There are two ways to handle your packing. One is to minimize clothes and do your own washing in the sink or send out for laundry; how to pack that way is self-evident. We had one couple on our plane who succeeded in doing this.
This is the other way, which minimizes washing. Consider your travel-wardrobe to have two categories: the tour-day wardrobe and the airplane-wardrobe. It presumes you are packing for a woman.
Clothing Items To Take
Either your rain jacket or the Nat Geo poncho, probably not both.
One heavier, lined jacket, in case it is cold in Tibet/Machu Picchu.
Well-cushioned walking/running shoes
- you probably won’t use the second pair, but bring an extra in case one gets wet
- hiking boots unnecessary unless you have wobbly ankles.
Sandals for evening wear and the pool
Flip-flops for snorkeling or pool
One pair of flat, city-walking shoes (loafer-style?) you can use on cobblestones or on the airplane
Dress shoes only if you feel more comfortable in heels in the evening--you can get by without them.
Mostly Evening Wear (some evenings you will wear the Airplane Wear):
Two long, casual, not flashy skirts (may be used during the tour in Jordan or Morocco)
Two long, casual dresses
One cocktail dress (not too dressy)
Four Airplane Bottoms (worn only on airplane days)
Leggings/Jeggings/Stretch pants (suggestion: black, grey, navy)
Six Pair Tour Bottoms (for touring days)
Two Pair of Safari Pants
One pair of khaki colored pants - for when you can wear something nicer and don’t need super light clothing.
Three Skorts or Pairs of Bermuda Shorts.
Two Pair of Long Sleeve, REI-like Safari Shirts
9 Attractive 3/4 length or short sleeve shirts, in colors that go with your long skirts and your bottoms
(I had mostly black and white)
One dressy sweatshirt
One sweater/jacket for the plane and air conditioning.
One fleece-sports style sweater for cold weather.
One bathing suit
One pool cover-up for snorkeling/pool
One snorkel and mask, if you already have them
9 Sets of Underwear
Two sets of exercise clothes, if you think you might exercise.
Three pair of pajamas.
Two scarves can be nice for the plane, but to be truthful, in most places it will be too hot to wear scarves, unless you wear a scarf with which you can mop sweat, insect repellant and sunscreen.
Nat Geo Recommends The Following that You Will Need:
1 Pair Eyeglasses
1 Pair Sunglasses
Camera and paraphernalia
Chargers for all e-devices
Insect repellant (I recommend: packets exclusively to reduce spills)
Antibacterial hand wipes
Ziplocks (bring at least 10 ziplock quart size bags)
Hygiene products as appropriate
-two outside garbage bags (black) for dirty clothes, one for each suitcase
-two kitchen size trash bags for things that get wet
-packets of kleenex (4-5 should be more than enough, unless you have a cold)
-packets of make up remover to reduce carrying liquids
-earplugs if you will be staying in Trujillo.
You will likely shower before cocktails each day.
Your fanny pack (which Nat Geo gives you) must hold:
One credit card
A full packet of Kleenex for locations that do not have toilet paper.
Hand wipes (Buy WetOnes)
Your cellphone/informal camera
The wireless system Nat Geo will lend to you for the duration of the trip (leave the case in your suitcase)
Your malaria and altitude drugs, so you don’t forget them.
Extra hand sanitizer
Sometimes it will also hold:
bug spray packets,
passport and forms (Nat Geo will keep these most of the time)
Nat Geo recommends you bring $500 per person. Unless you can’t resist buying things you don’t need, or you have a mask or bead collection you are expanding. I’d bring no more than $300 in cash per person, Nat Geo gives you $10 in local currency which will cover most things you want to buy, and almost everything else can be purchased with a credit card.
Your backpack MUST hold:
Your Swiss Army Knife current converter (given to you by Nat Geo)
Any liquid-liquids like bug spray or makeup remover because the pressure in the hold will make them leak all over.
Chargers for all devices
Your spare copies of your passport, passport photos, DL, etc.
Your small suitcase (aka "wheelie") will hold:
All of your other meds
All of your toiletries
A pair of pajamas
Your rain jacket/poncho
Your bathing suit
Your costume jewelry
The rest of the $300 that you are not carrying in your fanny pack/purse
HOW TO PACK
Before you leave home for the trip:
Pack the small suitcase for the three days/nights in Peru.
