Thursday, August 2, 2018

Why it is More Important Now Than Ever to Break Down Barriers Between Cultures

"Wherever you go, go with all your heart”―Confucius. During his travels, the wise Confucius collected 'Songs of the People' which he used in his teachings. Now, more than ever, it is important for us to travel to foreign lands to gain an understanding of other cultures. We must open our hearts and minds to the similarities that unite us, to the differences that intrigue us and to learning from one another. Once people realize that you are interested in their way of life, they open up to you:  they share their food and they share their smiles. You forever have a vested interest in a country and people you never did before, because now you have friends.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Road Tripping Through History: Those Who Aren't Forgotten

History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul. - Lord Acton

The Cagots

During the 13th century there were a group of people in Southwestern France known as the Cagots. The Cagots were of an unknown origin with speculation that they may have descended from the Visigoths who conquered the Romans during the 4th century, or the offspring of Moors who once occupied this region. No one knows the exact reason why, but the Cagots were deemed untouchable and cast off to the malarial side of the river. They were not allowed to walk around with bare feet like the other peasants could, leading to speculation that they had webbed toes. Because of this, they had to display a goose foot on their lapel so that everyone knew they were ‘different.’ When they went to church to worship, they had to enter through a side door, had their own separate font and had to take communion on long wooden spoons so the clergymen would not have to get near them. Because of the severe rules placed upon them, the only trades they were allowed to practice were to be the drawers of water and the hewers of wood. All of these restrictions were placed upon the Cagots from the 13th century all the way until the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799). Still, not much is known of them as they were so ashamed of who they were because of how they were treated, they destroyed their own history. We drove from church to church in all of the small towns of Southwestern France trying to figure out if the side entrances were the ones once used by them, and even if they weren’t, it still opened a door to history and got us thinking about the unfortunate circumstances of an entire group of people.

Gurs Internment Camp

Also in the Southwest region of France, but years after the demise of the Cagots, there was an internment camp built in 1939. This camp was built to house Spaniards fleeing Franco, Basque nationalists, German Jewish, gypsies, homosexuals and many more. Upon arriving at the camp, the initial wave of sadness falls upon you as you see the railroad tracks leading directly to the camp. The images of people packed in train cars not knowing where they were going, wondering what the fear was like in their minds or if some of them knew they may not ever come back, was too much to bear. As we walked around silently looking at the gravestones of those who were lost, you couldn’t help but wonder who they could’ve been. Did they ever know what it felt like to be in love? Did they experience the world before they were taken too soon? One man was eighty five years old when he passed away in that camp, having lived his whole life only to perish in such a manner. There was also a little baby named Ella who never got to experience life because of where and when she was born. In 1946, after 63,929 were interred there, the camp was closed, but the memories of what happened to these people will be etched upon our hearts forever.


Since time immemorial, the Basque people have met at the oak tree of Guernica to create their fueros, which are basic codes by which their people lived their lives accordingly. When kings and queens of the past needed the help of the Basque people, they would meet at the oak tree here. On April 26, 1937, Francisco Franco had the town of Guernica destroyed through an aerial bombardment with the help of German and Italian troops. Most of the people in this quaint little town had never seen airplanes or tanks, so the confusion and fear they must have felt upon seeing something so foreign to them must have been palpable. Unfortunately for the people of this town and the surrounding areas, the bombing took place on market day. All of the people from the nearby villages had gathered in the town to sell and purchase goods, which meant many innocent civilians lost their lives. Pablo Picasso created a work of art in memory of this fateful occurrence, and through his genius, was able to encapsulate the chaos and tragedy of this event in history. The oak tree remains, in part anyhow, but it was one of the only pieces of this town still standing. Seeing Guernica today, eighty one years later, it speaks to life being resilient. Nature rebuilds itself, and in the end we realize that we all want the same things out of life. We all want to survive and to love and to be a part of something greater than ourselves. The reason for visiting the scenes of our haunting past is so that we remember what people gave to stand up for what they believed in, or that innocents are casualties of war, or that people were, and still are, persecuted for their lineage. Those that were lost are never forgotten, and their sacrifice may bring a greater appreciation for life in knowing what others had to go through so that we may flourish in our own lives.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Great Gatsby & Good Gaudi, There are Sea Creatures Blanketing the Water!

