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23 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Up in the air—literally

Poor John and I are sitting in Charles de Gaulle airport, about to start 20 hours of being airborne and 16 hours of roaming airports (hoping for a quick escape into Singapore). Bad connections. Argh. What are the worst flight connections you’ve ever had?

I find airport internet often doesn’t work, so don’t expect me to be around until sometime Sunday. Have a great weekend. Stay grounded. 🙂

21 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Remember her eyes—the girl in that photo?

The ‘Afghan Girl’ Sharbat Gula

Sharbat Gula (Bibi) as she stared at us from National Geographic in 1985

Sharbat Gula in 2002

Sharbat Gula rediscovered in 2002

She stared out at us from the cover of the June 1985 edition of National Geographic magazine. She had the most arresting gaze and the most incredible green eyes. She gave a face to the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan.

The image of her face, with a red scarf draped loosely over her head and her eyes staring directly into the camera has been named ‘the most recognized photograph’ in the history of the magazine, and the cover itself is one of the most famous in National Geographic’s collection.

Women choosing shoes in Kabul Afghanistan, 1992

Women choosing shoes in Kabul Afghanistan, 1992

Refugee camp, Pakistan, 1990s

Refugee camp, Pakistan, 1990s

Today the ‘Afghan Girl’, Sharbat Gula, is a widow, mother of three girls and about 45 years old. After remaining a nameless mystery for almost two decades, she was rediscovered by Steve McCurry, the man who photographed her bewitching image all those years ago.

McCurry had unsuccessfully searched for her in the 1990s. He returned to the area in 2002, and with perseverance found she had returned to her mountain village of the Tora Bora in Afghanistan. With her then husband’s permission, she met with and was re-photographed by McCurry.

And that brings me to the main subjects of this post—McCurry and his vast collection of work.

Man and children on donkey, Maimana, Afghanistan, 2003

Typical transport in Maimana, Afghanistan, 2003

Balancing rock, Kyaikto, Myanmar, 1994

Monks with the balancing rock, Kyaikto, Myanmar, 1994

Fishermen, Weligama, Sri Lanka, 1995

Fishermen perched on poles in Weligama, Sri Lanka, 1995

Two weeks ago, when we were in Belgium, we passed by the Brussels Stock Exchange and saw that it was exhibiting more than 200 of McCurry’s images.

The ‘Afghan Girl’ has always been one of my favourite images and I found the prospect of the exhibition irresistible. So we joined the lengthy queue to visit The World of Steve McCurry, the most complete retrospective dedicated to this accomplished American photographer.

The large-format photos took us on a magical and, often, heartbreaking journey from Afghanistan to India, the Middle East to Africa, Cuba to the USA, Brazil to Italy, and much, much more.

Every visitor got an audio pack that had McCurry explaining 50 of the images. Of course, the spiels went by so quickly I can hardly remember any of them, but a consistent theme was people.

Gulf War, Kuwait, 1991

A man sifts through the office debris after a bomb in the Gulf War

Al Ahmadi Oil Fields, Gulf War, Kuwait, 1991

The Al Ahmadi Oil Fields burn in the Gulf War, Kuwait, 1991

Tsunami aftermath, Kesennuma, Japan, 2011

A man dwarfed by tsunami destruction, Kesennuma, Japan, 2011

McCurry’s work often focused on the human consequences of war. He covered the Iran–Iraq War, the Gulf War, the civil wars in Lebanon, Cambodia and Afghanistan, and more. (By the way, Poor John and I lived in Lebanon during its civil war.)

McCurry once said, ‘Most of my images are grounded in people. I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face. I try to convey what it is like to be that person, a person caught in a broader landscape, that you could call the human condition.’

Monks, Hunan Province, China, 2004

Athletic monk bouncing off the wall in Hunan Province, China, 2004

Elephant and mahout, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010

A mahout teaches his elephant to read (or so it seems), Chiang Mai. Thailand, 2010

Robert De Niro, New York, USA, 2010

Robert De Niro captured on Kodachrome transparency film, New York, USA, 2010

I do, however, remember one of his spiels fairly well. Kodak was discontinuing its famous Kodachrome transparency film and gave McCurry one of the last rolls to use in a series of portraits.  That roll was processed in July 2010 by Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, and the image in the exhibit is of Robert de Niro.

