Bulgaria

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Bulgaria — Greek+Slavic as part of the Balkans, once Ottoman, early Persian — and new member of EU. An amalgam of cultures, ideas, and customs. Influenced, and influencer. Sofia (Bulgarian: Sofiya) is one of the world’s oldest capitals, founded in 8th century BCE, has gone by several names. The current honors St Sofia — though more apt, perhaps, to associate the city with the Greek sophia, a word meaning ‘wisdom’, and a female allegory of Christian mysticism: Hagia Sophia.

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Bulgaria adopted Christianity as its state religion in 865 CE, developing its own form of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Today, there is no official religion; an estimated 55-60% claim orthodoxy, with Islam as the second highest at 8-12%. In October 2018, however, the government adopted a draft law which in various ways places restrictions on religious practice — and all faiths unanimously denounced this measure, as yet unresolved.

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The Ottomans ruled Bulgaria for nearly the full 5 centuries of the empire itself, and the country maintains a decidedly Ottoman aspect today. Turks make up the largest minority, Islam its second religion. Ottoman ideals all but replaced earlier Bulgarian customs, the latter surviving only in isolated villages. Centralised governance, elevation of artisans, the previously independent Bulgarian church made subordinate to the Constantinople patriarchate, all and more became the norm.

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By the late 19th century, Bulgaria awakened its national consciousness, rediscovering its customs and traditions and ultimately throwing off Ottoman rule. Echoes of the Enlightenment could be heard in the Bulgarian intellectual life; the arts flourished, and artisans formed guilds — and whispers of he French revolution stirred feelings for independence. Education became widely available — and was at the heart of this movement. Artistic development today is the highest it has ever been.

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Bulgaria has had a Jewish community since the first century CE, with approximately 50,000 by the early 20th century. Though the Bulgarian government sided with the Axis powers including the Nazis during WWII, both citizens and government collaborated to protect their Jewish citizens, long integrated into Bulgarian society. Defying 2 orders for Jewish deportation, the government instead sent them to internal, benign ‘camps’ — and all were saved. Following the war, most left for Israel, and the remaining became largely secular in the later Communist years.

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In Bulgaria’s revival of its traditions, long dormant during centuries of Ottoman rule, there is perhaps none more recognisable today than the Kukeri. Men dress in costumes as horned beasts and wear heavy cow bells, jumping and dancing to quite a cacophony — meant to scare away evil spirits and bring good fortune for the coming year. Agrarian societies the world over have, or had, spring rituals with a similar premise — entreating the gods and warding evil, for a bountiful harvest — though the form differs widely. In the Bulgarian diaspora, this ritual can also be found, such as in Thessaloniki, Greece.

~EWP

Hong Kong

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Hong Kong, “Pearl of the Orient” … though she has never engaged in pearl diving nor traded in pearls, and was a largely uninhabited swamp when China gave her to the British after losing 2 wars over opium — which the latter wanted to import, and the former had refused to sell. A colourful story, this island – or rather, island group plus mainland ‘triangle’, who even now functions as a nation-state, independent-minded and freedom-loving — and currently in battle with her PRC overlord.

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The harbour between Hong Kong’s namesake island and its mainland neighborhoods to the north has long served as a major trade thoroughfare. Much wider before successive land reclamation projects on both sides, today it takes just 5 minutes for the traditional British Star Ferries to cross. Still highly trafficked, including cruise ships though the freighters now use other routes, most HK residents prefer to pass underneath — in the sophisticated and highly efficient metro system known locally as the “MTR-oh.”

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Along with its charming if inefficient traditional Star Ferries, Hong Kong holds onto its once-British tram system — affectionately known by locals as the ‘Ding Ding’ for its bell. One jogger proved he could run the track faster than its trains, nannies and their wee charges frequent the trams along with silver-haired elders, and one granny was seen transporting a large covered basket — of frogs. (Specialised trams are also on hire for celebrations.)

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Hong Kong stubbornly holds onto its traditional markets, even as it’s also a foodie destination with multiple Michelin-starred restaurants. Often deemed unsanitary as fish and meat sit in the subtropical sun, flies and all, the market — and market culture — persist. A great deal of life and community happens at these markets, and it would be a shame to see them give way to modernization — in property-crazed HK, likely to gentrification.

