Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Town Full of Grace

 Street in Gracias, Lempira

 A Shopping Centre

 Motor Taxi

 Statue of Lenca Warrior, Lempira

 View of the town from the Fort

Town Church

The town of Gracias in Lempira department in western Honduras has the misfortune of sharing its name with another town (Gracias), and a province, (Gracias á Dios) on the Mosquito coast. Nestled in the mountains, at the foot of the highest peak in Honduras, Mt. Celaque, it is also as remote and isolated as its namesakes.  

Once the administrative capital of a region from Southern Mexico to Nicaragua in the mid 1500's, Gracias' prosperity lasted only for a brief historical moment. After a few years, the center was transferred to Antigua in neighboring Guatemala. 

One of the oldest, colonial cities in Honduras lay dormant and inaccessible until various foreign aid organizations started arriving in the last few decades. With the arrival of aid organizations which have a compelling reason for being there, Gracias, Lempira started to come alive again.

Gracias, Lempira can count its blessing in its relative isolation, historically and geographically. The town on the whole looks and feels as authentic as it might have been.  Even the new buildings (mainly hotels) that have recently sprung, blend in with the landscape of the town.

While the remoteness and isolation has withheld the material quality in life for a great number of its residents, the town has maintained something valuable in its circumstances.  Its saving grace is in its simplicity - an under appreciated quality of life.

I took the pictures last month during a 2-week stay in Gracias, Lempira.  Looking at them now, I am reminded of the time I spent living and working in a gracious town that deserves the name.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Silent Testimony of the Mayans

 Pyramid in the Ceremonial Court

 Tree trunk in the East Court

 Hieroglyphic Staircase

 Stellae and sculptures in the Ceremonial Court

 East Court

 Replica of the Templo Rosalia in the Museum

 Facade of a building

 Friezes in the Museum

Head sculptures

We all know by now that 12.21.l2 could be a significant event if one were to follow the Mayans.  Either they ran out of space in the round stone tablet they used to create the Mayan Calendar, or on December 12, 2012 some significant event is bound to happen. Maybe, we start all over again?

Unfortunately, the originators of the calendar are not around to explain the significance of the date, since they just upped and left 800 years ago or so, possibly for a beach life according to National Geographic.

The Mayan civilization is the oldest, most developed and longest lasting civilization or empire in the Americas.  The Mayans and their descendants, the indigenous peoples of Central America, have been around since 2000 BCE, developed a civilization that peaked between 300 to 900 CE and slowly faded away until the conquistadores took over. 

Whatever happened to them is such a mystery and a loss. What they left behind had been overtaken by the jungle, looted by the Spanish and the British, and now painstakingly being dug up and pieced together by archaeologists.

Copán in Honduras is one of the many Mayan archaeological sites that range from the Yucatan to Guatemala, Belize to El Salvador.  The city was a capital and one of the most important cities during the Mayan civilization. It flourished between 300 to 900 CE, then abandoned, and now, the original site of Copán, is a UNESCO World Heritage.

The Copán Ruins (or Site les Ruines de Copán, Copán Ruinas) is an archaelogical site turned into a park, the Copán Archaeological Park.  I wasn't sure what to expect when I took the long and complicated trip from Gracias, Lempira (Honduras) one weekend last October. 

For sure, a pyramid here and there, massive stone edifice here, sculptures there, and a lot of rubble every where.  To my surprise, the site has more than archaeology in mind, it is indeed a park: beautiful forest, lots of green open spaces, even some wildlife (colourful macaws, and a rat like creature) with the ruins, the statues serving as props.  What props.

The more formal and organized display of the artifacts are in the museum about 100 metres from the main entrance.  The entry way is a replica of a tunnel, and when you come out of the tunnel, you get hit by glorious sunlight and the more glorious sight of the Templo Rosalia, a faithful replica of the original in the park. 

The displays are all made of stone, from parts of edifices to friezes, busts, and a predominance of stylized depiction of jaguars, monkeys and macaws. Oh, a few stone skulls as well.

The Mayans, it seems to me, had a very rigid social structure, bloody including human sacrifices.  For a tropical country, the singular use of stone for everything gives off a sense of massiveness, heaviness, and drama. Fortunately, the park atmosphere of the ruins and the wonderful atrium in the museum soften the experience.

We may never know the significance of the date, 12.21.12. However, with the onset of winter, people in the northern hemisphere can follow the Mayans' lead. Maybe, head for the beach.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tomato Soup and a View

 Creamy Tomato Soup

 Mint Tea

Restaurant at Landgasthof zum Hirschen

Jagged Peaks of the Dolomites

Above the town of Bolzano in northern Italy is a tiny village called San Genesio Atesino or in Geman, Jenesien.  This is of course South Tyrol, an Italo-Germanic area, which was once part of Austria until end of World War I.

To get to San Genesio, one takes a tourist bus downtown called Bo Bus, to the Funicular San Genesio.  On the way up, for about 15 minutes the cable car ride treated the passengers to a spectacular view of the Italian Alps.

