In Turkey’s Cappadocia: Sleeping in a cave, fairy chimneys and hot-air balloons at sunrise

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For a few nights, I slept in Room No. 4 at the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel in Goreme, Turkey. Another fairy chimney is at right, and both spires have lodging accessed higher up via the middle staircase.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Once I switched off the small lamp on the bedside table, the room was almost pitch black. Little light snuck in under the horizontal crack where the bottom of the door met the rock. Good thing I was already tucked in under the cozy bedcovers.

I held my hand in front of my face, but I could barely see its outline. The room was dark — not like being deep underground in a Kentucky coal mine — but the absence of exterior illumination was notable in this isolated location.

It was like I was sleeping in a cave, because, well, I was sleeping in a cave. One in Göreme, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, to be precise.

In my international travels, I’ve slept in my share of nondescript chain hotels, checking into well-located, reasonably priced establishments in safe sections of a city. The sameness of these rooms means that they quickly blur into memory. (I’m not criticizing, and I’m all for a reliable, clean and welcoming place to lay my head for the night.)

That’s why when you do find unique lodging, it leaves a vivid impression.

Göreme is a village in central Turkey, with fewer than 7,000 residents, some of whom still actually live in the caves that dot the otherworldly landscape.

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Fairy chimneys are scattered around the landscape in Goreme, in central Turkey.

Conical rock formations known as fairy chimneys might have tourists wondering if diligent gnomes armed with hammers and pick axes roamed the countryside centuries ago, carving out dwellings and communities from the compacted tuff left behind by erupting volcanoes.

In reality, wind and rain converged to reshape the volcanic rock into these magical formations, some looking as if pointed mushrooms had sprouted from the top. Others have a more R-rating, with a decidedly phallic interpretation.

I traveled around Turkey for two weeks in October 2012. It was steamy during the day in Istanbul, and I was thankful at night that my hotel had air conditioning. I also visited Selçuk, Ephesus and Pamukkale.

Cappadocia (it means “land of wild horses”) was comfortable, with coolish evening and early-morning temperatures and brilliant sun during the day. My room at the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel seemed to stay at a steady temperature, with no need for alteration by heat or AC.

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The walls still bear the chisel marks where sleeping quarters were dug into the fairy chimney.

It was no hardship sleeping in this cave, aka Room 4, freeing my inner troglodyte. It was furnished with a orange-, red-, brown- and yellow- striped divan along the far wall. Hanging behind it was a patterned rug in shades of brown. Another rug, this time in tones of blue and red, covered the floor in front of the king-size bed with wrought-iron headboard.

Opposite the bed was a tall, double-doored wooden cupboard with carved stars on the exterior panels. To the left of the bed, the aforementioned tallboy with lamp, and the lone, curtain-covered window. Sandwiched into a tiny alcove between the bed and divan was another diminutive lamp perched on a small table.

Wedged between the cupboard and bathroom was a mirror atop an iron vanity, matching red-cushioned chair and what looked like a macrame wallhanging.

Likely, these simple furnishings hadn’t changed much over the years. Functional, comfortable and representative of the region.

Fortunately, the compact bathroom had all the modern conveniences, including hair dryer, shower and plenty of hot water.

And who needs a television or telephone when jaw-dropping scenery is right outside your door?

The Kelebek, a pioneering boutique hotel in this area and open since 1993, has seven other rooms in caves or fairy chimneys, but not all have heat or a private bathroom. One used to be a pigeon house, another was a chapel (frescoes still visible) and several have fireplaces and shared balconies. Pictures and descriptions of each are on the website.

More traditional accommodations are available, and they, too, have a lot of atmosphere. (The property has 47 rooms total.) I also stayed in a stone room with an arched ceiling because when I booked, the cave room I wanted wasn’t available for my whole visit.

I slept more soundly in the cave room because it was away from the traffic pattern to the terrace, which ran alongside Room No. 2.

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The terrace where breakfast (awning, upper right) is served is an easily accessible area from which to shoot early morning pictures of hot-air balloons rising over the valley.

And if you really want to move in for an extended exploration of Cappadocia, consider one of the honeymoon or king suites, try out the Turkish bath and spa, or the outdoor swimming pool (closed October 31-May 31 because it’s unheated). The pool’s bottom features a mosaic map of the world, circa 1513.

