Brasilia

Brasilia

If you ever dreamt that you lived in a 1960s city, you probably channeled Brasilia. This city was planned and built in a short four years moving the capital out of Rio. Famed architect Oscar Niemeyer designed all the major government buildings including the Presidential palace. As a protégé of Le Corbusier, Niemeyer loved curves and abhorred straight lines. Consequently, these stark white, granite and marble glass-walled buildings contain hemispheres, circles, bowls, wings and curvy windows. The major art museum has an inside-outside ramp resembling the Guggenheim ─ which makes me wonder if “Frank and Oscar ever had a conversation?” Even today, the structures are remarkable. Yet Niemeyer placed his buildings on white-tiled plazas completely devoid of any plants which creates a stark impression in spite of the super-sized metal sculptures by the Brazilian Bruno Georgio.

The outline of the city is shaped like a bird with the major government  structures located at the head. The center section of the city plan (bird body) is like the grassy mall in D.C. that stretches between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. There are boring, rectangular buildings for all the federal agencies on either side of the two highways that abut the grass, each highway containing six lanes of traffic. There are 3 million people and 1.5 million automobiles. The city is not designed for walking and we were encouraged to take taxis everywhere. Walking is done by service employees, some government workers, and few tourists like us.

Hotels are in one section and the middle class residences are elsewhere. People like hotel staff live outside of Brasilia. There is literally no downtown. Finding a good restaurant entails a 30 minute taxi ride to a glitzy shopping mall featuring Armani, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and other tony European brands.

One non-white Niemeyer building in tan and glass resembles an Aztec temple. This is the National Theatre and is a short walk from our hotel. The interior is spacious with marble floors, plants, and elegant sculpture. Mark is able to learn that the Brasilia Symphony is performing and the concert is free.

We arrive an hour before the scheduled starting time of 8 PM. While chatting with some people on line, a young Brazilian man started speaking English with us. Henon is a 22 year old medical student and comes every Tuesday night for these free concerts. His English was excellent and he had enormous knowledge about American politics, literature, poetry and classical music. He told us that these concerts are mostly attended by students, and that the young people of Brasilia are better informed about classical music than the previous generation ─ just the reverse trend from our country.

The lovely theater seated about 1,000 and almost full when the concert  began. The program consisted of Schuman and Dvorak. All the orchestra members were in formal wear and the women wore rather sexy black outfits. The conductor then announced the program which was translated by Henon. Mark compared this professional orchestra with other small city orchestras in the US.

Brazilians pay an enormous amount of tax so a free concert is a public bonus. There’s little advertising in tourist publications so we were only two of a handful of tourists in the house. We certainly had a more memorable experience than the American movie we were considering for our final evening in Brasilia.

#    #    #   #

#    #    #   #  #

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rio and Iguazu Falls

Rio and Iguazu Falls

Brazil is almost as large as the entire United States and boasts a population of 200 million. The society is seemingly color-blind and skin color ranges from white to black with a parfait of brown in-between. At present the economy is booming and a woman was just elected President. However, many Brazilians feel that she is a pawn of the previous President.  Corruption and high taxes are endemic in Brazil so a rigged election is no surprise.

Our Brazilian month starts in Rio’s famed Copacabana, magnificently set on the ocean surrounded by towering green mountains. The long crescent beach has the famous sidewalks with spirals of black and white tile. Offshore there are wild jungle islands that extend to the horizon. This is the seaward view. When you turn around and cross the boulevard there are chock-a-block hotels packed against each other that resemble the worst of Miami Beach.  At least in Rio, the hotels do not block the beach.

In Copacabana and nearby Ipanema, people wear the skimpiest bathing attire. Women, regardless of age or size, sport let-it-all-hang-out bikinis. Young women like thong bottoms and even ride bicycles in that attire. Ouch!

Rio’s population is about 6 million and the richest people live at beach level while the poor dwell in favelas high up on the mountains. Favelas are as varied as the skin color of the Brazilians. Some are controlled by drug gangs while others are home to workers in the construction and electrical trades who build their shanties and live off the grid. Looking across at the favelas from atop Sugar Loaf Mountain, the houses are so close that I wonder if there are any streets.

Our first Rio tour is at night and Alex, our young guide takes us out to samba in the Lapa district. The Scenarium night club is three stories high with an eclectic décor that might have caused Martha Stewart to have heart failure. The first floor has 1960 refrigerator doors on the red wall, followed by 1940s pinups, crystal collections, old portraits of unknowns, a purple wall of stopped clocks, and my personal favorite, a 1929 Ford. If Feng Shui is the modern way to decorate, this is “Shui Feng.”

The place is rocking with a fabulous samba band and we join the dancers. After a few hours a new band comes on with loads of percussion and everyone stands and bounces rhythmically on the dance floor. We leave at midnight as many people are entering.

Within Rio there are a number of unusual forested areas. Alex takes us on a rainy day hike in the Tijuca National Park. This reclaimed forest was once a coffee plantation although we have difficulty believing that coffee really grew on these steep slopes.  The hated tree is jackfruit which grows everywhere and makes a smelly mess. Decorative Impatiens plants which we prize in our gardens are called “Shameless Susans” and are viewed as exotic weeds.

Alex relates that his girlfriend is working at a Jewish conference in a nearby hotel.  We express our interest to stop at the conference, meet Marcella, and ask her about the Jewish community in Rio. Our question is overheard by Jeanette and her husband Jose, long-time Rio residents, who tell us that Rio has 30,000 Jews. Jeanette is a conference speaker and offers to show us her synagogue the next morning. She has been very active in her large Reform synagogue which now has 1000 families.

Our final full day in Rio involves a two hour car trip and an hour ferry ride to arrive at Ilha Grande, the Big Island. We hike to some beaches with the clearest turquoise water and few people. There are limited accomodations on the entire island. This is how Rio might have been when the first explorers came.

The morning we depart is filled with bright sunshine. We run on Copacabana beach and body surf in the waves. The place is bustling with activity, and considering all the oiled bodies no one worries about melanoma or UV damage. Vendors sell bikinis, rent beach chairs and hawk drinks but there’s no pressure to buy. Unlike Miami, the beach is public and everyone can go anywhere.  Adios Rio….

Iguazu Falls

In 1986 we saw “The Mission,” featuring Robert  De Niro and Jeremy Irons. The movie is loosely based on the history of the Guarani natives and attempts by the Jesuits (Jeremy Irons et al) to convert them. The star of the film was the most incredible waterfall I’d ever seen ─ Iguazu Falls. I turned to Mark and declared, “We have to go there!”  Obviously, it’s taken us a few years.

Both Brazil and Argentine have created national parks around the falls and each country offers glorious views. The various falls composing Iguazu extend more than a mile and a half. This makes Iguazu twice the size of Niagara Falls ─ counting both the American and Canadian sides.

Before Iguazu is visible, we hear the thundering noise.  In the pouring rain we join many tourists and walk along the paths and catwalks created for close-up views. There’s an endless roar as the water races to the river below where foam, mist, torrents, and rain intermingle. Occasionally monkeys jump in the trees but the major attraction is always the falls.

