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.
I made the decision to come to Italy on the fly, the same way that I generally decide where to go nowadays. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Only after arriving in Rome did I remember that it was twenty years ago, almost exactly, that I first came to Italy. Not only that, but it was the first time that traveled without my family and hence, in that sense, actually traveled.
Italy bowled me over then. I was a high school student then, and I had come to Italy to represent New Zealand at that year’s International Physics Olympiad. The competition itself was held in Padua, but we made our obligatory stops in Rome and Venice and played tourists. How could we resist, five teenagers from New Zealand, the land of majestic landscapes but rather less culture?
Long before I visited Brest last week, I had heard about the fortress in that town and what happened there on the early morning of June 22, 1941.
Brest (not to be confused with the coastal French town of the same name) is in the far western extremity of today’s Belarus. In 1941, it was on the western frontier of the USSR. On that fateful morning, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviets. And Brest Fortress was one of the first targets of the assault. The Soviet soldiers garrisoned in the fortress put up a stubborn defense against the much superior German force. Soon they became a symbol of Soviet resistance.
That much everyone can agree. But the full story of Brest Fortress is much more complicated and disputed than official Soviet and Belarusian accounts would have it. That in turn made me think about another war story that I grew up hearing about.
If you were waiting on the edge of your seat for my next blog post (ha!) but found none the last couple of weeks, here is why: I have been in Kazakhstan, where my blogging platform is blocked.
Yes, really. Turkey blocks Wikipedia. China blocks Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Youtube and Google. Kazakhstan blocks personal blogs.
Since 1990, when the USSR was coming apart, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the man in charge in Kazakhstan. In 1997, he moved the seat of government from the traditional center of Kazakh life, Almaty, to the former lonely outpost in the steppes, Astana. Upon his nominal resignation from the presidency in March of this year, the Kazakh government renamed Astana after him: Nursultan. I was hard-pressed, however, to find any Kazakh outside of the airport who referred to the city by that new name.
On my second visit to Latvia recently, I was introduced to the Latvian national epic, Lāčplēsis. Written by Andrejs Pumpurs in the late-19th century, the epic poem puts together traditional legends about its eponymous hero, whose name in Latvian means “the bear-slayer.”
I claim no particular knowledge about Latvian history and culture. But what strikes me about Lāčplēsis and to some extent Latvia itself is the sense of contradiction. One contradiction that has fascinated me is linguistic: the Latvian language and its sibling Lithuanian are the two living languages most closely related to Proto-Indo-European. Listen to a Lithuanian or a Latvian speak, and you are hearing the best modern approximation of what the distant pre-historic ancestors of Europeans (and Indians and Iranians and others) might have sounded like thousands of years ago. Yet despite its antiquity, the Latvian language was not attested in written sources until the 16th century.
So the tale of Lāčplēsis strikes me with its contradictions. “The Bear-Slayer” is so-called because as a young man, he killed a bear by tearing apart its jaw with his bare hands. But it turns out that in reality Lāčplēsis is half-man and half-bear, his mother having been a bear. And although Lāčplēsis has mostly human features, his ears are those of a bear. In fact, Lāčplēsis derives his great strength from those ears, so that if an enemy cuts them off, then he loses his strength.
The odor of stale urine, warmed over by the heat of a hundred summers, greeted me like an old friend. The steel poles on the train had the familiar slimy feel to them, courtesy of the hundreds before who had held onto them earlier that day and wherever their hands might have been. An obese man with his pants unzipped and barely held up rudely by a belt ambled by — the first rule of the New York City subway: there is always a crazy person on your train. If you can’t figure out who it is, it’s probably you.
Somewhere in Koreatown, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, it was the night before garbage collection, and the sour smell emanating from the black trash bags gathered into little hills assaulted the nostrils.
It was my first New York City subway station in two years, and it felt like some sort of homecoming.
Playa del Hombre lay a bit less than halfway between Gran Canaria’s airport and its main city, Las Palmas. So I decided to go there straight from the airport before continuing on to the city.