While all these comforts may make you want to sleep in or loll about until noon, there is a spectacular reason to get up early: the sunrise hot-air balloon parade.

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At least 30 hot-air balloons drift past the Kelebek early on an October morning. Far more were on their way from the staging area nearby.

Visitors who want to ride in a hot-air balloon are picked up while it’s still dark, driven to the staging area and be given a light breakfast while their return-from-Oz vehicle is inflated. Many companies offer this experience, and a more expensive fee usually means a longer time aloft (up to 90 minutes) and fewer people sharing the balloon’s basket. Post-flight champagne and flight certificates are usually included. The Kelebek can make the booking, and it is among the most popular activities in Cappadocia.

Instead of drifting into the air, I chose to view this photographic extravaganza from the hotel terrace. The morning was crisp and the cloudless sky a vibrant blue. Slowly, as the sky lightened, the multicolored balloons floated into view, emitting an audible hiss as the pilots fired the central flame to regulate the height of the vessels.

At one point, I counted at least 80 balloons hovering over the valley. Not many other guests were on the terrace, so I could move around unencumbered, trying to pinpoint the best location from which to aim my point-and-shoot camera. And I thought more than once that I needed far better equipment to do justice to this sweeping panorama.

As the balloons faded from view, my interest turned to breakfast, and the overwhelming number of choices arrayed before me and fellow guests: a variety of cereals, dried fruits (raisins, apricots, dates), fresh fruit (apples, oranges, bananas), tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, hard-cooked eggs, nuts, yogurt, cheeses, French toast, made-to-order crepes and omelets, deli meats, fresh bread, sweet pastries and a lot more that I didn’t record in my notebook.

Cappadocia was long ago a Roman province, and early Christians congregated here, hiding in subterranean cities. They created cave churches, chapels and monasteries in the rock, some decorated with still-surviving frescoes of medieval saints.

Several underground cities, with twisting, narrow passageways, are open to tourists. Among the most visited is Derinkuyu, designated in 1985 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where about 10,000 Byzantine Christians lived during the sixth and seventh centuries while hiding from advancing Persian and Arabic armies.

Industrious inhabitants burrowed into the earth to excavate ventilation shafts and chambers over eight levels that served as living space, kitchens, granaries, stables and storerooms. So prepared, they could hold out until the threat subsided.

Another daylong tour travels to the Ihlara Valley, where visitors scramble spider-like up and over the rocks to reach the cave churches of the Byzantine monks. The route includes a lengthy hike and a look into the Selime Monastery, among the largest cave cathedrals in Cappadocia.

The Göreme Open-Air Museum, a UNESCO site since 1985, is walkable from the hotel. You’ll need several hours to wander among the former monastic settlement, and the churches and chapels. Arrive early to beat the crowds and the midday heat.

There are, of course, shopping opportunities. Not on the scale of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but if you are still hankering to purchase a handmade rug, you’ll find a good assortment in size and price in Göreme. Be warned: Salesmen can be aggressive and the spiel about where the rugs were made may not be truthful. (Many come from outside Turkey.)

Quick reference: Kelebek Special Cave Hotel, http://www.kelebekhotel.com. The hotel can help make reservations for transfer from the airport, book balloon tours, or tours to the other sights I mentioned. The Kelebek is not the only cave hotel in Göreme, and many other tour companies offer similar itineraries in and around the countryside as well as balloon flights.

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A person-to-person connection in a relaxed home visit in Kerava, Finland

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A floating staircase is among the architectural features that my Cosy Finland co-host hand- built into his home in a municipality north of Helsinki. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

“It is easy to identify me – I am the tallest person around. (6 foot, 7 inches and athletic). I will wait for you under the tower of the station building. You will have to walk under the tracks through the tunnel.” — Jukka, one of my Cosy Finland hosts, in May 2013

One of the everlasting rewards of independent travel is interacting with the local people. A few minutes’ conversation, a shared meal or a simple exchange of sightseeing information — or other activity — can lead to a memorable connection.

In some countries, programs are specifically designed to match locals with tourists, and that includes a visit to their home. A glimpse behind the curtain, if you will.

If you are intent on doing this, try to set it up before you leave home. It’s best to have the elements in place, because they may include a reservation and a fee paid in advance.

