Category Archives: Travels Around the World

What Kind of Schmuck Are You?!

Yesterday, I got a call from a carpenter who’s going to be updating our 30-year-old kitchen, and when he accidentally called me “Karen,” he apologized by saying, “I’m sorry! I’m really a schmuck!” I didn’t mind his forgetting my name (he hasn’t even started working for us yet), but I did find myself reactive to the idea that he made it sound like a “schmuck” is a bad thing, because I have a young friend whom I greatly admire whose last name is Schmuck. This Schmuck wants to become a minister, and he’s working his way through college by serving as a member of the maintenance department at our church. We’ve been involved in ministry together, and he is an all-around all-star guy. He also has a great sense of humor, and I’ve heard they advertised the youth group by saying, “Come, and don’t worry, because you’ll never be the only schmuck here!”  So, while we were in Nepal, I couldn’t help but notice the sign on the bathroom door where we had our much-longed-for rest stop on the Prithivi Highway. I took a photo with my cell phone to send to Zach, but then I thought better of it, just in case it might hurt his feelings. However, just a few days later, we visited the International Mountain Museum, and I noticed that there was a famous mountain climber by the name of Marcus Schmuck who led the first successful assent of Mt. Broad Peak back in 1957. It was a very difficult and lofty achievement, indeed, and one that has only been repeated a scant handful of times since.Broad Peak is the twelfth highest mountain in the world, very dangerous, and in such a remote area of Pakistan’s Karakoram Range that no one in the western world even knew it existed until 1892!So, I want to defend the name “Schmuck” and say that there are some mighty fine schmucks out there! Last summer, my young friend got married, and I know that even though he’s had to scrub a lot of toilets while working his way through college (which is not what he’s doing here; he and his wife had a foot-washing ceremony during their wedding [which is very biblical, by the way]), this young man is a true mountain climber, and I know he will also achieve some lofty goals for our Lord over the course of his lifetime.   Jesus taught: “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12).

Jesus also set the example for us: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:3-10).

Prithivi Highway: The Longest (and Most Memorable)110-Mile Bus Trip I’ve Ever Taken

Most of the time we flew between destinations on our tour of India and Nepal, but on one occasion we took a scenic bus trip  along the Prithivi Highway through the rugged terrainbetween Chitwan and Pokhara in Nepal.  It was “only” 110 miles, and according to the literature,  we were supposed to enjoy the ride during the morning,  then arrive at our hotel in time for lunch and spend the afternoon touring. NOT!  It took us 8.5 hours to travel the 110 miles with only two brief bathroom breaks. The temperature was approximately a million degrees out,  and between the heavy traffic,  aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2015  and intensive road construction,  the air was so full of dust that trying to make out what was happening outside the windows  took considerable concentration and creative imagination… which was particularly taxing considering the state of our bladders on such a rocky road!   (My friend Deb said the bus ride was so bumpy that her Fitbit recorded her as walking 10,000 steps although she didn’t think she’d really walked even 500!) In fact, Alan had to sit in the front seat and also concentrate on not throwing up, since the 600 hairpin turns we’d traveled on Hawaii’s Heavenly Hana Highway had been but scant practice  for surviving this rollicking ride balancing on the edge of the steep gorge overlooking the Narayani River Basin through the foothills of the Himalayan and Annapurna Mountain Ranges,  which are home to eight of the world’s fourteen highest peaks!  However, this trip was not only memorable for the twists and turns as we progressed at a blistering twelve miles an hour  through unbelievable clouds of dust and dirt,  it was also remarkable for a never-ending stream of gorgeous views  that would have taken our breath away  had we had any (which we didn’t, due to elevation and air pollution).  Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the most dangerous road trip I’ve ever taken  —although it possibly was! (Well, maybe my all-time scariest bus ride was in China back in 1995
when our bus’s transmission gave out in high gear)! 😦  And, it might not have been the dustiest ride I’ve ever been on  …although I really can’t think of anything to compete!   On the bright side, we had great air-conditioning, and we were definitely in the mountains much of the time (like, most of the time), which was cooler.  Our driver was amazing, and although he drove as furiously as Jehu, he allowed emergency roadside stops once or twice (but what’s that between friends?). We were also granted two real stops during the 8.5 hours (but what’s that between friends with post-60-year-old bladders full of breakfast coffee?).  Well, we all survived, and as far as I know, nobody threw up or wet their pants. It was also a ride I’ll bet nobody ever, ever forgets  (unless they develop Alzheimer’s).  Would I do it again?  Yes, although with my eyes open and an entirely empty bladder.  Would I recommend it for others? Absolutely!
(Possibly not for those who get motion sick
or have breathing, heart, G.I. or bladder issues.)
Did I learn anything? Yes!  And, if you’re willing, let me share a few of the meditations of my heart  while we bounced along:  Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
(Matthew 5:8, it’s hard to see when the windows of our hearts are dirty.)   “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith,
having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience,
and our bodies washed with pure water
” (Hebrews 10:22). I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom  concerning all things that are done under heaven:  this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.” (Ecclesiastes 1:13)Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness
unto them which are exercised thereby
” (Hebrews 12:11).  (The Prithivi Highway is going to be one of the world’s most beautiful
when it’s finished!)   “And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal,
proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb
” (Revelation 22:1). Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst;
but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water
springing up into everlasting life
” (John 4:14).  What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?” “I have seen the travail,
which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. 
He hath made every thing beautiful in his time:  “also he hath set the world in their heart,  “so that no man can find out the work that God maketh “from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:9-11).

