The Big “Q”

Up to Chicago, once around the world and back down to San Miguel de Allende, making a big “Q” on the globe. Which brings up another big “Q”. What was that all about? We briefly considered bagging the whole world travel plans in order to keep that money in more practical accounts but I ultimately lobbied hard to go ahead and hit the road and Stefanie saw things basically the same way. Very slender windows open on rare occasions and you just have to wedge yourself through them when you get a chance. I can’t remember a time in my adult life that I didn’t look forward to traveling around the world, so that tells you something right there. I guess it ultimately comes down to which thing we’d most regret; not having the money or not having the experience. Put that way, it’s a very simple equation. Money comes and goes… it will come again. Experiences like the ones we’ve just had don’t drop in your lap without some sacrifice, or trade-off. And rich experience can hang around for a lifetime once you provide for its arrival.

We made the barest of entries in this blog during our travels across the European side of the Mediterranean and on into Africa. That portion of the trip was probably the most densely packed and eventful, also the most hectic since we were moving from place to place every two or three days. Our access to good internet hook-ups was more difficult for some reason. Combine that with the fact that writing the weblogs began to move just outside of our circle of priority (arranging for things like lodging and train tickets took its place) and the result was, no new postings. That’s unfortunate because some of our best memories come from that segment.

Like:
Watching the flamingos stir up as our train cut through the last bit of the French coast on our way into Spain. Migrating up from Africa as we migrate down?

Or:
Getting stunned, stopped dead in our tracks upon entering the Grand Mosque in Cordoba, Spain, intoxicated as our eyes followed the rhythm of arches repeating into the distance in the dim light.

Or:
Staying in a little dive pension in Granada, Spain on a street under construction, torn up with jackhammers and front-end loaders. Our little landlady gave us a break on the price because nobody wanted to endure the noise. She brought us coffee and a pack of store-bought Danishes for breakfast. Spoke halting English to our halting Spanish but managed to communicate great hospitality, and we, our extensive gratitude.

Or:
Meeting two Moroccans on the train from Tangier to Fez. The younger one spoke English, told us about his job (a guide for desert tours) and his family, he even helped us find our eventual lodging place in Fez. The older gentleman spoke to us in French while the English-speaking man was out of the cabin. He gestured “eating” with fingers to his mouth and “sleeping” with folded hand under reclined head but we didn’t get it. I thought he wanted to help arrange lodging for us or something. I said, “No, merci, no, no.” When the younger man returned I asked him to translate for me because the man was obviously exhasperated. He listened to the man and then said, “Oh, its just our custom. He wants to know if you’ve eaten well and slept well in his country.” It was a matter of great pride for him that he present this gesture of hospitality, and we were very moved. I had the translator tell him, “We’ve traveled all around the world on this trip and the friendliest people are here in Morocco.” His eyes welled up, our eyes welled up. He pulled a dirham coin from his pocket and held it up, “If you come to my house you will not even spend this much.”

And on like that…
At this point, it would probably be appropriate to do some assessment of the world trip. Though its true that rich experience does not require travel (with the right mental approach it can be had in a Barco Lounger), it seems to me that travel more frequently pulls the lever that dispenses it. And if the goal is enrichment, with a psyche that demands not just novelty but alternate viewpoint, and if I’m willing to endure discomfort for the sake of living where the fresh and unexpected live, then traveling by the seat of my pants works for me. Stefanie and I are a good pair; I am somewhat dangerously curious and gravitate towards the unknown, she provides a sensible base and pulls me back when I need it. Together we find out what it takes to make plans on the fly, deciding what to do and where to go as needs be; to make it up as we go along.

And that is what I think we’ve learned. To begin to trust ourselves “improvising in the plan”, and to trust that the world will respond favorably if we do. As Stefanie says, “I learned that 99% of my fear about what might happen never does.” It seems that even the one percent of what eventually goes wrong is something you’d never guess and also not nearly as bad as you think. And we lie awake at night for….?

This journal of the transition from our corporate-job-life to the independent life in business for ourselves must now meet its true mission. We must begin to describe what happens when we (as the masthead says) “pack it in and take the leap.” We’ve spent nearly a year getting our feet wet; six months on an “art intensive”, three months traveling the world, several more weeks in transition through Chicago on either side of the world trip (the “swoosh” on the Q). We’ve been able to get a lot done in the process. We both created some solid chunks of art. We’ve collected experience and photography to inform our next creative phases. Now we begin to actually establish our lives here. Now we see what happens when.

