Old Habits Die Hard

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This morning I headed out, with an Australian couple, to another little village where they do cultural demonstrations, around 20 minutes from Port Vila. The lady was terrified of spiders which became pretty problematic once they started playing about with their ‘toys’, as they like to call them. A man from the village, kitted out in traditional attire, talked us through a number of different aspects of their culture.

Firstly he explained to us about their methods of food preservation. In earlier times when banana and breadfruit were the staple parts of their diets, they had to work out methods of preserving them in case the crops were destroyed by cyclones. They’d grate bananas using a piece of coral then place in all in a large sack to let the water drip out over a period of time. They’d then place the dried mush in a hole in the ground lined with coconut leaves – larger waterproof leaves would be wrapped around the banana which they would replace everytime they went brown. To secure the ‘fridge’ they’d cover it in heavy rocks. Apparently this could then last over 5 years! This seems hard to believe! To make the dried brown mush palatable after such a long time in the ground they’d add coconut milk – covers a number of sins.

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He demonstrated the various traps they use to this day to catch chickens and pigs in the bush. Then similar contraptions for marine life.

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He showed us a weird looking staff with vine tied onto the end which apparently sucks the oxygen out of the water as it expands. In large quantities (50 men or so each with a staff) they can kill all of the fish in a rock pool through sucking out the oxygen.

The most fascinating was the spider web net – they spin the wooden structure around in spider webs like it’s candy floss until the web gets thick enough to act as a form of net for smaller fish!

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The various herbal remedies he was talking about, again, seem a little hard to believe. It seems such a strange concept that you’d go out into the jungle – pick a plant – then squeeze its juice into some water to get rid of a headache… He then told us a story about how he broke his leg a few years ago from falling out of a coconut tree. Instead of taking him to the modernised hospital on a different island his father had carted him, a similar distance, over to a traditional hospital where they ‘operated ‘ with their bare hands and, crucially, without anaesthetic. He says he cried for a week then was furious with his dad for a month. Thankfully, he recovered fully!

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The most fascinating area that he talked us through was the history of the spirituality of the country. In the past, ‘black magic’ was widespread, and still believed in to this day. The man explained to us, completely in earnest, how somebody practiced in black magic could strike down someone’s house with lightening or remove their intestines. He says some people do it now today but it’s difficult to tell who because ‘we’re all Christians – they pretend to be Christians too so we cannot tell’. He went on to describe ways in which the missionaries made ‘good changes’ to their culture. For example, until a hundred years ago or so women were made to mourn for 100 days after the death of a husband in which time they could not leave their house – which would be kept in complete darkness with no daylight. They were also not allowed to wash at all within this time!

Chiefs could have as many wives as they had tusks. By tusk, I mean a special kind of pigs tusk which curls right the way round to form a circular shape. The importance of this circular tusk is such that it is on the country’s flag! If a man had kept a pig long enough for it to grow a tusk like this, and then killed it – he would earn himself the right to one wife. One notable chief around 200 years ago had fifty circular tusks on each arm! All of those women were then buried alive with him, as was also tradition, when he passed. All of the people who have brought up the subject of marriage have stressed that they are thankful to the missionaries for changing this as ‘one wife is much better’ they keep saying, through giggles.

Another previous tradition which the missionaries fizzled out was the tactical manipulation of the blood line: a first born to a family HAD to be a son. Any unwanted daughter would have to be disposed of. He proudly explained that over the years their culture has changed for the better: any good suggestions, they take on board and any bad ones – they ignore. This is the main reason why they maintain this primitive way of life in this particular village – they want to show to tourists and their own youngsters how life used to be in the country in order to maintain a sense of their own culture.

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Their village's banyan tree, or 'cyclone shelter' as he called it!

Their village’s banyan tree, or ‘cyclone shelter’ as he called it!

After fish and chips in town and a stroll around the market to pick up a couple more lavalavas (sarongs) I went off to ‘survivor’s beach’, which apparently has something to do with the TV program ‘survivor’. Will let the photos speak for themselves, again! Armed with the underwater camera, I found a pretty massive giant clam – a very weird looking creature!

