July 03, 2008

A quick trip to China

Today I leave for Beijing China, where I'll be giving a few lectures as part of the 2008 China / SFI Complex Systems Summer School (CSSS). It should be an interesting experience for many reasons. I'm also looking forward to seeing a few of the touristy sights, such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, and the new Olympic pavilion.

Update 18 July 2008: My lecture notes are now online on the Beijing CSSS wiki here. I gave two lectures on the basics of complex networks, and one lecture on power laws in empirical data.

Update 18 July 2008: It's hard to summarize the overall impression I had of Beijing in particular, and China in general; but, I'll try. Beijing is a city bustling with life. A wide zone of feverish development and heavy air pollution (but not trash - the city was surprisingly clean except for the dingy-ness the heavy smog left on all surfaces), it's also a study of different aspects of Chinese society modernizing at different rates. Beijing is knocking down the traditional hutongs (the traditional, one or two story residential and light commercial buildings that used to blanket the Beijing landscape), often over the protests of their residents but not always, to build the skyscrapers and apartment towers of a modern, dense city. The exchange rate, and government policies, made taxis very affordable, and while riding around, I spotted both the ugly concrete towers as well as the beautiful glass and steel constructions that would look at home in Zurich or New York. There were also several buildings most notable for their striking architecture [1]; most of these are for the Olympics, but not all of them - some were simply upscale residential, office or hotel buildings.

It wasn't clear to me that the regular Beijinger was excited about the upcoming Olympics (starting in just three weeks), but certainly the government is. Olympic decorations and advertisements were everywhere, and the mascots (the five Fuwa) were ubiquitous. And yet, when I walked through the Olympic pavilion area, there was obviously still a tremendous amount of work left to be done. I'm told that Athens was even further behind schedule for the 2000 Olympics, so maybe it will all work out. The Olympic areas were also some of the places where the military presence was the strongest, with lots of fences and guards. Oddly, there was even a military installation (with tanks) just to the south of one of the sports complexes.

My favorite picture of the 300 odd that I took (many of which are now on my Flickr photostream) while bouncing around the city is of a man on a traditional bicycle yakking away on his cell phone. A lot of people still ride bicycles, but apparently cars are increasingly popular. Owning one is now a status symbol, as it used to be in America [2], and many Beijingers are taking to it with enthusiasm, even though the traffic is already terrible. I'm told that some American car makers are doing very well in the growing Chinese market, to the point that their recent growth was driven almost entirely by Chinese sales [3]. Designer goods that are fashionable in the West are also popular in Beijing, but surprisingly, they don't cost any less. So, a well-to-do Beijinger will spend $300 on a Coach purse even though it costs 2000 yuan, enough to buy a nice dinner every night for a month. Another interesting observation about Beijing is that most of the commercial stores (not the small businesses, but rather the larger enterprises) were overstaffed. At several restaurants, I noticed at least three or four times as many waitstaff as were necessary to actually run the place. I'd like to think this is indicative of the larger problem China faces with a burgeoning labor force, but who knows.


[1] Coincidentally, the NY Times put up an interactive graphic that discusses five of these, mostly built in prep for the Olympics. I saw all of them, from a distance, except for "Big Shorts" (the new national television building). The New Yorker also has a short piece about these buildings, and the Beijing skyline in general. I highly recommend both of these.

[2] Owning a car in the US is no longer enough to show everyone else that you're rich and know it. Now you have to drive a big car, preferably something like a Hummer or an FJ.

[3] Someone told me that Buick, of all brands, is very popular in China because it was the brand that the last Emperor favored.

posted July 3, 2008 11:09 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

April 26, 2007

The month of May

The month of May is a busy one for me. For some reason, it's when most of the big networks-related workshops and conferences happen, so I end up spending most of it on the road. This year, I'm attending four conferences, in four states, two of which are on opposite coasts. The agenda:

Algorithms, Inference, and Statistical Physics (AISP), run by CNLS of Los Alamos National Lab and hosted in Santa Fe. This workshop runs May 1 - 4, and I'm giving a short talk on power-law distribution in empirical data.

Then, it'll be over to the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) at UCLA for their workshop on Random and Dynamic Graphs and Networks.

I get a short reprieve, and then its off to New York City for the over-named International Conference on Network Science (NetSci), which is trying to position itself as the main event in the field of complex networks each year. Given the number of physicists that present work at the APS March Meeting, that's going to be quite a task. But, at least NetSci attracts some folks outside of physics, such as a few folks in sociology, ecology and microbiology.

And then finally, it's over to Utah for the SIAM's conference on Applications of Dynamical Systems (DS07). There I'll be giving a talk on the hierarchical organization of networks at a mini-symposium on complex networks organized by Mason Porter and Peter Mucha.

Then, I'll return to Santa Fe exhausted, but enlightened from interacting with my esteemed colleagues, and seeing a few friends that live in faraway places. Ah, conference season. How I love thee. How I loathe thee.

posted April 26, 2007 06:49 PM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (0)

February 22, 2007

TravelBlog: Korea

Photos from my trip to Korea are now up on my flickr stream.

Normally, I'd write a lengthy entry of my reflections on my time in Korea. But, since this trip was primarily for business, it wasn't quite the same kind of trip I normally make. Normally, I won't lug my computer around, stay in fancy hotels, or spend much time with people who speak my language. Having cut my teeth backpacking solo in Europe many years ago, I much prefer being "close to the ground" where I can get a better sense of what the local culture is like (with the obvious caveat that this can be hard to do when you stick out like a sore thumb and don't speak the language!).

So, I have only a few thoughts this time. For instance, Korea and Japan are extremely similar in many ways, both culturally, visually, and in the overwhelming ubiquity of digital technology. Much of the traditional architecture looks roughly the same to my unaccustomed eye, although I'm told there are important differences. One that stood out the most was the Korean emphasis on greens (for instance, this structure) versus the Japanese emphasis on reds (like this one). Another architectural observation is that many of the buildings look like they were inexpensive derivatives of the brutalist architectural movement, i.e., lots of uninteresting, high-rise concrete buildings, probably hastily erected after the Korean War flattened most everything that was there before.

On the technological side (which admittedly fascinated me more than the architecture did), I was amazed at how pervasive digital technology was, not only with mobile phones (which did television, text messaging, calls, etc., and have that little hook from which you can hang a personalizing charm - I really wish American wireless providers puts these on the handsets...), but in elevators (door-close buttons that work instantly!), parking lots (which, with a pressure pad under each parking space, display at their entrance the precise number of available spots!), and public busses, among many others. The thing that sets these countries apart from America (and much of Europe) in their use of these technologies is that they use it to explicitly make everyday activities easier and more convenient. In these ways, I think of Korea and Japan as true first-world countries, while Western nations feel more like third-world countries.

Socially, the country seems to be experiencing a similar kind of shift as Japan, with the older generation trying to preserve the social norms and traditions, while the younger generation is actively defining their own way of life. Sometimes this means embracing traditions (such as the first-place, second-place, third-place method of going out on the town), but I think it typically means moving away from them. This dynamic is pervasive in Western countries, as well, but because the social norms are that much stronger in these Eastern nations, the contrast seem that much more palpable at times.

I found Seoul to be an extremely fashionable city, and particularly so with the younger generation. Typically, it seemed, women, old and young, are elegant and beautiful, while men are sharply dressed. (I did see some people who would have fit in well in Harajuku.) If shopping is your bag, it's excellent for both club faddle and custom-made business attire. Plus, clothing (much of which is apparently Made in China), transportation (trains, busses, taxis, subways), and food are all pretty inexpensive. I had just about gotten used to the local cuisine by the time I left - it has a lot of beef and pork in it, and is quite spicy.

From talks with people who know much more than I, the educational system in Korea seems quite similar to that of Japan (and, to some extent, of China), with the main emphasis being on memorization, performance on standardized tests, respect for elders (even if they're wrong), etc. Kids in both countries, and at all ages, spend a lot of extra time studying for the various entrance exams for different grade schools, college and university. It's my own opinion that this kind of approach to education tends to discourage creative problem solving and ingenuity. These things are, I think, perhaps somehow less discouraged by the more chaotic style of education in the US, although I'm not an expert on education systems. I wonder whether the profound emphasis in these Eastern nations on mastering standardized bodies of knowledge has its roots in the ancient scholasticism that focused mastering an extremely large body of cultural, historical and mathematical facts. (Perhaps some of my several Korean and Japanese readers can share their perspective? If any of you have been to the US, I'd love to hear your impression our of system.)

Endnote: One thing that I found very strange was seeing Hyundai Santa Fe SUVs all over Seoul. Supposedly, car manufacturers usually change the name of a car when they sell it in a different country, but it was nice to see a little bit of home in Korea!


posted February 22, 2007 01:17 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (2)

September 13, 2005

TravelBlog: Making the summit of Longs Peak

Weekend before last, over the long Labor Day weekend, I trekked north to Rocky Mountain National Park with friend Adriane Irwin, Lauren Meyer and two of their friends Shawn and Cheryl. Our intention was to summit Longs Peak, the tallest non-technical summit in the lower 48 states. Longs Peak's summit stands at 14,259 feet (4321 meters) above sea level. This elevation is significantly higher than my usual elevation of roughly 5,314 feet (1,610 meters; and I'd only been at that elevation for about three weeks since prior to that, I'd been at sea level in New York City), and I was not positive that I would make it to the top.

And yet, I did. Longs Peak was my first 14'er and probably not my last. As I mentioned to my friend Jen from the climbing gym this evening, I've been interested in doing serious outdoors stuff for a long time, but have simply not had a set of friends who were also interested (this makes me wonder if for some other reason I tend not to be selective for crazy adventurous friends). On the other hand, as I mentioned to Keith and Angie this afternoon, I'm much more interested in having good company along for those adventures than I am in crossing them off some abstract list of accomplishments. Still, it will be nice to have both!

Our summit attempt of Longs Peak began after we lucked out and landed a camp site in the small camp ground near the trailhead. We prepped our gear, had a snack and then hit the sack for a few hours. We set the alarm for 1:10am, although I slept restlessly and ended up awake at 12:50am, waiting for go-time to arrive. After assembling our gear, we picked up our two new friends Jake and Luke (brothers who had driven-in the day before from Indiana), and made for the trailhead. Adriane, betraying her excitement, set a quick pace for the first few miles of the hike. As we crossed the tree-line, we could see the lights from Denver in the distance, and the looming darkness of Longs Peak miles away above us.

It wasn't long before I volunteered for lead-duty. This was partially on account of Adriane finally relinquishing the position herself and partially because I wanted to set a slower pace. Above the tree-line, the steps of the trail were tiring, and I was a little concerned that the altitude would wear me out quickly. And so, I led our group of seven along the trail as it snaked its way up the mountain, through the lower tundra. At the break for Chasm Lake, we rested briefly before pushing on to Boulder Field. The cold of the night air and the heat of the hiking kept the girls constantly shifting their layers. I was comfortable in my polypro and nylon layers, content to roll-up or roll-down my sleeves in order to shed a few extra degrees of heat.

Although this hike was filled with spectacular visuals, one of my favorites was, from near Boulder Field, looking back down the trail during the blackness of night. Tracing the twists and turns of the trail were a train of bright points, bobbing with the motion of hikers as they made their way over the foothills. The quietude of the moment combined with the solemnness of the dancing lights made me think of a pilgrimage, in which dutiful worshippers made their way to the mountain sanctuary to offer their prayers to the gods that live within the mountain. Although I doubt any of the hikers on the trail was doing that exactly, among those serious enough to summit Longs Peak (or otherwise revel in the beauty and ruggedness of nature), I can't help but feel that there was a subtle religious subtext to our trek.

At the Boulder Field rest stop, we spotted the sun beginning to peak over the horizon, and our surroundings were visibly more light. We hardly needed our headlamps as we began to pick our way through the large rubble toward to Keyhole. It was near this milestone point that the sun finally broke away from the shadow of the nearby mountain and seared the night sky with orange, red and yellow fire. Given my surroundings, it was one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, and had I not been with company, I likely would have found a comfortable rock to park myself upon so as to soak it up for a spell.

As we turned through the Keyhole, I laid eyes on the beginning of the difficult part of the hike. James had described this section as being a three-foot wide ledge with a thousand foot drop on one side - it wasn't nearly that bad, but the steep slope off to my right certainly made me more cautious as we began to pick our way through the jagged rocks, hugging the slope while following the painted bulls-eyes that led us forward. From here-on-out, I was careful with my hands, making sure that I always had my balance, and always had one good hand-hold in case I lost my balance. It was also at this point, at 13,000ft, that I began the feel the altitude in earnest. I developed a slight headache and a slight shortness of breath, both of which progressed as we climbed the remaining 1200 feet to the summit.

The bouncing bulls-eyes led us to what's known as the Trough, which is truly the worst part of the hike. With an elevation gain of perhaps close to 700 feet, the Trough is filled with boulders, gravel and dirt, and the footing was significantly less sure than on the jagged but solid rock we had just crossed. It was here that I began to fall behind the rest of the group, and here that Adriane and Lauren began to push ahead. Deciding that being safe was more important to me than keeping up with the group, I let the distance grow until it was only Luke and I at the top of the Trough, while the rest were on to the Narrows. Luke and I hadn't spoken much on the hike up, but as we sat at the top of the Trough, gazing out at the breathtakingly beautiful and immensely expansive landscape, we commiserated about the difficulty of the altitude and the Trough. I could tell he was reluctant to go on, and so I consoled him. Finally, he said that this was the most beautiful spot on Earth he'd ever seen and that he was going to stay right here.

Resolving to push on myself, I bid him farewell and said that perhaps we'd meet up again at the Keyhole on the way down. And then it was into the Narrows. James' description was slightly more accurate here, but still there were plenty of outcroppings and formations to pick your way through - I never felt in danger, but still, I respected the distance between myself and the bottom of the mountain to my right. For this section, I was joined by a young woman who came up behind me in the Trough. We would hike for a period and then rest, then hike and rest, etc. We chatted amicably occasionally, commenting on the altitude. Finally, at the point where the Narrows meets the Homestretch, she pushed forward, and I was again left behind.

The Homestretch is much like the Trough, except without the loose footing. Another 600 foot vertical rise on a steep slope. Slowly, with hikers from behind passing often enough to remind me that my body was suffering, I neared the summit. At about 8:40am, I reached the top and found the rest of the group in high spirits, having been there for a little more than half an hour already. We snapped the requisite group photos, shots of Chasm Lake from above, pictures of the clouds rolling in, and a few more shots of each other. As the weather turned cold and the summit was enveloped in a white fog, we began our descent.

Although going up the mountain was difficult on account of the physicality of raising your body nearly a mile, going down was difficult for the pounding on the knees. It was made no less complicated by the large number of people we met going in the opposite direction - Jen, who has done Longs before, said that starting at 2:00am was excessive, but I'm glad we did because it made the ascent significantly less crowded. With the lightness of day around us, I took many pictures of the descent, chronicling the way-points and landmarks and vistas. It wasn't until about half way down the lower tundra that my knees truly began to ache from the constant pounding on unforgiving stone, and I began to take more frequent breaks.

Again, I fell behind the group as a result. This time, however, it was more intentional. When I'm out in nature like this, I like to take a little bit of time to be completely alone and simply soak it all in. To try to open every pore of my body and absorb the beauty and serenity that surrounds me, to try to store it up for all the days I'll spend away from it, imbedded in a complicated and noisy jungle of concrete and asphalt. Satiated, I wore a big and goofy smile as I bounced down the trail after the group ahead of me. We were briefly reunited at the break to Chasm Lake, where I captured a nice panorama Longs. Finally, at close to 2:15pm, twelve strenuous and exhausting hours later, I made it back to our campsite, tired but happy.

-- Pictures from the Trip --

posted September 13, 2005 10:37 PM in Travel | permalink | Comments (1)

May 05, 2005

TravelBlog: Kyushu, mountainous and beautiful

My last missive was written about my time in historic Kyoto, hopping among the innumerable shrines and temples that put modern tourists in touch with Japan's historic roots. From there, I spent almost a full day traveling to the south eastern corner of Kyushu, Japan's large southern-most island that is situated the closest to Korea. Two shinkansen and three long local trains later, I arrived in Miyakonojo, where my friend from Haverford Jenn Louie has been stationed for the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching, run by the Japanese government to bring foreigners into the country to teach English to Japanese students) program over the past three years.