The water turns corners and cascades over, under, and through rocky outcrops exploding hundreds of feet below in a deluge of spray and clouds. Flocks of Great Dusty Swifts fly and dart into the falls. These birds are only found at Iguazu. One of the most powerful sections is called Diablo Gargantua, “Devil’s Throat.” Standing next to each other, we must shout to be heard over the booming water.

When the sun comes out the next day we are joyous. The Argentine side is more complicated and requires passports, exit and entrance papers for Brazil, and two border checks. Having a guide with a car makes the process easier. One catwalk is so close to a torrential outpouring that I feel the power behind me as I turn to face the camera. We top this day off with a boat ride that gets everyone under the mist and foam and careening across the high river waves.

There’s an eco-talk as we return through the forest and back to the starting point. A large secondary forest has always surrounded the falls with unusual animals like caimans (small alligators), coatamundi, monkeys, lizards, and numerous birds. There are also gorgeous butterflies and Mark patiently photographs several.

Culinary Notes

Foz de Iguazu, the dreary town in which we stayed is not for foodies. Most meals and restaurants are done in the “all-ya-ken- eat” buffet style. The hotel breakfast has a number of edible items but poor presentation.

Our most incomprehensible meal occurred in a really bad Italian restaurant. We request a menu and explain that we eat “sin carne”            no meat. The head waiter said, “Pasta solamente pasta.” He took the menu and pointed to all the meatless pastas including polenta (a pasta?). Mark was hesitant but I was hungry so we stayed. Waiters arrived, offering platters of assorted dishes. Mark asked for bread and was told, “No hay” meaning, “There’s none.” This in an Italian restaurant? Finally we realized the word was “Basta” meant “enough” and when we indicated “Basta!” the food stopped.

#    #   #   #

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rapa Nui Oct. 2010

Oct. 26   Easter Island aka Rapa Nui aka Isla Pasqua

For years Easter Island has occupied a top slot on our must-see-list. The native name for this place is Rapa Nui while Chileans call it “Isla Pasqua.” The first explorer came ashore on Easter Sunday. Like many Western adventurers, he never asked about the indigenous island name ─ consider Denali (Mt. McKinley) and Uluru (Ayers Rock).

Located over 2200 miles from Chile and almost 2000 miles from Tahiti, Rapa Nui is the most isolated place on the planet. This mystical, triangle of land is a renowned archaeological site famous for enormous stone statues scattered along the entire coast. Rapa Nui has a tumultuous history replete with warring clans, slave traders, and disease brought by Europeans. In the present there are problems with garbage disposal, health care, and conflicts with Chilean authority.

Archaeologists estimate that about 300 million years ago, a volcanic eruption occurred and island formation began. The black rocks are distributed everywhere so that the coastline resembles Hawaii. The first humans to arrive came in the 5th century and are related to New Zealand Maoris and other Polynesians. Even today, all of these people who live thousands of miles apart speak an almost identical language.

Our first escapade happened because Mark often opens conversation with other travelers. In August, on a 6AM Helsinki airport shuttle in the pouring rain, Mark chats with a Chilean. Upon learning of our Rapa Nui plans, she writes a cell phone number and says, “You must contact Guata and he can show you around.”

Two months later, from our island hotel Mark leaves a message for Guata and we  explore a village studded with restaurants, souvenir shops, and transportation rentals. At a local café we meet Sabrina, a vivacious tour guide. She advises us on culinary choices and family linkages ─ she is Guata’s niece.

Guata phones and announces that he’s coming to take us to a family dinner. Guata means “fat” and so he is, but with a great disposition. This burly man is tan with a huge belly, sparkling eyes, a mass of graying curls, and a paucity of English.  His truck is loaded with stuff but we pile in next to his cute 4-year old grandson, Enrique.

Guata’s Uncle is barbecuing fish for dinner. We hang out with Guata, Enrique, and other family ─ relationships are a bit unclear. Guata phones Sabrina aka vivacious tour guide, and she joins the dinner crowd.

When the fish is done, Guata takes a handful and puts it in my mouth. (Is this Laos?) As guests, Mark and I are given forks and plates but everyone else eats with fingers. Other healthy dishes appear like fry bread, cucumber-tomato salad and yams. Everyone grabs chunks of fish directly from the grill. Before leaving, Mark buys a small wooden statue from Uncle the Carver. What a wonderful Rapa Nui welcome!

The next day our tour bus comes to the hotel where we learn that 14 other people are joining us, not our preferred MO. Mark says, “The good news is that we paid ahead, the bad news is that we paid ahead.”  Our tour guide Rosa explains everything twice – once in English and then in Spanish. Her knowledge is vast.

Once we leave the town, large stone figures called moai dot the landscape. The moai are placed on stage-like platforms called ahu. The faces show indentations for eyes, nose, and an unsmiling mouth. Supposedly the moai are images of tribal chiefs. For the natives these were considered to be living ancestors and part of the supernatural world.  Archaeologists have spent years uncovering the statues and deciphering their meaning. Sometimes there is just a head over ten feet tall and sometimes a figure will be more than 20 feet high. One well-known archaeologist wasThor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame.

A most impressive moai site is along the side of the volcano where the moai were carved. The volcanic rock today is covered with lush grass and flowering lantana weeds.The hillsides are studded with moai. Using hard stones, the carvers literally extracted the statue from the volcanic walls. A lever system of tree trunks and rocks was used to move the moai to distant locations and then set them upright. Even today archaeologists are uncertain about the exact method used to transport these massive statues.

A Unesco World Heritage Site has 15 moai in a line almost at the water’s edge. A tsunami once toppled all of them down but after many years and enormous efforts including a giant crane, the moai are standing tall. A few are crowned with red stone blocks, called “ top knots.” Today, many men have long thick pony tails and some wear their own top knot. Standing on this shore amid these massive figures and the crashing ocean is a humbling experience.

In addition there are petroglyphs but unfortunately most are not well-preserved. Yet one rock carving clearly displays a female outline – no one is certain of the meaning. Even now archeologists are trying to uncover mysteries about the petroglyphs and the moai.

On our last day, we take a long hike from town up to a large caldera. This ancient volcano has long been dormant and a lake lies deep down covered with plants and reeds. Hiking along the edge among the lupine and other dry weeds, the sun is out, the sea is blue-green and we feel like early explorers alone in the world. A collarless dog suddenly appears and accompanies us.  When we descend she follows us into town. We seemingly lose her at the hotel, but early next morning we find her asleep on our back porch. We are saddened by this feral animal who “relied on the kindness of strangers.”

Rapa Nui is also described by the natives as Te Pito o te Henua meaning “The Navel of the World.”  There is a special magic here that is unforgettable.