I had read in my “Finland” Lonely Planet guidebook about such a program. It’s called Cosy Finland, and its website is enthusiastic about introducing visitors to a version of Scandinavian life. The privately owned program began in 2005 and bills itself as “an authentic culture experience.”

Among the offerings was a three-hour dinner at a Finnish home, a Sunday afternoon lunch, a ladies’ only evening, a chance to bake a salmon cake (or seasonally, gingerbread), or to enjoy a sauna, an essential Finnish experience.

There was even the possibility of an overnight visit. Some options were geared to the solo traveler and others to groups. Many of the hosts reside in Helsinki or its suburbs, but the program also listed participants in other Finnish cities.

The process started with filling out an online form, giving a range of dates I was available and selecting one of the choices I’ve outlined above. It also asked my nationality, what language(s) I spoke, where I was staying in Finland, if I had any dietary restrictions or allergies, if I had children, what age I’d like my hosts to be and if I had any special interests.

The website also gave some biographical information about prospective hosts, who possessed a range of interests and abilities. You can try to find people with passions that complement yours, or go in for a totally different escapade.

For example, this is a description (currently on the website) from a retired couple in Hämeenlinna:

“We love hiking and wildlife; having retired we walked the Camino de Santiago, a 800 km pilgrimage from the Pyrenees in France to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic in northern Spain. Sauna and ice-hole swimming enthusiasts in winter, would you like to try? We live in Helsinki and in a summer house in Hämeenlinna (100 km north of Helsinki). Sauna with private beach, boats available. Homestay for 1-3 persons in both of them.  Wir sprechen auch Deutsch. Vi pratar svenska. Hablamos español. Parliamo un poco  d’italiano. On parle un peu de français.”

Or perhaps these hosts:

“An active retired couple from Helsinki living in the district of Lauttasaari which is an island! We both adore crafts and being creative: knitting, renovating, silver jewelry, gardening, baking. She is specialized in gluten-free cooking due to her own condition. We spend our winters in the warmth of Spain and our summers in our community garden not far away from our home. Our little chihuahua follows us all around! We speak Finnish, Swedish, Spanish, German, and English. With a little help from our daughters, we can also communicate in French.”

The Cosy Finland fee for putting all this together for my visit was 69 euros, or about $73 at today’s exchange rate.

The couple I selected — Marjo, a biologist, and Jukka, a graphic designer/photographer /web designer, lived in Kerava, a municipality north of Helsinki. Once Cosy Finland contacted them, it forwarded an invitation from my hosts that included phone numbers, detailed information on which train to catch, what time it left, and that I would be picked up at the station. We also exchanged email addresses, and it was via this that Jukka provided his physical description so I could find him after my 40-minute train ride (it was a slower commuter; the trip can be made more quickly).

He was, indeed, very tall, and Marjo reached only to his shoulders. Both were slim, and I’d put their ages at around mid-50s. She worked for the Helsinki zoo as an educational specialist. The very energetic Jukka, also a former city councilman (platforms: more bike trails, and immigration), picked me up in a Honda SUV. The drive to the house was only about 10 minutes.

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Jukka and Marjo’s house in Finland.

And what a home it was, built over about six months by Jukka himself in the late 1980s. The interior was quintessentially Finnish, with lots of wood, sleek clean lines and an open floor plan on the ground level. A floating wooden staircase led to the bedrooms upstairs, but I did not intrude and ask for a full tour. Outside was a patio, where we had dinner on a superb, sunny late May evening.

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The sauna, much cherished and much used.

Jukka told me that not too many weeks previously, the now deep-green carpet of backyard lawn had been a frozen wonderland. One of his delights was to run the few steps from the steamy sauna directly into the thick layer of icy flakes and make snow angels.

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Dining al fresco: Grilled marinated lamb, broccoli, salad, new potatoes and mushroom sauce. Delicious!

Marjo was busy in the kitchen making dinner: marinated lamb fillets (cooked later on the grill outdoors); steamed broccoli with new potatoes; mushroom sauce; a green salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and walnuts; and hearty bread. We also enjoyed a bottle of red wine from Chile.

The springtime sun was beginning to set, and the temperature was falling. It had been pleasantly warm shirtsleeve weather, but we retreated indoors for dessert. On a fruit-motif tablecloth, Marjo set out bowls full of lingonberries, blueberries, sugar, cream and quark (similar to thick yogurt).

