Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Here's to 2009 . . .

This year has been phenomenally beautiful, six months travelling in South America and another two months in Scotland. I'm remembering a world of colorful places, people, tantalizing art and food, ancient and modern histories, and natural wonders -- from waterfalls larger than Niagara, to curious coatimundis scampering in the jungle. We were ready for more, but two weeks ago this Friday, everything changed with Allen's stroke.

Now we're headed for a new home in the Pacific Northwest. We'll travel slowly west, heading out along a southern route to escape this brutal cold and winter storms. But by February, we should be in Spokane, unpacking boxes that have been in storage for nearly three years.

But right now, we can't really predict the future. Of course, we all should live with that sense that every day is a gift. Allen's stamina increases each day, and so far, his physical and mental capabilities seem unaffected. But this has been a tremendous shock, and I know I came close to losing my dearest friend. This is the time to face each day with courage and hope, for we have far less to worry about than many and our family and friends have reached out to us with love. And yet, somehow life seems simpler. I am grateful for the daily routines that hold our lives together and hope to truly know each day as the gift it is.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Back in the States . . .

Last Friday, everything changed. Allen woke up feeling not himself. We took a taxi to the Hospital San Vincent in Heredia, Costa Rica, where he was diagnosed with a stroke. The next 24 hours still seem a blur. The staff in Costa Rica were caring, but we knew the best decision for us was simply to come home. American Airlines will forever be my first choice for their outstanding care for us, from re-ticketing, support through customs, and wheelchair assistance. Despite it being Christmas week, and vicious snow storms blanketing the east coast, we found ourselves on the way home to Philadelphia within 24 hours. We arrived Monday morning at 3:30 am, and by lunch time, Allen was in the hospital, undergoing tests. Allen now has a team of doctors caring for him, and we expect him to come home from the hospital by Wednesday, if all goes well.

Although the stroke affected the entire left side of his body, the residual effects are relatively contained because he took 4 aspirin within the first hour of the onset of symptoms. His speech and brain function appear unaffected. He does now walk with a slight hitch on the left side and some balance issues. We feel more than blessed.

I'm not sure about the future. Part of the time I'm still thinking in Spanish, but it feels so good to be home, and where "home" will be is up in the air for now. May you be well where you are!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Not lost in San Jose . . .

Today we took two busses down from the hills of San Francisco de Heredia to the capital of Costa Rica, the crowded, much maligned city of San Jose. I'm taller than the average Costa Rican, so I sit a little sideways in most busses.

As we walked down narrow and crowded sidewalks, acid rock blared from tiny shops to entice us in to buy T-shirts, colorful socks, or other intimate apparel. We found our way to Vishnu, a well respected vegetarian restaurant. This was a bigger feat that you might expect since street signs are a rarety, despite our trusty Lonely Planet map. Friendly passersby gave us directions, just a few blocks more, and so we came to Vishnu for a late lunch where some customers were diving into gigantic bowls of ice cream with fruit. We were disciplined and went for the plato del dia (delicious lentil soup, sweet watermelon drink, brown rice with carrots, cabbage, beets, black beans, and fried banana, and for desert, a fresh banana pudding).

We also found Seventh Street Books, where the bookstore lady was very helpful, especially after we started talking about our favorite Latin American writers. We went on our way with a Spanish grammar book, another on Tico culture (Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos), and a dual language collection of short stories. Ah, reading materials.

Refreshed, we hesitatingly made our way to the Gold Museum, doubting whether we had made the right choice for Lonely Planet noted the museum has "all the warmth and comfort of a bank vault" BUT we were pleasantly surprised as we followed the graceful stairways down underneath the central plaza. Somehow the three floors of the museum were spacious and the artifacts beautifully displayed.

The goldwork was exquisite (especially tiny frogs, hummingbirds, and alligators, some as small as 1" to 3"), delicate and refined, some a mix of copper and gold, as can be seen by the photo (more info available here). The entire lost wax process was illustrated. One case also showed these tiny bird and animal figures ritually damaged; these were often used in healing ceremonies. Many of the artifacts came from Guayabo, though I'm not yet sure we'll go to this largely unexcavated site, though it has many of the large and mysterious circular stones scattered throughout. A 4 wheel drive is required for the 45 minute drive off the main road.

We also saw an overview of the birds here and identified our backyard bird as a Tropical Kingbird, somewhat a cousin to the Kiskadee we saw all over South America). Our eyes filled with images of motmots, trogons, macaws, and hummingbirds, that we'll hope to see in January when we go touring.

Finally, we are adjusting to the 4,000 foot altitude (that means I'm puffing a little less when we hike up hills). We're moved into our apartment, know where to buy Pepsi and roastizadas, and are starting to feel somewhat guilty as we hear from friends back home about 28 degree weather. So, I wish you were here. 78 degrees tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Ah! Costa Rica!

We flew in to Costa Rica late last night, landing in San Jose, Costa Rica, in the highlands after a five hour wait with connecting flights in Miami. Street lights marked neighborhoods and busy intersections, and so we came to our hotel, the Hotel Hojarascas, our home for the next three days. Think 80 degrees, air conditioning, Spanish all around us, and fresh papaya, pineapple, and mango for breakfast. We slept in deliciously, and then, thanks to the help of Jose here at the hotel, who made us feel like family, we now have an apartment for the next three months, complete with internet and American football. I already miss family and friends, but we have much to be thankful for this night.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

We landed . . .

First day in Philly and home, sweet home! Gordy and Lynda picked us up at the airport, we safey negotiated all that traffic traveling on the opposite side of the street, and Philadelphia looked her best on a clear, cold November night, full moon, lights twinkling on skyscrapers and the boathouses along the Schuylkill River. Greeted by home-made barley soup with chunks of beef, savory brisket and an apple cake, we were more than happy to hug Mom, catch up with all the news -- and do laundry, despite the fact that my body is ten hours ahead of present reality and I'm now two days behind on NaNoWriMo. Ah well.

Our last lunch at The Kitchin was every bit as amazing as we'd hoped. Yes, "bags of flavor." The starter, a kind of salmon mousse with a sweet, very fresh (OK, deliciously raw) oyster with sprigs of green on top. Cockaleeky soup served in a tiny, elegant white bowl. Ten or so serious young chefs working with great concentration in the kitchen. Wait persons hovering. The main -- Mallard duck on a bed of braised red cabbage with little potato puffs and perfectly roasted zucchini and parsnip. OMG, I thought I was going to die right there. And then dessert came. An impossibly tall chocolate souffle, creamy and light with just a dollop of home-made chocolate chip ice cream. I did not want to disturb my palete with coffee, tea, or even wine. I shall forever feel challenged when cooking and feel in some ways forever changed. Perhaps it was the attention to detail. Or the sweet surprise of pure flavors mixing and melding. Memorable.

When we flew from Scotland to Philadelphia, we flew into the sun, layers of clouds shifting and drifting below us, just above a seemingly endless blue, blue sea.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Just three days left . . .

It's raining today, a perfect stay-at-home day for packing, organzing and trying to remember the last details of what needs to be done. We've stayed long enough to feel at home, but not long enough to explore every nook and cranny of this beautiful city. We both hope to return one day.

Allen has decided we will go to a Michelin star restaurant on Tuesday, our very last day in Edinburgh. Entranced and inspired by the cooking on Master Chef: The Professionals, a BBC competitive cooking show featuring young chefs competing for the title of "master chef", we learned new vocabulary from host Michel Roux, Jr. (this has "bags of flavor").

So on Tuesday, we'll take our all-day bus pass and tour Edinburgh all the way to the port of Leith where we'l lunch at The Kitchin. We're hoping for "bags of flavor." For now, we're cozy in our apartment in Old Town, just down the hill from the sign of the mermaid, and I shall begin NaNoWriMo.

Mermaid entry Great Hall, Stirling Castle, Scotland

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stirling Castle . . .

