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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England, Not humorous, Study Abroad, UK, Uncategorized

Stompin’ the Blues Away. Hull, England. A Study Abroad.

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     A man walks down the street
     It’s a street in a strange world…
     You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore…     
     Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al

 

Hull Church 1A couple of years ago, I spent a half-year at the university in Kingston-Upon-Hull, on the east coast of England.

At the time I lived there, Hull was a city on the rebound.

The city’s economy had turned from old-time shipbuilding and fishing, to healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and the university. It was right near the fantastic Humber Bridge and the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds, Vales, Dales, and other expanses of heather & gorse or whatever, all dripping with healthy picturesque outdoorsy-ness.  Yachts in the marina.  Aquarium. Ferry lines carrying a million people a year to the Continent.  Beautiful museums, theatres, and art galleries.    About to be named the UK’s “City of Culture” for 2017.

 

Personally, I was a bit in the dumps.

It was a big adjustment, to move from a college in subtropical Hong Kong, to northern Yorkshire, in the wintertime.  Hull is about the same latitude as Minsk, perhaps not quite as festive.  I missed my friends at home, and the new friends I’d made in Hong Kong.  I missed the beautiful neon swirl and perpetual energy of HK, too.  I even missed the snow back home.  This place wasn’t as cold as Upstate NY, but it was often chilly and gray.

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So here is my unvarnished recollection of a “study abroad” semester.

 

 

 

 

The Student Ghetto

I’d chosen the U of Hull for some history courses that sounded really interesting, and they turned out to be fascinating.  But it was a tough semester – I was playing catch-up in an unfamiliar field, and unused to the British approach to learning.  Some rainy days, I felt unhappy and claustrophobic in my tiny house in the student ghetto, surrounded night and day, inside and out, with drunks, bad pop music, and racket.

I know this sounds “snarky.”  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a party on Saturday night, and love music, but to cross the Atlantic Ocean, think you’re safe, and then wake up at 2 AM to find that Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus have followed you, and crawled ashore, making their crappy noise?  And sounding waterlogged, because you have a head cold.

I also love English beers.  But by the glassful, not the gallon.  And as a rule, not for breakfast.

There were days when the constant uproar made me miserable.

The actual classes, I loved.  The professors and my classmates – they were great.   Some of them were locals, former ‘Ull fishermen and sailors, being re-purposed for the new, improved UK.  Their deadpan jerkin’ and muttered comments on the professor’s knowledge of ships were hysterical.  But somehow, I had set up a schedule at odds with everyone else’s, making it hard to hang out with classmates or housemates.  The courses themselves were excellent, even if the readings were sometimes the only thing that could put me out at night.

Other than at the library, I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep.  The University had converted an entire street of tiny row-houses into student housing – mine wasn’t bad, but featured dripping pipes, an unpredictable, malevolent little cooker that kept incinerating my dinner, and a bunch of housemates practicing The Tao of Alcohol:  Beer As a Way of Life.  With that goal in mind, the kids in my house had chosen only afternoon classes, so they could go out every night, and crash home about 3 AM. Every night.

 

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Most of the American, African, and Australian students in the ghetto didn’t give a damn about the University.  They were there to drink.

Hull followed an old seafaring pattern – take aboard as much cargo as you could, tack to the other end of the street, careen & offload the cargo.  I guess the old competitive drive that built the Empire still exists — even on a wet Tuesday night in February, Hull produces more drunks than an entire New Orleans Mardi Gras.

So every night, the Yanks, Brits and Aussies in the street, outside my ground floor window, gave off clouds of cigarette smoke and unloaded gallons of used beer from various orifices.

And then they sang.

At first, the singing was kind of endearing.  Seriously.  Hulking rugby players, weaving down the street, or in the back alley, falling over the dustbins, singing songs from “Frozen” in their bizarre accents.

By the end of the week, it was not so amusing.  And there were months of this to go.

