Category Archives: travel

Crossing the Atlantic in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 59-61:

The Florida expedition left the Spanish coast on June 17, 1527. The novelty of sea travel, the anticipation of life in another continent, and a natural curiosity for the vessels and their occupants would have made the eight- to ten-day journey to the Canary Islands bearable. Fleets headed for the New World normally stopped briefly at Gran Canaria or La Palma to restock with water, wood, live animals, and some other provisions.

An entire month of open-ocean sailing across the Atlantic began when the ships departed the Canaries. By now the passengers would have had a very good idea of the level of endurance needed for the journey. The most aggravating factor was overcrowding. By our modern standards, sixteenth-century ships were appallingly small, measuring around 20 yards in length by 5 yards across by 2.7 yards of depth. All told, there were between 1,615 and 2,153 square feet of habitable space—roughly the surface area of a good-sized apartment. Within the confines of this space, some 100 to 120 human beings commingled day and night for weeks, using the most rudimentary latrines, and with no privacy at all except in the rarest of cases. On average, each person on board had a suffocating 1.8 square yards to himself. The luggage made the limited space more unbearable still. Travelers brought a variety of chests, boxes, and personal effects that inevitably ended up scattered all over the deck, cluttering every nook and cranny. Fights sometimes erupted when someone moved a chest just a few inches, unavoidably encroaching on a neighbor’s area. Voyagers were also forced to share their precious space with numerous animals, some deliberately transported and others uninvited. Chicken coops abounded, and pigs, goats, sheep, cows, and horses were also included in these voyages. From a distance, the decks of some of these vessels must have looked like veritable floating farms. The uninvited guests were surely the worst, however—rats, fleas, and lice roamed freely through the ships and mingled with everyone on board, recognizing no distinctions of social rank.

Overcrowding affected every single facet of life. Food and drink, for instance, were made available in a centralized, regimented fashion to all but the privileged few. Ordinary travelers could expect three square meals consisting mostly of water, wine, and hardtack (unleavened bread), with occasional meat and soup dishes. Unfortunately, the large number of mouths to feed put a premium on expediency rather than quality or flavor. Passengers found many reasons to complain. They noted the murkiness and smelliness of water; wine, even the cheap and watered-down kind, was always far more popular. The hardtack was dependably dry, blackened, rancid, and often bitten by rats and covered with cobwebs. Neither did the passengers have much praise for the salty, leathery, half-cooked meats that only increased the pangs of thirst. Polite eating manners were out of the question. Two, four, or more individuals shared big platters that were placed on the floor since there were no tables. Everyone took food liberally with his or her hands and passed around knives as necessary (conditions were not necessarily much better on land, as spoons and forks were just becoming widely used in Europe, amid some skepticism. Objecting to the use of forks, one German preacher remarked that God “would not have given us fingers had he wanted us to use this instrument.”).

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Seville as Port City in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 39-41:

IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY SPAIN, ALL NEW WORLD explorations originated in Seville, that marvel of a city-port on the Guadalquivir River. As Spain’s only port licensed to do business with the American colonies, Seville became a protagonist in the history of discovery, the starting and end point of all transatlantic voyages. As one contemporary so aptly put it, “Seville is the common homeland, the endless globe, the mother of orphans, and the cloak of sinners, where everything is a necessity and no one has it.” In the 1520s many sevillanos could still recall the stir caused by Columbus’s triumphant entrance in the spring of 1493. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea had paraded around town followed by ten natives and a few resilient parrots that he had brought from the newly discovered lands. The people of Seville had more recent memories of that cantankerous Portuguese commander, Ferdinand Magellan, who had departed in 1519 with five good ships. Three years later a lone vessel with tattered sails and twenty-one famished survivors pulled up into harbor after having circumnavigated the entire globe.