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Some of the most modern features of Hong Kong are its shopping malls, serving as navigational landmarks and as oases from the punishing heat, humidity, and torrential rains. Another such lesser known place of respite is the Central Library across from Victoria Park. With its 10 storeys, smart technology, and contemporary design, it well pays homage to intellectual pursuit. Victoria Park across the busy street provides its own, equally glorious respite — part of a lttile- known fact about crowded Hong Kong: the SAR is 4/5 protected greenspace.

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Hong Kong is a world class city, but does love its traditions — none deeper than its folk religion which today syncretises Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. With countless shrines dotting the landscape, a practice of ancestor worship, reverence for Tien Hau, goddess of the sea — and the dragon, a water spirit — HK maintains its spiritual heritage in a way that China has lost, all within a highly sophisticated urban context.

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Hong Kong also maintains its traditional art forms, such as Cantonese Opera — a style distinct from that which might still be found in Shanghai. Though a sound not for everyone, it is highly stylised and a glorious feast for the eyes, commonly available in a variety of venues. In early spring each year on Lamma Island, the truly traditional form is offered in a 2-day festival: open-air by the shore, in a temporary theatre built over the week prior — out of bamboo.

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Modern art is celebrated in all its forms in the Hong Kong of today, not 2 decades ago referred to as “the black hole of art in Asia” for its dearth. February each year sees a month-long art festival with offerings both international and local; West Kowloon has been gentrified as an art zone, while several performing arts centers on both sides of the harbour keep busy schedules. Museums are still lacking, though galleries abound — including a recently restored former police station in Central, now a multi-use art space.

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Art pushes boundaries of all types, often the political. Hong Kong, which distinguishes itself from China politically as well as culturally — even as it is now, if largely independent, a territory of the mainland once more, with ‘immigrant’ mainlander Chinese at nearly 15% of its population — frequently uses art as a form of rebellion. Seen here, in a typical style of bulbous characters, is a gentle mocking of both Chinese traditions — and the ‘Red Army’.

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Hong Kong protests political interference from its mainland overlord in more rigorous ways, as first seen in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. Using umbrellas to shield against police tear gas, protesters blocked public areas for several weeks in a battle for democratic process as promised in the 50-year agreement when HK was ceded to China from UK — as the PRC demanded approval of all political candidates. Currently, another battle rages between HK citizens and Beijing, this time over a highly contested extradition proposal — with turnout at one demonstration in particular reaching nearly 40% of the HK population.

~EWP

 

Egypt

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“Cairo is a city of 20 million people — and 50 million cars,” or so the locals say. Famous for its pyramids and other antiquity, this ancient and once deeply influential society today suffers from extremes of poverty and a pronounced division between rich and poor. Egypt, the world’s 15th most populous country, sees 95% of that populace living on just 5% of the land, in the fertile Nile Valley. Bordered by Libya, Israel, and Sudan, it is surrounded by conflict and not without its own, with multiple terrorist incidents in every decade since the 1990s — and as recently as a foiled attack just hours before this posting. To say its people and resources are stressed would be an understatement.

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Egypt today is 90% Muslim, in particular Sunni, though officially secular with freedom of religion guaranteed. Interfaith marriages are not uncommon, and lavishly celebrated with easy comingling among the faithful. The Coptic Orthodox Christian minority, however, has been the target of discrimination and violence, including a number of terrorist attacks.

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Beginning with pharaohs in ancient times, Egypt has a very long history of monarchy or its equivalent. With its fair share of queens who ruled the land, women of the uppermost class have long wielded some measure of power — even as the country’s overall record on gender inequality is questionable. The last king of Egypt was deposed in 1953, and the country’s many palaces today serve as relics to its past.

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Egypt maintains quite a few of its traditions, though more modern styles may be seen in Cairo itself. Nightlife in the capital city is pronounced, with a number of nontraditional venues. Modernity, including social as well as political, has been creeping in since the country’s ‘Arab Spring’ revolts in early 2011, when former President Mubarak was forced to resign from his 30-year rule. Although the current government is also in question, the people express hope for a better tomorrow.

