INTRIGUING INDIA: RELIGION

sikh.11
Golden Temple at Amritsar

Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians – all are found in Incredible India.

“In religion, all other countries are paupers, India is the only millionaire,” wrote Mark Twain in Following the Equator.

sikh.19
Bathing in the sacred Ganges.

The majority, 80 percent, are Hindus. In Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges we witnessed the early morning Hindu bathing ritual, hundreds plunging into the non-too clean water which they believe is holy and will wash away all sins. At night, the banks of the river are a smoldering mass, fires and smoke from cremations. Many come to die in Varanasi. Death in the holy city is said to free one from the cycle of birth and death.

sikh.18
Cremations on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi.

Khajuraho, a wondrous place with numerous Hindu temples, is a popular site, more for the erotic sculptures on one of its temples than the stunning temple architecture.

khajuraho.1
Khajuraho, site of many temples, is one of the “seven wonders” of India.

The Taj Mahal – India’s architectural treasure, the dazzling white marble mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife who died in childbirth in 1631, is a Muslim monument decorated with carefully inlaid Koranic verses.sikh.taj2

And Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, the spiritual and cultural center for the Sikh religion, is yet another fascinating religious shrine. Sikhs compose only two percent of the Indian population, yet Sikhism is the fifth largest among the world’s major religions.

sikh.2
Sikhs congregate at the Golden Temple day and night.

The religion was founded in the early 16th century by Guru Nanak and gurus who followed him. Nanak preferred the pool at Amritsar (“Pool of Nectar” in Punjab and Sanskrit) for his meditation and teaching. The site in northern India, today not far from the Pakistan border, became a pilgrimage center where a great temple was built. Perhaps more than the temple, it is the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures of the Sikhs, enshrined inside which draws many pilgrims today.

Flowers cover the holy cook.
Flowers cover the holy book.

Twice per day an amazing ceremony focused on the book takes place at the temple. Thanks to guide Alok, we witnessed the lively and curious evening ceremony when the book is carried to its bedroom. Behind golden doors, it spends its night on a bed under an elaborate canopy.

We joined others in a long waiting line to view the book before the evening procession. While waiting, I had the chance to talk to a friendly Sikh who moved from Amritsar to London 17 years ago. London, where the gentleman has a fish and chips shop, has a large community of Sikhs. He was with his son. They, like many others, had a gift to lay near the book where a holy man, surrounded by other holy men sitting cross-legged on the floor, reads sacred verses.

sikh.12
Evening procession transferring the book to its bedroom for the night.

After viewing the book, worshipers, all singing, line up behind ropes to view the ceremonial procession. The book, much like statues in Christian processions, is carried on a golden platform festooned with garlands of flowers.  A group of holy men follows behind, chanting. A trumpet blower announces the arrival of the book. There are stands where worshippers can take communion. It is a joyous, festive spirituality.

At 4 a.m. the same ceremony is repeated when the book is taken from its bedroom back to the temple.

We returned to the holy site the following day and were free to wander around this mystical place after leaving our shoes near the entrance and covering our heads. Vendors sell souvenir bandanas. Sikh men are not permitted to cut their hair and are easily recognized by their beards and colorful turbans. Sikh women wear either a turban or cover their head with a scarf.

sikh.13
Heads must be covered at the Golden Temple. Mini scarves can be purchased.

Before entering the sacred grounds, feet are washed by wading through a shallow pool.

sikh.3
All are welcome to a free meal at the Golden Temple.

The complex is large. It’s a delight to slowly stroll and enjoy the scene, the people, the peaceful ambience, the shimmering golden temple. Selfie photos in front of the temple are popular. Families walk around the lake, taking pictures of one another. Some tired souls just lie down and rest in shady spots. An underground spring feeds the sacred lake where some pilgrims immerse themselves to cleanse their souls. The complex also includes enormous pilgrims’ dormitories and dining halls where all, irrespective of race, religion, gender, are lodged and fed for free.

Feeding the hungry is a tradition among people of many faiths, but Sikhs may get first prize for generosity. The Golden Temple serves 80,000

80,000 free meals are served every day.

simple vegetarian meals every single day of the year – all paid for by donations. Anyone can partake.   Volunteers cook, serve meals and wash the dishes.

Groups sit on the floor rolling dough for naans (Indian flatbread). Nearby other groups smoother naans with a type of butter. Enormous vats of various concoctions simmer on stoves.