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Walk the Walk

So, since I couldn’t concentrate or sleep, I would walk.

All winter, I wandered the town’s confusing back alleys, church yards, windy narrow roads, cobble-stoned rows.  Many secluded and private in that peculiarly British manner.  In the U.S., there’s always a sign, alerting you to dead ends and cul-de-sacs.  In England, streets may just peter out without warning, stranding the walker, as if it was just a road crew’s oversight, or lack of interest in going any farther that direction, or maybe they ran out of macadam, and decided to put up a house instead.

Leaving 1 Cottingham Road, I’d slip out, usually in a bad mood, angry at sloppy-drunk roommates, my horrible cooking, the gray weather.

Based on the day, the time, and which way the freezing rain was driving in from, I would either wander until I arrived on the far side of campus, or make a right turn, and arrive at a Chinese-owned deli. Because I know a few words of Cantonese, the deli’s owners would always question me in depth about things in Hong Kong, no matter how many times I ‘d explained, I was in fact an American who’d just spent one semester there.

National Health’s “Early Retirement” Squad, gunning for victims.

Zebra Crossings.  Run, Robbie, Run!

On my longer walks, I’d begin by taking my life in my hands.

Meaning, I’d try to actually cross the street.  Hoping that this particular day, the insane and homicidal bus drivers that define life across the pond, were in a mood to stop at the light.  Or else, I’d walk down the avenues near Cottingham, pass the fenced-in yard of the old school, and scramble across the street, toward the Tesco and the battered women’s shelter.  Those two institutions were an interesting combo to be sure. One of the local merchants actually explained to me that he believed there was a connection – the denizens of that Tesco, according to him, were a wife-beating mob.  One Supposes that the More Enlightened might only Purchase Provisions & Provender at Marks & Sparks.  Whole Foods in all its pristine-ness has not yet reached Hull.

One plus:  walking angrily in England means that those who normally ignore you stay clear out of your way.

When I wasn’t looking deranged and angry, and sometimes, literally feverish, it was slow going.  Sleep-deprived and cranky, it seemed I was endlessly weaving through lumbering throngs, not accustomed to moving at a New York pace, and as I negotiated the crowds in the poorer neighborhoods, of local shoppers or pub-hoppers, in my hyper-irritated state, they seemed to be a consistent mass of  the chain-smoking, heavy, and alcoholic.

But sticking to my weaving, in-and-out, gradually I’d make headway down Newland Avenue, and my black mood would lift.

As I arrived somewhere that I loved. This street was full of vendors, hawking fresh produce, a bakery, a Polish grocery where no one smiled or spoke English, a tailor, several barbers, clothing shops, night clubs, pubs, coffee houses, and trendy joints for all the hip young monied English folks. Everything you need, could be had on Newland.

Fish & Chips & Vinegar

Another Tesco was there – you could grab the overpriced produce, that went brown by the next morning, and bread that either went bad in two days, or else never went bad at all.  Pale-skinned chickens, onions with strange case of spots, frozen cod or haddock. You’d make small talk with the friendly cashier, one of the few locals who’d chat freely with an American kid, and so you’d stop in more than you should normally. Same goes for the fish-and-chips shop, a chance to chat with someone cheerful and normal.  I’d stop in after a weary day and get rejuvenated with the warm, crumbly haddock and vinegar-soaked fries. So good.  The British have delicious malt “Win-a-Gah,” as the shopkeep called it.

Or, I’d go to Pie 2, a local chain, and get savory meat pies, for five pounds, not a shabby deal, seeing what food costs in that culinary-dreary student ghetto. On nights when I couldn’t hack my own cooking, I’d get these meat pies, stuffed with anything, all of them really, really good.  Or I’d go to the Greek gyro place, or the “Macau” house – although I’d often regret eating their odd fusion of Asian and British foods.

