Posts Tagged With: architecture

Vietnam: Random Stuff That I Forgot About Earlier

I always think of stuff that I should have written about a couple of days after I publish a blog post. So now I have collected several of them from various stops in our trip, and will dump them on you all at once. Starting with the observation that Vietnamese seem to eschew carpeting: every floor surface, everywhere, seemed to be tile, especially tile with the same coefficient of friction as Teflon or black ice. Which makes walking around after you get out of the shower a disaster waiting to happen; I would be interested to know how many deaths and serious injuries are incurred by falls at home in Vietnam, compared with some arbitrary other country.  Raising the danger into the stratosphere is the fact that bathtubs are influenced by French interior design: tub walls are very high, much higher than in American tubs. If there are no grab bars present — and they’re usually not — then you’d better have some training with Cirque du Soleil before climbing out of the tub, or you are facing doom.

Just wanted to get that off my chest. Some more geographically-specific items:

  • Nha Trang is a Navy town because of the Cam Ranh Bay naval base, sort of like San Diego in its way. (And like San Diego, it is a big tourism and resort town as well.) Unlike San Diego, however, the residents — and this includes unsuspecting tourists staying in high-rise hotels — are awakened at 5:30 AM every morning by Reveille being played over loudspeakers in the street. (Well, not exactly Reveille but close enough: it’s a military fanfare played on a bugle.) Seriously people, I am not only not on duty, I am paying money to be here. Could you please let me sleep?
  • Saigon, of course, was the last outpost of the American-backed government, and fell to the Communists in April 1975. It is likely that you have seen this photo of the last helicopter leaving town, taking off from the roof of a nondescript office building that, not at all coincidentally, was a CIA command post.

Well, the neighborhood has changed a wee bit since then, so here’s that same building today:

No skyscrapers in 1975 Saigon!

  • Hoi An is where I ate silkworms for the first — and I assure you only — time in my life. The skin kind kind of pops a little bit and then they are squooshy. That cringey feeling that you are now experiencing is about right.
  • Major cities have a ride-share service called Grab. You use your phone app to call for a ride, and you can also use it to deliver food from participating restaurants. You would call this Uber and Uber Eats. In Vietnam it is called Grab and Grab Food. Oh, and I should probably mention one other difference besides the name. Here are the vehicles and the drivers:

…and that about wraps up Vietnam for us. Tomorrow I’ll put up a final post with Flickr links (just images, no words) if you are interested in seeing a larger set of photos than appeared here in my blog posts.

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Don’t Miss Saigon

“Saigon” means “cotton trees”, possibly referring to the kapok that used to grow in the area. Now, of course, the official name is Ho Chi Minh City, or HCM, though the river that flows through it is still the Saigon River and people use the city’s two names interchangeably. By either name, it has 14 million people and looks like New York on motorbikes, only bigger. It’s a powerhouse of a city, the beating economic heart of Vietnam. Saigon’s GDP per capita is twice the national average, and its various industrial parks account for 25% of Vietnam’s entire GDP. This is not a city that you visit, it is a city that you plunge into.

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The view from our hotel balcony.  The spaceship-like building in the center is the tallest in Saigon.

We arrived at around 9:00 this morning after a short flight from Dalat and were immediately struck by the contrast with Hanoi. Saigon is very substantially and very obviously more modern, more Western-oriented, more orderly. (The drivers actually obey traffic signals here, at least most of the time, unlike everywhere else in the country.) Our hotel is right in the middle of District 1, the most upscale and busiest part of downtown; the streets around our hotel sport Dior, Louis Vuitton, and similar establishments.

But our first stop after arrival was a grim one, and of course a requirement for anyone coming to Saigon on an organized tour: the War Museum. (Technically, its name is the War Remnants Museum.) It is three stories of everything about the war, needless to say from the winner’s (i.e., Vietnamese) perspective.

Saigon IMG_9023-PanoYou might reasonably expect such a place to be a full-court propaganda press, but it’s much better than that, quite compelling and affecting. There is the required dose of propagandistic vocabulary and rhetoric — the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong are invariably “patriots” — but the displays for the most part let the facts speak for themselves: statistics on how many tons of bombs dropped, how many dead, and so forth, all copiously illustrated with photos and artifacts captioned in both Vietnamese and English. There is an entire room dedicated to the ravages of Agent Orange, particularly among children; I lasted about 10 seconds in there. There is a large gallery filled only with archival photos from well-known war photographers such as Robert Capa; there are many American weapons; and there is a gallery dedicated to documenting the American antiwar movement, including a lot of information about resistance among the American soldiers themselves. There is a replica of the infamous “tiger cages” where VC prisoners were held and tortured.

Saigon IMG_9038I was both impressed and moved. Unfortunately it all makes a very compelling case for how criminally stupid and cruel on a massive scale we as a nation behaved in that era.

More happily, the French influence on Saigon’s architecture is visible everywhere, and there are some very beautiful buildings. Among the more famous of these is the opera house and, unexpectedly, the Central Post Office. Here’s the former:

Saigon IMG_9060-Pano…and here’s the interior of the Post Office, which was built about 1890 and whose interior inexplicably resembles a train station (which it never was):

Saigon IMG_9048It’s a popular destination for visitors — people even get married there — so there’s a constant hubbub. You can see a souvenir marketplace in full swing in the foreground, with the actual post office counters at the back.

After a lunch of pho and some afternoon downtime at our hotel, punctuated by a ferocious thunderstorm and two-hour-long downpour, we went out to dinner and walked around the neighborhood with Phil. This included an amble through the conveniently located red light district, which is probably not part of OAT’s official itinerary. But it was well worth the diversion for its weird entertainment value. The area is a few square blocks, narrow streets full of restaurant and massage parlors with names like “Happy Spa”. The clientele is primarily visiting Japanese businessmen; there was quite a lot of Japanese signage. And the women were all clones, or so it seemed: every one had long straight hair, wore an ankle-length diaphanous dress in a monochromatic pastel shade, and sported voluminous pneumatic cleavage. At one point as we walked down a narrow back street, lit by Japanese lanterns fronting restaurants and “spas”, a phalanx of these women — at least 15 — came marching down toward and past us. It was like some shift change had happened and the clones were all going home, or maybe it was some kind of Macy’s parade, in either case displaying enough silicone to caulk every plumbing fixture in Vietnam. It was quite a sight, and I wish I could show you a photo of it, but taking a picture of them seemed like a really bad idea.

Tomorrow we head to the Mekong Delta, and after we return we are scheduled to have a Vespa tour of the city at night. That should be a blast, at least if it doesn’t rain. It will also add to our list of “non-standard forms of transportation” that we have used on this trip. So far that list includes, in no particular order:

  • Funicular tram
  • Cable car/ski lift
  • Car ferry
  • Motor scooter
  • Tractor
  • Junk
  • Rickshaw
  • Dragon boat
  • Golf cart

Tomorrow we should add “sampan” and “Vespa” to the inventory.

