April 07, 2022

Raise High the Roof Beam, Travellers
... a piece of old Japan finds new life in Buenos Aires
written in 2007 ...
Having lived and worked in Japan for 32 years, Guillermo Bierregaard, who made his fortune in shipping and advertising, and his wife Patricia Palacios Hardy de Bierregaard, a banker and descendent of English novelist Thomas Hardy, returned to their native Argentina, bringing with them their extensive collection of modern Japanese sculpture, baskets, furniture and abstract art. Also shipped over and now rebuilt in all its glory was another unique piece, their 200-plus-year-old Japanese house made from gassho-zukuri wood, which having been reassembled piece by piece is just as much a museum piece as the collection inside, which dates from 1868 to the present. The result of more than 20 years of vision and preparation? The stunning La Casa de Japón, also known as the Minka (Japanese farm house).
As of October 5, the Bierregaard’s personal mission to showcase a timeline of recent Japanese art will open to the public, an inspiring reason to visit the quiet Buenos Aires suburb of San Isidro, away from the pace of the capital’s newly re-energized downtown. “Japanese art has never properly been explained or represented in South America,” says Bierregaard, “and we could think of no better way of displaying it than to also bring the house over.”
The collection is both inside and outside the house, which the Bierregaards purchased in 1979 from members of the 33rd generation of a noble Japanese family living in the mountains of Fukui Prefecture, some 200 miles west of Tokyo. In 1984, they decided to dismantle the house and rebuild it in the prefecture of Gifu, near the city of Nagoya, under the eye of Frank Lloyd Wright disciple Junzo Yoshimura, whose seamless join between airy house and leafy garden exudes a peace perfect for the collection. Yoshimura also designed the Residence at Pocantico Hills, just north of Tarrytown, N.Y., for Nelson Rockefeller in the late 1970s, which, as does the Casa de Japón, displays furniture by George Nakashima. “After the house arrived, we came to Buenos Aires with Japanese carpenters, who rebuilt the structure together with Argentine workers,” explains Bierregaard.
Among other pieces on display are sculpture by Hayami Shiro and Suzuki Osamu, ceramics by Nakamura Kimpe and Koie Ryoji, glass by Masuda Masanori, and bamboo basketry, the intricacy of which is simply stunning, by Shono Shounsai and Iizuka Shokansai. Celebrated Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi is represented, and many of those on display remain alive in Japan, where they are considered “living treasures.” Bierregaard has chosen not to collect paintings on canvas, but visitors should definitely check out the house’s huge structural beams, works of art in their own right.
And the Casa de Japón remains very much a living museum, with the Bierregaard’s resident on its third and fourth floors.
Minka/La Casa de Japón, Capitán Juan de San Martín 1596, San Isidro, Buenos Aires; (011) 54/11-4737-9293; minka_en@yahoo.com.ar; entrance, ARG$15 (£3).

April 05, 2022

Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, has long been a sleeping giant. Sort of part of Catalunya, but not really, the city and its province, La Comunidad Valenciana, have a distinct dialect of Catalan to call its own and enough distance from celebrated Barcelona (the soul of Catalunya) to have developed its own traditions and cuisine. The arrival of the America’s Cup, the 32nd regatta that took place this year, and some examples of what writers now breathlessly call “signature architecture”—Santiago Calatrava’s L’Hemisfèric and L’Oceanogràfic (part of the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències; www.cac.es) in Valencia’s Tùria Park are to Valencia what Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim is to Bilbao and the same architect’s new Jay Pritzker Pavilion is to Chicago—have shaken awake this city of 800,000. (Its soccer team even won a couple of Spanish season titles a couple of years back, breaking the hegemony of teams Barcelona and Real Madrid, and that might have helped its renaissance along, too, and in 2009 the city will for the second time host the America’s Cup.)
Parts of the city are still bordered by a medieval wall, the most notable sections being the Torres de Serrano and Torres de Quart. Some traditions practiced still today hark back to this era. For example, every Thursday morning, at 11 a.m., the Tribunal de las Aguas (Water Council) sets up half a dozen or so wooden seats at the back of the city’s cathedral in order to listen to water disputes. Dressed in black robes and hats, these city elders weigh up the information presented before passing judgment, as they have done so for more than 500 years. Their decision is binding. When I was there, all was anticipation, and then anticlimax, as no aggravated farmers neared the dais brandishing papers and grudges.
“The Fork in the European Road,” an article in this month’s Car & Travel, outlines the renaissance in Valencia’s cuisine but does not touch on the city’s most-famous contribution to the pallet: Paella (please see the link on this page for a sample recipe). Its most important ingredient is a fat type of rice called bomba that is grown only in the Albufera marsh, southeast of the city and separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a thin strip of wooded dune. Bomba absorbs three times its weight in water and is responsible for the rice taste of the final dish, which is traditionally eaten on a Sunday by residents, but every day by tourists, who often have to call a day ahead to order it.
Laura Terenzi, manager of the Valencia outpost of upscale outdoor furniture company Unopiù, has her showroom close to the marsh. “The dish is cooked in a very large, shallow pan, and it must be done over a fire, preferably wood from the orange tree,” Terenzi says. (Orange trees abound in the south of Spain and provide glorious color during the winter.) “The best paella I have had comes from restaurant L’Alter in the town of Picassent, which borders the Albufera,” she adds. “There, it is made traditionally, and with it we drink a local red wine from the Utiel-Requena (www.winesofvalencia.com) region made from a grape variety called Bobal.”
More famous is 107-year-old Restaurante Nuptuno (www.restaurante-neptuno.com) in Valencia’s Malvarros neighborhood, close to the port where the America’s Cup was held. Huge and on the beach, the restaurant is where politicians, celebrities and notables, including King Juan Carlos, come for their paella fix.
“It is not a cheap dish, certainly if it is made well,” says Jaime Ortega Ortiz, who owns bookstore Ubik Books (www.ubikbooks.com; in Spanish only) in the city’s El Carmen area neighborhood, regarded as its hippest locale. He loves restaurant La Caragola—“caragola” is the word for “snail” in the Valencian dialect—on the Plaza de Mosén Sorell for food that is both good and very reasonably priced, although only on very rare occasions does it decide to prepare paella. “For a restaurant that always has paella, go to Casa Roberto, in the El Ensanche area,” explains Ortega. “But you should expect to pay about 60 euros (approximately $80) for two people. Paella is never prepared for just one person, always for at least two.”
Usually, the dish comes in three forms. The mixed-meat version contains chicken and rabbit, along with rice, vegetables, a type of large white bean and snails, which Terenzi asks to be not included, while the seafood version has mussels, fish and prawns. The last version contains only vegetables. Paella should contain no meat stock or sausage.
A trip to the Albufera marsh to see where paella rice comes from is a very worthwhile one. It takes about 30 minutes to drive there. The marsh is notable for its silence and thin, crisscrossing canals, punctured on occasion by a farm’s tower or silo. One thin road crosses the marsh, cars needing to give way to oncoming traffic at its small, steep bridges. Rare birds, such as the Black-winged stilt, pause here after flying over from Africa, and its village and towns, all on its outskirts, are seldom visited and maintain many traditional ways. Sollana is a small town that makes an interesting stop. Its neat central square and outlying streets hold a running-of-the-bulls festival in late August that is similar but not as grandiose as its more famous cousin in Pamplona, 250 miles to the north. I went there on two consecutive days, having decided I liked the place. On the second evening of the event, several bulls were led into the square, where the village’s Young Turks showed their daring by taunting the bulls and jumping out of the way of their sharpened horns. Crowds—nearly all locals—cheered from the temporary stands that had been built around the square’s edge. One athletic youth leapfrogged a charging bull, while holding a blazing torch in his hand. That was impressive and something that I did not need to remind myself never to try, and certainly not after reading that, during this year festival, a 26-year-old man was gored fatally.
The older residents did not come to the square, but rather set up tables and chairs outside their homes and ate paella. “Fa frett,” one woman said to us, complaining about the cold. In Spanish, that phrase would have been “hace frio”; in Italian, “fa freddo.” “Fa fret” therefore seemed more Italian that it did Spanish, a remnant that harks back to the days when Catalans and their language ruled over Sardinia in Italy, Corsica in France and other non-Spanish areas farther to the east. It was pleasant to hear this snippet of an uncommon language, and I now use it with the friends I was there with, instead of Spanish or English, smiling at the memory of its origins.
A small church stands out of the Albufera at La Muntanyeta dels Sants, but there is little else apart from peace and beauty on the route north from Sollana back to Valencia until you reach another small town, El Palmar. Its long, main street contains at least a dozen places to eat paella and sits beside the marsh’s sole lagoon. Boat trips can be planned that take you to see its wildlife and traditional houses, which now are fast disappearing. A few can be seen from the side of the beach road between El Saler, where Valencianos come to bathe in the sun, and El Palmar.
Finally, do not leave Valencia without trying its signature drink, horchata, or orxata in Valenciano. This drink served chilled is made from tiger nuts, which are not nuts at all, but a root, a tuber introduced to south Spain from Egypt by the Moors who invaded Spain in the ninth century and inhabited it until 1492 when they were expelled by the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella. The drink does taste nutty. It also contains milk, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla and is superior, to my mind, than the similar but sweeter rice-based horchata sold in Mexico and many U.S. cities in which Mexicans have settled. It is perfect with a sandwich containing jamón ibérica de bellota, the most sought-after Spanish ham that is made from pigs who eat exclusively acorns (bellotas in Spanish). A pretty story, perhaps myth, surrounds the drink’s name. The one mostly told is how a young girl from Valencia served the drink—which locals also called chufa—to the Spanish king James I. She told him, “this milk is called chufa,” to which the king replied in Valencian, “Aixo no es llet, aixo es or, xata,” or in English, “This is not milk, this is gold, cutie.” A nice tale to remember during lunch.

