Archive for the ‘Study Leaders’ Category

A Dive into Scotland’s Past

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

127_thumbnailWith a Ph.D. in medieval history, Cassandra Hannahs spent most of her academic career at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she was a tenured professor of history. At Middlebury, Cassandra regularly taught courses on Celtic, Viking and Anglo-Norman Studies, as well as more general courses on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the history of Christianity. In her research and lectures, Cassandra explores the cultural and political exchanges that have historically linked Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe. As Study Leader for the Smithsonian since 2000, she enjoys sharing her love and knowledge of the British Isles and Ireland with travelers on land and sea.

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Archaeologists see the past in layers, vertical timelines in square holes.  The oldest stuff is buried deepest, and each successive strata gets closer to the present.  History is not so neatly stacked for us on this tour of “Scotland’s Treasures.”  As we travel north from Glasgow making a loop through the Highlands and then south again to Edinburgh, we ricochet around the centuries.  A discussion about monuments over breakfast veers from Pictish stones (6th-9th centuries AD) to chambered cairns (4000-2000 BC) to memorials that mark the graves of clansmen who died at Culloden (1746 AD).  “Don’t forget Hadrian’s Wall (2nd century AD),” someone adds helpfully from another table, reminding us to define our terms.

Still discussing distinctions between monuments and a military fortifications, we’re soon driving past Inverness to Carrbridge to see the oldest stone bridge in the Highlands (1717).  A delicate arch over the River Dulnain, it was designed for pedestrians and pack horses, clearly too steep and narrow for wagons.  We’re told that local teenagers still use it as a diving platform into the river, a daring and chilly prospect even on this August day.

 Carr Bridge, 1717 Doug Madsen, 2013

Figure 1: Packhorse Bridge at Carrbridge.

 Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

 

We continue driving to Kincraig to watch the collies at Leault Farm working their sheep.  We’re impressed by the intelligence and intense work ethic of the dogs, each one responding to a specific set of whistled instructions.  An excited seven-month old puppy can’t resist joining his elders, and although his happy, clumsy enthusiasm confuses the flock, it warms our hearts.  After the sheep have been collected by the dogs, some of us take turns shearing them and feeding the lambs.  One member of our group who spins her own wool at home is invited to collect all she wants from the piles of fleece left in the field.

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 Figure 2: Shearing a sheep at Leault Farm, Kincraig.

Photo by Janet Lohl, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

Afterwards, we pass the ruins of an 18th-century military barracks which had been built on the ruins of a 13th-century castle near Ruthven.  Layers upon layers:  it was here that several hundred Jacobites reassembled after the Battle of Culloden (1746 AD) and vowed to keep fighting.  Their resolve collapsed, however, after receiving Bonnie Prince Charlie’s message acknowledging that their cause was lost and urging each man simply to save himself as best he could.  Burning the barracks was probably the last collective action of the Jacobite army.

 Dunkeld Cathedral, Doug Madsen, 2013

 Figure 3: Chapter House, Dunkeld Cathedral.

Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

Following lunch in a Victorian resort town, we tour a local whiskey distillery.  Dunkeld Cathedral next deserves a visit, and we stroll around its romantic ruins on the banks of the River Tay where a church had existed since the 6th century.  It was here that Kenneth MacAlpin had Saint Columba’s relics brought from Iona when he combined the lands of Dál Riata and the Picts under one crown, founding the kingdom of Alba (the Gaelic name for Scotland) in the 800’s AD.

Dunkeld Cathedral, Doug Madsen, 2013

 Figure 4: Ruins of Dunkeld Cathedral.

Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

While the great Cathedral of the 13th and 14th centuries was destroyed during the Reformation (1500’s), the chapter house survives and serves today as a museum of local history, providing a timeline of local history from prehistoric to modern times.  It is almost reassuring to see the centuries behaving themselves in this display, lined up properly in chronological order.  But inside the remaining bell tower of the Cathedral they resume their haphazard dance, and we’re exhilarated to find a Viking gravestone (10th-12th centuries), beside a Pictish stone (7th-8th century), under wall paintings from the early 1500’s.

 Dunkeld Cathedral, Doug Madsen, 2013

 Figure 5:  Viking Gravemarker, in the bell tower of Dunkeld Cathedral.  Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

Back on the bus, we flip through the centuries as we sort out what we’ve just seen.  And I suggest to my fellow travelers that what we’re doing is a kind of archaeology in reverse:  instead of extracting artifacts from specific strata and excavating them from a physical site, we are encountering a wide and disordered array of historical data and figuring out where they fit in the framework of centuries.  And as these artifacts of our journey click into place and fill out our own timelines of Scotland’s past, our understanding of this nation and its people deepens and becomes personal in the way that can only happen when we gather the evidence for ourselves.  It is a privilege and a pleasure to discover Scotland this way, with a group that understands implicitly that the real treasures we find here are the insights and memories that we share on the journey.

