traditional circus, but slapstick clowns and trained poodles, this ain’t.

It’s a steaming hot night in Siem Reap, the tourist town built on the doorstep of one of the world’s great heritage sites: Angkor. Visitors from across the globe fill the neon-lit bars and restaurants on Pub Street, where vendors hawk everything from “Fear Factor” fried scorpions on a stick to toe-tickling foot massages delivered by nibbling aquarium fish. There are only two kinds of people in Siem Reap: those who are there to see the temple ruins and those who are there to extract money from the first group. And who can blame them? This is a poor area in a poor country. Foreigners throw away big money on lodging, food, transport, and fun. Every local desperately needs a piece of that largesse and most work extremely hard to earn it.

In a dusty lot on the dark outskirts of town, far from the hustlers and the massage parlours, stands a tent. Inside, a simple, mostly empty performance space is surrounded by tiers of wooden benches. It’s well organized: young people in bright red t-shirts deal out tickets, hand out bamboo fans to keep the sultry air moving inside the tent, usher patrons to their seats, and sell snacks and merchandise. The place is packed and when everyone is seated, two musicians enter, bow, and take their places. The performance begins.

Sokha is nothing less than a retelling of the horrors that engulfed Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and the struggles of the people to come to terms with this period when between one and three million Cambodians were executed or died from starvation and disease. The story is based on the experiences of the founders of the Phare Ponleu Selpak School, who lived through that time. The school’s mandate is to provide free education in academics and the arts and to train young artists for professional careers in visual arts, theatre, music, dance, and circus (two of their graduates were recently hired by the Cirque du Soleil). The Phare also strives to create opportunities for local artists and help to revitalize the arts in a country where most artists were targeted for death under the former regime.

The performance is a skillful blending of music, mime, visual art, dance, and acrobatics. With minimal props and basic costumes—a far cry from the elaborate trappings of the Cirque—the artists evoke laughter, tears, amazement, and total engagement from the audience. The story could not be more powerful, and knowing that the performers were all personally affected by the events referenced makes it incredibly moving. The use of masks to dehumanize the persecutors is chilling; you see that the ordinary people were under those masks and participated in the killing.

As the show progresses, we see Cambodia’s slow, courageous steps toward recovery after the end of the Khmer Rouge. Despite the trauma still felt today, the people are acknowledging and healing from their past. They are celebrating the rebirth of the arts through performances such as the Phare.

Near the end of the show, during an emotionally charged scene in which a teacher helps a shattered child to see the healing power of art, the electricity in the tent suddenly went out. The performers froze and did not move for many long minutes while crew scrambled to get the generator restarted. It was like Cambodia herself held her breath through her long darkness, balanced on the knife edge between annihilation and hope. When the lights came on again, the audience cheered and the actors moved forward to the end of the scene and toward a brighter future.

The day after the circus, we went on a nature tour to a manmade wetland in the countryside. It was filled with birds and fisherman poled their dugouts across the serene waters. As we commented on the beauty of the place, our guide said quietly in his broken English: “Built by Khmer Rouge. Three thousand people die.”

More information and tickets for the Phare are available at https://pharecircus.org/. Advance purchase during the high season is recommend; the performance was sold out the night we attended.
Have you seen a local performance during your travels that is a must-see for visitors? Let me know in a comment.

Morning Has Broken

Image source: easybackpacker.com

From my sixth-floor picture window in the Sheraton Royal Orchid, I am watching dawn come to the Chao Phraya river.

Late into the night, it was filled with brightly lit party cruises, neon pink, electric blue, sunlit wat gold, decks given over to the ultimate hedonism of dancing “The YMCA” upon a waterway both ancient and venerable. Some things are just universal in time and space.

The dockside was crammed with tourists and locals seeking food, fun, or friends–usually all three.

Then, for a few hours, it was dark and quiet, except for the occasional tug and barges on a stealth run.

As the faintest of light arrives, the first commuter ferry departs from the dock below. I hear piercing marmot-like whistles that I take for the calls of magpies, but which I later discover are the code the aft boatmen use to call instructions to the steersmen.

Sounding a bit like a white-crowned sparrow, the earliest bird commences its song.

