Three Weeks in Provence (June 20-July 11, 2017)

Thanks to Mary Jean’s career as a professor of French and leader on many Dartmouth foreign study programs, we’ve lived over the years almost everywhere in France: Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Brittany, and the Loire Valley region. But we never lived in Provence, so following our alumni cruise to the French and Italian rivieras last October (, we briefly visited this region to find a house we could occupy for several weeks this summer. Our plan: to rent a house large enough to permit our two children to visit with their children.

We quickly settled on a modest villa near the center of the town of Lourmarin, a village we selected for its beauty and its ties to Albert Camus. Camus spent the last few years of his life here, writing his final, and never entirely finished novel, The First Man (Le Premier Homme). Since Mary Jean and I once taught a course together on “Existentialist Ethics” with a focus on Camus, this was a chance to know the town he loved. We subsequently learned that Lourmarin is recognized as one of “les plus beaux villages de France,” an honor it shares with about one hundred and fifty other designated “beautiful towns” in France.


Arriving in Lourmarin from Marseilles airport, we rounded a bend on the D943 and there was the village, shimmering in the early summer heat. During our stay temperatures often rose to the nineties, but the low humidity, just 30-40%, made it bearable. Camus suffered from TB throughout his life. Raised in Algiers, he treasured the Mediterranean sunlight, but his illness made him vulnerable to seaside humidity, so sunny, dry Lourmarin was an understandable choice.

In this photo, the house with the single window and arbored terrace just below and to the right of the left-most tower belonged to Camus. It is a repurposed old silk factory, and is still occupied by his daughter. In the distance you can see the lavender-tinged mountains that run east to west and divide our level southern portion of the Luberon region of Provence from the north. This central range of mountains on whose southern plain Lourmarin sits defines the Luberon


We arrived at the moment of the equinox celebration. A local band entertains diners at cafes in Lourmarin’s central Place de Fontaine.

Just to the left off the Place de la Fontaine, behind the band, is the Rue du Grand Pré. About halfway up, and off to the left is the Cantonade du Grand Pré, a little cul de sac on which our villa is located.

Below, our Cantonade. The left hand grey-blue door opens to our garage. This is an incredibly tiny space in which to maneuver and back a car, even our tiny rented VW Polo. Nor was our getting in and out aided by the many locals who felt they could just pull into the Cantonade to run an errand!

The villa itself is an odd assembly of different rooms (some gathered from adjacent houses) around a central courtyard. Despite the heat, the arbored terrace was a pleasant place to gather. The many serviceable bedrooms and baths were able to accommodate both of our kids and their families. We delighted in the quiet of our garden retreat just 50 meters from the center of town. Our courtyard:

Here’s our terrace table spread for a luncheon of bread and cheese:



 We spent the days before the arrival of our son Matthew and his family getting to know the town. The following is a walking tour that makes a complete circuit of the town. I hope it reveals Lourmarin’s character,

La Place de La Fontaine on a quiet evening and the fountain itself:


Across from the fountain, an employee of our favorite café (spécialité: jambon de Corse) grandstands:

Turning left and further down the street, we see more café culture

A menu features hanger steak in pepper sauce and Dauphinoise potatoes.

Our excellent boulangerie, and the charming boulangère with whom I chatted during my daily visits:


Galleries line the streets:


And shopping is a Lourmarin given:


Just behind the shopping streets, we find a quiet impasse:

Back to the main street and aways on, we come across another fountain:

A cat quenches her thirst at the fountain’s other side:

Just above this corner, we turn onto the Rue Albert Camus:

We struggled to identify the entry to Camus’ house on this street. The townspeople go out of their way to protect Camus’ daughter from tourists, so no one could tell us which house was his, though the web helped. In that spirit, I have effaced the address:

Not far up this street there is a charming plaza with a small gothic church. I couldn’t find anything on the web about the church, but here are several images, including a painting above the altar depicting the visit of the Magi.





Beginning to circle back to the center, we enter La Rue Juiverie. We’re left to our imaginations. No placards or history on the web informs us about the Jews who may once have lived here:

But there is ample information about another persecuted minority: the French Protestants (Huguenots). At the far edge of town stands a “temple” that is a vestige of a thriving Protestant community that once constituted the great majority of the residents of Lourmarin (eleven hundred out of thirteen hundred residents). Protestants lived here peacefully before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. Most of the Huguenots then fled, while others returned following the French revolution to reestablish their community and build this temple. A placard near the entrance traces the difficult history of Protestants in the Luberon:


Just beyond the temple on a low hill is the Chateau of Lourmarin, a part-medieval, part-renaissance structure that now houses art exhibitions and other cultural events.

Here it is by day:

And here, in picture taken later on, are both it and the temple at dusk:

Almost completing the circuit we had begun, we come across the town’s verdant soccer field:

Running along its side is one of the more gracious streets in town, the site, too, of parts of the weekly Friday market.

Behind us in the picture above, and just above the street leading back down to the Place de la Fontaine is a large modern square lined with cafes and often filled with small stalls of vendors selling clothing or jewelry.

Finally we circle back to the Place de la Fontaine. Looking back, the shoppers and tourists reveal that Lourmarin is a favorite tourist destination.

JUNE 22-23

Up early with music and noise from the center of town. As part of the equinox festival, a procession of medieval and renaissance actors from the chateau fills Lourmarin’s streets.

Lourmarin is regionally famous for its Friday market that fills several streets near the edge of town. Stands featuring handcrafted products alternate with those offering foodstuffs:

At the other end of town, just off the D943 from which we entered, is the cemetery where Camus is buried. This an old and venerated burial place, cherished by the townspeople and generally off-limits for burials of newcomers. We understand that an exception was made in Camus’ case, not only because he was a world-famous writer, but because he had so integrated himself in Lourmarin’s daily life, relaxing and chatting with locals at the cafes and, as an avid soccer fan, cheering on the teams. Camus once wrote, “Everything I ever knew about ethics, I learned from soccer.” The Lourmainois must have found him a kindred spirit.


Beside his grave is that of his wife, Francine.

JUNE 24-25:

By the weekend, our son, Matthew and his wife Melissa, had arrived, driving in with their two children from Paris, the Loire, and Lyon (the last two being places where Matt had lived with us and attended school as a child, so this was a rediscovery voyage for him).

We are staunch believers in the Guide Michelin: above all in the quality of its recommendations and evaluations. To anyone traveling by car in France, I urge crafting one’s itinerary with an eye to the one- and two-star restaurants (there’s also a lesser category of “Bib Gourmand,” indicated in the guide by the icon of the Michelin man, which identifies restaurants of good quality and value). For the more pricey starred restaurants, prix fix luncheon menus are your best bet. On the second evening of Matthew’s visit, we went to the one-starred La Fenière, specializing in gluten-free preparations. Here’s its beautiful garden:


And here’s the whole family (except for me, the photographer):


Our daughter Julie’s flight from Boston was delayed, so the overlap we had planned with both families didn’t work out. Matt’s family was off on the TGV from Marseilles to Paris before Julie’s family arrived.

