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Thailand (Living Among Elephants)

I quickly learned the secret of bathing an elephant in a river——namely, move quickly to avoid getting squished. With brush in hand, I stood a little more than waist deep in the brown water of the Moon River just outside the town of Ban Tha Klang in eastern Thailand. Tangmo, a female adult elephant, and seven other elephants were getting their twice weekly scrub down in the river from their handlers, known as mahouts (pronounced ma-hoot), and from four volunteers living among the elephants that week in a sustainable ecotourism endeavor known as the Surin Project.

Tangmo’s mahout, Dong, directed me on which parts of the elephant to scrub. The elephant’s skin felt like thick, weathered leather, albeit slick from the water. The hairs on her back and head stood up straight and were soft to the touch though they didn’t really bend. Tango had knelt down and was enjoying the vigorous scrubbing by Dong and myself as we applied some muscle to her back, sides, head, ears and trunk.

In a state of seeming pleasure Tangmo, whose name means “watermelon,” submerged herself briefly in the river. I could feel her body against my legs, and when she started to roll over against them I felt a brief sense of trepidation that I would be steamrolled by a multi-ton pachyderm. I quickly backed off as Tangmo’s large, grayish-brown body emerged from the water like a submarine. Dong, a young man who has spent most of his life working around elephants, seemed amused by my momentary sense of dread.

The Surin Project is one of roughly a dozen elephant-related projects under the umbrella of the Save Elephant Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Chiang Mai in Thailand’s mountainous far north that’s focused on providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population. Its M.O. is to expand self-sustaining ecotourism operations fueled by international volunteers who take part in programs aimed at benefiting the elephants and local communities.

Asian elephants are Thailand’s national symbol. In olden days they were used by cavalry forces in warfare; in more recent times they were beasts of burden for the timber industry used for hauling trees out of the jungle.

It was logging, along with agriculture and a growing human population, that reduced the elephants’ natural forest habitat and their numbers. Statistics vary, with one source estimating that Thailand’s population of wild elephants dropped from the low six-figure range at the turn of the 20th century to roughly 3,000 today, while the population of domesticated elephants has declined from about 100,000 to about 4,000 during that period.

Captive elephants require lots food and water, and to pay for their upkeep some owners have resorted to using them for panhandling on the streets of Bangkok and other cities, providing rides in trekking camps or performing in circus shows. Animal rights proponents say all three options cause mental and physical duress to elephants, and organizations such as the Save Elephant Foundation have created sanctuaries or other ecotourism options to give elephants a better life, as well as provide economic incentive for mahouts to keep their charges off the streets and out of trekking camps and circuses.

The Surin Project is located in Ban Tha Klang, a small town deep in the countryside surrounded by rice and sugar cane fields, grazing water buffalo and a smattering of forests. It’s a place where elephants and people live side-by-side, and where it’s common to see elephants walking around town with their mahouts seated atop them.

Cutting Cane

The volunteer experience at the Surin Project is a minimum six-day stay entailing daily interaction with the elephants and their mahouts through chores and other activities. The accommodations were rustic: rough-hewn, bare-bones wooden homes on stilts that were rented out to the project by local mahouts. Small, adjacent buildings provided facilities to take bucket showers and to use no-flush toilets that required pouring buckets of water to flush down the contents. Soiled toilet paper was dispensed in a trash receptacle.

I arrived late-afternoon on a Monday in late November after a roughly six-hour bus ride from Bangkok. There were three other people at the project during my week there——an Austrian woman who lives in Munich and who was on her third visit to the project, and two German teenagers on extended multi-week stays during their gap year between high school and university. They spoke good English and we got along well, which made for a good group dynamic.

Chores are rotated on a daily basis, and on my first morning after a prepared breakfast of pancakes, eggs and fruit at the thatch-covered dining area, I climbed on the back of a pickup truck with a few mahouts and we drove several miles outside of town to a sugar cane field to harvest food for the elephants. Sarot, the lead mahout, handed me a machete and in decent English explained the proper technique. It was fun whacking away with the machete as I cut the base of the canes and threw them in a pile with the cut side furthest away, making it easy to grab a large bunch and hand it off to the mahouts loading the canes onto the truck. (That said, I wouldn’t want to do it for a living.)

After about 15 or 20 minutes the pickup was loaded high with sugar cane, and we jumped on the pile and held on to the side rails as we headed back toward town, but not before taking dirt roads through a forested area where we dumped sugar cane at designated places along the way.

Later that afternoon, the mahouts and volunteers took the elephants on a leisurely stroll through the forest (of course, all strolls involving lumbering elephants are leisurely), where animals stopped to munch on the canes that were dropped off that morning. The elephants seemed happy. And why not? It’s a great life, as long as their owners keep them in the program.

Pachyderm Personality

The Surin Project isn’t a sanctuary where elephants are owned by a private entity and allowed to run free in a protected reserve. That type of setup occurs in another Save Elephant Foundation operation up north near Chang Mai. Rather, it is a partnership between the Save Elephant Foundation and Surin Province to incentivize local owners of elephants and their mahouts (some mahouts own their own elephants) to improve the welfare of their elephants in return for a monthly salary to support the mahouts and their families.

As part of the deal, mahouts agree to not use a bullhook on their elephants (bullhooks have long been used for training and disciplining purposes), to allow the elephants to move about without chains and to interact with other elephants for periods of time each day, and to participate in activities with the volunteer tourists. Volunteers perform daily chores including planting and cutting sugar cane, building enclosures for the elephants, cleaning out poop and sugar cane chaff in the enclosures, and accompanying elephants on their walks and bathing them in the river.

The up close encounters with elephants enable volunteers to look the animals in the eye, get a sense of their individual personalities and gain an even greater appreciation for these magnificent creatures beyond what motivated volunteers to participate in this program in the first place.

Some of those pachyderm personalties particularly stood out. There was Saifon (“rain”), the youngest of the group at seven months, who like many youngsters was playful and curious. I enjoyed the game she played when she would put her head against my thigh and push against it with a good deal of force while I pushed back. And during the afternoon walks through the forest, when the older elephants walked freely and were guided by the mahouts’ voice commands of “ma!” (move!), Saifon was tethered to her mother, Maliwan (“jasmine”), because she always wanted to venture off and explore. All the while, she had a mischievous look on her face as she surveyed the terrain beyond the trails and tried in vain to venture off on her own.

The most interesting relationship dynamic existed between two females (the entire group was female)——Wongduean (“moon”) and Nonglek (“little sister”). One afternoon toward the end of the daily walk the two got separated when Wongduean’s mahout took her along a different route. Nonglek became upset when she realized her friend wasn’t there, and what began as rumblings of discontent turned into full-fledged anger when she blared out ominous trumpet sounds and began to run toward where many of us where standing. The ground shook, and we tore a path toward the building where we ate our meals, which overlooked a small lake. Nonglek chilled out when she saw Wongduean and her mahout coming down a path toward the lake, and both elephants ran into the water and behaved like they were really happy to see each other again.

The Hook

On the whole, mahouts aren’t lining up to take part in the program. “It’s quite hard to get mahouts to come to the Surin Project because they’re used to working with the elephants with hooks,” said Ocha, a man who appeared to be in his early thirties and who oversees the Surin Project. “They care about the elephant’s welfare, but their culture came from the hook.”

The hook is evident throughout Ban Tha Klang, home to the Gwi (also spelled Kwi, Kuy or other renditions) people who have a long history of elephant husbandry. The Gwi live in a wide swath of Surin Province, along with scattered pockets in eastern Thailand, northern Cambodia and Laos. The Elephant Study Center was established in Ban Tha Klang to provide employment for mahouts who had left the province to wander Thailand with their elephants in order to make a living by street begging. Various reports put the number of elephants affiliated with the center at roughly 150 to 200 elephants.

Despite its official, if not studious sounding name, the Elephant Study Center appears to primarily be a tool to promote elephant tourism in Ban Tha Klang and the surrounding region. There is an interesting museum that documents the Gwi culture and its interaction with elephants, but the main game in town is a circus where elephants paint pictures of trees, spin hula hoops on their trunks and dance to loud, uptempo music as they roll their head back-and-forth to the rhythm of the music, among other activities.

The audience——mainly Asian but with a smattering of Westerners——ate it up during the one show I watched as they whipped out their smart phones and tablets to take pictures. Some tourists handed baht (the Thai currency) bills to the elephants, who grabbed them with their trunks and curled their trunk up to the mahout who sat on their necks, who took the money. (The picture below is of two circus elephants walking past my lodging at the Surin Project.)

After the daily circus shows, some tourists climbed aboard elephants and took rides through parts of town while perched in a two-seat contraption on their backs.

A Better Life

Critics decry the exploitive nature of the circus, claiming the tricks are taught by using cruel training tactics aided by the hook. And, they say, elephant rides are harmful to an elephant’s back, and that elephants can sometimes be physically abused as part of the training to get them to become willing taxis.

Such cruelty——and I witnessed it while in Ban Tha Klang——is deplorable and heart wrenching. But condemnation of these practices alone doesn’t fully address the conundrum of what to do with the several thousand privately owned elephants resulting from Thailand’s cultural and economic legacy.

The mahouts——or whoever owns the elephants——need to do something with the animals to get money to feed and shelter them. There’s not enough room in Thailand to just let them run free. Self-sustaining elephant-centric ecotourism is one solution, but more needs to be done in that area to put a meaningful dent in the situation.

I saw first hand with the Surin Project that its elephants have an envious life compared to their compatriots in Ban Tha Klang who work in the circus. The project began in 2009 when the Surin Provincial Administrative Organization approached the Save Elephant Foundation to help develop responsible elephant-based tourism at the Elephant Study Center.

The Surin Project, which is apart from the center, can support only 12 elephants at a time. When I was there it had just seven participating mahouts and eight female elephants (Maliwan and Saifon were a two-fer).

Ocha said four mahouts had left in recent months before my arrival because they could get more money at elephant trekking camps. He noted the Surin Project had recently boosted the salaries to make it more appealing to mahouts.

According to Ocha, mahouts’s monthly pay at the Surin Project was 15,000 baht (roughly US$470) from the Save Elephant Foundation and 10,800 baht (about US$340) from the Surin Provincial Administrative Organization.

During the time when they’re not on walks, socializing with other elephants or getting bathed, the elephants at the Surin Project are housed in spacious shelters where at night they are tethered to a pole by a chain that was shackled to one front leg. But that’s better than other elephants in Ban Tha Klang, who typically lived in flimsy shelters with both front legs chained. Still others were double-shackled and chained to a tree, which left them exposed to the hot sun for a good part of the day.

And when walked around town or visiting a watering station (such as in the photo below), the elephants often carried a chain that was wrapped around a leg or two.

In the fading light one early evening while making the short five-minute walk to the project’s dining area, I passed a group of teenagers in a yard who were trying to force a young elephant to do some kind of trick. Their training methods included the use of the hook, and the animal responded with angry, low-rumbling grunts and cries of anguish. It was a disconcerting scene.

Lodging for Surin Project volunteers was on the edge of town not far from the circus grounds, and we essentially lived among the villagers and observed the daily rhythms of life among the Gwi.

Families with an elephant——or elephants——kept them on their property. At night when I nodded off to sleep, I heard the rumbles and occasional trumpet blasts from nearby elephants, including one pachyderm who incongruently, and humorously, sounded like a screeching monkey. Clucking chickens and barking dogs also added to the soundtrack.

I noticed some of the non-project elephants chained in their enclosures or to trees in the yards occasionally spun their heads as they stood in place, seemingly a reflex action from being trained to spin hula hoops around their trunks or dance and sway to obnoxious uptempo dance music. They resembled a person with an uncontrollable neurological problem that caused their heads to turn and twitch.

My appreciation for the Surin Project grew the more time I spent there and witnessed the juxtaposition in circumstances between “our” elephants and the non-project animals. Every afternoon the project’s elephants where taken to a forest clearing to eat sugar cane, move about freely and socialize before heading out on a nice long amble through the forest. Toward the end of the walk the mahouts took the elephants into a lake for a quick soak.

It was satisfying to see the elephants get some pleasure from life. But during the daily walks we passed a few elephants double-chained within enclosures or to trees. And there were a few elephants chained to trees on the opposite shore of the lake where the Surin Project elephants took their dip . . . I wondered what those shackled elephants thought——if, of course, they “thought” anything——as they watched the Surin Project elephants bathing in the water and living the good life.

Changes Coming

The Surin Project was nearing the end of its then-current phase by the time I departed Ban Tha Klang for Cambodia in early December. A large sign posted at the circus proclaimed that “Elephant World . . . Only One In The World” was due to open in town on March 13, 2017. From what I was told (I’ve been unable to verify this through subsequent online research), Elephant World is to be a huge elephant-themed tourism extravaganza, evidently with some Chinese financial backing. A field near where the Surin Project was based on the outskirts of town had already been cleared, and large trucks hauling construction supplies occasionally rumbled down the dirt road in front of the Surin Project meeting area.

The Surin Project itself was slated to move to a new location on the outskirts of Ban Tha Klang to make way for Elephant World. The new site will remain close to the forest but will have a new platform for meals, as well as new housing for volunteers. I recall them saying there would be flush toilets.

Ocha told me via email that as of late April the Surin Project had moved to interim facilities while the new buildings were being built, and that Elephant World had yet to open. Also, one of the mahouts and his elephant had left the project since I departed, while another mahout who had earlier left the project came back with his elephant.

While the Surin Project had several social activities that brought mahouts and volunteers together (such as the “mahout Olympics” consisting of silly yet fun games where the losing side got their faces powdered with baby powder), the language barrier was such that I couldn’t talk to the mahouts to get a sense of what their life is like, how they feel about their elephants and of being mahouts, why they joined the Surin Project and whether they viewed it as a long-term option.

Other than Sarot, who speaks functional English, none of the rest spoke any English. Most of them were shy around the “farangs,” or foreign volunteers, and seemed to be quiet by nature. But two younger mahouts in particular——Paen and Champ——were very boisterous. Some of the younger mahouts fiddled with their cell phones while walking the elephants through the forest, proving once again that cell phones have taken over the world.

Sarot was a kind man in his late 40s. He said his father and grandfather were mahouts, and he had been a mahout for about 30 years. The elephant he had for a “long, long time” died four years before, and he’s been unable to replace it.

“I have no money to buy a new one,” he said, noting that a new elephant costs 2 million baht (about US$64,000). I asked where do people go to buy an elephant, and he replied there’s a list of elephants who are put up for sale by their owner.

Sarot has one son and two daughters, and he said his son works as a mahout in northern Thailand. He added that he likes the mahout lifestyle and wants to keep it going. “Being a mahout is not hard work. We enjoy taking care of the elephants.”

But he noted that if the government didn’t pay the mahouts as part of the Surin Project, the mahouts would take the elephants to the city for street begging or go to trekking camps.

On the morning of my departure from Ban Tha Klang, I sat down with Ocha to get his take on the Surin Project. Specifically, I asked if he thought the project has achieved a desired level of success.

“Not yet,” he replied.

I asked him to define what “success” would be for this project.

“We actually don’t know what success would be. We’re the only program in Thailand to work within the community. It’s not like the other ones that work in a camp. Chiang Mai has its own area, it’s land the government can buy. The government can’t buy the land in this area——it’s difficult. They own the elephants in Chiang Mai. Here, we don’t own the elephants; we work with the people in the community.

“For now, we take it step-by-step,” he added. “We’re in the process to get more elephants.”

If You Go

I found out about the Surin Project through Globe Aware, a Dallas-based outfit that has volunteer vacation experiences around the world. The menu tab on its homepage lists its various volunteer opportunities. The Surin Project cost $725. The cost of getting to Thailand was on me.