Unlike my time in Tokyo and Kyoto, I walked significantly less on this leg of my journey, as Miyakonojo is a suburb of the slightly larger town of Miyazaki (not to be confused with the director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) who was born in Tokyo), and driving was a much more convenient way to get around the Japanese countryside. It was in Miyakonojo that I finally got to experience the true sushi restaurant/bar, complete with boisterous sushi chefs, the little conveyor belt, endless green tea, and the entire-wait-staff shouts of welcome and goodbye when customers enter and leave. My mission for sushi places was to try at least one new kind each stop. Here, I tried uni, which is sea urchin, eggplant with a miso-based sauce on it, some fish I can't name, a roll with little mushrooms and some kind of mountain potato paste, and a gently grilled tuna. Some were better than others, but none as bad as some hardened fish eggs I tried in Kyoto. The eggplant was especially delicious and I have yet to find a place in the U.S. that serves it.

That evening, we drove to the famous hot spring bath resort hotel in nearby Kagoshima. These communal baths are called "onsen" (also used as a verb), and are extremely popular among the Japanese. The one in Kagoshima is co-ed, so guests are required to wear a medium-weight white robe for modesty; what made this onsen unusual is that a) it's outdoor portion is literally a few feet from the high tide mark of the Pacific ocean, and b) there's a huge, gnarled tree that grows around the hot spring itself. The tree is considered lucky, perhaps on account of its age and putting up with hot mineral water, so a small Buddhist shrine has been built under its roots.

After lunch the next day with some of Jenn's friends from the JET program, we took a drive along the Kyushu coast line. On account of it having a high density of volcanoes, the island is extremely mountainous, even by the ocean. The little road we took to visit two shrines hugged and undulated with the coastline itself: deep blue a few dozen meters on one side, and tree covered mountains rising up from the other - these are the roads you imagine James Bond zipping around in his tricked-out convertible. The views were stunning and reminded me of the Cinque Terra coastline in Italy, except with more greenery. Our first stop was the shrine on a small island just off the coastal area called Nichinan Kaigan near Aoshima. Between it and the mainland is what's called the Devil's Washboard, on account that it really looks like a gigantic washboard. Basically, volcanic activity created hundreds of layers of hard rock, which was then tilted and covered with water. So, the rough edges of the layers stick out just above the surface all along the coastline, giving the appearance of a washboard. The island is a ecological treasure trove, but the best thing is the crazy traditions surrounding it. In the dead of winter there is a festival where Japanese strip naked and run into the water carrying mini-shrines strapped to their backs. A little further south along the highway is another coastal shrine. In addition to the regular buildings, there's a walkway that snakes down the cliff face toward the somewhat dangerous looking breakers. Tucked into a good sized cave is a medium-sized temple. Below, on the rocks, there's a natural depression that's typically filled with water. Legend has it that if you can toss a small clay pellet into the depression, you will be blessed with healthy children. The rock itself is perhaps 30 feet from the landing where you stand, and the depression only a couple of feet in diameter, but ringed by a braided rope so it's easy to see. The small pellets litter the rocks below it, and a significantly smaller number sit inside the pool. Fortunately, I'll have at least one healthy child - I made it on my first try, although failed on my other four.

That night, I experienced the most pure of Japanese traditions: karaoke. Jenn and her fellow JETs had organized a surprise party for one of their number, and after a nice meal, we hit the Shidax karaoke building. It's difficult to express just how overwhelming karaoke in Japan is... imagine a five story building decorated inside in bright colors, faux marble, and packed with well-decorated soundproof rooms. Each room is decked out with a sound system, big screen tv and karaoke machine (which has a remote control and a remote LCD interface). We got the all-you-can-drink karaoke package, and started around midnight. Normally, I don't like singing in front of people. But eventually, the atmosphere of carefree off key singing and drunken revelry persuaded me to add my voice to the festivities. And happily so. Japanese karaoke is a unique and amazing experience, and I'm a bit sad that we Americans don't have anything quite so indulgently musical for recreation. Come 4:30am, most of the group was still at it when a few of us retired. From what I understand, it's not uncommon for karaoke to last so late into the night, and with several thousand songs in the database, the hardcore among us could probably have gone on through the entire next day.

The next day, Jenn and I traveled again to Miyazaki, this time to witness a traditional festival involving horseback archery. This festival was small and was more like a historic competition using tradition methods, garb and formalities. Riders would race down a narrow dirt track and fire arrows (from Japanese longbows which are somewhat larger and more unwieldy than the British equivalent) at each of three wooden targets. Between each run was a series of signals up and down the raceway using brightly colored fans in order to communicate the readiness of each team who replaced used targets and signaled the rider to begin. A few of the older men were extremely good, and would routinely hit two of the three targets, but the crowd (of almost all Japanese - this part of the country doesn't see too many foreigners) would clap enthusiastically at the rare times a rider hit all three. There were some very young boys who also participated - their horses trotted much more slowly, but the boys were not much worse than the adults at hitting the targets. All of this was preceded and followed by the whole group of people (in traditional Japanese grab) processing from one end of the track to the other.

Our original plan for the rest of the day had been to visit the island Koshimajust where native macaque monkeys live. These monkeys discovered (in the 1950s) how to wash dirty sweet potatoes in the stream before eating them. Unfortunately, we dawdled a bit too long in the sunny weather at the park near where the archery contest had been held. When we finally arrived at the beach across from Koshimajust, it was close to dusk and the boatman was not to be found. The view was beautiful, and a stroll down the concrete wharf brought us only a few hundred feet from the island. Spoiling to see the monkeys, and realizing that it probably wasn't going to happen, we hemmed and hawed and talked ourselves into a bit of craziness. Leaving most of our clothes (and our sanity) on the beach, we boldly plunged into the cold water and swam across the strait. The water itself was pleasant once the initial shock wore off, and with no current, we felt very safe (all things considered...). Upon attempting to beach on the island, I discovered that the rocks in the shallows there are home to prickly sea urchins and sharp-shelled barnacles. Being pleased with the success of our crazy adventure and now thinking better of going completely ashore, we plunged back into the cold water for the return trip to the beach. Irresponsible, yes, but, a little bit of insanity is good for the soul - keeps the heart young and provides a great story for recounting later. Being now soaked and salty, we drove us to the nearest onsen while I delicately began extracting sea urchin spines from my injured hand. This onsen was indoor and gender-segregated. So that you have an idea of how these things work, here's the routine: first, you shower (traditional Japanese style, where you sit naked on a small plastic stool with the movable shower head in front of you); then, you hop from hot bath to hot bath, perhaps sampling the "electric bath" (where a small electric current emanates from the walls and produces a tingle and twitch in your muscles), the jet-massage chairs, the tea tub, the sauna, the massage stream (a twelve foot tall column of falling water you can use to massage your shoulders), or the regular jacuzzi-style bath.

The next day was my last full day in Japan, and we drove north toward Fukuoka, where my flight left for Tokyo and then back to the States. On the way, Jenn and I chatted extensively about the quirks of Japanese culture, particularly in how it compares to American culture. I'll say more about that shortly - first I want to describe some of the things we saw as we drove north. In addition to more gorgeous views of tree covered mountains, valleys, waterfalls, rice paddies, cherry blossoms (which were in full bloom by this day) and the ocean, we stopped in the onsen resort town of Kurokawa. This tiny town is nestled in a wedge valley where the hot springs abound. The price of the onsen is regulated by the government so that it's accessible to everyone (500 yen, or about $5); the real money made by the onsens is in overnight guests (which starts at about 10000 yen, or $100/night). The decorum is exquisite traditional Japanese, with dark dark stained wood, tatamai mats, brass dragons and sliding doors. Several of the more famous onsen are off from the main town, but I liked the town itself the best. Here, flanking every available square foot of the valley's small river (Black River) are onsen buildings. Guests who purchase a three-onsen pass can hop from one to the next, and we saw many groups of bath robed Japanese doing exactly this. Once you finish with your pass (a large wooden disc), you're supposed to hang it in the local shrine for good luck (good luck for what? Just good luck. Luck, apparently, it a bit like money, and it's commonly believed that one can never have too much). We stopped for a brief snack, so that I could sample another kind of traditional Japanese food. I forget what the rice balls were called, but it was a red bean soup with six of these balls. Instead of simply packing rice together, the rice is powdered and packed tightly into a gooey substance that's a bit like bubble gum.

With it getting late, we sped on to Fukuoka, where we checked into a business hotel. These hotels have extremely small rooms (think: dorm rooms), and come with all the basics that a traveling businessman would need - tooth brush, night gown, soap/shampoo, etc. Before retiring for the night, we toured the nightlife area of Fukuoka, and in particular the area called Canal City. An island in the middle of the river, Canal City is a dense, bright, thumping spot of commercial activity. The mall is home of Ramen Kingdom, where you can sample gourmet ramen from different parts of Japan (not the stuff you can get in the grocery store in the U.S. at all).

I'll now say a few words about my impressions of Japanese culture. Jenn pointed out to me that because the island of Japan is constantly changing (earthquakes and volcanoes, mostly), their buildings reflect a sense of temporary existence. Tokyo and Kyoto are largely made of concrete (albeit, from combinations of the seven kinds of concrete the Japanese have). Cheap to build, since they get knocked down periodically. So, since they cannot rely on their physical surroundings to preserve their sense of history (as the western europeans do (think: the palace of Versailles)), they instead rely upon a strong social rigidity. Thus, Japanese schooling typically involves mastering the ability to reproduce the works of previous masters, rather than encouraging individuality as we westerners are wont to do. This is probably why somewhat bizarre traditions like running naked into freezing water continue - this is what makes them Japanese. The grade school system is much more like the British one than the American one. In the States, we teach each child that they can grow up to be anything or do anything if they work hard enough at it. Toward that end, we basically teach them a lot of theory and fewer skills than may be ideal. In Japan, the children begin focusing their future careers at an early age and may learn trade skills in grade school. Also, the schooling system is every bit as intense as you're heard - high school students routinely stay at school until the late evening participating in clubs and sports. There are no school districts in Japan (and thus no school busses), as students apply to attend a school and must complete an on-site interview and grueling entrance examination. There's a hierarchy of schools, so eventually, everyone finds a place. In contrast to the States, it's the public schools that are best in Japan. I've heard it mentioned that Japan is a centralized-capitalist nation, while the U.S. is a decentralized-capitalist nation. Given the amount of top-down regulation from the government in a wide variety of spheres of life, this sounds like an appropriate distinction. The Japanese expect a large amount of government involvement, and in fact, the government feels somewhat obligated to give everyone a job if they can't find one elsewhere (so, in the current recession, there is a lot of road work being done as public works projects). Anyway, the teenagers who are learning their trade skill are taught to take pride in their work; in the service industry, which I interacted with the most, this translated to an amazingly high level of customer service. On the United flight back to the States, the flight attendants were all American, and I immediately missed the helpfulness and happiness that is exuded by the Japanese. Whether this behavior feigned or not, I don't know. Also, the social accountability system in Japan extends not only to having you give a reference when you check into a hotel (as we did in Fukuoka), but also to the teachers being obligated to certain parental duties (like accompanying an injured student to the hospital, etc.). Basically, the traditional system is much more village-like (in that they really do spread the responsibility of raising children around) than in the States. Naturally, this has both good and bad elements to it. What's interesting now, however, is that the younger generation has absorbed a lot of the western ideals that the Japanese so easily adopted (as they so frequently do), and are significantly more individualistic than I think their elders would like. So, it will be extremely interesting to see how, in the coming years, Japan deals with a) an aging population and b) the erosion of the traditional societal/hierarchical bonds. Still, while freely adopting bits and pieces of other cultures that they like (e.g., pop music), they remake much of it into a Japanese style. The country may seem extremely modern (and it is), but the trappings of modern life will seem a little unfamiliar to we foreigners because they've done it their own way.

posted May 5, 2005 02:02 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (1)

April 13, 2005

TravelBlog: Kyoto, city of a thousand shrines

While Tokyo is the bustling, crowded, frenetic center of Japan, Kyoto is the historic center, having been the location of the capital for several hundred years between when it was at Nara (located slightly south of Kyoto) and Tokyo. It's also the home to an impossible number of shrines and an overwhelming amount of history. In fact, it's difficult to walk around outside the city center without running into some historical building (which, given Japan's propensity for mutability, likely has burnt down and rebuilt a dozen times).

There's something about being awake early in the morning that I like when traveling. Perhaps it's that early morning is a time when the city is just groaning into life, and people go about their business in a way that's pretty independent of culture and location. That is, I just like watching whatever city I'm in wake up. the city of Kyoto itself is surrounded be low mountains (800m at highest), and its the foothills that are where the majority of the shrines lay. Because I had limited time in Kyoto, I decided to focus on one section of the halo of shrines that surrounds the city, so my first stop was the massive Choin-in temple, where I heard three monks doing their early morning chants to the regular rhythm of a drum. The temple buildings can only be described as massive, in that "wow, that roof looks like it weights several hundred tons and it was built using techniques from a thousand years ago" kind of way. These gargantuan structures (topped by beautiful roof tiles) are the exact ones that you see shown whenever someone wants to represent traditional Japan. Inside one of the smaller Choin-in buildings, I discovered a set of calligraphy tables, laid out as if later in the day a group of young Japanese students would occupy them, learning how to make beautiful kanji characters. Choin-in is one of the more touristy temple complexes in Kyoto, but being there well before it opened, I was able to enjoy it quietly.

Although I saw upwards of a dozen shrines and temples during my first day, a few stood out. The Kiyomizu-dera temple is one of several a world heritage sites and is another sprawling complex of buildings, some small and some large. On the approach, you're confronted by a three story tall pagoda painted bright orange, flanked by some early-blooming cherry trees (the cherry blossom season has particular significance to the Japanese, and there are all sorts of festivals scheduled for the time of year when they blossom). The rest of the temple complex is strung out along a winding trail that skirts the bottom of a steep hillside. The main temple itself is raised on five-story-high stilts, which gives it a commanding view of the area. Around the corner from the main temple, a few narrow alleyways were packed with Japanese school kids and merchants selling traditional Japanese fortunes - little pieces of paper folded tightly and bound with a read ribbon. The kids were laughing and teasing each other about their fortunes, and a few took up the challenge of the Love Stones: two stones, placed about 20 feet apart, where if you are able to successfully walk from one to the other with your eyes closed while murmuring the name of your interest, supposedly your heart's desires will come true. Several of the temples I visisted had prayer boards, where people would hang a small wooden plaques with writing and/or pictures on them which are called 'ema' which offer prayers with vows of love. The chief priest of the shrine or temple then prays so that the prayers will be answered on the first Sunday of every month.

Another memorable temple was Sanjusangendo, a 120 meter long building containing 1001 statues of Kannon, and 20-something statutes of the major gods of Buddhism. The odd statue of the 1001 is a larger-than-life bodhisattva. As you walk along the length of the interior, reading the various descriptions of the major gods, it's hard to avoid being amazed at the Japanese's attention to detail. Both with the 1000 identical statues, and the temple buildings themselves, being able to mass produce things that require an incredible attention to detail seems to have a long tradition in Japan. If you mentally compare the relative messiness of the appearance of a gothic cathedral to the extremely well-ordered appearance of a Japanese temple structure, you'll get a good impression for just how amazingly disciplined the Japanese people were when the Western world was still in chaos.

As is often the case when I travel alone, I made friends with a few other people in the hostel over dinner that night. The next day, Rosa, a chinese woman who spoke English but no Japanese, joined me for the day. What impressed me about Rosa was that she was much more confident of her ability to get around than I was. For instance, she taught me that in restaurants, you should ask for the "picture menu", and that failing that, just ask for "fish". It was also interesting to see her mistaken for Japanese and then amusing to see their confused looks when she refused to speak Japanese back to them. Rosa and I took the long way up the nearby Mt. Hiei in order to get to another sprawling temple complex, called Enryaku-ji. Bigger temples, but not significantly novel after my first overdose on shrines. Oddly, in getting there, we passed through a garden filled with reproductions of French impressionist paintings and a restaurant called Cafe du Paris. Those Japanese... very strange. :)

Given how much history is represented in Kyoto, my few short days there were wholly insufficient; yet I'm happy with how much I was able to pack into them. On my last half-day in the city, I visited a traditional Japanese Zen rock garden, the famous Ryoin-ji. The garden is supposedly the quintessential one of its kind, with 15 rough rocks of various sizes arranged on a 40 x 20 ft bed of carefully raked white gravel (I was surprised at the roughness of the stones - my naive impression was that rocks in rock gardens were supposed to be smooth). The brochure instructed we tourists to find our own meaning in its arrangement, and it occurred to me that this perspective is decidedly post-modern, despite the garden having been built more than 500 years before modernism. In several touristy spots, I'd seen Japanese carefully dusting surfaces; in fact, every temple or shrine I visited was immaculately clean. The natural gardens surrounding Ryion-ji were no different, although it was the detritus and stray pieces of gravel that the groundskeepers were carefully removing. From Ryoin-ji I walked down the road to Kinkaka-ji, the Golden Pavilion, built by one of the shoguns while Japan was under military rule. Here, I met throngs of camera-ladden tourists (mostly Italian and Spanish) snapping pictures of a three story building situated in the middle of a tranquil lake, of which the top two stories were completely covered in gold leaf. It was like the dome of Napoleon's Tomb meets the Shogunate, and it sparkled brilliantly in the mid-morning sun. It was here that I met Sarah, an American working as a nanny for a Japanese family outside of Tokyo. Sarah's story struck me as interesting because she had simply decided that she didn't know what she wanted to do after college and so, instead of moving home and getting a job like most lost college grads, she spontaneously moved to Japan for a year. I had to admire her gumption.

