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A Short Meditation on Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are ubiquitous in Bhutan, fluttering from the eaves and doorways of houses, decorating temples and monasteries and popping up at road intersections. The flags come in five colors, red, green, blue, yellow and white, representing happiness, long life, prosperity, luck and merit. A large display of white flags signifies that someone in the household has died. The flags also stand for the five essential elements in Buddhism: the sky, fire, earth, water and air, and the importance of keeping these elements in harmony.

The Bhutanese believe that the prayers are carried on the wind — a lovely thought, I think.

I brought some home to hang in my backyard.

The Young Monks

Before I came to Bhutan I pictured devout young monks in serious repose; but our first visit to a monastery disabused me of that notion. Boys as young as five or six performed cartwheels and tore around the field just as boys are wont to do. One little guy had knotted his robe in superhero style.

Ugyen had a conversation with the headmaster, who acknowledged they were in need of notebooks and pencils, so we took up a collection and went on a shopping expedition. In addition to the requested items, we bought toothbrushes and toothpaste and four soccer balls. As you can imagine, the balls were a huge hit, prompting impromptu soccer and volleyball games. The headmaster had been the sole overseer of the twenty boys in his care, having only recently hired a cook to help out. Clearly, the need was great, and our small contribution most appreciated.

From the chorten in the courtyard, Buddha is always watching.

The Food Quandary, Cows and Yaks

Some of us like a bit of spice in our food, others not so much. So Ugyen has briefed the kitchens at our hotels to tone down the spice for Western palates, which is a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying the noodles, fried rice and soup. Not to sound pejorative, but the chicken, always served in a tasty sauce, had to have been cut up with a chainsaw!

One of the more fascinating beverages is butter tea. Imagine drinking a cup of melted butter mixed with black tea… my first cup was my last!

As we negotiate the narrow winding roads through the snow-capped mountains, we often see cows grazing by the roadside. It’s anyone’s guess where their barns are; and since there’s very little shoulder between the road and the abyss below, I can’t imagine how they get to where they belong.

One day we stopped at a little shack shop at a place I called Yak Junction because of the many yaks ambling along the highway and nibbling on grass and weeds. We all bought beautiful shawls made from baby yak wool, softer than you can imagine, from the lady weaving in the sun.

Baby yak
Mama and baby


Venturing Into the Kingdom of the Dragon

The remote and landlocked kingdom of Bhutan is perched on the shoulder of India on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, with Tibet to the north. A rare clear day flying in offered views of Mt. Everest.

I had read that landing in Paro is a hair-raising experience, which I suppose it could be during bad weather. On approach we arced closely around a forested mountainside with a shawl of clouds. Paro is not the capital, but is close to Thimpu, where we spent our first two nights; Paro has the only sufficient flat terrain to accommodate runways for big jets.

We met our local guide, Ugyen, and driver, Top Gey,, with whom we will spend the next ten days. Top Gey will prove to be extraordinarily skilled behind the wheel, as we will learn when we venture into the mountains and countryside.

Our first of countless temple visits is in Thimpu, This workshop will be all about shooting faces — and dzongs and prayer flags.

The monks at the monastery in Thimphu range in age from about ten to infinity. The young boys are as rambunctious as 10-12 year-olds at home are, they are just garbed in red robes. I had had a vision of devout young men praying — but no!

At the southernmost edge of the city, a giant (169- foot) sitting Buddha is the city’s most famous landmark. Inside are another 100,000+ small gold and brass Buddha figures. The Buddha Dordenma was erected to honor the king’s 60th anniversary in 2010. in his forehead is a giant diamond.

The next morning we returned for more artistic shots of the Buddha.

I have a lot more to catch up on when we move on to our last hotel this afternoon, so stay tuned.

Peaceful Music

A young woman plays the khim in the hotel lobby. Peaceful, relaxing music for washing stress away. And forgetting the debilitating heat outside.

First Day in Bangkok

After a terrific night’s sleep, I am totally acclimated to the time change. But adjusting to the enervating heat is something else entirely. When Barbara and I set out this morning, the air temperature was 85, but the “feels like“ temp was 95!