Just an hour's bus ride from Edinburgh, so we went for the day, a long day, past flat green fields, rolling hills, then up to Stirling proper, right up the hill to the Castle. The views from the top shimmered in autumn haze, as we wallowed in history, plugged in the audio guides and gave ourselves over to the stories of James IV, V and ever after. Historic Scotland has made immense progress in restoring Stirling Castle, its gardens, ramparts, castle walls and gates, the architecture itself (embellished with sculptures everywhere) a delight, shaped by medieval to Renaissance artistic tastes.

What drew me most, though, were the tapestries. When we visited the Cluny Museum in Paris (again for tapestries), the very famous Lady and the Unicorn series feature a lion and a unicorn on each side of each tapestry, yet little is said about them. They appear almost as if they were heraldic, for the lion and the unicorn appear on the royal coat of arms for the United Kingdom, in much the same pose as on these 16th Century tapestries. Yet the interpretation focuses on classical or religious symbolism, rather than political.
Here at Stirling Castle, the Great Hall, built in 1504, features facing lions and unicorns on the rooftop. Also here at the castle, we watched a team of weavers (with help from the Metropolitan Museum in New York) work on re-creating six tapestries celebrating the Hunt of the Unicorn. Four of the six have been completed and hang in the Chapel Royal. Their purpose: to refurbish the interior of the main palace, bringing it back to 16th Century splendor, when tapestries hung on every wall. These tapestries are exquisite, exact replicas with mille-fleur (thousand flower) backgrounds.

Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry, Stirling Castle, Scotland

Of course, I would like some sort of romantic story behind the union of the lion and the unicorn, for example, James V in his pursuit and subsequent marriage to Madelaine of France, who tragically died of tuberculosis, his subsequent marriage to Marie de Guise. But the reality is more likely political, and the dates don't match . . . and the history is far grittier. Yet the mystery remains behind the tapestries, both sets.

It was a beautiful day, despite tired feet at the end of our walking tour. Here's a picture of Allen on the northern castle wall. Click on any picture to go to Webshots for a few more pictures of Stirling.
Allen on North Wall, Stirling Castle

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Scotland's creature comforts . . .

As we wind down the last week here in Edinburgh, I wanted to talk a little about some Scottish comforts -- those little surprises that challenge and delight. I'll start with the kitchen. I think the Scots are way ahead of us in conserving energy, for each outlet has its own on/off button. Beware the maker of tea who does not recognize the switch is turned off!

I did bake a pizza in the oven. Once. The symbols (no words, no numbers) look something like a fan, a shower and a death ray. Our poor little pizza had the combo fan and death ray. And good for the emergency eject button on the toaster, for after four weeks, I've still not been able to adjust the side panel for proper "brownness". I have mastered the art of catching toast and scones mid-air. Our kitchen looks out over a courtyard. Two trees full in autumn bloom have progressed from bright yellow to red and brown. As I cook, I can watch city pigeons draft on the wind.

We have sturdy doors for each room, holding the heat within and individual radiators, turned low, that automatically come on (or not) in each room. In the living room, we can watch the artificial glow of the wall fireplace (and heater if we master the remote). At night, we snuggle underneath a duvet, no double sheets as in the States. It's so easy to make the bed. Simply waft the comforter in the air and it falls into place. Bright colors, easy to change.

Have I saved the best for last? The bathroom. You may use two levels of flushes by pressing a dual button on the toilet. The greatest luxury has been the heated towel rack, looking rather like a shiny chrome waterfall. This heats the towel deliciously,and these racks are common throughout Scotland. 'Tis true. The water pressure does vary, but we have a bathtub for luxurious soaking of tired feet. And we are in a third floor apartment, up three big flights (no elevator), but the stairs circle around in a graceful arc. I almost can make it up the stairs now without huffing and puffing.

Today we walked down the hill, across the mound and through the edge of New Town, over to the Dean Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The first room we entered had us spellbound, dedicated as it was to Dada and Surrealism. My favorites, Cecil Collins and Jawlensky. On the way home we were treated to this sunset, looking back at the Scott Monument. Click on the image to go to webshots for other pics of Edinburgh. And may all your days end with beautiful sunsets. . .

Scott Monument

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wandering down the Royal Mile . . .

Sing to me of raspberry, little pots of fresh raspberry and cream, two light scones fresh from the oven, and tea. We sat in Clarinda's this afternoon, surrounded by fine china, lace tablecloths, tiny bouquets of dried roses and heather at each table. We were wearied from walking along cobbled streets in Auld Reekie, a nickname for Edinburgh, no longer so sooty, a medieval city well guarded by provosts and burghers, well preserved for tourists, like we two, sitting for a moment, hidden gardens in closes nearby, leaves turning now to red and gold.

Today we visited the Museum of Edinburgh, housed in Huntly House, several interconnected merchants' houses from the 16th and 17th centuries, just on the Royal Mile.

I was taken by this stone panel once over the gate to Leith a port near Edinburgh. Carved in 1678, the panel shows wine being unloaded from a sailing vessel. Here in true medieval fashion, more than one event is shown at the same time. The ship is docked in the lower left; you can see a man folding the sails. Two wine porters (called stingmen) carry casks in the upper left. On the upper right of the panel, a young boy powers a crane using a sort of treadmill, helped by a man.

Everywhere we study the history, I can see how the Industrial Revolution transformed Scotland, but I also see how many suffered until governments acted to protect workers. In fact labor laws protecting children were the first to be passed. And I learned today that tea was decried as an unnecessary luxury for the lower classes, as it was more healthful (and cheaper) for them to stick to breakfasts of oatmeal porridge and milk.

Then, before we stopped for tea, we visited at The Scottish Poetry Library, tucked off the Royal Mile (turn right at the sign of the mermaid, another Starbucks). We sat quiet for a time at a small round table. Allen read Robbie Burns' “Holy Willie's Prayer” and me, I read poems from Gordon Mason's Catapult to Mars. Another lovely day.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

At the end of the day sometimes it hard to recognize how quickly the time passed by. And what did we do with these precious hours? Yesterday we walked for hours in the Royal Botanic Garden here in Edinburgh and we came away feeling somehow nurtured by this series of gardens, ten greenhouses (called glass houses here), one begun in 1670. I think their claim to fame is having the largest "glass house" in Britain, filled with towering palms.

For me, it was enough to simply walk through one humid zone after another, discovering a beautiful purple and yellow water lily, nearly stepping on a frog, or admiring the sway of Spanish moss, and, of course, the ferns. My pics are updated at Webshots, if you like.


Today we went to the National Museum of Scotland and managed somehow to complete another floor, balancing the camera with those silly audio wands. Yet even here I'm finding mermaids. It turns out that mermaids are one of several mythical creatures revered by the Picts and show up on various Scottish crests, namely that of the MacLarens.

We also saw The Maiden (a guillotine), grisly thumbscrews, Pictish crosses, and a few pieces from the lovely carved Lewis chessmen from the 12th Century.

Notice the richly detailed carved backs as well. The king and queen seem rather grim,though some have called their expressions comic.

If I were to give directions to our apartment here in Edinburgh, I would say walk down the Royal Mile, head in the direction of Holyrood Palace, and turn right at the sign of the mermaid. Ha, fooled you. There's a Starbucks on the corner.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Arthurs Seat

Yesterday we hiked over an hour to the top of Arthurs Seat, once a volcano, now a small park just by Holyrood Palace. My favorite part was the climb up steep rock stairs past Salisbury Craigs. We saved the steeper path for next time, built in 1820 by so-called radicals, but in reality, unemployed weavers.

At each step another vista opened up, till we reached the very top, 823 feet above sea level. We could see the mountains and the Great Glen in the distance, and the width of the Forth of Firth next to the city. It was a clear day, beautiful. Crows drafted around us ing in the wind at the heights. On the way down, we found the ruin of St. Anthony's chapel, a single stone wall, saw the wildness of the grassy moors. This morning I'm trashed and slow to get to work. But it was beautiful.
St Anthonys Chapel

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Holyrood Palace and Shackleton . . .

