From February 29 to March 15, 2016 we made a long anticipated trip to Southeast Asia. This included stays in Hanoi, Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Tokyo. This narrative recounts some of the highlights of our trip and offers reflections on things we learned.

To begin, this is a good moment for many parts of Asia. Yes, there are storm clouds. North Korea, the air pollution that comes with rapid development, China’s mercurial stock market. But this part of the globe is at least relatively far from the madness of the Middle East, and its economies are thriving. Here’s a snapshot of a group of Japanese students with whom we shared a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia (Angkor Wat). Their evident joyfulness captures the upbeat spirit in this part of the world.

001 Japanese Kids

Hanoi beckoned because a friend and colleague of Mary Jean’s, Jack Yeager of LSU, is teaching there this term on a Fulbright grant. During the Vietnam War years, Jack learned Vietnamese and is now a renowned specialist in Vietnamese literature. His knowledge of Vietnam eased our adjustment to the city. Here’s a snapshot of Jack who hosted us during our visit.



HANOI. What can one say of this bustling old Imperial capital? First, one notes—one must note—the traffic. This snapshot shows the endless stream of cars, busses and motorbikes—above all motorbikes.



Crossings at traffic lights are scarce and the rules governing them arcane (“right turn on tourist” seems to be one). Crosswalks exist to lure naive pedestrians to their death. Here’s how we were instructed to get across a street: “First make sure there are no busses or cars. They will not stop. Then close your eyes and walk slowly across. The motorbike drivers will dodge around you. But don’t run or they won’t be able to miss you.

Motorbikes are the all purpose means of transport, having replaced the trams of the colonial era. They carry everything from trees:

001 Tree Scooter

to families

Whole Families

to dogs


Because of air pollution, many of the scooterists wear facemasks. As I write, today’s English-language Vietnamese newspaper reports that Hanoi’s air is seven times more hazardous than WHO’s maximum allowable level. In our nine day visit a foggy haze constantly blanketed the city.

Our hotel is located next to the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, which serves like Central Park in Manhattan to offer a refreshing break from the city’s pace and congestion. Here’s a view of the lake looking northward toward a small island with a temple reached by a colorful red bridge:


At the other end of the lake is a small pagoda


182 Turtle Pagoda

Legend has it that a semi-divine turtle lived here and furnished an ancient emperor with a sword to liberate the city. A stuffed replica of this turtle is found in the temple reached by the red bridge:


A descendant of that turtle who actually dwelled in the lake died recently of old age and there is talk of restocking the lake with a Chinese relative.

Hanoi is the capitol of one of the world’s surviving Communist states, but it’s a free market, small capitalist, entrepreneurial festival. Its streets are lined with small shops, tiny open-air restaurants, including countless “Pho” (pronounced Pha) shops serving hot rice-noodle soup or fried snacks, and individual vendors touting all kinds of wares.

Store Fronts












Women, young and old, traverse the streets carrying baskets of goods suspended from their shoulders.


Woman Carrying Goods

A parenthetical word here about gender. Of course a foreigner cannot easily know the intimate power relationships within families, and there is evidence that as in America women assume a disproportionate share of household and child rearing work. But outwardly, Vietnamese society seems remarkably gender-equal. Women participate in every aspect of society, whether as shop owners or functionaries. Fathers are seen tending children. Women’s dress outfit, the attractive Ao Dai features light skirt-like back and front panels that conceal sensible pants. Here’s a specimen:

Ao Dai

There are no veils or mandatory head coverings here as in Riad or Jerusalem. (And while I’m at it let me celebrate the easy availability of beer, wine and pork. This is not a land of taboos.)


And there is much good food. On the evening of our arrival, we met Jack Yeager and some of his friends for dinner at the Com Viet, a beautifully preserved old townhouse become restaurant. (This place is so esteemed that, as you can see by the photo on the wall, Hillary dined here during one of her state visits.)

006a Dinner at Com Viet with HillaryJPG

Dinner was our introduction to North Vietnamese cuisine, a food tradition that combines the abundance of Southeast Asian agriculture with Chinese and French culinary finesse. Here’s our table, spread with nems (fresh and fried rolls) and diverse stir-fried plates.

005Dinner Table at Com VietJPG



Our first full day on the ground began with a must-do visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. If anyone is the father of this nation, it’s Ho Chi Minh. For thirty years he led his nation’s independence struggle against the French, the Japanese, the French again, and then the Americans. I personally regret that I became aware of Ho’s committed lifelong leadership only at the onset of the “American War” in 1965. In a small act of contrition for our own country’s tragic and foolish involvement in Vietnam, we visited Ho’s mausoleum.

The authorities handle the daily influx of thousands of visitors with great aplomb. We joined a line that snaked for nearly half a mile through the compound but took less than an hour to traverse.


006 Mausoleum_4060

Much of the line was populated with school groups. The kids were all similarly outfitted in bright (“Scooterists beware!”) jackets bearing individual school crests on their shoulders.

09 Schoolchilldren

The mausoleum itself has all the marks of Soviet-era design.

08 Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Inside, Ho’s body glows gently under subdued lighting and the line passes quickly by. (Photos are not allowed, but you can find a rather poor picture here: I’ve now seen Lenin’s mummified body in Red Square, Chairman Mao’s in Tienanmen Square, and Ho’s here in Hanoi. Catholicism’s love of saints’ relics pales in comparison to these atheistic pilgrimage sites. (In fairness, Ho wanted to be cremated but after his death, the party thought otherwise.)

Just beyond the mausoleum is the compound where Ho lived and worked before his death in 1969 and during (what we call) the Vietnam War. Here’s his office.

024 Ho Chi Minh's Workplace

Mysteriously, the U.S. never bombed the compound during our merciless pounding of Hanoi. Was our intelligence as lame as the war itself?


A short walk from Ho’s compound is the ancestor of all ancestor sites: Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. Dating from the 11th century, this was long a center of Confucian learning for the nation’s elite Mandarin leaders. The complex stretches over several acres, with shrines, pagodas and assembly rooms.

040 Temple of Literature

Housed in their own building, these stelae record the names and honors of several centuries worth of outstanding scholars.

054 Doctors' Stellae

In a bid to tradition, newly married couples visit the site for a photo shoot.

037 Married Couple

(Note each member of the couple’s lovely Ao Dai). And here, near the center of the complex is a shrine to Confucius himself.

072 Confucius

I suspect that to understand Vietnam, even its Communist incarnation today, one has to appreciate this long tradition of Mandarin leadership.


Museums are closed on Fridays, so our main event for the day was a morning cooking class on North Vietnamese cuisine at the Hanoi Cooking Centre. Our instructor, “Eee” (I can’t imagine how he spells this), greeted us at the door to this school-library-restaurant and immediately took us a short walk away to the outdoor market that nourishes the Centre. Here is Eee holding a “Buddha’s Finger” fruit. These are inedible but are used for offerings at Buddhist shrines. As you can see more clearly in the fruit on the table, it does indeed look like a collection of fingers.


092 Our chef-teacher Eee

The market itself was a flurry of activity, with motorbikes coming and going at high speed down the narrow lanes between the food stalls.

105 Market

Everything edible, and some things un-edible to us, can be found here. Sausage:

107 Market Sausage

All sorts of rice:

107a Rice

Fresh tofu:

114 Tofu


119 Egg Lady

And, yes, roasted dog:

108 Dog

Newly purchased ingredients in hand—not including the appetite-dimming canine offering—we returned to the Cooking Centre.

132 Classroom Kitchen

Our first assignment was to make fresh Vietnamese spring rolls using transparent rice paper. Here, Eee shows how it’s done:

   148 Nem

  150 Nem

152 Nem

Another dish was banana flower salad, made by taking a banana flower (note the little bananas growing inside)

144 Bananna Flowers

and thinly slicing across the tubular flower to get this main ingredient of the salad:

146 Bananna Flower Salad

I confess that this somewhat chewy concoction was not my favorite dish of the day, so I don’t regret that the Wellfleet General Store—or for that matter anyplace on Cape Cod—doesn’t carry banana flowers.

Our final dish was a stir-fried and then clay-pot-roasted chicken dish, which miraculously turned one small chicken leg into a meal for two. A keynote of Asian cooking is the use of small portions of expensive but savory foods to flavor and supplement the hunger-allaying rice.

We celebrated our morning’s class with a graduation photo and a luncheon at the upstairs restaurant featuring our own creations. This is the third cooking class I’ve taken on Asian travels (I had previously done one in Thailand and in Cambodia), and I heartily recommend this as a way of better understanding local culture.

142 In Class















WOMEN’s MUSEUM. Early afternoon was spent visiting the fascinating Women’s Museum. You’re welcomed into it with this large sculpture said to symbolize the status of Vietnamese women.

158 Women's Museum

She carries the nation’s future in the form of a child on her shoulder, and with her right hand is making a gesture of confidence. The museum’s three floors document, respectively, the lives of women in traditional Vietnamese society, women’s role in the struggle for independence, and contemporary fashion. I skipped the latter but dwelled on the important part played by women in what is here called “the American War,” where 40% of the combatants were women.

One panel displays photos of “Heroic Mothers of Vietnam,” who earned that title by having lost a husband, more than two children, an only child, or their own lives in the struggle. In 2008, more than 50,000 women were awarded this title, some posthumously.

162 Heroic Mothers

Equally poignant was a display devoted to Dang Thuy Tram, popularly known as the Anne Frank of Vietnam.

161 Dang Thuy Tram


161a Dang Thuy Tram Book

She was a 27-year old doctor in 1970 when she died in a firefight while defending her hospital from US attack. Her diary was found on her body by an American intelligence officer, who realizing its value, preserved it for thirty-five years until its publication in 2005. (You can read more about Dang Thuy Tram and her diary here: As in everything associated with this visit to Hanoi, I feel both contrition for our own country’s terrible role in this conflict, and admiration for the spirit of the Vietnamese people, not least of all its women. Their courage is symbolized in one other item among the exhibits: a facemask worn by female political cadres during meetings in which they sought to rally villagers to the independence cause. These masks were needed to keep their identity from enemy collaborators.

166 Protective Mask


Today was spent visiting sites around Hoan Kiem Lake: the still elegant French quarter with its Vuitton and Gucci shops, the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, the utterly congested shopping quarter above the lake, and a water puppet performance

The Museum of the Revolution had the expected grainy black and white photos of events during the Vietnam War. Two exhibits caught my attention. One is this 1953 photo of Richard Nixon visiting the country (still under French domination).

188 Nixon Visit 11-1953

Nixon, in his role as a cold warrior, prepared the way for so much that followed, which is not to exonerate Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, again, Nixon or Kissinger for this ill-considered involvement that continues to poison our national political life. (I regard Donald Trump as a late blooming karmic fruit of the divisiveness and class and partisan hatred spawned by this senseless war.)

The other exhibit is a bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh delivering Vietnam’s declaration of independence in Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi (right next to the site now of Ho’s mausoleum) on September 2, 1945.

186 Ho Chi Minh 9-2-45

The declaration almost plagiarizes our own Declaration if Independence and France’s Rights of Man. How different might the history of the late twentieth century be if Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist sentiments had prevailed, and if we had had the good sense to support this nationalist leader from the end of the Japanese occupation?

A difficult photographic environment prevented me from getting worthwhile images of the water puppet show. In any event, in visiting Vietnam, whether here or as we had in Saigon twenty years ago, one must take in one of these shows, where large puppets weighing up to fifteen kilos are manipulated by puppeteers behind a silk screen using long bamboo poles and strings under water. This art form stems from the culture of North Vietnam’s Red River delta region, where rice farmers developed it as seasonal entertainment. (Later this week, we visited Hanoi’s wonderful Ethnology Museum where one can see a full reconstruction of such a puppet theater. Here’s a photo:

330 Puppet Theater

And here’s a shot of the interior with a boatload of puppets ready for deployment:

332 Interior Puppets

Following the performance, I did manage one decent shot of the puppeteers emerging to take their bows:

192 Puppeteers



Today’s destination was Halong Bay, the remarkable formation of small mountains that march across a coastal bays 170 kilometers east of Hanoi in the Gulf of Tonkin. The daylong visit began with a four-hour bus trip to the coast across an agricultural and village landscape. As this photo shows, rice culture predominates:

195 Countryside

Since agricultural land is so vital, homes in the small villages or towns we passed reach upwards from small footprints:

198 Countryside

Arriving in Halong Bay, we encountered a remarkably well-run operation. Visitors by the hundreds are met by appointed boats:

200 Departure Ha Long Bay  201 Boats on Bay

Lunch aboard was promptly served


202 Lunch Onboard

You’re taken to a floating platform, where bamboo-bottom boats or kayaks await to let you explore an inlet or two.

206 Small Boatas   208 Small Boatas

210 Small Boatas

Our oarswoman had all the spunk and charm of a Vietnamese lady:

216 Our Oarswoman

Next stop was a mammoth cave on one of the islands. Here’s one shot of its colorfully illuminated interior:

232 Cave Interior

As we prepared to return to the boat and the long evening drive back to Hanoi, we passed a sign imaging Halong Bay on one of its sunnier days (though I’m not sure whether air pollution any longer permits such a thing.) This gives you an aerial overview of why it is a world-class site:

238 Sunny Ha Long Bay Poster


After a day of travel, Tuesday marked the beginning of a two-day excursion from Hanoi to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the Angkor Wat temple complex. I had visited here in November 2013 (see my account  and was so impressed that I promised Mary Jean that I would take her there one day. That day had arrived.

