Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Annie and Blue in Penang

“Selamat” is how people say “hello” in Malay.  Penang is an island that is part of Malaysia but the people on Penang just say “hello” because they speak English, in fact, in school they teach both Malay and English.  A taxi driver told us that the students spend more time studying American history than Malaysian history.  He knew all about the Boston Tea Party and George Washington.  We were impressed because we do not know much about Malaysian history. 

One of the reasons that English is spoken on the island of Penang is because the island was first settled by the English in the 1700s.  It was the first English settlement in Asia. The main city, Georgetown, was name in honor of England’s George III. The English wanted a harbor on the Spice Route safe from
pirates. Today spices are easy to get but in the 1700s they were very expensive in Europe. When Columbus sailed west and landed in the Americas he was looking for a faster, cheaper way to get to where the spices are grown.  We visited a Spice Garden where we learned about the many uses for spices and their importance.

We loved the diversity of Penang. About 40% of the people are Malay, another 40% Chinese, 10% Indian and the rest a mixture of other groups.  It makes the island very interesting.  The Malay people are Muslim, the Chinese are Buddhist, while the Indians practice the Hindu religion but there are many Christian churches, too. The Buddhist and Hindu temples are very interesting and colorful. Several times a day we could hear the Muslim call to prayer. 

At our hotel, the Holiday Inn Resort, there were Malay, Chinese,
Indian, Europeans, and some from Saudi Arabia. Penang is a honeymoon destination for Saudis.  The Saudi women are completely covered in an abaya, which is like a long coat worn over their regular clothing. Some even have a face veil with only their eyes visible.  When the lady eats she lifts up her veil just enough so they can get the food to her mouth. It is interesting because there are Europeans in bikinis. The Muslim women have a special swimsuit that covers everything but their face, feet, and hands.  One lady had a bright pink one. 

We were lucky to be at the hotel for Chinese New Year. In the morning we received red envelopes with chocolate money in it and a orange all symbols of good luck in the future. There were some people with big drums and cymbals making a lot of noise while other people set off fire crackers. The noise will drive away all the bad spirits. Then there was a colorful lion dance with the noise of the drums and cymbals. The hotel staff had tied small bunches of lettuce high
on the walls.  The lions had to jump up or climb up (there are two people in each lion outfit – so one had to climb on the other – tricky). When the lion gets the lettuce we all clapped. I was another sign of good luck. Afterwards the hotel provided a
platter with small piles of colorful food.  Each food item meant something special – long noodles means a long life.  Then using long wooden chopsticks we tossed the food in the air while shouting “Loh Hey” which literally means to 'move upwards.’ It is a wish for good fortunes to grow during the coming year. It is called a Prosperity Toss. That night there were fireworks.  The day we left was a Hindu holiday. We wished we could have been there to see the Hindu celebration.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Annie and Blue visit Malta

Can you find Malta on a map?  It is in the Mediterranean Sea south
of Italy.  The island is very historic.  It was a crossroad for trading when the best and fastest way to get around was by water.  The first settlers arrived about 7000 years ago and since then many groups of people have visited, conquered, and lived there. Malta was once a colony of England just like the United States.  Malta gained its independence in 1964. Like most of the colonies of England the people speak English which made it easy for us to travel around.

Malta is an archipelago which means Malta is made up of several islands. The main island is called Malta.  We visit St. John’s Cathedral in the capital of Valletta. It was beautiful with gold-covered pillars and painted ceilings. At one time the wealthy people were buried in the floor of the church.  The names of those buried under the floor were carved in marble.

We thought the many colorful balconies on the buildings that line
the streets were very attractive. We loved visiting Casa Rocca Piccola. It is a house/museum. The people still live in part of the house and the rest is open as a museum. When we visited the lady of the house was taking tickets and her husband, the Ninth Baron of Budach, was showing some of his family historical papers to visitors. He can trace his family back to the 1600s. How far can you trace your family back?  Times were not always so calm and peaceful in Malta. During WW II Malta was heavily bombed.  In April 1942 there was an average of 15 bombing raids a day. We went down into their bomb shelter where the family sought safety during bombings.

Today Malta is one of the safest countries but it wasn’t always like that.  We saw a presentation at the fort on Gozo. When the fort was attacked in 1551 one of the soldiers saw that the invaders were winning. He didn’t want his family to be captured and made slaves so he killed them and then fought to his death. Over 3000 people did become slaves.  What a hard decision to make.

Gozo is a 20-minute ferry ride from the main island.  It is smaller
with less people and many interesting sites.  Many movies have been made in Malta.  The set for the movie “Popeye” is now a theme park. There is a cave where they say Ulysses, a Greek god, lived for many years on his long voyage. The Azure Window is a 164-foot
high rock arch with a hole in it showing the blue (azure means blue) sea and sky. People have lived on Gozo for 7000 years.  We visited one of the temples they built. Many of the stones used to build it were gigantic. Some weighed 50 tons. The average car weighs two ton.  We wondered how they moved these huge stones and shaped them to fit without the tools and machines we have today. 

