Friday, November 30, 2007

Our Godchild

We are now officially godparents. We spent Thanksgiving in Guatemala this year for our godchild Aracely's baptism. It was great to see Humberto, Paulina, and the girls (Vanesa, Paola, Yasmin, Yoselin, and 2 1/2 year old Aracely), as well as their cousins Rocio, Luis, Josue, Neli, Julisse, Wilson, Alex, Pamela, and all the rest. Aracely looked precious in her lacy white dress and hat, frilly socks, and white patent leather shoes. She is such a sweetheart! We are so honored that Paulina and Humberto chose us for this role.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

In Memory of Ernest C. Withers

We got an email from Andy this morning saying that Dr. Ernest C. Withers, renowned photographer of the Civil Rights Movement and the music scene in Memphis, had passed away while we were in Bhutan. We had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Withers in August of 2006. The world has lost a brilliant and talented artist and a very sweet and friendly man. We offer our sincere condolences to his family and friends.

Our friend Frank Brown (who passed away in August of 2005) had been B.B. King's bus driver for 20 years. We only knew Frank for a year and a half, but he became one of our very best friends, and it was truly a blessing to have him in our lives. During our friendship with Frank, we became familiar with a photograph of B.B. King, his band, and crew on Beale Street in front of their brand new tour bus in the 1950's. We saw the photo in several books, and when we showed it to Frank, he got excited and pointed himself out. We learned that the photographer was named Ernest C. Withers.

Dr. Withers in his Beale St. studio

A year after Frank's passing, we were in Memphis for a Tom Waits concert. Our stay was very brief, and about an hour before we had to hit the road for Nashville, we talked to a lady at the Center for Southern Folklore and she told us the location of Dr. Withers' studio at 333 Beale St. We wanted to purchase a copy of the bus photograph, and thought it would be very interesting to meet Dr. Withers if at all possible. We went to the studio and it was locked up, but there was a business card taped to the window. I called the cell phone number with a sinking feeling in my stomach. We had to leave soon and this didn't seem promising.

Craig and I with Dr. Withers in his Beale St. studio

Dr. Withers answered the phone and was quite pleasant and friendly. I explained about Frank and that we were heading out of town very soon. He said that he would be at the studio in 10 minutes, and lo oand behold, he pulled up in his car just a few minutes later. He unlocked the studio and brought us inside. It was a treasure trove - a museum with the look of a rummage sale. Photos were piled up everywhere, and each one was incredibly significant. He rifled through the piles looking for a copy of the bus photo. He didn't find one, but we enjoyed seeing the large black and white prints of Martin Luther King, key event sin the Civil Rights Movement, music icons such as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Johnny was amazing. He said that he could get a copy of the photo printed up and mailed to us within a couple of days, and we said that was great; the only condition being that he promised to sign it. We paid him for the photo and he said he was uneasy to accept our money without having something tangible to hand to us. This was a testament to his integrity. He wrote up a detailed receipt and promised to send the photo out soon.

Dr. Withers and Craig with the bus photo

He paged through his book "The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs" and told us anecdotes about each photo. We enjoyed it so much! The time flew, and we got the feeling he would have continued talking with us for hours if we didn't have to set off for Nashville. Our meeting with him was totally unexpected, and is an experience we will forever cherish. Less than a week later, the signed photo showed up on our doorstep. It is proudly displayed in our dining room.

Rest in Peace, Dr. Withers, and thank you for being so kind to us.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Ernest C. Withers Sr. Historical Photographic Foundation, P.O. Box 152, Memphis, TN 38101, for the preservation and restoration of his works.

obituary from the Memphis Commercial Appeal
obituary from the New York Times

Ernest C. Withers Building, 333 Beale St., Memphis TN

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Trusted Adventures

Trusted Adventures, an alliance of like-minded ecotourism companies (whose members include Myths and Mountains and Wildland Adventures, who planned our Bhutan/India and Africa trips, respectively) has added some of our posts to their blog!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Additional Photos from Bhutan and India

Mt Everest from the flight from Delhi->Kathmandu->Paro

National Museum in Paro

Paro Dzong

"Bhutanese Ghostbusters" - The Lama (center) practicing for Shelmakha Festival

Acrobatic dancing at the Shelmakha Festival

Dancers at Shelmakha Festival

"Apple" (right) and a friend in Shelmakha

108 chortens built by Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck

Dechen, the 13-month old daughter of the gift shop clerk at Hotel YT in Punakha

Chhendebji Chorten (a Nepalese-style stupa)

Detail of exquisite painting at Trongsa Dzong

Monks practicing for a festival at the dzong in Bumthang

Dorji incognito

Monkey, 11 km from Lingmethang

View of the Taj from our room at the Oberoi Amarvilas

Interior, Itimad-ud-daulah

Agra Fort

Taj Mahal

Sunset at the Taj Mahal

Sunset at the Taj Mahal

Koranic verses inlaid around the entrance gate to the Taj Mahal (each Arabic letter is its own single piece of black marble)

Mughal emeralds at Kohinoor Jewelers

Fatehpur Sikri

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Now featuring "Snaps"!

