Australian Armageddon

We’ve had several friends email us about Australia’s reputation for deadly life forms.  With the exception of certain television nature adventurers who have made a habit of pestering Australian critters into a frenzy to prove how aggressive they are, Australians don’t really make a big deal about the natural world that menaces them from all sides.  In my last post I mentioned the box jellyfish, the danger of which Australians downplay by referring to them as ‘stingers.’  It is true that Queenslanders avoid swimming in the northern beaches during stinger season, but unlike me, they don’t seem to see it as cosmically unfair that they can’t swim in the world’s most beautiful waters because of a damn jellyfish.


Stinger net - Palm Cove Beach

Stinger net – Palm Cove Beach

Australia is well known for its array of weird and venomous reptiles.  I’ll begin with a few that pose relatively little threat to humans.  It’s not uncommon to see a five-foot-long monitor lizard slither across rainforest roads.  Lois and I have seen two or three.

Lace Monitor we saw near the beach at Mooloolaba

Small Lace Monitor We Saw Near the Beach at Mooloolaba

Although this isn't my photo, this is what they look like when they grow up

Not my photo, but this is what they look like when they grow up

We recently traveled 1000 miles south of Cairns down the Australian coast to a beautiful home where we are now staying in Buderim (to pronounce this, think of what you’d do to a stack of pancakes).  It’s about an hour north of Brisbane.  In a note about various features of the property, the owner informed us casually that a dragon roamed the front garden area of the house.  This is a two-foot long prehistoric looking creature that tends to lounge around on tree branches — a water dragon.  Although I’m informed that neither the monitor lizard nor the water dragon is venomous, neither is likely to be a popular attraction at a petting zoo either.

Eastern Water Dragon

Not our photo — we haven’t spotted him yet.

Another non-venomous reptile that inhabits the Australian rainforest is the tree python.  It frequently snoozes in basket ferns, which often encircle the trunks high up in palm trees.  Experts insist that, although it is a constrictor, it’s not large enough to pose a danger to humans.  Of course that’s not considering the number of heart attack deaths suffered by coconut harvesters who ascend a tree and unexpectedly discover a tree python draped around their throats.  By the way, the home where we are staying in Buderim comes with an adorable little Pomeranian, and when we asked the owners whether the dog should be allowed out to roam around the grounds at night, they advised us to look carefully in the branches of the trees on the property.  We did; and we found two snakeskins draped over the branches of a tree near the pool, one of them over six-feet long.  We’re thinking about using them in place of tinsel on our Christmas tree.


Snakeskin in a tree at our place in Buderim

Of course, then there is the highly publicized matter of Australia’s venomous snakes.  The majority of Australia’s snake species are poisonous.  In fact, the six species of snake with the most deadly venom in the world are all found in Australia.  We were at Daintree National Park in northern Queensland, the world’s oldest rainforest, when the person at the desk mentioned casually that a venomous snake had just honored them by coiling up just outside the entryway to the Visitor Center.  She offered to show us.  We took her up on her offer, and sure enough a deadly red-bellied black snake was coiled tranquilly in the flowerbed.  Having worked for a few years as a park ranger, I found this astonishing.  In the U.S., park administrators would find this absolutely unacceptable.  Every day thousands of people walk within six feet of this poisonous reptile, which could easily spring from its lair among the peace lillies and fasten its fangs on the jugular of an innocent, paying park visitor. Not that park administrators would worry too much about the victim; it’s the lawsuits that would concern them.  When I asked the Daintree park employee whether she was at all bothered by the proximity of the deadly snake to so many park visitors, she said, “Nobody would ever look to see that it’s there.  Besides it’s only the 20th most venomous snake in the world……no worries.”

Red-bellied Black Snake

Again, not my photo

Speaking of poisonous venom, in Australia it’s not confined to the animal kingdom.  In many Queensland rainforest parks there are signs posted warning about the “stinging tree” whose leaves look very much like our stinging nettle; it’s just that they deliver an excruciating venom which has caused fatalities for humans and even horses, and for which there is no known antidote.  Like so many Australian species names, the name ‘stinging tree’ simply does not do this organism justice.  Contact with this tree doesn’t simply ‘sting.’  It delivers a neuro-toxin that can convert the affected area into a red, swollen mass that remains intensely painful for months, if you’re fortunate enough to live that long.  Some of Australia’s plants seem downright evil.  Take, for example, the strangler fig.  A fig seed is dropped by some creature onto a branch of, let’s say, a beautiful mahogany tree.  The fig seed then sends long roots down to the ground to root itself.  The roots eventually proliferate until the mahogany tree is completely covered with the fig roots, which show their gratitude to the gracious host mahogany tree by choking it out, depriving its leaves of sunlight.  The host tree for the strangler fig in this photo is long dead and disintegrated.  All that remains is the strangler fig.

Strangler Fig Tree

Strangler Fig Tree

Then of course there are the carnivorous plants; Australia has nearly 200 species of them.  There’s the cheerily named ‘sundew’ whose tiny tentacles secrete a sticky goo that traps insects, which are then slowly digested.  The elegant Australian pitcher plant features a slippery flower spout leading to a deep pocket with a pool of water that drowns the insect. Fun.

Sundew(not my photo)

(not my photo)

Australia has such unique life forms because it is an island that has been separated from the other continents for so long (geologically speaking) that in many ways it has taken its own evolutionary path.  The platypus is a good example of this.  A bizarre creature that looks like a combination of a beaver and a duck, it’s one of the few animals that lays eggs and suckles its young.

Platypus(Not my photo- these guys are difficult to spot)

(Not my photo- these guys are difficult to spot)

Given that it’s an Australian life form, it goes without saying that it has venomous stingers on its hind feet that can cause humans extreme pain.  In fact, it’s one of the few venomous mammals in the world.  It is such an odd creature that in the late 18th Century, even after an Australian governor sent a platypus carcass to England, British zoologists still considered it a hoax.  Of course, fun-loving Australians have been known to capitalize on the reputation of their country for weird and dangerous critters by perpetrating hoaxes.  Currently a myth is circulating about bloodthirsty koalas (called ‘drop bears’) that leap out of eucalyptus trees devouring unsuspecting American tourists.  Even the Australian Museum seems to be complicit in perpetuating this hoax, proving that scientists can actually have a sense of humor.

For these reasons, I had doubts when I started seeing signs in the Daintree rainforest warning of the presence of a creature I’d never heard of — the cassowary, allegedly a flightless, human-sized bird that regularly crossed rainforest roads.  As a young boy scout I’d been duped into participating in snipe hunts, and besides, the road signs made the cassowary look suspiciously like Big Bird.

Cassowary sign

Cassowary sign

So I wasn’t having any of it – until Lois and I hiked a very overgrown trail to see some particularly large rainforest trees, and returned to the car with a kilo or so of cassowary dung dripping from the soles of our shoes.  We still haven’t seen one of these giant birds, despite looking carefully along rainforest creek beds, but now I realize that the spiritualists are right.  Sometimes you just have to have faith in that which you can’t see – especially if you’ve had an excremental experience.

Sculpture of the elusive cassowary

Sculpture of the elusive cassowary

By the way, we learned that female cassowaries are quite a bit larger than the males, and after laying the eggs they abandon the nest, leaving the males to nurture the chicks while the females go off to seek new sexual adventures.  Lois delights in this example of gender role reversal just enough to make me a tad uncomfortable.  So from now on she gets to kill the giant tropical cockroaches in the bathroom at night.

As the sun sets on the Cairns Harbor each evening, a cacaphony of piercing shrieks erupts from several of the larger trees flanking the harbor promenade.  The sound is made by a swarm of black flying foxes.  Although when they take to the air, they are thought by most people strolling along the boardwalk to be a flock of large ravens, they are actually a form of “megabat” whose closest relative is a species scientists call pteropus vampyrus.  (See below for a photo of this bat that appeared in my post on Bali.)  I’m convinced that if word got out that these winged creatures swooping overhead were actually bats with a wingspan of over four feet, the Cairns Harbor promenade would be pretty much tourist free by 5 p.m.

Black Flying Fox(Also called "Fruit Bat")

Black Flying Fox
(Also called “Fruit Bat”)

The animal we most associate with Australia is, of course, the kangaroo.  There are actually many types of kangaroo in Australia, even one type that, believe it or not, inhabits trees in the rainforests we visited.  Still, Lois and I have seen only one species of kangaroo – wallabies.  They congregate by the hundreds in a field near Cairns. Technically I should say we’ve seen a mob of wallabies.  The official term for any group of kangaroos is “mob,” although you won’t find gangs of kangaroos bounding through the Australian hood roughing up humans.  Like koalas, kangaroos seems to be among the few Australian creatures that lack venomous defense powers. They do, however seem to have a good deal of animosity for Australian SUV’s, into which they hop headlong so frequently that most Australians outfit their SUVs with ‘roo bars.’

Roo Bars

Roo Bars

To return to water creatures for a moment, there’s something I didn’t mention about why Australians are reluctant to go into the water at the beach.  It turns out that it’s not just the stingers.  There is also the matter of the saltwater crocodiles that prowl around the mouths of rivers and in nearby ocean waters.  (By the way, Aussies fondly refer to the twenty-foot long beasts as “salties.”)   This means that even if you don a “stinger suit” and are successful warding off the box jellyfish, you could still be snatched off of your surfboard whilst hanging ten and be torn limb from limb by a prehistoric-sized amphibian.  Something about this just seems excessive to me.

Waiting for Dinner(Not my photo)

Waiting for Dinner
(Not my photo)

For a moment I was tempted into thinking that maybe it’s safer just to swim in rivers where you have only one deadly creature to menace you.  This thought was put right out of my mind, however, when we went on a guided boat tour of the Daintree River, where we spotted two small adult crocodiles (10-12 feet long) as well as a number of their offspring.  (Sorry but the adults didn’t want to be photographed.)

You just know there have got to be crocodiles here.

Tributary of the Daintree River — swimming not advised here.
Baby croc on a tributary of the Daintree River

Baby croc on a tributary of the Daintree River

I was stunned when our guide told us,  “Yeeah, but if ya fell into these watahs, the crocs aren’t even the worst of yuh problems, mite.”

I took the bait.  “OK, what is the worst of your problems, then?”

“It’s the bull shahhks.  They attack in packs…..teah ya to shreds.”

“Bull sharks!!  You’re kidding!  In rivers?  But sharks are ocean dwellers.”

“Naa, not bull shahhks.  They do foine in fresh watah.  They’ll come quoite a waiys up this rivah.”

“How big are they?”

“Aah, in these pahhts, they get to around three, neahly faw meetahs .”

“Four meters….that’s 12 feet long!”

“Yeeah, the bull shahhk is the most aggrissive of all the shahhks.  They saiy it was the inspiraytion for movie Jawrs.”

Bull Shark

Bull Shark — (Not my Photo)

Something seems deeply wrong about all of this, in a biblical sense.  Monstrous, scaly, freshwater creatures invading saltwater habitats; terrifying, toothy saltwater creatures wreaking havoc in freshwater rivers; beavers growing duckbills and laying eggs; gigantic jellyfish herding swimmers on beaches into netted enclosures; megabats the size of eagles taking over the harbors; docile, vegetarian koalas turning into carnivorous man-eaters; plants strangling each other; mobs of kangaroos hurling themselves into oncoming traffic.  I even noticed the other day that the water is going down the drain backwards.  Figuring it was time to schedule a flight out of this place, I checked the cool calendar on the personal digital organizer I found a few years back in our travels through the ancient city of Tulum in southern Mexico, but the calendar seems to end two weeks from Friday.


The northeastern coastline of Australia in Queensland is stunning, the beautiful blue-green Coral Sea lapping gently onto curving white-sand beaches shaded by graceful palms bordering dense rainforests that climb the mountains as they rise above the sea.  The water here at 18 degrees south of the equator is 83°F, and it absolutely begs you to plunge in….. well, not so fast.

Lois and I had encountered an Australian couple in Assisi (Italy) who had mentioned that on the beaches of northern Queensland, one does have to be careful to avoid “stingers.”  Gradually we realized that these were neither bees, scorpions, nor scam artists, but rather jellyfish, and not just any jellyfish, but a special species called box jellyfish that inhabits these waters.  I’d already received a pair of four-inch-long vertical jellyfish tattoos on my torso while snorkeling near Menjangan Island off of the northwest coast of Bali.

Jellyfish Food

So, shortly after our arrival in Australia, we drove to the tourist information office to get advice about the location of the best and safest swimming beaches. The tourist office was near a beautiful promenade on the Cairns Harbor.

At Cairns Harbor — There are some really beautiful women in Australia.

Outside of the office a man was giving advice to inquiring tourists.  When we asked him about stingers, he said that sections of most public beaches have stinger nets that keep the jellyfish out.  Then he looked us over carefully and said, “No worries…..the loikes of you should be ible to swim anywheah.  Yer in foine shipe.  Yeea, it moight be the most excruciatin’ paine yuv evah felt, and occayysionally some overwight, retired bloke gets nicked by one of the buggahs and drops dead of cahdiac arrest on the spot, but the two of you should be foine.”

Our confidence renewed, we drove to a beach about an hour north of Cairns in Port Douglas called Four Mile Beach, a long, gorgeous crescent of white-sand paradise.

Four Mile Beach

The approach to the beach was posted with stinger warning signs showing a crude depiction of a jellyfish the size of a giant squid wrapping its tentacles around the thighs of a suitably horrified, unsuspecting bather.  One helpful guidebook advises what to do if attacked by one of these creatures: “Do not attempt to remove the tentacles.”  So I guess they leave the tentacles (which are up to 10 feet long) dangling from your sorry ass as a sort of souvenir of your visit.  Underneath each stinger-warning sign at the beach was a bottle of vinegar.  Apparently even severed stinger tentacles will continue injecting agonizing toxins into your nervous system unless you pickle the damn things.  What to do if you can’t find a handy container of vinegar?  Locals suggest that you have a buddy urinate on the affected area.  The only drawback to this is that scientific studies show that urination has absolutely no beneficial effect on the victim of box jellyfish stings and may actually exacerbate the pain, in which case you suffer not only greater agony from the sting, but also the humiliation of having been pissed on.

