Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Kalashi of Pakistan


Kalash: ever heard of them? I know I hadn't! Thanks to this fantastic postcard from Salman in Pakistan, my mind is a little more enlightened now. The Kalashi people, with a population of no more than 6,000, live in the district of Chitral in the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan, in the Hindu Kush mountains. Popular legend claims that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great's entourage in the region, and some genetic research has supported this. Hypotheses exist that link the Kalash to South Asia (their legends and folklore talk of a homeland called 'Tsiyam') or to the Middle East. Although not particularly common, blue eyes and blonde hair are not out of the ordinary.

The Kalash have many interesting customs. They have their own unique language, which is now spoken by only 5000 people in the world. The Kalash religion is also dying out - 98% of Kalash now practice Islam. The original Kalash religion strongly resembles Hinduism, with nature playing a significant spiritual role in their daily life. The Kalash have three important festivals in late spring, autumn, and winter, all offering thanks to the Kalashi gods, and generally related to cycles in the harvest - the Kalash are traditionally goat herders and subsistence farmers. Goat sacrifices are common, and sites for these sacrifices are scattered all throughout the region.

The Kalash have other interesting traditions. Men and women are generally not segregrated, but menstruating girls and women are sent to live in the "bashaleni," the village menstruation building, until they "regain their purity." Babies are also birthed in this building. Women are married early in life, and men must pay a dowry. Elopement is common, and is actually considered one of the "great traditions," along with the three festivals. If another man becomes interested in a woman who is already married, she must write him a letter informing him of her previous bride price (i.e. "one cow") and he must then pay twice what the first husband paid ("two cows"). There are occasionally disputes about these matters. The costume consists of, for women, a long black robe, often embroidered with cowrie shells. Men have adopted the Pakistani shalwar kameez, or loose tunic and pants.

Nowadays tourism is a mainstay of the economy for people in this region. In increasing numbers, people are coming to see and learn more about this enigmatic people in the mountains of Pakistan. The Pakistani government collects a toll from people who enter the region, and this money goes toward the preservation and care of the Kalash people and culture.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Åland, the curious little place in the sea


Ever since I heard about it - and I never had, ever, before Postcrossing, and that only because there are so many Finnish postcrossers - I have been very curious about this place. Åland (pronounced Oh-lahnd) is definitely an unusual place. It is a group of islands and big rocks (80 inhabited islands, over 6000 total in the island group) located at a strategic position in the Baltic Sea, at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. To get to Stockholm, Sweden or Turku and Oulu, Finland, you have to pass by Åland. In the past, Sweden and Finland have fought over who gets the rights to this important little place, and in 1921 the now-defunct League of Nations decided that Finland gets it technically, but for all intents and purposes, Åland is an autonomous entity. Åland has its own national flag, its own police force, prints its own stamps, issues its own Åland Euro, and is exempt from Finnish military service. And most importantly, people of Åland do not consider themselves Finns, at all. In fact, travel websites encourage you not to mention their connection with Finland at all. They are very nationalistic. And in fact, why wouldn't they be? They are geographically isolated, they speak exclusively Swedish, and they govern themselves.

It seems to me that Åland has a very striking landscape. Take a look at the map below, and check out how many islands belong to this place:

Åland is a very popular vacation destination for Scandinavians in the summer, and tourism is one of its major industries. However, because of its strategic locations, shipping is its main industry, making up a considerable 40% of the entire economy.

I think the best part of Åland are the sights, so I'm going to leave you with a nice slideshow of photos from around the archipelago. Enjoy sightseeing around this cool little place with its very own unique identity!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Made in Taiwan


I remember, when I was a child, I thought that every single one of my toys was made in Taiwan. And up until just a few years ago, that was all I knew about Taiwan - they manufactured A LOT of stuff. And indeed, they do - there is a phenomenon in recent history that is referred to as no less than the Taiwan Miracle. The economy of Taiwan grew so rapidly following World War II that it's almost unfathomable. It has risen to prominence and is now one of the Four Asian Tigers (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan), four nations in Southeast Asia with a particularly skilled workforce and exceptional economic success. In addition to Taiwan's manufacturing prowess, it is also a leader in technology - it is well-known for its developments in biotechnology, laptops and Smartphones, and semiconductor devices.

Taiwan also has a unique history. Today many people know Taiwan only as its current incarnation, which is the Republic of China. I'll get back to that in a minute, though; let's start at the beginning. Taiwan's aborigines are genetically related to both the Malay and Polynesian people, but their populations (like so many other places) have been depleted so that only about 450,000 remain, or about 2% of Taiwan's population. In 1544 Taiwan was discovered by the West, and the Portuguese named it Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Isle. (So that's why so many Taiwanese postcards say Formosa!) The real European influence on Taiwan, however, was with the Dutch, who colonized the island for about 40 years, and who brought workers from mainland China (Fujian and Penghu), many of whom settled there. The Dutch were expelled by conquerors from mainland China, who ruled the island for over 200 years. The Japanese defeated China in Taiwan and began governing the island in 1895. Although the Japanese were only on the island for 50 years, they had a profound effect. They began the process of industrializing the island by expanding the infrastructure, installing a sanitation system, and reforming the education system. According to Wikipedia, Japanese culture is still extremely popular with the Taiwanese.