I won’t recount here my previous descriptions of these magnificent temples: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom  (the Bayon) or the prolifically overgrown Ta Prohm. But here are some up-to-date snapshots of these wonderful structures followed by a few pictures of a return visit to Tonlé Sap lake with its colorful floating fishermen’s villages.

Angkor Wat:

250 Angor Wat

The Bayon (at Angkor Thom):


266 Bayon


And Ta Prohm that was used as a setting for the film “Tomb Raider”:



284 Ta Prohm

A floating restaurant on Tonlé Sap lake:

310 Lake Restaurant

And some youngsters frolicking in their watery “front yard.”

296 Kids Tonle Sap

We returned to Hanoi on Wednesday night March 9. Sitting on the plane, reading the downloaded latest results of U.S. primary voting on my iPhone, I found myself reflecting on contemporary Siem Reap, the booming urban conglomeration that surrounds the temple complex. I was reminded of another unintended consequence of our intervention in Vietnam and our expanded bombings of Laos and Cambodia: the terrible rise of the Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge regime, during which a fifth of Cambodia’s eight and a half million inhabitants were murdered. One never encounters a guide in Siem Reap old enough to have survived those years without his or her own horror stories. I asked myself, how can one square this gentle Buddhist people who today so warmly welcome foreigners with the Khmer Rouge thugs who murdered and tortured millions? The only answer I can come up with is that the possibilities of good and evil are always resident in human beings and that bad political decisions can turn even gentle people into monsters. Today’s news reports the new electoral triumph of Donald Trump and his egging followers on to violence. Cambodia’s tragic history reminds us that ill-considered political choices can have fateful—and fatal—consequences.


Our return to Hanoi afforded us two days to see the several museums we missed following our arrival. Front and center on Thursday morning was the outstanding Ethnology Museum. Although the museum has an interesting building with exhibits of the dress, implements and festivals of the many different ethnic groups that compose the Vietnamese nation, its special attraction is a large exterior garden with many reconstructed dwellings of the country’s various ethnicities. I could include here dozens of photos of these buildings’ interior and exteriors, but I’ll leave it to you, my readers, to plan your own visit to this wonderful site. To tempt you, I include shots of only one building, the magnificent Bahnar Communal House from north central Vietnam. As you can see, like many of these buildings, the house is elevated on stilts to protect it from flooding and rot:

334 Bahnar Communcal House

Here’s the interior, with its bamboo mat flooring:

336 Bahnar Interior

And here the vaulting rafters:

338 Rafters


As videos within each building show, the construction of these houses is a communal enterprise combining skilled artisanry with the strength of many workers. All the buildings at the museum were constructed on this site by workers from each ethnicity. In its entirety, the Ethnology Museum testifies to the ingenuity and dedication of the various peoples of Vietnam.


In the afternoon, I weaved my way on my own through Hanoi traffic to the vestiges of the large prison compound that served for decades under the French as a detention center for Vietnamese revolutionaries, and then briefly, from 1965-73 as the prisoner of war camp for U.S. aviators (including Senator John McCain) captured in the bombing of North Vietnam and then dubbed the “The Hanoi Hilton.”

Here’s a photo of the site in its heyday (only the lower left-hand portion remains):

346 Prison Entire

And here a sculptural rendition of how insurgent nationalists under the French were manacled and confined:

342 Prisoners

Here, a photo of the real people:

344 Prisoners

Those condemned to death were kept in darkness in tiny cells:

350 Condemned Man

Although laws dictated a months-long appeals process prior to an execution,  many insurgents apparently waited only days before meeting this executor of French “justice”:

348 Guillotine

A set of rooms in the compound housed the American prisoners of war. Although it is reported that some early prisoners were subject to abuse and even torture, after 1969 conditions improved. The accounts offered here by the Vietnamese contrast the destruction visited on the region by American aviators, particularly during the “Christmas bombing” of 1972,

352 Destruction

(Bombing of the Hanoi railroad station, December 21, 1972)

with what is described as the relatively privileged existence of the POWs, including opportunities to play chess and volley ball.

It is one of the great ironies of history that one resident of Hoa Lo, Captain Douglas Peterson, a pilot who crashed his Phantom fighter-bomber and was captured in April 1966 (below), returned to Vietnam as the first American ambassador in 1996 (further below).

354 Peterson


356 Ambassador Peterson


Today began with a surprising and pleasant encounter. On our way around the lake to the Museum of Vietnamese History we met a group of students. From left to right, here are Dugan, Lan, Han and Han:


360 Students

Jack Yeager informs us that these students are often escorted to tourist areas by their teachers in order to practice their English and exchange information about their country with visitors. These four seem to be attending a trade or commerce school, so the chance to sharpen their communication skills is relevant. After learning we were Americans, Dugan volunteered that he and his generation bear no ill will to us, since “we Vietnamese live in the present and future, not the past.” However, it was also added that none of them like the Chinese!

I will not recapitulate the subsequent visit to the Museum of Vietnamese History. Less interesting and less well presented than the Museum of Ethnology, this complex of buildings recounts Vietnam’s unrelieved history of invasions and oppression, from the Mongols and Chinese during the early second millennium up to the French and Americans in the modern period. Vietnam, with its warm climate, rich waterways, and fertile and well-watered lands, is clearly a prize possession. Although its current government is far from perfect, at least the foreigners are out.

TOKYO, MARCH 13 and 14

We ended our trip with a two-day stopover in Tokyo on the way back home. In May 2005, I traveled to Japan to research questions raised by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, visiting both cities as well as Kyoto. But I’ve never been to Tokyo, and this was a chance to do that.

Our stay began with a Sunday morning stroll from our central, Ginza hotel to the imperial palace. Despite the throngs of bus-transported Japanese visitors, it proved to be contain little more than a large flat and bare urban park

400 Palace Grounds

bordering a hilltop palace complex that (at least on this Sunday and most other times, it seems) was inaccessible to tourists:

402 Palace Grounds

But this unrewarding stroll was more than offset by our afternoon visit to the Edo-Tokyo museum.

Getting there was a challenge, requiring us to navigate the excellent, but complex, Tokyo metro and elevated train system: I hope to return in the future to Tokyo for a longer stay and I look forward to becoming conversant with this clean and efficient mass transport system.

403 Metro


404 Metro

The museum is a modern structure rising on gigantic stilts almost seven stories above an elevated platform.

406 Edo-Tokyo Museum

To enter you take an elevator to the top floor and descend to exhibits on the floors below.

We were extremely fortunate to be greeted by Michie Shigehara, a retired teacher who volunteers here as an English-speaking docent. Her explanation of the exhibits added greatly to our visit. Here she is with Mary Jean. I learned that Ms. Shigehara was born, as I was, in 1942. Thus an interest in history brought together two people born in nations that were then a world apart and at war with one another.

410 With Docent Michie Shigehara

To enter the exhibits, you traverse a partial reconstruction of the huge and beautifully crafted Nihonbashi Bridge.

412 Nihonbashi Bridge


During the Tokugawa era (1603-1867), Tokyo was known as Edo. Power was exercised by a long line of Shogun warlords, while the emperor was sidelined in Kyoto. This bridge served as entry into an extensive mercantile area which, along with the Shogun’s palace, was the heart of the nascent metropolis. One of the first exhibits is a detailed scale model of the bridge district as it looked in its heyday.

416 Nihonbashi Model


418 Nihonbashi Model


420 Nihonbashi Model

Nearby stands an almost full size replica of a kabuki theater:

414 Kabuki Theater

And here is a nearly life-sized bronze of one of the Shoguns:

424 Shogun


What is most impressive about Tokugawa-era Edo, is the high degree of civilization shown by life in the city. As one of the exhibits states, Edo was an “information city” in which printed books and pictures proliferated, theater flourished, and citizens congregated in public places to share news and gossip. The following are just a brief selection of images of Edo life:

Skilled craftsman, like this woodworker, practiced their trades:

428 Sashimono Wood Joinery

Theater flourished:

432 Theater Arts

Popular books with text and images were mass-produced:

433 Books

Schools educated the young:

434 School

And exquisite multi-tone woodblock prints were produced and bought:

436 Woodblock Prints

437 Woodblock Prints

The commercial side of Edo was equally alive. Here’s a model of a large drygoods emporium in which ladies and men sought out beautiful kimonos:

440 Drygoods Store

442 Drygoods Storre

On the streets, sushi, in its early form as large pieces of vinegar-preserved fish gained popularity:

448 Sushi Vendor Cart

And off the streets, Tokugawa Edo possessed a full infrastructure for water provision and waste removal. Here is an elegant Edo-era urinal:

449 Urinal

The museum continues its exploration of Tokyo’s history well beyond the Tokugawa period with exhibits proceeding through the period of Meiji imperial restoration and modernization in the late nineteenth century and through the tumultuous twentieth century, especially the Second World War era and booming post-war recovery, the period when Japan became a technological wonder. Images and artifacts from the war years evidence the city’s devastation by U.S. incendiary bombing raids in 1944 and 1945. With so much of the older city gone up in flames, there’s really very little history of Tokyo in the form of existing buildings and neighborhoods. Thus, Edo-Tokyo lives on here, in this wonderful museum.


This was our last day in Tokyo and the final day of our trip. High on the list was a morning visit to the Tzujiki fish market and sushi brunch at the Daiwa restauant. If sushi has a Mecca, this is it. Here’s a glimpse of corner of the busy market, where very early each morning tuna are auctioned off at astronomical prices to feed the nation’s ravenous hunger for “maguro.”

451 Tsukiji Market

And here’s the hour-long but well-managed line outside Daiwa:

452 Daiwa Line













Here’s the sushi bar inside:

453 Daiwa Sushi

And here’s a closeup of our skilled and kindly older sushi chef. When you’re seated, he asks simply: “Settu?” Since everything is in Japanese, we avoided à la carte ordering and accepted his offer of a “set meal.” Pieces of nigiri sushi are put on your plate as he finishes preparing them.454 Our Sushi Maker

And what a meal! The Platonic form of sushi. Here’s a shot of my platter mid-meal. That’s tuna on the right and uni, sea urchin, on the left.

456 Unijpg

Nearly twenty years ago, Mary Jean was hosting an end-of-term dinner for her French teaching colleagues at a Toulouse restaurant. Sushi was not widely known in France in those days, and for some reason I found myself, at one end of the table, explaining it to a curious tablemate. He asked, “And what is your favorite type of sushi?” I quickly replied, “Uni, Oursin de mer.” Sea urchin. “Pourquoi?” he continued. Why do you like sea urchin? “Parce que, lorsque on le mange, c’est comme si on mangeait la mer,” I replied. Because when one eats it,  it’s as though you’re eating the sea.” I paused and was astonished to find that all heads at the table were turned my way. At that moment, I better understood what animates the French: food and words.

But then I had not yet eaten uni at Daiwa. If you can imagining experiencing the essence of the briny sea, uni at Daiwa is it. I’m afraid I will never again be satisfied with uni elsewhere.


I’ll end this blog post with a reflection on a very mundane feature of our lives: toilets. On the way to Hanoi, during our stop on Haneda Airport, Tokyo, I witnessed the first of the amazing toilets that populate Japan’s public restrooms, and I sent this picture to an American friend who had alerted me to them.

462 Toilet

These wonderful devices do everything: seat lids raise and close automatically, they flush automatically and they have jets of water and air that clean you up at your request. But even more impressive than the toilets are these other devices that are mounted on the walls of each toilet stall:

464 Child Seat

Can you guess what this is? Answer: It’s a fold-up child seat. The Japanese have solved a problem that we Americans don’t even realize we have. What do you do with your infant while using the toilet? If you leave the baby outside, you risk his or her disappearance. Not a problem in Japan. You just set the child in this seat as you go about your business. I note, too, that these seats are in both men’s and (I’m told) women’s restrooms.

Why do I end on this note? Because I believe that one of the major purposes of travel is to get out of your parochial worldview and see how other people live. Travel not only broadens your horizons, it challenges your assumptions and forces you to understand the limits of your own culture.

This trip did this for me in two ways. First, the stay in Hanoi brought home once again the horrors our own ignorance about Vietnam, both of its history and its people. That ignorance plunged us into the Vietnam conflict. If Americans, and above all our leaders, had understood Vietnam’s long and legitimate struggle for national independence, millions of Vietnamese lives and tens of thousands of American lives could have been spared.

Japan—its toilets, trains and strikingly clean, efficient and courteous society—challenges the smug American assumption that we are an “exceptional” modern nation set off from a backward world. The reality is that there are places in Europe, Asia and elsewhere from which we have a great deal to learn in technical, economic, social, and moral terms. Perhaps if more Americans traveled abroad, we could temper the arrogance that has so damaged our relationships with one another and with the world.