 

Back on the walk, I’d only made it to the antiquated rail bridge over the street, that announced you’d arrived on Newland, and I had a ways to walk. I could make a right, head down a beer bottle-strewn back alley, into a very lovely part of town, with nice homes of the Victorian style, interesting European cars, and nice, respectable-looking folks milling about, in their slow and awkward Yorkshire manner.

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A Walk in the Park

At the end of the way, I’d pass the old pub and arrive at Pearson Park. An old Victorian park, indeed, the old queen herself was sitting there, cast in bronze.  On days I was short on time, I’d make this my destination, and just wander around the little gardens and manicured lawns. Somewhere around here, Hull’s resident poet Philip Larkin had lived, scowling out his window no doubt at the lovely trees. Here, among fountains, statuary, and a greenhouse that offered some respite from the North Sea’s cold winds, constantly blowing into this city, I’d go and feel refreshed.  Until seeing all the happy couples, families, and friends  hanging out together, while I was on my own, made me feel blue again.

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I’d then race down the next set of streets to hit downtown, passing by the more upscale shops and restaurants, stopping once to eat some incredible Moroccan food.

After this lovely jaunt in the park, I’d roar by all the hip places in town. If I went straight down the way, past the Polar Bear pub (which can be seen in The Hubbards “Is it Me?” video), you’d arrive at the KC stadium.

Tigers Tigers Burning Bright

I only watched one match at the stadium, with my roommate Jaden, to see Hull City play Newcastle.  We cheered and had a great time, and the local crowd turned out to be great, even when watching with dismay as their proud footy team was dismembered by the Magpies, and the cheers turned rather vulgar. Here, for the first time, I saw Brits from all walks of life come together. And to their credit, the Hull fans demanded that the Newcastle people get kicked out, when they turned unsporting, and to nasty jeering.  To the Hull fans, singing a few bits of profane lyrics about genitalia and the other team’s manager was sporting, anything beyond that was not. I was proud of them.

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Sometimes I’d head down to the old city. Passing by a sketchy part of town, with a housing project for recovering addicts, you arrive at the theater, the new hotel, and the wonderful train station,next to the gorgeous George Hotel (Saint George? King? Prince? something George hotel, where Larkin used to hide out, when he couldn’t hack living with people).

 

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Old Town

The hotel marked the start of the old part of town.  Walking along the cobbled streets, among pubs from centuries ago, next to modern shops, where all of the English lads would come out with trendy clothing, looking like very hip tablecloths. Old restaurants, arcades, museums, and cool old pubs were the highlights of this part of the town, culminating with the gorgeous harbor along the river.  The museum street also housed the oldest pub in town, the no longer PC “Ye Olde Black Boy” from the 1300’s.  The publicans and drinkers, to my surprise, would listen to my accent, stare at me a bit, and then quietly nod and make me welcome.  Friendly drunks would insist on jumping in and posing for my photos.

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Walking along past the excellent Maritime Museum, the BBC regional studios, the big glassy mall, and remnants of the old city gate – where the Civil War began, when the King was denied entrance. Ran across William Wilberforce’s house by accident. The old warehouses along the river side, now converted to clubs and bars. Wandering along curved walkways on echoing cobbled streets, it was easy to get lost. And I often did, stumbling along and arriving by statues of people I’d never heard of, by old pubs, arriving at some point by the magnificent church, and pass “The Smallest Window in England” which always make me laugh for some reason. It was here, in this old part of town, I spent a lot of hours, wandering and exploring.  And I’d have spent even more, if the restaurants weren’t so prohibitively expensive on a student budget.

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Starting to get cold.  The house lights coming on.  I’d head back before it got dangerous, after all, late nights, Hull does have a reputation for occasional violence.

As I read back through what I’ve written, I guess this isn’t a particularly inspiring tale of “study abroad”?  And not an very organized or enlightening city tour.  But for some reason, I replay these walks sometimes in my head.

