Mary Clark, Traveler

Ancient Kunming – Now the Garden City of China

I knew nothing of Kunming, China until discovering it was the terminus for most of the WWII flights over the Himalayas from India bringing supplies to the Allied and Chinese armies.  My father flew this dangerous route over the “Hump” 150 times.  When I journeyed to follow his WWII footsteps in 2014, a stop in Kunming was required.  Expecting a 2000-year-old ancient trade city visited by Marco Polo, I found instead a modern metroplex with temperate weather and a reputation as the Garden City of China.

The striking Kunming Airport, designed by the American architectural company, SOM, and completed in 2012, was China’s first green airport and an early indication of an updated urban environment, especially after flying from Kolkata, India. It is China’s fourth largest airport and has a surprising number of international flights including a direct to Paris, France. Customs was efficient with stern officers barely glancing at my newly purchased ten-year visa.

Flags along the sparsely populated new highway into town promoted Kunming’s beauty.  According to our guide, freeways and airports are built more rapidly in China compared to the long process required in the United States.  Land is leased in China, not individually owned, and they have efficient ways to clear the path for new developments.

Located in southwestern China, Kunming was a late bloomer.  The early explosion of industry and population movement on the Eastern side of the country caused nauseating air quality problems and crowded conditions.   By the time Beijing approved its “Go West” development program, an enormous domestic economic policy to boost development in western China, they had learned more about clean air.  Kunming’s existing industry was moved out of the inner city and solar energy emphasized.  All motorcycles are battery run, meaning motorcycles approach without warning. We had several close calls with passing cyclists.

Silver Chest Hotel Library

Sadly, since 1952 most of the original walled historical area has been torn down to make room for high rise apartments.  We struggled to find any charming lodging other than international hotel chains, including the Holiday Inn. We discovered the Silver Chest Boutique Hotel created from the home of a wealthy entrepreneur who had built it over a century ago near the Bird and Flower Market.  Owner Tang Lei had to meet strict requirements of the Kunming Bureau of Cultural Relics to create an authentic ambiance of a past era.   From the original wooden front doors to 1930’s tiled floors in the rooms to a cozy library with rare books loaned by the Yunnan Province Library, we could imagine a wealthy family’s living arrangements. Our continuous complaint centered around the lack of heating in all the buildings in Kunming, including the hotel, with only our small room excepted.

In addition to being a large agricultural area that includes thousands of fruit trees, Kunming is the largest flower exporter in Asia.  The City began hosting the Kunming International Flower Expo in 1995 which launched its reputation for natural beauty.  Last year’s expo featured 10,000 new, high-quality flower species and products.

Green Lake in Kunming

 

Cave Temple in Western Hills of Kunming

Two large lakes anchor the center of town while the Western Hills lie to the west. We explored the park around Green Lake.  Young environmentalists were protesting water quality (we think) but put down their signs for a photo with us.  A visit to the Western Hills required a bus ride, a ski lift part way up the mountain and a climb to ancient temples carved into the mountain side.  Students pray at the temples for good grades, wives for success in a pregnancy and all touch the elaborate Dragon Gate for luck, us included.

Yauntong Buddhist Temple in KunmingOn a tour of the city, we visited The Yunnan University founded in 1922 and highly regarded in China.  Just down the street was Yuantong, a major Buddhist Temple, where we joined supplicants buying candles and offerings to burn.  Two of the original gates to the city have been beautifully restored for viewing, the Horse and the Rooster.

Kunming has many more Chinese visitors than international ones.  We met no other Americans and only one Dutch woman waiting at McDonald’s for a taxi.  English was almost non-existent.  Our hotel receptionist had to show her phone’s translation of what she wanted to say.  Elena, our guide, ordered the most wonderful dishes at lunch time but in the evenings, we were without her help to decipher restaurant offerings. By pointing at pictures of dishes on the menu or even ordering food being served to the next table, we managed but were never quite sure what we were getting.  My brother tried pizza and was served plastic gloves to eat with.

Kunming offers a picture of present-day Chinese development in a pleasant setting with a small overlay of the past. It is also the gateway into the tribal areas of China that hosts 24 tribes, a location I want to visit before the Chinese Modernization Machine catches up with it.  I should go soon.

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The Thrill of the Sudden View

With photos available on the internet and travel sites galore, it is difficult to be surprised in traveling today.  Professional photos online with their perfect lighting beautifully reflect a location at its best. An in-person visit can sometimes be disappointing.

I do believe in being prepared for a voyage.  If I know the history of a city or country, I’ll “see” political posters and understand the importance of a candidate.  I’ll note the ethnic variety of a community or the foreign crowds at our national parks. Local guides add even more depth to a visit.  But it is the view that I often feel overprepared for.  That is why I can distinctly remember some recent experiences where the first view took my breath away.  They all have one feature in common – I could not see them coming.

Crater Lake in Oregon had been on my bucket list for years.  It is just enough off the main interstate and urban areas for the numbers of visitors to be moderated, even in the summer. As with all volcanic lakes, it was formed by the collapse of a volcano, the 12,000-foot Mount Malzana 7700 years ago.  Snow is the water source for the 2,000-foot-deep lake, the deepest in the United States and its 43 feet annual snow fall one of the highest in the country.