We managed a short trip on the metro with the intent to visit the Royal Palace, but were persuaded by an enterprising local to get there by tuktuk and see some other sites along the way. We breezed quickly through the Wat Indharaviharn with its enormous Standing Buddha — 32 meters tall. This is only a third class wat, but the Marble Temple, our next stop, is one of the city’s most beautiful and popular with visitors. Its steeply pitched layered roof lines are intricately tiled, with graceful finials reaching heavenward. Smaller outbuildings are covered with intricately carved Carrara marble trimmed in gold.

(I can’t seem to upload the Standing Buddha image, but he’s not that handsome anyway.)

Wat Saket, home to the Lucky Buddha, is some 700 years old; people leave tributes asking him to fulfill their wishes. I asked the attendant there how many wats (temples) there are in Bangkok, and was surprised to learn there are 800; but even more astonishingly, there are 28,000 in all of Thailand!

The heat was really getting to Barbara, so we asked our driver to take us to the Royal Palace, which was where we wanted to go in the first place, so we could wrap up our tour. We learned to our dismay that this final stop was where he would leave us — not back to where we started our tour. We were able to cool off in a sort of underground auditorium that seemed to be where tour groups gathered. Once we headed for the entry, however, I was busted for wearing cropped pants, so that was that. (The guidebooks caution not to wear shorts, sleeveless shirts or sandals, nothing about crops.) We caught a different tuktuk back to the Banyan Tree Hotel, our little oasis away from the frenetic city streets, and enjoyed a lovely lunch.

The rest of our traveling companions are arriving late tonight; hopefully we’ll have better sightseeing luck tomorrow, and I’ll figure out why I’m having trouble uploading images.

This is an experiment. Today’s lunch

Away Again!

The long travel drought is over! Aside from a week in Biloxi in January, it’s been six months since I’ve had any adventures to write about. But that’s about to change: I’m awaiting my flight from Boston to Hong Kong, then on to Bangkok to meet up with friends. After a quick visit there we’ll connect with our photographer leader, Bryan, and will all go to Bhutan for ten days. A short rest in Phuket will wind up the trip.

I expect Bangkok to be noisy, hot and crowded, and Bhutan, by contrast, to be serene, cool and remote. I’m trying new technology for my blog this time, untethered from my laptop, and don’t know how it will go. Stay tuned here — it will take me a couple of days to get to Bangkok and get connected.

Adventures await!

One Last Day in Milano

I spent my last full day in Milan immersed in the Duomo. The day was bleak, so my images aren’t spectacular, but at least the rain stayed away. I took a so-called Fast Track tour, which I highly recommend, as you buy your ticket online, then meet your guide beside the entry at your appointed time, skipping the line of folks waiting to buy tickets and get in. It also allows you to take the elevator to the terraces, though you then must climb to the rooftop and eventually walk all the way down.

The cathedral, as you can imagine, is full of art, sculpture, stained glass, symbolism — a sensory overload that makes it impossible to remember everything shared by the guide — six centuries of history in ninety minutes. Construction began in 1386, with the apse at the rear and continuing toward the front, the Napoleon Façade, dedicated to himself in 1814. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the finishing touches were added. It’s dedicated to the Nativity of St. Mary, and on its surmounting spire is the golden Madonnina, at over 300 feet high.

The major patrons of the project were the Visconti and Sforza families, whose family crests are prominently displayed in stained glass and bas relief. When the decision was made to use Condoglia marble as the construction material, it was the Viscontis who owned the quarry on Lake Maggiore who supplied the pink stone. Sadly, air pollution and acid rain cause the marble to crumble, so preservation efforts are continuous. As our guide pointed out, you will never see the Duomo without scaffolding somewhere. The marble is stunning, especially the parts that have been recently cleaned, with grey, pink and ivory striations. Notice in the image below left how the pattern is matched. What awesome craftsmanship!

Inside, one of the first statues to greet you is that of the disciple St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive and then beheaded for converting the king of Armenia to Christianity.

Fifty-two statues line the nave, each bearing a unique decoration.

