Rome’s Vatican Museums host rare Aboriginal art exhibition

Aboriginal artNo one can ever accuse the Vatican of acting impulsively. In 1925, over 300 artworks and relics were sent to Rome by Aboriginal Australians, for a papal show. Since that time, the items have been squirreled away, despite being one of the world’s finest collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, according to a recent New York Times article.

Fortunately, these treasures are now on public display, thanks in part to Missionary Ethnological Museum curator Father Nicola Mapelli. Last summer, Mapelli flew to Australia and visited Aboriginal communities to request permission to display the collection. His objective was to “reconnect with a living culture, not to create a museum of dead objects.” His goal is accomplished in the exhibition, “Rituals of Life,” which is focused on northern and Western Australian art from the turn of the 20th century. Despite the fairly contemporary theme of the exhibition, Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving culture on earth, dating back for what is believed to be over 60,000 years.

The items include ochre paintings done on slate, objects and tools used for hunting, fishing, and gathering, a didgeridoo, and carved funeral poles of a type still used by Tiwi Islanders for pukamani ceremonies. The collection also includes items from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Easter Island (Rapa Nui).

The collection was originally sent to Rome because it represents the spiritual meaning everyday objects possess in Aboriginal culture (each clan, or group, believes in different dieties that are usually depicted in a tangible form, such as plants or animals). The items were housed, along with other indigenous artifacts from all over the world, and stored at the Missionary Ethnological Museum, which is part of the Vatican Museums.

“Rituals of Life” is the first exhibition following extensive building renovations and art restoration. The museum will continue to reopen in stages, with the Aboriginal art on display through December, 2011.

For an exhibition audio transcript, image gallery, and video feature from ABC Radio National’s “Encounter,” click here. The Australian series “explores the connections between religion and life.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user testpatern]

Cultures of Indonesia: From Sea Gypsies to cannibals and more

Indonesia is a sprawling island nation with a rich cultural heritage. From the temples in Bali to the unique street food, it’s easy to immerse yourself in all the aspects of Indonesia. If you’ve ever wanted to know about the culture, scene and surroundings of one of the world’s most intriguing destinations, read on…

Sea Gypsies
From the Burma Banks in Myanmar to Eastern Indonesia, the Sea Gypsies stretch across an extremely vast and diverse region. These seafarers survive completely from the ocean’s bounty, hunting for fish and mollusks with only their hands and spears. They live in boats or in houses on stilts. A Swedish researcher tested the eyesight of sea gypsy children and compared the results with youngsters from Europe visiting the same geographical area. The results showed that the Europeans saw half as well underwater. Sea Gypsy children possess several eye functions that Western children simply do not, like an ability to constrict their pupils to 1.5mm in diameter. This helps them to see the tiny pearls that they later use to barter. During the fierce tsunami of 2004, their unique understanding of the ocean tipped them off to the approaching danger. They fled for higher ground several days before the waves struck, and as result, waited out the carnage safely in the hills.

The most accessible place to view Sea Gyspies is Phang Nga Bay near Phuket, Thailand. The most culturally preserved place to view the seafarers is the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar. A great Indonesian place for gypsies is in north Sulawesi. Their sea huts are common in the coastal areas, and you can ponder how little you have in common while you cruise by in a motorboat. You can fly into Manado on Silk Air from Singapore, and combine a visit to the sea gypsies with Tangkoko Nature Reserve. Full of nature’s oddities like Tarsiers and massive hornbills, Tangkoko is not to be missed. All of this can be arranged in Manado or through your guesthouse. Stay at Pulisan Jungle Beach Resort on the fringe of Tangkoko for a perfect home base to explore the region. You can arrange fishing with the locals for a few dollars.

Batak of Sumatra
Sumatra is a dense, jungled sliver of Western Indonesia home to orangutans, tigers, great waves, and the Batak tribe. While their proximity to tourist-heavy Lake Toba has left them open to the influence of modernity, many of their customs and rituals remain intact. In the age of discovery, many explorers visited Sumatra and observed a strange phenomenon among the Batak people — cannibalism. They seemed to have a serious taste for human flesh. Due to the influence of Islam and Christianity, this part of their culture died out around the turn of the 20th century. Rest assured, if you go to view their unique customs and sublime tropical architecture, you will not end up in some kind of elaborate jungle stew.

