Monday, December 28, 2009

Reflections, part 1

As I start to gear up for the Trip Home, I am looking back at a year ago today to find that I was thinking ahead and my predictions were spot on.

"A lot of things in life people don't do because of the "what-ifs." You know, what if this happens, what if that happens, what if we run out of petrol? And it stops us doing things you know? And after the fact, you find that the what ifs and the might-bes are what makes it so exciting. Because every time we got in trouble and every time we broke down, we met people who helped. And it's a really optimistic view of the world that I have now, that all the people we've met all around the world have been incredibly generous, just nice people."-- Ewan MacGregor, at the end of "Long Way Around"

Amen, Mr. MacGregor. Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bon Nadal!

A busy day today! We are expecting 14 people for dinner tonight, for an honest-to-goodness Catalan Christmas. Papa Noel comes at midnight, and who knows what he will bring?

Wishing you a Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, or (as we say here in Barcelona) Bon Nadal, all the way from Spain!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

REWIND: India, 2--Mountains and tombs

A summary of my Indian odyssey, part 2:

Exhausted from 4 days of Indian Bus Hell, I settled gratefully into Appleview Manali, a Ladakhi guesthouse recommended to me by a friend from university. The hostel was set outside the modern town, in a lovely apple orchard owned by members of outlying villagers. I slept copiously, ate delicious homemade food cooked by the married couple who owned the guesthouse, and admired the view of the Himalayan foothills from all four corners of the guesthouse´s flat-topped roof. Occasionally, I ventured into town to explore a shrine to the goddess Kali, see a street magician perform, and watch the motley throng of soldiers, monks, wandering salesman, dirty-clothed backpackers, sleek-suited businessmen, old Ladakhi women in robes, and old Tibetan women in rainbow pinafores that converges on this town, which feels drawn from some ideal Tibetan Wild West.

The view from Appleview Manali

Some things are universal-- a street magician performs in Manali

After I was suitably recovered, I did something I had thought I might never want to do again: I got back on a bus. This was no ordinary journey, however. Our van convoy left Manali at 3 AM, traveling in a pack of 4 over the second-highest road in the world, traversing the Himalayas, and arriving in Leh, the capital of the semi-autonomous Ladakh province of India 22 hours later. In the course of the trip we waited patiently as we were engulfed by herds of goats on narrow mountain roads, stopped for chai and instant noodles in yurts on windswept plains, held our breaths as blood pounded in our heads in high passes piled with snow, and broke down twice. The landscape outside my window looked more to me like the moon than anything on earth.

A sampling of the most stunning pictures from my 22 hours of my trip

This is where we broke down

*My Indian visa was set to run out much earlier than I preferred, so I only had a few days in which to pack all the beauty of Ladakh, an ancient civilization on par with Tibet (that has in fact been at war with Tibetans on and off for millenia.) I wandered the winding, beautiful streets of Leh´s old town; explored the ruined castle that lies in the dry mountains above the city; stumbled on a traditional Ladakhi archery festival.

One day I took a car trip over an enormous mountain pass to Pangong Lake, which lies 1/3 in India and 2/3 in Tibet, a stunning drop of blue in thousands of empty miles of forbidding desert and mountains. Another day I went horseback riding through the stony plains outside of town, then hiked my way through the 2 most famous Buddhist monasteries, Thiksey and Shay, which slope up mountains to amazing views at their topmost points.

In the end my time in Ladakh presented only a taste of a world I had also glimpsed in Zhongdian during my travels in China. I found this universe, culturally, geographically and politically different than any I knew, to be fascinating, much like the frustrating, amazing, gorgeous world I had also discovered further south. Some travelers I've met refer to I.N.D.I.A, as in "I'm Never Doing It Again." But I know I have only had a taste and that I want to return for a deeper experience.

The view from my guesthouse

Ladakhi archery

Downtown Leh, with the ancient palace in the background

Yours truly, on the way to Pangong Lake (the sign says "Border Roads Organization Himank Welcomes On World Third Highest Pass, Chang La)
Pangong lake, one the most beautiful places I will ever go

Monks in class at Thiksey monastery
A stunning 3-story Buddha at Thiksey. He's sitting on the floor below.

*Of course, no trip to India is complete without a visit to the country´s international icon (or at least, so I felt.) So during my few days back in Delhi I boarded an early morning train and visited Agra. The city was dirty, but interesting, with a fascinating market quarter. The Red Fort palace complex was beautiful, even as I melted in heat that reached 48 degrees Celsius (almost 120 F!) My experience at the Taj Mahal was frustrating-- the list of items you cannot bring in include flashlights, iPods, books that are not guidebooks, any kind of food, and I had all of these things in my bag. Once I had resolved the matter of where to keep my bag, the enclosure itself was mobbed with people (I found out later it was the run up to an important festival.) But even debilitating heat, beauracracy, and crowds couldn´t dim the beauty of this building. As I remarked to Faith, and later to other friends around the world, the capacity of the human race to find infinite ways to make architectural beauty continues to stagger me. And stagger I did, back to the train, on to Delhi, and toward the international airport, where a 5 am flight awaited to take me to a cultural universe far, far from the Himalayas. I was bound for a month in the Middle East.

