May 16, 2021
(While listening to the Spanish-language podcast Radio Ambulante this past month, I experienced my favorite among all their episodes. I offer my summary-translation here, with a little of my own research thrown in. The photos are mine (except the first one), taken during the last trip I made to Bolivia, in 2008.)
When Lidia Huayllas was growing up in the 1960s and 70s in El Alto, the low-cost indigenous suburb on the high plain above La Paz, Bolivia, she stared at the mountains. El Chacaltaya and Huayna Potosi were often in clear view, like you could reach out and touch them. She imagined what it was like up there, and traveled there in her mind. But she knew that going there was only a dream.
Lidia’s father delivered newspapers and her mother cooked and raised the children. When she was four, robbers killed her father, leaving her mother to raise six kids alone. Times were hard. Lidia helped her mother, went to school, and played football in the barrio. And she kept staring at the mountains. She would run home from school to watch Superman on TV. She wanted to fly like him, and view the world below her. She used to climb walls in the neighborhood and jump from them. She loved that rush of adrenaline.
Lidia’s mother sold cooked food in the local market twice a week, a garlic pumpkin dish. It was a simple stall with a place for a kerosene stove and a single table for clients, beneath an awning that sheltered them from the sun, which could be strong at this altitude of 13,600 feet. Lidia and her siblings helped. She learned to cook, and spoke Aymara, which is the second-most spoken language in Bolivia. And she dressed accordingly, in the traditional manner.
Lidia was and is a Chola: someone in a long skirt called a pollera, worn over a petticoat, along with a sweater and, classically, a bowler-type hat so small it’s held on by a pin.
Calling this “traditional dress” can be misleading unless you are more specific about the tradition. The current look evolved from the colonial era, when Spain imposed its culture and customs on Andean people. By decree, Spain instructed women to use “characteristic dress,” which meant they had to wear woolen tops, full skirts (polleras), and head coverings. Even the parting of hair down the center was a requirement for women, decreed by Viceroy Don Francisco de Toledo. However, the viceroy certainly did not decree that Bolivian women shall wear bowler hats.
Bowler hats weren’t even invented until about 1850, in London, and they were designed to be worn by men. The tradition of Aymara women wearing bowler hats goes back to the 1920s. Rumor has it that some expatriate merchant in La Paz ordered too many, too-small bowler hats for Europeans, and the surplus hats were adopted by local women. Another rumor is that bowler hats enhance fertility. Two facts appear certain, however: (1) The bowler hats really caught on with Aymara women, and (2) they are more about fashion than utility. One element of the style is the size: The hats must be too small to fit around the person’s head.
Back to Lidia: This form of dress was and is central to her Aymara identity. But she couldn’t wear it much of the time. It was prohibited in school, for example, where she had to wear a uniform of pants and a jacket. Other places she couldn’t go in Chola garb were to offices or anywhere important, or to the city’s plazas. No formal law forbade this; it was just a taboo in society up through the 1980s.
When Lidia had to leave her pollera behind, she felt like she was leaving a part of herself. “I had very strong roots as a Chola, no?” she says.
When she was 15 she met Elio Gonzales at a local carnival. He was 21, a musician, and also Aymara. He too grew up gazing at Huayna Potosi. Things moved fast, and within a month he’d asked Lidia’s mother for her hand and they’d moved in together into their own house in Al Alto. They married a year later; Lidia had two kids and quit school. By age 17 she was working in the market with her mother, while carrying a baby on her back.
Elio joined a band that became fairly popular, and asked Lidia to sing with them because her voice was good and the pay was decent. So, Lidia cooked and sold food in the mornings, and practiced and performed shows in the afternoons and evenings. Very quickly she became the center of attention, to the extent that when the band got interviews, the media only wanted to speak to Lidia. Elio didn’t like this and ordered her to quit. Which she did. “He told me to stop, so I had to stop,” she said.
She set up her own place in the market, where she sold about 400 plates per day of traditional food. Elio became a driver, taking tourists to the mountains. Then he trained as a mountain guide and, in a way, achieved her long-held dream. She continued cooking and taking care of the kids.
Fifteen years went by. Finally, she dared to ask Elio, “Can’t you take me to the mountain? Because I also want to go.”