Flying into Medan and taking a bus to Lake Toba is the ideal plan for checking out the Batak tribes. Medan can be reached by Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world, is home to several Batak villages. You can take a boat ride to gorgeous Samosir Island in the middle of the lake to check out the Batak. Arrangements can be made with a local guide or through a prepackaged tour in Medan.

Baliem Valley Tribes of West Papua
Getting to the The Baliem Valley in West Papua involves iffy connections and white-knuckled flights. For those who brave the ride though, cultural treasures await. More languages exist than swimming pools in West Papua, which is a fine ratio for the intrepid. Aside from an occasional Nike-capped native reminding you of consumerism’s astonishing imperial reach, the preservation of Stone Age culture remains intact. Discovered by the West in the 1930s, Baliem hosts several tribes like the Dani. They wear bird of paradise headdresses, gauge success in terms of pigs slaughtered, and are famous headhunters.

To arrange a trip into the Baliem Valley, Jakarta is a great starting point serviced by numerous international cities. From there, book a flight on Indonesia’s safest domestic airline, Garuda, to Jayapura in West Papua. In Jayapura, you need to obtain a permit (easy and cheap) to visit the interior of the island. Since no roads lead into the valley, you must again fly, this time to Wamena. Wamena is the jumping off point for treks into the valley and hiring a guide is a necessity. It is possible to volunteer with local mission groups to reach the villages, but this can be difficult to arrange in advance.

Tana Toraja in central Sulawesi
More accessible than West Papua, Tana Toraja in the misty central highlands of Sulawesi also offers a portal into the past. Aside from rich indigenous customs, architecture — and allegedly the best coffee in the world — the main draw is the epic funeral ceremony. Like the tribal equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, the ceremony includes elaborate dances, buffalo fights, chanting through the streets, and a full buffet of animal slaughter. All of this goes on for one week. Some families take years to raise the funds for the funeral procession, with the body presumably just standing by for his or her big day.

The cheapest way to fly into Sulawesi is on Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur to Makassar (Ujung Padang). From Makassar, arrange a driver or take a bus to Torajaland. The ride through dense rain forest will take about 8 hours. Cost is around $10 for a bus and close to $100 for a private taxi. Best time to visit is in the late summer and early fall, which is funeral season.

Hindus of Bali
Bali has a reputation for being an idyllic beach paradise, but the real draw is its exceedingly rich and pervasive culture. Reminders of the Hindu faith enrich the Balinese experience in such a ubiquitous manner that you feel part of something divine throughout your visit. Little offering trays top nearly every surface — even mopeds. Every village has a village temple and every home has its own small home temple. Unlike many places in the world, where the contemporary use of historic sites serves the tourist function more than their original intention, famous temples in Bali still play a significant role in daily religious life. As a result, you are part of an experience more than an exercise in aesthetic appreciation. It is not uncommon to stumble upon a traditional dance or funeral procession while passing through the open corridors of rich Balinese history.

Bali is the most accessible island in Indonesia, and the cheapest way to get there is on Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. It is possible to get the flight for around $100 roundtrip. Ubud in central Bali provides a great base of operations for cultural endeavors. My favorite places to stay in Ubud are Tegal Sari, Greenfields, and Tepi Sawah. Be sure to book early and get a rice paddy view. For a great show, check out the Kecak dance near Ulu Watu temple. The performance is based on the Ramayana and takes place just as the sun sets beyond the cliffs of south Bali.

Dayak Tribes of Borneo
The Dayak tribes of Borneo live in unique community longhouses in the interior of maybe the wildest island on the planet. They hunt animals by blow dart, practice shamanism, and were once feared headhunters. Their headhunting practice resurfaced briefly in the early 21st century, during an unfortunate ethnic war with the Madurese from northeastern Java. Unlike most bros on Spring Break, the Datak have spiritual meaning behind their tribal tattoos. Many youth commemorate their first hunting kill with a tattoo, and animal tattoos are routinely used to draw power from the represented animal spirit. Today, Christianity or Islam has replaced much of their animist heritage, a theme common in Indonesia.

