Thursday, April 24, 2014


I've never considered myself a collector, but I am one.  I caught the bug from my husband Bruce, who inherited the gene from his mother, Marge   My impression was that collectors bought German Hummel figurines  and displayed them on a mantel, or purchased silver spoons from countries around the world that are hung on a wooden rack.   One of my friends buys a Christmas ornament or two or three in every country she visits.   She must have several hundred, at least.  


My mother was not a collector per se,  but for some reason, she thought I should be, so when I was first married, she started me on a collection of porcelain tea cups and saucers.  These are the delicate ones painted with pale pink roses or purple violets,  with tiny handles too dainty for fat fingers.   "You don't drink tea from these cups," she'd say.   "No, you display them in your glass china cabinet, so guests can admire them when they come to visit."  I didn't even own a glass china cabinet, but she did.  After receiving five or six cups over multiple visits, I begged her to stop, politely  explaining that these were more her style than mine.   Years later,  I sold them for cheap at my garage sale.   In the 1960s, a friend convinced me to buy Bing and Grondahl blue and white Christmas plates.   "They are an investment," she told me, "because the mold is broken after the release of each edition, so over the years your plates will grow in value."   When my friend moved away, I stopped buying the plates, and now I wonder what I'll do with the ones I have stored in my garage.   On the Ebay website, these plates go for about the same price I paid almost fifty years ago.


I think I should tell the rest of this story by using the collective "we" instead of the singular "I" and give credit where credit is due, because it is really my husband who got us into this collecting business, although I've happily gone along.   I should have known what was to come when he told me 15 years ago about his "almost complete" collection of Mad Magazines from the '50s and '60s,  and his elaborate stamp collection that sits in a cardboard box labeled  "Bruce's mementos."


Our first foray into collecting indigenous art began ten years ago on a trip we took to Papua New Guinea, where we were confronted with amazing tribal artifacts carved and painted by talented artisans, living simply in rural villages along the 700-mile Sepik River.   It was very easy to get caught up in the exotic beauty and the spiritual interpretation of these traditional crafts, especially when you are rubbing shoulders with the local people in a village setting that requires one to walk a good distance on dirt paths through a jungle that smells like wet dog, unlike any place we'd ever been before.    A crowd of villagers, mostly kids, stood on the black volcanic sand waiting to greet us, since they knew the schedule of the very few boats that bring tourists up river.  A few called out to us, "Mornin now and yu stap gut. Translated from a form of the pigeon English they speak, this friendly greeting means good morning and how are you.  Eager for some kind of connection, we replied with similar words we'd memorized the night before. 

Palembei kids awaiting our arrival


We scrambled through a labyrinth of entangled vines to reach Palembei Village, a small community in the region of the Middle Sepik, where electricity and running water are light years away.   Like in most tribal villages the women were busy doing chores, either breast feeding their babies, or carrying water in plastic buckets up from the river.  Men wearing dog teeth headbands decorated with bird of paradise feathers greeted us in ceremonial costumes.  Others brought out their imaginative carvings and posed proudly alongside them, offering prices that sounded more like thousands of pennies rather than thousands of dollars.   


Lynne, one of our experienced travelers, had already spotted Bruce as the authentic shopper in our small group, and since she had plenty of tribal art at home, she was reluctant to buy more.   Instead, she saw my husband as her shopping surrogate.  She pointed to a large carving of a young boy lying half-naked, with his small arms and legs outstretched on the back of a wooden canoe that had been carved in the shape of a crocodile.   She called out to Bruce. "You've got to come see this," she said.   We were walking inside a large thatched-roof house,  a place where ancestral spirits are worshipped and carvings of cultural significance are sold to the few tourists who come to this out-of-the-way place.    "Look at the intricate detail of this piece," she said.   Bruce gently touched the boy's back, feeling the roughness of the wood which represented the razor- inflicted cuts made by tribal elders during this village's coming-of-age ceremony.   Like scarification in Africa, this brutal tradition of skin cutting continues to be part of a Papua New Guinea tribal culture, connoting signs of bravery and manhood.  Because of possible infection, the ritual is considered very dangerous.  Some teenage boys don't survive this terrible ordeal.   

Note the detail on the back and face

Immediately Bruce and I were emotionally engaged with this piece.  We realized it was something we wanted to own, so after discussing a figure somewhere between the customary first and second price, a happy deal was struck.   The artist Raymond Dumoi learned English from the Marui Catholic Missionaries, but his tribal life centered around the spirit house or the Haus Tambaran as it is known in their language called Tok Pisin.  He and other villagers spend many hours in the Haus Tambaran  since it is the most symbolic and respected place in the village.  Outside we took photographs of The Boy, after which three tribesman hoisted the heavy carving over their heads and walked toward the river and the small boat on which we are traveling.  

