The Slow Road http://theslowroad.org/wp Two Women Wandering The World Tue, 25 Apr 2017 21:31:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 67967049 Layers of History in Antequera http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/layers-history-antequera/ Tue, 25 Apr 2017 21:24:27 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23493 You know a place is old when the Romans named it Antikaria (ancient city). The current town of Antequera in southern Spain, home to about 40,000 people, is known as “the heart of Andalucia” for its position midway between the cities of Seville, Malaga, Grenada, and Cordoba. We spent the week before Easter there looking […]]]>

You know a place is old when the Romans named it Antikaria (ancient city). The current town of Antequera in southern Spain, home to about 40,000 people, is known as “the heart of Andalucia” for its position midway between the cities of Seville, Malaga, Grenada, and Cordoba. We spent the week before Easter there looking after an apartment and two cats. And though it wasn’t our most comfortable housesit, it gave us the chance to immerse ourselves in Antequera’s traditional Easter Week festivities (more about those in our next post) and to explore the area’s rich history.

Viewed from high on the hill above town, Antequera is another Andalusian “pueblo blanco,” like Grazalema, all white walls and terracotta roof tiles. You don’t notice the whiteness at street level, though, because of all of the shop fronts, cafes, and brick or stone churches. There are many, many churches in Antequera, as well as a lot of old convent and monastery buildings. (In the 1830s, the Spanish government abolished convents and monasteries so it could sell off their land holdings to pay down the national debt.)

Not far from Antequerra, archaeologists have found evidence of a Bronze Age village, which may be what gave the Romans the idea that this place was old. Closer to town, there are small circular hills containing stone burial chambers (called dolmens) that date from between 2,000 and 3,000 BC, roughly the same era as Stonehenge. They were built from huge stones, the largest ones seven times heavier than those at Stonehenge. Through immense effort, the builders dragged the stones from the local mountains; stood them upright in a deep trench to form a long, narrow, U-shaped chamber; laid even bigger slabs on top for a roof, and covered the whole thing (except for the opening) with dirt to form a circular mound 50 meters (160 feet) wide.

The dolmens aren’t much to look at from the outside, and inside they’re too dark for photos, so we didn’t take any pictures of them. (If you want some, consult Google.) But just seeing the size of the stones and being inside such an ancient space was impressive. The dolmens have just been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, so town officials hope that will spur tourism to Antequera.

If so, visitors will find lots of other evidence of Antequera’s history. On the highest point in town, there’s the inevitable (for southern Spain) medieval Moorish fortress, taken over by conquering Christian kings who filled it with, you guessed it, churches. Just inside the walls of the fortress are the ruins of a Roman bathhouse. The surprisingly good town museum is filled with artifacts from Roman Antequera, ranging from the wonderfully mundane (bone dice that look almost exactly like modern dice) to the artistic (a large bronze sculpture of a boy).

And if that’s not enough history, you can see the changes that have occurred over a geologic time scale in a nearby limestone landscape called El Torcal. There, eons of erosion from rain, ice, and wind have turned karst hills into fantastic shapes full of lines and channels and circles. Some of my favorite formations resemble stacks of plates or giant piles of cookies. We hiked for a couple of hours through El Torcal, being careful to stay on the marked trails, because otherwise one could get seriously lost in that barren, rocky landscape. With all of the wonderful limestone cave formations we’ve seen in places such as Appalachia, the Yucatan, Slovenia, Thailand, and Vietnam, we sometimes say we’re doing a karst tour of the world. Now, when we get our tour t-shirts printed, we can add Spain to that list.

 

 

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Seville in Photos http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/seville-in-photos/ Tue, 18 Apr 2017 16:36:30 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23464 For more than 500 years, Seville was ruled by Muslim caliphs and emirs. Since 1248, it has been ruled by Catholic kings. The intersection of those two eras and cultures can be seen most clearly in the center of Seville. The city’s massive cathedral, the third-largest Catholic church in the world, is built on the […]]]>

For more than 500 years, Seville was ruled by Muslim caliphs and emirs. Since 1248, it has been ruled by Catholic kings. The intersection of those two eras and cultures can be seen most clearly in the center of Seville. The city’s massive cathedral, the third-largest Catholic church in the world, is built on the site of a former mosque. The minaret of the mosque is now the cathedral’s belltower, the famous Giralda, symbol of Seville. Next to the cathedral sits a beautiful Moorish-style palace, the Alcazar, built by Muslim rulers in the 1100s. Catholic rulers expanded the Alcazar, and it remains a residence of Spain’s royal family to this day, making it the oldest palace in Europe still in use.

 

Seville Gallery
Misc. Seville Gallery

 

Seville Cathedral Gallery

 

Seville Alcazar Gallery

 

 

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Beautiful Orange-Scented Seville http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/beautiful-orange-scented-seville/ Sat, 15 Apr 2017 22:19:23 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23159 OK, I know I said last month that Rome is one of the best cities in the world for strolling. But I think Seville may be even better. There’s plenty of history and good food and wine. Many streets in the center of the city are pedestrian-only, so you don’t have to dodge cars as […]]]>

OK, I know I said last month that Rome is one of the best cities in the world for strolling. But I think Seville may be even better. There’s plenty of history and good food and wine. Many streets in the center of the city are pedestrian-only, so you don’t have to dodge cars as you wander around. There are lots of parks and gardens, and in spring, the blissful scent of orange-tree blossoms fills the warm (but not yet hot) air. 

Almost everywhere you turn, there is beautiful or fanciful architecture: brightly colored tiles, intricate iron gates, huge windows that project out like balconies, cool interior patios filled with flowers. There’s a Moorish palace of incredible detail, one of the most beautiful bell towers in the world, Renaissance buildings decorated in a riot of carving, a cathedral designed specifically to impress the world with its size, scores of dramatic churches, and grand buildings from the 1910s and 1920s that are pure fantasies of architecture.

You can see all those things during the day, but evening is when Seville is at its best. Everything in this city encourages that Spanish family tradition, the evening stroll, or paseo. This time of year, it doesn’t get dark until almost 9 p.m., stores (which line the pedestrian streets rather than being clumped in some faraway mall) stay open until 8 or 9. The bars and restaurants that dot every corner have tables or counters outside, where you can stop for a drink and small plates of food (tapas) before you wander on. Paseo is an evening institution, meeting up with friends or family before the late dinner hour (typically about 10 p.m.).

Much more than we do elsewhere, Melissa and I wandered all over central Seville until midnight and never felt unsafe. There’s too much life in the streets and plazas, even on an ordinary weeknight, to feel like you’re on your own. Of course, hordes of other tourists love Seville too.

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Battle of the Bands http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/battle-of-the-bands/ Sun, 09 Apr 2017 20:46:47 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23144 Our last day in Grazalema was a big day for the village—not because of our impending departure but because it was the 12th annual “Encuentro de Bandas de Musica” or, as we call it, Battle of the Bands. Town bands from Grazalema and two other local villages took over the main plaza in Grazalema to […]]]>

Our last day in Grazalema was a big day for the village—not because of our impending departure but because it was the 12th annual “Encuentro de Bandas de Musica” or, as we call it, Battle of the Bands. Town bands from Grazalema and two other local villages took over the main plaza in Grazalema to perform processional marches. The reason these villages have bands—and the reason they’re feverishly practicing this time of year—is that solemn march music is an important part of the religious processions that mark Easter Week (Semana Santa) in Spain. Music lovers, relatives of band members, and anyone glad to have something different to do in the village on a sunny Sunday afternoon flocked to the plaza to listen to the music.

