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A place prepared

New Mexico day five


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We took advantage of the breakfast included in our room rate at the Grants Best Western, where the buffet was more extensive than in some other places we stayed on this trip, with reasonable eggs and bacon alongside the usual juice, muffins, yoghurts and weak coffee. Then we checked out and drove east on I40, heading for our first major stop of the day.

Acoma

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Landscape with mesas, Acoma

This was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip! Acoma Pueblo is built on top of a sheer-walled, 367-foot sandstone mesa in a valley dotted with sacred, towering monoliths, and is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. While most Acoma people no longer live there, preferring a home with a few more ‘mod cons’ elsewhere on the reservation land (houses in the pueblo have no electricity, no running water and no toilet), it is still home to about 30 people year-round, and to many more during festivals when everyone returns to their ancestral home on the mesa.

To visit Acoma is to be transported to a time and place that has existed for centuries. We turned off busy Interstate 40, drove a few miles across an empty, dusty land, and suddenly we were in a different world. In a landscape dotted with sandstone columns and mesas it was hard at first to pick out the one that has a pueblo on its summit. The only giveaway sign was the twin adobe towers of the church of San Esteban on one side of the village, but even they blended into the warm hues of the sandstone and only became distinct when we were just a couple of miles away.

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At the Cultural Centre

To visit the pueblo you have to take a tour, which starts from the very attractive and informative Cultural Centre, so we parked there and went in to look round and purchase our tickets. The fee included permission to use one camera, which was tagged to show we had paid (we would have had to pay extra to have additional equipment tagged, if needed).

But the Cultural Centre is not just the starting place for tours, it’s also worth a visit in its own right as we discovered while waiting for our tour to leave. I loved the building itself, with its heavy doors (carved to resemble 19th century textiles) and restful interior. The Haak'u Museum displays not only traditional Acoma wares, especially pottery, but also hosts changing exhibitions of more modern art and crafts. When we were there in September 2011 there were two excellent photography exhibitions, one of photographs taken across New Mexico by Craig Varjabedian and the other, which we found the more interesting, of photographs by local Acoma residents. The latter, although amateur, were very accomplished and in some cases powerful works. There was also a very interesting display of modern interpretations of traditional native art.

When it was time for our tour, we joined the small group (we were seven in number) in a minibus for the short ride to the top of the mesa with our guide. We were then escorted around the pueblo – the tour lasts about an hour and a half and is accompanied throughout, so there was no wandering off on our own, much as I might have liked to do so.

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Our guide

There are strict etiquette rules for visitors to Acoma, and it is important to read and abide by these. Think of it as a visit to another country, whose laws must be upheld and whose traditions respected. They include:

~ You must register for a guided tour in order to visit the Pueblo, stay with your tour guide at all times and not wander off the designated tour route
~ Restrain your children at all times. Absolutely no pets are allowed on tour.
~ No Smoking
~ Permits for cameras must be purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center prior to photographing on the Acoma lands. No photography is allowed inside the Church, within the cemetery courtyard, and during feast days. Permission must be obtained prior to photographing tribal members or their artwork.
~ Use of tripods, go pros, video cameras, digital video cameras, binoculars and audio recording devices is prohibited.
~ Commercial use of a photograph depicting Acoma imagery for personal gain (profit) is prohibited.

There is also a dress code:

‘We encourage you to dress comfortably however out of respect for our religious leaders who reside on the mesa year round we ask that no revealing clothing be worn (short shorts, short skirts, halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti strap tanks, and tank tops etc). We do have limited clothing pieces available that may be borrowed at the time of your visit. If we feel that your clothing is inappropriate we will ask you to cover up. Thank you for your understanding and respect for our home.'

All guides come from the pueblo and really know their stuff – ours was excellent, and we learned a lot from her, and although some details I later forgot, I was able to piece them back together again with some subsequent research.

The story of Acoma

The name of this place, Acoma, is derived from the native word ‘Haak’u’ which means ‘a place prepared’. The people believe they are descended from the one-time inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, forced to leave their home by a prolonged drought. Their ancestors had been told by the spirits ‘at the time of emergence’, that is from the very beginnings of their existence, that a place had been prepared in which they would live. So the tribe left their lands in Chaco and wandered through the American Southwest, pausing from time to time to call out ‘Haak’u’. When they arrived in this particular valley, their call reverberated off the mountain peaks and returned to them in an echo, telling them that they had at last found their ‘place prepared’.

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View from the mesa top

But their first home in the valley was not on this mesa but on nearby Enchanted Mesa, seen to the right of centre in the background of this photo and more centrally in the photo higher up this page. According to their legends one day, when all but a few elderly women were down on the valley floor below tending the crops, a terrific storm blew up and destroyed their only path up to the top of this mesa. Those left above were trapped and sadly died (some say that they jumped to their deaths rather than face a slow starvation), and the larger part of the tribe abandoned this mesa and moved to one nearby, where they remain to this day.

Life here has been touched only superficially by the twenty first century, and indeed by all the other centuries that have passed since the village was founded in around 1150. Houses may have been modernised (although only a little) and access improved (one road now ascends to the mesa’s top), but the traditions, the sacred beliefs and much of the life-style of the Acoma people is as it has always been.

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In Acoma Pueblo

Of course there have not always been tourists here but others have come, some much more invasive than the current bus-loads of visitors. The first white visitor to the Acoma Pueblo was Francisco Vasques de Coronado on his 1536 expedition to the Indian pueblos. He and his soldiers were in awe of the seemingly impenetrable fortress at the top of the mesa, and left the Acoma people alone. But that could not last.

In 1598, the Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded this region and raided the native American pueblos, with his troops looting anything of value. They tried to steal grain from a granary and the Acoma fought back, killing several Spaniards in the defence of their crops. De Oñate ordered his soldiers to conquer the pueblo, and in the ensuing battle the indigenous population, which had been approximately 2,000 people before the Spanish attacked, was reduced to just 250 survivors. These were herded to Santo Domingo Pueblo, which the Spanish had previously defeated and were now using as a base. There children under the age of 12 were taken from their parents and assigned them to Spanish missionaries to be raised. Most of the adult Acoma were sold into slavery. Of the few dozen Acoma men of fighting age still alive after the battle, Oñate ordered the right foot chopped off each one.

As we toured the pueblo and listened to our guide we learned that although such injustices may, we hope, have been confined to the pages of history, they are not forgotten. The past has shaped this people and in this almost mystical place past, present and future seem largely indistinguishable from each other.

Acoma houses

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A street in the pueblo

The tour wound through the village streets where we saw the traditional houses, ovens, water cisterns and more. There are about 275 houses in the pueblo, although only around 30 people live here year-round. These are mostly older people and pre-school children, who are often sent to live with grandparents so that they can learn the culture and traditions of the tribe from them. But all the houses are owned and cared for by an Acoma family, and the family will visit and stay there during festival times. Many of the houses we saw therefore had been extensively restored – this is very much a living village, not a museum.

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Another typical street

The houses are made of adobe, like so many buildings across New Mexico (and indeed across the south-west). The Spanish invaders, on first encountering these structures, saw the straw glinting in the sunshine and believed the houses to be made of gold! The thick adobe walls keep the homes cool in summer and warm in the winter, and sharing walls with neighbouring houses adds to the insulation effect. The roads too were carefully planned, each exactly the right width to ensure that even the long shadows of winter would not fall on the houses opposite, so that all could benefit from the warmth of the sun’s rays.

