Basque Church

Where: Zumaia, Spain

When: November 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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I took this photo on a stormy November day, when a Basque friend had offered to show me some of the small villages that dot her region. Despite the weather, and although her car broke down the day before we’d planned to leave, we decided to press on by foot, bus, and coastal train. As the evening light turned the sky heavy colours, we came across this tiny church by the sea. I love the people huddled in the doorway, stretching out their goodbyes before they leave the cozy building under threatening skies.

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The 5 Weirdest Objects in the British Museum

London, England – August 2nd, 2010

Look to the British Museum’s “History of the World in 100 Objects” if you want an official list of its most relevant artifacts. If, instead, you’d like a very unofficial list of its most irrelevant artifacts, read on! Here are the five things that really made me laugh:

1.) This is a piece from the Lewis Chess Set, one of the British Museum’s most famous exhibits. The chess set is striking for its antiquity (it dates to viking times), its high level of detail, and the humorous appearance of its pieces. This queen is one of my favorites, as her eyes bug out and she presses a hand to her face as if worried. Apparently, however, that’s just how people carved eyes back then… and the pose was meant as a symbol of wisdom and gracefulness.

 

 

 

 

2.) I found these three human figurines in the Mesopotamian section of the museum. What’s great is the academic description below: “These are of unfired clay. Though very crude, two certainly represent males. The third might either be female or has lost a small piece of clay.”

 

 

 

 

3.) This statuette comes from the Roman section. I can think of a dozen possible explanations of what’s going on here, and frankly, all of them are pretty weird. Just check out the facial expressions.

 

 

 

 

4.) This looks like a goofy, modern pen holder (or maybe a coffee mug?).  Apparently it’s actually from South America and pretty old at that.

 

 

 

 

5.) This is my favourite item in the whole museum, hands down. It’s a secret dagger, hidden in… a similar dagger! Brilliant! So, you know, people will never suspect you’re carrying a dagger… they’ll just think you’re carrying a… dagger! Anyone have an opinion about whether or not the interior dagger could even be used?

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

Does the British Museum Transcend Liberal Ethics?

London, England – August 2nd, 2010

When I first entered the British Museum, I was ready to be filled with a sense of righteous liberal indignation. On a visit to the Acropolis a few years earlier, the Greeks had been only too happy to tell me where all the missing statues were – the friezes, the caryatids, the pediments – all in London, some ‘British museum’, a world away. But once I entered, I found it impossible to hold a grudge against the museum itself. The circumstances under which it obtained and holds such a diverse and rich collection may be controversial, but everyone agrees the collection is a marvel.

Under one roof, a visitor sees Egyptian wall paintings, the Rosetta stone, viking helmets and chess pieces, turquoise serpents, crystal skulls, records written in cuniform, totem poles, knives carved out of antler and decorated with reindeer, Roman mosaics, Arabic calligraphy wrought in metal, and yes, even the Parthenon exhibit. The museum’s official stance about its… erm… forcibly borrowed goods is that “The Museum is a unique resource for the world” which “exists to tell the story of cultural  achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of  human history over two million years ago until the present day.” It’s easy to question the purity of their true motives, but there’s certainly some truth there. I, for one, found myself enchanted despite myself.

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

Cumbres Borrascosas

Where: Irati Forest, Spain

When: October 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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I took this picture while hiking and picking mushrooms in the Irati forest. The fog was so thick that day that for a long time all we could see was the path at our feet and the occasional feral pony. The cold,  white damp was eerie and isolating, like the setting of Cumbres Borrascosas – that’s Spanish for Wuthering Heights. I wondered vaguely how so much fog could form in a forest. Months later, while driving in the mountains, I was shocked to realize that I’d been on that road before. That day in the fog, we hadn’t realized we were surrounded by 2,000 foot high mountains!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

Moffat Toffee and the Devil’s Beef Tub

Standing by the Devil's Beef Tub

Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland – August 21st, 2010

Not nearly as well known as historic Edinburgh or the Highlands in which so many romances are set, south-western Dumfries and Galloway is one of the least visited parts of Scotland. That’s too bad, because during the few days I spent there, I felt rewarded again and again for going a bit out of the way.