Our first full day together with Julie, Jarek, Julian and Agniezka included a visit to Aix-en-Provence, the lovely Provençal city we had seen on our autumnal rivieras cruise. I won’t repeat pictures here other than one of Nicolas Froment’s magnificent triptych of Mary in the Burning Bush in Aix’s Saint Sauveur cathedral. Here is Mary, holding baby Jesus, atop the “buissson ardent” revealed to Moses, who looks on, below right.

One website describes the many symbolic motifs in this painting ( Another description sees the thorny bush as a symbol of Mary’s unassailable virginity. I love this painting, but in viewing it, I’m reminded of a remark by my Dartmouth Judaica colleague Susannah Heschel who observed that the Christian church “colonized” the culture of the Jewish people, appropriating the Jews’ symbols and reducing the Jews themselves to the status of serfs in their own cultural “land.” How else can we explain a painting that celebrates the Marianizing of one of the key narratives of the Hebrew Bible?

My surgeon son-in-law Jarek, is also an avid hiker and bicyclist, so the following day was devoted to nature, a hike—a very long 10-kilometer hike—through the hills above the nearby town of Puget. Here is some of the rugged countryside we traversed, with narrow limestone graveled paths to the summits.

A cluster of early grapes at the lovely Château La Verrerie vineyard, whose terrains we transited.

Fortunately, our walk ended back at La Verrerie, and a very welcome tasting of several of their chilled wines. The domaine is owned by the Descours family, which also owns Piper Heidsieck Champagne.

The following day we journeyed westward in two cars about 50 kilometers to the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. It sits at the source of La Sorgue river, which arises mysteriously and in a great flood from a grotto at the foot of nearby mountains. Numerous small businesses offer the opportunity to canoe and kayak in the river, and the town’s parkings were filled to the bursting point. The river’s flow was used for centuries to power local paper mills. All of these have been rendered obsolescent by modern technologies (like so much French industry), but Fontaine, with an eye to tourism, has converted an old mill into a fascinating paper museum.

Here is La Sorgue, just above the museum-mill. Its source lies in a grotto at the front of the mountain. In 1985, a robot submarine found the bottom of the grotto at a depth of more than 1000 feet.

A wheel powers the old mill:

Here are the large hammers that beat rags to make paper. A camshaft visible just above the hammerheads and powered by the water wheel raises and lowers each hammer for hours on end until the rags turn into a creamy pulp. This is poured on wire frames, pressed and dried to make paper. We learned that in the middle ages, old clothing—collected by rag pickers—was of high value for papermaking.

 On the way back from Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, I stopped to take this picture of a beautiful field of lavender (actually, probably a cheaper, machine-cultivable variant, known as lanvendin, as we learned a few days later):

While Julie and family spent the next few days exploring Provence on their own, Mary Jean and I visited some of our adjacent villages. Here’s a view of the “étang” (pond) that occupies the center of nearby Cucuron. Following that is a photo of a magnificent large home on the edge of that village. All of this attests to the special beauty of Provence.

With Julie’s family’s trip drawing to a close, we decided to spend the afternoon on a visit in the mountains to the Les Agnels lavender distillery. Lavender is a major source of economic activity in Provence, witness the industrial-sized fields shown above. But historically the plant grew on sunny remote hillsides and was harvested by scythe in backbreaking labor by residents of the mountains. Today, the Agnels Distillerie serves as a cooperative. It grows no lavender of its own but processes for a fee all sorts of aromatic plants brought to it by local growers. Batches of plants can run from a few pounds to tons.

Here’s the side of the distillery’s building. Trucks carrying harvested plants arrive above and to the right on the higher side:

Those plants are placed in giant steel casks through which steam passes to extract the aromatic oils (lesser batches are handled by smaller machinery on the ground floor). Each cask can handle up to 6,000 liters (around 1500 gallons) of material:


A dried out batch of lavender awaits processing. Our guide explained that the plant comes in three forms: lavender (a smaller plant that thrives above 800 meters altitude), spiked lavender (with a longer stalk and that does well in lower fields), and lavandin (a hybrid of the first two). Lavender is the rarer variety, yielding more subtly scented aromatic oil, but lavandin, as in the cultivated field above, is easier to grow, is used in industrial applications like detergents, and has become a more prevalent crop. It takes approximately 130 kilograms of lavender flowers to distill 1 liter of essential oil.

Inside the distillery stands a working model of the distillation process. In this photo, you can see on the right a glass chamber filled with lavender plants. Beneath it, water boils and steam rises through the plants. The resulting vapor then passes through the condenser coil on the left (surrounded by chilled circulating water), and the condensate containing floral water (bottom) and aromatic oils (top) collects in the beaker at the bottom far left. These oils are the base for perfumes, soaps and other lavender products. The same process we see in this model is what occurs in the 6,000-liter casks above.

In the old days, when there were no trucks to carry the harvested plants to a distillery, distillation was often done fieldside, with a portable cooper still. Here is one in the distillery’s small museum:

Here, its coil:

A scythe used in the old days for harvesting:

And here, the insect-like snout of a modern tractor harvester:

As we emerged from the tour carrying small packages of oil and soap (don’t ask me why), we passed a lavender plant being visited by a butterfly. Lavender (as opposed to lavandin) is grown from seed, so by pollinating the hillside fields, these little insects help keep the industry alive.


With the children gone, we had a last few days to ourselves. Our first foray was five kilometers from Lourmarin to the small town of Ansouis, the second of “le plus beaux villages de France” in our region. Our destination was the restaurant La Closerie. The pictures below evidence the charm of such one-star Michelin restaurants and the quality of their dejeuner (luncheon) offerings.

Their outdoor dining terrace:


And here a photogenic starter of cold tomato bisque:

During our meal, an English couple arrived with a graceful whippet dog, which spent the meal on cushion brought by his owners. I was reminded of the wonderful wall sign we saw years ago in a restaurant near Lyon. “S’il vouz plaît. Ne permetez les animaux de manger sur la matériels de la maison.” Not a prohibition on a pet in the restaurant. Just a request to not let Babette eat off the house china. An expression of French humanism.

JULY 5-6:

Our next adventure was a long (210 kilometer each way) trip to Vence to see Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire. Earlier this summer, we visited the Matisse exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which included several objets from the chapel project, so we were interested in seeing the real thing.

Before getting to the chapel, we had lunch in old Vence, and on the way out stopped in the Vence cathedral to see Marc Chagall’s mosaic of Moses being drawn from the water. This Jewish artist, whose Christian (Crucifixion) work is striking, finds no place here for Mary.

The Chapelle du Rosaire is perched on a hillside above Vence. Matisse did its every design detail, from its blue and while tiled roof to the priests’ vestments. Built from 1949-1951, the chapel was meant to serve the students and nuns of the adjacent convent and Catholic school. Matisse undertook the project at the urging of Sister Jacques-Marie, who years before as a nurse had aided the artist during his recovery from an illness and who subsequently became a nun. Here’s a photo in the chapel’s museum of Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie:

The chapel’s tiled roof and wrought iron crucifix, both designed by Matisse:

A view out to Vence below:

Here are two beautiful examples of chasubles designed by Matisse and displayed in the chapel’s museum:

Although permitted in the museum, photographs are forbidden in the chapel itself. I include here two views of the interior downloaded from the web:

The altar (in the soft brown tones of the Eucharistic host), behind which is a stained glass window and a tiled representation of Saint Dominic, the patron saint of Sister Jacques-Marie’s Dominican order:

Here, with Matisse at its center, is the seating area with its stained glass windows. Half-shown to the rear is a tiled depiction of the ten stations of the cross.

