Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Novi Skomorokhy, Ukraine: Unearthing Treasures in Old Country - July 2016

"Even if you have to put some in your shoes or the pockets of your suitcase," my mom told me, "bring back as much as you can." Most mothers discourage their children from playing in the dirt, mine specifically instructed me to smuggle home as much as I could.

It was Saturday morning and my husband and I just landed in Krak√≥w, Poland. Looking at a map we realized we were only about a pinky finger's length away from the region in the Ukraine that my mother's family was from. Not knowing when we would be this close again, we set out to devise a plan to visit the "Old Country" that I'd heard stories about all of my life.

I phoned my uncle back in the States to learn the name of the village my grandmother's parents were from. He sent me a photograph of an old map in which my grandmother had penciled in a dot and hand written the name but only a few letters were now readable. I also emailed my grandmother's cousin living in Massachusetts to see if she could provide additional details. After studying the map for a while and rehashing a few of the verbal interpretations we had heard of the village name, we located Novi Skomorokhy on the map. Moments later we received an email back from my grandmother's cousin and learned that she was currently on vacation in Europe, only a couple hours from us in Poland, and was considering visiting the Ukraine herself tomorrow. The stars were aligned.

The next morning at 3 a.m. we set out on our adventure. We had no family names or contact information in Old Country; we only had a dot on a map. Our plan was to look at names on mailboxes, knock on a few doors and hopefully find a local cemetery.

Nine hours later, including a three-hour border crossing, we finally arrived in Novi Skomorokhy, Ukraine. Greeted by a Cyrillic lettered sign, the tiny village of 500 people had one dirt road flanked with houses and fields. We stopped to take a few photographs of Orthodox churches and flagged down a couple of locals to chat. After about the third conversation my grandmother's cousin initiated in broken Polish, we struck pay dirt.

A woman with possibly the same family name as my great grandfather, Baley/ Belej, smiled and led us down the road just a few yards away. We came to the Kaspruk family house where my great grandmother Paulina's sister, Marinka's daughter now lives.

Having never seen us before or met my grandmother or mother in person, Nadia opened the door and invited us in with a warm hug. Her husband directed us all to the dining room where he broke out all of the family's finest liquors.

Over the next several hours the family invited over more relatives, cooked us a delicious spread, and we all tried our best to communicate. At one point Nadia brought out a pile of photographs spanning over the last 80 years most of which were sent from the U.S. back to the Old Country; I saw pictures of my great grandparents wedding in New York, family reunions and even my mom's high school class photo.

The afternoon was spent smiling and hugging, and thankfully after some time Nadia's granddaughter, Oksana Grushetsky arrived.

Oksana, my second cousin, knew English and helped to translate. We learned that the house Nadia lives in now, prior to it being redone, was previously lived in by Zoinka and two of Paulina's other sisters at some point, and before that the same piece of land was the site of the original home of Ilko and Paranka Kaspruk, my grandmother's maternal grandparents.

The hours passed quickly and before long we were hugging goodbye to begin our long drive back to Poland. Before leaving though, Oksana's father, Bogdon, helped James and I collect dirt from the fields behind the house to bring back to our family in the U.S.

Our final stop was at the large hillside cemetery not far from the house. We were shown a number of family plots including the headstones of my grandmother's maternal grandparents.

The day was long but incredibly rewarding. I now know family in the Old Country and plan to return bearing gifts. Along with new friendships and photos, we also successfully were able to smuggle four bags of soil from the Ukraine that day.

The dirt represents a home and the memories of Old Country that most of my family in the U.S. has never seen. My mom was right: a scoop of Ukrainian soil, however I got it home, would mean more to my family than anything else I could bring back, and it would also be the perfect addition to my grandmother's burial service next month.  


Monday, July 18, 2016

Thimphu, Bhutan: Stumbling Upon or Selling Shangri-La? - May 2016

Shangri-La: a mystical, harmonious valley; an earthly paradise; a mythical Himalayan utopia where people are chronically happy and isolated from the outside world

For years many have touted that they may have stumbled upon and discovered the closest embodiment to the fictional Shangri-La in the small land-locked country of Bhutan. At first blush it's not difficult to support the claim with its picturesque location in the Himalayans and well-known claim to have the world's happiest citizens. But if you look a little closer, you may just see the framework for one of the most cleverly concocted tourism schemes in the modern day history.

