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Uninvited Guests

If you were to travel back in time to the 5th century AD and accompany the first Polynesians to settle Hawaii, upon arrival you would be (a) really, really seasick, and (b) very surprised at how different the islands appear from what you see today. Practically the only land animal life were birds and one species of bat. There were no coconut palms, no banana or candlenut (kukui) trees, no taro plants, no breadfruit… all things that are inextricably identified with Hawaii today.

This was driven home to me yesterday while we were touring Kohala, the peninsula at the northern end of the Big Island that is essentially a million year old extinct volcano. We were taking a break in the town of Kapa’au, a sleepy hamlet best known as the birthplace of Kamehameha I, unifer of the islands, and a statue commemorating same. I was lounging outside a small restaurant across the street from the statue while Alice was inside buying a drink, and my reverie was interrupted by a young couple querying me in an English accent:

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Uh, yes?”

“Are you OK with lizards?”

I was unsure where this line of inquiry was going, and decided to play it safe.

“Um, yes. Is there some reason I shouldn’t be?”

“Well, there’s one a few inches from your head.”

This was quite true, more than one in fact. I turned my head to the bamboo fence over my left shoulder and came eye to eye with this guy, about twice the length of my pinky finger and accompanied by several of his friends:

I was surprised to see him. Geckos are very common in Hawaii; there are at least nine species of them, all of them introduced. But despite having lived on the Big Island for three years in the early 1980’s, I did not recall ever seeing one that looked like an acid trip with scales.

It turns out that there is a very good reason for this. A little Googling reveals that this is a “gold dust day gecko” — that would be Phelsuma laticauda for you taxonomy lovers — and that it is native to northern Madagascar. That is nearly as far from Hawaii as it is possible to be and still be on this planet, so what is it doing here?

The answer, of course, is “people”. A student at the University of Hawaii main campus on Oahu smuggled eight of these geckos from Madagascar and deliberately released them in 1974. (Why?) They were first sighted on Maui — about halfway between Oahu and the Big Island — 20 years later. By extrapolation we can estimate with some confidence that they made it to the Big Island some time within the past ten years. So I would not have seen them 35+ years ago.

So the moral of the story is that change is continuous even in a place that we think of as being isolated. When I eat local fruits or witness an old Hawaiian craft demonstration I like everyone else like to luxuriate in the satisfying illusion that I am beholding the island in some Edenic antediluvian state. But in fact the islands lost that particular innocence as soon as the very first settlers stepped out of their canoes, and the process never stopped.

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Categories: Hawaii, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lon Chaney, Call Your Office

So it appears that in France they believe that “The Phantom of the Opera” was a documentary. And, weirdly, that may not be altogether off the mark. The famed book, about a half dozen movie versions, and the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical all take place at L’Opera de Paris, also known as the Palais Garnier for the young architect who designed it in the 1870’s. Interestingly, the following things actually did happen in real life:

  • Some flooding occurred during construction, necessitating the inclusion of a retaining wall that created a small sub-basement pool that still exists and became the “Fantasy Lake” of the story.
  • One of the construction workers had a terrible facial deformity that he kept hidden. He loved the building and pretty much hung around there in secret all the time.
  • A counterweight from the chandelier in the main auditorium broke loose and fell in 1896, killing a spectator.

Who knew? In any case, the building is a spectacular one, built in an ornate neoclassical style, all marble and curlicues and domes and staircases. We took the tour. Here is the main lobby. It made me feel like I should have arrived in a horse-drawn carriage.

Paris 2018-072-Edit

Here’s the domed main auditorium. It seats nearly 2,000.

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And here is the dome itself with the infamous chandelier. You may note that the painting style does not exactly say “1875”. That is because it was repainted in a more current motif in 1968 at the behest of the then Minister of Culture, author Andre Malraux. The style may look familiar to you, since the artist is… Marc Chagall!

Paris 2018-057

And finally, here is the austere, understated Great Hall, in case the palace of Versailles isn’t garish enough for your tastes.

Paris 2018-083-Edit

Now here’s the weird part: the blockbuster Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” has never been shown in France. Apparently it was finally scheduled to run in Paris two years ago in October 2016, but a fire in the theater a few days before opening destroyed everything. So… no “Phantom” for Parisians, L’Opera notwithstanding.

