Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Java Travels

I'm writing from a steamy train looking out the window at rice field after rice field in a glowing green.  Every inch of Indonesia seems to be cultivated with something or crowded with houses and traffic filled roads.  In the last few years as the economy here has grown many people have bought motorbikes and they crowd the roads and weave in between the cars.  The roads and infrastructure can't handle it all and its made for some extra long rides for us, especially since its the holiday season and school is off so people are on the go.  On the bright side this means that we get to join them at the local sights which can be quite fun since for some reason many people ask to take photos with us like we are some exotic creature.  It feels fun to be special! Plus Indonesians have wonderful big smiles and endlessly giggle which is infectious and the inevitable response to a photo session.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Buffaloes are revered in Tana Toraja.  This boy was proud of his who was waiting to be given as a gift at a funeral.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Exploring the Culture of Tana Toraja

A typical Torajan compound
At the suggestion of my wise travel friend Grace, I spent a week in Sulawesi exploring the culture of the Torajan people, a culture that believes strongly in the passing of ones spirit from death to their next life.

The great thing for a low budget traveler like me is that in Tana Toraja I could afford hire a guide, jump on the back of his motorbike and go off and learn about the culture.  I heard so much over my 5 days there that I am a bit afraid to even attempt to repeat it for fear of inaccuracies but here goes.

Torajans are renowned for their elaborate funeral rites, burial sites carved into rocky cliffs, massive peaked-roof traditional houses and colorful woodcarvings. Toraja funeral rites are important social events, usually attended by hundreds of people and lasting for several days.

The funeral procession
The Funeral Ceremonies

I was able to attend two funerals and see different rituals.  Day one is for receiving guests and gifts.  This meant an elaborate ceremony where all the guests are honored and led in a procession around the courtyard by the family of the deceased.  Although on a daily basis the extent of traditional dress in Tana Toraja is more like jeans and a t-shirt on the first day of the funeral everyone is decked out in their finest Torajan clothes.  Each guest or family has brought a gift which often is a live pig or water buffalo.  These gifts are displayed in the courtyard and recorded and announced in a ceremony to the crowd.

A display of buffalo horns from funerals
Day two is when water buffaloes are sacrificed to create a vessel for the dead person's soul to find their way to their next life.  Buffaloes are deeply revered in this area and very very valuable and the more prominent the person the higher the number of buffaloes that are sacrificed.  They display the horns on their houses going forward to show their status. For many visitors this can be hard to watch and guides warn you before you even decide to attend, but for a heartless carnivore like me, I snapped photos and enjoyed the spectacle along with the rest of the excited crowd.  I watched 12 buffaloes fall from a quick stroke to their throats followed by lurching bloody drops to their death.  I even got spattered with a little bit of blood!  (I took many great gory action photos which I wish I could share, but I know many of you are squeamish so I'll just show one to give you the idea.)

The sacrifice!!!
The story of these funerals is even grander than this.  Since these funerals are BIG occasions they take a long time to save money and prepare for.  Viewing stands and temporary housing for out of town guests have to be built. Also its really important for all family members to attend so it takes time to get all the out of towners back for the celebration.  All of this means a funeral may not happen until a year or more after the person dies.  So what happens is right after a person dies, there is a small funeral service, then the body is somehow embalmed, wrapped, put in a casket and kept in their house until preparations can be made for the full funeral.  (Yes, I know, how can the body not smell?  I'm not sure buy somehow they don't.)

Throughout these two days I kept having to pinch myself to prove I was really there.  The enormity of the celebration and the total "Wow, I'm having a National Geographic moment" was incredible.  Torajans have realized that tourists are interested in their traditions and welcomed us with open arms and bright smiles.  On each day there were a small handful us but comparing that to the 1000 local attendees were certainly did not affect the spirit of the celebration.
Lemo cliff graves

The Graves

On the last day of the funeral the casket is placed in the family tomb.  Over hundreds of years, Torajans have been carving graves in stone cliffs, caves and building elaborate mausoleums that look like little individual houses bigger than many New York apartments.  The deceased is buried with some valuable possessions and ancestors continue to leave offerings at the side of the these tombs.  Family members are often entombed together over the years.  The idea is that the spirit will live on.  Some tombs also have tau tau effigies with them that represent the people who were placed there.

The Weekly Livestock Market

The buffalo market
Another interesting thing I got to attend when I was in Toraja was the Rantepao Weekly Livestock market which takes place once every six days based on the Torajan calendar.  At this market they sell water buffaloes and pigs, the two major gifts for funerals.  The hierarchy of these two animals couldn't be more pronounced.  Buffaloes are brought to market and washed and cleaned and cared for to improve their value.  Owners pet them and feed them handfuls of grasses that are sold in huge sacks.  They sell for 1000s of dollars so they are definitely something to be proud of.

