Palampur, India – Kangra Tea and Lord Shiva’s House

Srishti Jha introduces Vagobond readers to the beauty and wonders of Palampur, India.

I had a wonderful trip to Palampur last month. I went with my friends and two teachers from my college in Delhi.

The picturesque valley of Palampur is located in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh, a hilly state in India. Palampur is a famous hill town and once constituted a section of Jalandhara kingdom.

This beautiful hill town is very famous for its Kangra tea. The major attraction of Palampur recognized throughout the world is the famous Kangra tea. Kangra tea is herbal and known for its distinctive flavor.

Our trip covered Palampur and the Kangra Valley, places near Palampur, the tea estates, and Mcleod Ganj.

Our flight left us at Gaggal airport early in the morning. Gaggal is 35 kilometers away from Palampur. From there, we took a bus to Palampur. This journey was breathtaking as we could view beautiful snow covered mountains on both sides of the road. On the way, we also visited the famous Buddha waterfall. It is a very thin streak below the rocks, however in the rainy season, the Buddha waterfall swells and roars like thunder.Palampur, India
After reaching our hotel, we enjoyed local dishes for breakfast and were rejuvenated with new energy. From there, we took a bus to reach the Kangra Tea factory where we saw the entire process of making tea.

After the tea factory, we visited a famous artist’s house in Andretta. His name was Shobah Singh and his paintings beautifully depict mesmerizing scenes of the Dhouladhar mountain range.

Lord Shiva's PlaceWe went to Baijnath Temple, which has archaeological as well as religious importance. It is believed that Ravana, a character of the famous epic Ramayana worshiped Lord Shiva in this temple. Baijnath temple is considered to be is one of the ‘Twelve ‘Jyotirlingams’ [Lord Shiva’s place] & the Shivratri Festival is celebrated here.

It was evening by the time we finished visiting the temple and so we returned to the hotel to rest. The next day, we started toward Taragarh Palace. Muslims used this place to propagate Islamic principles and in 1933, the ‘Nawab of Bhavalpur’ had built a palace there, which is called Alhilal.

The palace was used as warehouse until 1949 and then it was converted into Motel Taragarh Palace after India’s independence.

Palampur, IndiaWe also went to Bir, while returning from Palampur. It is a unique place for paragliding. There are many Buddhist monasteries. Beautiful Tibetan handicrafts were available near monasteries. I bought a small purse and few mementos to cherish the memory of this wonderful trip.

Srishti Jha inherited the passion of writing and lives in Delhi. Srishti writes “I want to tell people to love nature and do not spoil it. I love traveling and writing. I love adventure sports too. Whenever I am free, I go for a tour. Next year I am planning a trip to South India and Shirdi in Maharashtra. Shirdi is a religious place and the famous Sai Temple is located there.

 

Wonderful Alberta: Breakfast with Dinosaurs and Lunch in the Wild West

Story and Photos by Esther Amis-Hughes

Ever heard of Drumheller?

This small town in Canada is quite literally the best place in the world! It is more like a giant movie set than New York; there are better museums than London, and it definitely boasts the most ‘atmospheric’ location for a cheese toastie!

 

‘Drum’ is about 135 kilometers east of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada. This drive is the perfect way to appreciate the contradictions in the Canadian landscape. Calgary is on the cusp of the rockies, which smolder menacingly in the distance, reminding the growing city that they were there before Calgary became a force to be reckoned with, and they’ll be there long after.

Leaving Calgary, the mountains fade in the rear view mirror and suddenly the landscape drops away to reveal nothing. Stretching way into the horizon are the huge green plains of the Alberta prairie, which is so still it seems to be holding its breath. This is enchanting for about 10 minutes, but then it becomes like the illustration in a children’s book, unbelievably bright and unchanged.

 

Just as we reach Drumheller, the landscape changes one final time. Big nobbles of gnarled grey rock shoot up from the grassland as we descend into a valley that more resembles the moon than anywhere on earth that I’ve ever been.

 

We stay at Heartwood Inn and Spa, a B&B that I cannot recommend highly enough. It is run by a husband and wife partnership who do everything to make the weary traveler welcome – our room (their best value – by which I mean the cheapest!) is spacious, with a huge bath at one end of it. The building itself is beautiful, clad in bright blue wood, and what’s that in the garden? Oh a dinosaur.

 

Yup, a life size dinosaur just hanging out in the garden. Pretty much a must for all boutique guesthouses and I’m pretty sure all dinosaur-less B&Bs will be a disappointment to me from now on. Coming in a close second to the carnivorous garden guest is the breakfast. Wowser! Our host asks what we would like and gave us an option of French toast or French toast. Being allergic to egg, I say we’ll sort out our own breakfast, but our host takes this as a challenge to serve me the most amazing (egg free) fruit, toast and yoghurt combo I have ever had. And The Photographer tells me that the egg breakfast is also delicious – either savoury French toast (mushroom, asparagus and bacon) or sweet (syrup and berries). Breakfast is eaten with the other guests, and served with plenty of fresh coffee and enlightening conversation.

 

We ask our hosts what we should do in Drumheller, and are sent off on the ‘Dinosaur Trail’. The complete absence of any dinosaurs is the only disappointing things about the trail, which takes in several unique sites that only Drum could boast. The first stop is the much more appropriately named ‘Little Church’, a roadside church with six one man pews. Cue lots of humorous photography. Next, Horse Thief Canyon, a real taste of the Alberta Badlands, where the bland but colourful prairie landscape drops dramatically away to reveal a great scar in the land, with huge mountainous lumps. From the top you can see from miles, but clamber down to look closely for those famous fossils that give the trail its name and its easy to feel like you’re in another world, (and totally loose your bearings.)

 

Talking of being in another world, our next stop was also completely new to me – the cable operated Bleriot Car Ferry crosses the Red Deer River, at a point where it is so narrow I was wondering if I could jump across. The kind, three fingered operator chatted to us all the way over (it was painfully slow, so it took at least 3 minutes) and waxed lyrical about his job. I found myself wondering if we were his only customers that week. The smallest church, the quietest car ferry and no dinosaurs – so far this was road trip was sounding like the bin in the offices of the Guinness World Records.

 

We drive back towards Drumheller and out the other side towards Wayne, a ghost town with a population of 27. It looks like everyone left the minute they stopped mining coal, and didn’t take anything with them. The best thing about Wayne is ‘Last Chance Saloon’, the Lonely Planet’s recommended Top Choice restaurant in Drumheller. It’s no top choice restaurant, but it is my recommendation to anyone who goes to Canada! Have a warm pepsi and cheese toastie (that’s what we call it in Yorkshire! You might know it as a grilled cheese sandwich) amongst the relics – which range from old pianos and static customers who are so still I thought they might be dead – to actual bullet holes in the wall from real dead customers who didn’t pay.

 

From ’Last Chance’ we progress from cowboy territory, to alien planets. The hoodoos are a crazy moon like formation of precarious columns, with a flat shelf on top. Apparently, in Blackfoot and Cree traditions they are believed to be frozen giants who come alive at night. I like them even more knowing this.

 

We arrive at our final destination unsure what to expect: Atlas Mine is a former coal mine which is now a historic site. Living in Yorkshire, England I am familiar with mining memorabilia and it was eerie to see this completely disused and deserted mine, left to rust. It is so familiar, but in such foreign surrounds. I stand under the rickety wooden tipple tower, sheltering from the sudden and torrential rain, and think about all the Brits and Europeans who moved to Drumheller to mine coal.

