Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
One thing my late professor of art and architecture Vincent Scully taught me is this: Just as music is the silence between the notes, so architecture is the dialogue among the buildings and the landscape.
Professor Scully’s deeper scholarship is beyond my ability to engage with intelligently. But being in Budapest makes me mindful of a more obvious level of dialogue among buildings and monuments, the representation of a nation’s history.
Much of Hungary’s difficult modern history is told along a 700-meter stretch of Budapest from Szabadsag ter (Liberty Square) to the parliament building. At the center of the semi-circular northern portion of Liberty Square stands a obelisk-like monument with a Cyrillic inscription dedicated to “Soviet heroes” who liberated Hungary from Nazi occupation. It is a testament to Hungarians’ historical memory that they chose not to demolish this monument after the Cold War.
So Disney is filming a live-action remake of the 1998 animated Mulan, actually casting an Asian woman in the role of an Asian woman (because you never know with Hollywood).
This news prompts me to revisit the ancient source of the story of Mulan. Certain aspects of the source material now seem surprising in light of departures made in the Disney version, and I don’t just mean the little dragon Mushu that works as a cartoon character but in fact does not exist in the original.
The 1998 film sets the action during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the invading enemies are said to be the Huns. The Han Dynasty did fight protracted wars against the Huns. But these battles took place centuries before the figure of Mulan first appeared in Chinese literature.
Being in Budapest again right now allows me to indulge in one of my pet obsessions: John Hunyadi, or Hunyadi Janos in Hungarian, or Ioan de Hunedoara in Romanian.
His is not a name widely remembered today outside of Hungary and Romania. And yet his role in history was such that Europe, and Western civilization as a whole, would likely look very different today had he never lived or taken a different path.
Both Hungarians and Romanians claim him as one of their own. John’s father Voyk was born in Wallachia, today’s southern Romania, perhaps of Wallachian aristocracy. King Sigismund of Hungary granted him a demesne in Hunyad in Transylvania. In his lifetime, John, though a member of the Hungarian nobility, was often referred to as a “Vlach” or Wallachian or Romanian.
Jana, my guide on the walking tour of Bratislava’s old town, had a way of movement that reminded me of a great blue heron. She also reminded me that right around here was once the western extremity of the Mongol Empire.
We were standing at the foot of the hill atop of which stood Bratislava’s white-washed castle and its four towers. Jana pointed at it. “This castle withstood the Mongols, the Ottomans, and Napoleon’s army. But in 1811, a group of Italian soldiers garrisoned there decided to cook pasta. They started a fire, the fire got out of control, and the castle burned down. We didn’t start reconstructing it until 1953. So, in Slovakia, we like to joke — it’s kind of sad — that our castle withstood the Mongols and the Turks and Napoleon but couldn’t handle an Italian dinner.”
Yes, of course. Bratislava is only an hour’s drive from Vienna. And Prince Batu’s siege of Vienna marked the high-water mark of the Mongol Empire’s western expansion.
Thor (the Norse god, not the Marvel character) is remarkably similar to its Chinese counterpart, Leigong, so much so that I intuit a long-lost cultural connection, even though I am unaware of any scholarship establishing it. If the distance between Scandinavia and the Far East makes you skeptical of this possibility, I’ll note that the Hellenistic inspiration for Asian Buddhist sculptural art is well-established.
Leigong, literally “Lord of Thunder,” is an important figure in the Taoist pantheon. He is, like Thor, depicted as a strong warrior type who wields a magic hammer with which he can send thunderbolts. He is a positive but blunt character, broadly on the side of right but sometimes blunders in rushing to judgment. Much as Thor stands opposed to Loki, Leigong is opposed to characters of mischief such as the Monkey King (who, incidentally, has been shown to be derived from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman).
To the uninitiated, Namibia sounds impossibly distant. Where is it anyway? The President of the United States recently called it “Nambia.” And I doubt everyone realized right away that he’d made a gaff.
But actually, as Lonely Planet puts it, Namibia is “Africa for beginners.” A German colony until it was taken over by British South Africa in 1915, and not actually independent from South Africa until 1990, Namibia often feels like a misplaced corner of Germany with its Lutheran churches and streets with names like Bahnhofstrasse and Luderitzstrasse, and especially in its relative orderliness.
This Germanic orderliness, I learned on a trip to Sossusvlei, extends to Namibia’s wilderness areas.
My coworker Teresa was the first person to draw my attention to Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls, the infamous swimming hole on the edge of the waterfall that some call the world’s “ultimate infinity pool.” It was four or five years ago, and we were having one of those water-cooler conversations. As soon as I got back to my office I googled for images of the Devil’s Pool. And as soon as I saw it I decided that one day I would go there.
And finally I have.
From Nairobi I flew into Lusaka, Zambia’s nondescript capital. From the airport, at 2:45am, I shared a taxi with a Nigerian man to Lusaka’s Inter-City Bus Terminal. At 6:30 the bus left for the dusty eight-hour ride to Livingstone, the town on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls named after the famed missionary-explorer.
John and Tom’s Excellent Adventure: On John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Travel, and the Meaning of an Education
On April 4, 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson set off on a road trip together.
Both in England from which their America had freshly won its independence, the object of their tour was — as dull as it sounds to me — a series of English gardens. Instead of Lonely Planet or even a Baedeker, their guide book was Jefferson’s copy of Observations on Modern Gardening by one Thomas Whately.
As David McCullough recounts in his excellent John Adams, the road trip had no great historical significance. But it was “the one and the only time” when the famous frenemies, the "North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” would spend “off on their own together.” And, perhaps given my circumstances on the road, I can’t help dwelling on this image of the two Great Men driving around the English countryside, John and Tom, just a couple of dudes, a couple of American tourists.
In the early-15th century, the Chinese government sent the so-called Eunuch Admiral, Zheng He, on a voyage of exploration that reached East Africa and perhaps beyond. A muslim of Mongol-Uzbek extraction, he was often known by his honorific name “Sanbao,” and he may have been the inspiration for Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.
Six hundred years later he is the poster child of contemporary China’s foreign policy. Called “One Belt One Road,” the policy calls for China to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road across Eurasia as well as to build supposedly mutually beneficial relationships with many of the countries that Zheng visited. And the building of relationships mostly involves the construction of factories and bridges and roads and other capital projects for these countries. Zheng left a stele in Sri Lanka commemorating his visit, so now China has built an international airport and a deepwater seaport for Sri Lanka.
I’ve been seeing and marveling at many indications of China’s “OBOR” policy around the world for some time. There was the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, for example. And there were the children in Ethiopia crying “China, China” upon seeing me, which annoyed me until I learned that, with so much Chinese investment in that country, the children thought that all foreign-looking people were Chinese, even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes.
And most recently I have been in Kenya.
Nicholas laughed at my jokes a lot. And he had a way of half-covering his face with his hands when he did so. He had closely cropped hair like that of Obama, whose official portrait was everywhere in Nairobi as stock image for shops offering passport photo service. And when he turned his head to show his profile, I thought the shape of his skull rather resembled Barack’s as well. He had his own travel agency, of which he constituted its entirety.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
We were talking about Masai Mara, the nature reserve in southwestern Kenya that formed the Kenyan portion of the Serengeti, arguably Kenya’s top attraction.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."