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Typical houses

Traditionally all the houses were of three stories, but the use of each floor varied with the season. In the winter the ground floor would be used for cooking. Heat from the fire would rise to the floor above, which was used as living and sleeping space year-round, and food would be stored on the top floor away from that heat. In the summer the ground and top floor usage was reversed; cooking would be done on the top floor so the heat could escape through the roof without overheating the inhabitants, and food was stored on the ground floor.

Some of the houses have window frames painted in the traditional turquoise colour, symbolising the sky. In the past windows were made of mica, letting in some light but no view, but today almost all are of glass. But modernisation has only gone so far. To those of us used to ‘all mod cons’ it may seem strange to us that the Acoma choose not to fully modernise their houses here in the pueblo. They could easily do so. Those elsewhere in the reservation, on the plain below, have all the facilities we might expect. There is a school, a fire station, offices for the tribal government, a hotel and casino for visitors. But here there are only the bare necessities. There is no running water and no electricity. Coolers not fridges keep food fresh, although a few houses do have a generator.

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Building work

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Restoration in progress

Water, or rather the shortage of it, has always been a challenge for those living on the rocky mesa. It has almost no soil, so almost nothing of any size grows here, apart from a single tree. It is thought that this survives because of its proximity to a deep pool of water or cistern. In the past the inhabitants of Acoma relied on these cisterns for all their water supplies. They would collect rainwater during the wet summer months and this was carefully conserved and used in dry periods. To keep the water pure it was forbidden to wash or play in the cisterns.

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Cistern and lone tree

These days however water is brought up to the pueblo in tankers. But the houses don’t have any running water. The Acoma people prefer to keep things as they always have been here in the pueblo (we were to find the same preference for traditional ways later in our trip when we visited Taos Pueblo). Admittedly many choose not to live here year round, but some do – and all believe that a resistance to modern development is essential to preserve their traditions and to remind them to value what is important in life: family, tribe and the continual thread of their culture and beliefs that anchors each generation to the ones that came before and those to follow.

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Portaloos

There are no toilets in the houses either – instead you will see communal Portaloos around the edges of the village which are used by everyone and which are regularly emptied by a commercial firm. Our guide explained that in the past they had drop toilets, and also told us that there are plans to introduce new ones with a compostable system – but not to install them in the houses.

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Horno at the mesa's edge

Dotted around the pueblo you will see ovens shaped like beehives and known as horno. These were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors, so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked. The result is a light fluffy bread, not dissimilar to pizza dough.

Kivas

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Street with kiva

In the photo above you can see the distinctive ladders resting against the houses. The double ladder near the centre of the photo indicates that the building is a kiva or sacred building. Kiva ladders also have pointed tips, believed to pierce the clouds and bring rain. The ladder below illustrates this belief, with a stylised cloud-shaped bar across its three poles.

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Kiva ladder

These kivas would once have been round but our guide told us that after they had been destroyed by the Spanish invaders they were rebuilt with square walls to look more like normal houses and fool the enemy. [I have also read a more practical explanation – that square buildings make better use of the very limited space here on the mesa top]. But you can spot a kiva as it has no door; entry is only by the ladder, whereas in the case of the houses the ladders are used just for access to the upper floors. Look at the photo above carefully and you will see on the far right the tips of the second ladder that leads down into the kiva itself.

No visitors are allowed in the kivas and guides are not permitted (even if they would want to) to share anything of what goes on in them. Their use is sacred and even to tell outsiders about them would be seen as a threat to the integrity of the tribe’s culture and beliefs. It is essential to respect this and not to push the guides for information they are unable to provide.

One of the interesting things I learned on the tour was that the Acoma have a matriarchal society; that is, the women are the more powerful sex. It is they who own the land, make the major family decisions and maintain the traditions of the tribe.

The land and the family home are passed down to the youngest daughter, as it is thought that she will have stayed closest to her parents and have the most respect for the traditions. The matriarch will pass on her role to this daughter at what she feels is the right time, not necessarily waiting until she dies. At that point the matriarch loses her role in the family, moves out of the home in the pueblo (if indeed she has been inhabiting it full-time) and relinquishes all claims on the family property and possessions. She will never live on the mesa again, but may return for visits and celebrations. If she dies before succession, the title of matriarch passes automatically to her youngest daughter or, if there is no daughter, to the youngest grand-daughter.

And so it is the women who have kept alive the traditions of the Acoma, they who have made this pueblo the magical place it is, and they who hold the responsibility to continue to do so for generation beyond generation to come.

The Church of San Esteban

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San Esteban

Our tour finished at the pueblo’s church, its most prominent building, dedicated to Saint Stephen. It was built between 1629 and 1641 by the Acoma people under the direction of their Spanish conquerors. Some accounts say that the Spanish forced them to build the church, others that the people were grateful to the Catholic friar, Juan Ramirez, after he saved the life of a local child, and thus built the church willingly. A legend tells that just as Friar Juan arrived at the mesa this child fell from its edge and was assumed to be dead. But as the people grieved for their loss, the stranger arrived at the top of the stone steps carrying the lost child in his arms, safe and well. The people took this as a miracle and a sign that they should welcome this man and the new religion he preached.

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San Esteban

The adobe structure remains largely unchanged over the centuries. The left-hand of its twin towers contains an ancient bell (the one on the right is newer). According to the Spanish account, the Acoma people traded four children for this older bell, but according to the people of Acoma, the Spaniards gave the bell as reparation after stealing four children from their families.

Photography of the beautiful interior of San Esteban is not allowed by tribal rules. Its stand-out features include a traditional viga ceiling, with the characteristic parallel rows of heavy timbers, and a wooden altar carved by the Acoma in the 1630s, its twirled columns painted red and white – red, the colour of sandstone and adobe, to symbolise the Acoma and their traditional beliefs, and white to symbolise Catholicism, the two intertwined here as they are in the spiritual lives of the people. Most Acoma believe in and practice both religions, but a few only one or the other.

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At the edge of the mesa

In this photo of Chris and me at the edge of the mesa you can see behind us Mount Taylor, known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people. It was from this distant and sacred mountain that the Acoma were forced by the Spanish to bring wood to construct the church, including the large logs of the traditional viga ceiling. The wood was not permitted to touch the ground between Kaweshtima and Acoma – if a log fell or was dropped it had to be left where it was rather than be used for the building.

Mass is celebrated in the church on special feast days. One of these is the feast of St Stephen, after which the statue of the saint is paraded around the village. Another is on Christmas Eve, when Midnight Mass is said. On these and on other feast days all the people return to the pueblo from their homes elsewhere as it is important for the tribe to celebrate together. As the church was built on the pueblo’s former plaza (lending credence I think to the version of the story that claims the people were forced to build it here), its dirt floor is kept largely bare and is used on native feast days for dancing.

I have no pictures of the adjoining cemetery, as all photography of it is strictly forbidden, but it is too interesting a place not to mention it here. It lies in front of the church and is even older than it. It was not part of the Acoma tradition to bury their dead, but with the adoption of some of the Spanish conquerors’ Catholic beliefs came also the introduction of burials. There is of course no soil on the mesa top, so earth for the cemetery has had to be carried up from the plains below in woven baskets. There are now five layers of graves here, and when this one is full no more will be added. Places in the cemetery are reserved for tribal elders and for those who have made the pueblo their year-round home – most Acoma are now buried elsewhere in the reservation, in the churchyard they share with the neighbouring Laguna tribe.

At one end of the cemetery, in front of the church, is a raised area with a large cross, a memorial to all the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which in the inside can just be made out to contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall has a hole in it, to allow the spirits of the deceased an exit route out into the afterlife.

