I wouldn’t try this without verifying it.
April 23, 2014
April 22, 2014
Poveglia, a deserted 7-hectare rock believed to be the burial place of plague victims, to be leased to help pay Italy’s debts
Andrea Barina, the owner of a no-frills restaurant on the Giudecca canal, serves up mouth-watering plates of seafood antipasti and exquisitely fresh fish to a loyal clientele. But one night earlier this month, the genial 50-year-old was confronted with an idea that was profoundly indigestible: the potential transformation of his beloved teenage playground into yet another luxury resort in the Venetian Lagoon.
Barina and many of his neighbours were indignant when they heard of the Italian state’s intention to auction a 99-year lease on Poveglia island as part of efforts to ease its huge public debt. Overgrown and deserted, Poveglia is an unlikely paradise. It does not feature in many tourist guides, and its eerie state of abandonment has fed many a ghoulish fantasy.
But, to a committed band of local people, none of that matters; its name alone evokes the simple pleasures of childhoods past. And when Barina, amid heated debate at his restaurant, had an idea, they were inspired. “He said, ‘Let’s buy it,” recalls Lorenzo Pesola, an architect. So that’s exactly what they are trying to do – €99 (£80) at a time.
It may seem an ambitious plan – and, to those who have read about Poveglia beneath any number of lurid headlines, downright odd. Owing to the potent mix of its colourful past and gloomy present – it has been officially off-limits to the public for decades – the seven hectare (17 acre) island has attracted a reputation to rival any horror movie set.
A US television show, Ghost Adventures, labelled it “one of the world’s darkest epicentres” after a 2009 episode in which one of its hosts claimed to have been possessed while clambering about at night in the ruins and hailing the spirits in bad Italian. Subsequently, Poveglia has been described as “the world’s most haunted island”, “the island of madness”, and, for good measure, “like hell, but in Italy”.
Strangely enough, this doesn’t appear to put off the Poveglia Per Tutti (Poveglia For All) association. In fact, its members appear to find the rumours entertaining, if perplexing. “This Anglo-Saxon tradition of ghosts is una cazzata [bullshit],” says Pesola. “It’s nonsense.”
Yes, say the activists who want the lease, Poveglia was used in the past as a lazzaretto – a quarantine station for the sick, particularly plague victims – but so were other islands. And yes, there was a nursing home, which still stands, dilapidatedand partially roofless, amid the undergrowth. But that, they insist, is that. There is “no objective confirmation” of any of the rumours and legends surrounding the building, says Pesola: chiefly, that it was used as a place to conduct experimental lobotomies on psychiatric patients and that its land is stalked by the spectres of victims past. They don’t want potential donors to be put off by folklore. And for them, the island’s more recent history is what counts.
“What people would often do was go where the water was very deep and fish for little squid. Then, they’d go in little groups, secretly, on to the island, and would grill and eat them,” says Barina. “Another thing that was unmissable: there was a wooden bridge from which we’d hold diving contests. There’d be 30, 40 of us. And we’d go and steal the peaches from the trees, which were” – he pauses to pay due reverence – ” the best peaches in the whole lagoon.”
Were they ever spooked by the desolation of the island, with its bricked-up steeple (Napoleon did for the church) and unkempt wilderness? “Absolutely not. It was our playground,” says Barina. “It was our Disneyland.”
In 21st-century Venice, no reference to the Californian theme park is accidental; the citizens’ battle for Poveglia makes more sense when considered alongside the city’s wider identity crisis and the ever-tightening grip of mass tourism. These residents despair of what has happened to parts of the historic centre, the areas around St Mark’s Square and the Rialto bridge, which have become a morass of tour groups and souvenir shops.
Even on their way to Poveglia, they cannot ignore the industry’s impact: the journey takes them past two other lagoon islands, Sacca Sessola and San Clemente, which have been bought by private investors for us as luxury hotel resorts.
April 21, 2014
Dispute: court to rule on UK sovereignty claim
Success of case could lead to return of hundreds of exiled islanders who were forced to leave archipelago
Britain’s sovereignty over the Chagos Islands and America’s lease for the Diego Garcia military base could be thrown into doubt by an international court hearing due to open in Istanbul on Tuesday.
I sincerely hope the Brits and Americans get egg all over their faces in this debacle. It should never have happened.
April 20, 2014
Lore of the jungle
High in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains is the Lost City, a site which has been dubbed ‘the new Machu Picchu’. But local tribes says the city was never ‘lost’ to them – though much about their lives is now at risk
I must have crept a hundred metres away from the track, pushing through thick jungle then finding a faint trail that led downhill towards the roar of the river. Everything was alive down here on the forest floor. A tiny bird with brilliant puffy white beard and red legs stood his ground, emitting a sound like a pneumatic hammer, but what I wanted to see I could only hear, chuntering away to itself up in the tree tops.
Camera in hand, I craned my neck to get a view. Clouds of tiny flies swarmed around me, but I resisted the urge to swat them away. At the back of my mind was a warning from Eduardo, our guide, about snakes. Something rustled behind me and I span around.
Standing there was a little old lady in a white smock. Her hair was long and very black. She gazed past me impassively, her face expressionless; her fingers were busily weaving some fibres that she’d pulled from the bushes. At her feet, which were bare, was a small grey pig, behind it a chicken and behind that, a sleek hunting dog which also avoided my eye. I tried my one word of the indigenous Kogi language: “Anchiga.” No reaction. When I’d heard the language spoken it had sounded like something learned from prairie eagles a hundred thousand years ago. In this spirit, I tried again. “Aancheega.”
