Ancash lies quietly to the north of Lima, ignored by too many people who hop past to the golden northern beaches, the central jungle, or Cusco and Machu Picchu. But they are all missing one of the great jewels in the Peruvian landscape.
Ancash is bordered by long sandy beaches but then quickly gives way to the mountain ranges which dominate it – the Cordillera Negra and the Cordillera Blanca, which contains the Huascaran National Park and the famous peak of the same name, at around 6000m it is the highest in Peru and 6th on the continent.
The landscape of Ancash is truly breathtaking, with wide open expanses, lorded over by massive, permanently white tipped peaks. Throughout the range there are some 300 glaciers – although all have been affected to some degree by a warming of the climate – and strikingly crystalline blue lakes – quite likely the origin of the provinces name – anqash in Quehcua means blue.
Tucked between all this majesty in a small valley, itself situated at a humble 3177m above sea level, at the confluence of two regionally important rivers, the Huacheksa and Mosna, is an ancient city built by a civilization that thrived nearly 3000 years ago.
The Chavin culture is one of the best known and influential pre-Incan cultures, at its peak from 900 – 200 BC, with its sophisticated art, metallurgy and textile work influencing many later cultures in Peru, and perhaps even as far abroad as the Olmec culture which shares certain artistic tendencies. It is theorized that the Chavin was not a great military power, but rather that the people of the large stretch of land (roughly between modern Piura in the north and Paracas to the south) under their sphere of influence were culturally colonized – i.e. they chose to follow the Chavin philosophy and religion.
The heart of this culture, is Chavin de Huantar, the remarkably well preserved archeological site in the Huascaran National Park. The main temple and surrounding buildings stand between the two rivers, a position carefully chosen for its supposed mystical energy. (Although the convenient positioning on a major riverine trade and transport connection between the coast and the high mountains was likely a key additional factor.)
The whole site should have been inundated and destroyed, but the builders rerouted one of the rivers and created a complex system of underground water channels, some of which are believed to have been used as acoustic tools which, with water flowing through them during the rainy season would, due to vents above ground, roar like a jaguar – likely the principal deity of the Chavin religion / cult.
The most renowned relics of the Chavin culture are the cabesas clavas or Tenon heads, large stone heads placed in the walls thought the temple complex. Some rows of these stone heads represent the transformation of human to feline (jaguar – and thus divine), a process brought to life by the Chavin shamans, most likely through the use of the psychotropic cactus, SanPedro which grows in the region.
The other relic of great importance and beauty is the Lanzon, a 4.5m obelisk depicting the main deity, located in the labyrinthine heart of the main temple. It is there where I found myself face to face with this ancient monolith; I have no clear picture of it, only swirls and patterns incised precisely into granite. These swirls, the taste of that entire moment, seem branded into my memory. Perhaps due to some mythical energy or more simply, highly sharpened senses as my body desperately tried to convince me that it was a bad idea to be standing underground, in a maze, in a 3000 year old building, in stale light and murkier air.
A visit to Chavin to Huantar gives you chance to come in contact with something unthinkably ancient, created by human beings completely different from (or perhaps remarkably similar to – depending on your perspective) anything we know today. And all within one of the most spectacular setting Peru has to offer.
The most common access to Chavin de Huantar is a three hour ride in a public bus from Huaraz, the capital city of the region. The route between Huaraz and Lima is well serviced by a number of companies and takes about eight hours. If at all possible, a rental car (preferably a 4×4, but this is not essential) is the very best option as the roads of Ancash are one of the best driving experiences in the country. If you are short on time you could book a guided tour with a specialist in Peru adventure trips.
“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!
Each 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
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.
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
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.
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 email@example.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.
I love to trek – it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do. It’s one of the reasons I chose to live in Peru in the first place. In fact, I love it so much that I somehow decided to go on one of the most infamously difficult treks without properly preparing for it.
We were heading for the Inca ruins of Choquequirao: famed as the lesser-known “sister” to Machu Picchu. Ruins perched atop a distant and isolated mountain, said to be the last stronghold of the Inca.
To keep me company on the adventure I brought along two old friends, also trekking enthusiasts. We all knew it was going to be tough but had no real idea what we were getting into. I started getting a clue, however, when discussing it with my guide, Alfredo Fisher, along with another friend who intended to come with us. She has bad knees and had thought she could ride most of the way.
