3 a.m., Seville, Southern Spain, Semana Santa–The black Spanish sky merges with the darkened vault of the Iglesia de Santa Marina. Inside the church, he waits patiently with his mother. He is 7 years old. His mother fusses with his cape– white, pressed, reflecting in the candlelight. The candle is slightly smaller than he is. The 3-foot wax cylinders touch against the neighboring capes in the sleepy confusion of the early morning hours, adding an element of risk to the austerity of reverence. His fastidious mother straightens the pleats of his robe, adjusts his braided belt and finally, as the procession begins, she assists the placement of his peaked hood upon his small shoulders. Ultimately, his eyes find the horizontal cat-like slits and he is ready. “One man’s feast is another man’s poison.” This adage takes form in comparing the pointed hats of this very Catholic ceremony to the robes of the Ku Klux Klan as they change polarity and meaning, traversing an ocean. This is the culmination of Easter week. It starts with such celebrations as Carnival Janeiro and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. This is the culmination of the Lenten season that begins in February and ends in the processions of Southern Spain in mid-April. Just ahead of the boy is a man: 25, stronger, dressed in a turban whose neck shield is is embroidered with the Madonna. He takes his place under the paso with the other 50 men. At the three sharp reports by the major domo on the front of the float, the hundreds of pounds of gold, silver, candle and flame are thrown into the air and vibrate to a singular moment on the backs of the men as the doors of the cathedral open and the Christ paso is framed, silhouetted by the streetlights beyond the arches. Slowly the processional moves forward into the night. The Christ, followed by the wave of candle-bearing penitents, crawls silently by. The paso of the Madonna, awash in the light of hundreds of candles from below, looks down upon the devoted thousands in the streets praying as the parade goes by. pulsing through the narrow arteries of Seville. At each corner the float must carefully negotiate and maneuver with the control of the major domo leading the blind bearers below the float. Each hundred paces the paso halts, the men rest, their necks bleeding, raw from the weight of the reverence they bear. The plumes of the centurions cast feathered shadows from candlelight on the ochre walls framing both sides of the serpentine passage. The armor of the men glistens with the labor of the year’s polishing in anticipating this night of glory. The bell and the incense activate every sense as the paso continues with the sun’s rise. The streets allow little forgiveness for the casual observer. There is no room for the uncommitted. With a 15-foot wide float turning corners on streets barely 20 feet across, the viewers must give full attention. The hierarchy of leadership of the church controls the pace and navigation of the passage through the masses. The dawn’s light adds to the shadows, to the magic light dancing. A warming sun wrestles with the light of the candles for dominance, making the mid-April day begin to cook uncomfortably. The processional stops as a formally dressed matron, mantilla framing her face, looks down on the Virgin and sings carefully, clean, precise and passionate words, the crying of a woman who understands pain and suffering. It is the emotion only another woman can feel and share the loss of a son. The floats throb onward, moving, resting, milling, shuffling slowly forward. Ten a.m., noon, 2 p.m. the candles have not noticeably diminished in height, but the hoods and capes have lost some of their crispness from the coolness of the evening. Still the procession pulsates forward. The Madonna, Christ and attendants of all ages approach the entry after 12 hours’ march, returning to the welcoming Iglesia de Santa Marina. Finally the processional is met by a lone man. He is 47 years old, formally dressed on a balcony overlooking the church entryway. The arrival is marked by a hush among the masses. The vacuum of silence is filled by the piercing beauty of a tenor voice that, a capella, celebrates the return of the column with a note that he has practiced of the 51 weeks preceding this one. The song he sings fills the thick, hushed afternoon air as the moment is suspended. The reverence of the singer is so pure and rich his notes can be tasted. Minutes pass and the motionless crowd remains breathless, the only movement is the falling tears of the devoted young and old who share this moment. The tenor is silenced, weeping uncontrollably as the paso is swallowed up once again by the darkness and coolness of the waiting church. The centurions, penetentias and Moorish bearers offer tears and embraces at the end of the week of Easter, at the end of the day, at the end of the paso. Temporal intersections of religion, music, sweat, tears, light, costume and smells pass and fade as they must. The celebrants leave this instant of reverence and return to the world of the secular, and the masses counter the heat with sangria, cool beers and their hunger with pincho de pollos and pincho de carne. The exhausted children are collected by their equally spent parents. The bars in the barrio are swollen with children grasping hoods and wearing communion-like dresses. They drape over the shoulders of parents who share a beer with the centurions. All slake their their while still dressed in costumes, playing a role, a part in the pageant. The plumes tilt back as their heads are raised to accept the libation of cool beers. There is joy, pride, sweat, love and exhaustion all mixed in a steady stream of conversation, reviewing the pageantry as if it had changed this year from the past 500. It is a line that is not only physical, but spiritual and chronological. The scene changes from day to day with the pasos changing from barrio to barrio. By weeks end the streets are fat with the smell of wax. As the cars navigate the turns, snaking through the streets, the squeal reverberates where the rubber meets the wax. The nights turn into days, the drinks turn from thirst quenching to celebratory, the reverence to joy, party to prayer, light from sun to moon to candles. The city never sleeps. This is the week of sheer joy, devotion, celebration of God, city and self. It is Southern Spain, Seville, Samana Santa.
A little back-story. Road trips. This goes back to my kids being 7 and 11 and visiting every national park west of the Mississippi. There is a romance, an abandon being on a road trip. Calories don’t count and it is fine to feather your floating nest with carbohydrates. When my newly married daughter suggested we all go on a road trip for two weeks in the middle of their 10-month honeymoon, I was all over that one. But where to go? Where was it we had all never been that would be enough of an adventure for me, a vacation for my wife and a journey for the four of us?
Croatia? Why not? The name rolls off the tongue as exotic, like Constantinople. Part of the former Yugoslavia (Southern Slavs), it is a perfect mix of familiar and not quite. Think of a perfect vacation in Italy–then cross the Adriatic and meet a similar period and half the cost. Croatia is a bit of a necklace, start at the nape and work your way down. The jewels get more impressive as you work your way south. The journey begins in Zagreb, a city of one million small, affordable, slightly exotic and a portion of Croatia that has not quite caught up with the world. Here the Kunar goes a long way as the EU and the Euro is still in the future. The square is punctuated with a bronze rider on horseback, sword outstretched in the gray drizzle of Southern central Europe Spring. On the periphery of the square is a daily farmers’ market with two floors offering a cornucopia of produce, cheeses, breads, pastas and hams of every description. From the simplest to the most complex. It is hard to find fault with the freshest of ingredients. Up the street, next to the Astoria hotel is Ivan’s hat shop (8-12 and 4-7) with hand made hats spew forth from a treadle sewing machine. Berets and a semi-authoritarian/flight attendant caps are a must. Great and about $17 each.
Croatia doesn’t have the museums that are so prevalent across the way, but what they have is nothing shabby. And the crowds of Florence? – Forget it! Zagreb’s museum of Contemporary Art opened at the beginning of the 2010 with a collection of Croatian and global artists in an eye-popping modern internationalist style building. The work is decent, serviceable contemporary, nothing to overwhelm nor equally nothing to dismiss. The new structure is lined with LEDs that play videos and inundate the vehicular traffic with conceptual narratives as they drive by…perhaps more distracting than talking on a mobile while mobile.
The Modern Art Museum is an exploration of Croatian Artists that ran parallel to the masters of early 20th century French, German and Austrian names. It leaves a viewer unsure as to who came first the Croatian chickens or the western European eggs….The artists of Western Europe obviously had better press machines. The style of display is to pack as many objects into a gallery as can be conceived and then add a few more. This beyond salon style is more evident in the modern museum. Here the collection, which mirrors the style of the larger cities of Europe in the period from 1890-1930s, presents a more attractive destination. It is also walking distance from the main square. Gas lit streetlights still in use from the turn of the last century are still lit and dampened each evening. This should be emphasized as the idea of spending a few days in Zagreb can be well full with an in depth look at the city center and you never really need get in your car…..Unless you start driving to Opatija, Split, Hvar and South.
All the cities of Croatia are walk-able, or Zagreb is easy to get around with a trolley.
