Soon after you’ve had your first cup of rich dark hot chocolate in the city of Oaxaca (wa-ha-ka), you’ll be making plans for Mitla, one of the most important archaeological sites in Oaxaca (the name of the state/region, as well as the city).
Built around 800 BC by the Zapotecs (and the Mixtecs), an Indian race that followed the Mayans, the ruins of Mitla have remained remarkably well-preserved. The huge complex is laid out around a central, cross-like structure, with each facade of the "cross" featuring nine panels of mosaics--elaborate stone puzzle pieces perfectly fitted to one another.
Zapotec innovation in pre-Colombian times
When the Spaniards arrived in 1521, they assumed that because of the cross-shape of the structure, and the small cross-like designs in the mosaics, that earlier Europeans must’ve arrived before them and influenced the Zapotecs with Christianity. But of course there was no relation, as there had been no earlier arrivals, and the four directions of the cross have been seen universally in many cultures to represent the four sacred elements—fire, air, water, and wind—as well as the four directions.
Within the site’s walls and tunnels, the same wondrous feat of geometric patterns gracing the walls of a large, dark passageway (complete with a creepy little bat flying around), in which the symmetric patterns on one side directly correspond to the patterns opposite, as if you were holding up a mirror—an amazing feat of geometry and mathematics that took modern scientists and graphic designers eight months to duplicate with a computer.
Further excavations have revealed cylindrical quartz bars, perfectly rounded and carved, and inside: phosphorus. Do you know what that makes? LIGHT. Nearly 3000-year-old light bulbs, developed by ancient Mesoamericans!
Mitla is also unique because it’s one of the sites not overtaken and altered by the Aztecs. As such it is a unique monument to the ingenuity of the Zapotec and their harmonious successors, the Mixtecs. Mitla was never buried under earth or ash, which means you can still see signs of the original colors painted on some of the walls, preserved for years because of a combination of calcium and lemon/lime juices.
Mitla--every bit as memorable as that cup of dark hot chocolate you'll be sipping in nearby Oaxaca City.
One of the highlights of Shikoku is seeing the small clusters of pilgrims paying homage to Shikoku's revered saint: Kobo-daishi. Recognizable by their matching white suits (bearing the motto which translates: "Daishi and I, going together"), wooden staffs, and sedge hats, the pilgrims embark on what is known as "Shikoku Henro," or the Shikoku pilgrimage, to retrace the steps of Kobo-daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Many stories and myths, similar to the "miracles" performed by Jesus Christ, surround Daishi's accomplishments. But among his many admirable traits, skills, and powers, Kobo-daishi was also credited with introducing many aspects of Chinese culture into Japan, including a system of measures, various Chinese medicines, the growth and processing of tea, as well as architectural knowledge. Kobo-daishi has sometimes been dubbed a "father" of Japan.
Kobo-daishi's quest for truth along the shores of Shikoku
In his search for spiritual truth and enlightenment, Kobo-daishi roamed from the rocky shorelines of Shikoku, to the tops of its mountains, so today his followers often make the pilgrimage by foot (though some make it any way they can, by scooter, train, or bus). There are 88 Sacred Places (Buddhist temples)—88 representing the number of evil passions, as defined in Buddhist religious doctrine. It is believed one can get rid of an evil aspect of one's character at each of the temples, thus it's suggested that visiting only one temple is at least a good start!
Dedicated pilgrims pay homage at shrines and temples
One pilgrim hotspot is Kotohira, or Konpirasan, a combined shrine and temple which can only be reached by climbing hundreds of stone steps (as in over 800 gruelling, exhausting ones). The "reward" isn't that phenomenal, but to say you did it, "you and Daishi going together" as it were, may be worth it.
When crossing back to Honshu (the main island of Japan) via the Seto Inland Bridge, you can stop in Okayama prefecture to visit Zentsuji, a temple built around the birthplace of Kobo-daishi. Not just an ordinary temple, Zentsuji boasts a circular underground tunnel which takes visitors groping through pitch-black passageways until they arrive at a tiny candle-lit alcove, the supposed birthplace of Kobo-daishi himself. There you can take a rest from the dark, light incense and pray, or watch the candlelight dancing on the walls painted with Buddhist figures. Roaming the tunnels in total darkness is supposed to help us clear our minds and concentrate on ridding ourselves of our sins, though most people seem to giggle nervously as they grope along the walls--or maybe that's because someone from behind groped them.