Pack the big suitcase with outfits for the first night cocktail party, the first travel day to Peru, and the rest of the days until Australia.
Wash all dirty clothes in Australia (be sure to wash the clothes you wear all day in Australia as well).
Pack the small bag for the three nights in China and/or Tibet.
Pack the big bag with outfits for Cambodia, China and India.
Wash all dirty clothes again.
Pack outfits for two nights in Africa into the small bag.
I found it easiest to organize and pack outfit by outfit, so I knew which ones I would wear each day. This reduced rummaging through suitcases and saved time in the morning.
In Machu-Picchu, you will wear the khaki pants and the Safari pants with the Safari shirts OR, if you are going to Trujillo, the Khaki pants and a shorts/skort.
On Easter Island, shorts/skort or pants you didn’t wear in Peru.
On Samoa, shorts/skort or a skirt.
In Australian rainforest, Cambodia, India and Africa, the Safari Pants and Safari Shirt.
In Australian reef: shorts/skort (potentially washed the night you arrived in Australia)
In Tibet or China, khaki pants
In Jordan and Morocco: either a long skirt or the khaki pants.
I just wanted to clarify a little of what I left ambiguous as we traveled. In addition to all of our travelers, we had 3 TCS travel coordinators, 4 National Geographic people, a chef and sous-chef, a doctor, and approximately 10 Thomson Airways personnel.
The three TCS personnel divided into an Expedition Leader, a person who specifically handled bags, and a person who specifically handled our paperwork on the plane. Behind the scenes, they worked on managing the schedules, the guides, the transportation, the hotels, and an infinite number of details, including finding our lost stuffed animal. They were occasionally met by advance staff who were managing similar logistics.
The four National Geographic staff were a Trip Leader, who acted as host and gave a couple of lectures; the Professional Photographer, who gave multiple lectures on how to take better photos; and two experts, divided between a more scientific expert and a more artistic expert, both of whom did the bulk of the plane lectures.
The chef, who created the meals (three entree options on every flight) developed the menus for the flights 6 months in advance, sending out requests for groceries in advance to locations in the cities we visited. If he didn't like the condition of his raw materials when he arrived at the location, he would find another source or make a substitution. He would then use a local kitchen, typically at a hotel, to prepare the meals that were delivered to the plane.
Initially, I thought the Trip Doctor was going to be a person we only saw if someone keeled over. In reality, she was everywhere all the time. In addition to visiting hotel rooms of people who fell ill, she was everywhere present, always asking how people felt; sometimes modifying doses; helping to get the sick or wounded to a better spot (one person fell and broke her foot), whether back to the hotel or to a hospital.
The Thomson Airlines staff were wonderful. Often, when we arrived on the plane, they would be dressed in some clothing element of the country we had just visited. This was amusing, especially because at least one of them had a very strong Scottish accent. It added a "fun" aspect to the flights, and was much appreciated. Of course, you would have to re-read my section on the flight over the Great Barrier reef to appreciate how customized this trip was, and how much the flight crew also tried to create excitement and play a role beyond getting us from one place to another.
Would I do this again? I think I would have to divide this question in two. Knowing what I know today, would I have advised myself to take this trip in the first place? In other words, would I recommend it? and Would I do a different trip around the world this way?
I am heartily glad we took this trip. I’m glad we were able to do it as (most of) a family. Even though we had already been to parts of Polynesia, Peru and Australia, I enjoyed seeing aspects of those areas again AND visiting so many other places to which I might otherwise never have gone. I WOULD highly recommend this trip to others who yearn to see these UNESCO sites and get a taste of what these other cultures are like. National Geographic’s tour is the most interesting itinerary and the best value among tours like it out there. The experts bring a great deal to the experience. The fellow travelers are congenial; some have even been through life threatening illnesses in recent years.
Would I personally travel around the world this way again? I don’t think so, if only because the timezone and logistics challenges were so demanding. If I were to consider a tour that covered nearly this many destinations again, I would prefer a tour that spent at least three nights in each location. I’d prefer a tour that didn’t cross as many timezones. Or at least one where the itinerary didn’t involve getting up quite so early. What can I say? I’m not a morning person, and in case you don’t know me well, I like to have control over my schedule.
