Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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There’s a kitschy movie playing in the lobby of Lub-d Silom Hostel, George of the Jungle. The antics of the apes and toucan are making me laugh, but also reminding me that a week ago I was happily perched in my own private jungle tree house. Unlike George, I wasn’t in the deepest, darkest heart of Africa; I was on the little-known island of Phra Pradaeng in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand. Across the Chao Phraya River loomed skyscrapers and industrial facilities, but the view from my “nest” – the delightful name for the elevated glass cubicles that serve as rooms at Bangkok Tree House – was of dense mangrove forest where turtles sunned on the banks of canals. Bangkok may have been right across the river, but the hustle and bustle of the city felt a world away.

Owner Joey Tulyanond shows off Bangkok Tree House restaurant with elevated glass "nests" in the background

Owner Joey Tulyanond shows off Bangkok Tree House restaurant with elevated glass “nests” in the background

Bangkok Tree House is the inspiration of Joey Tulyanond, Owner & CGO (Chief Greening Officer) of the unique six-month old guest house. His quest began in 2006 when he read Best Urban Oasis, an article in Time Magazine authored by Andrew Marshall, who thrust a little-known jungle oasis located smack dab in the middle of Bangkok into the limelight. Remarkably, few residents of Bangkok were even aware of the existence of this pristine bit of land. Located in a giant loop of the Chao Phraya River, the only way to visit the island is to make a roundabout drive to one inconveniently located bridge or take a no-frills ferry that makes the crossing every 20 minutes. The inconvenient access had one giant benefit; the land never caught the eye of developers. Today it is criss-crossed by miles of elevated paths that run along mangrove-studded canals shaded by banana trees, where turtles bask in the sun and lizards scurry softly through the underbrush. Read More

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In Nepali culture, special ceremonies called pujas are held to give a name to a newly born child, for the child’s first haircut, for a wedding, a person’s 84th birthday, and for the passing of a relative. Last year I was invited to attend a puja to memorialize the death of a beloved aunt of my adopted Nepali family, which was held on the one year anniversary of her passing. This year I witnessed the other end of the spectrum when I attended the Bibaha Puja (marriage ceremony) for my Bahini’s (little sister’s) nephew.

We left Pokhara as the sun was rising, destined for Bahini’s home village of Lekhnath, about an hour down the road. By the time we arrived at the home of the groom’s parents, festivities were in full swing. A traditional band of musicians squatted on the ground, horns bellowing and drums booming, as guests made their way to the backyard, where the groom was seated on a chair. He was dressed in the traditional white daura suruwal, a specially woven outfit made out of dhaka fabric, with a regular suit coat jacket on top. On his head he wore a topi, the national hat of Nepal, and around his neck hung an elaborately woven necklace of Dubo grass. This grass necklace, known as a Dubo ko Malla, symbolizes an everlasting relationship because Dubo grass will grow without roots.

Groom's family gathers at his parent'shome early in the morning on the day of the wedding

Groom’s family gathers at his parent’shome early in the morning on the day of the wedding

Using a provided tray of colored powders and rice, each family member placed a tika on the forehead of the groom and then accepted a gift from the father of the groom. Meanwhile, women were running around, shoving plates of food in everyone’s hands. I wasn’t very hungry but I picked at the selroti fried rice rings and tooth-breakingly hard, overly sweet rice balls that are traditionally served at a wedding and was later glad I had. The plan had been for me to stay at the groom’s house all day with Bahini, but somehow I got swept up in the crowd and ended up on one of the buses that were bound for Chitwan, home of the bride and location of the wedding ceremony. Read More

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In the ‘Daily Photos’ area of my blog I recently published a portrait of a woman attending a Nepali puja for a relative who had died one year earlier.

Woman attending a puja to honor a deceased relative in Nepal

Woman attending a puja to honor a deceased relative in Nepal

One of my readers commented:

“Its an absolutely gorgeous photo, I’ll admit. And I would have taken it, but somewhere a voice inside my head says, ‘Is it right to photograph people in mourning?’ I come across this dilemma often. There’s a great shot waiting to be taken, but shouldn’t there be common restrictions about recording people if they’re in mourning for a family member? It’s a lack of respect, isn’t it? Could you imagine a funeral of a loved one with someone on the sidelines taking photos of the whole process?”

