El Dorado: Week 259

Gold artifacts on display at the Museo del Oro: Bogota, Colombia

The legend of El Dorado originated an hour and a half north of Bogota. Many explorers lost their lives in search of wealth beyond all measure; I caught a bus with tasseled curtains for 8,000 pesos. What difference a few hundred years makes.

The indigenous Muisca believed that gold was the vital energy of the Sun Father while lakes were the womb of the Earth Mother. By offering gold to Lake Guatavita they were ensuring the continuity of life and maintaining equilibrium.

One of the best accounts of the ‘El Dorado’ ceremony was published in 1636 by Juan Rodriguez Freyle. While his original account is available online in Spanish, the BBC has a more succinct summary.

Gold 'El Dorado' ceremony raft on display at the Museo del Oro: Bogota, Colombia

“When a leader died within Muisca society the process of succession for the chosen ‘golden one’ would unfold. The selected new leader of the community, commonly the nephew of the previous chief, would go through a long initiation process culminating in the final act of paddling out on a raft onto a sacred lake, such as Lake Guatavita in Central Colombia.

Surrounded by the four highest priests adorned with feathers, gold crowns and body ornaments, the leader, naked but for a covering of gold dust, would set out to make an offering of gold objects, emeralds and other precious objects to the gods by throwing them into the lake.

The shores of the circular lake were filled with richly adorned spectators playing musical instruments and burning fires that almost blocked out the daylight from this crucible-like lake basin. The raft itself had four burning fires on it throwing up plumes of incense into the sky.

When at the very centre of the lake, the priest would raise a flag to draw silence from the crowd. This moment would mark the point at which the crowds would commit allegiance to their new leader by shouting their approval from the lakeshore.”

Gold human-shaped poporo artifact on display at the Museo del Oro: Bogota, Colombia

The Spanish, or any other explorers for that matter, were obsessed with El Dorado. The more gold they ‘casually saw’ in the villages, the stronger they believed that El Dorado was the secret stash house of immeasurable wealth.

After all, if I was impressed by the collection at the Museo del Oro in Bogotá (which are the artifacts that weren’t melted and exported), imagine what the Europeans came across!

Although the Legend of El Dorado also came to represent a mythical golden city, the Spanish did eventually locate and try to drain Lake Guatavita in 1545. Gold was found along the bank but they never reached the supposed wealth in the middle of the lake.

Jaguar-influenced pottery on display at the Museo del Oro: Bogota, Colombia

Unfortunately, when Jess and I were nearing Lake Guatavita, the bus conductor told us we would not be able to visit. Even if we hadn’t seen the white smoke billowing off the surrounding hills it would’ve been impossible to avoid the acrid scent. Local fires combined with pollution meant the lake was temporarily closed for tourism.

Public plaza at Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

Suddenly without a destination we decided to visit the nearest town, which was named Guatavita. It was built in 1967 when the old town was intentionally flooded during the construction of a reservoir.

The moment Jess and I stepped into the plaza, I felt like I’d gone back in time or at least like I had walked into my friend’s 1970s condo before she remodeled it. Guatavita was not the historical town I was expecting; it was a quiet, faux-colonial master planned community.

Just off the main plaza was a small two-story museum about Lake Guatavita and the history of the town. There were a few market stalls, a big dessert stall, several restaurants, a dark church, and a bullfighting ring.

Inside the Catholic church at Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

City map on display at the local museum in Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

Wooden door of a public theater in Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

Instead of Lake Guatavita I saw the Tominé Reservoir. While historically less important, it had a pretty view and it was a short stroll away from hot coffee and a cup of strawberries and cream. That was as close to gold as we were going to get.

Tomine Reservoir next to Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

How to get to the Museo del Oro: Carerra 6A and Calle 16, Bogotá

How to get to Guatavita: Catch a Transmilenio Bus to Portal del Norte Station (you will need to purchase a fair card). At the station, transfer to the ‘Buses Intermunicipales’ platform and catch a bus to Guatavita. If Lake Guatavita is open, ask to conductor to drop you off at the entrance. It is a two hour walk between the lake and Guatavita.

About: El Dorado

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Mi Tierra & The Botero Museum: Week 224

Entrance to Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Mi Tierra is reached via a long hall lined with vintage posters and punctuated with a neon sign. Unlike the bars on the other side of the church square, there was no one waiting outside to hustle you in. And unless you knew about the bar, the inability to see into the venue from the sidewalk might be a bit dissuasive.

Luckily Tiffany, one of my colleagues, was in the know. She rounded up a large group of people from our training program and we set out on foot for the Chapinero venue. It was about ten o’clock when we arrived only to discover a metal gate blocking the entrance. Our hearts sank.

