AK-47s and the Smoke that Thunders – Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls

Exclusive for Vagobond by Carl Grooms

Vctoria Falls, Zimbabwe © 2011 Carlton Grooms
© 2011 Carlton Grooms

You feel the rumble in the earth before you hear it. You see wisps of mist rise high into the sky as if a forest fire has commenced. As you draw closer your ears begin to pick up the roar, you feel it in your soul. The locals call it the Smoke that Thunders. You have arrived at Victoria Falls, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.

The falls are a UNESCO World Heritage site that straddles the boarders of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Here the Zambezi river drops almost 400 feet across a 1 mile wide face into a remarkably small cut in the earth, making it the largest falls in the world. The attraction is part of two national park systems. Mosi-ao-Tunya (translated to the Smoke that Thunders) National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe.

I awoke before the sun, on my first day. Eager to capture the falls in good light from the Zimbabwe side, I hired a taxi to fetch me and get me to the entry prior to opening. The silence enveloped us as we sat in the dark, waiting. I began to question my safety. Alone, with a strange driver, holding over $15,000 in camera gear could prove to be a poor idea. Young men walking past, AK-47’s on their shoulders, interrupted the silence. They were on their way to relieve the night shift guarding the border and bridge to Zambia. I’m starting to imagine the headlines that the western press will print when they find my body later today. Undeterred I await the arrival of the park attendant to let me in.

The Zimbabwe side of the falls is far more developed than the Zambian side. However, with the political strife and humanitarian crimes being brought upon the population by Robert Mugabe, their leader (in no sense of the word), hotel occupancy is low. The Zambia side has record occupancy and capital investment in facilities is up. An argument could be made that the falls are just as beautiful from that the other side, but I want to photograph them coming straight at me. So I’ve come to Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls at Sunrise
Victoria Falls at Sunrise © 2011 Carlton Grooms

This is the second journey of my life to this region of the world. I grew up in Lusaka, Zambia 450 miles and a 12 hour drive north, in the mid-80’s. This was during the civil war that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and during apartheid in South Africa. The ‘freedom’ fighter, Robert Mugabe lived in exile in my Lusaka neighborhood. Too bad he survived to release so much human tragedy upon his people. When I lived here the first time, we couldn’t come to the falls because of the war. Today, my first, I’ve come to photograph for my book, “Portraits of Our World”. The book is meant to build schools for the poor children in this region of Africa. The perceived risk sitting on this border today is worth it.

Perhaps the idea that this trip is allegedly risky is the point. I do not believe it is. The people of Zimbabwe are very warm and hospitable. They are often delighted to have you. The preponderance of the crime that occurs in this region is related to economics, motivated by the need to eat and feed one’s family. The Mugabe regime itself will not hassle you, as you bring hard currency and commerce. The hotels are at low capacity, meaning great rates. Now is a good time to visit.

The Vic Falls lookout area is not all that large. Big enough only to face the main body of the falls, it is easily walked carrying whatever gear you decide to bring. In reality you will be left surprised that there isn’t more too it. As you pay your small entry fee and move through the gates you are greeted with a spectacular rain forest made possible by the water spray of the falls. You will see mahogany trees, ferns, palms and various vines that you cannot see anywhere else in the area.

The Smoke That Thunders
The Smoke That thunders © 2011 Carlton Grooms

As you emerge on the other side your senses are inundated. The roar resonates at a bass level that you feel in your bones. Depending on the wind and time of year, you may not be able to readily see the falls because of the great mist it generates. The resulting, and always present, rainbow serves as the crowning jewel. Keep moving along the face and you will eventually find the perfect spot.

For the true adventurer you can hire a helicopter to fly up over the falls. We did this and were able to capture the most amazing images as you can see here. Don’t spend your entire time behind the camera. It is too easy to be caught up in capturing your surroundings and forget to actually enjoy the experience yourself.

There are a number of things you can do in the area to further enjoy the destination when you are done with the falls. White water rafting on the Zambezi is very popular. The river is very violent be forewarned. Don’t miss the chance to sample wild game meat. My favorite is the The Boma Restaurant, located at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The $50 charge per person is worth it. Note that Zimbabwe no longer has it’s own currency. They rely on the US Dollar, South African Rand, Botswana Pula and the Euro instead.

In order to more fully appreciate my adventure I departed Zimbabwe via the bridge over the Zambezi to cross into Zambia. With loaded backpacks, together with my wife and children (11 and 12 at the time) we made the crossing. After stamping our passports upon departure, the border guard let us across the barrier.

Vctoria Falls Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls Aerial Shot of Bridge © 2011 Carlton Grooms

We crossed the bridge, a one mile long no man’s land between the countries. We had a surreal feeling as we walked towards the Zambian side, their armed border guards looking on. We were readily welcomed, cleared through and on our way.

Traveling is a matter of pushing all your senses beyond the daily norm. New people and cultures, new food, new smells, even new fears. Sometimes the fears are unfounded which allows you to open your eyes a little wider and gather the courage to head off to another life changing destination that is mistakenly avoided by the masses. Sometimes your new reality simply serves to open your mind to the world you live in daily. Either way, a journey to Victoria Falls can be much more than simply visiting the Smoke that Thunders.

Carlton GroomsCarl Grooms is the editor of the island focused travel blog, Coastlines & Tan Lines. He produced his latest book, “Portraits of Our World” after a one year trip around the world. He is the founder of Conch Republic Bikinis, as well as a former Naval Aviator. Carl led the business development of all Hong Kong Disney hotels and restaurants for Walt Disney Attractions. At last count Carl has visited 52 countries. He has run with the Bulls in Pamplona, braved the highest bungee jump in the world in South Africa and is an ultra-marathon runner. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.

Around the World through a Photographers Lens – China

Photos and Words by Dave Stamboulis

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens is a weekly feature from Award Wiinning travel photographer and writer, Dave Stamboulis.  Every Monday afternoon you can find Dave’s work here at Vagobond. See the world through a photographer’s lens.

1) The Long Haired Yao are an ethnic minority in China’s Guilin region. The Yao women never cut their hair and welcome visitors to their village with a hair braiding ceremony

Chinese Yao Long hair
2) Not only do the Yao women not cut their hair, they pick up any stray hair that falls out and weave them into their manes

Hair Weave Chinese Yao
3) The village elder, enjoying telling the history of his life in a sleepy Yao village

Chinese Yao Elder
4) The Yao women spend much of their free time weaving their colorful clothing and blankets for the cold winters

Yao Women in China
5) The lush rice terraces of Ping An village, home to the Yao of Guilin

rice terraces in Ping An, China
6) The Yao grow elaborate rice fields and terraces for their survival

Rice Terraces Yao China Ping An
7) Yao village elder doing a welcome ceremony to honor guests

Welcoming Ceremony Ping An, China Yao
8) Old traditions die hard in China, granny and her buffalo

Yao woman and Buffalo, Ping An China

Five Far Out Wildlife Retreats in Costa Rica

Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai

In recent years, Costa Rica has emerged as a premiere destination for wildlife lovers and ecotourism. People pull their kids out of school early to vacation here. Celebrities hoard beachfront property like marbles in a shooting out. Though some places may have become “gringo-cized”, Costa Rica maintains its mission to preserve the biodiversity on which its reputation is built. No matter where travelers disembark, a wildlife retreat is never far.

