Fiji – An Experiment in “No Reservations” Cultural Island Travel

The interior of Fiji

 

I bought a cheap flight from New Zealand on my way back to the U.S.  On a discount Jet Star flight, I was in Fiji for a couple of days for less than a difference of somewhere between $100-200 USD.  It was great.  I loved Fiji.  The people were amazing!  The adventures I had in Fiji could not have been planned, and no guide could have planned some thing as authentic as what we experienced.  This post is the first night and I’ll separate the other experience in another post.  Fiji was just too amazing for one post.  Michael condensed his into one post on Fiji titled “Kava Shots and Holi Wars”, and I borrowed a couple of his great photos.  This post on our experience with the native Melanesian people and my second post on the hindustanis and celebrating “holi” with them.

When some people think Fiji, they think of beaches in paradise.  I was thinking… Natives in grass skirts, a real tribal experience that I couldn’t find in the Caribbean.  I knew I wouldn’t have my wife and kids with me, and hanging out on the beach was the furthest thing from my mind.  I wanted to go local and seek out a real adventure.

On the flight to Fiji I asked a flight attendant where I could find the most native village and one where I could live with the locals.  I was imagining huts or sleeping on mats or hanging hammock.  I was given the name of a place somewhere deep in the island.  When we went to pick up the rental car, they said we’d want a 4×4 to get there.  Ultimately we picked up a 4×4 and headed out into the woods.  Before we headed out, we wanted to make sure we had a gift for the village to cover any expenses we might incur to the village.

It was long before we started out on dirt roads, and deeper and deeper crossing rivers, and getting strange looks.  Miles and miles deeper we drove.  The stares started getting longer and polite “Boolah!” we would get.  We’d respond, “Boolah!” and smile big.  Then someone stopped us… where are you going?  We explained we were going deep into the heart of the island to this very native village.  He told us that was impossible and that we should turn around.  We let him know we weren’t in a hurry and were enjoying the drive.  He gave us a warning that the river had washed out the road.  It got more and more challenging as we drove along and finally we met our match.  The road was too much, so we turned around.  You’ve heard about Anthony Bourdain and his No Reservations show. On this day we were definitely traveling without reservations.  We were both up for adventure.  I was traveling with my friend Michael Noel of SharingTheGlobe.com and I said.  Tonight I want to sleep in a village, and we agreed even if we were on someone’s floor.  We were open to adventure.  As we drove back the way we came, we saw a big tent and a local gathering.  We slowed down to avoid the crowd walking along the street and gathered around the tent.

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Young men were pounding long metal pipes in little wooden canisters.  They’d lift and pound, twist lift and pound. We slowed and said “Boolah!”… What’s going on?  He replied, it was a birthday party for his 1 year old daughter.  The entire village was gathered for the party.  The women were inside the home, and the men underneath the tent.  He invited us to join them.  We had heard about the need to bring cava roots as a gift, so we were prepared.  I was so excited to join this exciting moment and the family was happy to have some foreign guests of honor.  We were brought to the head of the tent to the elders of the village and sat down on mats.

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The village chief elder asked us a few questions, but invited us to participate in a ceremonial “Kava” drink.  Kava is such an important part of the culture.  It is only consumed sitting with your legs crossed, with no legs and foot pointing to the sides.  The kasava root is pounded then put in a sock and water is added to create the drink.  The first person claps their hands twice, and from a large bowl a half coconut is dipped in and then the person who is presented the cava claps twice, then drinks the cava, after he’s finished he throws any remainder over his shoulder and hands the coconut back.  Both hands are used at all time.  It felt like a handshake, trust, confidence, and an opportunity to make friends all at once.

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The tent was filled with happiness and order.  Those with the most age were at the front of the tent and as a rite of passage, you had to be twenty or twenty one to enter the tent.  Those at the back of the tent had paid their dues in the pounding of the cava and only those who had come of age could drink the cava.

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In our search for a unique cultural experience we were given one.  We had arrived late to the party and the men had already eaten.  We were invited to eat with the women and children who as custom would have it, eat after the men.

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They accepted us and we had some interesting looks, but had some great local hand cooked fish and rice. The children thought we were interesting or funny looking.  Either way, we made friends with the kids, and eventually re-emerged back out toward the tent.  A couple of younger guys from the back of the tent approached us and asked us about our story.  Why we were here, asking if we were having a good time… Of course we were.  We were offered more kava.  At this point I was getting a little nervous.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to have strange dreams or what affect this kava might have.  I knew there wasn’t alcohol in it, but beyond that I didn’t know much about it.  I explained to the young man that I shouldn’t have too much.  He asked why.  I said for religious reasons.  He asked what religion.  I said. LDS.  He said.  “No way.”  I said, “yes way.  I am a Mormon.”  He replied…  That was impossible.  He stopped and said. I am a Mormon.  That house over there.  They are Mormon.  Many in this tent are Mormons.  I wasn’t sure if he understood me, or what, but then I remembered as we had turned off the road, I had seen an LDS church.  He said the prophet had told them that they could drink kava, but they should not drink too much.  Having spent the last 3 hours involved in the ceremony with the elders I could see the cultural importance, and for a young man this was a huge privilege for him to be under the tent and mingling with the men of the village.  He asked us where we were staying and I told him we were hoping to find a place to stay.  A while later he told us he had talked to his mother and we could stay with them.  Perfect!  We would be able to stay in the village and even if on the floor we had a real local experience rather than staying in some cheap hotel.  He wanted to stay at the party as late as possible, so I asked him about what time he’d be leaving.  He didn’t know, but somewhere around 1am.  We agreed that would be fine.  He ended up going back to the party after we settled down for the night.  The 1 year old’s party lasted till at least 2 or 3 am.  Wildest 1 year old party I’ve ever heard of…  The people celebrate together.  It’s a very communal society.

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Music got more lively and ultimately it turned to dance, and we were invited to boogy.  After learning a few local moves, we were invited by some locals to start dancing.  We had some more kava.  Danced some more.  Had more kava, met more locals and spent the evening having a blast with the local Vatuvu villagers. Fiji was amazing and we were experiencing it raw.  No guides, not paid group.  Our payment, a gift of Kasava root, smiles and friendship.

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That night I would sleep on my new friend’s couch, and feel what it was like to be a villager.  Mission accomplished!

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Travel Back in Time – Smell the Mint Tea of Morocco


I am entranced with Morocco.  There are few places in the world that do such an amazing job of preserving life as it was hundreds even thousands of years ago.

Fez Medina Donkey Travel

Fez, has truly captured life as it was 1000 years ago.  The Medina or urban center is the gated old city in Fez.  The only transportation in the Medina is by foot, or by donkey. No cars.  I have seen a scooter or two, but the preference is no motorized vehicles.  The narrow old streets couldn’t support a car anyway.  It is amazing how well preserved the the traditions, culture, and structures are in Fez.