Although Four Mile Beach is nearly as long as its name suggests, not a soul entered the water anywhere except for the 50 x 50 meter area bordered by the stinger net.  I have to admit, I was disappointed.  This is the land of Crocodile Dundee and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.  You’d think that there must be at least someone out there with the gumption to do a little stinger wrasslin’….. especially after a few beers.  By the way, I forgot to mention that box jellyfish are transparent and therefore pretty much invisible.  OK, so maybe more than just a few beers.

To Jerry, on the Total Solar Eclipse, Australia, 2012

One of our most dear friends was Jerry Waxman.  Jerry was a colleague I taught with at Santa Rosa Junior College for many years.  He and I worked hard together to create an environmental studies program at the college; we also team-taught a class in environmental studies called Thinking Like a Mountain.   Actually though, Jerry was more renowned at Santa Rosa Junior College as an astronomy instructor.  He was a passionate and charismatic professor as well as a loving human being who seemed to attract devoted friends like a heavenly body.  He was a lover of the stars and the San Francisco Giants.  He had a wonderfully mischievous sense of humor.  When we would teach environmental studies together he would sometimes say things to the class that he knew would provoke and annoy me as a philosopher because, well….he thought it was fun.

Jerry Waxman, speaking at our wedding

Jerry left us far too young in 2009, after a long battle with a degenerative disease related to Parkinson’s.  Jerry especially loved the constellation Orion, and his family had a star in that constellation named after him.  I don’t know whether Jerry would approve, but I still have conversations with him when I see Orion in the sky.

Jerry had made it clear to all of his friends (and students) that at some point in their lives, they absolutely had to see a total eclipse of the sun.   He referred to it in ways I’ve heard mystical experiences described.  He said, it could not be described in words.  It could not even be understood through photographs or videos.  It simply has to be experienced.

The first itinerary that Lois and I put together for our year abroad did not include Australia.  Then Lois discovered that on the 14th of November, 2012, there would be a total eclipse of the sun centered near Cairns (pronounced ‘Cans’) in the northeastern tip of Australia (northern Queensland), and we immediately changed our plans… honor of Jerry.

There’s often great interest among Australians in spending time in Lake Tahoe, and we found a couple with a beautiful home just outside of Cairns, which they were interested in exchanging for our Tahoe place.  We arrived only a couple of days before the eclipse and immediately began researching prime viewing spots as well as weather prospects.  Cairns is in a gorgeous tropical location, bordered by the Pacific to the east and dense mountain rainforests to the west.  We arrived just as the rainy season was starting in earnest.  There was intermittent rain in Cairns when we arrived on Monday as well as the following day.  Weather forecasts called for more of the same for Wednesday, the day of the eclipse.  Jerry’s advice for viewing a solar eclipse had been to get to a mountaintop with a 360-degree view so that you can see not only the sun, but also the eclipse shadow as it races toward you at over 1000 miles per hour from the west.  Unfortunately, the mountains of coastal Queensland, although quite high, are covered with rainforests and are typically cloudier and rainier than Cairns – very risky for eclipse viewing.

The day before the eclipse we decided to scout out the territory in the rain shadow to the west of those mountains in order to find a clearer viewing sky.  West of the rainforests the terrain in Queensland certainly became drier, but we could see that the high coastal mountains that loomed to the east were covered with an apparently permanent mantle of high clouds, and would definitely eclipse our view of the eclipse, which was to take place shortly after sunrise when the sun was only 14 degrees above the eastern horizon.   So we continued even farther west, but the roads hugged the valley floors and were rimmed by mountainous terrain.  The territory was so remote that there were no side roads leading to the tops of mountains for broader vistas, and we were not inclined to set out on foot for the mountaintops in the pre-dawn darkness, given the reputation of the Australian outback as the habitat for the most lethal critters on earth.  We had driven for two hours before we found a place where the eastern mountains were distant enough and the road elevated enough to afford a possible view of the eclipse, depending upon how far away from due east the sun would rise the next day.   Still, scattered clouds hung in the sky despite the drier climate.

So we drove all the way back to the coast just north of our home near Cairns to check out the beaches as possible viewing sites.  The sky was still somewhat cloudy, but clearer than it had been in the mountain rainforests.   The scattered clouds were not much more prominent than they had been inland, and at least there was open sky all the way to the horizon.  Still, although forecasters were predicting scattered clouds and intermittent showers both on the coast and well inland for the morning of the eclipse, they were of the opinion that cloud clover would be thinner and the probability of precipitation lower inland.   What to do?  We decided to sleep on it.  We packed our eclipse watching gear into a backpack, put together a breakfast, set our alarm for 2 a.m. (in order to score a decent eclipse-watching spot), and went to bed.

We awoke (sort of) at two.  I think I recall wondering out loud as I got out of bed whether we really had to go through all of this just to watch the sky turn dark.  A brief rain shower battered the roof of the house.  This did not bode well.  We dressed, grabbed our stuff and got into the car.  A mile down the road we still hadn’t decided whether to head inland or to the coast.  When the road forced us to make a choice, Lois recommended heading to the coast first and checking out the sky there; this would still leave time to go inland if necessary.  We arrived at Ellis Beach, walked out onto the sand, looked up, and Orion glittered down at us like white gemstones from almost straight above.  I had no idea that Orion would be visible so high in the southern celestial hemisphere.  We stayed – even though there were no stars visible toward the eastern horizon.  It was an act of faith.

At 3 a.m. there were only a few other eclipse watchers visible through the darkness on the beach.  We set out a blanket on the warm, tropical sand, lay on our backs and looked up at the Milky Way flowing from north to south along the crest of the heavens like a sparkling waterfall, brilliant in a sky blackened by a moon as new and dark as it can be.  Spectacular shooting stars darted along the Milky Way.  We saw the Southern Cross for only the third time in our lives, and we were able to get a fairly close fix on the eastern horizon, its stars still obscured by clouds.   I had a silent conversation with Orion.   I later learned that Lois had done the same.

Not long before 5 a.m. the southeastern horizon began to glow a very faint yellow, much farther south of due east than I’d anticipated.  This was not good news because there was a thick band of ominously dark clouds in that part of the sky about 5 degrees above the horizon.

Cloud Band in Sky — Before Sunrise

In the dim light, we now found that we were sharing the beach with hundreds of people who had slipped in during the last couple of hours like apparitions.   At 5:30 the yellow tip of the sun lit up the southeastern horizon, glinting and glittering off the sea right next to the hills of an offshore island.


For the next 15 minutes sunrise was spectacular.  If there had been no eclipse, the sunrise alone would have been worth sacrificing a night’s sleep for.

Island Near the Sun

Although the sun still shone brilliantly, the eclipse was already in progress.  The moon had just begun carving an arc into the top of the sun, although this was only visible through a filter.   By 5:45 the sun had risen high enough to bury itself into the thick cloud bank, the only evidence of its presence an arc of rays reaching out past the clouds toward the eastern horizon.

Sun Moves into Cloud Bank

The large cloud was creeping very slowly from south to north.  Occasionally a small hole in the cloudbank would allow a small patch of sunlight through, but it would quickly pass by, replaced by ever thickening clouds, which obscured almost all signs of the sun at around 5:55.

Sun Completely Obscured by Clouds

The eclipse had been predicted to enter totality at 6:39; totality would last for just over two minutes.  There appeared to be no way the sun would escape the clouds during that time.  Beginning at 6:00 people began leaving the beach, presumably to drive to other beaches where the sun wasn’t obscured.   Lois said they reminded her of fans of the San Francisco Giants who leave in the 7th inning simply because the Giants happen to be losing.  Lois and I had once been with Jerry and his wife Pam in Ashland, Oregon watching a television broadcast of a World Series game between the Giants and the Angels in 2002.  When all the Giants needed to do to win their first World Series since moving to San Francisco was to protect a five-run lead for the last few innings of the game, Lois and I left in order to attend a Shakespeare play.  When we returned from the play, we learned that the Giants had blown the lead and lost the game, eventually going on to lose the whole World Series.  Jerry always blamed that loss on Lois and me.  There was no way we were going to leave the beach.

By 6:20 when I looked at the sky above and the people on the beach, it was as though a grayish film had seeped into the air.

Eclipse Watchers — Getting Dark

The winds began to increase.  (Jerry had mentioned that this is caused by the temperature and pressure differential created by the advancing moon shadow.)  By 6:25 I was feeling profoundly frustrated.  Our main purpose in coming to Australia had been to see this eclipse, and that purpose was being thwarted by a single persistent cloud.   Although Orion had long since faded from view in the morning light, I had one last silent conversation.

By 6:35, four minutes before totality, for no reason whatsoever the thick clouds that had been obscuring the sun started to disperse.   We began to glimpse the sun peaking through gaps in the clouds.

Clouds Breaking Up

Although we hadn’t been able to purchase the special eclipse-viewing glasses, we were able to see the remaining sliver of sun through an equally effective and much more beautiful filtering system – thinning clouds.  With the naked eye we were able to watch the solar crescent diminishing toward totality, which we would not have been able to do if the sky had been clear.

Crescent Sun Filtered through Clouds — Visible with the Naked Eye

The heavens dimmed ominously. At 6:38, miraculously, the clouds let go of the sun, by now nothing more than a thin, smiling arc of light with a small bulge where sunlight passed through a valley on the underside of the moon.  Then suddenly darkness struck, and a collective gasp sounded all along the beach as all solar light disappeared behind the dark perfect circle of the moon except the dancing halo of the sun’s corona and a soft glow low on the eastern horizon.  I had never realized how beautiful and amazing darkness could be.  During the two minutes of totality, most of us on the beach were speechless, with the exception of occasional exclamations of “Oh, my God!” and “Beautiful,” and the sweet sound of Lois’ soft crying.

Jerry had warned us not to look at pictures of totality.  He said they don’t even come close to capturing the experience, yet they give the illusion that you have seen it.  Lois and I had both run camera videos of totality, and Jerry was right.  They did not capture it.  In fact, they distorted it.  I’m following his advice.  You’ll find no photos of the total solar eclipse here.

When I think about our experience, I realize that there are several things we did not see.  We didn’t see the wall of darkness rushing at 1000 mph from the west because our beach only had a view to the east.  Nor did we see any sign of what Jerry called shadow-bands, dizzying bands of light and shadow that sometimes accompany solar eclipses.  What we did experience, though, was a sort of sweet torture, followed by tremendous relief, heart-stopping exhilaration, and a giddy, breathtaking feeling of beauty and wonder.  It was unforgettable.  There is a total solar eclipse in Oregon in August 2017.  We’ll be there.

The San Francisco Giants never won the World Series while Jerry was alive, but since 2010 when he departed for the stars, they’ve won it twice, after playing one cliff-hanging game after another in which they clawed their way back to victory in the final inning or two.   One radio announcer characterized watching the Giants as torture.   This past year the Giants won the championship again against tremendous odds after losing the first two games in a playoff series against the Reds and three of the first four games in the championship series against the Cardinals.  When all hope seemed lost, some sort of spiritual intervention seemed to take place, and they would emerge victorious in glorious fashion.  Watching them play was exhilarating, mesmerizing…and exhausting……like the solar eclipse in Australia, November 2012.

Balinese Religion

**Once again, my apologies for the length of this post.  Feel free to read it in smaller pieces.

People come to Bali for different sorts of reasons — for the beautiful tropical beaches, for world-class surfing, for the amazing snorkeling and diving, for rafting Bali’s dark green rivers or for trekking through rainforests and brilliant green rice fields in the shadow of Bali’s elegant volcanic mountains.  Still, this isn’t what’s unique about Bali; what can be found nowhere else on earth is Balinese culture, and that is mainly what Lois and I came for.  If this is what you want from Bali, you need to stay a bit and settle in.  You need to let go of your desire for the familiar; you need to be able to embrace your own disorientation.  Although there is a very deep sense in which people are the same wherever we go, life feels very different here.

Spiritual practice is deeply woven into everyday life in Bali, far more than anyplace we’ve visited.  Offerings to the gods and divine ancestors are as important a part of life as eating, working and sleeping.  Each day, women in the household sit on the floor creating beautiful arrangements of flowers in small, handmade banana-leaf baskets.  At certain times of the day, the women then dress in traditional sarong and sash, place flowers behind their ears, and set these creations out at various locations around the property as offerings to facilitate life in harmony with the spirit world.  Offerings are usually accompanied by incense, the smoke from which rises up to the gods.  The ritual of placing these offerings is an act of quiet beauty, accompanied by graceful hand movements and the sprinkling of holy water.  The smell of incense is ever present; from now on it will always remind me of Bali.


Offering Placed on Dinner Table

As our host (and mentor) Wayan explained it, the Balinese believe that the divinities give us natural beauty, and we then use nature to create beauty, which we offer in return to the gods.  Wayan sees it as a sacred cycle involving reciprocity and gratitude.  The gods give us rice, fruits, vegetables and meat, and that is the inspiration for the offerings of foods to the god.  The use of holy water represents the cycle of water that begins in the abode of the gods on the sacred mountain, and flows down the rivers to the sea, from which it returns once again to the mountain as rain.  In fact, Wayan describes Balinese Hinduism as a religion of holy water.

Offerings are placed not only around the home, but also in markets, stores and warungs, in restaurants, in rice fields, and even in the middle of the road.

Making an Offering in Rice Field

I’ve even seen offerings set out in the headquarters of rafting companies, notorious hotbeds of irreverence in other parts of the world.

Entrance to Rafting Company — Two Guardians against Evil Spirits (I could have used them when I worked as a whitewater guide)

Very elaborate offerings of flowers, rice, cakes and fruit are often placed in temples.  All of these offerings are temporary; flowers will fade; chickens will peck them apart; old offerings litter the ground in outdoor markets where they are ultimately trampled by customers.  No matter.  New offerings are constantly being made.  Most days we find an offering on the walkway or the porch outside of our cottage.

