Mary Altier

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Papua New Guinea by Mary Altier


Papua New Guinea, by Mary Altier
Published: Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee Travel Sections

Men painted like skeletons with white paint and charcoal terrorized the crowd with primitive bows and arrows. Mudmen wearing huge heads crafted from dried mud shook weapon-like six-inch fingernails menacingly.

Forty years ago Papua New Guinea's indigenous groups were more accustomed to killing and eating each other than to singing, dancing and laughing together. But here at Mt Hagen's Cultural Festival and Sing-Sing, representatives of the country's 1,000 tribal groups put aside age-old rivalries to keep alive their traditional costume, music and dance on this remote enigmatic island in the southwest Pacific.

Early Saturday morning, we arrived at the muddy festival grounds to find only a few performers. Soon, trudging slowly across the rain-soaked field came people hauling cardboard boxes filled with cowrie shells and tropical bird feathers, some pressed into well-worn books and magazines. We watched as they painted their faces and bodies in bright pigments and adorned themselves with large shells and plumage in primary colors.

Suddenly, the earth shook with the pounding of bare feet and the rhythm of chanting and hourglass-shaped kundu drums covered with lizard or snakeskin. The first group danced into the informal arena followed by rows of armed warriors, who swept across the field in a nearly impenetrable line. They simulating battles they had fought through the ages, although at the end of the day the fierce combatants put down their spears to accept orange Popsicles handed out by volunteers.

Destination Bhutan by Mary Altier
Destination Bhutan: A divine time in the kingdom by Mary Altier
Published: Los Angeles Times Travel Section

The Paro Valley is chockablock with farms and farmhouses. They resemble Alpine chalets and are made of whitewashed stone and timber, topped with broad, sloping roofs. But Bhutan's standout structures are the dzongs, ancient fortresses that serve as monasteries and administrative centers. Paro's Rinpung Dzong, where we were headed, was the center of festival activities.

Locals streamed by us on their way to the first day of the tsechu, and I could feel their excitement as they passed. Tshering paused to wrap his 10-foot-long unbleached raw-silk scarf around his gho, the men's traditional dress. Gho are long robes that men hitch up to knee length and belt tightly. The kira, which women wear, is a floor-length, rectangular piece of cotton or silk that is wrapped around the body, then affixed at the shoulders, tunic like, over a silk blouse. All Bhutanese citizens are required to wear the national dress in public during daylight hours.
Each year, Paro's monks and residents perform a 12-episode dance drama that commemorates the life of the country's spiritual father. Guru Rinpoche, regarded as the second Buddha, spread Tibetan-style tantric Buddhism throughout the Himalayas 1,200 years ago. Watching the tsechu's ritual dances is believed to protect onlookers, to instruct them in the teachings of the Buddha and to exorcise evil influences.

Through it all, clowns wearing long-nosed red masks, weaved in and out of the scene, acting as masters of ceremonies, performing between the dances, chasing dogs and children off the staging area, and teasing tourists and locals.

Mary Altier

Death Rituals of Torajaland, Sulawesi, by Mary Altier
Published: Korean Geo (in Korean)

"With a sharp motion, the executioner drove the long knife into the throat of the water buffalo. Hundreds of family members and friends crowded together to watch the main event of the Torajan funeral. Dying, the buffalo ran around wildly, forcing the spectators to take refuge in the open sided bamboo buildings, to escape the spurting blood and twitching horns of the enraged animal.

Animal sacrifice is just one of the many rituals that take place at the funerals of Tanatoraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia. The Torajans spend a lifetime saving money to be used after their deaths to finance lavish funerals, sometimes attended by as many as a thousand people. These celebrations can last a few days or go on for as long as two weeks, with as many as a hundred buffalo slaughtered. For the Torajans, the buffalo has always been a symbol of wealth and power. They believe that in the afterlife, or puya, people will live as they did on earth, and those sacrificed animals will join the deceased there. The ceremony also helps the living. The belief is that the spirit of the deceased can cause problems for the living relatives if the send-off to the afterlife is not done properly. A small funeral ceremony often takes place right after death. The larger public funeral takes place when the necessary wealth can be accumulated, sometimes months or even years after death. In the meantime, the corpse is housed in the family home, food is prepared for and offered to it, and, if there is enough money to do it, professional mourners are provided to keep it company."