 

When natural gas and oil were found in Northern Alberta, the demand dried up and the migrant workers had to move away to find new jobs, breaking up the mining communities they had built around the Pit. In Yorkshire people stayed (the disadvantage of a small country I guess) but the communities also dispersed.

 

We head back to Heartwood to find that in our absence another Velociraptor has appeared in the garden. Is this for real? It’s like they’re following us.

 

Day two in Drum and we do what most people do on day one – head to the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. As interest in coal waned, tourism became a big market for Drumheller, and the town has built up a powerful brand around the famous by-product of their now redundant fuel: fossils. Now the dinosaurs make sense. Turns out a full size dinosaur in your garden in Drumheller is the equivalent of a full size BBQ in your garden in Australia. In fact, in the center of Drum is the ‘world’s biggest dinosaur’ – a 26M tall T-Rex, and this really is in the Guinness book of world records.

 

If the plastic dinosaurs are cute but frankly a bit cheesy, Royal Tyrrell is the exact opposite. It is an academic institution, with very well presented galleries and films. Staff sit in the galleries cleaning fossils and answering questions, and breathtaking fossils fill every room.

The Museum runs educational excavation activities, we head to ‘Dinosite’, which, despite assurance from staff that it is for ‘all ages’, appears to be for children. I don’t care – give me a trowel and a tray and I am ignorant of the fact that I’m the only person over 4 foot tall! Our guide traipses us across the Alberta desert (yet another landscape in this schizophrenic region), shows us recent dig sites, and takes questions from adults and children alike.

 

And, as if dinosaurs, hoodoos, and canyons aren’t enough, it is Canada day, so we see the whole town take part in a drive through parade (more people take part than watch!). The highlight of this is the Heartwood Inn offer: a small white convertible driven by a blonde groom and his brunette bride. It was only the handwritten sign on the car that helped us to recognise them – it was our very own Wills and Kate!

 

As we leave Drumheller, after only 48 hours, it is hard to shake the feeling of other worldly-ness. In fact I write this now, looking at photos of deserted mines and empty car ferries, of breakfast with dinosaurs, of ghost towns and bullet holes, and I feel compelled to tell everyone about this remarkable little place… just so someone else can tell me it wasn’t all a dream

 

Esther Amis-Hughes (aka Travel Bug) loves to travel and write. She and her companion (The Photographer) have traveled (and been ill) on all five continents. Check out  Travel Sic for more adventures and tips.

Meeting Artisans in the Fez Medina

Fez Medina Fes MoroccoMeeting the Artisans of Fez, Morocco was one of the highlights of my time in Morocco. Much has been written about the Fez, Medina – I’ve even written some of it.  In a nutshell, the Fez Medina is a UNESCO world heritage site, the largest inhabited car-free urban area in the world, the best example of a living medieval Muslim city and a place where you can stay in some amazing hotels,  guest houses, dars and riads.

The Artisans of Fez, Morocco

I was fortunate in being able to take part in something that hasn’t been so extensively written about.  I joined my friend Jessica Stephens (aka ‘The Jess’) on a medina tour that was focused on not only observing but also interacting with, talking to and getting up close and personal with the artisans who do their work and make their home in the Fez medina.

The usual medina tour goes something like this (and it’s good, don’t get me wrong)

“Here is the medina, here is a potters shop, here is the Quarawine Mosque, here is an old funduq, here is an old medrassa, and here are the famous tanneries from five floors up, now we will go to my uncles rug shop…” 

Depending on how much you’ve paid your guide, you will get various levels of sales, various levels of information, and various levels of bullshit (How do you know when a guide is lying? Their lips are moving!)

This tour was different.  Jess and I met with her clients at a cafe in Bathha which sits on the edge of the Fez medina and is very tourist friendly. They were nice, interesting people from Seattle who have traveled all over the world and lived in Vietnam, India, Malaysia and probably a few other places.  One way to tell if a tour is interesting at a glance is to look at who is going on it.  This one was looking tops from the beginning.

Jess went over the details with a map and asked them about anything in particular they wanted to see.  He wanted to see  the tanning process up close and she wanted to just enjoy the architecture since she’s an architect.  I particularly liked Jess’s warnings at the beginning 1) This isn’t a shopping tour so they shouldn’t buy a bunch of things on the way – the guide could take them back later if they desired 2) Don’t walk into an artisanal and just start snapping photos, instead talk with people, let them explain what they do and then – after all of that – take some photos if they want 3) Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact with people and 4) Watch out for the donkeys (okay, I added that last one myself)

Once the briefing was done we headed down to the not so tourist friendly (but still safe and cool) Bab Rcaif, where we met with the licensed Moroccan medina guide.  Here’s a side note – Jess pays her extra not to take visitors to any of the shops that most guides get commission from when tourists buy things. That’s not only cool for the guests, it’s also cool for the guide because Jess tries to compensate her for the commissions.  There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and fair trade these days, but this is the real deal in action.

Our first stop was to the dyeing street inside the medina. This is an entire derb (small street or alleyway) dedicated to the art of dyeing clothing and material.  We were able to stop and ask questions along the way from the dyers and they showed us the process of the vats, using wool and also aloe vera silk harvested from the mountains.

This old man was the shop steward in one of the dyeries…the map of lines on his face speaks of the travels of Ibn Battuta and more. Here’s something else nice, rather than the guide simply telling us everything – she allowed the artisans themselves to speak and then translated. This might seem like a small thing but it made a huge difference in terms of trust and authenticity.

From there we crossed over the river and went through the metal working and mirror shops.  All along the way, Jess was giving the artisans, the workers and the kids copies of the photos she had snapped on previous expeditions. It’s something that brought smiles of delight to the old and young and made all of us welcome guests along the way.

The metal working area opened up into the Attarine Square – one of the oldest squares in the medina and our lovely guide told us about the history of the migrations from Tunisia and from Andalucia and how they set up on different sides of the river and had a fierce rivalry which caused Fez to become the shining light of the times – home of the first university (The Quarayine University) and also I learned something I hadn’t known – there are 365 mosques in the Fez medina and that is why it is the spiritual capital of Morocco ( of course the guide’s lips were moving as she said it, so you might want to count).

We paused to explore a bit of the square and see the famous library though since it is still a place where students study, we weren’t allowed to go inside. Still, magnificent…

Down another narrow winding passageway and we came across a fellow who works exclusively with bone and horn. He showed us how he heats the bone and horn make it flexible and then he is able to cut around it and create beautiful shapes that can be carved and polished.

Now we were heading to the area where a recent scandal shook the medina. I hadn’t been in town for more than a few days and already I’d heard about it from three different sources. Here is the scandal and the very unfair way it turned out:

A fashion magazine of some sort came and booked a tour with their models of the famous Fessi tanneries.  When they got there, they apparently bribed someone to be allowed to go down in the thick of things despite the fact that they were using an illegal guide and technically aren’t supposed to go down there. Once down there, the models stood in the center and stripped nude! Now, this might not seem so scandalous but remember, this is a conservative Muslim country and these guys working there are among the conservative working class – it was shocking! As a result, the models and the photographers were escorted out but the manager of the tanneries and the guide were both jailed and charged 4000 dirham – which is a huge fine here.  Anyway, we had proper permission and we all kept our clothes on.