It was only after arriving in Ban Tha Klang did I learn of the full extent of other elephant-centered volunteer activities in Thailand under the umbrella of the Save Elephant Foundation, of which the Surin Project is part of. You can book a volunteer vacation through them, as well.

I can’t speak to the new facilities at Surin Project 2.0. While the lodging evidently will be more modern, the food will likely be the same. Ocha and a helper oversaw the meals. Breakfast often consisted of pancakes, eggs and fruit, with coffee. Dinner included yellow curries with potatoes and tom yam mushrooms, pad thai, spicy drunken noodles with basil leaf, spring roll and crispy pork with Chinese kale. The meals were authentic, home-cooked Thai food, and they were quite good. For lunch, my fellow volunteers and I hopped on the back of a pickup truck——usually accompanied by Thub, one of the camp’s dogs——and were driven to one of two restaurants just outside of town. We alternated between them, and both served hearty, satisfying Thai fare. Lunches were included in the overall price of the volunteer experience.

I’m glad the volunteer group included only four people during my time at the Surin Project. As mentioned, we all got along well and that helped make for an enjoyable experience. I was told that 12 volunteers were expected at the project for the week after I left (including my three compadres who all remained during the subsequent week), which was good for the project’s finances but would’ve afforded a less intimate experience for me.

Looking back, I can’t say I saved the world or the elephants during this roughly one-week volunteer endeavor. Then again, it was only a week, so what did I expect? That said, my time in Ban Tha KIang living among the elephants and their handlers in a location that is practically smack dab in the heart of Southeast Asia was one of the most unique experiences of my life. It was entirely worth the money spent and the effort to get there——and then some. I’d like to think I contributed to the elephants’ well-being . . . however small that contribution might’ve be. But big things are made of little things, and if enough people spend time at the Surin Project that could be a whole lot of “little things” adding up to something substantive. Based on the Surin Project’s Facebook page, it appears the project is still going strong.

I’m happy for the elephants at the Surin Project, and in a perfect world I hope they can stay there forever.

Cambodia (Siem Reap And Angkor Wat)

The roughly 15-minute ride from the heart of Siem Reap to Angkor Wat in northwest Cambodia is a swirling cacophony of tuk-tuks, cars, buses, scooters and bicycles, along with a side order of dust and automobile exhaust. The traffic flows both with a sense of purpose and in a seemingly chaotic progression as drivers jostle for position within their designated side of road. Despite the fumes, it’s a circus of life and an exhilarating prelude before reaching the intended destination: the famed Angkor temple complex, one of the world’s largest religious monuments and archeological sites and, increasingly, a must-see for travelers.

As the gateway to Angkor and its reservoir of Cambodian history, Siem Reap is a tourist magnet. Beyond the touristy core lies an authentic and gritty experience that’s more than just Angkor.

But it is the ruins at Angkor Archaeological Park that draws millions of people from around the world (more than 4 million annually, according to UNESCO), with the focus on Angkor Wat, the 12th-century temple built by Suryavarman II. Angkor Wat was built at a time when the Khmer civilization was in full flower, spanned across a sizable chunk of Southeast Asia and was perhaps the greatest empire of its time. Today, that history is little known among most Westerners.

Angkor Wat generally gets the most press and the most tourists within the temple region, so perhaps it’s appropriate that it’s the first major temple that greets visitors coming north from Siem Reap to the Angkor complex.

My tuk-tuk driver dropped me off at the entrance area to Angkor Wat. As part of the deal, he would hang around and wait for my return. I bought my three-day entrance pass to the Angkor Archaeological Park the day before and was ready to dive headlong into one of the planet’s most famous man-made objects. It was a little incongruent when, among the numerous vendors selling food and beverages and souvenirs, one vendor near the entrance to the long sandstone bridge spanning the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat was blasting obnoxious uptempo Asian pop . . . it was sort of a dose of the profane before stepping onto sacred ground.

It was early December and the air was warm and muggy, with a touch of contrasty haze. The long bridge over the moat leads to the entrance of the temple grounds, and ahead lies another long amble leading to the stone temple itself. After passing through the first section, a corridor empties onto the courtyard in the middle section of the temple. Time and the elements have covered a good part of Angkor Wat with a blackened patina, and some sections exist in a state of crumbling disrepair.

The word “Angkor” is derived from “Nagara,” which means “city” in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. The architecture of the Khmer Empire took its cue from the Indian subcontinent, with Khmer cultural embellishments added to the mix. Angkor Wat, which means “temple city,” was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu before later becoming a Buddhist temple. It’s a three-tiered structure with five lotus flower-like towers, with the roughly 210-feet tall central tower bracketed by four smaller towers in a square-like formation. The temple is surrounded by a large, square 650-foot-wide moat, and the entire complex was modeled after Mount Meru, the mythic center of the universe in Hindu lore where the gods reside.

Somewhere within the temple’s main building, two young monks in saffron robes performed a blessing ceremony for a family. The man and wife seemed reverential with hands in supplication as one of the priests chanted something and splashed water on them, and their young son seem enraptured with the moment even as his little sister’s face wandered off with her mind seemingly in another place.

The temple walls are covered with an impressive array of bas-relief sculptures of asparas, which are beautiful dancing girls from Hindu mythology. Steep steps led to the top of the northeast tower, which left most tourists huffing and puffing for breath in the humid air when they reached the top. Upon descending the tower, they grabbed the rails with a sense of caution as they returned to earth in a slow, painstaking manner.

As I gazed over the landscape from atop the tower, I contemplated the construction of this and the other temples in the Angkor complex during the pre-industrial age——the vast scaffolding used for both men and material as the temples rose into the air; the labor expended to haul the sandstone over great distances from the Kulen Mountains north of Angkor; the craftsmen chiseling their exquisite religious figures and secular scenes onto the walls and towers.

The Angkor area is said to have been the largest city in the world, with estimates ranging from 750,000 to 1 million people. It must have been a swarming, teeming beehive of activity. How did the common folk live? What did they eat? What were their joys and pains? Their wooden homes long ago disintegrated, and aside from the stone temples that have survived the centuries in varying states of repair and disrepair, the vast city that once was great is now mainly covered by tropical evergreen forest.

Given the tourist crush at Angkor Wat, particularly during the cooler, dry season when I was there, it’s hard to have your own personal Angkor Wat “moment.” But that doesn’t detract from the experience, and it’s still possible to slip away into the nooks and crannies of Angkor Wat and get lost in appreciation for the opportunity to visit this global treasure.

There are two ponds on the grounds in front of the western front of Angkor Wat, and the one on the left (the northern pond) is where people gather to take photos of the temple and its reflection in the water.

More Than Angkor Wat

The Khmer people who built the temples emerged from the mists of ancient Cambodian history around the seventh century A.D. The Angkorian period when the temples were built began in 802 with the founder of the Khmer Empire, Jayavarman II. The empire reigned until the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya took Angkor in 1431. But the intervening centuries saw a steady construction of stone temples built by various Jayavarmans up to and including Jayavarman VII, along with numerous other “Varmans.” These temples were built with either Hinduism or Buddhism devotion in mind, and sometimes switched allegiances depending on the ruler.

Given its history, reputation, construction and styling, Angkor Wat is spectacular. Nearby Angkor Thom, particularly Bayon, is probably more visually impactful. And it’s certainly less crowded. Angkor Thom (“great city”) was built in the late-12th and early-13th centuries during the reign of Jayavarman VII. The square, walled and moated city served as a Khmer royal capital. The highlight is Bayon, a large temple in the center of Angkor Thom that from a distance in the murky late-afternoon light looked like one of those sandcastles where towers made with globs of wet sand take shape as crenelated formations. Upon closer look, Bayon is marked by 37 textured towers, with most decorated with sculptures of large faces sporting serene smiles. It’s thought that the faces might represent Loksvara, Mahayana Buddhism’s compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII.

The bas-reliefs at Bayon depict a mix of battle scenes and snippets of medieval Khmer life. But it’s the large carved faces, which give Bayon an Easter-Island-meets-Southeast-Asia-exotica feeling, that makes it one of history’s funkiest structures.

Nearby is Ta Prohm, another temple built by Jayavarman VII that’s in the forest—literally. In what could be a scene from sci-fi horror flick where giant trees devour buildings, the massive roots of huge fig, banyan and kapok trees have grown up along, are intertwined with, and wrap around certain sections of walls and buildings like humungous octopus tentacles. It is very photogenic and atmospheric, yet the trees are wreaking havoc with the structural integrity in the areas embraced by their roots. Some trees have been removed as part of ongoing restoration efforts, with others left in place as a defining characteristic of the “tree temple.”

Depending on their interest level, a visitor could spend many days at the Angkor World Heritage Site, a sprawling area of nearly 155 square miles north of Siem Reap. Temples radiate in scattered formation in the forest beyond from the core Angkor area (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Ta Keo). I had four full days in Siem Reap——plus parts of two other days——and used only two of the days allotted for my three-day Angkor ticket because I had other plans during my time there. In hindsight, those two days seem kind of rushed. When I was there I consciously tried to soak in the moment and appreciate the history and cultural significance of the place. I now realize that wasn’t enough time to properly take it all in, particularly from a photographic perspective.

Darker History

The Angkor complex represents the apex of Cambodian civilization, but a brief moment at Ta Prohm was a reminder of the nadir of Cambodian history. As I walked along a dirt pathway that lined the perimeter of Ta Prohm I came upon a four-piece band playing traditional Cambodian music. Two of the musicians played a tro khmer, a stringed instrument with a long wood neck and a sound box made of coconut and covered with snake or cow skin. As they ran their bows across the strings, another musician played a takhe, a string instrument that lays flat——one hand runs up and down the strings while the other hand plucks them. The fourth musician clanged chhing finger cymbals and occasionally sang. The singer and one of the tro khmer players both had stumps for left legs, and their prothetic legs rested against the small stage. The singer, who was blind, used his prosthetic right arm to play the cymbals.

This band, as well as a similar musical outfit in another section of Ta Prohm, were partially made up of members who lost limbs from land mine explosions. They sought donations while displaying a sign that brought attention to the country’s land mine victims. I listened to the band for a short while, put a $10 bill into the pot and asked if I could take their picture. (The U.S. dollar is essentially the de facto currency in Cambodia; the official national currency, the riel, is often used for small purchases.)

Anti-personnel mines were a vestige of the civil war that enabled the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla group led by the notorious Pol Pot that took root in Cambodia’s northeast region in the 1960s and eventually ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer Rouge emptied the capital, Phnom Penh, and other cities and moved everyone into the countryside to create an agrarian utopia of peasants——essentially, a giant collective farm. It declared the nation was starting anew at “Year Zero.”

Intellectuals, artists, bourgeoisie, people with wealth, monks and anyone else who were deemed a threat to the new order were murdered. In all, an estimated 1.7 million people, or 21 percent of Cambodia’s population were either killed, starved to death or worked to death during this period, leading to the infamous “killing fields” containing the mass graves for the victims. Land mines were used by all sides in Cambodia’s civil war, but they were especially prized by the Khmer Rouge, who were eventually driven into exile by Vietnamese troops who invaded the country after a series of border clashes.

At the Wat Thmey monastery in Siem Reap there’s a glass-encased, red-painted memorial stupa crammed with the skulls and bones of people who died during the Khmer Rouge period. Photographs from that era line a corridor on the temple grounds, and as I read the descriptions beneath them that describe life during the Cambodian holocaust I was approached by three young monks who looked to be about 10 to 12 years old. One was rather brazen, if not cocky in a humorous way, as he rattled off a few words in English and flashed an impish grin as he stuck out his hand to imply he was looking for some kind of handout. They gladly posed for a photograph, and I wondered if they fully understood the enormity of the Khmer Rouge period, which must seem like ancient history to them.

As a first time visitor to Cambodia who remembers reading about the Khmer Rouge period as it was happening during my teen years, this terrible nightmare does seem like a long time ago. It’s almost surreal that it happened at all. I was in Cambodia for just six days, but during that time I was impressed by the friendliness of the people and the country’s energy and vitality. Several times I stopped myself and thought, “How did Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge happen? How could they have hijacked this country and implemented a regime of fear and murder?” It’s almost inconceivable, until you stare at the skulls and bones that fill the glass-encased memorial at Wat Thmey. Or, until you talk to people impacted by those years.

The thirtysomething tuk-tuk driver I hired to be my personal driver for three days, Saroeun (pronounce sa-rún), was born after the Khmer Rouge were defeated, but he said he still feels the after effects. He said his parents owned land that was confiscated by the Khmer Rouge and was never returned to them, and they never recovered economically. “I grew up poor, and I’m still poor,” he said as we talked about his life in the parking area at Angkor Wat, with the temple’s famed towers visible in the distance——a juxtaposition of ancient and living Cambodian history. He added he’s still trying to support both them and his family on a tuk-tuk driver’s meager wages.

 

Tonle Sap

During my time in Siem Reap I stayed at the Golden Temple Residence, a fabulous hotel that earns massive kudos on Trip Advisor (some highly rated places in town, particularly restaurants, proudly hung signs touting their lofty ranking in the Trip Advisorsphere). There are many reasons why Golden Temple gets a lot of love [see below in the “Travel Tips” section], and among them for me was a small thing——free use of a bicycle.

I put in my request for a set of wheels the night before at the front desk, and after breakfast went next door to a small shed to pick up my bike. It was great fun weaving through the Cambodian traffic in both town and country. I went south into the countryside and veered off on a couple of side roads to see a pace of life that seemed hundreds of miles away from the tourist crash in Siem Reap——farmers working the rice paddies; two small boats setting off into a flooded plain where trees poked through a wide expanse of brown water; small villages where people went about their lives.

For my countryside ride I followed the main southerly road out of town that leads about nine miles to the northern shore of Tonle Sap, a massive 23,000-square-mile lake that’s the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The homes in the villages along the road are mainly built on stilts. Much of the domestic activities——cooking, eating, watching television, mending fishing nets, fixing machinery and the like——take place in the space beneath the buildings.

In the pecking order of things to do in Siem Reap, a boat tour of the villages along Tonle Sap——some floating, others on tall stilts——is probably the second most popular option after the Angkor temples. And according to comments on some travel sites, it’s the biggest tourist trap in town. I guess it’s all in how you approach it. That said, there is a potential scam factor, which I’ll address shortly.

Plenty of places in Siem Reap advertise Tonle Sap tours, and a place near my hotel had an offer of $17. Saroeun said he could arrange a private Tonle Sap tour for $30, plus his tuk-tuk fare. I took the bait. The closest entry point at Tonle Sap is Chong Khneas, a floating village and mixed community of Cambodian and Vietnamese. I met Rhon (pronounced Ron) the boat guide. As we sailed through the channel toward where it enters the lake he explained what life was like in the floating village, how the buildings rise and fall with the tide, how most of the villagers support themselves through fishing, and how overfishing of catfish by the villages along the lake hurts the local economy and makes it hard to make a living.

Homes, shops, grocery stores, mechanics garages and everything else in the village floated on water. Tour boats navigated alongside local denizens who went about their business in their vessels——most of which were long and narrow. The beauty of traveling over water is that it doesn’t kick up any dust.

We stopped at a lakefront restaurant. Rhon, Saroeun and I went up to the upper deck, and from that vantage point Tonle Sap was a wide-open expanse of coffee-colored water with a seemingly endless horizon. Saroeun bought a plate of cooked, whole shrimps and five cans of Angkor beer. On the deck, both Saroeun and Rhon talked about the difficulty of making a go of it in Cambodia.

For Westerners, Cambodia is cheap on the budget. For the average Cambodian, at least as they described it, it’s expensive. Rhon, 26, was born with both feet turned inward and he walks with a hobble. He said he lives off of tips from being a boat guide, but he’s in a queue and must wait his turn to guide. He’d like to find steady work elsewhere, but said that with his bad feet and limited education he wonders about his future.