I close my eyes and re-walk it, passing through distinctive zones, from the public-lavatory-brick-student-ghetto, past dreary Victorian row houses,  through a winter-gray but lovely park, to docks, winding old lanes, hallowed pubs, and the ancient-modern combination that defined the downtown.

Hull Church 3

This was my survival stomp through Hull, and it got me through.  Spent time in a real place, not just the university bubble.

After all that grousing —

I’m glad I went.

I learned a lot.

I came to feel some affection for a place pretty foreign to me.

But, still, years later,  whenever I hear a song from “Frozen,” I smell cigarettes, secondhand beer and rugby players.

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History, travel

New Mexico. The Deserted Village.

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Ancient

I am amazed and fascinated by the bloggers who write-as-they-go.    I mean, almost literally posting their life as it happens.

I kind of like to mull things over a bit.  Meaning, sometimes, for years!

So…it has been a few years, but I wanted to describe one day, and a night, in the Southwest desert.

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I’d visited my extended family in both New Mexico and Utah, but I had never been to the “Four Corners” region (where the northern corners of New Mexico and Arizona meet southern corners of Utah and Colorado).  This was not a vacation, but rather a traveling class, the summer after my freshman year of college — learning about the ecosystems, cultural and biological, of the Southwest.

We visited a range of places:  an old played-out mining town, several spots in the vast Navajo territory, and the ancient ruins at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and smaller pre-Columbian sites.

After a freshman year in a tiny concrete dorm, slogging through all the “requirements” I hated, to get them out of the way, this was like a slice of heaven.  Eating Navajo fry-bread, staying in a haunted old hotel in Durango, rafting down a river in Utah, walking around Santa Fe, seeing beautiful country and towns.

The most striking element of the trip was visiting pre-Columbian sites in New Mexico and Colorado.

Visiting a deserted house always seems like an interesting detective challenge to me – seeing what information or impressions you can glean about the former residents.  The folks at Chaco Canyon, who built all these complicated homes and religious chambers, and lived here for centuries, just walked away from it all eight hundred years ago.

You almost expect they’d leave a note on the kitchen table, telling us where they went, or why they left.   Maybe a warning to us, about exhausting your resources.

 

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Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away. Ozymandias  P.B. Shelley

Chaco Canyon is one of the oldest places I’ve ever been in this country.  Some houses and kivas date back to the 800’s.

Other than Roman sites in Europe, the oldest structures I’ve seen.  An eye-opener for an East Coast boy, growing up where everyone likes to consider themselves the keepers of the nation’s history.

I’ve walked through 17th century houses in the Hudson Valley, New England, Pennsylvania, and the south.  The history center at my college, founded during the Revolution, is in a colonial-era custom house.  All of us history buffs in the East, revere the remnants of the British days and New Netherlands, and just north in Canada, Nouvelle-France.  

But, of course, the colonial buildings in the Southwest are even older.  And then to see a native town many centuries older than any of those sites, was pretty spectacular.

485148_607045559321012_2013764659_nAesthetically, I much preferred Mesa Verde, with the dense pine forests on the mountain sides providing a more beautiful, and certainly more dramatic backdrop, than the vast expanses of brown and yellow desert of New Mexico. But, Chaco was the older site, and the start of a great adventure.

Part of what made our visit to Chaco Canyon so memorable, was that we stayed there at night.

 

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Summer in Chaco Canyon, during the daytime, is not pleasant.  The New Mexico sun is just too intense for a fair-skinned northerner. When 110 degree heat is beating down from a large and unrelenting sun, and you’re inhaling dust in airless old sunken kivas, and also discovering that some of the “ruins” had been rebuilt in the 1930’s (and not that well in many cases) made the whole complex seem less impressive.

But by night, they again became extraordinary.

Camping out let us see the solstice light shine into a special hole in a kiva, to mark the passing of the solar event,(Indiana Jones-style)

We spent a night enveloped by the most extraordinary stars.

