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text 2019-11-30 22:52
24 Festive Tasks: Door 7 - International Day for Tolerance: Task 4

I've been lucky enough to have been able to visit a fair number of World Heritage Sites already -- I don't explicitly go out to "collect" visits to them, but whenever I'm traveling and one of these sites is in the vicinity, I'll at least try to include it in my plans.


Of the places I have not visited yet, two are at the very top of my list: Lillelara's pick, Agkor (Wat), and ... Machu Picchu.  And however much I might be interested in pretty much any other place in the world, if it comes down to "one -- and one only", as you might have guessed from my post about that long-ago trip to Mexico and Guatemala, anything "Precolumbian civilizations" will virtually always win the day.  Especially if it's the capital of one of the most legendary and powerful Precolumbian empires (that of the Incas), is acutely in danger of vanishing forever if its protection is not jacked up something sharpish, and has got this sort of breathtaking a location ... I mean, just look at it!


From the UNESCO website:

"Machu Picchu stands 2,430 m above sea-level, in the middle of a tropical mountain forest, in an extraordinarily beautiful setting. It was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height; its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The natural setting, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, encompasses the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.


Embedded within a dramatic landscape at the meeting point between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is among the greatest artistic, architectural and land use achievements anywhere and the most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilization. Recognized for outstanding cultural and natural values, the mixed World Heritage property covers 32,592 hectares of mountain slopes, peaks and valleys surrounding its heart, the spectacular archaeological monument of “La Ciudadela” (the Citadel) at more than 2,400 meters above sea level. Built in the fifteenth century Machu Picchu was abandoned when the Inca Empire was conquered by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. It was not until 1911 that the archaeological complex was made known to the outside world.


The approximately 200 structures making up this outstanding religious, ceremonial, astronomical and agricultural centre are set on a steep ridge, crisscrossed by stone terraces. Following a rigorous plan the city is divided into a lower and upper part, separating the farming from residential areas, with a large square between the two. To this day, many of Machu Picchu’s mysteries remain unresolved, including the exact role it may have played in the Incas’ sophisticated understanding of astronomy and domestication of wild plant species.


The massive yet refined architecture of Machu Picchu blends exceptionally well with the stunning natural environment, with which it is intricately linked. Numerous subsidiary centres, an extensive road and trail system, irrigation canals and agricultural terraces bear witness to longstanding, often on-going human use. The rugged topography making some areas difficult to access has resulted in a mosaic of used areas and diverse natural habitats. The Eastern slopes of the tropical Andes with its enormous gradient from high altitude “Puna” grasslands and Polylepis thickets to montane cloud forests all the way down towards the tropical lowland forests are known to harbour a rich biodiversity and high endemism of global significance. Despite its small size the property contributes to conserving a very rich habitat and species diversity with remarkable endemic and relict flora and fauna.





Tourism itself represents a double-edged sword by providing economic benefits but also by resulting in major cultural and ecological impacts. The strongly increasing number of visitors to the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu must be matched by an adequate management regulating access, diversifying the offer and efforts to fully understand and minimize impacts. A larger appropriate and increasing share of the significant tourism revenues could be re-invested in planning and management. The planning and organization of transportation and infrastructure construction, as well as the sanitary and safety conditions for both tourists and new residents attracted by tourism requires the creation of high quality and new long-term solutions, and is a significant ongoing concern.


Since the time of inscription consistent concerns have been expressed about ecosystem degradation through logging, firewood and commercial plant collection, poor waste management, poaching, agricultural encroachment in the absence of clear land tenure arrangements, introduced species and water pollution from both urban waste and agro-chemicals in the Urubamba River, in addition from pressures derived from broader development in the region. It is important to remember that the overall risks are aggravated by the location in a high altitude with extreme topography and weather conditions and thus susceptibility to natural disasters. Continuous efforts are needed to comply with protected areas and other legislation and plans and prevent further degradation. There is also great potential for restoring degraded areas."


All images in this post from the UNESCO website:
(c) Silvan Rehfeld, Geoff Steven, and Ko Hon Chiu Vincent


(Task: If you were offered an all-expenses-paid trip to one (one only!) of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, which one would you pick (and why)?)



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text 2019-11-05 19:45
24 Festive Tasks: Door 1 - Día de los Muertos / All Saints' Day: Task 4

Task: Do you have any traditions or mementos of happy memories of a loved one that you feel like sharing?


OK -- I decided to keep it topical for this task and talk about a trip to Mexico and Guatemala that my mom, my BFF (Gaby), my "cousin in law once removed" (I'm pretty sure that's wrong; anyway, he's the brother of my eldest cousin's husband) and I took almost exactly 25 years ago.


There are many things I remember from that trip; not least, of course, the many amazing places we visited.  Of the "people memories", two things stand out in particular, and both of them have to do with Gaby.


She was born with several disabilities, which even in daily life fills me with constant awe at the way in which she not only manages situations that for the rest of us are perfectly normal but to her involve a challenge, but she also does more than her share of things that constitute a challenge to most people (e.g., her day job requires her to take trips to parts of the world that are politically unstable and / or infrastructurally challenged, and where travel requires quite a bit of organization even under the best of condititions, not even taking into account her special needs).  We've known each other since high school, so I know this sort of achievement did not always come easily to her but was hard-fought for; by dint of experience (not least, the experience of practically growing up with major surgery, sometimes yearly or even several times per year, from her earliest childhood on), the experience that sometimes surgery can fail and make things even worse than they have been before, as well as sheer stubbornness and learning how to balance a flat-out refusal of the notion "I can't do this" with situations that she just has to accept, even if she'd very much like to change them.


And I'd like to believe our trip to Mexico and Guatemala was a major step on that ladder of challenging herself to do things she previously might not have thought that she could do.


Not even the trip as such -- we had traveled together before (including visits to Monument Valley and other places in the Southwestern U.S.) and she had, by that time, also repeatedly traveled alone.  But quite apart from her other special needs, e.g. at airports, Mexican and Guatemalan national parks and historic sites aren't (or at the time, at least, weren't) exactly primed to be visited by wheelchair; and lest you say, well, that primarily sounds like a challenge to the person pushing, not the one being pushed (which undoubtedly it is, too), I'll invite you to sit down in a wheelchair for just a couple of minutes and have someone push you over rough, uneven ground made up of gravel, loose earth, spiky stones, grassy patches, puddles, potholes, and the like.  Gaby had to endure this for extended periods on a practically daily basis, and on that sort of ground there is only so much we could do to at least spare her the worst patches.  (Of course, her wheelchair was showing the effects after a while, too: We got to a point where airline employees started mumbling things like "no responsibility" at its mere sight, and we had to ensure them that "it's OK, we know what it looks like and how that came about -- we won't try to offload this one on you" to get them to even accept to load it.)


But, of course, one of the stand-out feature of Mexico's and Guatemala's historic sites are ... pyramids.  And while Gaby doesn't need her wheelchair to get around all the time, she does need crutches to walk -- and that, surely, would have limited her to admiring all those Aztec and Mayan pyramids from below, and put the notion of joining all us other visitors in climbing the pyramids quite beyond her, right?






After she had let herself be talked into trying one of the smaller pyramids in Teotihuacán on one of the first days of our trip (see above photo on the left -- incidentally one of my all-time favorite photos of the two of us together), she had her crowning moment of glory climbing about two thirds of the way up the Great Pyramid at Chichén-Itzá (the Temple of Kukulkán, aka El Castillo) later in our trip (see above photo on the right).  She didn't make it all the way to the top, and given how execrably steep those steps are, who knows what that was ultimately good for -- but it definitely was one of those "reset your personal boundaries" achievements that stay with you, and with everybody else who has witnessed it, forever after.


So -- Gaby and the pyramids.  That is one thing I will always remember about that trip.  (And of course, Gaby's wheelchair and its transformation into a cross country vehicle.)


The other incident (ultimately involving all four of us) occurred at the beginning of the final section of the trip, which we were spending in Cancún.  We had built the trip to Guatemala into the whole thing so as to fly to Flores (the closest town and airport to the Tikal Mayan site) from Cancún -- there used to be direct flights going both ways at the time *and* you were allowed to book one-way trips -- and to return to Cancún via Guatemala City and Mexico City at the end of the Guatemala leg of our tour. 


Tikal, Guatemala: On top of Pyramid IV, the national park's highest structure -- Gran Plaza (the photo in the upper row is taken from the top of the pyramid in the left photo below) -- and the four of us, on the steps of one of the pyramids in Gran Plaza


For some reason -- IIRC because she had made her own flight arrangements via a different travel agency -- Gaby ended up on different flights than the rest of us on the return trip to Cancún, so since this was a few years before the advent (or at least, the widespread use) of mobile phones, the rest of us spent the better part of the day worrying whether she had made it to Cancún alright after we had seen her off at Guatemala City airport.


As it turned out, Gaby had not only gotten to Cancún perfectly well, she'd also had had time to have dinner and a tequila aperitif by the time we got there at last, in turn.  Well, we sort of took our cue from her when we sat down for our own dinner later that evening -- with Gaby joining us of course ... and the rest of the evening took a turn which had the wait staff (amazingly the same people both that night and the next morning -- I wonder how many hours of sleep those poor people actually got) greeting us with wide grins when we came down for breakfast the next morning and inquire "Tequila?" ... instead of asking whether we wanted tea or coffee.


("Tequila?" has been a running joke with Gaby and me ever since.)


Unfortunately, no photos of that evening survive -- of course, in the days of mobile phones, such a thing could no longer possibly happen ... but here's us toasting the New Year earlier during the trip, while staying at an amazing place named Hacienda Cocoyoc near Puebla (which has been one of my all-time favorite hotels ever since that trip, and one I'd dearly love to return to one day):




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