The drive circles up to the crater’s rim, masking the lake below.  We chose one of many turn outs and pulled into a parking place, grabbing a jacket to walk to the precipice.  And, suddenly, the lake was below us, stunningly beautiful with the dark blue clear waters, green pine trees clinging to the steep sides, and the quiet undisturbed by boats or visitors on the shores below.  We couldn’t get enough of the view, pulled towards it at every turn-out opportunity as we continued to drive around the lake.  We climbed to the Watchman Overlook for an even more spectacular vista, taking in the surrounding snow-covered volcanoes in the distance.  It is a view that cannot be over-hyped.

On a trip through Utah to see their national parks, we checked off three parks, all of which were impressive in their own way, but we could see them for miles as we approached. Bryce Canyon was different.  To get there required driving on a flat plateau, passing through a recently developed business intersection and entering the national park with nary a canyon in sight.  For several miles, woods obstructed our sight, but we finally pulled into a parking space with an arrow pointing to the canyon edge.  A quick walk brought us to the brink with rows and rows of the famous hoodoo columns below, carved by wind and erosion and standing at attention for miles, it seemed.  The canyon spread out until touching distant mountains.  We starred without talking, soaking up the geological wonder.

      You would think it hard to “lose” a view in the Himalayan Mountains.  Waves of mountain tops are easy to admire from the airplane circling the Thimpu, Bhutan airport.  But once on the ground, the road follows the river valley and forest obscures the view.  My husband, brother and his wife and I were observing and commenting on the many roadside temples and prayer wheels.  The van began to climb and weave up a mountain as we chatted.  On a final curve, directly in front of us was a panorama of snow-covered peaks against a deep blue sky. A collective “ohhhhhh” spontaneously erupted from the four of us, the view sudden and majestic. The van pulled into a parking area and we scrambled out to try to photograph the circular scene around us.  On our return drive to the capital, we came upon this same beautiful vista, but it wasn’t the same.  The unexpectedness from our first encounter gave it the excitement of a discovery, a treasure found.

There have been many other spectacular views in my travels – first sight of the Grand Canyon, walking through fog to encounter a mountainside Buddha in Hong Kong, waking up to a snow-covered mountain in Morocco, or finishing a trek in Turkey at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. No camera can capture the unanticipated, the abruptness of a discovery.  It is a reason to “go there” despite thinking you’ve seen pictures of it.  The real view is so much more.

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Traveling against State Department Advisories

Travel Advisory Levels

When I first began traveling internationally to Europe in 1969, no warning system by the United State Department of State was readily available for citizens abroad.  I have visited countries where travel advisories should have been in place.  When I first landed in Santiago, Chile, in the spring of 1974, a year after a military takeover and murder of elected President Salvador Allende, I could still feel the tenseness.  Soldiers patrolled the streets and even guarded entrances of movie theaters. Bullet holes punctured government buildings.  In neighboring Argentina, businessmen were being kidnapped for ransom.  Under the current system of warnings, I suspect I would have been warned to reconsider travel.  But I didn’t know and as my grandmother used to say, “ignorance is bliss.”

Beginning in 1978, bulletins became available for those in the know which included government employees, travel agencies, tour groups and educational institutions with study abroad programs.  Not until 1990 was the State Department ordered by law to develop a more comprehensive advisory system to be accessible by all.

The first system only offered two possibilities, an advisory and a warning.  The advisory would be akin to watch your purse, don’t be out alone at night, or even be aware of an election.  The warning indicated more serious concerns – terrorism, civil unrest, serious health concerns, and even kidnapping.  I once taught a friend a Spanish phrase to memorize in case she got in trouble.  “Ayudame.  Soy rehen.”  “Help me.  I’m a hostage.”  She didn’t laugh when I translated.

Simply having a travel advisory or even warning doesn’t mean a country is off the itinerary.  Some warnings only apply to sections of a country. Before our son was to be married in Guatemala in 2013, a concerned brother called. He had read the warnings from the State Department about travel there.  I looked at them more carefully and noted we would not be in any of the areas of violence and that the country had their own tourist police to keep travelers safe.  We were rewarded with the beauty of a wedding on the shores of Lake Atitlan that enchanted us all.

Whether to travel with an advisory in place depends for me on several factors – how much risk is it really, what does the local news report, and most importantly, what do our local guides say.

When I wrote our guide in the Assam Valley of India in 2016 that the area was under a U.S. Advisory against travel because of possible terrorist activity, he was stunned.  He replied eloquently, describing the tranquility of the area and noting the lack of any disturbance for his clients.  He even offered to have recent travelers write me of their experience.  We were glad we decided to continue with the trip as it proceeded without incident, at least until the last day when there was a police shootout with terrorists just down the road.  Again, we were blissfully unaware until the next day’s paper.