Yesterday we hiked down High Street to Holyrood Palace, and like good tourists, were awed everywhere by the history and beauty of this still active royal retreat. The history is a bit gruesome, Mary, Queen of Scotts, saw her dear attendant, Rizzio, hauled away and murdered (with over 50 knife thrusts) by her husband, Lord Darnley. The interpretation varies from personal to political, depending on the source. But Darnley comes off as someone who provoked arguments and used politics to bolster the Protestant cause against Catholic Mary. Her rooms faced the open courtyard and at the back, we could see the stone staircase where Darnley and his crew rushed in.

The furnishings throughout were historically a mix, some accurate to the 17th Century, and some refurbished as this is the Queen's current retreat when she comes to Scotland. We both tred gently on the uneven stone stairs. In the tenements, these very uneven stairs were made purposefully, so that intruders would stumble, A kind of built-in burglar alarm.

But most beautiful was the Abbey, started sometime in the late 12th Century, its roof long gone, but its Romanesque and Gothic arches still inspirational, to the Romantics in the 18th Century and to us today.

Then back down to the Queen's Gallery for a current exhibit, The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton & Antarctic Photography. We felt lucky to see this as the exhibit just opened October 2, featuring photographs by Herbert Ponting of the doomed Scott expedition to the South Pole, with photographs from Frank Hurley taken during Ernest Shackleton's later expedition. All of Scott's men were lost; none of Shackleton's men died.

Ponting has the artist's eye; Hurley is more workmanlike, but his photographs did justice to those heroic men who suffered cold so severe their teeth shattered. We were unable to take photographs but the images remain. The picture at the right is by Herbert Ponting, taken from an ice cave and looking out at their ship later encased fully in ice and crushed, the Terra Nova, taken between 1910-1913.

Source Wikipedia (Commons). An excellent book of this exhibit, The Heart of the Great Alone, will be available from Amazon after October 27.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

1909 to 2009, 100 years of women's suffrage . . .

Today's photo shows the beginning of a celebration in honor of women's suffrage in Edinburgh. Hundreds of women (and their supporters) in turn of the century costume marched this afternoon through Old Town Edinburgh, many wearing purple, and many carrying banners and placards, beginning with: "A gude cause makes a strong arm."

Even the statue of staid Scottish philospher David Hume wore a purple scarf in honor of the day.
What an outpouring of people marching down High Street, drum bands and accordian bands intermingled with a good thirty minutes of groups passing by. What a spectacle. What an achievement, to bring the vote to women. My favorite: "Remember your ancestors worked for you. Vote!"

Thursday, October 08, 2009

About sea unicorns . . .

We're exploring the Royal Mile these days, walking down from Edinburgh Castle,all two blocks down to St. Giles Cathedral, a stunning Episcopal Church, once Catholic, transformed to a Presbyterian church under the leadership of John Knox in the 16th Century. Our docent told us that Knox had the stained glass windows removed, replacing them with plain glass. By the 19th and 20th Century, these stained glass windows have been replaced and dazzle the eye in every direction. Wikipedia has excellent pictures of the inside of this cathedral.

What took my eye? This small, maybe two feet wooden carved square, kind of a crest, propped up against a side stone wall, flanked by two unicorns with curious fish-tails, creatures I've never seen anywhere before. The docent on duty identified the crest as a traders' or burghers' crest. She told us that the city on the right of the shield was Edinburgh, and the ship at the base of the shield sailed under the flags of Scotland. We also identified weights and measures (another indicator of a merchant crest), and Allen read the Latin as "by land and by sea". Note: You can click on the picture for a larger image.

I couldn't wait to get home to the computer to try to find out more about this crest that had a Latin quote and the date 1681. Check out this link to the Merchant Company of Edinburgh for a list of what each part of this coat of arms means. Those creatures are sea unicorns. Interestingly, the internet search turned up a real sea creature, the tusked shark, the Narwhal, which reminds me of an excellent book, The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. Pam, that's another one for your book club.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

We're back . . .

It's early morning, Broadband is up and running, and that means we're back online -- SKYPE works, I can upload pictures once again, and access e-mail easily! Trust me, T-mobile is ina drawer. Ah, but now it's time to work, so here's a quick view out my window of the Writer's Museum, just across the courtyard here. We're looking at a building from 1622. Allen's taken over travel planning again (Thank G--), yesterday we walked through Edinburgh Castle again and spent several hours in the library. All is well. PS He likes Haggis.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Internet . . . Argh!

We're happily in Edinburgh, but the last week I've been fighting with Internet access issues and T-mobile. Suffice it to say I'm now the owner of a T-mobile "dongle" (something like a thumb drive that lets me access internet, derivation of the term unknown). But, using the dongle is a little like using dial-up once you're used to broadband, and the silly thing only works in the morning and afternoon. I can't upload pictures and I can't use SKYPE. Sorry for the rant. But at least T-mobile recognizes that I'm over 18 now, so I can edit my blog. And we should have a better internet connection after October 12, when we switch to another apartment here in Edinburgh.

Suffice it to say that Edinburgh is beautiful. These old buildings are amazing. Right now, our 4th floor apartment looks over a close (an enclosed courtyard), with buildings dating from 1622, complete with turrets and towers. We step out of our door, and protected by stone griffins, out onto Lawnmarket Street into the heart of Old Town, near Edinburgh Castle, the streets lined with stone buildings from the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Maybe only book lovers would appreciate this: We are two blocks from two major libraries. Scotland is a most generous country. We have been given library cards in each city, including Edinburgh, and the research material for my writing project is excellent. Right now I'm reading W. J. Reader's Life in Victorian England.

Yesterday we hiked over to Newtown (about a mile away) and spent 3 hours exploring the National Trust of Scotland's restored Georgian House (18th Century), four floors. A family of 4 lived here in absolute luxury, supported by 8-10 servants.

For the first time I can literally see the distinction of class in this beautifully restored house, the upper class cossetted, with every luxury, art, books, lots of food and drink, spacious living in light-filled rooms, exquisite furniture; the servants crammed in the basement, some sleeping on the flagstone floor, others 6 to a room, yet all grateful to have employment. No romanticism here. If I believed in previous lives, I would most likely be living in the basement. No wonder the middle class in the 18th and 19th Centuries believed so strongly in self-improvement, while the upper classes had a laisse-faire view, let it be attitude.

For some pics of the Georgian House, go here: http://www.nts.org.uk/Property/56/

It's early here, morning, time to go to work. May your day go well!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Today was supposed to be a quieter day. All we did was walk along the River Ness which runs right through Inverness, houses from the 17th and 18th Century on both sides of this shallow river that runs into Moray Firth and then to the North Sea. We walked out to the Ness Islands to find a forest bordering the river, cedar and pines and the first real changes of autumn, dappling leaves green and yellow mirrored in the sometimes swift, sometimes slowly moving water.

I'm drawn to the song "Loch Lomond" and trying to find out its historical context. I read somewhere that "you take the high road" means you'll be living, while "I'll take the low road" (the road that those who have died all must take), and "I'll be in Scotland before you" means the singer who has died will return home well before his friend who must travel by horse or by foot. Most sources tie the song (written in 1841) to a reaction to the lost cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the fierce reprisals taken against his supporters following the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

The song is widely sung at the end of any gathering, much like the "Tennessee Waltz" by another generation in another land and time. But the plaintive "Loch Lomond" recalls real suffering and somehow fits so well these Highland hills, emptied of people by war and emigration.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Castle Urquhart . . .

There by the shores of Loch Ness, no monster in sight, we spent the afternoon, under cloudy skies and intermittant light, wandering around the ruins of Castle Urquhart, a romantic spot, even as the cold wind blew and the light changed constantly over the water, the rocks and this quiet place, far from ocean, but not protected from Viking raids or medieval politics. Once held by Robert the Bruce, fought over by Stewarts and MacDonalds, we could see a trebuchet (a wooden seige machine some 30 feet high) outside, and inside explore a three story Gordon Tower to look out at Loch Ness. Remains of a watergate, a dovecote, a smithy, a chapel, and kitchens allowed us to reconstruct what life might have once been.

