Friday, August 31, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Remembering Turkmenistan

Our guest this week is Heather Keyes. Heather now lives in New York City but spent a decade living abroad. She studied international health, spent several years working in international health market research, and now works in medical research, but has remained passionate about writing throughout her career. She believes she may hold some kind of exchange-student record (having been an exchange student in the AFS, Rotary, and Lions Club programs as well as having been a US Peace Corps Volunteer) and plans to write a book (or at least complete a short story) some day. The Tolkuchka market photos were taken by the friend Heather references in this blog entry (who prefers to remain anonymous online when permitted).

From 2000 to 2001, I lived in Lebap Velyat, in the eastern part of Turkmenistan. Before and since that time I’ve lived in New Zealand, South Africa, Norway, the Czech Republic, and Germany, though now I live in my home country (the USA). I’m not a big traveler—which surprises some given my history—but going places to work or study and spending multiple months or years is quite different to planning and taking trips, which is what I define as travel (at least in the sentence “I like to travel”). 
Tolkuchka Camel Market
I do not like to travel. I am (very) prone to motion sickness, I do not enjoy airports, planes, or buses, and I am terrible at (in no particular order): identifying what should be seen in/at a destination city; figuring out when a good time to visit would be; driving in a relaxed manner in any setting; altering my sleep schedule significantly; finding reasonably priced transportation; finding accommodation that isn’t overpriced as well as awful; picking restaurants that aren’t overpriced as well as awful; taking pictures; sending postcards; finding souvenirs that I or anyone would ever value; packing suitcases that don’t feel loaded with cement when carrying them; and being without filter coffee (or, as we call it back where I grew up in Minnesota: “coffee”). Because of these deficits—but also because I am well aware of the many interesting places that there are to see in our world—I am a major fan of this blog and I am grateful to friends of mine that indulge me with travel pictures and updates. I genuinely admire those who travel well and enjoy it (even though I know I’ll never be among them).

Tolkuchka Carpet Market
I spent the past weekend with a friend that I know from my time in Turkmenistan. We’ve now been friends for much longer than the time we spent there and many life events have occurred over this decade-plus of friendship. Nonetheless, when together, our conversations regularly take us back to Turkmenistan and this past weekend was no exception. As I rode the train (note the omission of train travel from my list of travel dislikes and deficits above) home to New York City on Sunday night, my mind was alive with memories from that time. As the week has progressed, those memories have spurred others, which have brought back even more.

Visions of camels and carpets and silk worms and mud ovens…that feeling of sinking your teeth into that fresh warm round bread or a ripe pomegranate… images of yurts, bazaars, flamboyant fabrics, and intricate embroidery… reflections on archeological ruins and nomadic peoples and history…memories of picking cotton and desert treks and spotting constellations in sky unimpeded by lights or humidity…thoughts of village parties and former colleagues (and even one former dictator) have been dancing through my head since my visit to my friend. I can feel the sun and the dust and that crunch of the salt underfoot when walking in (parts of) the desert.
Photo by Kerri-Jo Stewart
Re-remembering a place via a weekend of storytelling with someone ‘who was there’ was such a gift. The ability of the mind to collect and tuck away events as well as people, sites, smells, sounds, and stories astounds me. The ability of a friend associated with a time and place to access all those memories makes me grateful. I’m not sure that I’ll ever make it back to Turkmenistan, and I’m not sure that I need to, but something I will take from my experience there—and my experience this past weekend—is the greatest comfort that there is to the travel-challenged: a good adventure really can last a lifetime. 

So, go out and have one (or remember one)!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hurricane Andrew: The Big One

By Edith McClintock
NOAA / Satellite and Information Service

Growing up in Miami in the ’80s, hurricanes were like the boy who cried wolf—forever threatening, but never delivering. I associated them strictly with a day off from school. An afternoon tropical storm often seemed more threatening than a hurricane.

On August 22, 1992, I had just turned 20. I spent the entire day at a Lollapalooza concert—oblivious. I fell asleep that night knowing vaguely that a hurricane was on the way, that the Florida Keys were being evacuated. But as that happened frequently, it wasn’t important enough for me to worry about.