Painting the Perfect Picture
In the valleys below the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayan mountains, sit swirling rivers with pristine waters, winding narrow roads, finely-manicured fields and cozy villages and towns baring traditional Bhutanese architecture. It's a scene resembling the perfect landscape painting.

Pair the beautiful scenery with the widespread notion that the Bhutanese people are the happiest on the planet and it's no wonder Bhutan is often regarded as the last Shangri-La.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan states that the government holds a higher regard for the Gross National Happiness of its people than the Gross Domestic Product of the country, and claims that the Bhutanese need not amass material wealth in order to achieve happiness. The nation's Gross National Happiness philosophy is founded upon four pillars: equitable and equal socio-economic development; preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage; conservation of the environment; and good governance.

While Bhutan boasts a carbon-neutral status, aspires to grow 100 percent organic food by 2020, and holds a constitution which declares no less than 60 percent of its land remain forested, there is more to this relatively-unknown country than meets the eye.

The Challenge of Travel
In order to experience Bhutan for yourself, it is going to cost you, and it is going to be a complicated process. Allegedly protecting the country from the evils of tourism and realistically deterring low-budget, backpacker-style travel, the Government of Bhutan retains strict control and oversight over travel planning and execution. To visit the country one must go through the following highly-structured, four-step process:

1.) Visit The Tourism Council of Bhutan's official website. Select a tour operator from the list of hundreds of "approved" guides. Checking elsewhere online for vendor reviews can be helpful.
2.) Contact the tour operator with your travel dates and preferences. Settle upon a tour itinerary and price; most of the tours are standard and price differences are minimal. The government imposes a sustainable tourism royalty along with a minimum daily package for tourists of  USD $250 per person for tourists traveling in a group of three persons or more which includes accommodation, transportation, meals and the supervision of a registered guide. Expect additional surcharges for couple or solo travel and to upgrade facilities to four or five star.
3.) Wire the payment for the tour along with the visa fee to the Bhutan National Bank at least one month in advance of travel. While seemingly simple, this procedure can be arduous and require multiple attempts.
4.) Once the details of your visit are confirmed, the tour operator will assist you in making your flight arrangements on one of the government-run airlines and in sourcing your Bhutanese visa.

An Artfully-Devised Itinerary
Regardless of the operator you select, your tour through the country of Bhutan will undoubtedly follow the government-mandated route having you visit the typical tourist attractions like Buddha Point, Dochula Pass and Taktshang (Tiger's Nest) and you'll find yourself eating at restaurants catering only to tourists and hotels built exclusively for foreigners. You can find our detailed six-day itinerary by Rainbow Tours & Treks here.

The Truth Behind the Facade
While your entire visit to Bhutan is perfectly scripted from the moment you land at the international airport in Paro to your ascent out over the Himalayas, it doesn't take much to reveal the ruse. Upon walking through the capital of Thimphu, you are more likely to erupt into a jog to avoid an unruly pack of stray dogs than you are to be welcomed into a store with a smile. The locals aren't dancing in colorful garb like they do in the festival photographs but are instead waving off the beggars on the street corners or the lingering stench of the above-ground sewage flow.

The truth is that Bhutan's economy is struggling. The Bhutanese people were only granted access to television and the internet in 1999. Government censorship abounds. When asked about his desire to travel outside of the country, our government-provided Bhutanese guide smirked and replied, "Why would we want to waste our money on traveling? We have everything we need right here. We don't concern ourselves with the world's problems." Honest answer? Maybe. Government-endorsed message? Partially. Ironic? Completely.

So what's your take? Is Bhutan with its unspoiled charms and festival-rich culture the last Shangri-La or is the country carefully constructing a fabled facade to lure travelers at a premium? Whatever your resolve, a visit to this unique land promises to be a one-of-a-kind adventure.

