Friday, August 31, 2012

Two More Carnegies

Paso Robles, California

I am thrilled California has taken steps to save the remaining Carnegie Libraries in the state.  They are all architectural gems and the ones in Paso Robles and Lompoc are fine examples of the Classical Revival style or the "temple in a park" that Andrew Carnegie so supported.  The Paso Robles Carnegie, located in the historic plaza of Paso Robles, is now the home of the historical society.  I had the opportunity this week to stop by and was given a private tour by Wayne Harris, an erudite gentleman who held me spellbound with stories of the town's past and his own colorful history.

His family moved here in the 1800's by covered wagon and started ranching.  One ancestor had his leg amputated due to a bite from a grizzly bear.  Another one was lynched as a Salem Witch.  He showed me a book he had written filled with the hardships he and his family endured.  He gives a guided "Tour of the Hills", which I would love to take when I have more time.  Contact Wayne at 805-286-6032 to schedule a tour of the geological, historical and Native American sites around Paso Robles.

I continue to find connections between my area of the world and California.  Did you know one of the founders of Paso Robles was Drury Woodson James?  He owned a ranch and a hot springs resort and stories abound about hiding his nephew, Jesse James, at his ranch.  One time, after being shot, Jesse (with his brother Frank) came to heal his wounds in the hot sulfur water.  Amazing.

Lompoc, California

Lompoc's Carnegie Library is so cute it's almost an architectural folly.  It, too, houses a museum, but is only open for a few hours every afternoon.  The museum has a fine collection of Native American artifacts.  This little Greek Temple was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bubblegum Alley

My travel buddy refused to go with me.  "That's beyond gross," he said.  "You're on your own."    So off I went to San Luis Obispo to see this gorgeous, gooey, smelly, disgusting, fascinating concoction of gum graffiti.  I was blown away!  Two walls of a narrow alley in downtown SLO are covered in wads of bubblegum--the more colorful and the more fruity the better.  I got a strong whiff of apple and watermelon as I walked through this artistic installation.

The local population has mixed opinions about this place.  After all, it's right smack dab in the middle of charming Higuera Street.  (The 700 block)   The walls have been cleaned a few times, but within a month, the wads of gum are back.  The town has finally given up.  Crazy tourists like me show up and then go have a cup of coffee and a bite to eat.  It's not bad for business.

 SLO is fast becoming one of my favorite cities in California.  Bubblegum Alley is worth a detour if you're traveling up the 101.  It's a spontaneous collaboration of creativity among amateurs and professionals alike. Be sure to chew a gumball or two.   Defacing a wall has never been so fun!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Burma: Then and Now

And so the question remains:  Should I return to this beautiful country to see all the changes that have occurred within the last 24 years, or should I go to Cambodia and explore the ruins of Angkor Wat, a place I have never seen?  I would like to do both, but time and money are limited.  I am very torn.

Two of the many travel magazines I subscribe to have published "returning to" stories.  Jacques and Jeanine Prosper wrote an article for the July 2012 issue of International Travel News entitled, "Revisiting Myanmar--the difference a decade makes," and Brook Larmer wrote "Come You Back to Mandalay" for the September issue of Conde Nast Traveler.

Burma, of course, is now known as Myanmar.  Rangoon, the former capital, is now Yangon.  The new capital with modern architecture is Nay Pyi Taw.  Pagan is now Bagan.  The list of changes goes on and on.  The isolationism, paranoia and political/economic woes have eased.  The country is welcoming foreign tourists with open arms.  New hotels, restaurants and airports are being built.

We were closely watched on our tour in 1988.   Our itinerary was restricted to Rangoon, Pagan and Mandalay.  Independent travel was strictly forbidden.  Even when my travel buddy and I strayed from the group, we were rounded up by our guide like wayward sheep.  Our poor guide in Mandalay had an hysterical fit when she found out we escaped from our hotel room one evening to watch the sun set on the Irrawaddy River.

Fear is never good.  I would like to witness the new freedom allowed the people.  I would like to explore on my own.  I would like to see the vanished royal city of Mrauk U with its recent excavations and see the Yele Pagoda.  But should I go back?  Do I really want to?  The memories of my trip to Burma are still in vivid technicolor despite the passing of time.  I have returned to special places before, trying to recreate the magic and it never happened.  I have come to realize that travel, to me, is creating new memories and exploring new places.  So, no, I will not go back.  I will continue to read with pleasure the stories from other writers.  Angkor Wat is next.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

World's Largest Book

I climbed all one thousand steps to the top of Mandalay Hill for this incredible view of  the Kuthodaw Pagoda and its surrounding walls of Buddhist text.  This complex is called "The World's Largest Book" because it comprises 730 stone tablets of canon.  As much as I love the statues of Buddha, this monument honors his teachings more than anything else I have seen.

Work began on the tablets in 1860 on the orders of King Mindon.  The British had already invaded Southern Burma and he was concerned about what would happen to all the temples.  It took eight years and a collaborative effort between monks, scribes and stone masons to put the entire text on stone.  Each marble tablet is five feet tall and inscribed on both the front and the back with gold ink.  Each stone was then placed inside an "inscription cave" and arranged in rows.

As the king predicted, British troops moved north and looting and disfigurement of the temples occurred.  Fortunately, Queen Victoria put a stop to this behavior and restoration began anew in 1892.  The inscriptions have been re-inked several times.

I wandered through the rows in complete awe of the craftsmanship that went into this monument.  I could not read the script, of course, but the intricate, curving calligraphy is beautiful-a masterpiece of literature and art.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Buddhas of Myanmar

During my travels in Thailand and Myanmar, I took many photographs of Buddhist art.  The enormity of the statues, as well as the gold, enthralled me.  There were happy Buddhas, sad Buddhas, fat ones and bony ones.  Some were young and beautiful and others were old and ravaged.  I could not get enough of them, and believe me, there were plenty!