Narrow Alleyways Vegetable alleyway Morocco Metalwork

You see water being hauled in for drinking, common community ovens for cooking bread, hammam or bath houses, and common tanneries and more.  The beauty of this gem of the desert is most precious.

 

Riad Fez .

I stayed for a couple of nights in Riad Fez – very beautiful feel to it.  The wood is so intricate, and the tile beautiful with color.

Fez Metal Work

This chandelier the size of a VW bug is hand made stamped metal.  Morocco is known for the lamps and chandeliers.

Moroccan Coke Donkey

In Fez, this Coca Cola delivery donkey is the same as a Coke Truck.  Fez, now preserved as a UNESCO heritage site.

The Medina of Fez was founded in the 9th century and is home to the oldest university in the world. Fez reached its height in the 13th–14th centuries when it replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom. Much of the infrastructure in the city dates from this period.

Mosque in Fez Water Delivery by Donkey

The Medina of Fez is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world. The unpaved urban space conserves the majority of its original functions and attribute. It not only represents an outstanding architectural, archaeological and urban heritage, but also transmits a life style, skills and a culture that persist and are renewed despite the diverse effects of the evolving modern societies.

Moroccan Tannery

15th Century Tanneries of Fez from a neighbor balcony

You just have to imagine the sounds and smells of the tanneries.  Here they start with sheep, camel, goat and various animal skins.  Here they soak them to remove the wool with lyes, and then move to drying and dying.  You can then purchase a huge assortment of hand made leather goods.

Much of Morocco is still very local.  I worried I would see tons of tourists in the cultural capital of Morocco.  I didn’t see a single tourist until I reached the square.  Going through the narrow labyrinth of the Medina was awesome.  While I would have preferred to simply get lost in the streets, the locals all really want to help.  At some point it is easier to allow someone to be a guide than continue to be bothered.  There are official guides and hotels can arrange them, but the students love to help as well even if they may be restricted to their routes.  Don’t let someone tell you they can’t take you somewhere.  There is much to see and experience.

acrobat gathering in fez

Instead the squares are full of locals who browse the flea market style spreads of clothes and shoes.  One doesn’t have to feel like a tourist.  You can try to blend in.

the square in Fez

Unfortunately, in a crowd watching an acrobat it’s still tough to blend in.  Reality sets in.  Of course, they need to see a tip.  Make sure you have lots of small bills and coins on hand to keep the entertainment going.  Asking for change with this crowd doesn’t work.

Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco  Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco

This Jewish cemetery in Fez reminds me of the scattering of Israel and gathering of Israel.  Amazing how far the Israelites were spread across the world.  Ethiopia, Georgia, and across Europe and even Argentina and Mexico city.  Amazing stories abound of how the King would keep the Jews as advisors, ambassadors, and tax collectors.  Apparently 15% of the current state of Israel or 1,000,000 Israeli Jews are of Moroccan descent, while only 35,000 Jews remain in Morocco.  Jews have 2000 years of history in Fez.

There isn’t just one amazing city in Morocco.  There are many.  I love Marrakech and Meknes as well.  Do not judge Morocco based on a brief visit to Tangier.  I highly recommend you spend time in the Atlas mountains.  They are magical.  They themselves contain the history of the world.  Incredible fossils have made their ways across the globe.  Rock hounds will find heaven.  Those wanting to see a simplier life will see the mountain people with their goats and sheep walking on trails thousands of years old.  If you can… escape to Ait Ben Haddou.  As a child when I imagined visiting Jerusalem, a visit to Ait Ben Haddou is closer than the real thing.  It’s in many of the biblical stories.

Ait Ben Haddou - Kasbah

From Ait Ben Haddo, Oaurzazate is a quick trip and the great Sahara is nearby.  The gateway to the Sahara with a variety of multi day excursions with Berbers into the sand and mystery of the desert.  I found this the beginning of another world.

Simple and pure I found many people who willed life itself to slow.  While many vendors simply want to show you their wares, and the children want to put you on the backs of their donkeys and horses, the simple life is pure.  Tourism has left some scars, but there are ways of finding the past and connecting with time gone by.  Slow down, sip the mint tea and relax and listen to the stories of the desert.

Bahrain – Top 5 Things to See and Do


  Bahrain Architecture

Formula one

Bahrain is your oyster.  You’ll likely start your travels of Bahrain in the capital of Manama.  Manama means “Sleeping Place” and while it may seem quaint, there is some fascinating places to see and visit.  Bahrain has changed a lot in the last decade, and is poised to change even more in the decade to come in competiting with it’s neighbors to be the Next Dubai, or compete for fans of Forumula one.  People come to Bahrain to relax and have fun.

Many may plan their trip to Bahrain around a race, or football competition.  The stadium is huge, and the infrastructure is designed to host a very large crowd.  There’s also a lot of international food places that will surprise you that they’ve got.  You likely didn’t know some of these places made their way to a place like Bahrain, but that’s also important in understanding the future of Bahrain.  Once you think you’ve got it figured out… it will surprise you.  There will likely be more struggles in this country in the future, it is a place of change.

1. Manama Souq

Manama Souq, known for it’s pearls and gold in the warren of streets behind Bab al-Bahrain.  The souq is the place to go for electronics, bargains, spices, sheesha bottles and a other Bahraini essentials.  It definitely isn’t just a tourist destination.  You’ll see all types of people shopping Most shops in the souq are open from about 09:00 to 13:00 and 16:00 to 21:00 Saturday to Thursday, and after evening prayer on Friday.  It’s a great way to people watch and see a great variety of people from the well dressed upper class Bahrainy to the working class folks.  May I even entertain the idea that you can see Shiite and Sunni doing business together in the market?

2. Mosques: National Mosque – Al-Fatih Mosque

Muslim Mosque GuideBahrain National Mosque

The national mosque is open to visitors.  Happy to share information about the life of the Muslim and more of the faith of Islam this grand mosque has very informative guides. The Al-Fatih Mosque is the largest building in the country and is capable of holding up to 7000 worshippers. The mosque was built with marble from Italy, glass from Austria and teak wood from India, carved by local Bahraini, and has some fine examples of interior design.

 

 

National Mosque of Bahrain

3. Tree of Life

The Tree of Life BahrainTree of Life

Before and After pictures of the Tree of Life… out in the desert.

Located in the middle of the desert, the Tree of Life, a 500 or 800 year old mesquite tree, stands alone. It is a mystery as to how it stays so green and alive in the waterless desert.  Standing alone in the desert about 1.2 miles (two kilometers) from the Jebel Dukhan.  It’s quite large and has huge branches. It looks too old, but the leaves still fresh green…

The tree source of water remains mystery, some others believe that it gets nourishing from the underground but no one knows why this tree still surviving.