Oct. 26   Easter Island aka Rapa Nui aka Isla Pasqua

For years Easter Island has occupied a top slot on our must-see-list. The native name for this place is Rapa Nui while Chileans call it “Isla Pasqua.” The first explorer came ashore on Easter Sunday. Like many Western adventurers, he never asked about the indigenous island name ─ consider Denali (Mt. McKinley) and Uluru (Ayers Rock).

Located over 2200 miles from Chile and almost 2000 miles from Tahiti, Rapa Nui is the most isolated place on the planet. This mystical, triangle of land is a renowned archaeological site famous for enormous stone statues scattered along the entire coast. Rapa Nui has a tumultuous history replete with warring clans, slave traders, and disease brought by Europeans. In the present there are problems with garbage disposal, health care, and conflicts with Chilean authority.

Archaeologists estimate that about 300 million years ago, a volcanic eruption occurred and island formation began. The black rocks are distributed everywhere so that the coastline resembles Hawaii. The first humans to arrive came in the 5th century and are related to New Zealand Maoris and other Polynesians. Even today, all of these people who live thousands of miles apart speak an almost identical language.

Our first escapade happened because Mark often opens conversation with other travelers. In August, on a 6AM Helsinki airport shuttle in the pouring rain, Mark chats with a Chilean. Upon learning of our Rapa Nui plans, she writes a cell phone number and says, “You must contact Guata and he can show you around.”

Two months later, from our island hotel Mark leaves a message for Guata and we  explore a village studded with restaurants, souvenir shops, and transportation rentals. At a local café we meet Sabrina, a vivacious tour guide. She advises us on culinary choices and family linkages ─ she is Guata’s niece.

Guata phones and announces that he’s coming to take us to a family dinner. Guata means “fat” and so he is, but with a great disposition. This burly man is tan with a huge belly, sparkling eyes, a mass of graying curls, and a paucity of English.  His truck is loaded with stuff but we pile in next to his cute 4-year old grandson, Enrique.

Guata’s Uncle is barbecuing fish for dinner. We hang out with Guata, Enrique, and other family ─ relationships are a bit unclear. Guata phones Sabrina aka vivacious tour guide, and she joins the dinner crowd.

When the fish is done, Guata takes a handful and puts it in my mouth. (Is this Laos?) As guests, Mark and I are given forks and plates but everyone else eats with fingers. Other healthy dishes appear like fry bread, cucumber-tomato salad and yams. Everyone grabs chunks of fish directly from the grill. Before leaving, Mark buys a small wooden statue from Uncle the Carver. What a wonderful Rapa Nui welcome!

The next day our tour bus comes to the hotel where we learn that 14 other people are joining us, not our preferred MO. Mark says, “The good news is that we paid ahead, the bad news is that we paid ahead.”  Our tour guide Rosa explains everything twice – once in English and then in Spanish. Her knowledge is vast.

Once we leave the town, large stone figures called moai dot the landscape. The moai are placed on stage-like platforms called ahu. The faces show indentations for eyes, nose, and an unsmiling mouth. Supposedly the moai are images of tribal chiefs. For the natives these were considered to be living ancestors and part of the supernatural world.  Archaeologists have spent years uncovering the statues and deciphering their meaning. Sometimes there is just a head over ten feet tall and sometimes a figure will be more than 20 feet high. One well-known archaeologist wasThor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame.

A most impressive moai site is along the side of the volcano where the moai were carved. The volcanic rock today is covered with lush grass and flowering lantana weeds.The hillsides are studded with moai. Using hard stones, the carvers literally extracted the statue from the volcanic walls. A lever system of tree trunks and rocks was used to move the moai to distant locations and then set them upright. Even today archaeologists are uncertain about the exact method used to transport these massive statues.

A Unesco World Heritage Site has 15 moai in a line almost at the water’s edge. A tsunami once toppled all of them down but after many years and enormous efforts including a giant crane, the moai are standing tall. A few are crowned with red stone blocks, called “ top knots.” Today, many men have long thick pony tails and some wear their own top knot. Standing on this shore amid these massive figures and the crashing ocean is a humbling experience.

In addition there are petroglyphs but unfortunately most are not well-preserved. Yet one rock carving clearly displays a female outline – no one is certain of the meaning. Even now archeologists are trying to uncover mysteries about the petroglyphs and the moai.

On our last day, we take a long hike from town up to a large caldera. This ancient volcano has long been dormant and a lake lies deep down covered with plants and reeds. Hiking along the edge among the lupine and other dry weeds, the sun is out, the sea is blue-green and we feel like early explorers alone in the world. A collarless dog suddenly appears and accompanies us.  When we descend she follows us into town. We seemingly lose her at the hotel, but early next morning we find her asleep on our back porch. We are saddened by this feral animal who “relied on the kindness of strangers.”

Rapa Nui is also described by the natives as Te Pito o te Henua meaning “The Navel of the World.”  There is a special magic here that is unforgettable.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Australia – End of Part 1

Friends- In the event that you missed some of our earlier adventures,
you can read them in the Blog on my website.  You can also read or
listen to commentaries or travel tales. Place this link in your
browser:

http:/jrreisswriter.com

AUSTRALIA  ENDS  PART  1

We fly from Laos to Bangkok to Melbourne, Australia – a very
l-o-n-g commute. At the airport, we meet Florence and Allen, my
sister-in law and brother in-law from New York. We’ve been to
Australia about ten times, but for Florence and Allen this is a first.

Our starting point is Melbourne under a cold and sometimes
rainy sky. The central district is easily viewed from a free tourist
trolley. There is enormous growth here since our last visit 20 years
ago. Downtown has an array of skyscrapers and a dynamic food market.
Many street names are reminders of merrie olde England. Yet, there’s a
cosmopolitan air about the city and on weekdays a sophisticated work
force moves at a rapid pace. Thanks to a knowledgeable art dealer, we
receive an amazing education in aboriginal culture.

Driving north along the coast, the first stop is Prince
Phillip Island, a lovely beach resort and national park area. At one
end of the island, the wind whips  about and the sea roils as we
navigate a curvy boardwalk on a spit on land. All around us are
hundreds upon hundreds of Aussie-type sea gulls. Most are sitting on
eggs and occasionally a chubby brown chick is visible. A number of the
birds are fighting and there’s a cacophony of noise! We walk and hope
that the flying birds will not deposit any unwanted missiles.

The island’s major attraction is the Parade of the Fairy
Penguins which occurs after sunset. The penguins go to sea, feed, and
emerge on land to mate or find their babies or both. We arrive at the
beach bleachers two hours ahead of time with binoculars at the ready.
The cold wind has not abated and we huddle together for warmth. As the
sun sinks a park ranger appears and relates behavior rules for humans
in the presence of penguins. Just as darkness descends, the penguins
emerge in groups. The stadium lights above the bleachers go on and
with the binoculars we have a detailed view as they waddle ashore. The
little penguins head for the burrows on land. We are chilled but what
an extraordinary experience.

