India, travel, Uncategorized

India Impressions

 

A man in Kolkata. Royal Enfield, making bikes since 1901

 

 

Looking out my window in Kolkata – a view that would’ve been shared by Nikita Khrushchev, Mark Twain, and Rudyard Kipling among others, from the Great Eastern Hotel, 175 years old, and the first in the country to be electrified.

 

I recently traveled through India for sixteen days, recruiting students for my employer, a university in the Midwest.

It was kind of a blur – – covering over 10,000 miles within the country – – thirteen flights, buses, taxis, 3-wheeled auto-rickshaws, and the occasional sidewalk sprint, to get to college fairs on time.

 

 

Very little free time for sightseeing, but I did have the very great pleasure of talking to hundreds of people.

Bangalore > Chandigarh > Ahmedabad  > Lucknow > Hubli > Kolkata > Jaipur.

One of the Kinks’ great songs –“This Time Tomorrow”. On the flight to India, I watched Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” and that was the opening song “This time tomorrow, what will we see?  Fields full of houses, endless rows of crowded streets…”

“Will we still be here watching an in-flight movie show?”

 

In my travel posts, I try to convey something unique I experienced, or showcase a particular element I encountered, that embodies a place for me.

 

India 2019 Ambassador cab (3)

Of the many forms of transportation I took, this was the most stylish, if not the most comfortable. Hindustan Ambassador. Like a Checker Taxicab, who could resist a face like this?

 

In India, that element is the hospitality of its people.

It’s hard to write a capsule summary that characterizes 1.5 billion people on a complex, continent-sized nation.  It’s hard to find words that can describe a place that’s both poor and yet one of the richest places on earth. In a sixteen-day blur, I sped across varied landscapes, from the garden city of Bangalore to a semi-arid city of Mughal palaces to a modern planned city, and many others in between. A nation rapidly modernizing while still entrenched in tradition. I flew over the Himalayan foothills and landed in an airport in Kashmir, where people, surprisingly, looked like me.

The trip was sometimes literally a blur, zooming out of focus as my cabs dodged through traffic, my life flashing before my eyes in some cases, rain streaming down and the windows fogging up.

 

Neighborliness.

Neighbors in India are sort of like native New Yorkers.  Stacked on top of each other, they’re in everyone’s business and everyone is in theirs, even while an innate sense of decency compels people to thoughtfully ignore each other.  Yet everyone shares and helps each other. They are almost an extension of family. The amount of mutual trust in India seems very high to me.  Even though there are scams and crime, just like in the U.S., there are also deep social connections, and overall it’s a safe, honest place.

 

It was like being in NYC and consulting native New Yorkers- my hosts would argue about how best to answer my questions regarding life in India.  Hand waving isn’t a big thing there, but hands do move. As do heads. The “Indian Wobble” is a phenomenon that many people have seen, heads moving back and forth, side to side, faster and faster when in agreement. So imagine a mix of Hindi, Gujarati, Assamese, Bengali, you  name it, with escalating voices accentuated by constantly moving hands and heads, as the topics would take a heated turn. Add to the dynamic, centuries of caste system, colonialism, rapid urbanization, and you’re in for a lot of mishegoss. Politics was a big source of contention, strong opinions about Modi, Gandhi, and Pakistan. In this sense, they really did remind me of New Yorkers. If cricket was less boring and more like baseball, they’d even be Yankee fans, they love “the cricket” and are even more fanatical about it than they are about politics.

For us, a society of people that values our privacy, this close-knit society, where so much of your life occurs in public, seems crazy. But in India, everything is crazy, everything seems to more-or-less function happily in the craziness — organized chaos & disorganized chaos, if you will, and amongst all that, there is some sort of serenity.

All of that also left me in sort of in a blur.

 

 

But I can state, with total clarity, that this was uniformly one of most warm and friendly places I’ve ever been. I was struck by how content people seemed, even the poor. And was amazed by the genuine, deeply-ingrained sense of hospitality. The kindness to complete strangers.

I will count the days until I can return there, and see the place at something less than warp speed!

India motorbike

Our fearless rickshaw driver challenged this man to a hell-for-leather drag race!  (just kidding)

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breakfast, Ecuador, Galapagos, Mail, Post Office, South America, Sudamerica, travel, Uncategorized, Winter

Message in a…barrel ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ The Galapagos Post Office.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve just finished up my third winter in a row.  Pretty much twelve months spent in the winter seasons of Milwaukee, then Chile, then New York.

It’s natural that during this Ice Age, my mind would wander sometimes, and take a little vacation from the cold.

Leaving my frostbitten carcass behind, it would daydream of sun, gentle breezes, and warm beaches.

So when I got a break, and actually took a short trip to a sunny, warm beach, I stood in the warmth and sunshine, and naturally my mind strayed again, like that one pesky third-grader on a field trip, and left me with thoughts of…

Cream of Wheat?

 

 

By sheer good luck, in February I got the chance to tag along with a student group going to the Galapagos Islands, pretty close to the equator.  Walking around Floreana Island, under the most intense sunlight I’ve ever felt, suddenly my mind was thinking of my favorite hot breakfast cereal.

Sometimes I worry myself.

 

On the island, looking at a weathered barrel full of postcards, what came to mind, was a famous advertisement from the turn of the last century, which I’d seen for years, on a tin canister in our kitchen.

The ad ran in magazines over a hundred years ago, but a lot of folks would recognize it still.   “Rural Delivery”, painted by N.C. Wyeth in 1906, shows a cowpoke on horseback, six-shooter on his hip, dropping a letter into a wooden box on a post.   “Where The Mail Goes, Cream of Wheat Goes” says the caption.

 

 

The barrel post office I was standing by, on this remote island in the Galapagos, is even older than the ad.  The site (if not the current barrel) has been used  since the 1790’s.  Originally by sailors coming ashore for water or food – – whalers, seal-hunters, and sea-cooks looking to boil up a big pot of turtle soup – and now by tourists from all over the world.

Over two hundred years ago, a British sea captain set up the mail drop, with flags that signaled its existence to passing ships.  Outbound sailors would leave messages, and homeward bound sailors would retrieve letters left by others, to deliver when they got to port.

 

The legacy has continued – – each modern visitor leaves a postcard, and looks for one that they can deliver in person to the recipient.

I enjoyed looking through addresses in places as diverse as Mumbai and Moldova.  That last one, had languished here for twelve years.  One girl in the group, feeling sad for a letter marooned on the island for seventeen years, waiting to be carried to Turkey, said she would defy whatever curse came from violating tradition, and would mail it from the U.S., because she felt like matters had waited long enough.

On the day we were there, New Englanders seemed to have the most luck, and several kids found addresses close to their homes, that they could deliver at the end of the semester.  “This lady lives twenty minutes from my house!”

I am looking forward to hearing from myself, just a card, and it will be a nice surprise to learn what I was thinking, because I’ve already forgotten what I wrote.

The most poignant message, though, was very simple. I picked it up and in big letters it proclaimed:

“I will be back for this. If I die before then, my kids will. Leave me here, I’m coming back!”

 

 

 

Rural Delivery” painting is public domain, courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (a gift from the National Biscuit Company!)

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architecture, Colonial History, Ecuador, Quito, South America, Sudamerica, travel, Uncategorized

Things looking up ~ ~ ~ Spires, Domes & Rooftops of San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador

dsc00809These are mostly pictures of the rooftops of the old city of Quito, the capitol of Ecuador.

They include shots of the oldest church, which dates back to the 1530’s, and many were taken from the balcony of the Presidential Palace.

Quito is a treasure trove of historic buildings, and home to some incredible rooftops. In this post, rather than my usual groundling-level photos of old buildings, try to visualize yourself as the rooster in the first photo below, standing up top, getting a great view and new perspectives.

(But perhaps not being quite as noisy in the morning.)

 

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A Bird’s-Eye View

 

 

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Poster for the local branch of “Cloud Watchers”

 

 

 

 

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At street level, there are down-to-earth shops, and churches, government buildings, and museums – imposing masses of stone, solemn and solid.  But up on the rooftops… the domes, spires, and cupolas compose an exotic village all its own, up among the clouds, populated by ivory-white and silvery figures.