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P.B. a few fairly major spelling mistakes have been pointed out to me over the last few days (draw-dropping seemed right at the time, haha) so apologies for my lack of proof reading – am so relieved once everything finally uploads on this horrendous internet that I then promptly retire.

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Bright Lights, Bigger City

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As our time in New York draws to a close, I thought I’d focus on two of the highlights of our trip: Central Park and the museums. I must admit, the attempted ‘renaissance style’ of many of the ‘old’ buildings did amuse me a little – purely because I’ve been spoilt by living in Europe. The architecture of the museums was still pretty impressive (if you don’t try to compare it!).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the side of the park, was enormous! We particularly enjoyed the Monet, Manet and Degas collections but, arguably, the most unique installation was the 10 B.C. Egyptian Temple of Dendur – that’s right the entire temple has been installed into the museum! Up on top there’s a summer drinks bar with beautiful views of the skyline over the park, but be warned: it has very limited seating.

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Temple of Dendur

Special exhibition - China through the looking glass.

Special exhibition – China through the looking glass.

That iconic Seurat

That iconic Seurat

View from the roof

View from the roof

We accidentally snuck into the Museum of natural history round the back as couldn’t find the entrance… it certainly rivals the London equivalent. For us, the Blue Whale representation and dinosaur collection were the best parts!

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Butterfly dispay

Butterfly display

Next onto the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This is definitely one not to be missed – the Andy Warhol collection was particularly impressive but the whole gallery was impeccable.

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We ran out of time and money for the Guggenheim but at least managed to admire it’s unusual structure as we walked down the east side of the park.

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The park, in general, was draw-dropping – not just because of its immense size but also due to the beautiful variety. We loved the huge rock structures dotted about the place between the trees.

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We loved watching the little turtles poking their noses out from the algae. Spot the two here that have ventured out to enjoy the sun.

We spent ages eagerly watching the little turtles poking their noses out from the algae. Spot the two here that have ventured out to enjoy the sun.

Belvedere 'Castle'

Belvedere ‘Castle’

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We got very excited watching the various baseball games going on throughout the lawns – it always surprises me how different American culture is to English! Speaking of which – only in America would you get a complementary cake with your meal! Brunch here is apparently a huge thing at the weekends so Katherine and I headed to ‘Friends of a Farmer’ in Greenwich Village for omelette and pancakes with free apple corn cake stuff. Having said that, the portions are not as big here as they had been on the west coast – perhaps we’ve just not been going to the right places; in general we’ve found food to be extremely expensive, particularly fruit and veg. I paid $4 for two apples the other day. FOUR dollars.

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Final stop: Empire State building. We went up at night to get a little variety from the ‘Top of the Rock’. The view was suitably incredible but I still maintain that the top of the Rockefeller is better purely because you have the iconic Empire State within the view. It’s just like the Eiffel tower in Paris – you can go up the tower but I think better views of the city can be achieved up the Arc de triumph as the iconic structure dominates the skyline, creating views that truly can’t be mistaken for another large city.

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And that’s all for now folks. Been kicked out of the Airbnb so just perched in Starbucks waiting to head to the airport for my two day flight to the South Pacific now!

City Of Black & White

Museum Island

Museum Island

Bubble blower

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We were a little taken aback, on arriving into Germany for the first time, to find the most inefficient train station I’ve seen in quite a while. No clear signs or indication of which train is on which platform at all! Heading into central Berlin, things didn’t immediately improve as there seemed to be nobody there. Perhaps this due to the fact that at 10/11 in the morning the tourists and party-lovers are either still out or are crashing… anyway, having got up at 3 to catch a cheap early flight a little ‘crash’ was a necessary detour before heading out. Airbnb in Mitte – again very easy and very good value.

First stop – the nearest shop in sight to get warmer clothes inc. hat/gloves which I had ridiculously left behind.

Take two – now layered up like the Michelin man it felt safe to venture out into the city.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

Reichstag Building - historical edifice built for the Imperial Diet of the German Empire.

Reichstag Building – historical edifice built for the Imperial Diet of the German Empire.

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In the wake of a snowy winter, all the colour seems to have been sapped from the City. This is particularly evident in the striking Holocaust memorial below.