Prior to our visit to Morocco, two young Swedish women were brutally attacked by extremists at a campground near a mountain town we wanted to visit.  It seemed an isolated incident and we proceeded with our plan.  It wasn’t until our arrival that we learned the town’s residents themselves had tracked down the murderers. They knew their town’s reputation as a tranquil and temperate retreat from the desert below was at stake.  It was a favorite spot in Morocco.

There are some countries with continuous warnings such as Israel.  The failure to resolve territorial issues with the Palestinians causes an undercurrent of resentment that can erupt at any time. In 2011, we arrived just as Big Bertha, their then new anti-missile system, was shooting down rockets from the Gaza Strip.  I’ve talked with so many who want to visit Israel but have concerns about their safety.  I tell them there is never going to be a perfect time to visit that amazing country and they should just go.

In 2018, the State Department revamped the program, eliminating the difference between advisory and warning.  Today, four advisory levels are defined from “exercise normal precaution” to “do not travel” and include specific reasons for the caution, including my favorite – possible kidnapping.  I’ve also used a new program called STEP or Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to stay abreast of current conditions for any country I’m approaching.  I still get warnings about Hong Kong.

Because of Covid 19 today, the entire world is under a “reconsider travel” or “do not travel” warning on the State Department’s online map. I’ve never seen that before, certainly not in peaceful times.  My hope is that in a year, the map will be more inviting, and I can dust off my passport.

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Oh, Those Romans Could Build

Amphitheater in Aspendos, Turkey

Most visitors to Italy believe they are viewing the best Roman ruins and certainly the Coliseum, Circus Maximus and the array of partial structures in the Roman Forum are a few examples that display the construction abilities of the Roman engineers over several centuries. I first saw them in 1969 after studying Roman architecture in a high school humanities course and experienced the thrill of imagining the swirl of activity around the market 2000 years ago.  I even made my family go to the Appian Way, possibly the world’s oldest intact highway that connected Rome to some of its important ports and cities.  The “Pines of Rome” by the Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi was played by my high school band and as we walked the old stones, I could feel the drums pounding like Roman armies returning from war. My family was unimpressed with my humming the theme.

Today, Italy must impose limitations on exploring their valuable collection of ruins because of the wear and tear of millions of visitors each year.  For this reason, one should consider visiting ruins in the countries circling the Mediterranean Sea that give a vivid picture of the power and reach of the Roman empire, most available with minimal costs and no crowds.

Amphitheaters were popular with both the Greeks and Romans.  Everyone loved a good play. Romans constructed theirs from the ground up and enclosed the circle.  The Greeks kept open the view behind the stage.  We visited Aspendos, just outside Antalya, Turkey.  With nary a visitor in sight, we paid to enter a completely restored Roman amphitheater. No security guards prevented our exploration of the stage and wings nor our climbing to the top row for the best view.  Down the road was the Roman town of Perge, whose streets were open for viewing.  We shared the experience with a family of four and few others.

On stage at one of the best-preserved Roman theaters of ancient Samaria, several archeological layers down in Bet She’an, Israel, I practiced the steps to my “Dancing With The Stars” routine I would soon perform back in Paris but my audience was only my two traveling companions. A surprising find at Petra, Jordan was the Roman excavations that lay past the well-known narrow paths through wavy carved sandstone walls.  Our walk into the ruins was over a two-thousand-year cobblestone road built by the Romans, one of over 50,000 miles of highways they constructed in their empire.  This one was easy to maneuver in the day but challenging on a moonlit night as we left an evening light show.

El Jem Coliseum, Tunisia

Dougga, Tunisia

Dougga, Tunisia

 

For such a small country, Tunisia was filled with well-preserved ruins.  Rome loved breadbasket Tunisia, as much of the wheat grown for the Empire’s use came from this area.  Grain was used to keep the masses fed and happy.  My cousin drove us to Dougga, considered the best preserved small Roman town in North Africa and only an hour’s drive from the capital, Tunis.

Rome had its own requirements for construction of towns – just as we do today.  Before bringing their franchise to an area they had conquered, they preferred a hill to keep watch for approaching enemies, a water source to fill their jugs and public baths even if it required an aqueduct, stones for roads and construction to be used with their volcanic ash concrete, and surrounding fields for food production.  Dougga met all these requirements. The 360 degree view from the Temple of Juno Caelestis captured the Valley of Oued Khallad with open fields below.   This ruins even had a brothel near the public baths that offered hot, cold or warm settings.

My favorite out-of-Rome ruin was the rare Coliseum found in El Jem, Tunisia.  It is smaller than Rome’s but built in a similar way out of free-standing blocks without a foundation and is well-restored and almost empty.  To visit different areas of Rome’s coliseum requires increasingly costly tickets.  Tunisia’s is open for viewing for a modest entry price and you are free to explore on your own, including the underground rooms and pathways that led prisoners, gladiators, and wild animals into the arena.