I woke to a world in panic. Cars lined up for miles, waiting for gas. Grocery shelves emptied. Those who could leave clogged the northbound turnpike in search of shelter in Orlando and Kissimmee’s hotel alley. Luckily, my mom was a little more prepared than I was—she’d made arrangements for our family to stay at her friend’s house in Perrine, which was on higher ground and had old-fashioned hurricane shutters. But we had to leave our family cat behind.

Three families gathered in that small house the night of August 23rd. I was excited—strange lights flashed across the sky, wind gusts tossed around palms and rattled windows, the air buzzed. But halfway through the night, we couldn’t pry open the door to look outside anymore (for which my poor mother was no doubt thankful). The house began to breathe, literally heaving in and out. The roof creaked and lifted, like it might fly away. The carport ripped off—or so we assumed. It was hard to sort out the cacophony of banging and crunching beating the house.

But it wasn’t until a glass mirror exploded above my head, and I looked up to a brown pole protruding from the wall that my excitement gave way to fear. We ran into the next room to find my brother staring in shock at the street pole suspended above the bed where he’d been sleeping.

Bob Epstein, FEMA News Photo
At that point, all 10 of us moved into an interior hallway. We considered putting a mattress over our heads like meteorologist, Bryan Norcross, was recommending; he stayed with us via radio through that long night, always calming, always explaining.

The lights went out. Chunks of roof fell to the floor. Rain trickled down the walls and dripped from the roof. There were periods of quiet between the shrieking bands of wind, time to reflect and worry. Were we on the south or east side of the storm now? Or were we only in the deceitful calm of the eye? We didn’t know, but we didn’t think the house would survive much more. Eventually the lulls grew longer. I curled up on the wet couch and fell into a half-sleep.

I woke, soggy and tired, still in my clothes from the night before. Outside, the world as I knew it had been bombed. There were no standing trees. No light polls. No power lines. No street signs. No traffic lights. We gazed in awe at the U-haul truck flipped upside down on top of the two-story building down the street.

Miraculously, our car had only a few scratches. We drove home, southward to Cutler Ridge, navigating around the piles of debris—palm trees, boats, cars, couches, all those downed poles—by driving through shopping centers, across people’s yards, over logs.

The damage grew worse. Houses—poof—vanished. Roof beams opened to the sky. Apartment buildings lay sliced open like mini-doll houses with rooms on display.

We pulled into our driveway, surprised and thankful because our house seemed nearly intact. Then we opened the front door to burning blue sky. The back of the house, formerly a Florida room with jalousie windows on three sides, no longer existed. Our cat, we found in the top of a closet, a little traumatized but thankfully not hurt. Phones and electricity were out for months. Water was gone for many. Pictures and valuables lost. The August heat unbearable.

I remember listening to the radio that first morning, to people calling in from northern areas of the county—Coconut Grove or Miami Beach—talking about what seemed to me minor damage, their lost electricity, a downed tree; to people speculating that we’d missed the big one after all. I wanted to scream at the radio, maybe I even did: You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t have any idea what’s happened down here! You have a phone line!
National Hurricane Center

Feeling abandoned, people spray-painted their roofs with messages to the media, government, and insurance companies. We became a tourist attraction—Europeans drove by in open-topped buses, filming us chopping downed trees. The military arrived and set up tents with water and food (if you can classify MREs as food) and much-coveted ice. Neighbors met each other for the first time. We shared chainsaws. We bought generators from price gougers. Friends, family and strangers came down to help us rebuild.

The return to semi-normalcy took months. The curfew remained until November. But a full recovery never did happen—at least in the sense that Hurricane Andrew changed that area permanently. But still, I’m glad I was there to see a Big One, a Category 5, the strongest to hit the United States in recorded history.

I don’t have any photos of my own, but I don’t need any. It was unforgettable.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Retail Therapy, Bangalore Style

A Hermes display window in Bangalore, India
You know how it is when you're stressed and homebound, worrying about a sick family member. Well, hopefully you don't know, but for a period of a couple years, that was us, visiting India with our two little ones to spend time with a loved one whose days, we knew, were numbered. Our one simple diversion was taking an autorickshaw into the city to do some window shopping, off Commercial Street,  Brigade Road, or MG Road. (Side note, the initials of that last one stand for Mahatma Gandhi, who, wherever he is, is surely cringing at the excessive consumerism now associated with his name).