Continuing along the coast, our next stop is Narooma, a
beautiful town about a four hour drive from Sydney. We’re here to
attend our friend Clive’s 60th birthday party. We met Clive and Cheryl
20 years ago in Padang Bay on Bali. Clive asked if he could sublet our
rental car for one day and a lifetime friendship began. Although we
meet many people on our travels, Clive and Cheryl are the only ones we
see on both sides of the pond.

The birthday celebration is filled with friends and family
from all corners of the globe. There’s even a “toast and a roast” of
Clive in which we eagerly participate with travel tales. Florence and
Allen win the prize for coming the furthest distance. The celebrating
continues long after our midnight departure.

On the next day we drive around the Narooma countryside and
then watch multi-Aussie sports on television: footie* finals, rugby,
and cricket. [* “Footie and football share very little except a long
green field, goal posts, and a brown ball.] Never have so few
Americans spent this much time watching incomprehensible sports with
peculiar rules. There were some helpful mentors, but no bicycles were
involved so I learned little.

In October, a major migration of humpback whales occurs. At
the Narooma wharf, we boarded an excursion boat and headed out to sea.
At first there was nothing but the high rolling ocean. Then luck
struck and we saw a number of humpback whales breach and slap the
water. Supposedly, slapping helps rid the whale of barnacles. We’ve
seen these magnificent mammals before but this is always an
extraordinary sight.

Back into driving on the wrong side of the road and up to
Sydney. .. Mark and Allen take turns being navigator and driver. Our
mantra is always “STAY LEFT”. In Sydney I have two first cousins –
Jeff and Syd Reinhardt who emigrated from South Africa. It’s a special
feeling to catch up with all the families on another continent. They
each have children and grandchildren. The four of us stay with Jeff
and Lindsey in their luxurious home in the northern suburbs. This
splendid house overlooks a lovely inlet. Jeff’s boat is nearby and we
have a fun trip to the Sydney fish market on a gorgeous day.

Here are a few Sydney highlights:

*From downtown Sydney at Circular Quay [pronounced key] we
take a harbor cruise on Hop-on/Hop-off. Sydney must be viewed from the
water. Sydney is San Francisco down under especially when you combine
the beauty with the loose Aussie attitude.

*A climb up to the top of the pylon on the Sydney Harbor
Bridge costs a mere $6.50 compared with $260 for a walk up the bridge
span. We are almost as high and the views are extraordinary.

*A guided tour of the “Rocks” where the city was founded in
the late 18th century.

*Our cousins’ cousin Ralph leads us on a glorious coastal
walk where the sea crashes against the rocks while daredevil surfers
catch gnarly waves.

*Walking around the iconic Opera House and later attending a
lovely performance of “Marriage of Figaro.”

*A day trip to hike in the Blue Mountains, a 90 minute drive
from Sydney. The name comes from the gum trees aka eucalyptus which
appear blue when seen from a distance. Arriving in a disappointing
fog, we begin a 900 step descent. Below the cloud, the vista magically
opens and we see golden canyon rocks and a tumbling waterfall.
Cockatoos and parrots fly about. A gondola brings us back up.

Once again Australia brings cherished moments with family
and friends before we make a brief San Francisco stop en route to our
next destinations – Easter Island and Brazil.

#   #   #   #   #

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Laos Part 2

More Laos – Part 2

Back on the river heading South…

Boarding a motorized long boat with a covered roof, we head
downstream on another tributary of the Mekong. Although our pilot
appears to be around 14 years old, he is extremely competent,
negotiating large amounts of river debris and small rapids. The muddy
brown river narrows and the mountains rise. These limestone (karst)
mountains show only thin walls of white rock since  the jungle
provides a full green cover. In any botanical contest, the vines win
as they overtake all other growth in a rush to the river.

Our only stop is at a Tai Dam settlement. These people fled
during the Vietnam war and lived in caves. When the war ended they
established this village approachable only by water. The village is
known for beautiful weavings in silk and cotton. A woman weaves
rapidly on a primitive loom with home spun yarn. Each day many houses
in the village hang their weavings outside in the hope of tourists. We
help pound rice in a hollow tree trunk creating much laughter from the
locals.

At our eco-lodge a lightning storm begins. Dinner is a breakfast
meal of muesli, fruit, and yogurt. One good legacy from the French is
baguettes and the sandwiches are luscious. When I ask about the
cheese, the young Lao waiter says,  “Vashee” and makes a triangle with
his fingers which is the giveaway. The cheese is “La vache qui rit” or
“Laughing Cow” as we know it. We have always called it (laughingly)
“Vashky-Rishky” and get a kick out of this transliteration.

The Laos Biathlon begins the next morning. In two kayaks we
paddle; Mark and a river guide are followed by Thon and me. The
kayaking is lovely as we do a long, slow glide downstream. Our
Riverside Lodge has mountain bikes and so we tour the countryside. A
young British couple assist at the lodge. He has been hired to develop
a climbing school and she teaches English to the locals. Maybe this
will become the Yosemite of Laos, but not for a few years.

The next day another long boat ride on the Mekong which is now at
least two Km. wide and muddier than ever. The Pak Ou caves deep inside
a limestone mountain are both a tourist attraction and a sacred place
for the local villagers. Inside the caves are hundreds upon hundreds
of old Buddha statues of all sizes. When a Buddha becomes disfigured
in some way ─ usually by aging, the statue is brought here. One spot
has been dedicated as a prayer area and people bring offerings and buy
flowers. We are ahead of the busy tourist season so only a few people
are at the site.

The caves are only a short distance from Louang Probang, the
cultural and spiritual center of Laos. The next day is spent touring
the many temples in this busy city. Our guide Thon explains the
similarities found in all Buddhist temples. There’s a central Buddha,
often covered in gold paint, and additional Buddhas of all sizes on
each side of the largest Buddha. Each temple is decorated with an odd
number (7, 9, 11 etc.- odd numbers being more auspicious than even
numbers) of dragons known as “naga”. On the roof are an odd number of
golden “parasols” that resemble line drawings of a Christmas tree with
ever widening circles from top to bottom. A number of the temples have
detailed drawings of the life of Buddha and his enlightenment. Two
temples date back to the 16th century and the rest are of more recent
vintage. There were once 100 temples in Louang Probang but during a
Chinese invasion of Laos, all but two temples were ransacked and
burned.

In one elaborate temple, we are privileged to view a ceremony
where a ten year old boy is undergoing his initiation into monkhood.
His entire family is there and a money tree has been erected for
family donations. Often young boys temporarily choose the monastic
life in order to gain an education. Later, they leave the order.
Immediately outside the temple the family is preparing an elaborate
meal. We are reminded of a Bar Mitzvah celebration.

A weaving center and school located at the banks of the Mekong-
Ock Pop Tok (East meets West) is worth a several hours visit.
Everything is made naturally from the local habitat. We see silkworm
cultures, trees harvested for their individual dyes, and hand operated
spinning wheels and looms. Often girls as young as 8 years old, who
learn how to weave from their mothers, are operating the looms. The
weaving is gorgeous. Several women in their 50s have been weaving
since they were children.