The narrow streets of Fez, Morocco

The narrow streets of Fez, Morocco

The streets of Granada, Spain

The streets of Granada, Spain

Rythmically repeating arches Grand Mosque, Cordoba, Spain

Rythmically repeating arches Grand Mosque, Cordoba, Spain

Interior of?Ǭ† Grand Mosque in Cordoba, Spain

Interior of?Ǭ† Grand Mosque in Cordoba, Spain

Stefanie says goodbye to Ahmed, our waiter at the guesthouse in Fez

Stefanie says goodbye to Ahmed, our waiter at the guesthouse in Fez

 

The Elegant Conversation

A game of backgammon in Green Park, Athens

A game of backgammon in Green Park, Athens

Green Park in Athens was full of families pushing strollers and little knots of men playing backgammon. Or else performing a curious ritual that we would see again in Italy and Spain. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a kind of walking discussion. But I don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t think it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s anything like what we do as we walk, which is most often idle chit chat or casual appraisals of what we see. These older men, in twos and threes usually, proceed very slowly, almost as if the stroll is mere pretense to the real purpose. I would watch many of these perambulations over many visits to the park. The men walk in rapt discussion, often accompanied by hand gestures, or else with hands firmly clasped behind the back. Suddenly they would pause as one man would try to drive home a point. Then they would both stand still and face each other. One man would gesture with a bit more animation, hold forth while his companion(s) would focus intently on him. After a period of about a minute or so there would be a brief exchange, maybe a shrug or two, a ?¢‚Ǩ?ìthis or that?¢‚Ǩ¬ù gesture by flipping over the hand, and then the walk would continue. And always, an inward focus on the subject at hand passes between them. The conversation was the focus, not the walking and the watching.

Conversation is the focus in Baeza, Spain

Conversation is the focus in Baeza, Spain

I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m struck by the character of these gentlemen. They seem to be engaged in a foil with the important thing. They parlay, rejoin, sally and engage each other with opinion. The exchange of views is the only priority. A good day is one that includes this event. A productive day, one that has the highest value is a day spent in conversation with a good friend.

I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m reminded of the ancient philosophers of Greece, as they walk today in their steps. Though their discussions may not always reach to those realms, they operate in the same spirit. The salient features are there; an intensely inward focus, the need to express one?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s views and to seek out a response to them. The desire for clarity.

The forum at the train station, Baeza, Spain

The forum at the train station, Baeza, Spain

Thoreau says that man is not meant to do everything but man is meant to do something. These older gentleman have passed from the doing which characterized their active lives into a ?¢‚Ǩ?ìdoing?¢‚Ǩ¬ù that expresses itself in simple, elegant conversation.

Give me Istanbul

Instanbul's Blue Mosque at sunset

Instanbul’s Blue Mosque at sunset

After Asia, Europe seems like another civilization. OK, it is but still?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ something seems like a long lost friend here. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve always pooh-poohed the European travel thing, having a strict bias towards Asia, beginning with my stay in Nepal many years ago and gathering steam in visiting other points east. Arriving in Istanbul from Penang, Malaysia (via Bangkok) I had a flash of familiarity, and it was from the comfort of things western. Not like McDonald?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s or Pizza Hut. Asia had those to little effect, but western style architecture, signage, words I could sound out and at least have a hope to understand. Also a somewhat less chaotic (to me anyway) style of urban living, no more horse carts, chickens, open butcher shops with sides of pork getting hacked up. Penang was full of these sites, as well as being hot, almost too hot to enjoy. An Asian city like Penang seems all a jumble, somehow just managing to sort itself out. A gloriously mad tussle, the teeming throng.

A streetcar moves down an Istanbul street

A streetcar moves down an Istanbul street

And then, after a long flight from Bangkok, through Dubai, we got to experience the sudden transition of being in the west. We came into Istanbul late and it was a dark taxi ride to the Sultanamet neighborhood. The darkness offered only glimpses of the huge mosques; Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, that with Topkapi Palace lend the characteristic profile to this city. Their palpable, timeless presence, almost hidden by the night were waiting for us as we emerged from our modest room in Ayasofya Hotel. We came out onto the cobblestone streets of old Istanbul into a clear-crisp late winter morning. A full strength revelation emerged as well; the realization that my prejudices regarding Europe (we were, after all, right on its edge) were proving false. The familiar-exotic axis still swung distinctly towards the exotic with the morning call to prayer coming from the many minarets and the multi-domed mosques looming overhead. But it was a glimpse of something familiar inside all of it that was comforting somehow, something that looked like me.

