Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Papers: Colette

"The future is what doesn't happen."

On the turntable:  Duran Duran, "Thank You"

Saturday, August 19, 2017


Shattered pottery
And a trace of inoshishi;
All that remains of Nakaya teahouse. 

On the turntable:  The Animals, "Deluxe BBC Files"

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Notes for an Alaska travel piece that probably won't be written. 

...sitting on deck, scanning the water for wildlife.  Anticipation became the dominant emotion of the day.  Every whitecap was the flank of an orca, every shadow was a humpback ready to launch itself into orbit...

...not surprising for a center of government, the state capital Juneau attracts a fair share of lovably eccentric wierdos like our guide Micheal who sang us the safety features of his bus on his ukelele, or the young Tlingit who played his drum and sang us down the cable-car.  His enthusiasm was attractive, but not nearly as much as the quiet wisdom of the grandfather elder whose stories accompanied us on the way up...

 ...looking up at the glacial-scarred hills.  I began to see certain patterns that resembled the totem art of the local natives.  And in such looking I may have had some insight into their origin...

...amazing emerald green of their rivers, laden with the minerals of glacial melt off...      
...the impossible blue of the Sitka spruce needles, enhanced perhaps by my colorblind eyes.  Eagle flying past below me to perch in a tree, its white head ever watchful amongst the green branches of the hemlock;  Canadian maples, red all summer long...

..Prince Rupert, where the highway ends. From here the choice is by boat, plane, or (suicidally) foot... discoveries:  Dolly Varden salmon;  the subtle blue-greys of Sitka Spruce;  the awe in watching sea planes landing and taking off; the landscape that dwarfs everything;  glacial u-cuts of the valleys;  the weight of glaciers depressing the earth; the cruise ships overwhelming town, 6000 passengers in a town of 900;  the wonder that is spruce beer...

...staring at the shoreline as it passed, in awe of the mountains as they rose above. The density of vegetation, the wildlife within.  The waters too equally dense, an unfathomable 1500 fathoms below me, in a body of water as narrow as a modest river... 

...stepping on deck to see a whale sound; a mere curvature of slick grey back, like a great serpent sinking beneath the deep...

...Alaska was a place where the many "me's" collided.  That is to say, the various persons I was at different times in my life:  

An unfinished anthropology Masters degree, where the lecture hall resounded with the hard consonants of Tlingit and Kwakiutl, as well as with the more melodic Salish and Haida

Being offered a job on a fishing boat the summer before Japan, one turned down when the captain wouldn't offer return airfare and I was pinching pennies for my move to Asia. (Fair enough, as he only knew me through a couple of friends who had crewed previously.) But this month, reading McCloskey's Highliners, was a reminder of the perils of romantic ideals.  Then again, I read it with the apprehensive eyes of middle age, having long ago forgotten the indestructibility of 27;

I suppose the apprehension began nearly two decades ago, upon reading Krakauer's Into the Wild, a book that served as reminder of who I'd once been.   McCandless' spirit was mine, and I just as easily could have shared his early demise...        

On the turntable:  The Doors, "Waiting for the Sun"
On the nighttable:  John McPhee, "Coming into the Country" 

Monday, August 14, 2017


Thanks to Amy Chavez for linking one of the recent Inland Sea posts to her Mooo blog.

On the turntable:  "The Last Waltz (Sdtk)" 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map IX

It was still dark when we arrived in Istanbul, and due to the early hour, we were whisked through immigration and customs before I even had time to think of Midnight Express.  Our hotel proved generous in allowing us an early check-in, so we were crawling into bed just as the muezzin began his morning call.  This hotel, the Four Seasons, was well situated, and advertised itself as being a restored palace.  It was only later that I found out that it also been Sağmalcılar Prison, the very place where Billy Hayes had done time.  I’m sure the rooms are a lot nicer now.

We awoke in time for lunch at a sidewalk café, then wandered over to Hagia Sophia.  Despite being the off-season, the place was bustling, and I wondered at how crowded it must have been before the semi-monthly terrorist strikes that plagued 2016.  The place was undergoing major restoration, and I began to grumble about paying full fare.  The nearby Roman Cistern had come highly recommended, but was infested with vermin – hundreds of school kids shrieking and filling the already cramped space with their incessant selfie posing. 

We retreated back up to the Topkapi Museum, number one on my list due to the great old film with Peter Ustimov.  But here too was crowded with older students, pressing themselves through the narrow doorways into rooms already jam-packed. And here too was the scaffolding, with more than half the rooms off limits, including, and most frustratingly, the displays for the Spoonmaker's Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger, which I had most hoped to see.   I cooled my anger with a coffee on the terrace out back, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  

But it was the massage at the Aya Sofia Hamam, that finally brought calm.  This beautifully restored Turkish bath was a masterpiece in tile, the ceiling above as designed by Spirograph.   The time, the day, the era, all blended together by the work of strong hands.