These stained-glass images representing the “tree of life” are in the Mediterranean colors that Matisse loved: blue for the sea and sky, green for vegetation, and yellow for the ever-present Provençal sun. Matisse considered the chapel his supreme life’s work, and he said of it, “Je n’ai pas cherché la beauté, j’ai cherché la vérité,” “I didn’t search for beauty; I searched for truth.” Certainly the chapel’s colors reveal the truth of the light of Provence.


With just a few days remaining to us, with the days growing very warm (mid-nineties), and Michelin stars still twinkling in our eyes, we decided to undertake a “break the bank” luncheon meal at the only two-star Michelin restaurant in our region, Edouard Loubet’s La Bastide de la Compagne. Restaurateur and hotelier Loubet has considerable local notoriety. We learned from a waiter at another of his properties that after a wild boar (sanglier) had ravaged one of Loubet’s vineyards, against the urgings of his family and staff he camped out for five days in the field until the boar reappeared. Shooting it dead, Loubet then made a meal of the unwise and unlucky beast.

La Bastide’s restaurant and guest rooms stand on a hill above the town of Bonnieux, about 10 kilometers up into the mountains from Lourmarin. Here’s the entry:






Here the garden, replete with lavender:

The dining terrace:

And here, one of the signature dishes, a preparation of rouget (red mullet) with a crisp of beet:

Here a morsel of guinea foul (pintade). Surrounding it are tiny balloons made of fried potato flour:


As you can see the portions are small. Rather than quantity, the best French cooking relies on several small courses of outstanding flavor and appearance. Is that why the French remain so (relatively) thin?

Finally, there’s the cheese cart. I hope this photo suggests the abundance of La Bastide’s offerings.

What’s the old joke? “England’s a country with one cheese and five hundred religions, while France is a country with one religion and five hundred cheeses.” I’ll take the French option any day, especially since France’s one religion today is hardly too annoying.

Summing up. Our-three week stay in Provence didn’t permit us the degree of insight into the region—or humor about it—that one finds in writings like Peter Mayle’s wonderful A Year in Provence. But it did persuade us that this is one of the very most beautiful regions of the country: the perfect blend of French landscape and Mediterranean light and culture. We’re grateful that we could round out our geographic knowledge of France with this visit. And at a good moment, too, as the country celebrates the victory of its democratic spirit in the recent elections. In all respects right now, this nation shows itself to be “la belle France.”

 _ _ _ _ _ _ _


SOUTH TO SERENDIB (India and Sri Lanka, March 24-April 6, 2017)

Near the top of Mary Jean’s and my “bucket list” of travel destinations are Southern India and Sri Lanka. We had both previously traveled to northern and central India, but spice-rich Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka still beckoned.

No such trip was on our agenda. We were planning a month in Provence in June (the one part of France in which we never lived), the kids and grandkids were planning to visit us in the village of Lourmarin where we had rented a house, and this was not the time to get sick traveling in India (as has almost always happened on our previous trips).

Then, in mid-January, an email arrived from Dartmouth’s Alumni Travel Office. “Was I free to serve as the Dartmouth Guest lecturer on a two week cruise around South India and Sri Lanka?” The prospect of shipboard dining free of the risks of Indian food (and a ship’s doctor just in case) made our answer easy. “Delighted,” I replied.

Since I had lectured on Indian religions for years in our introductory course, preparing three lectures was a welcome task. In short order I had one illustrated lecture on “Indian Sacred Geography” (Indian cosmology and its manifestation in sacred spaces, such as temples); a second lecture on “Suffering and Salvation” (time, karma, caste and liberation); and a third in progress illustrating The Ramayana. Here’s a map of the voyage from our cruise brochure):


(Reprinted with permission of Criterion Travel. Image By Alexis Vilay © Criterion Travel, Inc.)

A word here about the title of our cruise, “South to Serendib.” Serendib is an early name for Sri Lanka. It derives from a combination of the name of one of the island’s dynasties (the Cheras) and a second term for “island” (dheeb); hence “Cheradeep,” or Serendip. The term “serendipity” was introduced in the 18th century by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) who was inspired to invent it by a Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” whose heroes were always making surprising discoveries by accident and sagacity. An appropriate title, I thought, for a surprising trip that we had not planned on.


Following a long flight from Boston to Chennai via Frankfurt, we arrived at our hotel, the Taj Coromandel, around three on Saturday morning, giving us a late start the next morning on this pre-program day.

Chennai (formerly named Madras) did not impress. Lacking the grace of Mumbai (Bombay) or the British colonial monuments of Delhi, it appeared by night and day as a jumble of unremarkable buildings on busy, crowded streets. (In fairness, we really got to see little of the city on our brief half-day stay.) We made one foray out of the hotel to pick up nail polish for Mary Jean (forbidden on the plane), but it was a death-defying effort. Crossing the street in front of our hotel involved dodging an endless stream of fast moving autos, buses, and motorized rickshaws. We were lucky to survive the back and forth crossing.

The afternoon ended as the group of guest lecturers met for the first time to finalize our schedule of talks. Michael Golay of MIT would speak on energy issues and sustainability in the global and Asian context. Martha Crenshaw of Stanford would address the issue of terrorism, particularly relevant to Sri Lanka, which was just emerging from its decades-long Tamil Tiger insurgency. Annapurna Garimella, an Indian scholar, would treat artistic and cultural matters in contemporary India from urban design to fashion (at the end of one lecture, Annapurna would show us how to don a sari). Not present for our planning meeting, but arriving in time for our cruise departure was Peter Galbraith, former ambassador to Croatia and the son of John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith. Particularly fascinating to me were Galbraith’s reminiscences of watching as his father ably negotiated conflicts that roiled Indian-Pakistani relations.


As our luggage was loaded on busses, our tour formally began this Sunday morning with the two-hour trip south to the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram. I’d wanted to see this ever since my late and respected Indologist colleague Hans Penner had lectured on it during our years of co-teaching Religion One. The site, a series of impressive stone-carved monuments, and a stone-built temple on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, didn’t disappoint.

Here’s a collection of sculptural experiments: large granitic boulders carved to create animal forms such as Lord Siva’s mount, the bull Nandi, and others hollowed out, reproducing the cave-like forms of some of the earliest Hindu temples.

The Shore Temple itself is a jewel-like edifice dedicated to Siva whose park features an assemblage of many sculptures of Nandi. Note the water in the distance.


As we approached the temple I experienced a brief moment of confusion. My impending first lecture on Hindu cosmogony and cosmology would argue that the entrance to a Hindu temple, reflecting Hindu cosmology, ordinarily faces east, the location of dawn, light, and the gods. Yet according to my iPhone compass, the observable opening in the small out-building in the photo above faced due west. But I knew that that outbuilding was a separate structure. Rounding the far side of the building, the side facing east to the Bay of Bengal, I looked up to a blocked portal, the main entrance.

