Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

Today is the day Nepal’s new constitution is finally supposed to be promulgated. It has been four long years in the making and over the past several weeks I have ping-ponged from despair that it would be impossible to meet the deadline once again this year, to riding a wave of optimism as I joined a peace march where citizens demanded that the long-awaited document finally be drafted and adopted.

Last Thursday morning, thousands of Nepali in Pokhara, Nepal marched in support of a United Nepal. Their cry, “Himal, Pahad, Terai,” (Mountain, Hills, Plains), was in response to violent demonstrations that have plagued the country over the past week, as some of Nepal’s more than 100 minorities demanded a new form of government that would divide the county into States based on ethnicity and identity. If their demands are successful, this tiny Asian country could be thrust into an era of tribal feuding that has not been seen since Prithivi Narayan Shah unified warring tribes into one central Himalayan kingdom in 1769.

Marchers opposed to ethnic separation proposed by Maoists walk miles in support of a United Nepal

Marchers opposed to ethnic separation proposed by Maoists walk miles in support of a United Nepal

Basu Tripathi, owner of Adam Tours in Pokhara and an organizer of the event, along with the local Chamber of Commerce, explained: “We all want prosperity for Nepalese Society. This is a great gathering of industrialists and tourism entrepreneurs and social people. Let’s not split mountains from the hills. Let’s not split hills from the Terai. Nepal is a unique combination; let’s keep this country prosperous, let’s keep this country integrated.” Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

Fourteen people, including an 8-month old baby, were hospitalized yesterday as a result of injuries sustained during clashes between ethnic groups in Pokhara, Nepal, just a few miles from where I am staying. Yesterday was the second day of a three day bandh (general strike), called by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) to address concerns of various castes in the final days before the May 27th deadline for adopting Nepal’s new constitution. Pokhara has a large Gurung population, one of the ethnic groups represented by the NEFIN, so the bandh is being very strictly enforced. No buses or taxis are running; all stores, general services, government offices, and schools are closed. Hospitals, police, ambulances, newspaper, TV are all working (most of the time), and police are escorting tourists who have managed to get to Kathmandu to the airport for their flights, but but Internet is intermittent and it is becoming increasingly difficult to go online to report what is happening.

Injured demonstrator in Kathmandu, courtesy of Gulf Times, Qatar

Injured demonstrator in Kathmandu, courtesy of Gulf Times, Qatar

Bandhs began about two weeks ago, as the more than 100 castes in the country became increasingly upset over the wording of the proposed constitution and division of the country into States. Various ethnic groups demanded general strikes on days of their choosing, often called at the last minute, in attempts to force the government to make changes prior to the adoption of the constitution. Last Wednesday, following a brief respite from the strikes, it was rumored that bandhs would begin anew the following morning and extend until the deadline date of May 27th. Indeed, on Thursday everything in Pokhara was once again shuttered and the streets looked like a ghost town. By yesterday, tempers were short. With nothing better to do, activists congregated at Prithivi Chowk and Zero Kilometer, two of the major intersections in town. Gurungs erected a sign demanding that the area around Pokhara be designated a Gurung State, where only members of their caste would be eligible to hold elected office or government jobs. Opposition forces subsequently put up a banner calling for a “United Nepal,” where all ethnic groups live and work together in peace, as has been the case for hundreds of years in this tiny nation. Violence erupted when Gurung factions tried to tear down the “United Nepal” sign; rocks were thrown not only at the demonstrators but through the windows of local houses, in one instance gashing the skull of an infant sleeping in side the home. Fighting continues today. Local radio is reporting that a Brahmin man was bashed over the head with a pipe and a number of demonstrators have been arrested for smashing windows of a local hotel.

The situation is even more serious in other parts of the country. In Kathmandu, rioters have burned motorcycles inside family compounds and severely beaten members of the media as they attempted to cover events, forcing police to respond with tear gas canisters. In the Terai, the sultry lowlands that stretch across the southern portion of Nepal, bandhas have been even more prevalent and more violent. Locals and tourists alike have been stranded in bus stations for weeks at a time as all transportation into and out of the Terai came to a screeching halt. Families who had expected to be gone for a weekend holiday found themselves stranded and quickly ran out of money for food and lodging; many were sleeping on the ground next to their abandoned buses. It does not appear that this stalemate will end any time soon; Tharu and other ethnic groups that comprise most of the population in the Terai are demanding the entire southern belt be designated a single ethnic State. It is unlikely their demands will be met, as a single Terai State would be able to blockade access to India, from where many of the goods Nepalis rely upon are imported.