We didn’t stick around after the concert to see whether a winner was declared. Grazalema was at a disadvantage because it’s the smallest of the three villages and because one of the other bands has spiffy red and black military-style uniforms rather than the usual polyester blazers. Still, to our ears, the Grazalema band acquitted itself well, and it definitely led the category of handsomest and most earnest band director.

 

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Photos of Grazalema http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/photos-of-grazalema/ Thu, 06 Apr 2017 17:07:00 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=23054 Pictures from our two-week stay in our favorite village in southern Spain—mountain views, white houses, scampering sheep, fountains with faces, and Chris and Melissa looking goofy in various ways.      ]]>

Pictures from our two-week stay in our favorite village in southern Spain—mountain views, white houses, scampering sheep, fountains with faces, and Chris and Melissa looking goofy in various ways.

 

 

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Returning to One of Our Favorite Places in the World http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/returning-one-favorite-places-world/ Wed, 05 Apr 2017 21:06:20 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22934 Nine years ago, with Melissa on crutches because of a badly sprained ankle, we came to the southern Spanish village of Grazalema in search of pretty scenery for her to recuperate in. We were charmed by this compact white village of 2,000 people, perched high on a shelf above a rolling green valley and ringed […]]]>

Nine years ago, with Melissa on crutches because of a badly sprained ankle, we came to the southern Spanish village of Grazalema in search of pretty scenery for her to recuperate in. We were charmed by this compact white village of 2,000 people, perched high on a shelf above a rolling green valley and ringed by gray, pine-covered peaks. We dreamed of returning someday when Melissa could do more than hobble around.

2017 is our personal Year of the Mountain. So as soon as we landed in mainland Spain from Mallorca, we headed straight to Grazalema for a two-week stay. Would the village be as wonderful as we remembered? Happily, the answer is yes.

Grazalema is much the same as we described and photographed last time. The shops, restaurants, hotels, churches, and beautiful views are still there. So is the little leather workshop where Melissa bought a bag last time, with the same artisan, Fernando, making beautiful things by hand. Once again, he showed us all his wares and rubbed our palms with ambergris (a waxy substance derived from whales that he uses to make leather supple). Melissa bought a glasses case this time, made to measure.

Some things have changed in Grazalema in nine years. The funny cropped trees in the central plaza are a little taller. The clock above the town hall keeps the right time now. And there’s a new statue celebrating the village’s heritage as a place long associated with the festival of roping a bull and running it through the streets.

The biggest change, though, is in the food scene. Back in 2008, Grazalema had two kinds of restaurants: bars where you could have a convivial time but dull food and fine-dining establishments good for a large traditional meal (heavy on the pork, boar, venison, and fish). Now, though, the village also boasts two very popular “gastrobars” whose chefs turn out delicious modern takes on traditional tapas. There’s also a wifi cafe that specializes in cakes, cookies, coffee, and Spanish hot chocolate (a cross between cocoa and pudding). It’s the sort of place where we can happily pull out our laptops and work for a few hours when we want a change of scenery. And best of all, smoking inside restaurants is now illegal in Spain, so no longer do we have to huddle outside in all kinds of weather because the interiors are too smoky to breathe! (Now it’s the smokers who have to do that.)

It’s colder than it was this time nine years ago (or maybe the difference is that we’re staying in apartments now rather than a hotel). We’ve gotten a lot of practice building fires to keep warm inside, and we’ve discovered another man named Fernando who, for 7 euros, will deliver a giant bag of firewood up the stairs to your living room. Communicating with him by phone in Spanish is one of my proudest linguistic achievements of this trip.

We’ve developed a wonderful routine here: work for several hours a day, linger over a big midday meal (as the Spaniards do) for a couple of hours, and hike for a few hours in the beautiful hills and valleys around Grazalema. A network of trails starts near our apartment, and Melissa has been thrilled to boldly walk in places that she could only look longingly at last time.

In many ways, Grazalema seems to us like a perfect village. While many rural communities are dwindling, it appears to be thriving. There are residents of all ages (not just old folks) and lots of visitors, drawn by the hiking, the views, or just the great fresh honey and payoyo cheese (made from the milk of local goats and sheep). The village has some new businesses, as well as established old ones, and all of the necessities for daily life (grocery stores, bakeries, butcher shops, banks, a school, a library, a post office, a municipal pool and sports complex, a few local industries, and a health clinic). And it’s just 45 minutes by bus or car to two larger towns (Ronda and Ubrique) and only a couple of hours to the big cities of Malaga and Seville.

Grazalema is the sort of place we could imagine putting down roots, except that we’d miss our loved ones in the United States too much for that. Still, we hope to come back in future years for longer stays. So when we leave it won’t be adios (goodbye), Grazalema, it’ll be hasta luego (see you later)—or, as villagers tend to say, mumble-mumble-waygo.

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Last Photos from Mallorca http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/last-photos-mallorca/ Thu, 30 Mar 2017 16:20:33 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22918 Our last stops in Mallorca were the towns of Pollenca and Alcudia, which sit inland near the heads of twin bays in the northeast of the island. So strategic was the location that the Romans built a sizable city there, called Pollentia (whose ruins, confusingly, are next to modern-day Alcudia rather than Pollenca). The area […]]]>

Our last stops in Mallorca were the towns of Pollenca and Alcudia, which sit inland near the heads of twin bays in the northeast of the island. So strategic was the location that the Romans built a sizable city there, called Pollentia (whose ruins, confusingly, are next to modern-day Alcudia rather than Pollenca). The area is home to several protected wetlands that are great for birdwatching.

 

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“A Cold Country with a Hot Sun” http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/cold-country-hot-sun/ http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/cold-country-hot-sun/#comments Sun, 26 Mar 2017 15:26:29 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22863 It’s a spring morning in southern Spain. I’m wearing two shirts and a fleece and sitting under two blankets on the sofa as Chris tries to get a fire going in the fireplace. We slept on fleece-y sheets under two comforters last night. There is no central heat, only very feeble electric space heaters. This […]]]>

It’s a spring morning in southern Spain. I’m wearing two shirts and a fleece and sitting under two blankets on the sofa as Chris tries to get a fire going in the fireplace. We slept on fleece-y sheets under two comforters last night. There is no central heat, only very feeble electric space heaters. This is completely normal here.

For all of Spain’s alleged “Mediterranean climate,” temperatures here can be quite cold, even in the south. Winter days often have highs in the 40s F and lows near freezing; it’s even colder in the mountains, where we are. Such weather can easily recur as late as April.

Temperatures are similar in places we’ve lived in the United States. So why are we so cold here? Electricity and gas are both pretty expensive in Spain, and installing heating ducts can be a bitch in houses built out of concrete and stone. Plus, given the hot summers, houses are built to stay cool and dissipate heat. In winter, that often means than it’s colder indoors that out: hence the traditional saying that it’s “so cold it’s even cold outside!” When the temperature reaches 50 F, people open doors and windows to let the warmth of the day in.