Boats of diverse types begin to ply the water. The infamous longtails, narrow, painted in vivid colours, dart here and there like cormorants. The local ferries, plump ovoids of yellow or red-orange, bob their way back and forth. The fast ferries, larger, sleeker, and assertively pointed, cut through the water purposefully. Their destinations are indicated with coloured flags, an ingenious solution for a system where many of the users can neither read nor understand Thai. “Does this boat go to …?” The conductor meets all inquiries from confused foreigners the same way: “Go inside! Go inside!” she shrieks impatiently. Clearly, if the boat doesn’t go where you’re going, it’s no concern of hers.

Working ships of indeterminate industry chug by. Tiny bright orange speedboats–Safety vessels? River police?–buzz among the busyness.

In one boat, a woman wearing a broad-brimmed bamboo hat wields a net. Ah, a picturesque Thai fisher, no doubt following centuries of family tradition. No: look again. She’s scooping up garbage from the never-ending supply that rides the brown water. Is she paid by the city to do this, or does she do it to sell what she can: bottles, plastics, who knows what else she finds? The river travels a long way and encounters many things before it arrives here in Bangkok.

Above, a flock of cattle egrets, their white bodies reflecting the strengthening sun, fly by on their way to feed. Over the city buildings, a few wat spires and one church tower compete with electronic aerials for extreme verticality.

As the morning warms, swifts dodge and twist in pursuit of insects.

I reflect on how many people, both today and for centuries past, live or have lived most of their days on and around this river. Locals still fish off hidden piers and between the giant luxury hotels, tumbledown shacks cling to their piece of the shore, drying laundry sharing space with family shrines on the soggy, rotted porches. Well-used canals branch off to other residential areas, to painted wats with steps washed by the water, to still spaces filled with mats of floating lilies.

But none of that can I see from my exalted tower; I am a newcomer here and until I climb down, my view is limited.

My first day in Bangkok beckons.

Do you have a favorite first impression of a place? Let me know in a comment.

We’ve Only Just Begun

My travel companions learning about First-Night Syndrome, courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

The first 24 hours of a trip are often the most stressful. After the excitement and anticipation of planning and the bustle of packing, actually traveling to and arriving in a new place can make me want to turn around and run straight back home. I don’t know if it’s that more things can go wrong or if my capacity to deal with misadventures is particularly low as I disengage from easy routines and well-known surroundings.
I’ve had too many first nights of a trip where I lie awake listening to the unfamiliar noises, toss and turn in a bed that is too soft or too hard, inhale odd smells from a hotel pillow, and wonder why I ever left my comfortable home.

I call this “First-Night Syndrome.”

Of course, I’m always jet-lagged and have eaten little or no real food for many hours while feeling over-stimulated and exhausted at the same time, so it’s no wonder that I don’t sleep like a baby.

Sometimes, however, I have good reason for wanting to shred my passport.

Like the flight to Hawaii’s Big Island with extended family on one of my least-favourite carriers, Hawaiian Airlines. I’ve had enough bad experiences with Hawaiian that I’ve begun to suspect that the staff are all members of some underground organization dedicated to the goal of eradicating tourism in their state. On this trip, we had the cross-Pacific leg from Vancouver to Oahu and then the short hop across to Kona on Hawaii. We had an hour between flights, which was plenty of time to make the connection. All seemed to be going well until we approached Honolulu, when the pilot announced that due to the U.S. vice-president boarding a jet in the airport, all flights in and out were on hold. We circled Oahu for half an hour.

I told the flight attendant we had a connection to make and asked if there would be a problem; she reassured me. I didn’t see her fingers crossed behind her back.

As soon as we disembarked, we raced for the departure gate, arriving while the plane was still boarding. However, as the check-in agent coolly informed us, we would not be permitted to board—despite having valid tickets and being right there at the gate—because our luggage still needed to be transferred. I was stunned at this level of ineptitude. Although the entire airport had been on lock-down while the VP wended his merry way through, and every incoming flight had been delayed by half an hour, no one in Hawaiian Airlines had considered that this would mean passengers and luggage would naturally be arriving late for connecting flights, and perhaps some provision should be made for this.

The clincher in this situation was that ours was the last Honolulu-Kona flight of the day, so we were not being delayed, we were being stranded in the airport until the next morning.

After I suggested that, as the late flight was not our fault, and as the airline was well aware of the issue before we showed up, it was probably their responsibility to solve the problem, I was told that if I continued to argue, they would call security. Well done, Hawaiian: I commend you on your customer service training. This agent had aced How to Frustrate and Threaten Clients 101.

