We were heading to China, and the World Expo was taking place in Shanghai that year. Oh man, did I ever want to go. When I was a kid, my family made the trip to the World’s Fair in New York City. I still remember the excitement of the Space Park, the talking, moving Lincoln robot statue in the Illinois Pavilion, and the Bel-Gem Brussels waffles we all ate for the very first time, smothered in strawberries and whipped cream. 
Expo in Shanghai! Surely, we had to see it. But there was just one teeny problem: all the on-line sources for tickets had been sold out for months. I wrote my friend Weiyu in Beijing and asked her, could she get us tickets? She checked in the capitol… all the ticket options there were sold out, too! But, ever resourceful, she called in a favor from a friend who lived in Shanghai, and he managed to secure two tickets for the time period we’d be visiting.
With our passports in hand (because your passport allowed you to skip the unbelievably long lines in front of most of the pavilions and enter your country’s VIP door), we headed out early in the morning.
That Expo was terrific. Some countries had put incredible thought and creativity into their presentations (more on some of them in future posts). And visiting Expo was a way to glimpse certain countries in places that I feel pretty sure I’ll never visit in real life.
Like North Korea. For a country that’s usually in the news these days, North Korea sure is shrouded in permanent mystery. I don’t know if their pavilion at the Shanghai Expo cleared up many of the mists, but it was an eye-opener in other ways.
I had no idea that Jeff Koons had designed their central fountain, for instance.  Frolicking naked cherubs (minus the wings) showed off their muscular buttocks. They held hands in a circle as they released a bird. Cherubs and bird all gazed up into the heavens…. I have a funny bone that gets amused by kitsch, and from the second I saw that fountain my funny bone began to tickle. I started laughing, and couldn’t stop.
The selection of literature for sale was slim on choice but heavy on message. Who can forget that classic of North Korean literature, “The Immortal Woman Revolutionary”?
The sales woman was dour and didn’t crack a smile. Maybe humor doesn’t translate as easily as I’d hoped.
When we visit the temples in Laos, we often see monks tying special white cotton strings to the wrist of a person’s right hand. Sometimes the monk ties connecting strings to whole groups of people. What are they, and what was the significance? The answer, it turns out, varies in the different regions of Laos (as well as the Sipsong Panna autonomous prefecture of the Tai Lü in the extreme south of Yunnan, China, and Northern and Isan Thai cultures) and depends on time and place….
The strings are tied in the Baci ceremony, and the meaning depends on the occasion. Take weddings, for instance. According to an old Laotian legend, the cotton threads are tied to ensure a happy marriage. We each have a tree in the heavenly garden, and that tree has branches intertwined with your predestined partner. When our trees come to this earthly existence, the cotton threads binding them are cut and we’re born separated and alone. If you can find your soul mate again after searching for him or her, at your marriage you are rejoined by retying the thread.
But in Laos, threads are also tied on newborn babies and their mothers , or on people going home or departing from home, which explained the many men, women, and children with these bracelets we saw at airports. The ceremony is performed for specific events in a life: success, health (both for the cured and the sick), and annual festivals like the sacred Wax Castle Procession in Vientiane (we witnessed a high number of Baci ceremonies during that time).  The ceremony is done after a death, too, to bring back any wandering, missing spirits and reinforce the harmony of the surviving family members.
The entire ceremony is rich is symbolism. The white color means purity, and the strings are believed to bind the 32 kwan, organs or parts to the soul, to prevent them from wandering away. (The Baci ceremony is also known by the term su kwan, “calling of the soul”.)  When kwan wander away from your body, this creates an imbalance in the soul that may lead to illness and bad luck.
The ceremonies take place in Buddhist temples, but kwan and the Baci ceremony predate Buddhism.  I’ve had strings tied to my right wrist in Buddhist and Hindu temples from Thailand to India, but have never taken part in a Baci ceremony. Regardless, the white bracelet should be worn for at least three days. Then the threads can be unknotted or allowed to fall off on their own, but should never be cut.
NOTES:  A Baci ceremony for new mothers and their babies is performed to welcome the baby, and to recall any kwan that may have wandered off from the mother during the birth.  The Wax Castle Procession falls on an especially auspicious lunar calendar date: the full moon of the seventh lunar month.  Concept of Kwan: Kwan are components of the soul but have a more abstract meaning than this. The kwan have been variously described by Westerners as: “vital forces, giving harmony and balance to the body, or part of it”, “the private reality of the body, inherent in the life of men and animals from the moment of their birth,” and simply as “vital breath”. – Pom Outama Khampradith, Bounheng Inversin, and Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, writing for Lao Heritage Foundation.  Check out my posts about the Rocket Festival we saw on our first trip to Laos!
