Ignacia Guest House: A Colonia Roma Gem in Mexico City

Looking for Mexico City hotels? Book one of the color-themed suites at this charming and chic boutique hotel in one of CDMX’s safest neighborhoods.

 The back courtyard of Ignacia, with its cactus garden and fountain, lies between the old house and the new suites

The back courtyard of Ignacia, with its cactus garden and fountain, lies between the old house and the new suites

In Chicago it had begun to feel a lot like winter and we’d already experienced our first snowfall. So the opportunity for Wally and I to temporarily escape the cold weather for sunshine and 70-degree temperatures in Mexico City (aka CDMX) was just what the doctor ordered.

 The staff serves up a different cocktail each evening at this al fresco bar

The staff serves up a different cocktail each evening at this al fresco bar

The Ignacia Guest House

The first thing I do when planning a trip is secure lodging. In my research, I had discovered a couple of charming neighborhoods, or colonias — one of which was Colonia Roma.

This charming tree-lined neighborhood, filled with a mix of Neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, is the setting for Alfonso Cuarón’s latest movie, the critical darling Roma. Located on Jalapa Street, one of these historic gems is the Ignacia Guest House, which was our home away from home for five nights. The stylish boutique hotel takes its name from its former beloved housekeeper Ignacia, who lived and worked at the house for more than 70 years.

 This woodcut, off the check-in area, shows the beloved housekeeper-cook-nanny Ignacia as a young woman

This woodcut, off the check-in area, shows the beloved housekeeper-cook-nanny Ignacia as a young woman

 And here’s the other woodcut of Ignacia, as an older woman. Note the signature cows below

And here’s the other woodcut of Ignacia, as an older woman. Note the signature cows below

Inside the former estate, the palette is restrained to pale pink-colored walls, which truly allows the custom furnishings, lighting and artisanal objects chosen by interior designer Andrés Gutiérrez to shine.

 The front sitting room at the hotel

The front sitting room at the hotel

 A variety of magazines and other publications are available

A variety of magazines and other publications are available

(Make sure to check out the super-chic bathroom with its oxblood channel tufted wall panels and illuminated vanity mirror located next to the reception desk — you’ll thank me later.)

On every trip I become obsessed with a particular item, and in this case it happened to be the burnished terra cotta vacas, or cows, that could be seen atop the console table beneath a woodcut image of Ignacia in the main house and on the countertop of the patio bar. Romina Argüelles, one of the guest house managers, told us that the artisans who make these only create one or two per year. Needless to say, there’s quite a waiting list.

 Across from the breakfast seating area is the small library

Across from the breakfast seating area is the small library

Elements of the historic mansion, which dates to around 1913, have been lovingly preserved and restored, including the window frames, doors, wood floors, ornate plasterwork and pressed tin moldings. That’s thanks to Fermín Espinosa, architect and cofounder of Factor Eficiencia, a Mexico City-based design and construction firm. While the common rooms have been repurposed, the largest and most luxurious suite, Negra, is the only one located in the former mansion and is connected to the additional rooms by an enclosed steel and glass corridor.

 This glass corridor leads from the original house to the new modern wing

This glass corridor leads from the original house to the new modern wing

Between the two structures is an intimate central courtyard patio containing cacti typical of Oaxaca, with ivy-covered walls and a rectilinear steel-clad fountain gently gurgling in the middle. The garden also contains a pair of majestic orange trees planted by Ignacia herself after she began working at the house in 1929.

 Looking down upon the courtyard patio

Looking down upon the courtyard patio

 Wally and Duke, mimicking a shot they had seen of a gay couple taking wedding photos the day before

Wally and Duke, mimicking a shot they had seen of a gay couple taking wedding photos the day before

 The view from our room’s door. You can see Ignacia’s orange trees to either side, along with the balcony of the Negra suite

The view from our room’s door. You can see Ignacia’s orange trees to either side, along with the balcony of the Negra suite

The modern two-story addition stands just beyond the original home and is a geometric combination of glass and steel where the other four monochromatic suites, Rosa, Amarilla, Azul and Verde, are found. The palette was inspired by Ignacia’s memories of growing up in the town of Guerrero.

Breakfast is made daily from scratch in the kitchen, the recipes culled from Ignacia’s extensive repertoire. Each breakfast comes with freshly squeezed orange juice, a choice of coffee or espresso drink, seasonal fruit with muesli, yogurt and honey, and a basket filled with buttery puff-pastry orejas — as well as a main dish. One nice touch: They remembered how we liked our coffee the following morning, and every morning thereafter, bringing me a café americano and Wally his latte with leche light, the local colloquialism for reduced fat milk.

 Where breakfast is served each morning

Where breakfast is served each morning

 The curlicue pastries they call orejas, or “ears,” a main dish (this one with cecina, rehydrated salted dried beef) and coffee

The curlicue pastries they call orejas, or “ears,” a main dish (this one with cecina, rehydrated salted dried beef) and coffee

 Another delicious breakfast from Ignacia’s recipe book

Another delicious breakfast from Ignacia’s recipe book

After our first breakfast, the delightful Romina checked in with us to see how our flight was and gave us a quick tour of the guest house, pointing out the two woodcut portraits of Ignacia by the artist Pau Masiques and commissioned by the property’s co-owner Gina Lozado. One depicts the Ignacia at the age of 16, the other at 87. “She was the heart of the home,” Romina told us. As she finished the tour, she let us know that cocktail hour is held between 5-7 p.m. “Maybe we’ll have some local snacks,” she said with a grin. I had a sneaking suspicion of what that might mean.

 The Azul room

The Azul room

Azul Like It

We stayed in the Azul suite located off the central courtyard to the left. Our room included a screen print of the Castillo de Chapultepec by graphic designer Miguel Alpulche and maple flooring with inlaid dark walnut arrows that led us to guess, correctly, that it was reclaimed from bowling alley lanes!

 There’s plenty of storage in the rooms, including this dresser

There’s plenty of storage in the rooms, including this dresser

A Nespresso machine sat atop the dresser and we were told that the television is set up with Netflix, a nice feature we didn’t bother to use. There’s artesian bottled water from Casa del Agua adorned with line drawings of whimsical steampunk contraptions (never drink the local water, and use bottled water even when brushing your teeth!), and natural bath products by CDMX brand Loredana inside the bathroom, which is covered floor to ceiling in Carrara marble.

 When we visited in November, the weather was in the 70s, so we spent a lot of time in the courtyard

When we visited in November, the weather was in the 70s, so we spent a lot of time in the courtyard

Courtyard Cocktails and Our First Crickets

The courtyard patio was also where we returned in the evening to enjoy cocktails and snacks at the bar. Our first evening, the cocktail was a refreshing combination of freshly squeezed fruit juice, mezcal and an ancho chile liqueur rimmed with sal de gusano, pulverized maguey worms with chili powder, and garnished with a sprig of mint, which reminded me of the rebujitos Wally and I enjoyed in Seville during Feria.

We struck up a conversation with Magda Navarrete, another one of Ignacia’s managers, who asked if we’d be interested in trying a local snack. I perhaps too eagerly agreed. When she returned from the kitchen, she had a small ramekin filled with crispy, salted chalupines, or crickets. She was so endearing, we figured what the hell, we might as well try it.

I popped the cricket into my mouth. “Respect!” Magda called out. Wally, meanwhile, grimaced as he swallowed his chalupine. “It’s not bad — except when you feel the little legs catching on your throat,” he said.

If you’d prefer to embark on a hands-on culinary adventure, you can take a cooking class and spend the day with chefs Beto Estúa and Jorge Fitz at Casa Jacaranda, located in the same building as the Ignacia.

 Duke and Wally imitating Ignacia’s pose

Duke and Wally imitating Ignacia’s pose

With so much to see, it was impossible for us to fit everything on our original itinerary into one trip. Wally and I are already dreaming of our next visit to CDMX and staying in one of the suites at 208 Jalapa Street. And while the spirit of Ignacia may have lent the property its character, it was the incredible staff that made our experience memorable. –Duke

 A chic and friendly option in one of the safest neighborhoods in Mexico City

A chic and friendly option in one of the safest neighborhoods in Mexico City

Ignacia Guest House
Jalapa 208
Roma Norte
06700 Ciudad de México
CDMX
México

The Legend of Rangda, Bali’s Queen of the Demons

The origin of the queen who became a child-eating witch goddess fated to battle Barong, the King of the Spirits, for eternity.

 The wild woman known as Randga, the Widow, is the personification of evil for the Balinese

The wild woman known as Randga, the Widow, is the personification of evil for the Balinese

When my husband, the king, died, his people began to call me Rangda, which means “widow.” As if my entire life should be reduced to the loss of a single thing, namely a feckless spouse.

It’s ironic that my name would be tied to him for eternity, for he cast me aside to marry another woman. Was I even still officially his wife?

Ours had been a strategic alliance to unite two kingdoms. I was born Mahendradatta, princess of Java, and when I came of age, my father arranged for my marriage to King Udayana and shipped me off to the neighboring isle of Bali.

I never let silly romantic fantasies enter my mind. As a royal, I had a job to do, a responsibility to my people.

As a queen, though, I didn’t have much power. My marriage would politically tie Java to Bali, and that was all that was required of me, aside from making sure I provided heirs.

