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May 2018

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Travel Destination :: Mostar Bosnia

I did not quite know what to expect when I agreed to visit Mostar. This is a beautiful town surrounded by modest mountains, yet the physical scars of the 90’s war are still quite evident. I would also add in sobering. The bridge in the photo above was demolished during the war years. After the fighting ended, the pieces of the bridge were literally drudged out of the water, and the bridge remarkably rebuilt piece by piece. What a fascinating fete.

Remembrances can be found throughout a stroll in Mostar, some very touching.

I look forward to a return to Mostar in the future not only to discover more but with hopes of seeing this town flourishing. Add Mostar to your travel destination list especially if you are touring Sarajevo or Dubrovnik.

As shown in the images above, the Neretva River is the heart of Mostar. The river spanned by the delicate arch of Mostar’s Stari Most is the River Neretva. It is one of the main waterways of the Balkans, and much of it – 129 of its 143 miles – is in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the last 14 miles are in Croatia). Twisting its way down through the Dinaric Alps, it is powerful enough to support four hydro-electric power plants. These include the Jablanica Dam at Konjic, which was created in 1953, but not without controversy – the consequent Lake Jablanicko swallowed up swathes of fertile agricultural land.

Mostar has long been known for its old Turkish houses and Old Bridge, Stari Most, after which it is named. In the 1990s conflict, however, most of the historic town and the Old Bridge, designed by the renowned architect Sinan, was destroyed. The Old Bridge was recently rebuilt and many of the edifices in the Old Town have been restored or rebuilt with the contribution of an international scientific committee established by UNESCO. The Old Bridge area, with its pre-Ottoman, eastern Ottoman, Mediterranean and western European architectural features, is an outstanding example of a multicultural urban settlement. The reconstructed Old Bridge and Old City of Mostar is a symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities.

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For most of my travel years, I’ve been a Europhile and a Londonphile. Travel meant hopping on a train for a day trip outside London, the Eurostar for Paris or a short plane ride to Venice. Then one day I ventured further as I hopped on a plane to Istanbul, then Morocco and my idea of travel changed. There was more than cathedrals, castles and people who looked like me. My curious mind went into overdrive and I loved every minute of the places I was experiencing. I looked at the world differently and wondered what have I been missing?

One more step took me to The Maldives and an island so remote I felt as if I had entered another world. I’m not sure I loved the Maldives, though I liked the idea of being far far away from the world I knew. The Maldives were my first taste of Asia. The experience intrigued me enough to explore more.

A year later I flew LAX to Tokyo and I was transported into a land and culture I immediately fell in love with. My next stop was Bangkok and my affinity grew stronger. Bhutan melted my heart and touched my soul, then I began a love affair with Bali that I’m sure will ever end.

I set this story up now because there are many Asia adventures ahead for this blog. Travel is a progression of sorts. You first go see the sights, then you find there is genuine life away from home and a huge family waiting to welcome you. This is true in all parts of the world. Travel is an education unlike anything found in a textbook.

Everyone learns something different from travelling. When I say travelling, I mean anywhere away from your hometown; any place where no one knows your name.

There are three important factors for me when I travel. One, I mostly travel solo. I learn the most and I have the most interesting experiences when I’m on my own. Two, I leave behind my American and Western way of thinking when I travel; otherwise, I’d be shocked in most places I visit. Three, I travel slow and deep rather than furiously collect passport stamps. I want to touch the souls of the cultures I visit and I want to fully understand them.

When I meet my own criteria for travel, I undoubtedly am in for a travel experience of a lifetime.

How do you approach your own travel adventures?
When did you realize travel is more than a destination?

Destination: Thailand, Tokyo, Bhutan and Bali

When I arrived in Bhutan, I was met by Kuenga; no last name, just Kuenga. No doubt he was just as nervous meeting me as I was to meet him. I didn’t know what to expect from the tiny isolated kingdom, also known as the Last Shangri-La. Prior to arriving I had read the Bhutanese are quiet by nature and shy. I’m a bit reserved myself.