 

 

 

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In the background is a hill called “El Panecillo” (Bread Loaf Hill) The statue in the distance, of the Virgin Mary, is a 134 foot aluminum version of a wooden original, created in 1734 by a local artist.  It is unusual in that Mary is shown with wings, based on a description in the Book of Revelations.

 

 

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Statue on top of the monument in Independence Plaza, brandishing a torch and fasces.  The latter, a Roman symbol of authority and strength-through-unity, was a popular symbol for democratic republics, including the U.S., before being tarnished by it’s later association with Mussolini and Hitler.  It was used on the so-called “Mercury” dime and you’ll see it on old buildings all over our Capitol.  Perhaps we’ll see more of it around Washington in the future.

 

 

 

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On The Sunny Side Of The Street, with Security Cam

 

 

 

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La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. The Jesuit church, begun in 1605 and completed 160 years later. A fantastically ornate combination of Baroque, Neoclassical, Moorish, and even some indigenous notes.

 

 

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I cannot look at this tower without thinking the saint on top is Jacques Cousteau entering a “diving bell”

 

 

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Colonial History, History, Uncategorized

A Walk through Colonial America. Part I. Jamestowne, Virginia 1607

 

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Have you ever had someone say to you, “Can we talk while we walk?”  That’s what I want to do here.

The walk begins in Jamestowne, Virginia.

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On the surface, not much survives from colonial days.  A ruined church tower and graves, huddled next to the James River, on a swampy, bug-infested little island.

Nonetheless, I’ll  begin by endorsing the bold claim that Jamestown is the best place, to begin a walk through American colonial days.

In 1607, with a little band of Englishmen, landing on a miserable, malarial spit of land in Virginia.

Not with the Spanish in Florida, the French in Canada, the Dutch in New York, or the Pilgrims in New England.

But this post isn’t to argue that point.  It is to talk about gaining insights into history, by visiting the sites.  It’s part of a larger, and mostly out-of-fashion, empathetic approach to learning about the past.

 

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It is a strange thing.  America’s saga – – one of immigration, revolution, movement, progress, and tremendous change, begins in a place where it appears nothing much has changed.

 

IMG_1531Mostly because this Good Place To Start…is a bad place to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the summer, Jamestown Island is kind of a pest hole.  Full of mud, the water in the swamps full of natural toxins (plus new pollutants from upstream), riddled with ticks and chiggers and mosquitoes and any number of multi-legged freaks that bite, sting, suck your blood, and perhaps give you a nasty disease.  My time there required gallons of aloe, calamine, and bug repellent.  And antibiotics, when I tested positive for Lyme disease.  And as more pests and diseases head our way, they will probably find this island.  Many folks forget that malaria used to be endemic in places like this, and wasn’t really wiped out in the U.S., by hosing down the landscape with DDT, until after WWII.

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Flea. Hooke’s “Micrographia” 1665

 

I spent the summer of ’14 working as an intern and docent at Historic Jamestowne. While I loved my work, and working with some great people from Preservation Virginia, I surely did not care for the locale.  The temperature passed 100 Fahrenheit almost every day, and the humidity seemed to be trying to exceed 100, too.  If we could time-travel, I’d probably try to persuade the Virginia Company to continue northward to the Hudson River.   Or maybe even Hudson Bay.  Someplace cooler, anyway.

IMG_8360To someone used to a more northern climate, it seemed hot, sticky, and terrible, even without the 1607 perils of  dysentery, famine, and ambushes.

Ok, so maybe things weren’t quite as terrible as during the old days.

 

 

On the other hand, by arriving early, the original settlers didn’t have to put up with America First-ers.

Not the political group, but the haughty “My ancestors were the Hereditary Squires of Dripping Snodsbury, who stepped off the Mayflower, onto Plymouth Rock, laden with antique bed-warmers, brass thunder jugs, and rigid religious convictions …”  who do not want to hear any history that isn’t the apotheosis of English colonialist heroism, and the sacred birthplace of Patriot democracy and manifest destiny.

The reality of a desperate, starving, backstabbing, murderous little Bedlam clashes a bit with their legends.

People of color, standing in the shadow of the ruined church, ask about another first:  the first shipload of African captives to arrive in Virginia.  (On an English ship, sailing as a Dutch privateer, which captured the Africans from a Portuguese slaver – a real EU common market of misery.)

Native Americans also visit, and desire to hear a narrative of a bucolic, endlessly harmonious, precolonial Eden, ruined by an invasion of disease-laden illegal aliens.

If you can balance and placate all these parties in the same talk, you should run for office.

At least, as far as I remember, even if somebody didn’t care for my lecture, I never heard an arrow or musket ball whistle past.

And seriously, I appreciated 99.9% of visitors — people who take the time to visit, to learn, and who care about history, care enough to form an opinion, and can share their family histories without snobbery!  I enjoyed giving tours to visitors from all over the world, and was fascinated by everyone’s stories, and their incredible array of viewpoints and conceptions of history.

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Who first said, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”? I’m thinking, Beelzebub?

I was thrilled to work among fascinating artifacts (more being uncovered every day!), wandering among the active dig site and learning more as I went.

The site is unusual in that the archaeologists are doing their level best to do a clean sweep.  Usually a small portion of a site is dug, and the rest reserved for future researchers, who may have more sophisticated technology.  But here, salt water encroachment is dissolving artifacts at a pretty good clip, so they’re trying to dig and conserve them, before they vanish.

 

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The Past.  In Past Tense.

I believe it is important to learn history “In person.  On site.”  Meaning, go to where it happened.

Why?  Just say “historic preservation” three times, and most people lapse into a coma, like an incantation of boredom.

 

Captain Smith's Map of Viriginia LOC

Captain Smith’s excellent map of Virginia. LOC

 

Why bother going to these sites? The colonists are long dead and gone, their little fort and pathetic shelters also returned to dust.  The first five hundred didn’t have much time to make a mark, really, since all but sixty would be dead within a year. Why go “some place where something happened.”  Past tense.  Then, but not Now.

Why not just find a comfortable armchair, and read about it.  Actually, I love that!  Historians, when they’re good, boil down so much research and thought, and pour it out for us, nice and smooth.  They make things accessible, organized, and so very clear.  We can just sit back and enjoy the narrative, as history marches along, obeying the Zeitgeist, every character in perfect step.

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17th c. church tower under repair, and statue of the intrepid Captain John Smith

 

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The historical story-telling started right at the start, with Captain John Smith, a pretty amazing guy. Man, what I would give to hoist a few flagons with this man

So many amazing people have devoted themselves to writing history – digging, sifting, reassembling, distilling.  Peering through complex lenses in the mind’s eye, re-imagining, so they can draw for us, all the interwoven paths and patterns invisible to ordinary folks just existing day-to-day.

I love diving into history books.  But, here’s a recent news flash — you cannot understand everything about life by reading. You also need to experience it. What does 110 degrees feel like in the Virginia summer?  Stand in the sun there for a summer, trying to focus while feeling various blood-sucking bugs crawl up your legs to reach embarrassing places, and you have a better grasp, better than any book can convey, of at least one aspect of the colonists’ lives. I came to the realization, that I don’t think clearly in weather like this, don’t feel well, and would undoubtedly pass out if I was chopping down trees, trying to put up a palisade.  And I wasn’t starving to death, half-poisoned by tainted well water, encased in wool, leather and steel, capped off with a Sancho Panza tin hat, and terrified of getting an arrow in my back.  The steamy weather also made me feel short-tempered – probably not a good idea to let me have a sword handy.  Not surprising they found the remains of what was probably the first accidental gunshot victim in America.

 

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I do not think for an instant, that we can really “walk the walk,” meaning, replicate the experience or mindset of those folks in 1607.  But I do believe, simply put, that experiencing these places can yield some insights not available from a book.  In a similar way, probably some people find it easy to mock reenactors.  To them, the hardcores in Tony Horwitz’s “Confederates in the Attic” might appear faintly ridiculous.  I think, that they probably know a few things about the Civil War, that we do not.