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It does get a little brighter, however, when it comes to the street art. The East Side Gallery in particular is a must-see! (section of the remaining Berlin Wall covered in ‘grafitti’)

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Topography of Terror - on the site of the old Gestop base you can find a fantastic little summary of Nazi Germany in this small museum.

Topography of Terror – on the site of the old Gestop base you can find a fantastic little summary of Nazi Germany in this small museum.

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Berliner Dom (Cathedral)

Berliner Dom (Cathedral)

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Apple Strudel!

Apple Strudel!

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Overall, I apologize in advance for offending anybody, it was not particularly my cup of tea. Very bleak, stark and sombre. Fascinating in terms of historical content – the scars of past wars are clearly visible and it hosts a phenomenal range of museums. You may consider visiting in the summer, however I felt the stories held by the city seemed to strike even harder in the bitter cold, making it a memorable but fairly solemn experience.

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More Than A Memory

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Finally, I’ve caught up to the present day. Yesterday morning at the bright and early time of 8.30 I arrived back into London after a weekend in Athens. What a fantastic time to visit Greece! The weather was warm and sunny, yet not too hot, and there was barely a tourist in sight (with the slight exception of the acropolis, but you can’t ask for the impossible). The perks of travelling in Europe at this time of year include incredibly reasonable prices. The entirety of this trip, including accommodation and flights, cost less than £100. Incidentally, ‘airbnb‘ is a fantastic site to use when looking places to stay in any of 190+ countries across the world. It basically consists of a variety of houses/flats/studios that the owners are letting out on a temporary basis to tourists. There’s no minimum time period, you can stay for as little as one night. Our flat was an idyllic two bedroomed apartment within 4 minutes walking distance from the Acropolis and with a stunning view across Athens from the balcony window. Use the following link www.airbnb.co.uk/c/sffrenchconstant?s=8 or my personal referral code sffrenchconstant to get a further £17 off your accommodation.

Panorama from the balcony of our airbnb apartment.

Panorama from the balcony of our airbnb apartment.

As the major sights of the city are fairly close together we found it easily manageable to to everything that we’d hoped to achieve at a leisurely pace within two full days. The Acropolis, of course, the temple of Zeus and the national gardens were well worth a visit. Lycabettus hill, the highest point in the city, and Philopappos hill boast spectacular views of the Acropolis and the city as a whole. Don’t shy away from the steep walks up to these points as the walks themselves are a beautiful exploration into the olive groves and natural ‘wilderness’ hidden in the city. Wandering through the city itself, you stumble across one monument and ruin after another. A fascinating city to visit and, in my opinion, a far more pleasant experience than its rival, Rome. Well worth researching the history to whet your appetite before you go.

View from Lycabettus

View from Lycabettus

19th century chapel of St.George atop Lycabettus.

19th century chapel of St.George atop Lycabettus.

Hadiran's library

Hadiran’s library

Classic greek salad in a little balcony overlooking the cobbled street.

Classic greek salad in a little balcony overlooking the cobbled street.

Orange trees are scattered generously across the city. Here's one in the national garden

Orange trees are scattered generously across the city. Here’s one in the national garden

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

What a great place to stay!! Some ingenious homeless group have tapped into the caves in Lycabettus hill. Fantastic views all day and night!

What a great place to stay!! Some ingenious homeless group have tapped into the caves in Lycabettus hill. Fantastic views all day and night!

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Such a shame that the front of the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding! Ah well, can't have everything!

Such a shame that the front of the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding! Ah well, can’t have everything!

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Temple in the ancient grecian Agora

Temple in the ancient grecian Agora

Temple of Athena looking out over athens from the corner of the Acropolis

Temple of Athena looking out over athens from the corner of the Acropolis

Odeum of Herodes Atticus

Odeum of Herodes Atticus

Walking up Philopappus hill

Walking up Philopappus hill

Little wet sparrow

Little wet sparrow

Lycabettus Hill from below

Lycabettus Hill from below

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Theatre of Dionysus

Theatre of Dionysus

Erectheum on the Acropolis

Erectheum on the Acropolis

Knives Out

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Now settled into Osaka, we took a 30 minutes train journey into Kyoto for a four hour class on samurai sword practice with SEIGA, Samurai Kembu. They take it incredibly seriously as it’s a highly regarded part of their tradition, now only used as a performance art rather than the ancient warriors using the practice in battle. It was impossible not to be constantly thinking of Uma Thurman in her yellow tracksuit throughout the entire process.