In the end, five tired people spent the night in moderate discomfort. The seating in Honolulu Airport is deliberately designed to preclude the possibility of an exhausted traveler lying prone, so I stretched out on the only non-floor area I could find, the cold and very hard narrow concrete shelf surrounding the plants. As I dozed there in some awkward and bruising position, the automatic sprinkler system switched itself on and I was duly watered.

It was a miserable “first night” of travel, just one of many I’ve chalked up. I try to remember that first nights are soon past and the rest of the trip can still be wonderful, if I don’t allow a bad beginning to ruin it. First mornings in a new place can be glorious, as when I woke up in Cairns, Australia, at sunrise to the sound and sight of hundreds of white cockatoos flying into the trees around the hotel. Or the first morning of a long-ago vacation in Hilo, when my companion and I opened our eyes to a huge picture window looking over the tropical ocean with early-morning surfers riding the waves, tinged pink from the rising sun.

Challenging circumstances can also create bonding: when you endure a bad first night along with travel buddies, if you’re lucky, the shared wretchedness creates a unity you might not achieve through many easy, fun days spent together. You gain new respect (or not) for someone based on how they come through the situation. On that not-soon-to-be-forgotten night in Honolulu, I learned that both my sister and my niece are cheerful and intrepid souls in the face of adversity. Good to know.

With the wisdom of age, I’m now able to step back and recognize the symptoms. Whether a disastrous beginning is just a case of nerves or the result of travel gone awry, I remind myself that I’m in the clutches of First-Night Syndrome, that I can get through it, and that the dawn will almost certainly usher in a fresh start to another—happier—adventure.

Sky Candy

I once took a balloon ride over the farmlands that surround my home. Floating hundreds of feet in the air with no roaring jet engine to assault my ears and nothing between me and the earth but a layer of basketry is probably the closest I’ll ever get to riding the winds like a bird. You expect it to be silent up there, but it’s not; the burners beneath the “envelope” flame noisily at regular intervals, and you can actually hear many sounds from the world below—dogs barking, cars honking, trains whistling. Above you is a rainbow canopy of brilliant colour. You gaze down at the patchwork of fields, roads, rooftops, and streams and it’s enchantingly surreal.

That’s the experience from the top down. Now, when I stand with my feet on the ground, looking up at a hot air balloon wafting by, I can feel that sensation of freedom again. Multiply that pleasure by a hundred times and you’ll start to understand the thrill of the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta.

Granted, the conditions the afternoon we attended were absolutely perfect: one of those rare English days with plenty of sun, blue skies, and almost no wind. We drove for miles through the countryside, searching for Ashton Court Estate, the location of the festival. Once again I thanked the patron saint of travelers, St. GPS.

The site was huge and grassy, with a few shade trees around the edges. A busy fairground with rides and games kept the youngsters happy while their elders staked out picnic blankets around the launch field. We sprawled on the gentle hillside and soaked in the sun with ice cream cones in hand to watch the entertainment. RC airplanes and stunt pilots in ultralights twisted and dove a few metres above the ground.

Eventually, the field cleared and the balloonists began driving out, trailers in tow. With practiced teamwork, they unload their baskets, unroll and hook up the envelopes (that’s the balloon part of the airship), and start up the burners to fill the envelopes. At this stage, the balloons look like a giant’s laundry spread out on the grass to dry. But as the air flows in, they come to life, big bubbles of trapped gas transforming flat into 3-D.

Slowly, each envelope grows, starts to rise and take shape. You recognize the traditional rainbow stripes, a multitude of corporate colours and logos, and, to everyone’s delight, the “special shapes.” An enormous one-eyed Minion grins at the crowd, while a pair of penguins (boy and girl) and the “Up” balloon—based on the animated film—carve out their unique silhouettes against the sky. There’s even a square balloon with a dragon wrapped around it.

Finally, like a child’s helium-filled toy accidentally released, the first balloon launches, followed by more and more, until the sky is filled with over a hundred gently ascending lighter-than-air vessels. They drift away, dandelion puffs at the mercy of the wind, gradually shrinking in our view until they disappear over the horizon.

And oh how I envy their crews! I want to see again what they see: ant-like people and cars,  little puffs of green that are trees, the houses no more than Lego blocks. I’m tired of being an ant, so look for me at the next balloon festival I can find. Maybe I’ll be able to hitch a ride.