Some good guys from Friends of the James River and Preservation Virginia. This sturgeon is being tagged & released – when the settlers arrived, the James River was teeming with fish

 

V0030081 X-ray, skull Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org X-ray of a skull, in profile. Photograph, ca. 1915 1915 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

Immovable Feast

We learn so much from doing.  Of course, you have to draw a line somewhere.  For me, at Jamestown, it was meals.  And the historical question “Do we really taste like chicken?

L0041127 Hand coloured illustration of facial surgery Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Hand coloured illustration of facial surgery and suturing technique. 1561 By: Ambroise ParéLa methode curative des playes, et fractures de la teste humaine. : Avec les pourtraits des instruments necessaires pour la curation d'icelles. / Ambroise Pari Published: 1561. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

1561 Ambroise Paré. Wellcome Library

What made cannibalism, totally taboo and almost unheard of in American history, come to life for me?  One day I found myself staring into the empty eye sockets of a skull, unearthed from a rubbish pit, and then unable to stop staring at the knife marks on it, where a starving colonial cut the flesh and ligaments off the face of the deceased girl.  No matter how cerebral the author, or how sinewy the prose, a book about the Starving Time will never have the visceral impact that skull did.

The fleshless skull brought history to life for me. I’d read, studied, and listened to lectures about the colony and its woes, but until I worked at the site, and among the artifacts and relics found there, I had not really felt their desperation.

Living on a student stipend, I opened my brown bag, and each day, felt sincerely grateful for my peanut butter sandwich.

L0018633 X-ray photograph of Lord Lister's hand Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org X-ray photograph of Lord Lister's hand with ring on fifth finger Photograph Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

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I’ve fiddled with this picture, trying to highlight the post holes. The one center right, is the really cool one. The littoral & literal edge of empire.

 

It Ain’t Much, It’s Just a Hole in the Ground

Here is another example from that summer of 2014.  While I was there, archaeologists uncovered something spectacular and exciting, in it’s own way.

It was a hole in the ground.

And the decayed remains of a wooden stump.

Actually, the spot where a hole used to be.

Exciting, right?  I can tell you’re impressed.

But when Bill Kelso, the famous archaeologist who’s been digging there many years, looked down at that particular posthole, he realized we were looking at the exact, literal edge of the British Empire.

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The colonists’ first concern at Jamestowne was being slaughtered by the Spanish, so a three-sided fort was quickly thrown up, with cannons pointed toward the river.  But when the native inhabitants became hostile, the British fell back on their experience in Ireland, combating ambush-style fighting in the Ulster Plantation, and created a five-sided fort.  The posthole they uncovered while I was there, was a remnant of this 1608 palisade.

Suddenly I felt that I was living history. In history classes and travel, it seemed I was always, always running into Englishmen Abroad.  Hong Kong.  Singapore.  Sepoy Rebellion.  East India Company.  Jamaica, mon.  Prudential’s Rock of Gibraltar.  Rhodes Scholars/Boer Wars/South Africa.  Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham.  A cup of tea from Kenya.  Kiwi from New Zealand.  Henry Hudson sailing through NY.  Dr. Watson’s limp from a Jezail bullet.  54° 40′ or Fight.  The Falklands War.  etc.   I can keep going all day, it’s no problem.

And of course, there was this local dispute between English folks, in 1775.   So the idea that The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire was embedded in my mind.

But what I was looking straight down at, just an image in the clay, was the farthest extent of that empire in 1608.  The whole glorious imperial affair, almost four thousand miles across the Atlantic from London, terminated in a choleric swamp in coastal Virginia, marked by a bit of stump in a soggy hole.  The rest of North America, and the world, was “beyond the pale.”

 

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Alfred Waud’s 1864 sketch of the church tower. LOC

 

Jamestown felt like my first face-to-face encounter with history. From then on, I began to experience history on a personal level, driving me to work harder, dig deeper, and ask more questions.  It’s a good place to think this way, since forty years ago, the experts advised Dr. Kelso, that Jamestowne had long ago washed into the river.  He questioned, dug, and found the site.

…On with the walk.  Moving up a century, and farther upstream…next stop, Chestertown, on the Chester River, in Maryland.

I promise, no more famine, no cannibalism, no blood-sucking pests…well, there will be British tax collectors.

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A “quantitative” historian in his next life.

 

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Germany, travel

Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Hidden soul in “Meinhattan”

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I arrived in Frankfurt am Main on my 21st birthday, and I didn’t know a soul in town.

IMG_7514But my friend Andreas, a native of Bremen, and currently living in Stuttgart, drove over to show me around “Meinhattan.”

 

The Manhattan nickname stuck, because this is Germany’s city of skyscrapers, the economic heart of the country, and banker for the whole EU.  Andy described a sleepy river town, suddenly grown into a huge commerce center, and into the most expensive city in the country.

 

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I’d already visited a number of other German cities:

Mainz – old, historic, and charming, nestled among vineyards along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine.

Hamburg – impressive seaport, impressive industries

Cologne – a university town with a fun atmosphere

Dusseldorf  – giving off a feeling of establishment and security.

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So perhaps because I was so impressed with these other cities, my first impression of Frankfurt was not favorable.  A glassy and tall city with no soul.

IMG_7524We walked along streets of investment firms, Deutsche Bank, IG Farben, the Stock Exchange, and the European Central Bank.

Companies, corporations and conglomerates.  Businessmen in expensive cars and suits, emerging from skyscrapers at lunchtime to be served kebabs and doner by the poorer working people.

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Euro-World, the corporate amusement park

Even the old center of town felt like a designated meeting place for ad execs and CEOs;  the old buildings surrounding us, were now converted into offices for Lufthansa, etc. or stores selling watches and clothing.  The riverfront was peaceful and beautiful, but felt devoid of real personality.  Among the half-timbered buildings of the Altstadt (the historic district) or inside the Frankfurter Dom (their cathedral), the modern city felt far away. But the medieval-looking buildings were all post-war reconstructions, and looming over them were the skyscrapers of European capitalism.  The crowds of businessmen and the tourists, many from Eastern Asia, taking pictures of currywurst and pseudo-antique buildings made the city center feel hollow.

 

IMG_7502It was only after Andreas left for his home in Stuttgart, that I crossed the Main river and began to feel the place had an actual soul. Here, a bridge away from the hubbub of the central city, you can walk among modest homes, little shops, cafes, and a beautiful park with old buildings, now housing museums.

I visited the museums, and then went into a small grocery to buy water, and just sat down in the park for a while, after a day of walking on cobblestones, on the hottest day I experienced during my trip.  It was April, I had just survived a winter in Yorkshire, and I’d dressed for Hamburg and frigid Copenhagen, and to me, Frankfurt felt like the Costa del Sol.

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IMG_7516This was the last day of my spring break, and I had loved everything about both Germany and Denmark, but the whirlwind of trains and meeting people and seeing places, had left me unable to assemble my thoughts.  Finally at rest, sitting there in a small park with people chatting pleasantly, and a few dogs playing, I was able to realize how much I loved Germany, and my entire experience of the country and its people.

Frankfurt is what I remember best of my time in Germany, even if I liked the other cities better.  I can clearly remember details of the port of Hamburg, the lock bridge of Koln, the taste of a currywurst in Dusseldorf, walking along the old walls of Mainz, etc. But Frankfurt always is freshest in my mind.  I was no longer worrying about trains schedules, finding my way to meet up with friends at a specified hour, finding hotels, etc.  I could just relax and take it all in. And, after I realized that Frankfurt, like everywhere, has a character or soul, just hidden under the mighty corporate piles, I was able to enjoy the city more, feeling it’s subtle vibes, and finding the old city in among the new.

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I have often been critical of cities that seem soul-less (Washington, D.C. being the sterilized poster boy), and have always appreciated the cities that have maintained a unique character and an infectious vibe.

Frankfurt surprised me, and in a good way.   Despite its steely, glassy look, it turned out to occupied by human beings.  I looked down at it from the cathedral tower, looked up at it from the river, watched it go by from a park bench, and somehow fell in love with Germany.