All over Bali, you’ll see statues of me holding innocent babes, the instant before I devour them.

Try not to judge me too harshly. If I am to act as a profane foil to all that is sacred, I must corrupt that which is most holy.

(That their tender, plump bodies taste even more delicious than suckling pig is just an added bonus.)

But I craved power; I yearned to be strong. Hindus have hundreds of deities, but the one I focused my prayers on was the goddess Durga, whom I had always emulated. Such a strong woman, a fierce warrior, her many arms clutching weapons, riding upon a snarling tiger. Yes, this was who I wanted to be.

I had few options. With little power of my own, I decided to harness the strength of others. I turned to witchcraft, learning how to control demons, those dim-witted ground-dwellers, to do what I demanded of them. If someone displeased me, I would inflict a horrific illness upon them.

At last, power coursed through my veins, an intense, almost orgasmic feeling.

But secrets never last long in a palace. Someone, hoping to gain favor with the king, told my husband what I was up to at night in my open-air chamber that faced the graveyard at the edge of the sea. Udayana called the court together and stood upon the sacred platform and shouted, “Mahendradatta, you have brought shame upon this kingdom. You have let evil into Bali. You are no longer my queen! I exile you!”

And before I knew what was happening, his guards had grabbed me and dragged me out of the palace, abandoning me in the dark jungle amidst the screeching of monkeys. I had only the clothes on my back. No food or supplies. A woman left exposed in the wild — Udayana assumed I would soon die, and everyone could forget all about me and the shameful fact that I had corrupted this island with the introduction of witchcraft.

The nocturnal sounds of the jungle filled my ears. I could hear animals moving stealthily through the foliage, stalking their prey. But I was no weak woman. I called upon Durga and the demons to protect me.

After a week or so, some villagers had learned of my exile and went into the jungle to seek me out. They heeded the alluring call of the dark arts; they wanted me to teach them how to enslave demons. Bitter souls who wanted to curse others, who wanted to spread sickness among their enemies.

These were my first students, my first leyaks, or witches. No longer the Queen of Bali, I became Queen of the Leyaks, and eventually, Queen of Demons.

 Randga statues can be found out front of temples of death, like the one in Ubud

Randga statues can be found out front of temples of death, like the one in Ubud

A Son’s Betrayal, A Daughter’s Shame

One of the demons I used to spy on the court returned one evening, slithering along the ground to inform me that my husband planned to remarry.

Fury filled my breast. Who was Udayana to replace me, the mother of his children, the woman who brought his son, Erlangga, the king-to-be, into the world?

I screamed in rage, a horrific cry that wilted the plants around me and sent the animals scurrying away in fright.Trembling with anger, I sent a message to Erlangga to meet me at the edge of the jungle.

I saw the prince sneaking down the path for our illicit rendezvous, his eyes darting in every direction, worried he might be seen.

“My son, my son,” I called, a whisper that carried on the wind to his ears.

“Mother,” he said, looking at the ground. He would not meet my eyes.

“I have called you here to request a favor. Convince your father that he must not remarry. I will not be replaced.”

“I cannot,” he said after a time. “I cannot.” Erlangga turned from me and fled back to the palace.

If he had looked upon me — by this time I was a rather frightening sight, unbathed, my clothes in tatters, my hair matted — things might have turned out differently.

But it seemed Erlangga feared his father more than he feared me. That would be the biggest mistake of his life.

On top of my firstborn’s betrayal, I learned that my daughter, Princess Ratna Menggali, a young maiden known for her loveliness (this is not just a mother’s pride speaking), couldn’t find a single suitor. No one of high caste wanted to marry a daughter of mine. My association with witchcraft had tainted my poor daughter.

I found Ratna running through the jungle in tears, not seeming to notice or care about the branches that scratched her beautiful face.

I gathered her to me and held her against my chest.

“Come, daughter,” I told her. “You have a place here. Your life is not over, but just beginning.”

Ratna became my pupil, one of my most powerful leyaks.

“We shall make them pay,” I told her, seething at the wrong we had both suffered.

 Randga is Queen of the Witches and brings doom to many

Randga is Queen of the Witches and brings doom to many

A young girl from the village wandered too far into the jungle one misty morning, and Ratna snatched her and brought her to me. While the child trembled and sobbed in fear, I dragged my claw-like nails across her throat.

“Take this innocent blood as an offering, Durga, O Invincible One!” we chanted.

The goddess heeded our call. The sea rose in a rush of water, a black tide that flooded the entire village. The crops became unharvestable, homes destroyed.

The success of the sacrifice sparked an idea. On Bali, babies are holy, for they have only recently left the spirit realm. In fact, for months, the Balinese do not let their newborns even so much as touch the ground. For that, you see, is where my minions must stay. Demons are relegated to the dirty, profane earth, where only the filthiest of body parts, the feet, should touch.

Whenever we learned of a child’s death, I would send Ratna and the other leyaks on a mission to dig up and steal the tiny corpse for our black rituals.

Even today, all over Bali, you’ll see statues of me holding innocent babes, the instant before I devour them. Try not to judge me too harshly. If I am to act as a profane foil to all that is sacred, I must corrupt that which is most holy. (That their tender, plump bodies taste even more delicious than suckling pig is just an added bonus.)

My patron deity Durga, pleased with my drive and my devotion, granted me immortality and full dominion over the demons. I felt as if I were on fire, as my mortal essence burned away. I had become a goddess.

Erlangga Enlists the Aid of Barong

One day, years later, I learned that Udayana had died and Erlangga was now king. I refused to forgive him for not defending my honor. He had abandoned his own mother and he would pay the price.

Erlangga knew of the danger of my wrath. Reports of desecrated graves had spread, of a wild woman of the jungle and her pet demons, which wreaked havoc on the people of Bali.

While my son mustered an army to fight me, I sent a foul plague creeping throughout the kingdom. Within days, half of the population lay dead.

Erlangga fretted. What chance would mortal men have against a goddess and her army of witches and demons?

 As Queen of Bali, Randga was exiled for practicing witchcraft. She later became the goddess of evil and ruler of demons

As Queen of Bali, Randga was exiled for practicing witchcraft. She later became the goddess of evil and ruler of demons

My son called upon Empu Pradah, a legendary holy man, and asked him how to defeat me. He was told to seek the aid of another god, Barong, the King of the Spirits, a mighty shape-shifting beast. He sometimes takes the form of a boar, sometimes an elephant, sometimes a tiger — though the lion guise is his favorite.

Barong ambles along clumsily. But don’t let that fool you — when it comes time to fight, he becomes as fierce as any of my demons. People don’t like to think of him as a monster, but that’s what he is.

Erlangga’s army approached, carrying wavy silver knives called keris, the tips coated with poison.

Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine, I thought.

All of the soldiers were suddenly consumed with an overwhelming desire to turn the keris upon themselves, to commit suicide by stabbing the toxic blades into their own hearts.

But just as the daggers were about to pierce their skin and become inflamed with the poison the soldiers meant for me and my demons to suffer, Barong reared up and cast a counterspell. Instantly, the skin of Erlangga’s soldiers became impenetrable. The keris were deflected. The army was saved.

My frustrated shriek caused the men to cover their ears, to tremble in fear. But I had gone.

 Barong, on the left, is the representation of good on Bali and, as such, is the yin to Rangda’s yang

Barong, on the left, is the representation of good on Bali and, as such, is the yin to Rangda’s yang

The Balance of Good and Evil

For, you see, a realization had dawned on me, like a bright light piercing the darkness. This was my role for eternity: Barong and I were to engage in a never-ending battle. Neither good nor evil could win.

Of course, Barong’s battle is seen as necessary. The Balinese love him. He is their benevolent hero. His violence is forgiven, while mine is reviled. So be it. The minute we are done battling, Barong is back to his docile self, lumbering along like a puppy dog. He knows how to play to his audience.

By the time I had gained immortality, I had become an old woman. I let my hair grow long and wild; it became a mass of tangled white strands, some matted into dreadlocks. For the most part, I stopped bothering to wear clothes — what was the point? I was a fearsome deity. My breasts drooped farther and farther, until they swung across my stomach when I snarled. My teeth continued to grow as well, forming fangs that curved outward like a boar’s. I let my fingernails lengthen until they were razor-sharp claws. And I stretched out my tongue to demonstrate my insatiable hunger. A sense horror overwhelms all who see me.

People call the spirits over which I reign “evil.” But do you feel evil when you are consumed by grief or pain? Is it evil to feel fear or hopelessness? To be sick? Unloved?

I quickly realized that without my army of so-called evil demons, people would not realize the joy brought about by my counterpart, Barong, and his legion of spirits.

The world must remain in balance, and I must do my part. Do not wish for a paradise. Utopias are dull places, for how can you know what happiness is if that’s all there is? How would you know peace without there being stress to escape from? Paradise, as humans naïvely imagine it, is the epitome of boredom, not pleasure.

Does this sound strange to you? It is no more strange than the fact that Christians pray to a demigod dying in agony. There, too, you have the balance of good and evil.

Perhaps I am wrong about the Balinese. Perhaps they do realize I have an essential part to play.

I, too, crave worship. The usual fruit and flowers will do. But sacrifice a rooster if you want me to ensure your fertility. And once you conceive, maybe, just maybe, I’ll keep away from that tasty little morsel. –Wally

Barong, King of the Spirits on Bali

What is Barong? Or should we say, who is Barong? The Balinese personification of good fights an eternal battle with the demon queen Rangda.

