Thursday, November 25, 2004

Laos - November 2004

Hello All!

I am sitting here in an internet cafe in Ventienne, Laos, which is the capital. Sitting beside me is a monk dressed in his saffron robe and bright yellow sash. I'm trying to snoop and see who he is emailing, but I just can't see.

Monks are everywhere here in Laos. I'm beginning to take them and their soft faces and beautiful bright colors for granted... What a wonderful luxury!

All of Laos is a luxurious visual treat.

I arrived through the Northern Thailand border and spent two long days floating down the Mekong river towards Luang Prabang, the historical royal capitol of old Laos.

The boat was rustic to say the least. 40 people we crammed into a freight boat with bare plywood benches for 7 hours the first day and 9 the second. Although at moments when my muscles ached I wondered why I didn't just fly in the end, I couldn't help but feel blessed that I had the time to float in such amazing scenery.

The Mekong is the 12th longest and the 8th most powerful river in the world and its size and strength inspired me. Since Laos is largely undeveloped we saw very few huts on the coast and instead feasted our eyes on mountain ranges covered with lush jungle and limestone cliffs.

At the end of the journey we piled off the boat into Luang Prabang, a magical place filled with historical Buddhist temples and classic French colonial architecture. It is yet another UNESCO world heritage site and their careful restoration of the buildings, temples, sidewalks... makes it a truly special place.

The Buddhist presence is seeping out of every corner and crevice. We were very lucky to arrive at one of the most special times of the year, the first full moon after the rainy season. Monks have had to spend the whole rainy season, 3 months, at their temples and now after the full moon they are able to travel the country again and go home to see their families. This is a reason to celebrate!
Signs of the celebration and of their devout faith were all over:

At 4am on our first morning, we heard the pounding of drums shake our hotel room. I promptly ran outside to see what was going on. We learned that for three days they would beat the drums and ring bells in all the temples at 4am and 4pm.

(I sometimes say that I like to have religion beaten into me and I tell you the deep full sound of these drums did just that!)

The reason I jumped up so quickly is that Luang Prabang is known for a special custom. I knew it was going to happen, but I didn't know when and didn't want to miss it.

Each morning all the monks walk through the town in a precession. The town’s people kneel on the sides of the road and place alms, which are in the form of sticky rice and coconut jelly treats wrapped in banana leaves, into the monk's baskets providing them their food for the day.

Luckily they don't start till 6am so I could go out and watch each morning of my stay. All the monks from all the temples eventually join up on the main street and form a line of about 200 monks. It's a majestic sight!

Luang Prabang has over 35 temples, so most of the activities there are walking (or biking, which we did for two days) and looking and ornate temple after ornate temple.

One afternoon we walked into a temple’s grounds and said hello to a monk. He motioned to us to come up where he was. As we followed all the monks began to go inside the temple. Before we knew it we were invited inside and were kneeling in the back of the temple while 50 monks chanted below the eyes of placid benevolent Buddha.

This was a stunning experience. The sounds shook me and the beauty around me stimulated my senses. The sound of their voices was the most enchanting display of religious faith that I have ever seen.

When the chanting stopped and the teaching began, we felt we should leave them to their private sessions. The funny part though was that five monks followed us out so they could speak with us. While we were speaking, one of them invited us to a nearby temple for a candlelit precession to celebrate the full moon. We had known these celebrations existed around town but couldn't get any information about them in the tourist areas we had been staying so we were very VERY happy to be invited.

As we approached the temple, we could not miss that something was going on. There were lights, games and tables selling food, candy and flowers. There were local people streaming into the grounds. Luckily when we were struggling to figure out what was going on, (What time does it actually start? What’s going to happen? Should we buy candles and flowers? Humm, I'm hungry but what is that stuff they are selling???) our new monk friends popped up to explain that we needed flowers, incense and candles to burn in a candlelight precession where we would walk around the outside of the temple while being serenaded by drums, bells and chants. Our flowers would then be left as a gift to Buddha.

It was so special to be able to be in such a local event. We were able to see the Lao people in their most festive moods and see their teenagers flirt; watch boys hang in groups across the way from the girls; see little kids run around and play... It was just like home.

The other good thing about Luang Prabang is that it’s a very small city (16,000) so everywhere you go you see the same faces. That meant always meeting someone to eat a meal with or discuss the beauty of a temple. We also had our 40 friends from the slow boat that we bumped into at every turn. This small town hospitality made for a very warm experience.

