Category: Culture

CultureTravel

Portals of Malta

Doorways are portals to other worlds, both real and imagined. J. R. R. Tolkien–speaking through one of his most enduring  characters, Bilbo Baggins–summed up the sense of mystery and adventure that lies just on the other side of such an opening.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to–

Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings

The idea that portals are gateways to other worlds filled with exotic new adventures was reinforced in popular fiction, TV programs and movies during my childhood. In the 1960s, I was enthralled by The Time Tunnel, a TV show with a thin plot that was propelled by the time traveling adventures of its two main characters. They would walk into a swirling black and white tunnel–think cheesy special effects!–which was a portal to other worlds. This was also a popular theme in other TV shows of the time such as The Twilight Zone. And I was glued to the TV when the shows aired.

Many ancient cities were protected by fortifications which had restricted gates through which all trade had to pass. Pictured here is a section of stone wall surrounding the historic city of Valletta, Malta. Photo: Henry Lewis

The doorway effect

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a house or apartment made up of more than one room have probably experienced the phenomenon of walking through a doorway into another room and simultaneously forgetting the reason we walked into that room. We may experience a change in temperament or thought processing simply by walking through a portal.

According to scientific research, walking through a doorway triggers our brains to be ready to learn something new, and therefore, takes us away from the thoughts that occupied our minds just seconds before. That powerful response can be either stimulating or annoying depending on the circumstances, but I prefer to focus on the possibilities such journeys offer rather than the limitations.

Passing through a portal can be the key to the process of rejuvenation, a way to unplug from the disturbing or mundane events we become bogged down in at home or work. Whether for exercise or to relieve depression, when I need a break, I remove myself from the situation at hand, walk outside, breath some fresh air (hopefully) and let my sense of curiosity about the world take control. This is where the adventure begins.

Read More

CulturePolitics

Don’t Say You’re An ‘American’

We are conditioned so effectively to play artificial roles that we mistake them for our true nature. JeanJacques

John, an expat who recently relocated to Colombia, approached the desk at the Medellín immigration office. “Cómo puedo ayudarte” (how can I help you), the lady behind the glass window at the reception counter asked?

John had no idea what she was saying, so he shook his head and said, “I want to apply for a visa. Does anyone here speak English?”

The lady at reception rolled her eyes and called over her supervisor who responded in English and looked over the information John had provided in the online application. “What is your nationality,” the supervisor asked?

“I’m American,” John replied in a matter of fact manner.

“We are Americans too Señor. What is your country of origin,” the supervisor insisted, knowing the answer but refusing to let John off the hook?

John was baffled by the supervisor’s response and clearly agitated at this point. He raised his voice–so much so that everyone in the waiting area looked in his direction–and said, “I’m from the USA which means I’m an AMERICAN!”

“I’m sorry,” the supervisor said as he pointed to the choices on the application form. “That is not a category we recognize here in Colombia. If you are from the USA, you must tick the ‘Estadounidense’ box.”

“What the hell is that,” John quipped, showing his confusion and frustration at what he perceived to be the astounding ignorance of the immigration official as well as the bureaucracy which employed him?

Read More

CultureHuman Rights

In honor of women everywhere

Quechua woman in Quito, Ecuador.

 

In honor of the IMMEASURABLE, and often unheralded, role women play in holding our fragile world together, this is not a week for a white man like me to be blogging about what’s on my mind. It’s a time when we should all be thinking carefully about how we treat the women in our lives–mothers, sisters, wives, friends, employees, co-workers, those we encounter in shops, pass on the street, sit beside on the bus, see begging on the sidewalks, all colors, all creeds, all religions, AND especially to the legions of SINGLE MOMS who raise and support the children of dead-beat fathers. They are ALL just as important, just as capable, an equal to any man (or more so!) and should be paid and treated equally.

Maasai woman in Kenya preparing the fire for cooking.

As the legendary R&B singer Aretha Franklin so clearly and simply states in her 1967 anthem, women deserve and have worked for centuries for R-E-S-P-E-C-T! International Women’s Day should be celebrated 365 days per year in our hearts, minds and actions.

Venezuelan immigrant woman watching over her children on the Colombia/Venezuela border.

peace and respect~ henry

CulturePoliticsVisual Arts

Art and Ideology in Hitler’s Third Reich

Before the Masked Ball by Max Beckmann, 1922. Photo: Henry Lewis, courtesy of Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Traditionally artists have provided a mirror image of the societies in which they lived, often being at the forefront of social change and either propagating or protesting against the dominate political ideologies of a given period. Such was the case following the rise to power of the Nazi party (Third Reich) in pre-World War II Germany when artists both fought against and worked hand in hand with the German government to influence public opinion.