I took my field book out. She showed interest. By chance it fell open at the hummingbirds, of which Colombia boasts a staggering 162 species, many of them bafflingly similar. The old lady, without hesitation, pointed out the selection that live around her home, the jungles of the Sierra Madre de Santa Marta.
I pointed up into the tree and began leafing through the pages. At the toucans she stopped me and tapped a gnarled fingertip on the keel-billed toucan, a magnificent jungle beast with a rainbow-coloured bill as long as my forearm. She took a couple of steps to the side and pointed up. I followed her gaze and there it was, high in the canopy, stroking its bill on a branch and sunning itself in the early morning rays.
I took a few photographs then turned to show her the results, but the woman and her menagerie of followers had melted away into the forest. She had not said a single word to me.
I was on the trail that leads to Teyuna, a ruined city deep in the jungled mountains of the Sierra Nevada, a snow-capped range reaching up to 5,500m high that is visible from the palm-fringed beaches of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Word about Teyuna has been trickling out of Colombia ever since its rediscovery by treasure hunters in the 1970s, but problems with rebel militants and narco-traffickers discouraged any visits until the Colombian Army finally secured the area in about 2005.
By that time expectations were high: “The new Machu Picchu!” “The Lost City!” Increasing numbers of intrepid backpackers began to do the five-day trek with guides from the coastal town of Santa Marta and now it sees about 8,500 visitors a year. In 2011, a million people went to Machu Picchu.
For the most part, those 8,500 people get in and out without any interaction with the inhabitants of this emerald forest. There are thatched huts beside the trail, a few sombre faces peering around corners or from behind trees. Sometimes a woman, dressed in white and barefoot, will skip past, avoiding eye contact. On her back will be a child, staring mutely at the strangers. They never speak or smile, these long-haired ghosts.
Most guides are Colombian, which means they’re outsiders, and know no Kogi or Wiwa, the two languages of the tribes along the trail. They march their visitors, almost all from Europe or North America, quickly onward. The point is to reach the Lost City and then get back to the fleshpots on the coast.
I might have done the same had I not had the good fortune of finding Eduardo, a guide with mixed Wiwa and Kogi parentage, who speaks both languages, as well as Spanish. Together with his two brothers, Eduardo has resolved to do something about the stranglehold that outsiders have on the trekking through his own people’s land and has set up a guiding business. I was with Eduardo and another guide, Zalemaku, who is Kogi.
It was Zalemaku who found me at the foot of the tree, entranced by the toucans. We rejoined the trail and pressed onward, soon catching up with Eduardo and his two younger sisters, Anna and Lucia, who had come along to see the city for the first time. The old lady was there too, chatting in Kogi, and we had to have another good look through my bird book.
We had started two days before, and the first overnight stop had come after a stiff three-hour ascent from a village in the foothills where the land was a mix of grass and forest, mostly owned by non-tribal campesinos. The second day, however, had brought us higher and deeper into the forest.
We slept in hammocks in a tin-roofed shelter and swam in the crystal-clear Buritaca river, while giant iridescent blue butterflies flapped overhead. Early explorers had collected these wonderful creatures, killing them with the reverberations of shotgun fire, but the tribes, Zalemaku explained, would never do anything like that. “If we kill anything, the mamos tells us to pay compensation to the mountain.”
“What is a mamo?” I’d asked.
“Like a priest,” was his explanation.
I had just rejoined the group when Zalemaku spotted an old man up ahead. “That,” he said, “Is a mamo.”
The mamo, like all the locals, was taciturn at first, but once Eduardo started chatting to him in Kogi, he soon relaxed and became friendly. I asked him what his role was.
“We take care of the forest,” he said. “This is the place of our ancestors and there are many spiritual sites.”
What concerned him now? Did he like the fact that tourists come up to see the Lost City?
He corrected me: “For us it was never lost. We like the tourists coming if they want to understand our culture. What changed this place is that the colonialists took away the gold from Teyuna. That is why things are wrong.”
The robbing of Teyuna by conquistadors happened in 1578, but for the mamo it seemed like a recent event. “The city is the Mother of the world’s equilibrium. We want them to put the gold back.” This is the core of Kogi philosophy: the earth must be kept in balance. In a remarkable documentary made by the BBC in 1990 called The Heart of the World, Kogi mamos called on the world to listen to their warnings about the environment, about the fatal imbalance that rapacious consumption was causing.
April 15, 2014
A photographer who snapped what could be the world’s only girl hunting with a golden eagle says watching her work was an amazing sight.
Most children, Asher Svidensky says, are a little intimidated by golden eagles. Kazakh boys in western Mongolia start learning how to use the huge birds to hunt for foxes and hares at the age of 13, when the eagles sit heavily on their undeveloped arms. Svidensky, a photographer and travel writer, shot five boys learning the skill – and he also photographed Ashol-Pan.
“To see her with the eagle was amazing,” he recalls. She was a lot more comfortable with it, a lot more powerful with it and a lot more at ease with it.”
The Kazakhs of the Altai mountain range in western Mongolia are the only people that hunt with golden eagles, and today there are around 400 practising falconers. Ashol-Pan, the daughter of a particularly celebrated hunter, may well be the country’s only apprentice huntress.
They hunt in winter, when the temperatures can drop to -40C (-40F). A hunt begins with days of trekking on horseback through snow to a mountain or ridge giving an excellent view of prey for miles around. Hunters generally work in teams. After a fox is spotted, riders charge towards it to flush it into the open, and an eagle is released. If the eagle fails to make a kill, another is released.
The skill of hunting with eagles, Svidensky says, lies in harnessing an unpredictable force of nature. “You don’t really control the eagle. You can try and make her hunt an animal – and then it’s a matter of nature. What will the eagle do? Will she make it? How will you get her back afterwards?”