P.S: Baci in Italian means kisses, and it’s an awesome chocolate candy that contains a whole hazelnut at the center.
This is a brand new feature for this blog: I’m transcribing selected entries from my old travel journals. Currently I’m working on a batch of new posts set in Laos. I hauled out the journal I kept on our first visit to make sure that my memories match up with the facts. My descriptions from that trip are raw. I use a travel diary to record first impressions and get down the details to go over later (like now, years later). I’ve decided to post some of them here for your amusement. — Jadi
“13 March. The heat and humidity are too huge to move quickly. Despite them we’ve kept up an ambitious sight-seeing program.
A 1,000-year-old site we visited with our guide on yesterday’s tour:
Buddhas in the Angkor Wat style carved out of boulders in the jungle. And, not twenty feet away, a spirit altar by a tall tree. 
No one’s allowed to build anything on or near the site. But the locals come there for ceremonies and celebrations. It had a rather hushed and holy air as we stood on the jungle (forest) floor in the welter of the afternoon heat at Vang Sang. An elephant graveyard was once found nearby!
90 kilometers north of Vientiane we stopped for a boat trip on Ang Nam Ngum, an artificial dammed lake.
A long boat of Laos with packages waited on the adjacent boat docked there. They were from one of the many islands and had come in on a once-a-week boat trip to do their shopping.
The buildings all high on stilts for the rainy times. We had my favorite meal so far in this trip: a soup with fresh Chinese vegetables and tofu and vermicelli noodles – it may be the freshest ingredients in a soup of this kind I can remember. And a lake fish grilled whole with garlic and ginger and lemon grass and cilantro; and it was all just too delicious for words.
… I’m quite intrigued with the very old spiritual energy this country possesses. Little spirit houses beside trees. Sticky rice offerings on tree trunks.…
Now we’re down at an open pavilion-style café on the Mekong River. It’s receded with the dry season, almost to Thailand. Weird to think Thailand is so close. The river’s so low you could practically walk there.”
Take a look around and see if you find old friends or stumble upon posts you may have missed. I like to think that these blog posts are my gifts to the world. As always, I welcome any and all feedback. See you next year!
We began our trip to southern Spain in Granada. When I stood inside Granada’s Cathedral, I suddenly – and very vividly – remembered what and how I’d seen it 40 years earlier. At the Alhambra, my memories were blurry remembrances of running water.
A few days later in Córdoba, I had a further experience with spatial imprinting. We spent a half day in the Mezquita, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Mezquita was first built in the mid-6th century as a Visogoth church, built up in the 780s as The Great Mosque of Córdoba, and finally re-dedicated as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción) in 1236. The Mezquita’s altar incorporates and blends Catholic iconography and design into the original Moorish structure.
The early Muslim prayer hall is filled with rows of arches in colored bands of stone. They seem to stretch into Eternity.
This hypostyle hall (meaning that the roof rests on pillars) contains a grand 856 columns of finest jasper, marble, onyx and granite. These columns are topped with the arches, which are futher topped with more arches.
If Granada’s Cathedral is all soaring heights, the Mezquita in Córdoba is an endless repetition of forms. Gaze in any direction and turn your body in a slow circle. The repeating arches always bring the viewer back to the beginning again.
The repeating patterns are beautiful. They’re haunting, too; it’s no accident that what I recall best from my first trip to Andalusia are deeply buried memories of graceful forms in plaster, stone and tiles.
What would I say if you were to ask me to select one thing I remember most after my first visit to the Mezquita as a teenager, all those years ago? I’d say: A sense of wonder.
Islamic architects and artists are masters of geometric decoration. Their patterns’ deeper purpose is to bring visitors and viewers to a sense of another, underlying reality. Maybe it’s just the beauty in the world. Perhaps it’s the presence of God. I’m perfectly fine with either explanation.
I rediscovered the whimsical and the wondrous as I gazed at repeating, interlocking, intertwined squares, circles, triangles, flowers, tessellations and stars.
Artwork both secular and sacred is woven into every stroke of calligraphy that embellishes gorgeous walls and doorways and niches at both the Alhambra and in Córdoba. The effect is one of standing in a house of mirrors or an echo chamber with lights and patterns extending on and out into Forever.
No single detail stayed. Just… a fleeting glimpse of the Divine.
One of the most unique art forms you’ll ever see is the sand paintings of Bagan, Burma. Artists paint on cloth using sand. I visited a hut on stilts where the artists crouched over spanned cloth, painstakingly applying the grains by candle light.
