Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Walk Through Kathmandu

Transformation is an appropriate word to use today.  In fact if I am committed to living in the moment, then it is a word which applies every day of my life.  I had great passion to dive in and create this Blog three years ago, yet the rigid rules I gave myself made progress slow.  The plan was to retrace all the travels I had done in my life starting with my youth and move forward chronologically.  BORING!  I may have wonderful memories of the trips, but for many I do not have pictures.  Today we want to see through the writer's eyes, and pictures help us do this.  I have often said, my stories are always about human interaction.  If I am traveling, and have not engaged with others along the way I will know it by a sense of disconnection.

Fast forward to the present, the here and now.  It is the 26th of April, 2015 as I make this entry.  My mind is filled with images of destruction, and suffering caused by the devastating earthquake which occurred in Nepal this weekend.  I look at the news (something I rarely do for those who know me) and experience a sense of sorrow, and grief.  My first desire when seeing these images is to get on the next plane to go and help.  For now, this is not to be my way of providing assistance to this lovely nation nestled in the Himalayan Mountains, landlocked in a valley bordered by India, and China (Region of Tibet).

There is something I can do.  I can use this tiny space I have on the Internet to share with you the Nepal I know.  The Nepal I remember fondly.  Natural disasters, especially when they occur in the most vulnerable of places appear to boggle the mind, yet I have been amazed over the years as I witness the resiliency of the people I have met over the years who have told me their stories of what they did in such situations.  For many, acts of bravery, courage, and selflessness came naturally.  My current thoughts are focused on the Love I have for my fellow humans who are in need, and gratitude to the many who frequently offered assistance as I made my way across the region visiting the Kathmandu Valley.  Such memories continue to shine Light in my life.

I shall tell this story with an excerpt from my journal to Nepal which I visited in 2002.  The preparation for the journey was as endearing as the trip itself.  The destination was pre-planned as part of my one year  sabbatical from 2002-2003 when I circumnavigated the globe with a back-pack and an around-the-world airline ticket.  Kathmandu was a side trip, and one which I had booked as a separate flight arrangement from India.  Though this fact may be incidental, it played a major role in learning patience, perseverance, and learning about cultural norms.  To be more specific, I was in Hong Kong two months prior to setting off to India when I learned the flights I had booked to Nepal had not only been cancelled, but the route itself was no longer operating.  Furthermore, the ticket I had was not valid for use because the airline I booked did not work with other carriers providing alternative service.  I was given the option to take a voucher to India, and visit an Indian Airlines office in New Delhi where I might attempt to book new flights to Nepal.  This was not what I had planned.  Purchasing a ticket from Indian Airlines in 2002 with a "voucher" at a New Delhi City Ticket Office was not an equivalently simple experience as showing up at London's Heathrow and purchasing a last minute ticket to Paris.

I shall spare you the remainder of the New Delhi ticket purchase story, as fun as it was.  Should you be interested in learning more, have no worries.  I will write much more on India in later posts as it is a favorite destination of mine with three visits in the last ten years.  Moving on, the following text comes directly from my journal.  Reading it again today reminds me how fresh, and new everything appeared to me.  I can recall the clean, crisp air, the magnificence of the Himalayan skyline on the descent into Kathmandu, and the utter sense of feeling relaxed after five weeks in China, and the previous week in New Delhi.

"Returning to the Himalayas was a breath of fresh air after Delhi, both literally and metaphorically. I stayed in the tourist area of Kathmandu known as Thamel. This is a fantastic place to hang out for a few days. Lots of roof top restaurants, and shops selling so much stuff that I wanted to buy but resisted because I don't want to carry it for 6 months. The Nepalese have their share of touts, but nothing like India. They just want you to come into their shops which are very inviting. For sale are beautiful handmade Tibetan rugs, pillows, hats, and various other textiles. While in Kathmandu I visited the ancient area known as Durbar Square. The buildings and temples in this area are made of brick or stone, but what makes them so unique is the wooden inlaid windows and rooftops. All of them with minute intricate carving that has withstood time. There were just so many temples in this square it was mind boggling.

