Sunday, August 14, 2016

IN THE KAROO


A silent young man picked us up in front of our hotel in Cape Town near a post carved with animal heads depicting four of South Africa's big game.



We climbed into an SUV for a three-hour trip to a game preserve north of the city in an area called the Karoo. As we passed the sad townships, some with small houses and others with tin shacks, we were reminded of the deep poverty that envelopes so much of South Africa.



The contrast was emphasized when we came to the lush and manicured wine country with manor houses in Dutch Colonial style and acres of vines tended by black laborers. The landscape gave way to orchard and fields of grain. Small towns were anchored with sharp-steepled churches and small shops advertising braai (barbecued meat and sausage). We stopped in the delightfully-named town of Ceres (the Roman goddess of grain) for cold drinks before starting into the vast and empty Karoo. An enormous semi-desert, it is dotted with isolated farms and sparse vegetation that springs to life in the occasional rains.




Our destination was the Inverdoorn Game Reserve where we were to spend several days on safari to see the animals. The preserve encompasses 25,000 acres of fenced land and includes a cheetah breeding operation. But it is also home to many other of Africa’s animal wealth: Cape lion, zebra, Cape buffalo, rhino and hippo, giraffes and many species of antelope.

Not long after checking in we were greeted by two cheetah cubs (on leashes) coming to visit our bungalow. They were like large kittens rubbing against us, purring with a deep rumble. We petted the coarse fur and wondering what they were thinking, hoping that it wasn’t about dinner even though we’re pretty stringy. Their handler played with them but that ended when he put his fingers too close to one cub’s mouth and found his hand trapped. Another young man coaxed the animal to open up. No damage done but as my mother said, “Keep your hands to yourself.”




At dusk we drove deep into the preserve to watch the adults being trained to hunt. The conservationist told us that they will not breed unless they are in peak condition and must be thoroughly trained to hunt before they are released into the wild if they and their progeny are to survive. A pickup truck dragged a dead chicken on a long wire with the animals racing after it. The winner got the spoils and the others had to wait for the next run. They can run up to 70 miles an hour in short bursts - a spotted blur in the evening gloom.




The following day a group of day tourists arrived for lunch. Several rambunctious children were in the group and when the cubs were brought out they lunged at the children, more of a bite-size meal than us. Wild animals they were and I was content to admire them from a distance.

Although our room was luxurious and it was tempting to lounge around the pool, the attraction of the animals got me up before down, ready with camera and binoculars. The animals were so close that I didn’t even need a telephoto lens.




Rhinos and Cape buffalo, looking oblivious to our “ohs” and “aws” strolled to a waterhole, zebras cavorted, and giraffes trotted by with their rocking gaits. The low light cast a golden glow over the scene.



The homely gnus grazed but other large antelopes were stately as they looked at us curiously before moving slowly off into the brush in a dignified manner. The smaller antelope like springbok bounded around like hyperactive ten-year-olds. One apparently didn’t jump fast enough when on a morning game search we saw blood on the trail, the remains of a partially-eaten carcass and a leopard print. The leopard had leaped over the fence for a meal and was long gone but would return that night. 




The Cape lions, apparently extinct in the wild, were in a separate enclosure, the only zoo-like aspect of the game preserve. The guide opened both gates and we drove in. She closed the gates and turned the key in the ignition. It wouldn’t start. There we were like a pair of Daniels in the lions’ den. A tense few minutes followed while she radioed for backup. Fortunately they weren’t hungry. While we waited for help, we watched as the black-maned male mated with one female while the others in the pride napped in the shade of a few trees in the hot afternoon, uninterested in the coupling next to them.



It was hard not to think of all the wildlife being slaughtered without care throughout the continent. A tragedy for them and for us. We felt fortunate to have a small chance to see what is left outside the national parks, too far away for us on this journey.

We were reluctant to leave. The same driver came to pick us up for the journey back to Cape Town. This time he was conversational, telling us about his life. He was a migrant from the Congo. Economic migrants are bitterly, sometimes violently, resented by South Africans who are desperate for jobs. He was trying to support a family in his home country but said the pay was so low it was nearly impossible to sustain himself and them, and that he suffered constant discrimination. It seemed to us that not only were the animals under siege, but also the people of every country in the region, all seeking work no matter where the quest led them.

We took a different route than the outgoing trip, this time over craggy and mostly barren steep hills. Proteus, the national flower of South Africa, bloomed in crevices. At the summit we came upon a troop of baboons, dangerous to people and destructive to crops, preventing us from getting out of the SUV to enjoy the view. We descended and reached Ceres again where a long line of angry-looking agricultural workers marched along the roadway holding signs, some in Afrikaans and others in English. Low wages and not enough work – the universal problem.



