Thursday, December 13, 2012

BE READY FOR GOOD FORTUNE

A Guest Post by fellow traveler, Janette Turner:

One summer I traveled to Italy with my husband’s business school and set out on a side trip to Venice. My companion was another wife amusing herself while her spouse was in class. As I sat in the back seat of a student's rental car next to Barb, she revealed why all the other wives had gone off without us.
 
“Slow down!" said Barb every few minutes, even though the young driver was motoring in the right lane, letting cars pass. Soon there were so many admonishments and complaints from Barb that I realized I was reflexively cringing whenever she opened her mouth. She seemed to have the same displeased opinion about everything, including the short ride on the train and the choppy water against the sides of the Vaporetto that finally arrived. Most of all, she complained about her husband. “Martin flirts with the coeds and doesn’t seem to notice me.”

I nodded in sympathy while leading us down the alley to our budget hotel. Opening the door to our room, I was shocked to see a chandelier and gilding on the bathroom fixtures. The floor at my feet was a mosaic of marble. “This room is divine.”

Barb looked around. “It’s dirty,” she said and continued her list of marital complaints. At one point she abandoned the subject to discuss dinner. “I don’t care where we eat as long as it’s cheap.”

As we wandered an alley, I read menus posted under strings of white lights outside restaurants. Over pasta and tap water, Barb continued her husband’s crimes against their marriage, from forgetting her 50th birthday to drinking too much vodka. She waved away the waiter’s platter of desserts and, still talking about Martin, marched us back to our gilded room.

The next day was a repeat of the first. Barb recounted every one of Martin’s crimes and I listened, but this time we were walking along waterways, up and over the Bridge of Sighs and past shops selling gold jewelry, Carnival masks and glass works. Every once in a while I would point out something to Barb, just to get her eyes off the dusty ground in front of her.

I finally got a break from her chatter in a glass shop. I admired the craftsmanship that went into the goblets, but my budget was tiny. My husband and I could barely afford his schooling and the trip, so I turned my attention to the “seconds” table when I heard something surprising.

“I love this,” said Barb, holding a glass pen in her hand.

I turned it over for the price tag. “It’s just ten dollars, so buy it.” I knew from listening to Barb that she had amassed a fortune for herself and her husband, although he did not appreciate her penny-pinching talent.

Barb held the clear instrument to the light off the canal. “I’ve always wanted something special to write a book with.”

While she mulled, I bought a handful of bracelets with the fewest number of deformed beads. When we left the shop I asked Barb about the pen that she surely must have bought.

“I didn’t buy it,” she said, resuming her pace and recounting of her husband’s crimes.

At dinner that night I finally broke over a glass of wine. “Just divorce him.”

She startled as if coming awake. "Divorce him?” She looked at her plate of ravioli. “Well, I guess I could. I probably should. Yes, I will divorce him.” She raised her water glass and we toasted her decision. “I’ll finally be happy. He can date coeds and we can split the property.” She took off, detailing her future divorce. Every plan she made was a thousand times happier than the misery she had sown earlier.

The next morning I awoke early and saw her eating a candy bar on her bed. “People came by all night long to buy candy out of the machine below us. It kept me awake.”

“I have to get something,” I said, quickly changing into a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Out on the street, I walked past the candy machine for the nearest glass store. This shop was in the hotel district, so the prices were triple those we had seen a day earlier. But this was a special purchase. Back in our room, I handed over the narrow package. “I had to get this for you.”

Barb undid the green ribbon. “Thank you,” she said, picking apart tissue paper to find the glass pen inside.

I opened my arms for the hug I expected. “May you write and create the life you want after your divorce.”

She put the lid back on the box, re-tied the ribbon and walked over to her luggage. “I’m not getting divorced.”

I watched her pack the pen away, knowing there would be no book written with that instrument. It would be forever locked away in its little coffin tied with green ribbon, a frozen symbol of her life, stuck and waiting for something. Something that might never happen.


 
Janette Turner is a writer, reporter, and memoir coach. You can read more of her work at www.JanetteTurner.com.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

THE ICE MAN


 

 


It was disturbing to gaze into the vacant eyes of a 5500-year-old man who could possibly be one of my most distant ancestors.