But far from being a backdrop or a silent witness, Seville was a beehive of activity, its workforce specializing in the procurement, outfitting, and manning of fleets bound for the New World, activities that drew men and women from all over Europe and North Africa. The main action centered on a stretch of beach that joined the left bank of the river to the city. Measuring 800 yards long and 350 yards wide, this area, commonly referred to as El Arenal (the Sandy Beach), functioned much like a surgeon’s operating table. On any given day, one could see dozens of ships crowding each other, all floating perpendicularly to the waterline to make the most of the work space. Many of these vessels were surrounded by swarms of carpenters, caulkers, riggers, stevedores, boatmen, pilots, accountants, royal officials, aspiring passengers, and the many other characters that populated this vibrant maritime community. Since the average lifespan of sixteenth-century ships that plied the transatlantic routes was a mere four years, repair crews were ubiquitous. Caulkers skillfully laid ships on one side by shifting the ballast and taking advantage of low tides to expose parts of the hull. They had a few frantic hours to scrub the bottom and add tarred oakum between the planks before the tide turned again. Loading a vessel required less skill but far more stamina. There were no piers or wharves at El Arenal, so the entire cargo—fifty, seventy, 120, or more tons—had to be taken by smaller boats and lifted up with ropes onto the deck, or carried on the backs of stevedores who staggered from shore to the ships over narrow planks.

It took about ten minutes to walk from El Arenal to the city center, where the imperial and ecclesiastical powers resided and expedition leaders wrestled with the overwhelming logistics of raising armadas. Human rivers flowed between the rowdy port scene and the august downtown through two main streets. The principal thoroughfare, a cobblestone street flanked by high stucco walls and wrought-iron grilles, began in the heart of El Arenal and ended at the steps of the Cathedral of Seville. Shipmasters recruited crew members and volunteers from these steps, and in the cool shade of the surrounding archways. Fittingly, the street was named La Calle de la Mar (“The Street of the Sea”), as it was here that crews bid their last farewells and caught their last glimpses of the city before boarding the ships.

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Travails of U.S. Cavalry Horses

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 189-192:

The horses suffered the most. They were not the tough little ponies that the Villistas rode, but large-boned thoroughbreds or crosses between several breeds. They were big and powerful, but fragile, too. Nearly all of them were classified as “bays,” a stingy army description that failed to capture the many hues of a brown horse. In actuality, they were the color of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves; rich, warm chocolate, coffee, and the watery tannic of tea. Only their eyes were the same, huge dark pools revealing an animal capable of great fear and great courage.

Horses have a grazing animal’s nature; they are self-reliant and content enough to live alone, in the middle of a great plain, with only the wind and crows for company, but happier still with another horse that they can stand parallel to in the buggy months of summer, noses and rumps reversed, the tail of one swatting the flies from the face of the other. They are creatures of habit and thrive on the monotonous turning of day into night, looking forward to a pat of hay for breakfast, a pat of hay for lunch, a pat of hay for dinner, and grass in between. They become cantankerous when their feeding time is altered, startle at loud noises and sudden movement, and are made uneasy by changes in their environment. Yet these were precisely the travails that they would have to endure on the expedition.

Soldiers are expected to stand and fight, but everything in a horse tells it to flee when confronted with danger. Horses are gentle and unaggressive by nature, but their dispositions can turn rebellious in the hands of the wrong rider. Their mouths open willingly for the bit, which sits at the corners of their lips. If this most intimate of spaces is violated, if the reins are jerked or pulled repeatedly, horses can become tough mouthed and nonresponsive, or even worse, clamp the bit between their teeth and run away with their passenger. Their flesh is extremely sensitive—who has not seen a horse shudder under a fly’s weight?—yet ignorant riders think it necessary to pummel them with whips and spurs until the animal retreats into some reptilian corner of its brain and refuses to move at all.

A horse’s back—the beautiful curve that begins at the top of the head, slopes down across a smooth plain, and gently rises into the tail—must be carefully tended. Horses that experience pain and discomfort while being saddled learn to jig and prance and fill their bellies with air so that the girth strap needs to be repeatedly tightened. The long, twisting rivers of muscle covering the leg bones are susceptible to strains and microscopic tears, and an injury in one leg often means the other three have to compensate, with one injury frequently leading to a second. Even more impractical are a horse’s ankles, dainty as a ballerina’s and prone to wind puffs—swollen tissue that subsides only with rest and liniment.

