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Santa Fe, New Mexico

About a week after getting home from Mexico, we headed out for a road trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We had been there some 40 years earlier and loved it then, but wondered what time had wrought, and if we would still feel the same way. We rented a place for six weeks, intending to check it out as a possible place to live, especially in the winter, and then planned to return to Boulder, Colorado for a couple of weeks to check that out again. We had been there more recently, about eight years ago, and almost bought a house there.

Santa Fe did not disappoint. The central part of the city has managed to retain its old adobe flavor thanks to the foresight of city fathers, who as far back as 1912 recognized that it made sense not to let rampant develop destroy the old town. New buildings had to be built in Santa Fe pueblo or Spanish mission style, at least those surrounding the central plaza, some of parts of which date back to the 1500's. True, the suburban sprawl of Cerillos Road is just as much of an eyesore as any strip mall, with its big box stores and shopping centers, but the main part of town, unlike so many western cities, fits the landscape, and, as one of the oldest continually settled cities in the US, it manages to retain a sense of history. The blending of Hispanic, Indigenous and Anglo cultures is a felt presence, despite the fact that often these groups have little to do with one another. The semi-arid landscape is almost other worldly, and despite the paucity of trees in the valley, the high mountains of the Sangre de Christo are literally just out of town, and they are heavily treed and green. And the sky, which is as vibrant a blue/cobalt as I have seen anywhere, is shocking in its intensity on most any day.

Santa Fe has always been known as a liberal outpost, with an art and culture scene that far exceeds its size of roughly 80,000. We certainly found this to be the case even in the winter, which is the off season. There is also a significant retiree population, our age more or less, but active. There are almost daily hike and art meet-ups, skiing just outside of town, and people that seem friendly and share our values. Once out of town, it is a vast, largely empty wilderness of desert, weird rock formations, high mountains, both the Sangres and slightly lower Jemez, volcanic calderas, along with scattered ancient Indian pueblos,and funky little towns, like Madrid, pronounced Maaadrid. The feeling is that you can walk forever and not see anyone. Alright, a bit of an exaggeration, but New Mexico is huge with a population of 2.5 million, most of which live around Albuquerque, by far the largest city, about an hour from Santa Fe, with little in between.

So we surprised ourselves. After a few days we started looking at real estate, and though not cheap by upstate New York standards, it was a bargain compared to Boulder, which is growing much more rapidly. At first we thought we wanted to be within walking distance of the plaza, but many of the old houses were dark, expensive, and often needed more work to make them up to our standard of livability. It wasn't long before we started looking further afield, a process that I'm sure many other folks have followed. Still close in, but about a mile or two from the center. The fact that our agent, Chris Harris, was a highly interesting man with whom we had a lot in common, didn't hurt our desire to check things out. It was always fun spending time with him. We also met Toni, somewhat older than us, but a former New Yorker who has lived in Santa Fe for some 20 years. She explained the tax advantages of buying and then renting for a year, something she and her husband did when they first moved.

Amazingly, after a few weeks we made an offer on a condo on the north side of town, and it was accepted. Now normally, I'm not a condo kind of guy, but this place, though small, felt quite private as it faced out on open space, and it was relatively affordable so that we didn't feel pressured to sell our house in New York immediately. We heard that the Santa Fe Opera often rents out places in the summer for their staff, but they want it furnished, and so, in an effort to appeal to the Opera crowd, we dashed madly about for the next several weeks looking for furniture in some of the many warehouse sized consignment shops that seem to be ubiquitous in Santa Fe. Of course, we couldn't move anything in until we closed, but managed to get the shops to hold stuff, and then rushed the closing, which happened about a week before we were scheduled to leave town. If all of this seems a bit crazy and frantic, it was. In between hikes, occasional days of skiing, and attendance at art shows, we hunted for furniture, pots and pans, bedding, towels, etc. We probably spent more time riding up and down Cerillos Road than most residents do in a year.

We did manage to spend some time enjoying cultural events, eating out at beer pubs, New Mexican type restaurants, as opposed to, unfortunately, true Mexican. We met up with the stepson of a friend in Albany, who in turn introduced us to his musical work colleagues. Our friend Betty came out for a visit for a few days to see us, as well as her brother who lives outside of town. Our older daughter came out with her boyfriend Jeff from California, and we spent a few days seeing the sights, including Bandolier, a fancy hot springs in the middle of nowhere, Ojo Calientes, and just walking the streets of Santa Fe. What I did not do was to take any pictures of the city. Too busy I guess, though I did take some landscape shots of Tent Rocks which is on a res about an hour from town. With hoodoos and rocks similar to Cappadocia in Turkey, a place we did not visit, it also has a small slot canyon, and is an easy place to spend an afternoon.