“Up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon…”

 

Australian Anomaly

Is there anyone who sees a picture of a platypus for the first time and doesn’t think it must be something dreamed up by a Pokemon designer? Come on now–duck bill, lumpy tail, webbed feet, furry body, and venomous spurs on its hind feet. That can’t be right. And what are we all told about mammals: that they bear live young, right? Oh, wait, who’s got their paw raised in the back row? Yes, Ms. Platypus…What’s that? You’re a mammal and you lay eggs? Then provide milk to your babies through pores in your skin? How…special.

Certainly, the first British scientists to see a platypus pelt were flummoxed by the strange little creature’s appearance and believed someone was hoaxing them by sewing a duck’s beak onto a rodent’s body.

I was still very young when I learned about the existence of platypus (or platypuses, but not platypi, although there is some argument to be made for platypodes and platypoda). They were mythical beasts from a far-off exotic country, in the same category as kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. Unlike many other fascinating foreign species, platypus cannot be seen in zoos outside Australia. (They don’t like to breed in captivity. Neither do I.) I decided then that if I ever made it to the Land Down Under, I had to see a platypus with my own eyes.

Not so easy, as I discovered in my pre-trip research four years ago. To begin with, they are now extinct in some places where they once lived, such as South Australia. According to Wikipedia, their distribution in the wild is “unpredictable” and “not well known.” While they are out there, they are usually shy, nocturnal animals. Being semiaquatic, they spend a lot of their time underwater in murky streams. TripAdvisor’s forum “Where to see platypus” was discouraging: “Chances of seeing them in the wild are slim. No—make that almost non-existent….[G]o to a zoo.”

When I read about Eungella National Park and realized it was within reasonable detouring distance from my planned route through Queensland, I was skeptical. Sure, they promoted themselves as a “haven for platypus,” but maybe that was just hype. In any case, with wild animals, there are no guarantees. What were the chances of an average tourist like me actually seeing one? I told myself not to get my hopes up, even as I booked a stay at the Broken River Mountain Resort, located next to the park.

After a terrifying drive up the steep mountain road in the absolute darkness of unlit wilderness night, my companions and I checked in at the resort, and were assured that the platypus could be seen, sometimes from the viewing platform, often from the river bank under the bridge—but only at dawn and dusk. We settled into our cabin, dreaming of monotremes in the morning. Unfortunately, it was winter, the park is at a chilly altitude, the cabins are heated only by woodstove, and all of us failed utterly at getting a fire going in said heat source. I piled on every piece of clothing I carried in my luggage, huddled under the blankets, and shivered my way to sunrise.

At least we didn’t need to waste time getting dressed before waddling down to the river. No one else was there. We visited the viewing platform, but nada. We wandered up to the bridge and waited some more. In my heart of hearts, I knew this was a fool’s errand. So I was astonished to spot a faint v-shaped ripple heading up river. Something was underwater, moving with purpose. It could have been a turtle or a large fish but, of course, it wasn’t. It was my mythical creature, as I clearly saw when it surfaced. There it was, duck bill, plump tail, furry body, big webbed feet, and all.

Over the next two days, we spotted the platypus several more times, always at dawn or dusk, always near the bridge. Mostly they swam by at a leisurely pace, coming up for air for a few seconds as my camera clicked away, then diving again, but once we watched one feeding in the company of a little pied cormorant. Platypus use their “duck bills” to stir up the stream bed and uncover worms, larvae, and other edibles. The bird would dive at the same time as the platypus, and often came up with a fish. My guess is that the mammal’s activity incidentally flushed out the cormorant’s prey, making the bird’s hunt easier. The oddest part about this was that the cormorant would peck the platypus, as if encouraging or harassing it to dive. Maybe it was just communicating. Whether the platypus benefited from this relationship was not clear. I see someone’s doctoral thesis on the horizon….

This video, shot within a couple of days of my own visit to Eungella, shows this fascinating behavior. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocq2jq4I4t8

Seeing an incredible animal like this in the wild is a life-changer. You realize that there really are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. If platypus exist, then why not unicorns and sasquatches? Would they be any stranger? Who knows—maybe somewhere out there in some unexplored corner of the most inaccessible jungle there is even an honest politician.