Offering in Front of Our Cottage

Although most Balinese believe that these offerings are greatly appreciated by the gods, we had a conversation with one village spiritual leader who (like Socrates) couldn’t imagine how the gods could be benefited by anything we might offer them.  He said, “My belief is that offerings serve as an act of meditation that helps purify the soul of the one doing the offering.”  However interpreted, offerings are indispensible to the rhythm of life here.

Balinese New Year is one of the most important days on the Balinese calendar.  It’s not a rousing, American- or Chinese-style festival, but a time for quiet contemplation about your life over the past year and your goals for the next.  This is like Rosh Hoshannah in the Jewish tradition.  It’s taken a bit farther in Bali, though.  On the Balinese New Year absolutely no work or travel is permitted.  Wayan mentioned that it simply transforms Bali.  Airports and seaports in Bali are completely shut down; no one can enter or leave the island.  The streets are completely vehicle-free.  Wayan said that you could sit in the middle of a highway in peace on Balinese New Year, which is difficult to imagine after having seen the swarms of motor scooters darting and weaving amidst taxis and trucks in downtown Denpasar.

Although Bali is an island within Indonesia and Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, approximately 90% of Balinese are Hindus.  Hinduism has been present in Bali since at least as far back as the 11th Century.  There are a few Islamic communities, particularly on the west coast of Bali across the Bali Strait from Java, and there is a smattering of Buddhism (in Chinese immigrant communities) and Christianity (among the expats), but Bali is essentially a Hindu island.  According to the Balinese we’ve met, all religions coexist amiably in Bali, despite the infamous Al Quaeda bombings ten years ago, which, in addition to causing over 200 deaths, also utterly disrupted the Balinese economy by bringing tourism to a standstill for several years.  Tourism is picking up again, although the worldwide economic problems have taken a toll over the last few years.

To people interested in culture and religion, Bali is a dream destination because it has made a deliberate effort to encourage its villages to open up their ceremonies to visitors.  In our village of Taman, where we are the only foreign visitors, we have found villagers and priests to be completely willing not only to allow us to observe their ceremonies, but also to participate in them if we wish

Lois in Cremation Ceremony Procession

Each Balinese home is in a family compound.  It is passed down on the father’s side.  When the sons marry, the parents share the compound with them and their families, adding new buildings to the compound if necessary.  Our friend (and sometime chauffeur) Blue has three daughters and very much wants to try to have a boy for this reason….but his wife is a bit worn out by the kids and her job, and it is very expensive to pay for their education.   Family planning is being promoted heavily in Bali now; most families have only two children.

To walk the streets of a Balinese village is to be surrounded by temples.  They call Bali the land of a thousand temples, but this number is much smaller than the actual number of temples in Bali.  Each family compound has a temple – which is often more elaborate than the home itself.  At one point our host Ayu gave us directions for a running trail and told us to turn left at the village temple.  I became hopelessly lost because I couldn’t distinguish family temples from a village temple.  Ayu’s son Agus had to come fetch this bewildered tamu (tourist guest) on his motor scooter.  A family temple is a matter of great pride in Bali.

Family Temple of Wealthy Household

Wayan’s and Ayu’s Family Temple

The family temple is placed on the north and east side of the family compound, north for the line of mountains that stretch across the north of the island (particularly the most sacred mountain – Agung)  and east for the sunrise. In fact north is actually defined in the Balinese language in terms of its orientation to the mountains, so that temples on the north side of the mountains that face southward toward the mountain are still said to face north.  The family temple shrines are mainly for honoring one’s ancestors.  The importance the Balinese give to the veneration of ancestors, including the idea that ancestors can become deities, is one of the ways in which Balinese Hinduism is different from Indian Hinduism.

The refreshing thing about the Balinese is that when they describe their beliefs to a visitor, there is no expectation that the visitor will accept them as true. They just identify them as Balinese beliefs or sometimes simply “my beliefs” because they also recognize that different villages and even different individuals in Bali sometimes have differing beliefs. This is not considered grounds for excommunication, damnation, or condemnation.  It’s accepted as a natural consequence of our individuality as humans.  This is one of the characteristics of Hinduism, both in Bali and India, that I’ve always wished would spread a bit further west.

One of the Balinese beliefs I found most tempting was their explanation for hair loss.  Ayu reassured me that, according to the Balinese, the bald spot on my head was a natural consequence of my being a college professor.  She said that, according to Balinese people, deep thought leads to hair loss.  So now that I’ve given that up I’m hoping to regain a full head of hair.

In addition to family temples, there are also village temples, as well as ‘public temples’ used by people throughout Bali.  There are even temples devoted to certain occupations/castes.  Unlike temples in India, Balinese temples are not enclosed; they are open to the sky – in order to make it easier for the gods to appear during temple ceremonies.  In any village there are usually a number of temples, at least three of which are dedicated respectively to the 3 great gods of the Hindu trinity —  Brahma, Vishnu (‘Wisnu’ in Balinese), and Shiva (Siwa).

Statue of Vishnu and Sacred Bird Garuda in Center Intersection of Taman Village

Brahma is the creator; Vishnu is the preserver or protector; and Wayan calls Shiva the “dissolver” (not ‘destroyer’ as Shiva is often described).  Of these three temples, the temple to the god Shiva is generally at the lowest elevation of the three; he is thus most closely associated with the sea, where our ashes are ultimately deposited and everything is dissolved.   When I asked Wayan whether a Balinese Hindu, like an Indian Hindu, tends to become a devotee of a particular god, Wayan said that this isn’t really the case in Bali.  The Balinese generally worship the one great universal spirit (Sanghyang Widi Wasa) who underlies all of the gods.  Like Hinduism in India, there is an underlying monotheism in Balinese Hindu belief, despite the fact that Balinese practice generally appears to be polytheistic.  These multiple deities are all manifestations of the universal spirit (which Indian Hindus call Brahman).  Wayan does add, however, that Balinese practice tends to be Shivaistic due to the fact that so much of life – and especially spiritual life – is an attempt to come to grips with suffering and dissolution.  Shiva is also the god most closely associated with the cycle of reincarnation because the dissolution of life is what makes way for rebirth.

There are usually village temples that are dedicated to other gods as well, aside from the Hindu trinity – most prominent among them the goddess Saraswati (goddess of education, arts and music), the goddess Melanting (deity of business and commerce), and the goddess of the rice fields, Devi Sri.

Statue of Goddess Saraswati (in Arma Museum in Ubud)

Ceremonies happen frequently in Bali.  The first official ceremony we observed was also the one that took the longest time for me to grasp.  It concerned the measurement of the site for Wayan and Ayu’s new guest cottages.  At first it was hard for me to see this as a spiritual activity; I don’t generally see surveyors and title company employees as especially spiritual folks.  Wayan’s explanation is that his project involves an expansion of the original walls of the family compound into an undeveloped, natural area where spirits dwell.  If he is going to develop the area occupied by these spirits, it’s important to do the appropriate ceremonies that will make it more likely that those spirits who make their home there will be willing to share their dwelling place with Wayan and his guests.  A priest needs to come in to perform the rites that will allow the family and guests to live in harmony with those divinities and that will position the new borders of the compound in the most spiritually auspicious manner.  Ayu explained it as being a bit like feng shui.

Priest (in white, toward the right) Observes Property Measurements

Wayan and Ayu Receive Holy Water from Priest in Property Ceremony

I think we should generally make this a requirement in America before deciding where to put in a new Wal-Mart.

The measurement ceremony was followed a few days later by placement of the first stone, which required that the priest return to make sure that the foundation was positioned appropriately (spiritually speaking).  For each of these ceremonies, Wayan and Ayu dressed in sarong and sash (also a traditional Balinese headdress for Wayan) and placed offerings on the site to be developed.  The priest carefully observed the measurement of the area and placement of the stone, chanted prayers and blessed the area with holy water.  When the cottages are completed, the priest will return to preside over an additional ceremony.

Another home ceremony that took place during our time with Wayan and Ayu was for the bees on his property.  Wayan has created a beautiful flower garden in his family compound; so there are naturally quite a few bees in the compound.

Orchid in Wayan’s Garden

The priest had told Wayan and Ayu that this could be a very good thing spiritually speaking, if handled properly.  It could also be a bad omen, unless the proper spiritual precautions were taken.  So a ceremony was held in order to help assure that the presence of bees in the garden would be beneficial…to humans as well as the bees.  My theory is that the reason for the declining bee populations in the U.S. is that they’re all heading to Bali.

Wayan told us that one of the differences between the Hinduism of India and the Hinduism of Bali is that Balinese Hinduism is more animistic and naturalistic.  The Balinese natural world is alive with spirits.  This is why a ceremony needed to be done in order to create the proper balance with the spirits in the undeveloped area beyond the borders of the family compound.  Trees are often considered sacred, particularly the banyan tree with its hundreds of roots plunging from high in the tree down into to earth like gigantic rooted tentacles.  It is hard to look at one of these organisms without feeling some sort of spiritual presence there.  Often the Balinese wrap a banyan or another grand old tree at the base to honor the spirit of the tree, just as they wrap the base of a statue to honor a god.

Base of One of the Largest Banyan Trees in Bali – The tree is so large that the wrapping in foreground (intended to honor the tree) is dwarfed by the tree.

Even the Balinese gods are often closely associated with nature.  In Balinese Hinduism Shiva is associated with the sea, the ultimate dissolver; Vishnu is associated with water (freshwater) needed to sustain life.   Brahma is associated with fire.  Devi (Dewi) Sri is the goddess of rice, Bali’s most important crop; like her rice fields, she is beautiful.

Balinese Painting of Devi Sri

There is a close relationship between Devi Sri and Vishnu because of the importance of water in the growing of rice.

The rice fields in Bali are not owned by large multinational corporations; they’re owned by small farmers each of whom inherited a small family plot, often less than half an acre, which will be passed on to his/her descendants.  It would be unthinkable to sow or harvest a crop of rice without honoring Devi Sri.  So the boundaries of these plots are generally marked by a shrine for offerings to the goddess of the rice fields.  It’s part of what makes these fields so lovely.

Shrine in Rice Field

Wayan told us that the Balinese can also believe there are spirits in inanimate objects – like machines.  When I reported that there seemed to be evil spirits in my computer, Ayu offered to arrange to have me take it to a priest for a purification (actually I think she felt that I could use at least as much purification as my computer).  I’m thinking about it.  I thought I might bring along the GPS unit to see if it would help with Irish fairies as well  (see my post ‘Farewell to Ireland’).

There are other differences between Balinese and Indian Hinduism.  Meditation, for example, is not an especially prominent practice among the Balinese, nor is what we would generally refer to as yoga…..although I would require years of hatha yoga in order to sit or kneel on asphalt or cement surfaces as long as the Balinese do in village ceremonies.  The existence of people who choose to renounce the world and live an ascetic life of deep spiritual introspection is virtually non-existent in Bali.  The idea of leaving family or society on a spiritual quest would simply be unacceptable here.  Balinese Hinduism is, in some ways, more like earlier forms of Indian Hinduism (sometimes called Classical or Vedic Hinduism) with its strong emphasis on offerings and sacrifice.

Although caste still exists in Bali, my sense is that it plays a much smaller role there than it has played India.  The Balinese I’ve spoken to prefer to call castes “clans,” but they identify them more with occupational groups. Intermarriage between castes is widely practiced, and one is not restricted by heredity to a particular trade or occupation in Bali.  There are social reasons one might be inclined to remain in one’s father’s occupation, though.  For example, one may inherit one’s father’s rice field or blacksmith forge and tools, and this influences people’s career choices.  The blacksmith trade is one of the few in Bali that remains largely hereditary.  Nonetheless, there is no expectation on the part of Wayan or Ayu that their children will choose their parents’ occupation.  Anyone, in fact, can become a priest in Bali as long as he (or even she) is respected enough by the village to be chosen.  Still, it is true that the high priests generally come from the Brahmin caste.

Not only are Balinese rituals and offerings a constant part of life in a family compound, but there are also frequent ceremonies that involve all or most of an entire village.  In any car trip across Bali you can count on passing through towns the roads of which are festooned with a gauntlet of bamboo penjors for temple anniversary celebrations (each anniversary reckoned according to the Balinese 210-day calendar),

Penjors for Village Celebration

and sometimes long funeral processions that halt traffic in town.  We encountered one very recently on a trip to the mountains.  What had stopped traffic was an elaborate bier to be used in the funeral that was being put together on the main road through the village.

One of the most complex ceremonies we took part in was a mass cremation ceremony in our neighboring village of Karang Dalem.  Villages conduct funerals in different ways.  Some hold separate cremations for each person who dies in a village; others wait for years and then hold mass cremations.  In some villages the body is literally cremated, and its ashes brought to the river or sea; in others the body is buried, and a symbol or effigy of the body is cremated.  The ceremony in Karang Dalem was a mass cremation for villagers who had died over the past five years.  We were told that cremation is very expensive, and mass cremations minimize the expense.  The ceremony was for about two dozen people (one of whom had been a relative of Ayu’s), and the entire village participated.  Ayu told us that preparations for the ceremony had begun a full month beforehand.  The actual ceremony went on for a week.  Our first exposure to it was a long funeral procession in which offerings of all kinds were carried on women’s heads, and an effigy or symbol of each departed person was carried to the cremation site by a relative of the deceased under an umbrella, accompanied by the entire village and its gamelan band.

Funeral Procession in Village of Karang Dalem

Procession Nears the Cremation Grounds in Karang Dalem

The townspeople then gathered in the cremation grounds where there was a long ceremony presided over by several priests.  Relatives and other villagers made a huge number of offerings, instructed by the priests who also led in prayers and conducted their own chants in Sanskrit.  Then the effigies were cremated.  Cemeteries and cremation grounds in Bali are considered the domain of the fierce goddess Durga, often described as wife of Shiva.  True to her reputation she let loose a coconut from about 45 feet high in a palm tree, and it struck a woman in the side.

