travelogue – Colombia

Colombia is one of the most intriguing & memorable countries I have visited.

I heard many horror stories — but my experience there was wonderful. Friendly people. Great towns & cities. Wonderful people.

I travelled to Colombia from Venezuela.

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Colombia? Why go to Colombia?

Colombia is the number 2 coffee producer in the World. Café con leche was available everywhere for about C$.10 — that is reason enough!

In Venezuela, I had heard of an amazing hike to a lost jungle city just across the border in Santa Marta, Colombia. But it was almost impossible to get there by land from Venezuela. The border rife with smugglers, kidnappers, paramilitary, banditos & crooked cops.

Colombia is poor, Venezuela rich — hence the tension.

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Somehow I managed to cross a 50k no-mans-land on a series of buses and taxis. I would have been detained at at least one of a dozen check stops except that a businessman took me under his protection.

I was vastly relieved to reach a fortress of a hotel on the Colombian side of the border.

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Santa Marta, the oldest city in Colombia (1525), is pretty & undeveloped. Backpackers love this place. Cobble-stoned houses, overhanging balconies, churches and military fortresses. Kids, dogs, pool halls, power failures and loud music.

It is the jumping off point for the Lost City trek.

I was psyched.

jlost_riverSix-day return treks to the ruins of La Ciudad Perdida are only allowed through a government agency. Guides arrange transport, food and accommodation — essential because the area is a significant marijuana and coca-growing region.

I, like the other backpackers in Santa Marta, was nervous about making the trip.

A selling point, however, was that hikers of all nationalities were allowed to trek except Americans — they make too attractive kidnap victims.

k_guideOur guide was most famous and experienced having made the trip over 500 times since the Lost City had been rediscovered in 1976.

I carried my tent on the trek, much to the consternation of my old guide. He insisted we sleep in hammocks in the South American tradition.

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We visited a number of traditional villages en route. The guide was welcomed warmly everywhere we went.

A log bridge provides a crossing when the water is higher. As a gymnast I volunteered to walk across as if it were a balance beam.

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OK. Not quite like a balance beam.

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The Lost City is remote & difficult to access.

I was disappointed to see a sign showing the route. 🙂

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Finally, atop the steepest coastal mountain range in the world, we reached The Lost City.

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It is very Indiana Jones. Mysterious & enigmatic.

The site is pre-Hispanic. In fact some artifacts there date from 500 B.C.

It’s less a city, than an entangled net of tiled roads, terraces and small circular plazas supported by walls on the sharper mountains.

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The site begs the question; why here?

Access to the coast is near impossible.

Theory is that the native inhabitants had a variety of climates, ranging from the hot to cold temperatures. Consequently, they had access to a great variety of game & wild fruit.

Rediscovered by grave robbers, the hundreds of overgrown stone terraces which once held a city have been restored.

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Huts like these have been restored only in a few places.

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On a king’s throne in the Lost City.

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Colombia is strongly Catholic. I found these trees evocative.

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On the return, in a native village, we were shown trees growing a date rape drug — borrachero, I believe it is called — a soporific often used too, in South America, on hapless tourists.

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Oropendulas (related to blackbirds and orioles) are communal nesters. Each male builds its own hanging nest, which are then grouped together in a favorite tree. The same tree may be used for many generations. Their name comes from the gold (= “oro” in Spanish) color on their tails, and the pendulum-like nest..

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A couple of days walk from the highway, a vendor had set up shop for our handful of hikers — the only gringos on the moutain.

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On the trip up the mountain we were cautious & nervous — worried about narco-trafficers, slick trails, moss, suckers & vines, toads & snakes, thunder & lightening, mud & dark.

We removed our shoes at every creek crossing.

On the way down we were confident & relaxed, shirtless, splashing in every waterway to cool off. One of the hikers was savvy enough to bring a snorkel!

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The Lost City was a terrific hike. We loved it.

The danger and adrenaline added to the allure.

At one point on the track, I stopped to watch a wasp paralyze a much larger spider, then lay her eggs on the spider’s back.

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Just like National Geographic.

Survivors. Lost City trek, Colombia, 1997.

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In 2003 a group of 8 hikers like ours was kidnapped. One escaped almost immediately, but others were held for over 100 days.

Colombia should be one of the world’s most exciting destinations. Unfortunately, guerrilla war, cocaine cartels & kidnapping scare most tourists away.

It was unsafe in 1997. But Colombia worsened in 2002 when the government cut off peace negotiations with the Marxist rebel organization FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Colombia is charmingly undeveloped & non-Western. Many women in South America want to be voluptuous. They sashay sexy.

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I was impressed with the confident swagger of the women. They need not turn down their eyes from every man who checks them out.

My hiking guide — who had finally convinced me of the advantages of a hammock over my tent — took me to the market to purchase an authentic, quality Colombian double hammock.

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I still use it, even sleeping outside in minus 40 degrees Celsius Canada.

Hammock quality varies widely. Cheaper ones fall apart quickly.

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From Santa Marta, I travelled down the coast to Cartagena, every tourist’s favourite spot.

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You might be in Europe. Overhanging balconies are much photographed.

Cartagena is an old city with a big colonial fortress. The main tourist attraction is the clear sea.

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I saw the movie The English Patient in a huge, beautiful theatre here. The locale added to the romance of the film.

Colonial architecture, churches & plazas are lovely.

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San Felipe castle, Caragena, Colombia.

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To connect to a flight out of the country, I travelled to the capital for a couple of days.

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Bogotá is a city of modern architecture, a vibrant and diverse cultural and intellectual life, splendid colonial churches and brilliant museums. It is also a city of Dickensian waifs, beggars, shantytowns, drug dealers and traffic jams. This amazing mixture of prosperity and poverty, Maseratis and mules, makes it one of the world’s most chaotic, fascinating and aggressive metropolises.

I was totally impressed by the Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) which contains many relics of pre-Colombian history.