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Egyptians have a particular passion for music and dance, from antiquity to today, the lion goddess Bastet also a deity of music. With the most prolific film industry in the Arab world, the music videos produced in the country are internationally recognised; as the originator of the craft, its bellydancing is renowned. Traditional Sufi zikr rituals are included in the folk genre, while today the indie music scene is contributing to and reflecting life in the streets — and the revolution.

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Egypt’s Mena House in Giza embodies the nation’s place on the world stage. Built for a pasha as a pair of hunting lodges at the foot of the pyramids, one facing sunrise and the other sunset, it soon became a hotel for the world’s rich and famous, its luxurious features exuding Egyptian culture. Used as an Australian army barracks in WWI and seeing Churchill’s conference with multiple delegations in WWII, home to political and philanthropic events as well as concerts and film, the hotel has played a larger-than-life role in Egypt’s modern history.

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The contrast — between the classes, the gap between rich and poor, between Old Cairo and New — couldn’t be greater. New Cairo, filled with grand homes and gardens in gated communities, built for the elite, with endless water and electricity while these go scarce in the rest of the city, cause resentment and anger among the masses to grow — and just might spark a new revolution.

~EWP

Bolivia

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Bolivia. South America’s poorest country — and in many ways its most intriguing. It retains many of its native customs, is socially divided into ‘collas’ and ‘cambas’, has integrated Catholicism with indigenous beliefs (Pacha Mama with Mother Mary) — and witchcraft, maintains a long and vibrant artistic tradition, has the highest administrative capital in the world, is admittedly rampant with corruption at all systemic levels — and just released a report on its 10-year effort to end narcotrafficking.

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‘Collas’ and ‘Cambas’ — the great social divide of Bolivia. Collas are those who live in La Paz and the surrounding Andes region, with traditional appearance and strong indigenous roots; cambas are those in the plains including Santa Cruz and surrounds — light-skinned, European features, and more economically stable. Collas claim to be the true Bolivians; cambas claim superiority. A divide of geography, ethnicity, class, economy — though one that some, at least, are attempting to bridge.

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Bolivia is immensely multicultural; in 2009, 36 indigenous languages were given constitutional recognition. Ancestral deities remain important to many Bolivians, their native worship a form of animism now integrated with the Catholicism brought by the Spanish colonisers. In the Andean region, sacrifices are given to Pachamama, or Earth Mother, even as prayers are made to Mother Mary; the eastern region maintains ancestor worship and sacred ceremonies. There is movement in some ethnic groups today to abandon the overlay of Catholicism altogether, for a return to their true spiritual heritage.

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One of the immigrant groups in Bolivia that may come as a surprise is Los Menonos, or the Mennonite community. In 1927, this Anabaptist religious sect began emigrating from western Europe to South America, and to Bolivia approximately 50 years ago. Residing in separatist ‘colonies’, they elect not to integrate into Bolivian society for religious as well as cultural reasons, in a lifestyle of subsistence farming, self-sufficiency — and typically, off-grid.

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Bolivia is typically traditional when it comes to gender roles, and as ‘machismo’ as its regional counterparts. Maternal mortality and female illiteracy rates are among the highest in the world, particularly in rural areas and clearly linked to poverty. However, the country is now experiencing one of the swiftest advancements in gender parity; women make up nearly half of the congress and more than 50% of municipal assemblies, and laws have been implemented to support women — though not without backlash, particularly in the form of increased gender-based violence.

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Bolivians are also pushing for political reform, in a country where corruption is believed to be at all levels — including judiciary and police force. Eva Morales has been the nation’s president since 2006, in successive 5-year terms with no limit. He is the country’s first indigenous president, from the Aymara ethnic group in the Andean region, and from an impoverished background; he was also a longtime ‘cocalero activist’, fighting for the rights of coca farmers against the US ‘war on drugs’. (Coca leaves are legally used in the country for various purposes.) He is popular though controversial, and will stand for re(re)(re)election in October of this year.