Elio thought it would be a good idea if she cooked for the tourists. And so, Lidia became a cook at Campo Alto, the final climbing refuge on Huayna Potosi, 900 meters below the 6,088-meter summit.
It was 2001. Lidia was 35. She finally got to know the mountain she’d gazed at since she was a little girl. Each week she’d walk up to Campo Alto with her aguayo (shoulder bag) containing her cooking equipment, while chewing a little coca leaf to help with the altitude. She describes feeling a very beautiful emotion ever since the first time she hiked up there: a sense of freeness, while admiring the glaciers, the view, the cracks, the precipices. She loved it all, including the lung-straining air.
At the refuge, she prepared breakfast for tourist climbers from all over the world, who left for the summit at 1:00 in the morning. But she never accompanied them. And she’d have food ready when they got back. And they’d come back looking so happy, so content! She felt shy back then, to talk to them and ask them about it. She was also afraid they wouldn’t like her food. But this was hardly the case. “Great food, Lidia! Do you have more?” they’d say. And little by little, she became more comfortable with the tourists.
She also became more comfortable with her fellow Bolivians, who throughout her life had often mistreated and discriminated against her, saying belittlingly, “You are a woman of the pollera: an indigenous woman.”
But the tourists never discriminated. They accepted Lidia’s dress, asked about her pollera, asked about her culture. They made her feel welcome and she enjoyed talking to them. And they always had the same question: “Do you ever go up the mountain? You live here, you see it. You have to go up it.” And she’d say, “No! I can’t do it. The equipment is costly.”
This was true, but only part of the story. As her curiosity increased, and her long-held desires surged forth, she began to say, “One day I would like to go. I would like to see what is there.”
Another 15 years went by.
One afternoon in 2015, when her kids were grown and she was almost 50 years old, Lidia said: “Yes. I want to climb the mountain.”
Reaching this decision had been a process. True, she was getting older and felt like it was now or never. But there was more. After witnessing and experiencing so much discrimination during her life, getting to the summit became to her, in a way, and act of protest: a way of showing that women like her, the Cholas, could do it. Because really, she was so beyond annoyed with the discrimination against women, the racism, not to mention the femicide. In Bolivia men kill at least one woman every two days. The violence is brutal, and Aymara women suffer it more than average.
Lidia had it relatively good. Although Elio made all the decisions about her life and career, he treated her well and respected her. But it wasn’t the same with everyone she knew; many were mistreated by their spouses. One case of violence involving a close friend marked Lidia more than any other. Her friend was stabbed in the leg by her husband, and when Lidia advised her to leave the man, she couldn’t get the woman to react.
And it occurred to her that the best thing she could do would be to break this idea that women of the pollera must be obedient. “I decided I could do the work of a man,” she said. And she decided to do it from her place: the mountain. And she decided to do it in the clothes she was wearing.
She began planning a trip to the summit with her friend Domitila, who worked with her at the refuge, who said, “Of course, yes. I want to go.” They recruited four more women who also worked on the mountain, who also wanted to know the summit and only needed a push. All were Aymara who would climb in their polleras, petticoats, braids, blankets, and typical hats.
Lidia’s husband doubted she could make it, because, as she says with a laugh, “I’m a little fat.” But she told him she felt she could, being as she was adapted and acclimatized. She received resistance from other family members as well, including her mother who long ago patched her scraped and bleeding knees after she jumped off walls in El Alto. “Always with your craziness, no matter how old you get,” her mother said.
Elio finally agreed to serve as guide for the group, and Lidia set to work organizing everything: transport, as well as rental of boots, crampons, and ice axes. The women took a basic survival course, learning how to use crampons and perform self-arrest.
They departed El Alto on December 16, 2015, each woman carrying her own equipment in her aguayo. They also brought a little liquor to pour on the top make to a challa. They wore their polleras, as they had wanted, and brought long stockings, helmets, and polarized sunglasses. When they got to Campo Alto, Lidia was stunned when more and more women arrived—11 in total, who did not want to miss this chance.
They left the refuge at 2:00 AM on the 17th, by the light of their headlamps. They had to cross a glacier in the dark. The women encouraged each other. Then the sun began to come up, and the landscape Lidia had dreamed of now presented itself to her up close: pure snow, and below, the landscapes that had stayed beneath.