Even clothed, the tanneries were still amazingly interesting. I’d always wanted to get down into the pits and see the process and it was incredibly fascinating.  The process goes a bit like this – skins are brought, thrown into the limestone pits (filled with pigeon shit and lime) and soaked for a few days. After this they are thrown onto a huge electric wheel that scapes them along the floor and gets the hair loose. Next a man scrapes the hair from the hides. After that, they are thrown in another pit with more chemical agents. Following that they move to the dying vats (the brown ones) and then they go to be dried, scraped and softened, and finally made into your shoes or bag.

I probably don’t need to say this, but the smell is something you can simply not imagine. It is awful throughout. The guys in the pits looked at us suspiciously as we wandered through, probably wondering if we would take our clothes off or at least ‘Why the hell do they want to come down here?” We walked through the entire process and then blissfully, left the tanneries to head to the carpet weaving area. The weavers rooms didn’t smell bad at all, but then, after the tannery, nothing really could!

The weaver spoke excellent English and gave an demonstration of how to make material. We found out that for silk and cloth, it is generally men who do the weaving but for rugs, that is up to the women (like the women weavers I met in the collective in Rbat al Khair a few months ago).  The scarves and textiles were gorgeous and in a variety of colors but most striking was a deep cobalt blue. The dyes used to be all natural but these days (we had found out on the dyer street- most of them are chemical dyes).

After this we took a car from Rceif to the artisanal  school commissioned by the King of Morocco. In the school we met a master zelij (mosaic tile) craftsman, teaching four apprentices his craft with a massive piece.  We also had the chance to meet and talk with a Moroccan slipper maker and to see a number of the workshops where master artisans are teaching their craft to pupils.  Among the skills being passed on are the making of the oud and Moroccan fiddles, stone work, glass, tile, ceramics, wood working, and much more.

Finally, withe the tour of the artisans of the Fes Medina complete, we all sat down for lunch and took a good rest. This was an awesome tour – I hope that more tours like this that  1) respect the local people 2) interact with the culture 3) create an appreciation for the arts and handicrafts of places – continue to show up.

To book this tour for yourself, you can contact Jessica at her site  Artisanal Affairs to arrange it all for you. She also has a lot more information, some videos of the artisans and a whole lot more at http://www.culturevulturesfez.org

Meeting Marzipan Men and Hanseatic Sailors in Lübeck, Germany

Photos and Story by Katherine Rodeghier

It isn’t often I encounter a man so sweet from head to toe.

Life-size figures made of marzipan are on display in the Marzipan Salon inside Café Niederegger. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
Life-size figures made of marzipan are on display in the Marzipan Salon inside Café Niederegger. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

But what should I expect of one made of almond paste and sugar?

He’s one of 12 life-size figures on display in the Marzipan Salon, the upstairs museum inside the Café Niederegger, famous throughout Germany for its marzipan confections.

The particular object of my interest is the figure of Thomas Mann seated, appropriately, with book in hand. The 1929 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was born in Lübeck where his grandparents’ house served as the setting for his novel, “Buddenbrooks.”

The home still stands not far from the café and operates as a museum, as do museums devoted to two more Nobel laureates from Lübeck: Author Gunter Grass and former Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Lübeck reached prominence centuries before any of these three came along. Designated a free imperial city in 1226, it became the capital of the Hanseatic League, a powerful confederation of 200 city-states banded together against pirates and warring nations to protect their trade in the Baltic. Unlike sister Hanseatic city, Hamburg, some 40 miles away, many of Lübeck’s medieval buildings still stand, earning the old city’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Don’t miss:

A giant astronomical clock attracts visitors to St. Mary’s Church. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
A giant astronomical clock attracts visitors to St. Mary’s Church. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

St. Mary’s Church: Germany’s third largest church was built to show off the power of the Hanseatic League. Begun around 1200 in Romanesque style, builders changed their minds, switching to the Gothic style of the massive limestone cathedrals then being built in France.

But Lübeck had no limestone. When it was completed in 1350, St. Mary’s was the largest red-brick church on the continent and became a model for about 80 churches scattered through the Baltic region. Its middle nave remains the highest brickwork vault in the world.

Bombed by the British on the night before Palm Sunday in 1942, its roof burned and towers came down. Since restored, the bells that fell that night have been left embedded in the floor as a memorial to world peace.

Inside you’ll also see a huge astronomical clock and the world’s largest mechanical organ with 10,000 pipes, one more than 36 feet long. Outside the church, a bronze figure of a devil, with horns rubbed shiny by passers-by, should intrigue you.

Legend has it that when the church was being built the devil thought it was to be a wine cellar so he enthusiastically helped the builders. When he discovered a holy place instead, he fell into a rage, throwing boulders and creating all sorts of mayhem. City fathers appeased him by promising to construct a wine cellar next door in what is now the town hall.

Dining at the Schiffergesellschaft:

Saying it is a mouthful, for sure, but dining here is a pleasure for the mouth and a feast for the eyes.

Since 1535, this house built in Renaissance style with stepped gables has served as the meeting house of the skippers’ and sailmakers’ guild. Now leased as a restaurant, it serves traditional German fare, but be prepared to share a communal table unless you can snag a seat at individual tables along the wall.

Order the duck breast with apples and red cabbage or the wiener schnitzel with fried potatoes. While you wait for your meal, look around at the wooden beams, the huge chandelier, ship models, the long oak tables and benches ending in posts decorated with the coats of arms of captains who commandeered the Hanseatic League’s ships.

Members of the guild still meet here on Tuesdays for informal chitchat.

The fortified Holsten Gate stands at the entrance to the old city. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
The fortified Holsten Gate stands at the entrance to the old city. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

Holsten Gate:

You can’t miss it; the turreted red brick fortified gate, now tipped slightly forward, sits as a landmark at the main entrance to the old town. Built in the 15th century with red brick, black glazed tiles and a terracotta frieze, it was meant to both intimidate visitors and repel intruders.

Inside you’ll find a museum devoted to the history of Lübeck with a scale model of the town in the Middle Ages and exhibits describing the Hanseatic League. The gate was once equipped with 30 cannon, none of which ever fired a shot. Check out the turret with fireplace where tar was heated to be poured down a pipe onto enemies below. One room devoted to medieval instruments of torture just might give your nightmares.

Panorama from St. Peter’s Tower: Built as a church in the 13th century and enlarged in the 16th century, this building now serves as a gallery and coffee shop.

What makes it special, though, is the view from the top of the tower. Walk up or pay a few euros to ride the elevator for a panorama of green-clad belfries, red-brick buildings and red-tile roofs. From this perspective you’ll see that the Altstadt, the old town, is built on an island, the better to protect it from invaders.

The Trave River and canal completely surround the medieval city.

The Rathaus and Marketplace are at the heart of Lübeck’s old town. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
The Rathaus and Marketplace are at the heart of Lübeck’s old town. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

Town Hall and Marketplace:

Lübeck’s Rathaus, one of the oldest town halls in Germany, was built as a hall for trading cloth.

Begun around 1230 with the erection of a large wall with three towers and two wind holes, it was added onto several times, including a sandstone front section put up in 1570. Lübeck’s Senate still convenes in the council chamber.