Sweeping up in the cafe below Topkapi Palace

Sweeping up in the cafe below Topkapi Palace

My bias away from Western Europe is that it seems to be pretty much the same as America. I always assumed that travel to London or Paris would be like travel to some new region of the States. Language differences aside, I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d still see malls, lots of shiny new cars and all the same haggard parents chasing after similarly indulged children. That type of travel was poison for me; until now I practiced strict avoidance. This entry into Europe via Istanbul was then the perfect antidote. I was pleased to be discovering an exotic western city. The same?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ but different. something about the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìnot quite familiar?¢‚Ǩ¬ù is even more tantalizing and intriguing then the patently strange.

Preparing to tour the Blue Mosque

Preparing to tour the Blue Mosque

The vision of Istanbul that first morning was a craggy, weathered version of my own culture. Not a precise projection back, more like a distant relative from the old country. One with a different history, different language, even different behavior. But one who still has the familiar compliment of facial features that conveys relatedness.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

The city carries the vintage of buildings from the post-war era; tattered now but full of character and personal scale. The sweet shops with their honey-soaked pastries, sandwich stands and compact general stores pocket the streets. The faces on the pedestrians are severe as people get about their business, but smiles appear too in small knots of conversation here and there.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

All this ?¢‚Ǩ?ìpace of life?¢‚Ǩ¬ù stuff is common. The grand plaza, shouldered by the two great mosques, is singular. To stand in the middling space and turn first left, then right is to have two competing, yet complimentary, visions. The Blue Mosque is sedate; slate-blue grey and geometrically symmetrical. Precise. Harmonious. Resonating perfectly in the music of the spheres. Hagia Sophia is muscular; warm, orangey-red tones and massive. Brooding. Powerful. A much more earth-bound structure but sublime and full of enchantment and mystery as well. After visiting both it was fun to stand there between them and look first left, then right. The same. Different. Left. Then right. The guy selling those tasty sesame covered bread rings from his cart probably thought I had a tick. But I knew that I had only this moment to attach them to memory. And this city with its contradictions and continuities, with its tantalizing similarities, was giving me something.

The Search for the Perfect Murtabak

Chicken Murtabak with a hot mug of sweet Teh Tarik

Chicken Murtabak with a hot mug of sweet Teh Tarik

I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m sitting in our room in Penang, Malaysia and not far from here, in some small restaurant lost to memory, is found that holy grail of Malaysian cooking: The Perfect Murtabak. When I traveled through here 16 years ago I stumbled on this local dish, a griddle-fried bread filled with goodies and topped with a mild, sweet curry sauce. I took a stroll from my guesthouse that long-ago morning and came across a man slapping dough on a greased stone, actually sort of flipping it, very skillfully against the surface to stretch it out into a thin disk about two feet around. Then onto the hot griddle it goes to toast before it gets filled with egg and onion and folded into a neat square. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìWhat is this?, I asked. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìThis is Murtabak?¢‚Ǩ¬ù, he replied.

The murtabak chef flips the dough to stretch it out

The murtabak chef flips the dough to stretch it out

The smell was wonderful, my curiosity prevailed on me, and soon I had the pleasure of diving into one of the most delightful breakfasts of my life. The bread was toasty, with a crisp but chewy texture, the egg and onion chimed in, and the perfect compliment was the spicy tang of the curry sauce; not your overblown Northern Indian potent type of curry but a more delicate and exotic flavor that I didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t even identify then as curry. My life changed that morning 16 years ago, and it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s brought me to my current state; finding myself trying to recapture that moment in my Search for the Perfect Murtabak.

A tender moment in a crowded Singapore foodcourt

A tender moment in a crowded Singapore foodcourt

At that time I thought it wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t be difficult. Living in Chicago, I knew the chances were very good I could find murtabak in some restaurant, maybe up on Devon Avenue where the Indian and Pakastani cuisines thrive. I was to be disappointed though. It turns out that murtabak is an uniquely Malaysian dish, the Indian and Chinese cultures that influenced this country in so many other ways don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t feature it. Chicago, as far as I could tell, offered no one the ability to partake in the delights of murtabak. I spent 16 years telling of the joy I found that morning in Penang, at that little restaurant lost to memory, tucking into forkfulls of murtabak dressed in sweet red-brown curry.

