Jesse and I just returned from a whirlwind 3 weeks filled with endless plates of dahl baht (the local dish of rice & veggies), countless cups of tea, smiling children with runny noses, and strange glances at the Amazonian blond girl.
The adventure began in Kathmandu, a mass of humanity that assaults your senses on every level. There are people and motorbikes swarming around you, cars honking, people yelling, smells of spices, smoke and urine, an energy so palpable you can almost touch it. We visited beautiful Hindu and Buddhist temples, stupas and shrines and the impact of their religion is felt in every aspect of life.
We also visited Pashupati which is where Hindus bring their dead to be burned on funeral pyres next to the river and later sweep the ashes into the water. The government kindly provides the wood for this. What struck me was the group of local onlookers sitting on the other side of the river just casually observing families getting rid of what they call "the used vessels" of their loved ones. Everything has a public, community feel to it here even death.
In the States, as you get older and are no longer a sexy teenager who attracts all sorts of whistles, you acquire the gift of anonymity, the ability to walk down the street or go into a store or restaurant, and have no one really notice you are there, if you don't want. Here, in China, anonymity is totally impossible and you are rather like Ling Ling in the Washington Zoo. Last night at dinner, a little girl spent the entire time on her haunches in front of my table just staring at me. At the botanical garden, I was rarer than the rarest plant.
Tea - It turns out that Xishuangbanna has one of China's 10 great teas - Puer Tea, that sells for $90/kilo. There is a clunk of this tea about the size of Charlie Brown's great pumpkin that is 1000 years old and resides in the Beijing Museum. Here in the area there is a tea tree that is 1700 years old, and people trek through the jungle to pay it homage. They no longer pick the leaves. Rather, like a good stud horse, it has been left to thrive in the rainforest.
They make tea a bit differently here, rolling the leaves into small clumps that open up in hot water. Every Chinese has his special tea bottle of some strange color with all sorts of leaves floating around. What I can't figure out is why, with all the good tea in the area, all restaurants serve the low grade teas of a very uncertain color.
This fall, I had the pleasure of leading one of our most popular trips - Mountains, Monkeys & Books - to have our travelers see what READ does in Nepal.For me, perhaps the highlight of the trip was when Tim, looking for all the world like Crocodile Dundee, walked into the bar at Gaida Wildlife Resort with a snake coiled around his arm and the head between his fingers while the snake's tongue and teeth were frantically trying to find something to bite. The bartender headed for the door, and Ram and Dukhi Ram stared for a minute at both Tim and the snake, and then made clear that it was a very poisonous "Khorat"! Tim explained that it had slithered around his bathroom, headed for the bedroom under Kimberly's suitcase, forcing him to pull it out by the tail towards that bathroom again, where he chased and caught it. When he went outside to show one of the staff at Gaida, the guy took off running down the path as fast as he could.
Ram and Dukhi Ram (two of the naturalists) were stunned, commenting that they knew that there were khorats in the area, but in the 20+ years they had been at Gaida, they had never had a poisonous snake on the property. Tim coolly and calmly took the snake outside and heaved it, with the accuracy of Bret Favre, towards the river away from the resort. That little exploit will live in the annals of Gaida for a long time!
"I'm going to Madagascar!" I'd tell people gleefully."The movie?""No, THE COUNTRY."
And people would scratch their head, not quite knowing where Madagascar is on the map. So let me help you. Just wander over 12,000 miles by plane (approximately 26 hours of flying and 10 hours of layovers in Dallas and Paris), through 3 continents and enough time zones to screw up your sleeping patterns for at least a week. Madagascar is a country just east of South Africa, separated by the Mozambique Channel on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, an island that floats peacefully isolated and is blissfully ignorant of the rest of the world.
I was honored to be invited to travel there by Conservation International and the Madagascar Tourism Board as one of only 10 international tour operators that best represent responsible tourism practices in the world. The 10-day itinerary was designed for us to hit the ground running from Day 1, and for the next nine days, we scoured the country testing standards for hotels, guiding practices, infrastructure, etc, often with schedules that got us up and running from 5:30 am and had us straggling into our hotel rooms well after 10 pm. The final verdict: it is in desperate need of reformation, but is making the right strides to get there...eventually.
HELLO from Guayaquil! We returned to Guayaquillast night after a week in the amazing Galapagos Islands.I've never experienced more tame wildlife in my life. After so many years aboutreading about this place, it was a treat for us to finally come and spend ourhoneymoon here. Just us and a few thousand of the world's most friendlywildlife species!
We went diving one day and swamwith hammerhead sharks (which was a bit scary for me, but exhilarating),numerous marine turtles, white tip reef sharks, sting rays, sea lions and more.Unlike the graceful reef sharks, the hammerheads are so quick so you never knowwhere they are. The best was swimming with a sea lion at the end of oursecond dive. He was so curious about us, playfully checking us out with hishuge eyes swimming around and underneath us. He was especially curious aboutKevin. A Galapagos turtle came mask to nose with me before heading over to ourdive master and taking a playful bite out of his head. It was as if he had apersonal vendetta with the dive master! Fortunately he was fine.