A Travellerspoint blog

Deception Island, Antarctic peninsula: A State of Mind

Sailing inside an active volcanic caldera in Antarctica................Ramdas Iyer

snow 31 °F

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I have come a long way
to a distant place far far away
from where i used to live
and from what i used to do

Deception Island...
it’s just a state of mind,
i tell myself
hoping to erase these thoughts
of fear that hinges on the edge of my happiness

Adapted from Praveen ( Poetry of Life.com)

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Exhausted by an exhilarating and action packed 12 days of sailing and exploring the Antarctic Peninsula we were mentally preparing for our return to South America through the rough seas of the Drake Passage. Our expedition leader…. had one more surprise. An announcement made on the PA system of our sleek Finnish built Russian Arctic explorer Akademik Sergei Vavilov called everyone to the various decks to see the walls of rock rise on both sides of our vessel through sea mist. It was a surreal moment. We were sailing into the active volcano, Deception Island

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Deception Island (62°57'S, 60°38'W) is one of the most incredible islands on the planet. Deception Island has fire and ice in its history, and in the present day. Mountainous, half covered by glaciers and mostly covered with black volcanic ash, Deception is an active volcano. The island is a “submerged caldera,” a circle of craggy hills around an almost-enclosed seawater lagoon its horseshoe shape formed when a volcanic eruption 10,000 years ago that blew off the top of the mountain and allowed seawater to flood the center, or caldera.
This volcano is quiet, but not dead. The island is classified as a “restless caldera with significant volcanic risk,” that could erupt at any time. Eruptions in 1968 and 1970 forced a British scientific research station to close, sending mud and ash through it and the nearby abandoned whaling station. Geologists continuously monitor the island for seismic activity.
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Deception Island is now managed as part of the Antarctic treaty, making it a protected area with restricted human visits and impacts. But its history also records some of the human over-use of the Antarctic. Human activity there began in about 1820, with sealing. But in the early 1900s, when seals were nearly hunted to extinction, Antarctic seafarers turned to whaling.
A little whaling history is essential to understand Deception Island. With the advent of Industrial revolution in Europe in the 18th century, need for lighting, to increase the working hours of people who woke up at dawn and retired at sunset, changed. It was first seal oil and later whale oil that was the energizer of the industrial revolution. Animal fat from pigs lubricated the machinery while wholesale slaughter of seals and whales provided candle and oil lighting. Norwegians were the pioneers of European sealing as they had access to the riches of the Arctic Ocean. Ironically what made them rich in the 18th century has sustained their wealth through North Sea oil in the 20th century. Good karma I suppose.
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The rise of Industrial America increased whaling in the Atlantic waters further diminishing supplies to the growing economies. In 1906, Norwegian whaling magnate Christen Christensen sent the first factory ship to the South Shetlands of the Atlantic Peninsula. These islands were discovered by sailors who were blown off course while trying to navigate Cape Horn in 1821.Soon other shore stations had been set up, including one at Deception Island. By 1912, there were six shore stations, 21 factory ships, and 62 catchers in Antarctica. That year 10,760 whales were killed. In 1926, a new kind of factory ship entered Antarctic waters, one equipped with a chute for hauling whole whales on board. With this, Antarctic whaling entered a new phase.

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Around 1500 barrels of oil was obtained from killing 155 Right whales according to the records of a Whaler. It is estimated that 200000 Humpbacks were killed in the early 20th century, not to mention the Sperm, Beluga, Grey and Right whales. Nonetheless, during the 1937-1938 season, over 46,000 whales were killed, 9000 of them immature.
Thankfully the discovery of petroleum in the 1859’s and the mass usage of Kerosene which was 5 times cheaper , which did not turn rancid and was less smellier quickly turned the table on whale oil consumption. By the early 1900’s the price of whale oil dropped and by 1938 the industry was deemed unviable, (read “How the oil Industry saved the Whales” http://www.sjvgeology.org/history/whales.html).

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Entering the volcanic caldera, a live one, was in itself a great adventure. We could see ice, snow and volcanic ash laden mountains all around us. Beautiful black sand beaches awaited our Zodiac boat landing. While in the other parts of Antarctica we were awed by nature here we were shocked by the extent of human occupation and damage done to a pristine environment. Upon landing we were free to walk about anywhere. As an engineer I was curious to see the riveted storage tanks, the huge boilers that melted the blubber and an abandoned machine shop. At every corner there was a penguin peering at me curiously. Due to its interesting temperature gradient -11C to plus 13 C, it has the largest chinstrap penguin rookery in the area with a population of 65000. (Protected and not approachable)
On my walk along the beach I enjoyed seeing Kestrels lapping in the waves, Giant Skua
birds roosting on their eggs and fur seals in the distance. There was an old airplane hanger where in 1935, Lincoln Ellsworth assembled his aircraft the Polar Star here prior to his pioneering trans-Antarctic flight from Dundee Island, nearby. Deception Island was also the base of an early Aerial Survey Expedition (1955-57).

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Stories of men ill equipped to handle the cold suffering from depression and insanity is rampant. Especially to see the graves of some of the Norwegians from a distant land was spooky. The ruins of this station are the most complete remains of whaling history in the Antarctic, and governments have agreed to let the remains stand, undisturbed, to be seen and understood as part of maritime history—and as a witness to the power of volcanic activity. A visit here leaves an equally powerful impression, and Deception Island is the most-visited site in the Antarctic. There is a restriction on the numbers of people allowed to visit, and each ship must plan visits in advance, to lessen their impact on the island and its life
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Prior to embarking on our vessel we were given the opportunity to skinny dip in polar waters. Depending on the currents, the geo-thermal waters make it possible to take a quick dip there. We were lucky to have one such day and my pictures will highlight the event.
We said good-bye to Antarctica and alas hit the roughest seas I have ever encountered. While the hull was racked by 50 foot waves half of the 90 passengers disappeared to their cabins dealing with their own waves of nausea. I was one of those lucky ones to experience the notoriety of the Drake Passage. Deception Island is a great story and a great place.
The End.
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:16 Archived in Antarctica Tagged beach volcanoes black penguins antarctica whaling sealing skua Comments (4)

Embedded in a Balinese Procession to appease the Gods, Bali

A Peek inside one of the great cultures of Asia................Ramdas Iyer

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After my first trip to Bali in 1995 I was totally convinced that if there is a Paradise on earth it must be centered in Ubud, Bali. The sensory effects of the land combined with a predominantly Hindu people whose purpose in life seem to be one that is committed to ritual celebrations placating their various gods is a truly uplifting experience. Upon my return after nearly a decade in 2004 I was pleased to observe that the core of the culture was still intact but I could see irreversible changes taking place along the fringes of the villages and in the towns. Even though there was no concerted effort by Indonesia’s fairly secular government to disturb this idyllic Island, pressures of a growing Islamic population, commercial opportunism and mass tourism centered mainly around the beaches was a source of cultural erosion. As a frequent visitor to rain forests I can see similarities between deforestation of forests and cultural erosion of societies.
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While many writers and photographers have highlighted Balinese culture in wonderful articles, I chose to present here my own photographic journey and the cultural richness of Bali using my own experiences growing up in India in a Hindu family performing similar rituals. The details of these ceremonies were extracted from various sources with spare commentary interspersed by me. An important distinction between Hinduism practiced in Bali is very dissimilar to the Classical Hindu practices. The paganized version practiced here is much akin to the brand of catholism I witnessed in Chichicastenango, Guatemala where petitions to Christ are made with animal sacrifices. Even in India today there are many paganized versions of pre Hindu styles of worship that exists alongside with Vedic Hinduism.
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The question I hear frequently is how Bali became a Hindu Kingdom. As early as 200AD the SriVijaya Kingdom was established in Sumatra by the strong naval powers of south Indian kings. This kingdom eventually became the Mahajapit Empire occupying Sumatra, Java, Bali and later Cambodia. Buddhism and Hinduism alternated as the state religion between 500 AD and 1300 AD. With the spread of Islam under the sword, Hinduism was relegated to tiny Bali while the Javanese slowly converted to Islam after 1300. Since Hinduism and the Indic religious culture was ingrained in the Javanese mainland culture that the elites ruling Java left Bali alone as a safe haven for Hindus,

The Balinese devote most of their waking hours to an endless series of offerings, purifications, processions, dances, and dozens of other religious rites. Ceremonies and festivals guide a Balinese from birth to death and into the world thereafter. There can be few places of comparable size where ceremonial obligations hold such a sway over people's lives. There are festivals dedicated to the art of woodcarving, the birth of a goddess, percussion instruments. There are temple festivals, fasting and retreat ceremonies: parades to the sea to cleanse villages, special prayer days for the dead, nights of penance (sivaratri), harvest festival, blood sacrifices, and house deity anniversaries. But some ceremonies-such as the extraordinary mouse cremation at Ababi village near Tirtagangga takes place once every 10 years. I have personally witnessed elaborate cremation ceremonies in Bali that is a macabre spectacle.
In this article I wish to highlight the Pura Taman Ayum temple procession in Mengwi village during the Galungan ceremonies, an annual festival to appease the Island spirits. We all like parades but no parade on earth can match the colorful religious processions of the women of Bali.
A basic tenet of the Balinese religion is that rituals and ceremonies maintain harmony between the two equally powerful forces of good and evil, and that the proper and harmonious behavior of the people brings the supernatural forces under control.
Starting at the home of my guide Ketut I joined the cavalcade dressed in sarong and sash, with his family members. Over the years many small community platforms have been erected all over the island. Some big and some small, where the locals gathered to build decorations, stitch flowers into garlands, make religious paraphilia or even carve wooden effigies for funerals. Female members of Ketut’s family gathered at a nearby community platform with me firmly embedded with them. I knew they were teasing me a little bit including asking me to marry somebody’s daughter, They had all prepared elaborate offering platters some weighing in excess of 20 lbs. The platters consist of sweet cakes, glutinous rice, sumptuous quantities of fruits and flowers all decorated with cut patterns made from palm fronds.
Nobody is left out; peasants as well as aristocrats take part in the preparations. Rules govern exactly how much food, oil, palm leaf strips, lamak, and symbolic money are offered. Men ready the temple grounds; hanging friezes, canopies, and banners, building bamboo platforms and altars, slaughtering pigs, erecting penjor poles, performing guard duty, and covering the genitals of statues with checkered cloths.
Fashionable dress shows respect and is also a mark of social prestige. Women don rich handspun kain and ornament themselves with jewels, scarves, and pounded gold in their hair. At festival times a young woman looks her best. She's allowed to wear lipstick and makeup at religious events but not in daily life when it would be considered too flirtatious. Infant girls wear flowers in their hair and bright sashes around their tiny waists. Men wear a brocaded head cloth, kris, and colorful sarung.
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We then proceeded to join the many women emerging from various corners of the village, all wearing the same pink-laced blouse and matching floral sarong. It was so well orchestrated that new entrants smoothly merged into the procession. After a couple of kilometers of walking we stopped for a while waiting for a neighboring village to join the procession. Then suddenly through the rice fields emerged over a 100 women dressed in white lace blouses and dark floral sarongs. Caught in the confluence of these streams of caparisoned women made me feel like I was in the Sangam at Allahabad, India where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet kicking off one of the largest religious gathering mankind has ever known with 15 million people taking a holy dip on Maha Shvrathri day.
What is great about Bali is that it is poor with rich traditions. So the people have a great self-dignity. One could tell the wealthy from the not so fortunate ones from the gold jewelry worn by some of them. Rarely have I seen a more egalitarian social festival that brings all people together using one common denominator: the welfare of the community. I must admit that the Haj maybe another one such event.
After 4 km about 200 of these fine women escorted by a few men and myself reached the grounds of the temple. I realized that I was the only non-oriental in the entire gathering and was often the subject of an occasional flash photograph by a camera-toting member of the Balinese diaspora.
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The women systematically placed their offerings in front of the shrine of the trinity Siva, Vishnu and Brahma. There was no orchestration, no fumbling nor stumbling. There was no rehearsal nor was judging it all purely organic.
The priests began their chanting and amidst the clanging of bells and prostrations of the women, I made an exit towards the gate not wanting to make a spectacle out of private worship. I wish to make this point about the spectacular Hindu temples in India. They do not seek World Heritage status because doing so would interrupt the private nature of worship between man and his creator. While I would like all of humanity to enjoy cultures I myself would find it hard to be a non-believer amongst believers.
Here in Bali large celebrations, lasting for days and mobilizing thousands of people, are performed with startling efficiency. A large temple festival is like a stage for a lavish form of metaphysical theater, a three-ringed circus of the arts when the temple comes alive with devotees who crowd into the courtyard and parade between the shrines. For three or four days almost without break, ritual dances, festive music, dramas and cock-fights ( see my blog on travellerspoint) are performed as if the occasion were a costume party instead of a fervid act of worship. Finally, bloated with sensory pleasure, the gods are invited to return to their heavenly spheres.
No one who has encountered a Balinese procession will ever forget the total immersion into Balinese culture and the wonderful opportunity to interact with the people on a special occasion. Am I blessed!
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:07 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia culture hindu balinese galungan Comments (2)