Sins removed: Winterlong chocolate obsession and temptation to attack rude train passengers in Japan.
A visit to Ryukyu Village, an enchanting tourist attraction north of Naha, the capital city of Okinawa offers a glimpse of myriad Okinawan cultural traditions, including bingata (painted red patterns and design), orimono (textiles), and toki (pottery). But most delightful are the mischievous shisa lounging on rooftops, lined up in grinning rows, and peeking out of bushes with goofy eyes.
If a single icon could represent the resilient spirit of Okinawa, it would be the mythical lion-dog shisa, which playfully adorn rooftops and entryways, store and home fronts throughout the Okinawan islands.
Usually in pairs, a female shisa's mouth is open to beckon good fortune, and a male shisa's mouth is closed in a quirky snarl-grin to keep the good luck in.
Chigan-san and the legend of how the shisa came to be protectors of Okinawa
The shisa originally came from China, but a mythical story to explain its powers suggests that a long time ago on Okinawa island, there was a young boy named Chiga-san whose village was constantly terrorized by an angry sea dragon.
After one particularly ferocious attack, the king of Okinawa, concerned for the villagers, approached the young Chiga-san and gave him a small statue attached to a piece of rope. He explained to the boy that this shisa statue should be placed at the seaside in front of the village, and that it would protect the people from harm.
Chigan-san accepted the statue, a dull, brownish lion figurine with a fierce snarl on its lips. Chiga-san bowed in respect to the king and placed the shisa as he was told.
The next day, the waves crashed loudly, signalling the approach of the dragon. The villagers ran from their homes, eyes expectantly on the tiny shisa statue perched on the beach. The dragon sprang up from the sea, then froze at the sight of the shisa figure, which had begun to tremble, a loud rumbling coming from deep within.
The statue suddenly burst open and a huge shisa lion roared as it bounded out and attacked the dragon. The two creatures disappeared into the sea, and the villagers feared the shisa had been killed.
Moments later, far off in the ocean, a blast of water shot up and the fighting creatures reemerged, only to sink down into the water again. Much to the surprise of the onlooking villagers, a tiny island suddenly appeared where there had been none before.
Chiga-san kept watching for the shisa lion, which never reappeared, but he gasped when he looked down at the shisa statue on the beach. It was completely intact without even a crack.
Word soon spread of the shisa lion's bravery and the peace that had come to Chiga-san's village. Other villages soon began making their own shisa lions and the shisa came to be known as the guardians of the Okinawan islands.
The shisa later made its way to mainland Japan in the form of kumainu, which are often seen guarding the gates of jinja, or Shinto shrines, but do not have the peculiar omnipresence of the shisa in Okinawa.
Shopping in Naha, a shisa-lover's delight
Shoppers wandering down Kokusai Dori, Naha's "international street," are greeted on all sides by ogling shisa figurines, in all sizes, positions, and range of facial expressions: shisa with wagging tongues and crossed eyes, cartoon-like clay shisa showing the two-fingered peace sign, even companion shisa engaged in sexually adventurous positions. The somewhat spiritual, yet laugh-at-life quality of the shisa, in many ways captures the essence of Okinawa itself.
Okinawan islands a world apart from mainland Japan
South of mainland Japan, the chain of islands once forming the independent Ryukyu Kingdom boast a unique cultural blend of influences not only from Japan, but also from China, Thailand, and as far south as Indonesia. In the Japanese conquest of the islands, they were renamed "Okinawa", but as anyone who has been there can attest, Okinawa is like visiting a different country--culturally and linguistically quite removed from Japan.
The Okinawan islands, in fact, are closer in proximity to Taipei than to Japan's southern port city, Fukuoka. Okinawa's geographical location has strategically poised it for centuries of trade and commerce between Japan and China, and in the present day, it serves as a beacon for international exchange and understanding between Asian nations.
The spirit of Okinawan people fortified in the face of Japanese imperialism
Okinawa-ben, the language of Okinawa, is practically unintelligible to mainland Japanese, and physical characteristics, such as facial features and skin color, more closely resemble those of Malaysian people.
