dead dog lying by the side of the road

From Mandalay, Myanmar     Jan 27, 2011

A few times here I have seen a dog lying dead by the side of the street.  Tonight it was a man.  Continue reading

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Black Rock City Deep Playa Sanctuary – A Rat’s Nest

Far out at the periphery of the Burning Man venue, there is a four foot high net “fence” which defines the event site. The ‘Trash Fence’, as it is called, serves several purposes. For one, it defines the furthest authorized perimeter of the event. For another – as the name suggests – it catches the wind blown debris escaping the event which would otherwise end up irretrievably scattered across the Black Rock Desert.

Dawn at the Trash Fence - getting as close as possible to the rising sun

And what might be most valuable of all – it keeps participants from becoming frighteningly and perhaps fatally lost in a harsh, nearly endless environment. In the dark, or in a disorienting and sight-obliterating whiteout, an encounter with the trash fence will always provide a safe, if long, route back into the city.

And though it can be a long way out to the trash fence, there are many reasons to explore this far reach of Black Rock City. Out there one finds a taste of the space and tranquility of the open playa, and the beauty of the dark starry sky.

There is also art.

Art in the Deep Playa - a 'create your own art' installation

This year my favorite art installation of all – in a year exceptionally well provided with outstanding installations – was located at midnight on the Deep Playa, just in from the trash fence.

My son discovered this installation his first night out exploring. It was not deliberate. Continue reading

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Burning Man 2015 segue 2016

2015 brought a different sort of Burning Man for me. As I was experiencing my tenth year on the Playa, my early 40s son was experiencing his first.

Over the previous few years, the renown of the event has grown enormously, leading to an ever increasing scarcity of tickets. And it has been reported that fully half of the attendees in 2015 were first timers. Though the allowed population cap had been lifted slightly to 70,000, the gap between the number of people who wished to attend, and those who would be allowed to has continued to widen. This has been increasingly the case from July 2011, when tickets first sold out, and ever since.

The Life Cube Project obscured by morning dust

2015 turned out to be probably the dustiest year I have seen. The playa was enveloped by intermittent whiteouts by mid morning nearly every day. In the evenings, long past sunset, the sky would eventually clear allowing Black Rock City back its inimitable sparkle.

I recall thinking during those dusty afternoons that the newbies were not going to be ready for this and could not possibly be wanting to return. I could not have been more wrong. The ruggedness – the physical and psychological demands of the Black Rock Desert seemingly dissuaded almost no one. It all seemed to work, in fact, the other way around. Once you had survived the day after day dust storms, you realized your power. Challenged; invigorated; triumphant.

Damn. The newbies were hooked and those I asked were all planning to return. And this included my son. “I am returning” he said, “every year for the rest of my life.” Well something like that. Dissuaded? Ummm.

So now ticket scarcity has only grown. Fortunately, the character of the event can also evolve. These hardy new converts will bring their own energy and enthusiasms to the magic of Black Rock City, and I will be happy to share in that.

And so now Burning Man 2016 approaches. The theme this year is the Da Vinci Workshop.

The desert? It will be the same. Unpredictable. Beautiful. Harsh. As a setting for art – especially large scale and interactive art – unparalleled. The art will be amazing.

The neighborhoods and texture of the city: dynamic. strange. fascinating. Deeply imaginative and creative, amusing; as varied as the people who populate the city.

There are challenges. The weather will be what it is. The traffic will be what the traffic is. A city that comes together and then vanishes in a few short weeks inevitably stresses the few two lane roads that lead to the site.

The dusty and windy times, the rare rainy and muddy times, and the clear resplendent nights, sparkling and shimmering with a symphony of dim dancing lights. All this awaits us.

No wonder the newbies will return. We have all tumbled into a place, and a state, that is uniquely magical.

Black Rock City 2016. Fast approaching. Different again. Living in a different area of town than I/we have before. Excitedly anticipating some new large scale art being built. Sharing something I have loved for a long time with a boy I have loved since his birth.

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Mexican Folk Art in Valladolid

Casa de los Venados, Valladolid, Yucatán

In Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico there is a beautifully restored colonial hacienda-style home which houses a mind-shatteringly beautiful collection of Mexican Folk Art. John and Dorianne Venator are the collectors, and the owners of this unique property.

According to John, initially people who had heard of the collection would appear at his door requesting a tour which he always generously gave them. Eventually he hired some local help and made the tours available daily. In exchange he asks each guest for a 60 peso minimum donation which goes to fund projects in the community.

I never knew that folk art could be like this. Folk Art is supposed to be “naive” – free of conventional ‘fine art’ rules and standards. Continue reading

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Impressions of Cuba – Cities

I often rely largely on photos to give the clearest idea of a place – of what attracted me, what surprised me, what amused me, and even at times what alarmed or dismayed me – but when recalling impressions of Cuba, I find that more explanation, or analogy, is needed.

There is a phenomenon I have noticed in visiting cities in developing countries. In my first sight of such places, I see mostly the roughness. This is quickly replaced, once I get feet on the ground, by the fascinating complexity and the unique mood and feel of the city. I noticed this markedly in Yangon, Myanmar.

The city block I lived on in Yangon, January 2011

At first I saw only the chaos and dirtiness of the streets, but just as soon as I started walking, these images faded. When I returned to the city three weeks later, my first thought was how unappealing the city was. Having traveled along the Irrawaddy River, bicycled extensively through Mandalay and Bagan, walked from Kalaw to Inle Lake, my impressions of the country had evolved extensively in those weeks. But again, walking the streets replaced this even stronger initial impression with details and awareness, and with a sensitivity to the place that a view from a car window does not yield.

It was the same in Havana.

Calle Neptuno, Centro Habana

Spending a week sleeping in Centro, Continue reading

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Guatemalan Cemeteries part III – Care and Color

There are two characteristics that I found most notable in the cemeteries in Guatemala. The most immediately obvious is the extensive use of color. There is nothing sedate or boring about a Guatemalan cemetery. Continue reading

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More Cemeteries in Guatemala

I have always had a bit of a fascination for cemeteries because they hold intriguing clues to the culture and history of an area. And perhaps I just enjoy walking with ghosts.

Continue reading

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Whispers From the Che Mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

Before visitors are allowed into this tomb they must hand over practically all of their belongings to a bag check guard. I was permitted to keep my notebook and pen and jacket. Somewhere on the internet perhaps there are official photos of the El Che Mausoleum…Or perhaps not….

I am not here. I am in your heart. I am the dreamer, and my dreams have filled hundreds, and thousands, and more. Many more.

The Argentine Ernesto Guevara, more commonly known as El Che, is a hero of heroes in Cuba. He is the model Cuban youth strive to emulate. His image can be seen everywhere in the country – on posters, in huge effigy on the sides of buildings, in statuary.

Statue of El Che in front of the Officina de la Provincia (PCC), Santa Clara

But it is in Santa Clara where his presence is most keenly felt. Continue reading

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When is a cemetery a National Monument?

In the US, the president is allowed to establish National Monuments which provide a protected status for “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest”. In Post-revolutionary Cuba, historical importance is instantly given to most anything relating to the many men and women who fought to free the country first from colonial rule, and later from a series of dictatorships.

Cuba is littered with memorials to these heroes, in the form of statuary, obelisks and the names of public squares. In a similar vein, Cuba celebrates the cemeteries which are filled with memories and memorials. Four of these cemeteries have been accorded National Monument statusNecrópolis de Cristóbal Colón in Havana, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia in Santiago de Cuba, and in Cienfuegos both Cementario la Reina and Necrópolis Tomás Acea.

El Cementerio General de Camagüey

When is an outstanding cemetery in Cuba NOT a National Monument? Cementerio General de Camagüey forces one to ponder that question. Continue reading

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The Right Answer to the Wrong Question

It is unquestionably extremely useful – often even indispensable – to be able to communicate, at least a little, in Spanish when traveling in Latin America.

The old Train Station in Camagüey, Cuba. Peligro, No pase, Posible derrumbe

Only in the most touristic sites was it possible to get around with any degree of ease without this ability. And even then, your experience is much richer with Spanish than without. Continue reading

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Palenque Pueblo and the anonymous cementerio

The buses which leave the Chiapas town of Palenque, heading east, are each and every one scheduled to run overnight. This meant that I had one extra day to fill before my 10 pm departure for Tulum and the Riviera Maya.