March 21, 2018

birding in sri lanka

(Weddagala, Sri Lanka)...Our November 2017 trip to Sri Lanka was to have been divided neatly into two parts roughly measuring a week each. The first week largely was a week of adventure, travelling in the Hill Country near Hatton and then visiting the last pristine piece of rain forest on the island, Sinharaja; the second week was due to have been one of relaxation on a beach supposedly mirroring the cliché of a tropical Indian Island paradise from a glossy pamphlet.
It all sort of went that way, just with a lot of rain thrown in, including Cyclone Ockhi, which saw almost 250 fatalities, some 220 in India and 30 in Lanka. At the last count, more than 550 fishermen remained missing. For us, it was an interesting inconvenience, with our gracious hosts at the Little Tamarind guest house moving us to a lower room for the night. We had been to the Portuguese-Dutch walled city of Galle that day, and we had some sunshine, but on the way back near Mirissa and its fish market the palm trees started bending and the waves became a little more boisterous, not that anything seemed to bother the locals, even though this of course was exactly the same area that was utterly destroyed by the tsunami in 2004 that saw the demise of more than 5,000 people.
For three days a week before that we had spent all day with birding outfitter Walk with Jith and guides Tili and Tila, who genuinely are just as excited as their clients when they see birds, and presumably they have seen them all numerous times. The Land Rover journey from the village of Weddagala is a bumpy, bone-rattling affair made more endurable by the idea that it kept civilisation firmly at bay. We had hardly met the guides when they rushed us up to some unmarked but remembered spot to trek into the undergrowth, across rivulets, over rocks and under fronds for 300 or so metres to see a Serendib scops-owl (Otus thilohoffmanni), a species seen for the first time in 2001. That is rather remarkable on what is a relatively small island. The birds had been located that morning, so it was that afternoon or nothing. Two sat looking at us, a species that had not been gazed upon in any period of history until I was 35. Other avian highlights in the forest included the gorgeous Blue magpie (Urocissa ornate; on lots of tourist handouts, too), Red-faced malkoha (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus), Green-billed coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos), Sri Lanka spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata) and the very elusive Scaly thrush (Zoothera imbricata). Also seen was the country's national bird, the Sri Lanka junglefowl, the ancestor of the farmyard chicken, just a little more colourful.
Back in the capital Colombo we walked through Slave Town when the rain fell again. Seeking shelter in a betting shop, which I was amused are still called turf accountants here, as they were in the England of my youth, I watched a screen showing greyhound racing from Crayford Stadium, which is 100 metres from where my Nanna Barton lived. In the 1970s and 80s when I used to stay over on Friday nights, usually to get up early to take a train somewhere in the United Kingdom to meet my parents on holiday, I used to fall asleep to the sound of scramble motorbikes or banger cars racing around this stadium. Today the only action is the dogs.

March 19, 2016

(Mae Sariang, Thailand)...I have just booked a three-week trip to Myanmar for this upcoming Novermber 2016. I have never been there, but last Novermber I was within a few miles of it in the Thai town of Mae Sariang.
Even though the road map to get there from Chiang Mai looked like the easiest reconnoitre ever, I got lost, taking a wrong turn to the left at the wonderful named town of Hot. When the road petered out to a track, I stopped for directions. They often require in Thailand a 30-minute wait while the gracious people of that country try and do their best for you. Someone sprinted up a lane to get someone who had learnt a little English at school. There are smiles and broken English, and then you are on your way again. The road was heading to the lakes and areas of Doe Tao, and I stopped at a road side vegetable and fruit market and ate packets of rice cooked in anchovies and garlic that cost the equivalent of 9 pence or 15 cents, ate sweet bananas that they refused to take money for and was also offered cups of water that I did not risk drinking.
One the way back from Mae Sariang, first heading north to Khun Yuam and then east, I got lost again and had to head over the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, during dusk, but all went well.
Mae Sariang itself is an interesting place. It looks to be one of those South-east Asian places that will be the Next Place to Go. There are tourists there, including a Pole or Czech (?) I saw on the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, who nodded to me “hello” in the restaurant car (one of the joys of Thailand, not for its culinary offerings but for its sense of movement, colour and scenery) and then who I saw in Mae Sariang walking off into the distance without seeing me. That was one of those travelling moments I have had over the years of seeing mysterious travellers with unknown pasts and agendas, all quite happy so it seemed.
The Riverside Hotel (choose that, not the sibling Riverside Lodge) overlooks the Yuam River, and from my room a tree that contained two Stripe-throated bulbuls (Pycnonotus finlaysoni). To get to the other side of the river requires a walk along the town’s one major street, which contains an inordinate number of hairdressers, all of which were doing good business and could not get around to cutting my hair. A bridge at the end and to the right of this street leads across the river, and it is necessary to drop down on a dusty track, where a young boy was losing control of his goats and then an older man corralled his while on a small-engine motor bike. To the back of these two, through a wood, lay a series of fields (see photo above), some very poor housing stand apart from one another and chants and music emanating from a Buddhist temple behind the next set of farms.
Dinner on the wooden deck at the back of the hotel was pleasant. There is not so much to do here, which is delightful, but hiking excursions to hot springs and untrammelled national parks such as Salawin (where teak has been illegally logged for many years, the authorities claiming that the designation of it being a national park has halted that) are popping up, as are visits to the villages of local Karen and Lawa peoples. We stopped by a Karen village near to Ban Mai Phatthana, which appeared inhabited only by old women, one who smiled at us, one who hit in dirty clothes while sucking on a piece of cooked sweetcorn.
The next town up from Mae Sariang, Mae La Noi has a small market in the middle of the road, too. Not much else, but it is pleasant. The Riverside Hotel had a bored night watchman, who, when I asked for a beer, pointed at a locked fridge. I went to a bar three doors down, bought one and brought it back. A beer, that is, not a fridge.

February 12, 2016

(Al Ain, United Arab Emirates) … Al Ain (“The Spring” in Arabic) is an oasis approximately 100 miles southeast of Abu Dhabi, the capital of both the province of Abu Dhabi, in which Ai Ain also lies, and the nation of the United Arab Emirates. I reached it by bus from Abu Dhabi perhaps three hours after I arrived at the international airport. Ai Ain—I have also seen it spelt Al Ayn—feels like a city, whereas Abu Dhabi does not. That is not surprisingly considering caravans of camels and traders have been using it as a stopping point for more than 3,000 years.
In the middle of this city of half a million souls is a very large oasis (see photo), an area of calm, dusty walkways between shoulder-high walls and irrigation channels of much the same colour, and thousands and thousands of palm trees. The occasional sign says it is only accessible to farmers and tourists, which I rather liked, although that might be a warning for the country’s huge underclass of foreign workers to stay out. Most of the cheaper, more colourful restaurants dotted around town are Pakistani and Indian affairs with flat bread, rice and either vegetable or mutton casseroles, along with a wash basin to clean greasy hands (or at least the greasy right hand) after the meal is complete.
Many of the gates of the walkways walls in the oasis are locked. Some sport a sign saying they had been sprayed against vermin. I found one gate open and walked in, to sit on a canal wall (few had water in them) and enjoy the cool silence. Red-vented and Moustached bulbuls flitted around, and a Green bee-eater made sorties into the area.
There are several dun-coloured forts dotting the city, too. This might be because the United Arab Emirates’ first president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan was born there. Then, maybe it is not because of that. The Eastern Fort is now part of the Al Ain National Museum, which I spun around quickly. Another fort, by a park and the Rotana Hotel, has been recently restored.
The large mosque just north of the bus station is not the prettiest one I have seen, and close to it I ate at a local restaurant called Al Matar, which I am sure means "To the death" in Spanish. The name appealed to me. Rather, visit the gleamingly white, spectacular Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque back in Abu Dhabi, which is named for the Al Ain-born founder and is his resting place.
The central courtyard, white, white, white, with a large rose mosaic, is large enough to supposedly fit 40,000 people. I arrived there at 6:20 in the morning, when the mosque was beautifully blue and purple, before the morning sun turned its exterior into a golden honey colour. Open to tourists only at 9 a.m., I was given directions to a coffee chain establishment, where the only visitors were a long stream of ex pats who lived in tall blocks of flats around about it in the Zayed Sports City district.
The columns and huge expanse of courtyard are gracious and calming, and it is easy to forget that the mosque has only been here since 2007. Inside the mosque itself there are a couple of ugly chandeliers, but apart from those I very much enjoyed my hour here walking around. Just do not sit down. You will be barked at. No, it was not who perpetrated this apparent crime.
Another joy back in Al Ain was the mountain of Jebel Hafeet, one of the tallest mountains in the Emirates. More than one-thousand, two-hundred metres in height, from the top it is possible to see the mountains of the neighbouring country of Oman, as well as Egyptian vultures and Hume's wheatears. There is a border crossing near. Ten or so years ago it was possible to walk from the centre of Al Ain to the Omani town of Al Buraimi, which is pretty much incongruous with Al Ain, but with the rise of geopolitical angst, a wall was built, and now foreigners need to head south and across a no-man's land for some 25 kilometres. Visas are needed, too, and there are checkpoints.
I ran the 10 kilometres or so down Jebel Hafeet, the road almost twisting around to join itself so steep is the descent. French hotel company AccorHotels has a Mercure property perched close to the top. At the bottom, I had forgotten which way my taxi had turned on its way to the summit. A lorry driver gave me a lift to a bus stop, and just when I was told a bus was due to stop, an off-hours school bus driver in his school bus stopped for me and took me back into the heart of Al Ain.
The bus journey to Abu Dhabi affords views of spectacular dunes to both sides, and I espied camels.