Tastes of India? Pure Foods and Pure Water

I think the strangest things I’ve eaten in this past month were crickets and bone marrow…   but these weren’t items we were expected to eat on our trip to India and Nepal!   These were some of the upscale tapas offered on the menu of the Ox and Tail restaurant in Rochester, NY, where Alan and I had dinner with our son, Stephen last Saturday night.

Did I like them? Actually, no. Would I order them again? Definitely not!
But, did they make me sick? Believe it or not, the answer is “no.” So, how is it that I can eat disgusting (sounding…and tasting)
food in America without getting sick,  whereas Alan and I ate a lot of gourmet-appearing food  but were still sick the entire time we were in India and Nepal,  despite eating in extremely elegant places that catered to Western tastes? Part of the problem might have been that,
although we ate at some amazing venues  —including some palaces and UNESCO world heritage sites—  we were on a “discovery tour,” which included picnics on river banks in jungles,  buffets in over 100°F. heat under tent awnings in remote areas, steamy dinners in the jungles of Nepal,  and some gracious dinners prepared and served in local homes.We were always careful to drink only bottled water  and tried to choose our food very carefully  (although sometimes I wasn’t really sure what I was eating…), and we tried to make sure all the meats were well cooked. Unfortunately, these precautions weren’t enough.

I usually have a stomach of steel, but not this trip! I assumed it was simply that Westerners aren’t used to the types of bacteria in India, but after returning homeI learned that sanitation and water pollution is a huge issue in India, not  just for foreigners, but for everyone. Diarrhea is the fourth highest cause of death in India today…way ahead of any type of cancer! Several of the men on our trip required prescription-strength medications to recover, and about halfway through the trip, I began to worry that Alan and I might be too old for this type of travel.  After returning and thinking about things, I would like to offer this brief list of ideas for any adventurers who want to travel to India or other very remote areas of the Eastern world:
*Only use bottled water, never tap water, or ice cubes made from tap water.
*Take seriously all the precautions suggested by your travel guides
*Carry and use hand sanitizer before eating
*The one couple who never got ill took acidophilus tablets, which are an over-the-counter probiotic; I plan to use them too if I ever go again.
*Before you go, get a prescription for ciprofloxacin (or whatever medication your physician recommends for you in case of serious diarrhea and dehydration). Finally, I’d like to suggest that not only do our bodies require pure water for good health, so do our hearts and minds!

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him” (Proverbs 30:5).

And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely” (Revelation 21:6).