On the waters of Loch Ness, the tourists boats heaved up and down, making us grateful we had taken the much less expensive bus. And we discovered the Rowan tree, plump with red berries.

Check Webshots (on the right) for more pics of Scotland. I'm sorry to be so far behind on blogging where we've gone. Each day has been so full, this week at Fort George, then Culloden Moor, and our last days in Inverness are winding down as we waddle out each morning, full from Scottish breakfast (porridge, yogurt for me and eggs and all the rest for Allen). But at least I can say the writing goes well. It's turning cold at night here, down to 36 degrees by Tuesday, with highs during the day of upper 50s. Enjoy the last gasps of summer!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fort George and Culloden . . .

Earlier this week, we visited Culloden Moor, a World Heritage site, with a new visitor center, and I found it very hard to write about, for the visit challenged our long-held beliefs about which side we favored. We saw maps, read excerpts of documents from both sides, and then walked around this open field of battle, marked by stone walls and memorials, still echoing with the deaths of nearly 2,000 men.

Culloden Battlefield, Scottish side

In fact, I couldn't take my usual number of pictures here. The battlefield feels too hallowed by war and loss, too much an icon of Scottish history. This picture from Webshots shows the expanse of the moor on the Scottish side, the purple heather just now in September beginning to bloom.

The famous Highland Charge resulted in more than 1,500 deaths for the supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie. His battle plan was one disaster after another, with men exhausted from an all night march. The cloudy day, the empty moors, all combined to give us a feeling of loss. MacLeans, MacKenzies, MacDonalds, McGillverays. And after the battle was over, the Lord of Cumberland, known ever after as "Butcher Cumberland", issued pretty much a scorched earth policy for Highlanders in general, "Find the rebels and destroy them."

Government troops, rested, well trained, and primarily Dutch, English and some Scottish, used this house to outflank the rebels. The Jacobites, exhausted after an all night march, fired once and began their dreaded Highland Charge, over 7,000 Highlanders screaming across the open field, up to the ramrod straight shooting line of Government troops. They fell by the hundreds before the unbending line of Government steady fire, a tactic that was unsuccessful in North America not too many years in the future.

So as a long-term supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, did I change my mind? Prince Charlie, the underdog, was a royalist through and through, and believed vehemently in the divine right of kings to rule. The House of Hanover, supported by some Highlanders as well, balanced the concept of absolute divine right with some religious tolerance and a role for an expanded Parliament, hotly contested issues in 1746. In fact, unrest in France (I'm remembering the excesses of the French Revolution later) terrified both the upper and middle classes; when Bonnie Prince Charlie's revolution was presented as a rabble, people flocked to the Government side. But speaking of sides, neither side moved too far away from the issue of divine right of kings. These were early, hard days for any concept of democracy.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

We crawled out of bed at 6am Friday morning to catch the Northlink Ferry from Stromness on Orkney, south across the Pentland Firth, an unreliable strait famous for treacherous tides and sudden storms, to Scrabster, a ride of about an hour and a half. this picture shows our last look at Stromness, by early morning light.

But the sun came out, and except for mild swells which began at 4-6 feet and increased to 10-12 feet, the sea remained billowly calm (I could say bilously calm). Allen couldn't eat breakfast, but I downed good Scottish porridge happily and staggered outside to see the Old Man of Hoy, a 450 foot high column, a sandstone stack completely separate from the cliffs around it, etched with morning fog, whitecaps at its base. This picture from Wikipedia on a sunnier day (mine were way too foggy):
We were somewhat sad to leave Orkney; the first two weeks of our time in Scotland are now behind us. But yesterday we walked all over Stromness and admired the old stone houses and fishing stations still present that speak of the 19th Century life here. At the small but very rewarding Stromness Museum we poured over beaded and carved artifacts from the Ibo in Africa and the Cree in Canada, as well as background on whaling and the Hudson's Bay Company, for Orcadians were highly regarded and comprised nearly 70% of Hudson Bay recruits.

A special exhibit at the Stromness Museum highlighted the trials of Eliza Fraser, the intrepid wife of a sea captain, who was shipwrecked near Australia. She was captured by aborigines there, lost her baby and her husband, struggled through wilderness with some of the surviving crew, and was enslaved (a common treatment of captives by North American tribes in the 18th Century). Mrs. Fraser was ultimately rescued by an Irish convict who had been transported to Australia and who was knowledgeable in the way of the natives there. She returned to England as a sensation, and ultimately remarried and returned to Orkney. We saw her simple stone house in Stromness.

This month's SCOTLAND HISTORY focuses on the connections between Scotland and Australia, with one article about Eliza Fraser.

Landing safely in Scrabster, we hopped on a bus that followed the coastal highway past Wick, Helmsdale, Dunsbeath, Cromarty (all important to the herring fishing trade), and finally to Inverness.

Of course we passed the infamous statue of Sutherland along the way, a monument nearly 100 feet high that sits at the top of Ben Bhraggi, a high hill near Golspie, and looks out over the sea. We understand some Scots prefer this statue be pulled down, given his estate's role in the clearances. The Duke of Sutherland evicted 15,000 tenant farmers to clear and “improve” his land by importing sheep, certainly more profitable in the early days of the Industrial Revolution (roughly 1820). The rolling countryside next to the deep blue sea is beautifully green, marked by immense fields still populated by a mix of cattle and sheep, but I'm remembering the crofters who were evicted.

The islands of Orkney and Shetland are now behind us. Inverness awaits for the next week or so, with its many stone buildings of the 19th Century to explore. We feel a little cut off from news of home with no regular internet access, but these intense weeks here in Scotland are going very quickly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I survived yesterday's challenge, driving a stick shift on the left side of the road. And the stick was located on my left side, not right. And I was sitting on the left side. And the traffic was coming right at me.

We spent the next-to-last day in Orkney dashing all over, from the Kirbuster Crofter Museum (a 19th Century black house, so called for the smoke from the peat fires that blackened the walls inside), the Brough of Birsay (Pictish and Norse ruins on a small island accessible only when the tide is out in a tiny 4 hour window), Skaill House (a country house, upper class, 19th Century), and Maeshowe (a Neolithic burial tomb complete with Viking graffiti).

At the Kirbuster Museum, we spotted this mystery bird. A duck? Your guess is as good as mine. We couldn't find it in bird books OR in any nature exhibit of birds. Suggestions?

I cannot get the Brough of Birsay out of my mind for the sweeping views of the coast (once we crossed over the small tidal beach). This picture is from the very top of the island, near the lighthouse, looking back at the coast. The other side of this tiny island fronts on the Atlantic Ocean with wild waves and steep cliffs. On the quiet side of the island, people built a stone community, later a church, and later still, we come, tourists, but still under the spell of sea, island, and sky.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In the Shetlands.

We're now in a youth hostel in Stromness, back in Orkney, right by the waterfront. We're sitting in the common kitchen with a group of kids and a tour guide, trying to catch up with the international flavor here at nearly 10:00 pm. This is my first time ever in a hostel, no locks on the doors anywhere, a common kitchen with shared food (and shared bathrooms). Someone is now telling a story about a Bulgarian FLK (funny looking kid) who hated Jack Kerouac (ha!).

Actually the internet here is pretty good. We've been immersed in history and culture these last few days, with a 7 hour ferry ride back to Orkney thrown in. We went up to Shetland, spent two days there, with yesterday morning at the Crofthouse Museum, a reconstructed "black house" (from the smokey peat fires) from the 19th Century. On the way back from the Crofthouse Museum, we saw this amazing vista at an old Free Church. Who can imagine how beautiful it is here when the sun is out, these rolling hills so green and yet so close to the sea.