"The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."- Jacques Cousteau 

On our second day in Barcelona, we were set for sailing! It was supposed to be a rainy day, but the clouds somehow never formed, and the day was sunny and warm. We had booked our first Airbnb excursion with a man named Captain Deo, who teaches you how to sail the Mediterranean. Captain Deo used to own his own tapas bar until he decided to lead a more tranquil lifestyle, live on his boat and take people on sailing excursions. Once we got out on the water, we noticed thousands of what we thought were jellyfish, blanketing the water. Even our captain was mesmerized, for he said he had never seen anything like it even though he sails those waters nearly daily. It turns out, they weren't jellyfish, but hydrozoans closely related to the Portuguese Man O' War, but not dangerous to humans. These little creatures are also called 'By the Wind Sailors' since they have a little sort of sail protruding from the top of their body which helps them naturally glide through open water. Two days after our sail, these invertebrates washed up on the shore, thousands dead. Barcelona beaches invaded by swarms of strange blue creatures. Even with the invasion of the sea creatures, we had an idyllic day at sea with our capable captain.

"I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect. And it's these things I'd believe in, even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn't all she should be."- F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Great Gatsby.

One place that we had heard about upon arriving in Barcelona was Paradiso Pastrami Bar. It's a faux sandwich shop on the front end, but once you walk into the 'meat locker' you are in a speakeasy. Even though prohibition took place in the United States and ended in 1933, there is something that ignites a childlike playfulness within you when you walk in and ask for a pastrami sandwich and end up going through a secret entrance into a low lit retro bar. The drink selection was inscribed on an illuminated menu, and each cocktail was a masterpiece created by artists of alcohol who really knew how to put on a show. One drink, The Great Gatsby, was served in an etched crystal tumbler inside of a clear glass cake dome in which they inserted a tube that injected smoke infused with chocolate and tobacco, creating a grand showpiece befitting of the Great Gatsby. But, the very best part is that you can legitimately order a delicious pastrami sandwich or Charcuterie board that was seriously pure heaven on earth! One tip I would suggest, sit at the bar so you can watch the show!

"Nothing is invented, for it's written in nature first."-Antoni Gaudi

 Sagrada Familia was a project that Antoni Gaudi took on about a year after its inception in 1883. Gaudi used the fundamental design of nature in all of the aspects of his work, and in this case is so clearly represented. The Nativity facade tells the story of the birth of Christ as written in stone and as seen through the eyes of this visionary. One panel includes a tortoise and a turtle in order to represent land and sea being set in stone and unchangeable throughout time. On the same facade, and symbolizing the idea of change, are two chameleons. This Basilica is so rooted in nature that it looks like it was built out of wet sand. Inside, there are towering white columns that this architect so ingeniously made to look like stone Sequoia trees that have been growing for thousands of years. Toward the end of his life, Gaudi moved into the structure so he could work on his gift to God day and night. He had no time for taking care of himself, only for making his masterpiece come to life. One day Gaudi left Sagrada Familia and was hit by a tram and no one recognized him because he hadn't been keeping up with appearances. He ended up passing away in 1926, his dream unfinished, and now being carried out to fruition by several different architects. The anticipated completion date is 2026, thus honoring Gaudi during the centennial of his death.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

I Want to Ride my Bicycle to See the House of the Queen

Upon arriving in Barcelona, we found it to be quite simple to hop on a bus to the area of the city where our Airbnb was located, the El Born neighborhood. It was inexpensive and easy, so I would highly suggest doing so if you are trying to keep your trip low cost. Once we arrived at our Airbnb and vegetated for a few minutes, it was time to clean up a bit and head out on the town for some tapas! After wandering around for awhile, we chose a cider house because Lynzie really wanted to try some Spanish cider. We munched on some Chorizo and white asparagus as we drank a few adult beverages and got acclimated to being in an exciting new place. Afterwards, we decided we wanted to get cozy, so we bought a bottle of red wine and enjoyed hours of conversation on our balcony until we realized it was three o' clock am and we had a bicycle tour booked mid morning.