In Search of Folk Music: Wales

Folk music is about history and storytelling, archaic language and ancient notions that are sometimes surprisingly (and disturbingly) contemporary, and modern ideas that may have their roots in antiquity. It’s also about shared culture and joining with your community to express joy, sorrow, outrage, or remembrance. It can be hilarious or mysterious, bawdy or accusatory.

I am proud to call myself a folk musician, and when I travel, I seek out like-minded folks.

In planning my trip to Wales, I thought with excitement of the country’s reputation for beautiful voices and fierce pride in Welsh traditions, and I determined to visit a folk club and share in the singing. With the help of Mudcat Cafe, an online community of folkies across the world, I found a songcircle in Wales that fit into my schedule. Then I resolved to learn one simple song in Welsh so that I could wow the locals.

This was a recklessly brave and foolish ambition. For those of you who don’t speak Welsh, I will point out that it is a fiendishly difficult language for outsiders to learn. I suspect that the native Welsh are genetically equipped with a tongue that attaches in some unique fashion and which allows them to shape the sounds.

Take, for example, the “ll.” Wikipedia describes this as a “voiceless lateral fricative.” There are literally pages and pages of helpful explanation on the Web trying to explain how to create this sound. Gwybodiadur.co.uk: “…put your tongue in the L position and say SH (not S). Don’t forget to keep the tip of the tongue up against ridge behind the teeth and not let it point forwards or downwards as it would do for a normal SH…you’ll sound a bit like a really annoyed cat.”  Try to imagine doing this while singing. Considering the level of skill and determination this demands, one ceases to be amazed that the tiny Welsh nation has doggedly resisted Anglo domination for hundreds of years.

However, I reasoned that even a somewhat mangled version of a Welsh song would count as a culturally sensitive attempt and gain me some brownie points. So I tracked down a short, repetitive, but lovely folk tune called Ar Lan y Mor and I prevailed on my Welsh-born friend for some lessons. I think he almost choked the first time I tried to sing it—no, wait, that was just him correcting my pronunciation.

After several months of practice, I found myself in a Pembrokeshire pub, surrounded by friendly locals. Folkies are, as a rule, very welcoming types, and, though no doubt nonplussed by my presence in the midst of their group, they were kind. When I announced that I would sing Ar Lan y Mor in Welsh, I gleefully noted their surprised and respectful expressions. Nobody laughed at my garbled pronunciation and all applauded warmly at the end.

Just as I relaxed back into my chair, feeling quite smug, the woman next to me leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Very nice, dear. Of course, we’re all English here.” Indeed, as I soon confirmed, they were all escapees from the Anglo-urban rat race seeking Welsh utopia and not one could tell the difference between an “ll” and an angry cat. Bloody ll, thought I.

At the end of the evening, I was slinking, crestfallen, toward the door, when a craggy old fellow at the bar with his face sunk in his pint, glanced up just long enough to growl, “I’m Welsh and ye did pretty well. Good to hear someone singing in Welsh.”

So my efforts were not completely wasted. I gained a healthy appreciation for those few who tackle Welsh as a second language—and they are as rare as red dragons. I witnessed first-hand the long-standing tradition of English empire-builders taking up residence on Welsh soil, a custom that dates back further than King John. And I scored a point for Canadian chutzpah.

O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!*

Have your efforts to speak the local language during your travels been delightful or disastrous? Write a comment and share your story.

*“May the old language endure!”—from the Welsh national anthem

Birding by Boat

Birding can be a tough slog. Marching along steaming-hot jungle trails, toting gear, trying to simultaneously watch the trail for poisonous snakes while craning your neck to spot birds in treetops, and disciplining yourself to stand perfectly still as swarms of mosquitos descend joyfully on your sweating limbs. Don’t get me wrong—I understand that masochism is one of the primary attractions of the hobby—but yes, there are actually times when I wonder why I do it.

On the other hand, you could be gliding effortlessly along a cool river, fresh air wafting past your face—sitting down, no less—encumbered by nothing more than binoculars, as the guide points out the colourful species that are easily viewed along the banks.

Once you picture the difference between those two descriptions, you’ll begin to see why I’ve become enamoured of birding by boat.

My favourite experience with BBB was on the Daintree River in Queensland, Australia. The bed and breakfast, a highly civilized establishment called the Red Mill House, got us up before dawn with a quick snack and the promise of a full breakfast upon our return. We were out on the river in time to enjoy the sunrise and catch the early-morning bird activity.

