Follow The Yellow Brick Road, Part One

I’ve been traveling all my life.  I can’t remember whether my first trip was to Neverland or to Oz, but I DO know that I returned to both places countless times.

For many, many years all my travel took place solely between my ears.  Although school did its best to smother any interest in geography by forcing us to memorize products, capitals, and other bone crushingly boring trivia, I never lost my enthusiasm for the exotic places I discovered through our local library.  Books were my magic carpet, whisking me to wondrous places a small town girl like me never dreamed she’d ever be able to actually visit.

Maybe that’s why today, before I set foot in another country, I try to read as much as I can about its culture, religion, politics, history and yes, even geography.  I want to experience in it my head first.  It sounds crazy, even to me,  but a place seems more REAL if I have read about it.

Our next trip will be to the Himalayan countries of Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.  Here’s a map courtesy of Overseas Adventure Travel, roughly showing where we will be easin’ on down the road. Notice the red line stops at the Seti River?  That’s where the rafting starts, because there ain’t no road to get where we are going, yellow brick or otherwise.

Overseas Adventure Travel Itinerary
Overseas Adventure Travel Itinerary

 

So about those books I’ve been reading– lets start with Bhutan.

My interest in that country began several years ago when I stumbled across The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner.  It introduced me to Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness.   Also around that time, we’d had the good fortune to meet and travel with Dr. Peter Steele.  In 1967, at a time when it was closed to most of the western world, he and his wife were invited to visit Bhutan by the royal family.  After reading his account of the trip, Two and Two Halves in Bhutan, I became even more interested in visiting that fascinating country.

OAT provides a list of “additional resources” for each country on the tour.  That list was my starting point, supplemented by what I could find on Overdrive, an online resource available through our library and of course, by random internet searches.

What follows is nothing even close to a book report, mainly I am somewhat lazy, but also because you will get better summaries by clicking on the blue words in this post.  The Amazon and Good Reads reviewers will do a much better job filling you in than I would have done.

I had no idea that in addition to Peter Steele, Shirley Maclaine also visited Bhutan in the ’60s.  In her 1970 autobiography, Don’t Fall Off the Mountain,  she explains that she had gone to India to learn to meditate, and while there met the new Prime Minister, Lhendup Dorji.  He had assumed that position after the prior Prime Minister (his brother) was assassinated  by a member of the military.   She accepted Dorji’s invitation to visit Bhutan, but unfortunately there was still political unrest in the country, so her visit was cut short.  Still, she was there long enough to give me a feel for what Bhutan was like during that period.  Plus, she DID make it to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro.  And so will I.

Jamie Zeppa’s book, Beyond the Sky and Earth is a wonderful description of life in Bhutan during the late ’80s.  She spent two years as a teacher, first with elementary students in a remote village, then teaching college students at Sherubtse College near Trashigang. Yeah, I’d never heard of those places either.

Jamie married one of her students,Tshewang Dendup. Why did I feel compelled to tell you his name?  Well there is a reason.  In 2003,  he had a starring role in the lovely Bhutanese movie, Travellers and Magicians.  I got the DVD from my library; it’s a great way to  sneak a peek at the beautiful Bhutanese scenery (and to check out Jamie’s ex- husband, if you are so inclined.)

Lisa Napoli”s book, Radio Shangri-La  is about her volunteer work at Kuzoo FM, Bhutan’s “youth based” radio station.  Established in 2006 as one of the king’s projects, Kuzoo broadcasts in both Dzongkha and English.  Lisa’s several years with NPR made her a valuable resource for this young radio station.

Those 4 books gave me glimpses of Bhutan’s evolution from a closed Himalayan kingdom of the ’60s up to around 2009.  What did I learn from my reading?