In the city's northwest suburb of Malleshwaram, there's also this narrow little street, known as 8th Cross, skewered by a maze of bustling side lanes, all thick with crowds of locals trolling the tiny shops, little kiosks, and sidewalk hawkers that satisfy most all of their shopping needs. We didn't need much, just a diversion, something to get us out of the house for a bit, and let the kids buy some trinkets and unusual little novelties. But we all enjoyed taking in the street scenes, flower art and fruit vendors among them. Take a gander.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Up Where I Belong

By Alli Sinclair

I took this photo in 1994 at Base Camp on Mera Peak in Nepal. It was my first-ever climbing expedition and this trip awakened a passion for mountain climbing and travel that has never left me (and I doubt it ever will).

At a height of 6,476 metres (21,247 feet), Mera Peak isn’t for those wanting a Sunday stroll. I took this photo the day before we arrived at the summit and my life changed forever. Standing on the top of Mera Peak, overlooking the 8,000 metre peaks of Mount Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Makalu, and Kanchenjunga, I discovered my ability to push myself beyond the physical pain and mental torment of climbing at high altitude. This awareness changed my whole philosophy on life, and at the age of 24, I realised the only limits are the ones we place on ourselves and once we smash those down, we can achieve almost anything we set our heart and mind to. Eighteen years later, and I still believe this is so.

How about you? Have you ever had a life-changing moment while traveling?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Praying Hands

By Heidi Noroozy

In Iran, blue and yellow collection boxes are scattered about the country, on street corners, beside roads, in front of restaurants and shops. People slip money through the narrow slits in these receptacles, acts of charity for the poor. It’s considered good luck to donate to the “praying hands” before embarking on a trip—a form of divine travel insurance to guard against accidents, I suppose.

Most of the charity boxes look like this:

But on a recent visit to Iran, I saw a more elegant version made of wood and glass:

I took the photo outside a restaurant on the coastal road that runs along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Lovely, isn't it?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: Architectural Jewels of Chimayó, Taos, and Abiquiú

Our guest this week is Gerhard Bock, a translator, photographer, and avid gardener based in Northern California. He is also an occasional contributor to Novel Adventurers. This new travelogue describes one day of Gerhard’s recent road trip through the American Southwest with his family. It originally appeared on his gardening blog, Bambutopia.

Today was all about visiting historic churches and buildings in northern New Mexico. In the morning we took the High Road toTaos which crosses the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and winds through a number of small Spanish villages.

Our first stop was in Chimayó whose main attraction is the Santuario, a Catholic church often called the “Lourdes of America” because it attracts scores of faithful who believe in its healing properties. Check out this Wikipedia article for the whole (hi)story.

Santuario de Chimayó
Shrine in the square at the base of the Santuario de Chimayó
Wall detail of Santuario de Chimayó
At the top of a mesa is the even smaller village of Truchas. Its church, Nuestra Señora del Rosario, is very modest but beautiful in its lack of ornamentation. Robert Redford’s 1988 movie The Milagro Beanfield War was filmed in Truchas.

View from Truchas
Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Truchas
Las Trampas comes on the High Road. Its church, San José deGracia, was built between 1760 and 1776 and is a prime example of adobe architecture. Unfortunately, the church was closed (as was the one in Truchas) but I enjoyed looking at the exterior details, especially the exquisite door.

San José de Gracias in Las Trampas
Door of San José de Gracia
Adobe wall detail
After another 30 miles we finally reached Ranchos de Taos, home of the most famous church in the southwestern United Stages. The SanFrancisco de Asís Mission Church is breathtaking. It has been photographed and painted by master artists ranging from Ansel Adams and Paul Strand to Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived an hour and a half away in the village of Abiquiú (see further down below in this post).

We parked in the dirt lot right off the main highway so the first thing we saw of the church was its back. As beautiful as the front is, I think the back is my favorite aspect because of the unbroken expanses of adobe and the simple geometric lines.

San Francisco de Asís Mission Church--rear
San Francisco de Asís Mission Church--rear

San Francisco de Asís Mission Church--architectural details
Walking around the side, I finally made it to the front of the church. After checking out the inside (no photography allowed), we had a great lunch at a family-owned restaurant right next to the church. The New Mexican food they served was among the best we’ve had to date on this trip.