I very much enjoyed Kathmandu as it reminded me a lot of Tibet (without the Chinese influence). I also traveled to Bhaktapur which is also an ancient city that today acts like an open air museum. Walking around the city you encounter houses, temples and buildings all with these amazing wooden rooftops and window inlays. My final day trip in Nepal was to Boudhanath. This is a small village with one of the 40 largest Buddha stupas in the world. The Stupa was behind a gate separated from the busy street. The shops all around the stupa were playing Tibetan chanting music which added to the calmness and beauty of the area. It was difficult to leave Nepal after such a pleasant visit. I definitely would like to go back and have time to trek through the Annapurna mountains.

On a separate note, Indian Airlines turned out to be outstanding. They had the best in flight food I have had on an airplane. I learned that Taj Hotels does their catering. The security in Kathmandu was also like nothing I have ever experienced. After you check in, you go through the regular x-ray routine. Each and every hand bag is emptied and inspected. At the gate, you must go outside and identify your checked luggage before it is loaded on the plane. Just outside the aircraft at the foot of the stairs, all hand baggage is again emptied and inspected and you are body frisked. Wow!"

It is with pleasure I re-launch Transformations Through Travel today.  I look forward to publishing more content combining my passions for travel, people, multiculturalism, and writing.

I hope you enjoy your visit.  If there is a particular destination you would like for me to share my experiences, have a look at the archives for the Countries Visited Listing.  Let me know, and I will do my best to accommodate.



Thursday, August 2, 2012

Quick Detour...Capture the Colour PhotoBlogging Travel Competition!

As a newbie to the world travel blogosphere I have just begun exploring other writers, and their journeys.  I have learnt quite a bit in the last two months, much of which I haven’t been able to apply to my own Blog as of yet.  I have my own set of excuses; full time job, not currently traveling, blah, blah, blah.  Truth be told, I am simply long winded!
I just learnt about this photo contest, and with a library of pictures I can't wait to share, I figured what a great way to display some of my favorites. I'll also tell a few quick (yes I am going to attempt to be brief) tales of the road for each photo.  The contest asks for five pictures according to a colour scheme of Blue, Green, Yellow, Red, and White.
The following are my pick of pics.  I hope you enjoy!

School Girls at the Citadel, Hue, Vietnam
In August of 2000, I traveled to Vietnam.  The country was just beginning to see a wave of tourism.  Hue is a city half-way between Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh.  The Citadel is a fortress like structure, military in nature.  The day I was visiting there were hundreds of school kids walking along the grounds.  The girls were all dressed in these beautifully tailored white outfits.  Behind me there was a procession of army soldiers marching.  I had walked by the girls initially, and said hello, and they smiled politely.  They seemed to be quite shy, and were fascinated with my digital camera, my first.  It had a screen on the back allowing you to see the picture after taking it.  They were not too keen on having their picture taken, or at least they indicated such.  The look on the middle girl's face says the opposite.  I walked away, and took this shot with the zoom.  12 years later, it is still perhaps one of my favorite pictures I have ever taken.  I can look at it, and remember the hot humid air, the army procession behind me, and the "no, don't take my picture sir" verbalized, but the 'yes, I want to see myself in that little screen' being whispered in her thoughts.


Buddhist Nuns, Ani Tsankung Nunnery, Lhasa, Tibet

In 2002 I was fortunate to travel to Lhasa.  One morning I was walking with friends I met along the way, and by word of mouth we had heard about the nuns who lived in a converted monastery.  We entered through a peaceful courtyard adorned with yellow flowers.  There were nuns tucked away in corners praying peacefully.  This picture was taken in a busy room where experienced seamstresses were teaching novices to sew robes.  I love the intensity in which the teacher, and the pupil devote themselves to their tasks.  I look at this photograph, and wonder how much focus I truly give to things I do, particularly when multi-tasking is expected to be a job requirement these days!


Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua is a delightful, colonial town with a volcano for a backdrop which you can see behind he clouds in this picture.  While wandering the streets early one morning, I captured this picture of a local mother taking her daughter off to school.  The entire town is covered in cobble stone, and was peaceful in the early am.  At night it was a buzz with dining, music, and local flare.  Being at a high elevation, Antigua was comfortable regardless of the typical high June temperatures.  Oh, and I can't forget to mention the coffee.  My whole reason for strolling down this particular street so early in the morning was to visit the coffee house on the corner, just amazing!  Hooray for caffeine.


Houseboat, Backwaters of Kerala, India

Peace.  Tranquility.  I could go on with more synonyms, however I feel the picture tells the story of the mood best.  In 2004 I visited India for the second time.  My first was as a true budget backpacker paying $2.00 a night for accommodation.  This time I was returning on a two week vacation, employed, and had a few more dollars to spend, (still had sense to be on a budged mind you).

The backwaters of Kerala could be described as estuaries, or small river like bodies of water which overflow inward from the Arabian Sea.  I may have really messed up that description.  People have built settlements along these areas for generations, and tourists have traditionally rented houseboats to sail for a day or two to visit the area.  Based on economics of scale, I found it quite affordable, and it was a true privilege to know the captain seated here who guided me through the villages.  I took this particular picture, because after 12 hours of sailing through tiny, narrow canals we arrived to our first wide open space.  It was as though by chest opened up to a breath of fresh air, and the world opened up to use with blue skies.


Dejavara Spice Market, Mysore, India
I returned to India just last year, and was in Mysore which is known for sandalwood.  The Dejavara Spice Market is a famous central market which sells not only spices, but other products one may need, or not.

This picture captivates me insofar as I look at the people, and love to guess at what they are thinking.  My favorite is the woman front and center.

"Where are the chickpeas?  I thought I bought chickpeas?  Where are they?"

So there you have my five entries.  To learn more about the contest, make sure you check out the contest's official website which you can find here:

Each participant is asked to nominate other bloggers whose photography they admire.  I have chosen to nominate the following:

Well that is about it.  I hope you enjoy the photos, and 'brief' stories I wrote with them.  Back to memoirs with my ongoing Blog.  Next Up...Europe at 16 years old with 9 other 16 year old with one 25 year old group leader...are you ready Marjorie????

Monday, July 30, 2012

My First Adventure...Israel, Egypt, and Greece with My Father

Growing up I was always fascinated with ancient history. As a youth I would attend Sunday school, and Hebrew school which were compulsory.  It wasn't until one teacher introduced our class to stories which she called Jewish Mysticism.  I hung on every word she said, and became quite the fan of her teaching.
In 1979 I remember my father was following the news regularly, specifically focused on the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations which were underway between Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin, facilitated by President Carter.  To the best of my recollection, I remember Camp David becoming a household term.

When the treaty was signed, and peace had been bridged between the two nations it was a signal to my family Jews could now visit Egypt.  Looking back over 30 years, I know now a peace treaty never prevented Jews to visit Egypt.  That is an entirely different matter not for discussion here.  Once signed, my grandparents announced they were booked to go to Cairo to celebrate a Passover Seder in April of 1980 at the base of the Pyramids of Giza.  My father heard this, and said he would like to see Egypt.  He had always been intrigued by ancient Egyptian history, and archaeology.  My mother suggested he take me, so we planned the trip over a February vacation period.
So far this may sound like a pretty straight forward Holy Land tour for a father, and his son, how adventurous, and interesting a story could this be?  Keep reading, because having gone through a box of old post cards, and photographs quite a few charming memories have surfaced. Is this going to be the Pulitzer of stories? Likely not, however I suggest you stick around for an enjoyable account.