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Snow covered Sangres in the distance
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Bandolier has an almost spiritual feel, having been settled by indigenous peoples for more than 10,000 years. They mostly lived in caves created by volcanic action, in cliffs lining the river valley. Indeed the general area around Santa Fe also felt spiritual to us. We sensed the spirits of the ancestors in the rocks and the sky, perhaps because the landscape hasn't changed all that much.

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Round human settlement in Bandolier where farming took place
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Tasha and Jeff climbing into cave dwellings
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Nanette and Jon
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Mule Deer
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That big sky near Bandolier
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We also managed a trip up to Ghost Ranch, to see the landscape of Georgia O"keefe. On the way we stopped to see these incredible white rocks where apparently Georgia used to camp out with friends.

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Pedernal in Jemez mountains opposite O'keef's summer home in Ghost Ranch
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Red rocks at Ghost Ranch
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Door to O'keef's winter house, about 10 miles from Ghost Ranch
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Lest you think that everything is perfect, New Mexico has a reputation of being practically a third world country. There is definitely a manana attitude, and most things take longer to get done, especially for those of us who are used to a New York minute. I also had an interesting run-in with the Santa Fe police. On one particular day, I had parked my car at one of the consignment shops, and there happened to be another one diagonally across the street. Both of these were located on a non-busy road outside the center of town, and Nanette was not with me. So without thinking, I just cut across the the corner and as I walked into the parking lot of the second shop, I heard a siren behind me. Turning around, it was a cop car flashing its lights at me.

"Stand in front of the car," the officer said to me.

"What did I do?," I said somewhat incredulously, knowing I had left my car in the other lot.

"You cut across two streets and did not walk in the cross-walks."

"Jaywalking? I didn't even know that is illegal here."

"I need to see your license."

"Okay." I happened to have my license with me. " I'm from out of state," as he could plainly see, "and jaywalking is not illegal where I live in upstate New York. Can't you just give me warning."

"It is a crime in New Mexico. Just stand in front of the car." I had moved off a bit to the side because the sun was hot.

I must have been standing there for a good 20 minutes while he fiddled with his computer, probably checking to see if I was a terrorist.

"It's getting hot officer. You must have more important things to do, like going after the real bad guys. All I did was walk between two shops when there was no traffic."

No response. After another 10 minutes or so he said that he was having trouble with his computer, and asked me to give him the number of my cell phone. He said he would call me when he could print out the citation.

"Can I leave now, and go into the store?"

He nodded, and I went into the second consignment shop. I had been there before, and the delightful woman who ran the place, S., a Jewish-Sikh convert, (apparently not that unusual in New Mexico), recognized me and could tell something was wrong.

"I just got a ticket for jaywalking," I said.

"What. I've never heard of anyone getting a ticket for that in Santa Fe. People jaywalk all the time around here. I feel really bad for you."

I guess she could tell I was shaken up.

"Well, if you see anything you like I'll give you an even bigger discount than usual.

Sure enough I did see a couple of copper lamps, but about ten minutes later the cop came running back in.

"I was able to print out the citation."

"Can I just mail it in," I said.

"No you have to appear in court."

"But I won't be here on that date. I'm leaving town before that."

"You'll have to go in as a walk-in and tell it to the judge. Wait a few days to make sure they receive the citation," and with that, he turned around and left.

"Fuck you." No I didn't say it, but I certainly felt like it. This was unbelievable. Welcome to Santa Fe, I thought.

Well it was only to become even more unbelievable. A few days later I called the court, and they still had not received the citation from Officer Krupkee, or whatever his name was. Gregg, I think.

"Call back in a few more days." I did so, and they finally had received it. I explained that I would be out of town when my court date was set.

"Alright, Come in tomorrow as a walk-in."

Figuring I would get there early to beat the crowd, I showed up at 8. There was already a line. I got to the desk, and they asked when my appointment time was.

"I don't have any. They told me to come in as a walk-in. "

"Oh, I'm sorry, but the judge is not taking any walk-ins today."

"WHAT. BUT THEY TOLD ME TO COME TODAY WHEN I CALLED IN YESTERDAY. I'm from out of town and I'm leaving in a few days."

In fact it turns out that they told several more people, six in all, to come in as walk-ins. "Who'd you speak to?," they demanded.

"I have no idea."

"Well wait here, but you other people will have to leave and come back another day."

Eventually, perhaps because I was from out of town, they took pity on me, and told me to have a seat in the courtroom. Since they were doing me a favor, I would have to wait until the other people with appointments were taken care of. The female judge seemed reasonable enough. More than reasonable actually. Many of the other folks were there for shoplifting, and she let them off with the minimal fine, no jail time, and told them to attend a shoplifting class on Saturday. Shoplifting class. That's a new one . Other people were there for DWI's and driving without a license. They too got off easily. I was the only jaywalker.

Finally, after about two hours my turned came, and I went up to the bench. "I can see you're here for jaywalking. What happened?"

