Our Top 10 Travel Movies in 2010

As a companion piece to the last blog entry on our Top 10 Literary Travel Books of 2010, I present our family’s Best Travel Movies of 2010. These are not the best movies we’ve seen, nor are they the best travel movies out there; they are the ten movies that most enhanced our family’s travel experience. (Present-day country in parentheses)
#1: HBO’s Rome (2005 - 24 episodes) (Italy): This two-season HBO series is not a movie but we saw nothing in the last year that educated us more…nor was more entertaining. From Julius Caesar’s rise to the fall of Antony and Cleopatra, we were captivated by every hour of this series that covered the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. The characters were well-drawn and the acting excellent, with the added benefit that our kids now know their Cato from their Cicero.  (For more on why our 14 and 12 year old kids were even watching this, go here)

#2: The Devil’s Miner (2005) (Bolivia): This little-known documentary is the story of 14-year old Basilio who works in the Potosi silver mine to support his family when his father dies. Taking a tour of the Potosi mine is harrowing and claustrophobic but this movie will put a human face on the experience. The movie is hard to find but available from sidewalk pirate-DVD sellers all over Bolivia. The title comes from the manner in which all the miners make offerings to the “devil of the mine,” the shrine that serves as an everpresent reminder that death can happen any at minute.

#3: The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) (South America): Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Che Guevara in his 1952 motorcycle tour of South America with his buddy Alberto. The Andean scenery and Gustavo Santaolalla’s music is a perfect backdrop for Che’s political awakening; the scene where he shares a campfire with Chilean miners and learns of their exploitation is particularly well done.

#4: The Dancer Upstairs (2002) (Peru): Another little-known movie which is directed by John Malkovich and is based loosely on the hunt and capture of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman.(the movie makes no mention of Peru, Guzman or the Sendero Luminoso) Javier Bardem does a nice job as the lead detective and the movie gives you a sense of the tenseness and terror in Lima in the 1980’s during the time of the Sendero Luminoso.

#5: The Merchant of Venice (2004) Italy): Al Pacino does a creditable job as Shylock in this Shakespeare classic directed by Michael Radford. The story gives you an idea of what being a Jew was like in 16th century Venice, even though Shakespeare never set foot on Italian soil.

#6: Creation (2009) (South America, Galapagos): A recent movie about Charles Darwin’s relationship with his eldest daughter and how her death affected him. The movie portrays his internal conflict between religion and his scientific findings and it implies that his daughter’s death helped push him towards science. Many of his scientific ideas came from his 1835 visit to the Galapagos.

#7: Out of Africa (1985) (Kenya): Less about east Africa than about the colonial experience in Kenya, Redford and Streep play out their star roles amidst the beautiful Kenyan landscape. Based on the very good Isak Dinneson book of the same name.

#8: Roman Holiday (1953) Italy): A fun and light romp through the Eternal City with Gregory Peck as a reporter and Audrey Hepburn as a visiting Princess. Beautiful black and white cinematography.

#9: Alexander (2004) (Greece and Turkey): Not the greatest of movies and I’m not a Colin Farrell fan but it gives a good overview of Alexander’s short life. Alexander’s relationship with his generals (Ptolemy, Antigonus, Antipater, Seleucis, et al. ) who would carve up his empire after his death was of special interest.

#10: Troy (2004) (Turkey, Greece): Again not a great movie but an entertaining way to learn about Homer’s account of the united Greek city-states’ assault on Troy.


Top 10 Literary Travel Books of 2010

One of the pleasures of travel is reading a good book set in the country you are visiting. A well-written book adds context to the things that you are seeing everyday and allows you to understand more of the culture. David Bennett at Quillcards, left a comment on this blog when talking about how learning about a country enhances your experience of it. He used the phrase “knowledge puts depth into a flat landscape,” which I think is a great way to sum it up. In that vein, I present our family’s top 10 Literary Travel books of 2010, books that most enhanced our travel experience. (present day country in parentheses)

#1: Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres (Turkey): I can think of few fictional books that combine a great story with a complete history lesson, the lesson in this case, the Ottoman Empire's collapse and Turkey’s entry into the modern world just after World War I. There are twists, turns, paradoxes, dilemmas, contradictions and all of them set amongst story that won't allow you to put the book down.