Traditionally, artists reproduce religious murals found on the walls of Bagan’s 1,300 temples.  Sand paintings may be black and white, or composed of colored sands. When I visited Burma for the first time with Uwe in 2009 there were few tourists. We reached the temples by horse carriage; now mopeds and air-conditioned vans carry visitors to the sites.
Sand painters still sell their work inside or outside small temples or in the courtyards as you approach. Some artists are branching out and painting their personal riffs on traditional images, or creating their own modern ones. Take your time if you are interested in purchasing a painting. Be wary of any artist who claims too aggressively, “This image is my own. I discovered this new technique.” (Amazing how many sand painters simultaneously invented an image involving contemporary animals.…) But the work is mostly beautiful, and the artists are carrying on a unique tradition.
Bagan is also famous for lacquerware, a costly and time-consuming art form. Sand-painting is an easier and less expensive way for local craftspeople to make money. Unlike lacquerware, sand painters can simply roll up and carry their wares to potential customers.
Eturbonews explains the history and process so well that I’ll quote them in entirety here:
“[T]here are dozens of mostly young artists displaying their paintings on the floor of temple compounds. They generally take inspiration from 700-year-old murals who adorn some of the most famous temples, such as Ananda or Gubyaukgyi, where paintings depict the life of the Buddha.
According to locals, Bagan’s artist community emerged following a terrible earthquake in 1975. In the turmoil generated by the earthquake, which saw hundreds of pagodas collapsing, locals got access to the temples and started to copy the murals on carbon. Paintings sold at temples are drawn using a sand technique, a peculiar aspect of Bagan art.
It consists of sketching replicas of murals with a stylus on a piece of cloth, which is then covered by acrylic glue. Then sand is sprinkled over the cloth, precisely following the lines from the drawing. Once the glue is dried, painting is added, giving the finishing a colorful touch to the motif. It takes a couple of days to finish a large-scale painting. The technique requires patience and skill.” 
I have given sand paintings as gifts to special friends.
A painting can be expensive to frame as the canvas needs to be stabilized so it won’t sag. On that first visit I purchased 3 paintings that took me forever to finally get framed. Uwe had selected an image with two tigers: I surprised him years later with the framed sand painting for his birthday.
On my first visit to Bagan I discovered artists had covered a temple’s altar with bags of colored sands. The artists brought them as offerings to Buddha. When I returned to Bagan this past spring, I didn’t find that temple again. But I remain delighted to know that it exists.
Open-air museums are inappropriately named. For many people, Museum + History = Death by Excessive Yawning. Not me! A good open-air museum can transport me into other cultures and the past. I think a better name for such a site is ‘living museum’.
In southern Laos, we spent an afternoon at a spot with traditional tribes’ homes. My favorite was the thatched home on stilts. In the middle of the night, a courting youth has to climb a ladder and wait for a signal through a strategically located hole in the wall. The young woman has to approve his advances. Only then can he climb in the window…
Olde Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts was a hands’ down childhood favorite. The site still knocks me out. Paid artisans and trained volunteers dress in period clothing and demonstrate everything from making horse shoes to ginning cotton. Olde Sturbridge contains “the best collection of early 19th-century rural New England artifacts in the world”. 
Another favorite open-air museum is Neuhausen ob Eck (amusingly named ‘New Home on the Eck’), located not far from Tuttlingen and Konstanz in southern Germany. In the bee keeper’s house, I learned all about the world of bees. The German language holds bees in special regard. In German, the word for animals is Bestie or Tiere, beasts. But Germans speak of the Bienenvolk, a hive or literally ‘the bee people’, granting them a status with humans. In the Middle Ages, if the bee keeper died in the night someone was sent to the hives to whisper the news to the bees.
The bee keeper enjoyed a special status. Thanks to his bee family he produced wax candles for light, honey for food, and pollen products for medicine. 
Outdoor museums can teach with their simplicity. On our recent trip to Estonia and Latvia, we spent a day at Latvia’s Ethnographic Open-Air Museum on the shore of Lake Jugla.  The spot is incredibly atmospheric.
It’s an easy bus ride from the capitol Riga to the museum. (Go to my recent post Food as Art and salivate over the delicious foods you can order in Baltic restaurants.)
What I learned is that as recently as 100 years ago life here was a different story.
Existence was harsh and hard, like the overcast skies much of the day we visited.  Along with simple huts, the site includes windmills.
A store building is filled with dowry chests and traces of Latvia’s long history serving in the Hanseatic League.