The Marketplace on the plaza in front of the town hall is a good place to sit on a nice day, enjoying a coffee or a beer and watching the world go by.

Marzipan at Café Niederegger:

Lübeck is so famous for its brand of marzipan that any confection of almonds and sugar marked “Lübecker Marzipan” is protected by law as an authentic product of this city. Several big companies ship it around the world.

The most well-known, though, is Niederegger founded in 1806. It operates a store, café and museum just a few steps from the Town Hall. Walk into the first floor stop and you’re greeted by a riot of confections, including 300 varieties of marzipan as well as pralines, nougats, cakes and other pastries, many beautifully wrapped.

Upstairs, the café serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and early supper. Whatever the time of day, be sure to order a steaming cup of fresh-brewed coffee and a slice of the house specialty: a nut torte.

Another flight of stairs (or elevator ride) leads to the museum with its 12 life-size figures, mostly notables from local history. You’ll also find Faberge-style eggs three feet tall and a model of a ship that took marzipan chefs 350 hours to create. A video explains how marzipan is made and exhibits in a hallway are devoted to the history of marzipan, which dates back to Persia in the 10th century. In Europe it was packaged in little boxes called mataban, from which the candy took its name. Knights carried the boxes of treats from the Middle East home during the Crusades.

 

 

Fireworks, Bulls & Pirates – Another Explosive Event in San Sebastian

 

cc image courtesy of Kasi Metcalf on flickrAlthough famous for its white sandy beaches, delicious cuisine and super-cool culture, there’s another reason why the Basque city of San Sebastian is such a coveted holiday destination. Each August, the city becomes a feverish hub of activity for Semana Grande, or ‘Big Week’ – a spectacular festival featuring Papier-mâché bulls, hundreds of pirates, and many thousands of fireworks!

For the San Sebastian locals, Semana Grande is the highlight of their cultural calendar and seemingly every resident will don costumes and take to the streets to party on each day. This year’s Semana Grande, held between the 11th and 18th of August was no exception, and throughout the seven days of the festival dozens of activities took place across the city from cookery lessons to outdoor sporting tournaments, though certain unforgettable events really whipped up the crowds.

The first of these was the annual Pirate Attack, where some 3,000 amateur seamen took to the waters of San Sebastian in their handmade boats – dressed in the requisite pirate outfits, of course! The pirates made the journey from the San Sebastian harbour towards La Concha beach, clinging anxiously to their shaky crafts as crowds cheered them on their way.

Puppet Pursuit

cc iimage courtesy of mesq on flickrNext up was the procession of the ‘gigantes’ and ‘cabezudos’, the giant and big-headed puppets that are carried through the streets of San Sebastian each day and accompanied by music, dancing and a highly zealous crowd. As per tradition, the giants and big-headed characters singled out members of the crowd to chase, which delighted many of the local children and caught more than a few unsuspecting tourists off-guard!

As night fell, the crowds filled the streets again for the Encierro de Torros de Fuego, or the ‘Running of the Fire Bulls’ during which large Papier-mâché bulls with fireworks for horns were paraded through the streets every evening, as more fireworks exploded over the darkened bay. This was part of the annual contest between pyrotechnic companies to produce the most stunning, spectacular and superbly designed fireworks display, of which the winner was announced at the end of the festival – a title that’s so coveted, the companies will spend the entire year planning their entry!

 

 

Around the World through a Photographers Lens – China

Photos and Words by Dave Stamboulis

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens is a weekly feature from Award Wiinning travel photographer and writer, Dave Stamboulis.  Every Monday afternoon you can find Dave’s work here at Vagobond. See the world through a photographer’s lens.

1) The Long Haired Yao are an ethnic minority in China’s Guilin region. The Yao women never cut their hair and welcome visitors to their village with a hair braiding ceremony

Chinese Yao Long hair
2) Not only do the Yao women not cut their hair, they pick up any stray hair that falls out and weave them into their manes

Hair Weave Chinese Yao
3) The village elder, enjoying telling the history of his life in a sleepy Yao village

Chinese Yao Elder
4) The Yao women spend much of their free time weaving their colorful clothing and blankets for the cold winters

Yao Women in China
5) The lush rice terraces of Ping An village, home to the Yao of Guilin

rice terraces in Ping An, China
6) The Yao grow elaborate rice fields and terraces for their survival

Rice Terraces Yao China Ping An
7) Yao village elder doing a welcome ceremony to honor guests

Welcoming Ceremony Ping An, China Yao
8) Old traditions die hard in China, granny and her buffalo

Yao woman and Buffalo, Ping An China

La Fiesta Mama Negra in Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

While the northern hemisphere hunkers down for cool autumn months, Ecuador blooms with warm breezes, clear skies, and the beginning of the festival season in October.

Peru FestivalsDown the spine of the Andes Mountains just one hour south of Quito, the city of Latacunga fills its streets with streamers and parades the cathedral’s statue of the Virgin and Child through several neighborhoods.

Locals and visitors alike gather in the main plaza. They snap pictures and dance to the bands. They buy snacks and pop open bottles of Pilsener beer. Horses enter the courtyard and astride one is the figure of Mama Negra, the city’s protector against volcanic eruptions and destructive weather. The band strikes a fast beat and Mama Negra herself unveils a black bottle and sprays the crowd in a ritual cleansing.

At the Fiesta of Mama Negra, prepare yourself for dancing in the streets and non-stop festivities.

On each plaza corner, bands whip up festival-goers with hip swinging music. All year long, musicians and townspeople have been saving up for this event.

And they don’t hold anything back. Pastel-hued colors burst across the promenade. Pink coats and blue skirts twirl to the melody. Costumed men carry portal altars on their backs, offering devout tokens of respect to the patroness that include a dozen bottles of whiskey, roasted chicken, smoked guinea pig, and one immense BBQ pig.

Ribbons decorate the spaces in between as each man hews the altar down the parade route. Even small boys get involved as each one carries a miniature sized offering.

While bands blast trumpets and beat drums, each parishioner dances euphorically through the streets of Latacunga. In between altars and bands, they strut their choreographed hips through the cobbled avenues.

With handkerchiefs men guide their partners through the routine, hollering and celebrating each step. The women purse pink lips, swirling with the beat and smiling with pride. At the Fiesta de Mama Negra, the parade snakes up and down the streets for miles.

For hours, the bands march and dancers dip and twirl their partners. Mama Negra sprays the crowd with alcohol and gangs of masked men cleanse innocent bystanders with branches of green leaves. In the crowd, onlookers share beer and whiskey. They cheer and push each other into the midst of the dancing parade. Amongst friends and family and strangers, they jest and joke from noon past midnight.

Latacunga, a city high in Ecuador’s Andes, offers an authentic insight into everyday life in the mountains and is a great cultural extension either in between the usual tours to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu.

Volunteer Travel in Baños, Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

Volunteer Travel Makes a Difference to You Too

“We’ll sing the Preposition Song to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.” My husband Neil passed out copies of song lyrics. In a tight semi-circle, twelve people from around the world congregated inside the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños for the weekly language exchange called intercambio. A guest volunteer, Neil led the session with an activity geared toward learning English and Spanish prepositions. We introduced ourselves, practiced translating, and sang aloud on our feet without shame that we might be off key. Volunteer travel rocks!