They had 500 meters left to climb to reach the summit. Fog had formed beneath them. And then an airplane went by—lower than they were!
By 7:00 AM, all they had left to do was walk the knife-edge final ridge to the summit, in single file. And suddenly they were there, touching a crest which all their lives they had thought was unreachable. They shouted and hugged; they were at the point of crying. So many emotions flowed through each of them. Lidia felt like she was in paradise. She felt like she was a condor, or an eagle. She felt like the freest woman in the world. She felt like she didn’t want to leave the mountain. She wanted to continue.
Going down in the warming, melting conditions was a little dangerous. But now they felt they could do anything. Tourists usually make this climb over three days. The Cholas had done it in two. At a celebration meeting the following day at the refuge, Lidia said, “Now that we’ve done the first mountain, why not do the second mountain?”
Her team accepted immediately, happy for the new challenge. Elio proposed a more ambitious goal: climb eight mountains all over 6,000 meters high, a classic mountaineers’ challenge. The Cholas loved the idea, and so on December 18, 2015, Las Cholitas Escaladoras, “The Climbing Cholitas” was born. There goal: to climb the six highest peaks in Bolivia, plus Aconcagua in Argentina, plus Everest.
The second summit proved more complicated. In addition to being more technically difficult, they had started getting pushback from some of the male guides. “How can a woman of the pollera climb mountains? Always she has to be in the kitchen,” they said. They were also not happy about the media attention the women had started to get.
But it’s because of these comments that Lidia had to climb Huayna Potosi in the first place. Instead of discouraging her, they gave her extra motivation. “Don’t pay attention to the foolish things people say,” she told her team. “Let’s go! The mountain is for everyone, not just a few.”
So, they began to prepare and save money for Acotango, a 6,050-meter volcano bordering Chile, which is regarded as a sacred Inca sanctuary. To climb it they needed permission from local village elders, who thought it a more-than absurd idea. “If a woman goes up dressed in a skirt,” lamented one, “I don’t think it will ever snow again on this mountain.” This is in line with other superstitions that endure in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America: Women bring droughts, make wells go dry, make snow disappear. This was nothing new to Lidia.
But this time her response was different: “Don’t discriminate against us. We just want to climb, wearing our clothes.”
After an hour of negotiation with the elders, Lidia obtained permission. She had an ace in the hole: she promised to promote the mountain in her next interview with the press. By now the notoriety of the Cholitas was increasing. The story had been picked up by the Associated Press.
The climb of Acotango went off without a hitch. And Lidia was pleased, to be breaking traditions a little bit. But when they got back to El Alto, conflict with the male guides deepened. Much of their ire was directed at Lidia, who they blamed. “How can we allow her to do this to women? We didn’t expect this little project to open doors for them, and make them want to do a lot more things.” Las Cholitas Escaladoras was a threat to their concept of family; the Chola was supposed to stay in the house and cook and care for children. The men were also upset that the women’s successes had come rather easily, without them having to take guide courses etc. like they’d had to do. Some of Lidia’s women, under pressure from sometimes violent husbands, left the group. Only 6 of the 11 women remained.
Elio supported Lidia, and practiced with her for the next ascent. But this brought him problems as well. He got bullied by other guides for constantly being with his wife. They considered it his fault that the women had gone up in the first place. Elio lost his post as president of the local guides’ organization, and more significantly, he lost work. Obtaining guiding jobs is an informal process based on who you know, and Elio became shunned in the network.
Lidia began to doubt whether she should proceed with the Cholitas. But just when she was on the verge of abandoning the project, she received some news: A Spanish producer had arranged funds to finance an expedition for the Cholitas to Aconcagua, and make a documentary.
Without thinking twice, the Cholitas went for it. Lidia and four others got on a plane for the first time, and left Bolivia for their first time, in January of 2019. They reached Aconcagua’s upper refuge in non-ideal conditions, where they played football, cooked, danced, and sang while waiting for the mountain to let them climb. After seven days, conditions improved enough for them to go.
Only two of the five made it to the top; Lidia wasn’t one of them. About 200 feet below the summit, she came down with some serious altitude sickness. She had some tears over it, but said she was happy to come as far as she had come. Indeed, at age 53 she had reached 6,700 meters. And this wasn’t about her getting there, it was about her group getting there.