Basilica in Volubilis, Morocco

Mosaics in home in Volubilis, Morocco

Mosaics in homes in Volubilis, Morocco

In Morocco, Volubilis was well worth the visit as it was the most western North African Roman city. A surprisingly complete Basilica and Triumphant Arch highlighted the ruins.  Beautiful mosaics filled the floors of homes while storks perched atop some of the many columns.  Our guide lived nearby, and three generations of his family had been involved in the excavation and restoration of the town and now provided guide services. Volubilis was so well built that it continued to be inhabited until the 11th century.

Rome fell eventually due in part to overextension of resources, corruption in the government, and invasion of Huns and other Barbarians.  The government collapsed but the contribution of Roman building ingenuity lives on and continues to be a source of wonder and imagination far outside Italy.

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Thanksgiving in New York City – Then and Now

Power Ranger in Thanksgiving Parade

End of Thanksgiving Parade in NYC

Beginning of Thanksgiving Parade in NYC

Watching the Thanksgiving Parade in NYC

It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, my daughter, her family, my husband and I were in New York City for the Thanksgiving holiday, worrying only about catching a cab or where to have breakfast before our visit to the Metropolitan Museum. Crowds were expected and we learned how to weave through them even after the Rockettes Christmas show let out.  I didn’t love the closeness of so many people but checked it off as an authentic NYC experience.  Today, I would give anything to feel safe in such a street scene.

In front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC

I do love NYC, having visited many times, primarily because of a sister-in-law who lived on East 52nd and freely offered her pull-out couch to us. Our children had taken turns staying with their aunt when they were 10 and had the same great memories of Central Park, Broadway plays, climbing the Statue of Liberty, and eating in the Deli around the corner.  Our daughter wanted her children to have those same experiences and so the Thanksgiving trip was placed on the calendar.

First up was the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, more exciting in person. Our view was from a side window in our hotel room ten stories up.  That morning we had exchanged pleasantries with other guests in the coffee room downstairs who were from all over the country, brought together by a singular 96-year-old event.  From on high we could see what was not shown on TV as a line of policemen walked the route ahead of the parade to clear the path.  Clowns did donuts in the streets in their tiny cars.  Jugglers on stilts entertained.  We heard the beginning of the parade before we could see it – a roar from the crowd as it approached.  By keeping the TV on, we knew which stars and performers were passing by.  Occasionally a float or band would pause and perform.  And the big balloons floating just below us thrilled all.  Our only worry was the strong wind.

The scene after the parade reflected the true size of the crowd.  We walked to the nearby Empire State Building and held hands to stay together.  At my eye level, only backs could be seen.  I trusted my tall husband to navigate forward.  The river of people quickly passed by as we exited at the building’s entrance and were swooped into the lobby, relieved to have some space.

View from Empire State Building

Lobby of Empire State Building

 

r that afternoon, I felt compelled to go to Macy’s because, well, because it was Thanksgiving and I wanted to have that experience.  Again, the numbers of patrons in the aisles was staggering – young women 4 or 5 deep trying to buy purses that were on sale.  At the top of the escalators Macy employees pulled patrons forward so they would not get run over by the persons behind them.  I didn’t even think about buying something, not even the Macy’s Christmas ornament.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Excepting the parade crowd and Black Friday’s shopping hordes, NYC was surprisingly explorable.  Ice skating at Bryant Parks introduced our grandsons to the iced rink with only the help of their parents who were uneven themselves.  We each had one Broadway play experience – ours being “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Ed Harris.  Thanksgiving dinner was at a small French restaurant.  On one of our days, my husband and I rode the subways with grandkids, explored the Natural History Museum, ate pizza at a traditional Italian restaurant, and caught one of the five Christmas Rockette performances that day.  The grands learned to hail cabs and how to start conversations with the drivers.  By evening, all were tired and content to play cards in the hotel room.

Today, the scene in NYC is dramatically different.  Restaurants are closed or are limited to 25% capacity, Broadway shows are postponed for at least another year and riding subways is riskier because of the possible virus exposure.  Tickets for the Rockette show that I enjoyed more than I expected, are for the year 2021. The Macy parade will be virtual for most people. Parade participants have been reduced by 75%, the bands’ invitations extended for a year, parade route shortened and all performances only in front of Macy’s flagship store. Tickets are still available at the Empire State Building and Metropolitan Museum of Art, but visitors are warned they have to quarantine for 14 days if they arrived from a restricted state such as Texas.  Hopefully, the stunning Christmas store windows will still be available for viewing.

It is strange to be nostalgic for crowds, or at least to not worry about catching a fatal virus from the surrounding humanity.  But NYC without the lively throngs is not the NYC we all love.  I know they will be back.  A vaccine will become available. Events will open up. Sidewalks will fill.  And I will never complain about crowds again.

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November 15th is 75th anniversary of the ending of the WWII “ Hump” transport operation over the Himalaya Mountains and it is still remembered in Kunming, China

My father at the Kunming Control Tower, destination of most Hump flights

Thanks to its temperate climate and mile high altitude, Kunming is known to Chinese citizens as the city of eternal spring. Now numbering 7 million residents, it is a governmental and manufacturing center for the region. But in WWII, it was bustling with American and Allied pilots, the destination of most flights flying “The Hump”, the moniker given to the treacherous  transport operation over the Himalayas from India to western China bringing fuel for the American and Chinese armies fighting the Japanese.  On November 15, 1945, the WWII Hump operation closed, three months after the official ending of the war.  Additional time was required to move troops and equipment back from China and India and planes continued to fly that treacherous route.

