Baroque hill-towns have been the persistent theme of this Southern Italy trip (April 24 – June 5, 2019 – Apulia & Sicily) I tend to regard baroque architecture as tediously decorative compared with the freedom displayed by medieval stonemasons as they ornamented palaces and churches.
But the baroque architectural ornamentation of Apulia is especially lavish and seems more imaginative than that of other parts of Europe. Perhaps this is due to the soft stone that masons had to work with. Or perhaps it’s a reflection of the historical cultural diversity of the area (Roman, Greek, Venetian, Goth, Lombard, Saracen, Ottoman …)
The Sicilian baroque stonemasons also had fun with corbels. Some fancy villa owners commissioned corbels with grotesque faces.
Since these are 18th century carvings, we’ve got a few people with glasses. (We are rarely represented in art.)
The cities in Apulia still have lots of small shops, and the Italians are great at arranging windows. I can’t buy much here because I’m on a long trip with small pieces of luggage, but I’m seeing plenty of things I’d love to take home. And the window shopping is great even for things I’d never buy.
(I’ll probably be adding more photos – the trip is young.)
My readers know I’m a pretty seasoned traveler, and yet I still like to take cruises now and then. I don’t agree with the decree that cruising is not real traveling or that it can’t be as stimulating as setting off on your own. This time, a Mensa group decided that the “Party at Sea” for the end of 2018 was going to be a repositioning cruise from Miami to Santiago’s port in Chile, San Antonio. When I saw that it goes through the Panama Canal. I knew I wanted to be on this boat, not only for the Canal but also for the long days at sea (although actually we had quite a few port calls.)
That decision added a new destination to my travels: South America. Since I regard repositioning cruises as actual transportation, I visited Chile, Bolivia and Peru. The total trip was seven weeks: two weeks cruising and five weeks exploring South America. This post is a recap of the cruise.
I suspect that the first port call in Santa Marta, Colombia was a result of Norwegian’s realization that they could sell more berths on repositioning cruises if they had more stops.
Repositioning cruises are twice-a-year round trips that ships make to change a seasonal venue. The Norwegian Sun was switching from cruising in the Caribbean over the summer to cruising back and forth from Santiago to Buenos Aires via the Beagle Channel for the southern summer. My first repositioning cruise was from Miami to Barcelona: Atlantic crossings usually happen in the spring and fall for summer cruises in the Mediterranean and Adriatic. It appears that cruise lines are adding a few days to repositioning cruises so that they can advertise more ports and shore excursions; the Atlantic crossing now stops at more places. Traditionally they’ve been favored by people who like the sea days and the lower price.
Cartagena: The Cartagena stop is a good example of another reason I like to cruise: I saw the colorful old town in a day without having to add Colombia to my many travel destinations. I have spent fascinating, memorable hours in Halifax, Nanaimo, Split & Dubrovnik, Funchal and Acapulco as “bonus” destinations in my world travel: places that I would probably never see otherwise (well, maybe Croatia…)
As we traveled by taxi across part of the city to a hilltop monastery with a great viewpoint, I got a look at a few diverse neighborhoods in Cartagena. These taxi rides generally reinforce one of my suspicions that cities across the world are becoming more and more similar: poor sections of towns and cities have the same types of shops full of useful plastic goods, cheap crockery and cookware for the house, plus a few instances of local baskets and brooms. Urban scenery is often architecturally similar: in the city outskirts in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe I often see many uncompleted buildings with glassless windows and rebar sticking out at the top, but with active homes and shops on the lower floors. The global lower middle class seems to be involved in endless building projects which make progress whenever there’s extra money for materials and time to work on the walls.
In the meantime, gentrification in Cartagena’s Old Town means that the old colonial buildings are being renovated and maintained. It looks like there are some metalworkers who make it possible to maintain a traditional door-knocker custom.