48 degrees!(!!!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

REWIND: India-- Weddings and Rivers

Another installment of my whirlwind rewind summaries. I spent 3 weeks in India, and the experience was intense, wonderful, exhausting, colorful, overwhelming, and a host of other motley adjectives. This one looks to be a doozy. Such a doozy, in fact, that I´m splitting it in two.


*I stayed for my first few days in India with an old friend from primary school, Faith, who moved to Delhi permanently after falling in love with both the country and a co-worker in the course of an NGO service placement program. We spent these days getting a feel for the city, from Old Delhi, where the city's old Muslim still shows through, to the magnificent tomb complex of emperor Hanuman.

Looking out at Delhi from the main mosque

Scenes from Old Delhi

Humayun's tomb

Dehra Dun and the wedding

*Through the miracle of couchsurfing, I was invited to a traditional North Indian wedding in Dehra Dun, a small city northeast of Delhi. The bus ride there was an adventure in itself (more on Indian busses in a moment), but the wedding itself was, of course, the highlight. It is one of my great regrets that I was not able to participate in the first day of the wedding, which included henna painting ceremonies, song, and dance. But I was still able to complete my role as part of the groom´s party. At about 8 PM we gathered at a set point and our 50+ party snaked our way through the evening Dehra Dun streets. The whole party danced boisterously to the music of a hired brass band, illuminated by slanting light from 20 electric lamps whose trailing cords were plugged into batteries carried by yet others in the retinue.

The groom's procession-- going to get the bride

When we finally reached the bride´s house, we found a feast set up, with tables scattered about the lawn. The guests ate, while the bride and groom took interminable photos with seemingly every possible combination of relatives and friends. The rest of the night was a string of rituals-- the exchanging of the dowry; the signing of the marriage contract; and, at 4 am, after many cups of chai and super-sweet coffee, the actual marriage ceremony, which involved a Hindu priest and the ritual of tying the couple together (lightly, no S & M here) and having them walk around a sacred fire.

The happy couple

Circling the fire 7 times (circa 4 AM)

Haridwar and Rishikesh

*Dehra Dun is a veritable hop (well, on Indian terms) from the twin sacred towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh, pilgramage sites along the Ganges River, so with some difficulty I boarded a bus to Haridwar. I wanted to see the Ganga Aarti ceremony, a nightly ritual where thousands gather on the banks of the river to chant together and bathe in the river. Haridwar was everything I expected a sacred town to be-- a riot of color, cows wandering the roads, orange-robed holy men camped on the sidewalks, bindied children selling flowers to float down the river.

I took a chairlift to a mountaintop shrine outside of town, but it was so mobbed that I only had time to admire the smoggy view of the river winding into the distance before I had to go back down to find a spot at the Aarti. In the press of people along the riverbank I was sure I would be pickpocketed, or at least lose my shoes (which were left in mountains outside in a designated area), but I was lucky. In fact, even when I was pulled forward by a scam artist looking to make me pay for a fake ritual I was able to use that opportunity to find a much better position from which to view the ritual, which was haunting and beautiful.

A temple in Haridwar

Washing in the Ganges

The Ganga Aarti

*My experience in Rishikesh was similar, although the few days I spent there turned out to be very frustrating and overwhelming in some ways. It was my goal to cross into Himachal Pradesh province to Manali. I had been told in Dehra Dun that I had to go to Haridwar to do this. In Haridwar I was told I had to go to Rishikesh. And then when I got there I was told I had to go back to Haridwar. Nevertheless, I was able to explore the enchanting streets and even to celebrate the river goddess Ganga´s birthday with an impromptu dip in the river, clothes and all. Hindu bathers around me nudged each other, cheering, and laughing good-naturedly. Sure, I had to wait a week to wash those clothes and wear them again, but the memory is priceless.

The streets of Rishikesh


*What followed was one of the worst three day stretches of my entire trip. I was trying to get to Himachal Pradesh, and I had very little success. My nerves were already stretched thin from the exhausting ordeal that is traveling in India. India is (quite literally, I think) where the busses from the rest of the world come to die, and there is nary a shock absorber, functioning vent, or unbroken window among them. I spent 3 almost uninterrupted days on these overfilled busses, gritting my teeth over the bumps, elbow to elbow with 8 other people in a seat made for 4, with the dusty 100 degree wind dehydrating me. Ten hours later, exhausted and near tears, I would get to my next destination and be told that I could not get from there to Manali, despite the information I had been given at the chaotic, overwhelming bus stand that morning. I would try desperately to find a place to stay for the night and try again the next day, when I would again be given misinformation but the single English speaker at the bus stand, only to end up in another Wrong Place that night.

