Missouri’s Kansas City is undergoing a revival that’s attracting businesses back from the suburbs and especially from that “other” Kansas City.
“We live and eat from the land. Pachamama is our mother and we have to respect her.” Juana, spiritual healer
Our guide pulled the Land Rover off the road and stopped the engine. The lights were off; we were in total blackness and silence. I asked,“¿Cuál es el problema?” believing something must be wrong with the car. Opening the door, he replied, “No hay problema. Las estrellas.” As eyes adjusted, the sky was ablaze with stars. The Milky Way was a sash of white gauze. The Southern Cross stood out clearly despite competition from a few million other constellations. Satellites passed overhead. Stars sparkled white, blue and red. The dome of the planet was a Christmas display. At 10,000 feet elevation in the middle of the Andes Mountains, there were no ambient lights to dim the awe we were experiencing.
No wonder for thousands of years the indigenous peoples of the Andes have worshiped the land as a living force and looked upon the Pachamama – the Earth Mother – as their benevolent protector. The mountain environment provides for the people – pack animals, meat, cloth, water from the glaciers for drinking and irrigating the parched land.
Despite Inca and Spanish conquest, both the indigenous cultures and the Pachamama remain. Jesuit missionaries were far too intelligent to attempt a wholesale, and fruitless, change of attitude. They could understand the correlation between Catholic beliefs in the Virgin Mary with that of the Pachamama and interwove their veneration. Roadside shrines can be seen today in the most remote mountain areas with statues to the Virgin Mary with traditional offerings to the Pachamama of food, jewelry, figurines, coca leaves and hundreds of burning candles.
The Quebrada de Humahuaca
Argentina’s Andean Northwest is home to cultures that have called it home for 9,000 years. Irrigation canals constructed 3,000 years ago still water fields. 3,500 year old villages are alive with people in traditional clothing except it’s not a fashion statement. Hornos, outdoor clay ovens, are the center of the kitchen; adobe houses are constructed as a community effort without power tools.
The ancient village of Tilcara, 1,100 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, is an excellent base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. The mountain enclave of Iruya is reached only after a surreal six hour journey. At 13,000 feet, the Salinas Grande Salt Flats seem like a different planet, and not too far north, near the Bolivian border, the legendary Ruta 40 begins its 5,000 mile journey to Tierra del Fuego.
Brown is the color of Tilcara, but don’t let that deter you from staying. Its brown adobe buildings, tan stone streets and dusty countryside provide a beige backdrop for the stunning multi-colored reds, greens and pinks of the surrounding mountains. The brown of Tilcara is also a foil for the bright colors of indigenous handicrafts – multi colored garments made from soft alpaca and llama wool along with many forms of pottery based on ancient designs. The senses are entertained by the aromas from food stalls selling humitas – a creamy corn and cheese mixture wrapped in corn husks – empanadas – an Andalucian savory pastry first made by the Moors of North Africa – fresh grilled tortillas and the incomparable Andean goat’s milk cheese Queso de Cabra.
Angels and Folk Heros
To explore the rugged countryside of the Quebrada requires a four-wheel drive vehicle. Many of the roads are unpaved, twisty and narrow. The journey to Iruya explored a surreal mountain landscape – barren and rocky, nearly unpopulated, at elevations exceeding 9,000 feet – punctuated by tiny villages and steep valleys shrouded in clouds. In Uquia’s 17th century Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula is a priceless collection of the Angeles Arcabuceros(Angels with Guns). The paintings depict winged angels fully dressed as conquistadors bearing guns and swords – not too subtle Spanish Colonial propaganda. Several miles further I spied a road side shrine to folk hero Gauchito Gill. Throughout Argentina, shines to this 19th century gaucho Robin Hood are visible on rural road sides identifiably draped with red banners. He is especially revered in the north where he led a peasant rebellion against landowners, was captured and executed. Numerous miracles have been attributed to Gauchito Gil, and he has a large cult-like following. Red banners and depictions of Gil’s heroism are frequently superimposed on the cross and may be flanked by the unlikely triumvirate of Evita Peron, Che Guevara and the last ruling Inca, Tupac Amaru.
Our guide had prepared a picnic lunch. Before eating he poured a portion of our drinking water onto the soil. It was the offering to the Pachamama. This was not a gesture to fascinate tourists – this was for real.
