All posts by jmackeylondon

About jmackeylondon

University student in the United States. My blog: Musings in Wanderlust, is about my study abroad this summer.

Amazon Day 4 ~ Peru

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The next morning we had breakfast at 7 am, said goodbye to our cook, headed onto the boat with our backpacks to the small town, and met the van which would bring us back. The second to last stop along the way was an animal shelter. Once the van door opened a monkey came jumping in. At the shelter were pigs, monkeys, and parrots (to name a few). The monkeys were extremely friendly. At one point there was a piglet standing at the closed barn door, showing a desire it wished to enter. The monkey seeing this opened the barn door with its tail and the piglet waltzed in. At one point one of the monkeys was hanging around one of our neck’s as the monkey tried to strangle a cat with its tail, and a dog was biting on the cat’s tail so to rescue it from the monkeys grasp. It is amazing the skills the monkeys have.



The way home we hit as many obstacles as possible. As we left the animal rescue center we got stuck behind a truck which was carrying rocks, with one rock on the verge of hitting our car. We were stuck behind this truck for 45 minutes as it drove slowly. Our van driver tried to drive around it but the truck wouldn’t let us pass. That was until there was another car coming on the opposite way and when the truck stopped to let the other car through our driver rapidly sped passed it.


Our last stop was the town we first stopped at on our journey to the Amazon. The town was packed with people in cultural garb, marching bands, and people making food on the streets. They were celebrating the winter solstice (because it is winter here due to its location below the equator). Most of the population does not celebrate it as pagans and new ageists. Though the origin of celebrating the winter solstice does have its roots in the Inca religion festival of Inti Raymi (more on that in a later post).


Inti Raymi was celebrated on the winter solstice (June 21st). It was a time when the Inca Empire would beg the gods for more daylight. Since the colonization of Peru and its widespread conversion to Catholicism the winter solstice has a new meaning. It is now a celebration of Peruvian and Cusco (the Inca Empire capital) culture. The days leading up to the solstice and several days following are all of celebration in the Cusco region and we were witnessing the middle of it all.Groups of private schools were dressed in their English looking uniforms. Traditional dancers were dressed in bright, festive, flamboyant clothing with instruments in hand. After a 20 minute stop of walking around the unique town to stretch our legs from the long car ride we headed back into our car for the rest of our journey.



Along the mountain roads (which were still the length of the van and had no guardrails) we encountered a 6 year old boy herding his cow. After that a van had broken down on the opposite side of the road. So we had to wait 15 minutes for the van to be moved. We then entered another village and were not allowed to drive along the main route because they too were having celebrations for the winter solstice. So we took a 20 minute detour along tiny roads and curves.


One of the best sights I remember from the drive back was seeing two small brothers play soccer on the yellow-green hills as the sun began its early stage of setting. Next to them was their small, simple hut. They were as happy as could be just enjoying each other’s company, the nature, and the game itself in a majestic setting. And as we were about an hour away from making it back to our hotel our van got a flat tire. One could only laugh at how the drive home was going. All these stops and disadvantages were all part of the journey.


Luckily we were right by a gas station and the problem was fixed within a half hour. Next to the gas station were a few cows with horns were grazing. So we dared one of the girls on the trip to pet and feed the cow-which she did (even though it looked like it was about to charge right at her). The van was eventually fixed and along the way we went back to our hotel by 7 pm-only to await the highlight of the trip: the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu.


The trip to the Amazon was an entire adventure, from zip lining, to riding log rafts, and viewing unique animals in their natural habitats. I am extremely grateful to have had this privilege to see this amazing and beautiful part of the world. Each section of the Amazon and Peruvian wilderness is unique with its own biosphere. It is a breathtaking scene. The adventure comes along with living in Peru and the Amazon for that matter; they are one in the same. Yet it was great to know that the Amazon experience would not be the last-the most intense one of all was yet to come.



Amazon Day 3 ~ Peru


Day 3: We woke up at 5:30 am once again and once again put on life vests. We headed off unto the boats and jetted up the river to a small little sand island to watch the sunrise and try to spot parrots. We were accompanied on the island by a few other people awaiting the same beautiful sights. We saw the mist slowly dissipate as the purple, pink sunlight covered the green trees. Unfortunately we did not see any unique parrots but the view of the sunrise among the mountains was enough for one to wake up early to experience the site. Unfortunately we did not see any parrots or unique animals-but that is the way nature is: on its own time.


We had breakfast and an hour later were geared up for zip lining. I was not sure if I was going to do zip lining because I had never done it and am not a fan of heights. But after thinking it over and slight peer pressure I decided to gear-up. We walked 45 minutes into the forest to begin the first of the three lines.Along the way to the zip line we saw a baby, venomous snake. A snake so poisonous that if we got bit we would die within 30 minutes without medical assistance–and I don’t think there was an E.R. within 6 hours here. Up the ladder we went to the platform ready to descend to the next platform in the distance. I reluctantly lifted my legs off the platform and zoomed down. I looked at the view and it was amazing. I landed on the next platform and was tremendously glad I did it.