As we headed back to the dock, Rhon kept talking about the floating orphanage school for children who lost their parents during the area’s frequent floods. And that it would be very helpful if I could buy a bag of rice to donate for the school. My scam radar went up when he mentioned that because I fell prey to a similar come-on in India years ago. But he assured me this was legit. I guess I got caught up in the moment because I bought a one-kilo bag of rice for the school for $50. The guy who sold it to me tried hard——in a polite way——to get me to buy two bags. When I told him I didn’t have the cash, he said some tourists pay for it with credit at the dock. I told him to be happy with the one bag I was buying.

We boarded the school and delivered the rice. The children gathered around the bag for a cheap photo opp; they seemed rather disinterested in the whole thing and it had the feel of a staged event that they’d been through many times before. The kids looked to be pretty well-fed and clothed as they ran around a classroom while a teacher lay on a hammock and fiddled with his cell phone while seemingly oblivious to what the kids were doing. Was this a scam, as is implied from comments left on various travel sites from people who did the Tonle Sap tour that I read after I returned home? Was I a sap on Tonle Sap?

Probably.

Would I have been better off paying just $17 for a group boat tour versus paying $90 for a private tour? ($30 for the tour, plus $30 for Saroeun’s services and a $30 tip for Rhon . . . I felt sorry for him and wanted to help him out.) And had I gone on the group tour I probably wouldn’t have bought a $50 bag of rice. Certainly, I would’ve been better off financially, but there were intangibles that make me not regret significantly overspending for the private tour experience.

I suppose something like the tour of Chong Khneas, or any of the Tonle Sap villages, straddles the line between voyeurism and an honest, sincere attempt to see how everyday folks in a foreign land live on a street-level——or in this case, water-level——basis. Then again, how does one define voyeurism? To me, the point of traveling to different countries isn’t to limit yourself to five-star hotels, the best museums and the finest restaurants. Rather, the point is to get out there and intermingle with the people, get dust on your shoes and get a taste——however brief——of a completely different existence.

And that’s what I experienced in Chong Khneas. People in the village conduct their lives on the front porches of their floating homes and in their boats that whiz along the water. Some travel sites say other villages further along the lake are more colorful and interesting than Chong Khneas. Perhaps, but it’s all the same regarding visiting a place to get a sense of a different way of life.

Was Chong Khneas spectacular? Not really. Was it interesting? Very much so. Did I get ripped off by the tourist infrastructure at Chong Khneas? Maybe. Do I care? At this point long after the fact, not particularly.

What made the Tonle Sap excursion worthwhile to me was the half-hour or so spent on the rooftop deck at the restaurant with Saroeun and Rhon as they talked about their lives while we peeled shrimp and drank beer. It was a temporary bonding between people from different sides of the planet and a brief education on this corner of the world. Those are the types of traveler moments I cherish.

Travel Tips

Getting Around
Particularly in the tourist district and near hotels in Siem Reap, tuk-tuk drivers are a dime a dozen and always hounding passersby (particularly tourists) to ask if they need a lift. Short hops around town are around $2 one way. Round trips to the Angkor temple complex are typically $15 to $20. When I met Saroeun and inquired about how much it would cost to hire him on a per-day basis for a few days, he replied almost apologetically, “$20, $25 . . . whatever you think is fair.” I ultimately paid him $30 a day for each of the three days he was my chauffeur because I sensed he needed the money and that I was a good payday for him. Plus, I got to know him a little bit, and I appreciated his insights on life in Cambodia.

Organized tours arranged by hotels——particularly in air-conditioned vehicles——can be pricy, so you’ll generally fare better costwise by finding tours run by local shops and/or hiring your own tuk-tuk driver. (That said, a vehicle with A.C. in the brutal summer months might not be a bad idea.)

Where To Stay
The Golden Temple Residence is a short walk to the heart of Siem Reap. It offers a great breakfast as part of the price (there are other perks included in the price), has very comfortable beds, much-needed air conditioning, and the staff is unnaturally polite. While I waited for the paperwork to be done at check-in, I was provided a tray with a moist, scented towel to wipe my face on a humid day; a refreshing glass of lemon iced tea; and a snack tray with fruit, three small cakes and spiced nuts. That was a great start to a great stay. My bill averaged $171 a night for my five-night stay, which is high by Siem Reap standards but I felt well worth the price. A comparable hotel in major North American, European or Asian cities would likely been twice that rate.

Where To Eat
There are many, many dining options in Siem Reap. Two particularly stood out. Flow has a sophisticated wine bar atmosphere without being snobby. The appetizer of pan-seared scallops with asparagus and bacon (I ixnayed the bacon) was delicious, and the broth was so good I got another order of bread to soak up the juice. The grilled vegetable medley with eggplant, zucchini, capsicums with smoked scamorza cheese was tasty and satisfying. The chocolate lava cake with ice cream was a perfect coda to my meal. The prices are very reasonable.

AnnAdya is open-air but covered with a bamboo roof. I thoroughly enjoyed the char-khreoung fish (it also comes with beef or chicken), a traditional Cambodian dish with wok-fried Khmer spice (don’t know what that entails), hot basil, coconut cream and peanuts served with steamed rice. It was filling and cost only US$5.75.

Angkor Wat
The main ticket sales office is the Angkor Conservation Area ticket booth on Charles de Gaulle Road that connects Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. All Angkor passes are available there. As of February 1, 2017, a one-day pass was US$37; a three-day pass was US$62 and a seven-day pass was US$72. Information about tickets can be found here and here. Visitors need to buy their ticket before they arrive at the Angkor Archeological Park.

Cuba . . . Before The Change

The dichotomy of modern Cuba was captured on my second night in Havana during a nine-day visit to the country in late 2015. On a Sunday night, a handful of companions and I visited the Jazz Cafe in the city’s lively Vedado neighborhood, where our homestays were located. The musicianship was first-rate even if the music bounced loudly off of the hard walls, and the appreciative crowd sipped drinks until the wee hours. When we departed the club our group split up into two cabs. Two others and myself hailed a young driver in an old Lada, those small, boxy, post-1970 Russian cars that are just as prevelant––albeit less photogenic––as the Eisenhower-era American vehicles that are Cuba’s postcard image.

The backseat left-side passenger door opened by itself shortly after we took off and the driver reached out his window to shut and secure the door as he drove. Meanwhile, the window handle came off in the hand of the passenger in the right-side backseat, who proceeded to hand it off to the driver. The driver struggled with the balky stick shift of the manual-transmission vehicle whenever we came to a stop sign.

All the while, a Spanish-language pop song that played on the radio propelled us through the streets of Vedado and past whatever city life was still stirring on the streets in the early hours of the new day. I was buzzed after a daiquiri and two mojitos at the jazz club, which imbued me with a sort of levitating feel as we motored along on our roughly five-minute taxi ride. I sat in the seatbelt-less front seat, less worried about my personal safety than enthralled by the sheer adventure of it all.

The taxi ride might have been an “adventure” for me, but it spoke to the hard reality of life for the taxi driver and others like him in Cuba, a poor country where people carry on the best they can because they have no choice. Despite that, it’s a place that exudes a dynamic rhythm.

For Americans, Cuba has been so close yet so far. Only 90 miles from Key West, Florida, the island nation is more than a half-century removed from the U.S. as a result of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and subsequent decades filled with Cold War baggage, economic sanctions, travel restrictions and ill will between the nations’ governments.

For the most part, Cuba has been forbidden fruit for Americans. But now it’s fruit on the verge of ripening into a mass influx of American tourists following the Obama Administration’s efforts to improve diplomatic and economic ties, and to remove the travel barriers that have made visiting Cuba a hassle.

All of this has led to the biggest American invasion of Cuba since the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, propelled by the rallying cry of “See Cuba before it changes!” The thought is you better see Cuba now before all of those vintage ‘50s-era American cars are replaced by Ford Fusions, and before the island is carpeted by McDonalds and vacation condos owned by Yanks.

Cuba is different and worth exploring, and not just because of the smattering of painted murals with Che Guevara’s visage and revolution-era bromides, or the clichéd image of old cars with tail fins rolling down the highway. Sure, the murals are delightful Cuban kitsch and the old cars are nostalgic, but the island provides a deeper experience than that.

Cuba circa 2016––a country that sooner than later will likely experience profound changes on several fronts––is worth seeing on its own terms . . . for its people who’ve put up with a lot of crap with a sense of pride, pluck and a spirit of friendliness . . . for the country’s vitality amid crumbling infrastructure and a third-world economy . . . and yes, at least for now, its sense of being a place seemingly from another time.

Different Vibes
The rhythm of Cuban life and the feel of yesteryear took different forms during my travels through the western half of the country. In the fertile tobacco-growing region of Viñales in the country’s far west, I came upon a partially plowed field sprouting baby tobacco where a farmer in a straw hat walked behind a wooden plow attached to a pair of light-colored oxen as they plowed the rest of the field; the hooves of the ox made a muffled sound as they traversed the rich, brown earth while the plow and yoke contraption rattled gently as the farmer cut his furrowed rows. At the edge of the field near a barn, the oxen couldn’t navigate a tight turn and veered into a high clump of weeds, causing the farmer to apply extra whipping, muscle and cajoling to get the animals back on track.

Viñales sits in a valley punctuated by limestone mogotes, or pin-cushion hills that at dusk give the area an enchanted feel. The town itself is made up of small, brightly colored homes, and street-smart dogs and chickens roam around like they own the place. The valley’s natural beauty and outdoor recreation activities make Viñales a big tourist town where Chinese-built Transtur tour buses park on narrow residential streets where homestays are located, yet it maintains an oasis-like feel tucked away in a lush valley where black beans, maize, bananas, coffee and avocado grow, along with tobacco.

In Trinidad, a handsome 500-year-old colonial city with cobbled streets, well-preserved pastel-colored buildings and a UNESCO world heritage site designation, my homestay for two nights was about a half-mile from the main square, Plaza Mayor, with its cathedrals, museums and nearby outdoor market. Roosters crowed throughout the night in the neighborhood, and two seemed to be in competition to see who was the loudest. Evidently, they didn’t receive the memo that roosters are supposed to start crowing at sunrise. I awoke in the morning, looked out my window and saw a man on a bicycle with a big container strapped to the back, yelling out that he had fresh bread for sale.

Trinidad is a very short drive to the beach at Ancon, a tranquilo spot on a spit of sand where the rhythm of gentle Caribbean waves wash onto country’s south-central coast.

The coastal scene is much different along Havana’s El Malecón, the roughly five-mile long seawall and boulevard that fronts the Atlantic Ocean from the harbor entrance in Old Havana, past the scruffy waterfront apartment buildings in Central Havana, and up to the northwest neighborhood of Vedado.

El Malecón is Havana’s main artery, a place where the city’s denizens gather on the wide walkway that runs along the stone wall to meet with friends, drink, flirt, smooch, play music, and go fishing.

On weekends, El Malecón is packed. Late on a Saturday night I stopped by the grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Vedado, Havana’s signature hotel, for a Cuban cigar and a mojito. From the hotel’s garden seating area on Taganana Hill overlooking the sea and El Malecón, the collective voices of the crowd congregated on the walkway across the boulevard created a murmur and energy you’d experience walking into a sports stadium.

Two days later in the late afternoon, my final day in Cuba, I walked the length of El Malecón from the harbor entrance to the Hotel Nacional. It was a mellower scene. A crowd of fisherman cast their lines at the seawall opposite El Morro Castle and its tall lighthouse perched on a rocky promontory at the entrance of the canal leading to the harbor.

At times, waves crashed over the wall, and the salt water that sits on the pedestrian promenade has pockmarked and degraded the cement. The briny sea air mixed with the tailpipe effluvia from vehicles whizzing by on the six-lane roadway, which created a gauzy, atmospheric veil along El Malecón and the seafront skyline.

Very pretty young prostitutes wearing tight shirts and skirts sat along the wall in search of customers––a couple approached me and offered to take me for a go-round at a nearby casa particular (or private house, akin to the homestays that served as my lodging during my trip, though I suspect the private houses these women had in mind didn’t have anything to do with bed-and-breakfast, or at least the breakfast part).

El Malecón was built to keep the sea out of Havana’ streets, and construction began in 1901 under the auspices of the U.S. military, which was involved in Cuban affairs following the Spanish-American War in 1898. The architecture along El Malecón blends Moorish, Baroque, Art Deco and other styles, but the combined affects of time, automobile fumes, salt air and lack of money has left many apartment buildings along the road in Central Havana looking frayed and decayed.

It’s easy to imagine the beauty of these buildings in their prime, but today they resemble old society doyennes in need of serious cosmetic surgery. And indeed, some of the building are slowly being refurbished, as are some of the grand, old decayed buildings in the Old Havana neighborhood.

Another Taxi Story
It’s hard to write about––or photograph––Cuba without focusing on the vintage cars that make Cuba a living museum. But they are so much of the story because they tell a story about latter-day Cuba.

A New York Times article in 2004 pegged the number of pre-1960 American cars in Cuba at 60,000. The reason: U.S. automakers haven’t been able to sell their wares in Cuba since 1959, and for more than a half-century the only cars that could be legally bought and sold in the country were those already in Cuba before the 1959 revolution. Meanwhile, buying newer cars required a state-issued permit, and those generally went to “important” people such as government officials, athletes and doctors.

For the rest of the “unimportant” people who need to keep their old cars running, the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba has meant no spare parts for the American-made cars. In turn, Cubans have kept their old Chevys, Plymouths and Studebakers running with foreign parts, chicken wire and ingenuity.

Some pre-’59 automobiles––particularly those used to ferry tourists around Havana and other cities––are in beautiful shape. Most others, such as those used for the half-dozen rides I took in beat-up taxis during my final two days in Havana, aren’t. Yet those provide a gritty experience that’s more attuned to everyday life in Cuba.

On my final morning in Havana, I hailed a taxi for a ride from Vedado to Old Havana. The car that stopped for me was an old station wagon that fit eight people, excluding the guy riding shotgun who handled the financial transactions. The passenger seats were full, so I hopped in the back jump seat where I sat across from an older woman. As Vedado turned into Central Havana and approached the edge of Old Havana, the apartment buildings went from modern-ish and mostly well-maintained to a mix of decently maintained or flat-out ramshackle. No matter the neighborhood, laundry hung out to dry on balconies.

Many of the establishments we passed had long lines out front, and public spaces along the way were filled with people. From my rear-view vista in the back of the station wagon with the window down (did the window even work?) I drank in the hum of Havana at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning and breathed in, much to my chagrin, the god-awful black exhaust spewing from the tail pipes of the old vehicles. Unfortunately, those pre-1959 cars have pre-1959 exhaust systems that, combined with leaded gas and diesel fuel, produce serious pollution.

The day before, I caught a taxi ride with a friendly man named Mitchél, who drove a bright-green ‘50s-era Chevy. The car’s floor and doors were stripped to the base metal, the dashboard had neither gauges nor a radio, and the seats showed signs of having played host to countless fannies.

Despite my so-so Spanish, Mitchél and I had a chat about his life in Cuba. He has relatives in Miami (just about everybody I met in Cuba has relatives in Florida), but he can’t afford to visit them.

“You have to work hard in Cuba for little money,” he said.

Mitchél said he’d like to have a new car, but they’re way too expensive. As of early 2014 Cubans are now allowed to buy new cars without a permit. Problem is, they’re astronomically priced. One news report from early 2014 mentioned a new Peugeot 508 selling for $262,000 in Havana, and used VWs fetching more than $60,000. According to the Cuban News Agency, the country’s average monthly salary in 2014 was roughly US$24. Many people earn money on the side, but the bottom line is that it’ll probably be a long time before people like Mitchél can afford a new car.