By the time I ended up in Shimla, a place I had never intended to go to, I was desperate-- and then the bus was late and the hotel owner chastised me for my tardiness and told me he had given away my room. I was lucky enough to meet Bala, an Indian-born Canadian, at this point. He shared his hotel room and his dinner with me and helped me to find a bus (semi-deluxe, even) to Manali the next night. Sure, the so-called semi deluxe bus had broken windows and lacked shock absorbers just like its brethren, but I had my own seat in which to drowse, and when I arrived in Manali I was finished with long, hot, torturous bus rides in India. Train rides, well, that was another story.

Really the only good part of Shimla-- sunset over the mountains

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Your European trivia for the day

Food (literally) for thought:

In Holland I reached for a slice of pizza and my host (who is an American transplant) said, "Oh, we don't do that here" and pointed to the knife and fork at my side

Here in Liguria, northern Italy, I finished up lunch with my hosts and looked around for cutlery with which to eat the pie we were having for dessert. But my search was fruitless. In Liguria you eat pie with your hands!

Friday, December 4, 2009

A fractured (computer screen) fairy tale-- Normandy edition

Once upon a time there was a girl who disappeared to Normandy for 10 days. She had a lovely time there, driving around the D-Day beaches; exploring some 15th century towers; sampling regional specialties like apple tart, Calvados, and tartiflette; and enjoying the slow pace of small-town life. She spent a long, fun night at a Cherbourg night club; she hosted a boisterous Thanksgiving dinner party with local couchsurfers and rotisserie chicken; she marveled at the crazy raining-9-times-a-day weather and resulting rainbows; and finally she caught a terrible cold.

So she stayed there in Normandy a few extra days, nursing her cold, drinking lots of tea with honey, and generally feeling lousy. One tragic morning, in her feverish haze, she brought a steaming cup of tea to bed, and sat down on the bed and.... on her computer. And so the story had a woeful end, with the girl's laptop out of order, a fact which will make her traveling life dramatically more difficult and severely curtail her blogging.

The moral of the story is: Please be patient in the coming weeks, as I cope with my suddenly computerless existence.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mother Tongue

I'm sitting in a small cafe/bar in a little town in Normandy, and evening is falling fast outside. The clank of the boats moored across the road at the harbor is just audible over the wind. It's been stormy all today.

I went for a walk in the gale, and when I came back I treated myself to a cafe au lait. For awhile I was the only customer, and the genial owner brought me my coffee and went back to his newspaper at the bar. The radio babbled in the background in French, and I surfed the free wifi (here's it's "wee-fee") from the cafe next door. A few customers came in, locals who knew the barman, and they chatted among themselves. Everything was entirely normal and alien, in that strange way it can only be when you're staying in a country not your own, and I was feeling a little melancholy with the weather and no one to talk to... until the opening chords of Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" came over the radio. Suddenly, everything seemed better. Maybe it was the caffeine kicking in, but just hearing that familiar song made everything brighter.

About a month ago, when I first arrived in the UK, I intended to write an entry about arriving somewhere where everyone spoke English after so long away. As I said in my last post, I spent a lot of time in England dithering about what to write about first, and so I ended up writing everything at once and posting nothing at all. Here is part of a draft I wrote up during that time:

Despite the fact that I am a writer, a reader, and a self-proclaimed English nerd, I didn't realize how much I missed being surrounded by English until I arrived in the United Kingdom a few days ago. Suddenly, a whole world of auditory delight has been reintroduced to me. I had forgotten about overheard snippets of conversation in cafes, talk radio, political TV shows, news, soap operas, road signs, town names, menus, small talk with waiters in restaurants, chit-chat in the supermarket.

I'll be in the UK for a total of 2.5 weeks, a reprieve from a milieu of foreignness that makes everything harder. I had forgotten that life could be anything except that way-- the last English speaking country I visited (besides Hong Kong and India, whose denizens speak English if necessary but not among themselves) was New Zealand.

In the weeks I spent in the UK I delighted in my linguistic surroundings. I spent time in pubs doing some harmless eavesdropping and was amused by road signs for towns with names like "Thornfalcon" and "Fivehead." I ordered food with ease, asked for directions on the street, and followed with some interest the appearance of British politician Nick Griffin on the important BBC political TV show “Question Time." Griffin, who fronts a xenophobic political party with a platform that some say is redolent of neo-Nazism, created a stir with this appearance, and I was gleefully able to watch the video with my British friends, read the newspaper stories that followed, and talk to people I met about their opinions on the subject. It was entirely refreshing. I felt that I was really participating in current events, in the vital present-day life of the country.

When, on the way from a friend's house to the train station one Sunday morning, I was treated to an episode of "The Archers," a British radio institution that has been on the air since WWII, I felt similarly. As the hedgerows, fallow fields, and orchards of Somerset flashed by, I listened to the dramas of the families this program has tracked for decades. Following the sounds of their lives, I learned the lessons tucked into the narrative, about everything from family planning to how to plant a vegetable garden, along with the rest of the British public.