* * * *














The Forty-Second Telluride Film Festival, September 4-7, 2015

Colorado Avenue 2015


Before attending this year’s Telluride Film Festival, I was able to catch two films in New York: PHOENIX, directed by Christian Petzold and starring Nina Hoss and GRANDMA directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. Both films are of Festival quality so I want to mention them here.

PHOENIX continues the examination of post-war German life that Petzold has previously explored in JERICHOW and BARBARA, a 2012 Telluride pick. Set immediately after the war, “Phoenix” traces the effort of camp survivor Nelly—whose face has been horribly disfigured and restored to only a partial likeness—to find her non-Jewish husband, Johnny, who remained behind when as a Jew she was deported to the camps. The film builds to an astonishing climax as both Nelly and Johnny learn more about their pasts than either wanted to know.

In GRANDMA, Lily Tomlin as Elle faces a challenging situation. A poet and part-time academic of waning hireability or publishability, she is grieving the loss of her lifetime female partner and about to break up a months long relationship with a younger woman. Elle is also nearly penniless, having cut up her credit cards in a gesture of independence, Now, her lovely teenage granddaughter arrives to ask Elle’s help in paying for an abortion costing hundreds more than either woman has. Thus begins an improbable road trip and journey of intergenerational bonding. GRANDMA is a celebration of the changing but still relevant face of feminism and a gentle but firm defense of the importance of women’s reproductive freedom.

A word about my grades for the following Festival films I saw. Since most of the films were excellent, my grades are high. My descriptions often don’t explain a minus or slightly lower grade, but I use the grading opportunity to register blemishes such as my sense that a film is slower than I would like, or in some way emotionally unconvincing or less than completely honest.


The 42nd Telluride Festival (and by my count our 19th year of attendance) began early for me on a drizzly afternoon with a pre-program showing of Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent masterpiece, DIE NIBELUNGEN. Based on the German saga, the film recounts Kriemhild’s joyous marriage to the hero Siegfried, who has been rendered immune to injury after bathing in the blood of a ferocious dragon he has slain. Unfortunately for Siegfried and Kriemhild, a linden leaf covered a small patch of Siegfried’s back, rendering him vulnerable to death at the hands of his foes.

This beautiful five hour long, gold-toned restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, with lush and nuanced orchestral accompaniment by Gottfried Huppertz, is divided into two halves of seven cantos each. Unfortunately, in order to keep my promised rendezvous for our next film with Mary Jean and our accompanying friend Kate Conley, I had to leave at the intermission. But not before watching the beautiful Kriemhild rise from beside her husband’s body, face the henchman/murderer Hagen von Tronje, and utter a vow of unrelenting vengeance. In a moment of silent filmmaking at its best the camera moves in on the up-to-now gentle Kriemhild’s face and reveals her eyes flaming with hatred and resolve.

I make a vow of my own to, in one way or another, see the second (and apparently apocalyptic) half of this film.

As difficult as it was to leave NIBELUNGEN, the decision to get on line early for our next film, TAXI, by Iranian director Jafar Panahi, was wise, since the line was already long when I arrived. Iranian authorities have forbidden this award-winning director from making further films, and he has reportedly been under house arrest. Despite—and because of—this, he made TAXI, by filming himself with small dash mounted cameras as the incognito driver of a taxi in the streets of Teheran. TAXI, thus gives us a moving stage of characters picked up in the course of a single day.

And a varied and colorful cast it is, beginning with two separate fares who share the cab. One is a beefy young man sporting a heavy gold chain who sits beside the driver. He vehemently defends the recent hangings of a series of petty thieves. But his views are contested by an older woman in the back who identifies herself as a teacher and who points to bitter economic conditions as a cause of the thieves’ behavior. As this sometimes hilarious argument proceeds, Mr. Gold Chain will have none of it (you suspect he was an Ahmadinejad supporter), and he finally exits the cab leaving us wondering whether he isn’t himself a thief.

As other fares come and go, the humor and controversy mounts. A key role is played by Panahi’s charming and precocious niece whom he picks up after school. She reads the notes she has taken for an assigned film project in which her teacher parrots the government’s current views on what makes a film “unscreenable.” We soon realize that this remarkable film fails the government’s test on all counts.

TAXI shows us what I learned during my visit to Iran in January: that Iran’s people are not a monolithic block but a lively collection of politically, religiously, and culturally diverse individuals.

RON’S GRADE: A (and my personal nomination for “Best Foreign Film” at the Oscars)


Today opened with a tribute to Rooney Mara. Although a neighbor on the line wondered why this honor was given to a young (30-year old) actress, the sequence of clips from films like “The Social Network,” “Side Effects,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (among others) indicated how rich and varied Mara’s talents are. The interview following the clips revealed interesting facets of her career. For example, asked whether she had read the novels and seen the prior Swedish version of the film before making the American one, she replied that she had done so, and that viewing the Swedish film led her to approach her character very differently.

A screening of Mara’s latest film, CAROL, followed the interview. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith and directed by master filmmaker Todd Haynes, CAROL offers a deeply moving performance by Cate Blanchett as a mature woman who falls in love with an elfin, almost Audrey Hepburnesque, Rooney Mara. Set in the mid-ninety fifties and beautifully filmed with period costumes and autos, the film evokes the deep romanticism of that era (echoed in the popular music of the soundtrack) and applies it to a lesbian relationship—to which that same culture is both oblivious and persecutory. CAROL will be appearing in Cineplexes soon, but during our era of turmoil over gay relationships, it can change hearts and minds by showing in universally understandable ways how gay people share the human emotion of love.

RON’S GRADE: A (Don’t miss it at the Cineplex)

The string of excellent films continued in the afternoon with 45 YEARS directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as Kate and Geoff. An intelligent and progressive couple living in rural England, Kate and Geoff are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary with a large party (their 40th anniversary celebration was put off because Geoff needed surgery). But the childless couple’s tranquil existence is suddenly disturbed when Geoff receives a letter that reveals a largely hidden aspect of his life before the two met. 45 YEARS opens with Kate walking their well-loved dog and whistling “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” This was also the couple’s wedding day dance song. As the film ends, with the Platters’ version of the song repeated for the celebratory dance by the pair at their anniversary party, we realize that smoke can mislead people in love and also conceal deep fractures beneath the surface of what seems to be a happy marriage. Courtney and Rampling are terrific, with Rampling, one of the great beauties of modern cinema, courageously showing every line and wrinkle of her 69 years.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

Saturday concluded for me as I descended along with five anonymous Festivalgoers in a darkened gondola, all of us returning from the young Hungarian director Lázló Nemes’s unsettling Holocaust film SON OF SAUL With the town of Telluride glittering far below, we engaged for twenty minutes in an impassioned seminar on the film. “Son of Saul,” we agreed, is a different Holocaust film. As Nemes observed in the brief Q&A following the film, it seeks to avoid reassurance of any sort, such as that offered by films like “Schindler’s List” or “Life is Beautiful.”

Saul is a member of one of the briefly surviving Sonderkommando teams that conducted the gassing and burning of Jewish victims until that team, too, was gassed and burned in the Nazis’ effort to erase the crime. As the film begins, Saul, chillingly played by the Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig, moves like a dead man, helping to lead the unwitting victims into the “showers,” standing by the steel doors hearing the screams as they’re gassed, and scrubbing away the blood and filth. We see a new terror of the Holocaust in the merciless forced pace of the crematorium death factory, as inmates move from difficult task to difficult task under the constant threat of joining the piles of “pieces” they process. Saul is shaken out of his indifference when he encounters the body of a young boy, who he claims to be his own son (though it’s never clear that this is so). Thus begins Saul’s obsessive effort to provide a traditional Jewish burial for the boy. This leads us through every chamber of the crematorium complex and through the turmoil of a failed Sonderkommando uprising. Shot with 35-millimeter film, shallow depth of focus, and a screen size deliberately reduced to the older 4:3 ratio, the camera always keeps the worst images—full views of the victims and the treatment of their bodies—at the edge of our vision. But the hand-held shots and the cacophony of languages—Hungarian, Yiddish, German—convey the chaos and terror of this hell within a hell.

As I and my fellow filmgoers descend in our gondola, we debate whether Saul’s behavior is an insane mental break—an additional assault on his humanity caused by the insane conditions—or a profound spiritual affirmation that takes him beyond the instinct for survival that drives the other men. Or is it both? SON OF SAUL provides no easy answers, but in the bleakest of ways, it forces us to deepen our comprehension of the Holocaust.

RON’S GRADE: A minus


Sunday started for us on a bad note. After waiting for an hour and a half, we were denied admission to the Danny Boyle tribute and viewing of his latest film, STEVE JOBS. Our W2 line passes to the Mountain Village Chuck Jones cinema normally guarantee admission, but a surge of “filmmakers of tomorrow” shut us out five places short of admission. In compensation, we were given one-time priority passes that put us among the $3900 patron pass holders for any upcoming film. This was emotionally assuaging but not total recompense.

After a three-hour wait we were admitted to the Chuck Jones for the French director Xavier Giannoli’s MARGUERITE. It was worth the wait.

The year is 1920 and the context, brilliantly portrayed with period settings and costumes, is the catastrophe of the war and the emerging cultural turmoil and excesses of the twenties. Baroness Marguerite Dumont, still living in the protected bubble of the pre-war aristocracy, is passionately devoted to musical performance, and believes herself to be a diva of importance. She stages a private recital at her magnificent chateau “for the benefit of orphans of the war.” But when she starts to sing it is chalk on a blackboard. Her devoted audience of private music club attendees, family servants and war orphans applauds warmly, but they must also suppress their laughter (our film audience viewers did not).

What makes this film move beyond comedy into deep human insight and emotion is the performance of Catherine Frot as Marguerite. Her sweet face and gentle disposition stir us to affection for her just as they do her colorful retinue of followers. Like them, we fear the encounter with reality that could shatter her illusions. But we also feel admiration for Marguerite. Her passion suggests to us that life itself is nothing more than the illusion we weave for ourselves, and we admire her courage and tenacity in pursuit of her artistic dream.

In the Q&A that followed the film, Annette Insdorf revealed that a film based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, the American diva whose story inspired MARGUERITE, is now in production starring Meryl Streep. We’ll see how that film compares with “Marguerite,” and whether Streep can match Frot’s performance to make us pity, admire, and love this beautifully deluded person.

RON’S GRADE: A (and my second personal nomination along with “Taxi” for this year’s “Best Foreign Film”)

Very positive line buzz led us to privilege ROOM for our late afternoon viewing. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson with a screenplay adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name, ROOM is a factionalized account of the experience of the Cleveland teenager who was abducted, imprisoned for years, and raped and impregnated by her psychopath abductor. Joy (Brie Nelson) protectively raises her five-year old son Jack (brilliantly played by Jacob Tremblay) to believe that their tiny room is the whole universe. Only when it becomes necessary to make him realize otherwise in order to make their escape, does five-year-old Jack begin to understand that there is a larger, real world beyond the TV screen.

I confess to being uncomfortable throughout this film. Using a thriller format to move events forward creates a constant feeling of menace even after Joy and Jack are freed. More than seems to be needed in order to explore the psychological challenges facing mother and son, we’re constantly led to worry that Jack or Ma will suffer some terrible new harm. To its credit, ROOM offers an uplifting vision of the intensity of maternal love. But some viewers may worry that Joy’s response to a forced pregnancy is depicted in too redemptive terms.


ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR closed my day. (Mary Jean and Kate chose not to attend a film with a 10:30 start). Co-directed by Michael Ware and Bill Guttentag, this documentary chronicles Ware’s seven years as a Time correspondent in Iraq from before the invasion to the fighting to recover Fallujah and Ramadi from Iraqi insurgents. Videos shot by Ware’s reporting team with Ware’s taut Australian-accented voiceover and captured insurgent footage document the war from the brief, heady days when U.S. troops entering Baghdad were welcomed with flowers, through the emergence of the deadly Iraqi “resistance” to the U.S. occupation, to the retaking of Fallujah and Ramadi from insurgents led by the vicious Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Ware doesn’t say anything about the larger issues of the conflict (although one’s stomach turns at brief TV screen clips of George W. Bush stupidly boasting of the initial successes and then blaming the insurgents for the resulting mayhem). But the film powerfully documents the increasing cruelty on both sides, from the barbarous bombings and beheadings by Zarqawi’s followers to the increasing anger and callousness of the young American soldiers dropped into this hell (often without sufficient support). A dramatic closing video shows the GIs dragging a badly wounded insurgent off the street into a courtyard where they’ve sought shelter. The Iraqi’s brain oozes out of his head, but his chest continues to heave as the soldiers search his pockets, pulling out two ammunition clips and an identity photo bearing a fresh young face. In violation of military law, no one makes an effort—not even Ware—to secure medical help, and we watch for minutes until the chest stops heaving. The film closes as Ware regrets the toll the war has taken on his own humanity.

ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR has been sold to and will be shown on HBO. For a view we never quite got to see on TV of this terrible and misguided conflict, Don’t miss it.