He said despite the hard life in Cuba, he’s content because it’s a safe place thanks to the mano fuerte of the government and police.

A Change Is Gonna Come
Many other Cubans, of course, aren’t as sanguine about the strong hand of the authorities. The constant presence of police makes for a low crime rate and a safe place for tourists, but the looming specter of the communist police state is one reason why thousands of Cubans still try to enter the U.S. each year. That, and the lack of economic opportunity.

Regarding the latter, the Cuban government recently announced it would legalize thousands of small- to medium-sized businesses that operate around the country in hopes of bolstering private enterprise. It’s an admission from a communist regime that hey, maybe there’s something to free markets after all.

But the people of Cuba remain shackled in more ways than one. I met a barber named Abél in Trinidad, whose old-school shop looked to be the front room of his living quarters. From the walls of his shop hung a series of colorful abstract paintings that he said were his handiwork. They were spectacular!

He had a several works-in-progress in a side room adjacent to the shop, including one that was mostly done and which I fell in love with on the spot. I said I wanted to buy it when it was done and asked how much would it cost. He told me the price––I forget the amount but it was very low by American standards (a great bargain for me and maybe a nice payday for a Cuban, but not commensurate with the quality of the painting). I gave him my email and told him to let me know when it was completed, and that we would make payment arrangements then. He hesitated and said that won’t be possible. That’s because the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba has essentially cut off the U.S. financial system from the island.

It was a disappointing for me, and probably frustrating for Abél.

On a walk through the heart of Havana one early evening, I walked past residences with doors and windows opened to the warm air that revealed cramped, dingy, dimly-lit living quarters. Yet the streets were alive with activity––stores and street carts selling food, pedestrians hanging out on sidewalks, music coming from bars, the flow of traffic and the general flow of everyday life being lived give the city a sense of constant movement and verve.

The co-existence of hardscrabble and high energy, coupled with the city’s evocative feel from another era and its sense of being very much in the moment, was fascinating, if not intoxicating. I have visited 20 countries, and Havana is one of most compelling cities I’ve ever experienced.

Where Cuba goes from here is anyone’s guess. Can the current political and social order survive the passing of the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl? Will opening up the country to the U.S. (it’s already open to the rest of the world) open up a can of worms that compels Cubans––especially younger Cubans––to demand changes that can’t be denied, and if they are denied, will lead to upheaval? Expectations for economic and social––and political––reforms are building.

So yes, now is a good time to see Cuba before it changes . . . whatever form those changes take.

If You Go
The travel situation regarding Americans and Cuba is fluid, and by the time you read this could be on the way to complete normalization with no restrictions.

I visited Cuba on a people-to-people group tour, one of the 12 approved travel categories that lets Americans visit Cuba legally. I arrived via Miami on a charter flight, long the only sanctioned way to travel to Cuba from the U.S. Subsequent to my trip, the U.S. and Cuba agreed to resume scheduled commercial flights between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years, but as of this writing Americans still need to qualify for one of the 12 categories of authorized travel.

The first U.S.-to-Cuba cruise ship in decades arrived in Havana in May, and a steady flotilla of cruise ships is expected to start steaming into Cuban ports beginning this summer. Whether Cuba’s hospitality infrastructure can handle the expected wave of American visitors remains to be seen.

The tour company I went with was an Australian-based outfit called Cuban Adventures, which has a special unit for American travelers that provides legally sanctioned tours. The tour was well-organized and took us on a seven-day greatest hits package of Western Cuba, including the first day in Havana to kick it off, followed by a visit to the fertile tobacco-growing region of Viñales in the country’s far west.

The rest of the circuit included Cienfuegos, a port city of 150,000 people known as The Pearl of the South for its European flair and colonnaded buildings, as well as Trinidad, a handsome, 500-year-old colonial city near the Caribbean coast that came to prominence from the slave and sugar trades. There were also brief stops at the Bay of Pigs, as well as Che Guevara’s mausoleum and memorial in Santa Clara.

The people-to-people part of the tour was a basic primer on Cuban life that put us face-to-face with cigar makers, dancers, artisans, the Santeria religion and food, among other aspects.

Cuban food is, surprisingly, just so-so. It’s hearty, rustic and satisfactory, but it’s neither savory nor spicy. Foodies will be disappointed. Chicken and fish are staples, and beef is often served shreaded in an oily tomato-based sauce. Black beans and white rice are common side dishes, along with root vegetables. Fresh vegetables typically are tomatoes and cucumbers. Ice cream and flan are the big desserts. White bread and rolls ruled (didn’t see any whole-grain or multi-grain breadstuffs).

I had some good meals in Havana restaurants, though, with the best being a chicken dish with peanuts and veggies in a “Hong Kong” sauce at Tien Tan in the city’s tiny Chinatown section. No doubt the anticiapated tourist boom from Americans will lead to a thriving restaurant trade——particularly in Havana——in coming years. 

Our lodging consisted of homestays that included breakfast, which is a great slice-of-life way to experience Cuba. Note: due to Cuba’s serious shortcomings in plumbing infrastructure, in most places you can’t flush toilet paper down the drain and instead you deposit it in trash receptacles. But that’s part of the charm of Cuba, so to speak.

While I very much enjoyed the tour and my travel mates, who were a fun group who accentuated the overall experience, I also enjoyed escaping from the group when I could to wander solo and soak up Cuba on my own terms. That included two days of exploring in Havana after the tour ended.

A friend of mine who had visited Cuba several times in the past told me before my trip, “Dude, Cuba will change your life.” Well, not quite. In fact, while I was on the island I thought my visit there would be a one-and-done deal. But upon returning home I realized that I have unfinished business there, and want to return in the near-future to visit the eastern half of the country––and to spend more time in Havana––before Cuba changes too much.

The Black Hills: A Complicated Legacy

The Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming pack a bifurcated legacy that captures the best and worst of the American experience. It’s hard not to think about the latter if you’re familiar with the region’s history, but it’s also not hard to enjoy yourself in the Black Hills thanks to the area’s bounty of eclectic and enjoyable attributes.

During a mid-summer visit when the region was in full tourist bloom, the region’s appeal was several-fold: the Black Hills with its craggy slabs of granite poking through––and towering over––Ponderosa pine forests; the free-range wildlife (including buffalo) and twisting, looping scenic drives of Custer State Park in South Dakota, perhaps one of the nation’s best state parks; the looming, monolithic and magnificent Devils Tower in Wyoming; and South Dakota cities of variegated appeal including Rapid City, Deadwood and Sturgis.

It’s a place where family vacation memories are made. Or, in the case of a solo traveler like myself, a distinctive landscape to bring the camera and hiking boots and just wander for a few days, as I did during an extended trip through the Nebraska panhandle, southwestern South Dakota and Wyoming. The Black Hills are steeped in the mystique of “How The West Was Won,” which also incorporates the darker side of the region’s history and, by proxy, the nation’s history regarding the government’s dealings with the native people of the Plains.

That legacy was a palpable undercurrent in my mind when I visited the Black Hills’ most famous landmark, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a place I always figured would be a “Is that all there is?” experience if I ever saw it in person, but ultimately reminded me somewhat of the Taj Mahal in India based on its visual impact, the excitement it generates among visitors and the technological prowess behind its construction.

Mount Rushmore proved to be a profound experience for several reasons: the magnificence of the sculptures and the intricacy of their carvings made with the brute force of dynamite and less intense yet still muscular jackhammers, before being polished with hand facers and bumper tools; the magnetism and star power it exudes; and its essence as a powerful national icon.

I first glimpsed Mount Rushmore from a high ridge along Iron Mountain Road, a scenic, winding two-lane drive that cuts through Custer State Park before exiting the park not far south of Mount Rushmore. The angle of the late-afternoon sun cast an ugly combination of shade and hazy contrast over the monument, yet seeing the distant faces of the four presidents for the first time gave me a jolt of excitement.

The next best glimpse of the monument came at the entrance to what is––for those driving north––the third and final tunnel on the Iron Mountain Road, the Doane Robinson tunnel, which frames the near-distant presidential carvings. There’s a small pull-off section to the right of the tunnel entrance, where you can park and take a tailor-made photo.

My late-day visit was strictly a photographic scouting mission to get the lay of the land for planned visits that night and very early the next morning. I left my camera in the car, and felt a little surge of adrenaline as I walked along the long outdoor entranceway framed by all 50 state flags that leads to the Grand View Terrace and its unobstructed view the four granite faces in the flesh. There was a mingling of different languages and nationalities. People whipped out their cameras and cell phones to take photographs. There was a general buzz of excitement.

I walked along the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail that leads down from the terrace and offers closer looks at the monument for a different perspective.

Intimate Experience
After dropping off my things and grabbing dinner in nearby Keystone, I went back to Mount Rushmore at dusk and caught the tail end of the evening lighting ceremony that’s an ode to democracy. When I arrived on the terrace, maybe a score-and-half of veterans stood on stage in the amphitheater below and announced their names and the branch of service they served in, all under the seeming appreciative eyes of George, Tom, Teddy and Abe.

After all of the vets announced themselves, the audience were asked to give a round of applause, which they did with isolated cries of “thank you” and “God bless America.” It was a very patriotic moment, and in my mind’s ear I heard Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

By then it was 9:30 and folks filed out of the amphitheater and terrace. The monument was floodlit for another one-and-a-half-hours. I set up my tripod front-and-center in the terrace’s mezzanine section and tried to shoot the monument abstractly with long exposures and lens movement. Eventually, the people who stuck around after the show dwindled to only a few.

By 10:30, I shut off my camera and just took in the moment. I stared at the floodlit stone carvings. I looked up at the night sky and noticed the Big Dipper hung above the four presidential heads. During lulls when none of the remaining stragglers were speaking, I reveled in the silence. I enjoyed the pleasant, barely perceptible breeze on an otherwise still evening, and brushed off the occasional mosquito.

I appreciated being at that very spot at that very moment in time, knowing I’d most likely never be there again and that this was my time to enjoy this incredible place. And to do so in this way––late at night with hardly anyone else around, which provided an intimate experience at such a famous, popular and important place––was truly extraordinary and special.

At 11:00, the lights that illuminated the monument abruptly went black and it was time to go.

Complicated Legacy
While I got goosebumps from the patriotic event that evening, it co-existed with the thought this monument is considered a desecration by the Sioux Nation, to whom the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, was sacred ground where they communicated with the spirit world and performed rituals and ceremonies. To the Lakota, the largest and westernmost group of tribes in the Sioux confederation of tribes comprised of the three different dialects of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, the massive granite outcropping that became Mount Rushmore (named after a New York City lawyer, Charles E. Rushmore) was known as Six Grandfathers.

As Americans moved westward during the 19th century and conflicts arose with Plains Indians, the U.S. government in 1868 signed the Fort Laramie Treaty that, among other things, gave the Black Hills to the Sioux. The government thought the land was useless, and in a sense was throwing a bone to the natives. But when gold was discovered there and the gold rush of the mid-1870s was on, the government wanted to take back that bone.

Warrior chiefs, most prominently Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, resisted the intrusion upon their land. U.S. troops were sent to the region, setting off a chain of events that culminated in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, which was the Plains Indians’ high-water mark but ultimately sparked a resounding counterpunch by the U.S. government that cost the Sioux the Black Hills and forced all but the most resistant members onto reservations.

When the Sioux refused to ratify a new treaty that would’ve transferred the Black Hills to the U.S. government, Congress passed a law in 1877 that unilaterally abrogated the 1868 treaty and effectively took the land. But the Sioux cried foul well into the 20th century (and still cry foul today), claiming their land was taken without compensation. After lengthy legal wrangling they eventually had their day in court, and in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the land was wrongfully taken from them in violation of the Fifth Amendment and they were due compensation.

Compensation was affixed at about $106 million––$17.5 million (the estimated value of the land in 1877, which the Sioux say doesn’t account for the natural resources subsequently extracted from the Black Hills), plus 5% annual interest since that year. To this day, the Sioux have refused to take the money because they say the Black Hills aren’t for sale.

The money has been invested in government securities or other safe financial instruments to protect against loss, and in 35 years has grown to more than $1.3 billion. Some members of the Sioux nation say enough already and want the money distributed. The majority are holding fast to the argument that they want their land back.

Spreading $1.3 billion over roughly 100,000 Sioux in the U.S. comes to about $13,000 apiece, which doesn’t go very far. And once that’s spent, it’s gone––as is any hope of realizing their land claims in the Black Hills.

Sioux leaders and their lawyers say they’re realistic about their land claims, which don’t include Mount Rushmore or privately owned and residential land. Instead, they seek a combination of federally owned, unused land and joint management or rental agreements.

President Obama has expressed an interest in negotiating the Black Hills land claim with the Sioux, but first the various tribes involved need to agree on a proposal to bring to the table. That’s yet to happen.

Wounded Knee
At Mount Rushmore, there’s a bookstore in the sculptor’s studio where the monument’s architect, Gutzon Borglum, oversaw the design and construction of his masterpiece. One of the books for sale was “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.” Billed as an Indian history of the American West, the 1970 national bestseller is a gut-wrenching chronicle of the nation’s shameful, systematic destruction of native culture in its quest for Manifest Destiny. The final chapter chronicles the massacre by the Seventh U.S. Cavalry of more than 150 Lakota people (some estimates double that number) at Wounded Knee in southwestern South Dakota on December 29, 1890. The event marked the end of the Indian Wars and the end of the Native-American way of life that existed for centuries.

Wounded Knee is on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where the Oglala Lakota tribe lives, a place often cited for it’s sky-high unemployment, endemic poverty, rampant alcoholism and diabetes, few economic opportunities and little hope. On my way to the Badlands National Park east of Rapid City, I took a roughly 90-mile detour southeast to Wounded Knee.

The road flowed along wide-open grasslands, rolling hills and plateaus. There was some working ranches on the reservation, but not many signs of economic activity otherwise. The housing stock was mostly ranchers and mobile homes; some in better shape than others, with the biggest concentrations in the smattering of small enclaves such as Wounded Knee, Porcupine and Kyle.

At the parking lot that overlooks Wounded Knee Creek where the massacre occurred is a big red sign with white lettering that describes what happened there on that bitterly cold December day from long ago.

As I read the sign, a rotund young man with a round face, a skinhead haircut and a red cut-off shirt with the number 77 on it approached me. In a soft voice, he launched into what sounded like a well-rehearsed presentation about the reservation’s 89 percent unemployment rate, and how people need to make a living selling trinkets and offering guided tours of the massacre site. As he spoke, several Oglala women sold Indian jewelry and crafts from their cars in the parking lot, as well as from stands in the open space down behind the sign.

The man’s name was Chance High Hawk. He was 25 years old, unemployed with a high school education and, he said, with no good job prospects. When I asked why he didn’t attend Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, he said he couldn’t afford the gas money to make the 70-mile round-trip commute.

I agreed to pay for a tour of the site led by his father, John High Hawk, who was sitting in the car. John was 49 with a dark pony tail falling from beneath his baseball cap, and wore a t-shirt with an eye chart festooned across the front that spelled out a message about him being awesome. He spoke in mumbled tones that made it hard to clearly grasp his descriptions of the 1890 massacre, as well as the 71-day siege at Wounded Knee in 1973 that involved an occupation of the town by the American Indian Movement, the arrival of federal marshals and FBI agents, gunfights, a couple of deaths, and a whole lot of publicity that shed light on the plight of modern-day Native Americans.

As he spoke we walked across the road and up a hill to the cemetery containing the mass grave of the victims of the 1890 massacre. In the cemetery is a monument inscribed with the names of many of the victims. Atop the list is Big Foot, leader of the Minneconjou Lakota who had come to Pine Ridge seeking refuge. His band, along with many other Sioux tribes, participated in the Ghost Dance movement that swept the Great Plains in 1889. It was an almost messianic message that promised that performing the dance would hasten the elimination of white people from their land, resurrect dead ancestors, bring back the buffalo and return life to the way Indians knew it before Europeans arrived.