Centerstage in a Balinese Cockfight, Central Highlands, Bali

Religion and Roulette in a delicate balance

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As an entrepreneur who had literally bet his house on his new business, I needed some serious relaxation in Paradise. It was indeed Ubud in Bali that I chose for that time. During this second visit in 2004 after 9 years of yearning to return, I spent a full week exploring the Hindu culture of Bali. Staying at “Taman Rahasya “ a coconut Grove that translates to secret grove in Sanskrit and great views of the volcano , Mt. Batur, I launched project "go Native". The backyard lead to miles of paddy fields with locals planting rice, kids flying kites and butchers chasing pigs, while ducks and geese were taking cover awaiting their turn at the abbotoir.Here I had the good fortune to meet a young guide/driver who helped me to simply merge with the locals.
The purpose of this trip was to attend several Hindu temple ceremonies, including the 210 day cycle Galungan and Kuningan ceremonies during when the island fills up with red-colored arc-shaped coconut leaf and bamboo decorations. With thousands of temples “dressed up” in new yellow clothes, small rural roads become incredibly pretty. The Kuningan holiday takes place ten days after Galungan, bringing the holiday period to a closing time. On this day, a special ritual ceremony is held for the ancestral spirits. The cockfight.

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Cockfights have the ceremonial purpose of ritually spilling blood, an important pacification of the demons that escort Hindu temple festivals. In fact, cockfight is required, not just allowed at every Balinese temple festival or religious ceremony. The blood is an offering to the hungry forces of evil. But times are changing fast in Bali. The Indonesian Government has officially banned this sport after pressure from western animal rights organizations. Being an insider in Ubud and a ranking Hindu from India, I was given the inside track to one of this culturally significant battle of the cocks.

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Dressed in my linen shirt, colorful sarong and head dress I quickly made my way into the massive gathering in front of the temple. Cock-fighting is the Bingo or slot games of the third world. Unlike the monotonous whir of the slots, there is literally blood and guts here - like the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. There are crowds that jostle and shout. There is lots of frenzied action. Even if you don't bet, the scene may be worth the effort of getting there. Although this is almost exclusively a man's sport, there are always ladies who show up to sell snacks to the spectators.
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The cocks that are used in cockfighting are specially treated in preparation for the cockfight. They are fondled, massaged, plucked, bathed, deloused, and fed the choicest mixtures of corn, rice, egg, and proprietary strength-building ingredients. It is said that a mixture of chopped grilled meat and jack-fruit leaves thickens the blood and prevents serious bleeding when injury results from the fight.
As the only foreigner albeit of Asian descent, I was given every courtesy by the frenzied crowd. Someone dragged a rickety chair for me to sit down. I had not gone digital SLR yet and I was a simple point and shooter having decided to finally rest my film SLRs for this paradise vacation. Standing on a chair is taboo in Asia since the oft soiled shoes in a tropical environment is nasty. I wish the westerners understand this too. They put their feet everywhere, much to my dismay. I cleverly removed my sandals, slipped a pair of ankle socks that I always carry in my back pack for walking on hot surfaces in the tropics. This way I could stand above the fray to witness this religious cock fight and present it to you here.
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The ceremony started when the cocks are brought to the arena in small, flexible bamboo cages. The cages are lined up around the edge of the arena, inside the barricade, and their handlers’ squat behind them. Then a white-clad priest advanced to the center of the arena and presented offerings on the ground to the spirits “ butas and kalas”, chanting over them, ringing his bell over them, and finally pouring rice wine on the ground. Then he made similar offerings to the gods in a shrine built up off the ground at a corner of the arena. Blood shedding was on its way.

Usually there are 3 fights & each cockfight between 2 birds ends after three rounds or when one cock is no longer able to continue fighting. After the fights, the crowds don't automatically disperse like at the end of other sporting events, instead males will just stay behind chatting about the match or about arcane facts of cock lineage similar to equine racing. Often the visitor like me misses most of the significance. The preliminaries and the post script, the daily treatment of the fighting cocks, the arcane lore of the sport, and especially the intricacies of the betting are as integral a part of the story as the fight itself. And, unfortunately, they are aspects that most people miss because they occur in such a seemingly chaotic fashion as to make them unintelligible to anyone but the person who would take the time and trouble to investigate.
I hope these images contribute to your understanding of one of the great “blood sports” of Indonesia
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:47 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia hindu cockfight Comments (1)

Along the Taklimakan Desert to the Turpan Oasis

A Silk Road Travel segment in Xinjiang Province, China

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I started my Chinese silk route travel west of Kashgar near the Pakistan border and headed east passing the ancient Uyghur towns of Kashgar and Urumqi. Turpan, a key stop on the Silk Road, was easily accessible from Urumqi by road, driving alongside the “Flaming Mountains” so named for its baked reddish orange appearance. Turpan was once one of the crossroads of central Asia. Historically, it was a strategic stop on the overland trade route linking China with India, Persia, and Rome.
My visit was primarily to observe and understand the cultural changes brought about by the Silk Road in a distant land by Buddhism and to visualize its spread and later that of Islam
Turpan lies in the second deepest inland depression in the world, with more than 4,000 sq. kilometers of land situated below sea level( 153 mts). Anciently called, 'Land of Fire,' it has recorded some of the hottest summer days in China, with temperatures as high as 130 degrees F. The basin surrounding Turpan has been the long-time haunt of the Uyghur’s (a mixed Turkic-Mongol ethnic group that is the majority in Xinjiang Provence). The Turpan area is also historically significant because nearby Gaochang City (World Heritage Site)) was once the Uyghur capital and an important staging area on the Silk Road. It was destroyed in the 14th century by the hordes of Timor Lane (see Photo) after surviving 1600 years.

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Culture and religion also moved along the Silk Road. Before Islam established a firm grip on central Asia, the Uyghur’s practiced Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and other religions. Buddhism came north from India across the Karakoram Range. Extraordinary examples of this culture were found in caves at Bezeklik, near modern-day Turpan (see Photo. All three cultures were extinguished from central Asia by the tidal wave of Islam, with Tamerlane driving the final nail in their coffin in the 14th century.
One of the major obstacles along the Silk Road was the Taklimakan Desert, which has one of the world's most inhospitable climates. Caravans skirted this oval-shaped impediment by going around either the northern or southern edges. Turpan was located on the northern route. My journey skirted the northern route along the Taklimakan and enroute I could not help but admire the massive Wind Turbine farm, the largest in the world, near Turpan. Its output capacity of 2 million KW is a good comparison with the 1million KW output by the Three Mile Island nuclear reactors in the USA.

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Turpan's greenery owes its existence to the underground channels called ‘karezes’. The Silk Route was dependent for both its existence and survival upon a line of strategically situated oases which hugged the perimeter of the Taklimakan Desert. In turn, these oases depended for their survival upon the glacier-fed rivers flowing down from the vast mountain ranges which form a horse-shoe around three sides of the great desert. As the Silk Road traffic increased, these oases began to rank as important trading centers in their own right and no longer merely staging and refueling posts for the caravans passing through them.
Approaching the city I was surprised to see an explosion of verdant farms all around in the midst of a very harsh land. Mile after mile there were melon farms and grape vineyards everywhere punctuated with unique towers to dry the grapes using the harsh mid day heat as an oven. (see photo)
It is said that over 80 varieties of raisins are grown here. My guide and I visited several farms and enjoyed the hospitality of the locals. In at least two instances we were invited inside their homes and seated on a huge pedestal that was well cushioned with carpets and served as their living space and bedroom. Plates of grapes and tea were served and in one case some oven baked meat turnovers. The Islamic cultures are in general known for hospitality to strangers and the Uyghur’s of Xinjiang were no exception, I felt that warm hospitality everywhere. After some small talk and the customary group photo with me, which they all relished despite the fact that they were never going to see it always intrigued me, I was shown the farms, the drying towers and storehouses with tons of raisins.
I also had the good fortune to visit the regional Karez museum to understand how the system works. Akin to a high school project several clay models explained how the system worked. Visitors to the museum can actually visit one of these underground “mother Canals” in order to really understand this fascinating technology. These underground tunnels rate as one Asia's more intriguing and historic public works activities Uyghur and Chinese versions of karez technology date back over 2,000 years ago. The Karez underground canal is a manifold that conveys water from aquifers in the alluvial slopes of the mountains (ancient glacier water) to lower elevation farmlands. Each farm digs a well to tap into the canal every 500 mts or so. The farmers are responsible to keep the underground canal from clogging by entering the well and manually cleaning out fallen muck. Such cooperative farming was a necessity in the harsh corner of the Taklimakan desert.
The world is discovering this area and visiting backpackers can now stay in a farm and sleep under the grape vines and get treated daily to some wholesome Uyghur cuisine.
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Mildred Cable and Francesca French, two intrepid missionaries who spent many months in the region during the 1920s and '30s, describe the oasis vividly in their book The Gobi Desert (1942) “ Turfan lies like a green island in a sandy wilderness, its shores lapped by grit and gravel instead of ocean waters, for the division between arid desert and fertile land is as definite as that between shore and ocean. Its fertility is amazing, and the effect on the traveler, when he steps from the sterility and desiccation into the luxuriance of Turfan is overwhelming.”
Personally, I was attracted to this area after reading Peter Hopkirk’s “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia”. It was such a fascinating read and soon thereafter I set off to Xinjiang with the same passion as the treasure hunters of yore. The Amazon excerpt of the book reads ” The Silk Road, which linked imperial Rome and distant China, was once the greatest thoroughfare on earth. Along it travelled precious cargoes of silk, gold and ivory, as well as revolutionary new ideas. Its oasis towns blossomed into thriving centers of Buddhist art and learning. In time it began to decline. The traffic slowed, the merchants left and finally its towns vanished beneath the desert sands to be forgotten for many centuries. But legends grew up of lost cities filled with treasures and guarded by demons. In the early years of the last century foreign explorers began to investigate these legends, and very soon an international race began for the art treasures of the Silk Road. Huge wall paintings, sculptures and priceless manuscripts were carried away, literally by the ton, and are today scattered through the museums of a dozen countries. Peter Hopkirk tells the story of the intrepid men who, at great personal risk, led these long-range archaeological raids, incurring the undying wrath of the Chinese.