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The Other Red River Valley

The old Western song notwithstanding, it probably never occurred to you (why would it?) that the literal translation of Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi means “between the rivers”, the rivers in question being the Nhue and the Red. Parts of the city are periodically flooded because of this, and there are actually dikes that run through part of town.

We arrived this morning, met at the airport by our group lead Phuc Nguyen, who wisely goes by “Phil” to avoid three weeks of puerile jokes from his American charges. Phil is a handsome, trim 40 year old who like all OAT tour leads seems to require no sleep whatsoever and has an inexhaustible supply of cheery enthusiasm and useful information.

Hanoi has a population of 7.8 million, who get around via a mere 600,000 cars…. augmented by approximately 11 billion motor scooters. The latter are absolutely everywhere, the streets and even the sidewalks choked with weaving phalanxes of them and the air filled with the ceaseless din of their honking. Interspersed among them are the occasional bus and tourist-bearing rickshaw.

Those scooters, despite their tiny engines, clog the streets in such vast numbers and operate with such  inefficient combustion that air pollution is a real issue. The humidity is very high here — it is monsoon season — and the combination of the water vapor and the scooter exhaust creates a hazy blanket over the city through which a watery sunlight filters.  Phil describes Hanoi as a “second world” city: visibly more advanced than a less developed country but still trying to break into the First World big leagues. They’re working on it: the downtown area includes a lot of very modern high end stores (e.g., Prada, Lamborghini) that would be quite at home in a European capital city.

And indeed, Hanoi does present itself as a struggling-to-be-less-seedy European capital. The architectural DNA of its French colonial history is obvious: broad boulevards, ornate cornices and eaves, tree-lined avenues. The trees are stout, leafy, and old; they clearly weathered the bombings of the war, now 50 years ago, just fine. You still wouldn’t mistake it for Paris, though. Traffic is random and dangerous, and that French architecture often overlooks odd, densely packed storefronts selling all manner of jumbled up, vaguely unsanitary looking stuff ranging from random electronic gadgets to food of questionable provenance. (My characterization of the latter did not stop me from buying some delicious still-hot deep-fried dough balls with custard centers.)

Our hotel is excellently situated in the center of town, very near some of the street markets and major  sights (e.g., the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison where John McCain was held, which we will visit tomorrow). It’s also a several block walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a small (600 x 200 meter), shallow (1.5 meter) freshwater lake surrounded by an elaborate legend involving a magic sword and a giant turtle. The weird part is that there are giant turtles in the lake, a species of rare soft-shelled turtles nearly six feet long. Or at least there were; the last sighting of one was three years ago.

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At the northern end of the lake is a Buddhist temple where all manner of activity was going on when we arrived, having walked the mile or so from the hotel. People were lighting incense and praying at the censer; others were posing in rented traditional costumes; and some kind of presumed Ladies Auxiliary were selling something whilst in costume as well.

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We kept walking north past the lake and found ourselves in a no-kidding Asian market district, block after block of crowded storefronts and makeshift sales counters, this street housing a dozen consecutive shoe stores, the next redolent of marinating fish from 20 different vendors. Scooters clogged the sidewalks, vendors spread their wares on tables, on blankets on the ground, on makeshift counters, in Plexiglas display cases on spindly legs.

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The smells were exotic, the colors all saturated, the hubbub nearly impossible to navigate. It was a hoot, the kind of thing you can only experience in a not-altogether-developed Asian or African country.

We walked back to the hotel, at this point drenched in sweat from the humidity. (The weather today was several degrees cooler than in Hong Kong, but the humidity just as bad and the afternoon punctuated with a downpour.) We’ve been going through our clean clothes way faster than planned, and are thus about to drop a small fortune on the hotel laundry service. This is some kind of karmic balancing for the fact that restaurants here are extremely cheap, our nice meals coming in at about five bucks a person. (It takes an active act of calculation to realize this is because the Viet currency, the dong, is of microscopic value: the exchange rate is about 23,000 to the dollar. So one suffers a moment of confused sticker shock when a restaurant tab for two people comes in at 196,000 dong and it takes you a moment to realize that you just spent all of nine bucks.)

Phil took us all out for drinks at about 7 PM, both to show us some typical night life and to teach us how to cross the street without getting killed. (Hints: safety in numbers, and do not waver from your path despite the vehicles weaving around you within inches.) Here’s half of our group, including Alice at lower right. The woman in the red teeshirt is the waitress.

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The Vietnamese love beer, and there are a couple of native brands that flowed freely. Our snacks were also typical for the locals: steamed peanuts, pork sausage steamed in banana leaves, and fried tofu. (I liked two out of three; tofu and I are generally not on speaking terms.)  Afterwards we went out to one of those wonderful $5 dinners and called it a day.

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Hong Kong Heat

Alice and I have long felt that no vacation is complete unless the riot police show up, so when Overseas Adventure Travel called us last Friday offering to cancel the Hong Kong leg of our trip, we didn’t discuss it for long before deciding to proceed. After all, we thought, what’s the worse that could happen?

Turns out that the answer to that question is, “A street skirmish a few blocks from our hotel, resulting in Molotov cocktails being thrown.” Fortunately, that took place a few hours before we arrived at said hotel, blissfully unaware that it had taken place.  It did cause some traffic delays that prolonged our wait for the driver at the airport. We walked into our hotel room at about 11 PM and dashed of a note to our family assuring them that we were safe, we saw no evidence of unrest, and Mom, please lay off the Ambien.

The middle part of that sentence, as it turns out, was mostly but not 100% true. Looking down from our hotel room, we saw a fleet of police transport vehicles turning down the street, and a very small number of (presumed) protesters running very, very fast away from them. But from our vantage point on the 32nd floor, I would not characterize it as a visceral experience. (Turns out that our hotel is across the street from a large police station.)

Everything was calm the next day (yesterday), and the city is quite normal though there are scattered signs of unrest: graffiti, wall posters, and the like. But for the most part, it is business as usual in Hong Kong. And there is a lot of business: Hong Kong hums with a population of 7.5 M but a wall-busting population density of over 17,000 per square mile (almost 7,000 per square km). This year it will receive just about 60 million visitors, including us.

There are several regions of the city, distributed over the mainland and a few islands, but the hub and best known parts are Hong Kong Island itself, and — a stone’s throw across the bay — Kowloon, which is the peninsula at the southern tip of the mainland. Many of the major tourist destinations lie in those two areas. The city has changed unrecognizably in the 39 years since I was last here but a number of the major sites are eternal verities: Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island still offers spectacular panoramic views of the space-age skyline; the Star Ferry still plies the bay for under half a buck US; Stanley Market still has the look of a polite Moroccan souk. We only have two full days here, so in our usual fashion we checked off a fair number of boxes yesterday alone.

The weather is hot and humid, a damp hazy 90 F (32 C) at 85% humidity. The operative word is “sweat” so rather than deal with public transport we relied a lot on taxis to get us to various transportation termini. The first of these was the tram that runs up Victoria Peak, the 1800′ (550m) peak that dominates the island and is the go-to spot for the most traditional panoramic view. The tram ride is very steep and more than a little rattly with almost Victorian-looking cars, like some venerable theme park ride, and one of the primal HK experiences. The trip alone is, um, worth the trip, but the view is the destination.