Someone rattled the gate and called down the hall. A minute or two passed without a sign of movement and then we heard footsteps approaching. It was Arturo, the owner.

Mi amor,” he affectionately called out to Tiffany. “¿Cómo estás?

Stuffed dog decoration inside Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Of course the bar was open. Come in, come in. I wasn’t quite sure if they had opened up just for us, or if they just kept the gate closed when the venue wasn’t busy. It kind of seemed like in Bogotá, if there were enough people, anything could be reopened.

Interior of Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

During the day, Mi Tierra was an antique shop. There were no windows, so the musty smell of second hand goods filled the room. Some of the items were displayed while the rest were pushed aside to make space for the small dance floor and six tables. The most accessible items around the dance floor were wigs, hats, instruments, a wheelchair, and a small crocodile statue.

A crocodile statue and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

We sat down at the largest table, the one with a vintage hairdryer, and began ordering drinks. Many bars rush you to order, but it almost felt like it was an afterthought for Arturo. “Tranquila,” he advised me when I wasn’t sure what I wanted or even how to say it. Take it easy.

Ordering drinks at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Out of nowhere a birthday cake appeared for Arturo’s partner. We all sang happy birthday in English and then in Spanish. After the candles were blown out, Arturo grabbed the microphone for a heartfelt serenade.

A birthday celebration at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

The fact that such a large group of foreigners were invited in for a small birthday celebration just goes to show how friendly everyone was. While I had met a lot of nice people so far, it was the first time I felt such a generous ‘welcome’ in Colombia. If I’m ever back in Bogotá, you know where I will be.

The bar at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

On my last day in Bogotá, three colleagues and I went to the touristy neighborhood of La Candelaria. It is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the city and many of the buildings are beautifully preserved.

Our first stop was at the Plaza de Bolívar. It dates back to 1539 when it was first called the Plaza Mayor. Nowadays, it is a massive paved area that fronts the Catedral Primada and the Capitolio Nacional (Nation’s Capital). The plaza usually attracts more people on the weekend, but this Saturday it had two strikes against it: it was raining and Colombia was set to play that afternoon in the Copa América.

El Presidente, 1997: Botero Museum, Bogotá

El Presidente, 1997

Just down the street was the Botero Museum. It was founded in 2000 with the donation of 203 artworks from Fernando Botero himself. More than half of the art was his own work, while the rest was that of international artists like Calder and Bacon. Not only was it a priceless collection, but it was also free to the public.

Mujer delante de una ventana, 1990: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Mujer delante de una ventana, 1990

While the international art collection was great, I was really there for Botero. His inflated figures are both fascinating in form and grotesque for the greed they represent.  Their fleshy figures devour their clothing and their small eyes sink into their faces, like raisins in pudding.

I could have spent all day La Candelaria looking at national treasures. However, some of the most important Colombian things can’t be found in a museum; they can only be found on a big screen TV. It was time to head back to the hotel to watch the Copa América.

Guerrilla de Eliseo Velásquez, 1988: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Guerrilla de Eliseo Velásquez, 1988

How to get to Mi Tierra: Calle 63 #11-47 (In front of Parque Lourdes), Chapinero, Bogotá

How to get to the Botero Museum: Calle 11 #4-41, Bogotá

Hombre con Perro: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Hombre con Perro, 1989

Australian National Maritime Museum: Week 199

Stern of the HMB Endeavour: Sydney, Australia

Barret and I have been working on a graphic novel together and when I decided a few chapters would take place on a ship, I realized that I don’t know very much at all about life at sea. It also didn’t help that the kind of visual information I needed was very specific and very elusive.

At Barret’s suggestion I made a research appointment at the library of the Australian National Maritime Museum and mentioned to the librarian in advance that I was researching diagrams for a 300-tonne merchant ship from the 1820s. While she did not find info on that specific kind of ship, she had pulled a lot of great material for me. I was very happy with the information, but I was still having a hard time visualizing what that kind of ship looked like.

How did people move through it? How was it set up? What was the scale of the interior? If I wasn’t sure about these answers, how could I write the storyline and how would Barret be able to illustrate it?

While a library is a great place to start a project, sometimes the only way to nut things out is to get into the field. That’s why I went back a few days later to visit the tall ships at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Crew's hammocks aboard the HMB Endeavour: Sydney, Australia

The one I was most interested in, the HMB Endeavour, is also one of the most historically accurate maritime vessels. It is set up as if the crew had just anchored and gone ashore. While the ship predates the period I was researching by about 50 years, there was still a lot to gain from walking the deck and through the confined quarters.

One of the things that struck me was just how much rope was needed to operate the ship. It draped around every protrusion on the deck and I imagine it presented quite a tricky work environment- especially in bad weather. Being from the digital age, it was quite easy to romanticize this kind of travel when viewing the ship in the calm waters of Darling Harbour.

