It’s that time again: the World Cup. In honor of the season, I give you 3 posts that (along with a motley bunch of other stuff) mention Fußball, Pink Floyd, a hotel from hell, bar none the largest and greatest party I’ve ever been to, and one damned good pizza.
I’ll travel pretty much anywhere at the drop of a hat. Go around the world for 7 weeks? Cool! When do we leave? Overnight trip to Munich? Sounds grand, which beer hall do we want to have dinner at?
But. There are times when travel is not – quite – optimal. The rainy season offers big bargains and great deals for a reason. Like, you’re going to be wet most of the time. Another time period to carefully debate traveling in is when other countries have their special holidays. Sure, Christmas Market season anywhere in Germany or areas that have a tradition of a Weihnachtsmarkt is a good time to go. However, any National Day will probably mean shops and sights are closed up tight.
And, trust me on this one, you really don’t want to go to China when it’s National Day Golden Week, and 1.3 BILLION people are on holiday. 
They will all be taking their vacations. Spots that are usually crowded anyway are going to be jam-packed. This is not an experience for visitors with weak hearts or fear of crowds.
We learned this the hard way: first-hand. We did this at one of China’s most popular tourist sites: The Terracotta Army in Xi’an.
We got tickets and seats on a tour bus to get to the site. Our charming tour guide pointed to the buildings that house the terracotta army, pointed to the number of our bus, and finally pointed to her watch. No way she was going to push through the crowds in the massive hangars – she’d meet us at the designated time, back on our bus.
And in we went…. To this day I’m not sure what astounded me more. Was it the sheer size and scale of the clay army from 210-209 BC that was discovered in 1974?
Or was it the mass of tourists both foreign and native who completely filled the viewing areas?
One thing I do know for sure. That trip to China during October’s Golden Week cured whatever claustrophobia I may have once had. If you could survive the crowds we experienced in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, you can survive them anywhere.
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.
NOTE: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz first appeared in print on 17 May, 1900; the film premiered on 12 August, 1939. Here is one of my very first posts, about author L. Frank Baum, bats, and monkeys…. — Jadi
Both sides of my family hail from the Northeast. We lived for a while in Cazenovia, one of the most beautiful small towns in upstate NY. Caz is just a few miles from Chittenango Falls, and that town was the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz.
My sisters and I first saw The Wizard of Oz film on an old black and white television set we called Lucille. Lucille was temperamental (“Dad! Lucille’s on the fritz again!”), but her screen was big.
It was years before I finally saw The Wizard of Oz on a color television. How I gasped when Dorothy opened that door and stepped out into Munchkin Land! But in color or black and white, to this day I don’t much like monkeys.
Some years ago my husband and I traveled to Bali. The Balinese fill their temples with statues of the strange half-bird, half-god creature known as Garuda, a lion-like Barong, lots of sinuous snakes, and Hanuman the monkey god. The cultural heart of Bali is Ubud, home to the Monkey Forest which contains the Monkey Temple. I wrapped a sarong around my waist before we entered to show respect, and I know I was curious as to what we’d find.
The temple grounds were filled – no, overrun – with crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis) monkeys. Dozens of them rested on the platforms to the Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal temple. Many more watched us from up in the canopy of thick jungle trees and vines. But worst of all, a horde of monkeys scampered our way as we drew near. They were used to people and accustomed to visitors who bring them food. We walked slowly, not making any sudden movements, keeping our arms stretched out with our hands opened. I hoped my empty palms signaled: no food here!
I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we left the grounds. But I wonder about the sanity (to say nothing of the later health) of tourists who bring bananas and fruit to hand to the macaques. Those critters are feral!
Bali has another disturbing indigenous species: bats.
A huge colony of the largest fruit eating bats I have ever seen, all with wingspans of an easy three feet, hung upside down in a very tall tree. I was horrified by their size.
Then they began flying. In the middle of the day. Bright tropical sun highlighted the reddish membranes of their webbed skins. They flew in loops, more and more gigantic bats, circling lower. I began to feel dizzy as a scratchy voice in my head murmured, “I’ll get you, my little pretty …”
Macaques and bats had morphed together into L. Frank Baum’s flying monkeys. Never underestimate the power of imagination in children…or adults. That movie scene still haunts me. Like I said, to this day I don’t much like monkeys.
NOTE: Today marks the beginning of the 5 day festival of the Vietnamese goddess Bà Chúa Xứ. In her honor I am reprinting my original post about her cult. —Jadi
To see the Mekong Delta on our own by boat proved complicated and required more time than we had. We signed on instead for a tour. We were lucky: only a young couple from Holland had signed up as well.
Travel by boat we did! We took long boats, short boats, boats powered by motors or by human arms. We visited floating markets and stumbled into a tourism promotion festival going on in Chau Doc.
For me the highlight was the festival for Bà Chúa Xứ, the Lady of the Realm on the border to Cambodia. The shrine to Bà Chúa Xứ houses the most important cult in southern Vietnam.
We had the really good luck to visit Bà Chúa Xứ’s temple during the holiest period of the year. Her three-day festival starts at the beginning of the rainy season on the twenty-third day of the fourth lunar month.
The Lady of the Realm protects female entepreneurs (important in a country like Vietnam where women play a major role in small family businesses). Bà Chúa Xứ’s cult has a fascinating belief in both fecundity and the capacity of the goddess to multiply all that she touches — including money.
If you invoke Bà Chúa Xứ’s help, you must make a pilgrimage to thank your benefactress for her assistance. (She is remorseless to those who betray her favor!) Traditionally men need to spend 9 years making an annual pilgrimage, and 7 years are required of women.
In the courtyard before her temple, spirit money is burned in huge vats.
I wanted to make an offering inside the temple and decided to brave the crowds.
I joined the slow moving throngs and we inched our way forward. All around me pilgrims carried tall flowers,
and men bore platters with decorated sacrifices of whole pigs on their shoulders.
People bought baskets filled with offerings of fruit,
and still others carried lit sticks of incense, held high.
The crowds were so thick that I was concerned someone would set my hair on fire!
Once I was inside the temple I managed to make my way up to Bà Chúa Xứ’s altar. Each day in progressive rituals her image is washed and cleaned. On this day, old women were changing her robes. I was unable to get close enough though, and made my offering later out in the (relatively) less-crowded courtyard.
The goddess originally resided on the top of Sam Mountain; her image is popularly thought to have grown from the stones of the landscape.
She wished to be worshipped and caused the locals to move her statue down to Vĩnh Tế village, where her temple still stands today.
I was surprised and moved to realize that her image had mass and strength rather than simple beauty. Some reports state that her statue is a female Shiva (Khmer). Other sources equate her with the queen Thien Y A Na (Cham), the goddess Tin Hau (Chinese), and the Lady Buddha (India). Bà Chúa Xứ is also named The Black Lady, and I see a likeness to Christianity’s Black Madonna.
Bà Chúa Xứ is a powerful deity protecting and bestowing prosperity on her people in the Mekong Delta. In such a fertile area it makes sense to believe in a benevolent, generous goddess.
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.