Posts Tagged With: performance

All the Way to Hué

The dynast Nguyen Anh – he after whom nearly 50 million Nguyens are currently named — unified Vietnam in 1802, as I mentioned earlier, and the question arose as to whether he would keep the capital in Hanoi. One of the first foreign emissaries to present his credentials to Nguyen was the Mexican ambassador, Jose Valdes Bolano, who posed that very question. Nguyen famously replied, “No, Hué, Jose.”

(OK, I invented that conversation just to go for the cheap pun. If you don’t like it, go write your own damn blog.)

(Does it help if I tell you that the current Mexican ambassador to Vietnam is a woman named Sara Valdes Bolano? I didn’t think so.)

Nguyen did in fact make Hué the capital in 1802, and it remained such until the French showed up and started knocking over the furniture in 1945. It’s our first stop in what used to be South Vietnam, i.e. the part of the country south of the 17th parallel that defined the infamous DMZ. The contrast with Hanoi is striking, a legacy of the  contrasting paths of economic development that the North and the South took prior to the unification in 1975 when Saigon finally fell to the Communists. Hué has a population of less than 400,000, about one-twentieth the size of Hanoi, and yet has the feel of a fully developed Western city: a glitzy downtown with lots of neon and a thumping bar scene; lots of English language signage and stores that would be at home in any American mall; and (slightly) less random traffic. It’s an attractive town, threaded by the placid and scenic Huong (“Perfume”) River.

The historical centerpiece of Hué is the Imperial City, a.k.a. the Citadel, whose planning was begun by Nguyen around the time he took over. It sits near the river, facing southeast for both feng shui and political reasons, which is to say that it faces away from Beijing. In its heyday it was an enormous thriving complex, dominated by a fort with cannons but, very much like the Forbidden City in Beijing, containing over 150 buildings containing the residences of the royal family and their retinue, attendants, and hangers-on. It’s surrounded by a moat — formerly populated by crocodiles, per our tour lead Phil — nearly 10 km long.

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The Citadel started to fall on hard times when the Viet Minh (the forerunners of the Viet Cong) occupied it in 1947, and was pretty much devastated during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when both sides variously occupied or bombed the living hell out of it. There are only about 10 buildings left today. Fifty years later, the destruction is still a source of hard feelings among the families and descendants of the antagonists. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the subject of a fair amount of restoration. Much of what’s there is beautiful but it still contains a lot of overgrown fields.

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In keeping with a very Buddhist yin-yang, war-piece paradigm, we traded the Citadel for a nunnery, in this case a nearby small Buddhist nunnery housing ten nuns ranging in age from 16 to 73. Our guide was a 24 year old nun who had been there since the age of 16; she spoke no English (Phil interpreted) but served us a typically wonderful lunch — vegetarian this time — and answered our questions. You are well aware that male Buddhist monks shave their heads but it may never have occurred to you that the nuns do as well, though this is frequently hidden by their headpieces. It makes some of them surprisingly androgynous.  Our guide spends long days running errands, chanting, and going to college in town. She comes from a poor family — not uncommon among nuns and monks — and traveled a few hundred miles to be here.

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Religion, of course, is kind of a no-no in Communist countries, but the authorities here have lightened up a lot and about 20% of the population is observant of one or another religion, the most common (about 11% of the total population) being Buddhism as you would suppose. But there are others, perhaps the most oddball being Cao Dai (sometimes written Caodaism), which is a Bahai-like amalgam of all sorts of sorta-monotheistic stuff. It was founded right here in Vietnam in 1926 and claims something between 2 and 6 million adherents, almost all of them here. (If the higher number is accurate, there are as many Cao Dai followers in Vietnam as Jews in the US. No reports on whether they can find a decent corned beef sandwich.) Caodaists believe that the word of God has been revealed repeatedly through the writings of Earthbound prophets, whose numbers include Sun Yat Sen and — go figure this one — Victor Hugo. I mean, I know that Les Miz was a big hit, but c’mon.

