Posted on April 8th, 2009 No comments
Iran By Lindsay Mackenzie
Perhaps more than anywhere else I’ve led tours, Iran has a tendency to exceed expectations. From experiencing the grandeur of the sites we visit, to witnessing first-hand the dramatic pace of change in this young and politically significant country, to constantly encountering the unbelievable kindness of the locals, almost everything is surprising to travelers new to Iran, who have heard so much and yet know so little about the country.
Iran saturates the senses, from gardens drenched in the fragrance of orange blossoms in Shiraz, to the bright colors of the tiny village of Abayenah (population 300), to the taste of tamarind tea enjoyed with impossibly sweet dates on an afternoon break in Esfahan.
Many sites leave profound impressions: the immensity of the third largest public square in the world in Esfahan; the simple ingenuity of the ubiquitous wind towers in Yazd; the solemnity inside the tomb of Ayatollah Khomenini in Tehran; the power and historical significance of Persepolis.
It is the warmth of the locals, however, that leaves the most lasting impressions. Wherever we stopped during our two week tour a giggling group of local schoolgirls would creep closer to us as we listened to our guide’s explanations. Knowing that his voice was no match for a group of shrieking teenage girls, our guide would usually stop for a moment to allow the girls to ask their questions.
Generally, after being prodded by her friends, the bravest of the group of girls would shyly greeted us with a reluctant “Hello, how are you?” before hiding behind her headscarf. She would stay hidden for a moment, then her curiosity would get the better of her and she’d reemerge to observe our reaction.
“Well hello! How are you?” one of the members of my group would reply, their response always met by an eruption of shrieking and laughter from the girls. They would move closer to us and, emboldened by their first success, begin to debate among themselves how to construct the next English phrase. After a few more questions, any semblance of order and restraint would break down and they’d gleefully shout whatever came to mind between fits of giggles: “How are you! I love you! Where are you from!”
Then someone would ask for permission to take photos and after a moment of hesitation, the girls would smile, agree, and pulled their cell-phone cameras out from within their black chadors. A shoot-out would ensue, with both ‘sides’ pointing cameras at each other to document the encounter in a delightful chaos of camera clicks and broken-English, the small mob of kids just as eager to ask questions and take photos of us as we were of them.
My group of American and Canadian men and women were consistently greeted by locals with curiosity and kindness. One day in Yazd, for example, a man talking to his friends in the hotel lobby overhead a member of my group mention he needed to find replacement hearing aid batteries. The young man, who was not a staff member at the hotel, picked us up in his own car early the next morning and took us to a store he knew would have them. He expected nothing in return. Later in the afternoon on the same day, another member of my group and I climbed to the top of the Amir Chakhmagh complex during our free time, where we had a brief conversation with a group of local men who were serving in the Iranian army. After climbing down, one of the men asked us if we’d like to see the practice of a traditional sport called Zurkhaneh. We said we would, and followed him around the corner to a gym where a ceremony was underway. Without our knowing it, he paid both of our entrance fees. When we realized what had happened and attempted to pay him back, he told us to enjoy the ceremony and disappeared out of the building.
In perhaps no other place in the world is there such a wide chasm between outsider’s perceptions and the in-country reality than in Iran. I hope many more travelers have the opportunity to bring home new impressions of a truly spectacular country.
Posted on April 3rd, 2009 No comments
WEST AFRICA VACATION
Over the last four years I had the pleasure and also faced the challenge to develop and lead our Adventures Abroad West African series. This is not a trip for the faint-hearted. The going is tough. We link together six different West African countries. And most of them are among the least economically developed nations in Africa. A lot of travel is done overland. In often difficult road conditions across serious bush country. We reach remote destinations where the infrastructure is poor. No fancy restaurant or super lodge at the end of a long day.
But the rewards are many. The natural and cultural diversity is incredible, the sites fantastic. They resonate like drum beats in the night. They bring you right back to the origins of civilization in Africa: the arid Sahel; the acacia-studded savannah region; the living rainforest; the Senegal River; the Niger Inland Delta; the stunning Bandiagara escarpment; Dakar; Bamako; Ancient Djenne; fabled Timbuktu; the Kumasi market; the Abomey palaces.