There were two things I didn't get to do while I was in Kyoto. The first was to see the geisha in the Gion district. On my way back to the hostel, I took a stroll down the main street in the area, which is literally about four feet wide, and peeked down the inviting entryways to the teahouses. The other was to see some kabuki theatre (I've heard it's boring, but still, I want to see it first hand), which originated in Kyoto. I'll have to come back another time to see these and the temples on the western side of the city. This is probably true of all cultures everywhere, but I couldn't help but notice the similarity of function that the massive temples had as compared to the massive cathedrals in Europe; that is, they inspire awe and reverence for the cause to which they were built. In fact, when Rosa and I were wandering through the Nijo-jo castle, the brochure specifically said that the brilliant Kano-period painted screens were intended to inspire awe in the Shogun's visiting nobles. It's been said many times before, but this gives the function of our modern skyscrapers on a slightly different interpretation, particularly banks.

After my last entry, I had a request to make some observations about the Japanese people and perhaps contrast them with Americans. It's my impression that the Japanese are a somewhat guarded people. They're extremely friendly to strangers and travelers, but that would seem to be a traditional obligation, not unlike the same of ancient Greece (think: The Oddysey). They are also very family-centric, and when you apply for jobs, etc., you typically have to give your parent's contact information, presumably so that the boss can call on their influence, if need be; the family seems to be a crucial part of the social accountability system. At least partially because of the population density, people often live with their parents until they can afford their own place, or they get married. For the women, I don't get the impression that they have as many socially acceptable alternatives to early marriage and housewife-dom as their American counterparts. Indeed, I very rarely saw women around my age who weren't on the arm of their boyfriend. There also seems to be an element of cultural doppelgangerism - the fashion and music of the American 1950s, 1980s, and British punk rock are alive and well here in Japan. (To be honest, I think the Japanese have improved upon the originals.) Also, the Japanese are a people of intense convenience. Heated toilet seats, their cellphones, their shinkansen (bullet trains), ubiquitous automatic doors (even in the smallest of restaurants or stores), etc. are all testament to their desire to live more easily through technology. But what's odd is that they aren't as computerized as Americans are. They love their gadgets for their convenience (and are years ahead of the rest of the world), but still rely on paper copies of information tables and paper files in many of their transportation offices. For good reason, Japan often gets called the place where East and West meet. I think it's modernized extremely quickly, adopting western attitudes for things like technology, some fashion, convenience, etc., but it's still quite traditional when it comes to social mores. I wouldn't be surprised if China becomes even more of a weird blend of east/west and tradition/modern given the rate at which it's advancing.

posted April 13, 2005 11:06 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

TravelBlog: Japan, a country in pictures

I've sifted through the 200 odd pictures I took during my time in Japan and have posted only the best (I swear!). Enjoy!

posted April 13, 2005 12:40 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

April 09, 2005

TravelBlog: Tokyo, the New York of the East...

Actually, a more apt statement would be New York is the Tokyo of the West. (For some great pictures of Tokyo at night, try here.) The urban area of Tokyo and its surrounding areas are sprawling metropolis encompassing a staggering 34 million people. As a city itself, it lacks many of the architectural anachronisms of New York, but this is largely due to the fact that earthquakes knock many of them down every so often. In fact, because the islands are perpetually changing shape (earthquakes, volcanoes, waves), the Japanese could be said to rely more on social structure to preserve their cultural heritage than to rely on architectural cues as is the case in Europe (think: the Palace at Versailles).

My adventures in Tokyo began the night I arrived. After meeting up with friend Chris Salzberg (currently working on a PhD at U. Tokyo, doing cool artificial life stuff), I experienced the tightly packed urban eating area in Shinjuku where salarymen eat a variety of Japanese cuisine in small shops that seat at most six or seven. The next morning, I rose at 4:30am to go to the Tokyo Fish Market, which my Let's Go guidebook recommended (although, I can't recommend the Japan guidebook). Just like Shinjuku train station, the Fish Market is the largest in the world. 27 tonnes of fish pass through the market every day (except Sunday), chilled by 200 tonnes of ice! The market itself starts up at around 3:00am, so by the time I arrived at 6:30am, things were in full swing. The daily auctions of freshly caught tuna had just finished, and rows upon rows of flash-freezed tuna carcasses lay on the auction house floors. From there, the fish were transferred to about a dozen densely packed rows of processing merchants who, with band-saws and 4-ft long knives, sliced and carved the tuna into progressively smaller chunks. Tuna isn't the only thing that passes through the market. There are so many things that do, I was at a loss to identify all but a few familiar ones: sea cucumbers, tuna, giant crabs, spiny lobsters (I think), squid, cuttlefish (maybe), and a host of other finned, shelled and tentacled things.

On the subway to the market, I met Sue and Ann, two South African sisters. Both were twice my age, but we had a great time strolling through the bustling market. Sue had been to the market once before, and shared the statistics I mentioned earlier. At the far side of the market, the processed fish were packaged and moved so as to be transported to the far reaches of the globe. From what I hear, there are sushi restaurants in New York City that have their fish flown in daily from Tokyo. I've seen one end of the chain now, so next time I'm in New York, I'll have to see the other. My companions and I finished our tour with a breakfast of fresh sushi; delicious!

My next stop was the neighborhood of Akihabara, which is better known for its cheap electronics and anime stores, but I was there to see a little Confucian shrine, and the shrine to Kanda Myojin (Japanese legendary figure). As seems pretty common in Tokyo, nestled among the endless tall buildings, bustling streets and fashy modernity are islands of aged tranquility. Smack in the middle of Akihabara is a walled compound that houses the Confucian shrine, and across the street is the Kanda shrine. Both were imperfect santuarie, as if, despite the stillness within, the young, modern and energetic Tokyo a few dozen meters away refused to be silenced by the stable, ancient and peaceful Tokyo of yesterday.

Next, I walked from Akihabara to Ueno, another major transportation hub much like Shinjuku. Situated just behind the station is the sprawling Ueno Park, home, it would seem, to most of the major museums in Tokyo. I focused my time in the Tokyo National Museum complex, which houses six different buildings containing art and treasures from historic Japan, as well as the rest of Asia. Apparently, the mummys are the main draw there and I missed them. Instead, I wandered amongst thousand year old urns, scrolls and statues of buddha. Of all the pieces, I enjoyed the black and white Japanese screens, and the 'modern' Japanese art, from the 1800s, that appeared to be slightly post-Renaissance and reminded me a little of Andy Warhol's stuff. Oh, and, the samurai armor was neat.

Finally, I walked from Ueno to Asakusa (getting lost only a couple of times on the way - the directions in Let's Go Japan are universally bad for Tokyo; fortunately, the Japanese are often extremely helpful to lost foreigners) to see the famous Senso-ji shrine. "Shrine" doesn't really do it much justice - "campus" seems a better word. The main shrine is about the size of a small office building, and it's flanked by a huge and beautiful five story pagoda building. The small hut-like structure on the approaching road billows smoke that the Japanese waft towards themselves to get luck. At all the shrines I visisted, the offering box is situated in front of the buddha and is fitted with wooden slats running short-ways across the top - coins tossed onto them make a pleasing thunk-thunk-chink as they bounce across them before finally settling into the interior. The offering box at Senso-hi was proportionate to the size of the shrine... that is to say, it was huge, and patrons tossed their coins from a proportional distance away. After snapping some pictures of this sprawling and very traditionally Japanese structure, I browsed the shopping street nearby. Tourist-trap central, although a lot of the goods are hand-crafted. I hear that it used to be more pleasant (read: less touristy), but I found it nice enough.

On my second day, I ventured to Harajuku neighborhood to see the "fashion parade" of young girls wearing outlandish costumes (accompanied by Chris and Hana). At first, I had much respect for them since I thought they much have made these costumes themselves. Then, as we walked from Harajuku to Shibuya for lunch, I spotted a host of stores that sell these get-ups pre-made. The outlandishness suddenly became both less endearing and less interesting. But my faith in Japanese weirdness was restored when I came upon a group of four Japanese men outfitted in tight leather and copious amounts of hair grease, dancing to "Do The Twist" in the nearby park. As any Japanese tourist would do, I snapped a picture of the crazy locals.

That night, Chris, Hana and I had what's called "munja", a kind of traditional Japanese food. The restaurant was small and run by a local family, the menu was in kanji; Hana ordered. Soon we were brought three bowls of chopped stuff (possibly soaking in a liquid), which is then fried on the hot plate built into your table. For one kind of munja, once it's partially fried, you carefully construct a little pen on the hot plate and pour the liquid from the bowl into the middle. If you've built properly then none of the liquid seeps out. Trying my hand at this, my dam only sprung one leak, and the final result was extremely tasty.

Tokyo, like New York City, is too big to see in a few days. As I've come to expect with all of my travel, many interesting things will go unseen and unexperienced. My rationalization is that I simply have to return in the future to experience more. Tokyo is no different. During my last day, I focused more on business, visiting both the Ikegami and Kaneko laboratories at U. Tokyo. My intention was to investigate the possibility of doing a post-doc in Kaneko's lab, and this may materialize in the future. My trip to Japan left me so enamored with the country that I've placed it on the (very short) list of places to live in the future.

posted April 9, 2005 12:33 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

April 05, 2005

Flying west to get east; follow-up

I just got back from Japan, and I want to go back already. Truly a country where East meets West, and Traditional meets Modern, and Nature meets Mankind (think: volanoes, earthquakes and tidal waves), Japan is an amazing place. Over the next little while, I'll be blogging about some of my experiences and observations about the differences between Japanese and Americans.

posted April 5, 2005 10:11 PM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (0)

March 23, 2005

Flying west to get east

In a few hours, I leave on my first trip to the Asian continent (I don't count my trip to Turkey in 2002). Depending on Internet access, time and motivation, I may make updates from abroad, but don't count on it. I'll definitely write something when I return, and post lots of pictures. Tenatively, I'll say that I'll resume my sporadic posting on April 5th.

My itinerary begins with flying into Tokyo, where I'll spend three or four days. In addition to seeing the sights and experiencing the megopolis, I'll be visiting friend Chris Salzberg and his research lab. It's always nice to mix a little business scouting in with all the pleasure. Who knows, maybe I'll apply for post-docs in Tokyo in a few years. After Tokyo, it's off to historic Kyoto where I'll fend for myself for several days, before finally heading to the southern island of Kyushu to visit friend Jenn Louie in the city of Miyazaki.

posted March 23, 2005 09:49 PM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (0)

July 29, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 9

This is the ninth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Merhaba from Turkey again!

In the afternoon I left Goreme for Istanbul, I began to get the first inkling that I might have eaten something I shouldn't have. Sure enough, before the bus left that night, I started feeling sick in my bowels. I arrived early the next morning after sleeping throughout the 12-hour bus ride, and thought only of sleeping more. The next two days were particularly uncomfortable between my bowels being a war zone and the oppressive heat-wave that had come into town with me, as I tried to sleep as best I could in the busy hostel. During the two days that I was particularly unwell, I made only brief journeys outside the hostel to see sights very nearby. Fortunately, by the third day I started feeling more normal again, and during my fourth and fifth days in Istanbul I felt largely back to my active self (although subject still to the occasional stomach-growl).

Istanbul teems with life in a way very much like Paris, London, Rome and Barcelona. During the day, there's the busy bustle of people coming and going, shopping and selling. I made the neighborhood of Sultanahmet my home base, in much the same way most tourists do. They do this because that's where the two most well known mosques (the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofia Mosque) are and the Grand Bazaar is very nearby. Istanbul itself is split first into two sections, the Asian and the European sides, and the European side is again split into two sections, north and south of the Golden Horn. Running north-to-south is the Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (which then pours into the Mediterranean Sea). As far as I could tell, in Istanbul itself, there's only one bridge that crosses the Bosphorus - it's a giant suspension bridge much like the Golden Gate in San Francisco, across which flows an immense amount of traffic between the two continents.

My first day in Istanbul, armed with plenty of water to keep myself upright and hydrated, I ventured out to see the Topkapi Palace, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire for more than 500 years. (Throughout my stay in Istanbul, I learned a little about the Ottoman Empire. It wasn't really much considering how much history there was to learn, but it was enough for me to feel shamefully ignorant of such and important Empire given my woefully small education on this part of the world in grade school). The Palace is divided into four walled courts, the first of which is more precisely a giant garden where locals would come to trade wares, soak up the glory of the Empire and where occasionally the sultan would make an appearance to view his subjects. Passing through another wall and gate, one enters the Third Court, where the Palace's kitchens, another garden, the entrance to the Harem (living quarters of the Sultan), entrance to the Inner Treasury and another gate that leads to the Second Court. The Harem is only accessible by a guided tour, so I bought my ticket and spent the remaining time until the next tour poking around the kitchens. In one part of the kitchens is a collection of some very ornately shaped silver statues, dishes and models. The other is the more important though, as it houses a small piece of one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese pottery in the world (something like 12,000 pieces in all! Less than a hundred were on display). These were truly beautiful pieces - the rich blues of the pottery in detailed images of nature and dragons decorated plates, vases, pots, etc. Some of the vases were four or five feet tall and exquisite. The pieces that really caught my eye were the ones with polychromatic coloring, since they stood out from the blue and white coloring of the majority of the pieces.

The Harem area of the Palace was occupied by the Sultan, his eunuchs and the various women that were either his current wives or candidates to become his wives. Here's how the system worked: young girls, usually around the age of five, were brought to the Harem and put into the service of the Sultan. While in service, they were educated in things like logic, philosophy, history, and literature, and provided with extremely good accommodations. If, over the next ten years or so, the Sultan slept with one of the girls, she became one of his wives. The Sultan usually had between four and eight wives, and I'm not sure what might have happened if he slept with a ninth. Anyway, being one of the Sultan's wives elevated the girl to a significantly higher status. If she bore him a child, she was elevated again. If she bore him his heir, then she was elevated to the highest possible position in the Harem and was an extremely powerful/influential person in her own right. There were some other details in how all this worked, but it was a little hard to understand our guide at some points because her voice was easily lost in the depths of the huge echoing rooms that we were moving through. The Harem area itself is a complex of rooms, hallways, bathing chambers (he even had a very large outdoor pool) and courtyards, mostly covered in beautiful blue Iznik tiles, with white plaster and timber making up the rest of it. Plus the gold detailing. Interestingly enough, the Sultan's Harem was served by a hot and cold water system, a few rooms had heated floors and there were the squat-and-aim style toilets in use as early as 1600, which was well before the kings and queens of Europe had such luxuries. Many of the rooms in the Harem had huge domed ceilings, many of which were painted. Two rooms in particular stick out in my mind as being memorable - they had giant stain glass windows in them. The individual pieces of the windows were all very small, and the designs intricate geometric ones, given the overall effect that the window was more like a giant mosaic with an inner light than a Western-style stain glass window. The Harem reminded me quite a bit of the papal apartments in the Vatican museum, for their endless splendor. At the gateway between the Third and Second Court is a small covered square where the Sultan would have ceremonies. Stuck in the middle of the square is a small marble half-dome (perhaps 15cm high) where the Sultan's standard would be placed during the ceremonies. The Second and First courts were where the Sultan would entertain important dignitaries, go for walks on his own, and they housed the Treasury Museum and another set of rooms with interesting artifacts like the Prophet Muhammad's sandals, swords, bits of his beard, hair, etc. The Treasury was really interesting, as along the walls were illuminated boxes containing wondrous treasures of gold, emerald, mother-of-pearl + tortoise shell inlaid stuff (this combination seemed to be a favorite of Sultans'), rock crystal, etc. Incredible beautiful. In one of the four rooms was a bit of St. Paul's skull and I think St. John's forearm and hand. (It still strikes me as being a bit odd to preserve people piece-wise in this manner) The First Court looks out over the Bosphorus, and far across the water, you can see the Asian side of Istanbul spreading out into the distance. (Interesting Factoid: only three percent of Turkey's landmass is on the European continent)

My second day in Istanbul, I again armed myself with water and ventured out to see the Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, I didn't quite make it all the way there as I had planned. As I was sitting in the Sultan Ahmet Park, three young Turks came up to me. I immediately slightly tightened my grip on my bag and steeled myself for some kind of scam. Turns out such precautions were needless this time, as they just wanted to practice English. So I met Ceyhan (who did most of the speaking, as his English was the best), Ahmet and Hulusi. We chatted for a long time about things such as where I'd traveled, Islam, Turkey, euphemisms (both Turkish and English), etc. Here are a few of the Turkish sayings I learned (translated into English): meaning the same as our saying 'Rules are made to be broken', the Turkish saying is 'Rules are made for chewing.' Meaning something along the lines of saving money will make you wealthy, a common Turkish saying goes something like 'Drip. Drip. And soon a lake will be there.' After a while, I started feeling less well, we were after all sitting out in the sun while we were chatting, I bade my new friends goodbye and went to see the Blue Mosque.

