slieve gullion

slieve gullionI’ve hiked and driven these quiet lanes so many times over the years that I sometimes take it for granted how much this part of Northern Ireland is soaked in history and mythology. Slieve Gullion – literally, mountain of the steep slope in Irish – is the eroded remains of a Paleocene volcano. It lies at the heart of the Ring of Gullion, which is itself a topographical curiosity only recently understood: an ancient ring dyke. (With the collapse of an active volcano’s caldera, a concentric ring of fault lines radiate outwards. Magma is extruded through these fractures to create mountains which are a geologically helter-skelter composite at their surface. Here the mix is molten granite with igneous rock from the Silurian period some 400 million years ago.) It’s the highest point in County Armagh, and on that rare clear day offers views as far away as Dublin Bay and Wicklow. At the top of the mountain are two cairns on either side of a small lake. The southern one is the highest surviving passage grave in Ireland – radiocarbon dating suggests it was built circa 3000 BC – and its entrance is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. According to legend, however, Slieve Gullion is named after Culann, the metalsmith. And it is here that the legendary warrior Sétanta spent his childhood and received the name Cúchulainn. Culann invited Conchobhar mac Neasa, King of Ulster, to a feast at his house on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On his way, Conchobhar stopped at the hurling field and was so impressed by Sétanta’s playing that he asked him to later join him at the feast. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about Sétanta, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard the house. When Sétanta arrived the hound attacked him, but he killed it by driving a hurling ball down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss, so Sétanta promised to rear him a replacement, and until it was old enough to do the job, he would guard Culann’s house. Henceforth he was known as Cúchulainn, or Culann’s Hound. But that’s just the beginning for young Cúchulainn, who will later single-handedly defend Ulster against the invading Connacht armies of Queen Medh at the nearby Gap of the North and take his place as Irish literature’s greatest mythic hero. All in a day’s hike, as they say.

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wish list: faraway, so close

13063619536535391028_1If you’re like me you’ve long dreamed of Cuba, the faraway, so close island off the coast of Florida that’s been off-limits to US citizens for more than fifty years. Rich in history, culture, and all that glorious music, it’s an American traveler’s version of Snuffleupagus: a rare creature able to be seen by everybody but us. Insight Cuba, a leader in small group people-to-people travel, is about to change all that. As travel to this enigmatic island is made legal for only the third time in fifty years, this licensed tour operator has me salivating at the chance to explore the once-forbidden island with a sweepstakes, running now through June 17th. To take part, ‘Like’ the Insight Cuba Facebook page and enter via the “Win a Trip to Cuba for Two” tab at the top. A winner will be selected at random on June 18th and receive a free trip for two on the tour of their choice: Undiscovered Cuba, Cuban Music & Art or Classic Cuba. The grand prize includes round-trip airfare from Miami to Havana; first-class accommodations, meals and activities; an Insight Cuba tour leader and Cuban guide; entrance fees; in-country ground transportation and transfers; 24-hour emergency service and maybe most important of all, a U.S. Department of the Treasury License and Letter of Authorization. Underdeveloped, stubbornly unchanged for decades, the revolution and the resulting embargo may have decimated the travel industry in Cuba, but it didn’t kill it. And the irresponsible policies of our own government have done nothing to squelch the abiding curiosity about our neighbors 90 miles to the south.

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the return of the apsara

apsara dance

The relatively recent history of Cambodia is horrific. Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge the country was subjected to a radical social engineering project in the 1970’s that aimed to create a purely agrarian Communist society. Around two million people were forced from the cities to take up agricultural work in the countryside. The party controlled what they wore, whom they could talk to, how they acted. Children were believed to be tainted by the capitalism of their parents, so they were separated, indoctrinated in communist ideology and made a dictatorial instrument of the party, given leadership roles in the torture and execution of anyone suspected of being a traitor. And almost everyone could be considered a traitor: intellectuals, artists, minorities, city-dwellers and anyone with an education. In little more than four years the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people – a fifth of the country’s population – through torture, forced labour, starvation, and executions. Unbelievably, one of the many groups targeted were the Apsara Dancers, practitioners of the classical Khmer dance which dates back to the 7th century. (The Angkor temples are festooned with thousands of images of the Apsara. During this period, dance was ritually performed at the temples as both entertainment and as a means of delivering messages to the gods.) Although 90 percent of all Cambodian classical artists perished in the genocide, the tradition of the Apsara was resurrected in the refugee camps in eastern Thailand with the few surviving Khmer dancers. Yes, I had come to Cambodia because I wanted to see the temples, but what I needed was to see this dance: elaborately dressed, performing a slow and figurative set of hand gestures and poses, invoking the gods and enacting epic poems; a testament to the power of art and a point of national pride. (Plus, anyone with even a passing familiarity with The King & I will immediately notice where Jerome Robbins stole his best ideas.) The return of the Apsara augured not only a reestablishment of civil society but,  more importantly, a resurrection of the country.

apsara dance 2

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tastes like communism

While the Hong Kong History Museum provides a fascinating and in-depth look into the city’s place within the context of two great empires, I must at all costs advise against a sidetrip to the cafeteria. Less a culinary adventure than an unappealing survival course, it is the first disgusting meal of the trip. Honestly, I can’t even remember what it is I had ordered at this point. What arrived was a study in browns: brown beans in brown sauce accompanying brown meat; a brown vegetable chunk in a bath of brown broth. Had there been a brown-shirted staff in Mao jackets I wouldn’t have flinched. The rice, however, was white.

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snapshots: philadelphia freedom

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at the theatre: long story short

Channeling the demise of the world’s great empires, Saturday Night Live veteran Colin Quinn’s new Broadway solo show is an articulate – and uproarious – romp through history.  Subtitled “A History of the World in 75 Minutes,” it’s much more than just another stand-up routine pimped out with a set and straining to look legit.  Of course it’s funny, but with the help of director Jerry Seinfeld – yes, that Jerry Seinfeld – the laughs come in service to Quinn’s thesis that for all of mankind’s self-avowed progress we’re still caught up in the great cycle of stupidity that started as soon as man crawled out of the ooze. Long story short: times may change, people do not.

From his personification of Caesar as the original Italian mobster to his complaints about Ancient Greece and Antigone giving way to Costco and Snooki, Quinn satirically takes on the attitudes, appetites and bad habits that toppled the world’s most powerful nations.  Anyone who was a fan of Quinn’s sardonic take on the news during a too-short stint as SNL‘s Weekend Update anchor will know his humor is sharpest when it’s cutting uncomfortably close to home.  To wit, on the cultural differences between the globe’s two superpowers:  In China they invite their old people into their houses to live with and care for them; here we give them a dollar off an early-bird dinner so we don’t have to look at them while we eat.

Long story short? I’d have happily stayed longer.

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