We stopped at a coffee shop before we reached the city’s outskirts and convinced the driver to join us for a snack. He reluctantly did so, silently drinking a Coke and eating a sandwich. The other patrons stared at him. It was clear that he was accepted by neither whites nor blacks, caught in a harsh world of great beauty that offered him little.

How sheltered we were from reality again when we said good-bye and entered the enclosed world of a fancy hotel on the Cape Town waterfront, far removed from others’ problems, both animal and human.




Sunday, July 17, 2016

SOUNDSCAPE - BAMAKO, MALI


A guest post from my fellow travel writer, Tori Peterson, writer and adventurer. She is currently working on a memoir about living in Mali and Rwanda. Her last travels including walking the Camino de Santiago and trekking in the high Andes.





When I left the United States for the first time, I was 30 years old.  Yes, I knew that I would be seeing new sights and new cultures, but I did not stop to think how my senses would be surprised, assaulted, and challenged.  Touch, in the form of heat, and smells hit me first.  Like music in a movie, sound was always there in the background.



I traveled to Bamako, Mali, West Africa to live for three years with my husband and four children, 10 months to eight years old.  Our flight landed in Dakar, Senegal.  Late October is not the hot season, but a wall of heat hit me in the face as I walked down the stairs from the plane to the tarmac.  After the heat I was aware of the smell.  My offended nose could not pick out the different vegetation and animal odors grilled by the sun producing a heavy earthy fragrance. Here we would catch our flight to Mali.



In Bamako, I felt I had been transported and dropped on the other side of the moon.  As I waited for our house to be Americanized, I met new sights, smells, tastes, and sounds.  Sounds, always in the background, slowly crept into my consciousness. 




The constant whirring songs of early evening insects.  Walking the dry, dusty streets, Malians greeted me in French, “Ca va.”  At the Grand Marche and small grocery stores, beggars without fingers or feet, demanded, “Cadeau.”  The call of vegetable women, “Madam, Madam,” as they stopped by my gate to sell their papayas, mangos, and spinach to me. 



That first morning in our home, roosters crowed.  Dogs barked.  Noise invaded my sleep.  A donkey’s bray joined the cacophony.   The air filled with electrical scratches while a man’s static, garbled voice chanted.   Into our bedroom paraded three of our four children, the oldest asked, “Daddy, Mommy, what is that man doing to the animals?”  My husband sleepily replied, “The muezzin at the mosque is calling the faithful to prayer.”

Several mornings later I heard a soft thump, thump, thump and chanting to the beat.  Walking out of my walled in yard down the pot-holed dirt road, I discovered the source of the music.  Two women dressed in blue, white, and green tie-dye boubous lifted and lowered long wooden pestles smacking millet in a two foot high wooden mortar.  The grain cushioned the pestle as it hit the bottom of the mortar.  Their song accompanied the rhythm of the lifting and lowering.




This unique soundscape become familiar and part of my mornings.  As I travel, I am still surprised by unexpected sounds.  They have woven their way into my memory and stories of places lived and visited.  Becoming aware of the snorting of hippos bobbing in the Niger River, wind in bells, drums, and chants from temples, the clickety-clack of trains, muezzins call to prayer, bird songs, the cadence and tones of languages enriched my travel experience and my life. 



Photo of women pounding millet by Kaia Chessen, a medical illustrator in global health. See more of her photography and illustrations at http://www.kaiachessen.com/personal/#/travel-photography/.

All other photos from Wikipedia Creative Commons licenses

Sunday, May 29, 2016

ON HEARING FADO IN LISBON

I'm pleased to have a guest post from travel writer Vivian Murray, a member of EPIC Group Writers based in Edmonds, Washington.

ON HEARING FADO IN LISBON 




The apartment was a short-term rental through VRBO and located on a hill in the Alfama, one of the oldest districts in Lisbon, Portugal. We were on the 3rd (or 4th depending on what country you were in) floor requiring careful negotiation of a narrow wooden stairway which seemed endless at the close of a long day. My bedroom included a balcony facing a narrow cobbled street where the old yellow trolley cars clanged up and down. On our first morning, my 4 year old granddaughter and I happened to catch a random parade, featuring historically dressed soldiers on white horses, as it passed by. It was perfect.

Portugal is known for port wine, gorgeous tilework (azulejo), and fado (a Portuguese style of music). Hearing fado was the last item on my ‘must do’ list and the clock was ticking to hear live fado music before flying back home to the States.