But alas, we couldn't stay there forever! There was a whole country to see! So we hired a car and wound through the high mountains passes on to our next stop, The Plain of Jars.

The Plain of Jars are an archaeological site covering many acres of Northern Laos. Huge carved stone vessels dot the countryside. These urns, some up to 9ft tall, are thought to have been funerary urns used to hold the ashes of deceased nobility. They date back to 500 BC - 500 AD.

This area of Laos was where the "secret war" of 1960-1970 was fought. The US and the Vietnamese fought each other so secretly that in congressional records of the time there is no mention of the name of the country that the fighting is going on in. We were spending over 2 million dollars a day, which makes it the most expensive war in history and it is said that still today this the most heavily bombed part of the world.

Among the Plain of Jars and up on the hillsides, there are massive craters from bombs and the countryside is still charred from Agent Orange and Napalm making it useless for growing anything.

What land there is to farm is also largely unusable because it is covered with unexploded munitions. It is believed that today 25% of the bombs we dropped have not been detonated and lie among the hillsides where the people live.

In fact, our guide had two friends who died a few years ago while trying to transport one of these bombs home to sell for scrap metal.

Remnants of the exploded bombs are everywhere. The bomb casings are used for fences, planters, tables and even a bonfire pit for the guest house we stayed at.

After seeing the area, we were off again...

The terrain:

As I have said before, Laos is a largely undeveloped country. It has a very low density of people which means as you drive you can see miles and miles of untouched mountain ranges. The roads weave around the edges of mountains high in the sky and above the cloud line. The terrain is covered with lush jungle with banana plants, bamboo, palm trees mixed with a sea of other green trees and vines. All the flat areas are covered with rice paddies where giant water buffalos graze.

Along the road lie small villages. People live tiny houses, mostly on stilts, with walls made of straw mats and roofs made of thatch. Pigs, chickens, cows and goats wander through the road and pay no attention to the cars that speed by every once in a while. (Yes, there are very very few cars so these mountain passes are mostly isolated.)

The People:

Laos is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world and its people lead a hard life of subsistence farming. Little children play in the streets and although there is free primary school, it is not evident that everyone gets to them.

Since there are few cars, carts resembling large wheel barrels are pushed along the side of the road piled high with bananas, wood and bamboo. Women walk with both babies and baskets on their backs.

Although the men wear western dress, the women all wear their sins which are always pressed traditional long straight silk skirts with a band of ornate trim at the bottom, sparkling in the light.

Now finally to my last stop, Ventienne, the country's capital where I am today.

Ventienne is a small town nestled in the banks of the Mekong and its very hard to believe that this is the capital, though there is one grand boulevard in pure French style that is lined with large government buildings and a palace on one end that would only exist in a capital city.

Activities here include:

- Drinking Beer Lao (VERY good beer) at sunset at the small food stalls that line the river’s edge, watching fisherman take their boats up and down the river slow throwing nets in to catch whatever is available.

- Going to the history museum and learning about the "American Imperialists and their puppets" during the war and learning about the accomplishments of the communist government here.

- Checking out the morning market, which sprawls for long distances and sells almost anything your heart desires (clothes, jewelry, bicycles, TVs, fabric...) but unlike the market near the Plain of Jars I can't find the food market which there sold parrots, hawks, squirrels, mongooses, frogs, bats and many other unidentified dead animals, a truly disturbing sight to see.

- Walking temple grounds and seeing some of the great Buddhist treasure of Laos.

- Having tradition Lao massages!!!

- And sitting in bars with all the ex-pat aid workers and seeing where business really gets done. 70% percent of Laos budget is from aid money.

Today I say goodbye to Laos. I will spend the next week in the mountains of Northern Thailand at an elephant rescue camp. It will give me a chance to do some good and experience the more rustic side of living here.

My room will be in a treehouse at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

Soon I will be back in New York and start looking for a job... For now though, I think I'll go get one more slice of watermelon from the bicycle cart that’s ringing it bell outside and try to soak in a little more of Southeast Asia.

Happy Holidays!