 The mythical creature Barong represents all that is good in the world

The mythical creature Barong represents all that is good in the world


I fell in love with Barong the first time I saw him. And really, who could resist his charm? He’s most often depicted as a bright red, playful creature who gallops along good-naturedly like a playful Labrador retriever. Somehow his bug eyes and fangs don’t detract from his cuteness.

While Barong’s name supposedly comes from a word meaning “bear,” it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what type of creature he is. He looks a lot like a Chinese fu dog, which to me has always seemed a muddling of a lion and a Pekingese.

 Barong bids visitors farewell in this mural at the Denpasar airport

Barong bids visitors farewell in this mural at the Denpasar airport

If an epidemic rages through a village, the local priest will dip the beard of the Barong mask into a bowl of water, which will imbue it with white magic that will heal the populace.
 A popular figure on the island, Barong pops up everywhere, such as this street art in Ubud

A popular figure on the island, Barong pops up everywhere, such as this street art in Ubud

The Barong Ket, or Lion Barong, is the most popular, though the creature sometimes takes other forms:

  • Barong Celeng: Boar

  • Barong Macan: Tiger

  • Barong Naga: Dragon or Serpent

  • Barong Gajah: Elephant

 Wally and Duke make some new friends, including Barong and Rangda, which they watched battle in a dance

Wally and Duke make some new friends, including Barong and Rangda, which they watched battle in a dance

It helps that Barong is essentially all that is good in the world. He protects the Balinese in their villages. Barong is represented by a mask, its dark beard usually made of human hair. The mask is often kept in the village’s pura dalem, the temple of death, or in a small shrine near the bale banjar, the meeting hall.

 An entire pavilion at the temple of Samuan Tiga is filled with Barong masks

An entire pavilion at the temple of Samuan Tiga is filled with Barong masks

 Barongs come in various shapes, including that of a celang, or boar, as seen in the middle

Barongs come in various shapes, including that of a celang, or boar, as seen in the middle

 The Hindus of Bali offer flowers and fruit to thank Barong for protecting them. The mask on the left is the form of a macan, or tiger

The Hindus of Bali offer flowers and fruit to thank Barong for protecting them. The mask on the left is the form of a macan, or tiger

If, for instance, an epidemic rages through a village, the local priest will dip the beard of the Barong mask into a bowl of water, which will imbue it with white magic that will heal the populace. Oil dripping from the mask’s eyes has even been said to cure scabies.


puradalemrangda.jpg

His worship predates Hinduism and is a relic of animism, the belief that animals have supernatural protective powers.

 During the Galungan festivities, boys don the Barong mask and parade through town, looking for sweets

During the Galungan festivities, boys don the Barong mask and parade through town, looking for sweets

Galungan Guise

When I first visited Bali, we arrived in September during the Galungan Festival. It struck us the Balinese version of Halloween. All through the town of Ubud, we’d hear the clanging of metal percussion instruments, and would gawk as a strange creature approached. This was Barong, its wooden jaw opening and closing with a loud thok. One boy worked the mask, with its golden, mirrored crown, while others hid under a sheet to form the bumpy body that moved jerkily along the street. The kids, in their Barong costume, would stop at various business and receive sweets or coins. We later learned that Galungan was the most holy of holidays for the Hindus of Bali.

During the galungan holidays, the island was suddenly filled with magnificent masked beasts. With glaring eyes and snapping jaws, with elaborate golden crowns, great hairy bodies bedecked with little mirrors, and tails that rose high in the air to end in a tassel of tiny bells, they pranced and champed up and down the roads from village to village to the sound of cymbals and gongs, as though they had newly emerged, like awakened dragons, from caves and crevices in which for months they had been lying dormant.

This was the barong, a beautiful composite animal, lion, said some, bear, said others, Ruler of the Demons, said still others. …

These creatures were high-spirited and full of whims, dancing a strange ballet, coquettish and playful one moment, rolling on the ground like a puppy, and suddenly and unaccountably ferocious the next, snapping and stamping in fine fury as the two dancers within the body synchronized their steps and movements with beautiful coordination.

–Colin McPhee, A House in Bali


 Barong engages in a never-ending fight with the Demon Queen, Rangda, in the middle

Barong engages in a never-ending fight with the Demon Queen, Rangda, in the middle

Barong vs. Rangda, the Battle Between Good and Evil

As the king of the good spirits, Barong fights a never-ending battle with the demon queen Rangda.

His nemesis is more human-like, a hideous half-nude witch with sagging breasts, disheveled hair and a long tongue lolling out of her fanged mouth. Barong and Rangda, like yin and yang, cannot exist with the other; there is no good without evil. Unlike in our Western lore, where people often tend to live happily ever after, in Balinese legend, neither Barong nor Rangda ever truly win. Their battle is the subject of a favorite dance on Bali. The forces of good and evil, of order and chaos, must remain in balance. –Wally


More Myths From Bali and Java

Bloodletting and Trepanation: A Tour of the International Museum of Surgical Science

12 fascinating, freaky facts about early medical science.

 You can’t miss the strange statue in front of the International Museum of Surgical Science just north of the Magnificent Mile shopping district

You can’t miss the strange statue in front of the International Museum of Surgical Science just north of the Magnificent Mile shopping district

We had heard about the International Museum of Surgical Science’s spooky Halloween tours for years and had passed by the colossal figure holding a limp and seemingly lifeless body out front numerous times on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

So when something called Morbid Curiosities showed up as a suggested event in our Facebook feed, we couldn’t resist. The museum smartly offers tours year-round, though their Halloween event is legendary.

We were surprised to hear that George Washington died from bloodletting.

The reason this was prescribed? He had woken up with a sore throat.
 The tour starts in the coolest room in the museum: the hall of statues of famous physicians

The tour starts in the coolest room in the museum: the hall of statues of famous physicians

Housed in a mansion built in 1917 near the shore of Lake Michigan, just north of downtown Chicago, the museum contains three floors of macabre medical paraphernalia. For this event, a guide walked us through the displays, calling out gruesome fun facts about the various medical techniques of the past.

Here are a dozen creepy cool things we learned on our tour.

 Doctors swear to healing gods that they will obey certain ethical standards in the famous oath named for the Greek physician Hippocrates

Doctors swear to healing gods that they will obey certain ethical standards in the famous oath named for the Greek physician Hippocrates

1. Ancient doctors believed illnesses were attributable to an imbalance of the four humors.

This notion dates back to Ancient Greece and the teachings of Hippocrates. Often referred to as the Father of Medicine, his code of ethics, known as the Hippocratic Oath, is still used today. Hippocrates developed the theory of the four humors and their influence on the body and its emotions.

 This woodcut from Leonhard Thurneysser’s  Quinta Essentia  (1574) shows the four humors

This woodcut from Leonhard Thurneysser’s Quinta Essentia (1574) shows the four humors

Humor: Black bile

Organ: Spleen

Trait: Melancholic


Humor: Phlegm

Organ: Brain

Trait: Phlegmatic


Humor: Yellow bile

Organ: Gallbladder

Trait: Choleric

Humor: Blood

Organ: Heart

Trait: Sanguine

Hippocrates believed that by paying attention to the balance of these four humors, we could maintain a healthy body and mind — and an imbalance could result in disease or death.

2. One of the best-regarded doctors of the Dark Ages recommended a medical bath involving the blood of blind puppies.

In Flowers of Bartholomew, written around 1375, the monk and doctor Johannes de Mirfield wrote:

Here is a bath which has proved to be of value. Take blind puppies, gut them and cut off the feet; then boil in water, and in this water let the patient bathe himself. Let him get in the bath for four hours after he has eaten, and whilst in the bath he should keep his head covered, and his chest completely covered with the skin of a goat, so he won’t catch a sudden chill.

If you decide to try it, let us know how it works! (Kidding, obviously.)

 If you get poisoned, don’t expect the bezoar, which comes from a goat’s stomach, to be a miracle cure

If you get poisoned, don’t expect the bezoar, which comes from a goat’s stomach, to be a miracle cure

3. A stone that grows in a goat’s stomach was thought to be the ultimate antidote to any poison.

The bezoar comes from the Persian word for “counter poison.” And while the bezoar works miraculously in the world of Harry Potter, it doesn’t have quite the same power in real life. The French surgeon Ambroise Paré decided to put the bezoar’s antidotal properties to the test (with the help of an unwilling condemned criminal). The poor fellow was given sublimate of mercury, a nasty poison, to see if a bezoar would counteract it. Things didn’t work out too well. Paré wrote about the experiment in Apology and Treatise (1575):

An hour after, I found him on the ground on his hands and feet like an animal, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his eyes wild, vomiting, with blood pouring from his ears, nose and mouth. Eventually he died in great torment, seven hours after I gave him the poison.

 Patients risked blindness (and suffered a lot of pain) during the earliest cataract surgeries in India

Patients risked blindness (and suffered a lot of pain) during the earliest cataract surgeries in India

4. Cataract surgery can be traced all the way back to the 5th century BCE in India.

I’m not sure what current cataract surgery involves, but its origins are downright disgusting. The procedure started out pleasant enough, with an oil massage and a hot bath. But that’s when things got icky. The patient was tied down because of the excruciating pain to come. A knife or needle would dislodge the cataract — you’d know when this had happened because you’d hear a pop and see a gush of water. Surgeons would seal the cut with breast milk and a salve of clarified butter. If the patient could see after, it was considered successful. Not surprisingly, this didn’t happen all that often.