I found the freedom I had been seeking at dawn the following day.  Using the classic Strolling Through Istanbul as a guidebook, I hopped a taxi out to the far side of Galata Bridge to begin a morning’s stroll.  I crossed the Golden Horn once again, alone but for a handful of fishermen casting lines into the waters below, which twitched in the wake of ferries whose own crossings were proceeded by whistle-blast. 

I skirted the Spice Market and began to climb toward a quiet Sultanamet, having the broad open spaces to myself, my photos unencumbered by the shapes of strangers.  After a simple breakfast in the shadow of Aya Irini, I walked through the Outer Garden of the Saray, popping into color in the early springtime.  A failed attempt to cross back below the Topkapi brought me to a military post, so I reversed myself and continued to wander the district, popping into lesser museums covered by my three-day pass.  A number of them were similarly under renovation, and I cursed the tourist bureau once again.  (Later I heard from others that this seems to be Istanbul’s perpetual state, a ploy perhaps at getting return visitors.) 

This walk set the tone for the next few mornings, and I covered a great deal of the city this way, book in hand.  The quiet of the smaller mosques reminded me of the lesser temples of Southeast Asia, always an oasis of green calm in a chaotic cityscape.  Dogs lazed about, and worshippers nearly blended into the surroundings so quiet was their prayer.  I walked ever westward, toward Europe, climbing each of the seven hills, wandering the massive mosques that defined them, each with quaint neighborhoods of their own.  At some point during these ambulations, I fell in love with the city. 

The Fatih area was perhaps my favorite, so far off the tourist track, so run down the archeological sites, sitting amidst neighborhoods sliced into interesting geometric shapes by haphazard lanes, all running into the ganglia of intersections that seemed villages in their own right.  Schoolkids made their way toward classes, and older residents sat with their newspapers and strong coffee.  A pair of tourists too fuelled up in a café, where the owner reached over to the vendors next door, to break the usual oversized denomination.  Nearby, a rubbish collector slept inside his empty mobile rubbish bin. The open marble grounds of the Fatih Mosque were bright and beautiful on a sunny day.  Fountains splashed invitingly in front of a set of escalators leading downhill.  A somewhat sketchy guy dozed over his cigarette, but I worry he was going to steal my shoes.   Down a street adjoining the mosque I began to notice a different brand of Islam had taken root, with bushy beards and women in fuller burqas.  I watched one woman vacuum the street and wonder perhaps unkindly if she ever caught the drag of her hem in the suction.

In the afternoons I’d do similar walks with LYL and her friend Naile, who’d flown over from Ankara to join us.  The days stayed cool and encouraged longer distances, always punctuated by coffee and Turkish delight.  Meals were exquisite, on par with Italy in my opinion, taken at outdoor cafes where we’d admire the dogs, chat with fellow diners, and try to think about anything but terrorists.  (I was affected by them anyway, in the form of Trump’s travel ban.  Unknown to me, electronics had been banned from US flights originating in certain countries, Turkey among them.  The UK had followed suit, and thus I was deprived of reading material for my London flight.  I got of easy off course, compared to too many others, but was annoyed nevertheless.)  

And how not to love this city? With its Bosporus views from Suleymaniye Mosque; the bustling stroll down the trendy Istikal Caddesi; zigzagging through the former Silk Road caravanserai that dot the hill between the Grand and Spice Bazaars; the medieval charm of Galata?  Even the polished patter of the carpet sellers was amusing, offering a brief moment of laughter as you drifted past.  If any of their wares had been of the flying variety, I’d have bought one immediately, if only to return, homing pigeon-like back to the city of its birth. 

On the turntable:  David Byrne, "Rei Momo"

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map VIII

The best description of Ashgabad can be found in Lonely Planet, which I’ll paraphrase as being Las Vegas as if designed by the North Koreans.  Each and every building looked like a casino, most of all the ministries that were of an impossible scale.  The roads that lined them were near empty, home only to angled street lamps that looked like the psychedelic bats that nest in ralph Steadman’s imagination.  We weren’t allowed off the bus, but I kept my camera clicking like a machine gun the entire way.  It truly was a bizarre experience, touring a city that we weren’t exactly welcome in.  As we drove around the word that kept rolling around and around in my brain like a Lotto ball was “ostentatious.”     

