Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Path of Ancients

It was just before five in the morning and I was navigating a scooter through the dark, bumpy roads of Bagan. I swerved around a cow that sauntered in front of me. I was travelling toward Old Bagan to watch the sun rise. I had only a vague sense of where I was going. The world looks different in the black of morning, as the light on my scooter struggled to light a path in front of me.
A motorcycle pulled up next to me, and a young guy asked, “Are you going to watch the sunrise? I know the best spot…follow me.”

I didn’t say anything to him but followed along. I knew that the cost of his help would be listening to his sales pitch for his paintings, like a time-share hawker in Hawaii. I have quickly learned that everyone is a painter in Bagan.

We turned off at a temple just next to the main road. He lead me up a narrow passageway of stone steps with the light from his mobile phone. As I climbed up through the tight space I felt like Indiana Jones, except I was wearing a ball cap instead of a fedora. And I didn't have a whip.
We popped out onto a small terrace and then climbed higher pulling ourselves up the outside of the temple, placing our feet carefully on ledges that were only half-a-brick wide. There were about six others already staking out a perch.


Sunrise over Bagan


From atop a temple to watch the sunrise


The sky began to lighten, as the sun prepared its grand entrance. Then slowly, like a shy child, the big ball of fire slowly rose above the horizon, colouring the vast plain that is Bagan. It is here, a thousand years ago, where more than 10,000 temples and pagodas were constructed. Impressively, there are still more than 2,000 left standing. 
     

With the sun now warming the air, I climbed back down, and after listening to a pitch for some art, I hopped back on my scooter, and rode to nowhere. Curious, I turned down a dirt track, which a short way along had narrowed and was muddy. I turned the throttle to give the bike more power, so I wouldn’t get stuck, and put my feet close to the ground, so I wouldn’t fall over. Mud splashed up on my sandal clad feet. 

Carrying on, I realized no one was around and I didn’t have a map with me. What’s an adventure if you know where you’re going. A short distance away was a large temple. I climbed off my bike and started across a grassy field. Then I stopped and wondered if there were any harmful critters lurking in the grass. 

I thought of snakes. The first one to come to mind was a Burmese python. It took me a second to compute. Myanmar used to be called Burma, and so yes perhaps a Burmese python might be slithering nearby waiting to swallow or strangle me. I looked in the tree next to me and in the grass ahead of me. I didn’t see anything, but I listened to my overactive imagination and retreated. I drove my scooter through the bumpy field, thinking that if I had to I could outgun a python chasing me.  






Monday, October 10, 2016

Arms wide open in Yangon

Morning is the best time to explore a city. The promise of a new day washes off its slumber. It was just before six in the morning in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and once its capital. The sun was struggling to get up when I stepped outside my hotel. Taxi! Taxi!, was the chorus that greeted me. 

I wanted my feet to do the exploring, so I carried on up Sule Pagoda Road toward the aptly named Sule Pagoda, with its gold covered Stupa rising up in the middle of a traffic circle. I passed weathered colonial buildings that spoke of past grandeur now fading into history. “Welcome to Luxury,” read the large sign on a building under construction. The promise of a new grandeur, perhaps.  

Sule Pagoda

Next to the Pagoda, a few buses idled while their conductors called out like auctioneers looking for new fares. Close by, I came to the square-shaped Maha Bandoola Garden, named after a war hero, who fought the British in the first Anglo-Burmese War in the 1820s. In one part of the park a large group of people were doing aerobics, moving to the sound of music that drifted from a portable music player. Others were doing tai chi, while others still were sitting in quiet reflection.

In the middle of the park was a tall obelisk commemorating Burmese independence from Britain in 1948. Apparently, it replaced a statue of Queen Victoria. Sitting at the base of the obelisk was a young man. When he saw me, he smiled and said good morning. I reached out and shook his hand. He told me his name was Ko. I complemented him on his good English. He said he learned it from tourists. This is when I expected him to hit me with a hard sales pitch to be my tour guide, or sell me some postcards or lead me to his uncle’s shop. But he never went there. We talked some more and then just as I about to walk away, he smiled and said. “In a while crocodile.” A phrase no doubt learned from the tourists.


Ko Ko
Ko Ko


I stopped to talk to three other men. They pointed at the tall moment and spoke of independence from Britain. There didn’t seem to be any hard feelings. They were complimentary of the British, saying of them that they are very disciplined. The men come here many mornings and walk around the park. Very disciplined themselves, I thought.

