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From Bukhara to the desert

Uzbekistan day five


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It was time to leave Bukhara, much as I would have liked to have stayed another day. After breakfast in the beautiful dining room of our hotel, the Mosque Baland, and farewells to our hosts there, we set off, driving east on the main road to Samarkand.

Gijduvan

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At the potter's wheel

Our first stop was in the town of Gijduvan (46 km north-east from Bukhara), famous throughout Uzbekistan for its distinctive pottery. The best place to see this is at the workshop of Abdullo and Alisher Narzullaev, just north of the main road. These brothers are the sixth generation of a family of famous potters, still practising the traditional skills passed down through the family.

The Gijduvan school of ceramics is unique. It is characterised by an overall brown colouring as a background, with yellow-green and blue hues as accents. The ornamentation of clay dishes and plates consists of mainly floral pattern, incorporating images of big flowers, leaves, and various rosettes, and some use of geometric patterns. Unlike other Uzbek ceramic styles, the lines of the patterns are slightly blurred, with a hazy effect created through the use of a dark glaze.

We were first shown around the museum of ceramics housed above their shop, which displays items from all over the country. Alisher described the different styles, and showed us some tiles made by his grandfather who had worked on the restoration of the Registan in Samarkand.

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In the ceramics museum

We were then taken to the workshop area where we saw his brother Abdullo at work at the potter’s wheel (see photo above), one of the daughters of the family painting some completed pots, and the different kilns.

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Painting the pottery

In the courtyard another of the girls was drawing designs for embroidery, a further family tradition.

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Preparing cotton for embroidery

Our tour finished, of course, in the shop where many examples of their work was for sale. There was really something for every pocket, with the smallest bowls starting at just $2, so most of us bought at least a small souvenir to thank them for the trouble they’d taken with our tour. But one of our group fell for, and bought, quite a large bowl; we were all anxious about whether she would be able to bring it safely home on the plane, which luckily she did.

Finally, we ended our visit with green tea and sweetmeats in their pleasant shady courtyard. Then it was back on the bus to continue our drive.

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Sweetmeats

Karmana

We made another short stop near the town of Karmana to see two ancient buildings which straddle the main road a few miles west of the town. On the north side of the road is the impressive portal of the Rabt-i-Malik, all that remains of a one-time royal caravanserai, where noble travellers would once have rested during their journeys across the steppe.

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The caravanserai portal

Almost opposite on the south side of the road a restored dome covers the well where the camels would have found refreshment. Now instead of caravans of camels, cars and trucks roar past these ancient relics, creating a microcosm of Uzbekistan’s ‘past meets present’ character.

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Restored well

In Karmana itself we stopped by a small park near the bazaar to see the Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum, built in the 11th century. Its ornamental brickwork, with inscriptions from the Koran set in it, reminded me of the Ishmael Samani Mausoleum in Bukhara, though this one is older and less elaborate than that more famous example.

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The Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum

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Detail of brickwork

Petroglyphs

Our final stop of the morning was to take a look at some petroglyphs near the roadside. Uzbekistan’s most famous site for petroglyphs is the Sarmysh Gorge, but we weren’t able to visit there unfortunately. However, we did stop to see this small group in the rocks right by the road that runs from Karmana to Nurata, near its highest point Black Crow Pass.

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The road over Black Crow Pass

A short scramble up the rocks brought us to several with these ancient markings, reasonably well-preserved considering their proximity to the road.

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Petroglyphs

Nurata

We arrived in Nurata, which lies some way north of the Bukhara-Samarkand road, around lunch time and had lunch in there in a house in a residential area not far from the main road. This was a real family home, and we ate in what was obviously their main sitting and dining room, with shelves of ornaments and family photos for decoration. We sat on cushions on the floor, as is the Uzbek way, either side of a long low table. As elsewhere in the country, I found this home cooking better than many of the meals we had in restaurants, and there was certainly plenty of it.

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Lunch at a family home

We started with the usual range of salads, accompanied by bread of course, and augmented by some tasty cream cheese. These were followed with a bowl of the typical simple Uzbek soup – a clear broth with potato, carrot and meat (for vegetarians the meat was, we suspected, simply removed before serving!) We were then served big platters of plov, the traditional Uzbek rice dish – very tasty, although I for one was a bit too full to do it justice. There was green tea and bottled water to drink, and watermelon to finish the meal.