Tarbat museum, Doug Madsen, 2013Figure 6: Pictish Stone, Tarbat Discovery Center.

Photo by Doug Madsen, 2013, reproduced here with permission.

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To learn more about our Scottish Treasures trip, click here.

Relaxing in God’s Own Country, Kerala Style

Tuesday, March 11th, 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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God’s Own Country …an outrageously ambitious tag-line for the southern Indian state of Kerala conjured up by a wizard at an advertising agency for the state’s tourism department. Surprisingly, this epithet really fits this tiny but beautiful state and has resulted in huge numbers of people coming here to discover for themselves the charms of Kerala.  How can one even begin to describe the amazing natural beauty of Kerala? Lush green hills, their slopes covered with verdant forests bearing unique medicinal herbs and plantations of the most aromatic exotic spices – cardamom, cloves, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, mace as well as coffee and cashew nuts.  Kerala boasts of a coastline with an ancient legacy – from the time of the Romans to the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, and British, there have been major trading ports located here. Kerala is home to endless rice paddies, tender green at first and then changing to a burnished gold as the rice ripens.  And then of course, Kerala is synonymous with the ‘Backwaters’ – those languid channels of water that run parallel to the Arabian Sea where the brackish sea water and fresh-waters of rivers meet.

Journey Through India, the latest offering by Smithsonian Journeys allows for a fascinating exploration of the many aspects of India and culminates in Kerala, God’s Own Country. After twenty days of being in North and Western India, we flew from Mumbai, the bustling financial capital of India to Kochi, one of the major cities of Kerala.  As the aeroplane flew low over the city, one could see hundreds of coconut trees in every direction. No wonder, this state was named Kerala for kera means coconut. After landing in Kochi, we transferred to a coach which was to take us to the backwaters. Driving through the countryside was fascinating – Kerala is amongst one of the most developed states in India with a high standard of living and this really shows in the grand shopping malls, majestic apartment complexes and fancy homes we passed as we drove along.

Soon, our bus got off the main highway and onto a narrow country road. We stopped near a village surrounded by verdant green rice fields and the ubiquitous coconut palms. A few minutes of walking got us to our astonishing quarters for the next two nights – an impressive rice-boat cruising down the beautiful palm-fringed placid backwaters. We get on-board and are led to a beautiful open to the sky deck where hot tea and snacks await us. Even as we are drinking in all the beauty, it is time to set off. We watch a beautiful sunset and all the Smithsonian travellers get out their cameras to capture the beauty of the backwaters in the glow of the setting sun.

The rice boats that ply on the backwaters are known as Kettuvallams and are made from a local wood called anjali, planks of which are tied together with coconut coir ropes coated with a mix of cashew and fish oil. Once upon a time, these boats were a popular way to transport rice but today, rice is shipped by road and these boats have been converted to host tourists and take them down the waterway offered by the backwaters. Sitting on the deck, watching the stars in the clear sky, our group of travellers relax, the calmness and quietness of the balmy night seeping into our souls. We dock for the night and it is time for a lovely dinner cooked on board by the gracious staff.

Next morning, after breakfast, we set off, the coconut and banana fringe on the edge of the backwaters parting now and then to reveal brightly painted homes. We watch people begin their day at the water’s edge – washing their faces, bathing, washing dishes, hanging up washed clothing, filling up water, chasing birds from their fields, walking to work, praying and meditating. There are groups of neatly dressed school children waiting for their boat ride to school – sure beats a boring school bus any day. On the backwaters, fishermen ply their narrow boats, checking on their nets and transporting their catch. Churches appear along the shore, impressive in their soaring height, offering some competition to the tall coconut palm and betel nut palm. A temple or two announce their presence with religious music.

Soon it is time to dock and go for a village walk, the sight and sounds so different from what we have seen so far on this Journey Through India. The villages are more prosperous here, the money being repatriated by people from Kerala working in the Gulf countries and elsewhere. Houses are painted in bright shades and have beautiful verandahs that offer respite from the bright sun. The local flora is fascinating – the flowers, spice plants, medicinal plants and fruit trees in the home gardens offering a glimpse into the reasons why Kerala has been in the forefront of the spice trade and the centre of the ancient Indian healing tradition of Ayurveda.  Back to the boat and some more cruising along the backwaters till we reach an ancient church – there is a baptism going on and the Smithsonian travellers are delighted to view the proceedings in the beautiful church.