The U.S. government viewed this as a threat to its Indian policy and to peace, and called for the arrest of key Sioux leaders, including Sitting Bull and Big Foot. The former was killed during a botched arrest, and the latter fled after he heard of Sitting Bull’s murder. He and his band were heading to Pine Ridge to seek protection under Oglala chief Red Cloud, but they were intercepted by the Seventh Cavalry (a remade version of General Custer’s unit that got wiped out at Little Big Horn) and taken to Wounded Knee Creek.

The next morning, the atmosphere was tense after the army demanded the surrender of all Sioux weapons. During a scuffle with one particular Indian a shot was fired, and the ensuing melee turned into what’s generally considered a massacre (the U.S. government called it a battle), including the death of 25 soldiers––many of who, it is claimed, where killed by their own bullets and shrapnel.

As John High Hawk and I stood at the cemetery monument under a warm mid-July sun, we spoke about life on the reservation regarding education, alcoholism, job opportunities and the future for the Oglala. He spoke in clearer tones, and expressed his belief that the tribe needs younger leadership because the existing, older leaders aren’t open to new ideas, such as building a visitor center at the massacre site. He also said he thinks the Internet can open new opportunities for education and jobs, and can create hope for young people on the reservation.

At the end of the tour, I paid the High Hawks the suggested tour price of $30. I knew I could’ve negotiated a lower price, but it didn’t seem right. When I handed them the money, I said I hope they use it for gas money so Chance can go to college in Kyle.

 

Rocky Mountain Time


What can be said about Yellowstone National Park, the world’s oldest national park and probably the most iconic national park in the U.S., that hasn’t been said a zillion times already. Well, maybe this: It’s just okay.

Yes, the park packs incredible attributes from its gurgling, boiling, seismically active underbelly that creates its famous geysers and hot springs; to its wildlife that includes bison, grizzly bears, elk and wolves; to the massive Yellowstone Lake; to backcountry camping and hiking.

So, what’s not to like? Namely, it’s way too crowded in the summertime. Plus, other than places such as the other-worldly Grand Prismatic Spring or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (which, admittedly, I didn’t get a chance to see during my one-day visit but the pictures look impressive), the scenery is somewhat pedestrian by the standards of the American West.

I visited the park in mid-July at the height of the tourist season. Nobody twisted my arm to go then, and my very presence during that time contributed to the congestion I decry right now. But I decided to leverage company-paid airfare by taking a 10-day trek through the Mountain Time Zone following a business conference I attended in Denver, which included several days on the Nebraska panhandle and in the Black Hills/Badlands region of southwestern South Dakota, as well as a counter-clockwise circular tour of Wyoming.

It was a golden opportunity to visit Yellowstone, so I included it on my junket. Frankly, I feel like a crabby Negative Ned by giving Yellowstone a lukewarm review. I mean, not singing the praises of this venerable national park is akin to not singing the praises of Mom and apple pie. But with traffic advisory signs warning about expected traffic delays at Old Faithful, the hordes of people crowded around other signature sights, and the congested park roads that turned a 104-mile trip south from the Artists Paintpot section of Yellowstone to my night’s lodging in Moran, Wyo., into a three-hour slog . . . the sum total is that it detracted from the experience and took the “nature” out of nature.

As far as national park experiences go in the American West, I found a place such as Death Valley National Park to be a more profound, unrushed, uncrowded, and one-with-nature experience.

Bordering Yellowstone to the south is Grand Teton National Park, which delivered a greater dose of the rugged West than did Yellowstone. The Tetons’ jagged, craggy sheer rock faces and peaks form an impressive wall of geology . . . particularly since they seem to shoot up from the Earth in dramatic fashion without tree-covered foothills below them.

Grand Teton National Park had it’s share of visitors during my time there but not nearly to the extent of Yellowstone, which made for a more enjoyable experience.

Nebraska, on the other hand, lacks both dramatic peaks and dramatic crowds. And that was exactly what I was looking for. The state is centered on the continent and centered in its outlook, and the prairies, plateaus and small towns of the panhandle provide a vibe that’s both understated and powerful.

Heading north from Scottsbluff along Route 71, the highway cuts through wide-open American spaces and hardly any places under a big sky that seemed endless. Grasslands surround in all directions, occasionally playing host to cow herds––some herds brown-and white; others black-and-white––migrating through fields while munching on grass with their tails a-waggin.’

And why not? To them, it must seem like a charmed life with nothing to do but eat grass, drink water, hang out in the great outdoors, and let humans take care of their every need. If only they knew the fate that awaits them . . . such as winding up in a cabbage burger at Bluffs Bakery in Scottsbluff.

Bluffs is one of those places that Trip Advisor can make famous, which is how I wound up stopping there for a quick lunch. I rarely eat meat, but had to make an exception to try this local delicacy. Did it live up the hype?

Cabbage burgers at Bluffs consist of beef, cabbage, white bun, salt and pepper. They’re cooked in a copper pot ahead of time, put in the frig, and then reheated in a microwave. The cabbage keeps them moist, and all the ingredients blended together to where nothing stands out. That said, my burger was moist and tasty, in an subtle way.

Scottsbluff is the gateway to the Scotts Bluff National Monument that served as a landmark for pioneers in Conestoga wagons trekking along the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails. A destination for foodies, Scottsbluff is not. But it is home to a gem in the rough when it comes to restaurants––the Emporium.

My meal at Emporium was outstanding . . . one of the two best meals on my entire trip. The bruschetta (artichokes, red peppers, kalamata olives) was the best I ever had. The shrimp orecchiette (wild Mexican white shrimp, pasta, smoked corn and Spanish chorizo in roasted red pepper sauce) was memorable. The wheatless chocolate torte served with one scoop each of vanilla and coffee ice cream was fantastic. The restaurant’s soundtrack of refined American Songbook-type music from the likes of Frank Sinatra and Norah Jones set the proper mood.

My waiter told me this place is anachronistic for Scottsbluff, a town he described as having meat-and-potatoes tastes where locals prefer steak joints and sports bars. Most of the restaurant’s clientele, he said, were higher-paid local professionals and tourists like me who’ve read the good reviews on Trip Advisor and the like.

Please patronize Emporium if you ever get to Scottsbluff . . . it deserves all of the love it can get.

Namibia (The Great African Road Trip)

It’s thrilling––and humbling––to see African wildlife on their home turf where they truly are born free. And it’s equally thrilling to be able to watch them when you’re the only human there. Such was the case in 2012 on my way to the Dolomite camp in the then-recently opened and seldom-visited western section of Namibia’s Etosha National Park, a wildlife park noted for self-drive safaris in a country noted for its self-drive adventures. I turned left at the sign pointing to the Duineveld waterhole and came upon an Animal Planet moment with giraffes, oryx, warthogs, wildebeest, and ostriches gathered at or near the waterhole several hundred feet from where I parked. A score of elephants and a couple score more of zebras were spread out across the grassy plain beyond. I was the only person for miles around, and when I arrived the entire menagerie seemed to stop what they were doing and looked at this unexpected visitor as if to say, “May we help you?”

I was awestruck and felt a great sense of appreciation that I was at that very spot at that very moment. I took it all in and snapped some photos, none of which could do justice to this majestic panorama. But as glorious as that moment was, I felt like an interloper and, perhaps, a little uneasy being the lone person among a conclave of wildlife in a wild setting. I thanked the animals for letting me share their corner of the world for a brief time, and I drove off toward camp with an incredible sense of exhilaration.

Located in southwestern Africa, Namibia is a vast, variegated place of big sky, big land, and big contrasts. And for many Americans, it seems to be a big unknown. Europeans, particularly Germans, whose country was Namibia’s colonial overlord at the turn of the last century, dominated the hotel sign-in lists and the conversation in bars and restaurants during my two weeks in the country. But Namibia’s off-the-beaten track feel, at least for Yanks, is part of its charm. As are its many notable highlights ranging from ancient deserts, towering sand dunes and one of the continent’s best wildlife parks to the country’s brooding Atlantic coast, its traditional African villages and the tastiest apple strudel and bratwurst this side of Germany.

The backdrop to all of this is lots of elbow room requiring hours of driving to get from here to there. Twice the size of California but with an estimated population of just 2.2 million, Namibia is among the planet’s most sparsely-populated countries. To appreciate Namibia is to revel in both the journey and the destination because the two are inseparable here. And thanks to the country’s highway system––much of it gravel and most of it in good shape––and its stable social and political systems that make it a safe place to ramble, Namibia is tailor-made for one of the planet’s great road trip adventures.

THE HIMBA
I had planned my solo, two-week trek through Namibia with the help of ATI Holidays, a company based in the capital, Windhoek, that can be reached toll-free from the U.S. They arranged for delivery of my Diahatsu Terios four-wheel drive vehicle and provided a map that highlighted all of my destinations and the best roads to reach them. The also gave me a loaner cell phone with all of the numbers of my lodging facilities pre-set, and a cooler with ice pack for my travels.

Windhoek, a bustling, sprawling city of more than 300,000 people, is centrally located and travelers can begin their sojourn from there in any of the cardinal directions. I went north toward Etosha, a four hour-plus drive along asphalt roads and lots of very tall termite mounds ranging in height from what looked to be three feet to eight feet tall. Some were built against tree trunks while others doted fields and resembled cairns found on hiking trail summits.

After two-and-a-half days of self-drive safaris at Etosha, I ventured another couple of hours north to near the Angola border to the desolate, desiccated Kaokoveld region noted both for rugged off-road adventure and for the Himba people, a semi-nomadic pastoral tribe that hews to a traditional lifestyle of animal herding.

The striking look of Himba women make them one of Namibia’s iconic images––they wear only animal skin skirts and cover their bare-breasted bodies with a mixture of ground ochre and butter fat that protects them from the sun and gives them a reddish tint. They braid their hair with the ochre and butter fat mixture for a coif that resembles mud encased dreadlocks.

Himba women make their semi-nude rounds in Windhoek and sell their craftwork at sidewalk markets, creating a jarring juxtaposition of traditional versus modern. If one wants to meet a Himba woman, they can do so there without having to venture into their homeland in Namibia’s northwest corner, an area prominently featured in tourism brochures as the Himba Land region.

I was intrigued by the opportunity to visit a native village, but felt conflicted because I feared it was voyeuristic tourism. The Himba lifestyle was on the ropes after a severe drought in the 1980s killed most of their cattle, but their herds and their culture have rebounded strongly and Himba tourism is thriving. It’s probably no coincidence that the roads from Etosha to Opuwo, the dusty gateway town to the Himba region, are paved.

Some Himba villages welcome tourists; others don’t. A guide is a must, and through my lodging at the unprepossessing Ohakane Lodge in Opuwo I arranged a tour with Matí, a Himba who says he still spends time herding in his native village but mostly lives in Opuwo doing tourism and conservation work, and wearing throughly western-style clothes.

As part of the deal, we went to the local grocery store where I gave him $200 Namibian dollars (about US$25) to go on a shopping spree for a goodwill package for the village I was to visit. He loaded the cart with a 20-kilogram sack of maize, five one-pound bags of sugar, four tea boxes, four loaves of bread and a package of salt.

VILLAGE LIFE
We drove 21 kilometers west from Opuwo to the village of Otutati along a road of hard pack gravel and intermittent soft patches of sand. Along the way, Matí told me a little about himself, such as he thinks he was born in 1964 or 1965. “I asked my parents, but they don’t know for sure,” he said.

Matí described his own ordeal regarding the Himba coming-of-age ritual performed at the age of 12 of knocking out the four bottom front teeth, which make them resemble the cattle that are central to their culture and livelihood. “I refused, I ran away,” he said of the day they came to knock out his teeth. “My older sister already had her teeth out, and she called me a coward.”

But he relented, and he said they took him near the central part of his village where the holy fire was located, stuck a piece of wood in his mouth and chipped away at it with a stone. “The teeth came out no problem,” Matí said, adding they drained the blood and used the leaf of the mopane tree (pronounce mo-pa-nee, with the accent on the second syllable) tree to help heal the wound.

“After a week, it was okay,” Matí said. He noted that mopane leaves are used to heal wounds and ease stomach aches, and can be used as a whistle for herding animals. To demonstrate the latter, he told me to stop my vehicle. He got out and walked around a bit till he found a mopane leaf, which he put vertically between his upper front teeth. He blew in one key that he said is used to call the cattle in front, and then blew at a higher pitch to call cattle that are further away. He then blew a melodic rhythm meant for goats.

We continued our journey, and a short while later he told me to turn right onto a twin-track sandy trail, which led us to the village of 20 or so round huts made of dung, clay and water and topped with conical roofs of mopane poles. There were also several separate rectangular kitchen structures made of mopane poles, and pens for cattle and goats. Matí gave the food to the village headman as a courtesy gift that greased the skids for my visit. The men of the village were taking the animals out to pasture as Matí and I arrived, leaving behind the women, children and baby goats.

Matí was my interpreter as he took me through the village, and along the way my camera and I were like a magnet that attracted the children. I spoke to the women doing their morning chores. Several women were making butter, a process that involves putting milk into a gourd tied to a leather strap hanging from a horizontal pole in a doorway. They swing it back and forth repeatedly. One woman pulled out the dipstick from her gourd and gave me a taste. It was curdy, and tasted like buttermilk.

I asked her how long it takes to make butter. She looked up at the spotless sky and said when the sun goes from there (as she pointed to a place in the sky) to there (pointing to another place in the sky). They don’t have clocks.

The women asked if I was married and where I lived and how many days walking distance would it be from my home to their village. I asked them about their lives, what mattered to them and if they were happy. They said they were happy, though one woman said she was worried that her oldest daughter, a youngster who looked about 10 years old and stood nearby wearing school clothes even though the next school session wasn’t to start for another week, was going to abandon the traditional Himba way of life.

Himba girl (non-traditional attire)

The girl had a very discerning face and immediately struck me as a sharp young lady who probably was destined for a life beyond the village. Through my interpreter, she said was learning math, English and other subjects in school. She said she wanted to be a teacher.

ROAD TO SWAKOPMUND
A long two-day drive and seemingly a million miles away lies Swakopmund, Namibia’s seaside resort town along its central Atlantic coast. The scenery between Opuwo and Swakopmund presented different flavors of emptiness, yet much of it intriguing. Gravel roads took me past copper-colored hills and a few ramshackle settlements of cattle herders in the Damaraland region; over stunning passes through rugged brown mountains; and along a bleak, dun-colored sand-and-gravel plain where the sheer monotony was hypnotically absorbing.

Most stretches of Namibia’s far-flung, remote road system are in good shape, and in some places you can safely travel at 50 miles per hour (and maybe up to 60 mph) on hardpack gravel. Other sections of rough corduroy-like road surfaces require driving in third gear. You shouldn’t drive Namibia’s dark, lonely roads at night (my vehicle rental agreement said they wouldn’t cover any damage incurred while driving after dark outside of towns or cities). Long periods of driving on gravel roads makes one really appreciate the beauty of paved highways.

Indeed, driving for long stretches in Namibia can be draining, what with the sometimes rough road conditions and the ever-present dust of the gravel roads. I made it a point of closing my windows whenever I saw vehicles coming in the other direction to block out the dust trails left in their passing wake, and to close my windows when I knew I was coming to a stop because the dust trails I created would blow back toward the front. But automobiles aren’t hermetically sealed, and dust always finds its way into your vehicle to some degree no matter how much you try to keep it out.

Most of the few people I passed along the road were westerners in their rented four-wheel drive vehicles, save for the occasional site of Herero women dressed in their traditional colorful, billowy Victorian-era dresses with matching colored hats meant to resemble cattle horns, who rushed to the roadside to flag down the infrequent passerby to sell them dolls of Herero women in miniature.

