hiking, travel, Uncategorized

Erosion and Exclusion – An American Experience of the Southwest

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I’m a New Yorker.  I grew up Upstate — the small-town part, farms, woods, far from NYC.

So it’s funny, while I was going to college in Asia, whenever someone brought up “America,” the first image in my mind wasn’t New York, but the deserts of the Southwest.

Getting ready to study abroad in Hong Kong, I had decided to see more of my own country first. And so I went “Out West.”

IMG_7549The American West has long captured the hearts and imaginations of many.  The romantic image of it, anyway.  The Rocky Mountains, vast cornfields, prairies, cowboys, fancy boots, ten-gallon hats, sixguns, cattle drives, herds of bison, the endless expanses of range and desert, where sky and ground meet for mile upon mile.

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N. C. Wyeth. Another Easterner who was fascinated by the West.

Traveling around the West was an extraordinary experience – in many ways, it was exactly like visiting a foreign nation.  You feel a connection to the people there — one minute, incredibly different from the ones I grew up with, and the next, exactly the same. The English have certain characteristics that allow you to differentiate instantly between an American and a Brit, or a Londoner from a Geordie for that matter.  But these Westerners, it was harder to put your finger on it – they were a different sort of American, and slippery to define.

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Almost like an alternative universe. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I comprehend more clearly, what an intractable mess a President has to preside over.     He’s ruling over an area that flies the same flag as the East, and yet doesn’t live by the same rules, the same attitudes, or the same culture.In the East, where we’re familiar with the networks of money and tradition that hold the key to power and happiness, we aren’t clear how things work in the West.

 

IMG_7550 (1)A lot of people think of the American West as being…what, exactly?

Rougher.  Decadent in some way.  Spanish.  Less talkative.  Less emotional.  Unlike us.

And some truth there.  They aren’t like us.  The people I met in the West seemed odd, in unpredictable ways.  Flagstaff has cowboys who vote left. People in Santa Fe have no sense of time.  Grizzled, bearded old guys in Colorado, looking tough as hell, were really friendly.

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I think that is part of the allure of the West, it is rapidly changing and yet it feels timeless. In the east there is a heart attack-inducing, blood pressure-raising frenetic energy, as millions of people clog roadways, crowd walkways, jam cities, swarm suburbs, flood villages. Everyone in the East is in a hurry, industrious and hard-working. And yet, most of this nation’s businesses are moving west. Their cities have sprawl, pollution, traffic as bad or worse than ours, and they mostly lack the public transportation we have in the East Coast.

But as a Rule, they also Take It Down a Notch – you don’t feel harried, you don’t feel stressed out. There’s a calmness that pervades everything.

I’m sure they live longer out there because of that, in fact I’m certain that’s the key. Perhaps it’s the Spanish heritage, because I got a similar feeling in Spain.  But how much does that explain?  British origins aren’t to blame for the East Coast’s behavior — look at the chilled-out behavior of Australians or Canadians.

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But I see the appeal of the West, and why so many people from overseas view it as the true America. The character and virtues we’re known for still ride the range there – a world less superficial, and without the East’s stagnation.  A spirit of freedom and independence pervades.

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N. C. Wyeth

This was the first time I really felt like the U.S. is a nation of nations. Sometimes Americans criticize China and Russia as being too multicultural – meaning they’re unhappy, dissonant empires – and would be better off broken into a bunch of smaller states.

But maybe this is true of the U.S., too?  I don’t think a Yankee from Massachusetts identifies with a person from Tupelo or Santa Fe.  Yes, there’s that American Identity throughout the USA, but spend one day, and you know that each region interprets “American” way differently. The politic strife of this century shows that each state is still almost a separate nation, legally, but it is the regional differences that play a bigger role in many regards.

A Marylander seems no different than a Virginian, other than than cuisine. But a person from California is just not the same as a person from Connecticut.   Our regions still dominate our mindsets. We’re a transient society, and yet that hasn’t seemed to have much of an effect on the bits of culture that are distinctly regional.

I found Westerners to be better in some ways. They don’t conform to the same systems as we do in the East, systems that are familiar but limiting. There is a sense of freedom that you cannot feel in the East, a sense of optimism, open and unbridled ambition, and a down-to-earth sensibility that makes you realize, for example, these cowboy Navajo strangers know what they are doing and how to do it.

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And then I found an even deeper divide, literally and figuratively.  The biggest culture shock came from visiting the “fourth world” in the Grand Canyon.

