Another of our favorite 3-hour tours from my home in Nederland, Colorado, is the 4x4 route over Kingston Peak pass. This one is a bit of a doozy in places -- definitely the most difficult terrain we have yet explored. Well, save one stretch of trail we did years ago in Jenny Creek that took us about 45 minutes to move about 3 feet forward. Our 4-Runner, Trusty Trudy, was precariously balanced on only two wheels -- one front wheel and one back. As we inched forward, literally inch by inch with me spotting continually and Erik getting out to survey and strategize every few inches, I also had to hang off the outside of the opened driver's-side door with all my weight to ensure Trudy didn't tip over on her passenger side. It was clear from various forms of evidence that previous travelers had spent a long time trying to get past this spot, as well.
The first time we attempted Kingston Peak with Trudy, we were turned back by one egregiously large boulder on a steep skree slope. Later that summer we made a second attempt and met with success. This year we have a new ("new" 1999) 4-Runner named Chewbacca. Chewy is a beast on this terrain with higher clearance than Trudy and a mean grunt in low gear. We love him. We started trying to get to Kingston Peak early in the summer. Every two weeks we went out, as the snow melted we got higher and higher each time. It was I think our fifth outing when the snow had finally melted enough for us to summit. We just chugged right over that boulder that had given Trudy such a headache. We then went over the route a second time in late August when we took a friend out to show him what our backyard had to offer in 4x4 trails. As you may have read in the Gamble Gulch post, most of these trails originated as old mining roads ... people were crossing them in wagons.
So by now we have crossed this terrain in early, mid- and late summer. So I present to you a little photo tour through the seasons. If you are thinking of trying this route yourself -- from Mammoth Gulch Road over Kingston Peak to Fall River Road -- know that I'm not understating the requirement of a high-clearance vehicle with low-4 gearing.
The wildflowers along the lower part of this route (upper Mammoth Gulch) are spectacular. The season begins with a sea of yellow pea in bloom dotted with clumps of our state flower, the blue columbine.
Next, the red spikes of Indian paintbrush take over the landscape, and these can last most of the wildflower season. (FYI: Cozy & Quiet B&B is my guest studio I run in Nederland ... some of these pics were posted to its Facebook page, hence the C&Q watermark)
We love collecting wild raspberries from this area. I'll keep it a little secret precisely where we go ... there are many side roads. :) The character below is our new guy, Chewbacca.
Our first attempt with Trudy ... you can see her hood just peeking up over the horizon of the trail and Erik walking back toward her after we left her temporarily to see if there were any other show-stopping obstacles ahead.
Our second attempt with Trudy ... success and the reward of copious wild bluebell flowers, also called harebells, which I absolutely love. As you can see, we were traveling at our usual time of late in the day.
After crossing the pass above timberline, the route drops into Fall River Road beside St. Mary's Glacier near Idaho Springs. (these days, we call it more of a glacier-ette)
This year when we made our first crossing, I was very excited because it was a rare blue sky above the mountain peaks and we could clearly see the layers and layers of mountains heading back into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. I had brought my camera and as I clicked the shutter with glee for my first pic, my smile turned a little upside down when I realized there was no memory card in the camera! I had left it in my computer from downloading some other pics. So the beauty of that day is just in my private memory. The next time we crossed it with our friend in late August, we had pretty much the polar opposite sky ... low and heavy with fog and rain. But it lent the route an air of secrecy and mystery. By now the green grass was largely turning to gold and red.
Chewy seems like such a sizable truck until you get a little perspective of his place in the mountain landscape.
I've never been to Scotland, but I envision its highlands somehow like this, maybe just because of the low, heavy mist so iconic to that part of Scotland. The red and gold grasses had a lovely rich color in the rain and midday diffused light. (we started earlier than usual on this day)
We got out to hike a little ways to see the mountain lakes below (my friend is a marvelously accomplished photographer and was very keen to walk about with his camera). You can just spy him and Erik as little black pixels off on the upper right-hand side of the photo. It started raining quite substantially and I stopped to try to get some pics of my beloved harebells without kneeling in the soaked grass, as my feet and head were already soggy. Sort of got a pic ... In standing up I banged my shin on a rock and between that pain and being wet and cold, I didn't forge on to see the lakes. That will be a gift for me another time. (p.s. you can view all these pics at larger size by opening in a new tab)
Once you start descending the other side down toward Fall River Road, you are treated to a Seussian forest of wind-sculpted trees. Can you guess which direction the wind blows? :) Some day I would spend more time exploring this little forest that marks the beginning of treeline. Such fantastical shapes and colors in the trunks.
