The Jewel in the Crown

It’s just as magnificent as last time, the Taj Mahal, despite the addition of so many fences to guide the large crowds around the site and through the mausoleum itself. There are also more fences to bar entry to areas previously open, the upper levels, the mosque. Our guide says the numbers of people visiting haven’t changed that much but now the vast majority are of Indian origin rather than foreign tourists, the exact opposite of what used to be the case.

We hear that Mumtaz, the wife of Shah Jahan who built the palace or ‘mahal’ to express his love for her, was buried with a large heart-shaped diamond in the centre of her forehead, the jewel in her crown chakra. Her diamond was later stolen and, in another act of love, given to Elizabeth Taylor on her 40th birthday by Richard Burton. And poor Shah Jahan was jailed by his youngest son in a nearby fort where he gazed on the monument until his death. A poignant love story to match the beauty of the place.

It glows with a magical light, it arrests the observer entering through the perfectly positioned gate. It is all symmetry, an octagon with four pillars surrounded by gardens with a watercourse leading to and reflecting from the elegant white marble building. Up close there are at least half a dozen different designs repeated on each of the eight sides creating a rhythm that feels like a dance. We are told that although the four pillars on the corners of the platform look straight, they are actually angled outward so that if one should fall, it would not fall toward the building.

This exquisite architectural expression of love is also the jewel in the crown of India itself, located in the northern centre of the country. For many, it is also the jewel in the crown of international travel, one of the seven wonders of the world, a pilgrimage to the ultimate manifestation of spendour and grace.

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Chandni Chowk, Delhi

Last night my dreams were full of bicycles. They were no doubt a reflection of our first day in Delhi, touring the forts, tombs and towers of the city. We began in Chandni Chowk, the market in old Delhi. After visiting the ancient mosque that towers over this neighbourhood – as many as 25 thousand kneel in neat rows here at prayer – we took a bicycle rickshaw ride through the narrow lanes lined with overflowing market stalls selling everything from books and calendars to saris and mangoes. It was oppressively hot and constricting.

Our rickshaw driver couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds but negotiated his way expertly among the crowds of walkers and shoppers, the carts loading and unloading merchandise, the motorcycles, scooters, tuktuks, the other rickshaws and bicycles, all vying for the slender passageway through the chaos. We jerked to a stop several times while tangles were sorted. It was clearly a surreal game we were in. Our driver turned around a couple of times with a smile on his face to see if I had noticed as he bested another rickshaw for the thin gap that allowed us to move forward.

We gripped the rusted bars at our sides and pushed on the crosspiece at our feet as we broke into an opening and picked up speed with the scooters, tuktuks and motorcycles whizzing past us. Soon enough, though, we were slowed again by the sheer number of conveyances in the constricted space, where we waited for our next chance to break free. After just a few minutes we had had enough of this dance but we continued on, nothing else to be done, for about twenty minutes, up and down the colourful lanes, the noise and heat and congestion almost overwhelming.

It would be easy to see this whole bizarre canvas as a Disney-esque film set laid on for the tourists if it weren’t for the real people buying and selling, picking up and delivering, piling, folding, yelling, moving, honking, sweating, in short, living right here in this pandemonium. It is incredibly alive. What a perfect introduction to India! This microcosm that is an imprint of the whole teeming pulsing more-than-a-billion-strong country. And what a privilege it is to experience it.

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Living in Uncertainty

I am reflecting as we travel to Narita Airport, an hour outside of Tokyo, that this is probably the last time I will be in Japan in this lifetime. This is a strange thought and it makes me especially aware of the people and places I have been seeing the past couple of days.

I don’t really like Tokyo although I had hoped to change my mind on this second visit. The city has some lovely parks and an amazingly complex transportation system. The people are beautiful, slim and fashionable. It is a very modern city, a shopper’s paradise, with lots of skyscrapers in futuristic shapes, even a glitzy copy of the Eiffel Tower we could see from our hotel that lights up in neon orange at night.