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Dessert was a creamy combination of lingonberries, blueberries, sugar, cream and quark, a curdled-milk product, sort of like yogurt, that’s popular in Scandinavia. 

Probably the most startling revelation of the evening: Jukka said his father had 17 siblings.

Marjo and Jukka were an athletic couple, telling me about a 500-kilometer cycling adventure in the Netherlands. One goal of the tour was to gather ideas that could be implemented in Kerava, a city of about 35,000 people, less than 20 miles from Helsinki.

We talked about our jobs, families (each had grown children from previous relationships) and travel experiences. I was in the early part of my two-week Finnish circuit, and I indicated my plans to go very far north to the village of Inari, a center of Sami (indigenous) culture, and Rovaniemi, close to the Arctic Circle.

I had with me the gifts I usually carry on my journeys: a United States map, one of Georgia and Alabama, postcards and small books about the Peach State. Knowing I’d be visiting with someone in a profession related to mine, I had a copy of the Food section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which featured my article about taking a cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The U.S. maps were well-received, as they generally are, especially if the people you’re giving them to have been to America, as was Jukka’s case.

He told an entertaining story about having been an exchange student at the Pomfret School in Connecticut when he was 17, and it seems the East Coast family had a substantial amount of money. They had a house in Rhode Island and on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

During winter break, Jukka said, he and a friend took a cross-country bus trip to Washington State and en route had managed to visit 30 states.

In Denver, they ran out of money, and his friend contacted an uncle who lived there. Apparently, the uncle didn’t come across with any funds immediately, and they ended up in a shelter overnight. And when he did loan them $20 (!), the uncle expected to be paid back.

Jukka must have remembered his American sojourn fondly, because one of his daughters followed in his footsteps, though she studied in the South, Meridian, Mississippi, to be exact.

After dinner, Jukka was eager to show me some of his work, so we went to his office, a separate small building behind the carport. Inside were two large desktop Macs and a lot of expensive camera equipment. He explained some magazine projects he was working on (and gave me a couple of samples of published issues to take home; alas, they’re all in Finnish) and a book about water, written by a professor, for which he’d done the design.

One of the magazines was energy-related, but its cover featured 10 young ice skaters, in black short-sleeved leotard tops and flowing, mid-calf-length yellow satin skirts. Perhaps an energy company sponsored their competition or training.

We were having such a pleasant chat that we exceeded the suggested three-hour visit. Jukka dropped me back at the station, and I caught the 10:49 train back to Helsinki.

Quick reference: http://www.cosyfinland.com

Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui: Beautiful, remote, mysterious and captivating

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Ahu Ko Te Riku is among the restored platforms at a Rapa Nui village site called Tahai on Easter Island. The moai is one of the few with repaired eyes, made from coral and red scoria, a volcanic lava. It wasn’t until 1978 at Anakena Beach, another restored site, that evidence was uncovered about the composition of the eye material.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the first post about my adventures. 

Before he cemented his place in the pantheon of minor explorers, Jacob Roggeveen (1659-1729) had already mastered several other occupations. He’d been a doctor of law, a notary and a longtime employee of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia, Dutch East Indies, known today as Jakarta, in Indonesia.

Note that this brief resume has no mention of years spent at sea as a captain, officer or crew.

Nonetheless, he persuaded the commercial trading conglomerate Dutch West India Company — less successful than the more powerful, highly prosperous Dutch East India Company — that he was the man to search for the elusive Terra Australis, a hypothetical southern continent.

And so in June 1721, as commander of a complement of 223 men and 70 cannons spread across three ships — the Arend (named for his father, whose dream he was pursuing), the Thienhoven and the Afrikaansche Galey (African Galley) — he departed his country of birth, the Netherlands. His was indeed a voyage of discovery, just not the land he’d been in search of.

Over six months, the ships sailed to the South Atlantic. They reached the Falkland Islands, and continued on through Le Maire Strait, around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean.

Heading north up the coast of Chile, they landed at the Juan Fernandez Islands, about 400 miles off the mainland, where the ships underwent repairs and took on food, water and other supplies.