The doors of summer are closing already this year. But I imagine, as we've become quite fond of this route, that we will be back soon. And maybe my memory will allow the inclusion of a memory card inside my camera!
Check out the excellent photography of my friend, Garett Gabriel, much of it taken in Colorado in the Nederland area.
While we stayed in Andorra, we breached the border a few times (as it is so quickly and easily accessed at either end of the country) to see some sights in the surrounding countries of France and Spain. I'm making this post about day trips to France with pretty much one single motivation ... which is simply to share some of my photos from these sights, as I was having so much fun with my wide angle lens (10-22 mm). It's more fun to share the fun -- haha -- than to keep it locked in my own little computer. Plus, maybe it will inspire you further to visit this delightful corner of the world. So, without further ado or much accompanying text ... I give you a slice of the French Pyrenees and the Languedoc region.
So ... we found ourselves in Villefranche de Conflent at the meeting of two rivers in a valley in the gorgeous snow-capped French Pyrenees Mountains. This region is culturally and historically part of Catalonia, even though I typically think of that as a Spanish region. Catalan was the language spoken in Villefranche de Conflent. Because of it's geographical misfortune or fortune, I'm not sure which you would consider it, the town was often fought over between the neighbors -- France and Spain. And so it evolved a stout defensive wall around it and a military fortress on the hillside above it, Fort Liberia. Now a small population keeps the town alive mostly for tourists. But alive, indeed -- cafes and souvenirs shops, a train station and of course the fortress. It's roughly a 2-hour drive from here to Canillo, where our home-base was in Andorra.
We spent the afternoon inside the fortified medieval town of Carcassonne, which has been impressively restored to provide the experience of an ancient European walled city. The only part you have to pay money to see is the actual fortress part. You can stroll the quaint cobblestone streets inside the walls all you want, otherwise. The restaurants are pricey, being such a tourist zone, but I had a delicious lunch of duck, which frankly, was totally worth the price to me. The "beer," however, was not. haha. The French aren't really known for a beer-making prowess. But their breads and pastries and duck are divine.
I imagined the country of Andorra would be a bit provincial when the directions to our studio rental said to drive through Andorra until we reached Canillo, turn left at a particular sign and then “please look for a public telephone booth which is the only one in this town. Behind is the entrance.”
I didn’t know anything about Andorra, first established in the 9th century and established as its own principality in 1278, until I decided to visit it. It looked awful purty in the pictures, perched in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France. It’s one of the micro-countries of Europe, has a population of about 80,000 in an area of about 180 square miles. All of it is mountainous; the primary revenue for the country is a healthy ski industry (and hiking/trekking in summer) and its duty-free shopping. With a total country population of 80k, you can imagine no city is terribly large (the capital is 24k), but you can find some pretty mind-blowing liquor stores and novelty shops just along the roadside for the purchasing pleasure of skiers and other random tourists like ourselves.
Visiting at the time of year we did, April, was kind of a bust for activities, because there wasn’t enough snow left for snow sports but there was still too much left to do any hiking. But the cool thing about this time of year was how quickly you could move between snowy fields on the mountains and pink and white spring-flowering trees in the valleys.
Expecting it to be a scenic country, I had imagined we would do a fair amount of “Sunday driving” just to look around, but being so mountainous, turns out there aren’t really very many roads. So that didn’t take us very long to explore around. We ran across several picturesque abandoned stone houses and farmsteads. (You'll notice stone is the primary building material both in city buildings and farmsteads.) The main road through the country, since there is, after all, only one, can be quite clogged with traffic particularly around the cities, but once you turn off onto the side roads into the smaller villages, you have the road to yourself … so much so that we would just stop dead in the center of the road to get out and take pictures if something caught our eye.
One time, though, we saw a little ruin on a hillside and drove on a slightly rocky dirt road and parked in a grassy field to explore it.
It was a nice little ruin, and photos of it give you kind of a basic summary of Andorra … mountains and steep valleys with cities in the valleys and abandoned farmsteads on the slopes. Andorra doesn't have the grand ruins typical throughout most of Europe, such as the one we would soon find in Spain (stay tuned), or the copious castles abandoned in Irish farm pastures, etc. But there's something playful and imaginative in exploring any kind of abandoned past.
