Showing posts with label UNESCO World Heritage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label UNESCO World Heritage. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Galapagos Excursion

Flying into the Galapagos, I quickly realized that it was nothing like I had expected. The landscape was sparse, dry, covered in leafless trees and tree-sized cacti. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations (I try to avoid Google image searching places before traveling), but somehow this still defied any mental image conjured by the word “Galapagos.”

In an effort to make a trip to the Galapagos Islands as affordable as possible, we decided to use the two cheap tourist towns as base camps for a quick visit. This allowed us a glimpse into the ecology of the island system without the price tag of the multiday cruises.

Cemented in history by Darwin’s evolutionary biology discoveries, the history of the one-time home of Lonesome George is one of exploitation and over use of resources. Fun fact: apparently tortoise oil was once considered a resource for use in streetlamps.

As humans have learned more about the finite nature of the islands’ fauna (having pushed a number of species into extinction), the island chain is now home to a plethora of sustainability and conservation efforts. These include efforts to genetically reproduce as closely as possible the Galapagos Tortoise (of which Lonesome George was the last, his death marking the species’ extinction) and to grow, rather than import, as much of the islands’ food as possible.

Seeing the ecology of the Galapagos Islands is a land, air, and water endeavor. A full day snorkel trip (the splurge of the trip) afforded us the opportunity to swim in surprisingly cold water with sea turtles, sharks, and sea lions (which I’m assured are somehow different from seals), as well as a whole rainbow’s worth of fish.

Taking advantage of the numerous free options on both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal provided the chance to see massive century-old tortoises, land iguanas with vaguely prehistoric faces, beaches filled with lounging sea lions, and birds ranging from pelicans to finches.

But, despite the full day of snorkeling and all the various museums and conservation projects, a free hike and a dip in the frigid waters of a tiny alcove provided the highlight of the trip. Donning rented snorkels, we navigated the rocks at the end of the skinny, wooden pier and plunged in. Though the fish life was moderately interesting and we soon became accustomed to the water temperature, the snorkeling was mediocre overall.

However, we were soon joined by a group of the most curious sea lions. Now, we swam with seals in New Zealand and on the aforementioned snorkeling trip, but this was something else. These sea lions seemed almost to want to play with us, zipping right up and spinning away, diving and swirling about our feet. It was absolute magic (and it only cost $5 to rent the snorkels).

Sometimes you pay a great deal of money to observe something unique in nature, and sometimes Mother Nature surprises you instead. Our Galapagos adventure turned out to be a unique, interesting mixture of the two. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Viñales: Caballos y Tabaco

Viñales is only hours from Havana, but a world apart. Its lush rolling green hills are dotted with fincas, lines with dirt roads, and sprinkled with massive limestone mogotes. The rich soil and unique microclimate make Viñales home to the world’s best tobacco.

As part of Cuba’s tourist trail, Viñales overflows with casas particulares, a guesthouse-homestay hybrid, restaurants, and tours to the surrounding farms and caves. This provided us with the ideal opportunity to go for a horseback riding tour, my first and last.

For years Win has been trying to get me to go horseback riding, and there have been no shortage of chances to do so. I have always been vehemently opposed, as I find horse to be unpredictable in a way that terrifies me. Now, I know there are plenty of people who absolutely love horses and horseback riding. We all have our things.

But, confronted with the beauty of Viñales and the chance to face a fear and try something new, I agreed (albeit begrudgingly).

As a novice horseback rider, wracked with fear, our Spanish-speaking guide gave us the following instructions once atop the horse: left, right, stop, walk. My small, young horse, not being a car, did not respond to commands as such and promptly freaked out. She panicked, I panicked, she tried to buck me off, lost balance, and fell over, taking me down for the ride.

That’s when I found out that the quickest way to win an argument is to have a horse fall on you. I also learned that Cubans are not wont to take that crybaby bullshit, so I ended up riding a horse (a calmer horse) for the next four hours.

