Monday, September 9, 2013

Burkina Faso, Tiebele Village, a history book in clay.

Treasures of the Hand

I've been traveling to West Africa for about 13 years and am drawn to villages that are virtually untouched by Westernization, where the inhabitants follow ancient traditions and make crafts by hand. In 2002 I was on research in Burkina Faso, and my guide happened to mention a village that is so beautifully painted and stylized as to be a work of art. In the area where it is located in southern Burkina Faso, the villages are usually plain, without decoration. However, when I first saw Tiebele, I was overwhelmed with its visual beauty; later I learned the deep cultural and historical meaning of the symbology. 

Tiebele is a 400-year-old village inhabited by the Kassena people, a subgroup of the ethnic group Gurunsi. Formerly fierce warriors, the Kassena today are primarily agriculturists who grow millet, sorghum, and yams. The Kassena’s adobe dwellings are painted in geometric designs, or engraved in low clay relief with symbols like sparrows, insects, fish scales, calabashes, the sun, and the moon; the images reflect the complex symbology and history of the clan.

The village is a three-hour drive from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. At Pô, the provincial capital, a crude signboard points the way to Tiebele, a 20-mile deviation on an unsurfaced road. All visitors must follow strict rules when visiting Tiebele. The customs are so pervasive and rigidly followed that unless you are properly briefed and guided by an expert, you run the risk of offending the Kassena and the sacred ground they walk on. Before I entered the village, the chief or his son, the prince, had to approve my visit. Then a member of the village served as my guide, cautioning me to avoid stepping on the mound of sacred stones located just at the entrance to the village. Each stone is reserved for a notable: the chief, members of his family, and other important members of the community. Women who have given birth bury their baby’s umbilical cord in this sacred mound, which is also a place of sacrifice judging from the clay pots stained with the blood of animals.

As I walked around this village, I realized that it was constructed for defensive purposes. The labyrinth of narrow paths prevented intruders from attacking in a straight line: to penetrate the courtyards of the compounds, the enemies had to walk up three or four steps, then down into an enclosed courtyard where they could be ambushed. The entrance to a house is small and low to the ground, which requires one to crouch down on all fours to get into the house; once I passed through the entrance, I encountered a two-foot wall of mud that I stooped and stepped over (centuries ago, intruders would have been beheaded there) to finally get inside the dark house. The ceiling was high enough for me to stand up, although anyone taller than five foot six would have to stoop. After a few minutes, my eyes adjusted to the dim light, and I noticed several circular openings for air on the sides of the walls, and shelves, where clay pots were stacked high; next to them calabashes hung in macramé stockings, like ornaments from the ceiling.

My host explained that the clay pots and the calabashes must not be broken (as that would bring bad luck), so they are away from her children’s reach. When she dies, the pots and calabashes will be broken and buried with her. She led me through another small opening in a wall into the kitchen. I saw mats, where she slept with her children; when she dies, these will be used to wrap her dead body before she is buried, and afterward the mats will be burned. Inside the house, she proudly pointed out her female granary that contains her prized processions: clay pots. She can’t peer inside a male granary, which is usually filled with grain like sorghum and located outside in the courtyard. She motioned for me to follow her outside and then up steep steps to the roof, from which I could see the entire Tiebele village.

From this height, I could see the figure-eight designs of the closely packed houses and neighbors’ roofs spread with woven mats for sleeping and large covered calabashes (gourds) sturdy enough to hold millet and corn. The flat roofs must have been used for defensive purposes, as occupants could throw rocks or shoot invaders with bows and arrows. As I gazed down at the geometric patterns in red, white, and black, next to figures of birds, snakes, fish, crocodiles, and herringbone designs painted on the walls of the houses and compounds, I wondered what stories they told or magical powers they held. Children were sitting in one courtyard listening to an elderly woman who was teaching the meaning of each symbol.