Colombia should be one of the prize backpacker destinations in the world. The people are terrific. The coast dramatically beautiful. The rainforests, mountains and beaches wonderful.

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But drug kingpins and corrupt politicians have made it almost impossible. In 2003, more than 3000 people were abducted.

I would love to return some day. When it is safer.

Departing South America I was stung by crooked airport officials for about US$10.:-(

Adios.

travelogue – Venezuela

Lost overnight in the Andes, rafting an unknown river & fishing for piranha, Venezuela was memorable.

I’d heard of Angel Falls, the world’s highest. And heard of strange flat-topped mountains.

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I had originally planned to fly to Peru to hike — but two Swedish dope smokers in Trinidad convinced me that Venezuela was an even better hiking destination and was only a few kms away. I could almost SWIM!

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Caracus was not recommended. And it was the wrong time of year for Angel Falls. So I connected directly to Merida in the Andes. A good decision.

Venezuela and surrounds are famous for beautiful women. (Tourist bumpf emphasizes this.)

On my flight to Venezuela was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. An auspicious start.

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Merida is rightly acclaimed as one of the best mountain destinations in the world. The small town sits at the foot of the highest mountain in Venezuela.

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Unhurried and bohemian, backpackers love Merida.

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They all stay near a small park with a magic view of the mountains. I felt fate had brought me here when I saw gymnastics equipment outdoors down the street from my hostel. Local strong men and a few tourists work out there with Andean inspiration.

Not much of a photographer, I did snap this with a disposable camera, one of my favourite travel shots, in a Merida graveyard.

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South America was still strongly Catholic when I was there in 1997.

The main attraction, Merida boasts the world’s highest (4765m) and longest (12.5km) cable car. Unfortunately, in the 1980s a car on the top crashed killing an undisclosed number of tourists. The last section of the ride up was never repaired.

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Still, I could ride to 4000m and hike from there. Overnight camping is technically illegal so almost no one knew where I was going as I headed up the mountain.

Merida sits on a flat messeta, a high terrace between 2 parallel rivers. Stunning. The short airport runway is right in the centre of town.

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The Virgin of the Snows, a statue of Mary high atop a mountain in Venezuela. I would not visit Mary — instead camping away from this, the usual tourist route.

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The vegetation and scenery is amazing — so different than any other alpine area I had seen.

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Tourists examining the fallen cables, untouched since wind blew them down in the 1980s.

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Excited, I planned to tent solo for 1 night in the Andes. My dinner would have a Spanish theme: crusty bread, cheese, anchovies and a bottle of rough red wine.

I climbed a ridge. The vista was magic with clouds blowing in and out. I dropped my pack at the first possible tent site & continued up looking for a better spot. The terrain was steep, exposed & rugged. Not many options for a tent.

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I knew that at the top of the mountain was The Virgin of the Snows, a statue of the Virgin Mary. She led me on.

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On a whim I decided to kiss the Virgin — once the day hiking tourists had departed for the day.

I was careful to note landmarks on my way up so I could return to the pack. Unfortunately they all disappeared in the clouds.

Blast.

Lost in the Andes above 4000m. I vainly searched for the ridge back down to my tent, pack and sleeping bag. Finally, as night fell, I resolved to take refuge in a grotto beneath an overhanging rock. I had water but no food.

For 10 hours I huddled shivering, calculating the probability of death from hypothermia in just a t-shirt and fleece pants. I’d like to tell you I learned something from this experience — but I didn’t. It was a drag.

At first light I tried another long route down. What a relief when, four hours later, I bumped into an elderly Swiss couple on the trail! They gave me a cookie & directions. I had been hopelessly lost.

To add insult to injury, officials on the cable car wanted to arrest me for camping illegally.

Lesson learned? Never leave your pack.

My legs were ruined from sprinting around the mountain.

What to do? I signed up for a 5-day rafting tour thinking it would give my legs time to heal up.

On the drive to the start our group stopped for lunch at a lovely ranch with stone buildings.

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We played with the pet monkey.

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I felt sorry for the lonely monkey. For company he hung out with the farm pigs.

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Our crazy Dutch guide was the highlight of the trip. He married a Venezuelan woman but complained that she did nothing but watch Spanish soap operas on TV.

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We came upon a dead sting ray in the river. The guide cut some flesh from the huge creature and had us fish for Pirayna — we caught them instantly in only 3 inches of water. The river is teeming with them!

The tiny fish are all teeth. But we still roasted them over an open fire as an appetizer.

Our guide convinced us to try rafting a NEW river. It was nice to be certain we would not see any other tourists on the trip.

We had 3 Germans, 1 Israeli, 2 Brits, 2 Canucks — typical of eco-adventure tour groups. This was a good one. Very relaxing.

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Los Llanos (the plains), is Venezuela’s greatest repository of wildlife surpassing even the biomass of Amazonia. Imagine Alberta suddenly close to the equator.

I was there at the best time, the end of the dry season. Wildlife is forced to the major rivers where gringo tourists float.

It’s lovely country but prone to malaria. We saw farmers spraying DDT from backpack tanks to keep mosquitos down. DDT is not banned in Venezuela.

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Trying to get to the river from the dirt road was an adventure. We had to carry raft overhead through a plantation.

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Putting in.
Putting in.

Something was eerie on the river, though. It took me a couple of days before I realized there are no water birds in Venezuela. There’s a lurker at every river bend ready to take any bird that alights.

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We swam with the piranha and other beasts of the rivers many times a day without a second thought.

Our guide had never floated this river. Each day he searched out a camp site.

One night we stayed at this traditional cattle ranch, sleeping in hammocks. Another night we strung hammocks in a simple shelter providing shade for stock animals.

ranchTerrific trip. Great fun.

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The worst thing about Venezuela?

Terrible food! Inedible, really. Our tour took us to the most famous steak restaurant in the country. It was awful.

