Monday Memories: India and Bhutan

In 2017, my goal was to visit northern India from west to east, and then the small country of Bhutan. Only my daily journal could capture all I experienced during this trip. It was a fascinating experience and I have hopes of returning to see all of India some day.

Here’s a capsule of the adventure. After arriving in New Delhi, India, walking through various neighborhoods with our guide and seeing historic buildings, we headed toward the India – Pakistan border to watch the daily military ceremony referred to as a “border ceremony”. In the city of Amritsar, where the famous Golden Temple – a religious complex of the Sikh religion – is, I had unique experience with a local man who had poor vision. While helping him cross an area with road barriers, he and I talked. I invited him to join me for a soda or tea. I located a place to have our drink, much to the surprise of the shop owner and adolescent boys sitting in the shop, but my new friend and I had a good conversation.

Our tour continued north to Dharamshala where exiled Tibetan people live and work. The Dalai Lama resides here too when he is not speaking around the world. I loved seeing the Himalayan Mountains once again; last seen in 2001. Shops here support the Tibetan culture and handicrafts.

Women spinning wool.

We returned to New Delhi for a few more days and touring, then flew to Darjeeling, famous for its tea cultivation. While the streets of New Delhi and Delhi are hectic with wandering cows, people with push carts, wires hanging everywhere from poles, I appreciated people allowing me to photograph them; one man even asked that I photograph him! People in the countryside provided permission for me to photograph them too. But it was while I was in a moving vehicle that I caught sight of a man at his roadside dental appointment. Along that wall, many businesses were conducted.

I bought tea while in Darjeeling, relaxed in the British flair of this city, but I wanted to return to the Himalayan Mountains and visit Bhutan! Bhutan caps the number of visitors entering their country and maintains some traditions to hold on to their culture. Bhutan is a very small country between two super powers: India and China. It is an environmentally aware country and known for its “Gross National Happiness” philosophy. I asked for a specific example of where the people’s happiness and decision of the government may influence that philosophical index. Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and many workers live on the other side of the mountain and have an hour’s drive to work each day. Workers wanting a shorter drive requested the government build a tunnel through the mountain. The government thought it best to use the construction money to build paved roads throughout the country to help a larger number of people, and thus did not build a tunnel. Great example, and roads were being built mostly by Indian workers throughout the country.

Thimphu is the main city; however, just outside of it you will see a huge statue of Buddha that has many more Buddhas within it. The countryside is beautiful and at one point we did stop to talk with a nomad.

We stayed in Paro, Bhutan for a couple of days so we could climb to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a sacred Buddhist site. It requires an entire day to drive about 10 miles to the site, climb the 2 miles up to the monastery with an elevation gain of 1700 feet, and be at 10,232 feet where the air is thin. No vehicles are in this area, one must climb. It was worth the hike!

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Two men from Bhutan will always remain in my memory. In my wandering I started speaking with a young man asking about his work. He acknowledged he was a young artist, but his job now was to sell the owner’s art work. I asked to see what he had drawn and I bought a piece of his work. Today it is framed and hangs on my wall. The other man was carving wood with his feet. I learned Bhutan’s Queen Jetsun Pema supports people living with disabilities and he has gained a thriving business as a result of Her Majesty’s support.

There are so many more memories of my visit to India and Bhutan, but I have kept these for now along with a fraction of photos taken during this trip. Someday I will return and create new memories. People have asked why I did not go to the Taj Mahal, etc. My answer: those areas are so over-run with tourists and I believe I will be able to visit them while in a wheel chair. On this trip I wanted to go where I had to hike to see the sites.

Never in my mind did I think there would be a global pandemic, as we have happening now, where country borders and sites are closed. I am so glad I traveled when I did. I look forward to more travel in the future.

Monday Memories: Poland

As I look back on 2019, I am thrilled I did not put off international travel to save money for future trips: New Zealand, Australia, the Arctic and Antartica. On this trip to Poland I had an opportunity to volunteer for a week with Habitat for Humanity (H4H) in Gliwice, Poland. Once realizing I was flying from western USA to Poland, I decided to travel on my own prior to my H4H responsibility.

I arrived in Warsaw, Poland and spent a few days joining walking tours to learn about and understand Poland’s history. I walked around the city which has so many museums and places to visit, such as the POLIN Museum about the history of the Polish Jewish community and the Warsaw Rising Museum, just to mention a couple of museums. I was glad to return to this city for a couple of days before flying home at the end of this trip, especially to decompress while walking through the Royal Łazienki Park.

Walk the city of Warsaw and see where the ghetto wall held in the Jewish people.

My travel around the country was by train so I could talk with people and see the countryside while traveling. Polish people were very friendly and there were interesting small towns and beautiful fields along the way to Gdańsk on the Baltic Sea. Buildings here were more colorful than Warsaw and the Museum of the Second World War was definitely worth visiting. I took the train to Sopot and Gdynia for a day trip. Sopot was unbelievably crowded and Gydnia’s Emigration Museum telling the history of migrating Poles was worth visiting.

My two favorite meals while in Poland were pierogies stuffed with potato and cheese, cooked in boiling water and not pan-fried, and kielbasa and sauerkraut. I was becoming a critic of the best of each during my 3 weeks in Poland and loved eating it all!

There were so many cities to visit in Poland, yet I hop off the train in Wrocław. As you stand in the main square of this city, you’ll see the Gothic Old Town Hall with its astronomical clock and have plenty of time to people watch. I loved looking for the gnomes around the city … visit to find out the history and importance of these characters.