 

The nighttime skies in the Southwest are incredible — so much clearer and darker than home, perfect for staring into the millions of twinkling celestial bodies. The”vastness of the universe” sounds corny, but it really unfolded before our eyes, making it seem even more magical to be lying a stone’s throw from the ruins of a vanished civilization.

 

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By day, the desert is foreboding, vast and seemingly never-ending.  It spread out all around us, making us feel isolated.  And desiring to stay close to camp, so as to not get lost wandering it’s vast tractless expanse.

 

25947_606798252679076_482319926_nDespite all that nearly empty land, in my mind, the heat and dryness confine us.  We’re trapped into staying with the group.  Or in a building.  Or near the road.

Heatstroke and dehydration outweigh other hidden dangers. I wasn’t too worried about rattlesnakes, we have them back home, too, and I’ve always thought they seem like pretty reasonable creatures – – I appreciate that they give us a warning, so they don’t have to bite.

 

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But at night, the darkness softened the intensity of the desert and gave a sense of release.

 

 

The ruins, impressive in the daytime, seemed far more ancient by night, lit by our fires. The campfires cast a glow on the old stones.

Do I even remember this right?  Or did I invent the memory — I think we had fires there.  Or perhaps just lanterns.  It was forest fire season, but there was so little vegetation, it was ok to build a fire in specific camping spots.

Maybe I just wanted to remember campfires, staying at a place where the home fires went out so many years ago.

We were there very briefly, and the people that built these homes, had withered away long ago.  The old phrase seemed very apt “the sands of time.”

But the stars, and the entire universe were seeming to expand before our very eyes.

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travel, Uncategorized

The Town in the Mountains

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Two towns in Colorado, linked by an old narrow-gauge railroad, were for me, a discovery of “The West.”

They’re linked by the railroad, and, in my mind, by a really pervasive smell.

I guess everyone knows that our sense of smell is the fastest prompt for our memories — not photos or images, not a snatch of song, not a string tied around your finger.  I should pretend that this Tale of the Western Slope was prompted by immersion in a glass of bourbon and a plaintive tune from the Cowboy Junkies or Merle Haggard, but actually, I was led by my nose, walking by a sulfurous industrial plant in Milwaukee.

“Olfaction,” the fancy way of saying “sense of smell,” in general doesn’t sound like a good thing.  Sounds like a medical condition requiring more roughage in your nasal passages.

And in the case I’m thinking about, this surely isn’t a Remembrance of Things Past, brought on by the scent of almonds and vanilla from exquisite madeleines — the trip I’m remembering today is evoked by a lingering satanic stench of smoke and sulfur, that would not wash out of my clothes.  A truly nasty smell.

One sniff and ol’ Marcel Proust would curl up in a coma.

Or at least, turn up his nose.

And yet, this stink brings to me a really wonderful memory!

I hiked and camped around the Southwest a few years ago with a group from my college, looking at Native American archæological sites, on a route that was rearranged into a zigzag, by all the huge forest fires that year. So I guess the fumes off “Chili Sprinkled With Piñon Ash” might trigger some memories of Chaco Canyon and New Mexico deserts.

actually this isn’t on the Durango line – it was taken in Utah. But good and sooty-looking.

But the area, and smell, that really defined the West for me, was in the Colorado Rockies, around Durango and Silverton.

Durango is a small college town in the southwest corner of the state. We were done camping, and relaxed at the historic, and haunted, Strater Hotel, watching the fires rock the hills around the town.  Durango felt very secure, it’s independent spirit shining through in every local, who cheerfully ignored the fires and gave us friendly greetings.  Summer 2012 Colorado Robbie

 

There were nice places to eat, and we rafted right through the heart of town on a swift-moving little river.

 

The Odor/Memory Link comes into it, when we moved out of town a bit, to Pagosa Springs, soaking in naturally-heated sulfur water, and easing travel-weary bones that had been lying on rocks for a couple of weeks.