VoluntourismEach Monday, the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños or BIB begins its week like a well-oiled machine. Coordinators Karl and Mazz sit at the head of a large table, welcoming new volunteers and reviewing the previous week’s accomplishments.

Though technically not volunteers, Neil and I had become good friends with the staff and were invited to attend their weekly meeting. Laughter mixed with serious brainstorming as Karl eyed the clock and Mazz kept minutes. From all over the world and of every age, volunteers commit to a month of community service: running English classes for local youth, holding cinema nights, and participating in the popular language exchange. They live together, share household chores, and help local Ecuadorians learn English. International and domestic travelers stop in Baños on their way up and down the Andean Mountains, and like Karl and Mazz, many stay.

Volunteering in Baños, Ecuador

Volunteer teaching in South America
The Library in Banos

In general, Baños de Santa Agua is a major stop along the tourist trail. With hot springs and fusion foods, Baños offers a getaway from Quito and mountain retreat beside the Rio Pastaza. Package tourists soak in mineral waters and return to the capital within the week. Long-term backpackers camp out in local hostels. But BIB volunteers are different. Immersed in the community, they get to see what real Ecuadorian life is like. They read to school children and shake hands with thankful parents. At night, people wave “hola” to volunteers and often—because they know Karl—their drinks are discounted at popular bars.

TEFL courses online
It’s not easy being on center stage!

Each weekday at 3pm, the BIB’s painted shutters open and young children begin calling out for their favorite teacher. Karl knows each child by name, hugging one and rustling another’s hair. On beanbags and benches, the volunteers sit with Ecuadorian children. They read Curious George, Star Wars, and Cinderella in Spanish and English. During Halloween, they parade through town in costume, handing out flyers for the BIB’s programs. As Karl stated, “We’ve lots of volunteers, but we can’t have a BIB without the children. So sometimes we have to remind the town that we’re here.”

During meetings, I can see that each volunteer loves this program in a different way. “Listening to [the kids] read in their own language has helped me learn Spanish quicker,” said Drew, a volunteer from Massachusetts. “They pronounce every syllable carefully and it helps me too.” In many ways, volunteering in Ecuador is symbiotic. Both volunteers and students benefit. Kids receive language lessons and role models from overseas. Volunteers become part of a mission to help the local community and experience Ecuador differently than most travelers.

Living as a Volunteer at the BIB

working with kids abroad, voluntourism
In travel, it is the relationships that matter.

One multi-story building and a large courtyard comprise the BIB property. On the second and third floor, double and triple rooms line the shotgun hall. A large kitchen and living room offer common areas for reading and relaxing. On the first floor, a learning lounge opens to the street and welcomes students with shelves of Spanish and English books as well as comfy beanbags. Off to the rear, a crafts center has long tables and painted murals for art and group projects. Through a generous donation, the BIB also has a movie projection and sound system for Wednesday’s cinema night.

While living at the BIB, volunteers work together and care for the house, courtyard, and sidewalk. Each week during the Monday meeting, chores are divvied up so that floors are mopped, the street swept, and bookshelves organized. At night, volunteers enjoy each other’s company with walks around the basilica and drinks at the bars. Life is relaxed and fulfilling.

make a difference in your travel
You can travel and make a difference in the hearts and minds of kids anywhere.

During Neil’s intercambio, the atmosphere continued to be laidback and welcoming. Four Ecuadorians sang the Preposition Song and several foreigners translated phrases into Spanish. The hour and a half ran quickly as participants chatted with each other and joked about strange diction. By the end of the session, we laughed about the singing competition that turned into rap songs about prepositions. Karl closed up the BIB and we waved “Hasta luego!”

“See you in an hour.” I said to Mazz, who smiled and waved back.

“Yep, see you at the bar.” She turned to ring her boyfriend and get ready for a nightcap in town. Unlike an office job or regular internship, volunteering at the BIB is about an expat lifestyle centered on social living.

Details & How to Become a Volunteer
To become a volunteer at the BIB, applicants should contact Karl and Mazz at artedelmundo21@gmail.com with a letter of introduction and ability to commit up to 3 months in Baños, Ecuador. Volunteers do not pay for the program. However, participants are expected to pay a monthly donation for their room, starting at US$120 per month that includes bedding, utilities, laundry access, WIFI, and cookery. Accepted applicants should inquire about paying in advance in order to receive a discount. Baños de Santa Agua is located in Tungurahua, 3.5 hours south of Quito, 9 hours east of Guayaquil and 7 hours north of Cuenca via bus.

 

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens – Myanmar

Photos and Captions by Dave Stamboulis

Around the World Through a Photographer’s Lens is an exclusive feature from Award Winning travel photographer and writer, Dave Stamboulis.  You can find more of Dave’s work here at Vagobond. See the world through a photographer’s lens.

1) Monks on the U Bein bridge at sunset, world’s longest teak bridge which comes alive in the late afternoon with thousands of workers, monks, and other Burmese crossing back home.

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay
2) Nuns on their morning alms run in Bagan

Nuns on their morning alms run in Bagan
3) A young monk and his begging bowl on the U Bein Bridge in Mandalay

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay
4) Young Myanmar beauty in Mandalay wearing tanaka paste on her cheeks, used as sunblock and as a beauty cosmetic, tanaka comes from the bark of a tree

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay
5) Fisherman on Inle Lake. The fishermen of Inle are famed for their one legged rowing technique, which allows them to keep their hand free for fishing.

Fisherman on Inle Lake, Myanmar
6) Spinning silk on Inle Lake. There are many cottage industries along the lake, such as traditional weaving.

Myanmar, Burma, Mandalay, Inle,

7) Girl rolling cheroots. The cheroot tobacco industry in Myanmar is huge. Along Inle Lake, young women work long hours rolling tobacco leaf into the cheroot cigars.

Along Inle Lake, young women work long hours rolling tobacco leaf
8) Young monks on their alms run in Yangon. Many young boys serve time as monks from an early age in Myanmar.

Many young boys serve time as monks from an early age in Myanmar

Half Bed and Torture Devices at Rembrandt House

Story and Photos
By Melissa Ruttanai

Rembrandt's HouseAs a New York native, I grew up around big name museums like the Metropolitan and Guggenheim. When I hear the word exhibit, my mind immediately conjures up images of huge white spaces, queues around the block, and paintings you can’t get close to or else your breath may chip the paint. I supposed that’s why I like small museums and boutique exhibits that focus on one story or artist instead of 5000 years of human civilization. I can stand almost nose to canvas with a painting and won’t flinch as a security guard clears his throat aggressively. I like furniture original to a home and windows that play as much a role in the presentation of art as does the light they let in. So on a summer trip to Amsterdam with my husband and two best travel buds, I made a beeline for the Rembrandt Huis, a museum that should attract massive crowds but in the shadow of the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum enjoys a simple solitude in the heart of Amsterdam.

