Tag Archives: culture

Florence, Italy

My friend, Alessandro, met me at the station and saw that I got on the correct train to Florence. In a blink of an eye, or in Italian terms, one caprese sandwich and a small bottle of vino rosso, I was there. I went to the bus ticket window to get a city bus ticket. The man at the window shooed me away. I was confused. I went to the next window. A young women laden with a huge pack beside her was having an in depth conversation that I could see was not going to end soon. I stood a few minutes, watching other people get their tickets at the shoo man’s window. Determined to get one, I read the phrase book, marched up to him, and said louder than necessary, but that’s what you do when people dont’t understand, or try to ignore you.  “Un biglietti para la citta, por favor.”  He handed it to me, and replied in English. The bastard. “90 minutes.” Fine. With any luck I will be able to find the hostel in an hour and a half.

And then, because I didn’t read the directions correctly, I spent a frustrating 15 minutes asking where To catch the bus. (I especially love people who send you to the wron\g place rather than say they don’t know.)  One man rudely said, ” What makes you think I would know where the busses are?” Finally, I found the bus, and arrived at the hostel. It was a recently converted convent: cavernous, acoustically suited to mournful chants and prayers, but light and clean. Downstairs was a nice outside patio, and in the morning they put out a tasty breakfast. I witnessed my first automatic pancake machine. Imagine that: uniform pancakes, no burned edges, or mismatched sizes, no cause for arguing who got the best.

Florence, of course is gorgeous. It was worth it just to see the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Bottachelli. The David gave me goose bumps just looking at it. Do you know Michelangelo carved his eyes into hearts? Through the guides knowledge, I viewed the magnificient statue differently, more personally: his ready stance, his poised muscles, his erect, confident posture, his astounding, perfect  beauty.

And then on the way back to the hostel I got busted by a civic snark (much like a parking  ticket person) for not stamping my bus ticket. 50 Euros!! That’s quite a shake down, but according to all of my Italian sources, the place is corrupt, run by the mafia down to the smallest details. I would have stamped it, but I didn’t know that’s the way the system worked, because in Rome I never stamped anything, and Alessandro, remember, is the guy who said it doesn’t matter what side of the road you drive on.

The following weekend I took the train to Pisa to meet up with my friend, Rene, who I met in the Amazon two years ago. I reserved a Smart Car with full insurances just in case. Happy trails.




Rome is bustling with old, vibrant with new. My friend and former student invited me to visit him in this astounding city where he is studying to be an aerospace engineer. “Of course,” was the only answer.

I’ve lost all track of time. Maybe it’s been 8 days-maybe more-or less. Surrounded with spirits and artifacts that go back to Etruscan times, 700+/- BC one loses track. Put into perspective, Christianity is a new religion.

The inhabitants produced the most incredible beauty. Walking around I felt as if I was in some enchanted forest of towering walls, surrounded by statues that are too sensual to be made of rock, hubris that defies reason. Here are a few photos.

Rome: Not for Sissies

At the colosseum

At the colosseum

Rome is flooded stimuli: energy that permeates and disrupts the senses, swarms of tourists clogging crooked streets, illegally parked cars, designer clothes , gorgeous shoes the price of a month’s rent, alleys with hidden treasures, and sadly, ubiquitous cheap Chinese stuff.

I asked Alessandro which side of the street the Italians drive on because it isn’t apparent here in the city. ” It doesn’t matter,” he answered. “Doesn’t matter! Of course it matters. I’m renting a car in Pisa and need to know.”  It’s the same as the US.” he says. Lordy.

The violent past of the colosseum invaded my dreams last night. I was fighting for my life. Hitting some snake like thing with something no bigger than a golf club. Afterwards I felt sorry. It’s not who I am. In the colosseum, only 3 % of the gladiators lived, none of the slaves or criminals or animals. Huge boatloads of reptiles, tigers, lions, bears, etc. were imported  from Africa and Egypt to fight in the ring. An estimated 100,000 animals were killed during the Romans short reign. Some species  became extinct because of the emperor’s thirst for entertainment, of public executions called games.

imageIt’s astounding how brilliant Roman  engineers built aqua ducts, astounding architecture, roads and the government was democratic. And yet, a couple of times a month, screamed for blood to entertain them . Or, maybe they didn’t attend the gory get togethers.

Romulus and Remus raised by a she wolf raised a city from dirt. Beloved Cesar stabbed by Brutus. Myth mixed with fact: legend with history. Barbarians brought down by barbarians. The fallen city plundered and pillaged by everyone, including the hollier than thou popes who used the heathen’s  materials it to build their Rome.

imageAnd then there were the vestual virgins, In charge of keeping the eternal fire lit. If you lost your virginity, you were buried alive; If you let the fire go out, you were beaten by the emperor (I think him). Rome, gorgeous, but not for sissies: not then-not now.