One small downside was that, inevitably, the ladies of the house were keen embroiderers, and they were eager to show, and of course sell, us their work. I admired, but resisted the temptation to buy, although I believe one or two in the group did get something.

Most of us did however make use of the clean toilet at the foot of their pretty garden! And then it was time for some sightseeing. We drove the short distance to the cluster of sights on the south side of town, where we paid a small fee to the imam at the Friday mosque in order to visit, and take photos of, Nurata’s ancient citadel.

Alexander the Great’s Fortress

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Ruins of Alexander the Great’s Fortress

There is supposed to have been a fortress on this hill-top above the town even before the time of Alexander the Great, but it was his soldiers who strengthened it in 327 BC. Locals believe that Alexander gave the city its name, Nur, and credit him with building the kariz, a complex water system that brought drinking water several kilometres from a spring right into the centre of the citadel. This ancient town held a strategic position on the frontier between the cultivated lands and the steppe.

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Chris exploring the ruins

Alexander’s fort was constructed in the shape of the constellation of the Plough, and consisted of several parts, with an inner town, 500x500 meters in size, surrounded with a large wall and towers. Nurata was chosen as the site of a fortress because of its strategic setting at the border between an agricultural area and a wild steppe, making it a convenient point for gathering an army before attacking neighbouring lands.

Today the fortress is largely ruined, but by climbing the hill we got a good sense of its size and layout. The climb was very easy although it took a bit of energy in the hot Uzbek sun, and we were rewarded with a good view of the town and mosques below. The ground underfoot consists in places of adobe bricks, compacted by thousands of feet and by the elements over two millennia. As you climb you are walking in the footsteps of those who built the fort and who lived and worked here.

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View of the town
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Looking down at the mosques

At the top we found that people had tied small cloths to the bushes, probably reflecting Nurata’s significance as a place of pilgrimage.

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Prayer cloths

Visiting the mosques

At the foot of the hill on which perches the fortress of Alexander the Great are a pair of mosques, the town’s Friday mosque and ‘everyday’ mosque facing onto the same small square near the sacred Chasma Spring. Our guide Marat had intended that we only visit the older of the two mosques here, the everyday mosque, which was built originally for visiting pilgrims in the tenth century and which still retains its roof of 25 small domes. This is the mosque on the left of my photo taken from the hill-top fortress (above), and photo shows the interior of its main dome with a lacy effect created by the windows and central chandelier.

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Ceiling of the Pilgrim's Mosque

But the friendly imam insisted that some of us at least also visit the Friday mosque, which although newer and of less historic significance, was the more decorated inside. This probably explained his insistence that we see it, and as you can see he was also keen to pose inside in front of the ornately carved mihrab. This mosque also boasts one of the largest domes in Central Asia, more than 16 metres in diameter, which can be seen on the right of my photo of the mosques above.

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Outside the mosque

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Imam in the Friday Mosque

The Chasma Spring and fish pools

The Chasma Spring is the source of Nurata’s reputation as a holy city and place of pilgrimage. It is said to have been formed through a miracle, when Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, struck the ground here with his staff. The waters rise nowadays into a rectangular tank near the two mosques, and flow down into the town along a narrow canal which skirts the small market-place.

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Local sightseers at the Chasma Spring

The waters are teeming with fish, which are considered sacred and cannot therefore be caught or eaten. These fish are large and very lively (guided by Marat we threw a handful of clover leaves into the pool and watched them react!), and they obviously thrive in the mineral-rich water. This water is believed to have health-giving powers, so people come from miles around to anoint themselves with it, and large water-containers are sold in the nearby market to pilgrims who want to take some of the water away with them.

Nurata market

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At Nurata Market

We also had time to wander through the nearby market. It wasn’t very large but proved to be a good place to observe daily Uzbek life and, as everywhere in this friendly country, to meet some of the locals. I got talking to the lady on the right in my photo above, an Uzbek tourist from Tashkent, who was feeding the sacred fish in the canal and keen to practice her few words of English – as I was my even fewer words of Russian.

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In Nurata market

Meanwhile Chris was invited into the front yard of a house to take a photo of a group of card-players.