The hooves, which are hard as stone, seem to be perfectly adapted to withstand the enormous impact of walking and trotting and cantering. At their center, though, is a wedge-shaped “frog” prone to drying and bruising. The wrong kind of food can flood the thick horny material with heat and cause permanent damage. Regular trimming and properly fitted shoes are essential. Unfortunately, the animals ridden into Mexico received neither, and their hooves grew long and added to their fatigue and the strain on their legs. The cavalrymen were considerate of their horses and tried to lessen their suffering. They brushed them twice a day and turned them loose to graze whenever possible. (The young Patton was adamant about the need for grazing and wrote scorching memos whenever he saw horses standing on the picket line.) But even the most tender, loving care could not make up for the lack of rolled oats and green alfalfa. The horses chewed up leather bridles, saddlebags, halters, and ropes. The soldiers purchased native corn, but before the grain could be fed to the horses, it had to be dumped onto blankets and the many small pebbles found in the mixture laboriously picked out. Starved though they were, many horses simply stopped eating if their teeth struck a rock. As the flesh melted from their bones, extra blankets were needed under the McClellan saddles to protect their backs. “Great care was taken of the horses’ backs,” remembered Sergeant Converse. “Blankets were folded carefully, saddles packed so the weights were distributed evenly and the men not allowed to lounge in the saddle.”

Many of the horses taken into Mexico were debilitated from the trauma of being boxed up and transported in railroad cars and they suffered from shipping fever and lice. During the campaign, they developed constipation, diarrhea, and life-threatening colic. Some fell to their deaths when they lost their footing on the mountain trails, or were dragged off a cliff by the wagon they were pulling. Many more were killed in the running gunfights, for they were always the largest targets on the battlefield. The majority, though, died of exhaustion and hunger. Quickly, like the little Villista ponies, they gave up their lives. A few were let go on the trail, to fend for themselves, but most were put out of their misery by a merciful bullet to the head. The soldiers grieved their deaths. Poor beasts, they muttered as they passed the huge, ungainly forms, bloated and barrel shaped, a blasphemy of the graceful creatures that they had been in life. With each one lost, Pershing’s challenge became greater. And the fighting had not yet begun.

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U.S. Army Units in the Villa Expedition

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 175-176:

The initial cavalry regiments tapped for service included the men of George Custer’s fabled Seventh, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth, the horse soldiers of the Eleventh, and the troopers of the Thirteenth. Accompanying these mounted regiments would be the Sixth and Sixteenth infantries and two batteries of the Sixth Field Artillery. The heavy artillery hardly seemed worth the trouble: “To transport one gun required ten animals, which needed shoeing and forage, plus a dozen men to look after the mules as well as assemble and fire the gun,” points out military historian Herbert Molloy Mason. Supporting the combat troops would be a signal corps to establish communication, an ambulance company and field hospital for the wounded, engineers to build roads and bridges, and two wagon companies to haul supplies. (A wagon company consisted of 36 men, 27 wagons, 112 mules, and 6 horses.)

Army quartermasters from around the country worked frantically to locate supplies and ship them to Columbus. A boxcar of Missouri mules was requisitioned from Saint Louis. Twenty-seven new trucks were purchased from the White Motor Company in Cleveland and the T. B. Jeffreys Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Newly broken horses were entrained at Fort Bliss. Strange-looking vehicles that were actually the military’s first tanks were loaded onto railroad cars. Wagon parts, ordnance, radio sets, medical supplies, rations, and forage were also hunted down and shipped to Columbus.

Troops were sent from Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Huachuca, Arizona; and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. At the request of President Wilson, Congress passed emergency legislation to increase the strength of the regular army from 100,000 to 120,000 men. Nearly all the additional men would be assigned to guard duty on the border or the expedition itself. Also dispatched to the border were Captain Benjamin Foulois and the country’s entire air force, which consisted of the First Aero Squadron and its eight Curtiss JN-3s, or Jennies. Flimsy as negligees and notoriously unreliable, the planes were dismantled and shipped by train. Captain Foulois posted ten riflemen at the front of the train and scattered more soldiers armed with rifles and pistols throughout the sleeping cars and the rest of the compartments.

