Travel Moment: The Bag Ladies of Lome

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Giving new meaning to the term in the capital of Togo

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My Own Private Che Spotting

 

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Recently, during a long and uneventful bus ride through the savannas of West Africa, our trip leader sought to alleviate boredom by asking “What’s the most widely sold T-shirt in the world?” Alas, the game didn’t last long; it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was the iconic image of Che Guevara in his signature beret. It’s a well-known fact among travelers that wherever you go, if you’re paying attention, you will find Che staring out at you not only from T-shirts, but from books, decals and mud flaps as well. That this occurs in Latin America, where citizens presumably have some historical context, is not surprising. That it occurs in places as geographically and ideologically removed as Ethiopia and Sri Lanka is remarkable, and worthy of more exploration than time and the lack of a common language have usually allowed.

There was once a very enjoyable and original web site called Che Spotting devoted to just this phenomenon, publishing traveler-submitted photos from all over the world. Sadly the site now is now abandoned, leaving me with the random assemblage posted here.

And a question for travelers: Who’s the runner-up?

Abra Minch, Ethiopia

Abra Minch, Ethiopia

 

On the road, Laos

On the road, Laos

 

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Kandy, Sri Lanka

 

El Djem, Tunisia

El Djem, Tunisia

 

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

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The Happiest Place for Monkeys

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In a region where forest creatures are more likely to show up as bush meat or as desiccated heads in the fetish market, the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary in central Ghana comes as an absolute delight. The villagers who live in the reserve regard the protected mona and colobus monkeys as reincarnations of their ancestors, and revere them as benevolent spirits. The animals are welcome in the village and provided with a steady supply of bananas. Certain individuals are considered to have special powers of communication with the primates, and assume a life-long role as their guardians and intermediaries.

Banana delivery

Banana delivery

Through long association and attention to the monkeys, the villagers recognize the sounds the various troops make when a member has died. When deaths occur, the animals are located and lovingly retrieved from the forest floor, wrapped in the traditional funeral swaddling, afforded the customary libations by the guardians, and buried in monkey-sized coffins. Visitors can view their cemetery deep in the forest, where each monkey has a marker identifying it by type, sex and date of burial. The guardians, when their time comes, are buried there as well, sealing their eternal bond.

West Africa offers the visitor many dispiriting examples of indifference and casual cruelty to animals. But at the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary my heart sang.

The Cemetery Site

The Cemetery Site

Grave Markers

Grave Markers

Grave of a Guardian, apparently 120  years old

Grave of a Guardian, apparently 120 years old

Elusive Colobus Monkeys

Elusive Colobus Monkeys

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A Week in the Human Zoo

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I didn’t coin the phrase “the human zoo” – many writers have used it to describe the experience of visiting the tribal areas of southern Ethiopia, and particularly the Omo Valley. There groups such as the Mursi, Hamer, Karo and others have long recognized that their exoticism to Westerners is a marketable commodity, and we travelers have done our part by eagerly consuming it. Numerous accounts had prepared me for the drill – portraits are for sale at an established price, and we enter the arena with pockets full of Ethiopian birr, feeling – and dispensing – like walking ATMs.

Let me be clear – no one begrudges the sellers the right to be paid for their time and image, and the amounts involved are trivial  - 3 to 5 birr (15 to 25 cents) for adults and 1-2 birr (5 to 10 cents) for children. What no one had prepared me for, however, was the chaos, physicality, and competition that ensued when our group of thirteen travelers would arrive in a village and its entire population – some hastily applying paint or finery – would begin jockeying for our attention. With limited time and, truth be told, patience, we were placed in the unseemly position of hastily choosing some, rejecting others, running gauntlets of grasping hands, and removing opportunists from already agreed-upon tableaux. With all this frenzied attention we were often left wondering which of us were the more exotic species.

