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The Mekong Delta

We have been home for exactly three weeks as I write this, and I still have a couple of Vietnam destinations’ worth of blog posts in my notes. Normally I try and write these up while we are still in country, but time and energy levels did not really allow that, so these are all rather after the fact. But hey, I’m here, you’re here, so let’s go.

The Mekong Delta is sort of the Amazon Basin of Vietnam, a network of rivers that collectively create a cauldron of biodiversity. It was the scene of an enormous amount of bloody fighting during the war but is now a placid center of agriculture, fishing, and tourism. And coconuts. They are very big on coconuts there. In fact, the Mekong used to be home to the Coconut Religion, which I swear I am not making up. Adherents to the Coconut Religion — who counted John Steinbeck’s son among their number — advocated eating only coconuts and consuming only coconut milk. The religion, such as it was, was founded in 1963 and even at its peak numbered a paltry 4,000 followers. The authorities declared it a cult and banned it in 1975, possibly out of envy upon learning that Coconut Religion monks were allowed to have up to nine wives. (Historical note: 1975 is the year that Saigon fell and the country was reunified under the Communists. You might think that both sides had more important things to worry about that year, but somebody obviously was all hot and bothered about those priapic coconut cultists.)

Anyway, wives are more parsimoniously distributed these days, but the area is still big on coconuts. We visited a coconut candy factory: here is a photo of some gainfully employed but presumably very bored women, hand wrapping coconut candies all day long.

“Keep wrapping. We’ve still got to make 5,000 Almond Joy bars by sundown.”

 

(It would appear that this was Bring Your Child to Work day.) The machines in the background mix the mix up the coconut goop from which the candies are fashioned; everything is done by hand.

I should mention how we came to this place, which was via a pleasant boat ride on the Mekong River.

The lower boat is a cargo boat, not our little tourist barge. Note the traditional eyes painted on the prow.

You will be unsurprised to hear that adjacent to the coconut candy station was a gift shop, where pretty much everything was made out of or otherwise related to coconuts. The one exception to this were the whiskey bottles with the dead cobras and scorpions added to impart that certain je ne sais quoi venomous flavor.

Yep, they poured us samples into those shot glasses. Yep, we drank them. At this point you are no doubt wanting to ask, “OK Rich, how does Dead Cobra Whiskey taste, compared to the usual “reptile-corpse-free” whiskey?” And the disappointing answer is, that I have no idea. I am almost a complete teetotaler; I don’t enjoy the taste of alcohol and can barely — if at all — tell the difference between rotgut rum and single-malt Scotch. To me, all whiskey tastes like it has a dead snake in it, so there was nothing unusual about this stuff. Sorry.

Flushed with the warm glow of alcohol-infused snake venom, we bid our coconut enthusiasts goodbye and traveled a short distance via golf-cart-like shuttles to listen to a short performance from some local traditional folk singers. Here’s an excerpt, about 1 1/2 minutes long.

I call your attention to the women’s voices in particular, which they pitch to a high chanting timbre. You can hear the effect quite clearly starting with the solo performance about 45 seconds into the video. It appears to be quite typical; we heard a number of such performances throughout the trip, and the women usually song in that high, almost whining warble. I confess that neither Alice nor I find it particularly pleasant; you may feel differently.

I have mentioned in an earlier post that we seem to be experiencing quite the diversity of transportation modes on this. We can add sampans to that list, since that was our next means of travel after the singing concluded. A sampan by definition is a small flat-bottomed boat used on inland waters. Here in the Delta they’ve been weaponized as a means of assembly-line tourism, as we lined up, four at a time, to take about a quarter-mile trip down the river.

The woman in purple, our gondolier (so to speak), you would suppose would work quite hard to paddle people that quarter or half mile, a zillion times a day. And that is doubtless true, up to a point. But is there something you cannot see in the photos. In the bottom photo, hidden beneath the woman’s feet inside the hull of the boat, is a motor, which she turns on to power the boat back upstream after dropping us off. So it’s all a little, um, Disney World-ish. The boats are real enough, the motive power a little more modern than anyone lets on.

We returned to Saigon in the late afternoon and rested for an hour or two before climbing aboard our next transport device: Vespa motor scooters, for a nighttime tour of the city. The Vespas are slightly less throaty and rumbly than our earlier motorbikes, but the adrenaline rush of zipping through nighttime traffic in Saigon no less satisfying. Here’s Alice (red jacket and white helmet at left) behind her driver in typical Saigon traffic chaos.

Down main thoroughfares, and through alleys we putt-putted. Our first stop was a very-local-indeed seafood restaurant in an alley, a sea of formica tables amidst a hubbub of locals, where among other dishes we dined on squid beak. (Spoiler alert: it tastes like calamari.) I am also proud to report that it was in this venue that I won a chopstick-handling contest among our travel group, by transferring 15 spheroidal garlic-coated peanuts into a bowl in 20 seconds. Alice was a close second, but I am the one now in possession of the coveted Wooden Vespa, a nice little model about 8″ long that will no doubt end up in the hands of a grandchild in the near future.

Then it was on to Hồ Thị Kỷ Street, home to Saigon’s flower market…

…and a walk down an alley to try our handing at cooking a rice crepe over an coals. Not dropping the crepe into the coals is harder than it looks.