Lavazza, ¡Tierra!: the project, Ethiopia, 2014

An Ethiopian coffee farmer from the Lavazza, ¡Tierra!: the project, Ethiopia, 2014

Lavazza, ¡Tierra!: the project, Brazil, 2010

Brazilian coffee farmers from the Lavazza, ¡Tierra!: the project, Ethiopia, 2010

Another 150 photos covered some of McCurry’s other work, including his images for ¡Tierra!: the project.

¡Tierra! coffee is from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms. The coffee’s name comes from Lavazza’s social responsibility project. It was created in 2002 to improve the social and environmental conditions and the production techniques of small communities of coffee growers.

Earthquake damage, Mingun Pagoda, Mandalay, Myanmar, 1994

Earthquake damage at the Mingun Pagoda, near Mandalay, Myanmar, 1994. This pagoda is unfinished and is considered the largest pile of bricks in the world

McCurry’s exhibition goes through Sunday and I can’t find any references to a future showing. If you hear about one—GO!

P.S. I took these all photos of Steve McCurry’s photos. No way I could include all 200 here. I’ve tried to show a cross section of places, faces and circumstances. 

Child, Angkor, Cambodia, 2000

Clever way to carry a child in Angkor, Cambodia, 2000

Child, Timbuktu, Mail, 1987

A young boy in Timbuktu, Mail, 1987

18 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Poor John in tripe heaven


Tripe has multiple meanings. In the world of slang, it is something silly, false, worthless or a load of rubbish. In the world of food, it is part of the stomach of a cow, sheep, goat, pig or ox. In Poor John’s world, it simply means delicious.

And for the last eight days he has revelled in the land of delicious.

We’ve just completed a 200-kilometre bicycling tour in Brittany (also known as Bretagne and Briez), that northwestern part of France where tripe is on virtually every menu.

He’s managed to have tripe—or the more elegant-sounding andouille (kind of rhymes with chop suey)—at least once a day and sometime twice. But never for breakfast.

French andouille isn’t straight tripe. It’s a sort of sausage with pork and spices, so the tripe fades into the background. I’ve shown two variations on the presentation, although he’s also had buckwheat pancakes (galettes) with tripe in them. 

I have to admit that andouille is pretty darn good. Of course, I’ve never ordered it. I just steal a bit off Poor John’s plate. So far he hasn’t stabbed me with his fork.

He says he still prefers the tomato-y tripe stews made in Spain. I suppose there is a slim chance that I will try to make such a stew. Anyone have a decent recipe?

Oh, and don’t go feeling sorry for Poor John on Father’s Day. We’ve travelled 10 hours east and south in France—by taxi, train and bus—to arrive in the land of foie gras. So he’s enjoying this luxury food made from duck and goose livers. That’s my carnivore!

P.S. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. Hope you are able to enjoy some delicacy today. Maybe you can find something on my cooking blog.


14 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Oh, for a palace for the night

Rundāle Palace, Duke's Bedroom

The Duke’s Bedroom would have been just the place for Poor John and me to spend the night

As you may know, Poor John and I have set off on a week-long bike ride through Brittany in northwestern France. We covered 50 kilometres on Saturday, another 73 over Sunday and Monday, and then a meagre 20 today, but over a gravelled track that did my arm no good.

Of course to make things ‘more interesting’, we’re also camping.

Our tent is quite cosy, but it suddenly makes me long for our visit to the Rundāle Palace outside Bauska in Latvia.

This would be a great place to stay after a long bike ride. I read that in addition to being a museum, the palace is also used to accommodate notable guests. I’m guessing we don’t quite meet the criteria.

But we weren’t riding bikes in Latvia, so we arrived at Rundāle by car and took the wrong turn in, which meant we parked as far away as possible from the entrance. Never mind, a good walk gets the day started.

Rundāle Palace, corridor of antlers

Plenty of hunting trophies displayed as you enter

There was a lot of activity in the main courtyard, which meant they were probably preparing for some notable event or guests, but tours were running as usual.