Some who eat at the temple volunteer to help out to “pay” for the food and assist the permanent volunteers. Sikhs who live in other countries often come and stay at the temple for several months to help in the kitchen.

Volunteers do all the food prep.

The Golden Temple’s past is not all peace and love. In June 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on armed Sikh militants holed up there. Over 500 people were killed in the ensuing firefight. Sikhs around the world were outraged at the desecration of their holiest site. Four months after the attack, Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, leading to a massacre in which thousands of Sikhs lost their lives.

Most of the damage has been repaired by the Sikhs themselves who refused to allow the central government to take on the task.sikh.14

More on India soon—Dharamshala and the Tibetan refugees.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss this and future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.

sikh.20
Foreground:  Ganges bather. Background:  Yoga session.

Like my blog? Tell your friends.   I love to know what my readers think about my posts – feedback is welcome. makeread

Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.
Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.

It’s summer and melon season – perfect time for a light, refreshing dessert. I brought Chilled Melon with Lime and Ginger to a recent pot luck. All loved it. Click HERE for recipe and scroll down for more of my tried and true recipes.

 

 

Follow Tales and Travel on Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/talesandtravel

Follow me on twitter: @larkleah

 

 

Gorillas in our midst

In my next life, I want to be Dian Fossey. Well, not quite. I’d rather not be mysteriously murdered as she was in the jungles of Rwanda where she studied and lived with mountain gorillas.gorilla.2b

After observing, photographing and admiring these magnificent beasts in the dense bamboo forests high in the mountains of Rwanda, I was smitten. It is easy to understand Fossey’s fascination with the human-like gorillas which share 98 percent of our DNA.

gorilla.9b

Children romp and play, chasing one another through the thick brush. Toddlers cling to mothers, often piggy-back. Mothers nurse babies. And Big Daddy, the awesome silverback, keeps a vigilant eye over all.

“Watch out! One coming on your left….Look up, one in the tree… Be careful. The silverback is just ahead.”

gorilla.5b

They were in our midst, the 22 member Kwitonaa gorilla family. One youngster raced by and grabbed the hand of a member of our trekking group. Another trekker was punched – lightly — by a teenager whose path he accidentally blocked. I was captivated by a nursing mother, no more than a foot in front of me. I could have easily touched her, but I dare not. We had been warned not to get closer than 10 feet to the beasts. Impossible. They were all around us, up close, and obviously accustomed to this parade of curious creatures who snapped away with all manner of cameras.

gorilla.7b

Mountain gorillas are “about as dangerous as pet lambs,” Fossey once told Alfred Hitchcock, apparently to his disappointment.

Mama occasionally cast me a stern glance as if to say, “Oh no, you guys again.” Not far behind her, higher up on an incline, sat the silverback, a picture of majestic power, like a king with his subjects at his feet. He seemed disinterested, but weighing in at close to 400 pounds; I did not want to upset him.

gorilla.b3

The Virunga Massif, volcanic peaks usually shrouded in mist along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are home to 10 gorilla families visited regularly by tourists.gorilla.23b

Treks to observe the gorillas are strictly controlled and organized by officials in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Eager tourists arrive at park headquarters at 7 a.m. where they are divided into groups of eight, supposedly according to the difficulty of the hike ahead. Each group (a maximum of 10 groups or 80 tourists gorilla.27bgorilla.20bper day) is accompanied by a guide, trackers carrying machetes to blaze a trail, a gun-toting guard (in case of attack by Cape buffalo) and porters. Guides are in radio contact with other trackers stationed in the mountains who monitor the gorillas and advise them of the various gorilla family locations.

No longer young and fit, we asked to be in an “easy” trekking group since we had heard the hikes to locate the gorillas can take up to four hours, one way, over difficult terrain. I had been very nervous, not certain we were up to the challenge. My fears were assuaged when I met the others in our party: Fran (66) and John (76), seasoned hikers from Scotland; Selma (72) and Barry (a bit older) from D.C., and a mother- son couple from Germany. Annette, who appeared to be in her 70s, was on her fifth gorilla trek. “I’m addicted,” she said.

Selma announced to the guide that she had had two knee replacements and could only hike if the terrain was flat. She explained that a woman in her hotel had seen the gorillas the previous day after an easy, 37-minute hike. She expected the same.gorilla.25b

Poor Selma…close to three hours later, soaked to the bone, we finally found our gorillas. The hike started out as a pleasant walk in sunshine through farm fields. The sun soon disappeared and we started to climb, over rugged, rocky, slippery terrain. Up and up. Steeper and steeper. We were at an elevation of 8,500 feet. I was frequently out of breath, but there were rest stops.

