Toys for the Dead

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Enter a Mentawai longhouse and the first thing you’ll notice are the fanciful animal carvings – hanging from the ceiling, emblazoned on the walls. There are birds and turtles, monkeys and boar.  These are “toys for the dead,” placed there for the spirits of the animals killed for food by these traditional hunter-gatherers. The thinking is that if the spirits of these creatures are happy and entertained they will stay in the longhouse and invite others of their kind to visit. Thus do the Mentawai hope to ensure a steady supply of the game essential to their diet and way of life.

The Mentawai inhabit an island off the coast of an island – Siberut Island, 96 miles across the Indian Ocean from the Indonesian isle of Sumatra. The principal role in their society is played by the shaman – any individual, it seems, who is willing to undergo the requisite training and to endure a series of painful tattoos that eventually cover most of the body. Despite the mystery often associated with the role, the shamans assembled for our visit were an extremely relaxed and affable group of nearly naked men happy for the novelty and gracious about demonstrating their material culture. Their training seems informal – solicited from anyone with the requisite knowledge, and payable at the rate of a pig a week – leaving the impression that it continues until the aspirant has achieved the desired level of proficiency, or exhausted the supply of available pigs.

Among the traditional skills demonstrated for us was the making of poisoned arrows and darts. The lethal preparation involved some ginger, some chilis, and the lethal root of an unnamed tuber – unnamed not because it’s a secret but because our translator didn’t know the word in English. Bark was stripped from a tree, moistened, pounded and turned into the makings of a loincloth before our eyes. We watched the women head down to the river to fish wearing jaunty rattan leaf skirts designed to hide their scent; we declined their invitation to join them from an unwillingness to descend the slippery riverbank that they have negotiated effortlessly since childhood. In the evening the shamans danced, delighting us and eliciting excited squeals of “bilo, bilo” from the children as they recognized the stylized moves of the monkey.

But time spent with the Mentawai is bittersweet. With every visitor who travels the five hours by boat to Siberut from Padang, ventures two hours inland by dugout canoe, and makes the truly daunting slog through the mud of the rain forest to their longhouse, modernity encroaches a little more. It is not hard to imagine the day when the longhouses of the Mentawai will no longer be inhabited by the souls of either animals or men.

 

Arrival

Arrival

The Longhouse

The Longhouse

Bird Toy

Bird Toy

Making  Poison Darts

Making Poison Darts

Stripping Bark for Cloth

Stripping Bark for Cloth

Preparing the Day's Catch

Preparing the Day’s Catch

Hanging at the Lonhgouse

Hanging at the Lonhgouse

A Quiet Moment

A Reflective Moment

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A Forgotten Conflict in the Caucasus

Azerbaijani War Victims, Baku

Azerbaijani War Victims, Baku

The recent news that 15 people have died during renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh  probably prompted most Westerners, if they noticed the report at all, to ask “What or where is Nagorno-Karabakh?” One of the side effects of travel is a heightened awareness of how many people have suffered and died for tracts of land that barely register on the world’s radar screen. Such is Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave under that country’s control contained wholly within the boundaries of Azerbaijan. Its current configuration is the result of a six-year war between the neighboring countries that ended with an uneasy truce in 1994.

As a traveler to the region in 2006 I experienced Nagorno-Karabakh simply as a curiosity represented by an increased military presence as we skirted its borders. The only casualty of the conflict was my Lonely Planet guide: before heading to the Azerbaijani border we were obliged to remove any maps in our possession showing the breakaway enclave as a part of Armenia.

 

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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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