Paro, Bhutan: A Six Day Cultural Tour Itinerary - May 2016

Bhutan Cultural Tour for 5 Nights/ 6 Days by Rainbow Tours & Treks 

Day 1: Arrival: Paro –Thimphu (65kms/ 1.5hrs)

Paro, altitude 2200m, is a town and seat of Paro district in Bhutan. It is also the home to the only international airport in the country. The flight to Paro is considered one of the most spectacular flight experiences in the world. While flying in and out of Bhutan, one can see Mt. Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makula and other high peaks such as Jumolhari, Jichu Drakey and Tsrim Gang.

After landing drive to Thimphu, altitude 2320m, a small, charming capital city nestled in the heart of the Himalayas with a population of about 100,000 people. It is nothing like what a capital city is imagined to be. All houses and buildings are painted and constructed in traditional Bhutanese style. While in Thimphu visit the following before overnighting in Namgay Heritage www.nhh.bt:   
  • Memorial Chorten: This stupa was built in 1974 to honor the third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. This religious structure is circumambulated only in a clockwise direction (reciting prayers and whirling the large red prayer wheels).
  • Buddha Point: In the afternoon visit the world’s largest sitting Buddha, an immense statue housing a monastery and visitors center. Enjoy a stunning view of Thimphu city from this point.
  • School of Thirteen Arts & Crafts: It is the primary center of learning for Bhutanese artists.  Depending upon the student’s interest, one can specialize in any of the thirteen arts and crafts, including painting, weaving, sculptures, blacksmithing, embroidery, etc. It is the best place for visitors to learn about traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts.
  • Textile Museum: What would be the best dress to attend the festivals in Bhutan? The answer would be “colorful, hand-woven, and made of pure silk.” It takes almost a year to weave one dress, but a textile has become the largest industry in the country. The visit to the textile museum is an introduction to the Bhutanese national attire and the workforce responsible for these items of utility and beauty.
  • Handmade Paper Factory: Although the process of making traditional paper may be simple, a considerable amount of time is required to collect the raw materials, such as the bark of the Daphne plant and certain plant roots for glue. Apart from a small heater to dry the sheets of paper, everything is manually done. Daphne paper is one of the finest papers in the world and is highly recommended for artists.
  • Trashichhodzong Courtyard: This massive building houses government ministries, the Throne Room and the residence of Chief Abbot.
Day 2: Thimphu - Punakha (77kms/ 3hrs)

Morning visit the following places in Thimphu and proceed to Punakha after the sightseeing:
  • Takin Reserve: The National Takin Reserve is where a herd of Bhutan’s national animals reside. Legend has it that the takin is a cross between a goat and a buffalo, but biologists agree that its nearest relative is the arctic musk ox. This bizarre beast looks as if it was assembled from parts of several animals and vaguely resembles an American bison tinged in golden fur. Male takins have been known to hide by lying spread-eagle on the ground. Enjoy another spectacular view of Thimphu from this point. 
  • Zhilukha Nunnery: This is the biggest nunnery in Bhutan and is a good place to photograph and interact with the nuns and learn about what it takes and feels like to be a Bhutanese Buddhist Nun. You’ll see many nuns chanting prayers and turning prayer wheels in Zhlukha nunnery. In Bhutan, girls and women are admitted to nunneries for short to long period of time. They are educated in Buddhism here and after their graduation they dedicate their lives in serving the community at large. Spend some time interacting with the nuns and get to know their beliefs and worldview.
Punakha, altitude 1300m, served as the capital of Bhutan during the time of Zhabdrun Ngawang Namkgyal, the founder of Bhutan. Today it is the administrative and religious center of the district and the winter home of Bhutan’s Central Monk Body.