Thoughts on Cremation and Afterlife from Visiting Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath Temple

Have you ever experienced a cremation ceremony?The Pashupatinath Temple, where we watched people being cremated,   is on the Bagmati River, which flows into the Ganges River
and is considered the most sacred river in Nepal. The Pashupatinath Temple is really a complex that includes 518 temples
and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The original temple (the oldest in Kathmandu) was built around 400 BC, although the beautiful present-day temple was erected in the 15th century
after the earlier temple was destroyed by termites. Pashupati is the name of one of their 330 million gods,  and if my understanding is correct, Hindus believe he is one of the manifestations of Lord Shiva, one of the three principle deities of Hinduism.  There are so many threads I’d like to follow from this experience, but perhaps the most profound impact came from watching people being cremated.  Wisely (given the intense heat and population density), it is traditional for a person to be cremated immediately, on the day of his death.  (One tradition that I wish Americans would adopt is this:
The entire family takes 13 days together to mourn after their loved one dies.)

There are several rituals that occur before the family arrives with their deceased loved one to the Bagmati River, like wrapping the corpse is in two representative colors: white (for purity, purified with cow urine) and orange (for holiness). The corpse is carried to the edge of the river on a bamboo ladder, where the feet are repeatedly washed or sprinkled with water from the river for the purpose of purifying and beautifying the body.           Friends and family members form a line to pay their last respects,         and most of them participate in pouring ghee (oil) into the person’s mouth.                  They also often leave gifts of paper money or flowers.     Next, an elaborate funeral pyre is constructed on one of the concrete slabs using sandalwood (if possible, because of its fragrance), and the body is laid on it.  If it is a man who dies, the oldest son is responsible as the kartā (person who cares for the dead relative) and lights the fire, which begins with the mouth.  If it is a woman, her youngest son takes on the responsibility and honor of kartā.  To make the fire hotter and ensure that the entire body is immolated, the body is covered with straw and often smeared with butter or sugar. Because of the (now illegal) Hindu practice of “Sati” (where the wife had to be burned too if her husband died as a way of honoring him), today all the women leave the area before the body is burned,  but the kartā and other men watch over the cremation, which can take 3+ hours.  After the body and wood are completely consumed, the kartā sweeps all the ashes into the river and washes down the platform so it’s ready for the next funeral.  Although beliefs and customs vary (as they do in every religion), my understanding (from our tour manager and other sources I studied) is that cremation is a way of returning the body to the earth.  Hindus believe that the world consists of 5 elements: Air, water, earth, sky, and fire, and the cremation process includes all five elements, returning the body to the earth from which it came.     However, Hindus believe that although the body will die, the soul does not.  If the person lives a life with good “karma” (intentions and actions) that will lead them either to a higher station in life when they are reincarnated or to “heaven,” and if the person leads a life of bad karma, they will be reincarnated into a lesser form of life (such as an animal or lower) or hell. At the temple, there were a number of sadhus and aghora (monks who desire to become holy by ascetic practices.)  They were more than happy to pose for photos (as long as we gave them money), but I think they are often shunned by many Hindus and seemed very strange to us as Westerners.  In contrast to Hindu beliefs, I would like to share the Christian perspective, which includes purification by the blood of Christ, not holy river water, and offers regeneration through faith in Christ rather than reincarnation. Also, the Bible holds out the hope of eternal life as a gift after this present life ends, not because we’re justified by our ability to live out such good karma that we no longer need to be reincarnated, but by grace, based on the righteousness of Jesus Christ on our behalf:Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men. For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men” (Titus 3:1-8, emphasis mine).