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The coffee was fantastic, however, & available everywhere for something like C$.10 a shot.

In Venezuela I first heard of an amazing hike to a lost city hidden in the jungle. Unfortunately it was in Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. (Eight hikers were kidnapped on that hike in 2003. One escaped, the rest survived over 100 days in captivity.)

I instantly resolved to go for it.

First I had to climb back up the mountain to retrieve my pack. It was exactly where I had left it 6 days before.

On to Colombia!

 

 

 

 

travelogue – Trinidad & Tobago

I spent some weeks on the islands, limin & teaching gymnastics. Great food, great beaches and some wonderful people.

Trinidad, Land of the Hummingbird.

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My first trip to the Caribbean. Indeed, I studied hummingbirds at one of the world meccas for birders, the Asa Wright Nature Centre, founded 1967, one of many fantastic botanic garden nature reserves established by Brits around the World.

Hummingbirds are very territorial, by the way, driving off bigger birds including hawks.

Trinidad was sighted in 1498 by Columbus, who christened it La Isla de la Trinidad, for the Holy Trinity. It’s only a few kms from Venezuela — I was tempted to swim to South America.

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Trinidad and Tobago have been called the Caribbean’s odd couple. Backpackers avoid Trinidad in droves while listing Tobago as the best island of all.

Trinidad is a densely populated, thriving island with a cosmopolitan population and strong regional influence. It’s famous for hosting the loudest, wildest and most popular Carnival in the Caribbean. In contrast, ‘little sister’ Tobago is relaxed, slow-paced and largely undeveloped. There are claims that Daniel Defoe had Tobago in mind when he wrote Robinson Crusoe, and travelers who enjoy its beaches, reefs and bird life still tend to think of the island as the last undiscovered gem in the Caribbean.

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I thought Trinidad was great & surprisingly untouristed. This small island has a fantastic variety of bird life, butterflies and flora. I was reminded again how unlucky we are in Canada not to have more flowering trees.

Trinidad enjoys a terrific climate, protected somewhat by South America.

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Worst aspect? The days are short. It is dark by 6 PM.

Port of Spain, the capital, is a busy metropolitan hub of over 300,000 people. Tourists come mainly to admire 19th-century colonial buildings.

I stayed a month in Port of Spain in a small apartment loaned to me by the gymnastics association so I enjoyed weeks of wandering the town. It’s got character.

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I love the lingo, accent and attitude of the Black urban population.

The zoo is quite good, the largest in the region.

I ate plenty of Roti and fresh coconut from park vendors.

Trinidad is regarded as the most affluent Caribbean country despite frequent downturns in the economy.

It’s a fairly peaceable country, but in 1990 a Muslim coup held 45 hostages in the Parliament buildings. The PM was actually shot in the leg! Thirty died, 500 injured before amnesty was negotiated. (The government later recanted the amnesty as governments are oft to do.)

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I knew something of Trinidad from grumpy Nobel Prize winning writer VS Naipaul. Naipaul’s most famous book, A House for Mr Biswas, paints a vivid picture of the life of an East Indian in Trinidad.

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St Lucian native Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel Prize winner for literature, lived in Trinidad for much of his adult life.

010The population of Trinidad is split along racial lines; African (39%), East Indian (40%). Slavery was abolished in the 1830s prompting the British to import thousands of indentured workers, mostly from India. A lesser kind of slavery as Naipaul will be quick to tell you.

My host and gym club owner Ricardo toured me around the north coast on Good Friday. Trinidad is beautiful once you get away from the capital city. Lush tropical forests. Rugged coastline.

On the best beach (Las Cuevas) we ate Shark Bake with plenty of garlic! Mmm. Trinidad is not known for its beaches, but the island’s singular favorite is Maracas Bay, a scenic spot north of Port of Spain.

I can’t resist climbing bridges.

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This spot is close to Ricardo’s childhood home in Blanchissuese.

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Pitch Lake on Trinidad’s East Coast in the La Brea district, is a 95 acre lake of tar. No matter how much you dig up, it replaces itself from below. It is the world’s single largest supply of natural bitumen continually excavated for hundreds of years.

Yes, it looks like a huge parking lot.

Easter I spent 3 days aboard a small yacht (the Dear Bear) with a gymnastics family. Fantastic. Especially cruising with porpoise. We saw plenty of jelly fish and a man-o-war.

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I got sunburned not realizing my great white northern skin could burn simply from sunlight reflected off the water!

My host family for the yacht trip down the islands.

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The upper class in Trinidad spend most of their time dreaming of sailing. And of cricket.

The kids and I would take the dingy to shore to explore abandoned nunneries and leper colonies.

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My last week I spent in Tobago, wanting to relax, read and snorkel.

The airport town of Crown Point is in the middle of Tobago’s main resort area. You can walk to the beach directly on arrival! I was charmed instantly by the goats wandering the airport terminal.

Tobago is completely surrounded by palm-fringed, white-sand beaches offering year-round swimming. I planned to snorkel a different beach every day.

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I was hosted by the Lamberts at their gorgeous home overlooking a golf course. I had my own detached unit with TV, CD and tape player. I ate well and modestly that week.

The golf course view from my pad in Tobago. Unfortunately I was too broke to flog.

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I never tire of snorkelling. It’s one of my favourite activities. A superb ever changing 3D spectacle, floating weightless above.

Pirate Cove was my favourite snorkel spot in Tobago.

The restaurant meal in a tree in Speyside was cool.

Pigeon Point is acclaimed one of the most scenic spots in the World. True. Best were the colourful fishing boats and painted shacks. Store Bay was beautiful too.

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What’s Wrong with Poetry?

Dec. 1996

rick_mugI like poetry. But only as a participation sport. Baseball is the same way, enjoyable almost only when you are at the plate.

I’ve tried to enjoy reading poetry, listening to poetry, even speaking poetry aloud. Pitiful. It’s almost always a letdown.