Once we got to the final platform we waited for one of the assistants to come onto the platform. He zoomed on the zip-line with one hand on the break and one on the machete. We repelled down from the 30 foot tree platform and down unto the ground. We had lunch and had 1 1/2 hours for free time until we would begin our next hike.



      We once again got in the boat and off we went to one of the islands for a hike. There we walked through a bamboo forest and a few people tried termites. The guide said they are supposed to taste like mint but those who tried it didn’t agree. The bamboo were at least 4x our height.
We saw many different animals and birds. We also tasted bitter-cane. It’s a plant that looks similar to sugar cane. Our guide chopped the cane in half with his machete and we drank the water from it. It tasted like sweet water and was delicious. People in the Amazon when running out of water use bitter cane to drink out of.
We then decided to take a raft made up of 6 large wooden branches on the pond–the Peruvian version of a Venetian gondola. We then went back onto the main river and saw the sunset as the moon ascended unto the night sky. We headed back to our cabins and had our final dinner as we would be heading back to Cusco the next day.

Amazon Day 2 ~ Peru


(Click on images to enlarge)

We woke up at 6 am the next day began with breakfast and our malaria pills in the cloud forest.

At breakfast one of the girls mentioned that she cut herself the day before and before long the guide knew a tree which he thought would help heal the cut. After breakfast in the middle of the forest he found the tree. Slightly cutting the tree with his machete and out oozed a light brown sap. He placed the sap on her cut and off we went descending from the mountains to lower altitude going from about 3,000 ft to 500 ft above sea level. We would go from a cold, wet temperature to hot, dry weather. After a 2 hour drive We finally arrived in what was officially known as the Amazon region.

One of the stops along the way along this dirt and rural road was a “village” of half a mile long. We were a little confused on why we stopped here at first because it was in the middle of nowhere of the middle of nowhere. We had to stop to get bread for the next few days because fresh food is the Peruvian mindset. We walked into a villagers backyard with chickens running around,  weeds, a broken down car, and laundry hanging up. The guide showed us the “bathrooms” to use since we had been driving for 3 hours since breakfast. The bathrooms were just 5 foot doors with a hole in the ground but you have to make due what one has.


    We then walked into the little cement hut of where the bread was being made. Inside was a huge brick oven with fresh bread slowly cooking under the supervision of an old, kind man. The Peruvians love every bit of their food fresh as can be. Our guide bought the fresh bread for the next few days and the kind baker then offered us some fresh bread right out of the oven to try right there. It was some of the best bread I have ever had: fresh, warm, sweet, and natural.
   Outside the bakers hut was a cinnamon tree. Our guide took his machete once again and cut into the bark and sliced off a few slivers of cinnamon. It looked exactly on sees on products for cinnamon: brown, curved slices. The leaves when rubbed smelled like cinnamon. A few of us tried the cinnamon tree leaves and it tasted like cinnamon and evergreen-just like a Christmas Yankee candle-well except this was all natural (just like everything else here). Maybe the American should take a hint about eating all natural foods. Off again we were in the van as I saw a few girls and women laying out coca leaves on black tarp in the road so that they can be sun dried and sold off for tea.
Picture above: Our guide with the cinnamon tree.
  Along the descent one could see the change in the plantation. The long, tall trees  covered in mist were replaced by long grass and drier trees with interesting vegetation growing underneath the heat of the Amazonian sun. Every few hundred feet the entire climate and vegetation would change.It has as many micro-climates and micro-habitations as one can imagine. By 11 a.m. we arrived in another random village-this time instead of walking or driving to our next destination we would white water raft.
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 We were handed our life jackets and paddles as chickens, pigs, parrots, and dogs ran rampant. We walked to the river along a muddy path and made it to the river. We then pumped our raft while dodging fire ants from biting us. We got in the raft and off we went-paddling down the raging waves. One of the girls dropped her paddle in the river as we were hit unexpectedly by a huge wave. We made it safely to our destination-a small row of shack houses. We got out and got our backpacks and waited for our next mode of transport. In the beating hot sun everyone started to get a little jittery and we all started talking about what our first meal would be once we got back in the states.
     We couldn’t talk for long because we were once again handed life vests and had to get in a small wooden boat which looks similar to ones people ride in Asia. We rode the boat for 40 minutes as it shook back and forth to get to our cabins which was down the river on the other side.
      Once we stopped we walked to our cabins with little electricity, no wifi, and no service. We were completely cut off from the world (as if we weren’t already)–and it was great. Around the cabins were plants of all sorts banana trees, pepper plants, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables. We had lunch and rested until 5 p.m.
(Our camp site view)
The beds we slept in with the mosquito nets
The beds we slept in with the mosquito nets
    At 5 p.m. we took a night hike into the forest. Though 5 p.m. may not sound like night back in the states this time of year, it is winter here in Peru because of its location below the equator. So it gets dark early here as it usually does in winter. In the darkness of the night we hiked in the forest looking for animals which only emerged in the night. Towards the middle of the hike the tour guide, with machete in hand, asked everyone to shut off their flashlights and be quiet. Everyone obeyed and he said “Just close your eyes and try to be one with nature.” The only thing that could be heard was the distant river rushing. We headed back to our campsite, ate dinner, and off to bed we were to be up at the crack of dawn once again.