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Chris's photo of the card players

Soon though it was time to go back to the bus to continue to our base for the night, one of several yurt camps in the Kyzyl Kum desert in the area around Aidarkul Lake.

Yangikazgan

Our main tour bus was unsuitable for the rough roads (little more than tracks in the sand) leading to the camp, so it was parked in the village of Yangikazgan for the night where we transferred to an old Soviet bus to drive the final seven kilometres. This gave us an opportunity for a brief look at this small rural village, very different from the Uzbek cities where we spent most of this trip. I was grateful for the brief glimpse it afforded us of genuine Uzbek village life.

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The children of Yangigazgan

The village is a Soviet-built one, so the houses are functional concrete blocks, but as everywhere on our travels we were welcomed with friendly smiles that were much more photogenic than any building. I spent quite a few minutes photographing the children, naturally, and I think they were pleased to be given a couple of the postcards from home that we’d brought with us in return.

I also enjoyed seeing other aspects of life here – the women spinning in the shade of the trees and others with the far hotter job of firing bricks in a clay oven.

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Women and children in Yangigazgan

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Women firing bricks

Our old bus seemed from appearances to be a bit uncared for, but I think that was just on the surface, as it coped very well with the desert conditions. OK, it was pretty uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do a long drive in it, but it certainly did the job and got us there!

One great little touch in the bus’s décor caught our eye. Chris and I are big fans of Newcastle United, so you can imagine our pleased surprise to find that this bus had a small sticker of a former Newcastle player (the gorgeous David Ginola) in the famous black and white strip above the door. I can’t imagine that there could be any connection between a French footballer and a remote village in Uzbekistan so I’m not sure how it came to be here. Maybe a French tourist gave it to the driver?

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Our old Soviet bus on arrival in camp

Desert yurt camp

We arrived in the camp and were welcomed with green tea and sweetmeats.

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First view of the camp

Then we were shown to our sleeping quarters. The yurts were constructed in the traditional style, with collapsible lattice frame walls, a roof of branches, and the whole covered in felt. As the weather was hot, the sides of ours were partially rolled back to allow the cool air to come in. The floor was covered with felt too, and from the roof hung colourful mobiles.

The yurts sleep four and we’d been warned in advance that we would have to share. Chris and I were allocated to one with the only other couple in our group, while those travelling alone or with friends shared with three or four others of the same gender.

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Our yurt, outside and in

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Yurt roof from inside

Of course, a yurt doesn’t come with an en-suite bathroom! The washing facilities at the camp consisted of two open-air basins and two basic shower cubicles, all fed with water from tanks perched above them, warmed by the sun. The two toilets were ‘long drop’ ones, situated on two dunes a short climb either side of the camp – fine in the daylight, a bit of a challenge to find at bedtime (we went in a small group with several torches between us) and a real concern to those of us (thankfully not me at that stage) who were suffering from the side-effects of Uzbek cuisine and needed to climb those dunes several times in the night.

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Desert camp washing and showering facilities

But I am getting ahead of myself, as we had a desert evening to enjoy first.

Camel ride

On arriving at the camp we had been asked if we wanted to go on an optional camel ride – an option that only six of our number took up, which surprised me. I personally rather like camels, despite their (probably deserved) reputation for surliness. Without doubt this was a great experience. We were led out into the dunes and took a circular route at some distance from the camp, so that for most of the ride we could quite easily imagine, just briefly, how it would have been to travel the desert in a caravan at the height of the Silk Road’s domination. And the late afternoon light on the dunes was really special, as I hope my photos indicate.

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Our group of Silk Road explorers!

As there were only six of us (so no need for the camel owners to do several trips) we got quite a bit longer than the promised hour, but I for one was still sorry to see the camp come back into sight and know that our ride was over and I had to say goodbye to Kumba, ‘my’ camel.

There was one incident which soured Chris’s pleasure at the ride, however, and he has never felt quite as keen on camel rides again since. He found himself riding alongside one of our travelling companions, Sally-Ann, who unfortunately had been allocated a camel who appeared to be suffering from the same digestive ailments as some of us, and with a lot less control! This at first only gave Chris a problem of smell, and distraction from the beauties of the desert, but then Sally-Ann’s camel decided he would like to walk much closer to Chris’s, and the result was a very unpleasant deposit on Chris’s leg!