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The tram terminus at the top is now a virtual shopping mall, but you can hike upwards from there to the more idyllic Governor’s Gardens at the actual peak. It’s a steep uphill mile, which in this weather is an Olympic-class workout for your sweat glands. But we did it.

Returning to sea level, our options were either to return to the hotel for a shower or maximize the sweat content of our clothes by continuing to explore; we opted for the latter by taking a taxi to Stanley Market at the southern end of the island. It’s a less crowded area, with some resort beaches on Tai Tam Bay, which has beautiful aquamarine water. Stanley is basically a waterfront resort and shopping area whose traditional draw, as I mentioned, is a souk-like tchotchke market a couple of blocks long. It’s like Marrakesh with slightly fewer pickpockets, and if you keep your eye out there are some nice items to be found (found, of course, by Alice). But mostly, being a warren of narrow shaded alleys, it’s cooler than everywhere else.

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(Historical side note: this being a former British colony, I wondered if the eponymous Stanley was the same Lord Stanley who was the late 19th century Governor General of Canada and after whom hockey’s Stanley Cup is named.  It isn’t: Hong Kong had a different Lord Stanley, who was the British Colonial Secretary about 50 years before the hockey guy. Apparently Stanley was a good name to have if you were part of 19th century British colonialism, which was a growth industry at the time.)

We wandered around the market for a while before ducking into a side street into a pleasantly crowded hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurant for lunch. Hong Kong is notoriously expensive but in fact there are a myriad of such restaurants that can be both very cheap and excellent. This was one: we had enormous bowls of noodles, dumplings, and shrimp for a total of not much over US$20 for the two of us.

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By this time we were the consistency of wet sponges and our clothing belonged in a pro football locker room so we retreated back to the hotel for a couple of hours before striking out again after sunset. Our mode of transport this time was the Star Ferry, which along with Staten Island is one of the most famous ferries in the world. It is certainly one of the most charming means of transportation in Hong Kong, making the five-minute shuttle across the bay between Kowloon and Hong Kong every few minutes for an utterly negligible amount of money — literally pocket change — while offering the most wonderful views of the skyline, especially at night. When in HK, you cannot not take the Star Ferry.

Hong Kong’s skyline does not even remotely resemble what I saw in 1980. It is now a sea of high-tech high rises, many of them pulsing with animated light displays; no still photo can do it justice but here’s one anyway.

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The Star Ferry terminal on Kowloon is a block or so from the southern end of Nathan Road, which used to be called Hong Kong’s Golden Mile. It’s a less-impressive version of Tokyo’s Ginza, a straight two-mile neon stretch of traffic, high-end stores, boutiques, and legions of skeevy little guys (for some reason they are all five feet tall)  trying to sell you Rolex watches and designer handbags. Oddly, they all phrase it exactly that way, like they all went to the same Skeeve School: “You want Rolex watch or designer handbags?” Even more oddly, a few seem to have pangs of conscience by actually asking “You want fake Rolex watch or designer handbags?” You have to admire their candor.

We successfully repeated our side-street-hole-in-the-wall restaurant strategy to get a good inexpensive dinner, then continued our humid hike up Nathan Road. (Even at 9:30 PM, the weather was oppressive.) Our end point was the Temple Street Night Market, a sort of demimonde version of Stanley Market, four or five blocks of close-packed white-tented vendor stalls selling food — the occasional wiggling crustacean — and… crap. To characterize the wares as knockoffs would mostly be an insult to knockoffs since that term implies the existence of a quality original. This stuff all looks like it’s designed to fall apart ten minutes after you buy it. The only possible exception might be the gaily-decorated USB flash drives, all of which I am quite certain come loaded with only the highest-quality malware sure to make your home computing experience an exciting one.

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That is not to say that absolutely everything was low-quality and unoriginal. There were some decidedly original decorative metal plates, about the size of car license plates, sporting amusing slogans, designed perhaps to brighten up a dorm room or nursery. My favorite one said “NEVER ONE NIGHT STAND SHE CUT OFF YOUR DICK AND THROW IN RIVER”, although Alice preferred “SAUSAGE HUNTER.” Inspired by these new life mottoes, we strolled back down Nathan Road and took the Star Ferry home and to bed.

 

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Reykjavik: In Search of Icelanders

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 AM local time this morning, some 14 hours ago. Since we have attacked the city with our usual touristic compulsion, accompanied by our equally immoderate traveling companions Janet and Tim, I am more or less exhausted and so will for the most part let some photos do the talking. So let’s start with a panorama of Reykjavik Harbor, taken from the tallest point in the city: the spire of Hallsgrimkirkja (which I will explain in a moment):

The city looks more or less to the north across the harbor, and a couple of things stand out as you view it from either street level or from above: (1) the city has a very clean, orderly feel; and (2) the predominant architectural style is Primary Colored Boxes, a very Scandinavian look that might have resulted from the Norse gods having purchased the city in its entirety from Ikea. (It would have had some typical Ikea name like Whølecitii and the assembly instructions would have been 163,000 pages long.) It has a very walkable and compact downtown area; most of the major landmarks and attractions fall within an area about a mile on a side. The dramatic clouds that you see in the photo are pretty typical.

The Hallsgrimkirkja is probably the single most publicized and photographed building in Iceland, a 75 m (244 ft) church named after  Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century Icelandic poet and clergyman. It shows up in every tourist ad and every postcard. You have very likely seen a photo of it at some point. Here it is:

The statue in the front is Leif Erickson, presented to Iceland as a gift from the United States in 1930 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Dating from AD 930, the Althing is the oldest parliamentary body in the world, originally presided over by Strom Thurmond. (That last phrase is actually a pretty good joke that only Americans over the age of about 55 will understand. Everyone else, just move on.)

As I mentioned, you have probably seen this picture before…. except that when you saw it, the building looked very white. For some reason, the Icelandic tourism authorities feel compelled to present this church as being heavenly white in color, and that is how it appears in most “official” photos after suitable lighting adjustments and resorting to Photoshop. But it isn’t white: it’s gray, just as you see here. Maybe on a sunny day it would like more iconic.

The interior of the Hallsgrimkirkja is every bit as striking and stark as the exterior. Here is the main sanctuary:

It is white, or nearly so, and very imposing, albeit in a spartan Mormon-Temple-Also-Bought-From-Ikea sort of way. At the back of the hall is a glorious and impressive 5700-pipe organ.

Before moving on I would first like to confirm two of the predictions that I made in my pre-trip blog post about a week ago. First, Reykjavik appears not to contain any actual Icelanders outside of store and restaurant employees. (And not even all of them: the rental agent who gave us our car was Lithuanian.) Pretty much everyone on the street is a tourist, Americans seemingly the most numerous.