Thus restocked, the ships were on a west-northwest heading, scanning the horizon for Terra Australis. Late one afternoon, the Afrikaansche Galey sighted a spit of land (later determined to be 64 square miles). Because it was Easter Sunday (April 5) 1722, Roggeveen named it “Paaschen Eylandt,” Dutch for Easter Island.

Bad weather and attempts to determine the friendliness of the Islanders delayed the landing party until April 10, when 134 sailors, most of them armed with musket, pistol and cutlass, went ashore.

They were at a loss to explain the full significance of the most striking thing they saw: numerous, toweringly tall monolithic stone figures, what we know today as moai.

From Roggeveen’s journal: “What the form of worship of these people comprises we were not able to gather any full knowledge of, owing to the shortness of our stay among them; we noticed only that they kindle fire in front of certain remarkably tall stone figures they set up; and, thereafter squatting on their heels with heads bowed down, they bring the palms of their hands together and alternately raise and lower them. At first, these stone figures caused us to be filled with wonder, for we could not understand how it was possible that people who are destitute of heavy or thick timber, and also of stout cordage, out of which to construct gear, had been able to erect them; nevertheless some of these statues were a good 30 feet in height and broad in proportion.”

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From left: Ahu Tahai, Ahu Vai Uri and Ahu Ko Te Riku. In the distance is the town of Hanga Roa.

The Dutch explored the island for just one day, though they were anchored offshore for a week. On that lone day, 10 to 12 of the Islanders were killed, possibly in a skirmish over a gun or an attempt to steal clothing, and more were injured. Amends were made: The Islanders traded chickens, bananas, sugar cane and sweet potatoes for cloth from the Dutch.

My arrival on this remote, isosceles-triangle-shaped spot of land fortunately took a fraction of the time that Roggeveen’s did. Departing from Santiago, Chile, and relaxing in a sleek, state-of-the-art Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, in under five hours my fellow passengers and I landed at Hanga Roa, the only town on modern-day Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui (in the Rapanui language) and Isla de Pascua in Spanish.

That a 787 can land at Mataveri Airport at all is thanks to the American space program. When NASA needed an emergency landing strip for space shuttle missions scheduled to depart from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California in the mid-1980s, Easter Island was one of the selections.

The existing runway was lengthened to 10,886 feet, anticipating that a Boeing 747 could land, have the space shuttle hoisted piggyback and then return to the United States. The emergency scenario never came to pass, chiefly because the shuttle never launched from Vandenberg.

Larger passenger aircraft has meant a boon for local tourism, though service is still restricted to one flight a day much of the year. Weather conditions on the island can delay departure from Santiago, about 2,300 miles away, which is what happened in the days before I arrived. Two flights a week depart from Tahiti.

Conaf, administrator of Chilean national parks, reports 65,064 visitors came to the island in 2014. (Other sources say 80,000-95,000 tourists came that year.) By 2020, Conaf projections anticipate 92,000 and 118,000 tourists per year.

The permanent population is only about 6,700 — triple what it was in the early 1990s — with about half being island natives. Though the influx of currency is welcome, limited local resources are finely stretched, and the island’s ecology as a whole is challenged by increasing tourism numbers.

Peter, co-proprietor of Hare Swiss, the bungalow where I was staying for the next four nights, met the afternoon-arriving plane and bestowed upon me a deeply reddish leaf-and flower lei. It didn’t have the sweet scent of the white frangipani I recalled from a trip to Hawaii, but it was a lovely welcoming gesture. We chatted amiably as we waited for his other guests, a couple from Paris, to collect their luggage.

Originally from St. Gallen, Switzerland, Peter formerly worked for a Swiss airline. He’s married to Tiare, a Rapa Nui woman, with whom he has two adorable, dark-haired daughters. He met his future wife when the extended South American charter trip he was crewing in 2004 stopped on Easter Island.

Once the Parisians exited the small terminal and were similarly “leied,” we all piled into the family minivan. Peter drove us through town — Hanga Roa is quite small — pointing out the supermarkets, shops, restaurants and a few historical sites.

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The bungalow on the left was my home at Hare Swiss for four nights. On either side were visitors from France. Peter and Tiare, a Swiss-Rapa Nui couple, opened the first bungalow in 2011.