Okinawans are proud of this distinction. For centuries they have struggled to maintain their identity under the yoke of Japan, being treated as second-class citizens, having their women stolen away to the mainland to become wives for Japanese men, and later, during World War II, being forced to serve the Japanese Imperial Army. Okinawa, often considered "dispensable", suffered some of the war's bloodiest battles, and even now Okinawa shares a disproportionate burden of the US military presence in Japan.
Those arriving in Okinawa from the mainland are often struck by its relative shabbiness in contrast to the rest of Japan. A small, cluttered airport, dingy buses, and rundown-looking buildings greet the eye, but it is this very lack of modernity and luster, punctuated by palm trees and bathed in warm breezes, which make it instantly endearing.
Also gone are the stiff, interpersonal encounters customary on the mainland, but instead an outward friendliness and radiant pride Okinawans seem to take in the survival of their culture.
Okinawan culture, despite inevitable "Japanization", has retained its distinctive customs, and most importantly, it is blessed by the genuine smiles and easygoing attitude of the Okinawan people.
Some might say there is more weight, after all, to the story of young Chiga-san and the guardian shisa who saved his village from the fearsome dragon.
Outside the National Museum in Phnom Penh I spot my moto driver, Dararot, in a throng of drivers all vying for my attention. As I beeline for the motorbike, I pass politely by the amputees (victims of landmines left over by the Americans during the Vietnam War) scooting around in dilapidated wheelchairs and hobbling on crutches, begging for money. I’m relieved when they settle for a cigarette each and the horrible irony is not lost on me when I find myself telling my driver I want to go see Choeung Ek ("the killing fields") and Tuol Sleng (the genocide museum), all in one breath, in one day, like I'm going to Buckingham Palace.
A glimpse of history: Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime
When Pol Pot stormed Phnom Penh in 1975, many city-dwellers fled for their lives to the countryside. Many others who stayed behind were systematically executed, seemingly without cause or reason, but certain individuals were particularly singled out: intellectuals, teachers, speakers of foreign languages, but also peasants, Cabinet members, women, children, and eventually, even members of Pol Pot's regime. (For a great movie about this, check out The Killing Fields, about a Western journalist trapped in Phnom Penh at a time when people were trying to escape the country.)
High school turned torture chamber
Tuol Svay Prey High School was turned into a prison and renamed Tuol Sleng, with high walls and barbed wire built around it. Here, the classrooms were made into holding cells by building tiny brick cubicles up from the floors. Accused of holding back the "revolution"--much the same as in Red China--the victims were interrogated and tortured, from being dunked into huge vats of water until close to drowning, to having their fingernails ripped out or their heads placed in a vise. A large wooden beam structure looks as if it might have been a swingset for the former school, but instead, the two iron rings protruding down from the beam were used to string bound and gagged captives up by the wrists (which were behind their backs).
The large vessels for holding water for dunking still sit, with accumulated debris in the bottom. Holding cells have dark stains of red and black on the floors, as if the blood had never been cleaned up when Pol Pot's reign of terror ended. Rusted metal boxes are strewn around the rooms, "toilets" for the inmates, and huge steel bars with ankle rings help formulate a gruesome picture of what it might've been like. Victims not in the brick-wall holding cells were laid in beds side-by-side, their ankles locked into the steel rings which were held fast by a heavy metal, horizontal bar, positioned between two bars which came up vertically from the floor. The victims locked in, side-by-side, were forbidden to speak to one another, and the rules of the prison were strictly enforced; those who deviated were flogged with whips or ropes, or tortured unimaginably.
History comes home: My moto driver lost his entire family
In conversation Dararot tells me he's 40 (but looks about 22). He was in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot arrived, and like many others, he fled, not knowing where his mother, father, and sister were. He eventually ended up in Siem Reap and further west, close to the Thai border, where he remained for three years until the Vietnamese invaded and "rescued" Cambodia from Pol Pot.
He found out only later that his parents, sister, and uncle had been killed. He wants to point out the photos of his mother and father to me—amidst hundreds of other photos of men, women, and children who had been tortured and later murdered. At Tuol Sleng, photos of victims, as well as their torture, line the walls; haunting eyes peer out from emaciated bodies. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented their atrocities. Dararot points out the two separate photos of his parents and I nod in solemn respect.
The prison buildings are run down, the paint peeled and chunks blown away by gunfire and grenades. It has a sobering quality: standing there amidst the peace and surrounding beauty, knowing that so much horror had gone on there. The cheerful voices of young guys playing volleyball behind one of the buildings seem incongruous.
