The Day of the Dead in Mexican Style

Dear Reader,

Have you met Catrina? no?!
This is her:

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Ladies and gentlemen, this is Catrina.

Catrina is a tall, elegantly attired female skeleton sporting an extravagantly plumed hat. She is the creation of print maker José Guadalupe Posada, dated back in 1910, a time where calaveras (Spanish for ‘skulls’) images were wielded as political and social satire, poking fun at human folly. La Catrina has everything to do with the Mexican Revolution elements and she is also the main character of the curious Day of the Dead Mexican festivity.

catrinas

Unlike in many other countries, Mexico has a different view of the Dead. Even though this holiday coincides with the Catholic holiday called All Soul’s & All Saint’s Day, the indigenous people over here have combined the traditional Catholic ritual with their own ancient beliefs of honouring their deceased loved ones and celebrating their return among the living. That’s right, dear Reader, they believe that the gates of heaven opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for 24 hours. On November 1 and 2, the spirits of the adults come down to enjoy the festivities that are prepared for them. This is what gives this holiday a very curious and yet unique touch.

It is a festive, joyous time of celebration in Mexico. The Day of the Dead is probably one of Mexico’s most important holidays, and this means that people invest a lot of time and money into celebrating it, more so than any other holiday.

Ok, so Travel Buddy and I went to the core heart of traditional Jalisco state, a little town called Tlaquepaque because we literally wanted to immerse ourselves in the Day of the Dead festivity.

The entire town looked glorious and colourful

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When you walk along the streets you notice many little altars which honour parted loved ones. Some of them will even have some of the things they loved, such as their favourite drinks, objects, dishes.

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Sometimes the dead person is a child, or many in fact. One specific altar, dedicated to the fire which killed 38 of children in Sonora in 2009, was filled with toys and pictures of the children.

Catrina is without a doubt the representative of this holiday. So much in fact, that everyone wants to look like her!

Children

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Adults

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And even waiters in a restaurant will join the spooky folklore

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Stanito and Travel Buddy could not be exception to this rule

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Here I am sitting between a lady skeleton and her male companion

While Travel Buddy took it even further when he sat down and played cards with another skeleton gentleman

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In the end, why should the remembrance of our beloved dead ones be a sad event?

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An Old Crowded Jewish Cemetery

Dear Reader,

the lack of space can be a problem even for cemetery authorities. So in Prague I found this beautiful synagogue which has been facing a particular problem for many decades now…

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The cemetery is nearly 600 years old, and has about 12,000 tombstones packed in it. However, a curious fact makes this cemetery extremely over-packed with bodies…

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Nobody really knows when the cemetery was founded as there are gravestones that date back to 1430, earlier than what many people suggest. Either way, regardless its foundation date, this cemetery indeed managed to survive in the same spot for hundreds of years, accumulating thousands of bodies all stacked on top of each other forming layers, and here is why: according to Jewish tradition, no body can ever be moved from its original burial site, so when space became a problem, bodies were simply put in layers, now 12 deep. So given the piling-up of bodies it is estimated that in this place there are about 100,000 bodies buried in the ground.

Who were the Nymphs?

Dear Reader,

Ancient Greek myths are loaded of incredible creatures all nested together in a fantasy world that has endured for millennia, and today I will tell you everything you need to know about the nymphs. I believe they are the most romantic and soft side of the myths although some of them can defy this image by means of viciousness and vengeance.
They were pictured as very beautiful girls, some were immortals while others were still blessed with long life. They were always playing, braiding their hair and making flower necklaces by a river or lake, in the ocean or by the sea, they loved dancing and perhaps this is why we would often find them accompanying satires and gods.

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They were companions and their character would change depending which god they were alongside with. Dionysus was the God of Wild Nature, of Wine, Grapevine and Drunkenness, so his nymphs resembled the same character: the wild-eyed Maenads or Bacchae were the nymphs accompanying Dionysus, dancing and pouring wine everywhere. When drunk they became increasingly aggressive to the point of killing men passing by. Poor musician Orpheus died by the hand of the inebriated Maenads.

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Hylas and the Nymphs” by John William Waterhouse. Hylas was companion and lover of Heracles and in the painting above you see when he he is being abducted by naiads, freshwater nymphs.

