Monday, April 30, 2012

Give The Sun No Chance

"As we draw nearer to the sacred Ganges, the crowd of pilgrims that is wending its way thither, grows larger, more cosmopolitan, and more interesting.  Here are Hindus from every part of India and of every conceivable caste."--Our Journey Around the World, page 338

We trundled across the Middle East in a series of train rides and caravans, through the relentless heat of the deserts and cities that scatter the landscape.  We saw elephants and camels and monkeys, all tamed in quite unnatural ways, doing the work of horses or people in the villages.  Life here revolves around the force of the sun, and escaping the heat is always a consideration for the daily lives of the people.  People work fewer and more obscure hours, taking a nap in the heat of the day or using their precious water supply to cool off the children or animals.

Beggars and children in the streets of Calcutta, Our Journey Around the World
Poverty and disease run rampant in India, as the cold grasp of the caste system is still inescapable.  In Calcutta, the streets are lined with the saddest sights: beggars of al ages unable to move from the disease and starvation that encompasses them.  Good Samaritans try to help, and overcrowded orphanages and impromptu soup kitchens dot the edges of the “untouchable” neighborhoods.  Unfortunately, most Indians believe misfortune will fall upon them if they attempt to help the lower classes, so the orphanages are run by Westerners, mostly Catholic nuns or other charitable folk who seek to spread the kindness of their god to this world.

We visited one such orphanage, run by sisters from Ireland, and were invited to spend the day overseeing and assisting with their daily operations.  Dozens of children live in the small compound, which is really just an old house modified with beds, classrooms, and play spaces.  Many of the children are biological brothers and sisters who were brought here by a distant relative or older sibling when their parents died, or didn’t return from a day of work on the streets.  Their stories are sad, but the children are all laughs, and loved meeting new people such as ourselves.  We played games in the dirt with them outside the house, and ate their meager portions of rice and water for lunch, squatting in a circle on the dirt floor of the kitchen.  Living in filth or squalor is all relative, and for these kids the orphanage is a safe, healthy place far superior to anything they have ever known.  The nuns are kind and work hard to provide basic skills to the children to hopefully improve their standing in the world by the time they are old enough to leave.  Children older than about eight years old must work, but at least here they are able to split their time between learning in the classroom and begging or doing odd jobs in the streets.  It’s a dangerous life, but they do the best they can with what they have.  They certainly understand the value of a hot meal or place to sleep far better than any western child I have ever known. 

Bathers of all kinds flock to the sacred Ganges River.
In addition to the orphanage, which opened our eyes more than any other spectacular landscape or adventure on this entire journey we also observed the activity of the sacred Ganges river.  Men, women, and children from all classes flock to the river for its sacred healing powers.  It is brown, muddy, and certainly disease ridden, but the people feel no qualms stripping out of their saris and robes and wading right in.  I would be nervous in that still, muddled water that a snake or other creature would come with malicious intents, but apparently the power of prayer works well here.  We touched our hands and feet to the water, simply for the experience, but it was far too crowded for us to go any further, not that we had a desire to.

India is a magical land, filled with much sadness and disease but also rich with stories and human kindness.  The hot sun beats down relentlessly as we travel through, reminding us of the importance of a safe refuge and making us thankful for everything we have.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Time Fears the Pyramids

Text: Our Journey Around the World, Francis and Harriet Clark, 1895
Everything fears time, but time fears the pyramids” –ancient Arab proverb

“Unmistakably the pyramids of picture-book and fancy, of boyhood’s dream and manhood’s anticipation.” Pg 418

The Great Pyramids are the most distinct landmark of the ancient Egyptian times.  They mark a landscape that is filled with buried history, that was undiscovered for hundreds of years, and contains so much more than the eye can see.  We visited the great pyramids as part of our foray into the ancient Egyptian world.  We approached by train, as the tourist industry has capitalized on this rarity quite well.  The pyramids first appear on the horizon in stark geometric contrast to the rolling sandiness that surrounds us.  Nothing else surrounds them, as all evidence of the life is buried below the surface, except for a few modern outcroppings of commercialism and celebrations. The poverty of modern Cairo still pervades even this far out in the country, as seen by beggars on the train and trash in the roads.  Up close even the pyramids themselves have evidence of time and weathering on their rough edges. 

