Archive for the ‘Around the World’ Category

The Taj Effect

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

251_thumbnail Minhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India.

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“There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it and those who have not seen the Taj and love it.” Truly this comment by former US President Bill Clinton sums up the magic and mystique of the Taj Mahal, perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. An ode to love, the deep abiding love of a King for his beloved Queen, the Taj Mahal is one of the most visited monuments in the world.

A symbol of everlasting love, the Taj Mahal figures high on the list of reasons why the travellers choose to come to India on the Smithsonian Journey’s Mystical India trip. And surely, the Taj Mahal never disappoints. If anything, the Taj is even more beautiful than one had ever dreamt of. On every Mystical India Trip, I have watched our guests stand in the presence of this awe-inspiring monument, their eyes widening to take in the wonderful vista of a snowy white building arising almost out of nowhere.

Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum that took over 22 years to build.  The great Indian poet, writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian and non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature described the Taj Mahal as ‘a teardrop’ which ‘glistens spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever’.  The Taj Mahal is primarily made of gleaming white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan and inlaid with 28 precious and semi-precious stones. The surrounding mosque, guesthouse and gateway are a great blend of marble and sandstone. Pattern and prayers abound on the exterior walls of the Taj Mahal complex – the pietra dura or inlay work comprises of beautiful flowers, geometric pattern and verses from the holy Koran.

On a recent Mystical India trip, guests could not stop clicking pictures of the Taj Mahal from the moment they had their first glimpse of this beautiful edifice from the grand entrance gateway. As the first rays of the sun fell on the perfect white marble onion domes and the walls inlaid with semi-precious stones, the Taj Mahal seemed to be enveloped in a wonderful golden glow. The Taj Mahal always exceeds expectations, appearing grander and much more magnificent than one has imagined. As they walked closer to the Taj Mahal, it seemed to fill their senses, looming larger than life with each step. Truly, nothing can compete with being at the Taj Mahal in person.

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To learn more about our Mystical India tour, click here!

Pura Vida and the Delights of Costa Rica

Friday, January 24th, 2014

687_thumbnailBob Szaro grew up fascinated by nature and started bird-watching while in grade school. His love of birds has led to travels and research around the world including many trips to Central and South America. His passion for different cultures, natural history and photography has led to his exploring the variety of landscapes found in Costa Rica starting in 1982 from the cloud forests of Monteverde to the dry forests of Guanacaste. Bob retired in 2008 as Chief Scientist for Biology for the US Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. Bob received a Dual Bachelors Degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from Texas A&M University (1970), a Masters Degree in Zoology from the University of Florida (1972), and a Doctoral Degree in Ecology from Northern Arizona University (1976). He also completed the Senior Executive Fellows program at Harvard University (1993). Bob currently serves as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution on biodiversity, climate change, and tiger conservation.

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January 6-17, 2014

Traveling through Costa Rica you learn to expect the unexpected.  Everyday something new and exciting was waiting for us as we drove through the mountainous volcanic region of Costa Rica ending with a few days on a gorgeous beach along the Pacific Coast of Guanacaste.  Our journey was one long treasure hunt for cultural highlights and natural wonders.

One of those cultural highlights was spending time talking with Marvin Rockwell (now 91). He was one of the original Quaker settlers of Monteverde. His story amazed us all with how they came to Costa Rica in 1951 and settled their “Green Mountain.” They were attracted by the beauty of the country and the fact that in 1948 Costa Rica abolished its Army to fund schools.  The journey was not easy as several decided to travel from Fairhope, Alabama by land in a few vehicles to bring some of their belongings.  At that time, the Pan American Highway was more myth than reality.  When they traveled through Nicaragua and reached the Costa Rican border they found no road at all.  It took 3 months to travel the 12 miles to the nearest settlement. The Quakers chose Monteverde in particular because of the high elevation and the sizable area of relatively flat land.