Though this was not my first choice of destination, the idea of landing where I really wanted to be (Xpujil) at 3 am held no appeal at all. And time was running short before I would need to head for Cancun and my flight home. Xpujil, Zoh Laguna and Calakmul would have to wait for another time.

Back-alley in Palenque Pueblo

And though the ruins of the magnificent Mayan city of Palenque were worth every hour one could afford them, the pueblo of Palenque – not so much. I had spent my nights in the jungle retreat of El Panchan, but had been to the town a couple of times Continue reading

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Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, Havana

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón
Vedado District, Havana
Established in 1876.

Interior of la Capilla Central

The cemetery is criss-crossed by a neat grid of streets. In the center is the chapel, Capilla Central

Avenida Cristóbal Colón bisects the plot into east and west halves. Toward the sunrise, are Calles 1 through 17. Toward the sunset are Calles 2 through 18.

The sunrise-sunset (east-west) trending streets are named, from north to south, Calles A through N.

I am relieved, now, to know that the dead won’t be getting lost during their midnight walk abouts.

Continue reading

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Latin American Cemeteries

[header: Chichicastenango, Guatemala]

One of my favorite sights to try to locate in any new place is the local cemetery.

Antigua, Guatemala

They are so often a sort of barometer of the locale, like another kind of ‘house-pride’ that suggests the warmth and family values of the local population.

My current exposure to Latin American cemeteries is limited, so far, to only three countries: Cuba, Guatemala and Mexico. The cementarios in these three countries are stylistically entirely distinct. The cemeteries in Cuba are quiet and orderly. Those in Yucatecan Mexico, Campeche and eastern Chiapas are more colorful, immensely crowded and barely maintained. And those in Guatemala vary from the relatively dignified, spacious rows in Antigua to the cemeteries of the Mayan villages which are often wildly colorful and varied, but always lovingly cared for.

In Cuba Continue reading

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Habana Centro

More views of the Centro District of Havana.

Our Casa was one floor above street level on Calle Neptuno a one-way street heading west. Calle Neptuno is the route taken by the colectivo taxis heading in that direction. At dawn the street was quiet but activity quickly ramped up.

Calle Neptuno at dawn

This girl extends a hand and the colectivo taxi pulls to the curb. Nearly all of these colectivos in Havana are classic American cars.

And an hour later there are clusters of people all along the block, waiting for colectivos heading their way.

8 am on Calle Neptuno

Continue reading

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Where to stay in Havana

Options for short-stay tourist accommodations in Cuba are of three basic types.

1. Hotels, of varying degrees of comfort.
2. All-inclusive resorts (in the beach areas) where meals, beverages and beach activities are all included in the daily rate.
3. The casa particular (translates as ‘private house’).

Less commonly encountered options include motels, apartments and camping facilities.

The Casas are more or less equivalent to Bed and Breakfast accommodations. Breakfast, and or dinner, will be available though both will usually cost extra. They typically have rooms upgraded to visitor’s standards. This means the room will have air conditioning (Cuba can be HOT) generally a private bathroom and a hot-water shower, with toilet paper, soap and towels provided. The toilet will also have a seat. That might not seem worth mentioning, but once you’ve traveled awhile around Cuba you will realize how noteworthy a thing it actually is.

All casas must be licensed by the government and they must report the number and identities of their guests promptly. Prices are reasonable – generally much less than hotels – and often the guest has a chance to live in the house with the family.

So where, then, to stay in Havana? There are several areas of Havana which offer many options for the visitor, but there are three adjoining areas which have the greatest selection and convenience. The three are contiguous and located along the northern shore of the city. Furthest west is somewhat more upscale Vedado; furthest east is the tourist-dominated Havana Vieja which contains most of the major tourist sights in the city Between them lies Centro.

A home in Vedado

Continue reading

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The Very Weird World of Selfies

I’ve always been amused by people who pose their loved one or family in front of every landmark they pass.

Now the ubiquitous group shot has been to a great extent replaced by the singles and couples simply photographing themselves, with the versatile smartphone at the end of an arm, or even more strangely – at the end of a stick.

They might forget to actually look at where they are, but dang-it-all they have proof that they were there!

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