Friday, October 28, 2011

temples and volcanoes :: indonesia

a few weeks ago i boarded a plane to bali, in search of a nice relaxing vacation. i flew korean air and i was blown away how nice it was. nicest flight attendants, clean and crisp (they clean the bathroom every hour), good food, great movies and amenities. among other things, they give you a pair of slippers. and this is just on coach.

i love bali. every time i come to this island, i'm amazed by the beautiful temples, the incredible flower creations, the aesthetics. and who wouldn't love to be pampered in the spas, where you soak in flower petal filled baths while being served delicious fruit juices. i spent my days eating the best organic food, laying by the pool, taking leisurely walks in the rice paddies and scouring the craft stores of ubud. sounds heavenly? it was. but my ability to do nothing only lasts for a few days, i grew restless and to remedy the ants in the pants, i headed for java.

the island of java is the main island of indonesia. i have long been dreaming about seeing borobudur, the ancient buddhist temple with a mysterious history comparable only to that of machu picchu. and i was also excited to see the most active volcanoes on earth, although i was also hoping that they wouldn't erupt while i was there.

nothing prepared me for the mighty site of borobudur, the scale of it is astonishing. the first rays of the rising sun cast a golden light on the temple and you could feel each carved story come alive as our guide explained the details. each lovely buddha statue radiated calmness and peace, even the hoards of tourist couldn’t disturb the serenity that came over me.

seeing the volcanoes is an equally memorable experience, although entirely for different reasons. there is that constant unease walking up to the crater of an active volcano, trudging in knee deep ash wondering if it’s going to erupt. then there is that recurring gag reflex from the sulfuric smell that always reminds me of rotten eggs. and standing a few feet from a cauldron is as fascinating as mortifying, as the black water bubbles and steams, all you wish for is that nobody accidentally push you over the edge. i’m glad i had a chance to witness the power of nature, but i don’t feel the need to do it again. ever.

at the end of my two weeks vacation, i was ready for a new adventure and seoul was waiting, just a few hours flight away.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

my first stan :: uzbekistan

to say that i didn't know much about uzbekistan is an understatement. trading cities like samarkand, bukhara have always sounded incredibly exotic to me. not to mention the allure of the silk road which crossed uzbekistan for centuries and the resulting richness of artisanship. so when i saw the uzbek artisans at the santa fe international folk art market, i decided that it was time to get on a plane to see the country for myself.

uzbekistan is a strange mixture of glorious old monuments from centuries ago, and less glorious but equally spectacular social realist soviet style buildings and city structure. throw in a strong persian heritage and various other cultural influences and you get the present mix. the country became part of russia in the 19th century and later the soviet union and that influence is visible at every step. the word that kept coming to me was gaudy, the wide avenues, the enormous buildings, the imposing monuments, they all stand testament to the lasting but certainly questionable achievements of the communist era and the current president's grandiose ambitions. judging from the welcoming and peaceful attitude of the locals, one could easily forget that since independence this country is ruled with an iron hand and dubious methods of its president.

never have i been invited to a stranger's home within the first few hours of arriving to a foreign country. but that's what happened here and during the following weeks the invitations kept coming. the visits always involved huge amounts of food, each course tastier than the next and all my host families were wonderfully hospitable and generous.

visiting samarkand and bukhara lived up to all those romantic ideas i had about them. they are rich with stunning architecture and at times i just stood in awe thinking what these cities must have been like in the height of their glory. seeing all the craftsmanship also didn't disappoint.  the textile art, woodcarving and pottery was superb, although i'm still partial to the suzani embroidery, which is unique to this region.

while a couple of weeks was not nearly enough to explore uzbekistan, it certainly gave me a taste of the region. i loved being there and would be happy to spend some more time in this small but interesting country as well as visit some of the other "stans".