Otzi, as he is known after the location where he turned up, is sleeping in the northern Italian city of Bolzano between Verona and the Brenner Pass. But Otzi doesn’t rest in peace because he was a murder victim in a case that will never be solved, and because some scientist or another is always wanting to study him  or check on his health. It wasn't good at the time of death – at about age 46 he was arthritic, infested with whipworms, was lactose intolerant, suffered from Lyme disease and arteriosclerosis. On the other hand he didn’t have tooth cavities. Currently the concerns involve worries that fungus will eventually eat into the body and destroy it.

 

 

The area of the South Tyrol in the northern part of Italy was in Austria before the end of World War I and is still heavily German in culture. It is one of the most beautiful regions – full of vineyards spilling down the slopes, clear rivers and streams and many winter and summer resorts. We were staying in the lovely town of Bressanone, or Brixen as it is known in German, when we heard about the mummy. We headed south for the short drive down to Bolzano to visit him.

 

Not a mummy like those in Egypt, bandage wrapped with their internal organs removed to jars, Otzi is nearly whole – except for his penis reportedly stolen when he emerged from the ice on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991. 

 

Now he reclines in a refrigerated case where visitors can look at him, and in a separate section study a life-size model and his clothing and tools. He wore a loincloth of goatskin and a overcoat made of long strips of the same skin fashioned with alternating dark and light colors held together with animal sinews. The coat was closed with a  decoratively-stitched calfskin belt. His leggings, also of goat, are similar in style to those worn by North American Indians. His laced shoes, no doubt also Italian high-style at the time, are like booties stuffed with hay for warmth. The sole is made of bear, fur-side in. The upper part, with hair turned out, is deerskin. The ensemble was finished with a plaited grass cloak and a bearskin cap to be tied under his chin.


No different than the rest of us he had jewelry – a tassel with a marble bead. He also carried two birch bark containers that may have been used for embers, and a food supply: smoked ibex meat, einkorn (like farro) and sloe berries. Along with these items were two clumps of birch fungus, an anti-bacterial compound used to heal wounds well into the 20th century.

 

Otzi died sometime between 3350 and 3100 B.C., long before the Pyramids of Giza were built in Egypt. Despite being armed with a bow and arrows, a dagger and an axe made of almost pure copper, he lost a fight for his life after bleeding to death from a stone arrow lodged in his back along with other wounds. A lonely and painful death high in the Alpine snowfields, far from kin and hearth.

 

Of course we can’t know where he was going or why but it has been determined that his ancestors came from the Mediterranean, most likely Sardinia or Corsica. And he might have had some Neanderthal ancestry.

 

What a strange feeling it was to look at him. Egyptian mummies are interesting because of the elaborate burial rites surrounding them but this was different. Here was a real European preserved by Nature, a possible far distant relative, a traveler like me, and a window into the remote past which isn’t really so different from our lives after all.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

GOING TO THE DOGS


 

 

It was a long way to travel to see sled dogs – well, I admit that it wasn’t the only reason for the trip but it was one of the more interesting stops along the way.
 
 
We left Kodiak Island in a huge storm with an ocean-going tug escorting us because of jagged rocks so close to the ship I felt we could have stepped off for a hike if we were feeling foolhardy. By morning the weather was clear and the Aleutian Islands were off to starboard. Snow-capped volcanoes were smoking lazily; just an occasional puff from their pipes seemed to content them. The ship turned north to enter the Bering Sea.

photo courtesy of wilderness.net 

Despite my fears of bad weather and having visions of a Deadliest Catch experience the sea was like glass, so smooth that the few clouds were reflected in the water making a magical scene where sea and sky were one. By afternoon the water was ruffled with whales blowing and millions of seabirds fluttering and diving. A few fishing boats were on the horizon, otherwise just a vast emptiness on all sides.                                                               

A few days later we entered Avacha Bay on the southern end of the Kamchatskya Peninsula in Russia. The bay, overlooked by two towering volcanoes and snow-capped mountains, was still in dawn shadow. Shortly after a brilliant sun rose to light up the cloudless sky, the snowy mountains and the bright orange rust on old freighters resting in an eternal sleep while they rotted at anchor. A layer of fog hugged the ground to soften the scene.