Great peoples form an interwoven fabric of countless languages and traditions. Wolofs, Bambaras, Dogons, Tuaregs, Lobis, Ashantis, Ewes, Dahomeys. Ancestral beliefs, fertility cults, Voodoo spirituality, Christianity, Islam.
Nomadic cattle herders share the land with sedentary farmers in vast seasonal cycles. People and land form one. Spectacular traditional architecture provide the background to village markets and celebrations where music, mask dances and rituals bring you back to the true values of the African spirit.
I strongly believe that Adventures Abroad offers here in West Africa the most extensive and comprehensive tour ever, unequalled by anyone else in the field in its scope and approach. It is a real odyssey.
We take our people from one end of West Africa to the other providing our travellers, along this dusty West African track, in this modern age of technology, movement and globality, a true human connection and a deep personal experience.
Posted on April 2nd, 2009 No comments
SUNRISE ON THE GANGES
India. The name itself evokes images of ancient civilizations, swarming cities, colourful markets and a host of eclectic religions. Mix in sprawling ghettoes, a booming economy and a land stretching from the highest mountains in the world to steaming jungles to parched desert dunes and let it all bring a simmer to the imagination. It is frequently written in travel magazines and articles that India is a land of contrasts. I say, whoever is bored of India is bored with life.
Of all the destinations in India, one of the most vivid is that of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state in the north of the country. Considered one of the holiest cities of India, Varanasi (or Benares) is a pilgrimage destination for Hindus, Buddhist and Jains. The River Ganga, or Ganges, flows from the Himalaya, through Varanasi, and onto the Bay of Bengal. It is mandatory in any Varanasi itinerary to experience the mystique of the city from the water. Why? As one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Varanasi’s citizens always made use of the waters of the Ganga. It was the lifeblood of the population and it continues to be so. Ghats, or steps, have traditionally been the means of access to the river’s edge for purposes ranging from laundry to bathing to cremation.
Our North India tour features a visit to Varanasi and one of the most consistently rated highlights in all our clients’ feedback is that of our boat trip onto the Ganga for sunrise. A visit at any time of year is always a mystical experience: floating out onto the water in our expansive rowboat, mist rising around us, the quiet solitude of pre-dawn giving way to the first sounds of a new day’s activities.
The incredible thing about Varanasi is that there always seems to be some celebration or festival whenever you visit. Combine the fact that it is one of the holiest cities and that there are so many gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon and then factor in that there are only 365 days in a year. Chances are good that you’ll see something awe-inspiring every day and night of the year.
It was on one such occasion that my group and I chanced upon something wondrous. Our North India trip was featuring Pushkar, yet another very important religious festival in the desert state of Rajasthan, that November. However, as luck would have it, we arrived in Varanasi just in time for the Chhat Puja. The Chhat what? The Chhat Puja is the celebration of the sun, or “Lord Sun”. Pilgrims from all around India had gathered on the ghats of the Ganga to welcome the arrival of a new day.
Waking very early that morning, we made our way through the winding alleys of the city toward the banks of the river where we boarded our boat in the pre-dawn darkness. Our rower and his 11-year old son and helper navigated our vessel toward the site of the main ghats and the bulk of the festival-goers. The near silence of the pre-dawn slowly gave way to the growing hubbub of voices and the view of the ghats that were literally heaving with humanity. Occasional fireworks shot over the heads of the crowds and exploded in loud reports amongst the waterside buildings, briefly illuminating the river and the sheer depth of the multitude present.
We were alternately propelled against the current by our captain and then left to float amongst the gentle current, all the while soaking in the otherworldly atmosphere we had happened upon. Other boats of tourists, Indian and foreigners both, glided past us as we cruised parallel to the banks of the Ganga. Occasional boats piloted by would-be salesmen sidled up to ours in an effort to tout the value of their postcards, playing cards, Shiva figurines and other rupee-a-dozen wares.