After victims were interrogated and tortured at Tuol Sleng, they were taken to Choeung Ek, the killing fields—Cambodia's Auschwitz—if they survived the torture.
Choeung Ek, Cambodia's Auschwitz
We bump along a long, dusty road and suddenly the land off to the left starts looking lumpy behind the barbed fences and wooden posts: some 8,900 skulls/remains have been found, but many more remain. I pay $2 at the entrance and find myself greeted by a large Buddhist stupa. Inside, in rectangular glass casing, reaching layer upon layer to the stupa's ceiling; are human skulls, just sitting there jumbled together like they had never been anything but skulls. The bottom layer in the glass encasing has a few placards: "mature male, 40 years old and up,” "senile female over 60 years old,” "European."
The sight of it is staggering, the tragedy unfathomable, and I find it hard to take in as though it couldn’t possibly have happened. It's just too unbelievable. But it's all real, all here, right here in my face. I mean, my God, what was I doing in 1975? Running around, playing with my friends, going to school and summer camp, fed, clothed, cared for. I've seen nothing.
Gruesome, genocidal details (and remnants) for all to see
Dararot tells me his uncle and sister were killed here. He points out a white sign marker of a mass grave that reads "150 women and children.” Another says "100 victims with heads cut off.” Dararot shows me a heavy spine from a thick-trunked sugar palm. The spine branches were used to slit people's throats. Wooden posts lie around as testimony to the clubbings. Pol Pot wouldn't allow the use of guns, so every victim was tortured "by hand,” and murdered equally mercilessly. Many of the skulls show large holes and cracks, indicating heavy blows to the head.
As we walk alongside the graves, Dararot stoops down and moves the dirt around with his fingers, producing a human tooth and handing it to me to examine. My stomach turns. We kick up shards of bone as we walk, and sometimes find whole pieces lying on the grass. Yet again there's that peculiar tranquility, flowers growing in the gravesites and traditional Cambodian music, carried on the wind from a house nearby.
Dararot returned from the mountains after three years, he tells me. His father, a policeman, who spoke French, Japanese, Thai, and English—bad skills and job to have possessed under Pol Pot—has been murdered. His mother, a teacher, is gone as well.
Having doubts (can you really have your own Pol Pot story for every wartorn tourist spot?)
I've started not to believe Dararot's connection to all this tragedy. It's all too much, the photos in the museum, the familial connections in specific mass graves, and mostly the fact he looks so young. So I've decided he's lying to me, embellishing so I might take some kind of pity and give him more money than the $5 we’ve agreed upon.
But in the next moment I think to myself, the story he's told me is somebody's story, somebody's mother, father, sister, uncle. Maybe it is his, and I'm just in denial. An estimated one to two million people perished in a country of only seven million. It’s likely this genocide has directly touched his family’s life in some way.
And now it has touched mine.
Have you been to Cambodia and did you visit Tuol Sleng and the killing fields? What were your impressions? Share a comment - Would love to hear your thoughts!
P.S. Talk a walk on the dark side. Must-read Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls and Ganja.
I recently caught on that the Danes were the happiest people on earth. Yearning for some mid-life satisfaction myself, I've been reading up on hygge, a Danish term loosely translated as "coziness of the soul." Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) is very much about feeling, a feeling you get from certain aspects of life that, as it turns out, you actually have some control over. Things like time spent with friends and family. A comfortable nook created in your home where you like to curl up with a good book. Fireplaces and candlelight not to mention a wall of good books are all hyggelige (hygge-esque, if you will).
For a quick hygge fix, here are three easy ways to make your home feel more hygge:
1. Light a hygge-load of candles.
The Danes love candlelight. Not just one candle either. Try four or more. The more warm, soft glow the more hygge it is.
2. Bring the outside in.
Nature sure looks nice from a window, patio or balcony, but even better when we're out in it, gathering up nature's souvenirs: a handful of interesting rocks, a twig with an acorn attached, curling leaves, a single wildflower. Adorning your home with nature is totally hygge.
3. Let books be your companions.
Nothing says hygge like a shelf lined with books, or a stack of books on a coffee table. Books, particularly works of fiction, beckon our imaginations to wander. There's a spirit and an energy to books. Let them speak volumes about who you are and what you're interested in.
What do you do to get your hygge on? Share your hygge practices in the comments!