While in no particular order, the following pages pay tribute to the 10 personal favorite destinations, and particularly the people in them, that have left a lasting and warm impression on Mr. Harper, summoning him to return again and again.
One of my all-time favorite archaeological sites is the Coricancha in Cusco. The name means “golden temple” in the indigenous Andean language, Quechua. Before the Spanish Conquest it was the Temple of the Sun, the epicenter of the Inca empire, served by around 4,000 priests. At the summer solstice, a solid gold sun disc reflected light onto a throne where only the Inca emperor was entitled to sit. Most of the temple’s gold went to ransom the captive Atahualpa, and the massive baroque Convent of Santo Domingo was built on top of the ruins. The Coricancha appeared to have been obliterated. But much of it was still there; the Spanish had merely slathered white plaster on top of the surviving Inca masonry. Today, following years of restoration, the outlines of the temple are clearly visible once more. This has always struck me as a metaphor for Peru as a whole, where 45 percent of the population still claims descent from the indigenous, pre-Columbian population. True, in big cities like Lima and Arequipa, European and mestizo faces predominate. But take the train from Cusco to Puno on Lake Titicaca and along the way you will see Quechua ladies in their scarlet polleras (skirts) and llicllas (capes) made from hand-woven llama and alpaca wool. The ancient world of the Andes is still very much alive.
Traditional tribal life is controversial in Africa and Nairobi’s so-called Wabenzi, prosperous citizens named for their German limousine of choice, express embarrassment and indignation that Kenya still contains people who walk around with spears. The scarlet-cloaked Maasai and Samburu, they think, bring their country into disrepute and make it seem backward in the eyes of the world. Things are generally more complicated than they seem. On my last trip to East Africa, I sat watching the sun go down atop a rocky outcrop, overlooking the homeland of the Samburu tribal people. My companion, who spoke perfect English, was dressed in traditional robes, with a beaded headband and beaded armlets. He carried a short sword and his spear lay in the grass behind us. (As the outcrop was the home of a large male leopard, this was quite reassuring.) We were drinking gin and tonic. During the week, he said, he wore a business suit and worked in an office in Nairobi. On the weekend, however, he came home to see his parents at their manyatta and promptly changed back into traditional clothing. “It’s just so much more comfortable,” he explained. Before too long, the Wabenzi will probably have their way and African tribal life will become extinct. Personally, I will be sad when the old ways are gone forever. The cultural inheritance of humanity will have been diminished.
Numerous European cities have conspicuously stylish inhabitants. Although I am sure that the Parisians think theirs is self-evidently the capital of style, Rome is my personal candidate for the honor. This preference dates from a warm May evening, when I decided to kill time by taking a circuitous route to an appointment at Rosati, a well-known café on the Piazza del Popolo. As I was staying at the Hassler Hotel, I descended the Spanish Steps, wandered down the Via Condotti to the Corso and then strolled along the city’s great central artery to the piazza. Along the way, I became increasingly enraptured by the beauty of its citizens, both male and female. Not only were the people exceptionally good-looking, they were dressed with a carefully studied flamboyance that would have been impossible for a northern European. And perhaps herein lies a crucial difference: the Romans live in a city that is consistently warm and sunny, whereas the Parisians exist for much of the year beneath a roof of scudding gray clouds.
Botswana is a southern African country about the size of Texas, much of which is covered by the semi-arid grassland of the Kalahari. In the delightful novels of Alexander McCall Smith (of which “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is the best-known), Botswana is portrayed as a kind of earthly paradise. It is prosperous and peaceful and its contented inhabitants consistently marvel at their great good fortune. In fact, it does bear a passing resemblance to the idyllic land of McCall Smith’s imagination. Botswana has the world’s largest diamond mine and only two million people, so there is money to go around, and the standards of education and health care are extremely high. Other African countries have natural assets—Nigeria, for example, has oil—but generally the profits get siphoned off by a kleptocratic elite. Not in Botswana, where large posters everywhere proclaim zero-tolerance for corruption and draconian penalties for offenders. I think that Botswana is my favorite African country: it is safe; there is little tribal friction; and unlike neighboring South Africa, there is no racial animosity. And its diamond wealth enables the government to take a civilized and planned approach to tourism. As a result, the great game areas, of which the most famous is the Okavango Delta, are unspoiled and teem with millions of animals. It is easy to become gloomy when contemplating the future in many parts of Africa, but Botswana provides solid reason for hope.