 

 

The Many Faces of India

We were having dinner with friends last weekend, and the question came up: “What did you love best about your trip to India and Nepal?”   Certainly visiting the Taj Mahal  and our flight-seeing tour of Mt. Everest were phenomenal highlights,  but I think the most fascinating and compelling aspect of our adventure  was being immersed in a seemingly unending sea of people,  each with a face that arrested my attention and captivated me.  Did  you know that India is second only to China in population  (1.4 billion in China versus 1.3 billion in India)  but is only the 7th largest nation by land area?  Putting this into perspective for Americans: America has a land mass of 9.5 million square kilometers and a population of 324 million people.  India has about a third as much land (3.2 million square kilometers)  and over a billion more people!   So, the population density feels totally overwhelming!  On the other hand, I was fascinated by the faces.  The children and young people were beautiful,  and the old people had faces that I’d really only seen in pictures.  I don’t know how old some of these people were, but they looked ancient, like I imagined the aged patriarchs might have looked thousands of years ago.  And everywhere, people were working, bearing heavy burdens,  living with a patience born of suffering and the determination to survive.  I fell in love with the people. Their beauty. Their courage.  Their strength. Their productivity.  I’m sure there are many desperate and dark works of evil in India  (as there are in America too),   but what I saw was people who were surviving in conditions  that most Americans would consider intolerable.  No wonder Mother Teresa spent her life trying to help!  There is such amazing need…such overwhelming need…such endless need.  It has really made me stop and pray. “Lord, what would you have me to do?” Over the next few weeks, I hope to share more about India and Nepal,  but please know that behind all the trappings of culture  and the surprises and problems we encountered,  the people of India and Nepal are dynamic and wonderful. Each one is a unique creation handcrafted by God and stamped with His image.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” Genesis 1:26-27).

 

The Taj Mahal: “Jewel of Muslim Art in India”

The Taj Mahal is in Agra, India, along the Yamuna River. It was voted one of the New7Wonders of the World in 2007
by over 100 million voters (largest poll in the world at that time).  It’s valued at over US$ 827 million and considered by many
to be the world’s premiere example of Mughal architecture.        It is perhaps the most perfect architectural monument in the world.  Commissioned in 1632 by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his beloved wife, (Mumtaz Mahal, who died at the age of 38 giving birth to their 14th child), the Taj Mahal (which means “Crown of the Palace”) took 20,000 artisans twenty-two years to complete and was made of white marble  inlaid with precious and semi precious stones.  Because the Taj Mahal is Muslim artistry,

the exterior walls include some calligraphy from the Qur’an, carefully written with perspective so that you can read the letters at the top almost as easily as those right in front of you. The Taj Mahal is also a sacred site, so everyone is required to cover their feet (or go barefoot, but the hot pavement would burn your feet pretty badly, I’d think). Thankfully, the Taj staff provide shoe coverings as part of the admission price. My mom adored all things adventurous, especially if they involved travel. In fact, she was such a free spirit that she imagined being the daughter of gypsy parents dropped off on her parents’ doorsteps. Given how much she looked like her six siblings, I never took her tale seriously, but I definitely absorbed her curiosity about the world. Mom graduated to heaven before Bucket Lists became a thing, but had there been Bucket Lists while she was still alive, visiting the Taj Mahal would have been at the top of hers, because she always wanted to see it (although she never did).I can remember as a little girl being enthralled with her stories about a love so strong that the emperor would build a palace just to commemorate his queen…a “teardrop on the cheek of time” (as romantically described by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore back when my mother was young).  Therefore, it was with an awe inspired since childhood and a touch of my mother’s spirit within that I visited this wonder of the ancient world with Alan and our Gate 1 Discovery Tour Group a few weeks ago! Although I thought I knew a lot about the Taj Mahal before we visited, I learned a lot more and discovered that real life experiences are never quite what you imagine they’re going to be! For one thing, the Taj Mahal isn’t “just” the gorgeous onion-domed building you see in books and movies.               It is part of a 42-acre complex which includes a working mosque,                                                                a guest house,                                                      gates and watch towers,                                                   and extensive gardens.     I also learned a few things about India, which is so different from the West!     For one thing, if you go to India, prepare for extremely hot, muggy weather.  I think it was 100°F (±) with about 95% humidity that day (and I’m not kidding or exaggerating), and I was lightheaded despite drinking water constantly.  There are 7-8 million tourists who visit the Taj Mahal every year, so it’s crowded, and there are lines. (That shouldn’t be surprising, especially in a country with 1.3 billion people…but it also adds to the heat.)                                Everybody was trying to keep in the shade,  and many people were sweating through their clothing. (One of Alan’s docs warned us: “I know I’m from India and should love all things Indian, but India is too hot!”) Oh, yes!!However, the most lasting impression from my visit is that life is even more magnificent experienced than explained, which makes me all the more excited to experience heaven, which God has promised to all those who love Him.As it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him
(1 Corinthians 2:9).

