Friday, March 30, 2012

Murder at the Lanterne Rouge: A Conversation With Cara Black

Our guest this week is Cara Black the author of the best-selling and award-nominated Aimée Leduc Investigation mystery series, set in Paris. Last year, she chatted with me about her novel, Murder in Passy, and today we discuss her latest release, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. To learn more about Cara and her books, check out her website at On Tuesdays, she can be found blogging about France at

We are also running a contest this week. Leave a comment on this post between now and Thursday, April 5, for a chance to win a copy of Cara’s 2011 novel, Murder in Passy. The contest will end at midnight EST, and we'll announce the winner on the blog on Friday.

Cara, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge is Aimée’s twelfth adventure, set in one of Paris’s four Chinatowns. What can you tell us about this neighborhood? What made you pick it as the setting for this story?

Paris has four Chinatowns, and this one, set in the Marais, has a lot of interesting history. It has buildings dating back to the 14th-century, and even the Resistance had a presence there during World War II. Chinese immigrants came in the early 20th century, replacing the aristocrats when they moved out of the quartier. Some of China’s revolutionaries were attracted by France’s principles of liberté, egalité, fraternité. They included Lin Biao, Mao’s right-hand man, and Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao. Another radical in Paris was the Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, who worked in a socialist/communist restaurant.

I knew a man who worked for the Renseignements Genereaux, a domestic intelligence agency that runs wire taps and conducts surveillance on suspects. His job was to collect intelligence in Chinatown, and one day, over coffee, he said, “No one ever dies in Chinatown.”

Where did that come from, I wondered. So I pressed him. “What do you mean?”

He said, “You’re a writer. You figure it out.” So I started thinking, If no one died there, then what?

What is the significance of the Lanterne Rouge in the novel’s title?

Lanterne Rouge means red lantern, and these lanterns hang in the doorways of Chinatown. The murder occurs under a red lantern. That’s all the reference means. I learned that the last person to finish the Tour de France carries a red lantern, although that has nothing to do with the story. Red lanterns are also a symbol of Chinese New Year, which is the time of year when the novel takes place.

We’ve talked in the past about the hands-on research you like to do – plying police officers with wine and coffee or crawling through Parisian sewers – all in the interest of authenticity. What did it take for you to absorb the gritty realism of Chinatown’s underworld? Did you visit any of the sweatshops that appear in the story?

I’ve visited sweatshops in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but not the ones in Paris. But I have a friend who lives near the building where the sweatshop in the book is located, over a night club that is no longer there. A real sweatshop existed there and we could look down into the rooms from my friend’s window and see the machines inside. There is a German bunker nearby, which Aimee explores in the book, and I was able to visit that and see all the artifacts left over from the war.

Several characters in the novel are graduates of an an engineering school called the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers. They call themselves the Gadz’ Arts and practice a special form of hazing. Is this school and the rituals its students practice real?

I met a graduate of this school, a grande ecole, mentioned in the story. He lives in Silicon Valley now and is an entrepreneur. He told me about the hazing rituals that the graduates of the grandes ecoles do. I toned the rituals down a lot in the book because they were too brutal, fictionalized certain things. But the school and the rituals are real. The students learn a special language – they take it all very seriously. It’s a cool thing for them. The Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers is the third top ranking engineering school in France.

One of the settings in the novel is an old tower that once belonged to the Knights Templar. Is there a story behind the way you found it?

Whenever I’m in Paris, I do a lot of walking around. Just exploring the city and seeing what I’ll find. I found the tower this way. It had walls several feet thick. You can see them from the adjacent buildings, which have walls remaining from the tower. I went inside and offered the people there macaroons, which they welcomed very much. They didn’t know much about the history, but they let me see the place.

I’m always delighted to see more of Aimée’s sidekick, René Friant, who is small of stature and big of heart. He plays a central role in this novel. Can you tell us a bit about that?

René has long had feelings for Aimée, but his love is unrequited. She sees him as her best friend, not romantically. He’s resigned, and moves on by falling in love with Meizi, a Chinese girl. Aimée is concerned about him. She’s worried and, for a change, feels responsible for him. So when Meizi disappears and is suspected in the murder, Aimée just wants to find her and sort everything out.

Aimée has many fine qualities, but commitment to a long-term relationship is not one of them. Yet her current squeeze, the homicide detective Melac, has been around for several books now and shows no sign of giving up on her. Is her luck in love changing?

I can’t tell you. I really don’t know. A relationship is always a hard thing for me to write in a book. And Aimée has broken her rule by falling for a cop. A cop boyfriend in a mystery is a problem because the cop can’t just tell the sleuth what she needs to know. Melac has to keep things from Aimée, which is a strain on their relationship.