Then we have Artemis, the Hunter Goddess who represented the Moon. She was grouchy, very asocial and always accompanied by a band of shy huntress nymphs. Hecate, the Witchcraft goddess was sided by the dark Lampades nymphs of the underworld. Poseidon, god of Seas and Oceans, was escorted by the Nereids and Oceanids.
For those goddesses that preferred a more homey lifestyle up on the Olympus (Hera, Aphrodite, etc) they still had nymphs who attended them as handmaidens.

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The Ancient Greek myths regard the nymphs were the personifications of different aspects of nature. They were minor nature goddesses and as such they were below in rank to any other Olympic deity. They were, however, always invited to attend festines, assemblies and other celebrations up on Mt. Olympus.

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Potamides with a sheperd” by Henrietta Rae. Potamides were those freshwater nymphs (so naiads) that lived next to river streams.

They were many, probably thousands as they presided over various natural phenomena: from springs, to clouds, trees, caverns, meadows, and beaches. They were responsible chiefly for the care of the plants and animals of their domain, and as such were closely associated with the prime gods of nature such as Hermes, Dionysos, Artemis, Poseidon and Demeter. They were the crafters of nature’s wild beauty, from the growing of trees, flowers and shrubs, to the nurture of wild animals and birds, and the formation of grottos, springs, brooks and wetlands.

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Sometimes nymphs were the nurses of the gods including the Idaian nymphs who nursed the infant Zeus, and the Nysian nymphs who cared for Dionysos.

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The alseides were the nymphs of woods and forests.

And there’s more. The Oceanids were the nymphs of the ocean. The Nereids were the ones of the Mediterranean and the most famous ones as they were often mothers to the most known Greek heroes.

How to get into North Korea

Dear Reader,

It’s time to answer some of the biggest questions that many travellers wonder about: how to obtain visa and access to North Korea! So here is my experience or better yet, my holiday adventure!

Entering North Korea (DPRK) is a very unusual and restricted process that requires months to be completed before actually receiving the green light.
Entering North Korea is very easy, but few things can get you in trouble or on the black list: your nationality and your profession.
If you are South Korean and/or Japanese, be sure that the authorities will never let you in. Historically, even the Americans wouldn’t be allowed in as they are still considered as the Empire which invaded and made a mess. But as America is symbol of money, now they are allowed because they are big part of the DPRK tourist consumption.

North Korean countryside on my way to Kaesong.
North Korean countryside on my way to Kaesong.

You can fly to Pyongyang from three places: Beijing, Vladivostok and a city in Malaysia that I cannot recall right now (perhaps its capital). However, the overwhelming majority of foreigners travel to Pyongyang from China, either by train or flight. Me and my friends traveled via Air Koryo, although I heard from my other tour fellows that the train experience is quite something.

Inside the airplane on Air Koryo on my way from Beijing to Pyongyang.
Inside the airplane on Air Koryo on my way from Beijing to Pyongyang.

The only way you can enter the country is by joining an authorised tour from an authorised company. When I signed up for the Young Pioneer Tours, all I had to do was filling an application form.

Of course the DPRK authorities reserve the right to reject your application for X,Y, Z reason, and luckily, that wasn’t my case.

I did managed to enter so you’re probably wondering “Ok, but how easy it is to get to DPRK from China?”, and my answer is… It is an absolute pain mixed up with lots of bureaucratic issues and in some cases even many visits to the Chinese Consulate.
Anyway, it all happened two weeks before my departure… I was told “Do not go to the angry Chinese girl, but instead the grey-haired Italian man!”. Sadly, by the time I went the Italian man was gone, the Angry lady (if angry) was still there, but luckily there seemed to be a different Italian there as well. So I sad “I won’t go against the odds, so I might want to try someone more familiar”. I wish I thought this through a bit more, because the Italian guy who attended me made the whole process a lot more complicated and frustrating than I thought.

My entry visa to North Korea.
My entry visa to North Korea.

Basically there was no issue at all until the North Korea tour came up in the conversation with the Man. He had checked all my papers, requested a booking for every single night I was going to spend in China, flights details and bla bla bla, so to sum up I was entitled to a touristic visa. But as there was gap he wanted to know where I was going to go. The minute he heard me saying “North Korea! :)” he freaked out. He took back my tourist visa and nervously said “We cannot guarantee you be safe in there, so we cannot grant you a touristic visa. People cannot go to North Korea…” to which I impatiently replied “Yes, people can, I’m going since I’m in a tour plan, departing from Beijing. See? It is possible”. My inner patience thermometer was reaching a dangerous level, at some point he even said to me “It is not possible to go to North Korea, you need to go talk to the North Korean consulate, I cannot give you a tourist visa if you plan to go there, I mean… it’s a dangerous place, we cannot take responsibility for you”. Not wishing to be rude, I demanded to talk to Angry Lady as she dealt with my friends’ application and simply said “Can you please help us here? He evidently has no clue on what to do and you helped my friend getting everything done, so your help in here is much needed”. In the end, I signed 6 declarations, 6! All aiming to exonerate the consulate from any responsibility during my trip. Angry and all, the lady took one minute, and I got my two-entry visa. Yayy!