My host explained that the village has a cast of women painters who record the clan’s history using painted symbols and carvings in low-relief clay. The colors were made from natural sources: volcanic stones that yielded the color black; a calcareous powder, probably from limestone, that yielded white; and cattle dung and powders from certain rocks that produced red. The colors were set using the bark of the flamboyant tree as a mordant. Because the women belong to this occupational caste, they do not engage in any other work in the village. House painting is always preceded by a sacrifice. Then the villagers watch the wall for three days. During this time, a lizard must come up the wall; if not, the wall will be dismantled and rebuilt.

I learned that the symbology is a language that describes the clan’s history. Being animists, the clan believes that animals, plants, and even inanimate objects and natural phenomena possess a soul. Creation is represented by an ancestral couple who started the clan. It is believed that the Gurunsi were originally from northern Ghana but migrated to southern Burkina Faso about four centuries ago, possibly to escape the slave traders. Fish scales refer to the clan’s migration from the border of northern Ghana to this location, a two-day walk from the Volta River. Here in their new environment, they survived on fish from the Volta River and as a result became expert fishermen. Today, they honor this sacred symbol in the form of a fishnet in their house designs.

Images of bats are good signs; bats eat mosquitoes, so when they inhabit the house, it's considered good luck. Sparrow wings refer to the belief that sparrows can eat human flesh, so these birds are evil and are kept away from the village. The calabash is one of the most important objects; it was the first container of the gods, so it must never be broken. (That’s why calabashes are strung and hung in macramé ropes, away from children and from cats.) Images of calabashes are everywhere on the walls. Scarification marks similar to those seen on the arms and faces of the people are also seen in the designs on the houses: the moon, the three cross-stitches representing the chicken for sacrifice, and the snake are considered sacred. They are therapeutic and keep away certain diseases. The snake is the supreme protective deity, a reincarnation of the grandmother, who after her death becomes the snake and must remain in the house. Ants represent the social unity of the village and the work done by the women. Lizard symbols are powerful, as they protect the home from evil spirits. Images of panthers and turtles refer to a belief that they are protectors of the clan and are never killed. Finally, my host told me that the symbols of the cane and the pipe are the ones visitors identify with. When a young person leaves the village to explore the world, he returns with a cane and a pipe to offer to the ancestors, confirming his safe passage back to his ancestral home.

Visitors to Burkina Faso will not want to miss this visually stunning and culturally rich experience at Tiebele.

 [MM1]Moved this sentence from end of paragraph.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Weavers' world - Khoma, Bhutan

Kathleen’s Blog—Western to Eastern Bhutan April 2012
The Weaver’s World

April 30 This morning we left Mongar and headed north by road toward Lhuntse, the birthplace of Bhutan’s royal family and home to some of the finest weavers in the kingdom. Along the way, our bus inched slowly around Indian road crews repairing the damage of a landslide. At 11 AM we left the coach at a suspension bridge and began a leisurely walk on a dirt road that followed the Kuri Chu, passing a cremation taking place alongside a new chorten festooned with prayer flags. We were heading to Khoma, a village famous for its weaving. Arriving at the village, marked by a water prayer wheel (chukor), we hiked up a steep path and immediately heard the rhythmic thumping sounds of weavers using wooden swords to pound weft threads into traditional backstrap looms.

Khoma has a long history of textile art; every woman and young girl is involved in weaving the supplementary weft-patterned kiras (traditional women’s dresses) like kushuthara, the most prized textile in Bhutan. Using her fingers or a pick, the weaver introduces an additional thread alongside a warp or a weft to make a design that seems to float on the surface of the fabric. To the untrained eye, the additional thread appears to be embroidered, but it is actually woven into the textile.

A kira is woven of three panels, sewn together to form a large rectangular textile that is wrapped about the body and fastened at the shoulders with a brooch (kera) and cinched at the waist with a narrow handwoven belt, called a kera.  Because of the complexity of weave, pattern, and color combinations, a fine textile can take up to a year to make.