After visiting the fascinating oases I set about to visit the spectacular World Heritage site of ‘Bezeklik Caves” which was the victim of two German archeologists, as described by Hopkirk. In 1900 these state-sponsored treasure hunters not only removed the scrolls and paintings but stripped the wall murals painted on an earthen base by cutting them into nice squares with German precision to eventually transfer them to The Museum of Indian Art in Berlin where they are now displayed. I visited the site to see a few of the 77 cave galleries now open to the public. Paintings from the time when Buddhism entered Chinese Turkistan in the 1st century AD until the end of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th Century AD were simply removed and whisked away . The distant Chinese government in Beijing never really had a strong control over this are during the Qing dynasty and the province itself( Sinkiang) was under the watchful eyes of British India and Tsarist Russia waiting for an opportunity to relieve China of this land.
With so much history in this area to discuss about, I will leave it for the reader to follow up on the Bezeklik caves, the Karez irrigation system and the Gaochang, the ancient capital of the Uighars.
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:55 Archived in China Tagged desert buddhism road silk xinjiang turpan uyghur taklimakan Comments (3)

Life, Death and Salvation along the Water's Edge: India

Experiences along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

sunny 95 °F

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The ancient city of Varanasi (Kasi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benares( a British corruption of Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Hindus believe that dying along the Ganges in Kasi would enable the soul to attain Moksha (liberation) from the cycle of birth and re-birth. The river Ganges according to Hindu mythology flows from the hair of Lord Shiva seated in the Himalayas.
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Born a Hindu, I have always had a special place for Kasi( Varanasi )in my heart. Growing up in a traditional Brahmin family, I often heard of tales about men and women leaving their family lives to spend the reminder of their life in Kasi seeking spirituality, self-reflection, meditation and atonement. Like a visit to Mecca most Hindus would like to bathe in its waters at least once in their lifetime.

My short trip to Kasi in 1998 was interesting but not eventful due to heavy rains that submerged most of the bathing Ghats( steps leading to the river). Coincidently on the day I was being rowed along the river banks where cremations were conducted, my mother’s only sister passed away, and I was thinking of her!. In 2011 I set out seek out the “real” Kasi where learned men once wandered in their loin cloths, where devotees by the thousands traveled for miles to bathe in the sacred waters of the Dashwamedh Ghat, to watch the burning pyres of the Manikarnika Ghats or simply revel in the joy and reverie of pilgrims enjoying themselves in the holy city. As a traveler I was trying to see through my mind’s eye the concept of Kasi, a land of spirituality. Those with no knowledge of its history will only witness a dirty and polluted river city with hordes of people.

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Early western visitors to this place were so fascinated that they waxed eloquent for many years about the greatness of India. George Harrison did his bit too!. India like the rest of the world is changing fast, leaving behind age old traditions, facing corruption and seeking a more material existence. In this scenario I am attempting here to focus on three important events experienced during my three day stay that were amazing and thought provoking.

My sister Ranee, brother-in-law Dave and I were staying at a wonderful haveli( nobleman’s home) on the banks of the Asi Ghats. This hotel, Ganges View, is very well known amongst the literati where small classic music concerts are common place daily . While we were enjoying the broad river view from our second floor terrace, there was a commotion and there arrived a man with a flowing beard , penetrating eyes and wearing the handloom outfit of a cultured man. He was followed by an entourage of bureaucrats, policemen and the like trying to appease him. Later that evening I stopped the gentleman as he was passing by and inquired about all the fuss over him. It turned out that he was 80 years old, was an IAS( elite Indian Administrative Service) officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, a former Cabinet secretary and “Minister” at the Indian High Commission in London. He mentioned that he was visiting with his family to do the annual rites for his parents who lived and died by the river Ganges for over 50 years. He continued that he was from a well to do Brahmin family from South India and after he had graduated from college and the IAS his parents decided that their only son was in a good station in life and they removed themselves from the material world and retired to an ashram, where they meditated, studied and did charitable work until mother Ganges took them into their fold. What makes it more interesting is that this gentleman’s one son is the Editor of a major US weekly magazine and an ex NYU professor, his American wife a contributor to Wall Street Journal and the other son is the Editor of India’s oldest National Newspaper,both educated in Oxford University, were all there with their families. He was also thankful that he served India when corruption was not an issue and politics did not prevent progress. It is a great story of an illustrous family connected deeply to Varanasi and the river ganges.

The second experience was absolutely surreal. We were walking along a quiet section of Asi Ghat at night . The Ghats are very busy during the day with pilgrims and vendors but at night it quiets down only with an occasional stray dog barking, or a small group of elders discussing the rotten state of politics or a group of young men laughing and lollygagging. Near the river bank in a dark obscure corner we saw a man sitting in the lotus position completely covered from head to toe in white cloth with a clean copper bowl of Ganges water next to him. We observed him for some time and realized that he was in deep meditation. I later read that “Covering the whole body above the crown chakra( skull) activates, what the yogis call the sarasu and it is from here that the soul is said to descend into the child at birth or leave when cremated.. Sarasu is also a huge energy field. By covering the head, the energy is retained to help the inner fire build.”
We were completely blown by this sight. One needs to be there to understand the gravity of the moment and not being an Indian did not deter Dave from appreciating the moment. The next morning I was up by 5:30 AM ,a time of intense activity amongst the ritualists and the purists along the banks of the river and there I saw the same slender figure in white cloth saying his morning prayers under the Peepal tree to Lord Siva. (see the picture of a slender figure doing Puja under a tree)

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The last experience that I am about to write was one of extreme sadness and raised the question of belief over propriety. It was around 11:00 Am as we approached Dashwamedh Ghat after a long walk along the 80 or so bathing Ghats on the river bank. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was hovering around 95 F. Close to the water the activities were numerous: pilgrims performing ritual dips, families taking a plunge fully clothed, local children playing, an occasional dog or monkey trying to grab some food offerings to the river, Brahmin priests conducting family prayers, barbers shaving heads of pilgrims who have vowed that as a sacrifice to Ganga. Amidst all these activities was a very old man, quite infirm, curled up on the steps writhing gently with very little sound coming out of him. Each lap of a wave would briefly inundate him with water. I realized that he was dying and was left there to die. We were distraught and did not know what to do and ended up inquiring about his condition to a nearby vendor of religious articles. He mentioned that many poor people leave their very old and infirm to die here since they have no money to cremate them and hope that the river will consume him . While we were shocked, all the activities around him were going on as though nothing happened. Full of guilt we walked away so as not to interfere with this cruel form of euthanasia. Filled with curiosity we came back an hour later to realize that he was not there anymore. We only hoped that one of the many volunteer /NGO took care of him. I searched the web for articles similar to what we had seen and found none.

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The water’s edge of Varanasi, where Buddha preached and Tulsi Das composed the Hindu epic Ramayana is still a place filled with wonderment; of life, of meditation, of sacrifices, of learning and the corruption of the body and its aftermath. It brings out emotions of love, sympathy, empathy, devotion, agony ,grief and misery.

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:15 Archived in India Tagged ganges varanasi ganga kasi beneras Comments (4)

The Funeral Masquerade Dance of the Dogon, Mali

A vanishing tradition of a fascinating people by Ramdas Iyer

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Any visitor to our house will appreciate my large collection of African art: especially that of the Dogon people. West Africa is such a rich cultural place that rapid Islamization, past Christian conversions and pressures of a modern world, I imagine, will soon dilute this richness. Self ordained as a world traveler I was searching hard to find an untouched part of Africa to travel to and decided on Mali, home to the Bambara, Dogon, Bobo, Bozo, Songhai and Arabic tribes like the Tuaregs. My biggest fear was to obtain permission for Arjuna to miss school for 2 weeks in order undertake this adventure: the Principal at Randolph High acquiesced.
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The Dogon live on the Bandigara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff up to 1640 ft high stretching 90 miles on the Sahel desert. A world heritage site for its unique cultural achievements, the escarpment is 500 miles from Bamako, the capital. These villages were established around 900 AD as a result of the collective refusal of the Dogon people to convert to Islam. The escarpment gave protection from frequent Islamic slave raids common in West Africa until the late 17th Century.