With a rough estimate of completion 3 hours hence, as we understood it anyway, we walked away and killed some time inside a pub (surprise) and then inside the very random Museu de la Moto -- a Motorcycle Museum, which was incongruously situated beside this 11th-century Romanesque church.
Just past the lower left corner of the photo above is a little hatch leading to an underground museum full of motorcycles. This had caught Erik’s eye immediately upon entering the country. So here was the perfect opportunity to check it out. I’m typically up for anything, so while I can’t say I experienced the same excited anticipation to see a motorcycle museum as Erik clearly did, (even though I ride them, if you didn’t know … I have a sport bike and a dirt bike), and even though it was like the dinkiest museum ever in terms of square footage, I found it very interesting (and there were over 100 bikes packed in!) and was glad we visited it. The old ones are, of course, the most interesting. I would even go so far as to say that some of them were full-on fascinating. Take, for example, this gem here below, which is steam-powered! You built a little fire in the cylinder on the right and the steam traveled through various tubes to power a piston. So I guess you had to carry a sack of coal on your back if you were to go very far! I would love to ride this thing around town. haha ... the looks I would get!
It’s even more random to find a museum of motor vehicles in a country that didn’t have real roads until 1938! I often thought to myself that Andorra is the Lesotho of Europe … haha … Lesotho being a mountain kingdom with desolate roads, as well. (read about our time in Lesotho if you are unfamiliar with this little-known African nation)
While most citizens may not have needed to travel very far and roads may not have been too important to them; the one class of folks who did need to travel far were the parliament members. So until nearly half way through the 20th century, they rode to the capital on horseback. And here is a cool thing, that maybe my country and some others could benefit from this arrangement … after riding to the capital, they stayed overnight during session in the actual parliament building, known as Casa de la Vall. They ate dinner together in the kitchen first before going into chambers. So they were congenial and conversant with one another, unlike the elected officials of my country. When you are forced to hang out with people, you are forced to know them a little and understand them a bit, and a lot more gets accomplished with this type of empathy. That being said, there were not very many of them who had to tolerate each others’ company. It’s a pity that they don’t allow photographs to be taken in any of their museums in Andorra. But here is one of the session chamber from the official website about the former parliament building (www.casadelavall.ad/en/inside-the-house). They built a new parliament building only a few years ago … it’s square and drab, just across the courtyard, and still really small.
The parliament members are elected from each of the 7 provinces in Andorra. But who sits at the helm? A president? A king? A prime minister? It’s kind of a surprise if you don’t already know the answer … Andorra is co-ruled by the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell, Spain – they are referred to as the “co-princes.” So it’s a government really based on cooperation all the way around. Here’s another nice little thing, a dedication to honesty rather than cunning and deceit among elected officials: important papers are kept in a wooden dresser with seven key holes, and the heads of each province must put in their key in order to unlock it. So if one province isn’t represented, the important documents can’t be accessed.
Andorra doesn’t have its own army. Until 1993 Andorra paid tribute to France and Spain in alternating years for military protection. In addition to cash, the tribute included cows and large loaves of bread. Probably at some point I’m guessing the bread was phased out. We were told that it was the law that every man own a gun since there was no national army. We subsequently asked two men about it … they both confirmed the law but one of them didn’t own a gun and the other did begrudgingly – they were both young men and really wanted nothing to do with the weaponry.
During World War II, Andorra hid and sheltered many Jews. One hotel in particular was pointed out to us as an establishment that housed a lot of refugees.
So it was disappointing that we couldn’t take photos inside the parliament building or the two museum houses we visited, but they certainly tried to compensate for it with excellent guided tours, even though we always ended up having to kill time until we could be scheduled in. But that was good in its own way for forcing us to just chill and “hang out,” and be exploratory rather than always moving from here to there to see this and that. For example, while waiting for a tour in Ordino, we meandered and found this church and clock tower.
Anyway, so much information was given to us I couldn’t even keep track of it all. All of the buildings were so small, we couldn’t believe it when we saw how long the tours took … what could possibly take so long in such small spaces? I cynically suspected they would be padding their presentations with a bunch of boring minutiae about the furniture or the history of the owner’s second cousin’s wife. But as a person who often avoids guided tours, I must credit these as genuinely interesting (to me), and very well done by very knowledgeable people in very good English. And except for having one other guy with us in the parliament building, it was just me and Erik and the guide.
We visited two house museums -- one of a wealthy family (somewhat rare in the Andorran valleys, and typically acquiring their wealth from a once-thriving mining industry) and one of a peasant family. They complemented each other well, to learn the differences in how the elite and the typical poor farmer lived, as well as the things the houses and their owners had in common. Take for example in the “common” category … In the (not too distant) past, in almost all houses in Andorra, wealthy and poor alike, even including the parliamentary house, the first room when you came in the front door was for livestock. The animals provided warmth for the house and also were kept safe. In the parliament house, the members kept their horses there when in session. I love the idea that you enter the capital building in the capital city and have to work your way through a bunch of horses (and presumably horse manure) to reach the courtroom and the parliament chamber.
Another interior feature common in all houses was what you could call “Murphy tables,” after the Murphy bed concept -- the benches in front of the kitchen fire would fold out into tables. This way the kitchen could be kept small and warm, with the table taking up space only while eating.
Here is the courtyard of the wealthy house (Casa d'Areny-Plandolit). One amusing thing is that one of the family members (I can’t remember now precisely how long ago) got a letter from the Pope himself which is framed on one of the walls. It was a letter of approval to break a taboo which is common across all cultures … can you guess what the Pope granted permission for? It was for the guy to marry his first cousin. Interesting range of powers the pope has .....
The family of fortune left their home in the 1940s and sold the furniture and interior contents along with the building. But the family member who grew up there and donated almost all the toys on display in the children’s room comes to visit sometimes, and the only thing she asks to have back is a tiny little painted wooden doll of a black baby. Our guide confessed she’s tempted to take it from the display cabinet and give it to the lady to make her happy … it was hers, after all.
One of the family members became a dentist and taxidermist, among other professions. His dentistry room was upstairs in the house attic, sporting a horrifically stark, simple chair … a torture chair, I dare say. His hours were mostly in the evening, when farmers had put livestock in for the night and could afford the time to have a tooth pulled. And, to be honest, if his inconsistent taxidermy skills were at all indicative of his dental skills, I would be wild with fear to sit in that chair.
Here is the quaint street along which the peasant family museum lies, called the Casa Cristo Ethnographic Museum. We had to wait for the guide to show up and then get our (excellent) private tour.
The family who owned this house also left in the 1940s and also sold the furniture and interior contents. In this typical farmer’s house, rather than a spooky dental office, the attic was used as a place to dry fruits and herbs on top of hay, and dry animal skins on racks, and keep grains up high out of the way of mice. According to the guide, people have taken an interest in purchasing historic houses in the last 10 years; before that they would say, “oh, that’s old junk” and tear it down. Andorra is relatively new to the “modern” scene. It seems every society goes through this. The older people are the ones calling it junk, just their old stuff. The lady who sold the peasant house came by once to visit and was like, “meh.” No reverence for it being her past. Everything the guide pointed out, most having been sold with the house, was made by the peasant family themselves … the furniture and tools and blankets, everything … as Andorra didn’t really have any importing relations.
For such a tiny country, it turns out I’ve had quite a lot to say! I leave you with this … if you follow me at all you would be surprised if I did not mention the beer selection! So here’s how we discovered this house of beers from all over the world, including two selections from breweries in my very own ‘hood in Colorado ... this will surprise you guys (not) -- I suffered an injury! I twisted my ankle while walking down some stony steps near the parliament house and fell. You can see the scene of the crime in the very back, where the railing is along the ridge. And notice the peculiar organic component inside this lovely metal sculpture.
My new camera hit the ground and fortunately Erik reacted how I would have wished and saved the camera before me. Haha. So it was OK. I was a bit bruised and very upset at twisting my ankle with another week of walking planned on our sightseeing itinerary. So Erik helped me hobble to the nearest pub/restaurant, we asked the proprietor for a bag of ice and I sat there for several hours under ice and drinking some beer. Erik being the chatty fellow that he is, chatted up the proprietor and soon learned he owned this other beer house, which was a store as well as a bar. He said it opened at 5:00, so at 5:00 we hobbled over there (not far away). And in the meantime, Erik had found a pharmacy and bought me an Ace bandage for my ankle. Due to the immediate icing, I recovered quite well within a couple days. Oddly, we decided to go back to the "birreria" several days later. It was fun that the proprietor remembered us and asked after my ankle.
And so dear readers, I leave you with a glimpse of Andorra and recommend its beautiful Pyrenees landscape to anyone. If I get the mojo, I’ll tell you about some day trips into the neighboring countries of France and Spain. Here's a sweet little fountain in Andorra la Vella.
please note most photos in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new browser tab (right-click)
This year (2015) found me landing by plane in Barcelona, Spain, again. It was my 5th birthday abroad and an appropriate mini-anniversary since Barcelona was where I spent my 1st declared “Birthday Abroad.” The declaration means that from that birthday on, I resolved to ignore this ignominious and malevolent annual documentation of my age by traveling to interesting far-away lands, thereby distracting me from having to acknowledge my steadily advancing age.
Last time I spent a whole week in Barcelona itself, with one day-trip to Figueres. This year, Erik and I rented a car and drove straight out of Barcelona to other locations in Spain, Andorra and France, and returned to Barcelona for just one day before flying back home.
The title of this post, "The Masters Revisited," is in reference to a post I made from our earlier trip. During this year’s trip we completed the “Dali Triangle.” In 2011 we visited the Dali Theater Museum in Figueres … one of the points on the “triangle,” being his most famous immersive creation and museum. I outlined our time there in my post, “Museums of the Masters.” The other two triangle points, northeast of Barcelona, we accessed this year from Cadaques.
But first, by pure luck, we stumbled across Dali’s imagination grounds. That is to say, the coastline that inspired much of his visual thought and ideas – Cap de Creus. We had time to kill in the morning before our ticketed time to tour Portlligat, his home for over 50 years, (must take guided tour to see the inside of the home). I saw on our map there was a lighthouse on the Cap, and that’s really what we were driving to. I happened to notice a pull-out along the road where a number of cars were parked and there was a trailhead sign. I suggested we check out whatever was there. And so we stumbled onto this stretch of seaside whimsy, where the rock fashions itself into shapes that can be interpreted like clouds, and the eroded volcanic rock produces fields of strange abstract shapes and textures. You can really see some of Dali’s iconic elements of his paintings when you look closely at the rocks. It was very cool and quite an epiphany.
Decades ago, some … shall we call him a moron … purchased some of the land and built a Club Med resort there, desecrating Dali’s organic muse. But about 10 years ago it closed down, and in a heroic effort by locals, was completely, utterly dismantled. Everything torn down and carted away to restore the natural shore lands. Impressive and a testament to the local love of Dali to so faithfully resurrect his beloved coast.
So, for the second point in the triangle, we visited his home where he lived with the passion of his life -- his wife, Gala -- at Portlligat on the northern end of the Costa Brava. Beginning from just a small fisherman’s hut in 1930, he eventually built a whimsical home and grounds overlooking the sea. From the museum brochure: “Taking that initial construction [the fisherman’s hut] as a basis, he created his house little by little over the course of forty years. He himself described it ‘like a true biological structure… Each new pulse in our life has its own new cell, a room.’”
Here’s a look at some of the rooms, filled with things bizarre, interesting, pretty, disturbing, and a list of other adjectives. Above all, one could never be bored in these rooms … so much to look at and contemplate. Even the sparsely furnished rooms have their own unique level of contemplation.
The themes of bread and of eggs are prominent in Dali’s working and living environments. (see, for example, the roof of the Theater Museum in Figueres … we’ll see more eggs below in a minute) The picture of the farmer couple in the first photo below is reproduced over and over in other paintings and decorations, it’s even stamped onto a set of china, the plates and cups. (and p.s. - am loving my rented 10mm wide-angle lens for this!)
In this photo, I’m looking up at a clear plastic floor in which the cut-out man is lying face-down on, looking into the room below him. This really amused me.
And here, as promised, a variety of eggs sitting around the outside of the buildings and nestled into courtyards and gardens.
Do you see the Michelin man next to the pool? There was another one nearby sitting in a rocking chair. I really loved the tangle of fabric snakes winding (well, snaking) around the pool, and the sitting nook at the end of it.
I first walked by this guy on the ground, and Erik was standing on a platform above it. He said to me, “Can you see what that is?” I replied a bunch of bricks or something. He told me to come up to where he was. Looking down, you can see it’s the figure of a man lying down. From ground level, it just looks like a random line of rocks in the yard. Iconic Dali, of course, seeing different things depending on the angle of view.
Dali was a lover of cats. (hurray) And there were several wandering around the courtyard where they sell a small selection of concessions. We would see many, many cats in nearby Cadaques.
And the third point on the Dali triangle, the Gala Dali Castle in Pubol. Pubol is a small town and the cobblestone streets around the museum are devoted to its promotion, with souvenir stalls and paintings on the buildings. The painting here is one of my very favorites of Dali’s … I took a picture of it at full size (which is huge ... much taller than I am) in the Figueres theater museum and posted it back in 2011.
Dali purchased the small castle for his wife, Gala, “to create an oasis of rest and refuge.” When she died, he made her mausoleum in the basement … a room heartbreakingly bare for a creation of the typically excessive Dali – simply the tomb and four animal statues gathered at the far end. After her death, he lived in the castle himself until his health became extremely poor and his friends moved him to live at the theater museum in Figueres. The whole castle, in fact, felt very somber and sad. Dali always claimed that Gala was his muse, and it seems like it was genuinely true. Living alone, his surroundings were spare, lacking that lustrous creativity of Figueres and Portlligat. His artistic flamboyance was perhaps merely the expression of his love for her.
Mysteriously referred to as “the blue room,” Dali slept here. It was the event of this room catching on fire that prompted his friends to move him to Figueres. Can you spot the thing that is not like the other things?
This was Gala’s private bathroom … on the right you can see the edge of the fireplace. I thought that feature was pretty neat – a little nook with a fireplace in it and a bench at either end of the nook to sit by it and warm one’s self. I also like the succession of curves you can see in the mirror, of the fireplace and the opposite wall reflected.
And here are the small gardens and pool at Pubol. Compare to the fantastical setting at Portlligat with snakes and Michelin men. The elephant, though, there are several of these statues in a small hedge garden at the castle. I really like these elephants, and posted a photo of this recurring Dali image from the jewelry gallery at the Figueres theater museum from our visit there.
And now … though this post is getting rather lengthy (… to complete the parallel to my original "Museums of the Masters" post from 2011) I present some photos from another Gaudi museum we visited during our one day back in Barcelona. We were quite excited to discover there was another museum here, having visited the Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell, the Batllo and the Pedrera last time. We stumbled across the Palau Guell because it was right down the street from our hotel, just a couple blocks from the Ramblas. Stumbling across things is always a bit more exciting than visiting something already on an itinerary.
The “palace” was begun in 1886 and finished in 1890. Like all of Gaudi’s architectural works, it seems to me much more modern than that. According to the brochure (yes, I started picking them up again), "It is the only example of domestic architecture that Gaudi completed and that has not undergone significant alteration." I really appreciated my wide-angle lens here at Palau Guell to capture some of the interior settings. The first is inside underground caverns that were used as stables.
Inside this large atrium-like room shown in the first photo below, was an impressive organ which regaled the throngs of visitors at regular intervals with a song that reverberated throughout this room and around the many-leveled house. I didn’t realize, actually, how many levels there were until I walked down the stairs all the way from the roof to the ground level!
And now, what I think is the crown jewel of features Gaudi designed into the homes he was commissioned for – the rooftop. These are always magical places with fairy cones and sculptures.
And it’s amusing to me that these imaginative rooftops look down onto the most ordinary of courtyards … in contrast they seem almost appallingly plain ... apartment buildings with laundry drying on the balconies.
To think that just above their heads lies such an opulence of imagination and creativity. I do wonder, though, if the blessed inhabitants of the Gaudi-designed homes utilized their magical rooftops for such mundane tasks as drying laundry.
OK, my dear viewers, I leave you here … having glimpsed some more Gaudi and completed the Dali Triangle.
Please note another warning on the ensuing content -- lots of indigenous nudity, so if that offends you, please do not proceed.
The coolest thing I saw in all of Namibia was the scene at a gas station we stopped at in Opuwo on the way to Epupa Falls in Kaokoland. The primary traditional tribe in this region is the Himba, but others make their home here as well. We all got out of the vehicle to stretch our legs. While our guide was dealing with filling the gas tank and buying supplies at a convenience store, and most of the others were conversing with a hawker who sold necklaces to the few tourists who stopped into the gas station, I was fascinated with the scene around me and stood silently, almost invisible, against one of the gas pumps, where no one paid any attention to me. It was not a place where it would be appropriate to take photos, so I have none. But I’ll never forget it because I’ve never seen anything like it – such a mixing and amiable mingling of people dressing according to their traditional culture and ones adopting completely Western attire. Typically this choice of fashion is indicative of an overall mindset, and Western and traditional don’t always mix so well. But walking in and out of this small grocery store at the gas station were (a) barefoot Himba people in completely traditional dress with their red-ocher skin and elaborate hairstyles; (b) people from the Herero tribe whose traditional dress was clearly colorful fabric and large cloth hats in the shape of bullhorns or a banana – one woman got into her little pickup truck and her hat was so wide that the tip stuck well out of her window, she tried to roll it up but could not proceed beyond her hat; (c) people of an Angolan tribe (we were very near the border) with long hair separated into many narrow braids; (d) native people dressed completely in Western garb with shorts or jeans, a shirt and shoes, and close-cropped unremarkable hairstyles; and (e) a sprinkle of white people, which at that time was only our own small crew of seven. It was truly a glorious cultural mixing pot. I was so enthralled with that scene I really hated to get back in the truck and leave.