#2: Midaq Alley by Naguib Mafouz (Egypt): A story of intersecting lives amongst the impoverished class in the heart of Islamic Cairo, Nobel Prize winner Mafouz tells a great story and made us feel like another dimension was added to the people we met while in Egypt. We were inspred to visit the eponymous alley while in Cairo.

#3: The Last Days of The Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie (Peru): A complete story of the Spanish conquest of the Incas. The initial battle scene of Pizarro and Atuhualpa in Cajamarca and the siege on Cusco are fascinating.  Almost nothing remains in Cajamarca, so reading this book was essential to understanding this northern Peru city.

#4: The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone (Italy): The fictional biography of Michelangelo’s life, Stone does a solid job of giving the reader insight into the mind of a master sculptor. We read this prior to spending a month in Florence.

#5: Pompeii, by Robert Harris (Italy): Harris gives the reader a sense of the chaos, confusion and politics that accompanied the eruption of Vesuvius, told from the point of view of the engineer responsible for the aqueducts. As we walked through the Pompeii ruins, we thought about the widespread panic portrayed in the book.

#6: The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton (Kenya): The story of a New York woman who helps bring books to a remote Kenyan village on the Sudanese border. As we drove through the remote Kenyan countryside, we had a better idea of what went on in each of the villages. This book raised a question that our kids had not thought about before: Is literacy always a good thing?

#7: Death In The Andes, by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru): A story about some killings in a remote Andean community. The police are sure it was the work of the Sendero Luminoso but the locals suspect pishtacos (mythological boogeyman). A great introduction to the two main sides of the Peruvian character.

#8: Voyage Of The Beagle, by Charles Darwin (South America, the Galapagos): Darwin’s account of his South American voyage, where many of his ideas about evolution and natural selection were formed. I found it interesting how he relentlessly compared and categorized the things that he saw.

#9: Incantation, by Alice Hoffman (Spain): A story about a young teenage girl who slowly finds out that she is Jewish during the time of the Inquisition. The book gave our kids a good idea of what that would be like.

#10: Julius Caesar, by Phillip Freeman (Italy): A solid biography of Julius Caesar that highlights his military prowess and his ability to motivate his soldiers.


Chullo Confidential

I really want to like the chullo. The South American woven hat with pointed top and long earflaps is perfect head gear for the frigid Andes and those snowboarders look so cool in them, but unless I'm freezing my butt off, it’s just a little too uncomfortable.  Verilyn Klinkenborg, in her New York Times editorial “Season of the Chullo” said, “If there’s a political statement in the chullo, it’s a little hard to decipher. Perhaps it signals indigenousness, international-ness. But what it mostly says is, I don’t care how I look as long as I’m warm.” The chullo may not be the most flattering hat in the world but it does keep me warm.

It keeps me warm but once I move inside, I’m too hot and I’m dying to take it off. This leads to another problem: the after-effects of wearing the chullo. I don’t know the what the literal Quechua translation of chullo is, but I’ll venture to say it means “that which promotes hat hair.” Keep that trendy chullo on for just fifteen minutes and your hair will smashed on one side and pointing straight up on the other and you’ll have no choice but to wear it for the remainder of the day.

I love watching a proud indigenous man wearing his chullo while strolling through Cusco. I want a piece of his certainty, his simplicity, his heritage. I also want others to note my savoir-faire and my been there done that-ness. Since I’ve worked with Andean weavers I know the difference between an authentic chullo and one made for tourists. This knowledge brings a simple equation: the more authentic the chullo, the scratchier it is, as higher end chullos use alpaca wool and the lower end uses sheep wool or synthetic materials.