Porters help with the ascent.
Porters help with the ascent.

Fortunately I had hired a porter, Peragie, a tiny woman half my size but my savior. I had little to carry, just a small backpack with a water bottle and my gorilla.17bcamera. But, for only $10 (the standard charge for a porter), I figured it might be useful. She could hold my camera if I wanted to take photos with the phone and vice versa.

This mini power house did far more. On the steep sections, she took my hand and literally pulled me up. When the rains came, soon into the trek, she wiped my face and glasses. She tucked my pants into my boots – to keep the red ants away. She spoke no English, but I learned that she was 30 years old, a widow and mother of two young children. Her calm, gentle, caring demeanor was an inspiration and kept me going.

“My knees are wobbly. I can’ go any farther. I won’t make it,”   announced Selma, not far into the hike. Our guide assured her she could – would – make it. When we came to a high rock wall separating the fields from the forest, several porters lifted her over the obstacle.gorilla.29.bjpg We charged on, but the going in the tangle of jungle vines, roots and branches was a challenge. Rain did not help. “How much farther?” Selma asked time and time again.   However, we all were beginning to wonder if we would ever find the gorillas.

Over and over, guide Ignacie assured us they were not far ahead. “They’ve been here,” he explained as he surveyed the terrain. Of course, they were not waiting for us, but continually on the move, higher and higher, searching for more tasty bamboo.

gorilla.15a
Playful baby

At last – a big patch of black lumbering through the jungle green ahead. We stopped. We could hear bamboo branches breaking. Suddenly more masses of matted black fur, on the right, left, ahead –all in motion. We were awestruck. After the grueling trek, it seemed miraculous.

Ignacie told us the youngest member of the family was a seven-day old baby. We came up behind the mother, cradling the infant in her arms. Unfortunately the 22-year-old silverback was ahead and she moved on to dutifully follow him before I could get a photo. The kids – all ages – were frolicking all around. Two teenagers got into a spat. “They are drunk,” Ignacie said. Apparently overdosing on bamboo has the same effect as too much booze.

The rain stopped. We moved about, each of us zeroing in on different family members for close up photos. It was thrilling, amazing, and beyond our expectations to be so close to these intriguing creatures.

Trekkers are supposed to spend no more than one hour observing the gorillas. Perhaps because our journey had been so long and arduous, Ignacie was generous. We were with them a bit longer, but not long enough. You cannot get bored watching gorillas.

gorilla.31

The trek down was worse than the ascent. It started to pour. This was the rainy season, and these rains were like no others I have known. The trackers decided to find a shorter route back through even denser jungle growth. The lead man thrashed a path with his machete. If it hadn’t been for my guardian angel, I surely would have slipped or tripped.

Selma survived. “I am glad it’s over,” she said as we reached the end. Had Ignacie not insisted, she obviously would have quit. We later learned that rather than sending a participant back, the guides call for a stretcher.   Trekkers are carried to the gorillas at an extra cost of $200. And, it is not uncommon for handicapped tourists to hire porters with a stretcher to take them to marvel at this wonder of nature.

gorilla.19b.jpg
Group photo while we waited for Selma and Barry who were far behind.

The gorilla experience is costly, $750 per person for the required permit. This includes the guide, trackers, guard, but not the porters. There is no shortage of visitors, however. Since 2004, the number of gorilla customers has almost tripled: 20,000 in 2014. Much of the revenue helps fight poachers, as well as contributes to the country’s efforts to develop a high end tourist industry and continue its recovery from the horrific genocide of 1994.

Back in the early ‘80s when Fossey came to Rwanda, there were only about 240 mountain gorillas in the wild. They cannot survive in captivity. Today the number is estimated at about 900, with some 300 in the Volcanoes National Park.

Annette, our intrepid trekker from Germany, was planning to set off again the next day for another gorilla trek – her 6th.   She said she had never been so close to the gorillas as she had on our trek, nor had she ever been on such a difficult trek.gorilla.30b

Finding the Kwitonaa family did take far longer than anticipated, but only Selma complained. It is very rare that guides do not find the gorillas. If that happens, trekkers are offered the chance to try again the next day. Prosper Uwengeli, the park’s chief warden, told a New York Times reporter that in more than 30 years, guides have never had to shoot a gorilla and no visitor has ever been harmed by one.