Amazon Day 1 ~ Peru

Click on the pictures to enlarge them.
Waking up in the darkness of 4:30 a.m. we began our journey to the Amazon by hopping in a van. Joining us on the tour were three other people. An engaged couple (he was from London & she was from Northern Ireland) and the bride-to-be’s brother. The engaged couple quit their jobs in London and decided to travel for 7 weeks in Asia and 4 weeks in South America before heading back to Ireland to marry and start a new life. Along with the tour guide we had the driver, the cook, and a random assistant who we were not sure what his purpose was. You never know who you are going to meet along the way in traveling.
   The first stop along the way to the Amazon was an ancient burial ground. We saw the old tombs.The people of the Inca civilization and the pre-existing civilizations  would bury their dead in fetal position as the deceased would await rebirth in the form of reincarnation. From our spot on the burial ground we could see one of the snow capped mountains which the ancient Peruvians believed protected the region of Cusco. Below us was a small village.
   It was extremely quiet up on the ancient burial site. The only thing that could be heard was the wind and occasional noise from the small village below. Due to the way the mountains are shaped and the complete silence, it was easy to hear noises from the village way below us.
    We got in our small van for another hour & 1/2 until the next small village which was along a river. We descended from the mountains into this small village. It was very European in its exterior with its cobblestone streets, white and blue houses, old stone bridges, and open space market places.
    We stopped to get a few snacks because it was going to be a few hours until lunch. Two of the people on the trip decided to get juice. There is no Tropicana or any name brand juices here in Peru. When you want juice you are more than likely to have it cut and squeezed right before you. It is all fresh and mainly just juice, unless the customer requests sugar. But expect nothing else but juice straight from the fruit or vegetable itself. And if you want your juice-it is common that they will put the juice in the plastic bag, tie it up, and stick a straw in it—no to go cups. And if you do decide to drink the juice in the area they will give you old 50’s looking milkshake glasses to drink from. Off we went and ascended into the mountains.
   The whole trip was one of ascending to descending from the mountains and then valleys/low lands.Except this time as we moved closer to the Amazon we did nothing but ascend. We drove up into the mountains in the cloud forest, where the clouds were right by our side.
    The Peruvians are never in a rush unless they are on the road. To an American one would view Peruvian driving as crazy. They stop only 3 seconds before they have too and always seem to be going faster than necessary. The roads the entire way were purely dirt, no guardrails, and the road was only slightly wider than the van itself. Because we were driving in the mountains, the road was extremely zigzag. So at times the zigzags would hide behind the mountains. We noticed that every time we had to turn the driver would BEEP extremely loudly. This was to let a car know on the other side that another car was coming through so that there wasn’t a car accident. At times we would drive underneath waterfalls. Meanwhile all of this was being done while driving in the cloud forests of at least 1,000 ft + up in the air. For most of the time I could not look outside the window because it looked like we were going to fall off the road and plunge 1,000 ft to our untimely death.
      We then descended slightly into the forest and stopped on the side of the mountain for lunch. After lunch we walked for an hour to look at the wild life. The entire view looked like a scene out of Jurassic Park: trees in clouds & mist. We saw waterfalls, interesting plants, and the national bird of Peru: cock-of-the-rock. Along the way the guide who showed us a small yellow flower resembling a dandelion. He told us to pick some and eat them. We chewed on them and within a few seconds our mouths went numb, it was a natural anesthetic which is used for when the natives have toothaches. It was one of the many, many, many plants/herbs/spices they love, cherish, and trust here. If there is an injury or illness-there’s a plant for it! We continued on our walking journey l the van picked us up and brought us to our cabins.
    We got out of the van on the side of the road in the cloud forest, walked five minutes into the forest, and found the cabins-along the side of the waterfall. It was the first of many places which one could truly say was in the middle of absolute nowhere. We were than fed dinner (6 pm) and than in bed by 8 p.m. because we had to be up at the crack of dawn for the next day. There was no point in staying up anyway because there was very little electricity and no wifi. The only thing in the cabin were the beds with the mosquito nets over them. It began to rain and pour which put all of us right to sleep as we began to journey deeper and lower into the Amazon.

Tender is the Night

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard. In ancient days by emperor and clown…”-John Keats
John Keats house

“Tender is the night” is considered one of the most popular lines from the most famous of all odes composed in the English language, Ode to a Nightingale. John Keats composed this ode along with some of the most beloved and classic odes of the English language.  He went from rowdy school boy with a “grotesque humor” and love of fighting  to one of England’s leading poets of the Romanticism movement. And today I had a chance to visit his house (turned museum) along with some other spots he frequented.