One evening, I stopped by a neighborhood restaurant up the hill from our apartment advertising fado in scrolled writing on a small sign in the window.  I asked the doorman if I could come in for a glass of wine to listen. He apologetically told me this was only possible if I reserved a table for dinner. Recognizing this was an upscale restaurant, I knew we would not have a relaxed meal with my 4 year old granddaughter in tow and I did not make a reservation.

When at a flea market on another day, I was told about a fado club a few miles away. But before I went through the bother, I decided on my last day in Lisbon to purposely  ‘dress up’ for dinner, although we were only going to the family restaurant downstairs.

Donning black pants, white shirt, a pretty new scarf from Tangier, uncomplicated makeup with a dash of mascara, along with a bit of simple jewelry, I managed to spark up my tired-looking-traveler-appearance. This was my secret tactic to get inside the neighborhood fado restaurant before heading to the fado club.

After dinner, my family returned upstairs to pack, and I ventured back up the hill.
Walking past the tall restaurant windows, which were covered with white gauze curtains, I approached the same door and same host from a few days prior. Again I inquired, “Would you mind if I purchased a glass of wine or two while listening to your music?” Without hesitation, in his halting English, he politely asked me to wait a moment while he checked with the owner. My strategy worked!

After a short wait, a crisply-attired maître d’ ushered me into a long narrow room filled with an ambience of quiet elegance. The dining room glowed with candle lit tables swathed in white linen with crystal chandeliers hanging in delicate balance above. The maître d’ seated me a couple of tables back from the stage with a perfect view of the musician.

Casually scanning the softly flickering room, I noted only two couples dining separately, and one lone man at a table in the very front of the room. His table held three white candles sitting tall in a large crystal goblet of white sand. It was obviously an extremely slow evening in the maybe 40 capacity restaurant.  No wonder they let me in.

A male performer played guitar and sang melancholy songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, which was definitely not fado.  One couple left soon after I arrived and the other couple stayed for a few more songs while entertaining the staff with stories about riding their bicycles from Amsterdam to Portugal.



On my second glass of wine, I soon became the only customer, other than the man up front and an older gentleman who arrived during intermission sitting very still by the front door with the beer he was served in hand. Perhaps he was also a neighborhood interloper who wanted to hear fado without purchasing an expensive dinner?

With no other diners, the young server and I had an enjoyable conversation about life, family, and travels. His English was very good and it was quite sweet to hear him talk about his young family and the life they dreamed of living. There was no fado, but I was relaxed and content.
Curious about the man at the table up front, I observed he was dressed extravagantly and the servers deferred to him by keeping his wine and water glasses full. They were very polite and soft-spoken when around this man; they seemed to almost bow. Candlelight flickered shadows across his rigid profile and even in the dim light I could see he wore a long lapis-blue satin jacket, brown leather pants, and handmade yellow-leather-pointed shoes peeking from beneath the tablecloth. My waiter let me know this was the restaurant owner.

The intermission concluded and the guitarist returned to the stage again but this time the quiet older gentleman near the front door slowly stood, placed his beer glass on the chair, and positioned his robust figure in front of the stage facing sideways toward the long, empty region of the room. Wearing a plain zippered jacket over a simple striped shirt, he appeared to be a working man rather than a performer. Clearing his throat and closing his eyes, he began to sing.
Guitar chords thrummed along as his rich baritone voice crooned melodies, which even in my limited experience, I immediately recognized as fado.  This was the deeply rooted Portuguese music I was seeking



I couldn’t understand a word of the lyrics but there was such fervor in his delivery, I imagined the songs could only be of love and loss.  This was the passion of soulful and sultry fado I was seeking.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ez0hhwUD4wA

The performance ended and reluctantly I made my way to the front door stopping next to the owner. I thanked him and then asked if he’d like me to send him photos of the evening and he gladly gave me his card. Voicing my appreciation to the entertainers and servers, I said, “Obrigada” (“Thank you” in Portuguese using the female tense) and they applauded me while replying “Obrigado” in the male tense as if pleased that I knew the difference.

Outside in the dark, encased in a foggy drizzle, I gingerly navigated damp uneven cobblestones until finally arriving at our apartment building door.  Slipping in the old skeleton key into the ancient iron lock and pushing open the heavy wooden door, without a second thought I bounded up the 3 flights of stairs using a new-found gait never experienced during the previous days of climbing those wretched steps.