It is fun to visit new places.  When we travel we like to try new food.  Malta is an island so seafood is very popular.  The chef where we stayed, Ramla Resort, showed us how to make a local favorite – pan-seared octopus Maltese style. Have you ever eaten octopus?  We had not.  We both tried it.  One of us loved it.  The other liked the flavor but thought the octopus was too chewy. The favorite dessert is the deep-fried date pastries served warm with homemade ice cream. We both loved that. Happy travels.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Annie and Blue visit Nicaragua

Can you find Nicaragua on a map?  It is the largest country in Central America and it has a coast on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.   While in Nicaragua we visited an island in Lake Nicaragua.  Lake Nicaragua is the 19th largest lake in the world and one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world.  The island we visited is called Ometepe which in the ancient language of the Nahuati people of Nicaragua means two
mountains.  The island has two volcanoes. One is dormant (inactive) but Conceptcion is still active.  It last erupted in 1957 but in 2010 it spit out a lot of ash and rocks.  It creates a problem when it rains a lot for several days because there can be huge landsides of ash and rocks. That happened in 2014 when the ash and rocks blocked the road and destroyed some houses in its path.  At one time, many thousands of years ago the two volcanoes were not connected by land but now they are.  The sands washed in and over a very long period of time created an isthmus.  That is where the best beaches are.

Mark Twain who wrote “Tom Sawyer” loved to travel.  When
Twain visited Ometepe he said the island was, “Two magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits pierce the billowy clouds.” It still looks that way today.  Things may change.  A very rich Chinese man wants to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific through Nicaragua.  It would be bigger than the Panama Canal so that wider ships could use it.  Nicaragua was considered the best place to build a canal in the early 1900s but for various reasons the canal was built through the Isthmus of Panama. If a canal is built across Nicaragua there will be many changes in Nicaragua and Ometepe. Many people don’t think there will be a second canal because it would cost a lot of money.

At one time the island was home to the Nahauti people. We visited a museum where Carla showed us around. There are a lot of artifacts (objects made by people long ago) that one man has collected to create his museum.  The island has been occupied for at least 5000 years.  The ancient people created
beautiful pottery and carvings on rocks called petroglyphs.  There were interesting large clay containers that the people were buried in.  It was their version of a casket. 

The museum also had a section devoted to money.  Every new president issues new money but the earliest people used cocoa beans for their money.  Chocolate is made from the cocoa beans. For 100 cocoa beans one could buy a slave.

One day we stopped at the home of Jairo Sandino in Los Ramos. An 83-year-old   man, Fauto Aleman, has been teaching his family the culture of the island. Like most of Central America the culture comes from the Spanish who conquered the area over 500 years ago. Mr. Aleman played the guitar, sang and danced for us.  For one song he put on a mask which represents the Old Man in the Mountain. His very pretty granddaughters, Scarleth Aleman
Martinez and Alba Ligia Sandino danced for us as did Alba’s father.  One dance was about a bull fight with Alba’s father pretending to be the bull.  The entertainment took place in their home which made it seem more special.  We think it is
important for people to remember their culture and share it with others. Just about everyone in Nicaragua has a cell phone and even the smallest, one-room homes (some without indoor toilets) have a satellite dish so the people know more about the United States than most of the people in the United States know about Nicaragua.  With all the modern technology many places, worldwide, and losing their old ways and adopting American ways.

Visitng Copan in Honduras

Ever wonder what the place where we live will be like in 1000 years?  We do.  Some people say the climate is getting warmer and that the ice caps are melting.  If that happens many of the places along the water may be underwater. We visited the amazing Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras.  The Mayan people created a large, powerful
nation in Central America many, many years ago. We doubt the Mayans ever thought their flourishing city would one day be overtaken by the jungle. Copan is just one of the great Mayan cities with pyramids, temples, and where art flourished. Copan is considered the most artistic of the Mayan cities and sometimes referred to as the “Athens of the Mayan World.” Copan started as an agricultural settlement around 1000 BC and reached its peak between AD 300 and 900. Today all that is left are the impressive stone works.  At
one time the temples were bright and colorful. We wondered what happened to this once great city. We were told that one problem was that they had too many wars and also the city grew so big they could not raise enough food to feed their people. Another problem was disease brought to them by European explorers.  We have some of these problems today: war, people going hungry and disease. 