After imbibing in so much wine the previous night, it was a little difficult to get excited about going bicycling for several hours, but once we were on our way, I knew it was going to be a perfect day. We had booked a tour with Fat Tire Tours, and ended up going along with the loveliest woman named Bianca who had moved from India to conduct these tours. She was pleasant, knowledgeable and an altogether wonderful soul.

We first cycled to Placa del Rei, the former residence of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. There, we were told all the juicy tidbits of the supposed steamy relationship between Isabella and C.C., as Bianca so hilariously referred to Christopher Columbus. I mean, these stories have been passed down for quite a number of years now, but it may have been the partial reason Christopher finally received his funding for his voyage to 'India'.

Next up was the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia where a young girl of that name is honored for her martyrdom. The young virgin was persecuted by the Romans, and was said to have been paraded through the city with her head shaved and her nude body exposed for all to see. There is a legend that a snow storm began, even though it was the middle of spring, and it shielded Eulalia's body from the eyes of onlookers. Her bones are now safely interred in the crypt of the cathedral, hopefully resting peacefully forever as a Patron Saint of Barcelona.

The Palau de la Música Catalana was our next stop, and just seeing it from the exterior alone was a spectacle to behold. It was built beginning in 1905 and designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner in the Catalan modernist style. Its giant busts of classical musicians and the myriad of colorful mosaics and stained glass are simply breathtaking.

On the way over to lunch which was included in the tour, we took a brief stop at the Arc de Triomf of Barcelona built for the World Fair in 1888. That archway leads to the Parc de la Ciutadella which boasts a gorgeous gilded fountain that brought to mind images of Poseidon leaping out of the water on golden horses in a chariot.

The final stop on our tour was created from sand that was brought in from the Sahara and palm trees transported from Hawaii...Barcelona's man made beach. This beach, as well as its towering golden fish sculpture, El Peix, were created for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Frank Gehry, the Canadian born architect created this modernist sculpture out of stainless steel which is gold in color, making it shine in the sun like a brilliant beam against the Mediterranean sea. All together, this half day bicycle tour only cost us about $35 US dollars per person, and we learned so much and covered a lot of ground. I would highly suggest booking one of these tours, and they are located in other cities as well.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Country Caverns

While we were waiting for our night train to head out to the country, we went to a Bia Hoi in Hanoi where the fresh draft beer costs about 25 cents and you get to hang out with the locals on tiny plastic stools. The train itself was an interesting experience as you book individual beds in a cabin of four, so you stay with complete strangers. Our cabin mates ended up being completely fine and kept to themselves, but it is still just a new and different experience.

Arriving in the early morning and soaking in the rural sites of Dong Hoi, we were picked up by a van from the farmstay that we had booked phong-nha-cave. The farmstay was a stunning French villa with gorgeous sprays of  flowers tumbling down from the rafters and a picturesque view of rice fields and water buffalo. The staff and the tours that were organized and scheduled by the farmstay were exceptional, and the food and facilities were wonderful.

The first thing we did in the country was to get on the back of a motorbike to go to the Wild Boar Eco Farm to see the symbol animal of my Scottish Campbell clan and sway on a giant swing overlooking the valley below. When we were finished swinging, we arrived at the Duck Stop where we learned how to eat peanuts the right way, drank cold beer and rode a water buffalo named Donald Trump in the Son River. We also fed the ducks with our bare hands which is a terrifying experience for someone who has a fear of birds. Nonetheless, we had a phenomenal day and made memories to last a lifetime.

One thing we really wanted to do was to visit Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and gaze upon primordial caves which are approximately 400 million years old. First up was Paradise Cave which is 31 kilometers and is the longest dry cave in Southeast Asia. Hiking the 500 steps in the heat of the jungle was a bit difficult, but the underground realm that lay beyond was worth the effort. The monumental size of just the one kilometer of this subterranean world which is open to the public is astonishing. The second cave we visited that day was Phong Nha Cave which you enter via boat. We rented a motorboat, and while skimming across the water we passed locals in sampans gathering seaweed and quaint French cathedrals in the lush green hills. Once we reached our destination, they cut the engines and a small boy used a wooden oar to paddle us through the cave. It was such a majestic sight, reminiscent of a gilded and elegant ballroom beneath the earth.

