United States of America

Swirls, Light and Slot Canyon

In an old beat-up dented 15 year-old red Ford F150 pickup, Christina and I and 10 others crammed in the front and back of a Navajo style 4WD ride. The driver-guide was Vera “pure Navajo through and through from head to toe in every sense of the word” the Navajo said. She rocked and rolled and rattled and spun us for 2 miles all the way down hot and sandy Antelope Canyon to the entrance of the Upper Antelope Canyon or Slot Canyon, all a part of the Navajo Nation land near Page, Arizona and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, USA.

We had to have a Navajo guide with us at all times because Upper Antelope Canyon is an active flood area at any time when rain occurs even miles away from the canyon. And the Navajo have the experience and the communication system to know when flood waters will hit Antelope Canyon and especially Slot Canyon. When the raging force of flash flood water enters Slot Canyon, it can fill this canyon up to 60 feet high with such great force that people have died. Knowing the weather was agreeable, we entered Upper Antelope Slot Canyon, the most visited slot canyon in the Southwest because all conditions here are ideal.

And what an entrance it was. It was at least 20 degrees cooler inside and the walls were 60 feet tall and the slot at the top ranged from 3-12 feet wide.  They were carved, scared and twisted in such beautiful formations it was just shocking that this was a natural creation. The red-orange sandstone walls had been shaped for thousands of years by winds and powerful floods through the skinny canyon. And the twisted and swirled red-orange sandstone walls the length of a football field were the result.

Another highlight of the visit came from the sun. The prime time to visit Slot Canyon is 10 am to noon because of the angle of the sun into the canyon. All of a sudden, through one area of the canyon’s slot ceiling, the sun shone a foot-wide beam of white light down to the sandy floor. It was such a mystical magical event and created a feeling of heavenly euphoria. We didn’t want to leave.

But, too soon, the magical walk through the canyon ended and it was time to get back into the old dented F150 Ford Pickup and rock and roll back to the main Navajo tourist office and our Tauck World Discovery tour coach, thus ending a one-of-a-kind walk through Navajo candy-looking corkscrew canyon land.

Asia China

Roly Poly Pandas in China

She was sitting on the ground and needed a hug and someone to play with, so I sat by her and we hugged and played and kissed each other. I rubbed my fingers through her cute, stiff straw-like course hair. And she rolled over and tumbled like a ball many times, and bit and scratched me.

But personally playing with a year-old panda in China at one of the 2 breeding and research centers was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a dream come true for me, because I think the giant panda is the number one cutest and most precious animal in the world. And I was so fortunate to get to play with one when I toured with the San Diego Zoo to Wolong, China (now Bifengxia Panda Base since May 23, 2008 when Wolong was destroyed by an earthquake) to see pandas. We even played patty-cakes.

Besides playing with a panda, we were allowed to see Hua Mei, Bai Yun’s first American-born panda at the San Diego Zoo, who was then at Wolong and had just given birth to twins. The twins were 3 weeks old and observing one in the incubator was like looking at a stick of butter, except it was pink. Wrapped in a blanket under a heat lamp in an incubator, the panda nursery looked like a human baby nursery in any hospital. And the nursery was attended just like a human baby intensive care unit in our hospitals. We observed the baby sleeping in an incubator through a huge glass window just like we would in a hospital baby nursery. The room was spic and span, clean and white.

But seeing American born Hua Mei in a corner of her big room-den, sitting up so big black and white, grand and tall looking, and nursing her other twin was just the cutest most rewarding experience of the entire adventure. We had to be silent and non-intrusive so as not to disturb her nursing session, so we peeked through a 6-inch crack in the door. She nursed one at a time and while doing so, the other twin was in the incubator.

Seeing 40 more adult pandas at the breeding and research center couldn’t match that. However, it was a joy to see each adult panda in their own large private open yard and house. One vivid memory from the tour of pandas at Wolong (now Bifengxia) in their own environment was a panda in her house. Through the big glass windows in the house, I could see the panda sitting with her big round black and white head and 2 ears sticking up. It was just too cute.

