On the edge of Europe, Cadiz is famous for looking much like Havana and this is not surprising given its history as a seafaring centre from which many ships sailed to the Americas over the years. Cadiz is as old as Europe, some say the oldest city in this ancient continent, with Phoenicians, Roman, Muslim and Christian roots going back for centuries. And it is still a beautiful, vibrant city with a fish market to die for and atmospheric alleys, cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as, museums and concert halls. One of Spain’s most famous composers Manuel de Falla is from here and the city is known as the site of the yearly carnival where laughter and music mingle on the streets. When we visited, at the end of December, the weather was chilly but fresh and pregnant with sea breeze. Our modest hotel was near the famed Cathedral and around the corner from the Gypsy area and an atmospheric ancient sherry bar full of wooden barrels and old men. The best part of a first visit to Cadiz is getting lost in the atmospheric streets and putting your head in small local bakeries, restaurants and shops to try the local fare and talk to the friendly folk. The Cadiz Museum is also nice to visit with classic and modern art and archaeological pieces that somehow help put things in perspective. But the best history is the living one: the mix of faces you see on the street, reflecting the complex line of men and women who have choose this place as home, the tradition you taste when you try the local cheese and olives and the laughter and joyful talk you hear when you walk into a random bar on a Sunday afternoon where there is a large communal paella is placed on the counter where you can buy a small, tapa portion and eat knowing for a day you are part of a large family of all the people who have passed through here. And walking beside the harbour, looking at the men with fishing rods in the water, you know that they stand where many stood over time.
Kathmandu is a city of contradictions. While many many tourists walk the streets of the upscale Thamel area, which reminds me of Toronto’s Kensington Market with much better shopping but minus the diversity, you have to walk 10 minutes in the right direction and suddenly you are in the middle of a timeless courtyard that has been lived in for hundreds of years and is still used to this day. Or see the bizarre Toothache Shrine with many needles:
Or find an ancient temple on which cloth are displayed for sale:
Or walk by a porter hurling a heavy load on his back as if cars were never invented:
A big part of the allure of places like these is the enigmatic feeling of suddenly being transported to another time. The sounds, smells and general vibes of Kathmandu’s old city have a magically timeless quality to them.
Of course, there are Coca Cola ads everywhere, everyone has a cell phone and it’s hard to avoid cars and motorcycles but you can turn into a narrow path lined with leaning walls and exposed electricity wires, dodge a few motorcyclists and ragged children and suddenly you are face-to-face with a 1000 year old shrine, “unprotected” and still used on a daily basis for prayers. In Nepal (and many parts of Asia), history is alive and well and not a concept in a museum.
The magical thing about these places is not that there is a lot of culture and history here; it is the fact that these traditions are still alive and have been continuously alive for centuries. I really enjoy this experience but am also aware of a deep contradiction that it entails.
There are many things to admire about different traditions and many values that should be cherish and preserved. But there are also many aspects that should not and travelling here provides an excellent chance to see the reality and be humbled by the complexity of culture.
The traveller if he or she scratches the surface of the picturesque can easily find the grotesque: child labour, thwarted lower casts, suppressed women. It’s easy to generalize and and pass a verdict on old traditions as either misunderstood treasure troves of wisdom or blind systems of oppression. But the real challenge is to stay calm, observe and decide what to take in your backpack and what to leave behind hoping it would transform soon!