We have added some photos (or "snaps", as the Bhutanese call them) to our first blog post from Bhutan. We hope you enjoy them. We will add some photos to the other blog posts as well, when we have a chance. Still haven't even looked at all of our photos yet!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Home safe and sound! Notes on India and Bhutan.

Hi everyone,

We are back home safe and sound. We had a 15 hour flight from Delhi to Chicago. We missed our connection by a few minutes, but were immediately rebooked onto another flight. We were home within an hour and a half of our regularly scheduled arrival. Not bad at all!

India was wonderful. It was a total whirlwind. I last updated the blog from the posh Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi. We both think that it rates as the fanciest hotel we have ever stayed in. It truly catered to our every need (way beyond what we are used to and what is necessary, but it was a nice unexpected indulgence).

Elephant on the street in Agra

We took the early morning train to Agra. It was a pleasant journey and we chatted with a nice Indian man who was on holiday with his family. We were picked up at the Agra station by local operator Peirce and Leslie, and transported us to the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel, only 600 yards from the Taj Mahal.

Flute player at Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel

Each room has a view of the Taj. At the time of day we arrived, everything was very hazy, and you could only get a hint of the Taj in the distance. It was like a tantalizing appetizer for what was to come.

Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel, Agra

At the hotel, we met our guide, Dr. Mukul Pandya. Mukul was at one time a university instructor. Now he works giving tours. He is an expert in history, art, language, flora, and fauna, as well as being an incredibly personable companion. His enthusiasm for his subject matter is quite contagious. We got along well from the start. (Have you ever seen Dr. Zahi Hawass on television programs about Egypt? He is the Director of Antiquities in Cairo, and we met him after a lecture at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Mukul's depth of knowledge and passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter remind us very much of Dr. Hawass).

Itimad-ud-daulah ("Baby Taj")

Mukul first brought us to the Itimad-ud-daulah, the tomb of Mirza Giyas Beg. This site is colloquially known as the "Baby Taj", and sees few tourists. It is a mausoleum of marble with spectacularly preserved paintings. It is a small "jewel-box" of a building and is well worth the visit! It was just gorgeous.

Detail of Itimad-ud-daulah

Next we went to Agra Fort. As the smog was starting to burn off, we could see the Taj Mahal in the distance from the tower where Shah Jehan was eventually imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb. The view of his wife's monument gave Shah Jehan solace until his death.

Agra Fort

Balcony at Agra Fort from which Shah Jehan gazed at the Taj while under house arrest

We headed back to the hotel to freshen up and have lunch, and then we reconvened with Mukul at 3:30 to go to the Taj Mahal itself. We took a short golf cart ride from the hotel to the entrance gate of the Taj. As we entered, the Taj became visible through the entrance archway. Mukul advised us to stand in the center of the entranceway. Walk a few paces forward and the Taj seems to retreat from you. Take several steps backwards and it appears to follow you. Because of certain illusions in its architecture, as well as the haziness of the Agra air, the Taj almost seems to be a mirage in front of you. We gazed at its reflection in the reflecting pool and Mukul got some great photos of us.

Taj Mahal at sunset

We sat on a park bench in the gardens facing the Taj and Mukul shared a lot of his knowledge of the Taj's history. The light was waning and Mukul wanted to make sure that we got into the mausoleum while it was still light enough to see. The size of the Taj is very imposing. People surrounding the structure looked as insignificant as ants. We put on a pair of cloth booties over our shoes and entered the mausoleum.

Enjoying the Taj with Mukul

Everything about the Taj is symmetrical (it has a functioning mosque that faces Mecca, and on the opposite side there is an identical structure, yet it can never be used as a mosque because it is not oriented toward Mecca. It is there for the symmetry of the building alone.) The only assymetrical feature of the entire monument is the tomb of Shah Jehan himself. He had not planned to be buried here, but after his death his daughter arranged for him to be entombed with his wife.

Taj minaret at sunset

As the sun sank in the sky, we left the Taj for now and headed to the Marble Emporium. Here we watched master craftsmen and apprentices inlay 2 millimeter thick semi-precious stones into white Indian marble (the hardest marble in the world). We watched the artistans perform the same intricate handiwork that went into embellishing the Taj Mahal itself, and then looked in the showroom. We ended up buying a lamp of translucent white marble inlaid with semiprecious stones in a traditional Persian flower motif. The craftsmanship was beautiful!!

