I’m a planner. For me, figuring out the details of a trip is just as much fun as the actual travel. But not surprisingly, I discovered that the most meaningful experiences are often the unexpected ones.
When I was planning my big trip for this summer, I was just focusing on the logistics. I was starting my month long journey with a two and half week trip to Kenya and Tanzania with my husband. From there, I was heading to Europe for another two weeks.
Our African safari was through a tour company with all the details pre-planned for me, but I decided to add two days on the island of Zanzibar at the tail end which I was planning myself. After our African experience, my husband was heading home to the States and I was heading to the Czech Republic for a conference. I needed to get us from Zanzibar back to Nairobi to catch our respective flights. Then, once I reached Prague, I was planning on continuing for a few days in Krakow, Poland which was just across the border from my conference destination in Ostrava in the Czech Republic. Figuring out the flights, trains, hotels, sights – it was all the type of travel logistics puzzle that I thrive on. What did not occur to me was the concentrated cultural diversity that I would be experiencing in a very short amount of time.
Day 1 – Zanzibar to Nairobi to Doha
In Zanzibar I discovered a unique mix of Indian, Arabic, European and African influences. The island’s Muslim heritage was clearly visible in how people dressed – men wore a short brimless hat called a kufi and women always had their head covered, but it was usually with brightly colored head scarves. The early morning call to prayer acted as my alarm clock. The island is a popular tropical tourism destination with numerous high end resorts to choose from and mile after mile of soft white sandy beaches. In contrast, the narrow maze of lanes in historic Stone Town is evidence of the island’s Arabic roots.
My senses were constantly accosted by the contrast of the modern and the traditional. The spires of the cathedral next to a mosque minaret, all towering over the rusty metal roofs that cover Stone Town’s buildings. A beautiful upscale resort on the beach next to a one room thatched hut. A BMW driving by a cow pulling a wagon hauling road construction material. The Toyota minivan taxi that was much too big for just the two of us, in contrast with the modified flatbed trucks that were used as buses by the locals to get around, and were so full that men hung off the backs.
After our two days in Zanzibar, we had a mid-morning flight that took us from Zanzibar to Nairobi, Kenya. In a little over an hour, we left the tropical sand and turquoise waters of this semi autonomous island culture and landed back in the heart of East Africa.
With a five hour layover in Nairobi, I killed some time in the Duty Free shops where I bought Kenyan coffee and spices packaged in decorative bags made of the same type of fabric that is worn by the nearby Maasai tribes.
Two weeks earlier we had visited a Maasai village as part of our African safari tour. Speaking excellent English, the grandson of the village chief welcomed our group warmly into his family’s home. The village and its 160 members were all the family and descendants of the 106 year old chief and village founder.
During the visit, the young men and young women took turns doing a traditional dance. Then we were shown around the village and into the homes. The culture is polygamous, and the houses are built by the women and belong to the wife. The houses were made of mud and thatch and were not particularly large. Inside, the house had just the basic necessities: two sleeping areas (one for the adults and one for the children) separated by partial walls and a small cooking area in the center. Since there were only a few small openings in the walls that acted as windows, the inside was almost totally dark.
After the village, we stopped at a nearby school to donate a few school supplies. The classroom that we visited was pretty barren with just a large blackboard and basic wooden benches for the students. I was amazed at how eagerly the boys accepted the pens I handed out, as eagerly a if I was giving them chocolate.
The visit to the Maasai village and school certainly challenged my notions of basic needs. These were cultural experiences that were the most foreign to my own that I had ever encountered. Seeing a thriving way of life that was so completely different from mine made me question whether I needed a lifestyle that was filled with so many material things.
From Nairobi, my husband and I were both flying Qatar Airways to our separate destinations. But first we had a Middle East connection and overnight layover at the Doha airport.
The six hour flight from Nairobi got us into the Doha airport around 11:30 at night. The Doha airport has a convenient hotel within the secured area of the arrivals terminal, so all we had to do was find it, do a quick check in and hit the pillows for a good – albeit short – night’s sleep.
Day 2 – Doha to Prague
Unfortunately, my only Qatar experience was the few hours I had in Doha’s International Airport. In many ways, it reminded me of my other Middle East travels to Dubai earlier this year. The airport was big, clean, modern, high tech and very busy with both international and local travelers. As in Dubai, it seemed that the majority of the workers at the airport were from somewhere else other than Qatar.
The locals certainly seemed to make use of their airport however – many couples and families were flying to parts unknown. The young couple that sat next to me on the plane to Prague seemed to be typical of the Qatar travelers I had seen throughout the airport. The young women was quite elegantly presented. Yes, she was covered from head to toe, but her hijab was adorned with subtle bling, accessorized with a high end purse, heeled black patent sandals and expensive jewelry and her face was beautifully made up. To say that I felt very frumpy sitting next to her in my travel stretch pants, comfy shirt, no make up and travel back pack would be an understatement.