January 25, 2016

(Cable Beach, The Bahamas) ... Finding culture on the Bahamas’ island of New Providence is not easy. It is there, though, but one needs to search diligently for it, especially outside of its capital, Nassau.
Considering where I was, this might be of no surprise, as I was there essentially to see the new Sheraton Cable Beach, which opened last January. It is a fine hotel, although wider plans to make it—together with the adjacent Wyndham hotel—part of a new megaresort called Baha Mar have stumbled.
Then again due to open in 2012 (it did not then either, and it remains in legal limbo up to now, 2016), this project was to have included a Caesars Park Hotel & Casino and Starwood Hotels & Resorts-branded properties W, Westin and St. Regis. It was to have been—so its developers gushed—the largest cluster of Starwood-branded properties in the world and a worthy alternative to the nearby, internationally famous playground of the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island (which, by the way, still retains its original name in the hearts of islanders: Hog Island, that is, where the pigs were kept, there at that time being no bridge and thus no chance of escape).
Nassau is a neat spot. Huge cruise ships pull into its cruise port, Prince George Wharf, which parallels Bay St., on which is the island’s famous Straw Market. I was told that the market developed in the 1940s, when the sponge industry there died, although it has roots in the 18th century when African slaves were imported. American soldiers looking to relax following World War II began to bring back straw souvenirs, and everything went from strength to strength. Today, these souvenirs are becoming increasingly cheap—straw bags with woven pictures of Harry Potter and Tweety Pie, for example, when I was there. Most is imported, I was told. If you want to purchase the good stuff—bags so perfect that they are as light as a feather but can hold 10 gallons of water—then you need to start talking to people and then being invited to their homes. That is where the good stuff is, not at the Straw Market. It is not the vendors’ fault. Most tourists seem to like Harry Potter and Tweety Pie. Market forces are at work.
A stroll away from the harbor area leads to the colorful houses and British-styled policemen in pith helmets, white tunics and shiny buttons that the island is known for. The pink Parliament Building should be visited, if only because access right into the chamber, where decisions are made affecting all of the 30 or so Bahamas’ islands, is possible. The room is small, but anyone visiting the United Kingdom’s parliament in London is likely to say the same thing; the United Kingdom governed these islands until 1973, and Queen Elizabeth II still is recognized as the Head of State. Outside Parliament Building is a statue of a young Queen Victoria, which was put up in 1905, four years after the sovereign’s death.
Farther up the hill are two worthwhile stops. The first is Fort Fincastle, built in 1793, which has several cannons pointed towards the harbor to protect early residents from pirates. A row of dark jail cells make for good photographs; a short walk from here is the—in my opinion—more impressive Queen’s Staircase, a 100-foot-plus set of stairs that was constructed by slave labor. Approximately 70 steps lead up the fort.
My favorite two attractions, however, were Graycliff and the Junkanoo Mini Museum.
The first, Graycliff is an internationally recognized hotel and restaurant. This is the quintessential idea of the colonial age, complete with smartly uniformed wait staff; white, metal garden furniture; fading photographs; dark wood, a baby grand piano and an impressive parade of stairs leading up to it. I searched for but did not find an elephant-foot umbrella stand, which I was convinced must be there somewhere.
Built by a captain of a schooner in the 18th century, the property’s guest list reads like a Who’s Who of sporting, acting and governing circles. Very impressive is its cognac, wine and whisky collections. Lunch and dinner here are not cheap, even if you do not order a bottle of 1948 Macallan whisky or a half bottle of 1865 Château Lafite-Rothschild wine (if you need to ask the price, you’ll probably not be able to afford it anyway). Overall, in the cellar there are above 250,000 bottles, and cognacs are the specialty, though.
The second was the Junkanoo Mini Museum. On the corner of West St. and Petticoat Lane, this museum—adjacent to the National Art Gallery, Government House and St. Francis Xavier Cathedral—chronicles the history of the islands’ colorful parades, which somewhat mirror those of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade and Río de Janeiro’s Carnival. On display are photographs of previous parades, which are held every Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day at Festival Plaza alongside Bay St., videos of the action and costumes in various stages of their construction.
As of 2006, there also has been a Summer Junkanoo Festival held every June.
Contestants—divided into crews—guard their festival creations with immense secrecy. These different teams, competing for bragging rights, have names such as “Roots,” “Fancy Dancers” and the “Valley Boys.” Seemingly, European warrior races are popular as names, too, with both the “Saxons” and the “Vikings” also doing battle.
Right behind the aforementioned Sheraton was a disused horse-racing track (see photo). I went to investigate it, and right next door was a fairly large metal bar or warehouse, scattered around which were masks, angels’ wings, sequins and pieces of colored material and paper. This was a Junkanoo shed, where the impressive parade costumes and floats are made. I was there in January, just after that Christmas’ festivities, so perhaps it was temporarily abandoned, to be set up a few months before June.
The track was abandoned, also, mainly because betting on horse racing is illegal in the Bahamas. In fact, it is illegal for Bahamians themselves to bet on anything. Only foreigners are allowed to. This sporting attraction was built when Bahamians could out down a wager; when suddenly they could not, the owners had to hope that sufficient foreigners were tempted. They were not.
If the Baha Mar project ever gets the green light, the track will probably disappear anyway. I made time for one other authentically Bahamian thing. A long walk along the beautiful turquoise seas from the Sheraton leads to Arawak Cay, on which are several rows of shack restaurants cooking up local cuisine. Collectively, it is called the Fish Fry, and initially I did not have high hopes for it. But it turned out to be fun. I chose one that had a crowd of local workers eating their lunches. An argument (from what I gathered, it was concerned with what was better, electricity or water, which struck me as a very curious argument, albeit an immensely entertaining one) was in full flight and voice, and the radio was tuned to a religious program. I ordered conch (pronounced “conk”), which was caught that morning and delicious.

January 24, 2016

(Zipaquirá, Colombia)... (Note that this text originally was written in 2001) ... Colombia is a beautiful country and an exquisite last frontier for commonsense travelers. When people ask me, I say, “it’s a wonderful place if you know how to walk down a street and get off a train,” meaning that it’s not for the first-time traveler. If someone gives you advice as to where not to go within the country, listen! Fly, don’t drive, between major cities. That said, I was very impressed with Bogotá. It’s a city with a lot of vitality, and the people have a healthy, positive outlook on life.
The train analogy is a little ironic, for Colombia currently has only one train line left, upon which on weekends leaves the Tren Turistica de la Sabana de Bogotá. Four trains, numbered 72, 75, 76, and 85, are active on the line, each of them between 100 and 150 years old (apparently they sleep somewhere in the beginnings of the dangerous southern barrios of the city, so I did not investigate).
Most people catch the train at its second station at Calle 110 and Carretera 10 (the photo above is a train station in the province of Boyacá, a little distant from the towns described in this post and, as far as I am aware, without a train for sometime). This is in the upscale northern section of Chicó, where you might be staying anyway (look for one of Bogotá’s few roundabouts and then walk along the grassy path of single-line track). The train (it was the #76) is a magnificent but slightly grimy black beast with red wooden sides and yellow and blue skirting, mirroring the colors of the national flag, and its loud, deep whistle is still rare enough to turn busy Bogotano heads. A handful of people were with me, all destined for the town of Zipaquirá, 35 kilometers to the north.
The journey is sufficiently obscure and adventurous to make for great travel. The French couple opposite me, from Lyon, were in Colombia essentially to adopt a child (the French come here to do that in the same way Americans were going to Romania 10 years ago) but were taking a break from the red tape to see the famous salt cathedral at Zipaquirá.
Initially, the train goes through suburban areas, but soon the landscape dries out, long lines of polar trees skirt large haciendas, and the train passes through small towns and villages. But don’t bother to hold on to your Panama hat, as it is not necessary at 20 kilometers an hour. The advantage is that one can really inspect the countryside, which is glorious. A restaurant car, lined with the same rich wood as the passenger carriages, sells beef or chicken and egg empanada rolls, tinto (black coffee), and barbecue and mayonnaise-flavor potato chips. A band entertains, playing Papayera music, security guards add that element of safety that is unfortunately a needed thing here, and the train has a circular front plate that conjured up images of the Wild West and Casey Jones.
The town of Zipaquirá itself is a joy, with a grassy square of palm trees, colonial churches and neat flower patches. It is worth a poke around, but most people on leaving the station head to the salt cathedrals. Literally hacked out of a huge mountain of salt, the cathedrals have been here for more than 125 years. The original cathedrals are closed, but a recent president of Colombia opened new ones several years ago. Consisting of 16 large chambers of various lengths and numerous passageways, this ode to God, which is still used for prayer and worked for salt, is impressive. Blue light magnifies huge crosses and altars, some of which are made of marble and some of salt. All of a sudden one stumbles over a Nativity scene or a statue of Christ.