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My view from camel-back
- Sally-Ann's camel, top right, is the culprit!

Luckily (?) Chris was wearing shorts rather than long trousers, so only he needed to be washed, not his clothing – and this is how Chris came to be the first in our group to try out the slightly primitive, but thankfully very effective, showers!!

A night in camp

Once Chris had showered it was time for dinner, and the meal we were served here this evening was one of the nicest we had on the trip, in my view. We ate at a long table set up under an awning near the caravan where the Kazaks who run the camp live and cook. First, bottles of water, vodka and port were placed along its length – the vodka very good (if you like strong spirits) but the port a little sweet for my taste, though others in the group enjoyed it more than the vodka. We could also buy beer and soft drinks at very reasonable prices considering that everything had to be brought out to the camp.

The meal started with a buffet table of bread and salads, as everywhere in Uzbekistan, but here there was a particularly good variety of salads, including aubergine, roast peppers, a carrot and cabbage dish, beetroot … After this we were served a tasty hot dish of beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onion, all cooked in the one pot (a bit like Lancashire Hot-Pot for the Brits among us!)

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Dinner in the camp

The meal ended with slices of very juicy watermelon, and then most of us drifted over to the campfire that had been lit a short distance away in the centre of the camp. Out in the desert of course, the display of stars overhead was amazing, and we had a great time spotting shooting stars and satellites and looking at distant galaxies through the binoculars of a keen amateur astronomer in our group, Lawrence, who was also happy to share his knowledge about what we were seeing. It was a lovely way to end the day, although it would have been even nicer if one of our travelling companions hadn’t though it a great idea to play his transistor radio – not popular with the rest of us, who wanted to enjoy the tranquillity of the desert uninterrupted by the noise of the 21st century!

Then it was time for bed. We made the climb up the dune to the drop toilets in groups before retiring for the night. We slept on mattresses on the ground, which I found a little thin, and were provided with a cotton sheet and coverlet. I used the latter to augment the mattress to give me a softer base – which is maybe why I became very aware of the cool breeze later in the night!

This was a very special part of our holiday, and I for one wouldn’t have missed it for anything! Sleeping here was a magical experience, especially when I awoke at about 4.00am to see a thin crescent moon through the lattice, and when I got up at 5.30 to find myself the only one awake in the camp. But that’s a story for my next entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:05 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged landscapes people children food architecture desert mosque road_trip history fort market village camp uzbekistan customs Comments (11)

A place prepared

New Mexico day five


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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 (7)

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 (9)

Roots

Gambia day three


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Slavery museum, Albreda

For anyone who has read Alex Haley's book, Roots, or seen the TV series, it's possible to take an organised ‘Roots’ tour which provides an insight into the places and people behind his story and that of thousands of others.

We had never read or seen Roots, and tend to shy away from large group tours, but I didn’t want to visit The Gambia without acknowledging, and learning more about, the history of slavery in West Africa. And with limited time this seemed as good a way as any of visiting some key sights.

The trip was expensive compared with what we would have paid had we arranged it with a local guide, but we decided it was worth the extra cost to have someone put it together for us and take care of logistics. However if we were to go to The Gambia again I would probably make the extra effort to plan any similar outings myself.

On the river

We were picked up at Ngala Lodge by a bus that already had a number of tourists on board, and stopped at one more hotel before driving to Banjul to board a boat for a two hour journey on the River Gambia. We secured seats on the top deck with excellent views of all the activity on the river as, although the sun was hot, the fresh breezes made sitting in the open bearable – a decision I was to regret later however!

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Old pleasure boat near Banjul

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Fishing on the Gambia

Albreda

After two hours on the Gambia River we arrived at our first stop, the small fishing village of Albreda on the north bank. In less happy times this was one of the embarkation points for slaves being transported to the Caribbean and Southern states plantations, and the village contains several memorials of those days.

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Welcome to Albreda - view from the jetty

Albreda was formerly a French outpost, having been given to the French by a local ruler, Niumi Mansa, in 1681 to strengthen trading ties with Europe. This gave the French a foothold in the otherwise British-owned territory in this region and led to regular skirmishes, with nearby Fort James changing hands between them several times, before settling down under British control from 1702 onwards. Albreda itself was transferred from French control to the British Empire in 1857.