I had, of course, a rudimentary knowledge of Buddhism.  I had read a biography of Siddhartha Gautama and knew about the Four Noble Truths, but I didn't know any practicing Buddhists.  It wasn't until our trip to Bagan that our guide, Edwin, spoke about his beliefs with a thoughtfulness that I remember to this day.  He was very upset when he saw people praying in front of a Buddhist statue.  He made it very clear to us that Buddha was not a god.  He does not answer prayers or acknowledge favors.  The statues were created out of respect for his teachings

  "They are there to remind us to lead a moral life, to not be ambitious, and to curtail desire."  During the course of the day, his honesty unsettled me a bit.  He told us that sometimes the Buddhist way of life was very difficult to follow.  "I try not to want things and I succeed most of the time.  It's hard when I see tourists like you with expensive cameras and nice clothes," he admitted.  "And  I try not to be angry.   But Buddha also taught us not to worry and this I cannot do.  I worry all the time.  I worry about my children and I worry about my job."  I nodded.  I understood whole heartedly.  He shrugged.  "I am a human being."

In Thailand I realized I had made a mistake when I gave a guide a large tip at the end of a three-day trek.  He did not want to accept it, but I insisted.  "Please buy something for your children," I said.  He was very flustered and embarrassed by my offer.  I did not make this mistake with Edwin.  Buddha taught us to be mindful of the feelings of others.  We may mean well, but we must think before we speak.  I simply shook Edwin's hand and thanked him for a wonderful day.


Friday, August 24, 2012

A Burmese Market

Mimi is dressed and ready to go again!

And that is the question, isn't it?  As someone who loves to travel, but has limited resources, do I revisit a fascinating country like Burma, or go to a new one?  This is a topic of conversation I have with many fellow travelers and something I intend to discuss in depth on future postings.  Which kind of traveler are you?  Do you have a "bucket list" or do you go back to one particular country again and again?  E-mail me your answer.  Mimi and I have opposing points of view.  We would love to hear from you!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Burmese Festival

After touring the ruins of old Bagan, our guide picked us up with a big grin on his face.  "I have a special treat for you," he said.  "The villagers are honoring the local monks with a festival and we are invited."

The streets were lined with people displaying elaborate bowls of food and trees of paper money.  Giant puppets followed the monks down the streets.  To me, the happy faces of the children, is what made it a "treat".  Their laughter was contagious.

The monks rely on the generosity of the people to survive.  What they received that day would provide them money and food for several months.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Flying into Bagan

I'm not a good flyer.  I've learned over the years to stay calm because I love to travel.  If I'm going to visit countries half way around the world, I have to get on an airplane--there's just no way around it.   I've tried everything from reading thrillers to taking sleeping pills, but nothing relieves the anxiety.  I've learned to breathe deeply and deal with my racing heart and sweaty hands.  Sooner or later, I will arrive at my destination and everything will be all right.  With that being said, there have been times when the flying has been so enchanting, I actually didn't want to land.  Flying into the ancient kingdom of Bagan in Myanmar was such an experience.

Two thousand ruins dotted the vast plains below with the graceful curves of  the Irrawaddy River serving as a corridor through this utterly mysterious place.  I wanted the old Fokker we were flying to circle and circle and circle again.  I wanted to tour Bagan from the sky.  Pick out the Dhammayangyi Temple and the Shwezigon Pagoda from up high.  For the few minutes we took to land, my fear of flying vanished.

We climbed the top of the nearest ruin as soon as we landed in order to get another panoramic view.  We came face to face with another world, equally as mysterious and foreign--the black market.   The view from the top was great, but so was the exchange rate!  We got 25 kyat for the dollar, rather than the official rate of 7.5.  We descended one ruin and climbed another.  Again, the view was great, but so was the bartering.  This time we traded cigarettes for a guidebook, a set of weights and two lacquer boxes.  Atop the next ruin I traded a bottle of Johnnie Walker for a wooden puppet. 

The year was 1988 and Myanmar was still called Burma.  The country was under Ne Win's isolationist rule.  The only way we could even travel here was to get a short seven-day visa and tour the country with an official guide.  The black market provided the country with needed supplies.  No one cared that goods were being smuggled in.  The infrastructure had deteriorated and I wrote in my journal, "Time has stopped.  We have landed in 1960."

While we were there the government announced that all 20, 50 and 100 kyat notes were no longer legal tender.  The banks closed for two days and the Burmese economy was crippled even further.  Our guide told us he hadn't been paid in a month and our driver told us his company had no cash for gas.  My travel buddy and I were one of the lucky ones.  Our black marketeers had come through.  We had good currency.  Some of our fellow tourists lost hundreds of dollars.

Many things have changed since we were there, but the ruins of Bagan remain a draw for tourists.  The Kingdom of Pagan reached its zenith between the 11th and 13th centuries.  Over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built during this time.  It was a religious and cultural center until it was overrun by Kublai Khan's invading forces.

I have read with interest current reports of travelers' experiences there.  Even today, it is advisable not to exchange very many dollars.  Dollars are accepted many places, but be sure to take crisp, unmarked bills.  If they are damaged in any way, locals will not take them.

Flying into Bagan remains one of my most enjoyable trips.   The architecture, frescoes and sacred shrines are all beautifully decayed, much like the ruins in Cambodia.  Best of all, I actually looked forward to getting back on the plane for another view of this incredible place.  Would I go again?  In a heartbeat, sweaty palms and all.