Start the road trip in Zagreb, getting a rental on your way out of town. As with any modern European city, there is not reason to have a car with a great public transportation network and being a pedestrian in Europe is a gift rather than a chore. But outside Zagreb, the transportation system is far from great. There is one train (overnight from Zagreb to Venice) daily. Something has gotten lost in the infrastructure and the country remains a bit isolated. Although there is a decent highway in portions of the country, other parts define the expression “hair-pin” curves. Think of driving US1 near Big Sur. Yes the coast line can be beautiful in parts, but for the driver it is all work and lots of it. But With Isteria and Opatija just a few hours west on good roads, it is well worth the visit. The food is Southern Slav mixed with Eastern Italian. While Zagreb has the meats-lamb, duck, pork—the coast moves into a seafood palette. The waterfront at Opatija has a 12 km stone walkway with the Adriatic and small boats on one side and small restaurants and shops on the landside. Walking to a restaurant to build an appetite, and walking back to a hotel after barbeques cuttle-fish (squid) Scampi (a form of shrimp/small lobster) with local olive oil and wine is like discovering the flip side of the Eastern Italian Coast.
In Optija you have lovely hotels and a beautiful seafront stone walk way to harbor, ocean and restaurants. The best of which is Le Mandrac. This is a must. Four or five perfect courses. Perfect. From the aerated black truffles to the lime enhanced crème fresh over chocolate molten cake. If you are in need of further adventure, you are an hour from Trieste or Slovenia. Drive a few hours down the coast and stop at Zadar. Here on the quay of the island town are marble steps and the Sea Organ of Zadar. This is the coolest name of any public monument or sculpture and a fabulous understated installation waiting for your enjoyment. Its constant deep throated tonal range is energized when any ferry goes by. Visit on a windy/choppy day and it sounds like a magical circus is in town.
Split is home of an enormous Diocylineatian palace that still dominates and defines the walls of the old city. Here shops and businesses are embraced in the architecture and keep it breathing. Split is the largest city on the Dalmatian Coast and worth a few days visit. As beautiful as the city is during the day, it is perfect at night. The Venetians controlled the coast to the north and the history of this 3,000 year old city is marked with architecture and events that well pre-date the modern era. Split is history with a significant bump due to the influence of the Venetian empire and the power emanating into the Adriatic. The history of the entire coast is written into the walls—the city walls that surround all this habitations. The landscape is rocky and roads CAN be tricky. As you drive down the coast on four or two lane, remember the difficulty it would be for any aggressive force to move over these mountains and around these rocks. The far more obvious path is the sea, so every city is a walled fortress with protection aimed to repel a sea-born invader. This has evolved to a series of smaller, limited populations living within world monument class cities and evolving organically with them. Although every conservationist I know would disagree, the idea of “monumentalizing” a city and protecting it from further interaction with a living public is the goal of preservation, but it doesn’t describe how a city forms, grows and evolves. The beauty of the Dalmatian Coast is the living organisms these cities remain. On moving farther south there is more to discover. Cities such as Utica in Tunisia, Pompeii in Italy, Bagan in Myanmar hold well deserved spots on the World Monument and UNESCO historic list, but the cities of Hvar, Zadar, Split are living cities. This is the type of situation that would make a historian cringe. Imagine, someone hanging out laundry, cooking or putting up a satellite dish in a zone targeted for preservation. But these cities of Croatia are organic. They breathe, hold families where people live, die, cook and make noise. They are limited by building codes and more importantly city walls, but they are alive. These are not ruins.
The island of Hvar is an example of a quiet Adriatic Island accessible by ferry for an evening or two by heartbreakingly beautiful harbor. The day’s entertainment could well be sitting in a coffee shop on the square, overlooking the harbor, watching children on three and two wheelers scoot by and sipping a Maciado. There is no museum, no movie—here it is not about what you do, rather the act of being here is the goal in itself. Rarely did our rolling thunder road trip relax to this extent. No one wanted to move. After two days of bliss, the designated driver (myself) drove to the East end of the island Sucuraj 80 km of switchbacks and rough road. Sometimes two lanes, on occasion less. To catch the ferry to Drvenik—This is an hour ferry ride and a pleasant lounge to indulge in more coffee, a newspaper and dominoes, or watch the truck drivers play a seemingly continuous game of cards. It might be easier to take the longer ferry to Dubrovnik as the road from Drvenik to Dubrovnik is another tough drive.
In California tourists describe US1 and the road through Big Sur as breathtaking. It is beautiful if it is not jammed with tourists with, of course—breathless tourists. If you are driving it–different story. The road is a bitch and the driver is sweating and it is the least enjoyable drive on the planet. This stretch into Dubrovnik is tough and not as heroic in vista. The ferry from Sucuraj to Dubrovnik might be a better bet.
The father south you go, the more beautiful the jewels on this necklace….until Dubrovnik, which moves the metaphor from semiprecious to diamond. This is the centerpiece of a medieval city. The city (as is Split) is pure pedestrian. Limestone fortifications are double walled and form the limits of the city in arguably the most beautiful walled city in the world. The streets are unusual in their regularity of grid, which diverts from the normal chaos of a medieval plan. The main drag is a marble walkway bordered by luxury shops, cafes and restaurants. But still there are children playing soccer and local teenagers making too much noise on the way home from orchestra practice. Dinner at Pisrecki, at the harbor next to the former slave market, a two-hour walk on the periphery of the city walls makes a perfect day. But, as part of this history, one should also allow a visit to the museum that commemorates Europe’s most recent acts of barbarism and madness. In the museum to the fallen, the wall of 1991-1995 is presented in portrait and video. Although the entire city is on the historic monument site of every cultural organization it was still bombed by Serbians and Montenegrins and the population is very conscious of the privations and hardships that are part of their recent memory.
And finally, Dubrovnik. First, get your accommodations in order and make sure you stay at the Excelsior . This is THE hotel and the perfect cherry on the whipped cream. Dubrovnik is the star of the show and the excelsior is the five-star. Crammed within its city walls are parallel streets of tradesmen and history. The oldest continuously function Sephardic Synagogue is here, the lentils and posts of the doorway tear with their stories of battles that continued until the most recent destruction that came with the Serbia-Croatian War that lasted from 1991-1995.
Dubrovnik has a small museum—a room with plaques, video, mementos and a periphery of faces of young men killed in the war, looking like a Christian Bultanski installation. Maps of the damage done by the shelling adorn many of the public streets. The population does want the 250,000 killed in this war forgotten. The wounds here are fresh and the resentment toward Serbia is overt. There is an air of superiority here and the distinct feeling that Croatia was the victim of Serbian aggression and attempt to conquer or retain was is rightfully Croat. This is a complex political world and the citizens are both anxious and hesitant to discuss it. The wounds are fresh. People remember the privation of an anxious world not more than 16 years past. Rooftops have been too recently rebuilt from aerial and naval bombardments. That a city this small and precious could be the target of such violence has to be one of the mysteries of the world. One resident quoted a Serbian as saying “If we had leveled Dubrovnik we would have rebuilt it newer, older and better.” Who can argue with that logic? For all the adventures you must have in this perfection of pedestrian passages…it is lovely to return to the sheer quality of the Excelsior hotel. Open the window overlooking the Adriatic, view the walls of the city and listen to the lapping of the tide below. It doesn’t hurt that you are sitting in a 20-pound terry cloth bathrobe and sipping on Russian Standard Vodka, sold in the convenience stores. Yum. The excelsior has it all with an enclosed heated lap pool, saunas and spas. Perfection indeed.
Two weeks on a road trip through Croatia. My daughter and her new husband still had months to go as we boarded the plane for Zagreb to go on to home, while they deplaned there and continued their odyssey for months. (I think the rule of thumb is your honeymoon has to end by your first anniversary.)
In truth, it could have been anywhere. When you are invited to travel with your adult children, and their spouses, should they exist, you can go anywhere. I can be in a cheap motel in the middle of a ghetto and I would be fine to crack a bud lite rather than a two olive martini. It is about the people more than the places.
Croatia is more that “that will do.” It is a discovery, a vacation and an adventure. Too frequently left to German tourists as the closest access to the Adriatic beaches and days drive from the homeland…..Croatia is becoming discovered and it’s not to late to join in. But I would suggest haste. Go in the shoulder or slightly off-season, before the press of tourism. These are small towns and cities that become consumed by those that are there to appreciate them. This is the basic paradox of tourism. It is great because it is under visited, undervalued and under appreciated. As soon as it is “discovered”…it consumes itself. The lovely “Sea organ of Zadar” is actually a quay for a cruise ship. As the ship comes it, the site it uses to create the safe have, so beautify in its voice and solitude, goes silent with the protection of the ship and obscured by the gangplanks disgorging the passengers who are coming to enjoy it. Tourists eat their young…..so hurry.