I enjoy the glimpses of Parisian life that you give us through your books as Aimée zips around Paris on her Vespa or pops into a café to meet an informant. Do you wander around Paris with a little notebook jotting down everything you see? Or do these images just stick in your mind?

I write everything down. I carry notebooks around and record street sounds, conversations on busses. I stick a digital recorder in a carrying bag and ride around. Then, when I’m home, the sounds help me get back to the moment, so I can make it all real to the reader.

Cara, thanks for chatting with me today.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Parrots, Pythons and Pet Shops: Perils of the Wildlife Trade

By Edith McClintock

Burmese python in Everglades (native of Southeast Asia).
Photo by Christopher Scott Boykin's camera
My favorite memories from living and working in the Suriname rainforest are of wildlife. A brilliant slash of red signaling a scarlet macaw darting through the jungle canopy. Giant Tegu lizards scattering for cover. Green iguanas fighting for food in our compost pile. Capuchin monkeys leaping and twisting and swinging playfully on the forest floor.

One of my least favorite memories, however, was riding an old, U-Haul type truck from the interior to the coast. It was a crowded local bus, with gaping holes for windows, school bus seats soldered to the floor, and shrieking parrots packed tightly into mesh wire cages just behind my head. The only positive was that once the truck moved, winding its way along the bumpy road towards Paramaribo, the din of scraping metal pieces drowned out the chatter of frightened birds.

Throughout the greater Amazon region, animal trapping is an important livelihood and source of cash for many indigenous people, and it can even be a conservation tool when managed appropriately. However, there is a down side to even the legal trade in wildlife, including over-collection, animal cruelty during transport, the spread of diseases, and destructive impacts to native species and habitats in the import countries.

In Suriname, animals are trapped in a variety of ways. Licensed trappers might gather reptiles by hand, but use a mist net to catch small birds in the lower canopy. For larger birds, like macaws, they might use a tethered, tame macaw to attract wild macaws, and a snare to trap them. Mortality can be around 10-30% before the wildlife is even shipped. Middlemen transport the wildlife by truck, boat or small plane to exporters in Paramaribo, or across the border to Guyana. And the government is also involved, through licensing legal traders, issuing export permits, collecting fees and taxes, and inspections.

Ostalet's chameleon, South Florida
(native of Madagascar).
Photo by Christopher Scott Boykin 
Not all trade is conducted legally of course. Smuggling both within Suriname, the region, and internationally is common, whether it’s the smuggling of legally traded animals beyond quota levels, or the smuggling of banned species. But while the illegal trade in endangered species around the world is a multi-billion dollar industry, the legal trade in wildlife is even bigger.

Today, most parrots travel from Suriname to the Netherlands because the United States, once the largest importer of wild parrots, imposed a near ban in 1992. However, large quantities of reptiles, among other wildlife, are still shipped to the Unites States - the world’s greatest consumer of wildlife products.

Green iguanas, Tegu lizards, or emerald boas collected in the greater Amazon rainforest might land in wooden crates at Miami International Airport, the second busiest airport for wildlife entering the United States. From the airport, where only a small percentage of the arriving crates will even be searched or inspected, the wildlife that survive the journey might end up at your neighborhood pet store. Or for sale through the internet.

Maybe you’ll decide to purchase an exotic pet for yourself or your kids, maybe something like a yellow-footed tortoise, or a poison dart frog. Or maybe not an animal from Suriname at all. Maybe an Argentinean boa constrictor, or worse an African Rock python.*

But the baby python grows too big, the parrot lives too long or screeches too loud, and the green iguana, well, it’s a little creepy to wake with it perched on your stomach - watching. And so you let it go, into the grass or local canal, maybe into a park. Into the Everglades. And in the subtropical climate of South Florida, it doesn’t die. In fact, it thrives with no natural enemies. It grows, and breeds, and spreads.

And today many animals and plants from the Amazon, and around the world, are wild in South Florida. Iguanas and Tegu lizards sun in South Florida gardens, or fall stunned from trees during cold snaps. Parrots are common. Raccoons no longer abduct your cooler when you camp in the Everglades, because the raccoons are gone, along with many native mammals, even a few alligators - eaten by Burmese pythons.

Blue-and-yellow macaws, South Florida
(native of South America and north to Panama).
Photo by Christopher Scott Boykin
I can’t claim innocence in this industry. I started around six or seven, when I freed our “pet” sea-monkeys (in reality brine shrimp) by dumping them into the Tennessee forest before they could grow into real merpeople trapped in a tiny jar, which was how they were pictured on the box. When I was ten, I purposely left the cage door open on the parakeets my family inherited from an aunt who moved to Maine. I didn’t understand ecology and it’s possible I was pet owner zero for the parakeet flocks now plaguing South Florida.