It was four hours of blind fear, riding through gorgeous landscapes, limping around farms and caves, and thinking of ways to combine my scant Spanish skills to ask our guide nicely to slow the hell down. We gained some insight into the tobacco growing process, as well as how communism and farm life interact (hint: 90 percent of the crop goes to the government). 

We also met whatever this creature is.

In the end, I spent the rest of our vacation in various states of limping and healing (partially due to the fact that horses are heavy and partially to the fact of having ridden a horse for that long in general). But now I know that I can get back on the horse, in the most literal way imaginable.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

La Habana

A jumbled sprawl of city along the crashing waves of the ocean, Havana is like a city at once lost and found. It is old and new, crumbling and reconstructed, colonial and Western, dilapidated and grand.

The only billboards or advertisements sell not products, but ideas -- a revolutionary quote here, a catchphrase touting the benefits of socialism there. Lacking are the chain restaurants of the West, the Coca-Cola placards rampant worldwide. The only advertisements to be seen are quarantined to the airport, pushing big brand rum and cigars on arrival.

In touristic Havana Vieja, fresh coats of paint cover colonial buildings, souvenir stands sell bags and shirts covered in iconic images of Che Guavara, and ritzy hotels and restaurants sprout like mushrooms. Tourists in shorts and large floppy hats watch street musicians blaring Afro-Cuban jazz. Iconic cars and bicycle rickshaws roll by.

Blocks away in Havana Centro, buildings crumble in various states of rundown disrepair like some post-apocalyptic version of 1950s Americana. Art deco buildings, neon signs, and beat-up antique cars line major streets, while narrow one-ways are full of life. Women in bright spandex cluster on stoops and sidewalks and stray dogs roam. Men chat and smoke while elderly folks gossip through window and door grates. Young boys play makeshift games of football and tiny restaurants sell peso pizza to go.

Much like the duality of shiny tourist Havana and real life Havana, Cuba’s dual economy provides for harsh disparities. In an attempt to allow for tourism and still maintain a communist system, tourists spend one currency, locals another. The tourist dollar, or CUC, worth 25 pesos, is just as widely jostled for and fought over as in any tourism center. It’s a slow permeation of capitalism, a steady leak that will almost assuredly increase with the loosening of American barriers to tourism and business in Cuba.

But to see it now, with regulations and relations in limbo, before that creeping change that will inevitably happen, was quite fortuitously timed. To see it while it is still a country that requires unplugging and disconnecting from the endless internet obsession.  To see it while the classic American cars are part of daily life and not just a remnant maintained like museum pieces. To see it while the tourist throngs are still relatively small. What splendid timing.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Layover of the Pharaohs

Seeing the pyramids has been high on my bucket list since before I was old enough to know what a bucket list even was. By third grade I was hooked on all things Egyptian. Fact or fiction, the strange images of the hieroglyphics, the unique vision of the afterlife, the mummification process, the myths, legends, and curses, the reverence for cats, eight-year-old me soaked it up and longed to see the pyramids.

Almost twenty years later, my inner child was silently squealing with joy as we touched down in Cairo International Airport.

Let’s be blunt, our decision to extend our layover in Egypt from six hours to three days evoked some strong reactions. The 2011 Revolution, the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the continued travel advisories from the US State Department, none boded well in the eyes of family and friends. Emails and phone calls, when Egypt was mentioned, dripped with concern. But, to Cairo we went.

Egypt was immediately striking and unique, a city that runs abruptly into the pyramids and the desert, as though divided by invisible walls. From the strangely silent and solitary camel ride through the desert to the massive, warehouse-like feel of the Antiquities Museum, everything felt incredibly, well, Egyptian.

And then there was everyday Cairo. Revolutionary street art and the incredibly welcoming and warm Egyptians themselves.  A ubiquitous presence of stray cats. Savory kofta, falafel, lamb, and pita sandwiches available from street carts for next to nothing. Men, young and old, lounge about in sidewalk cafes, drinking tea, playing dominoes and smoking hookah.  