Malacca historic district with fort remnant and sultan's palace

Malacca historic district with fort remnant and sultan’s palace

And now it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s threatening to ruin my marriage. As I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve traveled from city to city up the long length of the Malaysian Peninsula, trying to regain the thrill of that single encounter with murtabak, I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve discovered to my horror that my wife doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t particularly like it. We ordered it in Singapore, at one of the large food courts in Chinatown. Chicken murtabak this time (the sardine variety is supposedly very tasty but I took a pass), which arrived not folded into a neat square but oblong, and sliced. I was back in the company of my beloved murtabak at last and though this version was a bit more bready and somewhat lacking in the filling of goodies, the sauce was much as I remembered it. Stefanie gave it a try upon my incessant ravings and urgings but she was left unimpressed. I was crushed, of course, but found consolation by discussing the shortcomings of this particular version. Too ?¢‚Ǩ?ìbready?¢‚Ǩ¬ù.

Schoolgirls waiting at the bus station in Tanah Rata

Schoolgirls waiting at the bus station in Tanah Rata

We traveled next to Malacca, the old port city of the spice trade days, just up the coast from Singapore. The remnant of the old fort is still there, as is the ruined church on the hill where St. Francis Xavier was once buried. In the same historical district is a beautifully recreated sultan?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s palace, all in a dark wood, looking just like the day the slaves finished building the original (it burned to the ground 150 years ago). Later that evening we went down the streets of the old city along the Jonkers Walk and into one of the many antique stores found there. We saw elaborately carved ?¢‚Ǩ?ìbridal beds?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢, like small open-side rooms actually, massively detailed, all shipped to the States for around $3500, if you please. Stefanie was heartbroken to leave behind a lovely celadon ginger jar painted with Chinese script.

The mountain view from the guesthouse porch, Tanah Rata

The mountain view from the guesthouse porch, Tanah Rata

Malacca was wonderful but I ate no murtabak there, and soon we were on our way up to the Cameron Highlands to a small town called Tanah Rata. We needed to change buses in Kuala Lumpur where the bus station includes a warren of bus ticket windows for countless numbers of private little bus companies. They all cry out in jangled chorus to snag the customer before the other guys does. We just kept asking ?¢‚Ǩ?ìCameron Highlands??¢‚Ǩ¬ù and walked in the indicated direction past rows of windows until we found our guy, tucked away near the end of the second aisle. Fetching our tickets, we found the bus that would take us up the road north to the Highlands. After a couple of hours on the main highway we exited onto a winding mountain road that led into the jungle-covered hills of central Malaysia.

Rolling hills of a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Rolling hills of a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

The days were cooler in Tanah Rata and we found the perfect little guesthouse up on a small hill south of town. One night, after a day spent walking through a brilliant green tea plantation, I set out to find a murtabak that would match my memory. I knew it was a crapshoot, picking the right place. Much murtabak to be found around Tanah Rata?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ but where is THE murtabak, the one from my dreams? We finally settled on a small street-side restaurant. I ordered?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ well, you know what. Stefanie ordered?¢‚Ǩ¬¶Roti, another type of pan-fried bread. Now the story of my search takes an unexpected turn. For, you see, my murtabak was good. But the more I munched on my chicken murtabak, and the more we compared it to samples of Stefanie?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s cheese roti, the more I began to agree with her; the roti was BETTER! Damn that roti! So delicious! So tantalizingly close to my beloved memory of my first murtabak. Maybe the chicken filling was confusing things!!

Tomorrow, in Penang, I will attempt to find the Perfect Murtabak. This time it will be simple and straightforward. No chicken murtabak, not even sardine murtabak (which I can?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t quite get up for)?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ but egg murtabak, in Penang. Malaysia. This time for keeps.

No Misunderstanding

Bali is where I came here for. We stayed in a resort north of Kuta beach on our last night on the island and that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s what the translation in the hotel information book said anyway. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìThe experience is where you came to Bali for?¢‚Ǩ¬ù. We love the mistranslations and variations on spelling that frequent the signs and menus. Just because the sign in front of the restaurant says ?¢‚Ǩ?ìtuna fish?¢‚Ǩ¬ù, don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t think you?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re looking at a sandwich with celery and mayo?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re talking about a nice piece of grilled tuna steak here. And you?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ll always see ?¢‚Ǩ?ìshrimps?¢‚Ǩ¬ù on the menu, just to calm you of your fears of getting only one.

A fruit vendor at Lovina

A fruit vendor at Lovina

There?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s no misunderstanding the people though. Unfailingly polite, welcoming and handy with a smile, the Balinese set the high standard for conviviality. Our travels around this island brought us into contact with a people bearing up under an onslaught of tourism with a genuine warmth and a remarkable openness to each personal encounter.