Adolph Hitler and other party leaders rejected ‘modernism’ in the arts and sought to create a world of art and literature that celebrated the purity and goodness of the German people and the soil on which they lived (Blood and Soil). While lifting up the idea of German purity, the Third Reich simultaneously aimed to show the ‘sickness’ of the modern art movements of Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Symbolism, Post-impressionism and Germany’s own Expressionism.

Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda from 1933-1945, views the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937. Goebbels was one of Adolph Hitler’s closest allies and sought the harshest possible punishments for Jews. He promoted and fully supported the annihilation of millions of Jews and other ‘undesirables’. Photo Credit: Wiki

Read More

CultureTravel

A Tale of Three Colombian Pueblos

You’ll find colorful ‘motochivas’ in many of Colombia’s pueblos. They are a useful form of transport since many of the streets are quite narrow. Photo: Henry Lewis.

While Colombia’s big cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali get most of the press, the true heart of this incredibly diverse South American country lies in its smaller towns and cities, known as ‘pueblos’ in Spanish. My favorite pueblos (so far) are all located between 5,000—7,000 feet elevation (1,500–2,100 meters) in the Andes mountains, a barrier of three smaller ranges which roughly divide the western half of Colombia from north to south.

During my recent explorations of this region, I’ve discovered there are both similarities and differences in the way these pueblos have defined themselves. In rugged mountain regions such as the Andes, similarities are often based on geographic proximity while differences may depend on the origins of the original settlers or the hand that fate may have dealt a specific locale in the form of violent conflict or natural disaster. These aspects, in turn, have determined how each town has chosen to promote itself as Colombia becomes a budding center of tourism for both domestic and international travelers.

Since all three pueblos are similar in size and located in the Antioquia department of northwest Colombia, I’ve chosen to share my impressions of Jardín, Jericó and Guatapé in one post. Each of these towns can be easily reached by bus or car from the department’s capital, and Colombia’s second largest city, Medellín. For foreign visitors, the city’s nearby international airport in Rio Negro is less than an hour away from Medellin’s main north and south bus terminals.

I experienced each of these diverse pueblos from early December to early January when municipal governments all across Latin America ensure that the spirit of the Christmas (Navidad) season lights up every nook and cranny of each town. While larger crowds and heavier traffic can be expected during this holiday period (especially on weekends), I find it a fascinating time to travel in order to see the great lengths each town has gone to in an effort to outdo their peers with festive decorations, musical performances and even a parade tossed in here and there.

Read More

CulturePersonal Development

Can we free ourselves of cultural bias?

I saw the sign ‘Real Estate—Apartments and Condos for Rent’ so decided to stop in and inquire. The professionally dressed middle-aged man running the office approached me and asked, in his decidedly American accent, if he could help me. We chatted for a few minutes about my desires for a living space—small, a studio apartment with a balcony—and he then asked my price range. When I said I would prefer something under US $1000 per month, he laughed and said, “Well, you’re not going to find anything for that price unless you want to live in a (with verbal stress) MEXICAN neighborhood.”

It was September 2016 and I was in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico looking for a small apartment to rent on a long-term basis. I was so shocked by this American’s brash rudeness and the way he was disparaging the citizens of the foreign country where he was a guest that I couldn’t respond. I simply turned and walked out. I thought about his attitude a lot over the following few weeks and wanted to return to the office and give him a good telling off but I felt it would be wasted energy and a stressful confrontation that I didn’t need.

Fighting cultural bias within

Living in a variety of developing countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America over the past 15 years has taught me a great deal about my own attitudes and prejudices and forced me to examine my cultural biases in a way that I never would have done if I’d remained in the USA. I’ve encountered my share of ugly Americans (and other Westerners) on the road—such as the real estate agent in Puerto Vallarta–and I must admit that I’ve also fallen into that category on some of my worst days.

As those of us who’ve traveled extensively or lived for long periods of time in poor developing countries can attest, things often just don’t work as efficiently as they do back home in one’s comfortable Western environment. Sometimes things don’t work at all—things like electricity, hot water and most importantly an internet connection. The food is different. Sights, sounds and smells can be offensive. And the locals may not speak a word of English (egads!).

Besides the normal bureaucratic trials and banking challenges, the things that slowly grate on my nerves are the incessantly barking dogs, blaring music from huge speakers placed in the street as ‘neighborhood’ entertainment at all hours and seemingly complete lack of the concept that noisy activities might be disturbing a neighbor. I believe the vast majority of the locals in all the countries where I’ve lived have been kind and caring people, so what gives with the lack of consideration for others when it comes to noise?