 The most infamous book bound in human skin,  Burke’s Skin Pocket Book,  put a serial killer to good use

The most infamous book bound in human skin, Burke’s Skin Pocket Book, put a serial killer to good use

5. There are books — mostly medical texts — that are bound in human skin.

The practice of binding books in human skin was once fairly common and has a fancy name: anthropodermic bibliopegy. The poor suckers whose epidermises have been cured to cover books were typically prisoners and other cadavers used for dissection. It’s tough to know if that leather-bound ancient tome is from a cow or a criminal.

 How many books from the museum’s library are bound in human skin?

How many books from the museum’s library are bound in human skin?

A famous (and morbid) example is Burke’s Skin Pocket Book. William Burke and William Hare were serial killers who murdered 16 people and sold the cadavers for anatomical study and dissection.

Burke was found guilty and hanged. He received a just punishment: His corpse was dissected, and some of his skin was used to fashion a small book, now part of the collection of the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland.

 An early C-section in Latin America, where they actually gave woman pain relievers, unlike Westerners at the time, who thought childbirth was supposed to hurt like hell (thanks, Eve!)

An early C-section in Latin America, where they actually gave woman pain relievers, unlike Westerners at the time, who thought childbirth was supposed to hurt like hell (thanks, Eve!)

6. People didn’t think women should have anesthesia during childbirth because of a Bible passage.

Yes, there’s a lot of crazy shit in the Bible (read the story of Lot sometime, who offered up his daughters to be gang raped and was then seduced by them). In Genesis 3:16, God punishes Eve for her part in convincing Adam to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, declaring, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.”

 Sorry, moms-to-be! Childbirth is gonna hurt — though a lot less than in the past

Sorry, moms-to-be! Childbirth is gonna hurt — though a lot less than in the past

In South America, at least, when a woman was to give birth, they’d use a sea sponge drenched in wine and mandrake root as anesthesia. It had one mild side effect, though: The woman would hallucinate and trip her balls off.

 The first surgery ever was to create literal holes in the head, during a practice known as trepanning or trepanation

The first surgery ever was to create literal holes in the head, during a practice known as trepanning or trepanation

7. The first surgery involved poking holes into the skull.

This fun practice, known as trepanation, seems as necessary as a hole in the head — pun intended. It was performed by Incan priests to let out evil spirits. They’d chew coca (the same plant from which cocaine is derived) and spit it into the open wound. What’s most shocking is that more than half of the victims, er, patients survived.

 A portrait of Vesalius from  De Humani Corporis Fabrica  (1543)

A portrait of Vesalius from De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543)

8. Andreas Vesalius, the father of modern anatomy, took to grave robbing for corpses to dissect.

Vesalius, who lived during the 1500s, used the bodies of convicted criminals to create his seminal works on human anatomy. But when that wasn’t enough, he started digging up bodies in graveyards. To be fair, many cemeteries were a mess at the time. Dogs would often be found gnawing away at the bodies piled up in mass graves, and Vesalius would have to fight them off for his prize.

 Who’d’ve thunk a sore throat would lead to the death of the United States’ first president?!

Who’d’ve thunk a sore throat would lead to the death of the United States’ first president?!

9. Bloodletting was a popular practice — and led to the death of none other than George Washington!

For 3,000 years, surgeons have thought that blood gets old and stagnates, and that the best way to refresh it was to open a vein and start to drain. We were familiar with the practice of bloodletting but were surprised to hear that the first U.S. president died from complications of a bloodletting procedure in 1799, in which nearly 40% of his blood was drained. The reason this was prescribed? He had woken up with a sore throat.

10. Blood transfusions didn’t work so well in the past.

This surgical procedure had a high rate of mortality before blood groups were discovered by Karl Landsteiner in 1901. In fact, sometimes animal blood was used in transfusions because it was thought to be cleaner (in part because they don’t drink booze).

 Dr. Liston, the Fastest Knife in the West End, was a master of amputation (though he had quite a few misfires as well)

Dr. Liston, the Fastest Knife in the West End, was a master of amputation (though he had quite a few misfires as well)

11. Amputation used to be the most common surgery because of infection.

There was even an amputation superhero: Robert Liston, who earned the nickname the Fastest Knife in the West End in the earlyish 1800s. The London surgeon proudly wore his bloody apron and could hack off a limb in 90 seconds flat. Fast was good, what with the lack of anesthesia.

 Nice gams! Check out these early artificial limbs from the museum’s collection

Nice gams! Check out these early artificial limbs from the museum’s collection

Of course, the downside was that Liston had a high mortality rate. In fact, one of his surgeries killed three people: the patient, an assistant whose fingers were accidentally cut off and later became infected, and an elderly doctor watching the procedure whose coat was sliced in the excitement and died of a heart attack.

12. Maggots are still used to clean out wounds.

These disgusting little creepy-crawlies are actually really good at finding necrotic tissue and dissolving it. On top of that, they have antibacterial saliva. Maybe you should make out with a maggot next time you’re feeling sick? –Wally

 If you’d like to learn the creepy origins of medicine, book a tour of the Chicago Surgical Museum

If you’d like to learn the creepy origins of medicine, book a tour of the Chicago Surgical Museum

International Museum of Surgical Science
1524 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Chicago, IL 60610
USA


More Strange Stuff

The Legend of Bandung Bondowoso and the Slender Virgin of Prambanan

Princess Loro Jonggrang didn’t want to marry the magician who killed her father. So she came up with a clever plan to deceive his demon helpers.

 An Indonesia stamp commemorates the legend of Roro (aka Loro) Jonggrang and the magician Bandung Bondowoso, who summoned demons to perform a seemingly impossible task

An Indonesia stamp commemorates the legend of Roro (aka Loro) Jonggrang and the magician Bandung Bondowoso, who summoned demons to perform a seemingly impossible task

The massive towers and reliefs of the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan in Java, Indonesia flourished in the late 9th century. A marvel of ancient engineering, the dark volcanic stone structures took decades to complete — though local lore holds that the complex was built in single night by nocturnal spirits.

 The temples of Prambanan on Java in Indonesia are the setting of a legend involving demons and a princess trapped in stone

The temples of Prambanan on Java in Indonesia are the setting of a legend involving demons and a princess trapped in stone

According to a stone tablet found while excavating the ruins of Prambanan, the temple was built to honor Lord Shiva, one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon. The compound’s original name was Shivgarh, the House of Shiva, when it was constructed around 850 CE by Rakai Pikatan, a king of the Sanjaya dynasty. It later took the name Prambanan, after the village where it’s located.

The princess’ deceit angered the magician, and he cursed her.

She was turned into a statue of the goddess Durga and remains enshrined in the central spire of Prambanan.

Although the temples were abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, they were never completely forgotten. The origin myth popular among the Javanese tells of the story of the Slender Virgin, Roro or Loro Jonggrang, which is set in Prambanan. Like most stories told in the oral tradition, many variations exist, but its conclusion is generally the same.

Bandung Bondowoso and Loro Jonggrang

Long ago, in feudal Java, there were two neighboring kingdoms, Pengging and Prambanan. The kingdom of Pengging was prosperous and wisely ruled by Prabu Damar Maya. The other, Prambanan, fell under the reign of a wrathful and wicked half-demon king named Prabu Ratu Boko. Although he lived in a massive stone palace, he grew envious and devised a plan to take the kingdom of Pengging by force.  

 Loro Jonggrang was so beautiful, the man who killed her father wanted to marry her

Loro Jonggrang was so beautiful, the man who killed her father wanted to marry her

The troops of Damar Maya put up a good fight, but were no match for the supernatural armies of Ratu Boko. Fearing he would lose his kingdom, Damar Maya consulted his chief brahmin priest, whose nephew, Bandung Bondowoso, was skilled in dark magic and was able to summon demons. Bondowoso created a supernatural arrow and climbed to the highest vantage point in Pengging to assess the enemy. When he saw Ratu Boko, he drew his bow back and shot the arrow straight through the demon king’s heart, killing him instantly.

Ratu Boko’s army retreated to Prambanan and delivered the news of the king’s death to his daughter, Princess Loro Jonggrang, whose name translates as “Slender Virgin.” Her beauty was known throughout the land, and like her father, she was willful and arrogant. The princess asked who had slain Ratu Boko and was told that it was a man named Bandung Bondowoso.

Loro Jonggrang arranged an elaborate ceremony to cremate the remains of her father on the palace grounds and extended an invitation to Bondowoso. Not only was she slender and beautiful, but she was also a graceful dancer. At the ceremony, accompanied by her court dancers, Loro Jonggrang glided out into the audience hall to perform a dance in homage to her father. Grief made her even more striking, and Bondowoso fell under her spell, determined to marry her.

 Demons are said to have built 1,000 temples in a single night

Demons are said to have built 1,000 temples in a single night

Some days after, he sent a small delegation to request her hand in marriage. The princess reluctantly agreed, but set a seemingly impossible challenge: She would only marry Bondowoso if he were able to build 1,000 temples in a single night. The magician accepted her unusual request, and as the sun set, summoned an army of nocturnal spirits and demons. They worked tirelessly and quickly.