Lodging options on the island range from budget-friendly cabanas and bungalows (and limited camping) to five-star resorts that can cost $850 a night, with a three-night minimum.

I chose Hare Swiss (“hare” is the native language word for house) because I liked the idea of having my own veranda-fronted, sea-view bungalow (but not right on the ocean).

November is considered shoulder season, and flights and accommodation cost far less than, say, February, which is high season. I planned my entire Chilean trip around the Santiago-Easter Island flight, securing the least-expensive airfare, and booked everything about six months in advance.

Because nearly all goods must be imported to the island — fuel, food, medical supplies, etc. — prices can be steep. There are some budget-friendly eateries, but an added plus at Hare Swiss is a full kitchenette, with microwave and mini-refrigerator.

Peter supplied bread, cheese, a few eggs, yogurt, cereal, sugar, tea and instant coffee, but you’re welcome to bring instant soup/noodles, oatmeal and other packaged food from home. Or shop locally and cook in the bungalow. This is especially handy if traveling with children.

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This is the veranda of my bungalow. Note the topknotted moai likenesses acting as part of the fence railing.

The only drawback at Hare Swiss is that the bungalows are a solid 20-25 minute walk into town over some unpaved terrain, which can be muddy and rutted. It’ll take longer if you stop to shoot pictures, and I guarantee that you will.

Peter said that sunset was about 8:30 p.m., so with a few hours of light left, I grabbed my map and camera and set off to explore the landscape of the western coast, eager to get a closer view of the moai we had passed on the way to Hare Swiss.

Waves were crashing over the rocks by Cook’s Point, named for famed British captain James Cook, who led the third European expedition that put in at Easter Island. The ships HMS Resolution and Adventure arrived in March 1774, in search of fresh water and food.

Nearby is an area referred to as Tahai, believed to showcase the layout of a Rapa Nuian village. Its restoration in 1968-70 was due largely to the efforts of American William Mulloy, an archaeologist from the University of Wyoming, who made numerous trips to the island over several decades. He died in 1978. A small plaque indicates the final resting place of his ashes.

It reads (in three languages): “By restoring the past of his beloved island he also changed its future.”

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The face-down moai enclosed in the rectangle in the foreground was deemed in too poor of condition to be restored to the platform of Ahu Vai Uri. In the background, far left, is the empty plinth upon which it was intended to sit.

Tahai has three ahu (stone platforms) with moai, a stacked-stone hare moa (chicken house) and remains of an elliptical-outlined hare parenga (house), sometimes described in shape as an upside-down canoe. According to James Grant-Peterkin’s “A Companion to Easter Island,” carbon dating reveals that Tahai may be where the first inhabitants of the island settled.

Among the best preserved statues is Ahu Ko Te Riku, with a cylindrical red topknot (possibly based on a male hairstyle) and eyes, two features which are absent from most of the moai around the island. The restored eyes are made from white coral, with red scoria for the pupils. The topknots are also composed of red scoria, volcanic rock that comes from a different quarry than where the vast majority of the moai were carved.

Five moai of varying height and shape comprise Ahu Vai Uri. All the statues face inland. The form on the farthest right is small and squat, and the one directly to its left is the squarest. A sixth moai was deemed too badly damaged to restore to the ahu. It is face-down in the earth nearby.

Ahu Tahai, with one lone moai, is located in the middle of the other two platforms and statues.

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Easily portable moai replicas, and larger ones too, were for sale from this friendly vendor.

A genial gentleman had set up tables displaying his wares, replicas of the moai. He was happy to explain his carvings, and there was no pressure whatsoever to buy. While touring the island in subsequent days, I saw other artisans similarly camped near entrances to the ahu and moai.

In future posts, I’ll be writing about other ahu and moai around Easter Island, theories about how the statues were transported several miles from the quarry where they were carved to their ahu, and additional historical and cultural background.

And what of the rest of Roggeveen’s voyage? He and the three ships eventually sailed past the Society Islands (now part of French Polynesia) and Samoa, and headed toward Batavia. In May 1722, a coral reef got the better of the Afrikaansche Galey, wrecking the expedition’s smallest ship and scattering its food stores.

In September, the disease-ravaged other two ships (61 crew had already died) limped into Batavia, encountering hostility from officials of the rival Dutch East India Company. Citing a monopoly breach, the Arend and the Thienhoven were confiscated and the crews arrested.