I mention all this because we visited a Cao Dai temple, which I am happy to report was as loonball colorfully crazy as you would expect from a religion that encourages you to communicate with two of the their other revered figures — Joan of Arc and Vladimir Lenin — via seance. (If they ever adopt Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, I’m converting.)

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Our next religious experience was a somber one. Overseas Adventure Travel is part of the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports about 100 various social projects (schools, orphanages, etc.) in some 59 countries. They’ve given out something like $200 million, and a small part of each OAT trip cost is sent to them. Each such trip — and this is our sixth with OAT — includes a visit to a Grand Circle project, which yesterday was the Duc Son orphanage. Grand Circle has a provided computers, lockers, beds, sewing machines, and other stuff; we brought along gifts of school supplies. (Click on the thumbnails for the full size images.)

The orphanage houses 135 children, which is not exactly the right word since some stay into adulthood. The youngest are infants, and most have been abandoned. The place is run, heroically (there is no other word) by only 12 nuns. There used to be 18, but burnout is a real problem because the work is literally non-stop. The older kids help take care of the younger, which is the only way that such a place is even remotely workable. We were very, very impressed: the staff is nothing short of superhuman, and it shows in the kids’ behavior, which was raucous, cheerful, well-organized, and… normal. The kids receive Buddhist religious instruction, but not very extensively; although the staff are all strict vegetarians, they prepare and serve the kids non-vegetarian food in order to avoid any nutritional or developmental risks. That’s a big leap out the staff’s spiritual comfort zone and is one of the many measures of their extreme commitment. (The kids do get two “vegetarian days” per month, however.)

Of the 135 charges, 16 are handicapped in some way (we saw one Downs infant, being played with by a rambunctious non-handicapped boy of about 3). The orphanage receives gratis twice-weekly visit from a nearby doctor, another critical lifeline that makes the institution manageable, but only just. We left the place awed at the nuns.

Our final outing of the day (yes, this all happened yesterday) was a musical interlude. The Perfume River is home to a large number of touristy “dragon boats”, basically raft-like dual-hull houseboats decorated with dragon heads on the front.

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In this case Phil had chartered the boat and the owner family had brought aboard an ensemble Vietnamese folk musicians, who played some traditional stringed instruments, one of which appeared to be a Japanese 16-stringed koto. The other three were variously banjo- or violin-like, though each had only one or two strings. Here they are in action:

Note the gal who’s using teacups as castanets! They played and sang for about a half hour whilst we lay at anchor in the middle of the Perfume River. And when they finished they lit some candles in paper containers folded into lotus shapes, and one by one we set them adrift in the river…..

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rickshaws, Wet Marionettes, and a Prison

Fun Fact, revealed to us this morning by our tour lead Phil: 49% of Vietnamese carry the surname “Nguyen”. It’s like “Smith”, “Jones”, “White”, “Brown”, and “Black” combined. The reason, as you might suppose, is historical rather than genetic: Nguyen was sort of the Kamehameha of Vietnam, a strong king who united the country and who was greatly admired both at the time and after, so much so that large swaths of the population adopted his name. He took power in 1802 in the city of Hue, which remained the capital until the end of World War II. Vietnamese autonomy lasted until 1857 when the French moved in and things got ugly. (The French, of course, hung in there for nearly a century until being driven out in 1954 after Dien Bien Phu.)

This genealogical wisdom having been imparted after breakfast, we set out on the day’s adventures. Yesterday I mentioned with just a soupçon of implied contempt about the tourists traveling around by rickshaw through Old Hanoi’s street market area as we ourselves explored it more virtuously on foot. I wrote that, of course, not knowing that this morning we would be those selfsame tourists, 15 of us in a slow-motion convoy of rickshaws, cameras clicking away. And that’s OK… we covered a lot more ground than we did yesterday. So here we are gearing up. 

…and here is the wagon train underway.

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The street scenes were much as they were yesterday, of course, so here are a few selected images. (They should appear on your screen as a slide show.)