Pura Ulan Danu by Mt. Batur

Pura Ulan Danu by Mt. Batur

The beauty of the people must come from the landscape. The country is a well tended web of rice terraces, corn fields and vegetable gardens, set in the lap of hills and mountains that roll up into the mist like majestic gods. And gods are what they are. The good and sacred deities in this peculiar Hindu-animist hybrid religion of the Balinese are the mountains. The surrounding ocean is the realm of evil. And the small island of the southern coast of Bali that is all limestone is the real bad thing because it appeared with no support from the good volcanic deities. Don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t go there without a high limit on your karmic card.

Ceremony in the inner courtyard

Ceremony in the inner courtyard

We went up from Ubud, north through the mountains to a lake below Mount Batur, the middle of the three Balinese volcanoes and the only one recently active (Agung in the east blew off back in the sixties). The glassy lake has a very sacred Pura (shrine) where we were fortunate enough to come a across a group of the devout from a local village doing a water blessing ceremony. The shade platform in the outer courtyard held a gamelan orchestra playing a very simple piece of Balinese music, not like the complex microtonal (dissonant to my ear) percussive variety of gamelan that I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m most familiar with. This music was almost gentle, and formed a background as sweet as the lake and green hills around the ceremony in progress in the inner courtyard. Men and women in white and yellow sarongs where seated facing the forward shrine and answering the chants of the leader in unison with an extended response. Hands together over their heads.

A dolphin paces our boat

A dolphin paces our boat

The proceedings having concluded, they took various articles onto a small boat by the shore. Launching it on the lake, they took aim to gather their water and make their offerings.

Leaving the lake, we drove on through the high ridge above the other lakes by Batur, through a monkey forest and on to the north coast of Bali. Our travels took us to the area of Lovina Beach for three nights where we enjoyed an early morning ride in an outrigger canoe to run with the dolphins and a return after breakfast to snorkel over the fish and the reef.

Outriggers leaving for the morning fish run

Outriggers leaving for the morning fish run

We saved the best for last by taking a transport van to the Amed region in far eastern Bali. Still only gently brushed by tourism, Amed retains much of the character of a Bali that is passing. Days circle around the fishing rhythms. Early morning and early evening the men motor out on their outriggers to make their daily catches, some with line fishing, some with nets. They pull in a good haul of a silvery sardine variety they call ?¢‚Ǩ?ìneh?¢‚Ǩ¬ù. While we were watching they seemed to be doing quite well, unloading a long net clipped with fish that seemed to flow out of the small outrigger canoe forever. We rented a motor bike to head further east to the very eastern tip of Bali, snorkeling over one of the nicest reefs I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve seen, near an old Japanese wreak that was close enough to the surface to touch.

Pulling in the haul

Pulling in the haul

The web of rice paddies

The web of rice paddies

We rode the motorbike a few more kilometers up the coast, stopping at a remote cliffside shade platform the Balinese call a ?¢‚Ǩ?ìboesco?¢‚Ǩ¬ù to escape the heat. It didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t take long before we were joined first by a Balinese man who traded his very broken English for our scraps of Balinese. Then another young man of about 17 who spoke absolutely no English but was still very interested in Stefanie, and finally we were joined by another woman who needed a break from the load on her head in the heat of the day. They all found my attempts at trying to match the sounds I was hearing from my Balinese tutor highly entertaining.

That was as far as our road went that day and soon the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìboseco?¢‚Ǩ¬ù was disappearing around the curves behind us as headed back to our cottage on the hillside above the sea. Bali vanished likewise below us as we lifted off today for Singapore.

The Return

You can go ahead and laugh at the superstition behind the Wishing Tree. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ll just stand off to the side, arms folded, with that ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI know better?¢‚Ǩ¬ù look on my face. By the time we arrived at the airport in Bali, my wayward bag was sitting there with a red ?¢‚Ǩ?ìrush?¢‚Ǩ¬ù tag on it, next to the luggage carousel. I just know that that orange, tied to a wish, hanging up in that tree in Hong Kong, had something to do with it. Now, the other wish about lording over the known universe is looking more in the bag for me.

It seems to take me at least a couple days to transit the mental space between here and there, in this case between Hong Kong and Bali. The typical adjustments of travel; changes in currency and climate, orientation to the new lay of the land, etc, take some focus to achieve. It usually takes me that long anyway to begin to feel a part of each new place. Inside that time frame I usually feel a little disjointed.