In my experience, music is truly an elixir for the body and soul and when traveling, hearing local music in foreign countries offers an experience travelers should write on their ‘must do’ list. It’s even worth dressing up a little for the event.




Photo Credits:
Blue Tiles: Alvesgaspar, Wikipedia CC
Plaza in Lisbon: Lee Canon. Wikipedia CC
Painting of Fado Musician: Joes Malhoa, 1910, Public Domain
Fado Singer: Vivian Murray. copyright Vivian Murray
Alfama Sreecar: Romazur: Wikipedia CC









 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

AGRIGENTO AND THE VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES




The other day I read that the almond trees in Agrigento were in blossom and my thoughts returned to the marvelous archeological zone near the city called the Valley of the Temples. The name always struck me as odd because the famous Greek temples are high on a ridge overlooking the sea a few miles away. But there are temples galore.
The almond blossoms had fallen by the end of May last year when we were there and the trees were laden with green almonds.



 Ancient contorted olives trees add to the beauty of the scene.



The area was settled by Greeks around 580 B.C. and followed the same pattern of conquest and culture as most locations in the area: Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and the rest. The Greek temple builders named it Akragas. The name changed over time until 1927 when Mussolini decided that it should be Agrigento.

We began our walk at the top of the hill on a hot day to traverse the Via Sacra which parallels the remains of the original city walls, honeycombed in places with the remains of Byzantine tombs.



The first golden-hued temple is the Temple of Hera of which not much remains but lonely pillars reaching toward the sun.



Next is the magnificent Temple of Concord, the best preserved of all Greek temples outside of one in Athens. It was supposedly named Concord in honor of couples who came to worship on their wedding day to ensure a peaceful marriage. The temple owes its state of preservation to the oddly named 6th century bishop of Agrigento, Saint Gregory of the Turnips, and was only restored in the 18th century. I thought the tourists should be wearing Greek-style clothing like those on painted vases to complete the picture.




Nearby, a bronze statue of Icarus by Igor Mitoraj lies on the ground as if he had just tumbled from the sky when the sun melted the wax that held his wings together. Beware of flying too close to the sun as his father, Daedalus, the legendary founder of Akragas, warned. The statue seems a perfect foil to the temples, stripped bare of their ornamentation but still standing defiant after 2500 years while the heedless Icarus died. What buildings of our day will last that long or will some of ours fall to earth for failure to heed warnings?



The nearby Villa Aurea has a memorial to a Captain Alexander Hardcastle in the courtyard. He showed up in 1921 to provided money for excavations in the area and restored the villa as his home. He lived there with his brother until he went broke and died in an insane asylum. The villa is now used for exhibitions but I dreamed of living there in the midst of all this beauty.




The Temple of Herakles is a heap of enormous building blocks, and following that is the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, once the largest Doric-style temple in the Greek world. Not much is left but a few columns and a gigantic statue (telemone), one of many that once stood along the sides of  the building. All but this one and one in the museum, now swept away by time and history.









As we left the Via Sacra portions of a temple called Castor and Pollux shimmered in the sun. The only guard was a sleeping dog.



The "temple" was in fact erected in 1836 from leftovers, and despite its unauthentic provenance, it is the perfect vision of the romanticism of the Classical world. and the symbol of the city.



The wonderful archeological museum contains the finds from the temples along with finely painted Greek vases, statuary and marvels from the Romans and Byzantines who all had their day in the sun but ultimately fell to earth.









All photographs copyright Judith Works 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

SALT FROM THE SEA


We returned from our travels to Sicily, not with salt of the earth but salt from the sea. But we began the visit to the far western part of the island in the, tiny walled town of Erice 2500 feet above the salty sea. The town was founded by about 1200 BC but developed by the Carthaginians around the 6th Century BC. After which its history followed that of the rest of Sicily with one culture after another taking over. Now it's nearly deserted in the winter when snow falls, but filled during the warmer months with tourists, mainly those from elsewhere on the island who come in the summer to escape the heat. 




Long ago, it was known all over the Mediterranean for its temple dedicated to the goddess of fertility known as Astarte, Aphrodite, or Venus to the Romans who supported it with taxes. The cult was bound with sacred prostitutes who, as the story goes, began their “careers” at age 13 and retired at 21. They dined on milk and honey to become pleasingly plump and were much in demand as wives after they left the temple.




We didn’t eat any milk or honey nor was there anything much to see of the temple, but we made the modern obligatory and fattening stop at the justly famous Pasticceria di Grammatico Maria, who use the same recipes and ingredients as those of cloistered nuns in the 1400s. We didn’t resist the enticements like “sighs,” “beauty-ugly,” “mother- in-law’s tongue,” and the inevitable cannoli. All divine. I could visualize myself becoming pleasingly plump if we hung around too long.