By 6 AM the next morning we are on a street corner kneeling over
a small rice basket and waiting. Hundreds of orange clad monks are
coming down the street for their morning food allocation. Each carries
a large bowl which is held by a bag that goes over one shoulder. We
join the “food givers” on the right side of the street. Thon explains
that even when there are no tourists the people in town support the
monks. Most of the tourists take photos but are not involved in the
food line. Only about 15 minutes but quite an experience.

In the late morning we bid Thon good-by and get ready to board a
prop plane for Pakxse. We meet our new guide at the airport and the
first excursion is to the Bolaven Plateau, a slightly higher and
cooler elevation with large coffee and tea plantations. The French
were instrumental in creating the Laos coffee industry. Today French
consultants are still active trying to make Laos coffee world class.
Depending on what part of the  plant is used, three different types of
tea can be made. There’s is an enormous amount of hand labor involved
in both the coffee and tea industry.

From here we set out to see the major waterfalls in the area.
Laos can definitely get boasting rights in this department. First is a
double waterfall that tumbles about 900ft into the river. Next is a
split falls where you carefully descend stone steps and actually stand
in the mist. The final waterfall was over a fourth of a mile wide and
just roars down over the protruding rocks. This was our lunch
accompaniment.

Wat Phou is an ancient Khmer temple site that pre-dates Angkor Wat.
From the nearby village, we bike the 12 Km or so to the site. Estimated
to be from the 12th century, secrets are still being unraveled from
the surroundng jungle. There is a long processional pathway lined with
stone columns topped with lotus flower buds. The high shallow, steps
are reminiscent of Mayan pyramids and lead us to the major temple.
Angkor kings honored deities from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
As a result, the temple has some well-preserved Hindu lintels and  the
centerpiece is an ancient Buddha where local people and tourists make
offerings.

The view below is glorious. The jungle surrounds the entire site
but the palaces and the processional make a striking scene. I can
imagine an
enormous royal pageant leading to the temple to pray to the gods for
whatever the need might be.

We bicycle back to the village, passing a heated game of Lao
“Bocce Ball.” The game could be in an Italian village rather than
Southeast Asia.

In late afternoon, a leaky boat takes us to an island resort, La
Folie ─ our most glorious hotel in Laos. A pool and 12 bungalows face
the Mekong. The manager is German and the food is first class, equal
to a fine San Francisco restaurant. Departing on a catamaran with a
deck connection and two bamboo chairs, we feel like a British Sahib
and Memsahib from another era.

Today’s escapade involves an elephant ride up a small mountain.
Our 50 year old elephant comes along with her driver who straddles
behind her ears. Atop her back and around her tail is attached a
cushioned bamboo love seat which has seen much use. We climb a flight
of stairs and from a platform we access our love seat. We are off with
a bit of sway from left to right. This is a major tourist attraction
so we start to climb on a macadam road. I know it will be 45 minutes
to the top where we can dismount and look at some ruins. The timer on
my watch says 40 minutes to go. Only 30 minutes to go as another
elephant comes down the mountain. Now our elephant turns in a downhill
direction. This gives Mark a photo op and my watch says 28 minutes to
go. When we hit a plateau I look for the ruins. Finally I spot the one
story staircase where we dismount and Mark says, “Would you rather
walk down?” I hug him and pronounce all kinds of accolades on my
darling husband. We survey the remnants of some stone posts and begin
our descent.

Our Kingfisher Eco Lodge has a lot of “Eco” but no
air-conditioning so we are a bit sleep-deprived by morning, having
survived our steamy night below a mosquito net. We have a complicated
day of van travel and boats to arrive at one of Laos’s famed 4,000
islands which are almost at the Cambodian border. Upon arrival, we are
hot and exhausted and  pass up on yet another waterfall and opt for a
long nap in our air-conditioned room.

Onto Australia and the next adventure….

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Laos Part 1

LAOS – PART 1

Touring Laos requires great fortitude; a capacity for instantaneous shifts to plan B and the ability to comprehend that life will get better. Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. The mighty Mekong River has long been a major source of transportation and commerce. Laos is the size of Great Britain with a population of 6 million of which 70% are Laotian Buddhists.The rest are a mix of  tribal units that follow animistic beliefs.

The per capita income is $700/year but the majority of the people are subsistence farmers and rice is the principal crop. Since 1975 Laos has been independent and communist run. Often the Lao flag flies next to the hammer and sickle. This is one of the poorest countries in the world today.

Laos is hot and steamy which means temperatures of at least 95o, the humidity that exceeds 100%. The goal is to wear the minimum amount of light clothing. We arrive mid-September, at the end of rainy season and before the October tourist season begins. We have private guides and air-conditioned vans.

Our entrance to Laos is from northeast Thailand. In a motorized longboat, we make our first journey across the mighty, muddy Mekong River. There are no fancy tour groups here just young backpackers and us. All Lao tourists, regardless of nationality are known as Falang which means foreigner. Upon landing, we meet our guide Thon. He helps us complete entry papers and moves us through the communist bureaucracy. The visa cost is usually $35 U.S. but on the week-ends, each traveler pays $1 more.

We have a four hour drive ahead and Thon tells us about Laos. Marriage can occur at age 15 so child-bearing begins early. Thon had 17 siblings but three died. His father recognized that he was bright and sent him off for a good education.

We stop and walk through some friendly Hmong villages; our first introduction to Laos houses on stilts. In the countryside, babysitters seem to begin around age six where young girls carry month old babies on their backs. When a child walks, this toddler joins older children in unsupervised play that occurs between the chickens, dogs, and rivers. Although 50% of the adult population is illiterate, more primary schools seem to be starting.

The Hmong played an important role in the Vietnam War because they rebelled against the earliest communist takeover in Laos. In 1960, American forces were already in Vietnam. The U.S. thinking was, “Better Dead than Red.” Through a series of clandestine maneuvers much like the Afghanistan story in “Charlie Wilson’s War”, Hmong rebels were convinced that aiding the U.S. fight in Vietnam could lead to a non-communist Laos. In the end Laos remained communist and more than 20,000 Hmong died. Even today, the government attacks and often kills Hmong who live in the northern jungles where foreigners are forbidden to go.

Thon leaves us at the Boat Landing Eco-lodge, a remarkable place with a real ecological sensitivity that includes solar heaters and recycled plastic bottles. Food is good and dinner ran us a huge $14 U.S aka $110,000 Kip.

For vegetarian Falang, sticky rice and vegetables are common fare although rice can be replaced with noodles. In Laos rice is the dominant food item and annual per capita consumption is rumored to be 500 lbs./person.

Next morning we begin a three day jungle trek. With our English speaking-guide Pitt, we drive to a Khmu village, right off the road. Aside from the stilt houses, everyone is in western garb. The “old” people look ancient when they reach 50.

There are numerous river crossings and often I cross in (not on) the water since the so-called bridge appears unstable or non-existent. Trails can be the width of two female feet or smaller. This trek is not for the faint of heart or foot. We are the oldest people Pitt has ever guided.