 

We docked at Petropavlesk. The Siberian city is 4200 miles from Moscow on the map but with no roads that would actually allow you to drive there. It was founded by the Danish explorer, Vitus Bering in 1740 who named it after his two ships, St. Peter and St. Paul. Despite its age the city of 180,000 had an element of the Wild West, low on the traffic-signal quotient and with a ramshackle aspect.

 

We climbed in a van, passed the inevitable statue of Lenin, gazing with determination toward who knows what now, and headed out of town, passing under steam-heating pipes arching the streets. It wasn’t long before we were in the countryside where birch trees and shrubs wearing fall bronze and gold leaves covered the hills. Turning off the road we traveled toward a sled dog training center, our goal for the day. A chorus of frantically barking dogs announced our arrival at a tiny cluster of buildings – the kennel, lodge and outbuildings and a few dachas surrounded with gardens of cabbages. Guarding the sight was one of the snowy volcanoes. The air was so still that its smoke plume looked like a white feather stuck on top for decoration before it dissipated. 

 

Each dog was attached to a long chain next to a small dog house. The chains were arranged so that neither dog could reach its neighbor. We stood well back as these working dogs didn’t wag their tails or smile. But the puppies – what a treat to cuddle them even knowing that they would never be anyone’s pets.

 

While fresh-caught salmon was grilling we looked at the native clothing and dog harness displayed in the lodge and foraged for berries and mushrooms along the paths leading to the wilderness of Siberia.  

 

We could hear the dogs barking frantically, so agitated that they were jumping straight up until their chains jerked them back to the ground; they knew what was next on the agenda. Lunchtime over, the trainer brought out a sled with wheels for off-season use. As he held up the harness each dog seemed to be yelling “Take me, take me.”  He picked six dogs who rushed to the sled to be set in the traces. The trainer stepped on the back and off they went, so fast that we could hardly take a photo. The wheels of the sled bounced off the ground threatening to throw the driver into the dirt of the rough track. Back and forth, around and around the track the dogs ran with joy, their mates still at the kennel barking encouragement and longing for snow, not far away on this late September day.
 

 

Born to run.       

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

WHERE THE GOLDEN HORN MEETS THE BOSPHORUS


Guest post from David Joslyn:

Finding the Galata Bridge on your first visit to Istanbul is like discovering the center of the universe, where dozens of cargo barges, huge water taxis and tourist cruise ships crisscross the golden Horn that flows under it in a never ending mish mass of maritime movement,  a constant flow of ocean vessels visible in the distance carrying oil and grain, sharing the narrow Bosphorus passage with naval ships of all sizes as they move from the Mediterranean through the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea and back.  One of the busiest and most exciting trading centers in the world, where the past races by the present, full steam into the future, where Europe and Asia blend together in a cacophony of colorful dress, multiple cultures, and a myriad of languages, Istanbul represents a Turkey hell-bent on being a constructive player on the World stage.
Majestically guarding the narrow space between the historically rich Sultanahmet, Seraglio Point, and the Bazaar Quarters of the city with its majestic Topkapi Palace, endlessly chaotic Grand Bazaar,  imposing Hagia Sophia,  spacious Suleymaniye mosque and quietly overwhelming Blue mosque on one side, and the more modern albeit funky, occasionally Bohemian Beyoglu Hill on the other side, stands the two tiered Galata Bridge over which armies of people walk, drive, and ride the buses and trams every day to get to work, shop, or sightsee, like us on a warm day in September, on our recent visit to Turkey.  This bridge, and the Karakoy and Eminonu neighborhoods at each end, from where the huge passenger ferries take off for Asian Istanbul, is the sweet spot of this city, where a  variety of wonderful traditional food begs you to stop, sit, rest awhile, and eat.