Since I was here once before, I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m also dealing with ?¢‚Ǩ?ìreturn visit syndrome?¢‚Ǩ¬ù. My first urge is to tell Stefanie, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìyou wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t believe how nice it was here 15 years ago?¢‚Ǩ¬ù. Well shut your cake hole you big fat travel snob. OK, maybe Ubud (our home in Bali for the first week) was less crowded back then. On that basis maybe it was marginally nicer since less of my touristy types always equals better (forgetting for the moment that I am one of those tourists). But isn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t it curious how memory manages to sift out all those nasty little problematic negatives associated with distant experiences. For example, the last time I was in Bali I was also nearly broke and struggling to finesse a bank transfer to pay my lodging bill. Memory makes the grand positive out of the past. It can use that as a bludgeon then to pummel your appreciation for things during the return visit.

Our memories of first trips are unique. Eye opening. Revelatory. But I have to remind myself that they are also a fabricated assemblage of glowing details seen in the sweet gloss that comes from having a positive initial experience. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve sifted out all the negatives by now to create a nice little romance story. The return visit I experience now not only lacks that gloss of novelty, it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s also a much more vivid mixed bag of good and bad. So it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a false comparison. Of course that first trip to Bali kicks butt?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ because god, it sure was great back then.

Total illusion. The classic downfall of the travel snob. And the big reason I think that this is a problem is that it begins to interfere with my ability to appreciate the events as they occur and people I meet. If I decide that I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m having a bad time then guess what, it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s no picnic for the people I meet either. Each encounter during any given day has the potential to transform, for good or bad. And those moments are abundant. Sometimes I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m amazed at how small gestures or behaviors from others affect my mood, and my opinion of people and places. To think that my attitude towards others has the same effect?¢‚Ǩ¬¶

We were talking about these things over dinner and Stefanie gave a good illustration. While we were waiting for the plane to take us from Vancouver to Hong Kong she began to get a little anxious about what comes next. The flight attendant who took her ticket greeted her with such open warmth and measured calm that she instantly forgot her concerns and understood that all would be well. It transformed the moment for Stefanie and she was left not just impressed with that one Chinese woman but helped her believe that those she was yet to meet in Hong Kong would treat her the same.

Part of the problem of thinking, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìit was all so much better the last time I was here?¢‚Ǩ¬ù is that I may miss out on all that.

It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a complaint I hear all too often among frequent travelers. Don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t ever believe it when you hear that a place is not worth visiting anymore. If you?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve never been there, go. It will probably be spectacularly worth it. Don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t use someone else?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s take on how someplace has changed for the worse as your guide. You?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve never been there before. Enjoy the first moments. Let second moments and return visits be what they are. Someone else?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s fiction (or your own) can lead you off the trail of a treasure.

Lost in Hong Kong

It’s more than a cliche to say you better be ready for anything when you travel around the world. And the way we do it, the unexpected can often come in torrents. A long flight from Chicago to Vancouver B.C. to Hong Kong ended with the added thrill of lost luggage as we stood and watched the carousel go round and round and people disappeared one by one. Stefanie picked up her backpack right away and that seemed like a good sign until we were left alone in the claim area with dying hopes. Nice way to kick it off, get the weirdness out of the way right up front so we won’t have to wonder when it’s coming. We filled out the forms and the nice men promised to call as soon as there was any news. I kind of kissed off seeing my little satchel until at least Bali since we are only here two days.

Hong Kong neon

Hong Kong neon

The last thing I’d do is let that kick my butt. I’m ready to enjoy this come hell or unavoidable consequence so we grabbed our bus into Kowloon and I fought hard to not let that loss break hard on me. Everything in the bag except my wedding ring can be replaced so what the heck, we got our health right? I went through the stages of grief as quickly as possible on the bus ride to the hotel because I wanted to get into the much-anticipated joy of arrival if at all possible. I managed to keep my pouting to a minimum and, for the most part, internal.

The streets of Kowloon

The streets of Kowloon

We tried to get a good night’s sleep after checking in to the hotel. Our room was tiny and the two single beds ate up all the maneuvering space so we had to take turns moving around as we settled in. The double dose of Sominex got me knocked out for a few hours but soon I was back to the insomnia as I wandered through plans to get on without my backpack.