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But the still images don’t really convey the sense of pervasive motion and noise. To help you along in that direction, here’s a one-minute video that I shot from the rickshaw:

Now you have a much better sense of what the streets of Hanoi look and sound like. (A more complete impression would require you to smell all the spices, foods, garbage, and everything else. But I can’t help you there.) The bad news is that rickshaws do not have a very promising future. There are something like 350 of them operating at present but the city is trying to cut that number by about 75% because it considers them both obsolete and hazardous. The “obsolete” part I get; but since they are being forced into near-extinction in part by the ubiquity of motor scooters — of which there are nearly one per person  — then to my mind someone has gotten his “hazardous” designations a little confused.

Our next stop was to the studio of Mr. Phan Thanh Liem, an internationally-famous craftsman and practitioner of a vanishing traditional Vietnamese art that I will admit right up front I had never heard of until now: water puppetry. (No, you idiot: you can’t make puppets out of water. You make puppets and operate them in the water.) Here is the 55-year old Liem — the seventh generation of his family immersed in the craft — in his puppet-making studio.

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The performance venue is a small indoor pool, a little bigger than a child’s backyard swimming pool. Liem and his assistant stand behind the backdrop, dressed in waders or even a wetsuit if needed (if performing outdoors on a cold day) and manipulate the puppets via attached rods that are held invisibly below the surface of the water.

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Notice that the water is reddish brown. That is by design, local red mud having been added to the basin water precisely for the purpose of rendering it opaque and thus concealing the control rods. The puppets move around, flail their arms, spritz water, and generally animate in various ways for dramatic effect as the puppeteers present various scenarios to music: a boat race, a fight, or pretty much anything that involves a lot of thrashing and splashing. Here are a pair of peacocks, the one on the left having just extended its neck.

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At the conclusion of the performance, Liem emerged to reveal both his assistant and the mechanism, and then we were allowed to play too. It’s harder than it looks: the puppets are heavy fig wood, so it takes a lot of torque to move them around in the water at the end of the meter-long rods. A puppet that is used regularly in performances only lasts about 5 months.

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Of course, what you really want to know is what the performance itself looks and sounds like. I’ve got you covered: here’s the video.

 

You will be unsurprised to hear that in the age of smartphones it is difficult to get young people (which at our age is almost everyone) excited about this. Liem has two teenage sons whom he is getting involved in the work, but it is unclear how many more generations will find enough of an audience to prevent the art from extinction.

We moved on after lunch to Hoa Lo Prison, best known by its war-era sobriquet: the Hanoi Hilton. (There is in fact an actual Hanoi Hilton as well, or more accurately a Hilton Garden Inn. The difference is that Hoa Lo never put mints on anyone’s pillow, and the Hilton staff are not in the habit of torturing their guests.)

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The original main gate of Hoa Lo

Hoa Lo is of course best known for its 1964-1973 wartime role, but its actual history goes back a lot further, and no less grimly. It was built by the French around 1890 at the height of their colonial subjugation of the region; called Maison Centrale, it was intended to house up to 500 political prisoners, i.e. anyone advocating for independence. It was notoriously cruel even then, with banks of prisoners shackled together and two onsite guillotines.

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It never really shed its provenance as an instrument of political repression, housing a number of prominent independence revolutionaries in the 1930’s and 40’s. These included the wife of Gen. Võ Nguyên Giáp, who scored some serious payback by later masterminding the battle of Dien Bien Phu that drove the French out of the country altogether.

The museum display, needless to say, makes much of the Communist victory over the Americans and the subsequent normalization of relations (though the latter took 25 years; full relations were only established under President Clinton in 2000). It is alas presented in cringingly stereotypical propagandistic terms, very 1970’s Soviet in its gestalt: “brave revolutionary patriots fighting imperialistic aggression,” etc. etc. Lots of photos of bombed villages juxtaposed with images of captured Americans being very humanely treated (medical exams, trimming a Christmas tree, writing letters home). A single sentence remarks baldly and with suspicious ambiguity that US captives were treated as well as circumstances allowed.