But seemingly the biggest reason for freezing Spanish interiors is that Spaniards (a traditional-minded people) think “it’s winter; it’s supposed to be this way!” Winter is cold. It’s the time to bundle up in layers, from long johns to sweaters to coats and hats – indoors and out. And don’t forget shoes, because the tiled floors are freezing. Doors to most rooms are kept closed, and people gather together in the one room that has a fire or heater. Beds have three duvets and maybe an electric blanket.

My new idea to get rich: heated toilet seats!

[On the other hand, it’s great hiking weather when the sun is out warming things up a bit.]

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Mallorca Mountains http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/mallorca-mountains/ Sat, 25 Mar 2017 13:49:24 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22856 In summer, tourists flock to Mallorca for its beaches and bays. This time of year, we came to Mallorca for its mountains. The Tramuntana range runs for 90 kilometers (56 miles) along Mallorca’s northern coast, reaching heights of 1,445 meters (3,757 feet) above the sea. After staying in the village of Valldemossa, in the middle […]]]>

In summer, tourists flock to Mallorca for its beaches and bays. This time of year, we came to Mallorca for its mountains. The Tramuntana range runs for 90 kilometers (56 miles) along Mallorca’s northern coast, reaching heights of 1,445 meters (3,757 feet) above the sea. After staying in the village of Valldemossa, in the middle of the Tramuntana, we moved northeast to the town of Pollenca near the far end of the range. There we had two wonderful mountain excursions: a hike through a rocky landscape of sheep and wild goats to the blue waters of a little cove called Cala Boquer and a drive along the breathtaking heights of Cape Formentor to the northern tip of Mallorca.

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Valldemossa: Saints, Sinners, and Sheep http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/valldemossa-saints-sinners-sheep/ Mon, 20 Mar 2017 19:45:31 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22777 Often when we plan to travel somewhere new, it’s hard to know where to go because the guide books make so many places sound good. That’s been the case with the Spanish island of Mallorca (pronounced mah-yorka) in the Mediterranean Sea. Do we focus on the mountain villages of the northwest or base ourselves near […]]]>

Often when we plan to travel somewhere new, it’s hard to know where to go because the guide books make so many places sound good. That’s been the case with the Spanish island of Mallorca (pronounced mah-yorka) in the Mediterranean Sea. Do we focus on the mountain villages of the northwest or base ourselves near the great sweeping bays in the northeast? In cases like that, the answer often depends on where we can get to by bus or train (rental cars usually being over our budget) and where we can find a decent rental apartment that’s not too expensive (for the joy of having our own kitchen, a couch to relax on, and a table to work at). When we’ve narrowed the options down to two places and we can’t decide between them, our favorite approach is to spend some time in each. So the first place we settled down in Mallorca was the mountain village of Valldemossa.

We knew Valldemossa would be pretty—it’s on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Mallorca. In fact, it’s ridiculously charming. Dating back at least to the 13th century, it’s full of narrow cobbled streets, lined with potted plants, that lead to tiny plazas (just big enough to park a few cars), old fountains, and boxy plain-fronted churches with steeples that tower over the village. Everything is built from the same honey-colored stone of the surrounding hills. We found an apartment in one of the old stone rowhouses on a quiet little street too small for cars. The rooms were little and cozy, but the patio in back had a gorgeous view over a valley of lemon, orange, and olive trees. When we sat out there in the almost daily sunshine, we could hear sheep bleating on the hillsides.

Little Valldemossa, with its 2,000 inhabitants, has its own saint: Santa Catalina Thomas. She was a poor village girl who was born in 1533 in a house right around the corner from our apartment. Strongly religious, she entered a convent in Mallorca’s capital, Palma, and was known for her prophetic visions and religious ecstasies. She has been venerated as a saint by local people since shortly after her death, but the Pope made it official by canonizing her in 1930. So proud is Valldemossa of its saint that almost every house has a painted ceramic plaque next to the front door with her image and the words “pray for us.” The house where she was born is now a small shrine, kept open and lit 24 hours a day. Our end of the village is quiet, with no restaurants and only a few small shops that close at dusk. It’s comforting to have that little haven of peace and light shining all night just around the corner.

Valldemossa’s other famous residents were Polish pianist and composer Frederic Chopin and his (female) lover, French writer George Sand. Seeking sun and warmth to help Chopin’s ailing health, in the winter of 1838-1839 they rented rooms in an old monastery in the center of the village that had recently been disbanded and converted into apartments. They scandalized the villagers by living in sin and not attending church, and George wrote an account of her time in Mallorca that was not too complimentary. But all seems to be forgiven now. There’s a museum dedicated to the pair in their former apartment, and every summer piano concerts of Chopin’s music are held daily. 

Our main travel goals for 2017 are to see mountains and practice our Spanish. (It was on hearing those goals that one of Chris’s former colleagues recommended Mallorca.) Our desire for Spanish immersion has been thwarted in Valldemossa, though, because the village is overrun with German tourists. Avid cyclists come to challenge themselves on the mountain roads (which, unlike the ones at home, aren’t covered in snow this time of year). At times, the main highways out of Valldemossa looks like a mini Tour de France. Other Germans come to hike the beautiful trails in the area, which we’ve enjoyed ourselves. Still others arrive by the carload and busload every day to admire the views, wander the old lanes, and drink beer in outdoor cafes in the sunshine.

As a result, we hear more conversations in German than in Spanish going on around us. And as our brains try to ignore the other languages they know to learn Spanish, Melissa keeps defaulting to her high school German. (I’d be doing the same with French if I were surrounded by Francophones.) Thank goodness for shopkeepers and waiters and bus drivers, or we’d get no Spanish practice at all.

Still, one thing we’ve noticed in our global wanderings is that Germans seem to gravitate to the places with the most natural beauty. So it’s no wonder that they love Valldemossa. Just look at Melissa’s pictures of the village and the breathtaking local scenery: forests and mountains and cliffs plunging down to the sea.

Valldemossa Photos
Valldemossa Photos

 

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Palma de Mallorca http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/palma-de-mallorca/ Wed, 15 Mar 2017 10:46:31 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22674 Much as we love Rome, we’re eager to work on our Spanish. So after our housesit in Rome ended, we headed for Spain. Thanks to a tip from one of Chris’s colleagues at CBO, we decided to explore the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca. The island is a huge summer beach destination, but in March […]]]>

Much as we love Rome, we’re eager to work on our Spanish. So after our housesit in Rome ended, we headed for Spain. Thanks to a tip from one of Chris’s colleagues at CBO, we decided to explore the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca. The island is a huge summer beach destination, but in March it’s much quieter. We spent our first day in Mallorca’s capital, Palma, soaking up the sun, strolling the streets, and relishing the Renaissance, Gothic, and Art Deco architecture.