Sometimes they were joined by bare-breasted Himba woman, who seemed to serve no purpose other than to entice westerners––‘Oh look, a naked woman!’––to stop and buy souvenirs. I waved to them but continued on my journey without stopping.

A TOUCH OF GERMANY
Swakopmund is a quirky place with German place names and Bavarian-style architecture that blends with the clean––if not generic––Western-style buildings filled with shops, offices, eateries and cafés in the lively downtown.The orangy Namib Desert meets the blue Atlantic Ocean on the southern end of town, and in recent years Swakopmund has reinvented itself as Namibia’s so-called adventure capital by promoting activities such as quadbiking and sandboarding in the desert, skydiving, camelback riding and kayak-based marine safaris.

I went on a two-hour quadbiking romp among the large dunes south of town, which was thrilling. But what I liked best about Swakopmund were the clouds and the food. After a week of warm, relentless sun––even if it was the comfortable late-May sun of the southern hemisphere’s early winter––it was nice to see clouds, experience coastal fog and feel cool sea breezes.

And Swakopmund has a surprisingly good restaurant scene. That includes the conviviality and four different schnitzels at Kücki’s Pub, as well as the fresh seafood at The Tug, a converted tugboat on pilings perched over the breakers that’s a great place for a sundowner cocktail. At the Brauhaus, I ordered a liter glass of Erdinger Weissbier and a plate of bratwurst, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. The bratwurst was juicy and flavorful, and it was the best German food I ever ate. For dessert, I stopped at Café Anton at the Hotel Schweizerhaus for apple strudel and coffee.

The country’s German connection stems from its colonial past. For a roughly 30-year period that bracketed the turn of the last century Namibia was as a colony called German South West Africa. That era was marked by episodes of violent suppression against the Herero and Nama people. South Africa took control from Germany during World War I and imposed an apartheid-type system before Namibia’s gained independence in 1990.

Despite a tumultuous past, post-independent Namibia by-and-large has been stable and prosperous by African standards, though it has been plagued by unequal wealth distribution and hard hit by HIV/AIDS.

I visited the large public market located near Swakopmund’s beach where vendors sold African art. I bought some wood carvings from a vendor named David. We started talking about life in Namibia and were joined by a couple of nearby vendors, Jona and Stanford. They live in the township settlement of Swakopmund that is a vestige of the apartheid era, and spoke frankly about the country’s shortcomings and challenges. But as with similar discussions I had with both black and white Namibians (admittedly, a very small sample), they were hopeful for Namibia’s future and confident it would avoid the turmoil experienced by fellow southern African nation Zimbabwe.

I thought about my conversation with David and his friends the next day during my five-hour drive southeast to Namib-Naukluft Park, billed as one of the world’s largest national parks and home to the famed Sossusvlei sand dunes. As I spent more time in Namibia, I got a sense that it’s a young nation trying to define itself on its own terms.

And for Americans, for whom Namibia largely remains an unknown quantity, it’s a country that can be discovered and enjoyed on its own terms. The driving within Namibia is long, but the rewards at the end of the journey are worth it.

 

Namibia Tourist Information

Driving in Namibia
Major car rental agencies are located at Windhoek’s main airport. I booked my trip through Windhoek-based ATI Holidays (U.S. toll free 1-888-333-3876, http://www.infotour-africa.com). They arranged lodging and vehicle rental, and provided maps and a cell phone with numbers pre-dialed with all of my lodging destinations.

Gas stations are few and far between in Namibia. The rule of thumb is to top off the tank whenever you come upon a filling station, but that’s not necessary when your travels during a particular day take you to several towns of decent size that have filling stations. That said, gas stations can close and/or run out of gas at any time.

The map provided by ATI that laid out my itinerary included all of the gas stations known to be open along the route of my two-week journey. That was very helpful but not entirely foolproof because one of the few gas stations listed on the four-hour drive from Sossus Dune Lodge in Namib-Naukluft Park back to Windhoek at the end of my trip had, unbeknownst to ATI, recently closed. And to make a long story short, I almost got royally screwed because of that closed pit stop.

The moral of the story: Don’t get too cute with managing your gas mileage, never assume a filling station will have fuel and fill the tank to the brim whenever you do get gas.

Etosha National Park
The five tourist camps in Etosha National Park are operated by the government entity Namibia Wildlife Resorts. Reservations are made through either NWR or private tour operators. I spent two nights at a waterhole chalet at the Okaukuejo camp, which has one of Etosha’s best waterholes. I also stayed one night at Dolomite, a more isolated and exclusive camp atop a craggy cliff in the park’s less-frequented western section.
http://www.nwr.com.na

Restaurants
Swakopmund Brauhaus — Excellent German food served in an atmosphere that if you didn’t know better you’d swear you were in Germanic Europe, not Africa.
The Arcade, 22 Sam Nujoma Drive, Swakopmund.
http://www.swakopmundbrauhaus.com

The Tug — Fabulous seafood restaurant built around a former working tugboat. Nice Atlantic Ocean views. At the jetty promenade, Swakopmund.
http://www.the-tug.com

Joe’s Beer House — Legendary eatery where game steaks sizzle on the grill, and where the bustle in the array of different types of dining areas––some under the African sky––creates a Middle East bazaar-like atmosphere. Both the food and the scene are worth checking out.
160 Nelson Mandela Avenue, Windhoek
http://www.joesbeerhouse.com

nice — A quiet, yet sleek and refined atmosphere where students from the Namibian Institute of Culinary Education practice the arts of cooking, serving and beverage management. Delicious meals with a Namibian flair.
2 Mozart Street, Windhoek
http://www.nice.com.na/restaurant.htm

Lodging
Hansa Hotel — Swanky lodging in the heart of town.
3 Hendrik Witbooi Street, Swakopmund
www.hansahotel.com.na

Sossus Dune Lodge — An exclusive resort within Namib-Naukluft Park comprised of elevated bungalows with sweeping views of towering sand dunes, mountains and savannah. The resort’s location within the park enables guests to be positioned at the dunes at sunrise when the light is most stunning (people staying outside the park must wait to enter the park at sunrise, and it’s a 40-mile drive to the Sossusvlei dunes). As with Etosha, this facility is operated by Namibia Wildlife Resorts, and reservations are made through either NWR or private tour operators.

General Info
Namibia Tourism Board, http://www.namibiatourism.com.na

 

Namibia (Sossusvlei Dunes)

The dunes at Sossusvlei in Namib-Naukluft Park are Namibia’s postcard image, a collection of large, apricot-colored sand mountains with sinuous wind-blown curves that at sunrise are set ablaze in fiery hues offset by deep, wavy shadows. It’s a wonderful abstract canvas.

The dunes are located about 40 miles from the park gates at Sesrium, a little tourist oasis area with a gas station, a bar, a small food store and a swimming pool. There’s lodging near Sesrium outside of the park, and a campsite just within the park’s boundary. I dug deeper into my pocket and opted to stay at the Sossus Dune Lodge, which is located a little further inside the park.

While it’s more expensive than staying in the Sesrium area, the advantages are several: it’s higher-end and has an exclusive feel; the food is excellent; the views of towering sand dunes, stark brown mountains and savannah from the individual lodging huts are incomparable; and you can scoot down to the Sossusvlei dunes pre-dawn and get ready to take photos at sun up, versus having to wait for the park gates to open at dawn if you stay outside of the park. The latter point is of more importance to serious shutterbugs. (The dunes are great for photography at sunset, too.)

Namib-Naukluft Park is one of the world’s largest national parks. It was created in 1978 when two existing parks and nearby government land were joined together. You can spend a lot of time in the park, but my interest was solely on the Sossusvlei dunes, which I first read about in a travel article in 2006. I saved that article and put it in a folder with other travel articles about places that piqued my interest. “Maybe,” I thought as I filed away the article, “I might someday actually get to see the dunes in person.” Well, that day had come as I drove south in the pre-dawn light toward Sossusvlei.

Sossusvlei itself is what’s known as an ephemeral pan that’s normally a bed of dry, cracked mud, but which sometimes contains water. My waiter at dinner the night before at the lodge said I was in luck because there was still water in the pan from an earlier rain, which he said should make for good photography.

The pan is ringed by tall, colorful orange, apricot, red, copper (the colors change as the sunlight changes) sand dunes of the Namib Desert, which is supposedly the world’s oldest desert with an age estimated to be at least 55 million years old. (I’m always dubious about such claims.)

The road to Sossusvlei is paved, which is a very welcome change of pace from the usual gravel roads of Namibia’s countryside. It was almost impossible––no, it was impossible––to adhere to the 60 km/hour speed limit, particularly when I was bursting with excitement to see the dunes. Mountains line the road and are set back at a distance by large buffers of savannah. The plains are peppered by occasional springbok herds, or by a few oryx here and there. The mountains gradually give way to the sand dunes, some of which can exceed heights of 200 meters, or more than 600 feet.

The road ends at the 2WD parking lot, and beyond that is a 5-kilometer, deep-sand trail to the Sossusvlei parking area. My Daihatsu Terios vehicle was the smallest 4WD vehicle I could rent (I was solo and didn’t need much space, and I wanted the best gas mileage possible), and while it was very reliable and had gotten me this far, it wasn’t a vehicle I was confident about taking into deep sand. Nor, for that matter, was I entirely confident about my ability to navigate through deep sand, given my lack of off-roading experience. So I paid N$100 Namibian (US$12.50) for the large, 4WD shuttle. Based on the conditions of the trail, I think I made the right call.

That said, I imagine it shouldn’t take much to “improve” that trail to make it easier to navigate, and I suspect it’s kept in that condition for economic reasons––i.e., it provides employment to the shuttle drivers, and it puts money into government coffers.

Regardless, I got out of the shuttle and hiked a little ways toward a big dune. As sunrise came, the gentle light on one side of the dune turned the sand a copper color while the other side remained dark, creating an abstract scene with sharp contrast between the two sides divided by the dune’s wavy, parabolic-shaped ridges.

I climbed the dune, and it took about 10 minutes of steady, non-stop hoofing to reach the top. Hiking steep ascents in deep sand is one of the best quad-burning workouts there is. The top of the dune offered spectacular views of surrounding dunes in the early morning light.

I hiked up and down another dune and made my way to the Sossusvlei pan, which indeed was filled with water. That made for nice photos as the dune on the other side of the temporary lake was reflected in the water.

As the Sossusvlei area became more crowded, I ventured across the way to Dead Vlei. It was maybe a five- to eight-minute walk to the Dead Vlei parking area, and from there a lengthy walk to the vlei itself, which is a wide, white and dry pan filled with a multitude of dead camel thorn trees. The forlorn trees appear as ghostly images framed by the surrounding dunes. It’s a compelling visual that is one of the planet’s most unusual panoramas.

The landscape in the Sossusvlei area lives up to the hype, but I also got a kick from watching long-legged Onymacris plana, or Narra beetles as they speedily scampered along dune surfaces and left stitches-like tracks across the sand.

I had gotten up pre-dawn to witness nature’s art show at Sossusvlei. But now at sunset, I was enjoying perhaps a more sublime moment: with drink in hand on the deck of my spacious, thatch-roofed bungalow at the Sossus Dune Lodge within Namib-Naukluft Park, I looked out over brown mountains and distant dunes framing a sweeping savannah that shined in the golden sun. A few springbok and warthogs passed by, and the breeze was very pleasant. It was an enchanting scene.

Namibia (Self-Drive Safari)

In the world of African safaris, Namibia is underrated and understated––and that’s to the advantage of tourists and, most important, to the wildlife that roam this large, sparsely-populated nation in southwestern Africa.

The resurgenence of wildlife poaching in Africa, fueled by demand for elephant tusk trinkets and rhino horn elixers in Southeast Asian nations including China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and The Philippines, is a distressing and senseless destruction of animal life that if left unchecked threatens the survival of these two magnificent species. But the Namibian government’s vigorous anti-poaching programs have, at least for the time being, helped Nambian wildlife to continue to thrive.

And that’s on display in Etosha National Park, a huge enclave located in northern Namibia that’s one of the continent’s largest game parks. Etosha is noted for its abundant wildlife that’s accessible via self-drive safaris where it’s just you, your vehicle, the savannah and whatever animals cross your path.

During my three-day visit there in May 2012, I felt I was behind the wheel of a television nature show: slowing down as a herd of zebra ran in front of my vehicle for about 100 feet before they peeled off into the surrounding grassland; rounding a corner and coming upon a giraffe noshing on the upper branches of a roadside tree; stopping along the side of the road to watch two lions fight over a kill.

The park’s calling card are its roughly 50 springs and waterholes where more than 100 African mammal species congregate in droves during the dry season from May through October. The density of animals at these spots is among the highest in Africa, making Etosha an incredible place for wildlife photography. The waterholes are connected by a network of gravel roads that are accessible by 2WD vehicles, although 4WD vehicles are preferable.

The self-drive option brings affordability and independence to the safari experience, in contrast to the exclusive––and pricey––guided tours prevalent in other African countries.

Among the safari countries in Africa, Namibia generally lacks the buzz of Kenya and Tanzania in east Africa, or of its southern African neighbors South Africa and Botswana.

Kenya and Tanzania have the allure of high-end safari camps with guided tours. Botswana’s camps are aimed at the fly-in crowd. South Africa has several self-drive safaris, which tend to get clogged with traffic given that country’s popularity with tourists. Because Namibia is more off-the-beaten path, it can lend itself to a more intimate self-drive safari experience. (That said, Etosha isn’t immune to traffic congestion during the peak season.)

Self-drive safaris let you take your time, absorb the scenery, stop at your leisure and not have to travel according to anyone else’s schedule.

GATES CLOSE AT DUSK

I arrived at the Anderson Gate at the park’s southern entrance on a late afternoon after driving more than four hours north from the capital, Windhoek, on a warm day under a spotless sky. With park permit in hand, I proceeded 10 miles to Okaukuejo (pronounced o-ka-kwee-yo), one of five lodging camps within the park.

I checked in around 5:00. It being late May, or early winter in the southern hemisphere, sundown was less than a half-hour away and that’s when Okaukuejo––and all of Etosha’s camps––close their gates until sunrise.

I dropped off my gear in my chalet by the camp’s waterhole, grabbed my camera and walked a couple hundred feet to the waterhole viewing area. The setting sun cast a golden glow as a herd of zebra moseyed back into the surrounding bush and a lone male elephant emerged from the bush and bellied up to the waterhole.

Several times he stuck his long trunk into the water, curled it into his mouth and sprayed in the water. He then shook himself as dust flew off his massive head and ears. With his thirst slaked, he ambled off into the gloaming.

Okaukuejo is considered one of the best waterholes in southern Africa, and my initial taste was just an appetizer for what was to come.

It was dinnertime, and I walked over to the Okaukuejo camp restaurant, grabbed an outdoor table under the clear, starry African night sky, ordered a beer and partook of the buffet-style meal where the main dishes were freshly-grilled game meat. The gemsbok steaks (a large antelope also known as oryx) were juicy and meaty, the big rolls were doughy, and the coffee was good. The rest of the food was average, but satisfying.

Okaukuejo’s lodging is a mix of chalets––some luxury, others family-style––and a large campsite with washing stations and barbecue pits. My chalet was a small but comfortable half of a duplex housed in a round, earthen-colored structure topped by a pointy thatched roof that resembled a large native hut. The camp has a pool, a gas station, a shop, and a bar/restaurant. And, of course, its waterhole.

RUSH HOUR


The smallish, oval waterhole is surrounded on two sides by a semi-circle stone wall along the camp’s perimeter. In between the wall and waterhole is a buffer of maybe 150 to 200 feet. To the west and north lies the surrounding bush of mixed scrub, mopane savannah and dry woodland from which zebra, elephants, wildebeest, oryx, springboks, kudu, giraffes, jackals and other animals come and go.