In the end, we left a stuffed animal in Peru, and an iPad charger and converter in Africa. We might have left socks somewhere. The number of false “I looked for it, and it’s just GONE!” was very high. Almost everything was in its place. As I got off the plane for the last time, I accidentally left my sweater behind, but it was returned to me at the hotel. It was a good trip.
When I started this blog, we knew we were fortunate to be able to take this trip with family, but we weren't looking at the larger picture. This trip has given us a deep appreciation of how fortunate we are to have been born into this time and place, and not just because our appliances fit the electrical outlets in our homes. In all of these countries except Australia and Africa, we were given plastic bottled water any time we needed water, not because it was convenient, but because that was the only way to ensure the water was clean. In India, we traveled along city streets covered in trash and visited a village without basic sanitation; in comparison, the US has had basic sanitation for most of the last 100 years and our “littering” problem has been largely handled through a combination of laws and public services. In other countries, it was clear that people could not say aloud what they felt, either about religion or about politics; in at least one country, our internet was heavily censored, and the only US news we could access was CNN… no Facebook, no New York Times, no CaringBridge, no Google, no Cheetahmama. We take our freedom of speech for granted. In some countries, 5 year old children hawked postcards or dragged a plastic bottle as a toy or dug through the trash for food. Ten year old girls carried their 2 year old siblings on their hips. Really, how fortunate we are to live in a country that functions well enough under a rule of law, where we are reasonably free to pursue our interests and ideas, where we have the freedom to express ourselves, and where we can be enlightened by education.
Ironically, civilization today faces the same issues that have plagued many civilizations across the last 2000 years, from the Nabataeans to the Moche to the Rapa Nui to the Khmer to the Moguls, and they offer us cautionary tales. Defeat through war. Human-caused environmental devastation. Climate and geologic disasters leading to the destruction of water and food supplies. Decimation by plagues of disease.
Most of these civilizations spent enormous funds and energy in the name of the dead and the hope of an afterlife: pyramids, giant statues, golden Buddhas, intricate carvings, stone inlay, columns, temples, jewelry, pottery. On the one hand, a civilization’s choice as to how it spends its wealth defines its culture… likely, they had their own musical instruments, their own painting, their own dances as well, though lost to time. On the other hand, I wonder if their cultures could have lasted longer if they had spent their community resources otherwise. What monuments are we building today that are preceding us into a downfall?
The successful assimilation of peoples of other cultures and religions has clearly led to greater prosperity, and failed attempts have led to war. If other cultures have been able to do it, how hard is it to create a free-enough society that both celebrates cultural diversity and enables assimilation? What did they do right that we can copy?
In Australia and Samoa and on Easter Island, we were witness to the loss of biodiversity. I am sold that the world is better off with greater biodiversity, and yet I can't help wondering if we could just eliminate the mosquito—just one species of insect whose sole purpose seems to be spreading bacteria and viruses to any creature with thin skin and blood.
Against the long arc of world history, the history of the United States looks short and fragile. As one of our experts said, “300 years ago, you were all British.” Even as we also squander resources, we have a substantial advantage over these ancient cultures: we have accumulated a wealth of history and science, we know more than any of these civilizations. We are therefore better able to predict what will happen, and adjust course, if only we will pay attention.
From the start, National Geographic was very up front that there is no wi-fi on the plane and “free” wi-fi of mixed quality at each hotel; this might have figured more closely into my decision to write a blog. It might have been easier to just send out an email blast. I’m going to try to rate our hotels below by the quality of the wi-fi, on a scale of 1 to 10
Hotel Mirador Trujillo, Trujillo, Peru - 5
Belmont Miraflores Park, Lima, Peru - 4
Hangaroa Eco-Village and Spa, Easter Island, Chile; 2
Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey's Resort- 5
Pullman Port Douglas Sea Temple and Resort, Australia 1
Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor, Cambodia - 6
Shangri-La, Cheng-du - 0
St. Regis Lhasa Resort, Tibet - 1
The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra, India - 4
Four Seasons, Serengeti - 7
Movenpick, Petra, Jordan 8
La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco 4
At some of these stops, it has taken 30 minutes to successfully upload a single photo, which has left me tearing my hair out and and which is why I’ve taken to uploading the text first, and then adding the photos later. The trip was so jam-packed that we rarely had a contiguous hour for me to work on the blog, unless it was because we’d decided against attending a lecture.
