culture

Voodoo Central – Benin

One of my reasons for visiting West Africa was to witness voodoo at its height.  Ouidah, Benin, is where the voodoo religion started and it remains hugely popular throughout this region.  National Voodoo Day is when the largest celebratory festival occurs, and is when this small town sees scores of visitors – me being one of them.IMG_2435

The voodoo experience is not complete without a trip to the local market to hunt for the voodoo section.  This is typically tucked away from the main thoroughfare and takes some determination to find.  I eventually found it.  The potent smell should have been a giveaway.  Not for the faint-hearted this area was filled with dead animals in various states of decay, including skeletal.  I won’t go into detail, suffice to say that the variety of animals was vast.  Sadly pangolin, which have recently been identified as an endangered species, were amongst the gory display.  This was the worst element of my trip and whilst I can appreciate the significance of animal remains in different religious practices, I physically baulked at the rarity of some of the species for sale here.

Like other religions, ceremonies and practices occur throughout the year.  But I am presuming it reaches fever pitch close to the designated Voodoo Day, as there was plenty of entertainment going on during my whole time in Benin.  It certainly wasn’t unusual to see religious processions with musical accompaniment, along with people dancing dress in elaborate costumes or adorned with body paint.

I shall say now that I am not exactly clear as to what was happening most of the time; or what certain dances and rituals meant.  But I will try to describe the three which I seemed to have a clearer idea on, I have named them in my own way:IMG_2361

  1. Goat Sacrifice – Again not for the faint-hearted. An important element of the religion is the sacrificing of a goat.  The practice here is to sacrifice the goat by slitting its’ throat and throwing it high into the air.  How the goat lands determines the future.

The throat of the lifeless goat is then placed between someone’s teeth.  The chosen individual then dances by spinning around and around in time to music.  The audience who absolutely loved this ceremony, were also dancing and chanting.  When the goat swinger tired or got dizzy, a new person stepped up for the honour of dancing with the goat.  Interestingly this was gender neutral, with both men and women taking the lead role.

The hashtag for this ritual must surely be #Beninforstrongteeth

  1. The Haystack Spirit – a large conical pyramid made of long grasses, spins continually around clockwise and then anti-clockwise, speeding up and slowing down in time to the drumming and singing. Their assigned trainer has a stick and seems to herd the haystack-like shape ensuring they remain within the circle of spectators.

After displaying the spirits’ agility, strengthen and skill at length they stop the dance routine.  The haystack is immediately laid on its side displaying a hollow empty space underneath.  Where is the person who was surely controlling the spirits’ movements?  Gasps of surprise emanate from the spectators, while the performers grin with delight at showing their voodoo magic.  The shape is placed back the correct way and upended again, this time a small plant is on the ground.  This is done again and ta-dah the plant has grown in size.

I am unsure what this represents, perhaps the birth of new life?   IMG_1884 (2)

  1. Tag on Speed – This could be the most intense and fun of all the voodoo events. Individuals dressed as spirits parade through the street with musical accompaniment.  Observers get as close to the spirits as they can, whilst keeping a small distance away.  Because those who are in the audience need to get a head start, in what could be the scariest moment of their lives.

At a random time during proceedings the spirits spin around and start to chase the onlookers.  Pandemonium breaks out.  People scatter in all directions, but they don’t go too far as they want to watch what happens.  However they are running for their lives.  For if the spirit touches you, you will die.

How crazy, scary and fun?  The voodoo religion simply has it all!

Categories: adventure, Africa, culture | 1 Comment

Africa for beginners…..

Apparently this is how Ghana has been labelled, and having now spent time there I can understand this sentiment.  English speaking, regular transportation and tourism savviness makes Ghana a good introduction to West Africa.

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Talc coffin

Religion is paramount to life here, and plays an enormous role in everyday existence.  Most shops have wonderfully religious titles such as “Hallelujah Welders”, “Praise Be Hairdressers” and “Peace Be With You Ladies Fashion”.