Ten Fun Facts About Bhutan (Not in order of importance, or any other kind of order, for that matter)

  1. Bhutan is also known as Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon
  2. Marijuana grows wild in Bhutan, and is fed to the pigs because (surprise, surprise) it increases their appetite.
  3. Ara is the local moonshine; its a clear wine made from rice. ( Now that we’ve gotten the local stimulants out of the way, let’s move on)
  4. All doctors visits and health care is free
  5. Drukpa Kinley, a Tibetan monk who lived in the late 1400’s,  made his way to Bhutan.  He was also known as the Divine Madman who used his “flaming thunderbolt” to bless women and to bestow “enlightenment”.   He was so successful in his endeavors, he became the patron saint of fertility.
  6. Thanks to the Divine Madman, many Bhutanese houses sport paintings and sculptures of phalluses.  Who knows, photos of the artwork may be a coming attraction of this blog.
  7. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th king of Bhutan, voluntarily gave up absolute power in 1998.  (When does THAT ever happen??)  He guided the nation from a hereditary monarchy (which had been established in 1907) to its current status as a parliamentary democracy.
  8. Okay, so now the”People Magazine” type information: The 4th king had 4 wives, all of them sisters.
  9. His son, the 5th king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was crowned in November of 2008.  That king has only ONE wife, who he met at a picnic when he was 17 and she was 7.  According to legend, he said  ‘When you grow up, if I am not married and if you are not married, I would like you to be my wife, provided we still feel the same.’
  10. Men wear the Gho, and women wear the Kira; these two articles comprise Bhutan’s national dress.  Jamie’s book mentions that all Bhutanese were required to wear the national dress.  This dress code was an issue for the Nepalese immigrants living in the southern part of the country.  I don’t know whether the requirement still exists today, but it will be pretty apparent once we get there whether it does or not.

I actually learned a whole lot more, but I have to save SOMETHING for when we get there, right?

Next stop on our book tour – Nepal.

 

Two Hours Till Blast Off

Remember that standard issue duffel bag?  The one that all OAT travelers get?  I decided I didn’t want to waste time at baggage areas determining which of the identical bags belonged to me,  so I did a bit of “bag enhancement”.P1060071I know, I know…I probably should have given it some thought BEFORE I went wild with the sharpie markers, but hey, I figured I dramatically decreased the odds that this bag will be stolen.   What self respecting thief would want to be seen dragging this along?  Besides, a smart thief would suspect the bag’s contents would be equally jumbled and lacking in style.

I very thoughtfully had a “go” at Mike’s bag.  A bit less exuberantly, but enough to provide the afore mentioned advantages.

We will be flying almost 8,000 miles.  To put that into perspective, it is the equivalent of 2.5 flights from NJ to California, and it will take about the same length of time–15 hours.

We spend the night in Johannesburg then leave the following morning for Karongwe, a game reserve close to Kruger National Park.  For all the map lovers, here’s a visual.

karongwe

Three nights later, we return to Johannesburg.  If I’m lucky, I’ll have wildlife photos to post.

Over and out!

Packing for A Month in Africa

OAT’s (Overseas Adventure Travel’s) wonderfully helpful website is loaded with lots of hints from those that have gone before.  Thanks to them, I have a good idea of what to pack, and equally important, what NOT to pack.

I need to be prepared for cold mornings and evenings, high mid-day temperatures,  and a school visit.  Then after the tour ends, Mike and I are on our own in Cape Town for several days.

Suggestions for what to bring for the school visit included uninflated soccer balls and flip-flops plus the usual books, crayons, paper, pens and pencils.  I also like to bring along a few frivolous things, like small stuffed animals.

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The camps do our laundry every night, so 3 changes of clothes will do the trick, but I also needed a warm jacket, a hat, gloves, plus shorts and tee shirts and a bathing suit.  Dressing in layers is key.  I also need to plan for our time in Cape Town when we will be without daily laundry service.

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I found jumbo zip lock bags at the supermarket and am using them to organize my wardrobe.  But will all this, plus toiletries, fit into the duffel bag?

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to.  One traveler suggested putting the duffel inside a much bigger bag, then packing everything into that one large suitcase.  I tried that, but I easily exceeded the 50 pound weight limit.  THEN I decided to check out South African Air’s luggage rules and was very excited to learn that in addition to my carry on, I can have TWO checked bags!!!  I’m so used to the United Airlines restrictions, it didn’t occur to me that another airline’s checked baggage policy could be more liberal.

Being able to bring that second bag meant another trip to the Dollar Store for toothbrushes, combs and LOTS more school supplies, plus any odds and ends that I thought might be useful.  I packed it all in an old suitcase that I plan to leave in Africa.

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So, now my duffel will only contain MY stuff–plus another small duffel that I will use to bring back any purchases I make–good news for sisters, hermana preferida, cousins and other loved ones!