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Norway, Telemark, travel

Driving in Norway-The Telemark and the Land of the Imagination

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DSC07692For those unfamiliar with Norway and it’s scenery, descriptions of it may seem a bit “out there”.  People tend to use the word “magical.”

 

 

And after all, almost everywhere has been described as “magical” by someone, at some time.  Especially here, within the often-imaginary world of the internet.

Even North Koreans, impervious to ridicule, advertise their Land of Make Believe as a little slice of Nirvana.

Good PR just takes a bit of imagination (“The effusions off the waste-treatment plant, back lit by the glowing fumes from the refinery next door, created a misty effect that was almost magical…”)   

 

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So when Norway is called a winter wonderland, you’ll only accept the truth of this when you witness it firsthand.

 

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“Vinter” Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1902

 

DSC07509Well, I’m writing on the internet, you don’t know me, and you have no reason to trust me on this.  But, sorry, it really is kind of magical.  My pictures here don’t do it justice, and quite often, we just enjoyed it, and didn’t photograph it.

 

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My father used to ridicule the trees and hills in landscapes by Asian artists.  He thought they looked absurd, like illustrations by an opium-addicted Dr. Seuss.  That is, he says, until he saw Japanese gardens and bonsai in real life, and photographs of the karst mountains in China’s Guangixi Zhuang region, and realized the Asians weren’t following some weird artistic license, but were painting these fantastical sights because that is simply how they actually look, misty and bizarre.

DSC07691There are mountains in Norway like this, in a way – illustrations from a storybook.

 

 

 

And that is how this outdoor story of Norwegian mountains begins — indoors, in the city of Oslo, with some storybook pictures. 

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“Palace – Soria Moria Castle” Theodor Kittlesen, 1900

 

Oslo is a a very pleasant city, and very beautiful in parts, but it’s never been one of “The European Capitals” on the Grand Tour that draw flocks of fervent American tourists, like Amsterdam, Paris, or Rome.  These are cities with Romance in their names.

Or at least, Paris has the romance thing, and the other two have pot and pasta, close runners-up.  (Is it a bad sign that I think of pasta as a close runner-up to romance?)  London and Berlin may be Europe’s most important capitals, and Prague and Budapest have amazing architecture, but Oslo is undoubtedly in the most beautiful setting, nestled among mountains full of pine trees and beautiful water.

 

DSC07345The city’s harbor is clean and handsome, and the nation’s waters are among the purest in the world (tied with Finland, Sweden, and Iceland — no surprise, I think these are wise people).  You can see ski-slopes from downtown.

 

 

 

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What prompted us to leave the city was a visit to the National Gallery.  It is much, much smaller than the Louvre or the Prado, the palatial, overwhelming showcases of Paris and Madrid.  Oslo’s collection is far more modest, and the building definitely not palatial.  When we walked up to it, it looked to be a disappointment — a dull, almost industrial-looking building– we could have been at a typical city museum in the U.S. rust belt.  It turned out to be well worth a visit.  Oslo displays a modest, but still excellent, collection of Impressionists.  And of course, a lot of works by Edvard Munch – some communicating dark moods, sadness, despair.  Hanging on the wall for a century, they should be harmless, but still seemed baleful and disturbing.

"And then they heard a noise..."

“Afraid of the Dark”  Gerhard Munthe, 1906

And then a real stroke of luck.  The current exhibition was “The Magic North” — Norwegian artists and illustrators, and it seemed to have drawn in a crowd not of tourists, but locals.  A fantastic showcase of fantasy, talent and imagination.

 

"It's Snowing" 1903

“It Snows, It Snows” Theodor Kittelsen, 1903.

Wonderful paintings of nature, Norse mythology, folk and fairy tales, legends of trolls… as well as a large picture of some lumpy and very bluish mountains, which seemed to keep drawing the attention of the natives. I was critical of this painting, thinking the lumps of mountain looked childishly drawn. As my father had felt about the trees and mountains in Asian paintings, I would come to feel about the blue mountains.

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“Winter  Night in the Mountains” Harald Sohlberg, 1914

Having sworn to take only day-trips out of Oslo, on their excellent trains, we now decided to rent a car.  We had to go find the countryside depicted in those paintings.  Our rental was a Volkswagen, a model not sold in the U.S., called a “Polo.”  (It is tiny.  A sticker on the dash warned us against running the radio and headlights simultaneously.  Another notice suggested limiting passengers to one, and no baggage, when driving on roads with grades exceeding five percent.)

The car rental office had no maps available, and was staffed only by Swedes for some reason, who could tell us nothing about the Telemark, apparently did not drive, and thought it sounded like an odd idea for anyone to rent a car and drive there.  But we rented a GPS unit and off we went.

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DSC07545The Telemark is a region known for it’s natural beauty and its lack of development — if you’re a New Yorker, it’s similar to the Adirondacks, except on a larger scale.  Norway’s total population is only five million, with 1 million concentrated in the Oslo area, so there’s a lot of fairly empty spaces in this country.

 

 

 

So, we set out in our tiny car, chosen in part because this oil-rich country has obscenely expensive gasoline, and not thinking to spring for something with four-wheel drive and snow tires.  We had a tiny map, also, from our guidebook, which lead us to believe, that if we got lost, we were sure to get our bearings by hitting either the Swedish border, or the Atlantic Ocean.

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IMG_0839What struck me first was how well everyone drove.  Unlike Americans, the Norwegians seem to follow laws, and not use cars to express frustration or machismo, making driving there safe and pleasant.  Outside of the capitol district, a lot of the roads were small, and sometimes bumpy.  Very quickly the countryside reminded us of a largely unsettled frontier, with deep woods, unnamed (as far as we knew) lakes, and rapid shifts  in weather, which I thought made the region seem even more mystical.

 

 

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DSC07545We stopped at a famous “stave” church, from 1204.   These stave churches are like no other church you’ve ever seen, not suggesting Christianity somehow, and a bit eerie and unearthly-looking, more suited for a mead hall for Odin and Thor.  So that was an almost unsettling starting place to begin our journey into the mountains.

 

 

 

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DSC07680At first, we stopped along a dam where we walked in some beautiful woods, with little snow, although very icy trails.  The mountains were far off, so the natural element of Norway felt pristine but rather familiar and American, even if the trees were different. But as we neared the mountains, I knew I wasn’t home anymore.

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Suddenly, before my eyes, were the same lumpish blue mountains that I had silently ridiculed in the art museum. They looked exactly the same, only much bigger. And colder.  Even though the mountains were only in the six to eight thousand foot range (which is still bigger than Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks), they were imposing and huge, with the countryside dominated by them.  I did not take a picture.  I don’t know why.

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DSC07704I’ve been in the Adirondacks and Catskills (getting an impressive vibe from the former, and always feeling a bit uneasy in the latter, as if feeling haunted by the old Dutch spirits) and I’ve spent a bit of time in the Wasatch Range in Utah.  I have even had the good fortune to ride a narrow gauge railroad up to Silverton, Colorado, right through the most beautiful scenery I have ever laid eyes on, with pristine mountain lakes and dense evergreen forests, juxtaposed against impossibly clear mountain streams and cool temperatures, next to the giant Rocky Mountains. Still, the Rockies felt less imposing, and there was some sort of sensation generated by the Norse mountains that made them feel very ancient, far older than the rocks in Colorado.

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At once, I felt like I was in a fairy tale, in an adventure story, one of the old Norse sagas perhaps. Danger, excitement and beauty and calm all descended on me. The drive was so gorgeous, with tiny winding,empty roads going by mountain lakes and forests.  Arriving at a pull off, we could see a large lake and hiked up the mountain overlooking it, in the very snowy woods. Up until that point, we’d seen no snow in Norway, making the mountains seem all the more magical.

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Soon, we were walking in woods which apparently were full of moose.  We didn’t encounter any, but their hoof prints and droppings were everywhere.

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Back down the mountain and we returned to driving, a bit unsure of where exactly we’d fetched up on the tiny map.  The GPS was switched on, but had become delusional, possibly treacherous in the cold, or perhaps, far from Oslo, had developed a death wish, trying for hundreds of kilometers to send us back farther and farther north.