At times, the steady stream of roaming animals going to and fro the waterhole and the vast savannah beyond resembled city rush hour traffic. It’s an incredible sight. Both nights I was at Okaukuejo, black rhinos––two one night; three the other night––came to drink at the floodlit waterhole.

People take in the scene in hushed tones, and you can hear animal noises such as the rumbling, oinking sounds of springboks and the braying and dog-like yelps of zebras. A few people had their sundowner cocktails at the waterhole, making it a watering hole in more ways than one. That seemed like a neat idea at first, but I also thought it kind of treated the experience as being like a day at the zoo.

That said, the Okaukuejo waterhole is amazing. Yet the rest of Etosha beckoned. I overheard someone at dinner say he saw three cheetahs in the early morning at one of the other waterholes. So I set out at dawn the next day looking for big cats.

GREAT WHITE PLACE

Etosha is roughly 8,500 square miles, or bigger than Massachusetts. Its name means “Great White Place,” after the huge, white mineral pan that covers about one-quarter of the park. Most of the action in Etosha is just south of the mineral pan in a stretch of about 90 miles that includes Okaukuejo and two other tourist camps––Halali and Namutoni. The three camps are interspersed about 45 miles apart with Halali sandwiched between the other two, and between and around them are numerous waterholes.

Armed with a map of that general area spotlighting the most popular waterholes and the animals that generally frequent them, I ventured out in my Daihatsu Terios 4WD vehicle hoping to find wildlife. The speed limit in the park is 60 km/hour, or about 40 mph. The white gravel roads kick up a lot of dust, so keep your camera gear covered.

It was late May which, though it’s considered peak season, is still a tad early from being true peak season when the dry period takes hold and forces animals to come out of the bush in greater numbers searching for water. That period generally begins in earnest in June. So traffic was still light in the park from both tourist and wildlife perspectives, though there was still plenty of the latter to provide thrills.

One of my favorite moments was at the Nebrownii waterhole, not far from Okaukuejo, where in the early-morning light I watched a male lion slink toward a female who was dining on a dust-coated animal carcass. After a brief tussle, the male walked away with the prize as a couple of jackals hovered nearby hoping for scraps and the female walked away dejectedly, yet remained within a short distance of the male as it devoured the carcass.

LONELY ROAD


From Okaukuejo, I drove three hours west to the Dolomite camp, a more exclusive lodging facility that opened in April 2011 and is perched upon a high, craggy dolomite hill. The western one-third of Etosha had been off-limits to tourists until recently, and it retained an isolated feel.

The drive to Dolomite veered from pedestrian to exhilarating, and from easy hardpack gravel to loose, bumpy gravel with occasional bouts of slippery driving and a couple stretches of bouncing and jolting road conditions that required slowing down and dropping my manual-drive 4WD chariot into third gear. Such bumpy conditions are jokingly referred to as an African massage.

During the entire drive I passed just two vehicles heading east, and that was during the first half of the drive. I left Okaukuejo sometime in the noon hour and figured that would be ample time to reach Dolomite before dusk. It was, but as the afternoon progressed and I traveled further west, I realized I likely wouldn’t encounter other motorists because folks heading east would’ve passed me by now to reach their next destination by dusk.

The thought of being alone in the African wild (even if it was in a national park) brought with it the fervent wish to not have car trouble at that moment in time. Although the company I booked my trip with, Windhoek-based ATI Holidays, provided me a loaner cell phone with all of the numbers of my lodging facilities pre-set, it wasn’t a satellite phone and I wondered if I’d be able to call for help if something happened in that part of the park.

WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS


But I pushed those thoughts aside and reveled in the moment. Things got particularly interesting as I neared the end of my journey to Dolomite. First, I approached a section where herds of zebra and springbok grazed by the side of the road. I slowed down as the animals scattered into the fields. On a couple of occasions, zebra to my left (the south side), ran in the middle of the road ahead of me for about 100 feet before they peeled off into the grassy terrain to my right.

Around this time on two occasions I startled giraffes resting under roadside trees––giraffes can rise pronto when they have to. And a couple of times I came upon warthogs, which sort of resemble razorbacks. One ran along the road in front of me for a brief time, its short legs scampering quickly and its body jiggling as it moved with surprising speed before it ducked to its left into the tall grass.

Not long after I passed a road marker indicating that Dolomite was 38 kilometers away, I pulled into the Duineveld waterhole entrance and witnessed a wondrous panorama of African wildlife at the waterhole and spread out across the plain––scores of zebras, about a dozen giraffes, numerous ostriches and oryx, some warthogs and wildebeest, and about 20 elephants.

I was the only person there. Indeed, I reckoned I was the only human between there and Dolomite to the west, and maybe the only person between there and Okaukuejo to the east. It was one of the most singularly amazing experiences of my life.

LION ANTICS

Dolomite was a notch above Okaukuejo in terms of ambiance, what with its infinity pool overlooking miles of open African space and two à la carte restaurant areas serving food that was a step above the buffet-style fare at some of the other camps. The chalets are spacious luxury tents with canvas walls, wood floors, A-framed thatch roofs, fabulous showers (wide head with an ample flow of hot water), and balconies overlooking miles of empty African terrain. The chalets also have their own small patio and pool.

Dolomite also has its quirks, such as you park your vehicle down below and someone comes down in a golf cart to drive you to the reception area. From there you’re driven up the steep walkway to your room in the same golf cart (with your luggage in the back).

And you’re told not to go anywhere at night without an attendant. They say the reason is because Dolomite is unfenced and in a wild area, but I wonder if it’s also partly because they don’t want people getting hurt on the steep, dark path.

Regardless, I enjoyed my one night there. The beer in the bar was cold, and my dinner of a delicately seasoned pan-fried fish (kabekjou) with roasted potatoes, green beans and cauliflower, served with a South African white wine, was delicious. Dessert was a brownie with cream of lemon sauce. I left the table a very satisfied man.

At 6:30 the next morning, I went on a guided safari tour led by Dolomite’s guide, Barnabas. Two German couples were also on board. Etosha’s western end was still new from a tourist perspective and I couldn’t find a map of its waterholes, so a tour was a good way to see the area.

We visited the Rateldraf waterhole and marveled as a handful of young lions roughhoused at the water’s edge under the watchful eyes of their mothers in the distance. But they gave way when a lone male elephant came out of the bush to get a drink. It was funny watching the youthful, rambunctious lions concede the waterhole, and then keep their wary yet respectful distance from the large pachyderm.

After the elephant got his fill, he walked toward our open-air Toyota Land Cruiser and got within about 60 to 70 feet and grunted. I looked at Barnabas, who seemed unconcerned. The elephant, his curiosity satisfied, sauntered off into the African wild.

Tourist Tips
The best time for animal viewing is during the dry season from May through October, as the park dries out and thirsty animals visit Etosha’s network of waterholes for a drink. The rainy season has its own charms, such as a greener landscape and a water-filled mineral pan that attracts thousands of wading birds such as flamingos.

Getting around
Etosha’s network of gravel roads is well-maintained and easily driven with 2WD vehicles vehicles. That said, 4WD vehicles are better suited for a rough section of corrugated road between the Okaukuejo camp and the Dolomite camp in the park’s western section. The park’s speed limit is 60 kilometers/hour. Etosha’s five tourist camps close their gates between sundown and sunrise, so time management is important while exploring the park’s waterholes.

Major car rental agencies are located at Windhoek’s main airport. I booked my trip through Windhoek-based ATI Holidays (U.S. toll free 1-888-333-3876, http://www.infotour-africa.com,). They arranged lodging and vehicle rental, and provided maps and a cell phone.

Lodging
The five tourist camps in Etosha National Park are operated by the government entity Namibia Wildlife Resorts (http://www.nwr.com.na). Reservations are made through either NWR or private tour operators. The three oldest camps––Okaukuejo, Halali and Namutoni––underwent major renovations in 2007. Each camp has a restaurant, a shop selling basic goods, a gas station, a swimming pool, and various lodging options ranging from high-end chalets to camping facilities. They also have floodlit waterholes with viewing areas.

The higher-end Onkoshi resort camp opened in 2008 and sits on an isolated peninsula overlooking the eastern edge of the Etosha Pan, making it a prime bird watching site during the rainy season. Guests arrive at Namutoni and are driven in safari vehicles to their lodging at Onkoshi. Nightly rates per person during high season are US$336 to US$360.

In the park’s far western section, Dolomite camp is Etosha’s newest high-end option. Its thatched-roof chalets sit atop a high dolomite hill with sweeping views of the surrounding bush country, and are spaced apart among the rock outcroppings for privacy. Visitors park their vehicles at the foot of the hill and are driven up to the reception area in a golf cart. Dolomite has two à la carte restaurant areas serving food that’s a step above the buffet-style fare at some of the other camps.

All five tourist camps offer guided game drives.

There are a number of private lodges in the surrounding area outside the park. The Ongava Lodge (http://www.ongava.com), sits on a private game reserve near the Anderson Gate and is considered the most exclusive Etosha-area lodging.

India (Jaipur, Taj Mahal & Varanasi)

My Taj Mahal moment came on the viewing platform at the opposite end of the reflecting pool that provides glimpses of an upside-down Taj shimmering in the water. Staring at this magnificent marble wonder, hearing all of the foreign languages from people drawn here from around the world, feeling the buzz that made me feel I was in the presence of a rock star––it hit me how grateful I was for this once-in-a-lifetime moment to be in the Taj’s presence. A tear filled my eye.

But I quickly regained my composure and resumed my visit to the world’s most beautiful tomb. The Taj Mahal lives up to the hype. It’s home city, Agra, is a dump. The dichotomy is jarring, yet in some ways it captures the essence of India. The country is dynamic and dusty, captivating and complex, teeming and timeless. Despite its rapid modernization and rising global economic clout, India remains an intense, in-your-face cultural experience that’s radically different from anything in the West.

I visited northern India for about two weeks in the autumn season, when the monsoons were gone (at least in the north) and the days were cooler (a tolerable dry heat in the 80s and low-90s). My plane flew into Delhi, and after a day of sight seeing in the congested national capital, I went a couple of hours south to the state of Rajasthan, a place that hews to traditional ways where turban-wearing men rode on camels along the side of the highway and women in brightly-colored saris worked in farm fields dotted with large barley stacks.

When my bus pulled into the state capital, Jaipur, its old quarter, called the Pink City, radiated a roseate glow from the late-afternoon sun that bathed its ochre buildings. Built almost three centuries ago, this city of roughly 2.5 million people is just a kid compared to many Indian cities.

Jaipur is a place of human theater where walking the streets and interacting with the locals is like diving into the mosh pit of Indian life. Every street and alley in the old quarter bustles with commerce. Touts, or hucksters can be a nuisance, and I was occasionally approached by child beggars looking for food or pens. The aroma of curry, cloves, cardamom, and ginger wafts from the food stalls. Cows roam the streets without a care, and I spotted a woman in a bright-red, embroidered sari with a broom in hand as she leaned out a window to shoo away monkeys scampering about on a nearby ledge.

As I stopped to look at a small Hindu shrine under a sidewalk tree, a man approached me. “How do you like my city,” he said in very good English. He was slightly-built with a closely-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and a fading yellow dot on his forehead. He said he was a priest at a nearby temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, one of the religion’s most important deities. And as we chatted about the different incarnations of Vishnu and their role in Hinduism’s panoply of gods, he suggested we talk over chai tea at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant across the street.

The tea, served with milk, was sweet and tasted a bit like weak hot chocolate. Out front, a man tended to a large black pot of lentil stew, or daal. I bought two bowls of lentils and accompanying chapati flat bread for my companion and I. The bread was a good chaser for the comfortably spicy stew.

Before parting, he handed me a business card with two names on it––his own, Ramashankar Maharishi, and an enterprise called Art And Business Training Center where, he said, he taught music. “If you like, I can give you a sitar lesson,” he said. He also offered to take me back to his temple to smoke marijuana. For various reasons, I thought that not a good idea, so I politely declined and we parted ways.

 

AWESOME ARCHITECTURE
Rajasthan has its share of elaborate palaces, forts and temples, and one of Jaipur’s signature attractions––the massive Amber Fort––is an earthtone sandstone structure regally perched on a rocky ridge seven miles outside of town. Built around the turn of the 17th century, it served as the capital of the powerful Kachchwaha Rajput clan until Jaipur was built in 1727.

The stark exterior blends in with the parched hill it sits upon, but the intricately painted interior is a sumptuous feast of delicate designs and patterns reflecting both Hindu and Muslim influences.

A steady stream of elephants ferry passengers up the winding stone path to the fort entrance during the morning hours before the sun gets too hot for them to work. The elephants, some with psychedelically-painted trunks, provide a gently swaying ride and an occasional water spray from their snouts as they carry two passengers apiece to the top before returning down the same path with an empty load.

A few hours to the east by bus, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, lies Agra, once the capital of the Mughal empire that represented the apogee of Muslim culture and influence in India. The Mughals were ethnic Turks from Central Asia who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent and whose empire reached its zenith from the mid-16th century until the early 18th century. Modern Agra––a sprawling, dirty city plagued by grinding poverty––is a different story.

“Indians come to the Taj Mahal for only one or two days because Agra is very boring,” said my guide, Amit. “You want to leave Agra as soon as you can.”

Perhaps, but those one or two days are worth the trip to visit impressive Mughal monuments. Among the highlights is the imposing red sandstone Agra Fort, a structure begun in the 16th century by the great Mughal ruler Akbar and completed by his grandson, Shah Jahan. It was the citadel from which the Mughals ruled, but from a legacy––and tourist––perspective it will always be second banana to the Taj Mahal that shares the left bank of the Yamuna River about a mile downriver from the fort.

The Taj was built by Shah Jahan as a monument to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 after giving birth to her 14th child. It took roughly 20,000 workers about 20 years to craft the tomb from Indian marble and semi-precious stones imported from across Asia.

The Taj Mahal’s hues vary with the changing light spectrum as the sun travels across the sky. On this particular morning, the Taj glistened a bright white as the mid-morning sun burned off the haze. The Taj complex is all about symmetry––the building sits on a raised platform surrounded by four minarets on each corner, overlooking a garden divided into four quadrants by waterways in a pattern said to resemble the Koranic version of paradise.

Up close, the Taj’s exterior is an ornately-detailed canvas of Persian-influenced Islamic art. Colorful, meticulously cut stones form vining floral mosaics of roses and other flowers accompanied by fruit and grape bunches. Squiggly calligraphic inscriptions of Koranic verses in black lettering––describing Judgement Day––frame the arches and add to the intricateness.

Before entering the tomb’s interior, visitors must take off their shoes and leave them in a common area. That, or as I did, slip on booties over my shoes that my guide provided. After coming in from the bright sunlight it took awhile for my eyes to adjust to the dark mausoleum. When they did, I saw an octagonal sanctum richly decorated in the same motif as the exterior, including a marble screen that surrounds the cenotaph of Mumtaz, whose grave is perfectly aligned with both the tomb’s main entrance and with the Taj complex’s main entrance to the south of that.

Next to her, the seemingly out-of-place cenotaph of Shah Jahan is the only object in the entire Taj complex that lacks symmetry.

The Taj Mahal has been around more than 360 years, but experts say pollution threatens the monument’s marble exterior. And it’s feared that falling underground water levels caused by increased water demand could destabilize its foundation. Previous efforts to mitigate pollution-caused problems haven’t done enough to protect the Taj, according to the Indian government. One can only hope that India and the city of Agra can join forces and do what it takes to ensure this incredible building lasts for at least another 360 years.

