Sunday, March 8, 2015

Our Upcoming Travel Schedule

After a year long break from posting on my blog, I feel again the desire to write, to put things on paper and to see them in front of me, so I can clarify ideas in my mind and feel my gratitude for all the blessings in my life.

My blogs are also my open and public adventure log, and I love going back to find out which places we visited, where we stayed and what we loved.

We lengthened our summer by visiting Kyoto, Japan in August, followed by hot weeks roaming around Spain, finally ending up in Lisbon, Portugal.
We then turned around and flew to New Zealand, where we spent another three summer months in our hillside retreat on the Hokianga Harbor.
Now, sitting in front of my snowy window in Colorado, I recall some of those memories....

Our summer in Kyoto was hot and wonderfully memorable.

I fell in love with Japan on our first visit to the Kyoto area, back in 2001.
We were novices at traveling and at that time, we spent a fortune on accommodations.
We stayed a few nights in an elegant Japanese guesthouse with a hefty daily rate of $700, including our room and meals.

We were served a most artistic and creative dinner sitting on a low table set for us in the middle of the room, which overlooked the manicured Japanese garden.
The TV was blurring the news in Japanese in the background.

It was the shrilling high pitched voice of the newscaster, that forced us to pay attention to the TV.
We did not understand much, but the images of the Twin Trade Center towers going up in smoke were clearly identifiable.

We saw the plane fly into the second tower and our hearts sank.
The elderly lady clearing our dishes, dropped her tray, her hands shaking and her eyes moist.

At that time, not many individual travelers visited rural Japan.
In every place we visited, people came to see us or take photographs with us.
When they heard that we were Americans, they sincerely expressed their distress and pain over the disaster of September eleventh.

Just a few decades ago, the Japanese people suffered the most horrific atomic bombing at the hands of our people and our country, yet they demonstrated nothing but greatness of spirit, love and sympathy.
We were touched by their grace and humanity.

Kyoto is a most livable city, nestled between sacred mountains dotted with ancient temples.

It used to be the Buddhist capital of ancient Japan and all of the old Buddhist Zen temples with their magnificent gardens still stand tall.

Some old temples were reconstructed after a fire consumed their thick wooden beams, and some temples still operate as learning centers, guiding those who devote their lives to finding inner peace and enlightenment.

Other temples are no longer operating as temples.
They were recognized as important historical National Monuments and are now open to the visiting public as museums.
The entry fee is fairly steep, but the crowds still come in bus loads.

Despite the fatiguing summer heat and crowded streets of this summer's Gion Matsuri Festival, we had some serious fun.

We hiked the mountains, crossed forest creeks, dined by the river, stayed in old and beautiful Ryokans, ate artful food, found small noodle places to revive our spirits, saw great art and amazing craft, tasted the array of Japanese pickles and sweets and enjoyed this unique Japanese region.

From Japan we returned to Colorado, where we enjoyed yet another fabulous summer.
We hiked our lush mountains, cooked vegetable Tajines in Moroccan clay pots outdoors, cycled and enjoyed the end of the Aspen Music Festival.

At the end of summer, we flew to Spain and Portugal.
We marveled at the childlike Gaudi architecture in Barcelona, dined on tapas at the Mercados (fresh-food markets), and took the time to live like the locals in beautiful apartments while we toured the historical region of Andalusia.

We hiked the Sierra Nevada, staying in the picturesque white-washed villages in the mountains, visited the ancient and jaw dropping beauty of the Mesquita (mosque) in Córdoba and sat in intimate Flamenco concerts in Seville.

We listened to skillful guitar players while our hearts soared higher with the clicking of the castanets of the energetic flamenco dancers as they powerfully swayed their elaborate dresses to the rhythmic music.

We dined in small eateries on narrow streets, took amazing photos, visited ancient caves where the very first Christians hid during the first hundred years after the crucifixion.
They wrote their accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus on small round bibles made from soft lead discs which they kept away from the authorities who were prosecuting Christians at those times.

Those tiny round lead bibles were taken by the Vatican for nearly a hundred years after their discovery, and only recently were returned to the city of Granada.

I chuckled at the fact that many people still doubt the very existence of the man Jesus and view him and the biblical stories of his miracles, as nothing but a metaphor.

