Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ouro Prêto and the Gem Trade

I had been two weeks in Brasil by this point and by diligent scribbling had filled two hundred notebook pages.  In there with the movie posters and magazine covers, newspaper headlines and what was popular on TV and how people dressed and behaved  --  that restaurants put salt and toothpicks on the table, but not pepper, and that picking your teeth in public is permissible if you cover your mouth with the other hand  --  and all of that sort of thing that you notice when you are a spectator in a foreign place I also realized that I had seen almost no private display of the Brasilian flag, either the banner itself, in full-size or miniature, or even pictures of it.  An odd thing I would think, though perhaps we Americans have an atypical attitude toward the national flag.
    Another matter I noticed was that several times people seemed to have gone out of their way to mention Brasil’s racial and social harmony.  While some of the people I spoke with had a political agenda, the lady in the shop who was showing me 19th-Century prints pointed out a scene in church at the communion rail and said that it showed that “at mass, all are equal”.  A businessman talking about the old days of the Patriarchy explained how the godfather system served to create personal ties across class lines.  I could speculate on why they felt the need to tell me these things, but I prefer just to hear what they have to say, and truth is truth, whatever its motive.

At the hotel I hired a car and driver for the hour and a half drive to the beautiful old colonial town of Ouro Prêto.  My driver spoke Spanish so I learned all sorts of interesting facts and statistics, including current production of bauxite, iron ore, uranium, precious stones and other chthonic produce.
Typical of his calling, the driver tried to steer me into particular gem shops, but I finally convinced him he was wasting his time so he went off to have a drink with a friend and I was left to wander around the city on my own.  Once free of my driver I had to deal with a swarm of jewelers’ legmen, but finally got rid of the most persistent by telling him that I was running short of money and could I borrow something until the banks opened tomorrow.  I doubt that he believed me, but he left me alone anyway.  Ouro Prêto plainly catered to tourists, but in those days, at least, did so agreeably enough.  

On the central plaza was the School of Mines, whose museum was open and where I got to see some of the black gold ore for which the place was named (it was grayish, actually) and wondered how anyone ever realized it was gold.

Sitting in a bar, there were four men at the next table dealing in gems.  They had lots of 20 or 30 stones in folded paper packages.  The fellows were playing it close to the chest.  Two men leave the table to talk privately, then return to continue dealing.  One fellow produces a pocket balance and is weighing a lot of dark purple stones.  As I cannot reliably tell the difference between a diamond and a piece of broken glass, the game has no attraction to me, however romantic it might seem.  (“Ah, ha. The Czarina Alexandra Peridot.  523.7 carats.  Last known to be in the collection of the Marquis duChien.  But this, I fear, is a clumsy imitation.”)  In gem shops I could see no difference between the pricy pieces in the display cases and the pretty stones in bushel baskets that were sold by the scoop.  I plainly had no business in the gem trade.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Waiting for the Revolution in Belo Horizonte

I went out from my hotel the next morning looking for breakfast, but with not much luck, though I found a number of stand-up coffee bars selling the usual high-powered coffee that was thick enough that it probably could have passed for breakfast.  My most interesting find were little shops with huge old machines with large metal wheels and gears into whose maw the staff would throw bundles of raw cane that were chewed up to produce an opaque tan liquid with a pleasant, not too sweet, “natural” taste that cost about ten cents a glass.  And it was also fun to watch.  I have in my notebook that the drink is called “cabolo”, but I have not since been able to confirm this.
Sitting in the MacDonald’s I notice a young black boy, maybe only thirteen, drift in the door with the diffidence of a wisp of smoke, as though he were trying to be invisible.  I looked away and he was gone.
     I saw very few people sleeping in the street or park and no beggars have approached me.  In the Parça da Republica I saw a few women in colorful, country-looking dresses, begging.  I wonder if they were gypsies.  There were only a few crazy people yelling in the street.  If there was misery in São Paulo, it didn’t seem to come downtown.

In the Parça I saw a family band  --  father on amplified guitar, sons on drum and cymbal and a small boy, maybe eight or nine, singing in a high voice a Caribbean-sounding patter song  --  but what was interesting was that the people passing by  --   even though they were not stopping to listen  --  seemed to be moving to the music.
     This reminded me of something that I had noticed the week before in Rio.  I had been irritated to observe that however lightly I dressed I seemed always to be drenched in perspiration, while well-dressed Cariocas glided by in jackets and suits and never seemed to break a sweat.  I eventually realized why this was.
     The Brasilians, I realized, were moving with a graceful economy of motion, while I was striding about with Teutonic purposefulness and this was why I was perspiring and they were not and once I adopted a more languid Latin gait, my problem went away and I might reach suppertime in the same shirt I put on before breakfast.  And it also made it more comfortable to stroll around town, though of course in São Paulo in April we did not have Rio’s heat and humidity.

I noticed a bus with a sign on the side: “Transportation: a Right of the Citizen / a Duty of the State”.  This Right could be exercised for thirty Cruzados, which at that day’s rate was about twenty cents and, for a Right, was I thought quite reasonable.

Latin Americans seem to love to name streets for the date of a glorious revolution or pronunciamento or other such great event that will forever change the nation and set its foot (finally) on the Road to Destiny.  Skimming over the São Paulo street map I find these Avenidas: 25th of January, 25th of March, 7th of April, 3rd of May, 9th of July and 14th of July, 14th of August, 7th of September, 15th of November and the 3rd of December.  I wonder how many of those a typical, educated Paulinho could identify?  I notice that eight of the eleven fell in the cooler months from March to September, which I suppose might be more conducive to great deeds.

[By the way, a Paulinho is someone from São Paulo and a Carioca is someone from Rio.  I will edit this better later.]

That I was talking about my street map should be a clue that I was not happy in São Paulo.  I had long interviews with very interesting people and filled pages of my notebooks, but I will not inflict these on my readers and instead move the trip along.  I checked out of my comfortably seedy hotel (where my bill for six days came to US$66 and the elevator never was fixed).  I negotiated the usual police activity in the street outside my hotel (no one was up against a wall having their IDs checked  --  too early in the day, I suppose  --  but a policeman was standing over a fellow sprawled on his back on the sidewalk who did not look in very good shape) and caught a cab to the bus station for the 10:35 bus to Belo Horizonte.