Pigs on the other hand aren't treated as nicely.  Small ones are kept in grain sacks which are opened for prospective buyers to peer into.  Larger pigs are strapped to bamboo sticks so that they lie flat all day on display.  Watching the process of tying them down was painful.  They squeal and kick.  I must say though I like pigs even better after watching them.  They are fighters.  They kept kicking as if they really believe they could set themselves free and save themselves from their inevitable death.  (The buffaloes at the funeral just stood passively at the funeral as others beside them were slaughtered.  They stood in pools of blood and had no reaction at all.)
Pigs for sale!

Watching the pigs in the market and at the funerals was one of the rare times I wondered why I eat meat, but then when I was offered pork as part of the funeral I swallowed it up.  You know the saying.  You just have to get back on the horse!  For now I'm meant to be a meat eater.

All in all, visiting Tana Toraja was well worth the two days travel it took from Jakarta to get there.  I feel like I learned a lot and met a lot of wonderful people and hope I have been able to give you a small piece of the experience.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas Season in Torajaland

I didn't think coming to Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world would mean learning new Christmas traditions.  But arriving in Tana Toraja in Central Sulawesi, I could tell my expectations were wrong.  The drive up the main road was lined with Christian churches and I arrived into the main town, Rantepao, in the dark greeted by the colors of blinking Christmas lights everywhere which made it clear that this area celebrated Christmas in a big way.

This meant Christmas Carols playing in every store and restaurant and Christmas trees decorated with big puff of white stuff to simulate snow, something they definitely never get in this part of the world.

It meant the constant crackling of fireworks which apparently are let off every night of December.  I decided to partake is this tradition and bought a bunch of different explosives and set them off to the thrill and entertainment of a whole bunch of kids.
In Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia, the big tourist activity is attending funerals and visiting many different kinds of graves.  This one is in a cave from 100s of years ago.  Tau Tau effigies are created for some of the buried.  Ancestors continue to maintain the graves and leave offerings like clothes, cigarettes and bottles of things besides the graves.
Rice paddies cover ever inch of available land in Torajaland.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Days in Detroit

Detroit is where Motown was founded and developed.  The  Motown Museum is a touching tribute to history
Click here to see my photos from my latest trip to Detroit and see all the cool things there are to do there.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

National Geographic Traveler wrote a Cover Story about Detroit - I'm such a trendsetter!

A mural in Mexicantown that both National Geographic Traveler and I captured
My dear friend Paula lives in Detroit so I have visited more than half a dozen times in the last 10 years.  Paula is a real advocate for Detroit and has showed me every nook and cranny.  So you can imagine that it was very exciting to see Detroit on the cover of National Geographic Travel (March/April 2012) and know that I have been to every place he mentions and even eaten at Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes founded by Torya Blanchard, Paula's friend who is featured in the article as a young entrepreneur bringing new life to downtown.

Read this article and hear the bright, beaming side of Detroit where history, architecture, cars, public art, music, from Motown to 8 Mile, culture and new possibilities are brimming all over.

Rise and Shine, Detroit (Click the link)

From the March/April 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Saturday, October 15, 2011

North Korea: First Thoughts

Arriving in North Korea is like stepping out of a time machine.  Soldiers are walking in the streets in the same uniforms from way back when. Citizens are working collectively on community volunteer projects like planting flowers for road beautification or repairing sidewalks. Farmers are working in the fields just outside the city perimeter. There is very little car traffic.  (With the economic embargo, gasoline is hard to get so the issue seems to be framed that not driving is the patriotic thing to do.  Sundays, the day we arrived was a voluntary no driving day. Though it was also not clear to me how many people even have cars?) Rusty old buses and street cars are packed with people and seem to run constantly.  The sidewalks are packed with people walking to get places.  Many others ride bicycles. 
A view of one of the cool huge monuments in the middle of town.
Simpler images of the 50s come to mind.  For me, it brought back strong memories of visiting the U.S.S.R. in the 80s with giant, uniform, high rise concrete buildings, small stores selling almost nothing, no advertising, and simple signage accented with bright obvious propaganda images on billboards all over.  And like my trip to the U.S.S.R. my movements were completely controlled and monitored and I was only allowed to see and talk to people they wanted me to.

There are lots of big granite memorials, statues, obelisks celebrating the ideals of the regime. (North Korea is a major exporter of granite but apparently they keep a little of it to make their own statues!)

