November 24 2013

If I weren’t a muggle

Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.                                                          Albus Dumbledore

muggles can't see it

On July 2, 1997, I wandered into a bookstore in Manchester, England looking for a book to keep me company on my train ride to Edinburgh.  The sales clerk suggested a new book that had just come out three days ago called ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’.  I flipped through it and thought–seems interesting enough…probably written for middle school aged kids, but it will be a quick read and I’ll have a book to trade when I get to Edinburgh. On my train trip north, I became immersed in the wizarding world of Harry Potter…of how boy of 11 found out he was a wizard and he and his friends were able to thwart the most evil wizard of all.  I finished the book right before we pulled into Edinburgh and promptly put Harry Potter out of my mind. We weren’t re-acquainted again until 2006 [when I plowed through almost the entire series in a two week period and then had an agonizing year wait for the finale]  But by now, you could say I am a bit of a Harry Potter nerd.  I have read all the books and seen all of the movies [including the midnight premiere of Deathly Hallows-Part 1 in Trujillo, Peru] multiple times.  I feel as if I KNOW Harry Potter. The following is how I’d imagine my life would be if I weren’t a muggle. If I weren’t a muggle, my life would be completely different, but somehow still familiar.

  1.  If I weren’t a muggle, I could go shopping in Diagon Alley…instead of just Target.

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This is what I imagine Diagon Alley to look like..the real Diagon Alley is in Leadenhall Market which today looks nothing like Diagon Alley.

   2.  If I weren’t a Muggle, I’d be able to access Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station.

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          3.  If I weren’t a muggle, I would either be teaching potions [my                         favorite class] at Hogwarts or be employed as a healer at St Mungo’s              Hospital for Medical Maladies.  My ideal job, however, would be taking          over for Madame Pomfrey at Hogwarts.

         4.  If I weren’t a muggle, I could have gone to Hogwarts for middle and                  high school.

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Old Hoggy, hoggy Howgwarts….

  5.  If I weren’t a muggle and had gone to Hogwarts, I would have had to be sorted into a house. The sorting hat would have encountered a little bit of difficulty deciding where to place me, but according to this quiz, I’d be placed in Slytherin–which is ok because green and silver are my colors… [I wouldn’t be one of those Death Eater Syltherins though].

In my Slytherin sweater
In my Slytherin sweater

6.  If I weren’t a muggle, I wouldn’t have to use the visitor’s entrance at the Ministry of Magic.

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            7.  If I weren’t a muggle, I could have eaten all my meals in an oh-so-elegant dining hall instead of the very generic one at Clinton High School. I fully expected to see The Bloody Baron or Nearly Headless Nick floating through the room or Dumbledore sitting at the head of the table.

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  8.  If  I weren’t a muggle, I could have received mail via owl instead of            the Arden Post Office.

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9.  If I weren’t a muggle, I could have brought my cat to school.  Lucy would have loved that, and she could have helped me study for my OWL exams.

kaos-loves-the-computer-too

Just a few ideas about how my life would be different if I weren’t a muggle and here are a few other photos from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter:

The cafe that started it all…Where much of the first books were written in Edinburgh.

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Alnwick Castle in Northumberland taken during my 1997 trip to UK before it was Harry Potter famous [the learning to fly on broomsticks lessons were filmed here]…I went to see the Poison Garden [which in my opinion should have found its way into the HP books]

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and finally the beaches of Pembrokeshire, Wales [taken before HP fame during the ’97 trip]…In my opinion some of the prettiest beaches in the world…For the films, they built the Shell Cottage.  I am not sure if it is still there or if they took it down after filming was completed.

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October 27 2013

Looking for bears

Let’s go looking for bears

It’s fall… and in my opinion one of the best things about fall is leaf color. We don’t always get a lot of color in these parts mostly because of our schizophrenic weather patterns [yesterday it was 80 and sunny… this weekend 50’s and cloudy] BUT the mountains of North Carolina aren’t too far away and the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway is an easy drive away.

A couple of years ago,I heard about a natural phenomenon called Shadow of the Bear.  It’s in an area of NC more famous for its spectacular waterfalls and day hikes, but in the fall, it’s famous for the leaves.

Let’s go hunting for bears…

no, not those bears [all though those bears are very cute if you come in contact with them in a zoo, not so cute if you come across them while on your afternoon run]…

these bears…

One of the wonderful things about living in Arden, North Carolina is its relative proximity to both the southern Appalachian mountains, the South Carolina coast, and the major cities of Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia.

