Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Coup Coup Politics

The parliament building
Just months after the turn of this new century, in a small, democratic, and upwardly mobile country, armed gunmen strode into the parliament building and held hostage not only several members of parliament but also the nation’s prime minister and his cabinet. The gunmen held the hostages for a tense 56 days in a strange setup in which dozens of local and even international journalists camped inside the building, took pictures, and covered the story closely alongside the gunmen and their victims.
Nope, I didn’t make it up. Fiji, a country in the South Pacific, has had at least four coups in its 40 years as an independent country. The coup I refer to above took place in May 2000, when civilians deposed Mahendra Chaudhry, the country’s first prime minister of Indian descent. The distinction of his heritage lies at the root of his government’s overthrow.

The Indian diaspora in Fiji goes back to 1879, when British colonizers began actively recruiting laborers across South Asia and East Asia to work in Fiji’s sugarcane fields. Over a period of about 37 years, 61,000 migrants – most of them from India – came over as indentured workers with contracts to work in the fields for five-year terms. 
On his site, Just Pacific, Rod Ewins shares his rare and absolutely amazing
collection of postcards of Indo-Fijians. Check it out at:
The migrant men hailed from poor, rural backgrounds, were illiterate, and had few means back home. The women were either kidnapped, prostitutes, or young widows. Living and working conditions in their new country were squalid, often brutal. Women were raped in the fields to such an extent, with illegitimate births and suicide so rampant, that public outrage in the UK brought a halt to the entire scheme in 1920, when the British canceled all indentured contracts. The workers had the choice of returning to India or staying in Fiji. And because most of them made so little money or were denied wages to begin with, most couldn’t afford to leave.

Roughly five generations later, Indo-Fijians have their own unique national identity. Few have visited India or have any connections with the old country. With their forebears hailing from every region, religion, and linguistic group of India, over time, the Indian Fijians have developed their own unique culture and even their own dialect, known as Fiji Hindi, a hybrid language that’s evolved from many diverse Indian ones (northern and southern) and is now spoken widely across the Fijian islands.

Relations between the Indo-Fijians and indigenous Fijians were for the most part peaceful for generations until about 25 years ago when Indians began gaining stronger political clout at all levels of government, and race became highly politicized. The issue is, of course, more complicated than it might seem (for example, some observers note, different indigenous groups vie for power over one another as much as among ethnic lines), yet the two cultures are so entwined in both subtle and overt ways that the power play seems pointless. Reportedly, the best friend of George Speight the leader of the 2000 coup is Indian, while Chaudhry’s son-in-law is an indigenous Fijian.

The first military-led coup took place in 1987. Some say it happened because the government of then-leader, Ratu Mara, had too much of a pro-Indian bias. In 1990, a new constitution passed, institutionalizing the domination of the indigenous Fijians over the Indo-Fijians in the political system. The latter were heavily taxed and could hold only limited seats in the government never as prime minister.

After massive protests and at least one contested election, a third government drew up yet another constitution in 1997, reinstating political rights to minorities and leading to the Commonwealth of Nations bringing Fiji back into its fold. And in 1999, in a historic election, the nation elected its first ethnic Indian, a third-generation Fijian, Mahendra Chaudhry, as its prime minister. Historic, yes, but almost from the get-go, rumors of yet another coup started brewing. For whatever reason, Chaudhry didn’t want to believe the rumors and even ended up abolishing his intelligence service. On the one-year anniversary of his election, a charismatic, and rather interesting character, George Speight, along with his followers, stormed into the parliament building to lead the country’s next bloodless coup.

George Speight (forefront)
Speight has an interesting, cosmopolitan background. He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business from the United States then worked in Australia as a computer salesman and later a bank manager before returning to Fiji a few years before he found his new calling as coup leader.

As they go, it was an odd coup, not just because the journalists moved in and got cozy with the terrorists. Once Speight released Chaudhry, his staff, and the MPs, it took a full two weeks for the interim government to arrest Speight. A year later, he was elected to parliament, though he never formally held the position. (He was in prison so was expelled for non-attendance.)

A military dictatorship took over, but yes, within six years, there was another coup. The next new military government, the same one in power today, ditched yet another constitution and clamped down on free speech and the press. Reports of human right violations abound, particularly on opponents of the current leadership and, in 2009, Fiji was booted out of the Commonwealth of Nations for the second time.

Chaudhry was never reinstated to his old PM post, but he’s continued his career in politics in various capacities, including serving as the minister of finance and later as opposition leader. Controversy seems to dog him, though, in part perhaps because he’s out of favor with the current leader. Speight, meanwhile, is serving out a life term in prison.

What makes the whole national saga so much more tragic is the bright future Fiji faced in its early years, not that long ago. It received its independence from the UK only in 1970 and was one of the most developed countries in the South Pacific, with ample and rich natural resources and a fairly healthy and growing economy. After the 2000 coup, the economy shrunk a whopping 10%, taking major hits in tourism and investment. Fijians now rely heavily on money sent home by the skilled, educated workers who started leaving the country in droves as well those who take up dangerous jobs as contract workers in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ninety percent of those leaving are Indo-Fijians.

Not exactly a happy ending, but here’s hoping for a brighter future.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

An Irishman Named Zorro

Antonio Banderas as Zorro
When I think Mexico, I picture women in beautiful white outfits wrapped in colourful shawls, men in boots and hats, white sandy beaches with turquoise waters, and ruins as far as the eye can see. I don’t imagine pints of Guinness, four-leaf clovers, or green rolling fields. Yet Mexico boasts a community of Irish immigrants who have shaped their country in many ways.