We ended the night with a drink on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Tower to get a panoramic view of the city, then a quick jaunt across the river to see the skyline.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rice Paper and Russian Jeeps

Yeeee-hah! The oil pressure light is blinking angrily on the jeep dashboard and our driver swerves left to avoid running over a moped that’s just gotten knocked over by a car coming out of a side street. I’m standing up in the seat, snapping away, as whole families on motorcycles weave by us, waving and shouting Xin chào! (“Hello!”) at me. The cops are whistling like mad trying to clear the lane — the locals call them “Pikachus”, probably because of their yellow uniforms — and we cut right across a lane of traffic to barrel down an alley crammed with vendors selling bootleg auto parts, squeezing by with barely inches of clearance on either side. Then the heavens open up.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Yesterday was an interesting day.
It started with a visit to a local military cemetery, of which I infer there are many, given the number of casualties in the war. (They call it the “American War” here, by the way.) It looks pretty much like every other such cemetery that you’ve seen, dominated by an obelisk at the front with a commemorative engraving. Many of the headstones have pictures of the deceased. There is even a section for Gold Star Mothers who lost sons and husbands in the war; one, I note, lived to an astonishing 109 years old.
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The caretaker is a small man about my age who as a teenager fought in the Viet Cong. He guides us in lighting some incense sticks at an altar in a small side building, then we all sit down to tea and he — through our guide, acting as interpreter —  relates some war stories. There are a couple of Vietnam veterans in our group, who as you imagine listen with considerable interest. And then it gets interesting: the caretaker tells how he was a scout, and that one of his big assignments was scoping out the defenses of a particular air base at Da Nang, preparatory to a huge attack. They launched rockets and brought down a bunch of incoming planes, including a C-141 cargo plane. “Wait a minute!” says Dave, one of our vets. “When was that?” The caretaker tells him the date, and Dave’s eyes grow wide. “I was there! We were in the bunker! I saw the C-141 go down!” They gape at each other. Welcome to Viet Nam tourism. I infer that this sort of thing happens a lot.
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“Nice to meet you! Sorry that I tried to kill you!”

People are happy to talk about the war here. In fact, they’re happy to talk about just about anything, including how corrupt their government is in the traditional rapacious way, heavily influenced by China and generally illiberal despite the so-called “Red Capitalist” economy.  Because so many people speak freely, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that this society is much more open than it really is. We’re harmless tourists, though; printing the stuff they say to us on a leaftlet and handing it out on a street corner would get them a very long prison sentence. It is a less repressive government than China’s, but not by much: Vietnamese can use Google and Facebook  and even watch CNN and BBC on TV, but when there is any controversy afoot the TV broadcasts are delayed by an hour to let the censors edit them before airing.
We moved on from the cemetery to the village of Tho Ha, known for making rice paper. You get there by crossing an unattractive brown river on a flatbed metal ferry nearly as long as the river is wide; it pulls away from the dock, then does a three-point turn to basically rotate in place. Then you walk off the other side, accompanied by a dozen school kids on mopeds.
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Rice paper is pretty much all that anyone does in Tho Ha. There are 1000 households there, and 600 of them make rice paper. (Another 200 work at the nearby Samsung factory.) The narrow alleys are lined with bamboo frames of drying rice paper, each about the size of a window shutter. There are piles of them on rooftops, stacks leaning against the outside walls of peoples’ homes… they are everywhere.
Nothing goes to waste, of course: the scraps around the edges — from the rectangular sheets that get cut into circles — get mixed with chilies and garlic and sold as snacks. (Highly addictive snacks, I can report from personal experience.)
Our immersion in rice paper culture included trying our own hand at it; rather than using one of the machines that paints the liquid goop over the frame, the family we visited had us go old school, using a ladle and a hot surface, exactly like making a crepe. Here’s Alice in action.
Our hosts served us a truly glorious lunch that included about ten different dishes, all outstanding. Turns out he is a musician who gives lessons in a number of unfamiliar-looking stringed instruments, so he gave us a little impromptu concert, playing one piece on what he called a “short banjo” (shown below) and another on a violin-like thing.
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His closing number, incongruously, was “You Are My Sunshine,”, and we all sang along. Then it was back to the hotel, and a brief interlude chatting with Phil’s family, who live in Hanoi and stopped by to see Dad at work. He has two daughters, 15 and 9, and a very pretty wife, a former stockbroker. (How non-Communist can you get?) None spoke English, so Phil interpreted as his wife expressed her various welcomes and gifted us with some traditional small glutinous celebratory rice cakes. The 9 year old was a firecracker, prancing around and teasing her father, while the 15 year old managed a wan smile that clearly communicated that she would rather be somewhere else, e.g., a pool of boiling lava.
Then the jeeps showed up.
Phil has an entrepreneurial friend who set up an offbeat local tourism business two years ago and has enjoyed a lot of success by tooling small groups of tourists around in old refurbished Russian jeeps, taking to them rather non-standard locations around the city, e.g., the bootleg auto parts market I mentioned earlier. We were in three open jeeps, a copper-colored one and two gray ones, and we bullied our way through densely cacophonous Hanoi rush hour traffic to visit a tame little demimonde. It was an utter hoot, immersing you in the adrenaline of the city in a pleasantly visceral way.
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That’s Phil in the purple teeshirt. And here we are in Hanoi traffic, which could be fairly described as “nutso”:
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We got out in one of the alleys to visit a tiny little bakery of sorts where they were making the ceremonial cakes that Phil’s wife had handed out earlier. It was there that the monsoon finally showed up — it is that season here — but our jeep drivers handed out ponchos and we managed to avoid being utterly soaked. Still, splashing through those dark, wet, and generally filthy-seeming alleys while getting poured on was sweaty and not especially comfortable. The storm lasted less than 45 minutes.
Next jeep stop: Happy Hour at The Most Dangerous Restaurant In The World. That would be this one:
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Yes, the table is sitting on a train track. What a cute gimmick! you are thinking. They’ve set up a restaurant on a decommissioned railroad track! And you could keep thinking that until 7:05 PM, when the staff moved the tables off the track, so that this could happen at 7:10 PM:
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This is a significant incentive for the trains to run on time. Also not to linger over your pho.
After that thought-provoking happy hour, we were once again taken to an outstanding zillion-course meal, then brought to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to witness the daily lowering of the flag. As you probably know, “Uncle Ho” (they actually call him that) was pretty much the father of Vietnamese independence, and is revered in much the same way that George Washington is in the US. The US never really understood that he was a Communist mostly by convenience; the Communists in the north didn’t really get nastily assertive as long as he was strong enough to hold sway, and it was largely as he sickened and died in the late sixties that things got nasty and the US went crazy. But in any case, he has quite the mausoleum, and the flag ceremony is performed every night with much goose-stepping and martial music.
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You can actually go into the mausoleum to see his body, or you can try to: it is open for three hours in the morning, five days a week, so you can stand in line for an hour with (literally) ten thousand other people to get in.  Apparently, few of OATs past travelers felt that it was worth it, and so it was not part of our itinerary. Phil concurred that it wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time. I can’t say that we were disappointed.
And that was yesterday.
Today we visited the town of Bat Trang, known for its ceramics, and had a rather more conventional tourist experience that I may write about tomorrow. (“Here we are doing an extremely terrible job of making a clay bowl on a potter’s wheel!”) We leave Hanoi tomorrow morning, and will be spending tomorrow evening sleeping on a junk (the Asian boat, not a pile of debris in an alley) on Ha Long Bay.
I’ll close today with a photo of one of the many back-alley eateries one sees here and throughout Asia. Nothing remarkable about it — I just like the shot.
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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

