Two Short Travel Stories

June 29, 2020

In addition to reading my old travel journals and blogs, I’ve written two short stories for a contest by an upscale hotel chain. One of them has been I singled out for publication. See if you can figure out which.

Guiding Lights

By Arnie Kanter

I met the King of Bastar.

My guide, Japreet, said the king was an acquaintance. His company had made travel arrangements for the royal family.  Though the king was the central figure in the four-day festival, the Bastar Durshea, that I was in India to see, starting that evening, Jaspreet called the king on his cell. The king invited us to come over to the palace to see him.

Jaspreet and I spent forty-five minutes with the king, a young man of about thirty, who clearly believed that he was fully entitled to be king. Jaspreet conversed comfortably with the king, who spoke of the festival and how his participation and approval would be required for every aspect of the festivities.  He made a point of telling us that he would be riding in on the new horse he’d just bought in Mumbai for many millions of rupees.  His manner in greeting us and ordering tea from his servants, while not unkind, was aloof and privileged.  Clearly, it was good to be king.

Afterwards, alone again with Japreet, I said that, although he had described the king as an acquaintance, from my observation of their interactions he might well have described him as a friend.  Without hesitation, Japreet replied, “No, you have only a few friends.” His tone suggested that not only was the king not a friend now, he never would be.  And that would be Jaspreet’s decision.

Over the years, many excellent guides have shed light for me on animals, birds, a country’s history and its culture.  Jaspreet shed light for me on the meaning of friendship.  Long after I’ve forgotten the King of Bastar, I’ll remember Japreet.

Suffering’s End

By Arnie Kanter

In 2009, on a mountaintop near Paro, Bhutan, I met His Eminence Neyphug Trulka, a 29-year old Rinpoche, now in his tenth life.

Rinpoche’s smile is radiant, his manner calm, unhurried. The half hour he’d allotted for tea stretches to five hours. Discussion topics include his discovery as a reincarnate, the school he’s established for Bhutan’s orphan boys, and his studies with a master in India. 

I pose one burning question. Since Buddhism teaches that life is suffering, what advice would Rinpoche have for Chicago Cubs fans, who have not won a World Series in over a century? He pauses. “Well…you should not be too sad. Think of the joy you have brought to other teams.” 

This is decidedly notthe wisdom I sought. Here on a mountaintop, thousands of miles from Wrigley Field, should I take heart from the joy I’d brought the teams who had caused my suffering? Way too Buddhist for me. I gave Rinpoche my Hebrew Cubs hat, converting him into a Cubs fan. Now he would know true suffering. 

Rinpoche comfortably inhabits two worlds, the monastic and the modern. His monastery houses fifty-one disadvantaged boys. Rinpoche teaches them Buddhism, but also computer skills and languages to prepare them for secular life, should they decide not to remain monks. He’s downloaded What’s App for me, so we can communicate more easily. 

Back home, I accept Rinpoche’s request to friend him on Facebook, thus making him my only openly-reincarnated friend. I have met with him twice more, once as his guest at his monastery’s annual festival, once in Singapore, where he teaches. 

As I’d hoped, this friendship ended my suffering with the Cubs. At my request, Rinpoche conducted a puja (special prayer) for our team. Attending the seventh game of the 2016 World Series, I What’s App-ed with Rinpoche, as the Cubs finally won the championship.

Traveling at Home

June 20, 2020

Well, it has been more than four months since my last blog post, from Colombia. The three additional international trips that Carol and I were planning to take this year—to Japan, to England and Scotland, and to India—will not happen because of COVID-19.

Since we could not travel by plane, I decided to travel by rereading old travel journals and blogs, which has proved to be an unexpected pleasure. Those writings evoke a depth of memories that photos cannot fully capture. I must say that I never expected that I, or anyone else for that matter, would ever read through those writings.

I’ve also used the opportunity presented by reading my old travel journals to reach out and try to reconnect with people around the world who we encountered on our travels and of whom I was reminded by the blogs. I have gotten a large number of responses and am now in touch with people in more than twenty countries, including South Africa, Ghana, Indonesia, Borneo, Vietnam, Colombia, Jamaica, Germany, Turkey, England, Ecuador, India, New Zealand, Myanmar and others.

When my children were young, among my favorite books to read to them was Dr. Seuss’ AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET. In that book, the narrator, young Marco, is chastised by his father for making up tall tales to tell his father each day when he asks Marco what happened walking to school. One day, on his way to school, Marco sees only an old horse-drawn wagon on Mulberry Street. But that can’t be his story for his father, Marco thinks, because it’s way too dull. So the horse in Marco’s mind becomes a zebra, then a reindeer and then an elephant, and it winds up pulling a big brass band in a chariot driven by a charioteer, and police, led by Sergeant Mulvaney, appear, as does the mayor, and a plane that drops confetti on them all.

In a way, traveling is like walking down Mulberry Street in Marco’s imagination. You see and experience the most unbelievable things. Except they actually happen.

Carol and my travel started when we were quite young twenty-five years old.