One of the most impressive sites is the hieroglyphic staircase which contains over 1250 blocks of stone. Hieroglyphics are designs, symbols, and/or pictures used to tell a story instead of words made from an alphabet.  Each stone of the stairway is engraved with part of a Mayan story. When the staircase was discovered many of the stones had been disturbed by nature and people looking for treasure.  At one time the Mayans were very rich and had a lot of gold. When stones were replaced in the
stairway the people didn’t understand the language so the stones were not put back in the proper place. The staircase it like a history book with 1250 loose pages with no page numbers and in a foreign language. Even today we don’t know what all the hieroglyphics mean so we only know part of the story. There is much to learn. 

One of fascinating sites is the ball court. The game was popular throughout Central America and it was more than just a game. It was often part of a religious ceremony where the losers not only lost the game but their lives. The exact rules are not known but the object was to get the rubber ball through one of the rings high on the side wall. The players couldn’t use their hands.  Today the site is quiet but sitting on one of the benches looking around at the impressive stone temples and altars we
wondered what Copan was like when it was full of people and all the buildings were painted bright colors.  At the museum we saw a large model of the Rosalila Temple.  It is beautiful. From pictures we know the rulers and religious people were brightly dressed and often used the bright feathers from the local birds like the beautiful Macaws to decorate their headpieces and clothing. 

Not far from Copan is the Macaw Mountain Bird Park & Nature Reserve where there are many macaws and other colorful birds. The people at the park are working to protect, preserve and breed macaws and then reintroduce them back into the wild.  Several of the bright, beautiful macaws are once again free to fly in and around the great city of Copan. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Annie and Blue explore Bonair

Get your atlas out and find Bonaire. It is a small island off the coast of Venezuela. It belongs to the Netherlands. The people speak Dutch, English and Papiamento (the language of the original people of the island).  They say Bon Bini which is “Welcome” in Papiamento.   

Bonaire is a popular place for people who love to dive and snorkel.  The island is ringed by coral reefs that are teaming with fish.  We love to snorkel. We try to float quietly in the water so the fish in the reef are not afraid and come out of hiding.  We try not to touch any fish or the coral. One of the fish we saw
was a lion fish. It is the one fish that guides are allowed capture. The fish was not originally from the Caribbean Sea.  It is called an invasive species.  It doesn’t have any natural enemies in the Caribbean.  Scientists think someone in Florida dumped the lionfish from the tropical fish tank in the ocean; they spread and multiplied. Today there are too many and they are killing off native plants and animals. 

Did you ever think about where your salt comes from? It may have come from Bonaire.  We were amazed by the huge pyramids of salt on the island. Roland, our guide, explained how the salt was produced.  All salt comes from the ocean at one time.  Some of it is mined from underground.  There was a huge salt mine in Syracuse. That is why Syracuse is called, “The Salt City” and there is a street called “Salina” which comes from the word “salt.” We visited the Salt Museum in Liverpool and learned out they used to mine salt in Syracuse. 

In Bonaire they get the salt directly from the sea.  They say the salt
is made by the “sea, sun, and wind.” There are wind mills that control gates that allow the sea water to flow into what they call “salt pans” but are really shallow lakes of salt water.  As the water evaporates the salt water in the pans turns light green and then a beautiful rose color.  It is a pretty sight.  After many months the sun and wind
cause the water to evaporate leaving just the salt. The salt is scraped up and piled high – very high – in pyramid shaped mountains where it stays until a ship comes along to be loaded and shipped all over the world.  Roland showed us small slave huts. During the slavery time the slaves were used to work in the production of salt. The huts we saw were a big improvement from the ones they had before that.  The slave’s  homes and families were in Rincon at the other end of the island. When the slaves had time off they had to walk six hours or more to visit their families 

Salt has been important for 1000s of years.  It is used for many
things. We use it to make our food taste better and to melt the ice on the roads but it is used in 14,000 different ways including making plastic, paper, glass, soaps, and many other things. 

The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt because some people think that the Roman army was paid in salt but it is possible that they only guarded the salt road. Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” Which meant that they were extremely important. Until the 1900s people in the African country of Ethiopia were paid in salt. We didn’t realize how important salt is. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Visiting Myanmar's Golden Rock

Mingalabar is how we say “hello” in Myanmar. Myanmar was once
called Burma.  It is nicknamed the “Golden Country” because it has so many beautiful golden temples.  One of the most amazing golden holy sites we have seen is the Golden Rock.  Myanmar people try to visit this holy Buddhist site at least
once a year.  The Golden Rock is a very large rock covered with gold leaf and balanced on a flat rock on a mountain that is 3600 feet high.  Getting there was fun.  At the bottom of the mountain there were trucks lined up to take people up the twisty nine-mile mountain road. We climbed into the back of a
truck with rows of narrow, padded benches - six to a bench and ten rows. Some people walk up the mountain but it takes hours. The ride up the mountain takes about 30 minutes.  After we climbed out of the truck it was still about a 30-minute uphill walk to the
Golden Rock. Most people walk but some hire a sedan chair with four porters to take them the rest of the way. It is said that 2,500 years ago Buddha gave one hair to a hermit who carried it until he found a boulder that looked like a head.  The hermit built a pagoda on top of the rock to hold the sacred hair. The rock and pagoda has survived several violent earthquakes.  It is amazing. 