 

Categories: Hong Kong | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Poke Your Eyes Out

That’s “po-keh”, which sort of rhymes with “okay”, as opposed to “poke” that rhymes with “croak”. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We are back on the Big Island, comfortably ensconced in our beautiful annual rental house for the next month or so, and enjoying our view of the blue, blue Pacific while all our East Coast friends and family gnash their teeth in envy. Feel free to gnash along: it’s gorgeous here. Photos in later posts.

Our first order of business upon arrival was picking up our rental car, which was, um, shall we say, more “expansive” than anticipated. Expecting a midsize SUV or large Jeep, we were presented with a Lincoln Navigator, a Brobdingnagian exercise in libertarian consumerism of such exuberant eco-criminality that Greenpeace now has a price on my head. A technology-laden behemoth, it is the size of a full-grown bull elephant and has a fuel economy measured in “crushed dinosaurs per mile”. At speeds above 60 mph, or whenever in four-wheel-drive mode, it requires its own convoy of refueling tankers. But it is roomy, quiet, and comfortable, so we’ll live with it. At least until I have to parallel park somewhere.

But mostly I wanted to talk about food, that being one of the sybaritic mainstays of our annual sojourns here. As you may know, the de facto state food of Hawaii is…. Ha! You were going to guess poi, weren’t you? But no. Poi is indeed a traditional staple here, but for historic reasons dating from World War II rationing, the go-to food in these parts is pig parts in a can, i.e. this stuff:

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Hawaiians eat more Spam than any cohort in the known universe, or at least the U.S., an average of 5 cans per year for every man, woman, and child in the state. And as you can see from the photo, it comes in a wide variety of disguises flavors to suit every taste. That is, every taste except ours, since we never touch the stuff.

What we do eat a lot of here, is poke, which is a genuinely traditional Hawaiian food that has gone mainstream. Poke (remember, it is pronounced po-keh) can take many forms but is most commonly served as marinated ahi, i.e. raw yellowfin tuna. The word itself is Hawaiian for “sliced”.

Japanese cuisine has a strong influence on poke’s preparation, Japanese being the second largest ethnic group in the state, slightly behind Filipino. For one thing, poke is prepared with an enormous variety of marinades that include both Japanese and Hawaiian influences, such as soy sauce. And for another, at even the most hole-in-the-wall poke restaurants, it is presented with a certain symmetric Japanese aesthetic, as you can see from this photo of my lunch a few hours ago:

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We had this little masterpiece at “Da Poke Shack”, just down the road from our house; it is possibly the mostly-aptly named restaurant in existence. That’s seaweed salad in sesame oil at the upper right, white rice with dried seaweed and sesame seeds at lower left, and two flavors of ahi poke in the other two diagonal corners. It is a little bit of culinary heaven that has now made its way to the mainland US with varying and usually dubious degrees of authenticity. I can assert from personal experience that if you are eating it anywhere outside of Hawaii with fish more than 10 hours old, you are not experiencing the good stuff.