The Spirit House

The Happy Family, 2004


On that exotic trip we purchased seventeen pieces of ethnic art, mostly carvings, big and small, and a few colorful masks, all of which were shipped to us in a large wooden crate.  After seven months and more government bureaucracy than we expected,  the crate eventually reached us in California, although at times we wondered whether we would ever receive it.   There was no buyers remorse, but I did have one regret, which was bringing home a rattan-woven full body mask.   Bruce thought this piece was so fantastic that I couldn't talk him out of it, although I did question its size and its condition because I wasn't sure it would work in our house.   I'm not a told-you-so sort of person, but it irks me when I see this piece sitting unseen and lonely in our garage because, as I suspected, it doesn't fit in our house.   We've tried selling the mask, but to no avail.  We can't even give it away.  I guess it's like an acquired taste and not everyone's cup of tea.

This full body mask has a special place in our garage but
it's for sale if anyone is interested

On the other hand, The Boy from Palembei's Spirit House is a focal point in our growing collection of indigenous art.  He tells an unbelievable story about a tribal tradition that is quickly vanishing and becoming very rare today.   Looking at The Boy displayed prominently in our living room reminds us how fortunate we were to have had a glimpse into the window of such a rich culture and to meet these extraordinary people, who live in an environment that is truly another world.   

THE BOY has a special place in our home and in our hearts

Watercolor by Marjorie Berger

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


That's what I told Bruce we should think about today and then name them at dinner tonight. Certainly the landscape we have covered these last three days has to be on that list. At least in my opinion, but making a list like this is a very subjective process, as you know.

Why I would put the Salta region of Northern Argentina on my list is not only the stunning beauty, but the diversity of the geological formations we saw. One minute I could be in the cacti fields of Tucson. And next I'm standing beside a cactus looking up at the Tetons of Wyoming.

For the last three days we have driven 250 km on dirt roads with our windows rolled down because our car's air conditioner isn't the greatest.  You know what that means.  We are two dusty "kids" by the end of the day.  We have traveled through deep gorges, canyons, grasslands, marshes, lagoons, and highland valleys. Bruce drove 20 km of hairpin turns (still on a dirt road) to ascend the mountain pass at Cuesta del Obispo, leading us to the magnificent Los Cordones National Park, a protected forest of giant cacti.

The lovely small hotel where we spent two nights had incredible views and lovely Argentine hospitality. The regional dishes they served in their tastefully decorated dining room were delicious, although I might not ask for seconds of the candied tomatoes layered over bland white cheese. It was at this hotel that we met Ricardo and his wife, who live in Salta and were having a short weekend getaway. When I heard him speak English at breakfast, I struck up a conversation. He told us that he worked as a guide, mainly leading birding trips and that he had just returned from Columbia where he guided a tour. I mentioned that I had friends from Texas, who also just returned from a birding trip in Columbia. It only took a few seconds of peeling the onion to discover that Ricardo was their guide on this trip in Columbia, and he has guided them on other South American birding trips as well. Peeling the onion even further, we discovered that Ricardo was the father of the local tour operator in Salta who arranged this trip for us. In fact, our initial conversation about a trip to Salta began with Ricardo many months ago, but he turned us over to his son because he serves mainly as a guide but his son makes all the arrangements in the office. What a small world, yet again. Some day I'm going to write a blog post entitled "Pam's Small World" because as many of my friends know, these coincidences happen to me often and there are many stories like this to tell.

But as Bruce might say, "Shit, I'm digressing again. Back to Argentina.

On our layover day, among other things, we took a side trip to the tiny village of Seclantis, which is known for its high quality weavings. The artisans who live there are master craftsmen who export their gorgeous alpaca and llama ponchos and table runners to collectors around the world. One weaver whose name was Tero Guzeman even wove a black and red poncho for Pope John Paul and had photos in his studio (with a dirt floor) to prove it. Tero showed us some handsome ponchos, but knowing that I would probably never wear one, we bought a beautiful table runner instead. A tourist from Buenos Aires, who was in the shop at the time, told us that the $160 poncho here in Seclantis would probably sell for $300 or $400 in Buenos Aires. For a minute we had second thoughts, but then I came to my senses recalling the time I went nuts in a fabric shop in India and bought stuff that has never been used and is stored away in a drawer.

The adventure continues.............

Our first glimpse of the different colors

We haven't started climbing yet but we are already impressed with the views.

Lots of hair pin turns

We are climbing higher and higher into the clouds

At 10,000 feet above the clouds we met these crazy Brazilian motorcyclists

- Now we are on a high plateau

Except for the geology, this could be the road to Utah's Monument Valley

Tin Tin Cactus Field

The Cardon Cactus

Taking a break for lunch in the charming town of Cachi. Salta beer is very good.