I didn’t stop with birds. When I was twelve, my sister brought a snake - Fluffy - to live in our house. I felt strongly that snakes and humans were not meant to cohabitate. And so I turned over her aquarium in the grass, releasing the snake to the suburban wild. I don’t know what kind of snake it was, so I’ll plead innocent in the South Florida Burmese python population explosion. Although it's doubtful it was native.

Orange-winged parrots, South Florida (native
to South America east of the Andes).
Photo by Christopher Scott Boykin
Native wildlife - usually defined based on their existence in a particular location prior to European colonization - have evolved over thousands of years to become interdependent with the surrounding animals and plants, with each needing the other for survival. When an exotic animal or plant is introduced to an area outside its native range, either purposefully or accidentally, it can take over, crowd out, or kill native species. The result can be diminished or destroyed ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. And since all economies depend on biodiversity, the damage can cost billions of dollars to eradicate, control, and fix.

So what’s the solution?

First, much stricter import laws in the United States (and in most countries, since invasive exotics are a global problem) that stop an exotic species from spreading before it causes enormous damage, not after it’s too late. Second, don’t buy exotic pets (or any invasive plants). But if you choose to ignore the no purchasing rule, at least don’t buy from an importer with a history of smuggling illegal wildlife or cruelty to animals; don’t buy any animal that can cause known damage to a local habitat; and make sure you understand the care and lifecycle of your potential pet before purchasing. Finally, never release your exotic pet into the wild, no matter where you live. I’ve learned that much by now.

* The Obama administration did finally ban the trade in Burmese pythons and three other non-native, large constrictor snakes in February 2012, but left a number of recommended constrictor snakes still allowed for import.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Cloth That Changed History

By Supriya Savkoor

Author's Note: We ran the following post on October 12, 2011, but it fits perfectly with our topic for this week.

One of India’s most popular crafts is also its most visible symbol of patriotism, independence, and freedom, part of every fiber of the nation’s being – from its flag to the enduring fashion among its politicians, and a part of its history’s most important chapter.

Khadi is a type of handspun or handwoven cloth – usually cotton but also sometimes silk or wool – that is made from organic, raw materials (as opposed to synthetics) into a coarse, stiff fabric that is typically starched to keep its shape. Not surprisingly, it was Mahatma Gandhi, known as the father of India, who started the Khadi Movement in the 1920s as part of his non-violent freedom movement. 

Mainly peasants and artisans wore khadi earlier, but Gandhi latched onto the idea of the Indian public boycotting, even burning, machine-made British cloth sold in India and only wearing homespun cotton khadi as a way for the colony to assert its independence from its colonizer.

If you couldn’t spin the individual slivers of yarn at home yourself, using the spinning wheel known as a charkha, you’d buy the material from locals in your own community rather than from the British.

Gandhi’s goal was two-fold: one, to create employment for the locals and, two, to get the English out of India through economic means rather than by fighting them. In fact, the entire “non-cooperation movement” was the beginning of the end of the occupation. Gandhi convinced Indians at all economic levels of Indian society to stop buying British products, boycott their courts and schools, resign from government service, and foresake any British-imposed titles or honors. Surprisingly, it met with huge success, even among the elite classes, and the movement shook up the entire economic and political structure of the British government. It would be another 25 years or so before the British finally ceded, but it was a turning point.

The main source for cotton for the British prior to India had been the United States, but once the American Civil War broke out and supplies from the former British colony began to dry up, the British Raj began exploiting Indian cotton. Literally exploiting, that is. The Brits went so far as to ship cotton from India to England to be stitched in their mills (providing both material supply and employment in England) then shipping the finished products back to India to resell there at a premium. Not a bad deal for the colonizers. This practice continued for about 60 years, during which time, Indian soldiers fought alongside the British during World War I. Soon after the war ended, the British, reacting to agitation for independence in various parts of India, enacted a law that allowed them to imprison any Indian without a conviction or a trial. By the time the Prince of Wales made a visit to India two years later, the Indian public was outraged, and Gandhi’s non-violent movement had begun.

When some of his followers complained that making khadi was both too expensive and too labor intensive, Gandhi began wearing the loincloth to make a point that no sacrifice would be too much to shake off its imperial shackles. Today, the flag of India is supposed to be made only from the khadi fabric (though you’ll find knockoffs made from synthetics outside India). In the initial design, an image of the charkha, the spinning wheel, was emblazoned in the center of the flag to symbolize India’s goal of self reliance. However, just a few days before Independence, the Constituent Assembly replaced the emblem with a different wheel, the Ashoka Chakra, to symbolize both the eternal wheel of law and the dynamic wheel of change.