Ceremony at Cremation Grounds

In a ceremony a day or two earlier a small amount of dirt from the cemetery where the bodies rested had been added to the bowl containing the effigy for each deceased person.   The effigy (along with the dirt) was what was cremated (in lieu of a literal cremation of the body) in the ceremony we attended. Balinese Hindus believe that fire is needed to purify the soul after death.  In this particular ceremony there would actually be three cremations, a new effigy made for each one.  The ashes of one would be washed in the river Agung; a second would remain with the family shrine for ancestral worship; and the third would be taken to Bat Cave Temple on the eastern shore of Bali, and deposited into the sea.  Bat Cave Temple is a national public temple used by Balinese from all over the island, particularly as a part of cremation rites.  The temple’s name refers to a large cave within the temple compound; the cave teems with bats the size of crows. They were clearly visible en masse from our vantage point outside the cave entrance.  We were told that large snakes writhe about the floor of the cave snacking on the occasional careless bat that comes to close enough to the pile of writhing reptiles.  One shudders to imagine how large those snakes would have to be to eat the massive bats.  Legend has it that the bat cave extends deep inland and northward all the way to the great temple on the slope of the sacred mountain Agung, connecting the temple on the sea with the temple on the mountain.

At the Bat Cave Temple – Look for a Throng of Bats Hanging on Ceiling of Cave

After the mass cremation there would be a ceremony to purify the souls of the departed.  That celebration took place the following day.  The part we witnessed was a procession led by a priest and a sacred cow in which the relatives of the deceased once again carried new effigies of the departed, and women carried on their heads large fruit offerings piled high in a cylindrical shape while circling the village temple.  Because the souls had now been purified by cremation, the new effigies made to represent them could finally be placed in the temple where the ceremony was completed.

Offerings of Fruit, with Effigies Underneath — Purification Ceremony

Before purification the effigies could not enter the temple ground.  The requirement for purification within the temple grounds also extends to menstruating women, and this prevented Ayu from participating with us in a later temple village temple ceremony.

The mass cremation and soul purification ceremonies were not somber; they were lively and upbeat social gatherings. Wayan mentioned that relatives and friends do sometimes experience a certain amount of grief during the ceremonies, but their grief is mitigated by the belief that their loved ones will reincarnate into a new life, perhaps a better one. Of the seven or eight funeral processions I’ve seen in Bali, I wouldn’t characterize any as sad or somber.  There is a casualness to all Balinese religious ceremonies.  During a ceremony kids are playing; people are eating; some men are smoking (I’ve never seen a Balinese woman smoking); people are chatting while priests are chanting.  The priests are communicating with the gods (often in Sanskrit), and the people generally have no idea what is being said.  So unless the priest is specifically directing them to pray or move to a particular location, the people go about their own social activities during a ceremony, trusting that the priests are doing the rituals properly.  The priests don’t consider this disrespectful in the least.  If I’d played and chatted with my friends at church when our priest was chanting in Latin, Sister Mary David would have whacked me up the side of the head.

Just as there is a dark side to human nature, the Balinese see a dark side to divinity as well.  This is best represented by Durga, who is not only the goddess of the cemetery, but also the goddess of black magic and witchcraft.  Western religions (even some western philosophers like Socrates) reject the idea that a god could be something less than good.  They prefer a purely elevated notion of divinity.  The price they pay for this is extreme difficulty in accounting for the existence of evil in our world; evil is generally pinned on variety of culprits other than God – usually human, who were, by the way, also created by God.  There is a certain honest (and, I suppose, brutal) logic to the Balinese idea that since this world has evil in it, there must be evil in the realm that created or governs it.  They see this world, both physical and spiritual, as a kind of balance or harmony between the positive and negative, a bit like the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.  Our lives would be impossible without the negative.  For example, rebirth would be impossible without death.  One village spiritual leader used another example.  He said that anger, although a negative quality, is necessary and beneficial for human functioning and progress as long as it is kept in proper balance.  The harmony between positive and negative is represented by the white and black checkered cloth that the Balinese often drape around objects they wish to honor.

Someone who is spiritually adept can learn how to use positive spiritual forces in order to become a healer (white magic) or to use negative spiritual forces, with the aid of Durga, in order to bring harm to one’s enemies (black magic).  God is not going to smite down the practitioner of black magic.  The rest of us simply need to be aware of both the positive and negative, and to know the various spiritual strategies available for us to protect ourselves against negative spiritual forces like black magic.  Consequently a large number of Balinese rituals are designed to ward off evil spirits.  Any offering that is placed on the ground around the family compound (and this is probably the majority of the offerings) is for protection against evil spirits.  Most important family or village ceremonies begin with the burning of three green bamboo logs, which are, in turn, struck on rocks, making a loud pop that frightens off evil spirits, not to mention unsuspecting tamu.

Warding Off Evil Spirits

Statues of ferocious beasts guard the gates of most village and public temples against the presence of evil spirits.

Two important figures that appear in Balinese myth and dance are Rangda, the evil widow witch, who is often closely associated with the goddess Durga,

Statue of Rangda in front of Tirtha Gangga Royal Water Palace

and Barong, a fantastical animal creature that fends off evil characters like Rangda.  Elaborate dances (Barong) involving dancers dressed in spectacular Barong and Rangda costumes center around this theme.

Barong Costume, Worn by Two Actors During Barong Dances

By the way, the stories do not generally end in the victory of the good.  Neither the good nor evil prevails; balance prevails.

We did meet Balinese Hindus who considered black magic to be nothing more than misfortunes that one brings on oneself.  One of them described it as an unfortunate belief that potentially creates false suspicions about the cause of illness in a village.  Nonetheless, the majority of Balinese believe quite literally in black magic, and take precautions against it.  Even those more skeptical of black magic still embrace the idea of a spirit world and a physical world that contains a balance of good and evil.

Speaking of the dark side, even though I was intellectually prepared for it, I still tend to feel a jolt when I encounter the swastika carved into ancient Balinese temples.  I have to remind myself that it’s not the work of Balinese Arian skinhead taggers hankering after world domination.  It’s the ancient Hindu symbol for harmony and peace.   So I’m trying to chill about it…..dude.

Peace and Harmony — Inscription on Bat Cave Temple

And speaking of chilling, I’ve tried to work hard to develop a sense of toleration about the passionate involvement of most Balinese men in the ‘sport’ of cockfighting.  I have to report that I’ve failed – I’d never make it as an anthropologist.  I’m an unrepentant bleeding heart; I could not bring myself to watch a pair of roosters peck each other to death.  Roosters are raised all over Bali for the purpose of cockfighting.  I’m told that owners treat their roosters very lovingly….before tossing them into a ring to have their eyes pecked out in front of a throng of salivating, cheering men — sorry…may the Balinese Hindu spirit of toleration guide the remainder of this blog post.

Cockfights (subject to certain time limits) can actually be a part of temple rituals, I was told.  Balinese Hinduism does believe in animal sacrifice to the gods (although cows are an obvious exception), and the cockfight is a variation of this.  The blood shed by the roosters is returned to the earth as a sacrifice to the gods.  Cockfights are male activities in Bali (well, of course the roosters are male, but so are the humans who watch).  Gambling is hot and heavy during virtually any cockfight, and I’m told that this is not only prohibited by Balinese Hinduism, but also by law in Bali.  The prohibitions have no effect whatsoever that I could see.  I saw open betting on cockfights taking place on temple grounds.  I saw betting going on among the crowd at the start of a village temple ceremony.  When I mentioned my puzzlement to our host Wayan (who is among the minority of males in Bali who is not a fan of cockfighting), he responded that the gambling makes certain people wealthy enough that they are able to bribe the police to look the other way.  The police themselves generally enjoy cockfighting.  He added that he’s known people who have lost all of their property gambling on cockfights.

Balinese Men Gathering to Watch a Cockfight

When Ayu offered to take us to a tooth-filing ceremony, I was baffled.  Although I have experienced fear and trembling in the dentist’s chair, it’s never been an especially spiritual experience.  In Balinese Hinduism the tooth-filing ceremony represents a sort of initiation into adulthood.  It is done in order to help protect the person against the six enemies (sometimes called the bad habits): jealousy, anger, laziness, dishonesty, arrogance, and lust.  Like most Balinese ceremonies, it begins with prayer and the sprinkling of holy water.  The initiates are dressed in elaborate traditional Balinese dress, and, after prayers and the sprinkling of holy water, the priests write sacred inscriptions on their front teeth.

Sacred Inscriptions on Front Teeth in Tooth-filing Ceremony

Then, in the ceremony we observed, the youths lay down five at a time and five priests rubbed files over the tips of their six front teeth while practically the entire village leaned in to get a good look.


When she saw me wincing, Ayu reassured me that, although in times past, priests could be fairly vigorous in their tooth filing techniques, these days they are much gentler.

Although scripture (particularly Vedic Hindu scripture) does not play a large role in Balinese Hinduism, traditional stories from the Hindu tradition, especially the Ramayana and the Mahabarata epics, do.  Scenes from these stories appear everywhere in Balinese art.  Gigantic sculptures of mythical gods and heroes are often placed in the middle of the central intersection in the village.  In a previous post, Lois mentioned the incredible scenes from the Ramayana carved in 700 meters of rock on the bank of the Agung River.

Scene from Ramayana, Banks of the Agung River

An entire tradition of Balinese dance and music is centered around Balinese and Hindu myths.  I’ve already mentioned barong.  Legong is another example. It is an extremely stylized and graceful dance performed by young female dancers dressed in beautiful and elaborate costumes.  Historically it was performed for the Balinese royalty, but now it is performed throughout Bali, often for tourists.  The dances feature intricate, synchronized hand gestures (mudras), foot positions, and head, neck and eye movements, and are accompanied by gamelan music played on tuned, hollow, bronze drums, bells and flute.

Legong Dance

Gamelan Instrument

Balinese girls who show promise begin learning legong when they are four or five years old.  Legong dancing brings them great prestige.  Ayu invited four 10-year olds to do a practice performance for us one evening.

Practice Dance Performance at Wayan’s and Ayu’s Home

An especially famous form of Balinese dance is called kecak.  It’s a dance in which the Ramayana story of the rescue of Rama’s kidnapped wife Sita is acted out.  Kecak can’t really be described; you’ve just got to see it.  The dance/story is accompanied by a large number of bare-chested male dancers sitting on the stage, sometimes in rows and sometimes in concentric circles, swaying and moving their hands in synchronized patterns, while shouting out syllables like “chak-a-chak-a-chak” in very rapid and complex, patterned rhythms.  The rhythms are wonderful, and Lois and I were amazed and delighted by the performance.  Although kecak is very sophisticated, there is also something that feels very primitive about it, as though if you were surrounded by a group of these men doing kecak, you would likely be sitting in a large pot of boiling water.

None of my photos came out.  If you’re interested, check out the following Youtube link:

In the performance we saw, the kecak dance was followed by what is called Trance Dance or Fire Dance.  It began when a barefooted and bare-chested man came out onto the stage carrying a model of a horse on a frame.  He knelt in front of a priest who blessed him with holy water (he will need it).  He then entered a trance-like state, and, keeping his eyes closed, he stood up carrying the model horse above his shoulders and ran into a large pile of burning coconut husk coals, kicking the coals all about the stage with his bare feet, after which two men swept the coals back into a pile in the center and the dancer again ran into the pile, repeating the process until the coals were mostly spent.  It was an amazing and frightening thing to watch.  The dancer’s feet were completely blackened at the end.

Fire Dance

If you do come to Bali, you’ll see religion on display, perhaps like nowhere else on earth.  There are performances of sacred dance and music for visitors; you may well be invited to observe cremations, weddings or temple anniversary celebrations.  Those who visit Bali find the value in this to be essentially anthropological and historical.   It is tempting for us to assume that the Balinese view it the same way, but this would be a tremendous mistake.  This is a living religion that penetrates and gives meaning to virtually every aspect of their lives.  We need not only to understand that, but also to treat it with respect.  During the kecak ceremony, Lois and I didn’t grasp the connection between the kecak dance and the fire dance.  Ayu explained afterward that, in the Ramayana, after Rama rescues Sita, he suspects that Sita’s kidnapper Rahwana may have had his way with her.  Sita insists that she did not allow this to happen, and to prove her sincerity and loyalty, Sita underwent trial by fire (which is what is being represented in the Fire Dance).  When she was done recounting this story from the Ramayana, Ayu had tears in her eyes.

The Real Bali

Although Lois mentioned that we are staying in Abiansemal, that is actually the name of the district our village is in.   The name of our village is Taman.  Much of the tourist action in Bali is on the southern beaches in towns like Kuta, Bali’s Cancun.   Ubud is farther inland; it is often said to be the cultural center of Bali.  It is where tourists go to see the “real Bali,” although the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love has turned it into a rather congested and touristy town.  Ubud is charming, but it is no longer quite the real Bali.  Taman, our home for the month, is without a doubt the real Bali.   It’s about a half-hour’s drive from Ubud.  We are the only tamu (tourist guests) in the entire village.  When people (especially children) see us, they are clearly startled, but usually delighted.  The Balinese are among the most friendly and curious people we’ve encountered in all of our travels.  Passing Balinese strangers sometimes stop on their motor scooters just to say hello, perhaps the only English word they know – because it also has the same meaning in Balinese.  Giggling children approach us shyly, working up the courage to greet us with “Good morning” whether it is day or night.  During village social gatherings, Lois is often surrounded by laughing children.

Her explanation is that they are fascinated by her blonde hair.

Bali Babe

Our Balinese friend Blue disagreed.  He said it was because Lois is a person who is bursting with love, and children see this right away.

As Lois mentioned in an earlier post, our hosts have said to us that there are no rules in Bali, and this seems to apply particularly to driving.  Well, technically there is a rule about keeping toward the left side of the road, but on many occasions we’ve been in cars in which oncoming motor scooters were passing us both on the right and the left.  Cars and motor scooters crowd side-by-side on the roadway, slipping past each other on either side with a friendly honk.  Unlike Italy and Ireland, they generally keep their speeds relatively slow, but being in a car in Bali (particularly in the city) feels a bit like being in the middle of a brisk cattle drive.  So, in the interest of sanity and the safety of everyone concerned, we’ve opted to have a driver take us wherever we need to go.

Although cars fill their tanks at gas stations, the motor scooters almost never do this.  Their gas is sold in one-liter bottles lined up in stands outside of tiny roadside stores (wahrungs) that also sell a few groceries and sundries.