Renowned master weaver Norbu Lhaden welcomed us into her traditional two-story wooden-frame house, which peaks in an open-flying roof under which food is stored. Leaving our shoes outside (a Bhutanese custom also practiced in many countries of Asia), we climbed a near-vertical ladder fashioned from a tree trunk up to her dark reception room, where weavers were gathering from the village to show the gorgeous silk and cotton kiras that they had completed this season. Norbu offered us a cup of butter tea while she talked about the weavers. “Our business is getting better, but we must depend on the traders who come from Thimphu to collect our textiles for sale in the capital. We sell our kiras for less money this way, as in Thimphu and Bumthang the shopkeepers sell them for much more than they pay us. We don’t make as much money this way, but we are doing well with our special orders.” (I’ve heard shopkeepers in Bumthang warn tourists not to buy textiles from the weavers in the east, saying their shop prices were better. Actually, I find prices in Khoma are well below what they are in Bumthang and Thimphu.)

In western Bhutan especially, fashion trends change from year to year, with the wealthier Bhutanese women demanding the newest color combinations or weaving designs, which keep the Khoma weavers busy during the winter when the demands of harvest are over. A weaver using the finest silk threads can ask up to $1500 for a textile that takes up to a year to make. If they work through an agent or middle man, they get paid when the textile is sold and then only a small fraction of what they would make if they sold the textile in the village or direct. Often, they must send family members to the capital to collect money owed to them if an agent is not honest.

As eastern Bhutan receives more tourists and the infrastructure improves, the weavers in villages like Khoma will undoubtedly derive more income from their exquisite textiles. However, one weaver lamented, “Sadly, we now make pieces for the tourist market. Instead of a three-paneled kira, we make one panel so they can use them as table runners, or use them as narrow wall hangings.” Fortunately, three members of our group purchased the most expensive textiles on display that day: three-paneled silk-on-silk kiras that had up to 24 different designs woven into the weft and warp. The weavers beamed when they knew that their extraordinary pieces were appreciated and that they would receive just compensation for their artisanship.

The Fourth Queen has launched annual competitions for the most innovative designs and complex weaves as a way to preserve Bhutan’s eastern textile art. But, as our group witnessed, weavers are guarded about their new designs and patterns. One of the senior weavers grabbed Norbu Lhaden’s latest kira, woven with innovative designs and complex colors, to study her work. A tug of war and lots of laughs ensued as Norbu tried to wrestle the piece back, joking, “She’s always trying to copy my designs!”
 Loaded with textiles, we made our way back to the main road, but looking up at the ridge we saw Aum Norbu and the weavers waving a huge yellow flag of thanks and appreciation to us for visiting Khoma village.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Cuba... and all that jazz!

Blog from Cuba – Far Fung Places May 2012
Dennis Keser, Co-principal of Far Fung Places

Sunday May 6 (Trinidad)
I had heard Trinidad was a “quiet, laid-back town” (it once thrived on the sugar trade but then declined), but as I discovered, it rocks!  At night in open squares street musicians play Cuban salsa while seniors dance freely in the cobblestone streets.

Our first night after dinner I took most of the group up to the town square to find some music. Just by chance on the steps of one of the churches, we found a salsa band that Bob Montgomery, a member of our group and a renowned American jazz performing artist, said was one of best he had ever heard. Three vocalists with powerful voices were backed by 10 talented musicians playing intoxicating music on drums, basses, guitars, trumpets, saxophones, trombones, all keeping beat to the maracas. Scores of shoulder-moving locals applauded when they heard Bob introduce himself and then begin to play. Seeing this 70-plus-year-old man with these young artists was marvelous––he soloed and jammed with the group until 11:30 p.m. Everyone including Bob was on cloud nine. We got back to the hotel at midnight, so energized by the music we could hardly sleep!