Our day ended as we traveled back to the port just north of Chennai, where our ship, the Island Sky, awaited. Its multinational crew stood by with chilled towels and cold drinks, a welcome refreshment from the warm and humid Tamil Nadu climate. These greetings from an excellent crew after a day’s excursion, and wonderful meals onboard, were always high points of the trip.


This day was spent at sea, with a plethora of lectures. When planning this schedule, we were all a bit daunted. “Too much?” we asked. But it turned out that the four talks nicely filled an otherwise lazy day at sea. I was particularly fascinated to hear Martha Crenshaw’s brief history and analysis of the Tamil Tiger insurgency, as well as Michael Golay’s contrast of Chinese and Indian energy futures, with his prediction that because of its commitment and technology, China, despite its enormous current pollution problems, may become the world leader in addressing global climate change.


We awoke this morning in the northwestern Sri Lankan port of Trincomalee. After breakfast, buses took us inland to the ruins of Polunnarua, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The two and half hour bus ride to the north-central interior of the island took us through a region that had been torn for almost three decades by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, who fought to create an independent Tamil state. The conflict, which began in 1983 and lasted over 25 years, resulted in the death of an estimated 80,000–100,000 people. In the course of the conflict, the insurgents’ indiscriminate violence led to their being labeled as a terrorist organization, while the government side was accused of conducting a campaign of human rights violations. In 2009, with its top leadership captured or slain, the LTTE surrendered. Since then, tourism, which had virtually come to a halt during the conflict, has slowly begun to recover. Our tour was a small a part of that recovery.

Outside the windows of our bus, there was no sign of the conflict. We drove past modest villages sparsely located along the highway and separated by broad expanses of partially flooded rice fields:

Despite its grievous recent history, what first impresses one about Sri Lanka is the greenness of the landscape. Situated just above the equator (between 6 and 9 degrees north latitude) and reasonably well watered by monsoon rains, the island is intensely verdant. Equally impressive is the cleanliness of the landscape. Although Lanka is a poor nation, (Its per capita GDP at $3,900, which, although twice as large as India’s, is dwarfed by the U.S.’s at $57,000.) it’s amazingly orderly and clean. Roadsides are free of debris, and villages are tidy, a striking contrast with India, whose roadsides are littered with paper, plastic, and garbage (see photo below at April 2). When I asked our guide Latif how he could explain the difference between the two neighboring countries, he replied simply, “Buddhism” and added, “Buddhism teaches cleanliness.” Frankly, I’d never heard that before, but it’s a hypothesis worth pursuing.

Polunnarua is the remains of what was once a major political and religious complex, the capital of the ruling dynasty from the eleventh through thirteenth century. In some cases, brick interior structures are all that remain of what were once magnificent stone-clad temples and stupas. The famed relic of the Buddha’s tooth (his left canine), which, now resides in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, spent one of its stays here as local monarchs sought legitimation through religious symbolism. Here are some images from our visit.

Remains of the Royal Palace:

A beautifully carved entrance stairway to the temple compound:

The remains of one of the temples at the site:

The exterior wall of the stupa (reliquary) that is said to have once contained the Buddha’s tooth:

And the stupa itself:


As we prepared to board our bus for the journey to another part of the compound, a local monkey family looked on.


A few minutes drive away was the gargantuan stupa of Ronkoth Vehera:


And here a series of Buddha sculptures at Gal Vihara . . . .


. . . . with the Buddha in his reclining position:



Evening was spent in a fine shipboard meal and then sleep, as the eastern coast of Sri Lanka slipped by. We awoke with the ship docked in Hanbantota, an expansive, well equipped but still almost unused port on the island’s southern coast. The port and nearby international airport were built in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated Hanbantota and killed more than 4500 people in the area and thousands more in Sri Lanka. To build the port and airport, the government drew somewhat controversially on substantial Chinese investment, but its dreams of a major, tax-free transfer zone for east-west commerce have not yet materialized, and our diminutive ship was alone among the largely empty piers.

But Hanbantota is a jumping off place for the remarkable Bundala National Park nature reserve, a 25-square-mile wildlife sanctuary that in 2005 was declared a Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Following a short, 15-kilometer bus ride, we transferred to four-wheel drive vehicles and began a bumpy tour of this vast and pristine marsh with its many species of birds, reptiles, and large mammals. Here, briefly, is a selection of images:

One of the safari vehicles:

A stretch of marsh:

Water buffalo grazing:

A termite mound:

A tiny dragon:

A handsome peacock:







And, as dusk fell, we witnessed the sudden appearance of an elephant:

One of the wonderful things about Sri Lanka is that elephants range free throughout the island. But they face many risks, whether from collisions with motor vehicles or from the wrath of farmers whose crops they threaten. Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) is a major cause of elephant mortality. In two days, as a stop on our way to Kandy, we would visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, where a herd of seventy elephants whose mothers were killed or lost is maintained.


The short overnight sail took us to Galle on the island’s southwestern tip. Occupied over the centuries in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, Galle bears the marks of each culture. Here, for example, is a scene that could come right out of a small British village:

Here, a Dutch reformed church:

The fort, built by the Portuguese and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, dominates the seafront:

On a promontory a young entrepreneur sells his skill at diving from the high rocks below into the sea:


As our day ended, we crossed paths with a group of schoolchildren visiting the fort. Note the boys’ neat white shirts.

Is this another token of Sri Lankans’ commitment to cleanliness (keeping whites clean is hard work in this steamy environment)? More to be noted is Sri Lanka’s adult literacy rate of 93 percent and 90+ percent secondary school attendance. The government furnishes education free for all children. Here, again, the contrast with India is striking. Adult literacy there, although making significant gains in recent years, stands at only 75%. School attendance in India is also dependent on family income, with the result that only about half of boys attend secondary school and even fewer girls do so. So Sri Lanka, despite its recently tortured history, shows that culture and values play a larger role in a nation’s advancement than GDP alone.


Morning found us docked in the picturesque harbor of Colombo, the island’s west coast port and largest city. Note the large stupa at the center styled on the casket that holds the Buddha’s tooth:

Our group split in two, one group heading by train to Kandy and the nearby Royal Botanical Garden, the other, which included us, taking busses to Kandy with a stop mid-way at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. There are critics of this facility who believe that too much time is spent showcasing the herd to tourists and too little seeking to return the animals to the wild. But given the dangers posed to Sri Lanka’s elephants by Human-Elephant Conflict, I wonder whether the public education afforded by this facility doesn’t justify its existence. During our visit, a school holiday, scores of schoolchildren were enchanted by their contact with these amazing creatures. These children will shape the future of the island’s free ranging pachyderms (again note the girls’ white outfits):

Here are some photos from our visit.

Feeding time:












An elephant stroll:

Down to the river for a daily bath and shower:


After leaving the orphanage, we continued on to Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth. I’ve wanted to see this since Hans Penner described his visit to me many years ago. Following Hans’s visit, however, the temple experienced a terrible episode in 1998 when Tamil insurgents detonated a massive truck bomb at the entrance. The bomb killed sixteen people, including the three attackers and a two-year old infant. Twenty-five people were injured and the temple itself was badly damaged.