Monteverde Cloud Forest

monteverde costa ricaCalled bosque nuboso, Monteverde Cloud Forest stretches over 35,000 acres in northern Costa Rica and is home to over 1200 species of wildlife, including all 6 cat species: jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis. In all the woodlands of the world, only 1% hold the cloud forests designation. Existing in Panama, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Costa Rica, these ecosystems sit above the regular rainforest. Mist and fog roll through the vegetation, settling on leaves, and hydro-fueling the biosphere. The coating of fog prevents the sun from drying the forest and the entire area blooms in emerald hues.

Visitors to Monteverde come for nature and adrenaline. Birding is a leading activity. Tours can be arranged from any hotel. Nature hikes range from well-marked easy trails no longer than .2 miles (.3 km) to challenging trails over a mile long that traverse several elevations of the cloud forest. For the lionhearted, zip lining and repelling are also available.

Tortuguero National Park

iguana in Costa RicaMeaning Turtle Catcher, Tortuguero National Park is dedicated to the preservation of its various turtle-residents. Sitting on the northern Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is serviced by a village of the same name, where tours and boats help travelers access the park. The admission fee at the gate is $7. But it’s advised to hire a guide or join a tour group. At 8am, visitors cross the narrow waterways and enter Tortuguero. No camping is allowed in the park. However, you can set up camp by the administration offices and the ranger station for $2 per day.

While fishing and kayaking are big draws here, turtle nesting is the main attraction. Between July and October, Green Sea and Hawksbill turtles come ashore during the waning moon while Leatherbacks prefer the February to April season. Called arribados or the great arrival, the mother turtles come ashore, lay their eggs, and slip back into the sea to the sighs of international tourists. Admission at night is prohibited without a guide. Make arrangements well beforehand and please remember that you are a guest. Shield your camera’s flash, and do not touch or interfere with the arribados.

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

basilisk lizard in costa ricaThe largest of 5 volcanoes, the Rincon de la Vieja sits on the northern Pacific side of Costa Rica. Still active but deemed calm, the Rincon reaches a height of 1895 meters. The national park surrounding the volcano encompasses over 14,000 hectares. Hikers who’ve a penchant for heights can climb the Pacific flank of the cordillera between February and April when the weather is drier. At the summit, you’ll be able to see the Guanacaste Plain, Nicoya Peninsula, and Lake Nicaragua on a clear day.

Nature seekers can walk the moderate trails surrounding the park headquarters. These trails intersect with more difficult trails to Las Pailas. In the 50 hectares surrounding this area, hikers can find thermal springs, waterfalls, vapor geysers, and coldwater pools. Along the paths, wildlife burgeons with quetzals, toucanets, eagles, howler monkeys, and sloths. Guides are recommended since cloud coverage often obscures trail blazes and markers.

Manuel Antonio National Park

costa rica wildlifeOne of the smaller national parks, Manuel Antonio National Park ranks among the most popular in Costa Rica. The park contains 1700 acres of land and over 135,000 acres of marine reserve. Before Christopher Columbus, ancient societies lived here. Along the shore, you can still see the remains of their turtle traps. Now, the primary and secondary forest is home to species ranging from squirrel monkeys and capuchin to sloths, hawks, and kingfishers.

Whitewater rafting and sport fishing are core activities in the park as well as snorkeling and kayaking. Besides hiking, visitors can arrange for canopy, horseback, and bicycling tours. Many head to the mangroves for day-long explorations. But keep in mind that only 600 visitors are allowed admission during the week, 800 on weekends and holidays. On Mondays, Manuel Antonio is closed. Park rangers often state that if the quota is met at 9:15am. They close the gates at 9:15.

Marino Ballena National Park

Nestled on the southern Pacific coastline, Marino Bellena is a small national park, teeming with wildlife that often roam free from the flood of tourists that other ecosystems must endure. South of San Jose, Marino Bellena boasts 9 miles of white-gold sands, quiet mangroves and the largest coral reef on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Officially, a $7 admission fee is required upon entering but the gate is often unmanned, reflecting the relaxed and more remote feel of the park.

From December to April, lucky visitors may glimpse humpback whales tossing in the tide as they make their way to traditional mating waters just off the shore. During low tide, the marine life is abuzz, unconcerned about human faces in the waters. Nocturnal visitors in May through August can view mother turtles nesting and laying eggs in the moonlight. Unlike other parks, authorities do not monitor these activities closely. Please be aware of your surroundings, keep your voices down, and shield your camera’s flash.

Since the 1980s, traveling options to these wildlife retreats have exponentially multiplied. Visitors from around the world converge on Costa Rica’s national parks to see animals unique to these biospheres. Accordingly, the travel industry has grown. But, whether you’re flying into Liberia to visit Monteverde or into San Jose for a long stay in Manuel Antonio, please remember to respect the ecosystem and leave the grounds as you found them.

Thanks to its compact size and well developed transport infrastructure, all of these national parks can be accessed with ease. Contact a Costa Rica tours operator for suggestions on itineraries.

Puenting of Life – Bridge Jumping in Peru – Part 2

Exclusive for Vagobond by Sandra Riesco

Jerry offered me a glass and I took it. Almost everybody did and as soon as I drank it my body relaxed, my stupid laughter stopped, I warmed up and began to breathe properly.

Peruvian bridge jumpersSuddenly, it was my turn. I stood holding the rail; I could see the mountains covered in green vegetation for miles. The blue sky was speckled with clouds spreading around as if they were daring the sun to show its face. The only thing in my life at that moment was the idea of jumping into an abyss, like if I were given the opportunity to fly.

The first three steps were crucial. Freddy and the assistant were go to hold me steady. Jerry would be on the other side of the bridge to check me after I had jumped. All I had to do was focus on jumping as if into a swimming pool, stretching my arms as much as I could and literally intend to fly.

The only thing in my mind was then Freddy’s words, he went on motivating me, telling me how easy and amazing this would be. His words were just part of the wind, I couldn’t pay attention anymore. I just held his shoulders and took my first step. Then, not even in a second, I knew there was not going back, just upward.

At the precise moment of jumping from the bridge I didn’t see anything other than the landscape flowing around me. The feeling of pure adrenaline invaded my body, replacing the panic that I had accumulated.

My heart raced briefly but then, just as quickly, I felt an overwhelming sense of sheer calm. Everything was over; I was swinging on the ropes like a little girl, lying on the sky, at 150 meters in the air and without a worry in the world. Someone passed me a rope and pulled me back to the ground. I went up the bridge where everybody was waiting and clapping for me.

 

I sat on a rock next to the other jumpers Miguel, one of them, showed me some photos he had taken. He also told me how he had done this several times before.”No matter how many times you do it, the feeling of fear never goes away.”