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When in Rome … http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/when-in-rome/ Sun, 05 Mar 2017 19:04:01 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22598 We’ve had a wonderful week in Rome, looking after a pretty, light-filled apartment near the Vatican and two sweet, soft cats (Roodle and Kenji). The first time we visited Rome, in 2008, we crammed in all of the major tourist sites. (Take a look at Chris’s post and Melissa’s pictures of Ancient Rome, Later Rome, and the Vatican.) […]]]>

We’ve had a wonderful week in Rome, looking after a pretty, light-filled apartment near the Vatican and two sweet, soft cats (Roodle and Kenji). The first time we visited Rome, in 2008, we crammed in all of the major tourist sites. (Take a look at Chris’s post and Melissa’s pictures of Ancient RomeLater Rome, and the Vatican.) This time, we were content to revisit some of our favorite pieces of Renaissance art—works by Bernini, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Pinturicchio in the Galleria Borghese, the Vatican Museums, and various churches. We also saw a special exhibition about Italy’s best female Renaissance painter (and one of the best of either sex), Artemesia Gentileschi, and explored the Vatican neighborhood near our apartment, which was new to us. (We didn’t spot the Pope, though.)

Mostly we did what you’re supposed to do in Rome: wander the city and eat fabulous pasta and gelato. Few cities that we’ve seen are better for strolling than Rome is. It’s at once monumental (tall buildings, grand architecture, monuments from every era) and compact (a wealth of things to see within a few-mile radius). You never know, when you turn a corner, what you’re going to encounter. Here are some scenes from our strolls.

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Oaxaca Scenes http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/oaxaca-scenes/ Fri, 30 Dec 2016 19:58:28 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22490 In case the weather is turning cold where you are, here are some scenes from the sunny city of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. Oaxaca was founded by the Spanish in the 1520s along key trade routes between Mexico City and Central America. Today, this city of 300,000 people is full of Baroque churches, colorful colonial […]]]>

In case the weather is turning cold where you are, here are some scenes from the sunny city of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. Oaxaca was founded by the Spanish in the 1520s along key trade routes between Mexico City and Central America. Today, this city of 300,000 people is full of Baroque churches, colorful colonial architecture, craft markets, and lots of Mexican and U.S. tourists. Located in a high valley surrounded by mountains, Oaxaca has balmy temperatures in December (mainly in the 60s and 70s). After sweltering Southeast Asia, it was paradise to walk everywhere and not be hot.

 

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Ixtlan de Juarez http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/ixtlan-de-juarez/ Tue, 20 Dec 2016 15:11:57 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22215 One day recently we escaped the city of Oaxaca for the mountains that tower over it to the north. An hour’s ride on twisty roads in a shared (collectivo) taxi—three people jammed in the front seats and three in the back—brought us to the mountain town of Ixtlan de Juarez. “Ixtlan” is thought to be […]]]>

One day recently we escaped the city of Oaxaca for the mountains that tower over it to the north. An hour’s ride on twisty roads in a shared (collectivo) taxi—three people jammed in the front seats and three in the back—brought us to the mountain town of Ixtlan de Juarez. “Ixtlan” is thought to be an Aztec word meaning “place of the agaves,” those spiky plants whose leaf fibers are used to make rope and cloth and whose insides are used to make tequila, mezcal, and other potent liquors. Juarez refers to Mexico’s beloved 19th-century president Benito Juarez, who was born in these mountains.

ixtlan churchDeposited by our taxi near the main square on a quiet Sunday afternoon, we made for the chief landmark in Ixtlan de Juarez, the church of St. Thomas the Apostle, built between 1640 and 1734. I wasn’t expecting much in a sleepy town of 7,000 people in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. And indeed the church looked plain on the outside, with only a few simple carvings above the doors. But the interior was a different story: a testament to the riches of the Spanish Empire and the zeal of the Dominican friars who came from Spain to convert the local people to Catholicism. The church’s walls are adorned with ceiling-high altars covered in gold leaf, paintings, and carved wooden statues of saints, Jesus, and the Madonna. It’s hard to imagine how little Ixtlan must have bustled when Spanish and Mexican builders, carvers, painters, and gilders labored for almost a hundred years to create a place of such soaring beauty.

After marveling at the church, we wandered around town, popped into a plain little Franciscan chapel that also looked very old, and helped a fledgling organic farmer’s market in the town square by buying quesadillas and homemade blackberry jam. For a town that has existed since the 1400s, Ixtlan looks like an up-and-coming place. There’s a big covered basketball court with bleachers next to the square, a library, a hospital, a soccer stadium, a new market building with permanent stalls bearing neatly painted signs, and not one but three ATMs. Most important of all perhaps is a new university just outside Ixtlan serving all of the hamlets of the Sierra Norte mountains.

Ixtlan moto taxiHaving seen the sights, we headed for the highest point in town, a lookout called El Mirador. The motorcycle taxi that took us up there reminded us of the tuk-tuks we rode in so often in Southeast Asia. This one held a surprise, though. As the driver picked his way up the rutted road, the jostling woke up a baby sleeping in the back seat—his daughter Gabriella, maybe six months old. Experienced godmothers that we are now, Melissa and I took turns holding and comforting the baby during the ride. At the top, while Gabriella sat on a blanket with her dad, we looked down on Ixtlan and picked out all the places we’d been. The air smelled of pine, the trees were draped in Spanish moss and long pink epiphytes, and the mountains stretching in all directions seemed to go on forever.

 

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Life in Oaxaca http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/life-in-oaxaca/ Tue, 06 Dec 2016 02:27:33 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22169 Like countless North American snowbirds before us, we’ve come to the sunny city of Oaxaca, Mexico, for December. Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah) sits on a plateau surrounded by mountains in southern Mexico, in the middle of the area where the country narrows as it heads toward Central America. Oaxaca is known for its balmy climate, its […]]]>

Like countless North American snowbirds before us, we’ve come to the sunny city of Oaxaca, Mexico, for December. Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah) sits on a plateau surrounded by mountains in southern Mexico, in the middle of the area where the country narrows as it heads toward Central America. Oaxaca is known for its balmy climate, its mix of indigenous and European-based cultures, and its terrific food. This is the birthplace of mole (mo-lay)–sauces that deftly combine such diverse ingredients as chocolate, chili peppers, cinnamon, almonds, onions, dried fruit, and herbs into a variety of rich, complex flavors.Santo Domingo

Our frequent travel partners AJ and toddler Francesca will be meeting us in Oaxaca this week. Until then, we’ve been taking Spanish classes to brush up on our language skills. Our days have fallen into a pleasant rhythm:

  • Awake to crisp morning temperatures and inevitable blue skies.
  • Breakfast of pastries, warm corn tortillas filled with beans and cheese, and big cups of fresh-squeezed orange juice from stands in a nearby park.
  • Attend Spanish grammar and conversation classes until our heads feel like bursting.
  • Walk back to our hotel in the early afternoon to rest our brains and bodies during the heat of the day.
  • Emerge around 3 p.m. and head to a local restaurant for a big lunch/dinner (the main meal of the day in Oaxaca), often served on a shady terrace and usually featuring meat and vegetables in some kind of mole sauce.Oaxaca Street
  • Afterward, join the rest of Oaxaca’s population to stroll the streets of the historic center or lounge in a park as the temperature cools and the sun sinks lower. This is the best part of the day. Often as we stroll we pop into a shop or a gallery or an old church (though we’re saving our serious sightseeing
    until AJ and Francesca arrive).
  • When darkness falls, around 7 p.m., head back to our hotel room to do our Spanish homework, read, catch up on editing work, and have a snack before bedtime. There’s no TV at the hotel, so happily we’ve been able to avoid most of the U.S. political news.

