Monday, September 18, 2017
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Saturday, September 16, 2017
During the session we also saw a few mock matches between the junior trainees as the more seasoned sumo wrestlers advised and conserved their energy.
While action-packed, observing the ritualistic chanting and repetitious maneuvers felt strangely meditative. As with any sport, excelling at the art of sumo requires discipline and dedication, and in Japan it is a lifestyle rather than a mere hobby.
Sunday, September 10, 2017
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
Flying, busing and sailing in from all corners of the globe, Croatia now welcomes more than ten million visitors annually and intends to double that number by the year 2020. While the influx of foreigners means big bucks for the travel industry, not everyone is smiling.
Monday, August 28, 2017
Monday, June 26, 2017
Monday, March 27, 2017
If you answered yes to any of these tantalizing questions, and are down for seeing some buffalo racing in your spare time, the country of Cambodia in Southeast Asia just may be the place for you.
I visited Cambodia for the first time ten years ago. From the moment I stepped off the plane until I waved goodbye, I was showered with smiles and hospitality. The Cambodian people are welcoming and eager to share their rich and unique culture.
I attribute much of my positive experience in Cambodia to my friend, Peou. When I met Kanh Peou he drove a taxi cab and offered to show me around his hometown of Siem Reap. Now Peou is a professional guide and licensed tour driver who operates his own business. Angkor Family Taxi provides one to four-day tours throughout Cambodia with options for any budget. Here are a few of the attractions and activities you can enjoy in and around Siem Reap with Peou:
Angkor Wat. Built in the mid-12th century by King Suryavaraman II, it's the largest temple in the world and Cambodia's most well-known tourist attraction. The structure is a three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from the ground and surrounded by a moat. Nearly 2,000 distinct carvings decorate its walls depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and historical wars. The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and served as the state temple under Khmer rule.
South Gate of Angkor Thom. The best-preserved entrance to the ancient city, it extends about fifty meters across a moat. Each side of the causeway is fashioned with 54 stone figures telling a famous Hindu story.
Ta Prohm. One of his first major projects, this temple was dedicated to Khmer King Jayavarman VII's mother. It was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery and was enormously wealthy in its time boasting control of over 3,000 villages. This temple was also the location for the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Bayon. Constructed in the 12th century, Bayon is a Buddhist temple known for its giant stone faces with serene and smiling expressions.
Baphoun. Built as Hindu temple and later converted to a Buddhist temple, this structure has unique animal carvings at the entrance and a large reclining Buddha on the west side.
Neak Pean. An island temple that sits at the axis of a lotus pattern created of eight pools. Named for the surrounding coiled serpent sculptures, its waters are believed to have healing properties.
Preah Ko. The first temple to be built in the ancient city of Hariharalya in the late 9th century. Its six towers and their carvings are beautifully preserved as are the statues of sacred bulls staged at the temple's entrance.
In addition to this sampling of ancient sites around Siem Reap, Peou can customize your tour to include a visit to a floating village, the Angkor National Museum, Kulen Mountain and waterfalls, or any number of other interesting places in the region. So whether you're into sunsets or scorpions, temples or waterfalls, Cambodia is well-worth a visit, and Peou is just the guy to show you around.
Monday, March 13, 2017
Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, however we learned at the airport that Russia continues to regard the country as a domestic destination.
Nonetheless, a five-and-a-half hour, overnight flight from St. Petersburg took us to the world's largest landlocked country and specifically to its former capital and most populated city of Almaty.
Almaty is located in the southeastern part of the country at the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains. Literally translated, Almaty means "a place of apples" and is believed to be where the first apple trees grew around 20 million years ago.
Upon arrival, the locals advised the thing to do was to go up into the mountains. In addition to enjoying incredible views of Big Almaty Lake and the forested surroundings, the Medeo Sports Center is housed in the mountains boasting the highest skating rink in the world at 5,545 feet above sea level.
While the country isn't yet on many tourists' radar, the city of Almaty does have a few notable attractions including Holy Ascension Cathedral, the Green Bazaar, Republic Square, Central Almaty Mosque and Park of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
While visiting we learned that Kazakh refers to both the country's people and its language, and that the language is of Turkic origins with many Russian and Arabic words. It was not written until the 1860s where it was captured in Arabic script, and then in 1940 the country adopted the Cyrillic alphabet along with a few extra symbols.
The names of seven countries in Central Asia end in "stan:" a suffix meaning "land" in Persian. The word Kazakh itself means "wanderers" or "outlaws," and is fitting for the nation comprised of formerly nomadic tribes. Traditionally, Kazakhs lived in yurts, or collapsible tents with wooden frames covered by felt which they could carry along in their travels.
It is believed that ancient Kazakhs were the first to domesticate and ride horses, and horses are still a dominant theme in their culture today.