One night when I was having street food in Accra I was asked by a fellow diner what my religion was, my answer clearly didn’t suffice so he then offered a string of biblical quotations as encouragement.  So ingrained is Christianity* into the lives of Ghanaians that this ability to quote verses from the bible is widespread amongst the population.

I could write several paragraphs about the embracing of religion in Ghana, but I will just mention their view on death.  I visited an interesting carpentry workshop who specialise in building personalised coffins.  In an upbeat way relatives of the deceased select an important factor in their loved ones lives and the carpenters magically create it as a coffin. The examples on display included a spider, a capsicum, a video camera and my personal favourite – a bottle of talcum powder.

On a more sobering topic, sporting 37 forts on a 500km stretch of coast line Ghana was the key departure point for the most significant human migration ever

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Slave fort

recorded – the slave trade.  It is unclear exactly how many millions of men, women and children were shackled together, and led through the door of no return to the waiting ships.  Taken from their homeland, their families and their existence they exited Ghana through this narrow doorway into a life of slavery in the Americas.  A very poignant place to visit.

There are some other interesting and definitely more cheerful things I want to mention about Ghana.  Sounds good I hear you cry.

  • People are often called by the day of the week on which they were born, with different conventions for male and female. The most famous example of this being Kofi (Friday) Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.
  • A sign of respect is shown through shaking hands – but not your standard handshake. This is a special handshake that upon exiting you click your fingers, it’s quite hard to describe in words.  But this manoeuvre takes skill, and I often felt like my fingers were going to break such was the force on my fingertips.  One to practice for next time I think!

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    Christmas Day drumming

  • I was there a few days after the 2016 General Election, which saw a change in Presidential power. The election passed peacefully and the subsequent Presidential handover went smoothly.  As a nation such pride was taken in this process and billboards across Accra declared the Election as another triumphant success for Ghana.
  • This is a country of typically happy and friendly people. Everyone wants to stop and chat, give you directions or make sure you alight from the bus at the correct location.
  • Almost every second shop is a hairdressers. Women pride themselves on their appearance, and have the most creative large hairstyles.  They are also comfortable, and I think even proud, to be seen in the streets with hair curlers in.

*there are also many Muslims living in Ghana, but Christianity is the religion of the majority.

Categories: adventure, Africa, culture, people | 1 Comment

More Colombian insight

My love of Colombia was evident from an earlier post, so I am writing more to entice you to go…..

Covering an area of 1.1m square kilometres my three and a half weeks just wasn’t long enough but I did manage to immerse myself in the chaotic festive spirit over the holiday season, which now seems oh so long ago.IMG_9279

A Christmas tradition for some people is to dress as the devil or a demon, and along with musical accompaniment dance through the streets.  It seems the original festive role of this legendary character was to whip bad children to make them good.  But as with all things Colombian it just looks to me like another reason to party in the street!

Sadly for brave spectators, in 2015 the New Year tradition of setting mannequins packed with fireworks alight at midnight was banned by the Government; this was due to several serious injuries occurring each year.  I have seen this celebration in Mexico and it was crazily dangerous but fun!  Colombians create effigies of famous people who haven’t

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It’s a scream…

performed well during the year, this is typically sport stars or politicians but can just be a relatively blank canvas.  These life size figures take pride of place outside houses and in the street for the week leading up to New Year.  The burning of the mannequins and erratic explosion of fireworks symbolises goodbye to the celebrity for last year and welcomes in the New Year with hope and promise.  The concept is a great one, perhaps more health and safety focus required though….