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Pancho Villa’s Boxcars

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 47-48:

Villa used long trains to transport his soldiers from city to city. On top of the boxcars rode pigs, chickens, children, and soldaderas—wives, daughters, and even grandmothers who served as helpmates and nurses and fellow fighters. His pride and joy was his hospital train, which consisted of forty enameled boxcars staffed with Mexican and U.S. physicians and supplied with the latest surgical appliances. With its bright blue crosses and the words Servicio Sanitario stenciled on the sides, the hospital train followed Villa’s troops into battle and transported the most severely wounded back to hospitals in the cities. He had a boxcar for correspondents, a boxcar for moving-picture men, a boxcar for his cannons and extra railroad ties, and a caboose, which he used for his headquarters. Painted gray and decorated with chintz window curtains, the caboose was big enough for a couple of bunks and a partitioned area for his cook. In the early days, Villa would sit in his caboose in his blue underwear while as many as fifteen generals lounged at his feet to argue and plot strategy for their next campaign. Hanging on the walls above them were pictures of Villa on one of his frothing horses; the querulous Don Venustiano; and Rodolfo Fierro, Villa’s handsome and ruthless friend, who was christened el carnicero—the butcher—after he had made a sport of shooting three hundred prisoners as they tried to escape over a corral wall.

If Fierro represented the dark side of Pancho Villa’s nature, then the aristocratic and exquisitely mannered Felipe Ángeles represented the good. Ángeles, the army general who had been detained along with Madero and his vice president, had been educated at the Colegio Militar and excelled at mathematics and artillery science. He was in the federal army when the revolution broke out and offered to fight against the revolutionaries. But he soon became personal friends with Madero during the latter’s brief presidency. After Madero was killed, Ángeles joined Don Venustiano’s counterrevolution. Disgusted by Carranza’s opulent lifestyle and the preening sycophants who surrounded him, Ángeles eventually aligned himself with Pancho Villa’s División del Norte. Villa revered Ángeles’s intellectual and military capabilities and his rigorous honesty. While he considered himself far too ignorant and uneducated to govern a turbulent country like Mexico, Villa often thought Ángeles could be the next president.

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Culinary Delights of Canada’s Northwest

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle p. 195:

Hearne’s posthumously published A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the Northern Ocean is a charming and lively account of his years of adventure with Matonabbee, a classic of northern exploration literature and an unvarnished window into eighteenth-century life in the northern interior, a region on the cusp of great change. Hearne was a keen observer of the natural world, such as the seasonal behaviour of animals, the types of vegetation and the climate. He had a particular interest in Chipewyan customs and lifestyle. Food was another favourite topic, perhaps because the cuisine on the Barren Lands was so different from the food at the fort, and perhaps because on his adventures he often didn’t have enough of it. He detailed the many different methods of hunting and of preparing food, which animal parts were the tastiest or most coveted when herbed, boiled or roasted. He described with relish a common hearty caribou stew, and a venison dish called beeatee that was “a most delicious morsel.” Similar to the Scottish haggis, it was made using the animal’s stomach as a vessel, stuffed with blood, chopped fat, tenderized meat, kidneys and heart mixed with seasonal herbs. The beeatee was steamed and smoked over a fire into an aromatic pâté. Hearne found buffalo tripe to be “exceedingly good,” while warm caribou blood sucked directly from the bullet hole was “very nourishing.” Moose stomach, on the other hand, was “rather bitter.” Hearne also savoured raw fish of various types and cuts, which was a common meal of the Chipewyan and remained a mainstay of Hearne’s palate for the rest of his life, a fondly remembered delicacy that he would specially request when dining out in London, perhaps to unobtrusively raised eyebrows acknowledging the culinary peccadilloes of the eccentric traveller.

Hearne wrote in detail about the annual life cycle of the Dene-speaking peoples of the Barren Lands, and the difference between the sexes and their respective roles in society. Narrative examples give poignancy to his anthropological generalizations, and his fascinating insights are written in clear, descriptive and vibrant language.

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A Navajo Shepherd’s Day, 1920s

From Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez (Dutton Caliber, 2011), Kindle Loc. ~437:

After breakfast, we all helped Auntie pack bedrolls, the remaining food, and the heavy water bag onto the big brown “sheep horse.” This horse lived on the range with the sheep and carried the items necessary for us Diné to survive.

Snow, a white eighty-pound dog, stood alert at one side of the herd. Five other dogs took up their posts around the fringes. Then my two aunties, my uncle, my two brothers, and I moved out with the animals. We walked through deep grass, never worrying about our flocks having enough to eat. Other Navajo families shared the range, with no fences to keep anyone out.