His broad smile, however, told me we would become fast friends, which is a good thing because we were due to be inseparable for three weeks. I was not with a group tour – only Kuenga, Puba (our driver) and myself.

Simply by being in Bhutan, I knew an experience of a lifetime awaited. What I didn’t expect was the reality that Kuenga and I would form an indescribable bond that would lead to a friendship that goes strong today. In fact, he calls me brother and tells me karma from our former lives has brought us together in this life. The idea of karma and connecting again in a new life is a life-changing idea for me. I accept it without question except I’m unsure I understand the notion.

The story really begins directly after leaving the airport. Kuenga asked if I would mind if we stopped by his home. He needed to leave something for his family. Of course, I agreed. I’m always curious to know people’s home life in foreign countries. When we arrived he invited me inside where I met his mother, wife, his brother (who is a Monk), and three children. I’ve never felt so welcome anywhere in my life. Here I am a stranger in their tiny home and they welcomed me as if I was a king. They were overly concerned about my comfort and offered tea and snacks.

After a bit, Kuenga mentioned we should leave to go to the Paro Festival on the grounds of the Dzong. I was happy to follow along tho’ the family wanted me to stay longer. I was the first foreigner in their home and definitely the first American to visit them. I’m unsure if I was simply a novelty or they genuinely enjoyed my company. My memory thinks the latter. We did eventually leave for the festival, though their welcome stayed in my mind.

Shortly after we arrived at the festival, I put my GoPro in Kuenga’s hands. I showed him how to operate it and gave him free reign with regard to what he captured. What could go wrong besides the one time the GoPro flew out the window of the moving car? Nothing. In fact, kudos to GoPro for making their cameras durable! I did not receive the camera back from Kuenga until the day I left the country, so I had no idea whatsoever what was captured.

When I returned home and began looking at the video clips, I saw a lot of Kuenga’s forehead as he leaned over at the beginning of each clip to be sure the camera had started recording. A video mash-up of Kuenga’s forehead could be quite fun. I also saw video footage of Bhutan I would never have captured myself. The video footage was clearly Bhutan through Bhutanese eyes which is touching and beautiful.

At the end of all of the video, Kuenga captured was the best clip of all. A video of his family at home. His brother, mother and children in their home showing us a genuine fascination with the camera. They had never seen a video camera before; nor had they ever been videotaped. I especially love when his mother picks up my book, Celebrating El Paso, and dances tho’ the entire scene makes me a wee bit emotional when I view it.

It wasn’t until a year or so later I learned that Kuenga had never held a video camera in his hands let alone used one. The moment I put the GoPro in Kuenga’s hands was also the first time he had ever held any type of camera. The notion of this astounded me. This is a great example of how westerners take the simplest “things” for granted.

The video includes an intimate look at a Bhutanese family in Paro Bhutan as they experience a video camera for the very first time.

Destination: Bhutan

Calm, quiet, peaceful, simple, majestic, genuine, spiritual, kindness, unaffected, warmth, respectful, storytellers. These are all words I’d use to describe Bhutan and the Bhutanese. There are a few words missing, I know.

Bhutan is called Druk Yul – Land of Thunder Dragon.
Because of the violent and large thunderstorms that whip down through the valleys from the Himalayas, Bhutan is known as the Land of Thunder Dragon. The sparkling light of Thunderbolts was believed to be the red fire of a dragon. The Druk is the Thunder Dragon of Bhutanese mythology and a Bhutanese national symbol. It appears on the flag, holding jewels representing wealth.

The tiny kingdom of Bhutan is nestled high in the Himalayas between China, Nepal and India. To find it on a map you really must search and fly into Paro the plane’s pilot carefully negotiates between mountains taller than you’ve ever seen.
Map Showing Location of Bhutan.

I’ve never been more at peace with everything than when visiting Bhutan. The culture and traditions are genuine; the people warmer than any visitor could ever expect; the landscape towers over life; and the architecture transports you a thousand years back. Nothing is for “show” in Bhutan. What you see is real in every way. There is no pretence and there is no keeping up with anyone else.

Our world changes rapidly, yet while Bhutan progresses, it is a country mostly unaffected by modernity. Bhutan touched my soul immediately and you’ll see me return throughout this blog over and over to the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Video of Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Prayer wheels filled with 10,000 prayers, prayer flags aplenty and a visit to Tiger’s Nest. Trekking through Bhutan is by far the best experience anyone could have while travelling.

Destination: Bhutan

The Gentleman Wayfarer YouTube Channel is continuously updated with inspiring travel videos from around the world.

Travel Destination :: Bhutan

When I look back at my time in Bhutan, I can visualise the vibrant colours – bright reds, oranges, yellows, blues, and greens. These are succinctly evident in the prayer wheels, prayer flags, architecture, and national dress dotted throughout the country. Bhutan is the only truly Buddhist country in existence in today’s world, and the symbols are incorporated genuinely into daily life.

The symbols of Buddhism are not on display for delighted tourists, but instead part of the practice of the daily Bhutanese life. To spin the plethora of prayer wheels is to wish, hope, or pray for good/better health, and that which is most important. A prayer wheel is a spiritual tool for widely distributing loving, compassionate and kind blessings with your positive wishes for yourself, all those you care for, as well as all beings. Just as the wind activates prayer flags with similar blessings and wishes, prayer wheels are activated by turning them clockwise, mostly with one’s own hand. The Lakhor prayer wheels are usually placed completely surrounding a building, such as a temple or a monastery. Sometimes there are up to 108 of these prayer wheels, an auspicious number. One will walk around, circumambulate, clockwise the entire building, turning each prayer wheel…one at a time… every single one of them…to release as many blessings and wishes as possible. Thus, walking clockwise around the building, while turning the prayer wheels clockwise. Prayer wheels are inscribed with the Buddhist compassion mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, on the outside of the wheel, and it is this mantra that facilitates the blessings and wishes. Saying this mantra as one turns prayer wheels will further increase the blessings. In addition, written prayers and sacred texts are placed inside the prayer wheels increasing the blessings and wishes even more. Prayer wheels can be made of metal, wood, stone, leather, or coarse cotton. Aside from the hand, prayer wheels may also be powered by water, such as that one sees along the roads in Bhutan near a natural waterfall. The heat of a candle and wind are other sources of turning prayer wheels.

Colourful prayer flags can be seen throughout the country – in the mountain passes, along with bridges, and even at Tiger’s Nest. Make a wish no matter how grand, or small, with great hope the wish will come true. In the Himalaya they are ubiquitous: Prayer flags adorn chortens, bridges, mani walls, hilltops, you can see them in the streets of big cities and in the remotest places in the mountains: fluttering in the wind, braving the weather.

Printed on them are Buddhist mantras, sutras and prayers, traditionally by woodblock printing. These prayers are carried into the world by the wind and rain, bringing benefits and happiness to those touched by them.

Prayer flags come in five colours: Yellow, green red, white and blue, always in exactly this order and always in sets of multiples of 5. The colours represent the elements from which everything is made:
Blue – Space
White – Air
Red – Fire
Green – Water
Yellow – Earth(in another interpretation the meanings of white and green are swapped)

By putting up prayer flags one can gain merits for the next life. The motivation why they have put up influences the strength of prayers and the virtue generated: putting them up merely to gain merits will, as an egocentric motivation, not generate much virtue. Putting them up for the benefit and happiness of all beings will give them a greater strength.The origin of prayer flags dates back thousands of years, to the ancient Bön in Tibet, who used coloured pieces of cloth in healing ceremonies.

The tall white prayer flags are erected to memorialize those who have passed onto the next life. Seeing these grouped together on the mountainsides was one of the most beautiful scenes I saw while travelling through Bhutan. The sight was a bit sombre, yet majestically serene. It was almost as if the spirits were dancing in the wind letting us know life does indeed go on.

Did you know it is important to hang prayer flags on the right day? It is very important to take note of the dates you hang your prayer flags. If you hang your flags on the wrong astrological dates, you will continually encounter obstacles for as long as the prayer flags last. Check for auspicious dates for hanging prayer flags on the FPMT Web site.