More properly called the Sultan Ahmet Camii (mosque), the Blue Mosque is, I think, what most people would call the symbol of Istanbul. It's many domes cascade upward from the hulking base to culminate in the triumphant grand dome that rises above the ground at almost 50m. Surrounding the mosque structure are six minarets from which the daily calls to prayer are made. Apparently, at the time of its construction, it was preposterous to build a mosque with six minarets, as that's how many the mosque in Mecca has. Sultan Ahmet circumvented this little snag by financing the construction of a seventh minaret in Mecca. Four of the minarets stand at each of the four corners of the mosque itself, while the remaining two stand at the corners of an attached large courtyard (of equal area as the mosque, and adjoining the mosque on one side). The tourist entrance and exits are on the north and south sides of the mosque. I'd worn long trousers that day since my guide book had advised that shorts are disrespectful in a mosque, but it turns out I would have been alright anyway. At the tourist entrance, there were shawls that some men wrapped around themselves, forming a makeshift skirt, while women wrapped it around their shoulders if they were bare. Either way, the tourists stood out inside the mosque because of their silly garb. Inside the Blue Mosque is a single cavernous, vaulting interior space for worship. Covering almost every surface were more blue and sometimes polychromatic Iznik tiles (Iznik is a place (in Turkey, I think) known for its world-class pottery for many years). Four massive pillars supported the main dome's corners far above. These pillars were swathed in tiles and a band of gold-on-black Arabic writing. Covering every inch of the floor were carpets, which were quite comfortable to pad around on in my socks (no shoes inside the mosque). It was really quite an awesome place to be. I relished the beauty of the interior as I slowly wandered toward the tourist exit; this was the first mosque I'd ever been inside, and I definitely picked a good one to start with!

By my third day in Istanbul, I was beginning to feel somewhat better, although I was still sleeping throughout most of the day. Mirroring my rise in health and spirit, the heat wave also relaxed and temperatures cooled off a bit. I started the day by trying to unsuccessfully find the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art; so instead, I visited the Underground Cistern and went for a walking tour. I'm not quite sure what the Underground Cistern was used for - I would guess it was a water reserve - but it was such a neat place to visit. It lies just a few meters beneath the frantic hustle of Sultanahmet's main street and as you descend the short flight of steps into the cistern, all sound from above fades and is replaced by the eerie drip-drop of water and a faint Turkish flute (soundtrack) playing from hidden speakers. This place is eerie, and fascinating in a way nothing else I've seen on this trip has been. The cistern is a giant chamber supported by a grid work of 340 columns each of which sits at the crotch of a brick barrel vault. Covering the floor is a clear pool of perhaps 15cm of water. A slightly elevated walkway allows terrestrial tourists to walk around dimly, and eerily, illuminated sections of the cistern while inky blackness plays tricks on the mind in the distance. (Can you tell I liked this place? :)) The walkway does a long loop through the main part of the cistern, taking you by the only two atypical areas in the largely uniform room. In Turkey and on some of the Greek isles, I often would see blue glass disks with a white eye painted on them. These are the evil-eye charms. They were ubiquitous in Turkey, with almost every vendor selling them and almost every Turk carrying one somewhere. One of the columns in the Cistern was carved with the same, I think, eyes, and was called the Tear Column. Interestingly, around each of the large eyes on the column were lines making the shape of a large inverted tear. The walkway then wandered over to a pair of shorter columns. Shorter because they were standing on top of large blocks, each of which had carved on it the face of Medusa. One face was upside-down and the other was on its side. Supposedly, these two and another pair (which lie at the base of the Bosphorus Bridge and are at opposite 45-degree angles) were taken from a Roman building somewhere or other. How they made their way to the Cistern and why there were there, I have no idea. They added to the eeriness of the whole place. Oh, another interesting factoid I learned: there's a chase scene in some James Bond movie filmed in the Underground Cistern. Any Bond buffs know which one it might be?

The rest of my day was spent wandering up toward to the Grand Bazaar and to the Suleymanye Mosque. The tight and stuffy quarters of the Bazaar was a little much for my still unwell body, even though I was only cutting through it, but the Mosque was a pleasant respite. This mosque looked very similar to the Blue Mosque from the outside, but the inside had its own personality. I could see how looking at a lot of these mosques, one could start to think they all looked the same, but I think that Christian cathedrals are kind of similar - they start to look the same after you've seen a lot of them as well.

My fourth day in Istanbul, I did manage to finally find the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum (it was in a completely different place than I had first thought!). Christian art is largely focused on representations of scenes and people from the Bible. Islamic art doesn't permit the representation of people, so it focuses on geometric and floral patterns projected onto objects. Objects like boxes, Koran stands (which can be exquisitely beautiful objects), Koran boxes, the beautiful script of Arabic, tiles, various bronze objects, etc. It's a whole different way of being artistic, and I can see why the Humanist Revolution came through Western art rather than Arabic art - it's a little more difficult to identify human emotions with a beautiful piece of Arabic script than it is with the extremely human face of David in the Accademia Museum in Florence. That doesn't make the Islamic art any less beautiful, but it was still one of the distinctions that I sought to understand a little more about by going to a museum specifically about Turkish and Islamic art. Another thing I learned a little about was how to look at carpets - I haven't talked much about them, but there are carpet dealers everywhere in the areas of Turkey that I've visited. I've been accosted by no less than a dozen carpet dealers, and was I more easily parted with my money, I might have been coming back to the US with one or more carpet in tow.

My last day in Istanbul, I finally visited the sister of the Blue Mosque's spot in the Istanbul skyline, the Ayasofia (or St. Sophia, as it was originally a Christian basilica). Ataturk turned this mosque into a museum when he established the Republic of Turkey. This mosque was an entirely different experience from the other three that I'd visited. Where the other mosques were swirls of blue and white with accents of black and gold, the interior of the Ayasofia was a wash of different greys with gold ceilings and black details. The blue and white tiles in a few places seemed out of place. The interior here was even more cavernous than the two other big mosques I'd seen, and its dome reaches higher than any other in the city (53m). The really interesting thing about the Ayasofia is that as it was originally a Christian basilica, there were frescoes on the ceilings. When it was converted into a mosque, the builders simply plastered over the frescoes rather than destroying them. Now, in several places, those frescoes have been uncovered, and the ghostly outlines of crosses adorn many of the arches and ceilings where they had been painted over with floral patterns, while pinned against the walls, high up in several places are huge black disks with gold Arabic script and trim - all together, it's an odd mixture of iconography from both religions. When you walk into the main area, you immediately get the impression of overwhelming age. The entire place looks like it's covered in a not-so-thin layer of dust, although that's perhaps because the marble isn't polished and has a dull luster to it rather than the shine one usually sees. Unaligned with the main cross of the old basilica floor-plan are structures aligned to Mecca for the mosque's functioning - this adds to the weirdness of the place, as these structures are quite obviously additions made after the original structure was built.

I also spent a bit longer poking around the Grand Bazaar, and even stopped by the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. The word 'bazaar' conjures up images from movies, stories and antiquity of men wearing robes standing under cloth awnings hawking various goods like bronze objects, bags of grain, etc. This is a foolish imagery as it has very little in relation to the labyrinthine market that is the modern-day Grand Bazaar. The whole area is covered by barrel vault roofs, and each shopkeeper has a box-like shop of various proportions out of which he bases his sales. Usually, his goods (shirts, lamps, jewelry (lots and lots of these), wooden crafts, etc.) were arrayed on the outside of his shop so that passers-by can easy see what he has to see. This year apparently, tourism is down and the Bazaar wasn't as crowded as it usually gets. Still, there was definitely a crowd, and at times, it was more of a slow shuffling movement than a stroll as I wandered among the shops. The Bazaar itself is loosely organized by type of goods, so the leather dealers are mostly grouped together, the t-shirt dealers, the jewelry row and the carpet dealers all have their own areas. But sometimes you'll find a leather dealer in the t-shirt/clothing section, etc. Just outside the Grand Bazaar, nearer to the Suleymanye Mosque is another market, this one more like a Home Depot split up and distributed among a hundred small merchants. The Spice Bazaar is more food related. The one thing all these places have in common is the fact that they're all selling stuff in the very Turkish manner - that means that the shop keeper will try to get you, the innocent passer-by, to come into his shop by hook or crook. This usually entails his starting a conversation with you, and then drawing you in to look at a few things. I have to admit though, the best salesmen I encountered in my trip in Turkey were at the pottery workshop in Avanos in Cappadocia - with them, it was very difficult to be polite and not inadvertently purchase something!

With my trip winding down, my last real stop was in Selchuk, near the ancient city of Ephesus. Ephesus was the capital of the Asian province of the Roman Empire, and a city of more than 200,000 people. That's big, especially for those times. Ephesus today, however, is a tourist trap of first class. It's also a ruin, and reminded me a lot of the agora area around the Acropolis in Athens, as there are bits and pieces of carved marble laying everywhere, and very few structures intact. The structures are intact are ones that have been pieced back together by jigsaw-crazed archaeologists (the facade of the Library in Ephesus is said to have been composed of three million pieces) from Austria. Ephesus used to be a seaport with a natural inland harbor, but the river than fed that harbor slowly filled it with silt, which helped to seal Ephesus's fate as a doomed city. It was inhabited for something like 600+ years, and had several revivals. There were a series of terrace houses that were extravagantly decorated, probably housing the local officials/politicians. The Library held 12,000 scrolls (a lot, I suppose), and nearby was the Temple of Artemis. At four times the size of the Parthenon, it was a Wonder of the Ancient World. All that remains of it now is a single reconstructed pillar and a vague outline of the enormous girth of the building amid family gardens that occupy the surrounding land. Comically, there's a bird's nest of what I guessed are Ibises (they looked like long-legged, thin pelicans with a long thin beak no oversized sack underneath) on top of the column as well. The theatre in Ephesus has been mostly reconstructed and supposedly seats 25,000 (historians use the theatre's capacity to estimate a city's population: so 25,000 x 10 = city population of 250,000ish). I overhead a tour guide saying that pop stars like to give concerts in the theater, although I can't imagine that the massive vibrations from the amplified sound is good for the surrounding ruins. Ephesus itself wraps itself around a hill, with the main avenues running along the base of the hill, and away from the theatre (carved into the hillside) toward the flat former marsh where the old inland harbor was. Carved into a flagstone on one of the avenues leading from the harbor are a few symbols that archaeologists claim are the first advertisement... for the local brothel!

I'm now back in Athens, biding my time until my flight leaves (tomorrow) for the States. I'm spending time thinking back over this amazing trip I've had, and the myriad of experiences that I'm bringing back with me (something no Customs agent will be able to hinder my bringing into the country). I'm just marveling at how many interesting people I've met (just the other night, I met a high school history teacher who's traveling for several months in Turkey (his second time doing this)), how many interesting things I've seen, and all the interesting places that I'm hoping to visit again before my time is done. If you're able to, I strongly urge you to travel! And not via a tour bus or tour group, but as an independent traveler - you see and experience so much more of a place this way. Turkey was such an amazing experience for those two weeks, and such a different one from what life is like in truly industrialized countries, that even coming back to Athens was a bit of a shock. Athens seems incredibly advanced compared to much of Turkey, so this was perhaps a good stepping-stone on my way back to America. :)

A part of me is very sad to be done with traveling (especially to be done with Turkey... I spent two weeks there and feel like I've only scratched the surface; I could easily go back and spend four months and still have more to see) as I've really settled in to a rhythm now. There's a small part of me that's excited to be done, because it means that I'll soon have nice luxuries again like showering in the same place for more than just a few days, having my own bed, etc. Then there's the part of me that's looking forward to the next adventure, which is graduate school.

I'd like to thank all of you who have written to me while I've been traveling - it's made checking my email something I look forward to, and it's allowed me to maintain a sense of contact even while traveling alone (which can and does get lonely every now and then). To all of you whom I've sent postcards to (I estimate that I've sent over 100 postcards in the past two months), I hope you'll reciprocate when you travel to interesting places! I'd also like to thank all of you who've trudged through my ever-lengthening email updates. I hope that I've been able to convey a part of the wonder and excitement that I've felt in visiting these places, and if I can inspire a few of you to go see those places yourselves, then I'll feel all the more accomplished. :)

Cheers! Aaron

posted July 29, 2002 06:23 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

July 20, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 8

This is the eighth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Merhaba! (Turkish 'hello')

When last I wrote, I was on Santorini Island in Greece, preparing to depart for Rhodes Island on an overnight ferry. It was that night that I finally made it to Paros Island, although it was only for a layover on my way to Rhodes. I spent most of my time chatting with a young female traveler from Maine who'd spent close to two years in Japan and traveling in Southeast Asia. She had only good things to say about her travels. Perhaps it's because American mainstream culture fosters the view of Asia as a wild and uncivilized (in the American sense, I suppose) place, but after meeting many people who've successfully and happily traveled in both the Middle East and Asia, my desire to visit those places has grown. Not on this trip however...

Rhodes Island lies just off the coast of Turkey, and over the course of the past several thousand years, has been invaded, fortified and shaped by perhaps a half-dozen peoples. From the Greeks, to the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, Rhodes has evolved into a fairly diverse place. Even modern day Greeks come to vacation at the lush beaches of Lindos. Rhodes was also the home of the Colossus (a 65m high bronze figure), although it fell over close to 2500 years ago. Marking where his feet would have been is a pair of pillars capped by life-size bronze deer. I have no idea why that particular kind of memorial was chosen, but the deer seems to be a symbol for Rhodes now a days (on the various Rodian governmental icons, there was a deer). Rhodes City is split between a new town and an old town, and actually reminded me quite a bit of Carcassone in France - the old town is where the backpackers like to stay and is where tourist shops as well as traditional locals live, while new town has a McDonalds and very few buildings more than 100 years old. The thing I liked most about Rhodes was the dry moat that circled the old city. Between 15 and 30 meters wide, this swath of green land seemed rather out of place considering that the city walls were intended to repel invaders.; palm trees, grass, a wide sandy-dirt path and a large number of what appeared to be stone cannon balls (sometimes just one, but usually a pile of them in a pyramidal shape).

Getting from Rhodes to Marmaris in Turkey ended up being a very expensive hop. All told, it cost 101 euro: 28 for the catamaran ferry, 23 for the port tax and 50 euro for the entry visa! (apparently, only Americans have to pay just a high visa fee; most other nationalities pay less than 20 euro) The Turkish lira has undergone heavy inflation for a long period of time, and everyone here is a millionaire as a result. Here're some examples of prices:

1.5 liters of mineral water: 500,000 Turkish Lira (TL); dorm room in a hostel: 8,000,000 TL; one apple: 750,000 TL. The exchange rate is about 1,620,000 TL per US dollar. I've purchased postcards that cost 100,000 TL, which is about $0.06 a piece. That being said, there are some Turks that try to fleece tourists. Several of my first transactions weren't very pleasant because I had very little idea of how much was an appropriate price to pay. Another noteworthy thing about Turkey is that most prices are negotiable, especially when there isn't a price posted (which is just about everywhere, and allows a businessman so inclined to have a 'tourist' price and a 'local' price).