A souvenir of Acoma

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Pottery seller

During our tour we had numerous opportunities to purchase the traditional Acoma pottery. There were tables set up at strategic points on the tour with a local potter displaying their creations, and our guide encouraged us all to examine these and waited patiently for a few minutes at least while we did so. We were tempted at several points, but I’d read that if you’re serious about buying it’s best to wait till the end of the tour and then ask to be escorted back to the one whose work most appealed to you.

The traditional Acoma style is very striking, usually in shades of black and red only, though some other colours are included in non-traditional designs in order to appeal to tourists. They didn’t appeal to us however, as we much preferred the simplicity of the traditional colour scheme which contrast well with the intricacy of some of the designs. These designs reflect the landscape around the pueblo and the legends of the people, so you will see triangular shapes for mountains, lines showing rain, and spiritual animals such as the lizard. We were also (rather incongruously it seems) shown designs featuring parrots. Of course there are no parrots in New Mexico! But there is an Acoma legend that tells how traders from the tribe visited rainforest areas in South America and brought back a parrot in the hope that the presence of a bird from that region would bring much-needed rain to the parched lands of their home.

Prices aren’t cheap, as everything is hand-made (if you think you’ve found a bargain, it won’t have been made by hand), but they are better value than in tourist shops elsewhere in the state, so if you like the work this is a great place to buy. We purchased a very small plate (about two inches across) decorated with lizards which cost us $20 – we wanted a souvenir of our visit but were concerned about carrying anything larger and heavier (and breakable) having already bought our ceramic horse in Hillsboro a few days earlier.

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Pottery for sale

Our visit to Acoma occupied most of our morning and has filled a lot of blog space, so I’ll stop here for now and continue with the rest of today in the following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:15 Archived in USA Tagged art people architecture road_trip culture history church village houses new_mexico crafts customs Comments (5)

On the Turquoise Trail

New Mexico day six


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

The Hotel Blue in Albuquerque, where we had spent the night, prides itself on its ‘pressure relieving Tempur-Pedic mattresses’ and I was amazed at how comfortable it was, while Chris declared this the best sleep he’d had in ages (despite an incident when I got up to use the bathroom in the night, to discover that a single switch operated both bathroom and main bedroom lights, and thus I had no choice but to flood the room with light, thus waking him!)

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Turquoise Trail

The hotel provides a complimentary if simple breakfast which we took advantage of – fruit juice, yoghurt, bread, waffles (make your own) etc. They proudly announced that they serve Starbucks coffee, but it was nevertheless far too weak for my taste, as usual.

The Turquoise Trail

It is possible to drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe in a couple of hours, taking I25, but we had all day and the slower route to the east, another of the state’s scenic byways known as the Turquoise Trail, looked much more appealing. Named for the former turquoise mines in the region, this road (Highway 14) takes you through a series of one-time boom mining towns which are for the most part now very small and sleepy.

So we headed east out of town for a few miles on I40 before turning north, starting our explorations with a couple of sights close to the city.

Sandia Peak

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Aspens on Crest Road

A very popular excursion from Albuquerque is to take the Sandia Peak Tramway to the top of the mountains that fringe the eastern side of the city, for the view and for the outdoor pursuits available there (walking in the summer, skiing in the winter). We hadn’t had time for that while exploring the city yesterday. But there is another way to visit these mountains, by car. So we started our journey to Santa Fe with a detour off Highway 14 along Highway 536, or Crest Road as it is called. This is slow and winding, not a road to be driven in a hurry.

Soon after turning off from Highway 14 we passed the entrance to the Tinkertown Museum, which we planned to visit later, and shortly after this the road started to climb. It was late September and as we climbed we found that the trees, still green at lower altitudes, were starting to take on their autumn hues. There were several stands of aspens that were especially marvellous, and we found ourselves stopping several times to take photos, as around each bend there appeared to be an even more magnificent group.

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More of the aspens on Crest Road

By the time we reached the peak we were at 10,678 feet above sea level. The large parking lot was nearly empty. We paid the required $3 fee (operated on an honour pay system) and took the path which climbed a short distance higher to a view of the city spread out beneath us.

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Albuquerque panorama

I expected to see the Tramway terminus and be surrounded by the crowds who choose that route up, but we found that this spot is a couple of miles north of that and consequently much quieter. There were useful information boards along the path pointing out the landmarks that can be seen (including a distant Mount Taylor) and describing the geology and natural history of the area.

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Albuquerque from Sandia Peak

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View of the distant mountains from Sandia Peak

We spent some time admiring the view and taking photos, glad that we had warm tops in the car – the thermometer in our car had dropped from 70 Fahrenheit to 58 in the course of the drive up.

We then retraced our route down the Crest Road to the aforementioned museum.

Tinkertown

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Entrance to Tinkertown

As soon as I read about Tinkertown I knew that it was a ‘must see’. We both love these idiosyncratic places that seem to define a US road trip for us – and this is one of the best we have come across. If you are anywhere in the area I urge you to go – you’ll have great fun and even maybe find yourself a little moved by the dedication of the one man who created it.

So many of these quirky folk-art museums are the result of one person’s obsession. In this case that person was Ross Ward. It took him over 40 years to create the huge number of models and scenarios that make up Tinkertown, and it’s easy to believe that it took that long once you start to explore. As he said, ‘I did all this while you were watching TV’. A sign inside explains:

‘Tinkertown was begun as a hobby in 1962. The little General Store came first (it was all I intended to build at the time!) 90% of this display was built by myself. The buildings are scraps form my sign business and the people are wood-carved or made of clay. Many of the furnishings are antique toys and miniatures. I did it all “a dollar at a time” without a grant or a bank loan! You can do the same no matter what your project!’

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Just a tiny part of the recycled bottle wall

The fun started as soon as we pulled up in the car. There are old signs galore, wagon wheels, saddles, other Wild West paraphernalia dotted around the site, while the wall that surrounds the museum is made up of over 50,000 glass bottles – recycling gone crazy! Once we’d finished exploring and taking photos outside (at no charge), we paid just $3 each to enter the rambling museum, where we were transported to another world!

The first section, which was probably my favourite, consists of a row of dioramas depicting different buildings on a sort of Wild West theme. There’s the General Store already mentioned, a hotel, a Native American Trader, a pharmacy with a doctor’s surgery above and many more. Some are animated, all are fascinating and repay careful scrutiny – there are just so many amusing details. Here a man with a cleaver chases chickens in a circle, the doctor ogles a young female patient while his nurse glares at him, men fight in the street, couples ride by in wagons and children play.

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The General Store

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The doctor's surgery

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The Native American Trader

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The barber's shop

In other sections we saw Ward’s various eclectic collections from over the years, including wedding cake couples, antique tools, bullet pencils, dolls and more. Later models are on a grander scale, especially the circus, complete with big top, cages of animals, trapeze act – the list goes on.

Many of the models are animated. When we paid for our entry we were given a quarter back to put into the first animation, a hillbilly band ‘Rusty Wyer and the Turquoise Trail Riders’. We were glad however that we also had a few quarters with us to use on the other models we came to later in our tour – the Boot Hill Cemetery in particular was a must!

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Rusty Wyer and the Turquoise Trail Riders

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Boot Hill Cemetery, Tinkertown

Oh, and hidden among the collections is a small model of Mark Twain, and this quote from him, which I think could be a great motto for any of us here on TravellersPoint:

‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely ... Broad, wholesome, charitable views ... cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of Earth.’

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Mark Twain

Outside we found a rather incongruous addition to the collection in the shape of the Theodora, a 35 foot wooden boat that a friend once sailed around the world before retiring to the Caribbean and donating his boat to Tinkertown.