Start your morning by enjoying Dochula Pass, altitude 3150m, with its panoramic views of the Himalayas. The pass is decorated with 108 Druk Wangyel Chorten, which were built to celebrate the stability and progress, brought to Bhutan by His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King.
  • Chimmi Lhakhang: Take a 45-minute hike round-trip through the rice field to Chimmi Lhakhang, the 15th-century monastery built by Lam Ngawang Chogyal on the spot where his cousin Lam Drukpa Kuenley (popularly known as “the Divine Madman”) subdued a powerful demon. This monastery is also referred to as the “Abode of Fertility” and believed that any couple who gets blessing from this temple is blessed with a child in the next year or so. 
  • Punakha’s Dzong: The name means Palace of Great Bliss. This dzong stands magnificently on the spit of land where two rivers (Pho chu and Mo chu) meet. Punakha Dzong has special significance in Bhutanese history as the place where Bhutan's first King, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned in 1907. It is also the winter residence for the Je Khenpo (spiritual leader) and the entire central monk body.
  • Punakha Suspension Bridge: This is an exciting bridge for photography enthusiasts.
In the evening visit a traditional farmhouse for an experience of an authentic Bhutanese lifestyle and the local hospitality. Here you will get to see the local Bhutanese way of living up close and personal. They are very friendly, would love to chat, show you around and share a meal with you. Spend the night here with the family. Overnight in Punakha Homestay.

Day 4: Punakha – Paro (137kms/ 4-5hrs)

Drive to Paro after breakfast and visit the following places before overnighting in Naksel Boutique Hotel and Spa www.naksel.com :
  • National Museum: Ta- Dzong (the watchtower) was built in the 17th century to guard the Paro Rimpong dzong (fortress) below. It was said that the future first king was kept in this tower as a prisoner for a week. It was the third king who restored the Ta-dzong and converted it into the National Museum. The visit to the museum will familiarize you with the Bhutanese way of life and will also acquaint you with the natural and cultural history.
  • Paro Rimpong Dzong: Regal and imposing, dzongs are arguably among the most distinctive and important structures in Bhutan. The original Paro dzong dates back to 17th century and was built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the man who unified Bhutan. It burned down in 1907 but was rebuilt in the same year with the same architectural design. Currently, it is the headquarters of the Paro district, housing the head administrator and staff, as well as a monastic body with about 200 monks. From the dzong, hike down to the bridge and then take a short drive for an opportunity to explore the town of Paro.
  • Kychu Lhakhang Temple: This is one of the oldest and most sacred shrines of Bhutan. The inner temple was built by a Buddhist Tibetan King, Srongtsen Goempo in the 7th century.
Day 5: Paro - Hike to Taktshang, Tiger’s Nest (3-4hrs) 

Bhutan’s most scenic icon or the most important landmark, Taktshang the Tiger’s Nest clings to the side of a steep cliff 300 meters above the Paro valley. The place was first visited by Guru Rimpoche, founder of the tantric form of Buddhism in Himalayan countries, in the 8th century. It was said that he meditated there for about three years. The original temple was built in the 17th century, but tragically, it was consumed by fire in 1998. Like a phoenix, the temple was rebuilt to its fullest glory in 2003. Takshang is considered to be the 10th holiest site in the Buddhist world. You can visit three different temples inside the main Takshang complex. Riding ponies provided upon request. Afternoon/evening: experience hot stone bath at Naksel. Overnight in Paro: Naksel Boutique Hotel and Spa www.naksel.com

Day 6: Departure: Paro
After breakfast, transfer to the Paro airport for departure.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Paro, Bhutan: A Mystical Trek to Tiger's Nest - May 2016

"How much farther?" I asked, bent forward, hands on my knees, dripping with perspiration and gasping for air. Sonam, our twenty-something Bhutanese guide with calves chiseled of granite, grinned over his shoulder and waved me on, "We are nearly halfway to the halfway point."

After a gratuitous sigh and a serious swig of water, I planted one dusty sneaker forward and continued up the rocky, dirt trail trying my hardest to acclimate to the altitude. My husband and I, and our cheery local guide, were trekking to the mystical Tiger's Nest, also known as Taktsang, tucked in the Himalayan Mountains overlooking Paro, Bhutan.