A decade after its 1947 independence, the Indian government formed the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, which allows only micro, small, and medium artisan businesses in rural areas to develop government-sanctioned khadi products. There are only 15,000 such businesses in all of India today, and they sell mainly through government-owned outlets called khadi bhandars, or cotton bazaars, which sell a large variety of artisanal products other than just khadifrom soaps and stationary to traditional artwork, brass lamps, and handmade furniture. As well, these rural entrepreneur-artists are the only ones legally permitted to produce Indian flags. 

Today, what was once a political statement has made a comeback as a fashion statement. “Ethnic” clothes are all the rage in India again, especially among celebrities and the young and urban who admire its casual elegance. Khadi cloth is even a much sought after commodity by the country’s top designers, sold in upscale shops and exported to new markets. In some cases, khadi has again become too costly for many Indians. Kind of a reverse khadi movement, you could say. (What would Gandhi think of that?)

I recently learned that own my great grandfather used to obtain cotton yarn from his local khadi bhandar and sit under a tree in his yard, spinning cotton each day just like Gandhi himself. The womenfolk, mainly my great grandmother and one of my great aunts, would then use the cloth to make shirts and pajamas for the household. For a time, the family didn't purchase these garments from shops, wearing only the ones stitched at home. More work, yes, but talk about independence.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Panama Hat

By Alli Sinclair

My first trip to Ecuador entailed traversing some lesser-known trails, thanks to three Ecuadorians I’d met who were on their annual holiday. They adopted me as their pet gringa, and I happily played the role, lapping up the attention my personal tour guides bestowed on me. (They probably felt sorry for me traveling alone but I actually enjoy my own company at times!) Between the four of us, we had a lot of laughs and created some unforgettable memories.

During our travels we ventured into the many mercados that Ecuador offers, and the ones that impressed me most were the markets just outside of Cuenca, in the southern part of Ecuador. On Sundays, Gualaceo has an amazing fruit and veggie market; Chordaleg is renowned for a wonderful array of local crafts including jumpers (pullovers), scarves, and Sigsig not only has a strange, modern metallic piece of art in the town’s centuries old plaza, but it is the perfect place to learn about the history of the Panama hat.

Yes, the Panama hat. We’re not in Panama, Dorothy, we’re talking Ecuador.

Legend has it that President Theodore Roosevelt brought the hats to popularity in North America when photos were taken of him wearing one while visiting Panama. But that’s not the only story. As the hats were shipped through the Isthmus canal in Panama before they hit the shores around the world, someone mistakenly thought the hats came from the country famous for its canal. Who knew one person’s misunderstanding would lead to the rest of the world following suit?

Ecuadorians call their hats sombreros de paja toquilla (hats of toquilla straw), but they’re used to tourists referring to them as a Panama hat. Available in a range of colours for both men and women, the Panama offers perfect for protection from the sun and makes a pretty awesome souvenir that will lead to some interesting conversations upon return to your home country.

The fedora is the most common style of Panama hats in North America, but in the U.K., the Optimo is the most popular. Another style, known as the Teardrop, or C-crown, is shaped like a tear when viewed from above and it’s worn with the point of the tear position at the front of the head. This particular hat is very popular with the indigenous women in the region of Cuenca.

Other styles include the Breton, Plantation (Gambler), Snap brim, Pork Pie (think Buster Keaton), Stingy brim, Boater and the Trilby.

As with most crafts, the price boils down to the quality of product. Although there doesn’t appear to be an official grading system, vendors will happily inform you of theirs and after a few hours wandering in and out of shops and stalls, you’ll get a feel as to what is good quality and what isn’t. Most people look for the fineness of the weaving, which can definitely help when choosing a hat of high quality, but the consistency of the weave and minimal gaps, bumps, and holes are what make the difference between a good hat and a fine hat.

Another way people judge the quality of a Panama hat is the whether you can roll it up and pass it through a wedding ring—I kid you not. The first time I saw this done my eyes bulged and mouth fell open. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. It can be done but only if the hat is of very, very good quality.  Expect these hats to cost you USD150 or more. Some craftsmen might sell you a USD20 or USD60 hat and tell you it’s possible to roll up your hat, stick it in a box and unroll it again and it won’t lose it’s shape. I’ve seen enough examples where this didn’t ring true. Consider yourself informed…

While the hats in Sigsig are absolutely beautiful, it’s the ones from Montecristi, near the coast of Ecuador, that have the Panama hat enthusiasts raving. Renowned for their flawless craftsmanship and supple weave while remaining strong and in-shape, the Montecristi hats have been around since the 1600s.