Our next stop was a pilgrimage of sort, although I am not sure if it counts as a pilgrimage when you’re making the trip for somebody else. My former Evil Assistant and longtime BFF Angie is a devotee of insanely expensive designer purses (or, as she describes them, “receptacles for my soul”) and so we spent a few minutes wandering through the Insanely Expensive Purse And Other Retail Store district, just off the Champs Elysée. Our specific goal at Angie’s request was the Hermes flagship store (it’s pronounced er-MEZZ, you Philistine, not HER-meez), which we photographed but did not enter because we were not worthy. Angie was outraged that we did not take the opportunity to stop in and pick her up something called a “Birkin 35 Vermillion Togo”, which a moment of Googling revealed to be a $10,000 purse. I told her that we had decided to wait till it went on sale.

Designer-purseless, we moved on to one of our favorite museums in Paris, the Picasso Museum.

Paris 2018-096-Edit

The Picasso Museum is four stories tall, and by the time we got to the top I must confess that even we, big fans that we are, were utterly Picasso’ed out.

We had dinner at an excellent nearby Greek restaurant, three doors down from one of the sleazy sex shops on our street. Our dirty little secret (unrelated to the sex shops) is that neither Alice nor I are big fans of French haute cuisine. We love French “street food”: baguettes, crepes, that sort of thing. But I am not especially fond of creamy sauces, and Alice, being lactose intolerant, can’t handle the French fondness for butter and cream in everything. So when in Paris we go ethnic, much as we do at home. As you might expect Paris has very cosmopolitan restaurant offerings; so far our diners have been Italian, Vietnamese, and Greek. Tonight we’re doing Japanese.

It was dark after dinner, and so we made our way to the Seine for our nighttime boat ride. The Bateaux Mouches (literally “fly boats”, as in the insect, named for the Mouche region of Lyon where they were first built) are one of Paris’s delightful institutions They’re huge barge-like tourist boats, perhaps 200′ (60 m) long that hold hundreds of passengers, and they’ve been plying the Seine since 1867. Americans and Japanese seemed to be the predominant groups last night. The best time to go is at night when the monuments are lit up, so here are some shots from our trip. (The first, showing the beacon, is from shore, but all the others from on board. The second one shows Notre Dame over the rooftops.)

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-006

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-022

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-026

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-058

Eifel Tower Moon crop (5 of 1)

Note the sequence of low bridges in the middle photo. The boats have unusual design to accommodate them: the ship’s bridge (where the captain steers) is on a hydraulic cantilevered arm and can raise and lower by several feet as needed.

We returned home about 11 PM, navigating the gauntlet of prostitutes working the street near our flat. One surprisingly pretty streetwalker, all hot pants and fishnets, greeted me with that most venerable come-on: “Hi! Do you speak English?” I said, “Yep,” and continued to walk, but before I could take another step, Alice charged up from a few feet behind me, grabbed my arm, and forcefully declared, “HE’S MINE!” It was such an absurd, retro bit of rom-com that all three of us — including the hooker — burst out laughing. Which, I suppose, was as surreal a way as any to end the evening.

We had another “museum day” today — St Chappelle cathedral, with its spectacular stained glass, and the Musée d’Orsay. I may write about them later if time and energy permit. This was our last day in Paris: we head to Prague tomorrow morning. We loved our time here; for us, Paris is the most enjoyable city in the world to simply be in, regardless of whether one runs around checking off all the traditional sights.

Categories: Europe, France, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting the Ball Rolling

This is the first post of our new travel blog, just to have something in here.  In case you’ve forgotten what we look like (and haven’t looked at the “About” page via the link up top here), this is us:

Vic Falls

Our fashion statements at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Of course, if you are reading this blog then you probably already know this.  Our subsequent posts will probably be a little more substantive.

If you would like to “follow” this blog, you can have notifications of new posts (and the posts themselves!) emailed directly to you.  Look down in the lower right hand corner of the browser window, and you’ll see a little box that says “+Follow”.  Click it and it will ask for your email address (which will not be published anywhere!); you’ll then get everything via email, even including the pictures.  You can always come back to this site to see the old posts via the “Recent Posts” and “Archive” listings over on the right.

Here on this site itself you can leave publicly-visible comments on this or any subsequent post by clicking on the Comment link at the bottom of the post.  You can do so anonymously or leave your name (or, if you are feeling perverse, someone else’s name).  You can also set up “Following” when you leave a comment by supplying an email address and clicking the appropriate box. Again, your email address will not appear anywhere.

A word about privacy.  Although this blog is publicly visible — and you are welcome to share its link and content with anyone — many people are properly concerned about what kind of information is harvested by third parties (advertisers and other unsavory organizations).  In order to minimize this concern I have configured this blog to “opt out” of the various analytics and tracking entities.  So in principle, should you subscribe to the emails, your email address should not be harvested by anyone and will in any case not be visible on the site.

Of course, none of the above applies to the NSA, who are already watching me type this as well as listening to you through your microwave oven.  But of course they’ve already got your email address anyway….

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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