Thanks to Pitt’s wilderness knowledge, the jungle becomes a  fascinating place. For all the local people, the jungle is super-market, pharmacy, and Home Depot all in one place. The bamboo and rattan serve to create houses. Rattan sprouts can be cooked as can banana flowers. The most amazing are the mushrooms which the local people can easily distinguish as edible or not. When in doubt, boil a single ‘shroom with some rice and if the water colors don’t eat the mushroom. One plant gives dyes for monk’s robes. There’s cardamom (with an enormous flower), ginger, and bananas. The butterflies are glorious and yellow moths hang out in clusters at the stream crossings. Cicadas create a symphony which sounds like bells ringing. American house plants grow to enormous proportions in their own jungle environment.

The weather is torrid and we sweat profusely while taking numerous salt pills. The first day is a 6 hour trek covering 5.5 miles. The Khmu camp is a house on stilts with one large room for sleeping and two small ones for cooking. There’s no village. We are exhausted and eat dinner before crawling under our mosquito netting. Every meal is accompanied by sticky rice which the Laos people roll into a ball and dip in chili paste. We master the technique but skip the chili paste. The food is good and the mushrooms are my favorite. Everyone sleeps together in one large room sectioned off by mosquito netting. Mark is ready to end the trip but there’s no short-cut except forward.

The next day is the longest and hardest we’ve ever done. On some back pack trips I’ve climbed 13,000 foot mountains with over forty pounds on my back ─ yet this was more difficult. The slick water buffalo trails are the worst. In Nepal, Sherpas cut steps in ice and here Pitt uses his machete to make steps in the muddy clay. We trekked 8 hours and covered 7 miles.

Exhausted, we finally reach the Akha camp which needs a good health inspection ─ cleanliness is not their strong suit. The barbequed fish is tasty but at night the roof leaks when the rain begins. The good news is that there’s a big Akha village tomorrow with a mere three hours of hiking.

As we walk along we notice all the rubber trees in the middle of the rice planting. The sap from these is sold to China for tire manufacture. The Chinese are a major trade group with Laos. China is also building its fourth casino here. The only benefit to Laos is to the government officials who took payola for the casino permits. The Lao will gain nothing from this and all profits go to China.

Just outside the Akha village is a giant swing. A large looped rope is suspended from a high, secure, triangular structure. Several young children are swinging and they laugh hysterically when Mark takes a turn.

As we enter the village, Pitt shows us the “love nests”, small one room huts decorated with vines. Here a young man and woman who are attracted to one another will spend an evening. Around the village there are also young teen-age women nursing babies.

Like so many villages, there is trash everywhere. People here always knew that they could throw food on the ground and it would biodegrade. Somehow they never understood that wrappers, foil, and plastic do not follow the same process. Even in the larger towns, garbage disposal means trash into plastic bags to be tossed away and maybe burned.

In the main house of the Akha village, no one is thinking about garbage. The party is in full-swing. We remove shoes and enter. Men in western garb are seated at round tables. The four older women in the room wear full Akha dress meaning black skirts, high socks with colorful wool trim, and elaborate headdresses. Each has a large kerchief tied around their hair and in the front a half helmet of metal from which numerous multi-colored tassels. We pay homage to the village chief with a “Namaste” style bow. We also donate to the school in a huge padlocked wooden box complete with ledger.

The food is a challenge and we ignore the pig’s blood, pork tidbits, some other unknown innards and focus on the rice, bamboo shoots and banana flowerets. Rice wine is passed around and we join in a few toasts, “Sabbato!” as tiny cups get refilled. Meanwhile little children come in and out, nursing mothers direct the fathers and finally it is time for music and dancing. Two women enter dressed in full Akha garb and proceed to pound three rocks with large staffs. Three men accompany by playing gongs. There’s a great rhythmic noise from all this and the wine and beer flow as we depart.

The Akha are an animistic people that hold with great superstition and evil omens. When twins are born, dire consequences follow and the mother is exiled from the village for a period of time to exorcise the evil spirit.

In the morning Thon appears and we begin our journey to the cultural and spiritual center of Laos, Luang Probang. This long driving day includes a stop by police officers who demand to see our drivers’ papers. The driver than asks Thon for money that the officers will pocket. The two jobs that read to Laos riches are police officer and tax collector. A toll is also collected on an incomplete road which the Chinese are supposedly planning to build – someday.

We stop at Oudomaxay, a busy commerce center for Laos and China.. We climb a hill with a large stuppa and a golden Buddha who stands 150 feet and overlooks this green valley where the rice fields meet the mountains that touch the clouds. There are seven positions of the Buddha ─ one for each day of the week. Many temples have newer stuppas and the cremation remains of wealthy individuals are placed in these structures creating a cemetery.

At breakfast we are struck by the sheer beauty of this country in a rainbow of greens. The lush rice fields are a bright lime jewel, enhanced by green shade trees and bushes. All of this is framed by the dark jade mountains that end in the clouds.

Further along we stop to see rice hooch being made. The rice is steamed and fermented for a week. The mixture goes in a large vat heated with a robust fire and distilled into 20 liter jugs. Each day 6 jugs can be produced to yield $120/day. For a country with a per capita income of $700/year, this is really the Big Bucks!

Moving ever southward…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Croatia 8.29.10

From Norway we do a Helsinki stopover and a sunny sampling of the city. A trolley ride gives us an overall view. Much of the architecture looks like remnants of the Russian era especially the enormous statues with steroidal muscles. The red brick Russian Orthodox Church has the requisite onion domes topped with flashy gold trim. However, an entire square is dedicated to a white Catholic church which resembles a city hall complete with Grecian columns and multiple crosses.

In the morning we leave Helsinki in pouring rain landing in Venice. Our flying route is predicated on American Airlines’ miles. We have a free ride all the way to Bangkok – thanks to Mark’s ingenious planning. In Venice we pick up our stick-shift Fiat diesel hatchback which my favorite Alfa Romeo driver has no trouble handling.

Passing through Slovenia and into Croatia creates two tolls and a passport stamping. Croatia is small in size but filled with great beauty. If there was no border crossing, entry to Croatia would be a continuation of Italy. There are the same red tile roofs, clustered adobe houses on the hillsides, oleander, bougainvillea, pine and beech trees. However, the high gray limestone mountains create a backdrop reminiscent of the Greek landscape.

The country has been ravaged by conquering nations since people inhabited the land. Omitting the earliest Neanderthal traces, the Greeks were followed by the Romans, Slavs, and early Croats. The Renaissance brings Venetians and later the French (even Napoleon), Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and finally an independent Croatia. Somehow the conquering nations respected the past. As a result many of the towns and villages are built or remodeled on past Greek, Roman, and Venetian structures

Croatia’s coast is exquisite with a sea of a glorious dark blue except at the shore where it’s a translucent green. Everywhere there are rocky beaches and sand is unknown. Off-shore there are a thousand islands to explore. Numerous harbors and inlets provide shelter for the largest yachts we’ve ever seen. The coast is also renowned for its “naturist” aka nudist beaches. As a result many of the tourists have rather complete tans with no strap marks. How my father would have loved this country.