One by one, we watched all the participants jumping, each of them at their own pace but without giving up. Before long, a few drops of water announced the possibility of rain. The sun was hiding behind ominous clouds. We had spent hours there and yet it all seemed to have gone in a flash. I felt completely exhausted and absolutely starving, thankful for the snacks I had saved from earlier.

On our journey back we stopped at Barba Blanca, a tiny village hidden among the mountains. There, the locals rushed to our bus to offer drinks and food. We had corn and cheese, fruit, chicken wings and even burgers. After five minutes of devouring anything edible that came into our sight we resumed our journey home.

fishing in Peru sunsetNobody said a word, everybody was sleeping and my body had stopped responding to my commands. I had exhausted my body and my mind, the adrenaline and extremes of the day had flushed my entire system and I felt ready to face anything. I knew I would be able to succeed no matter how difficult it seemed or how high the jump would be.

A Puenting trip can be organized by almost any tour operator but be sure to check for a reliable outfit with a good safety record.

This specialist in South America tour packages offers various adventure activities.

Puenting of Life – Bridge Jumping in Peru – Part 1

Exclusive for Vagobond by Sandra Riesco.

I had spent weeks absorbed with the stress of my son’s diagnosis for attention deficit disorder and transfer to a specialist school. “I need a break,” I was thinking when I decided to sign up to go puenting. Puenting translates literally as “bridging”, the perfect way to describe what I was about to do: jump from a bridge into a 170m deep canyon held only by a 20m rope.

jumping off bridges in PeruI didn’t mind getting up before dawn to reach the meeting point in Lima, Peru’s capital city and gateway to the country’s many adventure destinations. A friend was taking care of my son and I was going to spend a day working off the stress.

We headed out of the chaos of the city and up towards the highlands, in the foothills of the Andes, just two hours away from my downtown home. Stopping for snacks along the way I realized I was too apprehensive to be hungry, so I ended up stashing my biscuits for after the jump.

As the road climbed, the polluted city seemed to fall away from behind us, with mountains and greenery replacing the urban grime.

There were two guides with us, Freddy and Jerry, and eighteen people. Most of them were university students, excited by their impending adrenaline rush. The bus was full of nervous chatter and laughter, conversation occupied by final exams, presidential candidates and the elections, although I expected only as a way to put the fear out of their minds.

But for me, the most terrifying prospect was the perilous road and the steady flow of vehicles racing past us, often no more than inches away from our bus.

jumping off bridges in PeruFinally arriving in one piece, we got off the bus and stood on the bridge looking out over the Autisha canyon. The mountains were overwhelmingly high and incredibly steep. The canyon seemed like an enormous throat ready to swallow us whole as we jumped in. At the bottom, rocks pointed out of the earth in forms that seemed purpose designed to scare us, far above. From this distance, the narrow ribbon of river didn’t even look like it was flowing.

Freddy provided a detailed explanation. Basically, the secret of a successful jump lies on not thinking about it too much. “Great!  “I thought to myself, as if that would work. When they asked for volunteers I raised my hand immediately.  Every muscle in my body had tightened and I noticed myself laughing over every meaningless comment I heard.

One of the assistants helped me into my harness and spoke some encouraging words. “My mind hears you, Italo, but my body doesn’t,” I thought.

Then Freddy and Jerry brought over a sports bag that contained the ropes and the rest of the safety equipment. Plus several bottles of pisco, Peru’s famously potent liquor. “Ok,” said Freddy. “How about some pisco to overcome your fear?”

It sounded like a joke but it was true. I looked at the bottles and looked at Freddy smiling. Then I thought:
“First, I don’t drink pure pisco. Second, why would I drink pisco when doing a sport? Third, ok, who cares if I drink a bit?”

The Most Expensive Resort in the World – Grand Resort Lagonissi

 

Vagabonds are usually looking for the best place at the cheapest price, but here is the other side of the coin!

Going on a vacation is supposed to be a fun time, and since you are indulging yourself, you need to have the best facilities to go with the vacation, and the best people too.

If this is what you desire, then having a look at one of the world’s most expensive resort/hotels will come handy. Staying in such a resort will guarantee your social status rise overnight! One of the world’s most expensive resorts is The Royal Villa at the Grand Resort Lagonissi in Athens, Greece. Apart from the name, this Villa is royal in every other aspect as well.

Consisting of three bedrooms, the Royal Villa has got two pools – one on the inside and the other on the outside, which is heated.Grand Resort Lagonissi Taking the word Royal to the core, you will have the personal assistance of a butler and a pianist, as well as special access to a chef who will take you through the world-class kitchen! The other rooms include a spacious and elegant living room and dining area. The furniture is top class, and only the top brands are preferred here, be it anything. A wide range of candles is provided to help set up the perfect ambience.

The living room of the Royal Villa has got satellite TV, PlayStation and a DVD player set. The business part of it features laptop, fax machine, videophone and printer. The indoor pool also comes with a private gymnasium and work-out area, and access to a private beach and marina comes by default. Stepping out of the Royal Villa, you are greeted with a host of options regarding what to do – spend the entire day with the beach parties, watch the sun rise and set while sipping espresso and wine respectively, or simply go back to the Villa and lie down watching the ocean and the horizons. Ah, in case I forgot to mention, each night at the Royal Villa costs around $50,000 per night.

Enchanting Lakes of Coron on Palawan

Coron comes close to Palau’s Truk Lagoon in terms of a wonderful diving environment. Both have sea beds littered with sunken World War II vessels. But the similarities do not stop in the war wrecks. Their names are nearly alike, Palau and Palawan. Maybe, there is a more to it than there appears on the surfac.

cc Image courtesy of Roslyn in Starfish Island on Flickr "Leaving Kayangan Lake"
Kayangan Lake

Paluans are a proud ancient race keeping a close watch on their culture. In Coron, the Tagbanua ethnic group holds the islands and forests and would never let go any portion of their ancestral domain. Until the government stepped in and borrowed this part of sacred territory for a risky enterprise like, well, tourism. Perhaps, there is magic in the lakes that the Tagbanuas have been zealously guarding.

You can approach the northwestern coast of Coron by boat. A stunning sight of jagged, ashen, karst-rocks shooting out from the sea like the mythic dragons teeth grows gradually before your eyes. Time lashed rocks with forest vines; the crevices, moldy with overgrowths just like moss growing on garden stones. But the long and deep gnarling cracks that gave the steep walls its ancient face tell of this once volcanic ridge its age.

The lakes—Kayangan, Barracuda and the Twin Lagoons—are all karst sink-holes of glass-clear water. But Barracuda Lake is a challenge. The shore is covered with rocky corals. It takes effort to bring the boat up. A rough trail climbs up and winds around the lake to the jump-off point. But all the work pays off. You come out into a hidden tropical paradise with a crystal-clear pool at the center. And amid the eerie silence, monkeys chatter and exotic birds flutter between the branches.

The water seems irresistibly inviting. But steer yourself down into a slow dive. The water consists of three layers. The top is freshwater. You will sink fast. But as you descend, you will be overwhelmed by the mind-blowing sight of cavernous, gnarling, rocks and soft luminous colors—an experience that is strange and wonderful at once.