It is possible to visit The Dayak in both Indonesian (South) and Malaysian (North) Borneo. For the wildest experience, fly to Balikpapan in Indonesia, which is serviced from Jakarta on Garuda. Arrange a river cruise down the Mahakam River with a local guide agency to view Datak river life. You can also plan a multi-day package tour if you really want to go deep into the jungle of Borneo.

Seed contributor Justin Delaney prefers to live out of his backpack, and has taken more than 30 flights in the last 2 months. Check out his adventures at Goboogo.

British woman completes solo row across the Pacific Ocean

British ocean rower Roz Savage arrived in Madang, Papua New Guinea yesterday, completing the third, and final, stage of her solo row across the Pacific Ocean. Her arrival marked an end to an adventure that she has dedicated more than five years of her life to finishing.

Roz first came up with the idea of rowing across the Pacific after she completed a solo row across the Atlantic back in 2005. That journey took 103 days to complete and covered 2935 miles of open water. In 2007 she launched her first attempt on the Pacific but was forced to return to land a few days after getting underway. Undaunted, she returned to the water in 2008, and completed the first stage of her journey, rowing the 2324 miles from San Francisco to Hawaii in just under 100 days. In 2009, stage two took her from Hawaii to Tuvalu in the South Pacific, covering an additional 3158 miles over 104 days.

For her third, and final stage, Roz planned to row from Tuvalu to Australia, but strong ocean currents, persistent winds, and other conditions prevented her from traveling that far south. Instead, she drifted towards Papua New Guinea, where she finally stepped back onto dry land after covering an additional 2248 miles in just 45 days.

By completing this final leg, Roz has now become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific, a voyage that took a total of 249 days to complete and covered 7730 miles in total. A former management consultant for a major bank in the U.K., Roz quit her job back in 2001 to pursue a life of adventure. Since then, she has become a tireless environmental activist who has worked hard to raise awareness of the plight of the world’s oceans and is likely to continue pursuing that cause in the future. To that end, she recently launched a new website called Eco Heroes that has become a social network for the environmentally conscious set to connect.

Travel company rediscovers seabird thought to be extinct

Seattle based travel company Zegrahm Expeditions specializes in eco-sensitive travel, organizing trips to all corners of the globe. The company promises to give clients the “ultimate expedition travel experience”, whether they’re taking part in one of Zegrahm’s trekking adventures or small-ship cruises. Zegrahm’s strives to give their customers a sense of discovery, no matter which trip they go on, but on one recent expedition that sense of discovery took a very real turn when team members sighed a rare seabird that hasn’t been recorded in the wild for more than 83 years.

The expedition, which was led by seabird expert Peter Harrison, took place this past February. The journey entailed a small-ship sailing adventure from Auckland, New Zealand to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Along the way, the ship stopped at several remote, and seldom visited, islands on the Vanuatu archipelago. While there, Harrison, and a number of other members of the group, spotted and photographed, 21 individual Vanuatu Petrels, a seabird that hasn’t been seen in the wild since they were first discovered by ornithologist Rollo Beck back in 1927.

Zegrahm is already planning a return trip to the region in November of this year, and again in 2012. Both expeditions are expected to be very popular with bird watchers hoping to get a glimpse of this rare and unique seabird, that until now has only been seen in museums. Known as the Faces of Melanesia expedition, this cruise is generally noteworthy because it routinely visits remote South Pacific islands that few people ever see. But with this recent discovery, it will probably become well known in the bird watching community as an opportunity to add another species to their list.

Trade Mocked

You were a cheerleader, you dated a cheerleader, or you hated the cheerleaders. As I recall, that’s how high school worked.

Thanks to travel PR, that same primeval paradigm lives on long after graduation. That miniskirts-shouting-slogans thing still works, whether you’re a used car salesman, Miley Cyrus on VH1 or the tourist board of a small Balkan nation. When it comes to selling your destination in today’s busy world of busy people, a country’s name just isn’t enough–just like school spirit, you need colors, a pep band, a mascot, a brand and most important–a cheer.

It’s tragic but true: tourist boards don’t trust their country’s name to inspire appropriate thoughts in your brain. Toponyms are too open-ended and too untrustworthy–also, way too obvious. For example, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say . . . Monte Carlo? How about Australia? The Bahamas? Kuwait? The Gambia?

Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not enough. Tourist boards want you to choose their destination over all others, then allocate all of your vacation days to them and then come spend your money on very specific things–like miniature golf by the sea or hot air balloon rides across the prairie. In short, they want your school spirit so much they’re churning out cheers to fill up all the Swiss cheese holes in your mental map of the world.

Like a good cheer, a good destination slogan is simple and so memorable it sticks in your head like two-sided tape. Sex sells, but then so does love: “Virginia is for Lovers”, Hungary offers visitors “A Love for Life”, Albania promises “A New Mediterranean Love”, while the highlighted “I feel Slovenia” spells out sweetly “I Feel Love”. Meanwhile, Bosnia & Herzegovina call themselves “the Heart Shaped Land” and Denmark’s logo is a red heart with a white cross. Colombia and Dubai have red hearts in their logo. Everybody else uses sunshine.
There is a direct correlation between sunshine deprivation and travelers with disposable income–sunny places sell, which is why Maldives is “the Sunny Side of Life”, Sicily says “Everything else is in the shade”, Ethiopia quizzically boasts “13 Months of Sunshine”, Portugal is “Europe’s West Coast”, and Spain used to be “Everything Under the Sun”. Spain was also the first country ever to have a logo-the splashy red sun painted by Joan Miró in 1983. Some destination logos work–like the black and red “I LOVE NY” design of Milton Glaser that’s been around ever since the 70s. Others fail to grasp the spirit of a place (cough, Italia). Reducing one’s country to a crazy font and some cheesy clip art often detracts from that country’s best assets. Like nature.

When chasing the crunchy yuppie granola suburbanite dollar on vacation, you’ve gotta roll out Nature and promise them the kind of purity that lacks from their daily life. British Virgin Islands claims “Nature’s Little Secrets” while Belize counterclaims with “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”. Switzerland urges us to “Get Natural”, Poland is “The Natural Choice”, Iceland is “Pure, Natural, Unspoiled”, Ecuador is Life in a Pure State, “Pure Michigan” is just as pure, Costa Rica is “No Artificial Ingredients”, and like a clothing tag that makes you feel good, New Zealand is simply “100% Pure”. New Zealand also wants us to believe that they’re the “youngest country on earth” but that’s pushing it. The youngest country on earth is actually Kosovo (Born February 2008)–so young they’re still working on their slogan.

And there’s a tough one–how do you sell a country that’s just poking its head out from under the covers of war and bloodshed? Kosovo’s big bad next-door neighbor Serbia asks us frankly to “Take a New Look at Your Old Neighbor”; “It’s Beautiful–It’s Pakistan” steers clear of the conflict, Colombia owns up to its knack for kidnapping by insisting, “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay”, and Vietnam nudges our memories away from the past and towards “The Hidden Charm” of today.

Our nostalgia for simpler, better, pre-tourist times invokes our most romantic notions about travel: Croatia is “The Mediterranean as it Once Was”, Tahiti consists of “Islands the Way they Used to Be”, and Bangladesh employs a kind of reverse psychology to insist we “Come to Bangladesh, Before the Tourists.” Such slogans of unaffectedness mirror the push for national validation by tourism, where actual authenticity is second to perceived authenticity, hence Malaysia is “Truly Asia”, Zambia is “The Real Africa”, and the Rocky Mountain States make up “The Real America”. Greece is “The True Experience” and Morocco is “Travel For Real”. Everybody wants to be legit.
country logos
Countries without the certified organic label try merely to stupefy us: Israel “Wonders”, Germany is “Simply Inspiring”, Chile is “Always Surprising”, Estonia is “Positively Surprising”, “Amazing Thailand” amazes, and Dominica claims to “Defy the Everyday”. To that same surprising end, Latin America loves trademarking their exclamation points (see ¡Viva Cuba!, Brazil’s one-word essay “Sensational!” and El Salvador’s “Impressive!”)

Where punctuated enthusiasm falls short, countries might confront the traveler with a challenge or a dare. Jamaica projects the burden of proof on its tourists by claiming “Once You Go You Know”, Peru asks that we “Live the Legend”, Canada insists we “Keep Exploring”, South Africa answers your every question with a smiley “It’s Possible”. Meanwhile, Greenland sets an impossibly high bar with “The Greatest Experience”.