Police react to demonstrations in Kathmandu. Photo courtesy of "The Nation" Newspaper.

Police react to demonstrations in Kathmandu. Photo courtesy of “The Nation” Newspaper.

In real time the bandhs make life difficult and frustrating but the long-term effects are likely to be much more significant. According to the Chinese news service Xinhua-ANI, “around 1000 vehicles carrying essential goods are stranded in the northern and southern border areas of Nepal…compelling importers to pay extra cost, which will eventually be transferred to consumers.” China and India, the two giants that sandwich this tiny nation, are undoubtedly watching with more than a little interest as events play Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

I’ve stood at the edge of molten lava flowing from the world’s largest volcanic crater (Mauna Loa, Hawaii), touched the Equator in the Amazon Jungles of Ecuador, descended to the bottom of the deepest canyon in North America (Copper Canyon, Mexico), and stood on the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world (Superior). I’ve looked down upon the lost city of the Incas (Machu Picchu, Peru), marveled at the fearless animals in the Galapagos Islands, been pummeled by spray from the largest waterfall in the world (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, more than a mile long), and climbed the steep, unguarded stone steps to the top of the largest temple in the world (Angkor Wat, Cambodia). But as I headed for Nepal, the place in the world where I probably spend the most time, it occurred to me that I’d never bothered to see the world’s tallest mountain, Mt. Everest.

Serendipity intervened. The very same day, an email arrived in my Inbox from “GetYourGuide,” a company that aggregates local tours from all over the world and makes them available on their website. The firm inquired if I would care to try their service and offered me a free tour, anywhere in the world they operated. I browsed through their Nepal tours and was amazed by the variety on offer. In addition to popular activities such as Annapurna Circuit Treks and visits to Chitwan National Park, they also offered a selection of cultural activities, such as “Throw Your Own Souvenir Day Tour,” where clients visit craftsmen in the small township of Thimi, just east of Kathmandu, who are renowned for their pottery. Artisans demonstrate their skill and then invite participants to try their hand at throwing a pot; the creations are glazed and fired and given back as souvenirs. Since I love writing about culture, I debated long and hard, but in the end my desire to see the highest mountain in the world won out and I booked their one-hour Flight Over Everest.

Blessed with crystal blue skies, the entire Himalaya Range spread out before us

Blessed with crystal blue skies, the entire Himalaya Range spread out before us

Everything happened like clockwork. My ticket was delivered to my hotel the evening prior to the flight, a car picked me up promptly at 5:45 a.m. and drove me to the airport despite the fact that there was a bandh (general strike) underway across Nepal, and the driver waiting for me at the end of the flight. My only disappointment was with Agni Airlines; upon boarding the 29-seater craft I was crestfallen by the fogged-up and scratched condition of the windows, which would make it difficult to get good photos. Soon we were up and away, leaving behind the relentless dun-colored pollution that drapes the Kathmandu Valley. We pierced the low cloud ceiling and broke through to azure skies; moments later the Himalayan panorama spread before us. Jagged, snow-crowned peaks jutted through the cottony clouds and stretched across the horizon. Veering to the north, we flew so close it seemed our wingtips might graze the crags, while our flight attendant roamed the cabin, naming the various mountains.

Flew so close it felt like we could reach out and touch the mountains

Flew so close it felt like we could reach out and touch the mountains

Mt. Everest in the distance, at right, from the cockpit window

Mt. Everest in the distance, at right, from the cockpit window

A murmur of excitement rippled through the plane when Mount Everest finally came into view. Fierce winds tore snow off the twin peaks: the south face of Mount Everest on the left and it’s companion, Nuptse on the right. I was underwhelmed. “It’s just another mountain,” I thought. There was nothing to differentiate it from thousands of others I’d seen around the globe. And then I thought about the forces required to thrust this massif to its 29,029-foot height. Mount Everest is the world’s most dramatic Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

Let me just say it…I love hostels! Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate luxurious resorts and upscale hotels too, but there’s a special kind of energy in hostels that doesn’t translate to other accommodation types. Travelers who stay at hostels are generally less interested in being pampered and more interested in having an authentic experience in the country they are visiting. It’s not uncommon to plop down in a chair in the common area and soon be engrossed in a conversation about the best undiscovered restaurants and local places not included in the guide books that are definitely worth a visit.