You haven’t gotten over your amazement yet when your body starts to feel like it is sinking in a hot tub. The heat crawls up as you pass the thermocline. It is like swimming at the bottom of a sauna bath at 35oC to 39oC. The lake used to be a volcanic crater. But before you get totally stewed, your legs feel the cool, relieving, stream of seawater. And soon, you touch the bottom of the lake. It is a totally different world down there. Pastel-colored rocks. Strange marine creatures. Tiny catfish stare at your goggles. Brine shrimps cling and nip at your bare limbs.

Kayangan Lake offers even more mind-blowing underwater sights: cavernous karst formations in kaleidoscopic light-play from above. It’s simply out-of-this world. Translucent jellyfish pass you by. Palau has a Jellyfish Lake teeming with thousands of these yellow-green creatures. But Kayangan harbors only a few, though, in stunning colors and forms.

Crystalline coves and mysterious jungles make up Coron’s dramatic tropical sights. But a dip into the lakes open to a sublimely primitive world that can only be described as “ethereal.” Hence, any dive in the lakes amounts to an experience that is just magical.

For those heading to Coron,  Club Paradise Palawan and the El Rio y Mar Resort are probably your best bet for full service, concierge, and all of the amenities at the right price.

La Fiesta Mama Negra in Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

While the northern hemisphere hunkers down for cool autumn months, Ecuador blooms with warm breezes, clear skies, and the beginning of the festival season in October.

Peru FestivalsDown the spine of the Andes Mountains just one hour south of Quito, the city of Latacunga fills its streets with streamers and parades the cathedral’s statue of the Virgin and Child through several neighborhoods.

Locals and visitors alike gather in the main plaza. They snap pictures and dance to the bands. They buy snacks and pop open bottles of Pilsener beer. Horses enter the courtyard and astride one is the figure of Mama Negra, the city’s protector against volcanic eruptions and destructive weather. The band strikes a fast beat and Mama Negra herself unveils a black bottle and sprays the crowd in a ritual cleansing.

At the Fiesta of Mama Negra, prepare yourself for dancing in the streets and non-stop festivities.

On each plaza corner, bands whip up festival-goers with hip swinging music. All year long, musicians and townspeople have been saving up for this event.

And they don’t hold anything back. Pastel-hued colors burst across the promenade. Pink coats and blue skirts twirl to the melody. Costumed men carry portal altars on their backs, offering devout tokens of respect to the patroness that include a dozen bottles of whiskey, roasted chicken, smoked guinea pig, and one immense BBQ pig.

Ribbons decorate the spaces in between as each man hews the altar down the parade route. Even small boys get involved as each one carries a miniature sized offering.

While bands blast trumpets and beat drums, each parishioner dances euphorically through the streets of Latacunga. In between altars and bands, they strut their choreographed hips through the cobbled avenues.

With handkerchiefs men guide their partners through the routine, hollering and celebrating each step. The women purse pink lips, swirling with the beat and smiling with pride. At the Fiesta de Mama Negra, the parade snakes up and down the streets for miles.

For hours, the bands march and dancers dip and twirl their partners. Mama Negra sprays the crowd with alcohol and gangs of masked men cleanse innocent bystanders with branches of green leaves. In the crowd, onlookers share beer and whiskey. They cheer and push each other into the midst of the dancing parade. Amongst friends and family and strangers, they jest and joke from noon past midnight.

Latacunga, a city high in Ecuador’s Andes, offers an authentic insight into everyday life in the mountains and is a great cultural extension either in between the usual tours to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu.

Peru’s Chavin de Huantar – Epic Archeological Adventure

Guest Post by Greg de Villiers

Ancash lies quietly to the north of Lima, ignored by too many people who hop past to the golden northern beaches, the central jungle, or Cusco and Machu Picchu. But they are all missing one of the great jewels in the Peruvian landscape.

Ancash Peru, Hiking in PeruAncash is bordered by long sandy beaches but then quickly gives way to the mountain ranges which dominate it – the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca, which contains the Huascaran National Park and the famous peak of the same name, at around 6000m it is the highest in Peru and 6th on the continent.

The landscape of Ancash is truly breathtaking, with wide open expanses, lorded over by massive, permanently white tipped peaks. Throughout the range there are some 300 glaciers – although all have been affected to some degree by a warming of the climate – and strikingly crystalline blue lakes – quite likely the origin of the provinces name – anqash in Quehcua means blue.

Tucked between all this majesty in a small valley, itself situated at a humble 3177m above sea level, at the confluence of two regionally important rivers, the Huacheksa and Mosna, is an ancient city built by a civilization that thrived nearly 3000 years ago.

The Chavin culture is one of the best known and influential pre-Incan cultures, at its peak from 900 – 200 BC, with its sophisticated art, metallurgy and textile work influencing many later cultures in Peru, and perhaps even as far abroad as the Olmec culture which shares certain artistic tendencies. It is theorized that the Chavin was not a great military power, but rather that the people of the large stretch of land (roughly between modern Piura in the north and Paracas to the south) under their sphere of influence were culturally colonized – i.e. they chose to follow the Chavin philosophy and religion.

The heart of this culture, is Chavin de Huantar, the remarkably well preserved archeological site in the Huascaran National Park. The main temple and surrounding buildings stand between the two rivers, a position carefully chosen for its supposed mystical energy. (Although the convenient positioning on a major riverine trade and transport connection between the coast and the high mountains was likely a key additional factor.)

The whole site should have been inundated and destroyed, but the builders rerouted one of the rivers and created a complex system of underground water channels, some of which are believed to have been used as acoustic tools which, with water flowing through them during the rainy season would, due to vents above ground, roar like a jaguar – likely the principal deity of the Chavin religion / cult.

The most renowned relics of the Chavin culture are the cabesas clavas or Tenon heads, large stone heads placed in the walls thought the temple complex. Some rows of these stone heads represent the transformation of human to feline (jaguar – and thus divine), a process brought to life by the Chavin shamans, most likely through the use of the psychotropic cactus, SanPedro which grows in the region.

The other relic of great importance and beauty is the Lanzon, a 4.5m obelisk depicting the main deity, located in the labyrinthine heart of the main temple. It is there where I found myself face to face with this ancient monolith; I have no clear picture of it, only swirls and patterns incised precisely into granite. These swirls, the taste of that entire moment, seem branded into my memory. Perhaps due to some mythical energy or more simply, highly sharpened senses as my body desperately tried to convince me that it was a bad idea to be standing underground, in a maze, in a 3000 year old building, in stale light and murkier air.

A visit to Chavin to Huantar gives you chance to come in contact with something unthinkably ancient, created by human beings completely different from (or perhaps remarkably similar to – depending on your perspective) anything we know today. And all within one of the most spectacular setting Peru has to offer.

Getting there:

The most common access to Chavin de Huantar is a three hour ride in a public bus from Huaraz, the capital city of the region. The route between Huaraz and Lima is well serviced by a number of companies and takes about eight hours. If at all possible, a rental car (preferably a 4×4, but this is not essential) is the very best option as the roads of Ancash are one of the best driving experiences in the country. If you are short on time you could book a guided tour with a specialist in Peru adventure trips.