One authority said that poetry “involves a precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions that go past the words themselves”. OK. I like an intellectual challenge.

One authority went on to say that through poetry you “experience the radiance, the epiphany … a showing through of the essence.” Shake your head! Typical poetic hyperbole.

Now, poetry put to music is a far, far richer soup. Recall Patti Smith’s Horses. I love Van Morisson’s Rave on, John Donne. Neil Young is a genius people’s poet, better, in my mind, than Bob Dylan who is too often self-indulgently cryptic. Dylan’s best song is Hurricane which, for a welcome change, he delivers with a sledgehammer. Lately? I was impressed with Sheryl Crow’s debut.

Best singer-poet? I guess it would be the “eternal hipster” Leonard Cohen. When he gets it right, it’s really, really right. Though even his poetry pales on the page compared with disc.

And Cohen is an honest poet. He said that his songs really have no meaning for most people; but they have an effect on many, “like putting an icecube in scotch”.

The reputation and significance of poetry is far over-rated. Let me be clear. The emperor has no clothes. (And don’t get me started on classical music.)

Rave On, John Donne
– Van Morrison

Rave on John Donne, rave on thy Holy fool
Down through the weeks of ages
In the moss borne dark dank pools

Rave on, down through the industrial revolution
Empiricism, atomic and nuclear age
Rave on down through time and space, down through the corridors
Rave on words on printed page

Rave on, you leftist infinity
And well pressed pages torn to fade
Drive on with wild abandon
Uptempo, frenzied heels

Rave on, Walt Whitman, nose down in wet grass
Rave on fill the senses
On nature’s bright green shady path

Rave on Omar Khayyam, Rave on Kahlil Gibran
Oh, what sweet wine we drinketh
The celebration will be held
We will partake the wine and break the Holy bread

Rave on let a man come out of Ireland
Rave on on Mr. Yeats,
Rave on down through the Holy Rosey Cross
Rave on down through theosophy, and the Golden Dawn
Rave on through the writing of “A Vision”
Rave on, Rave on, Rave on, Rave on, Rave on, Rave on

retreat solo

Oct. 1996

rick_mugIn the early winter of ‘96 I enjoyed a solo retreat at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan. It was glorious. An ideal idyll; remote, quiet, in a beautiful wilderness setting. The lake froze over while I was there. I watched the first ice fishers of the season.

I retreated in order to finally finish the first draft of a book (actually a teacher’s lesson plan resource) which I’d been working on for the previous two years. It was wonderful to have all day (dawn until 3:00 AM) to work uninterrupted. I slept when I got tired. No phone, no TV, no undesired distractions. Luxury!

I’m cock proud to report that I returned home with a the book draft completed. (note — that “book” was not launched until June 2014, in video format. 18yrs later)

I was happy with my diet there. Most healthful. Fortunately there were no food reserves in the cabin; no tantalizing cookie jars. I sipped unending decaf and Earl Grey tea.

I loved it and now advocate that everyone should plan a solo retreat. Spend some quality time with yourself at least once each year. What would you do? Exercise? I ran every day down deserted forest paths, rural roadways, and on the lake. Nice. Swim? Cross-country ski? Stretch several times every day? (I’ll bring dumbbells next time, I think.)

Consider your inner life; meditate, or simply contemplate the sunset. Do some goal-setting. You’ll have enough time to read, finally, dammit, to get into those books you’ve been intending. Write letters. What else would you do with oodles of free time?

I listened to CBC AM radio most of the day, but I also took a whack of cassettes, CDs, and books on tape. You can play your favourite song over and over again at high volume while (hypothetically) dancing around nude, like a poet on payday.

I like a Spartan, minimalist experience (with no real discomfort, understand) … but you may want enough toys to really indulge.

Retreat solo. That’s solo, by the way. Any retreat with kids, family, or friends is some sort of holiday, and doesn’t count. (I’ll let you take your cat, that’s it.)

Solitude is the difference. Can you handle solitary confinement? Would you feel interred?

Find out.

Retreat solo.

travelogue – Sri Lanka

May 20, 1996

I spent a month teaching gymnastics & leading coaching clinics in the fabled Serendib. Great food, great beaches and some wonderful people.

Sri Lanka mapMarco Polo considered Sri Lanka the finest island of its size in all the world. I’d agree. It should be a paradise on Earth. Anything will grow here.

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But in 1996 when I was there it was still wounded by the previous 25 years of civil war. The majority Buddhist indigenous population told me they were under terrorist attack by the minority (15%) Hindu population.

In the West we called the terrorists the Tamil Tigers. Indeed, the Tigers had blown up the central bank in Colombo in January 1996. The roads were still barricaded near my hotel, a few blocks away.01z

The capital of Sri Lanka, is not popular with tourists. Most flee as quickly as they can to higher, cooler territory.

02colomboI spent some weeks in Colombo but never really got a handle on the largest city on the island. 

Breakdowns, snarled traffic and power cuts characterize the town.

Security was tight in 1996.

Highlights of Colombo include colonial buildings, the clock tower, a former lighthouse & the president’s residence (known by incorrigible traditionalists asQueen’s House).

The National Museum & Art Gallery are good. More interesting to me are the many mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples.05

Perhaps I learned so little about Colombo because I spent most of my free time at my Hotel, the Hilton!

There was hardly any need to enter Sri Lanka. Private Hilton cabs were at our beck and call.

Staying in a 5 Star hotel in a developing country is novel for a while. But Darcy (track coach roommate from Saskatoon) and I eventually tired of the imported buffet meals/Fitness Centre/Outdoor Pool/Tennis/Squash 6 Specialty Restaurants/Bars/Discotheque — even if the Canadian taxpayer was shouting our tab.

We mostly drank in the karaoke bar (singing Springstein when other patrons insisted).

On arrival in Sri Lanka I was sent immediately to a meeting at Robinson Club beach resort reputed to have the best food on the island. Free booze!