Basically, it needs to be very cold out for the chullo to make sense. It’s a great hat for cold climes but it doesn’t translate well to warmer weather. Klinkenborg comments in the same New York Times article, “Perhaps the anti-stylishness of the chullo — its simple functionality — is its politics. The fact is that really cold weather eclipses style.”


Bolivian Bowler Hats

I’m sure Thomas and William Bowler had no idea that the hat they created back in 1849 for English gentlemen on horseback would be a South American fashion statement amongst Andean indigenous women. Walk the streets of La Paz, Bolivia and one of the first things you’ll notice are the cholitas, the indigenous Aymara women with bowler hats perched on their heads. They sell just about anything from street corners; during the first hour of our La Paz walking tour we saw them selling soap, meat, stuffed animals, onions and dried llama fetuses. When we popped in to see a Harry Potter movie that night we bought some popcorn from one of the cholitas lined up in front of the theater. They each wore layers of petticoats over shiny skirts with a shawl covering their shoulders. Each of them had long black hair braided into waist-length pigtails with bowler hat balancing on top of their heads.

There does not seem to be a clear consensus on how the bowler hat got to South America and why these women adopted it. One story relates an accidental surplus of the hats, leading the manufacturer to market them to women. Another story says that they were made for British railway workers here in the early 20th century. Yet another story relates that there was no surplus of the hats, they just made them too small for the Europeans so they were given away to locals. One thing is certain; the hats do not fit properly. They are all too small and must be balanced on the head or if you’re cholita who cheats, a bobby pin can be used.

The Bowler brothers designed the hat 160 years ago so that gentleman horseback riders in the English countryside would have an alternative to the top hat which was often knocked off by low-hanging branches while riding. While the origins of the Bowler hat are steeped in functionality, its current usage in the Andes is not. It does not fit well, it doesn’t provide shelter from sun or rain and the felt is not particularly waterproof. Despite this, the Bowler hat is a Bolivian fashion statement.

Peruvian Fusion: Andean Good Luck Charm

If you walk through towns in the Andean region around Cusco one of the things you’ll see on many rooftops is a pair of ceramic bulls. It’s said that these bulls bring good luck, keep the house safe and ensure health and wealth for the family that lives there. We’ve seen the bulls all over Cusco and in towns like Pisac, Chinchero and Ollantaytambo.

The bulls come from Pucara, an area between Cusco and Puno, and are called toritos de Pucara. These figurines were originally made as ritual elements of a cattle-branding ceremony. The bull figure, which is also a flask, was used to hold the chicha (fermented corn beer) and mixed with the blood of cattle and drunk by the high priest conducting the ceremony. The bulls are always placed on the roof so that they have a view of the apus, the mountains gods revered by the Incas. Given that Spaniards brought over cattle to the New World, it’s safe to say this ceremony and the toritos are not Pre-Inca and yet another example of New World culture fusing with the Old World.

While two bulls on a roof are pretty consistent, what accompanies them varies quite a bit. Often there is a cross and occasionally a ladder, which will help the family members get to heaven. At various times I’ve seen Peruvian flags, doves, horseshoes, parrots, roosters and even shovels accompanying the bulls.

Towards the end of our stay in Cusco my wife hunted for a pair of these bulls to bring back home and put on the roof our house back home in California, but our search turned up empty. We now have a good reason to come back.

Kids Volunteering In Cusco

Aside from getting drilled in Spanish five hours a day, doing their homeschooling/distance learning and swimming on the Cusco swim team, both our kids had regular volunteer jobs during our time in Cusco. After their Spanish class, both would walk through San Blas to their jobs at Colibri, a shelter for street kids and children of single-parents with no place to go in the afternoons. Many of the kids worked as shoe shine boys and some of the girls sold gum or woven finger puppets in the Plaza de Armas in order to supplement the family income.

Once our kids arrived each day, they were greeted by Senor Alcides, the director, and his assistant, along with a dozen young kids who come up to hug them and greet them. Our kids’ main role was to play Monopoly or card games with the kids, do art projects, help them with their homework (usually math or English) and play futbol with them. Many of the local Spanish language schools sent adult students over for one or two week stints, so during their three month tenure our 14- and 12-year old kids got to meet and work with people from Australia, Sweden, England, France, South Africa and other countries.