It was quite the trek out of the city to go track down the tree, and I was disappointed to find someone had tried to burn it, and vandalized it.  I found a lot of what’s going on in the region in the appearance of the tree and it’s treatment.  It seems to represent life.  It’s undergone some rough times, and this tree has seen a lot and despite all of that it has continued to persist.

While we were out there looking at the tree, we could see a group of tanks doing military exercises.

3. Dilmun Burial Mounds – A’ali Burial Mounds

Bahrain Burial Mounds Archeologist dig

As far as the eye could see, thousands and thousands of mounds dating from far back as 4000 years ago.  Not the size of the normal burial plot, but the size of a small house.  Over 350,000 ancient burial mounds covering spanning over 1000 years.  Some think it’s where Adam and Eve came from.  Could be the largest pre-historic ancient burial plot in the world covering many square kilometers.  There are so many that even today the locals are debating what to do with it.  If they excavate they can reuse the land, but some debate there isn’t much in them beyond pots and modest means, but some have copper and bronze weapons, jewelry, pottery that could tell the story of Dilmun civilization, an ancient trading hub that connected Mesopotamia, South Arabia and India, is believed to have inhabited Bahrain during the Bronze Age.    While I was there I saw an archeological team digging, finding bones, and pieces of pots, and so on.  The national museum has an exhibit on these strange mounds.

If you think there are a lot of mounds now, there’s only 1/5 of what use to exist, cleared for housing or already looted.  UNESCO has considered adding some of the burial mounds to it’s list.

4. Bahrain National Museum

Burial Mound

The most popular destination is the National Museum.  (It’s nearby where the Pearl Monument was located were recently (Mar 2011) it was destroyed during the civil unrest in uprisings that occurred there.  Bahrain is still known as one of the more liberal countries in the Persian gulf.)

This Museum Bahrain National Museum is the best place to start for an intriguing, well-labelled introduction to the sights of the country.  It’s also walking distance to the waterfront. The museum showcases archaeological finds from ancient Dilmun and includes beautiful agate and carnelian beads and earthenware burial jars – used for the body as well as its chattels. It also outlines the local history of pearl fishing including information on the boats the dhow, complete with pearl divers.

Read more about this and other attractions on Lonely Planet guide to Bahrain.

5. Fort, Bahrain

Fort Bahrain

A UNESCO World Heritage, Fort Bahrain is a remnant of a former time when the port was controlled by the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries.  This was during the times when they dominated trade routes in the Indian Ocean  One of the more important historic buildings on the island, the Bahrain Fort (or Qala’at al-Bahrain in Arabic). This fort is one of several built in Bahrain and around the Persian Gulf to protect these trade routes.  You can climb all over it and there are great views of the water from there.  Nearby there are some more ancient ruins (4000 years ago) of the Dilmun capital referred to in Sumerian writings (bronze age) surrounding the fort.

There are a couple of other forts as well in Bahrain worth seeing if you liked this one:  Arad Fort (near airport) and Riffa Fort (near Riffa).

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As you explore Bahrain you will continue to find things to see… there are some older sites to see including this ancient Mosque no longer has its roof and a few remaining walls.  You can still climb the minaret in the old mosque from 1400’s.

Enjoy exploring this fascinating country that isn’t going to stay still… it’s a progressive place and modernizing like crazy.  Expect Bahrain to be the place to be with the likes of Doha, and Dubai.

10 Must See Attractions In and Around Copenhagen Denmark the City of Cyclists


Copenhagen CyclistsCopenhagen bikes

One of the best ways to see Copenhagen, Denmark is the way the locals do.  On the seat of a bike.

Bicycles play a major role in the life of any local in Copenhagen. The bicycle is transportation for work, school, even night on the town with a date or night at the opera.  A special bike famous from Copenhagen is designed for transporting construction materials or appliances, bringing children to kindergarten, going for a ride. No matter what the purpose will be, the bike is the answer.Why do they pick a bike over a car or public transport?  It’s the fastest way of getting around in the city!

Nyhavn houses and bikes Nyhavn bridge

1. Nyhavn

One of my favorite parts of town is Nyhavn.  These beautiful buildings have so much color and character.  First you must stroll along this street either on the seat of a bike or strolling along on a walk.  There are canal tours for those who want to see it from the water side as well.  Great food along there as well.  I often ended my day along Nyhavn.

Nyhavn Panorama of the Canal

If you’re in Copenhagen for a conference, or cruise, or a holiday.  You will find plenty to do to fill your 24 hours in beautiful Copenhagen.

Amalienborg Palace Changing of the Guard

2. Amalienborg Palace

Amalienborg Palace is the Danish monarch’s winter residence on the waterfront in Copenhagen.  It’s in Copenhagen, so not hard to get to. Time your visit to watch the changing of the guard.

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3. Frederiksborg Castle

is a palace in Hillerød, Denmark part of the . It was built as a royal residence for King Christian IV.  Heading out to this place could be part of a day trip.

It is on the Castles tour from Copenhagen: North Zealand and Hamlet Castle tour There are multiple tours, so you’ll need to decide what you want to see most.

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4. Carl Bloch paintings

If you like religious art. I highly recommend tracking down the Carl Bloch (very famous Danish Painter) paintings in the Carl Bloch’s paintings in the Frederiksborg Palace collection.  They are very moving and are considered some of the best in the world.

royal courtyardamazing rooms Inside the palace

After I got home and started looking through all of the pictures from my castle tour I noticed I couldn’t tell which photos where from which palace.

Elsinore Castle - Kronborg Castle

5. Kronborg Castle

complete with moat, in Helsingor known as Elsinore Castle from  Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  This castle is a couple hours outside of Copenhagen.  Ask about it in relation to a castle tour.  Lonely Planet details: Hamlet Castle Tour

If you do have multiple days and looking at day trips out of Copenhagen, consider Malmo Sweden.  It’s an easy train ride over a very long and fun bridge.  There are a few things to see, and easy to make an afternoon out of it.

baby angels pipe organ Columns

The halls are so ornate I ended up taking hundreds of photos of columns, and gold and amazing sculptures and art work.  My first trip to Copenhagen was one of my first trips to Europe, and hence blew my mind in terms of seeing so much history and royal wealth.  It was mind numbing to see multiple days worth of palaces, castles, and cathedrals with so much history.  My eyes are now much more trained to recognize the history.  Now when I look at a marble column that doesn’t match I can imagine that it was likely borrowed from an earlier time period likely from a pagan temple.

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There are quite a few palaces, parliament buildings, castles, and historic buildings within and near Copenhagen.  Consider a Castle tour or two. Your head will be spinning with ancient places that you’ll be wondering what it was or what it is.