Crew's toilet aboard the HMB Endeavour: Sydney, Australia

However, once you look a little bit closer you notice things like the crew’s toilet. I’m not sure if there was another located within the ship, but the one at the bow of the deck was a wooden platform with a hole. Aside from absolutely no privacy, a shared tasseled rope served in place of toilet paper.

Then, with the help of the stationed tour guides, you come to realize the things that would be impossible to accurately recreate: the sweaty stench of a 56-strong crew, the rudimentary healthcare, and the disappointing taste of stale food and stale water.

The crew of the HMAS Vampire, an Australian destroyer ship commissioned in 1959, might not have contended with the same issues as the crew of the Endeavour, but it feels a bit different to romanticize about laminate tables and commissaries stocked with Crunchie Nuggets and Dunhill cigarettes.

Mural inside the dining room of the HMAS Vampire: Sydney, Australia

Officer's dining room aboard the HMAS Vampire: Sydney, Australia

The surfaced HMAS Onslow inside the Darling Harbour: Sydney, Australia

When it came to the HMAS Onslow, a submarine commissioned in 1969, the first thing a visitor noticed when stepping aboard was the lack of space. Bunk beds lined the hall and the lowest bed looked more suited to store shoes than a sleeping man.

Officer's quarters on the HMAS Onslow: Sydney, Australia

The quarters of the ranking officers were not much to get excited over, unless of course you were sleeping on one of the aforementioned bunk beds. The one thought that kept crossing my mind was how much work it would have taken to draft the construction plans- every square inch of space had to be accounted for.

The Captain's bathroom on the James Craig: Sydney, Australia

The other thought that crossed my mind was that I’d much rather deal with rats and damp bedding than with the claustrophobic nature of a submarine. Especially if I could have a bathroom like those of a Captain’s wife (circa 1874).

Operation room of the HMAS Vampire: Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

After viewing the utilitarian style of 1768 and the 1960s, it’s easy to see why the HMB Endeavour captures people’s hearts- the creaking floorboards, the skylights, the excitement of traveling by the whim of nature. Paying passengers today can even sail aboard it to places like Tasmania.

You just don’t feel the exhilaration of being out at sea inside the Bat Cave of the HMAS Vampire. Seeing the inside of the operation room also made me glad that I am not writing a military thriller- you really need to have a background in the Navy to even begin to understand the complex operations on board a ship like that. I’ll stick to describing poop platforms and toilet paper tassels.

Operation Room of the HMAS Vampire: Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

How to get to the Australian National Maritime Museum: Darling Harbour- 2 Murray Street, Sydney 2000

About: The HMB Endeavour

About: The HMAS Vampire

About: The HMAS Onslow

Neon Museum Boneyard: Week 182

Polaroid of the Las Vegas Club neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard, Las Vegas

I was with my color photo class the very first time I visited the Neon Boneyard. Even before it became a proper institution, a museum with a visitor’s center and a security guard, the Boneyard was something special.

As soon as my film was developed, I locked myself up in the photo lab. The color darkrooms were small individual rooms along a short dark corridor and they had a vinegary smell. It might not have been practical to study film in a digital age, but it felt more meaningful. My film was a tangible object that captured the jagged glass, the rusted metal, the heart and soul of Sin City history.

Polaroid of the Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

“Neon lighting took on a particular resonance in Las Vegas and in other parts of the open landscape of the Southwest. Without many trees or buildings, the illuminated neon sign could be seen from miles away in the evening. Western motels used the neon medium perhaps more than any other business. This was also perhaps afforded by the low profile of casino and motel buildings when casinos within Las Vegas’ city limits were once limited to two stories. The low, horizontal profile has allowed building-mounted signs to be seen at longer distances. Traveling north on the Strip, the neon glow of Las Vegas acted as a beacon signaling toward the city.”(Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon).

Polaroid of the Lido neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

Within the last two years, the neon collection has been split into two different yards- the North Gallery is for commercial shoots and weddings while the Neon Museum Boneyard is available for public tours. One of the most exciting new additions to the facility, which was still in the process of relocation the last time I was in town, is the visitor center. The clam-shaped lobby, designed by Paul Revere Williams, was salvaged from the demolition of the La Concha Hotel in 2005.

Polaroid of the Stardust neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

The Neon Museum Boneyard is a testimony to the ebb and flow of Vegas culture. From the atomic font of the 50s to the kid-friendly themed signage of the 90s, the history of this desert valley is written in neon. Hotels might come and go, the wedding chapel vows too, but the Boneyard will still be around fifty years from now to document the changing city. At least, that’s what I would bet on.

Polaroid of wedding neon sign. Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

How to get to the Neon Museum Boneyard: 770 Las Vegas Blvd North

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