Iruya, with a population of 4,300 at an altitude of 9,120 feet is perched on the mountainside high above the Rio Iruya. Its white buildings, dominated by its much photographed Igelsia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario y San Roque, gleam in the sun as they rise in a jumble up the green-brown hills. Many of its streets are literally stone staircases and negotiating this labyrinth can be bewildering at first when the street dead ends at the door of a house.
Salinas Grande Salt Flats
The following day our excursion to the Salinas Grande Salt Flats traversed numerous switchbacks as we climbed through the spectacle of the Cuesta de Lipan offering panoramas of snow covered peaks and barren steppe. A road side marker indicated the highest point for this route, 13,344 feet. As we descended, the gleaming salt flats came into view. Amid the treeless, brown countryside of the altiplano, the vast Salinas Grande Salt Flats reflected the sun like an immense solar collector. These are among the world’s largest and highest naturally renewing salt flats in existence covering an area of 3,200 square miles. Salt extraction has gone on for decades using unchanged hand methods. Walking on the flats is nothing less than other-worldly. In the thin winter air at 12,000 feet the strong wind was biting yet the experience exhilarating. Sunglasses are necessary – the glare off the salt is blinding without them. The flats resemble cracked concrete except there’s a crunch under your feet.
Comunidad Aborigen Tres Pozas
Comunidad Aborigen Tres Pozas is eight miles west of the flats, and the only human settlement for many miles in any direction. It’s the home for most of the workers and consists of a few dozen simple adobe buildings as brown as the surrounding desert. The winter winds were creating a sand storm. Sand whipped by high winds can find its way through closed car windows and doors lodging everywhere inside your clothing, your mouth, nose and ears. The café, Comedor Las Guapas Salineras, is not an establishment any guide book would recommend for dining, but I’d highly recommend if you want to actualize that overused phrase “an authentic experience.” The education is startling and humbling. For an absurdly small price, coupled with genuine kindness and effort, you dine on simple food in conditions few of us would ever accept.
We were startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window with shouts of “tsunami…evacuate.” Stunned, we learned that a Pacific wide warning, following Chili’s catastrophic 27 February 2010 earthquake, had been issued. Throwing our clothes into the car, not knowing if we’d see the beautiful Japanese-style beach rental house again, we decided to drive the 40 minutes up the mountain into Volcano National Park.
Stopping first for gas, my wife, Jill, went into the store next door for bottled water while I waited in line. Hawaii’s beautiful pink dawn was breaking as I observed the locals in no particular rush, certainly no panic. Jill returned with water and a 12-pack of toilet paper. “Toilet paper?” “Everyone was buying toilet paper so…” her voice trailed off. Was she in shock? Laughter convulsed us both as relief replaced fright. At least if we had to camp …
Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanoes – Kilauea – in an island chain born of volcanoes. We stood on an observation platform, in the middle of the devastating lava field caused by Kilauea’s most recent eruptions, with a sweeping view of the stunning coastline. Then it struck. No, not the waves, the realization we had fled to the safety of an active volcano to escape a possible tsunami.
Nine hours later, as the evacuation order was lifted, there was audible disappointment among the other tourists – no photo ops. Fortunately, Hawaii was spared that time, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Later in the week we drove into Hilo for a day at its famous market. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land and athletic fields but that’s not the reason for its existence.
For nearly a century before 1946 that same swath of land had been Japan Town, a warren of immigrant shanties. It lives on in Hawaii’s superb Asian fusion cuisine. Yet in a brief time frame on April Fool’s Day 1946, Japan Town and many of its residents were swept into the sea by a tsunami created by another catastrophic earthquake thousands of miles distance in Chile.
The Pacific Tsunami Museum is a short walk from the Market. Staffed mostly by volunteers – many who survived the devastating 1946 tsunami – they showed no sympathy for the tourists that lost photo ops a few days before.
As long as the carbon dioxide and sulphur gas levels from Kilauea’s simmering crater do not force its closure, Volcano National Park is open 24 hours. We drove one night to the observation area that’s closest to the caldera. There in the pitch blackness of an overcast Hawaii night, we looked in awe at the vast, blood-red glowing cauldron of Halemaumau, the eternal home of Pele, goddess of volcanoes. The fragility of paradise, Pele is indeed home, prepared to remodel the land at her pleasure.
You are reading that correctly: “…every effort to appear civilized.” The author was Aleko E. Lilus and the article, “The Old Seaport of the Sulu Pirates,” appreared in the highly popular monthly magazine, Travel, October 1931 (Robert M. McBride & Co., Camden, NJ). I did not seek out this magazine. This treasure of Western mores illustrated through travel was a recent gift knowing full well my interest in antiques and popular culture through the ages.