All of this was taking place as the sky unveiled the first hints of dawn. With each passing minute you could sense the swelling anticipation of the gathered masses as the time to sunrise grew near. A collective mumble gave way to a louder and louder clamour as the initial pinks and reds of first light approached. Many of us found ourselves holding our breaths as the voice of the crowd escalated to a high pitch of celebration and the sun emerged from the haze that obscured the horizon. The delight of thousands of voices broke over us as we all, tourist and pilgrim alike, turned to the sunrise.
Our guide and captain allowed a few more moments of contemplation and then, as our collective spell slowly dissolved, we eased back down the river to our docking point. Another day had begun. Locals bathed in the waters of the river, women laundered their colourful saris, Rhesus monkeys clambered along balconies, and we disembarked to make our way through more of the maze-like alleys of Varanasi, heading for our hotel and a breakfast well deserved.
Posted on April 1st, 2009 No comments
Poland? Why would anyone want to go to Poland?
Castles, Catholics and Krakow
Few countries have a history more turbulent than Poland’s. With one castle built for each of its 1,000 years of history, the undying spirit of the people is evidenced all over the countryside. Constantly invaded and overrun, the Poles have managed to maintain their cultural identity amidst a fragmented history. Their tumultuous heritage is proudly exhibited in moving museums, inspiring, monuments, and a multitude of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Fortresses built by ancient dynasties and feudal kingdoms have been restored to unrivalled grandeur providing an exciting glimpse into Mediaeval Europe. The marks of history are etched into the modern existence of a nation emerging from modern dark times.
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One constant throughout Poland’s often painful past has been the Roman Catholic Church. Devotion is expressed everywhere, from Renaissance churches, to roadside shrines, to holy processions through every town and village. A people strongly united behind one another, the Poles have celebrated their faith since the nation’s inception, throughout oppression and in times of peace. The ritualistic nature of Catholicism is nowhere better experienced than at Poland’s most holy site, Czestochowa, where pilgrims gather round the clock to worship. It is difficult not to get caught up in the movingly open expression of faith so rarely seen in Western religion. A country so often left defeated in war now constantly demonstrates the power of religion.
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Most everyone falls in love with at least one of Poland’s great cities. A major trading centre and former seat of the kings, Krakow encompasses the power of hope in post-communist Europe. Artistic freedom and market liberalisation has created a most appealing setting for exploration of the country’s history, as well as all the indulgences of modern city life. Bursting with restaurants, exhibitions, attractive architecture, and entertainment, Krakow has incorporated an often painful past with a bright and exciting future. Virtually every day sees another festival celebrated, providing ample opportunity to soak up the unique atmosphere and sample the local delights. One of Europe’s great cities, it will leave you aching to return.
Exploring Poland is emotional and fulfilling. Its accelerated transformation from communist afterthought to European success story is inspiring. This is the time to experience Poland and the opportunity should not be missed.
Posted on March 17th, 2009 No comments
Leading the tour of Ethiopia during the Timkat (Epiphany) Festival this past January was amazing. The whole country goes NUTS! We were in Lalibela for the actual festival and waited along the edge of the spectacular rock-hewn Church of St.George for the procession of the tabots (replicas of the Ark of the Covenant) to begin. Not utilizing modern technology, the priests of each individual church signal to the other that they are ready by blowing loudly on a horn. When they finally decided they were ready, it was complete chaos. We followed the procession for the next two hours and it was unforgettable. There’s no way to stay together as you all get caught up in the crowd, but that’s the fun part. So much going on and so much colour! Music, chanting, pushing, laughter, and chaos!
The festival in Lalibela was great, but what I’ll never forget was our drive the following day when we drove through scores of tiny little villages and towns having their own Timkat celebration and more often than not, our vehicles would get surrounded by locals caught up in the frenzy of the festivities. At one point, my vehicle was completely surrounded by local men all chanting and jumping up and down while waving sticks in the air. They seemed thrilled to have foreigners there to watch and everywhere we went we were greated with cheers and smiles.
What a beautiful country. It certainly doesn’t live up to any stereotype or preconception I might have had. For me Ethiopia is far from a desert-like country plagued by famine. To me it is gorgeous mountain scenery, unique wildlife, waterfalls, rivers, strange food, great music, a unique culture, and a bizarre and fascinating history bordering on mythology.
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