Demonstration of the various phases of marble inlay work

After that we headed back to the hotel. We had planned to eat at the hotel Indian specialty restaurant for their 9:30 dinner seating, which featured live sitar musicians. But we had a busy day of touring, an early morning, and we just didn't have the proper clothes to feel comfortable. So we opted once again for in-room dining, which was a nice relaxing choice.

Taj Mahal glistening at sunrise

The next morning we hit the Taj Mahal again for sunrise. It was beautiful, and you could see the gems inlaid in the marble glistening in the sunlight. Mukul pointed out a hornbill singing in a tree in the Taj gardens. We ate breakfast in the room at the hotel, said goodbye to our view of the Taj, and then headed to Kohinoor Jewelers in Agra.

Bejeweled three dimensional embroidery made by Padma Shri Shams for his wife's 40th birthday (on display at Kohinoor Jewelers)

Mukul had said that we would see some amazing embroidery and jewelry, but this was an understatement. There is no way to describe the splendors of what we saw here. The building was a multi-level temperature and humidity controlled vault. We were fortunate that Mr. Ghanshyam Mathur himself was present to meet us and give us a tour of his personal museum. He showed us the incredible three dimensional embroidery work of the late Padma Shri Shams. The detail was amazing. The embroidery is often 4 or 5 inches thick, but there is no cotton batting adding to the depth, It is ALL embroidery. The bottom threads are cotton and the top threads are split silk threads in very vibrant colors. Some of the threads are actually gold. We saw a gallery of Shams' works, one of which took Shams 6570 days to complete! Another work contained 30,000 carats (if I remember correctly) of precious and semi-precious stones, provided to Shams by Mr. Mathur's family in a partnership of art.

"The Good Shepherd" - 8'3" x 6'3" Three dimensional embroidery by Padma Shri Shams which took him 6570 days to complete

After this, we were brought to see some very rare and beautiful jewels. We saw a Moghul tumbled emerald necklace which had been pictured (as well as an interview with Mr. Mathur) in the April 1985 issue of National Geographic magazine. Mr. Mathur let me try on a priceless emerald and diamond brooch necklace, along with a matching ring and bracelet. I am not usually overwhelmed by gems, but I literally felt like a princess!

Mughal bling at Kohinoor Jewelers

From there we drove to Fatehpur Sikri, the one-time capital city of the Moghul Empire. Mukul gave us a great tour, imparting lots of knowledge even though our time there was limited. He is also a great storyteller and we learned so much from him. After the tour of the ancient city, we needed to say goodbye. Although we had only been with Mukul for two days, it had been a concentrated two days, and we really enjoyed his company. We wished we had more time together, but we spoke of possible future itineraries and hope to be able to travel across India together in the future, and that this trip was just an appetizer for what is still to come.

Fatehpur Sikri

Our wonderful driver Raj took us on a 5 hour drive back to Delhi. We were on the "4 lane highway", but it was nothing like a 4 lane highway at home. People could drive in either direction in any lane. The road was shared by large trucks, buses, passenger vehicles, horses, camels, water buffaloes, rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, etc. There was never a dull moment, and the controlled anarchy of the road was certainly something to see!

Camels on the highway (from the rearview)

We witnessed a non-violent protest. Half of the highway was shut down for several kilometers because farmers were peacefully occupying the roadway in protest to some government policies. The protesters were happy, smiling, etc. They were eating together, bathing in water provided by tanker trucks, doing their laundry, using fluorescent lights powered by generators...we told Raj that if we had an extra night we might spend it camping with these happy folks on the highway!

Nonviolent protest

We ate dinner at the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi and then drove to the airport for our 12:15 am flight. While in the airport, we saw a news spot that all of the US Embassadors to India had stayed up all night watching TV coverage of the Red Sox in the World Series. Until this point we had no idea that the Red Sox had even been in the pennant race. It had been a lengthy trip. We knew there would be some mighty happy people at home. And on the flight back we heard that the New England Patriots record is now 7-0. Definitely a good season for Boston sports!

Rajander driving us to the airport

So that was India in a nutshell. What a whirlwind! Now we'll go back and give some more details about the end of the Bhutan trip.

Punakha Dzong

We travelled east across Bhutan. After our blog post from Trongsa, we drove to the Bumthang Valley. This is usually described by the Bhutanese as one of the most beautiful spots in the country. Although true, the landscape seemed very familiar to us, much like the White Mountains area of New Hampshire. There were boulders and rivers and waterfalls. This was a natural environment similar to what we have experienced in the USA.
the landscape was dotted with dzongs and temples, and we visited "Burning Lake" (which is actually a river), the site where Guru Rinpoche's treasures were discovered.