The Fourth World is not a clear concept to most Americans, because it’s something we try hard to ignore, talk around, excuse, or keep hushed up.  Like pretending not to notice an ulcer or cyst on a person’s body.  It is our undeclared gulag system.

Basically, it is a third world nation within the confines of a first world nation.

Some reservations are nice. Really nice, in fact.  The Indians who were fortunate enough to be exiled where natural gas or oil was discovered, or who built a successful casino, live pretty well. The houses belonging to the Navajo in Northern Arizona show they aren’t hurting for money.

But go into the heart of the Grand Canyon, to see the Havasupi tribe’s last outpost. Sorry I don’t have a more clever metaphor – you just keep going downhill, literally a mile down into the earth, and hit something close to rock bottom economically.   The tribe’s Supai village, a few hundred residents, is on the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  It’s pummeled by oppressive heat and sand storms. There’s no road that goes there, and therefore there aren’t any cars.

Well that’s not entirely true, I saw one pickup truck, but I honestly don’t know how it got down there. To get to the village, you walk eight miles down the canyon, or take a burro, or a helicopter.  I spent one night there with some classmates.  The Havasupi have been there over 800 years.

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The town was like something you’d see in a cowboy movie, a low-budget,  black-and-white spaghetti western. Shacks, with tin roofs. Dirt streets, tamped down by bare feet. Horses and dogs roaming around.  I’ve never seen dogs that looked so skinny, sick, and diseased.  There was a post office, a “hospital,” general store, a tiny church or two.  And a restaurant, because the village is a bit of a destination for European tourists.

The store was mostly empty, and what they did stock was all bad for you. Little wonder that 90% of Havasupi have diabetes. Shirtless kids roamed the streets, and old men and women, with faces wrinkled by time and sun, sat outside – just sitting, and staring.  They look at their young people, many of them losing their cultural identity. Many of the old ones had already lost their own identity for that matter, in their day, forced into government schools to be “Americanized”.

This squalor is in an absolutely beautiful spot.  It’s an odd contrast, this decrepit village next to the turquoise waters of the Supai falls. Cool natural rock pools, with water from the stream offering a respite from the sun.

Until we realized the water was fouled by horses and whatever else was living upstream.

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The entire time I was there, I felt uneasy. I didn’t know what it was at the time.

It was partially heat- and diet-related, I’m sure of that, but I also think it was, in retrospect, the realization that this sort of poverty should not exist, anywhere. And especially not in the United States. It felt like a movie set, except that the people were not actors. We were outsiders, often met with hostile glares. I understand this resentment of course – to them, all of us Anglos [white people] were the reason that for many years, this sweltering, fly- infested valley was all they had left of their ancestral lands.

A century ago, the National Park Service, and the Navajos, the Havasupai’s much-bigger rivals, finagled and seized the canyon, leaving only a few hundred acres and this tiny Supai village as a token of their “good will”. So it was a nation inside a nation inside a nation. And it wasn’t doing too well. It reminded me of a UNICEF advertisement, except it didn’t even have a famous actress involved, telling us to donate.  They finally prevailed in court, and regained their territory, but it doesn’t seem to have brought them much joy.

I left that part feeling very confused, a combination of exhaustion, anger, curiosity and maybe even fear.  I guess sometime, most people have, at least for a second or too, looked at a textbook picture of some medical condition, a disgusting abssess or horrible wound, before slamming the book shut, yuck.

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Let’s be honest, I also felt moments of excitement, because in a weird way it was exciting to see.  And also, I knew I was going to helicopter the hell out of there.  We flew out, and the little village faded into nothing as soon as we rose above the chasm’s edge.

The only places “officially” classified as 4th World in the US are the reservations for the native peoples.  Now that I’m living in Milwaukee, it’s too obvious that the inner cities of some cities qualify.  I’ve realized you don’t have to hide the 4th World in the bottom of the deepest canyon.  You don’t need “Indian Treaties,” fences, or walls.  It can be a few blocks away and remain invisible to most people.

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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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travel

Overlooked and Underloved: Milwaukee

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Here’s a line from a song “The Bay” by the British band Metronomy.

Because this isn’t Paris. And this isn’t London. And it’s not Berlin. And it’s not Hong Kong. Not Tokyo….”.

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This song fits Milwaukee.

It’s the kind of city that shouldn’t be nice, because that contradicts your preconceptions.

You don’t want to admit that you enjoy it, because it’s… Milwaukee.

Located…where, exactly?

It’s OK if you don’t really know.

“Somewhere past Chicago,”

 “near the Great Lakes?”

“Yeah, it’s…oh wait, that’s Minneapolis”

are all acceptable answers.