Mary Altier

El "Gran Poder" in Bolivia, by Mary Altier
Published: American Airlines Nexos (in Spanish)

"Masses of pop eyed devils with curved horns and ornately embroidered red velvet capes filled the shop lined streets of La Paz, Bolivia, gyrating madly to the tune of music played by brass bands. Rows of women, dressed identically in dark traditional felt hats, beautifully hand embroidered shawls, and a myriad of petticoats under their full skirts, followed on their heels. They all carried noisemakers (matracas); twirling these toy-like objects in their hands, as they themselves twirled, full skirts swirling in time to the loud music. The musicians wore white straw fedoras and bright red sports jackets, their white tubas reflecting the bright tropical sun.

This was La Festividad de Nuestro Señor Jesus del Gran Poder, an annual celebration of the culture of the Aymara people, who dominate the region from Southern Peru, including Lake Titicaca, to the Bolivian city of Oruro. Gran Poder began in 1939 when residents of the campesino neighborhoods of La Paz staged an annual procession carrying lighted candles behind an image of Christ. One year later the embroiderers union joined in with a folklore group; other professions and organizations soon followed suite.

Now more than 50 groups representing different communities practice for months for the festival. A group includes a band, the dancers, and brilliantly costumed paraders whose faces are hidden by heavy, hot masks. About 500 people make up each group, for approximately 25,000 participants in all."

Mary Altier

The Lure of Laos, by Mary Altier
Published: San Francisco Chronicle

"The Thai Dam people danced in a large circle to the pulsing rhythm of a beating drum. The women, hair slicked back in tight buns, wore fitted black blouses with silver clasps and multi-colored silk sarongs. One by one, dancers drew each of the four women in our group into their circle, making us part of the Thai Dam community's annual New Year's festival. When the dancing was over, the men tried to ply us with homemade brew, and the women draped us with intricately designed hand-woven silk shawls, which we bought for between $5 and $10 apiece.

The Thai Dam group is just one of 68 government-recognized tribes living in Laos. Over the past century these people have made a slow migration from Tibet, Burma, and southern China into Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Although the majority of Laos' population is Buddhist, these minority groups practice animism, a belief that souls live in natural objects. Because of their faith in the power of the spirit world, hill tribe people perform elaborate rituals for everything from ensuring a successful harvest to healing their sick. For four days, our guide Noy, my three women friends and I bumped along the rugged terrain near Lao's border with China in a beat-up Chinese-manufactured van, visiting small hill tribe communities.

In one Hmong (also called Miao or Meo) village, I observed a healing ritual for a sick old man who lay behind a curtain in a simple bamboo hut. I sat unnoticed on a small stool in the corner as a black-clad shaman jumped up and down on a wooden bench, chanting and rattling a crude noisemaker as he tried to contact the spirit world. Later, on a nearby road, we met a blushing 15-year-old Hmong bride waiting for a pick-up truck taxi to whisk her off to her new life in her husband's village, a few kilometers away.

While walking along a muddy path in an area populated by the Akha tribal group, two topless women wearing traditional headpieces covered with silver coins gently took our hands and helped us cross a mountain stream. In a Mien (also called Yao or Man) village, we sat outside with the women, who were decked out in bright red wool yarn boas and black turbans with colorful embroidered borders, as they crafted their traditional cross-stitch on homespun cotton fabric. They invited us into their homes to practice another art: selling the elaborately hand-worked pieces to foreign visitors."


Mary Altier


Northern Italy's Lake Region: Bellissimo! by Mary Altier
Published: San Jose Magazine

"When you are ready to move on from Cernobbio, you can join locals and tourists alike for the twenty minute ferry ride to Bellagio, which is sometimes called the prettiest town in Europe. Bellagio has been a Roman settlement and medieval fortification. During the Renaissance, it became the "in" place for the Lombard aristocrats to build their villas. Set on the point where Lake Como splits into two parts, it was designed with graceful covered arcades along the lakefront and shop lined stairs rising up from the water level. If you have the time, take advantage of the spectacular setting and stay overnight in one of the elegant hotels. If not, at least enjoy a leisurely lunch and a lakeside stroll.

