Category: Culture

CultureTravel

The Muisca and the Search for El Dorado

Gold makes monsters of men.

Erin Bowman, Vengeance Road

Gold, glory and God

The origins of the quest for El Dorado can be traced back to the early 16th century when a story about a place containing vast golden treasures began spreading from one Spanish settlement to another along the Caribbean coast of South America. In contemporary times, the name has been exploited in fiction and film, and has long carried the connotation of a search for riches.

Despite the Spanish translation of ‘el dorado’ being ‘the golden’–an adjective meaning ‘the golden one’ and not denoting a city of gold–the legend quickly became embellished to refer to an entire city made of gold which was said to be located in the Valley of Dorado, a place hidden deep in the mountains of the continent’s northern Andes. It was this feverish quest to acquire gold in all its forms that drove numerous European expeditions–from which most adventurers would never return–over the high ranges of the Andes and through dense jungles filled with wild animals, deadly reptiles, unfriendly tribes and jungle fevers.

The first regional expeditions in search of gold were led by German and Spanish explorers traveling along the Orinoco River in what is now Venezuela. Soon after, Spanish conquistadors stationed in the Caribbean port town of Santa Marta heard stories from wandering natives of an Indian chieftain living high in the mountains whose wealth in gold was so great that he covered his entire body in the precious mineral.

A mural depicting traditional Muiscan figurines rendered from gold and silver. Artist: Edgar Diaz.

Encountering the Muisca

In 1636, the news of this gold-laden chieftain led Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his army of 800 men to abandon their mission of finding an overland route to Peru, and instead head east and up into the Andes. There they encountered the Muisca people, a highly advanced civilization whose territories were divided into a confederation of states without a single centralized leader or ruler.

Physical map of Colombia indicating the approximate range of Musica territory along with the locations of the 3 main Muisca administrative centers in the eastern range of Colombia’s Andes Mountains.

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CultureTravel

Ancient Petra: The City of Stone

A narrow sandstone gorge known as the Siq serves as the main entrance to southern Jordan’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra. This 1.2 kilometer long canyon twists and turns, and then turns some more before finally opening up to reveal a stunning view of the rock-hewn Al Kazneh, more commonly known as The Treasury. Photo: Henry Lewis

As the coarse sand and scree crunched under the weight of my moving feet, I passed through one narrow bend after another as I entered the wonderland that is southern Jordan’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra. The sheer cliffs and warm rose hues of the 1.2 kilometer-long sandstone gorge known as the Siq, which is the main entrance to this vast archaeological site, enveloped me as if I was being embraced by Mother Earth herself.

The sun was rising and the play of light and shadow on the stone walls of the narrow passage was mesmerizing. My only worry was that another speeding horse carriage driven by one of the local Bedouin guides would come careening around a blind-curve and run me down as I daydreamed about ancient caravans navigating such narrow passages.

A horse and carriage speedily navigates through the narrow passage known as the Siq. Photo: Henry Lewis

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CulturePolitics

The ART of Politics

While the Trump era has provided endless opportunities for journalists to come up with fresh ways to report on domestic and international affairs, I think the real treasure trove of creative golden nuggets has been laid at the feet of political cartoonists.

In an era when truth is often elusive and fantasy thrives, cartoons seem to represent the most effective means of contextualizing the outrageous behavior taking place in Washington, D.C. and it’s always-on 24-hour cycle of institutional destruction.

Signe Wilkinson – Washington Post Writers Group and Cartoonist Group

Michael de Adder – Counterpoint

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CultureTravelVisual Arts

Amazing Bogotá Street Art #2

As I wrote in The Amazing Street Art Scene in Bogotá, Colombia’s sprawling, high-altitude capital is a veritable feast for the eyes of those who love exploring streetscapes lined with beautiful–as well as sobering–images, painted by some of the world’s top street artists. The fact that this scene is constantly expanding and changing has been confirmed during my current visit, my fourth to the city.

Street art might be viewed as a metaphor for our lives, since the only thing assured for us, and street art, is change. As the paints and top layers of a wall or building begin to fade and crumble due to the inevitable weathering process, so too does the image that was once so vivid. While a painting may be more vibrant, crisp and colorful when it’s young (or freshly painted), aging often instills an image with more character and depth as the layers of paint, plaster, brick or concrete–once hidden beneath the fresh paint–begin to reveal themselves. While I appreciate vibrant colors and sharp outlines, I savor texture and depth of perspective even more.

These street paintings are in no meaningful order. They’re simply a selection I recently shot in the La Candelaria and Chapinero neighborhoods of Bogotá. While most of the images are to be enjoyed without comment, I’ve made notes on a few. I also wish to apologize to the artists who aren’t credited–those whose signatures don’t appear on their work. I’m just not organized enough to do the research at the moment. Enjoy!

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CulturePolitics

The Disunited States of Fear

Here we are again (and again and again and again…[queue the refrain]…) in the aftermath of more mass murders in the Disunited States of Fear. I don’t need to rehash the numbers here of dead and wounded in the horrific back to back shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio last weekend.

In a country with a paralyzed and incompetent government, they’re simply more impersonal statistics to add to the archives of senseless violence that take place on an all too frequent basis in the USA. Unfortunately, there are real mothers, fathers, spouses, children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends who are suffering at the moment, trying to come to terms with the loss of one or more loved ones.

In addition to the deaths, there are those whose physical wounds have forever changed their lives. Ask someone who’s seen the carnage caused by today’s brand of killing machines and they will tell you that being hit with high caliber ammunition causes traumatic damage to our flesh and bone bodies.

Despite the outpouring of public grief and demands for action, we’re hearing the same platitudes from the usual voices–our echo-loving serial Liar in Chief who foments division and hatred with every exhalation, a number of the Democratic candidates who are running for the nomination in 2020 and who are taking advantage of the media spotlight, as well as the few Republicans who aren’t hiding quietly behind closed curtains at home. Luckily for them, these two latest gun massacres took place conveniently after Congress had recessed for the month of August.

Not being in the Washington spotlight makes it much easier for these spineless creatures to hide until the media storm has passed. While their constituents should know where to find them, the ‘people’ are probably too distracted by back to school shopping–must have new bullet-proof backpacks for the kids–to bother phoning and raising hell with their elected representatives who swore an oath to work for the good of the country and its citizens.

US President and wife Melania who is holding an orphaned baby who lost both parents to the mass shooting at Walmart in El Paso, Texas last week. The photo was taken at University Medical Center where many of the wounded are recuperating. It sure looks like a campaign photo to me, complete with thumbs up! Wasn’t his trip to these mourning cities supposed to be about supporting the victim’s families? Shameful!!! Melania posted this on Twitter.

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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 these 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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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