 

Whilst in Colombia I also discovered a host of interesting things, and here are just a few:

  • Smart(?) thinking means that one of the best places to pick up a prostitute is outside church.  That way you can repent and pay for sex at the same time.
  • Bogota’s gold museum is simply dazzling.  Home to a huge collection of gold made into exquisite accessories and ornaments it is the glittering jewel of an edgy capital city.
  • In 2015 Ariadna Gutiérrez Arevalo, representing Colombia was crowned Miss Universe.  Though the elation only lasted for a matter of moments, as the host realised he had accidentally crowned the wrong finalist and she had to pass back the crown.  The country erupted…..
  • The majority of non-South American cannot spell the word Colombia, confusing it with a US city.  This to the locals can only be described as annoying.IMG_8811b
  • The World’s largest necropolis, in San Agustin was founded by an ancient civilisation pre-dating the more renowned Inca’s.  Not much is known about this race as all that remains are numerous stone statues of people, animals and deities.
  • Cosmetic surgery is in serious abundance for the ladies.  I saw some of the most outrageously and dis-proportionally curved women that I have ever seen!
Categories: adventure, culture, South America | Leave a comment

Happy Days!

Now less than three months until my next trip to the happiest country in the World – pastriesDenmark.  Looking forward to the best bacon sandwiches and pastries known to man……

Oh and of course being a tourist and visiting the Little Mermaid.

Categories: culture, Europe | 2 Comments

Sulawesi island of traditions…

One of the key draw factors for this Indonesian island could be said to be bordering on the macabre.  Unique funeral ceremonies here are a celebration of life and a preparation for the afterlife.  And I got to observe one take place in Toraja, the Central Highlands.

When a relative passes away, they are embalmed and kept within the famiy home for anything up to ten years.  This is to both plan the funeral and save money for the ceremony itself.  During this interim period a place continues to be set for the deceased at meal times, and they remain very much part of proceedings.

Funeral procession

Funeral procession

Funeral preparations include the building of an elaborate temporary bamboo structure to house all attendees, designing an itinerary for the three day event and buying sacrificial animals.  Note that here in Sulawesi where you can get a good meal and large beer for approx. $7 they spend significant sums apparently up to *$80k to buy a single buffalo for imminent departure into the next life (hence the requirement to save) .  Price is dependent on the quality of specimen, where factors such as colour, eye colour, tail length and of course horn shape are key.

The funeral parade itself was a cacophony of noise and colour.  There was a unique chanting and dance routine from the character leading the parade, and a melancholy tune from a solo wind instrument mixed with the confusion of braying animals.  Family wearing traditional dress, incorporating beads and ritual weaponry, rubbed shoulders with local villagers in black clothing and Vietnamese cone shaped hats.  The gist of the parade was for attendees in small groups to deliver offerings and pay respect to the deceased, this continued loop of activity only paused for lunch – stewed buffalo and rice.

It was an interesting experience, and not one for animal lovers.  I had expected more celebration and joy, but there was definitely a sombre note in the air for the day.

So here’s a scattering of other facts about this island, which is firmly nestled amongst the World’s largest archipelago:

  • 62% of Sulawesi’s mammals are endemic to the island – that’s a huge percentage.  This includes tarsiers and a most unusual looking wild pig called a babirusa.  Glad I didn’t see a babirusa it looks quite formidable.
  • More funeral information.  Continued tradition includes the burial of the deceased in graves dug out of rock
    Tau-tau's

    Tau-tau’s

    faces.  For those richer families who sacrifice at least 24 buffalos they have the privilege of marking the grave with a tau-tau (wooden effigy) on a balcony along with other similar effigies.  The effect is rather eerie.

  • Sulawesi is the World’s 11th largest island.  It looks deceivingly small on a map, but believe me once you get there it most certainly is a sizeable destination.

* This sounds like a vast amount but it’s what I was advised by a local.

Categories: adventure, Asia, culture | 1 Comment

Yay! New trip in planning phase….

…. this time it’s Sulawesi, Indonesia.  The shape of this island destination is said to resemble the petals of an orchid, which all sounds very whimsical and romantic.

Though for the more hardened traveller there is the prospect of a nocturnal adventure looking for tarsiers, and uncovering the history of head hunter tribes.  Definitely more my cup of tea.  Although I draw the line at trying the local delicacy of stewed forest rat!

A bit scary looking!

A bit scary looking!

51 sleeps to go…..

 

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More on the curious land of Iran…

So the morality police.  I’d heard this term many times before arriving in Iran but after being there for several days all thoughts of this self-governing group had been banished.  That is until I met them.  That is until I was apprehended for my lack of conformity to hijab and showing my hair – an illegal act for women.???????????????????????????????

For my first few days in the country the challenge of wearing hijab, which translates as “cover up”, proved tricky.  Whilst feeling the heat in long sleeved tops and trousers, having to maintain the position of my headscarf proved the most frustrating.  A continual tug-of-war between gravity insisting that my headscarf slide off, and me desperately clawing it back into place became the daily norm.

Thankfully I was given what I can only presume to be a warning in Farsi and directions to suitably amend my attire, by the rather fearsome morality police.  The next person to be questioned on their dress code, a local girl, seemed to be given a much more thorough grilling and her tears were freely flowing.

I have no intention of this sounding like a negative post, as I truly enjoyed my time in Iran.  Though I did on occasion struggle with the intensity of the rules imposed in the country and the impact of these.  On a more positive note, here are some of the things that I witnessed in my travels:

Fave hangout!

Fave hangout!

  • The art of bread making is quite unique, I didn’t see two bakeries alike.  My favourite one which I was invited behind the scenes of, though they spoke no English, made their flat bread in a hot gravel oven.  Once baked part of the process, to ensure no teeth are broken, is to pick out the hot chunks of gravel.  This is done on special wire mesh containers by the buyers just in front of the shop.  And for the record it tasted delicious!
  • An unbelievable level of kindness and warmth oozed from everyone I met.  Iranians are a very proud race of people who are keen to display their country in the best light.  People frequently seemed intent on sharing their food with me, I was given free lifts by relative strangers and was even let into and shown around closed mosques by caretakers and builders alike.  Such a breath of fresh air being made to feel welcome in an unknown land.
  • Surprisingly Esfahan boasts the second largest square in the World.  The largest being Tiananmen square in Beijing.
  • In the countries holiest mosque, Haram-e Razavi Shrine in Mashhad, devout worshippers swarm the vast complex.  The majority of women wear the traditional black chador, a shapeless piece of material which covers you from head to toe, making it impossible to identify individuals from behind.  I saw one ingenious group who had all pinned a white tag on the back of their floor length gowns.  I couldn’t help but smile at this bid for individuality in the strictest place in Iran.
  • Often claimed to be the birth of civilisation, there are several ancient sights in Iran. Dating from 520BC is the most famous sight of Persepolis, with a fantastically intricately carved stone staircase.
Categories: adventure, culture, Middle East, people | Leave a comment

“So Iran, how was that?”

???????????????????????????????Everyone has been keen to hear about my trip through Iran, and with good reason.  Whilst not many people I know have been to this political hot potato of a country; most know of it’s turbulent past along with it’s current on-going sanctions and alleged uranium processing facilities.

My first impressions immediately blew away my pre-conceived thoughts that this would be an authoritarian country where woman were not treated as equals.  From the word go I found the country illuminating and culturally intriguing.  Both men and women were keen to chat, and I learnt much about their thoughts and dreams for the future of Iran.

The things that surprised me in Iran were numerous, I’ve listed some here:

  • Iran boasts the highest number of nose jobs per capita in the world, and it’s predominantly women.  Interestingly
    Real or not?

    Real or not?

    some people who hadn’t had this form of plastic surgery also wore the tell-tale white plaster across their noses.  I believe it’s seen as a status symbol, I personally thought it looked odd.

  • The Zayandeh river in Esfahan is one of the most photographed tourist sights, with several old and beautiful bridges spanning its width.  However there was simply no water, and nobody seemed to know why.  I heard several different explanations that could have been true, I just found it bizarre that nobody actually knew.
  • Women can be taxi drivers.  This is a male dominated job the world over, so intriguing to see women behind the wheel in a country where the traffic is unbelievably scary!
  •  The seating etiquette was something I had to consciously try to remember, though people were quick to point out if I sat in the wrong place.  Women are not able to sit next to a man on public transport unless they are related or married.  People play musical chairs throughout a long journey to ensure this law is adhered to.