I explained that I crossed diagonally between two consignment shops and there was no traffic. I added that I didn't think jaywalking was even a crime in New York and was surprised that it was here.

"Yes it is a crime. In fact, I have to talk to the prosecuting attorney. Some jaywalking offenses require jail time. Please have a seat."

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Shoplifters let off by taking a class, but I might have to go to jail for jaywalking. After another 20 minutes the prosecutor finally arrived, and after consulting with him, the judge called me back to the bench.

"Well, Mr. Shapiro, since this is a first offense, there is no jail time required. You're lucky. I will fine you the required $25 dollars and then an additional $58 dollars for court time. Any questions?"

"No," I said, by now just desperate to get out of there. I noted to myself, however, that the shoplifters were somehow not required to pay for court time. Just jaywalkers it seems.

"See the clerk over there."

I went over to the clerk who had to fill out the paper work. I said, in sotto voce, "You know, it would have saved a lot of time if you just gave me a ticket which I could have mailed in."

"Oh, we don't do that here in New Mexico. And we take jaywalking very seriously. You could have gone to jail. Just the other day two homeless people were killed crossing the railroad track in the wrong place."

What the hell does that have to do with me I thought, but knew enough not to say a word.

"Go over there to the cashier to pay."

With that, I did so, and they took credit cards. I felt lucky to have escaped with me life.

New Mexico can certainly be a strange place.

A short time later, we closed on the condo and moved in for a few days, postponing our trip to Boulder to finish furnishing the place. In the end, the opera was not interested, though we did later rent it for the summer over TripAdvisor.

As a postscript, S. called me a while back to say that she too had been arrested on a minor traffic charge, talking on her cell phone, and then not pulling over immediately so she could get out of the middle of the road. She also had to go to court, where they acted as weird with her as they did with me, so the whole thing had nothing to do with being from out of state. Being the lovely law abiding person that she is, she was as shaken up as I was.

I am hoping to avoid the police on our next trip out. Jaywalking may be illegal, but it seems, at least in Santa Fe, that an ounce or less of weed for personal use is not. And shoplifting, barely a slap on the wrist.

Yes indeedy, in New Mexico you're not in Kansas anymore.

Road to nowhere in New Mexico. Traffic not a problem.
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Posted by jonshapiro 09:06 Archived in USA Tagged mountains photography living_abroad cities_postcards Comments (0)

Paleochora

The next morning we set out for Paleochora, following the same route we had taken to Elafonisi two days earlier. This time, instead of stopping at the cave church we went for a walk in the gorge, until we came to a old stone bridge, thick with cedar and other deciduous trees.

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On the way back, we were careful not to step on the bees which swarmed around the clover. We saw more wild, bright red/orange poppies moving in the stiff breeze and the small, but intense yellow and white flowers. We made a short detour to stop back in Elos for another plate of boureki, but the taverna was closed, and we had to make due with one of their competitors. We drove on through forests of evergreens and olive plantations, and briefly stopped in Kandanos, site of a big resistance battle during WW 2. Today, after being rebuilt, it is a sleepy, tidy place with folks, well men, sitting outside a small cafe.

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A few kilometers further, at the end of the road, we arrived at our destination, Paleohora.

It has about two thousand residents, and plenty of small hotels, guest houses, and tavernas, enough to handle the larger crowds of summer. It is slowly being developed as a resort area, but still manages, at least thus far, to hold onto its small town charms.

Upper main street
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Our guest house, where we rented a small apartment for a week, is about as cute as can be, and serves up what is probably the world's best breakfast. Not a exaggeration.

Manto, who is also a Byzantine style artist, moved to Paleohora from Athens with her husband several years ago in order to build the place.

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Detail from Manto's studio
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Unfortunately, as has been the case for most of this trip, the weather in Paleochora has not lived up to its billing as the warmest place in Europe during the winter and early spring. When the sun is out things are fine, but the weather can change in an instant, and the wind can blow fiercely. Yesterday, in anticipation of bad weather today, we undertook the 11K hike to Sougia, where we planned to take the ferry back to Paleochora at the end of the day. It was a highly enjoyable walk across the volcanic rocks near the beach, and then up and over some of the headlands nearby.

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When the clouds parted, there were views of snow covered mountains in the distance.

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About 3/4ths of the way, we came upon Lissos, an ancient Minoan site, which was later occupied by the Greeks and the Romans. The original askepolis is still somewhat intact, as are the Roman mosaics on the floor.

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Greek letters on a nearby wall
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There were also numerous cave-like burial mounds scattered about, and the setting, below two rocky promontories, and not far from a small beach, seemed ideal for defending against enemies from all directions. To us, the place had an almost spiritual vibe, much more so than the famous Knossos, which is more extensive, but not nearly as beautiful.