In a research report, Fossey wrote that mountain gorillas are “dignified, highly social, gentle giants with individual personalities and strong family relationships.” Like Fossey and countless others who have watched them in the wild, I am enamored of these gentle giants and, if it weren’t so costly, would gladly endure another trek for another visit.gorilla.b1

Gorilla visitors can show up at the park at 7 a.m. with hopes of buying a permit for a trek that day, but that is risky as permits may be sold out. Most tourists book a package tour which includes the gorilla trek. We booked a 3-day package with Africa Adventure Safaris, an African company which also organizes tours in Uganda. Total for both of us was $3,250 which included a full-time driver/guide, three nights lodging and most meals, the gorilla permits, a permit and trek to visit endangered golden monkeys the day after the gorillas, city tour of Kigali and airport transfers. We were more than satisfied. www.rwandagorillassafari.comgorilla.10b

Bad - very bad -- hair day
Bad – very bad — hair day

From Rwanda, BB and I traveled south for more Adventure Africa: Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Future posts will highlight our amazing experiences. But first, a bit more on Rwanda. Coming soon, “Rwanda — More than Gorillas.”

If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss these exciting future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.gorilla.6b

Like my blog? Tell your friends.  Please leave a Reply below. Feedback is welcome. I love to know what my readers think about my posts.

It’s time for a hearty soup. East German Soljanka, a recipe from my friend and food writer Sharon Hudgins, is perfect to warm both body and soul. See Today’s Taste, column at right.

Follow Tales and Travel on Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/talesandtravel

Follow me on twitter: @larkleah

I

 

Discovering more of France

Poitou-Charentes? I live in France, but had never been to this region on the country’s mid-Atlantic coast.   When invited to join a press trip there last April, I quickly said yes.

Fireworks fete the Hermione.
Fireworks fete the Hermione.

The pièce de résistance of the trip was the frigate Hermione, the replica of a French warship that ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic in 1780 to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence. Our group joined festivities celebrating the ship’s April departure for the US, duplicating that voyage of 235 years ago. (See previous post, “Hail Hermione”).

That was exciting, but so too was discovering this part of France which is not on most visitors’ travel agenda.   Islands, beaches, canals, pleasant cities, incredible seafood – and Cognac. Poitou-Charentes offers all, and the price is right – less than in those tourist havens such as the Riviera. Following are highlights of my trip.

Savoring oysters on the island of Aix.
Savoring oysters on the island of Aix.

The miniscule island of Aix was the trip favorite. It is so special it deserves its own blog post. I’ll be writing all about this petite paradise in the future, so be sure you are a Tales and Travel subscriber so you don’t miss it. (Sign up – upper right hand corner)blog.16

Marais Poitevin. It was like being lost on a jungle river, even though the trees on shore are poplars and ash, not tropical varieties. We were on a flat bottomed boat gliding through this marshland known as Green Venice. “People do get lost. Even boat drivers get lost,” said our boat pilot as he maneuvered our craft through the confusing maze of canals. There are 40 kilometers of navigable waters in the Marais, and there are signs along the canals, nonetheless it is blog.17daunting. In April, it was a green haven of tranquility with the only sounds those of birds or the splash of a frog jumping into the water. The canals were built by monks in the 12th century to drain the marshes for agriculture. Today they are popular for tourist excursions. You can row your own boat and test your navigation skills. Or, try to punt. The boats can be propelled by a long wooden pole – not easy. Boats with guides who do the work are also available.

?
La Rochelle harbor

La Rochelle. I could not stop taking photos of this seaside city whose Vieux Port or Old Port is perfect subject matter with two ancient towers guarding the entrance.   The Saint Nicolas Tower and the Chain Tower were built in the 14th century and served as key defensive bastions to the city for centuries. A third blog.6tower, the Lantern Tower, is the oldest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast. There are splendid photo opps from the rooftops of the towers which can be visited, as well as along the broad walkway around the harbor where everyone likes to stroll and where outdoor tables at restaurants and cafes are popular.blog.9

La Rochelle was known as a rebel city. It was Protestant in the 16th century when the rest of the country was mainly Catholic. The historic old town’s medieval houses, private mansions from the 17th and 18th century and vaulted stone arcades are also worthy of photos. And, all those fish in the city’s Aquarium, rated France’s best aquarium by Trip Advisor.blog.13

Jarnac and Cognac. We sank into oversized soft leather chairs in the dimly lit room whose décor spoke of ancient wealth. We were given blindfolds, told to cover our eyes, relax and concentrate on the scent being sprayed around us.