We continued traveling, as we got older (after a pause when the children were young):

Here are some of the experiences we’ve had, as reflected in my journals:

Photographed Tigers from Elephant back in India, floated over 1000 stupas is in a hot air balloon at dawn in Bagan, swam with whales in Hawaii, ate dinner with a justice of the Constitutional Court in South Africa, walked by blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos, saw sheep herded by dogs in New Zealand, sat with village chiefs in rural Ghana, wandered around the Acropolis in the moonlight in Athens, listened to a leopard chew a warthog up in a tree in Africa, sipped champagne on the great wall of China, watched Rudolph Nureyev and Dame Margo Fontaine dance together at Covent Garden, stayed at the Cottswald cottage of a Supreme Court justice of the United Kingdom, biked in traffic in Beijing, dog sledded in Wyoming, saw zebras swim across a crocodile-infested river in the Masai Mara, marveled at Michelangelo’s David in Florence, rejoiced at watching the Cubs win the seventh game of the World Series in Cleveland, camped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, drove a dune buggy on the salt pans of Botswana, fly fished in waders in New Zealand, watched the sun set on the Taj Mahal, walked through Wenceslas Square in Prague one week before Russian tanks occupied it, helihiked in the Canadian Rockies, trekked gorillas in Uganda, put the holy Ganges River to sleep in Varanasi, drank tea with the ninth reincarnation of a 9th century guru in his monastery in Bhutan, heard a 95-year-old mother sing an Oriki, birth song, to her daughter in Nigeria, dedicated a well with a granddaughter in a rural village in Ghana, visited with the King of Bastar in his palace, climbed the sand dunes in Namibia, wandered through a camel fair in Pushkar, bird watched in the Pantanal in Brazil, attended the Royal Ascot races in England, stood in the rain in a plaza in Bratislava while the leaders of the communist countries met, was an honored guest at a wedding in Udaipur, walked around the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, ate dinner with former political prisoners in Myanmar, toured Buckingham palace with granddaughters, trekked chimpanzees in Tanzania, attended a bullfight in Spain, marveled at gigantic stone heads on Easter island, watched kickboxing in a nightclub in Cambodia, passed badminton games at 6 AM in a park in Hanoi, saw trees grown through ancient ruins at Ta Prohm in Cambodia, ballroom danced in a pavilion in Xian, watched cormorant fishermen in Guilin, saw salmon jump upstream in a river to lay their eggs in Alaska, tasted opium tea in India, watched a Jain holy man walk naked through the streets of Udaipur, spotted orangutans in a forest in Borneo, watched snake charmers in Morocco and cruised past ancient temples on the Nile.

And these are just some of the experiences. I could have chosen to add many others. What a privileged life. I hope that when this virus passes, there will be other exciting trips. But, whether or not there are, it’s been a helluva good run.

Over the years, we’ve traveled with small biking, hiking and photography groups, with friends, with children and grandchildren and alone. What’s made all of these trips special for me has been sharing them with Carol during the fifty-five years (today) we’ve been married.

PALENQUE – THE LIBERTY AND TRADITION OF THE COAST

February 9.

Breakfast outside in he courtyard at the hotel, then picked up by Santiago (Santi) our guide for the day and a close friend and business partner of Juan Comilo, our guide of yesterday. Santi proves to be a capable and very affable guide who we enjoy spending time with.We are driven to Palenque by Santi’s cousin, Felipe.

Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005, the small village of Palenque (an hour and a quarter drive from Cartagena) was founded by escaped slaves who sought refuge and fled on foot to the inland foothills in the 17th century. The existing 4,000 residents in the town are ancestors of these original slaves. Although Cartagena was Spain’s principle slave port, the town of Palenque became the first “free” town in the Americas and today is a haven for the local African creole language, dance, colorful clothing style, and social structures.

We drive down the town’s dirt roads and stop at a house, where we are told something about the town and its culture. Then we are treated to a drumming, singing and dancing recital. I try out the drumming, but unfortunately no photograph is available. Probably, the photograph would not be very clear, anyway, because my hands move so quickly as I pound out the rhythm.

We pass by a local cemetery.witness a hot dominos game.and we learn something about herbal medicine and the architecture of an old house being restored by an architect.We return to the house that we first visited, where we are given some instruction on how to prepare a traditional appetizer, and then are served a traditional Palenqueno lunch.. Our shopping in town is not successful, but Carol does make a friend of one of the shop owners.

After lunch, we are quite ready to head home in our air-conditioned car, as the heat does not make one anxious to be out very long. It has been an interesting day in which we’ve been shown and participated in town culture, rather than simply having it described to us.

We have a good long time to rest in our comfortable hotel suite and get ready for tomorrow’s trip home, before it is time for dinner.

We dine tonight at a restaurant located in our hotel, called Alma, joined by Federico Ruiz, the art dealer who we met in Bogotá. Lovely setting outside in the courtyard, with outstanding food and beautiful presentation. Federico is an interesting and engaging fellow, so the conversation and evening were excellent. It’s still possible that we’ll arrange for a purchase of his brother’s sculpture by the Constitutional Court in South Africa, or even add a piece to our collection, but nothing is set yet.