Volunteer Travel in Baños, Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

Volunteer Travel Makes a Difference to You Too

“We’ll sing the Preposition Song to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.” My husband Neil passed out copies of song lyrics. In a tight semi-circle, twelve people from around the world congregated inside the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños for the weekly language exchange called intercambio. A guest volunteer, Neil led the session with an activity geared toward learning English and Spanish prepositions. We introduced ourselves, practiced translating, and sang aloud on our feet without shame that we might be off key. Volunteer travel rocks!

VoluntourismEach Monday, the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños or BIB begins its week like a well-oiled machine. Coordinators Karl and Mazz sit at the head of a large table, welcoming new volunteers and reviewing the previous week’s accomplishments.

Though technically not volunteers, Neil and I had become good friends with the staff and were invited to attend their weekly meeting. Laughter mixed with serious brainstorming as Karl eyed the clock and Mazz kept minutes. From all over the world and of every age, volunteers commit to a month of community service: running English classes for local youth, holding cinema nights, and participating in the popular language exchange. They live together, share household chores, and help local Ecuadorians learn English. International and domestic travelers stop in Baños on their way up and down the Andean Mountains, and like Karl and Mazz, many stay.

Volunteering in Baños, Ecuador

Volunteer teaching in South America
The Library in Banos

In general, Baños de Santa Agua is a major stop along the tourist trail. With hot springs and fusion foods, Baños offers a getaway from Quito and mountain retreat beside the Rio Pastaza. Package tourists soak in mineral waters and return to the capital within the week. Long-term backpackers camp out in local hostels. But BIB volunteers are different. Immersed in the community, they get to see what real Ecuadorian life is like. They read to school children and shake hands with thankful parents. At night, people wave “hola” to volunteers and often—because they know Karl—their drinks are discounted at popular bars.

TEFL courses online
It’s not easy being on center stage!

Each weekday at 3pm, the BIB’s painted shutters open and young children begin calling out for their favorite teacher. Karl knows each child by name, hugging one and rustling another’s hair. On beanbags and benches, the volunteers sit with Ecuadorian children. They read Curious George, Star Wars, and Cinderella in Spanish and English. During Halloween, they parade through town in costume, handing out flyers for the BIB’s programs. As Karl stated, “We’ve lots of volunteers, but we can’t have a BIB without the children. So sometimes we have to remind the town that we’re here.”

During meetings, I can see that each volunteer loves this program in a different way. “Listening to [the kids] read in their own language has helped me learn Spanish quicker,” said Drew, a volunteer from Massachusetts. “They pronounce every syllable carefully and it helps me too.” In many ways, volunteering in Ecuador is symbiotic. Both volunteers and students benefit. Kids receive language lessons and role models from overseas. Volunteers become part of a mission to help the local community and experience Ecuador differently than most travelers.

Living as a Volunteer at the BIB

working with kids abroad, voluntourism
In travel, it is the relationships that matter.

One multi-story building and a large courtyard comprise the BIB property. On the second and third floor, double and triple rooms line the shotgun hall. A large kitchen and living room offer common areas for reading and relaxing. On the first floor, a learning lounge opens to the street and welcomes students with shelves of Spanish and English books as well as comfy beanbags. Off to the rear, a crafts center has long tables and painted murals for art and group projects. Through a generous donation, the BIB also has a movie projection and sound system for Wednesday’s cinema night.

While living at the BIB, volunteers work together and care for the house, courtyard, and sidewalk. Each week during the Monday meeting, chores are divvied up so that floors are mopped, the street swept, and bookshelves organized. At night, volunteers enjoy each other’s company with walks around the basilica and drinks at the bars. Life is relaxed and fulfilling.

make a difference in your travel
You can travel and make a difference in the hearts and minds of kids anywhere.

During Neil’s intercambio, the atmosphere continued to be laidback and welcoming. Four Ecuadorians sang the Preposition Song and several foreigners translated phrases into Spanish. The hour and a half ran quickly as participants chatted with each other and joked about strange diction. By the end of the session, we laughed about the singing competition that turned into rap songs about prepositions. Karl closed up the BIB and we waved “Hasta luego!”

“See you in an hour.” I said to Mazz, who smiled and waved back.

“Yep, see you at the bar.” She turned to ring her boyfriend and get ready for a nightcap in town. Unlike an office job or regular internship, volunteering at the BIB is about an expat lifestyle centered on social living.

Details & How to Become a Volunteer
To become a volunteer at the BIB, applicants should contact Karl and Mazz at artedelmundo21@gmail.com with a letter of introduction and ability to commit up to 3 months in Baños, Ecuador. Volunteers do not pay for the program. However, participants are expected to pay a monthly donation for their room, starting at US$120 per month that includes bedding, utilities, laundry access, WIFI, and cookery. Accepted applicants should inquire about paying in advance in order to receive a discount. Baños de Santa Agua is located in Tungurahua, 3.5 hours south of Quito, 9 hours east of Guayaquil and 7 hours north of Cuenca via bus.

 

The Choquequirao Trek or How to Be a Weekend Warrior in Peru

By Maureen Santucci

I love to trek – it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do. It’s one of the reasons I chose to live in Peru in the first place. In fact, I love it so much that I somehow decided to go on one of the most infamously difficult treks without properly preparing for it.

Choquequirao PeruWe were heading for the Inca ruins of Choquequirao: famed as the lesser-known “sister” to Machu Picchu. Ruins perched atop a distant and isolated mountain, said to be the last stronghold of the Inca.

To keep me company on the adventure I brought along two old friends, also trekking enthusiasts. We all knew it was going to be tough but had no real idea what we were getting into. I started getting a clue, however, when discussing it with my guide, Alfredo Fisher, along with another friend who intended to come with us. She has bad knees and had thought she could ride most of the way.

One look at Alfredo’s face told us that was not happening. Bless him, he can be overly optimistic but he doesn’t lie. He informed us that there were many areas of the trail that were too steep to ride on. With hindsight maybe he was lying: I’d say there are areas of the trail that were too steep to WALK on, let alone ride.

We set out by car from Cusco at around 5 in the morning and traveled a few hours through the hills to a town called Cachora from where we were to begin our trek. There, we met up with our horses that were to carry all the equipment and our bags, their handler (Don Julio) and our assistant cook. The cook had come with us from Cusco.

That first day we soon found out what Alfredo meant by steep. Before long we had left the smooth rolling fields behind us and entered the towering gorge of the Apurimac valley. An unspeakable distance below us thundered the river. Between us and the water stretched the thin line of our trail, following the near-sheer drop to the valley floor.

We negotiated the precipitous trail right into the fearsome heart of the valley. We descended such distances that the climate visibly changed around us, getting warmer and subtropical until the trees were dripping with ripe mangos and avocados. Just hours before we’d been shivering in the chilly, thin Andean air!

Part of the fun of trekking is the camaraderie at the end of each day’s hiking, enjoying a few drinks at camp after dinner. Not for us on day one of the Choquequirao trek: we ate dinner at the valley floor and took our weary legs to bed.