Summer is a wonderful time since fresh fruit and vegetables abound. Often roadside stands sell tomatoes, figs, grapes, and nectarines. Fresh seafood of all varieties can be enjoyed in most restaurants.. From the Italians the Croats learned to make great coffee and gelato – staples in my diet.

We are headed for Pula on the southern coast of Croatia’s Istria peninsula. Our hotel is in the beach section in a family-oriented complex of side-by-side hotels. A seaside walk reveals the lovely coast.

Pula is known for its Roman ruins, according to our Lonely Planet bible. As we  walk into town, we are shocked by the graffiti which unfortunately turns out to be prevalent in many places. In Pula, people have even thrown some garbage on an ancient mosaic. A forum temple remains but the highlight is the huge amphitheater which seats 20,000. In early summer, there is a film festival as well as concerts. Large crowds of tourists flock to this town. An overview of the area is gotten by climbing above the city gates and exploring the fortress that was built on top of the Roman walls complete with cannons. This is definitely a major tourist destination judging from the crowds and the tour buses.

Leaving Pula and the Istria peninsula, we drive south on the Dalmatian coast. Offshore, numerous islands are visible in the Adriatic Sea. Of  the 1100 islands only 70 are inhabited. Our road is high on the mountainside and we do a rather curvaceous descent to the ferry.

Our destination is Rab Island which has a rocky barren look at its northern end. The limestone has a tan coloration.  Ashore, the landscape looks Italian again with the adobe houses and red roofs. Rab town has been around since the Roman era but is best known for its four church towers or campaniles. Rab is also a luxury yacht area for the very rich and so-called famous.  Happily, the narrow roads and small ferry make it difficult for large buses to arrive. As a result this is the land of independent tourists.

We park and climb up ancient marble steps to the street of the churches. The first one was built on the site of an ancient Roman ruin. The Roman columns from an early courtyard still stand and the church was clearly built using the walls of an older structure. I climb up, first on stairs and then on ladders. The sea and other islands are below.. Although we are not alone, there are few tourists. We explore the entire street even though the other campaniles are closed and only open sporadically. Each church is a bit different depending on when it was remodeled. One church even has ongoing concerts.

Our hotel is far from the medieval town and we have dinner at a delicious nearby restaurant with the odd name of “Casablanca.” Since there are few English tourists, there are no English menus, Mark gets one in Italian and I work out the German.

The next day we drive the coastal road heading for Split. The further south we go the more beautiful the scenery. There are islands of all sizes and the glorious sea continues to dazzle.

Split is another town where cars are not allowed in the old city. We have some difficulty determining where to park and finding our hotel. Our penthouse apartment looks down on the adobe buildings and red tiled roofs. In this spacious accommodation,  I feel like a resident. The young hotel manager actually drives with Mark to find a nearby parking space. After a grand fish dinner,the restaurant owner notices  our parked Fiat. He’s astounded that an American knows how to drive a shift car. When Mark tells him that he owns a 1984 Alfa Romeo he gets the biggest high five I’ve ever seen.

The next day is gorgeous with a dazzlingly blue and cloudless sky.  The town is on the most famous part of the Dalmatian coast and the marina boasts the largest yachts yet. There’s a perfect sea front esplanade with a harbor that cruise ships can navigate. In spite of the tourist throngs, I find the place full of charm. Tourism is dominated by older, larger size Germans and the shops specialize in gynormous jewelry, glittering clothing, and outrageous shoes. The large German women also wear teeny, weeny bikinis in the beach resort areas.

The most famous part of Split is the Palace built in 300 BCE by the Roman emperor  Diocletian. He loved Split and this was his summer residence. We join a select group who climb the church belfry high above the town. From this aerie it is clear that the town used all the old Roman walls and columns to build the newer adobe houses with the red tile roofs. The sea of multi-colored blues glows and ferries ply among the islands.

The Palace is a small city unto itself with numerous shops and fooderies. However, parts are still very Roman and renovation is an ongoing sport which seems to proceed at a s-l-o-w pace.

As we exited the palace area, Mark noticed a Jewish star on the Split city map. This usually means a synagogue. We ask questions, take wrong turns and in a small alley outside a restaurant we ask a young waiter. Before we finish the sentence he says, “The synagogue is up those steps.” We climb and ring the bell, greeted by a volunteer. We are in the third oldest synagogue in Europe, built in the early 1500s. This lovely space was renovated after the war. Many of the now 100 members do not read Hebrew so the service is done in a phoneticized Hebrew. An amazing find thanks to Sherlock Mark. An afternoon hike takes us high above the city to a sadly neglected botanical garden and a closed zoo.

A long drive takes us from Split to Dubrovnik. In Turkey everyone wants to sell you a rug. Here everyone is ready to rent an apartment. The main tourist season is June through August so now the apartments are plentiful. For the vacationing residents, the vehicle of choice is a small motor home complete with hybrid bikes on the back.

Dubrovnik presents with white marble streets and loads of tourists. Like much of the Dalmatian coast the town has seen destruction through the centuries followed by amazing rebuilding. As late as 1991 in the war with Yugoslavia much of Dubrovnik was destroyed and rebuilt. Again the streets of the city have become a huge shopping mall. A joy is to climb the steep steps up from the main road where there are fewer tourists.

There are three major highlghts for us:

  • A walk along the top of the city walls (built 1300-1600) which encircles the city. Again the contrasts between the houses built on Roman foundations next to the churches built so much later. The red tiled roofs and adobe buildings dominate.
  • We visit The 2nd oldest synagogue in Europe – Prague is first. This Sephardic synagogue was built in the 15th century, complete with a balcony for the women. Today this is only a museum since there are 57 Jews in Dubrovnik and all are very old. The one Rabbi in Croatia resides in Zagreb, the capital.
  • War Photo Limited (WPL) is a photographic gallery of war pictures that stir the heart and mind. The gallery has been curated by a former war photojournalist. Unbelieveable photos of the tragedy and outcomes of war. The photographs are often hard to look at. The WPL mission is inscribed on the wall:

“It is the intent of War Photo Limited to educate the public in the field of war photography, to expose the myth of war and the intoxication of war as it is, raw, venal, frightening by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike.”

Lunch at a vegetarian restaurant  “Nishta”  When the restaurant was almost ready to open, a local residents asked what it meant to have vegetarian food. The owner explained that this meant no meat. The residents was horrified and said, “If there is no meat, than there is nothing.”  In Croatian, the word for nothing is Nishta.

Our final day in Dubrovnik we take a boat to nearby Lokum Island and spend the day on the rocky beach.

A long drive to the northeast part of the Istria peninsula before we finally arrive in Opatija and the gorgeous Hotel Mozart. This is Croatia’s answer to the French Riviera. Very chic area and fine hotel complete with spa. We even find a restaurant serving authentic Istria fare. This is a fine ending to ten days in Croatia.