Our final day at this year’s festival began at the limited seating Opera House where our consolation-prize priority passes earned us quick entry to what soon became a packed house for the Irish-Cuban film, VIVA. Directed by Paddy Breathnach and beautifully filmed in Havana, VIVA stars Hector Medina as Jesus, a young gay man who supports himself as a part-time hairdresser. Jesus’s work for the divas at a transvestite cabaret draws him into their performance world. But his life is abruptly changed by the return of his long-lost father, Angel, a failed prizefighter who has just been released from prison. Angel has no room for “maricons” (“fags”) and after slugging his son during Jesus’s first performance at the cabaret, forbids him to perform. We watch how in order to support them both Jesus begins to descend into prostitution, while longing to return to the intense world of song and performance to which he’s so drawn

In the Q&A following the film, Luis Alberto Garcia, who plays Mama, the cabaret owner (and in some ways Jesus’s foster-father), observed that this film is not only about gays or transvestites but also—and even more directly—about love and family. That’s exactly right.

I was bothered a bit by VIVA’S use of narrative clichés—for example, the bitchy friend whose boyfriend knocks her up and leaves her (and Jesus) to pick up the pieces. But even these clichés may convey aspects of Cuban life, such as the intra-familial and neighbor-bonding shaped by the needs of an impoverished community.

RON’S GRADE: A minus (but my third personal “Best Foreign Film” nomination)

I have often said that the Telluride Film Festival involves going to a small mountain village in Colorado and then, in three days, traveling the world. IXCANUL (Volcano), directed by the young Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamente, is an example of Telluride’s best world cinema. As the film opens, we see Maria (beautifully played by María Mercedes Coroy), a 17-year old Mayan girl, as she is being prepared to meet her future husband and his family. Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo) is foreman at the local coffee plantation whose spouse has died and left him with three young children. Unfortunately, Maria upsets these plans by becoming pregnant in a one-night stand with a local ne’er-do-well who soon takes off to the north, breaking what she believes was his promise to take her with him. As IXCANUL follows Maria and her family through the turmoil that her condition causes for them, we feel like privileged anthropologists who have been invited into the intimate life of an indigenous community. Events hint at the depth of rural poverty and exclusion: census takers who don’t speak Mayan and few locals who speak Spanish. Deprived of resources, people resort to ineffective folk remedies or to beliefs and rituals with a thin Catholic veneer and deeper Mayan roots. Over them looms the protective power and support of the volcano.

But what raises IXCANUL above even this fascinating series of cultural insights, is the relationship between Maria and her mother, Juana (María Telón). Juana’s non-judgmental, unsparing love for her beautiful daughter shows us that poverty and backwardness do not eclipse what is best in the human spirit.

RON’S GRADE: A (and my fourth personal Oscar nomination, though, sadly, an unlikely winner)

For my final film of the Festival I chose not to follow my companions’ choice of a first draft of Danny Boyle’s STEVE JOBS which has received the best line-buzz of the Festival. This is because I think it’s unwise to see films here that I can soon catch at a local movie theater (such as this year’s selections “Spotlight” and “Black Mass”) and in the process miss the full screen viewing of a film that will never appear again outside of Netflix (if there). My choice this evening was RAMS, written and directed by Iceland’s Grímur Hákonarson, RAMS follows two septuagenarian bachelor brothers, the shy Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjónsson) and the frequently drunk and truculent Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) who herd sheep in a remote and treeless Icelandic mountain valley. Although they live only a few hundred yards apart in different houses on their inherited family land, the two brothers haven’t spoken with each other in forty years. The only thing they share is a passionate love for their sheep, evidenced in the gentle caresses and kisses Gummi bestows upon them. But this harsh status quo is broken when one of Kiddi’s sheep (and some on other farms) are found to be infected with Scrapie, a fatal and incurable disease. All sheep on farms throughout the valley must be destroyed. We watch as the crisis and a bitter winter intensify and transform the brothers’ relationship.

The fraternal drama of RAMS may appeal more to those in similarly intense and difficult sibling relationships than it did to me, but I enjoyed my brief visit to this austere and forbidding landscape and my glimpse into the life of a community of dedicated and modern farmers who base their livelihood on one of humankind’s most ancient relationships with animals.

RON’s GRADE: A minus (I needn’t nominate this for “Best Foreign Film” because I hear that RAMS will likely be the Icelandic entry in the Oscars).


Midway through this year’s Festival, I found myself thinking that since Bill Pence retired several years ago, there has been a subtle change in programming emphasis. Where world cinema once predominated, with smaller and fascinating films, more recent Festivals have moved in the direction of trying to identify upcoming Oscar contenders. To an extent this is true. Witness films this year like CAROL,  “Black Mass,” “Spotlight,” “Suffragettes,” or “Steve Jobs” that will probably all be in this year’s award contention as well as in local theaters. But I formed that judgment before seeing VIVA, IXCANUL and RAMS, films that can stand besides the best world-cinema offerings of Telluride in the past. So I’m pleased to say that in its forty-second year, Telluride remains as vibrant and exciting as ever. On to forty-three!


Iran Conference and Lectures (January 4-7, 2015)

In early November 2014 I received an email invitation to deliver the keynote address at the Third Annual Conference of the International Association for the Philosophy of Religion in January 2015 in Tehran, Iran. The Iranian Association for the Philosophy of Religion (IAPR) hosts the conference in cooperation with Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University. I was informed that my former Dartmouth colleague Steven Katz had delivered this address at the 2014 conference. Checking with Steve, I was assured that the invitation was serious and that I would be warmly welcomed and respectfully treated in Tehran.

There were good reasons for turning down the invitation. I had a speaking obligation right after the conference’s closing date, Mary Jean for several reasons could not accompany me, and after a rash of scary movies like “Argo” and “Rosewater,” Iran raised fears. But I accepted the invitation. Checking schedules, I saw that could make it back just in time for my American commitment, and this could be a first exploratory visit, with Mary Jean accompanying me if I returned there in the future.

A major factor in my thinking was the signs of change taking place in U.S.-Iranian relations. With serious talks underway on ending economic sanctions in return for a halting of Iran’s nuclear program, and with ISIS becoming a common threat to both the nations (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”), I thought that this might be a good moment to serve, however modestly, as an ambassador of good will. I also thought it was less likely right now that I would find myself in an international incident.

The conference was scheduled for January 6 and 7. I was slated to depart late on Friday, January 2, arriving in Tehran early on Sunday, January 4. My U.S. speaking commitment required me to return by January 10, so this would be a short trip: four days on the ground in Tehran, departing Tehran on January 8. Steve Katz had had an extended stay that allowed him to visit Isfahan and Persepolis, but unfortunately my schedule wouldn’t permit that. The conference organizers said that they would plan several additional talks for me in the vicinity of Tehran before the start of the conference to fill out my stay.

Travel to Iran requires a visa. Because we have no diplomatic relations with Iran, I had to go through the Iranian “interest section” in the Pakistani embassy in Washington. Apparently Steve had some trouble with this, receiving his visa at the last moment after much delay and after needed interventions by the conference hosts, but Steve is a noted Holocaust scholar, a matter that could cause the Iranian authorities to give him a close look. Though I have written on Jewish ethics, it was unlikely that I was a person of interest. In the event, my application was accepted and my passport returned within 48 hours with an attractive visa inserted. A sign of Iranian good will?


My itinerary had me traveling on Lufthansa via Frankfurt. The transatlantic leg went smoothly. In the transit lounge at Frankfurt, I noticed something odd. Of the more than one hundred women present, young and old, only one wore a headscarf. I thought that maybe these were all foreigners traveling to Iran, but when we landed in Tehran and had to go through passport control, most of the group went through the Iranian lines. So they were Iranian women outside Iran and almost none chose to wear a headscarf. Shortly before the plane landed, the purser made an announcement saying that head coverings are required of all women by law in Iran, and as we readied to exit the plane, the scarves appeared. What to make of this? Was I traveling with a largely secularized expatriate group? Or do Iranian women themselves, at least those affluent enough to travel abroad, dislike the clothing regulations? (Two days later in Tehran I put this question to an Iranian woman at the conference. She replied that what I saw was understandable because “Ninety percent of Iranian women don’t like the veiling requirement.”)

Speaking of passport control, my arrival in Tehran was momentarily nerve-wracking. While the whole group of foreigners was quickly ushered through passport control, I was held back, my passport was taken, and I was shunted through several offices. I quickly learned that this was in order to take my fingerprints (as the U.S. now also does for most foreign visitors). The delay took only about fifteen minutes, but my apprehensions throughout it reminded me of how many fears and stereotypes we have about Iran, generated by films like “Argo.” The reality (obligatory fingerprinting) may sometimes be more innocent.

Despite my delay, my welcoming party, Javad Teheri, Executive Director of the Iranian Association for Philosophy of Religion, and his wife, Mahshid Alvandi, were waiting at the exit from baggage claim, bearing a sign with my name on it. Here are Javad and Mahshid in the next day’s sunlight:

Mahshid and Javad


We climbed into a cab and in short order began a small seminar on rational religious theory. Javad aspires to add a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion to his M.A. He is an intense and enthusiastic young man. Mahshid was a conference assistant, and in the days ahead, with good cheer she helped keep things on track. The long day ended at the upscale Parsian Engheleb (“Persian Revolution”) Hotel. I checked in against a backdrop of Beetles Muzak. The only Iranian presence was this drawer in my room, where the Gideon Bible was replaced by a Quran and prayer rug.



The bright morning view from my hotel window revealed the towering (12,000 foot high) mountains that border the northern side of the city.


This was my first day on the ground and I was pretty much on my own. Having gone to bed around 4:00 AM Iran time, I slept until eight and rose to catch the hotel breakfast (mostly familiar breakfast foods but also some Iranian specialties, such as a yellow bean porridge). I then set out on the street in front of the hotel to change some money. Because of sanctions, our credit cards don’t work here. I had in mind the report of an academic colleague who attended a conference here last year and who, on missing his plane because of Tehran traffic had to spend an extra day in Tehran without money and without eating. In view of this, I thought it would be wise to have some cash in my wallet. This proved more challenging than I suspected. The hotel reception wouldn’t change money and directed me to a bank directly across the street, but that bank required a passport for exchange and the night before I had to surrender my passport to the hotel reception for the duration of my stay there (“Catch 22”). At the incomprehensible Farsi-accompanied pointing of a kindly woman bank employ, I set off doubtfully in the direction of a large building some distance away. This turned out to be a massive galleria shopping center, with many banks . . .


. . . several of which turned me down until I was directed to a specialized “Exchange” operation. There, a friendly older man and a young woman for whom I was the only customer in evidence exchanged $40 for me at a rate of about 30,000 rials to the dollar (yes that’s thousands, and climbing fast daily as a result of the sanctions). Wandering through the galleria, I noticed that there were few shops open and the space seemed desolate and forlorn. This confirmed what Javad and Mahshid told me in the cab the night before, that U.S.-led sanctions have had a profound effect on the Iranian economy.

I continued walking further along the hotel avenue trying to get close to a huge mural on the side of a building. It seems to honor hero martyrs (of the Iran-Iraq war?)

Mural 1

On returning to the hotel, I noticed another large mural on the wall of an adjacent building.

Mural 2

What you see here are two empty army boots, and a seemingly mystical dis-apparition of the soldier whose boots they were. This was another memorial to a martyr of Iran’s eight-year long (1980-88) war with Iraq.

In the early afternoon, two of my hosts, Professor Mohsen Javadi of Qom University and his colleague Mohammad Saeedimehr of Tarbiat Modares University stopped by and we went over the week’s plans. One of my preconference talks was to have been at Qom, and I was eager to see the beautiful holy city, but to my disappointment this did not work out. In place of that visit, Prof. Javadi had scheduled two talks for me before leading medical ethics organizations in Tehran.

About 8:30 that evening, Prof. Saeedimehr returned to pick me up for a tour of the city. The evening was chosen because Tehran’s daytime traffic is awful (so bad that alternate day restrictions are imposed on car entry into the center city) but things ease up by nightfall. We headed westward to Freedom (Azadi) Square, a monument built under the Shah but now reframed as a tribute to Iraq’s liberation under the Islamic Revolution.


Here is a selfie of Mohammad and me in front of it:

04 Muhammad and Me Azadi Sq

This drive to Azadi Square was a bit of an emotional turning point for me. Like almost all Americans who can remember the events of the Islamic Revolution, including the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the seizure of its staff as hostages, I have a largely negative view of those days and of the regime that followed. As we drove the long thirteen-kilometer avenue from the hotel to the monument, Professor Saeedimehr told me that he had been among the tens of thousands of young people who marched down that avenue amidst the excitement of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return and the overthrow of the hated Shah. He said that he and the others were filled with hope for Iran’s new beginning and the vision of a more just society. In the 1980s, he expressed his enthusiasm by volunteering for military service in the Iraq-Iran war, eventually losing many friends in the conflict. Saddam Hussein, he said, started the war predicting that the Arabic-speaking ethnic groups in the southwest of Iran would rise up on his side and that the conflict would only last three days. Neither prediction proved correct. The Arab-speaking Iranians remained loyal to their country, and the war dragged on for eight years, with at least 300,000 dead on the Iranian side. The U.S. backed Saddam in that war. “For Saddam and America,” my host said bitterly. “it was all about oil.” Suddenly, I was jolted into a very different view of all those events. Here was a colleague, the kind of intelligent and liberal professor I might find anywhere in the U.S. or Europe, defending the Islamic revolution in the name of social justice, and offering a picture of his country as the innocent victim of ill-considered U.S. interventions.