Murphy’s law and Chinatown in Roma.

imageIt was unusual for me to have dire thoughts prior to leaving on a trip. But, this time I did. I had visions of being robbed, left alone, lost…. I think they came from the guide books and a travel book my friend sent me. ” Watch your stuff!” Beware of late-night train & bus stations, keep you money secure in your belt.” Maybe it’s because I just felt too lucky, and too blessed- the shoe will fall. What ever silliness runs through one’s head like a bullet train, it is hard to drive those thoughts away.

It all started well. My flight was on time from the U.S. My burly English seat companion was of my ilk. We slept and laughed-slept and laughed. The flight from London was two hours late.

In Rome I found the train. Two ticket machines were defunct. But finally, I got one. When I was taking it out of the tray, I spotted a 20 euro note on the ground. Found money is a good sign. To counter that, the last train was pulling out of the station when I got there. I ran for it anyway. I was the last person standing in the cavernous station. Alone. A guy looking through the garbage cans was working the perimeter of the place. He looked at me and passed. Finally, an employee opened a door. “Last train. Go to bus.” It was English-enough to make me feel better.image

I found the bus. The passengers were sitting patiently, waiting to leave when the driver came in and yelled at an obviously gay, young, Asian passenger across the aisle from me. “Get off the bus!” He yelled something about his purse. The passengers sided with the passenger. “It’s just a purse. Just a friggin purse!” They yelled at him. the young  man held his ground. (and niggled the driver just a bit) “I’m never getting off this bus!!” Ah, I could have been in New York in the 70’s.

20 min later, I got out of the bus, took a cab driven by a tout driver who preys on tourists, ( even though my shoes DO NOT LOOK LIKE I AM A TOURIST )and, because I had no idea how far the hostel was, took him up on his offer of 20 Euros for a three or four block trip. 20. Easy come: easy go.
(Btw, it was the second time I’d been gifted a 20 dollar bill on the ground in a week!)

At the hostel the night guy said there was a problem. “What problem?” I asked nicely. I have been on the road 24 hours, I am tired, cranky and need to sleep. And, I have a reservation.”
“The hostel has been closed. I can send you to the Downtown Hostel. ” “Will you pay for it, otherwise I am not going anywhere.”
He looked at the computer and called someone. ”
“Good luck. You can sleep here tonight.”
I slept like a baby. Now I am in the Downtown Alessandro, Roma. My bed is comfortable, my belly full. Two slices of mushroom pizza-2 Euros, one half bottle of vino tinto-2.5. Huge fresh strawberries, 1.5 E. And, image
imageI found Rome’s Chinatown. See. Good luck everywhere
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Puno: The Living and the Dead

Founded in 1668  near a now defunct silver mine, and on the shore of Lake Titicaca, Puno sits at 12,500 feet. My faulty heart beat hard in my chest climbing up the hills to see the Chullpa Tombs of Sillustani-hell, it protested going up the stairs of the hostel.

The chullpas, huge stone towers cut into square, cylinder, and rectangular shapes that all fit snugly together, is where the Colla tribe buried their dead over 500 years ago.They have been plundered by grave robbers, tumbled by earthquakes, and defaced by tourists. However, they continue to stand as testament to their respect of the dead.  I get it. I take great pride in my family cemetery plot where the remains of  my beloved family lies in Foxburg, PA. although in comparison, our tomb stones are a bit understated.

Would you be interested in setting up house on a foundation of tortora reeds that rot continually, forcing you to move every 25 years or so? I didn’t think so. The small island, part of the Uros Floating Islands that  we visited was one of about 48 on Lake Titicaca. Three or four families, a  total of 26 people live there. I bought a hand-embroidered pillow case of Pachamama (mother earth), made by Maria, the matriarch of the clan. When I was paying her, the coin fell into the reeds causing us to dig among them to find it. Walking on the reeds, ones feet sink in am inch or two. I watched a toddler lurch and stumble, but he got to his destination without help.

The island was very small, less than a whole block in the US; the houses not much more than thatched roof huts. The tribe used to use reed boats exclusively , but out back, behind the houses were several motor boats that the kids were playing on when I was there. A puppy, that dared to poop in front of us tourists was isolated in one of them, looking longingly at the kids. Apparently most of the families only go the islands to meet the tourists, and live on solid land these days. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating history and gives one a clue to ‘back in the day.”

Taquile Island is a non-floating island, with an intricate pattern of terraced farming, fenced off by large rocks dug up on the land. It reminded me of Ireland and England.