Add Bhutan to your travel destination list. The country is one of the last untouched by our modern world. Do know it is expensive to travel to Bhutan and to be there. All travel expenses must be pre-paid to the Tourism Council of Bhutan without exception.

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One of a kind and the only in the world, The Icelandic Penis Museum is a must visit for those curious about penises. From big boy whales to the mighty walrus and the wee hamster, over 56 species are on display. If you are in search of the human sample, you won’t find one, but you will see plenty of penises in pop culture and art. Who would have guessed?

I was in Iceland to photograph the country’s awe-inspiring landscape with a hope of catching the Northern Lights. I did not seek the Penis Museum, it found me. In fact, it smacked me right in the face while I was walking on Reykjavik’s main street. How’s that for not paying attention? There is a visual for you. Yes, I ran right into a sign and it happened to be an advert for the museum. Far be it from me not to make this overt phallus display a signal that I must visit the novel museum.

Upon entering, of course, you feel as if you’re doing something naughty. Is this porn disguised as a museum? Once inside, the novelty becomes irresistible. Really, an elephant penis? It’s huge and captivating. The novelty is the other visitors who take selfies with various penises throughout the museum. If you plan your own penis selfie, be sure to have a zoom lens when you reach the hamster specimen; it’s minuscule. And the whale penis? If you are insecure about your own member, you’re sure to have envy when you spot the whale.

Do I recommend the penis museum? Yes. The displays are thoughtful, informative and tastefully displayed. Being an open-minded 21st-century gentleman, I think the world is far too uptight about far too many things. A little penis is not going to hurt anyone except perhaps the close-minded. And besides, if the Museum of Sex in New York City can have a Bouncy Castle of Breasts, it’s only right man’s best friend should have a home in Reykjavik.

I have great admiration for the person who thought of the Icelandic Phallological Museum.

Destination: Reykjavik Iceland

A Gentleman Always Writes A Handwritten Note

There’s nothing quite as civilized as a handwritten note. For the recipient, your note is a personal touch that shows you took the time to think of them. We all know we need a lot more benevolence in our self-absorbed world.

I am reminded of this quite often when one of my dearest friends asked me to join her at a Historical Society meeting. Afterwards, she sent me a card by mail with a handwritten note thanking me for taking the time and offering my thoughts for their project.

My friend could have easily done the same thing with an email or text message. But somehow, because she wrote it in a card and mailed it to me, it seemed so much more meaningful and charming. I was touched and it reminded me of the reason to say yes when a friend asks for assistance. My friend might as well have shown up in person and hugged me. This is the feeling I got when I opened her note.

Her thoughtful note was the same as if she had given me a piece of herself, or given me that hug.

I won’t go as far as to say sending an email is thoughtless because it isn’t; however, there is little effort into typing and pressing send. What’s more, emails are far less personal. And text messages – well, text messages really are unacceptable when you want to share something meaningful.

There’s no cut and paste with handwritten notes. There’s something about putting pen to paper with your own personal handwriting that suggests the person gave his undivided attention to you—just for a moment.

Most people only think of a simple thank you note, but there many other types of notes you can send.

◆ Congratulate someone on an accomplishment, however small.
◆ Say that you miss hanging out with them and it’s time to get a drink together.
◆ Tell them about something that made you think of them.
◆ Tell them about an event that’s coming up and see if they want to go with you.
◆ Wish someone well even if you say ‘Have A Great Day.’ Or week.

The more often you send notes for no particular reason, the more handwritten notes will become a habit. And yes, personal notes are a good habit to have. Rather than trying to find an obvious occasion, you’ll send off a quick card here and there. And those “Just Because” notes will no doubt be the ones that are most treasured by the person receiving your thoughtful missive.

Those thoughtfully handwritten “just for the heck of it” notes are often the most appreciated.

◆ There is no need to write the story of your life. Keep your handwritten note short and simple with three sentences or so.
◆ The note should just show that you’re thinking of the person you’re sending it to. In doing so, you’re also showing you’ve taken the effort to write down your thoughts, put the note in an envelope, and mailing it to them.