After the square, we headed north to the Darband district. On the way, we transited a Vali Asr Street, which is bordered by trees that are illuminated by lines of roadside lights changing colors every few seconds:


Darband Square. . .

08 Darband Squate

. . . forms the base of one of several narrow river valleys in the mountains that rise to the north of the city. A stone walkway climbs up the valley along the river (really just a small rivulet), and food stalls and restaurants line the route. You can ascend for kilometers, tempted by street food and glittering restaurants. The stalls and restaurants stay open until the early hours of the morning, and on hot summer nights (it was now cool, at about fifty degrees Fahrenheit) thousands of people come out each evening for a walk and dinner. Mohammad and I ascended for about two kilometers. Here are some views of our walk.

One of the food stalls offering sweets and candied fruits:

10 Food shop

This is a dish of steamed fava beans. We bought a bowl, slid a bean out of its covering with our fingers and popped it into our mouths.

11 Fava Beans

And here’s a display of everyone’s favorite snack food, cooked beets:


Brightly lit restaurants line the walk up:

09 Restaurant

Here is a clever little business. Pay its owner, and one of the little birds picks a card that tells you your fortune:


12 Bird reader

A selection of skewers and raw meats prepared for roasting;

13 Meats

With a roaring fire ready to do the cooking nearby:

14 Fire

On the way back to the hotel, we passed two beautiful, brightly lit mosques. These are in true Persian style and much more ornate than the simpler ones I’m used to in Morocco:

15 Mosque

16 Mosque

Back at the hotel, I was lulled to sleep by the call to prayer. Because Shi’a Muslims (and Iran is overwhelmingly Shi’a) condense two of the five daily prayers into its adjacent one, the call occurs only three times a day, and it is much quieter and more musical than those I’ve heard in Sunni countries.


Tuesday began when I was picked up at 9:30 am by Dr. Ehsan Shamsi Gooshki, director of the Medical Ethics Department of the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He would take me to the Medical Ethic and History of Research Center, another site of medical ethics studies in the city. This was located at some distance, and I confess a hair-raising drive across the city from my hotel. I’ve mentioned Tehran’s traffic. At full bore in the daytime it is a mixture of thousands of cars, pedestrians and motorcycles in an intricate choreography in which racing vehicles and darting people miss one another by centimeters. Lane markers might as well not exist or, better, sometimes serve only as guides which drivers use to point their vehicles. Long ago, I resolved never to drive in India. I’ve added Tehran to the list.

The Medical Ethics Center is located in one of Tehran’s larger hospitals. I walked with Dr. Shamsi down the busy corridors and was ushered into the endocrinology and metabolism research unit and the office of that unit and the Center’s director, Dr. Bagher Larijani. Over beverages, he offered a PowerPoint presentation of the Center’s many activities, ranging from its active Ph.D. program in bioethics to its development of ethics materials for the nation’s health care system, including a widely distributed “Patient’s Bill of Rights” that I am told is displayed in hospitals everywhere. I learned from Dr. Shamsi, that Dr. Larijani is one of five brothers who play significant roles in Iranian society. One is the chairman of the Parliament of Iran, another heads Iran’s judicial system, and the two others also have important governmental positions. Smiling, Dr. Shamsi added, “They’re the Kennedy’s of Iran.”

At 10:30 we went to a well-appointed seminar room for my presentation “Is ‘Dignity’ a Useful Concept in Bioethics?” About thirty people were present, including about 20 Ph.D. students, all of whom were also M.D.s. More than half the members of the audience were women. My presentation, with some of my organizational points and longer quotations projected in a PowerPoint, went very well. I spoke slowly, and the students seemed to understand what I was saying. Although their spoken English was not as strong as their comprehension, they were filled with questions based on their individual thesis projects. With a break for lunch, the Q&A continued, and the questions that followed were amazing. All were in areas of great interest to me: access to assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), abortion, human enhancement, physician-assisted suicide, the physician’s duty when confronted with abusive or negligent parents, and the commercialization of kidney transplantation. Iran is unique among almost all nations in having a government-regulated and partly government-financed system that permits transplant recipients to pay donors for a kidney. The system appears to be imperfect (under-the-table payments apparently persist despite government regulation), but on the positive side it has eliminated the long waiting lists for kidneys that predominate in the U.S. and elsewhere. I hope to learn much more about this in the future.

One thing I’m seeing and learning about in the course of this visit is the Shi’a community’s commitment to rationality at all levels, as distinct from the Sunni prioritizing of revelation. Centuries ago, this issue was joined in the conflict between the Ash’ari (revelation) and Mutazilite (rationalist) parties, and the Ash’ari position won out in most of the Sunni world. Not so among the Shi’a, whose opposition to the Sunni caliphate (for whom Ash’ari authoritarianism was convenient) led them to favor the Mutazilite position. This commitment to reason explains my presence here at the invitation of an almost unique Islamic program in the Philosophy of Religion. Scholars (and physicians) here are also proud of the perspective in which reason works hand in hand with revelation, and sacred teachings can be accommodated to changing realities. One small biomedical illustration of this that I learned about during the course of the Q&A is Iran’s permission for egg and sperm donation in ARTs. This is forbidden in the Sunni lands because of traditionalist concerns with strict lineage preservation. Shi’a jurists, in contrast, seem willing to go beyond traditional constraints when medical realities and rational policy recommend doing so.

Still jet-lagged, and after an intense day of speaking to and learning from my Iranian bioethics colleagues, I had dinner at the hotel, and went to bed early.


The conference began today. Up at 5:00 am after only 5 hours sleep and still way off my sleep cycle, it was going to be a challenge to give my keynote address in the morning and follow a busy roster of others’ talks throughout the day. Taxis waited for the transfer to Tarbiat Modares University. The hair-raising drive across Tehran did more to wake me up than the breakfast coffee. The conference began in a large assembly hall with what seemed to be equivalent to a pledge of allegiance ritual to projected images of Imam Khomeini, the revolution’s founding father, a brief taped recitation of a passage from the Noble Quran and short welcoming speeches from university officials. Here are several pictures of the conference poster, the large hall, and me, as requested, delivering my greetings as the conference keynoter and sole American participant:

Conference Poster

Me Welcoming

Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremony Women

We then broke up into two sections, one English speaking, the other Farsi. In addition to a substantial complement of Iranian speakers and attendees, conference participants were quite international, with speakers coming from England, Italy, Germany, Northern Ireland, Tunisia, Kuwait and Mexico.

My keynote, “Kant’s Philosophy of Religion and the Challenges of Moral Commitment,” went very well, and the Q&A was lively. Here are some snapshots of the morning’s activity. Note the large number of women scholars present.

Session from front

Me and my paper

(That’s me)

At the coffee break, I was able to chat briefly with one of the women scholars attending (I learned her name is Zohreh), who raised a particularly good question during discussion. She’s here in the middle:


Just before lunch, we were given a walking tour of Tarbiat Modares University. The university was established after the revolution and is dedicated to graduate programs only, most in medicine and STEM fields but with a solid humanities division in which the philosophy of religion program is based. Here’s the library outside and in:


Library Interior

And here’s a helpful librarian:


A beautiful mosaic-covered campus mosque

University Mosque

And in front of it, a monument to three unknown martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war.

Monument to Martyrs

The plaques below specify their ages (all were in their twenties based on information gleaned perhaps from medical analysis), but their identities are unknown.


The day ended back at the hotel with a boisterous dinner for speakers and hosts that began after eight and went on for several hours.

A word here about Iranian food—in Iran. Persian restaurants in the states are among my favorites. (There is a terrific one in Naples, Florida, named “Bha! Bha!,” a Farsi expression used for good food or good odors meaning “Wow! Wow!”) All of the meals I had in Iran had the same format: a substantial array of starters in the form of fresh salad preparations, olives, pickles, salty feta-like cheeses and so on, followed by a main course featuring a pile of saffroned rice over or beside a grilled lamb kebab, or grilled chicken or fish. The whole dish would be enlivened with a grilled whole and sliced fresh tomato and lemon or orange wedges.

Drinks included sodas or a bottled yoghurt drink that was popular but that I found too sour. The food was always very good, but the same.


I saw no sign of the many tagine-like dishes featured at “Bha! Bha!” In fairness, this was all university, medical center, or hotel food. On the way back to the airport on Wednesday night, Javad and Mahshid shared some of the take-away dinner they brought from a good local restaurant, a delicious layered confection of cornbread and spiced ground meat.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 7, my final day in Iran.

This morning’s conference meeting had several very good papers. One, however, by a Polish Catholic scholar, Janusz Balicki, raised sharp questions.


The title of Balicki’s paper was “Immigrants from Muslim Countries in a Secular Europe: A Challenge or an Opportunity for Christianity?” It began by describing the “decline” in “family values” in Europe which he believed to be signaled by marital cohabitation, declining birth rates, and legally-recognized gay marriage. Balicki saw this as an opportunity for family-valuing and “pro-life” European Christians to build a new social and political coalition with equally traditionalist Muslim immigrants. During the Q&A, Lutz Alexander Keferstein of Mexico pointed out that it is often the most conservative Christians throughout Europe who are among the most vehement opponents of Muslim immigration.

After attending the conference this morning and lunch, I was driven by Dr. Shamsi, to the Headquarters of the Iranian Medical Council (the equivalent of our A.M.A.) and ushered into the office of Dr. Alireza Zali, a neurologist and President of the Council. Our chat was followed by an hour and a half session on medical professionalism with 20 of the staff in their Council’s Medical Ethics Department, which Dr. Shamsi heads. Of my three talks, this was the least prepared and most controversial, dealing near its end with physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, but once again, the Q&A was stimulating. At one point, in response to my mention of physicians’ professional obligation to report instances of child abuse, the question was raised about whether there can be exceptions to this. In the intensely patriarchal environment of some rural Iranian families, my questioner observed, reporting abuse can sometimes endanger the child.

At the close, Dr. Shamsi (who arranged the Monday talk but was not present for it) mentioned the possibility of an invitation to me to return this summer for a one or two week course on biomedical ethics for their Ph.D. students. I will have to look at my schedule. This may be a chance to visit with Mary Jean and see more of the country. I’m also very interested in learning more about their regulated kidney-exchange program.

My visit ended at 10:30 that evening, when I was picked up again by Javad and Mahshid and transported to the airport for my 2:50 AM flight to Frankfurt. The lead-time was needed because the airport lines at each point (ticketing, security and boarding) were daunting and I got to my seat only minutes before the scheduled departure time. As the Lufthansa plane lifted off, I felt some of the relief depicted at the same moment in the film “Argo.” In my case, it was not so much relief from fear, but from a travel environment shaped by sanctions (no credit cards or phone service), strict documentary requirements, and unfamiliar mores. For example, early on I was advised never to shake a woman’s hand, and at the conference I had to repeatedly still my impulse to do so.

Some final impressions. I believe Iran is far different from the Iran of our media-shaped American imaginations. For one thing, it is a highly developed if temporarily economically handicapped nation. Tehran can rank besides any European city, and its “feel” and people are far closer to a European sensibility than anything I’ve experienced in Sunni Islamic nations (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt). There is also a sharpness and precision to people’s discourse and behaviors that makes one feel one is in a slightly down-at-the heels France rather than in a more southern Arab country. Is this a reflection of Shi’a rationalism (some of my hosts thought so), the cooler weather, or Persia’s great imperial legacy and culture?

Second, there is genuine pride about the Islamic revolution, and a strong feeling, even among some young people who identify with the recent progressive “green” protest movement, that the West in general, and America in particular, don’t understand Iran. During breaks in the conference or during transport, I had the chance to speak with several students and young people about political issues, and while some expressed unhappiness with the regime, there was a tendency to think that the indigenous problems have been worsened by Western interventions. The traditionalism of the Islamic revolution makes it easy to miss the fact that, like Cuba, this is a country whose revolution commands substantial support and pride from its people.

There is a dark side. While religious traditionalists—and they include some of the able university and medical professionals I met—view the revolution and government in very positive terms, more secularized individuals don’t like imposed and omnipresent religiosity and control. Women vary in terms of dress, with the more religious wearing the dark full body and head cover, and more secular women wearing only a scarf or headpiece. Several of the more secularized women that I spoke to told me that they deeply dislike gender-based restrictions that have been imposed. One said that she dreams of leaving Iran and feeling the wind blow through her hair. On the positive side, these restrictions have apparently facilitated a massive movement of women from more traditional sectors into education and other public functions. Women now make up sixty percent of medical graduates.

Some of my interlocutors also quietly expressed to me their discomfort with what they saw as a generally repressive intellectual environment. One said, “If you speak openly about what you believe, you can land in prison.”