Back in Lerwick, we spent the rest of the day at the Lerwick museum, to see everything from a letter from 1399, complete with archaic script and small coin-shaped seals, to this old fishing station, still a key meeting point for sailors and fishermen.

Tomorrow we will tackle our biggest challenge -- driving a car on the wrong side of the road.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Italian Chapel . . .

Up this morning in a misty sort of rain, onto a bus, past rolling open fields mixed with shaggy sheep and equally shaggy island cattle, past the Highland Distillery, over Churchill Downs, built by Italian P.O.W.'s during World War II to prevent the Germans from entering Scapa Flow (where the British Navy took shelter), and finally to the Italian Chapel.

We walked into a corrugated Quanset hut transformed by paint and plasterboard into an extraordinary chapel, its very walls resembling tiles, bricks, pillars, arches, and foils.

At the very heart of the altar, an exquisite painting of the Virgin with Child, so modeled after a pocket prayer postcard carried by Domenico Chioccochetti, the primary artist and designer of the Chapel itself.

Found materials and pure talent were used to embellish this little Chapel, including two "stained glass" windows (actually painted on mirrors) on either side of the altar.

We found this little Chapel full of peace and hope. The notes on site suggest the Italians, even as they worked on Churchill Downs, won the hearts of the Orcadians with their piety and love of beauty.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Travel to Trumland.

Yesterday we took the car-ferry Eynhallow from Tingwall to Rousay to visit Trumland, an estate famous in Orkney for its singular clearances of tenant farmers in the 1840s and 1850s. The seas were moderate to rough in this small 25-minute crossing, and as we sat over steak and ale pie at the Pier restaurant, we could watch the "roost", a swift and dangerous tide running in this narrow strait separating Rousay Island from the Mainland of Orkney. Fishermen drowned in this fierce tide, which today our car-ferry surmounted easily with powerful engines.

in 1846, the "Little General", George William Traill, 1792-1847, cleared his land of 210 people to enclose the fields and modernize his "farm" and it is this history I have come to understand, the only clearance in all of Orkney. So we walked up the hill and onto the infamous Trumland Estate, up the sweeping entry, past two guardian English lions. Only the gardens were open, but we could see much evidence of reconstruction on the house and gardens. A fire damaged the roof of this large estate in 1986 after a ghostly sighting of the "Little General", but the new owners have persevered, perhaps one day to open the house to the public. We wandered through the small garden; here, fuscias grow as large as trees, warmed by the Gulf Stream.

The slideshow includes some pictures of the very beautiful St. Magnus Cathedral here in Kirkwall, begun in 1147, and stunning in its size and use of Orkney red sandstone. Inside the Romanesque style columns bring your eye up and up to the ceiling. We heard an organist practicing here, the sounds rising and echoing throughout the church. You'll also see the Ring of Brodgar and one shot of Skara Brae, a Neolithic Village. Today, a somewhat foggy day, it's back to the library and research in the archives, for tomorrow we leave for Lerwick in the Shetlands.

Orkney and Shetland

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A little about Kirkwall . . .

Maybe it's the clouds that remind me of Oregon, or the misty rain that comes now and then, but I feel absolutely at home in Kirkwall. The wind from the North Sea blows, at times fierce and constantly; today, we're told to expect near gale force winds but sun in the afternoon. Nothing stops the wind here. The land is mostly flat, neatly divided into fields. We can see, from our lovely second floor room at Mrs. Muir's Guesthouse, all the way past the town's edge and to the sea.

Yesterday we took an orienting tour to this island, joining a bus up from John o' Groats. Our witty driver told very bad jokes along with snips of history and culture as we drove past Scapa Flow, stopped at Stromness, and then on to the Neolithic Skara Brae and Ring of Brodgar. Scapa Flow, a very large bay, opens to the Atlantic, so we're on the far part of the Mainland (this main island of Orkney, which is norse for seal-land, though we haven't seen any seals -- yet).

We wandered around Skara Brae, a Neolithic Village dated to 3,100 BCE, some 5,000 years ago. This amazing stone settlement was discovered in 1850 after a fierce storm blew the protecting sand dunes away. Today, we can walk through one restored house and see the remains of some 7 stone houses built into the ground and connected by tunnels. The houses feature stone beds, stone dressers, even a stone cooking pot built into the floor, and a hearth in the center.

While researchers don't know what the roof covering was, the replica shows a kind of grassy covering, making the settlement nearly invisible from the sea. The doors are locking, which is somewhat unusual in Kirkwall, where no doors are locked, except for one house which was locked from the outside. The skeletons of two women were found inside; we can only guess why. And the mystery of why the people left is unsolved. Some say sea water contaminated the settlement's fresh water pool. Certainly the sea is much closer than it was so many years ago. But as we looked at the tiny bone needles, the strangely shaped stone ritual tools (function unknown), I realize this place must have been a good home, for its temperate climate, easy access to fishing, good farming and hunting.

We then visited the Ring of Brodgar, the northernmost such site in Britain, and walked around its remaining circle of 27 stones, once 60. The site, encircled by a deep trench, is tilted towards the rising and setting of the sun, with several important burial mounds nearby. We walked its 340 feet diameter path and could feel the power of this ancient place, so similar to Stonehenge, for the people came by water and in reverence.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

If it's Thursday, it's Edinburgh

We're here! Safely landed. Left Philadelphia in a haze of freeway traffic, summery blue skies, goodbye hugs, then on to Air France, a blast from the past with its bag of goodies for passengers (eye mask, really good earphones, ear plugs), and it wasn't so easy figuring out how to put on the earphones (they hook over your ears). We each had our own little individual TV screens with touch pads and a good sampling of movies – I watched The Proposal (chick flic) and Allen laughed himself silly with The Hangover (guy flic).

Then the good looking, urbane French-speaking steward brought us hot food. Air France gets an A+. We attacked a small appetizer of salmon,goat cheese and coos-coos, moved on to lemon chicken and curried barley with very fresh, crusty French bread, and finished with something that looked like a chocolate torte with tapioca pudding, and, the finale – a nice creamy camenbert-tasting cheese right from Tillamook, Oregon. Switched planes in Paris (too bad, only a 2 hour wait), and have now landed at The Laurels, a small b&b in Edinburgh. Outside, a comfortable soft rain (about 55 F) is falling and tomorrow, we'll begin exploring this Georgian town, small, friendly, and very accessible with many street and place names after King George himself.

Here's our travel plan (Lynda, this is for you!);
September 3-5 Orientation in Edinburgh (pronounced something like Edinburr-eh)
September 6-11 Kirkwall on Orkney (Kirkwall is a capital of these northern islands just off Scotland's mainland)
September 12-13 Lerwick on the Shetland Islands (the farthest north)
September 14-17 Stromness back on Orkney (an important seaport on Orkney for fishing and history of Hudson Bay Company)
September 18-30 Inverness
Then a month back in Edinburgh. I don't know how we did it, but we found an apartment right on the Royal Mile, in central historic Edinburgh.

Time right now, 2:44 am, some 6 hours ahead of whatever time it is back in Philadelphia. The internet is up and running. We had our first pub experience at the Robin's Nest, just half a block down the lane from our bed and breakfast. Yes, the cars run on the opposite side of the street, rather disconcerting when crossing the street. Absolutely delicious roast chicken penne, toasted garlic bread, and "green leaves" on the side (salad!), with some kind of pale ale (Allen couldn't understand what kind of draft we were getting). The atmostphere -- nonsmoking, friendly, tables for dining on one side, brightly lit, lots of people, including a table for poker full up with young men nursing their cards and their beers. On the other side (we peeked in on the way home), the more serious drinkers, maybe beers and bitters.

The internet is up and running (and it wasn't earlier). The little Samsung netbook (2.3 pounds) is working great. Allen's snoring. I can't believe we're really here. All is well.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mermaids in Atlantic City . . .