The 4X4 Toyota land Cruiser was well suited for the rough sandy tracks that led us to the escarpments. The scenery was absolutely stunning with semi arid grasslands, sandy desert, Baobab trees, rocky out crops with small villages amidst. Over the years the Dogon had descended from the escarpment and set up villages 50 miles around it. While they were still the Dogon, the real deal was awaiting us a few miles ahead. Mali is perhaps one of the poorest countries on Earth, yet the people express their joy of life through art found in everyday objects like knives, catapults, combs, seats, hoes, pots and pans. While my birth place India is culturally rich I do not see art in day to day implements and tools. I often wondered why this was the case and my conclusion is this: The Dogon has no centralized Government but live in villages composed of patrilineages and extended families whose head is the senior male descendent of the common ancestor. Having no kings or local warlords to hold the villagers in servitude and render them extremely poor like the villagers in India, social art blossomed to unparalleled levels. In fact cubism and modernism in art “invented” by Picasso, Kandinsky et al have been attributed to their exposure to West African art.
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I can keep going on and on and will now come to the point of the “Funeral masquerade dance of the Dogon”. We were approaching the village of Yuga-Piri, set at about 500 feet above the ground. We were welcomed by the head man and a meal of goat and millets was arranged by our guide Mama Kona. Most of the masks in our home are those from this funeral dance. So I asked the headman if one such dance could be arranged. It was about 11:00 AM and he negotiated a price of $150 to be paid to the village and that it could only happen around 2:00 PM since all the dancers were working the fields below. So we had our meal and reed mats with dirty pillows were laid out under a makeshift roof for us to rest till the dance. This village was spectacular in beauty and cascaded down the cliff like a fairy tale land. Around 1:00 PM drummers stood in various corners of the cliff and started drumming to summon the field hands to the head mans hut. Within a matter of 45 minutes we could see all the elders wearing Indigo cloth come out of their abodes and stand in the “Navel”of the village, an area cleared for dance with a central rockpile built conically surrounded by trees with the high cliffs on one side and the endless Sahel desert below. (The Sahel is scrub desert that slowly becomes white sandy desert another 200 miles out. The Sahel supports more than 90% of the sub-Saharan people because of its ability to support some plants, trees and grass for livestock.). The drummers and the bell bearers started their unique trance inducing beat.
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Soon the dancers numbering over 35 poured out on all sides. It was simply unbelievable that these great people would perform one of their sacred funeral rite dances for Arjuna and me. The village Ogon-shaman, blessed the site and blessed the dancers. A jury of a dozen elders stood in a straight line to ensure correctness of protocol and dance proceedings, with long sticks in hand. They could correct any errors made during the dance with a gentle tap of their sticks on the dancer. The dance began with ritual storytelling and more and more characters entering the arena. They were walking, shaking, hopping, swaying rhythmically that I was running around trying to photograph one of the greatest events I have ever witnessed. Arjuna was perched on a high rock enjoying with utter fascination. Men on stilts wearing wooden breasts, hunters, animals, spirits and forebears were all in the story. This Dama ritual essentially leads the souls of the departed to their final resting place. During a real funeral the masqueraders would dance on the deceased rooftops, throughout the village and the areas around the village to settle the spirits of the dead. Sometimes there are mock battles with the spirits who come to disturb the proceedings.
I cannot explain the joy I felt to be a part of this great ritual which was unfortunately being performed for a tourist. These dances are performed annually and the headman thanked me for giving them an opportunity to practice. The privilege of dancing is granted by a headman only if the dancer exhibits certain moral values. So becoming a dancer is one of the great social achievements of a Dogon Male. (There is a BBC documentary about a young man trying hard to be a Dogon dancer).
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All the masks used were actually carved by each dancer. I wondered how they could fit snugly on their head during all their gyrations, but found out that they secured them with their teeth while dancing. These ritual masks are kept in caves located on the cliffs high above the village where their ancestors are placed. I also found out that prior to the dance, between11:00 AM and 2:00 PM the ritual ground was prepared for the dance with sacrifices and requests made to the spirits for their consent of this dance for Arjuna and me.
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I was so taken by the whole event that I purchased a dance mask worn by one of them for $200, a large sum of money in Mali. The mask was so big that it would not fit in any of our soft duffels. That evening I had someone hacksaw it in half which I reassembled back home.

Hope the Dogon keeps their traditions. Islamic leaders want to rid them of their Pagan rituals. More Dogons are converting to Islam every day and these dances will soon only be found on the stages of Paris and New York. Arjuna and I are blessed.

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 08:58 Archived in Mali Tagged africa mali dogon ramdas iyer Comments (7)

Citadels of Khorezm, Central Asia : Land of the Aryans

Where the seeds of Hinduism and Zoroastrinism were sown: Islam and Buddhism propagated.........by Ramdas Iyer

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I was dropped off at the Uzbekistan border check post about 100 km from Bukhara, by my driver and wonderful guide Salim. The no man’s land created during the split of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan after the Soviet disintegration,was almost 2 km long. Having to lug ones gear this far was bad enough but the prospect of being assaulted and robbed was not too far either in this lawless land.This entire length was occupied by Iranian trucks carrying goods from Iran into land locked Central Asia through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan towards Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan and into Xinjiang province of China. The two youthful soldiers on the Turkmenistan border, one of the most unpredictable ”stans” upon seeing me started talking about Indian movies and making crude remarks about Aishwarya Rai, India’s legendary movie star. They were however nice and informed me after repeated calls to the Command post that I cannot enter the country for 2 days, since the President was touring the border areas. The fate of the Iranian drivers also rested in Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s hands or rather his restless feet.

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With great disappointment I had to turn back to Uzbekistan where I had learnt to deal with the Uzbek soldiers who had strip searched me just a week ago at the Termez-Tajik border. Fortunately I had a multiple entry Visa. Using one of the Iranian driver’s satellite phones I was fortunate to reach Salim in Bukhara who agreed to pick me up . Resting in the only roadside restaurant at the border I was surprised that the owner absolutely refused to accept payment for my tea and soup. That was only because he had pumped gas for a living in Elizabeth, NJ a few years ago now an obscure border post seemed to be his calling.
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View from the high citadel


Through Turkmenistan I was going to reach Khiva, the legendary Silk Road City( read the Great game by Peter Hopkirk) near where Turkmenistan, Iran and Uzbekistan come together. Salim would not risk taking his car through the Kyzl Kum Desert( the 11th largest Desert in the world at 288000 sq.km) instead put me in a taxi to travel the 400 km to Urgench& Khiva. It seemed that I had finally lost touch with my handlers and my guardians were awaiting me at the Turkmenistan border to take me to Khiva. While disappointed about not seeing the great Aryan city of Merv in Turkmenistan, I whipped my lonely planet only to realize that I would be passing through the legendary Khorezm area. The most ancient archaeological monuments of Khorezm belong to Neolith epoch ( 6th Century BC). The Greek scientist Gerodot named these earths the country of thousand fortresses. During archeological excavations it was revealed that in 10th century BC there were irrigation canals in length not less than 300 km. Archeologists are still struggling with a riddle of the ancient cities which were found in waterless desert, naming Khoresm “the second Egypt”. There is evidence to consider Khoresm to be the native land of Zoroastrism. In the sacred book of Zoroastrians’ "Avesta" Khoresm was named “Aryanama..Land of the Aryans” Geographically the western areas of modern Uzbekistan, and also northern Turkmenistan and Aral Sea banks were parts of ancient Khorezm. The first written sources (519 BC) mention Khoresm as the state grasped by Persian governor Dariy I.
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Khorezm is the birthplace of Zoroaster ( founder of Zoroastrianism), where the Avesta (the collection of sacred books of ancient Iranian religion, which dominated in near and Middle East prior to Arabian conquest of 8th Century AD )and the Rig Veda the holy text of the Vedic Indians were written( in Sanskrit), home of Al-Jibr founder of Algebra, where Al Beruni, the most original polymath the Islamic world had ever known was born and at times worked with Ibn Sina, the most famous Hellenistic-Islamic philosopher in Urgench.

My taxi driver was familiar with the many citadels in the area and we drove around for a few hours seeing and photographing a multitude of mud citadels, some built in the 3rd century BC. The history of this area rings of Aryan migration from the Steppes from 2500-1500 BC, beginnings of Zoroastrianism and dominance of Persia until 300 BC, of Hellenistic armies sweeping through the area in 325 BC, multiple invasion by Arabs in the 8th Century and the subsequent fleeing of Zoroastrians to Penjakent in Tajikistan, Mongol invasions and lastly the spread of the Soviets into this region during Stalin’s regime.
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Split between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, this area was untouched and was saved by Russian archeologists who did yeoman’s work restoring some of the great citadels like Ayaz Kala and Toprak kala. The Ayaz kala is a huge citadel with towering mud-brick rise dramatically from the surrounding plains. They were built on the edge of the Kizilkum Desert at different points between the fourth century B.C. and the seventh century A.D. as a means of protection from nomad raids. Within the forts are the remains of palaces and traces of the local agricultural population have been found in the surrounding areas. Abandoned for 1,300 years, the fortresses were rediscovered in the 1940s by the Russian archaeologist S.P. Tolstov.
The Ayaz kala is credited with being occupied by the Kushan kings of India. History being so complicated in this region, one needs to note that Kushans were a people hailing from Central Asia and settling in the Greaco- Bactrian area of Balkh, Afganistan.The Kushan Empire was originally formed during the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. The Kushans expanded rapidly across the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent at least as far as Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares) where inscriptions have been found dated to the first few years of era of the most famous Kushan ruler, Kanishka which apparently began about 127 AD with Mathura, India as his capital..
They had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sassanid Persia and Han China. While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its borders, the only textual record we have of the empire's history today comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese. The Empire declined from the 3rd century and fell to the Sassanid (Persian)and Gupta Empires. In fact I had a hair rising experience seeing the western most Buddhist Stupa erected by Kanishka II near Termez around the 2nd century AD. The Kushans spoke in Pali and Sanskrit and practiced Buddhism and sometimes Zoroastrinism.
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With all this history swirling in my mind, I climbed the tall citadel(300 meters) with only the howling winds of the desert. I must confess that I was genuinely scared. The cold desert, extreme loneliness, a paranormal fear of the unknown together with my belongings in a taxi nearly a kilometer away was not a very comfortable feeling. I imagined the forebears of our Vedic culture passing through this area as nomads and delivering incantations in Sanskrit and Farsi to ward of the Djinns: verisimilar to the fear that was pervading me. The thought of the great king Kanishka, responsible for spreading Buddhism to Central Asia and China standing at this great citadel peering into the splintered Persian empire as a multitude of warring Greaco-Bactrian Satrapies, was an ephiphany. I walked through the ramparts, the battlements and the remains of palaces. Nowhere in my travels had I seen such an imposing and remote citadel reaching back into time.( my recent visit to the Acropolis was a contemporary site of Ayaz Kala, another 6th century BC citadel is another such place).
After covering a few of the hundreds of fortresses, many in disrepair, I drove to Urgench crossing the mighty Oxus River on a pontoon bridge. Alexander crossed the Oxus 600 km upstream at Termez in the Uzbek, Afghanistan border, also the route taken by USSR to invade Afghanistan that I had recently visited. Urgench was a dusty and dirty bazaar town and just the thought of the great Al-Jibr , Al Beruni and Ibn Sina living here was simply incomprehensible.
For a history buff there is no place like central Asia where great cultures, powerful empires and great religions were born.
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:14 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged fortress persia hindu khoresm zoroastrinism uzbek avesta rig-veda Comments (0)

A Trek deep into Dani Country, Papua

Papua Journal Volume 4

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After a poor night's sleep with insects creeping under the floor of my hut, I woke up to perfect morning light with clean, crisp air, a body of fog in the river valley below and a surrealistic cannibal village under my feet. The photos attached display the beauty of the valley. All the men folk were working the grounds while the women folk were grooming their children under the sun. Sweet potatoes, their primary diet, were cooking in an underground hearth, the pigs had already been released to their stockades (from the family bedroom) and I was watching everything in silent fascination.