Lois mentioned in a recent post that one of our chauffeurs is Made (Mahday), who drives us about in his VW Thing convertible.  Volkswagen stopped making the Thing around 30 years ago.  Made was confused when I asked where he finds parts for it.  My guess is that they mostly don’t bother with parts, because I noticed that nothing on Made’s dashboard works – including the speedometer, odometer, and fuel gauge.  Once on our way into Ubud the Thing sputtered and died, rolling right up to a little wahrung.  Made just got out of the Thing, strolled over and got a bottle of yellow firewater, poured it into the tank with a funnel, and we were on our way.  What the hell do you need a fuel gauge for?

When you move out away from Ubud to the smaller villages like Taman, traffic does thin out, but you start seeing bizarre things.  At one point I noticed a giant haystack careening toward me on the roadway – until it got closer, revealing two wheels and a barely visible man riding in the middle of the foliage…. along with his toddler and wife.   In Bali motor scooters are for hauling.  In the past two weeks these are some of the things I’ve seen being carried on motorscooters: bushels of rice, bales of hay, 20-foot long bamboo poles, large loads of firewood, huge temple offerings, mobile grocery stands, two dozen ducks, a large (live) goat, a large (live) pig, and a family of five humans (honest!), No worries, though; the drivers are really responsible.  Although there doesn’t seem to be any official minimum age for riding a motor scooter on the village roads, I haven’t seen anyone driving a motor scooter who was under six or so.

Balinese Logging Truck

Recycling – Balinese Style

Actually many Balinese do walk from place to place in the village, but they tend to carry something with them.

Women often carry these items hands free.

If you’re going to stay in the real Bali, your neighbors will include critters of all sorts.   Each family compound has at least one dog.  Our host family’s dog is named Feedo (spelled Fido).   He’s a little 3-month-old rascal who likes to chase cats and chickens and nibble on our toes.  Families in small villages in Bali often raise their own domestic animals.  Roosters are everywhere in Bali because of the popularity of cock-fighting.  So rooster reveille sounds throughout the village (and all over Bali) at around a half hour before dawn.  Oddly enough, at around the stroke of midnight I often hear several woozy rounds of rooster crowing.  Apparently they like to party.  The second morning here I was pretty sure I heard elephants trumpeting all over the neighborhood, but it was just pigs, some of whom are almost the size of elephants.  Speaking of elephant-sized animals, here is a photo of the arachnid guarding the approach to our door.  We’ve actually grown very fond of him.

Houses in the tropics are not insulated or sealed, but are made with openings to enhance air flow – which would also enhance bug flow if it weren’t for the geckos and chk-chks that patrol every home interior.  In Bali you do have to become friends with lizards on the ceiling.  The sound GECK-O…..GECK-0 is echoing through the compound as I write these words.


After a rain the bullfrogs and crickets add their voices to the chorus.  All of this is mixed together most evenings with human sounds.  Balinese Hindu chanting and temple gamelon percussion drifts through the forest from neighboring village temples almost every evening.

If we venture about a half-mile away from the family compound to the jungle adjacent to the river Agung, we also see and hear monkeys, as Lois mentioned in a recent post.  Since monkeys are sacred animals to the Balinese, we often see them in temple compounds as well.  They’re not especially frightened of their slow and clumsy human relations.  The monkeys in one area are famous for stealing small items set down by humans (like sunglasses) and ransoming them for bananas.  I saw one macaque stage a sneak attack on a dog when it wasn’t looking; the dog deserved it.

Our host Wayan is philosophically opposed to large-scale tourism in which hotel chains buy up scenic Balinese rice fields, river banks and ocean front, causing great environmental damage and congestion that will ultimately cause Bali to become a less attractive place to visit.  This is already happening across the river from Taman in Ubud.  Wayan is passionate about promoting what he calls sustainable tourism.  The lifeblood of Bali’s economy is tourism, but he favors a grass-roots, downsized approach in which individual families are encouraged to host tamu in small bed-and-breakfast environments, giving guests an opportunity to see the real Bali, as opposed to a fabricated resort environment.   Wayan and Ayu arrange almost all of our excursions.  In addition to being our host, Wayan has been a local tour guide for 20 years.


When we wanted to go to the beach, he arranged for us to go to a beautiful “secret” beach he knows that has few tourists and is serviced by small local wahrungs and restaurants rather than large chains.

Secret Beach

Rather than send us to Ubud to do our shopping, Ayu introduced us to the village’s morning market.

Ayu and Lois at Morning Market

Morning Market

Wayan and his friend Blue have taken us to beautiful waterfalls where the visitors are almost entirely Balinese.

We’ve visited palaces and spectacular temples set by the sea or in the mountains, some of which are far away from the tourist routes.

Gangga Water Palace — once the palace of the royal family of Bali

Pura Melanting

Malanting Temple

Temple Ulan Danu

Although there are not many Buddhist communities in Bali, Wayan also brought us to a beautiful Buddhist monastery.

Guarding the Buddhist monastery

Reclining Buddha

Wayan especially enjoys taking us on walks through the rice fields.  Balinese rice fields are astonishingly beautiful.

As often as not, we encounter people washing their clothes or bathing in the canals that irrigate the rice fields.  The older ones sometimes try to cover up, more to accommodate our sensitivities than their own.  The kids don’t seem to care.

As part of a two-day tour of the north and west parts of Bali, Wayan took us to a fishing village in which the fishing fleet looks like this.

He knows where to find the best sunsets,

Looking west from the Bali coast toward volcano in Java

the most amazing views,

and cool trees.

Wayan loves gardens; in fact, the courtyard of his own family compound is a beautiful garden.  On one trip, we stopped at this ridge-top garden overlooking spectacular terraced rice fields.

By the way, on our tour of the northwest Wayan told us we might be able to see some flying foxes.   We saw several.

Flying Fox

I believe this fox hybridized with a pterodactyl.  Although Wayan insisted that they were harmless, my hand kept moving involuntarily toward my jugular.

Wayan also took us on a tour of northeast Bali where we saw the two active volcanoes on the island.

Mt. Batur — Volcano

Lake in the crater at the base of Mt. Batur

Mt. Agung

Mount Agung last erupted in 1963.  It is considered to be the home of the gods.

Many of these locations are not frequented by the big tour operators; they’re often not even mentioned in respected alternative travel sources like Lonely Planet.

As part of their plan to facilitate sustainable tourism, Wayan and Ayu are now adding two more guest cottages to their family compound; they are urging their village neighbors to do the same sort of thing.  Bali needs tourism.  Wayan and Ayu just want more people to have access to the kind of tourism that supports residents of the village and integrates tourists into village activities, rather than the kind that mainly offers the experience of a large hotel complex and highly commercialized and inauthentic activities.  It would be absurd to claim that Lois and I are living like real Balinese.  We are among the few people in this village who have hot water; we get to sleep in late; all of our meals are prepared for us; and whatever we need is provided.  After all, we are still tamu, but we are getting to see the authentic Bali.  It’s a beautiful and amazing opportunity.

Bella Italia

We’ve said good-bye to Italy many times over the past eight months, and one week ago we bade farewell to bella Italia once again.  We don’t know when, but we’ll be back.   A friend of ours just asked why.   For me, the answer has to do with the way that Italy values beauty.

One of the things that has always most surprised me about Italy is its natural beauty.  From the Italian Alps and the northern Dolomites, to the Appenines and the Lucanian Dolomites, to the coastal bluffs of Amalfi and Maratea, to the gorgeous green Adriatic of the Gargano and the beautiful beaches on the Ionian Sea, Italy’s landscapes are stunning and diverse, much like California’s.

Grand Sasso National Park, Appenines

Lake Como

Tyrrhenian Sea Coastline Near Maratea

Adriatic Sea off the Gargano Peninsula

Beachside Bistro at Marina di Pulsano on the Ionian Sea

Beach on the Gargano Peninsula Looking Toward Vieste

Californians sometimes compare the hills of Sonoma or Napa to the hills of Tuscany or Umbria.  Still… California’s hills are not crowned by this:


And its towns are not decorated like this:

The Main Street of Pulsano in Southern Italy

Italy’s land was developed before industrialization brought along its more pragmatic approach to the built environment.  Pragmatism was not the guiding force behind the building of the magnificent Duomo of Florence (pictured on our blog-site home page), or the wonderful cathedral of Pisa, which is far more worth visiting (in my humble opinion) than its much more famous bell tower.

Interior, Pisa Cathedral

Much of Italy’s development was guided largely by spiritual and aesthetic values (with lavish financial support from the Church and other wealthy patrons).   The creation of beauty and grandeur was seen as an essential component of the worship of God and the honoring of the saints.   Although most visitors to Italy find her cathedrals to be breathtakingly beautiful, I’ve seen some who react with a kind of repulsion that can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation, and even farther back to the Old Testament.   For these folks, the cathedrals of Italy are examples of the materialistic excesses of the Church, and the countless exquisite paintings of Madonna and Child as well as sculptures of the prophets and saints violate First Commandment prohibitions against idolatry and the creation of likenesses — especially representations of the spiritual realm.  For its part, Catholicism reckons that once God actually took on physical form in Jesus, the Old Testament admonitions against representing the divine through art were superseded, much like the way most Protestants currently believe the Old Testament Kosher and Sabbath laws were superseded.  It’s no accident that the greatest Western masterpieces of art were created in Italy and other nations where Catholicism was historically prominent.  Even though religious fervor has cooled a great deal in Italy over the years, it still considers the beauty of its art and its built environment to be its great national treasure.

Correspondingly Italians have a much different attitude toward their cities and towns than Americans generally have, particularly their old towns.  These towns are not practical.  Americans would have no patience for them.  They were created before the automobile.  The streets are too narrow; the towns are often surrounded by ancient walls that make traffic flow so inconvenient that people often have no choice but to walk….and interact with each other, violating all sorts of New World notions of privacy in the process.  The stone walls in their buildings are two-feet thick and not conducive to phone, TV and internet wiring.  Still society gives them so much value that remodeling one’s home or widening a road in the “centro storico” (historical center of town) seems to require an act of God.  Of course, Italy does have its suburbs and its box stores, as I mentioned in a long-ago post about Florence’s Ikea, but Italy is far more reluctant than the New World to tear down its old buildings and walls.  They are too charming, too historical….too beautiful.

Similar attitudes can be found in other parts of Europe where the Catholic Church has had a strong presence.  In early October we spent a week in Barcelona, Spain and visited La Sagrada Familia, a grand church that has been under construction since 1882, initially under the design of Francisco de Paula del Villar, but almost immediately taken over by the great 19th Century modernist architect Antoni Gaudi.

La Sagrada Familia — Currently Under Construction

Facade, La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia has been open to visitors since 2010.  It will be many decades before it is finished, but the church is already absolutely stunning, both outside and inside.   Still, it must be utterly mystifying to those who see the value of a building in terms of functionality.

Sagrada Familia Altar

La Sagrada Familia Dome — Interior

It’s very hard for me to imagine Americans having the patience to take centuries to construct a church….or any building for that matter.

The styles of architecture that predominate in La Sagrada Familia are modernist and neo-Gothic.  Modernist elements are present especially in the facade, which clearly takes its inspiration from the natural world.  To get a sense for why La Sagrada Familia is called neo-Gothic, it helps to compare it with the Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona – soaring spires reaching toward the heavens, and tall, high stained-glass windows that pull in sunlight.

Cathedral of Barcelona

Many consider La Sagrada Familia excessive, even outrageous.  The same has been said about both the baroque cathedral and the Basilica of Santa Croce in the southern Italian city of Lecce (the Florence of the South), which we visited at the end of September.  Both were designed by the wild and crazy brothers Zimbalo in the 16th Century.   Gargoyles, cherubs and critters of all kinds (some undetermined) cover the exterior façade of Santa Croce.

Sections of the façade of Lecce’s Basilica of Santa Croce were hidden by scaffolding during our visit there.  Parts of the great churches are almost always being repaired or cleaned – a small price to pay for their preservation.   So my photo doesn’t fully capture the fancifulness of the façade.

Facade of Santa Croce, Lecce

Baroque, Gothic and neo Gothic styles are not for those with more sober tastes in architecture.  Those folks are more inclined toward the Renaissance and the Romanesque.

My tastes seem to lack sobriety.  One prominent visitor once said that the Basilica of Santa Croce in Lecce was a nightmare produced by a lunatic.  Of course, the same might be said of Dante’s Inferno — one of the world’s great works of literature.

Speaking of Dante, one of my main reading projects during my travels has been to read the complete Divine Comedy.  I’d struggled through the Inferno and was just finishing the last cantos of the Purgatorio when we left Europe.  The flight was long and exhausting.  It was nearly 36 hours before we actually slept in a bed again.  We awoke to a chorus of roosters and the smell of incense in a beautiful bungalow in Bali – just as I made it to Dante’s Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden at the apex of the mountain of Purgatory.

Family compound where we are staying in Bali

Hill Towns

A hill town is generally a town that covers the crest of a hill much like snow might cover the top of a mountain in the winter.  Often the cathedral or the cathedral bell-tower is the highest point in the town.  For obvious geological reasons, Italian hill towns tend to be smaller than valley towns like Florence and Milan, but their homes, shops and churches are generally clustered very closely together and surrounded by an old city wall.  The centers of these towns are often now restricted largely to pedestrians, making them mostly traffic free and helping to create a strong sense of community.  In America even smaller towns tend to be built in valleys, where water is more plentiful and transportation more convenient, and the houses in the hills tend to be scattered and not clustered.  Towns in Italy were built long before American towns, during times when security was much more important than convenience.  The two dozen or so hill towns I’ll mention here are mainly those that we’ve visited on this trip.  This is a very small sample of what can be found all over Italy.

The part of Italy that is most famous for its hill towns is Tuscany.  One of the most famous is San Gimignano, a town that did not destroy or renovate its old buildings and towers because its powerful neighbor Florence had worked very hard to undermine its economic base, causing San Gimignano to decline into a state of arrested development (which makes it so historically charming in the present day).  Florence’s neighbors in Tuscany still have not forgotten the way Florence has thrown its weight around historically, and folks from towns like Siena, Pisa, Lucca and San Gimignano do not seem especially fond of their larger Tuscan neighbor.