We're here in Atlantic City for just 2 days. It's windy and cold, with off-shore storms bringing the rain that reminds me of Oregon, but we strolled along the famous boardwalk, saw Atlantic sea gulls gliding and turning everywhere, their large black-tipped wings almost a part of the sea and sky. People crowd the boardwalk, wearing shorts, hats, kids, and dodging push-carts full of end-of-summer visitors. They seem to tapdance down worn smooth boardwalks, past salt water taffy shops, high-rise hotels glittering C*A*S*I*N*O, red suitcases, formal door attendants on guard, muzak wafting out to mingle with jazz. Kids haul folded beach chairs up from the beach, the last of summer, dog walkers, bicyclists, skate boarders, seniors traveling in clumps, over on Atlantic Avenue, jitney busses careen in and out of traffic, and beyond all, nearly hidden behind the tall sand dunes, the ocean. A welcome respite with family and friends.

We stopped at the Atlantic City Convention Center Sheraton to look at a few historical icons -- the first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, 1921. And what did she win but a 3 foot high Golden Mermaid trophy. She returned in 1922 in full Statue of Liberty regalia and looked just like a flapper girl, her winning smile so energetic, it reverses all my conceptions about a beauty queen. If she had walked down Haight Ashbury in San Francisco in the late 60's or early 70's, she would have fit right in! Tomorrow we're back in Philadelphia to finish packing for our next journey, Scotland.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

On the shores of Lake Michigan . . .

I’m still reeling from the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Ron and Heather here in Upper Michigan. We rode through the woods to the lake, hopping out of the car at for vistas of Lake Michigan, finally stopping at Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore, to see summer hikers of all persuasions and ages struggling up its 450 foot incline.

Manitou Island in Lake Michigan from Dune Overlook

Later, we sat at a long table on their enclosed patio surrounded by poplars, the sun shimmering through. The table was loaded with grilled salmon, mixed green salad, fresh bread, tossed summer squash, all flavors rising to our noses with anticipation. Heather reached out and said, “Let’s begin with the Selkirk Grace.” They recited it by heart, with fervor AND the proper Scottish pronunciation. What they didn’t know is this poem attributed to Robert Burns is the opening to my book, but this was the first time I’d ever heard it aloud (or that anyone else knew of it).

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae the Lord be thankit.

Heather later confided that she hated the poem when she was younger for her family recited it at every meal. “They sounded like knuckle-draggers,” she said, as “we hae meat and we can eat” called forth the image of cave dwellers, at least then to a teenager.

Her grandparents had come over from Scotland in the early 1900s to settle in flat farming land in the thumb of Michigan, where one had a chance to own land. Her grandmother talked of the surprise of raising a variety of vegetables, well past the meager three – oats, bere, and potatoes.

The memory of that day, sitting under those sun-dappled trees, that salmon, grilled with mustard and maple syrup, lingers on. I was left with the sense of why Scottish immigrants would remember their green, green homeland with its glens and fogs, heather and stormy seas, but just as eagerly embrace their new homelands, whether in the United States, Canada, India, or Australia. Maybe too, I begin to understand why the Scots love Robbie Burns.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Whooping cranes dance . . .

Today, a slightly overcast warm summer day with lovely cummulus clouds building almost to rain, we visted the grounds of the International Crane Foundation, a complex designed to study, preserve and protect cranes all over the world.

We quietly watched African cranes in a new exhibit, their dazzling colors red, black and white, with golden delicate crowns of feathers arcing in a floating circle over their heads -- the Black Crowned Crane and the Gray Crowned Crane (see below).

And then we watched a pair of rare Whooping Cranes interact in a marshy pond. Apparently they dance (and mimic movements) as part of pair bonding and, to my surprise, to release tension. So, birds dance. And this International Crane Foundation continues its wonderful work.

Cranes dancing.MOV

Friday, July 24, 2009

Farewell to Minnesota . . .

Yesterday we spent a pleasant afternoon, wandering around the open habitats of the Minnesota Zoo. We saw baboons, gibbons, flamingos, grizzlies, Mexican wolves, and a few mammals we'd never seen before -- takins, a sleepy Binturong, and a funny hedgehog. I've updated Webshots but here are some shots to enjoy.

Minneapolis Zoo

The real highlight of our visit to the Minneapolis area, though, was to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). We were only able to investigate one floor in our 3-1/2 hours there and were entranced by Chinese, African, and Native American arts, especially a rare Drum Dance blanket from the Anishinabe/Dakota culture. This museum allows photographs, offers its extensive and beautifully presented exhibits at no cost, and provides extraordinarily helpful notes for each artifact. Their website is outstanding, though I did post a few favorites on Webshots, including this court drummer from the Chinese Han Dynasty. Enjoy! Enjoy!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On the road in Minnesota . . .

The new tent works great! After four days of thunderstorms, some a downpour, we're happy to report this new tent doesn't leak. And we can get it assembled in under 20 minues (a good improvement from the first 35 minute session).

We're camped in the wilds of Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis, and will leave tomorrow for Wisconsin before heading to upper Michigan and the delights of Travers City. Yesterday we ambled through shopping malls, took advantage of 25% off on Senior Weds at the Goodwill, and saw Ice Age at the movies, finishing up with three-mushroom pizza and then ice cream sandwiches while sitting by the pool at the KOA here. And we've admired the Mississippi River from the Science Museum. Not exactly roughing it. However, driving the freeways here at 70+ mph is certainly hair-raising, and city drivers cut it close, much closer here than we do out west.

Arrangements for Scotland are finally falling into place. We have an apartment in Edinburgh already for the month of October. One place. With a kitchen. Two weeks are set in Inverness. Now to somehow make arrangements in Orkney, but today is our last full day in Minneapolis. Will we go to the zoo or the art museum? Don't know yet and don't care. Life is good. This morning I saw a sun shower and a double rainbow before breakfast. I hope the sun is shining where you are.

Minneapolis Institute of Art

Minneapolis Institue of Art (Webshots)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Glacier National Park . . .

It's the middle of July. Today we hiked around the eastern half of Glacier National Park to find bright yellow Glacier Lillies poking out of the snow at Logan Pass. Even though it's mid-summer, lowering rain clouds rolled in, shifting and settling over the mountains. Beautiful.

Glacier National Park

On the road again . . .

It appears we are going in circles. We left Spokane on Sunday morning early, well before breakfast, and headed north to Canada. Our maps were well organized and we had a clear plan to cross the continent to Philadelphia via Canada, starting with the Rockies, stopping in at Banff and Jasper, and then car camping across Canada's midwestern plains, revisiting Elk Island, where once a herd of elk leisurely grazed through our campsite.

We flashed passports at the border, drove north for 250 miles, explored historic Fort Steele, and then it began to rain. We camped out at the cheapest hotel we could find in Radium Hot Springs, too discouraged to even take a dip, somewhat taken aback to find the "free internet wireless" was limited to 15 minutes offered by the local service provider. Folks at the Information Center joked about finding hotel deals for US$140 and more a night. And we discovered our sandwiches cost $8 apiece, and gas translates to about $4 a gallon. It can only get better tomorrow, we assured each other. We've been away too long to remember how expensive things are. We'll camp.

Monday morning clouds greeted us, and it rained steadily as we drove through Kootenay National Park to Banff, up that lovely valley ringed by mountains to Lake Louis. But the clouds moved in, covering the mountains, and the rain turned into a downpour. No one was camping.

So we've driven south again, down Bow Parkway some 300 miles. We did see one young elk, glorious in a full rack, covered with velvet, browsing grass alongside the road, oblivious to motorists. I still love the Rockies and we'll return one day, but for now as we travel east, it just seems less complicated to stay in the states where KOA awaits in case of rain.

Kootenay National Park, British Columbia

Photo: Kootenay national Park, British Columbia (Webshots)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

On traveling . . .

Still haven't quite come to ground, though we're in Spokane for another 10 days, preparing for three different trips (with lots of packing and unpacking). This video, Where the Hell is Matt, reminds me once again why I love traveling and what is truly human, regardless of country, time or place.