Monday, November 01, 2004

Cambodia - November 2004

hello all,

many of you have been emailing wondering where i am. i was supposed to be job searching after the election, but i met someone who wanted to travel to laos while i was in africa and thought if not now, when? so here i am in southeast asia. i have been traveling for two weeks to hong kong, bangkok, thailand and now to see angkor wat in cambodia. i meet my friend tomorrow.

yes, i am on a tour of continents and savoring every moment. it is so satisfying to read travel magazines and know i have been to so many places they have written about all in one year!
i have become an adventurous traveler with very few fears. i wander the streets,look at the people and revel in the experience of seeing a world so very different from my own.

my first stop was hong kong. i visited friends there and got to see a REALLY big city. i thought i was prepared for high rises after living in new york. but we live in a little city in comparison. there are many many 50 story residential and commercial high rises jumping out of every free flat space.

in reality hong kong is a mountainous area that has preserved 48% of its land as parkland, so while there are many tall buildings there are also rolling mountain sides covered with forest. hiking is one of the "things" to do there, which seemed out of place for the commercial center of the world.

don't be fooled though. there is lots of commerce going on there. i saw some of the nicest malls i have ever seen, since they are the open the public spaces where people congregate in the scorching heat. there are also incredible markets. its china town in new york x 100. they have many special shopping markets.

my favorite was the bird market where every imaginable type of bird is available for sale and sitting in small cages that line the streets. i think if i lived there i would have many many little birds since they had a magical quality about them.

i also liked the goldfish market, where store after store was filled with fish of all types and colors.
there also is: a huge jade market, a big women's clothing market, an electronic market, a flower market and a computer center... that are all beside each other in the streets on one neighborhood.

from hong kong's mountains to the flat land of sprawling bangkok, thailand...

bangkok is another huge city. so huge that i only saw two small parts of it so far and don't even really know where the tall buildings are.

i did the tourist sites. in this area of the world that means buddhist temple after buddhist temple. there are temples in every nook at cranny of the city and small shrines set up outside shops and on sidewalks.

the temples i visited were absolutely stunning. they are very ornate with beautiful tiled patterns on the roofs and walls. inside the buildings there are buddhas of all shapes and sizes. there is a 120 ft reclining buddha, a 3 ft jade buddha, who may be the most famous of them all, and a 12 foot tall sold gold buddha.

i stayed in in the tourist ghetto of bangkok. its mostly one street called khao san road where all the guest houses are located and many of the backpackers stay.

its hard to explain what this place looked like. there are shops and stalls lining the street selling clothes and thai souvenirs. there are many carts that sell freshly made thai food. there are people braiding peoples hair in the middle of the street. there are places to email and places to set up your next trip. but best of all, there are bars with outdoor terraces so you can have a beer and watch the scene while listening to blasting american music.

although the street is not officially closed, the pedestrians make it almost impossible for cars to get by, so mostly the cars don't even try.

sitting and watching the people was fabulous. i'm not exactly the bohemian backpacker type, but i could definitely see that this is the kind of place that many people would like to drop out in and from the looks of it many of them do.

now it was time to leave the city and travel a bit more off the beaten path to siem reap, cambodia.

this is the home of angkor wat, one of the seven wonders of the world and i can tell you it is wonderful! surrounding this town are 16 km of khmer temples from the 9-12th centuries. the khmer empire ruled much of south east asia during that time.

words can't really describe these temples but once again i will try. the are big and bigger and sit right next to each other. different kings built them to reverve both the buddhist and hindu faiths depending on the years of the empire. in fact an interesting sight is where they changed the carvings of the god's to match the faith of the time.

after 1000 years of living in a lush jungle all of the temples were covered in trees and vines when the french discovered then in the 20's. since then there has been a major effort to reconstruct them. although some have been mostly put back up, i really liked the ones with the trees growing right through them. the trees, which started as little seedlings, have spent over 200 years growing into towering beings with root bases just as big. the roots have literally picked up big stones and tossed them to the side or just wrapped themselves around them.

i went to over 20 temples so i can't describe any one in particular but this is definitely something to see. its sheer size shows both the extreme power and wealth of an empire and how deeply rooted buddhism is in this region. one thing i did notice is that the biggest temples were built in the last years of the empire. once again an empire's head got bigger than its real strength.
since cambodia until recently was ruled by a very evil dictatorship, these temples have been closed to the west and tourism for 30 years. that means the tourist industry is just developing here.

the great adventure is that you can walk everywhere and see everything at these temples unlike many other places that i have been in the world. although i know that i shouldn't walk on them it is a great privilege to climb to the top of these stone mountains and experience them fully.