Second, the locals love hot dogs, in case you thought I was kidding last time. We counted 5 hot dog stands in a two block stretch downtown. The most famous of all — supposedly the lines can be an hour long in the summer — is an unprepossessing kiosk dating from 1937, called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. (No, I do not know what the translation is.) And by “unprepossessing”, here is what I mean:

That’s it. Happily there was almost no line. The menu consists of exactly two items: hot dogs, and Coca Cola. There are five possible things you can get on your hot dog: mayo, mustard, ketchup, raw onion, or fried onions. Oh, and the Coke can be diet. That’s it. So we did our touristy duty and each had a hot dog and a Coke because really, what else was there to do. Here are Janet and Tim, snapping under the pressure.

In all fairness, I will grant that they were pretty good hot dogs. They were reasonably priced, and a lot less exotic (or at least thought-provoking) then some of the other local restaurant fare. We were looking for places for dinner later in the day and came across a well-reviewed steak restaurant near our flat. It seemed pretty straightforward: the name of the place was “The Steak Restaurant”. Reading the menu in the front window, an entree called “Surf and Turf” caught my eye. Reading one line further down revealed that the “surf” was minke whale and the “turf” was horse. We went elsewhere and got fish and chips for dinner. The fish was cod. All the fish here is cod, except for the halibut and Arctic char. (And whale, which isn’t a fish.)

Anyway, having fueled up on hot dogs to counteract our jet lag, we were ready to tackle some of the major city attractions. Besides the Hallsgrimkirkja, the next most prominent structure in the city is the much more contemporary performing arts house, the Harpa, which is essential the local equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. It is an exceptionally striking edifice, all prismatic glass that creates stunning interior and exterior views, e.g.:

(The bottom image is on the inside, looking upwards and outwards from the atrium.)

The Harpa sits right at the water’s edge, which prompted Janet to relate an anecdote that she had read in a book about how Icelanders view tourism. The complaint from at least one of the locals was, “Why do tourists keep building stupid piles of rocks?” we weren’t sure what that mean until we noticed the beach next to the Harpa, which looks like this:

Apparently these were erected by tourists rather than trolls. (Icelanders love trolls. You see stuffed trolls, troll toys, and books about trolls in pretty much every store. These are apparently not the kind that live under bridges and eat billy goats. Nor do they build pointless piles of rocks.)

A few hundred meters up the road from the Harpa is another of Reykjavik’s signature landmarks: the Sun Voyager sculpture:

It dates from 1990, created by the Icelandic sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason. It is 18 m (60′) long and about half that in height. If you are like every human being on Earth other than Jón Gunnar Árnason (who is now dead and thus not on Earth in the usual sense) you take one look at this thing and say “Viking ship.” I mean, it’s pretty obviously a Viking ship, right? But apparently not. According to Wikipedia:

“It is a common misunderstanding that Sun Voyager is a Viking ship. It is quite understandable that many tourists think like this when travelling in Iceland, the land of the sagas. Jón Gunnar was himself very ill with leukaemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location. Some people have thus suggested that Jón Gunnar conceived the work during this period, at a time when he might have been preoccupied with death, and argued that Sun Voyager should be seen as a vessel that transports souls to the realm of death. Sun Voyager was essentially envisaged as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.”

You will note from a careful reading, however, this is all third-party interpretation: it appears that no one ever thought to ask Jón Gunnar whether it was a Viking ship and get “no” for an answer. So I’m sticking with Viking ship.

So jet lag and fatigue withstanding, that was our first day in Iceland. Tomorrow we are driving to Gulffoss Falls and doing our insanely cold snorkeling trip in the Silfra volcanic fissure.

 

 

 

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Hawaiian Sky

It is for several very good reasons that Mauna Kea is the premier astronomical observing site in the world: the summit is above half the atmosphere and its attendant water vapor (astronomers hate water vapor); it is accessible with good local infrastructure; and — I know this will shock you — it is dark. Very dark. The entire population of the Big island is only 150,000, and the nearest towns are tens of miles away from the telescopes, their lights often concealed under a layer of clouds. And so the night skies on the Big Island are nothing short of glorious.

You do not have to be atop a mountain to enjoy the stellar show — in fact, in some ways it’s better if you’re not. (And despite our plans, we have not made it to Mauna Kea’s summit on this trip: conditions have been too cold and windy.)  So my friend Jim and I struck out from Kona with our cameras and tripods, to a point well away from town about 10 miles inland and about 2500′ (760m) up. With the exception of a couple of hillside dwellings, it was, as they say, as dark as the inside of a dog. Dark enough, in fact, that the unwary photographer can stumble around blindly and knock over his tripod at the end of the night. Fortunately the tripod mounting mechanism made the supreme sacrifice and absorbed the blow of the fall, sparing my camera with its rather expensive lens. But now I need a new tripod mount.  In any case, here are some samples of our work from two nights ago:

Saddle Road Night Sky-005That tongue of stars sticking up from the middle is indeed the Milky Way, as you no doubt suspected. The dots of light at the very bottom of the picture, about one-third of the way in from the left, is Jim setting up his camera by flashlight. And the red glow that you are wondering about is real, neither a Photoshop fake nor the incandescent lava from a distant volcano. It is the actual color of the night sky in the opposite direction from the Sun, i.e. eastward at 9 PM when this picture was taken. I’ve exaggerated it in intensity (thank you, Photoshop) so that you can perceive it in the image. It is a well-known celestial phenomenon called gegenschein, the reflection of sunlight off of interplanetary dust orbiting in the plane of the solar system. In very dark locales it is just barely visible to the naked eye, but a long (6 second) camera exposure of the dark Hawaiian sky brings it right out. Pretty cool, huh?

If you don’t believe me — and I don’t know why you wouldn’t, since I am a professional and not to be taken lightly, dammit — here’s an equally long exposure taken in the opposite (westward) direction:

Saddle Road Night Sky-008No red glow. If you are wondering why you can see the spooky tree and the grass since I earlier stated that the scene was pitch dark, the answer is that I was standing off to the side shining my cell phone flashlight onto the tree in order to get this precise effect. (Photographers call the technique “light painting”.)

One of the things that we tend to forget in this age of crowded cities and light pollution is that there are a surprising number of glorious astronomical objects that are visible to the naked eye or in small binoculars.  The camera sees them just fine in these dark island skies, though. Here is zoomed-in portion of a shot of Orion, the hunter:

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Those are the three stars of Orion’s belt at upper left, visible even in cities. But what’s that big blob in the middle? It is the Orion Nebula, a.k.a. M42, an enormous cloud of gas and dust 12 light-years across, a stellar nursery where massive, hot stars are condensing and igniting. Here’s what M42 looks like through an actual telescope.

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Obviously one cannot see that kind of detail in a photo taken with a conventional mid-sized camera with a 17mm wide angle lens, but if you look at it in my photo you can  clearly see the shape and a bit of the color. Slightly below the nebula in my picture you can also see two bright stars. The upper is called Iota Orionis. The lower is actually a double star system called Struve 747: if you look carefully at it you can see the dim companion star.