I write periodically about how to be a gentleman in today’s times.  Simply type “Gentleman” in the search box for more.

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Travel Destination :: Himalaya Mountains In Bhutan

I had no expectations travelling to Bhutan.  I knew the architecture would leave me speechless.  The people I imagined would be nice.  In fact, the Bhutanese are beyond incredible and I love that they love quiet.

It was not until I was high in the Himalayas that I found heaven on earth.  There are mountains, which are majestic in many ways, and then there are the Himalayas.  Only here can you stand higher than you’ve ever been on earth and touch the clouds without reaching high above your head.

On the verge of tears, I stood in awe as the clouds rolled in swirling around my head.  The fog engulfed my entire body making it near impossible to see a foot in front of me.   If it is possible to have a spiritual moment with nature, this was it.

Travelling within Bhutan west to east there is no choice but to negotiate a variety of mountain passes.  Do beware.  There are few straight roads (as in none) and there might be more bumps than your accustomed to.  Bumps and curves are all part of the adventure.  The beauty that awaits you at the top of the world surpasses how you get there.

For an experience of a lifetime, add Bhutan to your travel destination list.  The memories and stories you’ll collect will last a lifetime.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan states this about the environment ::
Bhutan pristine environment, with high rugged mountains and deep valleys, offers ecosystems that are both rich and diverse. Recognizing the importance of the environment, conservation of its rich biodiversity is one of the government’s developments paradigms.

The government has enacted a law that shall maintain at least 60% of its forest cover for all time. Today, approximately 72% of the total land area of Bhutan is under forest cover and approximately 60% of the land area falls under protected areas comprising of 10 national parks and sanctuaries.

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Two of London’s top attractions:  The London Eye and Big Ben (Elizabeth Clock Tower)  As the landscape around the Eye has changed, so too have the vantage points for photographers.

To be honest, as I’ve trundled around this big wheel, from one side of the Thames to the other, and I think – “it’s only a Ferris wheel, what’s the fascination?”  So true.  Such is my cynical mind at work.

London touches my soul and she inspires me to push my limits.  I’m no fan of gentrification though I do appreciate London jumping into the twenty-first century with zeal.   But, when I visualise London with my eyes closed I see cobblestones, the grandeur of Regent Street, the Gentlemanly Jermyn Street, Leadenhall Market and a jovial night at my club.  That said, I do love a walk along the Southbank.

I do have to ask, however, how many ways can you photograph the London Eye?  While you think about my question, you might find the following London Eye facts interesting:

The London Eye had had several names including the British Airways London Eye, Merlin Entertainment’s London Eye, the EDF Energy London Eye, the Coca-Cola London Eye, and it has also been known as the Millennium Wheel.

The London Eye was designed by several architects including Frank Anatole, Nic Bailey, Julia Barfield, Steve Chilton, Malcolm Cook, David Marks, and Mark Sparrowhawk.

On New Year’s Eve, the London Eye was tested without passengers. On February 1st, 2000 it was tested with its first passengers. On March 9th, 2000 the London Eye opened to the public.

The London Eye cost approximately 70 million pounds to build.

The London Eye is 443 feet tall and its diameter is 394 feet.

The London Eye resembles the wheel of a bicycle with tensioned steel cables supporting the wheel’s rim similar to spokes.

The London Eye has 32 air-conditioned and sealed passenger capsules that can hold as many as 25 people. Inside the capsule, passengers can move around or sit in the chairs provided.

Each capsule of the London Eye weighs 10 tonnes.

It takes 30 minutes to ride the London Eye, and does not stop to allow passengers on and off.

The 32 capsules of the London Eye are symbolic with one for each of London’s boroughs. There is no number 13 due to superstitious beliefs so there is a number 33 capsule.

The London Eye in London is symbolic to its people in the same way that the Eiffel Tower is to the people of Paris.

The London Eye is the fourth tallest Ferris wheel in the world today, but it does not even rank in the top 20 tallest structures in London.

Approximately 3.5 million people visit the London Eye each year and it is the U.K.s most popular (paid) tourist attraction.