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Extensive grounds of Lissos from higher up on the trail
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From Lissos we continued through an immense walled canyon, and fortunately we chose the right way, and arrived in the tiny village of Sougia, around 4:30 PM. There was time for a late lunch of fish soup and moussaka, before we walked over to the ferry dock. By now the wind had picked up considerably, and it started raining. The ticket seller let us wait in his small kiosk, after we heard him playing the mandolin. Trying to keep warm as the ferry was late, we chatted with a friendly Swiss woman, perhaps 10 years younger than us, who had taken the boat over in the morning.

The seas were not as rough as they could have been considering the weather, and we made it back to town without getting seasick. By then, the winds were practically gale force, and it was a struggle just to walk back to Manto's.

Although there was more rain in the night, the next day was largely dry, although the cold wind blew unceasingly for a full 24 hours. It reminded us of our time in El Chaten, in Patagonia. Tired of being cooped up for most of the day, we managed a short, blustery walk through town.

Choppy sea even in the harbor on that very windy day
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We stopped for coffee in a newer place next door to our favorite bakery. It had big plate glass windows facing the sea, and the gusts were strong enough to rattle the glass. At times, it felt like it might crack and shatter. Despite the wind, the place was crowded. Cretans are a very social lot, and often spend many hours sipping a coffee, or drinking raki in a cafe, chatting with their friends, and no doubt catching up on the local gossip. As time has gone on, we have fallen into this lifestyle ourselves, going for a late lunch, and sitting around with a cappuccino. We usually are not able to make it to the 10 or 11 PM Greek dinner time, and instead make due with an evening snack, after having a big mid-day meal.

View of the sea and mountains, just outside the cafe
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Paleohora has lots of great hikes. On another day, this one bright and sunny, we went along the shore in the opposite direction, towards Elafonisi. The sea was a clear, intense blue, and turquoise near the shore.

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It is visible from most any vantage point, along with sharp and oddly shaped volcanic rocks that lie in the water, and across the smooth stone beaches that appear amongst the scrub vegetation at every turn.

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In the distance, also visible from many places along the trail, the snowy peaks of the Leki Ori Mountains stand in stark relief to the water. Rocky promontories stretch out like bony fingers, reaching toward the African shores of the Libyan Sea. Here we found Viena, the ruins of another Hellenic city. Though not as impressive as Lissos, which at one point had over 30,000 people, we saw parts of Greek columns lying on the beach near the water, and others that were partially submerged. None of this was even mentioned in our guide book. It seems that no matter what direction you choose to walk, there are ancient discoveries to be made.

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We spent some time just sitting on one of the larger deserted pebble beaches, feeling the soothing smoothness of the rounded stones. There is something comforting about holding the stones in hand, and of course, skimming the flat ones into the calm water.

It was easy to think about Odysseus plying these craggy shores more than 4000 years ago.

Shadows on the beach
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Returning to town, we had the traditional roasted lamb dinner in one of the few tavernas still open on Greek Easter Sunday. Afterwords, we strolled along the seawall, and heard a young mother calling out to her young son, Orfeo, Orfeo, as he trotted along the sidewalk as fast as he could. Another reminder of the ancient heritage of this island. One has the feeling that despite the economic problems, the Cretans,and probably most Greeks, feel very proud of their ancestors, and the rich culture they created.

At night, there were fireworks and a bonfire, along with a parade of Judas down the small streets of Paleochora.. Unfortunately, it didn't start until midnight and we didn't make it. In the evening of Good Friday, a few days before, there was a small candlelight procession with an effigy of the dead Jesus, who was carried from one church to another. Most of the candles had been blown out because of the wind, and it was cold so I didn't stick around for long.

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Our trip is coming to a close. Tomorrow we leave for Chania, and then fly to Athens at night. When the weather is good, which has been true the last two days, I am in no rush to return. In bad weather, a not infrequent occurrence on this trip, then home, with its added comforts, seems like a good idea after 10 weeks on the road. The Greek food continues to impress, as do the Greek people. They are always trying to feed you more. After every meal, raki and desert, even if you order another desert. Most everyone has continued to be extremely friendly and welcoming, including the folks at Manto's place. I will be sad to say goodbye.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:23 Archived in Greece Tagged landscapes beaches people photography living_abroad Comments (2)

Modica and Surrounds

The next day, somewhat reluctantly, we left Siracusa, and made our way to Modica Alta. Once again our GPS failed us, and what should have taken about 1& 1/2 hours took at least twice that long. We ended up driving in circles on some tiny mountain roads, with totally conflicting navigational directions. Go straight, turn right, make a U turn, etc. At one point we stopped a group of men on a country road to ask for directions. They seemed to be shouting at one another and arguing, but there was no one else around and we were lost. In our poor Italian, we asked the way to Modica. They stopped arguing long enough to tell us the way, or rather two different ways we could go, and then resumed the argument as soon as we drove away. Asking directions is always an interesting process, as folks seem compelled to tell you multiple directions, which of course, makes things even more confusing.