A half an hour ferry ride from Bellagio will take you to the quiet town of Varenna, situated where the lake is at its widest. While strolling through the downtown area, you forget that you are in a tourist Mecca. The town is dominated by the campanile of San Giorgios church, and its coffee bars, small restaurants, and shops are filled with locals going about their daily activities."


Mary Altier

Crete: A Traveler's Odyssey, by Mary Altier
Published: San Jose Magazine

" 'The most beautiful girls here are the Greek ones,' said the manager of the outdoor harbor-front restaurant, as he perused the passing parade of attractive young women from all over Europe. It was a warm Saturday night in early October in Chania, one of Crete's most popular towns. The nearly enclosed harbor is lined with lively restaurants and cafes, making it the perfect place for an evening stroll. Most of the young women, whether from Greece or other European countries, wore black cropped tops, tight pants, and high platform shoes. Nearly universal accessories were the cell phones and cigarettes they carried in their hands. The sleek stylish look provided a striking contrast to Chania's 350 year-old Turkish mosque and its 13th century Venetian fort, both dramatically illuminated across the still water.

I had come to Crete to see the remains of the birthplace of Europe's first advanced civilization. The ancient palace complex at Knossos was constructed during the 5,000 year-old Minoan period, as were other sites at Phaestos, Malia, and Zakros. But I was surprised to find Crete's other attractions. It is the largest and most southerly of the more than 100 inhabited Greek islands, and arguably the most beautiful. Sandy beaches line its long coast, and a spectacular mountain chain runs from east to west, creating the deep gorges and fertile plateaus. Remains of Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian occupations dot the landscape."

Mary Altier

Fast Times in Morocco, by Mary Altier
Published: San Francisco Examiner and Sacramento Bee

"When we planned our trip, we knew we would join the brightly costumed dancers, musicians and acrobats in the Djenmma al Fna in Marrakech, wander through the narrow, winding medina of Fes, and visit the huge Mosque Hassan II in Casablanca. We suspected we would watch Europeans turning from pink to red in Agadir, which, unlike most of Morocco's ancient cities, has a taller, modern skyline and beach not unlike Miami's.

Essaouira, a town of 50,000 people, was not part of the plan until a French friend told us it had been the highlight of her trip to Morocco. 'One of our preferred cities in this country is Essaouira, an old, peaceful town a little bit off the tourist rush. I give you a wonderful address: Hotel Riad Al Madina. Don't miss it,' she said in an e-mail message. Since the French ruled Morocco for 44 years and bequeathed their mother tongue to become the second language of the country, I bowed to my friend's advice and arranged a stay at the hotel.

The building dates from 1871, and was at that time a private residence. Later, it became the Hotel du Pacha. Along with the nearby village of Diabat, the hotel was part of a worldwide, avant-garde cultural center during its heyday in the 1960s and '70s. Among the artists, writers and musicians who crossed its threshold were Jimmy Hendrix, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, Paula Abdul, Cladio Bravo, Tennessee Williams and the Jefferson Airplane. Hendrix lived for some time in Diabat, and the ruined palace there inspired his song, "Castles in the Sand". Legend has it that a curse caused the building to be swallowed up by the sand."

Mary Altier

Italy Like a Local by Mary Altier
Published: Desert Living

On the rise above us perched what looked like a medieval town: a tall tower, manor house, church, and cluster of stone buildings, all walled in by four turrets. This couldn't be the reasonably priced accommodation we had booked near Perugia, in central Italy's Umbria region. My husband John and I stopped our small Fiat by the side of the road to ask a passing farmer where we could find the Castello di Mongiovino. "That is it," he told us in Italian, pointing past the rows of gnarled olive trees growing on the hill before us.