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By the river in Albreda


Today the village survives on fishing and tourism, the later sustained by these memories of its dark past. Down by the river where the boats dock is a dramatic statue of a human figure, part black and part white, with broken chains hanging from its wrists and a globe for a head. On the plinth are inscribed the words, ‘Never again’.

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Slavery monument, Freedom Flagpole and cannon

Nearby are the ruins of a ‘factory’ or fortified slaving station, and the so-called Freedom Flagpole which we were told gets its name from a story that if a slave managed to escape from James Island and swim here, and to touch the pole before being caught, he would gain his freedom - but none ever did because they feared the river and never learned to swim. I am not sure how true this is ...

The cannon next to the flagpole dates from the 19th century and was used by the British to deter slaving ships from sailing further up river.

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In Albreda

From here our group was led by the local guide who had met our boat on a stroll through the village with its dusty football pitch and shady baobab trees. As we walked we were ‘serenaded’ by local children with drums, singing and some rather bizarre costumes and dancing. Every group had a bowl for tips, but we were encouraged instead to make a single donation to the village in a box outside a small council office.

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Village children

I shot some video clips of the various groups.

Slavery Museum

Our walk brought us to the slavery museum, housed in a wooden building dating from the mid 19th century, known as the Maurel Freres Building. This building was somewhat ramshackle, despite being described in a sign on the outside wall as ‘one of the best structurally preserved historical buildings in the James Island and related sites world heritage complex’. It was built by the British in the 1840s and is named for a Lebanese trader who later used it.

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Sign on the Slavery Museum

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According to the same sign, the James Island and related sites present ‘a testimony to main periods and facets of the encounter between Africa and Europe along the River Gambia, a continuum that stretched from pre-Colonial and pre-slavery times to independence.’ That could be said to be the aim of this little museum too.

We were left by our guide to walk around three rooms which tell the history of the slave trade (both in this region and more generally), describe the appalling lives of the slaves, and, more positively, celebrate the more recent achievements of black African-Americans. A number of artefacts such as manacles, chain neck-locks, and foot-locks bring the gruesome history to life, as do quotes and posters from contemporary sources. It is somewhat cramped, and the artefacts not imaginatively presented, as they might be in a more sophisticated museum, but they are all the more telling perhaps for that reason.

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Old photo

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Manacles

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Yoke

Outside the museum was a moving sculpture in a naïve style depicting a slave family – father standing and manacled to the mother kneeling at his feet with a baby on her back. There was also a replica slaver ship which we could climb inside to see the cramped conditions suffered by the slaves.

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Monument outside the Slavery Museum

Village school

Next door to the museum was the small village school which we were encouraged to visit. Although it was a Sunday, some children were inside doing colouring and happy to chat to their visitors. We made a small donation, as had been suggested, and some people in the group handed over pens, pencils etc., but were discouraged, I was pleased to note, from giving sweets.

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Pupils at the village school

We all sat for a while in a nearby sheltered area known as a bantaba, which gave us a welcome break from the hot sun. A local musician was playing the korah (a stringed instrument) here and aiming to sell CDs to the visitors although I don’t think anyone from our group bought one. Some of the other villagers had gathered here - perhaps to listen to the music, perhaps to inspect the visiting groups!

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Village woman

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Korah player

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Woman in Albreda

After a brief rest it was time to move on, walking to the next village, Juffureh.

Juffureh

Juffureh is the neighbouring village to Albreda, about a kilometre away along what appeared to me to be a wide sandy track but could equally as easily have been a dried-up river bed. Only the ‘Welcome to Juffureh’ sign gave any indication that we were entering another village.

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Entering Juffureh

And Juffureh would be just that, ‘another village’, were it not for one black American man, Alex Haley, and his search for his African ancestors. He told in his semi-fictionalised account how he traced his family back to a certain Kunta Kinte who originated from Juffureh, from where he had been captured and sold into slavery in the plantations of the American South. Haley came here to see if any of his relatives could be found. He discovered the descendants of Kunta Kinte's brother still living here in the family compound. Alex Haley himself claimed to be a seventh-generation descendant of Kunta Kinte and here he met a woman also of that generation. She has since died but other members of the family remain and take it in turns to represent the rest (‘sit for the family’, as our guide put it) when tourist groups visit. We met the daughter of that seventh generation woman who had welcomed Alex Haley, and another family member whose relationship was not explained. The women greeted visitors and posed for photos, and in return sold small booklets about the story or simply accepted a small donation for their time.

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Kinte women, Juffureh

There have been some challenges to the authenticity of Haley's account. He himself admitted that he took some details of Kunta Kinte's story from another book, and papers found after his death cast doubt on his claim that he was descended from him. But there is no denying the fact that these villages, like most others in the region, suffered terribly from the impacts of the slave trade – both on those who were taken and those left behind.

Not having read ‘Roots’, I was more interested in the general history of slavery than this one man's story. For me the more memorable encounter in Juffureh was not with the Kinte family but with the village chief, who just happened to be, at the time of our visit, a woman – still an unusual and remarkable occurrence here. She sat in the village banaba to receive visitors, welcomed us (through a translator) and spoke a little about her appreciation of the efforts we had made (truly not that considerable!) to leave our hotels for the day and travel to see something of village life. She happily posed for photos with anyone who wanted to (I myself preferred to take more candid shots of her alone as she spoke) and gave anyone who wanted it a small ‘certificate of visitation’ in return for (another) small donation. I made the donation in recognition of the photos I had taken but declined the certificate. But it was certainly an interesting experience to meet her and one of the highlights of the day out for me.

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Village chief

In addition I found that visiting Albreda and Juffureh not only gave me an up-close perspective on the impact of the slave trade on this region but also the opportunity to see a bit of life as it is lived in these rural villages (notwithstanding the fact that these villages are visited by many tourist groups). OK, we didn’t have the place to have it to ourselves, and there was a (manageable) degree of hassling, but, I concluded, why shouldn't these people cash in on the opportunities we bring their way?

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In Juffureh

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Woman in Juffureh

In Juffureh this ‘cashing in’ included a small range of items for sale beside our route (loofahs, textiles etc.), more children adorned in leaves as in Albreda, and enthusiastic demonstrations by several women pounding maize – all designed to increase the donations we made to the community, no doubt.

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Women pounding maize

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Woman pounding maize, and loofahs etc for sale

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Child in Juffureh

Kunta Kinte Island

After our visit to Albreda and Juffureh we returned to the boat to travel the short distance to Kunta Kinte Island. Formerly known as James Island (the name was changed in 2011) and prior to that St Andrew's Island, this small island in the River Gambia is home to the ruins of a fort that once belonged to colonial Britain. For many slaves, this would have been the last patch of African soil that they saw before being transported in the bowels of transatlantic slave ships to the Americas.

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Kunta Kinte Island

Prior to coming into British hands in 1661 it had been occupied by first the Portuguese and later the Dutch, among others. For the British it represented their first imperial exploit on the African continent. They renamed the island James Island and the fort Fort James after James, the Duke of York, who was to become King James II of England. The island subsequently changed hands many times, particularly between the French and British. The fort was destroyed and rebuilt several times during this period, both in these conflicts and by pirates.

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Ruined fort on Kunta Kinte Island

Today you can see the ruins of the fort and some of its outbuildings, though many of the latter, including the slave houses, have been lost due to erosion of the island. It is now apparently only about one sixth of the size it was at the time of the slave trade, although much of what has been lost was in fact artificial island that had been built up around the natural water’s edge to enable more buildings to be constructed here. Without constant maintenance it is not surprising that these reclaimed patches of land are being lost again to the river.

Our guide, Ibrahim, bemoaned the fact that his government is doing so little to protect this part of the country's history (and this despite the fact that it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with related sites including Albreda, Juffureh and Fort Bullen). You can still see the ruins of the main fort building and can enter one of the cells where recalcitrant slaves were imprisoned, and there are still cannons in place on the crumbling bastions. But the outlying quarters where the majority of the slaves were housed are among the buildings no longer standing, so we got only a partial idea of the conditions they suffered, although my imagination, Ibrahim’s explanations and my own reading of history could fill in the rest.

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Our guide Ibrahim

Despite its gruesome history this is quite a peaceful spot. I loved the shapes made by the ancient baobab trees against a backdrop of sparkling river water and wandered off from our guide, informative though he was, to take some photos.

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The Old Landing Place

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Ruins and baobab trees

Then it was back to the boat for the two hour journey back to Banjul and from there the bus transfer back to Ngala Lodge.

That evening …

It had been a long, hot day. We had only been in the country for 24 hours and I was unaccustomed to the heat, coming straight from an English winter, so I found myself suffering a little later that evening with what I concluded was mild heat exhaustion. After our morning ride on the river, when I did sit in the sun, I had tried to stay in the shade, and I’d taken plenty of water, but clearly the damage had been already done. As a result I felt decidedly wobbly for a few hours and had to skip dinner and miss what sounded like an excellent evening’s entertainment with musicians and dancers from the local area. A lesson learned, the hard way!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:29 Archived in Gambia Tagged people children boats islands fishing history ruins fort village river museum school africa slavery gambia Comments (12)

Surprising art works … and then home

Gambia days eleven and twelve


View Gambia 2014 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Mandina Lodges sunrise

We had a later start for today’s final outing with Amadou, so there was time for some photos from the decking before breakfast, as we enjoyed our customary coffee. It was still not quite light – Venus was visible above the mangroves, a heron was silhouetted against the sunrise, and a Goliath Heron kept watch from the trees – probably the same one we had seen on other mornings.

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Heron at sunrise

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Jenny

And of course Jenny was there to keep us company!

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Dawn over Mandina Lodges

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Goliath Heron at sunrise

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Local woman by the river near Kubuneh

Kubuneh

I had read before leaving home about the Wide Open Walls art project and was keen to visit, so we asked Amadou if it would be possible to see some of the art and he proposed a visit to one of the villages involved, Kubuneh, about a half hour boat ride from Mandina Lodges.

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By the river in Kubuneh

We landed on a small beach where local women boil the oysters they have prised off the mangroves. Collecting these is a tough job, and one traditionally done by the women whom we saw frequently passing Mandina in their dug-out canoes or pirogues.

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Oyster shells on the small beach

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Local woman carrying oysters

The oysters have to be boiled for an hour to make them edible (you can’t eat these raw as you do the coastal ones, we were told). Some are eaten by the locals but most sold to restaurants. The discarded shells are picked clean by Hooded Vultures and Piapiacs (an African crow) before being smoked, ground to a powder and mixed with water to make a wash for the walls of buildings.

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Hooded vulture

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Hooded vultures

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Piapiac

The Wide Open Walls project

Some years ago, one of the owners of Makasutu and Mandina, Lawrence, who is a keen artist, decided to use art as a way of bringing some income to the local villages. He invited internationally known artists to stay at Mandina after the end of the tourist season, and to create street art in the most unlikely of settings, the small rural Gambian villages dotted around the area. The idea was that the works would function as a valid art installation in their own right and at the same time promote The Gambia as a tourist destination and thus benefit local communities. Progress has been slow, mainly because of the recession, but gradually the project, known as Wide Open Walls, has begun to create more and more interest. You can read more about it on the Mandina Lodges website: https://www.mandinalodges.com/makasutu-forest/wide-open-walls.

It was fascinating to see the works as they seemed at the same time both incongruous and totally in their right place. They are on public buildings, private houses, walls and even on the trees! And because quite a number of artists have been involved since the project began, there is a good chance everyone will find some that appeal.

As you can imagine, I took lots of photos. Here's a selection for you to enjoy - or scroll past, depending on your levels of enthusiasm for street art!

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Wide Open Walls

As I said, even some of the trees have been used by the artists as 'canvasses'.

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Faces on the trees, Kubuneh

Life in Kubuneh

Visiting Kubuneh didn’t just give us the opportunity to see the Wide Open Walls street art but also to see a rural Gambian village.
The village seemed still largely untouched by the extra attention it is starting to receive but there were some early seeds of the development of a tourist infrastructure – a part-built restaurant, a small craft stall under a baobab tree, signs promoting bird-watching trips. I hoped that this would benefit the local people but not spoil the special atmosphere here – from what I learned about Lawrence I thought it fair to say that was unlikely.

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Sign on a tree

Certainly overall the village was then (2014) still largely untouched by the presence of visitors, and although some small children called out a hello, in the vain hope of being given sweets (giving which is strongly discouraged by the authorities and tour companies), there was no sense of the commercialisation that we had experienced earlier in this trip, to some extent at least, at the former slave trade villages on the River Gambia.