Tiger's Nest, the most famous cultural icon in Bhutan, is an elaborate temple complex built into a rock face with a legend that dates back hundreds of years. The monastery was given its name from the tale that Guru Padmasambhava flew from Tibet to the sacred site in 1692 on the back of a tigress to introduce Buddhism to Bhutan. It was on the peak that the Guru spent three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours during the 8th century meditating in a cave.

Today the monastery clings to a cliff side at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet above sea level towering over the Upper Paro Valley and is comprised of four main temples interconnected through rock stairways and 13 taktsang or "tiger lair" caves used for meditation.

The southern pass trek used by religious devotees led us for four hours through blue pine forests, by colorful prayer flags, and up almost vertical rock slopes to reach the summit. While it took more than a few moments to catch our breath, standing atop one of the most sacred mountains in the world was a magical experience ... and the hour and a half run downhill was a pretty exhilarating reward as well.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Imatra, Finland: The Refugees Next Door - July 2016

When my husband called and told me that Syrian refugees were moving in down the street, I was flooded with emotion. Feelings not of fear or uncertainty, but of excitement. We had watched the news unfold over the last several months and heard the heart-breaking stories of families being uprooted and masses fleeing their home country for safety.

When I learned that nearly 100 families were coming to the small town where we lived in southeastern Finland, I saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a chance to take a headline we had only seen on the television and read about in the newspapers and make it more than a fleeting story but to make it real and to affect change in the lives of those in need. So days later without a second thought, my husband and I, outfitted with bags of groceries and toys, visited the nearby hotel where we had heard the refugee families had set up camp. We were eager to welcome them to the small community where we were once considered outsiders but now call home.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since the crisis began nearly one million Syrian refugees have requested asylum in Europe. In recent years, the country of Finland has accepted 1,050 refugees annually - many of whom recently are from Syria.

As we approached the former four-star hotel we noticed that both of the entrance drives were gated off and signs were nailed to the trees that read no trespassing. We looked at each other in surprise, then proceeded past the barricades through the snow-covered grass and to the front door of the hotel. Walking into the lobby we were met with a crowd of people sitting on chairs, steps and the floor; some smiled at us while others looked away. Upon asking if anyone could speak English, a black-haired man in a soccer jersey pointed up the stairs.

On the second level of the hotel was a restaurant where we found two Finnish volunteers scooping buffet food onto the plates of a line of people. Trying not to get in the way, we inquired about donating the items we had in our car and opportunities to volunteer with the refugees. Our questions were met with silence and puzzled expressions. "The Finnish Red Cross is managing this situation," we were advised coldly. "If you want to volunteer you must take a multi-day training class. No donations are accepted here." Far from the reception we were hoping for but none-the-less very Finnish in its statement of facts, we were then hurried out of the hotel with an email address for someone affiliated with the local chapter of the Red Cross.

Months passed and our attempts to contact someone at the Red Cross proved fruitless. Throughout town we would occasionally see women wearing hijabs and hear groups of people speaking in Arabic, but the refugee presence in our small town of less than 30,000 people was far less than we expected. With it being summertime, we hoped the warmer temperatures may have helped to thaw the frosty welcome the town's new arrivals most likely received ... so we decided to try again.

The sun shining now, there were no barricades surrounding the hotel, and we saw people outside chatting at picnic tables and riding bikes. Walking up the steps of the hotel, we were approached by two men. They greeted us with a smile. "My name is Muhammad. I'm from Baghdad," one of the men said. "Can you help me?"

He was looking for a job. We learned that Muhammad was a lawyer in Iraq, but since he came to Finland nine months ago with his two younger brothers, he was unable to find work. From talking with the men, we also came to understand that the hotel housed refugees from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Somalia; most of whom did not speak English or Finnish and were having trouble acclimating.

Our conversation with the tattooed Finnish girl at the reception desk resulted again in an email address printed on a yellow Post-It note. She was noticeably uneasy about our unplanned visit and hesitant to provide us with information. As we once again turned around and left the hotel none the wiser, we shook our heads: How can it be so hard to volunteer or make donations in this country? What is the town's plan for helping these refugees learn English, find work and assimilate into the community? Will anyone return our email this time?