June 23, 2013

(Dunhuang, China; part 3 of 3)...In olden times, traders and travelers would stop at Dunhuang and stock up on supplies. They would also learn the gossip and get their travel permits authorized. After administrative duties were completed, everyone had a choice. Go northwest to the Yumenguan Pass or southwest to the Yangguan Pass. Neither was a better choice than the other. To Yumenguan, they would perhaps run into the warlike Hun (all uncivilized hordes to the north were given this name) or fry in the desert; go to Yangguan and they would perhaps come across cutthroat bandits or freeze in the mountains.
The drive to Yumenguan takes time, even though it is only 60 miles from Dunhuang, but the scenery is utterly captivating. Several hours will pass as you make your away over flat sand, with only the occasional building (for shepherds?) to break the horizon. At the pass is the Hecang Tower, built by the Han Dynasty. It is crumbling but still stands, and in front of it is a thick trickle of a river that feeds a small marsh of grass and low scrub. A Hen harrier flew over when I sat by it. Also here are the farthest western reaches of the Great Wall of China, but a section of it built by an earlier dynasty than that which built the more famous stretches close to Beijing. The Great Wall of China here is no more than 10 feet high, and it is broken into small patches, rather than being one continuous structure. The strands of hay that poked out of the ground fascinated me. These, too, were parts of the wall, although the specific pieces had crumbled and blown away almost to nothing.
Beyond this the traveler really is in a land of no return. I continued over the rutted road, swerving off it if the desert was firmer and smoother than the road, which often was the case. I crossed the Bei Shan Mountains. The next thing to see is a plain of desert dotted with curiously shaped rocks that local tourism officials have gone to some extent to pretend they resemble animals.

Here is a conversation I had:
Official: “This one looks like a peacock.”
Me: “It does?”
Official: “And this one looks like a lion.”
Me: “A little, I guess.”
Official: “Yes. Ha, ha, ha. Yes. Enjoy them all.”

I would rather make my own mind as to what they were shaped like, or not to have to consider that at all. It was a beautiful spot, with huge rock outcrops popping out of the smooth sand. This is the Sanlongsha Yardan Geopark, and it is spectacular for its quietness and solitude. It also has what must be the World’s Loneliest Restroom. Ten miles back at the visitor center is a small museum and a restaurant. This is where the photo of the TV watcher in the slide slow (see link above) was sitting. The visitor’s center is low to the ground and resembles the low sandstone bluffs of the area, which is all well and good, but behind this is a 300-foot-high telephone and TV transmitter.
The bus that took me to Sanlongsha Yardan stopped a mile and a half short of the provincial border of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region. This is the home of the Uigüir people, Muslim Chinese, who are occasionally a thorn in the side of the Chinese government. Travelers need additional visas to enter, although there are tour groups who take regular groups of travelers there, visiting the towns of Urümqi, the province’s capital, and Kashgar. I met a few people who had come from Kashgar, and they told me that it was like stepping back into the Middle Ages, a place that still has blacksmiths and leather tanners. Groups also visit the Kum Tagh Sand Dunes, in which still roam wild camels and Tibetan asses.
To reach the other pass, Yangguan, you have to go back to the junction that leads to Dunhuang and then, instead of going back to Dunhuang, drive in the other direction. The pass contains a larger fort than does Yumenguan, perhaps because it has been restored and now contains a large museum. A very polite intern conducted me around the museum, which gives an overview of the history of the site. At every exhibit—every exhibit—she preceded her explanation with “And now, valued visitor, I draw your attention to…” It was annoying at first, bearable later and very amusing by the time we finished 45 minutes later. (Just be warned, if this might not be to your liking.) She then led me outside and up to the guard tower and wall that looked little different to what travelers 600 years ago would have seen. This is the end of the Great Wall of China. A huge mound of earth, which was in fact mainly comprised of broken tiles dumped over hundreds of year, was pointed out. It was no huge leap of the imagination to picture trails of camels and wagons disappearing into the distance.
Very surprising to me was the existence of a grape-growing region between the two passes, the vine finding a way to grow in the middle of the desert. A little wine is produced (not as much as in the town of Turpan, farther to the west), but mainly the grapes’ use is restricted to raisins.

(Dunhuang, China, part 2 of 3)...One of the two major tourist sites is the Mogao Caves, also knowns as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas. (A popular name, for also I have been to the Temple of One Thousand Buddhas on Kowloon Island, Hong Kong.) The road to them lies in between the city and the airport. The drive there does not look promising, until the car rounds a low bluff. Inside the cliffs are 492 caves with a staggering wealth of Buddhist art covering more than 1,000 years.
It was deemed an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. The official UNESCO report that gave it such status included in its pages the following three statements:

i. “In the desert landscape of the extreme northwest of the province of Gansu are the cliffs of Magao, which form the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha. The cliffs rise above the Dachuan River, which is 25 kilometres southeast of the Dunhuang oasis. Within the cliffs are the 492 natural cells and rock sanctuaries extending over 3,000 metres that make up the famous Caves of a Thousand Buddhas (Qianfodong);
ii. The group at Mogao, so strongly linked with the history of China, also constitutes an anthology of Buddhist art with paintings and sculptures spanning a period of a thousand years;
iii. The paintings at Mogao bear exceptional witness to the civilisations of ancient China during the Sui dynasty (cave no. 302 contains one of the oldest and most vivid renderings of the Silk Route theme; the mural depicts a camel pulling a cart), the Tang dynsasty (workers in the field in acve no. 23 and a line of warriors in cave no. 156) and the Song dynasty (the celebrated landscape of Wutaishan in cave no. 61 is an incredible example of cartography, with its cavalier view of the region, where nothing has been left out—mountains, rivers, cities, temples, roads and caravans are all depicted).”