Keat’s Corner

The John Keats House sponsored a guided walk called Keats’ Hampstead. Keats lived in this area from about 1817-1820. It began at the local tube station and ended at the Keats house. We toured through the Hampstead section of London, which has successfully kept its architecture from the 1780’s-1800’s. Hampstead is a great section of London to visit. It’s the classical, sterotypical English scene with the brick row houses covered in flowers and vines with narrow streets and cobble stone alleys. It is located right next to the huge London park called Hampstead Heath nicknamed the “Lungs of London.” Keats spent his later life living in Hampstead when some of his familial relations contracted consumption, now called tuberculous. Tuberculous was extremely common for England in the 1800’s and medical science did not offer any remedy. About 1 in 5 people died or contracted tuberculous during this time. Keats decided to move his brothers to Hampstead since it was on the outskirts of smoke filled London and contained fresher air. Yet tragically this move did not save his brother or even himself.

The room Keats would lay in when he had bad coughing fits. He requested a couch to lie on as he viewed the carden

The typical English rain would not put a damper on this walk. We began our walk outside an extremely old Anglican church which contains a famous bust of Keats. He was not particularly religious, some suggesting he was even atheist which would have been very progressive in his day. We walked the streets of Hampstead while some of his works were read aloud. His first visit to Hampstead was in 1817 to pay a visit to his mentor who had a cottage here. We saw the grounds where the cottage remained. And ironically enough his mentor often threw parties inviting all types of people. And Charles Dickens (whose house/museum I visited a few days ago) would later frequent Keats mentor’s parties.

His view from the couch
Garden where he composed “Ode to a Nightingale”

We then passed the corner where Keats was seen lamenting one winter day. He was seen in great grief on a bench and there is a bench today to commemorate the scene. The corner is appropriately called Keats Bench. The motive for his external show of sorrow was the discovery that he contracted tuberculosis (TB). The 23 year old coughed up blood earlier that day. Since he originally studied to be a doctor for five years and took great care of his sickly mother and brother (both who had TB), he knew the color of the blood all pointed to TB. His great fear of an early death was coming true. It was his fear of TB contraction, the death of his mother and younger brother which fueled the fire of his famous works. He was in limited contact with his fiance, Frannie Brawne, for fear of her contracting it as well. All of this put him in despair yet was the energy and source of inspiration for his classic works.

A random church on the way back to the tube
One of the houses in Hampstead

We than paused in a popular walkway of Hampstead Heath, a walkway which Keats would have probably walked multiple times in his lifetime. He loved the outdoors and just about 2 years before his TB contraction took a 6 week walking tour of England and Scotland with Charles Armitage Brown. He would have loved to walk in the rain, which coincidentally we were doing. It was in that walkway where we read his work pertaining to his doubt of ever becoming a famous writer. Though critics initially loved his early works they brutally criticized his later works. Many around him thought the critics put an end to his writing career. Fortunately they did not. But unfortunately he would not become famous until about 30 years after his death. His friends and other great writers of the Romantic period praised his works. This praise allowed people to review his works (published and unpublished) and his posthumous fame grew.

We ended our walk at his house where he lived from 1818-1820. In 1820 his friends shipped him off to Rome in hopes of being cured, yet sadly after a few months  there he passed away. He knew he would not make it in Italy, he felt “like a soldier heading off to battle.” He knew his end was imminent. But it was in this Hampstead house where he composed his most important and famous works including Ode to a Grecian Urn, La Belle Dame sans Merci, and Ode to a Nightingale. I saw his study room which overlooked a garden. To think that some of the greatest poetry was penned in that room… The fable goes that he composed his somber Ode to a Nightingale in the garden located there. The last work we read of Keats was his requested epitaph, “Here lies one whose name is written in water.” Ironic for this walking tour who walked all day in the rain. And ironic because his name is now known all over the world of literature, for his works are not fleeting as they were upon his death. The critics who got to Keats psyche and diminished his confidence in writing were scorned by his friends and colleagues. His colleagues later requested that below the request epitaph be inscribed their personal and false epitaph, ” This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone.”

Keats is grouped in the Romantic Period and of course one of the best Romantics. One of the elements of the Romantic period is an appreciation or love of nature. It is easy to see why Keats is considered on of the best Romantics with such a beautiful home, garden, and area surrounding him. This past semester I took British Literature II, which deals with literature from the 1700’s to the present. We spent a great time studying Keats and it was rewarding to go on this tour. His impact is enormous considering he only lived a brief 25 years. It is in the opinion of many English scholars that Keats is one of the greatest writers of all time and wrote the greatest odes in the English language. My literature teacher this past semester even said that if he lived a longer life he could have been considered the greatest English poet, even beating Shakespeare. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a novel where he constantly alludes to Ode to a Nightingale called, Tender is the Night  in 1934 (which I have been trying to read but keep getting distracted). There are just so many of his poetical phrases which can strike someone. So I leave you today with a quote found in his works which today I bought on a postcard, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.” jk10

Please Sir, I want some more?