The climb brought them more fame, including an admiring tweet from the president of Bolivia, congratulating, “Our 5 sisters…They are a pride for Bolivia.”
Now when tourist come to climb in Bolivia, more than a few of them want to do it with las Cholitas Escaladoras. Some of the women are now working as guides. The resulting visibility has helped to decrease the friction with the male guides; increased visibility has been good for business and therefore good for everyone working on the mountain.
Things are different now. Lidia is different as well.
No longer is she the quiet, obedient woman she used to be. “Now that I’ve started climbing, I’ve done a lot of things, right? I don’t think the same way now…One day I made the decision to say, ‘No, I can’t do just what you want. I am going to do what I want, too.”
Woman of the pollera are still being marginalized in Bolivia. But there is a movement to overcome this, and the Cholitas have contributed to this movement.
In a school in La Paz, there is a mural of Lidia. This is a school that once banned the wearing of traditional Aymara clothing. But in this mural, Lidia is dressed in her pollera. She’s also wearing a helmet in place of her bowler hat, and has a flashlight, a rope hanging from her shoulders, and is wielding an ice axe. Accompanying the mural is a phrase she often repeats: “La cima es para todos.”
"The top is for everyone."
Today the Cholitas number 16 women, and have climbed 7 of their 8 mountains. The next project is Everest.
In addition to being an alpinist, Lidia has become a political leader. In January 2021, she ran for city councilperson in the City of El Alto, and won. During her campaign she promised to continue fighting for the rights of women of the pollera. Her term began two weeks ago, on May 3.
April 14, 2021
On this cloudy April morning in Colorado, I’m reminded of a different, misty cool April twelve years ago. My son and I were on our 9th month of a 13-month journey around the world when we happened upon…
Darjeeling (April, 2009)
Our original plan was to head up to Sikkim, the Himalayan kingdom wedged between Nepal and Bhutan which became a state of the Indian Union in 1975. Along the way, in the Shiwalik Hills of the lower Himalaya, we arrived at Darjeeling.
It was abundantly clear that we did not need to go anywhere else. We were seduced in the traditional manner, like so many before us. It was our own little replay of the 1830s, when some tired British soldiers passed through Darjeeling while on an official errand. They looked at the peaceful wooded hillside and the icy Himalayas soaring in view, and they said: “Sanitarium.”
Like the British officers, we were tired. We’d been hitting the trail pretty hard for two solid months, ever since leaving Kenya. We set our bags down in the comfy Hotel Dekeling, and later that evening went out for a stroll. Everything whispered to our spirits: “Stay awhile and rest. Breathe some fresh, cool air. Get some exercise. Play. Don’t even think about going anywhere else for a while.”
My son gazed across the mountainsides and said, “Baba, this looks like a smash-up of so many other places we’ve been.”
“Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Puerto Rico, and Colorado.”
The immortal massif Kangchenjunga, which means “The Five Treasures of Snows,” forms an elusive backdrop in the mists above town. Assumed to be the world’s tallest mountain until 1852, it is actually a system of five major peaks, four of them exceeding 27,000 feet. The highest of course is Kangchenjunga itself, at 28,169 feet. It is the third highest mountain on Earth, bested only by Everest and K2. Everest too is visible from points in town on very clear mornings, as a tiny point on the horizon.
Your best chance to catch a view of the Kangchenjungas is in the early morning before the clouds and mists build. A good plan is to head along the path around Observatory Hill from Chowrasta Square, which is located in the saddle at the top of town. If Kangchenjunga is showing, it will be right in your face and tinged with orange morning rays.
Then you can climb to the Buddhist and Hindu shrines on top of Observatory Hill as the sun strikes the evergreen trees from the east. Thousands of prayer flags will be draped through the trees above you, flapping and mixing with the smoke and incense rising up through them. Worshippers will arrive, huffing up the path. They will ring the bells over the gateway as they enter.
It is really too lovely for words.
You can be content in Darjeeling doing almost nothing except sitting by a window with a book or a laptop. Get a cup of famous tea and gaze out across the moody hillsides. Or go for a walk, even if it’s cold and drizzling in an Earl Grey fog.
There is an excellent zoo out along the hillside that you must not miss. It makes a nice walk from Chowrasta. There you can visit Himalayan Black Bears, Snow Leopards, Tibetan Wolves, Siberian and Indian Tigers, Red Pandas, and Grey Langur Monkeys.
Above the zoo you’ll find the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where people come for mountain climbing training. The Institute was built in honor of Darjeeling resident Tenzing Norgay who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, first reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Sir Edmund was knighted in England for his efforts, and Tenzing became perhaps an even bigger hero in an independent and grateful India.
Back down in the zoo you’ll find a lovely aviary containing some awesome birds. One of our favorites was the Golden Pheasant, which looks like a 1980s glam rocker. And in this aviary resides a particular member of the Hill Myna species who just might steal your heart.
He hung out on a perch, inches away from the mesh, and blinked at us. He tilted his head. “Happy birthday to Lolo,” he said.
We congratulated Lolo on his birthday, and stayed and talked with him for half an hour. We were transfixed by his magnetic personality. Lolo sat on his perch and patiently taught us how to whistle his eight-note song. He winked at us some more and gave us his impersonations of the other birds. He also did his version of a car siren.
Finally, we bid goodbye to Lolo and hiked back towards Darjeeling. We huffed and puffed it up the switchbacks towards Chowrasta Square. At one turn along the trail, my son paused.
“Lolo made this walk worthwhile,” he said through his smile and heaving breaths.
On our last full day in Darjeeling we went back to the zoo. Lolo saw us coming and immediately flew over to talk.
“Hey, what’s with you?” he asked.
“Happy birthday, Lolo,” we replied.
“Happy birthday to Lolo,” he agreed. “Could you, would you?”
A woman standing next to us laughed. “He’s gotten so much nicer, now that he’s older,” she said. She was wearing the red jacket of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He’s cleaned up his language. He used to shout, ‘Who goes there!’ and then hurl abuse.”
“What kind of abuse?”
“Swear words in Nepali,” she replied. Then she turned to Lolo and said, “Could-you-would-you?”
“Couldyouwouldyou!” shouted Lolo, tilting his head and winking.
“What does that mean in Nepali?” I asked.
“It means, ‘What time is it’.”
We hung out with Lolo for a while. We didn’t want to leave him. We sat next to his cage and did a little of my son’s school work. We whistled Lolo’s eight-note song with him, over and over. Finally, we got up to go.
“Goodbye, Lolo,” we said.
As a going away present, Lolo gave us his impersonation of a car alarm.
We hiked back up the ridge towards Chowrasta. Through heaving breaths, my son asked, “Baba, how long do they live?”
I paused. “Hill Mynas? I don’t know. Quite a while, I think. Maybe thirty or forty years?”
He wiped a tear from his cheek.
Then he smiled. “Well! When we come back here, we know exactly where to go.”
March 14, 2021
It’s official: after 74 years, McElligot’s Pool has reached the end of its publishing road. You might have read this past week that it is one of the six books Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it has stopped publishing due to racist and insensitive imagery. It has drawings that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” according to the company’s statement.
I go way back with The Pool and I’m sorry to learn it’s getting pulled. It has been one of my favorites nearly my entire life. It enchanted me as a child from page two, with its the beneath-the-surface depiction of the junky contents of the Pool where Marco is fishing. It is one of the few select Seuss books I resurrected as a parent and read with my children over and over and over again. Another good thing about it is its hardcover size: McElligot’s Pool makes a great lap desk. My copy is holding up well, but it’s been so thoroughly used as such that I doubt it will ever be a collector’s item.
Problems with Seuss have percolated for a while, and have been getting quite a bit of academic attention in recent years. Examples include Mr. Nel’s 2017 book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (it’s been pointed out that said cat might be in blackface), and a 2019 paper by Ishizuka and Stephens, “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books.” It’s true that the also-pulled And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Seuss’s first children’s book from 1937, has a drawing of a yellow-faced, slanted-eyed “Chinese boy who eats with sticks” (adjusted in the 1970s to be a white-faced, still slanted-eyed “Chinese man who eats with sticks”).
What’s the problem with The Pool? Nothing jumped out in my mind when I read about this. I had to go and look.
All is smooth sailing until pages 22-23, when “Some fish from the Tropics, all sunburned and hot, might decide to swim up! Well they might…might they not? Racing up north for a chance to get cool, full steam ahead for McElligot’s Pool!” In doing so, these overheated fish chug past a palm-tree island on which a guy in a sombrero-like hat, a red vest, and cowboy boots reclines in the sand with a gigantic margarita.
Problem? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. However, on the next page things gets more serious.
“Some Eskimo Fish, from beyond Hudson Bay, might decide to swim down; might be headed this way!” Here we have a guy in a fur-lined hat holding a spear. Judging by how white and friendly-looking the guy’s face is in contrast to the darker-faced, more indigenously-featured fish, I suspect he was altered in the 1970s along with Mulberry Street’s Chinese boy. Perhaps the spear remains the problem, or the fur-lined hat, or the use of the outdated term “Eskimo” (which I grew up using)? Or maybe it’s the ethnic fish themselves? To which I have to say something similar to what my friend’s workmate said recently, when Disney got backlash for casting a black actress to play Ariel in the live-action version of The Little Mermaid: “Guess what? She’s a fish.”
The only other potential problem I can detect comes near the end, on pages 42-43: “Or I might catch a fish from a stranger place yet! From the world’s highest river in far-off Tibet. Where the falls are so steep that it’s dangerous to ride ‘em, so the fish put up chutes and float down beside ‘em.” And what these fish are floating down beside is a cane-holding man in colorful clothes and a pointy hat standing outside his entirely-Seussian dwelling.
But the man doesn’t look Tibetan to me. He looks like a Trump supporter.
So you be the judge. I’m not qualified to determine The Pool’s demerits, due to my longtime emotional experiences within its pages which make it hard, if not impossible, for me to see how it can be offensive or hurtful. Did it merit being pulled for the reasons Dr. Seuss Enterprises claim it was? Or is something else at play here? It should be noted that, after the announcement was made last week, Dr. Seuss books have re-stormed the Amazon charts.
Books go in and out of print. The Pool came out in 1947. It barely sells anymore; nothing close to Seuss’s more celebrated works. I wish they’d just quietly discontinued it, and left it to keep whatever place in the cultural record.
Day of the Hearts
February 14, 2021
Today is the 1,525th feast day of Saint Valentine, the patron saint of epilepsy. Martyred circa AD 270, he got his day in the year 496 thanks to Pope Gelasius. It wasn’t until much later, in 1868, that Cadbury introduced its heart-shaped chocolate box as a new Valentine’s Day era was gaining steam. Before that, at least in Italy, it was much more common to give little gold keys on this day (especially to children) in efforts to ward off epilepsy.
Word is that Singaporeans now lead the world in spending on Valentine’s Day. In the Philippines they too love them some Valentine’s Day; in the lead up to araw ng mga puso (“day of the hearts”), flower prices skyrocket and cathedrals get booked-out for weddings.
Elsewhere in Asia, Feb. 14 is not such a big deal for various reasons. Places like China and Vietnam are too preoccupied with Tet, the climax of which was this past Friday night. But retailers don’t need to worry because we now have White Day, March 14, to more than make up for it. White Day actually got its start in Japan in the 1970s, after a botched rollout of Valentine’s Day there a few decades earlier gave the mistaken impression that Feb. 14 was a day for WOMEN to give MEN chocolates, and not just to their boyfriends and husbands but also to their coworkers. To make up for this unfairness, March 14 was established as a day for men to reciprocate with white chocolate, marshmallows, et cetera. South Korea takes it a step further; if you did not get chocolates on Feb. 14 or white candies on March 14, you can go to a restaurant on April 14 and eat black noodles by yourself (and fortunately, not have to file your income tax until May 31). In fact, South Korea has a designated love—or lack thereof—day on the 14th of each month of the year. I like October 14: that’s wine day!
Latin America is big on Valentine’s Day of course, except for Brazil, which isn’t hip on it because they’re too busy with Carnival. Plenty of other countries are decidedly non-hip on Valentine’s Day and even have government regulations against it: much of the Muslim world for example, plus India. In Finland and Estonia the day is more about appreciating friends than lovers.
For Valentine’s Day, like other festivals with Christian connotations, I find myself wondering what thousands-of-years-old pagan practices got usurped. In Rome at least, though many academics claim it wasn’t intentional, the usurped festival was Lupercalia. Prior to Pope Gelasius designating Feb. 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day, February 13-15 was all about ritual cleaning and sacrifice in the name of Roman hygiene. In fact, februa is Latin for “purification.”