About a month after starting with Colibri, and hearing our kids complain about how tattered and beat up the board games and sporting equipment were, our family had the idea of trying to raise some money for the shelter. There were no basketballs, the monopoly game was missing a bunch of pieces and they were in desperate need of school supplies. The kids wrote up a proposal outlining what was needed and how much it would cost along with a description of the shelter and some photos and we thought about who to send it to. We decided they should send it to my group of neighborhood basketball-playing dads back home who hold a tournament each year and raise money for sports and youth-related causes. Within two days, the group responded and said they would be happy to donate $300 for sporting goods and school supplies.

Here is the body of the thank you letter they wrote:

We are writing to you guys to thank you for your generous donation of $300 dollars to the Colibri Organization, in Cusco, Peru.

Colibri is an after school program for kids when their parents are at work or they do not have parents. It is a police sponsored program designed to give kids a safe place to be off the street. We work at Colibri for two hours a day after Spanish class. When we go to Colibri, we help with homework and often take the kids up to a park five minutes away and play basketball, soccer and games with them. The kids are very smart and are very nice. Their ages range from 5 to 14.

Your donation of $300 to Colibri will be spent on new basketballs, soccer balls, notebooks, pencils, colored pencils, and food. The kids at Colibri don't have very much stuff and it’s really sad to see them playing basketball with a beat-up old soccer ball. We can assure you that your money will be spent on worth-while things. The kids at Colibri are very happy and very grateful.

Once we received the money, we went to El Molino, the discount shopper’s paradise in Cusco, and bought everything, taking care to record how much was spent on each item and giving a full accounting of the donated funds. The kids listed all the expenses in a spreadsheet and sent some photos back to the basketball dads’ group, showing them how their money was spent.

The kids’ time at Colibri was extremely rewarding and the biggest treat for us came whenever our family walked through the Plaza de Armas. Quite often while crossing the main square, we’d hear small children call out our kids’ names, come running over and give them hugs. Who says they weren’t getting compensated for their time?


Drinking Chicha In The Sacred Valley

We’d been living in Cusco for a while and I had read and heard about chicha, the fermented corn drink that is popular in southern Peru. I’d occasionally looked for it on restaurant menus but never saw it. I'd heard that the locals drank a lot of the pale, milky, straw-colored drink at important festivals and occasions, but for my first month in Peru I never saw anyone drinking it.

One day as we were driving in the Sacred Valley, I noticed that each village had at least a half dozen mud homes with red plastic bags attached to bamboo poles above their doors. There were too many of them not to be some kind of local sign. I asked our driver what they were and he said “chicherias.” So that’s where they were imbibing the chicha! (The picture here is the front of a chicheria in Ollantaytambo) I later learned that chicherias can be identified in southern Peru by either a red flag, a bouquet of flowers, ribbons or plastic bags affixed to bamboo poles. Typically, a family will mix up a big batch, set up some tables in a spare room of the house and raise the bamboo pole for a little extra income. Chicha is prepared from a specific kind of yellow maize called jora and it has a slightly sour aftertaste.

We tried some that weekend, not in someone’s house but at a weaving contest that my NGO was hosting. I steeled myself as they ladled me a glass of the slightly alcoholic drink that looks a lot like, well…spit. I intentionally spilled a bit on the ground as an offering to the pacahmama and tried it. (Okay, maybe it was kind of a big offering) The aftertaste was indeed sour and I vainly struggled to identify any type of corn taste. I proudly downed my cup and brought over some to my family, who each took a sip and wanted no more.

While regular chicha de jora was not to our liking, we all enjoyed chicha morada and towards the end of our stay in Cusco, started making batches of it from boiling purple corn cobs, pineapple rinds, and spices. We did not make chicha de jora.

This post was part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa carnival "Toasting Around the Globe" from Orange Polka Dot.