***Time to go is Very late March…before tourism starts. Weather may be a bit sharp, but to have the streets empty, and the cities to yourselves is a joy.
Summer and you are battling German tourists in Wall-to Wall dysfunction and you loose track of what these cities are.
Hotels, Astoria, Excelsior. A note on this hotel and spa. My colleague asked the meaning of the word, and rather than reach for a dictionary I thought, plush robes, a steam room, sauna, 180 degree views of the Adriatic, a six floor sitting room, the lights of a ship cruising in the distance across placid waters, the lit walls of the city as I sit on the patio of my suite with a chilled martini. This is excelsior in my dictionary.
IF YOU GO
The Excelsior, Dubrovnik
Le Mandrac. This is a separate article and a destination on its own.
Each element of a dish grown, caught, picked or selected, each dish conceived and blended of a multitude of taste and texture, four dishes put together in a symphonic fashion to create a meal that is a destination in its own right. Four courses with a bottle of wine are about $65/person. Not a meal, but a memory. Black truffle that could only be described as eating angel pussy.
Obala F. Supila 10, Volosko
051 701 357
The Park Hotel Split.
Staff with all the warmth and charm of cold war era border crossing guards. Breakfast with cold refrigerated croissants. A must to avoid.
Hotel Palace in Hvar, still has a key, not a plastic card swipe– modest but lovely.
Archeological museum, highlight of the collection is the “Zagreb mummy” and its bandages, which are actually a linen book inscribed with Etruscan script. http://www.amz.hr/home.aspx
- Modern gallery for Denis Matia, www.mdc.hr
-Ethnographic museum www.etnografski-muzej.hr
Visit to Morton Museum www.muzej-marton.hr
-Art Pavilion, www.umjetnicki-paviljon.hr
-Museum of Contemporary art, www.msu.hr
-Zagreb city Museum www.mgz.hr
-The Strossmayer Old masters gallery www.hazu.hr
Sea Organ of Zadar
Veracruz, a party for the senses. Multi-colored skirts lift and twirl as the dancers spin to the accompanying music that fills the night air. The evening is filled with jasmine blossoms riding on mist; droplets of water from waves warm with Caribbean rhythms.
A breeze snakes over moonlight sands. It is accompanied by fragrances from islands far away. Intertwined with the air are notes spilling like drops of water from the doorway of a nightclub. Inside drums, trumpets, guitars and piano are played by ancient musicians to accompany their equally enthusiastic audience as they dance the “Dancon” A normal weekend evening in Vera Cruz, where time has stopped.
The music is Cuban, played by six expatriate musicians in a nightclub, or traditional Mexican to accompany the “Dancon,” a mannered, stylistic, semi-samba. The dancers are unselfconscious; dancing young and old with the sheer joy and exuberance of movement. Move further along the square and there is a military brass band. It is as if you are living in a house full of teen-agers with varying musical tastes. As you walk from block to block, the music changes, nut never stops. It is a seamless carpet of changing sounds; a paisley quilt of dance.
The Veracruzanos are a people that celebrate themselves. The seaport, 260 miles from Mexico City, is a destination and escape for the crowds and pollution of the capitol and the occasional tourist, the “norteamericano.”
The Zocalo, a classic Mexican square, centers the nightlife of restaurants, cotton candy vendors, natural herbalists, bands, fortune tellers—the entire spectrum of a culture that enjoys walking on warm Fall evenings, rather than watching MTV at home. This is traditional Mexico; a city that invites to in to share rather than exploit you as a tourist.
Walk a block from the Zocalo, near the Cathedral, and have a coffee at the “Gran Café de Parroquia.” This landmark is white tile room, punctuated with white-coated waiters who place clear glass cups in front of diners. The customer will “clink” the side of their cup to signal the desire for milk and a small boy will appear and arch a stream of warm milk into the center of strong black coffee from an alarming height with unbelievable velocity and accuracy. The room is dominated by two giant chrome and copper coffee urns, topped by two gleaming metal birds.
As you walk from the café to the zocalo, you can encounter a young naval cadet, ablaze in a starched whiteness with gold braid, standing under a streetlight, talking to a young woman in an emerald green suit. The circle of light embraces the couple in Pirates of Penzance splendor. They are engaged in each other, and oblivious to the stimulation around them. The sailor and his girl are blind and deaf to the sights and sounds cacophonous around them. She takes his arm, on the side without the sword, and they begin their walk.
Veracruz is a pedestrian city. Walking isn’t a convenience, it’s a way of life. The Malecon, is the traditional oceanfront walk. These offer the two basic after dinner venues, and the evenings entertainment. For a few pesos, you can have your name etched into a grain of rice and sold as an amulet or just sit on white, lace iron benches flanked by swaying coconut palms, and contemplate the dark water on moonlit nights. This is a postcard from the 1950’s, both visually and temporally. This is not the instant gratification of the Internet; turn off your cell phones and beepers, they won’t work here—or they shouldn’t. Progress can be a pariah, and Veracruz has not be tainted.
The beaches are not as clean as they should be, the city is far from manicured, but there is a gentleness and tranquillity that shouldn’t be missed. During the warm tropical days, you can relax on the soft brown sands and swim in the inviting gentle body-temperature waters. In California we live in the land of environmental monitoring, grown accustomed to listening with half an ear to potential beach closures. The water is not exactly the azure clarity of the traditional islands of the Caribbean, nor the deep royal blue of the Pacific, and there seems to be a noticeable slick on the horizon. For more enticing, exotic beaches visit the shop Tridente, that offers trips to some of the 22 off-shore coral reefs, islands and clean beaches. Here the few tourists in Veracruz, become non-existent. The world is yours alone.
I wouldn’t visit Veracruz for the hotels or the food. It is not a city that requires you to do specific sites, nor events—but it is the being there that finds you walking slower and listening more.
Restaurants in Veracruz are nothing special; the sit down, white-tablecloth variety are nothing special, rather the best in town are in the Mercado Hidalgo, the city’s central market. The second floor is filled with competing food stalls. Here the fish is always fresh, and best prepared as “Veracruzana”, a mixture of garlic, tomato, olive, chile and spices. The market is populated with live chickens, fresh vegetables, and endless rows of “pescas y camarones.”
The major tourist site is the fort, the Castillo de San Juan de Uluia, which guards the harbor. This was the site of the climactic scene of “Romancing the Stone.” This was perhaps the forts most notable accomplishment. As a fort, it was a singular failure. Invading forces would invariably land somewhere up or down the coast, capture the city, cut off the fort and wait. This was a well proven strategy employed by Caribbean pirates, the French and even twice by US forces.
If you grow tired of walking and absolutely have to see the sights, and perhaps prefer to explore a more exotic landscape, take a cab and drive to Coatepec, a Spanish Colonial town, high in the mountains surrounding Veracruz. Surrounding Veracruz the mountainside is full of lush greenery, dancing to the peaks of surrounding volcanoes, where waterfalls slam down into the streams feeding Veracruz. Here the air here is fat with the smell of roasting coffees. The houses are the colors of spice. The air is cooler, crisper and Veracruz seems a world away.
When visiting Veracruz, “seeing” or “doing” is not the goal; rather it is “being” in a relaxed 1950 small Mexican coastal city. If it were not for an extravagance of color and music, you might even be an extra in a Black and White silent movie. Relax and enjoy it, perhaps even dance.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Mexicana and Aeromexico have several flights daily through Mexico City, Continental flies direct from Houston.