After a few days I visited Kraków. As you stand in its main square you see the Cloth Hall and the 14th century Gothic church: St. Mary’s Basilica, where I also attended an evening organ concert. The Rynek Underground Museum was interesting and the walking tours about Jewish history were informative. There is plenty to do in Kraków and it is an easy city to walk.

I joined a day tour to learn more about the Holocaust and the Nazi crimes against Poles at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau sites. While some buildings are not open to the public, one clearly feels the horror that occurred at these places. The shoes, luggage and hair collected, the sleeping areas, electric fences, cattle cars which brought people in to these concentration camps, and the crematoriums were just horrifying to see knowing now the history. Another day I toured the Wieliczka Salt Mine where all statues, etc are carved into the salt. It was a good way to decompress after being at the camps the day before.

I met the team of Global Village/Habitat for Humanity volunteers in Krakow and we traveled to Gliwice, northwest of Kraków. For the next 5 days we helped renovate some old buildings to eventually house teenagers with addiction issues. We met and had dinner with some of the young people at their current site. Our work during the day was plastering walls or pulling up old flooring. Our hard-working crews accomplished so much in the short time; however, it may be a year before all work is complete … and that was the prediction before Covid-19 became real.

I returned to Warsaw. I flew home thankful for the opportunity to volunteer my time and energy to a worthy project and also visit a country I had wished to visit someday. Now in 2020 I wonder when my international travel will resume. Only time will tell as the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

Travel Need Not be Expensive, If You Wish

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the thought of local or international travel is maddening because I cannot get a handle on when the world will be safe to travel within six feet of another person and without a facial mask. I have to hope a vaccine is available in early 2021 so my travel plans for that year are also not on the cancellation list as this year’s trips. However, this is a good time to remind ourselves travel need not be expensive. And when we get back to travel, we have some adventures to plan and get going on!

When I think about any travel anywhere, I want to explore a place, be outdoors where possible, learn about the culture, interact with local people, and feel as though if I do not return I have a good feel for the place; these are my priorities. I know if my list included all-inclusive resort, first class air tickets and other high priced desires during my travel then the trip price would surely soar. Fortunately, they are not my priorities.

So what do I do? Here are some approaches for me to keep my travel price tag to what I can afford and still enjoy my adventure:

  • Ahead of the trip decision to go or not, I research the area I plan to travel so I know what I should not miss while there. If I am interested in the sometimes “tourist trap”, I add it on my travel plan list of options. I also love maps so I will circle areas to spend more time.
  • I take a look at what local companies in the place are visiting and may add some of their interesting places to visit. I also know many cities have free walking tours so I scout them out when eventually in the city. (“Free” means you donate what you wish to the local tour leader.)
  • I love knowing what food is cooked and enjoyed by the locals. Most often I shop in local markets or food stores for my essential snacks. When buying a meal, I usually have a delicious lunch to serve as my big meal of the day. (This is an advantage of solo travel since many enjoy their big meal later. But later for me means cheese and wine and time to relax, journal and watch a sunset.)
Olives piled high in a conical shape at a market with so many varieties of olives.
Love the choices here!
  • International travel allows me more options to consider hostels for my lodging. I am not a fan of paying a high price to sleep. If reviews indicate the hostel is in a good location for foot travel to public transportation, safe and clean, that works for me. I will admit no breakfast is great at a hostel and sometime even with only 4 other people in the hostel room I do not get the ideal sleep, so I will slip in some bed and breakfast or inexpensive hotel room stays during a trip. (Hostels do have single rooms so look for that option too. Others love VRBO, Air BNB, couch surfing … choose what works for you.)
  • Book air flights and transportation yourself. Most often I do not book through third party sites due to the frustration I have with them in needing any changes. However, I do watch for lower prices for travel on “off days”, other discount options, senior specials and would rather have flights with appropriate layover time and the seat I want than simply a cheap air fare price. Transportation within a country is usually on local trains, buses and taxis or I have walked or bicycled various cities to get around. (I carry one backpack to easily maneuver steps to and from places. Rolling bags and more luggage have their disadvantages at times. Keep it simple.)
  • Learning some basic phrases to communicate beyond a smile and hand gestures does help, even from someone like me who finds foreign languages difficult. When in local markets or stores is the best time to discover any special events that are happening. Often evening performances are held at parks or cathedrals and I learn about it from locals.
  • Travelers may cut this cost; however, I buy travel insurance to protect against cancellations, theft, etc and travel health insurance that insures for emergency evacuation for medical and disaster assistance. (Fortunately I was not traveling when the pandemic began, but I was glad to know if I was I had an option for assistance.)
  • There are so many tour companies around the world offering wonderful experiences at various prices. I have been on some tours that will remain memorable and it is possible to include some of your own plans before and/or after those tours. Before the tour it allows you also to recover from jet lag and get a sense of the new area. After the tour, you have gained a comfort with the local customs, food, or know of some places you wish to spend more time wandering about. Do it!
Man wood carving and using his feet to do so.
Revisit him and watch him create!

There you have it or at least how I approach my travel planning. The bottomline is make your plan work for you. Combine your plan with others or an organized tour, if that is what you want. Splurge where you want! It’s your trip to enjoy and at a price tag you are comfortable with so you can travel some more. Your next trip you may want to include that camel ride!

Shadow of people riding camels.
Travel on!