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One night there it was rumoured that Michael Jackson would stay at the resort. Staff hinted that he might play a free concert by the pool. Indeed, he did! A terrific impersonator.

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The resort was a big step up from my accommodation of the last couple of months on the backpacker trail through Asia. I wasn’t complaining.

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In jeans! is Michel Gagne (CSDP organizer) who arranged our coaching sessions and deep sea fishing.

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The beaches south of Colombo are gorgeous, packed with resorts. Sri Lanka was a favourite destination for East Germans.

I was in Sri Lanka as replacement volunteer for Mr. K Russell and his wife Judy who had started a gymnastics coach training the year prior. I was following up with part 2 of those sessions.

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The coaches were wonderful, polite and much more concerned with happiness than worldly goods. I was impressed by the solo Muslim coach in my class who ran to and from Friday prayers in a full suit through stifling heat, humidity and pollution. His devotion was inspiring.

The courses went great, I thought. I played a larger-than-life cartoon character of a teacher, which helped minimize the language barrier.

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Negombo, a fishing village not far from the International Airport was a lovely spot. I was taken there by an enthusiastic coach who wanted me to see his home gym.

The entire school turned out to greet me, a visiting dignitary in their village.

I had been emphasizing coaching ethics — quite a western concept not easily grasped in this culture. The coach clarified a point, How could he teach if he was not to hit the students? To illustrate the point he cuffed the head of one of the boys standing at attention in the parade ground!

It was his son.

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This is one of my favourite travel photos. I took it with a disposable camera.

Cows incongruously lounging on the beach like tourists. There was nothing to eat or drink here.

On our day off, my students piled in a van and took me on a tour of sites near Colombo.

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My strongest memory is a perverse petting zoo for dangerous animals! Unable to escape my excited hosts, I petted drugged lions, tigers, leopards, hedge hogs, various alligators, raptors and snakes.

A big Boa constrictor was loaded on to the shoulders of 3 tourists. A German woman in a bright yellow dress was in the middle, I on one end.

I learned that pythons defecate infrequently — but when they go, it’s a shit rain. The German woman was drenched. But when I inspected myself, I did not get a drop.

Milroy was my main Sri Lankan host. A wonderful guy, I visited his house, met his wife and his brother, a Christian priest.

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He was proud of his new Toyota van with which he delivered me to my various engagements. Here we stopped to enjoy the elephant orphanage.

Milroy is an excellent but terrifying driver, always pushing the limit of safety. Unfortunately for me, one day we travelled was Buddha Day, a celebration where communities provide free food and drink. Drivers are flagged down by drunks who insist we stop and join the party, every few hundred meters. Milroy simply tried to run them down as we were on a tight schedule.

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Kandy is the charming name of this town, very popular with tourists.

Buddhist pilgrims come here to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, reportedly one of the Buddha’s teeth.

When I was here in 1996 Kandy was especially popular because terrorists had never attacked the holy town. It was later a target of terrorists.

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The highlight of my time in Sri Lanka was the week spent at Sri Pada Teacher’s College near Adam’s peak, 1800m high in the tea plantations.

Tea workers are mostly Tamil as are employees of the school. I had a personal servant who delivered me bed tea each morning — 2 cups of hot chai as a wake up call. What a terrific tradition.

I saw the tea pickers every day. At 7:30 AM we started class and the ladies left for the fields. There they are poor, but healthy; smiling & laughing all day. The climate is fantastic up here.

My students were handpicked PE teachers from across Sri Lanka who did not necessarily have a strong gymnastics background. Lovely people.

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Sri Lanka is far more British than Indian. Old school traditions persist. I did everything I could to shatter the class system traditions which were illogical & comic.

My only problem came when I did evaluation of the coaches. Of course I wanted to give students fair and impartial feedback on how they were doing. That’s a no go in Sri Lanka! Firstly, everyone must pass every test. Cheating is tacitly allowed. Secondly, it is impossible for a lower class student to get a higher mark than an upper class student. There was some grief over my evaluation scheme.

On our one day off my students took me to the local waterfall. We had trouble scrambling the jungle. I learned that bamboo is impenetrable. At one point my guides told me to climb like a tiger, on hands and knees. I got irked for the first time on this trip when the guide later told me to wiggle like a snake, on my stomach.

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Somehow we eventually found a route to the Falls.

This day was the first I ever got leached. I was lucky only to get 3 of the small bloodsuckers. Sri Lankans go bare foot so they can see and remove them quickly. I wore shoes which are a comfy refuge for leaches.

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Milroy drove me to Galle, on the south end of the island, a World Heritage site.

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I worked with gymnasts and goats at an outdoor gymnastics club. The baby goat in my arms was most skilled on beam!

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Sri Lankan kids are natural gymnasts, of course. They are lean, light and seemingly never have ankle injury. Coaches told me that walking barefoot your entire life made your ankles strong!

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Many of the top coaches in Colombo wanted to develop gymnasts to compete in the Commonwealth Games, a goal I cautioned them on. To me it seemed unrealistic.

For one thing, the girls (and their families) were uncomfortable with girls wearing a traditional gymnastics leotard.

Instead of Commonwealth Games I insisted they teach every child in Sri Lanka a cartwheel.

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I was astonished (much later) to hear that Sri Lanka had a full team at the 2003 World Gymnastics Championships. Imagine that!

As complete underdogs, they were fan favourites. 🙂

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I must return to Sri Lanka one day as I missed the famous Buddhist sites in the North. One day I got a chance to chat with a Buddhist priest at a Colombo retreat.

Enlightening.

travelogue – India

Racing through India in less than 4 weeks was frustrating, trying to do too much in a short time. …

India

My Lonely Planet tells me that India is a litmus test for travellers. I was excited arriving — but it wasn’t easy.

I bussed from Nepal via the unpleasant border town of Sunauli. Crossing can be a drama, but I was lucky this time.