One look at Alfredo’s face told us that was not happening. Bless him, he can be overly optimistic but he doesn’t lie. He informed us that there were many areas of the trail that were too steep to ride on. With hindsight maybe he was lying: I’d say there are areas of the trail that were too steep to WALK on, let alone ride.
We set out by car from Cusco at around 5 in the morning and traveled a few hours through the hills to a town called Cachora from where we were to begin our trek. There, we met up with our horses that were to carry all the equipment and our bags, their handler (Don Julio) and our assistant cook. The cook had come with us from Cusco.
That first day we soon found out what Alfredo meant by steep. Before long we had left the smooth rolling fields behind us and entered the towering gorge of the Apurimac valley. An unspeakable distance below us thundered the river. Between us and the water stretched the thin line of our trail, following the near-sheer drop to the valley floor.
We negotiated the precipitous trail right into the fearsome heart of the valley. We descended such distances that the climate visibly changed around us, getting warmer and subtropical until the trees were dripping with ripe mangos and avocados. Just hours before we’d been shivering in the chilly, thin Andean air!
Part of the fun of trekking is the camaraderie at the end of each day’s hiking, enjoying a few drinks at camp after dinner. Not for us on day one of the Choquequirao trek: we ate dinner at the valley floor and took our weary legs to bed.
What goes up must come down. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true and on the morning of our second day we looked back up the other side of the valley, trembling with the prospect of climbing all the way back to the top.
The trail followed a seemingly infinite series of switchbacks, each turn blending into the last. Legs burning, mid focused on making it to the next turn, I almost forgot to look up from time to time; whenever I did I was virtually bowled over by the site of the enormous valley and up ahead, peaking out of the clouds, our destination; the ruins of Choquequirao.
When we finally reached our camp for the second night, the view was simply breathtaking. Eating dinner with the sun setting behind the mountains and the ruins almost within our grasp, we soon remembered why we willingly put ourselves through such ordeals: the payoff is easily worth the pain.
Waking up the next morning to the panoramic view is one of the reasons I love these treks. The scenery is so dramatic it is almost impossible for a camera to do it justice.
An hour or so after leaving camp we reached the gates of Choquequirao. Although not built with the same Imperial grandeur as Machu Picchu, the site is still an amazing place, if only for its isolation and lack of visitors: we had the entire place to ourselves.
It can take days to explore the ruins in their entirety and archeologists reckon most of the ruins are still hidden. Experts believe the city was originally an administrative centre for the region. It has a bloody and dramatic history: these mountains provided the final stronghold for the beleaguered Inca as the Spanish chased them from their capital in Cusco. The gates of Choquequirao were among the last to fall before the once mighty Empire was vanquished once and for all.
We took our time exploring the ruins; partially through fascination, partially through trepidation of resuming our hike through the valley.
After lunch we began the hike back down the canyon, on a trail that turned out to be the most treacherous part of the trek. Coming across a series of steep stone steps, our porters were forced to unload the mules for fear of losing them to the canyon.
Almost crawling along the last stretch leading to the trailhead, my self esteem received a welcome boost when our cook caught up with me, only to declare that this was the first and last time he would ever work on the Choquequirao trail! I wasn’t alone, and even better: my pain was being shared by someone born and bred in the highlands, accustomed to hiking and working on the mountain trails!
Thanks to the grueling trek, Choquequirao remains an under-visited site, but is within easy reach of Cusco and makes an excellent alternative to the Inca Trail. Maureen travelled with Alfredo who can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively book in advance through a reputable Peru trips provider.
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.
2) Nuns on their morning alms run in Bagan
3) A young monk and his begging bowl on the U Bein Bridge in 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
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.
6) Spinning silk on Inle Lake. There are many cottage industries along the lake, such as traditional weaving.
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.
8) Young monks on their alms run in Yangon. Many young boys serve time as monks from an early age in Myanmar.
If you want to start looking for another way to travel and work for the man, there are options available for you. And many of them involve working for a man (or woman) that might just be very cool and good to you.
With so many people out of work, looking for work, or between jobs there are plenty of folks right now that have the greatest opportunity they will ever have to really live their lives and do something.
Maybe now is the right time to spend a few months or even years living and working overseas. In fact, living and working in another country is the best way to really learn about different cultures. You end up working with and living among people instead of just seeing them from a tour bus.