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Bolivia has long struggled with the issue of cocaine and drug cartels — and a large and ready market in the US. The country is now the world’s 3rd-largest producer of coca, the sale of which is widely thought to be fueled by political, judiciary, and law enforcement corruption — and poverty, which forces farmers to sell illegally. President Morales expelled US Drug Enforcement officers from his country in 2008, and while the 10-year government report released on 26 May details efforts to control, former government officials question its veracity — and say narcotrafficking is on the rise.

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Daily life in Bolivia carries on despite the country’s economic and political woes, and one of the ways that the society’s needs — both economic and gastronomic — are met is the neighborhood markets and their food counters. A cheap and nutritious meal topped off with the traditional ‘chicha’, a fermented corn drunk consumed from a small bowl, the socialisation at the markets is deafening — and crucial for the elderly population in particular.

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Life is one of simple pleasures in urban areas of Bolivia, relaxing in the local park at midday high among them. This pastime crosses the economic and class — and even generational — barriers, and a wide spectrum of society can be seen together. In rural areas, life is considerably more difficult, though sport — in particular soccer — is an interest widely shared.

~EWP

New Zealand

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New Zealand. Long known for its pristine environment and eco-friendly policies, this remote country consisting of 2 main and an estimated 600 smaller islands. It’s considered a young country; the indigenous Maori, originally Polynesian, took up residence on these islands in the 13th century, with the European settlers arriving in the late 18th century and signing the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori in 1840. The nation tends toward a youthful outlook as a result, including self-reliance, self-efficacy, and progressive ideals.

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The Maori marae, or communal space, is a complex of buildings belonging belonging to a particular iwi (tribe), hapu (sub-tribe), or whanau (family). Used for a variety of events as well as educational functions, and carved with or inclusive of many sacred symbols, the space itself represents inclusiveness, security and belonging, and the importance of family — what the Maori call “turangawaewae,” which literally translates as “standing place” + “feet” and means, “the place where we stand and belong.” A deep rootedness.

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Maori values: whanaungtanga, relationships; manakitanga, acceptance; kotahitanga, unity; rangatiratanga, or self’governance; mohiotanga, or knowledge; maramatanga, or perspective; tuakana/teina, mentoring; kaitiakitanga, or responsibility; whakapapa, or heritage/ancestry; wairua, a spiritual well-being; tikanga, or right livelihood, hakari, or celebration; atuatanga, or respect for spirit world; and, mauri, or respect for the life force of every living thing — including oneself.

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Traditionally, Maori women served as warriors and chieftains, had a say in the affairs of their tribe, and could inherit land. Women were revered as “te whare tangata” — the house of humanity, creators of new life; unmarried women had sexual freedom and children born outside of marriage were still considered members of the tribe. The spirit world of the Maori had many female deities and other supernatural beings, including the central creator Papatuanuku and the goddess of the underworld, Hinenuitepo, and the rich mythology places emphasis on the mana, or power, of women. The chin tattoo, or moko kauae, was considered an empowering sign of one’s true identity and status — a practice being revived today. 

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Though European settlers to New Zealand brought with them archaic ideas regarding women’s social status, as far as the indigenous Maori were concerned, they advanced quickly; in 1893, the nation became first in the world to grant women the right to vote. The most prominent leader in this suffrage movement was Kate Sheppard, memorialised here in a Christchurch sculpture which was installed on the centennial anniversary. NZ has achieved remarkable gender equality, now consistently ranked among the top 10 countries and with its 3rd female prime minister — yet with still more progress to be made, notably in the area of abortion law. 

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One of the reasons for both New Zealand’s gender equality and eco-friendly policy might well be seen in the people’s connection to the land — and need for all to contribute equally. As with all indigenous peoples, the Maori lived in harmony with the land and believed in manifest deity; women as givers of life were equated with their female creator deity — and all have a role to play in the agrarian society. The European settlers who came later were typically farmers, and many still are — and famous for their rigorous character, regardless of gender.

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One such environmental initiative of New Zealand can be seen in its system of reservoirs, and treatment plants for lake and river water. Storing rainwater since 1954 and supplying it to citizens at low cost, the country is well prepared for any water crisis. These manmade lakes north of the capital city hold 3 billion litres of water — and are as deep as a 5-storey building. Self-reliance, humanism, and deep ecology at work.

~EWP