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Tag: House of the Tiger King


A Price on Their Heads

Ever since my aunt lifted me up to a glass case at the back of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, at the impressionable age of eight, I have been hooked on shrunken heads.

Like so many schoolboys before me, my lower jaw dropped as I gazed in awe at the array of miniature human heads, correctly known as tsantsas. There was something wholly captivating about their gnarled features, the sewn lips, little hollow necks and manes of jet black hair.

I longed to learn the secret processes, known to a tribe deep in the South American jungle, which enabled decapitated human heads to be shrunk to the size of a grapefruit.

Despite an ongoing debate about whether museums should harbour human remains, the Pitt Rivers Museum still holds five, and the British Museum has at least ten. Interest in the gruesome exhibits remains strong. A roaring private trade in the illicit handicraft has developed, with heads being snapped up by wealthy collectors, many from the Far East and Japan.

The genuine article comes from the Upper Amazon, a region on the Pastaza river between Peru and Ecuador.

To continue reading, please see my article at Explorers Connect.


Tahir Shah's top ten do's & don'ts for expeditions

10 Key Things on a Jungle Expedition

1. Lead from the front. Never ever ever ever expect someone to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself.

2. Make sure that you have plenty of food — good food — and that the team eat before you do.

3. Think ahead. Never march on too late into the afternoon without taking into account that a storm could sweep in. So, build a camp when it’s not raining, even if you haven’t marched very far on a given day.

For more of my top tips on how to manage an expedition, please see my article over at Explorers Connect.


My Top Ten Favourite Museums

My top ten list of museums around the world.

  1. Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford. Fav object: the shrunken heads.
  2. Sir John Soane Museum, London. Fav object: the sarcophagus of Seti I
  3. Hunterian Museum, London. Fav object, the giant’s skeleton.
  4. Mutter Museum, Philadelphia. Fav object: Hyrtl Skull Collection.
  5. Dog Collar Museum, Maidstone. Spiked hunting collars from 16th century .
  6. Parasite Museum, Tokyo. Fav object: all of them.
  7. Sedlec Ossurary, Czech Republic. Fav object: the chandelier fashioned from human bones.
  8. Barbed Wire Museum, Kansas. Fav object: the selection of razor wires.
  9. International Toilet Museum, Delhi. Fav object: the Japanese toilets.
  10. Avanos Hair Museum, Turkey. Fav object: the caverns full of hair.


What are your favourite museums? Have you been to any of these?

March 3, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel


Something I find tremendously interesting is the way icons and ideas pass from one culture to another. And, as they do so, the society in which they arrive believes quite ardently that it has originated them. Let me give you a couple of examples. To the French there is nothing more, well, French, than the Croissant. There are various lines of history on these puff pastry crescents, but the most likely is that they arrived in France from Constantinople, where the pastry is a much-loved favourite. And, of course, the crescent is a known symbol of Turkey as well as Islam. But the star and crescent symbol was not originally Islamic. It was adopted by the Turks when they conquered Byzantium, from the Christians (i.e. the same people who now claim the crescent croissant as their own… so it’s come full circle in a way). The Christians didn’t create the crescent form as an icon though, they merely borrowed it from their Near-Western pagan ancestors. Another wonderful example of such a transition that lives in the Madre de Dios jungle in Peru, and elsewhere in South America. I have been warned by tribesmen there to watch out for the so-called ‘Mal de Ojo’, the ‘Evil Eye’. The superstition was actually taken to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadores, whom in turn acquired it from Morocco.


All Around Us

OK, so you thought I got carried away with the thrills of the jungle journey… well you ain’t seen nothing yet. The subject of the Arab world’s influence on the Occident is one of my favourites. It’s a matter that constantly amazes me. I guess the amazement stems from the fact that the majority of people have no clear idea of how massive, how utterly dynamic, the legacy of Eastern knowledge and culture is, within Western society. Where to begin…? Why not start with a few facts and fallacies. Here’s one that’s all around us: The English language is peppered with Arabic words, and from others which came to us through the matrix of the Arab world. There are hundreds of them, each one giving a clue to the links between East and West through past centuries. They include… alcohol, tariff, magazine, cheque, admiral, algorithm,alchemy,  adobe, amber, assassin, algebra, alembic, barbican, carafe, chemistry, cork, chess, cotton, crimson, camphor, calico, gazelle, gerbil, giraffe, harem, lilac, lemon, orange, lute, lime, racket, safari, sash, satin, sequin, sugar, syrup, talisman, zenith, zero, tarragon, tambourine and tabby — as in cat.