But for western tourists, it is a humbling frustration in interpretation. Without being able to read the characters or understand the spoken language, and without much English on most signs, we moved between maps and texts in both languages trying to discern where we were and where we were headed. We were routinely lost and quite excited when we achieved our destination. We visited two parks, took a boat ride on the river, negotiated the subway several times, and had a wonderfully unexpected dinner high above the city because we couldn’t find the restaurant we were looking for.

It was a perfect example of living in uncertainty, the familiar signposts of culture and language removed, forcing us to search for different ways of being in the world. Maybe that’s why I haven’t fallen in love with Tokyo as I have with other world-class cities – it’s too much work! And in this case, not enough reward for the effort. There aren’t the squares of Rome or the cafes of Paris or the Bund of Shanghai. But it’s good preparation for our next five weeks of touring India and Nepal. I feel as though the adventure has begun. For that I am very grateful.

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A Family Wedding

Cue the scene: A large English garden surrounding an original old stone farmhouse in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, southeast of Montreal. In among the broad expanses of lawn separated by mature perennial beds, there is a large white tent set up for dinner, another open space filled with white chairs in neat rows, an aisle up the middle, and a treed area at the front festooned with white drapery and flowers. There is also a wide area of grass dotted with trees and shrubs where, near the house, a buffet has been set up and a huge roast is cooking on a spit over coals, while in front of the tent, a bar has been set up and is doing a brisk business. Central to the array is a round table displaying about ten different single malt scotches, still in their boxes and cases, a not too subtle hint of things to come.

We are here for the wedding of my nephew, along with family and friends numbering about eighty. The women are in a colourful array of dresses, some long, some short, mostly sleeveless on this very warm day for late September. Several have heeded the warning to wear flat shoes on the uneven lawns but many of the young women are in high platform heels and a few even tiptoe in stilettos. The men are mostly in suits, or at least started out that way, their jackets abandoned due to the heat. They are mostly of a piece – large, beefy, fit, broad-chested, almost square – reflecting the groom’s rugby passion. He is bustling about in full Scots attire, a handsome tribute to his clan roots, attending to last minute details. Running among the waiting guests scattered about the garden are four young children, two boys in twin kilts and two girls in matching lace dresses with garlands circling their braided hair.

I am especially charmed by this scene because I have dreamed of a wedding in this beautiful garden for a long time. It is everything I imagined and more. The wedding is the culmination of a quick trip back to my home, or at least one of the places I think of as home. I spent summers in this part of the world from the time I was two and although I rarely visit anymore, it still arouses nostalgic memories of my childhood. My partner and I have toured around all the old haunts over the past couple of days, I have shed a tear or two of joy or grief or both, I have smelled the pungent earth here, heard the birches’ familiar rustling, and here we stand amidst this gathering of loved ones. I am grateful to be home. Now, there is a murmuring in the crowd… the bride has just arrived…

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Heading Home

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 3.54.55 PMWe’ve been calling our trip ‘Around the Balkans in 37 Days’ after the classic Jules Verne story of Phileas Fogg and his valet Passpartout. We’ve visited seven or eight countries depending on who is counting and had ten or eleven stops, again depending on how we count, and have used planes, trains, ferries, hired cars, rental cars, buses, taxis and our tired feet to cover well over three thousand kilometers in the Balkans and an additional fifteen thousand getting there and back. Phew!!

We are glad to be returning home, anxious to see what awaits us that we have missed. We would be excited but we lack the energy for that. We have been winding down for the past several days, finding more fault with everything and everyone than we ever would have in the majority of our trip, perhaps as a way of separating from the adventure in order to accomplish the return. We are also creating a readiness to separate from each other as we have been these last five weeks. We are on the cusp as we wait in the airport for our long flight home.

