A Travellerspoint blog

Hawaii: Honolulu and Hilo--and Honolulu

sunny 80 °F

The boys were determined: after nearly four months of travel, they'd had enough of cultural enrichment. Visiting Pearl Harbor, snorkeling, and throwing the football on the beach--that was what Hawaii would be all about. So we gave up on the idea of a Polynesian luau; we didn't even mention Honolulu's museums; and we went straight to Pearl Harbor on the morning of our arrival.

Pearl Harbor's Arizona Memorial is handsomely done. We met five survivors there at a book signing, some of the lucky few who emerged alive from the December 7, 1941 attack.

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After watching a documentary, we took the ferry to the Arizona Memorial, a white structure that looks like a train squashed in the middle and floating on the water. From inside it you look out over the remains of the sunken Arizona, the ship with the largest number of dead, 1,177 crewmen, many of whom are buried with their ship.

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The boys were absorbed by the narrative of the surprise attack. They noticed the bubbles still rising from the sunken hulk and the oil still gurgling up to smear the surface. I was torn between solemn reflection on the dead and unease over the nationalist display. Maybe it was sailing from Japan to Hawaii that made us aware that the larger history had to be more complicated than the official narrative of unprovoked-attack-on-innocent-giant.

Hawaii harbors a competing narrative that's less familiar on the mainland: not America the victimized innocent but America the victimizing empire. Neither narrative is adequate to the complexities of Hawaiian history, but I felt the discordance between them as our Hawaiian bus driver drove us up into the mountains behind Honolulu, speaking of his pride in Hawaiian heritage and yet politely omitting mention of the American conquest of these Polynesian islands. Instead, his Hawaiian story was about internecine combat and unification. As we arrived at the Pali Lookout, we heard about how King Kamehameha I and his men pushed 400 opposing warriors off the 1000 foot cliff in 1795--part of the price of Hawaiian unity.

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The views were misty but spectacular. The steep volcanic ridges conjured images of dinosaurs. Indeed, we learned that Jurassic Park and many other such films had been made along these ridges.

I kept thinking about what the tour guide wasn't mentioning, the strange colonial history of the Hawaiian islands, from the time of Captain Cook to the missionaries, the American sugar and pineapple businesses that took root, the takeover of most of the land by people of European descent, the disenfranchisement of the native population, the sad fate of Queen Liliuokalani, deposed by the U.S. in 1893, and the long delay before statehood in 1959, partly because of fears of the island's dangerously multicultural and multiracial mix. It's a strange history partly because it conflicts with the myth that the U.S. has no history as an empire. But Hawaii is no less "postcolonial" (or still colonial?), no less hybrid or culturally in between, than India or South Africa or Barbados.

That afternoon, my friend Susan, a former UVA PhD, along with her family, generously hosted us at her home. It's across the mountain range that separates Honolulu from the other shore. Susan's daughter, Radhika, played soccer with our boys in the backyard, and they were soon joined by brother Sangha.

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The views from their backyard up the volcanic ridge were incredible.

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Susan showed us her wonderful book gallery downstairs, including lots of exciting publications she's edited for Tinfish. From her and her family, we learned much more about the joys and tensions of Hawaiian multiculturalism. While we talked and the kids played, we also enjoyed a home-cooked meal for the first time in many months.

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Bryant turned out to be not only a generous chef but also a scientist impassioned about the wonders of Hawaii's volcanoes. He provided us with invaluable suggestions for our fast approaching trip to the Big Island.

With Bryant's helpful tips about the bus system on Oahu, we were able to devote the next day to snorkeling. Early in the morning, it took about an hour and a half, with one bus transfer, to wend our way from Aloha Tower, where we were berthed, to Hanauma Bay, a reserve that's said to be the best place for snorkeling on Oahu. It's a sunken volcanic crater that's now teeming with reefs and marine life.

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Although this gorgeous bay is usually sheltered, strong currents and waves rippled the water's surface, making it especially hard for Cyrus to snorkel, at least as well as he had in Mauritius. Still, we all saw a vast abundance of different kinds of fish, and especially thrilling for me and Caroline was our experience of swimming alongside a sea turtle; we lingered to watch this magical being chomp on the reef life.

Overnight we sailed from Oahu to the Big Island, or Hawaii proper, the island that's still growing to the southeast because of the volcanoes that continue to spew lava, adding acres and acres of new land to the coast. After arriving in Hilo, we drove in our rental car 45 minutes up the gentle grade to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which includes the world's largest mountain, at least when measured from its undersea base to its top. At the visitor's center, about 4,000 feet above sea level, we watched volcano videos and gathered information for our day's adventures. From the lookout point near the Jaggar Museum, we watched the sulphurous spume from Kilauea's caldera. At first we could see little, because of the vog (fog + volcanic spume), but once the air cleared, we were in awe of what we could see at the heart of this live volcano.

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In the area, we stopped at one of the steam vents. The rain puddling in the earth's hot cracks creates steam that's so hot Cyrus got a little too close for comfort.

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After lunch at the aptly named Volcano House, we embarked on the most exciting part of our visit, the circuit hike that our Honolulu friends had suggested through Kilauea Ike Crater, directed by an informative guidebook we'd picked up.

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We began in the rain forest that surrounds the crater.

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Soon we could see the dull red eye from which the 1959 eruption had spewed.

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It had thrown up a whole new mountain and cast massive boulders hundreds of feet onto the opposing mountainside, while pouring enormous quantities of molten lava into a bubbling hot lake. As we walked in the rain across the immense hardened lava lake, we looked at the remarkable lava of different colors and shapes. Plumes of steam rose from the fissures in the now cold lava.

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During our two and a half hours of hiking across this scorched and barren landscape, where we saw new life struggling to break through the cracks, we felt closer to the primal energies that course inside the planet.

Near the end of the hike, we descended into the Thurston Lava Tube, a throat of hardened lava through which molten rock once rushed.

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There was so much to be seen in and around the volcanoes that I'd have loved to have spent another day there. But we decided that our next day would be devoted largely to the Big Island's tide pools an hour away from Hilo; our Charlottesville friend Claudia had told us there was wonderful snorkeling to be found there. Unfortunately it rained all morning, and we had a hard time finding the Kapoho tide pools on the southeast coast. When we did, we walked around the lava rocks and peered into the pools looking for coral and fish but, in the rain, could see little.

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After asking a few kindly locals, we decided that our best bet for a rainy day was to go to the hot pools nearby, filled with volcanically heated sea water.

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The calm warm water was lovely in the rain, and a few warmth-loving fish could be seen beneath the surface. But I still very much wanted to find the right tide pools, so we retraced our steps, and this time, venturing out much farther toward the ocean, I finally discovered a large tide pool with some of the most spectacularly colorful coral and fish I'd ever seen. Unlike the bleached coral at Hanauma Bay and even in Mauritius, this was live coral, and the purples and greens and yellows could hardly have been more vibrant. The volcanic rock was spiky and sharp, so I snorkeled in my running shoes. The kids meanwhile romped around in the shallower pools.

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I'd have loved everyone to join me, but the terrain was rough, and as so often on this semester's voyage, our time was ruled by the kids' stomachs. So we set out on the coastal road, astonished by the huge, unfamiliar trees that spanned the road with their gnarled branches, and finally found a New Age retreat that sold us sandwiches.

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The sun shone, at last, so we decided to look for a black sand beach where the kids could throw a football. We first stopped at the steep, hillside descent to a "clothing optional" beach, but at the sight of naked older gents and ladies romping in the surf, the kids reversed course and clambered back up to the car. Our next stop was near the lookout where at night you can see lava pouring into the sea; we watched enormous plumes of steam shooting up from the union of molten rock and surf.

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The beach was beautiful, made up of land just a couple of decades old. Plants tried to gain a foothold in the volcanic terrain, but maybe most remarkable were the swirling patterns of hardened lava that we clambered over.

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The boys threw the football and tackled each other on the black sand.

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That night, sad as we were about to leave our last port, we learned the last wasn't the last. Because a Pacific storm was creating dangerously large swells, the captain decided to return the ship to Honolulu and shelter it there.

The bonus day in Honolulu was both a gift and a curse.

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Caroline and I had planned to spend the day grading. Like our students, who had final exams the next day, we were torn between the work we knew we had to do and the allure of the beach. We tried to do both. The kids had befriended the newly engaged college students Kyle and Deborah, and we took the public bus with them to the far end of Waikiki Beach. There, the boys had a great time playing football and cockfighting in the surf.

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But when Eli came out of the ocean, he couldn't find his backpack, and we suddenly realized that, while I was taking pictures like these and both Caroline and I were grading papers, someone had stolen it. To make it all the way around the world safely and then, on the last day in port to be robbed, in our own country, came as a shock. Eli took it in stride, though we were all upset over the loss of his father's baseball glove and Eli's cap and backpack. Only days later did Eli realize that his camera was probably in the backpack as well. When we reported the theft to the police, their response was nonchalant. Apparently this happens all the time on Waikiki, as recent victims of similar thefts quickly began to tell us.

After lunch, we decided to retreat to a less crowded part of the beachfront, to the east of Waikiki and closer to Diamond Head, where the boys could play football in the park.

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We loved our fifth day in Hawaii, but the loss of Eli's backpack and of grading time took a toll. Other thoughts were crowding our minds--finishing the semester, packing, arriving home--so much so that we weren't altogether there, under those gleefully upward thrusting palm trees. We'd love to get back to Hawaii some day, to climb those steaming volcanoes and to frolic again on unspoiled beaches, plunging into tide pools and snorkeling amid the incredible array of fish and seeing our kind friends--oh yes, and maybe even taking in a luau and some museums.

Posted by JR-CR 19:07 Archived in USA Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Japan: Yokohama, Kamakura, Kobe, Himeji, Kyoto

sunny 55 °F

As I began my early morning workout on the elliptical machine, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Sailing into Yokohama, our first of two ports of call in Japan, we had a crystalline view of Mount Fuji.

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Everything I'd read about Mount Fuji had me believing we probably wouldn't be able to glimpse the notoriously shy volcano. But there it was, a snow-capped 12,388 foot cone majestically looming behind Yokohama's skyline.

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All those paintings by Hokusai, all those photos and stamps, all those reproductions--they probably magnified my sense that we were seeing something awesome. Still, the volcano's cone seemed even more broad and expansive, its slopes more perfectly sculptural and solemn than I'd imagined.

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Once we docked and woke up the boys, Fuji could still be glimpsed behind the buildings at the upper front reaches of the ship. In case we were in any doubt, it seemed to say, welcome to Japan.

As soon as we could get off the ship, we made our way through the streets of Yokohama to extract a wad of yen from an ATM and hop on a bus. The buildings gleamed with cleanliness. Not a bit of trash marred the streets, not a hint of soot smudged the air. The contrast with Shanghai could hardly have been starker.

Everyone on the streets and buses, subways, and trains seemed well coiffed, well dressed, elegant, whether silver-haired old ladies out for a stroll through the temple complexes or salarymen scurrying to their appointments or even adolescents who, as Caroline noticed, all seemed to rebel in the same muted ways, usually a hint of light brown hair coloring or an elegantly shaggy haircut.

Our first days in Japan coincided with a three-day weekend for Japanese Labor Day, and throngs of people from Yokohama and nearby Tokyo squeezed into the same tourist destinations as ours. There were few foreigners on those crowded sidewalks and streets, and it was a new experience for me to tower over the locals. So that's how it feels to be tall? Not bad for sightlines in a crowd, but still, kinda overrated.