siem reap, which was a small town ten years ago is growing by leaps and bounds. huge hotels are being built all over the place. western restaurants are being opened, but still the tourists here in old town where i am staying have a distinctive end of the world feel. these are the people who like to be places first. we stay in hotels with few amenities and eat street food. (i say we, but i am still not feeling like one of them. they seem hipper than me.) this town is in a major state of change and its very exciting to be here in the beginning and see it first.

the streets here are full with motorcycles and bikes, everyone going in every which way. cars are beginning to arrive here but even with them the pace is slow and the driving rules are easy. most mopeds have a least two people on them and often three or four. they carry everything imaginable, firewood, jugs of water, vegetables for the market, full branches of coconuts...

my favorite place to sit was at an open restaurant across the street from the old market. all combined i spent hours there eating, drinking but mostly watching all the people go by. it was a perfect place to sit to try to observe the daily life there.

now i am off to northern thailand and then to laos, an even more untouched and untouristed world. i am really enjoying my adventure.


will write again soon!



Thursday, September 02, 2004

Photos from Africa

Me and my new Samburu friends Downtown Wamba in Northeast Kenya

Merchants in Nairobi

Lamu, a traditional Swahili island off the coast of Kenya

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Africa - September 2004

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while but between being where there was no electricity and being so busy having so many wonderful experiences I haven’t had a moment to sit back and reflect on what I have seen.

Here are some thoughts that I wrote down a few days ago:

I want to describe what it was like to wake up in this wonderful place. I’m in my little tent perched above the White Nile in Murchison Falls in Northern Uganda.

I can look out to an endless horizon and a flowing river below. I am being serenaded by so many sounds that it sounds more like an orchestra than individual voices. The noise makers are frogs, monkeys, birds, cicadas and finally hippos grunting below.

Its a slice of heaven and certainly the best place I’ve ever stayed in my life.

Africa is a feast for the eyes. Long horizons, beautiful people, endless wildlife. My brain dances with all that I have seen.

...Could it be possible that less than two weeks ago I was squeezed in the back seat with a young Samburu Moran (warrior) dressed in beads and colored cloths???

... Was it really just a few days ago that I was in Lamu, a Muslim island of the coast of Northern Kenya, where everyone was dressed in head scarves and traditional Swahili dress including men in white cotton head to toe??? A place with no cars and only donkeys as transport.

...And yesterday, did I really walk among (within 20ft) of elephants on the edge of towering cliffs in Uganda??? They were so big; I was so small, but we there sharing the Savannah together.

How can I possibly explain the hecticness on the the streets of Kampala, where everyone is selling something and white matatus (minibuses) weave through the street in every direction picking up passengers along the way. At night the stalls are lit by candlelight and sell sides of cow and goat as well as auto parts and TV’s all in a row.

Sometimes the visual feast is totally overwhelming but overwhelming in the best sort of way. My brain is ready to burst with love and enthusiasm for everything I see.

If only I could show you all the little children on the sides of the roads who jump up to wave hello and shout “Hello! How are you?” or just yell “mzunga” (white person) as if having us drive by is the highlight of their day.

Certainly seeing them is one of the highlights of my trip. Who could not be totally moved by those smiles on those bright faces?

I also can’t get enough of the friendliness. The people of Uganda have an inner calm and openness I have never seen before in my travels.

And in Kenya, what a feeling it was to drive into Wamba, a small town in Northwest Kenya, home to the Samburu people. Each time we drove through everyone noticed the mzungu had arrived. Not many white people travel in these parts so many are still shocked to see us. Little babies cry at the sight of our white skin. Others run up to practice their English, which they are taught in school but don’t use much in daily life.

Each night in Wamba we would take a stroll through the little market to see what beaded jewelry they had created for us that day. Then we took our nightly stroll to say hi and see the people. On most trips we would have a whole slew of kids following behind us. At the end, we ended up in what became our bar, ("the best bar" according to the people we befriended) where women we a rare sight and mzungu’s were even rarer, but the Kenyan hospitality welcomed us anyway.

The Samburu are a tribe that is related to the more famous Masai. Today 70% of them still follow their full traditions. This means dressing with many beautiful beads and swathing themselves in bright colored wraps. Living a pastoral/nomadic lifestyle in small movable huts in the semi arid dessert. Raising and grazing cattle, goats, sheep and camels and mostly living on just milk and maize flour since the size of their herds is a sign of wealth.