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It began to get darker, and we could see streams of ice crystals blowing over the mountain at the head of the valley.

 

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The beautiful countryside, beautiful but starkly empty. faded as the light disappeared and the temperature dropped.  The roads had been clear, but were now drifting over in places, and we drove on packed ice.  Our tiny Volkswagen, not a rugged car and without snow tires, suddenly felt too small and scary as we drove by lakes frozen over, snow piled six feet high or higher and blowing towards us, as we passed buried trees, summer houses, cars, and bodies of water.  The engine seemed to be making a bit more of a high-pitched whine.  What appeared to be abandoned ski centers were the only marks on the map, which was  becoming less and less helpful.

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“The Ash Lad and the Wolf” Theodor Kittelsen, 1900

The way back was the most terrifying, driving alongside dark lakes with no cabins or lights, through the same mountains where people died in an avalanche only the week or so before. I was feeling elated the entire time, my dad not so much.  I was pumped to be seeing this preternatural wintery and rocky landscape, that seemed straight out of Middle Earth. Had the varied and exotic locale of New Zealand not been used for the Hobbit movies, Norway could’ve done a fine job, at least for most of the scenes.  At some point, we took a turn into what appeared to be an alpine Christmas village, and saw welcome signs of human life, except the roads had only a few ski junkies roaring down the road in hulking four-wheel drives, and we began to feel hopelessly out of place and lost.

 

IMG_0401Taking the next turn took us back away from any other cars or lights, on a narrow, dark road through forests.  Passing the mountains, now just black shapes in the dark, and alongside dark bodies of water, I knew that we were in a fantasy realm, no place on earth is actually like this. Suddenly, I could understand the Norse monster stories.  In an earlier era of superstition, violence, and illuminated only by firelight casting eerie shadows, it was easy to imagine things that didn’t exist. Trolls living in the hills could seem very real.  And the very real creatures, moose and elk, also posed a danger. An enormous pair of moose waded out of the snow to cross right in front of us, and had we not slowed for a sharp turn and a narrow bridge, we’d have hit those massive beasts.  Who would probably have been fine, while we would have turned to raspberry jam in our little tin can.

 

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DSC07516Magic is all based on perception of the audience. In this case, I was a true believer. There was life in these old hills and rocks; the dark  pristine lakes held secrets.  The Norse sagas materialized before my eyes. Even the quiet, intense austere nature of the local people supported the perception that we were in a storybook land and time. It was in Norway that I came to believe in the magic of travel. This trip  seemed to be more of an adventure than my other trips, even ones when I was alone, due to this drive into nowhere.

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Every fantasy and mythology story I’ve read seems to describe Norway.  While I’ve not ridden a camel across the Arabian peninsula, or hiked in Tibet, motorcycled across Vietnam, or bungee-jumped off a TV tower,  I drove in mountains straight out of Narnia, on roads too narrow for more than one vehicle, bounded by massive drifts of snow, with moose in the hills and spirits in the crags and dales. This trip, already fantastic, and ending in equally stunning and interesting locales later on, was highlighted most by this adventure. By the end, after nearly falling asleep when supposed to be navigating, and then talking about a great deal of things, my Dad and I both started laughing. A close call, with death, fatigue, or just being lost in an alien landscape can turn into something humorous. It was. We laughed the rest of the way home (to Oslo) where we finally turned in, exhausted but satisfied.

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Hong Kong, horse racing, Study Abroad, travel

Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong Island.

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A Horse Race in China.

I believe that China has the most ardent gambling fans of any nation.

Americans like to gamble, but not like the Chinese — to them, it’s a basic, essential part of life, like fine food to the French, or dancing to the Spanish.  I suppose it stems from seeing life as a gamble — you have to take your chances, competing for a job when everyone else has exactly the same skills and mindset.  And in the industrial zones of China, your life is being gambled away for you, as you attempt to survive the job-site, the drinking water, and the air you breathe.

In Hong Kong, like everywhere in China outside of Macau, every form of gambling is outlawed — with one exception.

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The exception is the horse race. There are two racetracks in Hong Kong — both famous, world-class, and impressive.

My friends from Lingnan University decided to meet at the Happy Valley Racecourse, in the center of heavily-developed Hong Kong Island.  Happy Valley is home to the biggest single jackpot in the world for any horse racing event – 400,000,000.00 dollars.

L0055568 Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. Viewed from the hill. The village of Wong Nei Cheong can just be seen at the far end of the racecourse. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Racecourse, Happy Valley, 1868, credit John Thomson, Wellcome Library, London.

Originally, the land was swamp and rice paddies, appropriated by the British back in the 1800’s.  The city grew around it, and the track is now surrounded by skyscrapers.

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The owner of one building, a particularly enthusiastic fan of racing, built himself a penthouse with a special viewing balcony.

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The Tram. Looking a bit like J.K.Rowling’s Knight Bus

The trip there from the New Territories was an entertaining saga if its own — getting lost repeatedly, while trying various unique modes of transportation, including a 110-year-old tram.  Getting home took even longer,  and only people familiar with the absolutely indescribable impossibility of keeping any group of Asian college students on track and moving, can understand. (Because enjoying being together in the group is the goal and the reward, rather than actually getting anywhere in particular!)

The racetrack is an amazing sight in its own right:  7 stories of free seating, and 3 more decks for those who want to pay for the privilege of getting VIP seating. The stadium was also very Hong-Kongish in that it was full of food stalls that were randomly placed around the track, and simply full of people everywhere, tens of thousands. I don’t know the seating capacity, but it must have been in the hundred thousand range. In typical Asian fashion, it was crowded, full of animated conversations, clouds of cigarette smoke, and cell phone “Selfies” being taken.

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Having finally found the track, getting up to the seventh story to find our friends was a challenge in its own right — the elevators we found took us into the kitchens for some reason, and others were just for use during fires (which didn’t make sense to me, since in America elevators are what you don’t take when there’s a fire). So we took the stairs — also challenging — they were crowded with people, but none of them were actually going up and down.  The glitzy decor of the rest of the stadium wasn’t there, and the stairs were full of cigarette butts, old gum, torn-up betting slips, and countless people sitting quite comfortably on the steps smoking cigarettes, despite the signs saying: NO SMOKING. They clearly weren’t bothered by that. The looks they gave us seemed like they were daring us, “Go ahead, tell us to stop.”

When we arrived at the 7th tier, it hit me, that we were having a distinctly Hong Kong experience. Yes, there were about 10,000 reserved VIP seats, but really, as far as your neighbors at this track, all bets were off (pun not intended) — you could sit on the crowded benches literally rubbing elbows with a CEO on one side, and his shoe-shiner on the other.  It put everyone on an equal level.

 

Horse running Mulbridge LOCBetting was also interesting, as it was a very complex process. We had three Korean women in our group, who seemed to have mastered it with their system — they placed a bet on every single horse!  They were betting in several categories (win, place, show) and despite the initial cost, they won by default every single time, sometimes winning enough that’d they’d break even or even make a bit of money.

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The Lingnan U Betting Club

The most vivid memory from Happy Valley is something that screams “CHINA” to me. When we got to the final round of races, we all decided to place bets. I had been carefully studying the directory, and placed my bet on a favored horse to win. Everyone else was going to do the same, when a shirtless, mostly toothless old-looking man approached them. (This isn’t an uncommon sight in China, another difference between here and there). This man whispered in the ear of the Chinese-speakers and then stood behind them as they placed their bets. I thought he was just some oddball and then proceeded to watch the race.

Well, apparently he was a wizard. My horse lost by a hair, or a nose, to the horse that was the underdog — who was the one the old mysterious man had told my friends to bet on. He was right. They split the winnings (several thousand HKD) between them and had a great time rubbing it in my face.

They turned to thank the old man, and he had vanished. The time he disappeared was the only time that there was no crowd in our part of the stadium, so it seemed like he honestly vaporized into the night air. I don’t know why, but that disappearing old shirtless man is probably the most distinctive image I have of China, of all of the images I have saved mentally. It just seemed so incredibly Chinese to me, maybe because that does not happen anywhere else!