The pyramids seem so sharp as we approached them, and we were wary about the day’s coming adventure, as the Arab guide had told us that we could climb to the summit.  Once we saw the scarred and jagged edges, though, we realized climbing would not be as dangerous as we thought.  If many more tourists start to take advantage of the road to the pyramids, it will be impossible to allow climbing on the monuments, so we must take advantage of it while we are here.  With two Arab guides accustomed to the tricky climb, we edged our way back and forth across the face of the Great Pyramid, the rough sandstone flaking off in our hands and clothes as we tried to keep a sturdy grip. As we sat atop the small peak of the pyramid, my mind wandered far back to the age of burial in these larger-than-life tombs.  What treasures were still beneath the surface?  Who had spent so many hours toiling over each individual stone, dedicating their entire life to the rich pharaoh who would only enjoy this place after his death?  The Egyptian society took such a different approach to death and the afterlife than anything we are used to, so I suppose they all had different opinions on the purpose of such grand monsters.  The defaced Sphinx looks over the pyramids like a relaxed mother figure, seated comfortably for thousands of years.  The superstition and spiritual presence of the Egyptians looms all around.
We were also able to explore the carefully preserved remains of those treasures that were found deep in the tombs of the various pyramids and other tombs.  Kept behind protected glass, the gold treasures do not hold the same resonance they would if found clustered under the ground in a pharaoh’s tomb.  But there are coins, and jewelry, and vessels of every kind.  They were buried with food, drinks, clothing, and more, all for the everlasting journey into the afterlife.  Our museum exploration proved very rewarding after the up close and personal experience with the pyramids earlier in the day. 

Exhausted by heat and history, we ended the day in a dark, loud Egyptian cafĂ© in Cairo.  We drank lukewarm coffee and ate spicy vegetables and flaky lamb and enjoyed the local company until the sky began to lighten again over those majestic pyramids.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Exotic Canary Islands and Morocco

Texts: Letters from the Canary Islands, by Daniel Jay Browne, Lyceum Press, Boston, 1834

Our Journey Around the World, Frances E. Clark and Harriet Clark, 1895.

"The inhabitants [of the Canary Islands], at least one half of the year, experience the intense and almost perpendicular rays of the sun; and when the periodical rains neglect to fall…Then that same orb which cheers and enlightens more temperate regions of the earth, here comes the most deadly bane…Kind nature has devised suitable reparation by fanning the earth with refreshing breezes, and by setting apart an appropriate season for rain.”

Shadows of the Saharan Desert, Morocco
We now depart Europe and continue on to some of the more exotic locations of this Earth.  From the south of Italy, we boarded a small cruise ship that took us through the temperate azure of the Mediterranean, through shoreline fishing villages, olive groves, stunning beaches, and more.  We stopped at the southernmost Port of Spain and departed the continent for an African journey beginning in Morocco.  Morocco is a very Arab-influenced part of Africa, and this trip does not allow for Sub-Saharan exploration, so there is still plenty to see on this continent.  But Morocco is home to the great sweeps of desert sand, broiling camel rides, and picturesque oases that inspire a festive, heavenly time.

We also tripped over on a short boat to the world famous Canary Islands.   Technically owned by Spain, this tropical slice of paradise seems like a world away from any sort of modern life.  Tribal culture is still very prominent, and much of the land seems untouched by any hand or foot, much like our beginning journey in Alaska and the western United States.  The small islands are home o hundreds of active volcanoes, and tales from the native villages kept us on our feet as we traversed the edges of the jungles, looking out for exotic wildlife and vegetation. 

A profound silence reigns with regard to their origin, in which the world must probably forever remain in darkness.” –Letters from the Canary Islands, on the native inhabitants.

The native tribes here, which have been visited by Europeans and Westerners, especially Spanish explorers, have attempted to maintain the traditional lifestyle of hunting, fishing, gathering, and living beautiful days at the water’s edge in their grass villages.  The western influences are slight but unignorable—a Spanish priest resides in the largest village, and oversees the Catholic Church there, but some tribes still practice indigenous religious practices.  We observed a dancing ritual to welcome the rainy season.  The rains and sun dictates the very day-to-day life of these inhabitants, so a rainy season that remains too dry or a series of storms can change the entire course of their livelihood for a year or more.  In order to please their several mythological gods of rain and weather forces, they practice a dance and celebration.  While the modern influences have rendered this celebration more for show than for true results, the energy and experience were nonetheless unforgettable. They were very welcoming to our small party but stressed the importance and seriousness of the event.  We were included in the dancing, but the chanting and spiritual portions were somewhat isolated from our prying Western eyes. 