Monks worked in near darkness painting intricate scenes of both Buddha’s life anf their own, and the detail is stunning (photos of the buddhas and artifacts are not allowed, with visitors needing to deposit cameras at the entrance booth). Only about a dozen caves are open to tourists due to conservation efforts. (As there are not allowed cameras, to see some of what I describe, visit the wonderfully colourful website of the Friends of Dunhunag.)
It is incredible to conceive of these solitary monks, who started work here before Buddhism was granted religious status in China, painting while sitting on crudely constructed scaffolding inside each cave with only the light from oil-smeared wicks to work by. Some caves are small, others large.
What is most celebrated here are the gigantic buddhas. It has both the largest indoor standing Buddha and the largest indoor reclining Buddha (both are approximately 35 metres in length). In order to protect the paintings, the rooms are feebly lit, and the semi-darkness gives to the buddhas a hulking presence.
Buddhist monks lived here until 1930, although it was a Taoist (Daoist) monk—his name was Wang Yuan-lu, and there is a small exhibition about him at Mogao—who in 1900 discovered the caves’ most precious treasure, the Diamond Sutras, perhaps the world’s earliest printed document.
The world’s archaeologists and adventurers made a beeline for the place, and through one-sided deals and blatant thievery, much of the caves’ contents now can be seen in European cities.
British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein, who died in and is buried in Kabul, Afghanistan, comes under particular admonishment from Mogao’s exhibition literature, and Wang himself was to subject to much ire, too, for the ease in which he handed over cartloads of precious objects to foreigners.
Dunhuang’s other great attraction is its gigantic Mingsha sand dunes, approximately five miles west of the center of the city. A good hotel is here is the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel. The map of Dunhuang on its website is the best map I could find, but it is pathetic.
For good or for bad, visitors are free to clamber over any dune they want at Mingsha, except for the one that stops a small lake called the Lake of the Crescent Moon (for its shape; known as “Yueyaquan” in the local dialect) from getting silted up. Long lines of clamberers snake up the dunes’ ridges, and the Westerners present refuse to wear the plastic red garters handed out to protect one's footweat from the sands. It is a little comical to see a row of seven or eight people all wearing these garters as they slowly scale a peak.
After 10 minutes or so of vigorous exercise it is possible to be all on your own.
Supposedly, when the wind blows gently the dunes sing. If the wind blows a little more steadily, it is probably advisable to get back down into Dunhuang, although even just outside of town roads can soon become impassable.
That the dunes sing is what the tourism officials told me, but when I was there all I heard was the whopping of Europeans sliding down the dunes on plastic sleds.
It is a wonderful place.
The correct name for the dunes is Mingsha Shan, translated into English as “Echoing Sand Mountain,” so who am I to doubts its tonal attributes?
Camels and, less environmentally sound, motorbikes help some to the tops of the dunes
I was told the lake has not silted up for 1,000 years, something locals seemed very proud of (there, there’s that number again, 1,000. I assume they mean in historical memory, but 1,000 just sounds so much more impressive).
Beside the lake are small fishponds and crop fields, and more camels.
(Dunhuang, China; part 1 of 3)...I first saw the word Dunhuang, many years ago, at an exhibition in the British Museum in London. The museum has approximately 15,000 items from this Chinese city in its collection, and most likely all of them were whisked out of China during the United Kingdom’s empire-building adventures of the 19th century. Most of them came from Dunhuang’s Magao Caves, which house some of the world’s largest statues of Buddha. The city’s name stuck with me amid a whirl of fantastic stories of the legendary Silk Road, on which it lies. This is the 5,000-mile Silk Road of Marco Polo; the Syrian Assassins (where the word “hashish” comes from, by the way) loyal to the Old Man of the Mountains; the great trading cities of Bukhara, Tashkent and Samarkand; the great Arabic university cities of Baghdad and Damascus; The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (as it is correctly known as) by mad, bad, multilingual Richard Burton; and the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an. Try and go to Dunhuang and not feel part—an infinitesimally minute part—of all that history and folklore, sandwiched as you are between the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, which is predominantly Muslim in culture and religion.
Sand is what you first notice. It creeps into the city’s small but modern airport, fills the eye holes of your shoes before you’ve even got comfortable in your taxi and lies in huge quantities to both sides of the road. At meal times, an occasional grain of it will crack in your teeth, an experience known, no doubt, to anyone eating sandwiches on the beach. To that extent, it is nothing short of miraculous that the streets of Dunhuang, announced by an imperial-style Chinese arch, seem mostly cleared of the stuff. Piles of vegetables, fruits and chilies survive being placed in stands in the market and residents do not need to cover their eyes and mouths with bandanas.
Dunhuang, approximately 1,500 miles west of Beijing, always has been an important stopping-off point for traders on the Silk Road, a place to stock up on provisions, hear the gossip from other traders and receive warnings of the dangers that might lurk ahead. Such places were known as caravanserai. One was needed at Dunhuang perhaps more than at other places for one reason: To the west lay the immense, dry, dangerous Gobi Desert, which is mainly a rocky expanse, rather than a sandy one. Next to the Gobi, and on the traders’ Silk Road route, is a sandy desert, called the Taklamakan. Its name sounds better in the local language, as its loose translation into English is “the desert from which no one returns.” If I saw that on my 13th-century map, I might be persuaded to spend a little more time in Dunhuang, too.
Dunhuang’s airport is nine miles east of the city, and the drive between the two already provides a notion of what the desert looks like. Mostly it is not the desert of Hollywood images of Lawrence of Arabia but an expansive, flat area of nothing—gray-yellow sand and small rocks. Once in a while a low ridge of sandstone cliffs breaks the beautiful monotony.
The first thing a visitor sees on driving beneath Dunhuang’s entrance arch is the 251-room Dunhuang Hotel, which has rooms to both sides of the road and a restaurant and conference space to the left. Upstairs is a theater in which dancing troupes perform regional dances of graceful choreography and synchronized movement. The Chinese restaurant is no different from the vast majority of restaurants in this country—noisy. (I was watching the TV broadcast a game of Ping Pong, which needs no language skills to be understood and followed, so it was a little bit of a mystery to me why a waiter smiled at me and changed channels to a news broadcast in Chinese. Maybe he just didn’t like me?)
A few hundred feet down the road is a statue comprising four camels—of the two-hump Bactrian species that has always lived in the area—that stands in front of the Dunhuang Museum. The museum feels a little institutionalized, but its exhibits are interesting enough, with artifacts chronicling the rise and fall of several Chinese dynasties, the people of which all, despite being forgotten in the mists of time, left evidence of their arrivals. Behind the museum, as the city begins to peter out in a series of dusty side roads, is a small park with another statue, this time of a fierce warrior. Around the park’s edge were Mongolian yurt tents. It looked like a temporary fair had set up shop, but this was not the case. These were homes and food stalls. The largest statue in the city is the one in the middle of its one traffic circle, a huge statue of a Chinese beauty playing a guitar behind her head, sort of like Jim Hendrix used to do, if you will excuse the crass analogy.
My favorite activity in Dunhuang was visiting the market. During the day, Muslim Chinese operate food stalls, while in the evening, things are lit up and stallholders sell an amazingly broad range of relative nontouristy knick-knacks. I found a small pot with a lid that dated to the early 20th century (or at least I was told this by someone at the hotel). They were made for mass consumption, and many (but not mine) depict erotic scenes. I searched all around the market for another example but found no other. The evening market, known as the Shazhou Night Market, stretches the whole length of one street. At one end are stalls selling delicious kebobs of grilled lamb, grapes and a single piece of lamb fat. All is rubbed in chili, and my mouth is watering now just writing about them.

June 20, 2013

(Salkimbagi , Turkey)…Someone explained to me in Diyarbakir that there was a road all the way from the Kurdish capital to the mysterious statues of Nemrut Dagi. “Yes. Straight road,” he said. “From here to there.” The road was soon beautiful, rising high into the thinner air to the northwest of Siverek. Teenagers wearing knitted caps, which I had not seen in all the other, warmer areas of Turkey I had travelled to, tended large flocks of sheep and goats. Round knots of bare rock peaked out of the stony soil, and I saw a small group of soldiers: This area often has seen activity from the outlawed Kurdish Partyiya Karkeren Kurdistan organisation.
Thus, it came as a surprise when the D360 road ended at Mezra, at the thinner north end of the lake known as Ataturk Baraji, named after the founder of modern Turkey. I wondered if I would have to do a 180-degree turn, but I decided against that when I saw the distance involved. I parked behind the one other vehicle already awaiting the ferry.
The ferry port consisted of a small building that was divided into a small room for sitting and making chai and a prayer area. Two women – perhaps a mother and daughter – sat outside wearing the traditional lilac-coloured headscarves that I had started seeing in Sanliurfa, Ceylanpinar and Mardin. As I waited, additional cars came and parked, although in no order. Pretty soon my car looked as though it would be the fifth car to get on the ferry, then the tenth, a worry that grew when I saw the size of the ferry. A ramp was thrown down onto a concrete slab emerging from the water, and after the cars on it departed the jigsaw puzzle began that resulted in every waiting car getting a space. It was a very impressive display of juggling, and I have to say I was impressed, too, by my ability to follow instructions, drive up the ramp and fit in. It took some effort to get out of the car once the ferry was off, such was the squeeze, but here was a wonderful, 20-minute journey, rich blue sky kissing bare lakeside hills and the sound of Kurdish being spoken among the passengers.
It was not the first potential delay that had turned into a fond memory. Almost 200 miles before in the River Tigris-side town of Hasankeyf – continually threatened by a planned hydroelectric dam, which will sink this amazing place of cave dwellings, towers and tombs if it goes ahead (help plan that it does not, although the last news is that the plan has been discarded) – some local children, after successfully relieving me of all my strawberries after finding out I had no pens, were responsible for laying down thumb tacks on the floor that luckily resulted in only two wheels being punctured. One of these was so slow to lose air I did not realize until hours before I returned the vehicle to the car agency. At the time I had parked the car to visit the startling blue tomb of Zeynel Bey, who was the eldest son of Uzun Hasan, who, in turn, was a 15th-century sultan of the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty of everyone’s favourite Orghuz people of the White Sheep Turkmen, who as all students know hardly ever got on with the rival Black Sheep Turkmen. I do not think Hasan ever came to Hasankeyf, despite the names, and Zeynel was killed in action in 1473, five years before his father died – amazingly peacefully, which is a word that cannot possibly describe the bloodshed that then took place between his remaining sons for his vacant throne.
Also amazingly was that opposite the tomb, which was being repaired, was a small mechanic's hut. After prayers, he fixed up the wheel, but on the next day as I drove some 10 miles away, I realised the wheel was unaligned and the steering therefore was faulty. Back I went. The mechanic, who was the nicest person, was frightfully apologetic.
After Lake Ataturk, the D360 continues. I was on the lookout for a turn to Karadut, which in turn led up increasingly smaller roads to one of the great archaeological finds of the late 19th Century – Nemrut Dagi. But before I reached it, I made a wrong turn, which is the reason I started to take some travel notes while in the minute village of Salkimbagi, snot-faced children (no thumb tacks … I was checking) tapping on the window.
Nemrut Dagi’s statues are on the top of a bare, somewhat forlorn, windswept, 7,000-foot-high mountain. The hillside also contains one of the loneliest WCs on the planet, although it cannot compare with the one I came across in the Gobi Desert a few miles west of the Great Wall of China’s final fort (from thereon in, medieval Silk Road travellers, you are on your own!) at Yangguan. A few people trickled up the steep, rocky hillside to Nemrut Dagi, the final and only marker of the long-forgotten Commagene people, this 1st Century BC tomb site honouring King Antiochus I. In fact it gives him far more honour than his life deeds merit, with statues of gods, including Hercules and Apollo, accompanying a 30-foot-high statue of himself. Standing around are other huge statues with pointy beards and cool headgear and representing eagles and other animals. His remains have never been located.
Today, Nemrut Dagi makes for an epic adventure, though, so I am not criticising Antiochus I’s ego one little bit – although what I find more amazing is how the German Charles Sester ever found these grey statues camouflaged perfectly amid thousands of square acres of identical rock and not – to my knowledge – even on the highest point hereabouts. “I’ll just have a wander, see what I see,” he might have muttered one afternoon before disappearing for a fortnight. That said, one thing I have learnt about travelling over all the years of good fortune I have had the opportunity to do so is that everywhere you think you have been, and only you have been, someone else has always got there before you – and usually a German!

May 13, 2013

(Lalibela, Ethiopia)...In January 2013, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church raised the entrance fee for the famed rock-hewn churches in Lalibela – Ethiopia’s most popular tourism destination – from $20 to $50. Just a tad over the rate of inflation! Not everyone is happy. While the priests (along with quite a few others I met while all over Ethiopia this March and April) believe tourists have unlimited supplies of dollars and Ethiopian birr, tourism guides and providers (who quickly realized most tourists do not) have seen their clients decide not to ditch the churches but to lessen additional costs by ditching them.
The news of the fee increase has swiftly reverberated. Guides are trying to organize crisis meetings with priests and their representatives, but pleas for commonsense or a compromise have fallen on deaf ears. I saw families of four or more buy just two tickets and then hand them over to those who remained outside when it came to their turn. Priests have countered with writing passport numbers on tickets, which do last for four days, and checking them against the passports of those inside the complex. On my second day there, I decided to do without a guide, and my ticket was checked every 200 yards. That’s annoying, too.
Recent developments might hurt the pocket, but it is hard to ignore the pull of these majestic, stunning churches and celebration of faith over labor. All 11 churches, referred to as monolithic, that is, carved from one piece of rock, are a sensory overload of swaying, chanting priests, sandstone passages – including one that leads from heaven to hell (certainly if you do not have a torch with you) – icons, carvings, pilgrims, penitents, carpets, illuminated manuscripts, white robes and reverence.
It is thought that most were built in the 12th and 13th centuries during and just after the reign of King Lalibela, who was inspired to construct them as the New Jerusalem following the original Jerusalem’s capture by Muslim forces in 1197. Legend also states that one church or more appeared after one night thanks to the help of angels. That the churches were aided spiritually does not appear to be an impossibility. In three clusters – Southeastern, Northwestern and the single church of Bet Gyorgis – the churches dominate the small town of Lalibela and could easily take up three days of your time. I found several spots in which to sit down and watch nuns separate wheat from chaff, priests ignorant of your presence flip through the pages of a bible written in the Ethiopian religious language of Ge’ez, young novices scuttle from church to church, small congregations of church elders murmur prayer and incantations and Mocking chats, Blue-breasted bee-eaters, Greater blue-eared glossy starlings and other birds make homes in sandy hollows. Lichen and moss color walls. Visitors smile in adoration of the mind-blowing architecture and of how this majesty was created and then wonder what is behind the curtains that in every church conceal the Holy of the Holies, icons, crosses and other religious paraphernalia permitted to be seen only by priests. Among the lucky is the church’s new patriarch, 71-year-old Abune Mathias, who had been enthroned in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa at the beginning of March. Aptly for the Lalibela legend, his former post was in Jerusalem.
At Lalibela, I noticed the lack of something I was previously warned of, and this was confirmed for me upon talking to other travelers. Before the fee increase, guides hassled tourists more, priests often stuck out a hand if it was obvious that they were the subject of a photo and other locals warned of dire consequences if they were not hired as shoe carriers (footwear is not allowed in the churches themselves), although all of Ethiopia is so polite and reverent, threats of any magnitude seem hardly believable. Now, though, these additional costs seem to have evaporated. It is though someone has said, yes, you can charge me $50, but the bucks stop there. This is the main concern of the guides, most of whom are worth the $15 to $18 they charge, for a former total of less than $40, two separate fees that at least spread the money around the town. One gripe is that the church spends very little if anything on the town. One bar worker I talked to said he earns 300 birr a month, about $17. Women might also gripe at the church of Bet Golgotha, attached to Bet Mikael, as it does not allow them in, the only church in Lalibela not to do so.
The $50 fee also is just for the churches in Lalibela. There are others worth visiting that charge an additional amount. High up on Abuna Yoseph mountain, the small church of Asheton Maryam has some marvelous crosses and manuscripts, dutifully shown to you by a scowling priest, and a passage hacked through the mountain that leads to steps falling down in the direction of Lalibela (beware of a scam half way down when locals appeal for money for a supposed Library Club). When the sun begins to set, white-robed believers slowly walk to the edges of the churches and listen to hidden priests recite mass and extend blessings. I sat with them (Lalibela is great for sitting) and again was spellbound by the belief, sounds and sights wafting around me. It reminded me very much of Jerusalem (more proof!) at sunset, when the sun drops behind the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the taped chants of muezzins across loudspeakers float up to the Mount of Olives – very often joined by snatches of Jewish klezmer music.
Christmas, Epiphany and Easter are very busy here, and finding out when they are is not so easy. Ethiopia has a different calendar, both for the year (it’s currently 2005, this year beginning last September 11) and the months (there are 13 in a year). It also abides by the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian one. After leaving Lalibela, I asked my driver-guide, Zawdu Hailu, when the relevant dates would be for 2014, and after eight days with him, he still could not be certain. Whenever these festivals are, travelers can expect higher hotel prices and full hotels but not necessarily sold-out flights. Lalibela is becoming popular, but it is far from being saturated. That said, recent changes have been profound.
Less than 10 years ago, there was not even a half-decent rocky road to get here, and the airport could not be used during the rainy season. A bus takes two days to get here from Addis Ababa; the plane takes 45 minutes, plus another 45 minutes on a bus from the airport. On one day I was there all the activity was at the church called Bet Gabriel. An all-day festival brought priests from other churches – they tend to be associated with one particular church but worship from time to time at the others – as well as a huge congregation. Colorful umbrellas shaded pilgrims from the sun as they, too, sat on every exposed rocky surface. Priests held out crosses for pilgrims to kiss and extended blessings. One blessed me, the difference being that he then expected a tip – 50 birr. Hotel development is developing fast in Lalibela, especially around the futuristic Ben Abeba, the design of which looks like the super slide of an aquatic theme park. More to my taste was the town’s oldest hotel, The Seven Olives, which in the off season charged $30 for a room facing its wealth of trees containing Variable, Olive and Marico sunbirds, Black-headed weavers and Red-billed hornbills and has the best restaurant hereabouts. This is a place for travelers to chill. It was also managed by the church, but I was told that this was no longer the case. Another great restaurant was the very basic Blue Nile (no website), along the road between the Northwestern Cluster to the Seven Olives. Food is cooked in a thatched area over a bare fire and to order. Unique (no website) on the road to Asheton Maryam is good for atmosphere and the owner’s character, but the food was basic – by this time into my trip, I decided that for every meal I could have eaten injera – Ethiopia’s spongy, flat bread – and wat – the meat- or vegetable-filled sauce, often spicy, that is tipped onto it and shared on huge plates.
One new development I loved was Lalibela Hudad, an eco-lodge also high on a mountain that faced the mountain on which sits Asheton Maryam. Its accommodation is four comfortable tukul huts spread very far from one another, with outside showers – order your warm water when you’re ready. There is a kitchen and lounge by the entrance, the passage to which is a narrow cleft between rocks that makes absolutely no concessions to the larger among us. Perhaps the unfit would struggle to make the two or three hours climb, despite mules (250-300 birr) handling luggage. In the evening, delicious food is served amid stars and quiet, foot massages (explained as typical Ethiopian hospitality) and songs, including one inspiring soldiers to be courageous – listening to these cries, it did not come as a surprise that Ethiopia was never colonized, if you ignore five Italian years between 1936 and 1941. During the day, the maximum of eight guests are joined by a pack of colorful Gelada baboons. The property is currently “unofficially open,” and it plans another three tukuls and a restaurant, but as there is no electricity or water supply, wonderfully, there will be a limit to how modern it can be made. It is memorable. Porridge with native honey and a cup of strong coffee while staring at distant hamlets and farms is a great way to start any day. On the way up, stop off at a farmer’s tukul for coffee and chat, while on the way back down, stop off at Asheton Maryam.