Back in the 1600s, Irishman William Lamport joined one of three Spanish-sponsored Irish regiments and eventually attracted the attention of the Duke of Olivares, the Prime Minister of Spain. Lamport allegedly had a scandalous affair with a noblewoman, so to get the trouble-maker out of the way, he was sent to Mexico to spy for the duke. There, Lamport met the local Indians and Africans, and began sympathising with their plight. Already known as a lady’s man, good Samaritan, and swashbuckler (he was a pirate for two years before living in Mexico), the tale of William Lamport and his adventurous life spread throughout the Spanish colonies. Although it all caught up with him after he wrote the first proclamation of independence in the New World. He was arrested and sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition, his life and escapades catapulting him into the status of a martyr. While it’s disputed by some historians, many people still believe William Lamport was the inspiration for Johnston McCulley’s Zorro

Between 1846 to 1848, another Irishman, Jon Riley, led a group of several hundred immigrants during the Mexican-American War. Riley and his men fought alongside the Mexicans against the Americans, and his group became known as San Patricios, or Saint Patrick’s Battalion. Made up of deserters and defectors from the American Army, this band of soldiers were primarily Irish and German Catholic immigrants, along with Canadians, English, French, Italians, Poles, Scots, Spaniards, Swiss and native Mexicans, most of whom were Roman Catholics. Supported by the Mexican government, these soldiers were paid them to enlist in the Mexican army and received citizenship, generous land rights, and paid higher wages than the U.S. Army. North Americans who’d lived through this war viewed the San Patricios as traitors. But the Mexicans of that generation saw these men as heroes who helped fellow Catholics at a time when they needed it most. A hundred and fifty years after the war, the Mexicans paid tribute to the San Patricios with full military honours. Both the Mexican and Irish national anthems were played, and in 1993 the Irish started their own ceremony across the Atlantic in Galway. 

In 1995, Carlos Monsivai, spokesman for the struggling people of Chiapas, held a political gathering and he spoke about the San Patricios and how they influenced Mexico’s history:

"When Mexico was fighting, in the last century, against the empire of the bars and crooked stars, there was a group of soldiers who fought on the side of the Mexicans, and this group was called 'St. Patrick's Battalion'. And so I am writing you in the name of all of my compañeros and compañeras, because just as with the 'Saint Patrick's Battalion', we now see clearly that there are foreigners who love Mexico more than some natives who are now in the government do. And we hear that there were marches and songs and movies and other events so that there would not be war in Chiapas, which is the part of Mexico where we live and die.

We like the Irish around here!"

In more modern times, evidence of Irish ancestry can be seen in leaders such as Vicente Fox, president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006. Born to parents of Irish and Spanish descent, Fox’s term in office marked the end of 71 years of uninterrupted rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Anthony Quinn
 And without a doubt, one of the most famous Mexican Irish descendants is the actor, writer and painter, Anthony Quinn. Born as Antonio Rodolfo Quinn-Oaxaca, his mother was of Aztec Indian ancestry and his father was born to an Irish immigrant from the County Cork. Well-known and loved for his movies such as Zorba the Greek, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Guns of Navarone, Quinn branched out into painting and writing. With both Irish and Mexican blood running through his veins, it’s no surprise that Quinn found a passion for storytelling.  

So next time you’re in Mexico, have a good look around. Just about every city in Mexico has a street named O’Brian, and there’s even Ciudad Obregón (O’Brian City) as well as O’Brian City Airport. To be sure, the Irish have a long history with Mexico and without the men and women with the funny (but adorable!) accents, Mexico would most likely be a very different country. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Thanksgiving in the Diaspora

When I was teenager in Vermont, Thanksgiving was always a potluck affair. My mother would supply the turkey, stuffing, and her special cranberry-orange sauce, and the guests would bring everything else. She’d invite friends, most of whom were half her age, unattached and with families too far away to visit. They’d contribute such unconventional (and occasionally barely palatable) Thanksgiving fare as millet and zucchini salad, soybean casseroles, and apple pies with whole-wheat crusts made from hand-ground flour. This was the hippie era, after all.

Several decades later, I went to another Thanksgiving feast that promised to be equally unconventional. Six years into our marriage, my husband and I drove down to Orange County in Southern California to spend the weekend with his Iranian relatives. Uncles, aunts, and cousins all turned out for the event.

I didn’t expect the meal to be a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the trimmings. At every dinner party I’d attended in the homes of Iranian friends and relatives up to that point, only Persian food had been served. So I expected the same at this Thanksgiving in Orange County. There would be shirin polo, perhaps, a colorful rice pilaf studded with orange peel, shredded carrots, almonds, and pistachio nuts, a dish that frequently turns up on festive occasions. Or perhaps baghali polo (braised lamb shanks served with dill-and-saffron-speckled rice). Certainly a kebab or two.

Boy was I wrong! This Thanksgiving dinner would have made Martha Stewart proud.

We had a perfectly succulent roast turkey (and in my experience, turkey is rarely perfect but usually a tad dry), bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, rich gravy, green beans, and glazed yams. There was even a homemade pumpkin pie for dessert, dished up with little rosettes of whipped cream around the rim. All lovingly prepared and graciously served by my husband’s cousin, in whose home we were staying, along with her two sisters-in-law.

Strictly speaking, this Thanksgiving dinner was a great deal more conventional than my mother’s long-ago celebrations in Vermont. And yet, apart from the food, nothing about the Orange County gathering felt in the least bit American. Not the way the guests sat formally on chairs and sofas selected more for elegance than comfort, waiting to be served tea in elegant glasses by the lady of the house (who looked thoroughly shocked when I offered to help, as though I’d suggested that her hostessing skills were not up to par). Nor the melodious tones of the Farsi I heard all around me, with its drawn-out vowels and soft consonants.

In Vermont, none of us thought it odd to turn up on Thanksgiving in jeans and work shirts, faded with many washings. After all, this most comfortable of all holidays was not intended to be a formal affair. (And tight clothes make for misery once you’ve stuffed yourself to bursting with a rich meal.)

In Orange County, the Iranian guests arrived all decked out as though for a wedding, the women in stiletto heels with gold flashing at their throats, the men in well-pressed suits and white shirts, with slicked-back hair. In Vermont, we scraped the dirt off our shoes before entering the house. In this Persian home, everyone left their footwear at the front door and walked about in their stocking feet.

One custom the two Thanksgivings shared in common was the way the food was served: buffet style. But as I made my way around the table at the Iranian feast, placing items on my plate, my helpful hosts added more spoonfuls of everything. Left to my own devices, it was assumed, I’d leave the feast hungry, not wanting to appear greedy, and clearly requiring much prodding to avoid such an unthinkable disaster. Being the only “foreigner” present, I received extra royal treatment.

Life in the diaspora always means making adjustments to fit into the rhythm of the dominant culture. It’s a balancing act between embracing new ways and preserving accustomed values, traditions, and family structures. Iranian immigrants in California have especially strong ties to the old country and usually large extended families in the new one. So it makes sense that even a quintessentially American holiday like Thanksgiving would have a Persian flavor in the diaspora.

And what is American, anyway? We are a mongrel nation made up of many different cultures, both immigrant and homegrown. Take my mother’s potluck holiday feasts – I suspect that few Americans would share such memories, where the only identifiable component was probably the turkey.

Thanksgiving is the most adaptable of holidays since it is not linked to any specific religion or ideology. After all, doesn’t every world culture have a tradition of celebrating life, family, and community with a big, delicious feast?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Chasing the Waves in Portugal’s Tipi Valley

This week's Off The Beaten Track contributor is the Australian journalist, Heather Jacobs. For the past 16 years before joining Ogilvy PR in April as an editorial specialist, Heather Jacobs has been published in a diverse range of publications including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, IF magazine, Media and Marketing Asia, and New York based photography magazine, PDN. Specialising in writing about advertising, media and marketing, she has held staff positions on Ad News, New York-based TVC production magazine, Shoot, B&T and Campaign Brief Asia and Australia. In 2006 she had a non-fiction book published under the CareerFAQs series, advising students how to get a job in advertising. Passionate about travel she has lived in Japan, London, Vietnam, and New York and travelled throughout Europe, South-East Asia, South America and Mexico – where she had a fake Mexican wedding at a hippy commune. She is currently working on a novel set in India, although she’s still angling to go there for ‘research’ purposes. You can find Heather at her wonderful blog
“Look upstairs and paddle,” instructs one of the ridiculously good-looking Portuguese surf instructors, both of whom are named Ricardo. I paddle furiously, and I’m up on my bright blue foam board, arms stretched out in the warrior pose before falling headfirst into the whitewash.

I lived across the road from Bondi Beach for over a decade but it took a trip to Portugal to get me on a surfboard for the first time. When I first booked into the Algarve Surf & Yoga Retreat – better known as Tipi Valley – in the Western Algarve, the southern most region of Portugal, at the bequest of my friend Selina, a keen surfer from the UK, I was more interested in the yoga. I agreed to give surfing a go, since it was part of the package, and had so much fun that I wish I’d tried it years earlier.

The ecologically sustainable company was started by Australian surfer/sailing instructor, Laurie Quirk and built with the help of WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). It’s in a stunning valley on the Costa Vicentina Natural Park, the largest protected natural park in Europe, which has 74,000 hectares of rolling hills, cliffs, rocky coves and beaches.

While the Algarve has a reputation for being overrun by tourists, the fact that we are a one-hour drive from the nearest international airport, Faro, and the lack of five-star resorts means the area retains its charm. We share the beach, which is framed by volcanic cliffs, with a handful of Portuguese and Spanish families.

There is a Tipi onsite. Built from 12-foot eucalyptus poles cut from the property, it sleeps six, has a floating wooden floor and is furnished with single beds, rugs, a lounge, and Moroccan lamps. Selina and I are in the breakaway tent, which has twin beds with pink chenille bedspreads, and mosquito nets. The camp sleeps a maximum of 10 with a smaller Tipi and two canvass tents.

There are seven other guests who have come from Ireland, the UK, Portugal, and the United States. We do an hour and a half of yoga each morning before breakfast and then head to the beach for the surf lessons. Our yoga teacher is Cherie, who teaches a Kundalini-based Hatha yoga.

The surfing lessons are outsourced to the Odeceixe Surf School (pronounced O-de-shaish), which is run by David who has lived in the area all of his life. Since both our instructors are called Ricardo, David tells us we can call one Ricardo uno (one) and the other Ricardo dos (two). The first is a former body-boarding champion for Portugal and the second is a lifeguard and volunteer fireman.

A couple of hours in the surf has us feeling ravenous. Lunch is at a café overlooking the beach where we have fresh seafood, Portuguese custard tarts (pastel de natas) and glasses of Vinho Verde, a sparkling green wine native to Portugal.

Dinner is delicious meals prepared from organic vegetables grown on the property but after a few nights in, we organise a group outing in nearby Aljezur with Laurie, David, and Ricardo uno. Pont’A Pe is a charming restaurant by the river with blue-chequered tablecloths.

We tell Milton, the restaurant manager and our waiter for the night, that we want a typical Portuguese meal and he serves up a feast: clams steamed in garlic, fresh sardines, barnacles, roasted chicken in piri-piri sauce, sweet potato, sea bass I was asked to pick from the restaurant’s aquarium. Mussels in garlic and white wine sauce, and carne de porco à alentejana, a Portuguese twist on surf and turf – fried pork, potatoes and clams. For dessert Milton brings out a tray of pastries and crème caramel and shots of Medronho, which is also known as Portuguese firewater.

After dinner we visit a 10th century Moorish castle, now in ruins, climbing the steep cobblestone path by the light of the full moon to admire the sleeping village of Aljezur with its whitewashed houses and red tiled roofs.

Another memorable meal is our farewell dinner. In Australia, BYO – or bring your own – usually refers to a bottle of wine, but David brings his own barnacles to the Taberna do Gabio in Odeceixe. We have creamy sheep’s cheese, anchovy paste, olives, fresh bread, and carne de porco à alentejana. Barnacles are not my favourite Portuguese delicacy – they kind of taste like a chewy squid – but considering David got up at dawn to scrape them from rocky cliffs washed by treacherous waves, I eat as many as I can.

At the end of the meal, Selina and I have a final glass of Portuguese firewater, and promise to return to this beautiful part of Portugal with its delicious food, gorgeous beaches, and warm and hospitable people, as soon as we can.

Photos by Cherie Bousfield

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Into The Woods

American Woodstock is probably the most famous rebellious festival in the world, but before it made history, Russian bards used to wander off into the woods where the only bugs were those that bit them, but didn’t eavesdrop on them.  

Every spring when the snow piles melted and the woods became passable, peoples with guitars on their backs and tents in their backpacks trekked into the wilds. A few were nature lovers, but the majority were the renegades fed up with the regime and looking to break away from the Big Brother’s watch.

In my misspent teenage youth, I have been a regular. Thirty five kilometers away from Kazan, my hometown, lay a small Tatar village called Aisha, famous albeit unknown for giving the world Alexander Poniatoff, the founder of the American electronics company AMPEX. Another two kilometers away was a valley, nestled in between two groves. It was big enough to host a couple of hundred tents, a small stage, and a lot of anti-Soviet propaganda.

Twenty years ago, it was a small and clandestine gathering that served as an outlet for the Soviet iconoclasts. People retreated into the woods to speak their minds, scream out their frustration and sing their carols without being eavesdropped on, ratted out and arrested. Back then, the big cities weren’t safe. One couldn’t have a politically incorrect conversation in a café because a nerdy guy at the next table could’ve been a KGB thug in plain clothes. One couldn’t criticize authorities in his own apartment for it could’ve been bugged. People trusted only those they’d known for a long time – that’s why the Russian concept of friendship always had a deeper, stronger meaning. A friend was not a buddy you bowled with on Wednesdays or drank beers with on Sunday, but a confidant you trusted your deepest thoughts to. A Russian friend was someone safe to take along to the woods to share a bottle of vodka, a pot of tea, a guitar, and your latest rebellious rhymes.

A gasoline-smelling bus dropped us off at the curve, sort of in the middle of nowhere. A long path with no road signs led us from the bus stop to the hidden forest valley, intended to be found only by the word of mouth. It was part of the secrecy so only those who had the right directions would arrive. When you got close enough, you could pick up the scent: freedom smelled of burning twigs and cooking kasha. Guitars chimed everywhere, growing louder and bolder in twilight. There was always a concert, after which people continued singing by the fire. It was called “passing the guitar around.” Those who didn’t strum read poetry. Those who didn’t know the verses told jokes. It was a non-judgmental society in which everyone was accepted, fed whatever was cooking in the pot, and offered a cup of tea even if it was the last one.

Everything is different now, except that the festival is still nicknamed Aishinsky. Nowadays, no one has to hide from the militia. Or take a different route to shake off a nosy group of local bums. Back in the day, a construction crew used to arrive to the site the day before to fell some trees and build the outhouses, or fix them if they still stood from the previous year. It was typically an all-male team, but still The Damsel’s Hut was always the first to rise. Water had to be brought from the creek and boiled so it would be safe to drink. Today, portable Johns with toilet paper are a norm, and Coke, Fanta and Budweiser can be bought at kiosks right on the spot. What’s more – everyone drives.  

The strangest part is that there is not much one can’t sing about. I suppose we can’t really blame freedom of speech for changing the face and purpose of the festival forever, but parts of its original crowd are somewhat nostalgic. Others have faith in their country and are quite sure that no matter how free it gets, there will always be some taboo topics to strum about. One just has to dig deeper into the woods.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

OGOH-OGOH!!! Then shhhhhh…..

By Supriya Savkoor
No, I didn’t just fall off the truck from the nut farm (well, not yet). The crazy headline and, yes, more scary pictures from me are completely relevant. Since this week’s topic is festivals, and since you may have noticed, I love anything cross-cultural, it’s my way of getting your attention as I explain yet another example of how Indian culture traveled then morphed into an entirely new – and fascinating – phenomenon.

First, some quick background.

Hinduism was already about 3,500 years old when it reached the Indonesian archipelago around the 1st century A.D. By the 4th century, Hindu kingdoms starting forming in the region, and over the next thousand years, both Hinduism and Buddhism spread across the islands until they reached their apex in the 14th century. Soon Islam spread as well, and eventually, Java, Bali, Sumatra, and their surrounding islands became the archipelago’s last remaining Hindu footholds. Today, Hindus make up less than 2% of the Indonesian population.

Along the way, though, diverse religious beliefs melded and gave rise to interesting new belief systems, of which some have survived. On the island of Lombok, for example, the Bodha sect fuses both Hinduism and Buddhism with tribal beliefs, mainly hyang, the belief in ancestral spirits, and animism, when spirits inhabit inanimate objects such as trees or stones. Several tribes in Seram, one of the Molucca Islands of Indonesia, observe Naurus, a sect that fuses Hinduism, animism, and, if you can believe it, Protestantism. (I know, that's a lot to juggle.)
While ethnic Indians living in Java, Bali, and Sumatra observe the more traditional Indian form of Hinduism and have their own separate temples, Indonesian Hindus forged their own path, adapting some beliefs and rituals from the original and incorporating new ones to create their own unique blend, one that has evolved over the centuries.

Some of the main differences, other than the belief in hyang (the spirits), are that Indonesian Hindus use different names for their supreme being and for the various gods and goddesses that are manifestations of this supreme being. Indonesian Hindus also worship in open-air temples rather than indoors, and they rely on different kinds of artistic expression in their observances, such as shadow puppetry, pageantry, and unique dance performances. Balinese Hindus also focus less on reincarnation and rebirth and more on their belief in hyang.

There are other differences, of course, but an interesting one is that they have their own unique brand of festivals, not found anywhere else.

The new year on the Hindu calendar occurs around mid-March. A few days earlier, Balinese Hindus perform a ritual known as melasti at their temples, which they call puras, using water and sacred objects to cleanse and purify nature, among other things. Afterwards, they perform another ceremony to get rid of negative forces and reestablish balance with God, man, and nature. 

Enter the ogoh-ogoh. The islanders create these giant, colorful statues out of paper mache, using bamboo sticks as a frame. The monster-like statues symbolize any and all negative forces – the scarier, the better! Traditionally, ogoh-ogoh were shaped into demons from the underworld, characters from age-old legends and mythology, but these days, it’s common to see ogoh-ogohs of corrupt politicians and other notorious public figures or celebrities. The islanders parade the ghoulish ogoh-ogohs around their villages during the day then burn them, in a show of triumph over evil. 

It gets more interesting, but before I continue, take a gander at these scary ogoh-ogohs! It's a wonder anyone can sleep through the night without being haunted by these images, vanquished or otherwise.


Okay, no more scary pictures.... I threw in that last one though because that's apparently how some locals view female tourists...

The next day is Nyepi Day, or the Day of Silence. Starting at 6 a.m. and continuing until 6 a.m. the following day, there’s no going to work, no lights or fires, no entertainment, no using any electricity or technology (you can just forget about your iPad), and definitely no traveling – only fasting, meditating, lots of introspection, and, of course, complete and utter silence. Even the government shuts down on Nyepi, as do the airports! The non-Hindus on the island observe Nyepi too, and as such, not even tourists are allowed out of their hotels, not even to quietly catch some rays on one of the local beaches. The only people permitted outdoors at all, or allowed to use vehicles, are the police (for security reasons) and paramedics (for emergencies or to deliver babies who didn’t get the memo). 

The day after Nyepi, families and friends gather to ask each other for forgiveness. Then they perform one final ritual, and it’s all over. Until next year.

Talk about cleansing your soul, right?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What a Beautiful Noise

An average day in La Paz, Bolivia is filled with color and culture along the city’s steep, cobblestoned streets. Indigenous women wear bowler hats, long black plaits and ankle length skirts. Their shawls radiate a kaleidoscope of colors and the magical smiles of the locals make a visit to La Paz hard to forget. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in Bolivia, and the event that stands out most for me is the Festividad del Señor del Gran Poder (Festival of the Gentleman with Great Power), which is primarily celebrated in La Paz every June. 
As with most of Latin America, Bolivian culture is strongly tied to the Catholic faith. After the Spanish arrived, many indigenous people were converted to Catholicism and over the years, Latin Americans have melded their pre-Colombian beliefs with various religions. 

The Festividad del Señor del Gran Poder is linked to a cult that grew out of a connection with a 17th century painting of the Holy Trinity. The French Bishop Augusto Siefertt, stationed in Bolivia, hired two local artists to paint the Holy Trinity in a small chapel. The artists painted the three entities with indigenous features and late at night one of the artists snuck back in to retouch the eyes on the figure representing Christ. When he did so, the figure in the painting moved its head and the artist fled. A devoted group of followers arose and in 1939 the chapel was officially named Iglesia Parroquial del Gran Poder (Parochial Church of the Grand Power).