My seatmate was a pretty young woman who reminded me of the bright creatures I saw on the beach at Ipanema and who chatted away pleasantly, almost none of which I understood, but I smiled and agreed with everything.

The bus climbed into forested hills and the sun shown down on fields of Brasilian green and gold and the deep red of fresh-dug earth.  There was a man sitting by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with boxes of fruit, apparently hoping to sell them.  At other places there were clusters of open-front stalls offering rugs and baskets and honey in used liquor bottles.  There were brown streams and rivulets under majestic, towering cumulus clouds.  It was beautiful country. 

There were rest stops about every two hours and in the early evening I wandered out away from the lights to look at the southern sky and try to find the Southern Cross.

We would be arriving in Belo Horizonte after ten in the evening, so I ought to have been concerned about where I was going to stay, as I had no reservations, but oddly enough I wasn’t and was completely content just to be riding on a bus through the Brasilian night, just to be traveling.

I found a nice hotel and awoke the next morning with a headache, which I hoped was sinuses and not something that had blown up my nose, as my comely and chatty seatmate had been replaced by a dour chap who smoked incessantly and I had spent the last leg of the bus ride with my face to the open window.  Something had blown up my nose under similar circumstances in Costa Rica and I had been miserable for the rest of my trip.

I arrived downstairs after the hotel’s breakfast room had closed, but they opened it again for me and I dined in solitary splendor in a grand, high-ceilinged salon and had a fine breakfast.  Then I went outside to see Belo Horizonte.

I knew something was wrong when I walked out of my hotel.  There were people standing around, singly and in groups, waiting for something.  There were police, many more than usual.  Some stood by squad cars; one stood looking down the avenue, speaking with quiet urgency into a walkie-talkie.  There were mounted police in front of the bank, helmeted, with long sabres sheathed in leather scabbards by their saddle.
     Then I realized what it was: May First.  May Day.  That day when all over the world the workers rise up in solidarity to tweak the nose of their capitalist exploiters, and occasionally rough up American tourists.
     I retired to the hotel, put the telescopic lens on my camera and went to the balcony to await the arrival of the red battalions.
     As the hours passed, expectation grew.  Below in the street, groups of spectators dissolved and reformed.

Morning grew late.  Families came from church.  Some of the watchers began to drift away for lunch.  I wrote postcards and started reading a book.  Historical inevitability was behind schedule.

Early afternoon.  I had to move to stay in the shade.  Below, in the street, the only people waiting were standing by bus stops.  The mounted police and squad cars were gone.  The policeman with the walkie-talkie had disappeared.  People had gotten tired of waiting for the vanguard of the proletariat.

Later, I asked the policeman in front of the hotel if there had been a demonstration.  He said he didn't know.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

to São Paulo

If my journal is to be believed, I had spent ten days in Rio.  Whatever did I do with my time?  I do not hang out well and one tires quickly of caning rascals.  I did several long, serious interviews about things that seemed important at the time, and may still be, and perhaps it is just I who am now less serious.  In any event, it was time to go elsewhere and I checked out of my hotel and went early in the morning to the central bus station to catch a bus to São Paulo.
          Their departure time was written in whitewash on the front window of the bus and there was an air of make-do Latin disorganization about the terminal, but as it may be in other countries where they do things differently, this may have been more apparent than real as my bus left on time.
             Our bus tickets must have our ID number on them.  For Brasilians, it will be their government-issued ID card and for we foreigners our passport number will do.  Or actually, most anything: the fellow at the counter really didn’t care: there was a space in the form to be filled in and any sort of official-looking number was fine with him.
          I noticed at the bus station that there was an office that apparently looked after children traveling by themselves.

The day was hot and humid and overcast and it seemed a nice one to spend curled up in a comfortable seat on an air-conditioned bus while I watched Brasil slide past my window. 
          I always admired the sturdy English gentlemen travelers who would relax in the evening by a flickering lamp in the wilds of Kaffiristan with Boswell’s Life of Johnson or Stanhope’s History of England, comprising the reign of Queen Anne until the Peace of Utrecht.  Perhaps it had been the weather or the relaxed atmosphere of Rio, but I, alas, had read nothing on this trip.

The 490 km trip to São Paulo was scheduled to take seven hours.  The road climbed through green hills, past banana stands.  Magenta soil and red blossoms on small trees along the road.  It was raining and the water seemed to be running high in the rivers and streams.  The land seems to be used for grazing.  The road is a divided highway and the bus made good time.  In the seat in front of me a young man is reading a magazine called O Sexo.  Considering its subject, it seemed to have curiously few pictures.  Looking more closely I see that he is reading the section on Religion and Morality.  Perhaps I ought not judge the young fellow so quickly.
We have lunch at a huge rest stop.  We must step lively as only twenty minutes is budgeted, but there is a large cafeteria and service goes quickly.  The prices seem on the high side of reasonable or perhaps the low side of expensive.
The rest stop was a nice place, reminding me somewhat of rest stops on our Interstates.  It may be an unfair comment since it is entirely sensible in the climate, but there seemed to me to be too much tile and marble, plate glass and metal and terrazzo for my comfort.  There were no wood surfaces or anything soft and giving.   Everything seemed designed to be cleaned with astringent chemicals, like one of those attractive new prisons.  But perhaps I was just being over-sensitive.
The highway was a limited-access toll road so I saw passing towns only from a distance, but they all looked like slums.  It was a nice bus trip, though.  Not the sort of poor, back country Latin America bus with people riding on top and packed into the aisle carrying live chickens and iguanas.  It was as nice  --  or better  --  than some North American busses I have been on.

In São Paulo my cabdriver couldn’t find my hotel and when he did we had some argument over the fare, as if I was supposed to pay for his learning his way around the city.  Once in the hotel, I discovered that the elevator was out and my room was on the sixth floor.  All of this I took in good spirits, for what is adventure but inconvenience rightly understood.  I simply would not be running back and forth to my room all that much.
After settling in to my sixth-floor aerie I went out for a walk.  The hotel is in the heart of town and the corner of Iparanga and São João reminded me of Rush Street in Chicago or Broadway and Columbus in San Francisco.  Degeneracy seemed near at hand, with the news stands selling much more pornography than news. But there was a MacDonald’s and I comforted myself with a Big Mac.