They were held until November, then unceremoniously sent back to the Netherlands, reaching home in July 1723. The Dutch East and Dutch West companies hashed out their differences, finally compensating Roggeveen and his backers for the cargo seized in Batavia.

Quick reference: Hare Swiss, Sector Tahai, www.hareswiss.com. With only three bungalows, it’s important to make your booking inquiry many months in advance. Pay Pal or cash only. Peter checks in with his guests daily, generally in the morning and evening. He can arrange rental cars, island tour bookings and occasionally guides guests himself.

Latam Airlines has the monopoly on fights to Easter Island. http://www.latam.com

To read a translation of Roggeveen’s log about “discovering” Easter Island: http://www.easterisland.travel/easter-island-facts-and-info/history/ship-logs-and-journals/jacob-roggeveen-1722/

A visit to Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

 

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Is this France or Vietnam? It’s Ho Chi Minh City, looking northeast down Le Duan Boulevard, but the leafy, wide thoroughfare could bring Paris to mind.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My friend Susan and I took a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in March 2016. This is the 16th post about our experiences. 

Standing atop the stairs of Reunification Palace looking northeast, visitors might have a momentary lapse and think they’ve been transported to Paris.

Past the palace’s expansive circular drive, the spurting fountain and the well-manicured, lush green oval lawn sits Le Duan Boulevard. Its leafy canopy shades drivers and pedestrians alike, and the wide thoroughfare is a welcome relief from the many other congestion-clogged streets in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

In the city’s District 3, Le Duan Boulevard stretches from the palace about 10 lengthy blocks, where it runs into the ample green space that is shared by the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens and the National History Museum.

That this view evokes the boulevards of the City of Light is hardly surprising, considering the French colonial influence in the late 1800s and into 1954, when the Viet Minh (the communist nationalist movement founded by Ho Chi Minh) finally defeated occupying forces at Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietnam.

A building has stood on this site since 1868, the first being a residence for the French governor-general of Cochin-China, the former name of the southern region of Vietnam. After an expansion, it was renamed Norodom Palace.

When the French withdrew, the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, took up residence and renamed it Independence Palace.

That his own air force bombed the palace in an assassination attempt in 1962 is testimony to his growing unpopularity. Once praised by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower as a “miracle man” of Asia, strongman Diem increased his power, banned opposition parties and was tone-deaf to the self-immolation protests of the ostracized Buddhist monks.

Diem’s reaction to the bombing was to include plans for reinforced underground bunkers in the next incarnation of the structure, and he lived elsewhere while the palace was being rebuilt.

A United States-backed military coup resulted in Diem’s execution (and his brother’s) in November 1963, so he never saw the completion of the 95-room palace, overseen by French-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu.

With an airy and open floor plan, the T-shaped, palm-tree-topped building looks more like a library or a municipal office, “palace” being a misnomer when compared to structures in, say, England or Scotland.

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Reunification Palace may look more like a library than a presidential residence. This version of it was completed in 1966. The second level is surrounded by a series of stone bamboo columns. That’s the same fountain as in the picture at the top of this post.

Wrapping much of the exterior of the second level is a white “curtain” of stone bamboo columns, which in the afternoon sun casts pleasing patterns on the highly polished floor.

The rooms, preserved in an interior-design time warp, are a mix of dignified reception areas, such as the Conference Hall, used to install the cabinet or receptions, and the gold-curtained and -carpeted State Banqueting Hall, where up to 100 guests were feted.

Upstairs, the glass-sided Salon of the Four Cardinal Directions was formerly a meditation space, transformed by former President Nguyen Van Thieu into a party room. Visitors can almost envision the free-flowing alcohol at the bar and servers balancing silver trays of hors d’oeuvres while circulating among the diplomats, politicians, military brass and not a few journalists, amid the din of conversation and loud dance music.

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This is the Game Room, in all its kitschy glory, at Reunification Palace. Not pictured, and to the left of the semi-circular banquette, is a barrel-shaped bar surrounded by yellow chair-stools.

The decor in the spacious Game Room, particularly the semi-circular furniture, brings to mind something of a cross between the swinging ’60s of “Austin Powers” and the bar culture of “Mad Men.”