What goes up must come down. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true and on the morning of our second day we looked back up the other side of the valley, trembling with the prospect of climbing all the way back to the top.

The trail followed a seemingly infinite series of switchbacks, each turn blending into the last. Legs burning, mid focused on making it to the next turn, I almost forgot to look up from time to time; whenever I did I was virtually bowled over by the site of the enormous valley and up ahead, peaking out of the clouds, our destination; the ruins of Choquequirao.

When we finally reached our camp for the second night, the view was simply breathtaking. Eating dinner with the sun setting behind the mountains and the ruins almost within our grasp, we soon remembered why we willingly put ourselves through such ordeals: the payoff is easily worth the pain.

Waking up the next morning to the panoramic view is one of the reasons I love these treks. The scenery is so dramatic it is almost impossible for a camera to do it justice.

An hour or so after leaving camp we reached the gates of Choquequirao. Although not built with the same Imperial grandeur as Machu Picchu, the site is still an amazing place, if only for its isolation and lack of visitors: we had the entire place to ourselves.

trekking in PeruIt can take days to explore the ruins in their entirety and archeologists reckon most of the ruins are still hidden. Experts believe the city was originally an administrative centre for the region. It has a bloody and dramatic history: these mountains provided the final stronghold for the beleaguered Inca as the Spanish chased them from their capital in Cusco. The gates of Choquequirao were among the last to fall before the once mighty Empire was vanquished once and for all.

We took our time exploring the ruins; partially through fascination, partially through trepidation of resuming our hike through the valley.

After lunch we began the hike back down the canyon, on a trail that turned out to be the most treacherous part of the trek. Coming across a series of steep stone steps, our porters were forced to unload the mules for fear of losing them to the canyon.

Almost crawling along the last stretch leading to the trailhead, my self esteem received a welcome boost when our cook caught up with me, only to declare that this was the first and last time he would ever work on the Choquequirao trail! I wasn’t alone, and even better: my pain was being shared by someone born and bred in the highlands, accustomed to hiking and working on the mountain trails!

Thanks to the grueling trek, Choquequirao remains an under-visited site, but is within easy reach of Cusco and makes an excellent alternative to the Inca Trail. Maureen travelled with Alfredo who can be contacted on: pachamamawawakuna@hotmail.com. Alternatively book in advance through a reputable Peru trips provider.

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens – Myanmar

Photos and Captions by Dave Stamboulis

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens is an exclusive feature from Award Winning travel photographer and writer, Dave Stamboulis.  You can find more of Dave’s work here at Vagobond. See the world through a photographer’s lens.

1) Monks on the U Bein bridge at sunset, world’s longest teak bridge which comes alive in the late afternoon with thousands of workers, monks, and other Burmese crossing back home.

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay
2) Nuns on their morning alms run in Bagan

Nuns on their morning alms run in Bagan
3) A young monk and his begging bowl on the U Bein Bridge in Mandalay

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay
4) Young Myanmar beauty in Mandalay wearing tanaka paste on her cheeks, used as sunblock and as a beauty cosmetic, tanaka comes from the bark of a tree

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay
5) Fisherman on Inle Lake. The fishermen of Inle are famed for their one legged rowing technique, which allows them to keep their hand free for fishing.

Fisherman on Inle Lake, Myanmar
6) Spinning silk on Inle Lake. There are many cottage industries along the lake, such as traditional weaving.

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay, Inle,

7) Girl rolling cheroots. The cheroot tobacco industry in Myanmar is huge. Along Inle Lake, young women work long hours rolling tobacco leaf into the cheroot cigars.

Along Inle Lake, young women work long hours rolling tobacco leaf
8) Young monks on their alms run in Yangon. Many young boys serve time as monks from an early age in Myanmar.

Many young boys serve time as monks from an early age in Myanmar

Half Bed and Torture Devices at Rembrandt House

Story and Photos
By Melissa Ruttanai

Rembrandt's HouseAs a New York native, I grew up around big name museums like the Metropolitan and Guggenheim. When I hear the word exhibit, my mind immediately conjures up images of huge white spaces, queues around the block, and paintings you can’t get close to or else your breath may chip the paint. I supposed that’s why I like small museums and boutique exhibits that focus on one story or artist instead of 5000 years of human civilization. I can stand almost nose to canvas with a painting and won’t flinch as a security guard clears his throat aggressively. I like furniture original to a home and windows that play as much a role in the presentation of art as does the light they let in. So on a summer trip to Amsterdam with my husband and two best travel buds, I made a beeline for the Rembrandt Huis, a museum that should attract massive crowds but in the shadow of the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum enjoys a simple solitude in the heart of Amsterdam.

A Kitchen and the Half Bed

I love kitchens. This is probably because they are usually the heart of the home and the scene for baked goods, slow roasted meats, and crackling firewood. But most people don’t give this room enough credit as if they never had a grandma set out a special piece of cake just for them in their own homes. Sadly most visitors sail in, take a few pictures, and cruise right out the front door. But the kitchen is where you can get a true sense for the cultural values of any given time period. There are copper pots and large bowls, serving dishes and silver spoons. All these indicate to me that the household could and often did feed a steady stream of people. Little chairs sat by the fire place, not necessarily for children but for the soup maid to stir bubbling broths. But what I loved most about this room in the Rembrandt house was hidden behind a large cupboard in the corner of the kitchen. Less than 2 meters long, inside a lightless hole, a fluffy bed was constructed into the wall.

flags in amsterdam at rembrandt's houseActually, it was a half bed because even back in those days when people were smaller, no adult could stretch out on her back. Or even in the fetal position. Listening to the audio guide, I laughed out loud as other visitors gave a cursory glance and walked away.

In Rembrandt’s time, people believed that sleeping on your back could induce death. They feared that if they were not upright they’d literally lose there breath and suffocate before morning. So the cook and many people of her time slept sitting up. Hilarious to think of all those people in Rembrandt’s house nodding off as they leaned against the wall trying to get comfortable inside a tiny cabinet.

A Torture Device? Inside a Painter’s home?

Up the tight stairway that seems to also serve as the backbone of the house, a little room sits off to one side of the house between two large salons full of Rembrandt’s work. Delicate papers hang from the ceiling, drying on a clothes line. Tiny knives and inkblotters litter a table. And in the middle of the room, a giant oak machine is poised, ready to flatten its next victim. Get your hand too close and you’ll get it back paper thin.

Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam“Are you ready for the etching demonstration?” A woman in a smock called our attention as her hand rested on the medieval killing machine. “It’s a press that artists use to create imprints.” My heart sank. No bloody history here. No grueling secret prisons in Rembrandt’s home. My twisted mind quickly found new distraction as the woman began to create art using a metal plate and an assortment of etching knives.

I have to be honest. The only thing I know about etchings is what I’d puzzled together on Antiques Roadshow, a television series where professionals appraise junk that people have around the house. In one episode, a guy brought in an inkblot picture for appraisal. It didn’t look like much until the official looking man in the suit took out a stylus and pointed delicately to one corner of the picture and read out the name: Rembrandt. And like magic, the yard sale picture became a priceless family heirloom. Everyone watching from TV land saw dollar signs in the man’s eyes.