Accommodations: Mar y Tierra 10 minutes from the zucola, at the beach-front mid priced tel 52-29/32-02-60 or the Royalty, close to the center, friendly staff tel 52-29/36-14-90
Seedy—but the best location–Hotel Imperial, Located in the center of the zocolo, balconies overlooking the endless parade of locals and tourists on weekend nights, one of the oldest, most beautiful elevators in Mexico. Architecture lovely, but rooms smell like a combination of insecticide, mildew and mold in a cocktail shaker of air-conditioning. Rooms approx. $40/night. Miguel Lerdo 157. Tel 011-52-29-32-12-04
Eating: Gran Café de Parroquia, Independencia 105 (6AM-1AM)
Information: Helpful tourist office (at the square) 52-29/32-19-99 (9AM-9PM)
A trip to Taxco (3 hours south) to see the ornate gold-leaf ornamentation of the carvings and architecture of the Santa Prisca church rewards the visitor with its decorative Baroque architecture but a view of a relatively unspoiled mountain town, quiet, pedestrian, filled with reflections of jewelry displayed in every window and mined underneath the town itself. Here you will also find real Mexican crafts, colorful masks and baskets, not the Taiwanese souvenirs that seem have invaded other cities.
Travel north four hours and visit San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city that is home to many American expatriates. A brief negotiation with a taxi and you can visit the Atontonilco church nearby. It was from here that Padre Hidalgo took the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe that became the flag of the Mexicans in the War of Independence. Six chapels with murals. The cappelli, inundated with baroque silverwork, the posterior alter room, circumscribed by the apostles are a hidden masterwork at the end of a bumpy cobblestone road. There are few building in this pueblacita other than this parish house and supporting structures. The isolation and beauty of this gleaming white plastered exterior, framing the gold and silver within, is one of the more remarkable discoveries in Mexico. Buy one of the most unusual souvenirs, key chains that are tiny replicas of the coarse whips were used by Atontonilco pilgrims to flagilate themselves.
Further east, approximately 450 kilometers east is Veracruz , the first town founded by the Spanish in Mexico on 1519. and the Castillo de San Juan de Ulua (accent over second u). This fortress once protected, or tried to protect a city of now one million inhabitants. San Juan de Ulua is now threatened by the encroachment of the sea, the undercutting of the foundations by the corrosive tides, and the encirclement of the activity of the harbor as monumental cranes describe the perimeter of the skyline surrounding the fort. In addition to being a fort with the first lighthouse in the Americas, it has some frightening remains of a prison, including a stone chair carved out of one wall, where prisoners were chained and a fire was built underneath them. The center square is charming, where dances are held on the weekends. Couples, both old and young, gracefully execute their steps on the marble plaza. Have breakfast at the Cafe de la Parroquia where the waiter pour hot milk in a flowing stream into your coffee.
Here as in several other locations such as Chiapas and Chiuhaua, the World Monument’s Fund focuses the attention of the world, and injects funding to halt erosion, collapse and eventually rehabilitates and restores these sites.
A diverse and exciting itinerary can be formed by simply picking up a list of these locations from their offices in New York.
In the midst of the centuries of cultural development, little can equal the memory of Senorita Por Favor. A simple working woman, stretching her tired body hands linked as she stretches and pulls her arms above her head and 180 degrees to the rear. This while accompanied by a limbering of her Achilles tendons as she rises from the loft of her already heady six inch heels. Here the lovely Senorita references the mysteries of the building of the pyramids of the sun, of the moon as the viewer must wonder about the substructure that supports such power, tension, architecture and virtual torque. This is architecture to be admired from a different aesthetic viewpoint, but miraculous none-the-less.
Mexico City is the capital of a foreign country and a foreign culoture, make no mistake. Take for example the restaurant, El Sabor del Grito—The flavor of the cry or scream—The TV monitor centered on the open wound, the dark cavity, probed by surgical steel, yielded endless feet of intestine, glistening, drops of blood clinging to the whiteness, the fat moisture glistening as feet yielded to yards and the organic material kept coming as the surgeon pulled to find the tear, the rip to be sewn, the wound repaired. Just at the moment of discovery, the waiter served my dinner. Upstairs, the matador, Gleason was being interviewed, as he sat at the dais, watching and narrating the surgery on the screen. In front of him, his suit of lights was propped in homage on a chair, in the middle of the room, surrounding the monitor, the matador, the suit sat 50 matadors, in rapt attention to the narrative, while eating their dinners, drinking their beers.
In Mexico, TVs are in nearly every restaurant. The soaps are on in the finest seafood restaurants, the football games are watched through the smoke of the grill serving 5 tacos for 15 pesos, food stand on wheels, lit by a bare bulb, at the corner of Insurgentes and Reforma. The surgery accompanies the enchiladas at “The flavor of the cry.” It’s not a bad idea to take a Pepto-Bismol each morning to act as a preventative…..but do check with your physician and remember bottled water or bottled liquids is standard, and remmber the words “sin hielo, without ice.”
From the pre-Columbian Indian Civilizations to the wonders of the modern physicality, fashion and style of the local citizenry, Mexico is a country that is too often over-looked, too frequently “slammed” by the cliches presented to off-handedly, casually to discourage. It is unjustified. Open your eyes to the charm of the Mexico, the rewards are ample. If only they would shut off the TV during dinner.
If You Go
Mexicana, Delta, Continental, American; avoid AeroMexico
Hotels in Mexico City-Fiesta Americana Reforma ($100+/night for a double). Reforma 80
06600 Mexico D.F.
beautiful, exemplary service hotel. A great clean, safe salad bar in their CAFÉ REFORMA coffee shop. (After a week of cautious eating most Californians will find this an oasis of roughage.)
Veracruz-Hotel Imperial, Located in the center of the zocolo, balconies overlooking the endless parade of locals and tourists on weekend nights, one of the oldest, most beautiful elevators in Mexico. Architecture lovely, but rooms smell like a combination of insecticide, mildew and mold in a cocktail shaker of air-conditioning. Rooms approx. $40/night. Miguel Lerdo 157. Tel 011-52-29-32-12-04
Taxies are about 100 pesos ($11) from the airport to town (fixed price)
Tourist taxis in Mexico City are the highest prices, set rates and negotiated, green and white Volkswagen taxis are cheap (The front passenger seat is always removed to allow entry for the two passengers in back. Make sure the driver uses the meter and doesn’t have it on a speed-reading setting.
Minibuses go up and down Reforma for 2 pesos (22 cents) a person, no matter what the distance. The distance buses are a normal mode of transportation to places such as San Miguel of Teotihuacan, either first or second class, they are comfortable alternatives to flying for the shorter hauls. Bottled water and all intestinal precautions are a must. A little common sense and most tourist discomforts can be avoided.
There are certain myths and unknowns about Rio that need to be dispelled and elaborated. These are the basics.
Keep Rio in Perspective—Music is the skeletal system of Brazil and Samba is the Pulse.
It is not the most dangerous city on the planet. Using every caution that you would find in any major urban center it should be a memorable, in fact un-missable experience.
The beaches are not topless. The Brazilians have a great attitude toward the body. Everyone wears the skimpiest of Bathing suits. Older women, overweight men, all shapes, sizes and colors let it all hang. Hey, this is the beach…. miles and miles of it.All the string bikinis could be places in an envelope and it would still only require one first class stamp. Skin rules the beach and it exists in abundance.
The chauvinistic male characteristic of being focused on breast development doesn’t exist. Brazil, is in love with the bottom. Heads turn to follow “a bunda.” Large or small, always extremely revealed. This is the land of the rear view.
Higher education is not what it appears. The Academia da Cachaça is a lovely, refined bar with every manner of this sugar cane derived rum possible. Courses in learning of this wonderful drink may leave you higher, but knowledgeable in only one aspect of consumption. The “Samba Schools” are actually fraternal organizations that create the world famous carnival displays, costumes and floats. There are 18 major schools. They begin early September and are centers for late night drinking, dancing, and heart-pounding samba. These are open to the public on weekend evenings for small admission charges.
Learn to dance. This is a city where everyone of every age, ethnicity and economic background, not only sings but also knows all the words. No one stands still and everyone dances constantly. Sensuous singers with sloe eyes spout gentle strains about loves and passions, while drums are woven with guitars and mandolins and a hint of brass. These enclaves are heard in the clubs, on the streets, around the beaches. Music is everywhere.
This is the home of the Museum of Carmen Miranda. Who can say more? But it also houses the Museum of Contemporary Art, built by Niemeyer, also the architect of Brasilia. In his nineties, he still holds court on Saturdays at the Hotel Caesar Park. Well worth a visit to meet one of the defining minds of 20th century architecture.