Later, back at my room, I remember some folk wisdom that mosquitoes do not fly above the 5th floor.  I had found this not to be the case in Ipanema, but had written that off to peculiar air currents, but here they were, biting above their station again.  But having come prepared for the jungle I swabbed myself with bugbane until I smelt like all that a mosquito finds loathsome and slept an untroubled sleep in a room full of hungry mosquitoes and awoke the next morning from pleasant dreams to a room full of mosquitoes even hungrier than they had been the night before.

When I said that the city reminded me of Rush Street I did not mean it as a compliment, but it had been dark then and even that part of Chicago looks better in the morning, so I went out to give São Paulo another chance.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Set upon by a Rascal

In the afternoon I walked down to the beach to cool off in the breeze.  As I sat there an old fellow came up and warned me to watch out for thieves.  I appreciated his concern though I had no idea what a thief looked like, as I suspected they did not go about in daylight wearing masks as they helpfully did in comic books.  A short time later I was standing on the beach watching minimally-clad young women frolic on the sand and a young fellow walked up to me and grabbed the banknotes I had in my shirt pocket, tearing the shirt.

Perhaps seeing my walking stick he had thought he might plunder me with impunity and paused a few paces away, not considering that the stick actually increased my reach, and I caught the rascal squarely on the side of the skull with the knobby cane, just above the ear, where the flesh is thinnest over the bone, and it made a most satisfactory whacking sound. The young miscreant ran off in pain and, since the handful of inflated banknotes he made off with were worth only pennies, I though it a completely fair exchange.

I was planning to leave the city the next day and so I was not concerned lest we meet again when he might have his henchmen with him.

And I did rather enjoy the whole thing.  Surprising, what one learns when you travel.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

a Friend of a Friend

With some trepidation I phoned a lady whose name I had been given by a Brasilian friend in Palo Alto.  She spoke English and as soon as she understood that I was claiming to be a friend of a friend she asked what I was doing that evening because she was going to a party and would I like to come and I shouldn’t worry as there would be plenty of people there who spoke English.  It would start late in the evening and last all night and she will come by and pick me up if I want to go.  All that moved a little faster than I was expecting, but I said ‘yes’.  The party didn’t start until 11 o’clock so we went first to a surf-side bar crowded with the young and lovely.  
     The young lady was about 35, divorced with a five-year-old child.  A psychologist, the middle of 15 children from a village in Minas Gerais, she had worked her way through school.  She says it is hard to make ends meet.  She has two maids so that she can work, but must work more to pay for the maids.  She says no one respects the government; they are just someone far away who takes their taxes and gives nothing in return.  Except for certain operations, no one uses the state health system if they can possibly avoid it and will pay to see private doctors.
     The chronic alcoholism of the Indians is due to the collapse of their world and their helpless dependency in the white world.  They have the legal status of children.  Unlike in countries such as Peru, there is no commerce by Indians.  They are very distant, she said, not a part of our world.
     Brasilian women, she said, are regarded all over Latin America as models of sensuality and openness.  In other countries they act in old Spanish ways, but Brasil is more open to the ways of Europe and North America.

It is very noisy in the bar and I couldn’t concentrate and the more I thought about a party that doesn’t start until 11 pm, and from which I might not be able to leave when I wanted, the more it became a bit much for me, so I plead a travel-related malady and went back to my hotel. 

I had forgotten about this conversation until I found it a few days ago in my notes.  I repeat it here not because it tells the truth about Brasil or Brasilians or even about the attitudes of young women of a particular class who live in Rio.  It is just what one 35-year-old professional woman thought about her country.  It all came out in conversation as I report it.  She is not a composite of many conversations, as I don’t think composite characters are proper in a factual report since one of the things being averred is that one person did hold all those different opinions.  I did, however, hear variants of these opinions from many people, though hardly a scientific sampling.  For example, another person I spent time with, a sociologist working for the government and in many respects similarly situated (though he had only one maid), would have agreed with some of her opinions, but not with others.  Reading over her comments now, what strikes me is how she was prepared to make confident pronouncements summing up her very large and diverse country when I realize that I would be completely unprepared to make similar confident generalities about my own country, not because I don’t know enough, but because I feel I know too much.  If it’s the truth you want about a place, even the most truthful conversation may be of limited value.  As for myself, I have quit looking for the big truth and am content with the many little truths and what they meant to me when I was there.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sunday in Copacabana

As I was sitting at a sidewalk table, a young and not particularly wretched-looking urchin approached me asking for money for food.  There was an untouched half a sandwich on my plate so I shared my meal with him.  He took it and walked off and half a block away I saw him throw it away uneaten.  I suspect there was enough cultural insensitivity there for both of us.

In the late afternoon I walked to Copacabana, which is more sidewalk cafe, stroll and be seen-oriented than Ipanema.  As it was Sunday, the north-bound lane of the beach front road was closed off (who wants to go into the city on Sunday?) and part of it was taken up with a hippie-ish crafts faire, mostly selling touristy knick-knacks, though a dried armadillo did catch my fancy.

Again at a sidewalk table, I was accosted by a shoeshine boy who explained in English that he must shine shoes because he has much hunger.  As this did not look to be the case I waved him off with some difficulty and wondered if I should procure a Danish-language guidebook and and keep it prominently displayed so that the next time I was approached I could look up in innocent befuddlement, point to the guidebook and turn up my palms and say, sadly, “Søren Kirkegaard”. 
     As I was writing that I was successfully solicited for 5,000 Cruseiros (3-1/2 cents, US) by a purportedly starving woman holding a sleeping, but also purportedly starving infant.
     I was beginning to see a distinct down-side to sidewalk tables.

There is more street and sidewalk life in Copacabana.  More foreigners, peddlers, street kids and prostitutes.  A lady of the street takes the next table and intrudes on my space.  After convincing her that I speak neither English nor German, and am also incredibly dense, she moves on to the next sidewalk cafe.  Street kids are charming and less easily discouraged and the restaurant employs a kid-chaser who prowls continually with a wooden baton to keep them at bay.

Peddlers, trying to get invited in, whistle to attract attention, and a pair of little black kids make cat noises.