Of course, I was only four days in Iran, and that is hardly enough to found or authenticate any of these views. But there is a conclusion about which I feel confident. For Western travelers, Iran is not the terror state depicted by Hollywood. Tehran is a safe city—much safer than Paris I was told, a remark too soon confirmed—and the people themselves are overwhelmingly friendly to Americans. On my first day’s walkabout, I was asked several times where I came from, and when I said “America,” I received warm smiles and greetings. Once you get your visa, you can travel to Iran, travel freely within the country, see its marvelous historic sites, speak easily with people many of whom manage in English, and you can leave whenever you are ready to do so. (Just bring cash and get to the airport early on your return!) Perhaps if more Americans visited, and, above all, if political leaders on both sides move toward more accommodation, we can renew our appreciation of this amazing people and culture.



dogs of Telluride 2

The Dogs of Telluride

The Telluride Film Festival’s nabobs may have gotten the word. After recent years of bad scheduling (wildly popular films in small venues) and general overcrowding, they have done better: improved (but still far from satisfactory) scheduling; a good iPhone app; morning email notifications of sneak previews and TBAs (repeats of crowd pleasers); and a redone opening feast, with better seating and multiple serving points.

This year’s opening feast on Colorado Avenue brought crystalline Telluride weather together with an outstanding Russian-Ukrainian themed meal: roast salmon and lamb, tiny cups of borscht, nutty tea cakes for dessert. Russia and Ukraine may be at one another’s throats but not on Telluride’s high street.


If the feast was an auspicious beginning, our opening film at the beautiful new Werner Herzog Theater (650 seats) was overwhelming. The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightly, and under the direction of the veteran Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, chronicles the life of Alan Turing, the semi-autistic, homosexual mathematician and computer pioneer who led the team of British geniuses at Bletchley Park that cracked the German Enigma codes and arguably saved millions of allied lives during WWII.

A constant refrain in the film, uttered by friends and colleagues at each moment in Turing’s life when he faced terrible obstacles is: “The people you can’t imagine anything of are the very people who create what you can’t imagine.”

Benjamin Cumberbatch, in what will certainly be an Oscar-nominated performance, shows us the many sides of Turing, who was drawn to code breaking because for him the simplest human communication—”Want a sandwich?”—was a code to be cracked.

What is astonishing about The Imitation Game and Turing’s story are its lessons for today. We see the toll taken on Turing’s life—and at times the British war effort—by homophobia, bullying, and sex discrimination. At one point the brilliant mathematician played by Keira Knightly is almost consigned to the secretarial pool.

Tyldum’s direction (and an excellent screenplay by Graham Moore) bring everything together: a moving personal narrative, a touching love story as Knightly’s character and Turing reach out to one another; and an exciting WWII period peace, with a top ensemble of British actors.

Above all The Imitation Game shows how important it is to nurture the abilities of every human being, including those of whom “you can’t imagine anything.”

I hope The Imitation Game makes it to the Cineplex and the Oscars. Don’t miss it.


Saturday morning began for me (as my wife and sister went elsewhere) with The Decent One, Vanessa Lapa’s documentary account of the life of Heinrich Himmler. Introducing the film and Lapa, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the theater’s host remarked, “If you’re here to see this film you’re either a World War II cinephile or Jewish.” I guess I qualify on both counts, and for me this was the fascination of the film. Having recently read Peter Longerich’s Heinrich Himmler: A Life I was amazed by the collection of still photos and films that director Lapa was able to gather. Here is Himmler dandling his infant daughter Gudrun on his lap. Here he is bringing Gudrun and his wife, Marga, Christmas presents during the war; and here, just days before, he is walking through an inspection tour of Auschwitz at the height of the killings.

By juxtaposing readings of warm and intimate family correspondence with the photographic record of Nazi brutality, The Decent One reinvigorates Hannah Arendt’s point about “the banality of evil.” On a slightly critical note, while I understand that the film is an Israeli-Austrian-German co-production, and though I understood much of the German, I wish the filmmaker had chosen to prepare an English language version of all the readings and voice over material. The visual images are so new and so interesting that it was painful to have to take my eyes off them to read the English subtitles.

One troubling and sad note. Throughout the film we watch Gudrun’s growth from infancy to adolescence. Of course, one can understand how a child can love her father, even if in his professional life he’s a monster like Himmler. But it was disturbing to learn at the close that Gudrun is alive and a major figure in an organization that supports surviving Nazi war criminals and other neo-Nazi activities. How fortunate she is that the victorious allies did not believe in her father’s practice of Sippenhaft, the execution of the families of his opponents.


After being turned away from our chosen afternoon film, Rosewater (yes, scheduling problems persist), we changed course and headed to Madame Bovary. An early arrival gave us the opportunity of talking at length with a fascinating pair of physicians from the Bay area (she Canadian; he a Canadian immigrant from India) for whom this was their first Telluride. They were enchanted with the Festival, and we enjoyed learning about their medical-business doings in that effervescent part of the country. Line time at Telluride is never wasted!

Have you ever traveled somewhere and found, strangely, that your best memories are from that unexpected and not immediately important moment: the quick picnic lunch on a hillside; the crowded train compartment with engaging fellow travelers?

Madame Bovary is like that. Despite being a bit slow and not in every respect emotionally convincing, the film by the young French director Sophie Barthe sticks with you. You find your thoughts going back to the village of Yonville in mid-nineteenth Normandy, where Emma Bovary, beautifully played by Mia Wasikowska, is a newly married young woman at once intoxicated by her readings in romantic literature and suffocated by provincial life and her dull physician husband, Charles. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh brings you into the life of this gray/green village, where well watered fields and forests lie under a sun that almost never seems to break through. We watch Emma as she pushes the unwitting Charles into insurmountable debt and as she careens from one brief love affair to another in the effort to fill the void at the center of her heart. The exquisite dresses on which Emma spends Charles still unearned earnings vividly illustrate her dreams of beauty, wealth, and status. Emma’s tormented suicide, with which the film both begins and ends, is inevitable.

On a critical note Henry Lloyd-Hughes may be miscast as Charles Bovary. Whereas Charles in the novel is an unattractive boor, Lloyd-Hughes is both handsome and devoted, making it emotionally hard to understand Emma’s discontent. We wonder why she undertakes her destructive trajectory.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

Saturday began early for us, with a 7:00 AM gondola ride up the mountain for what we expected would be a wildly popular tribute to Hilary Swank and viewing of her latest film, The Homesman. Our prudence was well rewarded. Although hundreds turned out for this event, we secured seats near the stage. Despite her frequent playing of roles as an unattractive woman, Swank is vivacious and she offered fresh answers to the interviewer’s questions about her ascent from trailer park childhood to Oscar-winning stardom. Never professionally trained, she learned acting by obsessively watching other people (as a child her mother repeatedly told her, “Stop staring!”). Even today, she eschews the separate world of Hollywood superstars and rides the L.A. metro in order to watch and learn from her fellow passengers.

HS 1 HS 3

Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Jones and Hilary Swank, the Homesman celebrates the classical Western genre, but in a new mode. Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) is a thirty-one year old spinster efficiently managing her own small farm in the far Western territories. Three local woman, faced with the terrible stresses of frontier existence, including one’s loss by disease of all her children in a single day, have gone mad. At least one of them is violent and needs restraint. The women must be taken back east to civilization, but none of the handful of local men can leave their families, so Mary Bee volunteers. As her solitary journey riding a wagon with the women locked inside is about to begin, Mary Bee encounters George Briggs (Jones) in dire straits and persuades/coerces him to accompany her. What follows is a journey of spiritual redemption, but one not without its reverses and non-Hollywood turns. Never have the landscapes of the plains West been more beautifully filmed than they are here by Oscar-nominated Rodrigo Prieto. Jones as Griggs and Swank as Mary Bee (“as plain as tin pail”) offer outstanding performances. The Homesman is somewhat marred in its plot and direction by a measure of Jones’ self-promotion. These blemishes may prevent The Homesman from being a Hollywood smash, but, nevertheless, it is a Western that at times reaches the heights of both versions of True Grit, and The Unforgiven.

RON’S GRADE: A minus

I’m beginning to think that this year’s Festival has a theme. It’s “redemption and perdition.” Clearly, Madame Bovary and the Himmler documentary fit into the second category. The Homesman is profoundly about the first, as was our afternoon film, Two Days, One Night, the latest gritty realist film about lower-middle class life in today’s Belgium from the amazing Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. The background is growing unemployment in a small Belgium city. Sandra, courageously played in this small film by Marion Cotillard after her triumphs in La Vie an Rose and Rust and Bone, has been laid off at a small solar panel manufacturing firm as a result of Asian competition. Management has agreed that she can keep her job if the majority of her sixteen fellow workers each forego their pending one thousand euro annual bonuses. Sandra and her husband Manu (sensitively played by Fabrizio Rongione) have a weekend to convince nine of her colleagues to vote for her. Each encounter is a lesson in either human selfishness or human compassion. Running beneath this effort is Sandra’s depression from which she is only recently recovered and which contributed to her being laid off. The threat that unemployment and social dependency represent to Sandra’s sense of self worth and the judgments of her peers reveal themselves as even more important than her loss of salary. The film gives new social meaning to the themes of perdition and redemption. Two Days, One Night will predictably not make it into a single Cineplex. But is the kind of film for which one comes to Telluride.


Can a mother’s love save a developmentally scarred child? This is the question that rings through the final film of our day, Quebec director Xavier Dolan’s, Mommy. We first meet Diane (Anne Dorval) in a juvenile detention facility where she is picking up her teenage son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon). Steve is responsible for a fire that badly injured another boy at the center, but Diane, a sexy, middle-aged working class woman who seems to be propositioned by every man she meets, is not yet ready to invoke a new Canadian law that will allow her to commit Steve to prolonged incarceration. What follows is a roller coaster ride as Steve careens between charming youthful exuberance and deadly violence against Diane, himself, and others. Neighbor Kyla, a high school teacher who is unable to keep her job because of a nervous speech impediment (whose cause is only cryptically suggested) enters their lives, bringing friendship and fun to Diane and Steve, as well as assistance with home schooling that may help fulfill the mother’s and son’s dream of high school graduation and a Juilliard admission for Steve.

I’ll say no more about Mommy’s plot, since anything further would be a spoiler. Mommy shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes this year with the renowned director Jean-Luc Godard. As a film, however, Mommy disappointed me. Steve is so wildly extreme in his behaviors and moods that we never quite learn to love or hate him, and we remain emotionally perplexed by Diane’s (and to an extent Kyla’s) devotion to him. Mommy is a glimpse into the tormented world of a parent with a disabled child, but it is one we are glad to leave.


Labor day, the final day of the Festival, began for us with Dancing Arabs, a film adaptation directed by the Israeli director Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree) of two largely autobiographical novels by Sayed Kashua, a popular Arab-Israeli Haaretz columnist and writer of an award-winning Israeli television comedy series. We meet Eyad (very well played in his teenage years by Tawfeek Barhom) as a child growing up in a close Arab-Israeli family and neighborhood. Intellectually gifted—Eyad alone is able to crack a TV puzzler—he dwells in a milieu boiling with Palestinian nationalist sentiments (later we see his family on their roof cheering Saddam Hussein’s missile attacks on Tel Aviv). But then Eyad is accepted as the sole Arab at a prestigious Israeli boarding school in Jerusalem. What follows is a coming-of-age saga. Eyad, excels at school, begins a sweet love affair with Naomi, a beautiful Israeli girl, and as part of the school’s community service outreach, befriends Jonathan, a wheelchair-bound and homeschooled classmate suffering from muscular dystrophy. We watch Eyad practicing his pronunciation in an effort to eliminate his Arab accent. As he gains confidence and a measure of recognition from classmates, Eyad offers his literature class a penetrating critique of the stereotypical and sexualized depiction of Arab males in many esteemed Israeli novels. But Eyad’s effort to dwell simultaneously in the opposing Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli worlds founders, and in the end, Eyad is forced to find his own difficult way out of the conflict.

Dancing Arabs is neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. It holds out the hope that if these two peoples could get to know one another better, they might see themselves as the siblings that they are. The film’s premier in Israel on the eve of the recent Gaza conflict was postponed, but it was finally shown in a limited venue to strong audience approval. Dancing Arabs will almost certainly not be shown in any commercial movie theaters in the U.S., outside of a screen or two in New York, but it is one of the reasons we come to Telluride.


Our Festival ended—and culminated—with Rosewater, the first feature film written and directed by Jon Stewart, comedian host of The Daily Show.

But I must note first that Rosewater was preceded by a vivid eight-minute French short subject, Aïssa (directed by Clément Tréhin-Lalanne). A pretty Congolese teen’s physical exam will determine her destiny. Is she older than eighteen, in which case she’ll be deported from France, or is she younger and able to stay and pursue her intended career as a cosmetologist? As Aïssa undergoes a rigorous and invasive physical exam, we hear her unseen medical examiner record his notes. Conclusion? The bone structure in Aïssa’s hands indicates an age of perhaps twenty, “although all our ossification graphs derive from Caucasians and we have none for Africans.” Probed and measured against possibly irrelevant standards, Aïssa will certainly be deported.