My father, six months prior to my birth, experienced a neurological infection which left him with sustained brain trauma, and ongoing susceptibility to seizures.  The secondary effects of his medication management caused an unsteady gait.  On-lookers would have a sense of worry he was going to fall.  The fact is he never worried, only the on-lookers worried.  We considered my father obstinate, and stubborn, yet the opposite of this attribute could be seen as confident, and self-assured.  He did fall frequently.  Although I digress, there is relevance to it in this story…
Off we went on this exciting trip overseas, my first ever.  Just writing these words brings vivid memories.  My mother drove us to JFK airport, and we got lost on our approach to the airport.  We did arrive, and entered into the TWA terminal which I found mesmerizing.  I looked up at the massive board before me which listed flights departing to LONDON, ROME, FRANKFURT, and so on.  I wanted to be on all these planes going everywhere, all at once!

Our first flight was to take us to Paris, where we had a connection.  I know now, youth brings with it a sort of innocence that is lost as we grow older.  At age 13, I had no fear of boarding an enormous piece of metal the size of a football field wondering how on earth this machine was going to get off the ground, let alone take 350 people across an ocean.  When the flight took off from JFK, the plane began to skid, and shake.  It did so the entire way down the runway.  Nearly all overhead bins opened with bags falling into the aisles.  If memory serves me correctly, a cart from the galley had come loose as well.  Many passengers were screaming.  My father and I just looked around us at the commotion wondering what was happening.  As soon as the aircraft lifted off the runway the shaking, and bumping stopped.  Very strange we thought, but I didn't give it another thought...until 45 minutes prior to arrival at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris.

As I was eating my continental breakfast of a croissant, (two new things for me at age 13; a croissant, and the term continental breakfast), the pilot came on over the loud speaker and said the following which to this day I remember: "Good morning ladies, and gentleman.  I hope you enjoyed your flight with us.  Some of you may have noticed a slightly bumpy take off when we left JFK last night.  We received word from JFK authorities they found pieces of rubber on the runway after we left.  Apparently we shredded some of our tires on take-off.  This shouldn't pose too much of a problem for us on arrival, except for the fact we don't know which wheels have tires, and which do not.  We are going to have to lower the landing gear, and fly over the tower so Paris authorities can have a look.  Once they see what we have, we can then make our approach.  We will have foaming machines on stand-by.  Enjoy your breakfast, and we will be landing soon."  OH MY GOD!
Dad was not alarmed at all.  He just lit a cigarette, and drank his coffee.  My nose started to bleed.  Never before had I had a nose bleed.  They told me it was altitude adjustment.  I don't know if I was scared, or excited about landing on a foamed runway, though the flight attendant said, "they are on stand-by dear".  As it turns out, the pilot knew what he was doing, because to this day I think it still ranks as one of the smoothest landings I have experienced.  Mind you as the plane came to a stop we were parked out on a tarmac at the end of the furthest field at Charles de Gaulle surrounded by fire trucks.  It took ages to be bused to the terminal.  My father was a man who seemed to be one who took things in stride.  Not having known him prior to his illness, I don't have much of an experience of his personality before he had become sick.  During this trip I learned he was mostly one who would 'go with the flow', unless you told him he couldn't do something.  More on that later.

Here is a picture of my father sitting in Charles de Gaulle airport awaiting our connecting flight to Tel Aviv.  In my opinion, after the long flight, and ordeal we had experienced, he looks pretty good to me!

The next flight took us to Tel Aviv.  Sitting by the window, I had a phenomenal bird’s eye view of the Alps.  I knew then, and there I had to return to Europe to see first-hand the sites of this continent.  On arrival, we were greeted by a young Israeli driver to transfer us to our hotel in Jerusalem.  When we got into the back seat of the car, he stopped to pick up his girlfriend.  The entire ride which was about 45 minutes was spent listening to the two of them talking in Hebrew.  When we got to the hotel I asked my father if he understood what they were saying.  He told me, “eh, they were just going on about their plans for a party tonight, nothing very important”.  My father had a gift for languages, and spoke several.  I know what it is like to want to be able to understand what is being said around me, even if it is ‘not very important’.