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After morning ablutions, a scary experience where a misstep could have hurtled me down a deep ravine,a wonderful breakfast of eggs and bread, we set off on our 7-hour trek for the day. Good Byes to the Kilease clan was brief as the elders were beginning to fight for sharing the fees even before we departed.They are a bellicose people, easily provoked by external stimuli involving property and women. They literally get on each other’s face with or without the Stone Age hoe that is their main agricultural tool. I did mention that the Dani, Lani, Korowai, Kombai, Asmat and other peoples of the Island are stone age tribes, since all their implements were made of stone until recently and still in use. (I bought a couple of hoes from the chief).

The climb was getting arduous despite the porters carrying everything including my camera. On a mere nod they would have lifted me too. I regret not noting their names but all four of them were very pleasant but for one grouch who always kept to himself and never communicated. White Water Rivers were hurtling below and periodically we crossed bridges built only of wood and tree vines over great heights. This was Indiana Jones country for me. No nails, no metal but pure archaic engineering (see photo). Along the way we saw several villages but would not trespass them since Scorpio knew where to go and what to avoid.
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One particular meeting was with a pair of Papuans who were returning home after trading tobacco for penis gourds. They proudly showed the long gourds, which were teased while growing to become straight, long, and broad enough to hold a Negroid penis. While I inspected them I was tempted to smell the gourd but suddenly realized with great alarm that there could have been a "fitting" prior to the purchase. These travellers had nothing but a bag made of hemp holding some tobacco, some sweet potatoes and their body decorations. They demonstrated their nasal bone ornaments that they always carry lest they have to attend a function of great importance. All Papuan males have pierced septum to accommodate boars’ teeth ornaments. Large ones being rarer these days, the longer the bone the more sophisticated the wearer. After bidding farewell to them we ascended to greater heights were the clouds seem to hug the crown of the mountain ridges.
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Scorpio suddenly swept me aside and made me crawl on the high grass and observe an amazing hunt. A local bird hunter actually shot a flying bird with his arrow at 50 yards and while in flight. I could not believe my eyes. Imagine that your only diet consisted of sweet potatoes and an occasional bird stew of an animal in flight downed with the most rudimentary tool-a bamboo bow and arrow.

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After several magnificent vistas and vertical meters, we were about to enter a village to call our home for the night. Being squarely in the tropics sunrise was 6:00 AM and sunset its numerical counterpart in the evening. I was given my customary private hut but this time on an elevated platform because a major stream was only a few yards away. Within a span of 5 minutes several young children and many maimed village elders sat outside my hut trying to get cigarettes or medicines and sell me some trinkets. The first woman that approached me, topless of course (No Bridgette Bardot folks!) raised both her palms in the way the pope would do as you approach him. I was wondering if she was bestowing a blessing on me, but it turned out to be a typical Papuan greeting to indicate war loses (I noticed that several digits of her fingers were missing in both hands). I have seen too many lepers in India with such loss of digits but I was told she was not a leper but a person who was mourning death(s) in her family. What? I thought!. Then came a middle-aged man with a cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, of course with all his digits missing ,worn to the nub. Upon further inquiry, I was told that the each digit was sawn off to mourn the loss of a sibling or parent in a tribal war. I saw many have them had only two complete fingers in both hands. With regular pitched battles in the past family losses were so heavy that most Papuans over the age of 50 ( born in the 1940’s and 1950’s)had severely maimed bodies.
The next morning with mostly naked people all around me, I was least conscious when I disrobed and washed myself in the stream. I found a spot upstream from the pigs and the ladies washing their sweet potatoes. I was very tempted to wear a gourd and walk about but better judgment prevented me from doing so. A noble savage imitated by an urban literate is tantamount to blasphemy.
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Wishing a hunter good night

TO BE CONTINUED

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Reformed "Head-Hunters" of Baliem Valley, Papua, Indonesia

Over the Jungle and into the Land of the Dani People......................Ramdas Iyer

Approaching the age of 50 one wonders if the time for hard adventure becomes limited. So I decided to embark to places not easily accessible or to have perceived difficulties. Papua has always been on my scope: an isolated Eden with amazing anthropological treasures. My frequent visits to the Met in New York especially to enjoy its ethnographic art and particularly the Michael Rockefeller collection from Papua, has often left me yearning to visit the place. As a young man, I had read about how Michael Rockefeller, the son of VP Nelson Rockefeller a Peace Corps worker and a collector of artifacts for the Peabody Museum at Yale university was attacked and cannibalized by the Asmat people of Papua.

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So in December of 2006 I flew into Jayapura on a hopper flight from Jakarta to Sulawesi, Timor, Biak Island and finally Jayapura. On this flight I met a young and rather scared Indian engineer who was on his way from Bangalore to Biak. He was to spend 6 months in a trailer with 2 other Indians working for ISRO, the Indian Space agency that uses that location for geo-tracking its satellites. The thought of a Hindu boy, religious and a sworn vegetarian in the wilds of the south pacific in the midst of newly reformed cannibals was indeed a testimony to globalization.
The last leg from Biak into Jayapura consisted of a visual explosion of verdant forest canopy for miles on end. Being home to the second largest rainforest after Brazil, my fantasy of naked cannibals ( not necassarily)in Penis gourds, slithery vipers and constrictors of every size, color and maiming ability was coming close to reality. However Jaypura was a disappointment. It was modernizing fast with Internet access, slow traffic, commercialization but also thankfully the telephone exchange from where I had an opportunity to call home from, where my wife was wondering if I was having my tryst with spear tips.
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Unlike New Guinea its ethnic cousin, Papua is still wild and exciting. Until WWII it was a Dutch colony. The Dutch having given Indonesia to its people wanted to maintain Irian Jaya ( Western Papua) as its territory. Finally after a hard fought UN resolution in 1962 it became a state under Indonesia. The locals are still fighting for independence often leading to foreigners being restrained from visiting several parts of this island, the world’s second largest. New Guinea on the other hand was under Australian protection until 1975.

Japanese forces occupied Jayapura known as Hollandia, a very tiny Dutch Indies town at that time, in 1942, only to be driven away by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops. He established Hollandia as his HQ until the conquest of Philippines in1945. Over 500,000 US troops had made amphibious landings in its shores during WWII.

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The first peril of travelling had already hit me. My local agent was bitter with the main agent based out of Bali because he was short changed for this trip. He was supposed to pack all our cooking material and supplies for a our 5 day trek and escort me by hopper flight to the Baliem Valley, home of the stone-age Dani people. Instead he bought lots of noodles, biscuits, oil, salt etc. and packed me off alone to the land of the infamous cannibals. Like most interior flights this flight was operated by Dutch missionaries and as guessed a Fokker propeller aircraft. The tiny airport had no tourists but consisted of different ethnic Indonesians trying to get a foothold into this mysterious land. One of the passengers seemed to have a brief case that was moving periodically. It turned out to be a gagged piglet slung on a rope like a brief case.

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Until 1961 cannibalism was rampant in Papua. The Dani were only discovered in 1938 only after the advent of flight.
They did not come in contact with other people on account of the fact that the highlands had 150 miles of virtually impassable territory and there was no available food for explorers to eat on the way. They were discovered
Their history is one of violence for the sake of violence. Every one of the hundreds of villages that dot the mountainous country embarks on ritual pitched battles on a regular basis with the sole intention of insulting their enemy by either maiming or killing them. The main reason for cannibalism was not for dietary purposes but for the capture of their spirits. This enmity over the centuries led to isolated village groups with slightly different customs, language and body decorations; an anthropologist’s laboratory. My Dani guide Scorpio, was orphaned at a tender age when his father was gored during such a fight with a spear.
The last cases of cannibalism were only recently recorded. In 1968 two missionaries (Australian Stan Dole and American Phil Masters) were chopped and eaten. During Christmas 1974, four Dutch families were killed and eaten by aborigines in the Jayawijaya Mountains near Wamena. The last known case was a killing of a priest and his twelve companions. It allegedly happened because they tried to ban the aborigines from hunting for skulls and they burnt their fetishes. This tragic event happened in 1976.

Upon arrival at this tiny airport into a town set in a green valley, I was received by a stocky aboriginal man with a red feather hair dress- I believe it was jungle rooster, and a large toothy grin and broad aboriginal nose; I had delivered myself to the Dani. My worries quickly evaporated upon meeting Scorpio, dressed like a Texas Ranger ready for a mission in Helmund Province. I was pleased.

A glimpse of the market at Wamena was enough to keep my interest peeked for the next one week I would spend on this Island. Every man over the age of 40 was naked, with a headdress and penis gourd ranging from a curled 6” specimen to a vine teased 14” long lance. The younger ones were all in modern but dirty t-shirts given by missionaries. Yes, Christianity is very big here. I am sure they imagined Jesus on the cross with a penis gourd! The women were all dressed and seemed to do the bulk of physical labor. They were selling tobacco leaves, vegetables, roots and some conveniences like flashlights from China, Aspirin etc. Of course Papuans did not use currency until recently and maintained their wealth in pigs. I witnessed a massive pig pulled out of the earth from an underground hearth and the local abbotoir cum chef was selling pieces from a walk in pit.
We walked to the hotel, a small arboreal retreat from where we prepared to assault the Highlands of the Dani with 4 porters, guide and a chef who took cooking lessons from me, periodically. It was different from his usual cuisine I wondered: cilantro and spleen, lettuce with liver and some basil for the brains. The rest I will continue in my next volume.