The boat was small but very comfortable, with seats that swiveled in any direction, leaned back as needed, and were just easy to sit in for a couple of hours. No canopy on the boat meant I could easily see up and around to view and photograph birds overhead or high in the trees.

Murray, The Daintree Boatman, shared his vast knowledge of the river’s ecology—birds, plants, reptiles, insects—and history. Not only did he know where to locate specific species, but he was extremely respectful of all the creatures, even taking the trouble to replace an ant back on its tree unharmed after showing it to us.

After two hours, we were delivered back to the lodge, where an excellent breakfast awaited us, along with a chance to discuss the morning’s sightings with the two hosts, formidable birders in their own right.

Okay, so I’m not so much about suffering for my hobby. Or, at least, not about needlessly suffering for it. I won’t pretend I’m not a lightweight when compared what some birders go through to “twitch” a new species.

Still, I’ve paid my dues when necessary. There was the time on the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad, where we did the sunset tour to see the scarlet ibises come in to roost. Despite the withering heat and humidity, I was wearing long pants, socks, shoes, long sleeves, and a hat, all drenched in DEET, and still the mozzies feasted. They bit my nether regions between the slats of the boat’s bench, through my trousers. They flew up my nose when I inhaled. They attacked the lens of my camera such that I could see them crawling across as I tried to focus. Those were some serious bloodsuckers. My companion squashed one and cheerfully called out: “Only 999,999 more to go!”

But that was the only way to see those roosting ibises, and we willingly paid the price in blood and sweat.

Like I said, birding can be a tough slog. So I’ll take whatever comforts and conveniences I can get, when I can get them. After all, it’s all about the birds, not what you have to suffer to see them.

Or is it?

What have you endured in order to pursue your travel passion? I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

Thank you, National Geographic

My photo on the cover of National Geographic! (Okay, I admit, I PhotoShopped it–but it IS a photo from my first trip to Africa.)

I grew up with National Geographic. My father subscribed to the magazine for many years—the only magazine we did subscribe to, BTW. Dad even compiled his own index to the issues, cross-referenced by subject, date, and what else, I don’t know. As a very young child, I saw him at his beat-up wooden desk, meticulously entering the information in a duotang with his precise engineer’s printing, using a pencil, no less. That was, perhaps, the first lesson I learned from Dad’s relationship with NG: that the information was precious and worth organizing so that you could return to it again and again.

Return to those magazines I did; when I was ill and stayed home from elementary school, I would creep to the bookshelf and take down a half-dozen copies to have in bed with me. Peppermint tea, Vicks VapoRub, and NG.

I didn’t read every article, although I did read many. But I did pour over every photo in those thick, glossy pages. Maybe I’m looking back through the rose-coloured glasses of childhood now, but I remember the photos as spectacular, marvellous, intriguing, thought-provoking, sometimes even stunning. To me, they set the bar for photography for the rest of my life. Fifty years later, when I see a photo with that wow factor, my first thought is still, “That’s a National Geographic shot!”

As I grew older, I read more of the text and I’m sure that NG’s clean, well-edited, journalistic style started me on the path to being a non-fiction editor and writer. The photos caught your eye and engaged your emotions; the words gave you the background and story. I met Goodall and Heyerdahl, Tutankhamun and the Leakey clan.

I dreamed of being a NG photographer or writer: that was the pinnacle.

Then there were the National Geographic television specials, broadcast during my childhood maybe four times a year. When we saw the ads announcing an upcoming NG special, the excitement would start to build in our household. On the night, the whole family would gather around the TV. I can still feel the old thrill every time I hear the iconic NG music with its pounding percussion and triumphant horns. The World of Jacque-Yves Cousteau, 1966. Amazon, 1968. Search for the Great Apes, 1976. Etosha: Place of Dry Water, 1981.

I imagined the African sun on my back as I patiently stalked lions, or the boredom of waiting in a hide for days to get a unique shot. I excavated tombs and dove the oceans for shipwreck treasure. I met cannibals and climbed castle walls.

It has only been recently that I really began to reflect on how much all of this has influenced my life. Why do certain destinations and experiences call to me? Why do I love to photograph animals and birds? Are all my travels merely attempts to live out childhood fantasies?

There is no question in my mind now that National Geographic has shaped my world view. If so, I can think of far worse mentors. Opening my eyes to the color, complexity, mysteries, and magic of places outside my small community was a priceless gift from all the scientists, writers, photographers, and filmmakers who poured their passion and talent into NG. I thank them, and I thank you, National Geographic. Long may you inspire.