In the Rembrandt Huis, the employee showed us the different tools that are used to make a plate. What I liked during the demonstration was that the woman explained that the plates create the actual pictures on paper. So an artist must create their scenes in its mirror image and that includes their name. My death chamber machine that sat in the room was the rolling press used to place the picture onto the paper. If there is no demonstration during your visit you can still watch a video depicting the process.

Most of the time, these types of workshops and guided tours often leave me disappointed. The guide usually pontificates to the crowd and I then feel compelled to act engaged when in fact I am counting the seconds to exit and explore on my own. But the etching lesson was great, mostly because the woman was an artist herself. She explained each step, showing us inks and knives and answering questions. Then when she rolled the paper through the machine, it seemed that I didn’t need the doom and gloom of medieval torture chambers. The woman had created something unique to a time period and presented us with a piece of art.

After the workshop ended, we were invited to continue up to Rembrandt’s personal studio. The light from the bay windows seemed to cast everything in a clean golden glow. A giant canvas sat in the middle of the room beside a large desk with a visitor’s sign-in book opened to an empty page. I signed my name, adding the date and a brief message. “Love the half bed in the kitchen and the etching workshop was a nice surprise!”

There Ain’t No Party Like a Trenchtown Party! Jamaica Rocks

Guest Story and Photos by Edward Williams

partying in Trenchtown, JamaicaHigh expectations before a holiday can often leave you disappointed, so, despite my excited anticipation and romantic views of Jamaican culture I braced myself for a let-down; would I get mugged, murdered and left in a ditch, or racially abused for the historical misadventures of my ancestors? I seriously hoped not!

First on the list of priorities was a visit to the Bob Marley museum on Hope Road, very interesting and well worth a visit but the best thing to come out of it was an invitation to the Culture Yard at Trench Town. This is where Bob learnt to play the guitar; where he’d hang out and watch Georgie make the fire light, and leave log wood burnin’ t’ru da night… Trench Town is also one of Kingston’s most deprived and notorious ghettos.

Sophia Dowe, the wonderfully powerful and welcoming tour guide at the Culture Yard came out to meet us. When we stepped out of our taxi-bubble we could feel the atmosphere in the streets instantly; tough and poor, just like the people milling about on them. Having said that, the friendliness of the people we met soon eased our nerves and the tour of the yard was a very real, enlightening and informative schooling in the history of this famous ghetto. And it was very nicely finished with a cold bottle of Red Stripe in the local bar afterwards!

Kingston street art - JamaicaThe Culture Yard itself is like a living museum, one in which local artists still produce and sell their work, and it’s also a place where people congregate for meals, ‘reasoning’ and jamming sessions, just like they always have done. You don’t need an invitation to go there either, but a call to let them know you’re coming would be appreciated.

One of the beauties of travel is how one thing leads to another; “What are you guys up to this evening? There’s a yard party going on at the top end of Trench Town, you wanna go?” Wow! Of course! Thank you Sophia!

Six of us from the hostel were up for the party, but Sophia told us the appetiser would be a couple of hours in a club in Tivoli Gardens – another famous ghetto in Kingston. Tivoli Gardens is famous for being the home turf of the Shower Posse, headed by Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke who’s now serving 23 years in the US for drug trafficking. Despite the formidable reputation and intimidating look of the streets we had a good time in the club while our taxis waited outside, just in case anything untoward kicked off. It was still early though so it’s not as if there were many people in there…

Trenchtown, Kingston, Jamaica partyBack in Trench Town a couple of hours later we jumped out of the cabs and headed straight for the dancehall rhythms we could hear rumbling across the street. By two am the party was getting into full swing – a camera crew from the local party channel had turned up and plenty of revellers were shaking their booty’s and showing off their moves in the limelight when, all of a sudden, two armed cops barged into the party. Er, should we stay or should we go now?? We stayed. Nervously. Two minutes later the biggest, bald headed cop appeared again and grabbed the microphone, he told everyone they’d come to check for weapons but that everything was cool and we could start the party again. The DJ dropped the record in and then the cop, who still had the microphone, let rip with a wicked bit of freestyle mcing that sent the crowd absolutely wild! The atmosphere for the last two hours of the party were electric – as sure as the Sun rises in the East, there ain’t nothing like a Trench Town Party! Once again, many thanks to Sophia. Without someone like her we’d never have got to experience such a night.

I’d also been hanging out in the market just south of Twin Gates plaza with a record shop owner, Martin. He’s an old school reggae buff with an amazing collection of rare and collectable vinyl that he off loads to tourists, and he’s Trench Town born and bred – as tough as they come! “Eh bwoy, wha’ you do tonight? There’s a Trench Town derby on, a Jamaican Premier League spectacular! You wanna come?” I was there as soon as asked!

After a couple of warm-up drinks at the Michelle’s Halfway Pub in Concrete Jungle we walked to the stadium, it was still an hour or so before kick-off. By going so early Martin had given us the chance to watch the crowd and the atmosphere build. All the fans were mingling together, there wasn’t a cop to be seen in the stadium and the pre-match entertainment was in true Jamaican style – dancehall playing through the PA system and several dancehall-style cheerleaders showing off their athletic routine in the middle of the pitch. The home team, Arnett Gardens, were the strong favourites but after no more than fifteen minutes they were two goals down. Boys Town were getting all the luck, and the home fans were getting tetchy. The second half was a proper barn-stormer; Arnett Gardens managed to pull one back, and then a quick second to make it 2-2. The excitement was all too much for a group of fans on the terrace opposite us, a fight started and caused a bit of mayhem but credit due to the Jamaican fans because, with no police in sight, two minutes after it started it was all over and back to normal again. No harm done. Arnett Gardens then went and scored a winner, at which point the home fans erupted as did I! What a night! It was back to Michelle’s again for a few high-spirited post-match Red Stripes and a late taxi home…

Jamaica obviously has much more to offer than a few nights out in Trench Town, but if you’re going there on holiday try and tear yourself away from the beaches for a day or two; the real Jamaica is a lot less scary and a lot more fun than you might imagine!

Black Robed Kaffir: Adventures on the other side of Pakistan

Words and Photos by Dave Stamboulis

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisI am sitting in a small hovel just off the main street of dusty Chitral town, not far from the Afghan border, where a couple of old blenders, two dirty tables covered with an army of flies, some broken benches, and a very large slab of ice serve to create a mango shake parlor. I am surrounded by eight wizened old men with long wispy beards and skull caps staring at me, all of whom look exactly like Osama Bin Laden. At first glance, the traveler might find Pakistan to be a bit daunting.

However, minutes later, the bearded men have treated me to two delicious mango shakes, a wonderfully cool reprieve from the 40 plus degree searing temperatures outside, and after finding out I am American, the men are full of questions, wanting to know if I find their country safe, and why tourists no longer come to visit.