We finally managed to get to the Piazza Giovanni, through the impossibly narrow streets of the old town. There we called our host, Giuseppe, and then followed him in our car through more narrow alleys, until we arrived in his street and pulled into his garage. Also not an easy task, because the street was barely wide enough for one small car. Our apartment, upstairs from his place, is quite large, but unfortunately at this time of year, also very chilly. There are air conditions in most of the rooms, which work inefficiently as heaters, but you have to keep all of the doors to each room closed to keep in the heat, and like most places in southern Italy, all the floors are tile, hence cold.

Although I was tired from the difficult drive in yet another cloudy, drizzly day, Giuseppe was quick to take me on a short driving tour. A maze of criss-crossing alleys, I instantly forgot where and what he showed me. He then brought me to the only supermarket that was open in the middle of the afternoon, as everything closes between 2 and 5 PM. This makes sense during the Summer, but when it is cold and chilly, it seems like a waste of time. Sense, however, is not something that seems to be in abundant supply down here.

One of the main streets of Modica Alta
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One of hundreds of alleys, it's even narrower than it looks
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Much of Modica was rebuilt following an earthquake in 1693 in what is called Sicilian Baroque style, although the city is much older then that, having been settled by the Greeks as early as 1360 BC. It was later occupied by the Romans, and then the Arabs in 860, and did not become a part of Italy until 1860. Because of the architecture, the city and several others in the Val di Noto are now World Heritage Sites. As with many of the old towns in southern Italy, it seemingly owes it's largely in tact survival to benign neglect.

Modica Alta is built on top of a hillside with old stone and cement houses, narrow alleys, baroque churches, and a few small shops, etc.

Looking up at Modica Alta, San Giorgio Cathedral on right
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Though highly atmospheric, as the Lonely Planet might say, much of it is dilapidated, and seems well off the tourist circuit, at least at this time of year. When we first arrived in the chilly, damp, weather, it felt rather depressing, and we wondered if we had made a mistake renting a place here for a week. The next day was also overcast, but we walked around a bit, and saw some of the sights.

Many ornate building details
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San Giorgio Cathedral
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Later that afternoon, our friends from Germany, Joachim and Antonette, met us as planned, in Piazza Giovanni. It was great to see them, though as luck would have it, they are staying in Modica Bassa, which is about a half hour walk straight down from where we are. On seeing them, we forgot all about the depressing weather, and they came over to our apartment where we drank wine, made a pasta dinner, and caught up on each other's lives, as it had been a few years since our last visit.

Next day we saw the sun, finally, and though not exactly warm, it cheered us immensely. This time we walked down to see them, and although not as old as Modica Alta, the lower town is much more lively with many more shops and restaurants. We explored for a few hours as it was a very nice day to be outside, more like what we expected in Sicily. Then we spent the latter part of the afternoon in true Italian fashion, having an enormous lunch, drinking wine, etc.

Looking down on Modica Bassa and surrounding area
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Centro of Modica Bassa with clock tower above
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Looking up from another angle at Modica Alta and clock tower
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Today is also fair, and our friends are coming back up to our apartment. I will attempt, with some trepidation, to take the car out, so that the four of us can do a little sight seeing in another nearby baroque town, Scicli. Vamos a ver, (we shall see) how this goes, but in the end, we had no problems getting there. And it was a charming old town. Though much smaller, Scicli seems to be doing relatively well, and the houses look better cared for, at least compared to Modica Alta. Following a stop for ice-cream which Joachim and Antonette enjoyed very much......

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We hiked the alleys up the steep hills surrounding the Centro.

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In many places we came to dead ends, and the way was blocked intentionally. It seems that the authorities were concerned about rockfall. We stopped at one point, after being practically pulled inside by the proprietor, in a small private cave museum that purported to show what life was like in Sicily around 1900. The owner had collected old objects and pictures, as well as some furniture. It was somewhat interesting at first, but then, he saw some other Italians outside and lured them in as well. He upped the speed of his Italian, for their benefit I suppose, and went on in great detail about various objects, and since we couldn't understand much, we quickly got bored. He was also rather bossy, insisting we stay with the other folks to get the tour. After a time, we managed to escape, and left him with the 2 euros a piece, no doubt the only way he can make ends meet.

The view outside the cave museum
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Eventually, we found the right path and made our way up to one of the old churches, no longer in use, high on top of one of the ravines. It's visible from the picture of the Centro. From there we could see most of the town below, and all the way to the sea, about 10K distant.