Although the Sherpas live in the foothills on the southern flank of Mount Everest, they are actually people of Tibetan origin. Over the centuries they carved out a niche for themselves as mountain guides, escorting traders across the high Himalayan passes. Their celebrated exploits with mountaineering expeditions came in the 20th century and culminated in Tenzin Norgay’s 1953 ascent of Everest with New Zealander, Edmund Hillary. Today, Sherpa leaders, or sirdars, are in charge of most organized treks in the Himalayas and it has been my good fortune to spend time in the company of several outstanding individuals. All the clichés about the Sherpas turn out to be true: they are tough, generous, brave, uncomplaining and good-humored. It would be hard to think of a more endearing and admirable combination of virtues. Even though mountaineering and tourism have brought a degree of prosperity, theirs is still a hard life. A distressing number of young Sherpa men lose their lives on the great peaks every year, and even more succumb to diseases such as tuberculosis. But like their cousins, the Tibetans, the Sherpas are seldom seen without the light of a smile in their eyes. I remember chatting with Ang Nima, the sirdar of a trek in the Annapurna foothills. We were sitting in a grassy meadow at 6,000 feet, gazing up at a gigantic snow-covered massif. “This time last week I was on the summit of Everest,” Ang Nima remarked, almost as an aside. Clearly, for him, this was a perfectly normal weekly commute.
In most respects Bangkok is a thoroughly modern place. Glass and steel towers dominate the skyline and the klongs, the old canals that once gave the city the sobriquet “the Venice of the East” have mostly been constrained by concrete, or covered over and forgotten. But if you get up early, even in the heart of the metropolis, you will still see files of Buddhist monks in orange robes taking their begging bowls in search of breakfast. It is a charming scene that has remained unchanged for centuries. In other Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka and Japan, the religion has been largely institutionalized, but in Thailand, monks are still inseparable from everyday life. And all young Thai men are expected to spend some time in a monastery, usually during the annual Rains Retreat in July, August and September. Some people claim that this enduring Buddhist influence has made the Thais unusually generous and tolerant. Personally, I just find it delightful that a modern, developed society is so manifestly at ease with its ancient cultural traditions.
Nowadays there are commercial jet aircraft that can, theoretically, fly you nonstop to any other point on the globe in 20 hours or thereabouts. In my lifetime, the world had changed out of all recognition, not least because the human population has more than doubled. Personally I regret that so much of the world’s cultural diversity has been lost. The country that seems to buck this trend most effectively is Japan. Japan has jet planes and bullet trains and more electronic gadgets per capita than virtually anywhere else, but, for Westerners, it remains the world’s most resolutely foreign country. I love landing at Narita to find a man in white gloves polishing the already spotless chrome rail beside the steps up to Immigration. Immediately, I know I am in an utterly unfamiliar place where the customary rules may no longer apply. On one occasion, I remember taking a local train in the mountains northwest of Kyoto. My guide left me standing on the platform with my suitcase and briefly disappeared. When he returned, I asked him what he’d been doing. He replied that he had been to tell the engine driver that he was responsible for the safety of a foreign visitor and that he should therefore drive his train with particular care and attention.
Despite extensive tourist development in the south of the island, the center of Bali, especially around the Ayung River Gorge and the bohemian town of Ubud, remains an idyllic part of the world. Amandari, Four Seasons Sayan, and Como Shambhala Estate are all resorts of the highest quality, located in settings of startling natural beauty. But every time I return to Bali I reflect once again that it is the Balinese themselves who make the experience so special. Balinese culture is a wonderfully exotic hybrid of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism. And at its heart lie elaborate rituals and ceremonies, intricately choreographed and performed with scrupulous fidelity to ancient traditions. This culture requires the Balinese to control their emotions, to be generous and hospitable and, above all, to be exquisitely gracious and polite. As a result, the service in Balinese resorts is the best in the world. Even elsewhere in Asia, there isn’t any serious competition.
As you may imagine, I am often asked to identify my favorite destinations in the world. Generally I protest that it would be quite impossible: places possess individual charm and comparisons are not only invidious but pointless. But of course I do have favorites and one of them is Sydney, Australia. Travel writers invariably insist that it is all about the harbor, that miraculous 11-mile-long inlet which allows you to swim off a white-sand beach, or sail an ocean-going yacht, right in the middle of a city of five million people. And they are correct, up to a point. Sydney Harbour is the most beautiful in the world and on a sunny day I can think of few places I would rather be than Rose Bay, with a generous plate of seafood and a glass of crisp white wine. But another factor that makes Sydney so delightful is the character of the Australians themselves, in particular that quality of easy-going affability that responds to any mishap with the healing phrase “no worries.” Of course they’re not all perfect: There are unpleasant taxi drivers in every major city! But Australians often seem so comfortable in their own skins, so content with their fortunate lot in life, that they lend a deep sense of well-being to their visitors.
Once upon a time, for a country intent on developing a tourist industry, the Fijians had a serious image problem. Before their archipelago became known as Fiji, it was marked on European maps as the “Cannibal Isles.” Indeed, explorers and travelers went to considerable lengths to steer well clear of the place and its legendarily ferocious inhabitants. Quite what happened to the Fijian collective psyche is unclear, but a conversion took place of positively Pauline completeness. Today, there are no friendlier, more hospitable people on earth than the Fijians. They do have a few family problems—the native Melanesians don’t always get along too well with their fellow countrymen of Indian origin—but for American visitors the smiles begin at the airport and continue indefinitely, undimmed. Which in today’s troubled world comes as a very pleasant and welcome surprise.