My takeaway: How truly thin the veneer of prosperity is. Our sense of progress and the advance of civilization is so recent, and so young. I left grateful for the things I take for granted in my everyday life. In too many places in the world people still live without electricity, running water, or centralized heat.
NOTES:  https://www.osv.org/ Go to my earlier posts Old Sturbridge Village Part 1 and 2 for photos and the story of our visit.  Honey-based products never rot. I purchased a propolis salve at Neuhausen a decade ago; it’s still good. The bee keeper told me the salve can be used on everything from wounds and burns to arthritis and herpes. Neuhausen-ob-Eck  Latvia Ethnographic Museum  For Game of Thrones fans, I kept thinking of the Iron Islands and how craggy-rocks bitter life is there. These Latvian houses would fit the scenes perfectly, except for the fact that Game of Thrones is a fantasy world. Real people lived in the huts as recently as the start of the 20th Century.
They faced a long drive to the neighboring state of Karnataka. The tour office had assigned them a guide. Nupur was a tiny woman of four foot eleven inches and shining, thick black hair. Nupur wore a red dot between her brows and her sari like the robes of a queen.
Their minivan came with a driver and his son. Each time they reached a bad place on the dirt roads the small boy jumped out to assess it. Kim saw deep potholes and was glad for their combined care.
The sun beat down. They drove through parched countryside that needed the rain the monsoons would bring. Each home they passed had water sprinkled in the dirt before the door to keep down dust.
Finally, they reached Hampi, and Hampi looked nothing like the beaches of Goa. Hampi was the surface of the moon. The landscape consisted of huge sandstone boulders with the Tungabhadra River running through it. Here the Hindu god Shiva was the consort of Pampa, goddess of the river.
When they saw where the bus was heading, everyone gasped.
“Holy cows! Look at the tower!” Greg exclaimed.
The Virupaksha temple was a pyramid topped with a spire and a red flag. Impressive from a distance, up close the temple was gargantuan. It towered a hundred and fifty feet above their heads.
Architects had carved the creamy white stone into decorative levels. Exotic gods. Strange goddesses. Female figures spraddle-legged and touching themselves.
A gigantic wooden chariot was parked in the temple’s huge courtyard. Long yellow garlands draped the wagon. The top of the chariot hid under a multi-colored cloth. It ballooned out in wide stripes of reds, yellows, oranges and blues. High up, carved lions raised their paws and carved horses reared.
“Tonight this chariot will carry the god Shiva to the river for the Nandi Purnima,” Nupur informed them. “It’s a Nandi full moon. Nandi’s the bull who attends Shiva, so this is extra auspicious.”
The tour group left the minivan and gawked, mouths open.
I’d wanted to see Dubrovnik for years. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Dubrovnik is one of the most intact – and surely one of the most beautiful – walled cities on the planet. It was strategically built on the Adriatic coast, has spectacular scenery, and provides settings for one of my favorite shows, Game of Thrones. It had to be perfect!
Note to Self: In the future, question any place that sounds too good to be true. It usually is.
Aw, come on. King’s Landing! Cercei’s Walk of Shame! Tyrion sightings!
This trip was going to be awesome!
I frequently meet a friend on her way back through Europe as she travels around the world. We travel well together, enjoy exploring new spots, and always have great luck with our plans. We’ve never booked a bad hotel.
Note to Self:Always and never are adjectives doomed to fail at some point.
I flew to Dubrovnik a day early and went hunting for the hotel. I dragged a suitcase up the stone stairs of narrow alleys. And down the stone stairs of narrow alleys. And then back up the stone stairs of narrow alleys. No sign over the doorway, no answer when I repeatedly knocked. Not one person who could give me any information.
It was really hot, humid and sticky, and overcrowded with tourists now heading to the outdoor restaurants for supper. I sat beside my suitcase on the hard stone steps, trying to stay calm (forget about cool or collected – at that point I was drenched in sweat). I dug out the phone number for the hotel contact.
Note to Self: Never, ever leave home without your cell phone fully charged and that list of phone numbers close at hand.
“You’re here?” a male voice exclaimed. “Someone will be there with a key in ten minutes.” i was still waiting over half an hour later. A pleasant young man finally arrived. Why hadn’t I called when I arrived at the airport to let someone know to come meet me?
Note to Self: They never suggested that we do this. Regardless, it was their the guests’ fault.
He let me into thehotel… a home converted into apartments. We’d requested separate beds; the room only contained one. I didn’t mind sharing, but the hotelroom furnishings were neither as advertised nor promised. The air conditioner had been installed so that it blew directly into the head of the bed.
Note to Self: Check carefully when booking rooms. Sometimes Southern and East Europeans have loose definitions for things, including accommodations and measurements of time.
