Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Review: Planet Backpacker

Do you ever dream of taking a big chunk of time, say six to twelve months, and seeing a bit of the world? Does it seem like an impossible dream? Well, a guy named Robert Downes from Traverse City, Michigan had that dream all his life, and in 2007, he made it a reality. As he traveled through Ireland, England, Western and Eastern Europe, Egypt, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, he posted blog accounts of his trip from about 100 internet cafes. His trip took over four months, and he had many adventures along the way. He traveled by bike, plane, train, boat, camel, and elephant. He camped out some, but mostly stayed at hostels and hotels. He also did some of the rougher parts of the journey with a tour group, but not the swanky groups that most people think of when they travel. After his journey, he used all his internet postings to write a book: “Planet Backpacker.”

This is not backpacking in the sense of hiking the Appalachian Trail, but in the sense that he had to carry everything with him in a pack, including his guitar. My friend Bev gave me this book for my birthday last July, and I finally got to read it a couple of months ago. I really enjoyed his story, and it made me think of the wanderlust in most of us. Unlike most of us however, Mr. Downes did something about it, sacrificing income, comfort, and family ties for nearly half a year to have a grand adventure.

He saw some of the sadder and seamier sides of our species along the way: young girls in Asia living as sexual slaves, people existing in poverty that few of us can even imagine, scam artists, and people living with the after effects of terrible past wars. But for the most part, he met many interesting and friendly people from many different cultures and religious beliefs. Most of them were amazed to meet an American, because it turns out that despite being from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, Americans (and also Canadians) are not prone to travel to foreign lands unless there is a resort or tour involved. Apparently, this is not true of Europeans, Australians, Kiwis, or Israelis.

I enjoyed reading this book. This man made his dream happen, paid the price in some discomfort and loneliness, and had an adventure that he will always remember. At the end of the book, he tells the rest of us how to do it and gives lots of advice, hints, and specific do’s and don’ts. If you like to travel, whether or not you ever think of doing a trip like this, I think you will want to read this book.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

During the trip to Washington, D.C., we stopped by the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It is one of the most beautiful religious sites I have ever seen. The mosaic art work is amazing. There is a huge main church and along the sides, numerous small chapels, each with their own themes. The day I was there was the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, and it was touching to see all of the people of Central and South American descent coming to the special mass, all dressed up and carrying flowers. There was even a mariachi band for the mass!

I took a few photos:

The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Mosaic of Mother and Child

Moasic in the Shrine to Our Lady of Guadeloupe of people coming to see Our Lady

People praying at the Shrine to Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Look at all of the flowers that people brought!

Fairyland at the Botantical Garden

Last weekend(12/12), we were in Washington and went to the National Botanical Gardens, which is just amazing - especially at Christmas. They do these incredible displays where the buildings are all made from plant materials - no wood, metal, or plastic. Some are famous Washington buildings, others are whimsical scenes from nursery rhymes or they have a fairy land theme. I wish I could take my granddaughter to this! Pictures are worth 1,000 words, and so here you go. I'll keep the words short and defer to the photos.
US Supreme Court Building
A train running along the tracks in Fairyland
There was an old lady who lived in a shoe
The homes of the three little pigs, with the wolf approaching
Look at the creativity and artistry in these two settings
A fairy flying in front of a waterfall
Part of the charm of this exhibit is the beautiful trains that run along. Everyone there is just enthralled
A gypsy camp, complete with wagon (right), fire (center) and cottage (left)
The oh so creative caterpillar train, complete with antenna
Old man cactus in the desert exhibit
A beautiful orchid
The rain forest room
The Smithsonian Castle
The Garden's beautiful Christmas tree
The White House
Replica of neighborhood around Capitol Hill
Washington Monument, Reflecting Pool, and, in the distance, the Lincoln Memorial
The US Capitol
The real US Capitol, from just outside the Botanical Garden's entrance