Max Vindas (our tour director) and Marvin Rockwell at the Bat Jungle in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro)

Max Vindas (our tour director) and Marvin Rockwell at the Bat Jungle in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro)

The fabled nature reserve they helped start is now a major destination for those seeking to experience the cloud forest. With its many vines, epiphytes, and trees it is one of the natural wonders of Costa Rica. It is also famous for the Resplendent Quetzal and hundreds of other bird species. One of the features of the cloud forest that is hard to miss is, of course, the clouds. Walking through the forest with the mist swirling around us was truly a magical experience. And if that was not enough, we found ourselves at the end of the rainbow.

Don Gerardo Montoya Traditional Mask-maker (Photo by R. Szaro)

Don Gerardo Montoya Traditional Mask-maker (Photo by R. Szaro)

Visit to Elementary School (Centro Educativo Cerro Alegre) near La Fortuna (Photo by R. Szaro)

Visit to Elementary School (Centro Educativo Cerro Alegre) near La Fortuna (Photo by R. Szaro)

Enjoying the wonders of the cloud forest (Photo by R. Szaro)

Enjoying the wonders of the cloud forest (Photo by R. Szaro)

Waterfall and lush vegetation in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Waterfall and lush vegetation in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Resplendent Quetzal at the entrance of the cloud forest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Resplendent Quetzal at the entrance of the cloud forest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

At the end of the rainbow in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro).

At the end of the rainbow in Monteverde (Photo by R. Szaro).

But many other natural wonders were waiting around every corner.  It is tough to only highlight a few as we saw so many. They included the Three-toed Sloth crossing the road near Arenal National Park, the crocodiles and monkeys along the Tempisque River, and the many butterflies and iguanas we saw everywhere we went.

Three-toed Sloth crossing road near Luna Nueva private rainforest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Three-toed Sloth crossing road near Luna Nueva private rainforest reserve (Photo by R. Szaro)

Green Iguana displaying for a mate (Photo by R. Szaro)

Green Iguana displaying for a mate (Photo by R. Szaro)

American Crocodile relaxing along the banks of the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

American Crocodile relaxing along the banks of the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

White-headed Capuchin drinking along the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

White-headed Capuchin drinking along the Tempisque River (Photo by R. Szaro).

But I would be remiss if I did not mention the birds. We saw and heard birds at every stop including toucans, tanagers, trogons, jays and hummingbirds.  In fact, we were even able to have hummingbirds land on our fingers at the hummingbird gallery at Monteverde.

 humingbird

Collared Araçari along Lake Arenal (Photo by R. Szaro)

Collared Araçari along Lake Arenal (Photo by R. Szaro)

Yet, best of all, we were able to meet some wonderful people and make many new friends. Enjoying travel with others makes great times even better.  Pura Vida!

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For more information on our Costa Rica’s Natural Treasures, click here!

The Evolution of Rabat

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

295_thumbnailKenneth Perkins received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from Princeton University. He is a Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, where he has served on the faculty since 1974 and teaches courses on Islamic civilization, the history of North Africa and the Middle East in the Islamic Era, and U.S. relations with the Middle East. A frequent traveler to the Middle East and North Africa, Dr. Perkins has conducted scholarly research in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, and Sudan. He is the author of Qaids, Captains, and Colons: French Military Administration in the Colonial Maghrib, 1844-1934; Port Sudan: The Evolution of a Colonial City; Tunisia: Crossroads of the Islamic and European Worlds; and A History of Modern Tunisia; as well as numerous articles, book chapters, book reviews, and encyclopedia and other reference entries. He is currently working on a book examining the social, economic, and political impact of Western travelers in North Africa from 1870 to 1939.