A far more troubling aspect of this marketplace, however, was the inequality it created among the greater and lesser photogenic. Among the Mursi, for example, women with lip plates, particularly if they are young and bare-breasted, make money hand over fist. The men of the group, in contrast, despite their often magnificent adornments and scarifications, are definitely the also-rans, and grow increasingly frustrated and aggressive as a result. I wondered if the money earned was shared with the wider family or group. But I saw no evidence of this, and the locals I asked were of the impression that it stayed with the recipient.

At no time did I doubt that the lifestyles I observed were genuine, or believe that they were in any way a quaint reconstruction for tourists. But when naked two-year-old children stream from their huts at the sight of visitors crying “Photo 2 birr” I despair for the future of these proud people.

So I offer these portraits from the Omo Valley. They show some of the most remarkable people still living traditional lives in the world today. I’m privileged to have seen them. I only wish the experience hadn’t come at the cost of the dignity of both parties.

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Mursi Woman

Mursi Woman

Mursi Woman

Mursi Woman

Mursi Woman

Hamer Women

Hamer Women

Hamer Girls

Hamer Girls

Hamer Children

Hamer Children

Karo Women

Karo Women and Children

Karo Girls

Karo Girls

Karo Boys

Karo Boys

Arbore Girls

Arbore Girls

Arbore Mother and Child

Arbore Mother and Child

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Whimsy in the Desert

Research the Chott El Jerid in the Saharan expanse of southern Tunisia, and you’ll discover a lot of interesting facts. It’s a desert of salt in the summer, when the limited supply of water dries up completely and leaves only a vast crusty surface. It was one of the many local settings used in the Star Wars franchise - perhaps the “Lars Homestead” will resonate with the movies’ fans. It figured in the last published work of Jules Verne, set in the distant future of 1930. Finally, the similarity of its sodium chloride deposits to those discovered on Mars have made it an important area for study by planetary scientists.

What you won’t anticipate, however, is the whimsy of the inhabitants (whoever they might be…) :

The Transportation

The Accommodations

The Accommodations

The Sights

The Sights

The Facilities

The Facilities

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The One True Silk Road

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From Xi’an to Kashgar, from Almaty to Ashkabad, through the Caucuses to Europe, the ancient collection of trade routes known as the Silk Road served as the commercial heart of the medieval world. Modern travelers see its echoes everywhere – in caravansaries, some in ruins, some converted to boutique hotels – in modern souks built on ancient trading sites, and in countless strategically placed statues of camels and turbaned drivers.

So imagine my surprise at discovering at the ruined city of Ani, in the far northeastern corner of Turkey, that the Silk Road actually has a sign post!

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Remembering Jacques Brel in the Marquesas

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While his name may be unfamiliar to post-baby boomers, during the 60s and 70s the Belgian singer Jacques Brel was one of the giants of Euro-pop. He sang dramatic, bittersweet songs of love and loss, and I cherished the single cassette my parents thoughtfully brought back from a trip to Europe. I recall that he was reputed to be alive and well and living in Paris, then was aware that he had cancer and finally, and sadly, that he died. After that he slipped from my consciousness and there he remained for over three decades.

So it came as a surprise to learn that he has been resting all these years on the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, not far from fellow expatriate Paul Gauguin. There is a wonderful story of his arrival on the island in the mid-70s. Since everyone was expected to contribute to the greater good of the community, he was asked what he could do.

“I’m a singer,” he said.

Referring to the rich Polynesian tradition of communal singing and music-making, the islanders replied “Everyone here is a singer. What else can you do?”

So he responded “I’m a pilot,” which, apparently, he was. He then purchased a twin-engine plane, named it “Jojo” in memory of a friend, and lived out his remaining years making mail runs and providing medical evacuations.

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L’Espace Brel

The islanders honor his memory in a converted warehouse known as “L’Espace Brel.” For 500 FPF you can view an assortment of memorabilia, including photos, song lyrics, artists’ renderings and movie posters - I hadn’t realized that this astonishingly multi-faceted man was also an actor and director. Over it all hangs Jojo, his ticket to a home and idyllic resting place in the Marquesas.

Et par manque de brise le temps s’immobilise
Aux Marquises
1977

The magical island of Hiiva Oa

The magical island of Hiva Oa

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