A Kitchen and the Half Bed

I love kitchens. This is probably because they are usually the heart of the home and the scene for baked goods, slow roasted meats, and crackling firewood. But most people don’t give this room enough credit as if they never had a grandma set out a special piece of cake just for them in their own homes. Sadly most visitors sail in, take a few pictures, and cruise right out the front door. But the kitchen is where you can get a true sense for the cultural values of any given time period. There are copper pots and large bowls, serving dishes and silver spoons. All these indicate to me that the household could and often did feed a steady stream of people. Little chairs sat by the fire place, not necessarily for children but for the soup maid to stir bubbling broths. But what I loved most about this room in the Rembrandt house was hidden behind a large cupboard in the corner of the kitchen. Less than 2 meters long, inside a lightless hole, a fluffy bed was constructed into the wall.

flags in amsterdam at rembrandt's houseActually, it was a half bed because even back in those days when people were smaller, no adult could stretch out on her back. Or even in the fetal position. Listening to the audio guide, I laughed out loud as other visitors gave a cursory glance and walked away.

In Rembrandt’s time, people believed that sleeping on your back could induce death. They feared that if they were not upright they’d literally lose there breath and suffocate before morning. So the cook and many people of her time slept sitting up. Hilarious to think of all those people in Rembrandt’s house nodding off as they leaned against the wall trying to get comfortable inside a tiny cabinet.

A Torture Device? Inside a Painter’s home?

Up the tight stairway that seems to also serve as the backbone of the house, a little room sits off to one side of the house between two large salons full of Rembrandt’s work. Delicate papers hang from the ceiling, drying on a clothes line. Tiny knives and inkblotters litter a table. And in the middle of the room, a giant oak machine is poised, ready to flatten its next victim. Get your hand too close and you’ll get it back paper thin.

Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam“Are you ready for the etching demonstration?” A woman in a smock called our attention as her hand rested on the medieval killing machine. “It’s a press that artists use to create imprints.” My heart sank. No bloody history here. No grueling secret prisons in Rembrandt’s home. My twisted mind quickly found new distraction as the woman began to create art using a metal plate and an assortment of etching knives.

I have to be honest. The only thing I know about etchings is what I’d puzzled together on Antiques Roadshow, a television series where professionals appraise junk that people have around the house. In one episode, a guy brought in an inkblot picture for appraisal. It didn’t look like much until the official looking man in the suit took out a stylus and pointed delicately to one corner of the picture and read out the name: Rembrandt. And like magic, the yard sale picture became a priceless family heirloom. Everyone watching from TV land saw dollar signs in the man’s eyes.

In the Rembrandt Huis, the employee showed us the different tools that are used to make a plate. What I liked during the demonstration was that the woman explained that the plates create the actual pictures on paper. So an artist must create their scenes in its mirror image and that includes their name. My death chamber machine that sat in the room was the rolling press used to place the picture onto the paper. If there is no demonstration during your visit you can still watch a video depicting the process.

Most of the time, these types of workshops and guided tours often leave me disappointed. The guide usually pontificates to the crowd and I then feel compelled to act engaged when in fact I am counting the seconds to exit and explore on my own. But the etching lesson was great, mostly because the woman was an artist herself. She explained each step, showing us inks and knives and answering questions. Then when she rolled the paper through the machine, it seemed that I didn’t need the doom and gloom of medieval torture chambers. The woman had created something unique to a time period and presented us with a piece of art.

After the workshop ended, we were invited to continue up to Rembrandt’s personal studio. The light from the bay windows seemed to cast everything in a clean golden glow. A giant canvas sat in the middle of the room beside a large desk with a visitor’s sign-in book opened to an empty page. I signed my name, adding the date and a brief message. “Love the half bed in the kitchen and the etching workshop was a nice surprise!”

Black Robed Kaffir: Adventures on the other side of Pakistan

Words and Photos by Dave Stamboulis

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisI am sitting in a small hovel just off the main street of dusty Chitral town, not far from the Afghan border, where a couple of old blenders, two dirty tables covered with an army of flies, some broken benches, and a very large slab of ice serve to create a mango shake parlor. I am surrounded by eight wizened old men with long wispy beards and skull caps staring at me, all of whom look exactly like Osama Bin Laden. At first glance, the traveler might find Pakistan to be a bit daunting.

However, minutes later, the bearded men have treated me to two delicious mango shakes, a wonderfully cool reprieve from the 40 plus degree searing temperatures outside, and after finding out I am American, the men are full of questions, wanting to know if I find their country safe, and why tourists no longer come to visit.

To say that Pakistan is a land of extremes is not to exaggerate. Home to some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, from barren and baking deserts to the huge and jagged Karakoram Mountains; where dozens of indigenous tribes eek out an existence under towering peaks and massive glacial upheaval. Baking hot in the summer, a frozen wasteland in the winter, and yet containing some of the most beautiful and lush valleys in the world, with abundant fruit and vegetables during the harvest season.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisThe international media portrays Pakistan as a land of lawlessness and evil, home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda mobs, and there are indeed areas such as Waziristan in the Northwest Tribal Frontier, which are very much off limits to foreigners. In Waziristan, everything off the main road is not subject to government jurisdiction, and the land is ruled by feudal clans who have been suspicious of outsiders for years. The inhabitants here sleep with their doors open, with the women in the family placed next to the door to serve as a frontline against intruders, while the turbaned men lie in bed clutching their Uzi’s, AK47’s, and just about any other of the latest military hardware, all of which can be copied from an original in 30 minutes in small villages whose existence serves only to replicate weapons.

Yet the traveler to Pakistan will never be allowed into these areas, and outside of the political violence that has disturbed the big cities, the rest of the country is safe and hospitable, especially in the north, with one being far more likely to be crushed by the never ending cascade of boulders falling onto the Karakoram Highway on an hourly basis than by any act of terrorism or violence.

The sectarian violence and Al Qaeda related jihad groups are restricted to most of the far west and south of the country, and government troops make sure that visitors cannot enter these areas while they are busy battling insurgents. Meanwhile, the north of the country is a mosaic of different ethnic groups and even religions, with Ismaili Moslems (following the leadership of the esteemed Aga Khan) and various tribes of the Pamir mountains making up a majority. Every bend of the raging Indus River brings about a language change, from Burusheski to Gojali or Chitrali, and often the only way one can tell the difference between a Baltit from a Hunzakot is by the color of his hat.

In the northwest, near the Afghan border in the Chitral district are the famed Hindu Kush Mountains, stretching across northern Afghanistan. In the shadow of the Hindu Kush, live one of the most interesting and remote ethnic groups in the world, the Kalasha, also known as the Black Robed Kaffir. The Kalasha are a non Moslem animist group with light skin and European features. Legend has it that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great, who traveled through the region on his journey from Europe to India. How the Kalasha have survived over the years is quite amazing. They are the only non Moslem group between Turkey and India, and they inhabit only three remote valleys, surrounded by conservative Islam on all sides, and a Taliban inhabited region of Afghanistan just across the border.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn contrast to most of the neighboring villages, where women often are not even seen outside of the home, the Kalasha women are unveiled, attired in colorful headdresses made of cowry shells, pillbox hats, and embroidered skirts, and all are smiling and welcoming, even engaging in drinking wine and smoking cigarettes!

The Kalasha are pastoral, and make cheese, grow walnuts, wheat, apricots, and mulberries, which they store to survive the harsh winters that they endure. The valleys they live in are ringed by steep mountains and angry rivers, and the paths between the valleys are challenging treks over some extremely vertical terrain. In the river gorges, Kalasha men can be seen braving the whitewater rapids trying to free logs that have been cut to send downriver to be sold as timber. Each year, several men are swept away to their deaths by the powerful currents.