Women dress much more conservatively than most modern standards, though many others look a lot like
working women everywhere with their hair pulled back into pony tales, button down cotton shirts, pencil skirts and pumps.  Men are almost all dressed in drab green or gray short sleeved suits or army uniforms.  Many women wore traditional dress for their work uniforms which adds a colorful element to the streets and certainly looks like it’s from another era and seems out of place in the communist washed out hues.  (This might be my favorite traditional dress of anywhere I’ve ever been.) Many children wear uniforms.  Boy and girls are seen wearing red neckerchiefs walking in large groups singing together.   Nationalist tunes seem to be pumped out into the air all over the place in a mind numbing way.  (My hotel room was on the 39th floor on an island but still I could hear the tunes either being sung by marching groups or out of loud speakers.  It definitely was surreal.)

One of the Young Pioneer Corps - The NK Communist Youth
It’s very hard to describe this all and give you the real feel.  In one way it was very soothing.  Things feel orderly and under control in a way that I didn’t question until I thought about how it could be this way without real enforcement.  Apartment buildings look alike and are painted in light pastels.  Everything flows nicely.  Soldiers are EVERYWHERE but they are sloppy and a bit ragtag and don’t feel so oppressive.  It’s hard to imagine them being the fighting force that our government is so afraid of.   Their vehicles are still from the time of the Korean War and I kept hoping Hawkeye Pierce would drive by on one of the old green jeeps.  (Gotta start watching MASH again.)

Dancing on Youth Day in Pyongyang

We were able to join these beautiful girls on Youth Day and learn traditional dances. 
If you want to see the 1000s of people dancing like this  
click here for a little video of what it looked like.

North Korea: Totally Cut Off From the Outside World

This woman is reading the paper in the subway
The most amazing thing about North Korea to me is that in a time where information is flattening the world North Korean’s live totally cut off from information.  Everything feels stopped in time.  Even when I travel very off the beaten path in Africa there are people with email addresses, access to the internet and cell phones that keep them connected outside their smaller circles.   

Reading the paper on a street corner
In North Korea, the regime has managed to keep the internet and international cell phones out (though it appears that Chinese networks are becoming available to people who live near the border and they allow contact with people outside of  North Korea.)  Mostly people learn about the world through what seemed like one newspaper that was posted in frames on subway platforms and a few public places where people stood to read it together.  There are also a few TV channels but if my watching was any indication of their programming it’s more just a replaying of the propaganda message of the Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jung il and their activities.
Images of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung are everywhere.  Statues, photos in every room, paintings, billboards. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Arirang Mass Games - North Korea

Do any of you remember the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony where 1000s of people danced and did acrobatics? Do you remember how beautiful and exact it all was? Well in North Korea, somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 people dance every night for 90 days each year. The dances tell the stories of the founding of the nation and are the most incredible show I have ever seen and that is an understatement.  The video clips combined with the still shots give you a pretty good idea of what it looked like.

The little children who flip cards in unison to create the background to the performance.

This was so incredible that looking at it again makes me want to go all the way back to North Korea next year to see it again!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Raising the Future Communist Elite - North Korea

My Global Exchange "Reality Tour" of North Korea didn't really expose us to that much of the DPRK reality since the government keeps very close tabs on all tourists and only lets us see what they want to see, which means we mostly visited the standard tourist sights, but we were able to have one amazing visit that gave us insight into the culture.  We visited a gigantic kindergarten in Pyongyang where kids are brought in on Monday morning and not picked up till Saturday.  The place was kind of unreal.  5-6 year olds gave us amazing performances and behaved impeccably and all I could think was these kids are going to be the elite ruling class in the years to come.  Either that or they are going to be dancers in the Arirang Mass Games.  

In any case, this was one of the places that made me really question life in North Korea.  I was not under an illusion that everything was perfect, but some of the aspects of a society like this were appealing, but the lack of free thought and movement, something I treasure so much, is so apparent and really makes me want to scratch even deeper under the surface to understand what it is like to grow up in North Korea when you don't know there is another world out there.

A YouTube link to see Future Arirang dancers
A YouTube link to see precise little singers

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Global Exchange Reality Tours

Some of you have asked what tour company I went to North Korea (and Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine...) with.  The company name is Global Exchange and they run a series of Reality Tours that take people all over the world.
 "The idea that travel can be educational and positively influence international affairs motivated the first Reality Tour in 1988.  Global Exchange's Reality Tours are not designed to provide immediate solutions or remedies to the world’s most intractable problems, nor are they simply a kind of voyeurism. Rather, Reality Tours are meant to educate people about how we, individually and collectively, contribute to global problems, and, then, to suggest ways in which we can contribute to positive change locally and internationally.