What about the included breakfast? I asked. No worries, I just needed to head down the steep stairs a few streets, turn into the main road, and find the café the hotel apartment rooms had made arrangements with to feed guests.
Relieved to finally be in my hotel lodging I showered, changed clothes, and went out to find dinner. No time left for sightseeing.
The next morning, I eventually found the café after going in the wrong direction and hungrily gazing at a half-dozen other breakfast spots. “Where’s your voucher?” the waiter asked. “Uhh, I wasn’t told I needed one,” I stuttered, and retrieved the hotel booking invoice I luckily had with me. The waiter vanished with it and consulted a colleague. He returned with a different menu with fewer choices. I ate a passable breakfast and headed off to walk the city walls.
Now, this was more like it! Not a bad view in any direction and it was early enough not to feel the oppressive heat already settling on the city. What a shame there were so many other people crowding the ramparts.
Back at the room I waited for my friend to arrive. One of the young men showed up and insisted, “No, you don’t need a voucher for breakfast, regardless of what the café says. And you should have waited and walked the city walls late in the afternoon when the cruise ships have left again.” So why didn’t he tell me this yesterday? But, I thought, it would have meant traversing the walls for two hours in 90-degree peak afternoon heat, so I didn’t speak up.
He wouldn’t let me pay with a credit card. Cash only. We’d have to wait until his associate came the next day as my friend hadn’t arrived yet. When we paid, he couldn’t make change. He promised to bring it by later; if we weren’t there, he’d put the money they owed us under the room door.
The man and the money never showed up.
The last morning, I tried to get out of bed and thought I was going to throw up. I had developed benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) from the extreme heat, not enough fluids, and cold air blowing on my face all night.
Just before we checked out I wrote a curt note indicating where to have the money deposited that they still owed us. As we were leaving we ran into a cleaning woman. “Oh! The boys couldn’t make it over yesterday. They asked me to give it to you.” We then headed off to the airport with money we no longer had any time to use.
Note to Self: Make sure to carry lots of small bills to make change next time you go back. If you ever go back. 2nd Follow-up Note to Self: Cash-only vacation options are a really bad idea. 3rd Follow-up Note to Self: Do Not Sleep Directly Under an Air-Conditioner. Ever.
I remind myself Dubrovnik is all romantic corners and silly tourists taking selfies.
and the European Cup soccer matches!
I’ll tell you another time about how I almost didn’t make it on our plane going home. Or why my friend was late getting to the hotel room. She’d been charged $600 for her rental car, dinged when a gang tried to scam her with a staged accident.
I shall be forever grateful that we were there together. We even laugh about parts of the trip to Dubrovnik, and figure those few days used up more combined residual bad travel karma (and available cash) than any trip we’ve ever gone on.
Note to Self: Re-read this post before planning the next trip!
Kim’s view was simultaneously filled and obstructed. The front courtyard and Hampi Bazaar Road were crammed with bodies. Worshippers raised their arms to touch Shiva’s massive chariot. Mandapams, porch-like structures once used for commerce or the homes of wealthy traders, lined the sides of the street. Pilgrims claimed spots in them, trying to find shade.
Women in brilliant saris walked past. Old crones with henna-patterned arms carried small children. Turbaned men sampled fruit from a pyramid of dates. An all-white cow rested serenely on a pile of garbage. A painted bus had parked in the dust; a pilgrim dozed on one of the seats with his bare feet sticking out through the open window.
Kim peeked in a shop selling cheap clothes and plastic sunglasses. When she turned, she banged her head on a string of water bottles hanging in the doorway. Sunlight reflected off the mirrored insets of embroidered bags and shirts in the next little shop.
She pushed on through the crowds, trying to spot her group. A couple in a patch of shade looked up as she walked past. Their oxen leant against the cool stones of an ancient wall. The bovine pair had their forelegs tucked under them. Their curved horns were painted crimson and capped in metal. Magenta pompoms with orange and blue tassels hung from the tips; a pile of cow shit steamed.
In the middle of the road a clump of pilgrims whispered among themselves, pointing. A man crouched in the dirt. He was perhaps thirty years old, mustachioed and handsome. Thick hair brushed across the white bands smeared on his forehead. He wore a peach-orange cotton shirt and pants. The man knelt, barefoot, on all fours on a rug. A big copper pot dappled with white streaks and red dots balanced on his shoulders. A string of beads wound around the pot’s lip. A long cobra slid clockwise over the beads, flicking an orange tongue. Hands darted out from the crowd to touch the snake and drop coins into the pot.