Sitting in this cafe after the last chords of Wham! died away, all of this has been on my mind. I've felt especially keenly the importance of linguistic immersion during the past few weeks, which were spent in France and, briefly, Belgium. Although I speak slightly more French now than when I arrived--that is to say of the latter none at all, and the former the basics like "one coffee please" and "could I have the bill, please"-- I have missed the feeling of deep comprehension and ease that comes with knowing the language.

And while I recognize this loss, I'm not sure that one experience is somehow "less" than the other. There is nothing like sitting down in a crowded Parisian (or Norman) cafe with a glass of wine or a coffee and losing yourself in the chatter and cigarette smoke, the foot traffic passing by, or the boats clacking together in the wind. It's easier to remind yourself of the otherness of your circumstances, to feel the exotic close up around you, when you are surrounded by a language you cannot understand.

It's certainly something to consider, these factors, as small as a passing mood or the weather or as large as a linguistic barrier, that affect a traveler's experiences and perceptions of a place. Would Paris have seemed as enchanting and magical if I could have understood the man next to me complaining about his lazy wife or those dirty immigrants? Would I have felt so at ease in England if I hadn't been able to ask new acquaintances their impressions of Nick Griffin or the bartender which local Somerset cider he recommended? Probably not.

So one thing I've learned from this linguistic adventure is that you have to embrace your travel experiences as lovely and perfectly flawed in their subjectivity. Like everyone else, I am a bundle of strengths and weakness (linguistics among them), and for me England represents the familiar and comfortable, while France is more mysterious and secretive. For another traveler the opposite could easily be true. But that's part of the miracle of travel-- that and Wham! on the radio in a little bar in an unexpected place.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Deepest apologies

I know it's been forever since my last entry; a complete lack of internet access in London, followed by a whirlwind through Scotland and Paris (and dithering about what to write about first!) has kept me off this blog. And now I am about to depart for a lovely vacation-from-my-vacation in Normandy, where I will sit and look out at the window at the Carentan harbor and write... but I won't be able to share it with you.

Yes, I am looking at a full week without internet, sort of a nightmare and sort of a curiosity. Hopefully I will be able to find fleeting connections to post whatever I'm writing. I have so much to say! Thoughts on exploring my Jewish identity in Europe, on the importance of language in travel, and on the "artifacts of home," from baseball to Halloween. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Riddle me this

From the moment I arrived here in foggy, windswept, beautiful Cornwall, I had one phrase swirling around in my head.

"As I was going to St. Ives/I met a man with seven wives..."

That's because the real St. Ives (also see: skin product) is about 15 miles from where I'm staying, in Penzance (also see: Gilbert & Sullivan, "Pirates of"),

For the first several days I thought I was going crazy. I had no idea where I'd heard that phrase before, and I didn't know the rest of the rhyme (although I was pretty sure there was more of it.) Finally, I resorted to the internet, and because we pretty much live in a Hive Mind society these days, a simple 30 second search got me the following:

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
Each sack had seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, wives
How many were going to St Ives?
I have no idea where I would have heard this rhyme, but I can imagine it was probably a nursery rhyme I learned (the Brits here would say "learnt") some 20 years ago that was floating around waiting to be rediscovered a decade or two later. The brain's capacity for memory is occasionally astounding.

By the way, can you figure out the answer to the riddle?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

REWIND: Hong Kong/ Macau

One of the twists of flying on a round-the-world ticket is that you have to fly where the airlines fly, but that's not always a bad thing. In July, for example, I stopped in Jordan (and, on a whim, also Syria) because there were no direct flights between India and Greece, and I loved my time there-- but more on that later. First, though, in May, the round-the-world ticket compelled me to pause in Hong Kong for a few days on the way from Kunming, China to Delhi, India. I had a good friend, John (longtime readers of this blog will remember him from my days studying in China) teaching English there with his girlfriend, so I stopped in to recharge my batteries, hang out with them for a few days, and see some what I could of the city.

My time in Hong Kong was very laid back-- my priority was relaxing and spending time with my friends, rather than any intensive exploration. We cooked, played games, slept late, watched movies in our pajamas. It may sound odd, but for the long-term traveler, these kinds of mundane everyday activities are exotic and much sought-after. Museums, maps to foreign cities, trains, castles, markets-- these are our bread and butter. So for me it was thrilling to make popcorn and watch "The Daily Show" a few days in a row.

Of course, we did get out occasionally to do some fun things, such as visiting a great used book store, stuffing ourselves with dim sum (a must in southern China), and going to a posh wine bar for a wine tasting night. Lisa and I visited John at his school to watch him teach a lesson; another day we went out to the fantastically-named and wonderfully authentic Flying Pan diner (delicious omelets and home fries in the middle of Kowloon island, who knew?) And on my last day I took a day-trip to Macau, which is only a couple of hours by ferry from Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong skyline Walking around Kowloon island

Macau and Hong Kong have a lot in common. They were both culturally and politically leased to colonial powers for many years-- Hong Kong to the British and Macau to the Portuguese. Both were returned to China within the last couple of decades and have since undergone rapid economic and cultural transformation, but both retain an interesting mix of cultures. Macau is also becoming known as a Chinese Las Vegas, a gambling mecca of crazy proportions. I wanted to see it all for myself.