Contributing to the problem, for which I will curse Apple, “AirDrop” works between my phone and computer only in an odd state in which both my phone and my computer have wi-fi and Bluetooth turned on, but the computer must not actually be connected to wi-fi; otherwise, the phone is invisible to the computer. Go figure.
Lacking consistent internet access has made part of this trip feel like a step back in time. We have questions we want to have answered, “Is humid air more dense than dry air?” “What is that set of stars in the sky?” “Where are schools located in Agra, India?” and the questions linger unanswered because we can’t access the internet. It’s a feast of ignorance or a famine of knowledge. I find myself wondering whether we actually ask MORE questions today, are actually MORE curious than we used to be because we CAN get more answers when we have wi-fi. We are also conscious of questions that cannot be answered: WHY did the Moche civilization collapse? HOW did different cultures reasonably accommodate the cultures they conquered? Does a large tomb indicate ancestor worship?
All over Agra, we could see people looking at their cellphones. As we walked through the village of untouchables in Agra, some “houses” had electricity, some had TVs, some had toilets. I asked whether any had internet, or whether the village had a centralized location for internet access. The answer was: no internet. Is that because many can’t read? Is internet access just so high up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that it isn’t possible? Is it because they access the internet on cell phones or at work? What could the Indian government accomplish if its poor had access, besides losing an entire generation to MineCraft? How could a village apportion time on the internet?
I'd love to tell you all about Marrakech, a place Scott has wanted to visit since before we got married. We're staying La Mamounia, a hotel which is exquisite inside and has aromatic gardens outside. It's much bigger than it looks in many ways, but unlike, say, the Bellagio, it has many interesting corners and smaller spaces, as opposed to a central, open foyer.
The reason I'm writing about the hotel is that I've been unwell... the same GI thing both girls have had has left me nervous to leave the hotel. Unfortunately, I therefore have nothing to report directly. Anna, Scott and Aili have been on a tour of the Medina, including an Islamic school and a palace and gardens, and they have been to the Souk. Here are a few photos:
Anna walked back from the Souk by herself; she says she was catcalled multiple times.
During the Golden Age of Greece, the Nabataeans came into power running caravans throughout the middle east. They established their “capital city,” Petra, around 300 BC.
I came here expecting to see a couple of ruins, but mostly to answer the siren call of “The Treasury,” the structure featured at the end of the third Indiana Jones movie. I wasn’t expecting much except winding wind-carved canyons and a temple and some caves.
What I didn’t realize was that this city overlapped in time with Pompeii and Ephesus and shares several aspects in common with them. First, each was an historically significant site and was left behind, somewhat buried or forgotten. Second, each was a fully functioning, highly populated city. Third, they share some common architectural elements: amphitheaters, colonnades, waterworks, multi-story tombs. Indeed, the Romans conquered Petra in 106 AD, and then Rome-ified the city with its traditional main street with shops on either side and a temple with many columns. Later, before it fell into disuse, the Byzantines built churches here as well.
Differences: the south entrance to Petra is punctuated over and over with Nabatean tombs… rectangular openings in the sandstone, sometimes simply decorated, sometimes sumptuously decorated. Ostensibly, these were tombs for families. They go on and on at the south entrance, so much so that you begin to feel as though this is a city of the dead or merely the world’s most massive cemetery (outside of Egypt).
The scale of many of these tombs is massive… some are four or more stories high. Whereas throughout most of Rome, the Romans assembled their columns with manpower and cranes, here the Nabateans were carving straight out of the sandstone cliffs, which gave them plenty of height with which to work. It is hard to appreciate the size without standing right next to them.
Sound travels remarkably clearly throughout the city because it seems to echo off the walls.
Catastrophic earthquakes have demolished many of the smaller structures, residences and temples, and archways. Uncontrolled water and wind have eroded the facades; we even had a brief wind-and-sand storm from which we sought shelter in a tomb. A donkey joined us.
