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!

 

 

 

 

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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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nepali_girl

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.