I should have worn my white suit.  Copacabana on a Sunday night is definitely the place to wear a white suit.  I would, of course, be the only person there in a suit, but one does not wear a white suit in order to blend in.

By eight o’clock it was quite dark and I had supper in a restaurant run by a Greek family.  I had a two-inch-thick filet  --  “to die for”  --  and it was one of the moderately-priced items on the menu.  What Lucullan delights must await the big-spenders. The whole meal, with two beers and dessert, came to less than seven dollars.

Much as I might like my friends back home to imagine I am hacking my way with a machete through tangled undergrowth, menaced by jaguar and anaconda, ever-wary of the hostile Jivaro, I am, alas, playing the tourist in the lap of European civilization, about to pay for my meal  --  filet mignon, not freshly-killed howler monkey --  with my American Express card.

I walked back to my hotel at Ipanema.  Along Av. Queen Elizabeth, raucous transvestites try to wave down cars.  Though the streets are relatively dark, they seem safe as this is a neighborhood of pricey high-rise apartments and almost every building has an attendant standing outside at the door.

The next day I took a cab to Corcovado.  The meter shows 48 Cruzados, but the driver shows me a printed conversion chart that indicates that today this means 442 Cruzados.  Runaway inflation is all in a day’s work here.
     At the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Corcovado a funicular climbs through a jungle-like park to the mis-named “top”, from which there are another hundred or so steps up to the base.  It was late April and warm on the beach, but surprisingly chilly at this higher elevation(about 2300 ft.). The city beneath us was hidden by clouds, and even Christ’s head above us showed only now and then as the clouds broke, reminding us perhaps that we ought not take his presence for granted.  There was a hang-glider lazily circling the huge statue of Christ smiling down on Rio and turning his back on the rest of South America.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

go to Ipanema

The fellow in the next seat was a Brasilian surfer-journalist returning from a month in Hawaii.  He said he traveled about four months a year writing for Brasilian surfer magazines and tells me I should go to Ipanema, but stay away from Copacabana: “Drugs, hookers . . .,  bad scene at Copa”.  
  When I asked him about the Amazon he was encouraging, but in a vague sort of way, as it turned out that while he had been seemingly all over the world, to Bali and Nepal and India, he has never been to the Amazon.  This would turn out to be not that unusual among the Brasilians I meet.

I caught a bus at the airport.  The approach to the city was fairly unattractive, with dirt and grafitti spray-painted bare cement walls which, in the tropics, always look like they are rotting, but finally we came out along the ocean-front beaches and things began to look more promising.  I got off the bus at Pilar No. 9 on Ipanema beach, two blocks from my hotel.

We are told that in the old days, when immigrants arrived in America, they wrote home declaring that the streets were paved with gold.  When I got off the bus at Ipanema I was amazed to see that in Brasil the streets seemed to be paved with money.  There were coins scattered about.  I looked around and no one seemed to be claiming them, in fact everyone was apparently ignoring them.  So I began picking them up.  There weren’t vast quantities of them, as though a bank truck had turned over, but in less than a minute I had perhaps half-a-handful.  They were small coins, true, but they were money.  Eventually I began to worry that there might be a candid camera that all the locals knew about and I would find myself the butt of some ridiculous TV comedy program, so I stopped picking the money up and went looking for my hotel.
  In the days that followed I saw more money lying in the street, but by then I had realized it was the old, inflated money which, strictly speaking, was still good, but the exchange between the old money and the new was 1,000:1 and the old coins were worth less than their value as scrap metal, so I quit picking them up and later, when I would drop a small coin, I wouldn’t pick it up.  At first this seemed profligate and then it seemed like littering, but eventually I quit thinking about it.

The next day I felt like I had several days of sleep to catch up on and so I stayed around the hotel until evening, napping and watching television.  While I had studied some Portuguese for the trip, I had never heard it spoken and assumed it would be rather like oddly-pronounced Spanish, and since I was sure my Spanish was as oddly-pronounced as the next person's I expected no particular difficulty with the language and was a bit concerned that I didn’t seem to understand a word being said on the television.  I watched the news and saw soldiers arresting some feeble-looking fellows and displaying a pair of pistols and a hatful of cartridges as evidence of their malefaction, and university students demonstrating and a young woman reciting their grievances in an indignant, high-speed monotone.  I could read the words on the screen, but not catch anything of what was being said.  Fortunately, there was a very loud children’s program hosted by a handsome and very wholesome-looking young woman called XuXa and I could enjoy her company for an hour untroubled by any difficulty with the language.

When I got to the beach at Ipanema I found it was exactly as it has been represented.  The girls are young and lovely and wearing mostly string, though if anything the men are even better looking.  There are police in swimming suits carrying what I can only assume must be waterproof sidearms.  There were surfers at play, as mindless as otters.  It was at Ipanema, I had been told, that fashion trends begin, and I saw no reason to doubt it. Several people came up to me to ask the time and I realize that I am one of the few people on the beach who was wearing a wristwatch.  But I don’t do hanging out well and I was bored, even sitting on one of the world’s lovelier beaches surrounded by young women wearing mostly string and would be just as happy back in my room studying Portuguese irregular verbs. And it was hard to imagine that on the other side of the country  --  and seemingly five hundred years away  --  Indians might be shooting arrows at settlers.  I think I’d rather be there, or at least someplace other than here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Down Among Brasilians

Going down to Rio 

Whyever did I want to go to Brasil?  I had no good reason, other than some books I had read.  I read Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming, Ian’s older and once better-known brother, who describes a trek through the jungle ostensibly in search of the missing Col. Fawcett, whom I had never heard of before and of course had to read about, and what a curious story his turned out to be.  And about that time I was in an Evelyn Waugh enthusiasm and read Ninety-Two Days, his account of a trip through what was then British Guiana to the Brasilian town of Boa Vista, and so I had that on my list, as well.  And I saw Sebastião Salgado’s haunting photographs of Serra Pelada and public television regularly anguished over disappearing species and endangered tribes and the jungle being paved over with asphalt and forests cut down and sold to the Japanese and I had the impression that if I didn’t see the Amazon now it might not be there next year, or if it was there would be a shopping center.
Then I saw a program on television about a lady going up some tributary of the Amazon on a little wooden boat about the same age and not much larger than the African Queen and it looked like my sort of manageable, Winnie-the-Pooh adventure, so I decided to go. 