In fact, one wonders whether the deterioration was not just wind; perhaps, various face-carvings were intentionally vandalized as religion-after-religion rolled through. Some 70-80% of the city is still underground and for the time being will remain unexcavated.
Aili had some food poisoning in Africa… little enough that we thought she might have Norovirus. Poor Anna, though, has been laid to waste. We were all thankfully able to enjoy the walk down into the city, and Aili and I rode camels back out. It was an amazing way to see the city, to imagine it as it once was, cisterns full, the crowds traveling up and down the main thoroughfare, the pack animals carrying goods, merchants hawking their wares, the approval of the crowd in the arena.
“Savannah” was a word I learned in my spelling book in the fourth grade, in an extra credit unit that included words like “mesa” and “plateau,” as examples of how our geographic vocabulary involves many foreign spellings. Unfortunately, at my advanced age, its meaning had drifted to mean “grasslands,” which I learned is not its meaning.
What I thought the Serengeti would look like:
Gold grasslands. Flat like the Great Plains. Vistas for miles.
Reality: Gold-green grass, tree, gold-green grass, tree, gold-green grass. The trees hold up their greenery like a waiter’s spread fingers holding up a tray. Rock outcroppings here and there. Occasional hills. Vistas for miles.
What I thought the weather would be: Hot and hotter, dry.
Reality: Breezy, refreshing, slight cloud cover and sun.
What I thought a Serengeti safari would be like:
Drive off-road to a watering hole in a covered jeep.
Reality: A cross between the jeep rides in the movie Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones ride and the Universal Studios tram tour on unpaved roads. Think of being on the Indiana Jones ride for eight hours, complete with the occasional stop. If I had kidney stones, they were shaken loose.
How I thought we would see wildlife:
Loads of animals at a watering hole. Outside of the watering hole, it would be accidental if we saw anything.
Reality: Every 100 yards, an animal or multiple animals within site of the road, many within 10 feet of the road. Elephants and baboons within a car length. Lions, a cheetah, giraffes, impalas, wildebeests within two car lengths. Ostriches and a leopard further away. Three "kills" on the side of the road.
Insects? We would be plagued and likely contract dengue fever
Reality: With the breeze and a lot of spraying around the hotel, hardly any insects.
Every single shred of media related to Africa came flooding back to me (well, the Book of Mormon not so much). The first movie my mother took me to was "Born Free." The Lion King (fun fact: “Rafiki” means “friend” in Swahili), Dumbo (the greeting here is “Jambo!”), The Jungle Book (I know: wrong jungle, but the vultures were there), Out of Africa, The English Patient (I know: a little far afield), Toto. We had a presentation by Louise Leakey about the Oduvai gorge, and Maasai warriors danced at cocktails. All in one day.
We managed to get more, though disrupted sleep on the nights in Lhasa, going to bed at 8:00 or 9:00 pm. Wheelies had to be brought down by 6:00 am for departure to the airport. Reminding me that everything in Tibet might neither be what it seems nor how I interpret it, as we exited the hotel onto a divided four-lane street, the bus driver turned left. Except that he couldn’t cross the divided highway to go left, so he was technically driving into oncoming traffic. He drove a block down to where there was a break in the divider, in front of Chinese government offices, and veered into the correct lanes. Perhaps, those Chinese police officers WERE on our bus ride from the airport to prevent that kind of driving.
We flew to Cheng-du, which has a Starbucks in the international terminal, and we bought Aili a frapuccino. “Our” plane had been to Hanoi or Weng-xu or somewhere else while we were in Lhasa; it wasn’t allowed to stay in Cheng-du.
From Cheng-du, we flew to a military base in Agra, India. We were hearing temperatures of 102 to 110 degrees, but either these temps were inflated or the heat was dry because it didn’t feel at all like Cambodia, where the heat and humidity sucked all the life out of you. The Agra airport was empty except for soldiers, us and the two people working customs. We then rode buses into town.
The trip to the hotel was about 30 minutes at a slow pace along city roads. The city looked as India looks in the movies. One-and two story brick buildings open to the street. A lot of trash along the sides of the streets and in empty dirt lots beyond. Mostly motorcycles, bicycle-powered vehicles, horse-drawn vehicles, push carts on bicycle wheels and trucks. We saw loose dogs almost everywhere, some lying asleep in the dirt on the side of the road. Herders urged water-buffalo along; cows just stood there. Occasionally, we could glimpse rhesus macaques along garden walls. Children and even some adults would see our air-conditioned, luxury tour-size buses going by and wave to us, happy when we returned their wave.