(I bought photos 1,3,11-13 from the photographer who was taking pictures for us. Photo 5 is a public domain photo from Wikipedia, because we were not allowed to take pictures inside the mausoleum. I took the rest a few weeks ago in India.)

 

Starting at the Top: Flight-seeing Mt. Everest

                                                Do you have a Bucket List?  Seeing Mt. Everest was at the top of mine until a couple of weeks ago, when I was able to cross it off! However, the mountain you can see in the background of this photo is not of Mt. Everest. I assumed we could drive to the base of Mt. Everest the way you can drive to a good viewing spot for Denali, which at 20,310 feet is the highest mountain on the North American continent. Did you know there are well over 100 mountains in Nepal, China, Pakistan, and India that are higher than Denali or any of the highest mountains in North America? They make our beloved Rocky Mountains look like child’s play!There is no resort community where you can gaze at Mt. Everest’s grandeur out your snug hotel room’s picture window such as you can for Denali or Mt. Rainier!  (Can you see the mountain in the clouds? This is Himalchuli Mountain in the Annapurna Range of Nepal…which is only 25,896 feet high!) Although Mt. Everest is a whopping 29,029 feet tall, it’s buried behind so many huge mountains in the heart of such a remote part of the Himalaya Mountain Range that the only way you can really see it is either by mountain climbing or by taking an early morning flight-seeing tour on a small aircraft.  We opted for a flight-seeing tour with Buddha Air. We had an amazing adventure, but I will say this advertisement is deceptive. I imagined crashing on the mountain due to unpredictable wind currents and had heard rumors that Nepal has the world’s most dangerous airport.  The rumors may be true, but the pilots aren’t crazy, so they really don’t get you any closer than ten miles from Mt. Everest. Still, on a clear day, you can get some breath-taking views from 10,000 aloft! In order to catch an early morning flight, we had to get up at 4:45 am and head out to the airport.  One of the striking things to Alan and me was that the flight was listed as simply “Mountain.” Cities were named, but everybody knew: There’s just one Mountain! They charged us an arm and a leg for our tickets, but at least every passenger had a window seat, and they let each of us go up to take photos from the cockpit when we were at ideal viewing range.  The flight lasted just an hour, but I took over a hundred photos and felt totally mesmerized by the mountains’ majesty!  The Himalayas are beyond anything I’ve ever seen before, and I had absolutely no appreciation for how vast and wonderful they are!  Eventually, the clouds started to rise higher in the warm sunshine and obscured some of the mountains. Still, I will never forget the beauty of that morning!Do you know what Mt. Everest is made from? It’s not volcanic rock! The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone! Can you believe it? When the flood covered the earth, it even reached to the top of the highest mountains, just as the scriptures teach us: The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits” (Genesis 7:18-20, NIV). Now, the Bible also teaches that the ” springs of the great deep” were broken up, and that there was tremendous upheaval, so perhaps this accounts for the shifting tectonic plates. I’m no geologist, but to me, learning that the world’s highest mountain is topped with marine limestone is one more exciting evidence of the validity of the Bible. And, if you’re willing to believe the Bible is right about the flood, will you also believe that the Bible is right about who created the mountains? “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (Psalm 90:2). God created the mountains, God created us, and God loves us. Can you believe that?Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.
Isaiah 2:3

(I took all the photos on our recent trip, although the second photo is of a poster that was on our bus, and the photo of the model of the Himalayan Mountains was taken at the International Mountain Museum in Nepal.)