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Children in Kubuneh

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Local people

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The village church

On our walk through the village we stopped to chat to a local woman whom Amadou knew. She was happy for us to take photos of her and her children (twin boys and a baby) and we gave the boys some postcards from home in return which they seemed to like (and much better for them than sweets!) This is one of the houses that has been painted through the Wide Open Walls project and the woman told me how much they like it.

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Mother and two of her children

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The twins with their postcards

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Amadou also took us to visit the local community-run school, which takes children from the ages of three to nine as these are considered too young to walk to the nearest government school 1.5 kilometres away. Unfortunately for us (but not presumably for the children!) the pupils had been given a day off in recognition of having won a sports competition the previous Friday, so we weren’t able to see and interact with any of them.

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The (almost deserted) village school

But we were able to meet the headmaster, Malik, who showed us the classrooms and told us a bit about the school. They are currently setting up a programme to give all the children a breakfast each morning, as many arrive without having eaten anything (or generally eat poorly at home), so we gave Malik a donation towards that as well as some pencils and crayons we had brought with us from home. He has a donations book which we were asked to complete and it was interesting to see how many others, from a variety of countries, had been here and done the same.

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Classrooms

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School motto

The writing on one of the blackboards tells a surprising story for a school whose pupils are relatively young, of a man accusing his son of being a bandit and asking the police to 'take him away'. His only crime seems to have been playing his music too loud and not reading his books!

There is also mention of the man beating one of his two wives before throwing her out, accusing her of stealing a chain in order to buy cannabis.

Last day at Mandina

The rest of the day passed in the by-now usual mix of swimming, relaxing and photographing the birds. Among the latter were a pretty Firefinch and some White-throated Bee-eaters who enjoyed darting down to the pool water in search of any insects floating there.

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View from my lounger!

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White-throated Bee-eater

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Firefinch

Another highlight was a Malachite Kingfisher on one of the posts of our decking. He didn’t hang around long enough for me to get a great photo but at least I got something!

A Giant Kingfisher paid us an even more fleeting visit but again I managed to get some sort of photo although his head was in shadow.

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Malachite Kingfisher

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Giant Kingfisher

Later we watched the local women on their way home after collecting oysters – some presumably heading to Kubuneh and the beach where we had photographed the discarded shells this morning.

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Local women collecting oysters

That night at dinner some excitement was caused by a Goliath Heron in the shallows right next to the restaurant – very difficult to photograph in the dark but of course I had to try!

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Goliath Heron at night

Time to go home

On our last morning there was time for a few more photos from the decking of our Floating Lodge.

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Last morning coffee

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Sunrise panorama

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View of the other Floating Lodges from our deck

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Jenny was there again, naturally!

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Lizard on a tree

Jenny tried to make it difficult for us to pack and leave but sadly we couldn’t linger as we had a plane to catch.

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Please don't go home!

Our transfer back to the airport near Banjul went smoothly, and we found the airport surprisingly well-organised, with only a short queue to check in and a reasonable one for customs and security. It helped that we had already filled in our departure card, but these are available at the airport if needed. Security was cursory by modern standards, with no request to screen electronic devices separately or to remove liquids for inspection.

The departure lounge had three duty free shops all selling much the same goods (mainly cigarettes and alcohol) plus one souvenir shop and a couple of bars. One of these, the Sky Bar, had very pro-active waiters who handed us a menu as soon as we entered the lounge and helped us find a space among the crowded seats. They sold snacks, cold and hot drinks, Julbrew and ice creams, all at reasonable prices, so we enjoyed a cold drink while waiting to board. The other bar was outside on a terrace with good views of the planes but very exposed to the hot African sun, so we gave that a miss.

The return flight was in a smaller and more cramped plane (it seemed that Monarch used smaller planes for their Tuesday flights than their Friday ones) but was similar in terms of service quality. We landed at Gatwick on a chilly February evening. The warmth of The Gambia already seemed a long way away …

Posted by ToonSarah 02:10 Archived in Gambia Tagged art people children birds lizards wildlife views hotel flight airport village river school africa cats street_art customs gambia Comments (32)

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