The Panama Canal: I was eager to go through the Panama Canal a second time. This time the new, larger locks for panamax ships are open; back in 2012 when I took a day tour through the canal these were just being excavated. It took all day for our ship to go through, so I had several viewing spots during the day: the bow of the ship, a friend’s balcony cabin for a champagne brunch, and finally a mid-deck aft seat where I ended up sharing the experience realtime on the phone with my sister Amy in Miami while she watched our ship on a Canal webcam. (Unfortunately she couldn’t catch sight of me in person because I was on a lower deck.)
Manta, Ecuador: I had a plan for this stop and was very proud when it worked. On the Internet I found a “Lodge and Reserve” that had trails through an area that also has a protected trail. I thought that there might possibly be more birdlife at the lodge than on the reserve’s trail, because developed places sometimes “encourage” the local birds to hang around. It turns out I was wrong about that (we didn’t see much,) but my plan led to a very interesting day.
At this point on the cruise we were getting pretty good at negotiating with the taxis that came to the docks at port stops. I wanted to get a taxi by the hour for about six hours. After waiting for the first herd of passengers to find English-speaking drivers, a younger driver with no English gave me a good price (with the approval of the dispatcher; not sure how all that worked, but he knew that the low-hanging fruit was already on their way in their premium-priced taxis.) Xavier and I set off out of town and had a great day. He even came on the hike with me after we finally found the lodge and reserve, and it’s a good thing he did because we got lost on the trail and he was the one who figured out how to get back! Having the car and a driver I could kind of converse with was great, because this coastal area had several different climate levels to check out: beach, desert, rain forest, and areas in between. (Xavier took this photo of us and emailed it to me.) All that work on Spanish during the summer and fall really paid off.
Trujillo, Peru: Since I like to seek out art when I travel, I ended up seeing a lot of the art of the vanished South American civilizations. Watching John Leguizamo’s video Latin History for Morons before the trip made me realize that South and Central America had civilizations with cultures, histories, nations, religions, mathematics, languages and art with a scope similar to that of European history. Most of us know quite a bit about what went on in Europe in previous centuries because we look at the art, listen to the music, and study the philosophy and literature. Most of it is there for us to enjoy. But unfortunately the heritage of the Americas has pretty much been lost.
The stop at this port in Peru gave us access to some archeological sites. I went to the Huaca del Luna because it has art still in situ (“imperial” art, but art nonetheless.) I never got much of a sense of how design differed through different ages and different cultures (which I can easily observe with western art), but I just took in what I could at sites and museums and let my impressions add to my meager understanding.
Sea Days: For you non-cruisers out there, if you like settling in for a road trip or a long train ride where you only have to think about the present, that’s what cruising is, but for as many days as you want: plus eating and drinking are effortless and someone makes your bed twice a day.
I always love my little cabins, where life becomes very simple and convenient. You’ve got a cabin steward who not only cleans and gives out fresh towels every day, but also provides evening turn-down service along with the requisite towel sculpture (as if they didn’t have a million other things to do during their long days.) The only regular chore I had was washing out shirts and underwear. For food, you pretty much wait until you’re hungry and then go get something to eat.
The joy of sea days: sleeping in and sitting on deck watching the sunset with a good book. A couple of times a day we’d usually see a pod of dolphins or some whales.
It’s true that your leisure activities are supported by a huge crew who in earlier centuries would be called servants: this is always a thought- and conscience-provoking aspect of travel. I believe, and I may be wrong, that most of the crew makes enough money to improve their lives and the lives of their families at home. At the same time I know that many leave their children in the care of grandparents during their six to nine month contracts. Some crew are middle class folk, mostly young, who paid attention to their foreign language teachers at school and thus have a valuable skill to bring onboard. One cocktail waitress told me that her cruise salary was going towards the eventual purchase of an apartment in Colombia, since she had no expenses while working on the ship.
I always hit the library first thing and check out a few escapist books: I can spend hours reading outside enjoying warm weather and watching for birds, whales, and dolphins. There are little problems to occupy the mind: for instance, where to find the nearest coffee early in the morning and where the best places to sit on deck are during various parts of the day. My cabins usually don’t have coffeepots. I could ask for one, but on two cruises in a row I’ve ended up deciding to pop out on deck every morning immediately after getting up to see what the day’s like. This often leads to interesting conversations with some of the other early risers. I’ve found that there are usually a few people on every cruise who spend most of their time on deck, and these are often the folk with wide curiosity and knowledge. A couple of times I’ve met retired sailors (for example a yacht mover) who have taken to cruising as a more relaxed way to be at sea.