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I found this whole tone very unfortunate. Stripped of the propaganda tropes and self-congratulatory vocabulary, much of what they are saying about America’s behavior toward them is true. We as a country were phenomenally, incomprehensibly cruel and stupid to no useful end whatsoever. (Good thing we don’t act like that any more, right? RIGHT? <throws smoke bomb and runs from room>) But having been ceded the high moral ground by our own hubristic foolishness, they kind of throw it all away by denying any and all of their own human shortcomings (e.g., torturing American captives). It seems not to be enough to paint themselves as the good guys, which in many senses they were; they seem so insecure in the role that they deny anything short of moral perfection for themselves (which they most emphatically were not). In that sense the museum seemed to me like a lost opportunity for an honest dialogue. I left the place dissatisfied.

But I guess all those years of comradeliness with the Russians gave the Vietnamese government a propaganda habit that’s hard to break. En route to dinner tonight, we were distracted by an unexpected multimedia event in a city square: an over-the-top schmaltzy song-and-dance, sound-and-light show exalting Ho Chi Minh, the city of Hanoi itself, and, judging from the images projected on gigantic screens, elaborate highway overpasses and construction equipment. Singers and lithe dancers emoted all over the stage at high volume as the fog machines cranked out the ethereal mist; hammers and sickles waved. It was utterly surreal, like some satire of a holiday celebration in the old USSR commemorating increased production of tractor parts by more than 30% over the most recent Five Year Plan.20190919_181937

They call the economic system here “Red Capitalism” and judging from the proliferation of gleeful consumerism that is taking hold here — we passed a Rolls Royce dealership today — that sounds like a pretty good term. But seeing the unabashed embrace of Westernism on the streets juxtaposed with this evening’s bizarre performance is still a little difficult to process.

So that was today. I’m off to bed now to get some rest for tomorrow’s activities. Those tractor parts aren’t gonna weld themselves, you know.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time Warp in the Desert

Palm Springs, California was one of the many places that boomed in the decade or so immediately following World War II. Unlike the nascent suburbs on the East Coast — say, the proliferation of Levittowns in the Northeast — Palm Springs’ economic growth was fueled in part by its proximity to booming southern California, as the desert resort became the postwar playground of Hollywood. The little desert town nestled against the San Jacinto mountains became the go-to place for luminaries of the silver screen to cavort, gossip, and pretend to be heterosexual.

Hand in hand with that ambiance, Palm Springs became the epicenter of a style of architecture and design that later became known as Mid-Century Modernism. The late 1940’s through early 1960’s was the era of right-angled walls and acres of glass, i.e. houses that looked like this…

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… of sweeping incredibly uncomfortable furniture that looked like this…lounge_chairs_2and primary-colored clothing and cats-eye glasses, i.e. people who looked like this:

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Palm Springs has embraced this part of its history — and this aesthetic — with a glee bordering on mania. This is not unusual for cities, of course: you can’t swing a cat in my birth town of Philadelphia without hitting something named after Benjamin Franklin. And our current home of Annapolis was the nation’s capital for about 45 minutes in 1784 and has been making bank on it ever since. As it happens, with populations of 45,000, Annapolis and Palm Springs are about the same size. But Annapolis does not have 150 abandoned personal bomb shelters in peoples’ back yards, remnants of the duck-and-cover era of the Cold War. Nor does Annapolis have large numbers of — or possibly any — Mid-Century Modernism-style houses. And Annapolis most certainly does not have an annual “Modernism With a Twist” design and performance festival, which we attended last night with our hosts Steve and Thumper. More on that in a moment.

Steve and Thumper are our “Exotic Travel Friends”, with whom we have now traveled to various places in Africa three times. Steve is tall and lanky, a highly creative engineer with a penchant for tech toys and an outre sense of humor that closely matches my own. Thumper is spiky-haired, mordantly impish, and — when passing judgment on just about anything — has only two settings: “This is the worst thing in the world and it makes me want to vomit,” or “This is the best thing in the world and how can anyone not love it?” Since she will be reading these words I will find out tomorrow morning which side of the coin comes up, and whether or not we have to leave prematurely. Anyway, here they are in poses from earlier today that give you an idea of what you’re dealing with.