After grazing in one place for two or three days, Grandma’s herd moved on to new grass. I knew that the constant movement was good for the safety of the livestock. Predators did not gather in any one area, knowing where to find the animals.

We followed the sheep. The day grew warm and quiet. A straggler headed toward a clump of juniper. I glanced at Old Auntie. She nodded, then watched me throw a small rock out beyond the lamb, turning her back in toward the rest of the herd.

A gray shadow flashed off to my right. Coyote? The hated animals often lurked among the thick piñon and sagebrush. I stood absolutely still and waited, then carefully bent down and picked a stone, fitting it into the rubber of my inner-tube slingshot. Young Auntie held a coffee can filled with rocks at the ready. The noise of the rocks, when the can was shaken, would scare a coyote. But I heard and saw nothing.

Just as I turned back to the herd, the sharp cry of a kid rang out. A coyote had grabbed the baby goat by the leg, pulling it into a clump of sagebrush. My heart beat fast as I aimed the slingshot, heard it thud, then charged toward the fracas. Young Auntie shook the coffee can, creating a racket. Old Auntie yelled and plunged from across the herd. Three dogs raced over, barking and growling. The coyote dropped its prey, running with its tail between its legs.

The mother goat and I reached the kid before Auntie did. It cried piteously. Four punctures marked its leg. Blood flowed freely.

“Good,” said Auntie, when she arrived. “The blood will clean the wound.” She examined the leg. “It’s not bad. He can walk.”

I stayed close to the kid and his mother as we continued our trek. Coyotes posed a serious threat to the lambs and kids, and sometimes even to the older animals. And any animal lost to a coyote was a double loss. Not only was the wool (or in the case of a goat, the milk) gone, but the meat as well. Even if our dogs recovered the carcass, no self-respecting Navajo ate meat killed by the devil coyote. Everyone knew evil people came back as coyotes after they died.

The scared little goat kept up with the herd. As the few scattered remnants of rain clouds evaporated, a turquoise-blue sky arched over us. The temperature in the early part of the “moon of large plants”—the white man’s month of May—rose to the midseventies. Life was good.

Some days we covered between fifteen and twenty miles on foot. That day we walked eleven miles or so, stopping to build camp on a slight rise in the shade of a piñon grove. Snow, the big sheepdog, selected the rise that day. He, like his six humans, preferred to watch the sheep from above, keeping an eye out for danger and stragglers.

I scratched behind the big dog’s ears. “Good boy.”

Snow, like all of the dogs, herded by instinct. Every morning he approached the sheep, eager to be moving. On the days when we stayed put, Snow climbed a rise and watched, ever alert.

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Yemeni Men’s Attire, 1960s

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 145, 160-161:

After a very refreshing bathe in a stream I changed into Yemeni dress. I put a white ma-arraga on my head and swapped my trousers for a khaki iz-zar, which I found much more comfortable, although I missed the pockets; only the Egyptians wore trousers in the Yemen, and I was taking no chances. For a similar reason I had to accustom myself to another Yemeni habit — to squat while passing water; according to the tribesmen, ‘only dogs and Egyptians pee standing up,’ and I had no wish to be shot in mistake for either.

On their heads, which were often shaven, perched skull-caps, or white embroidered pill-box caps called kofias, or the hand-woven basketwork ‘flower pots’ I have already described; they wound cashmere shawls or lengths of khaki cotton round their caps or hats, in the form of turbans. Tattered jackets of European design hung from their shoulders over shirts and vests, and over the jackets ran crossed bandoliers, each carrying about fifty bullets. Every man wore a long cummerbund, which served the double purpose of belt and pockets. Thrust into this belt, behind the jembia, which is a defensive weapon, was a long, straight knife used in the attack, and behind it reposed an assortment of articles, allegedly nine in number and all beginning with the Arabic letter for M: there was a pair of scissors, a needle, tweezers for extracting thorns, a bunch of keys, a pen — usually with ball point — writing paper, a purse, and sometimes a watch strapped round a knife. Everyone wore an iz-zar, with underpants of cotton, and some men wore the baggy Moslem trousers under the iz-zar. Most of the tribesmen went barefoot, but some favoured Japanese ‘flipflops’, and others a type of plastic sandal with studs, such as I used to see displayed in West End London stores at extravagant prices for wear on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