More Americans are familiar with the Flying Tigers led by Texas born General Chennault who commanded an early small group of fighter pilots to attack Japanese Zero fighters harassing Kunming, China.  The Hump operation is not as widely known but is respected by WWII buffs.  In contrast, Chinese citizens and their government remember our help well and have found ways to commemorate it, especially in Kunming.

The Hump was considered one of the most dangerous flying routes in the world and American pilots flew in what would be considered primitive planes today, C46s, C47s and C54s.  They wore uncomfortable oxygen masks, guided by basic instruments with little knowledge of the weather’s forecast.  Cold Siberian winds collided with warm, wet fronts from the Bay of Bengal, causing dangerous wind currents and icing.  Overloaded planes crashed.  Fuel barrels exploded in midair.  Inexperienced pilots lost their way. Over 600 planes and 1300 crew members were lost. My farmer father flew that route 150 times in 1945.

On a visit to Kunming to follow my father’s WWII footsteps as a Hump pilot, I was touched by the ways the citizens honor this operation, beginning with a driver named Happy Jack who couldn’t get over having a Hump Pilot’s child in his van.  “Your country helped us,” he repeated often.  He took us to a restaurant called The Hump.  Attached to the outside wall was an airplane propeller with globe lights above outlining the Hump flight pattern over silhouetted mountains and a sign that read, “The Hump since 2000.”  Inside, manager Mr. Wong welcomed us and gave a history of the restaurant and the pilot veterans he had welcomed since 2000.  His father remembered running from the Japanese when their airplanes approached and was one of many who were saved by the appearance of the Flying Tigers and who remained hopeful because of The Hump operation.  War memorabilia and photos decorated the interior as the young clientele drank coffee and visited.  Mr. Wong paid tribute to my visit, saying, “Your father helped our country.”

At the Kunming City Museum, the American Volunteer Group Memorial Hall is next to the Dinosaur Fossil Exhibition.  Expecting a display or two, I was stunned by the rooms filled with war memorabilia, photos and details of the Allied presence in China during the war.  Kunming is especially respectful towards General Chennault and his Flying Tigers but towards the end of this section were displays honoring those who flew The Hump.  A parachute survival kit included a watch, knife, needle pliers, an AAF stereoscope used for map reading, an AAF Hump Pilot map, a survival book for the jungle and first aid packet, equipment that would help a downed pilot walk the thin line between life and death.

Hump Monument Dedicated to WWII pilots

The largest acknowledgment of the importance of The Hump operation is still the Hump Monument opened in 1993 and built to “commemorate this daring feat in the history of aviation and friendship between Sino-American soldiers and civilians fighting shoulder to shoulder in the anti-fascist battle.”  Made of white marble the thoughtful design has three layers of meaning – an outline of a plane merged with two mountain tops with a large H blended in – H for the Hump,  mountains reflecting the Himalayas and the plane for the transport.  A history of the Hump and the part that the Chinese people played in its operation were recorded in a nearby display.  Photos of the rock of the airfields being crushed under large concrete rollers pulled and pushed by individual Chinese was a reminder of the combined efforts in the air and on the ground to make the Hump operation successful.  Happy Jack read every word of the display and continuously thanked me for my father’s service.

Prior to arriving in Kunming, I had visited my father’s base in the Assam valley of India where little note is made of its wartime importance.  The reception in Kunming countered that indifference with much appreciation for his work, a recognition of a time when Americans and Chinese worked together, an appreciation that has survived for 75 years.

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“G’day, mate” and more Australian talk

Bathrooms in the Outback – Sheilas and Blokes

I’ve always loved the Australian accent. Despite being perceived as descended from the Royal British dialect, it really comes from more modest beginnings and has its own distinctive pronunciation. This shouldn’t be a surprise as immigrants to Australia came from Ireland, Scotland, and different parts of England. Kel Richards has studied and interpreted the language’s history and documented it in his book, The Story of Australian English. “It emerged from a process called levelling down”, he said with the first immigrants who came here on 11 ships from different regional dialect areas finding a common denominator. It could be confusing for us as the pronunciation of number “six” resembles our pronunciation of “sex”, causing some uncomfortable moments.

But what was particularly fun after arriving in Brisbane was hearing a whole slew of descriptive words and phrases that had to be interpreted. First, they really do say mate, cheerio, and g’day.    I like the idea of being a “mate” or using it to describe a friend as an old mate of mine.  Some “guy” becomes some “bloke” down under and the women’s restrooms beckon all “sheilas”.

Veterans Day cookie AKA Anzac biscuit

In Brisbane, we were invited to a neighbor’s home for a “spot of tea”.  I said yes to the offer of crackers and noted the cookies I got instead.  If I wanted crackers, the formal term is biscuits but it has been shortened in Australia to bickey.  So, always say yes to crackers if you want a dessert and yes to bickeys if you want some crackers with your cheese.  Got it?  Definitely say yes to an offer of a spider which has nothing to do with the insect and everything to do with an ice cream float.