On a sugar high from the pastries and a couple shots of espresso, we headed down (way) down to the salt pans near Trapani,  The city was founded at the same time as Erice and served as its port in ancient times.



Beyond the city lie the salt pans near an area interestingly called Nubia. We wondered if the name was a coincidence or from Africans who settled in the area at some point. The area is now mostly a nature reserve with flamingos and herons, the salt trade having declined over the years. 



The ponds are filled with sea water in late winter, and the winds and sun slowly evaporate the water until the crystals become reddish from algae. When the algae dies the salt is at the correct salinity to be harvested. It's then washed and raked into piles to drain before packaging.


In the distance we could see an old watchtower, a relic of the days when the Saracens raided.



Despite the overdose of pastries we didn't want to miss lunch, so we stopped at the Trattoria del Sale (sale is Italian for salt), a restaurant surrounded by the salt works. The food was good  but the museum associated with the restaurant was fascinating.




Windmills were built in medieval times to help pump the sea water, but judging by the museum the process must have been beyond backbreaking until recent times when machinery came into use. 




Between courses we looked at the salt-encrusted wood Archimedes screws to pump water, a frame for a windmill sail, and the rakes and wagons, and wondered how the workers survived such labor in the burning sun while here we were relaxing with food and wine without a care. 












It's strange that so many places of past misery are now tourist attractions where the traveler can take a quick look, contemplate for a few minutes, and then ponder the next meal. Especially in Italy.


   


All photos copyright Judith Works

 




Monday, November 9, 2015

THE DELIGHTS OF TAORMINA





What a delight! The small town perched high on a hill above the Ionian Sea in the shadow of snow-dusted Mt. Etna is just right for walking. And of course shopping and eating. This visit we were on a day trip to take another look at the marvelous Greek theater and stroll the streets to visit gardens, Roman ruins and medieval buildings. And of course do some shopping. The narrow and winding road from the seaside to the town winds around lovely homes, small plots with vines and citrus, and luxury hotels until it reaches the parking lot. From then on it’s time to stroll on the cobblestones licking a cone of gelato and oogling the mouth-watering marzipan treats in bakeries and bars, and sampling the luscious Sicilian citrus.







Like almost every town in Italy Taormina has a long history, in this case, really long. It was founded by the Greeks in 392 BC and they pushed even earlier inhabitants out. Of course the Romans came along and then everyone else who has tramped through Sicily. In more recent times Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to winter there in the 1890s and other royals and their hangers-on soon followed. Some of these men were overly interested in the local population and one impoverished baron made a living photographing doe-eyed youths with their water jugs and baskets or in togas with flowers in their hair often in mildly erotic poses. Others went straight for pornographic. After World War II, Taormina was rediscovered and the rich and famous flocked there. Truman Capote, Winston Churchill, Orson Wells, Cary Grant and the off and on-again duo Elizabeth and Richard honeymooned there - twice.



The first item on our agenda was to return to the marvelous Greek theater where the ancients sat watching plays performed as part of their religious rites. What is most visible today is Roman reconstruction; instead of plays they had gladiator competitions. The acoustics are so good that the theater is now used as a venue for concerts and big names regularly appear there in the summer.


The central gathering point for the inhabitants and tourists is the Piazzale IX Aprile an ideal spot for an iced coffee before visiting the lovely public gardens. Massimo, the postman was taking a break too.










The gardens, full of subtropical plants were created in 1899 by a civic-minded Englishwoman, Florence Trevelyan Cacciola. In true English style there are follies and fountains and benches to rest in the shade. And, as always in Italy, there is a monument to the town’s dead in the World Wars. On a happier note we watched a photo shoot with Miss Sicily who my husband said looked like a winner to him.







Footsore, we headed back down the main shopping street, the Corso Umberto, with its tempting shops, flower-filled balconies and medieval alleys to the Odeon, a small Roman theater incorporating earlier Greek elements. 


There’s not much there now and it is incongruously abutting the back of a 17th century church. 


Far more interesting is the Palazzo Corvaja which combines a 10th century Arab structure and a 15th century Catalan Gothic design. Inside the building is a museum with traditional Sicilian handicrafts including puppets.







The mix of Baroque church, Greek/Roman theater, and Arab/medieval design all within a few paces of each other encapsulates the flavor of the town. 

All photos except the young man are copyright Judith Works. The photo of the young man taken about 1900 is from Wikipedia   




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