CD48 Doughty Street. Home to the author of Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities,  Great Expectations, Bleak House, and so much more. It was the home of one of England’s famed novelist Charles Dickens. I had the chance to visit his house on simple Doughty Street. I just recently found out about his home here and made sure it was on my list. And found out it was actually only a few blocks away from where I take classes.cd1

His desk

The simple row house stands in the middle of the street with a turquoise door. This house saw the birth of some of his children along with the completion of several of his works including Oliver Twist. This author who originally lived in the English countryside had to move to London when he was younger with his family when the money was waning. During his childhood he worked in factories, saw his father jailed for debt, and lived among the Victorian English poor. These events would later give him inspiration for his future works. Most of his works are a reflection of Victorian England. His writings dived into all social classes and problems of the rigorous Industrial Revolution. They often rose awareness of these problems and made lasting impacts on social issues. The famed Oliver Twist was a changing point in how orphanages and poor houses were managed. It  made many beneficial changes in favor of the poor. He not only talked the talk but also walked the walk. He hired house attendants and maids in his house since he was an extremely successful author generating a healthy income. He treated each of his house attendant and maids with great respect, care, and charity.

One of the first editions of “Oliver Twist”

It was a bit sad to realize that I was the only one in this house turned museum. At the same time I was happy because I had the whole house to myself. I saw his office room where he composed his writings for newspapers, editorials, and even penned Oliver Twist in its entirety. His library is still there, along with some of the earliest editions of his works. The next room over was the drawing room. This was the largest room of the house where he would entertain guests by theatrically reading guests his works. As fame rose he would start selling tickets for these performances adding another source of income. His actual reading stand where he proclaimed his words is on display. There is a window in his childhood home in which he would daily glance out of with the addition of another window which inspired the scene in which Oliver Twist breaks to perform a burglary. Though he only lived in this house during his early years there is still section of the room dedicated to his final years and death. A lock of hair and a rose laid on his coffin are on display there. His death was seen as a national tragedy especially among those for whom he stood up for in his works. He combined his deep love of writing with his great desire to raise awareness, morality, and social awareness. These two aspects allowed him to create some of literature’s most memorable characters. It is with this passion that this quote from David Cooperfield is most applicable to his life,

“My meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.”

His reading table where he would entertain guests and later entertain public crowds by theatrically reciting samples of his writings

London’s Venice & Before I Die….

LVThis past Tuesday we headed off to London’s Venice otherwise called “Little Venice.” This series of canals were constructed in the 1810’s for trade and transportation. The author of the term “Little Venice” is disputed between famed poet Robert Browning and novelist Margery Allingham. A deeply sad Browning returned to live in this area after the death of his beloved wife and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is located in a very upscale section of the city and a great place to visit.


We took a boat ride to Camden Market (where we previously visited a few weeks ago) and returned back. It was something different to do here in a bustling ad hectic city. These canals are located in a neighborhood which  s hidden from noise, traffic, and mass tourism. Along the river are numerous boats which are used for different purposes: art museum, boat rides, restaurants, and puppet theater. There is a row of boats which are houses. These houses can cost up to 20,000 pounds with annual mooring (docking) fees between 6,000-10,000 pounds. These brightly colored boats each have unique personalities with creative and differentiating names. Some of the boats have flowers and plants on top of them, while some just have plastic storage boxes. There is a narrow walkway one can use to walk along the canal. It was interesting to see the backyards of these big, beautiful, and fancy houses. There was even a sculpted cow in one of the backyard! It is definitely a different ad unique place to visit-which isn’t surprising since its so close to Camden Market. LV5

On the way to Camden Market we basically had the whole boat to ourselves. But on our returning trip it was filled with elderly people. I even got scolded by one for “being rude” because I was “talking too loud.” On our boat ride we saw a huge sign which said “Before I die…” slanted against the walkway. So once we were finished with the ride we walked to get a closer view of it.

LV3It was this huge plank of wood which people wrote on chalk there aspirations, dreams, and desires which they wished to see accomplished in their lifetime. There was chalk next to it so we added our own “Before I Die…” wishes to the ever increasing list. You could tell extra wooden planks were added because so many people kept writing on them. The wishes varied from “traveling the world”, “move back to Cork”, “to see my children live a happy life,” to those more philosophical in nature “to finally be free”, “free from desire,” “create a something which will withstand time”, to just silly ones, “be batman”, “cook and dine with Katie Price”, “get a girlfriend.” A whole laundry list of different people’s desires all on one board. So many different people yet so many of the listed wishes were mutual while others were extremely different. It really makes one think about those cliche questions on how short life is and what one really wants out of life. Ancient and classical Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is a life not worth living.” How true that is. Maybe its time we examine our lives from time to time and ponder what our ultimate end goal(s) is and how we are trying to attain it (them). Let us not lay dying on our deathbeds with unfulfilled hopes. We often let life go by so quickly not giving ourselves a chance to really think and ponder about it and those daunting goals which we wish to do “Before I Die I want to…” BEFORE I DIE I WANT TO…



Sailing to Byzantium

“O sages standing in God’s holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall, Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing‐masters of my soul. Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is; and gather me Into the artifice of eternity.”-“Sailing to Byzantium”, William Butler Yeats

The words of this poem fittingly apply to my visit to the Byzantine/ Eastern designed Westminster Cathedral. The words are extremely appropriate for this cathedral though Yeats, who was not particularly religious, did not write it with this cathedral in mind.This Catholic cathedral is not to be confused with the Anglican Westminster Abbey. They both have Westminster in their names because of their location in the Westminster area. This home for the Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster was completed in 1903 and stands out in the London skyline because of its unique architecture.

Detailed photo of the front

The design of this church is a product of the final phase of the Byzantine Revival in Western Europe (1840-1890’s). Its style is unique for a country dominated by Gothic, Victorian, and Romanesque architecture. The design which is commonly found in Eastern Europe/Middle East was one of the reasons in which I wanted to visit this relatively unknown spot. The cathedral was on the news a few years ago when Pope Benedict visited it in 2010. There is a large tile at the front of the church with a Latin inscription commemorating his visit.

aaYou are transported to a different place when walking in. I felt like I was in a different place due to the interior Byzantine style. The inside resembles churches of Eastern Catholics and  the Greek Orthodox. The Byzantine elements from the multiple dangling candle chandeliers, the numerous mosaics and icons, the massive crucifix icon which hangs near the main altar form this church into a must see.

Many people were filing inside the church. Some locals, some visitors, some Catholic, some just curious. Attire ranged from business suits to blue jeans. Some light candles at side altars while some just merely observed the mosaics and icons among the walls. Towards the back of the cathedral stands a statue of St. Peter the Apostle, the first pope. It is a replica of one found in the Vatican. It stands as an important reminder and symbol of unity with the Pope and Rome.It’s iconic because England was one of the first major Catholic countries to break with Rome during the reformation. This break happened during reign of Henry VIII who split because he was not granted an annulment. So instead he broke with Rome and formed the Church of England and making himself its head. Catholics would face severe persecution in England for years and years to follow. There is a certain special type of devotion that can only be found in English Catholics despite their rocky past. And one element of their devotion can be found in their care and love for traditional sacred music.

Blessed Mother Chapel-where Evening Prayer was sung

Cardinal Vaughan, mastermind of the cathedral’s construction, wished for the liturgical music to be as grand and beautiful as the church. Today he would not be disappointed for the cathedral’s choir is considered one of the finest in the world. The church keeps traditional music for services. And I was fortunate enough to hear it. aa4

Everyday at 5 pm they have Evening Prayer in the side chapel of the Blessed Mother. They invite everyone to come and partake in it. A majority of the 15 minute prayer service is sung by the choir. Some parts of the service were sung in Gregorian Chant and others in polyphony. Polyphony seems to have a special place in the heart of both Catholic and Protestant Englishmen. They both beautifully perform this music to a tee. Latin, not the vernacular, was used during the service. The voice of the seven choir members echoed throughout then entire church, lifting their voices up like incense. No instruments were used beside the occasional organ. Half the choir sat on the left and half on the right. During certain prayers one side would chant and then the other side would respond. The right side would sing: Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Then the left responded: Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen. The saints of early Christianity enshrined in the tiny tiles of the mosaics looked down upon the choir members as their voices blended together to form an excellent version of the Magnificant. The service ended with the chanting of the Salve Regina in which the rest of the congregation partook in. Some of the worshipers around me had their eyes closed and others murmured prayers. You could tell that the congregation was truly lifted in a reverent and devotional spirit. They didn’t need to sing along with the choir or even have it be sung in their local tongue. Music, especially sacred music, transcends the language barrier. It lifts the soul and mind. Sadly many today view these older, traditional hymns and musical styles as something from medieval times.This cathedral knows the importance and benefits of classical sacred music. It’s found a home in the heart of London. For what’s a beautifully designed church if it doesn’t have beautiful and appropriate music to complement it? And fortunately this church has both!

Yeats describes his yearning to live in a world which honors its traditions and classical history in Sailing to Byzantium. Just as this church actively keeps its yearning for liturgical patrimony alive today. He uses Byzantium as a symbol of youth and prosperity because of its richness in history, music, and art. So this church today stands as a place of ever old and ever new through its music and art. The “gold mosaic of a wall” are the cathedral’s walls adorned in the mosaics which depict the early scenes of Christianity in England.The “holy fire” are the candles lit with the hope their prayers and intentions will be answered. The “singing masters of my soul” is the choir which sings songs which ignite inside the soul a desire for heavenly things. The music “gathers me into the artifice of eternity.” The golden bird crafted by “Grecian goldsmiths” is art and history. For this bird sings of “What is past, or is passing, or to come.” For it is in keeping traditions, art, and music alive while simultaneously expanding upon them in which we continue to stay mentally young despite biologically aging.