Rosewater is adapted from a memoire by Maziar Bahari that records his months of imprisonment at the hands of Iranian state authorities. During a journalistic visit to Teheran, Bahari, a young reporter for Newsweek (and well played by the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal), happens to film the murderous repression of a street demonstration against Iran’s deeply flawed 2009 presidential election. He is soon arrested and subject to months of solitary confinement, only interrupted by intimidating interrogations and occasional violence at the hands of a “specialist.” During his incarceration, Bahari is sustained by frequent “conversations” in his cell with his deceased father, who, as a Communist had been imprisoned and tortured under the hated previous regime of Shah Palavi. In various ways, Bahari eventually learns to outwit his captors. The film ends on a happier note but not without revealing the generations of lawless authoritarianism and terror to which the citizens of Iran have been subject.

RON’s GRADE: A minus

This was not our quantitatively most intense Telluride. Over three days, we managed to see only eight films (as opposed to my all-time record of sixteen). But if low on quantity, this year’s festival was high on quality. We saw several films that will not likely be screened elsewhere, and even the worst of the films (Mommy?) stimulates continued thought. Strolling late in the day in the light of a Telluride sunset, we look forward to next year.

Telluride at Sunset


Around the World by Private Jet




OCT. 29 TO NOV 19, 2013

I have been an enthusiastic traveler since my childhood, when I first read  Richard Halliburton’s wonderful Complete Book of Marvels, with its pictures of the author swimming in the Panama canal.

On Oct. 30, I take off for a three-week trip as an academic lecturer on a trip by private jet around the world. This trip is open to alumni from Dartmouth, Princeton, University of Virginia and other colleges, universities, and programs. I will be serving as one of three guest lecturers on the trip. The others are Alan Mann of Princeton and Fred Diehl of University of Virginia.

Our destinations include: Machu Picchu, Easter Island, Western Samoa, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Angkor Wat, Jaipur-Agra (and the Taj Mahal), the Serengeti (and Ngorongoro Crater), Petra (Jordan), and Fez, Morocco. I will be delivering five lectures in the aisle of the jet.

What follows is my account of this trip. Please note that in order to get the posts in reverse chronological order, I have had to place erroneous dates in the left hand column. The heading dates are the correct ones for each entry. You can expand smaller pictures by clicking on them.

* For more on TCS & Starquest, see


DAY 1, WED., OCT 30, MORNING: This first post is being started as we make landfall on the South American continent (about 35 thousand feet above the what looks like the desiccated Colombian coast). On this first full day, I and my 88 fellow travelers (about 80 “guests” and the rest of us “staff”) are on our way to Lima, Peru, and from there by air to Cusco and train to Machu Picchu. The descriptive words that come to mind so far are “convivial” and “deluxe.” The guests are middle aged or older, come from every part of the nation, and are avid travelers. Most are well to do, but at least some appear to have “saved up” for this once in a lifetime trip. As I found from the reception last night and today’s trip to the airport, they’re eager to talk and learn about the lecturers’ fields and backgrounds. My faculty colleague Alan Mann (a Princeton anthropologist) just delivered his first lecture in the aisle of the airplane (on Inka civilization) and it met with enthusiastic applause. The food, beverages, and service are exceptional. Iceland Air provides the plane and crew, so lunch today was preceded by a glass of amazingly smooth Reyka, triple distilled vodka. What to say? This is not Southwest’s peanuts and Coke.

AFTERNOON AND EVENING: We had a great day today, arriving about 2:30 PM in Lima and going directly by bus to the Peruvian (Rafael Larco) ethnographic museum. The Lima we passed through is a diverse city with many poorer barrios. Right near the airport, a plywood favela community was going up in flames in a terrible conflagration as we passed by.


But I would not say that the city appears desperately poor. Most of the neighborhoods are tidy and filled with modest and well-kept homes.


There are numerous well-tended parks, some dotted with doggie statues reminding owners to clean up after their pets. The neighborhood of our hotel, Miraflores, could easily be mistaken for seaside Miami or Rio de Janeiro.


The afternoon ended at the Rafael Larcos museum and its collection of magnificent pre-Inkan jewelry, pottery, and fabrics. Accompanying is a picture of one of the most breathtaking of the museum pieces: a beautiful pre-Inka gold and turquoise necklace.


The day came to a close for me after dinner with a viewing on the Spanish sports channel with the last inning of the Red Sox-Cardinals game, and the Sox’s World Series victory. I’m no sports fan, but I was really pleased to see Boston, which has suffered so terribly this past year, get this much needed moment of triumph. Up at 5:30 tomorrow for our flight to Cusco.


Our early morning drive to the airport confirmed my impression of Lima, now with a population of nine million in a country of thirty million, as a city coping well with the vast influx of rural immigrants. The streets were streaming with kids and parents in football outfits on their way to all sorts of schools, from elementary schools to colleges and universities (many with a strong Catholic presence), See the accompanying photo of one very typical mother and daughter.


Urbanization can create the impression of chaos, but cities are often the sites where modernization and upward mobility takes place. Lima seems a textbook case.

DAY 2, THURS., OCT 31:

After getting settled at the beautiful Palacio Nazarenas hotel in Cusco (disturbed only by a slight headache from the 11,300 foot altitude), we began  a tour of Cusco’s main plaza and grand Cathedral.


This plaza was once the heart of the Inka Empire, and surrounded by Inka buildings (today a beautiful statue and fountain of an Inkan emperor stands at its center).


After 1530, the Spanish conquerors began replacing all of these Inkan buildings with Christian ones, often built of stones from the destroyed Inka edifices. The great Cathedral (it has no special name) dominates the plaza. It’s interior (photographs not permitted), filled with paintings, cedar carvings, and gold leaf decoration is magnificent. One of the most colorful and ornate Christian buildings I have ever seen. On the main altar today is a life-sized statue of Christ crucified made of wood and covered with leather blackened by centuries of candle smoke. But Christ is only a temporary resident: there for a week of celebration during which he is paraded through the streets until he is installed for a brief time in front of a permanent sculpture of Mary above the altar. Among the paintings: a depiction of the last supper with the central dish a roasted “cuye,” a guinea pig and a specialty of Peruvian (and Inka) cuisine. Was the native artist just ignorant of the fact that Christ the Jew would never eat a rodent? Or was this a subtle dig at the Spanish invaders?

This theme of indigenous Peruvian resistance against the Spanish (declared on a recent building wall graffito) was often repeated by our guides’ descriptions. Our guide, Dagmar (despite her name a thoroughly Peruvian woman) told us how Peruvians to this day, bring offerings to the Virgin that are just like those that their ancient ancestors brought to Pachamama, the earth goddess. “We are ‘Católicos,’ she said, but ‘syncretistic Católicos.”

After a buffet lunch at the hotel, we journeyed a thousand feet up a mountainside to a vast field where the Saqsaywaman (“Sexywoman” is offered as a mnemonic device) stands. This is a mammoth layout of Inka temple sites that served as the ritual center of the empire. We walked a kilometer across the fields, awed by the amazing stone architecture in which limestone blocks weighing ten tons are fitted together so precisely that not even a piece of paper can pass through the joints. A special feature of Inka architecture, seen and mentioned again and again over these two days, is the use of interlocking and dovetailed blocks of stone (giant Legos?), designed to resist shifting during the devastating earthquakes that occur here roughly once a century. The Inka sites (including Machu Picchu) have all survived, while later Spanish architecture has frequently been destroyed.

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Following Saqsaywaman, and a brief encounter with a group of indigenous women and their “families”


we returned to the city for a visit to Korikancha. This is now a Franciscan monastery, but at its interior are the preserved “houses” and walls of what was once a large Inkan temple compound. Again we were astonished by the precision of the stone edifices. A model illustrated the fact that the whole compound was once surrounded by a protective wall, on the top of which was gold leaf to indicate the compound’s sacred contents. The Spaniards took three months to strip that gold away, melt it down to bullion, and ship it back home, as they did with all the Inka gold and artifacts they found.

Before dinner at the hotel, I walked through the plaza and watched as the local children celebrated Halloween around the Inka fountain.

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Before dinner we also all went across the street to the ethnographic museum for Pisco sours 9a Peruvian specialty drink) and an exhibition of native women’s weaving. The skill of these women who work with a variety of small hand looms, the intricate patterns they develop using alpaca thread and natural dyes were amazing. (see photos). All work with a relatively newly formed women’s cooperative that’s striving to reinvigorate the oldest traditions of Indian weaving. I bought a lovely table runner for Thanksgiving from a cheerful young woman about my daughter’s age: it comes with a tag with her picture, name and birthdate.

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Cusco Weaver

DAY 3, FRI., NOV. 1

Today was a day I have waited for since childhood: a visit to Machu Picchu, the sacred Inkan mountaintop city.  Our group split in two, two-thirds of us on buses at 7:00 AM to visit several sites before joining up with the Hiram Bingham train around 11:00 AM, and the other third sleeping in and taking the train all the way from Cusco to Machu Picchu.

Our buses wended their way up the mountainside to get out of Cusco, reaching an altitude of 12,500 feet where, at a rest stop, we had a wonderful view of the snow-capped Andes cordillera to our east. Some of these mountains exceed 17,000 feet. Below us, a river ran eastward: one of the first tributaries of the Amazon.


About 9:00 AM we reached the ancient Inkan town of Ollantaytambo (literally the rest stop—tambo—of the warrior Ollantay). This is a charming city, whose house walls display the strength and precision of Inkan stone architecture.


Above the town is a large royal and/or priestly compound with a huge complex of stone terraces, which the Inkas used to grow crops (a foretaste of Machu Picchu). The climate in this region (13 degrees south latitude) conjoins uniform warmth with the coolness of a high altitude. It never snows here, and there is abundant water (the winter season is rainy; the summer dry), so it a perfect region to wrest agricultural land from the many hillsides. This, too, is the region where the potato (which likes cool environments) was first domesticated.

At around 11 AM we walked to the train station and waited for the Hiram Bingham train (named in honor of the rediscoverer in 1911 of Machu Picchu) to arrive with our less adventurous fellow travelers. The train, managed by the Orient Express Company, is beautiful. As we descended to Machu Picchu town, about 50 kilometers further to the north and at a lower altitude, we had a sumptuous lunch, marked by several glasses of wine or Pisco sours. Inspector Poirot, move over.


Arrival in Machu Picchu town was followed by a bus ride 2,000 feet up the mountainside on an unpaved hairpin road to the entry of Machu Picchu. 1.75 million people visit each year and the admission is about $50, but we were merely whisked in.

Words cannot describe this site. Perched on a mountaintop, with every glance over your shoulder looking down thousands of feet to the valley and river below, it is an Inkan Shangri-La. Acres of terraces, storehouses, religious buildings, and houses—all with massive walls with stones fitted perfectly together and interlocked so as to withstand earthquakes. No metal was used for this work, and, except for dirt brought in in small amounts on llama transports, everything was heaved and hauled by human beings

Most interesting to me were the religious sites. The Temple of the Sun is situated so that, on the mornings of the winter and summer solstice, sun passing through “gates” on two higher mountains penetrates openings in the building’s wall and shine on the altar. With the sun god, Inti, given offerings and worship by the priests, this assured the Inkas that the sun would proceed on its course and not go away forever. Another high point holds a sundial that marks out the four cardinal points and provides cosmic orientation. I could have given a lecture on the spot about the religious importance of cosmology and cosmogony. As is, when I finish my Easter Island lecture, I will tell the travelers that “next week there will be an exam in which they must apply these comparative religion concepts to Machu Picchu.”






Exhausted by walking the ups and downs of the myriad steps and terraces at high altitude, our group returned to the busses and the Hiram Bingham train. After a wonderful dinner and rattling through the night back to the hotel, we all flopped into bed, in my case sleeping soundly until the next morning.

DAY 4, SAT., NOV. 2

This morning had us off to the Cusco airport, and then to Lima. After small delays we arrived at our wonderful Icelandic jet and boarded for Easter Island.

Following lunch service, my colleague Fred Diehl, a biologist from UVA delivered his first lecture: “Observing: Birds” which was his preamble to a series of lectures on how to understand features of the biological environment. After a short bathroom break for everyone, I followed with “Mysteries of Easter Island.” All the technology worked, and I received numerous handshakes and questions on my way back to my seat.

Late in the afternoon, our pilot announced that he had been given permission to twice circle Easter Island so that we could all see it from the air. Quite a privilege!

Sad to say, my camera battery had run low (and the recharger was in my suitcase below), so I had to use my iPhone to take pictures. In the first of these you cannot really see Tongariki Ahu, the long line of Moai (great statues) that line the shore to the center of the small bay near the center of the picture,


The next photo is of the volcanic crater that marks the western end of the island. Beneath the cliffs here, the ritual swimming race of the birdman cult takes place.


Days 1 – 4



Easter Island! The name* brings me back to my youth, when I first read Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki. Modern DNA analysis, linguistic and material evidence have largely discredited Heyerdahl’s thesis: that the Polynesian islands were first settled not from the west but from the east and that the same architects who built Machu Picchu carved and raised Easter’s great statues, the “moai.” But Heyerdahl’s bold effort to cross the 2,300 miles of open ocean from the South American coast on a reed raft inspired interest in Easter island, and his early archeological work, although now mostly surpassed, contributed to the growing body of knowledge about this extraordinary island “at the end of the world.”