Map-covered walls flank the president’s war room; boxy, gray electronic equipment lives on in the communications room, previously used for decoding intelligence and making radio broadcasts; and visitors can wander the underground bunkers that were intended to protect Diem, his minions and his family.

This was technically the presidential residence until the fall of Saigon in April 30, 1975. The complex is sometimes mistaken for the former U.S. Embassy — maybe because of the helicopter on the roof, far too small to be one that was used in the American evacuation — which is impossible because that embassy building was demolished in 1998.

We wandered the building by ourselves, reading many of the 35 panels containing information in English, Vietnamese and French. Reservations are advised for those wanting a guided tour. Budget about 90 minutes to see everything and another 30 minutes to see the movie. At the time of our visit, the film was running in Chinese, but anyone with a basic knowledge of American involvement in Vietnam — termed here as “outsider interference” — should be able to make sense of the pictures.

Additionally, the lower-level movie room is a comfortable, well-air-conditioned space in which to escape HCMC’s heat and humidity for a brief time.

Quick reference: Open daily, 7:30- 11 a.m. and 1-4 p.m. Adults, 40,000 VND (about $1.75); university students, 20,000 (about 88 cents); and primary and high school students, 10,000 (about 44 cents). http://www.dinhdoclap.gov.vn/index-en.html

War Remnants Museum

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The sentiments of peace, solidarity, friendship, cooperation and development are admirable, but this visitor didn’t think they were well-conveyed in the museum’s exhibits.

Military hardware of various shapes and sizes — artillery, camouflage-painted helicopters and planes, tanks, etc. — lines the exterior walkways of this museum, an obvious “spoils of war” message to the defeated United States forces and its allies during the Vietnam War.

One of the previous names of this facility was the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, so there is no confusion about the tone of the exhibits, evidenced by informational panels, such as this one, titled: U.S. weapons and war equipments (sic) provided to Sai Gon  (sic )puppet government (1954-1975).

There isn’t any effort to present a balanced examination of what happened during the war — its causes, its politics, its campaigns, its atrocities — so with that in mind, take some of what is on exhibit as propaganda. The French are similarly portrayed, but the real animus is reserved for America.

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Visitors to the War Remnants Museum can get an up-close look at American-made military.

Many gruesome photographs underscore the physical toll, military and civilian alike, especially those in the room called “Agent Orange Aftermath in the U.S. Aggressive War in Vietnam,” that illustrate the horrific damage to the human body and the denuded Vietnamese landscape caused by the widely used chemical defoliant.

A quieter, much more subtle display on a wall on the ground floor, near the gift shop, probably speaks as loudly as the death-raining matériel. A closer look at the shadow box reveals eight medals, including a Silver Star, Bronze Star (with “V” for valor), Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge and Combat Jump Badge.

Two small blue plaques are inside the box. One (all in caps) reads:

To the people of a

united Vietnam

I was wrong

I am sorry

The other says: William Brown, Sgt. 173d Abn Bde [Airborne Brigade], 503d Inf. [Infantry]

Understanding the museum’s intention of showing America in a negative light, my journalistic instincts were on high alert. I searched the Internet to try to determine if indeed Sgt. Brown had made this contribution, as purported, in June 1990. I may have found him and have sent an email inquiry. And if I have, I’ll update this post.

This is the museum where I saw the powerful, mostly black-and-white photo exhibit “Requiem,” that I mentioned in my post of July 17, 2016, in which I wrote about photojournalist Dickey Chapelle, the first American female war correspondent to be killed in combat, in 1965. More than 300 exceptional images taken by photographers from 11 countries climb the walls. Many of these courageous photographers lost their lives documenting the war.

More than 40 years after Communist tanks rolled into Saigon and ended the war, blatant hatred of America still dominates some of the language in the exhibits. That sentiment sits in direct contrast to the welcoming and friendly people that we met throughout our two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia.

All that said, I think the museum is a worthwhile stop, and it’s only a few blocks from Reunification Palace, which we visited on the same day. Susan and I then had an enjoyable dinner at the nearby restaurant … hum, which I wrote about in my January 8 post.

Quick reference: War Remnants Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan, Ward 6, District 3. Open daily, 7:30 a.m.-noon and 1:30-5 p.m. Tickets 15,000 (about 65 cents); warremnantsmuseum.com