But I didn’t get to play with just one panda. I got to play with 7 young pandas that were in their play yard on their climbing equipment. They were so busy climbing and tumbling and just doing their thing but they made time for us all. Each panda was ready to pose with us for our photo and even posed one-on-one for our Christmas card. Whatever we wanted, they were ready to perform.

We had to move on, though, because it was time for the 7 young pandas to eat. They were given a milk-looking cereal food specially formulated for them. Each one was given a pan full of it and down they came from the play equipment. One drank the potion and another picked up the pan and dumped the contents on the ground. Two had a little dispute over the food and another sat and ate. I had to remind myself that the precious panda bears’ behavior was like animals as they were animals. They ended their meal with white faces and cereal formula all over them.

But before this animal adventure was over, there was one more surprise. We were taken to see a Golden Monkey, which is rarer than a panda. I had never seen one. The orange and white monkey was about 3 feet tall and lives only in China. When I saw him, I learned that they did not exist in the Western Hemisphere yet, but efforts were being made to get them there. What a handsome, beautiful monkey he was. Little did we know that more precious pandas were to follow.

And the final surprise was a visit to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in China. Besides seeing another 50 pandas in their wide open habitat, we learned about the special foods that are made for the pandas. Custom-made pellets were full of vitamins and nutrition pandas need to be healthy. And infant pandas needed special baby formulas to survive. Cow’s milk was not giving a baby panda nutrition so the special foods were formulated.

But getting to play, hug and kiss a baby panda for 15 minutes in China shall forever remain the pinnacle of my life.

Africa Tanzania

Maasai Cows, Children & High Jumping in Tanzania

After leaving Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, we spotted a group of women and children on the side of the road, each carrying a container of water on top of their head. On the other side of the road were 3 young boys herding goats. Adam, our Maasai guide with Proud African Safaris, stopped to talk with them and to give each one a package of cookies and a bottle of water. They were out doing their daily duties for their village and had no food or water with them. After a short visit, we continued on to their village, MBuyni.

Twelve older ladies and 6 Warriors welcomed us into MBuyni Village near Arusha, Tanzania. But, before I could do anything, the ladies had draped a 4×4 ft. maroon square cloth, the clothes that the Maasai wear, around me and put one of their beautiful handmade bead collars around my neck. That is when I noticed the smell. The Maasai ladies smelled of an odor when they tied the blanket around my body. The odor was distinctive and one I had never smelled except on the Maasai. It was not perspiration or any normal body odor. The blanket tied at my shoulder just reeked of the smell and it was a rotten, rancid smell.

But I didn’t have time to solve the smell problem because the ladies were pulling me into the Adumu, the high jumping dance of the Maasai with the deep chanting rhythmic song. The men lined up and started that rolling chant, then, the high jumping followed where 1-2 junior warriors got into the center to show their jumping skills. Their bodies were rigid and their faces were deep in concentration as they jumped 2-3 feet in the air. The chant recalled legendary cattle raids, battles and deeds of brave men. The Junior Warrior who jumped the highest won the dance.

Adam must have said the magic words to the village junior elder or the ladies needed an extra hand because I was then asked to help them carry in the logs they had gathered that day from the surrounding area. On top of my head, a lady placed a cloth rolled in a circle topped with a 6 ft. log on top of the cloth. It didn’t hurt my head at all and I figured out that the cloth made my head flat so the log would not fall off. It was much easier than I expected and I soon learned that I could walk and balance the log at the same time. And so I walked about 1 block into one of the Maasai’s round plaster houses with a thatched roof.

Having succeeded at that, I now was on a high that I could do many things Maasai, but I stopped at their offer to milk a goat. It was time for them to show me how they milk a goat into a calabash (gourd) and then add blood from a young calf to make the protein-rich milk-blood drink that is consumed on 3 special occasions;  at child birth, when a person is sick and when a boy is circumcised.

First, they caught a calf in the kraal, a pen to hold livestock that is made of acacia tree thorn branches piled on top of each other to make a 3-4 ft. barrier and built by the men. A heifer was caught and a rope tied around its neck so the blood would pool up and the warrior then hit the bulge of blood using a bow and arrow and the blood squirted right into the calabash. Then, they caught a goat and milked it into the calabash gourd. Now they had the important Maasai ceremonial drink.