I landed in Marmaris, Turkey. It's a port town, that apparently is the international yachting capital, and plays host to a very large international yachting competition each year. It also has the largest bazaar in the southwest of Turkey. I ended up having to stay the night in Marmaris (the bus to Cappadocia the night I landed was full), and actually very much enjoyed being able to wander around for about a day. Marmaris, I think, was good practice for Istanbul.

The Marmaris Bazaar occupies perhaps five square city blocks of space, and consists mostly of little shops. The streets are covered by a steel and plastic barrel vaulted roof that is a boon in the intense heat. In Turkey, it's customary for stores to post a man outside who will call to passers by in an attempt to get them to come in to the shop. I heard 'Hello my friend, how are you?' and 'My friend, where are you from?' quite a bit. There were leather shops, barbershops ('Hello my friend, do you need a shave/haircut?'), clothing shops, jewelry shops, etc. At the recommendation of someone at the hostel, I ate several of my meals at a traditional Turkish kitchen, where the food is very cheap (prepared in very large, shallow pans and put on display - you point at what you want) and Turkish men come to eat, mostly alone and in silence, while they're on break from work. Meal price: less than 2,000,000 TL ($1.33). I did decide to go for the haircut/shave though, and it was quite an experience. First was the shave with a straight razor, then the haircut (more like a trim), and the facemask, and the ears (they light the end of what looks like a long metal qutip (sp?) and flick your ears with it to burn off the little white hairs) and finally a shoulder massage. The guys wanted 40million ($25), but I haggled them down to 30. Turns out, it was only worth about 10million. Ah well :)

Another thing about Turkey is their legalized obsession with Ataturk, the man who founded the republic of Turkey in the early part of this century. He really was a visionary as well. Ataturk made Turkey a secular state with no state-religion (although 99% of Turks are Muslim - that being said, many don't practice, just like with other religions), enfranchised women so they can hold jobs, land, etc. (Turkey has even has a female prime minister), and otherwise modeled the Turkish state after some parts of Western governments. Because of all these progressive reforms, his likeness is found on every unit of currency; seemingly every town bears at least one road with his name and a statue of him. I've often seen a picture of him hanging on a shop wall. I believe it's even against the law to say anything bad about him!

The night bus from Marmaris to Cappadocia was an interesting experience. Long-distance travel in Turkey is usually done on these overnight busses, which are nice Mercedes ones that tour companies use. Unlike our pathetic Greyhound system in the U.S., the Turkish busses have a steward that comes by several times on the trip with your choice of tea ('cay' here - in Marmaris, I was offered turkish tea on several occasions spontaneously. Drinking tea with someone is a traditional form of meeting someone, and there's even a saying that translates roughly as 'One glass of tea shared makes fifty years of friendship'), coffee or a soft drink. Just before coming around with the drinks, the steward comes around with a bottle of scented cologne, which you rub into your hands and perhaps arms and face to refresh yourself.

Finally, I arrived in Cappadocia, which is in the center of Turkey. I stayed in a small village, popular with backpackers, named Goreme, which lies in the heart of the exotic landscape that makes Cappadocia so interesting. Here's a bit of history on the region:

Millions of years ago, there were four volcanoes that, through I suppose a series of eruptions, covered all the surrounding land in layers of ash, dust, mud and lava. The ash, mud and dust congealed into a substance called 'tufa', which is a bit like cement. The lava turned into basalt and obsidian. The volcanoes also ejected large chunks of basalt or pyroclastic stones that embedded themselves in the tufa, compressing the rock below them, making it denser than its surroundings. The volcanoes died out, and the forces of erosion took over, wearing away the tufa and basalt. Tufa, being a porous substance, and slightly flaky on the exterior, wore away quickly. In some areas, the tufa was the most prevalent substance, and as wind and water wore it away, large valleys were created. In a place nearby, called the Ihlara Gorge, as the lava cooled into basalt, the ground split open, forming a gorge with sheer walls. Because tufa is easy to dig into, this area became a perfect place to settle if you wanted to hide from someone else. The Hittites and the Christians used the area the most, delving into the tufa valley walls, creating cave houses, underground cities (which were only inhabited in times of war, as they were extremely defensible), and (by the hands of the Christians) more churches than you can shake a stick at. Goreme sits in the middle of a large valley, flanked on either side by what would appear to the naive eye as sand dunes, etched by a recently fallen rain. Starting from the top ridge, the white tufa falls toward the valley floor in a cascade of branching flows of solid tufa. It's really quite beautiful, and very difficult to describe (I've been trying to come up with a good analogy by which to describe it for several days and am still at a loss). Some of the tufa is tinged yellow from a high concentration of sulfur, other is red from iron, while most is white from calcium. Speckling the landscape inside Goreme's large valley are giant basalt cones, rising 20+ meters from the ground. Into these have been carved rooms and homes, and many are still inhabited or used in conjunction with traditional dwellings. There are even a few pensions that tout themselves for being 'caves'! In other places, are odd projections of tufa, capped by a basalt pyramid that served to shelter the underlying tufa from the elements that wore away the surrounding stone. Some of these projections are called fairy chimneys (the legend says that once upon a time, humans and fairies lived together in peace in these tufa houses, but when a fairy and a human fell into forbidden love, it broke the peace, and the fairies left forever), others that are penile in form give their valley of residence the name 'Love Valley'.

My first day in Goreme, I visited the 'open air' museum, which is a tufa house village complete with some nine churches created by Christains in hiding. The floors of many of these churches were covered in now open and empty graves. Many were decorated too, some by a technique that applied a reddish paint directly to the tufa surface, while others had frescoes (in which a layer of plaster is applied to the surface first, and the paints applied while the plaster is still somewhat wet) on them. In some churches, there were no images of people, as the decorations were done during an iconoclastic period of Christianity (when representations of people were forbidden), while others are completely covered in rich imagery. In some of them, the faces of the people had been scratched off. Islam prohibits representing people in religious art, and so over many years and through misunderstanding, the faces of the Christian frescoes were marred. It was neat to be able to walk around this village and see the rooms and architectural elements carved into the tufa. Afterward, I hiked through the Sword Valley (so named for its preponderance of large pointed basalt and tufa shapes that I suppose resemble swords pointing toward the sky). This was a real thrill because I could clamber into and around the various dwellings that I found in my hike. At one point in my wandering, I spied a large flock of pigeons. These were the first truly wild pigeons I'd ever seen, as I don't think the ones that inhabit cities really count as being wild!

My second day in Goreme, I went on a guided tour. We covered some 220km that day, and saw enough for another email itself, so I'll have to condense a little. Our first stop was Pigeon Valley, where for many years, the locals had cultivated pigeon colonies for their guano (dung). Once a year, they would collect the guano and use it as a fertilizer for the local crops (potatoes, squash, grapes (for wine) and sunflowers). Next, we visited an underground city, which delved some 80m underground. Apparently, nearly every village in this area has such a city beneath it, although some are more extensive than others. All of them are ventilated by a large number of air shafts, that appear to be wells from the surface. When a village was about to be attacked, everyone (including animals) moved underground, and they would draw large basalt millstones across the entrances. The access tunnels between levels and from the surface were also intentionally made small and narrow so that an invading force would be easy pickings for the defenders. Next we hiked a part of the Ihlara Gorge, which yawns very suddenly open in the rolling hills of the area (it's closer to the volcano, so here there is less tufa and more basalt). The sides of the Gorge are like huge, vertical, tightly pressed fingers of basalt. Here erosion works differently from the tufa, as basalt is a much harder stone. Between the slabs of basalt, water freezes in the winter, and over the course of several cycles of freezing/expanding and melting, slabs are shorn off the sides, continually widening the Gorge over time. Here too, Christians took refuge, as except from nearby the Gorge is invisible in the countryside. The land surrounding the Gorge is mostly brown, yet inside the Gorge is a lush greenery, cultivated by the river that runs the Gorge's length. The hike was fairly easy, although there were a few times when we had to either climb up over, or under large blocks of basalt that had fallen from the Gorge's walls. Our next stop was by far my favorite - Selime, a monastery and village carved into a cliff face of tufa. This spot also happens to be featured somewhere in Star Wars: Episode I. I don't remember where it was, so I'll have to watch the movie again sometime :). Selime was my favorite spot because we were allowed free run of the place, and could climb through the wending tunnels and explore the unidentified rooms that reached upward from the base of the cliff to perhaps 50 meters above the road below. This place was like an underground city with a view. Next we visited a fortress on the old Silk Road - the caravans from the East would stop at these stone fortresses for protection from thieves. But when Europe started using Asian routes, or using ships (which were faster and carried more, and also avoided the taxes the Ottoman Empire charged for the use of its section of the Road), the Silk and Spice Roads fell into disuse. We then went to Avanos, which is world famous for its pottery. We had a guided tour of one of the towns most famous family workshops, and I have to say that my respect for quality pottery has increased quite a bit as a result. One of our group even tried her hand at making something with a manual wheel. Then we were ushered into the 'exibition room' (a.k.a. sales room). I think the cheapest piece there was about 30million TL, while the most expensive went for thousands of dollars.

The next two days, I spent hiking in the area. Each day, I took with me 2-3 liters of water, as it is hot hot hot here. Apparently, it gets as hot as 45-50 degrees Celsius here! (that's 110-125 in Fahrenheit) My first day, I wandered through the Rose Valley (called that for its rose colored tufa) among the tufa flows and projections. Usually, the trails looked like dry streambeds (this area doesn't get a lot of rainfall), and would wend their way under thickets, up slopes of tufa, through tunnels or along narrow trenches that the rainfall had cut into the tufa. I was really surprised at how much flora there was in the valleys, but I guess they serve as a kind of funnel, collecting rainfall from the ridges high above as well. At one point in my wandering, I came across a church. There was a Turkish man stationed in a cave nearby, with a few drink cans on display. The price of admittance to the church was one million TL. What really made me think though, was that this fellow sat here all day waiting for the occasional hiker or small group of hikers to wander by. This was a recurring theme in Turkey. In the Marmaris Bazaar (and the Goreme commercial area) there are multiple vendors selling essentially the same goods, all courting the same customers. It's a marvel to me that any of them actually sell anything considering that there aren't that many people who actually buy. I think a lot of the vendors don't actually make much money, but then again, it doesn't cost much to live either. You could live fairly well on less than 50million a week ($33), and that includes everything from food, to renting/owning a house, etc. In my second day of hiking, I hiked the Love Valley (with those phallic projections) and the White Valley (named for its pure white tufa) to a small village called Uchisar. The village wraps itself around the base and mid-section of a small atoll that thrusts itself up out of the surrounding ground and is capped by another tufa village. The view from this point was just stunning - you could see the various tufa valleys stretching out like fingers and arms, the plateau of harder basalt rock in the distance, the rolling soft brown hills of the general Cappadocian countryside and faintly the shape of one of the volcanoes.

One thing that I have been extremely impressed by is the friendliness of the Turks. In the commercial areas, it's harder to tell if the friendliness is genuine or just part of an attempt to get money out of you. But even in the Marmaris Bazaar, it struck me as being unusual. I had tea several times (for no charge) with random people (a guy at the bus station, a waiter at a harbour-side restaurant, and in the Turkish cafeteria), and chatted a little with them. While I was walking along the main road from Goreme to the entrance of the Love Valley, no less than four cars honked, slowed down and gesticulated about given me a ride somewhere. I don't think I've ever seen that happen in the States. While I was wandering around the Marmaris Bazaar trying to find the youth hostel (which was very well hidden), several people spontaneously gave me directions. When driving, there are a couple of Turkish-isms that I thought were interesting as well. The overnight bus would flash its bright-lights at on coming cars as a kind of 'here I am, be aware of me' gesture. Cars will often honk at each other as a way of saying 'hello', and especially when you pass someone in your lane. When I was hiking along the roads, sometimes a car would honk as it drove by and the driver or someone would wave to me.

Tonight I head to Istanbul, then to the ruins of Ephesus, and finally to Athens to fly back to the U.S. I have only another 8 days of travel. If I get the chance to come back to Turkey, I'll certainly take it - it's a beautiful country, with many many things to see. Next time, I'll spend some time on the Mediterranean coast and in the east part of Turkey near Mount Nehmut (where the large carven heads are).

Now reading: nothing. I finished Lord of the Rings the other day (and am really looking forward to seeing The Return of the King on screen - of the three, it's my favorite), and will soon start re-reading Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky.


posted July 20, 2002 04:33 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

July 13, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 7

This is the seventh of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Kalimera, from Greece!

My time in Rome was definitely a lot less organized than my previous stops. This was perhaps because I didn't go into the city with a firm idea of how to spend my time here, but it was enjoyable none-the-less. After sorting out my bankcard issue, I went off in search of a place to get dinner. The place I ended up in was a small Italian restaurant, well off the main avenues. It didn't take long for me to realize I was the only non-Italian there, which made it all the better. My waiter spoke fairly good English, and I tried ordering in what little Italian I had picked up from my phrase book. I actually found it easier to pronounce Italian than French (which is hard because of the silent or deceptive letters). The meal was excellent! Homemade fresh pasta, good house wine and a pleasant atmosphere.

The next morning, I headed to the Vatican City via Rome's metro system. From what I understand, Rome had big plans for their metro, and began digging for a large, extensive system. But, and perhaps not surprisingly, they ran into antiquities all over the place and had to pare down their designs to just two lines (Linea A and Linea B) that form a large 'X'. There's also little/no ventilation in the tunnels, so the only time the sweltering air moves is when a train rushes by. Three times a day, when the Romans use the Metro to get to and from work (morning, lunch and evening), there's a massive crush of hot, smelly people riding the trains. But I digress...

The last time I visited the Vatican City, you had to pass through customs (showing your passport, and everything) at the wall that surrounds it. This is because the Vatican is a sovereign country (the smallest in the world, I think). This time, there weren't even guards stationed at the entrances, although I did spy a few wandering the grounds. The main square of the City is an oval with fountains at the focal points and a large obelisk at the center. Reaching out from the San Pietro (Saint Peter) church and surrounding the square are quadruple rows of classical columns supporting a classical roof. Crowning these arms is a single row, which runs the entire length of the colonnade, of statues. I overheard a tour guide saying that each statue is of some saint, and there are 147 such statues. I had no idea there were so many saints! San Pietro's basilica is huge, classical and dominates the square. The dome itself was designed to be seen above the church's facade from the square, and it's really quite impressive. After a brief wander around the square, I headed inside. The best way to describe the interior is with the words 'big' and 'ornate'. Everything inside is big, and almost every surface is decorated somehow. The barrel vault dome rises perhaps some 100ft above the floor. Just to the right as I entered was a crowd of people taking photos of Michelangelo's Mary and Jesus. At the intersection of the transept and the nave is a small set of stairs going down to what I think was a tomb of someone important. The detail everywhere was just amazing, and again, even the cherubs, which are normally child-sized, were overly large. Huge blocks of marble had been carved at cloth draped over a doorway or under a fountain. I briefly wandered through the crypt below, which was neat - the sarcophagi of pontiffs long dead were stored there, with a carven figure of the respective pope atop. I then climbed to the top of the dome, which was the better part of a thousands steps! The view from atop was appropriately stunning, as you could see the rich greens of the papal gardens in the City as well as the dense buildings of Rome stretching out from the high wall that circled the City. After the long climb back down, I considered going to see the Sistine Chapel, but I had timed things wrong and the entry line was down the street and around the corner. That night, I met up with my British friends from Nice, and we went back to my Italian restaurant for dinner. My birthday was only a few days before, so we celebrated it with a nice bottle of wine (recommended by the waiter).

The next day, I went with my British friends early in the morning to see the Sistine Chapel. We arrived well before the crowds congealed, and strolled through the Vatican Museum for the better part of the morning. The museum has several parts, but the one that includes the Sistine Chapel winds through papal apartments of old before finally putting you out into the Chapel. Every apartment and hallway was richly decorated with ornamentation and painting. My favorite was done by Raphael though. The ceiling had four women seated, one for Poetry, Philosophy, Justice and Theology. The painting below Philosophy was a scene with many robed Greek philosophers from antiquity all posed appropriately - Pythagoras was crouched teaching geometry to his pupils, Aristotle was there along with a bunch of other notables. Finally, we found our way into the Sistine Chapel. The last time I was there, they were doing restoration work on a large portion of the ceiling. This time, there was no scaffolding, and I can definitely say that it deserves every bit of its reputation as impressive and important. Right in the middle of it all, and only being one of about ten panels, is the famous one of God reaching out to Adam. Awe inspiring is a good way of putting this incredibly large room - every inch of it is covered in the richly colored paintings. One end of the room is occupied by an immense depiction of what I guessed was the Last Judgment. Along the bottom there was hell, in deep reds and blacks. The top was heaven, in rich blues and whites. And there were people everywhere, on clouds mostly, each with a unique expression and face. Just amazing.