Having thus officially alerted our digestive systems to our arrival in Kona, we moved on to the largest local farmer’s market, a frequent stop of ours. We bask for a while among the tropical fruits, a spectral riot lilikoi (a.k.a. passion fruit), rambutans, soursops, mangoes, tiny “apple bananas”, carambolas (= star fruit), and of course pineapples. The faces there are comfortingly familiar: we see the same multi-ethnic smiles at the stalls every year.

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(This picture dates from three years ago, and we bought lilikoi from the same woman today. I showed her this photo on my phone; she gave Alice a big hug and asked me to email it to her.) We loaded up with a few bags of fruit, our eyes ever larger than our stomachs, before moving on somewhat reluctantly to the more conventional and cringingly expensive grocery shopping at the Kona Safeway. We will be entertaining a lot of visitors during this year’s stay; there will be many such trips to the farmer’s market, the Safeway, and to the KTA, a local family-owned grocery chain.

So in summary, we’re here, happily nestled into our house in the delightfully-named area of Kahalu’u-Keauhou. More posts later as this year’s adventures unfold.

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Agog in Prague

Prague is a strikingly beautiful city, albeit a little heavy on the whole Medieval Catholicism thing. It has park areas like this:

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…as well as densely packed looming Gothic edifices like this.

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The bridge in that night photo is the Charles Bridge, the main pedestrian thoroughfare between the Old and New Town areas on the east side of the river, and the more modern areas to the west. It is lined with ominous saintly statues and throngs of tourists.

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But it is not the only bridge into the old city, and by crossing a little further to the south you get a great panoramic view of the river and the Charles Bridge connecting the two halves of the city.

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The river is dotted with pedal boats, as you can see; the unseasonably warm sunny weather brings them out in droves, a celebration of the most inefficient form of transportation known to man.

Our first destination of the day, about a 20 minute walk from our flat across the Charles Bridge, was the Jewish Quarter. Tiny — perhaps 700 meters on a side (less than half a mile) — it houses five synagogues and an ancient Jewish cemetery. The usual starting point when touring the Jewish Quarter is the Maisel Synagogue, because the tickets are sold there and because it houses a display of artifacts and an historical narrative of the history of the Jews in Bohemia. Short summary: restrictive laws and humiliation, occasional easing, relocation, re-imposition of restrictive laws and humiliation, enlightenment and false hope, expulsion, return, pogroms, re-relocation, re-enlightenment, World War II. Today there are somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Jews in the Czech Republic, about half of them in Prague.

The most venerable of the synagogues is the Old New Synagogue, so named because it was the New Synagogue in 1270, later superseded by a newer New Synagogue a mere three hundred years later. So it became known as the Old New Synagogue, primarily due to a failure of imagination. It is tiny, with thick stone walls, and it is still in use.

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Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, known for its Holocaust memorial, which, in the philosophy of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, is little more than a compelling list of names on the walls: 78,000 of them, sorted by the neighborhood from which the Jews were taken, then alphabetically within the neighborhood, then by dates of birth and death. In most cases the date of death is unknown, and so the date is the last day on which the victim was seen alive. 78,000 names on a wall is a lot, and the emotional impact grows as you move from one room into the next, only to be confronted with more names, row after row after row of them.

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Adjacent to the Pinkas Synagogue, appropriately enough, is an old Jewish cemetery, densely packed with headstones pointing at random angles. (In the 2 x 2 grid of photos below the color one, you can click on the thumbnails to see larger images.)

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And now to answer the question that you, if you are a nerd like me, have been wondering about for 40 years, namely: did Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute really come from a Jewish priestly blessing? Answer: yes, and here is your proof (beside the fact that actor Leonard Nimoy actually said that this was the case):

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Alice, being generally estranged from popular culture, pointed this and a couple of similar headstones out to me and asked, “What’s the weird hand gesture?” I informed her that it was the Vulcan salute, which she did not feel fully answered the question, and which required additional explanation.

We left the Jewish quarter and walked the short distance to Old Town Square, dominated by the much photographed city hall and overseen by the statue of Bohemia’s favorite saintly regent, Good King Wenceslas. The Christmas carol notwithstanding, Wenceslas was actually a 10th century duke. His 17-year reign was marked by the usual political intrigue and minor military skirmishes, and he was considered neither particularly saintly nor un-saintly at the time. However, in the year 935 he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, whose name is so cool that I am thinking of changing mine.

Nobody liked Boleslav — he might have considered a different nickname — and so a retroactive cult grew up around Wenceslas, and he was deemed a martyr. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred the title “king” upon him, somebody wrote that Christmas song a couple of centuries later, and bingo, the guy is a pop culture icon.  In my opinion there are better ways to achieve popularity than being run through by a lance at age 35. In any case, here is the square and the town hall. I have no idea why Superman is in the foreground, a little left of center; Alice speculates that someone lost a bet.

Prague 2018-069-Edit

Part of the reason that we went to the main square, besides finding an ice cream vendor, of which there are fortunately many, was that it is just around the corner from Prague’s famed 600 year old, 2 1/2 story tall Astronomical Clock, which I mentioned yesterday.