Then there is the small hill town that overlooks Florence – Fiesole, which is much older than Florence.

Looking down on Florence from Fiesole


In the Divine Comedy Dante makes it clear how proud he is to be from a city that traces its origins to the glory of Rome.  Fiesole goes back much farther — at least to Etruscan times

We’ve also visited the beautiful Tuscan hill town of Volterra, made famous in America because it is the alleged setting of the film “New Moon,” a sequel to “Twilight.”   I haven’t seen it, but I hear it’s part of the current cinematic fascination with good-looking and young, yet highly sympathetic blood-sucking fiends.  Apparently, the ‘Volterra’ scenes in “New Moon” were not actually filmed in Volterra…..which looks like this from the fields below.

The scenes were filmed in Montepulciano, a town that produces a very reasonably priced red wine that Lois and I have grown very fond of.  Apparently the wine is not the only red in this town.

Vampires notwithstanding, it’s a lovely hill-town.

This resident of Montepulciano does nibble on my neck sometimes.

And then there is Volterra’s tiny southern neighbor, Montecerboli, where an Italian friend very generously let us stay in her hilltop castle apartment.


I hesitate to say this – for risk of reprisals from the Tuscan Tourist Board, but Tuscany has no monopoly on hill towns.  Nonetheless, tourists are mostly unaware that there are equally charming, and (dare I say it) far more spectacular hill towns that lie outside of Tuscany.  We spoke with someone from Umbria (a region in Italy that lies just southeast of Tuscany) who said that the hill towns in Umbria are at least as scenic as Tuscany’s except greener and less inhabited by tourists.  He added that with a bit of expert marketing, Umbria could easily be the new Tuscany.  I’m hoping the marketing doesn’t happen.

Assisi is one of the most charming hill towns I’ve seen.  It’s a gorgeous medieval Umbrian town whose homes, stores, cave-like stone restaurants and spectacular churches and cathedral are cobbled together with pink-hued stones.

Castle in Assisi

Assisi stairway

Assisi Restaurant

Orvieto is an Umbrian town perched on a cliff and topped by one of the most spectacular cathedrals in all of Italy (including Florence).

Orvieto Cathedral

Then there is the neighboring hill-hamlet of Civita di Bagnoreggio, where currently less than ten people reside.  No one in the U.S. would ever think to build a town here.

The Appenines is a mountain range that runs down the spine of Italy from near Parma (quite a ways northwest of Florence), curving southeast through Le Marche and Umbria, extending all the way down to Basilicata in extreme southern Italy.  It consists of spectacular mountains that reach nearly 10,000 feet in elevation, yet are unpublicized due to competition from their higher northern Italian neighbors – the Alps.  Lois and I skied in the Appenines this past winter.  Toward the extreme eastern border of Umbria lies a tiny town in the midst of the Appenines – Castelluccio, at the head of the Piano Grande (the great plain).  It is a spectacular setting for a hill town.


Farther north in the region of Lombardy there is Bergamo Alto (I suppose “Bergamo Heights” is the best translation).  We recently spent a rainy day there in early September and were captivated by the place despite the weather.

All of this notwithstanding, it’s been in extreme southern Italy that we have encountered our favorite hill towns.  This part of Italy is often neglected by the guide books, Lonely Planet being one of the few exceptions.  Rick Steves says nothing about this part of Italy.  It may be because things are a bit more raw down here…. not so clean, not so accommodating to foreign tourists.  Very little English is spoken here, even by shop clerks and apartment managers.  Tourists worry that in this part of Italy they will be set upon by Mafiosi– a bit like when traveling through New Jersey.  Consequently, tourists here are either from elsewhere in Italy or from Germany (Germans travel everywhere).  Our Italian has gotten quite a bit better in southern Italy.  The way Lois words it is that we now speak bad Italian more fluently.

The region of Puglia lies in the heel of the ‘boot’ of Italy.  Rising from the Murgian Plateau between the coastal towns of Taranto on the Ionian Sea and Monopoli on the Adriatic is a cluster of gorgeous hill towns.  The largest and most elegant is old-town Martini Franca, which is graced by white homes and stylish Baroque palazzos and churches with elaborate wrought-iron balconies.

Ducal Palace – Martina Franca

Restaurant – Martina Franca

Not far down the road from Martina Franca lies Locorotondo, a small, gleaming town rising from the Murgian Plateau.  Whitewashed buildings with unique, steep-pitched roofs rise from white, stone-paved piazzas and streets in old-town Locorotondo, giving the town an almost Greek feel, which is no coincidence given that so much of this region of Italy was part of Magna Grecia (greater Greece) in ancient times.  If my comprehension of Italian can be trusted, the Tourist Information office explained that, for hundreds of years Locorotondo has required its residents and businesses to paint their buildings white.  (Imagine the outrage this would cause in an American city.)  The effect, however, is stunning, particularly with bright red geraniums cascading down the walls from windows and balconies.



If the town of Locorotondo has a Greek feel to it, the town of Alberobello feels downright extra-terrestrial.  We encountered cute, stone-roofed dwellings throughout the countryside as we traveled between the Murgian hill towns.  (Fortunately we’d read about them; otherwise we would have been suspicious about the “shrooms” they’d served us in Martina Franca).  The dwellings are called “trulli.”  They are a bit like the stone ‘beehive’ huts we encountered in Ireland, although more elaborate.


The authentic trulli houses actually have dry stone roofs (no mortar is used for the stones), although contemporary trulli houses often add mortar and even add brick to the interiors of the ceilings.  The old town of Alberobello is a sort of “trulli” hill-town cascade, creating an effect of such utter cuteness that Disney would envy it.  Lonely Planet describes Alberobello as a sort of delightful habitat for gnomes.  Lois remarked that if you simply painted the Alberobello trulli village blue, the result would be “Smurfsville.”   As a natural consequence, Alberobello has been the only place in our travels in southern Italy where we encountered throngs of Asian and American tourists, although thankfully we were able to find a smaller, more authentic part of town where the trulli hadn’t been converted into souvenir/trinket shops.  We are now considering spending a night or two in one of the trulli later this month.  It’s one of those places you’ve just got to see.  It makes you smile.

Martina Franca

Trullo Smurfette

Lois and I recently spent four days in Pollino National Park in the region of southern Italy called Basilicata (in the arch of the “boot” of Italy).  This park includes the southernmost reach of the Appenines.  It’s the largest national park in all of Italy (one of only two habitats on earth for the magnificent loricate pine, AKA the Bosnian pine).

Loricate Pines on ridge in Pollino National Park

Lois and I had been amazed and delighted by the northern Appenines on our trip to Italy in 2009 and were just as surprised to find the Appenines here in extreme southern Italy this time around.  Beautiful hill towns are scattered throughout the foothills of the southern Appenines, towns like Mormanno, Rotondo, and Morano Calabro.

Morano Calabra

Residents of these towns are so unaccustomed to tourists that when they enter a restaurant, they greet each diner individually, as though each has lived there since birth.  The presence of strangers is not simply unusual; it sometimes seems baffling to them.

A drive through these towns generally involves vehicular navigation through piazzas that are populated almost entirely by street gangs consisting of several dozen shiftless octogenarian homey males milling about and refusing to yield to cars that have the audacity to trespass upon their turf, eyeing the drivers and passengers with suspicion and, in Lois’ case, apparent lust.  Italy is, unfortunately with some justification, reputed to be a country in which males consider it their God-given right to leer lasciviously at nice looking women.   Accordingly, I’ve developed the habit of being prepared to stare down those men who seem to be looking at Lois in inappropriate ways, but I have to admit that I was astonished to hear Lois’ report that as I was taking this photo of her standing next to Pasquale, the octogenarian church employee who had given us a personal tour of the sacred mysteries of the Church of Mary Magdelene, he was groping her behind.

Basilicata spans a region bordering on the Ionian Sea in the east (in the arch of the Italian boot) to the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west coast of Italy south of the Amalfi coast.  The most dramatic Basilicata town on the Tyrrhenian is Maratea.   It is a lovely coastal town with breathtaking views of the coastal mountains as they plunge into the sea.  What most people know as Maratea would not really qualify as a hill town, but there are several Marateas.  What is called Maratea Superiore is certainly a hill town….an amazing one.  It is nestled just below Jesus on the crest of this mountain.  (This particular statue of Jesus is 72 feet tall, the tallest in Europe, and one of the two tallest in the world, second only to Corcovado in Brazil.)

Maratea Superiore is an ancient town, now a ruin, built in the 8th Century BC as an ancient Greek colony.

Maratea Superiore ruins

Normally one doesn’t find many hill towns on the high-mountain peaks in the Alps, the Dolomites or the Appenines in Italy because the mountains there are simply too craggy and inaccessible.  Inaccessibility doesn’t seem to be a deterrent in southern Italy, however.  Outside of Italy few folks are aware that there are high alpine mountains called the Lucanian Dolomites in northern Basilicata.

Lucanian Dolomites

Chiseled into two of these jagged mountaintops are the towns of Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano.  Looking up from the base of these mountains, the towns simply seem to defy all laws of physics and common sense, but the construction of the city dates back to the Saracens in the 9th Century.


The views from the towns (including the views of approaching enemies) are incredible.  The highest peak in the town of Pietrapertosa is both a mountain pinnacle and a Norman fortress; the two cannot really be distinguished from one another.

Inside the fortress

View of Castelmezzano from Pietrapertosa

As we were admiring the views on a roadside turnout below one of the peaks of Pietrapertosa, Lois and I heard a strange whirring sound above us.  Apparently some enterprising soul had conceived the idea of stringing a cable from the top of one of the peaks in Pietrapertosa to the top of the peak at Castelmezzano, attaching a sling to the cable and offering thrill seekers the opportunity to zing across the valley on a zipline in a harness suspended nearly 2000 feet above the floor of the valley below.  It’s the longest zipline in Europe.  It’s called ‘Volo d’Angelo’ (flight of the angel) – which, God willing, is what one would become after dying of fright on this contraption.  Lois and I were both tempted…she more than I, but we had a very busy day ahead of us, and agreed to resist the temptation (translation: we chickened out).

From there we drove south through a gorgeous forested valley in the Parco Nazionale dell’Appenino Lucano to the eerily beautiful hill town of Aliano, made famous by Carlo Levi in his book entitled “Christ Stopped at Eboli.”  Levi’s fictional name for the town was Gagliano.  He was exiled to Aliano (Gagliano) by the fascists in WWII, and his book described the harsh living conditions and the spirituality in this region that, even as late as the late 1930’s, Catholicism had showed little interest in.  Levi describes a town of poverty and desperation.  It has been revived to some extent, but there are still remnants of the town Levi describes in such grim detail.

The geology changes dramatically in the region of Aliano.  The valleys that surround the town are starkly spectacular, looking much more like something one would find in the American canyon country of northern Arizona or southern Utah than anywhere else in Italy.

Basilicata landscape near Aliano

Countryside near Aliano

The slopes below the current town of Aliano, where the built environment gives way to the hill that supports the town, are dotted with caves that have been bored into the barren hillside.  These caves were reminiscent of what we had encountered a few days earlier in Matera –  the town in eastern Basilicata that Lois and I consider the most fascinating of all Italian hill towns.

Matera is a haunting town, perhaps the most ancient on the very ancient Italian peninsula.  Its settlements were established so long ago in pre-history that Matera makes the early days of Rome and Pompeii seem recent.   It is a town embedded into stone hillsides.


Many of its dwellings and churches are called sassi (the Italian term for stones) because at least parts of them were literally carved into rock.  Many are no more than caves.

Matera Sassi

For at least 5,000 years (through the 1950’s) people lived in these sassi in conditions which, until exposed by Carlo Levi and others, were so difficult that the infant mortality rate was still close to 50% in the 1950’s.  After a government-mandated evacuation and rehabilitation of the sassi, the community has been made habitable and healthy, and many of the sassi businesses, churches and dwellings are in use once again.  For me, Matera is the place on earth where the sense of continuity between the earliest and most recent civilizations is strongest, but there is still something unsettling about being there.  When I walk along the streets of Matera and step into the sassi, it feels as though there are ghosts all around me.

Sassi Church – Matera

Can we all get along?

Warning:  Graphic depictions of violence and history are contained in this post!

Although I’ve blogged about the beauty of the Adriatic coast, there is much more worth saying about our experiences in Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Slovenia.   Our travels through these countries that once comprised the nation of Yugoslavia would have been impossible ten years ago.  The break-up of Yugoslavia from 1991 through much of the first decade of the 21st century had been bloody and, at times, genocidal.  There is a certain strangeness to the enjoyment of tourist activities in a region of the world that had, until very recently, been experiencing so much suffering.

Our home for the first few weeks of July was only a few miles from Dubrovnik, a beautiful old city of red-roofed buildings surrounded by a high, continuous wall, which in turn is almost completely surrounded by the blue Adriatic.

The city wall, (and its attached forts) were built in the 15th Century to repel attackers.  It wasn’t used for this purpose until late in the 20th Century.

I still recall the news reports of the tragic bombardment of Dubrovnik in 1991.  This city is a historic treasure on the southern tip of Croatia.  When Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the war centered in northern Croatia.  It was a tremendous surprise when the Serb-led forces of Yugoslavia then attacked Dubrovnik, especially because this threatened a world-heritage site that seemed to have no strategic value.   The siege of Dubrovnik is one of several horrific events that turned world opinion against the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav government.  Although the Croatian army was occupied with battles to the north, a few dozen soldiers were able to dig in on Mt. Srd (prounounced Surge), which rises immediately above the walled city, to prevent the Yugoslav army from using it to lob artillery shells straight down on the city.

Still the Yugoslavs attacked the historic section of the city from other points, shelling the ancient buildings and walls.  Rather than leaving the city, many residents took cover inside their homes and in the forts at the corners of the city walls.  Some defended the city with whatever weaponry they could muster (in some cases hunting rifles) and held out for eight months until the Croatian army was able to make its way down from the north and drive off the Yugoslav attackers.   There were over a thousand Croat casualties in Dubrovnik, and two-thirds of the buildings in the historic old-town were damaged.  Dubrovnik, for reasons of national pride as well as economic recovery from war, has worked incredibly hard over just two decades to make the damage invisible, but in the walk that we took atop the walls of the old city with our friends Shaun and John,

repaired damage was not hard to spot …in the lighter colored, newly mortared patterns of stone and in the brighter patches of red tile in the roofs of buildings throughout the city.