After a splendid lunch of traditional Kerala cuisine on the boat, it is time to soak in the sun on the breezy deck and swap stories of travel. We dock at a boat-building yard,  which makes for a fascinating visit. There are new boats being built and old ones being repaired – we see for ourselves the ropes that tie the boat together and how they are water-proofed with the different oils. The boat-builders are very skilful, not stopping for a minute as we walk from boat to boat, the rhythmic sound of their hammers and saws a nice accompaniment to our tour of the yard. Back to the boat in time to catch  yet another gorgeous sunset.

All the travellers are relaxed and refreshed, going over pictures of the places we have seen so far, making plans for other travels. We tuck into another delicious meal and it is time to go to bed for we travel to Kochi next morning. Kochi with its delicious amalgamation of native Kerala traditions and Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences is a story for another time. For the moment, the backwaters and the rice-boat cast their spell and we enjoy every moment of the leisurely languorous mood here.

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

Time Travelling up a Creek Without a Paddle?

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

grantnelx100Grant Nel holds a BSc (Hon) degree in Zoology, has worked in the African wild for 2 decades and has also travelled widely internationally. For the past 12 years Grant has lived a few hundred meters from the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers (both of which feature prominently in your itinerary). The Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park are virtually his back yard. He is a highly respected professional guide and conservationist in the region. He is a former CEO of The Selinda Reserve, and sits on the boards of two local environmental organizations.

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The Zambezi River is hardly a creek. Indeed it is Africa’s fourth largest river that collects nearly half of south central Africa’s rainfall and deposits it, after a 1700 mile long journey, into the Indian Ocean. Its name translates from the Tonga language as ‘The Great River’ which is an apt and befitting moniker. A Smithsonian African Safari is a modern day exploration of this mighty waterway; our itinerary taking us in the footprints of that most legendary of African Explorers, David Livingstone. However, unlike Dr. Livingstone, we have the luxury of modern transport to cover in two weeks what took him many years of grueling pioneering. I have often wondered what drove Livingstone in his quest to open ‘God’s Highway’ to the interior of Africa, and I think I may have found one of his greatest motivators.P1060128515

A Smithsonian Safari through Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia makes use of just about every modern transport vehicle bar trains. We do game drives in specially adapted 4×4’s, boat cruises on luxury river craft, view the Vic Falls from helicopters, move from one country to another in luxury coaches or private aircraft, and skim along the Zambezi in small power boats in search of the formidable Tiger Fish. We are so habituated to the sound of the internal combustion engine (or as I call it – the infernal combustion engine) that we consider its intrusive racket as normal. Dr. Livingstone, I presume, would not approve.

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 When our group of Smithsonian Travelers reached the Royal Zambezi Lodge in Zambia’s remote Lower Zambezi National Park (after a bus ride, ferry crossing, another bus ride, a private charter flight, and a transfer by 4×4) many of us were ready for the tranquility that epitomizes this destination. The lodge offers a wide variety of activities including two of Livingstone’s preferred modes of transport: walking and canoeing.

Simeon, our guide and de facto protector, instructs us with a stern lecture prior to our departure. “Remember” he says, “should your canoe tip over or you fall out, swim as quietly as possible to the shore. Do not splash about as this attracts crocodiles.”. Enough said!

In truth, canoeing is a safe as walking across a busy street – if you obey the traffic lights you are unlikely to get hit by a car. We clamber into our fourteen foot Canadian canoes armed with nothing but our cameras and binoculars, i.e. we are paddleless! This is because each canoe is paddled by a young man from the lodge who knows these waters intimately and is adept at keeping us out of potential trouble.