While there were some jazz musicians that I followed around during evening happy hours, for the most part I ignored the entertainment offered by the ship. But the crew did a great job with Crossing The Line when we came to the equator. They let us dress up in sheet togas, after which we went on parade through the Crossing the Line party (which had to be in the big lounge because it was raining outside.) We had the mandatory King Neptune and his consort Flora (who noisily gave surprise birth to a pair of octopuses.) We got baptized with shaving creme. And we got a certificate. Crossing the equator for the first time was important to me, and I felt that I had been sufficiently welcomed into the society of Shellbacks. (Eventually I saw the Southern Cross, but not on the voyage because it was overcast every night.)
My first stop after the cruise from Miami to Santiago was the port city of Valparaíso. Valparaíso is a port town in Chile, a bit rundown down after its days as “a Little San Francisco” and “the Jewel of the Pacific” ended with the opening of the Panama Canal. (Ships bound for the Pacific no longer had to go through the Straits of Magellan. It may be facing another challenge now that the panamax ships can also use the Canal.) Nevertheless Chile responded to the city’s twentieth century challenges by situating major universities and vocational schools there. It also functions, along with Santiago, as one of the seats of the Chilean government.
Local artists have made a couple of the older, hilly neighborhoods into an international tourist attraction by painting vivid, whimsical murals on the walls of the old buildings in the district. This made it the perfect place to recover from the stomach bug I picked up on the ship—short walks were always interesting, and as I recovered I could feel my strength increasing every hour as I trudged up and down the hills.
These hilly neighborhoods of Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre had a pretty good balance of tourists vs. locals, and the locals in this part of town are not rich. The time I spent lying around was enhanced by all the sounds of the neighborhood. Someone was always playing music: two or three establishments on my street took turns entertaining passersby with loud music, but the music was always interesting and well-chosen without being drowned by too much bass beat. Someone nearby was practicing the trumpet. Vendors would walk by calling “E-e-e-empanadas!” and “eh-LA-doh!” (🍦) Cooking fuel was canned propane, and you could tell when your gas seller was coming down the street because the guy in the back of the truck was playing a catchy rhythm on the gas cans.
There’s a tiny area of nice hotels and restaurants at the top of the still functioning ascensor Reina Victoria
Later, to re-connect with the middle class, I took the newish metro (above-ground along the shore) from Valparaíso to the next town up the coast, Viña del Mar. That town has broad boulevards and neighborhoods that reminded me of Miami residential areas, but with more hills and more density.
The Chettinad mansion in Kothamangalam that we stayed in for three nights was restored by a pair of French architects who had been able to cut a long-term lease deal with the sole owner. The architects had fallen in love with the style and found themselves inspired to bring one of the mansions back to life. The result is Saratha Vilas, a boutique hotel with comfortable rooms and a fantastic kitchen (there being no other places to eat in the village.)
I look back with pleasure on this stop on our tour for several reasons. This was the first completely relaxing place we arrived at after time in the loud and busy cities of Mumbai and Chennai and a couple of internal flights. Saratha has a green, tranquil garden where I often heard Hindu temple music coming over a loudspeaker. The video below was taken in the garden:
This was the only village we stayed in, so we got to see a bit of village life. The bathroom window of my room looked out on the main street. In the middle of the night a couple of cows would be lying in front of the store across the street: now I know that Indian cows have owners and their own place to stay at night even it if isn’t a barn or stable. Then, around 5 am the road was busy with people coming into town by foot or motorcycle to work.