The Castello di Mongiovino is an agriturismo, one of a network of farms available for tourist lodging. They can be found throughout Italy in fortified medieval castles, manor houses, converted convents and monasteries, restored olive presses, and farm outbuildings and stables. What they have in common is that the land is used for agricultural production as well as tourism. To qualify as an agriturismo, over half of its income must stem from agriculture. Agriturismo owners produce a myriad of products, including olives, olive oil, wine, cheese, wheat, and vegetables. The agriturismo concept is designed to encourage development in Italy's rural regions, to allow visitors to have affordable and personal experiences in parts of Italy tourists might not otherwise visit, and to help the small farmer with tax breaks and other incentives.

By the end of a weeklong stay in an agriturismo, we always knew the best place for homemade gelato, frothy cappuccino, and fresh local produce. The agriturismo experience is definitely a relaxing and affordable option for a visit to Italy. But the best thing about it is the opportunity to get to know rural life and meet the Italian people, like our hosts, Donati Guerrieri, the Avantaggiatos, Catanis, and Martellis, who live it every day.

Mary Altier

Touring the Grecian Island of Sappho's Birth: Lesbos by Mary Altier
Published in Curve Magazine

The poet Sappho was born around 630 B. C. in what is now the charming seaside town of Skala Eressos, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Because if her influence on other poets from the Roman period until the present, she is considered to be the first known woman author and the founder of women's literature.

Sappho wrote many of her poems of passion, joy, sorrow, jealousy, frustration and longing for an intimate circle of female companions. The term lesbian is derived from the name of her island home. This has made her the muse of lesbian lovers and her birthplace a Mecca for lesbians from all over the world.

Lesbos, the third largest Greek island after Crete and Evia, lies in the northeastern Aegean Sea, just miles from Turkey. The Gulf of Kelloni cuts deep into its landmass, giving Lesbos a horseshoe shape. The southern and eastern regions are fertile, with a thick blanket of olive trees producing the best olive oil in Greece. In contrast, the western portion, where Sappho was born, is arid, resembling the deep golden color of whole- grained mustard.

My five-day visit to Lesbos at an end, I made my way to the quay of Mytilene's Central Harbor and reluctantly boarded a ship bound for another of Greece's many islands. As the large boat pulled away from the dock, I glanced back at the twinkling lights of Lesbos and thought of a line I had found in Sappho's poem, I Have Not Had One Word From Her, "This parting must be endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."

Mary Altier


On the Road in Pakistan, by Mary Altier
Published: Santa Cruz Sentinel

"When we came upon the site of the landslide not far from the town of Chitral, all hope of getting to our destination vanished. The mental images I had from my home state of California where the fallen rocks seem to have come from the side of the road proved to be totally inaccurate. Rocks from the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range had fallen thousands of feet into the river valley below, wiping out all trace of the road. The narrow windy road, which we were dependent on to continue our journey was hidden by huge boulders on top of which lay entire trees. The only activity to be seen was that of a few of the local men trying to hack away at the trees in an effort to take advantage of some free, and usually scarce, firewood. Pakistani travelers emerged from mini buses and walked around aimlessly, staring at the slide. They seemed to accept the reality that the force of the mountain could affect their lives at a moment's notice.

Our guide Aslam found that there were four separate slides, probably covering a kilometer of the road, and met a jeep driver who, with two foreign tourists, had spent the night trapped between two segments of the slide. As Aslam returned to the jeep, shaking his head, he mentioned that this area was famous for being cut off much of the year. In earlier times, criminal offenders were merely sent to Chitral rather than put in jail. From Chitral there was no escape because landslides would block the mountain passes on either side of the town throughout each harsh winter."

Mary Altier

India Inside: The India-Silicon Valley Connection, by Mary Altier
Published: San Jose Magazine and California CEO, in another form

"In those early days of the high tech boom in India, most US companies established themselves in the southern city of Bangalore, known both as 'The Garden City' and 'India's Silicon Valley.' By the mid-1990's, India was the world's second largest software exporter after the USA, and Bangalore was responsible for a third of the two billion-dollar software development industry. With a high tech growth rate of 60% a year, IT parks have spread out all around the outskirts of the city. As pollution and traffic have increased in Bangalore, while affordable housing, power and water have decreased, other cities have been successfully competing for a piece of the rich high tech pie. The place to watch is Hyderabad, to the north of Bangalore in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