As you can see, in photos Thumper likes the enigmatic look, though in actual day to day life she is about as subtle as a lightning strike, and equally energetic. And if you ever meet her and ask her about her Disney-esque nickname, take my word and do not believe her story about having been a pole dancer in Laramie, Wyoming.

Anyway, Steve and Thumper are very delightful friends and generous hosts whom we have been visiting in their absolutely gorgeous home. Here’s a pan shot of their atrium-like living room, complete with a looping hi-def video of jellyfish swimming in a  7 1/2-foot long (2.3m) virtual aquarium underneath the painting on the right.

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Steve and Thumper enjoy but are not consumed by the pervasive Mid-Century Modernism design gestalt that permeates the town. And in truth, it is not ubiquitous: the streets are wide and the buildings low and adobe-colored, so on average the sense is more Modern Desert than 1950’s Surreal. And nobody has to pretend to be heterosexual anymore: Thumper informs me that the entire city council is LBGT. They are no doubt advancing their nefarious communist homosexual agenda, which as nearly as we can tell involves clean streets and a thriving downtown area.

But back to the “Modernism with a Twist” festival. This is a week-long multimedia grab bag of home design displays — want a $100 birdhouse that copies a Frank Lloyd Wright house? — art exhibits, and performances. We attended one of the latter, a presentation of five fifteen-minute lecture/slideshow/standup comedy routines, all of them entertaining and insightful and often informative. One was a riotous first-person account of (and by) a tube-dress, cats-eye-glasses-wearing fictional 1950’s housewife who finds fulfillment in her harvest-gold-colored appliances. One was a history of those 150 bomb shelters I mentioned above. One was a very “meta” discussion or confession of one woman’s obsession with Mid-Century Modernist memorabilia. And so on. It was a hoot, though I am not yet ready to comb my hair into a ducktail, partly because I do not have enough hair to do so.Ducktail-Hairstyle-hairstyle-latest-lMfI

Today we made an expedition to the Salton Sea, about 50 miles to the southeast of here. That was quite the experience in itself, which I’ll save for my next post in a few days.

Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Getting Our Just Deserts

I’m typing this from our tent in the middle (more like the western edge) of the Sahara desert on Wednesday October 7, but it will be at least a couple of days before I can actually post it, there being, well, nothing here.

This morning we left our beautiful hotel in Erfoud with a certain amount of reluctance, knowing that we would be trading our enormous comfy air conditioned rooms for extremely non-air-conditioned tents located far deeper into the middle of nowhere than we already were. So I had this brief word with the staff, shown below, thanking them for their hospitality. (How many hotels do you know keep camels on the grounds?) And so we set off, divided up into a convoy of four 4 x 4s instead of our bus because the latter would not do so well on sand dunes and generally functions much better when there is an actual road.

“And next time, don’t forget the mints on the pillows.”

This region is known for its fossils, and so our first stop was a place that receives the quarried fossil-rich slabs of sedimentary rock (not granite) and turns them into exceedingly cool tabletops, counter slabs, fountains, etc., all swimming with the particular Precambrian creatures that were endemic here. They fall mostly into three types: ammonites (which look like nautilus shells), trilobites (which look like giant sow bugs), and a long pointy cylindrical squid-like creature. (We would actually have gotten our own granite countertops in this style, but they were astronomically expensive.) in any case, the factory guide showed us the raw stones, the cutting and polishing process (diamond drills), and so forth, all culminating in the inevitable showroom where they assured us they would ship to the US. There was in fact a lot of interesting stuff, and several of our group bought things Steve and Thumper bought a set of fossil-laden dishes, while we bought a couple of small ammonites variously for Alice and the teenager who lives across the street from us and looks after our house while were away.

“Huh, I could’ve sworn we had Han Solo frozen in here.”