Pakistan by Dave Stamboulis

In the 1990’s, anthropologists, biologists (the mountains surrounding the Kalasha valleys are home to some of the largest populations of markhor sheep in the world), and tourists invaded the Kalasha area, and many feared that the consequences of large scale tourism would irreparably damage their indigenous lifestyle. But the September 11th attacks and subsequent war in Afghanistan virtually brought the tourist industry to a standstill, and the Kalasha have been left in peace ever since.

There is still a large selection of guesthouses in the Bumburet and Rumbur valleys, and I spent a week calling one of them home. My lodging was run by Engineer Khan, a jovial and energetic man who is the first university educated Kalasha from the valley, and now Rumbur village’s one and only esteemed school teacher. Interestingly enough, Khan received his first name not due to his being an engineer, but because his father wanted him to go to school and study, and his son took him to task, even going as far as leaving home to attend college in Chitral town.

Khan speaks Kalasha, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto, English, and a smattering of other languages, and is happy to show visitors into local homes, the traditional funerary totems of his people, and to indulge in long evenings of astute conversation over several bottles of mulberry wine and local moonshine, a boon for the visitor in mostly alcohol free Pakistan.

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisKhan doesn’t worry too much about the political instability in Pakistan or the fundamental Taliban push from neighboring Afghanistan, as he figures the Kalasha have survived far worse throughout the hundreds of years they have inhabited the valleys around Chitral. He worries more about young people leaving for the cities to find employment, about dependency on western medicine instead of traditional remedies, and about overpopulation, a topic he is hot to teach in school. As he warmly jokes, “I have five kids, so it is too late for me, but I think that about three per couple for the future generations would be just right.”

I am amazed at the continuous warmth that the Kalasha show me in household after household. Even trekking over the steep 3000 meter Donson Pass to get from Rumbur to the neighboring Bumburet Valley I am constantly greeted with warm cries of “ishtapa baia,” the Kalasha words meaning “welcome brother.” Women out tending the goats invite my guide and me in for tea and rest, interested to know if we have news from neighboring valleys, as the vertical landscape and dangerous river crossings make regular travel between settlements a rigorous undertaking. I still have a hard time getting used to the fact that I can have free and open dialogue with the women, as in most of the rest of rural Pakistan, women are wrapped in burquas and not allowed to have conversations with strange men, let alone even look at them.

The freckles, green eyes, and blond and even red hair that I see on many children as I walk makes me forget I am in Asia and for all I know I could be in the countryside of Ireland or Scotland, but then one look around at the towering peaks and endless alpine ridges reminds me that I am in a landscape far more magnificent and on a much grander scale.

 

Pakistan by Dave StamboulisIn the Bumburet Valley, many of the villages have been heavily populated by Moslems, who now run guesthouses and shops for the Pakistani middle class, who make up the majority of the tourist trade these days. Chitral can be reached by airplane, and the Kalasha Valleys are then a short drive away, a welcome respite from the summer heat on the plains, not to mention that nobody seems to make a big secret about the mulberry and other local wines openly available for consumption in this dry country.

The Kalasha seem to have survived the visitations, invasions, and designs of just about anyone for a long time, and it seems likely that their genetic makeup just might guarantee them to outlast the most stubborn of intruders. And if that is not enough, then the giant mountain walls of the Karakorams and Hindu Kush will provide the rest.

 

Travel Tips:

From Islamabad and Peshawar, local flights go to Chitral, and there is land transport available from Peshawar on a daily basis. From Chitral, local vans go to the Kalasha Valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur, and Birir.

Accommodation: Hotels and Guesthouses to suit all budgets can be found in cities. In Chitral town, the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Commission) Hotel (#412683) is one of the nicer options, the Chinar Inn (412582) is basic, clean, and welcoming, and the HinduKush Heights (413151) is a swank resort just out of town.

In the Rumbur Valley in Grom village, Engineer Khan runs the Kalasha Home Guesthouse (email: ingeneerk@yahoo.com).

 

 

 

 

 

Vagobond in Bulgaria – Part 3 – Sofia Statues and Parks

Travel around the world can’t be considered complete without visiting at least one former or current communist nation. I’ve been to a few of them now though many would argue that China is about as communist as the USA. As an anarchist, it strikes me as sad to think of the hope that went into the monuments and art of communism and the tragedy of death and despair that usually emerged from it.

One of the things that struck me as particularly interesting about walking around in Sofia was the huge number of statues which were dedicated to the workers. Now, I’m certainly no communist, in fact, if anything I’m an anarchist- but I’ve always thought that the honoring of the workers who actually produce the value of a society is a good thing. Bulgarian communist statueUnfortunately, the way communism and capitalism both work is that the bosses get the profits and the workers get the shaft. At least in communism the workers get statues to make them feel better. In capitalism the workers get to imagine that they can be bosses someday. Either way it’s an illusion. Still, the statues are wonderful. I love the way they make me feel and can imagine that when the tragedies of communism were rearing their heads, it was the artwork of communism that spoke to the masses and kept them turning the wheel of the ship of state. If the workers of the world could truly unite, we really could have utopia, but unfortunately, the workers are susceptible to the lies of the bosses, so it will never work.

The political slogan Workers of the world, unite! (German: “Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch!”, literally “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”), is one of the most famous rallying cries of communism, found in The Communist Manifesto (1848), by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. A variation (“Workers of all lands, unite”) is also inscribed on Marx’s tombstone.

Sofia, Bulgaria, ping pong in the park
Give the workers ping pong

This slogan was the USSR State motto appeared in the coat of arms of the Soviet Union, and on 1919 Russian SFSR banknotes (in German, French, Chinese, English, and Arabic). Contemporarily, some socialist and communist parties continue using it. Moreover, it is a common usage in popular culture, often chanted during labour strikes and protests

Sofia communist statuesBut of course, the proletariat usually get screwed as the consumers get screwed. You can’t win with government. When you consider that at the time the Communisit Manifesto was written that neither Marx nor Engels had ever had jobs, it becomes amazing that they could have come up with ideas, but understandable that as a couple of twenty something students that their idealism would outstrip the reality of how government is designed to oppress and can’t be converted into an uplifter.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need (or needs) is a slogan popularized by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program. The phrase summarizes the principles that, in a communist society, every person should contribute to society to the best of his or her ability and consume from society in proportion to his or her needs. In the Marxist view, such an arrangement will be made possible by the abundance of goods and services that a developed communist society will produce; the idea is that there will be enough to satisfy everyone’s needs

Sofia bulgaria, eve with appleSofia is filled with parks and open spaces. As I walked around this city, I tried to picture what it must look like in the summer. I imagine it is quite beautiful. In the winter it certainly is. Of course there are more than just statues of the workers. I particularly enjoyed this iron totem pole with religious iconography. Check out the detail of eve with the apple…yes, she looks worth sinning for.

* Borisova gradina. It`s the “lungs” of the city, with the Ariana Lake
* City Garden. It`s the oldest and most central public garden, in existence since 1872.
* Largo.
* Orlov Most. It`s a bridge over the Perlovska River in the centre of Sofia
* Prince Alexander of Battenberg Square.
* Slaveykov Square. It`s an open-air book market.
* Patriarch Evtimiy Square.
* Sofia Zoo, 1 Sreburna Str., . 09:00 to 17:00.
* South Park. A nice park in the south-east part of the city, although a bit to crowded on weekends. Sorry, no Cartman statues yet.

communist consumer statue, Sofia, BulgariaFinally, here is the most disturbing statue from inside a mall in Sofia. I got in trouble for taking pictures here with the security guard. It’s a classic communist worker with a designer shopping bag.