Although visitors must pass through a security check at the entrance, none of this history is evident today. A walkway lined with flowering trees leads up to the temple:

Approaching the golden casket that houses the tooth, one can buy flowers to honor the Buddha:

Here worshippers venerate the sage:

The tooth itself is contained in a stupa-like gold casket about six feet high. The casket is kept in a chamber behind this protective tapestry and is displayed only during an annual festival. You can see a depiction of the casket on the tapestry:

Here’s some detail of the temple itself:

At 1600 feet altitude, Kandy is a bit cooler than coastal Sri Lanka, but a day spent in Sri Lankan heat and humidity can be enervating. So we were pleased to end the day with a return to port on board an air-conditioned (but vintage) train. Some images:



Farewell lovely Sri Lanka. We awoke this morning in the Indian harbor of Trivandrum surrounded by colorful fishing boats. The large statue of Jesus was a first sign of the strong Christian presence on this southwestern Indian coast:

Our visit to this city of seven hills would include three sites, the Napier Museum with its extensive collection of Indian religious statuary and artifacts; the Kuthira Malika palace, a maharaja’s edifice fantasy and testimony to the unbridled wealth of indigenous potentates in the pre-colonial era; and an outside glimpse at the Padmanabha Swami Temple, with its mammoth Dravidian-style gopura entrance gate.

As we approached the Napier Museum, we passed a colorful kiosk:

Some flower vendors:

And a striking topiary at the entrance to the museum:

The Napier Museum is a nineteenth confection of British and Asian architecture. No photographs are permitted in the interior, but the outside is itself an objet d’art.

I couldn’t resist this photo of an Indian dog near the entrance to the museum. All such dogs in both Sri Lanka and India seem roughly of the same indistinct breed (though of different colors), and all think nothing of bedding down on the floor of a bus depot, or otherwise busy thoroughfare:

Taking pictures was also forbidden inside the Kuthira Malika Palace, the seat for generations of the Travancore Royal Family. Its wooden construction is famous for multiple horse sculptures reflecting a passion of the monarchs. I confess, too, that the confined spaces and daunting heat and humidity made this a difficult visit. What was impressive was the evidence of the vast wealth of these local rulers and their strong relationships with the British aristocracy. This was a reminder that caste and hierarchy were ideas that didn’t divide but united the British of the Raj and their Indian subjects.

Wealth was on our minds as we emerged from the palace into the short street leading to the Padmanabha Swami Temple. As Westerners, we couldn’t enter its interior precincts, just as lower caste Hindus were once forbidden from doing so. Even today, qualified Hindu visitors like these must don temple garb to enter this sacred site:

The temple entry is guarded, and intruders warded off, by this impressive demon figure, and, as we’ll see, for good reason.

Recently, five of six sealed underground chambers in the temple were broken open by the Indian government and were found to contain an enormous treasure in gold and jewelry: the fruits of centuries of temple donations by dynasties seeking favor from Vishnu, the lord of the temple, and from the rulers that controlled it. Here is a website offering stunning pictures of the treasure found so far.

Based on of what has been found to date, the treasure is said to be worth around $18 billion, not counting its antiquity and cultural value. Some believe that when the sixth chamber is opened—it is currently “guarded” by a serpent bas-relief threatening death to trespassers—the total value of the treasure could reach one trillion dollars, making Padmanabha Swami the richest religious edifice in the world. The central Indian government and Kerala government are currently disputing control of this wealth.

Here is the single large gopura (gate) of the temple itself.



With a close friend whose family emigrated from Kerala, and having read many accounts over the years of this unique state of India, I had long wanted to visit.

Kerala is known for its religious diversity (about twenty percent of its citizens are Christians, who date their community from a founding visit in the first century by the apostle Thomas). For over fifty years, it was ruled by a local version of the Communist party (which lost power to the Congress Party in 2011), and the state’s social progressiveness is reflected in its 94% adult literacy rate. Our brief visit to the state’s largest city, Kochi (previous name “Cochin”) and its environs did not disappoint. Arriving overnight, we docked at a mammoth port facility, and in the morning bussed into the Jewish sector of the city. “The Jews of Cochin” are also an ancient community, claiming a presence in India since the time of King Solomon. Others date their presence from the twelfth century, and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries following the expulsion from Spain, there was also an infusion into Cochin of Ladino-speaking Jews.

Sadly, little of this remains. “Jewtown,” as it is unashamedly called, features shops selling Jewish-themed trinkets. But with most of the Cochin Jews having emigrated to Israel, only a handful of Jews remain. These must join with the small number of others in the city and suburbs for occasional religious services in the Pardesi (“foreigners”) Synagogue. We were able to purchase a yarmulke and challah cover (for my sister and brother-in-law) that were handmade by a ninety year old Jewish woman whom we glimpsed through a window reading a religious text—one of the last of the Cochin Jews.

Some images of Jewtown:

Afternoon was an adventure to which I had long looked forward, a houseboat cruise through Kerala’s many interconnecting waterways and lakes. A one-and-half hour bus ride 55 kilometers south of Kochi took us past the usual array of colorful Indian sites. Here are some images from the bus of a temple festival underway:

A temple cart:

Arriving near the city of Alappuzha, we boarded our houseboat. Steered by a wiry helmsman, we joined the many other boats plying the waterways


The streams, canals, and lakes of Kerala are major centers of residential and commercial activity. Some of the commerce has waned but is being partly replaced by this large houseboat industry. Here are some images of our tour:

Boys bathing in the canal beside their home:

At one point, our houseboat (and the others in our party) pulled up along the side of a canal to give us a closer look at the village culture that lines the waterways.

It’s for good reason that India in general (and its south in particular) is regarded as the land of spices, since almost every savory plant flourishes here. As we walked, we could see spices drying:

Pepper growing (during the middle ages, this valuable Indian export cost more than salt and was sometimes used in food preservation):

A canalside house:

Maybe this is the moment to mention the dirt of India. Passing by this dwelling, I noted this open sewer. It’s estimated that 50 percent of Indians (mostly rural people) lack indoor toilets and just use fields, lots, or shorelines to do their business. Prime Minister Modi has initiated a “clean India” drive to spur the installation of indoor toilets, but according to one of our guides, this effort has been slowed by underfunding and corruption.

Contrast this with the beauty of India. On a nearby footpath, a group of friendly ladies in saris wave hello:

Further along, at the dock where we were picked up, a Communist flag waves proudly.


Having mentioned dirt above, here’s a photo snapped from the bus on our return. It’s a typical roadside in Kerala. The contrast with clean Sri Lanka couldn’t be more evident:


We remained in Kochi this morning, visiting sites we had missed the day before, including these fisherman who utilize cantilevered nets to pull fish out of the sea:

Large stones provide counterbalance and permit the men to pull the catch-laden nets from the water:

Here’s the result of a morning’s work:

Following a visit to the interior of the Pardesi Synagogue (photography forbidden) we returned to the ship and departed for the start of a long run up India’s western coast that would eventually take us to Mumbai (which apparently everyone still prefers to call “Bombay”).