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Towns in the north of India are generally dusty and polluted.

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Travellers come here to visit the Holy city of Varanasi (Benares).

I did too. And had a surreal experience, a good introduction to the sub-continent.

The famous temple city Khajuraho though, is lovely. A hot, dry, flat, peaceful little town.

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It survived the Muslim invasions by being smack in the middle of nowhere.

I had a luxury room with tub at Yogi Lodge for $4 / night. Free yoga lessons from a master on the roof every morning. Breathing and stretching with a view of the temples.

I was here like most other visitors to see erotic carvings. Actually they are carvings of daily life including loads of sex.

Unfortunately it is difficult to see the details of the Kama Sutra from below.

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Entrance to the park cost me C$.02. Postcards were $.04 or less.

Prices have gone up in India. But it was cheap in 1996.

The craftsmanship (950 – 1050 AD) is amazing.

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A desert climate preserved the works.

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Already rushed, I decided to fly as much as I could to save time.

20India is not the country to see in a short visit.

Highest priority was the Taj Mahal.

And it did not disappoint. 🙂

Even the most jaded traveller comes away impressed.

The detail is gorgeous; finely cut marble screens, astounding pietra dura, semi-precious stone inlaid in marble.

Experts from Iran, France, Venice and the rest of the world collaborated on construction.

The Taj looks great from any distance, in any light. I sat on the Taj Khema restaurant with a rooftop view, listening to a sitar player, and drinking (illegal) beer sold in teapots.

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24Shah Jahan built the Taj as tribute to his wife of 17-years, Mumtaz. She bore him 14 children but died in childbirth.

The Shah is supposed to have considered building a black marble Taj for himself!

 

 

One of the great love stories of all time.

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My favourite view of the Taj was from across the Yamuna river. The flood plain on that side was astonishingly undeveloped.

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The Agra Red Fort, built by Akbar, greatest of the Islamic Moghul rulers, is much less visited than the Taj, but I was very impressed with it too.

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I played with monkeys for much of the time I was there.

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The Taj seen from Agra Fort.

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Shah Jahan was eventually deposed by his son, and spent the next 8 years, until his death, in the Red Fort prison. Jahan had the consolation of a view of the Taj Mahal from his window, which would comfort him until he joined his late wife.

A short distance away is another astonishing site built by Shah Jahan, Fatehpur Sikri, a perfectly preserved abandoned city. Fantastic.

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He housed his harem here, using slave girls as pieces on a giant parchisi board.

It’s a popular spot for weddings.

I bypassed Delhi to Rajasthan which I knew to be the place to be in India in 1996.

I arrived in Jaipur at 4 AM but was a bit disappointed with the famous Palace of Winds. It’s just a facade.

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Much better was Jantar mantar (observatory) one of 5 such installations built by Jai Singh.

He was an inventor and an astronomy nut who built his own giant equipment for studying the sky. These devises were remarkably accurate.

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I moved on to Udaipur to see the luxurious Lake Palace Hotel in the middle of Pichola Lake, formerly the residence of the rulers of Udaipur.

Impressive.

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Best of all was Pushkar, a dreamy little pilgrimage town famed for it’s Camel Fair.

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The colors and energy are wonderful. The air resonates with music from exotic rural instruments, melodious music, folk drama and dance. Villagers arrive in their most colourful garb. Sadhus meditate on the lakeside.

Pushkar has perhaps the only Brahma temple in the world today too.

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The Rajputs are an indigenous warrier class with a strict code of chivalry and honour. They fought to the death. When all was lost the female children were burned in a pyre.

They reminded me of the proud Bedu of Arabia.

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The Rajputs are the most visually impressive people I have ever seen. Men have pastel-coloured turbans and soup-strainer moustaches.

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The women’s festival costumes are stunning.

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I was embarrased to tell fellow travellers how long I had to travel India. (It was two and a half weeks, I believe)

I vowed to return to the Gates of India with more time. (Four months in 1999 as it eventually turned out.)

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To the tourist, Bombay (Mumbai) is a modern, affluent, clean world city. I liked it staying at the Salvation Army close to the Taj Hotel.

The highlight of my stay was being offered an extra’s role in a Bollywood film. I was keen to go but, alas, I had a flight to catch.

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Don’t go to India unless you have lots of time. It will just frustrate you.

And be sure to bring your Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s indispensable.

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travelogue – Nepal

When people ask where to travel in Asia, I list Nepal as the best destination.

nepal

South of the Himalaya, Nepal is a land of sublime scenery, time-worn temples, & an engaging history. It’s a poor country, but rich in the western imagination.

I’d wanted to go since E de la Nord told me of his Freak street experiences back in the hippy days. 🙂

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I was convinced the girls & women of Nepal are the prettiest in the World. Many are exotic with traces of China, India and Thai.

Many Tibetans look AmerIndian.

Kathmandu is wonderful, popular with tourists. I stayed at Tibet Guest House in Thamel for $6 / night. Excellent!

I hung out mainly at the Blue Note jazz bar.

But Kathmandu is a polluted, congested mess. Frustrating at times.

The city is in an unusual, isolated valley in the foothills of the Himalaya. It almost never snows here.

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Kathmandu’s city structure is a series of interlocking public squares. In places nothing has changed for hundreds of years.

Times were still tough. Life expectancy in Nepal was 52-years in 1996.

Mountain people sling woven baskets suspended from jute headbands. Valley people suspend loads on bamboo poles. Tourists sling packs from their shoulders.

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08It was tough to find a good e-mail cafe in Asia in 1996. The best I found was in Kathmandu.

There seemed to be only 1 bank available for tourists.

A store had recently installed the first escallator in Nepal while I was there, quite the attraction for Nepalis. I watched with amusement as people happened upon this most amazing invention. Many were too nervous to ride it.

Bhaktapur was my favourite square; timeless, clean, spacious. Back lanes filled with kids and monkeys, brick makers, potters, laundry. Dyed bright yarns hung out to dry.