Note the repaired, bright red roofs next to the older, darker roofs.

The four of us also attended the opening of a yearly summer arts festival, which featured fireworks over the city.  The fireworks were preceded by three or four loud blasts of what sounded like cannon fire – which rattled our insides.  Then fireworks filled the air over Dubrovnik, and it was impossible for me to imagine how anyone who had survived the siege of Dubrovnik would be able to endure the evening.

On the city walls of old-town Dubrovnik

A week later the four of us travelled to northern Croatia… to one of the world’s most beautiful national parks – Plitvice Jazera.  I described the beauty of this place in my last post, but here are a few more photos to serve as a reminder:

Plitvice Jezera is where the war between Croatia and Serb-led Yugoslavia had begun.  When Croatia declared its independence, there were over a half million people of Serbian ancestry in Croatia, many of them living in the area around Pitvice.  The new, extreme right-wing Croatian leader, Franjo Tudman (pronounced Tujman), began reintroducing some of the politics and symbols of the Croatian Ustase (a WW II-era puppet Nazi government of Croatian nationalists that had conducted a campaign of genocide against Serbs, resulting in hundreds of thousands of executions in concentration camps).  People of Serbian ancestry in Croatia were terrified and declared their own independence from the rest of Croatia, and aided by the Serbian-led Yugoslav army, established their own independent nation of Serbian Krajina in the northeastern region surrounding Plitvice.   This was one of the places made infamous by Serbian forces who conducted their own genocidal campaign of “ethnic cleansing ” against the Croats,  another event that turned world opinion against the Yugoslav army, and eventually resulted in the trial of (Serbian) Yugoslav leader Slobadan Milosevic for war crimes.  Many thousands simply disappeared; mass graves are still being found.   The Croatian army retaliated three years later after acquiring more sophisticated weaponry, and brought an end to Serbian Krajina, killing thousands of Serbian Croats and demolishing the homes of many others in the process.   So many were killed or driven out of Croatia that very few of the half-million Croats of Serbian ancestry remain in Croatia presently.  U.S. media vilified the Serbs, and not without reason, but there seems to have been plenty of villainy to go around.  This seems to be one of the consequences of war.  Neither the Serbs nor the Croats can claim to have clean hands or hearts.  The thought that this much ugliness and bloodshed had its origins in Plitvice National Park, which has such an abundance of life and beauty, is impossible for me to fathom.

It was in Bosnia-Herzegovena that we saw the most striking effects of the war in our travels.  The Dubrovnik area is within a half-hour’s drive of Bosnia-Herzogovena.  In her recent blog, Lois discussed a trip we took to the Bosnian town of Mostar.   We could see bombed-out buildings in small villages on the road leading to Mostar.  Bosnia-Herzogovena combines two regions, most of which is the largely Muslim Bosnia in the northern and central parts, but a smaller part of which is the largely Serbian (and thus Orthodox Christian) Herzegovena in the most southerly regions.  Croats (who are Roman Catholics) are sprinkled throughout the country.  Overall, the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovena is more Muslim than anything else, although its Serbs and Croats form a substantial minority.  Boznia-Herzegovena is one of the most diverse Balkan nations.  When Bosnia-Herzegovena declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the Bosnian Serb minority wanted to remain part of a Serb-controlled Yugoslavia.  They responded by….of course….creating their own Serbian state within Bosnia-Herzegovena, led by Radovan Karadzic and supported by the Serb-led Yugoslav forces.  Aided by those forces, they began a campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” this time against the largely Muslim Bosnians, and they conducted it with a viciousness born of generations of hatred and ethnic and religious prejudice – employing concentration camps and indiscriminate killings of families (including women and children), as well as mass rapes, which were the subject of many news reports during the 1990’s.  Croats in Bosnia also demanded their own state, creating a large-scale “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” scenario with the Bosniaks in the middle.  The Bosnian town of Mostar was actually bombarded by Croats, not Serbs.  This is an exquisite town on the banks of the beautiful Neretva  River.

The town is filled with elegant Muslim minarets as well as Catholic bell towers;

and a lovely walkway flanked by stands offering artisan products for sale,

including beautiful jewelry, clothing, rugs, ceramics, and, more disturbingly, a conglomeration of items that had been fashioned from the bits of battle paraphernalia that have been so easy to find in Mostar since the time of the war.  The array of ballpoint pens made from bullet-shell casings was especially chilling and left me wondering how people who have experienced such indescribable suffering at the hands of war can use the trappings of that same war to support themselves afterwards.

In the middle of this walkway was a historic bridge – called “Stari Most” (Old Bridge).  It was built in the 16th Century on the orders of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, a name that our friend John announced, to our surprise, that he intended to adopt for himself.  We now address him as “Your Magnificence” for short.  This led to a naming frenzy in which Shaun took on the name Dushan the Mighty, after a 14th Century Serbian emperor who kept the peace in the towns of the Montenegrin Bay of Kotor by hacking off the limbs of criminals.  I know this curtailed any shoplifting impulses I might have otherwise had on our trips together (well, that and the fact that they named me St. George – probably due to my irritating tendency to wander into old churches).  Lois was dubbed Queen Teuta, after 3rd Century BC Illyrian queen who controlled the narrow Verige Strait of the Bay of Kotor by ordering the placement of a shipwrecking device in the strait that would serve as incentive for ships to pay taxes to her – a strategy that, as a professional finance manager, Lois expressed admiration for.  Still something about the name didn’t sound quite right for Lois; so we appended it, and she became Queen Teuta Matata.

My apologies for the frivolous interlude above.  It is inexcusable, and it won’t happen again.  I now return to the topic of the original Suleyman the Magnificent’s Old Bridge in Mostar.

The bridge was the longest single-arch stone bridge in the world in the 16th Century.  Mostar residents were so fond of the bridge that they often referred to it as “Old Friend.”

This photo is not of the original bridge; it is a reconstruction using rock from the same quarry as the original and rebuilt according to the original design.  Despite their campaigns of brutality against each other, Croatian and Serbian leaders had agreed to carve up Bosnia-Herzegovena between them, and Mostar was to be part of the new Croatia, to the great surprise of the Bosniaks.  As they had in Dubrovnik, Croat forces had secured the high ground of a mountain overlooking the bridge,

however, in this case they were not the victims but rather the perpetrators of the destruction of a cherished historic monument, raining down artillery fire on the bridge until the Old Friend collapsed into the Neretva, the disintegrating pink mortar in the bridge turning the Neretva’s blue-green waters red as it fell.  What happened to the bridge is representative of what happened to the entire city of Mostar.  It was essentially destroyed, and the rebuilding of Mostar, although well underway, lags well behind the rebuilding of Dubrovnik, as can be seen in this photo.

Note the hole in the white building on the right caused by artillery.

The eventual political compromise for Bosnia-Herzegovena resulted in a nation divided into three virtually autonomous entities, one of which is the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.  On our return from Mostar, we drove through Srpska.  Although there is no border crossing, it is clear when you are there: the churches are Orthodox; the highway signs are written only in Cyrillic; and a Serbian-style flag replaces the Boznia-Herzegovenan flag.

Lois’ blog mentions the difficulties we had with currency in Trebinje, a beautiful city in the Sprska region.  Rather than conduct a $2.50 transaction using kuna (a currency used 20 minutes across the border in Croatia) the coffee shop proprietor spent 25 minutes tracking down a less offensive currency (the euro) in which to conduct business.

The question that hangs in the Balkan air is whether the current peace will last.   Although I’m quite sure that most residents of what was once Yugoslavia dearly wish the answer to that question were “yes,” it is not an answer that they are prone to give.  We spoke to a woman who said that she remained in her home country of Montenegro only because she loved the land.

Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor

The people of the Balkans (and, to some extent, Europeans in general) she seemed to regard with disgust, saying that they are incapable of shedding their narrow and hateful attitudes toward their neighbors.  She had spent 20 years living in America, and admired Americans for what she considered their more open attitudes.  I was surprised to hear a Montenegrin woman say this…for several reasons.  Montenegro, having had close ties with Serbia, was not subject to hostilities with the Serb-led Yugoslavian government; so it escaped damage during the wars surrounding the dissolution of Yugoslavia.  But it had sustained tremendous suffering at the hands of the Americans during World War II.  The taxi driver who took us to the airport in Montenegro’s capital of Podgerice for our flight to Slovenia mentioned to us that more bombs were dropped on the city of Podgerice than on any other city in World War II with the exception of Dresden, Germany.  The Nazis had occupied much of Montenegro after Italy had essentially surrendered to the Allies in 1943, and toward the end of the war as the Nazis were retreating from Greece and Albania, the Americans conducted at least three major bombing attacks on Podgerice in order to root out the Germans.  Of course, the casualties from the bombing were largely Montenegrins, and Montenegrins to this day question both the legitimacy and the need for the bombings.  It is something that Americans are largely unaware of, but most Montenegrins have not forgotten.

We were surprised to hear a rather pessimistic message a few weeks later from a Slovenian museum historian.  We had arrived less than a half-hour before closing, but she very generously kept the museum open for us long afterward.  She lingered with us for the better part of an hour, eager to share with two Americans her insights about the history of Yugoslavia, Italy, Germany and Austria from World War I to the present.  I mentioned my own reaction to news reports about Yugoslavia in the late 1980’s in which the Yugoslavs being interviewed by reporters discussed the upcoming war as though it were inevitable.  My reaction at the time had been that they clearly do not know whereof they speak.  If they only realized that they were accepting the inevitability of their friends having their throats slit, their daughters being raped, their sons being blown to bits and their homes being destroyed, surely they would not accept war as inevitable.  When I said this to the museum historian, she replied that it was these very sorts of things that had caused hatred to fester within people through the generations, making them even more inclined to resort to war in the future.  It is a cycle she found reprehensible but could see no escape from.  Even though Slovenia was able to secede from Yugoslavia with relative ease in 1991 (their independence was gained after only ten days of fighting with Yugoslavia), she regarded the current period of peace in the Balkans as a mere pause in a war that was not over.

The conflict that had torn Slovenia apart occurred over a century ago — World War I, a war that many historians to this day consider avoidable.  The event that is generally regarded as having started the “War to End All Wars” was the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne by a Serbian nationalist.  As Italy entered the war, it quickly attacked Austrian-controlled towns in the mountains of Slovenia, just across the border in the valley of the Soce River, the beautiful turquoise river that cuts through the Slovenian Alps, which I described in my last post.

Soce River


There followed a brutal alpine war of attrition that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths by everything from artillery, to gunfire, to poison gas, to hypothermia.  Conditions in the trenches were horrific.  The Soce River Valley is now called the valley of the cemeteries as a result.  On the hiking trail that led to this waterfall

we dipped down into foxholes that were used by WWI  soldiers.  Bunkers and forts are dotted throughout the Slovenian Alps.  When traveling through the Soce River Valley, it is hard to imagine that it could ever be anything less than lovely,

but the photos of the valley during the First World War show how warfare can make even the most stunning environments look hideous.

Mountain camp above the Soce River – WWI 

The two-and-a-half-year stalemate between the Italians and Austrians in WWI was finally broken in 1917 when Germany sent its forces to help the Austrians, and, using a tactic that would come to be called “Blitzkrieg” in the next world war, drove the Italians out of Slovenia and back to the western side of the Adriatic.  Out of all of this violence the nation of Yugoslavia was born, a very tenuous marriage of convenience between Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (Bosnians were essentially left out of the deal) that was marred by assassinations of political leaders by Serbian and Croat nationalists.  The country was on the brink of collapse when the Nazis took control in 1941, leaving in their wake a legacy of genocide and a quagmire of mutual hatred and resentment between Serbs and Croats, Slovenians, Yugoslav partisans (ultimately led by Tito), Bosnians, Albanians, Italians, Germans and Austrians.  Lois and I took a rafting trip on the Soce River

A young Austrian man was one of the paddlers in our raft.  When I mentioned to him how much Slovenia reminded me of Austria, he responded that, by all rights, Slovenia should still be a part of Austria as it had been before WWI.

Earlier in the spring Lois and I had visited Brijuni, a beautiful island off the Istrian coast of Croatia that has been made into a national park.

Brijune Island

It also serves as a monument to Marshal Tito, the person who, against all odds, was able to unify the factionalized Yugoslavia in the post World War II era through the Cold War period.  Tito had a large vacation home on Brijune where he often hosted international leaders.

Belonging to a family of Croatians, Slovenians and Serbs, Tito was an extraordinarily charismatic person who was in a unique position to lead a unified Yugoslavia.   Although communist, he was no Soviet puppet and in fact became a leader of the non-aligned nations during the Cold War.   The exhibits on the island virtually deified Tito, and to this day many from ex-Yugoslav nations, especially Slovenia and Croatia, consider him a hero.  Yet nothing is simple in the Balkans.  Others, even some Slovenians, consider him a monster who had conducted a campaign of torture and execution to silence his opponents and solidify his power.

Of all of the former Yugoslavian peoples the Slovenians seemed to me to be the most open and outgoing.  Residents of most other ex-Yugoslavian nations seemed, to varying degrees, more wary….of foreigners….of people they didn’t know.  Still, even among these friendly Slovenians in this most economically successful of all the ex-Yugoslavian nations, even in this region that had avoided most of the bloodshed surrounding the disintegration of Yugoslavia, there is pessimism…rooted in wounds that are over a century old.

But the pessimism is not universal.  Over glasses of wine on our terrace overlooking Lake Como, Lois and I discussed these issues with our neighbors, a young couple named Benjamin and Lucy.  Benjamin believed that the animosities and prejudices that had plagued Europe were largely afflictions of the older generations that the new generations simply did not share.  Although I know that many others, particularly in the ex-Yugoslavian nations, would be skeptical of the ability of youth to shed their parents’ prejudices, there are also expressions of hope to be found in other quarters, specifically in the words of Slovenia’s national poet, France Preseren in his poem, Zdravljica (“A Toast”). Here is a verse from that poem:

God’s blessing on all nations

Who long and work for that bright day,

When o’er earth’s habitation

No war, no strife shall hold its sway;

Who long to see

That all men free

No more shall foes, but neighbors be.


These have become the words of Slovenia’s national anthem.  May it be so.

The Sky Over the Soce River

The Gaeltacht


Although Ireland (at least the Republic of Ireland) officially gained its independence from England in 1949 after seven centuries of English domination, cultural independence has been slower in coming, particularly given the prominence of the English language in Ireland.  Before the Great Famine most Irish spoke traditional Irish Gaelic (here they simply call it Irish).  In the second half of the 19th Century, English was recommended as the language that would enable people to escape hunger and poverty to a life of opportunity in North America or Australia.  Now only about five percent of Irish people speak Irish Gaelic fluently, and they live primarily in the Gaeltacht, which is located mainly in coastal regions in western Ireland like the Dingle Peninsula, Galway, the Connemara and the Aran Islands.  Ireland is putting tremendous effort into reviving the Irish language.  It’s compulsory for Irish students, who are required to take as many as eight years of instruction in their native Irish tongue.   All over Ireland, the highway signs are in both Irish and English (Irish coming first).

This actually wasn’t the photograph I wanted to place in this spot. Going through security at Dublin Airport, I took a cool photograph of the incredibly long Irish Gaelic phrase for “No photographs,” but I was forced to delete it from my camera.  Airport security agents apparently have no appreciation of paradox.

For the residents of Dingle, the Connemara, and the Aran Islands English seems to be an afterthought. They don’t even bother to put English on the signs, despite the fact that on any given day from May through September there are far more English-speaking tourists in these places than residents.  Although I love languages, I think the three that I’ve struggled to gain a bit of competency in will not allow any others in, so that when we see a road sign that says “kill” (actually spelled “cill), Lois always has to remind me that it refers to a place of worship rather than a strategy being recommended to Irish motorists.  There are only two Irish words I seem to have retained.  One is “craic” pronounced ‘crack.’  It means ‘good times.’  The other is slainte (pronounced ‘slawncha’).  It pretty much means the same thing, except that you say it when you raise your pint in a pub.

On the way from Toehead to our next Irish destination, we stopped at Kilarney National Park.  We once asked an Irish tour guide whether it was supposed to rain that afternoon.  She responded that, in Ireland it’s always either raining or about to rain.  On our travel day to Kilarney it was not about to rain; it was raining.  They tell us this is the rainiest June they’ve had in Ireland in several decades.  When Lois and I travel, this sort of thing is always happening. This past winter was the coldest winter they’d had in Florence since the Arno River froze in the Little Ice Age.  When we lived in Florence in 2009, old timers were saying they hadn’t seen such a rainy winter since the Arno flooded in 1333.  I think if we traveled to Antarctica temperatures would hit the 90’s and palm trees would start sprouting.  As far as Ireland is concerned, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s always the rainiest month they’ve ever had.

As we drove over Moll’s Gap through the green, treeless mountain terrain and started descending toward Kilarney, we stopped at Ladies View, a turnout that one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting had called ‘the finest view in the land’ over a century ago.

Even in the rain, it was beautiful.

Ladies View.

We lingered for an afternoon in Kilarney National Park, hiking to waterfalls

and lakes.

We visited Muckross House, built by a wealthy man from the big island to the east (of course).  It was later donated to the park, along with thousands of acres of land, by one of his descendants.  The house has a stunning view of Lough Leane.




Front yard, Muckross House

Our destination for the evening was the town of Dingle, a delightful town, small by any measure, yet still the largest on the Dingle Peninsula.  We spent the night in a lovely bed and breakfast a few miles west of Dingle Town with a beautiful view of  Coventry  Bay.

View of the front lawn and pond.

The Dingle Peninsula is the westernmost point in Ireland.  Locals say the next parish over is Boston.  Dingle is one of a trio of west-facing Irish peninsulas that tourists flock to.  Even more than most towns in the Gaeltacht, Dingle is famous for Irish music (the Irish Gaelic word for this is ‘trad’), unamplified traditional Irish tunes played on instruments like the melodeon (an Irish version of an accordion), Irish flutes, fiddles, guitars, banjos and uilleann pipes (a sort of bag pipe inflated by elbow action rather than by the lungs). The instrumentalists typically sit in a booth reserved for musicians surrounding a table covered with pints of Guinness (if the pub is closer to Dublin) or Murphy’s (if the pub is closer to Cork).  The Irish have tremendous loyalty both to their stout and to their city hurling team.  Not to be confused with what Americans do in Ireland after a night of stout at the pub, hurling is actually a sport… in which team members sling hard balls with long boomerang-shaped sticks in the direction of an understandably terrified goalie.   In Ireland hurling is at least as big as soccer (yes, the Irish do call it soccer in order to distinguish it from Gaelic football, another charmingly violent recreational activity).

You’ve got to pick your pub carefully.  We’ve been to one in Galway that resembled a teeming mosh-pit of youths, each one trying to bump and jostle past all of the others on the way to the only toilet in the establishment while holding a glass filled with sloshing, foaming brown liquid.   We chose one in Dingle that was recommended in the Rick Steves Guide to Ireland.  It’s called Moriarty’s, just down the road from a place called the Craic House (see above for pronunciation of ‘craic’).  Rick Steves’ only reservation about the place was that there are quite a few German and American tourists that frequent Moriarty’s.  The place looked inviting; we went in and found a table.   On one side of us was a pair of Germans, on the other a family from Wisconsin.  That’s why Rick Steves gets the big bucks.  Like Lois and I, the Germans were traveling the world, although they were working – as travel photo journalists – a job I’m planning to put in an application for in my next life.  We talked about the places we had been.  In their case it was pretty much everywhere.  When we asked them about their favorite places on Earth, two topped their list.  Bali was one.  We’d already planned to go there in October.  The Slovenian Alps were another.  We’re revising our summer itinerary to add a stop there.   After the Germans left the pub, we chatted with the Wisconsonians (one of whom was a delightful and adventurous young woman who had just finished a year studying ethnomusicology in Cork), and we listened to live Irish trad music.  A ‘trad’ music session always gives the impression that a group of buddies just decided on the spur of the moment to grab instruments and start playing tunes in someone’s kitchen around a breakfast nook.  Whenever the musicians would pause for a break, a short man with mischievous eyes would move to the center of the circle to tell an Irish tale with an outrageous and sometimes offensive punch-line.  It was totally craic.




Want ad at Moriarty’s

The next morning our bed and breakfast hosts made us a wonderful breakfast while we caught traces of Irish Gaelic conversation drifting from the kitchen.   Fortunately, our host Noirin also spoke excellent English, and she made some suggestions about places to visit on the loop we were planning to take around the peninsula.

I’ve mentioned Queen Victoria’s retinue’s claim that ‘Ladies View” has the finest view in the land.  Many places in Ireland make the same claim, and in some sense, they’re all right.  Here are a few potential candidates from the Dingle Peninsula.

Although the Beara Peninsula is the least touted of the three main peninsulas in southwest Ireland, I have no idea why.  Here are a few photos of the second runner-up.






There is a price to be paid for all of this beauty.  This is what you have to do to get across the Beara Peninsula.


The Iveragh Peninsula is rimmed by the famous roadway called the Ring of Kerry.  One of the following views was advertised as the best view in Ireland.   They charged 8 euro (about 11 bucks) per person.  Loveliness is not cheap.






At the very western tip of the Ring of Kerry, we picnicked on a beach and looked out at the Skelig Islands.  While surfers rode the waves, right behind them a half dozen gannets plummeted from the sky before our eyes like arrows into the bay.

The gannets were too fast for the camera lens, but we did manage to catch this human being.

Farther north near the Burren are the Cliffs of Moher, the most visited national park in all of Ireland, certainly in the running for “Ireland’s Loveliest View.”

Achieving a state of Moher on the Cliffs

Then, of course, there are the Aran Islands and the Connemara, the photos of which I’m reluctant to enter into this post for fear that the computer’s aesthetic wow-o-meter will overload, bursting a seam in the fragile fabric of cyberspace.

Folks fond of music may well have heard of the town of Doolin.  People from all over the world travel there to see Irish trad music of the highest quality — for the price of a Guinness or a Murphys (they seem to swing both ways in Doolin).  After getting blissed out on the Cliffs of Moher, we needed a place to hyperventilate, and Doolin was just down the road.  Doolin’ is not Nashville…or London….or Paris.   This music mecca is a village populated by just over 500 folks clustered around a tiny piece of Irish coastline.  We left our Nissan rental car where it had a spectacular view of the Atlantic and slipped into Gus O’Connor’s pub for some Euro 2012 soccer and trad music.  We ordered up some veggie pub food (chips and chips), and settled in to watch Italy play England, while Irish music drifted in from the adjacent room.  There was definitely ambivalence in my loyalties.  We’d spent a long time in both Italy and England.  The couple to our right was from Genoa — their loyalties were clear.  The guy I chatted with at the bar when I ordered another Bulmer’s (I never did get the hang of swilling beer) was an English tourist.  There was a small cohort of English tourists.  But everyone else in this pub was Irish, and as soon as the game started it was as though the contest was between the army of Gaelic commander Hugh O’Neill and the forces of Queen Elizabeth I.  When England went down in a shootout after regular (and overtime) play resulted in a scoreless tie (validating my complaints about this aspect of soccer in a previous post), there was utter pandemonium at O’Connors.  The Irish were happier about the English loss than the Italian couple was about their team’s victory.  Ireland does not have a good soccer team;  Ireland was defeated decisively by Croatia, a country that has existed as a nation for less than two decades.  Unlike America, to which so many Irish have emigrated, or the kingdom on the other side of the Irish Sea that lost its soccer game to the Italians, Ireland is not a great military or economic power.  It is so much more than this; it is a cultural and aesthetic treasure.  After the game, we listened to a trio of truly talented Irish musicians do one of the things the Irish can do like no one else — play jigs and reels that music lovers from all of the world travel to hear.





At 10:30 pm we were driving back to Galway, basking in the glow of the music and the deep twilight that framed the outlines of a coastline so spectacular that it overwhelms the capacity of the English language.  Of course, there is another language that was born in this part of the world — the Irish language.  If there’s any hope of capturing this land and these people, I think that’s where it must lie.  As they say in Irish, “Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste”  (Bad Irish is better than clever English).



Before leaving for Europe, I’d mentioned to a British friend that we would be staying in Derbyshire, England for three weeks in May, and his immediate response was, ‘why?’   It is true that Derbyshire tends not to rank very high on the list of European destinations.  Still, we had reasons for choosing to stay there.  First of all, the house was an elegant manor house on a half-acre of land in the English countryside surrounded by an expansive lawn and lovely garden, an ideal place to retreat for a bit after my final semester of work and gather strength for the eight months of aggressive tourist activities that lay ahead of us.


This was well planned because no sooner had we arrived than Lois and I both came down with respiratory ailments that left us quasi-incapacitated for two weeks.   Our second reason was that Derbyshire gave us access to the Lake District, Wales and the Peak District, which would have been much more difficult to reach from London.   As we got back on our feet, though, we were able to walk the trail along the canal that connects up with the River Trent, and we found Derbyshire itself to be charming.  It was May; the earth was dark and wet; trees and flowers were blooming; everything was deep green. 

Our friends Janice and Steve Chapman, owners of the home in Derbyshire, had left us National Trust passes, which gave us free access to a number of England’s palaces, castles, gardens and parks.  We made good use of these, visiting Calke Abbey and Gardens three times

Kedelston House and Gardens, which had recently hosted the “Bearded Theory” festival, a funky, wild music extravaganza that celebrates beardedness.   ZZ Top did not make an appearance, however.   The house and gardens, though, were anything but funky.

Melbourne Hall and Gardens

Chatsworth House and Gardens in the Peak District, setting of a recent “Pride and Prejudice” film starring Kiera Knightly.

The gardens are known as pleasure grounds, which actually makes them sound vaguely erotic ….in a Victorian sort of way.  They are truly….luvely.

Pleasure Garden Inhabitant

The mansions  were magnificent, the architecture was grand, and the artwork displayed inside was impressive.  In Kedelston it was actually inspired by the Italian renaissance.   Always evident in tours of these mansions was the strict separation between classes that existed in traditional English culture.  Extraordinary efforts were made to enable the nobility to avoid contact with gardeners and other servants, who were sometimes forced to use tunnels to move from place to place so that the lords and ladies of the household weren’t forced to cast their eyes upon them.

Lois and I spent an evening attempting to understand the hierarchy of British titles (king, queen, duke, duchess, prince, earl, baron, baronet, sir, dame, squire, peasant, vermin, etc.), but it was even more inscrutable than a college administrative organizational chart, and I have to confess that I simply lack the ability to comprehend the details.

Preparations were being made for the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, a celebration of her 60-year reign over the United Queendom.  Unfortunately, we left England just as the Jubilee was beginning.  I don’t fully grasp the nature of the celebration, but I understand it involves a good deal of pomp, pageantry, partying down and getting totally pissed.  In honor of the Queen, Lois and I even attempted to divine the hereditary rules governing a person’s accession to the throne, or to a dukedom, or ownership of a Rose-and-Crown pub franchise.  Lois seems to grasp the essential details, but they still elude me.   My ancestors are from the other side of the Irish Sea, and as far as I’m concerned, the rightful rulers of the British Isles would need to trace their ancestry back either to St. Patrick or Oscar Wilde—a task that would frustrate even the cleverest of genealogists.

Preparations were also being made for the Olympics to be held in England later this summer.  People seem to be trotting through every neighborhood park, palace and pub with an Olympic torch.  Fearing what promises to be a poor showing in the Games by the host team, England has convinced the International Olympic Committee to add a new competition to the Games – royal fox hunting from helicopter gunships.  Prince William is the odds on favorite for the gold; Prince Harry for the Silver; and Sarah Palin for the Bronze.