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In a country where almost half the population lives in rural areas, it is Morocco’s cities which attract the most attention from international visitors. Fez and Marrakesh are certainly the best known, and the most dramatic in putting forward living images of Moroccan traditional life. No visit to the country would be complete without spending some time in each of them.  But fabulous as they are, neither is my favorite Moroccan urban center. That is Rabat. The modern part of the city was conceived by the first French resident general, Hubert Lyautey, but constructed in consultation with the architect and urban planner Henri Prost.  The intent was to shift the political focus from the traditional capitals of the interior (Fez, Marrakesh, and Meknes) to the Atlantic coast, thus making the center of Moroccan government more accessible to the West and its ideas and less prone to disruption by the tribal forces of the interior. Rabat’s compact downtown, with its early twentieth century building designs, could just as well be anywhere in the south of France or elsewhere in southern Europe. Lyautey and Prost insisted on a distinct separation between this modern city and the old traditional medina, thereby enshrining a pattern apparent in all Moroccan urban centers of the traditional walled city physically separated from the modern European one. The resident general justified his decision on the grounds that it would preserve traditional arts, crafts, and practices, which it did, but at the cost of creating two distinct worlds which later critics interpreted as the imposition of a colonial apartheid.  Similar thinking led the fiercely Roman Catholic Lyaytey to ban Christians from entering mosques – a prohibition later adopted by independent Morocco and honored (with the colossal Hassan II mosque in Casablanca the sole exception) to the present day.

As the national capital, Rabat has always hosted a diverse diplomatic community which has contributed to its cosmopolitan flavor. Today, the currents of globalization have underscored that characteristic.  One example can be seen in the Catholic Cathedral dating to the 1920s. The mix of diplomats from all over the world at a Sunday morning Mass are now joined by large numbers of sub-Saharan African migrants from former French colonies who have come to Morocco in search of employment, or perhaps as a stopping off point in their anticipated journeys to Europe.

Rabat’s link with Europe is by no means new and evidence of it abounds in the city, whose signature landmark, the Tour Hassan, was built by a twelfth century ruler who presided over a domain that included Andalucía and much of North Africa all the way south to the Sahara and beyond. The tower stands guard over the mausoleum of Sultan Mohammed V, widely seen by Moroccans as the father of the independent nation. Every time I visit this site, I am struck by at the number of Moroccans, and especially Moroccan families, who come there. The monarchy enjoys a position of respect in the country similar to the situation in Great Britain and this burial place, not only of Mohammed V, but of his son, Hassan II, who ruled the country from his father’s death in the 1960s until his own in the 1990s, is a vivid reminder of the ongoing prestige (and power) the institution enjoys.

Both the tower and the mausoleum stand on a plateau overlooking the river Bou Regreg, recently the focal point of a tremendous revival. A decade ago, the most direct way to visit Rabat’s sister city of Salé was to be rowed across by one of a fleet of boatman who plied the river. They are gone; their former bailiwick now a marina for pleasure boats. Less than a mile further downstream, the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean near a cluster of sandbars that once served to protect its banks from European naval vessels pursuing the swift and elusive corsair ships of the so-called Salé Rovers whose victims included Daniel Defoe. Hardly any tourist visits Salé these days, but one of the highlights of this trip was a luncheon in a private home in that city as guests of its owners, descendants of the government official who built it as the first structure outside the city walls,  in the 1930s.  Driving back across the river on the bridge carries not only vehicular traffic, but also the carriages of the light railway that now serves Rabat and its suburbs, including Salé  – another recent addition to the cityscape – serves as a reminder of Rabat’s constant evolution, which values heritage, history, and progress in equal measures.

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To learn more about our Splendors of Morocco tour, click here.

Diwali Fervour

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

251_thumbnailMinhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India.

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Coming to India is a sure tryst with colour, verve and vibrancy. And if you come in time for the biggest Hindu festival, Diwali (held in October or November as per the lunar calendar), you are in for a super-sized magnificent celebration that exceeds your imagination.  Diwali or Deepavali is one of India’s most well-known festivals and is celebrated with gaiety and pomp throughout the country. The name Deepavali comprises of two words – deep meaning light and avali referring to a row -   the name thus translates to a row of lights.  A festival of bright lights, fireworks, beautiful floor paintings called rangolis, beautiful new clothes, mouth-watering delicacies and sweets, Diwali is an opportunity to spend wonderful moments with loved ones.