It's funny, his blog is irreverent, and I begin to feel just a little more connected.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

We're back . . .

Ok, we've been back now just over two weeks, and I must confess to some jet lag. Rachel sent me to the supermarket to buy some flour, and I couldn't bring myself to choose. Did she want bleached flour or unbleached, organic or whole wheat, another specialty flour or simply baking flour? Or was it bread flour? Three shelves and 20 minutes later, I left -- without buying flour.

And we bought the new computer to replace the one that was stolen. But reloading my programs (and attempting to reload files from my back-ups) brought back a sense of loss and dislocation. Some picture files are truly gone. Priceless, as the ad says. But many pictures remain, some 1500 waiting to be named, organized -- and backed up.

The air everywhere is so clean. No buses belching carbon monoxide. No crowds of people darting across streets, striving to avoid becoming hood ornaments. We drove down from Spokane to the Willamette Valley. Our farms are so tidy, so well organized these early summer days. I don't see people working the fields. I don't see llamas grazing at the side of the road. I feel a sense of nostalgia for my temporary homes in South America -- Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, even as I appreciate the sunset here in the Willamette Valley, turning the sky pink, and to the west, the coastal mountains, layered shadows of purple.

We leave again on July 15 for the wilds of the American midwest, northern Michigan, by August 2, and then to Philadelphia by August 15, a quick drive across country, and then to Scotland for 6-8 weeks (Inverness, Edinburgh, and Orkney). Then back home to Philly and on to Costa Rica for 3-4 months, a settling down time in one place. Perhaps my jet lag will dissipate by then.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Goodbye Peru . . .

Just learned that Air Canada moved our flight up by 3 hours. Phew! And we haven't packed, but I'm not too worried. When you travel for six months with 5 changes of clothing, there's really not that much to pack! Except for the books. And the brochures. And maybe a few gifts. I'm taking a chance that Air Canada will feed us. We're used to stewards and stewardesses on busses, trains and planes here in Peru. On our train trip via Peru Rail to Macchu Picchu, we had a full breakfast on linen. I felt like it was the Orient Express.

Our last day in Cusco was the day before Corpus Christi, celebrating Christ's last supper, that seminal event when Christ distributed wine and bread, a service that has become the Eucharist for millions of Christians. Here in Cusco, the holiday is a major event. Hundreds of people crowded into the Plaza del Armas to see massive flowered floats carrying 17 saints parade throughout Cusco -- all day, accompanied by dancing and marching bands. Groups of people carry the heavily carved wooden floats in a rocking motion to show respect for the saints, visiting the churches in town.

Yes, I have some wonderful pictures, but no way to include them. One of the more interesting parts of this festival was the dance of indigenous rural people in colorful masks and brightly ribboned hats the color of the rainbow, each pair using whips in some sort of drive-out-the-sin ritual. As always, more research is needed. But this was a very colorful last glimpse of Cusco before we came to Lima for a short rest before hopping on Air Canada and coming home -- and perhaps to a new computer sooner than I think! Already Allen is asking me what's after Scotland. Should it be four months in the Carribean or Costa Rica?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Back in Cusco . . .

We are happily back in Cusco, staying at Hotel Corihuasi with its winding stone stairways and rooms overlooking the city (and lots of hot water). Today we spent walking around the town with Al, Pam and Kayla, seeing the city anew through their eyes. We taught Kayla how to say no politely in Spanish to the many street vendors, yet it's difficult to say no to the beautiful crafts here -- weavings, silver, caps, ponchos, finger puppets, sweaters -- all in such vivid colors, and all featuring themes from the Andes.

Just now everyone is visiting the main cathedral here. I'm resting a bit here at the internet cafe, catching up with the high altitude.

Later we'll walk down Lareto Street (a narrow street along what was once the House of the Sun) to admire the Incan stones still making up the walls here: their large geometric shapes fit so tightly together that even today, no one seems able to replicate their walls. Cusco itself, like many other sacred places, takes the shape overall of a crouching feline -- the puma. While we have visited museums here, we've mostly gained an understanding of the artifacts of the Incan culture, but the religion and ideas still elude us. Popularly, Cusco is known as the center or navel of the world, but in planning this city, Incan astrologers planned temples and reshaped hills to create the puma.

Tomorrow we'll visit the Pisac ruins, built in the shape of a condor, and Monday, we go again to Macchu Picchu, which is built in the shape of a llama. Understanding the link between the shape of these places helps me understand the Nazca lines, those mysterious and controversial lines visible only from the sky -- hummingbirds, monkeys, spiders, plants and other shapes. Perhaps once they held a sacred meaning, even as the crouching puma did once for Cusco, and for many, still does.

This mix of ancient traditions and modern struggles with poverty would take more than one visit to understand. Here in Cusco, I've read that about 1 million tourists a year visit. That's a prodigious number of people. What do they take home? Cusco, Incan culture, superimposed with the history of the Spanish conquest and colonial traditions cannot be easily captured in a single photo, a diary entry, or even a memory. The average Peruvian works very hard. Taxi drivers, for example, work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Farmers work their fields and harvest by hand. We pass road crews repairing cobblestoned streets, again by hand. Every job is important. Yet unemployment averages 50%. So our tourist dollars help support artisans of all kinds. Today I bought a finger puppet of a llama, beautifully hand knitted with little tassles for roughly 33 cents. Today also, police and protestors clash over how tourist sites are managed and developed. Violence is always under the surface of such a peaceful and beautiful place. I have no answers and yet I am glad we came here.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lords of Sipan

Today was a double header. Two museums. Four and a half hours. Tired feet. But these two museums were the reason we came to northern Peru, the land of the Lords of Sipan.

We visited the older museum first: Museo Arqueologico Nacional Bruning. Lots of pictures later . . .

Then we stopped for lunch. Were served a hot drink called "Tiger's milk" at El Pacifico, a heady concoction of salty seafood broth, spiced with lemon and chiles. It nearly burned the cold right out of my throat! Resting feet. Enjoying yogurt and fruit (a grape as large as two thumbs).

Then we walked over to the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipan, which showcased Walter Alva's sumptuous find, an untouched tomb discovered in 1987, featuring the first clear picture of what life (or death) was like in the Moche Kingdom for one of its major rulers in a tomb that was unlooted. The treasure trove is truly amazing.

The museum is set up like a Moche temple. We entered at the top, and just as the archaeologists did, we worked our way down through the layers of burials, so carefully unearthed by Alva's team. For breathtaking images (not in public domain), go to this site of the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipan

096 trujillo -il signore di sipanI coiuld say my favorite was the Decapitator God, but I'm also partial to the Crab God of the Sea and the ear plugs of turquoise, or the sun pectoral of tiny beads of coral and seashell.

We spent a long time in this museum and regretted nothing at all (except maybe tired feet). Then, back to our hotel, dodging these very fast three-wheeled "Moto-Taxis" which are quite picturesque when three of them are bearing down on you!

DSCF7841 Peru - Desaguadero - Bicycle taxi at the border between Peru and Bolivia

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chan Chan

We just got back from our first tour of Chimu ruins (thin 850-1470) near Trujillo. First we stopped at Huaca Arco Iris, a Chumu temple of the rainbow, so named for their love of the sea. Our visit started auspiciously with a sighting of two tiny yellow birds (almost canaries?) and two hairless dogs of Peru (later adopted by Frida Khalo). We walked into this high walled temple (adobe brick walls about 15-20 feet high and some 700 years older than Chan Chan) to find murals, not at all protected from rain, and partly restored.

