Thursday, October 29, 2009

Riddle me this

From the moment I arrived here in foggy, windswept, beautiful Cornwall, I had one phrase swirling around in my head.

"As I was going to St. Ives/I met a man with seven wives..."

That's because the real St. Ives (also see: skin product) is about 15 miles from where I'm staying, in Penzance (also see: Gilbert & Sullivan, "Pirates of"),

For the first several days I thought I was going crazy. I had no idea where I'd heard that phrase before, and I didn't know the rest of the rhyme (although I was pretty sure there was more of it.) Finally, I resorted to the internet, and because we pretty much live in a Hive Mind society these days, a simple 30 second search got me the following:

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
Each sack had seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, wives
How many were going to St Ives?
I have no idea where I would have heard this rhyme, but I can imagine it was probably a nursery rhyme I learned (the Brits here would say "learnt") some 20 years ago that was floating around waiting to be rediscovered a decade or two later. The brain's capacity for memory is occasionally astounding.

By the way, can you figure out the answer to the riddle?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

REWIND: Hong Kong/ Macau

One of the twists of flying on a round-the-world ticket is that you have to fly where the airlines fly, but that's not always a bad thing. In July, for example, I stopped in Jordan (and, on a whim, also Syria) because there were no direct flights between India and Greece, and I loved my time there-- but more on that later. First, though, in May, the round-the-world ticket compelled me to pause in Hong Kong for a few days on the way from Kunming, China to Delhi, India. I had a good friend, John (longtime readers of this blog will remember him from my days studying in China) teaching English there with his girlfriend, so I stopped in to recharge my batteries, hang out with them for a few days, and see some what I could of the city.

My time in Hong Kong was very laid back-- my priority was relaxing and spending time with my friends, rather than any intensive exploration. We cooked, played games, slept late, watched movies in our pajamas. It may sound odd, but for the long-term traveler, these kinds of mundane everyday activities are exotic and much sought-after. Museums, maps to foreign cities, trains, castles, markets-- these are our bread and butter. So for me it was thrilling to make popcorn and watch "The Daily Show" a few days in a row.

Of course, we did get out occasionally to do some fun things, such as visiting a great used book store, stuffing ourselves with dim sum (a must in southern China), and going to a posh wine bar for a wine tasting night. Lisa and I visited John at his school to watch him teach a lesson; another day we went out to the fantastically-named and wonderfully authentic Flying Pan diner (delicious omelets and home fries in the middle of Kowloon island, who knew?) And on my last day I took a day-trip to Macau, which is only a couple of hours by ferry from Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong skyline Walking around Kowloon island

Macau and Hong Kong have a lot in common. They were both culturally and politically leased to colonial powers for many years-- Hong Kong to the British and Macau to the Portuguese. Both were returned to China within the last couple of decades and have since undergone rapid economic and cultural transformation, but both retain an interesting mix of cultures. Macau is also becoming known as a Chinese Las Vegas, a gambling mecca of crazy proportions. I wanted to see it all for myself.

My day in Macau was interesting-- I checked out a couple of the gaudier casinos and wandered a few of the neighborhoods that have retained their Portuguese character. And I tried Macanese food, which includes a lot of Chinese characteristics (wok frying, local vegetables) but also features delicacies like dulce de leche. The anthropologist in me found the way the cultures coexist and mingle in the cuisine and on the street fascinating.

Portuguese and Chinese side by sideItalic
I didn't spend much time in the casinos, preferring to admire them from outside. I did go out of my way, however, to visit the Venetian, an over-the-top casino a fellow traveler had recommended that houses a to-scale recreation of Venice's Piazza San Marco and surrounding streets, featuring gondola rides where the gondoliers will sing to you. I was definitely impressed-- the replica even included lighting to match the time of day outside.

One of the famous Macau casinos

Inside the Venetian

I finished my day with a wander around the quaint neighborhoods of southern Macau and a stop at a family restaurant, where the Macanese family pressed extra goodies on me and I bought some dulce de leche to bring home to John and Lisa, who were waiting with pizza. The next morning, I gathered my things and ventured over to the Hong Kong airport, where my flight to India was waiting.

Macanese colonial architecture
Macau street life

One of the famous sights of Macau, an old colonial church destroyed in a fire, with only the facade left standing

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Keeping pace

I may be only 22, but I think I'm getting an idea of what it is to age.

A month ago I wrote here about hitting the 2/3 mark in my one-year trip. I hadn't felt burnt out then, and I don't feel it now. But I've been traveling solo in Europe for 1.5 months at this point, and I've started to notice a change in pace. I don't do as much in a day anymore; I need more moments to rest and unwind, more time to start my engines; I take more hours"off," not sightseeing or exploring, just sitting in cafes or watching TV or reading. I am still loving every day, but I'm tired. I'm getting travel-old.

At the beginning of this trip I spent a few days in each city, moving as often as I liked or could manage. A few months in I figured out, through calculation and observation, that I needed a complete day off, with no obligation to see or do anything except lie around, about every 7 to 10 days. This was sometimes difficult to do because there was always a little voice in my head jabbering about wasting valuable time in a place I might never see again.

But the longer I traveled the quieter that voice got. I still experienced an awful lot, and I realized that the necessity for downtime made me human. One day, while I sat in an anonymous room in an anonymous country surfing the net mindlessly, I realized that in some way this break was like creating a home for me to go to. Whatever strange place I found myself in, I could recreate the same setting-- a nondescript room, a comfortable bed, a long stretch of free time, a book, a computer, some junk food--that would be like a return to home base. It wasn't just dealing with exhaustion, it was a way to make a safe haven, something familiar in all the strangeness that was the same whether I was in Taiwan or Turkey.