Originally, the chapel began holding a candlelight festival in the late 1930s, with the Fiesta del Gran Poder mainly a religious affair in which participants carried around a large an image of Christ. Nowadays, the festival still celebrates religion but runs for about eight hours, has thousands of dancers and musicians parading down the streets, and the festivity pretty much shuts down the city for the day. Food and drink are an important factor, as well as sponsorship by large South American companies. Inca Kola and the top beer brands feature prominently in the signage along the parade route through the old streets of La Paz.

Groups of people from the neighbourhoods and villages outside La Paz get together and practice dancing and playing music for an entire year leading up to this event. The costumes range from traditional peasant dresses to elaborate, sequined, mini-skirted affairs. It doesn’t matter if you can play a musical instrument or have the rhythm of a drunken accountant at an office party -- anyone who wants to can participate. In fact, it’s the people who can’t play a tune or dance a step that are the most entertaining and seem to have the most fun. 

The beginning of the parade starts out with the dancers and musicians moving in time with each other. Women twirl in their long skirts as the men in the band play along. As the procession continues and helpful by-standers offer salteñas, empanadas and beer, the spinning-top women slow down and veer off course, and no one in the band seems to agree which song they should be playing. 

I finished up my first fiesta in La Paz in the early hours of the morning, with sore cheeks from smiling, tired and slightly inebriated (okay, a lot!). My feet hurt from standing and dancing for so long, and my brain couldn’t rid itself of the out-of-tune brass sections and drummers who liked to make it all up as they went along. 

The mountains surrounding La Paz make for a spectacular back-drop to one of the most colourful and noisy festivals I’ve ever experienced. If you can manage to pin down the correct date to see the Fiesta del Gran Poder, then it’s well and truly worth planning your other travels around this major event. The dates for the fiesta change most years, and can be held on any date from late May until the end of June. I’ve yet to figure out why the date changes, but I have an inkling it might have something to do with Lent. Fortunately for me, I happened to be in the right place at the right time – for once! 

And here's some dancing and musicians in action. Enjoy! 

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Celebration of Roses

The best time to visit Kashan, a city on the edge of Iran’s Dasht-e Kavir Desert, is in May when the entire town is filled with the heady fragrance of roses. Kashan is one of two major centers of rosewater production in Iran (the other one is Shiraz), and May is when the harvest is in full swing.

The desert may not seem like the best place to grow a water-hungry plant like the rose. But Kashan is uniquely situated between the desert and the Karkas Mountains, where abundant water and cool air create ideal conditions for flower cultivation. In particular, the climate is perfect for the Damask rose, (Gol-e Mohammadi in Persian), a deep pink bloom with an especially strong and appealing fragrance.

Rosewater, or golab as the Iranians call it, is mainly an ingredient in perfume, cosmetics, and air fresheners here in the West, but in Iran it turns up in traditional medicines, cooking, and even religious ceremonies. Rosewater is used to treat many ailments, from skin infections to heart palpitations, and it flavors sweets such as cream puffs and ice cream. One of my favorite Persian desserts is sholeh zard, a rice pudding scented with saffron and rosewater.

Kashan rosewater is so highly prized, in fact, that every year the region sends barrels of it to Mecca, where it is used to wash the Ka’aba during the annual Hajj pilgrimage to this holiest of Muslim sites.

Ghamsar, Iran
Iranians celebrate the essence of the Damask rose with a series of ceremonies during the Gol-o-Golab (Rose and Rosewater) Festival, which is held in Kashan and nearby towns over a period of several weeks, starting in mid-May. The specific dates change from year to year because this festival is entirely dependent on the flowers it celebrates and must wait until the roses unfold their petals.

Over the course of the rose harvest, rosewater producers in Kashan, Ghamsar, Niasar, and other nearby towns open their homes and gardens to visitors, who flock to the region to watch the locals extract the essence from pink rose petals. While many mechanized factories exist, most rosewater is still distilled by hand, using age-old techniques and traditional equipment.

The day begins early, when men and women head out to the fields to pick blossoms. This has to be done before dawn, since the rose’s scent diminishes in the heat of the sun. Then they dump the gathered harvest into copper cauldrons, add water, cover the pot, and bring its contents to the boil. The rosewater is distilled through metal pipes and collected in traditional clay vessels.

The Gol-o-Golab Festival is much more than just an opportunity to see rose distillers at work. In the evenings, after a long hard day at the rosewater distillery (remember, they get up before dawn), people head for the parks to listen to music and watch parades and pageants. Educational programs are also on offer; in past years, Kashan University has invited the public to attend lectures on rosewater extraction and new methods of rose cultivation.

Photo by Persian Boy
I’ve yet to attend this celebration of roses, although the festival is high up on my bucket list. So far, I’ve always managed to visit Iran at the wrong time of year. The closest I’ve come to this fragrant experience was on a trip to Kashan in October. While exploring the city’s Bazaar, I caught the scent of roses and followed my nose. It led me to a section where shop after shop had roses for sale in every possible form, from rosewater to dried petals. I bought a small bag of gol-e sorkh (dried rose blossoms) and learned all kinds of uses for them. They’re especially good steeped in tea or crushed and sprinkled over yogurt.