So it was a photogenic night. Here I am in situ, taking the above pictures and illuminated by the light of Jim’s flashlight:

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You’ll note that I’m wearing a sweatshirt and long pants, not my usual attire here. But it was an unusually cool night and we were a few thousand feet up; the temperature was about 55°F (13C).

I’ll close this post with a photo that has nothing at all to do with the sky but which I feel like throwing in because it is a night shot, albeit not looking heavenward. The Aloha Theater is a venerable performing arts venue in the nearby delightfully-named town of Kealakekua (pronunciation lessons available for a small fee). It was built in 1932 and is still in use — they’re performing Beauty and the Beast as I type this — and its architecture is typical pre-war (and thus pre-tourist-boom) Hawaii. It has a pleasantly anachronistic feel to it that I tried to capture.

Aloha Theater-002This year’s stay on the Big Island is winding down; we go to Honolulu in 4 1/2 days, followed by eight days on the mainland (California and Arizona) and then home. We’re going diving tomorrow, and in the following day or two I hope to shoot some drone footage of downtown Kailua that I can post before we depart.

 

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London Calling

I expect to have my laptop back — and thus be able to post my final Namibia entry — within a few days, but in the meantime I’ll leapfrog in time a little bit to our first post-Namibia destination. ( And you knew that had to be the title, right?)

If the aliens ever land and want to know where the Capital of the World is, you could make a pretty good case for pointing them to London. You might be able to make a stronger case for New York City in the past 80 years or so, but for a couple of hundred years prior to that it would have been a no-brainer for London. It’s stodgy, lively, vast, intimate, and generally schizophrenic all at once, with traditions and about one-third of its architecture rooted in the 11th century.  Another third of the buildings seem to have congealed some time in the 1940’s, and the rest looks it has been taking lessons from 22nd-century Japanese architects.

Of course, one of the more recent non-architectural traditions is Worrying About Brexit, probably for good reason. The most recent source of angst as I type this is a report that came out yesterday predicting that British farmers’ profits will be cut in half as a result of Brexit. This could put real pressure on the milk supplies to make the batter for fish and chips.

Our stay in London was a brief one: just about three days, much of which was spent looking up old friends. (And one new one. I have for some years been following the beautifully-written travel blog “Are We There Yet” written by Italian ex-pat Fabrizio S, living in London. We have been following each others’ blogs and corresponding by email for about two years and have finally met face to face!) But we managed to hit at least a few of the high spots: St Paul’s, the Tate Modern Gallery, and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (viewed in person daily by over 45 billion people, most of them standing in front of me). So here are some obligatory London Tourist photos:

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Lord Nelson overlooks Trafalgar Square

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St Paul’s Cathedral,. Yes, we climbed to the Whispering Gallery.

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Iconic Tower Bridge

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The latest Harry Potter movie.

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Westminster Abbey

You will note the scaffolding around Big Ben in the second to last photo. I have warned you about this in the past: when Alice and I travel, there will be scaffolding. So far in our globetrotting we have seen scaffolding around the Parthenon, scaffolding around the Via Veneto, scaffolding around the Washington Monument. So if you ever go to a major world heritage monument and see scaffolding, you can be sure that we’re around somewhere.

One of our go-to stops on this trip was the London Eye, the famous 450′ Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebrations in 1999. It’s a great sight in and of itself, fitting oddly but somehow comfortably into the local skyline, and of course affording a spectacular view of the city.

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We arrived at 2:15 PM on a cloudy afternoon amidst an enormous throng of visitors, and were told by the automated kiosk that we could buy either a regular admission ticket for £26 or a so-called FastTrack ticket to jump part of the line for £36. Hmmm, tough call. How long would we have to wait? Well-ll-ll-ll, we were informed, with the Fastrack ticket we could get onto the Eye at 4:00, versus a plain-old cheaper regular ticket that would allow us on at….. 3:15 PM. I asked the nice uniformed attendant how this could be, and was told, “Well, so many people sign up for the FastTrack tickets that it makes the wait longer.” OK then.

The ride takes a half hour, during which time the wheel rotates only once. There are 32 ovoidal capsules (Alice was quite scandalized when I described them as suppository-shaped), each holding 25 people, which means that at any given moment 800 people are enjoying the view and peeking down into Parliament.

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There is a lot that has changed in London in the decades since I last visited, most notably the ethnic mix, about which a lot of people angst, since “ethnic” in this context is a sort of code word for “Muslim”. I heard grim tales about areas where no Westerner or immodestly-dressed women dare to tread without getting glared out, and it is all rather overwrought.

It is certainly true that London has a far more diverse ethnic array than it did when I last visited, over 25 years ago. (The mayor is a Muslim, Sadiq Khan.) It is also true that there are areas that are heavily Muslim: there are blocks at a time when all of the store signage is in Arabic as well as English. But to us at least, the general feel of those areas is not a whole lot different — and no more threatening — then, say, Chinatown in San Francisco. There are certainly visibly many Muslims in traditional garb in the streets, but it by no means feels like an isolated enclave; there are lots of other ethnicities walking around as well, all looking quite unconcerned.

I suppose it is quite possible that women in particular might receive a lot of hostility for being seen as dressing too immodestly. But context is pretty important: I guarantee you that you’ll receive those same looks today by walking around in revealing clothes in the orthodox Jewish sections of the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York City. Ethnic mixes change, cities change, countries change, and in general I feel that the threat is more to our perceptions and self-image than anything else.

Of course one of the upsides to all this newfound diversity is….better food. English food has its reputation, of course — and completeness compels me to report that the aptly-named “Mushy Peas” is still a dish here — and it has long been the case that you were better off frequenting Indian Restaurants. But now there’s a lot of everything: Middle Eastern, of course, and even (to my amazement) the occasional taco truck. So things are looking up.

But a lot of the old charm is still there, even as ancient cathedrals nestle up against 50-story steel and glass extrusions. Our hotel was adjacent to St James Park with its long lake, country gardens, ice cream stands, and enormous diversity of waterfowl.

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The Guard still marches, the weather is still rainy, and overall it was great to be back.

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Underneath the Millennium Bridge

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Suicidal Pilgrims and the All-Seeing Buddhas

Long day today, and a rainy one at that. It would seem that the northern end of the island is being visited by Typhoon #18 — they gave them numbers instead of names here, which may be the only example on record of Japanese being less colorful than Americans. We’re in Kyoto now, towards the south, and are not receiving the full brunt of it, but it has been mostly a gray and rainy day. Not that this slowed us down.

It is getting late after a long day so I will moistly let the photos do the talking in place of my usual sparkling commentary. So to begin, we visited the Kiyomizu Buddhist temple, which is distinguished by three things: (1) a huge five-story pagoda; (2) a large stage where Noh performances were held; and (3) a platform on the aforementioned five story pagoda that people jumped off of. I’ll answer the obvious question in a moment, but let’s start with some photos of the environs.