We opted for the long tour, which cost an extra 2 euros and included more rooms (including the Duchess’ suite) and the garden, but not a lift to our distant car.

Tours aren’t guided (although there may be an option with advance notice) but most rooms have explanatory cards in a variety of languages. There can be hot competition for certain languages, so we read most of the cards, but not all.

Rundāle Palace, Latvia

The real front of Rundāle Palace, with a fountain in the foreground

So let’s have a look at the palace
I suppose it makes sense to start at the entrance, which is very grand, but I subsequently realised that what I thought was the back of the castle is actually the front. The give-away information was that the front has fountains. I suppose the other give-away was the rows of antlers to the right of the doors where we entered. Antlers strike me as billiards room decor and not the stuff of grand entrances.

Now I should mention that the placement of pics here does not necessarily sit beside (or above or below) any accompanying text, but everything has a caption, although you may need to roll over the pic to see it.

Rundāle Palace, Throne Room (Gold Hall)

Poor John heads out of the Throne Room. I’m about halfway back up the room

Of the rooms we saw, the Throne Room is the most elaborate in the whole palace. Also known as the Gold Hall, it is used for state gatherings. Gold wreaths and garlands surround the room and depict music, architecture, hunting, geography, cattle breeding, gardening, fishing and more.

The White Hall is the ballroom and it was being prepared for some event when we were there (probably the same reason for the outdoor activity I mentioned earlier. The stucco decorations (see JM Graff in the history) depict the four seasons and the four elements of the world—fire, water, earth and air. The rosette on the ceiling was my favourite. It depicted a sun with a stork’s nest. By the way, I haven’t been able to find measurements on any of the rooms or the palace itself, but let’s agree that it’s ginormous.

There is a porcelain room at one end of the White Hall with 45 vases from China and Japan.

Next we saw the library and the Rose Room. The latter is decorated with garlands of stucco roses by JM Graff (see history) on every wall. The ceiling, painted by Italian artist Francesco Martini and Carlo Zucchi, shows Flora, the goddess of spring and flowers.

The Duke’s Bedroom (at top) came next and if Poor John and I could have stayed there, I can guarantee you we would have made the bed. I’ll show the parquetry from that room. Most of the original flooring was destroyed over the years, and this shows some of the replacement work.

Rundāle Palace, Rose Room Ceiling

Rose Room ceiling depicting Flora, goddess of spring and flowers

Rundāle Palace, Rose Room stucco roses on wall

Rose garlands decorate the walls of the Rose Room. That’s a blue and white fireplace on the right

Are you exhausted yet? I was and I couldn’t even lie down. So we’ll press on.

About now is when the extended part of the tour kicked in. We went through a small dining room and several unnamed rooms (have included only a few pics of those). There were beautifully decorated and furnished, and I think part of the quarters used by the Duchess.

But I knew we were in her quarters when we came to her boudoir, bedroom and bathroom. I couldn’t get a decent pic of the bedroom, but the boudoir and bathroom more than made up for that. The bathroom ceiling alone is stunning. Come to think of it, her bathroom could be the other throne room. The display of her cosmetic set was enormous, and the gowns were typically ornate.

Then it was out through the ground floor to the magnificent gardens that were hard to photograph. The intricate layout really needs an aerial view to appreciate the 10 hectares of manicured cultivation (so I’ve added an aerial pic from Wikipedia, all other pics are mine). The roses hadn’t bloomed yet, but plenty of tulips were out.

And by now Poor John and I were plenty weary and still had to trudge back to the car.

Rundāle Palace, Duchess' bathroom ceiling

Ceiling in Duchess’s bathroom

Rundāle Palace, Duchess' bathroom

Duchess’ bathroom with a glimpse of the ceiling

A bit about the palace’s history
Rundāle is one of two baroque palaces built in Latvia for the Dukes of Courland (the other is Jelgava Palace, which we didn’t visit).

It took eight years to build Rundāle Palace, and it was done over two bursts from 1736 to 1740 and 1764 to 1768. I thought it was interesting that work on Rundāle progressed slowly because the duke of the time, Ernst Johann von Biron, was more interested in the other palace. As a result, he had materials and workmen shifted from Rundāle to Pelgava.