I like window seats.  Knowledgable travelers are supposed to favor the aisle, but I do not.  I like the comfortable little nest you can make, often protected by the center seat, which no one wants, and curl up against the bulkhead and look out the window and watch the world slip by below.
I recognized the border by the parallel roads and the empty space as we entered Mexico, country I had driven through in a car, and a while later I saw what at first looked like clouds that had been caught against a mountain top, but I realized they were smoke coming from volcanos and knew that if I were on the ground I might smell the wood smoke of evening fires in little homes as families settled in for supper.
Then finally night fell somewhere toward Tehuantepec and we passed over the Mayan lands in darkness and over the sea and then somewhere along the Colombian coast we crossed over onto the southern continent where the jungles were as dark as the cleared lands.  At a little after three in the morning I saw a cluster of lights below us and to the right and the reflection of what might have been a river, and then more darkness until in the early morning light I looked down and saw the unmistakable pattern of the city that I had only seen in books, the bow and arrow  --  or perhaps it was a bird  --  of Brasilia, that modernistic dream of a capital city out in the middle of nowhere that the Brasilians had built in the ‘Sixties when it seemed that the future would be here any minute and we need only be ready for it.  It was a little before seven in the morning when I saw it.  There had been a cloud cover over the jungle, but it broke just as we passed over.  The city looked very small from the air.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Nea Demokratia

I had returned that morning to Athens from an extended stay on a small island and had wandered down to Syntagma Square to check for mail at the Poste Restante.  On the way there I had noticed what appeared to be police or soldiers in riot gear down a side street, something I had not seen before in the city.  After finding a letter waiting for me at the Post Office I took a shaded table in the Square and ordered a Greek coffee and settled in to read my letter and catch up on my journal.  There was scaffolding going up and a good deal of activity, but in Greece there was usually construction going on all the time and, like the men in riot gear, I thought nothing of it until I realized that the scaffolding was for flags and floodlights and banners.  There was going to be some sort of political event.

This was plainly to be no slap-dash, ad hoc affair of anarchists behaving anarchically.  The scaffolding was several stories high with a speakers stand, TV cameras, loudspeakers and floodlights that must have taken some time to put up.  There were large signs arranged so as not to block vision, but to show up in pictures.

People were beginning to gather in the early afternoon, gradually displacing the usual tourists and idlers at the tables around the Square.  The crowd was plainly middle class, with many families, and had a picnic or country social atmosphere.  There were children and old people.  There were grandmothers.  I have a policy against attending foreign political events where there are no grandmothers, believing as I do that the authorities are not going to send in the cossacks to run down grandmothers and grandmothers are not going to go to gatherings where the authorities might send in the cossacks.  I have no doubt that the black-shawled grandmothers have a surer sense of what’s going on than I do.

The music begins.  Loud, but not obtrusive.  Background music to the conversations of families and friends and playing children.  Off to one side is a rattle of firecrackers and a couple of rockets go up. (Easter is a week off and firecrackers are part of the Easter celebration.)  Afternoon lengthens into evening.

The music picks up, with faster and more obviously political songs.  A man and a woman come on the loudspeaker with low-key announcements and slogans and a few of the crowd respond. I have by this time figured out from the signs that this is a rally for the Nea Demokratia Party.

The Square continues to fill and now apparently most everyone there has come for the rally.  Hawkers move through the crowd selling flags and badges and cigaret lighters.  A key chain seller singles me out for a long and animated explanation, in Greek, of what all this means.  While I undoubtedly missed all of his nuances, he told me that Greeks like America and hate socialism, that PASOK (the ruling socialist party) is very bad and that the Prime  Minister is good only for football (at which the crowd around me laughs) while the people go hungry.  I bought a Nea Demokratia key chain from him.

The flood lights have come on, a bright, bluish white light, and there is smoke from flares set up on the scaffolding.  A group in the center of the Square begins to chant slogans and while the music over the loudspeaker becomes faster, it is paced with slower music, and then there are more slogans and announcements and more of the people in the Square are turning their attention to the rally and I learn that at eight o’clock there will be a speech by Kostas Mitsotakis.

As the hour approaches, the pace increases.  First a song, then a short speech, then a rousing, militant-sounding chorus reminiscent of a ‘60s protest song, though distinctively and passionately Greek, then another speaker.  Their messages seem to grow shorter, becoming more like slogans, and more of the crowd responds.

I am struck by one of the women speakers, her voice so full of passion.  It was not strident or abrasive, but strong, committed, passionate.  It may be that women are potentially better political speakers than men, better able to move the emotions, to inspire hope and fire with indignation.  And, yes, shame men into action, for better or worse, as the power to move emotions is unrelated to wisdom and I remembered Bellini’s opera "Norma" and the chilling war cry of the priestess: “Guerra, guerra”.

A pattern emerges: music followed by a chant, then slogans.  The music before the slogan is not as stirring as the music that follows.  The programming is conscious and effective.  There is a cadre in the center of the Square who take up the chants, chorus-like.  “Down with PASOK” and “We demand democracy”.  

Individual conversations become fewer as more and more become involved in waving flags and chanting and booing at the appropriate cues from the speaker.

The music and shouting is loud and physical, seeming to displace the air.  There is a feeling of being part of a large, vital, vigorous organism.  A motherly lady gave me a flag, which I wave when everyone else waves theirs.  It doesn’t feel right not to be waving a flag when everyone else is.  I take up the refrain of their song: “Long live New Democracy”.  The people around me laugh and smile approvingly and I have a feeling of belonging.

The music is loud and fast, with quick cuts between slogans and the rousing music.  There are no missed cues.  Firecrackers, originally going off at random, now seem to be orchestrated, punctuating the slogans.

Everything increases as the time comes for Mitsotakis, the Man of the Hour, to speak.  Everyone in the crowd seems concentrated on the speakers, taken up in the rhythm of the rally, and as he is introduced the crowd is roaring, faces full of joy and hope, and off to the sides a crescendo of firecrackers.

How in the world could any human hope to say anything that could live up to that introduction, though since I could understand only the odd phrase here and there, it is probably not surprising that I was bored by his speech, though the people there, who could actually understand what he said, seemed as enthusiastic after he had spoken as they were before.