Read More

CultureVisual Arts

Madonnas as Symbols of Devotion

Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer.
― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

I love the way this Madonna and Child are placed ‘inside’ the living space.

Shrines to the Virgin Mary (often simply called a Madonna—and not of the singing variety😉) are as ubiquitous in Latin America as statues of Buddha are in Southeast Asia. Some Madonnas are culture-specific such as the Virgin of Guadalupe who can be seen adorning myriad spaces in many areas of Mexico. Outside the normal church setting, Madonnas can be spotted on street corners, in neighborhood parks and at the entrance to apartment buildings and individual houses.

Madonna and Child situated in a cozy nook just outside the front door of this house.

Read More

CulturePolitics

The Power of the Visual

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. This is definitely the case when comparing the power and lasting memory of an illustration, cartoon or photo to the written word—an essay on a political or social topic. In much the same way that viewing a graph can more quickly and clearly describe the results of a survey when compared to reading a written abstract, an illustration or cartoon can convey its message more powerfully by using creative visual elements that are aimed at stirring the viewer’s emotions in a way that makes them almost palpable.

I was fortunate to stumble upon a public exhibition of illustrations by international artists last week that focused on social and political issues around the world. I’m sharing my favorites in this post.

[Apologies for not giving credit to some of the artists, but the exhibition didn’t identify the creators of each work–strange, I know! For the signed illustrations, I’ve tried to decipher the artist’s signature.]

This powerful illustration certainly fulfills its purpose of addressing the remnants of Colonialism that still negatively affect indigenous populations today, as well as the timely issue of responsible tourism. Artist: P. Kuczynski, 2009.

Read More

Culture

Film and Television Production: Living in an Alternative Reality

Actress Rachel Jones and I aboard the wardrobe truck on the set of a (horrible) horror film called “Dracula’s Widow”

Have you ever wondered why Hollywood ‘celebrities’ seem to be so out of touch with the reality that normal folks live? Well, it’s simple. They live in an alternate universe—one that’s both insular and pretty much self-regulating. That means that people in positions of power (lead actors, producers and directors) are given extreme latitude to be either their most talented and creative selves or egotistical maniacs intent on wreaking havoc on those who are vulnerable.

And make no mistake about it, there’s no shortage of bright-eyed victims who are drawn by the lure of fame and fortune and who are naively willing to do whatever it takes to reach stardom–what I perceive as being a dark and lonely place. Think of producer Harvey Weinstein and his lecherous behavior with seemingly half the female talent in the ‘business’. And by the way, it is very much a business. The Hollywood madness is arguably America’s biggest cultural export to the innocent masses around the world.

I remember being told by a friend who was teaching English in South Korea that the sitcom Friends was being used in language institutes all across that country as a classroom teaching tool. “Oh great,” I said. “Now Koreans will think that every waitress in Manhattan can afford to live in a spacious loft in Brooklyn with a drop-dead gorgeous view of the city’s skyline!” Hollywood has always prospered on fantasy, and that’s even more obvious when experienced from the inside.

I always wanted to work in ‘the arts’ (snicker, chuckle, guffaw) and so I was incredibly excited when I got a job on my first film production, Michael Cimino’s violent drama, Year of the Dragon, set in New York’s Chinatown and starring Micky Rourke. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I got was a baptism by fire.

Read More

CultureVisual Arts

Rediscovering Legendary Artist Frida Kahlo

Frida With Flowers in Her Hair, c. 1940. By Photographer Bernard Sliberstein.

I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.
– Frida Kahlo

It’s impossible to write about the life and work of Diego Rivera (as I did last week) without also discussing the life and work of his wife and companion Frida Kahlo who lived from 1907 to 1954. Though their work was very different in style—Rivera’s larger than life murals of Mexican history and Kahlo’s often quite discomforting gaze from her intimate self-portraits—their sense of dedication to commoners in general and Mexico’s indigenous people in particular was reflected in the art they created.

While Rivera was honored as a painter and master muralist of international renown during his lifetime, Kahlo was often simply seen as Diego’s wife–a woman who just happened to dabble in paints. By the time of her death, Kahlo had exhibited her paintings in her native Mexico City as well as in both New York and Paris. Her works were present in the private collections of some of the art world’s most prestigious patrons. Still, in her New York Times obituary, she was identified as, “Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera’s Wife.”

Read More