Biron fell out of favour in 1740 (probably over religious disagreements), and the palace remained empty and unfinished for about 24 years. That’s when Biron managed to return from exile (not sure how he managed that).

At that time, Italian architect Francesco Rastrelli supervised the completion of Rundāle, which included lavish decorations by Johann Michael Graff, a German Rococo sculptor and plasterer. Rundāle Palace and Schönhausen Palace in Germany are among his most celebrated works.

In the end, Rundāle became the duke’s favourite palace and he lived there until he died in 1772.

The palace later passed through many hands and fulfilled many roles.

It was a hospital for Napoleon’s army during the French invasion of Russian in 1812, and a German hospital and commandant’s office during World War I. It was severely damaged in 1919 during the Latvian War of Independence.

Rundāle Palace, garden

Looking out to the 10-hectare garden

In 1933, it was taken over by the Ministry of Education and reconstructed as a school. In fact, some of it remained as a school until 1978, although part of it did a stint as a grain store.

In the 1960s, the palace was declared part of the Bauska local history museum and restoration works began in 1972. This work has been ongoing and was only officially completed in 2014. The works cost 8.5 million euros.

Today the palace is on one Latvia’s major tourist destinations. It and it’s gardens are also a museum and a centre for research into Latvia’s history.

A final few comments
Rundāle Palace and Versailles near Paris are the two most elaborate and beautiful palaces I have ever seen. I haven’t written about Versailles yet, but I promise to do so. So much to tell about and so little time.

Plus, I’ve been without internet for two and don’t expect to have it again until late Thursday. So cheers for now.

P.S. Still 44 kilometres of bike riding to do and too much of it uphill. Ugh!

Rundāle Palace, tulips

Aerial view from Wikipedia

11 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Survived a 50-kilometre bike ride

This is a report on my health, my fitness, my sanity and my bedtime.

It’s 9:15 pm (21:15 for those who observe the 24-hour clock) and I’m going to bed. I’m absolutely knackered, My arm hurts, my knee hurts, but I did it. Five more days to go.

There was more uphill today than I had expected and, I confess, I walked some of it. I would have had a much better performance had I not been knocked down by the proverbial freight train five days ago. But I am mending.

Besides months ago, we booked and paid for this cycling adventure in Brittany in northwestern France. So we’re doing it. That said, the 50 kilometres (or was it 55) took us 7 1/2 hours, with stops for lunch, water, resting my arm, taking photos (not too many) and consulting the instructions (egads, we couldn’t afford to get lost unless it was a shortcut). Fortunately, at least half of the last 14 kilometres was mostly downhill.

You’ll have to wait for photos of this part of our travels. By mistake, I left all the equipment for downloading photos in Paris. Argh!

Not sure how much internet I have over the next five or six days. We’re camping and not every campground offers wifi. Don’t worry. I’ll be back online for a couple of days and then four more days of camping (but no bikes).

And now it’s 21:30 and I’m really going to bed. Tomorrow’s ride is only 25 kilometres. I’ll store up for the day after that which is 48.

P.S. Should have internet tomorrow morning, but after that I might not be able to answer comments for a while.

P.P.S. I mentioned my sanity. It’s there—only just—but I can still smile. Just got a gold star from fellow campers. They are French but couldn’t figure out how to get into the internet they’d paid for. But I could. Everyone’s happy.



9 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Hill of crosses honours fallen rebels

Hill of crosses, Lithuania

Hill of crosses, Lithuania, totem

If you’ve read my most recent post, you’ll know I was knocked over in Brussels the other day by a teenager trying to escaped from the police. I’m still very sore and bruised, but the muscles and joints are slowly improving. Nothing seems to be broken, and I’m hoping that I’m good to go tomorrow on our week-long bicycling trip in northwestern France.

But you wonderful people have been amazing. I’ve been gobsmacked by all the kind messages that I’ve received on that blog post (and on Facebook too). I think you’ve all helped (willed) me to heal.

So as a thank you and before I set out on the French cycling tracks (with probably no connection), I thought I’d share a hill of crosses (and blessings) with you.

Entering the Hill of Crosses

Entering the Hill of Crosses

It’s a fantastic and uplifting story.