The town of Moffat was especially worth a visit. It’s surrounded by dramatic hills, and approaching from the north a visitor encounters the Devil’s Beef Tub, a deep hollow. It takes its name from the stolen cattle that would be driven down into the hollow by Clan Moffat after being seized in raids. The Beef Tub appears prominently in other stories as well. A fleeing highlander once tumbled down the steep sides, pursued by gunfire, and escaped. The covenanter John Hunter was less lucky – he was shot dead attempting to run up out of the Beef Tub.

The hills around Moffat

The town of Moffat itself is home to the world’s most narrow hotel, the Star Hotel, as well as the Moffat Toffee Shop, where you can buy a bag of (surprise!) Moffat Toffee. It’s not actually toffee, but a sort of hard candy that is sweet, salty, and sour all at once. It has a unique flavour and is made only in Moffat, according to a family recipe.

/From the Lowlands to the Highlands

The Witch Caves of Navarre

Zugarramurdi, in the Valley of Baztan

Zugarramurdi, Navarra, Spain – December 7th, 2010

In the extreme north of Navarre (a state in Northern Spain) is a little town called Zugarramurdi, home to 218 people and, four hundred years ago, one of the biggest and bloodiest witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition. Ultimately, forty suspected witches were found guilty and sent south for further trial, where many ended up being burned at the stake.

In my second to last week in Pamplona, some friends and I took a rental car up to Zugarramurdi from Pamplona (about 1 1/2 hour drive). We were in a bit of a hurry, so we only took the quickest peek at the new Witch Museum, but we were eager to see the Sorgin Leze, or Witch Caves, where the devil himself was said to give services to congregations of witches on the banks of the Hell Stream (Infernuko Erreka in Basque).

The Hell Stream

The first thing we came across while walking the loop path was the infernal stream itself, reddish brown and strangely opaque. It looked as thick as paint, but it was moving too fast and without staining the stones around it. Although we were certain that the colour must come from the soil – clay or something similar – it was easy to see why earlier generations had found it so unsettling.

Following the stream, we soon found ourselves in the cavern itself, with its high ceiling and the little chambers above us to the left, where the covens were said to hold more private meetings. Open on two sides to the air, it was more like a natural bridge than a cave, but spectacular either way.

The enormous cave opening...

Whatever you believe about the historical ‘witches’, it’s easy to imagine some fantastic bonfires taking place here!

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

The Castle of Olite

Where: Olite, Spain

When: November 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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One morning at dawn, I climbed all the way up to the highest tower of the Castle of Olite for this view of the palace, the sleepy village below, and the wide agricultural fields that are just becoming visible on the horizon. According to the history books, the castle was once home to Navarre’s royal family, exotic pets like giraffes and lions, and hanging gardens modeled after those of Babylon. Today, the castle stands empty save for a modest number of tourists and a thick layer of rich, red ivy that spreads like a red carpet for kings long gone.

/A Semester in the Basque Country of Spain

El Mercado de Heredia

Heredia, Costa Rica – June 6th, 2008

Heredia was much like San Jose. Exteriors were dirty concrete and rusted metal, with the junctures between the two often neglected. To say there was no insulation would be an understatement – a Missouri rainstorm would whip in through every crack.

We were assigned a scavenger hunt in the Mercado. They divided us into groups to look for items from a list, which we were forbidden to show anyone – we were meant to ask people where we could buy things and how they were used. All of our things (with one exception) turned out to be herbs and spices, so we found ourselves bothering the same people again and again.

A group of exhausted high schoolers need some sort of authority figure to maintain organization, so when it came time to eat lunch, in particular, there were arguments. For about half an hour we bickered over where to eat, as half the group wanted cheap, authentic food – the kind most prevalent in the Mercado itself, while the other half couldn’t be persuaded to go anywhere near the street vendors.

The group finally split and I stayed with the Mercado group. The little bar we ate at probably left us more exposed to thieves and pickpockets than any other place we went on our trip, but I wasn’t at all worried about the food. They prepared it right in front of us, and meat and cheese and cilantro smells wafted over the dirty glass that separated the kitchen from the counter. My first full and real Costa Rican meal – Pollo con Gallo Pinto – was delicious. I even ordered a cheese tortilla to finish it off.