But it turns out Lupercalia had a Valentine’s Day element to it!
At its focal point, rites were performed at Lupercal Cave on Palatine Hill, the site where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the wolf according to legend. As a part of these rites, a male dog and goat were sacrificed. According to Plutarch, the skin of these animals was then flayed into pieces and given to young noblemen, who took off all their clothes and ran around the base of Palatine Hill, anticlockwise. Well-to-do women wanting to get pregnant purportedly lined up along the course, and held out their hands to receive a slap of dead dog fur from a buck naked noble-boy.
The earliest form of Valentine?
January 15, 2021
High in the Indian Himalaya, in a gorgeous lonely glacier-scooped cirque, sits a tarn called Roopkund. Hindi for “beautifully shaped lake,” it is about 130 feet across and 10 feet deep. It’s frozen most of the year, but when it thaws you can see plentiful human skulls and bones lying on the bottom.
I haven’t made it there, but I’d love to try someday!
Hundreds more bones and skulls dot the shoreline, which trekkers have arranged into cairns and patterns. In 1956, an expedition brought some of these remains to Calcutta for study. Carbon dating, then in its infancy, indicated they were between 500 and 800 years old.
Roopkund sits at over 16,000 feet, and is an arduous multi-day trek from Wan, the nearest village. It probably wasn’t a popular spot for picnickers of yore. However, the tarn lies beneath a soaring ridge which is along a longtime pilgrimage route honoring the goddess Nanda Devi.
In 2005, a multidisciplinary team collected additional bones for study. The Roopkund remains had long been picked over and mixed around by trekkers, but a recent landslide had exposed a fresh cache. Researchers estimated that between 300 and 700 peoples’ remains were at the lake, and determined that most had been healthy, unrelated women and men between the ages of 18 and 35. Among the recently-exposed bones were bits of leather slippers, bamboo parasols, and bangles of shell and glass.
The DNA proved, unsurprisingly, to be South Asian in origin. Carbon dating was tightly clustered in the 800s, indicating perhaps a single event. Two distinct groups of people emerged from the bone analysis: tall individuals with long heads, and shorter ones with round heads bearing the marks of forehead straps–i.e. Brahmans from the plains, and their mountain porters.
A fairly clear picture emerged: of ninth century pilgrims and porters, perhaps not well fitted with mountaineering gear, getting caught in a blizzard or hailstorm and dying of exposure. Over the centuries, landslides and avalanches rolled their bodies down to the lake.
The mystery appeared solved; the puzzle pieces fallen into place.
Or so we thought.
More recent studies have yielded some extremely puzzling information. As Douglas Preston explains in the Dec. 14 New Yorker, a significant portion of the Roopkund bones, up to a third of them, do not exhibit the DNA of South Asians. Rather they are from the eastern Mediterranean. And they died much more recently.
The closest match is Crete. Backing this up is bone collagen data, which indicate these folks ate a typical Mediterranean diet in the ten years preceding their death (the South Indian bone collagen, on the other hand, showed a diet typical of India). Carbon dating is now more precise; the South Asians died in 3-4 incidents between 700 and 950 AD. The Mediterranean group, on the other hand, perished in a single event sometime between 1650 and 1950. The highest probability is that it happened in the 1700s.
When these results came out, the researchers sort of hoped someone would come forward with information about a lost group of Greeks in the Himalayas sometime around 1700 or 1800 (and explain why they were making a Hindu pilgrimage). No one has.
Anthropologist William Sax, a longtime Roopkund afficionado, has spent years in the villages below the lake. He has heard not a whisper of any story or legend about a party of foreigners coming in the 1700s or 1800s, let alone dying at Roopkund.
Were the bones mixed up with others in their Kolkata storage locker? Not likely. If that had happened, the DNA would be all over the map. Else we’d have to explain why a bunch of Greek bones remarkably consistent in age, type, and diet ended up in a vault in India.
The mystery persists.
And its answers may lie on the muddy floor of Roopkund.
Beneath the clear water, which is frozen most of the year, are human remains untouched by meddlers. They are better preserved than their shore counterparts, and contain soft tissues.
And perhaps artifacts.