There were just three of us in the class with one ‘Samurai Grand Master’: Auga Ryu. We were taught various routines about how to correctly draw, wield and formally present the spectacular weapon. We were even elaborately dressed in tradition Samurai attire to fully experience the restrictions which the clothing brings into the action. For example for me it made it much easier to understand why the women traditionally would take such tiny little steps as the very wide obi belt is wrapped restrictively tight like a corset around your waist and hips.

Kyoto itself is a beautifully traditional city with plenty of old Japanese architecture and copious temples and shrines. Black kites seems to be pretty common here, soaring around above the rivers. As it’s cherry blossom season there are also numerous festivals going on throughout the city with processions, parades and dance competitions around every corner.

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Traditional tea preparation

Traditional tea preparation

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Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

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Above you can see one of the hilarious ‘pet hire’ opportunities. You can pay for half an hour to use the cafe where you can stay to stroke the cats. You can also hire dogs for walks or, if you’re on a budget, even a beetle. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7818140.stm

Japanese sweet

Japanese sweet

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

I’m now about to head off to the ‘Onsen’ or traditional Japanese spa/hot spring again. Hilariously, it’s split genders and absolutely no clothes are allowed, which they’re very strict about. Very bizarre experience but the spa itself is fantastic after the cold of the crisp spring weather.

 

 

Goodnight Saigon

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, (previously Saigon) is a fantastically vivacious city. One thing you’ve really got to watch out for, however, is the traffic! Over 2 million motorbikes saturate the roads and pedestrian crossings appear to be a completely foreign concept. You basically have to walk out into the stream of bikes and walk steadily across whilst they swerve around you. You’re advised not to stop whilst you’re walking as it can confuse them. This is much harder than it would seem as basic survival instincts would encourage you not to carry on walking into the path of a fast moving vehicle!

The period of French administration has left a firm mark on the city. Beautiful French architecture is dotted about along with an abundance of bakeries!

Here's the inside of the city post office, designed and constructed by Gustav Eiffel. The building remained untouched during the later period of turmoil.

Here’s the inside of the city post office, designed and constructed by Gustav Eiffel. The building remained untouched during the later period of turmoil.

Saigon's very own 'Notre-Dame' cathedral.

Saigon’s very own ‘Notre-Dame’ cathedral.

Of the many interesting activities available, I’d recommend the Art museum; despite being rather poorly exhibited it boasts a really interesting and unique collection of Vietnamese art. It’s also got a note-worthy collection of Vietnamese propaganda posters from the war. After having whetted your appetite you can pop across the road to the buzzing ‘Ben Thanh’ market to have a look at some of the beautiful local artwork and other bits and bobs for sale.

Inside Ho Chi Minh Art Museum

Ben Thanh Market

Here's a lady using variously different naturally coloured egg shells on lacquer to decorate her vases. This technique was prominent in the Art gallery and produces some really striking effects.

Here’s a lady using variously different naturally coloured egg shells on lacquer to decorate her vases. This technique was prominent in the Art gallery and produces some really striking effects.

Egg shell art

Another endearing quality of the city is the food selection. I’m likely to be biased as I have a bit of a thing for Vietnamese food but the fresh spring rolls with nutty hoisin sauce are just to die for.

About an hour out of the city you can find the Cu Chi tunnels – an elaborate and extensive network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

Cu Chi tunnels

These holes are no ‘Bag End’; they epitomised “nasty, dirty” and “wet… filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell”. It’s shocking just how small the tunnels are and how well the entrances can be concealed. Essentially, the analogy generally used is to rats tunnelling under the rice fields to avoid being caught. You pretty much have to be the size of a rat to navigate through them. It seems impossible to imagine how they were used for communication, supply routes, living quarters and shelter, at times for days on end!  Some of the tunnels have now been made wider and taller to accommodate tourists but it’s still an experience to avoid if you’re even remotely claustrophobic!