San Francisco de Asís Mission Church--front
San Francisco de Asís Mission Church--front
Our next stop was the Taos Plaza in the heart of town. It’s much smaller than the Santa Fe Plaza we saw yesterday, but it was also much less busy.

Taos Plaza
Taos Plaza
Taos Plaza
Ristras (chili pepper wreaths) and kiva ladder on top
of a building in the Taos Plaza
One of the most anticipated stops on this entire trip came next: Taos Pueblo. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the oldest continuously inhabited place in the entire country. Some of the multi-storied adobe structures date back to the year 1000.

Here are some photographic impressions of Taos Pueblo:
Church of San Geronimo
Church of San Geronimo
Multi-storied adobe building
Multi-storied adobe buildings
Wahlea's Taos Pueblo Gallery
Ladder against an adobe wall
Panoramic view of Taos Pueblo
The final stop on today’s itinerary was the village of Abiquiú, about an hour and a half from Taos and less than thirty minutes from Española where we’ve been staying for the last three days. Abiquiú is where American painter Georgia O’Keeffe lived from 1949 until her death at age 98 in 1986. I expected it to have at least some tourism, but the small plaza in front of the beautiful church of Santo Tomás El Apóstol looks much like it probably did 100 years ago. The road and plaza are unpaved, and the houses—some adobe, some more conventional—look forgotten by time. The plaza was quiet and deserted, quite a contrast from Santa Fe and Taos.

Architectural detail
I knew Georgia O’Keeffe’s house adjoined the plaza but I had a hard time finding it; it’s by far the largest property but it’s well hidden by trees and completely surrounded by a thick six-foot adobe wall. The best view I could get was from the entrance, which was chained off. Tours can be arranged through the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum but they require advance reservations and are expensive ($35 per person).

Georgia O'Keeffe House in Abiquiú
On our way back to Española, we saw a double rainbow with really vibrant colors. Within minutes we were in the middle of a summer monsoon squall, complete with lightning and thunder. I loved it.

Double rainbow near Abiquiú

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Honeycomb of Design

By Patricia Winton

One of Rome’s most intriguing architectural gems lies hidden from view most of the time. The church of Sant’Ivo (St Ives) opens to the public for a two-hour mass every Sunday. When I came to Rome ten years ago, this Baroque masterpiece opened daily, and I loved to drop in to marvel at its mathematical puzzle.

Built by Francesco Borromini from 1642-1660, the church was originally conceived as a chapel for La Sapienza University, founded in 1303. Borromini confronted a tight space bound by the university’s open courtyard to the front and two completed buildings at the rear. He met the challenge by creating a complex floor plan that shoots up to the cupola, raising one’s eyes to the heavens.

The floor plan consists of two interlocking equilateral triangles that are often described as the Star of David, an assertion I find a bit silly. Other observers, especially those writing in Italian, agree with me. First, this is a Catholic church, after all, and a potent Jewish symbol would have been inappropriate. Furthermore, such a design would have been dangerous territory for Borromini since he worked under the patronage of Pope Urban VIII who, among many other things, issued a papal bull declaring Jews to be heretics 17 years before work on Sant’Ivo began.

In fact, Borromini altered the points of the triangles (three are semi-circular and three truncated) so that the design is in reality a hexagon, reminiscent of honeycomb. This shape is, in my opinion, a subtle bit of homage to the Pope who hailed from the Barberini family and whose family crest incorporated three bees. The six-sided shape continues to the drum and finally to the lantern. The hexagonal shapes are embellished with convex and concave edges, but hexagons they are.

Borromini included a number of other apiarian elements as well. At the top of the cupola, just below the lantern, there is an angel within each part of the hexagon, but the shape of the angels’ wings are similar to those of bees. In addition, bees decorate the courtyard.

Finally, the spire, often described as a “bee stinger,” completes the imagery. This pinnacle spirals up above the lantern in a highly unusual fashion.

I’ve heard, but I have no confirmation, that the church is no longer open to the public because it can’t afford a caretaker. I think that’s really sad, because it’s a jewel. 

La Sapienza University moved some years ago to sprawling area away from the city center, and part of the state archives are now housed in the former university spaces. I would like to see an arrangement to make the church open for some of the time that the archives have staff in the building.