The cheapest food is best. The national dish is Feijoada. Made from black beans and organ meats and traditionally served on Saturdays, after cooking all day. Fish is surprisingly expensive for an oceanfront community. Better meals in the most upscale restaurants can cost $15-$18 for an entrée, but picking up some ham, cheese, fresh baguettes and a bottle of water will cost you less than $1 in a grocery one block from the beach.
This is an industrious country but they take their fun seriously. Time is divided into three segments; before, during and after “Happy-Hour.” Conversation will ramble in a stream along the street in a melodic Portuguese when you hear the English words “Happy Hour” interjected. Happy Hour is the defining moment of the day. As with many Latin countries, the real life of the city begins late and continues well into the night. It is not a hard regime to adopt, but most distinct from the southern California, “early to bed-early to rise” routine.
Go off the path a bit. Many tourists will be seduced by the luxury of the world famous beaches, Copacabana, Ipanemaand Leblon. They will visit the normal attractions and shop at the touristic “Feira Hippie.” All well and good, but with a little effort and a world more adventure, you can see the North East Fair, populated by a distinct smaller, regional group of people that dance the Forró, late into the night, all night and sell regional meats, grains and spices that you see nowhere else in the city. Also worth a visit is a Macumba ceremony. Usually, these are well into the suburbs or hills of Rio and are Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies where devotees dance in circles, offer food and fall into trances. The father out you can find one, the later the hour the more exciting these are. But, these are very difficult to find and gain invitation. Think of these as African-Cuban, Chongo ceremonies or Haitian Voodoo. VERY exciting.
Geographically, you can fit eleven Europes into Brazil and still have room for Texas. The land and the people are a diverse, integrated population. People here are constantly offering you a sign of “thumbs-up”. It is a city with scale. Rio boasts the worlds premier Samba-drome, a symmetrical tiered ¼ mile of reviewing stands, 100 rows up on either side complete with luxury corporate sky boxes. Here also is “Maracanã” the world’s largest soccer stadium for 93,000 people. As well is the largest Favela or slum in South America, a river of lower-income housing that flows down the mountain and overlooks the ocean over Leblon beach.
I approached Rio with media-inspired stories of robberies, dangers and people waking in iced bathtubs, a note, telephone and no kidneys. As I left Rio, I could not wait to return. I believe the dangers are romanticized fantasies and the realities are a place that can only be realized in dreams or on the beach. Drinking Caches in the moon shadow of Sugar-loaf mountain while lights, attached to fishing lines arc through the night sky and gently splash in the Atlantic surf…….I’m packed and ready, skimpy Speedo and all.
IF YOU GO
There are a variety of quality hotels, pick your pleasure. At the beginning of Copacabana and one of the best in town is the Le Meridien Copacabana.
Avenida Atlantica 290 – Leme
Rua Gonçalves Dias, 32 – Centro
Arco do Telles—Several outdoor bars and restaurants. Great for Happy Hour.
Avenida Armando Lombardi, 800 – Condado de Caiscais
Barra da Tijuca
Rua Gonçalves Dias, 28 – Centro
Toca do Vinicius has every shape and form of Samba and Bossa Nova
Rua Vinicius de Morais, 129- Ipanema
Museum of Carmen Miranda
Parque do Flamengo
Web site for further information:
It is darker than any black I have ever known. There is usually a frisson in the darkness of night, a reflection, a spark. Here all orientation is removed.
Ten meters underground, through a yellow transitory tunnel 5.2 feet in diameter and into a bomb shelter 59 feet long… is my lodging. I am curled in a sleeping bag seeking warmth in the constantly almost-frozen air. Dreams of mushrooms clouds, the Kennedy family on old black and white monitors, clips of Vietnam, the World Trade Center and terrorists in India clutter my brain as I try to sleep in a bunk without a pipe of ambient sound. There are no honking cars, no garbage trucks, no birds, no barking dogs and I can’t sleep.
Shelters come in various forms and sizes. The smallest among them are the local, temporary shelters, built for no-warning emergencies. Then there are the “medium shelters” that can house one or two families for a more extended period time, for use if, for example, a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan were to break out and go global. Finally there are the units in Montana or Texas capable of housing 1,000 or more for a few weeks at a time. I spend my nights in a temporary, emergency type shelter built for a terrorist attack rather than an extended-stay suite.
Above me, in a Salt Lake City tract home in Utah, Western US, my host Paul, a sweet and mild mannered man, lives with his wife and three daughters. There are dirty dishes, toys and discarded cloths strewn about, a different world from my ordered boxes of bullets, soap, raisins and nutrition bars down below.
Paul strongly believes that the world is both unpredictable and dangerous. “Anyone within 10 miles of an airport with a 7,500 foot runway should have a shelter,” he says with a relaxed smile that belies the gravity of his statement. Paul installs these contemporary pharaonic tombs at the rate of one a month with his business partner Sharon. The goal is to simply survive impeding disaster, be it a product of god, man or nature, and they are, quite literally, preparing for the end of the world.
The Mormon religion dominates the social, political and economic environment of Utah. A central tenet of Mormonism is the need to be prepared and not depend on government for survival. While not all Mormons have shelters, the majority of shelter-builders in Utah and Montana are Mormon. In Spring City, Utah (pop. 1018) alone there is a colony of about eight or ten ‘medium sized’ 115-foot shelters, most completely independent of one another.
Mormons tend to have large families and conservative political views. They believe the US Constitution should be strictly enforced and the 2nd Amendment, which speaks to the right to bear arms, left as is. My host Paul has two handguns and a knife on him at all times. A Beretta pistol is in a lock-box on his pickup truck console, and an AR-15 is behind the back seat.
Mormons believe they can survive to begin anew in a radically altered world that will favor them. Unfortunately, such a belief is based on the premise that society as we know it will fail, but who can say with 100% accuracy that this is crazy? The insanity of the modern world certainly backs up their position, and doesn’t let me sleep any better, either.
In the 1950s during the atomic age, shelters were built in response to the threat of mushroom cloud nuclear destruction. That movement fell out of favor for a while, and the tins of biscuits and emergency supplies were left to rust and rot. But the events of 9/11 and Mumbai have given the shelter movement a renewed sense of purpose.
Turning on a small, low voltage, battery operated light, I examine my supplies. The food is small canned sausages, instant dehydrated food (Mexican and Middle Eastern flavors) and left over candy from Halloween. The shelves are stocked with the basics: water-purification tablets, vitamin C, potassium iodide and paper products. The entertainment consists of the entire DIE HARD collection, Red Dawn, Cape Fear, Winnie the Pooh, and a Tom Clancy novel whose name seems to sum up the library: The Sum of All Fears.
I’m embarrassed to say it, but I dig DC. Close to collecting social security but I have to say it is a hip city. Restaurants are top quality and there is a buzz around most of the city that may be the result of the current administration, or it may have been there all along, just blanketed in a political and social quagmire. Maybe those young interns from conservative colleges were not the most devil-may-care bunch. Perhaps it was an exceptionally mild summer weekend that was the reason for the spirit, but I suspect it was a bit more than that. There is a distinction between the “United States” and “America.” “America” is a concept, a dream and a hope for much of the world that might have been clouded and obscured for a bit, maybe the last eight years. But enough political rant, the business of travel is to learn and DC is a living civics lesson.
Most of the museums of the world are reasonably adamant in their refusal to allow photography, which is why I felt my head spinning as I entered federal building after building and was told both it was free and photography was no problem. The only building that declined was the Library of Congress, but even here is a silver lining worth digressing. I asked if I could enter the main floor and view the main reading room from the ground. The response was all I need to obtain was a library card. I am a citizen of this country and I was given free rein in these buildings—VERY COOL. There are some rules: when Congress is in session you need to apply to your representative or Senator for a gallery pass, but everyone seemed to bend over backwards to make you feel you belonged and were welcome. There is a sense of common ownership. Dare I say democracy and even pride? Some tips around town might be good to remember. If you want to visit the capitol building, enter from the Library of Congress tunnel and avoid a long congested line, although the tour of the capitol itself leaves one debating about the worth of the time spent here. Next to the Capitol is the National Arboretum, depending on the time of day, a possible respite. The Museum of the American Indian is worth a visit, especially around lunchtime. The food court is excellent with meals offered by regional tribes from all over the country. The restaurants on the mall are generally good quality at decent prices so you won’t go too far wrong. The one exception is the “Natural” food carts around the entrances. These are green and white to feign environmentally, healthy meals…but the fare is ordinary hot dogs, chips and soft drinks—a very far cry from the healthy food within any of the Smithsonian institutions.