Around lunchtime, I met up with my friend from Haverford Josh Adelman, who had been studying in Germany for the year. We'd planned to meet up for a brief period of time for many months, and after many emails, it was great to finally meet. With him was a friend of his from Britain (another British girl!) Sarah. We spent most of the rest of that day trying to figure out how to get from Rome to Athens, and me trying to pick up my new bankcard (which was eight hours late - FedEx in the U.S. seems a lot more efficient than FedEx in Italy). After a frustrating experience with a travel agent at the Rome train station, who seemed to know nothing, we finally gave up and got online. Within 10 minutes, we had ferry times and costs from Brindisi, Italy to Patras, Greece, and train times and costs from Patras to Athens. We had a good laugh about that. Once we finally got things worked out, we met up with my British friends for dinner.

Starting at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, we began traveling to Athens. The full trip took almost 30 hours, and by the time we finally reached our hotel, we were extremely glad to have a place to stretch out! On the ferry ride over, we met Seth and Sally, a pair of American high school teachers from Louisiana who were traveling in Greece briefly before heading back to Italy. We ended up staying at the same hotel (they were using the Lonely Planet guidebook, which no one whom I've met on this trip has said good things about!), and the five of us went out for a late dinner. The Greeks tend to eat very late - between 10pm and midnight is normal. In Greece, heckling seems to be a normal form of doing business, and the first few restaurants we considered all had a man standing outside trying to bring business in. We eschewed that area for it's touristy feel and prices. The place we settled on was fantastic. We ate well, and for only about $5 each! Spinach pies, Greek salads, eggplant, stuffed vine leaves and what Sarah, who spoke a little Greek, said was a traditional wine. I didn't care for the wine though; it tasted a little like pinesap.

Josh and Sarah were on a much tighter schedule than I was, so we only stayed in Athens the one night. The next day, we went to the Agora and the Acropolis, before having lunch with Seth and Sally and then catching a ferry to Paros. I'd heard that Athens was a big, sprawling, dirty city and that it's a good idea to get in and get out, seeing the essentials, as quickly as possible. The big and sprawling parts were very much correct, but the overall feel of the city wasn't terrible, and if given the chance, I'd like to spend a few days there. The National Museum of Archaeology there is supposed to be incredible - the museum collected antiquities from all over Greece (of which I imagine there were a great many) and displays them in there in Athens. Definitely on the 'to see' list, and I'm hoping to get to see it before I catch my flight home out of Athens at the end of July.

The Agora is a ruin in every sense of the word. The landscape is very Greek - an arid area with mostly browns and greys, speckled with clumps of a pale green that are the bushes and trees that grow everywhere. Between the greenery are piles of rubble from ancient Greek buildings. If you look closely, and it helps if you look at the little map you get at the entrance, you can see the outlines of buildings, temples, etc. One building has been fully restored, and houses a museum of various smaller Greek artifacts such as pots, bowls, the voting machine used to elect officials (complete with a description of how it works, which is extremely complicated!), and even a ceramic potty for a small child. The upper part of the building was enclosed, while the lower part was open, supported by many rows of columns. I could immediately see why the Greeks favored columns so much - it was really very cool on the benches there, with a nice breeze blowing. A pleasant relief from the relentless sun outside. We then trekked up to the Acropolis (which literally means 'upper city', and many Greek cities have an acropolis. The one in Athens just happens to be the greatest of them all). There we saw the Caryatids (a set of columns carved in the likeness of women) and the Parthenon. Apparently, in the 1800s, there was a British man who, in the name of preserving antiquities, took large portions of the sculpture frieze from the Parthenon. It is those portions that I saw in the British Museum several weeks ago (this guy really did get the best parts too - what remains isn't really enough to tell that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena, and that the main frieze portrayed the gods' reaction to Athena's birth (i.e. surprise!)). Even though the Parthenon seemed smaller than I'd imagined it, it was really neat to realize that humans had continuously occupied this area, the Acropolis and the Agora, for some 6000 years!

That night, Josh, Sarah and I caught the ferry to Paros. Except that we never quite made it to our destination. We misheard the announcement of which island we were at, and deboarded onto Syros! By the time we realized our mistake, the ferry had just left port. We managed to land on our feet though, and took a chance with a heckler who was pushing rooms. We rode with him some 10km out from the port to a sparsely populated area near the town of Vari. The hotel turned out to be really nice, with air conditioning, a refrigerator and a nice bathroom (with a Greek style shower, which is to say one with no shower curtain and a shower head that you have to hold in your hand) for a very reasonable price. There were a few other hotels in the area, but otherwise there were two restaurants, a mini-market and a beach. That was it. The restaurant we ate at that night was excellent again - our waiter insisted on our coming into the (large) kitchen and seeing what was available, and ordering there on the spot. This is apparently a very Greek thing to do, although the more touristy places don't do it. And so it was that we spent the next day on Syros, lounging on the very nice beach and then strolling the port (which we reached via the local bus) in the evening.

The next morning, I caught a ferry to Santorini - ferries in Greece don't run very often between certain destinations, so you go when there's one you want. It was an all-day venture, and I arrived in Santorini in the evening. Santorini is known as the most picturesque of the Greek islands, and it lives up to every bit of that reputation. Here's a little history on the place: some 80,000 years ago, a volcano began to build the island, connecting several smaller islands that were already there. Very quickly, it formed a very large, circular island. Then, about 3500 years ago, the volcano exploded, vaporizing the island's center. Water rushed in to fill the area, and we have the Santorini we see today. About 500 years ago, the volcano formed a small island in the center of the caldera. Then 50 years ago, it moved about a kilometer away and started a new island, still in the middle of the caldera. So... the main island is shaped like a slightly overweight crescent, with two main towns, Fira, which is right in the middle of the crescent, and Oia, which is at the very top. There are other villages on the island too, but these towns are the biggest.

My first day, I went on a guided tour of the islands. We sailed on a Kai-eeky (phonetically), which is a traditional Greek vessel, to the new volcanic island and hiked to its top. I mentioned earlier that Santorini is very picturesque, and it's true. This place gobbles film. We then went to the old volcanic island, where most of the people in the boat went swimming and visited the 'hot' (warm is more like it) spring. The Europeans in our group smeared the muck from the spring's floor all over their face, hair and upper body, for it's therapeutic effects, I suppose. I dared only to smear my arms. Later that day, I did notice that my shorts and boxers had been dyed with the reddish color of the spring water though! Next we went to Therrisia, part of the rim of the original island. More beautiful scenery, and pictures to take. Both here and at our final destination, Oia, there was a winding trail that climbed the cliffs of the caldera to the top of the island. Industrious Greeks would rent you a donkey to ride up the trail, if you wanted. Oia (pronounced 'Ee-ah') is perched on the very tip of the crescent, and was the perfect spot from which to see the sun sink into the distant haze. The buildings in Greece reminded me of the pueblo style of the Southwest - flat roofs and square buildings. The Greeks white- and blue-wash everything, so the buildings merge seamlessly into the low walls, the walkways and each other. The overall effect actually reminded me of the non-classical unity of Gaudi's architecture. Gaudi's stuff is a lot more refined and designed, but I did wonder if perhaps he'd visited Greece at some point.

My next day in Santorini was a beach day. I rented a motor scooter (these things are so much fun!), and visited the black sand beach in Perissa (another little village), and the red sand beach near Akrotiri. Both were interesting places, and both were very commercialized - you could rent one of the umbrella and beach chairs that lined the seashore. Wading out into the water at the black sand beach, I discovered that the seabed was very smooth, feeling like volcanic rock. It was also quite shallow for at least 50ft from the shore. The red sand beach was a little more exotic, as you had to traverse a rocky little trail that went around the side of a cliff to reach it. The beach itself was nestled under vaulting cliffs of deep burgundy and black, and the beach was pebbly (small pebbles, not the big ones you have in Nice, France), and even the pebbles were red and black. The seashore dropped off much more here than at the black sand beach, and there were a few partially submerged rocks that you could swim out to and lay on. If it weren't for the many people, the rows of umbrellas and the little shop making a killing on cold drinks, this place would be perfect. Nearby, although I didn't visit it, was a white sand beach that I heard was equally exotic a locale.

My third day in Santorini, I went SCUBA diving at a little village named Kamari. It'd been, I guess, about six years since I last went diving, so I was a little nervous about going, but the basics are very easy to remember. Also on the dive were two French women who were still learning, a Frenchman who had also not been diving in a while, and an Austrian. Our guide took us out in a little boat around a large cliff, and prepped us. The dive itself was wonderful, although there was a lot less life down there than I had expected. On my previous dives in tropical places, the sea seemed to be teaming with fish and plant life. Here there was a funny grey-brown plant that covered the cliff face as it plunged the 10-20meters from the surface to the sandy sea floor, and a few fish that I didn't recognize. It wasn't until the last third of the dive that I finally settled-in and relaxed. Being a little nervous, I was using up my air rather fast at first. For the rest of the day, I kicked around Kamari, ate lunch, watched people come and go from the beach, and generally soaked up the atmosphere.

And so that brings me to the present. I leave for Rhodos Island today, and on Monday, I set out for Turkey. I met another person who'd traveled through Turkey while I was on Santorini, and she gave me some good tips about how to travel and site-see. One interesting tip she gave: the Turkish lira is so volatile, that when bartering, it's better to have Euros or US Dollars to pay with, since the merchants like that. Some of them will even insist on bartering in USD, and then convert the price (with a suitably horrible exchange rate) to Lira.

Now reading: Return of the King, Lord of the Rings. Things are really getting exciting now! Can't wait to see how the rest of the trilogy plays out on screen.

Kalimera! Aaron

posted July 13, 2002 04:33 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

July 02, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 6

This is the sixth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Ciao! (In Italy, 'ciao' is used both as a greeting and a farewell)

Last time I wrote, I was in Barcelona, and I've had quite an adventure since. I made two expected stops and two unexpected stops, met many very interesting people (let no one say that traveling is lonely business!), sampled a variety of the legendary Italian gelato and lots of other fun stuff.

My last day in Barcelona was more about wrapping up loose ends like doing email, postcards and wandering around a little, soaking up the last bit of Barcelona before I went to Genoa. I had a bad experience at the post office there, being short-changed a stamp and then trying to express this situation in to people who spoke almost no English. I also visited the Barcelona Aquarium that day, and was a little disappointed given how much I'd paid for entry - the aquariums in Boston and San Francisco are much better, in my opinion. Still, I did learn a little about Mediterranean sea-life (which is amazingly similar to sea-life elsewhere).

The train from Barcelona to Genoa was a night train. I arrived at the train station early, and when the train was announced, boarded immediately. I laughed to myself when I saw what must have been almost thirty other backpackers board the same train! Soon enough we set off for Port Bou, the Spanish-French border station. Little did I know at this point that my next few days would be radically different from how I had anticipated. Just before we arrived at Port Bou, I began chatting with four British girls across the aisle from me. Before I knew it, we were sitting together chatting at the border waiting for our train (90 minute layover). They were very nice, and were heading to Nice, France. And so it was that after many more hours of chatting, I decided that instead of spending my extra time in Genoa, I would stop in Nice and spend more time with my new friends.

Nice is the city with the second largest tourist industry in France. This is mostly because in the late summer, a large portion of the middle and upper class French population move to the French-Mediterranean coast for vacation. The beaches in Nice however, aren't the kind that I was used to being from North Carolina. These were pebbly beaches, with the sea floor dropping quickly away as one goes away from shore. The first day I was there, I had my first European beach experience, and also discovered that the sunscreen that I'd brought with me wasn't good anymore (it was a little old, and I'd combined the last part of several identical bottles that I had lying around). I did, however, very much enjoy soaking up a little sun in such an exotic location. As I sat/lay there, on either side, into the distance stretched the same pebbly beach dotted with people. When I looked to my left, I saw the curve of the coast and the rows upon rows of hotel buildings lined up like cornrows blanketing the slight slope that reaches back away from the shore. I also noted that French beaches were top-optional, and that rule wasn't specific to age. Then there were the guys walking around selling cold drinks for exorbitant prices. My favorite guy had a little rhyme that he sang that had bits of English in it as well as the names of the drinks he was selling. That night my new friends, Laura, Laura, Clare and Marie, and I had very large (and very yummy) pizzas and then stopped by a couple of bars. Oddly enough, the best bar we stopped by was an Irish Pub. That night also happened to be the same night in which Brasil won the match that got them into the World Cup Finals. As some point during dinner, there was a little parade of people showing Brasilian pride that went by our table on the street banging drums, cheering and wearing Brasilian-flag clothes. They seemed quite happy about their team's good fortune. It was also this day that I read an interesting article in an English paper my friends had about the Germany win. It seems that not many people were really hoping Germany would win in the Final.

The following day, I couldn't resist being in town, even one as focused on worshipping the sun as Nice, without seeing a museum. Fortunately, Nice features a fantastic Matisse museum. That brought the number of Matisse/Picasso exhibits I've seen on this trip to five. In the morning, I went for a swim in the cool Mediterranean waters, which was wonderful. There were cool currents that buffeted me while I swam up and down the coast. One thing I'd noticed, and still wonder about, is that there didn't seem to be much of a tide - the water level throughout the day seemed to be roughly the same. Can anyone shed any light on this matter?

After another evening swim in the sea, and another pizza dinner (sans the showing of Brasilian pride that night, although I did see one of the same guys out there performing again (he was something of an acrobat)), I then headed for the Cinque Terre having very much enjoyed my unexpected stay in Nice. My new friends were heading to Florence next and then to Rome, so we talked briefly about the possibility of meeting up again. I arrived in the Italian town of La Spezia, the 'gateway' to the Cinque Terre as the local train that serves the five towns of the Cinque Terre (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corneglia, Vernazza and Monterroso) leaves from there. Each of the five towns is right on the Italian coast, and four of the five are perched right on the shore. This area has a simply breath-taking abundance of picturesque views - I could have snapped a shot of almost every bit of coastline I saw! The five towns are nestled right up against the shore, with the land rising steeply and rockily away from the spray of the waves that continually crash ashore. The land itself is a tangle of folds of land, covered in the greens of plant-life and the grey of stone. Blanketing the hillsides around each town is a spider web of little trails that service the terraced vineyards. The Cinque Terre, particularly Corneglia, is renowned for its wine (my guide book claims that pottery in ancient, far-away cities sang the virtues of the wine from this area). My first day was composed of a lot of walking around and soaking up the slowness and persistence of life there. The area has been declared a national park by Italy, so I think it's supposed to, and will continue to look like it hasn't changed in hundreds of years. The little harbor in Riomaggiore, where I was staying, was particularly interesting, as there was a group of older Italian men that hung out there in the evenings. They didn't necessarily do anything that interesting, but it was actually a lot of fun to watch them :) That night, I met a group of four girls that were partly sharing my dorm-room. Three of them were Canadian (Canadians have quite a bit of national pride) and the last was an American that they'd picked up in Barcelona.

My second day in this beautiful place (I had already begun thinking about how I might return for a much longer stay) was to be spent mostly doing the 4-5 hour hike that connects the five towns. The night before, my new friends and I had talked about hiking it together, so I got started a bit later than I had intended (it seems that I tend to rise earlier in the morning than most traveling-folks my age :)). The first part of the hike was more of a stroll along the Via del Amore (Lovers Lane) with amazing views of the shoreline and the ocean. This brought us to Manarola, the second of the towns, which was also nestled in a fold of the land with the buildings stretching up away from the central road on the surrounding hills. The shore-side path from there to Corneglia was washed out, so I parted ways with the girls (they took the train) and struck out to find a more inland route. I spent the next two hours hiking along those narrow spider web trails that crisscross the hillsides connecting all the terraces. I managed to get about half way to Corneglia before finally admitting defeat, being both hot and hungry. I picked my way back to town, got lunch and took the train to my next stop. Even though I was unsuccessful, I still had a great time getting thoroughly lost in the hills. The views and the pleasure of good hiking in such a beautiful area made it all worthwhile. Because of what my guidebook said about Corneglia, I stopped there for a respite in the form of a glass of local wine (which cost me 1.30 euro). It was some of the best wine I've had! It was so good, that I bought a bottle (for only 18 euro) of what the guy behind the counter called 'the best'. I have yet to crack it open, as I'm saving it to share with some friends. I don't think it will make it back to the States thought, as I have another month to travel. I didn't see it, but Corneglia apparently has a nude beach as well. Between Corneglia and Vernazza, I met a very nice couple of professors from Portland, Oregon who were also hiking. They went at a slower pace than I might have done myself, but I decided early on that I would rather spend the time chatting with them. Finally, we arrived in Vernazza, which is perhaps the most picturesque of the five towns - I think of it as being just a bigger Riomaggiore. It has a really neat harbour complete with frolicking bathers, a wide piazza on the shore with several nice restaurants (which were all booked up since it was Saturday night) and tons of character. It was there that I met three very interesting american students whom I'd run into in passing several times before in or after Corneglia. It turns out that these three (Melissa, Catherine and Jeff) were physics students doing a summer internship at the Pisa, Italy gravitational wave interferometer detector (if that doesn't mean anything to you, that's okay, just know that this device is one of several that are being used to do a very important, multi-national experiment). So naturally, we started talking since we all had physics in common (it did occur to all of us how odd it was that physics of all things would be one of our commonalities). It was getting late, and the next leg of the hike would take another hour, so we caught the ferry and strolled around Monterroso. There we ran into two guys from Seattle who were in Paris on a Boeing, Inc. trip. The students were just in the Cinque Terre for the day, so they caught a train back to La Spezia, while I caught one to Vernazza for dinner.

My first day in Florence was a busy one. So was my second day, as there's just so much to see and so little time! I'd called the day before and reserved a time to see both the Accademia Museum (where Michelangelo's David is) and the Uffizi Gallery (which has the largest collection of Renaissance paintings in the world, as well as Boticelli's Birth of Venus and others). The David deserves every bit of its reputation, and was truly impressive! It's very big too. I liked the Uffizi more though, because for the first time I was able to see and understand the evolution of artistry from the seemingly awkward, two-dimensional pre-Renaissance painting into the very sophisticated, emotive and very realistic painting of the Renaissance. The neat thing about the Uffizi is that all the paintings are arranged in chronological order, so it's very easy to see the progression of style. And so while on this museum tour, I finally began piecing together my own perception of the evolution of art, as it traveled from the first known example in the cave paintings in France to the post-modern stuff I've seen both in London and in Paris. It was a very fulfilling revelation, more so because I 'discovered' this way of looking at art on my own. Considering how many art museums I've seen while on this trip, one might think I was an art student or something! It was this day that I also had two SWE (Small World Experiences): while I was in the Uffizi museum, I ran into a guy Victor and his female friend that I'd also met on the train from Barcelona. Later that day, I passed a pair of Americans that I'd met just briefly at the train station in Monterroso in the Cinque Terre on my way to Vernazza for dinner.

My second day in Florence was devoted once again to architecture, and there's quite a bit of really important stuff to see there. There's the massive Duomo with the dome constructed by Brunelleschi (apparently Michelangelo said he liked Florence's dome better than the St. Peter's dome in Rome); the Medicci Palace which I had up until now thought was just a massive building - I discovered that the side I'd seen in class during college was just the facade to a lesser building; the Hospital of the Innocents, the St. Maria Novella and a fifth building that I think I studied but couldn't quite be sure (it didn't make a strong enough impression on me in class, I suppose). The Duomo is very, very big, and has what I guess is typical Italian Renaissance decoration (I also learned that the Duomo church was started in the 1200s, and the facade seen today wasn't put up until the 1800s) with a white marble base heavily accented with red and green marble in a very decorative face of gothic elements arranged in a strongly classical way. One neat thing about the Uffizi building is that it's shaped like a big 'U' and on the inside in each of the columns is a statue of some important person (like Michelangeo, Donatello, Machiavelli, Dante, etc.). It was kind of neat to stroll along with their faces gazing down. I also sampled quite of bit of gelato that day, and can attest first-hand that gelato is as near to a form of edible art as one can possibly get. Yum! My favorite flavor is called Strachaiccelli and is a kind of vanilla with chocolate bits in it. There was also Nutella gelato, which was also very yummy.

My second day in Florence was also my 23rd birthday. It was a very nice birthday present for me to be in Florence for the day - I'll have to see if I can beat that next year :)

In the evening, I strolled the streets looking at all the shops (Florence is a great place for shopping) and somehow managed to wander into the designer section of town. I pretended that I was wealthy beyond need and looked at stuff in the Armani store, the Versaci store, the Gucci, and several who were so exclusive that I'd never even heard of them before! I can't imagine spending 91 euro on a t-shirt, but if I ever decide I need to (which I doubt) I know where to find it now (Armani). That was also the day that Brasil won the World Cup. It wasn't hard to figure out who'd won since starting in the late afternoon I started to see people wearing Brasilian colors parading around cheering. Then I came upon a massive gathering of people in the Duomo square, all celebrating - there were several vehicles in the middle of what must have been several hundred people; there were several guys on a van waving huge Brasilian flags, a few women dancing up there, and someone was playing loud music too. There was cheering, singing, drinking and a general air of exuberance that I don't think I would have seen from the Germany supporters had Germany won the cup :)

During this time, I'd been thinking about my next stop. I'd intended to see Siena next before heading to Rome to meet up with my friend from Haverford Josh Adelman and a friend of his. I decided though, that it really would be nice to see Rome again (more great architecture, culture and art!) and I might even be able to meet up with my British friends again before heading off to Greece. Thus I skipped Siena (will have to see it on my next trip) and arrived in Roma today.

It was also today that I had my first major crisis of my trip. It's difficult to describe how distraught I was at 3:00 p.m. today when finally (after three hours) I was able to figure out why no ATM machine anywhere in Rome, and I tried over a dozen of them, would take my card: it had expired at the end of June and was thus invalid!! I had planned and checked what I thought to be literally everything for this trip, but had neglected to even think about this going awry. And of course, it was something that I hadn't thought about that became my first trip-crisis. Adding to that, I had less than ten euro to my name and needed to pay for my room tonight. Fortunately, I was able to get some cash through my credit card, bought an international phone card and called home (the calling card wouldn't let me call 800 numbers in the States for some reason, so I couldn't call the bank directly). The bank said they mailed out a new card a few weeks ago, and my mother, who shall here-to-fore be credited with saving my trip, is going to FedEx it to me here in Rome.

Quite a week it's been! :)

Ciao! Aaron

posted July 2, 2002 11:24 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

June 25, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 5

This is the fifth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


¡Hola from Barcelona!

It was only a few days ago that I last wrote to you from a smoky little net cafe in Carcassone, France. Now I write to you from a sleek easyInternet Cafe in Barcelona, just off the Las Ramblas avenue that runs through the old town of Barcelona, right down do the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

I arrived in Barcelona with no prior reservation at a hostel or hotel, armed only a place I was going to try for (a youth hostel near Las Ramblas). The trip itself was fairly uneventful. On the last train from the Spanish border to Barcelona itself, I met three other young Americans from Santa Cruz, CA. They told a horror story of taking an overnight train from Paris to Barcelona, and in the middle of the night, one half of the train cars separated and went off in a completely different direction (with them) from Spain. One girl's luggage happened to be in the cars going to Spain, and the detour they inadvertently took to somewhere in France made them miss their connecting flight home, I think. Scary stuff. It´s stories like that that makes me glad I packed so light, and read up on things like that before I left the States!

Since I arrived in Barcelona three days ahead of my schedule, I decided that I would try something new: I would visit a town that I hadn't planned to see, and thus don't have any information for (i.e. places to stay or things to see). I thought about seeing Nice in France, but eventually decided on Genoa in Italy, being very near the Cinque Terra, which was to be the next stop on my schedule. I'm looking forward to seeing if I can find a place to stay and things to see in Genoa - a little test of how much I've learned about traveling in Europe, if you will. After getting an overnight train ticket, navigating the Metro and wandering around Las Ramblas trying to find the hostel, I eventually arrived to find it full! Fortunately, the guy there referred me to another hostel around the corner that wasn't full. After settling in, I set out to see a few sights in the last bit of the day.

Las Ramblas avenue runs from the waterfront, west, uphill. Right where it meets the water is a column capped by a statue of Columbus. From there, I took the Metro over to the Barcelona area near the Olympic Villa that housed some 15,000 athletes and their support people for the 1992 Olympics, and also has Barcelona's beaches. Finally, I took a quick trip to see the Sagrada Familia at night. The SF was started over 100 years ago (in 1882 actually) and was designed by Antoni Gaudi. It's still only about 20% done, I think. The building itself is huge, and very very ornate, but not in either the gothic or classical sense. Gaudi's style is very organic, and very unique. The two (of four) facades that are finished are called the Nativity Facade (which took some 40 years to complete) and the Passion Facade. Only the Passion Facade was illuminated that night, but it was simply beautiful. The Facade itself, from a distance, looks a lot like a sand castle built by dribbling wet sand into spires. Up close, it's an incredibly detailed whirl of characters and organic shapes. Rising above the facade are four hollow towers that also have a kind of sandcastle appearance to them.

In my first full day in Barcelona, I stopped by the cathedral of Sta. Maria del Mar, which wasn't very impressive from the outside. My guidebook claimed it opened early, but all the doors were closed when I stopped by. Ah well. I hurried on to the Picasso Museum, which is supposedly one of the best in the world. I arrived only minutes after it'd opened, and was greeted by a line at the entrance and witnessed several tour groups enter too! Even as crowded as it was, it was very enjoyable. This museum had many paintings from Picasso's early period, academic works and the works where he had just started to experiment with novel techniques. There were also a good number of his later works. I was a bit disappointed by the commentary (although it was in English, which was nice) as it was mostly biographical. I was glad I'd seen the Picasso/Matisse exhibit in London, because it gave me a knowledgebase from which to view these Picasso paintings that I wouldn't have had otherwise. The last part of my day was spent wandering the Parc de la Ciutadella, near the Olympic Villa, and wandering through the Museu d'Árt Modern, which didn't have any well-known works in it, but had some stunning Art Neuveu and Art Deco (sp?) pieces. I really like hanging out in parks and watching people go by, as well :) My last stop was the Barcelona Arc de Triumph, which isn't nearly as big as the Parisian one, but this one is done in brick and is distinctly Spanish with is ornamentation, lack of distinctly classical elements (like a frieze sculpture or whatever). It was neat to see it, after having seen the one in Paris. The last part of my day was spent wandering the Las Ramblas avenue, which is littered with street performers (there were several of the 'human statues' around, even one made up like a devil (he'd painted his entire body red)), street artists and beggars, and the Port Vell area, which is a really commercial area build out over the water with shops, restaurants, an eight screen cineplex and an IMAX theatre. It turned out that the next day (Monday) was a national holiday in Spain, and from what I hear that night Spain managed to stay in the World Cup, so there was a lot of celebrating. The most audible way of doing this was by lighting these little exploding firecrackers everywhere. There probably wasn't a five-minute span that went by that entire night when I didn't hear one (or many) of these going off!

My second and last full day in Barcelona was devoted to Gaudi's various pieces. I started with the Sagrada Familia again, and was speechless afterward. I really like Gaudi's stuff, and being able to walk through the inside of the construction site, see plaster models of architectural pieces, take an elevator and stairs to the top of one of the towers over the Nativity Facade (90m up (300ft)) was just wonderful. Accordingly, I took lots of pictures. It's really hard to describe just how innovative Gaudi was, especially considering that he died in 1926 when he was about 70 years old. His designs still look novel, even today. My next stop was a building that I'd studied in my architecture class while at Haverford - La Paderra, which translates as 'The Stone Quarry.' The outside of the building looks like rock smoothed by water that was stretched and wrapped around the front of this corner building. Speckling it are huge, round, pock-mark-like craters where windows are. Many of the windows have balconies that are fenced in by wildly twisted and shaped metal. The overall effect is very impressive. Some people call La Paderra Gaudi's most refined work, and I think I'd agree, since it has the most coherent feeling of the overall design. The Sagrada Familia, in comparison, is a dazzling whirl of different styles, shapes, scales and structures. In the attic of the building, there was a multimedia museum about Gaudi's work, which was well worth the entry fee. My final stop for the day was the Park Guell, a public park designed completely by Gaudi. It has the famous mosaic-covered Salamandar, a few Gaudi-designed houses (more of the sand-castle look, crossed with a gingerbread with icing appearance) and some other stuff that's just hard to describe in words! It was Gaudi-overload that day, but I very much enjoyed it. Gaudi is, I think, my favorite architect.

During my stay, I met an Australian named Daniel that I spent a good bit of time chatting to in our room in the hostel. He'd been traveling around Spain for a couple of weeks, and previously had been in Peru for the wedding of a friend of his. All in all, he's been backpacking for about 5 months. He's studying to be a civil engineer too, so we had a good time talking about Gaudi, among other things.

The last time I was in Barcelona, was about 12 years ago, when they were still building things in preparation for hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics. I recall Barcelona as being a very brown place, but the Barcelona I´ve enjoyed so far has been very, very green, and very, very hot.

In my last day in Barcelona, my goals are to find a post office (still haven't seen one, even after walking all of this city), mail out the half dozen postcards I´ve acquired (I went a little crazy since there are so many neat things here), see the aquarium (the largest in Europe) and otherwise relax.

Adios, Aaron

p.s. Thank you to everyone who wrote back after my last message :) You folks that I've still never heard from... please send me a 'hello' email!

p.p.s. Another thing I've realized is that I really will have to come back to Europe again... there's just so much to see here. One could spend years traveling continuously and still places yet to go and things yet to see.

posted June 25, 2002 03:07 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

June 21, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 4

This is the fourth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.



This is my last day in France, and I'm a little sad to be leaving so soon. I'm just getting to the point with my rudimentary French to feel comfortable navigating around, just today I navigated a bookstore and the post office (La Poste), and I've really enjoyed my time here. Scotland and England were a fun start; but France is definitely a foreign country for me, with many, many new things to discover. I really like the French language too, and wish that I was better at it (a small part of me is plotting to take French language classes and to spend as many summers in Paris (or somewhere else in France) as I can).

When I last left you, it was the morning of my last day in Paris, and I was leaving early, having done everything I'd wanted to do... well, that last day I did very little. I hung out in the Place des Vosges, a little public square a few blocks from the busy Bastille Metro stop. I read some more in my book, watched the Parisians lounging, did postcards and generally just relaxed. Later, I had Berthillon's sorbet (which was very good) and a nutella creperé, and realized that I'd finally discovered the Paris that people fall in love with - it was only after I stopped bustling around trying to see the 'sights' that I discovered this Paris. So I made up my mind to try to come back soon :)

The next few stops were small French towns - Amboise, Sarlot and then Carcassone. Amboise is in the Loire Valley and at the heart of Chateau-country. I stayed at a hostel there, which turned out to by my first bad-hostel experience. I poked around Amboise the day I arrived, seeing the Chateau d'Amboise and the Clos Lucé. The chateau was beautiful, but small. Apparently, at some point in its long (1000-year) history, four-fifths of it were sold off as scrap stone in order to pay for the renovation of the remaining fifth. If I recall correctly, it's known as the royal chateau because it became the French royal residence (of Françios I) for a brief period of time as well. The Clos Lucé is where Leonardo da Vinci lived out his last three years. François I gave Leonardo the little chateau so that they would be able to chat on a regular basis - supposedly, there's even a secret passage that connects the two chateaus. The following day, I rose early and rented what might be the most uncomfortable bicycle I've ever ridden on! With it, I rode to the Chateau Chenonseau. This chateau spans the river on which it sits (you might have seen pictures of it... it could very easily have been the set for a fairy tale). Aside from being quite beautiful as well (it was designed by Catherine da Medici and Diane something-or-other), it also served as a key point in WWII because it spanned the river delimiting free- and occupied-France, so sneaky things like prisoner swaps supposedly took place here. Very cool. My second and last stop on my uncomfortable bike was the Chateau Chaumont, which sits high up on a hill overlooking (through a delicate screen of trees) the Loire River and is much more castle-like than Chenoneau. The views of the river from the chateau and the surrounding gardens were breath taking, and I used-up an appropriate amount of film. As I was traveling to Chaumont, I realized with some dismay that the chateau I'd really wanted to see, Chambord, was too far away to reach in the short amount of time I had left that day! Arg. Again, I'll just have to come back and make a special effort to see it.