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OK, now why exactly would someone jump of of something that high? The answer is easily summarized in one word: religion! Yessirree, when it comes to convincing people of the virtue of doing suicidally stupid things, it’s hard to beat religion. I had kind of figured Buddhism to be immune from this sort of thing, but apparently not. The deal was, you made a wish and jumped off. If you survived, your wish would come true. Personally I’d go with the old coins-in-the-wishing-well approach, but to each his own. Mariko claimed that the survival rate was 80%, which seems highly unlikely to me. In any event, the practice was discontinued a century or so ago.

There’s a beautiful view from the top, as well as a number of other smaller and very colorful ancillary temples. Here’s the view and some of the architecture.

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Our next stop was the 12th century  Sanju Sangendo Hall. Its claim to fame is a room full of Boddhisatva Buddhas, a thousand of them, each qbout 5 1/2 feet (165 cm) tall and strikingly detailed. No photos are allowed, alas, but here is a shot from Google Images. (In the dim light of the hall they actually appear much more brown than the golden tone in the photo.)

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It is quite an amazing sight. And an ironic one as well, for these particular thousand Buddhas – each with 42 arms — are the so-called Kannon Boddhisatvas, Kannon being an incarnation of Buddha who sees everything that happens in the world. Why is that ironic? Because if you were a Japanese entrepreneur who wanted to found a camera company whose name symbolized the all-seeing Buddha, your cameras hopefully seeing things all over the world, you would name your camera company…… Canon! Ta-da! I have now answered a question that you never thought to ask! Canon cameras are named after the thousand Kannon Buddhas…. the ones you’re not allowed to photograph. (As it happens, I shoot with a Canon EOS T1i, so it seems only fair that the authorities should have allowed me to take pictures. They didn’t see it that way.)

Well, at least here is a shot of a nice hallway outside the temple.

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We had a delightful encounter as we were about to leave the grounds, when I was accosted by a gaggle of middle-schoolers on a class trip who had a homework assignment to interview and English speaker in English. They were the most charming group and I happily answered their questions about where we were from (“Washington, DC.” “OOOOoooooohhhhh…!”), how Japan was different from the US, why we had come to visit, what was our favorite Japanese food, etc. We spent about ten very enjoyable minutes with them — you have never encountered a more polite set of adolescents — then took each others’ pictures.

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Next stop: the Golden Pavilion. Why is it called the Golden Pavilion? Duh.

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Its official name is Kinkaju-ji, and it dates from the mid-15th century. That is real gold leaf covering the outside, and as a result of this strikling distinction it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region. Which is another way of saying that the place was mobbed, and since it was raining at the time the challenge became navigating the sea of umbrellas without losing an eye.

We moved on to the Nijo Castle, which was the local shogun’s residence during the Edo period (1603-1871) when the shoguns ruled the roost. The emperor was on the throne, of course, but the shogunate held all the power. They would probably have offed the emperor but for the fact that he was a divine descendant and thus much revered by the general population. Killing him would likely have sparked a revolt that would not have needed well for the shoguns, so they contented themselves with actually running things and let the emperor be.

The exterior of the castle is imposing, though very unlike a European castle. It has high, ornate gates and stark dark wooden walls.

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The Nijo castle is also known for its beautiful gardens, said to be among the most iconic in Japan.

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No photos are allowed inside. It is a maze of high-ceilinged square hallways with dark wooden beams and white paper walls. There are a series of large, spartan anterooms — little more than tatami mats and wall carvings — where visiting functionaries awaited their audience with the shogun. But the cool thing — and it is very cool — is that the floors are designed to squeak so that would-be assassins would be unable to sneak around. And we are not talking about the random squeaks that you get from loose floorboards in your house: these floorboards are supported by metal angle brackets that establish a small air gap between the boards and underlying support beams, so that when you step on them the metal bends and the nails through it “chirp”. It is a most remarkable sound: as a group of people (like our tour group) walk down the hallway you hear what sounds for all the world like a soft metallic discordant chittering flock of birds. As busloads of tourists make their way through the building it sounds like you are surrounded by huge numbers of vaguely ominous robot nightingales. It is quite an amazing effect.

We ended the afternoon with a tea ceremony, which I won’t bother describing in detail since this is the second one we’ve had on this trip. But the young woman performing the ceremony was quite graceful and pretty, so here are a few pictures of her anyway.

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I took the last one as we were leaving, when I asked if I could take her portrait. (Alice thinks the photo looks like an ad for Japan Airlines. I’m OK with that.)

As we headed back to the hotel, Mariko proposed an “architecture walk” through Kyoto railway station before dinner. I confess I was unenthusiastic about the idea, since we were tired and I had a mental image of a decidedly unexciting walk: “These roof beams date from the early shogunate…”, that sort of thing.  But I had to go along: I lost my lens cap yesterday and Mariko had told me that there was a camera store at the station. Hoo boy, was my expectation off base. My interest would have been a lot higher had Mariko explained that the Kyoto railway station architecture dated from the early 23rd century, e.g.:

kyoto-023 kyoto-024 kyoto-025Absolutely unbelievable…the place is pure Blade Runner, except for the Las Vegas parts. It is vast, a five-story science fiction shopping mall with animated LED staircases and spidery skyways, attached to a train station. Do not fail to visit this place at night if you are ever in Kyoto.

New lens cap acquired, and we headed to dinner, the uniquely Japanese okonomiyaki. It’s a teppan yaki kind of thing, like Benihana without the steak or the theatrics. Rather, the entrees are various types of pancake-like agglomerations of meat, noodles, and cabbage, cooked on the grill at the table. Satisfying, tasty, and cheap.

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Hmmm, I thought I said something about not writing much. I guess I can’t help myself. Anyway, that was our day…

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Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Rain

alice-metaOur flights to Tokyo began in Philadelphia but since I’m in charge here and I’m writing about airports I feel compelled to open with an image of Alice on meta-display at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, close to where we live. This doesn’t have anything to do with Japan but all our friends thought it was pretty cool. (I took the photo of Alice in a waterfall in New Zealand and wrote a blog post about it here. I submitted it for display at the airport about a month ago.)

Our actual journey to Tokyo was unremarkable, taking 5,211 hours — at least it felt that way — and arriving on schedule with our desiccated corpses in row 19. The trans-Pacific leg of the flight was on a 787, the Boeing “Dreamliner”, which is as advertised a pretty nice plane: noticeably quieter than most and with much better air quality. The snazzy part, though, were the windows: the shades are electronic, not physical, and you can dial in the opacity to turn them a lighter or darker shade of blue. Most people opted to do this — it being rather sunny at 38,000 feet — consequently bathing the cabin in a tropical oceanic blue light. It is rather like flying inside an aquarium.

The downside of this is that when you do fly over something interesting — and we overflew some truly spectacular Alaskan glaciers — it becomes difficult to find a place from which to look out and admire the view. Everyone’s windows are dark blue, and it feels like looking at the Arctic landscape as through it had been relocated underwater in the Bahamas.

Narita airport is in the hinterlands about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, so after flying all that distance you get to enjoy a whole new journey into town. There are several ways to do this, one of the easiest being an express train line that runs directly from the airport to the Tokyo main rail station. It takes about an hour. We bought tickets immediately after clearing customs but had to wait about half hour until the train left. Notice that I say “until the train left“. The train arrived almost immediately but the cleaning crew — one man to a car — spent the rest of the time cleaning in that fastidious Japanese way that reflects either an advanced aesthetic or culturally-ingrained OCD. By the time we were allowed to board  you could have performed open heart surgery in that rail car.

The ride into town passes through surprisingly rural countryside considering how vast and utterly urbanized Tokyo itself is: the metro area is 5,200 square miles with a population of 38 million. In other words, it is a city that itself is one-third the size of Holland with twice the population. With numbers like that it is surprising to see any grassland at all, let alone rolling fields. Gradually, of course, the landscape gives over to suburbia, small outlying towns that are surprisingly European in appearance, two story dwellings with tile roofs. The giveaway is that about 10% of those roofs curve slightly upwards at the eaves, giving them a distinctly (and deliberately) pagoda-like appearance.

The overall scene was on the gloomy side, mainly due to the weather. We arrived through drizzle and heavy overcast, and the towns — and Tokyo itself — were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a persistent light rain. We are in a tropical storm, it seems, and the rainy weather continued through today and will alas remain with us for at least another few days. Nothing to do about it but sightsee with umbrellas, which we had the foresight to bring. (I do not know the name of this particular storm, or even whether it has one. This being Japan, I would name it either Tropical Storm Sushi or Tropical Storm Manga, the latter if the storm has a big eye. Ha ha!  A little meteorological humor there!) Tokyo is in general a pretty rainy city: it gets 105 days of rain per year, about the same as London.

mustardWe arrived at our hotel, 24 hours after walking out the door and suitably exhausted, at about 5 PM. (We are staying at the Hotel Sardonyx, whose name, Alice observes, would make it the ideal pied-á-terre for me and my entire family.)  In the interest of mitigating the worst of our impending jet lag, we decided to tough it out for a few hours and have some dinner at the hotel before crashing into bed. That dinner was a little dose of surrealism of its own, the management having decided for some reason to serve almost exclusively some Bizarro-world simulacrum of what someone thinks American cuisine is. Everything you need to know about that meal is contained in this image of a mustard packet that I was served with my sandwich.  I did not have any “frank frutes” with my dinner, and if I had I assure you that I would not be looking for the “unique taste of plan sourness”, in part because I have no idea what that is attempting to mean.

And so to bed. Our room is small but comfortable, largely Western in appearance and feel but for a few very Japanese touches. One is an invisible rectangular heating coil behind the bathroom mirror, about 16 inches on a side, that keeps that area of the mirror fog-free no matter how long and steamy a shower you wish to take. The other is an intimidating toilet with onboard electronics, which is to say about a half dozen buttons of varied and uncertain function. At least two are related to some bidet-related butt-washing function; a third — which Alice mistakenly activated, to our delight — heats up the toilet seat. Our buttocks are now nice and toasty, thank you very much.

We slept well and long enough to at least partly counteract the 13-hour time difference, awakening at 7:00 AM or so, so we had some breakfast (vastly better than dinner) and struck out on the Tokyo Metro for our first round of exploration. As it turns out, that fact inspires me to close this post with a paean to the Metro.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need a big subway system to serve 38 million people.  How big?  This big:

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Leaving out the buses and trains, there are 13 lines containing 285 stations. It carries nearly 9 million people a day. But the system’s designers did something very clever that, astonishingly, does not seem to have occurred to any of their counterparts in other cities: they numbered the stations on each line. The stations all have names describing their location, of course — the one across the street from our hotel is Hatchibori — but on all the maps and signage they also appear as sequential numbers on their particular line. Hence our Hatchibori station is Hibiya-11, Hibiya being the name of the line that we’re on. The Ginza is Hibiya-8, which tells us immediately that if we want to go see those gazillion lights at night we need only hop on our own local station and travel for three stops.

How do you navigate transfers? In our case, with the help of my new favorite and exceedingly wonderful piece of software, the “Tokyo Subway Navigation” app, available for free at your favorite online app store. This little gem uses your phone’s GPS to tell you what station is nearby and how far away it is; lets you select start and destination points from a searchable database (e.g., your hotel and the Imperial Palace); and then tells you not only what stations to get on and off at, but how long each leg will take and how much the trip will cost. You can even eliminate that last concern altogether by shelling out ten bucks for a Metro 24-hour pass, which gives you unlimited usage on all 13 lines. Between that day pas, the app, and the intuitive station numbering, the city is basically at your feet; we bopped around all day with scarcely a thought. Next time I will tell you where we bopped to.  It involves sushi, kabuki, and manga action figures.

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Not Tangy or Tangiest, but Tangier

(That title only works in English, since the local French and Spanish spelling is “Tanger”. And it is of course pronounced “tan-jeer”.) Before I begin, I should mention that our friend and travel companion Steve, who was yesterday laid low by Moroccan Montezuma’s Revenge, has largely recovered and is quite his old self. So we are in equal measure relieved about that and paranoid about everything we eat. But anyway…

We were walking to our van this morning for our final departure from Chefchaouen, when at a turn in one of the twisty blue alleyways we encountered a lanky young man, berobed and sporting a close-cropped beard,  standing in an archway smoking a long skinny pipe. He greeted us with a knowing smile and, knowing this part of the country’s reputation as the drug center of Morocco,  we engaged him in conversation as our tour guide Mohammed (he has encouraged us to call him Momo) translated. What’s in the pipe? A mixture of marijuana (“kif”) and tobacco. How much of each? About 50-50, though some folks prefer variously stronger or weaker mixes up to about 70-30 either way. He gave us a small sample. I will not reveal what became of the small sample.

And so we left Chefchaouen for the three hour drive back past Tatuen to Tangier. As before, we drove down winding mountain roads, the yellow limestone cliffs like walls to our right and more clearly visible across the river. The cliffs eventually give way to more rolling hills bounding the flood plain of the river, but the river itself is barely a trickle. This may change: we drove past two substantial dams that were under construction, one earthen and one concrete, that would not only fill that flood plain but submerge part of an adjacent village in the process. We drove through that village, a pretty populous and well-developed enclave of whitewashed houses and shops, and wondered what kind of planning would accommodate the inhabitants.

We passed through Tatuen itself again, the brown and burnt-looking field now empty where yesterday the sheep market was going strong. As we passed through the town the surrounding landscape seemed to alternate between scrubby wasteland and uninviting industrial parks. Steve spotted smoke on the hillside that turned out to be an enormous trash fire, the smoke clinging to the ground like toxic fog, blown gently along the ground. The smoke field was at least an acre or two in size, dotted with silhouetted people scavenging the trash as flocks of birds dived in and out to find their own morsels. In other words, a hellscape straight out of Hieronymous Bosch.

As we approached the outskirts of Tangier, we were struck by…apartment buildings. Huge agglomerations of them like beehives clustered densely across the hillsides, whitewashed multistory boxes of spare architecture.  It was an oddly alien site, almost industrial-looking complexes of flats, all white and gleaming against the ochre landscape. White against brown everywhere; it was like looking through some kind of Photoshop filter. Closer into town, and particularly by the beach, the construction became more individualized, though the density was always claustrophobicly high.

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But the proliferation of construction did tell us that we were entering a more prosperous area. Tangier has a population of about 1 million and is a major commerce and recreation center, the former for its port and ferry service to nearby Spain, the latter because of the broad, well-kept, and generally inviting Mediterranean beach. More on those topics in a moment. It has an interesting history because of its location, essentially straddling Europe and Africa somewhat similarly to how Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia. (Istanbul’s borders literally span two continents, however; Tangier’s do not.)  Its roots go all the way back to the Carthaginians in the 5th century AD, and has at various times been under the control of just about everybody: Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Portuguese, English, and Spanish. It even has a nice little bit of American history: Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly-minted United States in 1777, and full diplomatic relations were established in 1786, the US first establishing a legation right here in Tangier.

The ownership problem get solved in 1923 when everybody agreed that nobody owned Tangier: it was agreed by all that it was an international city. This solution became one of the greatest boons ever for novelists, for the city immediately became a notorious hotbed of international espionage and thus the setting for countless spy novels and movies, especially during the early days of the Cold War. The Boris-and-Natasha party ended, more or less, in 1956 when Morocco was granted independence by Spain and Tangier joined the new country. Fedora and trenchcoat sales plummeted.

Before heading into Tangier proper we made a stop at Cap Spartel, a little bit northwest of town and several miles west of Gibraltar. It is the cape (and overlook) that is the official entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar and thus the point where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. And here is that magic and slightly arbitrary demarcation, painted on a rock about 30 yards from shore. The symbol is a green star on a red background… in other words, the Moroccan flag:

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Atlantic to the left, Mediterranean to the right.

There is a lighthouse, of course, adjacent to the overlook that attracts multitudes of sightseers and a nearly equal number of souvenir vendors. Here is the lighthouse:

tangier-02That is prickly pear cactus in the lower right, by the way. It is invasive, having been brought here from North America, and is all over the place. The Moroccans have taken advantage of it however, exactly as people in the southwest US do: by eating and making jam of the fruit as well as the paddles.

Oh, and see that long low blob sticking up a bit in the center of the horizon, just to the left of the lighthouse? That is Spain, the town of Tarifa to be precise, less than 9 miles away from us. “Huh, only nine miles!” you’re thinking. “Why, I could make that distance myself in a small boat!” Indeed you could, which is why an enormous number of would-be illegal immigrants to Spain and beyond have exactly the same thought. It is for this reason that the coast around Tangier is heavily patrolled, and why the gate to the ferry terminal is heavily guarded. Most of the aspirants come up from sub-Saharan Africa, Mali and Nigeria being popular starting points. (The Syrian refugees do not come this far west; as you know from recent events, they try and get across Turkey into Croatia.) We saw many groups of young African men loitering near the ferry terminal, apparently looking for a lapse in watchfulness that would allow them to sneak aboard.

We drove from Cap Spartel downtown to the beachfront, which is highly developed and very European-looking, as you see here.

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Tangier: Islamic Miami

The route from the cape took us past the acme of luxury beach houses: the local royal palace, and a little vacation pied-a-terre of indeterminate but vast size, hidden behind high walls and armed guards, belonging to the Saudi royal family. We wondered aloud whether the Saudi and Moroccan royal kids trick or treat at each other’s houses at Halloween. (“I got a gold ingot!” “Awwww, I got another diamond.”)

There is obviously money in this area, which all the royalty notwithstanding, gives off a slightly ridiculous real nouveau riche vibe. The best evidence for this is a string of discotheques along the beach, whose names include “Armani” and (I swear this is true) “Snob”. But it is a popular vacation spot, and not just for Moroccans. Thumper started a conversation with three girls in hijabs who were strolling along the promenade adjacent to the beach; they turned out to be vacationing Dutch.

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Point. Shout. Repeat.

We ate lunch at a seafood restaurant directly across the street from the beach, then headed into the medina. About five seconds after we stepped off the van on the corner of a narrow crowded street, a car came barreling around the corner and stalled directly in front of us. The driver restarted it, stomped on the gas, and promptly lost control, plowing full speed into the rear of a parked car about 20 feet away. This would cause a commotion in the most sedate of places, and Morocco is not the most sedate of places. One quick-thinking bystander immediately jumped into the passenger side of the car to grab the keys so that the perpetrator could not drive away. This led to much shouting and pointing, which in turn led to even more shouting and pointing.

We watched the escalating shouting and pointing for a few minutes then headed up the street into the casbah and the warren of the medina.

Tangier’s medina is somewhat more open and airy than Tetuan’s, and for the most part less dingy than the souk in Chefchaouen. The architecture of the buildings near the entrance is traditional, with clean lines, whitewashed archways, and a minaret.

tangier-05The broadest avenues have the European (especially French) feel that we experienced in Tetuan, such as this street scene.

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But of course it has its share of tiny shops in dark corners too. Pretty much everything is sold here: clothing, produce, jewelry, seafood, you name it. Here’s an olive merchant:

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One interesting aspect of the medina is that from its highest points, adjacent to the casbah, you can (barely) see Gibraltar, faint and low on the horizon like the view of Tarifa from Cap Spartel. Since we visited southern Spain in 2002, we can now state that we have seen  Gibraltar from both Spain and Morocco. (We actually visited it when in Spain.) This thus marks the second locale, the first being Istanbul, that we have seen from two continents.

tangier-08

Jewish cemetery

We walked past the Jewish cemetery while returning to the van. As in Tetuan and elsewhere, there was once a large Jewish community here (numbering 10,000 in Tangier alone in the 1930’s), which has mostly though not completely vanished. There is still a very small local Jewish community here — I haven’t been able to ascertain the number — and the cemetery is apparently still maintained.

Our driver Ahmed had moved the van from its original street corner — for all we knew, the pointing and shouting were still going on — down to the waterfront near the ferry terminal. As before, clusters of young African men were loitering near the gate, and one managed to provoke the ire of a guard who shoved him away. Even so, one can’t help but wonder how many sneak through this way, or via small boat. There has been some talk in the past few years about building a bridge or tunnel between Spain and Morocco at about this location, analogous to the Chunnel, but it is hard to see what Spain would gain from this other than a new undesired smuggling and human trafficking route.

Our hotel tonight is a significant departure from the the traditional riad of our last three nights. It is a very modern Western chain, originally Dutch, called the Golden Tulip. Our accommodations would not be out of place in any American city.  We are only here for tonight, though; today was our single day in Tangier. Tomorrow morning we drive to Rabat to meet up with the rest of our group; there have been eight of us on this so-called “pre-trip”; we will have a full complement of 16 for the next two weeks.

 

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