 As punishment for her deceit, the princess became the statue of Durga in the Shiva Temple at Prambanan

As punishment for her deceit, the princess became the statue of Durga in the Shiva Temple at Prambanan

Not wanting to marry the man who had killed her father, Loro Jonggrang conceived of a plan to trick the supernatural beings. She enlisted the help of her servants and ordered the women of the village to fill their stone mortars with dried rice stalks and pound the grains from their stems, a task performed daily at dawn. The princess then sent her servants out to the east to burn the dried paddies. The combination of noise and firelight prompted the confused roosters to crow. Alarmed, the spirits fled back to the underworld, thinking the sun was rising and leaving the final temple incomplete.

 The badass Durga, riding her tiger mount, defeats an evil buffalo demon

The badass Durga, riding her tiger mount, defeats an evil buffalo demon

Loro Jonggrang’s deceit angered Bondowoso, and he cursed her, uttering the words, “There’s only one temple left — let you be the one to complete it!” The princess was turned into a statue of the goddess Durga the Inaccessible, now known as the Slender Virgin. The statue remains enshrined in the north chamber of the central spire of Prambanan, presumably the 1,000th temple. –Duke

Prambanan: A Towering Tribute to the Hindu Trinity

If you’re in Indonesia, add Java to your itinerary and see this stunning temple complex that plays second fiddle to Borobudur.

 Borobudur gets all the fame, but Prambanan is a must-visit complex on Java as well

Borobudur gets all the fame, but Prambanan is a must-visit complex on Java as well

Our main reason for visiting the island of Java, Indonesia was to see the spectacular ancient temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan. Given the importance of religion in ancient Java, it’s not surprising that both of these attractions are imposing in scale and have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Plus, the opportunity to stay in a private villa that came with an infinity plunge pool at the Plataran Borobudur Resort & Spa and a view of Borobudur in the distance was one Wally and I simply couldn’t pass up.

 The complex contains temples to the Hindu trinity and the creatures they rode

The complex contains temples to the Hindu trinity and the creatures they rode

The Prambanan Temple Compounds were located about a hour and a half northwest from where we were staying, and having a private driver provided by the resort made the journey getting there stress-free.

 Wally and Duke sit atop unrenovated remains outside the complex

Wally and Duke sit atop unrenovated remains outside the complex

 Whooo dat? We were surprised to pass some owls en route to the main temples

Whooo dat? We were surprised to pass some owls en route to the main temples

Many Priests and Ladies-in-Waiting

Shortly after we arrived at the temple complex, we were introduced to our guide, Dwi, who wore a shirt embroidered with the Wonderful Indonesia logo. As Dwi led us past the main entrance, he explained that the three concentric courtyards are laid out in the geometric form of a mandala and follow the concept of vastu shastra, an ancient Indian method of architecture and construction to enhance prosperity.

 The small structures out front are called pewara, or “ladies-in-waiting”

The small structures out front are called pewara, or “ladies-in-waiting”

 Some of the ruins are intricately carved

Some of the ruins are intricately carved

 The fragments of the temples fit together like puzzle pieces

The fragments of the temples fit together like puzzle pieces

Dwi added that the name Prambanan means “Many Priests,” quite possibly in reference to the outermost courtyard, which was once encircled by a wall. The original function is unknown but it may have served as a monastic community and included lodging for hundreds of brahmin priests and their disciples. As these buildings were most likely built of wood and brick, nothing remains of them.

 The peaks of the temples rise into the sky — a bit higher than Borobudur

The peaks of the temples rise into the sky — a bit higher than Borobudur

Directly in front of us was another large courtyard with hundreds of small shrines called pewara, or “ladies-in-waiting,” organized in concentric squares four rows deep. Almost all of these temples had been reduced to rubble. We asked Dwi if there are plans to reconstruct them, and he explained that this was not likely, as much of the original stonework has been destroyed by erosion, earthquakes or looting. Like Borobudur, at least 70% of the original material must be used in restoration to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 The ornate black stone temples create an imposing silhouette

The ornate black stone temples create an imposing silhouette

 Duke and Wally take a break on the steps leading up to one of the temples

Duke and Wally take a break on the steps leading up to one of the temples

The Main Temples

At the heart of the complex stand the most sacred and well-preserved temples, the scale and detail of which can only be appreciated when you are standing in front of them. Three of the main shrines are dedicated to the Trimurti, the Hindu trinity of Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer (to whom the largest central temple is dedicated) and Vishnu the Preserver. The smaller vahana shrines are for the deity’s respective animal mounts: Hamsa the Swan, Nandi the Bull and Garuda the Eagle. There are also two small temples between the rows of Trimurti and vahana shrines, although the function of these remains unclear.

 Duke poses with a group of local boys, with Prambanan behind them, looking like a fake backdrop

Duke poses with a group of local boys, with Prambanan behind them, looking like a fake backdrop

The initial construction of Prambanan began around the middle of the 9th century during the reign of Rakai Pikatan and served as the royal temple of the kingdom of Mataram. Additional structures were added by the successive Kings Rakai Kayuwangi and Balitung Maha Sambu.

 Peeking through at a smaller vahana temple for the gods’ mounts

Peeking through at a smaller vahana temple for the gods’ mounts

 The staircases are carved in the shape of mekara, creatures with other beings coming out of their mouths

The staircases are carved in the shape of mekara, creatures with other beings coming out of their mouths

 Pretty in pink: An Indonesian woman enjoys her visit

Pretty in pink: An Indonesian woman enjoys her visit

Dwi suggested that Prambanan was built as a political and religious response to mark the return of the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty after decades of Buddhist-led Sailendra rule.

 The Shiva Temple is the largest of the bunch

The Shiva Temple is the largest of the bunch

The Shiva Temple

Not to be outdone by Borobudur, the central Shiva temple is the tallest. At 154 feet, it’s 41 feet higher than the triple-tiered stone umbrella chatra that once served as the pinnacle of its rival complex. The temple is embellished with a series of elegant carvings along the inner wall, depicting scenes from the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana.

 Those not pure of heart will be crushed as they try to walk under Kala’s mouth — or so the legend goes

Those not pure of heart will be crushed as they try to walk under Kala’s mouth — or so the legend goes

 Wally loves nothing better than to explore an ancient temple

Wally loves nothing better than to explore an ancient temple

 A lion sits within a small niche flanked by half-woman and half-bird kinnara

A lion sits within a small niche flanked by half-woman and half-bird kinnara

Wally and I followed our guide and made the ascent up the steep stone steps before reaching the eastern sanctuary chamber of Shiva. We passed through a portico with the monstrous gaping half-mouth of Kala leering at us from its lintel. Wally asked Dwi what this creature was. He replied by saying that if you’re a bad person, the mouth will close down upon you!

 The statue of Shiva the Destroyer

The statue of Shiva the Destroyer

 Shiva stands upon a lotus, which symbolizes enlightenment — an odd depiction of the god

Shiva stands upon a lotus, which symbolizes enlightenment — an odd depiction of the god

The east chamber contains a four-armed 10-foot-tall statue of Shiva, standing erect atop a blooming lotus flower, the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. Some historians believe this rare depiction may be due to the union between Hindu Prince Rakai Pikatan and Buddhist Princess Pramodhawardhani. However, it is also thought that the statue was made in the likeness of King Mataram Balitung, who considered himself the divine manifestation of Shiva.

 The elephant-headed Ganesha grants wishes

The elephant-headed Ganesha grants wishes

A nearby chamber contains a statue of his portly son Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. Dwi regaled us with an interesting tale of how Ganesha broke off a tusk and used it as a pen to transcribe the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata. The tip of his trunk dips into a bowl of sweets, of which he is very fond.

 Fierce Durga holds weapons in six of her eight hands

Fierce Durga holds weapons in six of her eight hands

 This dwarf isn’t happy that Durga is touching his head

This dwarf isn’t happy that Durga is touching his head

In the northern chamber is a statue of Shiva’s consort Durga, also referred to by locals as Loro Jonggrang, the Slender Virgin. The protective mother goddess of the Hindu universe is depicted standing in a relaxed pose, her right leg slightly bent and her hip jutting out to the left. Six of her eight arms hold weapons. She stands on the back of the asura Mahisa, a demon in the form of a buffalo. Durga holds his tail in one hand, while another touches the top of a dwarf’s head — a taboo gesture in Hinduism, as the head is considered the highest and most sacred part of the body.

 A statue of the dwarf hermit Agastya with his trident

A statue of the dwarf hermit Agastya with his trident

The south-facing chamber has a statue of the hermit Agastya, one of the most venerated sages in Hinduism, portrayed as a dwarf with a long beard. He has a fan on his left shoulder and a trident on his right.

The bas-relief panels of the Shiva Temple depict the epic love story of Rama and Sita:

 The statue of Brahma the Creator

The statue of Brahma the Creator

 You can’t sneak up on this guy!

You can’t sneak up on this guy!

The Brahma Temple

A single chamber inside the temple contains a statue of Brahma, depicted with his four faces and four arms. The four faces symbolize the four cardinal directions as well as the four Vedas, the most sacred Hindu scriptures: The Rig Veda, Yajur, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.