There is a plethora of museums, so it pays to spend a few days and pace yourself. The best hotels are those located near the mall. You will exhaust yourself, so stay close, although the metro is a convenience that allows you to stay father out at a corresponding lower price. Weekend nights are prone to very elaborate groups of riders from visiting marines to multi-ethnic drag queens on their way to Dupont circle. Every evening seemed to be an underground Broadway musical. No train was silent, and each boasted a themed group of eclectics with locals rolling their eyes.
Museums? Nowhere else is there such a diverse and imposing collection in density and importance. Air and Space Museum, the Hirshhorn, Spy Museum, the Mint…they seem to satisfy every curiosity and appetite. The American Museum is where to see Lincoln’s hat, Archie Bunker’s chair and Julia child’s kitchen but my heart belongs, correct that, belonged to the Museum of Natural History. Until recently–
The American dioramas were the creation of Carl Ackley. First unveiled in 1936, the African mammals were spectacular studies of the animal within its environment. New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles, these three-dimensional worlds formed the heart of exotic memories for at least four generations. The dioramas resonated with meaning as the animals seemed completely real and at home in their setting, yet undisturbed by the presence of an endless parade of visitors, many elementary school-children with no access to these worlds the specimens inhabited. At most, a musk ox or a cougar would seem to sniff the wind at the presence of warm milk on the breath of young children on the other side of the glass. The animal within the environment was a distinct break in the history of taxidermy and display. From the world of cabinet of curiosities, to that of quantity as quality in the age of discovery, to a pre-Discovery Channel generation of showing the interaction of fauna with flora, these displays were the highlight of generations for the past 70 years. Now with many specimens in need of repair and a world exposed to television, Planet Earth, and Night at the Museum, the Museum of Natural History has remodeled its African Mammal hall so that it is devoid of the romantic panoramas that defined an exotic landscape for several generations of museum visitors. The photographs of Richard Ross, taken in 1977 and originally published in Museology (Aperture, NY 1989) and Gathering Light (2000) form a rich framing for a contemporary look at how we view the animal within, or now in the cases of Washington D.C. and San Diego, devoid, of a contextual landscape. A current world may be looking more at images within environment in the arena of a computer and filmic world, but as we enter a world of computer visualization, a sense of loss for these historical displays must be noted. Here when a child stood with his nose to the window with a lioness and her cubs on the opposite side, there was a sense of wonder and awe. This is spoken with first hand experience–I was that child.
The rainbow chard is layered, in a vertical composition, atop a maroon tablecloth bending in a serrated arc.Each bundle istightly wrapped with a small blue label that reads “local, organic rainbow chard.” The succession of green bouquets, punctuated by their magenta, orange and yellow stems blossom like a mermaid’s tale – amid a sea of excited buyers.An easel is set up by a local painter who renders the produce on the table as still life on the canvas. The artificial colors of the artist no match for natures palette. “Taste the rainbow” the saccharin candy slogan from my youth beckons.Oh indeed I will buy, taste, and sauté this rainbow.
What a presentation this purveyor offers up – and the rest of the stands at the Portland PSU Farmer’s market are no less graceful or abundant in their offerings.From March through December, one is bowled over by the quality, quantity, freshness and seasonality of this bustling place.As local chefs whiz by (getting there before the crowds, smart professionals as they are), families stroll, tragically hip college students cavort, and grandmas pick their one cabbage just-so, the shoppers equal the produce in diversity and beauty.This is the market of my dreams, the big reason I moved to Portland in the first place.The BF and I visited Portland for three days (deciding between it, Seattle or the Bay Area for our post-college-I’m-a-creative-type-with-questionable-skills-and-no-job-prospects-phase) and on our last day, a Saturday, we haphazardly decided to check out the market before getting on the plane back to Santa Barbara.Glory hallelujah we did – because it was a meandering and a sampling of goods that would seal the deal and inspire us to fall in love with Portland.We did just that – with this Saturday market as the consistent beat within our heart. We had a regular date with the stuff that sustained us, sensorial pleasures, interactions with dear farmers, overall fun – a barometer of sorts– to hold up all other activities against.It is a habit that we haven’t been able to kick for the 3 years we’ve lived in Portland.
This spring to early-summer season, I keep coming back to the fingerling potatoes.At this one stand, they are the size and shape of a peanut still in its shell.They are nubby, homely and “wild-scientist hairy” looking – the taste however, belies their humble appearance – because inside is the most potato-tasting potato I’ve ever eaten.The skin wrinkles like a raisin and the yellowy interior is pillow, and soft– tasting as if they’d been grown in a puddle of butter.How do they do it?I’m not sure.All I know is to buy them – every week and eat them roasted, boiled, sliced, whole, in salads – salt and pepper – I’m a connoisseur of the fingerling world.I’ll have them any way I may please, thank you very much.
The market is my open-air house of worship and I approach each weekly service with my shopping list as hymnal.
asparagus so long and thin- lithe fingers of a princess dancing across piano keys
singular rhubarb stalks large enough to crank out a full cobbler or betty
the Tart Lady’s banana cake with cream cheese frosting (so rich and moist, it fills you up for 8 hours) with her 2 dachshunds at her side, not to mention a dear mustached husband who proudly sells his wife’s palm-sized pies under a tent colored the exact shade of Pepto Bismol pink…
It’s a kaleidoscope of tastes, smells, histories, memories and futures. It’s pure Portland on a Sunny day!
And the sampling – oh the sampling – an unsung art akin to squirrels gathering nuts for the winter and stuffing them into their cheeks all along the way – sometimes I even place a precious bit of cookie in my pocket, only to discover it a few days later (still good!).There is also the certain direction in which to navigate the market –counter-clockwise, I assure you is best. —the Feng Shuiof the market. I bob and weave, duck and crane my neck for just one more nibble of that __________ * insert explosively flavorful sautéed piece of turnip with sea salt, the perfect end of earthy seed bread or jewel-toned teeny tiny strawberry.It’s lucky I played basketball as a kid, all of my movements during this ritual can also be found on the court. But rather than dribble, here I tend to drool.
The market is my Zen. It is organic on many levels and I am one with it. I love it, revel in the joy of it, converse with it, take part in the bounty, buy from my friends, laugh with them, flow with the market and then at the end of the day, I cook a great meal. Not to toot my own horn, but working with the best of the best ingredients it’s not terribly difficult.I focus on highlighting the produce to show its own intrinsic flavors instead of over-saucing them with unnecessary complexityAnd eat in style and rapt attention – perhaps the same attention and style as the person who so lovingly tucked each leaf into the next, displaying her rainbow chard as the symbol of mighty good fortune – And as I tuck into the aforementioned greenery, with just a dash of vinegar, garlic and salt – I grin ear to ear and relish in how truly lucky I am.
I tried really hard to eat salads in Memphis. It’s just so difficult not to indulge. Rendezvous with its ribs and jabbering waiters, Gus’s with their boiling vats of oil birthing fried chicken with a kick, Chez Pierre at the Peabody serving a pistachio soufflé with Crème Englais. Please don’t force me to check my cholesterol levels when I return home to the land of fruits and nuts.
Memphis is déjà vu for many of us. There are some requisite stops on the Memphis tour that are like familiar friends. Graceland is familiar, even for first-time visitors. It is a time capsule of a late 70s frat room, decked out with shag carpet, mirrored ceilings, and burl wood tables…everything a reflection of the over-indulgent adolescent who was Elvis Presley. A visit to STAX records provides a taste of the southern influence to the Motown sound. The Civil Rights museum is heavy in signage and the Lorraine Motel itself provides equal opportunity to pause and remember a time when segregation was accepted, tolerated and even embraced. The Peabody Hotel is right up there with Graceland as being a must-do stop, particularly for those traveling with kids. Twice a day visitors to the Peabody can catch the duck parade- a darling migration of five ducks from the central fountain to their roof top duck palace-penthouse overlooking downtown and the river. Their route takes them up the elevator and through the lobby via a red carpet, which serves more or less as a guide, until one duck decides to explore the lobby and the patient duck-master has to call for security. Crossing the lobby to the tune “be kind to your web-footed friends,” the drake attempts to engage a female in duckling-making. Parents in the parade audience quickly attempt to explain “nature’s plan” to their curious children, “for a duck could be somebody’s mother…” These are all the bits and pieces of Memphis that make it worth the trip, but I will give you the secret that makes it magic…and the guide to get you there.