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I cycled there.

Kathmandu is close to the Himalayas, but you cannot see the big mountains easily. I was keen to get closer.

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I first saw fascinating sadhus, Hindu holy men, at Pashupatinath, a busy pilgrimage site, one of the holiest places for Hindus.

Here too I saw my first burning ghat, the corpse covered with wet straw to slow the burn.

Surreal. James Brown played on a public address system.

The smell of sewage overwhelmed the smell of burning flesh.

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The same day I first visited the great stupa of Bodhnath, an impressive Buddhist shrine. It too is a pilgrim spot of Buddhist Tibetans, Sherpa and other highland peoples of Nepal.

I shopped for Buddhas here too — but eventually found the one I wanted at the Golden Temple in Patan.

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Mount Everest was a big draw.

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I had just started reading the first of dozens of mountaineering books at that time. I picked up several in Kathmandu. Just weeks later the May 1996 Everest climbing season turned to disaster. Krakauer’s book was read & discussed ad nauseum by just about everyone I know.

I signed on for a US$99 flight seeing tour to Mount Everest. We were slightly disappointed in Everest — the black pyramid quite distant. Other mountains more impressive from our vantage.

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On the other hand, flight seeing was an amazing experience and one I would recommend. You get personal with the highest mountains in the world.

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Pokhara, Nepal. Wow. I could live here.

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I was disappointed not to have time to hike Annapurna which I had first heard of from EG. The Annapurna Circuit is possibly the best trek in the world.

I vowed to return one day … and did. 🙂

Pokhara offers wonderful hostels and restaurants. I stayed at Garden Rest House though everyone was sick there. Seemed to be water related. A nurse told me the most common way to get sick is to drink drops of water on the rim of a rinsed coffee cup. I’ve been very cautious ever since.

Pokara is a surprisingly quiet place on a tranquil lake.

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Royal Chitwan National Park in the Terai was my next stop, perhaps the premiere park in Asia.

To get there I survived the most dangerous bus ride by far I’ve ever suffered. At least half the passengers vomited en route.

Stupid.

Poorly maintained vehicles, terrible mountain roads, suicidal over-taking manoeuvres, animals, children, cattle and unmarked roadworks. You name it. Seemed like a nightmare.

Signs implore drivers to Use Horn Please.

 

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I was psyched for the rhino search on elephant back. Cool!

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(I was reading the book Travels on my Elephant at the time.)

I am so impressed with elephants. What a marvellous, useful beast.

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Due to cost they are being phased out all over Asia, unfortunately.

Up to 4 tourists sitting in Howdahs set out with cameras looking for Tiger and Rhino.

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In 1911 one hunting party here killed 39 tigers and 18 rhino in 11 days.

One guide had only seen 2 tigers in 6 years working in the park! He saw more rare sloth bears than tigers.

I saw a mother Rhino with baby. And later this male who had been wounded in the rear end — punctured by the horn of another male, no doubt.

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The park was terrific. I nearly sat on a scorpion, went early morning birding with a guide & learned the marvels of dung and straw as a building material. It sets like concrete.

Another day we went rhino spotting on foot! Our guide had trained us to scramble up a tree if we came upon a rhino. They are dangerous.

When I spotted one about 20m away, a British doctor in our group refused to climb the tree as instructed. The guide threw his body on top of the doctor to protect him in case the rhino charged.

The doctor was most ungrateful when it turned out the rhino did NOT charge.

99Nepal is one of the last great places on Earth. I’ll go with you any time.

It lingers in your dreams long after you leave.

 

 

travelogue – Cambodia

cambodia

I had never heard of Angkor Wat in Cambodia before I saw John Fair’s amazing photos. It was too Indiana Jones to be real!

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John had visited while a civil war raged with the Khmer Rouge. This was a war zone. John had a military jeep escort.

In 1996 I visited during a lull in hostilities. No major problems though I watched the mine sweepers every morning. The few tourists were swallowed up by the massive site.

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Angkor is the best known of about 100 temples, the remains of a huge centre sprawling over 75 square miles, perhaps the largest religious site in the World. The temples were built between the 9th and the 13th centuries.

Large artificial lakes, the barays & a sophisticated canal system made possible 3 rice harvests per year.

Most of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century. The temples became cloaked by forest & were lost for centuries.

Angkor is a living temple, not a museum. We enjoyed this annual festival where HUGE vats of food were prepared.

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The mighty Khmer Empire, which ruled much of what is now Vietnam, Laos, Thailand & Cambodia is forgotten, but Buddhism persists much the same as hundreds of years ago.

I spent 3 days at Angkor with this lovely British couple. We flew in together.

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Our first meal in Siem Riep was memorable. Some sort of cold mush with slightly cooked chicken. When I went back to see the outdoor kitchen I noted the stove was wood fuelled! Electricity was not reliable.

When not touring the ruins, we chilled in their air conditioned room watching World Cup cricket. (Sri Lanka shocked everyone that year defeating Australia in the final.)

For security & safety, it was still required that every tourist have their personal motor scooter escort. Every morning I hired a bike guy for US$5 for the day.

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The people were wonderful in 1996. Happy, smiling, laughing. They knew very few words of English. Charming.

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The Cambodian people in 1996 were about 95% Buddhist. But the ruins are largely Hindu in design.

angkor_trickMost tourist including myself wandered randomly, a surprise found around every corner.

My favourite ruins were those not cleared of jungle trees.

Strangler Figs and Kapok trees entwine themselves around the ruins of Ta Prohm. Their roots burst apart even the thickest of walls, yet their clinging embrace prevents the walls’ collapse.

Everyone speaks of the victory of nature over the works of man.

My last day I convinced my motorbike driver to take me out to Banteay Srei Temple 25 km north of Angkor.

I was certain there would be no other tourists there. In fact, I was the first tourist there in a week.