Even though the Panama hat is still popular, the art form is dying. In towns like Sigsig and Montecristi, where the master weavers rely on their handiwork to support themselves and their families, the younger generations are pursuing careers in other fields. In its heyday, Montecristi had nearly 2,000 artisans weaving hats, but today there are less than 50, and some Panama hat experts will say it’s less than 20. Regardless of the exact figure, the skill required to weave a beautiful, high-quality Panama hat is in danger of being lost to the world. I don’t know if there’s such an organisation such as Endangered Crafts of the World, but it would be amazing if such a group exists. Hmmm…. I’ve just had an idea. Anyone want to join me?

And for those who are interested in learning a little more about the people behind the hats, here's a mini-documentary that gives some food for thought.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Twisted Threads – The Dark Side of Persian Carpet Weaving

Carpet weaver at the Carpet Museum in Tehran
By Heidi Noroozy
One of the perks I get from setting my stories and books in Iran is the opportunity for fascinating research. In 2004, while investigating Iran’s carpet industry for my unpublished novel, Frayed Silk, I scoured the carpet bazaars in Kashan and Esfahan, two of Iran’s major carpet producing cities, with my husband acting as interpreter. My goal was to find a carpet weaver who would talk to me about her life and work.

I’m almost ashamed to admit it now, but I had a rather romanticized notion of carpet weaving. I pictured women sitting happily at looms in their village homes, working things of beauty according to their own designs, taking pride in their craft.

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Iran’s carpet industry today is largely a contract business. The work is still performed in private homes, and the workforce remains primarily women and children. (The Islamic Republic has child labor laws, which, like so many Iranian rules, are routinely broken.) But the Disney image I’d harbored of the happy artisan plying her craft and selling her work to appreciative buyers is long gone, if it ever existed at all.

The commission system works like this: Carpet wholesalers, like the companies I saw at the bazaar, own the means of production. They set up looms in the weavers’ homes, employ artists to create the designs, supply the materials (wool, silk, and cotton threads), and buy the finished carpets at wholesale prices.

Although centralized workshops do exist, many carpet dealers prefer the commission business because it is harder to regulate and allows them to avoid such inconveniences as paying minimum wage, taxes, and rent. The system also gives them greater flexibility in production, since they can add and remove looms according to market fluctuations. The dealers get the best of both worlds: skilled workers and absolute control over the business. The weavers, however, have no say in design, working hours, wages, or even whether they work at all.

Repairing a carpet at the back of the bazaar
in Esfahan
The carpet bazaaris I spoke to were less than eager to put me in touch with a flesh-and-blood weaver. Understandably, they were mainly interested in selling me their carpets. But when I plied my questions, they grew vague and unfriendly, all too happy to be rid of me. “Go ask Agha X three doors down,” they’d say. “He can help you.”

Persistence paid off eventually, when one man directed us to a carpet weaving school on a narrow alley just off Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan. There, in a windowless room at the top of a steep flight of stairs, we found two weavers sitting cross-legged at a vertical loom, knotting a huge blue and white floral carpet of an Esfahani design. One of the weavers worked the background colors while the other added the flowers, leaves, and vines, pulling colorful threads from skeins of wool hanging from the loom’s top beam. After completing a row, the two women would switch places to complete the pattern.

One of the weavers, a woman in her early thirties whom I’ll call Zahra, was happy to answer my questions about her work and life as a carpet weaver.

Born into a carpet weaving family in a village near Esfahan, Zahra learned to weave carpets as a small child, working with her parents. The skill of so many years of practice was easy to see in her deft fingers, which flew across the carpet she was knotting with such speed and assurance they practically blurred before my eyes.

Zahra’s parents didn’t want her to become a weaver. Instead, they urged her to find a better job without such long hours and backbreaking work. Understandable when you consider what it takes to create these lovely, complex works of textile art. Eighteen-hour workdays hunched over a loom give carpet weavers a higher-than-average rate of musculoskeletal disorders. The repetitive movements of knotting the rugs cripple fingers, create skin lesions, and induce swollen joints. Even lung disease is higher among carpet weavers, who breathe in fine wool dust all day long.

Detail of a silk carpet
But Zahra loved carpets and took pride in her family’s tradition of skilled weavers, so she persisted. Today she teaches at the school where we found her, her students mainly middle-class women who learn the craft as a hobby. Zahra also still weaves rugs on commission for local dealers, like the Esfahani carpet she was working on with a partner that day. She told me that it would take the two of them eight months to finish the six-meter rug.