Doing so, however, meant carrying my luggage on my shoulders while marching under the blinding Canarian sun. From the nearest bus stop on the main road, it was a good 25 minutes on foot to Playa del Hombre. An elderly man with a cane tried to point me in the right direction. A desultory cafe in the corner stood empty and yawning. The roads here weren’t particularly built for pedestrians, and cars whizzed by me angrily. A trio of teenage girls tried to waylay me after I’d barely started. When I pretended that I didn’t understand them, they switched to broken English: “One money,” they cried, “one Euro.”
Playa del Hombre was not a noted destination on Gran Canaria, the most populated of the Canary Islands. It was but a small settlement by the sea of a few streets tracing semi-circles around its eponymous beach of volcanic black sand, populated by low houses painted in warm colors to correspond with the sun. But I was not the first one to come here. Instead I followed a trickle of others who looked much like me, Chinese or Taiwanese visitors who came to see the former home of the famous Chinese/Taiwanese writer Sanmao.
For an atheist, I sure visit a lot of churches.
And mosques, and temples, and synagogues, and monasteries of all stripes, places of worship of all creeds.
In light of the disastrous fire at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral this week, I have been pondering my love of houses of worship despite my negative attitude toward religion.
As an atheist, all religions are vaguely offensive to my sensibilities. As far as I’m concerned, the primary function that organized religion serves is to insist on obvious falsehoods and to make the populace more gullible to even further falsehoods. Witness the bizarre belief among a great many Americans that, like Cyrus the Great, the current president occupies the White House because God specifically put him there.
Somehow I never got around to reading Shen Congwen until just recently.
Unless you’re Chinese/Taiwanese, you have probably never heard of him. And yet in 1988 he almost won the Nobel Prize in literature. The Nobel Committee had essentially agreed to give him the prize when its members made an inquiry to the Chinese government: Where was Mr. Shen, they wanted to know. And more to the point, was he still alive? The Nobel Prize, you see, could only be award to living persons.
The Chinese government responded that they knew of no one by that name. And yet he was one of the most important Chinese writers of the 20th century. Further investigation revealed that Shen had died of a heart attack a short time earlier. Committee member and famed Swedish Sinologist Göran Malmqvist pleaded with his fellow members that an exception be made for an exceptional figure, but to no avail.
“You know the Japanese word for ‘thank you’?” Ricardo asked me.
He was missing a surprising number of teeth given that he was four years younger than I. And his hair was already verging on salt-and-pepper. But he spoke with youthful enthusiasm on behalf of all things Azorean. Azorean, not necessarily Portuguese — he favored independence for the islands. His own darker skin tone he attributed to Moroccan descent. The other side of his family was Dutch, he said, reflecting the complex ethnic mixture here.
“Yes?” I said. “Arigato.”
“You know it’s borrowed from Portuguese ‘obrigado’? Apparently the Japanese didn’t have a word for ‘thank you’ until they met the Portuguese.”
Thanksgiving was not a good day for me.
I crossed the border from The Gambia into Senegal. And I just had one of those days when somehow I was doing everything wrong. I have been traveling nonstop for nearly three-and-half years, besides many other solo trips taken before that. I have been to some of the most difficult or remote corners of the world. But on this day, I behaved like a rube. A sucker. An amateur. A college sophomore on his first trip abroad, flustered because he can’t find a Burger King within two miles.
I have crossed numerous borders, both in Africa and elsewhere, even in unsavory or dangerous places. I knew all about corrupt border officials. They’re a dime a dozen in Africa. On this day, as I tried to exit the Gambia, the border official demanded a bribe from me, dressing it up as a “departure fee.” What I should have done, what any seasoned traveler worth his salt should have done, was to stand my ground and tell him no, and nein, and nyet, and fuhgeddaboudit. But somehow, on this day, maybe because I’d gotten up at five, maybe because I had a headache, after a few minutes of resistance, I sighed and handed over the money.
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."