Since most people of the time could not read, the acres of stained glass recount Bible stories to the faithful. The church has a precious relic, a nail supposedly from Jesus’ crucifixion, that is stored in the uppermost reaches of the nave ceiling. Each September the Archbishop is spirited up in a private elevator to take down the relic and do what with it I don’t really know! But it goes back up after whatever ritual is performed.

The gigantic organ has 15,800 pipes, the largest measuring more than nine meters in length(over 30 feet) and the smallest only a few centimeters. Imagine tuning it! Another interesting interior feature is the sundial, which is a simple piece of bronze embedded in the floor, marked by astrological signs. A tiny oculus in the ceiling captures the sunlight at noon on the summer and winter solstices, shining directly on the bronze strip.

The tiny five-person elevator whisks you up to the terraces in 25 seconds. I couldn’t help but think what a boring job the elevator operator has…while most jobs have their ups and downs, he has more than most. It’s hard to describe my first impression on reaching this midpoint to the top of the structure. It was like being in a fantasyland of carved marble, with gargoyles staring and carved figures and decoration on every surface. Further on, a series of stairs leads you to the rooftop. It’s remarkable to think how all this artistry was accomplished. Did they tote the marble up here and carve the figures in situ, or was the carving done below and the figures hoisted up?

My ticket also allowed access to the Museo del Duomo. Inside are hundreds of artifacts, including some original sculptures displayed here to protect them from the elements. The rooms are kept very dark, with spotlights on the pieces, and descriptive plaques are mounted close to the floor, making it virtually impossible for me to read what I was looking at. Nonetheless, it was a monumental collection.

There were dozens of bas reliefs.

After all the churches I’ve visited on this trip, this was a fitting and unique ending.

Home tomorrow, and I must say I’m ready for it, though this has been a memorable trip.

Two Days in Milano

My hotel in Milan, the Rosa Grand, is just behind the famous Duomo in Piazza Fontana. My goals on this first afternoon were to get oriented, find lunch and pinpoint a place for dinner. Since I had done an abysmally poor job of planning for these last few days of my trip, I also spent a bit of time figuring out what I wanted to see. My big planning fail was not getting a ticket to see DaVinci’s Last Supper, which must be done well in advance.

First, of course, was the Duomo, a massive Gothic structure that dominates the immense piazza. I snagged a ticket for a guided tour on Monday, and also plan to visit the museum, so will have more to say about it later. But for now, a few facts.

It is the fifth largest Christian church in the world, surpassed only by St. Peter’s in Rome, Our Lady of Aperecida in Brazil, St. John the Divine in New York (who knew?) and Seville’s cathedral in Spain.

It is decorated with more statues than any other building in the world: 3400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures.

Construction began in 1386 using terra cotta stone, but given the grand designs for the structure, pink-hued white marble from Lake Maggiore was used instead. Nearly 80 architects worked on the design over the centuries.

In the end, I skipped lunch, had an early dinner and returned to the piazza for a few night shots.

I woke Sunday to rain, the first I’ve seen in nearly six weeks in Europe. But it wasn’t pouring, and my hotel doorman had a plentiful supply of umbrellas, so off I went to the Pinoteca Ambrosiana, a treasure trove of Renaissance paintings founded on 1607 by Federico Borromeo. There is also a library featuring drawings from Leonardo’s notebooks and some 30,000 books and 15,000 manuscripts, including the Codex Atlanticus, a 12-volume set of Leonardo’s drawings and writings. Unfortunately, its bookstore was closed, so I couldn’t browse there. About twenty of his sketches from the notebooks are on display, with his characteristic backward handwriting.

My final stop of the day was La Scala, the world-famous opera house, which is only a few blocks from Piazza del Duomo. It’s not currently opera season, but the museum is open and you can go into the boxes overlooking the theater.

Auditorium Chandelier

The museum, divided into seven rooms, has an impressive collection of paintings, busts of composers like Rossini, Verdi and Puccini, and an entire room dedicated to the prima donnae who graced the stage during the opera house’s golden age in the mid-19th century. Franz Liszt’s piano, recently restored, is the centerpiece in one of the rooms. La Scala has an app with audio tours that is very helpful.

A pretty full day in spite of the rain — including an overview of the city on the Hop-on-Hop-off Bus. One more day and my Italian adventure comes to an end.