Our house is filled with hand-made Persian carpets, old ones inherited from relatives and new ones we’ve bought ourselves at Iranian bazaars. Since that trip to Esfahan eight years ago, I can’t look at them without thinking of the skilled hands that knotted the rugs. Knowing the hardship that went into creating such beauty makes me appreciate Persian carpets all the more. To live without them would be unthinkable. For as my Iranian friends and relatives like to say – a home without a carpet is a home without a soul.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Jenny Watson, Habitat for Humanity

This week’s Off The Beaten Track guest is Australian Jenny Watson. Jenny is primarily a businesswoman, but whilst business is very important, it’s only a small part of what makes Jenny tick.  Her vision is a world where every family has access to decent housing, a clean water supply and sanitation facilities. To that end, she has developed a programme in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity to take Australian volunteers into Mongolia, Cambodia and Nepal to work alongside local homeowners, building safe and affordable housing and village infrastructure. For more information click here

The world is experiencing a global housing crisis. According to UN statistics, 1.6 billion people worldwide live in substandard housing and 100 million are homeless. Rapid population growth and urbanisation adds greater urgency to this crisis. Every week more than a million people are born in or move to cities in the developing world, increasing the demand for housing, water supply, sanitation and other urban infrastructure.

Right now, according to the United Nations, more than a billion people – 32 percent of the global urban population – live in urban slums in dilapidated housing characterised by poor structural quality, over-crowding, squalor, lack of tenure security and poor access to water and sanitation.

I first heard about Habitat for Humanity in the aftermath of the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004.  Habitat was heavily involved in the rebuilding of homes for some of the most devastated families in this disaster. I worked in the construction industry at the time and some of my friends were travelling to Aceh to assist with the rebuilding process. The idea fascinated me – to be able to help not only financially, but physically and emotionally as well – I needed to find out more about Habitat. What I discovered is an organisation based on advocacy, engagement, leadership, sustainability and dignity - all values that I respect and hold.

I believe that long term sustainable change is best achieved when families and communities are personally involved in improving their own circumstances, and Habitat provides micro-finance opportunities for low-income families and communities to build their own home or to build infrastructure in their community. It’s definitely not a hand out – homeowners pay back every penny of any money they borrow and that money is then available for others to borrow and improve their own lives. Many homeowners also go on to mentor others through the process of building their own home.

A decent home is a catalyst for change in the life of these vulnerable families. It opens the door to improved health, better performance in school, greater economic opportunities and increased community cohesion.   

As a volunteer with Habitat, I can’t help every one of those billion people, but I can help just a few people take charge of their circumstances and build a future of hope and potential for their families.

In order to be involved with Habitat for Humanity, I need a “pool” of funds available for micro financing (I can either donate this myself or raise the money through friends and family).  Then I travel to the country, or countries, of my choice (this year, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Nepal) and spend a week with a local family helping them to build their own home.  

I have no building experience – it’s not necessary. I move rocks, dig holes, mix concrete, paint walls, hammer nails, – none of which require any skills. I also learn to make and lay bricks, tie scaffolding, and build steps – all skills that I would never have learned in any other environment, and which I will take to future builds to help other families over the course of my life.

All that said – my involvement is not entirely altruistic – I get as much from the experience as the homeowners do!  I get to travel to some incredible places and meet some amazing people who I wouldn’t cross paths with normally. I get to work alongside them, see how they live, what they eat, I learn the history of their country and their culture and I get to learn about what dreams they old and what they wish for their children.

In July this year, I’m taking a team to Mongolia to participate in a “Blue Sky Build”, where we will join with volunteers from around the world and homeowners to build twenty energy efficient homes in one week. The families for whom we are building currently live in ramshackle wood huts, in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. They lack connections to the city’s central heating – vital to combat the winter cold – and water systems. Each 32m2 home will have a small bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a separate toilet. The families will also have access their own small garden, so that they can grow some of their own food.
I am also arranging some teams into Cambodia and Nepal this year, too.

If you’d like to find out more or if you’d like to join my team – please contact me at

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wine Flows from the Fountains

Game at Marostica chess festival
By Patricia Winton

Choosing a topic for this week’s theme was an almost insurmountable task for me. Italy loves festivals. Every church and every town has a patron saint (except Rome, which has two), and each of these is celebrated with a festival. There are highly specialized festivals like the Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea (where people throw oranges at each other) or the Chess Festival of Marostica (where people and horses represent chess pieces on a giant board).