CARTAGENA – 500 YEARS OF HISTORY

February 8.

Breakfast at the hotel before heading back toward the international airport with Ana (and her husband, Freddy) for a 40-minute flight to the Caribbean coast and our final destination, Cartagena.

 We are met at the airport by a Juan Camilo, who just graduated from college two years ago. We are staying at a beautiful, boutique hotel, Casa San Agustin, right in the heart of the “ciudad amurallada,” the old walled city of Cartagena. Here we encounter quaint streets and plazas lined with bright yellow and blue walls of buildings that define the colonial architecture of this 500-year-old city.

 After getting settled, we drive to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, one of the largest Spanish colonial fortresses ever built. For regulatory reasons, we are accompanied by a second guide, José, who adds nothing. Juan Camilo is energetic and fun, and entrepreneurial. He studied and speaks both English and French. As we walk part way up the walls of the fort we can understandwhy, despite several attempts by outside forces, the Castillo de San Felipe was never taken and always successfully defended. It is extremely hot out, so, mercifully, we are able to stop at an air conditioned room that has a quite interesting film about the construction and history of the fort.

Because of the heat, we decline to climb up farther on the fort walls. We drive back into the walled city and see more of its quaint, but touristy, town. Cartagena clearly has more hats for sale per capita than any city we’ve seen.Juan Camilo tells us rather more than we care to hear about the history of the area, and some of the spots we were to see were not open. We do stop at a nice coffee shop, which reportedly has won more prizes for its coffee than any other, then return to our hotel, ready to call it a day. We are shown to our suite, which is very lovely, superior by far to the presidential suite at the Park 10 in Medellin.

Have been emailing and What’s Apping all day with Federico Ruiz, the art dealer we spent a day with in Bogotá. He and his wife, Rochi, are on an island off of Cartagena and we are trying to arrange to have dinner together tomorrow.

After resting in our room, we drive to dinner at Celele’s, where Brian has arranged a table for us. This is a very unusual, funky place that Brian, as a big foodie, knew about. It’s description, in the menu, said,”Contemporary cuisine based on the gastronomic culture and biodiversity of the Colombian Caribbean territory. “. The food was interesting; some of it very good, some not so much. The place was buzzing; completely full and probably seven tables turned away, with a second seating yet to come. Servers were very cute.

All in all, this was the least interesting day we’ve spent in Colombia. History is just not as interesting as people. But still, not bad. Returned to the hotel to retire.

 

SAN CAYETANO – THE ORIGENS OF COLOMBIAN COFFEE

February 6.

In the morning we drive two hours for a special, private experience, arranged by Brian and his travel company, True Colombia Travel. In the past couple days, we have have moved from Medellin to Cannúa (Brian’s lodge) and Santa Elena, where we saw the flowers, and today to to Fredonia (which sounds to me as if it comes straight out of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta) in the Southwest.En route to our destination, we pass through some small towns.

Over 120 years ago, the very first commercial coffee cultivations in Colombia were planted in this beautiful finca (farm) in San Cayetano, which today produces some of the best traditional coffee in the country. San Cayetano is Rainforest Alliance certified for their conscienscious treatment of the earth and UTZ fair trade certified for fair treatment of their employees.

 Our personal tour highlights the best of Colombian cultivation on an expansive property that spans various elevations and cultivates both high-land and low-land coffee. We travel by jeep over an extremely bumpy road, driven by Felipe, vice president of San Cayetano, and accompanied by Brian. In the process, we are treated to breathtaking views of the central ridge of the Andes mountains and the Cauca River 3,000 feet below.

Along the route we encounter pickers who work on the farm, see how they live, and pass a school constructed on the farm specially for the children of families that work in the fields. Currently there are thirty pickers working, but in high season, October, there will be 250. Pickers are paid by the kilo. An average picker might pick 80 kilos in a day, but an expert may pick 250 or more kilos.

 We are able to see every step of the lengthy and difficult coffee process from seed to cup, and see ripe beans straight from the tree. A vente at Starbucks will never quite be the same again. We stop for a traditional farm lunch back at the house.

 After lunch, we visit the processing warehouse to see how they de-pulp, wash, and dry the beans in both traditional as well as specialty methods, promoted by a coffee initiative established by True Colombia Travel.

Back at the house, Brian prepares San Cayentano coffee for us using two different methods, and explains the reasons for each step of his preparation. If I was reading Carol’s body language correctly, she’s unlikely to be forsaking our coffee maker any time soon.

At the owner’s private mansion, we have the grounds to ourselves. We change into our swimsuits (after a nap, of course) and take a dip in the infinity pool. As the sun sets, we sit on the deck, reading and blogging.

We’re served wine as the sun disappears from view. Later, we move over to the fire place, fed by coffee wood, and relax as we are served our dinner.

After dinner, I spend some time in the jacuzzi. Hey, somebody’s gotta do it, right?

A very interesting day. Not as much fun as the music school, but definitely worthwhile and, in the late afternoon and evening, very relaxing.