When I look at the photographs and old post cards from this first trip I realize now how special this trip was for us.  We visited sites within the Holy Land without difficulty.  Raised Jewish, with a respect and interest in comparative religious beliefs I was fortunate to have been booked on a tour which brought us to all the major sites.  There are pictures I have captured, and restored as best I could which bring back fond memories.  In looking back, I also found some surprises.  I found a post card showing a visit the tomb of “The Ari”, a famous Kabbalist.  I had come to know of him much later in life through personal studies, but never realized I had visited his tomb so many years ago as a youth.

SAFED, The Synagogue of the Ari

The story I wish to tell, which is wonderfully depicted in two photographs, is our visit to Masada.  To get to the top of the mountain you must ride a gondola, and then walk a stairwell alongside the mountain which is rather steep.  Atop the mountain, it can be windy, and at the time they had only railings to keep you from falling off the side of the mountain.  At least this is how I remember it.  Perhaps it was more secure.  The guide had become accustomed to looking after my father, and approached him before we went to the site.  He said to him directly, “Dr. Burkin, I think it will be better for you to wait for us here in the bus”.  To quote Julia Roberts, “big mistake, big, big mistake, Huge!”.  As I said before, it is not a good idea to tell my father what to do.  However, if you ask him to do something for you he will likely try and help.  I later told the guide if he had said to my father, “Dr. Burkin, I need the driver to join me atop the mountain, would you be so kind to stay with the bus, and look after it for security reasons?”, he would have likely obliged.  Instead, my father responded quite defensively asking why the guide thought he shouldn’t go to the top.  I was thinking the whole time, ‘because Dad, you could fall off!!!!!’
What ended up happening is Dad went, as dad always did what dad wanted to do.  He climbed that stairwell, and hung on to that railing as the wind blew with his coat blowing fiercely in the wind.  He made it to the top.  We got a picture of him just as he made it to the top, and in the first picture I have to have a bittersweet laugh, because I can see the anguish of his hanging on for dear life, yet he would never admit he was for one second scared!  The second photograph shows him relaxed, and composed once he regained his balance.  I like this picture most.  A fond memory indeed.

I haven’t much more to say about Israel, but rather will place here the scanned pictures, and post cards I have.

On our way to Egypt, we stopped for the day in Athens.  They had not yet implement direct air service between the two countries.  We had enough time to make a trip to the Acropolis.  I must have really enjoyed visiting the Parthenon, and I think this post card, and picture tells the story well.

"Dear Mom, We were in Greece for one day and we saw The acropolis, The parthonon, and the thing on this postcard I touched"