The Wishing Tree

The Wishing Tree

Next morning we were up around nine, asking our hotel staff how to get to the wishing tree. Stef had her own reasons to make use of this Hong Kong custom and I just developed my own special need to make a wish regarding lost possessions. We mastered the Hong Kong rapid transit system and transferred our way up to a small town in the New Territories, the northern fringe of the former colonial region. After a quick cab ride we executed a commando raid on the wishing tree since we had only one day to see all of Hong Kong. The wishing tree custom involves tossing an orange tied to a scroll with your wish up into a tree, hopefully getting it lodged in the branches. You only get three tries. I got my two wishes written out and tossed into the trees. Stefanie got her bundles of wishes up too after buying one replacement for the second uncooperative orange.

Stef has success making her wish

Stef has success making her wish

Back down to Kowloon past the same lovely rural scenery we saw on the way up, we transferred onto the train that took us under the channel and on to the island of Hong Kong. The shiny, largely glass and metal city with its amazing blur of humanity rushing about greeted our rise from that submarine express. What at first I took to be frantic and oppressive actually grew on me fondly as the rest of the day progressed. The city is an elaborate 3-dimensional maze of triple-deck causeways and interlocking buildings. Often we wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t realize when a hall between two stores became a connection between them. At other times just finding our way back outside at street level was a challenge. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìJaw-dropping?¢‚Ǩ¬ù I kept repeating to myself. Like nothing I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d ever seen.

Statue Square

Statue Square

We had lunch with the locals in a noodle shop and then went from site to site, using our Xerox copies from the libraries guide book to lead us on. One of the only buildings older then fifty is the old Courthouse and we used the Statuary Square in front for a brief water break. We headed up through the HSBC building (a billion dollar wonder of exoskeletal construction) to gaze up twenty stories at into the hollowed out center atrium and then, through another causeway, headed out into a lovely tiered garden by the old Episcopal cathedral. After another short break in the lovely, cool interior with wood beamed and blue ceiling, we went up to take the tram up Victoria Peak. This famous overlook gave us our first overall look at this city and I agreed when Stefanie remarked, “modern architecture sometimes looks uniform and boring close up but from a distance the assembly can be very impressive”.

Stef taking in the view at Victoria Peak

Stef taking in the view at Victoria Peak

Our day ended back on the Kowloon side, sitting on the promenade doing some people watching while the sun went down over Hong Kong. The bus ride back to the airport in daylight revealed easily the largest harbor complex we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d ever seen. Miles of docks, cranes, freighters and container cargo, receeding of into the vast distance.

The luggage left behind was fast becoming symbolic of what we had tried to leave. We made a promise to travel lightly but we had no idea just how extreme that commitment was.

The "Star" promenade at sunset

The "Star" promenade at sunset

Hong Kong harbor

Hong Kong harbor

A New Year in an Old World

Okay, New Year’s Resolution: no more heavy, philosophical bullcrap. Just the facts as I see ’em ma’am. Though that may not work out too well since I can’t seem to resist those meanderings, at least every now and then. Then maybe… okay REVISED New Year’s Resolution #1B: not so much heavy, philosophical bullcrap. Keep it light and tight. No one wants to spend ten minutes of their valuable allotment of discretionary time reading someone else’s brain noise.

morning sky

Morning sky over San Miguel

The problem here is the same as Popeye?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s and everybody else?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s: I am what I am. Just bear with me and I promise to mix it up.

One promise I made myself for the new year was to get this weblog up to speed. Thanks to some new software you can now try to toss me a line when I go out dog-paddling in the deep end. Post your comments and save me from drowning in simile.

Welcome to the New Year! The ?¢‚Ǩ?ìnew?¢‚Ǩ¬ù thing is very big in this world, so no wonder this holiday is popular. Western Culture keeps us hungry for it. Keeping on top of it is our lifestyle and you?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re some dotty old crank if you aren?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t right there.

The sharp point of ?¢‚Ǩ?ìthe new?¢‚Ǩ¬ù is always staring us down as artists. While making a fresh instance in art is vital, there?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s really nothing new under the sun, so finding a context and then developing a viewpoint seems to me more important. Or else you?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ll go around with a big, neon, self-conscious arrow pointing to your ?¢‚Ǩ?ìnew art?¢‚Ǩ¬ù; all shiny and new but trivial at last. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s like the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìNew Toy at Christmas?¢‚Ǩ¬ù phenomena. The toy that gets twenty minutes of attention Christmas morning and then passes onto a heap of mediocre plastic.

morning sky

Stefanie in the campo

At some point as we age the opposite value makes its stand: Old is amazing! I see it as the ultimate test of value: been around the block a few times, still kicking and looking good! (well maybe just the first two parts). We met many great people at our art fair this week but some of our favorites were well up there on the chronological scale. One lady told us she painted watercolors for ten years but gave it up because ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI decided I didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t know what the hell I was doing!?¢‚Ǩ¬ù. Another charming lady told us she decided not to buy land here thirty years ago. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI could shoot myself. In fact I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m surprised I haven?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t!?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

morning sky

Sunset blaze on templo edifice

These old beauties tell me the wonderful part about the age I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m entering. Its time to have fun with my foibles and weakenings, let go of the pride that is death to humor and the unflinching opinions about what is real quality that make me a snob and get on with opening my senses to this big fat juicy life.

morning sky

Smiles at the art fair

Sure we love our new things; new house, new car, The New Christie Minstrals. But god forbid we Americans learn a new language. Talking to a lady from San Luis Potosi (who spoke multiple languages), I lamented the lack of foreign language study in the States as well as my own inability to master Spanish. She asked me if I knew what a person who spoke three languages was called ?¢‚Ǩ?ìtrilingual?¢‚Ǩ¬ù, Two?, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìbilingual?¢‚Ǩ¬ù One? ?¢‚Ǩ?ìgringo?¢‚Ǩ¬ù.

Happy New Year. May it bring you new ways to see growing older.

Another Photo

They hung paper streamers across the plaza the other day. These brightly colored paper cutouts known as “papel picado” are used throughout the year to dress up every Mexican fiesta but this is the time when they really get to shine. This is Dios de los Muertes (http://muertos.palomar.edu/dayofthedead.htm), the season when every Mexican family pays respect to their dearly departed. While the American tradition of dressing in costume has a great appeal here to a culture that loves street theater, the unique customs of Day of the Dead are still honored with an outpouring of energy typical of this culture’s approach to celebrations. Unlike the other fiestas we’ve experienced since we’ve arrived (and there have been many!) where the papel picado strung across the streets are the more common, machine made cutouts, they now take the time to carefully hand-cut them with elaborately detailed designs. Then they are raised prominently right across the main plaza to fly in the breeze until the ancestral spirits are chased back to heaven at the end of November 2nd.

All this fuss about the spirits of the dead seems odd to me because something tells me its superstitious and irrational. Certainly a night spent at father’s grave with candles, incense and plates of food to beckon him back doesn’t fit neatly into my experience or understanding. The vigil part makes some sense, but the plates of food? I’m sure this is where I part ways. The spirits aren’t actually returning are they? And a bit peckish at that? But then, what exactly are these plates of food? The very things papa enjoyed while living; enchiladas mole, chicken with rice and beans, cerveza fria. These simple details soon expand into a flood of memories and regardless of what logic may not allow, those memories have now created a presence. Dear papa has arrived in the circle of those who share his memory. Now whether or not he likes the same old cooking…

My culture chooses to denigrate the value of the emotional, irrational mind, largely to its own detriment. There are some very fundamental and persistent enigmas that can’t be approached any other way. The rational day cycles with irrational night and they both have their place and time. As much as we try to banish the irrational, it never really disappears. I began thinking about my culture’s rituals to see how the irrational sneaks in the back door.

The rituals we all share are almost transparent, so much so that we would hardly see them as superstitious. What is with lighting and blowing out candles on a birthday? Or what is the “laying of the cornerstone” ceremony, or even the singing of the National Anthem at ballgames? Why do we do these things? Well, because they feel right and because they are the right thing to do. And actually that’s reason enough. Rituals only persist as long as they “feel right”. Those that lose that emotional connection, or those that succumb to logic and are designated “silly” or “old fashioned” tend to fade away. It could happen to the candles on the cake. It’s what happened to the curtsy. And then there are the other behaviors that become “just a superstition”, like those encounters with black cats, ladders and sidewalk cracks. Hard to imagine they were all highly respected ritual behaviors at one time, ignored only at great risk.
IMG_2416sm.jpg
So, are all rituals eventually doomed to the ash heap of “silly superstitious behavior”? Maybe, but I don’t think its appropriate to judge their worth based on whether or not they are sensible, or even logical. Even the rituals we buy into completely and follow habitually look a little silly when you step aside and get “objective” in that way. The only reason that really matters is whether they help us to connect to a shared emotional experience, not whether they look silly to some third party. A wonderful thing happens when we can give ourselves over to a commonly shared ritual. To perform a ritual that your community holds dear, and to perform it with conviction and absolute focus can be uncommonly powerful. We’re just awfully self-conscious about the whole ordeal because we’re sure that somebody will call us on it at any time. Just what the heck are you doing anyway?