Kumis, or what the locals refer to as milk champagne, is a traditional drink made of fermented mare's milk, and the national dish is beshbarmak which is a collection of noodles, boiled horse meat and spices. A popular sport in the country is kokpar in which riders on horseback play a variation of polo with a headless goat carcass.
The adventure to our first "stan" was memorable and educational. Of all the cultural facts, likely the most critical was the local belief that whistling a song inside a building will make you poor for the rest of your life. A word to the wise: keep your whistling lips on lockdown or stick with humming unless you are riding horseback through the mountains!
Thursday, March 2, 2017
Because we were visiting during Carnival, or Mardi Gras, we chose Tenerife. The island of Tenerife is known for having the second most popular and internationally well-known carnival after Rio de Janeiro.
As the majority of Carnival festivities aren't scheduled until after dark, we were able to spend the days exploring the island. We stashed our suitcases in the northwestern port town of Puerto de la Cruz and rented a car so that we could easily navigate the island.
A scenic spot to walk along the ocean and grab some fresh seafood, we stopped by the area around Castillo San Felipe before driving south along the coast. It takes approximately two hours to drive the entire perimeter of Tenerife. The largest and most populated of all of the Canary Islands, its most well-known attraction is Mount Teide which is the highest elevation in Spain, the third-largest volcano in the world and located in the center of the island.
The roads on the western side of the island wind in and around small coastal towns and climb to high elevations before dropping down to sea level in the south.
We spent the afternoon in the town of Los Cristianos on the beach and admiring the elaborate sand sculptures. The beaches in the south are golden compared to those in the north with black sands.
Based on the architecture we saw, Tenerife's heyday was in the 1970s and coincidentally many of the island's visitors looked like they may have peaked during that time as well.
Nevertheless, no matter your age, when the sun went down the party started. Drinks in hand, we stood next to the live band and watched as the Carnival Announcement parade moved into the main square. Marching bands and dancers flooded the streets and the Carnival Queen sparkled from head to toe waving to the crowds as her feathered float passed by.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
Inside the medina it's dark. The light of day is blocked by towering walls, shop awnings and smoke billowing from open fires. The alleys are lined with stalls and crowded by donkeys carrying heavy packs, chickens clucking and hoards of people.
Some people are scurrying through, others are resting with a smoke or a tin cup of tea, and yet more are grabbing you by the hand to escort you into their shops to have a look "for free." Fortunately, inside the Fez medina, the locals are not as aggressive, and touching and shouting is not commonplace.
Within the walls of the Fez medina car traffic is prohibited, and it's actually the largest car-free urban area in the world. Surrounding the mosques and near the decorated communal fountains, stalls sell everything from camel meat by the kilo and shovelfuls of snails, to leather goods and copper pots.
On our way through we grabbed a pita stuffed with cow's tongue and splashed with hot sauce and tried our best to keep up with the guide as he darted uphill through the crowds. The heart of the city, the medina is exploding with life and has a culture of its own that's undeniably engulfing.
Monday, February 6, 2017
After years of sidestepping the region due to fear, we decided the time was right. With the goal of having a more historical and cultural experience rather than to embark on a religious pilgrimage, we set out to make the most of our short time.
Day 1: Arrival/ Tel Aviv, Israel
In planning our trip and not knowing what to expect, we elected to arrange for an airport transfer service offered through the hotel. Upon arrival into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion international airport, we were met planeside by an airport employee who immediately whisked us off the tarmac and into a sedan. We were driven directly to the entrance of the border control area and escorted to the front of the line. Within moments of touchdown we were met by our hotel car. It was definitely easier than we anticipated without any heightened security delay. That afternoon we spent relaxing and getting acquainted with the area.
Day 2-3: Petra and Wadi Rum, Jordan
After an early start to the day, we took a bus south to the Eliat crossing near the Red Sea. We were able to obtain a visa at the border and met a Jordanian guide on the other side. For the next two days we explored the lost city of Petra, camped in the desert under the stars and ran with the Bedouins along the dunes in Wadi Rum. Currently Jordan is one of the safest Arab nations in the Middle East. Not only was it exciting to experience the culture and see the country's most well-known treasures, but it was the perfect timing to escape Israel while the country was observing Shabbat.
Day 4: Tel Aviv, Israel
Our only full day in Tel Aviv, we began by walking south on the beach promenade towards Jaffa. Towards the city we saw incredibly-unique architecture and significant construction along the way. Even though we were wearing jackets, the beaches were filled with families sunbathing and crowds watching volleyball. At the Jaffa Market we grabbed a falafel and fruit juice and walked the stalls selling fruits and vegetables, home goods and souvenirs. We could have easily stayed longer in Tel Aviv with its host of international offerings and laid-back vibe.