I didn’t need any time to realize that this was a distinctive experience — it struck me as suddenly as the little old man vanished. As we left, I was disgruntled over my lost bet, and my friends were ecstatic that they won (even though divided up, it came to very little money).  We walked out of the stadium through a literal downpour of papers from the betting tables. Showers of papers riding the humid air currents and slowly falling to earth closed the scene.

Of all the things I saw, felt, smelled, ate or heard, during my time in Hong Kong, this day was China.

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History, Hong Kong

Tai O

 

neon fish

Say “Hong Kong” and it summons images of skyscrapers, glistening and modern.

Every popular image of the city portrays an incredibly bustling and modern metropolis.

That is the image Hong Kong sells.

Hong Kong rocky coast

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But like anywhere that has been inhabited for thousands of years, the city has remnants of an older society, some hidden beneath the urban jungle, others overlooked on the periphery, but still very much alive.

 

HK fishing village 2One of these mysterious places, stuck in time, is Tai O, on Lantau Island.

 

The island is practically its own city-state, separate from Hong Kong in many ways, connected by a single bridge. Lantau, with its tiny population, seems distinct from the rest of the shiny metropolis, even from the less glamorous “New Territories.” Ironically, farther along the same coast from Tai O, is the city’s huge airport, built on fill into the ocean, and its convention/retail complex, even a golf course, swarming with trade shows, cable cars, etc.

And on Lantau’s southeast shore, in a beautiful region of pristine and mostly undiscovered beaches, hiking trails, mountains and small lakes, is Tai O, a village lost in an older day. It is a tiny enclave, partly on an island, along a little river where it enters the South China Sea, and almost walled off from the rest of Lantau by forests and mountains.

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Even though it’s become a tourist attraction over the years, its inhabitants almost treated as a spectacle, the village truly is existing in another era. The jets come in overhead night and day, but a visitor to Tai O encounters a fishing village virtually unchanged from those the British would have come upon, when they sailed into Hong Kong harbor in the nineteenth century.

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Yes, there are electric lights, fans, and motor boats, and cable TV in some houses. But Tai O is still very much stuck in its traditional, precarious ways — ramshackle houses perched perilously over semi-polluted water, threatening to collapse and be swept away, come the next typhoon. It’s said that every year there is a special evacuation for these people, during super storms, and many lose their homes. Despite this, and perhaps because of generous subsidies from the government, they’re able to continue living a traditional lifestyle. Their houses look both temporary, and at the same time, as if they have been there for many years. I assume their houses recycle materials from earlier, wrecked houses, but don’t essentially change.

HK fishing village 1

To get to Tai O, I joined a group of friends on a bus, hailed in Tung Chung, and we rode across Lantau on roads hacked into the volcanic mountainsides, at hair-raising speeds, taking the turns faster than I thought a bus could manage. When my eyes weren’t closed, I realized we were passing some beautiful areas, inaccessible by foot, with some of the most beautiful beach areas I’ve ever seen — found among the dense forest land and at the bottom of jagged volcanic mountains.

The bus ride, while fast and offering very pleasant views, remains in my mind as the longest ever, as I had stupidly chugged three bottles of water before I learned the drive was 90 minutes long. While everyone else was alternating between terror, and oohing and aahing over the countryside, I was concentrating on my bladder. By the time we arrived in Tai O, I ran as fast as I’ve ever moved towards the dimly-lit public bathrooms, usually avoided at any cost, but that day, not concerned about the smell, dirt, or anything else.

After surviving that terrible episode, the rest of the trip was great. We wandered around narrow alleys, between dingy houses, many on stilts, with shops selling fish, tourist items, and some wonderful restaurants (hole-in-the-wall but with amazing food and desserts).

There was even a tiny museum. Despite the number of outsiders roaming Tai O, the residents were not at all concerned by having people literally in their backyards, or front yards for that matter. Many of the houses, in the hot summer months, don’t have a complete fourth wall, so the section facing the street is half-exposed, giving us a view into their simple houses, like a series of stage sets. Living rooms, kitchens, and tiny dining areas were on display, with only the bedrooms and bathrooms thankfully covered by a wall. On some stretches, stepping aside to let someone pass, you’d nearly be standing in the living room, usually with a sweaty, shirtless fisherman lying on the couch staring at the TV. Truly a unique, albeit odd, experience.

fishing village 3 HKI realized how much the sea permeates the lives of these people. The souvenirs for sale were all sea-related: bits of decorated coral, lamps made from puffed up blowfish (grotesque), and even an entire dried shark for sale (I assume for eating, though it was looking a bit rough after days in the sun).

In the West, we often read about the impact of the oceans’ conditions on the people of distant countries. Those articles always meant very little to me — describing faraway lands, and lives that no one really thinks can be that primitive or dependent on the sea. And then you arrive in Tai O and see for yourself, that the ocean is everything for these people. A hard life. Many villagers looked wrung-out and fairly unhealthy, though strong, and yet, all had posters up in several languages: “Protect our oceans” “No pollution in the rivers” and “How to conserve our water”. To the villagers, their livelihoods and way of life, antiquated as they seemed, depended entirely on the oceans. And they see the oceans despoiled by foreigners and their own countrymen, even the other residents of Hong Kong.

The modern Hong Kong I was living in, seemed very distant at that moment. I think it’s not a perfect analogy, but I imagine the people on Kowloon or HK Island think of Tai O’s residents, in the same way we think about homeless people in the US. We’re slightly aware of them, but if possible, we pay them no attention. One difference, though — in the US, most people do not pay admission to visit the homeless encampments, while many urbanized Hong Kong’ers travel to tour this part of their city.

The folks in Tai O choose this lifestyle, and were taught their fishing skills by the generations before them. They choose a traditional lifestyle that does not require anything more than a no-frills home and a working boat. I also suppose that having typhoons and flood waters regularly knock your house to bits ( I could see the mud from the last flood on the walls of some houses), would make having a fancy house seem a bit pointless. These people are content to live simply, putting them totally at odds with every other person in Hong Kong, save perhaps for the “cage people” of Kowloon’s roughest slum.

We have people living “plain” lives in the US, and the Amish around my hometown are the first to come to mind. But the Amish generally live distant from major urban areas, while these people in Tai O, were a half-hour ferry ride from one of the world’s most advanced mega-cities.

I enjoyed visiting Tai O both as a tourist and as a historian. I was given the chance to see the Hong Kong that the first colonizers would have seen, a bit of the city that William Henry Seward would’ve seen in 1873 when he sailed in from India for a few days. It is one thing to see a museum display about Tai O (which you can visit at the Hong Kong Museum of History, and definitely worth a trip, too) but not the same as actually standing among villagers that are living much as they have for hundreds of years. It is still a living, unembellished village, and experiencing the honest-to-God, actual fishing families, living here in this old-fashioned style, was really cool.

The time-travel sensation was intensified by starting my day on alpha-city high-tech Hong Kong Island. Going from a cityscape like Central’s, modern and impressive, to a small collection of glorified huts on stilts, huddled along the edge of a volcanic mass on the Pacific, was really neat and further showed how China truly is the land of extremes.

Life in a fishing community is not for the sentimental.  Or the squeamish.  As we walked along the maze-like streets, looking at the houses and fishing huts, we passed by a small area where there had been a successful haul, and the fish were being stored in freezers. I watched a guy throwing live, still-flopping fish into the freezer, and we said, jokingly (a joke that the Hong Kong kids didn’t get, we realized) that the man doing that was “Ice Cold”. They didn’t get it. But, and despite how horrible it sounds, the best thing we saw was nearby.

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A fish-seller, a little old lady, was sitting down watching a tiny TV set on an outdoor bench, with tanks of fish all around her. One of these fish, a particularly big one, flopped out of its tank, and seemed like it was trying to make a run for it. The ancient fish-seller rose very slowly… and then with lightning speed bludgeoned the fish to death with a hammer.

And then nonchalantly returned to her TV program.

The sudden brutality, with such indifference, struck us as a total surprise– we were horrified but also laughing for weeks.