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Ramdas IyerZ

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Nomads of the Sahel Desert of Mali

Observations while travelling from Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............... Ramdas Iyer, Author

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“My father was a nomad, his father was a nomad, I am a nomad, my children will be nomads,” said Inaka*, who was not sure of his age but looked to be in his fifties. “This is the life of my ancestors. This is the life that we know. We like it.”
Thousands of nomads pepper this western tip of the Sahara desert and most share Inaka’s perspective. For centuries, they have subjected themselves to the oft-bitter whims of nature, without real connections to society. They have lived off their camels, goats and sheep, depending upon them for everything from food to transportation. And they have survived!!.
While visiting Mali in 2007, I was a budding photojournalist, trying to see Saharan Africa and its people from behind the lens. However time and further investigation has proven that the nomads I met and photographed during my brief sojourn were within the past 5 years facing the worst drought to hit Saharan Africa thereby making this write up, from a time when life was more stable for them The Tuaregs of the Timbuktu region and the Bobo of the Burkina Faso/ Northern Mali region are the most affected. While my pictures illustrate their typical way of life, my write-up along with information culled from various sources will truly show the impact of weather on a distinct culture lost to most of us in the west. I saw a similar situation in the Thar desert region of India earlier this year, but the Indian sense of fatality seems to keep the nomads of India in a much higher spiritual place when compared to their African bretheren.
The Fulani of Mali almost have 850,000 to 1,000,000 people in their tribe. The Fulani tribe is the largest nomadic community in the world scattered in six nations of West Africa. Arjuna and I had the pleasure of visiting one such family, where the women folk were left behind in Mopti by their wealthier spouses pursuing their herding techniques and creating a semi-nomadic lifestyle often found with rise in income.
The Tuareg tribe are more commonly called the ‘blue men of the desert, which is derived from their attire of indigo robes and turbans. I am sure you have noticed Arjuna in his Indigo costume whilst visiting the nomads. They are an ancient migratory group still known for their pure desert existence. The Tuareg tribe with their camel-caravans inhabits the desert regions of Mali.

The Sahel is a belt of land which runs for 5,000 KM through six mainly French-speaking West African countries; Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Niger and Chad. Situated between the 10 and 50 cm annual rainfall lines, it is a region of semi-arid steppe country bordering the Sahara desert and is inhabited largely by nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, a group of stockbreeders who have dominated much of the Sahara and the Sahel for some 800 years.
One survey gives the total population of the Sahel as six million of whom two-thirds are nomadic, but all figures need to be treated with caution, especially after the effects of drought, famine, local wars and large-scale migration.
The traditional Sahelian economy is based entirely upon nomadic pastoralism. Herd numbers are normally limited by the extent of grazing areas: cattle are concentrated around wells during the dry season and move out to the Sahel grassland once the harshest conditions have abated.
One interesting fact I learnt was that the Fulani herders drove cattle for every other cattle owner. Which meant that a non-nomad would, for a fee, release his cattle to the Fulani for fattening and returning after a few months. This way, the Fulani were better off than most nomads and were famous for their blankets and their beaten gold earrings (See Photo)
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Traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic life involves living in a delicate balance with the land and with water, a balance quite removed from the concepts of commercial cropping, stock marketing and taxation. Even so, famine and drought have always been a recurring problem in the Sahel and until recently nomads have reared as much stock as could be supported in order to protect themselves against a bad year. In good years when stock numbers were high the nomads loaned animals to farmers, reclaiming them in times of hardship.
Colonial rule led to the growth of the coastal towns in West Africa and this in turn led to a rising demand for meat, which was supplied by the pastoralists; however colonial policy also altered the ecological balance of the Sahel by introducing a money economy and also veterinary and medical facilities.
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Survived. As the photographs of my travel illustrate these nomads with a ratio of 2:1 livestock to human roam around sparse green belts looking for grazing ground. Our encounters with them were always very educational. The ones that walked or rode in mules were more impoverished than the ones on camels and driving heads of cattle.
While in Timbuktu we received camel trains arriving from Taoudenne, 500 KM from there, carrying huge 40 kg slabs of salt, we also saw the same salt loaded on to mules further inland in Dogon Country, completing the supply chain: another nomadic pursuit.
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At each nomadic camp, the women would set out for hours looking for water with their gourd pots: a sight that seemed destined for African photo journalism. Their brightly printed clothing and their colorful bead necklaces contrasted with the stark background of the Sahel. (See photos)
But they have paid a price for their conscious disconnection from the modern world. They are among the world’s poorest people, unable to educate and provide health care for their children, continually scratching to make it through one more day, always one drought away from seeing their animals and families wiped out.
In many ways, their lives mirror those of Africans who live in the villages, towns and cities of the world’s poorest continent. The difference is that many of those Africans long for an economic escape from a torturous existence. Most nomads say they do not.
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They are content in this land of thorn trees and murderous heat, where the ground is sprinkled with the bones of burros. Brutal sandstorms rise up in seconds. Squealing children, hungry for play, tumble over sand dunes at sunset.
They follow water and grass, sometimes travel with another family member, and generally move every couple of weeks. A month in one area is an eternity.

The End
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:33 Archived in Mali Tagged africa sahara mali nomads tuareg tribes bobo Comments (2)

Amongst the Tuareg Tribesmen of Timbuktu

A Journey with the nomads of the Sahara.......Ramdas Iyer, Author

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Timbuktu sits where the Sahel meets the Sahara. The Sahel is defined as “ the biogeographic zone of transition between the Sahara desert in the North and the Savannas in the south. It stretches across the North African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. The Arabic word sāḥil literally means "shore, coast", describing the appearance of the vegetation of the Sahel as a coastline delimiting the sand of the Sahara.
While Timbuktu has scrublands and acacia trees around the city, it is only a few yards from the sand dunes of Sahara. Within 10 minutes of driving out of the town one encounters huge sand dunes and endless vista of sand, sky and scarab beetles marking their footsteps in the sand, while feasting on camel dung.
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My son Arjuna and I visited a monument, which was rather unique. A few years ago after a bitter battle between the black Malians and the Arabic Tuareg had led to a dangerous stalemate in this area. After much death and destruction, peace was declared with the burial of 500 machine guns in cement. It was a rather graphic site for us simple folks who had never seen or handled firearms. We then visited the Sankhare mosque, a World Heritage Site, the ancient library housing Islamic works (paid by Ford foundation lest anyone forgets) and the town built on sand including a tour of the house occupied by the first British (or European) explorer to ever visit Timbuktu, Gordon Laing. The legend of Timbuktu was so great in the mid- nineteenth century that its discovery by the west was a prize to be had like a moon landing envisioned by the cold war USA.
In light of this importance, in 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris announced a prize of 10,000 francs (£400) to the person who first visited the African city of Timbuktu. Timbuktu was considered an almost mythical place, a city of gold nestled in the hostile lands of Muslim North Africa. Europeans were not welcome. Several expeditions had been financed from England, but no one had yet returned alive from Timbuktu – even Mungo Park, who had set off down the Niger from Segu (the regional capital of Niger and a place of great interest for the traveller) had been murdered. Animosity between British and French Geographical Society's existed over British explorer, Gordon Laing. There was vague evidence to suggest that Laing had successfully reached Timbuktu in 1826, but had been murdered shortly after leaving. In 1828, René Auguste Caillié was the first European to return from the fabled city.
Caillié settled in a Muslim community on the Rio Nuñez, Guinea, the land made famous by another Frenchman Dominique Strauss -Kahn of the IMF, by allegedly raping a Guinean woman in NYC this summer, to learn the language and customs. After three years he felt confident enough to join a caravan heading to Timbuktu, disguised as a Muslim, and carrying a minimum of supplies: a single bag of trade goods, an umbrella, compass, medical kit, and a journal. He dismissed his poor language abilities by saying he was an Egyptian, kidnapped by Napoleon's army and taken to France to be raised amongst the heathen.
His entrance into the fabled city was a disappointment: later describing the view as "a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth." Caillié stayed in a house only one street away from that where Gordon Laing had slept the previous year, and was shown a compass said to belong to Laing.
After spending a fortnight in Timbuktu he joined a caravan crossing the Sahara to Morocco, reaching Fez in 3 months. From Tangier he returned to France. Caillié was the first to accomplish the journey in safety.
I take pride in our visit given its rich history of exploration, intrigue, murder and trade. Today with sufficient interest, money and a willingness to endure relative discomfort one can get to Timbuktu with relative ease. I will never forget some of the local restaurants along the way for the sheer grossness of the kitchen, plates and offerings. I can recollect having a sandwich in a small restaurant along the way to Timbuktu operated by a French returned Malian. While the food depending on electricity available was tolerable, the kids all around the restaurant were playing with real dead fish, real dead birds and real dead rodents.
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After truly enjoying the tourist offerings, our Tuareg guide Bebe and Malian guide Mama Kone offered to take is up to 20 km into the Saharan sands by 4X4 to visit nomadic Tuareg tents. After 30 minutes of driving we came upon a small community of about five tents who shooed us away, the heathens. While this is not new to Bebe, he was looking for a more amicable community and we found one. With Arjuna dressed like a Tuareg he was confused for an Omanian.
A small rug was spread on the shaded side of a tent and sweet tea poured by the elder. The women in purdah while curious did not approach near us. However a very bratty young man dragged his paramour near us and displayed affections like hugging and kissing while she was shy and running away from it all. (See pictures). We took pictures of them all and showed it on the digital camera display, which was a big hit that drew the rest of the women near us.
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We observed a 8 year old boy with a broken jaw and a festering wound in his face, We were told that a camel had kicked him and they had no way of treating him. Though not very smart, I gave my entire bottle of Tylenol to the father with Bebe instructing on treatment. That would have been a $15000 job with a New Jersey dental surgeon treated with a bottle of Tylenol..
The people were genuine and meeting each other was a privilege of globalization. As we moved on we stopped at a bore well for refreshing ourselves. Much to our amazement it had a stencil that said Mali- India, an Indian aid program to poor Africa, We drank to our heart’s content- Malian Saharan water through Indian largesse.

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Along our travels, we stopped at a local chief’s compound. While the poor Tuaregs move about, the rich sheep and camel owning Tuaregs stay in one compound and conduct business in Timbuktu by taking deep forays with their their camels. This chief offered us a chance to sample riding his camels, served tea in a very relaxed and informal setting while his three wives were cowering in various parts of his compound lest the evil eyes of a heathen cast his stare on their veiled beauty!
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To Be Continued…………………

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:52 Archived in Mali Tagged sahara timbuktu tuareg Comments (1)

Nuclear thief in Timbuktu: A journey to the Sahara

Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............................by Ramdas Iyer, Author

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Having grown up in India, I often reminisce about my elders and their usage of idioms. My uncle Krishnan Periappa often used the term “It is like going to Timbuktu”: whenever god-forsaken places were mentioned. I now realize that it was indeed an old English adage,” As hard as reaching Timbuktu". The successes of Victorian English conquests of Africa somehow did not bear fruit in Mali. Disease, terrain and cruel rulers along the Niger kept them from reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu until late 17th century. This led to this usage in the Anglophone world. My preparations for my own conquest included reading the book by Kryza, F (2007) The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold. HarperCollins, which gave me a sense of adventure, that brewed constantly in my mind and that of my young son Arjuna, my companion on this trip.

After a long rough terrain drive and a crossing of the Niger River, Arjuna and I arrived in the fabled city of Timbuktu. Followers of history may know that this was a 13th century center of trans Saharan trade and its many madrassas produced scholarly Islamic works. The Sankhore Medrassa is a World Heritage site where important astronomical observations were made. As a center of gold, ivory and slave trade its long reach influenced governments in 16 Th century Tripoli and Cairo. Its inhabitants were the Songhai people and the Empire of Songhai came under pressure in the 15th century by the Tuareg people of Arab descent who until recently formed the local majority.