The Aymara and Uros tribes have intermarried, causing the Uros language to fade out. We were given a demo of the hats the men wear. Similar to Christmas stockings complete with tassels, depending on if he is married or single, or needs a visor for the sun, it’s turned around on his head. Boy, it takes out the guessing for the girls, who wear long scarves around their hair but don’t cover their faces. They wear tons of petticoats under their skirts and intricately, handknit sweaters.

The guide books say Puno pales in comparison to the colonial beauty of Ariquipa and Cusco. Maybe so, but it beats them hands down for sheer friendliness. Saturday, I happened upon a festival in the plaza. It was not for tourists. The colors of the costumes dazzled under the bright blue sky and hot sun. Walking around taking photos, I was asked to danced, given a cup of beer, and asked questions about my country. Even the women who are usually shy and don’t want their photos taken, allowed me to take a few.

Hilda, the woman who owns Inka’s Rest Hostel could not have been friendlier or more accommodating. Within a day I felt a kinship with her. She suggested I move there, and teach English to her, he

Uros canoes

Uros canoes

image image image image image

Taquile Island

Taquile Island

Huts: Uros Island

Huts: Uros Island

male heron

male heron

Uros Island

Uros Island

image imager 4 year old daughter, and the staff. It’s tempting. Having ceviche in a tiny restaurant, the owner came out to sit with me, to share lives.  That to me, is the point of travel.


Monasterio de Santa Catalina

So the story goes, the monastery was founded in 1580 by a wealthy Spanish widow who chose her novices from the richest Spanish families. In those days you either got married or became a nun. These nuns apparently, after joining the monastery kept up their lavish life styles, until, the guide books say, ‘hedonistic goings on continued for three centuries,’ when a spoil-sport, strict Dominican nun arrived on the boat from Spain to whip them into shape. But, three centuries of fun is not bad.

The imposing citadel takes up an entire block and is a warren of rooms: some for cloistering, some quite lavish with English and French china and silver service.  There is even a nursery, and a school room for those widow-nuns who had money and children.

Twisting streets and thick walls, hidden staircases to the roof and maybe elsewhere. The laundry tubs were made from huge pottery wine casks, cut in half, and placed on an incline with trough connecting them as the Incas had done. A sunken tub above them held water for washing the clothes and taking the requisite monthly bath. Being a somewhat hedonistic woman myself, I hope they drank the wine.

There were servants quarters, because remember, they were rich nuns, and a well appointed kitchen complete with a well made of volcanic rock which acts as a natural purifier. No one had go anywhere to fetch water.

It was only in 1970 that the place was open to the public. Today there are 140 nuns I think the guide said, living there. Also according to her, about 400 nuns were living harmoniously until the Vatican -or some controling bishop- insisted they follow strict guidelines set out by the Vatican. The numbers gradually dropped. Women just don’t like to be told what to do.



The day I got here, Alberto, a man I met in Brasil last summer took me to the Pollo King, a local restaurant in the small town of Cajica, north of Bogota for what he said was traditional Colombian comida. While it was being prepared we drank cold Colombian beers. It was a good start.

In a short time, the waiter presented us with a large platter containing a whole, either boiled or steamed, pale, wan chicken, a color maybe indicating the chicken didn’t feel well before it was killed for we want our dead to appear robust, and a few yokes from undeveloped eggs which I’ve discovered are pretty common, but no head or feet, which I was thankful for.

The chicken was served with plantains and yucca, the latter pretty bland on its own, but this was covered with a sticky, savory sauce that made it delicious as gravy or sweet butter does to mashed potatoes. That night and the following morning at his finca, or farm, in the town of San Francisco, we had a variety of fresh fruit and rolls with delicious Colombian coffee.

The next afternoon I ate spinach empanadas at the restaurant inside a large supermarket. The following day for lunch I ordered a very flavorful bowl of soup. The meat I believed to be chicken turned out to be intestines, chewy and for me, difficult to swallow. Although I’m willing to try many things, and have, including well prepared insects,I cant bring myself to eat innards, coagulated blood floating in soup, the muscle behind the eye of any fish, pig snout, or chicken feet. So I’m a pussy.

At Angela’s lovely home we had a hearty and tasty version of tamales with rice and chicken steamed in banana leaves. The Colombian pizza I had a few nights ago had a layer of fresh tomatoes and capers under the cheese. It took me a minute to identify the capers. And, of course the piranha. Today for almuerzo or lunch, which is a set price for either fish, chicken, or beef, rice, cooked banana, a drink and soup, I ordered another fish. It was crispy and a bit too salty and dry for my taste.