Those tiny accounts of his life, written only a hundred years after his crucifixion, are clear proof that indeed he lived and demonstrated to us what humans can do if they walk with God

We visited the glorious Alcazar, and marveled at the Jewish synagogues built in unique Moorish architecture, with decorative motifs which we often associate only with Islamic cultures, yet which were part of the beauty and design of many ancient cities around the world at the time.

We learnt about the royal decree that forced all Jewish people to depart from Spain and visited the inquisition chambers where we saw some original wooden torture devices used by the Spanish Inquisition.

Our long months of summer travel led us to conclude that maybe we should take a break from traveling for a while....

There were SO many people everywhere.... So many tourists..... Lines and lines of people, so much so that we started to travel defensively, looking for places which the tourists had not yet discovered, that were not written up on TripAdvisor, nor mentioned by guidebooks.

We walked back roads and decided that maybe we had traveled too much in the past decade, and that maybe it was time to take a long restful break from traveling.

In our hillside retreat in New Zealand, we spent a quiet three summer months working on our property, planting trees, improving our house, alternating between juice fasts and grilling Spanish Paella outdoors.

Now that we have returned to Colorado, it feels like we are on a two month ski vacation.
We ski during the week and I spend long hours in the studio painting on the weekends.

Who needs to travel when you live in two of the most amazing places on the earth, surrounded with such natural beauty, I thought as I gazed out my window into the white tall mountains.

This is why.......
I found my hand shaking a bit as I copied and pasted our new travel schedule for the coming year, into my calendar.

Could we possibly do it?
Was it done by anyone other than pilots and flight attendants?....
Are we insane to book this traveling schedule?.....

You be the judge of it...

First, from New Zealand, we will spend some time in Thailand.
From there we will fly to Myanmar and enjoy this Buddhist country.
But on our return, it will be winter in New Zealand, and we prefer to spend our NZ winters summering in Colorado.

So here is our return traveling schedule:
In what would amount to DAYS in the air, with many airport layovers, we will fly from Myanmar back to Bangkok, Thailand.
From Bangkok we will fly to Sydney, Australia.
After a few hours' layover, and we will fly to Auckland NZ.
From Auckland we will fly to San Francisco with a continuing flight to Denver.

Quite a schedule for people who decided not to travel too much in the coming year....

Oh, and top off the contradiction, we also enrolled in the coming year in a Japanese language school in Hokkaido, Japan.
We will spend three months exercising our minds around this beautiful language, while eating ramen and enjoying Hokkaido.

What the heart wants and ultimately does, is not always what the mind determines to be the correct path.
This is why in order to change the world to become a place of harmony and love, one must not strive to change other people's minds but to help OPEN HEARTS....
Minds always follow the passion of the HEART....

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Nature Of Individuality

You are love and light.
You were born out of a matrix of eternal love.

From this infinite matrix of divine love, 
From this field of pulsating glowing and unified light,
From the molecules of this benevolent grace,
You have emerged, 
Forming your unique energy-field in order to experience your individuality.

It was a game we use to play, 
We children of the light,
Eternal travelers through endless universes,
We wanted to experience 'relationships.'

But how do you experience relationships, 
When you KNOW that you are one with everyone and everything?

In order to experience yourself in relationships,
You decided to forget
To forget who you REALLY are, 
And to experience your-self as an individual entity.
A crescent wave of the ocean
Forming and dissolving who you are...

In order not to lose your way in forgetfulness,
You asked us to remind you,
To awaken you when the time was right
To send you words of love and light
To send you people, or events 
To send you messages,
To help you to remember
To awaken
To expand your earthly life

To bring into your earthly body,
The memory of the infinite matrix of love and light,
From whence you came... 

There was a time, 
Eons ago, 
When the earth was young
When we played together with balls of light 
When you loved those energy games of hide and seek

Together we formed the butterflies and bugs,
We shaped the wildflowers 
And colored them with rays of light
We put the leaves on mighty oaks.

We played with Crystals and chemicals we had at hand
We arranged hydrogen and oxygen to form the sea 
And sprinkled it with salt.

And then we formed the fish, the coral, the dolphins 
The plankton and the sharks
Can you remember this?

Together we parted the sky
And formed the mountains and the rivers.

We were all together then,
Just as we are now
We can never be apart

Each time you took a human form,
You had to reincarnate again,
To renew your individuality.
You, Child of Light,
You no longer have to go through an endless cycle of reincarnations 
In order to remember who you are...