Then there are the festivals celebrating food. Frequently these focus on local dishes like polenta or gnocchi. Or they can highlight the harvest of local delicacies like chestnuts or porcini. One joyous harvest festival is the Sagra dell’uva di Marino (the Marino grape festival).

Marino lies in the Castelli, the Alban hills just south of Rome. The Castelli have been a favorite summer retreat from Rome’s oppressive summer heat since ancient times. Even the Pope has a summer home in the nearby Castel Gandolfo. These hills are wrapped in vines producing a good white wine.

Celebrated the first weekend in October, the Marino grape festival combines the secular with the religious, as do most Italian sagre (festivals). Its origins date back to October 7, 1571, when Marino native Marcantonio Colonna led forces that defeated the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, effectively protecting the Italian peninsula from an Ottoman invasion.

The Madonna del Rosario and the Fraternity
This battle pitted Christian states against Muslim ones, and the Christian warriors were under the protection of the Madonna del Rosario (rosary). When Marcantonio debarked in Gaeta following the battle, he went to the cathedral to give thanks to the Madonna for the victory. Pope Pius V proclaimed the Madonna del Rosario to be the protector of all within his domain and ordered a celebration in her honor on October 7. The religious side of Marino’s festival dates from that time. When Marcantonio returned to Marino in November, the city honored him with a great dinner, a tradition that continues.

The secular side began much later, in 1925, when savvy business leaders saw the potential of tacking on a celebration of the local wine to the existing religious holiday which, as fate would have it, coincides with the grape harvest.

Today, the festival lasts four or five days encompassing the first weekend in October. The event officially opens on Saturday evening around 6 p.m. with 16th century costumed figures parading along the city’s main streets, accompanied by period music and flag twirlers. Marcantonio’s triumphant return is re-enacted with the reading of a proclamation giving him keys to the city, and he in turn reads one announcing the victory at Lepanto.

A wine fountain decorated with grapes
On Sunday, all the fountains in Marino flow with wine instead of water, and one can fill a plastic cup (or even a small water bottle) with wine from the fountains. A few years ago, a glitch in the waterworks sent plain water into the fountains and wine into the faucets of surrounding homes. People ran to their windows shouting, “It’s a miracle. The water has turned into wine.” A red-faced mayor soon got that sorted, but the “Miracle of Marino” lives in legend.

Sunday morning, the local bishop celebrates mass at the cathedral with the mayor (wearing the traditional tri-color sash), military leaders (in dress uniform), and representatives from nearby towns and Marino’s sister-cities as prominent worshipers. Following the mass, a procession with the Fraternity of the Holiest Rosary bearing a statue of the Madonna, accompanied by the dignitaries at the mass, walks through the town’s main streets.

As the festival draws to a close, people dance in the street, munch a local sandwich made from porchetta (roast pig, a Castelli specialty), and, of course, drink wine. Like most other festivals in Italy, it all ends with fireworks at midnight.

Porchetta sandwiches

I blog each Monday at Italian Intrigues. I hope you’ll drop by and join the conversation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lunar New Year Surprises – Confusing the Spirits

While Supriya remains on hiatus this week, our special guest blogger, Beth Green, fills us in on a festival you may only learn about here at Novel Adventurers. Beth is a writer and English teacher living in Southern China. She grew up on a sailboat in the Caribbean, and though now a landlubber, still enjoys a peripatetic life. She writes articles and suspense about travel and expatriate life. (And check out her amazing photography.)

When it comes to traveling, I’m a planner.

I clip magazine articles, bookmark the heck out of travel websites, and buy Lonely Planet books as if they’ll impart the secrets of the universe to me. But I always enjoy a good laugh at myself when I sit back and realize that, on the whole, the best travel adventures I’ve had have been unplanned.

I’ve been living in China since 2006, and as much as I try to plan my way around this giant, populous land mass, there’s always a surprise or two around the corner.

One of the hardest times to plan for travel in China is during the country’s most important holiday, Spring Festival. Also called the Lunar New Year, this celebration lasts for a two-week period, usually in February.

The first year I lived in China, I didn’t know it would be so difficult to travel at holiday time. But by 2009, I got wiser. “We’re not taking the stupid train THIS year,” I told my boyfriend. “We’re going to bus it.” We were living in Guizhou Province. Guizhou is in Southwest China and is most known for being poor and for having a lot of different minority ethnicities. China has more than 50 recognized minorities (the majority are Han Chinese), and Guizhou has settlements of 13 of them.

If we took only short, local, bus rides, I reasoned, we'd be able to travel during Spring Festival without all the hassle. Plus, we'd be able to explore Guizhou, which few travelers get to do. So, several guidebooks in hand, we set off before the Lunar New Year to explore the jungle-covered karst hills and the minority villages of Guizhou.