The West African tribes which include the Bambara, Bobo, Bozo, Fulani and the Dogon often preyed on each other for the slave trade and handed their captives to the Arabs near Timbuktu.

While planning our trip and researching Timbuktu I and came upon an article in the Times of India about the Hotel Hendrina Khan, where we planned to stay. The excerpts from Google search of that article is attached herein:

Feb 1: 2004 “ISLAMABAD: The architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has been sacked as scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, had amassed properties at home and abroad besides building a "fabulous" hotel in an African nation where he transported furniture by an air force plane.

Hendrina Khan hotel, named after Dr. Khan's Dutch wife, in the city of Timbuktu in the African state of Mali was one of the dozens of business undertakings of the nuclear scientist that were now being investigated by Pakistani intelligence officials to verify allegations by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the country's scientists collaborated with black marketers of nuclear technology, The News daily said.

It said the probe revealed that not only did Dr. Khan build a hotel in Timbuktu but used Pakistan Air Force's transport aircraft C-130 in early 2000 to ferry an exclusive range of carved wooden furniture from here to his hotel.
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The aircraft landed at Tripoli airport in Libya and the cargo was then taken to Timbuktu by road, as it could not land in Mali. Dr. Khan himself accompanied the furniture from Islamabad.

Dr. Muhammad Farooq, a centrifuge expert at the country’s premier nuclear installation, Khan Research Laboratory (KRL), revealed the details of the trip. Dr. Farooq is one of the 13 scientists and officials of the KRL interrogated by the investigative agencies.”
That evening we met the owner of the hotel who was a puppet of A.Q. Khan and was extolling the virtue of a great scientist who was his partner. While seething under my skin, I played the part of a curious listener to hear the story of an international criminal being praised by an under educated simpleton.
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So after all the excitement we made our first foray into the town. Perhaps the only town that is built on sand, as there are no paved roads but just sand everywhere. It was awesome. The town had as many camels as there were 4X4’s, the only means of transportation to the interior. Our local guide Bebe, a young Tuareg man humored Arjuna by dressing him in Indigo turban (see photo). The Tuareg of the Sahara were known as the Indigo men as they were caparisoned in Indigo cloth, a dye that is made from a natural dye extracted from a desert plant. The 1850’s Levis Blue jeans were originally made with this dye until it was later synthesized.

We got our first thrill when Bebe introduced us to 4 fearsome looking Tuaregs with curved knives in their waist. They had just returned from a forty day return trip to the salt flats of the Sahara, an ancient sea bed, A train of thirty camels walk 500 miles to Taudenni to bring back salt which was worth its weight in gold until 50 years ago. (Read this National Geographic article http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/05/0528_030528_saltcaravan.htm). Even today, Mali being a land locked country depends on Saharan salt brought by camels carrying 400-500 lbs. each. It is then distributed to the interior by donkeys and mules carrying 100 -150 lbs. each. Having a young son dressed in Indigo turban amused the traders that they invited us the next day to their camp and since they had traded some goods along the away they promised a nice Tuareg outfit for Arjuna.
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The next morning we walked from our hotel into town where freshly slaughtered lamb was broiled in small domed ovens all along the road. We picked some tender pieces, wrapped in some French newspaper and walked to the Tuareg Indigo men's tent. WE sat around a bunch of handsome and feisty looking Arabic salt merchants. They offered us very sugary tea with dried camel cheese to cut the sweetness. We opened our meat offering and we all ate very elegantly from the newspaper. Dining traditions are a good example of culture. Despite sitting in a tent, in the Sahara with a bunch of tribesmen, the picking of small morsels by every one and not showing greed was a very interesting observation of mine. This I would not expect in Papua. While I had visions of D.H. Lawrence, I must tell you that this amazing meeting and talking to the traders through Bebe was a fantastic moment in our trip. Arjuna took the time to inspect their swords and accepted some camel cheese to take back to school. A native cigar mounted on a silver holder was also passed around.
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The leader sensing that the conversation did not extend beyond the tea and meat, brought out a classic green tunic of the Tuaregs and an amulet from a trunk, that had Koranic versus for protection from the Djinns of the desert, for sale. He had a small size purchased from traders for his family who lived in the middle of the Sahara about 40 KM from Timbuktu. (See Photos) .A mere $20 (but a huge fortune) exchanged hands since an entire 40-day trip into the desert to fetch salt only yielded $40 per traveler. Bebe did mention that whenever he got a chance, he introduced the rare travelers to the area to meet such people. There are no group travels thankfully in this area and a group has to travel in several 4X4's. The joy of traveling alone exposes one to so many opportunities not available to many.
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

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To Be Continued

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:28 Archived in Mali Tagged camels sahara mali timbuctu tuaregs caravans arabs Comments (2)

Travels in Papua in Dani Tribal Lands, Papua, Indonesia

Down the Mountain to a Mummy, The final segment of the Dani Experience.................Ramdas Iyer, Author

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The "Baliem Highway" as I call it, is a network of small trails issuing out of hundreds of villages sequestered in the lush mountains of Papua. I was amazed to discover that the trail distances are measured in "days of walking" to Wamena, the only town in all of the Papuan Highlands. These trails descend from 6000 feet down to the valley floor, at about 1000 ft. above MSL If the fearsome Yali wanted to purchase some batteries, or aspirin or even simple comforts like candy or cigarettes, they have to walk a minimum of 8 days on the "Baliem Highway". On the last day of my stay in the highlands I enjoyed walking the highway, which is nothing more than 5 feet wide hugging the crest of the mountains. There was a steady flow of people in either direction, and to give you an idea of human density, contact was made every 30 minutes or so. From space it would almost look like ants walking a forest floor.
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After my host villagers wished me good-bye, some of them walked alongside this pedestrian highway and set themselves up in various stations along the way trying to sell sweet potatoes, sugarcane, tobacco and taro roots for the hungry travellers. I met a young man with a rooster in his hand. He will be walking 2 days down and two days up to sell his rooster in the market and pick up some essentials on the way back (See Photo). One of the most interesting observations was that of one of my porters carrying a two-gallon can of petrol amongst our supplies. I initially thought that it was fuel for our trip. Instead he sold the can at our farthest point thereby garnering a good price for its supply to the interior. Unfortunately this fuel is also used for chain saws to cut trees.
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People were carrying piglets, walking adult pigs like one would walk Dalmatians, holding hemp baskets for sale and in one case one of them had a collection of fine boar's tusk for sale in the market. What does not qualify to make it into the nostrils end up as necklaces used for ceremonial purposes; one such artifact was acquired there for my New Jersey home along with penis gourds and bead necklaces. With a keen eye on statistics, I purchased 5 and as expected two made it back whole.
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We paused at several points as my porters were purchasing and consuming sweet potatoes from select vendors. I was given to understand that the ones grown in steeper slopes had a better taste than the ones found in the valley. I would imagine that the tuber had to grab every ounce of tumbling water to put out its fine sugars. It brought back memories of buying Malbec wine in Mendoza, Argentina a few years ago, when the same grog was available back home perhaps even cheaper. I am glad that restricted baggage in air travel has put an end to my trans- national appellation transfer. I have made it a point not to buy duty-free since the $10 saved is lower than the $20 copay my chiropractor charges, along with the question “Did you carry something heavy?”
We came upon some spectacular springs were water from the ground caused rivulets, resulting in waterfalls just a mile down hill. The porters and I had our last group picture together in the highlands and thereafter the trail dropped steeply towards Wamena.
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If you remember, I had mentioned that Wamena had only five miles of paved roadway. Alongside this roadway, there are many stops were minivans picked up these tribal coming down the hill and transported them into town. We took one such conveyance and reached Wamena. After leaving our luggage and saying sad good byes to my porters (The silent one gave me a gift-a necklace with a single round rock in the middle) It felt as though the boomerang throwing kid in “The Road Runner” movie had grown up and was saying his good byes to me. (Mr. Gibson!)
We crossed a flimsy steel rope bridge secured by weighted steel drums over some scary waters. Since it was fairly sturdy, I would imagine that the builders loaded the steel drum pylons with concrete.(see picture)

The next morning, Scorpio and I trekked a couple of miles to see the famous mummy of Jwicka village

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Indonesia has some of the most fascinating death cults. The cremations in Bali, the cave and rock burials of Sulawesi, the sea-burials of the Bugis people of Makassar and lastly the mummification of the Dani. Traditionally the Dani, after the death of a leader or chief used to drain the body fluids of the chieftains and smoked them for preservation.( It almost seems thath the enemy would be vanquished in the digestive tract while the leaders will be preserved for eternity;Ying and Yang!) These mummies were kept in the chief’s hut and were used as a talisman for war successes.
Upon arrival, we were shown the long houses of these people and finally the famous 300-year-old mummy. This today has become a touristy pursuit and did not have the real excitement of being with the villagers; nevertheless it was an unusual sight and a great experience since I was the only tourist there at that time of the year. There were several mummies scattered around Papua just a few years ago. Collectors and museums decamped with most while the remaining ones were badly damaged due to age and poor preservation.

After final good byes were exchanged Scorpio walked me to the airport, only to be interrupted by a motorcycle carrying two drums of fuel for our aircraft! (see picture)

This trip had been like a dream come true. With no one interested in sharing my costs, I tried to do it very economically using frequent flyer mileage. The biggest cost was the hopper flights from Jakarta to Jayapura.
I am very keen on visiting the coastal Papuans; The Asmat who live in spectacular villages with totems akin to the the British Columbian Haidas and the Tlingits, The plains Papuans namely the Korowai, who live in gigantic tree houses and eat grubs and worms as delicacies. These trips involve many porters and travellers to subsidize the boats and planes to reach the interior. If any reader is interested in pursuing this trip please contact me.
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 09:29 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia trek dani tribes tribal papua jayapura cannibals aboriginals tribals yali lani Comments (0)

Reflections on Tibet whilst in Lhasa, Tibet

Flight over the Himalaya into Lhasa......................Ramdas Iyer, Author

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As one gets older the 11 hour jet-lags seem to linger longer than in the past. So at 4:00 Am today I decided to share my thoughts and experiences during our Tibet trip earlier. As an Indian at heart, Tibet is held in a lofty place in my mind. It is the abode of our Gods (Mt. Kailas), the roof of the world and the land of snows. Yes, I have an affinity for snowy places. It has been a subject of many British adventures during the great game of the 1860s, when England was paranoid about Russia invading India and therefore wanted a beachhead in Lhasa to monitor them. (Read The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk).During my childhood and thereafter I have been a great fan of the Dalai Lama and have been closely following China policy in Tibet with some revulsion.

So what is Tibet today? how are the Tibetans faring?, what is China up to in Tibet? these are the few questions I am trying to answer in this article.