Our next stop was a Berber town where we visited a rather poor household, of which there are many. This was a family of a mother (at left below), father, and five children, two of whom were grown and married while the other three were still at home. One of those three had Down’s Syndrome, which led to a discussion of how they handled and treated him. And the answer was: they don’t. It is considered a failure, essentially a mark of shame, to have had such a child, and so they let him wander the streets, sometimes not seeing him for days at a time. This is arguably an improvement of how some local families treat such children, which is by chaining them up in a back room so no one can see them.

This led to a discussion of health care — Momo translating all the while — which is free in this country if your income falls below a certain threshold (which hers does).

Our hostess’ husband is a porter, who earns very little. She makes ends meet by weaving and selling fabrics and dresses, one of whom she demonstrated on one of our group, as you see here. It was wound pretty tight; our travel partner/dressmaker’s dummy reports that she would have a hard time moving around in it.

I should mention that no visit to a Moroccan home is complete without achingly sweet mint tea, and this was no exception. We smiled with pleasure as the enamel of our teeth dissolved, and thanked our hostess for her hospitality. (More about the Berbers later.)

By this point we were far enough into the desert that the rate of camel sightings was climbing noticeably, and so it was no coincidence that our next stop was a camel farm, one specializing in camel milk. They had a small herd of the beasts, the lactating females penned with their offspring but kept separate from the males, who were uninterested in the milk but very interested in — wait for it — humping. (Rim shot) So to milk a camel (an activity that thankfully they did not offer to teach us), you first have to shoulder the hungry camel children out of the way so that you (the farmer) can grab the teats and spritz the milk into a waiting metal bowl. It took two guys, as you can see here: the guy with his back to us is holding the shiny bowl while keeping the disgruntled juvenile (at left) out of the way, while the guy on the far side of the camel is spritzing. It’s a lot: it only takes a minute or two to get 1 1/2 liters (~3 pints), and you see the result in the picture that follows.

Very fresh, yet strangely unappetizing

It is very white and creamy looking, and tastes — yes, we tasted it — rather like plain old whole milk.

I should say something about camel vocabulary here (I mean out vocabulary, not the camels’, which is mostly limited to FNAAAAUUURRRRNK, though I may be spelling that wrong. The main point that I need to convey is that these are not actually camels, but rather dromedaries. In the immortal words of humor poet Ogden Nash:

“The camel has a single hump, the dromedary two. / Perhaps the other way around / I’m never sure, are you?”

It is in fact the other way around: dromedaries have one hump, and those are the guys you see around here. The two-hump animals are technically Bactrian camels. But everybody seems to call the dromedaries camels except when they’re trying to look smarter than you. I’ll continue to call them camels for convenience. (But I reserve the right to correct you if you call them camels, because I am a hypocrite and want to look smarter than you.)

As we headed deeper into the Sahara we saw more and more of less and less. Here’s the view out my window as we drive; the other car is one of our convoy. We tend to drive in staggered formation so as to avoid eating each other’s dust, of which there is an infinite about. The terrain is mostly flat, a mixture of hard-packed orange sand and black volcanic rubble. There is an occasional milkwood tree or patch of rough scrubby grass. The Atlas Mountains lie in the distance, and there is the occasional field of sand dunes, some the size of small mountains. We traverse a few of these, which is great fun in a roller coaster sort of way, but overall it would be an understatement to say that the landscape is uninviting. The weather is of course hot, though not blisteringly so: no higher than the mid-80s, time bone dry. But the sunlight is like an ultraviolet laser that fills the sky, very very intense.

And of course, amidst the expanse of nothing, there are camels:

We stop for a lunch at a restaurant that incongruously emerges in the midst of a filed of sand dunes. Here’s the scene as we arrive:

 

 

The walls are canvas over a frame, the interior walls and ceiling embroidered hangings. The interior space is appointed in traditional style, and if you have a mental image of Aladdin walking among cushions and the embroidered walls to round tables with ornate silver tea sets, you are pretty close to the mark. Lunch was quite good, a beef tagine.