Teen soccer players on their way to pay respect to the Dear Leader.
Teen soccer players on their way to pay respect to the Dear Leader.

So, as the hardest part is over, let’s go back to the North Korean entry process. After getting the visa and having indeed flown over to China, you must be aware of the following pieces of advice:

  1. Always show respect to the Koreans leaders and avoid offending the local guides and people. At certain places especially statues of the leaders we will often bow to show our respect according to the local customs.
  2. You are not allowed to use the local currency in North Korea. In fact, you won’t even see a local bill or coin. Most of transactions are made in RMB (Chinese currency).
  3. Professional video cameras are not allowed to be taken into the DPRK, but handheld digicams have recently been allowed as long as you don’t film anything you’re told not to! Regular digital still cameras are fine, for professional cameras, lenses less than250 mm are allowed- anything over that could be retained at customs until you depart.
  4. E-books are fine, and normal books are OK as long as it’s not a Bible,Qu’ran or any other religious text. A couple of people were in trouble because they were bringing Bibles with them, so e-hem, no religious text book.
  5. It is strongly recommend you bring gifts for your North Korean guides when you first arrive at the hotel, and have a ‘sit down’.

Having said this, you are ready to go and enjoy the most hermetic country on earth!

The Church that survived Lava

Dear Reader,

In the area of Angahuan, an indigenous town lost in the middle of Michoacan, lies a particular church.

It is the San Juan sanctuary of Paricutin.

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Built in the 14th century, the Sanctuary of San Juan de Paricutín was beautiful, always looked after and transited by hundreds of believers.

A sea of lava; l25 km of barren land where sight only reaches the edges of volcanic sharp formations. In the distance there is only one thing you can spot: a unique majestic church tower, the only survivor of a tremendous volcanic eruption that erased an entire village in 1945.

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The town is gone, but the church remained, standing upright and insolent like an island in its particular ocean of lava, to remind visitors that the lava field that are standing on covered what used to be an impressive beautiful town long ago… Now there are only blackened rock.

 

7 Sleepy Giants

Dear Reader,

a Berber legend goes like this:

Seven men were allegedly buried in the surroundings of the masjid some uncommonly large tombs (about 4 meters long) are visible. It is a popular belief that during their long sleep they did not stop growing, so when they woke up they had become giants.

And here are they buried, underneath this beautiful masjid of Chenini.

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Stanito and the Guachimontones

Dear Reader,

These are the Guachimontones. 2,000-year-old circular ruins found in Teuchitlan, Jalisco  and the ONLY known circular pyramids on Earth.

At first, little was known about these circular pyramids, who had built them, why they had been built, so you can imagine how many theories surround this remarkable site.

Stanito went there. And studied them. Stay tuned to find out more…

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How the Mayans played Ball

Dear Reader,

As far as research tells us, the Mayans didn’t play football. They played hip ball. They had their own unique way to play with each other as a form of entertainment and to show respect to the gods.

Stanito traveled to Yucatán and Quintana-Roo for you, dear Reader, to investigate this ancient game.
So today we are going to learn how, why and when the Mayans performed this remarkable ball game in ancient times 🙂

The game sort of looked like this:

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This the picture of a poster I found in Tulum, not far from Chichén Itzá.

Before we explore the game techniques and rules, let’s talk about the basics.

This Mesoamerican ball game is the oldest known team sport in the world ever recorded and it was found among the Pre-Columbian cultures of Central America, like the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs. It was brutal because it was a religious ritual that eventually required human sacrifice at the end of the match. The Mayans called it Pok a Tok and the Aztecs as Tlachtli.
Like balls game of nowadays, they used a rubber ball of about 35 cm in diameter. The ball was rubber-like but more solid than  our basket ball and it could weigh a lot more. This made the game a lot more brutal and difficult as if they threw the ball hard enough they could easily kill other players (it must have hurt really bad… :/ ).