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi also has displays and demonstrations of the methods of the Viet Cong including some fairly gruesome traps and a chance to fire a variety of the different guns (ranging from an AK-47 to the M60 machine gun) in their firing range!

Cu Chi tunnels

Here's a lady making the traditional rice paper for spring rolls etc...

Here’s a lady making the traditional rice paper for spring rolls etc…

It was interesting to see the war from a different perspective – with the Viet Cong as the protagonists – after studying the Americans involvement in school. The man showing us around the site had actually fought with the Viet Cong himself and had bullet wounds in his arms and leg to boot!

Closer To The Sun

Leaving Belize at the crack of dawn, we made our way into Guatamala and headed straight for the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Yet another fascinating anthropological and historical site. Image

There seems to be no end to the incredible information. Our guide was explaining to us how they can tell the social ranking of a Mayan’s remains through their skeleton: The most obvious sign would be the shape of the skull. Artificial cranial deformation was used frequently. The parents would bind their child’s head between two pieces of wood where it would stay for around six months. The process would usually begin when the infant was around one month old and would result in an elongated skull, not affecting the growth of the brain itself. Similarly, they would hang a bead of wax or gum in-between the child’s eyes in order to generate a permanent ‘cross-eyed’ appearance which was deemed attractive. Noses were also broken to create a more ‘hooked’ shape and teeth were implanted with Jade and other precious stones. Particularly amongst the royals.

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Photo courtesy of good old Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_cranial_deformation

ImageThe site of Tikal constituted a large number of temples and grand structures that would have formed the centre of the city. A random bit of trivia: The area was also apparently used In the filming of ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’! The climb up to the top of one of the tallest temples was, however, by no means an easy feat!! It seemed significantly hotter as if we had reached such height that the sun was closer to us! You can understand why they felt ‘closer to the gods’.ImageImage

The ruins are hidden amidst the dense rainforest, in which Howler and Spider monkeys are screeching as they swing around the tree tops, greatly adding to the atmosphere! We also were not too far behind a local jaguar as we found it’s faeces and an area it had clearly been sleeping in, along with the fresh smell of the beast marking it’s territory! Very exciting but also rather tantalising as we are unlikely to get a glimpse of the great cat itself.

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Here’s a frustratingly unfocused shot of one of the spider monkeys.

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We’re now staying on a little Island on a Lake in the town of Flores. Although we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the refreshing lake and the many opportunities that the piers into the lake present, we don’t have too long to loiter as we’re off again tomorrow to Southern Guatemala and the Rio Dulce!Image

The Meaning Of The Ritual

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.”

-Neil Armstrong

I occupied my sole day in Cancun with a trip to the Mayan ruins, ‘Chichen Itza’. It was without doubt the most fascinating historical site I’ve visited.

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I was persuaded by a convincing sales man at the airport to book a tour for $50 to the site. It was most definitely money well spent. We had a local tour guide explaining the history behind the ruins. Above you can see the Mayan temple. The acoustics are designed much like the ancient amphitheatres, in that sound echoes through the chamber at the top of the structure and is projected out over a large distance.

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The mural above is supposedly one of the pieces of evidence supporting the theory that the ‘pyramids’ were built by aliens. According to supporters of the theory the image is of an alien in an astronaut’s mask with a clear breathing device. Hmm…I’m not so sure!

Our guide also explained the Mayan calendar to us, based on the cycles of the moon and sun, it is actually more accurate than the current calender we use today as does not need the added ‘leap’ year. It was also very interesting to learn that the ‘dooms day’ theory was brought about by a Mayan carving of the date ‘21.12.12’, the end of a cycle of the Mayan calender; the day when the planet’s would become aligned and the universe would complete a ‘cycle’.

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This shot is actually a very close up snippet of a large wall of skull carvings, designed to commemorate the Mayan dead. The heads of enemies would also have been displayed proudly on this stand.