And now a brief diversion. If you have been following this blog for a while, then you may recall that if there is one single word that can be applied to Alice’s and my travels to the great cities of the world, then that word is…. scaffolding. Yes. As soon as we book a trip, some mysterious omniscient organization — possibly Interpol, or the Illuminati — notifies the authorities at our destination so that scaffolding can be erected before our arrival. I suspect that they take it down as soon as we leave. You name it — the Parthenon, the Via Veneto, Big Ben, Notre Dame — we have seen them all, covered in scaffolding. (The Eiffel Tower is a freebie because it sort of is scaffolding.) I am quite convinced that if someone had somehow figured out how to put scaffolding around blue-footed boobies and Darwin’s finches then our trip to the Galapagos might have been a very different experience. So with that background information, here is Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock as we beheld it this afternoon:

Prague 2018-070

Sigh. It is of course supposed to be back in place some time next month.

Well, the only way to sublimate our disappointment at this turn of events was to go the Sex Machine Museum, right down the block from the afflicted clock.

What? You mean you’ve never heard of Prague’s Sex Machine Museum? Housing some 200, um, devices spread out (so to speak) over three floors, the museum’s reviews range from “must see” to “tourist trap”, but for ten bucks we thought it was a hoot. If you can get through this place without laughing out loud at least once, there is something seriously wrong with you.

Prague 2018-085

This being a mostly family blog, and me not wanting to be banned by WordPress.com, I can’t show photos of most of the exhibits; X-rated barely describes some of them. But I will make one or two observations. First, it is clear that late 19th and early 20th century sex devices had a distinctly…. how shall I put this…. “industrial” aspect to them. Yes, “industrial” is definitely the word.

Prague 2018-081

There was one mid-19th century item, which I couldn’t get a good picture of, and which I probably wouldn’t show anyway, that — I am not making this up — was steam-powered, using a coal-fired boiler. No kidding, this thing belonged on a narrow-gauge railroad track, and definitely not anywhere near anyone’s genitals.

But my absolute favorite — and possibly the best best museum exhibit in the history of time — was this remote-control Ukrainian sex toy from the 1960’s:

Prague 2018-080

Seriously, this is an erotic device. It positively screams, “Defend the Motherland!” Or more likely, moans.

At this point, the astute reader may have noticed that in the space of a few hours we visited a Holocaust memorial, followed by a visit to a sex machine museum. I know what you’re thinking, and you are probably right: we are going to burn in Hell. But we will deal with that later, because we wanted to finish our afternoon by visiting Franz Kafka instead. More accurately, we went to visit Franz Kafka’s head. Or still more accurately, an 11 meter tall steel statue of his head.

As you can see the head comprises a number of horizontal slabs — 42 of them, to be exact — which rotate to cause the head to metamorphose into random shapes. Or rather, they are supposed to. No one seemed to know when this action would take place; there was no information to be found about it online — randomly? On the hour? Or what? — and the speculation arose among those of us waiting patiently for something to happen that the thing was no longer functional.  There is some circumstantial evidence for this because if you look carefully you will see that the slab corresponding to the middle of Franz’s nose is out of position. All I can tell you for certain is that we waited for 45 minutes for something to happen, and nothing ever did. The experience was…… Kafkaesque. Hmmm.

Giving up, we made our way back to the our flat, rested up for a couple of hours, and had an elegant dinner at a nearby restaurant, supposedly one of the best in Prague, that specializes in duck, plus the kind of meals where the animal’s head is hanging on the wall. It was excellent. (We both had the duck.) Tomorrow is our full day guided tour, so I’ll report back.

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Another Roadside Waterfall

Driving around in northern Iceland is a head-turning exercise in trying to take in first this volcanic feature, than that unnamed waterfall. The countryside is pretty isolated in the north, where the largest town, Akureyri, has a population of less than 19,000 which, amazingly, makes it the second largest city in Iceland after Reykjavik.

That Alaska-like low population density means that we needed to be mindful of our fuel tank, so we started the day by backtracking into Saudarkrokur for gas. While Tim and Alice coped with the one-pump street corner filling station, Janet and I walked down the block in search of a restroom, ultimately finding ourselves in the local bakery/tea room. It was there that we discovered that Icelanders are really excellent bakers with an inordinate fondness for pink icing. Seriously, everything they sold looked criminally mouth-watering, and half of it had pink icing. Wanting to blend in with the locals, I bought and ate a fresh doughnut with pink icing. It was as light as air and I’m sure contained at most zero calories. That’s how I know that they are excellent bakers.

The landscape in northern Iceland is oddly like Hawaii except for the large temperature difference and presence of sheep. It’s volcanic terrain dotted with cinder cones and the occasional serendipitous waterfall within a few hundred meters of the road. Here’s the first one we encountered, photographed by drone:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-003

This is a pretty typical sight. In this case, we were still close to a fjord flowing northwestward, which at this time of year and this far inland was at a very low water level, creating this abstract scene as viewed from some 200 meters directly above.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-008

I’m rather proud of this photo, but if you are having trouble visually parsing the scene, here it is again looking more upward towards the sea.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-009

Swiveling the drone to look upstream towards the mountains (and the sun), the same river looks like this:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-011

Such are the rewards of driving in northern Iceland. While I was flying the drone, Alice walked a quarter mile or so up the road, where we had passed a gravel lot packed with cars and trucks. Turns out that it was also packed with sheep: this was the venue where the various livestock owners identified their particular sheep via ear tags. The sheep all graze together, you see, and are herded together en masse and sorted by owner later.

We continued on our way and spotted a gravel spur and small parking lot at the head of a path leading down to a valley. A short walk down the path took us to a precipice overlooking a river with an oxbow bend around a steep basaltic hillside. Here are Alice and I defying death, about 15 meters above the valley floor on a somewhat precarious lookout point. We look a lot cheerier than we felt; the path was loose dirt and rock, slipperier than we’d like, and it was a long way down.