Girls are still married here at a very young ages, starting a 9. They are circumcised the day of the marriage to purify them for their new much older husbands, who in most cases they have never met. These men bought their hand for eight heads of cattle.

The boys are raised into manhood as Morans or young warriors. They protect the tribe for a period or about 12 years beginning at around age 14. The are initiated into Moran-hood with circumcision. These are the ornate tribal members one sees in photos.

The Samburu people revere and respect the Donkey since it is a valuable more of transport. As a Democrat, I was glad to see so many beautiful donkeys!

Its hard to describe the vast open spaces here. You can see for many miles and even over country borders.

In Uganda, I can see over to the Congo and Rwanda, where I hurt for the suffering people. How could all that inhumanity exist in a world that seems so peaceful and beautiful?

A sobering reminder of all that was going on around us occurred when we were driving along through a national park, passing no other vehicles till a big truck appeared on the horizon. It was from UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees.) It had dropped its load at a refugee camp up the way for Sudanese refugees.

The airport is also filled with UN planes and evidence of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations is all around. Yes, Uganda is tucked in between many countries in conflict and even has its own long term fighting in the North. It seems to be a very far reality from what I am seeing but I am sure even in this stable and growing country conflict can easily be spurred when there are so many people just barely meeting their basic needs on subsistence farms. Most of the growth and progress never shows or trickles down.

I wish I could properly describe the magnificence of the Murchison Falls which lie on the Victoria Nile. An enormous amount of water sweeps over a gigantic fall to crash 120 feet below. The rumbling sound shook my inner core. A this mist rose above us and covered us as rainbows formed in every direction.

If I could I would visit this place everyday to help sort my thoughts. It’s raw energy calmed me and seemed to identify what really matters.

...And if you could only see the hippos hovering in the water with only their eyes and ears peaking out from below the surface. The perfect lazy life.

... Or how about climbing straight up a mountain for hours into a swath of rain forest to catch a glimpse of a family of mountain gorillas. They are the largest ape. The silverback male (the leader) was over 450 lbs! Instead of being scary, he sat peacefully in the sun eating anything his hands could reach. There are only 650 mountain gorillas left in the world and they only exist in this mountainous region.

As for my time with Earthwatch, studying the endangered Grevy Zebra’s, it was great to be a junior scientist and help with research. As the world develops at this fast pace, species are going extinct everyday. It seems sad to know that in my lifetime there may be no more Grevys, with their narrow pinstripes that make them even more regal than the common zebras we all know.
Now I return to the States with a renewed sense of purpose to fight for regime change. Kerry should be pleased that everyone here is rooting for him.

My first day in Nairobi, I was in a cab stopped at a traffic light when the cab driver next to me said “American?” When I said yes, he said “Bush or Kerry?” When I said Kerry he began cheering and beeping his horn. It seems that everyone here knows more about the election in the states than regular Americans do.

More importantly the aid workers I have met are very concerned with the direction of US foreign policy and its effect on the long term health of the world.

It amazes me how different it feels to be an American outside of our borders. I wish I could really describe it to the average American voter so that we could make a significant change to our role in the world. The world needs an America that respects and supports it and America needs friends around the World. The policies that the Bush administration is pursuing are isolating us which will is only creating more enemies.

Leaving Africa will be very hard for me. So far I have cried when leaving each place I have been. This trip has been an experience of a lifetime. The beauty, the people and the vastness of the land will always be with me.

I hope all of you will be able to visit Africa in your lifetime and get to be shook to the core as I have been.

Check out some photos:

See you soon in the States!


Saturday, July 24, 2004

Amsterdam - July 2004

since my last email, i have visited dresden and berlin in germany and rotterdam and amsterdam in the netherlands.


my one day in dresden made a big impression on me.

for those of you that don't know the dresden history, i'll give you a little lesson. in the last months of world war II, the allied forces firebombed dresden and left it looking like "the face of the moon" (slaughterhouse five by vonnegut) 136,000 people were killed in a matter of hours and one of the prettiest cities in europe was no more. after the german split, dresden fell into the eastern german block and the german government decided that they were going to try to build some of the city back to it's glory.

the results are amazing! out of a sea of cement communist block buildings, rises a piece of old world beauty graciously wrapped around the elbe river.

they are still building block by block and i mean block by block. all the rubble was sorted through and all blocks that could still be used were categorized by computer so they could be put back into the building in the same location that they had been in before. the result is a 33% old and 66% new building that looks like it was built in the 1800's.