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We walked back to the car and headed for Marina de Modica, which we found in spite of the once again crazy directions of the GPS. We spent an hour or so walking on the beach in the now delightfully warm sun, and somehow drove back to town without getting too lost. The last 15 minutes or so, in the narrow alleys of Modica Alta, were a bit harrowing, as it was hard to know which way to turn, and there were often cars right behind us looking for a way to get past these impossibly slow foreigners. Luckily, we were able to ask directions to Piazza San Giovanni, and I remembered the way to our apartment from there. Trying very hard not to scratch our new rental car, I made the turns carefully through the tiny streets.

On arrival, we polished off the schnapps and cidre that our German friends had made, which provided a much needed respite from the crazy drive (and drivers) through Modica Alta. An hour or two later, we went to the local Taverna Nicastro, which had been recommended for a hearty, yup,you guessed it, pasta dinner. At 7 PM they made a point of opening early just for us, and more wine helped to dispel the cold inside the restaurant. When we left at 8:30 or 9, they didn't seem to have much business, especially for a Saturday night, and it is hard to imagine that they have stayed in business since 1948, as their sign indicated.

The next evening, after a rainy excursion to Ragusa Ibla, including a mad dash through town to catch the last bus out,

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found us back in our apartment, once again drinking wine to dispel the damp cold, but unfortunately we soon ran out. Joachim and I went out into the gloomy mist to see if any place was open. The only store with lights on was a small chocolate shop-cum bakery, which was not likely to sell alcohol, but hey, this is Italy so you never know.

"Vino, per favore?"

"Mi dispiace non abbiamo alcun vino."

We didn't exactly know what this meant, but when he shook his head we figured it meant no. As we were speaking there was another man picking up some cookies and pastry.

He said to us, "Se si desidera che il vino mi segua."

We didn't know what that meant either, but when he motioned with his hand, we figured it meant follow me, and so we headed off down the street to his old beat up car. Even before I had both feet inside, necessitating a mad scramble to climb in and close the door, he started driving incredibly fast through Modica Alta's narrow streets, to a point about 2/3rds of the way down the hill toward the lower town. There he abruptly stopped in front of his house, and motioned for us to wait in front while he went inside. He reappeared a few moments later with two bottles of red wine.

"Ce l'ho fatta. Spero ti piaccia."

Well as you have guessed, we still had no idea what he said, but when he handed us the bottles we assumed they were home-made because they didn't have labels.

"Quanto?" How much, one of the few words we did know.

"Gratuito," Another word we knew.

"Grazi, grazi, molto grazi," we said, and started the 20 minute hike back up to the apartment.

Only in Italy.

And it wasn't too shabby for home-made wine.

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Posted by jonshapiro 05:41 Archived in Italy Tagged people photography living_abroad buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Matera

Arrived here after roughly a three hour drive from Sorrento. We were met as scheduled by Mario, the son of the apartment owner, who then showed us where to park our car and brought us to our apartment in the Caveosa Sassi. There are two main sections of Sassi, or stone houses, and luckily, we are staying in the center of Caveoso on a main, but still narrow street. Opposite us, is a very recognizable church carved out of a high piece of rock overlooking the ravine. This makes our place relatively easy to find.

Main street near our apartment
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Rock church, top right, in front of our apartment with ravine in background
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Looking back over Caveoso Sassi from top of rock church
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Matera, at least the old parts, which date back some 7000 years, is built out of the stones and caves that surround a deep ravine which is literally just opposite our apartment. These cave and stone dwellings ascend to the top of the hill where there is a square towered church, the Duomo, now closed for renovation. The city of about 50,000 feels like medieval fantasy, as many of the stone buildings date from that period of time. No matter which way you look there are incredible vistas of the multi-textured stone, narrow, serpentine lanes with ascending cobblestone steps, ancient churches with ornate stone carvings, and longer views over the deep ravine with cave dwellings on the opposite side as well. Many of the nicest houses have been renovated, although there are still an equal number that have not.

Looking up at the Duomo
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Basilica at the edge of ravine
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Cobblestone alley at edge of ravine with cave dwellings on opposite side
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Alley's about town. Nanette on right
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There are workman everywhere, getting the town ready for 2019, when it will be the site of a European-wide cultural festival. To add to the fantasy, it has been used as the set for a number of movies, including Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew, and more recently Mel Gibson's version of The Passion of Christ. Right now, practically just outside our glass front door, they are filming a new version of Ben Hur with Morgan Freeman. We have yet to see him, but we have seen many film extras standing around in Roman peasant garb, and a number of the film crew. Obviously Hollywood has discovered Matera, although there are few tourists here at this time of year. Temps are cool, upper 40's to around 50, and although we had some sun yesterday, today is drizzly and overcast.

Rock church opposite our apartment lit up at night for movie set
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Okay, it's not Morgan Freeman
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A number of the restaurants and trattorias are closed, though not all, and we had a great lunch in a renovated and beautiful cave restaurant located on a tiny alley, somewhere in Sassi Balsano. Not at all sure we could find it again.