We continued on til a stop at another Berber village, these Berbers being if rather different ethnic heritage. Remember that Berbers are ethnically very heterogeneous, some being pale skinned and of European provenance, others descended from sub-Saharan Africans. This group is descended from slaves imported from Sudan and Mali, and they put on a musical performance (“colorful native dances”, as we cynically characterize them in these trips) in which they played drums, castanets (that’s what they’re holding in the picture) and a stringed instrument. They danced a shuffling line dance while chanting nostalgic songs about the pre-slavery era, e.g., about returning to Timbuktu (which is in Mali, to answer a question it may never have occurred to you to ask).

The performance involved inveigling the audience (i.e. the 16 of us) into getting up and participating in a circle dance,my he Sudanese version of Hava Nagila. I gave in, but frankly would rather have been in Timbuktu myself.

Still further on we encountered a Berber cemetery, seen here. Primitive and sad, with way too many 4′ long graves, indicating that children were buried the. The headstones are I carved rough stone, with no information at all about the deceased. The only fact that each grave conveys is the sex of the departed, which is indicated by the position of the headstone: when positioned in the way that you (the reader) are used to, there lies here a male; when turned 90 degrees, a female. You can see a few of the latter in the photo, e.g., all the way in the back, about a quarter of the way over from the right.

 

We reached our camp at about 4:15PM, a cluster of a dozen semipermanent canvas-walled one-room tents at the edge of a field of sand dunes. They’re primitive looking from the outside and basic but comfortable on the inside: the canvas hangs on a wood and wire frame, and the floor is wood with a large carpet. Each room has a flush toilet and very basic cold shower. There is a generator or solar-powered batteries in the c amp (I don’t yet know which) so we have electricity at night; there is a single lightbulb but also an electrical outlet so we can charge our various devices overnight. So in ither words, extremely basic but not altogether roughing it. The main problem is the sand, which is everywhere and gets into everything; we have zippered screen doors front and rear that work reasonably well to keep the outside outside.

Not the Hilton.

But make no mistake, we really are in the Sahara desert. If you need any additional convincing, here is the view out our back door.

You might correctly infer from that image that strolling into town to do some shopping is not a realistic option. But it is all very exciting and interesting. We received a cooking lesson (tagine) in the late afternoon, followed by a very good dinner (tagine, do you see the pattern?). The skies are quite beautiful here as you would expect, the Milky Way a glorious highway from horizon to horizon across the zenith. So I gave a little astronomy lecture, enthusiastically received, and led a star party, pointing out constellations and stars to end the evening.

Tomorrow: camel ride! We have been cautioned to wear long pants for this, so I suspect that some apprehension may be warranted.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

En Garda!

With great reluctance we took leave of our castle yesterday afternoon, pausing only to hand out pennies to the serfs who were throwing rose petals in our path. Well, no actually. We did however, get to chat with the owners, or more accurately the managers, Maria and Gabriele, a handsome thirty-ish couple with two small children who run the place (and several others) on behalf of Maria’s grandfather , who bought the place from an eccentric baroness (really) ten years ago. Turns out that we were only the second guests, ever.

Maria also told us a bit of the castle’s history. (She has done some research and is preparing a brochure which has not yet been translated into English.) The oldest part of the castle dates from the 14th century, with various parts being added and renovated all the way up to the 19th. Our apartment was originally part of the one of the older sections, though has obviously undergone a series of renovations. (14th century electrical wiring was notoriously unreliable.)

Our goal lay to the northwest towards the mountains, in particular the resort region of Lake Garda, with a stop along the way in Verona. And as in the previous couple of days we eschewed the Autostrade in favor of the proverbial scenic route, wending our sinuous way through an endless series of hairpin turns up and down through the hills so that we could enjoy the views of the countryside, e.g.:

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Those are grape vines in the lower right, by the way. They are ubiquitous.

Scenes like this were a fine reward for taking this route, of course, but the driving itself was exhausting, a master-class exercise in heel-and-toe work on the clutch, brake, gas, and stick. It was one of the few occasions when I would have been happy to sacrifice my Manliness Points for driving a stick shift in favor of a good old pedestrian automatic transmission.