Most of these jobs won’t make you wealthy, they won’t pay enough to pay back your student loans, but they just might make your life feel fulfilling, make your soul sing, and give you a bigger and better world view.
It’s not easy to find work overseas, but you can do it and now might be the best time you will ever have to see what it’s really like to live in a foreign culture. World travel is calling…will you answer the phone?
Do you have any idea how many people half a billion are? That’s 500 million and that is the number of Chinese who are studying English right now. Most of them don’t have native speaking teachers but they want them. The same goes for Indonesia, Spain, Morocco, Germany, and just about every other non-English speaking country in the world.
What do you need? Usually you need at least a bachelors degree. For many companies that is enough and they will pay for your housing, visa, and even your flight to and from their countries. To get an idea of the jobs available have a look at ESLcafe.com. I’ve been doing this in Morocco for nearly a year and you can do it too. In fact, I just might do it again somewhere else in the near future. Teaching is a total joy.Find out more by clicking on the i to i icon below.
Those wanting to find service jobs can. If you want to go about things the legal way with a work permit and visa you should look into companies such as BUNAC (British Universities North America Club) and CIEE (just google them) which will assist for you for around $300 to work in Australia, the UK, New Zealand, Canada or Ireland. You can work in restaurants, pick fruit, or do just about anything your heart desires.
Of course if you want to do it the good old fashioned way, just get a one way ticket and take a kick ass resume with you. It’s not hard to find employers that will hire you illegally. Of course you probably can’t expect a great salary this way either.
And then there are the guiding jobs, cruise ship jobs, sales jobs, and airline jobs which don’t usually pay as well as sedentary jobs in your home country, but pay off with the chance to spend significant amounts of time in foreign climes.
So, if you want a job or you want to leave your country, don’t wait. Start looking now.
I 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.
The 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.
In 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.
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.
Khan 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.
In 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.
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: email@example.com).
One of the side effects of the renaissance of budget air and cheap flights is that a number of small regional airports have become major hubs for carriers such as RyanAir and Wizz Airlines.
Small airports in places like Volos, Greece ; Orio, Italy, ; and Charleroi, Belgium weren’t designed with thousands of passengers passing through each day in mind. They are adapting, upgrading, and building the infrastructure.
Take Bergamo – actually Caravaggio Airport Bergamo Orio al Serio or as referred to by RyanAir – Milan/Bergamo. In fact it’s about 45 km from Milan about 4 km from Bergamo and actually sits in the small city of Orio al Serio. Last year this small airport served over 7 million passengers!
A funny thing happens because of the mis-labeling and the fact that this is a transport hub for RyanAir, WizzAir, and Pegasus which has flights to and from destinations all over Europe, the Balkans, and Turkey. Lots of people come to ‘Bergamo/Milan’ simply because it is where they can catch a flight to where they are really going. That’s why I was there in September. I wanted to fly from Barcelona (actually Girona) to Volos, Greece but there were no direct flights and the cheapest way to get there was to fly with RyanAir to Bergamo, wait 7 hours overnight, and then catch an early morning flight (again with Ryanair) to Greece. Since I arrived at nearly midnight and left at 7 a.m. it seemed silly to go all the way to Milan or Bergamo only to wake up after a couple of hours of sleep and take the bus or a taxi back – who needs the expense of a hotel room and a taxi for a few hours sleep…I decided to sleep in the airport.
And so did hundreds of other people who were catching flights to Romania, flights to Turkey, flights to Barcelona, flights to Paris, flights to Moscow, flights to Sofia etc etc etc –
There just aren’t that many seats or benches in the waiting area and they weren’t going to let us into the departure lounges before 5:30 am. So, it was like being at a protest or stuck at an airport during a storm or at some kind of hippie camp.
Around me were circles of strangers making friends and playing cards on the floor. Groups of girls sleeping in a circle on the ground while one stayed awake to guard their bags, older travelers walking around warily and eyeing everyone as if they were potential thieves, a guy with a guitar sitting outside strumming. Groups sat around with beers or bottles of wine while others found bare floor to curl up with their bags under their heads.The scene was completely surreal and certainly would have been looked on with approval by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, for whom the airport is named – especially since I noted a couple engaged in some serious hanky-panky under a sleeping bag in the alcove where his bust looks out over the airport party. Here’s my favorite blurb about Caravaggio from Wikipedia:
Caravaggio’s novelty was a radical naturalism that combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro. This came to be known as Tenebrism, the shift from light to dark with little intermediate value. He burst upon the Rome art scene in 1600 with the success of his first public commissions, the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew. Thereafter he never lacked commissions or patrons, yet he handled his success atrociously. He was jailed on several occasions, vandalized his own apartment, and ultimately had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope.