This is the stadium or game court. It was impossible to take a photo without the tourists unfortunately...
This is the stadium or game court. It was impossible to take a photo without the tourists unfortunately…

Players wore protection for their heads, elbows and knees, and also, precisely because they hit the ball with their hips they used to wear special belts on their waists and chest to make better bounces.

If you were watching the game in the stadium you would see that there were two stone hoops or rings in the center of the court on either side.

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Stanito is pointing at one of the stone hoops in the game court of Chichen Itzá, Yucatan.

The goal of game was to push the ball within those rings using only the hip as Stanito is demonstrating in the next photo.

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Stanito is showing how players must have shot the ball in the stone hoop.

When a player did manage to get a ball through a ring, that usually ended the game (others say that the game would end with the Sun marked a line drawn by the judge).
You had a ball court (stadium in our present time), two teams of players, a judge tower and a line where the Sun would mark the end of the match. It should have looked like this:

Photo from siloam.net
Photo from siloam.net

Score though also included when opposing ball players missed a shot at the vertical hoops placed at the center point of the side walls or if they were unable to return the ball to the opposing team before it had bounced a second time (negative score).  The team with the most points won.
The teams would play until the judge raised his hand and blow a horn once the Sun had hit the finish line and the game would be over by claiming the winning team.

What happened after victory?

About for the outcome or end of the game I find myself in a pickle. According to sources and documents, at the end of the game one of the two teams was to be sacrificed to Xibalba, the Underworld. Some say it was the loser team while other say it was the winner team.

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This is where the judge used to sit and watch the game. He would have determined when the game was over.

The most popular version says that the Mayans sacrificed the winners because they would be a perfect gift to the gods. Therefore it is thought that it was an honour for the players to die for Xibalba.

Another version would see the loser team being sacrificed to the gods. They were bound together, hands tied, decapitated and then hurled down the stairs of a temple.

I know what you must be thinking, why would players do their best if in the end they were sacrificed?
Well, it this is the right version then the only explanation I can think of is that for players it must have been an honour to die for Xibalba as their souls would continue to endure in the Underworld.
But if the version of the loser team is the right one then, well then you can understand why players did their best to win!

Final Sacrifice:

Either way, Dear Reader, one of the team was to be sacrificed at the end of the game. They were decapitated and later thrown into Xibalba, the Underworld.
This is what Xibalba looked like:

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This is the cenote in Chichen Itzá and it’s what the ancient regarded as Xibalba, where the sacrifices ended up.

I assume players that ended up thrown in it never came back. Again versions here differ a little:
a) Players were first decapitated, later thrown down the temple stairs and then thrown into Xibalba.
b) Players were taken to the edge of Xibalba and them simply thrown into it. They were tide with ropes so I assume they drowned to death.

Elena di Sparta & Elena di Troia

Caro Lettore,
Si sa ben poco di cosa c’é di vero nella mitologia greca. Si sa che Troia (in greco antico é Τροία), città della Troade (attuale zona ovest della Turchia dove si trova la penisola di Biga) sia stata distrutta e costruita più volte. Forse 5 volte o forse 10 volte. Non si sa con esattezza. Si sa che aveva un’enorme importanza nel commercio tra Europa e Asia Minore dovuto al fatto che Troia controllava gli scambi commerciali che attraversavano lo Stretto dei Dardanelli imponendo dazi alle navi che vi attraversavano. Per tanto conquistarla aveva un senso per i greci.
Troia la ritroviamo in moltissimi poemi, i più celebri quelli di Omero, dove ci racconta tutta la storia e la lunga guerra durata 10 anni.
La storia, nonostante sia narrata da fonti diverse, quasi tutte concordano sulla una stessa causa: la guerra di Troia é stata causata da Elena.

Diane Kruger nelle vesti di Elena, regina di Sparta finché ci é rimasta. Copyright: slate.com

Elena scappa da Sparta insieme a Paride e approdano a Troia. Questo provoca l’ira di Menelao che, assieme al fratello Agamennone, mette su una flotta di proporzioni enormi per attaccare Troia e riprendersi Elena. Questo fa si che Elena volontariamente sia la causa di questa lunghissima guerra.