Morning found us in Mangalore, where a bus tour took us inland first to Moodabidri and the thousand-pillared 15th-century Jain Saavira Kambada temple. . . .

. . . . and following that to nearby Karkala and the mammoth statue of Bahubali, a Jain adept and liberated soul (siddha) who escaped the stream of karmicly determined death and rebirth (samsara). Standing high on a hill overlooking the surrounding landscape, this tenth century monolith, 57 feet high and carved from a single block, is one of the largest freestanding statues in the world. Legend has it that Bahubali stood erect and unmoving in meditation for one year before attaining liberation, during which time vines grew his legs, as you can see on the statue:

Before returning to the ship, we had a buffet lunch at Soans Farm, an innovative agricultural plantation that has successfully introduced new varieties of pineapples and other tropical plants into the region.


We awoke this morning docked in the harbor at Goa, a former Portuguese possession for hundreds of years that remained an overseas province of Portugal as late as 1974. Since we had a good stretch of Indian ocean to transit before reaching Mumbai, this stop was short: a 7AM departure for a three-hour visit that included a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, containing the casket of St. Francis Xavier, and then a visit to the State Archaeological Museum. But awakening somewhat tired and with a lecture to complete, I decided to skip this tour. That afternoon, I enjoyed delivering my illustrated lecture on the Ramayana. As Diana Eck argues in her India: A Sacred Geography, Rama’s travels mark off many of the sacred sites of the Indian subcontinent, recapitulating in reverse some of our trip. So it was a treat to be able to introduce the travelers to this wonderful story of Rama’s loss of his beloved wife Sita and his struggle to recover her with the help of his brother Lakshmana and the wily trickster Hanuman.


Today, we’ve arrived at Mumbai and the end of our journey (though some travelers would go on to a post-trip excursion to Ajanta-Ellora, which I had visited years ago with my then teenage son, Matthew). Travelers would depart our bus tour in waves throughout the day, but we had much of the morning together to visit sites around the city.

Here we are aboard the bus, proceeding along the city’s attractive shoreline.

En route, we paused briefly beside the Taj Hotel. Here’s the old part of the hotel:

And here its modern tower:

The Taj first opened in 1903. Popular accounts (not entirely reliable) have it that Jamsetji Tata, founder of the great Tata industrial empire, decided to build the hotel after he was refused entry to one of the city’s grand hotels that was restricted to “whites only.” Tragically, in 2008 terrorists arriving in small boats staged a bloody attack and occupation of the hotel. Indian authorities, our guide opined, were slow in responding, and the attack ended with the deaths of 164 victims.

Our next stop was the Crawford Market, a rambling assemblage of food vendors in a series of buildings, some of which are now undergoing renovation.

Here’s a newer part of the market:

No need for a shopping cart. On entering the market, you can hire one of these fellows to carry your purchases:

A beautiful basket of acid limes, a variety I had never seen before:

Equally unusual and attractive melons:

A pluck of chickens:

A merchant amidst his wares:

India’s (and much of Southeast Asia’s) favorite mood-enhancing drug is betel. Here in a corner of the market a vendor prepares the stimulant by wrapping ground Areca palm nut in a betel vine leaf that has been coated with lime. Chewing this turns the user’s mouth and teeth a red color, as it does the floor or sidewalk when the used-up mixture is spit out.


Leaving the market, our next stop was a modest museum-library dedicated to the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi. A nicely done bas-relief adorned the entrance:

The interior walls were lined with framed quotations from the Mahatma. This one struck me as particularly wise:


A room on the top floor of the museum offered a re-creation of Gandhi’s quarters in his ashram near Ahmedabad. Spinning wheels symbolizing his call for a return to Indian economic self-reliance and indigenous craftsmanship line the wall:

Our next stop took us to the rail station to watch dabbawalas perform their miracles. This core of workers distributes over 130,000 lunchboxes every working day throughout Mumbai. The insulated boxes are filled in the morning by the worker’s wife, delivered by suburban rail, picked up by the dabbawalas, delivered to the worker’s office, re-collected after lunch, and returned home by rail. These feats of organization and near perfect efficiency on the part of semi-literate workers have drawn the attention of the Harvard Business Review ( and were celebrated in the 2013 film THE LUNCHBOX.

A collection of lunchboxes just arrived by train:

A dabbawala carrying lunchboxes to the waiting bicycle-mounted deliverymen:

Our own lunch was at an excellent Indian restaurant. After that, busses dropped us at an elegant near-airport hotel, where the travelers could spend the latter part of the day awaiting the evening departure of most of our flights.

To conclude, I must say that this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was no way, traveling on our own, that we could have seen all the destinations that we did. The local guides throughout and the excursions were terrific. With our two bus tours to the interior and circumnavigation of Sri Lanka, I feel we had an extraordinary introduction to this beautiful island nation. I’d like to go back. And in our stops in Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, in particular, we deepened our understanding of the Indian subcontinent. Our fellow travelers, including alumni of Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Dartmouth, were wonderful conversation partners and responders to our lectures.

While traveling I had a chance to read Jene Drèze and Amartya Sen’s 2013 book, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. Drèze and Sen note India’s astonishing recent economic growth (7% per year), but its lingering problems of illiteracy, inequality, and sexism. They contrast India with Bangladesh, which, with half the GDP, has made better progress in education and the inclusion of women in society. For me, this trip confirmed their general finding. India is an emerging giant on the world stage and still one of the most remarkable cultures in the world. It is always worth the visit. But to advance further, India will have to follow the lead of its tiny neighbor Sri Lanka in creating a clean and sustainable environment, educating its citizens, and affording all of them, regardless of sex, caste, or income, greater equality of opportunity.




















Op Eds (Published & Unpublished)

How Will Neil Gorsuch Vote on Roe v. Wade?



How will Neil M. Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, rule on abortion? Will Gorsuch sustain the many impediments to abortion recently introduced in state legislatures across the country? Will he vote to overturn Roe v. Wade’s establishment of a woman’s basic liberty- and privacy-right to abortion?

Answering these questions is difficult because Gorsuch has almost no record of ruling in abortion-related cases.

In his service on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Gorsuch ruled against the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, but this 2013 decision at best only reinforces the impression that he is willing to privilege the claims of people with dissenting religious objections to reproductive health care over the needs of the women served by that care. In 2015, in the wake of the release of secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood workers discussing the provision of fetal tissue, Utah’s governor stripped the organization of funding. When the 10th Circuit Court struck the governor’s ruling down, Gorsuch wrote a dissent defending the governor’s action. But this dissent was based on narrow factual matters and did not address the issue of abortion itself.

This leaves us with only one major source for understanding Gorsuch’s likely positions on abortion and Roe v. Wade: his 2006 book The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. Published by Princeton Press in a series edited by Robert P. George, one of the nation’s leading conservative intellectuals and a widely published opponent of a right to abortion, Gorsuch’s book barely mentions abortion. But there are significant strands in the argument that do not bode well for the preservation of Roe.