We will miss Phong Nha and our lovely friends as well as the beauty and tranquility of the land itself.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Sail Away to Halong Bay

The following morning we were going for a cruise in Halong Bay which is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The travel company that we went through was vspiritcruises. Our travel guide, Jimmy, picked us up at our Airbnb and we set off for a three hour journey to the bay along with the rest of the crew that would be sailing with us.

The legend surrounding Halong Bay is that a mother dragon, along with her children, descended from the heavens upon the land of Vietnam in order to guard them from northern invaders. The dragons dropped giant emeralds from the sky in order to create a sanctuary of protection for the people, thus, the northern aggressors retreated. The dragon and her children transformed into humans and showed the people how to cultivate and enrich their land.

Dotted with limestone karsts, the beauty of this emerald bay was a breathtaking site to behold. Once we were on the boat, it was time for lunch and a few beers while we glided across the jade waters toward Surprise Cave. Once in the cave, our guide pointed out formations which resembled other creatures or objects. We had met some lovely friends by this point, and the six of us were all slightly amused by what our guide called the 'happy finger' which was jutting out aggressively near the ceiling of the cave. It seemed to all of us be some sort of hidden innuendo, but I'll let you look at the picture and decide for yourself.

Back on the ship, Lynzie did her best Titanic impression as we sailed to a netted cove to languish in the warm waters of the South China Sea while safely away from the flourishing jellyfish in the water. After taking a dip, it was time for cocktails and snacks, dinner, games and night fishing for squid, all while laughing hysterically with our new friends from South Africa and Tasmania.

After being rocked to sleep by the gentle lull of the boat we woke refreshed and ready for morning tai chi and kayaking. Paddling through the coves while singing childhood songs and gazing upon the stunning backdrop, was quite an enjoyable and serene experience.

It was now time to head back to Hanoi and say goodbye to our sweet friends Katrina, the other Katrina, Tony and Caroline. We will miss our darling friends from other continents, but an unknown person once said, 'There is no distance too far between friends, for friendship gives wings to the heart.'

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Hello, Hanoi!

Hanoi is a teeming and energetic city consisting of seven and a half million people which immediately inundates every one of your senses and sends a shock to your system that suddenly jolts you awake. Luckily, we had booked a tour with Lam Le who came and picked us up from the airport, brought us safely to our Airbnb and then took us on an immediate tour of the capital city. First up was a stop at Pho 10 for delicious rice noodle soup and Hanoi beer, but after traveling for thirty hours and being stifled by the intense humidity, we were only able to enjoy a few bites!

Next up was the Temple of Literature which the emperor had built in 1070 CE and was erected in order to house scholars. This temple was dedicated to Confucius, the wise philosopher who was born in 551 BCE. Before Confucius was born, his mother went to the mountains to pray for a son. One night while in her garden, she had a dream in which she saw an animal coming toward her. Once it got close enough, she realized it was a unicorn. She placed her scarf on the unicorn's horn to make sure it wasn't an illusion, and noticed that there was a jade tablet in the mouth of this mythical creature. Inscribed upon the tablet it stated that a son of the Great Spirit was to be born and that he would one day be a good and wise king. Our tour guide, Lam, had told us that there are four revered animals in Vietnam; the unicorn, the turtle, the dragon and the phoenix, and many of these divine creatures were ornately displayed throughout the temple which has miraculously survived years of war and destruction.

 The following item on the agenda was Hao Lo prison which the French built in approximately 1886 to house political prisoners striving for Vietnam's independence against colonial occupation. During this time, heinous acts of torture were committed inside of these stone walls, creating an eerie mood upon seeing the degree of detail applied to generating this punishing level of existence. At the time of the Vietnam War, this same fortress was again used to detain prisoners of war from the United States. It is certainly a glaring reminder of our divided history, but as Winston Churchill said, 'If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.' I think it's so important to remember these sad, yet poignant times in history so we aren't doomed to make the same mistakes again and rather, rebuild relationships by trying to gain an understanding of one another and the things that make us unique as well as the things that make us the same.