Like many other Indian festivals, Diwali has its roots in ancient times when it must have started off as an important harvest festival. Several myths revolve around Diwali and thus it is a celebration with multiple meanings spread over five days. In North India, Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama, the hero of the Indian epic Ramayana who was banished to 14 years of exile by his father King Dashrath to fulfil a wish made to Rama’s step-mother Queen Kaikeyi. Rama, the heir to the throne, is a dutiful son and leaves for the forest accompanied by his wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana. In the forest, Sita is abducted by the demon-king of Sri Lanka, Ravana and taken away to his island kingdom. Rama, aided by his devotees including Hanuman, the monkey-god, wages a battle with Ravana and brings Sita back. Diwali marks the night Rama comes back to Ayodhya, the capital of his kingdom with Sita and Lakshmana after 14 long years. The people of Ayodhya are joyous and light up the night with row upon row of oil lamps to celebrate his return, a practice followed even today.

Diwali also symbolizes the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Narakaasura who troubled the gopis ( milk-maids) of Vrindavan. In the south of India, Diwali celebrates the defeat of Bali, a demon king by Lord Vishnu who appeared before him in his avatar as Vamana, the dwarf. The king offered to fulfil any wish and Vamana asked for three paces of land. The moment Bali agreed, Vishnu assumed his magnificent form – with one stride, he covered heaven, with the second, the nether-world. Bali in humility offered his head for the third stride and in doing so, attained immortality. Vishnu made him the king of the underworld and Diwali is the one day Bali is allowed to return to Earth so that his devotion to Lord Vishnu and his good deeds can be celebrated.

The Feminine is not forgotten on Diwali – Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu who is the goddess of wealth and prosperity is worshipped in every home. In India, ‘spring cleaning’ happens in autumn before Diwali as homes are renovated, painted and cleaned thoroughly in Goddess Lakshmi’s honour. Beautiful floor patterns called rangolis are made with rice-flour, coloured powders or flowers in different parts of the country. In the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, Diwali brings the worship of Goddess Kali, the fierce deity who represents power.

For our group, what better place to await Diwali than the holy city of Varanasi, one of the most sacred pilgrimage centres for Hindus all over the world. Even though Diwali was the day after the group was leaving for US, all of India was caught up in anticipation of this amazing festival. In fact, from the moment the trip started in New Delhi, Diwali ‘fever’ was in the air. The road to Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India was lined with shops selling fireworks and guests were able to see people buying up myriad crackers for Diwali. Colourful banners advertising the major firework brands lined the narrow streets of Chandi Chowk where we went for our rickshaw ride – a spell-binding ride if ever there was one.

En-route to the Dera Village retreat and thereafter to the city of Jaipur, the highway was punctuated by colourful stalls selling brightly hued yarn and tinsel-embellished truck decorations as well as black tassels to remove the evil eye, beautiful scarves, pennants, etc. For a truck driver, the truck is not just a machine – she is a beautiful woman, precious to the truck-driver and deserves to be gifted with ornaments. The stalls were a photographer’s delight – row upon row of intense colour and bling, a quintessential India image.

As our trip progressed, so did the Diwali ‘fever’ accelerate across the cities we visited. In Jaipur, all the markets were being decorated with strings of bright silver and gold tinsel spread out like a canopy overhead. Loops of lights were being festooned from one building to another and colourful fabric gates were being erected on all major roads – the bamboo scaffolding for the gates were like gigantic art installation in themselves. Stalls selling terracotta lamps or diyas  were prominent in all the markets. Stores dealing in electric lights and lamps were not far behind in advertising their wares by stringing up these lamps right out in the street from trees, bamboo poles or street-lights. Clothing stores, showrooms for cars and electric goods, furniture shops – each shop was bedecked as a bride with bright flowers, fabric pennants and fairy lights beckoning customers to come over. Customarily, most Indians invest in new appliances, clothing and vehicles at Diwali and it is a bountiful time for these stores.