An early published notice on him, dating from 1604 and describing his lifestyle three years previously, tells how “after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in a brawl in Malta in 1608, and another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. This encounter left him severely injured. A year later, at the age of 38, he died of a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon.
And then – when they opened the departure lounges and allowed us to start going through security, the sweepers came in, the cleaners mopped and suddenly it all seemed just like any other busy little regional airport.
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. Unfortunately, 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.
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
But 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 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.
* 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.
Finally, 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.
Morocco is one of the most photogenic countries on the planet. From the markets to the sahara there is never a lack of wonders worthy of a photograph. Here are five off-beat destinations that you may not have heard about but are worth your time. Don’t forget your camera.
Azrou. In the Middle Atlas mountains there are vast cedar forests that the Phoenicians used to build ships. The mountain town of Azrou is a picturesque village with a lively market on Tuesdays where the Berber tribes from the surrounding regions converge to sell blankets, rugs, and handicrafts. If you trek into the mountains, you will find Barbary Apes swinging in the cedars.
Sefrou. Sefrou has been eclipsed by it’s neighbour Fez, but the old medina (walled town) of Sefrou is actually older and more manageable than that of Fez. Just 28 kilometres south. Sefrou is great for a day trip. The waterfall just outside of Sefrou is a cool destination on hot summer days.
Sale. The ancient pirates of Morocco were based in Sale and caused problems for Europeans for hundreds of years. This was the center for white-slavery and nefarious deeds. Today it is a relaxed seaside city where you can find delicious seafood and uncrowded beaches.
Ouarzazate. Morocco is famous for the Sahara and most people miss out on visiting Ouarzazate, also called the Hollywood of Morocco. It was here that films like The Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia, Prince of Persia, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Gladiator were made. Most recently it has been a location for the very popular HBO series Game of Thrones. There are studio museums and ancient desert fortresses that have been well preserved by the dry desert air.
Marrakech. Everyone has heard of Marrakech, but most people go there for the old medina, Jmma el Fna, or the ruins. It’s the new parts of Marrakech you don’t want to miss with red hot world fusion cuisine, great chefs, fabulous nightclubs, and an annual red carpet Film Festival that brings some of the biggest stars from around the world.
Monkeys, waterfalls, pirates, mummies, and movie stars – I’ll bet you had no idea Morocco could offer so much!
Caribbean holidays feature many breathtaking destinations for vacationers to choose from. The crystal clear blue water, white sandy beaches, lush greenery, exotic food and engaging music is a fantastic backdrop against welcoming inhabitants. Below are some of the natural wonders we found to be the most intoxicating.
1. Jamaica – Dunn’s River Falls. With its awesome 600 foot waterfall, the stone steps lead into clear, blue waters. The cold water runs over stone steps to the warmer Caribbean waters below. Be careful though – the steps can be very slippery, as we found out after landing on our behinds. Guides may offer visitors interesting historical facts and stories. After we were lucky enough to reach the finish line we were rewarded with a breezy marketplace full of interesting local fare.
2.Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands – The Baths. Not to be confused with the Roman or Japanese type, the mysterious, gargantuan boulders invited us in along the edge of the water. The cavernous structures may either spook some visitors, however. We found a welcome respite in the tidal pools for a swim. Adventure seekers may also snorkel or dive. Best to wear a bathing suit to transition easily from land to sea.
3. Cayman Islands – Stingray City. Unlike the “Survivor” television show that failed in the UK, this adventure featuring relatively docile stingrays is sure to amaze (notice I said, “relatively docile”). If diving is your thing, you are in luck here. Divers can easily conquer the 12 foot plunge into refreshing, crystal blue waters. The less daredevil inclined can visit the shallow, or “kiddie” end of the “pool” at the Stingray City Sandbar.
4. Barbados – Harrison’s Cave. The largest cave of its kind in the region, this limestone monstrosity is at the end of a Disneyland-esque electric train ride. Along the way, we passed all manner of amazing spectacles such as a 40 foot waterfall and many underground streams and pools.