Elena, approdata a Troia, riceve il caloroso benvenuto del re Priamo, che la accoglie come una figlia nonostante il pericolo che ella rappresenta (attento Priamo!) Copyright: fanpop.com

Altre fonti peró meno note offrono un’altra ipotesi: e se Elena fosse stata innocente e usata dagli dei per giustificare la guerra? La guerra é stata combattuta sia da umani che dagli dei, schierati dietro i loro protetti mortali dovuto a diverse ragioni. Afrodite e Apollo si schierano con i troiani perché lei aveva un figlio tra di loro, Enea, mentre Apollo era adirato con i greci, in particolare con Agamennone, che lo aveva oltraggiato nel suo tempio portandogli via una sacerdotessa, Criseide. D’altro lato Era e Atena si schierano con in greci perché Era e Atena avevano perso contro Afrodite nel giudizio fatto da Paride, che doveva dare il pomo d’oro “alla più bella”. Ares invece ama le guerre quindi prende atto ovunque, ma in quanto amante di Afrodite si schiera con lei e aiuta i troiani. Ecco scatenata la guerra.

Elena di Troia interpretata da Elizabeth Taylor. Copyright: buzznet.com

Elena potrebbe essere una pedina in questo intreccio. Infatti, la fonte che ho trovato qui sotto ci indica che Elena fosse contemporaneamente in Egitto quando scoppió la guerra di Troia. Euripide sospetta che Elena fosse stata rapita da Paride (come premio per aver dato il pomo d’oro ad Afrodite) e che passando per l’Egitto, il re Proteo (amico di Menelao) lo avesse obbligato a lasciare lí Elena per poterla restituire al marito Menelao. Se le cose sono andate cosí, allora Paride é arrivato a Troia con qualcosa o qualcuno che somigliava molto a Elena. Da qui nasce la teoria che ci fossero due Elene: una vera in carne ed ossa ed un’altra creata dagli dei per ingannare gli umani e cosí giustificare una guerra.

Elena di Troia interpretata da Sienna Guillory in una miniserie intitolata Helen of Troy del 2003.

A mio parere Elena resta comunque un personaggio non molto gradevole, privo di espressione, vile e perennemente annoiata. Innocente o no
Qui sotto vi lascio un sito dove trovate la teoria delle due Elene. Buona lettura.

http://www.esonet.it/News-file-print-sid-1452.html

Art of the Day: The Rape of Persephone/Proserpina

Dear Reader,

As soon as I saw this statue I was completely mesmerised by it. It is called the Rape of Proserpina or Abduction of Proserpina (Ratto di Proserpina) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the year 1622. As he was Italian he used the Roman names of the Greek gods. I will use Persephone and Kore, the Greek original ones.

I know the story by heart as it’s one of my favourites, and as intense as it is, only a very intense piece of art could represent it the best way. Bernini did it. And majestically.

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Hades and Persephone in one of the most beautiful and dramatic representations of this myth. Photo source: Google.

Brief story of Persephone (Kore) and Hades:

Hades was the god of the Underworld, therefore god of all the dead, good and bad, and god of all the precious gems and stones that are found in the the underground. He was lonely, very grumpy and as you can imagine with very bad luck with women. Every attempt of seduction failed miserably. He never left the Underworld unless he had business to do or when he is overcome by sudden lust. Tired of his failed attempts he asks his brother Zeus to give him Kore as his wife. Kore (in greek means ‘young girl’) was a young joyous girl, daughter of Demeter, jealous goddess of harvest and agriculture. Zeus knew that by giving his consent he would have to confront the severe Demeter so he unwillingly gave the permission to his older brother to take Persephone to the underworld.

The coming of Kore to the Underworld symbolises the beginning of autumn and then winter, as the mother cried her daughter disappearance by shutting down any agriculture growth and prosperity on Earth. This fact prompted to her name changed into Persephone, which means ‘her who brings destruction‘ in terms of life and vegetation. Negotiations were made in such way that it was decreed that Persephone would spend six months in the underworld with her new husband (autumn and winter) and the rest of the year with her mother Demeter (spring and summer).

This piece of art is a delicate balance of violence and seduction, bodies binding together with excellent attention paid to details that give it an effect of firmness and strength.

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Hades grip on Persephone’s thigh. Photo source: Google.
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Photo source: Google.

Persephone’s desperation is remarkable in this piece of work as her eyes and tears portray the fear and anger upon being taken away from her mother, Demeter, and her home town to be dragged in the Underworld.

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Persephone’s desperation is shown by her tears and features. Photo source: Google.
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Photo source: Google.