 

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If your brain does kick out a few random factoids, there’s an image problem.  The city was a byword for industrial decay, notorious for its massive rate of crime and poverty, and Miller Lite on culture.  Even the ball team was sub-par.

> Poster boy for the Rust Belt.

> Someplace dull where people talk about electric power tools.

> The City That Made Beer Famous” – but a lot of it came to be cheap, sticky, mass-produced “value beer.”

Old Milwaukee, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Schlitz Malt Liquor were never seen in my house.  They always seem to be the brands you see in roadside ditches– tossed from rusty pickups with rude stickers.  The pickups are driven by the kind of people that throw their trash and empties out the window, and were driving by old rusted-out Allis-Chalmers hay-balers, a brand once world-famous, manufactured just down the road from my apartment in West Allis, and now faded away.

The city was part of feeling embarrassed about living in the northern U.S., in the Rust Belt.

Bad cars from Detroit.  Bad beer from Milwaukee.  Bad politicians from New York.

 

Last summer, I moved to Milwaukee.  Voluntarily.  I entered of my own free will.

The city continues to get a lot of bad press.  New Yorker magazine just ran an article about the thousands of evictions that take place yearly in this, the fourth poorest city in the country.

 

 

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The art museum on the lake. A fantastic creation by several architects. The central building by Eero Saarinen, an addition with a winged sunscreen that opens & closes by Santiago Calatrava

 

But Listen Up People —  I am here, and I am here to say, Milwaukee is a great city 

 

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City Hall. When it was erected, the tallest building in the country.

 

 

On a great lake.  Literally, the city is right on one of the “Great Lakes.”  Lake Michigan is impressive, one of the biggest expanses of fresh water in the whole world.  It doesn’t need the others to be a Great Lake.   You could drop Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut into it without a trace. And its the only one we don’t have to share with Canada, so it is an All-American lake.

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Mitchell Park Domes. Desert and tropical environments, and a nice break from winter

This isn’t the 1980 Rustbelt anymore!  Milwaukee is ready to be a new poster boy, one for new era, the re-birth of the American city. From Buffalo and Pittsburgh to Milwaukee, the revitalized Richmond and Louisville, and of course, NYC – all have stories of revival, comeback, resurgence, regrowth.  And unlike NYC or San Francisco, young people can actually afford to live here, and can afford to have some fun.

America’s comeback is, and will be, taking place in its cities.  A lot of this is change is brought about by an influx of young working people.  Young people who move in, work, and spend their money here.  There are still huge problems, but that just isn’t the whole story.

IMG_6515So it feels good to move to a city that is coming back to life, and showing people that “moving to the city” is still relevant and desirable.

It may be overshadowed by bigger, sexier Chicago, but Milwaukee is very much a worthy, interesting destination city on its own.  I know one Chicago resident, who comes up on weekends, because he loves visiting the local joints in our town.  Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, is prosperous and squeaky clean, and has earned the reputation of being the ultimate college town (though it will always rank below my favorite, Ithaca, NY) but Milwaukee can give them a run for their money — there is a vast population of students and recent graduates.

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You can have an apartment!  Not a cleaning supplies closet “artfully re-purposed into a Living Pod,” or a retro-engineered shipping container, or a squat where the coachroaches have names and their own little bunk beds.  You don’t need to live in a derelict loft with five roommates, and go dumpster-diving behind Panera’s; here you can live a good life on very little money. Beer is cheap, and it is good – Milwaukee’s old-time genetic coding has kicked in, after all this is Brew City, and they’re once again making great beer around here.  Microbreweries like Sprecher, Lakefront, Brenner  turn out ales and lagers as good as anything in Europe.  There’s lots of innovative stuff, too, like organic pumpkin beer, tangerine IPA, etc. and a really smooth black lager.  Bars are plentiful, friendly, and the “pub food” is excellent, and the nightlife is good.

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Where I live, West Allis, somewhere between a city neighborhood and a suburb, there are tree-lined streets, and you can walk along the Hank Aaron Trail to downtown, and then along the RiverWalk, which stretches right through the heart of the city.  You can walk on top of the bluffs along the lakefront, and they even have a lighthouse.

A quintessential American city — it’s a diverse population, mostly Germans, Poles and Mexicans, but with dozens of other groups and ethnic communities in the mix. There are African-American neighborhoods mixed with Hmong immigrants just up the road from an old Scandinavian enclave.  Maybe, here in the middle, as the new, monied elites grow richer on both coasts, will be one of the last bastions of middle class America.