due to the lovely industrial pollution of the eastern block, many of the new parts of the buildings are as dark as the originals, so it is impossible to tell which part has been rebuilt without looking at the post-war pictures.

i stayed in a residential area of town that must have missed the ravages of bombing. its now very hip. there are tons of bars and restaurants and the people are so "cool". i was just hoping some of it would rub off on me if i sat near them!


their coolness started to prepare me for berlin, which is certainly the hippest city i have been to thus far. berlin has an edge and really almost compared with new york for me.

basically 70% of berlin was bombed in the war and the scars are all over the city. the old restored buildings are literally pock marked with bullet holes and the architectural layout is a mismatch of styles and sizes, which jarred me at first.

all the history that happened there was screaming out and wanting to be heard at the same time. all i could think was that really bad history had happened on these streets. after all this was the city where hitler came up with the final solution and the city that the cold war was fought.

somehow seeing the berlin wall in person again jarred my soviet memory. how could someplace be so bad that it was worth getting shot trying to cross the border? how could families be split in the middle of the night? (yes, the wall was built in the middle of one night while families slept.) maybe the soviets really were trying to take over the world???

and yet, in 15 years, the city has exploded. its so full of life and hope that its about to burst at the seems. the new architecture is a feast for the eyes. you can tell these architects were allowed to create their wildest dreams with no boundaries. thinking big gives the city a big bright attitude. the berliners are diverse, hip, and fashionable.

i just happened to be in berlin for the love parade, a giant techno parade where the best techno dj's play from trucks and the music blares in the street. the people dance along beside them. buildings pulsed with the rhythm.

last year, there were 1.5 million people and this year they supposedly canceled it, but it still went on with about 100,000 people, which was much more my speed.

try to imagine that many people dancing in the streets to techno on fifth avenue. in berlin its possible!

i also took the time to explore some of the ethnic and hip outer neighborhoods. there is a vibrant young urban family community and a huge turkish community.

one last exciting thing: clinton was in berlin on his book tour while i was there and i bumped into a crowd outside his hotel waiting to see him.

there were at least a 1000 people and he came out and shook every hand. it was totally moving. the next day, he was on the cover of every paper. they were calling him a berliner, a great compliment that was last bestowed on kennedy. the whole scene almost brought tears to me eyes.

again i say we need a new president that understands the usa's role in the world and respects the role other nations play. if we had a president like that, the world would view us differently.

anyway, back to the topic at hand... you can probably tell i am a big berlin fan but i had to move on to rotterdam.


rotterdam is the home to the largest shipping port in the world, so i visited to see just what that looked like and i can tell you first hand that it is impressive!

it too was bombed in the war so it is in the process of reinventing itself. there is cutting edge architecture shooting out of the skyline. what is different though, is the activity on the waterfront.

as i approached the river, i couldn't miss the container ships speeding by in all directions.

i took a boat tour of the port and got to see enormous container ships being loaded and unloaded. they said that there are now ships that can hold 8000 containers. if you lined them up they would reach 30 miles long. i'm sorry to say that none of those boats were in the part of the port i was in, but the boats i saw where bigger than anything i have ever seen before.

as a waterfront advocate, all i could see was the economic power that comes from have such a vibrant port and it gave me new resolve to keep fighting for new yorks ports.

the other thing i noticed is how diverse the netherlands are. rotterdam's streets were filled with people of all colors and creeds. (that is something i particularly missed in eastern europe and so i was really happy to get a chance to watch people.) it seemed like the real melting pot that new york tries to be.


amsterdam is a city much like venice with canals built like avenues that seem to circle the city. today they told me that there are over 1000 bridges within the city. the architecture is mostly made of brick and the buildings are tall, narrow and pretty. many people live in houseboats that line the canals and lots of people have boats to travel the canals. also it seems like most people travel by bicycle, which is easier in a totally flat place.

amsterdam seems to have a booming social scene with outdoor bars everywhere, enticing you to laze around with a fresh beer. the city looks young, rich and urban. the red light district is even more outragious then i expected.

today i went out to see windmills, which was my most pressing reason for coming here. they are even quainter in person and the small towns that they rise out of feel totally different than anywhere i have been on this trip.

the most interesting thing about traveling in the countryside is to see the canals in the big open fields. farmers travel by boat to their fields.