At the neighbor’s house, the discussion came round to snakes as there are many in Australia and if one gets on your patio, especially the rafters, as had happened recently to these neighbors, you just call the “snake man”, who will move the snakes far away.  There’s also the “possum man” for the 28 varieties of possums and their first cousins, gliders, found in Australia who might show up in your trees.

The Aussies do love to shorten their nouns.  Those we heard often were “uni” for a university, “tats” for tattoos, and “sunnies” for sunglasses.  Looking for a “park” can be confusing as I’m scanning the scene for playgrounds and walking paths and my hostess just needs a parking spot.

The beach is a good place to “diddle away” some time.  You’ll need togs (bathing suits), a chili bin (ice chest), tucker bag (for your food) and maybe a swag (sleeping bag).  I was unaware of the history and emotion associated with the word “swag” until listening to the famous Australian ballad from 1894, “Waltzing Matilda.”  It has become an unofficial national anthem, sung by soldiers marching to war, in concert halls, and before rugby games. It has nothing to do with dancing or a woman named Matilda.  It has everything to do with a swagman (itinerant worker) waltzing (traveling by foot) with his Matilda (swag/bedroll), killing a jumbuch (sheep) and jumping into a billabong (watering hole) to avoid capture by the sheep’s owner. What saves the song is its tune and marching beat with a bit of social justice thrown in.  Google it.  You can’t help but sing along.

If I did something cool, I was greeted with “good on you” but if I suggested something strange, the response was ”don’t be mad”.  Universal use of the word, “reckon” for think, as in “I reckon so”, surprised me as I had always associated that word with my grandmother or the Appalachians. We had to frock up (dress up) to go to a play where we met other gray nomads (traveling seniors) who had taken a volunteer redundancy (retired early for a payout).  After a meal in a restaurant, we had to “settle up” the bill and ask for a “takeaway” box.

A particularly confusing area is football related sports.  We attended a “Footy” or Australian Football League (AFL) game, an event that will fill a stadium with 100,000 passionate fans. Our game was the West Coast vs. the Blues with most spectators dressed in their team colors.  The AFL is unique to Australia and seemed a cross between rugby, basketball, soccer and our football – very fast paced with the ball being tossed often.  There’s also Rugby Union (considered for the elite), League Rugby for the working class, and association football or soccer. One fan tried to distinguish the rules of the two rugby leagues and my eyes glazed over.

The Australian turn of phrase and distinct accent kept us entertained, especially after a schooner of beer.  But I had to learn to take my “shout” to buy drinks for the group.  Otherwise, I would be an obvious “blow in” or newcomer. But I’m pretty sure my accent gave me away before the shouting began.

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Buddhists Amongst Hindus Amongst Muslims in the Assam Valley of India

With Buddhist monk at Tai Phakes monastery in Namphake, Assam Valley, India with my brother and sister-in-law and my husband.

With Buddhist monk at Tai Phakes monastery in Namphake, Assam Valley, India with my brother and sister-in-law, Mack and Jan Walker and my husband, Ed Clark.

Except for tea buyers, few visitors have discovered the remote Assam Valley of India, the country’s appendix in the far northeast corner surrounded by Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar.  In this ancient state, layers of religious beliefs gradually revealed themselves as we moved through the state.

The diversity of religions was not unexpected.  With even a cursory knowledge of India’s spiritual past, one knows Hinduism dominates the country of over one billion residents, claiming 80% of the population.  Despite the exit of most of the country’s Muslims in the partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh, many remain in India proper.  Buddhism’s numbers are small.  And Christians claim only 2.3% of the population and yet that number yields a healthy 28 million followers, including a large following of Baptists in Nagaland.  We experienced all of these during our visit to the state of Assam.

Baptist Church in Nagaland, India

On our first day of driving from the Guwahati airport, we saw banners of the recent Diwali Festival of Lights, a Hindu celebration of the victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.  New posters promoted the upcoming Raas Festival, another Hindu festival centered in Assam, where stories from Hindu mythology are acted out. Christmas lights decorated the outside of many homes. And a quick glance into a lit garage revealed women practicing their dances to be performed at the event.

India’s tallest Shiva temple, in honor of a second major Hindu deity, is in the Assam town of Sivasagar

But suddenly, the human landscape changed.  Muslim men in white cotton kufi skull caps and long flowing robes walked to the side of the road.  Women wore head coverings, including some covered by a burka or complete covering.  Fewer saris were spotted as a small neighborhood mosque appeared.  Assam has a larger percentage of Muslims than most of India due in part to immigrants from Bangladesh looking for work in the tea plantations and Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.  Just as quickly, we were back in Hindu territory with a new town and temple built for Vishnu.  We were to pass in and out of Moslem communities all through the visit.