Eric takes a selfie at blind cognac tasting.
Eric takes a selfie at blind cognac tasting.

Then, take a sip of cognac and identify the flavor that matched the aroma. Three sprays. Three aromas: vanilla, candied orange and Iris flower. They were all pleasant, but my taste buds failed. However, I loved the cognac, Courvoisier XO which sells for 135 euro per bottle.

?

The sensory tasting experience at the Courvoisier Chateau in Jarnac, home of the eponymous cognac, was a treat. We learned all about cognac production, from the grapes and soil, to barrels and aging to the double distillation process that results in this potent elixir. We toured the cellars whose treasures include a bottle from 1789, and one valued at 6,900 euro.

?
?

Three major cognac houses (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin) are located in the nearby town of Cognac. Courvoisier, a smaller company whose major market is the United States, is known as the brand of Napoleon. The emperor visited a wine and spirit company in Paris owned by Emmanuel Courvoisier and an blog.30associate in 1811 and is said to have taken several barrels of cognac with him to exile on the island of St. Helena. The English officers on board the ship transporting him to the island enjoyed imbibing the brew and named it “the cognac of Napoleon.” Much later, in 1869, Napoleon III granted Courvoisier the title “Official supplier to the Imperial Court.”

The Napoleon museum at the chateau has a hat of Napoleon’s, as well as a strand of his hair in a frame.

Rochefort is a pleasant city on the Charente river 20 miles from the Atlantic whose 17th century shipyard is where the ship Hermione was reconstructed and where she will reside when she returns from the US voyage in August. Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, wanted supremacy on both land and sea. His adviser and prime minister, Colbert, chose Rochefort as the site of a shipyard. Through the years, some 550 ships were built there. bldg.blog.We visited the Corderie Royale, the royal rope factory, an astonishing structure, 374 meters in length, where we learned how rope was made. The super long building was purpose built to manufacture the vast quantities of rope needed for the rigging of sailing vessels.   Its length enabled it to produce rigging for the length of the frigate’s anchor cable. Because it was constructed during the same time as the Palace of Versailles, it is called “Versailles of the Sea.”

In addition to the Corderie and naval dockyards, Rochefort has a bizarre bridge, the Transporter. The aerial structure, a metallic platform on pillars high above blog.4the river, was built in 1900 and designed to be raised so ships could pass underneath. Only two dozen transporter bridges were ever made, with eight remaining. This is the only one in France still functioning.

Poitiers. Our visit to the regional capital of Poitou-Charentes was brief, but we did get a look at its outstanding church, Notre Dame la Grande and its elaborately sculpted façade. And, the Baptistery of Saint Jean which dates back to the beginning of Christianity and is one of 80 town buildings classified as historical monuments. The wall paintings from the 12th an 13th centuries are remarkable.blog.20

Travel Tipsblog.18

Poitou-Charentes has miles of golden sand beaches as well as miles of bike routes. More on the region at www.visit-poitou-charentes.com

Many excellent hotels in the region, with some  offering  double rooms for less than 100 euro per night. Hotels I can recommend:

Hotel Le Ligaro in Jarnac whose owner is Irish: http://www.hotel-ligaro.com/

Hotel des bains, Fouras (adjacent to Rochefort):  http://www.grandhotel-desbains.fr

Hotel Champlain, La Rochelle, (lots of old world flavor, beautiful gardens): http://www.hotelchamplain.com

Hotel gardens
Hotel gardens

Hotel Mercure Poitiers Centre (church converted into ultra modern, trendy hotel): See web site for Accor hotels, http://www.accorhotels.com

Poitou-Charentes seafood is sensational —especially the oysters.

?
?

Courvoisier offers a variety of tours and tastings, www.courvoisier.com

Happy Travelers in Poitou-Charentes.
Happy Travelers in Poitou-Charentes.

  Try my raspberry tart — the recipe featured in Today’s Taste in column at right.

If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.

Like my blog? Tell your friends.  Leave a Reply below. Feedback is welcome.

Follow Tales and Travel on Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/talesandtravel

Follow me on twitter: @larkleah