Dozens of exciting fish Lokantas (restaurants) perch along the length of the lower level of both sides of the Galata bridge, an amazing place for a cup of thick, rich coffee in the morning, a leisurely lunch, or late night multi course dinner when regulars and tourists, side by side, order platters of meze (small plate appetizers) that might include baked, sautéed or marinated sweet peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant accompanied by salad, flat bread and haidari (garlic laced yogurt). But it usually doesn’t stop there:  combinations of steamed midye (mussels), grilled ahtapot (octopus), marinated calamari (squid), fried sardalya (fresh sardines) and hamsi (anchovy), and broiled levrek (sea bass, most likely farmed) and cipura (bream) all await the hungry diners.
 

“Exciting”, rather than “Elegant”, would describe the eating experience on the Galata Bridge.  So for a quieter and somewhat more upscale experience there are several places nearby, such as Pasazade, offering excellent lamb shanks on the quieter Ibni Kemal Cadessi, around the corner from the converted bath house where a stimulating dance show Hodja Pasha should not be missed. Better yet try the much acclaimed and therefore more expensive Lokanta Maya on the Karakoy side a couple of blocks up Kemankes Caddesi, making sure you order the zucchini fritters, caramelized sea bass, marinated bonito, and garlic laced shrimp.  In either case, a bottle of Kavaklidere Ancyra Bogazkere or Cankaya will bring old world Anatolian grapes right to your table.

But, a prolonged stop somewhere  along the seemingly mile long restaurant that is the lower level of the Galata Bridge, with its unimpeded views of the waters of the Golden Horn blending with those of the Bosphorus and a most diverse and attractive parade of humanity, will reward you with a most unforgettable sense of the vibrant heartbeat of Istanbul.



David Joslyn, having lived in Chile, Ecuador, Italy, and Costa Rica, and worked throughout the world in international development, now splits his life between Santiago, Chile, where as a Peace Corps Volunteer he married his Chilean wife Ximena, and Leesburg, Virginia. He is a private consultant who also writes leisurely about Chile, good and not-so-food, wine, and the wonderful people he has met in his travels. He blogs at: http://daveschile.blogspot.com

   

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

THE GOLD COAST


 


This old drawing doesn't show the the Gold Coast in Australia, Long Island or Florida. It depicts Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast in Ghana. The gold that gave its name to the Ghanaian coastline wasn’t only the shiny metal from the African hinterland. After the establishment of plantations in the New World it was the money earned from the trade in slaves who supplied the labor that made the plantations of coffee and sugar cane so obscenely profitable.

Ghana hosts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites memorializing this horrific past, Cape Coast Castle and St George’s Castle in Elmina. Our visit to Ghana was a chance to see them. The route led us from the dock in Takoradi, piled high with manganese to be shipped to China, along the coastal road lined with a seemingly endless landscape of tiny shops and stands. 


The shops were proof that despite evident poverty the spirit of enterprise was alive and well but this time led by locals, not foreign invaders. Set between flame trees and ancient crumbling Portuguese buildings the miles of shipping containers and shacks offered services of every kind. The names painted above the shop doors simply begged us to enter: God is Able Hardware, By the Grace Phone Repairs, Love of Jesus Restaurant, Adam Food Joint, Humble Works Furniture and God First Vulcanizing. Even the battered Surely Goodness and Mercy ambulance awaited business by the roadside – not for us I prayed.


Our first stop was Cape Coast Castle where the emotional impact of what the slave trade really meant to the people involved was overwhelming. The massive two-story whitewashed fortress is one of best preserved of what had been 37 strung along a 300 mile section of the African coast where access to the interior was relatively easy. As a consequence Germans, Dutch, Danes, Portuguese, Swedes and the British battled for control, the latter eventually pushing everyone else out. Swedish traders first built a trading post for the export of timber and gold. The Dutch converted the building into a castle in 1637; after which it changed hands between the European powers five times over 13 years until the Brits grabbed it in 1664, holding on until Ghana’s independence in 1957, the first African colony to  succeed in ridding themselves of overlords.   

We crossed the parade ground to look at the remaining canons that still overlook the coast and to visit the room used as a chapel where the masters gave thanks on Sunday for their profits, as the source of that wealth - the captives - struggled to survive in the slave pens below. These dungeons held up to a thousand men and five hundred women at a time with no light or sanitation for up to twelve weeks as they awaited  their walk through the Gate of No Return and shipment to the New World or, more likely, death on board a slave ship. It was beyond horrifying. I could not, did not want to, imagine how anyone could survive in such conditions.