The influx of technology has altered the Indian landscape in many ways. From Kerala in the south to the Kutch in the north, hand-painted signs advertising computer training schools can be seen everywhere. From Orissa's Puri in the east to Rajasthan's Jaipur in the west, young men and women pay a few rupees an hour at Cyber Cafes to sit at computers and surf the web or shoot off E-mail messages. Large billboards along Bangalore's MG Road announce the arrival of the latest "dot-coms" and Internet providers. While only 600,000 Indians have home connectivity to the Internet today, it is projected that by the year 2004, 11 million people will be connected. In the future, India's high-tech centers may no longer be called the "Silicon Valley of India," but the San Jose area might be known as 'The Bangalore/Hyderabad of California.' "


A Capital Time in Capitola by Mary Altier

A Capital Time in Capitola
Published, in various versions, by Coastal Living, Sunset, and San Jose Magazine

" 'When I come outside and hear the sea gulls, I say thank heaven for all of this.' Kay Schwarz, the innkeeper at the Monarch Cove Inn, Capitola-by-the-Sea, gestured toward the brilliant Monterey Bay below. To our left was New Brighton State Beach, the coastal range around Monterey was straight ahead, and, to our right, sailboats bobbed in the Capitola Harbor. Capitola is the oldest beach resort in California. Its name comes from an attempt to locate the state capitol here in 1869. Needless to say, it lost out to Sacramento.

Capitola's eclectic shops stretch out along Capitola Avenue. If you are in the market for swords and armor, give The Outpost a stab, candy, sniff out the Chocolate Bar, Hawaiian shirts, try on the Big Kahuna, and shoes, step into Hot Feet. The oldest shop in the village, The Craft Gallery, has sold jewelry, pottery, and other crafts for 30 years. A sign in their window reads: 'Welcome. You can eat food and drink here, go barefoot, wear swimsuits. If your kids and dog are allowed in your home, they're welcome here.' "

There's a Bully in Every Block by Mary Altier

There's a Bully in Every Block, by Mary Altier
Published: Via

"With a fierce bellow that reverberated against the cliff walls nearby, a powerful male elephant seal announced his arrival onshore. After slithering out of the rough water, he challenged another two-ton, sixteen foot-long male. Rearing up on their hindquarters, throwing back their heads, and closely comparing their large hooked noses, they fought a bloody battle for dominance.

Humans with cameras and binoculars lined the low seaside bluff, watching the action. A colony of Northern Elephant Seals, also known as Mirounga, lay on the narrow beach beneath, basking in the pale late December sun. They moved slightly to avoid being crushed by the aggressive males, then continued napping. The seals initially appeared on the beach at Piedras Blancas in 1990, and the first pup was born two years later. The number of annual births has grown to 2,000, bringing the total population up to approximately 8,000.'

Picturing the Past in Little Petroglyph Canyon, by Mary Altier

Picturing the Past in Little Petroglyph Canyon, by Mary Altier
Published: Sunset and Via

"Visitors stroll by the stylized line drawings of people, animals, and geometric designs. They are not looking at new works in a modern art museum, but the prehistoric petroglyphs of Little Petroglyph Canyon in the high desert of California's Coso Mountain Range. Thousands of well-preserved drawings, probably created by the Shoshone and Paiute peoples up to 15,000 years ago, adorn the canyon's rock walls."

San Jose Tech Museum

Downtown San Jose Tastes the Mango: The Tech Museum of Innovation, by Mary Altier
Published: Washington Flyer

"'It's not bright orange, it's mango,' the doorman at the Fairmont Hotel told me, pointing beyond the fountains of the Plaza de Cesar Chavez in downtown San Jose, 'and you can't miss it!' The doorman was absolutely right. The sizzling Tech Museum of Innovation, the centerpiece of Silicon Valley, has made San Jose the hottest new destination in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mexico City architect Ricardo Legorreta, a man who says he can't live without color, designed the building. A carved wall of deep blue ceramic tile and a metal dome repeating the blue hue, contrast dramatically with the eye-popping mango and the shocking pink accent color.

Within the museum, you can participate in interactive exhibits on three floors. You can take home a self portrait created by a laser head scan, ride a simulated roller coaster, see inside the human body on a six foot stack of TV monitors and experience an earthquake."


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