When we walked down the main road much later in the morning, we would see a crowd of men at the open-air chai shop next door drinking chai out of tin cups and gossiping like crazy. The town also had its own Ayyanar shrine (see Village Shrine) which we walked to one morning. On the way back through a middle-class neighborhood we met some school girls and their mothers outside of their homes: these girls went to good schools so we spoke with them in English, with both sides expressing delight and curiosity at the meeting.
Our visit also coincided with the weekly market. While some of the village markets around the world that I’ve seen sell livestock, clothing, pots and pans, etc., this one was pretty much a food market. There were all kinds of vegetables, herbs and spices that I didn’t recognize. Markets like this rotate weekly from village to village: this is people’s chance to do the shopping for the week without having to drive or take the bus someplace. I’ve always wondered about the merchants’ lives: they have to show up at the crack of dawn to set up, then in the afternoon pack and put everything away for the next village and the next day. In the meantime at home they’re picking and packing their own harvest or receiving goods from other suppliers. While people now use trucks and vans to bring their produce to market, once upon a time these markets were served by farmers coming in with animal-driven carts.
I’m intrigued by states and groups in history that are known for being traders. The culture of such groups is rich and heterogenous because of the worldwide travel and extensive interactions with other cultures that enabled their success. One example of course is the Republic of Venice, a city-state of maritime traders and canny politicians. The architecture of the Renaissance palaces along the canals, with its uniquely Venetian blend of European and Moorish features, is one of the great treasures of the world.
In southern India, the Nagarathar or Nattukkottai Chettiar was another group of maritime traders, who left their architectural mark in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu. This community was sailing all over Southeast Asia in the 11th and 12th centuries. Later in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when their trade also took them to the West, they filled villages with ornate mansions. (See and https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/17/t-magazine/india-chettinad-mansions-travel.htmlhttp://www.srmuniv.ac.in/downloads/chetinad.pdf . ) These mansions share a common style of floor plan, but their exterior and interior ornamentation differs according to their owners’ tastes in architecture. During our tour in December, 2017 we drove by or toured mansions that displayed Baroque, Art-Deco, Art Nouveau and Asian influences.
Most of these mansions are deteriorating. We were in villages that had dozens of mouldering mansions crowded together like an Indian Fifth Avenue of the Gilded Age. From the beginning homes of extended families, their ownership is now divided among multiple children and grandchildren who are dispersed in other Indian cities. Finding consensus on the disposition of the mansions is difficult. Some of the buildings open for tours are tenanted by poorer family members who show visitors around.
A few mansions have been restored as hotels, including the one we stayed in (coming soon in the next post.)
It’s hard to imagine what life was like in the big houses, but I’m guessing they were crowded, noisy and extremely sociable with all the pros and cons of close family life. The mansions are built around three long, open courtyards. Small rooms along the side supplied storage space for the couples who lived there, but sleeping was separate between men and women (in fact, the women could lock themselves into the back of the house at night.) The women had the two back courtyards: one for sleeping and socializing, and the other for cooking. The kitchen was communal, with each family having its own stoves, cooking pots, and utensils. The stoves were simply a long line of narrow stone low fireplaces with room for one pot each. (The main resting posture was squatting, so people worked, ate and talked on the floor.)
The men had the first two courtyards for business and more intimate socializing. These rooms have raised platforms where people could sit and talk.
We traveled in our little bus to a few other mansions to see some of the variations in int
erior decoration. Some of these mansions survive because of the quality of their materials: teak from Southeast Asia, marbles from Europe, chandeliers from Murano. Some had people living in them: as we walked to the back of the house there were sectioned-off areas where people were watching TV. In one an old lady walked around with us telling us about her relatives in a language we couldn’t understand.
A popular tourist activity in Mumbai is observing the amazing courier service that picks up and returns home-made lunchboxes (tiffins) for people at work and school. Our tour group’s glimpse of this system appealed to my interest in transport systems: this system, traditionally staffed by a members of a Hindu sect from Pune called the Varkari, has grown organically since 1890. The Indian name for these lunch box couriers is dabbawala. (There’s plenty of information online about this, so I’ll just summarize here.)