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British ‘Fuddling’ in Oman

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 63-64:

The proceedings followed the ritual prescribed by Arab tradition, beginning with the conventional exchange of civilities with our host: ‘Ahlan Wa Sahlan’ [Welcome], ‘Salaam Elykum’ [Peace be with you]. We arranged ourselves in a circle on the cushions, contorting our limbs into attitudes that for me at least meant almost unendurable discomfort, and taking care to ensure that the soles of our feet were never facing our host — or any of the guests either. Even when there was business to transact, it was very impolite to mention it for at least the first five minutes, when talk was restricted to irrelevant pleasantries and platitudes. It was also considered very bad manners to speak to anyone during the course of a meal — an excellent convention, in my view — and so all conversation took place beforehand, while the party ate mezze — hors d’oeuvres of bread and goat’s cheese — and drank black coffee poured into small cups by black slaves out of a huge coffee pot from a great height and with unerring accuracy; when we had had enough — it was usual to accept two or three helpings — a guest would shake his coffee cup to show he wanted no more.

Then servants would bring in the meal, a single enormous dish, usually a whole sheep or goat on a vast pile of rice. There were no plates or cutlery, and everyone helped himself with his fingers from the dish, using only the right hand, which he would wash carefully after he had eaten. At the end of the meal slaves would carry round an incense burner, from which the guests would waft the smoke over their beards with their hands; beardless Europeans would make the gestures of wafting it over their chins. As a final ritual the slaves would sprinkle rose water over the guests’ heads. The guests would then rise, shake hands all round, and depart. I must have attended hundreds of these ceremonies, which we called ‘fuddling’, from the Arabic fadal meaning ‘please’; the British troops called them ‘mutton grabs’.

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Albanian Hospitality: Table Tactics

From Albanian Assignment: The Memoir of an SOE Agent in World War Two, by David Smiley (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 1; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 49-51:

Before the meal could be served bread had to be baked, and a sheep or a chicken killed and cooked. This naturally took a long time, and it was not unusual to sit for anything up to four hours waiting for the meal to arrive. During this wait raki and meze were kept in constant circulation, the meza consisting of lumps of cheese, raw onions, cloves of garlic, cucumber in yoghurt, hard boiled eggs, and the liver and other intestines of the animal that had just been killed. The host clearly enjoyed this interval, gossiping and exchanging news, and his natural curiosity was particularly aroused by the presence of a foreigner in his house. Many times I arrived at a house dead tired after a long day’s march, and it was as much as I could do to stay awake; but to go to sleep would have been considered bad manners and I had to force myself to sit up and appear to take a polite interest in the conversation, even though I did not understand it. It was only the raki that kept me going. A very strong spirit distilled from plums or grapes, it had a remarkable effect in overcoming tiredness.

When the meal was ready, a large round table, about five feet in diameter and about nine inches high, would be brought in and placed in the centre of the room. The host would then seat the senior guest in the place of honour, whereupon everyone would move over to the table, each man facing the back of his neighbour and turning his back on the other; in this way, as many as fifteen people could sit at one table.

The food would already be on the table, usually loaves of bread made from maize (huke), dishes of yoghurt (kos) usually made from sheep’s milk, and beans (fasule) of a similar type to Heinz baked beans; the main dish was meat boiled in its own juice, sometimes with a few grains of rice. We ate most dishes with the fingers of our right hands, but a spoon was provided for the more liquid ones, and this was the only piece of cutlery. There were no individual plates and we conveyed the food direct from the communal dish to our mouths. There was an art in eating quickly without spilling too much, for the dishes emptied fast and the slower feeder often went short. McLean used to say that I was good at table tactics. Once the dishes were empty the meal was over, the guests returned to their original positions, and a member of the family removed the table and swept the crumbs and any leftovers through a hole in the centre of the floor to fall among the animals who dwelt below. Once this was done, conversation flagged, mattresses were brought in, the blankets laid out, and in a short time the only noise would be the crackling of the fire and loud snores.

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