No Free Lunch in Montevideo, Uruguay – But This Tour is Free!

Story and Photos by Melissa Ruttanai

Free tours in UruguayCited as one of the “most livable cities” in South America, Montevideo in Uruguay is often an overlooked city. To many, Uruguay sounds familiar… Montevideo rings a bell somehow… But this seaside metropolis is an underrated gem jutting out into the Atlantic, worth a visit especially if you are in Buenos Aires. The city sits on a peninsula with ocean breezes, sweeping positive ions over cobbled streets and the meandering beach palisades called Las Ramblas. Everything centers around the Old City, or Ciudad Vieja, and for visitors new to Montevideo, the best way to learn about the history is on a free tour, given by Alberto Rodriguez of Ciudad Vieja Tours.

How to Get a Free Tour on Friday in Montevideo

Every Friday, free tours are held at 10 am and 3pm. No reservations are necessary unless you’d like to hire Alberto for a private tour on a specific day. My husband and I rented a small beach-side apartment in Montevideo’s Pocitos neighborhood. It’s roughly 5 km away from the city center but on the straightforward bus system, we navigated our way through the city without any problems. On Bus 116, we cut westward through town, along the water at some points. The bus dropped us off three blocks from the meeting point of the free tour: the gateway to the city.

 Although we were 15 minutes late, our guide Alberto waited by the stone archway, sipping mate in the morning sun. At 10 am, we were the only two travelers who’d met up for the tour. We couldn’t be happier. Alberto tailored the tour to our interests, waiting for us as we took pictures of stained glass windows and local artisans painting in the market. Two hours flew by.

 Highlights of the Tour in Ciudad Vieja

Montevideo, UruguayAlberto walked us through the old cobbled streets of Montevideo, explaining the architectural influences and the mysterious etchings in town believed to be Free Mason symbols. Great highlights included the Teatro Solis, El Pie de Murillo, and the sidewalk art. Alberto told us that the tour follows a general route past some of the most important sites in the Old City. But he prefers to customize each tour based on the group’s interests. Since we were the only two with him, we skipped around and spent more time in the places we liked.

About Our Montevideo Free Tour Guide

Alberto Rodiguez is a New Yorker, born and bred and educated at Tufts University where he studied Latin American History and Revolution. When he’s not leading tours, Alberto teaches English and studies for his degree in tourism. He’s married to a lovely Chilean, Veronica and together they have fallen in love with Montevideo. With all their dedication and hardwork, please remember to tip US$10-15 per person. It’s worth every penny. If you can’t make it to the free tour on Fridays you can book Alberto for paid tours on other days. Tell them Melissa and Neil say hi!

Quebec City Revisited – Musee de Civilization

Quebec

Most of my day was spent in the beautiful Musee de Civilzation. A natural place for an anthropologist to end up I think. They had several interesting exhibits, one on Egyptology, another on the long lasting effects in North America of the 7 years war which it turns out led to the French Expulsion from Nova Scotia, the war of Independence in the states, and most likely to the horrid treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada by the English after the much more enlightened treatment of the indigenous by the French. Full citizenship to genocide including the use of disease ridden blankets by the English. My favorite was a look at creatures from outer space in fact and fiction.

Bologna, Italy – Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca

Bologna Italy Catholic Pilgrimmage

I should begin by making it clear that I’m not a Catholic. I believe in the God that makes it possible for me to worship with all of the people of the world, so when I found out that there was a famous pilgrimage in Bologna, Italy I determined to make the pilgrimmage since I was already in Bologna as a guest of Emilia-Romagna Tourism.

The Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca is a destination for pilgrims from all over the world and while I was in Bologna primarily to worship the food and architecture, I decided to make the trek to the magnificent sanctuary which sits atop the Guardia Hill and serves as the most prominent landmark in the beautiful city of Bologna.

Here is a complete list of  Hotels in Bologna, Italy – because even pilgrims need a place to sleep! (Complete and up to date reviews and pricing)

Bologna is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is ‘the people’s umbrella’ which consists of more than 53 kilometers of covered walkways which developed from the medieval habit of extending the first floor of houses out over the sidewalk. The extensions were then supported with wooden beams and stone – and eventually, they became public space within the city. The result is that people in Bologna need not carry an umbrella even in the most violent downpour because they can get just about everywhere without stepping out from under the porticos. While there are many famous portico walks, the longest of them is the trek to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca.

This amazingly long and uninterrupted portico stretches from Porto Saragozza where you will find the Museum of the Beata Virgine di San Luca. The towers and crenalated porticos which house the museum dates back to the 13th century but had famous design work done on it by the noted 19th century architect Giuseppe Mengoni.

Virgin of Saint LukeFrom Porto Saragozza pilgrims remove their shoes and begin the 3,796 meter (about 2 1/2 miles) climb up the longest uninterrupted portico in the world.  The portico has been in place since 1433 and each year the famous artifact, which is a Byzantine portrait of Madonna and Child, is carried in procession from the Sanctuary, down the hill, and then back up. The porticos were designed by Gian Giacomo Monti and later continued by Carlo Franceso Dotti and others. The section completed by Dotti is perhaps the most amazing in terms of architectural values as it utilizes a huge number of perspectives and vanishing points which enhance the feeling of awe as the pilgrims climb the steepest sections.

While I wasn’t there for the procession, there were still hundreds of pilgrims marching shoeless up the hill and stopping along the way to say prayers, make signs of the cross, and in some cases weep. There were Malaysian nuns, South American groups, American devotees, and Chinese catholics marching and chanting side by side.

The reason is that Byzantine portrait which is said to be the work of the famous evangelist St. Luke, author of the Gospel of St. Luke in the new testament. Interestingly, he is credited as being the first to paint icons of the Virgin and Child. The effigy is the patron saint of Bologna. Upon reaching the top, the Sanctuary opens up in a wonderous display of outdoor Baroque architecture that is both beautiful and adds to the sense of wonder before entering the sanctuary.

I arrived, with the pilgrims just before Mass was to begin. As I said, I’m not Catholic, but when I saw nuns tuning up guitars and felt the hushed electricity of the pilgrims as they began to sit, I decided to stay for Catholic Mass, which was a first for me. I can hardly imagine a more serene or exciting setting and while I didn’t understand the words, I felt the tears of the old Italian couple next to me and afterwards joined the true believers as they wound through the sanctuary to come for a closer look at the Madonna and Child.

The sanctuary itself was also re-designed and enlarged by Dotti and carries a very solemn and profound energy. I found it very interesting to be in Italy, looking at a painting brought from Constantinople (Istanbul) a thousand years before listening to prayers in a language that wasn’t my own after traversing 666 arches (how odd they should use that number) to reach it with hundreds of barefoot pilgrims.

I offered my prayers to God asking that my own wife and child be kept safe while I was away from them and stepped out to enjoy the beautiful walk back down into Bologna – I was fortunate in that on the day of my pilgrimage, the sun was shining brightly.

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