I still had more questions so I met with the village Junior Elder and several of his wives in his house. It was an interesting feeling being inside the round house with nothing but wives and log walls and ceiling. First I met the number one wife and she sat perfect in her chair and did not move the entire time. She had on a big white beaded collar and was a beautiful lady but she never smiled. And more wives followed. I understood that a Maasai could have as many wives as he could afford. Then we met 2 other ladies who were friendly, smiling and welcoming.  Formalities out of the way, the Junior Elder and I sat on stools and began our visit.

Circumcision was the first question and he answered candidly. Every 7 years is “the season” for circumcision, signifying the passage of male childhood so all males within a certain age are included in the ceremonies. Circumcision of females is not performed often these days.

At 5 a.m. they enter a creek or river to get their body cold, and exit to let the blowing wind cool and numb the body further so less pain is felt. At 6 is time for the procedure. Now called a Moran, new recruits to the rank of warrior, herbs are placed on the incision and the pain begins. A man does not show pain in his eyes or on his face so a male who shows no pain brings honor to his parents.

Several days of feasting, drinking and celebration follows the circumcision where the blood-milk drink is consumed by the new Moran. The Morani are given only a 3×3 ft. black square fabric to wear, plus the ostrich feather headdress. Their faces must be whitened with chalk for up to 2 months while the Morani make it on their own to prove manhood and to pass into the first age-set of the Maasai. The young Morani begin to grow their hair and regularly apply red ochre that they get from the bark of an acacia tree. They cannot be around the village when healing. Following the 2-month period, the ceremony to bless the new warriors takes place.

When I was in Tanzania in 2004, I spotted 4 Morani walking on the side of the highway to Ngorongoro Crater wearing their black blankets, white faces and begging for a ride and money. I mentioned this to our Maasai elder game driver on the Tauck World Discovery Tanzania Safari who said if the boy’s parents knew what they were doing, there would be deep punishment. The boys must stay away from people and their village and make it on their own for up to 2 months in the wild to prove manhood and to prove no pain. Eating in their mother’s house and sisters watching them eat is forbidden.

When I visited a Maasai boma village in northern Tanzania on that same trip, we saw 6 Morani boys in their black blankets, white faces and Junior Elder in charge of them. It was not explained to us why they were in the village during their “proving manhood period”.  The Adumu high jump dance and singing that goes with it are performed regularly before and after the Moran age. In the past, killing a lion and cattle-raiding expeditions were a popular test of bravery. Nowadays, they have been outlawed so Morani spend much of their time in mock battles.

The senior warriors graduate to junior elders at the Eunoto ceremony, where the Morani arrive in full regalia every 15 years. Their heads are covered in red ochre, with the lion’s mane and ostrich feather headdress. Maasai gather from all over to participate in the ceremony, where the Moran’s mother shaves his head, cutting the ties of warrior hood.

Our visit ended and it was time for us to make it to Arusha, Tanzania. But before I could leave, I had to find out what the smell was on the Maasai women. Adam clued us in on the secret; the ladies rub cow milk butterfat all over their skin to protect them and to keep the skin soft .  After a while, the butter spoils and gives off the rancid odor from their beautiful sultry satiny skin.

Europe Romania

Fancy Houses, Plain Clothes in Romania

The Transylvanian (Romania) road from Dracula’s Castle split into a triangle junction that contained a small park.  A quaint pair of horse-drawn two-story wagons rested there. Their horses grazed lazily on the emerald green grass under the shade trees while several people lounged in the upper story of their wagons. “Roma, or what we call Gypsies,” our Romanian guide explained, are “nomadic people who traditionally live in two-story wagons. The upper story is their home while the lower story is for business.” So, we were very surprised to see what the guide had just described to us that morning had suddenly appeared.

The Roma, as they prefer to be called, emigrated in the 1300’s from India. While many remain nomadic, more and more are living in homes provided by the tolerant Romanian government. We passed a government-built neighborhood that looked like a giant hand had stamped-out hundreds of small houses set close together and enclosed by fences to keep Gypsy life separate from the rest of the Romanians. These neighborhoods fit the traditional “satra” lifestyle of the Gypsies – “living close together without privacy.” But, traditional to the Roma way, each family individualizes them to stand out in the crowd.

The few wealthy Roma own huge “mansion homes” complete with metal or clay castle-like turreted roofs. These edifices serve not only as homes but also to flaunt the wealth of the owner. The Roma live in only one or two ornate, flamboyant, and colorfully furnished rooms, leaving the remainder of rooms empty. From the outside, no one knows that most of the house is empty.

An estimated two million Roma comprise 10% of the Romanian population, although the actual Roma population is unknown, as they don’t declare their children. Children are used from a young age as beggars and pickpockets. Parents use no birth control, and the saying about them is, “if a child needs a bath, make a new one instead.” As our Tauck World Discovery Danube Riverboat tour went on a daily land excursion, we passed numerous children bathing in a drainage ditch, so we were not surprised that families of 10 – 12 children are common and that some children eventually bathe.

Roma children attend Romanian schools, which includes a free breakfast to improve attendance.  Many still do not attend school, perpetuating their high rates of illiteracy and poverty.  Large portions of the children in Romanian orphanages come from Roma families who can’t afford to keep them.

Roma children marry at age 13 or 14.  Girls must be virgins for these arranged marriages. The girl meets with the boy’s family to see if they can marry and, if so, they live together. A Roma boy can marry any girl, but a Roma girl can only marry a Roma boy. The bride receives a gold necklace with a gold coin from the groom’s family in recognition of the marriage, and everyone celebrates with a party where the family’s homegrown wine and food is served and music, singing and dancing abound. On the other hand, to divorce, the husband says one word three times and the couple is divorced. Our Romanian guide didn’t know that word.

Since Gypsy traditional dress is unavailable in “off-the-rack” stores, the Roma make their clothes.  Women wear many-layered dark-colored long skirts with many pockets.  Men usually wear all black — shirt, pants, and large-brimmed hat. Sometimes there is red or colored trim on the shirt or there is no hat. When it comes time to wash the clothes, male and female clothes cannot be washed together because clothes worn below the waist are considered unclean, especially the female’s. And to wash bad luck away, rural Roma wash clothes in a flowing river.

Many of the Roma people have jobs as skilled bricklayers, copper workers, and gold sifters. Some of the top musicians in Romania are Roma, like Gheorghe Zamfir. But many also have odd jobs, including begging, cleaning restrooms, fortune telling, and street sweeping.  Most Roma live below the poverty line and struggle daily to survive. They compete among each other, and the wealthier Roma do not associate with the poorer Roma. Still, they believe in getting along and being honest with each other. Their high rate of unemployment, welfare, illiteracy, and crime are some of Romania’s big problems.

The Roma have two designated seats in the Romanian Parliament.  The Roma also have their own government, consisting of a king who lives in France and an emperor who has no power. Elections are held every two years among the Roma. King Cioaba sets the rules and regulations the Roma follow. While I was visiting Romania, the newspaper pictured the emperor’s release from prison and his Zorroesque departure on a shiny black horse. The Romanian government then fined him.

In World War II, the Roma and other Romanians were sent to concentration camps. Communism was rough on the Roma, as their needs were ignored and they were not recognized as a separate ethnic group.

The Roma adopt the religion of their resident country since they have no ethnic religion. They honor the Black Madonna and have a small alter with the Black Madonna at the entrance of their dwelling. The Black Madonna is an image of Mary that has darkened through the centuries and is associated with miracles.

One encounter with a Roma came after we had visited a museum in Bucharest. A dark-skinned Roma lady dressed in colorful headscarf, shawl, dark multi-layered skirt, and bright blue blouse, awaited us at the exit. She granted us permission to photograph her up close. We took several different poses and gave her a tip. This was such a pleasant surprise because it is known that Roma do not allow personal photos.

As we were leaving Transylvania, we saw a man milking one of 20 cows in a roadside pasture. He had just walked up to that free-standing, unsecured cow that was eating grass and started milking it. In all of my years associated with the dairy business, I had never seen anything like this. What I didn’t know was whether the man owned the cows or just needed some milk.