Rice, manioc, plantain, and potatoes are the most common starches. Bananas are prepared in ways I never thought of. Yesterday I bought a banana that was split down the center, filled with cheese, and grilled. It cost 2 mil, or about $1.20. I ate a few bites, wasn’t impressed, pulled the cheese out and ate it. I offered the banana to a hungry bitch with swollen nipples that was foraging for food on the street, but she declined my offer.

Here at Entropika we cook our food so since Thomas is Belgian, Luisa Colombian, and me an Irish Mongrel, anything is possible. One of the geogology students at the park that I share the kitchen with ask me last week of I had eaten romalachas. After a couple of rounds of twenty questions, they produced a beet. ” Me gusta romalachas, mucho, I declared enthusiastically. So, inspired by the unrelenting heat, and to the delight of Tomas and Luisa I made cold beet borsht. When I go back to the park next week I’m taking the ingredients, and the students are going to help me make a big pot for everyone. My favorite part of traveling is the sharing of cultures, and what better sharing is there than food which comes from our hearts, our ancestors, our gardens, and gives of ourselves.

There are countless tropical fruits here that I’ve never seen before, much less tasted:Lolo or maybe lulu, Borojo de Monte, Quinilla, Anonilla, Mata Mata, surba, Acapu, Caimitillo…and more. I’ll keep you posted. Bon Appetite.

The Teaching Schedule: Mas O Menos.

I arrived in Leticia two weeks ago. I had a nasty head cold for the first week, so I’ve just gotten to Amacayacu National Park. I start at seven tomorrow morning teaching Charlie and Luis, plus a other few other hombres from the Mocaqua community up the river a bit. Time here depends on weather, work, and a variety of other factors,  so nothing is very definite. It rains everyday. The director of the park says it shouldn’t be because it is the dry season. She agrees that global warming has caused the difference. The water level is rising, too. It will mean life changes for so many people.

Leticia is a frontier town in the Amazon bordering Peru and Brazil. There’s a strong army presence to keep the illegal drug and animal trade to a minimum. I laughed watching the beautiful golden retriever jumping around on the convayer belt sniffing our luggage when it was unloaded from the Lan flight. But I don’t think serious real traffickers  transport on commercial airlines. To me, the drug dealers are the scourge of the earth.

The motor cycle seems to be the preferred mode of transportation to get around town.  I cringe seeing small babies and children riding sans helmets, but that’s just me.Back in the day my kids didn’t have regulation car seats, or wouldn’t have had to wear helmets either.  I  have to remind myself to observe in perspective.

Leticia is bustling. It has an excellent bakery, and I ate my first piranna from a cart parked on a corner near the port. It was served with yucca and rice, and absolutely delicious. I haven’t seen any homeless here, and it seems that even the scrawniest of bent-over grandmothers wields a mean broom, and tends a bucket garden.

Folks are friendly and helpful. So far I have taught about 6 classes. I have two teenage students each morning, and several workers from the park  who come to the Entropika office each afternoon.

The park has wifi but i still can’t download photos. I’m going to have to do it at a cafe, if it’s to be done at all. What a mess. I tried to buy a usb port, but apparently Claro, the phone company has no more space in Leticia. How can there not be more virtual space to purchase? It’s vitural! It should be unlimited for gods sake.

Flying over the Amazon, I wasn’t prepared for the expanse of forest. First it was gray/green with  spotty clouds, but as the plane flew a bit lower, it became verdant and seemed to be impenetrable, although I realize it isn’t. I could see The Rio. I wanted to jump and tell the others on board, ” Hey look! that’s the Amazon River and the rain forest.!” But they already knew that.

When I saw the Rio Amazon, it took my breath away. Its wide and spacious, not held in by concrete or large buildings. As it should be, it’s edged with mud. In places it’s difficult to see the edges and gives the illusion it might be a lake. Moreover, at least on the small section I traveled, unlike the muddy, chocolate water of the Yangtze in China, the Amazon is blue! On the two hour trip here, I saw only a few small boats heading in the other direction. Scattered along every few miles, were small huts built on stilts perched on top of the bank, A few folks worked outside, and children waving to our fast boat from the muddy bank. Occasional wooden canoe type boats were tied to stakes driven into the top soil, with a line staked straight down to it on the river’s edge. It must be difficult to make even a minimal living, and to be so isolated. I can’t imagine where the kids go to school. The river will rise more than fifteen yards in the next few months.

At the park for a few months are several young students from SINCHI, a Eco-biological Research Institute.they count flora and fauna. I’ve seen some gorgeous birds, but no monos. . .   I’ll keep you posted. Such as it is, I have wifi until Sunday!!