Monday  May 7 (Trinidad)
Tonight we had a wonderful dinner at Paladar Sol Ananada, an 18th-century fully restored one-story architect's house just off the main square. Paladars are local homes converted into restaurants that are sanctioned by the Cuban government.  Our group of 15 was seated comfortably in the main dining room at the owner’s family hardwood table. The dark colonial furniture, some made in Cuba and other pieces imported from Spain, added to the atmosphere. The owner had hired a local fisherman to bring in the catch of the day, a huge local fish that the family chef deboned in front of us. The owner also offered fresh lobsters for a few extra dollars per person. A group of strolling musicians entertained us during our meal. What a way to wrap up the day!

Tuesday May 8 (Trinidad to Havana) Today our coach driver got lost in the maze of narrow cobblestone streets of Spiritus and then got wedged in a corner trying to make a turn onto the main square. This is not surprising. These streets were built for horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and pedestrians, not 32-passenger buses! The vernacular architecture is charming: two- and three-story colonial buildings with wrought-iron grilles and verandas with potted geraniums. Freed from our tight spot, we continued to Santa Clara, where we stopped at the government-approved restaurant Los Caneyes for lunch; it was overflowing with tourists.  Afterward, we visited the mausoleum of Che Guevara, who is practically apotheosized in Cuba—T-shirts, books, films, and paintings of Che are found everywhere.  Before returning to Havana, we dropped into a non-touristy cigar factory, where hundreds of workers sitting in rows of wooden tables separate, roll, band, and finish thousands of cigars while listening to a “reader,” someone designated to read aloud newspapers or a novel to relieve the monotony of the work.

Our group stayed at the upgraded Hotel Saratoga, far superior to the Telegrafo where we had been originally confirmed. What attentive service at the bar, with quality wines for only 5.00 CUC a glass and the best rum I have found in Cuba yet, 12-year-old Santiago for 5.50 CUC. At today’s conversion rate, that is about $5.25 a glass.

Friday May 11 Today I asked the group if they wanted to see the Tropicana show or go to a real jazz club. Many hands shot up for a real jazz club—we had all attended the touristy Buena Vista Social Club, and now everyone wanted something less commercial. 

Before the show, we had dinner at a wonderful local paladar within walking distance of the Saratoga. Some in the group wanted to try healthy Creole food, like braised chicken in capers and raisins and other slow-cooked dishes in spices such as oregano and citrus. Others ordered and shared cooked-to-perfection lobster tails for only 20 CUC ($20). Sated, we all hopped into cabs for the oldest and best jazz club in Havana: La Zorra y el Cuervo (The Fox and the Crow).

We got there at 10:00 p.m. and had an hour to wait for the show, but the time went by quickly watching jazz videos from previous shows on a big flat screen.  You feel like you’re in one of those old San Francisco or New York clubs of decades ago—if you’re my age, you remember the underground and in-your- face jazz clubs of the ‘60s. The club was small, and smoking was allowed, but with the efficient ventilation, we couldn’t smell any smoke at all. The cover charge was 10 CUC and included one drink.  Compared to the Buena Vista Club at 65 CUC, this was a deal.

The band was amazing––Mary Rodriquez has a drop-dead-killer voice, a combination of Ella Fitzgerald and Janice Joplin. The stage was crowded with a piano player, six string bass players, a snare and conga drummer, trumpeters, and one of best saxophone players I've heard in years. They were young, brilliant, and amazing.

When I told the owner of the club, Arturo, that Bob Montgomery was with us, Arturo said he would be thrilled to invite him onstage. When the show started, we were all riveted to our seats. At the end of the third number, Mary Rodriquez announced that Bob Montgomery was in the audience, and she invited him to join her onstage.  They played “Summertime” and brought the house down––it was truly the best night of the trip. A once-in-a-lifetime musical and cultural experience!