 

Two-thirds of Assam is Hindu, most followers of Vaishnavism that venerates the god, Vishnu, a fighter of evil.  But India’s tallest Shiva temple, in honor of a second major Hindu deity, is in the Assam town of Sivasagar.  We approached this temple in late afternoon, the outside lit by strung red lights and the inside by candles.  A temple priest wearing dark rimmed glasses, looking more like a businessman than a priest, sat cross legged in the center beside the Shiva Linga or representation of Shiva, awaiting any who longed for a blessing.  Never to pass an opportunity to be blessed, I sat before him as he touched my forehead and recited a prayer in the Assamese language that God will fulfill our desires and protect me and my loved ones.  An earthen bowl, filled with small bills, awaited offerings.  We contributed and walked out into a beautiful sunset over the adjoining lake.

 

Towards the end of our time in Assam, we visited Namphake, home to the 1850 Tai Phakes monastery and Buddhist community with ties to the Tai people of Thailand fame. For a religion that began in India, it’s surprising that only .7% of the country are followers.

Inside the temple, a collection of Buddha statues from the world’s visitors clustered around a large golden replica of the enlightened Buddha. A young smiling monk clad in the traditional saffron robe, showed us around. Testimonials to the healing powers of Buddhist enlightenment filled a bulletin board. Outside the monastery grounds, an equally friendly couple rallied to our guide’s surprise request for a meal and serve us traditional banana leaf wrapped tamales.  It seemed as serene an environment as India has to offer.

I would think of our peaceful encounters with the varied religions of the region upon later hearing of the large protests against a law passed last December to weed out certain migrants in Assam.  The highly contentious Indian Citizens Amendment Act (CAA), favors citizenship for religious refugee immigrant Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhist, Christians, Parsis, and Jains who arrived in India before December 31, 2014, over mostly Muslim refuges arriving from Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka, a clear discrimination.  It becomes even more complicated in Assam as tea growers want the Bangladesh immigrants to work in the tea fields, some of the Bengalis are Hindus, and established Muslims want to exclude the more recent immigrants to protect their own status.

When I travel, I often feel a complex history simmering around me, unspoken but known by those who live in the country.  As tourists, we can be coddled by guides who reveal only the past and not the precarious present.  Our guides know the layers of meaning but must be encouraged to share them honestly.  Today, I am in touch with one of our guides in Assam who protested the law’s unequal treatment of Muslim immigrants in Assam even though he is Hindu. The protests were violent in certain parts of the country.  And, yet, I can only think of the peaceful Buddhist and Moslem communities that we passed through and lovely temples of Hindu worship we viewed.  India has some nasty history of Hindu and Moslems fighting but in Assam, many of both religions were working together to set aside an unfair law.  I am grateful to have experienced the faiths living serenely side by side. It can be done.

 

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Kaziranga National Park – Are We in Africa?

   

If I were to describe the experience of riding on an elephant in search of rhinos and tigers, where would you first guess I was traveling?  Probably Africa with its plentiful wildlife safaris.  But in truth, I was in the far northeast of India – the Assam Valley – at the Kaziranga National Park.  Other than the cost of travel, this park provided many of the thrills of wildlife viewing with much less expense.

My husband and I were on a trip to follow my father’s WWII footsteps to India and China where he had flown supplies from his base in India to Kunming, China over the Himalaya Mountains.  Thanks to a suggestion from our Assamese travel agency, we detoured slightly to the Kaziranga National Park, that began as a national preserve in 1904 and is one of over 100 national parks in India. Flooding from the adjacent Brahmaputra River is an occasional threat and the park owns additional higher land for animals to escape to from rising water.

After an early rise and sustained only by a cup of tea, we drove into the park for our scheduled ride on Asian elephants, smaller than their African counterparts.  While waiting, we watched a mother elephant and baby near a stream and learned the mother was recovering from an attack by a one-horned rhinoceros on a ride just a few days before.  No human was hurt by the endangered breed as the elephant had taken the brunt of the charge.  The guide explained this to reassure our worried faces.

Riding an elephant requires climbing to an elevated platform and waiting for your animal to move forward to the front, like a line of taxis slowly advancing.  Many of the elephants had babies nearby, some attempting to feed while the mother awaited her turn.  Ours had one who followed us throughout the ride.

Our mahout, or driver, directed the elephant with his feet behind her ears and gratefully didn’t seem to need the metal hook that he carried.  They have worked together since she was young and she easily followed his hidden commands.  A few mahouts carried guns in case of a rhino attack.  We were searching for the endangered one-horn rhinoceros amongst the high grasses. While approximately 2,000 live in the park, two-thirds of the world’s population, they are still targeted by poachers for their horns used in Tibetan and Chinese medicine.

In the soft morning light, our group of 10 elephants moved out in an expanding circle until one spotted a rhino, the mahout sending out a melodic message that one had been found.  The other elephants silently made their way to the discovery.  We were lucky to see several rhinos including a mother and baby.  None of the rhinos could have been easily seen except from the perch on an elephant.

Later that afternoon, we used an open-air jeep to search for more animals.  Mostly Asians filled the other jeeps with only occasional Europeans.  On our drive, we watched a rhino cross the road, seemingly oblivious to our presence and paused at a river crossing to follow a troop of Macau monkeys play along the banks.  Evidence of wild hogs reminded me of home.  We had seen swamp deer from atop the elephant and more deer grazed close enough for viewing from the jeep.  Wild water buffalos could be seen at a distance.  The beautiful pink spider flower that grows in the rhino’s dung, indicated some lived nearby.

A Bengal tiger sighting is rare. They only emerge in late evening and prowl during the night.  One had been spotted the day before and our guide took us to that location overlooking a river.  As the sun descended, more birds and animals gathered for an evening drink.  The monkeys were back.  A snake bird flitted across the water, diving now and then.  My husband recorded new birds in his life book such as the Indian Roller and Indian Robin.  Only a hammock was missing to properly enjoy the scene.

There were no tiger sightings that evening.   Gratefully, we also missed two of the world’s largest snakes – both pythons.  And the park’s small leopard population stayed out of sight.  But thinking back to the morning elephant ride, as we swayed with the big footsteps, watching the morning fog lift from the hills, enjoying the quiet broken on occasion by bird songs,  I couldn’t imagine Africa offering much more charm.

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Elbert Nance, WWII Cryptographer

Elbert Nance with his 75 year old war journal

 

Last month I wrote a story of a travel experience in Nagaland, India when I was following my father’s WWII footsteps from the Assam Valley, India to Kunming, China.  Afterwards, I learned a friend, Elbert Nance, had also been posted in the Assam Valley during the war. He had been astounded to read of our connection as was I and we quickly arranged a time to compare stories.  What I found was a 99-year-old veteran who remembered everything about his war experience.

Elbert Nance is a modest man, wanting at first to deflect questions about himself but we soon were deep into WWII history.  Elbert joined the U.S. Army on July 1st, 1942 after finishing Paris Junior College, and was posted overseas to Cairo, Egypt in January, 1943. He didn’t return home for over two years.

He served as a cryptographer (code translator) during the war, not because of any prior knowledge of the skill but because he could pass a background check before being allowed to learn the codes. Since radio messages could be intercepted, plans, orders and reports had to be transmitted in secret codes.  His primary job was to send and receive coded messages to and from bombers about where and when to bomb as well as results from the bombing.  He used code books to do this although the Sigaba machine became available later in the war, allowing instructions to be typed in.  After being trained in Cairo by the British, his instructor told him, “you have the most important job in the service.”

Elbert Nance’s shadow box

Nance worked with the British, Canadians and Americans serving in Cairo, Egypt, Benghazi, Libya and Sicily and Naples, Italy.  He particularly enjoyed the British with their need for tea breaks.  Some Americans had left his British friends baseball equipment, but they didn’t know how to play.  Nance tried to explain the rules in a condensed fashion.  When they played, he got a “home run” by running the bases as the British players over-threw every base.  In the telling of the story, Elbert was smiling in remembrance of a good time.

While in Italy, he got orders for the Assam Valley.  In consulting his 75-year-old diary, Nance confirmed departing Italy in February, 1944.   His journey to the Assam valley was quite different from my father’s who, as a pilot, was able to fly in short stints over the Middle East and India.  Nance began in a truck to the Mediterranean Sea, then a British boat to Cairo, another British boat to Bombay (now Mumbai), five days on a wooden bench sitting straight up on an Indian train to Calcutta (now Kolkata), three days on the roof top of an overloaded boat up the Brahmaputra River, another truck ride, finally arriving in Jorhat in March, 1944. He would be there for a year encoding messages to and from the pilots of the B-29s, the long-range bombers whose targets were in Japan.

We began comparing stories.  My father flew the Hump over the Himalaya mountains from India into Kunming, China bringing fuel to American and Chinese armies.  Nance was aware of the Hump pilots and their dangerous operation, but they were not based where he was, and he never made that flight. Their two bases were only 120 miles apart.

However, they shared some experiences, including primitive living conditions.  Nance worked eight-hour shifts or more and the operation was open 24 hours a day.  My father had to fly missions every 36 hours and the operation was open 24 hours a day.  Elbert arrived just as the Monsoon season began and my father also served through the Monsoon season a year later.  Nance was issued rubber boots to manage the muddy ground, lived in barracks that had quickly been set up in the middle of a field, showered and shaved in cold water and ate dehydrated eggs and potatoes and Spam – the classic C-rations.   My father would have identified with these experiences, too.  Nance did secure a jeep for his use but was warned, “don’t get close to any cow.”

Nance made his way back to the U.S. in March, 1945, this time passing through Australia to California.  He had been around the world.  Returning to Paris, he continued his education, became a civil engineer, worked for an oil company for 36 years, and returned to Paris to work as a surveyor.  He and his wife, Nancy have been married for 69 years.

Those war years are now 75 years old but in Elbert Nance’s mind, they are as clear as yesterday.  As with other WWII veterans I was able to interview for my book, I felt grateful for the opportunity to hear one more story, one of very few available to be told.

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