Peak Teneriffe, Canary Islands
We hiked around the base of the tallest peak of the islands, Peak Teneriffe, which has been an active volcano not too long ago in the past.  Ever rumble of a mule’s hooves or snapping twig of an iguana in the brush made me jump for fear of another catastrophic eruption, but o course this is such a rare occurrence.  Walking on crusted dried black lava, which has a wavy, frozen, appearance but is sharp, vicious, and easily broken, was something unsettling as well.  The whole proximity of the eruption and destruction of a volcano was all around us.  The tropical excursion was enlightening, relaxing, and rejuvenating.  The combination of old and new in the cultures here is a great lesson in cooperation and compromise. 

Antiquity to Modernity

Text: The American in Europe
Influences of the Ancients

“Hail to thee, Italy! Land of sun and beauty—land of liberty and despotism—of slavery and freedom—of vices and crime—home of the arts!”
“Life in Florence is always a luxury, when it is not actual wretchedness. Wander about the town, and here the sculpture gallery, the painter’s studio, the student’s chamber, are open for you.  To all of these, in turns, a stranger soon finds his way."

 Travel through Italy is a celebration of art and culture just as our visit to Paris.  From Milan to Rome, the ancient cathedrals and ruins, artist’s galleries and museums, the fertile countryside rich with history as well as vegetation celebrate the pervading antiquity. From the first sophisticated civilization, that Grand Roman Empire, Italy has been the forefront of cultural movements. 

Interior of Florence Duomo, engraving from The American in Paris
In an effort to explore the renaissance days, we stopped off in Florence for the galleries and museums of artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, and other famous figures.  The city bleeds inspiration, much like the banks of Paris, but the countryside life slows down the pace here in Florence, allowing for a more relaxed exploration.  The Uffizi Gallery is consistently filled with the works of famous renaissance men.  My eyes could not even fathom the sheer volume and magic of the paintings and sculptures here.  Michelangelo’s marble work is perhaps the most famous, as the statue of David was in popular demand.  Religious tradition is heavy in Italy, as it is in much of Europe, especially in the historic and cultural centers.  The Duomo cathedral in Florence, hundreds of years old, is easily the most spectacular building in the city.  Striped and colored marble rise toweringly into the sky, and the shafted ceilings give way to the largest rotunda of all.  The most impressive part about viewing the Duomo or any of the works of art in this city is imagining the struggles of those building them, who had no modern technology or machinery to assist them.  Each piece of art is a true labor of love. 

The true feel of a city is best achieved when you can see the city as a whole.  We gained special access to climb the Campanile—the bell tower just next to the Duomo in the main piazza.  Climbing the hundreds of narrow stairs to the top of the tower felt like climbing back into history, and when we finally ducked our heads around the huge iron bells and out the little square windows, it was like seeing the city for the first time.  Each little narrow cobblestone street, snaking crookedly through shops, neighborhoods, and groups of people reminded me of the effort of ancient construction.  The lives of each simple individual seen all at once helped mold the city into a living, breathing object right there in the dizzying bell tower.

We could explore the crooked corners of Florence, or any other Tuscan town, for days upon days.  Of course, our train to Rome awaited us and we departed, further into the history of ancient Rome, but back into the bustling modern world of the city. 
Modernity is questionable now, what with all these hundreds of century of history with so many glorious contributions.  Where would we be without the map of the ancients? 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Artists in Paris

An American in Europe, Henry Clay Crockett, London Printing and Publishing Company, 1850

"We travel, or rather dreamily wander round and round."--The American in Europe
"Montmartre, a hundred years ago, was much more distant from Paris than it is now  It was the heart of a rich and beautiful country, but the encroachments of the great growing monster--the city."

We looked around at the Universite de Paris, where many Americans are known to study during their time abroad.  We are not taking time to study on this journey, instead learning as we go through the world’s classroom.  But if I were to take time somewhere around the world, I think it would be here.  There are artists and writers and chemists and philosophers: so many famous pioneers of the world of learning.  The universite has a chemistry class in which Marie Curie is a guest lecturer.  The philosophy department celebrates the groundbreaking work of Descartes.  But for me, the true draw is the writers, both French and foreign, who call Paris their home.