Saturday May 12 We wrapped up our nine-day trip with a visit to Eduardo Choco Roca, Cuba’s most-renowned collagrapher.  We observed the techniques that he uses to make his textured lithographs, like applying the acrylic paints to a pressed board, then adding sand to create the texture. The painting is then put into a press, rolled out, and dried. He visits junkyards for scrap metal and goes to the beach to collect sand. This collagraphic style for which he is known is based on his struggles to become an artist.  

From foot-tapping music in the streets to underground jazz clubs to the creative home-cooked meals in the family-run paladars, Cuba rocks! 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cuba - I'll be back again and again

June 2011 Vinales, Cuba

Dear Travelers,

I’m sitting in the kitchen of Heraldo and Senora Clara’s turn-of-the-century farmhouse in Viñales, Cuba, with a view of limestone karst formations that rise dramatically above some of the oldest tobacco farms on the island. A good friend of my guide Milan, Clara graciously invited us for a cup of home-brewed café Cubana. I hear her crushing the beans on a wall-mount grinder while Flavio, her husband, arrives from the orchards with just-picked juicy mangoes, pineapple, pink guava, and finger bananas complete with buzzing bees.

With an invitation to travel to Cuba under a humanitarian mission in June 2011, I arrived with some preconceived notions of secret police following me and a feeling that as an American, I wouldn’t be welcomed. After being questioned by Cuban officials at the airport (why wasn’t I traveling with a group?) and having my passport confiscated, then mysteriously returned by an immigration officer, I was beginning to think my misgivings were founded. But, after a week of total immersion in the Cuban culture, I realized that Cubans are truly unsuspicious, extremely friendly and hospitable people eager to have Americans visit their country.

At night in open squares street musicians played Cuban rumba music while children and white-haired seniors danced freely in the cobblestone streets. From tiny cafes, hotel lobbies, restaurants, local homes (paladars) – even at petro stations – foot-tapping, shoulder-moving, Creolized Cuban music was intoxicating.

In June the temperatures are volcanic. But you get your mojo back with some strong mojitas (rum), especially refreshing in the 100-degree heat. Castro nationalized the tobacco and sugarcane business when he came to power in the late ’50s and early ’60s, which resulted in disaster for the economy, but Cuba still cranks out world-class rum and cigars.

The scope of Cuban art is astounding, from Eduardo “Choco” Roca’s embossed lithographs to José Fuster’s oil paintings (he’s called Picasso of the Caribbean) to poster, cloth, metal, and recycled art to realist oil paintings by aspiring artists in Havana, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos. Prices range from $30 for a Fuster ceramic to $300 and up for a textured lithograph by Choco. You could spend days just wandering from one artist workshop to another, even outside Havana. I met renowned watercolorist Jorge DuPorte, who specializes in Cuban flora in Las Terrazas just a few hours’ drive from Havana. Artisan markets brim with beaded jewelry – look for the Afro-Cuban orisha bracelets, embroidered tablecloths, smocked dresses, car-art (miniature Chevies), and handmade guayaberas cotton shirts.

I had to smile when I saw the Bay of Pigs, now a resort for coral divers, billboards espousing political beliefs with larger-than-life images of a hardy-looking Castro, and the ’50s and ’60s Chevies and Caddies plying the narrow cobblestone streets of old Havana, mongrelized with diesel engines. Horse-drawn carriages transport visitors to turn-of-the-century cigar factories where hundreds of workers sitting at rows of wooden tables separate, roll, band, and finish thousands of expensive cigars while listening to a reader, who reads novels or newspapers over a loudspeaker to relieve the workers’ monotonous but highly focused work. I stood next to a bronze image of Hemingway in one of his favorite bars and shook my head in disbelief when my guide said he once drank 14 daiquiris in one night. He didn’t need to commit suicide; his liver was already pickled by the time he was on wife number 4!

Watch for our 2012 and 2013 people-to-people trips to Cuba, each arranged through our U.S. Cuban agent, the only legal way for Americans to travel to this amazing island set back in time.