Another amazing place is a hotel on the Bay of Bengal (get your
map out and see if you can find it and Myanmar). The hotel is
called Amazing Ngapali Beach which is the perfect name.  The people at the hotel are wonderful and very kind to us.  We love the beach. Each day a lady comes along with fresh fish and prawns asking us to eat at her restaurant. They told us about a school nearby started
by an English lady, Susan Ozturk (Mama Sue), where the students learn English. The school is called the Vera Thomson English School. It was named after Mama Sue’s mother who was a very kind lady. Calling older people “mama” and “papa” is a way to show respect but does not mean that they are their parents.  

We did a program at the school.  They had a lot of computers but
many of them didn’t work.  It is very hot in Myanmar and there is a long rainy season which is not good for the computers.  Also, they do not have electricity 24-hours a day so that causes a problem, too. The school is free and has about 300 students.  We were impressed. In one classroom the boys sat on one side and the girls on the other.  When the teacher, Chaw Su
Khaing, asked a question the students eagerly raised their hands to answer.  When the teacher called on them they stood up to answer. The children spoke excellent English. When we asked the students what they wanted to be, most said tour guides but one young man who spoke excellent English said he wanted to be an English teacher.  Without Mama Sue’s school they would not have the chance. 

Notice some of the people have cream-colored powder on their
face.  It is called thanaka and protects the skin from the sun. It is very popular in Myanmar but things are changing. At one time all the people (men and women) wore long wraparound skirts called longyis.  Many people still do but now some people are wearing more Western-style clothing.  One day we were on the beach and the students from Mama Sue’s rode by on their bikes and yelled “Mingalabar.”  It is easy to make friends in Myanmar!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Xin chao from Vietnam

Xin Chao (sounds like “sin chow”) or “Hello” from Vietnam. Vietnam is a fascinating country with a long history. For about 1000 years it was controlled by the Chinese, then 100 years by the French and then about 10 years of the American War (as it is called in Vietnam). It is finally governing itself. More than half the population was born after the American War.  

We have been to Vietnam a couple of times.  This time we decided to take a boat from Cambodia down the Mekong River to the Mekong Delta where there are many cities and villages.  The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world and borders many countries. The Mekong Delta is called a “biological treasure trove” because over 10,000 new species have been recently discovered in the unexplored areas of the Delta. Where the Mekong River flows into the delta area the river divides into many branches – some are large rivers others very small
streams.  Along the river there are many rice fields and fishing villages. Many people live in houses on stilts because during the rainy season the Mekong River floods and during the hot, dry season it allows air to circulate under the house helping to keep it cool. We visited one small village where some people were playing marbles, a girl was weaving, a lady was selling soup, and others had small shops selling a variety of things.  We bought some delicious snacks from two girls. We visited a fish farm and a huge fresh food market where they sold fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and many other things. 

We decided to visit someplace different on this trip so we took a five-hour car ride east of Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Mui Ne is a beach destination on the South China Sea most famous with travelers who like to kite surf.  Kite surfing is an exciting sport
where people get up on a board like a surf board and are attached to a huge kite that zips them across the water. The waves and winds were strong so it is mainly for experts. It is very exciting but we only watched!  Less exciting but just as wonderful was watching the sun come up over the South China Sea.  It was especially interesting because the fishermen in
Mui Ne have unique boats.  They are round and reminded us of the nursery rhyme “Rub-a-dub-ub Three Men in a Tub” but most of the boats called coracle had one or two men in it.  Originally they were made
out of woven reeds but now they are fiberglass. Each morning hundreds of them would row out to check the nets for fish and then sell them it in the market.  We went to one fish market and they even had a small crocodile for sale.  We have eaten crocodile. Have you?  It doesn’t have must taste but it was good.

One day we took a tour to see a reclining Buddha 160-feet long and 36-feet high. A tram took us to a cable car that went through the forest to near the statue but there were still many steps to climb in order to see the statue. We also stopped at a dragon fruit farm.  Dragon fruit is good: red on the outside and white with tiny black seeds on the inside. 

Most countries have their own kind of money.  In Vietnam their money is called VND (New Vietnamese Dong). One US dollar is about the same as 0.000046 VND. If the T-shirt you want to buy in Vietnam is 300,000 VND how much would that be in US dollars?