The London Eye is a popular place for proposals. More than 5000 engagements have begun while riding the London Eye.

From the top of the London Eye on a clear day, it is possible to see Windsor Castle 25 miles away.

The London Eye was not the first giant Ferris wheel constructed in London. In 1895 the Empire of India Exhibition took place in London, for which the Great Wheel was built. It existed until 1907 when it was torn down. More than 2 million people rode the Great Wheel.

Although not the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, the London Eye is the tallest cantilevered observation wheel in the world.

Destination:  London

White Sands in Southern New Mexico is off the beaten path.  You have to know the sand dunes exist and then you must make an effort to get there.  You’ve seen the sea of white in movies, music videos, and ad campaigns.  You may have even seen Brad Pitt’s painful looking photo shoot in GQ Magazine accompanying his redemption article after his split from Angeline Jolie.  If you did see the article, I’m sorry this could have been your introduction to a landscape larger than Brad will ever be.

White Sands always fascinated me on the ground.  I often found myself amongst the dunes when I needed to clear my head, understand the world or to simply take a deep breath.  Someone once told me White Sands touches my soul and I believe this to be true.  The landscape is unforgiving and what seems to be endless waves of white sand dunes amongst the brown Chihuahua Desert in the Tularosa Basin.  There is a purity to the white gypsum sand accentuated by the Sacramento Mountain range in the background.

If you allow it to be true, White Sands brings balance and understanding to an otherwise nonsensical world.  Everything seems to come together and make sense at White Sands.  We need this today, don’t we?

As I was preparing for my book, “El Paso 120: Edge of the Southwest,” I visualized a variety of unique perspectives to photograph this beautiful southwestern landscape.  I’d also visit the area at various times of the day for different lighting situations.  The images I captured were pleasing enough though my mind kept wandering until I decided aerial images of the landscape must be brilliant.  I didn’t know for sure since I had only seen White Sands from a long distance when landing at El Paso’s airport.

So, I asked around.  I knew a pilot who flew me around West Texas on a number of occasions.  Each time we’d fly I’d ask, “Suzie, can you fly me over White Sands?”  “Oh, I don’t know Mark,” she’d reply, “White Sands sits under protected airspace.  We’ll get shot down if I fly us over there.”  Sometimes a gentleman can be persistent, and I am.  After about the fifth time I asked, Suzie, told me she thought she knew someone who could help.  “I’ll call him,” she said.

I didn’t hear more about the possibility of a flight until a few days later when a strange New Mexico phone number popped up on my phone.  It was Kevin who, with a jovial tone, said, “Hey man, I hear you want a ride over White Sands.  When do you want to fly?”  I’m sure I had the biggest smile possible hearing those words, and it took a bit for me to get my answer out.  “How about tomorrow?”  Kevin just chuckled. He told me I had to wait as there is a process to go through to be considered for such a flight.  He told me to be patient and he would keep me up to date on the progress.

After a year of waiting for security clearance, I had the incredible opportunity to fly over White Sands in Southern New Mexico.  The airspace around White Sands is protected due to the nearby military base.  The journey included me and Kevin, the pilot.  Kevin asked if I was up for a bit of adventure and when I said yes, he took off the door of the plane and put a harness on me then secured me to the inside of the plane.  Yes, I not only got to fly over the dunes I love so much, but I also got to hang out of the plane and over the incredible landscape.

Being above and hanging out of a plane with a camera tightly held in my hands offered an entirely new perspective.  My awe stepped up into the stratosphere.  The experience was more than I ever could have visualized.  As the sun rose, the mountains glowed and the sand crystals glistened like I had never seen before.  I got to see the desert floor come to life that morning.  Quite honestly, I didn’t want to land.

My appreciation for White Sands National Monument grew to new heights that morning.  My appreciation for my pilot, Kevin, is even greater.

Some of the aerial images are included in my book – “El Paso 120: Edge of the Southwest.”  For the first time, you can view more of these images right here on the blog and my YouTube Channel.

Destination:  White Sands National Monument

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