In order to erase your accumulated karma
In order to fix the wrongs you did,
In order to understand the nature of your individuality
Will you listen now?...

You are not your memories
Nor your childhood
You are not a product of your culture
You are not a collection of your past experiences

You are not a male because you occupy a male's body, 
And you are not a female,
Because you are NOT a body at all,
You are FREE...

Your real individuality is FLUID, 
It is a flowing focus of awareness, 
Adjusting naturally to the ever-changing contours of time.

Your TRUE individuality,
Knows itself as one of the many "Observing Eyes Of Eternity" 
Coalescing in an infinite sea of "Shared Being."

Beyond the veil of illusions
Beyond the field of dreams we call our earthly life,
We are eternally, irrevocably ONE...

Individuals come and go like the waves of the sea, 
But you must remember 
That at their core, 
Each individual wave is first and foremost THE SEA....

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Black Market In Ulaanbaatar, The Story Of The Horse Fiddle, AndSaying Goodbye To Mongolia

The Black Market in Ulaanbaatar is also known as Naraan Tuul. 
It spreads across a large section of the center of the city on the south western side of Peace Avenue.

It is where locals buy everything they need, from electronics to clothing, horse saddles, ropes and blankets, shamanistic ritual props, shoes, furniture for gers, fabrics, cosmetics, carpets, traditional hats and snuff bottles, coins, cashmere, food and much more.  

The concierge at our hotel was surprised when we told her that we planned to go to the Black Market, and added that they tell their guests that it is not a safe place for tourists, because many pickpockets operate there.  
We really weren't at all concerned with its reputation - in fact, we were excited to visit a local market here, since it's something we try to do everywhere we travel.

We walked around the busy, bustling market, taking in the faces of the people, the colors, the crafts, the traditions, and it occurred to me that this was the last day that we will be spending in this fascinating and enchanting country....

I was ready to move on to clean and hygienic Japan, where the food is superb, the roads are  excellent, where you don't have to watch where you put your wallet and the trains are efficient and on time, but I also felt a bit sad to be moving on...

The black market is an intriguing place, a real slice of the Mongolian traditional lives of tradesmen.
I especially loved the sections selling tack (horse riding supplies), including elaborately decorated saddles, old snuff bottles and shamanistic ritual tools.

Mongolian shamans always wear many snakes around their necks.
These are not real snakes, but ropes that resemble snakes, made from fabric.

I was told that the tradition is that each shaman must wear many, many snakes.  
The exact number of snakes will be revealed to the shaman either by his teacher, or through a spirit guide who comes to him or her during a trance.

There were also necklaces of shamanistic ritual bells, selling for high prices.
Apparently, these copper bells need to be large and loud enough, so that the spirit world would hear the ringing sounds and be summoned to help the shamans heal the people or grant their wishes.

There were beautiful shamanistic drums, made from the skins of gazelles, with carved wooden drum sticks, called Bumber.  
I bought one such beautiful drum stick with a carving of a dragon on one side, and a horse head on the other side.

For a strange reason, I felt very drawn to buy a Mongolian horse fiddle, called a Murin-Khuur.

This beautiful instrument, which looks like a square fiddle with a carved horse head at the pegs' end, has only two strings.
Yet the sound that this simple horse fiddle makes is hauntingly beautiful.

The night before, we had gone to see a traditional Mongolian concert with songs, dances and an amazing contortionist.
The sound of the horse fiddle mixed with Mongolian throat singing still vibrated in my heart.

Maybe I wanted to take home a small part of this place...
I knew that it would be difficult to carry a large musical instrument along with our bags and backpacks, across Tokyo and on the train to Kyoto... But still, I felt compelled.

We found a single small stall selling horse fiddles, and I selected a beautifully decorated one that I wanted to take home.

They had no case to carry the fiddle, but they gave us the name of a music store in the city which sells instrument cases for horse fiddles.

It had started to rain and the black market was closing down.
We hurried to see the section selling gers and the traditional furniture that is used in the gers.

Since this is mostly an outdoor market, the vendors selling gers kept them packed into containers that looked like large shipping containers, each seller offering different designs, with varying prices and differing quality.

Most of the gers were extremely affordable, selling for as little as $1700 to $3000, including two layers of felt and an outer layer of waterproof canvas.
For many Mongolians, these gers are used as permanent homes.

I could not help but think of all the people in our society who mortgage themselves for life, in order to own a house.