#   #   #   #  #

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

NORWAY 8.20.10

RTW Report NORWAY 8.20.10
Our introduction to Norway begins in Oslo, a fine city with parks, trees, and seaport. The center of town has an elegant palace with two guards who appear to have been trained by Queen Elizabeth’s beef eaters. In the tourist hotel area, there’s been an Americanization featuring: TGI Fridays, Hard Rock Café and a few related cousins.
There’s a bustling rather trendy looking populace. Local Norwegians seem to come in one size – tall, mostly blond, and extremely friendly. So much is imported from elsewhere that life is expensive. The cheapest cup of coffee is about $3 and I’m not talking about a designer brew. The modern buildings have a profusion of glass. I wonder if this is to capture the maximum light in a city with a long season of dark,
Although Oslo has a profusion of museums, we are out to explore the fjord countryside before meeting our bike group.The drizzly gray day explains all the omnipresent greenery. We’ve never experienced an area as forested as Norway. Every town, settlement, and road lies deep in a valley and often follows the adjacent fjord. Above this scene climbs the forest stopping only when the rocky canyons can no longer support vegetation. Few clear cuts seem to exist. Grass is a huge crop and everywhere there are enormous white vinyl barrels filled with the winter food for animals. Wild flowers abound in all colors and every house has plantings and window boxes. Orchards laden with fruits abound and the raspberries are the best we’ve ever eaten.
Our first day driving is rainy. When we climb a high mountain pass, the panorama is spare and desolate while the temperature drops. Only in Alaska and Iceland have I seen this landscape. Perhaps, this is one of the places where the world began
As we descend there’s a sign for the Fossli Hotel in the hamlet of VØringfos. We climb the kilometer to a lovely structure reminiscent of the last century. Actually the hotel was built in 1867, with several remodels since then (thank goodness). Our 4th floor view is into an enormous rocky gorge where clouds linger and then disperse. Think Ah-Wahnee Hotel view, except that Yosemite has no greenery.
The next day, the rain stops, the sky has some blue and the wind clears away the clouds. The view into the gorge is heart-stopping as a high waterfall thunders over the rocks for several hundred feet. From the hotel we set out on a hike. The climb gives us fine views of the canyons and the hillsides. As we descend into the next village, we realize that we missed the correct path so we retrace. Our new trail has wooden planks to avoid the mud and is quite single track and filled with bogs. We follow a set of small rapids that move swiftly over the rocks. Wet and muddy shoes are part of the scene. Once we see two ice-blue glaciers on the distant mountains.
Leaving the wet shoes at the hotel, we head for the Nature Center and an amazing interactive set of exhibits. There’s an exciting film of the area with glaciers, waterfalls, and rapids − done from a helicopter and projected on a wrap-around screen.
Next morning we are on the road to Bergen. Here we will meet the cycling group. The “road” follows the fjords and is often as wide as a bicycle path. When two cars meet both pull to the side and go slowly. (Don’t even ask about oncoming trucks.)
Each of the settlements along the way, seems to have a postcard-perfect planning prescription. Houses are constructed of wood with shingle roofs. In some areas, insulation has been enhanced by grass growing on the roof. Norway wins the cleanliness award and that includes roadsides and public rest rooms. Across the fjord rise high mountains dotted with glaciers and water falls.
Bergen is a bustling town with many university students; another very hip population and loads of tourists. Tomorrow we meet our cycling group.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cycling in Norway 8.21 – 8.28

The cycling group and guides meet in Bergen. This bustling university town is busy with returning students, tourists and even a few residents. Located on the sea, the town has numerous wooden structures and in the dark winters a building easily catches fire and it spreads. As a result Bergen has burned to the ground several times.

Around 1 PM we board a train to Voss. Our group consists of Matt, a young tech type who works for Intel in Austin, Glover, a hospital administrator from Cambridge, MA, Nancy and George from Salt Lake City, who appear to be rather expert cyclists and brought their own Richy bikes. George has completed two Iron Man competitions– including Hawaii, and he is now 68 years old. Everyone appears to be compatible and we laugh a lot. We are all fitted with bikes before we really ride out. Our three guides are Sandro and Joachim from Norway, and our friend from Ciclismo Classico, Massimo…with whom we rode in Sicily two years ago.

The next 6 days have an unbelievable mix of rain with intermittent sun. In Norway, rain is a given and sun is an afterthought. An old Norwegian adage states, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” We all look quite dazzling wearing shower caps over the bike helmets.

In Norway there are a number of ferry crossings that connect land areas across the fjords. Western Norway is a place where there is no single tourist attraction. Instead, everything is simply beautiful. Around each turn of the road the forests, mountains and small settlements seem so perfectly made and placed. The slower movement on the bike creates an appreciation for all this extraordinary land. The area is punctuated with waterfalls and we even pass a roaring river with high rapids. Some of the biking is on trafficked roads and through short, dark tunnels…not my favorite places.

Unlike the grey glacial water of Alaska, here the fjords have a transparent green due to the mineral content of the glacial melt. The mountains are so high that they play tag with the clouds. We visit the oldest church in Norway which has a carved wall that dates back to the 11th century, and contains symbols from the Viking era.

In the higher mountains, the weather is quite cold but the scenery continues to astound. The highest we go is 4200 feet and here we cycle past glaciers, high mountain tarns, and rock debris, all above tree line. The cycle down is through a glorious green valley topped by the craggy mountains. This was one of the longest downhills I’ve ever done.

Another curve filled descent brought us down to Geiranger Fjord where the cruise ships come in. It was strange to be in a small town with so many people. Some of the cruise ship people were so astonished to see cyclists they actually took photographs with us.

Occasionally, on a high mountain above the fjord, there are subsistence farms. People live and work here and send their children to school by boat. However, mostly the land is undisturbed. The jagged rocks on top meet the clouds and multiple water falls drop into each fjord.

About 250 miles of cycling and we end our trip in Ǻlesund. Like Bergen, this town burned to the ground and was completely rebuilt in a set of styles that include both the 19th and the 20th century. A final farewell dinner and we begin to focus on Croatia.

A little factoid to conclude: Norway is about the same size as Montana where the population is 1,000,000; Norway’s populaton is five times that amount and FIVE times as expensive.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

August 17th: The following is the first in a series of reports from our journey around the world.

August 17, 2010 OSLO, Norway
We started out to Logan Airport on our Boston hotel shuttle bus. I guess we were discussing the trip in our usual loud voices. As we arrived at the airport, an airline pilot walked past us and casually asked, “How long will you folks be traveling?” Mark replied “Four months” and he declared “GOOD LUCK!!!” The whole bus exploded in laughter, especially us.
Leaving in the morning brought us to London in the late evening. We stayed with an Alta ski friend, Walker in the lovely Notting Hill section of London. A wonderful day was spent with our cousins David and Hilary Reinhardt and their delightful 2½ year old daughter Abby-a real charmer.
Next morning back on the plane to Oslo where it was cool, cloudy with a few evening rain drops. We are ever optimistic about future weather. Stay tuned.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment