Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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The saints go marching..

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Colourful symbolic structures at Santeria centre in Havana.

Like its Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico neighbours Cuba is a fusion of races and cultures,  an exotic mix of the descendants of Spanish colonisers, West African slaves and indigenous Taino-Arawak Indians. Out of this melange has come a religion particular to the West African descendant  of the Caribbean, especially Cuba, known as Santeria .

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Vibrant artwork welcomes visitors to Santeria centre in Havana. 

In Spanish Santeria means “worship of saints” and reflects the way in which the religion’s adherents, many tracing back to the Yoruba people from Nigeria, masked their beliefs by adopting the worship of Roman  Catholic saints to represent their own gods, or orishas, to preserve their traditions in the face of enforced baptism.  Customs brought from Africa included trance states and divination to make contact with ancestors; animal sacrifice; and sacred drumming and dance. Aspects of the indigenous Taino people’s beliefs that included ideas of ancestor worship and an afterlife also went into the mix.

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Ellegua – an Orisha, or god –  of Santeria, whose saintly alternative is St Michael.

Santeria initiates, notoriously camera-shy, are easy to spot around town as they must dress in all-white garb, for purity, for at least their first year. There are also ceremonial occasions when white must be worn. In Havana we visited a Santeria centre in Vedado, near the historical old city centre, which promotes understanding of the religion and offers tours to nearby locations of religious significance. They included a park with a ancient tree used in ceremonies and a old two-storied colonial building where religious services are held. Our guide was a young man immaculately dressed in white who told us how Santeria had saved his life by putting him on the right track when he was headed for a future of drugs and crime.

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Santeria initiate in her white attire emphasising purity. 

The experience was fascinating, but challenging for us squeamish Westerners with the sounds of strangled chicken squawks emanating from various rooms in the house and corner shrines displaying obvious signs of dried blood and feathers. It reminded me a bit of the  priestess Minerva and her mysterious voodoo practices in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

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Saintly connections in the Santeria House.

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Altars in the Santeria house – not for the squeamish.  


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Mayan mysteries

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The Jungle site of Palenque.

Every July the excellent University of the Third Age, which works to make sure we “third agers” don’t lose our marbles too quickly, puts on a Winter School series of lectures. One in the current series was particularly timely for me: the legacy of the Aztecs and Mayans. With my recent adventures in Mesoamerica still fresh a blog post on the marvellous Mayans was to be next cab off the rank so a refresher on their cultural achievements was welcome.

The Mayans have suffered a long-term image problem not helped by Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto. Yes, they were fierce warriors and their practices included human sacrifices, but they were also sophisticated craftspeople, gifted mathematicians, brilliant astronomers, and wily merchants who enjoyed a well-developed cultural life. Our lecturer described them as the Greeks of the Americas. They had a written language and books. At its zenith, in the classic period from around 300 to 900 AD, Mayan civilisation consisted of about 50 city states with several million citizens across today’s Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize.

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Aspects of the Uxmal site, near Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula. 

The Mayans had a sophisticated lifestyle. They bathed frequently, up to four times a day, and were very into body decoration including paint and tattooing. Women played an important role in society. Flattened heads and foreheads, and cross eyes, were regarded as signs of beauty. Apparently to achieve the cross eyes a stone would be tied around a baby’s forehead so that it hung in front of the eyes, thus encouraging the infant to look cross-eyed at the bauble. Mmmm….

In their busy economic lives the Mayans used contracts and credit and extended loans to clients in trading deals. They had a currency system. They presided over a healthy trade in salt, quetal feathers, obsidian, cotton, textiles, vanilla and high quality clay. It’s from the Mayans that we have the words chocolate – from chocol’ha – and cacao – from ka’kau’. Jade was prized.  They used chewing gum.

Religion, based on their highly developed astronomy skills, played an all-encompassing role in Mayan culture and daily life. Their skills in mathematics enabled the development of astronomy. As early as the first century BC they had developed the concept of zero, and evidence exists of their working in sums to the hundreds of millions and producing accurate astronomical observations using no instruments other than sticks. They were able to measure the length of the solar year to a high level of accuracy.

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The amazing observatory at Chichen Itza.

Earlier this year a 15-year-old Canadian schoolboy used the Mayan astrological charts to pinpoint a hidden temple complex in the Yucatan jungle he named K’aak Chi, or Mouth of Fire.  William Gadoury from Quebec studied the astrological charts as well as satellite photos to locate the city after devising a theory that the Mayans built their cities so they lined up with star constellations.

All this Mayan collective cultural memory and invaluable knowledge went up in flames on when the Spanish Fransciscian priest Diego de Landa destroyed their books on the Night of the Fires in the late 1590s in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Only four original Maya books, or codices, survive. The full extent of Mayan knowledge is hard to determine because of this thorough destruction.

An interesting – and obvious – point made by our presenter was that the Mayans, an estimated six million, are still with us today, happily represented by the colourful folk busily selling their craft wares in markets across the region. Or just ordinary citizens living their everyday lives in these countries. The Mayan language is the basis of many of the more-than 40 dialects spoken as first languages across Mexico, one of the hurdles that has to be jumped to bring universal education across the country.

Our travels through Mexico took us to Mayan sites in Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, a Yucatan Peninsula sites in the jungle at Palenque, and the amazing Chichen Itza, thought to have been the centre of the Mayan empire.

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Views of Chichen Itza, thought to be have been the centre of the Mayan Empire, one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico. 


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That sinking feeling

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Getting a lean on…the old Guadeloupe Basilica split in two. 