Chief among these is the principle of the “inviolability-of-life,” which Gorsuch believes rules out both physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. This principle, views human life as intrinsically valuable no matter what its quality or duration, and it stresses agents’ intent in acting. While it is permissible to discontinue aggressive medical care where the intent is to relieve suffering and respect a patient’s clearly expressed treatment wishes, Gorsuch argues that this principle forbids heeding a patient’s request for assistance in dying, whether by prescribing lethal medications or administering them, because the intent in such cases, by both patient and physician, is to cause death.

Bioethicists like me will quibble with many of Gorsuch’s aruments. One problem is whether it is possible or even desirable to interpret intent as decisively as Gorsuch wants to do. Does a doctor really kill a patient when she prescribes a lethal medication, or is her intent to help the patient to achieve his desired end of life? A deeper problem is whether the writing of a prescription is itself a death-dealing act or whether it is not more properly described as “getting out of the way” and removing state-imposed restrictions that limit someone’s access to needed drugs.

But these questions are beside the point. What is troubling in Gorsuch’s argument is his strong reliance on the “inviolability-of-life” principle because he never states how far this principle extends. Does it comprise the early embryo or first trimester fetus? Does it protect the third trimester fetus that has been diagnosed in utero with Trisomy-13? This is a condition largely incompatible with survival. Only a tenth of Trisomy 13 babies live beyond their first year. But if life is inviolable no matter what its quality or duration, will parents who receive this diagnosis of their fetus be prohibited from terminating a pregnancy? Only Mr. Gorsuch knows his answers to these questions, but the broad argument in his book is not encouraging for supporters of a woman’s or a couple’s right to make these reproductive decisions on their own.

From the perspective of Roe v. Wade, there is another, less obvious theme in The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia that is troubling for those who support abortion rights. Again and again, Gorsuch signals his preference for leaving complex issues like physician-assisted suicide to “legislative experimentation” at the state level rather than resorting to the kind of broad national mandate epitomized by Roe v. Wade. Although this is a popular position among abortion opponents, its effect would be to return us to the pre-Roe reality where women had to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to the few states (New York, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska) that had repealed their prohibitory laws. In effect, in a post-Roe world, across broad swaths of the country women would be denied access to abortion.

Neil Gorsuch’s rulings and writings provide no definitive answers to the questions with which we started. He is the perfect stealth candidate for the Supreme Court. But if his appointment is approved, the hints in these writings portend the effective end of the right to abortion in this country.




Havana, Cuba—January 18-21, 2017

With the Trump inauguration looming, Mary Jean and I chose to take advantage of the eased travel opportunities to Cuba created by Obama’s opening to that country to make a quick trip to Havana. We fear that our new president might limit or even terminate the convenient flights recently made available by several airlines. It also seemed a good idea to be out of the country on inauguration day. With an Airbnb reservation in hand, we drove over to Fort Lauderdale from Sanibel, boarded a Southwest flight, and in fifty minutes were at Jose Marti airport in Havana.

This proved to be a city of stark contradictions. On the one hand, it seems to be in a state of terminal deterioration. Although some restoration is going on in the city center, most homes and buildings have not been repaired or even painted in decades (a consequence, perhaps, of prohibitions on private ownership that were only eased a few years ago). Many people live in squalid environments. Two photographs document this. First, in the heart of the city the remains of a once-beautiful fountain:


And here, the rear of a deteriorating pre-revolution hotel, with its empty swimming pool:


But if Havana’s physical environment is deteriorating, its human one seems to be vibrant. Although our Airbnb was located in one of the poorest and most racially mixed districts of the city—many would call it a slum—we quickly learned that we were safe walking the streets night and day. Everyone we met—and I mean everyone, from neighbors sitting on their stoops to pedicab drivers or local merchants—were friendly, welcoming, and helpful. People of different races mix and interact as friends. When I asked our Airbnb host why there was no menace or violence in this otherwise very poor neighborhood, he replied that from elementary school on children are taught to respect one another. Bullying, he added, is never permitted. So while the revolution, the blockade and their consequences have diminished Havana’s material wealth, they seem to have enriched its human environment. Here are some photographs of our neighborhood:

Interrupted in their mid-road soccer game, three friends:


During our two days on the ground, we tried to see as much of the city as we could: walking the streets of Old Havana, visiting the leading museums, grabbing a daiquiri at Hemingway’s watering hole, the Floridita, and even taking an extensive open-top bus tour of the city’s outer districts. Here is a succinctly annotated collage of some of the sites we visited.

[NOTE: To those of you planning to visit Cuba, a word of advice. This is a cash economy. We didn’t stay in an upscale hotel, and, despite guidebook claims, we nowhere encountered a willingness to accept credit cards. ATMs do not help (and one swallowed one of my cards). The relatively scarce change agencies (“cadecas”) discount the dollar heavily. My recommendation for now is to change all the money you’ll need for your stay into Euros, and change these as soon as you arrive at the airport cadeca. Be prudent but not worried about having cash. Havana is safe.]


Thursday began with a walk downtown via the Malecon, Havana’s miles-long seafront esplanade and gathering place. Here, a bit out of chronological order, is a snapshot of this thoroughfare taken the following day from our open-air bus:


Downtown some building restorations are underway on the Paseo del Prado, the city’s most elegant thoroughfare:


Here the Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada. This has recently been beautifully restored with assistance from Spain:



Following a walk around the Old Havana neighborhood and lunch, the afternoon was devoted to a search for the family that welcomed Mary Jean to Havana nearly a decade a go when she visited with her wonderful (but now deceased) Canadian colleague Ben Scheck. Mary Jean had no idea of where the family lived or what their family name was, but she did recall that one of the daughters, Alina, taught mathematics at the University of Havana. A cab ride took us to this impressive pre-revolutionary campus:


We were fortunate to locate Alina, who came out of a class session to meet us and tell us where her mother and the family home were located. This quest took us to a gracious neighborhood in the Vedado district, not far from the sea, where we met her sister Alita, and chatted for an hour with both women’s mother, Ada. This energetic 84-year old still teaches English to a roster of classes. She regretted that limited mobility prevents her from traveling to visit family members and grandchildren who now live abroad. This theme of close family members who have left Cuba is one we repeatedly heard, whether from middle-class teachers like Ada or taxi and pedicab drivers. Cubans are proud of family members who have managed to succeed abroad. However, Cuba’s financial and political isolation separates them from loved ones.

Our day ended with an undistinguished meal at a restaurant near our Airbnb hostal. The reminded us of our dinner of the evening before. I mention it here, because it was so much a highlight of stay that we returned to it on the eve of our departure. Café Laurent is a “paladar” or privately owned restaurant. Expanding the food scene well beyond the previous state-run restaurants, paladares have been allowed in just the past few years and are among the best dining places in Cuba. Café Laurent is located on the top (penthouse) floor of what seems to be a private apartment. It afforded sweeping views of the western part of the city and of the sea. My meal, a black rice seafood risotto, was memorable. Here seated just after the restaurant opened, is Mary Jean viewing the setting sun:



Morning encompassed visits to the leading downtown museums. The first of these, the Museum of Bellas Artes stands in two buildings, one celebrating modern and another traditional art. We visited the modern art museum, with its striking building and extraordinary collection of paintings from the nineteen thirties on.