Japan feels more crowded than anywhere we've been. If you jam 127 million people--nearly half the U.S. population--into a space the size of California, and if most of the land is uninhabitably steep mountain slopes, then you get these unbelievably crowded cities, where, even so, unfailing politeness and courtesy, low voices and self-containment seem to lubricate the meeting of human edges.

The concrete and skyscrapers sent us, like a lot of Japanese locals, in search of natural beauty, a beauty enhanced by Japan's restrained and unfailingly elegant architectural styles. Most of our first day in Yokohama (pop. 3.6 million) was spent at the Sankeien Garden, about a half hour's bus-ride from the town center. Laid out by a wealthy entrepreneur in silk, the garden had become a collection site for old pagodas and shrines and homes moved from Kyoto, Kamakura, Tokyo, and elsewhere, and then reassembled piece by piece. As soon as you walk in, you see a three-story wooden pagoda from the 1400s cresting a hill. It had been transported from Kyoto.

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Other buildings nestled in the stream-curling valleys of the inner garden included a seventeenth-century villa called Rinshunkaku.

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It was exciting to gaze inside and imagine the lives once lived amid those fusuma doors with ink paintings and tatame mats, beautifully austere spaces open to the surrounding light and rocks and water.

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The poignancy was heightened by the thought that such wood-and-paper structures had ignited by the millions in the firebombings of World II, leaving few such structures anywhere in Japan.

We followed meandering paths by lovely bridges and streams and wooden gates, tea rooms and temples, stone pagodas and little Buddhas, moss-covered stones and tinkling little waterfalls.

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One of the old buildings is famous for its asymmetry, and though we kept seeing parallels with Chinese architecture, we realized everything there had been strictly four-square.

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The main attraction for the boys was the large pond, with its ducks and enormous carp.

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We'd never seen such huge fresh-water fish, massing for the bread the kids offered them. Their mouths poked out of the water and gaped.

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Here's a chaotic bit of video on the subject of those fish.

We posed for a few photos by the pond before making our way back by bus to central Yokohama.

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Some SAS faculty and students showed up on an organized trip through Yokohama and Tokyo, including Gabriel's wonderful French tutor, Barbara.

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Thankfully, that gave the college kids' imprimatur of cool to the garden, which it had sorely lacked. You see, at this late stage of our sadly dwindling journey, when we take the boys to what we suppose will be a kid-friendly experience like the Sankeien Garden, it often has a whiff of the imposed-parental-enrichment-program, making them scoff and drag. It didn't help that lunch was a nightmare for Cyrus. In the garden's pricey restaurant (and the prices in Japan are unlike anything we've seen anywhere else on this voyage), the simplest dish, which we thought surely would appeal to kids, was big bowls of udon noodles in broth. But Cyrus hated them, and unfortunately the well-intentioned grandparents at our table chuckled at the faces and mess he was making as he gagged on his introduction to Japanese cuisine, which, despite our jollying efforts, only increased the misery.

Finally released from the forced-march-of-cultural-enrichment, the boys were happy to scamper around the massive baseball stadium, home of the Yokohama Bay Stars, right at the town center. Alas, it was closed, baseball season being over. But Gabriel and the other boys took a few imaginary swings.

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The boys and I played football for an hour in the shadow of the stadium, finally doing something deemed "kids' stuff." Eli and Cyrus trounced me and Gabriel.

Our next day we'd planned a trip of our own to the lovely medieval town of Kamakura, capital of Japan from 1185 to 1333. There are more Zen Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines packed into this little town than you can possibly visit in a day. We went with three other kindly members of the shipboard community, including the man who must be the most beloved figure of all on the ship, aka Dr. Dave. His upbeat avuncular manner and boundless curiosity made him and his no less friendly niece and sister-in-law delightful travel companions. It wasn't easy making the right selections for tickets and train lines when most of the text in the vending machines was exclusively in Japanese, but with their help, we muddled our way onto a subway and then a train.

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Unfortunately, we were so exhausted by mid-afternoon that the boys and most everyone else wanted to leave without seeing the town's main sight, especially since it was several stops away on a crowded train. I found myself both unable to give it up and unable to persuade anyone else to go with me, so I was released to go on my own to see the Great Buddha, or Daibutsu, the second largest Buddha in Japan. Constructed in 1252 and originally housed in a great hall that got carried off by a tsunami, this Buddha is a mountainlike figure of serenity and grace. He's as tall as a five or six story building and is said to weigh 850 tons.

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But he's not only colossal. He's also gorgeous, thanks to his perfect proportions, his beautifully curved lips and long-dangling earlobes, the seemingly liquid folds of the clothing draped down his front.

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Out of the blue, a friendly Japanese girl offered to take my picture with a colossus that will be one of my treasured memories from the trip, if sadly a solo one.

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We travelled to Kamakura on a brilliantly beautiful, warm day, as good a day as we could have hoped for in late November. Once our large party managed the ticket complications, we found ourselves on a most civilized and efficient little train line through suburban Yokohama, passing apartment buildings and houses tightly crammed together on both sides. We got off at the melodiously named Kita-Kamakura stop (or North Kamakura), and began a stroll down narrow sidewalks on either side of the tracks, to visit the lovely Buddhist and Shinto shrines set back on wooded hills from the main road.

As the day went on, we were part of an ever-larger pilgrimage, many hundreds of people engaged in an autumn Saturday ritual. Whereas the day before, at the Sankeien Gardens, the crowd was made up mostly of older, retired people, today the crowd was surprisingly young, though just as well dressed, in a different mode. I saw more beautifully, interestingly cut women's jackets in one day than in a few years in our dear home town. We could not think of an American analogue for this parade, a place where hip, courting couples in boots and high heels, leggings, leather jackets, angular haircuts, and so on, would come to stroll among religious buildings.

The natural setting was as much the attraction as the religious buildings at the first temple we visited, Engakuji.

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We imagined that for the crowded Japanese, visiting such places is as much an excuse to wander in open, natural spaces as it is a religious matter.

Engakuji was described in a guide book as the most satisfying of Zen temples, and that sounded about right to us. We walked along paths from shrine to shrine, admiring the swooping roof lines, the playful carvings, and the lovely arrangements of natural and human-made elements.

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The temple was built in the aftermath of Mongol attacks, as a place of prayer for the souls of the dead, and as a place to seek enlightenment. In one shrine we stood before a barred gate and heard the sound of many monks chanting, in an unseen temple.

Up a long, steep, stairway we encountered an enormous 13th-century temple bell. From that height, we were thrilled to see the faint shape of Mount Fuji again.

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Descending, we crossed the tracks and the burgeoning automobile traffic to visit the temple of Tokeiji, once a nunnery, and famous as a shelter for women fleeing abusive marriages. At a time when women could not obtain divorce by other means, this temple took in those lucky enough to reach it, allowing them to stay for three years, after which time their divorces were granted. This temple's grounds were especially tranquil. We ascended the hill toward the nun's cemetery, where natural stone shapes and moss marked each grave along the rocky ridges; some visitors left flowers and lit sweet-smelling incense.

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Once again joining the stream of visitors walking single file on the sidewalks, we decided we needed a lunch break, and spent some time searching for a place where we could eat delicious Japanese food without completely emptying our wallets. In the lovely, wood-panelled and pillared restaurant we chose, one tiny, squeaky-voiced, harried waitress literally ran back and forth among the tables to keep up with the demand, and couldn't begin to make sense of what we were trying to order. This was understandable, as we knew among the eight of us only three phrases: good morning, hello, and thank you. A helpful Japanese patron stood up and offered to translate, and though we tried to order very sensibly--two lunches for each four people--someone in the kitchen must have decided we were confused, and piled the plates, landing us with a whopping bill. Oh well, the tempura was delicious, even if we weren't crazy about the cold soba noodles. Cyrus did much better this time: rice and fried shrimp he can deal with!

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The final temple we visited is the one that all Japanese seem to agree is the "Number One" Zen temple in the area, Kencho-ji. This temple has a huge, impressive main gate, under the high wooden beams of which some of us sat to rest. Further along the path, we encountered impressively massive trees, 700-year old cypruses planted from seeds brought from China.

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We encountered interesting details at each turn--lamps, gates, lolling boys.

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At this and the first temple, we saw monks walking amidst the crowds, dressed in robes and sandals, sometimes bowing profusely. We ended this visit at a zazen (zen meditation) temple. In the smooth wood-floored entry we removed our shoes and placed them on shelves, then filed quietly by a nearly empty meditation room, doors open to the air, where among the blue cushions we saw one woman sitting erect in total stillness, and we saw her in exactly that position fifteen minutes later when we left. A sign outside had invited foreigners to a once-a-month introduction in English to Zen meditation, taught by the monks; it was tempting to imagine accepting the offer. At the back of this temple was a Zen garden, half-moon shaped and sculpted into small undulating hills, around a pond shaped, we learned, like the character for "mind." Mind/nature was the meditation subject for the dozens of Japanese visitors who sat silently on a bench alongside us, contemplating the garden. This was a form of tourism we had never encountered in all the turning world: quiet, still, contented, respectful, totally camera-free, a merger of self with scene, an exchange with nature. We had come round the world to encounter the mind.

Leaving this temple we entered into nearly overwhelming pedestrian traffic--yet it moved more quickly than the automobile traffic, which we were pleased to speed past, as we tromped downhill to the supposedly charming, old town of Kamakura. We cannot actually say much about Kamakura, because it was so utterly dense with human beings that we could not take in the spaces, buildings, or anything else except the need not to lose one another in the crush. Walking on the main shopping street, I could not imagine the possibility of shopping--just keeping with the flow of the crowd was challenge enough! Half of us did lose the other half for a while, and I held up hope that Cyrus in his bright red fleece was still in Jahan's sights, if not in mine. All ended happily, though Jahan was the only one not too pooped to go see the big Buddha.

But before we dove into the motion of the crowd, there was one moment in a plaza adjacent to the town's main intersection, when by common consent, every person on the street stopped to stare at a lovely sight: a wedding party in traditional costume, formally posing for a gaggle of photographers. As with everything else we did that day, we joined right in with the Japanese, and snapped our own shots.

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I'll take up Caroline's narrative from now, saying a bit about our last days in Japan. We sailed into Kobe, a city beautifully massed against the mountains.

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We'd hoped to spend our first day here on a visit with a family that had volunteered to spend the day with us, but they had a son who came down with the flu, and our own Gabriel had also come down with a fever. Caroline and I suddenly had to cook up a new plan for the day, and the most highly recommended day trip was to the spectacularly well-preserved Himeji Castle, 40 minutes away by train. We were unhappy to leave Gabriel, but once we saw he was going to be ok, we decided we could leave him in bed for half a day, given all the people and medical resources on the ship.

You first catch glimpses of Himeji Castle from the train, its gleaming white seven stories projecting well up into the sky. Though completed in 1618, it's still here for E and Cy and their escorts to enjoy its wedding cake exterior.

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Inside one of the buildings flanking its side, you walk through long wooden corridors.

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Outside the surrounding city buildings seem almost to flow like rivers between the mountains. As Caroline remarked, if this were California, those mountains would be covered with buildings, but here they're left relatively pristine.

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The layered rooflines create a wonderfully storied effect, though as you approach the castle, you feel like you're going through a maze. Indeed, part of the reason the castle held up so well was its hidden entrance. As an enemy approached, it would have been impossible to figure out where the main entrance once. Meanwhile, stones and hot oil and arrows were pouring out hundreds of small openings in the massive stone walls.

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Outside I was delighted to see more camellia in bloom, seemingly the same variety I planted some years ago on one side of the house, but here seemingly everywhere spreading its lovely soft pink.

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On the way to and from the castle, we grabbed some sushi and various blob-shaped unidentifiable but generally tasty treats. Having spent a great deal of time with the boys in public bathrooms over the last several months, I and they found this mistranslation particularly funny.

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Back at the ship, we were happy to find Gabriel safe and sound, though still sick. We were glad to bring him a little of the experimental food from our daytrip.

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Our last day of travel abroad--boohoo!--was spent in Kyoto, a city about two hours by bus from Kobe that sprawls with some 2,000 temples, of which 400 are Shinto and 1,600 Buddhist. Frankly, for Japan's reputedly most beautiful city, much of it looks drab, with block-like concrete buildings and a bricked-in river. But views of the mountains on three sides (in accordance with feng shui) and patches of swooping Buddhist roofs recalled the lovely older Japan we were there to enjoy. Our SAS guide was a kindly and sprightly former-English-teacher named Miyo, whose English was impressively idiomatic and accurate, amazingly so for someone who'd never lived in an English-speaking country.

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Once Miyo took all 44 of us to Nijo Castle, residence of the Tokugawa Shogun from 1603, we immediately felt what it meant to be in Japan's former glorious capital--the capital for nearly a 1,000 years. She explained that "Kyo-to" means "capital city" or "capital capital," while latecomer "To-kyo" means "eastern capital." As we made our way through the first gate at the Nijo Castle, the wooden carvings of insects and flowers impressed us with their exquisite intricacy and detail.

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Speaking of elegance, we were delighted that Farzaneh was with us on this last foreign trip, taking the place on the bus of still-sick Gabriel, who had opted to stay home with books and computer once more.

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The castle's interiors harmonized muted golds and greens in the natural scenes with beasts, birds, and pines painted on the walls, sights that competed with the loud squeaks set off by our footsteps on pre-modern alert-system "nightingale" floors. But it was probably the natural scene outside--the lovely garden--that drew the most oohs and ahhs. The gardeners had completely mastered the art of seeming artless in their selection and arrangement of every rock and island and waterfall.

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We were conscious of missing Japan's famous cherry blossoms, but even so, we felt the timing of our visit was enormously lucky, since the Japanese maples--or, I guess in Japan they're probably just "maples"--glowed with autumnal reds and yellows.

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They reminded us of the similar maples at the homes of our parents, and we talked about trying to create a grove of Japanese maples someday at our house. More such foliage was on display at the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji.

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The 40 pounds of gold cladding this three-story retirement villa, later converted into a temple, glimmer in the pond's reflection.

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Here and at the Maruyama Park and its nearby Shinto shrine, watching both women and kids festively clad in kimonos was as much fun as gazing at the architectural sites and foliage.

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At Heian Shrine, another Shinto shrine painted an orange that has somehow been mistranslated "vermillion," we saw another adorable girl being taken for her blessing as a three year old (Miyo told us girls have these blessings in November at ages 3 and 7, boys at 5).

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We also caught sight of a geisha, only to learn from Miyo that she was a fake, real geishas never appearing outdoors until evening.

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Instructed in the purifying ablutions outside the temple, Eli gave the ritual a try.

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Anything to get keep the boys clean! They almost plunged all the way in the water as they deliriously skipped over the stepping stones in another Japanese garden, this one even more meandering and extensive than the last.

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Cherry and other deciduous trees, even when bare, seemed stately and graceful at the water's edge, many of them with support beams lashed to the older limbs to keep them from breaking off.

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I never imagined I'd see so many shrubs in bloom in late November, but camellia was everywhere.

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Caroline and I posed for each other beside stately pavilions overlooking the water. We might not even have needed a translation of "Heian" as "peace and tranquility" to know that Heian Shrine was one of the most serene places we'd visited on our voyage.

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On the way out of this Shinto shrine's central courtyard, I caught a glimpse of a couple of priests.

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Our last stop of the day was at the Kiyomizu Temple, where both Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine enjoy stunning views of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains.

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For us, the best view of all, maybe because it matched the Japans we'd been carrying around in our imaginations, was of the pagoda perched high above the city and a steep drop into the valley.

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During our long busride home, our guide, Miyo, kindly instructed the boys in the arts of origami. Both Eli and Cyrus, who'd had some practice in this art at home, made perfect helmets and cranes. Is it different to do origami in its place of origin?, we asked, as we passed by the headquarters for another westward-traveling product, Nintendo.

As soon as we'd thanked our guide and got off the bus, we rushed back onto the ship to check on Gabriel, who had successfully mastered the timing of his medicines and by day's end was feeling better. Meanwhile, all day long, both Caroline and Cyrus could tell that they were being felled by the same virus but they valiantly forged ahead. It was crummy but somehow appropriate that most of us, near the end of our long and exhausting and exhilarating travels, should be falling prey to viral intruders.

And now, our cabins like sick wards with medicine bottles and thermometers cast about, boys crouched under covers with their coughs and computer games, we set off on the longest unrelieved stretch of ocean travel of our voyage, ten solid days at sea, from Kobe to Honolulu. Let's hope that by the time of our final excursion, a trip to Pearl Harbor as soon as we dock, we'll all have recovered our health and strength.

As Thanksgiving approaches, we're thinking especially of our dear families and hoping they know how much we miss them, look forward to seeing them, and give thanks for their nurturing and loving presence in our lives.

Posted by JR-CR 00:54 Archived in Japan Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai

35 °F

China surprised us in ways that won't surprise you, because you already knew that it's ancient, immense, and developing at an incredible pace. But you see that antiquity more directly when you're gazing at jade pieces carved nearly 6,000 years ago and bronzes cast nearly 4,000 years ago. The immensity becomes a lived experience when you walk miles on a mountaintop wall that's 5,000 miles long, far longer than the width of the United States. And rapid development makes an impression when you sail down a river, as we're sailing right now, that cuts through a city with 20 million people, a population larger than that of some of the countries we've visited on this voyage.

That's Shanghai, our port of exit. Our port of entry for China was Hong Kong. We sailed into it early the morning of November 11. Hong Kong was the most spectacular port we've seen on this voyage. Like Cape Town's harbor, it combines mountainscape with waterscape and urbanscape.

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We took a ferry to the tram that rides vertically up Victoria Peak to see the unbelievable views of the harbor below, walking for about an hour along a circular trail at the very top.

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At first it was hard to make much progress, not only because of Eli's stomach issues (probably brought on by the Z-pack he was taking for possible strep, poor guy--all better now!), but also because of the views dropping our jaws to our ankles.

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Dragging a reluctant group in my usual dragging-dad way, I was relieved that the boys loved the botanical and zoological garden in Hong Kong, especially the tirelessly acrobatic puff-cheeked gibbons and the riotously funny siamangs. Inflating their neck pouches, they made calls and yelps the likes of which we'd never heard.

We nearly took what's said to be the world's longest outdoor escalator through the city, except that it was going the wrong way. The boys were also disappointed that it was a series of escalators rather than one long run. So we cheered them up a bit by taking them up to the observation deck of the world's third tallest building, Hong Kong's International Financial Center.

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From it, they could see the peak they'd circumambulated and the port where the ship was docked.

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That evening, we looked out the back of the ship at that building and many others, their lights gyrating and shimmering at the nightly 8 p.m. display.

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Our big trip to Beijing began the next day (3 1/2 hours by air), and Caroline was serving as trip leader this time, responsible for 50 faculty, staff members, and students on the excursion. Despite a few minor delays (late flights and late students), almost everything went beautifully. Our three nights and four days in Beijing, organized by SAS with the tour company Destination Asia, included the perfect balance of cultural and historical experiences (the highpoints for the likes of me) and service visits and shows (especially wonderful for the younger set).

Immediately on arrival in Beijing, we were taken to an old neighborhood of Beijing known as the Hutong area. Most of the hutongs have been bulldozed for skyscrapers, but a few remain, and their narrow, twisted lanes are indeed charming. Pairs of us piled into trishaws, or three-wheeled bicycles, which can snake their way through these alleys.

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By then it was dark, and as our trishaw driver peddled furiously, and as we braced ourselves for the cold and the bumps, I felt transported back into Dickens's London, sinicized. As if in a scene from "A Christmas Carol," though in a different land and language, icicles dangled from the curving eaves and snow blanketed the hushed rooftops. A romantic introduction to the city.

Deposited at the home of a local family, a group of us ate a fabulous home-cooked meal of dumplings and rice and sundry Mandarin delicacies. After dinner, one of the daughters in the household showed us how to roll out the pastry for dumplings, stuff them with goodies, and pinch their corners.

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The boys all tried their hand at it and did remarkably well. Then this same daughter showed us her remarkable skill at the delicate art of painting miniature scenes inside of bottles, using a tiny, bent brush.

The next day was a big day for us all, with the Forbidden City as the main attraction. Fortunately, we had a fantastic guide these four days in Beijing, a mild-mannered, sweet-tempered gentleman named Jing Sheng, re-christened Jason (almost sounds similar!) by his English teacher. Here's "Jason," as we called him, fronting not a shipful of Argonauts but a busload of SAS travelers.

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As we made our way through Tiananmen Square, he was careful with what he said about its recent history. But he taught us a tremendous amount about this imperial capital. Beijing was cold, freakishly so for this time of year. The snow had made headlines all over China. After nearly passing out from the heat in the Saigon market just a few days earlier, we had some trouble adjusting to the need for two pairs of socks and five layers around our torsos. We were so chilled in Tiananmen Square that we made our first Beijing purchases from the ubiquitous street vendors: Red Army hats, soon to be followed by warm gloves, for the boys. In the world's largest square, where Chairman Mao had proclaimed the People's Republic in 1949, the boys took to their new identities with energy and humor.

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But it was the Forbidden City that dazzled us with the imperial splendor of its yellow rooftops and immense courtyards. The whole complex is 170 acres in size, with nearly 1,000 buildings. In the place of the hundreds of tourists, we tried to imagine the hundreds of concubines, maids, and eunuchs who once tended to every desire and whim of the emperor, the only male allowed to sleep in its fortified boundaries. In the snow, the buildings were especially handsome. Extravagant lions guarded the outer court's buildings.

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Despite the throngs, the immense courtyards seemed stilled and quieted by the snow.

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I especially loved the swooping rooflines and the fanciful beasts arrayed on the rooftops.

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Chilled to the bone, we ate perhaps our best Beijing meal at a swank hotel restaurant improbably named Wahaha, before reloading the bus for the journey to the Beijing outskirts and a visit to a migrant workers' school. We were incredibly lucky to have enjoyed a blue sky in central Beijing. But as we headed out to this factory-heavy area of the city, the air became increasingly gray and brown, fouled by coal and smelling of glue. The migrant workers toiling in these factors aren't permitted to send their kids to the local public schools, so instead they pay for the rather primitive facilities of these special schools. Even so, despite the cold concrete floors and 50 kids to the classroom and scant books and no greenspace, let alone the revolting outdoor toilets, the children seemed energetic, proud, and bright.

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Their ability to solve algebraic equations dazzled one of the professors in our group.

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We had a Q&A session with them. Caroline asked them why they thought China is a great country. They responded by citing the bravery, persistence, and intelligence of the Chinese--all of which they seemed to exemplify--as well as its 5,000 year history. [Caroline reporting here: They asked us lots of predictable questions about where we come from and what we like to do, as well as a couple of questions that American kids could never conceive of asking: do you like plum blossoms? and does America have any famous calligraphers? Yes, sure, we said, and um, no.]

Outdoors, we played various kinds of ball games with the kids. Their pingpong table may have lacked a net, but bricks seemed to work just fine for them, as for Gabriel and Eli.

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That evening, we went to a heart-stopping show of Chinese acrobatics. How the gymnasts could contort their bodies like this we couldn't imagine, making arms and legs nearly indistinguishable.

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Several acts involved acrobatics inside or on top of improbable mechanical contraptions--one like a giant, double hamster wheel, another a bicycle that eventually transported around a ring about 18 balancing ladies with extended, feathery orange fans.

As if the acrobatic show hadn't been dazzling enough, our third day in Beijing began with a trip to the Beijing International Kung Fu School en route to the Great Wall. One the way, we passed the 2008 Olympic Stadium and Water Cube. At the school, we didn't see fighting so much as dance (sometimes incorporating breakdance), sword displays, and flips. The kung fu artists broke wood blocks on their heads, wood rods on their arms, shoulders, and heads. They twisted iron rods around their necks. And as if that weren't all enough, one of them gulped down airplane fuel and spewed it back up in bursts of flame.

The boys posed afterward with some of these incredibly skilled performers.

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After lunch at a glass-encased building where the Great Wall had begun to come into view, we had one of the most fantastic experiences of our whole voyage when we trekked for a couple of hours on the Mutianyu section of this immense edifice. Taking the cable car up, we felt blessed by the sunny skies and widening panorama of peaks behind peaks. Snaking its way along the back of the highest mountain ridge, the Great Wall beautifully gives definition to the natural landscape. As Caroline said, it reminded us of how the Greek temples were perfectly embedded into the mountainscape in such a way as to enhance the natural scene. The pictures can't capture the sublimity of the desolate mountains all around.

[Caroline here, for a few more words! I hadn’t realized that the terrain, the landscape itself, would be so fantastic. Standing atop the 20th tower (climbing the unbelievably steep steps to which, we were told, would make us heroes), we felt like we were at the top of the world, looking out on wave after wave of mountain ridges below, and at the wall ingeniously winding its way up and around those curves. The light coating of snow made it all the more beautiful, and walking in bright sunshine, under an unusually blue sky, on the snowy wall, was a matchless, exhilarating experience. Like the Taj Mahal, another human building triumph!]

Climbing our way up steps and steep snowy slopes from one guard tower to another, we tried to imagine the thunder of horse hooves along the spine of the wall, the warning signals flaring from the towers, the serried ranks of Mongolians and Manchurians attempting to overtop the nation's boundary. Begun by the Qin Dynasty that unified China in 221 BC but largely built in its current form by the same Ming Dynasty that built the Forbidden City in the 15th century, the wall is made of rammed earth held together by brick and stone retaining walls. No, it turns out it isn't visible by the naked eye from the moon, and no, it's not full of the bodies of dead builders, whose corpses would've made it unstable. But even so its immensity is still enormously impressive. To think that at one point one fifth of the Chinese population was toiling at its construction!

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The boys bravely made their way up and down some of the steep steps and slopes, overcoming the inevitable vertigo. [But lest we feel too proud, at the top of the 20th tower, a woman selling postcards told us in halting English that she walked up to that spot every day, two hours, from the village we could faintly see below. "No cable car pass," she said.]

The next morning, sadly our last in Beijing, was bitterly cold, but we saved what might be the most beautiful building we've seen in China for this last morning, aptly named the Temple of Heaven. Its circular shape echoes the circular shape of the world and of the heavens. Its blue and gold surfaces are stunning.

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[Caroline here: the park below the Temple of Heaven was a fun and even hilarious sight: large groups of adults exercising together, following leaders and sometimes loud taped music. Apparently it is _the_ place to come and exercise in the morning in Beijing—no matter how cold! Our tour guides had brought little kicking toys for us to play with—feathery, hackysack-like things that get kicked from person to person, and many joined in, while others went dancing in lines or circles with the Chinese.]

The pace of development in Beijing, as in the rest of China we saw, is astonishing. I kept remembering Emily's pictures of the hundreds of bicycles in Beijing streets from her and Bob's trip some sixteen years ago. Now there are scarcely any bicycles to be seen. Instead, cars and buses fill the best-developed infrastructure of maybe any country we've visited, and the sky is pierced by exciting skyscrapers like "The Pants."

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The Chinese seem to have taken to the market economy with the zeal of converts.

[And here Jahan's narration gives way to Caroline's.] At the airport, we were truly sad to leave our dear guide, Jason, a kind, modest person who brought us to love China. But we flew on to Shanghai, which from the first moment astonished us with its ultra-modern, cosmopolitan feel. A new elevated highway brought us into the center of the city, where we found our own ship docked in an extraordinary site: directly opposite the wildest piece of architecture imaginable, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, which looks to me like the capitol building of Mars. Several other inventively shaped buildings populate the area, as well. Here's the Shanghai skyline by night.

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And here's a spaceship-like building that landed right next to our ship.

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Unfortunately, the weather in Shanghai, while a little warmer than frozen Beijing, was gray and wet, and the air was terribly polluted as well. Jahan and I went out in the afternoon leaving the kids to do what they like best: play computer games on the ship. We found ourselves in an enchanting shopping district,

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surrounding the 450-year old Yu Garden, the loveliest place I’ve seen in China. I could have stayed all day (except that it was already darkening and drizzling when we got there), wandering among the pavilions, wonderful rock formations, trees, fish-filled ponds, and waterfalls, all most artfully composed in charming little courtyards, each a little different from the next.

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The four elements of Chinese gardens, we learned, are plants, water, rocks, and buildings, and the person who built this garden as a gift for his father upon his retirement managed endless beautiful juxtapositions of the four.

The next day was utterly rainy, so there was no choice but China indoors, and no better place than the Shanghai Museum, said to house one of the finest collections in Asia. Many other people had the same good idea, including masses of uniformed school children, so we spent 20 minutes or so standing under umbrellas with the crowd waiting to pass through security. The museum itself is a beautiful, modern building with galleries posed around a central atrium. Most impressive were the bronzes--wine vessels dating back to the 15th century B.C.,

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and wonderfully lifelike sculptures from the Ming or Qing periods (i.e., late medieval and and after).

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There was also an exquisite gallery of landscape paintings, ethereal compositions of mountains, trees, water, and calligraphy.

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For part of the museum time we released the boys to go eat Chinese cookies and do Mad Libs in the museum tea room. But all were still hungry for lunch when we emerged near 3 pm, so luckily, a fast food dumpling shop appeared just across the street, and we savored this wonderful, everyday Chinese experience. The noodle soup was less favored, because of suspicious unidentifiable floating ingredients.

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We were supposed to have sailed from Shanghai that night, but because of stormy weather between China and Japan, the captain decided to extend our stay to assure us smoother seas. Sailing out of Shanghai was a passage through an architectural wonderland, at least for the first half-hour or so, until we came to industrial sections containing one smoke-spewing plant after another, which then went on, and on, and on for the next two hours, in the bleakest polluted air we have ever seen. This was a grim sight, and as I sat watching with many others in the glassed-in faculty lounge, an environmental engineer said to me, "This is the scariest city I have ever seen." I asked him what it would take for the Chinese government to put emissions controls in place, and he said probably a massive health crisis--lung diseases, cancer, etc.--which they could no longer endure.

During our stay in China we had several fascinating conversations about Chinese rule, its problems and advantages, and its future. After several days with Jason, our Chinese guide, I spoke with him about how the Indians we met preferred their democratic system even if it meant slower development and slower eradication of poverty. Jason expressed horror at the poverty in India and more so, at the nearly intractable social system that keeps masses believing they belong at the bottom of the scale. We Chinese prefer our own system, he said, smiling; we know that we need a strong emperor. We need someone to make the big decisions for the whole country. But what, I said, if the emperor does not actually have the people’s interest at heart? That’s why we have dynasty change, he replied, still smiling.

Our colleague the engineer said that one reason the Chinese government hasn’t set about making anti-pollution improvements in industry is that it can’t risk idling large numbers of workers in the meantime. Idle workers might spend too much time watching TV about the outside world. Part of China’s incredible growth rate, he said, is artificial—China must keep growing, because it must keep its workers busy. An instructive conundrum.

A giant with--in Jason’s words--a brilliant history, China has undergone transformation after transformation. We felt we were witnessing, in China’s belated embrace of gleaming capitalist modernity, very delicate management of change by the dynasty currently in power. We hope we can return to this amazing country to see what happens next.

Posted by JR-CR 06:17 Archived in China Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Cambodia and Vietnam

sunny 90 °F

How much did we know about Cambodia? Not much. Nixon’s secret bombings. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The killing fields. 1-3 million dead. Piles of skulls. Genocide of the educated. Urbanites forced to work the fields. Mass starvation. And an inkling of mysterious, ancient temples in the jungle.

Would you believe the people we met in Cambodia were the gentlest we’ve met anywhere? They seemed to personify kindness and equanimity. Our 3-day guide for touring the temples of Angkor, Khet, joked about his resemblance to the massive sculpted Buddha faces, but the resemblance was surely there—both physical and temperamental.

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It was my turn to be trip leader, helping to steer our group of 32 students and faculty and family members, including Caroline and the boys, from ship to the Saigon airport and onto our hour-long flight to Siem Reap, a city of 1 million that neighbors the magnificent temples of Angkor. Tropical plants and bright sunshine greeted us at the airport. The view from our hotel room balcony was of brown-tiled rooftops and lush fronds. After lunch, our group made its way by bus to the first of two main temple complexes we’d see. The 12th century Buddhist temple known as Ta Prohm is the one that archaeologists, “rediscovering” Angkor in the 19th century, decided to leave in its jungle-draped state. Roots of jungle trees, sometimes literally strangled by parasitic plants, crept like octopus legs down towers and walls.

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The most magnificent of the sprawling temples in this area is Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple built in honor of the preserver god, Vishnu. He has lived up to his name, despite centuries of looting and vandalism of the world’s largest religious monument.

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We crossed the massive rectangular moat, symbolic of the oceans, by a stone bridge lined with guardian serpents, or nagas. Once in the inner courtyard, we approached the five towers at the center, meant to evoke the five peaks of Hinduism’s (and Buddhism’s) heavenly Mount Meru. To me, they seemed like gigantic beehives. The reflection of the towers in the lake made these cones seem to float. The microcosm of the Hindu universe is perfectly proportioned.

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Inside the surrounding galleries were series after series of bas reliefs, some with intricately interlocking war scenes, others with mythical scenes from the Mahabarata or other Hindu texts. For me, the reliefs brought to mind the carvings on the stairs of Persepolis.

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We paused to admire the wonderful carving of Shiva mounted on Geruda.

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Next time we go to Angkor Wat, I want to spend at least a day studying the reliefs. Alas, we only had a couple of hours—maybe just as well, given the oppressive humidity that had sweat oozing out of every pore and our boys losing focus.

They came back to life when Caroline involved them in an impromptu conversation with a saffron-robed monk.

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As we made our way through the corridors, we reenacted the fifty-year transition from Hinduism to Buddhism, as the whole temple complex was converted from one set of religious purposes to another. The monks are enigmatic.

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That night, after a dinner that included fantastic noodles of different kinds, battered and deep-fried shrimp and bananas, and much more, we saw Angkor Wat’s sculptural forms come to life in the stylized poses of the dancers. Some of the women reminded us of the apsaras, or heavenly nymphs, who decorate the walls of these temples by the hundreds.

Like the apsaras, the dancers could bend back their fingers at a 90 degree angle as part of a movement meant to evoke the stem, leaf, and blossoming of the lotus. They could stand with perfect balance while lifting their legs sideways or behind.

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The next morning, I woke at 4:30 a.m. to take half of the group to watch Angkor Wat before sunrise, leaving the rest of the family to sleep in. Every tiny shift in the light between 5:00 a.m. and the breaking of dawn at 6:15 seemed worth another picture.

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We rejoined the rest of the group for breakfast at the hotel before setting off again at 8:15 for a whirlwind tour of numbers of temples. We approached our first through a temple gate, Angkor Thom, with massive Buddha heads.

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Bayon (12-13th centuries), was maybe the most impressive temple of the day, with its dozens of massive four-faced Buddha towers.

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Here, we bought tickets for the boys to take a twenty-minute elephant ride around the circumference of the complex. They loved being jostled by the bumpy ride.

Elephants remained a theme in other temples, such as those we visited next, at the site of a once grand circus park for the king.

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Speaking of kings, the one who emerged as our hero was Jayavarman VII, builder of Ta Prohm, Bayon, and many other temples in the area. Like Cyrus of Persia and Akbar of India, he saw the wisdom of not straightjacketing the people of his kingdom in a single religious dogma. Though a Buddhist himself, he realized that, at this transitional moment between Hinduism and Buddhism, it was wise and pragmatic to build both kinds of temples.

During our lunch break, we enjoyed maybe our best meal yet in Cambodia—though a bit less appealing to the kids for its intense flavors—at another open-air restaurant, this one at the heart of Siem Reap. We had about an hour in the market, where I made futile attempts to explain why buying $2 pirated copies of their favorite computer games wasn’t the most ethical choice.

Our bus took us from temple to temple during the afternoon. Some were a couple of hundred years older than those we’d been looking at, dating to the 900s. Some had spectacular views from their ruins of the surrounding countryside.

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One of these temples, Neak Pean, was surrounded by four symbolic ponds, each with a healing fountain meant to correct one’s elemental imbalances—if you had insufficiencies of earth, air, fire, or water—as explained by our guide, Khet.

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Upbeat if “templed out,” we dined at a fancy restaurant, where the kids opted mostly for plain white rice. Given my dire post-departure case of traveler's tummy (my second in two weeks!), I almost wish I’d done the same.

Up the next day for a 6 a.m. breakfast, we made a final excursion to see houses on stilts that line the roadways near the port. Once at the port, we hopped on a boat and sped out to see some of the 1.5 million people living in floating homes in Southeast Asia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap Lake.

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They fish there. They swing in hammocks there. They go swimming and they dump their waste there. They even go to school there. Some even cannily ride up to tourist boats with their snake-charming shows, charming some cash out of us startled voyeurs.

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After an early lunch, we left Cambodia. It begins to seem ridiculous that we’ve fallen in love with more than one country. But it’s true, we loved the places and people of Cambodia. And Caroline and I devotedly want to come back. The intercultural and interreligious fusions from centuries of Indian and Chinese melding created something monumental and distinctive. The blandly familiar term Indo-China suddenly struck me as freshly meaningful. The Hindu and Buddhist temples left behind by the flourishing Khmer kingdoms between the 8th and 13th centuries are places of wonder. At a million people, the population at that time was many times that of London and other European cities. To judge by the intelligence etched in their stone carvings and architecture, this was indeed a sophisticated and brilliant civilization.

Add to that the kindness and smarts of the living people we met, which completely endeared them to us. Development has been rapid but hasn’t ruined the natural or built landscape. There is a great deal of poverty, and it will take quite some time for the political mess to be cleaned up. But there’s great promise here.

Here's what the kids had to say as we boated past the floating homes.

Sandwiching our trip to Cambodia were our first and last days in Southeast Asia, two and a half days that we spent in Vietnam. On the M.V. Explorer we sailed up the Mekong Delta, following it many twists and bends.

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Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, was lovely—much cleaner, more prosperous, less old world than we’d expected. But here, alas, so much of what we encountered was, at least initially, ourselves—the grotesque damage inflicted by our inane war. The deformed children of the victims of Agent Orange, as well as the victims themselves, were in the streets. On the SAS city tour the first day, we took the kids to see war remnants from the Vietnamese perspective. All along, we kept asking ourselves of this country--officially “communist” but thrivingly market-oriented--so this is what 58,000 U.S. soldiers died to prevent? We killed a million Viet Cong soldiers and more millions of civilians to prevent Ho Chi Minh’s victory? The folly and the arrogance boggle the mind. From all we’ve learned of him, Uncle Ho, as he’s known here, was hardly the red demon we often imagined, but a fighter for decolonization who initially sought U.S. support.

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Needless to say, the main challenge we faced as Americans in Uncle Ho's city was crossing the street. Hundreds of motorcycles wove their way around us as as we tightly gripped Cy's hand and warily made our way across.

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Speaking of Cyrus, his main thrill in Vietnam was at the National Museum, where we were treated to water puppet show, including fire-breathing and water-squirting dragons.

The humid heat was unbearably intense in the central market, but we survived in there long enough to pick up a few trinkets.

On our first day, we saw a wonderful temple built by the Chinese community, the Thien Hau Pagoda.

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On our last day, we took a cab to a fantastic Buddhist temple that's about a hundred years old and still very actively in use, the Emperor Jade Pagoda. Cyrus was so fascinated by the incense-burning rituals that he joined in.

Vietnam: we know we’ve barely scratched your surface. We hope to be back to do you more justice some day.

Posted by JR-CR 05:27 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

India

sunny 90 °F

Namaste! (We bow to you)

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After a fascinating visit to the regions of Chennai (Madras) in the south, and Delhi and Agra in the north, we can now say that we were overwarned about the difficulties of being a traveler in India. Many who had been before spoke of a shock to all the senses, havoc on the digestive system, pollution and crowds, beggars surrounding and grabbing tourists, and terrible scenes of poverty.

There is truth to all of these accounts, especially the last—the scale of the poverty in India is so great that it boggles the mind. In other countries, I, Caroline, found myself obsessively inventing schemes to help the population, based on the particular lacks or injustices we could see in our few days’ visit. But in India, the want is so vast and widespread, one cannot help but realize the meagerness of any and all nifty solutions. It was painful to walk by skinny, barefoot mothers of dirt-smeared babies, living their lives on a filthy curb, and especially hard to heed the many warnings we received not to give to beggars, and thus perpetuate the profession of begging. Before docking, we had decided it would help our kids get through this conundrum if we made a contribution to a charity in advance, so we sent some cash with an SAS group that was visiting an orphanage for the handicapped. Later, when we were given a receipt, the kids felt glad to learn that we had fed the whole patient population for a day and more.

And it was true that the pollution was awful—back in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t know how lucky we are to live in a place with advanced emissions standards. The air in Chennai in particular was black with dust—riding in an open auto-rickshaw, Gabi said, “I feel like I am eating dirt.” All of us got filthy walking in the streets, and I have been on a shoes, clothes, and body-cleaning rampage since we got back. And yes, a couple of us did come down with the dreaded intestinal aftereffects!

Still, all the danger and discomfort warnings did not prepare us for the sense of exhilaration and wonder we felt at the vitality, the openness, the mixedness, above all the beauty one sees in Indian crowds and spaces, cities, towns, and roads. The love of color in India is ravishing. Women, singly and in threes and fours, speckling urban streets, riding on the back of trucks, walking barefoot by the roadside with massive loads of branches on their heads, touring famous monuments, shopping, selling—all are dressed in spectacular, vivid plumage.

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What I constantly thought was, why do we dress the way we do? Indian women look so much better!

On our first day, Jahan and I had a planned visit with a small group of students to the home of Professor Meena Ramakrishnan, who hosted and fed us graciously, and introduced us to the author Tulsi Badrinath. Together, they offered an immersion in Indian literary and cultural traditions and a wonderful beginning of our stay.
Tulsi spoke about Hindu beliefs and practices in a way that really struck us as useful: we venerate, she said, not only the truth, but also the delusions in which we are continually ensnared, not only the good, but also the bad and the messy and the ugly; all are a part of life. This way lies peace of mind.

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Tulsi also read from her new novel , which entwines the stories of modern mothers and children with those in ancient Indian epics. The professor’s servant stepped in now and again to demonstrate various cultural practices mentioned in the novel: the stripping of coconut branches for basketmaking, the drawing with powder of intricate good luck patterns on the front walkway (known as kola). Classical Indian dance and drama--the two are very much intertwined, we learned--are also key elements of the novel, and Tulsi, who has trained in dance for many years, delighted us with a presentation of the stylized movements that dramatize different emotions (anger, fear, desire) and even animals, such as elephants!

Meanwhile, the boys went off with intrepid teacher Laura in an auto-rickshaw to the mall, of all places, to skype with Eli’s family and to shop.

An autorickshaw in a street in Agra
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Much later they returned; it seems their driver really had no idea where the port was, and we, back on ship. tried not to panic!

We had a short night’s sleep before a 3:00 a.m. awakening (!) for our long-awaited trip to Delhi, Agra, and the Taj Mahal. We flew to Delhi with a large SAS group, and met our tour guide, Mr. Singh, a gracious, 81-year-old Sikh. He taught us a lot about the history of the India, the many waves of conquerors who came and went over the centuries, and especially the three centuries of Mughal rule in the north. True, he did tend to dwell disparagingly on the sexual depravity of these Muslim rulers, their many wives and huge harems, as well as on their inventive cruelty to enemies, rather than, for example, their contributions to culture, and this made him not the optimal guide to the Muslim architectural sites we had come to see. But his own history of having been a teenage refugee fleeing Muslims in what is now Pakistan at the time of Partition suggested an explanation. To round out the story of India's modern condition, Mr. Singh told us about his children who are doctors in America; to be with them and his grandchildren, he now spends six months each year in each of the two countries, and holds dual citizenship.

On that first day, he took us to the Red Fort of Delhi, a royal enclosure with many beautiful 17th century pavilions. Together with class after class of cheerful, uniformed Indian schoolchildren on field trips, we strolled the grounds, admiring the intricately carved and decorated spaces, including the impressive public reception hall, where the king once presided over the legislature.

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Our restaurant lunch was the first of several sumptuous Indian meals that were to follow in the next three days, all buffets with multiple varieties of chicken dishes, vegetable curries, lentil dals, rice, flat breads, and so on. In one restaurant, we saw the bread being cooked in outdoor ovens.

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In the afternoon we were given an hour or so to shop, and for me, this was one of the most astonishing parts of our stay in India. There was a particular market street in Delhi, a little lane really, where we seemed to have arrived at the very mother of all textile markets—I could have stayed three days, walking the length of it again and again, absorbing the gorgeous colors and patterns of saris, tunics, scarves, wall hangings, pillow covers, and so on, hanging above and spread out before us, while dozens of women beckoned us to see and try. Unfortunately, my companions were all male, and I know my shopping desires tried their patience mightily. But as my mother would have said (had she only been there!) I could have eaten those colors.

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At the end of the day we arrived by bus at the thronged environs of the Delhi train station, where our group of sixty or so SASers worked hard to stay together in the hectic midst of Indian travelers, hawkers, and beggars. After we found our platform--dirty, but strewn with colorfully dressed family groups, waiting on the floor--news of a two-hour train delay sent us all marching back to a restaurant to kill time and use the bathrooms, rather than the horrid station or train ones, and to buy junk food to tide us over till what would be a very late night dinner at our hotel in Agra. That train ride was something of a trial, both because a 2 ½ hour ride somehow became 5 hours, ending near midnight, but also because some of the SAS students simply would not stop carrying on loudly when the rest of us, including our kids, having been up since 3 a.m., wanted to sleep. Cyrus tried and tried but could not sleep until we forced him to lie on top of his father, where he slept for 2 hours. A memorable episode occurred when we arrived and had trouble waking Gabi up out of the one hour’s sleep he had finally fallen into—he was stuck in between waking and sleeping for some minutes and had reactions we can all laugh at now!

Walking through trash-strewn streets to our bus in darkness, we passed people wrapped up head to toe and sleeping on the sidewalks. Transported to a lovely hotel in Agra, we were each garlanded with flowers at the door, and upon entering, found they had kept a sumptuous dinner waiting for us—at 12:30 a.m.! We forced something down quickly before crashing for the few brief hours until our 5:00 a.m. wake-up call. All exhaustion and processing of the wild contrasts of India must be put aside, for we were to see the Taj Mahal at dawn.

Perhaps we worried that the Taj would disappoint—after so many travel photos seen, how could it possibly be startling and new? But the Taj, we found, cannot disappoint.

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We found it a breathtaking spectacle, a sculpture floating in air, unadorned, balanced, serene. Jahan took many lovely photos.

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I had never before noticed the flower inlay.

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We left reluctantly after a magical hour there,

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and we walked away feeling elated by having witnessed a triumph of art—Shah Jahan's architect (why isn't he the renowned one!) actually found a way to build perfection.

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Our visit to the Taj Mahal had been enhanced by our guide’s retelling of the astonishing family saga of Shah Jahan, including the death of his wife, the treachery of his horrible son Aurangzeb, who killed off his other brothers and imprisoned his father in his last years, and the loyalty of the daughter who went with him to prison. We were also captivated by the story of the other Mughal emperors, visiting many of their palaces and monuments.

Especially moving was the story of Shah Jahan's grandfather, the great Akhbar, the tolerant and humane king who invented a new, universalist religion, combining Islam with Hinduism, Christianity, and other faiths. An afternoon visit to the city of Fatehpur Sikri, a new capital city Akbar built but abandoned after thirteen years, showed a fascinating attempt to integrate elements of Hindu and even Jewish iconography--the star of David was much in evidence in his buildings and on others.

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We loved the wonderful use of twisted elephant trunk design in this Hindu-inspired building.

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We then visited the Agra Fort, site of the intricately decorated royal palace of many of these kings.

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It was also, sadly, the place where Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the dungeon by his son for many years. The guide showed us the spot where, allowed out in his last weeks, he died looking across the river at the beautiful monument he had built.

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We were lucky that our trip took us back to the Taj at day’s end, for a much different experience—seeing the majestic monument together with thousands of Indians.

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We told Gabi he could not take it home with us, but we couldn't stop him trying!

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That evening we returned to the train station, and after some distressing time spent surrounded by begging children, had a great train experience—an express, on which we were fed an amazingly good box dinner by turbaned waiters. Arriving around midnight, again, we arrived at the Lalit Hotel in Delhi, the poshest hotel any of us had ever set foot into, much less slept in. In the towering lobby, amidst gorgeous floral displays, we were each greeted by an attendant who smeared an auspicious red mark between our eyes. But we were too exhausted to enjoy all the glamor and attention, and as soon as we could get a cot in the kids’ room and a new key to replace the one I had meanwhile accidentally locked in our own, we crashed (1:30 a.m.). The next morning in the hotel restaurant a sumptuous East and West buffet breakfast was spread for us. We were able to eat outdoors on a terrace, to the sounds of birds and lovely Indian music.

That morning took us on a tour of several sights in Delhi, including Humayun’s Tomb, a forerunner of the Mughal style later perfected in the Taj Mahal.

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We then saw the amazing Qutub Minar, a 72-meter high minaret begun in the 12th century, and one of the first Muslim monuments in India, at the heart of a complex including the ruins of ancient Hindu temples destroyed and recycled in Muslim buildings.

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We ate lunch at a restaurant called Paradise, and when we tasted the food, we understood why. The group then voted for a shopping expedition to a place where “real Indians” shop, and we enjoyed the daily ordinariness of an outdoor market where socks, t-shirts, and electronics were on display. An evening flight took us back to Chennai, and all were delighted by a thrilling SAS bus race, in which our bus defeated the other, so that we avoided a long wait in line to pass through ship security. This epic trip ended very late at night once again, and left us tired but full of wonder.

The dark travel god punched me, Jahan, hard in the tummy in the middle of the night of our return from Delhi. "Delhi belly," as our cheerful ship doctor calls it. After hours with chills and sweats and cramps and nausea, I was faced with a tough choice between sensibly staying home, in bed and in the bathroom, or insanely taking an organized SAS bus trip to two ancient temple towns in South India. You guessed it: I took the mad road and got on the bus. True, I nearly passed out in a couple of temples. But since in North India we'd had the Mughal tour of India, I was intent on seeing at least some of the great ancient sites of South Indian architecture.

After a couple of hours on a bus, we passed under the massive entrance tower or gopura into the first of the temples in Kanchipuram, a temple to the god Shiva.

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It's still very actively in use, the priests performing blessings for small "offerings."

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Even I bowed under the second priest's silver bowl; it was a day when I needed some good wishes.

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The next temple we visited is one of the most ancient in the area, the 1200-year-old Kailasanatha Temple, and the carvings of Shiva were expressive, flowing, delightful.

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Spending 6 hours on a bus when you're sick may not be delightful, but when you can look out and see bullock carts like this, you find yourself unable to doze (despite 9 hours of sleep in 3 days).

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Passing through charming villages, we caught beautiful sights like these rows of drying cotton yarn.

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Once we arrived in the ancient temple town of Mamallapuram, maybe the most remarkable sight was an ancient bas relief carving of Arjuna's Penance to Siva, a story from the Mahabarata. It's cut into a vast granite boulder and writhes with animal, human, and divine figures.

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The right side is dominated by the massive elephants, standing about two stories high.

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Nearby, also from the 7th century, are the Five Rathas. Beautifully preserved from the very birth of South Indian temple architecture, these temples, elephants, and other figures, are cut on site from a single piece of granite.

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I ate nothing all day, but the next day consumed an entire bowl of rice. For the wonders of these sights, I'd gladly suffer the agonies of traveler's tummy all over again.

While Jahan endured his day’s ordeal for the sake of culture, the boys and I went on a most interesting jaunt in Chennai itself. We rode through the blackish air by rickshaw to a wondrous temple called Kapalishwarar, a temple to Shiva, originally built 2000 years ago, and rebuilt after destruction by the Portuguese just 300 years ago. Emerging from the rickshaw into an ordinary market street, we were nearly bowled over by the vivid colors of the tower looming over our heads (temple photo credits: Eli!).

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We were fascinated by the multitude of sculptures of gods and their companions, enacting various legends and aspects of the divine. Some had multiple faces and arms; some were accompanied by bulls, peacocks, mice. Shiva was often pictured stamping out the demon of ignorance. Cyrus wondered, how can they memorize all these gods?

It was a very actively used temple, and while the boys felt conscious of intruding, they watched with intense attention as worshipers walked from one small shrine to the next, within the square, walled compound, bowing in prayer to each god located in a niche behind a flame, deep within. None of us had ever witnessed the worship of idols before, and we were all moved by what we could see of Hindu devotion. Later I downloaded some information about Hinduism in kid-friendly form, and Eli and Gabi both read it avidly and pronounced Hinduism a very cool religion. They like the idea of joining one's soul with the god of one's choice.

Descending from the sublime, that afternoon we hit the city’s biggest mall, and enjoyed the fusion of familiar features of the indoor mall--air conditioning, large central spaces--to the winding, market-like mall alleys in which most of the traditional craft stores were located. Many of the kids’ college student friends were there too, happily taking in the melding of the familiar and the foreign, and buying lots of both.

We departed India that evening feeling that five days had been entirely too few. Even as we scrubbed the dirt from our shoes and bodies, and even as we looked forward to several days of eating only bread and rice, while our insides recovered, we felt that amazing India--more than any country we've yet visited--is a place to which we must return.

Posted by JR-CR 04:37 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Mauritius

Idyllic Beaches and Rocky Crags

sunny 77 °F

When we sailed into Port Louis, we were all eager for calm white beaches and rocky mountain crags. Caroline and I knew we were going to exhaust everyone if we didn't slow down for a few days, and this proudly independent but once Dutch, then French, then British island was just the place to land.

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Most of the people we met were, like most Mauritians, of Indian descent, their ancestors indentured servants imported by the British to work the sugar cane fields. After a century of French colonial rule ended during the Napoleonic Wars, the British had more than a century and a half to put their imprint on the island. But how strange that French and French patois remain the language of daily life today, English merely the official language of government and education. If you wanted to talk with your cab driver or ask directions or order food, French was a more comfortable language for most islanders to speak. Caroline and I kept remarking on the close resemblances to the French-speaking but English-educating island of Saint Lucia, except that Mauritius is more like Trinidad in having more people of Indian than African descent.

The kids insisted: this stop's one and only theme was to be the beach. However interesting to mom and dad might be the Hindu-Muslim-Christian mingling and tolerance, the Indian-African-Chinese-European mix in food and language and architecture, however friendly and safe and intriguing the towns and cities, this wasn't the place not for cultural enrichment, let alone museums or mosques or churches. Sand and sun and water. So our first day we took a water taxi (i.e., a seemingly-about-to-sink-but-overpriced-boat) to the harbor, and from there another taxi up the northwest coast to Mont Choisy, a gorgeous spot. It's the stuff that dreams and screen savers are made of: a crescent shaped-beach lined with casuarina trees and lapped by turquoise water.

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The boys swam and played football and "worked" on their fantasy football leagues all day, while Caroline and I swam and read in the shade. Just a short way out to sea, along the coral reef that rings the island, I was able, my goggles strapped on, to follow rainbow coalitions of fish. There were no hotels, no stores, no restaurants. But we survived. We ate whole pineapples, small enough to be peeled and carved on the spot, as well as Indian food sold from a bicycle-mounted food stall. In the afternoon the boys slurped up ice cream cones. Doesn't Cy look miserable?

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I'd been planning a hike for our second day. I thought the boys would love the views and the challenge. We were to make our way up Le Pouce, a mountain that looks just like a thumbs up--appropriately enough, given the island's pleasures. But, alas, fate intervened. Eli bruised his heel on the beech the day before, maybe stepping hard on a rock or a piece of coral, and was ambivalent about taking the hike. So very reluctantly, papa was prevailed upon to give up on communing with the mountains and wood nymphs. Instead, we directed the taxi to the botanical gardens and the sugar museum.

Why should there be a sugar museum? In the last century, the island was almost completely covered in sugar cane, and still today, most of its arable land is in cane.

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The museum was stuffed, in all candor, with boringly excessive detail, though the sugar tasting at the end was intriguing--boy heaven, the many varieties of sugar, from fine dessert sugar to molasses. That said, the botanical gardens were delightful, especially for the varieties of palm tree on display--squat ones and pineapplish ones and fanlike ones and, of course, the tall ones known as royal palms.

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The water lilies are astoundingly large, their leaves looking like saucers or trays that grow up to 2 meters wide. Cy was tempted to float away on one.

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Our beloved indoor allamanda plant at home has island cousins that thrive outdoors in all seasons.

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The gangly-rooted rubber trees made us laugh.

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And we got to see a massive tortoise taking a deep drink of water as we left.

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After lunch in a fabulous Chinese restaurant, we spent a few hours in the town's central market. The frenzy of people buying and selling Hindu candles was intense, because the next day would see Divali, a major festival of lights. The market was so crowded that I failed to squeeze my camera out of my bag for a single picture of the city. Sorry.

Since our abortive hike day was a disappointment, it was all the more welcome that our third and last day was exhilarating. We took a taxi all the way from one end of the island to the other so that we could snorkel in a special protected area, Blue Bay. Here's the spot we claimed at the secluded end the beach.

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The snorkeling was stupendous. Almost as surprising as the underwater treasures was Cy's heroic overcoming of his face-in-water phobia.

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Lured by the sight of thousands of fish seemingly of all colors and shapes, Cy kept going back for more. He and Eli called "the forest" the vast expanses of coral teeming with fish that they kept exploring. To me it looked more like deer antlers stacked by the hundreds. An elated Eli did the most snorkeling of us all.

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I took the older boys out to where we floated over massive brain coral and fan coral, valleys and mountains of sea life. Caroline and I also took a couple of deep water swims. We saw blue black fish with bottle noses, massive schools of intensely yellow fish with black stripes, fish trailing long comical cords over their heads. You'd follow a school squirming below you and then suddenly realize you were inside a cloud of blue-striped fish, some nibbling at your toes. As if the dazzling underwater sights weren't enough, when you came up, you could scarcely believe the beauty of the ocean with the strip of breakers way out, an island across the bay, some puffy clouds ballooning in the sky.

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The rocks strewn on the sand seemed so freshly volcanic that you could almost imagine the lava cooling the day before.

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Twain quoted someone as saying that first Mauritius was made, and then heaven was made in its image. You can see why.

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Having patiently waited for us all day, our taxi driver, Gaetan, returned us safely back to the ship with a last cross-island drive, all of us in high spirits.

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During dinner in the ship's aft, we kept gazing at the tooth-like peaks and crags and valleys behind Port Louis, trying to take it all in one last time.

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With nightfall, we set sail, sad to be leaving just as we were becoming acquainted with this lovely island, bracing ourselves for the next day's teaching. We were full of plans for a return trip, if we should ever be fortunate enough to land again on this idyllic isle with its welcoming multiculture, dazzling underwater reefs, and thrusting volcanic peaks.

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Posted by JR-CR 11:45 Archived in Mauritius Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Cape Town, South Africa

Of Wounds and Wonders

semi-overcast 75 °F

Like us, maybe you've long loved South African jazz and choral singing. Maybe you’ve read the country's amazing novelists, poets, and filmmakers, white and black and “colored” (or mixed race), even teaching their work. You have dear South African friends in the States or abroad. You watched from afar and maybe even worked for the ending of apartheid’s cruelty. So you feel like you must have something like a foothold in the place, its history, and its cultures.

Even so, Caroline and I were humbled to realize the enormity of what we didn’t know and to discover how painful and raw that history still feels “on the ground.”

As soon as we docked in the glitteringly high end Victoria and Alfred waterfront, we hosted three writers for a presentation to, and conversation with, a group of our students.

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One of these passionate writers, Thembelani Ngeloni, had written a book about having been shot and left to die. We were eager to learn about future prospects for South Africa from him and our other two guests, the talented young novelist Maya Fowler and the distinguished older writer Sindiwe Magone, whose account of the Fulbright student Amy Biehl’s murder by anti-apartheid activists is a new one-woman play. What hope do these authors see for turning the murder and rape capital of the world into a safer place? How do they think the desolate state of education in the townships can be turned around? How could the enormous divide between rich and poor be bridged? Ardent about change though they were, these writers were also bitter about hopes betrayed by an ineffective postapartheid government that has seemed incapable of addressing these and other profound problems. During our stay, we kept wondering how long it would take any government to overcome hundreds of years of injustice and racial ugliness. Fundamental economic change began to seem a lot harder than political democratization.

That first afternoon, we bought some internet time by sipping tea in the fabulously posh hotel just adjacent to the ship. The five of us felt distinctly underdressed and out of place in that waterfront cathedral to white wealth and privilege. From there we walked to the center of town to make our first acquaintance with the nation's legislative capital, stopping for ice cream for the boys.

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As soon as we left the touristic enclave of the waterfront, the empty buildings and streets on a Saturday afternoon made us feel no less uneasy than the hotel had--and even fearful. The divide between those Cape Town streets and that hotel made us wonder if we were stumbling between completely irreconcilable worlds.

For us, maybe most surprising about Cape Town was its stunning natural beauty. Few places in the world have that spectacular combination of mountains rising several thousands of feet out of the sea, with a city sprawling at its feet. That was already evident even as we approached by sea.

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On our second day we got to know Table Mountain more intimately, hiking up its backside with a hardy SAS group.

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The magnificent rocky crags above us were at first shrouded in fog, but as the sun pierced through, they seemed spotlit by the heavens.

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I couldn’t stop taking dozens of pictures of the breathtaking views down into the Cape Peninsula, with its many coves and rugged peaks and the shimmering ocean.

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The heroic boys didn’t whimper or lag behind for a moment on this demanding trek, despite the steep incline and even some ladders. They loved the challenge.

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Our guides taught us about the history of the land and its beautiful flowering protea and other fire-germinated fynbush (or fine bush) flowers and trees and grasses.

The boys squealed with hilarity on the revolving cablecar we took down. Four and a half hours up, four minutes down.

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From our cabin balcony, we looked back at the mountain we'd just hiked, covered with its famous "tablecloth."

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Once off the mountain, we plunged into the depths of the sea. Well, not quite. But by popular demand, we did visit the Two Oceans Aquarium, where the big tanks made the boys feel as if they were floating in sea currents with enormous fish and tortoises and even sharks.

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Our third day, we took the ferry to the notorious prison hell of Robben Island.

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I’d been reading to my class from the poet Dennis Brutus’s descriptions of the vicious treatment he and other prisoners endured especially in the 1960s, when beatings and rape by prison guards were common, as was horrific forced labor in the lime pit and stone quarry, the relentless breaking and carting of stones.

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Our guide, a former political prisoner himself, took us to see Nelson Mandela’s solitary cell in the maximum security prison.

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He talked about his four years spent packed with 40-70 other political prisoners per room. It wasn’t till I asked him at the tour’s end that he divulged why he was there—namely his involvement in the military wing of the ANC in the 1980s, including training other fighters in the use of weapons and planting a bomb in a police station. He was born the same year as me and Caroline, which had to make us think, what would we have done under those degrading and dehumanizing conditions?

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Back from the ferry, we spent our afternoon in two museums. The first was the South African Museum, where we saw lots of natural and handmade items, including beautiful cave paintings by the San people.

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The second was the Jewish Museum, site of the old great synagogue and exhibits about the hundreds of thousands of Jews who came to South Africa from Europe, some to thrive in its business world, others like Helen Suzman to fight bravely the disgusting apartheid system.

Our fourth day was spent with the Amy Biehl Foundation, established after the young American Stanford graduate, who had come to South Africa to help in the transition to democracy, was dragged out of her car and stabbed to death by four anti-apartheid protesters in a township. She was murdered by the very people she was working vigorously to help. The foundation’s president, an ex-banker named Kevin Chaplin, is a gifted speaker who persuaded us that the foundation is channeling all of its money to the direct benefit of the children who are its focus. Most mind-bending of all was our meeting with two of Amy’s killers, among other staff members. They now work for the foundation, having been transformed in part by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the radiant forgiveness of Amy’s parents. Here's one of them with us, awkward though it was to pose like this together.

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Needless to say, it was quite something for the kids, as it was for us, to try to grapple with the multiple ironies and strange twists of this story.

Next we ate a traditional Xhosa meal in a township restaurant, grabbing with our bare hands from platters of barbecued meat and from bowls of a pasty, grits-like cornmeal. Cy couldn’t figure out what to do without a napkin.

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After that, we visited three different township schools where the foundation has worked. Our kids mixed with some of the eager students.

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In the first, we saw the vegetable garden and green beautification project in an otherwise desolate and nearly leaf-free township. In the other two, schoolchildren performed amazing dance routines they’d been taught in afterschool programs run by the foundation.

Other groups of students included fabulous marimba players, a brass band, poets, and a choral group. So much talent and hope! Despite our misgivings about the foundation’s crystallization around a white American, it’s doing amazing work that we'd like to support.

What’s most unlike these shantytowns? Maybe the abundant wildlife on a safari. Our next day we crossed that divide again, taking a several hour bus ride to the Inverdoorn Game Reserve. We chose it because it was the least expensive of all the SAS safaris (one tenth the cost of some of the several day safaris that others took in the national parks). It was a short two hours or so of safari, but we saw some amazing sights.

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As we rode in our jeep, we saw cheetahs lolling about and slowly blinking like big sleepy housecats.

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We spotted a pair of white rhinos that looked like giant boulders before they stood up. A herd of wildebeest galloped at furious speed just feet in front of our jeep, as zebras sped along at fantastic speed on the other side of our vehicle.

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Gracefully stretching their necks into the trees, giraffes ingeniously wrapped their tongues around the thorns on the native thorn tree to extract leaves.

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Our last sighting was of the lions, including a male with a magnificent mane.

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That wasn’t all—we also saw a puff adder, antelopes, springbok, etc.—animals thrilling to see at close range, with nothing between us and them except the chilly air.

Yes, strangely enough, we froze on our safari (and Caroline is now sniffling as a result). It’s early spring here, a fact that came home to me with special force when I saw a dogwood tree in bloom. Huh? It’s October, and the dogwoods are blooming and there are new leaves on the trees? My brain folds in on itself trying to make sense of that.

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We debated, after all this exhaustion, whether to do anything ambitious on our sixth and final day. Frankly, I pushed a bit, and finally persuaded everyone we should take full advantage of our time here. So we hired a taxi driver for the day to drive us down and around the Cape Peninsula. He had the great idea of taking us first to "World of Birds," a bird sanctuary that's said to be the largest in Africa. The variety of birds was beyond anything we could have expected. Among the most amusing to the boys were the multicolored, screeching turkeys, as you'll see in the video clip below this picture.

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We took a catamaran out to Seal Island, where, surprise, surprise, there are hundreds of seals on boulders crashed by waves.

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The boys were thrilled to eat much-long-for hamburgers in a restaurant where Caroline and I savored grilled calamari. That place is conveniently adjacent to a large African Penguin colony, a protected site where thousands of these endangered birds waddle amid massive granite boulders.

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Finally, we drove all the way to the end of the peninsula to Cape Point, stopped only by some baboons in the road.

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Once there, we hiked up to the old lighthouse that overlooks waves thundering hundreds of feet below. There it is, the Cape of Good Hope. There it is, the graveyard of many ships. There it is, almost as close as you can get to the meeting place between two great oceans. The very tailbone of Africa.

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I got some grief for pushing and pushing our band of five forward, from site to site, place to place, so that we were half dead by the time we boarded the ship. As we watched the glittering lights of Cape Town recede, the silhouette of Table Mountain barely visible in the night sky, I think we all felt we’d overdone it. But then again, for me at least, it would have been hard to give up any one of the extraordinary experiences of those six very full days. The boys have a new favorite country outside the US: the wild animals, the stunning mountains, even the US-style shopping malls appealed to them. Caroline and I love it too, but with South Africa’s racial tensions, its sectioning off of townships from affluent suburbs, its violent gun culture, and its vast economic inequities, we also see in this nation the twisted mirror of our own massive problems at home. Indeed, for all that we learned about the evils of the singular system of apartheid, South Africa’s resemblances to the American South 50 years ago, let alone the North’s inner cities cheek by jowl with affluent high rises, had us constantly rethinking what we thought we knew about our own country.

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Posted by JR-CR 08:48 Archived in South Africa Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Neptune Day Ceremony

Fish Guts and Fish Lips

rain 77 °F

Neptune Day--the day of our crossing the equator--began with a parade in the hallway that woke the kids (saith Jahan). Soon after breakfast, we were all summoned to the pool deck, where King Neptune (aka the normally very solemn British captain or "master" of the ship) and Queen Minerva (aka the admin asst) held court in full splendor.

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After plenty of ceremony and pomp and circumstance, Eli and Gabriel, along with most of the college students and even a few faculty and staff members, most of the "pollywogs" onboard, submitted to having green goo with fish guts poured on their heads, as part of an initiation ritual. They gleefully jumped in the seawater in the pool, and then climbed out to kiss dead fish on the lips. They were dubbed "shellbacks" by Dean Bob.

The boys decided against the next part of the ritual purging, since it would have involved departing from one of their most beloved possessions: their hair. Many college students, both men and women, had their heads shaved, to the hoots and glee of us all, including the first of all, a brave young lady who first looked like this:

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And then like this:

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Here's some video from the morning's hilarious festivities.

Posted by JR-CR 15:07 Archived in Ghana Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Ghana

Accra, the Cape Coast, Dodowa

semi-overcast 88 °F

AKWAABA, Welcome, to our Ghana blog! We have had a wonderful time in this country, capped off by today’s extraordinary visit with the Noyam dance company, about which, much more later.

By the rumblings below us, it seems we are about to set sail for a seven-days’ journey to Capetown, South Africa—yes, we have begun to glide past the pilot boat that leads us out of the harbor. But it actually does feel like we’re leaving part of our hearts in Ghana, home of the warmest, kindest, most spirited people we’ve met.

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As we looked out bus windows, people smiled and waved, and as we walked in streets and markets, people complimented our “nice family.” I, Caroline, enjoyed being hailed as “mama” or “mother” everywhere we went. Particularly after the female restrictions and coverings in Morocco, it struck me as wonderful to have two different teenage boys call out to me “Strong woman; I like that!” (when I was walking purposefully toward our bus, as trip leader on the job; and when herding inside the bus female college students who were besieged by jewelry sellers).

The people are far and away the main reason for several of us feeling Ghana may be our favorite country so far, pretty amazing given the long hours we spent on buses every day here in the worst traffic we’ve ever experienced.

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“Underdeveloped country": apparently that means, in part, a serious lack of roads and public transportation. It seems that building roads and railways for general transport wasn't a high priority of the British Empire, except for the extraction of gold and cocoa and other resources. (We learned that 10% of the world's gold used to come from here and that Ghana now ranks as the second highest producer of cocoa, just behind Brazil.)

Our first day in Ghana was spent largely in traffic, in the company of an ebullient, lovable guide named Nii, whose four-part full name, when he pronounced it all, sounded like a long and complex sentence.

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He took us from Tema port to Accra along what he said was the historic migration path of his own people, the Ga, who, he informed us, originally came from Israel long ago, and so are Jews, though the practice is very much watered down. It was hard to see the historic trail he wanted us to grasp, but we were fascinated by the teeming crowds of present-day Ghanaians all around us. In fact, being stuck in traffic for hours every day of our visit was revelatory: it allowed us to witness the astonishing vitality, industriousness, creativity of the Ghanaian people, who live and work and sell everything imaginable along the sides of—and right in the middle of—Ghana’s roads.

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We admired the skill of those balancing huge loads on their heads, a carrying option we realize we should consider more often. The ship's librarian made with Cyrus’s help a list of the assorted items you could purchase while in traffic, and within a few minutes it read like a Walmart inventory: gum, candy, chocolate, and large wall clocks:

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Let's see, tupperware and sports jerseys; books, cds, wall mirrors; blankets, newspapers, drinking water; loaves of bread, sunglasses, Obama t-shirts; as well as non-Walmart items like a string of smoked fish, fruits and vegetables like yams and cassava, sugar cane, plantain chips, and hard-boiled eggs.

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And we couldn't miss the enormous affection expressed everywhere for our own dear president, as well as his wife, whose recent visit here was clearly a treasured memory.

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We were delighted to be able to pick up at the bookstore of the University of Ghana, Legon, a 4-volume set of inspirational Barack Obama comic books, published in Nigeria, telling his life story beginning with his father’s birth in Kenya and then the romantic saga of his parents’ meeting in Hawaii (She: “Now I know why you keep being ahead of your class despite your social engagements. You don’t allow the slightest opportunity to slip by without studying. You’re such an inspiration to be with.” He: “But that is the primary reason I came to America. And truly Ann, you’ve become part of that inspiration.”)

Though Obama won the billboard saturation contest by far, the name we heard and saw most often was that of Ghana’s own great hero, the founder of this first postcolonial African republic:

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Jahan and I have been teaching a Ghanaian novel steeped in disillusionment about Nkrumah in the latter part of his era (the corruption, greed, poisoning of hopes for real democracy), but we heard nothing but praise for him; more than one guide told us “Dr. Kwame Nkrumah will never die,” because his ideas about African independence and progress are still alive and guiding the nation. On our first day, we were taken to the site of his monument and mausoleum, and later enjoyed visiting the home of his ally W.E.B DuBois, who followed his pan-Africanist vision to move to Ghana at age 93, and spent there his last few years--also a cherished hero of the nation.

On the second day, we traveled to the Cape Coast and Elmina castles, trading posts of the Swedish, Danes, Dutch, British, and Portuguese at various times, and most famously, key sites of the Atlantic slave trade. The story of our trip there would be incomplete without mention of the highway episode in which, once we had run the course of the only 18 miles of concrete road in the nation (part of a much larger planned highway never finished, our guides lamented, since Nkrumah’s 1966 overthrow), an impossible, sprawling traffic jam loomed ahead. Our impressive guide (next in line to be chief of his people, he told us) jumped off the bus and “negotiated” with the police (for an unspecified amount of cash) a police motorcycle escort, complete with blaring siren, that led our three-bus caravan, drivers’ hands on horns, speeding through the multiple lanes of vehicles that suddenly had to jump out of our way on both sides of the road, for about 20 minutes, while perhaps a thousand pedestrians, workers, sellers, residents, on either side of the road looked up at us to see what imperial personages were passing by. Apparently, this is the way things are done in Ghana; for cruise ships that pay for the service, a guide informed us, it's standard practice. Our busload cheered to be freed from the jam and whizzing toward our destination, while in the front seat and watching one near-miss after another after another, I as the day’s trip leader gripped the rail and sat wondering whether to make an official request for safe driving. This thrill-ride was, after all, police-led.

But we arrived safely in the beautifully sunny beach town of Cape Coast, for an unforgettable visit. There we walked and sometimes crawled through the actual dungeons where enslaved Africans, ancestors of so many dear ones and neighbors of ours in the U.S. were held in utterly abysmal conditions, often for 3 months, while the merchants who had purchased them waited for the ships on which to transport them across the sea. Making our way through the dark dungeons of the 17th century Cape Coast Castle and then in the afternoon through the even older Elmina Castle, it was hard to realize that we truly were seeing what the guides said we were seeing: the actual, miserable cells where hundreds—sometimes a thousand—people were held together, in darkness, in stench, with little food or water, dehumanized and tortured, deprived of any rights, captive to an unimaginably cruel commercial scheme. We almost stumbled over grooves in the floor, made to carry some of the human waste outside. Here's a shot of the interior of the male slave dungeon at Cape Coast Castle:

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That the slave trade went on for some 400 years was difficult to ponder, as were certain hideous details, like the church sitting just atop the men’s dungeon at Cape Coast Castle, surely in earshot of great suffering:

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That was also where a plaque recorded Obama's historic speech and visit with Michelle and kids in July. On the other side was the exit door to the slave ships known even then as the Door of No Return, visible in this picture:

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Nowadays, where the slave ships used to pick up their human cargo are instead fishermen and their hand-dug boats:

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At Elmina Castle, first built by the Portuguese in 1481, we were shown not only the dungeons but also particular cells where resisters were abandoned to their deaths, and the balcony from which the governor would choose a woman daily from those herded into the courtyard below. We were struck by the strange contradiction between the natural beauty surrounding us and these little hells:

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Our students said, and we agreed, that this was about as educational a trip as one could ever have taken.

Outside of Elmina Castle, in the town of Elmina, as if to counter all that history of death, was the most vibrant public scene we have ever seen: crowds of many hundred gathered to buy fish from the fishermen, come in at noon in boats with colorful flags.

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Then we saw big buckets of fish being carried, sold, and smoked by hundreds of hands.

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We ate lunch at a beautiful, peaceful hotel on a lovely stretch of Atlantic beach.

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It was the only manicured resort spot we saw in Ghana, and some students decided to stay for the night.

On our third day in Ghana there were pleas for a little down time, so we stayed on the ship in the morning, the boys amusing themselves by boxing in their room, with socked hands, I believe. In the afternoon we went on a little shopping jaunt into Accra (long trips into traffic being again worth it for the sights and encounters). Extremely assertive jewelry vendors, after finally giving up on selling to us, offered the boys highly useful lessons on respecting elders, and other Ghanaian wisdom. While I found them a little in violation of our personal space norms, the boys were lit up by the encounter.

We were up before dawn and out early the last day, our trip having been moved earlier because of the horrendous traffic. In a village named Dodowa about 2 hours away, up a dirt road our bus couldn’t manage, we met the gracious, welcoming, accomplished dancers of the Noyam African Dance Institute. And though we were terribly mis-dressed for this day-long dance class (having thought we were just going to a dance performance, and dutifully sweating in our permethrin-infused long sleeves and jeans, doctor-recommended to ward off mosquitoes and the dread malaria, while all around us college students frolicked in shorts and tank tops), we found ourselves performing in a day-long African dance class, and loving it!

First they bestowed on each visitor a coconut, to drink the juice and try the meat, though the kids wrinkled their noses at the slightly acrid juice.

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Then dividing the group in two, they taught us the traditional Kpanlogo dance, which we then performed for each other. Look at those boys getting into it!

After a wonderfully cooling West African rainstorm, which made a terrific noise on the tin roof, and a lunch of jollof rice and chicken or fish, some of us elected to be drummers instead of dancers.

(Note: the woman in this photo is not Caroline.)

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For me, this was a dream come true--they didn't just let us try out the drums and cowbells, but trained us to play them in an ensemble while others danced, in an extended, ecstatic session--of our family, four of us in a line pounded out one rhythm on drums while Eli happily played another rhythm with the group on bells.

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Finally, this beautiful dance troupe performed for us.


We said very fond goodbyes, exchanging email addresses with our teachers, and returned to the ship. In the evening, we set sail with full hearts and a sense of great good fortune in having landed in Ghana. Our final day's tour guide gave a moving speech, asking us to be ambassadors for Ghana in the larger world, to counter misimpressions many have of Africa as uncivilized. We won't be able to keep ourselves from doing so.

Posted by JR-CR 14:51 Archived in Ghana Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Kids in the SAS Talent Show

They brought the house down

sunny 90 °F

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Last night, after an intense week of classes and grading, lecturing and cold-virus hosting, we were treated to a wonderful surprise. Laura and Leslie worked with kids on the ship to craft a musical performance in the talent show. By the kids' estimation (and ours), they received the most thunderous round of applause. We're all rather bleary eyed this morning after a very late night, but the sense of community and fun and camaraderie was tremendous. There was an amazing display of talent by dancers, comic actors, and mimics on board. Their beloved social studies teacher, Jim, did stunningly skilled tricks with the yo-yo.

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The staff put together a hilarious skit mocking the absurdly fake, orientalist Chez Ali performance we'd seen in Marrakech.

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But above all, the kids, as scripted by their inventive teacher and guided by their energetic coordinator, were brilliant.

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Here's some video. (Please forgive the quality, but I had to compress it drastically for upload through the ship's internet.)

Posted by JR-CR 03:27 Archived in Morocco Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

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