Sailing to Byzantium-W. B. Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come



The Globe

Just goes to show his great influence. Everything in black comes from a Shakespeare play!

“We’ll hear a play.”-Hamlet Act II Scene ii

This past Wednesday we once again visited Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. This open-sky replica of Shakespeare’s 16th century theater has been restored to its glory since the original theater burned down and the reconstructed theater after the fire was torn dismantled by the Puritans. Yet today the replica stands because of the leadership and patience of actor Sam Wanamaker, who started this project in the 1970’s.The first supposed reason it is called the Globe is because of its circular design. The second reason is metaphorical. Shakespeare’s writes in As You Like It, “All the world is a stage.” Thus the theater presents plays of different people from the royals to the common man, different parts of the world, with a range of problems and eras. Regardless of the meaning today it draws tourists and locals together for plays. And not all plays performed here are those of the Bard of Avon (Shakespeare).

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The Globe

Bloody. Violent. Ruthless.

Our purpose of our visit was to watch Shakespeare’s first play and tragedy Titus Andronicus. We entered the theater with the scent of burning incense and the stage draped in black to aid the somber mood. Set in ancient Rome this play displays a brutal family feud with an extremely gory ending. Tongues are ripped out, hands are sliced and diced, and heads are chopped off. People have actually been fainting during this season’s various productions of Titus because they cannot take the blood and guts. A few people fainted when we were there. Overall the play exhibits just how dangerous and deadly a thirst for revenge can grow into. We were “groundlings” for the day. “Groundlings” were people who went to his plays for only the cost of a penny. They did not sit but rather stood around the stage. They  were mostly uneducated and poor people who would come to the plays just for the violence, special effects, or supernatural elements (ghosts, fairies). Scholars have suggested that Shakespeare looked down upon them and called them “groundfish”, fish that live on the bottom of the sea aka bottom feeders. Obviously today that title no longer applies to present “groundlings”. Regardless of our viewing arrangements, everything about the play was excellent.

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Internal Panoramic View of the Globe

It had everything a great story (what mostly every Shakespeare play has) violence, love, and everything in between. All his plays contain three levels of stories: the romantic, the political, and the societal. These three levels along with universal themes intertwine to make some of the finest works in the Western Hemisphere and most undoubtedly the greatest in the English language. They have fundamental and basic lessons which we can all apply in our lives. They show the extremities of human emotion and teach us how to cope with them. He wrote about the human experience for everybody. The lines of his plays go from great flowery language and philosophical debate for the wealthy and educated to then switch over to basic language for the average man. This year England is celebrating the 450th birthday of the Bard and after all these years he continues to remain the most celebrated and widely read writer of all time.

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Wall Outside Globe Advertising Current Productions

When we were walking over the bridge to the theater my mind flashed back to my senior year of high school. Seeing the theater and the play made my British Literature class come alive. My British Literature teacher was extremely, extremely, extremely passionate about Shakespeare. Over the course of the year we read 3 of his plays (Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest). She made us memorize certain lines, even soliloquies, which I today am extremely grateful for. And she instilled in us knowledge about his life, works, and theater that I have never forgotten. I continued to read several of his works (Romeo & Juliet) and I have purchased several other plays which I need to read.

I have always enjoyed Shakespeare since learning about him my senior year. His plays, poems, and writings are some of the greatest literary treasures of the Western world and the world as a whole. His works escape time and location and applicable to everyone. Unfortunately many people today do not share that same view, such as an Arizona school (click here to view article). Just recently the U.K. banned the American classics, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice & Men from the literature courses (click here for article). Even these American classics are facing threats of exile in its own country (click here for article).  And just a few weeks ago Richard Dawkins questioned whether we should be reading fairy tales to children (click here for article). Today great classics, both American and British, are substituted with watered down modern books with no substance or moral/life lessons. Some educators and people today are extremely ignorant by lessening the importance of these fundamentals of Western culture or worse throwing them away as a whole. Such topics include the Latin language, philosophy, Classical Studies, and great literary works. Where is the music? Where is the art? Where is rhetoric ? It’s these subjects which teach people to think critically and become creative. I know not all are cut out for these subjects,  just as I am not cut out for science and math. But at the least expose students to these fundamental lessons which built the West. aaaaaaaa