Did you grow up with NG magazines or documentaries? What was your favourite article, photo, or show? Let me know in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

Heaven for Horse Lovers

It was a sight I will never forget. Thousands of horses and riders packed virtually nose to tail, haunch mere inches from haunch, filling the main street of Costa Rica’s capital city as far as the eye could see.

Warmblood stallions with thick, arched necks, luxuriant braided manes falling over rolling eyes and silver-plated bridles, capered next to placid work ponies with no more than a rope hackamore to guide their measured steps. Riders in brilliant historical costumes sat stiffly erect in their saddles, knees expertly communicating with their mounts, while bosomy girls in cowboy hats and shirts tied tightly in front to show off their curves waved to the crowd from floats sponsored by beer companies.

On December 26 of each year, the Gran Tope Nacional takes over not only San Jose, but the entire country. It is a day for Ticos to embrace a once-a-year, completely over-the-top love affair with the horse.

Researching travel destinations is my passion and sometimes I discover something unexpected. We were planning a trip to Costa Rica and had little interest in San Jose; our goal was the parks and wildlife farther afield. As I idly browsed a hotel website, however, a phrase caught my eye: “Located close to the route of the Gran Tope.” Although I had already done a lot of reading on CR, I had never heard of the Tope. I began searching the web for more info. At that time, there was very little information available: a couple of Spanish-language sites and one or two news reports. The travel guides never mentioned it, yet it sounded big. At any rate, a day devoted to horses was enough to get me booking a hotel for the date.

On Boxing Day, the Tope commands day-long national television coverage. This is the Superbowl, the Oscars. There’s a pre-Tope show with multiple celebrity hosts and there’s moment-by-moment on-the-ground coverage of the four-hour parade, with interviews, comedic episodes, and lots of shots of pretty women with cleavage. Happy spectators push up against the barriers, some sucking on beer bottles, other on baby bottles. Loud music blares, people shout, a drone zooms overhead.

In the face of this chaos, the horses are amazingly calm. As the parade stops and starts, stops and starts again, they wait patiently as they are jostled by other steeds or fondled by strangers’ hands that stretch out over the barriers to stroke silken rumps and noses. When the tiniest space opens up, a rider is sure to have his mount dance across it with fancy steps, inviting admiration. If a child beckons from the sidelines or a lovely lady is spotted, the most mettlesome stallion is brought to the barrier to be petted and praised and accepts it with equine dignity.

I see small children pulled from the crowd by riders who swing the young ones up behind for a taste of what it feels like to be King Cowboy. I am embraced by half-drunken celebrants who are intent on nothing more than having a fun day and think being photographed with a gringa tourist is a lark. I point a camera at the parade, and riders stop before me and pose with obvious pride.

As far as I could tell, there is no competition, no prizes, no winners or losers. Just an outpouring of affection and appreciation for the horse. Imagine that: an event that’s all about participation.

For the rest of the trip, when locals inquired politely as to what I had done in Costa Rica, their faces would light up when I mentioned the Tope. It was as if I was now a member of a secret club because I had sought out and experienced this event dear to the Tico heart. “What did you think of it?” everyone asked eagerly, and they would beam when I said in all sincerity, “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

 

 

First-time Cruising Part 2

In my first blog on cruising last week, I covered the basics. This week, I’ll talk about all the fun extras.

Entertainment As a performer myself, I was, of course, curious about the type and quality of entertainment provided—all for free—on the cruise. I’m happy to report that I found the musical talent to be top class. The family-friendly “main-stage” shows presented each evening in the large theatre were all very good and varied, including magicians, acrobats, a stand-up comedian, Motown review singers, a country music review, and a couple of shows that involved the whole cast. The daily entertainment found scattered throughout the ship in lounges, bars, and at poolside featured guitar and piano soloists, a reggae band, and a couple of dance bands. I enjoyed all of them, although I didn’t hear as much of some as I would have liked, as they played in areas where there was cigarette smoke. Also, the bands tended to be amped at ear-splitting levels, not conducive to quiet enjoyment.