Please join me on alternate Thursdays at Italian Intrigues where I blog about all things Italian. Next week I write about Italy’s oldest gelato store.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Star-Crossed Balconies

By Beth Green

Photo by JP
At the age of nine, when I wasn’t making up elaborate (and slightly shocking) stories about what Barbie and Ken were up to, I’d devote hours to drawing my dream house. I pestered my father until he gave me a half-unused notebook of graph paper. Then I would carefully sharpen all my hoarded Faber-Castell colored pencils, and set about drawing elaborate, fantastical floor plans. These dreamy blueprints encompassed private filming rooms for the movie studio I was sure to one day run, stables full of horses

I’d one day learn how to ride, swimming pools shaped like mythical beasts, ballrooms fit for the princess I imagined myself to be, and, in every bedroom, a white-railed balcony.

For where would Juliet have been without her balcony?

When I was 18, I finally moved into my own place, a two-bedroom apartment in Moscow, Idaho, which I shared with a roommate, a couch-surfer, and a friendly ghost who liked turning my CD player on randomly at night when I was home alone and scaring the bejeezus out of me. We had a bathtub, a purple carpet, but, alas, no balcony. The building itself was a handsome marvel of western, small-town America. Built of red-brick, the former hotel housed some of the town’s best bars and restaurants and dozens of apartments.

After a year there, for a few months I lived in a tiny studio apartment tucked under a common metal stairwell in Bend, Oregon. In the evenings I looked out the windows at the tenants’ car lot and the ankles of my upstairs neighbors coming down the stairs, and dreamed that one day, I could rise in the world.

Photo by JimBap
Later that year I moved to Spain, a country whose streets are studded with handsome, dignified half-moon balconies complete with elegant wrought-iron railings and pots of bright and trailing flowers. I’d walk down the roads of my neighborhood during the siesta and gaze up at the green shutters above me. Occasionally, an old woman would peer down while hanging up her laundry. I’d glimpse TVs flickering in the living rooms beyond, sleepy cats flicking their tails through the bars of the balconies. But did I get one? No, I somehow managed to find an apartment—perhaps the only one in the city?—without a balcón.

After university I transitioned to working in Florida, in a retirement community where I’d often tell people how to find me: “Don’t worry, I’ll be the youngest person in the room.”

The architecture here matched the terrain—flat. The movers and shakers there had, not towers, but estates--one-level suburban palaces coiled around the turquoise shallows of their swimming pool and embraced by green swaths of imported grass. The residents were protected by 12-foot-high gates, which in turn were surrounded by strip-malls. A balcony here translated into a terrace, a patio,or a sun-room. I rented a unit in a converted motel by the beach and fed stray cats on the cracked concrete path, pretending it was my own Mediterranean suite.

Travel called me again, and I answered, starting all over in the Czech Republic. If Spain is meant to have balconies, then Prague is meant to have spires on its buildings, but they don’t lack for balconies either. My “flat”—as I took to calling the plain old American “apartment”—was in a building more than 150 years old. Each day when I walked down my neighborhood streets, I’d gaze up and notice some new detail—a plaster cherub, a particularly arched window—that I hadn’t seen before, even after several years of passing by. My building had squeaky wooden floors, an ample kitchen, double-paned glass windows, and quirky neighbors, but, again, I lacked a balcony.

Original oil, Ford Madox Brown, 1870
Four and a half years following in China found me living in an ivory tower separated from the crowded streets by key-card entry and uniformed guards, in a haphazardly-split 1980s-built unit in a building too short to warrant a permit for an elevator (you need six floors or more, too bad if you’re in apartment 501), in an ageing beauty queen of housing estates, where taxi drivers never needed more than the name of the development to bring me to my door.

And still, no balcony.

This week, I’m setting up a new home in Cebu City, Philippines. I’ve looked at a multitude of places to rent. A two bedroom, brand-new townhouse. A three-bedroom faded-glory affair on a back street above a shipping company. An upmarket studio slightly more homey than a hotel room. A minuscule “two-bedroom” apartment that took out the kitchen to provide the extra bedroom. But all of them, every single one, has got a balcony. Whichever apartment I choose, I get to be Juliet. I get to have a balcony.

My boyfriend’s getting a memo in the morning: Time to start rehearsals. “Tis the East…