It has been a classic hero’s journey, setting out from our ordinary world to explore and discover new places and people, learning as we go, meeting the challenges set before us, and returning home different than we left. We had only a very loose plan so we have had to craft our way along. We have been lost many times, surprised many times, and awed and delighted by what we have seen. We have learned about the history of this part of the world, the long interconnected road that has led to this portrait of the area. We have been humbled by the strength and courage of the people, and enjoyed their consistently friendly helpful natures.

We return with the gifts of knowledge and experience of the diversity, the beauty of the Balkans, and with a renewed appreciation for the riches of home. It is all zelo dobro!


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A City in History

DSC_0060We are in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina, the seventh country of our trip and the fifth Balkan state we have visited. Sarajevo is different from the rest. Although like the other capitals it is full of history, it has a distinctly Ottoman flavour we haven’t encountered anywhere else. The old town bazaars serve Turkish coffee and sweets. Many women wear hijab. The diversity of this multi-ethnic culture is palpable. Yesterday, we walked within minutes to two large mosque complexes, three churches, one an eastern orthodox, and a large synagogue. They seem to co-exist harmoniously amid the shops and cafes that line the complex labyrinth of tiny streets and stalls.

However, everywhere there is evidence of the most recent war to ravage the city. The history museum has dedicated a wing to the three-year siege of Sarajevo showing photographs, posters and newspapers as well as objects donated by citizens, all telling the horror story of the hardships and death of that era, and the courage and determination of the people desperately clinging to the remnants of their homes. Beyond the formal displays, many buildings along the streets retain the bullet holes, often still unpatched and unpainted, from the shells that rained on the city.

Yet extensive restorations have rebuilt the old town’s monuments and historic places. And new buildings are going up around the city, often with innovative architecture and colour. Our hotel is an example of this integration of old and new. It is a beautiful old town classical building renovated with high-tech modern fittings and security. Strangely, the hall outside our room is 20 feet tall and just over two feet wide, the deep purple colour creating a perpetually dark fissure with a blood red floor.

So the city is moving into the 21st century in its own highly unique way. Although there is more poverty, more begging, and less Western style progress, its history is a backdrop for a young vibrancy. Everyone speaks English, usually with a handful of other languages. Students abound, smoking, drinking, having animated discussions. The air is full of energy and possibility.

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The Patterns of Home

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 6.30.06 PMI wonder what patterns visitors to Canada see as they travel around the country. What are the themes they observe that are common to their Canadian experience? Who are we as a people? How do we provide a temporary home for those from other places?

I have been ruminating about these questions as we have traveled along the Dalmatian coast stopping at towns and villages and visiting the many islands that dot the shoreline. We’ve been here a couple of weeks and are beginning to notice distinct patterns in our experience of the people and places we’re visiting.

The old towns are architecturally similar, their whitewashed stone buildings in classical style topped with red tile roofs and jumbled together around a harbor in a series of narrow cobblestoned streets always including steps up the hillsides. There is inevitably a fortress, a cathedral, a town hall, a bell or clock tower, centered around a main square or two. There are flowers everywhere.

The countryside we have explored has a similar rhythm. Croatia is mountainous, covered with low-growing greenery, including huge rosemary bushes, with grey rocks protruding everywhere. Where there is agriculture, the rocks have been piled in long sinuous walls, rock mounds, roadside barricades, and used for small huts and farm buildings. Vineyards and olive groves are common. We have been especially impressed with the road system, new and well maintained, and particularly the many long tunnels, some as much as 4 or 5 kilometers in length, that cut through the hilly landscape.

The people are invariably friendly, speak good English, are consistently helpful with information and support. We met two women traveling from the UK who couldn’t find their hotel. When they asked a local man, he promptly asked his son to drive ahead of their car to lead them to their destination. There are many of these stories as we make our way up the coast and talk to people. At our last hotel, the family who owned it gave us a bottle of their homegrown wine as we left because we had enjoyed it over dinner. At the place before, they had treated us to grappa when we arrived home from our evening.

We have been made to feel very much at home here. I wonder if we create the same kind of experience for our tourists. I for one intend to be more generous in my interactions with the many tourists in my city so they feel as much at home as possible.

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