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Yesterday, we wandered into a church San Angelino de Baptisti, and viewed the old frescoes, further inside the stone building. A kind of church within a church, as it were.

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We asked when or if there was any music being played on the organ, but when we returned at the appointed time, 8 PM, the place was shut tight. A woman in a pizzeria across the street told us to come back at 8 AM, which we did, but once again the placed was locked. Perhaps no one goes to church any more. We did find a small osteria/cum beer hall nearby, where we stopped for expresso and cake, and noticed that they had a jazz group performing there tonight. So we will try and make our way back here once again. There was also an asian looking,though Italian, young man there,who spoke relatively good English, a seeming rarity in these parts, where even our Spanish doesn't work very well. He told us that he was an opera singer, and apparently will be giving some kind of recital in a church near to our apartment in a few days. We will try to make it there was well.

At night, with the houses and cave dwellings lit up, the place has an eerie, other worldly feel, especially in the mist and fog.

A bit blurry, but you get the idea
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Matera is as unique a place, as I have seen. From the little I have read, its history is also quite unique, as it is possilby one of the oldest settlements in Europe. However in the 40's and 50's it was very poor, and overpopulated,and Malaria and sanitation problems were widespread. Sometime in the late 50's, early 60's, the government finally noticed, and new housing was constructed in nearby villages, and the worse sanitation issues were addressed. On the other hand, just as in Cuba, the poverty and neglect may be partly responsible for the magnificence that we see today. Otherwise, probably most of the sassi would simply have been torn down. Ironically, though it still feels somewhat off the beaten track, Matera is now the leading tourist destination in the province of Basilicata, in the boot of Italy.

Though I fondly remember my time wandering around the back alleys of Venice, this place is even more unusual, and unlike Venice, it is still a working city, and not solely a tourist destination. This could certainly change, especially after the cultural fiesta of 2019.

We have continued to dodge the raindrops as we discovered more parts of this mysterious and unique city.

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Though on a few days we had sun.

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We found a small lane immediately behind the church in front of us, that runs directly adjacent to the ravine. Along this path there were vegetable gardens and even a very local outdoor shop selling figs and dates and other veggies. We walked along and stepped into a few abandoned cave dwellings. Some of the others were still in use as storage places, or had been renovated for cave dwelling B and B's. Eventually we found ourselves in the newer part of town and stopped in a local place for cappuccino and croissants. It seemed like an Italian version of Stewart's, a coffee and convenience store near our house, where old retired guys hang out to chat, but it was also a bar, as are many of the coffee places in Italy. Walking further down the street we discovered a couple of excellent fruit and veggie shops with very fresh produce. We purchased stuff for a lunch time salad.

Another day we hiked down into the ravine on a steep, albeit short trail not far from the rock church. It was a wild place, but the river was too deep and too fast for us to cross over to the other side. We did get some great views looking back towards town.

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We decided to try our luck driving to the other side of the ravine to check out other caves and the very large park on that side of the river. However, moving the car and finding the route to the other side was an adventure unto itself. No doubt we would never have found the way, were it not for a nice young man, who happened to be standing around in a restaurant when I went in to ask for directions. At first he tried to explain how to get there,but given the number of turns, as well as his halting English, he realized that we would never make it. Instead, he got into his car, and told us to follow him, and took us to a point where we could get there on our own.

The far side of the ravine had a network of dirt roads that led up to the edge of the ravine, but we stopped before that point and walked. There were many caves here, and it had a wild and windswept feeling. It also offered views of the Sassi on the other side.

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Selfie from across the ravine
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After a nice walk, the rain moved in once again, and incredibly, we managed to find our way back to town, with some help from Google Maps, to a point very near our old parking spot. This was taken, but we did manage to park nearby, and then it was about a ten minute walk back to the Sassi Caveosa ,and our apartment. We are now safely ensconced in our little duplex of stone and wood.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:49 Archived in Italy Tagged churches photography tourist_sites living_abroad buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (4)

Teaching at the Himalayan Culture School

My first day of teaching began when I got two conflicting schedules from the principal, who, if his office is any reflection, is rather disorganized. In addition to English, I am also teaching social studies and science.

The kids have been very welcoming and enthusiastic, but the books being used and the curriculum taught is way beyond their abilities, no matter what their age. There were times when I went over material they had supposedly already learned, and although they could parrot the words, it was obvious they didn’t understand a thing. Not a good situation. I hope to discuss this with Tashi and the principal. The curriculum is no doubt dictated by the J&K government, but so much of it seems like a waste of time.