Verone lay at about the halfway point between Vicenza and Lake Garda, so we stopped there for lunch and to look around. It’s a lively city of about a quarter-million inhabitants, dating all the way back to about 500 BC. It became officially Roman in about 100 BC, and as they did everywhere else the Romans left their architectural mark, in the form of high city walls that encompass the city center and, most notably, a large amphitheater that looks remarkably (and unsurprisingly) like the Roman Coliseum.

Verona & Garda-2

It is, however, in rather better repair than its big brother in Rome, because the choice was made to repurpose it for modern performances rather than preserve its full archaeological value. Hence the performance space, rather than being a field of collapsed columns, looks like this:

Verona & Garda-3

Great for Bar Mitzvahs

The bowels of the structure are a lot more historical looking, however:

Verona & Garda-6

Lions enter on the left, Christians please continue around to the right.

 

The arena has a seating capacity of 30,000 and is used for every kind of performance: opera, plays by Shakespeare through Tennessee Williams (“Gatto Sul Tetto Che Scotta” = “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), and rock concerts (Mumford & Sons this June!).

As you can tell, the seating is a mix of folding chairs down at ground level, and both aluminum bleachers and the original stone steps above. The stone steps, though brutal on my poor arthritic knees, are beautifully preserved and beautiful in their own right, being a mix of different colored stone:

Verona & Garda-5

 

We climbed to the uppermost row of seats to get a view of the town, in particular the teeming square adjacent to the amphitheater. Verona is quite the tourist draw, in part because of its mention in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, and of course for the amphitheater itself as well as other Roman architectural legacies.   The square is lined with restaurants and alive with tourists, strolling locals, tchotchke vendors, and political groups making their pitch from canopied folding tables.

Verona does not shy from its literary connection to Shakespeare, far from it. The local authorities will no doubt be forever grateful that Romeo and Juliet was set here, as that fact alone is probably responsible for a measurable fraction of the tourist traffic. And indeed, somewhere in the city there is a balcony that is advertised as the one that Juliet stood on for her immortal “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” speech. This of course is completely idiotic, Juliet being a fictional character and Shakespeare never having left England. I was ranting on this topic and complained, “Hey, if you have any friends in Missouri who live in a house with a white picket fence, tell them that they can make money by advertising it as the one that Tom Sawyer talked his friends into whitewashing!” Whereupon Elaine informed me that such a fence does in fact exist, in Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO. Which just goes to show that it is not possible to be too cynical. In any case, we did not seek out the pointlessly-famous balcony, so I cannot tell you what it looks like.

We left Verona, and our driver (me) having tired of hairpin turns, headed directly to the resort town of Gardone Riviera on the western shore of Lake Garda, in the foothills of the Alps about 60 miles from the Swiss border. The weather, alas, has been deteriorating, and so our view of the gorgeous multitude of orange-tiled roofs along the shore was hindered by low-hanging clouds and a very light drizzle.  Still, we found our flat, a modern two-bedroom affair, nothing compared to our previous digs but enjoying a beautiful view of the lake. Here are some shots taken from the balcony outside our bedroom:

Verona & Garda-7

 

Verona & Garda-8

Our flat is high on the hillside, nestled in a maze of the ever-present steep, narrow, winding cobblestone streets. (Navigating them by car is all sorts of fun.) The owner recommended a gourmet restaurant right down the street, where we enjoyed an excellent meal whose dishes included a rather unusual array of ingredients: Alice’s included spelt pasta with octopus sauce; mine was a fish mousse. If for some reason you ever find yourself in this particular town, by all means eat at Osteria Antica Brolo. Tell them that Fabrizio Pollini sent you.

The weather today is pretty bad, chilly and drizzly, and so we are setting aside our more ambitious touring plans. As it happens we are very close to a large and famously bizarre Addams-Family-style mansion, the Vittoriale D’Annunzio, whose eccentric owner decorated it with knick-knacks like gilded turtle shells that happened to catch his fancy. A more complete report later…

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