The village of Zhaoxing in southern China's Guizhou Province
For the first few days of the trip, we were fine. Buses were cheap, plentiful, and went to the places that I had planned out for us. We observed traditional wooden architecture, tasted spicy minority cuisine, and visited villages where people still work the fields in traditional homespun dress, bedecked in silver jewelry.

Then, on the first day of the Lunar New Year, my plans ground to a halt. We arrived in a larger town of a few thousand people. All the shops were shutting down. No hotel would take us. And worst of all, we were told there would be no buses for three days.

After some discussion in my broken Mandarin with a few taxi drivers, we did find one hotel that would be open. They sent us off running to a convenience store that was open for only another hour. We stocked up on instant noodles and bottles of drinking water. Restaurants would close for the festival too, we learned.

We made the best of it, going for walks to nearby hamlets to see the wooden drum towers and playing endless rounds of gin rummy in our hotel room at night.

But my plans were a mess. There was no way we were going to get to see all of the stuff I’d laid out for us. We’d just have time for one more village before we needed to arc our way back north to Zunyi, the city we were living in. We were teaching at a winter holiday camp in a few days.

The "crowd" in Zhaoxing
We studied my guidebooks and chose a village that some people had described as “too touristy.” If they were used to tourist money, we thought, maybe they’d have some stores and restaurants open. We were tired of instant noodles.

Buses still weren’t running at their normal schedule on the third day of the festival, but we managed to find some minibus drivers who did occasional passes through the villages, and they agreed to take us and some other stranded tourists to Zhaoxing village.

We got dropped off in a muddy parking lot on the outskirts of the village. All of the houses were wooden and slope-roofed, and we could see the layered turrets of the drum towers, one of the most striking things about a Dong minority village.

A cloud of smoke follows this Zhaoxing pedestrian,
a cigarette in one hand, a firecracker in the other.
We wandered through the town and saw with relief that it was indeed open for business. We ate beef noodle soup and found a guest house on the main drag, right near one of the five drum towers. Our room looked over the street, and we sat in the window taking pictures and chatting about what to do next. I hadn’t originally researched this village, and we’d been cut off from the Internet for a week or so, so all I had to go on was a few paragraphs from the Lonely Planet.

“Hey,” we said. “Look at that guy!”

We watched a man walking down the road, dragging a loop of fireworks. He wore old, torn clothes and a burlap sack over his head, with two holes cut out for the eyes.

Villagers stopped and talked to him, and he posed for pictures for the Chinese tourists. We leaned farther out of the window and craned our necks.

A trio of girls dressed up in traditional purple, handmade cloth, with their hair elaborately coiffed, scurried by, like they were late for something.

We heard music getting louder.

It was time to investigate.

We headed down the street and ended up in a five-hour parade we had heard nothing about.
Dozens of young people—dressed in traditional costumes of violet, hand-dyed cloth, embroidered jackets, and silver jewelry—marched together through the town. Two beautiful tween girls and two handsome boys decked out in near-wedding finery were carried in sedan chairs, protected by dainty parasols. I looked closer; one of the “girls” was actually a boy, and one of the boys was really a girl.

A child being carried through the crowd in a sedan chair
“That’s to confuse the evil spirits,” I overheard a guide telling a small group of Western tourists who’d pulled up in a chartered van.

The older generation came out too, in embroidered silk jackets and fancy hats. One man, perfectly bald, wore round sunglasses and a hat that made him look like a Mafia don.

Then we caught sight of more burlap-sacked men. One was a devil, sticking his tongue out at passers by and growling mischievously at tourists. Two carried either end of a pole, a dead dog tied to and dangling from the middle of it. At first, I thought it was just fur or a stuffed animal, then we noticed how limply it was hanging. It had charcoal lines striped on its dun-colored hide.

A "dog tiger"
I sidled close enough to the tour guide again to hear that killing the dog represented beating tigers and other fearsome beasts. After this parade, the spirit world would protect the village from those predators.

We followed the parade around the drum towers and along the river. Some of the participants went down to the river and splashed the onlookers on the banks. “It’s good luck,” a grinning local man told me in Chinese. He let them sprinkle him, so I did too, happy I’d brought a splash-proof camera.

At the end, after fireworks, and two memory cards’ worth of photos, we watched the parade participants drink baijiu, a Chinese liquor, and exchange red packets of “lucky” money, then disperse to their homes.

A week later, when we’d gone back to work, I tried researching the festival online, but couldn’t find any mention of it.

This is a great lesson I keep telling myself everyone must learn, especially me: Some things just can’t be planned for.