*NOTE: the name “Easter Island” has largely been replaced by the name “Rapa Nui,” which the islanders use today. But this name only arrived in the mid-nineteenth century with travelers who invented it, Rapa Nui means “large Island.” I will use both names interchangeably.

After a good night’s rest and dinner in our beautiful hotel, the Hangaroa Eco Lodge on the edge of the western coast of the island (the Lodge’s roofs are covered with grass, (Some photos),



we set out on our morning excursion. First stop: Ahu Tahai. This is a ritual sacred altar beside the sea, on which is placed one of the largest of the moai—and one of the few with its red scoria topknot in place, and one of the only ones whose white coral eyes, with their red scoria pupils, have been inserted. The eyes, we learned from our anthropologist guide Claudio Christin, were only inserted for ritual events. Doing so awakened the statue, representing a sacred ancient ancestor, making him receptive to the offerings of his human kin.


From Ahu Tahai, we traveled eastward, almost the full length of the island to the Rano Raraku volcano and quarries. These quarries, which girdle the volcano, are the birthplace of all the moai. They were carved out of the volcanic tuff and transported from here throughout the island, a distance sometimes as great as fifteen miles. One of the “mysteries” of Easter Island is how the islanders transported statues (887 have been found) weighing up to 80 tons down the sides of Rano Raraku and across miles of fields and hills. (There are currently several competing theories about this question. Claudio Christin had a very persuasive one, which you will have to come to Easter or read his new book to learn. His theory does not involve extraterrestrials.)

We took the path up the side of Rano Raraku to one of the many quarries that ring the hillside. Beside the path lay many moai whose fragile tuff broke en route and that were abandoned in place.


At the quarry,


we could see an unfinished moai, which Claudio estimates would have been about 50 feet tall and weigh 90 tons. This was apparently a “moai too far,” one that probably should never have been attempted in the first place since it would have been extremely difficult to transport.


Here, too, is another moai that never made it out of the womb


Sculptors were not “professionals” and Rano Raraku was not a professional moai “factory.” Those producing a statue usually came from a village clan and worked on site to produce their clan’s newest moai (like humans, the older ones, representing distant ancestors, tended to die away in power). They would carve the statue out of the tuff, leaving a “keel” underneath to keep it in place until they were ready to cut the keel and start the moai on its journey. This behemoth, keel in place, never made it out of the womb.

Walking back down the hill we sighted a male red tailed tropic bird in a niche, taking his turn on the egg (while his wife was presumably out shopping).


From the hill, within eyesight from Rano Raruku we could see Ahu Tongariki.


This lineup of fifteen moai facing the volcano and with their backs to the sea is one of the wonders of the world and alone merits a visit to Easter.

Some of these moai had been toppled in the clan wars that marked the end of the great period of Easter Island religion and building (the mid-sixteenth century). The rest were scattered and leveled by a thirty-foot high tsunami in 1961. Claudio told us how, as a young archeologist, he received a call early one morning from the Chilean ambassador in Japan who told him that a Japanese industrial corporation was willing to donate a 55-ton crane for the restoration of the site. Thus began a five-year effort led by Claudio, and involving up to fifty people, for which we are all indebted.



After a barbecue lunch on Anakena beach around the north side of the Island (yes the water here is that blue),


Patricia Vargas, Claudio’s ex-wife (the two came to Easter just out of graduate school in Chile and raised their family here) took a part of our group on a walking tour of Ovahe beach on the north coast. For over two miles, we picked our way across fields littered with small volcanic stones to get a real glimpse into the domestic life of the early islanders. Things we might have passed by or stepped over of great archeological significance were brought to light by Patricia’s skilled commentary. Here is Patricia pointing out a stone oven that, in the absence of wood, used grass or twigs to cook the family’s meals


And here is a Rapa Nui chicken coop. Chickens, the only domesticated animal on the island, were a family’s treasures. At night the chickens were stuffed into the chicken house, and a stone was used to conceal the entrance. In this way, island families tried to reduce chicken rustling, although we learned that it sometimes happened and could lead to violence.


As we walked, herds of wild horses galloped past. Several thousand of these beautiful animals live free on the island. Some are “owned” by teenagers, who occasionally tame, ride, or race their favorites.



The rocky shore of the island is also littered with the bones of horses who perished from sickness or age, or who could not survive a bad growing season.


Sunday evening began with brief remarks by the three archeologist/guides for our visit, Eduardo Martinez, Claudio Christin, and Patricia Vargas.  (Eduardo has just published the fruit of his lifetime of work on the island as When the Universe Was an Island and Claudio and Christin have just published Easter Island: Silent Sentinels. Both books should be available on Amazon). In her remarks, Patricia touched on her belief that Easter represents the best and the worst of the human condition. The worst because of the environmental disaster and fratricidal wars that ultimately decimated much of the population; the best because of the islanders’ marvelous cultural creations and the spirit that produced them, which still lives on.

The archeologists were followed by an example of that spirit: a lively and vigorous company of native female and male dancers.


For a moment, one had the sense that in its heyday, Easter was not all ritual and wars, but maybe, too, a fun place to be.


DAY 6, MON., NOV. 4

Up and early, we headed to the top of the caldera that anchors the western tip of the island. This volcano, whose rim at its center is a mile wide, and whose bottom, 600 feet below, is filled with huge reed matts covering much of the surface of water that reaches ninety feet deep at the caldera’s center, was the jumping off point (literally) for the bird man cult.


This cult may have had more ancient predecessors, but it flourished in the wake of the fratricidal wars that tore Easter apart in the sixteenth century, when the large palm trees disappeared and life on the island became a bloody conflict over scarce resources. The cult seemed to offer a way of reducing conflict. Each year, on a ritually appointed date just before a colony of sooty terns returned to small rocky island a few hundred feet from the base of the caldera, swimmers would race down the slope of the volcano and defy powerful currents to reach the island and find the first tern eggs of the season.


The athletes were sponsored by well to do men on the island, and when the winner returned to the ritual site with the precious egg, his boss would be appointed island king for the year, with almost absolute power over the feuding clans. Although a seemingly clever solution to the problem of conflict, it did not always work well: rival clans would resist the boss’s edicts, and those edicts themselves were often so arbitrary and self-serving that they led to new conflicts. Christian missionaries eventually put an end to the cult. I strongly believe that religion and ethics (in the sense of reasoned systems of thought aimed at reducing social conflict) often go together, but the Birdman Cult shows once again that (religious) solutions can sometimes be worse than the problem.

Returning to the Eco Lodge for lunch, we grabbed our hand luggage and headed to the airport for the next leg of our journey, a ten-hour flight to Western Samoa, with one stop for fuel in Papeete Tahiti. At the airport, we had to be screened, but since there were no other departures, we immediately walked across the tarmac to our waiting jet.




We arrived last night in Cairns, Australia, and transferred to our hotel, the Sea Temple resort, in Port Douglas. This is in the state of Queensland on Australia’s northeast coast, a tropical part of the continent.

There were two choices for today’s excursions: snorkeling on the barrier reef or a series of visits to indigenous tropical sites. Snorkeled out from Samoa, I chose the latter—and never looked back.

Our day started with a visit to the Daintree Rainforest, where native, aboriginal guides greeted us. Cameron


took us on a “walk about” of a small sector of the forest. He explained what we were seeing by recalling his own many “walk abouts” with his grandfather when he was a boy of ten or eleven. It’s crucial for aboriginal youngsters to learn the ways of the forest, from how to gather food to how to avoid the very dangerous cassowary birds, which, if they are antagonized or think you’re near their nest, can chase you at speeds up to 50 km/hour, and disembowel you with their large spiked claws. Cameron pointed out that cassowaries are crucial to the survival of the rain forest because they eat fruits that are toxic to most other creatures and poop their seeds all over the forest, thus aiding plant propagation. There are only 1,000 of these birds left in the wild, so efforts are being made to protect them.

Taking us to the bank of a clear running brook (the Mossman river, I think), Cameron showed us how his people use local ochre, charcoal, and clays to paint their bodies with marking signs (including signs that indicate the limits to their own and other tribes’ territory, the latter of which they must not trespass on lest violence break out).


After painting himself, Cameron gathered a handful of leaves from a nearby bush, which he crushed and mixed with water, yielding abundant lather. “The soap bush,” he explained. Twigs of the same plant are also an all-purpose liniment.


This pointed up not just the depth of knowledge of aboriginal peoples but the still undiscovered treasure in botanical products contained in these endangered rainforests. (All around the world, we learned, a football-field sized portion of rainforest is destroyed every second.)

Having lectured on the concept of the sacred and profane a few days ago, I was pleased to see that just about every one of Cameron’s description of sites in the forest mentioned sacred places and things. Women, it seems have their own, separate sacred sites, and these are taboo to men (and vice versa). As a youngster, Cameron underwent his rite of initiation here, being left alone all night in the forest as a test of his manhood. Fortunately, he did not bump into a cassowary.

From Daintree we headed to a remarkable site for lunch: the Botanical Ark. This is the home and project of a couple named and Alan and Susan (I didn’t quite get their last name). For the past four decades this couple have been collecting tropical nut and fruit trees and plants from rainforests all over the world for planting and preservation on their twenty-acre property. Before lunch, Alan took us on a walk-about as well, beginning with Heliconia palms, whose flowers, like bird of paradise plants, are thick waxy and startlingly colorful.


Realizing that these flowers remain beautiful for six weeks or more, Alan and Susan began a floral business, shipping Heliconia to hotels and business around the world. To this day, they are a popular decoration in hotels across Asia. Unfortunately, a six-month-long commercial air pilots’ strike made the business untenable for them in this remote corner of Australia, and Alan and Susan went on to other things.

Our tour introduced us to many other unique and rare tropical plants, including bright orange turmeric ginger, which is currently being researched for its potent anti-cancer properties. (The Botanical Ark is a world repository for over 500 types of gingers.)


Another plant, which Alan said it took twenty years to develop, is the Kepel Apple. Unlike most fruits, this one grows on the trunk of the tree.



The Kepel Apple is historically reputed to have been a favorite in royal gardens across Asia as a fruit that “sweetened” bodily odors. When, after years of waiting, the first tree had produced enough fruit, Alan gave it to two friends, and he and they each ate about ten small apples. The friends reported that after a vigorous, sweaty workout session at the gym, they received numerous and unsolicited compliments, on their “lovely citrusy odor.” A European pharmaceutical company is currently researching the fruit for its active ingredients. Will the day come when we’ll replace our deodorants with a pill or breakfast of cereal with Kepel Apple slices? If so, thank the rainforest.

Our walk ended with some frolicking with Alan and Susan’s Labrador retriever whose energetic pursuit of sticks in our hosts’ beautiful pond showed how true she is to her breed’s name.


When we first arrived, we were met with this bouquet of tropical fruits grown here and were served fried breadfruit with guanabana juice (a thick, creamy white tropical nectar).


Lunch continued this theme with a repast of local botanical products, including this salad of mangoes, and three other fruits whose names I can’t recall.


The visit made me realize that our diet of apples, pears, bananas, etc. hardly touches the richness of fruits that can be cultivated. Perhaps our grandchildren will someday buy fruits like these at the local market.

Our excursion day ended with another wonderful visit, this time to “Habitat,” an amazing zoo where all the residents, including birds, range free in net-enclosed spaces. Here were all of Australia’s unique (often marsupial) fauna. A local variety of storks (I didn’t record the precise name),


parrots (all the same species; the green one is male; the red and blue ones are females),


an emu (a large flightless bird like the ostrich),


a huge local species of pelican (up to my chest in height; three times as big as its Sanibel cousins, and the only bird whose residence in this idyllic spot I regretted: not enough room for him to fly)


And yes, the dreaded cassowary. This photo doesn’t do justice to its size. This bird is at least as large as a Saint Bernard. No one quite knows the purpose of the structure on its head. A sound receiver? Battering ram? Your guess.


Even more fearsome was the salt-water crocodile, whose jaws, we learned, have the strongest biting force in nature. This scary fifteen foot long specimen is in the zoo because he developed a bad habit of getting too close to human beings at the seashore. You can imagine how nervous I was as I leaned over the fence to take this picture.


Of course there were koalas (their nutritionally poor diet of gum tree and eucalyptus leaves barely supports life, so they sleep 20 hours a day).


One whole section featured kangaroos


and wallabies (small versions of the same).


And here are my favorite photos of the visit. First, a mother wallaby with a filled pouch; then the same mom, close up, with the “joey” (baby’s) legs hanging out of her pouch.

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21-POUCH 2

Evening, and dinner was dining on our own (with vouchers) in Port Douglas. Fred Diehl, I, and Kassi, one of the travelers, had a great meal at “On the Inlet,” a seafood restaurant on the harbor side. Drinks included very good XXXX beer (so named because the brewers “didn’t know how to spell beer.”) Australia is certainly a fascinating and civilized place to visit. This Queensland tropical zone merits a return.