On my way out of the park, a man, who could be a paler twin of James Earl Jones, wished me a good morning, as did a woman.  How could it be, I wondered, that such a kind people could have been subjected to a regime for decades that was repressively the antithesis of kind. It seemed cruelly unfair.


There’s a welcoming spirit in Myanmar, and its arms are wide open.




Yangon is home to the largest number of colonial buildings in southeast Asia. Many of them have been abandoned. Here nature is reclaiming itself










Thursday, September 24, 2015

Taiwan on two wheels

I left the city behind, and travelled 40 minutes northwest of Taipei, on the MRT train, to Tamsui, which lies next to the river of the same name. Strategically located, both the Spanish and Dutch had their hands on this area. It is here where the river empties into the Taiwan Strait.

From the Tamsui train station, I’d need to take a taxi to my hotel. Anticipating that the driver wouldn’t speak English, and with my Chinese limited to hello and thank you, I wrote the Chinese characters for the hotel’s address on a piece of paper. All I could hear in my mind was my wife saying, “Your printing in English is crappy and illegible, I can only imagine how your Chinese will be.”

After arriving in Tamsui, I ambled over to the taxi stand, and said the English name of my hotel to the first driver. He stared blankly at me. No worries, I thought pulling out the piece of paper in which I wrote the address in Chinese.

“I don’t know what this says,” he said, looking curiously at my scribble.

“It says No. 27 Shalun Road,” I replied earnestly.

He shook his head, no. Now I hear my wife in my mind saying, “told you so!”

I walked down the taxi queue and found a driver that spoke English. I showed him the paper, and he read the English…No. 27 Shalun Road, and relayed that to my driver.

Once at the hotel, I borrowed a bicycle and set off for the Golden Riverside Bicycle Path. It was a three-speed, with an ill-fitting seat and brown basket on the front.  Freed from the burden of time or having to be some place, I hit the path with abandon. I had no destination in mind, just the freedom to go in any direction that pulled me.

My wheels


The air was hot and heavy with the smell of the sea. It felt like I was riding through a sauna. Most of the path was paved, but I came to a section of boardwalk, making music with the wheels of the bike, as they rolled over the loose boards.

I rode past banana trees, bamboo, and stretches of swampy green mangroves, punctuated by bright purple flowers. Egrets bobbed their heads in the sand, while patient fishers gazed out on to river. With its distinctive red arches, I saw the Guandu Bridge in the distance. On the other side was a small town called Bali.






Every once in a while another cyclist or walker would smile and chuckle as they passed me. I wasn’t sure if it was because they don’t see many white guys cruising along the bike path, or because I looked positively hilarious on my bike with a big black helmet stuck to my head. A bit of both, perhaps.

I neared the Guandu Bridge, and the clouds across the river had formed into a dark, menacing scowl. It was as if guardians of the bridge, they were daring me to cross. Would I be met by a fury of rain on the other side, I wondered?  Tempted to turn and run, I thumbed my nose at nature instead and crossed the river. The clouds spat a few drops of rain on me. I sought shelter in a convenience store, sitting on a stool next to the window, and cooled my insides with a Coke.




Having ridden for more than 10 kilometres, I decided to return to my hotel. As I got back to the Guandu Bridge, a gloom of low cloud covered my route. Halfway across the bridge, the warm rain lashed against me. The only protection was my helmet. Within minutes my shirt and shorts were soaked. I still had several kilometres to go. There was no place to hide, so I pushed on, my hands wrinkled from the water pouring from the sky. Adventure, by its very nature can be difficult, I thought, as rivulets of water and sweat ran down my face. Sometimes you just have to give yourself to it.


**********

People gather each evening on Tamsui's Lover's Bridge to watch the sun set. The clouds parted long enough to provide a nice end to the day. 









Friday, September 11, 2015

Cuba's a beauty beyond the beach

Oh my, so much time has passed since my last post.

15 years ago, in a galaxy far far away (before kids), my wife and I visited Cuba. We wanted it to be more than just a beach vacation. We wanted to experience as much of the Cuban culture as we could, so we spent five days staying with a family in Havana. It still ranks as one of our fondest vacations.

I wrote about our experience after returning home, but didn't do much with the piece. Fast forward more than a decade and with the U.S. reopening its embassy in Havana, I dusted off the piece and the Vancouver  Sun is publishing the article.

You can read the online version: http://www.vancouversun.com/travel/Cuba+beauty+beyond+beach/11356957/story.html

My wife, Carrie, took the photos that accompany the article.

Enjoy...









 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Inspired by Iceland

After landing at Iceland’s Keflavik Airport, I hopped in a bright green rental car and hit the road. Before getting too far I wanted to stop at a grocery store. From the road, I spied a store called Husasmidjan, which looked like a grocery store. I got out of my car and went in, only to realize it was a home improvement store. Why didn’t I study Icelandic when I was in school. I looked at the sign again and it now made sense. Hus, is Icelandic for House. Not far away I did find a supermarket.

My destination that first evening was Vik, a small village about 200 km southeast of the airport. But what should have been a two hour drive turned into four hours, as I kept stopping along the way to marvel at the scenery. Iceland is like that beautiful woman you see that doesn’t wear makeup. Brimming with confidence, the country invites you to enjoy its natural beauty.
Iceland is known for its waterfalls and it took just an hour to spot my first one. Located beside the main road that circles the island, Seljalandfoss (foss means falls in Icelandic) looked majestic from a distance. It was even more impressive close up. The water pours over an overhang, so it’s possible to walk behind the falls. A unique view to be sure (good to have your rain jacket handy).

 

Seljalandfoss is visible from a distance on the Ring Road heading east


The overhang of the falls allowsvisitors to walk behind for a different perspective

Driving on, I saw more waterfalls. How magical this land, I thought. The large Skogarfoss begged me to get out of my car. I wasn’t disappointed, especially after climbing the hundreds of stairs (I started counting but lost track) to the top of falls, where you can watch the river being forced over the edge. The view from the bottom is equally breathtaking.


Skogarfoss

During my travels throughout the country, I noticed that some people had even built their homes next to waterfalls. Who needs to buy a water feature when you’ve got a natural one in your back yard.

It was almost 9:00 PM when I got to Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland. A lone white church, its roof covered in red, sits on a bluff overlooking the village. It’s the one on the cover of my guidebook, so I tried to recreate the image (minus the wildflowers that hadn’t yet bloomed) with my camera.


 
Not a bad recreation of the scene on the cover of the guidebook
 
The next morning, I continued driving along the Ring Road to Jokullsarlon, an iceberg lagoon, about 200 kilometres away. I hadn’t gone more than five minutes down the road when I turned off and drove a short distance along a farm path before getting out to admire another waterfall. This was much smaller than others I had seen, yet still significant enough to deserve a look. I climbed a wooden step ladder that had been placed over the barbed wire fence, and stood for a moment at the base of the falls revelling in the fact that I was the only one around. It was quiet except for the sound of the water falling into a small pool before being carried away to the ocean.

With a population of just 350,000, and almost two-thirds living in the capital, Reykjavik, there are times you’ll feel like you have the whole country to yourself. There were often long stretches of road where it was just me. I’d stop the car in the middle of the road, get out to take a photo and drive on.
 
With Icelandic pop songs filling the car, I drove on, mesmerized by the vast lava fields covered with green moss. I half expected to find a group of trolls living amongst the rocks. On further inspection, I didn’t see any trolls, but the pillowy-soft moss was surprisingly several inches thick.


Moss covered lava fields
The scenery is ever changing
 
Several hours after leaving Vik, I pulled into the parking lot at Jokullsarlon. The glacier has receded seven kilometres over the past hundred years, leaving behind a lagoon filled with icebergs. When ice breaks away from the glaciers, it will either stay in the lagoon and melt or float out to the ocean. A herd of seals inhabits the lagoon and can often be seen swimming in the water or basking atop one of the icebergs.
I joined a handful of others for a boat ride through the lagoon. The power of nature was on display here as we looked at ice that was formed a thousand years ago, some of which contains volcanic rock and dirt.   
Difficult to spot maybe, but there is a seal in the middle of the photo



 
Back in my car for the drive back to Vik, and with only a quarter tank of gas, I began worrying that I might run out of gas. Why should I have been surprised? I had already driven 400 km. On the way, I had only seen one gas station between here and Vik and a pump next to an abandoned building, which I figured wouldn’t be operational. I started doing the math in my head to see if I could make it back to Vik (200 km) with a quarter tank. Not likely, I surmised.

I drove a little slower hoping to nurse the fuel I had left. About 20 minutes down the road, I spotted the abandoned building with a gas pump out front. To my surprise (and relief) it worked. What a fantastic system. Who needs a gas station with an attendant when all you need is a pump in the middle of nowhere.
With a full tank of gas, I continued on to Vik, marvelling at the ever changing scenery. Above me I saw the contrails of passing plane, presumably on its way to North America from Europe. They don’t know what they’re missing, I couldn’t help but think.
Inspired by Iceland. That’s the latest marketing slogan to promote tourism. These are more than just empty words slapped on a brochure or website. It’s not hard to feel inspired by everything this country has to offer.  
 
View more of my Iceland photos

Friday, May 9, 2014

Dhaka: as real as it gets

After breakfast on my second day in Dhaka, I slipped out the front door of my hotel hoping that Salim wouldn’t be waiting. He seemed nice enough and I know he was trying to earn some money, but I yearned for the freedom to just walk, and not be paraded from place to place. I looked around and didn’t see him. Fantastic, I thought.

I had only got half a block, when I heard someone calling behind me. I turned and saw Salim pedalling his rickshaw toward me.   
“I take you today. Where do you go?”
I told him I just wanted to walk, but I could see that it was hard for him to understand. He was probably wondering why this white guy would want to walk around a chaotic city in such hot and humid conditions.
“I take you and then you can do walking,” he pressed.
I told him not today and carried on.
I came to a large intersection and stood in the middle for a short time on a raised platform a few feet off the ground. I was in awe at the feverish pace of the traffic that was moving in every direction. Oddly it seemed choreographed, but as one local told me about the traffic: “It’s a big problem. There is no discipline.”
The challenge now was for me to get to the other side of the road without getting hit. I watched others standing next to me take the plunge and start crossing. I hesitated too much and missed the opportunity. For a fleeting moment, I wished I hadn’t spurned Salim. It would have been much easier sitting in his rickshaw. But travel isn’t supposed to be easy, I told myself.
Armed with that bit of philosophy, I made my move and stepped into the traffic. Never before had I felt so nakedly vulnerable, as I did in that moment. It was frightful watching buses, cars, motorcycles, and rickshaws coming at you like precision guided missiles. Keep walking. Keep walking. I kept reassuring myself. Relieved was I, knowing that I had survived. To be sure, Dhaka is not for the timid.  

My intended destination was a slum settlement in the area of Kawran Bazaar, where small dwellings no more than five or six feet high had been scrapped together on either side of the railway tracks.
Before setting off I had written down the streets I needed to get this area, which was about four kilometres away. Find VIP Road, then right on Hare Road, which turns into Minto, then a right on Kazi Nasrul Islam. Sounded easy enough until I started walking and realized there were no street signs. I knew to keep Ramma Park on my left, but then I came to a major intersection and all was lost. I went up to a traffic officer and asked if he knew what street this was.

“Kazi Nasrul Islam Street,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“Kawran Bazaar,” I replied.

“You’re going there on foot,” he questioned, incredulously?

He pointed to the general direction. I thanked him and pushed on. 
A hard life next to the tracks
 
I finally came to a set of railway tracks, and sure enough there were rows of small shack-like homes. There were no trees to offer protection from the sun. No electricity. No running water. I could only imagine what it would be like when the monsoon rains came. At first, I felt like an uninvited guest but that was short lived as people came up to me without hesitation. Not to beg for money, but out of curiosity.
Everyone was very welcoming. Some asked where I was from, while others reached out to shake hands.  
Trains run regularly through the slum
 
 
 

 
One young guy, who I suspected to be in his early twenties, followed me as I walked along the tracks. He warned me a train would be coming soon. In fact, trains pass through regularly during the day mere feet from these people’s homes.
Not surprising disease lives here. I could see it in the cloudy eyes of many people, yet despite the terrible environment in which they live, they all had such warm smiles. I saw this too when I was in Jakarta, Indonesia [the place that gave rise to the White Man Walking moniker]. What is it about people who have so little, yet have such a bright spirit? They have every reason to finger the world and yet they choose to smile instead. There’s a lesson there for all of us. 
I noticed a young girl cooking over a small fire. I knelt down to take her picture and she opened herself up with a shy smile. Further on, a group of children posed for a photo and clamoured around me trying to see their faces on the screen. This is as real as travel gets. This isn’t the fiction of an all-inclusive in Mexico. 
 





 
Walking back to my hotel, I noticed a section of brightly colourful flowers planted along the sidewalk. I touched them and realized they were artificial. It was the only thing I encountered in the city that was fake. Warts and all, Dhaka is as real as it gets.