After World War II, during which Japan used Taiwan as a strategic naval base, Japan was expelled from Taiwan and a period of martial law began under the Chinese government. When the Chinese Civil War took place in 1949, the Republic of China government fled Nanjing in mainland China and took refuge on the island of Taiwan, while continuing to claim sovereignty over all of China. Some 2 million people fled mainland China for Taiwan, taking with them many of the important businessmen, intellectuals, and national treasures from the Forbidden Palace. Up to the 1970s, most nations continued to recognize the Taiwan (Republic of China) government as the legitimate government of China.

Taiwan became democratized during the 1980s and elected its first ethnically Taiwanese leader (approximately 88% of the population is ethnically Taiwanese - a mixture of aborigines, descendants of the Chinese workers brought by the Dutch, and a handful of Japanese). In 2007 Taiwan adopted a resolution asserting a separate indentity from China.

An exciting and fascinating history! And what about Taiwan's culture? I think it's most important to note that one of my favorite beverages in the world, bubble drinks (aka milk tea) come from Taiwan - thanks Taiwan! On a more serious note, Taiwan's National Palace Museum is home to over 650,000 jade, bronze, calligraphy, painting, and porcelain items taken from
China's Forbidden Palace during the exodus - so much that they can only display 1% at any given time. Of course, Taipei is also home to the world's tallest building, the Taipei 101, which is on approximately 75% of the postcards I've received from Taiwan. :) Baseball is a very popular spectator sport in Taiwan. And apparently, one can find quite a lot of motor scooters and 24-hour convenience stores in Taiwan as well.

Lastly, it's important to note that Taiwan has a breathtaking natural landscape. The island is mountainous due to its location along a major fault line (sadly, resulting in frequent earthquakes), and it is also tropical. Most of its natural resources have been long since exhausted, but its natural beauty remains in many places.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The American Southwest


I'm always surprised at how fun it is to write a post about my own country. I thought today I would write about the American Southwest, which has its own very unique culture and mindset, because I wanted to learn more about why that region is the way it is. The Southwestern US is generally thought to comprise Arizona and New Mexico as the core states, with parts of California, Texas, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Oklahoma also containing elements of the Southwest culture, depending upon their proximity to the core. There are four factors, I think, that have had the largest role in shaping the Southwest culture of the United States: Native American influences, Spanish immigrant/Mexican influences, Anglo American influences, and the unusual climate of the region.

No other region of the United States has a climate like the Southwest. The region is extremely dry and hot, routinely reporting the highest temperatures anywhere in the US, with Death Valley, California averaging 98 degrees F (36.7 C) in summer. This results in wide swaths of desert and arid landscape, and many cacti and other heat-tolerant plantlife. Mesas, dry plains, and caves systems dot the lower part of the region, and mountains with forests at higher elevations can be found in the upper area of the Southwest. This hot, dry climate has shaped the culture of this region immeasurably - what should a people do to survive in a desert-like climate, where nothing will grow and you bake to death in the hot sun? 

Several Native American groups survived very successfully in this region, namely the Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Apache, and other lesser-known groups. Some of these native groups built beautiful, terraced pueblo homes out of adobe, a type of clay. Through intricate irrigation systems, they were able to raise maize (corn), squash, melons, beans, and cotton, and also raise livestock such as sheep. A unique culture arose among these groups. Even today, the small remaining populations, mostly living on reservations, craft some of the finest silver and turquoise jewelry in the world, and weave gorgeous wool and cotton blankets and clothing. One smaller tribe, the Pima, wove such wonderful cotton items that you can still see their name at many stores on the packages for high-quality sheets and blankets. Although the Native influence isn't as strong as it once was, this region still has one of the nation's largest Native populations and it affects the culture more strongly than anywhere else in the US.

Of course, the Spanish were the first to settle this region, and held the territory until the Mexican-American War ended in 1848. Only 150 years have passed since the Southwest was part of Latin America, and that culture strongly influences the region - probably even more so, due to its proximity to the Mexico border and the large number of immigrants from that country. One of the most
notable influences Latin-American culture has had on the Southwest is in the realm of cuisine. An entire category of cuisine, Tex-Mex, originates from the Southwest. According to Wikipedia, it is similar to Mexican cuisine, but uses larger cuts of meat, and uses less of tripe and brain (considered undesirable to the more finicky Americans). Like Mexican food, it's known for its use of spices (especially the chile pepper) and accompaniment with beans. Chili con carne, fajitas, and chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles) are well-known Tex-Mex dishes. Latin-American culture also affects the language - many people in the region speak a unique dialect of Spanish. "Because of the historical isolation...from other speakers of the Spanish language, the local dialect preserves some late medieval Castilian vocabulary considered archaic elsewhere, adopts numerous Native American words for local features, and contains much Anglicized vocabulary for American concepts and modern inventions." (source: Wikipedia) Cool, huh?

And of course, there is the the modern influence of the Anglos, who presently make up the majority of the population and who have dominated the culture since the mid-1800s. It is a pleasure, though, to see the strong remnants of the other cultures which have survived in the Southwest and mingled in such a unique, positive way. Thanks to all the great Postcrossers who sent me the beautiful cards from this region. Every image you see in this post shows postcards I have received in the mail. Thanks!

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