My day in Macau was interesting-- I checked out a couple of the gaudier casinos and wandered a few of the neighborhoods that have retained their Portuguese character. And I tried Macanese food, which includes a lot of Chinese characteristics (wok frying, local vegetables) but also features delicacies like dulce de leche. The anthropologist in me found the way the cultures coexist and mingle in the cuisine and on the street fascinating.

Portuguese and Chinese side by sideItalic
I didn't spend much time in the casinos, preferring to admire them from outside. I did go out of my way, however, to visit the Venetian, an over-the-top casino a fellow traveler had recommended that houses a to-scale recreation of Venice's Piazza San Marco and surrounding streets, featuring gondola rides where the gondoliers will sing to you. I was definitely impressed-- the replica even included lighting to match the time of day outside.

One of the famous Macau casinos

Inside the Venetian

I finished my day with a wander around the quaint neighborhoods of southern Macau and a stop at a family restaurant, where the Macanese family pressed extra goodies on me and I bought some dulce de leche to bring home to John and Lisa, who were waiting with pizza. The next morning, I gathered my things and ventured over to the Hong Kong airport, where my flight to India was waiting.

Macanese colonial architecture
Macau street life

One of the famous sights of Macau, an old colonial church destroyed in a fire, with only the facade left standing

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Keeping pace

I may be only 22, but I think I'm getting an idea of what it is to age.

A month ago I wrote here about hitting the 2/3 mark in my one-year trip. I hadn't felt burnt out then, and I don't feel it now. But I've been traveling solo in Europe for 1.5 months at this point, and I've started to notice a change in pace. I don't do as much in a day anymore; I need more moments to rest and unwind, more time to start my engines; I take more hours"off," not sightseeing or exploring, just sitting in cafes or watching TV or reading. I am still loving every day, but I'm tired. I'm getting travel-old.

At the beginning of this trip I spent a few days in each city, moving as often as I liked or could manage. A few months in I figured out, through calculation and observation, that I needed a complete day off, with no obligation to see or do anything except lie around, about every 7 to 10 days. This was sometimes difficult to do because there was always a little voice in my head jabbering about wasting valuable time in a place I might never see again.

But the longer I traveled the quieter that voice got. I still experienced an awful lot, and I realized that the necessity for downtime made me human. One day, while I sat in an anonymous room in an anonymous country surfing the net mindlessly, I realized that in some way this break was like creating a home for me to go to. Whatever strange place I found myself in, I could recreate the same setting-- a nondescript room, a comfortable bed, a long stretch of free time, a book, a computer, some junk food--that would be like a return to home base. It wasn't just dealing with exhaustion, it was a way to make a safe haven, something familiar in all the strangeness that was the same whether I was in Taiwan or Turkey.

When I got to Europe my pace changed. These past months I've spent more time in each place-- averaging about a week per city, with some shorter stints and day trips thrown in-- and done less each day. In part this was a conscious choice. I decided at the beginning of September, as I set out on my 4-month European adventure, that because I had the time to settle in and let a city get under my skin, I should take advantage of that opportunity. So I've slept in more often, seen one museum in a day instead of two, read my book in cafes and parks, and given myself permission to do less seeing and more living.

And it's lucky I did, because what started out as a lifestyle decision has become more and more of a necessity as the time ticks by. Even a traveler so in love with this lifestyle (Today I walked down the streets of Leiden in the Netherlands and thought,r "I was born for this") gets worn out. So I relax, I adjust, I rest. And then I move on.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nothing is rotten in the state of Denmark*

... unless you count me. Spoiled rotten, that is. I arrived in Copenhagen a few nights ago, where I am staying with some dear family friends who are treating me like a queen. From trips into the countryside to museums to delicious meals, I am enjoying myself greatly.

I've explored the city center, enjoying both a sunny day and a brisk "Kultur Natten," an evening when cultural landmarks from theaters to embassies to the Danish palace gave open houses. I've explore Rothskilde, where 5 Viking ships were unearthed and restored and where 1000 years worth of Danish monarchs are interred. I indulged my inner English geek at Elsinore (now spelled 'Helsingor'), where the real Hamlet (whose name was Amled) ruled, and Fredriksborg, another stunning castle filled with exquisite decor. I ate fried fish on a sunny afternoon along the colorfully painted banks of New Harbor; a few days ago I had the rare opportunity to visit the Danish Adventurers' Club, whose clubhouse is hung with Papuan shields and Tibetan headdresses and among whose members sit the likes of John Glenn. And later this week I'm planning a couple excursions across the strait Sweden.

It seems there's more to see in heaven and Copenhagen, Horatio, than is dreamt of in my philosophy...