Golden

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Church of San Francisco, Golden

Our first stop on the Turquoise Trail proper was in the ghost town of Golden. This was the site of the very first gold rush west of the Mississippi back in 1825, even before the more famous California and Colorado gold rushes. So rich did the seam of gold appear that the town, originally named El Real de San Francisco, changed its name, and it soon grew to support several saloons, businesses, a school, and even a stock exchange. But by 1884 the gold was already beginning to run out and with no gold to keep them here people began to leave. The town survived for a while, acting as a small hub for local ranchers (the Golden General Merchandise Store opened in 1918 and is still operating today). But decline seemed to be inevitable, and by 1928 its population was so small that Golden was officially declared a ghost town.

For years afterwards its many abandoned buildings remained, falling into ruins among the very few still occupied, and that’s pretty much how we found it. There was a scattering of houses, and several piles of old stone that on close inspection revealed themselves to be crumbling walls. Most were too far gone even to be very photogenic, unlike some other ghost towns.

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Church of San Francisco, Golden

But one building was definitely worth stopping for a photo or two, the pretty little Catholic Church of San Francisco, dating back to 1830. Unfortunately however, today the gate to the churchyard was firmly locked so we could only take pictures from some distance. Later the same day we were to meet the local priest in Los Cerrillos who explained that the church was undergoing restoration so was locked for safety reasons. But it still made an attractive image as you can see.

Madrid

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In Madrid

Our next major stop was in this considerably livelier ‘ghost town’. My TP friend Rosalie told me recently that a ghost town doesn’t have to necessarily be deserted, at least according to some definitions, which allow there to be some people living there as long it has declined to a ‘ghost’ of its former self. And that is certainly true of Madrid.

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Old house in Madrid

Pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, MAD-rid, rather than as the city in Spain, Mad-RID, this was once a coal-mining town, founded in 1869. In its heyday the town supplied coal for the Santa Fe Railroad, local customers and even the US Government. It was one of the first ‘company towns’ in the US; in 1919, the Superintendent of Mines, Oscar Huber, introduced a number of modern conveniences and facilities for the miners, including paved streets, a hospital, a company store, schools, and unlimited free electricity from the company power plant. During Prohibition, the company even furnished a place where people could distil illegal liquor!

But when coal use declined the town fell silent and became truly a ghost town. In the early 1970's, artists and craftspeople began to discover it, converting the old company stores and houses into shops and galleries.

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The Hollar

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My goats cheese salad

It was around lunch time by the time we arrived here, so we went to check out the first likely-looking place we spotted for a bite to eat, the Hollar. This had a good range of lighter meals on the menu, and seemed popular, so we decided to give it a try. There were a number of tables in the shady garden at the front, but several of these were occupied by a rather noisy group so we opted to sit inside. We both chose salads. Chris’s Chef’s salad was a generous plateful of leaves etc. with turkey, ham and cheese. My ‘warm goat cheese salad with roasted bell peppers’ was also a good size and I liked the addition of a few berries, although the cheese was rather bland and lacked the sharpness I usually look for in a goat’s cheese. A pleasant lunch-stop, nevertheless.

Once we’d eaten we set off to explore the town. It seemed that almost every building housed a gallery or craft shop, and many of them had pretty high-quality items – paintings, jewellery, native pottery, sculpture and much more. Many of the shops are run by the artist themselves and it was fun and interesting to chat to them about their work even though we weren’t necessarily interested in buying – while they would obviously like to make a sale, they seemed to enjoy the conversations too.

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Shop signs

Although Madrid was primarily a coal mining town, this is after all the Turquoise Trail here and we saw lots of jewellery made from the local Los Cerrilos turquoise which is a distinctive greenish colour. The big pieces were expensive, but I bought a pretty bracelet for my sister for $20 in a shop near the mining museum.

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In Madrid

Madrid’s artiness extends outside the buildings too. Whether it is a row of colourful mail-boxes, a brightly painted wall, a collection of old signs in a coffee shop or simply a gallery’s porch adorned with samples of the owner’s work, we were never far from an eye-catching image.

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Colourful Madrid

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Java Junction

Ah yes, those old signs! I am always on the search for a good cup of coffee, and especially when in the US, where so many establishments serve what I describe as ‘brown water’ (when I’m being polite!) So when we spotted a promising-looking coffee shop, the Java Junction, in the midst of Madrid’s galleries I was keen to give it a try – and was not disappointed.

As soon as we entered, we were struck by the eclectic décor, and impressed by the range of espresso-based treats on offer. As I was craving a caffeine fix, I went for the simple iced coffee, which was strong and black, just as I like it. Furthermore, the Java Junction makes its own coffee ice cubes, so as they melt into your drink they don’t dilute the coffee flavour as normal water cubes do. Chris chose a mocha, and we took our drinks out into the garden area to one side of the building. There was plenty of seating and the space was perfect for relaxing, with a view of all the passers-by on the road outside but sufficiently set back from it. We also enjoyed examining, and photographing, the fence which was decorated with all manner of bits and pieces – old signs, kitchen implements, tools, watering cans, artificial flowers and loads more.

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Garden fence, Java Junction

Los Cerrillos

Just north of Madrid we stopped again in Los Cerrillos, a short distance off Highway 14. This is the place that gave the Turquoise Trail its name, but in the past its mines have yielded treasures of many kinds. Los Cerrillos means Little Hills, and in the hills surrounding this once prosperous town were found not just turquoise, in a distinctive green-tinged variety, but also gold, silver, lead and zinc. At the peak of all this activity, in the mid 1880s, there were roughly 3,000 prospectors working these hills and at the heart of them Los Cerrillos provided for all their needs, with 21 saloons, five brothels, four hotels, and several newspapers. The town became so well known that it was seriously considered as a possible capitol for New Mexico – hard to believe when you look around today.

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Street in Los Cerrillos

Most of the mines closed before the end of the 19th century, although American Turquoise Company, a subsidiary of Tiffany’s, continued to mine here until the First World War. Today, just a few small private mines remain, but even so the majority of turquoise mined in New Mexico still comes from these beautiful hills.

If Madrid with all its bustle had seemed something of a half-hearted attempt at a ghost-town, Los Cerrillos appeared to us to be much closer to the real deal. Sure, people live here, but the sleepy dirt streets and decidedly run-down bar gave it something of a forgotten look, although perhaps surprisingly this was more peaceful and friendly than sad. Maybe there was just enough life left here after all to make us feel welcomed? Or maybe the presence of an attractive 1920s church made the place seem more cared for than it at first appears?

Saint Joseph’s Church

This church is not as old as the other buildings that stand near it, and also appears much more loved and better cared-for. It was built between 1921-22, replacing an earlier 19th century structure that stood next door to this spot (where the parking lot now is). It is still very active, with Mass said every Sunday.

I wanted to go inside but when we tried the door, we found it locked, as was the case in other small towns we visited. So we resigned ourselves to just taking a few photos of the exterior and to exploring the recently added attractive shrine on the right-hand side of the church. But as we entered this the local priest approached from the far end of the path and greeted us. To our surprise he had a very Scottish accent (think Billy Connolly!) We got talking and he offered to show us the interior, where he was also happy for me to take a few photos while he told us his story.

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Saint Joseph’s Church, inside and out

Despite the strong accent we learned that he had lived in New Mexico for over twenty years, originally emigrating there as to teach in Albuquerque. Some years ago he had a calling to the priesthood, was trained and was ordained a few years back. His first parish had been in quite a challenging area of the city and his health had suffered through stress, so he had recently been transferred here to Los Cerrillos. When I commented on how much more relaxing it must be, in such a pretty backwater, he agreed, but added that the new strain on him was the travelling involved, as he is also responsible for the parishes of Golden, some miles to the south, and Gallisteo to the east.