Kuzoo FM is the more young and hip radio station in Bhutan. DJ's select their own music, there are interesting little reports on various subjects from English grammar to the history of kites to Shakespeare, and perhaps the most popular shows are the dedication shows. Listeners call and request songs and dedicate them with sweet messages to family and friends. Dorji wanted to call and dedicate a song to a young lady named Choden whom he had met at the festival in Shelmakha. After dinner on the 17th, Dorji, driver Jigme, Craig, and myself headed out into the parking lot and sat in the van listening to the radio (it seemed like junior high school all over again!) Dorji kept trying to call the station on his cell phone to no avail. After Craig tried as well, with 20 minutes left in the program, Dorji was about to give up. We convinced him to try my luck, and we got through on my second try. Dorji dedicated Enrique Iglesias' track "Somebody's Me" to Choden. He also mentioned us to the DJ, and gave the phone to me. I ended up chatting with the DJ for about 5 minutes on the air about our experiences in Bhutan. Craig recorded the audio of the whole thing, so stay tuned for a link to the mp3 on our web site in the future! We all felt like kids again and celebrated for a while before going to bed.

We went to some fabulous temples and dzongs in Central and Eastern Bhutan, seeing many of the sites where Guru Rinpoche meditated, studied, and subdued demons. On the road to Mongar, we were passed by a Royal motorcade which was transporting one of the 4 queens.

Four friends in Mongar

Mongar sees a lot fewer tourists than Western Bhutan, and the children there were a bit more hesitant to befriend us. It took just a little more effort on our parts, but we ended up being quite a hit. We started to show our photos from home to three young girls, and soon we were surrounded by a sum total of around 45 excited children. It was totally exhausting but so much fun! Several of them hoped to email us.

We attracted quite a crowd in Mongar...

Dorji and Kunga at Sherubtse College

The next day we drove to Trashigang. Nearby in Langkung is the only college in the country, Sherubtse College. Dorji's friend Kunga Wangmo is a geography major here, and she generously offered to give us a tour of the gorgeous campus. I went to her dorm and met her friends and they dressed me up in a traditional women's outfit known as a kira. It was funny to watch them try to find one to fit me! They then took us up to a gorgeous mountaintop lake which is their favorite picnic spot. On our drive back to the hotel, Dorji secretly called Kuzoo FM and dedicated a Don Williams song to us, telling us publicly how much he would miss us. He also dedicated the song to Kunga. When we finally realized what was going on, Craig recorded this as well, so you'll be able to hear this MP3 eventually too.

The picnic spot in the mountains above Sherubtse College

Trashigang Dzong

The next day we went to Trashi Yangtse to see their gorgeous dzong and stupa. The drive was stupendous and we really enjoyed the view. On the way back we stopped at Gom Kora temple, where Guru Rinpoche spent a lot of time. This is a very important site for Bhutanese Buddhists, and it was quite a spiritual visit.

Children in Khaling

The following morning there was a very long drive to the town of Samdrup Jongkhar, on the Indian border. We arrived there in the late afternoon. We took a short walk around the block where our hotel was, and met some more very nice people. This would be our last night in Bhutan. We enjoyed our farewell dinner with Dorji and driver Jigme, but we knew we would miss them terribly.

Farewell dinner with Dorji and Jigme

Dorji told us today (because he was "recognized" at the border) that he had recently starred in a film called Chunyen ("Childhood Engagement") and that he will be starring in an upcoming movie about a blind man in love with a blind woman. This project has no working title as yet. What a multi-talented guy!!

Women shucking betelnut in Samdrup Jongkhar

Dorji hired an Indian driver to get us across the border and to the airport in Guwahati. I really think we should create a video game based on driving in India. It's insane! We said a sad farewell to Dorji at the airport, but it was not goodbye. It was "until we meet again".

We have started to go trough our 4 gigs worth of photos, and later today I will post a few here. It will take us a long time to get the website updated with all details and photos, but we'll keep the blog updated each time we are able to post a page.

Thanks so much to all of you who have emailed us; we'll get back to you personally as soon as we can!

Thanks again to our US travel agent Myths and Mountains, who put this custom itinerary together for us, and to the local agents Etho Metho and Peirce and Leslie for taking such good care of us. Everything was outstanding! Love to all whom we met along the way - Dorji, Tshering, Dasho Karma Dorjee, all of the kids, Karma and his family in Shelmakha, Yeshey, Gem Tshering and family, Phuntsho Choden of the BBS, Kunga and her friends Namgay and Kinley at Sherubtse College, Jigme, Tony, Mukul Pandya, Rajander, Mr. Mathur, and everyone else we had the pleasure of meeting...we had the time of our lives!

Steph & Craig