0055-museo-de-bellas-artes  0185-bellas-artes-interior

I couldn’t begin to present the many wonderful works displayed, including an entire gallery devoted to the work of Wilfredo Lam, Cuba’s important Picasso-influenced artist (see: ). But here is one (semi-political?) 2003 canvas by Sandra Ramos that caught my eye. Depicting Cuba as a woman, its inscription reads: “The damned circumstance of water everywhere”:


Just beside the Museo de Bellas Artes modern art building is the Museum of the Revolution with its impressive memorial to the Granma, the 60-foot yacht that in November 1956 sailed from Mexico to Cuba’s Oriente province carrying Fidel Castro and 81 other insurgents belonging to the 26th of July movement. (The movement takes its name from the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953 that led to Fidel‘s imprisonment, his departure from Cuba, and his return in 1956 on the Granma.) The exhibit thus celebrates the start of the Cuban revolution. Here’s the Granma:


And just beyond a jeep used by Fidel is a delivery truck used by the rebels that was caught in a firefight during the early days of the insurgency:


The actual museum, housed in the nearby presidential palace, is, like its counterpart in Hanoi, an uninspired and dusty collection of revolutionary artifacts that exudes a sense of weariness with the revolution. I suppose that acolytes might thrill to this collection of Che Guevara memorabilia (including his medical tools, pipe and shirt with a 26 of July armband):


I was amused by this wall installation, “The Corner of Cretins,” featuring presidents Reagan and Bush, father and son (but notably not President Obama):


The rest of the morning took us to the newly opened Casa de Africa, with an impressive collection of statuary celebrating various Santería deities and a special exhibition of contemporary Gelede, Yoruba religious and artistic masks. Here’s a powerful statue of Eleggua, the most important of the Santeria orishas (deities):


And here, two modern takes on traditional Yoruba masks by the artist Wabi Dossou. Above is “La Clase,” and below, “Women’s Liberty”:



Our morning concluded with a stop at El Floridita, one of the many bars made famous by Hemingway’s patronage. Nowadays, it’s besieged by bus-tour visitors willing to pay $6 for a daiquiri. Surprisingly, though, the daiquiri was good enough to merit the visit.



Before leaving Old Havana and the Prado area, we took note of the beautifully restored 1950s American cars, many serving as taxis, for which Havana is well known:



Although this living, driving auto museum is one of the most colorful and famous aspects of Havana, we learned from one our taxi drivers that it derives from an unfortunate policy that forbids the sale of new cars in Havana to all but government agencies. This means that existing cars must be maintained and recycled. Our taxi back to the airport, a green restored and repainted 1950 Chevy was powered by a Toyota diesel tractor engine, and sounded every bit like the farm implement it was under the hood.

Following lunch we took an open-topped bus tour of the city and its near suburbs. This took us through some still relatively beautiful neighborhoods and past the elegant Miramar beach resorts and hotels that continue to attract an affluent clientele. Here’s one:


One of the more striking features of Havana today is the continuing emphasis on the cult of leadership with its pantheon of Fidel and Che Guevara. Here, at the Plaza de Revolución a building façade is dedicated to Che. The inscription reads: “Hasta la Victoria Siempre—Always on to Victory.”


Further on, a small government building celebrates Fidel (to the far left) and Hugo Chávez, described in the faint accompanying inscription as “El Mejor Amigo de Cuba—Cuba’s Best Friend.”


These images tell us that Cuba is at a fateful moment. The icons of the past, Fidel, Che, and even Chavez, are gone. We saw not one image of Raul Castro, Fidel’s bother and the charismatically-challenged current president. Will Cuba open itself to change? Will the US continue its willingness to engage? And if change comes will it efface what is so unique and inviting about this land: its open and gentle people?

Hoping that President Trump does not terminate the newly opened relations, we plan to return to Cuba next year in search of answers to these questions.


Response to Karen Lebacqz and Stephen Palmquist

On May 30, 2015, Dartmouth’s Religion Department hosted a conference celebrating my retirement and that of my colleague Nancy Frankenberry. For that conference, Karen Lebacqz and Stephen R. Palmquist delivered papers examining my writings in the areas of bioethics and philosophy of religion.  Karen Lebacqz’s paper, entitled “On Hope and Hard Choices: Ronald M. Green and Bioethics” now appears in the December issue of The Journal of Religious Ethics [Vol. 44, no. 4, (2016), pp. 722-737], where it is followed by the published version of Stephen R. Palmquist’s paper, entitled, “The Paradox of Inwardness in Kant and Kierkegaard: Ronald Green’s Legacy in Philosophy of Religion” [The Journal of Religious Ethics [Vol. 44, no. 4, (2016), pp. 738-751].

My own “Response to Karen Lebacqz and Stephen Palmquist,” delivered at the conference, follows their papers in the journal [The Journal of Religious Ethics [Vol. 44, no. 4, (2016), pp. 752-759]. As an author, I am permitted to share this essay with interested readers. It can be read here: response-to-kl-sp

Opinion, Opinion

My Review of DENIAL starring Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkinson

This afternoon, we were privileged to see the new film DENIAL by Director Mick Jackson (THE BODYGUARD, TEMPLE GRANDIN), starring Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, Tom Wilkinson, as her barrister, Richard Rampton, Timothy Spall as David Irving, and Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius, Ms. Lipstadt’s solicitor.

I am writing to counter the largely negative reviews of this film. Stephen Holden in the New York Times http://[ says that “The absence of an emotional catharsis in the film . . . leaves a frustrating emptiness at its center.” Writing in The Guardian, Nigel M Smith, among other things describes the film as “a standard issue legal drama with broad stakes and zero nuance.” And Stephanie Merry in the Chicago Tribune, says the film “may be competent at telling its story, but it’s missing one key ingredient: feeling.”

I could not disagree more. This is a riveting and beautifully done recounting of Deborah Lipstadt’s effort to defend herself against the libel action launched by David Irving whom she described in her 1994 Book Denying the Holocaust as a Hitler defender and Holocaust denier. Emotional scenes abound: Lipstadt’s engagements with her team of lawyers who believed that the center of the case had to be not a proof of the reality of the Holocaust but an attack on Irving’s historiography; Lipstadt’s agonizing encounter with a Holocaust survivor who felt that survivors’ testimony deserved a place in the trial while Lipstadt’s lawyers believed that this would only provide an opening for Irvings’ easy abuse of them as gold diggers; Lipstadt’s final admission that her lawyer’s strategy was wise, though it required her to put her own emotional interest in defending her claims aside.

Having read much of the courtroom testimony (Richard Evans, Lying about Hitler; Robert Jan van Pelt’s, The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial, I’m amazed that the film is able to present so much of the complex testimony. The individual performances, above all that of Weisz, as the courageous but conscientiously conflicted Lipstadt, and Wilkinson as her late night Scotch-sipping but dedicated attorney, are excellent. The editing and cinematography serve the narrative at each moment. This is cinema as it should be. It’s sad when able reviewers fail to see or support that.