We really enjoyed chatting to him, and he was also very helpful in suggesting an alternative route into Santa Fe. It was friendly encounters like this that helped to make our trip to New Mexico such a pleasure.

But before following his suggested route there was a bit more for us to see here. If you should get the feeling when in Los Cerrillos that you are in a movie set, well ... you are! This has been the location for some 13 movies, including Young Guns, Young Guns II, Shoot Out (with Gregory Peck) and John Wayne’s 1972 movie, The Cowboys. And one result of all this activity can be found at the bar just down the street from the church, Mary's Bar. This bar was until fairly recently simply called Cerrillos Bar, but its name was changed to Mary’s Bar for the shooting of the film Vampires in 1998 and never changed back – Los Cerrillos is that sort of place, somehow.

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Mary's Bar

From the outside I assumed the building was no longer in use, it was that dilapidated. But as I stood there taking photos a couple arrived, walked up to the door and went in. So naturally I followed.

At first sight the interior looked almost as unused as the front had done, with a few almost empty shelves and a ‘just about to move out’ appearance. But then I realised that there was a counter on the right with a few people sat up at it and a lady serving drinks. I would have liked to have stayed for a cold one, but we had spent rather a long time chatting to the priest at the church and decided that we should perhaps head off for Santa Fe at this point. I read afterwards though that Mary, who has run the bar since the 1970s, usually has a tale or two to tell about serving drinks to the cast of the Young Guns films, so maybe we should have lingered.

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Sign outside Mary's Bar

Next door to the bar we spotted the intriguingly named What Not Shop. What a great name for a shop! I just had to look inside. And I soon discovered that it’s an appropriate name too – this place is full of what-nots. And thingamajigs. And thingamabobs. And no doubt a lot more besides, although finding it among the chaos could be a challenge!

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What Not Shop

In a series of rambling rooms there are no doubt some gems too – I spotted some pretty native jewellery and pottery, for instance. There was also an odd assortment of old china and glassware, rusty old tools, indeterminate kitchen gadgets from long ago, a saddle, an old weaving loom, a pile of old National Geographic magazines, a few tatty books, old jars and cans of assorted sizes and descriptions, bison skulls and other hunting trophies – most of the covered in a thin layer of dust. The owner didn’t seem too keen on me taking photos but I confess I grabbed a few as you can see.

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What Not Shop interior

On one wall was an especially bizarre and slightly disturbing item – a glass case featuring the top half of a female dummy, surrounded by underwear and other items of clothing, and with a number of large rusty nails thrust through her body. When we asked the lady in the shop to tell us about it, she shook her head, simply saying that it was ‘a long story’, and again refusing permission for photos. We came to the conclusion that it must be some sort of left-over (maybe a prop) from the filming of John Carpenter’s Vampires movie. Chris did grab a shot, which I have included here, and if anyone can offer a better indication of its origins I’d be grateful.

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What on earth?!!
photo by Chris

Arriving in Santa Fe

When we were planning our road trip in New Mexico we knew that we wanted to spend several days in Santa Fe, and we knew that we wanted to stay near the centre, within walking distance of the Plaza. We also didn’t want to spend a fortune – a set of apparently incompatible wishes, until I came across the Chapelle Street Casitas. This is a cluster of self-catering properties, ranging from small and cosy to large family-sized options, all scattered over a few blocks in an area to the north west of the Plaza. Nowadays it seems that they are only available for long-term rental, so we were fortunate that back then they had just a three-night minimum which, as we wanted to spend four nights here, was just fine.

As there were just two of us we chose one of their smaller properties, 211 Chapelle C, described as ‘a small, rustic one bedroom’ which was a fair enough description. It was one of a row of four in, unsurprisingly, Chapelle Street itself, just around the corner from the B&B that formed the hub of the business (for an extra payment we could have had breakfast here but we preferred to go out and about each morning, with the flexibility to choose our own time and place).

We checked in at the B&B, where the owner was full of useful info about the town. She gave us a street map, and a sketch map showing the location of our unit and also a nearby parking spot that was ours to use for the duration of our stay – a valuable bonus in old town Santa Fe, where parking is notoriously difficult to find.

The row of Chapelle Street units was built over 100 years ago to house Army officers at the local fort. The description of Unit C went on: ‘small one bedroom, living room with futon sofa bed, bedroom with queen bed, full kitchen, full bath’ – and that about summed it up! We entered directly into the living room, which lead in turn to the bedroom, with bathroom off it, and beyond that the kitchen. The latter was fully equipped for self-catering but we didn’t use it as such, apart from employing the large fridge to keep some cans of beer cool!

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Sitting room

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Bedroom

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Kitchen

On the whole we were very satisfied with our little home in Santa Fe. The location was great, the main rooms (bedroom and living room) were cheerfully painted with nice old dark wood floors, and we had everything we needed for our stay. The bedroom was maybe a little small and dark, but the website was honest about that and we were only in it at night so that wasn’t a problem. The bathroom was on the simple side and few toiletries were provided, but there were plenty of towels, the shower worked well and there was always hot water.

Blue Corn Café

On our first evening in Santa Fe we went to the Blue Corn Café as it got a good write-up in our Moon Handbook and had also been recommended by the owner of the Casitas when we checked in that afternoon. The Moon book did comment on its slightly chain-like appearance (in fact there is just one other branch, on the south side of town) but in my view that was a little unfair. OK, it is above a small shopping mall, but we were to discover that this is true of quite a few restaurants in the town, and although the space was large it had been well laid-out, with wooden tables and chairs comfortably spaced and some very good local photos displayed on the walls. We enjoyed our meal here, and the friendly service, and found it good value for money in what can be a pricey town.

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Red chilli pork tamales

Chris had the Chimichanga with chicken and pronounced it the best meal of the trip so far! I was nearly as pleased with my red chilli pork Tamales, and the accompanying beans and Spanish rice, in generous portions, made it a substantial meal – especially as we hadn’t been able to resist starting with a shared portion of the trade-mark blue and white corn chips with guacamole! I had the house margarita and Chris a pint of one of their own micro-brews, the Atomic Blonde Lager. We were very satisfied with our first meal in the town that was to be our base for the next few days.

El Paseo Bar & Grill

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El Paseo Bar

Looking for a night-cap we came across this unassuming little bar just south of the Plaza, which advertised live music some nights (now closed down, according to Yelp, before anyone gets the idea to check it out). It was Tuesday, and therefore ‘open mic’ night. We thought this might be interesting; however in the time we were there (well over an hour) only one band played, that of the manager, and the light jazz style was not really to our taste. A few other people had turned up, including a guy with a guitar, but they seemed reluctant to take the stage! In the end we gave up waiting for music, but not before I’d enjoyed a decent margarita and Chris a couple of bottles of beer.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:55 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes churches people road_trip history views village restaurants museum coffee new_mexico santa_fe Comments (7)

Into the Thar Desert

India day five


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Onwards to Khimsar

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Friendly locals

Leaving Jaipur we headed west, deep into Rajasthan. Now we were truly in the desert state. The first part of the journey was on a good multi-lane toll road, less interesting for us than the rural roads. After a while though we left this and took a fairly rough road that wound through small villages and into the Thar Desert. In places there was construction work that meant we had to leave the road altogether, at times driving directly over the desert sand! As we passed through the villages some locals would wave to us, and in one these two guys spotted my camera and indicated I should take their photo - so I did!

The most notable sight on the journey was our first Indian antelope, a Nilgai, which Mehar spotted, stopping for us to take photos from the car, but other than that we didn't stop until we reached Khimsar – a journey time of about six hours, although it would have been less without the road works. As always we had enjoyed watching life beside the road, but this was among the less interesting of the several drives we had in India.