Tad Pierson has a 1955 Caddy and a passion for music. You can do Beale Street on your own, but he will take you on an epic night-time tour of juke joints and blues clubs that will have you feeling like the hippest, funkiest, most “in” person on the planet. Pierson has the history of music down pat and everyone knows him at all the best clubs. Cover is $10 at several places, frequently the policy is bring your own booze and buy a set up. The music runs from good to excellent, but if you demand sublime then have Pierson take you to the corner of Hollywood and Chelsea in North Memphis. Here, every Friday and Saturday night in the corner parking lot next to the strip mall a small outdoor venue plays electronic blues. This is the genuine article. The audience sits on the fenders of their cars, or relaxes in lawn-chairs or atop milk crates. Grandmothers holding purses dance while men sway, sipping occasionally from their 40, concealed with a brown paper bug. The evening starts about 10PM and keeps rolling until one in the morning. The stage is about 12×12 and two feet off the ground, covered by a lean-to made entirely of scrap plastic signage. A single incandescent bulb illuminates the evening. And the music? The music is divine. Amateur and pro alike sit in to play the STAX catalogue and some earthy blues. After a few sets on the drums Big Don is replaced by Little Don. A few singers rotate in depending on the varying needs of a changing playlist. The crowd is about 200 people strong, all locals from the neighborhood. Most are 30 and above. “No young kids causing problems,” explains “Groove,” the organizer. The pleasures are basic and enjoyed by everyone: warm air, great music and great dancing. The crowd moves in rhythm before the stage. The lone bulb hanging from the stage competes with the fluorescent strips above a neighboring market to cast shadows of happy people grooving. Lost in the music, men and women dance by themselves, only occasionally acting as partners. The dance floor is dirt and the only cost is what you would like to drop in a plastic tip jar. Professionals may play for money, but these amateurs do it out of love and passion and their music puts the pros to shame. It is a perfect moment, being here on a warm night in Memphis, one I owe to my transporter-cum-music-connoisseur for so generously sharing the knowledge of this secret parking lot and the music that accompanies it.
I roll back to the Peabody at 2 AM and try to think about winding down, but it’s just two blocks from Beale Street, and it is Friday night in Memphis and suddenly the music and the temperature and the moon all seem to be making demands that defy logical decision making. Pass the ribs and the fried chicken! Open another cold one, it’s Memphis in the summertime.
Tad Pierson and his 55 Caddy http://www.americandreamsafari.com 901-428-360
Peabody Hotel, Memphis http://www.peabodymemphis.com/
Gus’s Chicken http://www.gussofms.com/
Civil Rights Museum http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/home.htm
STAX records http://www.soulsvilleusa.com/
SUN records http://www.sunrecords.com/
ON THE ROAD TO MANDALAY
Myanmar– I’m sitting in the bar of the Strand Hotel, feeling the silken smoothness of the oil soaked teak, luxuriating in the overwhelming smells of ginger flowers, lulled with the sounds of the patala, the 100-year-old native xylophone being played in the lobby. I have returned with two fellow travelers–a British medical sociologist and a hydrologist from Sacramento. The last time I stood here, five years ago, the hotel was like having tea with my 90-year-old dotty aunt, who had crumbs all over her knitted sweater but was too senile to notice. Now the strand is transformed like Raffles in Singapore, from frog to princess, into a resort that would make Leona Helmsley and Donald Trump proud. Purchased by Aman resorts and restored well beyond a casual face-lift, this makeover is an apt metaphor for the explosion of energy that is reflected in the entire country. Nowhere is Asia can a goal of increasing tourism by a factor of 40 times be dreamed of, much less realized. I sit sipping a Scotch in their cocoon of a bar, reliving the past weeks. For the moment, a road trip of 14 days has washed away. Nearly forgotten are the endless hours of riding in a Mazda van listening to the mind-numbing cassette tape–playing tracks of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” at a speed that raises it half an octave too high and plays it 17 percent too fast. The drive and the driver–horn honking, spitting, drooling out the window, smoking 555s–is now behind me. I’m in a hotel that filters the chaos of the world outside and hermetically seals me in an environment that allows in only the most relaxing aspects of a classical culture. Noise and frenzy are checked at the door. Time is compressed. The weeks spent in Myanmar, the former Burma, run together as a travel adventure film meets “Mad Max”– on the road to the future from a hazy, romantic past. The film runs backward as we sip our drinks and recount landing in Yangon (the former Rangoon). A new international airport is being built in Pyay, 50 miles east of Yangon. The airport taxi drives on the right. The orientation of traffic has been reversed from left to right. The same date saw the currency change from dependence on the decimal system of 100 to denominations of 90 and 45. (You cannot imagine what it is like to count change based on a system of 90s 45s and 15s). The road is a visceral experience. It is not a neutral body of cement and asphalt. It is far from the romance of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. It is the basic conduit that funnels all levels of society and commerce. The road is being built with rocks broken from larger rocks by jackhammers and convicts. The rocks are piled in neat squares and shipped by truck to form the base of the bridge that span the Irrawaddy River form the roadbed of the airport. Old women smoking cheroots, young children, their sarong like long-ghis wrapped around their legs, spread the baseball-sized rocks which will form the new road bed from Pyay to Yangon, covering the 50 miles of the new airport road. The money is good–any money is good where the average income is $234 a year. Their faces are visible only when headlights pierce the night and reflect the workers in the darkness. Hotels are flourishing all over Yangon and Mandalay (still called Mandalay). “Joint venture” is the mantra sung with China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. The United States is conspicuously absent. The present government of 90+-year-old General Ne Win is portrayed in the U.S. as closed and brutal; the opposition embodied in recently released Nobel Prize winning Aung San Suu Kyi, as open and peaceful. The Myanmar government’s response is to paint a picture of sane, stable environment for investment and tourism. When I stand atop the pinnacle of the Anglican Church, overlooking the hotels that are flowering all over the Yangon, on view is a country seeking to retain an identity and embrace involvement with the rest of the world. The largest country in Southeast Asia, it is on the brink of dramatic change. In the past five years, Myanmar has gone from strict isolationism to development’s embrace. Right around the corner is a transformation from the passivity and acceptance of Buddhism to the materialism of television. Looking out on the rooftops, satellite dishes bristle in the shimmering heat and brilliant sun. The mind boggles, trying to visualize the results when elephant handlers in remote jungles receive generator dishes–introducing a culture that has been essentially unchanged for generations to “Melrose Place.” We drive by a pagoda in the distance at 40 mph. The drivers turn, in synchronized motion, place their hands in a praying position and face the shrine. Sheer terror of uncontrolled forward motion screams into my mind as a I realize I am the passenger of two people who believe strongly in reincarnation. We travel on. The road continues, sporadic and spasmodic. Bagan. the jewel of civilization, awaits further north on the east side of the Irawaddy River. For the moment, travel to the western shore is limited to a ferry. We ride packed against a family with live ducks standing next to a truck with diesel continually running. The only honking is from the ducks. This part of Myanmar will unfold so quickly when the bridge unlocks the key to easy transport east/west. There is another checkpoint on the waiting bank, with more questions about who you are and where you are going. I continue to visit a herd of 80 elephants working the teak forests. Myanmar Timber Enterprises, as well as logging the world’s largest reserves of teak and the major source of hard currency for the country, are interested in developing the path to ecotourism. A 14-mile stretch from the nearest village of Myanmar, consumes three hours of bone-jarring travel in Hino logging trucks. I lose track of the number of times my head hits the roof. A week with the elephants and the noise of the van replaced with the gentle wooden bells of the elephants make the journey more than worthwhile. Rather than build permanent roads to accommodate logging trucks, the elephants pull logs that weigh tons as they daintily step over rocks and through streams. Their impact on the environment is less damaging than the roads. After being limited to experiencing elephants in the zoo and at the circus–seeing them work–pulling logs of over a ton, smelling their sweat and their gases, is a visceral experience. As they walk by, there is an overpowering smell-a mixture of sweat, breath, farts and dust-a smell of pure labor. The noises issued range from bellowing, grunting, trumpeting to a prehistoric earthshaking rumble–a deep, ominous, threatening thunder that surrounds you in nature’s pure mega bass. It’s an experience like none on