Unfortunately, I so often hear objections to hostels, especially from travelers in my age group. There is a pervasive belief that hostels are frequented by 20-somethings who party half the night and then return to the dorm room and have noisy sex. Many also believe that hostels are dirty, are located in dangerous neighborhoods, and that things go missing in the dorms. On all counts, they couldn’t be more wrong. I have stayed in hostels all over the world and most are clean and located in safe areas of the city, plus they all have firm rules about no sex in the dorms (I’ve never experienced a situation where this occurred). And in all my years of traveling, I have never had anything stolen in a hostel.

Lobby at Lub-d Silom Hostel in Bangkok, Thailand

Lobby at Lub-d Silom Hostel in Bangkok, Thailand

What will be a surprise to anyone who hasn’t considered staying in a hostel is that almost all of them now offer private rooms in addition to dorms, and the private rooms almost always have private rather than shared bathrooms. Add to this the very affordable prices offered by dorms and you have an unbeatable combination. Like hotels and resorts, however, amenities and facilities vary from one hostel to another and I’ve gotten adept at reading between the lines of customer reviews when choosing a property. My criteria, in order of importance, are: in-room wifi, location near the city center, price, safety, and cleanliness. Most of the time I can’t meet all my criteria but once in a while I get lucky, as I did several years ago when I discovered Lub-d Hostels in Bangkok, Thailand, which offers the following amenities, among others:

  • Free high-speed wifi access in the rooms and common areas
  • Lub-d has two hostels in central Bangkok, one in Siam Square (the heart of the shopping district) and another in the Silom (the commercial and nightlife area), both of which are an easy walk to the Sky Train and MRT subway
  • Lub-d Hostels are exceptionally safe and secure, with closed-circuit TV, electronic keycard access, fire protected emergency exits and fire & smoke alarms throughout the facility
  • Without a doubt, Lub-d are the cleanest hostels I have ever stayed in; their website says: “At Lub-d, cleanliness is not an option. It is the foundation of everything we do.” I believe it; their shared bathrooms virtually sparkle!
  • Extremely affordable prices that range from $13.56 per night for a dorm bed to $47.46 per per night for a double room
My spotless double room at Lub-d Silom in Bangkok

My spotless double room at Lub-d Silom in Bangkok

Since I often use Bangkok as a base for my Asia travels, I’ve had the opportunity to stay at Lub-d numerous times. Initially I chose Lub-d Siam Square, where I stayed in the female dorms; by my second visit the staff was greeting me by name when I walked in the door. This time around I opted for Lub-d Silom because it was better located for some business I had to conduct while in Bangkok, hoping that it would be as wonderful as its sister property. In a word, it was unbeatable. I arrived at 1 a.m., dead tired Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

My first glimpse of the monumental sculpture carved into the massive granite dome known as Stone Mountain was slightly disappointing. From the viewing platform the three sculpted figures of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee and Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were dwarfed by the sheer immensity of the naked rock that thrusts 1,683 feet above sea level from an otherwise flat plain. I had expected the carving, often compared to South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, to be bigger, more impressive. Then I stepped inside the museum at Stone Mountain Park and quickly discovered that first impressions can indeed be deceiving. The image of the three men towers 400 feet above the ground and is larger than a football field. Measuring 90 by 190 feet, the carving is a full thirty feet higher than Mount Rushmore and a six foot man can stand inside the mouth of General Lee’s horse! Even more surprising, for nearly half a century the attempt to create this memorial to the Confederacy was little more than a pipe dream.

Though from a distance it seems small, the Confederate Memorial Carving on the face of Stone Mountain is largest high-relief sculpture in the world

Though from a distance it seems small, the Confederate Memorial Carving on the face of Stone Mountain is largest high-relief sculpture in the world

The project was first envisioned by Caroline Helen Jemison Plane, a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who in 1915 approached sculptor Gutzon Borglum to sculpt a 20-foot high bust of General Lee on the face of the mountain. Borglum, who would later become famous as the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, accepted the commission and immediately lobbied to expand the project, insisting that “…a twenty foot head of Lee on that mountainside would look like a postage stamp on a barn door.” Given my initial reaction, there is little doubt that Borglum was correct but his grandiose counter-proposal was for a project the size of which had never before been attempted: he envisioned a sculpture of seven central figures followed by “an army of thousands.” World War One delayed the onset of carving, but finally in 1923 Borglund was given $250,000 and allowed to start. Less than seven months later he unveiled the completed head of Lee on the General’s birthday, but the sculptor’s dictatorial attitudes were winning him no favor and by 1925 his contract had been cancelled over irreconcilable differences.