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A distinct highlight of Tai O, other than stopping at a tiny restaurant and eating what I will always remember as one of the greatest desserts of my life, was sighting the pink dolphins.

The Pearl River is the only place on earth, except a part of the Amazon, where you can see pink dolphins. You can pay a small fee, collected by rather shady-looking people, to sail out on a boat, driven by equally shady-looking characters, looking for pink dolphins. To do this, I had to put out of my mind, every one of the news stories I’ve ever read, about the safety issues of Chinese ships full of people. I boarded a ship loaded way over capacity, piloted by what looked like a pirate way past retirement age. Ignoring the thought that no one at home would know I was on this boat, in a random part of the Pacific, I boarded.

And I am glad I did. As we pulled away from Tai O, I got to see it in a new light, in the way the locals see it — from the water.

From water level, the ramshackle shacks now looked very impressive, perched atop massive beams. While tiny next to the skyscrapers in Hong Kong, the houses towered over our boat as we sailed towards open water. And, ten minutes later, we were out in the Pacific, with waves rocking our fast-moving boat. I remember looking back, and Tai O was gone, replaced by the impressive sight of a massive volcanic island, with jagged green ridges. We sailed among oil rigs, expertly dodging giant tankers and container ships, some (from the water) appearing as large as Lantau Island.

(dolphin, but not a pink dolphin)

(this picture is not an Indo-Pacific pink dolphin, but it’s a related bottlenose, and also the only decent dolphin picture I’ve taken!)

And finally, we found the pink dolphins. Three of them, frolicking in polluted waters, indifferent to the camera-wielding, mostly Asian tourists in the boats, they went right alongside and did a few jumps for us before disappearing. I felt even luckier when I heard that this was the first the pilot of our boat had seen of them in two months. A unique experience. Really more a pinkish-gray, and I had been expecting very vibrant pink hues, although when one did a barrel roll, it exposed a soft Easter egg pink belly, and that was cool.

On the bus ride back to Tung Chung, I had just thought “I bet we can see the Buddha statue,” and literally at that moment, the Big Buddha, over one hundred feet tall, perched in a valley between the two biggest peaks on Lantau, appeared in the distance. I was struck by just how big he really was, because it was about 3 miles away and I could see it very clearly.

An oddity on this drive: we passed an incredibly modern village, with many cars, so the inhabitants must have had some money, but it seemed to be a village with no name. Miles from Tung Chung, here were about 500 homes, tucked away in the middle of nowhere, that no one could tell me anything about, including the locals.

Cow LOCBut the most striking thing during the drive, was the cows. When the English landed at Hong Kong, a bunch of cattle were released from the ships onto Lantau to graze. Mountainous and full of steep jagged hills with sharp curves, Lantau seems like the worst possible place for cattle. And yet, 150 years later, the descendants of whatever cows were hardy enough to survive are roaming the streets. If I was in India, where you hear of such things, I wouldn’t have been so taken aback. But, this is Hong Kong. And yet, there were about fifty cows, standing in or next to the road, and our bus driver was busy yelling at them, cursing and honking the horn to get them to move. Being cows, they didn’t care, so we had to wait a bit while they lazily wandered from the road toward the unnamed village.

There were more cows, and the oddest sight of the trip, a mile down the road:  Beach Cows.

I mentioned the beautiful beaches earlier, visited by very few humans. But, I swear, I saw three cows on the beach, walking along, half in the water, half on land. Apparently mimicking the human beach-goers, and others were just basking in the sun.

This other world, the “other” other Hong Kong, almost a world of its own, was a magical experience for me. And, whenever I hear people talk about Asia, I think, they have no idea, they’re sold on the image of buildings the size of mountains, gold-plated super cars, crowded streets, and bullet trains. But when I hear “Hong Kong,” I have three images, all competing for space in my head and yet all distinct and simultaneously appearing, the image of the modern urban mecca, the image of the wilderness, and the image of Tai O, clinging to its stilts above unreal blue hues of waters.

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Hong Kong, Study Abroad, travel

The Night Market. Fu Tei, Hong Kong

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A lot of the lights in HK are still lovely neon, not LEDs. I don’t know if my hand shook on this shot, or if it was a reflection, but when I went to delete it, I realized it looked like musical notes. And so I kept it.

As any traveler to Asia knows, the “night market” is the place to visit while traveling for amazing food, and for a taste of local life. I cannot imagine Hong Kong without its night markets.

 

To a newcomer from the U.S., it is a wholly new experience.  We might have grown up with a “farmers’ market” — perhaps a great chance to meet some local farmers and crafters, and get fresh produce, but often it’s pretty limited – – just same-old vegetables on some bare-bones stands, or a handful of crates and cartons on the tail of a pickup, maybe a few baked goods and handicrafts, set up once-a-week in a village park, plaza, or parking lot. If you’re lucky, or in a bigger town, someone might make fried dough or doughnuts.

But in HK, a whole secondary city exists, popping up everywhere, every night, stalls with lots of lights and signs, selling everything, almost like a traveling carnival, open until midnight, then disappearing again by morning.    Everywhere you turn you’ll encounter them — from the famous Temple Street market that takes up several city blocks, to Mong Kok’s Ladies’ Market, where anything (and I mean anything) can be purchased, legal or illegal. But of the many night markets, the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the Fu Tei Illegal night market.

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Next to Lingnan University, Fu Tei is a huge housing estate – so big, it has its own postal district.  Several times a week,a semi-legal night market would semi-magically appear in front of the estate’s small shopping mall.

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Diagon Alley East

And that is my single most quintessential image of Hong Kong:  a shopping center with food stalls in front, teeming with people, saturated in cigarette smoke, and food smells wafting toward you through the humid air.

There were only a dozen food stalls in this particular night market, making it among the smallest. But this place was perfect. Despite their limited or nonexistent English, the cooks never messed up my order, and there was always good food for very little money. It cost more for me to get a bag of chips in the nearby Circle K, than it cost for a full meal at the night market.

I’d go three or four times a week to get my fix of spicy peanut noodles (dry) and my dumplings. Sometimes I’d get the soup noodles but they always found a way to make them too spicy, though still delicious.

The reason it is only semi-legal is that they are only allowed to operate certain times without a license, which most can’t afford. However, they would run the market every night of the week, crossing the line, and it wasn’t uncommon to have them pack up and run when a cop approached, though they wouldn’t be prosecuted and they always made sure everyone got what they wanted before leaving, making it the most relaxed illicit activity in the history of crime.

When I think of Hong Kong, five images come to mind, and most of them are the stereotypical images one would expect: the skyline, the harbor, the Big Buddha, the swarms of people. But that night market is always the fifth and possibly what I miss most about the city.

Westerners who have never been to Asia simply cannot understand the night market. It is a strange concept. The idea that random strangers, many toothless, missing limbs or sporting large wounds and dripping cigarette ashes into your food, are serving you random foods, that you cannot name, from a cart that isn’t even legally allowed to be there, does seems strange. But seven million customers can’t be wrong. The food is often better than what you’d get in a restaurant:  cheap, in generous portions that are agreeable to a westerner, and wildly addictive.

DSC02597The western business people and high rollers visiting Asia, they’ll go downtown in places like Hong Kong or Tokyo and drop five hundred dollars on a lobster that’s actually steeped in pollutants and glowing with radioactivity.  But the high rollers of Hong Kong, along with the bottom-of-the-barrel types, all know that you go to the night market for the action.

Nothing says Hong Kong like seven steaming dumplings wrapped in paper, served with a box full of peanut noodles with random things on them that I still couldn’t identify to this day.

I miss it .

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History, Norway, travel

Fredrikstad, Norway. Alive and well in the Past

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A journey to Norway is a step back in time.

I have studied history in books for years, listened to countless lectures, spent last summer in one of the most venerable archives in the U.S., visited a lot of “historic sites,” and worked at a few, too.

But in Norway, the past is experienced differently — as something still present.