Yours in Travel,

Kathleen Zurich Fung

Founder, Far Fung Places LLC

Friday, August 13, 2010

Eastern Bhutan -looking back

July 2010

Kanpara in Eastern Bhutan.

I’m sitting on the porch of a forest ranger’s house watching the monsoon and remembering the first day I arrived in Bhutan nearly two decades ago. It was early September and the last of the rains threatened to close Paro airport. Then, much of the country was undeveloped with only a two lane road that stretched across the country, wide enough for a handful of cars and long-distance buses to share space with migrating yaks and skittish pack pony caravans, herding dogs in tow. In the early 90s adventurous travelers journeyed to Bhutan staying in simple government lodges in Paro and Thimphu, the capital. Only with official permit, could you make a day trip over the high Dochula pass to Punakha, where the theocracy resided during winter. Bhutan’s airline, Druk Air, had limited service into Paro, so travelers made the eight-hour twisting and turning drive up from the Indian west Bengali plains to Thimphu, awed by the sight of the Himalayas rising abruptly from the Gangetic plains and dramatic terrain changes from tropical vegetation to the glistening, snow-capped mountain peaks. With limited air and road access, Bhutan received less than 2000 visitors a year in those days.

A lot has happened in 20 years. Television, Internet, cell phones, Indian Marutis, and Toyota land cruisers have all arrived. With a government target of 100,000 visitors by 2013, new hotels blending modern amenities with Bhutanese architecture are being built in every part of the kingdom. From western to eastern Bhutan, road crews have removed parts of mountains, shifted hamlets, and bull dozed rice plantations to expand Bhutan’s network of roads linking hamlets that were once accessed only by arduous hikes on near-vertical trails. Druk Air has daily flights into the kingdom, and is inaugurating its first domestic flights to central and eastern Bhutan this fall. Bhutan saw its youngest King crowned in 2008, coinciding with its transition from a monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy. People say Bhutan will never be the same. Externally, perhaps, but inside their hearts, the Bhutanese are still the gentle people of the Himalayas.

My journey to eastern Bhutan is coming to an end. This year’s research yielded more data for my on-going craft project that has taken me to some of the most remote parts of eastern Bhutan. Although this region is one of the poorest in the country, its people are generous, kind, and compassionate. Just a few days ago while coming back from a 12 mile trek through the mountains, I nearly collapsed on the trail because of the heat and lack of water. I had failed to pack an extra litre of water in my day pack. An elderly woman leading a pack pony caravan stopped and offered me a cucumber. This woman, who was now without a water source herself, had earned ‘white pebbles’ for the next life. Buddhists believe when you help someone who is in dire need, you earn 'white pebbles'. When you die, you come up before the judgment maker, who either condemns you to the burning hells of the after life, or pushes you on to a good rebirth if you have amassed more good deeds, or ‘white pebbles’, than bad.

Tashi Delek!

K. Zurich Fung

Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Other Worlds - eastern Bhutan -

On Saturday I am leaving for eastern Bhutan. Getting there will involve a long flight to Bangkok, an overnight at the Nov Suvarnabhumi Hotel, then a flight to Calcutta with an 8 hour layover - I''ll have time for a quick inspection trip of a new hotel property in town - then it's back to the airport for a short flight to Guwahati, Assam. The next morning at dawn on Tuesday, I'll make my way north to Samdrup Jongkhar, the Bhutanese border town with Assam. After visa formalities, I'll join Karchung my long-standing friend and research assistant for a short drive to Pema Gatshel in the southeast. Bhutan is not easy to get to but it's certainly easier traveling from Assam into Bhutan, than flying from Bangkok to Paro, then driving three days to get to the far east!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Other Worlds - West Africa

Personal Adventures to Other Worlds:

This week: West Africa

It’s that time of year again when I start to plan for upcoming trips. At the top of my list is an ethno-cultural journey to West Africa in January 2012. I go beyond the capital cities to remote societies - some very secret -for a true sense of the African people.