On weekends, we visit markets, take excursions to villages in the nearby mountains, or go to cultural events. Last Sunday, we attended a youth orchestra concert in a gaudy 1903 theater and heard music by Mexican composers from the 17th to 20th centuries.

Between encountering so much classical music by composers I’d never heard of and wondering about the significance of various dates that local streets are Alcada Theatrenamed for, I realized how ridiculous it is that I and many other Americans know virtually nothing about Mexico. This is a country older than ours, with its own rich history, literature, art, and music—a mix of diverse cultures, with states that are as different from one another as California, Mississippi, and Maine. And it’s right next to the United States. So why don’t most of us learn anything about it? I’m relishing the opportunity to chip away at my ignorance a little more each day.

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Images of Tana Toraja http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/images-tana-toraja/ Wed, 12 Oct 2016 01:56:52 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=22145 I was a bit scared that the photos of this amazing place would get lost if posted as galleries under each of Chris’s excellent (but rather lengthy) articles about our time there. So here’s a separate post with links to the Tana Toraja photo galleries!     One of the symbols of the Torajan people […]]]>

I was a bit scared that the photos of this amazing place would get lost if posted as galleries under each of Chris’s excellent (but rather lengthy) articles about our time there. So here’s a separate post with links to the Tana Toraja photo galleries!

Tana Toraja Landscapes
Scenes from the beautiful upland region of Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

 


 

One of the symbols of the Torajan people is their distinctive style of architecture. Rectangular wooden houses, set on pillars, are carved and elaborately painted in shades of black and ochre and are crowned with huge roofs that curve upward like the prow of a ship or the horns of a buffalo. These traditional houses, some many centuries old, are called tongkanons. More than just living quarters, they are status symbols and the site of many ceremonies for Torajan families. Smaller versions of tongkanons are used as rice barns or as carriers to transport coffins for burial.

Torajan Houses
Torajan Houses

 


 

Today, most residents of Tana Toraja are Christians, but they still follow their ancestors’ traditional burial practices. After an elaborate funeral ceremony, a Torajan’s coffin is placed somewhere rocky: in a natural cave, a family crypt chiseled into a cliff or boulder, or a concrete crypt built at the base of a burial cliff. The higher one’s status is in life, the higher the coffin goes. Torajans from the highest caste are memorialized with effigies, called tao-taos, placed at their burial site. Very young babies are buried not in crypts but in holes carved into the trunk of a tree. The bark eventually grows over the hole, incorporating the body into the tree and carrying the baby up toward heaven as the tree grows.

Torajan Burials
Torajan Burials

 

 

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A Countryside Dotted With Ancestors http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/countryside-dotted-ancestors/ Wed, 05 Oct 2016 23:16:34 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=21985 Foreign visitors come to Tana Toraja in central Sulawesi for cultural tourism as much as for beautiful mountain scenery. We’ve written about the Torajans’ distinctive architecture and buffalo-centered funerals. Another part of their culture for which Torajans are famous is their burial practices. Until a century ago, the Torajans had a rich variety of ceremonies for […]]]>

Foreign visitors come to Tana Toraja in central Sulawesi for cultural tourism as much as for beautiful mountain scenery. We’ve written about the Torajans’ distinctive architecture and buffalo-centered funerals. Another part of their culture for which Torajans are famous is their burial practices.

Until a century ago, the Torajans had a rich variety of ceremonies for many aspects of life and death (much as the Balinese still do). But the Protestant Christian missionaries who made inroads in Tana Toraja in the mid-20th century discouraged many of the life rituals, which they said conflicted with Christianity. They allowed the death rituals, though, so now most of the Torajans’ ceremonial energies are channeled into those.

Modern coffins below and older coffins higher up

Following the elaborate funeral ceremony, a Torajan is usually laid to rest in a rocky place. The most traditional method is cave burial, in which bodies in wooden coffins are placed in natural niches in the limestone cliffs that are common in Tana Toraja. The higher caste you are, the higher up you go. Sometimes people build wooden shelves high in the mouths of caves and put the coffins there (known as “hanging graves”) to protect them from animals and robbers. Where there aren’t enough natural cave niches, family crypts are chiseled (by hand!) in the sides of cliffs or in large boulders. Or people build crypts of concrete at the bases of burial cliffs. Muslims in Tana Toraja, who make up less than 10 percent of the population, are buried in the ground with markers. But Christians, the vast majority of the local population, still favor cliff or boulder burials. After all, Jesus was buried in a stone crypt.

Where there aren't cliffs or caves, crypts are carved into boulders

Once someone has been put in a grave, he or she is referred to as dead rather than just sick, because the body has gone from its old home to its new home. In the Torajan language, houses for the living are called “houses with smoke” (from the cooking fire on the hearth), whereas crypts are called “houses without smoke.” The funeral is the process of moving a dead person to his or her new house. In the caves, when old coffins break apart, bones and skulls are collected and placed neatly nearby. But putting the remains in a new coffin requires doing the funeral ceremony all over again, which is expensive.

Galleries of tao-taos interspersed with the doors to family crypts

When a full funeral ceremony has been performed for someone from the highest caste—at least five days long and at least 24 buffaloes sacrificed—relatives have a statue of the deceased carved in wood or stone. The statue, called a “tao tao,” is placed at the burial site, either on a natural or man-made ledge in a cliff or on the front of a ground-level crypt. Traditionally, tao taos were carved with the hands A gallery of tao-taos (the old one in the center has eyes made of buffalo bone)outstretched in a gesture of blessing. But the church said that blessings can come only from God, not from ancestors. So today they’re carved with different gestures, such as holding a walking stick. Some tao taos are now kept behind locked metal grilles or kept at home because many old ones have been stolen by antique hunters. There ought to be a special cosmic punishment for people who steal images of revered ancestors. (Perhaps there is.)

Practices are different for miscarried fetuses or babies who die before they have any teeth (roughly the first four months). Instead of being given a Torajan funeral and being buried in a stone crypt, they’re immediately placed in a hole carved into the trunk of a tree. The opening is covered, and eventually the tree closes around it. Some people say that practice symbolizes returning the baby back to a womb, especially since the types of trees used are those with white sap, which resembles a mother’s milk. Others say that trees are used so that as the tree grows, the baby goes up toward heaven.

Torajan is not a written language, so there are no records of the history of such burial practices. Traditions are handed down by word of mouth, but not systematically; there are no schools or tradition of storytelling for transmitting Torajan culture. We were told that many Torajans follow traditional practices but don’t know why—because their grandparents did it, but the grandparents may not have known why either. As a result, the explanations given to outsiders about the gravespost-5meaning of certain rituals can vary widely. But imagine if foreign tourists quizzed us about all of our American cultural practices: Why do we carve faces into pumpkins at Halloween? Why do we give kids baskets of candy to celebrate the resurrection of Christ? Why do we make round people out of snow and put them in front of our houses? Because that’s what we do and have done for years and years. So it is with the Torajans.