Museo de Oro

I’ve visited countless museums, large and small, famous and obscure. I like immersing myself in the stuff of other cultures, other times, for a few hours. A few weeks ago I read two books about the Inca culture. I still have visions of Spanish Pizzaro and his men crazed beyond reason by the gold they saw. The desire for gold led men to lie, torture,  rape, and kill, frequently burning the indigenous people at the stake. This in the name of   a Christian god. God and gold. Greed. I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t have approved.

The Museo de Oro in Bogota has more than 34,000 gold pieces. They cover all of the major pre-hispanic cultures in Colombia, and other parts of South America. Some say it is the finest collection anywhere. I was particularly fascinated by the  gold adornments worn by Inca royalty. To them gold symbolized the sun. Life. It caused their death. Here are pictures of my favorite pieces.

No Reservations

Next month I’ll be traveling to South America- my first time on that continent. Brazil -Peru- Chile at least. I’m  excited.

As usual, I have no confirmed flights. I travel space available on UAL because my generous friend, Cecil, works for them. The passes he shares with me are greatly reduced,  and usually I travel business or first class, but occasionally I don’t get on the airplane-for hours, or days. Mine is the lowest priority. Full fare passengers go first, followed by  employees, their relatives & finally friends. We board according to the enployee’s seniority.  Sometimes that’s the adventure.

A few years ago I spent 5 days with my then 16 year old grand daughter, Cooper, in “Tokyo’s Narita Airport-along with a slew of other ‘buddies.’ We spent the nights partying with other guests in a  hotel on the opposite side of the runway; the days hanging out in the airport: playing cards, eating, shopping, laughing and complaining- waiting for available seats going anywhere in the US. New buddies with higher priorities than ours came and went. I learned never to travel at the end of summer.

Finally, the day before Cooper’s school started in Santa Monica she flipped. She cried actual tears-for school.  “I need to go to school! she insisted.” This was a new Cooper. One I had not seen since maybe sixth grade, when she looked forward to going to school. I hoped it was a turning point in appreciation for education. Capitulating, I paid  2grand! for a ticket for her to fly home.

Cooper & me

 That evening I got a seat to Hawaii, where I spent the next three days with my friend, Jessica, in Hilo.

Once I spent countless days at a friends while trying to get out of Chicago due to lousy weather. Another time, another city, hours and hours waiting for a seat because an entire class of students booked all of the seats. Once I had to fly into Denver after two days of waiting to get out of Anchorage to Los Angeles. 

Sometimes these happen because: I forget and travel on major holidays, when schools let out for the summer or spring break, or I’m just an idiot. I love it when it’s a good thing. I flew to Singapore with new Canadian friends when the flights to Bangkok were full due to it being the Chinese New Year holiday. I’ve been incredibility lucky to get the last seat on the plane more than once. 

Not having a plane reservation, means making hostel or hotel reservations pointless. Finding one on arrival requires patience, luck, and perseverance, but can have unexpected pleasant results.

Monos playing on hostel roof Manuel Antonia, Costa Rica


New friends in Ulaanbator, Mongolia

Once, some folks who showed me how to use the airport phone in Bangkok at 3am, helped me find a room, and gave me a tour of their incredible diverse city the next afternoon.

In Casa Blanca I arrived at the Guimere Hotel in a cab. “Do you have a reservation?” the desk clerk asked. “No. But, I’d like to have one. For 4 nights.”
“We are full, but wait a minute.”
“I have a cab waiting. I need to either go to another hotel or pay the driver and let him go”
‘Ok. Let him go.”
I spent the next few hours with their truly delightful chef, Mohammad while they evicted someone. He took me to the market, showed me the surrounding area, and back at the hotel, poured me a glass of wine while I talked to other tourists who had shown up. 

Chef Mohammed

 In that room  in 2009, I, and several  European guests and a couple of Moroccans watched Obama become the 43rd president of the United States. I cried. The following day the hotel owner gave me the daily newspaper written totally in Arabic. Front and center was a big photo of President Obama on stage surrounded by American flags; a corner insert showed Jessie Jackson weeping. I was so proud of my country. He stamped and signed the front page.It’s framed, waiting for me to settle somewhere.

No reservations. Perhaps it’s also a metaphor for being unrestrained, flexible-ready to light anywhere. It’s not extreme adventure, nor is it necessarily out of the way or weird- just free and freeing somehow. It’s a way to meet folks you wouldn’t ordinarily meet, eat places not in a guide book, and do things unplanned.

You are in charge of your time: to spend it with whomever you like, doing whatever you desire. 

drink & soak


On the Siberian Express train with the Aussies