15% of the population of India is Muslim. In my shallow knowledge of this part of the world, I thought most the Indian Muslims lived near Pakistan. When you combine the percentage with the total population of India, 1.2 billion, you understand how India has the second largest Muslim population of any country, just behind Indonesia. Yet, I have always thought of India as Hindu, the religion of the majority. It therefore came as a surprise to me to hear multiple calls to prayer after dark and before sunlight.
The Taj, too, is a Muslim monument, a tomb. In the 1200s, Muslims swept into India from the Middle East, conquering most of India by the late 1600’s. Though the Moors were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, the Mughal rulers had magnificent, cultured palaces and courts in the east. The Taj was built in memory of the wife of one of the rulers.
Our lovely hotel was situated close to the Taj Mahal; each room had an angled view. We were urged to get up the following morning at 5:30 am to have the monument “to ourselves” and avoid the crowds and heat.
The following morning, we zipped in electric trams in the dark to the gate to be nearly the first people in line. Other people, mostly Indian, were on foot, all moving in the same direction, though it was hard to see them. We were divided into a men’s line and a women’s line and then waited a half an hour along a wall, where the air was warm and too still. Across the street, a man was sweeping the street in front of his lit-shop, kicking up a large cloud of dust. A cow went by.
One of the Nat Geo experts on our trip is Dr. David Scott Silverberg, the “Geographer.” He did his undergraduate at UCSC and got his PhD from MIT, spending years studying in the Himalayas. He has a home (and a wife) in Norway, and one in Marrakech. Even in really bad heat, he wears a casual suit jacket and a scarf he can fashion into a turban. When David speaks, it feels as though you are tapping into the Encyclopedia Brittanica told with the enthusiasm and passion of an evangelist. Geologic formations and Hindu gods, quotes from Salman Rushdie, fiction… he can and will tackle any subject.
So, David recommended that those interested in beating the crowds simply get through the gates and move as quickly as possible straight to the monument rather than stop and take photos. As a bucket list item, I had wanted to see the Taj Mahal, but I really thought I would feel no need to take any photos at all, and yet I possibly took more photos here than anywhere else so far on the trip. The Taj is larger than it looks in photos, and it is part of a symmetric larger complex, which includes the entrance where you wait for security, a massive gateway, a functioning monument-mosque and a “sister” building to the mosque. Getting there early was well worth it. The sun rose slowly; a pleasant breeze kicked up; the marble stayed cool. It was not only memorable, but enjoyable.
In the late morning, we were offered a shopping trip, and we watched how workers do stone inlay. Far more interesting to the girls was the potential to get a sari. Aili had a very serious moment of angst: was wearing a sari cultural appropriation? Honestly: this is my 10 year old thinking of her Indian-American classmates. How would they feel? And I was imagining this Indian storekeeper suddenly unable to sell sari’s to American tourists anymore because they were unsure whether wearing something so lovely could be misconstrued. The store salesman and I managed to assure Aili that this is a fashion, not a national “costume,” and both she and Anna ended up getting one.
In the afternoon, we toured “the baby Taj,” which was a smaller tomb for the father of the woman entombed in the Taj, but sharing many artistic aspects. Unfortunately, they chose fresco and paint for the ceilings, which have deteriorated.
My kids are very traveled, but the only under-developed countries they had visited before this trip were Ecuador and Peru. To me, the highlight of the tour day was visiting a local village, mostly made of cinder block. For a person with a food safety background, it was agonizing. Cow patties hand-pressed and left to dry in the sun as fuel for cooking fires. Sewage in the street. Flies in swarms leaving you to wonder what had died. At the same time, we glimpsed moments of just plain humanity. Boys playing at cricket with sticks for bats. A child who was probably six but looked the size of a four year old boldly approached me and wanted me to take his picture, and his picture with his friends. Gradually, we got Aili and a couple of girls into the photos as well. The children were very excited to see the photos on my iPhone, and then the girl closest to Aili’s age wanted to play a kind of hand clapping game with me, through which she recited. As it ended, she asked for something, and our guide seemed to tell her no, he would buy her a pack of gum. She looked disappointed. We asked him what she wanted. A pen. I pulled a pen out of my fannypack, and she lit up and took it home.