Sitting on the left banks of the Seine, the presence of the Lost Generation of writers is everywhere.  Hemingway and Fitzgerald live here now, producing some of their best work while away from their American home. Right here in Montmartre, the Left Bank’s artistic center, artists and intellectuals flock together and celebrate creation. The inspiration is everywhere, from the old houses and apartments of Picasso, Dali, Rousseau, Matisse, and more.  The cafes are filled with struggling writers drowning in social inspiration.  We lunched in one of the cafes where Hemingway is known to be spotted, and although there were many dark, brooding men alone at tables with multiple glasses of whiskey, we did not catch a glimpse of him.  We felt at home, surrounded by all these Americans in Paris, but it also felt quite unfair, that we were here taking over and transforming the beautiful French culture.

Intellectually stimulated for more than our fair share, we spent the afternoon and into the evening shopping Paris’s smaller flower and bird markets. They are tucked away from the main Rues, and buy and sell everything imaginable: fresh flowers, plants, pets, livestock, meat, fruit, cheeses, warm bread, wine, and every other small luxury that makes Paris so enjoyable. The Parisian matrons were yelling in French, haggling on dinner supplies for their family while the boys played with sticks in the dirt and the girls followed closely behind their mothers, learning the ways of the market.  We were surely out of place, as not a single person spoke English, though many stall keepers tried to attract us with short bursts of English phrases: “Pretty things! I sell you!” they called uncomfortably.  We purchased more bread and cheese than we could eat for a week, some precious trinkets and fabric to bring home, and a bouquet of fresh flowers for the matron at our boarding house in the 7th Arrondisement.
Jardin Mabile, Paris, where we explored after hours in the City of Lights.

 The hustle and bustle of the city life was surely still present here, but tucked away from the city we were able to enjoy ourselves more, and I really pictured myself coming back and making a life here among the artists and bohemians.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Emerald Isle

Text: “The Boy Travellers in: Great Britain and Ireland” by Thomas Knox, Harper and Brothers, 1891.

On American Travelers, page 2: “They are in a hurry to get to London, and determine that they will see Ireland on their way home…but they longer so long on the continent and in England that they have no time to stop on the way home; and that’s the way Ireland is neglected by the Americans.”
"Why is Ireland the richest country in the world? Because its capital is Dublin every day." :)

 We sailed from New York directly to the port of Queenstown, in the Cove of Cork, in Ireland.  The journey was less than luxurious, and marked by heavy rainstorms, but as The Boy Travellers pointed out, “the frequent and copious rains gave the hills of Ireland the beautiful green that greeted [our] eyes.” (Pg 4) We were more eager to reach the Emerald Isle and continue our sightseeing than to waste time being bothered by the rain, so we spent the steamship journey talking to passengers about their own voyages and gaining a wealth of knowledge and invitations to dinner by wealthy English businessmen.  We promised to call on a few gentlemen when we reached London, but wished to explore those green hills and cliffs of Ireland first.

Blarney Castle, site of the famous Blarney Stone near Cork, Ireland
 After landing in Queenstown, the typical route to Dublin crosses right through the city of Cork and the village of Blarney, which is a huge tourist destination thanks to the poetry of Father Prout, who wrote: “There’s a stone there that whoe’er kisses, sure he ne’er misses/To become iloquint.”  Nowadays, tourists from miles around come to kiss the Blarney stone in hopes that they will win the gift of words.  We were no exception to the superstition, and leaned in to the fragment of the Blarney stone—“not the real one, which is in the wall of the building many feet from the ground, and can only be reached by the lips of a person who is suspended by his heels from the top of the castle four or five feet above.” (Pg 13) and planted a humorous kiss on the cool granite.  For the truly adventurous, it is possible to climb to the top of the castle and reach the true stone, but it does trigger a fear of heights and is not for everybody. I have yet to notice any impact on my ways of speech, but perhaps the skill takes a few days to acquire. 

Lakes of Killarney, some of the beautiful scenery of Ireland.
From pg 21 of The Boy Travellers.
The Irish countryside, which we traveled thoroughly, is full of ancient and crumbling castles, abbeys, monasteries, and the like.  In addition to the rich human history, it is also a beautiful country of waterfalls, lakes, and the famous mountainous cliffs.  I was in awe at the richness of the shades of greens, blues, and browns that cover this country.  Many of the lakes and falls reminded me of our visit to the Yosemite valley, though the air here has a much more distinctive chill, and the sense of rain is almost constant, as if a light mist continually sprays without any particular accumulation o water.  We spent our time in the Irish countryside in a perpetual state of dampness, but it was worth it for the lush vegetation in which we were surrounded.  It is hard to believe that only a few decades ago this entire landscape was devastated by drought and famine.  The environment seems very healthy for potatoes and other crops. 