Back in 1831, in Lithuania, there was an uprising against the Russian tsar. The uprising was put down. Sadly, the families of the fallen rebels ended up with no bodies to bury. So they started to leave crosses on a special hill (perhaps the highest hill in all of Lithuania).

I have to admit that the hill isn’t very high. We scanned the horizon and saw nothing. And then drove around aimlessly even though it was ‘plugged into’ our car’s GPS. If you ever happen to be searching for it, try keying in ‘kryziu kalnas’ instead of ‘hill of crosses’. That was what finally worked for us, and we found that reference on a local map.

Hill of crosses

Crosses being forgotten

But back to the hill.

This place is amazing. It’s impossible to know how many crosses are here today, but estimates assume there are more than 200,000. I suspect there should/could be many more. I read that when the crosses started to become a symbol of resistance to the communist regime, the KGB had the hill bulldozed twice.

As you enter the site, there is a long list of rules and regulations about what crosses can be left. They can be made of wood, metal or many other substances. They shouldn’t be more than 3 metres tall.

We saw hundreds of small crosses draped over larger crosses and assumed they were added, not on a whim, but as a convenient place to hang a cross.

There are crosses to commemorate the young (so touching) and the old, and there are crosses from all over the world. Poor John spotted one from Nebraska, my home state.

But there are more than crosses. Statues of the Virgin Mary, carvings of Lithuanian patriots, and thousands of tiny effigies and rosaries have been brought here by Catholic pilgrims.

Hill of crosses

Loads of crosses in one place

Pope John Paul II visited the hill in 1993 and declared it a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice. I really appreciate those thoughts. In 2000, a Franciscan hermitage was opened nearby.

Important tip: If you plan to visit and don’t need to go to the toilet or buy a cross, don’t pull into the carpark. Park on the verge outside and enjoy your time strolling through the crosses.

P.S.: Poor John and I are heading out tomorrow on a week-long bicycling trip around Brittany. I have no idea whether there will be internet connections. So don’t worry if you don’t hear from us for a week or more. If it goes beyond that—worry and send reinforcements!

7 June 2017 / leggypeggy

Hit by the proverbial freight train

He came out of nowhere. In fact, I didn’t even see him coming. It was only later that I even learned it was a him.

We were in the Brussels North bus station trying to find our bus to Paris. There were plenty of Flix buses around, but none heading for Paris.

Poor John did a fact-finding foray and then I set out on one.

I’d gone maybe 50 metres when I was hit by a freight train, or what seemed like a freight train. I’d still be lying there on the ground if three kind people hadn’t helped me to my feet and collected the things that slipped out of the side pockets of my backpack.

I was so dazed, I have no idea what people were saying to me, except I knew they were trying to be reassuring and helpful.

I staggered back to where Poor John was standing. I was breathless, hunched over, hobbling, in shock and probably fairly incoherent. He asked, Did that guy hit you? I saw him running and thought he’d knocked someone over.

It confounds me that Poor John always manages to miss these attacks on me. He was walking in front of me when I got hit by a motor scooter in Hanoi four years ago. It was going the wrong way on a one-way street. He said he heard a whoompf. When he looked back, he didn’t know if the sound had come from me, the woman who hit me or the crowd. At any rate, I was the one lying on the ground.

You can read about that disaster here and here.

Anyway, we’re still not sure what happened this time. Poor John had a look around and saw that one teenager had been grabbed and was being held by the police, but probably wasn’t the one who barrelled into me. Most likely, the pair had committed some crime and were being chased by the cops.

All I could do was sit on the pavement in a sort of stunned silence until it started to rain. We moved to a bit of shelter and the bus came eventually. It’s probably good that I had four hours of just sitting quietly on a bus.

So here I am with wounds all over. I don’t even know which side the guy hit me from. My whole right arm is wrenched. Did he hit me there or are the injuries from the fall. Still deciding whether my right shoulder is dislocated and whether my right thumb will regain function. My left hand, left thumb and left knee are going to be okay.

Thank goodness, I didn’t hit my head or lose a tooth. Yay!

But if you don’t hear from me much over the next few days, I can assure you that typing is a challenge.