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However, locals still jumped me with Coke, cheap tourist knickknacks & offers as tour guide.

I normally chase them away, but this day I enlisted a 10-year-old boy with astonishingly good English and a complete mastery of Khmer history. The site was excellent.

Cambodia is poor. They have none of what we consider essential for civilization. Yet they survive.

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One of my favourite countries visited.

After 3 days tramping Angkor for as many hours as possible, I caught the boat to Phenom Penh. It was a mad scene trying to disembark without being knocked off the rotted dock by vendors.

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I knew where to go — Cloud 9 — a righteously named backpacker hostel with a bar floating on the lake. Bowls on every table filled with free weak marajuana!

… but everyone there was too stoned-lazy to clean and roll any more joints. Almost none ever left the restaurant.

Cambodia was the least developed country I had ever visited. People were unspoiled. There were no electric street lights.

At the hostel I heard that an Australian known as AK Ray (a gun runner) had been killed & dumped in the centre of town as a warning.

For a rush I decided to wander deserted streets in the dark. Scary. The highlight was watching fat pigs eat garbage on what I assumed was a dirt road behind the hostel.

Next morning I noted it was the MAIN STREET of Phenm Penh.

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I read the horrific history of Cambodia. The Killing Fields I opted not to visit — but the Museum of Genocide disturbed me.

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Of more than 20,000 brought to this interogation / torture jail only 7 survived: sculptors who had to produce busts of Pol Pot

If you want to know more, read on. This is a Lonely Planet summary:

The French arrived in 1863. After some gunboat diplomacy and the signing of a treaty of protectorate in 1863, the French went on to force King Norodom to sign another treaty, this time turning his country into a virtual colony in 1884.

In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne, on the assumption that he would prove suitably pliable. This turned out to be a major miscalculation as the years after 1945 were strife-torn, with the waning of French colonial power aided by the proximity of the Franco-Viet Minh War that raged in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodian independence was eventually proclaimed in 1953, the enigmatic King Norodom Sihanouk going on to dominate national politics for the next 15 years before being overthrown by the army.

In 1969 the United States carpet-bombed suspected communist base camps in Cambodia, killing thousands of civilians and dragging the country unwillingly into the US-Vietnam conflict. American and South Vietnamese troops invaded the country in 1970 to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces but were unsuccessful; they did manage, however, to push Cambodia’s leftist guerillas (the Khmer Rouge) further into the country’s interior. Savage fighting soon engulfed the entire country, with Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s leadership, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.

Currency was abolished, postal services were halted, the population became a work force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Responding to recurring armed incursions into their border provinces, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to the relative sanctuary of the jungles along the Thai border. From there, they conducted a guerilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.

In mid-1993, UN-administered elections led to a new constitution and the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections, rejected peace talks and continued to buy large quantities of arms from the Cambodian military leadership. In the months following the election, a government-sponsored amnesty secured the first defections from Khmer ranks, with more defections occurring from 1994 when the Khmer Rouge was finally outlawed by the Cambodian government.

The uneasy coalition of Prince Ranariddh’s National United Front and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party fell violently apart in July 1997, and when the dust settled Hun Sen assumed sole leadership of Cambodia. Elections in mid-98 returned Hun Sen to this position, despite grumbling from opposition candidates about dodgy electoral practices. While his democratic credentials are far from impressive, the one-eyed strong man has proved to be something of a stabilising force for Cambodia.

Pol Pot’s death in April 1998 from an apparent heart attack was greeted with anger (that he was never brought to trial) and scepticism (he has been reported dead many times before). The UN has pulled out of trials of other surviving ‘top level’ Khmer Rouge leaders on war crimes charges because the independence of the tribunals is doubtful. Future stability is also tied to improving the country’s notoriously dodgy economy (dealt a body blow by the devastating floods of 2000), eradicating the entrenched culture of corruption, reducing the size of the military and answering the troubled question of who will succeed King Sihanouk, the last in a long line of Angkor’s god kings.

Rush hour in Phenm Penh.

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Much of the wealth of Cambodia was siphoned away to Bangkok. Cambodians aspired to the western ways of their Thai neighbours.

In the heat of the day I hung out at the Foreign Correspondents Club. At night I hired a motorcycle taxi to take me to the Heart of Darkness bar, the main expat hangout. Few tourists risked the streets after dark. I sat most nights with Hal, an Irish raconteur who explained the scene.

Many expats were there for the cheap prostitutes, an industry much patronized by UN peace keepers. Best deal in town? US$4 for a beer and a BJ.

One morning to the Cambodian Circus School & my route happened to bisect the red light district. It was interesting the see the girls just waking up, washing clothes, chatting like the kids they were. They all waved cheerfully.

Later I toured the tourist sites with one of the girls from the hostel.

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The National Museum is one of the most memorable I’ve visited. A gorgeous building. Limbless landmine victim beggers were stationed on the walk up.

An estimated 1 million bats live in the roof of the museum. They stink and squeal but no one wants to remove them as they control the insect population in the capital.

Australia sent a work crew to build a sub-ceiling so the bat guano would not soil precious heirlooms and tourists. The Aussie workmen reported that every night trucks would loot relics from the collection.

Many are disappointed with Phnom Penh, but I liked it. When I was there the roads still had no names.

We visited a Buddha factory. One of my favourite travel photos ever. 🙂

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This is another French colonial city. As usual, the French legacy left little … but they do have wide boulevards and good French bread!

The Royal Palace was not open to tourists, though we could look in from outside the fence. The Thai and Khmer architecture is evocative.

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A tourist couple I was travelling with took me to the market. Huge bales were displayed. We were unable to communicate with the sales woman.

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Eventually one tourist offered her a US$1 bill. She proceeded to stuff a plastic bread bag with herb.

I still look back fondly on Cambodia. More tourists are travelling there since overland transport opened.

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No one leaves this unique country unmoved.