Onward to Egypt.  The flight itself is something I will never forget.  Hmm, I think I am beginning to establish a trend, first the New York-Paris flight, now the Athens-Cairo flight.  I wonder how many flights I have ahead to recall which are stories alone.  Something to ponder perhaps.  As I was saying, this flight was quite interesting.  Not a typical New York-Miami run.  No, not at all.  The first noticeable difference was how regardless of assigned seating, people took it upon themselves to separate men from women within their families, and groups.  Then there was the smoke.  Smoking vs. Nonsmoking did not exist on this plane, and by the way this was a TWA flight from Athens to Cairo.  Then there was the noise of chatter.  Everyone was talking.  Talk, talk, talk.  How fascinating.  My first introduction to the Arab culture was this flight, and I found the people to be soo intimate with each other insofar as their relationships as family, and friends.  They sat close, and talked, sipped tea, smoked their cigarettes, and played cards.  They hardly looked up from their conversations.  It all looked so intense.  The smoke in the cabin was intense.  If you have ever seen the film with Eddie Murphy, The Golden Child when he was on a plane to Asia, this was just like that.
Cairo Airport.  More smoke.  Hospitality for sure!  It had to be 3:00AM, and everyone was awake, and happy.  We were greeted by a tour guide who escorted us through passport control, and provided us with visas, etc.  We were driven by taxi to the hotel.  I remember seeing across the dark moonlit desert a big billboard with a picture of Anwar Sadat.  We stayed at the Cairo Nile Hilton which I can practically still see in my mind.  From the outside it looks like a modern 1960’s cement like structure, yet at the time the inside was decorated in an old world Agatha Christie like fashion.  What it is like today, I have no idea.  I remember the deep red carpets, and ornate furnishings in the large lobby.  I felt as if we had entered the 1930’s.  The lobby patio restaurant led out onto the Nile river, and had a sense of relaxation.  Off to our room.  The elevator door opened to our floor.  Smoke.  We entered our room, and it was very nice.  I wasn’t bothered by my father’s smoking, because it was nothing like the fog cloud in the hallway.
The first thing I noticed about Cairo on waking the next morning was the population.  I looked out our window, and saw people.  Millions, and millions of people.  There were so many people walking outside they didn’t have enough space on the roads for them, so they built a second set of sidewalks which were elevated above ground accessible by staircases.  Cairo is not for the claustrophobic.
Unlike our experience in Israel where we were part of a larger group tour, in Egypt we were greeted in the lobby by a guide who was to be dedicated to us for the next three days along with a private car, and driver.  Having returned to Egypt much later in life I learned this is still a common practice, and a pleasant one at that.
I have two memories which stand out from this final portion of the itinerary; the museum of antiquities, and dysentery.  One I enjoyed more than the other for sure.  The museum allowed a first-hand look at the life of King Tut.  I also learned about the mummifying process.
As for dysentery, how can there be an interesting story behind such a topic one might ask.  Well, don’t let this discourage a trip to Egypt, but I did get very ill our last 2-3 days in Egypt.  We were out by the step pyramid of Sakkara when it hit me.  A sudden sand storm began, and my stomach started to grumble.  I asked to go to the rest room.  On one look at the rest room, I reached for all the inner strength of my psyche and did all I could to force myself back into the car.  I then prayed I could hold out for the 30 minute drive back to the hotel to use our own rest room.  I don’t think I need to paint a picture of the rest room facilities at the step pyramid of Sakkara.

Things got worse at the hotel.  We had to have a doctor come to the room.  My father said, “I’m a doctor”.  Yes, this is true, but you don’t have any medicine.  When the doctor came to me, and gave me medication, my father told me he didn’t think the medicine I was given was FDA approved.  I can’t remember if I took it or not.  My last recollection of Egypt, which I can laugh at now, because I love the country very much, is waiting in the airport to fly home.  We were awaiting our TWA flight to Paris, and once again I needed to visit the rest room.  I went down stairs, and the men’s room had rows of toilets along a wall, of course no seats.  At this point I didn’t care, hovering was OK.  What was not OK was the man at the entrance with rolls of toilet paper who required payment.  I had to go back upstairs and get money from my father.  On returning I paid he money, and he gave me 2 pieces of paper.  YES, 2 SQUARES of toilet paper.  I was in such pain, and quite sick at this point.  I did not speak Arabic, he did not speak English.  I blurted out to him, “2 SQUARES WILL NOT BE ENOUGH!”.  He kept rolling his hand gesturing for more money.  I just grabbed a whole roll of toilet paper, and told him to follow me if he wants, or call the police, but this is an emergency!
When we finally boarded the aircraft, even though we were still 6,000 miles from home just knowing we had a bathroom within eye-shot made me happy.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Destinations Visited...So Far

It has taken some time, but I feel I have met the challenge.  I set out to begin this Blog by first setting forth a visual display of the places I have visited.  My aim in doing so is to convey my passion for travel, and diversity.  I suspect when one glances at some of the places I have been, an eyebrow or two migh be raised.  Good!  Travel should do just that in my opinion.  This Blog is a not a political statement, I want that to be clear.  I take no position on issues over which I have no control, and will not use this Blog as a platform for such discussion.  Just wanted to slip that in here.  What I will say is I have learned much from the people I have met in the different countries I have visited, and those experiences I will share.  That is my vision for this Blog, as well as a place to have some fun with my thousands of pictures, and hundreds of adventurous stories.  So on with the Blog!

This final pictorial essay in the series contains a combination of souvenir patches, boarding passes, and passport stamps for destinations I have visited, but do not have any photographs.

The following TABLE lists all the destinations I have visited during my far!