In my response to her I explained that the puja was for a relative of my adopted family in Nepal, that I had permission to take photos throughout the day, and that when I took close-ups, I asked individual permission. In fact, I shot so many hours of video at the event that it has taken me more than a year to get around to editing it into a short feature that was small enough to upload to YouTube, and my family gently reminded me they were waiting for me to do so on several occasions. Read More

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More than worrying about whether I would be able to carry my heavy backpack while trekking the Lower Mustang area in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal, I was concerned about altitude sickness. I had learned the hard way during a two month visit to Ecuador late last year that I do not react well to elevations over 10,000 feet. Though I was fine in Jomsom, Kagbeni, and Marpha, all of which are at lower elevations, the town of Muktinath lies nearly 12,500 feet high, and the temple of the same name is 300 feet higher than the town. Just to be safe, I popped a high-altitude sickness pill the night before and opted for a 4WD jeep rather than making the four-hour trek each way.

As directed, I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and was told the jeep would be delayed until 9:30. Two hours later, I was still waiting; the jeep needs a minimum of 12 passengers to make the run and since I had opted to travel in the low season no other customers had arrived. Fearing that I would miss my opportunity to visit Muktinath altogether, I pressed the issue and the manager finally pointed to a rough, rocky trail leading to the upper reached of Kagbeni. “You go top, get jeep.” Fortunately I had done some day-trekking around the area and knew the road to Muktinath was in the general direction where he pointed, so I scrambled up to the top of town and stuck my thumb out. Sure enough, a dust-caked jeep soon jounced around a corner and rumbled to a stop in front of me. “Muktinath?” I asked. The driver hopped out and unchained the back door of the jeep; I squeezed in with a family on Indians on a pilgrimage to visit the temple.

For the next hour our hotshot driver threaded a needle between soaring cliffs on one side of the rough graveled track and precipitous drop-offs that plunged thousands of feet to the valley floor, at times taking curves at a frightening speed that had us all banging on the roof for him to slow down. When the jeep finally rolled into town we breathed a collective sigh of relief and shakily climbed out.

Village of Muktinath, at more than 12,000 feet of elevation in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal

Village of Muktinath, at more than 12,000 feet of elevation in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal

My rubbery legs carried me through the tiny village, not much more than a handful of brightly-painted wooden structures, to the trail that ascended to the temple itself. Halfway up I turned and looked down upon Muktinath, regally backed by a purple and blue Read More

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I stood on the stairway leading to the Buddhist Monastery in the Himalayan town of Marpha, holding onto the railing for dear life as as gale force gusts shredded the gauzy Tibetan prayer flags cascading down from the hilltop. Like every other day in Nepal‘s Lower Mustang Valley, ferocious winds had begun roaring down from the mountaintops in mid-morning and would continue until early evening. Struggling to keep from being blown over, I perused the tiny village that spread beneath me.

Incessant winds rip down from the mountains every afternoon in Lower Mustang, shredding prayer flags on the hilltop monastery

Incessant winds rip down from the mountains every afternoon in Lower Mustang, shredding prayer flags on the hilltop monastery

Marpha is notable for it’s many-storied old stone houses, built by hand without benefit of mud or mortar, and for the delicious apples grown in the lush valley that snakes between the Nilgiri and Dahlugiri Himalayan ranges. While I found those facts intriguing, what most caught my attention were the stacks of split firewood that lined the edges of the flat roofs of every home in town. Read More

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There was no hint of shade. Glittering piles of grey-white sand, the result of wind and rain-eroded micaceous rock from the surrounding mountains, carpeted the valley floor and the high-noon sun mercilessly reflected off the desolate platinum landscape. My pack was growing heavier by the moment and I felt my feet swelling inside my hiking boots, pressing corns against the rough leather. I winced with each step and tried to focus on where I planted my feet so as not to twist an ankle on the loose rocks that littered the trail.

Sere landscape on the Marpha to Jomsom trek, the driest area in all of Nepal

Sere landscape on the Marpha to Jomsom trek, the driest area in all of Nepal

I have come to the Jomsom area to prove something. After injuring my knee in Mexico in 2010 my body started giving me fits. My left hip, knee and lower back ached constantly and I had to cancel my plans to trek the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal later that same year. Though I fought it with every fiber of my being, gradually I accepted that my trekking days were over.

Earlier this year I had to return to the U.S. for three and a half months. It almost killed me. With no access to the affordable organic, fresh, seasonal food that is abundant overseas, I began eating unhealthily and gained 15 pounds. My Yoga and meditation practice faltered and I felt unhappy and stuck. Finally, I concluded the business that was keeping me Stateside and rejoiced. I was free again to hit the road. I headed for Pokhara, Nepal to pursue my Yoga, meditation, and Buddhism practices with renewed vigor. Within a month I dropped all the weight I had gained and my knee and hip were behaving nicely. I began to wonder if perhaps my trekking days were not done. Read More