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Norwegians move at a slower pace than New Yorkers. There is a definite bustle in Oslo, and even the cobblestone streets don’t seem to slow anyone down, but the city felt quite relaxed. Also true in Copenhagen — both cities felt industrious but relaxed, not like New York’s hectic, hysterical tenseness. Perhaps it was this relaxed pace which began to make the past seem more alive in Norway.

Certainly, as far as European capitals go, Oslo isn’t that old. The country, until the mid-1800’s, and not again until the modern oil boom, was poor and “undeveloped.”
The Hanseatic League did their trading in Bergen, and Oslo was a backwater for centuries after southern Europe was full of sophisticated cities, or for millennia after the Middle East or Asia. In 1850, when there were over two million Londoners, Oslo was still a town of 30,000 — and every third Norwegian was leaving for America. And like London, the city had its “Great Fire” in the 1600’s to clear out the medieval things.

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Oslo

DSC07233So the city you visit now, is mainly from the late Victorian age.  The main drag, Karl Johans Gate, runs directly from the central train station, past the little cathedral, past the national theater and the parliament, to the royal palace.  All the handsome buildings you pass seem to be neo-classical or Second Empire style, like promenading through a small-scale Paris.

The Storting (government) building is kind of an exception, being some sort of awful yellow-brick mishmash of Italian Renaissance, beaux arts, 2nd Empire, and Victorian public lavatory.  Not sure what they were trying for.  My guess:  an architect with catholic tastes and a fondness for aquavit.  Although the parliament’s half-moon meeting chamber, which we just glimpsed through the window, when it was lit up at night, is wood-paneled, handsome, and impressive.  The area around it is full of nice old buildings, restaurants, hotels, and a charming park.

Oslo, of course, has grown tremendously — bigger than Boston, Denver, or Washington, D.C.  High-rises are going up near the harbor, near their modern, stunningly-beautiful opera house.

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transplanted farm buildings at Oslo’s Folkemuseum

So, Oslo is building, and in any case, most of the neighborhoods are no older than our cities in the Midwestern United States — the Norwegians moving to Milwaukee and Minneapolis wouldn’t have felt entirely out of place. Despite the historical places we visited in Oslo, like Akershus Castle or the huge Norsk Folkemuseum’s historical village, I never once felt that Oslo was old. Even when I was staring at actual Viking longships, ancient, famous, and beautiful, over a thousand years old, the most well-preserved in history — I recognized them as incredible and old, but that didn’t make me feel the age of the country I was in, one that had been the land of the Vikings. So, why then do I say that Norway is a land lost in time?

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Fredrikstad

It was only after leaving Oslo that I felt like I had been transported to another world. Despite traveling by a modern, fast-moving train to Fredrikstad, as Oslo got farther and farther away, I felt like I was going back in time, past fields of hay and potatoes, and then gorgeous coastal scenery and mountains passed by. The landscape was reminiscent of simpler times (though it still didn’t seem old, as I kept seeing Norway’s seemingly endless stream of Tesla’s humming down their pristine highways).

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But upon arrival in Fredrikstad, I felt like we had been shot back to the ancient days. Initially, it felt English. The town was larger than I had expected, and the shops, restaurants, and movie theaters reminded me of those in Hull. But soon, we seemed to drift out of this current era. We took a slow-moving ferry to one of the many outlying islands that comprise this city, and arrived at the old walled city.

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Since the late 1500s, this island-city has been fortified —  its walls lined with iron cannons, a deep moat, drawbridge, and redoubts on raised hillocks to keep out landing parties. In its day it must have seemed an impenetrable fortress.  It immediately struck me as existing in an antique time. This town, with its stone streets, shops, wharves, and armories was busily humming when “modern” America was still just a small malarial outpost on the James River, and a few dozen freezing Pilgrims in Massachusetts.

Having worked and lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, I figured this place would be like all the other “historic” villages I’d been to. I was wrong.

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IMG_0953Not only was it European, it seemed vastly different than Oslo’s historical village (which was fascinating in its own way). For starters, this place is “lived in.” The city of Oslo surrounds its folk-museum village, but it is a static museum-piece;  the old log houses were taken from their hill-farms and forests to a city park, and fascinating as they are, they’re not an organic part of the land anymore.  Fredrikstad felt way more alive, nothing artificial about it. The little hilltop villages in Italy, Spain, Italy, etc. are often abandoned, but none of the houses here are derelict.  Norwegians want to live in Fredrikstad.  In Colonial Williamsburg, actors live in the houses, but it feels fake, overrun by tourists and costumed people with cellphones. Here, the harbor and canal are full of boats, cars rumbled along five hundred year-old streets (there is a bridge in the modern day to get here) and the city’s military buildings now house restaurants and galleries, in vaulted bomb-proofs within the thick walls. Unlike other recreated villages, this one felt more alive and more ancient for one other reason: the water. On the edge of a modern, bustling city, with a busy little harbor, this town felt like, and was, still very much alive.

I’ve visited port cities on the Atlantic and Pacific that were older, but somehow the contrast of the old garrison town with the modern city facing it across the harbor, made this place feel far older than almost anywhere I’ve ever been.  In Oslo, I stood inches from the thousand-year-old Gokstad and Osenburg Viking ships, but they’re now exhibits in a museum — this island-city felt more ancient. There was a storybook air to the place, like you’d walked into an old folk tale.  I could picture a fleet of Swedish ships firing cannon balls at this island, with residents from the outskirts fleeing into the protective core of their fortress. It felt very alive and immediately possible.

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It was this place that helped make an off-season visit to Norway one of the most incredible trips I’ve been on. I’ve seen plenty of historic villages, and enjoyed them, but none of them captured my imagination or the spirit of the time. Even the best one I’d visited, in Upper Canada, felt more artificial to me, though more believable than Colonial Williamsburg with its Ye Olde Tyme parking lots and gift shops. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t even in Europe. Oslo, while less impressive in some regards than the likes of Cologne, Manchester, Hamburg, or certainly London, is still mainland European in its character. Fredrikstad’s fortress (despite being state-of-the-art Euro-design in its day), felt like a distinctly Nordic place.

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Norway, even now, modern and affluent as it is, still strikes chords for outsiders as being a somehow medieval landscape of snow and ice. When we visited their national art gallery, it was crowded with locals admiring an exhibit of story-tale art, with mysterious footprints in the snow, bluish hills, dark woods.  And this island-town, despite the sunshine and warm weather (warmer in March than England or even Maryland), seemed to belong to this alien world of wooden, mushroom-shaped homes, wooden… everything, tall blonde singsong-speaking people, and a land of trolls, of myths that feel alive and truths that feel mythical and the home of the Vikings. Here, I felt, for the first time on any of my travels, like I was somewhere truly different.

A final thought on this difference: Norway is the most English-speaking country in Europe (including England, since what they speak in Yorkshire may not be gibberish, but it is not English) and yet to an American, it remains the most alien. In the UK, while not ever feeling “at home,” I felt like it was similar enough to New York, just grayer and less pleasant. Spain was gorgeous and way relaxed and, while distinctly different from my world, it still was exactly how I’d imagined it. Germany and Copenhagen, while seeming “old” in some ways, still didn’t match the pervasive antique feel of Norway.

What I realized was this: In Hong Kong and Taiwan, I may have glimpsed the future, one of soaring glass and steel skyscrapers, crowds, humidity, and the constant sense of a centralized state overlaying “organized chaos.” But in Norway, I saw and felt the past. Norway, with its modern economy and lifestyles, is a land that cannot escape its past, and because of that, it feels different. Germany has history, but it feels like history, something entirely pushed into the past — you can feel the roots, but you know and are always aware that the nation is moving forward, and the old is being incorporated and dissolved into the new.
DSC07899In Norway, the old is pervasive, on display in subtle but constant ways, and it is not going anywhere. It felt different there.

I think the reason is, that Norway has remained off the radar and apart.  In Copenhagen, you walk into a six hundred-year-old building, and there is a McDonalds sign in the window. In Hong Kong, an alien world in many regards, there are constantly thousands of Americans roaming the streets. Norway, it seems, remains almost undiscovered, and perhaps because of this, far more mysterious, even if aspects of it seem familiar. The familiarity, but the slight differences, is what makes Norway so alien. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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