IMG_6331A world-class art museum on the Lake (the building alone is an architectural gem, in part a design by Eero Saarinen, who did the St. Louis Arch and buildings that still look futuristic at Dulles and JFK airports), authentic ethnic restaurants, hip lofts and desirable neighborhoods, full of hipsters, yuppies and yup-sters, a cool live-music scene and lots to do, this town is excellent.  To amuse tourists and local visitors alike, a stroll along one of downtown’s main streets takes you past a series of street poles with mini-stories told in ‘flip art’.   Milwaukee offers more green space than any major American city — parks abound along the lake. You can visit the Pabst mansion, the Mitchell Domes (huge geodesic gardens, one for desert, one for tropical), enjoy German food in the restaurant that has hosted four US presidents, celebrate “Pho-bruary”, and experience blue-collar America’s factories, with tours of Miller (and the other breweries too) and Harley-Davidson’s factory.

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“The Streets of Old Milwaukee” in the excellent, and fun, Public Museum

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Celebrating Men in Tights

This town may not have the fashion scene, but it has character. Here, people talk to you. They are sincere; they are friendly.  You can live on a reasonable salary. Housing prices aren’t outrageous. You have all the big city amenities, and none of the traffic. Sure, this town lacks the frenetic pulse and determined weirdness that enlivens places like NYC, but it instead feels like a big small town. You feel like you’re at home, even when you’re not from around these parts. I think it’s wonderful. But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself.

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Germany, Uncategorized

Cologne and Dusseldorf ~~~~~~~ A Tale of Two Cities…and Two Beers. The Great Kolsch-Alt debate

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Incredible stonework of the cathedral in Cologne

 

Part of my journeys across Germany involved discovery of the country’s food and beverages.  And of course, the most famous German beverage is beer, so I was duty-bound to try each region’s brews whenever possible.  And generally speaking, in Germany, it is not just possible, but expected.  Beer is part of each regions’s identity, a staff of life, and the stuff as dreams are made on.  Yes, I get poetic when thinking of German beer.

While not famous outside of Germany, two types of beer, Kolsch and Alt (or Aldt) have an interesting history. Kolsch comes from Koln (Cologne), while Altbier is Dusseldorf’s darker contender.

The two cities, now friendly rivals, much the same as New York and Boston (though I don’t know any New Yorker who calls Bostonians friendly), used to have a much different relationship. From the Middle Ages through the 1800’s, before Bismarck’s unification, they were two city-states,  often at war. For many years, one could test your loyalty with a simple test: Kolsch or Alt? A person in the “old days” — meaning as recently as the 1970’s — could be beaten up in Dusseldorf for asking for Kolsch, and vice-versa in Cologne.

I was informed of all this by a German friend.  I knew that I had no choice but to try both beers, in their respective cities.

And, like Champagne, genuine Kolsch (there’s supposed to be an umlaut over the “o” but I don’t know how to to that on WP) can only be brewed in Cologne — breweries elsewhere can produce kolsch-style lager, but it cannot be labeled Kolsch.

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Cologne’s “Lock Bridge” — sweethearts have their initials engraved on padlocks and add them to the railings. The Pont des Arts in Paris had to remove theirs, due to the sheer weight.

So, the first day of this quest was spent in Cologne. A beautiful and ancient town along the Rhine, it has a friendly laid-back vibe, partially due to its huge student population.

 

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A Work of Art. so I had it framed.

A moment for time to stop and to remember forever — I had my first Kolsch at a riverside restaurant, on a beautiful and still sunny day, with the Rhine’s brownish water slowly flowing by.  The locals call a round tray of beers a “Kranz” which means “wreath” and that seems appropriate, to celebrate this wonderful drink and a great city.

 

I will remember having this first sip of Kolsch, from the Gaffel brauhaus — it was fantastic. So crisp and light, the locals often jokingly call it “American Beer”. It was one of the most delicious and refreshing beers I’ve ever had.  And I drank it sitting alongside the legendary Rhine, surrounded by the sound of many relaxed conversations, and a plate of Currywurst, and time to talk with my friend.

A Really Good Day.