Ghana is one of the best-kept secrets in West Africa. It’s English speaking and culturally diverse from the Cape Coast replete with forts and castles to Kakum National Park where a seven bridge rope walkway suspended 150 feet about the ground let’s us experience the rainforest canopy. Not to be missed is the Adae Kese Festival, the annual blessing of the royal stools, where thousands of Ashantis, the most powerful clan in Ghana, gather to honor their King. “Talking” drums announce each tribal chief and his clan in a royal spectacle fitting of a Bertolucci movie. I attended this electrifying festival in 2009. The music got under my skin, everybody was swaying to the beat of drums including all the Ashanti chiefs decked out in kilos of gold jewelery. You might be thinking, travel hype, but it’s true!

I am amazed at the artisans who create wooden coffins in fanciful shapes like coke bottles or boats, mix natural dyes for funeral Adrinke cloth, weave exquisite kente cloth on vertical looms, and engage in lost wax metalwork. West Africans have magic in their hands. You can see the creative genius of the Dagomba people in northern Ghana whose figure eight houses are painted in ancient symbols depicting their clan’s ancient history.

One of my favorite experiences is to walk through a crowded market and identify the market queen. She may control certain commodities; she has a long history in the market and is revered. She often ‘holds court’ when there is a dispute between vendors.

Forget about planes within West Africa. They are unreliable. I prefer to journey overland to French-speaking Burkina Faso where ancient societies, half a day’s journey from Ouagadougou (Wag’ a do’-goo) communicate to ancestral spirits through mysterious trance dances. The Bwabas, stunning in their raffia costumes and three-foot ancestral plank masks, stomp, jump, and whirl to the frenzied beat of drums. Trust me, you can’t see these places by flying from big city to big city.

Mali is a magnet - it draws me back again and again. It’s so ancient and there’s a rhythm of life untouched for centuries. I love to explore Djenne observing the largest mud mosque in the world and the granddaddy of all West African markets at Djenne.

The commercial energy is felt everywhere. Herbalists display botanicals for malaria, peptic ulcers, headaches, arthritis and cola nuts for energy. Vendors advertise bright crayola colored fabrics, hung on horizontal wooden poles, tiered from the ground up to 10 feet. Busy fish vendors haggle over prices of dried catfish mounded high in plaited baskets. The meat section draws long queues of women for slaughtered steer, goat, lamb, and chicken; for men, there's the tool section, the rope section, the drum section, the shoe section, and the soap and cream quarter, where women gather in clutches to buy shea butter made from the fruit of the flamboyant tree. The din of conversation-both commercial and intimate-is an intoxicating rhapsody.

My clients ask me about the difficulty of traveling to the Dogon country. No, you don’t have to camp or trek - although you can! There is an adequate lodge at Sangha (called an encampment) with simple rooms and attached baths with hot water at certain hours of the day. Believe me, it’s worth roughing it for two days. Since the 1930s anthropologists have been lured to the Dogon culture to study their unusual mud and thatch architecture, masked stilt dances, and complex belief systems.

Lastly, I fly to the 'ends of the earth', Timbuktu. I amble through that fabled town, formerly the heart of the Sahara salt, gold, and slave trade, visiting houses of the former explorer’s like Rene Caille. With permission of the Imam of Timbuktu, I always drop in at the new museum, where rare 16th century Islamic manuscripts, tell of a city of intellectuals in which every family owned its own library.

On the front end of this trip, I'm looping in Togo and Benin, regions steeped in voodoo. Witness ceremonies that will transport you to another time as fetishers (voodoo high priests) perform sacrifices, chant prayers, and utter praises to the ancestral spirits. The village communities join in frenzied dances falling into deep trances that sometimes lead to catatonic states with muscle spasms.

Yours in Travel,

Kathleen Fung

Far Fung Places