To say that Pakistan is a land of extremes is not to exaggerate. Home to some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, from barren and baking deserts to the huge and jagged Karakoram Mountains; where dozens of indigenous tribes eek out an existence under towering peaks and massive glacial upheaval. Baking hot in the summer, a frozen wasteland in the winter, and yet containing some of the most beautiful and lush valleys in the world, with abundant fruit and vegetables during the harvest season.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisThe international media portrays Pakistan as a land of lawlessness and evil, home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda mobs, and there are indeed areas such as Waziristan in the Northwest Tribal Frontier, which are very much off limits to foreigners. In Waziristan, everything off the main road is not subject to government jurisdiction, and the land is ruled by feudal clans who have been suspicious of outsiders for years. The inhabitants here sleep with their doors open, with the women in the family placed next to the door to serve as a frontline against intruders, while the turbaned men lie in bed clutching their Uzi’s, AK47’s, and just about any other of the latest military hardware, all of which can be copied from an original in 30 minutes in small villages whose existence serves only to replicate weapons.

Yet the traveler to Pakistan will never be allowed into these areas, and outside of the political violence that has disturbed the big cities, the rest of the country is safe and hospitable, especially in the north, with one being far more likely to be crushed by the never ending cascade of boulders falling onto the Karakoram Highway on an hourly basis than by any act of terrorism or violence.

The sectarian violence and Al Qaeda related jihad groups are restricted to most of the far west and south of the country, and government troops make sure that visitors cannot enter these areas while they are busy battling insurgents. Meanwhile, the north of the country is a mosaic of different ethnic groups and even religions, with Ismaili Moslems (following the leadership of the esteemed Aga Khan) and various tribes of the Pamir mountains making up a majority. Every bend of the raging Indus River brings about a language change, from Burusheski to Gojali or Chitrali, and often the only way one can tell the difference between a Baltit from a Hunzakot is by the color of his hat.

In the northwest, near the Afghan border in the Chitral district are the famed Hindu Kush Mountains, stretching across northern Afghanistan. In the shadow of the Hindu Kush, live one of the most interesting and remote ethnic groups in the world, the Kalasha, also known as the Black Robed Kaffir. The Kalasha are a non Moslem animist group with light skin and European features. Legend has it that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great, who traveled through the region on his journey from Europe to India. How the Kalasha have survived over the years is quite amazing. They are the only non Moslem group between Turkey and India, and they inhabit only three remote valleys, surrounded by conservative Islam on all sides, and a Taliban inhabited region of Afghanistan just across the border.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn contrast to most of the neighboring villages, where women often are not even seen outside of the home, the Kalasha women are unveiled, attired in colorful headdresses made of cowry shells, pillbox hats, and embroidered skirts, and all are smiling and welcoming, even engaging in drinking wine and smoking cigarettes!

The Kalasha are pastoral, and make cheese, grow walnuts, wheat, apricots, and mulberries, which they store to survive the harsh winters that they endure. The valleys they live in are ringed by steep mountains and angry rivers, and the paths between the valleys are challenging treks over some extremely vertical terrain. In the river gorges, Kalasha men can be seen braving the whitewater rapids trying to free logs that have been cut to send downriver to be sold as timber. Each year, several men are swept away to their deaths by the powerful currents.

Pakistan by Dave Stamboulis

In the 1990’s, anthropologists, biologists (the mountains surrounding the Kalasha valleys are home to some of the largest populations of markhor sheep in the world), and tourists invaded the Kalasha area, and many feared that the consequences of large scale tourism would irreparably damage their indigenous lifestyle. But the September 11th attacks and subsequent war in Afghanistan virtually brought the tourist industry to a standstill, and the Kalasha have been left in peace ever since.

There is still a large selection of guesthouses in the Bumburet and Rumbur valleys, and I spent a week calling one of them home. My lodging was run by Engineer Khan, a jovial and energetic man who is the first university educated Kalasha from the valley, and now Rumbur village’s one and only esteemed school teacher. Interestingly enough, Khan received his first name not due to his being an engineer, but because his father wanted him to go to school and study, and his son took him to task, even going as far as leaving home to attend college in Chitral town.

Khan speaks Kalasha, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto, English, and a smattering of other languages, and is happy to show visitors into local homes, the traditional funerary totems of his people, and to indulge in long evenings of astute conversation over several bottles of mulberry wine and local moonshine, a boon for the visitor in mostly alcohol free Pakistan.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisKhan doesn’t worry too much about the political instability in Pakistan or the fundamental Taliban push from neighboring Afghanistan, as he figures the Kalasha have survived far worse throughout the hundreds of years they have inhabited the valleys around Chitral. He worries more about young people leaving for the cities to find employment, about dependency on western medicine instead of traditional remedies, and about overpopulation, a topic he is hot to teach in school. As he warmly jokes, “I have five kids, so it is too late for me, but I think that about three per couple for the future generations would be just right.”

I am amazed at the continuous warmth that the Kalasha show me in household after household. Even trekking over the steep 3000 meter Donson Pass to get from Rumbur to the neighboring Bumburet Valley I am constantly greeted with warm cries of “ishtapa baia,” the Kalasha words meaning “welcome brother.” Women out tending the goats invite my guide and me in for tea and rest, interested to know if we have news from neighboring valleys, as the vertical landscape and dangerous river crossings make regular travel between settlements a rigorous undertaking. I still have a hard time getting used to the fact that I can have free and open dialogue with the women, as in most of the rest of rural Pakistan, women are wrapped in burquas and not allowed to have conversations with strange men, let alone even look at them.

The freckles, green eyes, and blond and even red hair that I see on many children as I walk makes me forget I am in Asia and for all I know I could be in the countryside of Ireland or Scotland, but then one look around at the towering peaks and endless alpine ridges reminds me that I am in a landscape far more magnificent and on a much grander scale.

 

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn the Bumburet Valley, many of the villages have been heavily populated by Moslems, who now run guesthouses and shops for the Pakistani middle class, who make up the majority of the tourist trade these days. Chitral can be reached by airplane, and the Kalasha Valleys are then a short drive away, a welcome respite from the summer heat on the plains, not to mention that nobody seems to make a big secret about the mulberry and other local wines openly available for consumption in this dry country.

The Kalasha seem to have survived the visitations, invasions, and designs of just about anyone for a long time, and it seems likely that their genetic makeup just might guarantee them to outlast the most stubborn of intruders. And if that is not enough, then the giant mountain walls of the Karakorams and Hindu Kush will provide the rest.

 

Travel Tips:

From Islamabad and Peshawar, local flights go to Chitral, and there is land transport available from Peshawar on a daily basis. From Chitral, local vans go to the Kalasha Valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur, and Birir.

Accommodation: Hotels and Guesthouses to suit all budgets can be found in cities. In Chitral town, the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Commission) Hotel (#412683) is one of the nicer options, the Chinar Inn (412582) is basic, clean, and welcoming, and the HinduKush Heights (413151) is a swank resort just out of town.

In the Rumbur Valley in Grom village, Engineer Khan runs the Kalasha Home Guesthouse (email: ingeneerk@yahoo.com).

 

 

 

 

 

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