 The Temple of Vishnu, like the others, is carved out of volcanic stones pieced together

The Temple of Vishnu, like the others, is carved out of volcanic stones pieced together

The Vishnu Temple

Like the temple dedicated to Brahma, a single interior chamber holds a statue of the deity. Vishnu wears a tall crown upon his head. He has four limbs, two of which are raised up and the other two down. His upper right hand holds a discus and the left holds a conch shell.

 Vishnu the Protector holds a discus and conch shell

Vishnu the Protector holds a discus and conch shell

 Are they breastfeeding? Some of the carvings on Hindu temples can be quite bizarre

Are they breastfeeding? Some of the carvings on Hindu temples can be quite bizarre

 The Temple of Vishnu is decorated with carvings retelling the epic battles of Krishna

The Temple of Vishnu is decorated with carvings retelling the epic battles of Krishna

 Blue-skinned Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu but is also worshipped as a god

Blue-skinned Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu but is also worshipped as a god

 The bulbous lingam-yoni ornaments encircling the temples represent male and female reproductive parts

The bulbous lingam-yoni ornaments encircling the temples represent male and female reproductive parts

The Nandi Temple

All gods need transport, and at Prambanan, they have their own smaller temples. Nandi is the only statue of the vahanas that has survived.

 Nandi the Bull carried around the god Shiva

Nandi the Bull carried around the god Shiva

 We’re drawn to various characters in mythology — and Duke has always loved Nandi

We’re drawn to various characters in mythology — and Duke has always loved Nandi

The temple for Nandi the Bull sits in front of the Shiva Temple. In the inner chamber of this shrine, the humped reclining statue of Nandi rests on a raised platform facing the entrance door so it may perpetually gaze on Shiva. Sadly, its left horn has broken off and is missing. To the left is a statue of Surya, the Hindu god of the sun, standing atop seven horses.

 Surya, the god of the sun, stands on a chariot drawn by seven horses

Surya, the god of the sun, stands on a chariot drawn by seven horses

The Paparazzi Descends Upon Us

After our guide Dwi bade us adieu, we continued to explore the complex. Local students who were also visiting Prambanan excitedly approached, asking if if it would be OK to take a picture with us. At first it was fun and we were flattered, but after 10 or so photos, we had to politely say no with a smile and fled the complex.

 The minute our guide left us, the locals swarmed, asking to take photos with us

The minute our guide left us, the locals swarmed, asking to take photos with us

 Get to Prambanan as early as possible — busloads of schoolkids take field trips to the temple complex

Get to Prambanan as early as possible — busloads of schoolkids take field trips to the temple complex

 At first we were amused by all the attention

At first we were amused by all the attention

 The girls wore jeans, sneakers and brightly colored headscarves. “You’re so tall!” they exclaimed

The girls wore jeans, sneakers and brightly colored headscarves. “You’re so tall!” they exclaimed

 After about 10 photos, posing with strangers got a bit old

After about 10 photos, posing with strangers got a bit old

 Around back, there were scaffolds, work in progress — and no tourists — so we were able to make our escape from all the attention

Around back, there were scaffolds, work in progress — and no tourists — so we were able to make our escape from all the attention

We recommend visiting Borobudur and Prambanan on different days. Each complex is completely different, and I honestly feel that we wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the grandeur and complexity of each site if we crammed them into a single day. –Duke

 Prambanan Temple

Prambanan Temple

Prambanan
Kranggan
Bokoharjo
Prambanan
Sleman Regency
Special Region of Yogyakarta
Indonesia

Bali Then and Now

In the post-Eat Pray Love world, Bali has lost a bit of its charm. Ubud has become a more congested tourism hotspot, but parts of the island remain a paradise on Earth.

 Bali then: Malcolm and Wally at Tirta Gangga’s lotus fountain in 2001  Bali now: The royal water garden has been renovated and is much more crowded

Bali then: Malcolm and Wally at Tirta Gangga’s lotus fountain in 2001

Bali now: The royal water garden has been renovated and is much more crowded

We had been planning the trip to Bali for half a year. And then, less than two weeks before we were set to leave, 9/11 rocked our world. The entire country was in a daze. Americans had been living in a  bubble of isolation, of false protection, thinking that our global actions wouldn’t have severe repercussions. And the idea of an attack on our own turf was incomprehensible. But then the World Trade Center towers fell, and that bubble popped horrifically and unexpectedly that morning in September.

The United States, so often a place of optimism, had turned utterly depressing. I eagerly grasped at the chance to escape the overwhelming malaise. “I’m still going to Bali,” I told my travel companions.

“I reserve the right to back out, even up to the last minute,” my friend Christina told me. It probably didn’t help that she was unnecessarily taking malaria pills at the time, which can induce paranoia as a side effect.

We were able to flee a country at a desperate time, and instead explore a vibrant culture on a tropical isle halfway around the world.

Bali shimmers in my memory as a paradise on Earth.

When the day came, Christina and her then-husband Malcolm joined me at O’Hare in Chicago. The airport had only recently reopened, and everyone still seemed scared to fly. The corridors were empty. I felt fatalistic, numb. It was difficult to care what happened, but I was willing to take the risk.

 I decided to bleach my hair before our trip to Bali back in 2001. Here Malcolm and I tried posing as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice

I decided to bleach my hair before our trip to Bali back in 2001. Here Malcolm and I tried posing as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice

 And here I am, 17 years later, back on Bali, this time making a point to visit the gorgeous Tegalalang Rice Terrace

And here I am, 17 years later, back on Bali, this time making a point to visit the gorgeous Tegalalang Rice Terrace

What ended up happening was that we were able to flee a country at a desperate time, and instead explore a vibrant culture on a tropical isle halfway around the world. It was just what the doctor ordered, and I recall that trip, back in 2001, as one of the best of my life. Bali shimmers in my memory as a paradise on Earth.

So I was eager to share the magic of Bali with my husband, Duke. We had visited other parts of Southeast Asia, our favorite region on the planet, and I decided it was time I returned to Bali.

Here are some ruminations on my experiences on this one-of-a-kind Indonesian island 17 years ago and how it differed on our recent trip.

 Bali then: We passed by the Saraswati Temple every time we left our hotel

Bali then: We passed by the Saraswati Temple every time we left our hotel

 Bali now: One thing hasn’t changed — the Saraswati Temple is still the centerpiece of Ubud

Bali now: One thing hasn’t changed — the Saraswati Temple is still the centerpiece of Ubud

For one thing, the city of Ubud has grown exponentially. When I was here before, I remember it being a sleepy little town, with one main drag. We would wander into town in the morning, find a driver parked along the side of the road, negotiate a day rate and hop in. We would say, “Take us to a cool Hindu temple and an art village.” I don’t recall us ever having a set itinerary; we put ourselves entirely in our driver’s hands.

We did take some farther-afield trips, tourist attractions two hours or so away. Of course back then it might not have taken so long because the traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it is now.

 Traffic has gotten a lot worse on Bali, from motorbikes to construction vehicles

Traffic has gotten a lot worse on Bali, from motorbikes to construction vehicles

Speaking of traffic, there are certain stretches of the small winding two-lane roads where traffic becomes impassable. A lot of it has to do with the construction vehicles that are all over the place now as the city and the island itself gets built up more and more.

 Last time, we stayed at cheap villas with hand-carved teak details for about $15 a night. This time, we went for a luxury resort

Last time, we stayed at cheap villas with hand-carved teak details for about $15 a night. This time, we went for a luxury resort

Beggars now plead for money in parts of Ubud. We didn’t see any homeless in the streets in Ubud on our trip 17 years ago. But there were plenty of signs of poverty in the small city of Kuta, which is popular with Aussie surfers. (This was part of reason I had zero desire to go back to Kuta on this trip. If you’re going to visit a tropical paradise, why surround yourself with the filth of a city?)

You don’t see a lot of people begging for money in Ubud, but we did see about 10 the five or so days we were there. In fact, one homeless woman was holding up her young daughter as she squatted over an open sewer grate to take a dump.

 When we visited temples in 2001, there weren’t many other tourists, and locals would dress us in sarongs, sashes around our waists and headdresses

When we visited temples in 2001, there weren’t many other tourists, and locals would dress us in sarongs, sashes around our waists and headdresses

A lot of the handicraft items were no longer anywhere to be found. When I was here before, there were certain items that lined stalls in every market you visited but had, for some reason, vanished: shadow puppets, wooden frog instruments, blow dart guns, hand-carved chess sets, colorful kites in the shape of ships and the wavy ceremonial daggers called kris.

 The only time I saw Western toilets on Bali in 2001 was at hotels (usually series of bare-bones but dirt-cheap villas). This sticker showing people how to use them — don’t squat right on the seat! — never failed to amuse me

The only time I saw Western toilets on Bali in 2001 was at hotels (usually series of bare-bones but dirt-cheap villas). This sticker showing people how to use them — don’t squat right on the seat! — never failed to amuse me

Last time I was here, you literally only found Western toilets at your lodging. In fact, they had stickers on them to tell people who are unfamiliar that you shouldn’t squat on top of the seat. This time there was only one bathroom I went into where there was traditional Balinese toilet, which is really ceramic hole in the ground with treads for your feet. You “flush” your waste by dipping a plastic pot or bucket into the garbage can filled with water.

 A Balinese cockfight from the late 1950s

A Balinese cockfight from the late 1950s

When I visited last time, Ubud felt more like a traditional village. One afternoon we wandered behind a temple and stumbled upon a cockfight. We had heard about this popular pastime and stopped to watch. A group of men waved bills, placing bets on their favored bird.

Each contestant held his prized cock and tied triangular razor blades to the back of its leg, just above the talons. Everyone gathered in a circle, the roosters were released, and they flew at each other in a puff of dust. In the blink of any eye, one of the poor birds had fallen to the ground and lay there, dead.

It struck us as extremely anticlimactic. I imagined the roosters circling each other like boxers or sumo wrestlers, making parries and retreats. But no. It was over in about a second.

A man told us that we the rooster would be eaten as an offering at the temple. He said this almost apologetically, I imagined, to justify this violent pastime — though I probably imposed that sense of guilt upon him. To him, it was just a way of life. –Wally

Everyone gathered in a circle, the roosters were released, and they flew at each other in a puff of dust.

In the blink of any eye, one of the poor birds had fallen to the ground and lay there, dead.

Candi Mendut: A Peaceful Borobudur Side Trip

Explore this ancient Buddhist temple and go for a swing on the massive banyan out back.

mendut.JPG

It may be small, but it’s an exquisite ancient temple. Located a short distance from Borobudur, the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, Candi Mendut was the third and final stop on our day’s itinerary. The clear blue sky was a stunning backdrop for the structure, composed of gray andesite volcanic rock.

We also visited the small (and rather unimpressive) Candi Pawon, where Wally and I bought a replica of the bell-shaped stupas that line Borobudur, carved of the same stone as the temple.

The southern façade of Mendut has a bas-relief of Hariti, patroness of motherhood, who was once a child-eating ogress.

The Dutch discovered this sacred structure by chance in 1836, while cutting through thick foliage to clear the plot for a coffee plantation. After careful inspection, overseen by colonial engineering officer Theodore Van Erp, the ruins were eventually uncovered. Conservation efforts began in 1897 but weren’t completed until 1925.

Candi is the word for a Hindu or Buddhist temple or shrine in Bahasa, the Indonesian language. The lone structure stands atop a stone plinth and shares a peaceful green clearing with an enormous sacred banyan tree. A remnant of the Sailendra dynasty, the temple is believed to have been built sometime around 824 CE, during the reign of King Indra.

Its roof is a succession of staggered tiers, decreasing in size, with the first and second encircled by votive stupika, small dome-shaped shrines. At the summit, the central stupa is absent, most likely due to the passage of time or, perhaps damage caused by earthquakes.

 Parts of the temple have been excavated but not rebuilt, as they’re missing pieces

Parts of the temple have been excavated but not rebuilt, as they’re missing pieces

Off to the side of Mendut, a field of sculptures and fragments are laid out in the order they would fit had the missing pieces been found.

Candi Mendut is one of three temples connected along a nearly direct line, leading historians to speculate that it was part of a grand design and most likely an important pilgrimage stop en route to Borobudur. Of the three, Mendut is the oldest, having been built about 10 years before Borobudur.

On the west side, a staircase leads up to a broad terrace, designed for circumambulating or ritualistically walking clockwise around the temple. Wally and I climbed the worn stone steps, flanked by a pair of makara, mythological Buddhist sea creatures, each with lion standing within its gaping mouth. Narrative scenes from the Jataka tales, which tell of the Buddha’s previous incarnations as both humans and animals, are carved into the balustrade.

 I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s very unusual that the Buddha’s feet are both touching the ground

I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s very unusual that the Buddha’s feet are both touching the ground

After we passed through the structure’s single entrance into the inner sanctuary chamber, we were greeted by three remarkably well-preserved figures. The formidable central figure is the Buddha Vairocana, depicted in a seated position, atypical for having both feet touching the ground. His hands are in Dharmachakra mudra, a gesture used by Buddha during his first sermon after enlightenment, representing the continuous flow of energy.

 Inside the small temple is a statue of Buddha and two bohisattvas, including Vajrapani, a protector and guide

Inside the small temple is a statue of Buddha and two bohisattvas, including Vajrapani, a protector and guide

On either side sit two bodhisattvas, compassionate individuals who postpone nirvana to teach others enlightenment. To the left is Avalokitesvara, the One Who Hears the Cries of the World, who represents compassion and liberates devotees from the destructive power of speech. To the right is Vajrapani, the protector and guide of the Buddha, symbolizing the energy of the enlightened mind, his right leg folded and right hand raised.

Standing in the chamber among the ancient sentinels, I could almost feel the presence of the invisible dead. Make sure to look closely at the feet, which are black from being touched by devotees.

 You’ll pass Mendut Monastery en route to the temple

You’ll pass Mendut Monastery en route to the temple

 Apparently, the monastery is open to visitors, though the gates were closed when we passed by

Apparently, the monastery is open to visitors, though the gates were closed when we passed by

 Looking out at the temple grounds from Mendut’s raised platform

Looking out at the temple grounds from Mendut’s raised platform

The Legend of Hariti: From Ogress to Protectress

The southern façade of Mendut has a bas-relief of Hariti, who, according to myth, was once a child-eating ogress. To feed herself and her 500 children, she took to cannibalism, snatching kids from the village of Rajagriha. This led to great fear among locals, who came to the Buddha and pleaded with him to save their children.

In one variation of the tale, the Buddha waited for Hariti to leave her dwelling and kidnapped her youngest and most beloved son, hiding him beneath his begging bowl. Upon her return home, Hariti found her son missing and searched for him in vain. Grief-stricken, the ogress in turn sought the Buddha’s aid in finding him.

The Buddha agreed to help, providing she give up her wicked ways. He explained how she was causing great suffering to the villagers. Hariti agreed to abstain from cannibalism and promised to consume only pomegranates from then on. The Buddha returned her son and ordained her the protector of children.

This statue is of particular importance to childless Javanese couples, who pray to Hariti as a symbol of fertility and patroness of motherhood.

 You can see the banyan behind the temple, though its immense size is still hard to grasp

You can see the banyan behind the temple, though its immense size is still hard to grasp

The Sacred Banyan Tree

Like the witch Rangda’s mane of unkempt hair, multiple root streamers descend from the banyan behind the temple. After some minor coaxing from our driver, Wally was swinging from one. Our photos can't begin to relay the enormity of the banyan. It was the second-largest tree I’ve ever seen, the first being the ancient banyan at Pura Kehen on Bali.

 Banyan roots grow down from branches and become as solid as trunks, forming a cave of sorts

Banyan roots grow down from branches and become as solid as trunks, forming a cave of sorts

 The staff at our resort later told us that our driver had been sharing this photo of Wally swinging on the sacred banyan roots

The staff at our resort later told us that our driver had been sharing this photo of Wally swinging on the sacred banyan roots

Mendut may be less well-known and unassuming than Borobudur, but it has some beautiful bas-reliefs and stone carvings. If you are planning on visiting Borobudur, you should definitely add Candi Mendut to your visit. It’s worth walking around the complex to take in its peaceful atmosphere — and have a swing on the banyan out back. –Duke

 Pair Candi Mendut with a trip to Borobudur

Pair Candi Mendut with a trip to Borobudur

Mendut Temple
Jalan Magelang Sumberrejo
Mendut
Mungkid
Magelang
Jawa Tengah 56501
Indonesia

Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu Water Temple, Bali: An Off-the-Beaten-Path Oasis

Bathe in and explore this calm and cool ancient holy spring near the Tegalalang Rice Terrace.

 Balinese people bathe in the holy fountains at water temples, like Pura Gunung Kawi in the village of Sebatu

Balinese people bathe in the holy fountains at water temples, like Pura Gunung Kawi in the village of Sebatu

Wally and I arrived at the water temple of Gunung Kawi in what seemed like a relatively short distance from the Tegallalang Rice Terrace. I’ve mentioned the traffic-choked roads we experienced during our time on Bali in previous posts, which make destinations feel farther away than they really are.

Our driver Made parked his vehicle and adjusted our sarongs before sending us off to cross the road and purchase tickets to the sacred site.

Wally peeked over the wall and was surprised to see a naked old man peeing into one of the holy pools.
 Wally didn’t get all the way in the bathing pool — he and Duke just poured water over their heads

Wally didn’t get all the way in the bathing pool — he and Duke just poured water over their heads

 The lichen-covered stones lend Balinese temples an ancient air

The lichen-covered stones lend Balinese temples an ancient air

 An assortment of daily offerings placed at the threshold of the bathing pools are filled with flowers and sticks of incense

An assortment of daily offerings placed at the threshold of the bathing pools are filled with flowers and sticks of incense

The complex was established during the reign of King Udayana in the 11th century and is referred to by locals as Pura Tirta Dawa Gunung Kawi Sebatu. Not to be mistaken with the stone monoliths of Gunung Kawi in the neighboring town of Tampaksiring, this smaller, less-visited holy spring temple dedicated to one of the principal Hindu deities, Vishnu, is located in the highland village of Sebatu.

 Looking down upon the complex, with its central pool and fountain of the goddess Saraswati

Looking down upon the complex, with its central pool and fountain of the goddess Saraswati

Walking alongside the road, you can take in a sweeping bird’s-eye view of its immediate surroundings. We made our way down a set of steps and arrived at a meandering path that led us past a few elegant pagoda-style cages, one of which housed a striking yellow-crested cockatoo preening itself.