the netherlands are all below sea level and protected by dikes throughout to monitor the water height. this means that there is lots of water flowing everywhere and the lushness of everything is apparent. the postcards show fields of tulips in the spring which is something i would love to see someday.

this is my last new city, since i go back to london tomorrow to spend the last few days of my vacation with my sister.

the trip has made the world smaller for me. we all eat, drink and wear similar brands. it has been yet another reminder that everything doesn't start and end with the united states. it also brought the damage of war even closer and made me want to learn even more about world war II.

i will be back in new york in one week and will spend the next month enjoying the summer, attending the political conventions and getting ready for my trip to africa.

it has been a great trip and i am glad that i still have the africa portion to go. i'll be happy to have a break, but i still have a little adventure left in me!

happy summer!


Thursday, July 01, 2004

Prague - Summer 2004

hello all -

i am now in praha (or prague for you non-czech speakers) since i last wrote i have been to budapest, krakow and now here.

for these three cities i am traveling with my friend, susan teitz. it has been nice to have companionship and to stay in hotels vs hostels. i was so happy to take a long bath in budapest and clean off three weeks of travel grime!

all three cities are alike in many ways. they are each cities with castles on hills and rivers running through their centers. they share the hapsburg/austro-hungarian, world war two, and communist block history and share similar architecture from the baroque and renaissance eras. the buildings are unbelievably ornate. with every turn there is a building prettier than any i had seen before. i love the use of color. new york could use a fresh coast of pastel paint!


i arrived in budapest after a full day on the train riding through the beautiful rural countryside. it was a bit hard to get into big city mode again. ljubljana is a tiny hamlet and budapest is the big time. at first i didn't even know which direction to go, since there was so much to see.

i decided to just head out and must have made a correct turn because i bumped into katie callahan, a friend of mine from high school and junior high school. she was there for business and we caught up and she gave me the lay of the land. it reminded me again what a small world it is!

the best thing about budapest is that is has many ornate public baths where one can go to get spa treatments and swim in their natural warm waters. the one i went too, the gellert baths, was enormous. there was a wave pool, that somehow made you feel like you were on an ocean beach jumping in the huge waves. the spas are not exactly like spas in the US. instead you lie in rooms full of people as loud hungarian women poke and prod at you. it was a great message though and i was able to have a glass of wine poolside afterwards!

another great thing about budapest is the pastries. they are so good that we decided we should have them for breakfast. now thats vacation!!!

our hotel was right across the river from the parliament building which is most ornate building i have ever seen. at night all the buildings are lit up and this one looks a bit like a mirage. how could people possibly carve such a huge sculpture and then work in it! the entire Hungarian parliament can only use 15 percent of the space, its so big.


we survived our two overnight train trips. there were rumors of lots of crime, but really we climbed into our little bunks and slept the night away, in between big mean border guards waking us up to see out passports. the experience was a step back into soviet times.

we arrived in krakow at 5am, which meant we could experience the main square with no one in it. it is a truly beautiful place. its that biggest square in eastern europe and is lined with cafes and stunning buildings. i had seen pictures and they couldn't capture its beauty.

the centerpiece of the square is st. mary's cathedral. all i can say is "oh my god!" this is the absolute most ornate church i have ever seen and in the last month alone i have probably seen 200 churches including notre dam... this is the church that pope john paul II is from so you can imagine it gets some extra love from the catholics.

krakow is very very catholic. you can't walk anywhere without seeing a nun and each of these nuns is from a different order so they wear great habits. the churches are filled with people praying and bowing. it is an awe inspiring experience.

basically it is a small city. you can walk from one end of old town to the next in 10 minutes, but every step is charming. what is really hard to believe is that 15 years ago there were no stores or restaurants or bars, because there is a bustling shopping world there. in this way, the eastern europeans seemed ready to throw out communism and embrace capitalism. in other ways though, you can hear dissatisfaction with the free market. they complain of the loss of the social support system and the pain of rising unemployment as well of the fact that the communists are still in power under different party names and now they do an even better job of controlling the resources.

while i am here, i have been trying to learn about the eastern european jewish experience. i feel like i owe it to my russian and polish jewish relatives. it means i have been seeing some pretty tragic things. each of the cities has the remains of ghettos which have been pretty much turned into museums since there is not much of a jewish population left here. although the museums are well done, it is sad to have to hear the story via a museum rather than learning from the actual living people.