Besides lunch in a building completely devoid of signs, the only stop we made was a museum.  It was Wednesday, the usual day off, but the opened up just for us, which no doubt made an already dour looking staff even more unhappy.  The whole placed reeked of kerosene, in an abrupt attempt at fending off the gloomy day outside.  The staff seemed to do little but keep our groups in the sections we were designated to see.  One of them led us around, explaining things in a very bizarre English, filled with mispronunciations that hinted at a passive language development with only books as a resource.  He went into remarkable detail about absolutely everything, which hinted at a long morning ahead. LYL and I broke away to explore on our own, under the pretext of needing the bathroom.  (While the museum itself was a beautiful specimen, the toilets were like an archeological site, with sandpaper toilet paper.)  All the non-historical (read: non-tourist friendly) rooms were monuments to the glory of the empire, and got more and more bizarre as we went along.  The minders we passed didn't seem too happy with our being there, but simply kept their heads down and fiddled with their phones.  As is always the case with these kinds of museums, the payoff comes with the most recent exhibits where the central motif is the handsome, well-coifed leader, photo-shopped into action hero poses before an array of backgrounds.   

We got some reprieve from all of this by driving out to the Nissa, the Parthian capita until the 3rd Century CE.  The land here was lush, the white marble falling away to be replaced by juniper and pine.  Hundreds of thousands had been planted, thickening the closer they came to the carved out hillsides beyond, yet of a smaller height. The easy comparison for me was with New Mexico, right down to the blocky adobe structures baking in the sun, beside the more curved walls of kiva.  

Nissa itself could have been an uninhabited Taos Pueblo, shadowed by monstrous peaks that shot rapidly toward the sky.  On their far side was Iran, a lone road curved and dipped dangerously up to the pass leading up and over.  Somewhere as I walked along my iPhone sent me a text telling me that I’d actually entered that country.  It was a tantalizing thought, but I was happy enough here, walking through the narrow passages that would open now and again into keyhole-shaped doorways that revealed the green oasis that surrounded us. 

Tukemenbashi had ordered some of Ashgabat’s biggest and most garish structures to be built outside the city, including our own rocket-ship shaped hotel.  Nearby was the world’s largest (and perhaps least-used) indoor ferris wheel that looked like a massive lozenge.  Another was an enormous TV tower that brought in very little, but did extend a middle finger toward neighboring Iran. 

Largest of all was the mausoleum to the great leader himself.  It was a beauty indeed, probably the most impressive in town, and certainly the most colorful building in Central Asia, with towering minarets and that ubiquitous 8-pointed star that could be seen everywhere and never failed to remind me of a sheriff’s badge.  How fitting then that we arrived just in time for the changing of the guard.  Their self-conscious showboating was like a Monty Python skit, especially when the highest-ranking officer twirled his rifle high in the air and nearly got a bayonet in the forehead.  Fear of detainment is all that kept us from bursting into laughter. 

The sun eventually fell, and the marble neon was once again lit by a million colored bulbs.  An oil-rich nation, Turkemenistan lacked nothing for natural energy.  But it was the absence of life here created a bigger impression.   How ironic the parallel that an alignment of marble such as this is more often found in cemeteries. 

Our dinner that night was equally dead, energy-wise.  What is the point of throwing a farewell dinner for people who already wished they were gone?  There was music, there was dancing, but the life had gone out of the group and dinner seemed more something to get through than to enjoy.  Like everywhere else in country, the service was inefficient, the people cold. (I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking populace, who only broke their scowling countenances when shouting at you if you tried to raise a camera, even if it wasn’t pointed at them.)  The highlights of the trip were already behind us, leaving Turkmenistan as an amusing afterthought to the glories of Uzbekistan, the beauties of Kazahkstan.  (And if I were to condense the entire journey to a single line, it is this: Kazahkstan has the landscape; Uzbekistan has the monuments; Turkmenistan has the oddball politics.)   But I couldn't imagine starting here. 

After a few hours sleep back at our space capsule, we went to catch our late night flight to Istanbul.  The airport was brand new, just in time for the Asian Games later in 2017, and it was a beauty, but it wasn’t long before the flaws began to reveal themselves.  Security checkpoints began just inside the sliding glass doors, which ensured that queues spilled out onto the sidewalks and roads.  The check-in process was a long and complicated one, the blind leading the blind.  Before reaching the gates, our bags were checked twice, our documents three times.  You never quite knew when you were through, and could sit and caffeinate toward the 4 am departure.   And it was with great relief to lift off, the bright lights of the city receding behind our wings.  I’d never been so happy to leave a country, and am certain I’ll never return.  That said I’d recommend a visit very highly, as you will never find a more bizarre place on earth.  Though I’m not sure that this qualifies as a compliment.  For which I feel slightly guilty.   As I left the Turkmenistan Consulate in Tokyo a few months before, visa in hand, the last thing the Consul said to me was “Write something good about my country.” 