* Apologies to Shakespeare

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ich bin ein Berliner

After a false start this morning (leaving my host's apartment a bit late + awful luck with tram and metro timing = missing my train to Hamburg) I am en route to Copenhagen. To celebrate my fairly cruddy day, I invested in some super-shiny on-train wireless internet.

Yes, I left Berlin today, albeit with a heavy heart. The city is truly vibrant, with a very different feel than the other Germany cities (or other central European cities, for that matter) that I visited. The look is different, of course, since so much of the city had to be rebuilt after the various wars/conflicts that it has hosted in the past century or so. But what really attracted me was the creativity that permeated so much of what I did. Some highlights:

*Art museum hopping-- from a great little place full to the brim with Picasso and Matisse to the Hamburger Hof (a redone train station), which features amazing modern art from Warhol to Nauman and also currently boasts a very interesting exhibition from three new artists who are competing for an annual prize

* Spending Wednesday night at the Wienerei, a cozy/funky cafe which hosts a weekly "wine night." You pay 1 euro entrance and a 1 euro deposit for your glass, then feel free to drink as much wine, champagne, juice, or whatnot as you like all night. There are lots of interesting people about (if you're lucky, lots of couchsurfers, too), a tasty buffet, and at the end you pay whatever you think is a fair amount

*Exploring the Turkish quarter, Kreuzberg, sometimes known as the third Turkish city outside Istanbul and Ankara. Went with my host to the Thursday market there, and the hawkers selling produce, material, gozleme, and doner made me nostalgic for July. Then met an interesting couchsurfer (writing her thesis on crime fiction in South Africa) for some amazing and quite-close-to-authentic tasting chai at a great cafe nearby-- which made me nostalgic for June

*Visiting the Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe, an abstract sculpture made of hundreds of rock pillars that appear to be the same height but actually descend into a disorienting, sickening, sobering forest in the middle, was very affecting. The museum underneath it, detailing real people and real families obliterated in the genocide, made me both almost cry and almost vomit, neither of which I am moved to do easily. More about this in a later entry

*Celebrating! I didn't know this beforehand, but October 3 is Reunification Day, commemorating the reunification of East and West Germany. I was around for the festivities and managed to weasel my into a festival of food, drink, and great German bands. I did miss an art installation in which a troupe of puppeteers staged a reenactment of the fall of the Berlin wall using 10-meter high puppets, unfortunately.

*Exploring the remnants of East German culture, specifically the beautifully preserved murals on what's left of the wall and a fascinating sculpture gallery/studio complex/cafe cluster made from a building that had been left to urban blight during the 90s. What was once a filthy, graffiti-riddled hulk has become a beautiful, vibrant, graffiti-rich place for alternative artists to work and show the results. I wandered the warren of small home-made galleries constructed from pieces of scrap metal, storage containers, and old fences, and felt in awe of the art that can come from chaos.

*Visiting the weekly flea market in Mauer park, which was equally uplifting. It was a great flea market, in general, with lots of interesting crafts and intriguing junk, but what really caught my breath and my eye was the grassroots karaoke session which happens there every week in a small run-down ampitheater at one side of the park. At least 200 people gathered to drink beer and watch the proceedings. There was an ad hoc soundsystem wired through a couple of bicycles and a Mac laptop, and an Irish guy was MCing as a succession of Germans, Danes, and Norwegians worked their way through the likes of Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation," Janis Joplin's "Another Little Piece of My Heart," and the one and only "Sweet Transvestite." It was entirely unironic, despite the hipster clothing in evidence, just a lot of people with a cold, windy Sunday on their hands who weren't afraid to look silly and let loose.

Art, cafes, culture, markets, karaoke. And I'm told the rent is cheap and English teaching jobs are plentiful, if competitive. Just a few reasons I'll have to come back some day.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Boston, Berlin; Tomay-to, tomah-to

I arrived in Berlin late last night, and the first things I saw when I got into the train station were:

a) An advertisement for the Blue Man Group
b) A Dunkin Donuts

So I had a moment of Boston nostalgia around these two originals my hometown-- It's easy these days, since I love New England fall dearly. But... then I forged ahead into the unbelievably complicated S-Bahn-U-Bahn metro system, which puts dear old Boston to shame (there are something like 25 lines!) and remembered what city I was in, after all.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

So what do you do?/Oh yeah, I wait tables, too

My perfect 5 minutes from today: seeing a street musician in a cafe by the Vltava river sing "Bohemian Like You" by the Dandy Warhols. The night was unseasonably warm, the lights were coming off the river, the amazing Prague castle towered in the background-- and I giggled, because I am a huge nerd and hearing this song while actually in Bohemia was just too excellent.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Another unit in my "rewind" series, giving you a taste of my trips until such time as I can post more in detail (likely when I return to the states)...