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 Once we set off the serenity of the river takes over almost immediately. The flow of the Zambezi has us in her gentle grasp and we quickly hit our individual mute buttons. Simultaneously our ‘other’ senses start working and we begin to notice so much we have missed before. Every bird chirp is a loud proclamation of territory, the snap of twigs gives an elephant’s position away, the unmistakable smell of a baboon roost, the sucking noise of antelope drinking, the audible snap of a bee-eater hawking an insect on the wing, the blast of air from a surfacing hippo’s nostrils. The only intrusion to this is the dip and splash of our helmsman’s paddle. The afternoon sun is at our backs and bathes the scene before us in a magical light that emphasizes the verdant river banks of giant mahogany and winter-thorn trees. It picks up the glisten of the crocodiles’ scales as they sunbathe, mouths agape to show off their weaponry, and illuminates an elephant in a halo as he throws clouds of dust over himself. It was at about this point that I was struck with a thought. David Livingstone conducted the first ‘European’ canoe safari on the Zambezi River and what we are witnessing is a scene that must have been a daily experience for him. Ageless wild Africa becomes apparent and, at this moment, a thread through time connects us. Generations of bee-eaters have made their nests in the sheer clay banks we drift past; the lineage of elephants that have drunk from these waters is unbroken; the fruits of the giant trees have provided sustenance for countless baboon dynasties, and always the river flows in a never ending continuum.

 

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All too soon we reach the end of the channel and the connection is lost as we are collected by motor boat for the trip back upstream to our comfortable lodge. Livingstone, on his side of the wormhole, is setting up camp on the bank of the river, staring out over a cooking fire at the mighty Zambezi and looking forward to doing it all again tomorrow.

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To learn more about our African Safari tour, click here.

Victoria Falls – The ‘Smoke That Thunders’

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

grantnelx100Grant Nel holds a BSc (Hon) degree in Zoology, has worked in the African wild for 2 decades and has also travelled widely internationally. For the past 12 years Grant has lived a few hundred meters from the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers (both of which feature prominently in your itinerary). The Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park are virtually his back yard. He is a highly respected professional guide and conservationist in the region. He is a former CEO of The Selinda Reserve, and sits on the boards of two local environmental organizations.

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Mosi-oa-Tunya. The phonetics of the word is romantic all on its own, but the translation is even more so. ‘Smoke that Thunders’! This is the Tonga name given to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world and possibly the most visually spectacular experiences any Smithsonian Traveler can ever have. I am of course referring to the mighty Victoria Falls.

Our visit to this tour highlight is delayed by another truly African experience – the border crossing between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Little did we know that the pressing lines, bustling taxis and buses, colorful people, laden bicycles, mingling baboons, rumbling trucks and general melee of a busy border post would contribute so much to our appreciation of Victoria Falls. As time ticked away and each passport was laboriously stamped, so the sun started its journey from zenith to nadir, beginning the play of shadows and light that makes photography in Africa so rewarding.

At last we are through and quickly make our way to the Victoria Falls National Park. It matters not how many times one sees the Zambezi River plummeting 330 feet into the giant scar of the Earth’s crust that is the Batoka Gorge; it is literally breathtaking every time and always exceeds the expectations of the novice visitor. David Livingstone’s 1855 description of ‘…a scene so beautiful, that angels must gaze upon it in their flight.’ still holds true and few could describe the scene more eloquently than that. Our border delay has been an unforeseen blessing. The late afternoon light backlights a 500 foot curtain of white spray whilst rainbows arc across a chasm of black rock that is fringed with the verdant accents of the perpetually wet rainforest.

The resonance of 40,000ft3/sec of water crashing into the gorge is palpable; reverberating beneath our feet, in our ears and against our bodies. Our guide tells us that Devil’s Cataract is so named because the flow of the water above the precipitous plunge has been used for centuries as a form of baptism by the local tribes to wash out and banish evil spirits to the gorge’s depths. The falls extend from this cataract for another mile to the Eastern Cataract and we follow the drenched pathway within the rain forest, emerging every so often onto a lookout point for another view that always seems better than the last. We happen upon bushbuck and vervet monkeys, and get serenaded by birds that are near impossible to see through all the foliage. Suddenly there is a commotion up ahead and a ripple of excitement passes through our group. We step out of the rainforest and are treated to a scene that is primeval Africa – three bull elephants are grazing and walking between the islands just back from the brink of the falls. This is a drama that has surely played out countless times in the 150,000 year history of Mosi-oa-Tunya, but it is a first for me! The ‘diminutive’ figure of the largest land mammal on Earth bestows a sense of scale to Victoria Falls that makes it hard to tear our eyes from the image. For the travelers who set out on this Smithsonian Journey hoping to see this iconic animal in its natural habitat, there can be no better fulfillment of this vision than what is lit before us in the golden afternoon sun. In a matter of minutes the scene dissolves as the elephants wander into the deep forest and reed beds of the islands.

To Zambian border bureaucracy, I say a big ‘Thank You’ for reminding me that impatience in Africa goes against the grain of its Karma. Every delay is just a new, and often wonderful, opportunity to experience something unique and deeply gratifying.

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To learn more about our African Safari tour, click here.

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!