The diverse burial practices mean that ancestors are everywhere in Tana Toraja, dotting the landscape. If you’re working in your shop or rice field and glance up at the surrounding hills, you know they’re full of your people. Your history is all around you. Tana Toraja is truly the land of the Torajans, past and present, because they inhabit every corner of it.

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Houses That Reach for the Sky http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/houses-reach-sky/ Tue, 04 Oct 2016 17:27:37 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=21967 On the seemingly endless bus ride from southern Sulawesi, you know you’ve reached Tana Toraja (Land of the Torajans) when the houses start to look unlike anything that came before. Rectangular wooden houses, set high on pillars, are carved and elaborately painted in shades of black and ochre and are crowned with improbably large curved […]]]>

On the seemingly endless bus ride from southern Sulawesi, you know you’ve reached Tana Toraja (Land of the Torajans) when the houses start to look unlike anything that came before. Rectangular wooden houses, set high on pillars, are carved and elaborately painted in shades of black and ochre and are crowned with improbably large curved roofs that angle sharply upward at both ends. These are tongkanons, the traditional houses and ceremonial centerpieces of the Torajan people.

According to some anthropologists, the Torajans came to the island of Sulawesi from the Tonkin area of northern Vietnam. Some people say the curved roof of a tongkanon looks like a boat and recalls the Torajans’ seafaring origins. Others say the roof houses2-7resembles the horns of a water buffalo, an animal that plays a vital role in Torajan life. That resemblance is heightened by the fact that a tongkanon typically has a carved buffalo head on the front and stylized buffalo symbols painted on its exterior (along with roosters, suns, and various geometric shapes). The horns of buffaloes sacrificed at past family funerals are stacked on the central pole in front of the family’s tongkanon.

Some anthropologists say the structure of a tongkanon mirrors Torajans’ view of the cosmos, which is divided into an underworld inhabited by animals, a middle world inhabited by humans, and a heaven above. In a tongkanon, the bottom area among the pillars is traditionally used for stabling buffaloes, while people live in the house above, and the roof gables reach toward heaven.

houses2-4Smaller versions of tongkanons are used for storing rice (the Torajans’ main crop), though they’re also built as status symbols. A collection of five or ten rice barns and one or two big tongkanons denotes a very wealthy family. Even-smaller versions of tongkanons are used as carriers to transport coffins for burial. The soaring roof is such an important symbol of the Torajan people that it appears on buildings all over Tana Toraja, including schools, government offices, and restaurants.

The tongkanons we were able to go into—some that are open to tourists plus the family tongkanon of our local guide—were surprisingly small inside. The space under the immense roof is decorative rather than functional. The living area is divided into a raised sleeping room at each end and a slightly lower room in the middle, which was traditionally used for cooking (on a small hearth) and eating. Tongkanons are fairly dark inside, with only a few small shutters that can be opened to let in light. Traditionally, the dimness and lack of living space didn’t matter because most of Torajans’ daily life was spent outside.

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Today, though, some Torajans are enclosing the areas under their tongkanons to provide more space or a bigger kitchen or an indoor bathroom. Others build modern cement houses next to the tongkanon and live there. But the tongkanon is still used to house visiting relatives, and it’s where the body of a deceased family member is kept—embalmed and wrapped in cloth, sometimes in a coffin—until the funeral can be held. (Interestingly, the body is not left there alone. A surviving spouse sleeps in the same room, and other family members sleep in the second sleeping room, reinforcing the idea that the dead person is still part of the family.)

A set of brand new tongkanons, complete with enclosed lower levels.Tongkanons can last for centuries. The oldest ones we saw were about 300 years old. Back then, roof gables were much shorter, but as tastes have changed and building methods have improved, roofs have been getting taller and taller. The traditional bamboo roof on a tongkanon lasts about 30 to 40 years before rain and vegetation rot it enough that it needs replacing. Many tongkanons now have metal roofs, which are easier to construct and much more durable. However, because tongkanons are an attraction for tourists, the local government offers subsidies to Torajans willing to rebuild their bamboo roofs.

houses2-1A tongkanon belongs to an extended family and is handed down from generation to generation, but usually only one branch of the family lives in or takes care of it. Our guide explained that the family members chosen to take care of the tongkanon must be upstanding and hospitable people because they represent the honor of the entire extended family. Decisions about whether to renovate a tongkanon or build a new one are made by the whole family, with everyone contributing to the project. Because the house is the focus of a family’s ceremonial life, past and present, even a Torajan who lives far away still feels connected to his or her family’s tongkanon.

Looking out the windows of the front sleeping room

 

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A Ceremonial Send-Off in Tana Toraja http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/saying-goodbye-tana-toraja/ http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/saying-goodbye-tana-toraja/#comments Wed, 21 Sep 2016 09:17:39 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=21841 One thing I love about being a vagabond is not knowing when I wake up in the morning what my day will bring. This morning I would not have expected that by midday I’d be sitting 10 feet from a man hacking up a buffalo carcass with a machete while I was politely being served […]]]>

One thing I love about being a vagabond is not knowing when I wake up in the morning what my day will bring. This morning I would not have expected that by midday I’d be sitting 10 feet from a man hacking up a buffalo carcass with a machete while I was politely being served hot tea and little cakes.

The occasion for both the buffalo killing and the cakes was the funeral of an old woman in the mountainous region of Tana Toraja in central Sulawesi. Funerals are the center of ceremonial life for the Torajan people, every bit as long, lavish, and expensive as weddings are in some places (such as parts of India). As luck would have it, the owner of the place we stayed in Tana Toraja (Rosalina Homestay, just outside the town of Rantepao) was related by marriage to the family holding the funeral, so he took us along to watch.

Guests (and a gift pig) by one of the painted rice barns typical in Tana Toraja

It’s customary for funeral guests to bring a gift for the host family—a pig that can be killed and cooked to help feed the assembled guests or a box of cigarettes that can be shared among them. (It seems as though most men in Sulawesi smoke like chimneys.) Being pigless and vehemently antismoking, I asked whether we could bring a different gift. Our homestay host said an envelope with some money in it was quite acceptable. (Some things cross cultures.)

Torajan funerals are generally multiday affairs for which the whole extended family returns, along with in-laws’ families, neighbors, friends, and coworkers. The day we attended was one of the days for welcoming guests (called “sitting with the family”). After parking on a village road, we walked down a rocky path, along an earthen embankment through rice fields, and up a hill to a family compound of houses and rice barns. All around the square compound, temporary open-air shelters had been erected to hold the guests. Long bamboo poles divided the shelters into different “rooms,” each with a number on the front. We were directed to one of the numbered spaces and sat down on woven mats with people all around us, smoking and chatting. The mood was neither somber nor festive, just congenial, like at a reunion (which it was).

Pretty soon, women from the deceased’s family brought us tea and coffee and snacks (yellow cake, oblong cookies with sesame and palm sugar, and rice crispy treats without the marshmallow.) On one side of the square, on a balcony of the house, a photo of the dead woman and a capsule-shaped coffin covered in red cloth looked down on the crowds of people. The deceased was in her mid-80s and had a large family with many great-grandchildren, so the gathering was quite large.