Day 5: Jerusalem, Israel
A short drive from Tel Aviv, we reached Jerusalem in late morning and were anxious to explore inside the walls of the Old City. After entering through the New Gate and passing by the Tower of David, we wandered the city's quarters through markets and down winding cobblestone alleys. We spent time admiring the Western Wall and parted crowds to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After following the path of the Via Dolorosa, we took an elevator to the top of the Austrian hospice to enjoy a spectacular view of the ancient city.
Day 6: Masada and the Dead Sea, Israel
On our sixth day we decided to get out of the city and see the surrounding area. Two of the top tourist attractions in Israel are the hilltop fortress of Masada and the Dead Sea. We spent the morning walking the ruins and had lunch at a traditional Jewish kibbutz, or communal settlement. We walked off our meal in the desert oasis of Ein Gedi where according to biblical story King David hid from King Saul and wrote the majority of the Book of Psalms. After hiking through the waterfalls, we stopped off at a beach resort to spend a few hours floating in the Dead Sea and covering our faces in silky gray mud.
Day 7: Bethlehem, Palestine/ Jerusalem, Israel
With help from an Israeli friend, that morning we ventured into Palestinian territory. On the other side of the wall was the Church of the Nativity which is believed to be built over the birthplace of Jesus Christ. While in Bethlehem our Christian Palestinian guide shared with us the difficulties of being a Christian in a Muslim-led and majority country. In the afternoon we returned to Jerusalem to see some of the sights outside of the Old City including the Mount of Olives.
Day 8-10: Cyprus/ Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
After a fast-paced week spent seeing as much as we could of Israel and the surrounding lands, it was time to relax. We hopped a short flight to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. During our stay at a Limassol beach resort we were able to visit the birthplace and temple of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, witness the locals celebrate Epiphany Day and even mustered the courage to venture into the area of the island occupied by the Turkish Army.
Our visit to the Middle East was unforgettable. In ten days I learned more about western religion than I had over the course of my life. During our many adventures, there were moments when we were fearful and times when we were humbled, but we came away from the experience with a greater appreciation for the region's rich history and culture, and a hope that somehow its people can find enduring peace.
Referred to as the Holy City, Jerusalem is of great historical significance in Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Jewish people consider Jerusalem the central symbol of importance due to biblical tradition which tells that King David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and established it as the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel, and that his son, King Solomon, commissioned the building of the First Temple.
In Sunni Islam, and according to the Quran, Jerusalem is prized as the third-holiest city behind Mecca and Medina because of the belief that Muhammad, the Holy Prophet, made his Night Journey to the city and ten years later ascended to heaven where he spoke to God. Jerusalem was also the first Qiblah, or focal point direction used for Muslim prayer.
Also a pilgrimage site for Christians, Jerusalem is where Jesus, the Christ, was arrested, tried and sentenced by Pontius Pilate. He walked the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion and, according to the New Testament, was resurrected.
In large part due to its religious importance, the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and captured and recaptured 44 times. Despite it's storied history, there remain numerous sites to visit of historical, cultural and religious importance:
The Old City. Believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world, Old City Jerusalem is contained within stone walls and divided into quarters belonging to the Armenians, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Each quarter has its own distinct flavor and several notable sites. The entrance gates to the city and numerous markets contained inside are also worthy of a look.
Temple Mount. The hill located in the Old City is one of the most important religious sites in the world. Presently the site contains three monumental structures: the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain. The site can be reached through eleven gates, of which ten are currently reserved for Muslims and one can be accessed by non-Muslims only during specific hours.
The Kotel. Also referred to as the Western or Wailing Wall, this section of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount is Judaism’s holiest site and for 2,000 years was the closest Jews wanting to pray at the place where the Holy Temple once stood, were permitted to approach.
Mount of Olives. A mountain ridge east of the Old City houses Jewish graves dating back 3,000 years and is also believed to be the site of several key events in the life of Jesus. According to the Acts of the Apostles, it is also where Jesus ascended to heaven.
David's Tomb. Located on Mount Zion, the area is viewed as the burial place of David, King of Israel.
Via Dolorosa. Latin for "Way of Grief," the Via Dolorosa is a street within the Old City believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. The 2,000-foot route from the Antonia Fortress west to the Church of Holy Sepulcher is marked by nine Stations of the Cross.
Whether you are visiting the city on a religious pilgrimage or to learn more about the culture and history of the area, you will not be disappointed.
Today in Jerusalem amid the tension, all three of the dominant religious groups appear to be co-existing harmoniously. For the sake of the Holy Land and the world, let's hope that continues and somehow a peaceful, sustainable resolution is reached.
Towering over the Judean desert on a rock plateau, Masada is a spectacular fortress built by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 B.C. Home to several magnificent palaces, Masada earned notoriety after the First Jewish-Roman War.