Earth– frightening and exciting. The privilege of the elephants has to be reconciled with bathrooms that are a hole in the ground. A bucket of water and half a coconut shell exist in lieu of toilet paper. This is the jungle– amenities are limited. But, on the up side, dinners consist of barbecued deer testicles, fried sparrows and Heinekens. Two days from Yangon, we fall out of the van on frozen legs to face each stop–each new adventure. From a distant hilltop, we watch the sun rise and strike Mount Popa. This is a city of pagoda set like a golden jewel on a volcanic mountain attainable only by an accent of 500 steps. If you are too tired, two men sit with a basket chair suspended on poles to carry you up the steps for a few khats. Monkeys, who populate the mountaintop city, wreak havoc on any object left on the ground. Monks and children picnic at pagodas, sleep between prayers and resume worship having consumed a pleasant meal and nap among a family that is devoted to each other and Buddha. We travel three days from Yangon, a short day from Pegu, before arriving at the dirt goat paths of Bagan (formerly Pagan)–now being paved with broad concrete boulevards. This city of 2,000 pagodas, stupas and temples, abandoned by the ruling monarchy in 1267 in the face of the approaching Genghis Khan remained much as it did in the 700 years intervening. . . until recently. The village has been moved out of the archaeological zone to a few miles down the road. Animals no longer roam the temples; visitors are no longer allowed access to the tops of pagodas to view the sunsets across the Irawaddy, as was permissible only five years prior. The old man fortuneteller who reads palms under a 15-watt bulb–literally at the end of the power line, at the end of time, is gone. The land changes; not only physically but in a temporal sense. The pressures of tourism will eliminate the naiveté, beauty, isolation and silence. They are traded for accessibility and a shower with hot water. To drive through the country is to see a world that is inaccessible by plane. Considering the risks described by most major airline safety organizations and the sheer thrill involved when you are confronting the use of parts of an airplane never recognized when landing at Bagan. . elevators, rudders, ailerons are all brought into very active focus when landing among the cross winds of the desert of Bagan. . . You might want to drive. The road describes not just direction but economics and history. When you are on the road after dark, walking home or to the fields, you are a peasant with few possessions in your pocket. You are part of the small migration from palette to labor that goes in pulses all over the world. Spiritually and historically, this is the same road that meanders through the Incan Empire, crosses Pompeii and intersects in modern Myanmar as it reaches out to open into the 21st century. The road, bearing its burden of poverty and backbreaking work, is punctuated by opulence and wealth of golden and white pagodas. Look beyond the roadside stands, the width of a garage entrance and incandescent lights of yellow, red, and blue hovering over a dinner, low wooden stool, small wooden table, rice and curry. . . and you see a procession of steps leading to a towering onion dome of gold leaf dwarfing the landscape. The pagodas are innumerable, endless, heart stopping– the Buddhist soul of the society. This is a road that, in spite of efforts at repair, is constantly hammered by heavy trucks and monsoon rains. Unimaginable torrents are regular events. Rivers and streams swallow sections of the asphalt with caprice. Men and boys shovel dirt scabs onto the wounds of the road. Theirs is the task of Sisyphus. They hold out hands, palms up to receive of offerings from the driver going by. These efforts keep the road to the level of impossible rather than impassible. The road circumscribes the central mountains of Myanmar. You go north to get south, west to go east. I chew gum to act as a buffer, a primitive mouth-guard to protect my teeth from the asynchronous jolts and jars. Hell is being reincarnated as a vehicle suspension system in Myanmar. Night falls and the stream turns more dramatic. Heads are coiffured with balanced, loaded baskets, defying gravity. There is the endless flow of people straining to earn a livelihood flowing through the darkness. These are people defying time and energy. From predawn to post dusk, the traffic continues with oxen and cart, bicycle and pedestrian. The road threads the land, the peasants blanket the spaces in the road left by the trucks, lorries and carts. Movement becomes an instinct. Lose that instinct and the violence in the meeting of vehicle and person becomes disastrous. The lane crumbles slightly, the road ceases abruptly. There is no definition between road and non-road. Passing is an adventure- a cacophony of vehicles, honking, trucks responding, car waving, monks watching, villages smiling as we pass–off the road, in the dirt, around a truck, in the middle of a curve, with the driver ahead, signaling lazily with a casual arm that the road ahead may be clear. Our driver coaxes the diesel engine and slowly accelerates around another blind corner as he leans and spits out the window a stream of crimson betel-nut juice every three minutes. The road is darkness, stillness, quiet. A strip of asphalt parenthetically bracketed by oxen cart tracks, two meters apart, on either side, enclosing not just the road but time itself. These are the same dimensions that thread through Incan, Egyptian, Greek, Syrian civilizations. these parallel lines define time and describe economies. They echo the faces on the people who sit at dawn, on the back of oxen, on the seat of the carts. The wheel creaks as the wooden axel turns. The peasant and beast of burden share the road. They have traveled the same paths through time from the invention of the wheel, the domestication of the ox to present day. These wheel ruts are the same dimensions in all civilizations. These ruts describe how far we have come and how far we have to go. The asphalt pierces these tracks sporadically. They intersect on bridges too small and roads too fragile to segregate the traffic. Frequently the cultures meet. This is vehicular Darwinism. Occasionally, the road is dotted with trucks overturned, and a chorus of a thousand will surround the scene. Half of them had to have been on the truck. Every horizontal surface that moves is filled by a living being. A truck cab is shared by four people and there is a reflection of three or four others that ride above the cab. Seat belts don’t exist in a land where the road cannot be taken for granted. Where are the people who were sitting atop the truck when it overturned? Nowhere to be seen. The first paved road of the world, recently discovered, led from quarry to the pyramids of Giza. These roads are close relatives and must have been developed simultaneously. Turning south after seeing Mandalay, central Myanmar, the repetitiveness is brought to a sudden halt as a bicycle rider turns into the path and freezes himself on our windshield. He slides off as we skid off the road to a halt, with only “Wake Up Little Susie” continuing in its maddening ignorance of the tragedy it has accompanied. The rider lies momentarily still but is quickly poured into a three-wheeled trike-shaw and pedaled off to a hospital holding his head and chest. “Not to worry,” everyone is told. “He was careless,” as his mangled bicycle lies among his scattered vegetables. Rude as it is not to give full attention to the disaster at hand, I find a bathroom to use, as one must always take advantage of the moments when the car is not hurtling forward. A half-hour later, with necessary officials conferring and assigning proper blame, the incident passes with little consequence, except for the villager, who probably had a great deal of the family resources tied up in his bicycle, now totally unusable, and who will answer for the days of work lost, the food on the road rather than the table. Speed limits? They exist only from a pragmatic view. The road is full of chasms, anachronisms and surprises. It is completely intolerant of inattention and mistakes. The tape continues during the 14-day journey; it winds, unwinds, rewinds and plays again. It is occasionally drowned out by children or monks with aluminum urns and dancing coins, soliciting money for monastery and school. Don and Phil continue their off-key chant as we are stuck behind traffic and follow the 30-meter lazy-eight line of cow urine– a dark calligraphic line scribed on the brown dirt. The tape persists as we drive across roads, bouncing over washboards– endless perpendicular cornrow intersections. A distance of 350 miles takes three days of 12 hours of real work. After each stop, it is squeezing back into the van and the seemingly endless encounters with the road, the tin buckets jangling for alms and the monotony of Don and Phil and their quest to get Susie home on time. Night, black night; riders ride on night-black road in silence-the-stillness of the landscape, the groaning of the wooden wheel, the rich/dull ring of the wooden oxen bell accompany each other’s rhythms. The riders, the carts, the bicycles come out of the darkness as we stop and fill the van with diesel from 10 gallon tanks we carry. They pass as mute ghosts, night shadows. When I return from Asia, my suitcase opens and a flume of diesel fumes wafts out with such force it is amazing the sensory stimulation has escaped customs. The odor is so pervasive it should have set off the metal detectors. The trip home mirrors the journey there, with a 14-hour flight from LAX to Taipei, four more hours to Singapore, an additional three hours to Bangkok, and the final hour to Yangon. Yet I count the days until I can return again to watch the sun set over the Irawaddy, I would even get back on the road.