Travel (1902-2003) “…was reflective of the world at the time…” (Contextualization, Clay Dillon) and let’s remember the time. 1931, the depth of the greatest world economic depression ever, Fascism is flourishing in Italy with many European and American supporters, the Nazi Party is gaining ground in Germany, the Western empires control most of Asia, Africa and South America. In the USA the Klu Klux Klan is terrorizing and murdering African Americans, Jews and Catholics – and not just in the south – and the United States has shut the immigration door to all but white Christian Western Europeans.
Yet for the affluent who could travel, and the majority that could only dream through films and lavishly illustrated magazines, this was the “Golden Age” of Aryan dominance – the opportunity for the “savage” to rise above his station. Travel writers could transport minds from a 3-room Hoboken apartment to exotic lands, “educating” their audience that there were people that had it “far worse” than you had it at home.
The articles run the gamut from the cathedrals of Mexico, the American Southwest, the vineyards of France, a once great Medieval European city to the wilds of Australia. Yet the language used to describe non-Western cultures is far different than those used for lands closer to home.
“The sultan’s niece…became a co-ed of the University of Illinois. She was thoroughly Westernized, but on her return…she promptly forgot her pretty American ways…and went native…As an educational and social experiment she must be considered a complete failure.” (p.25).
“Some of them…have bought Fords…but in the back country they still shoot bows and arrows and have never heard they belong to a vanishing race…” (p.28 “Exploring the Southwest in Your Own Motor” by Harry Fergusson).
“They love their children but they are inclined to spoil them for discipline comes hard to the southern mind..” (p.17 “Malta – Stronghold of the Sea King” by Francis Mc Dermott).
“The Spanish Colonials…upon this land they called “New Spain” … lavished their genius, endowing it with…civilization…” (p.7 “The Glory of Mexico’s Cathedrals” by James Jenkins).
Despite the racism, my 1931 edition of Travel is a gorgeous magazine, especially its stunning black and white photography and its advertising illustrations. In researching the history of Travel, it was second only to The National Geographic in readership for an audience interested in the world outside the United States. Indeed the last article in the October issue is on Australia’s unique animal life, “Nature’s Side Show in Australia” by Georgia Maxwell.
Naturally, for any modern traveler, 1931 prices for hotels and steam ships seem absurdly inexpensive until one factors what a 1931 dollar purchased compared to 2011. Today’s traveler needs $14.00 for what $1.00 was worth during the Great Depression.
The queen of Philadelphia’s hotels, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, had rooms as low as $4/day in the depth of the Depression. You need $56 in 2011 – cheap but these were teaser rates if you didn’t have a job..). A 12-day cruise to the Bahamas started at $125 ($1,750 in 2011 dollars) and the French Railways campaign that “Everybody’s back” speaks to today’s travel ads urging the recession weary to travel once more.
I well remember this anticipated magazine that arrived at my home as a child and young adult. I assume the strong cultural inclusion of my parents negated any latent racism in the 1950s– 1960s. As a travel writer I’ll be the first to praise the work I’m fortunate enough to enjoy, yet I’m well aware of the fine line that separates being the eyes of the reader from the human that may color the picture with their own cultural prejudices.
“With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.” ancient Chinese proverb.
The allure of silk: its soft feel, its shimmer, its character to absorb vibrant colors, its legend of luxury, its power. No other fabric has caused the rise and fall of empires or led legions of adventurous merchants to risk life and fortune. For centuries the Silk Road linked the fabled kingdom’s of Asia with the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The expensive, arduous and dangerous journey fed into the mystique of an enigmatic Orient – a land of meditation and mass murder, tea and opium, the Buddha and Pol Pot.
Yet during 19th and 20th century domination by European empires over Asia’s economies, silk was overshadowed by more lucrative commodities – opium, tea, rubber. By the end of the Second World War, large scale manufacture of silk cloth in Southeast Asia had been reduced to a cottage industry, a victim of hard economic times, war and changing fashion – synthetics. It took an entrepreneurial visionary – a risk taker – to revive Asian silk.
As an artist Jim Thompson was drawn to the rich colors and expressive designs of what was by the mid-1940’s a tiny cottage industry in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand and northern Malaysian jungle villages. These villagers were using centuries old silk worm farming techniques, natural dyes and ancient tools to produce stunning yards of intricately woven fabric – and selling them for a pittance.
Born into a Delaware clothing manufacturing family in 1906, educated at prestigious schools, a successful and well connected architect and designer, Jim Thompson chucked it all after becoming disillusioned with life by the late 1930’s. Joining the army at the start of World War II, he was recruited into the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Sent to Thailand late in the war to infiltrate the Japanese occupation, he was assigned to head American intelligence in Bangkok. The war ended shortly after parachutting into the country, but Thompson liked Bangkok and made the decision to stay. That’s when he discovered the Muslim silk weavers.
Jim Thompson cultivated personal relationships with the village weavers assuring them of markets for their cloth which did not yet exist. He encouraged the weavers not to give up the old methods and tweaked traditional designs for western clientele. (He later established a Muslim weaving quarter next to his compound across the canal. Today, wandering the Thompson House grounds, you can clearly hear the daily calls to prayer). Ensconced in Bangkok’s legendary Oriental Hotel, he effortlessly, it’s said, schmoozed with wealthy ex-patriots and visitors personally marketing Thai silk cloth. Within a few years his Thai Silk Company attracted the patronage of Vogue magazine and Irene Sharaff, fashion designer for the musical The King and I. By the early 1950’s Thai silk was an international rage, silk weaving was once again a vibrant home industry and Jim Thompson was dubbed the Silk King.
Thompson became a celebrity in Bangkok and a confidant to the rich and famous. His parties at the unique compound he created in the city were frequent with an eclectic mix of the business and art worlds. Using his considerable skills in architecture and design, he melded together six antique teak wood houses brought from various areas of Thailand into a compound including his home, workshops and retail space. It doesn’t hurt that he filled the grounds with gardens, pools and priceless Oriental antiques.
Although Thai Silk Company products are legendary today and available in elegant shops, Jim Thompson himself is simply a legend – or an enigma. In 1967 while visiting friends at their country house in northern Malaysia, Thompson went for a walk and within minutes had disappeared. No word was ever heard, his body never found. Speculation/conspiracy theories run rampant even today – a truck hit him and the driver took the body, a large animal ate him, he was still working for the CIA and was either eliminated by them or Communist guerillas (although he questioned the wisdom of the Vietnam war), or perhaps he simply wanted to chuck it all again and went native. Oddly, only 6-months later his wealthy sister was mysteriously murdered at her Pennsylvania estate – no robbery, no alarm, even her dogs didn’t bark.
Carol Cassidy, on the other hand, is hearty, alive and well in Vientiane, Laos. When I met her for the first time a couple of months ago, she took me back to the workshop with a very worried expression saying she’d ruined a run of silk. Not the first words I expected from one of the world’s most renowned women in the art. She showed me this beautiful skein of shimmering teal silk. That was a mistake?? It just wasn’t the exact shade she wanted for the project, and considering silk is made by a worm, it’s not like she can run down to the local 7/11. Traditional arts for a contemporary clientele are long, serious work.
The scion of a prominent Connecticut family, Carol was the first American allowed to establish a business in post-1975 Laos, Lao Textiles, in 1990. This was after a career with a variety of NGO’s world-wide as a textile expert. Although she’s frequently compared to Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Co., their business model is the only similarity. Both use traditionally trained weavers, pay fair wages and build personal relationships with the craftspeople. Yet where Thai Silk’s designs are for a mainstream international market, Cassidy specializes in made-to-order art hangings and clothing utilizing traditional Lao patterns. This carries over to the very limited runs of products available in the atmospheric 19th century French Villa showroom/workshop. Most are one of a kind Carol Cassidy wearable art in Lao silk and a terrific memory of that beautiful country.
Local non-profit organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts exist in all Southeast Asian countries. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative has been organizing village craftspeople and marketing their work since 1976.
Artisans d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a large vocational school complex for carving and graphic arts in town and a sizable silk farm and weaving operation just outside the city. The school particularly trains the disabled.
Whether it’s adventure, fortune, art or simply a way to make a living, silk has never ceased to fascinate:
“Upon them shall be garments of fine green silk and thick silk interwoven with gold, and they shall be adorned with bracelets of silver, and their Lord shall make them drink a pure drink.” ~the Quran
“He who has little silver in his pouch must have the more silk on his tongue.”~ Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803 – 1873)
“Once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas it’s hard to get up early” ~ Eddie Arcaro (1916 – 1997)