At least for the present his works are being played traditionally and modernly on stage. I was surprised to see at an exhibition of how some of Shakespeare’s plays are shown today in Japan and South America with a modern twist. Go read or view a Shakespeare play or some classic books (The Great Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Animal Farm, Huckleberry Fin, Tom Sawyer, etc.). These books cost no more than $5 on Amazon if you browse under the used sections. They even have copies which have Shakespeare’s language on the right and a more modern translation on the left. Go ahead pick up a Shakespeare play. Struggle as you may to begin it or get through it, I promise you there will be at least a few lines that strike you. It’s in those lines which allow you to think and ponder-a sad art which is lost today.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
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The Globe Gate made up of characters and objects from Shakespeare’s plays



“Pile of Stone-henge! So proud to hint yet keep thy secrets…”-William Wordsworth

We zoomed right after class to Waterloo station to make the hour & half journey to Salisbury: location of the ever mysterious, intriguing, and alluring Stonehenge. It was a great train ride over and the small town of Salisbury is the picturesque small English town. From the train station we made our way to the town center so some of us could find an ATM. Tensions in our group were a bit high for some small reasons(tired, everyone thinks their directions are right, it was hot outside, ATM machines weren’t working). I guess sometimes the small things add up after a while. It’s common for groups to get a slightly irritated every now and then. Since we’ve been with each other for the past 6 weeks maybe slight aggravation was due. From there we took a bus to Stonehenge and drove through some small, tree covered roads. And we all managed to get there in one piece. stonehenge5

I’m glad they decided to put the exhibition/visitor center/parking lots away from Stonehenge itself. Those elements would ruin the beauty and de-mystify it. From there we took a small 10 minute shuttle (though you do have the option to walk) to Stonehenge. And there it was the iconic image: a pile of rocks in a wide open field… The cynicism disappears when you see it in person. It almost became like a piece of art when I saw it. It has a hypnotizing peace, almost an eerie calmness, when you walk around it. So much so that we decided to ditch our audio tour guides for a while, just sit and chill out for a bit. Maybe the peace was from getting out of the hectic city of London and into the countryside. Hills are all over the surrounding location and hay bales as far as they eye can see. The sun was shining and the wind blew as we people watched the tourists that were from all over. The Asians, the Europeans, the North Americans, and some South Americans, they were all there. It is strange how this pile of rocks has fascinated, baffled, and allured scientists, historians, archaeologists, and regular people for years.

Crows at Stonehenge***

There are always the tourists that stand out among the rest. There was a woman who brought a Kermit the Frog doll with her and was taking pictures of it. Additionally there was this young, heavy girl who was loudly and obnoxiously roaming the grounds. She spoke with an American accent so someone from the group went to inquire the state she was from. She responded, “I’m from Texas, make sense-don’t it?” Then she proceeded to point to her younger brother, “Look Bob another rock.”  She clearly had no interest in Stonehenge and decided to be loud. And we wonder why America gets the reputation it does. All joking aside it was good to see another American in an international swarm. I was wrong when I thought we left the crows behind at the tower of London. Crows were scattered throughout the whole place hovering, flying, and eating. The jet-black crows bring a sense of mystery and spookiness this place full of riddles.stonehenge6Experts still don’t know the true purpose of Stonehenge and who exactly built it because of a lot of intelligent yet differentiating debate. Theories range from a calendar to burial place to religious ritual center to gathering place of an ancient civilization. And of course there’s always those who take it to the extreme and say aliens constructed it. It’s been established that it wasn’t used to perform human sacrifice. That myth came from a rock nearby which oozes a natural reddish element when it rains. The reddish color was thought to be blood but as science and time progressed it proved wrong. Additionally it has been established that the druids and pagans did not build it. Though they claim it as their own, the structure greatly outdates the beginning of those “religions.” Druids and pagans will actually be gathering in droves there this Saturday because it will be summer solstice (usually June 21). The druids and pagans will come dressed in full garb to perform their annual ritual. The sun somehow aligns perfectly with Stonehenge on the summer and winter solstices. That is why intellectuals think it was used as a calendar and shows they had a sophisticated knowledge of the sun.

As our time in London is rapidly reaching its end I debated whether it would be worth it to go see a bunch of aligned stones. I thought I wouldn’t get anything out of it because I do not find anything interesting about prehistoric times, “cave men”, or obscure ancient, ancient civilizations. But then I thought I would be an idiot for not visiting an international identifiable icon which the world is constantly fascinated by. And I’m glad we did take the time to go, not only for the sake of visiting Stonehenge but catching a glimpse into some of England’s beautiful countryside. We waited at a bus stop to bring us back to town. We to the stop a ½ hour early and didn’t mind because before us was wide fields of wheat and poppies. After we left Stonehenge the bus took us back to the main town through some small road and we saw iconic English pastoral scenes. Rolling hills, grazing cows and lambs, and different colored fields made the ride back beautiful. There is no sense that Stonehenge has lost its charm through mass tourism due to its position and preservation in a wide open field. It’s rare for a commercialized site to keep its authenticity and composure. For that I am truly grateful & maybe that’s why it’s considered one of the marvels of the ancient world.  ***The picture of the Crows at Stonehenge is from: More pictures below