The days of receiving guests are sometimes combined with the days for sacrificing pigs and water buffaloes. The Torajans measure wealth in buffaloes. Besides being useful for plowing and fertilizing rice fields and providing meat, water buffaloes are status symbols in Tana Toraja. Strong bulls can cost many thousands of dollars, while those with unusual features (white skin or a horn that curves down rather than up) can cost US $50,000. Torajans believe that sacrificing buffaloes at a funeral not only honors the dead person but allows the buffaloes to accompany the deceased to the next life, providing a source of wealth there.

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The size of Torajan funerals is measured not by the number of guests but by the number of buffaloes killed. Anything over 24 buffaloes is considered a very large funeral, although the grandest can see more than 100 animals sacrificed. (In funerals of people from the highest caste, the sacrifices take place in ancient circles of standing stones rather than at home.) The funeral we attended was considered a big affair, with nine buffaloes sacrificed—enough to guarantee the matriarch a wealthy next life. Accumulating that many buffaloes for a funeral takes a family a lot of time and money, which is why funerals are often held months or even years after a person’s death. (In the interim, the body, embalmed and wrapped in cloth, is kept in a casket in a bedroom of the family home. During this period, the deceased is referred to as a sick person rather than as a dead person. To a Torajan, you’re not officially dead until your funeral ceremony, which is a genuine rite of passage.)

funeralpost-4

Before we headed to the funeral, I told our homestay host that we preferred not to see animals being killed, if possible. Whether on purpose or by accident, we arrived after some buffaloes had already been killed on the lawn in front of the coffin. When we got there, men with machetes were cutting up the carcasses. That bothered me much less than I’d expected. The meat was too fresh to smell bad; the only odors were the barnyard smells of grass and dung (almost outweighed by the ever-present cigarette smoke). I found it a bit hard to listen to the squealing pigs that were tied up to bamboo poles for ease of carrying, but I didn’t have to watch any being killed. And after that, butchering just felt like a routine (if messy) kitchen chore. The pig meat was salted, mixed with blood and chopped-up banana flowers, and packed tightly in bamboo poles, which were steamed over a fire. funeralpost-7

Before the guests could tuck into their steamed pork, we made our farewells and headed to a local restaurant for rice and noodle dishes better suited to foreign palates. Before we left, though, our homestay host received a plastic bag full of buffalo meat that he and his wife planned to boil for their dinner. Neither Melissa nor I regretted missing the steamed pig or the boiled buffalo. It might have been tough to make polite faces while choking those down, and nothing about Torajan cooking led us to expect that they would be tasty. (Torajan food tends to be dull, rubbery, and lacking in seasoning.)

After the morning gathering, our guide took us to another village where a different part of Torajan funeral celebrations was taking place: water buffalo fights. From a viewing spot on the road, we looked down on crowds of people surrounding a bamboo-fenced enclosure. Money changed hands at a furious pace all around us as, one by one, a pair of big bull buffaloes—with their names spray-painted on their sides—were led into the enclosure. The first pair we saw refused to engage each other, preferring to graze and wallow in the mud. Water buffalo are fairly docile by nature, so sometimes watching a “fight” involves standing around waiting for something to happen. That match didn’t count, much to the crowd’s disappointment.

funeralpost-11

The next one was much more dramatic. The two buffaloes quickly locked horns, and the green-painted one, strong as a locomotive, pushed the orange-painted one into a corner. Just when it seemed like a sure thing for green—and more money changed hands—orange broke loose, went on the offensive, and chased green out of the enclosure, to the mixed whoops and groans of the crowd. It was nice to see at least one buffalo come out on top on a funeral day.

 

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Bunaken Life http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/bunaken-life/ Tue, 13 Sep 2016 03:07:36 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=21715 For the past week, we’ve been in snorkelers’ paradise. There are few things that we both love more than swimming over a brightly sunlit reef, gazing at the multicolored corals and fishes below. When the waves are high, the currents are strong, or you see something large or unexpected, it’s exciting. When the sea is […]]]>

For the past week, we’ve been in snorkelers’ paradise. There are few things that we both love more than swimming over a brightly sunlit reef, gazing at the multicolored corals and fishes below. When the waves are high, the currents are strong, or you see something large or unexpected, it’s exciting. When the sea is calm and your breathing gets slow and steady, it’s meditative. Snorkeling is a big part of our travels, so much so that roughly one-fourth of our backpack space in SE Asia is devoted to carrying our snorkels, masks (Melissa’s has her glasses prescription built in), rash guards, and special portable mini fins. We’ve been known to go well out of our way for good snorkeling sites, and that’s what drew us to Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Indonesia—a collection of more than 900 inhabited islands (and thousands of uninhabited ones)—has one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs. Some of them are around Sulawesi, the second-biggest island in Indonesia. Sulawesi is shaped a bit like a skinny starfish, with five long peninsulas and some 6,000 km of coastline. Geologists believe it was formed by two landmasses that collided and spun around to form tentacles.

One of Sulawesi’s prime snorkeling areas is the handful of small islands off the coast of its big northeastern port city, Manado. Of those islands, the most populous is Bunaken, with a few thousand people and a dozen or so dive “resorts.” That’s been our base for the past week of underwater delights. (It’s one of the more accessible parts of Sulawesi. You can fly to Manado from Jakarta or Singapore, take a taxi to the harbor, and with a one-hour boat trip be on Bunaken.)

bunakenpost-9

In our snorkeling experience, some reefs don’t have much healthy coral but have lots of colorful, interesting fish (the Caribbean) or have lots of healthy coral but few fish (the Philippines). The best places have both (the Great Barrier Reef 11 years ago; Roatan, Honduras, seven years ago; and Jemeluk and Menjangan, Bali, two years ago). Bunaken is another of those places, with the added attractions of a beautiful setting, lots of dolphins and sea turtles, and good shallow-water snorkeling spots you can reach from shore or with a short boat ride.

Bunaken is entirely surrounded by a shallow fringing reef that drops abruptly into deep water. Divers love diving down the sheer coral wall, while snorkelers can float above it and see a huge variety of marine life—hard and soft corals, giant clams with blue or purple lips, orange sponges, speckled eels, hawksbill turtles, and so many tropical fish that sometimes they form a column from the top of the wall to the surface of the water that you can float right through. It’s like swimming in a giant aquarium, with so much going on that your eye doesn’t know where to rest. And if you lift your head out of the water, you see green islands all around you, including a perfectly cone-shaped extinct volcano, covered in vegetation, looming over Bunaken on its own small island.

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One quirk of Bunaken is that there are frequently currents running along the edge of the reef. If you swim out to the reef from shore, you need to snorkel first against the current so that when you get tired, you can turn and ride the current back to where you started. But if, as we usually do, you go out on the dive boats and snorkel over the divers, you can drift along as far as you please and the boat will pick you up.