I think I’ll post more on Iran soon, as there is so much to this country that I want to share.

Categories: adventure, culture, Middle East, people | Leave a comment

Turkmenistan, least touristy of the Stan’s…

… and I think I know why!!  This country is tough even for the hardy traveller, into which category I firmly place myself.  The difficulty in getting a visa and then enduring the immigration experience, places you in good stead for what is to come.

Wobbly!

Wobbly!

Lone travellers are rare, and women even more so, as most visitors are on organised tours.  This makes finding an English speaker tricky, including in hotels.  In my three days there, I found just one person who I could converse with.  So lots of gesticulating and smiling occurred.  Everyone was friendly and wanted to have a conversation, people just kept repeating the same thing again and again, as if I’d suddenly become fluent in Turkmen in their presence.

Interesting things about this relatively unknown former Soviet state:

  • The forlorn beautiful UNESCO world heritage sight of Konye Urgench, has several ancient buildings all leaning perilously due to earthquake damage.  I was convinced the 59m tower was going to topple at any time.
  • Prestige and opulence are the order of the day in the cities, particularly the capital Ashgabat.  Huge sweeping avenues are lined with large sparkling white buildings, but where are the people?  Only officials and gardeners were present in the newest area of the city.

    Former President

    Former President

  • The previous president seems to have been a character – filling the cities with gold statutes of himself, renaming the months with names of his family, and banning television reporters from wearing make-up because he said he found it difficult to distinguish males from females.

I visited Turkmenistan en route from Uzbekistan to Iran, with the view of just spending three days there.  I think this is a country worthy of more attention, but the transport limitations, difficulty communicating and most importantly the government restrictions make Turkmenistan a challenge.

Categories: adventure, Asia, culture, people | Leave a comment

Uzbekistan, home to the scintillating Silk Road…

Fave building!

Fave building!

… and so much more.  Genghis Khan did a reasonable amount of damage to this fair land, as have numerous serious earthquakes over the ages.  However several amazing historic structures remain – huge domed mosques, medrassas in brilliant hues of blue, and ornate grand entrance portals.  In each town these seemed to generally be grouped together surrounding a central courtyard for the ultimate wow factor.

To fight the fierce heats of summer and cold harsh winters the older towns are all walled, with mud houses accessible through low doors off the numerous twisting turning alleys.  Bazaars here are typical to the region, brick structures with arched roofs crammed full of stalls selling all kinds of paraphernalia.  This is where all the action happens.  People congregate to shop, chat and get out of the cold biting wind – I know as I happily joined them.

Now whilst Uzbekistan has a fairly quiet backpacker trail, a certain amount of tenacity is still required to surpass the language barrier.  There is an expectation that as a tourist you speak Russian, which was a rather optimistic view in my case!

So what else did I experience in this interesting far flung destination?  Well….

  • Taxi?  What taxi?  Just flag down a car driving past and if it’s going your way it’s a win all round.
  • I thought that the imaginings of Roald Dahl’s character *Veronica Beauregarde and her chewing gum habits were one of pure fantasy.  But oh no, not here.  I saw chewing gum stored behind ears and on fingernails for re-chewing later, all a bit yukky!

    Simply stunning architecture!

    Simply stunning architecture!

  • Finance was interesting, I changed $200 into the local currency of Som.  My new currency was so vast it came in a carrier bag containing 600 physical notes!  Only recently has a note for a larger amount been introduced, however these are still rare.  Hence the requirement for carrying your funds in a backpack as opposed to a wallet.
  • A previous post mentioned the tradition of not turning bread upside down.  I had dinner with two locals, and one actually reached over to the others plate and turned his bread the correct way around.  I was flabbergasted, but it seemed quite usual behaviour here.

*Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s third golden ticket winner and claimed to be the world record holder for chewing gum.

Categories: adventure, Asia, culture, people | 2 Comments

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