Our last stop, Varanasi, was especially brightly lit up for Diwali was just a day away. Our boat-ride was magical that evening with the lights on the ghats. Early in the morning, there was a mile-long queue of devotees waiting to get into the Vishvanath temple as it was the auspicious day of Dhanteras, the day to worship Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Kubera, the deities representing wealth and prosperity. It is also a day to buy metal – precious ones like gold and silver  or less expensive ones such as steel and iron. During our bus ride through the city, we saw utensil store display a wealth of steel vessels, containers, pitchers and lunch-boxes. Another interesting and eye-catching display seen across the city were temporary stalls selling clay images of Lakshmi and Ganesha, ranging from plain terracotta colour to poly-chrome painted ones. Everyone in the group could not resist clicking pictures of these statues. Varanasi was well and truly geared up to celebrate Diwali and so were we!!

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To learn more about our Mystical India tour, click here!

Contrasts of a Journey Through Australia and New Zealand

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

692_thumbnailGeorge Losey, Professor Emeritus, University of Hawaii, received his Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography working on the behavior and ecology of the fishes of the East Pacific. His research, mostly on coral reef fishes, includes cleaning symbiosis, intraspecific aggression and learning behavior. His most recent work on ultraviolet vision and coloration in reef fishes led him to Australia’s Lizard Island Research Station on two research expeditions.

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I love the contrasts in traveling. I look forward to the contrast of my destination with my home. The destination may be inspiring, challenging or awesomely beautiful, but usually makes the return home very comfortably familiar. Our Natural Wonders of Australia and New Zealand Journey was a stark contrast with nearly every day distinct from the previous day. The Great Barrier Reef challenged some of us to snorkel far out to the coral and giant parrot fish. Others near the beach were suddenly yelling “turtle” as a green sea turtle swam between their legs. Then when I was silently admiring a giant clam, my flippers were brushed aside as a turtle passed just beneath, either oblivious to my presence or possessing a cheeky desire to startle me (successfully!).

Kuranda and the awesome beauty of the rainforest were, for me, almost belittled by the beautiful olive-backed sunbirds nesting in the middle of the food court yard with their nest hanging from a vendor’s display. They busily traveled out and back, feeding their young, despite our violation of their privacy. Then walking down into the lower market it was transformed into a familiar set of commercial activities to a holdout hippie-style community as an echo of the old days in Kuranda.

Travel to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock brought additional contrasts. I was very pleased to have a stop at the local headquarters for the Royal Flying Doctors Service. Years back they had evacuated a very sick me from Mackay to Townsville in a rather nasty storm. Thanks Mates!

On to the outback, that contrasts not only with other places but with itself. The harsh red of the ground clashes almost violently with the stark blue sky. The remarkably complex and ancient culture of the people from Uluru is difficult to rationalize with our own. Many carry on with the traditional lifestyle that dates back many thousands of years. I chose my aboriginal painting purchase to remind me of that contrast AND the wichitee grub that I was challenged to eat during the bush tucker demonstration. (It was actually quite good!)

Then iconic Sydney from Opera House to Bondi Beach that all fit nicely into expectations only to clash that night with dinner in a Bavarian Bier House complete with sausage, Oompah band and nail hammering contest.

Mount Cook with clear skies and a sprinkling of snow forced us to dig a bit deeper into our luggage to stay warm. Our group split into various activities ranging from bush walks to a glacier to scenic cruising on an alpine glacial lake.

One portion of our trip that had little contrast was the quality of our accommodations. They were absolutely top flight with delicious meals, great wines and friendly conversations. Our Tour Guides contrasted in style but not in the depth of their presentations as the bus portions of our tour progressed. All of us left this journey with a contrast in the scope of our knowledge of Australia and New Zealand and an eager desire to visit again.

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Read more about upcoming departures of our Natural Wonders of Australia and New Zealand

tour here.