The slave trade was abolished by Great Britain in 1808 although the Royal Navy was intercepting slavers off the African coast until 1860. I wondered what an Englishman who visited in 1835 really saw when he wrote that the castle presented a “handsome appearance…with its high white walls founded on a ledge of granite extending into the sea; and against which the bright green and white surf dashed incessantly with a heavy roar…”

When we walked through the infamous Gate, the same green and white surf was still evident. But instead of slave ships a brilliant scene of red, blue, yellow or green striped fishing boats drawn up on the beach delighted our eyes. Seemingly heedless of the past, fishermen dried and mended their nets and women gathered the catch to take to market.




Despite this attractive scene we were lost in contemplation of the mindless cruelty always present in human existence.







 
 
The visit to equally  massive St. George's Castle in Elmina, menacing since 1482 but now brilliant white and looking innocent  until we looked closely, only confirmed that human greed is an all-too-common trait and that we need to look in our own hearts on a regular basis to see what is really inside.

Unfortunately it is much easier to look at the colorful fishing boats in the nearby port and the lovely flame trees than it is to examine one's soul.

Lest we forget.








Drawings of Cape Coast and St. George's Castles courtesy of hitchock.itc.virginia.edu. Photos by author.

 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

AN ICELANDIC GARDEN


 

 

We set out from the small port town of Isafjordur on Iceland’s northwest coast, just below the Arctic Circle. The sun was out; the glaciers were sparkling, white against black. Waterfalls gushed down the steep hillsides. As we moved inland an amazing sight came into view – vast spills of purple lupines covered the grassy hillsides. The flowers are an invasive species but one that created dreamy vistas in all directions.

 

We were on tour that took us on a visit to what must be one of the more northerly gardens in the world: Skrudur, the first Icelandic botanical garden. The small walled patch of trees and flowers was planted by a priest who was assigned to the settlement of Nupur in the early 1900s. He and his wife came from even farther north and brought with them an enthusiasm for growing vegetables and a desire to teach botany and horticulture.
 

A small chapel and a collection of buildings, now used for a simple hotel and for live-in language courses, marked Nupur. Skrudur, a few minutes farther along, rests between the narrow Dyrafjordur fjord and a treeless plain at the base of ice-capped mountains.  If we would have headed out the fjord toward the open sea we would have reached Greenland, a cold thought on a warm day.

 

Near the shore Oystercatchers, with their red beaks, eyes and legs framing black and white bodies, walked along looking for lunch. As we walked up the path to the garden gate another type of shorebird, unknown to us, was startled from nests in the grasses. They flew around us in distress, their keening calls lending an eerie note to the scene.  


 

The gate’s lintel bore the date, 1909, the year the garden was officially opened. Passing through the grass-topped stone wall, we entered into a small enchanted garden, cold thoughts forgotten. Paths led us by narrow flower beds and a central fountain bubbling away. An unseen gardener had left a hose dripping creating a few puddles in the beds. Beyond the flowers was a greensward dotted with trees planted to prove that it was possible to get them to survive in the hostile climate where forest cannot survive. The trees were labeled: Sycamore, Birch, Larch, Rowan, Elm and Spruce. None had the size I associate with more temperate climes, a testament to their struggle.
 

The unexpected sight of the flowers in an otherwise black, brown, green and white landscape delighted the eye. Set among the campanula, saxifrage, daisies and pansies were brilliant red, yellow and blue poppies all flourishing in the eternal daylight of
mid-summer.

                                       
 










A sod-covered storage shed outside the wall on the far side of the garden was near two whalebones erected as an arch over a side entrance to the garden. They formed a parenthesis around the vista into the gardens and outward toward the mountains.  A memorial to the harsh life the Icelanders have endured between land and water.

 


























When it was time to return to Isafjordur we were treated to a mystical sight: Hovering above an immense field of lupine was a wisp of cloud. Above the moisture a mountain peak with its ice presided over the scene as if we were in Shangri-La.