I’m due for another trip to Iran soon, and May in Kashan sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: In Hot Water - From Japan to Morocco

Our guest this week is Edith Maxwell, whose mystery novels feature Quaker Linguistics professor, Lauren Rousseau. The first, SPEAKING OF MURDER, is in search of publication. Her short stories have appeared in THIN ICE and RIPTIDE by Level Best Books, the LARCOM REVIEW, and the NORTH SHORE WEEKLY, as well as the forthcoming FISH NETS. Edith holds a PhD in Linguistics and lives in historic Ipswich, Massachusetts, with her beau, four cats, and several fine specimens of garden statuary. She works as a technical writer when she's not writing fiction.She is a member of Sisters in Crime, and is on the board of the New England chapter. Edith blogs weekly on topics relating to SPEAKING OF MURDER at Speaking of Mystery. Look for her as Edith M. Maxwell on Facebook, and @edithmaxwell on Twitter.

I'm so pleased to be a guest here among this group of intrepid travelers/writers. I have also traveled widely, lived in disparate place like Brazil, Japan, and Mali for a year or two each, and am a mystery author.

I was thrilled to discover the sento, or public baths, when I lived in Japan for two years in the mid-1970s. They were widely used, because many homes did not include a bath.

The baths were segregated by gender. I was still learning to speak the language when I first ventured into the building, so I just followed what I saw others doing. Females from birth to 100 removed cotton pants, blouses, or kimonos in the common changing area and hung them on hooks without any evidence of embarrassment or self-consciousness. As the sole gaijin – foreigner – I was the self-conscious one. Women stole sideways glances and little girls stared at me and giggled.

I knew from reading that you wash first and then soak. A well-lit tiled room featured faucets every few feet along each wall and down the middle. You grabbed a blue plastic bin and a little wooden stool and picked a faucet. Lather up, rinse off, and repeat.

Women in the Kiyonaga Bathhouse
When I was clean, I followed a woman into a steamy room with two large bathing pools enclosed by low tile walls. I put a foot in and drew it out in a big hurry. It was HOT. I couldn't believe tender babies and elderly women sat soaking in that boiling pot. Someone pointed me to the other pool. It was marginally cooler, at least enough for me to lower myself in. It being Japan, people were shy about talking to foreigners, but I did eventually get some timid smiles.

After the bath session, people walked away even mid-winter wearing sandals with no socks. Your body was so heated it kept you warm all the way home. And I always slept like a baby that night.

When my son was in Morocco last year for a study abroad semester, he wrote his own blog post about visiting the public bath, the hammam, with his host father. We visited him for two weeks, and checking out the hammam with his host mother, Farida, was high on my list. I was sort of expecting a similar experience to the Japanese one. Boy, was I wrong!

Host Mother Farida
Bath doesn't exactly describe it. More like a willing deep slide into into all the senses, no holding back. I followed Farida like a lamb into a dark high-ceiling long room and then into to the next room, a less dimly lit copy of the first. It lined up in parallel with the first and another beyond, three long chambers that the passageway bisected. The stone walls were dark with moisture and centuries of steamed human skin cells.

We did wash first, just like in Japan. Then a woman named Baresha, a massage/scrubber Farida knew, started scrubbing me in a casual way that soon turned firm. She moved my body around in all dimensions. The treatment was both luxurious and painful. My head rested on Baresha's ample thigh as she sat splay legged. I closed my eyes and submit to having my chest, breasts, stomach scrubbed and massaged over and over. My legs were worked top to bottom and then my front torso again.

She turned me on my side to face her and scraped my pale skin up and down. A large pendulous breast was in my face. I closed my eyes again, loving it all. She turned me to the other side, extended my arm, scrubbing my armpit, side, hip. My neck, back, buttocks, and legs also got the full treatment.

Moroccan Hammam
When I was  finally brought back to sitting, Farida laughed and showed me the multitude of particles rolled into tiny dark fibers all over me that came from my skin. That WERE my skin.

All this time, women talked. Low voices, shrill voices. Greetings and negotiations. Children speaking to their mothers, friends catching up on neighborhood news. Not a word of it could I understand. The language echoed and merged. It washed over me as welcome as the bucket of warm water Baresha dumped over me, even as she still rubbed and cleaned.

In my year each in Mali and Burkina Faso, in West Africa, I never heard of a public bath.You can bet I would have been there in a flash.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pampered in Paradise

One Christmas Day, during a bumpy bus ride over potholed roads in a small village in the southern state of Kerala, India, our bus slowed down as it approached an agitated crowd. We’d stopped once before that week, when we witnessed a crowd forming around a dancing, trance-induced woman who, our driver told us, had been possessed by spirits. This time, on this surreal day that Saddam Hussein had been executed, protesters began pounding our windshield, as a few slapped flyers on it about American imperialism.

So many things about this trip were surreal, not least of which was that we were criss-crossing a state famous for tea and tourism but that also displayed a strange juxtaposition of extremes – mainly those of poverty and luxury. We’d crammed in a variety of sightseeing on our trip, staying in incredible resorts and guest houses sprinkled across the state, one on a cardamom plantation with lovely thatch-roofed cottages, another with a view of the famed tea plantations spread out across hills like a rolling emerald carpet, and yet another on an air-conditioned houseboat on the famed backwaters of the Malabar Coast.

Always, the landscapes were stunning, but the infrastructure of the country’s only communist state, the one with the developing world’s highest literacy rate, was a shock. We drove through much of the state, urban and rural, mountain and seaside, yet not a single one was a smooth ride. Why had I presumed high literacy corresponded with affluence? Quite the opposite – I don’t think I’ve witnessed the kind of poverty I’d seen in Kerala anywhere else. It’s said that Kerala has some of the country’s best education, health, and social services, but it was hard to tell as we visited local villages skirting the fancy resorts.