 

OLDER THAN OLD
As magnificent as the Taj Mahal is, the daily pageantry of Varanasi is, in many ways, even more impressive. Located further east in Uttar Pradesh, this ancient Hindu city along the banks of the Ganges River dates from the sixth century B.C. and is thought to be one of the world’s oldest living cities.

It ancientness was neatly summed up by Mark Twain, who during his visit to India in 1896 as part of his worldwide tour described the city as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

Hindus believe that a person who dies in Varanasi or has their cremated ashes scattered there along the Ganges attains moksha, or liberation from the cycle of reincarnation, and achieves union with God. As such, some people come to Varanasi (also known as Benaras or Kashi) to die. Others come here after they die. On the way from and to the airport, I saw numerous vehicles coming into the city with bodies wrapped in colorful textiles and tied to the hood on their way to the cremation ghats along the Ganges River.

It is the city’s stone steps, or ghats along the river’s west bank, that draw pilgrims and tourists to this sacred place.

Every morning at dawn, thousands of pilgrims and city residents make their way down to the ghats. On this morning, a large orange sun rose over the seemingly uninhabited eastern riverbank, whose emptiness was a stark juxtaposition to the opposite side where a sea of humanity dressed in colorful saris and robes descended upon the Ganges to wash their bodies, souls, clothes and utensils. People prayed, waded in the water and drank from the river with cupped hands.

A short bit downriver, smoke drifted up from the cremation ghats that were ablaze with burning bodies the night before. Cows and goats nibbled on the remnants of marigold garlands that were heaped on the bodies before they were burned. Life and death are in constant motion in Varanasi.

The Ganges has been called one of the world’s most polluted rivers. Industrial and agricultural runoff are major sources of befoulment. At Varanasi, the problem is exacerbated by the ashes dumped into the river at the cremation ghats, along with leftover bones that don’t get incinerated during cremations.

Yet it is from the river that people get the best vantage point of the daily rituals along the ghats. Boatmen-for-hire paddle tourists in wooden boats to view this riverside spectacle. I was warned not to let dirty Ganges water touch my skin, and I kept that in mind as the boat I was on rowed out among the other boats that ferried camera-carrying passengers. The folks on the ghats paid little heed to the onlookers taking pictures of them like a bunch of paparazzi.

I, too, was swept up in the photo frenzy. But back onshore, I sensed it’s easy to miss the sacred aura and weighty history of Varanasi when viewed mainly through a camera lens. If I ever get back to Varanasi in this lifetime, I might leave the camera in the hotel––at least just for a little while––and let the scene wash over me at a slower, deeper pace.

And I hope there will be a next time because my time in Varanasi was too brief. My itinerary was structured in such a way that I had less than 24 hours in this amazing city––inbound during the afternoon; outbound late the next morning.

But that way-too-short visit left a powerful impression on me. It wasn’t just the morning boat ride to witness the human theater that happens daily along the city’s ghats. Nor was it the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony along the Dashashwamedh Ghat, a big production number involving young men in saffron-colored robes, music, clanging bells, burning incense and singing prayers.

I was also struck by the city’s raw energy and intensity. My hotel was a roughly 20- to 30-minute ride both to and from the ghats via bicycle rickshaw, and I marveled at the city’s throbbing activity: bright lights at night; endless commerce in the small shops lining the streets and along certain sections in the middle of the road with goods that included flowers, fruits and veggies, nuts, tandoori chicken, spices, eggs, luggage, linens and more; numerous grubby-looking restaurants and grungy, oily vehicle parts outlets; a steady flow of traffic (automobiles, scooters, motorized tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws, bicyclists, pedestrians); nasally sounding honking horns from motorbikes and ringing bells from rickshaws; advertising banners hanging over the streets; a spaghetti jumble of overhead phone and electrical wires.

It was like Times Square times five in terms of the ceaseless activity, and maybe Ben Hur times five as vehicles of all sorts jockeyed for position within the main traffic lanes––during stretches when traffic came to a crawl, wheels sometimes bumped both in front and behind the rickshaws I rode in as vehicles tried to squeeze into any available openings. It was a rush! That said, I wouldn’t want to experience it on a daily basis.

I awoke very early the morning I was there and left the hotel at 5:00 in order to get to the Dashashwamedh Ghat by dawn, which is main ghat along the river and a gathering point for tourists who want to hire a boat ride. Even at that early hour, Varanasi was surprisingly energetic––it wasn’t shaking off the sleepies; rather, it was already in go-go mode even if it hadn’t yet reached full gear.

The section of Dashashwamedh Ghat Road leading directly to the ghat was jammed with Hindu pilgrims, beggars, tourists and people trying to sell stuff to tourists. This ritual along the ghats goes on every single morning, and presumably has been for centuries, if not millennia. It is quite fantastic.

One final note about Varanasi, and it speaks to the coexistence of modern India and its ancient past. My one night there was spent at the Radisson Hotel Varanasi, which along with my hotel in Agra, the Jaypee Palace Hotel, had the best restaurants I sampled in India. It was every bit the comfortable and modern hotel experience I’d expect in the West, but it had cattle guards placed at the road entrances to keep wandering cows from moseying onto the property. In some ways, it seemed a perfect metaphor for India.

India’s Erotic Temples (Khajuraho)

Imagine the affront to the Victorian sensibilities of British officer T.S. Burt when he came upon the temples of Khajuraho in 1838. There, hidden by a thick forest, stood a cluster of nearly 1,000-year-old temples with exterior walls adorned with exquisitely detailed sculptures of human figure––some of them engaged in sexual acts seemingly ripped from the pages of the Kama Sutra.

Actually, we know how he felt because Burt, who was attached to an engineering unit and is credited with rediscovering these forgotten gems, described his find this way: “Some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive, which I was at first much surprised to find in temples that are professed to be erected for good purposes, and on account of religion.”

Subsequently reclaimed from the jungle and restored, the Khajuraho temples today are a UNESCO World Heritage site and the main reason why tourists indulge their prurient curiosity by venturing to this outpost in the Indian heartland state of Madhya Pradesh.

Khajuraho is an enclave of more than 20,000 people with a modern downtown, a more traditional village nearby and an airport connecting to several major Indian cities. I would eventually fly from Khajuraho to Varanasi, but I took the long way to get there via an all-day journey comprising a morning train from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, to Jhansi. From there, I took a bus to Orchha, site of the fabulous ruins of the capital of the long-ago Bundella rajas. In mid-afternoon, I boarded a bus that went east to Khajuraho.

The journey rolled past farm fields punctuated by barley stacks and small, white Hindu shrines, as women in colorful saris combed over the remnants of the autumn harvest. And it motored through small, bustling villages that pulsated with activity. It was a long ride along a sometimes bumpy and narrow road, but it provided fascinating glimpses of Indian life in the hinterlands. I reached my destination after nightfall, and checked into the Radisson Hotel on the outskirts of town.

X-RATED
I visited Khajuraho in late October, when the relentless sun was powerfully warm yet not oppressive. In the morning, I met my guide, Raj, at the entrance of the western group of temples comprising the main part of the temple complex. The entrance is across the street from the center of the modern downtown.

Soon after we entered the temple grounds, a line of chanting women in colorful saris walked by. Raj said they were singing a religious folk song and were followers of Krishna, the eighth avatar, or incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver among Hinduism’s holy trinity that includes Brahma (the creator) and Shiva (the destroyer).

Some of the western group of temples are dedicated to this threesome, as well as other Hindu deities. Such piousness seems incongruent with the temple’s pornographic carvings depicting all manner of sexual liaisons ranging from couples in contorted forms of copulation to bestiality.

But only about 10 percent of the temples’ exterior artwork is X-rated. The remaining sculptures include deities and secular scenes of medieval Indian life, and the temple complex itself is steeped in mystery because nobody is certain about the meaning and intent of the artwork.

We stopped at the Lakshmana Temple, a sandstone structure built on a granite plinth. Raj said sandstone for the temples was quarried 25 kilometers away and sent by river to Khajuraho, where it was carried by elephants, horses and humans to the temple grounds. Raj explained that the walls of sculpted figures were carved along the riverbank and affixed to the temple walls in an interlocking system.

He used his red laser pointer to highlight the whimsical, quotidian and graceful nature of some of the statues, many of them featuring women––a woman applying makeup, another woman writing a letter, and still another plucking a thorn from her foot. And Raj especially liked the woman wringing water from her hair while a swan at her feet drinks the water drops. “See the body movement and facial expressions and the shape of her hair,” he said with admiration.

Next to her was an amorous couple. Raj described the action: The couple stares deeply into each other’s eyes; with permission, he’s touching her body; he wants to move fast, but the woman is moving away; but the man is clever and keeps two female musicians by his side. “The effects of music leads to the Casanova effect,” he joked.

Upon pointing out another couple engaged in an acrobatic form of sex, Raj dryly noted, “Without yoga, it is not possible.”

22 TEMPLES; 3 GROUPS
The intricately carved, mainly sandstone temples were the remarkable handiwork of the Chandela dynasty, which reached its peak around the turn of the last millennium. Khajuraho was the Chandela’s religious and cultural center, and they built 85 temples in the 10th and the 11th centuries––mostly Hindu temples, with a lesser number dedicated to Jainism. But after the dynasty waned and retreated into history, the forest took over and hid these gems for centuries.

Time and the elements took their toll, and today only 22 temples remain divided between the western and eastern groups of the complex, along with a few stragglers in the southern group.

It’s thought the Chandelas were followers of tantrism and employed sexual rituals as a means to attain spiritual enlightenment. Some people posit the erotic sculptures were meant to test the devotees who came to worship their gods, or were a way to teach the ways of the world to young boys in priestly training.

Even if we don’t know what exactly the Chandelas hoped to convey with their artwork, the figures they made unfold in a myriad of secular and spiritual scenes that create three-dimensional walls of action and fluidity.

But the sexual themes are limited to temple exteriors, and worshipers and visitors must leave their sexual desire––and their shoes––behind before they enter a temple’s inner sanctum, Raj explained.

After the tour concluded, I roamed some of the other temples in the western complex, and after a while I took a break and sat on a shady bench that looked out over the vast, well-maintained complex of light-green lawns and pathways that connect the various temples. Parakeets flitted among the branches of banyan trees, and chipmunks scampered about the property.

SHIVA SERVICE
At dusk, I set out for the western grounds to catch the nightly sound-and-light show on the temples’ history––one version in English; another in Hindi.

Along the way, a young man named Papan approached and asked if I needed a guide. He also tried real hard to get me to try the cheap internet access at the internet café he said he worked at.  I declined on both counts, but then I heard sounds coming from a nearby temple located next to the western grounds. Papan said a Hindu ceremony for Shiva was about to start, and he offered to be my interpreter for the ceremony.

I agreed, and we walked over to the temple, took off our shoes and climbed the tall, uneven stone steps. Papan rung one of the bells hanging over the entrance to the Matangeswara Temple, a sturdy, unadorned structure dedicated to Shiva and thought to be one of the oldest temples in Khajuraho.

We walked around the tight-fitting corridor between the stone wall and the elevated prayer area, and climbed the steps to the platform. Papan explained that he––and others who entered the ceremony––rang a bell to introduce themselves before entering Shiva’s house. The small sanctum was dominated by a roughly eight-foot tall, cylindrical stone lingam representing an aniconic form of Shiva.

The ceremony began when one man continuously rang the bells. Two men joined in by banging gongs in rhythmic motion, as the priest waved a lit lamp in front of the lingam. A few minutes later, the priest put down the lamp and picked up a conch shell and blew into it to accompany the bells and gongs. It was loud, yet hypnotic, and it lasted for several minutes.

Suddenly, the music stopped and people rushed to touch the lingam. The worshippers then stepped back and rhythmically sang and chanted for what seemed like 10 minutes. They rushed to touch the lingam again, and the ceremony ended. On my way out I joined the others and bent down before the seated priest, who put a red dot on my forehead.

Outside in the darkness, I put on my shoes and slipped Papan some rupees for his services. The ancient ceremony in this timeless temple imbued me with a humble sense of experiencing a scene the Chandelas themselves might’ve recognized. That is, if they could tune out the flashes of light and booming sounds coming from the tourist show next door in the western grounds, as well as ignore the nearby vendors and the ever-present touts hawking Kama Sutra books.

 

Getting there:
Khajuraho is air-linked with Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi.

Getting around:
Khajuraho is small enough–and different parts of the temple complex are close enough––to see on foot. But renting a bike is a great way to get around town and explore surrounding villages and countryside. I rented a bike and guide from Mohammad Bilal’s shop on Jain Temple Road.

Where to stay:
Radisson Jass Hotel, By Pass Road, Khajuraho; 800-395-7046 (U.S. toll-free); http://www.radisson.com/khajuraho-hotel-in/indkhaj.

Hotel Chandela, District Chhatarpur Maduha, Khajuraho; http://www.tajhotels.com/leisure/hotel%20chandela,khajuraho/default.htm.

Hotel Harmony, Jain Temple Road, Khajuraho; http://www.hotelharmonyonline.com. Clean budget hotel.

Where to eat:
Blue Sky Restaurant, Across from the western group of temples in the center of Khajuraho. Serves Indian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, and vegetarian fare. Main dishes are under $10, and the quality is okay. But its selling point is the one-table tree house perched three stories up that offers views of the western temples.

Mediterraneo, Jain Temple Road (opposite Surya Hotel), Khajuraho. Serves decent pizza, including Indian-style with capsicum and green chili.

Raja Cafe, One Western Group of Temples, Khajuraho. Varied menu ranging from Hungarian goulash and chicken stroganoff to Indian vegetarian specialties and chicken tandoori.

What to do:
Khajuraho temples. Of course, these are the main attraction in town. Entrance fee for the western group of temples is 250 Indian rupees for foreigners, or about US$4. The other two temple groups are free. The fee for the evening sound and light show in the western group is 350 rupees for foreigners, or roughly US$6.

Panna Tiger Reserve, a wildlife center located about 15 miles from Khajuraho; http://www.pannatigerreserve.in/tourism/tourist_info.htm. Unfortunately, the tigers there have been decimated by poachers, and they’ve had to import tigers from elsewhere in India to jump start the population.

To learn more:
Tourism of India, http://www.tourism-of-india.com/khajuraho.html.

India (Bus Ride Through The Hinterlands)

Sometimes the most revealing glimpses of a country are found on its highways and byways, which can make long journeys through unfamiliar places an illuminating experience. As such, one of the most enjoyable and memorable parts of my two-week journey to India (which included a few days in Nepal) was the bus ride I took to Khajuraho and its famous temples adorned with erotic––if not pornographic––sculptures. Rather than flying into Khajuraho from Agra, I took a train to Jhansi, and then boarded a bus to the ruins at Orchha. From there, it was a long bus ride (I forget how long . . . anywhere from three to five hours) to Khajuraho.

But the long ride along a sometimes bumpy and narrow road was fascinating because it offered a passenger-seat view of Indian’s countryside and small towns, and provided a glimpse of everyday life in India’s central hinterlands.

 

I flew in and out of Delhi, the national capital, and spent two nights and one day there. The city’s size, history and overall importance to the country means it has many notable places of interest. In Old Delhi, which was shaped by centuries of Muslim rule, some of the sites worth experiencing include India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid (from left to right, the first two photos above), and the Qutb Minar Complex, another Muslim monument, which features an intricate, roughly 235-foot tall tower (the fifth and sixth photos from the left). New Delhi is the modern city built by the British, and includes government buildings and the India Gate (third and fourth photos from the left).

Of course, there is more to see in Old Delhi/New Delhi, but overall it’s a massive metropolis (estimated 2014 population of nearly 18 million) that’s not worth sticking around for beyond a one-day sightseeing blitz, particularly when the rest of India is so much more interesting.