Before I left for Namibia, in a conversation with my friend, Laura, a regular traveler to Africa, I had just returned from Iran and was soon to leave for Namibia, and I was talking about the discomfort of having to be so covered up in Iran with the long pants, long-sleeved shirt and headscarf and how other women wore a full black chador; Laura said, “And when you go to Namibia, women will be pushing shopping carts around topless.” Indeed, having visited these two countries back to back was quite hilarious to witness the difference in women’s “modesty.” This is precisely why I am passionate about traveling the world … the differences among both geography and humanity are so monumental, so fascinating, so stunning in their polarity, I simply can’t bear not to discover and witness them myself.
But the traditional cultures in Namibia are at a crossroads -- with tradition on one side and modernization, which in my opinion is basically synonymous with homogeneity, on the other. Both the Himba and the San can earn a living by showing their traditions to tourists … as I showed in my post about the San living museum, and we were in Kaokoland to photograph the Himba – this is accomplished by finding someone who knows a local chief and can strike a deal in which the tourists bring specified gifts in return for being allowed into that clan’s kraal to photograph the people inside as they basically just go about their daily chores. So it’s different than the living museum the San have created. Nonetheless, in my opinion, these opportunities are valuable to the locals. They provide desperately needed income in endemically impoverished regions, and I think there is inherent value in preserving traditions even if they eventually become only for show, this is better than losing them altogether. At this unique moment in time, the Himba who choose to keep the traditional lifestyle are doing so for themselves, their own free choice of lifestyle which they simply allow visitors to glimpse.
It’s hard to know how to feel about this crossroads … how to give people on each side their rights and dignity, and my respect and support. Right or wrong, I admit my prejudice against the shedding of traditional culture. So you will nearly always find me enthusiastically portraying the traditional, though occasionally I turn perhaps hypocritical in disagreeing with some customs I find intolerably barbaric.
Anyhoo … let’s get on with some illustrations of the different lifestyles the Himba engage in. First, the traditional – where we were allowed inside one clan’s kraal. We had a translator, a local Himba lady who no longer lives in a kraal or dresses traditionally, and works in the local tourist industry (in a hotel and as a translator/guide). As we walked around, she explained to us what we were witnessing, so we weren’t just stumbling ignorantly around the kraal, which is good because it was important to know, for one thing, not to step over a fire – they’re sacred to the Himba.
The first people we met were the chief and the eldest of his three wives. The chief was basking in the sun in a chair, and his wife was weaving a small basket from dried grass. Notice her elaborate hairdo. The long clay-packed braids with the tufts of hair at the bottom are part of every woman’s hairdo, but the rest of it, the formations on top of their head, are designed by each individual according to their fancy as they grow older. Really fascinating.
This gal was making a porridge with mealie, a type of corn flour, over a fire. The flour is one of the gifts we brought, along with Vaseline … in the past the Himba used a natural emollient to mix with the red clay to make their skin coating … that beautiful red coating that makes their skin look like silk. Now, it’s easier just to mix in Vaseline.
Here you can kind of see the elaborate nature of the women’s skirts. They’re made of stiff, hardened cow hide shaped into various patterns. They don’t really look that comfortable, actually, even though they are beautiful. But then, these are people who sleep on hardened cow hide mats rather than soft hide mats, and instead of pillows, rest their head at night on wooden neck rests. So I guess they have a different definition of comfort.
This is one of the daughters of the chief – everyone refers to her as a “princess.” Certainly an exquisite girl. These aren’t the best pics of her, I had amateur problems dealing with the lighting. But you get the idea how stunning she is. I have a string of photos of her when she's outside, looking askance one direction or another. It startled me to find the shot, second below, of the princess suddenly looking toward the camera for one frame in the middle of the series. In the bottom photo, she is sitting inside her hut.
And I totally adore the men’s traditional hairstyle. In the second photo, you can see they even make little caps for their braids. Ran into those chaps while in the “modern” village and the fellow in the first photo we met inside the traditional kraal. The other guy featured doesn’t have the traditional ‘do, but I loved his smile and friendly disposition.
And of course, the children … how dear they are. I don’t have much in particular to say about them, so I’ll simply present a bunch of pics for you. The first photo, though, does particularly amuse me, because somehow to me these kids in this pose look like they are a superhero team of veteran hero and sidekick, like a Batman and Robin … having just thwarted some evil plot and now looking off into the distance scanning the horizon for the next villain to vanquish.
I don’t know why this photo turned out so grainy, but in any case, I love it. A Himba kid inside the traditional kraal to whom I gave my sunglasses to try on ... just looks like such a badass.
So at this crossroads in time and choice of lifestyle, it was encouraging to see children on both sides playing together. The people who have crossed the tracks and live now on the other side, outside a traditional kraal, dressed in Western clothing, still live nearby (they haven't all just moved to cities). In this case, there is a village right next to the small swath of tourist lodges along the edge of the Kunene River at Epupa Falls. We couldn't go back to the traditional kraal in the afternoon, which disappointed me, so our guide arranged for a local to take me and a couple others for a walk through this "modern" village nearby, where the children were at first willing to be in front of the camera lens, but soon were all-out clamoring for the attention.
This girl in the foreground, below, floored me with her poise and beauty in this shot, for such a young child. At first she seemed a little shy, her smile reserved, until her mom asked me to take a photo of them together, and then she opened up a generous smile. Her little pal was quite the silly jokester. Nearly every photo I have of the girl in the background, she is making some silly or hilarious face ... this (and the photo above) were her few calm moments.
But now comes the conundrum of the crossroads, something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. The first time I really confronted the issue was when I read Vine DeLoria’s book, The Noble Savage. It shocked and disillusioned me … my own sense of what I thought was right -- my sense that tradition trumped everything, its cultural value surpassed the value of everything else. As a general rule, my travel blog is for sharing what I see and hear (learn) while traveling, not for long discourses on cultural and anthropological theories or the complexities of wildlife and habitat conservation. But they are topics of interest to me. So let’s just stick to the visual presentation. I'll comment only that I personally found it hard to appreciate the "modern" village as much as the traditional kraal.
First, here are a couple domestic animals we ran into … a pig at the water’s edge, and a photo I just really love of a lone chicken strolling down the road (rather than across it). Does anyone ever ask why the chicken walked down the road?
This is a scene from the non-traditional village. In the second photo, if you can’t quite make it out, the mound beside the trash can is a mound of beer bottles.
These people offered us a drink of their homemade liquor. “Take just a tiny sip,” the guide said. At first I thought he said that for my own benefit because it was strong; later I considered it was probably because it might have been rude to drink too much of their hooch which had been offered for free. It tasted better than I thought it would.
Our local guide told me alcoholism is a big problem for Himba people who leave their traditional kraals. One unfortunate upshot, for example, is that crocodiles live on the banks of the Kunene River and he said it’s not uncommon for locals to get eaten because they’re so drunk they do ridiculously dumb things like try to swim across the river, or they fall out of their canoes because they’re too drunk to paddle. Why more of a problem for those who leave the traditional setting? Largely because of unemployment. Once they leave their traditional lifestyle of keeping livestock, they don't always find something else to do, so I guess boredom comes into play.
The marula tree grows across southern Africa and the fruit is often made into liquor. In fact, my favorite liquor in the whole world is amarula made in South Africa. It's a cream liqueur and delicious on ice or poured on ice cream! Anyway, I've even heard of animals getting drunk from eating overly ripe marula fruit. The local fellow told me that the Himba use marula oil (made from the fruit seeds) when pregnant women are not feeling well or worry they might be having problems with their baby ... they rub the oil on her stomach.
The woman below is not Himba, she’s from an Angolan tribe; and the man below was very accommodating when we asked to take his picture. I just love friendly people. Should I ever run into you on the street and you ask to take my picture, though it wouldn’t make a good one, I will always agree. :)
So my visit to the Himba culture, both traditional and changing, was brief, but it was an experience I'll never forget. The primary reason I wanted to go to Namibia was on account of the traditional cultures still existing. That ended up in meeting the Himba and the San. Originally I had thought to make this post about both Himba and San "at the crossroads" because the San of course are dealing with change, as well. But I think that would make this post overwhelming ... there are already 34 photos! So will save that bit for another time.