i was in krakow for the jewish cultural festival which arose out of poles wanting to know more about such an important part of their history. for me it meant great klezmer music everywhere!
i also went to auschwitz. it was really weird to be there and realize that 60 years ago there were jews being killed there. i've been to so many holocaust museums and seen so many movies that i'm almost desensitized, but not quite. hearing and seeing the nazi plans in person gives them new painful reality to me.

i also went to a salt mine outside the city, that has sculptures made carved out of rock salt by the miners who worked in the mines. there are 40 chapels carved directly into the salt so that the miners could pray since mining was very difficult work. its hard to explain what i saw, but suffice it to say that if you ever go to krakow, you should check it out.


i was worried that after so many similar cities, prague would be a disappointment, but that has not been the case. prague is more architecturally diverse than the other cities so it keeps my eyes popping.

also the revolutionary experience is really alive here. they are very proud of their history of student rebellion and i can only be in awe of them for their ongoing resistance against the soviets. as we all know their final rebellion was in 1989 and i keep wondering what i would have done. they were my peers. i'd like to think i would have been out on the main squares fearlessly fighting the military, but i really can only feel real respect for them and their struggle.

its interesting to reflect on soviet communism again in my life. in 1986, i traveled throughout the USSR and got a chance to see soviet communism in action. this is bringing alot of memories to life.

its weird to think that i guess the USA really did win in this struggle. i feel very lucky to have been born in the USA! now all we have to do is show how strong our democracy is by throwing out our president in november. as someone who has never been a terribly big bush basher, its almost painful to watch him on the local news here. (ok, enough politics!)

i have rambled on, but didn't want you to miss anything. now i must go have a beer since that is THE THING to do in prague!

bye bye!


Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Ljubljana Slovenia June 2004

ok, i know i have been lax on the emails but finding internet access has been harder than i expected and much more expensive (venice = $10 per hour!) now i am sitting at a free computer at the tourist office.

i have travelled through london, paris and venice and now am in my fourth location.

here is a short summary of my trip


london was lovely. i visited my good friend sean and his wife in their lovely home and attempted to focus my travels on ethnic london, visiting brick lane, a bangladeshi community, and brixton, a carribean community. london is bustling and weathly. there is gentrification everywhere which is sprucing up the architecture and leading to the rebirth of whole new areas of the city.


my first trip to paris was a big success. my parents had rented an apartment on the left bank in the heart of everything. that meant i was able to walk to almost everything. i spent six days seeing everything! and i mean everything. my mom and i bought three day museum passes so we spent all those days in and out of museums and really learning alot. i also had plenty of time for long mornings in cafes reading the papaer and drinking cafe ole (yes, for those of you that know that i dont drink coffee, i did in paris, afterall its what the parisians do!)

i was struck by how historic everthing in paris is. its amazing that they have been able to keep it so beautiful and fight the development forces. i do think that i was best not born in the ages of kings. those houses seem awfully big and cold, compared to my small cosy tastes!


for a waterfront advocate there could be no more perfect place! i rode the ferries so much that i began to sway on the sidewalks. i basically explored by boat and would just get off at stops i had never been to and see whats around that area. it worked really well, since i was able to escape the MANY american tourists and see where real venicians lived.

i have never been somewhere so magical. the buildings are ornate. the islands are charming. i went out and watched glass blowing and sat for many hours reading the paper over yummy italian food.

ljubljana, slovenia:

ok, now to a really cool place. this is a lovely little city brimming over with charm. there are tons of outdoor restaurants surrounded by historic buildings under the gaze of a castle on a hill. the people here are very nice and seem quite well to do. this has always been a wealthy hamlet that was part of yugoslavia.

on my first night here, i arrived at the coolest hostel in the world! its in an alternative arts area and was a former prison that has been beautifully renovated by a team of artists. each cell/room has its own individual design. they still have the original metal gates. in the lobby of the hostel there is a bar and a restaurant. there was a fantastic band on the first night along with one of the soccer games in the euro 2004 tournament. the place was hopping.

the second day, i went down into town and the streets were filled with people and i mean filled. there was a road bike race in one street and an outdoor rock concert in a nearby park. and of course and group of hari krishnas playing music to make the experience even more unusual! everyone was young. there were people sitting in all the outdoor bars. it was kind of overwhelming! (in a good way!)

today, i am wandering around. tomorrow is their national holiday, so tonight their philharmonic will play beethovens 9th and the streets are supposed to be alive with more activity.
tomorrow i am off to budapest!

hope all is well!