Reality Tours offer participants an opportunity to journey to other countries to examine a situation first-hand, to see beyond what is communicated by the mass media. By joining us on one of these delegations, participants have the chance to learn about unfamiliar cultures, meet with people from all walks of life, and establish meaningful relationships with people from other countries."

Photos from North Korea

Propaganda is the backdrop throughout North Korea
Taking a ride in the subway

Meeting the President of Guinea during UN General Assembly Week in NY

Suzanne and I get to meet Alpha Conde, the President of Guinea
Lots of you know that my favorite NY event of the year is the UN General Assembly. 193 world leaders came to town this year and I did my annual session of stalking. This year I did really well!

Somehow I befriended some Guinean's in the Waldorf lobby and told them I'd love to meet their new President. An hour later I managed to join a crowd of 25 prominent Guinean's from DC, Boston and NY up in the country's suite and was part of a surreal time mixed with referential treatment, lots of Islamic prayers and genuine love of their country all in a language I didn't speak. And mixed in all that was real pleasure that my friend and I cared about their country.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Photos from Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela, a World Heritage site, undoubtedly ranks among the greatest religious-h­istorical sites in the Christian world.

An ancient world, including 11 magnificent, medieval, rock-hewn churches, dimly lit passageways, hidden crypts and grottoes, was carved into the red volcanic rock underlying this remote Ethiopian town almost a millennia ago by the Zagwe dynasty. Today that world remains, frozen in stone. -Lonely Planet

Friday, March 11, 2011

Is There a Right Way to Spend Money When Traveling?

This is an interesting article for travelers. Going to Ethiopia really tested a lot of my travel rules of not giving money to people on the street... but I definitely followed a lot of these rules and have a whole second suitcase to prove that I supported local merchants and even wiped my brow today with my new handkerchief that I bought out of the minibus window yesterday. I also tried to buy some really cute socks,but they were for little kids. :(

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Ethiopian Coffee

Ok, so one of the downsides of Ghana was the complete lack of coffee. For those of you that know me these days, you know my afternoon coffee is like a shot of happy juice in my day. While I tend to run pretty well on adrenaline on these trips I still missed coffee. So arriving in Ethiopia was a wonderful next step. Here everyone drinks these little macchiatos. For those of you that don’t know that is an espresso with milk and lots of foam. Plus here there is an added bonus, the milk is thicker and creamier and just better! They are so good that I have been stopping more than once a day. It’s a fun place to sit in the sidewalk cafes amongst all the men. I think they just look at me like another crazy “ferengi” (foreigner) since there are very few other women around. Also there seems to be a middle class growing "Starbucks" cafe culture. Check out the impostor.

Reflections on traveling to Africa for work

Writing about the countries I visit in Africa is so much harder than other places I have been. First off, my visits are pretty packed with Princeton in Africa partner site visits, time with current and past Fellows and trying to keep up with emails and Princeton in Africa work from the US versus trips to the various tourist sites. What that tends to mean is that I don’t have a lot of extra time to sit back and think about what I am seeing. Usually when I travel for pleasure, I try to read both fiction and non-fiction books about the country I am traveling in. I try to read the local paper every day and get a sense about the current state of affairs of the country I’m in. Unfortunately on my work trips I don’t always get a chance to do this. Traveling to 3 or 5 countries in 5 weeks each year usually means I hardly know what is really going on and instead just get a chance to dig deep into a particular issue by hearing one of my Fellows daily experiences at work or visiting an organization that Princeton in Africa partners with. I’ve gotten to learn lots about the treatment of HIV, particularly in youth, issues in Africa education in a few countries, issues concerning drought and successful strategies to handle it like building rainwater harvesting systems or developing better local solutions for filtering existing water sources and I’ve certainly gotten to hear a lot about humanitarian aid and food security.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Photos from Ethiopia

The Joys of Cross Cultural Communication

One of the things I really love about traveling is getting to meet people from so many different countries. While I do love meeting locals from the places I am traveling too, I actually am talking about all the other expats and tourists I meet along the way. Traveling for Princeton in Africa opens me up to a whole new set of expats who work in Africa. I love sitting in on a meeting with a group of people from all different places and listening to the accents, watching the different cultural responses and often feeling very comforted by the other American in the room if there is one. It’s another reminder of how diverse the world is and another place where I can find my inner American and feel that deep sense of connection and comfort.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Photos from Ghana

Awaiting an incoming fishing boat at Krokrobite Beach in Ghana

The fisherman's beach in Cape Coast
It was an amazing hive of activity
Faces at Anamabo Beach

Sunday, February 13, 2011