Iceland Alice & Rich Precipice

Our next destination was one of Iceland’s better-known waterfalls, the Goðafoss, which means “Waterfall of the Gods”. Like every stationary object in Iceland, this one has a legend associated with it. As the story goes, in the year 1000 a local chieftain named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði — his friends called him Bob — was taking a lot of political heat from the Norse, who had recently converted to Christianity from Paganism and wanted Iceland to do the same. Chief Bob had to make the big decision about which way to go, and since I am not typing this by candlelight you probably know the outcome. Deciding that Icelanders should become Christian, he demonstrated his commitment by throwing all of his statues of Pagan gods into this waterfall. Hence the name. (What history conceals from us is that that Bob went home and got an earful from Mrs. Ljósvetningagoði, who went out and bought a new set of idols at Pier One the next day.)

Anyway, here’s Goðafoss. The main cascade (there’s a smaller one a short way downstream) is about 12 meters (40′) high. The river above it is the Skjálfandafljót (pronounced “Snuffleupaguss”), which is the fourth longest river in Iceland.

Iceland Godafoss 2018-036

Our next stop — and our destination for the day — was Lake Mývatn, which means “Midge Lake” due to the ubiquitous dense swarms of the goddamn things. (They even got into our noses and mouths, and I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer. Thank God they don’t bite.) Mývatn is a popular tourist area because of all the geothermal activity: there are natural hot spring baths, nature trails through volcanic formations, and “resort farms” for lodging, including the one we are staying at. The lake itself is dotted with what appear to be mini-volcanoes, and sort of are. Here is the scene:

Iceland Myvatn 2018-023-Edit

What they actually are, are “pseudocraters” (that’s their real name), essentially burst lava bubbles that formed when the original lava flow overran a marshy area. They’re also called “rootless cones” because despite their appearance they are not actually lava vents. Rather, the moisture in the swampy land under the then-hot lava flow boiled away and emitted steam from underneath the lava, swelling it into a bubble that hardened and later collapsed. It’s an odd, unearthly sight. Or at least I think it is, since the midges kept swarming around my head.

We finally came to rest at the Vogafjós Farm Resort. In case you are wondering what that means, it means that we have a very comfortable motel-like room, all wood paneled and with a super-comfy geothermally heated floor (!), and that there are cows outside. There is also an excellent farm-to-table restaurant, in this case the farm-to-table distance being zero. Their specialty is lamb — quite the best I have ever had — and “Geyser Bread”, which is a very moist dark rye bread baked by burying it in the hot ground near a geothermal vent. Yes, really. It’s great!

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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Gone With The Windhoek

Windhoek is located smack in the middle of Namibia, about an hour and a half flight from Johannesburg. Coincidentally, an hour and a half is also the same amount of time you will wait to get your passport stamped by the immigration lady at the airport, should another flight happen to arrive at the same time as yours.

Having been waved through customs, we met up with our Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) guide, Lloyd. Lloyd is a jolly 40-ish Zimbabwean, burly with a round face and beard and who, appropriately enough, reminds me of Jonas Savimbi. Savimbi was the militant founder of UNITA, one of the forces that waged a successful guerrilla war for the independence of neighboring Angola from Portuguese colonial rule. He is considered a regional hero. (And he died in a military action in 2002.) I have no idea whether Lloyd is heroic, but he seems — like all OAT tour leads — very friendly, helpful, and well-informed. Here he is:

So our group is now complete. There are 14 of us plus Lloyd. These include our exotic travel buddies Steve and Thumper, plus the “Boise Girls”, Christy and Becky, both from the aforementioned Boise, Idaho. We met them three years ago in northern Chile, in the Atacama Desert, on a previous OAT trip (which you can read about here). You meet all the best people there, possibly because of the large quantities of lithium in the soil. They are fun travelmates, adventurous and as cheerful as one can possibly be, especially considering that they come from a state that is most widely known for its potatoes.

The rest of our soon-to-be-determined-whether-or-not-they-are-merry band includes:

  • Cheryl and David from Tampa, Florida, who to escape hurricane Irma had to drive 19 hours to catch their flight from New York, and who spent the first day of the trip wondering whether they still had a house. (Turns out they did.)
  • Gene and Mlu from Las Vegas. “Mlu” is a nickname for Merrilu, which apparently her friends do not have time to say. They come from Las Vegas and estimate that this is their 17th or 18th OAT trip. I hope gives them something when they hit 20; their own 747 would be a nice gesture.
  • Wayne and Nikki, and Al and Wanda, who are traveling together, also from Florida, also friendly and well-traveled. Al in particular has a sharp sense of humor that definitely puts him in the category with Steve as “Someone I would like to trade insults with.” Wayne, Nikki, and Wanda I have not yet gotten to know very well outside of their engaging deep-dish southern drawls, but this will change. Wayne’s defining visual characteristic is his regal, Reaganesque white pompadour, accompanying mustache, and trim physique. If his friends do not call him the Silver Fox, they should start immediately.

The 40 minute drive from the airport to our hotel took us through scrubby high desert terrain, punctuated by small acacia trees about 20′ tall. It resembles eastern Oregon, although when you drive through eastern Oregon you do not generally see dikdiks and baboons by the side of the road, as we did here.