The hot springs felt great.  But smelled bad.  The stench of the springs overwhelmed the smoke, and lingered for weeks — all of my clothes continued to reek of sulfur, even after five washings.

So, it was the lingering, pervasive stink of sulfur that, out of the blue, reminded me of good times and the majestic beauty around the little city in the mountains.

Maybe because of the little luxuries we enjoyed after camping — real food, hotel beds, hot mineral springs — Durango just didn’t feel like Out West to me.  There’s a difference between just being in the boonies, and being on a real frontier.

A horse called Banjo. Best side forward, I always say.

Sure, there was a vibe of independent laid-backness, but no sense of The Frontier.  The town did feel isolated, especially when surrounded by forest fires, and the smoke-filled sky was a bit intimidating, but this wasn’t the real deal, it was sort of “The West Lite.” A good way to feign the Western lifestyle like a dude rancher.  Durango was just a brand of cowboy boots they sell at the mall.

Maybe I expected too much because of the name itself, Durango.  Seems like you can’t get more spur-jingling, tobacco-chaw-stained, John Wayne-ish than Durango, the setting for How the West was Won, and a hundred other cowboy epics.

But maybe it was all the westerns and mock-westerns shot up here, A Ticket to TomahawkButch Cassidy and City Slickers, a bandolier-ed Marlon Brando playing Zapata, etc. that have permanently imbued it with the feeling of a two-dimensional stage set.

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So as it turned out, it was up the other end of the Durango-Silverton railroad that made me feel like an intrepid independent frontiersman, on the edge of the Wild West.

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Taking the historic narrow-gauge railway up to Silverton (built to haul gold and silver ore) was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Riding the smoke-billowing old train through the most beautiful mountains I’d ever seen was incredible. The route and the train itself were lovely, a step back to a simpler time, when travel was exciting and unpredictable, sometimes luxurious — through the mountains, higher and higher into the heart of the Rockies. Dense forests of pine and fir flanked both sides, with rocky crags and extensions, deep chasms and narrow tracks made the ride into a thrill. I recall watching the train wrap around a curve in the mountain side, with nothing but thousands of feet of rock below us.

As I craned my neck out, branches from the trees clutching the sides of chasms brushed my face, and almost carried away my big-brimmed, dorky-looking hat.  We’d left the forest fires behind, but hot ash from the locomotive would sometimes blow in your face. I didn’t care.

Robbie - Southwest seminar Durango

The view of mountains was interjected with impossibly blue mountain lakes and little streams.  The most magical, picture postcard image came in the form of a mountain stream, cascading under the raised tracks, from one purplish grey mountain top (still capped with snow in late June), with dense pine woods flickering by, partially blocking the view of the mountains on the other side. I was too enraptured to photograph most of it, and the scenic beauty, the day’s warmth, with a nice temperate breeze (although it actually got cold as we rose higher up into the mountains), and the train’s steady gentle rocking lulled me to sleep without realizing it. I was glad someone shook me awake, so I wouldn’t miss the stunning vistas.

At the top of the line, Silverton was not a Durango stage set. It was small. It wasn’t a hip college town. It was just a ramshackle-looking collection of old houses from the long-ago days of the mining boom, and not many people were still hanging on up there.  The little mining town was essentially unchanged from the 1890’s, flanked by some of the largest mountains I have ever seen.  Came back with just a few snapshots – looking at them, the town doesn’t look very striking, or even picturesque, but maybe that’s the point.  It’s just a ramshackle vestige of the past, real, not a duded-up stage set.

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Up here, I found a remnant of the true West. New Mexico may have been the desert experience I was hoping for, but here, this was the West of miners, gunslingers, daredevil railroaders, cowboys. Impossibly beautiful mountains and the small frontier town juxtaposed against it’s backdrop made the West seem alive. For a New York flatlander, from a county whose tallest point is a landfill, I was simply blown away.

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So that’s why the smell of sulfur makes me happy sometimes.

 

Well, he was slouching, too.

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