Grade: A+

Activities This is where my expectations really were not met. Everyone I spoke to prior to the cruise who had cruised before said, “You’ll never be bored. There are so many things going on all the time.” However, when I looked at the list of daily activities that they provide each day, I could quickly eliminate those that:

  • Required extra fees (e.g., bingo)
  • Were thinly disguised attempts to help you part with your money (e.g., a talk on How to Spot a Real Emerald)
  • Were targeted at specific groups to which I don’t belong (e.g., LGBT meet-up)
  • Were dance parties of various kinds

This left me with a short list of things such as the “Crossword Challenge.” The “Crossword Challenge” consisted of a bored-looking staff member handing out copies of a puzzle–but only if you asked for it. That was it. No interaction between people, no game aspect to it. Wow. Basically the same as if I sat at home and did the daily crossword in my newspaper. To add insult to injury, there was a glaring error in the puzzle.

My friends went to the “Family Balloon-Twisting.” When the balloon they were working with popped and they asked for another, they were told they’d have to go up to a higher deck and get another balloon from the kids’ club. It obviously hadn’t occurred to anyone that twisting balloons inevitably results in some collateral damage and it might be a good idea to have spares. Duh. Not to mention that if an error like this occurs (i.e., they neglected to bring extra materials), it’s the staff’s job to solve the problem, not the person with children who should go running to another deck.

For the “Caribbean Dance Lessons” by the poolside, I was the only participant, which wasn’t their fault, but the staff person in charge spent a mere five minutes teaching me a simple set of moves to the music, then seemed to lose interest. After muttering about how brave I was (to be the only participant) and that she would “reward” me, she started talking to the band, leaving me standing there like a bump on a log, not knowing if there was more to come. When she finally noticed me, she shooed me away, saying I could sit down. Again, as a sometime performer myself, I know that when you only get a small turnout, you work twice as hard to ensure that those who do show feel extra special and are glad they made the effort.

So much for activities. There were a couple of fun group games that we enjoyed, but most were equally lame.

Grade: F

Shore excursions  Getting off and on the ship at the ports of call was much easier than I expected. Line-ups were minimal and the staff was efficient.

We only booked one organized excursion. It was okay, but expensive for what you got. From the cruise ship dock, we spent approximately one hour getting herded onto the bus and driving to the tour dock, one hour motoring to the snorkel spot, an hour in the water actually snorkeling (and the snorkeling was good, so we pushed the time to the max), a half hour eating lunch and lounging on the catamaran, and an hour to return to the cruise ship. The bus ride back to the ship was quite uncomfortable, as we were all in wet swimsuits and the bus air conditioning froze us, plus some of us were forced to sit on seats over the wheels where there was literally no leg space, so you either sat with your knees around your ears (for the young and flexible) or twisted around to jam your legs into the aisle where fold-down seats and their passengers already took up all the space. It’s the kind of situation I would normally just laugh off when I travel, but when I’m paying a premium price for a tour, I expect better.

Grade: B

A few health and safety issues

  1. In my humble (non-smoking) opinion, there are too many smoking areas, especially since the smoke seeps into adjoining areas. The ping-pong zone, for example, a hub of youthful activity, was always choked in fumes from nearby smoking areas, as was one hall where people–including families–would wait for the theatre to open.
  2. Some of the globe lights are set along corridor side walls at a height and angle such that my not-extraordinarily-tall companion smacked his head on one. A ship’s officer who happened to witness the incident merely paused for a moment and then continued on his business without apologizing, expressing sympathy, or checking whether my friend was injured.
  3. Most flooring was secure, but one outdoor area (around the outdoor aft eating area) was extremely slippery when wet. Both myself and one of my companions had scary near-falls and we witnessed a number of others skid in the same area. And no, none of us had been drinking!

Overall, I would have to recognize that this cruise was good value at about $100 per day per person. Would I get a luxurious, spacious room in an all-inclusive resort with gourmet food, excellent entertainment, pool time, beach time, and new scenery every day for that price? Unlikely. So it isn’t really fair to expect all of that plus more from the cruise.

In addition, I admit to being awed by the efficiency of the behemoth. Just planning for, keeping safe, feeding, and managing several thousand people floating on the ocean is a logistical miracle.

Would I recommend this cruise? If you like to eat, drink (for an extra charge), sprawl in the sun, dance to loud modern music, and watch some great entertainers, this cruise might be for you.

Would I cruise again? Never say never, I say. There are a wide variety of cruises and cruise lines, and I’m ever amenable to trying something different. Under the right circumstances, the open seas may beckon again.