 Pagoda-like birdcages line the main pool

Pagoda-like birdcages line the main pool

 A striking cockatoo with a sulphur-yellow crest

A striking cockatoo with a sulphur-yellow crest

The aviary lines the large reflecting pool with four whimsical stone frogs peeking above the waterline, I suspect they are meant to be fountains, but were either not working, or on when we visited. Surrounding the frogs is the formal pools centerpiece, an ornamental statue of the goddess Saraswati standing atop the back of a swan. The crystal clear waters are filled with well-fed koi fish and overlooked by a grand open-air pavilion with a hipped terra cotta tiled roof.

 This platform overlooks the central pool

This platform overlooks the central pool

 Holy carp! The pool is filled with koi and isn’t a place for bathing

Holy carp! The pool is filled with koi and isn’t a place for bathing

Not far beyond are a series of small spring-fed pools where locals ritually bathe. Wally and I didn’t feel right entering them, so we improvised by cupping our hands to collect water, which we splashed upon our heads. It was cool and clear and felt refreshing in the early afternoon heat.

 Water pours from the weatherworn carved faces in the bathing pools

Water pours from the weatherworn carved faces in the bathing pools

While I was taking a picture of one of the lichen-covered faces spewing water from its mouth, Wally peeked over the wall and was surprised to see a completely naked old man peeing into one of the holy pools.

 Before you cross the threshold of this sacred space, make sure you’re wearing a sarong

Before you cross the threshold of this sacred space, make sure you’re wearing a sarong

Slippery Rock: The Story Behind the Name

According to legend, there once was a man named Mayadenawa, a descendant of the powerful Daitya, a race of demons, and the primordial goddess Danu. He was a practitioner of the dark arts and possessed supernatural powers that allowed him to shapeshift.

When he ascended to the throne, King Mayadenawa regarded himself as a deity, and under this pretense, commanded his subjects to worship him. His behavior angered the storm god Indra, who watched from afar and ordered his celestial armies to attack.

 Most temples on Bali have statues of demons

Most temples on Bali have statues of demons

 Statues act as guardian spirits

Statues act as guardian spirits

King Mayadenawa knew he was no match for Indra’s troops and manifested a great pool of poisonous water near their encampment. When the army woke, they drank and bathed in the pool. Hundreds fell ill. Seeing this, Indra drove a stake deep into the earth from which a sacred spring emerged. The fleet was immediately reinvigorated as the purified water touched their lips.

To avoid capture, Mayadenawa cunningly morphed into several creatures. Each time, he barely escaped. He transformed into the great bird manuk raya, immortalized in the village of Manukaya. He also appeared as a bulbous green-skinned breadfruit, buah timbul, in what became Timbul village.

Exhausted, Mayadenawa fled and transformed himself into a huge rock. Indra saw droplets of blood forming on the surface of the rock, drew his bowstring back and shot his magical arrow into the boulder. Blood flowed from the stone, forming the Petanu River, which was cursed for a period of 1,000 years.

Sebatu, the village where the temple is located, derives from the Balinese words sauh (meaning “slip”) and batu (“rocks”) or Slippery Rock. As Indra’s troops chased the king, many innocent people lost their footing, giving Sebatu its name.

 A wooden effigy of a deer

A wooden effigy of a deer

A Quiet Oasis

As we wandered farther into the complex, we discovered a second rectangular pool with a small, palm-thatch roof shrine on a man-made island embellished on four sides with winged apsara. The backdrop of dense foliage lent a mystical aura to the singular structure.

The main temple was beautiful, but off limits. However, there are a few pavilions and ancillary shrines reserved for ancestral spirits worth exploring. Artisans of this village are known for their woodcarving skills and expressively painted sculptures which can be seen in the intricately carved beams and depictions of otherworldly benevolent and demonic beings.

Taking in the calm surroundings of this unusual, untouched sacred site made us feel like we were our own special world. With the exception of a few locals, Wally and I had Gunung Kawi Sebatu to ourselves. –Duke

 Pair a trip to this water temple with the cliff shrines of the same name and the Tegallalang Rice Terrace

Pair a trip to this water temple with the cliff shrines of the same name and the Tegallalang Rice Terrace

Pura Gunung Kawi
Sebatu
Tegallalang
Gianyar
Bali 80511
Indonesia

The Demon Lilith and the Ghost of Doc Benton

The monsters of Supernatural, Season 3, Episodes 15 & 16 include Adam’s first wife and a Dartmouth urban legend.

 To ensure his immortality, Doc Benton steals body parts from other people, and over the years has come to resemble Frankenstein’s monster

To ensure his immortality, Doc Benton steals body parts from other people, and over the years has come to resemble Frankenstein’s monster

S3E15: “Time Is on My Side”

Monster: Doc Benton

Where it’s from: Moosilauke Ravine Lodge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, owned and operated by Dartmouth College

 Moosilauke Ravine Lodge in New Hampshire, where unsuspecting Dartmouth students stay — not knowing they could be the next victims of Doc Benton!

Moosilauke Ravine Lodge in New Hampshire, where unsuspecting Dartmouth students stay — not knowing they could be the next victims of Doc Benton!

Description: On the show, Doc Benton is cobbled together from various people’s body parts, like Frankenstein’s monster.

What it does: Doc Benton is the star of a ghost story used to scare freshmen. He was an insane recluse who kidnapped a girl named Mary. Benton threw her off a cliff, and when locals examined her corpse, they noticed a scratch behind her ear and a red dot on her head. Doc Benton became obsessed with the idea of living forever, and figured out a way to do so by stealing the vital organs of healthy young specimens (like Dartmouth freshmen, for instance). He has beaten death for centuries now, and can continue to commit his sick surgeries for eternity.

 Doc Benton has been stitched up numerous times over the centuries. Don’t go near him if you want to keep that kidney!

Doc Benton has been stitched up numerous times over the centuries. Don’t go near him if you want to keep that kidney!

On Supernatural, a dead man’s fingerprints are all over a guy’s stomach, but only his liver was removed — surgically.

“Zombies do like the other other white meat,” Dean quips.

Another victim is missing his kidney. He’s sewn up with silk, which was used for sutures in the 18th century. And maggots are placed on the wound to eat infected tissue and leave the good — a startling practice still used today, if you can believe it.

The snarkiest of the Winchester Brothers, of course, has some great nicknames for Doc Benton: Slicey McHacky and Dr. Quinn, Zombie M.D.

Doc likes to set up shop in the middle of the woods near a river — a good place to dump intestines, fecal matter and whatnot.

Reading the mad doctor’s medical notes, the Winchester Brothers realize that he has discovered the secret to eternal life.

“Drink blood out of a baby’s skull?” Dean asks.

No black magic, Sam says. Just science.

Sammy gets kidnapped by Benton, who’s about to scoop out his eye with a Victorian-era melon baller. Eww!

How to defeat it: Doc Benton tells Dean and Sam that Daddy Winchester cut out his heart. “That was very inconvenient,” he adds.

You can’t run him over. And you can’t shoot him. “What part of immortality don’t you understand?” the phantom asks.

So they dip a knife in chloroform to knock out the not-so-good doctor and bury him alive.


 This terra cotta carving from Mesopotamia is called  The Queen of the Night  and possibly depicts the demon Lilith

This terra cotta carving from Mesopotamia is called The Queen of the Night and possibly depicts the demon Lilith

S3E16: “No Rest for the Wicked”

Monster: Lilith

Description: On the show, Lilith takes the incarnation of a little girl. It’s a solid choice and scores high marks on the creepiness scale. Especially when her dress is covered in blood cuz her pet Freckles was mean to her — along with the babysitter lying dead nearby.

Where it’s from: The Near East, especially in what is now Iraq

What it does: Lilith has been described as the most notorious demon in Jewish tradition. She was the first woman and was Adam’s wife before Eve. Lilith is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and newborns, and her breasts are filled with poison instead of milk.

 Lilith was Adam’s first wife in Jewish lore. When she refused to be subservient to him, she was demonized, and Eve was created to take her place

Lilith was Adam’s first wife in Jewish lore. When she refused to be subservient to him, she was demonized, and Eve was created to take her place

Her name means “Night,” and she embodies all that goes along with that: terror, sensuality and unbridled freedom.

The Babylonian Talmud says, “It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him.” That’s because Lilith fertilizes herself with unsuspecting men’s sperm to give birth to other demons. Some of us might be demon baby daddies and not even know it!

How to defeat it: This demon is best avoided. She’s one badass bitch: “Lilith would have peeled the meat from your pretty, pretty faces,” the Winchesters are told. That would’ve been a shame; they do have such pretty, pretty faces.

Sam and Dean get the demon-killing knife from Ruby, but she warns them that to Lilith it would be a mere “pig sticker.”

Dean can see demons’ true forms as his time on Earth nears its end. But how are they going to convince others that the child is a powerful demon? It’s not like they can sneak in, grab a 10-year-old girl and give her a Colombian necktie (a slash across the throat and the resulting bloodbath).

Dean has a deadline: At midnight his time is up — and sure, enough, once the clock strikes 12, he gets torn apart by hellhounds. Bad doggies! –Wally


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