I’m very sorry sir, but I’m not sure that I can. 

On the turntable:  Dead Kennedys, "Live at the Deaf Club"

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Filing in the Middle of the Map VII

There was a palpable feeling of anxiety about the border crossing.  A few months ago LYL had laughed about the bureaucratic complexities of getting our visa for Turkmenistan, a country which acted as if it were the latest hot-spot for illegal immigration and so needed to stem the refugee problem by creating ridiculously complicated procedures to get in.  But having done a bit more reading, I realized that the country was a dictator’s paradise, the cult of personality turned up to eleven.  (And now, back home, Trump was busy doing the same thing.)

Our Uzbek guides had left us earlier on, and now at the border, uniformed strongmen boarded our dining car, bringing to a quick end the convivial mood we'd enjoyed over dinner.  LYL and quickly escaped back to our compartment in an attempt to sleep through the proceedings.  But sleep was hard fought, due to the movement of people past our door.  Most unfortunately, the Turkmen guiding crew had decided to use the neighboring cabin as base camp, their voices rising and falling to accompany the clack of rail, and one of them seemed hostage to the computer game he played on his phone, the blips and beeps invading my aural passages through the thin walls.  Their boss was the worst of all, with a loud booming voice to match his swagger.  (The woman who had previously been in charge on the Uzbek side also was fairly unpleasant, but at least she kept to herself, ruling the domain behind her hard, cold countenance.)  He was on his mobile phone near constantly, choosing to have his most boisterous conversations just outside our door.  During an interrupted nap the following day I lost my temper and told him to move along, which he did, though he was at it again before long.  Truly a detestable person. 

So it was that I watched through bloodshot eyes our train rolling into Mary in the pre-dawn light.  Massive flags waved lethargically above huge blocks of white marble.  As the light came up, so did the passengers, waiting in the cold for a train that hadn’t yet arrived.  The women were all wearing what I’d seen associate with the national dress, sexily form-fitting like the aozai of Vietnam yet in an array of colors, above which the whole look was capped with towering head scarves.  Our guide chose a simple black suit, befitting perhaps her status as history professor.  She looked tired, a bit beaten down by life, the dry rambling of her information lacking the comedic charm of the professional guide.  She was far more pleasant to talk with one on one, and she was certainly helpful and attentive to our respective interests.  (Luckily we were spared the guide from the German group, who had been told to bathe before rejoining them, his stench filling an entire bus.)

A short drive from Mary was Merv, two ancient names that seemed more fitting for a 1950’s sitcom couple.   Merv is actually the site of five cities, built over an incredible span of twenty-six centuries.  Very little remains to catch the eye, aside from a heavily retrofitted 12th century Sufi mausoleum (thanks UNESCO!), and the crumbling 7th century pair of crumbling edifices of Kyz Kala, looking like a sand-encrusted radiator.  With its relatively few sights, Merv was less a delight for the eye, as for the mind’s eye.  The highlight for me was the climb up to the ringed walls of Erk Kala, and looking across what must have been a bustling city, in whatever way people bustled in the 6th Century.  Marv’s prime location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia would also spell its doom, first at the hands of Alexander the Great, before rebuilding again and again until being completely obliterated before the armies of Genghis Khan’s most ruthless son, Tolui.  Very appropriate then to see a small cemetery out there amidst the sands

What followed was lunch in a spacious garden that served as peaceful oasis in a village that was not long from becoming a ruin itself.  In a yurt at the center of the compound, three generations of women demonstrated traditional labor with the loom and mortar and pestle.  (They also demonstrated traditional smiles, the only ones I would see while in country.)  Over a lunch of meat salad and strong wine, a man strummed a two string instrument through a small amp, noodling like I did when I tried and failed to play guitar at age 14.  Noodling, noodling…

Our convoy of large coaches bounced back along the pothole pocked ‘roads’ of the village, before reaching again the arrow straight pavement that led back toward Mary.  There was a chain of villages along the way,  partially built sidewalks extended only to their perimeters.   And the salt-crusted sands that linked them were hard evidence at the environmental chaos of the Aral Sea just to the north.   It was a landscape as abused as any I’ve ever seen; loads of rubbish everywhere, standing water nearly orange. Nothing seemed to live or exist out here, except for a group of dromedaries walking slowly past.  To add to an impression already apocalyptic, one house had a fence made of the bonnets of cars. 

We arrived into Ashgabad not long before midnight.  Our hotel stood high on a bluff outside the city, with rooms that were nearly the size of an entire train carriage.  The sudden psychological gift of space made for great sleep, above a neon-lit white cityscape blazing bright in the center of the desert.

On the turntable:  Derek & The Dominos, "In Concert"