April 24, 2013

(Kanazawa, Japan)...The Continued Artistry of Post-Tsunami Japan: It is now a little more than two years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of Japan, but bathing in Houshi natural spa in its namesake hotel, which has welcomed guests since 719, I could be excused for thinking nothing was amiss. In the village of Awazu, sleeping on tatami mats in Zen peace, dressed in a yukata robe and eating sushi, life was good, a
nd my foremost concern was that it’d be very nice if the Japanese government weakened a little the yen, its currency.
Travelers often get scared by world news. When there are so many places to choose to travel to, this is understandable, but when our biggest concern might be security, Japan offers the perfect destination. Expense and fears of radiation (current advice is to stay at least 50 miles from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station, even though radiation levels are lowering to normal levels) ate to one side, Japan’s warm welcome, punctuality, organization and rich culture are on the other.
And it is its culture that is revamping Japan’s image in Westerners’ eyes. A short plane hop from Tokyo’s Haneda airport (as eclectic and wonderful as Narita, Tokyo’s international airport, is stark and dull) lies the Hokuriku region and the cities of Toyama, Fukui and Kanazawa. These western parts of Japan are where its art truly flourishes.
Kanazawa was the base for samurais (a note in one samurai’s house thanks a friend for bringing him the head of his enemy) but now is the country’s center for golf leaf, fitting considering that Kanazawa means “marsh of gold” in Japanese. I watched the delicate process of taking golf leaf from sheets and literally (and gently) blowing it onto varied surfaces at this small city’s Hakuza showroom-store, after seeing it lovingly applied to ceremonial, very tall, incredibly ornate carriages at the Ecchu Yatsuo Hikiyama Museum; amazingly, these priceless exhibits are slowly pulled around a suburb of Toyama every May. In Toyama, along a back street, the houses of which seem to be one after the other the repositories of painstakingly created crafts, Kamejiro Masuda showed us the process of producing world-class sake at the small Masuizumi brewery, while just down the road, Mitsuoko Motors makes hand-crafted sports and luxury cars, with a chief designer apologizing to me for being so young, in a country where old age is revered. Hundreds of other beautiful and interesting cars were displayed (in some kind of order, so its pamphlet believed) in the Motor Car Museum (Japan’s largest) in Komatsu and which also featured in the gents’ toilet, 15 or so differently shaped urinals (to be used) from around the world. Nearby, the Echizen bamboo gallery makes gallery-worthy sculpture and other crafts from the world’s tallest grass, bamboo.
Other sites spoke of peace, tranquillity, skill and patience. The Ohi Chozaemon Ware studio and museum, where delicate pottery (see photo) has been made for royalty and notables in Kanazawa (really, the capital of Japanese art) since 1666, makes a perfect physical counterpart to the cerebral, beautiful, grand Eiheiji monastery in Fukui where monks have quietly gone about their business since 1244.
Back then to sake, if you’ll allow me, for a last toast to Japanese art and the country’s post-tsunami comeback. Masuizumi means “fountain of happiness,” and what really came across on my visit was the never-compromising attention to artistic detail over the slow span of many centuries, in which no doubt numerous earthquakes and tsunamis have come and gone, none of which severely altered thousands of craftspersons’ state of sublime consciousness to their finished products.
My last stop was to the World Heritage site of Gokayama, a “lost” mountain village of thatched farmers’ cottages. The snow was 10-foot deep in February, but the warmth of this country shone through in a snug cottage by a central fire pit in which a Japanese tea ceremony was being prepared.
Japan is coming back, and in a country where Bullet Train cart-vendors turn around and bow at passengers when they reach the carriage’s electronic doors, the sooner travellers realize that this is a country to be marvelled at the better.
(Brooklyn native Evelyn Teploff-Mugui, who I met in Southside Coffee, Brooklyn,produces a newsletter and markets art for Kanazawa.)

March 20, 2013

(Parque Nacional de Tayrona, Colombia)…It was only a few years ago that this beautiful park on the northern coast of Colombia, close to Santa Marta, was utterly off limits. Even in the mid-part of the last decade, the park and jungle’s leafy valleys were the haunt for guerrilla movements, notably FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The original residents, the Kogi, retreated high into their dominions in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria. They have come down to the beaches again, if only to keep an eye on the fledgling tourism developments, which thankfully here consist only of a park rangers' headquarters (see photo) with a basic restaurant and a shack selling water by the only beach not pummeled by Atlantic Ocean breakers.
This is the land of Nobel Prize for Literature winner Gabriel García Márquez, and the lengthy drive between the commercial capital hereabouts, Barranquilla, and the park are riddled with references and sign to and of him. The last time I visited Colombia (2000), it was considered too dangerous to visit Aracataca, his birthplace; this time around, I simply did not have time, but a hot soak after my Tayrona adventures brought me very close. Next time! The huge marsh of La Cienaga, which means "The Marsh" in Spanish, is his country, too, as is the desert promontory of La Guajira, home of the Wayúu Indians and the small city of Riohacha. I would fly out of Colombia from that place on a small plane headed to the near but totally different tourism experience of Aruba.
The walk through the Parque Nacional de Tayrona was easy and pleasant on the way to the beach. Small rivulets were crossed, and I caught glimpses of such wonderful birds as the Collared aracari, Lance-tailed manakin, rufous-and-white wrens and a type of hummingbird called a White-tailed starfrontlet. The sound of crashing in the jungle undergrowth could have been anything, most likely small rodents, such is the way sound is carried here. After a handful of miles, the path drops down to the type of beach film producers would crave for to represent the beginnings of the planet. Huge rocks reminded me of the opening lines of García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude -- rocks that he wrote bordered the "bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs, [where] the world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
Waves crashed high, and a lone horseman with a dangling machete rode through a tidal pool to complete the scene. Eventually, the park headquarters building is reached, and it was here for lunch that the clear skies and large sun disappeared behind brooding cloud. As the rain came down, a Kogi child emerged from the jungle and sat down opposite us. I thought in clichés, of primordial swamps and our distant ancestors. A donkey shaded itself beneath a large red beach umbrella, and a white horse stuck its head out from huge palm fronds.
The rain did not cease and grew harder. We needed to head back, and it was with a little nervousness. Lightning hit the beach ahead of us, and I longed to get back into the forest. I picked my step up and started climbing to get around the series of rock boulders that came down to the sea in regularly spaced out formations. Eventually my group got back under cover, only for me to pause under a reed canopy and feel the hairy attention of an adult tarantula on my shoulder. I flicked it off, which I do not think I would have done if I had paused for another second to consider what it was. The small streams we had crossed on the way up were now raging torrents that crossed the path and had grown to eight or ten times their original size. More water sliced across the trail in the opposite direction. On the second torrent, all hope was lost to keep shoes and socks dry. T-shirts stuck to the skin. I was having a great time.
Shivering back at the bus we dried the best we could. One of our group of four had the keys to a rudimentary natural hot springs of a friend of his (he had never been) that was somewhere near to the hamlet of Orihueca, just the other side of the Aracataca rail line. It was dark, and we fumbled along in the car trying to find the entrance. At one stage the army appeared from nowhere – just like the white horse – and asked what we were doing. Explanations believed, they pointed to a dirt lane, and after opening some old gates, we turned on the headlamps and jumped into the warmth of the springs. Above us bats the size of dinner plates flew around, and an unseen train rattled along on its way to my Timbuktu of Aracataca, no more than 10 kilometres distant. I lent back in the silent pool and considered that what the train contained was not fruit but the dead bodies of the banana workers massacred in the famous scene in García Márquez's fictional town of Macondo.

March 01, 2013

(Ferrara and Comacchio, Italy)…The north eastern parts of Italy, just before the country takes a swing right towards Venice, were a revelation. Two towns stood out, Ferrara – cold in winter, baking and occasionally gusty in summer – and the lagoon-side Comacchio, famous for eels. Both were easily accessible from Bologna, which has direct air service from London.
The surroundings of Ferrara are quintessentially the Italy of fictional character Don Camillo, the erratic priest always at odds with his Po Valley town’s Communist mayor Giuseppe Bottazzi – a plot line that reminds me of the later Graham Greene novel Monsignor Quixote. Don Camillo country is best represented by being very flat and studded with tall, square church clock towers, which can be seen from miles around. We espied many both before we reached Ferrara and especially afterwards.
Ferrara in August was warm and still. Our steps were languorous along the very long Via Carlo Mayr, which revealed striking, tall town houses and ended at part of the city walls by a park. The centre of this university town has two large piazzas, one facing the cathedral and leading beneath a huge arch to a smaller square with a market, the other on another side of the cathedral, with outdoor restaurant tables and shops in arcades. As we sat dining, half the town seemed to be blowing away in the wind, which might be the same bora-type gales that can whip pedestrians off their feet in Trieste.

A first port of call was the Palazzodei Diamanti on the Corso Ercole I d’Este, along another hot, straight street where a crossing bicycle perhaps a quarter of a mile away disappeared and then popped back out again in the heat haze. The palace gets its name from the 8,500 diamond-shape, pinkish concrete knobs that speckle its exterior. Built in the 15th Century, it now houses an art gallery and university buildings, but it can be visited. It is pleasing to the eye, but perhaps I was more excited to find nearby a cash dispenser covered in cobwebs and specks of tree seeds that – if it had cash inside – would dispense Italian lire, not European euros (see photo above). What a find for 2012, 13 years after lire and its comical number of zeroes were consigned to the rubbish heap. But there it was, not dismantled or hidden behind new bricks.
The Castello Estense, or Castle of Saint Michele, sits in the middle of the city and a water-filled moat. It was the scene in 1385 in which the Ferrara locals – the Ferrarese – tore to bits the official they heard responsible for numerous years of nonstop, severe drought. Actually, the city rulers at the time, Niccolò I and Alberto, sensibly decided to sacrifice the first person below them they presumably would not miss, one Tommaso da Tortona, but this was child’s play compared with the public torture in the main square earlier that century of Giovanni d’Este, the bastard brother of the same Alberto, and the public burning of Costanza dei Quintavalli, who both were also accused of diverting normal weather patterns. No wonder the wind has not since ceased howling. The Po carries on flowing gently by, though.
The B-class road towards the Adriatic Sea curves around the marsh and rice fields of the Valli di Comacchio. A spot of pilgrimage for us on the way was the very small town of Anita, which supposedly was the place of death of Ana Maria de Jesus Ribeiro, the at-the-time pregnant wife of Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was actually born in Nice in today’s France. Born in Brazil of Azorean heritage, Ana Maria, or Anita for short, probably succumbed a little farther around the lagoon, some five kilometres away, in Mandriole, but perhaps do not try telling that to the locals in Anita.
Comacchio came as a surprise. It has a touch of Venice about it, sans the 250,000 daily tourists. A wooden lookout looks over the lagoon and the occasional eeling boat, while behind are a couple of canals built by the Emperor Augustus in the century before Christ. The most notable bridge here spans three canals, the two-towered Trepponti constructed in 1638 by another Giovanni, Pietro de Lugano. This is where Ferrara’s River Po finally makes its way to salt water.
We wandered along several canals – it does go by the moniker Little Venice – to a number of small restaurants that serve that increasingly rare commodity, eels. Quite tasty, and we were told the biggest cardinal sin of cuisine here is to cook them in oil. Be warned! In October there is an eel festival that hopefully coincides with eels starting to make their journeys from the lagoon all the way to the Americas and the Sargasso Sea. An unusual sight is the Anders Lassen Statue, by the aforementioned lookout, which commemorates a Danish soldier who died here in the last days of World War II.