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Nilgai

Khimsar

Around a 450 year old fort on the edge of the Thar Desert a small town has grown up, consisting of little more than a market, some shops and a bus station. These serve the surrounding rural community and those who work in the fort, which is today is both home to the Thakurs, former rulers of the Kingdom of Khimsar, who built it, and also a heritage hotel. Confusingly the town is also sometimes referred to as Khinvsar or Khinwsar, but the fort always (as far as I can ascertain) as Khimsar.

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Khimsar Fort

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We spent one night here as a break on the long drive between Jaipur and Jaisalmer. There are no sights as such in Khimsar, unless you consider the magnificent fort, but as we wanted to see something of ordinary daily life in the region this suited us perfectly.

Arriving quite late in the afternoon we decided to resist the temptation of the rather lovely swimming pool in favour of a stroll around the village with our cameras. We found that most people were friendly and didn't mind those cameras in the slightest – indeed, many asked us to take their photo. This shopkeeper and his son were among these, and he gave us his address so we could send the pictures (which we have since done). A couple of women did shake their heads, no, so we respected this of course.

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Local people, Khimsar

The main street is lined with small shops and is also a bus terminal, so there is plenty of activity. Cows and goats wander freely, men gossip or play cards in the shade, women pick through vegetables to select the best for the evening meal. Several small boys, and not so small ones, posed on motorbikes or scooters - one teenage lad rushing from a shop to do so as we passed. The bus sounded its horn multiple times to signal departure, but there was always one more person to squeeze in first.

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Local cafe

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Market scene

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More of the locals

Near the entrance to the fort is a small temple and a couple of statues. One of these, near the fort, is I think of a former Maharaja. But as I said, a walk here isn't about finding the historical sights but those of daily life as it unfolds here in this Thar Desert village.

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Statue and temple, Khimsar

Khimsar Fort

We spent the night in this rather stunning heritage hotel, the first of a number that we stayed in on this trip and although not my favourite (that honour goes to Narlai), it was probably the grandest and certainly the largest. Quite apart from the photo opps to be had on its doorstep when wandering around the town, the hotel itself provides plenty – beautiful flowers, lovely old architecture and views of the surrounding countryside from the ramparts.

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This is a historic fort now converted to a hotel, although the owner (a descendant of the Thakurs of Khimsar who once ruled this region and were themselves descendants of Rao Jodhaji, founder of Jodhpur) still lives in one wing. Construction of the fort was started in 1523 but apparently the family only lived here from the 18th century onwards (I don’t know what they did with it prior to that!) It is a large sprawling complex of buildings built in beautiful honey-coloured sandstone. The grounds are quite extensive and include a lovely looking pool. There is also a spa, tennis court and small gym. Entertainment in the form of traditional musicians and dancers, and a puppet show is laid on in the evenings. For car enthusiasts, there is a collection of vintage cars on display in the royal garage.

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View from the hotel

We had one of the standard rooms but it was nevertheless very large and comfortable. It was located towards the back of the main building on the upper floor, and we had a small staircase in our room that led to a door out on to a roof terrace – perfect for star gazing, although it was a rather hazy night.

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Pool with our block beyond

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Our bedroom

Traditional Thar Desert musicians

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Musicians in front of the ruins

When we arrived at Khimsar Fort we were told that local musicians would perform below the ruins of Fateh Mahal that evening. There is a story attached to these ruins. They are named after Fateh Pir Baba, a Sufi saint who blessed the ruling family. When he died, he was buried here next to the fort walls. At that time a residence was being built just next to the spot chosen for his tomb. The ruling chief died during the construction and people said that this showed that the saint's spirit was not in peace. Work was halted and the building was left incomplete.

A small performance area has been created here, with a semi-circular seating area. We went along as directed and found a group of five here. One of the musicians tried to teach us to play his traditional castanet-like instruments, but we couldn't get the hang of the grip, so left him to it! We certainly weren't going to emulate the girl who danced on knife blades (even if these weren't sharp – we had no way of knowing) and on nails!

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Musicians

The performance was quite short but we enjoyed it and I loved the colourful costumes too. I made a short video which I think gives a good flavour not only of the performance but also of Chris’s reaction when the knives were brought out!

After the show finished we went for dinner. With very little available in the village we decided to eat in the hotel, as I imagine most guests do. As far as we could gather (the staff have quite limited English compared with other hotels we stayed in) it's possible to get an a la carte meal in the restaurant, but in the dry winter months most people, including us, opt for the buffet served up on the ramparts. While buffets are not my preferred option, the setting made up for that – a lovely view of the fort itself, a pleasant breeze after the afternoon's heat, and music drifting up from the village.

We stayed on a while after dinner enjoying the setting and another beer. To be honest the setting was the best thing about this meal, as the food was really just ordinary. They have something of a captive market – as I said, few visitors are likely to venture into the village to eat (it's very much just a local village with no tourist facilities, even of the most basic nature). Still, the location was lovely, the service friendly (our waiter kept bringing more poppadums to go with our post-dinner beers!), and the price very reasonable, so we were pretty happy with our evening.

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And after dinner, a stroll around the ramparts back to our comfortable room, to rest before another long drive tomorrow.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:27 Archived in India Tagged people india hotel fort village dance music rajasthan khimsar Comments (9)

A stay in a hunting lodge

India day nine continued - and day ten


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In the seventeenth century Jodhpur’s royal family built a hunting lodge on the edge of a small village in the heart of the Aravalli hills, Narlai. Today that lodge is an exquisite hotel, and my favourite of all the places we stayed in Rajasthan – I would very happily have stayed longer here than the two days that we had.

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On the road to Narlai

We drove to Narlai from Dechu, where we had spent the night in Samsara Desert Camp, by way of Jodphur where we stopped for some hours to visit the fort and old town. The journey was otherwise uneventful but we enjoyed watching the desert scenery gradually change to a greener, more agricultural landscape, dotted here and there with small mountains. We spotted antelope at one point, or rather the large deer, Nilgai, that the locals sometimes call antelope and sometimes wild cows, but they moved before I could grab a photo - one, the male, leaping over a fence of some considerable height.

We passed through small villages that seemed a little more affluent than those of the desert, some with quite grand houses here and there. And arriving at Narlai we found it much the same, with a large white temple at its heart and a few streets of quite humble houses with just a sprinkling of smarter ones, plus a few local shops to serve the farming community. The other main source of income here is the hotel, Rawla Narlai, which is located right in the village and which was to be our base for the next two nights.

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Courtyard and bar

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Around the grounds

This hotel has been very tastefully converted, retaining bags of character, and still feels old, unlike the other heritage hotels we stayed in which were perhaps almost too well restored, albeit beautifully. Our room was really lovely, packed with historic detail and antique furniture, yet with the modern conveniences we appreciate such as good plumbing and air conditioning. There were tea and coffee making facilities and complimentary bottles of water. The king-size bed was very comfortable. We had seating inside and a day bed on the shady terrace outside. This room was in the older part – I gather that those in the newer wing are larger but have less character, and personally I am very happy we were where we were as the room was more than large enough and I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice the character!

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Our bedroom

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There are plenty of activities on offer, including jeep safaris and village walks, and we took advantage of some of these, but it was also a great place for some time out from our busy sightseeing schedule in Rajasthan. The hotel grounds are gorgeous. Bougainvillea, morning glory and frangipani flowers trail everywhere. There's a good-sized swimming pool tucked in one corner, while elsewhere there are pretty courtyards, fountains and lots of marble elephants – a bit of a theme here because of the huge carved marble elephant on the top of a rocky outcrop, Narlai Hill, that towers above the property.