In this village last July, two delightful events happened to me.  First, I spent a couple of hours admiring the  jaggged peaks of the Dolomites from the restaurant deck, the reason for my being there. The second, was a culinary surprise - cream of tomato soup for lunch that knocked the socks off me at the Landgasthof zum Hirschen.

The soup took awhile to come but when I took my first taste, it was well worth the wait.  It had the colour of pumpkin soup, but had the right balance of tomato and cream with subtle blend of herbs. At the end, came the distinct taste of some very old Italian cheese.  This soup just went way up high on my tomato soup taste meter.

With my creamy tomato soup, fresh bread, mint tea and wonderful appel strudel, the view of the Dolomites became more sumptuous than I had expected.   

Please click the link for more information:  The Dolomites - UNESCO World Heritage

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Book, A Bridge and a Naked Statue

 Courtyard in Palazzo Vecchio

 "A Room with a View"

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery

 Dome of Il Duomo

Faux David and Admiring Tourists

E.M. Forster's, A Room With A View, a dreamy sketch of Ponte Vecchio and Michaelangelo's statue of David in all his glory, come to mind whenever I think of Florence.

To sum up my short visit to Florence last July, it is all about a book, a bridge and a naked statue.  Of course, there's a lot more to see and do (or eat) in Florence. However, everything tends to become a blur after seeing and feeling so much "renaissance" in a couple of days.

Walking the narrow streets of the historical centre of this UNESCO World Heritage city, can quickly give one a Florentine feeling. Just like the book.

Piazza della Signoria, the town square, is the best place to start.  Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall of the past and present day of Florence, is on one side of the square.  I had walked into this humongous courtyard admiring the columns and the rich looking ceiling, before I actually realized I was already inside.

Palazzo Vecchio is nothing like any city hall, hardly a hint of bureaucracy at work. The palace museum exudes magnificence floor to ceiling, befitting the Medici name.  Cosimo de Medici, the patriarch of the Medicis, once lived here until he moved the family to Palazzo Pitti across the Arno. Up in the tower, is the postcard view of the romanticized Florence with the surrounding Tuscan hills and the river Arno.

At the entrance to the Palazzo is the most famous naked man in history.  A statue of David by Michelangelo flanks the main entrance.  Seeing the outdoor version of David (albeit a copy but identical) can be a good  excuse to skip the Academia Gallery where the real thing is.

Uffizi Gallery is down the street from Palazzo Vecchio.  Considered one of the largest, famous museums in the world, Uffizi is the home to Italian renaissance masters, from the more famous (Boticell, da Vinci, Titian) to the not so famous but interesting (Artemisia, Cimabue, Giotto).

I found the most pleasant section at Uffizi in the outer corridor wrapped around the gallery halls.  Marble sculptures from Greek to Roman to Byzantine periods, BCE to CE eras, basked gloriously in natural light from the huge windows. From one window in the corner, I caught a view of Ponte Vecchio.

The "vecchio" or old in the name of the bridge is based in fact. It is the oldest Roman bridge in Florence.  Unfortunately, the structures on either side of the bridge resemble squatters and the bridge roadway is full of vendors. The bridge is best seen at a distance, just like a 19th century sketch I once saw.

Of course, there is more to Florence than a book, a bridge and the naked statue.  I can add the best melon gelato I've ever had anywhere yet and stuffed canelloni in a delicate white cheese sauce for lunch at the unpretentious Trattoria Le Mossacce.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Most Serene Republic

 Quiet Morning on the Canal

 View of the Grand Canal

A Gondola in the Making

 Basilica of San Marco and Piazza San Marco

 Gondola laden with Tourists

Classic Renaissance Building of the Academia

A "Street" Scene

View from the Bridge of Sighs

Gilded ceiling going up to Palazzo Ducale

Venice once called itself the "Most Serene Republic". The republic's "serene" reputation rested on its preference for economic over military conquests.  That didn't stop it from waging a  few battles to gain economic muscle.  

In medieval times, the title "most serene" also referred to a sovereign.  The "republic" was the most serene, the highest sovereign over any doge, the elected head of state.  It lasted a millenium until Napoleon took care of that in late 1700s.

The republic was patterned after ancient Greek democratic states.  The impression one receives after visiting Palazzo Ducale, the seat of government, was less than democratic.  It was a democracy but only of the elite, for the elite and by the elite.

A millenium of economic prowess and progress created Venice's unique and fantastic cityscape.  The city built on the wetlands of the Venetian lagoon in the Adriatic, and supported the structures with thousands of wooden piles.  The life of Venice literally and delicately rests on these wooden supports.

Years of reclaiming, piling and building has given La Serenissima the feel and look of an outdoor museum.  The whole Venetian lagoon is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  There are no electric vehicles of any kind on the islands, just a variety of boats on the waterways: water bus, water taxi and the iconic gondola.

The city is best experienced just as the locals do: on foot through calles, soportegos and cobble stoned campos; over arched bridges that connect streets, or on water by pricy "buses" at 7 Euros for a single ride, point to point.