Above the rainbow we could see stylized waves, reminding me of the early Greek and Minoan Mediterranean cultures. The arc of the seven-colored rainbow ended with twin snake heads over two sea otters, linked by their transformative tongues. At the base of the mural, two warriors stand guard with dome caps on either side, and a mythical feathered serpent holds the timu, a ceremonial knife shaped like an upside down half moon. Misnamed the Temple of the Dragon when it was discovered in 1960, today archaologists prefer the name Temple of the Rainbow as closer to Chimu beliefs. We climbed to the top of this pyramid via a steep ramp and were rewarded with a view of the valley, massive sand dunes, the nearby mountains, and, close to the ocean, the complex of Chan Chan itself, which once included about 60,000 people and 9 different sub-cities.

imagen 125
Mural at Huaca Arco Iris (photo courtesy of Webshots) See more photos here (including the dogs).

We then drove over to the portion of Chan Chan that is open to the public -- the Tschudi complex, which once contained about 60,000 people and is a veritable maze of buildings and plazas used for ritual, religion and burials. Here you can see the fishnet walls (note the bird friezes at the base of the walls). Archaeologists are busy excavating and reconstructing the many friezes throughout the complex -- pelicans, cormorants, the Incan cross, even the lowly squash are key decorative elements.

Trujillo - Chan Chan - Chimu 1300AD - massive adobe site

What's fascinating is the role of weather in the history and continued existence of these ruins at Chan Chan. Every 2 to 7 years, El Nino comes roaring ashore with massive rains and flooding. While protective roofs cover some of Chan Chan, many of these delicate applied mud adobe high relief murals are at risk. Tomorrow we'll trek to the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), a Moche temple.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Goodbye to Lima . . . for now . . .

We're just a few blocks away from Vista del Mar, here in Miraflores, Lima, Peru. This is the view from our favorite restaurant, a bird's eye view of the graveled beach below, which prompted this week's poem. Last night we watched surfers riding the waves to shore, one after the other, seemingly unending, the breakers rising out of the fog. We then popped into our first movie in a long time, a very noisy "Angels and Demons", just right for Spanish subtitles, all action, noise to cover Allen's cough, and a peaceful afternoon.

Lima, Peru

Al came in safely from San Francisco last night, despite the fog, and today, in a little while, we climb aboard Cruz del Sur for a 10-hour ride to northern Peru, Trujillo and then Chiclayo, the land of the Lords of Sipan, near Lambayeque.

In fact, this whole South American trip started with an audio-book from the Corvallis Public Library called the Lords of Sipan: A True Story of Pre-Inca Tombs, Archaeology, and Crime. Sidney Kirkpatrick introduced us to Walter Alva's fabulous finds in Northern Peru (and his somewhat successful attempts to foil the grave robbers). Then, we said, will we ever go there? Now, we're more than ready to climb around this temple complex and admire the murals, still vivid with their original coloring.

Huaca Luna- : Moche site

Pop over to this "unique travel" site to see more pics of the Lord of Sipan (dubbed Tutankhamen of the Americas, along with a YouTube video. Photos here courtesy of Webshots (until I can get my pics safely home and processed).

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Larco Museum, Lima . . .

Yesterday we visited the Museo de la Nacion here in Lima. First, our guide took us through the third floor's bewilderingly exhibition, organized not around cultures but around the common themes that cross all Andean indigenous peoples. No dates. No neat little cards naming the artifact, where it was found, or which culture it came from. But we did gain an understanding of the main themes that underlie these cultures from prehistory (about 2,000 BC) to the time of the Spanish Conquest (1432).

Downstairs, we could wander through a more traditional chronological ordering of artifacts, each case highlighted a different Andean culture. And despite what Lonely Planet said, yes, you can take photographs. I will return with camera.

Today we traveled across Lima, a small town of 13 million souls, in a gas-belching, heart-stopping, lurching co-operativa bus, the kind that keeps moving when you leap on and off and that stops inches behind the car in front. But we traveled to the Larco Museum, properly called the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, famous for its thousands of artifacts, not the least being some of the most beautiful pots I've ever seen -- and textiles. This private museum combined equisitely selected artifacts with careful notations. Larco was a thoughtful expert, classifying Andean cultures into a timeline. Even the Moche pottery was subdivided into 5 distinct categories. The museum notes explained how sacred beliefs developed over time, what elements stayed consistent between different cultures, and how this relates to our understandings of these people.

Characteristics of birds, serpents and felines (physical and supernatural) appear repeatedly to combine the sky (heaven, the source of rain), the land (this world), and the underworld (source of fruits of the earth and where the dead went). Notice the beautiful bird headdress of this Moche portrait sculpture (read more at Wikipedia). The Moche sculptures are beautifully realistic; most have an otherworldly look, almost trance-like. Interestingly, none of these Moche sculptures are of women, but nobles, priests and acclaimed artisans. These remind me of the painfully realistic portrait sculptures of the Romans, who borrowed and copied from the Greeks. We may return again, for the gardens, for the tasty lunch in the museum restaurant, but most certainly for more time with these beautiful pieces, from the earliest times to the Conquest. Even two more quippus -- and an exquisite Incan mantle made entirely of tiny blue and yellow feathers.

And if you are interested in am ancient sea god with the golden tentacles of an octopus returned to Peru in 2006, read more here.

One of the continuing controversies is over the looting of many Peruvian antiquities, which are slowly being returned from museums around the world. And of course I didn't buy an antique textile from a street vendor. Truly.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Ollantaytambo . . .

Most of us are two or three generations from farming (if not more). As Nicko, our taxi driver took us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, past jagged mountains, snow at the vry top, past steep hillsides, several small towns, kids racing to school in navy blue sweaters, the road curving up and down into deep valleys, we saw farming country. The people, descendants of Incans, worked to dry corn or clear the fields of corn stalks, binding them into impossibly large bundles to be carried on the back to the roadside. We passed hand carts pushed by young men and old women, and so we came to Ollantaytambo, on our way to Macchu Picchu. Nicknamed Ollan, this fortress town was established to protect Cusco from tribes in the Amazon. Our taxi hit those narrow cobblestoned streets with a jolt, taking us down to the train station, where our next hotel, the El Alburgue, fronted the railroad tracks to Aguas Caliente and Macchu Picchu.

Surprisingly, we stepped in the door of our hotel and found a tranquil garden full of cannas, lilies, roses, and hummingbirds. Our room invited us in with cozy comforters, a mountain view, and lots of hot water for showers.

In the morning we planned to go climb about on the Ollantaytombo ruins, site of Manco Inca's defeat of the Spanish, when we were told to go up to the main plaza for the Festival of the Bulls. May 15 marked the first time the bulls were put into yokes for the next season's planting. The small plaza was crowded with pairs of bulls, their horns twined with fruits of the season, oranges and bananas and ribbons, each pair pulling a plow, the farmers coming behind to drive them around the plaza. The farmers scattered dried corn which children and old women dashed to pick up. Later we learned the corn was considered "plata," good fortune.

But the procession was dazzling. Three statues were carried on the backs of key community leaders, all heavily decorated with calla lillies and corn stalks. The largest, I learned, was St. Ysidro (Isadore, the patron saint of farmers), but the other two smaller statues shall remain mysterious and nameless. The procession, with those closest to the statues, masked young men dancing an energetic up and down dance, were followed by the young ladies with horned masks with snakes on the backs of their heads, who were followed by little children in fancifull dress, beautifully costumed in gold and velvet, dancing in baby steps, mothers hovering nearby. Drummers kept the procession moving to the church where they were met by elders with ceremonial candles. Each of the statues was carried forward to bow to the other and each then made a circular dance in front of the church. Then, the entire procession, bulls and all, went to the ruins of Ollantaytombo and then throughout the town, firecrackers and music sounding throughout the afternoon, as we climbed to the top of the ruins.

Ollantaytambo Inca Fortress
Photo courtesy of Webshots

I have had a hard time finding any information about this festival for it was a local celebration, not publicized, and, we later learned, not exactly for tourists, though a few of us were there. I only know I saw the young men dance, the gaurdians of three saints, carried on the backs of their elders, a joyous celebratory, unforgettable dance, the whole community participating, and somehow, in the shared smiles, we, outsiders, were included.

Photo courtesy of Webshots
Additional reading on Peruvian crafts.