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The swimming pool

Narlai Hill

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Rawla Narlai lies at the foot of Narlai Hill, a rocky outcrop typical of this landscape, on the top of which stands a huge white marble statue of an elephant (and hence you will hear locals refer to the hill as Elephant Rock). Although we didn’t do this, the hotel organise free escorted walks up the hill at sunrise – there are a lot of steps to climb but I reckon the effort would be rewarded.

Towards the bottom of the hill are several temples. From the hotel we could see the large one that nestles under the overhanging rocks, and in the early mornings and evenings could hear chanting carried from here on the breeze. This is the Temple of Shri Aai Mata, who was an incarnation of the goddess Ambe Maa, found in a garden in Ambapur (Gujarat) as a baby by Rao Bika Dhabi and brought up as his daughter. It is said that she visited Narlai and stayed in the Jekalji Mahadev Temple in the village from where she taught the local people. According to local legend she created an opening in a cave on the hills with lightening and in it placed a Jyoti (divine lamp) which burns with a continuous flame which produces kesar (a saffron coloured soot) instead of a black one.

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Shri Aai Mata temple

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Lord Shiva cave temple

Near the foot of the hill and right opposite the entrance to the hotel is a much smaller temple, set in a cave and dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is said that the sage Shri Narad meditated here to please Lord Shiva and that the village was named after him.

So much for the temples on the hill. But about the elephant I have not been able to find anything – who put it there, why and when – all is a mystery!

Arriving here in the late afternoon we settled into our room; explored the grounds and took some photos; signed up for a couple of activities the next day; and spent a lovely evening which included an enjoyable and tasty dinner served by candlelight on the flat roof on top of the bar in the pleasantly cooling evening air. The food was excellent, especially the wonderful aubergine curry flavoured with mustard, and very reasonably priced.

A day in Narlai

With just a day in which to enjoy the facilities and activities here we were up fairly early and enjoying breakfast in the restaurant overlooking the main courtyard. Opposite this, on the far side of this courtyard, the hotel has a small shrine which on that morning, a Monday, was the focus for some activity.

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Shrine and village elder

The service at the Rawla Narlai is as attentive as everywhere, and that attentiveness seems to expand to include those living in the surrounding village. Every Monday morning the village elders are invited in for tea and a chat about village matters. I and another hotel guest spotted them while we were at breakfast and we went across to ask permission to take some photos, which was willingly granted. We had in mind to take photos from the courtyard but we were invited up on to the terrace (removing our shoes, of course) where I took these photos.

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Village Elders' meeting

This seems a great custom for the hotel to have introduced, as it helps to ensure good relationships between local community and hotel, and if any problems did arise they can be talked through straight away. Mostly though it seemed to be an excuse for a good gossip and plenty of tea!

A walk in the village

After breakfast we went for a walk in the village with a member of the hotel staff, a local resident. Narlai is a small village with an unusually large number of temples (even by Indian standards). It faces some of the same challenges as rural communities everywhere, with a declining population caused by some younger people drifting away, tempted by big city life and its wider opportunities. But its streets have thriving little shops, mainly catering only to locals; its farmers manage to feed their families and have produce over to sell; its people benefit from the opportunity to work in or for the hotel; and overall it has a more affluent (or more accurately perhaps, a less struggling) character than many other places we went to.

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Houses in the village

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Of course you can always walk around on your own (the hotel is right in the middle of the village) but going with a local like this enables you to be invited into some village houses. Although having said that, I was also asked inside one by a woman who, when I asked permission to take a photo, insisted on me coming in so that she could pose with her goat which was clearly a prized possession!

We also went in a few local shops – two clothing, one jewellers (and they were very much local shops, not tourist ones). I was tempted by a gorgeous pink skirt in one but it was so traditional I knew I would probably feel silly wearing it at home! The other woman in our group of four did buy a petticoat which I was pleased about as these local village shops must appreciate the additional custom the hotel brings.

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Village shops

In addition to seeing the general life of the village we made a brief stop at the Lord Shiva temple in a cave right by the hotel. We also saw several other temples, small and larger, which are dotted around the village, including the main Jain temple, Shri Adinath, which has a huge elephant outside and was being restored at the time of our visit.

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Village temple

But the highlight, or rather many highlights, of this walk were the large number of village people who greeted us, willingly posed for photos and generally made us feel very welcome here.

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Villagers in Narlai

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In particular the walk gave us a great opportunity to photograph the colourful traditional dress of Rajasthan, thanks to the openness of the women we met and their willingness to pose for us. This is always very colourful. It consists of an ankle length skirt, a short top (this may just skim the waist or stop higher up, leaving the midriff bare) and a long piece of cloth known as a chunari. This protects them from the heat and is also often used to cover or partly cover the face.

Mehar told us that it is the village daughters-in-law (those who have married into local families and come to live with their husband’s family, as is customary) who are expected to cover their faces, especially in the presence of older relatives, men and strangers. Having said that, many whom we met, here and elsewhere, seemed pretty relaxed about dropping the cloth to say hello, smile and pose for photos etc. I noticed that different colours seem popular in different villages. In some we had passed through the predominant shades were orange and yellow, or red and green, while here in Narlai it was pink, purple and reds for the most part.

The women’s adornments often include a large number of bangles worn on the upper arms. These are usually just of white plastic. It seemed to me that they may be cut from pot lids, although I could be wrong! But wealthier women wear metal, even sometimes gold, bangles.

Regardless of wealth though, it is traditional to wear an elaborate gold decoration in one side of the nose, a tradition that some here still follow even on a regular working day it seems. These nose rings are worn throughout India, with different styles popular in different region. In Rajasthan the most usually worn is the nathni, a large but delicate hoop connected to the hair with a thin chain. The women in my photos below though have a rather more elaborate version of this. I didn’t ask, but maybe it was a special occasion in their family (we met them in the same house).

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We spent the middle part of the day relaxing by, and in, the hotel’s pool and enjoying a light lunch there, before our next activity …

A leopard safari

This is one of several optional excursions offered by Rawla Narlai. It costs 2,000 IR per person and you can choose to go first thing in the morning or late afternoon. We chose the latter and set out at 4.30 PM with a number of other hotel guests in three separate jeeps. They reckon on spotting leopards on about 80% of the trips, so you have a good chance – as you can see from my photos below, we were in luck!

The hotel employs some trackers who know the habits and movements of the local leopard population and who go out walking the surrounding area during the day on the lookout for them. If they have a sighting they radio the guides leading the safaris. The leopards tend to stay in one place for some time, so the jeeps have plenty of time to get to the site.

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Tracker on the lookout

On our safari we had headed out of the village to the foot of the nearby Elephant Rock where leopards are apparently often sighted and where one had been seen that morning. We had no sighting here, though we did see some langur monkeys playing on a Jain temple roof. Then the call came – a female leopard with two cubs had been spotted some miles away. We immediately turned back through the village, out on to the main road and headed towards the site where we found the other two jeeps from the hotel already in position, with all eyes, cameras and binoculars trained on the top of a nearby rocky outcrop. There she was! Part-hidden by an outcrop of rock, but definitely there! Her cubs were harder to spot, staying mainly behind the rock, but we did get some glimpses of them too. Of course, being at some distance, it was hard to get great photos, but a few of those I took did come out well enough to at least serve as a record of the experience.

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Leopard on the rocks

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You can just see a cub in this one!