Last July, I discovered that 3 days of traipsing in the hot sun did not give me enough time to venture beyond San Marco and the neighborhood of Academia in Dorsoduro. One can overdose on museums, churches and palaces in such a short time. Beyond the standard tourist fare, there is a lot more one can do and see without actually stepping into another church or museum.  Just wander around.

La Serenissima is also renowned for its art, music. Vivaldi is of course true blue Venetian. The Biennale hosts a famous film festival.  There are masquerade masks, Murano glass ware; little shops and cafés;  more islands in the lagoon, side streets with houses wearing the face of history.

On a more mundane issue, I asked the lady at the reception what happens to the sewage of these wall to wall houses.  Simply she said, they have sewer lines.  Not too long ago, the canals served another purpose according to a non-Venetian lady friend.  The most serene commune of Venice has definitely taken care of that matter.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Mystery of the Iceman

Is Ötzi Real?

 How long will Ötzi Exist?

In the town of Bolzano (or Bozen in German) in South Tyrol in Northern Italy, the Dolomites  (UNESCO World Heritage) dominate the scenery.  But in a little museum downtown, the mummified remains of the Iceman is fast becoming the main attraction for this Italo-Germanic town.

The Iceman is unique in the world of mummies.  It is the only mummy discovered in the world that has been preserved in ice.  For sure, there are others out there buried in glaciers but the Iceman is the first to be found, thawed and preserved.  And to date, has remained intact as when it was found.

In September 1991, a couple of German hikers discovered a "body" in the Otztal Alps near the border of Italy and Austria. Speculations ranged from a victim of crime or a long lost hiker.  Subsequent  scientific studies revealed it was a man who lived 3,300 BCE.  

When the remains were extracted, South Tyrol took propriety rights over the frozen man.  It was within 92.56 metres of the border set in 1919.  However, scientific examinations were entrusted to Innsbruck.  After several tries in naming the Iceman, a German media company branded it, Ötzi, a name that stuck to the "Man from the Glacier" today.

The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology  has only one exhibit and focus.  I was thoroughly fascinated when I visited in mid-July this year. The well-constructed narrative the museum presented was captivating:  the discovery, the speculations, the scientific studies, dna analysis, the reconstruction of his life and his world, and theories proposed regarding his fate, face down in the gully encapsulated in ice.

The exhibit humanized the Iceman, his life, the times and the world that he lived in, more "global" than we think.  Looking at the man through this small window (maybe two feet by two feet), resting in a morgue, I thought he could have been someone's long dead loved one. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Marble Island

 Kilometro Dos Outdoor Workshop

Marble Art in Progress

Romblon Harbour

Romblon Cathedral

 Beach at San Pedro Talipasak

Cottage Above the Beach at San Pedro Talipasak

In the Philippines, Romblon is synonymous with marble.  It's not a surprise since the whole island is practically made of marble.  To this day, the island produces hand made marble products from tiles to household furniture to sculptures.

Unfortunately for the island, the global economic crisis and the influx of machine made marble products from China haven't been kind to the island's main industry.

Kilometro Dos is the place to go if you're into anything marble.  The outdoor workshops display work in progress from semi artsy pieces to the downright kitchen variety.  Raw marble is carved, washed and polished - all by hand.

Artisans use various shades of marble, some with veins of jade green, tiger stripes, or dark shades of grey. The more industrial marble products are found further up from Kilometro Dos. Raw marble is still quarried based on centuries old tradition but the marble tiles are now cut, washed and polished with  modern day machinery.

The Island of Romblon is in central Philippines but getting there from Manila feels like one has to travel halfway around the world.  A daily ferry service takes passengers from Batangas city (Luzon island) to Romblon town, a journey of about 12-13 hours. Usually.  Should engine trouble cause the ferry to stall in the middle of the sea, there's always the consolation of being stranded in the world's Centre of Marine Biodiversity.

The view of Romblon harbour from the ferry is very picturesque, postcard variety. The hills tightly wrapped around the town are wrapped in green, but they are raw marble.   The town resembles a Mediterranean fishing village but once on land, you know you're in the Philippines: outriggered paraus (bancas) on the water, jeepneys and tricycles on the road.

Life on Romblon moves in the very slow lane.  Even expatriate residents who number quite a few have adapted to the place. (On my visit to Romblon in the fall of 2011, the only two cafés in downtown were owned and run by expats from the UK).

There are a number of unspoiled white sand beaches, fish sanctuaries, and historic relics on land and in the water waiting to be discovered.  San Pedro Talipasak has probably the nicest, (actually groomed) beach. Beside the rustic resort at San Pedro, is another cove with a cave, where centuries old porcelain had been retrieved. 

Being on the sea lanes of the Verde Island Passage (reputed to have the world's highest concentration of  marine life), hasn't unravelled life in Romblon.  Ships don't regularly stop on the island, but a few unlucky ones, including ancient Chinese vessels, managed to make their final stop in a watery grave off Romblon.