The ruins of the ‘military’ building (of which I will post a photo once my internet picks up again) displayed a statue of a man at the top of the steps. Our guide explained to us that it was here that enemies were brought to be sacrificed to the gods. The warriors themselves did not have permission to kill. They would dress up in Jaguar-skin costumes and hold the man’s hands and feet to the statue. A priest, dressed as an eagle, would then use a special implement to swiftly remove the man’s heart, within the fourteen seconds before it ceases to live, therefore literally holding a beating heart in his hands before the gods.

We also went into the very well preserved remains of the Mayan sports arena. I was amazed to discover how informative the Disney film ‘The Road To Eldorado’ is! The sport described, where the opposing teams need to hit a ball through a small vertical stone hoop on the side walls of the arena, is actually part of the film! The ‘court’ was so well preserved that I could practically see the ancient Mayans playing the game there. Aside from entertainment, the game was even used in place of wars, to solve conflict, with the conquered side loosing the game along with their heads!

 

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A brief pause from the Anthropology lesson to talk about the wildlife:The ruins were covered with these iguanas! Unfortunately they were pretty skittish so not particularly easy to photograph.

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Here is a very large (with a circumference around the size of the base of the temple) natural well where the Mayans would throw sacrifices of gold and human lives to the gods. When it was eventually excavated they found tons and tons of Mayan gold and around 90 skeletons in the down there!

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Cancun itself was much like a little slice of Las Vegas in Mexico. It certainly was extremely Americanised! Large hotels, bright lights and extravagant decoration greeted me on the drive in. Of course, my shuttle carried on past these fantastic hotels to the dingy side of town. However, I enjoyed the change, I must admit, to the extreme poverty of Bolivia.

This morning I meet the second tour group that I will be with until the end of April. Surprisingly there are a large number of retired couples which I wasn’t really expecting! We hopped on a bus down to ‘Playa Del Carmen’ another, equally Americanised, Mexican city. As an example of the extent of the westernisation, I popped over to the nearby ‘Walmart’ to buy a snorkle-mask. In the morning a few of us headed out to the coastal Mayan ruins of ‘Tulum’ which, although spectacular, I felt had been rather over-rated in that there were even larger swarms of tourists than at Chichen Itza. What did make Tulum very special, however, was the back drop of the incredibly blue Caribbean sea.

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Do You Remember

I was warned, before I left, that there would not be much to do in the evenings after the sun sets at about 6:30. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The evenings appear to be ‘story telling’ time! A range of different people come over for supper each night and stay to talk for hours. Last night the man that lives next door (whose name I have embarrassingly forgotten) was explaining about the History of PNG. Apparently the first English explorers to discover the country did not see any value in it: They saw it as being too mountainous and with too many natural hazards. The locals gathered at the shore, believing the white foreigners to be the ghosts of their ancestors but were fired at by canons.  It wasn’t until the 1880’s that the English claimed PNG as a colony. It was then Papua, with the Germans holding New Guinea in the north. During the Second World War the English took over New Guinea and gave the responsibility of the new PNG to Australia until the 1975 Independence Day. PNG is currently in a slow process of modernisation. Any remaining tribes had been found by government searches, sent out into the jungle to initiate a process of civilisation. However word of mouth passed down through the generations keeps the history alive.

The tribes kept very separate from each other, explaining the 800 or so different languages in PNG. They would gather together only for sing-sings or for battle. Battle for them was like sport, they would call for a battle when they were getting restless! Dressing up in their finest traditional dress, they would paint mud, charcoal and fruit on their faces so that they could not be recognised by enemies who may wish to avenge the death of a loved one (there was very much an eye for an eye policy). In the week or so leading up to a battle the men would go to a ‘men’s club’ to strategise and would not be allowed to visit their wives’ houses, or spend a night with their wives before the battle. It was strictly forbidden; they believed that if you spent a night with your wife you would be the first to be struck down by a fatal spear. There could, perhaps, be some logic behind this – keeping testosterone levels high could result in better fighters! The man telling me this history kept saying how the battles were ‘like rugby’; they would take place almost for amusement and each man would strive to be the best player on the field! It’s interesting to think that this is where sport originates from: a primitive desire to compete and fight with others.

A big local game that all of the area flocked to watch. Note the incredibly bumpy field and bamboo posts!