Man from Limerick
county, from
The Boy Travellers
The Irish people are very proud of their ancestry and roots.  Even the poorest, smallest children can stand up proudly and recite the occupation of their grandfathers.  Tempers run high between families, and the local pubs are always a raucous celebration or argument of familial pride.  We frequented these pubs in the crowded, dirty, but proud neighborhoods of poor Dublin.  To see the true life of the people is the most important goal of this journey. 

My family hails from Limerick, which we saw on our country drives, and when my name was mentioned at the pub there the patrons burst into roars of acceptance and treated us like family for the rest of our stay. I could have stayed there with my new family for days, but we’ve got a whole world to see.  The green hills, clear lakes, and proud people of Ireland will not be forgotten.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

An Evening at the Theatre

 Lights and Shadows of New York Life; or, the Sight and Sensations of The Great City. By James D. McCabe, National Publishing Company, 1873.

Theater Program: “The New Yorkers” at Broadway Theater, New York Theater Program Corp Publishers, opening Jan. 5, 1931.

From Sight and Sensation of the Great City: “The theatres: There are usually from 50,000 to 100,000 strangers in the city, and the majority of these find the evenings dull without some amusement to enliven them.” Pg 470 
“In no other city are such establishments as elegant and commodious, and nowhere else in America are the companies as proficient in their art, or the play so admirable put on the stage.” Pg 471

With our few days’ overlap in the “Greatest city on earth,” we decided we must explore everything this city is so famous for: the central Park, the statue of Liberty given by the French, the libraries and museums and cultural centers.  New York is such a fashionable, high society place, though poverty, crime, and danger lurk among many dark corners.  According to James McCabe, author of “Sights and Sensations,” “It is not safe for a stranger to undertake to explore these places for himself…no respectable man is a match for the villains and sharpers of New York.” 

In this era of Prohibition, an underground culture of speakeasies, dance halls, and street workers borders the edge of some of the most respectable destinations.  In order to protect ourselves from the dangers laid out by such a big city, we mostly tour during the day, where one can glimpse the underground culture but not be engrossed in it.  We decided, though, that no trip to New York is complete without a trip to the legendary theaters.  Musicals, opera, drama, Shakespeare, vaudeville, and more grace the dozens of stages of New York each night.  Many stage stars have their own following by members of the elite here, who attend the lavish opening night events of each of their new shows.  Film stars beloved across the nation are also beginning to cross back over into stage work, bringing a celebrity quality to the most classic of productions. 

"The New Yorkers" theatre program, January 1931.
We decided to splurge on tickets to a production of “The New Yorkers” at B.S. Moss’s Broadway theatre, in order to have the most classically new York evening.  The play was described as a sociological musical satire and pokes fun at New York stereotypes, including the elite, conmen, thieves and prostitutes. It was a whirlwind romantic tale about a socialite named Alice and her relationship with a bootlegger name Al.  It included such musical numbers as “Say it with Gin,” “”The Great Indoors,” “Take Me Back to Manhattan,” and other tales that made it a pleasure for New Yorkers and tourists alike, as it gave a humorous picture of the lives of the residents of such a city. 

The theater program, which I saved as a memento of the experience, includes articles on up-and-coming New Yorkers, the latest fashion trends, and some warnings about the fall of the economy.  It is clearly directed at the socialites who frequent the theater.  Advertisers flock to the theater program in order to target such an elite audience, but it was enjoyable for us as visitors as well. 

After the show, we visited a dance hall popular with the young people of the city.  It was an adventure in nightlife that we had previously shied away from, due to James McCabe’s warnings, but we learned that with a little common sense there is no reason not to enjoy New York’s many offerings at all hours of the day.  This risk-taking also served us well for the coming adventures in Europe and the rest of the world!  Tomorrow we leave new York and America for good, setting off across the Atlantic for a tour of European Greats, ancient ruins and indigenous cultures of Northern Africa, an East Indies passage through India, and a recreational jaunt around the south Pacific.  The world is literally ours to explore.