Less than an hour away, nestled in the southern corner of the Nantahala Forest, in southwestern North Carolina, is one of the coolest natural experiences around…the shadow of the bear.  It happens twice a year–once from late February to mid March and the other from mid-October to mid-November.  The fall event is by far the most popular since it combines fall color with the bear’s appearance.  I like to imagine that the bear is slowing making its way across the mountain on its way to its winter hibernation…or waking up

It’s starts off with just a small peak of the bear’s head.

The bear makes its appearance for about 30 minutes each day [when it’s sunny, of course] each day revealing a little bit more.

If you happen to be into hiking, exploring Whiteside Mountain can make this a worthwhile day trip.  The mountain’s cliffs look like sheets of ice draped across the mountain. The rock is somewhere between 390 to 460 million years old [what’s 70 million years between friends]. The 2-mile ‘moderate’ trail starts as a old logging road and takes you on top of sheer 750-foot high cliffs [plenty of railings for safety].  Follow the road for about a mile until you reach the top. The trail continues about 1/2 long the ridge of the mountain, plenty of places to enjoy the views from the rock face. There are quite a few “educational” signs along the way to add interest. Toward to end of the walk along the mountaintop, look for the highest point with the rock carved “Alt. 4,930 ft.” The last 1/2 mile part of the trail is a steep downhill section that leads you back to the logging road near the parking area.

The best viewing spot for the shadow of the bear is right off Highway 64 at Rhodes Big View Overlook.

Follow your travel dreams– even if only one weekend at a time.

October 13 2013

Happy Birthday Ampelmann

Today is Ampelmann’s birthday.  Let’s all start to sing…Happy Birthday to you…Happy Birthday to you…Happy Birthday dear sweet Ampelmann…Happy Birthday to you.

 Wait, who/what is Ampelmann, you ask?

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This is ‘die Ampelmann’.  He is a cult hero, and certainly one of my favorite symbols. EVER. He is Berlin born and Berlin bred.  Ampelmann is the East German pedestrian traffic light symbols. He was ‘born’ on October 13th 1961 making today his 55th birthday.  Ampelmann is the brain child of East German psychologist Karl Peglau when, in response to the growing threat of road traffic accidents, he introduced the first pedestrian traffic signals to the GDR capital.

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And so the traffic light, which up until this point had only directed car traffic, was joined by the pedestrian traffic light. Ampelmamm was designed to be cute and appealing to drivers because according to the psychologist Peglau “road-users react more quickly to appealing symbols”.  The cute and adorable traffic light symbols fulfilled their purpose and found widespread acceptance both on the street and in social life.

Berlin-walking man

In 1982, after 21 years’ successful use, ampelmann made his film debut. Friedrich Rochow started casting them as guardian angels in his road safety training film for children. The ampel men, in the form of animated figures, were always at hand with valuable tips in hazardous situations. The ampel men were also deployed in other areas of road safety training.  EDIT:  I would have been enthralled to watch a safety video staring ampelmann as an elementary school kid.  All we got were terrifying videos of kids being run over by buses.  I still remember those. School children who could demonstrate good road safety knowledge received the ‘Golden One’ badge with the green ampel man or a special ampel man key fob. The two ampel men also adorned the card-game ‘Take care in traffic!’. Kindergarten children made their acquaintance on rubber stamps and in coloring books.

ampelmann-1

I had to show utmost restraint in not purchasing every.single.item. in the store.  Except the flip-flops.  They could keep those.  

And this is what the East German school kids got for excelling in traffic safety. But ampelmann was East German in design and only lived on the east side of Berlin.  Following reunification, the ampel men were supposed to disappear along with just about everything from every day East German life. The West German authorities, politicians, and traffic engineers were critical of the little green men on the East German traffic lights.  Who in their right mind could be critical of these super helpful, super adorable traffic signals.  I just want to take one and cuddle with it. In 1994 work started on replacing them with the euro traffic light man. Current arguments tried to argue that only the electronics were antiquated not the symbols, but bureaucrats being bureaucratic did not care.  They wanted the symbol removed from current usage. In 1996, industrial designer Markus Heckhausen adopted the discarded little green and red men. [Yay for Markus!] The first Ampelman products arose from the original glass of the traffic lights: as red and green ampel lamps. [I would sell my first born child in order to have one of these lamps.] The media response to the lamps and the story of the symbol’s disposal was huge, and so the extinct ampel men was rescurrected and once again entered the consciousness of the Berlin population.

ampelmann cafe

Oh.my.word. An Ampelmann cafe.  How adorable are the two ampelmen holding up the hostesses’ stand.

A resistance movement began. Under the slogan ‘we are the people’, committed citizens strove to prevent the abolition of the last remaining symbol of East German daily life. The ‘committee for the preservation of ampel men’ was founded. With many creative protest actions, it succeeded in drawing greater attention to the comical figures. When the media joined the campaign, politicians and authorities could no longer avoid entering into objective discussions.

The advantages of the ampel man, such as the clear symbolic and his wide-spread acceptance, could no longer be denied. And due to his stocky figure, large head and hat, the illuminated surface of the East ampel man was almost double that of his western competitor. This made him more recognizable which is particularly important for children. In 1997, it became clear that the beloved East German ampel men had been saved and would retain their place on the urban landscape.

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Yes, I bought ampelmann earrings.  No, I am not ashamed to wear them every day, and I do.  Or nearly every day.

 

July 28 2013

Palenque–not exactly what I was expecting

As Mayan ruins go – and there are many in Mexico, and I’ve visited more than the average bear– Palenque is one of the best.
palenque 1

This ancient city is quite older than some and it dates back as far as 226 BC . While Palenque seems quite small in comparison with some other ruins such as Tikal and Chichen Itza, it is thought that the majority of the city remains undiscovered behind dense jungle.  What is there is incredibly well preserved for a city of more than 2000 years old.

Palenque carvings

Palenque stand out in my mind for several reasons one of which is this is the only ruin I visited where I had family with me.  My dad, who has since passed away, met me in Guatemala City on a complete whim [what can I say, spontaneity runs in the family].  We traveled together on a rickety old school bus to the Mexican border, stayed in quite possibly the worst hotel [and I use that word cautiously] I’ve ever been in [and that’s saying a lot], nearly froze to death in San Cristobal de las Casas, and once of us [hint:  not me]  angered the travel gods and suffered Montezuma’s Revenge. By the time we reached Palenque, one of us was very nearly dead and the other wanted to finish the job.

The heat and humidity of Palenque is no joke.  Having come straight from the mountainous San Cristobal [where I suffered from fever of unknown etiology and was quite weak], it was next to impossible to adjust to the heat and humidity of Palenque.  I did what I rarely ever do:  I rested.   I woke up with the howler monkey screeches at 5 am, siesta-ed in the hottest middle part of the day, and prowled around like an ocelot at night.  [Ocelots and howler monkeys do live in the jungle, but I never saw either of them].  On the third day, we tackled Palenque.

Palenque

The entrance to Palenque is a giant parking lot filled with people selling everything from refreshments to hats and souvenirs. Many of the paths within the gates are also lined with vendors. At the entrance to the site, official guides vie for your attention. They may mean well, but you can get almost as much information from plaques dotted around the site, and it’s much more enjoyable to explore the ruins at your own pace [even if you have to leave your dad sitting on the steps with the jaguar]

Palenque 3

Who even knows where my dad is at this point; Mayan architecture was not all that exciting for him.

July 21 2013

Uxmal and la ruta PUUC

Back when I was 21…

Once upon a time I had crazy dreams of being a cultural anthropologist or historical preservationist or something that would allow me to travel and be the #historynerd that I truly am. But then the reality of these jobs set in. 1. They are few and far between 2. Most require a masters to even get started, and even finding a program that’s available and affordable is not so easy. 3 most are funded on the whim of a government and therefore pay is low and sometimes not at all. In spite of all that, I chose to do my senior thesis/project on Mayan Art and Architecture which 1. required a thoroughly researched and well written thesis [in Spanish] and 2. on-site visits to some of the sites. This was back in the Dark Ages when the internet was a baby, digital camera quality was awful, and blogging was a journal and scrapbook [of which I have both]. So with my SLR… that’s right, there’s no D if front of that SLR and copious quantities of film that I carried in a separate bag and polite instruction to ‘inspeccione por mano, por favor’.  Thankfully they did and my 50+ rolls of film, both black and white and color, in different ISOs, made it safely through airport security and allowed me to photograph all the little quirks of Mayan architecture to my little heart’s content.

A little history of Uxmal

Chichen Itza is the most well know of the ancient Mayan site, but Uxmal should give Chichen Itza a run for its money –at least in terms of its vastness.  It’s not super well known and isn’t directly on a bus route the way Chichen Itza is, but it is relatively well preserved.  If the access was easier, my guess is that it would be more popular than Chichen Itza.

Uxmal_Ruins_Selva
Uxmal rising out of the jungle

The area around Uxmal was occupied as early as 800 BC, but the major building period took place when it was the capital of a Late Classic Mayan state around 850-925 AD.  Somewhere around or after the year 1000, when Toltec invaders took over the Yucatán peninsula [establishing their capital at Chichen Itza], all major construction ceased at Uxmal. However, it continued to be occupied and participated in the political League of Mayapán.  Uxmal later came under the control of the Xiú princes. The site was abandoned around 1450, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

Mayan legend claims that a dwarf magician, born from a egg, built the city of Uxmal in a single night. In reality, archaeological excavations reveal that the Pyramid of the Magician itself was erected in a series of five successive builds upon existing, lesser pyramids. This was a common Mayan building practice, thought to capture and amplify the power of the underlying structure.

Uxmal_Ruinas_Pelota

Kabah is situated slightly further along the road from Uxmal, and is famed for the Temple to Chaac, the Rain God of the Maya. The structure is filled with the masks of Chaac. Across the road, there is also a Maya Arch, part of a Maya Road system that used to span the entire Yucatan region.

Sayil has a beautiful multi level palace

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Sayil-Choc-Side-view

At Labna, you can clearly see an example of a Maya Road system, as well as a well-preserved decorative Maya Arch. The palace is also very beautiful.

labna arch
Labna Arch

OK enough with the technical stuff…

The area where Uxmal, Sayil, and Kabah is collectively known as the Ruta Puuc, and it is for lack of better terms, deserted. There are plenty of small temples to see as well as small villages [<50 inhabitants almost all of Mayan descent and who speak only Mayan and are ecstatic to talk to you, you know if you can actually communicate. In honesty, most do speak some Spanish, but if English is your only language, you may be out of luck.  Luckily, everyone I met was really nice], and deserted roads almost covered in vegetation.

The main road down the Ruta Puuc. I saw very, very few cars and lots and lots of lush, green vegetation.  It is easy to see how the area could be reclaimed by Mother Nature.

 A small Mayan town more or less in the middle of nowhere in the Yucatán peninsula.
 Poc chuc, a very traditional Mayan meal. Essentially it’s seasoned pork with peppers, onions, and lime juice, to be wrapped up in tortillas and eaten like tacos. Tomatoes, avocados, and cucumbers on the side.

Labna, and when you are the only one there, it’s both awesome, and a little bit creepy.  Yes, I realize I could have been bitten by a snake or some wild animal, and no one would have ever seen or heard from me again.

Some beautiful ruins at Kabah.

Hundreds of masks representing the gods along the front wall, often with long, protruding noses.

 If you look very closely, you can see all of the masks etched in this wall.

 One last view of Kabah.

Salbutes. It’s a very common meal in the area, and while not my favorite, it is amazingly fresh, so I had this for a couple of my meals.

July 14 2013

Chichen Itza

I have always kept a record of my travels.  It used to be with a pen and paper and 35 mm film.  Now it’s all digital. Occasionally I reflect back on some of my past travels and travel mishaps before I started this blog.

Chichen Itza is located in the Yucatan region of Mexico not too far from the Gulf.  It was a major economic and political power from 600 to 1000 A.D. Chichen  Itza is a mix of many of Maya and (Central Mexican) Toltec styles; who influenced whom? so much of pre-Columbian history is still being debated.  But I’ll do my best to summarize.

The Castillo (or castle in English) is the monument that most people think of when they think of Chichén Itzá. It is mostly Toltec construction, and it probably dates to the period of the first combination of cultures in the 9th century AD at Chichén. El Castillo is centrally located on the south edge of the Great Plaza. The pyramid is 30 meters high and 55 meters on a side, and it was built with nine succeeding platforms with four staircases. The staircases have balustrades with carved feathered serpents, the open-jawed head at the foot and the rattle held high at the top. The last remodel of this monument included one of the fanciest jaguar thrones known from such sites, with red paint and jade insets for eyes and spots on the coat, and flaked chert fangs. The principal stairway and entrance is on the north side, and the central sanctuary is surrounded by a gallery with the main portico.

Kukulkan, or feathered serpent, is the name of a Maya snake deity that also serves to designate historical persons. The cult of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl was the first Mesoamerican religion to transcend the old Classic Period linguistic and ethnic divisions and facilitated communication and peaceful trade among peoples of many different social and ethnic backgrounds. Although the cult was originally centered in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, it spread as far as the Guatemalan highlands so you’ll see this guy as far south as Tikal.

The Mayans loved sport and were quite serious about the games played. They built huge ball courts to contest these matches. It’s often said that the captain of the losing team would offer his head as payment for losing while the captain of the winning team would be allowed to ascend directly into heaven. The Great Ball court of Chichen Itza is 225 feet wide and 545 feet long overall. It has no top, no discontinuity between the walls and is totally open to the blue sky. Each end has a raised to the temple area.
One of the mysteries of Chichen Itza, is the acoustic dynamics of the great ball court. A whisper from end can be heard clearly enough at the other end 500 feet far away and through the length and breath of the court. The sound waves are unaffected by wind direction or time of day and also night. To this day, no one has been able to figure why or how the Mayans achieved this feat.

The goal was to get a ball through this ring. The rings are about 25 feet off of the ground.

The particular sport is not like any one sport being contested today. It has elements of soccer, but the ball used is much more like a weighted basketball. Of the hundreds of images of the game, very few show that the ball was touched with the hands, so archaeologists have deduced that the ball could not be caught. The ball itself was a little larger than a basketball and was made of solid rubber, so it was quite heavy. Players wore protective padding around their hips and were richly dressed and decorated during play.  Personally I think JK Rowling saw images of the ball court and had this in mind when she developed Quidditch.

Information about the solar, Toltec, and Maya calendars is carefully built into el Castillo. Each stairway has exactly 91 steps, times four is 364 plus the top platform equals 365, the days in the solar calendar. The pyramid has 52 panels in the nine terraces; 52 is the number of years in the Toltec cycle. Each of the nine terraced steps are divided in two: 18 for the months in the yearly Maya calendar. Most impressively, though, is not the numbers game, but the fact that on the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, the sun shining on the platform edges forms shadows on the balustrades of the north face that look like a writhing rattle snake.

But Chichen Itza is more, a whole lot more.  Some plazas have thousands of columns. Some have observatories. There are several temples at each site, each serving a different purpose.

February 17 2013

Let’s get naked–Budapest’s Thermal Baths

Let me preface this was that I never intended to get naked. It was a frigid January day in Budapest, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from exploring.  Bundled up in all the clothing I had with me, I set out from my hostel in the historic part of Buda. The steam rising out of the drain cover caught my attention first. I paced along the walkway, limbs mechanical yet numb, face frozen, eyes rimmed with weather-induced tears. All the while thinking ” was not made for this kind of weather.”

budapest snow

Everyone was cold. I saw it in the hunched shoulders and stooped spines of the commuters who huddled past, bundled beneath thick fur coats, scarves and fur hats.  Which was why the drain surprised me.  Whimsical fingers of mist curled through the gaps, growing thinner as they spiraled up towards the sky. The sky which experience told me still loomed overhead, but which I avoided looking at in case I inadvertently exposed another sliver of my neck to Budapest’s biting air.

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Clouds of steam teased me from the outside–“Was it because the water was really that warm or because it was really that cold?” I wondered.  I knew with absolute certainty that the concrete surface surrounding the thermal baths was freezing cold.  I had no idea whether the ‘thermal’ pool I had just paid money to use would be steaming hot or just slightly warmer than the below freezing winter air temperatures. Hoping that the steam was not a false promise, my toes tested the water below.  A split second passed before I internally began singing the Hallelujah chorus.

Warmth tickled my toes. And it was a small piece of  heaven. I stumbled down the remaining steps sliding deeper and deeper into the warm water.  I am sure people stared at me when I let out an audible sigh of relief. Luckily, it wasn’t too crowded at this bathing suit optional bath I had chosen to immerse myself in. Not knowing exactly what to do, I just sat there, naked, in my pool of hot water… watching snowflakes get eaten up by the steamy waters.

Budapest is well know for its thermal baths and Szechenyi didn’t disappoint.  It has held the title “City of Spas” since the year 1934, as it has more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital city in the world. There are 118 springs in Budapest, providing over 70 million liters of thermal water a day. The temperature of the waters is between 21 and 78 Celsius.  Budapest’s thermal waters were enjoyed by the Romans as early as the 2nd century, but it was only during the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the 16th century that the bath culture really started flourishing.  Today, there are 15 public thermal baths in Budapest, not counting the private thermal spas established in some luxury hotels, such as the Ramada Plaza, Thermal Hotel Margitsziget and the Corinthia Royal, which have their own spas that you can enjoy.

In some of them you can even keep your clothes on.