Sarlat was my next stop and was certainly my most expensive experience yet. After the bad hostel experience in Amboise, I spent a little extra and stayed at a hotel that I hoped would not have a long-term power-outage during the night (that's what happened in Amboise). Sarlat is a medieval town that has grown up a bit. The centre ville (city center) is very well preserved from its medieval days - the streets are very narrow (about 10ft from wall to wall in many places), some of the buildings have stone-shingled roofs, there are bits of the town wall that still surround the centre ville, and the buildings in general look like they're straight out of the 16th or 17th century (from XVIth or XVIIth, as the French would write it). My first day there, I walked around the centre ville and soaked up the atmosphere. I also marveled that this little town is the world capital of foie gras (goose liver) that's supposed to be good, but I didn't end up trying any. I have, however, been enjoying French food, which is very good. I imagine I'm missing out on a lot seeing as I'm a vegetarian, but c'est la vie.

My second day in Sarlat, I rented (with only a little bit of trouble in both finding the place and in conveying all the appropriate information in broken French) a moped/scooter. This was my first time riding any kind of motor-powered bicycle, but after a slightly rocky first start, I was zipping along the French secondary roads. I very much enjoyed the whole experience, and even if I hadn't had other plans, I would have enjoyed spending the entire day just riding it :). My first stop was to see the cave paintings in the Dordogne area. I chose to see the Lasceaux caves, which are closed to the public. Fortunately, after a ten year project, France produced a near exact replica of the two main galleries of the caves that contains 90% of the paintings. It was a bit expensive to get the guided English tour, but the paintings were still very enjoyable, and quite impressive for being done in two- or three-color mineral paints under candlelight some 17,000 years ago. My next stop was te Dordogne river, via Gare d'Sarlat (Sarlat train station) where I bought my ticket to Carcassone with no English!). Back on the Dordogne River, I found a canoeing company, got myself a one-person kayak, stowed my bag inside at my feet and headed down the river. The visual panorama from the water was simply breathtaking - the unbroken lush green of the trees carpetted the hills that rolled gently back from the silky grey-green ribbon of water, the Dordogne, that stretched out from my feet. Capping the scene was a baby-blue sky speckled with fluffy white clouds that had only recently emerged from what had started as a miserably gloomy morning. I used an appropriate amount of film as trees, white-washed cliffs with the carpet of trees literally hanging off the top, the castles and the towns of the Dordogne River Valley gently passed by. Along the way, I met some interesting people including a pair of Brits (one Scottish and one Welsh, and their accents showed it) and a family of Americans who live in Buchurest(sp?), Romania. Although Sarlat was my most expensive experience, it's been one of my favorite so far as well.

The next day, I headed to Carcassone by train. Much to my consternation, when I'd finally figured out how to actually validate my train tickets, no one checked them on the whole five hour journey! Still, I have one more chance to do it correctly as tomorrow I leave for Barcelona. Carcassone used to be another tiny medieval town. It sits very near to the Spanish-French border, and you can tell by the heat. Modern Carcassone is two towns; La Cité is the old medieval town, while the new development (including a McDonalds... the first I've seen in over a week) is across the river from La Cité. My guidebook told me that there's lots of stuff 'nearby' to see, but it requires renting a car, and since I really have no desire to do so, I'm only staying the one day here before moving off to Barcelona. Never the less, Carcassone offers some fun things to see too. I'm back in a youth hostel (my wallet is still feeling hurt over spending so much for those two nights in Sarlat), which seems nice. The guide book also warned that Carcassone is big with the day-trippers, and as I arrived in La Cité around lunch-time, I got to experience the throngs of bussed-in tourists first-hand. By dinnertime, most had either retired to their busses (coaches) or moved to another locale, and the place assumed a somewhat less touristy feel. La Cité itself is similar to Sarlat in that it's a well-preserved medieval town, but the architecture and general feel were much different from Sarlat: the buildings have less of a gothic or renaissance design to them and looked more 'mediterranean', or at least designed more to bear the sweltering heat of the climate. The city walls also gave it a more rugged feel - the walls are about forty-feet high, and there are two sets of them, with the inner set starting between ten and fifty feet inward from the outer set. All in all, it gives the place a very, ah... defensible feeling. The area was at one time swept by crusades from the Roman church to exterminate a local sect (the Cathars) that the church deemed a threat. Anyway, I strolled the outside walls and marveled at them and the endless miles of vineyards that are tucked away behind La Cité.

Tomorrow, it's off to Barcelona!

Now reading: Fellowship of the Ring, book two. It's been really interesting to read FotR after seeing the movie version of it. I think about which of the numerous scenes made it into the movie, which things where changed, etc. and I really do think the movie is a good adaptation of the book, if a slightly overly dramatic one.

Au revior! Aaron

p.s. I haven't heard from a lot of you, and I'm curious to know how life is with you - so please write back! :)

posted June 21, 2002 09:43 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

June 16, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 3

This is the third of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.



I'm currently in Paris, and have really enjoyed my first stop in France. The French keyboard layout has been a little bit of a challenge to adjust to (I can only imagine what the Greek and Turkish keyboards will be like), although the computer in this Internet Café is using the English version of Windows, which is at least something. :)

I pick up my story on my last night in London, where I was going to see "Up For Grabs" (starring Madonna). Technically speaking, the show was phenomenal. The set, lighting and sound were amazing and served well to facilitate the story of a struggling art dealer (Madonna) as the play follows her through the story of her first big sale, what she does for it, and how it effects both her life and the lives of her clients. The story had some interesting twists, and there were several bluntly explicit (in terms of the subject matter) scenes that involved racy sexual situations. I think I might have missed some of the deeper metaphorical symbolism, but then again, maybe there wasn't any :) Following the play, I hurried back to the hostel to sleep, as my Eurostar train (chunnel) departed at 7:25 the next morning. I arrived in Paris, changed monies to Euros, navigated my way to the hostel (an MIJE, which is an association of French hostels), dropped my bag off and struck out for a walking tour of the city.

I started at Notre Dame, marveled at the gothic architecture, studied the frontal facade, and strolled through the darkened interior through the throngs of tourists. My next stop was the Deportation Memorial, one to the 200,000 French that died in the Nazi deathcamps in WWII. I then strolled through the Latin Quarter (an area similar to Soho in London, or the Village in NYC), then over by Sainte Chapelle (a beautiful 13th century chapel with enormous stained-glass windows). I didn't go inside Ste. Chapelle, but continued on to the Samaritaine department store that has a fantastic rooftop view of the city. One interesting thing about both London and Paris (more-so about Paris) is that the buildings are much shorter than those in American cities - I think this is due to the European city's age. Anyway, I then snapped a picture of the west side of the Lourve and the Centre Pompidou, both of which I studied in an architecture class at Bryn Mawr. That night, I met and hung out with a guy named Tom who was passing through Paris. Turns out he was the main force behind an American band named Catch-22, and receives royalties for some of his work (he's since left the band) which he uses to fund trips to France. He's studying art in Georgia, and working as a graphic designer while he tries to spend time on his true passion: film.

My second day in Paris was even busier than my first. I wasn't able to get a 3-day museum pass like I'd wanted, so instead I got a 1-day pass and had a busy day. I started at the Lourve, seeing things like the Nike of Samothrace, Venus de Millo, Mona Lisa (which was still under whelming), the Coronation of Napoleon, etc. One very interesting thing about the Lourve, aside from it being the biggest and oldest museum in Europe, is that professional painters will set up their easels in the galleries and paint pieces/copies of the masterpieces. I found them to be just as interesting to watch as the artworks that surrounded them! I also went to the Musée d'Orsay (which I realized upon entering that I'd also been to before), the Rodin Museum which had the original Thinker sculptures as well as The Gates of Hell, The Kiss and The Secret. All very very cool - sculpture is one of my favorite types of art. Because the Musée Carte covered it, I also stopped by the Tomb of Napoleon, which was awe-inspiring; everything in it was huge. There in the center of a vaulting domed cathedral-like shrine was a stone coffin the size of a large SUV that houses his body. Even though I'm not enough of a history-buff to really get excited about it, I was still impressed. I dined at a café, and headed to the Centre Pompidou museum of modern art. Definitely some far-out stuff there. As I was walking through the museum, I did some serious thinking about the meaning of 'art', and what role some of the truly far-out stuff played in the on-going discussion (which is how one could imagine what art is) the art community has about art. For instance, is a urinal with some artist's name on it truly art, and thus worthy enough to be in a museum? (there was indeed such a piece there) I didn't used to think so, but now I think yes, because it forces the viewer to consider the very question an artist considers: what is art, and what does art mean to you? I didn't like that particular piece, but it did make me think.

My next day was somewhat less busy. I saw the Arc d'Triomphe, saw the view from the top, rode the Metro to the Arc de la Defense (another great example of monolithic modern architecture), then over to Sacre Coeur (where I was even heckled by some guy selling what looked to be strands of string), then to the Luxemburg Gardens, and for a stroll through the picturesque Marsias neighborhood. Exhausted from two days of heavy sightseeing, I went back to my hostel room and collapsed for a nap. Soon, I met my new roommate San, who is a visual art masters student at MIT. We went to a cafe where he had dinner and I had dessert, and we chatted away the evening and into the night in true Parisian style.

Having seen and done just about everything I'd wanted to in Paris, I leave for Amboise tomorrow, where I'll continue to struggle with my French phrasebook and see the famous French chateaus.

Now reading: The Fellowship of the Ring. I finished the fourth Harry Potter book last night - I very much enjoyed that series and am looking forward to either another book or another movie to come out soon.

Au revoir! Aaron

p.s. thank you to everyone who has emailed me!

posted June 16, 2002 04:28 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

June 12, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 2

This is the second of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Hello again!

When you last left me, I was in Edinburgh. I've since moved on to London and stayed in two more hostels (both YHA run - for those of you that don't know, the Youth Hostel Association is an organization that runs a large number of hostels all over the world. What's special about them is that they all adhere to a certain 'standard' of facilities, and you can only stay there if you're a member of the YHA). London is definitely one of my favorite cities in the world, tied with Paris and NYC, I believe. The London public transportation system is far and away the best I've experienced too - even the busses are great!

My first day in London (a Saturday) began with a walking-tour of the downtown area near the Thames River. I managed to get to the Globe Theatre box office before it closed and purchased a £5 'yard' ticket (i.e. where the peasantry would stand for the show (yes, stand)) for Tuesday night's performance of Twelfth Night. I'd never seen or read that particular play, so I was very much looking forward to it. On my last trip through London (about 5 years ago), I saw a Midsummer's Night Dream there, and thoroughly enjoyed it. As I was strolling along the Queen's Walkway (the path that follows the south side of the Thames), I noted things like the London Eye (big ferris-wheel thing), St. Paul's, the Tate Modern Museum (which now inhabits a converted, former mid-20th century powerstation), the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, etc. Had a nice person take my photo with Big Ben in the background, and then walked up toward Trafalgar Square, Leciester (pronounced 'Lester') Square and finally Piccadilly Circus.

The next few days I spent lots of time in museums. I saw this fabulous exhibit in the Tate Modern on Picasso and Matisse. I had no idea that they had such an interesting relationship. The exhibit also presented their works both chronologically, and paired works that were related to each other in terms of style, meaning and how they were significant to each other (for instance, some of Picasso's paintings served to prompt Matisse to incorporate certain aspects of the Cubist style). Very interesting. The British Museum was an interesting place, as well. I saw the Rosetta Stone, the Sutton Hoo burial mound (which I realized I'd seen once before when my mother had taken me to the British Museum when I was very young - one of my distinct memories associated with the exhibit were these shooting pains in my (little) legs that were tired from walking slowly and methodically around a museum, rather than the running/playing they were used to!). The National Portrait Gallery had a special exhibit on Baroque artists that worked in Genoa, which was pretty good. I realized as I was walking about the Gallery that my endurance for museums was diminishing a little, after having spent the better part of three days on them. I persevered though :) One of the best thing about the National Gallery were the school groups - what seemed to be young people who worked for the Gallery sat with groups of elementary school kids discussing a particular painting. I was surprised at how interested most of the kids seemed in the paintings, and they saw an amazing amount in the paintings with only a little prompting from the guides.

One really can't spend any significant amount of time in London without going to the theatre, which I've done quite a bit. On Monday (and Wednesday), I unsuccessfully tried to get tickets to see Gwenyth Paltrow in "proof". But I did see the Vagina Monologues on Monday night, Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre Tuesday night, and tonight (Wednesday), I'm going to see "Up For Grabs" with Madonna.

Now Reading: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book 4). Very good books. I'm very much looking forward to the movie version of book 2 (The Chamber of Secrets) now.

Yesterday, I met an American from Texas named Brett, who was also staying at my hostel. He was in his 4th of five weeks traveling solo, and had left Great Britain for the end, and we had a great time chatting about both traveling and other things. This morning, he left for York, and we swapped emails and promised to keep in touch.

Tomorrow morning, it's off to Paris (7:23a.m. train!), for another long stay.

posted June 12, 2002 04:14 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)

June 07, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 1

This is the first of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


The first thing I notice about this computer is that some of the important keys on the keyboard (like @) are misplaced from the American ones, and that I keep hitting characters I don't mean to! I can only imagine what it will be like in an Italian or Greek internet cafe.

My first few days on the trip, in New York City, were a great way to start out. I was able to make some mistakes, get into something of a routine, figure out that I'd packed my main backpack wrong, and in general get used to traveling. I also learned that snobby art galleries (like the Neue Gallery) are sometimes more expensive ($7) that monolithic collections like the Metropolitan Museum of Art ($5). After a few days of kicking around New York, I headed to JFK airport for the long journey through Frankfurt to Edinburgh.

I arrived in Edinburgh, passed uneventfully through customs and hopped a coach (bus) into the city centre. I checked-in at the High Street Hostel, which is packed full of young folk (mostly British). Hostels are interesting, and I look forward to seeing what others look like. The High Street Hostel is two floors of five rooms with six to ten beds each. Kitchen, showers and toilets, laundry, a lounge and a pool table. I think everyone else my age from the States also notices this when they first arrive, and I've even been told it before, but it still surprised me just how many people smoke here.

Lisa Graham (who was studying at U. Edinburgh this past semester) has let me check my email at the university library, which closes soon, so I'll try to summarize my most recent adventures quickly:

The National Galleries here in Edinburgh (all free this year) are great. The Portrait Gallery was the best, being housed in a fantastically interesting Victorian gothic building in the centre of the New Town (adjacent to the Old Town, even though both are older than the US, I believe). There's a small church called St. Giles that I visited yesterday morning. I was surprised that there were so many war memorials inside it (usually brass plaques on the walls). I also met the minister, who turned out to be an American and former Harvard professor. He'd even heard of Haverford. Small world :) Today, I saw the Edinburgh Castle, which sits on what's called Castle Rock. The Castle's had a rather tumultuous history, involving lots of sieges and has swapped hands between the Scottish and the English several times. Most notably, it was the birth place of King James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England), who united the two nations. This 'Castle Rock' thing that the castle sits on is the basalt base of a long dead volcano that was uncovered when, in the last ice age, glaciers carved the area. When the glaciers hit Castle Rock, they flowed around it like water going around a rock (only a lot slower), and also left a long 'tail' of softer volcanic rock behind it. It's on this tail-mound that the Old Town of Edinburgh is built. The Castle also has a dog cemetery in it that was used in the 1600s by the garrison's officers.

Other fun things: I hung out in an Irish pub (there are pubs everywhere in Edinburgh. Literally one on every corner), heard a band called The Roods, and had two free pints of Guinness beer (cold, not warm. phew) courtesy of the Guinness Girls who were luckily doing some sort of promotional thing, and thus giving out free beer. I ran into a friend Sarah Leer from Wake Forest, who I got to know while I was working on a play there last Fall; she was studying in Bristol this past semester and just happened to be traveling with her family and just happened to be at the Castle Edinburgh at 9:30am this morning when I was buying my entry ticket.

I was rained-on two days, and had two days of rainless cloudy days (which are apparently the indicator that spring/summer is around, rather than winter). I've seen a couple of the ultra-compact cars made by Mercedes, Daewoo and Toyota (of all companies) that are literally less than six-feet long. Almost all of the cars here are compact, and much smaller than the behemoths you see in the States. The Jeep Grand Cherokee (of which I've seen only one) looks gigantic next to the small European cars! And finally, I got to see my friends Lisa and Cat, which was a very nice way to start out my trip.

Tomorrow, I head to London and am looking forward to a new hostel, seeing some theatre (my friend Madeleine has recommended seeing the play 'The Distance from Here' (which stars a guy I met at a party she took me to last summer, Jason Ritter)), riding the Tube, and seeing some major British museums.

Cheers from Edinburgh!

posted June 7, 2002 08:45 AM in Travel | permalink | Comments (0)