And yet this was the same state that I’d always seen – still see, in fact – on the covers of glossy travel magazines as having some of the world’s best spas. The ones combining holistic treatments that soothe mind, body, and soul, through massage, yoga, meditation, and other relaxation methods. And indeed, check out some of the options.
  • The Maya Spa in Kumarakom has two wings – one dedicated to ayurvedic treatments, the other to those from Europe and other parts of Asia, such as reflexology and Shiatsu. For the ultimate in relaxation, sign up for the Cloud 9 massage, where you’ll receive a head massage as you float on an enveloping water bed. Can’t beat that, right?
  • At the Taj Malabar Jiva Spa in Cochin, the Narikela scrub uses coconut, one of the state’s most abundant resources. (You’ll be hard pressed to have a meal without some form of coconut in Kerala).
  • The Thapovan Heritage Home serves only pure, organic vegetarian food (in keeping with its own ayurvedic practices). At the spa, you’ll enjoy oils and powders extracted from the hotel’s herb garden. Other services (according to the hotel web site) include treatments for “various ailments like arthritis, paralysis, hemiplegia, sexual weakness, mental distress, and nervous disorders.” (Tall order?)
You’d think Kerala's main source of revenue would come from tourism, including its spas and medicinal (ayurvedic) tourism. Half a million foreign tourists alone visit annually, and even a chunk of the state's agricultural revenues are tied to tourism. Surprisingly, however, the biggest source of income comes from expats who send money back home to relatives.

Regardless, I'll never forget my trip to Kerala with all its magnificent scenic wonders, but the contrast between natural beauty and economic hardship will stay with me a long time.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Murder in the Bathhouse

Bagh-e Fin, Kashan
It’s never a good idea to insult your boss’s mother. Especially if your employer is the king. It’s even worse if the lady in question is also your mother-in-law. You could very well end up exiled to the provinces and eventually find yourself bleeding on the floor of a bathhouse with a knife in your heart.

Sounds like an intriguing mystery, doesn’t it? This one, however, happened in real life.

The king in our story was Nasser-ed-Din, the fourth Qajar shah, who ruled Persia from 1848 until his assassination in 1896. His mother, Mahd Ulya, considered it her duty to run his personal life with a firm hand, and she saw no reason why affairs of state should be beyond her sphere of influence. The third member of this unfortunate triangle was Nasser-ed-Din’s prime minister (also his tutor and mentor), Mirza Taghi Khan Amir-Nezim, also known by the far more manageable name of Amir Kabir.

Amir Kabir
Mahd Ulya launched her feud with Amir Kabir almost from the moment her husband died and her son ascended the throne. According to Qajar tribal custom, the Queen Mum expected to marry her son’s prime minister. But Amir rejected her in favor of her fourteen-year-old daughter, Malekzadeh Ezzatodoleh.

Nasser-ed-Din, who was only seventeen when he became shah, inherited a country on the verge of chaos. Mismanagement and two costly wars with Russia and England had left Persia in bad shape, and the young king relied on his prime minister for advice.

Always a reformist, Amir Kabir’s approach to solving the country’s problems included bolstering the army to defend the national borders, improving education (he founded the first modern university), and reorganizing the central government along more efficient and less despotic lines. The latter included cutting the lavish salaries that the royal family drew from the Treasury. The prime minister’s reforms did not sit well with Mahd Ulya, the new shah’s mother.

Mahd Ulya, the Queen Mum
Her battle with Amir Kabir came to a head when he accused her of promiscuity and convinced her son to banish her to Qom, one of Iran’s most conservative, religious cities.

Mahd Ulya fought back with a smear campaign of her own. She convinced the king that his prime minister was plotting to overthrow him. (According to one version of the story, Nasser-ed-Din was drunk at the time.) Amir Kabir’s own personality played right into her hands. His arrogance and disregard for royal protocol made it easy for the king to accept the truth of the accusation.

The young king, who was twenty by now, sent his prime minister into exile in Kashan, a desert town 150 miles south of Tehran. Amir Kabir spent his final months in the Bagh-e Fin, a garden palace that had been a royal vacation getaway for centuries.

Nasser-ed Din Shah
I can easily believe that any banishment from the center of power would be an intolerable hardship for a man like Amir Kabir, bordering on torture. Not for me, though. Bagh-e Fin is a green oasis in the unforgiving desert, filled with shady trees, bubbling streams, and quiet reflecting pools, all of it surrounded by high stone walls.

On one side is a hamam, or bathhouse, dug deep into the ground and fed by the same ancient spring that flows through the garden. The hamam features a series of subterranean chambers with blue-tiled pools for bathing, some filled with hot water, others with cold. Within the complex is a warm-up room with lockers for storing clothes and shoes, a sauna, and an area with shallow basins for scrubbing away the dirt of the day.

Site of Amir Kabir's Murder
Amir Kabir didn’t have long to enjoy such pampering—or to plot for release from his prison, as the case may be. Six weeks after arriving in Kashan, two assassins entered the hamam while the deposed prime minister was enjoying his bath. One held him down while the other slashed his wrists. They waited for him to bleed to death and then the deed was done: the Queen Mum won the war.

Ever since I visited Bagh-e Fin and its infamous hamam, the image of this great and powerful man in his bath, naked and helpless, his blood staining the marble floor, has fired my imagination. How would things have turned out had Amir Kabir accepted tradition and married Mahd Ulya after all?