Transport vehicles include foot, bicycle and train. The city trains provide an important link for getting food downtown: the trains even have cars dedicated to dabbawala transport. There’s a sophisticated coding system for pallets and lunchboxes to ensure that everything gets to where it’s supposed to go, but personal knowledge of customers and routes is also a key to success. We stopped our little bus outside of the Churchgate station of the Western line around 11:30 to see the dabbawalas in action as they took trays of tiffins off the trains and set them up for local delivery by bike.
A tiffin is a lunchbox designed to keep the elements of the hearty mid-day meal
separated until it’s time to eat: the rice or lentils, the sauces or chutneys, and the breads.
Many people in Mumbai still have someone (Mom, or perhaps a servant) at home who can make home-cooked lunches for commuters and schoolchildren. A The dabbawalas pick up lunch boxes from homes around 9:30 am and have them delivered to workplaces and schools by 1. Then, they return all the lunchboxes to their homes in the afternoon.
Tamil Nadu is an agricultural state in Southeast India with many villages. Village life—to the inhabitants’ detriment, benefit or both—often appears to me to preserve centuries of tradition in spite of modern amenities like vehicles and electricity. In Tamil Nadu, India, we visited a couple of village shrines to the deity called Ayyanar. These simple shrines are found in uncultivated areas like small woods, whose trees are not especially ancient except perhaps for a few old, revered trees. Often those old trees provide the site for the Ayyanar shrine and other devotions.
These photos were taken at a remote shrine that we got to by following some back roads past fields and woods (with our driver stopping frequently to ask directions.) The terra cotta animals in this shrine looked very old: as if they have been offered, renewed and rearranged for centuries.
As I understand it, Ayyanar is a local village god who rides through the village at night to protect the inhabitants. The shrines are entered via avenues of terra cotta horses and other animals. The avenue is then marked by a gateway that contains larger, freshly-painted statues. The newest terra cotta horses are grouped near the shrine itself. (I didn’t photograph the idol of the deity itself; I remember a small, black, fairly unremarkable statue of a man.)
Lately on my travels I’ve given into taking bus tours and merged myself into the same kinds of large or small groups of tourists that I generally confront with scorn and impatience when I’m on my own. So far I’ve never been disappointed with these tours: it’s a good way to see the countryside and learn about a new place. In the Netherlands I joined a big-bus tour that my St. Petersburg travel companion (cousin Maryellen) had already booked for her one day in Amsterdam. That tour combined automated narrative with a live guide who spoke English, Dutch, Spanish and French. It turns out there’s a lot to learn about water management in the Netherlands, and most of it is amazing.
In this post I want to talk about windmills. The iconic Holland windmills are disappearing, but like steam engines, there are folks dedicated to preserving some of this traditional technology. Preservation is also supported by the Dutch government.
We often forget that “drive” shafts are older than steam and internal combustion. Traditional labor saving drive shafts were originally driven by water and wind (not to mention horses, donkeys and humans.)
Some of the things I learned on the bus tour were:
Everyone in the Netherlands has been paying taxes for centuries for water management and flood control.
The Dutch know how to reclaim below-sea-level land for agriculture by multi-decade projects that involve diking and pumping.
When they got tired of major floods from the huge shallow bay called the Zuiderzee, they closed it off and turned it into a freshwater lake.
But windmills, being motivation for drive shafts, don’t just pump water. Some of the other functions I saw demonstrated were grinding grain, making oils such as linseed oil, and sawing wood. You can also grind pigment for paint.
One of the Zaanse Schans windmills is a working sawmill. When I saw this, the penny dropped about how much work goes into creating planks for houses, ships, palaces and other structures. The windmill guide told us in his spiel (in English) how much quicker it was to use a windmill to saw planks as opposed to two guys with a big saw. (I forgot the relative hour statistics.) That brought to mind the Dutch East India Company and the navy that made it possible, and indeed, all the major European wooden navies.
Another concept I managed to absorb was the incremental process of draining water from below sea level. The Dutch do it in a step-wise process, using polders (isolated “hydrological entities” as Wikipedia calls them) of different levels. Basically you pump water from a polder at one level to an adjoining one at a higher level. Eventually you’ve got a polder or canal that’s high enough to drain into the sea by gravity.