The area is sparsely populated, dotted with the occasional private ranch. They are burning the grass fields, so the sky is noticeably hazy, which accentuates the hot, dry weather. Windhoek is at an elevation of about a mile (1600 m ), which moderates the temperature that is nonetheless in the upper 80’s F (about 31C). And it is dry, very dry, less than 20% humidity as our desiccated lips are reminding us.  Chapstick is the order of the day.

The suburban area that we drove through en route to the hotel (called Klein Windhoek) was bipolar. Prior to ascending a long, steep hill to our hotel — the Thule, a few miles outside of Windhoek proper (pop. 400,000), on a hilltop overlooking the city — we passed through a slightly seedy mixed commercial and residential area, whose street names are a mixture of local historical names (e.g., Nelson Mandela Ave.) and German ones (Hofbahnstrasse, near the railway station). The latter reflect the original German colonization in the late 19th century. But as we ascended the hill the architecture gave way to very affluent-looking whitewashed suburban homes and mini-estates, all with contemporary architecture as one might find in a wealthy American suburb. We’ll see the city itself tomorrow.

Our hotel is a beautiful place. (You can check out pictures of the rooms and such on their website: http://www.hotelthule.com/.) We arrived there at about 4 PM and then congregated as a group two hours later for a tour briefing from Lloyd and a round table mutual introduction, which pretty quickly degenerated into a riot when Thumper announced by way of introduction that she received her nickname during a stint as a pole dancer in Laramie, Wyoming. If this is even remotely true then all I can say is that Laramie, Wyoming has probably never been the same. Meanwhile, David announced en passant that in addition to being a retired math teacher he is a mystery writer and song composer. Upon insistence of the group, he sang the first verse of a recent ouevre entitled “Predator Drone”. This is not going to be a dull group.

Introductions and tour briefing complete, and the jocularity level suitably high, we reboarded our little bus for a short ride to dinner at an excellent restaurant, where the entree choices were two dishes that most Americans have never heard of: kingclip (a fish) or eland (an antelope). Both were very good; the dinner was a great success, and we are now all primed for the coming two weeks.

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Victoria, Victoria

The waterfront city of Victoria (population 86,000 in the city proper) is the capital of British Columbia and sits on Vancouver Island, about 30 miles south of Vancouver city across the Strait of Georgia.  I mention the distinction since most Americans can barely find Canada on a map, and a large majority in a recent survey identified Argentina as “a kind of dessert.”

It’s a gorgeous 1 1/2 hour ferry ride across the strait, threading among dozens of verdant islands, each a few miles across, most nearly uninhabited. The terminus is Swartz Bay near the resort town of Sidney, where our old friends Larry and Jean met us.

Victoria is a cheerful seaside town whose ambiance is a genial hybrid of British government colony and American seaside resort, the former generally classing up the latter. The waterfront area is overlooked by assorted government buildings sporting ornate Victorian architecture, but the piers themselves are dotted by both fishing and pleasure boats of various sizes — including lots of open-air whale watching boats — as well as street artists and restaurants. Seaplanes buzz surrealistically back and forth overhead and land and takeoff theatrically in the middle of all the port activity. (We watched one seaplane have to taxi out of the way of the departing Seattle ferry.)

A mile or so further up the coast is Fisherman’s Wharf, which is a whole lot smaller but rather more charming than the identically named tourist trap mecca in San Francisco. It sports a number of floating restaurants, including the heavenly-anointed Barb’s Fish and Chips, which serves that and little else, and rightly so.

Fisherman’s Wharf’s most unusual feature is its houseboats, which are not what you think of when you see the word. I think of a houseboat as a boat that has been retrofitted into house-like living quarters; these, however, look more like houses that have been retrofitted to float, e.g.:

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“Honey, the roof and the floor are both leaking again.”

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Most are two stories tall as you can see, and they vary somewhat in floor area but ~900 square feet (~ 81 sq m) is pretty typical. You can pick one up for roughly US$350,000. The property taxes are very low, there not being any actual land underneath them, but be prepared to shell out six or seven thousand dollars a year in moorage fees (yes, really), plus an unknown amount for seasickness tablets. And for God’s sake don’t try and install a man cave in the basement.

Another lively Victoria neighborhood is (inevitably) Chinatown, the oldest one in Canada. Like every other Chinatown in western North America, it dates from the mid-19th century Gold Rush.

Victoria BC 2017-014 Victoria BC 2017-015

In addition to the expected panoply of Chinese restaurants, temples, produce stores, and souvenir shops, Victoria’s Chinatown boasts a number New Age-y innovative art galleries and non-Chinese restaurants in a maze of hip-looking side streets like this one.

Victoria BC 2017-027-Edit

Larry and I got very excited when one of these — a chocolate and sweets store — trumpeted “Creamsicles” on the advertising blackboard in front of the store. This was very exciting because Creamsicles were treasured icons of our childhood: a Popsicle-like ice cream bar consisting of highly artificial and suspect vanilla ice cream coated in a shell of some kind of petrochemical-based orange sherbet. They were wonderful (and may even still exist), so we skipped happily through the door.