Another six hour flight, and I was in central Europe by 1 PM local time and had the rest of the day to enjoy Prague’s beauty once again.
Almost 30 years after the fall of the iron curtain, Prague has risen out of its communist ashes and has transformed itself into one of Europe’s top tourism destinations. And for good reason. Its central historic core is compact, walkable and extremely photogenic. Prague had the fortune to be spared heavy bombing during WWII which preserved centuries of diverse architectural styles. Add to that a reputation for great beer as well as still being a relatively inexpensive destination (as compared to other parts of Europe), and it’s no surprise that Prague’s Old Town was over run with tourists on the July weekend that I was passing through.
This was my third visit to this lovely city, so I was not focusing on seeing any of the major sights. I just wanted to wander, check out a sight or two I had not seen before, and in general, just enjoy the ambiance.
Prague is often referred to as the “City of 100 spires” because of its many beautiful towers, churches and cathedrals. Interestingly though, on two separate tours I was told that about 80% of the current Czech population has no specific religious faith. Yet Prague continues to restore and venerate many of the heritage sites that were part of its once thriving pre-WWII Jewish population.
At one time, Prague’s Jewish quarter was the largest in Europe and was also one of the oldest having been founded in 1096. While the buildings of Prague may have survived WWII, the Jewish population did not survive the war’s Holocaust. The Jewish Quarter is now a protected UNESCO heritage site and one of the biggest tourism draws in the city. Some of Europe’s oldest synagogues are open to visitors as restored museums (and sometimes, also as a concert hall). The heritage site also protects one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. It is interesting to note that here, it is the men that need to have their heads covered out of respect when they visit some of these religious sights.
I had visited the Jewish Quarter on my previous trip to Prague, but not the restored 110 year old Jerusalem Synagogue. So, this time, I took a quick tour to admire its unique blend of Moorish and Art Nouveau architecture. Anywhere else, this building design may have seemed out of place. But in Prague, the blend of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles seem to fit seamlessly together and are the individual ingredients that make this city the visual treat that it has become.
After one final beautiful sunset view of the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle, I boarded an overnight train that transported me to Krakow while I slept.
Day 3 – Prague to Krakow
As I slept, the train chugga-chugged its way from west to east across the breath of the Czech Republic. At some point toward morning, we crossed that invisible man made barrier that marks the line between two countries. Geographically, there is no distinction, but culturally, there is a big difference.
I arrived in Krakow in the quiet of the early morning and headed directly to the historic city center. Like Prague, Krakow’s historic core is compact and centers around a large open square that becomes the focal point for visitors and locals alike. But unlike the Czech Republic, 96% of Poland’s population is Roman Catholic, and nowhere is that more evident than here in Pope John Paul II’s home town.
It did not take long to see evidence of this strong religious conviction as I entered the old city through the North Tower’s Florian Gate. Within the walls of the gate was an altar type scene with a painting called “The Mother of God” surrounded by flowers, candles and a collection box for the poor.
Krakow is known as the City of Churches and has over 120 active catholic churches. Here, the church spires are not just decorative as their bells ring out for daily mass. I saw nuns walking about the streets dressed in full habits – a sight I had not seen since my elementary school days many, many years ago.
Wawel Castle sits atop the city’s highest point and for centuries it was the home of Poland’s rulers. Today the castle is a museum and the ruling royalty is long gone. The town’s current “royalty” and favorite son is Karol Wojtyla who served as archbishop at Wawel Cathedral before eventually becoming Pope John Paul II. The buildings where he once lived are now museums. You can’t miss them because they have huge photos of the pope on their facades.
As I was taking a break at one of the cafes in Krakow’s main square, I reflected on these last three days. Never in my previous travels had I passed through so much cultural diversity in such a short amount of time – diversity in every form. From the food to the clothes to the scenery to the architecture and especially to the religious beliefs, each destination was distinctly and uniquely and wonderfully different. And at each location, everyone was content with their lifestyle and comfortable in their own skin.
Yet in all that diversity, there was also much in common and signs of globalization were everywhere. Couples held hands, parents carried their small children, boys kicked soccer balls, girls giggled as they walked together in a group. I saw the Maasai using smart phones. The historic building where we stayed in Stone Town was a Hilton Hotel. The Doha airport had a Starbucks and a Burger King. I heard more American accents in Prague than Czech. And as I entered Krakow through the city’s historic old gate, the first businesses I saw were a McDonalds and a Costa Coffee. And everywhere, English was the international language for tourists.
I love to travel, and it is experiencing the uniqueness of each location that thrills me the most. I did not specifically plan for such a concentrated exposure to different cultures, but am especially thankful that I had the chance to experience this serendipitous byproduct of all my planning.
At the same time, the more I travel to more and more “exotic” destinations, the more aware I become that at our core, we are all really not that different.
Thanks for visiting.