5. La Soufriere, St. Lucia – Volcano. This volcanic island is truly one for the books . A beach holiday in St. Lucia is one thing but the volcano takes it to a whole new level. Visitors either drive their cars or take a tour vehicle as near as they dare. Then they trudge with a guide (if they are smart) through a fault. The over 5 acres of hissing, bubbling crater and sulfur smell is not for the faint of heart, however.
6. Puerto Rico – EL Yunque. I found that this magnificent 28,000 acre rainforest is best visited with an expert tour guide to meander through any one of its 13 hiking trails. If you’re lucky, you may see a green parrot (unlike us), unless they have gone completely extinct. But not to worry. We’re told there are well over 67 other birds to choose from. The plentiful flora, blooms, greens and over 240 tree species are also sure to wow anyone.
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.
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.
From 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.
Ferrara, Italy is well off the beaten path of most visitor’s travel plans when they come to Italy – and that contributes to exactly why you should take the time to stop in this charming cobble-stoned Northern Italian town.
More than just having the chance to enjoy a medieval Gothic town including a rather beautiful duomo (cathedral) and plenty of delicious cuisine – the big draw to Ferrara is being able to explore the massive Castello Estense which sits, surrounded by a story book moat with drawbridge, right in the center of this charming little town.
Ferrara owes it’s charms to the architect Biaggio Rosetti and his patron, Ercole d’Este who was forward thinking enough to hire him and ask that he fuse the old and the new into Italy’s first modern town. Ferrara is a UNESCO world heritage city.
For those who are interested in history or famous persons (or who enjoy watching the series The Borgias) the son of Ercole d’Este was Alfonso, the final husband of Lucretzia Borgia. Lucretzia is actually buried in Ferrara.
Castello Estense was built first in 1384 and then later modernized during the reigns of Ercole and Alfonso. Modernization continued until the 19th century – but because of the size and effectiveness of the initial design, the castle remains a wonderful example of Renaissance architecture with elements of the Gothic and Medeivil.
Within the castle, much is as you would expect, massive kitchens, dungeons, hidden twisted passages – but there are a few gems hidden away. For example, one doesn’t expect to find an orange grove on the roof of a tower – but here there is one.
The Ducal Chapel is equally surprising, not for it’s ornamentation, but rather for it’s lack of frescoes and decoration which is easily contrasted with the rich frescoes and ornamentation of the Chamber of Dawn just a bit further. The surprise here are the massive mirrors which haven’t been added so tourists can see the ceilings easier, they were a part of the original design! In fact, this room (and the two following) were known as The Mirror Suite. Slightly further on the nude Greek figures wrestling on the ceiling are the defining feature of the Hall of Games.
While there is much more, the truth is that exploring this castle needs to be done in leisure and in person for maximum enjoyment. Once you’ve done that, my suggestion is that you head out into Ferrara, hire a bicycle, and then dig into the local culinary specialty cappellacci di zucca which is a round pasta stuffed with pumpkin and served with al burro e salvia – or butter and sage.
One thing is for certain, you won’t be disappointed with a visit to Ferrara, Italy.
Again, not a lot of time to write, but we are having a wonderful time in Turkey. From cruising the Bosporus to marveling at the Iskander Kebap in Bursa, this trip has been filed with adventures stretching across the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, and soon the Aegean Sea, and of course a bit of the Mediterranean Sea too.
I’ll be writing about all of our adventures when I have some time to put things together and pick the best photos. In the meantime, here is a small piece I’ve put together on this amazing land we are trekking across by ferry, bus, taxi, and more.
As a guy who loves the ocean, I can hardly imagine a place that offers more variety than Turkey. While very different from places like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Hawaii; Turkey is filled with more Greek and Roman ruins than Greece and Italy and is surrounded by four seas and several straits.
The Black Sea which the Turkish people call Karadeniz borders the northern part of Turkey. It’s an inland sea that takes up more than 420,000 kilometers. Geologists say it was formed when Asia crashed into Europe and opened up the Bosporus Strait and flooded an inland plain. It is about 2200 feet deep in places and is warm in the summer and extremely cold during the winter. It is fed by many rivers and empties into the Bosporus. While no one seems to be certain why it is called the Black Sea some say it is because of the dangers that exist in it and others that it is because of the deep dark waters. It is the youngest sea on earth and is kept saline through inflows from the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus.