Tivoli at nightTivoli Gardens in Copenhagen

6. Tivoli Gardens

(Left – above at night, right from SAS Raddison Blue hotel window)

Tivoli is ancient and modern at the same time.  The structure and property has been an old amusement park from 1843.  It is world famous and shows up in many movies and may be the most famous places to visit in Copenhagen. Inside the garden you’ll find amusement park rides, activities and exhibits.  In the winter it becomes a winter wonderland decorated with lights and mechanical elves and Christmas decor.  I use Tivoli and the Train Station as a landmark when I’m walking around the city.  As well I will often try to book hotels close to Tivoli as it’s very central to downtown Copenhagen and walking distance of all of the good stuff including the Stroget walking street.

Strøget – The Strøget is 1.1 kilometers long and claims to be the world’s longest urban pedestrian zone.  It’s a very enjoyable walk with interesting high street shops.  You may find this is the best route from place to place on your bike or strolling along.

We did end up going up the round tower Rundetaarn at night.  It was interesting. It has specific time periods where it’s open.  Apparently it’s the oldest observatory in Europe.  It is worth tracking down.

Frederiks KirkeMarble Church domeFrederiks Kirk

8. Frederiks Kirke (The Marble Church)

this stately building is well worth a visit (above)

Speaking of churches. There are some other great churches in Copenhagen.

Church of our Lady Copenhagen

9.  Church of Our Lady

This church has a very special feel with amazing sculptures. This church is all focused on a greater than life sized Christ and his apostles grace the church.  As well a massive pipe organ plus a second story filled with columns in a very bright white church.   It has a very strong spirit about it.  This church is in Copenhagen and easy to walk to and open till 5pm most days.

Christus CopenhagenBertel Thorvaldsen's Sculptures

All of the sculptures were designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen.  If you like his work. There is a museum dedicated to his works next to the Christiansborg Palace.

Speaking of sculptures.  There’s one statue that most guidebooks will tell you that you can’t miss.  It’s the Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen.  It’s become quite the icon for the city.  She’s also loved to be hated.  She has gone through some rough times herself as she often gets chopped up and stolen.

Little Mermaid at Night - Copenhagen  Little Mermaid Copenhagen Denmark

10. The Little Mermaid

This isn’t the only statue in Copenhagen, but she is the most famous.  Since she’s by the water there are multiple ways to view her.  She is out near the old fort.  It’s quite a walk from downtown, but not impossible.

If you like art and statues.  Be sure to take it in.  There is a lot of variety around the city that is worth checking out.

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EAT!!

The Main CourseVenison fancy salad2 forks

Traditional meatballs and potatoesThey love to eat in Copenhagen.  The Danish are known for their food.  They have very elaborate long sittings with a variety of wines, beers, and non alcoholic drinks as well, I tried a rhubarb drink.  Often when you sit down to dinner at a nice place in Copenhagen, you’re sitting down for a 4+ or up to 6 course meal.  I think I had 5 forks in one meal.  They keep bringing out plates and plates of different little dishes of food for you to eat.  There’s a lot in the presentation.  The portions are small in the fine dinning arena.

Then there’s the traditional meat and potatoes.  Often meat balls and some small vegetables.  You can also get open faced sandwiches.  Copenhagen does have a variety of food, but in most cases you are committing yourself to relaxing and enjoying yourself.  If you’re use to American style, where you are there for the food and not the ambiance, you may have to let your waiter know when you need them.

Christiania Beer  Art of Christiania

10. Christiania

Alternative living… was founded in 1971 when a group of citizens knocked down the fence to an abandoned military area and set up a new hippie community, completely independent of the Danish government.  In 2012 the Christiania fund bought the land.  It’s now a bunch of artists, but they’ve gotten creative.  They now have their own beer.

This place is unique in the world.  It’s a bit of burning man every night.  It’s a place that means different things to different people and the expression that comes from it has a wide variety as well.

– Real freedom of different types to different people: Check your politics and biases at the door.

– Anarchy – No RULES! Well, this has definitely changed over time.

– Shared living, shared everything.  Those hey day are over.  Now you’ll find there are businesses and art studios, where years ago anyone would be obliged to share.

– A place to do drugs in peace without the law.  There are still soft drugs a plenty.  Be careful with your camera.

– While capitalism was what they were trying to get away from, there’s quite the little cottage industry from the artists during the day, and at night it’s the bars and cafes

There has been spouts of violence in the past, but this is really a unique place.  I have really enjoyed my time there, but it’s not or everyone.

Vor Frelsers Kirke - The Church of our Saviour

Vor Frelsers Kirke (The Church of our Saviour)

is located at Christianshavn and was built in the years 1682 to 1696.

I hope you enjoyed this story among some of the others that I have posted.  I put this post together for my sister, Tamra who is doing a cruise from Copenhagen.  I hope she enjoys it.  She has a passion for travel that’s contagious.  Please like or rate the post, and I definitely welcome feedback.  As a traveler I love telling the stories and pointing out places to see or things to do.  I’ve been to Copenhagen twice, most recently in January and the first time with my wife.  I loved it both times. I’m sure you’ll love it too.

Joel in Copenhagen

Plan Your World Cup 2014 Trip to Rio Brazil with 5 Adventures and Tips

Rio is amazing!!

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Rio is world famous.  Even beyond the wild and amazing cultural customs and tradition of Carnival, Rio is an incredible city.  The world will be looking at Rio as FIFA Host city in 2014 World Cup and holding it to a very high standard in 2016 when it hosts the World for the Summer Olympics.  the 2014 FIFA World Cup will be the 20th FIFA World Cup, an international football or soccer tournament that is scheduled to take place here in Brazil from June 12 to July 13 in 2014.  I hope this blog helps you make up your mind.

In my travels, Rio stands out as a big highlight, amazing city.  Some will ask if it’s safe.  Rio, every year as it gets closer to the world cup and the Olympics is worlds of change for the better.  While pick pocketing or mugging out at night on the beach in the dark may have been more common place in the past, this is now no longer happening.  The streets have been cleaned up and crime is getting stamped out and pushed back into dark areas of the flavelas.  Even these have undergone much change over the years.  Brazil and Rio care very much about their reputation and as the world is looking to see if Rio can stand up and be the world destination is it destined to be… it is accomplishing just that.  Yes, you should take care and don’t do anything stupid, and take the advice of your hotels.  Be smart and be cautious of what your plans are at night and you’ll be fine.  I went to some night markets near the beach and made sure to stay in lit areas where people were and was fine.  Those were both tips I got from locals.  The people are extremely friendly and there’s so much to do.  Rio is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  It’s in my top 3 most beautiful cities in the world and may be #1.  You will not be disappointed if you plan your world cup travel to Rio.  It will be amazing.  Planning for the Olympics and on the fence?  Rio will fulfill all your dreams!

Rio is really working on response and planning for these major events.  See Rio Goes High-Tech, With An Eye Toward Olympics, World Cup

Copacabana at night - welcome to rioCopacabana beach

Beaches!

Rio is known for it’s beaches some of the best known are Copacabana and Ipanema, but Botafogo, Praia da Barra da Tijuca, and Praia do Flamengo are also amazing beaches and there’s even more.  There are lists of top ten beaches in Rio.  The beaches are long and have long stretches of sand and boardwalks with varying population, some can get quite crowded.  It’s not hard to get a hotel right across from one of the beaches.  There’s water beyond the beaches as well with places like parque lage

 

Corcovado Parque Lage

New Wonders of the World – Christ Redeemer Statue

Rio has very unique topography.  Huge granite hills, but one of them has the world famous Christ Redeemer statue.  Corcovado, is the destination.  It’s not to miss.  Incredible views, amazing views of pristine beaches.  Some of these stone hills have special access with funicular and others with chair lifts.  You must get up on Sugar Loaf.  Day or night… the views are absolutely incredible.  You can even hike parts of it. There are tours you can take from your hotel, or bus routes to the funicular.

Visit Christ the Redeemer Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio

The views are unlike anywhere else.  You feel like you’re on another planet.  The closest examples I’ve found to the rocks are like haystack rock in Oregon, and Meteora in Greece, and feel like Capetown, but ultimately it’s more than all of these.  Bigger variety and 6 million plus people spread across over a dozen of these huge rock mounts that have been carved out over thousands or millions of years.

Hang gilding and Paragliding

Jump off this mountain as a paraglider or with a hang glider

I’ve jumped off that mountain.  That grassy area is where I landed.  For around $100-150 you can hang glide or paragliding as a student of the art.  You get a special license to do the jump.  The prices vary greatly at different hotels.  Different companies charge different rates. I even found there was some flexibility and was able to carve off a little off the price.

looking down on the worldGliders

Soak in the culture, the music and dancing… Let loose, relax and feel the Carnival spirit…

For the most lucky watch the two weeks of Carnival on the streets, where it all happens.  Then at night settle down to dinner and Samba Music maybe some Brazilian kick boxing.  Find a samba school for the most authentic experience.  Also watch in addition to samba, the choro, and bossa nova music.  Rio is the birthplace of all of these.

Carnival DancersCarnival Costumes Amazing Brazil at Night

 

There are a lot of reasons to visit Rio.  You’ll be sure to experience the relax attitude of the people and learn to enjoy yourself one way or another… either sitting on the beach, enjoying the music or the fresh meats and seafood… amazing food!  My favorite was the beans stew feijoada.  Ask a local for the story.  They have a long history. Don’t miss the Brazilian most famous dish, the feijoada (fay-zho-AH-da), a black bean stew filled with big chunks of meat, like chunks of sausages, pork or beef.  Rio is famous for it’s seafood as well.  The fresh juice bars with fresh coconut are also so fresh and great.  Very refreshing after a good surf or after soaking up the sun sitting out on the beach.  Enjoy a fresh one for me.

 

Looking for more details… visit the wikitravel page for Rio.

 

Estádio do Maracanã - panorama

Picture courtesy wikicommons

The Estádio do Maracanã is incredible.  Huge stadium that has undergone special renovations to make it a top stadium in the world.  Following its 50th anniversary in 2000, the stadium underwent renovations which would increase its full capacity to around 103,000. After years of planning and nine months of closure between 2005 and 2006, the stadium was reopened in January 2007 with an all-seated capacity of 82,238

Planning for the games or not, it is one that the locals would tell you not to miss… You can visit the Maracana, once the largest stadium in the world and currently largest in all of South America will be host of the FIFA 2014 World Cup and final.  Maracana MuseumIt even includes a museum!  The tiny picture to the right from the museum has photo ops.  Yeah, it’s a little silly, but football fans love the shrines to their favorite players and the chance to be part of the action.

As a frequent global traveler, let me share a few tips for a successful trip to Rio, Brazil…

5 Tips to Prepare Your Trip to Rio de Janeiro

1. You may need a visa.  US Citizens NEED a visa.  This is something you need to prepare for around a month in advance.  Hopefully around the time you have your travel plans.  There are express visa options, but don’t delay.  Getting the visa MUST be done in advance and can not be done at the border.  You’ll be looking for the tourist visa. You’ll need at least 2 blank pages in your visa and 2x2in photo.  I recommend the 10 year visa.  The cost difference between the shorter visa doesn’t warrant it.  It will cost you around $200-300 USD to get the visa and could easily take 2-3 weeks to make it all happen.  You will be sending a copy of your passport to get the visa, so make sure you plan accordingly. If this is your first trip, you’ll want to get your passport months in advance.  Even if you’re from Canada, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Japan, or Mexico you NEED a visa.  Citizens of the UK and EU including Turkey are exempt and don’t need a visa.  So check to make sure.

2. Prepare to pay – Brazil isn’t a poor country, despite what you hear in the news.  Food can be quite expensive.  The Brazilian Reals are a strong currency.  You will definitely love the experience.  It’s a tourists dream to go here, but you may have to shop around if you’re coming from a poor country to see the match.

3. Hotels – Prepare way in advance for hotels and hostels.  Do your research. These will fill up fast for the World Cup and Olympics or Carnival.  Consider options like AirBnB and VRBO as alternative to the typical conventional options sometimes these can even be cheaper than hotels.com.  If you don’t mind paying in advance, Expedia and Priceline can save you a lot in some of the major hotel chains, but there are a lot of options, so you’ll need to shop around.

4. Bring your swimming suit and a jacket – while Rio seems like it has the perfect weather.  The nights can be cool, and you may end up in the hills where it’s chilly.  Don’t forget your suit and sun screen.

5. Travel and Money strategies – I spoke in length about how to put money in more than one place such as some in your carry on bag and NOT in your back pocket.  With the events you don’t want to be sorry about having all your money getting swiped in one place.  You should visit my 10 simple tricks for world travel, so you’ll be thinking wholistically about how you pack and what your backup strategy is on money.  The way you pack can make a big difference on your flexibility for a trip to Brazil.

If you’re debating between adding on excursion trips to Sao Paulo or Iguazu Falls.  Iguazu in my opinion is the best waterfall in the world from a tourist perspective, and I’ve seen 4 of the top 5 in the world.  It’s awesome.  Sao Paulo, while a great city to do business in, wasn’t that exciting from a tourist perspective.

Panama Island Escape: Bocas Del Torro and Urraca – Adventures in Paradise

Private islands

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Before when I thought of Panama, all I could think of was the Panama canal.  Now I think of Islands.  There are so many little islands off the coast of Panama.

The only way to get around the islands is with boats.  The boats are like busses taking you from place to place.  The first time I visited Bocas del Torro, I thought the island was the destination.  It wasn’t until I spent a little time on the island and I discovered that the adventures are all around you.

  • Red Frog Island
  • Urraca Private Island
  • El Tigre – Native Tribe Island
  • Bat Caves
  • Waterfalls
  • Scuba Diving for underwater ship, sea horses, and amazing

I wasn’t satisfied just to see a small bit of Panama.  I had to come back, so I brought my family.  I did some searching and came across Urraca Private Island.  It sounded magical.  Your own private island, the lady who runs the place has her own monkey, a French Canadian who travelled the Caribbean looking for paradise.  She found 2 islands of mangroves and found a way to put a house on stilts.  These beautiful places are designed with nature in mind.  The electricity comes from the sun, the water in the house comes from the rain.

water out the window

While I was really hoping to find “utopia,” instead we had a great adventure that tested my wife’s limits.  I think over those few days I’d see something in her as an adventure traveler that would make me realize things have changed (at least knowing that there are comfort limits.)  My wife didn’t like the cold showers, didn’t like the rain showers that barely let up a couple of days. Even though it wasn’t the rainy season we spent a lot of time in the rain forest and you don’t know how it will effect a person.

I realized we couldn’t do hostels as a family.  I tried a couple of different styles and we drew the lines at A/C – required, hot showers – required, and no bugs.  We didn’t have screens in the windows and the little fans didn’t do enough to keep the kids and my wife happy.  The adventure became too much of one.

It was a little daunting not to be able to be in control.  You tell the boat when to come and that’s when it will come.  No earlier, no later.  When it’s time to eat and you’re on a private island, you don’t have a lot of choices if you didn’t prepare.  You likely will eat what is being cooked and if you don’t like it or don’t like the prices… tough.  You may not even know the price until the end of the week, and at that point you better be prepared.  Ask for a menu and ask for prices, and ask for alternatives.  I did come across some places, but easily 30 minutes away and that means gas or it means going to dinner on your way back from an adventure.

water bar bocas del torro island paradise

Pictured: Left the food places at Bocas are often out on the water with incredible views. Right: The swim up to it table, difficult to get on those seats at low tide, but beautiful to look at.  There’s a lot of symbolism in this… It looks better than it feels without knowing and realizing it’s going to be an adventure and that’s what it’s all about.

While it may not have been the ultimate paradise for everyone on those three days on the private island.  I really really enjoyed the adventure even though I discovered their comfort limits.  Here are just a few things we experienced.

  • Capuchin monkey
  • Fresh lobster
  • Private beaches
  • Encounters with natives
  • Snorkling and scuba
  • Cave spiders that look like scorpions
  • Seeing sloths in the wild!
  • Bioluminescent waters
  • Dolphins

monkey manprivate islandwater walkway

Crossing from Costa Rica across a wild train bridge was quite the adventure.  It really wasn’t hard to catch a bus from Puerto Viejo or Manzanilla to the border.  You can even pay to get all the way to Bocas del Torro which involves crossing the train bridge then riding a van transport to water transport and then on for another hour to Bocas del Torro.

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Pictured: Jared with his rodent friend that had a rabbit face on Right my 3 year old and Tutsi the monkey

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Pictured: Get your scuba certification in 3 days. Open Water PADI certified. It was the best dive with the worst equipment, but I got what I paid for… it was cheap!

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Local breakfast on Bocas del Torro… a local meal of scone and two meatballs.  I’m sure there was a local name for it.

Nicaragua: Historical Gem in the Rough

Granada Historical Cathedral

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Cathedral in Granada

Nicaragua is one of the poorest/cheapest countries in the Americas.  It’s been an underdog for a couple of decades.  As a tourist attraction it’s easily overlooked for Panama or Costa Rica or Guatemala.  Many may not even consider it.  Nicaragua is really under the radar as a tourist destination, and as someone who loves discovering places off the radar where they knock your socks off and they haven’t been discovered I LOVE Nicaragua.  I actually had doubts about writing this because some who have made Nicaragua as their home away from home or for their escape may not want extra attention, but that hasn’t stopped me in the past.  I’ve been to Nicaragua twice and love loved both times.  The first time I did a bunch of research.  In my pursuits I came across a lot of warnings and enough to really scare you.

“Armed robbery attempts have increased in popular tourist destinations where armed, and sometimes masked, assailants emerge from roadside locations to stop vehicles and rob passengers. One common tactic is for assailants to place rocks, tree branches, or other large objects along roads and wait for cars to stop. When the driver gets out of the vehicle to remove the obstruction, assailants come out of hiding to rob victims.  Criminals posing as Nicaraguan traffic police occasionally target visitors. The imposters conduct traffic stops and rob vehicle occupants at gunpoint.”

One post I read was an expat from the US that runs a white water rafting place, they had moved from central Oregon.  In the post, they went on to explain that Nicaragua gets a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve.  They compared the crime rate in the worst city in Nicaragua with an average city in Oregon and explained it was worse in Oregon.  Looking again there are horrible warnings designed to scare you.  In my research the crime rates are comparable to the US and in many cases worse.  Compare Numbeo country crime rates of Nicaragua 41.93 and US 53.44 a higher crime rate.  Hey, I’m a fan of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, they both have a lot to offer and shouldn’t be compared since they are so different in terms of what they have to offer.  Costa Rica has the beaches, and Nicaragua has the big lake and historical colonial cities.

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The cost of living is one-third cheaper in Nicaragua. Tourists are very concerned about safety, so it is necessary to look at crime statistics. The homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Nicaragua was 12 in 2005, 13 in 2011, an increase of 8%. The homicide rate in Costa Rica in 2005 was 7.8, with a 32% increase in 2011 to 10.3.  The ten most violent US cities each have more homicides than the whole country of Nicaragua.  Chicago a city I wouldn’t even bat an eye to visit had 50x the homicide rate.

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I hope you notice the HUGE lake, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and really the largest islands in freshwater in the world.

Nicaragua, officially the Republic of Nicaragua, is the largest country in the Central American isthmus, bordering Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south

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In Nicaragua it’s about the lakes, volcanoes and natural beauty.  Lake Granada has hundreds of small islands in addition to the big volcano islands.  Beautiful personal islands with one house.  Jump in the water, it’s nice all year round.  I have heard about the fresh water sharks, but they don’t hang out near the city on the Granada side.  Catch a ferry over to Ometepe, and stay on the island.  I went on a kayaking excursion.  Amazing views.

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Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua

Colonial Towns Granada – Ometepe holds the distinction of being the largest island in a fresh water lake in the world. It is also full of pre-Columbian history, statuary, and other relics, plus two magnificent volcanoes.

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Granada is a very historical city.  Nothing compares with it across central america, the closest is Antiqua, Guatemala.  Incredible beauty.

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At night go out on the closed walking streets and be serenaded with incredible food from around the world.

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Managua has the big man in the hat on the largest hill in the city.  Great views. You may not agree with the politics, and some local friends of ours are waiting for change, but it’s amazing.   I personally would recommend spending your time with Granada as your base.  Don’t hang out in Managua.  It doesn’t have much to offer.  Get out to the lake and you’ll feel the relaxing atmosphere.  As a non native Spanish speaker, I still found enough people who spoke enough English to get around.  You will want to have a few words.  One of my friends only used USD while in Nicaragua.  Even the ATM provided choices for USD or local.  Our hotel took credit cards.  You likely will want to make sure you have cash before you take the ferry out to Ometepe.  On the islands things are pretty spread out and the roads are pretty rough, but that’s part of the adventure.

Road Less Traveled: Top 5 Travel Destinations of Armenia

Crazy Foot bridge

Rickety Old Foot bridge

Armenia view Mt. Ararat, the site where Noah’s Ark landed, according to Genesis 8:4. In addition, Armenia has the distinction of being the first country to adopt the Christian faith (301 A.D.) and being evangelized by two of Jesus’ apostles (Bartholomew and Thaddeus). The landscape is dotted with ancient churches and monasteries.

Armenia may not currently be a top of tourist destination due to the challenge of getting there, but my experience is there is a lot of hidden gems and may be one of the top emerging religious tourist destination yet to be discovered, it’s off the radar for most.  It’s definitely an ancient kingdom that has been passed from empire to empire until it gained it’s independence from the Soviet Union.  Since that time it’s had a hard time with a couple of it’s neighbors.  There’s some disputed Territory that was a gift from Stalin to Azerbaijan and another to Turkey.  The Turkish relationship isn’t as strained it appears, but the Azerbaijani relationship is still strained with land disputes.

Khor Virap Monestary

(Above: Khor Virap Monestary)

There are some amazing destinations in Armenia.  The history of Armenia is fascinating.  I do think it’s worth visiting and not one to overlook in your visit to the former soviet union and in your visit to the Caucuses.  You really have to plan your routes through this region of the world.  For example simply flying into Armenia is a challenge.  We found getting from Georgia to Armenia was a great way of seeing the region and there were many more flight options into Tbilisi such as through Istanbul (one of my favorite cities for extended layovers).  Both Georgia and Armenia are Christian nations.

1. Where Noah landed the Ark – Mt Ararat viewing from Khor Virap Monastery – The Khor Virap Monastery is a 17th century Church provides a spectacular and majestic view of Mount Ararat and one of the most visited church and tourist spot of Armenia.  Saint Gregory was imprisoned in a pit for 13 years and as the story goes came out and the miracle of surviving this pit resulted in a conversion of the King and further prostylting led to the country converting to Christianity in 301 AD.

Khor Virap - The pit

The Pit – Climbing down these steps is a freaky experience.  It feels like the latter isn’t straight up and down.  It feels like you’re leaning backward.

Khor Virap in the shadows of Mt Ararat

Khor Virap Monestary with the Bible famous Mt Ararat in the Background.  There were some farmers burning their fields that day, so the mountain isn’t as looming in this photo.

2. Garni Temple – The oldest and best preserved Pagan temple in the world.  This building plays a significant role in the establishment of Armenia as a country and hence has been preserved where a lot of pagan temples around the world were destroyed with the rise of Islam and Christianity.

Garni Pagan Temple in Armenia

The nearly 2000 year old temple has some older structures around it including some interesting mosaics and likely one of the most incredible views of river valley which remind me of the Ihlara Valley in Turkey and have similar looking basalt columns of the Giants causeway of Ireland.

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(View inside of the Garni temple)

While we were there, some pagans were holding a ritual for one of their members who was off to join the military.

3. Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world.  While meditating in the old capital city of Vagharshapat, Gregory had a vision of Christ’s coming to the earth to strike it with a hammer. From the spot rose a great Christian temple with a huge cross. He was convinced that God intended him to build the main Armenian church there. The Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world. The original vaulted basilica was built in 301-303 by Saint Gregory the Illuminator with the Kings help when Armenia became the first officially Christian country in the world.He renamed the city Etchmiadzin, which means “the place of the descent of the only-begotten.”  This UNESCO herritage site is a 4th Century church with a rich history of the Christian nation of Armenia.

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Courtesy Wikipedia

There was construction going on on the turrets while I was there so my photo didn’t turn out this great.  The church is part of a greater complex of religious buildings including religious seminaries.

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Above: Seminary Students and Armenian Priests in the greater complex

4. Armenian Genocide Complex – Memorial Complex of Tsitsernakaberd

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Right near the national stadium is the Genocide memorial with an eternal flame and a pillar pointing toward heaven.  My friend Marvel told us stories of his families making the experience very personal.  The Government of the Ottoman Empire ordered the  destruction of Armenians in Anatolia (Eastern Turkey) in an organized expulsion and extermination of Armenians. Women, children and elderly were from February 1915 sent on death marches towards the Syrian desert.  Some 1 million to 1.5 million died.

Apparently there is controversy in the use of the term “genocide” as Turkey and Azerbaijan choose to say these events were part of the war.  It’s very sad.

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Armenian Genocide Memorial 1915-1922, the flowers pile up in a circle around the flame.  Online there’s a 3-D video of the Armenian Genocide complex including the ability to place flowers.

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5. Yerevan Republic Square – The Republic Square is the place where ceremonies and meetings are held. The statue of Lenin used to be located in the southern forehead of the square, but when Armenia regained its independence, the statue was brought down.  Now you’ll find dancing fountains in the summer.

The square is surrounded with seven major buildings:

  • The National Gallery and the History Museum building (north).
  • The Ministry of Territorial Administration (north-east).
  • The Government House: holds the main offices of the Government of Armenia (north-east).
  • The Central post-office of the Republic of Armenia (south-east).
  • The “Mariott Armenia” hotel (south-west).
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (north-west).
  • The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (north-west).

Republic Square Yerevan

Republic Square Yerevan

Christmas in central republic square

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan Armenia

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan, this is a must see on the weekends.  Lots of fun things for travelers.  Lots of crafts involving Noah and the local landscapes.

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This is the Old Yerevan Restaurant Band.  There were tons of fun.  Lots of great food to eat.  The food was one of my favorite things about Armenia.  Lots of great food.

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Empires and Castles of Ethiopia

Ethiopian Castle

When you think of Ethiopia you think of impoverished people where 3/4ths of the country live on less than $1 a day.  When I first came across the fact that not only there were castles Ethiopia, but a vast Kingdom that rivals the Kingdoms of Europe and was larger than the greatest kingdoms of the world, I was blown away.  Ethiopia has quickly become one of my favorite places in Africa.  In fact what I’d discover was wild stories of King Solomon of Jerusalem of the famous Temple of Solomon and his many wife’s including the Queen Sheba whose  kingdom is believed to have been in modern Ethiopia and Yemen.  The more Kebra Nagast I read the more I was fascinated and even becoming convinced of the connection between Ethiopia and the old Judean kingdom.  In Ethiopia you can’t separate religion and these vast kingdoms.  As a Kingdom there are strong Judean traditions and Christian influences and is the first Christian Kingdom.  If you read the Ethiopian scriptures you’ll find the marriage and first born son of Solomon and the connection to Sheba and her son Menelik.