First let me explain the geography of this land. A vast land, it is bordered by Nepal & Sikkim &India in the south, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces in the east and Xinjiang province to the north. My earlier travels in Nepal (1997), Sichuan (2004) and Xinjiang (2007) were always about Buddhism and by default Tibet’s spiritual influence on those regions.
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Pre Buddhist religion of Tibet was known as “Phon”, an animist religion until the local kings invited Indian scholars from Bengal to educate the king, teach the masses, create an alphabet and spread Buddhism as a state religion around the 7th century. This happened during the reign of Songtsen Gampo, their greatest ruler who presided over their golden age. ( I just realized that the Tang Dynasty in Xian was also at its Zenith in the 7th century with Buddhism as the state religion).. Pre-history dates Tibetan rulers from 2nd BCE and real emperors from the 7th century AD. Great scholars like Padmasambhava & Chandrasekhara moved to Tibet from India and are still revered there like Gods. At one brief moment in history the Tibetan empire reached Bengal, encompassing all the Himalayan states including Siliguri and Kalimpong in North Bengal. Even today, any trinket or object from India is first placed on their head as a holy relic by older Tibetans.Being in Tibet made me feel proud to be an Indian because they emphasized the fact that we are their protector and savior of their future.
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We flew over some spectacular ice fields and ice peaks before we landed in Lhasa. The air was heavy and our movements strained upon landing. There was a heavy military presence at the airport with pointed machine guns. An intimidating presence for the visitors to remember during their short and well monitored journeys. Expecting Lhasa to be a hamlet as indicated in Heinrich Heirers novel “Seven years in Tibet”, we came upon a growing metropolis of modern buildings, good roads, clean surroundings. However upon further investigation and time walking in Lhasa one finds the Tibet of yore around the temples, markets and in the Tibetans themselves. China which has built a spectacular railroad for 1800 km on permafrost is currently transporting18 train loads of fortune seekers into Tibet daily. Lhasa has grown from 100000 denizens to 350,000 in 10 years.

I wondered why that with 6 billion people on earth, let us make it 5 by subtracting the Chinese, we were the only non mongoloid people in all of Lhasa, barring an occasional European or two. The beauty of travel at this time of the year especially in Tibet is that all the local people from various provinces and villages make their annual pilgrimage to Lhasa and the Jokhang Temple, the mother of monasteries for the Gelugpa (yellow hat sect). This affords us a unique opportunity to watch and learn the religious and spiritual side of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism evolved from the red hat sect to the Black hats and since the 14th century the yellow hats. They followed different philosophies there and often collided in the past making many monasteries very war like in medieval times. Most of the great monasteries have walls and ramparts around them. Today the red and yellow hats co-exist with the former a minority.

The Potala palace a medieval fort and eventually the spiritual and imperial seat of Tibet is truly a marvel in architecture. The treasures inside, the tombs of the Dalai Lamas, the 1000 plus alters and shrines. Most people including me are not aware that Tibet had a long imperial lineage where State and religion were separate. In the 14th century during civil strife the Head of the Gelupa sect was asked by the various chieftains to take the mantle of State and religion. Around this time Altan Khan, the king of the Mongols invited Sonam Gyatso,the head of the Gelupa sect to Hohot to teach Buddhism to the Mongols. He named him “Dalai Lama” in mongol meaning Ocean of knowledge. This enhanced the power of the Gelupas and the Dalai Lama lineage began. The 14th Dalai lama whom we adore is actually named Tenzing Gyatso( Tenzing meaning Protector of Dharma and Gyatso meaning river of knowledge).( Altan King's son became the 4th Dalai Lama)
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It is indeed one great world heritage site. During summer months the government restricts visits to 1000 visitors per day with a one hour cap on the tour. Tour guides are punished 1000 Yuan($150) for violations. It is almost impossible to see anything let alone climb the hill with altitude sickness!. All the tickets have a time stamp. We on the other hand spent 4 hours inside the Potala and drank the air of spirituality until we decided to descend. The elating (and sad) sight every morning is to see Tibetans with their prayer wheel walk many times around the Potal praying and worshiping the last sign of their ancient religion, the home of their Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader.
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We were lucky to see the local pilgrims ( local means travelling several hundreds of miles by either foot, prostration or some rickety mechanical conveyance) decked in their finery eagerly bowing to the many thousand Buddhas, touching everything they consider holy, spinning yards of prayer wheels mounted alongside the walls of the Potala or simply looking at the palace with deep seated longing and achieving a sense of deliverance.

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To be continued………

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:57 Archived in China Tagged buddhism tibet lama lhasa potala dalai Comments (0)

Living with the Dani People of Beliem Highlands.....

papua Journal...Volume 2

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We packed all our supplies in several bed- raggled cartons covered with tarpaulin and set off for our trek. It was not like Amundsen or Scott setting off for the poles, calculated, organized and fighting every impulse for failure. Ours seemed to be one of practicality, a
vague lack of purpose and leaving a lot to chance. The A-Type me simply ignored getting involved since the weather was always pleasant, the mountains filled with villages and the land as lush as it could be. We boarded a beat up mini van that took the six of us on a 20-minute ride. Why? That is where the road ended. Wamena is a jungle town with a 5-mile highway running on either side of the airport built by missionaries, block by block.
Kilese was our destination. My lonely planet research was pooh- poohed by Scorpio, my guide, who was sincerely interested in showing me the real Papua. It took a lifetime to get my police permit to travel the areas we were planning to traverse. The climb was steep and my porters lifting heavy loads were moving fast in order to reach the village before nightfall. Scorpio and Hanuman (a name I have used here to notate the faithful caretaker of mine, since I do not remember his name) were with me during this lovely trek in misty rain with a Chinese ponchodoing a slow water torture on my body.
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The path leading to the village, which was about 6 km to the hilltop comprised of wild flowers, hand carved sweet potato plantations, old growth trees and lovely vegetation that seemed to be well tended. We passed small huts with families tending pigs and washing sweet potatoes on the mountain streams. Here is where I realized that Papua is all about pigs and sweet potatoes. It was their Nasdaq and DJIA.
As the evening was wearing thin I was wondering about our camp. Scorpio was very vague about our campsite causing me considerable anxiety. Close to 6:00 PM I noticed kids and families moving about the trail. It was very foggy and the rain ahead picked up in intensity making me wonder if wipers on glasses will indeed be a practical invention. Alas! We arrived. If the opening scene from the Lord of the Rings, showing an idealistic gnome community in a fantasy landscape was a “Ten”, then Kilese was a 20. An arched floral gateway, very natural in its presence, followed by several steep steps brought me to this commune of several huts holding about 30 members of an extended family. We were first shown to our common habitation, a large hut with plenty of firewood and hay for flooring.
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We dried ourselves in the fire and the cook who had already arrived earlier was brandishing his ware in front of the smoky hearth, which served as light, stove and heater: it was certainly the most important element that evening.
Scorpio whispered into my ear that I should proceed to one of the huts in the far extreme corner of the commune. It was still raining, but I could see flickering light and some figures in the hut. I walked in from the rain to see the most impressive sight any adventurerc could expect to see. It was the daily evening congregation of the men folk of the commune in front of the fire. The chief had a whisk, a conch shell necklace and spectacular feathers in his headdress. His brother a wiry muscular figure had a boar’s tusk going through his septum, an uncle dressed less exclusively sat in the far side and a brother-in law who seemed to have more curls in his groin than on his head sat quietly with a lonely feather sporting out of his ornate head
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The whole scene was so unexpected that I was short for words. Several thoughts raced through my mind, Do I whip my camera (a little one) and start shooting, or should I attempt to make gestures or just simply let them enjoy the sight of an Indian, whom I suspect they had never seen. Along with the thick smoke emerging from their wet timber hearth they were all smoking cigarettes and instead of offering me one asked for some more from me. A habit certainly started by the Dutch who ruled this land, as a barter item. I slowly eased my camera out of its moorings on my hip and tried to take some pictures only to
realize that it was completely fogged from my trek in the rain. Photographers reading this article will sure share my anguish at this importune moment, as my SLR was in a far away hut.DSC07072.jpg
Scorpio after letting me simmer inside with no communication, cigarette or camera finally came in with some smokes and sweet conversation. It seemed that after all the chores are done in the plantations the men-folk retire to their “Alpha Hut” where they discuss their day’s issues: pigs, swine, sweet potatoes, war paint and old tales of blood and gore. They also wonder about Christianity that is being pushed on them, something called the Indonesian Government, tourism & brown people who offer cigarettes without barter and above all the threat to their unique way of life. The Alpha hut serves as a meeting room, a 'men only' gathering place where every male member (only) is accepted, a place where an ancestor or two are smoked after mummification and preserved and a place where all the elders sleep on a platform away from their wives and families.
I offered a few cigarettes to the elders from my new stash while smoking one myself. I had a feeling of hometown bonhomie with the Dani at that moment. The altitude, the tedium, the cheap tobacco and the overall atmosphere was indeed taking me to a higher plane.
Scorpio proceeded to explain to me that the men slept next to each other on the platform above the fire (see plates attached), but did their matrimonial duties by visiting their family hut briefly where the wives and kids along with their pigs slept. In fact within the compound of each family hut there was an interconnected stockade, where the swine would spend their daytime hours. Like stashing any other valuables, these pigs would occupy the living quarters in the night providing financial security and physical warmth.
Nature had provided them a perfect climate for this type of arrangement to evolve. Jarred Diamond, the author of “Guns, Germs and Steel” observed that this living arrangement of man and beast led to virus jumping species in Papua amongst other places. The same is true with sheep in the Middle East, cattle in Asia (I remember SenKhazani, our milkman in Madras living with his favorite cow in the Government provided housing, dogs and cats in Europe and monkeys in Central African Republic.DSC07054.jpg
I felt very touristy trying to take my pictures with the elders. Upon review of the pictures one could see the stupidity of that enterprise (See plates) we took leave after several introductions, handshakes and pleasantries. After a dismal meal in the communal hut, I was shown my hut. It was a hut and just that. I was given an old pillow, which I quickly covered with a jacket and a straw mattress. The floor of the hut was made of cane reeds and the door was an excuse for a portal. It was pitch dark inside the hut but after midnight and after the rains had abated out came the stars; the milky way, constellations, star clusters, white dwarfs, red dwarfs, black holes?. This humble traveler was soon stargazing in absolute awe.
The only other time I had observed such an event was in the Sahel Desert in Mali. Every time I tried to crawl back into my hut to sleep, out came the creepy crawlers. They were moving, gnawing, chewing and boring into the straw floor. It was not the former cannibals with whom I was lodging that would give me the
creeps, but the unseen critters encompassing my space was simply too much to bear. I barely slept.

Ramdas Iyer can be contacted at riyerr@aol.com

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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