The Sea of Marmara which Turkish people call Denizi is a small inland sea connected to the Black Sea by the Bosphorus Strait. The Marmara Sea’s name comes from the Greek work for marble (marmar) and is about 11,000 square kilometers. It is relatively small being only 280 by 80 kilometers at its widest points. It is filled with many islands. To the south the Dardanelles Strait connects the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea.
Turkish people call it Ege Denizi, but in English it is known as the Aegean Sea. Legend says that it was named for a famous drowning but whether that was Queen Aegea of the Amazon or Aegeus, the father of Thesius isn’t totally clear. It’s waters however, are very clear and while it is only 214,000 square kilometers and often included as a part of the Mediterainean, it has over 3000 islands within it including Crete, Rhodes, Lesbos. It sits between Turkey and Greece. It’s shores were home to Trojans, Mycenaean, Persians, Minoans, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans, and many others. You can’t take a step without stepping on ancient stories and history.
And finally, there is the mighty Mediterranean Sea. Bridging the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe and the many countries that exist on it’s shores. It fills the area between The straits of Gibraltar in the West which lead to the Atlantic Ocean and the Suez Canal in the East which connect it to the Red Sea. The Turkish name for the Med is Akdeniz which means White Sea. Mediterranean actually comes closer to meaning Middle Earth in Latin. That explains all the hobbits. Despite the Latin origins of the name, the Romans called it Mare Nostrum- Our Sea.
The Mediterranean is nearly 2.5 million square kilometers. Just about everyone you read about in ancient history class lived on its shores. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Lycians, Arabs, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans, and all those Europeans during the Renaissance. That’s because it has a massive 46,000 kilometer long coastline that is shared by Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Greece,Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunis, Algeria, and Morocco.
There are few places I’ve traveled where I feel so completely at ease as the Lombardy region of Italy. I’m not sure if it’s the quality of the air, the familiarity of the way people look, the food, or something all together different, but Lombardy certainly speaks to my soul.
While Milan and Bergamo are both wonderful places to explore Italian art and culture, there really isn’t much better than getting away from the cities and visiting Lake Como – one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and a crown jewel of Italian masterpieces. Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy.
Lake Como is shaped like a large inverted Y and has nine major towns and dozens of small villages along its shores. The easiest town to reach is Como since one can get a train from Milan, Bergamo, or elsewhere for next to nothing. The transfer station is at Monza, on the outskirts of Milan and from there you have a direct journey to San Giovanni train station in Como. Since the journey is only a few hours and incredibly cheap (6.25 Euro each way from Bergamo) this makes for an incredible daytrip. Another option is to come from Lugano, Switzerland through Chiasso.
To come from further abroad you can take overnight sleeper trains from Amsterdam via Duesseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt and Basel.
Of course if you want to stay (and trust me, you will want to stay) there are a great variety of Hotels and Hostels in Como and the surrounding towns that offer everything from luxury to simplicity.
Lago di Como sits at the base of the Alps and the top of the inverted Y sits amid gorgeaous alpine scenery. For those who are curious, Como is a border town with neighboring Switzerland.
Como was a popular destination as far back as the Roman era and has a considerable history even before that. Touristic sites include the beautiful lakeside mansions and the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio or Sacred Mount of Ossuccio which is part of a group of chapels leading to a monastery and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Tremezzo, Griante, Menaggio, Nesso, Bellagio, Verrena, Bellano, Colico, Lecco, and Cernobio are the other towns that surround Lake Como. Perhaps you thought the Bellagio was only a casino in Las Vegas? It’s a beautiful little Italian town and like all the towns and cities around Lake Como it has gorgeous villas, lush botanical gardens, and incredible churches – but the big draw is the views of the lake and the Alps surrounding it.
Getting around Lake Como is easy. If you have a car, motorcycle or bicycle – the roads are just fine. Buses are cheap and frequent between the towns but the best way is to take the boats. Like Istanbul, this is a region that relies on ferries to move from one place to another.
A funicular runs up one of the mountains and offers spectacular views plus some incredible sites within the town itself.
If you are interested in more than historic sites, Lake Como offers a huge variety of outdoor activities from sailing, boating, hiking, camping, walking, strolling along the water, fishing, and even kite surfing or flying lessons!
Finally, for a reader and writer such as myself, Lake Como is a special treat (not to mention as a geek, I appreciate that I’m actually at Star War’s Naboo) but- in literature we have: