On the Beach in Benin


This striking assemblage of folk art on the beach at Ouidah, Benin illustrates two ever-present themes of the West African experience: the terrible legacy of slavery, and the fact that nothing ever goes to waste.

The setting was the annual Voodoo Festival which, to this uninitiated viewer, looked like a massive meet-and-greet. The beach marks the point of no return from which slave ships sailed for the new world or, as the sign so eloquently puts it, the beginning and the end of history.





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Miles and Miles of Mongolia

In response to the question “How was Mongolia?” there is only one adjective that comes to mind, pushing all other qualifiers out of contention: vast. The extent of the vastness can only be appreciated once you leave the capital of Ulaanbaatar and realize that you will be spending hours and hours, day after day, traversing huge distances in a rugged and bumpy vehicle, relying on GPS to guide you through roadless and unvarying landscapes.

Among this vastness you will see the country’s justly renowned sights, to wit:

The Monastery Complex at Erdene

The Monastery Complex at Erdene Zuu

The Flaming Cliffs

The Flaming Cliffs

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The Wild Takhi Horses


But meanwhile there is no denying that the days are long, the challenges of the road are many, and the novelty of the occasional settlement or camel herd is apt to wear thin. So while in Mongolia I found that the best strategy is to embrace the unexpected, and delight in the fact that you are in a country where:

There are vegan karaoke bars:


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There are monuments to phalluses:



Angels perch atop baroque silver fountains at the edge of the desert:



The bartender at your ger camp is always ready to serve:

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Genghis Khan (or at least his boot) still stands tall after eight centuries:



And museum placards leave you really wanting to know what else is registered in the Red Book of Mongolia…


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A Ride on the Cubamobile



The question on every traveler’s lips these days is “Have you been to Cuba?” Cuba is hot – tour operators are scrambling to offer it, and long-denied Americans are eager to sign up. I listen with genuine interest to fellow travelers’ reports of visits with artists and educators, and of their delight at seeing this spectacularly beautiful island. Then my thoughts drift back to another time and another Cuba, where I improbably engaged in a game of frisbee with the Soviet navy on the beach at Varadero.

In all the rush it’s mostly forgotten that there was a brief window during the Carter administration when it was legally permissible for U.S. Citizens to travel to the island. The Venceremos Brigade, best known for sending cane cutters to help with the sugar harvest in defiance of the blockade, leaped into action by organizing a series of study tours known as “Cubamobiles.” Moved by curiosity of the unknown I signed up for the third “Cubamobile,” departing in December 1978 and timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Communist victory on January 1, 1979.


The itinerary was designed as an introduction to socialism, Cuban-style, and we predictably spent a lot of time at factories, revolutionary landmarks, and workers’ committees. At the Bulk Sugar Terminal we met with employees who eagerly explained the concept of “socialist emulation” – as best I understood it, a type of fraternal rather than individual competition among workers for the common good (those who want to know more are referred to the works of Che Guevara). We attended a meeting of a neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, dedicated to keeping ideological tabs on the inhabitants and bringing dissenters back into the fold (although, we were assured, by the most benign and constructive methods). We made the obligatory stops at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, where the first salvo of the revolution was fired, and at the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion, featuring what was then known as the Museum of American Imperialism. We visited with medical personnel, literacy workers, students at the Lenin high school, and cigar rollers, among countless others. Christmas Day was a day like any other, although we passed churches where services were being held unimpeded for tiny numbers of congregants.


And lest it seem otherwise, at no time were we minded. We mingled freely with Cubans everywhere – in their squares, at their Coppelia ice cream parlors, in their restaurants {they laughed with us at the iconic red Coca Cola signs that said instead “Coma Caca”), and outside the hotels that they were prohibited from entering (though many of these latter encounters seemed to involve attempts to purchase our American blue jeans).

And on to the beach at Varadero. Our bus broke down and we idled away the time playing frisbee while waiting for a replacement. Anchored just off the coast was a Soviet navy  vessel, and when their curiosity got the best of them a group of sailors came ashore. They joined us in our game, which just happened to feature a tour member’s frisbee in the design of the American flag. When it was time to go we gave the frisbee to the sailors and they reciprocated with little Russian bear friendship pins. A perfect moment of people-to-people diplomacy in the midst of the Cold War.

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The Hamer Bull Jumping Ceremony


My thoughts on attending the bull jumping ceremony of the Hamer people were these: If I were a young man about to prove myself worthy of a bride by running naked over the backs of six cranky animals, would I want hundreds of foreign tourists and at least three international media outlets there to record it? And if I were a young woman who was going to drink a generous amount of honey wine and allow my back to be beaten raw with tree branches by the male members of my tribe, would I want so many shocked and disapproving Westerners looking on? Their response, I am sure, would be utter and complete indifference. There can be few traditional people as confidently and defiantly themselves in the face of the modern world as the Hamer people of southern Ethiopia.

The bull jumper is a young man who has come of age and hopes to be allowed to marry his chosen bride by running back and forth three times over the backs of the assembled animals without incident. I’m pleased to report that our jumper was successful and that his payoff was immediate. Returning to terra firma after an impressive display of balance and agility, he scooped up his intended and together they quickly left the scene.

The ritual beating of the women is harder to watch and to understand. The Hamer women are aggressive, quite foxy, and nobody’s fools. But walk behind a random thicket at the ceremony site and you are apt to encounter a young woman, already bleeding profusely, defying a man with a switch to hit her harder. Their willingness to submit to this violence is typically described as a way of showing devotion to the men of the tribe. Why their devotion takes this form is, as far as I have been able to determine, unexplained.

There is a small but wonderful ethnographic museum in the town of Jinka, where storyboards feature Hamer women in their own words. I would have appreciated some insight into the origins and psychology of the custom. But the storytellers are, after all, community members, not anthropologists. They make it clear that refusing to participate in this ritual would be unthinkable, and that the scars thus gained are a badge of honor.

Reluctant participant

Reluctant participant

Three times over and back

Three times over and back


Ceremony Attendee

Beating Victim

Beating Victim



Observing it all

Observing it all

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Toys for the Dead


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.




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


Giving new meaning to the term in the capital of Togo

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