Morning lineup
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Morning prayers
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For the past several days I have been trying to use their assigned books, and then going off from there, but the kids are used to simply repeating often difficult English words without any understanding. When I try to get them to talk with me, I often get a yes or no answer without any willingness to go further. I have tried to start a story and get them to continue it, but even with the older kids I am lucky to get a sentence or two. Also if one of them says something, the others then simply repeat it. I think much of this is pointless. I will have to use much simpler materials if I am to teach anything at all. As an example, I did an experiment with the standard books in which I read a 2nd grade story, one they had already read and been tested on, to the 5th-7th graders. Generally, with a few exceptions, they were unable to understand the story after I read through it twice. I’m sure if English is too difficult then the other subjects are also a problem.

Fifth grade class
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I spoke to the English teacher, and he seems to be well aware of these issues, as is the principal. Not surprisingly, the principal said that he is forced to use these books because they are used throughout India. In Jammu, a large city, he thought that most of the students would be able to understand them. I’m not sure that this is the case, at least with the poor students. In the 5th grade class, only Passan was the exception. He lives in town all year long rather than in a village, and both of his parents are teachers and speak English with him at home. Most of the other parents don’t speak English, are not educated, and a number of them are illiterate.

Passan
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What can be done about this situation is another question. It is a bit like “No Child Left Behind,” with standards that are unrealistic, and forcing teachers to teach to the test because that is how they are evaluated. I doubt whether the teachers here are evaluated this way, but the kids are given standardized tests, and most of the teaching that I have observed is aimed exclusively at getting them to score well. At best, they will be memorizing and parroting without any understanding. On one afternoon I used a pre k book to teach 2nd and 4th graders and even that was a struggle.

I have found teaching to be quite tiring with four, 40 minute classes with the older kids in the morning, and then three more classes with the younger students in the afternoon. Lunch, however, always provides a nice break, especially with Tsering, her best friend, and neighbor's baby.

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The youngest kids that I teach are around eight, although the school has some as young as four. The younger boys especially can get pretty rambunctious toward the end of the day, and it is hard to keep things under control. After several days, I more or less gave up on teaching the youngest kids. They simply take up more energy than I have. While I have taught ESL before, it has mostly been with adults, and that is a very different experience.

Younger kids in school yard
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One of the youngest
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On one occasion, I gave the older students an assignment which we then read in class, to write about Gulabgarh or their village in the mountains. They said only positive things about each, raving about the beauty of both places in a somewhat repetitive fashion, while overlooking the garbage, the dirt, and the poverty. They seem to focus only on the good. On the one hand, this is admirable, and seems to reflect their enormously positive and happy outlook, but on the other hand, they seem to ignore the problems. When I discussed this with them they understood, but were at a loss to know what to suggest to improve things. They didn’t seem to think that talking to people would do any good, something that Tashi had already indicated. Several of the kids said that the rains would eventually wash everything away and make everything clean. Not likely, as there had already been plenty of rain and there was still garbage everywhere. There is no central garbage dump or landfill, and seemingly little motivation to create one. Perhaps if the many policemen would get off their duffs and fine people 10 or 20 rupees for littering, this would make a difference. Also not likely.

Older boys with my travel speaker
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Their female classmates
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Another time I asked the students to write about their favorite holiday. Usually, what I got back was a description of a Hindu holiday, Diwali, for example, that word for word came from their English book. Unfortunately, as in so many Asian countries, the emphasis is just on rote learning. I have had somewhat more success when I have created my own teaching materials, but this takes time and energy, and the kids are well aware that this is not what they will be tested on.

I don't want to be overly negative. Most if the students here come from impoverished backgrounds with little, if any opportunity for book learning outside the classroom. Considering that, many of them are obviously curious about the outside world, and more knowledgeable, at least about Indian pop culture, then I would have thought. The older ones know about Indian celebrities and pop musicians which is an accomplishment considering that many of them have not been to Kisthwar, which is not exactly a cosmopolitan place. Most of the kids seem interested in what I think, despite the language problems, and a few of the most diligent students have wanted me to teach them after their regular class periods. Often by then, I am too tired, but still this shows the initiative of the best and the brightest.

During this week of exams, there is not a lot of teaching going on, but they seem interesting in hanging out with me. Most of the time they prefer to play games, especially one called Kabbadi, a rough game of tag, and then pulling the person to their side of the schoolyard. The girls are every bit as competitive as the boys. I try and resist the games until the end of the school day, but it provides an informal way to communicate in English, and this may be more valuable than what goes on in class.

Author in back with one of younger grades
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Hamming it up from 2nd floor window
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The Himalayan Culture School has a website, http://hcspadder.com/ as well as a facebook page. They are always looking for volunteers to teach for a few days or a few months, as well as donations. If you want to experience buddhist culture in non touristy surroundings, this is an ideal place. You must be prepared for a very simple life with few western conveniences. The school or a villager will provide you with a place to stay and food. You can also contact Tashi at lonpoadv@gmail.com. Email is very slow so be prepared to wait a while for an answer.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:51 Archived in India Tagged people children educational living_abroad Comments (1)

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