Then the crowd began to break up, back into groups and families, some drifting off and others remaining in the Square.  Some people started dancing, young people and adults, spontaneous and exuberant.  Friends yelling to each other and embracing.  There were young girls dancing with a banner.  Everyone was happy.

Afterward, several people, having seen me with the flag, came over to greet me, obvious pleased that even a foreigner like myself had seen through the flimsy deceptions of PASOK and come out to lend them my support. 

In light of present news from Greece, this incident, that took place in 1985, seems from a far-off, innocent time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

This Enterprise, explained

Although I call this a travel blog, I realize it doesn’t look much like other travel blogs, so let me explain what I am doing here.  This site is not intended to help the reader plan a trip or save money when he goes.  It is not intended to lead him to hidden wonders off the beaten path.  It is not intended to enable him to follow my journeys and avoid my mistakes.  I am not writing for the reader at all.  I am writing for myself, though if a reader chooses to come along, I will be a good host and try to be amusing.
I have two cartons of travel journals that I have not looked at since I returned home from these trips years ago and I could imagine sand or flattened spiders or small dead animals falling out of some of them when they are opened.  The purpose of this site is to give me an excuse to re-read these old travel journals and discover if there is anything in them worth remembering and writing about and I thought publishing a blog would provide some discipline for the project.  So far, I have been pleased to discover that there seems to be rather more than I had thought.  And I do hope that what I make of these will be of some interest to a reader, whether he travels or not.

These stories, such as they are, are no more than incidents or episodes, when they are even that.  Any story arc is trivial and accidental, and themes rarely show their head, though they are taking shape in my mind as I write these and may emerge if these writings are ever brought together in a longer piece, as I begin to do in the “pages” entries.

In this blog I am writing out these incidents, either as they appear in my journal or as my notes there jog my memory, and the reader will thus be following my journey, not as I took it, but as I rediscover it through re-reading my old journals.

In all of this, I do try to be amusing, or at least interesting, which is not that difficult when you see things with the right attitude.  After all, what is adventure but inconvenience or misfortune rightly understood?  Otherwise, the world might be unbearable.

(I was put in mind of all this by a list of thirty good travel blogs I found at , which had the keen insight to list this site.)

Monday, October 8, 2012

an unwired traveler

I saw mention recently of the venerable Royal Geographical Society and was reminded that it always seemed more romantic than our own National Geographic Society.  Then my thought turned to the Explorers Club in New York City, which always seemed to have more the whiff of the bush jacket and pith helmet to it, so I went to their website to see what game was there afoot and it seemed rather ernest and institutional, though it may be simply that the age of bush jackets and pith helmets is behind us and there are no more white spaces on the map  --  as there yet were on the school room maps of my childhood  --  and exploration must change with the times.  And anyway, it’s a dicey thing to go Elsewhere in hope of finding Elsewhen.

As I read my travel journals it sometimes seems that my own travels are as dated as the ones I read about in the old travel books, even if I might have come most of my miles by plane, as once out of the airport the modern world began to distance itself from me as I willingly distanced myself from it.  

Just those few years ago there was neither Internet nor Global Positioning nor iPhone.  There were paper maps of various scale and helpfulness and guidebooks that always seemed to be written for some other kind of traveler and what I remembered of what I had read and any notes I might have brought with me.  I could ask people around me, to the extent I could understand them, and try to reach people whose name I had been given and who I was assured would be delighted to hear from me.  And try to negotiate the local telephone on which, for some preposterous charge, I could call home, but almost never did and preferred to send letters that might take weeks to reach their recipient and hope some weeks or months into the trip to find a letter waiting for me at the Poste Restante or American Express.  I took photographs, but most of the time would had no idea what I had until I got home and could have them developed.  Credit cards were beginning to be accepted in the cities, but we still relied mainly on the cash and travelers checks we brought with us and wore money belts and sometimes had hundred-dollar bills sewn into our clothing in case things took an untoward turn.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

the Dutch lady's journal

Since my first trip to Greece many years ago, I have kept a travel journal. It began as a small, sketchy affair and has grown over the years, and of course I have been interested in other people’s travel journals, though, alas, none of my friends keep them, despite my frequent urging.  This will explain my piqued interest when, in a little coffee shop on a small Greek island on a rainy morning I saw, at the next table, a lady writing in a small, pocket-sized journal.
She was a woman of about my age, dressed in sensible clothes, accompanied by a quiet young boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen, similarly dressed.  For some reason, I determined that they were Dutch.  They were, I decided, either a widow and her only son, or an aunt and nephew.  In either case, the older woman was determined that the boy ought see something of the world and for that reason had brought him here to the birthplace of western civilization.  That she was writing in her journal indicated that the arts and letters were valued in their home, and in later years the boy would likely write fondly of this time, much as Gerald Durrell had done of his mother’s taking their family to Corfu in the years before the second war.  
Having decided that they spoke Dutch, a singularly opaque language, I had no hope either to speak with them or to appreciate what she was writing in her journal, but thought I might at least get some feel for it by a glimpse of the layout of the pages, her treatment of text and space and perhaps things she might have pasted in or interleaved, or even drawings or watercolour sketches she might have made.  I knew that a travel journal in the hands of an artist could be a thing of beauty.  Feigning a need to cross the room, I passed close behind her chair and stole a glance at the opened pages of her journal.
She had just entered what they had paid for coffee and rolls.  The equivalent of perhaps eighteen cents, US.  Other entries were of a similar import.  That was all there was.  In the land of Hector and Odysseus, of Homer and Leonidas, of Phidias and Jason, of Zeus and Athena, of Aphrodite and Dionysius and Zorba, of fauns and satyrs and wine and wonderful food, of beaches and sunshine and blood feuds and vampires and the Evil Eye, her only notations were of nickels and dimes spent for coffee.  
It is always possible, of course, that the boy may have since grown up and written about their trip, though if he did it might not have been in the wistful spirit that I had been imagining.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Madness at Sea

I was on my way to a small island that a Danish lady had told me about.  She had described it as paradisical, but she was a beautiful young woman and I suspected that a great deal of the world is paradisical when you are a beautiful young woman, but I, who am none of those things, was going anyway.
The last several days had been particularly tiring and I had not slept well the night before and had to be up from bed early, before the breakfast room was open, to get to Piraeus to catch the boat to the island.  I felt slightly unwell and I was looking forward to napping on the deck in the fresh spring air with my sleeping bag wrapped around me like a down comforter.  Then a young man with a boombox sat down near me and put in a tape and turned on the music.

Fortunately, his initial selections were traditional Greek music so that even though it might have been louder than I might have cared for, there was some hope that with focused meditation it might, like time in a dentist’s chair, be endurable, as the layout of the boat was such that there was no place I could comfortably nap that was beyond the reach of his music.  So I drew on my inner resources and watched some blonde teenage girls and tried to ignore what was going on two meters from my left ear.

As I was going to a very small island, the voyage was a milk run, a slow progression from one tiny island to another.  At Syros, loukoumi-sellers came on board selling their absurdly sweet confection.  One of them told me the island was famous throughout all Greece for its loukoumi.  I thought perhaps the loukoumi would settle my stomach from the coffee I had drunk at Piraeus, but it did not.

The traditional Greek music gave way to modern music: harsh, edgy, unfamiliar and unpleasant.  Probably the sort of music they play in the elevators in hell when the car is stuck between floors.

I was by this time so stressed by want of sleep and the noise of the boombox and my general feeling of unwellness that talking to the loukoumi-seller had seemed an anchor to reality and when he left my mind began to entertain unsettled thoughts.

The young man with the boombox asked if the music bothered me.  I answered that I liked the Greek music, but not the other.  He nodded understandingly, but made no change to his music.  I thought my reply was quite calm, coming as it did from someone who had been quietly calculating the plusses and minuses of seizing his pestilential machine and throwing it overboard.  

There would be an awful fuss, of course, but physical violence would be unlikely.  After a great deal of yelling, most of which I wouldn’t understand, I would eventually offer to pay for his drowned apparatus, which he would either accept or indignantly refuse.  It would take about thirty minutes for everything to play out, and then my journey could continue in peaceful quiet and I could curl up in my down sleeping bag and go to sleep and wake up rested and healthy when we reached my island.  It was a completely mad scheme, but I was not thinking clearly and of course I did no such thing.  And this was fortunate as it turned out that the young man was going to the same island as I and would find a room for me there, invite me to a party and generally prove to be a fine fellow.  I later wondered if he would get a chuckle if I told him what I had been considering to do with his tape deck, but I decided it would be just as well if I didn’t mention it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

a day that did not begin well

It was the day after the May Day demonstration on Naxos and whatever mellow feelings might have lingered from the Communist rally were chased away by the noise of unmufflered motorcycles in the narrow streets of the port.   They further compounded their offense by being dirty, chipped and dinged.  Have these people no pride in their machines?  One respects pride in effort, however misplaced we may think its object, but these bikes seemed to be nothing but poorly-maintained noise-makers.  I prayed to Apollo Far-shooter that he shower his darts into the camp of the loud-motorcycled Achaïans.

Beautiful as the island might be, the port was getting on my nerves.  In addition to the loud motorcycles, there was the constant yelling that seemed to accompany even the simplest activity (I am sure some would call it "liveliness").  That morning a taverna owner kicked a stray kitten down the street as if it were a soccer ball, oblivious to the shocked reactions of his customers.  There was the debris casually thrown into the clear water of the harbor and the swarms of unbarbered backpackers.  Even fishermen flailing live octopi against the stone wharf, which I once thought merely colorful, now appalled me.  For about seven dollars I rented a small motor scooter, intending to escape into the countryside.
But my plan failed.  The motor scooter was as loud as the motorcycles that had irritated me in the town and I found myself riding through a beautiful rural countryside wrapped in an unescapable cloud of noise.  My mere presence desecrated the country around me.  After a half-hour I returned the scooter.  The fellow asked if I wanted my money back, but I said it was my problem, not his.  Some days are like that, but fortunately the day wasn’t over yet.

Walking back from the bike rental I came to the small square and saw a familiar face.  It was Hanne.  I don’t think I have mentioned her before, though she figures in my story and I will tell about her sometime, but at the moment I was just delighted to see her, totally beautiful Hanne.
She had just arrived on a ferry and had a few hours before she would have to leave again and so we sat at a table in the square and talked and I was delighted to be in her company.  We must have made a fine spectacle sitting there, as some older Greek men at a table across the square sent over a bottle of wine and toasted us, or perhaps they were only toasting totally beautiful Hanne.
Then the time came for her boat to leave and we walked down to the pier and said good-bye again.  It was evening and as I turned back toward the town the lights were coming on and another day had ended well.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Notes from Greek class

One afternoon along a colorfully desolate stretch of road I saw a familiar red and yellow sign.  A Shell gasoline station.  As I had a Shell credit card I thought this would be a handy opportunity to top off the tank and preserve my dwindling reserve of cash.  I chatted with the operator as he filled the tank.  This was early enough in my time in Greece that I was still hopeful that, with enough practice, I might actually get good at the language.  When he was finished I handed him my credit card, which he looked at oddly at first, but apparently decided that, since I had my name on such an official-looking a card, I must be with the Company, and so he took me on a tour of the station to show me how clean and orderly everything was under his stewardship.  As it became clear to me that he had no idea that he was supposed to give me free gasoline just because I showed him the card  --  indeed, what kind of businessman would that have made him out to be  --  I paid for my gasoline, congratulated him on all that he had accomplished and drove away as he waved and beamed with satisfaction. 
Lest you think this too odd a story, it took place thirty years ago, before credit cards became ubiquitous.  Today, I have no doubt, every booted Cretan goatherd takes VISA and Mastercard.


An old Greek man, so fat as to be pyramidal.  Round and broad at the waist, tapering to a small head: a conical pyramid.  He reminds me of solid geometry and a classroom long ago with windows open on a fall day and I imagine him intersected by planes.

Children playing along the harbor.  It would make a nice photo, spontaneous and unposed.  I looked off in the distance, pretending to be unaware of them, and fish my camera out of my bag and make my settings, ready to swing around for a wonderful natural shot.  When I do I find the children standing in a line, from shortest to tallest, looking at me, smiling.  I frown and they laugh.  I am clearly out of my league.