Arriving in Yunnan province, China (in early April) was different than most of the other arrivals on my trip-- for me it was a real homecoming, as long-time readers of this blog know. I spent almost 6 months in Yunnan during university studying Mandarin; learning about Chinese history, religion, and economics; and doing anthropology research for my undergraduate thesis in Anthropology, which focused on the storytelling traditions of the Lisu indigenous group in northwest Yunnan. The entirety of my visit to Yunnan this time around had a nostalgic, affectionate feel, as I revisited old haunts, met old friends and, in the last section, took my parents to meet some of the people who opened their homes and lives to me during my research.

*I spent almost a week in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, but it wasn't a particularly eventful week. I had lunch with old teachers; saw one of my friends from the semester abroad, Mike, who was in town doing research on a Fulbright grant; spent an inordinate amount of time in my old favorite restaurants and cafes (most significantly Salvador's, the best western-style coffee shop in the city, which had been the victim of a terrorist attack since my last visit.) I stayed in Mike's apartment for the duration of my visit, but he had to go back to the US unexpectedly to look at graduate schools. It turned out to be a great set up, though, as I caught the first serious cold of my entire trip and was basically flat on my back for most of the week, sleeping and watching internet TV but not having to worry about getting anyone else sick or dealing with a hotel staff/ loud hostelmates.

On campus at Yunnan Normal University, my home for spring semester 2007
Once I started feeling better, I made my way to Zhongdian (also known in Tibetan as Gyelthang), a tourist boomtown on the edge of the Tibetan world, only a short trip from the border of the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region). I had been for a brief trip with my classmates during the semester abroad and had been deeply affected by the atmosphere, which truly is different than anywhere else, and the mix of cultures I learned about during our stay. My entry from that time ("Kham is Calm," which can be found in the 2007 archive of this blog) marveled at the amazing serenity I felt while exploring the Songzanlin monastery outside of town. I returned to Zhongdian hoping to reclaim that feeling and delve a little bit deeper into the world whose surface I had only brushed three years ago.

*I stayed in a guesthouse belonging to a bicultural couple, Mattieu and Kersan, he from Belgium, she from a Tibetan settlement a couple of hours north toward the border, who were friendly and very interesting to talk to. The guesthouse was beautiful, and every morning their cook/helper made me a traditional Tibetan breakfast of flatbread with honey, yogurt, fruit, and (instead of butter tea) coffee. I would sit out in the brisk spring sunshine enjoying the view of the new temple and town rooftops before starting my day.

*I went to visit that new temple, which the people of Zhongdian erected after their town because something of a tourist mecca, and took a spin around the largest prayer wheel in the world. Afterward, I happened get into a long conversation with one of the monks. He asked me a lot of questions about American life and told me about what it's like to be a monk and about his home life.

The largest prayer wheel in the world Prayer flags against a backdrop of spring cherry blossoms *I went back to Songzanlin Monastery, which had changed a great deal (including the addition of a large and obtrusive tourist gate and a price hike) but was still equally affecting and beautiful inside. There I made friends with a pair of monks, one young and one old, who told me they were grandfather and grandson. They were delighted to talk to me, the younger taking my camera for a spin around the prayer hall and the older admiring my girth (the subject of much unfortunate admiration in that part of the world) and engaging me in a simple political discussion. When I told him I was American, he smiled. "Bush, Dalai Lama" he said happily, showing me two clasped hands. "England, Dalai Lama; France, Dalai Lama"-- the clasped hands again. Then his expression darkened. "China, Dalai Lama," he said, and his fist drove into his open hand.

At the monastery
Grandfather and grandson
*During my first trip to I had met several members of Khampa Caravan, a Tibetan-run tour company that ensures that the money from its tours goes straight to the Tibetan community in the area (rather than opportunistic businesspeople who have flocked to the city to take advantage of the tourist boom.) I decided I wanted to make a day trip into the countryside outside of Zhongdian, and Khampa Caravan seemed like a good place to start. I contacted the company, and in the course of deciding on a drive north toward Deqin I made friends with the Caravan with whom I was corresponding, whose name was Dolma.

One Dolma rounded up several of her Tibetan friends, and we all drank strong Tibetan wine and talked into the night as the Lhasa Cafe emptied around us. During my first trip to Zhongdian I had met a few Tibetans who I was told had been educated in India, but I never really thought about what this meant. Discussing my new friends' life histories, however, I started to understand the amazing strength Tibetan refugees in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces must have. Each of the men pictured below left his home in the Chinese countryside between age 11 and 13. He took a bus to Lhasa (3 days), then walked-- yes, walked-- over the Himalayas for 17 more, often with no food and little to drink. He then had to sneak over the border into Nepal, bus to the Indian border, and hope to claim refugee status there. If he succeeded, he could stay in India until his education was complete 5-10 years later, never seeing his family and recieving letters a few times a year if he was lucky. If he didn't (as in the case of the gentleman in the middle of this picture), he would be sent back to Lhasa, where he would have to start the 17-day walk all over again.