There’s an irony in the subject of Mexico City’s water supply. Consider: the city was constructed directly over the old Aztec City of Tenochtitlan which was built in the middle of a lake and known as the Venice of the New World. It was famous for its rich and highly productive floating gardens. Come the Conquistadors and the lake was drained, the lacustrine wonderland destroyed. Water was then pumped from underground aquifers.

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Listing a little, the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption.

Fast forward a few centuries and Mexico City has become one of the thirstiest cities in the world, its 21 million residents guzzling their way through  hundreds of billions of litres a year, 70 percent sourced from the subterranean sources.  But the water is not being replaced at the same rate as it is being extracted leaving the city with a significant subsidence problem, dropping a reported 9 m in the past 60 or so years.  Historic buildings in the city centre, such as the huge, more than 500-year-old, Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption, are listing and others, including the old Guadeloupe Basilica, have actually split apart. Standing inside the monumental building is an unsettling feeling, the floor beneath on a distinct incline.

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Mexico City’s location in a volcanic zone and on an earthquake fault line does not help, especially by damaging the  aging pipelines. Water is now being pumped from disputed sources over 100 km away, angering the indigenous land owners who complain that their resources are being depleted while they are denied reliable supplies.  And local households and businesses  must contend with erratic services and soaring prices . Of course, there are those who profit greatly from the premium placed on supply. Water trucks, bottled water manufactures, bottled water deliveries and public pay flush toilets, or banos, are some of the businesses which cater to fill the demand.   During our week-long stay we experienced a 24-hour loss of supply resulting in a water truck replenishing our hotel in the middle of the night. Apparently water outages are commonplace, as are sewerage problems. Maybe time to consult Tlaloc, the Aztec god of water, rain and lightning on how to how to return to the good old days?

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Nice little earner…pay-as-you-go WC.

Pay as you go WCs.


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Days in the museums

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Dragon robe from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Visiting New York’s galleries and museums is like visiting New York itself. No matter how many you take in there are always more. Three luxurious weeks allows for a lot of art and culture viewing but with 500 galleries and dozens of museums New York challenges the most ardent enthusiast. We managed about 12, every one edifying. There were the unmissables such as MOMA, the Met and the Guggenheim, all of which I had visited on my previous Big Apple sojourn. Newcomers on my list included the Whitney specialising in American art; Neue Galeries, displaying early 20th Century German and Austrian art and design; and the Rubin, featuring the art of the Himalayas, India and neighbouring countries; and the Frick.

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Carved Chinese red and black lacquer box, late 14th C. 

The Met, sitting imperiously on Fifth Avenue and backing onto Central Park, is a serious day’s – or more – work so I chose a section of personal interest, Asian art. Ceramic and lacquerware figure prominently, along with textiles, the sophistication of artists centuries ago always astonishing. It’s fascinating, too, to see how the precious artworks of the Far East, carried by the traders along the Silk Road, influenced the masterpieces of their Middle Eastern and Western counterparts.

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Edo Period (1615-1868) porcelain with celedon glaze Hizen ware.

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8th C. Chinese earthenware with black glaze. 

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Korean mid-18th C. porcelain with underglaze copper-red design.

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15th C. Italian earthenware with two-tailed lion and…

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..from the 9th-10th C. Persian Abbasid earthenware.  

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Modern-day Japanese stoneware (above and below).

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New York is truly Picasso Heaven with many works in permanent collections and special exhibitions cropping up. Picasso was probably the most prolific artist of all time, no doubt helped by a career spanning 75-years and covering such a wide range of media – painting, sculpting, printmaking, ceramics, stage designing. Oh, and a bit of poetry and play writing thrown in. On my previous New York visit the Guggenheim was showing an exhibition of Picasso’s black-and-white paintings, including some depicting the politically inspired Guernica theme.  On our most recent visit we were treated to an extensive collection of his sculpture works, at the Museum of Modern Art. I have to admit some of the pieces reminded me a bit of Michael Leunig’s cartoons!

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Modern American art is the specialty of The Whitney, a striking structure designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, and sitting alongside the High Line overlooking the Hudson River.  The feature exhibition during our visit was the works of Jazz Age modernist Archibald Motley, a trendsetting African American with an eye for interpreting the mores of African American class structures as well as life in the Jazz Age. A scholarship to study art in Paris, where many African American artists made their home at the time, gave him the opportunity to depict that experience on canvas.

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On a 2006 trip to Vienna I visited the Belvedere, mandatory for any art-interested tourist in that city, to see Gustav Klimpt’s Woman in Gold painting, regarded then by Austria as one of its most significant treasures.  Shortly after the famous court case, recounted in the recent film starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, niece of the painting’s subject Adele Bloch-Bauer, returned the Nazi-confiscated masterpiece and others to the rightful heirs. The stunning piece was subsequently sold to Ronald S. Lauder, of the Estee Lauder family, and it now sits in their Fifth Avenue Neue Galerie. Photography of the real artworks was not permitted but the results of an assignment by Viennese 10-to-14-year-olds asked to imagine Adele’s life in America did the trick photographically.

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Only in New York

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The One World building

The popularity of the US as destination for Aussies has been rocketing for a decade or more, doubling from the noughties, with one recent survey putting the Big Apple as our second most popular destination worldwide. So far the falling oil price and airfares seem to be counterbalancing our tanking dollar but I was glad to squeeze in my second visit while I could afford to. The thing is, with perhaps the world’s greatest selection of attractions on offer, New York is a destination that no matter how many visits you’d always feel the need to go back one more time….

My particular bites of the Big Apple included art, architecture, music, history, park visiting,  celerity spotting, general people and passing parade watching, and a bit of shopping (or quite a bit).

Will I go back? Never say “never”.

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Chelsea Market district; Guggenheim Museum. 

Celebrity locals. 

The feared NYPD Blue; captive Halloween pumpkins.