November 02, 2012

(Vedado, Cuba) ... Fidel Castro's country is a magnet for travellers. It remains mysterious, old-fashioned, energetic and – for many – forbidden. Restrictions from the U.S. (and anyone who has U.S. visa/passport/residence connections with that country) are easing, and very recently, the Cubans began to allow its citizens to leave, despite the process remaining tightly controlled.
Havana, its capital has three main sections – La Habana Vieja, La Habana Central and Vedado, the westernmost of the three. It ends at the Río Almendares, a wood-sided river of herons, rowboats, political graffiti and litter. At the small park Anfiteatro Parque Almendares, there were a small zoo and a circular bar, a wonderful spot to avoid the heat. I have read that this stretch of Havana is dangerous.
We stayed on Calle 28 – even-numbered streets cross odd-numbered ones, so Calle 28 would not have a junction with Calle 26, for instance – at the incredible house of a very interesting man who was a former soldier and headed up one of the committees that was responsible for something very technical and complicated in regards to the retrieval and transport to Cuba of the long-buried body of Che Guevara from Bolivia. Even the lanes between tombs in the main cemetery, also in Vedado, keep to this system, even though Calle 16 at the cemetery veers off Calle 16 outside of it at an angle of 45 degrees, as though an earthquake had picked up and moved all the dead.
The house we slept in was three stories high, and at the back were two rooms for travellers. These are called casas particulares. The regulations state that householders are allowed to rent out two rooms per house if those rooms have a shower. Breakfast can be served, but not lunch or dinner, as this would eat into the government’s near-monopoly on restaurants. Outside of Havana, casas particulares can add dinner. Inside the main house all was old – nearly all permanently stuck in 1959 – and there was a grand piano and a table that looked like it might have been brought over on a galleon from Imperial Spain.
We had brought over some baby clothes, knowing that the owner’s daughter – who taught salsa dancing and had been to Spain and Argentina – just gave birth to her first child and thinking this was more sensible than bringing Levis, and also therefore not being open to criticism that we assumed everyone wanted these things and, besides, did not have them already – the first thing I saw in the house was a huge Mac computer system, a rack of guitars and a massive amplifier. The child’s father was an accomplished musician. There was no poverty here.
Another house on the same street that we stayed in at the end of our trip was a veritable Art Deco masterpiece, with delicate flowers painted in bright red on the walls and a hummingbird sat on its nest in a low branch of a tree in the back garden. I was scared to touch anything – whatever breaks cannot be replaced.
We spent a lot of time in this first house – a destination in itself – chatting. When we wanted to go to La Habana Vieja, we walked one block to the main Avenida 23 and hailed a 1950's American car for which the city is celebrated and further polluted. Vedado also is the right place to get to the incredibly out-of-the-way bus company – Viazul – on the junction of avenidas 26 and Zoológico. It is the cheap way to get to places such as Viñales to the east, on donated, comfortable Chinese buses, where Cuba’s famous cigars hail amid limestone sugarloafs called mogotes, and Trinidad to the southeast, a small city where the old Cuban way of life (yes, controlled, with tourists using CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos) and nearly everyone else using regular pesos) is not even remotely snuffed out by tourism.
On the corner of calles 30 and 27, or perhaps 29, there was a small market with half a roof that was a photographer’s dream of dappled light, weathered faces, government dogma and unrecognisable packaging. Further along Calle 26 at Calle 31 is a Chinese cemetery that had no attendant and no other visitors. It is the resting place of a people who by the large all left when the revolution came. Looking at Havana faces, you can still see slight signs of their bloodlines. We did not meet any Chinese, but we did meet a fairly obnoxious Ghanaian doctor, a young man who claimed that he received his medical education in Cuba in exchange for five years of unpaid service. This sounded plausible. I forget his name, but he was walking around Habana Vieja with a nurse, who he said was a friend but evidently was not. We bought them drinks, and the woman, Eliza, was very sweet. We were invited to her house, too, so bought a bottle of rum. The condition of the house beggared belief. It was clean, but the door had no lock, the bed was shared with her three children and I was glad I did not need to use the “toilet,” which was just a hole with no flush behind a curtain and populated by maggots.

February 26, 2012

(Japan)...Japanese spa hotels, or ryokans, are wonderful things. The rooms are spare but peaceful. Eight mats in a uniform grid pattern surround a low table, where green tea is served on arrival. An anteroom, or sunroom, is behind it, which is narrower but usually situated by a large window overlooking a classical Japanese garden. It contains another low table, often with a sunken pit so legs can dangle comfortably, and some rugs for warmth. Little spoils the walls. A yakuta, or summer kimono, is neatly placed on a low chair. These are what guests wear while in attendance at the single-sex onsen, or hot baths, and at dinners served by staff also wearing kimonos, which are probably more elegant than guests’. Dinners last several hours and involve multiple dishes. Those able to sit cross-legged for extended periods—not your author—fare better. This is all a wonderful entry into Japanese culture, and recently I found a small hotel chain, Hoshinoya that has tried to mix this traditional way of life with more Westernized traits. For instance, shoes are allowed in most of the public areas (but not the guest rooms), and there is a choice of Japanese, continental and American breakfasts. All said, its hotels—including two hotels planned to open in Mount Fuji and Okinawa—still retain a decidedly Japanese feel.
The Hoshinoya hotel in Kyoto is a dream. Approximately 290 miles west of Tokyo in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto (many of this famed city’s shrines and bamboo glades are in this area), the hotel is accessed by boat from the Oigawa River. A narrow road does go there, too, but the gate to the hotel is blocked, and guests may get the distinct feel of being transported to another world. Children under 12 years old are not permitted. The guest rooms feel Japanese, but there are Western beds and not the usual Japanese futon-style beds that replace the dining table after dinner is finished. Quite often ryokans have poor bathrooms, as guests rarely use these, preferring the communal hot springs that have full washing facilities as well as a cultural immersion (pun intended) that is hard to beat. The hotel itself has 25 rooms that are laid out along a single path of pools, waterfalls and greenery. A common lounge has a public computer, Wi-Fi access, books, coffee and sofas. Guests also have the opportunity to attend tea and incense ceremonies, dressed of course in the yakuta. Small, hidden dining rooms provide another Japanese infusion, and the regional menu does contain some Western hints. The main goal here, though, is just to relax. Temminck’s cormorant, American wigeon, Common pochard and Eastern spot-billed ducks patrol the river, seen from all rooms, or at least they do in February. On the outside of the small front gate and up the hill is the Daihikaku Senkoji temple, built by Suminokura Ryoi, a rich merchant, in the 16th Century. It was closed when I was there, but supposedly the views of Kyoto from it are superb.
The other Hoshinoya hotel is close to the small city of Karuizawa, 100 miles northwest of Tokyo. In winter, the hotel acts as a skiing resort and caters more to families. At this Hoshinoya hotel, everyone is allowed. Indeed, there is even a children’s playroom off the long, thin lounge, which contains books, sofas, coffee and regularly resupplied cookies. The dining room here is larger and has those sunken pits for ease of sitting. Meals here were decidedly Japanese. The hotel’s grounds are sprawling, attractive and surround the 77 villas for 231 guests. Staff row across the large pool to light floating lanterns, and the artificial but pretty waterways generate 30 percent of the resort’s power. A path leads down to an onsen that is free for guests but also used by locals and other vacationers.
One particularly wonderful activity here is stargazing. Guests are driven to a point high in the hills (the area is a nature preserve famed for its birdlife and bears are known, too) where they bury themselves into thick sleeping bags laid on a fancy, round cot and are given binoculars and a hot-water bottle. The hardest thing might be not falling asleep. A guide points out the firmament’s constellations, armed with an iPad for those who cannot find Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Orion, etc. When I visited, both Venus and Jupiter shone brightly, and a telescope showed three of Saturn’s moons. When I traipsed back to this spot in the morning, the stars were gone, but in its place was a tremendous view of Mount Asama, an active volcano that caused a little damage in 2009. Both the Hoshinoya hotels are idyllic escapes and well recommended. Both can be reached by Japan’s famous bullet trains. I loved the fact that on these (and this is probably a common occurrence throughout polite Japan) the conductors and food-cart vendors turn around when they reach the end of the carriage and bow to the passengers who they are about to leave behind.