In the taverna one evening I noticed a party of men who had come in from working on a fishing boat.  Two of them are young  --  about 15 or 16, I would guess  --  but the older men treated them  --  and they behaved  --  as mature, well-behaved equals, at least so far as I could observe.  I have also noticed even younger boys working with men, and how the older men treated them with affection and did not patronize them. 
I found it curious that in so masculine a culture as Greece, that there would be no hazing of young males to "toughen them up", but what appeared more like a considerate nurturing.  I had first thought this might simply be the better-behaved culture of the islands, where people have to get along together, but then I remembered that I have seen the same thing in Athens, one time when they were unloading a truck and then another time at a restaurant in the Plaka.   I would hesitate to generalize from these few observations of a another culture where behavior may not mean what I think it means, but I thought it interesting and I rather liked it.
Or perhaps it was that the young men came from a culture that made them hard-working and serious and the older men around them took pleasure in this affirmation of their own values and whatever conflicts there may have been between the generations, it did not play out here.

One of the reasons I traveled was to see what others found to be a good life, and I may have just glimpsed a part of it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Old Books

Off on a late-morning walk in Athens.  Down a street of old buildings and uninteresting stops I noticed, down a few steps below street level, a used book store.  I wandered down the steps and through the door and found myself in a long basement room with a few narrow aisles, passageway-like, between floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and bins and tables overflowing with old books.  The windows to the street well were obscured by piles of books, loose and in pasteboard cartons, and at noon on a sunny day the light from the opened door penetrated only a little ways into the shop and beyond that the one or two other customers moved about in the dim light of a few, small overhead bulbs.  There was dust everywhere and dark places where I would hesitate to stick my hand.  It was exactly my idea of what an old book store ought to be.

My delight was scarcely affected by the realization that almost none of their books seemed to be in a language I could read.  They were, however, satisfactorily old and I am quite capable of appreciating a book for the promise of what it holds and the pleasure of its dignified company without actually reading it.  I have quite a few such books on my shelves already, as do, I am sure, many others.  

I was perfectly happy looking through old books that I neither could read nor had any intention of buying, content to thumb through the pages sniffing their antique mustiness and hoping that perhaps something of interest might have been left between the pages by a previous owner.  A treasure map would be fine, though I would be quite happy with an obsolete candy wrapper.

After an hour or so of wasted time well spent, I found Lamport’s 1876 monograph, Numismatic Anecdotes of the Medieval Kings of Crete, printed in Greek, but with a fine bunch of line drawings of medieval coins that I had never seen before and probably never will see outside of a museum cabinet. 

The old fellow running the shop of course carried on as if he were selling me one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but in the end I paid what I thought a trivial price for a little treasure and he probably closed the shop early to take the family out for dinner.

[I don't have the book at hand at the moment, but I notice some odd variants of the spelling of the author's name and wonder if there might have been a problem in transliterating his name and the curiously-named "Lamport" is actually George Lambert, an English numismatist of the period who wrote on Cretan coins.]

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

a cold Sunday in Athens

On a cold Sunday morning I was sitting in the breakfast room of my hotel in Athens and thinking of sunny Crete and warm sands along the shore of the Lybian Sea.  “Kriti poli krio imera,” said the breakfast room lady, discouragingly.  “Crete is very cold today.”   She was listening to the radio.  It was one of those rare and happy instances where what was said did not exceed my limited grasp of the language.  So I put Crete out of my mind and dressed warmly and went out to see what Athens was like on a cold Sunday morning. 

I went wandering around the older part of the city, the Plaka, and bought some old coins from a shop in a crowded lane with a huge iron caldron full of obsolete coins.  I got my hands dirty with verdigris digging through them.  It rained while I was there and a man on a motorcycle came roaring through the crowd which effortlessly parted to make way for him and then closed back behind him as if he had never passed through.  

My hotel was on Athenai Street, which runs down from Omonia Square to intersect Ermou Street, which comes down from Syntagma.  The two streets come together at the church of Monastiraki where, on Sundays, is held the Athens Flea Market.

I love junk shops and foreign junk is so much more interesting than our domestic stuff.  In addition to the little shops around the neighborhood there are on Flea Market Sunday stalls and street vendors who have come from around the country for the day.   

Perhaps I was in a mood for militaria that day, but among all the oddments and archaic bric-a-brac I seemed to notice a lot of stuff left over from the war.  There was a machine gun on a tripod, though not all its parts seemed to be there; a handy thing to have, I suppose, if you are restoring one at home and need odd parts.   There were Wehrmacht badges and Nazi medals  --  "Germany, Old Years," the signs said  --  almost all of them poorly-made fakes, as if they thought their buyers didn’t really care.  I found a couple of British submachine guns that might have been used by the Resistance: a Sten that seemed to fall apart in my hands and a Lanchester, a gun I had seen only in old war movies.  The Lanchester was largely intact and would have made a fine relic, but I could foresee nothing but bother if I tried to bring it back through customs and even carrying it around as I traveled through Greece would probably attract attention.

In a cave-like room in the back of a shop I detected a familiar odor and traced it to an antique brass tray of Turkish design sitting on the floor under a table; it was filled with what appeared to be antique kitty litter.    

I had more traveling around Greece to do so I didn’t buy much that day and aside from a piece of antique copperware I picked up nothing that couldn’t fit in my pocket.  I planned to come back again before I left Greece and buy something wonderful, but things came up and it is the nature of flea markets that when you come back, the thing you wanted will have been sold.  You shop in the same flea market but once.

In Monastiraki I found the Café Abyssinia, named apparently for its Square rather than any Ethiopian association.  A little place with large glass windows, crowded and noisy, the conversation a cosmopolitan mix of French and English and German and Greek.   I bought a coffee for the fellow playing an accordion.  “Those were the Days”, “Midnight in Moscow”, “Russian Sailors’ Dance”, “Dark Eyes”.  I imagined him a soulful Russian exile pining for the birch forests and broad rivers of his northern home.  Perhaps even a gypsy.  And why should I ask him and risk discovering that the truth is not as romantic as I imagined it?  I spent about two hours there over a long lunch. 

Café Abyssinia is still in business.  I found it on the web, looking much more prosperous and sophisticated than I remember it.  But that seems the case with so many of those places.  Greece has prospered since those days and I hope they can hold on to it.