According to the biblical story, Jewish rebels who escaped war-torn Jerusalem found refuge on the rock mountain and formed the last stronghold against the Romans. The zealots survived for some time in the fortress before Roman General Flavius Silva led a siege by amassing a 375-foot rock ramp up the western face of the plateau in 73 A.D. Upon reaching the top and breaching the fortress of Masada, the Roman troops discovered the mass suicide of 960 Jewish men, women and children.
Accessible today by both foot path and cable car, the remains of the fortress are well-preserved and in many cases have been reconstructed. The most impressive structure on Masada is King Herod’s northern palace built on three rock terraces overlooking the gorge below. There are many other places of interest, such as the luxurious western palace, several Jewish ritual baths, storerooms, cisterns, watchtowers and a synagogue built into the casemate wall.
After walking through the ruins of Masada and learning of its tragic history, it seemed appropriate to spend some quiet time reflecting. Fortunately, fewer than 12 miles from the base of the plateau is the Dead Sea which provides the ideal setting for relaxation. Well-known for being one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, the Dead Sea is ten times as salty as the ocean. It is also the deepest sea in the world with surface waters being 1,400 feet below sea level and its banks the earth's lowest elevation on land. The salinity of the waters create such an inhospitable environment that no plant or animal-life is able to flourish, hence its name.
Tourists flock to the Dead Sea to float in the waters and also to test the medicinal benefits of the salt and minerals found in the water and mud. To cater to the crowds, health spas and resorts line the beaches and countless stores sell products touting miracles.
Knowing that it may be too complicated and dangerous to do on our own, we contacted an Israeli for help. Our friend Charles said that he could pick us up from our hotel and drive us to a checkpoint into the Palestinian Authority, but that is as far as he was allowed to go; he would arrange for others to meet up with us and show us around the town of Bethlehem.
With passports in hand, we jumped into his Israeli white-plated jeep and hoped for the best. The checkpoint hand-off could easily be compared, or mistaken for a sketchy drug deal. At the unmarked crossing we pulled in next to an old sedan with a green license plate and the letter P in the corner; unlike Charles' license plate, the green plate permitted vehicles to travel both in Israeli and Palestinian jurisdiction.
We were shuffled from one car to another in an empty, barbed-wire enclosed parking lot. Our new driver didn't speak much English but sped through the town past the run-down block houses and litter-filled streets. Due to the license plate and most likely the way we looked through the car's backseat windows, there was no formal security check and no need to present our documents.
After a few minutes the driver abruptly pulled over and a man in an oversized black coat slid into the passenger's seat. The man glanced over his shoulder and said, "so you want to see the church? My husband and I both nodded and exchanged hesitant glances. "So it's under construction right now," he explained. "So you won't see much but I'll take you there anyway."
"The church" was Bethlehem's most notable attraction and more accurately referred to as the Church of the Nativity. In 327 Constantine the Great commissioned the church to be built on the site traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Today a large basilica is housed on the site along with a smaller church and several chapels. Beneath the basilica is an underground cave referred to as the Grotto of the Nativity where Jesus' birthplace is marked by a 14-pointed silver star underneath an alter. Not far from the grotto is the underground Chapel of the Innocents, commemorating the children murdered by King Herod, which is believed to be on the site of the two to three-bedroom inn in which Mary and Joseph paid a visit.
The basilica is currently under construction and much of it is hidden by scaffolding. Our Christian Palestinian guide explained that under Muslim law whoever fixes the roof of a structure owns it. Therefore for a long time the Church of the Nativity lay in disrepair while the leaders of the area's Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities debated how to best handle the situation.
Fortunately, in 2010 with the help of U.S. aid dollars, a plan to restore the basilica was agreed upon by all parties. Now all three Christian religious communities share the Church of the Nativity and stagger services to accommodate all parishioners. Upon our visit we learned that Christmas would be celebrated on three separate occasions at the church: December 25th for the Catholics, January 7th for the Greek Orthodox and January 17th for the Armenians.
After touring several buildings on the church grounds, we got back into the car and headed towards the de facto border. Watching the depressed town pass by, I asked our guide what it was like to be a Christian living in Bethlehem today. "It's hard," he replied with a long face. "Just last week before our Christmas celebration the main Christmas tree in the public square was broken in half. It made us all very sad. Please don't tell anyone in Jerusalem though; I don't want to start any trouble."
He went on to explain that only twenty to thirty percent of the Christian Palestinian community remain in Bethlehem. Most have fled to more-welcoming communities in Chicago, Chile or El Salvador because they felt that they were losing their identity in the Muslim-led Palestinian territory. As he spoke I stared out the window at the cement-paneled wall which divided the contested land. Covering the graffiti that has collected over the years, mounted placards quote residents still hopeful for change and hopeful that peace will someday blanket the land.