Enter sculptor number two, Augustus Lukeman, whose first action was to dynamite any evidence of Borglum’s work off the face of the mountain and begin anew. Three years later funds ran out during the Great Depression and once again the project was shelved – this time for 30 years, until the the State of Georgia purchased the mountain in 1958 and made it a state park. The Stone Mountain Memorial Association (SMMA) was established and tasked with the responsibility for completing the sculpture and constructing a plaza at the base of Stone Mountain. Following an extensive selection process, SMMA selected Walter Hancock to finish the project and work began again in earnest in 1964.
 

Can’t view the above YouTube video about Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta, Georgia? Click here.

Hancock, a renowned sculptor in his own right, referred to himself as the consultant on the carving and not the sculptor, explaining in a 1977 interview with Robert Brown, for the Archives of American Art: “Because the carving after all had been begun from a model by Augustus Ludeman, and it was clear that the only way that it could be carried out was to continue with Ludeman’s model. So I felt that I was simply a consultant and not the sculptor…

Though Hancock used Lukeman’s models and sketches as a basis for his design, he felt that Lukeman’s partially finished sculpture  had some enormous mistakes in proportion.

It had a kind of fine monumental quality, but the heads of the figures were large enough to be those of six-year old boys, and they couldn’t have been made to look like dignified leaders of the Confederacy… Unfortunately, it had been carried so far that there was no going back. Davis’ head had been finished by Ludeman’s carvers and it had been finished very well. It is a very handsome piece of portraiture and carving. The Lee head was almost finished, the Jackson head not at all. I had to saw up the cast of Ludeman’s model, fill in the missing pieces, lengthen the arms, lengthen the torsos, lower the bodies of the horses in order to give the men enough room, enough presence to live up to their heads. This brought the horses down to below the line which had been cut by the original carvers. There were deep channels cutting right through what we would have liked to have as the material for the large horse and their legs. So, it was clear that the legs of the horses could never be carved.” (sic)

The modifications were accomplished via “patching,” which became one of the greatest challenges of the entire project. The host of professional quarrymen who had been hired to do the day-to-day carving cut giant blocks of granite from the side of the mountain, built train tracks from the quarry site to the carving site, loaded the giant blocks and transported them by rail. The blocks were then lifted into place and secured with five-foot long steel pins and mortar, following which the “plug” was carved to match the rest of the figure. A large block used to augment Lee’s chest weighed four and a half tons, while two smaller blocks were used to beef up his elbow and forearm. Additional patches were also added to one of the horse’s heads, Jackson’s beard and collar, and to Davis’ hat. Read More

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Costa Rica
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

Though I was sorely disappointed by the touristy nature of Costa Rica, I did return with one bit of true Tico culture, a giant bottle of the Costa Rican national condiment, Salsa Lizano. No kitchen or serving table in Costa Rica is complete without this slightly spicy, slightly sweet brown sauce, which usually stands side-by-side with its cousin, the very spicy Lizano Chilero. Ticos pour the stuff on everything: eggs, rice, beans, gallo pinto, tamales, cheeses, steaks, soups and even use it to marinate meat.

Costa Rica's national culinary pride, Lizano Salsa and Chilero

Costa Rica's national culinary pride, Lizano Salsa and Chilero

Developed in 1920 by the Lizano Company, the condiment is often referred to as the “Worcestershire sauce” of Latin America, but its ingredients (water, sugar, iodized salt, onions, carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, molasses, mustard, celery, spicy chiles, spices such as black pepper and cumin, corn starch, acetic acid, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein) have little in common with the traditional English condiment. For years, visitors to Costa Rica have been carrying it home by the gallon jug, as it was not sold outside of Central America. After my first taste I, too, succumbed to its charms and upon returning to San Jose I asked my hotel owner for directions to a grocery store where I could buy a large bottle.

According to the manager at Casa las Orquideas Boutique Hotel, Salsa Lizano was manufactured for many years by a well-known Costa Rican family, in one of the country’s most modern factories. Several years ago, Kraft contracted with the factory to do some bottling for them. One thing led to another and Kraft ended up buying the factory. The public outcry was Read More