But alas. This sweets shop was far too progressive for our childhood tastes. The beloved additive-laced artificial-everything treat from our boyhood had in this particular establishment been replaced by a politically-correct adjective-laden impostor: vegan, fair trade, non-GMO, artisanal. We didn’t have time to take the sensitivity and diversity training courses that were required to actually eat the things — plus they were made sacrilegiously with coconut instead of vanilla ice cream — so we went Full Curmudgeon and left. (Now get those damn kids of my lawn!)

This being an island, another important feature of Victoria is of course the beach. Views from the coast are all striking: deep blue water, crystalline sky, and — on the eastern-facing coast — the Olympic  Mountains lining the horizon, some 40 miles away.

Victoria BC 2017-003-Edit

(This photo was taken yesterday; the sky was cloudless today.) The beach itself is not the white sand strand of, say, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, being more pebbly than sandy and heavily strewn with bleached driftwood.

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Victoria BC 2017-039-Edit

The ubiquity of driftwood — and the impossibility of building sand castles — does not deter the locals (and countless vacationing mainland Canadians) from sunning themselves, jogging, and doing all the usual beach stuff. This does not include a lot of swimming, though: the water temperature is a blue-lipped 53 F (12 C).

But we were here to stroll, not swim, and it was a beautiful sunny day. So I’ll close with a shot of my own personal total solar eclipse, four days early thanks to a gentleman on the earthbound end of about four very impressive kites.

Victoria BC 2017-037

 

 

Categories: Canada | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Running for Vancouver

We were in Vancouver, British Columbia for all of half a day before continuing on to Victoria to stay with friends, but even a whirlwind 4-hour city tour is enough to whet our appetite for the place. Vancouver is ranked as the 4th most livable city in the world (“Hey! Let’s move here!”)… accompanied by the 6th most expensive real estate in the world (“Hey, Let’s each sell a kidney and move here!”). So there went that fantasy in a hurry. Still, it’s a gorgeous, diverse, and generally interesting place.

Vancouver BC 2017-003-EditI shot the cityscape above looking across Coal Harbour from Stanley Park, one of the most popular green spaces in the city. It’s named after Lord Frederick Stanley of Preston, Canada’s first Governor General and the man after whom professional hockey’s Stanley Cup is named. (His lordship would not be pleased to know that it has been 25 years since a Canadian team actually won his eponymous cup.)

Stanley Park includes an aquarium, horse-drawn carriage tours, bike paths, and similar idyllic activities, none of which we had time for on our flash tour. It also boasts a pretty cool collection of nine totem poles, carved out of red cedar by artisans of several indigenous tribes (known in Canada as the First Nations) whose territory included this area. The totem-makers’ tribes include the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Watuth, which I include because the names are cool to type and make me sound erudite. Here are a couple of examples from the park.

Vancouver BC 2017-013-Edit

Vancouver BC 2017-015-Edit

In addition to Stanley Park, one of Vancouver’s other iconic locales is the Lion’s Gate Bridge, which connects the city proper to the mountainous area to the north. You can see the bridge for many vantage points around the city, but this one, near the north end of Stanley Park, gives a good sense of the stunning local geography. You can see the bridge on the right.

Vancouver BC 2017-028-Edit

As you look out over the bay, the sky is occasionally crisscrossed not only by the usual big jets, but but by small seaplanes ferrying passengers to Victoria (to the west), Seattle (to the south), and Whistler ski resort to the north.

Vancouver BC 2017-048

Vancouver is very much a city of neighborhoods, which include the original part of the city (Gastown, now a trendy, restaurant-rich area) and an extensive Chinatown, second only in size to San Francisco’s in the Western Hemisphere.  One could actually make a case that the entire city is Chinatown: due in part to a large influx of Chinese after the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997, nearly 30% of the 2.3 million population of greater Vancouver is ethnic Chinese. (If you include South Asian as well, e.g., Indian and Pakistani, the fraction goes up to 40%.) The suburb of Richmond, where the airport resides, is so heavily Chinese that almost all of the business signage is in both English and Chinese; as the airport shuttle took us to our hotel, I briefly wondered if we had been diverted to Hong Kong.

Sadly, among all this demographic tumult, only about 2% of the population is First Nation. Such is the way of the world, it seems.

Another trendy neighborhood is Granville Island, a former industrial area that has been hipsterized and gentrified till it begs for mercy, much like similar harbor areas in Baltimore, Cleveland, Capetown, and I suppose lots of other places as well. It was a fishing area for the First Nations but in the early 20th century became a factory area: machine shops, corrugated tin manufacturing, and other non-Starbucks businesses. Today the only remnant of that era is an appropriately — and literally — gritty cement factory immediately adjacent to all the shops, art galleries, and so forth.

Vancouver BC 2017-050But notice those cement silos to the left of the tower. They’ve gotten into the local artistic swing of things too:

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The local cafés and shops operate literally in the shadow of the Granville Street Bridge, giving the area an unmistakable but pleasant Urban Hipster Tourists Welcome vibe.

Vancouver BC 2017-056My snark notwithstanding, it’s a fun place, with a large indoor farmer’s market whose outdoor seating area is adjacent to the False Creek canal, bustling with colorful “Aquabus” water taxis.

Our final stop was the Vancouver Lookout, a 553 ft (169 m) tower and rotating restaurant that affords a 360° view of the city with its impressive mountain vistas. (The white tent-like structure in the panorama below is the cruise ship terminal. The fan-like white pattern at lower right is the heliport.)

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So there are our four hours in Vancouver. On to Victoria!

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