There is a new movement in the USA where people decide to live in tiny spaces, learning to live with less, inexpensively building their own homes by themselves.

If the homes are tiny enough, you do not even need any building permits.
Still, these tiny homes, with so little space in which to move about, cost about $18,000-$25,000 to build.

If I had few resources, I would rather buy a beautiful piece of land and erect one of those beautiful Mongolian-style yurts on it for as little as a few thousand dollars.

The yurts are so much more spacious than any of the tiny houses.
(If you are curious, there are a few documentaries about people living in tiny homes. 
One such movie is called "Tiny- A Story About Living Small.")

Of course, shipping a ger overseas, and the customs fees associated with it, would more than double its cost, and there are plenty of vendors in the USA and UK who sell Mongolian gers and deal with the shipping and customs costs for you.

After the market, we hurried to buy a fiddle carrying case before the music store closed.
I selected one which I liked because it had straps that enabled it to be a backpack.

We spent our last meal in Mongolia with Tuya, our friend and our wonderful guide, eating delicious food at leisure at the Kempinski Hotel.  

Tuya told us the story of the Mongolian horse fiddle as it is told around Mongolia: 

"Once there was a young man who was called into the army.
He was stationed in a very remote part of Western Mongolia.
Since he came from a family of horsemen, he was assigned to care for the horses of the general at his army post.

The ruler of the region had a beautiful daughter, and soon the young man and the girl fell deeply in love with each other.

Her father, not at all excited by this romance, forbade his daughter from seeing the boy.

They continued to meet in secret, vowing to never love anyone else but each other.

Alas, the young man finished his army service and the ruler demanded that he return to his home town.
Sad beyond words, he met with the girl for the last time and told her of his predicament.

The girl laughed, whistled a short tune, and in answer to her calling, a beautiful white horse came trotting toward them.

"This is no ordinary horse, it is a magical horse who can fly faster than the fastest bird," she said.  "Every night, after you've finished your chores around your ger, ride on this horse back to me, and we will reunite every night. You can wake up early each morning and ride back home, and nobody will know where you've been."

When the boy mounted the horse, the girl made him promise to come to her every night. 
The boy promised to do so, telling her that if at any point he did not come, it could only mean that he had died; otherwise, he will come, rain or shine.

For three happy months, the couple reunited every night, with the help of the magical flying horse.

One day, a curious neighbor approached the boy and demanded to know where he was spending all of his nights.
The boy did not wish to reveal his nightly soirées, and dismissed the man, telling him to mind his own business.

Angry, the neighbor hid one night to spy on the boy.
He saw the boy mount his white horse, and to his astonishment, the white horse spread its hidden, folded wings and flew into the sky, the boy on its back.

The next day, the neighbor took a sharp knife and cut the wings of the magical horse.
The beautiful animal bled to death, and when the boy came and saw his beloved horse dead, his sadness knew no bounds.

The boy cried inconsolably for days.
One night, the spirit of the horse came to him in a dream and asked him to cut some hair from the dead horse's tail and mane.

In his wandering in the woods, the boy found a piece of wood and carved it into the shape of the head of his beautiful horse.

From another piece of wood, he made a simple box and created a rustic fiddle with his horse head carving as the neck and the horse hairs as the strings.
He also made a bow from the horse's hair.

To his delight and surprise, the musical notes that came out of this rustic instrument were rich and sweet.

Every night, he sat and played this instrument, composing love songs to his beloved girl and writing melodies about his love for her and for his horse."

Later at midnight as our plane rose above the lights of Ulaanbaatar, I felt a pang of sadness in my heart to be leaving....

Yes, I was craving good food and the beauty of Japan, which I love, but there was something about the green pastoral land of Mongolia and its friendly people, that I will always carry in my heart....

Monday, September 8, 2014

Manjusri Monastery At Bogd Khan Uul Mountain, Mongolia

From Terelj National Park, we drove back to Ulaanbaatar.

It rained heavily on our last night in Terelj, and the electric power was down for the night and the next morning around the whole park area.

I cannot say that I felt inconvenienced.
We had dinner by candle light, and read lying in bed in our yurt by the light of our headlamps.
Because of the power outage, all the tourist ger camps around us were quiet, with no loud music and no lights to obstruct the night stars.

It was to be our last night camping in a yurt in the countryside of Mongolia.
We were returning to the comforts of a five star hotel in Ulaanbaatar, the Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace.  