On most of our snorkels, we’ve seen large hawksbill turtles swimming gracefully in the deep water just past the wall. Usually, they’re such powerful swimmers that you can’t keep up with them. But one lucky morning, I spotted a turtle about 10 feet directly below me. It was in the same current I was, and we drifted along together, me above and it below, so I got a wonderfully long look. Shafts of sunlight were streaming into the water all around us, plunging into the deep blueness below, and the effect was magical.

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Another wonderful wildlife experience was the morning we got up at dawn to take a boat to see the hundreds of dolphins that live near Bunaken. At that hour, the only boats around were ours and a few fishermen’s wooden outrigger canoes (because where the dolphins go, there are tuna to be caught). At first, the dolphins are hard to spot, but soon when you scan the water you see clusters of fins and tails breaking the surface in three or four places around you. Then the dolphins are right by the boat, swimming in front of it or twisting along the sides as though riding the slipstream. So sleek and fast and beautiful and wild—all you can do is beam and keep saying “wow.”

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Things aren’t perfect on Bunaken, which may be a good thing because otherwise people like us would never leave, and this beautiful spot would be overrun. The island is close to the equator, so it’s very hot, and it lacks the ocean breezes that make some tropical places tolerable. (The mangrove trees that line the shore, although wonderful for the environment, block offshore winds.) The power supply isn’t strong enough for air-conditioning (only fans), and it cuts out for several hours each day. Cell phone reception and Internet access are also intermittent. The rustic cabins at most dive places look romantic in photos, but the reality includes sand everywhere, lots of ants, and insect bites when you venture out from under your stifling mosquito netting.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of Bunaken is that its wells are very brackish. Drinking water is shipped from Manado in big jugs, but the water in showers and sinks is saltwater. As a result, your skin and hair feel dry and tacky, and you never really feel clean. After a few days, that can really get to you. A man from mainland Sulawesi who now lives on Bunaken told us that whenever he goes home, he takes about 10 (freshwater) showers the first day to wash off all the salt. Sad as we’ll be to leave these beautiful reefs, it will be nice to feel less like a fish and more like a human being again.

(Photographer’s note: The underwater photos above were taken last year in the Philippines, which has reefs similar to those around Bunaken but far fewer fish. And the photo of the dolphins was taken by a friend on the boat with us. Because of the sand and salt, we didn’t get our good camera out on Bunaken; the snapshots below were taken with our phones.)

 

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Merdaka Day in Melaka http://theslowroad.org/wp/blog/merdaka-day-melaka/ Thu, 08 Sep 2016 08:11:30 +0000 http://theslowroad.org/wp/?p=21617 In our travels in Malaysia, we saved the oldest for last: Melaka. In the 1300s and 1400s, that port city in southwestern Malaysia was the heart of a sultanate that ruled much of the Malay Peninsula and had trade contacts throughout Southeast Asia. Its wealth inevitably attracted attention from European explorers and merchants, and in […]]]>

In our travels in Malaysia, we saved the oldest for last: Melaka. In the 1300s and 1400s, that port city in southwestern Malaysia was the heart of a sultanate that ruled much of the Malay Peninsula and had trade contacts throughout Southeast Asia. Its wealth inevitably attracted attention from European explorers and merchants, and in the early 1500s, the Portuguese conquered Melaka. Over the centuries that followed, they were succeeded by the Dutch and then the British (rarely peacefully). Eventually, Melaka was surpassed as a trading hub by Singapore and Penang, and the city became a backwater.

In 2008, when George Town, Penang, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, it shared the honor with the oldest parts of Melaka. Having spent so long in Penang, we were eager to see its sister city.

We had the luck to be in Melaka for two significant events: the end of Hungry Ghost month and Independence (“Merdaka”) Day. The last of the hungry spirits were sent back down to the underworld with lots of fireworks, bonfires, and karaoke. melakapost-6The next morning, Melaka, like all of Malaysia, celebrated the country’s equivalent of the Fourth of July. There were flags everywhere and a parade through the historical district that seemingly half the city marched in. We stood on the sidewalk with some friendly Melakans dressed in the red, white, yellow, and blue of Malaysia’s flag and watched school marching bands go past, interspersed with delegations from the military, the police, the ambulance service, various colleges, the electric and telephone companies, and lots of other offices. Whenever someone’s friend or relative marched by, cheers erupted. There were also junior martial artists, middle-aged joggers, classic motorcycles and cars (VW bugs and Morris Minors), and the city’s iconic rickshaws.

Usually, Melaka’s tourist zone is full of bicycle rickshaws lavishly tricked out with flashing lights and pop-culture themes (Hello Kitty, Minions, the Incredible Hulk, or Frozen) that blare music as they peddle around groups of tourists, clogging the streets and deafening passerby. At least as part of the parade, they weren’t holding up traffic for once.

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The loud and crazy rickshaws are just one of the differences between Melaka and its sister city in Penang. The historical center of Melaka is much smaller than George Town, with narrower streets and way too melakapost-4many cars. As in George Town, many of those streets are lined with old shophouses. But here, they tend to much more ornate on the outside, with Chinese porcelain mosaics or brightly painted plasterwork in floral themes. The effect is a little too gaudy for my taste.

Melaka also has some buildings that are much older than anything in Penang, such as the 17th-century Dutch Stadhuis (statehouse), now a history museum; the ruins of a 16th-century fortress gate and Catholic church; and a plain little Dutch Protestant church from 1753. There’s also a cool modern recreation of the 15th-century sultan’s palace, built of tropical hardwoods without any nails.

Melaka is full of museums. There are ethnographic museums, a maritime museum, and museums about postage stamps, the state education system, and the history of Malaysia’s ruling political party. (We skipped those last ones.) The People’s Museum has an interesting but seemingly random collection of stuff: displays about meteorites (fragments of which are used to forge traditional kris daggers), kites and other toys, notable women of Malaysia, and traditional body-modification practices around the world (piercing, foot binding, head squishing, tooth decorating). The diorama—that staple of old-time natural history exhibitions and grade school projects—is alive and well in Melaka’s museums, as it the cheesy historical painting.

One of our favorite features in Melaka is its wonderful riverwalk. A recent civic improvement project created a nice paved walkway on both sides of the narrow river that bisects the city. It’s lined with potted plants and murals and spanned by pedestrian bridges, which make it a great way to get around without having to dodge cars on the streets. Eating dinner in a cafe on the river and strolling along the riverwalk afterward under the lights felt a tiny bit like being back in Dutch or Belgian town enjoying the canals.

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As in Penang, food is a big deal in Melaka. Every Malaysian who heard we were going to Melaka said the same thing: “Try the chicken rice balls.” This signature dish consists of brined and roasted chicken accompanied by small balls of sticky white rice. It’s good, but nothing spectacular, especially if you’ve visited places (such as northern Thailand or Laos) where sticky rice is common rather than a novelty. A bigger treat is the old-fashioned chendol, the original Malaysian snowcone: a bowl of shaved ice soaked in coconut milk and palm sugar. Cold and sweet and creamy.

Melaka marked a good end to our two months in Malaysia. It seemed especially fitting that our last day in the country was a holiday celebrating Malaysia’s 59 years as an independent nation. The next morning, Malaysians got up and went back to work, and we set off by bus for Singapore to catch a plane to Sulawesi, Indonesia.