As the liquor flowed, we began trading songs and stories from our respective cultures. The cafe was empty by this time, and I got goose bumps as the voices of my new friends, strong with drink, soared in unfamiliar melodies punctuated by whoops and handclaps. (I will be sure to post some of these stories, and possibly a video with one song in the "real" entry on Zhongdian later this year.)

My new Tibetan friends

My day trip up near Deqin was wonderful. The weather was gorgeous, the scenery stunning, and my guide well informed. We drove first up a major pass overlooking Napa Lake, then down to what locals call a "hot" valley, where prosperous artisan villages create amazing crafts, from cast iron pots of wooden sculpture to beautiful brasswork. The enormous traditional houses were bordered with cacti, certainly not an item I had had on my list of "things you would find in Tibet." The amazing day, which deserves its own entry, ended with a tortuous drive to an ancient monastery and a beautiful nunnery.

Napa lake in the spring
*Giving in to the impulse I would be fighting (and still am) for many months to do and see everything possible, no matter the stress, I arranged before I left Zhongdian to participate in a short (very short) "homestay experience." The program, new for its type in Zhongdian, was a form of ecotourism, connecting me with a farmer in a very small village outside town. He picked me up and drove me through countryside teeming with yaks and goats to his house, where I met his family, learned about his enormous 3-floor wooden house (which he built himself, over 2 years), and ate fried potatoes and butter tea. It was a too-brief, but despite the squeeze I had to make in order to catch my sleeper bus that night, a peek into daily life untainted by mass tourism (thought certainly tourism in some way) was well worth the effort

The unbelievably adorable daughter of the man at my brief homestay outside ZhongdianNujiang

I had to catch said sleeper bus because... I was due to meet my parents in Dali, 8 hours away, the next morning! Dedicated readers of this blog will be familiar with the Nujiang valley, where I did the anthropology research that made up my undergraduate thesis. I was very excited to return 2 years later, with my parents in tow. I missed the place and wanted to experience it again. More importantly, I missed the friends I had made during the tumultuous but incredibly rewarding time I spent there. And I was thrilled that I had the opportunity to share my unique experience, and this side of China (which few people get to see) with my parents-- in short, to introduce my American family to their and Pumi and Lisu alternates.

After an exhausting but amazing trek up the valley from Dali (10 hours in a van, but what scenery!) we spent my mother's 60th birthday in Fugong, the geographic and culture center of the Lisu tribe in Yunnan. I took my parents to the market, walked them around town, and introduced them to Mr and Mrs X, who had nursed me to back to health when I had fallen ill with dysentary 2 years prior. Things went similarly wonderfully south in Liuku. After my cell phone was stolen in Taiwan, and all my Chinese contact information with it, I had been sure I would not be able to track down the numbers of all the friends I made in Nujiang. But a mixture of luck and guanxi (the complicated net of Chinese reciprocity that connects everyone socially and practically) connected me with everyone I could have hoped to see. The reunions were truly lovely.

Lisu with their bags and baskets in Fugong

My Fugong Family meets my real family-- Mr and Mrs X, me, and my parents

Nujiang scenery
*The highlight of the Nujiang trip was a 2-day stay with the Xiong family outside Lanping. Long time readers will remember Limei, my Pumi translator who attached herself to me during my stay in Liuku and with whom I stayed in the countryside at the very end of my time in Yunnan. Limei's family had long been inviting mine to come and visit, and this was an experience I wanted my family to have. So this time I brought my parents, too-- and an important gift, a sit-walker for Limei's mother, who is unable to walk due to debilitating arthritis.

Those two days were powerful in a way I'm not sure I can explain, especially not in a round-up format like this one. In depth description will have to wait until the full-length entries. But suffice to say that living with a peasant family for 48 hours was a remarkable experience for my parents (and for me, too, although I knew what to expect.) We ate meals cooked over an open fire from chickens slaughtered hours before; we slept in the simple wooden house lined with newspapers; we peed in the potato fields. At night a group of Pumi from the village descended, curious to see the visitors, and after many rice wine toasts took to singing and dancing around the fire and insisting that we join them. And the family was so, so grateful for the walker. They cannot treatment or surgery for Mrs. Xiong, who suffers terribly and gets around by dragging wooden stool across the ground. When I left, they called me their seventh child. "You are our American family now," were their parting words.

Dinner with the Xiong family

Xiong life
Our blended family together (My parents and I are wearing the traditional clothes we were given as gifts)
Mrs. Xiong playing a traditional Pumi instrument

*Our last stop was Lanping, where we arrived in time for the Sunday market, an amazing blend of vegetables, medicinal herbs that Yi and Hmong women bring from the high mountains, trinkets, practical items, and exotics (like jade from Burma.) A visit to the market was one of my favorite parts of a weekend in Lanping, and it was wonderful to be able to share this with my mother, who came along to wander.

Burmese jade traders
Some of the wares(note the porcupine quills)

I think these women are Yi, although they might be Hmong-- some kind of hill tribe wearing head gear I'd never seen before
We were reluctant to leave the market, but time was short-- we were due at the Dali airport to leave for Vietnam!