The shower in our hotel room in Ulaanbaatar felt heavenly.
We scrubbed and washed our clothes and hung them to dry, wrapped ourselves with clean bathrobes and luxuriated on the sofas, feeling so content.

Everything felt like a luxury, watching the news in English, large tea cups, a comfy sofa, the clean bed, the lack of bugs and flies, a closet to hang our clothes....

That afternoon we left the comfort of our room to visit a small company that makes lightweight yurts that can be packed into two large duffle bags, and erected in just half an hour when you travel in remote areas without tourist ger camps.

They were located in the ger district of Ulaanbaatar, and the heavy rain of the past few days had flooded their streets.
We eventually found them and they erected for us one of their gers, to show us how simple it was.

I was not entirely sure that we had any use for a traveling ger.

I have been fascinated with the idea of owning a Mongolian ger for years, thinking that possibly we might erect one on our property, to serve as an extra guest room....
But the traveling ger seemed too flimsy to me to be able to sustain heavy rains and winds.

I wanted a ger that has carved posts and beautiful Mongolian designs painted on the rafters, with a beautiful carved wooden door.

Tuya, our guide, told us that before we leave Mongolia, we should visit the Black Market in Ulaanbaatar, to see the gers that they sell there and maybe make some contacts.

The next morning we ate a lavish breakfast at the Kampinski hotel.
We slept comfortably and were so delighted to have freshly squeezed juices, seeded bread with  honey, a huge fruit salad with nuts and seeds, and great green teas.

Our destination for the day was the ruins of Manjusri Monastery, located 43 kilometers to the south of Ulaanbaatar, on the slopes of the Bogd Khan Uul mountain.

This Buddhist monastery was established in 1733, but completely destroyed by the Mongolian communist government in 1937. 

We felt like walking, so we got out of the car some distance away, and hiked along the river towards the monastery.    
It was a beautiful hike through a forest of firs and birch along the winding river.

Rural Buddhist monasteries around the world are often built in places of exquisite beauty.
Monasteries have been built on remote mountain tops, in the midst of restful forests, overlooking vast valleys, or perched high on cliffs, hanging like gems from the rocks.

This monastery was no different, as it was built in a beautifully lush area.
Two rivers ran from the mountains on both of its sides, ensuring that the land was always green and fertile.

The construction of the temple was made from wood with Adobe walls, but there was very little that remained of this once glorious spiritual center, with its many beautiful buildings, now all in ruin.

We passed by an old large copper caldron which was once used to feed one thousand monks at a time.

In the rocky mountains above the temple, we climbed to some old meditation caves and saw the rock carvings and paintings in each of the caves.

Some of the trees were wrapped with many blue silk scarves by pilgrims who hiked to this place seeking blessings.

Tuya, who had started meditating with us, asked if we could all meditate on top of the mountain.
Nobody else was around to disturb us, so each of us found a quiet spot, and we sat in meditation.

I was trying to conjure up the spirit of this place when it was still a lively Buddhist temple.
I tried to imagine the crimson clad monks attending to the vegetable garden in the summer, sitting in meditation, reading and chanting, eating hot stew...laughing and learning...

It was so quiet around, that I could hear the sound of the distant Steppe Eagles and the nearby flies, zooming around me.
In fact, my meditation was cut short by all the zooming flies, a result of the fact that farm animals are allowed to graze anywhere and to roam free around Mongolia.

But it was time to walk down anyway.
From a distance, I could see a large group of young Korean tourists approaching, who had come to picnic and to visit the ruins of the monastery.  

Back in Ulaanbaatar we visited a bookstore, and I bought a book of Mongolian patterns and symbols, to use in my future art projects.

We also attended a traditional Mongolian music and dance performance which took place in a small and intimate theater full of tourists. 

I was happy to be back at our hotel, where we relaxed and then ate a good dinner.
The city's pollution and dust was too much for my eyes, especially after a long time spent in the clean air of the rural countryside.

Watching the news that night, we saw that southern Japan was being hammered by a strong "super-typhoon."
Since we were flying to Japan right after Mongolia, to spend two more weeks in Kyoto, we watched the news attentively.
There were talks about closing airports and the possibility of the storm heading north.

But we still had one more day to enjoy in Mongolia, and I was looking forwards to visiting Naraan Tuul - the Mongolian Black Market.