In the evening, Nat Geo hosted a party by the pool, which had me worried again about mosquito vectors. The hotel set up massive fans which kept the bugs at bay, and traditional Indian dancers entertained us. Aili and Anna wore their saris, and they and I had our hands painted with henna. The three adults sipped gin and tonics. It was an ephemeral, happy family moment, everyone contented in the day. As Scott held the door for Aili to go inside to the restaurant, Aili said, “Yes, hold the door for those with excessive clothing,” because the sari has these additional yards that wrap around the body. At dinner we discussed in which suitcase to pack it; Aili said, “What happens in the big suitcase stays in the big suitcase."
Today was incredible. We visited Potala Palace, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama; Jokhang Temple, which has an incredibly old Buddha brought here in the 7th century when a Chinese princess married a Tibetan king; and a nunnery.
If you have seen Seven Years in Tibet, you will have seen sets of the rooms we visited: reception rooms, audience halls, and a classroom of the 14th Dalai Lama, and in each, they had wrapped a robe tightly and placed it where he would sit, so to me his absence felt incredibly poignant. Everywhere, there are Buddhas, and statues of former monastic leaders. In some rooms, behind the statues are shelves and shelves of Buddhist documents, written on “poison paper” to keep the insects from eating them. In other rooms, there might be smaller Buddhas, all in cabinets, or paintings of Buddhas on the walls or on fabric. Potala Palace also houses “Stupas,” or the tombs, of most of the lamas. Each Stupa is covered in gold and semiprecious stones and each resembles a massive sarcophagus with multiple lids on top of it in stacks, rising to a point where there is a round, onion shaped grill; in this last part, the The Dalai Lamas are interred in the lotus position in which they were sitting when they transfigured. The smell of burning incense and Yak butter makes the interiors of these buildings smokey, stinging the eyes and nose already irritated by the altitude.
As we wandered through the palace, Scott was asked to sit next to a monk, who asked him where he was from. Scott wished he had been prepared to ask more profound questions.
For a culture that is devoted to compassion as a form of enlightenment, I was surprised to see great interest in good luck and talismans against bad luck and evil demons. In contrast to our culture of “making your own luck” in this life, this felt ancient and mysterious. At both the temple and the palace, we encountered masses of pilgrims in native dress walking in clockwise circles to complete tasks that would improve their likelihood of higher attainment in this and the reincarnated life. People actively prostrated themselves on the ground.
As a major pilgrimage site, somewhat like Mecca, the streets in the areas around these holy places have many, many shops selling prayer wheels, paintings, good luck amulets, prayer beads, etc. Prices seemed exorbitant, though it later appeared we could negotiate.
I am still feeling a little overwhelmed by the experience. Compared with most of our previous stops, here we were in the presence of a very active religion. At the same time, the governmental impact of China is very obvious. According to our guides who have been here previously, the city is growing exponentially. All signs are in either Chinese or Tibetan WITH Chinese. Outside Jokhang temple where there is an open plaza, the police are stationed on rooftops. The massive apartment complexes going up outside the city center speak to a potential massive influx of people, though it is hard to imagine how much food the Chinese will have to import to support all of those people with the short growing season in the area. Tibet is valuable to China because it is rich in mineral resources and contains five major rivers supplying the area.
If you ever wanted to see the heart of Tibetan Buddhism, I would encourage you to come soon. In sharp contrast to our touching day on the streets, our Chinese hosts conducted a mock Tibetan wedding at dinner on our second night. It was a combination of modern music, dancing women, strobe lights and jarring colors. Instructed by our Chinese tour guide, a couple on our tour went through the basic steps of a Tibetan wedding, including drinking tea, listening to and making speeches, and eating barley cake. It sort of felt as though this were a play on what was taking place all over Tibet and that what we were seeing wasn’t a Tibetan wedding in any way, and we could never know what a Tibetan wedding would really be like or whether it would continue to exist, even in private.