When I got to Europe my pace changed. These past months I've spent more time in each place-- averaging about a week per city, with some shorter stints and day trips thrown in-- and done less each day. In part this was a conscious choice. I decided at the beginning of September, as I set out on my 4-month European adventure, that because I had the time to settle in and let a city get under my skin, I should take advantage of that opportunity. So I've slept in more often, seen one museum in a day instead of two, read my book in cafes and parks, and given myself permission to do less seeing and more living.

And it's lucky I did, because what started out as a lifestyle decision has become more and more of a necessity as the time ticks by. Even a traveler so in love with this lifestyle (Today I walked down the streets of Leiden in the Netherlands and thought,r "I was born for this") gets worn out. So I relax, I adjust, I rest. And then I move on.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nothing is rotten in the state of Denmark*

... unless you count me. Spoiled rotten, that is. I arrived in Copenhagen a few nights ago, where I am staying with some dear family friends who are treating me like a queen. From trips into the countryside to museums to delicious meals, I am enjoying myself greatly.

I've explored the city center, enjoying both a sunny day and a brisk "Kultur Natten," an evening when cultural landmarks from theaters to embassies to the Danish palace gave open houses. I've explore Rothskilde, where 5 Viking ships were unearthed and restored and where 1000 years worth of Danish monarchs are interred. I indulged my inner English geek at Elsinore (now spelled 'Helsingor'), where the real Hamlet (whose name was Amled) ruled, and Fredriksborg, another stunning castle filled with exquisite decor. I ate fried fish on a sunny afternoon along the colorfully painted banks of New Harbor; a few days ago I had the rare opportunity to visit the Danish Adventurers' Club, whose clubhouse is hung with Papuan shields and Tibetan headdresses and among whose members sit the likes of John Glenn. And later this week I'm planning a couple excursions across the strait Sweden.

It seems there's more to see in heaven and Copenhagen, Horatio, than is dreamt of in my philosophy...

* Apologies to Shakespeare

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ich bin ein Berliner

After a false start this morning (leaving my host's apartment a bit late + awful luck with tram and metro timing = missing my train to Hamburg) I am en route to Copenhagen. To celebrate my fairly cruddy day, I invested in some super-shiny on-train wireless internet.

Yes, I left Berlin today, albeit with a heavy heart. The city is truly vibrant, with a very different feel than the other Germany cities (or other central European cities, for that matter) that I visited. The look is different, of course, since so much of the city had to be rebuilt after the various wars/conflicts that it has hosted in the past century or so. But what really attracted me was the creativity that permeated so much of what I did. Some highlights:

*Art museum hopping-- from a great little place full to the brim with Picasso and Matisse to the Hamburger Hof (a redone train station), which features amazing modern art from Warhol to Nauman and also currently boasts a very interesting exhibition from three new artists who are competing for an annual prize

* Spending Wednesday night at the Wienerei, a cozy/funky cafe which hosts a weekly "wine night." You pay 1 euro entrance and a 1 euro deposit for your glass, then feel free to drink as much wine, champagne, juice, or whatnot as you like all night. There are lots of interesting people about (if you're lucky, lots of couchsurfers, too), a tasty buffet, and at the end you pay whatever you think is a fair amount

*Exploring the Turkish quarter, Kreuzberg, sometimes known as the third Turkish city outside Istanbul and Ankara. Went with my host to the Thursday market there, and the hawkers selling produce, material, gozleme, and doner made me nostalgic for July. Then met an interesting couchsurfer (writing her thesis on crime fiction in South Africa) for some amazing and quite-close-to-authentic tasting chai at a great cafe nearby-- which made me nostalgic for June

*Visiting the Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe, an abstract sculpture made of hundreds of rock pillars that appear to be the same height but actually descend into a disorienting, sickening, sobering forest in the middle, was very affecting. The museum underneath it, detailing real people and real families obliterated in the genocide, made me both almost cry and almost vomit, neither of which I am moved to do easily. More about this in a later entry

*Celebrating! I didn't know this beforehand, but October 3 is Reunification Day, commemorating the reunification of East and West Germany. I was around for the festivities and managed to weasel my into a festival of food, drink, and great German bands. I did miss an art installation in which a troupe of puppeteers staged a reenactment of the fall of the Berlin wall using 10-meter high puppets, unfortunately.

*Exploring the remnants of East German culture, specifically the beautifully preserved murals on what's left of the wall and a fascinating sculpture gallery/studio complex/cafe cluster made from a building that had been left to urban blight during the 90s. What was once a filthy, graffiti-riddled hulk has become a beautiful, vibrant, graffiti-rich place for alternative artists to work and show the results. I wandered the warren of small home-made galleries constructed from pieces of scrap metal, storage containers, and old fences, and felt in awe of the art that can come from chaos.

*Visiting the weekly flea market in Mauer park, which was equally uplifting. It was a great flea market, in general, with lots of interesting crafts and intriguing junk, but what really caught my breath and my eye was the grassroots karaoke session which happens there every week in a small run-down ampitheater at one side of the park. At least 200 people gathered to drink beer and watch the proceedings. There was an ad hoc soundsystem wired through a couple of bicycles and a Mac laptop, and an Irish guy was MCing as a succession of Germans, Danes, and Norwegians worked their way through the likes of Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation," Janis Joplin's "Another Little Piece of My Heart," and the one and only "Sweet Transvestite." It was entirely unironic, despite the hipster clothing in evidence, just a lot of people with a cold, windy Sunday on their hands who weren't afraid to look silly and let loose.

Art, cafes, culture, markets, karaoke. And I'm told the rent is cheap and English teaching jobs are plentiful, if competitive. Just a few reasons I'll have to come back some day.