 

 

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The “Lock Bridge” at Cologne

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e3-3476-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wWhile, at the time, I was relaxed and content, I didn’t fully appreciate the complete pleasantness that defined and permeated that day, and, as my taste-memory triggers strong recall (as smells do for most other people), I can vividly imagine the way the beer tasted. More than that, when I think of that particular glass of beer, I’m transported back to that spot along the Rhine, with the lock bridge, and some statues just barely visible behind a clump of trees — trees planted specifically to shade the lucky patrons of restaurants by the Rhine. I remember seeing the Viking river cruise boats chugging by, the delicious ice cream I had in that town, and the Gothic beauty of the Kolner Dom.  nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e3-3477-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

 

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A statue of the mysterious person known only as “The Man Who Could Never Get That Bird Off His Hat”

 

IMG_7073After a long hike up winding stairs, the Dom, a magnificent and mighty church, offered us views of the entire city, as it stretched along one of the world’s finest rivers.   (Brown-hued, but busy, impressive, and certainly a more pleasant river than the Hudson back home, with its PCB’s and three- headed fish.)  I remember ending the day at the Chocolate Museum, and the smell of cocoa wafting through the air.

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The Chocolate Museum.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-a691-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rThe next day, in Dusseldorf, was even more pleasant, if possible.  I had been staying with my friend Alicia, who I knew from Lingnan University, and in Dusseldorf, I got to meet up with another friend I’d met at that school, Tobias.  I felt very lucky to have made friends with these great people – they seemed happy to show me around, were excellent guides, and even better company, .  Tobi was actually a Koln boy, but had spent lots of time in Dusseldorf.  I had my first experience of the Autobahn driving down from Koln, and having survived, was ready to walk around Dusseldorf.

 

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This is the second-richest city in Germany (after Munich), and Germans from other regions had told me it is seen as being…sort of snotty. But I found the people there to be even friendlier and warmer than Cologne’s.  Cologne, despite being a college town, was busy but didn’t seem to have much of an energetic vibe — the slow river giving it a relaxed air. Dusseldorf, on a faster-moving stretch of the same river, seemed far more alive. Not as loud, but more bouncy and hip.

Dusseldorf captured my imagination as much as the much more historic and picturesque cityscape of Koln.

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IMG_7054And here, we of course tried Alt, their local beer.  Dark, heavy, I liked it far less than Kolsch (I didn’t say this out loud) — but thinking about that beer, takes me back to that day as well. It’s “old beer” style (that’s literally what “altbier” means), interesting dark copper color, strong/clear flavor, and the impression it gives of “thickness” embodies the town in which it was made, much the same as Kolsch reflects the lighter vibe of Cologne. Dusseldorf’s layers of history came out with the flavor of hops and dark malt. Though sunny, the weather in Dusseldorf fluctuated several times in the course of one day, and we wandered the city, seeing the old town by the Rhine juxtaposed against the modern bridges and towers of their industry.

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The city has the world’s highest population of Japanese executives outside of Japan!  SONY, Toshiba, Sanyo, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and several other large Japanese companies have regional headquarters in Dusseldorf, some since as early as WWII. Therefore, there is a large “Japan Town,” where we had lunch that day, first having more traditional German snacks. This too is part of enjoying the unique and deeper flavor of Alt.

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Look carefully at the steeple – – age and human error have left it twisted like a soft-serve ice cream

The architecture of the city is also very “European” — churches with steeples bent by the ages, right next to modern structures — some of Frank Gehry’s earliest designs — with an unusual and almost imaginary-feeling set of houses along the river. Here we saw displayed the money that the city is famous for — glitzy condominiums, vehicles costing several hundred thousand dollars, and stores with suits that might have cost as much as the vehicles.

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Frank Gehry

We took a short side-trip out of the city, to the palace of an old king, still close enough to see skyline of the old city.  This palace, I think, was actually the king’s summer home (though I’m not sure), and it reminded me of a Southern plantation — a huge estate, surrounded by undeveloped tracts of land, now converted into a public park.

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On the day we were there, a group of wealthy Persians were having a wedding inside the 17th Century ballroom, and, with their exotic wedding garb, it struck me that this is how a ball would’ve looked at that time, perhaps with less form-fitting dresses. The grounds too were beautiful — lawns and topiary and statuary and fountains.   I was in for another treat, when we ended up along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine, with container ships drifting by, and the cityscape visible across the bend in the river, and people lounging around outside on a beautiful day.

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I’ve been telling people for years about the frog-people, but this was the first time I got a good picture, when they clambered out of the Rhine and scaled this building.

These are the memories invoked when I summon up the taste of the beers, as interesting as their cities. For me, the culinary journey is part of what brings a city to life, and it is vital to try something local and authentic to get the most out of any experience.

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My friends Alicia and Tobias in front of the Alt house. Technically, this is the longest “bar” in the world, but in reality it is several open buildings with street seating. Or standing.

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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.

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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.

straw hat HK

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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