Aksumite Empire and Kingdom

The Aksumite Obelisks marked the reign of the old kingdoms.  One of them was taken by Italy and then returned in 2005.  Imagine if England and France returned the obelisks from Egypt?  I know the Paris one was for a trade for a clock that never really worked.

The Empire of Aksum at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia.  It was known as one of the four great powers of his time along with Persia, Rome, and China.

Right: St. Mary’s church which contains the Arc of the Covenant behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies according to the Ethiopian Coptic church.  They wouldn’t let us go back there. Instead they wanted to show us their old colorful Holy Book or Bible.

The Aksum empire achieved prominence by the 1st century AD, and was a major player in the commerce between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.

Aksum’s capital is found in northern Ethiopia in modern Axum which is now smaller than it once was. The Kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th century. It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba.

Abyssinia (Ethiopian) Empire – Solomonic Dynasty

The Solomonic Dynamisty claim direct male line descent from the old Axumite royal house. Menelik II, and later his daughter Zewditu, claim direct male descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  The importance of this is very significant for Rastafarians and much of Ethopia.  The last emperor of Ethiopia born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, known as Haile Selassie I was Emperor of Ethopia from 1930 to 1974. He was the heir to a dynasty that traced its origins by tradition from King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Empress of Axum known in the Abrahamic tradition as the Queen of Sheba.

I took this picture of Emperor Fasilides (1603-1667) Castle in Gondar, which was one of the best preserved of the many castles in a small area in the city of Gondar.

Here Paul and I were messing around amongst the castles.

Above: Emperor Yohannes I Castle in Gondar – 1667-1682

We were a little surprised to find a heard of donkeys running down the road.  The castles are on the other side of the rock wall.

These cool Banyan roots remind me of Cambodia.

Below: Coffee Ceremony.  Coffee is originated in Ethiopia.  If you love coffee I highly recommend the personal roasted coffee bean ceremonial experience.  I’m not much for coffee being LDS, but my friend Paul must have tried it a half dozen times and loved every one of them.

Fasiladas’ bath – created by Fasilidas back in the 16h century.  It’s a beautiful place where they perform baptisms.

Timket – Once a year the Ethiopian church celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river on January 19 (or 20 on Leap Year), corresponding to the 10th day of Terr following the Ethiopian calendar.

Below: This blue house appears made of dung and this fabulous blue color.

Below the ancient kingdom of Yeha even older than Axum as the capital for Ethiopia and has the oldest building in Ethiopia dated to somewhere around 700 BC.  We were definitely out of place in this little village.  If you really want to see people who rarely see outsiders this is a great place.

The Monastery of Debre Damo is on a flat-topped mountain with and contains a 6th century monastery available only to men. While on top of this plateau you can see hills and landscape in Sudan and Eritrea.  It’s a real treat for multiple reasons. The only entry is via a rope made of animal hides that’s dropped.  You tie one it around you and start climbing up the other animal rope.  It’s an incredible experience climbing up 100 foot cliff straight up.

If you visit Axum Ethiopia it’s a short 2-3 hours through an amazing countryside ride.  Yeha is less than a half hour away.  We were able to see much of Axum in the morning and make it out to the amazing unique monastery.

Incredible India Series: The World Famous Temple of Rats

Temple of the Rats

Our world is evolved enough people should NOT be dying of hunger any longer. End of story.  I don’t think we should put up with it any more.  If a handful of priests can keep alive 20,000 rats in the lap of luxury. We surely can apply some of these principles to help sustain communities all over the world.  In my next post I’ll tell you what we can learn from the rat temple, a place that’s one of my favorite because it’s sooo different from the culture I’m use to.  I spent a couple of weeks across India and Nepal with a couple of friends… Majid from Iran and Michael Noel from San Francisco.

While traveling in India I came across a peculiar place unique to any other on the planet.  It was the Karni Mata Temple known as the Rat Temple in Rajisthan province near Bikiner.

Karni Mata the world famous Rat Temple

The world famous shrine of Karni Mata can be found in the town of Deshnoke 30 km south from Bikaner on the road to Jodhpur. Karni Mata is worshiped as an incarnation of Goddess Durga.  This temple is famous for rats which can be seen everywhere in the temple.  The rats are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple.  Thousands of people travel to the temple by foot. The temple draws Hindu visitors from across the country hoping for blessings, as well as curious tourists from around the world. Inside, you are required to remove your shoes, it’s good luck to have rats run across your feet as this brings good luck.  It’s also good luck to find a white rat.  Apparently among the 20,000 rats there are 4 or 5 white rats.  We spent a while listening to the children who were telling us stories of where the white rat had hid in a wall and we waited around hoping to catch a glimpse.  The temple is an ancient building from the 1500’s built in beautiful white marble and has a silver door complete with images of rats that was donated by a rich ruler nearby.

The priests of the temple are protectors of the rats.  They bless the pilgrims and give them a special sacrament.  This sacramental food that is a mix of rat saliva and other stuff that comes out very yellow called prasadam, a candy like food for the rats. Eating food or drinking water that previously has been sampled by a rat is considered to be a supreme blessing.

Why Rats?  In India as well as in the west Rats aren’t that special.  In fact they are seen as animals that carry disease, but these rats are special.  For generations they have been taken care of in this prime state.

The story of the rat temple is quite unique.  I’ll put the story in my own words and then let you discover a number of online variations of the story.  The story goes that Karni Matta was the reincarnate of the goddess Durga.  One of her children died and she tried to bring it back to life only to be told by Death that had cursed her and her child was reincarnated as a rat and all of her clan would be reincarnated as rats.  Other versions I’ve found say she made a deal to have her clan come back to life as rats and those rats would come back as humans.  Either way, you don’t want to hurt or harass the rats here, as they are very special, but these are relatives of a reincarnate goddess.

There are a few amazing things about the Rat Temple:

  1. Look for the white rat definitely a fun and rewarding activity
  2. Apparently of the 20,000 rats it’s difficult to locate any baby or younger rats. In our trip I think we saw some juveniles, but for the most part they all did look about the same size and age.
  3. No one apparently has ever gotten sick from the rats.
  4. Careful where you lean, there may be a rat on the ledge or railing. Killing a rat would result in you needing to replace it with a solid gold or silver one.

While at the temple I saw the largest mixing bowls in my life.  These huge huge bowls are set over a fire and the priest cooks the food for the rats in mass quantities.  They are feeding 20,000 rats and for a handful of priests it saves a lot of time to work with industrial sized feeding bowl.  In my next post I’ll share a social biz idea to solve world hunger based on this amazing place.  I refer to the idea as social mush.

Read more about this very unique temple on National Geographic’s Rats Rule at India Temple