Working the totality of a country’s experience into a good slogan is a challenge that often leads to open-ended grandstanding: “It’s Got to be Austria” might be the answer to any question (and sounds better when spoken with an Austrian accent). Next-door Slovakia is the “Little Big Country”, insisting that size is second to experience. Philippines offers “More than the Usual” and small, self-deprecating Andorra confesses, “There’s Just So Much More” (I think what they meant to say is, “come back please”). Really big numbers carries the thought even further: Papua New Guinea is made up of “A Million Different Journeys”; Ireland brightens with “100,000 Welcomes”.

When all else fails, aim for easy alliteration, as in “Enjoy England“, “Incredible India“, “Mystical Myanmar”, and the “Breathtaking Beauty” of Montenegro. (For more on the correlation between simplistic phrases and high mental retention, See Black Eyed Peas-Lyrics).

The point of all this is that today, the internet is our atlas and Google is our guidebook. It’s how we travel, how we think about travel and how we plan our travel. Punch in a country like Tunisia and you’re greeted with a dreamy curly-cue phrase like “Jewel of the Mediterranean”–Type in next-door neighbor Algeria and you get a glaring State Department warning saying “Keep Away.” In a scramble for those top ten search results, destinations compete with a sea of digital ideas that pre-define their tourist appeal. It’s why we’ll never find that page proclaiming Iran “The Land of Civilized and Friendly People” but why a simple “Dubai” turns up Dubai Tourism in first place, along with their moniker “Nowhere Like Dubai” (which should win some kind of truth in advertising prize.)

That aggressive, American-style marketing has taken over the billion-dollar travel industry is obvious. Nobody’s crying over the fact that we sell destinations like breakfast cereal–that countries need a bigger and brighter box with a promised prize inside in order to lull unassuming tourist shoppers into stopping, pulling it off the shelf, reading the back and eventually sticking it in their cart. I guess the sad part is how the whole gregarious exercise limits travel and the very meaning of travel. By boiling down a country into some bland reduction sauce of a slogan, we cancel out the diversity of experience and place, trade wanderlust for jingoism, and turn our hopeful worldview into a kind of commercial ADHD in which we suddenly crave the Jersey Shore like a kid craves a Happy Meal.

Nobody’s ever asked me to join their tourist board focus group, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own opinions and tastes. For instance, my daily reality is a stereo cityscape of car alarms and jackhammers. Any country that simply placed the word “Quiet” or “Peaceful” in lower-case Times New Roman, 24-point font white type in the upper right hand corner of a double-truncated landscape spread–well, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Better yet–how about a one-minute TV commercial of total silence. (“Oh, wow honey, look!–that’s where I wanna go.”)

This is probably why I’ve never been in a focus group. For all the focus on authenticity and reality, I find most tourism slogans lacking in both. For the most part, they are limiting and unoriginal, easily dropped into any of the above categories. Even worse, today’s slogans challenge actual truths gained through travel experience. One day spent in any place offers a lifetime of material for long-lasting personal travel slogans. My own favorites include Russia (“Still Cold”), Turkey (“Not Really Europe At All”), England (“Drizzles Often”), Orlando (“Cheesy as Hell”), and Ireland (“Freakin’ Expensive”).

As a writer, I must argue against the cheerleaders and in favor of words–the more words we attach to a destination the better the sell. I think it’s safe to assume that Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia has done more for Argentina tourism than any of their own slogans. Similarly, Jack London gives props to Alaska, Mark Twain mystifies us with the Mississippi, and Rudyard Kipling keeps sending people to India. All four authors wrote about love, nature, and sunshine. They wrote long books filled with enthusiasm and punctuated with exclamation marks. They made us fall in love and yearn for places we never saw or knew.

No matter how many millions get spent on tourist slogans, today’s trademarked PR phraseology has generally failed to hit the mark. Perhaps they’ll make us rethink a place–reconsider a country we’d somehow looked over, but can a two or three word slogan ever touch us in that tender way, make us save up all our money, pack our bags and run away?

I don’t think so.