We stayed at this spot for quite a while, taking photos of the leopards, while the hotel guides handed out bottles of water, tea from a flask and sandwiches. As well as the leopards, we saw an antelope and quite a lot of peacocks. There was a hazy sunset which developed into a lovely pearly pink light, and an almost full moon had risen before we finally left and headed back to the hotel. In all the safari lasted about two hours and seemed to us to be very reasonable value for what we had paid – though of course we might feel differently had we not seen any leopards!

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Sunset and moonrise

That evening we ate again at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant – there really isn’t any other option here, but as it serves excellent food at a reasonable price we didn't have a problem with that!

Monkeys at Narlai

On our second (and last) morning at Narlai we woke early. I just happened to be looking out of the window when I spotted movement on a roof top - a monkey. We jumped out of bed and soon saw that it was a whole troop so of course we threw on some clothing, grabbed our cameras and hurried outside. It was a troop of langur monkeys passing through, or rather across, the hotel, stopping at a couple of trees that obviously had fruit that is to their taste. There were several cute babies among them and we took loads of photos as they paused briefly on the roofs before continuing on and into the trees. After about five minutes or so they moved on, and we could see them leaping across the roofs of the village beyond, no doubt heading towards more favourite trees, or to scavenge from rubbish heaps.

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India’s langurs are Grey or Hanuman Langurs (the latter name taken from the Hindu god). They are a pale or yellowish grey with a black face and long tails (up to 100 cm and always longer than their body), and rather attractive, I think. They are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and are therefore less likely to be regarded as pests than the macaques which live in this region too, although they do regularly steal food and crops. Watching them was a lovely way to start our day and ensured one more happy memory to take away from Narlai.

After another good breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Narlai, with some reluctance. There had been no time to climb Elephant Hill at sunrise, no time for dinner at a nearby step well (another of the activities offered by the hotel) and no time for a further wander on our own through the village.

But Ranakpur and Udaipur awaited us …

Posted by ToonSarah 21:47 Archived in India Tagged people animals monkeys india village rajasthan customs narlai street_photography big_cats Comments (7)

Dealing with the mishap, and a holiday resumed

Senegal day four


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Back to Banjul

It was just as well that we had enjoyed our ferry ride from Banjul to Barra two days ago, as here we were, back again. My broken tooth necessitated a visit to the dentist, the dentist was in Banjul, and so we were making the day trip from Fathala Lodge (in Senegal).

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On the road to the ferry

Of course a broken tooth wasn’t going to stop me taking photos and the scene at the port in Barra, where we had to wait quite a while, was as colourful as it had been on our previous trip. Women carrying babies, women carrying chickens, children travelling to school, labourers to work, farmers with goods to sell in Banjul’s markets.

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Waiting for the ferry in Barra

And once we boarded there was plenty of activity on the river bank to watch, with colourful pirogues ferrying other locals across the river. I was amused to see how passengers boarded these vessels, carried on the shoulders of one of the boatmen!

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Boats in Barra

The journey passed smoothly and as before we enjoyed sitting on the top deck and watching all the activity, although apprehension about visiting an unknown dentist in this very different part of the world prevented me from fully appreciating the scenes around me.

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Ferry passenger

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Refreshments on board

We had been given instructions on how to find the dental clinic in Banjul and had been told that the lodge guide would just see us on to the ferry and then wait for us on the other side, but he insisted on coming with us to make sure everything went well. With his guidance we easily found the clinic, where the dentist was on the lookout for us. Somewhat ironically, since I had been thinking that it was good to be visiting a French-trained Gambian dentist rather than a Senegalese one (after the manager at Fathala told us that the usual practice in that country was to pull out any tooth giving trouble rather than try to save it), it turned out that although living in Gambia he was actually from Senegal! Incidentally, it might also be considered a bit ironic that my dentist back at home did have to eventually remove the tooth to deal with the problem!

Anyway, this particular Senegalese dentist, who spoke reasonable English to match my passable French, agreed with me that a temporary filling would be the best solution in the immediate term. He had soon performed the procedure but not without giving a running commentary on the quality, or rather the lack of quality, of previous work I’d had done on my teeth – even calling on Chris to come and have a look at one point!

But he worked well, and quickly – so much so that we were able to hurry back to the port afterwards and catch the same boat that we had arrived on back to Barra rather than have to wait several hours for the next one. On the way back we got talking to three local guys who had parked next to our vehicle on board, who insisted that I took their photo, so I did!

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On the ferry back to Barra

What is more, thanks to the speedy work of the dentist, we were back at Fathala in time for lunch, and I even managed to eat some!

By the way, the dentist had done his work well – the filling lasted for the rest of the trip and until I was able to visit my own dentist back in London.

Boat ride among the mangroves

The prompt work of the dentist meant that we were back in plenty of time to go ahead with our planned activity. a late afternoon ride among the nearby mangroves. We took a jeep ride of about half an hour through some small villages, where children rushed out to wave to us as we passed. We felt a little self-conscious and pseudo-regal waving to them from our high perches in the vehicle, but it would have been mean to disappoint them and it was fun to see their excitement. One toddler in particular shrieked with such joy you would have thought we were the only foreigners he had ever seen, despite this being a fairly well-visited tourist area.

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The road through a local village

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Local children


We reached the point where our boat was waiting for us – one of the traditional local vessels known as pirougues. Once we were all aboard (as well as the two of us there were the two elderly English ladies in our group) we cast off, and spent the next couple of hours cruising slowly among the mangroves.

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The waiting pirogues

Although there was less bird life than we had seen on similar trips when staying at Mandina Lodge in Gambia two years previously, we did see quite a few.

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Goliath Herons

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Osprey on mangrove tree

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Hooded Vulture

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Great Egret

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Egrets in flight

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Hamerkop in a baobab

The other birds we saw, but I failed to photograph, were:
Senegal Thick-knee
Lapwing
Pied Kingfisher
Caspian Tern
Whimbrel
African Darter

We also saw a crocodile and, as at Mandina, a number of locals collecting the oysters that grow on the mangrove roots.

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Collecting oysters

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Crocodile


Part way through the ride we stopped in the shade to enjoy cold drinks and some snacks in this peaceful setting. As we watched we chatted a bit with our companions, who were an interesting pair. They were clearly good friends but were like chalk and cheese! One seemed to be a fairly experienced traveller, taking everything pretty much in her stride, while the other was in an almost constant state of bewilderment. Neither of them could manage to work the rather complex camera that a daughter had lent them for the trip and were in unjustifiable awe of the photos we were capturing – so much so that we swapped email addresses so I could send them some as a reminder of the outing. I wondered afterwards if the mother passed them off to her daughter as her own, so that her incompetence with the camera could remain a secret!

As the sun sank a little lower the light became rather magical, and I especially enjoyed seeing the almost sculptural silhouettes of the baobab trees that dotted the landscape, rising out of the deep greens of the mangrove trees.

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Sunset on the river
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Baobab, late afternoon light


After a couple of hours we returned to our starting point and boarded the jeep for the ride back to the lodge. The landscape glowed red in the late afternoon sun and our ride home was punctuated by even more greetings and waves from the small children we passed.

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Senegal sunset


Although not so exciting as the other lodge activities (and especially the lion walk), this was a very pleasant way to spend a few hours, and visiting the mangroves introduced us to a very different landscape from the dry and dusty bush surrounding Fathala.

We spent the last evening here much as we had the others, with drinks at the bar and a tasty dinner, which tonight I was able to enjoy as much as on the first evening, thanks to my newly mended tooth! And we went to bed in our cosy tent looking forward to seeing more of this fascinating country tomorrow, when we would travel north to the Saloum Delta in the Sine-Saloum region.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:06 Archived in Senegal Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises children trees animals birds boats wildlife village river reptiles dentist gambia senegal fathala Comments (7)

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