Bridging East with West

You’ve probably had enough of my obsession for jungle expeditions. And so for the next few days I’m going to write on facts and fallacies of the Arab World and Middle East. Living in Morocco as I do, I am often amazed that there is such a sprawling gap between East and West. One small way to bridge it would be to correct some of the misconceptions that are all-pervading when it comes to the East. I hope a little of what I have planned will be of interest or even insightful.


Recognising the End

Every journey has an end. As the expedition leader, it’s your responsibility to decide when to call the team together and to give the order to retrace the steps, and venture back to the starting point. The obvious time for return is when you have come upon your goal — when you’ve found the lost city and had a good look around. But, as is so often the case, the goal tends to slip away. And what of it? To me, the goal is so important because it’s the magnet that pulls you forward, the beacon of hope… but at the same time it’s without much meaning within itself. Sure, it would be amazing to find the ruins, or whatever you’re searching for, but it’s equally valuable to have endured the unendurable for so long, and to have been part of the team. When you eventually get back to the base camp, have a feast prepared with remaining food. Then divide up equipment and hand as much of it away to the men as you can. Remember, if they live on the periphery of the jungle, they’re far more likely to have use for it than you. And, taking just the bare essentials, you can slip back into the world you came from… disappear with your memories, and start thinking of another expedition.



Rain, more rain, intestinal worms, dengue fever, sores, scurvy, fatigue: it all spells one thing… plunging  levels of morale. Once morale has dipped below optimal levels it’s very hard to drag back up. The worst problem is a sense that the expedition is going nowhere and that, as leader, you are forcing the team on towards unknown perils for no reason at all. As I have said previously, a good way to counter low morale is hot food and plenty of it. Another way is to have a football, or rest days, or an unexpected party. It’s true that parties and the jungle don’t go hand in hand particularly well… but you can stash some sugary food and party hats (and aguardiente of course) in a sealed bag before leaving. There’s another trick that I usually resort to at some point. Anyone who has read my books may have guessed. I take a crystalline white powder and sprinkle it on the tongues of the men in the most miserable conditions — when they’re all down with fever and general lethargy, or when the rain hasn’t stopped for weeks. They drool at the taste of it, and get a feeling that they’ve eaten a delicious meal even when they’ve not. The powder is Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG).  It works every time.


Cannibalising Stuff

Do you remember a few days ago I was ranting on why you should avoid all that stuff from fancy expedition shops? Well, it’s because that you’re in the jungle, you may have to start ripping stuff up, turning it into other stuff. You’ll soon see that you miscalculated with equipment and your own personal kit… that you left behind valuable things which would make life easier. But use your ingenuity. It’s much easier than you imagine to make stuff. Think of it like a battleship that’s out at sea… they learn to ‘refit at sea’. That means to make do with everything they have with them. We have all become very spoiled with equipment and general possessions. Whereas our forefathers knew that things had to be crafted from constituent parts, we have got so lazy we can’t imagine making anything that isn’t sold in the form we require. Again, it’s worth remembering to take lots of constituent parts along — twine, plastic sheeting, needles, tar, strong glue and so one. You can make just about anything from that stuff.


Living off the Land

In the movies, the jungle expedition always gains plenty of food from hunting, fishing, and gathering wild berries. Well, in reality that doesn’t work so well. One problem is that it’s very very time-consuming… and if the team have been carrying 30 kilos each all day, or have been hauling rafts up river, they are too tired to hunt or gather berries. It does work to have one or two designated  hunters, who love to try their luck at night. And you will need at least one 20-gauge shotgun for this with ammo. You can cut down chonta palms for ‘heart of palm’ but it’s not very nutritious. Beware though of scurvy, which sets in much sooner than you might imagine. You must search for sources of natural vitamin C for this, and there are plenty, as such small quantities are needed. I have always found that you must take food with you, otherwise you proceed with crippling slowness. Or, if possible, get a couple of local Indians working with you, and they will have a good chance at hunting, or at least fishing with bow and arrows.