This could be a scene from the American West


The stunning rock formations of Quebrada de las Flechas. (My favorite)

I took many pictures of this gorgeous man at the gorgeous Las Flechas formations

Driving through the Las Flechas wind tunnel


Cafayate, Salta's wine region will soon compete with Mendoza

Harvesting the grapes. After all it's fall in Argentina.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, April 3, 2014


April 1 & 2

Well, we arrived in Brazil with no complications until we got to the Argentina border where we learned that we had not paid the $160 per person reciprocity fee over the internet in advance, so we were denied entry. Some friends who had traveled here told us we could pay the fee at the border, but that option ended a few years ago. By the way, the reason for the reciprocity fee is because Argentina decided that since their citizens have to pay a fee to enter the United States, then Americans have to pay a fee to enter Argentina. In other words, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, except these geese didn't have a clue and were left high and dry.

Our very inexperienced taxi driver, who spoke no English, tried to help us, but it became obvious he had never driven anyone to Argentina before. Finally, someone we met at the border who spoke some English explained that we needed to pay the fee via the Internet and get a printed copy to show the officials at the border. Not knowing if this was a good place to go or not, we stopped at the first hotel we saw on the road, where the clerk acted nonchalant, as if this happens all the time. He didn't even charge us. Ok, so with the papers in hand, we returned to the border and were finally given entry.

Thirty kilometers down the road when we arrived at the gate of the Sheraton Hotel, we learned that we needed to go back and buy an entry into the National Park, since the hotel is located inside Iguazu National Park. Back we went and bought the entry ticket for another $20 each. And now back to the hotel. FINALLY! And of course the price of the cab ride went up considerably, and the ATM machine at park headquarters ATE Bruce's ATM card (and I didn't bring mine). Oh well, a good story. So now I can say we went from Brazil to Argentina, back to Brazil, and back to Argentina in one hour!

The Sheraton Hotel is beautifully situated with a view of the Falls, and the rooms are ok. But for $400 a night, I would have liked a clock radio or a TV that worked. And maybe more bottled water. The food was tasteless, but we'd already been warned about that on TripAdvisor. Plus they gave us a totally unfair exchange rate, even lower than the bank. Geez!

Iguazu Falls are gorgeous, beyond gorgeous. We spent one and a half days walking every trail possible in two countries, no less and viewing the Falls from every possible angle and direction. Since we had BrazilIan visas, we also took a cab to the Brazilian side yesterday and WOW!! Even better than Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Africa. From Brazil you can see ALL the falls at one time, but my wide angle lens just isn't wide enough, I guess. Spectacular! Both Argentina and Brazil have done a fabulous job in making views of the Falls accessible for just about everyone.


This morning we said good bye to Iguazu Falls and flew an hour and a half to the Northwest region of Argentina called Salta, where we will tour around for the next twelve days. Most Americans have never heard of this place, so let me say that this lofty, dry, and tough high plateau sits beneath the mighty Andes mountains. It has a reputation for its Spanish colonial architecture, gaucho (cowboy) life, vineyards that easily compete with Mendoza, Andean culture, and beautiful national parks for hiking and birding. We first learned about this area when we were in Patagonia a few years ago and always kept it in the back of our minds as a great place to visit.

Most of the arrangements were made with a local tour operator that friends of ours recommended. We met him this afternoon to go over some of the details of our itinerary, since we will be driving ourselves in a rented car. All of our hotel reservations are made, but we wanted our local contact to help fill in the blanks of a fairly sketchy route. Before meeting him this afternoon, we bumped into two American couples just concluding a similar trip by car, and they warned us of a few bad roads and the fact that they had three flat tires in the middle of nowhere. Our local contact assured us that we should not have any problems since all of the roads we will be driving, with the exception of a 40 km stretch of dirt, will be paved, but when we pick up our car tomorrow, we will examine our tires with a magnifying glass.

Our next adventure had to do with exchanging money, which we viewed as a bonanza since recently the Argentine peso suffered weakness, and we were told that we could buy pesos at a significantly better rate on the street. If we were to obtain pesos from an ATM machine or use a credit card for purchases, we would be paying the official government rate of eight pesos to the dollar, so we brought several hundred dollars in cash to pay for ten to twelve days of expenses, other than hotels and the car rental which we paid for in advance. With our crisp one hundred dollar bills, we bought pesos from a man on the street (literally on the street) at 10.5 to the Dollar, a 31% better exchange rate than we would have gotten if we hadn't known about the black market. I have to say that it was easier to do this here with our local contact's help than it was to do a black market exchange in Mali, West Africa, where we had to find a big guy driving a black Mercedes on a dirt road outside of town.

The Adventure continues...........

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad