Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Passage to India

After an all-too-brief stay in India in 2007, we are heading back to explore more of this fascinating country. Our dear friend Mukul put together a comprehensive itinerary for us. We will be flying into Delhi, meeting Mukul there on Ghandi Jayanti, the national holiday commemorating Mahatma Gandhi's birthday (this year marks his 140th birthday).  The next morning, we continue on to Varanasi, a bustling sacred city on the Ganges River generally believed to be 3000 years old. More than a million Hindus make the pilgrimage to this holy city each year. Bathing in the Ganges is believed to absolve them of their sins, and actually dying in this sacred city is believed to release the soul from the cycle of reincarnation. The city has over 100 ghats - series of steps that lead down to the river. Some are designated for bathing, and others are used for cremation. The uniqueness of this city made it a must-see for us. We just learned that our friend Richa is originally from Varanasi, and she has given us a lot of tips on things to do and see.

Then we will go to Agra, where Mukul and his wife Sunita have kindly offered to let us visit  their home. We are looking forward to finally getting to meet Sunita. We will be spending several days in Agra, which may allow us to return to the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, as well as see a bit of how the locals live. We look forward to visiting a school that Mukul is involved with as well.

Then we head west to the state of Rajasthan. We will spend the remainder of the trip exploring its forts, palaces, and temples. We will be in Udaipur during Diwali, the Festival of Lights, which is bound to be interesting. In Jaipur, we will be staying in the home of Mukul's friends. We are very excited at the opportunity to experience Indian culture firsthand.

Although we will see a lot more than we were able to in 2007, we will still only be scratching the surface of this huge and diverse country. Our tourist visa is valid for 10 years, so this will certainly not be our last visit!

If possible, we will try to post updates (even if just from my cell phone) while traveling.

Mukul in 2007

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Maori Tours Kaikoura on TV

Maurice, Heather, and family

We have seen several episodes of “Richard Bang’s Adventures with Purpose on PBS. Last night they aired an episode from 2007 about New Zealand. His programs generally focus on a specific aspect of a place, and this particular episode explores the Maori concept of Kaitiakitanga. Loosely translated, it can be understood as stewardship of the natural world. During the course of the episode, Richard visits the town of Kaikoura on the South Island. He goes on a bush walk with Maurice and Kim from Maori Tours Kaikoura. We were lucky enough to take the same cultural tour with Maurice when we visited the South Island in 2003. We had an excellent time on the tour, which culminated with tea and snacks in the home of Maurice and his wife Heather. We got to observe firsthand how important family ties are in Maori culture. Maurice and his niece Jasmine taught us Maori words, crafts, and explained the cosmology of the Maori. They took us on a bush walk where they pointed out sacred and medicinal plants and trees. Maurice softly played his guitar and sang as we walked through the forest. It was so serene and peaceful, and we felt so close to nature. Connecting with local people is always a highlight during our travels, so this cultural tour was perfect for us.

Steph and Maurice

We were thrilled to see Maurice interviewed on TV. (A written transcript of the program can be found here. It was not the first time we had seen his smiling face on the television. We saw him on the Travel Channel program Trip of a Lifetime in 2007, and immediately got in touch with them to tell them. We will do the same this time! And when we were in Kaikoura, we told them that we had seen the town on Michael Palin’s Full Circle series. Heather told us that Maurice was there for the filming, and lo and behold, we watched the DVD when we got back home and saw him in the Takahanga Marae segment. Maurice is becoming a regular TV star!

Craig and Jasmine

We wish Maurice and Heather and the rest of their family continued success with their cultural tours. They are doing a wonderful job teaching people about Maori history and values.

Maurice (left)

Here is some nice video footage put together by a traveler on one of their tours

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Belize on TV

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave, Belize

We've never cared much for Andrew Zimmern's "Bizarre Foods" show on the Travel Channel. As a host he was likable enough, but it was more focused on the shock factor of various foods throughout the world, and less focused on the cultures of the peoples who produced and enjoyed the food.

We were hopeful when we saw previews for his new series, "Bizarre World." Maybe it would focus more on culture. We were encouraged by a snippet of footage that we recognized as Actun Tunichil Muknal, a Mayan cave which we had visited in Belize in 2004.

We watched and enjoyed his first episode about Cuba. He covered a lot of ground during the hour. Though he still eats some outlandish things, the show has a much wider focus.

The next show was the Belize episode. It did not disappoint. He went with Chief Archaeologist of Belize Jaime Awe nearly half a mile underground to Actun Tunichil Muknal. They explained that the Mayans saw caves as entrances to the underworld, also called Xibalba. This particular cave was associated with the Mayan rain god. Around 1000 years ago, sacrifices would be made an the entrance of the cave. As drought conditions became worse, they would move the sacrifices further into the cave, closer to the rain god himself. The mouth of the cave looked just as we had remembered it. A vertical crack in the limestone with a river flowing out of it. Zimmern and Dr. Awe got into the water and swam in with their hard hats and headlamps.

Crystal Maiden skeleton

Steph swimming in the cave

Around 750 - 800 CE, sacrifices were being made in "the cavern" about 1/2 a mile inside the cave. When Zimmern and Dr. Awe arrived at the cavern after swimming and hiking through various depths of water, they found ritual pottery shards as well as some whole pots. Many of the pots had been smashed as sacrifices to release the spirits in each pot. Humans were sacrificed as well. There are scattered bones and skulls with evidence of blunt trauma. Pots and bones become calcified and crystallized, becoming one with the cave. There were also shards of sharp obsidian, which were used for ritual bloodletting practices. A complete skeleton of a young woman has been dubbed the Crystal Maiden, and it lies on a rock ledge above the main cavern. A ladder must be climbed to reach "the stone sepulchre" where her bones lie.


Our guide Ben poses next to some beautiful cave formations

Ritual pottery remains

It was incredible seeing all of these areas on TV. The cave had been a definite highlight of our trip to Belize, and it was fun to relive the adventure now 5 years later. Dr. Awe next took Zimmern to a part of the cave that we had not seen before, as it is not usually open to the public. There they found the bones of an infant who had been ritually sacrificed.

We very much enjoyed this episode, and are now hooked on "Bizarre World." Though Zimmern does at times still eat things which are difficult to watch, he has at least gotten away from "thrill eating" (as he calls it) being the focus of the show. We'll be tuning in regularly.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Update from Guatemala

Paola, Vanesa, and Rocio

Humberto and Paulina e-mailed us some photos several days ago. Vanesa, Paola, and Rocio made their First Communion at Iglesia de San Francisco Asis in Panajachel last Sunday. We are so happy that they shared the photos with us. The girls look beautiful in their traditional Mayan clothes along with white gloves and veils for the ceremony. We are very proud of them and they are maturing into lovely young ladies. We wish that we could have been there to celebrate the special occasion with the entire family.