Smiles, conversation, and advice abounded. Hello. Welcome to Egypt. Ah, I love America. Close your eyes, pray Allah, and keep walking; it’s the only way to cross the street in Cairo. We were made to feel safe and welcome. Even the tanks parked outside of the museum felt nonthreatening, like slumbering giants, aware but not on guard. 

We had braced ourselves for the worst, for the possibility of having to stay holed up inside the airport should we have arrived to a Cairo in distress. Instead, we had an overwhelmingly positive experience. Thank goodness we listened to the Rachel of third grade instead of all the modern day Debbie downers.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rock Cut

Though often referred to as caves, the monuments of Ajanta and Ellora are manmade structures. Comprised of numerous monasteries, shrines, temples, and living quarters, each of these sites provides visitors with a unique glimpse into the extreme lengths to which man will go in the name of religion.

Ajanta’s structures, carved into a cliff wall encircling the U-bend in the Waghur River, are the oldest of India’s famous rock-cut caves. Dating from as early as 200 BCE, the site’s various enclaves are entirely Buddhist. Filled with stone carved scenes depicting the life and teachings of the Buddha, Ajanta served as a monastery for Buddhist monks for up to 800 years.

The staying power of Ajanta’s hand-carved statues and monasteries is not nearly as impressive as the fact that a handful of its numerous frescoes are fairly intact. It is absolutely amazing to see remnants of frescoes, which disintegrate in chunks of falling plaster, survive over 2,000 years of history.

Sometime during the 5th-7th centuries the style of rock cut cave monasteries began to be replicated some 100 kilometers away in Ellora, leading to the abandonment of the Ajanta Buddhist settlement.

The various structures at Ellora display primarily Hindu, but also Jain and Buddhist temples and monasteries. Historians believe that the coexistence of temples from all three religions in one single site demonstrates a unique time period of religious tolerance in Indian history.

Directly at the entrance to Ellora sits its main attraction. Marking  the height of the development of India’s rock cut temple architecture, the Kailasa Temple is the crown jewel of Ellora’s complex. Built over the course of multiple generations, carved from a single rock from the top down, Kailasa demonstrates an incredible ability to plan and execute a design.

Looking at the tool marks visible on the floors, walls, and ceilings of Ellora and Ajanta, it is nearly incomprehensible that human hands carved such buildings directly from the earth. Elaborate, beautiful, and impressive, the caves of Ellora and Ajanta are impeccable examples of the feats and determination of man. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jains: A Peaceful Bunch

Some of the holiest sites in India sit way off the well-worn path. Ranakpur, about three hours from the tourist center of Udaipur, is on the list of secluded locations.

Dedicated to Adinath, the first enlightened human according to Jain teachings, Ranakpur’s temple is one of the most sacred Jain sites in India. It is also among the more beautiful and intricately carved temples we encountered.

Constructed during the 15th century, the temple is widely considered to be one of the most spectacular Jain structures on earth. Inside one finds over 1,440 pillars, each of which is unique (including one pillar at an odd angle, which supposedly serves as a reminder of the futile nature of striving for perfection). The pillars, walls, statues, and ceilings are carved in such elegant detail that one scarcely knows where to look.

When they aren’t building lavish and incredible temples, the Jains tend to be a peaceful bunch. Not a particularly well-known religion, Jainism closely resembles the Western conception of Buddhism.

The primary path of Jainism is strict adherence to the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Not only does this include a vegetarian diet, but often also excludes onions, garlic, and other root vegetables, as living organisms may be harmed when the vegetables are pulled from the ground. In order to avoid inadvertently harming even the tiniest of insects many strict Jains sweep the ground ahead of them as they walk, rarely go out at night, and even go naked lest bugs get trapped in their clothing.

In addition to ahimsa, vows taken by Jains include satya (non-lying), asteya (non-stealing), bramachariya (celibacy), and aparigraha (non-attachment). Monks practice these vows in the strictest sense, while the common man is expected to adhere to them as much as is practical.

With 4.2 million followers Jainism is among the smallest of the major world religions, but they sure do know how to make some beautiful temples. Where spirituality and architecture meet, there one finds some of humanity’s most amazing structures.