Nowadays the ever-present waterpumps are invisible, at least to me. Since they’re electric, it’s possible they are run on coal power, which is a major source of power for the Netherlands. But the Dutch are also building wind turbine farms.
If you Google Saint Petersburg transport, one of the first webpages that comes up says that the buses are just too hard for visitors to use so you might as well use the Metro. Of course I accepted this challenge. For a transit geek like me, buses turned out to be easy for the most part. One big help these days is that Google maps plots travel directions using local public transport—not just in Russia but anyplace in the world that publishes their transit data. My cousin Maryellen and I did most of our sightseeing along the Nevsky Prospect, so we took the same routes over and over again during our seven-day stay, commuting from our airBnb apartment on Vasilevsky Island.
Buses are just fun to take in strange cities. I prefer them over metros for several reasons:
You can see more from a bus
Bus stops can get you closer to your destination
Metros involve a lot of walking and stairs
Metros are dark, noisy and crowded
Sometimes I get social on buses. For example, I had a “conversation” in Russian with one lady where we understood each other about 25% of the time, but we made contact. She didn’t seem to mind that I kept saying “Izvinite, ya ne ponimaiyu” (“sorry, I don’t understand” – Lots of people have this conversation habit—as long as you let them talk, they’re happy.) She had helped us find our bus stop, and then we talked during the trip.
Another interesting conversation I had in English was with a Chinese student who was studying Russian literature down the street on our island. On a hunch, I started speaking with her in English. She loaded that language right up into her brain and started communicating with me, after what had probably been a long day doing Russian and then talking with her friends in Mandarin. I don’t think she appreciated how truly impressive her language skills were. (Later at a restaurant Maryellen and I sat next to a table of students doing a Russian / Mandarin language exchange.)
Our attempt to get to the Hermitage on our very first morning in Russia was saved by a passer-by. We were waiting at a stop on Prospekt Bolshoy (“Big Street”) whose sign clearly indicated the buses we needed to get downtown. However, there was a strange dearth of traffic on that street (not to mention bulldozers and other construction equipment.) A woman came by and conveyed to us in Russian and with gestures that the buses weren’t running on this street. We sheepishly found our buses rerouted up to the next street up (Sredny Prospekt or “Medium Street”).
(In retrospect, the problems I had during the first few jetlagged, disoriented and culture-shocked days in Russian seem silly. That first day, my mind was obstinately insisting that of course there would be buses on Big Street. It also took me a few days to figure out which direction to go on the #1 bus running outside our building, since I just couldn’t accept that the route initially took us in the opposite direction from our destination. I will watch out for this peculiar type of stubborn cognitive impairment the next time I travel!)
We had planned to get a “Podorozhnik” contactless travel card. These weren’t sold at our local metro, so we never got around to buying them. Bus fare was 40 rubles (about 80 cents) so we just paid cash for every trip.
We also never got around to taking one of the “shared taxis” (also called mini-buses or marshrutkas.) These are the same type of transport as the “rutieras” in Moldova, which I often relied upon for trips not covered by regular bus routes. The problem with them is that you have to call out to the driver (in Russian of course) when you want off, which means you have to know exactly where you are.
As for the rest of my trip: Amsterdam and Haarlem had plenty of transport but fares were confusing as they are moving to a cashless system, and the cost of buying electronic fare instruments seemed excessive (maybe even exploitative) for tourists. My sister and I used the trains, buses and trams for more major trips, usually visiting a ticket window with a real person in order to purchase a fare. At any rate, my airBnb host had a bicycle I could use!
As for Edinburgh I just bought four ₤4 day tickets and hopped on and off the buses all day: even made it out of town to Roslyn chapel on a city bus. For the single trip between train stations in London (on the Tube this time) I had money on my Oystercard from my last visit to England.
(Apologies here for boring photos. While on the street with my camera, I wasn’t thinking about specific images that might go into a blog posting like this.)