Monday, January 04, 2010
A note: for consistency's sake I'm retro-actively dating posts to correspond approximately at the time they happened, so Croatia = June/July 2009, etc.
Now that it's the deep cold of January in New York, with all bank accounts depleted and only the memories to keep warm, I've got the time to put some words and pictures together for last year. And while that happens, I'll be listening to a LOT of Rufus Wainwright.
This one is always my favorite.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
I arrived in Iceland and promptly messed everything up. I knew there was a bus (flybus) that went into Reykjavik from the airport in Keflavik and also that there was no "blue lagoon layover" possible having arrived at an ungodly early hour. I immediately headed to the duty free shop to load up on cheap booze and smokes. You can never know when those will come in handy due either to extreme partying or cultural desirability. I mean if coffee and tobacco are the only real currency in jails worldwide, it goes to say that there is a strong possibility that cigs might be the difference between making friends and choking to death on expired nicorette after a night of heavy drinking.
Disappointing after the impressive display of local and exotic booze varieties, there's a 1 liter limit per person. I mean WTF? I went with the standbys: the local Black Death and whiskey. I found some limited edition camel cigs that might make good souvenirs for my committed smoker friends in NYC.
Before the coffee had kicked in I realized I was the only non-employee in the airport. I asked at the counter when the next bus would be. I had missed the one perfectly timed for the more 'with it' members of my own flight. Luckily, there was 1 other guy who had somehow convinced the bus to make a trip and I could piggy back on this tremendous good fortune as the difference between the deluxe Mercedes bus and a waiting taxi is about $100 usd.
Even after reading extensively, the landscape was still shocking; barren, volcanic, windswept and black. I expected more snow, or more land. Somehow the horizon and a great sky had become 60% of the visible dimension. I was stupid enough to travel without a power converter and had only one charge on my fancy camera battery. Instead I took it all in, a living IMAX nature show. The sheer Nordic-ness of everything was deeply impressive, even as it became clear that Reykjavik is a very little city. I tried to imagine living there, in tastefully painted metal sheet buildings with heavy wooden windows all reminiscent of a fishing village from another century.
The apartment-hotel that I had booked for a few days in the city was not to be ready until 2pm and I had 6 hours of trying not to fall asleep carting around too much baggage and looking for the address of the place. Somehow I found a gated black house, something that looked more like the inspiration for a painting than a functioning building, and rand until I was buzzed in. No one appeared to be home except a gentle old black dog. The doors on all the first floor were locked. The entry inside with stairs leading up seemed a bit rude, but after 5 minutes and no answer I climbed up to find a very young, very blonde boy looking at me with bright blue eyes. My first instinct was to wonder what language I could speak, since I hadn't even bothered to try to learn any Icelandic. English then.
"Hello. Is your Mommy home?" He turned to run, like a boy messenger warning of an approaching army. His mom, the proprietress, was busy on the phone. He returned to his room, a beautiful pastiche of blue walls, dark hued books and a rainbow of wooden toys. In the stairwell a sculpture of books, glued together in a spiral, had English titles and upon closer inspection some were stamped with, "San Francisco Public Library." The main room, a dining room, leading to the open kitchen was a perfect blend of art and design from Latin and Nordic cultures. I stood stunned taking in the visual ghosts of the late 1990's San Francisco Art Institute. The paintings on the walls were exactly like those my friends had been making then. An attractive middle aged woman in black appeared and began to apologize. She looked Icelandic, her clothes definitely were. Even her English had a cute Icelandic accent.
She explained she was alone in managing their growing stable of apartments and rooms. She could do nothing until 2, but I was welcome to leave my things and she would direct me to anything I might need or want, which considering the city was inevitably within a 5 minute walk. I asked about the art. She had been there just before I had, knew the same painting professor -the legendary one- and had married an Icelander. I asked if she'd known a woman named Madia who I had known from that time. Madia had moved back to Reykjavik around 2000. Since then I’d only heard from her once, a phone call in which she described hooking up with a rock star that she couldn't name but was a household name internationally. It was all very exciting for her and sort of depressing to watch. We gossiped about the epic motorcycle accident in Italy of a mutual acquaintance and lost touch. It was a small city, even with a confusing lack of surnames there couldn't be more than 20 Madia's in the phonebook and why not try them all?
Instead I found an adorable tearoom, experienced my first sudden Icelandic hailstorm, the delicate protocols of the Reykjavik hot pots and waited to 2pm. My fellow alumni surprised me with a car ride the several blocks to the apartment, which was a considerable upgrade from what I'd actually paid for. It was the brand new apartment designed to house five significantly more affluent individuals than myself. First there was a vintage armchair placed artfully under a skylight with custom upholstery that had a repeat motif of either a clown or Barack Obama, the detail of the weave made it impossible to distinguish which. On either side a massive coat closet (no hangers) and a beautifully tiled bathroom with a huge oval shaped bathtub sculpted to look like a vase. Wandering through the great expanse, heated to a perfect level of comfort, I began to feel a kind of elation that my efforts had lead me here. Two bedrooms, both luxury foam mattresses, one with a patio overlooking the harbor and classic Icelandic architecture. The massive front room was a modern studio with white leather sofa, fake velvet deer heads arranged in a row, awesome new kitchen appliances far more space age than anything I'd seen in real life. I slowly sat in each room, looking over each piece of wall or tile and considered that everything had to have been imported by boat from the harbor, driven over here and installed with precision by the same generation of Polish immigrants who artlessly slapped together countless condos in NYC. What a difference a culture makes.
My second day the time difference and massive clock failure between various laptops, clocks, cell phones and other devices left me late and pissed about having missed the city tour I'd arranged in advance. Having already mastered the DIY stumbling around, I figured it couldn't hurt to do the tour with the idea of saving time and increasing the likelihood that I'd learn more than the aesthetic composition of buildings in general. Alas. The second half of the day I managed to be picked up in time for the "Golden Circle Tour." And if ever there was a non-stop whirlwind of must see sights made way awesome for the gentle voice over by sing-sing Icelandic English, this is it. Everything was amazing, but more so because of the variability and violence of the nature that is more than a backdrop, but a participant in the history and experience of Iceland. It started snowing and I was amazed to see the buss plowing through the massive snow like a modern Valkyrie, which has been almost uncomfortably captured by the Iceland Expeditions flash ad.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Since December, I'd been working in the gray open maze of the 7th floor of the midtown Manhattan version of Art Deco; which is to say endless slick black surfaces, chrome trim and rounded edges. It was a first in terms of hard core mega-corporate employment and initially my feelings were an incredulous mixture of confusion, joy and mind-numbing disappointment. It's not that my work was horrible, just overly simple (in task and concept) and overly complex (down the corporate rabbit hole/directory in execution). Definitely less colorful than South India, but I had a committee of managers (supervisor/boss') that respected me as a human being and professional, plus the HR department never failed to mail a paycheck. I got to wear cute business clothes when I felt like it, and dressy jeans when I didn't.
I worked the holiday season in complete solitude; and endless gray cubicals. Not the operatic hardship and disaster of the last Hungarian Christmas seasons. Apartment searching was a lesson in the futility of trying to live in NYC with a less than 90K income. Thankfully one of my best friends works in the exciting world of wine reviews and that managed to keep my experience yellow hued and blurry at the edges. Things weren't great, weren't terrible.
January I moved into a gorgeous Harlem Brownstone and assumed that my new life in corporate technology marketing to the publishing industry would be the foundation for a new settled life. Until the quarterly budgets came in. In review it was apparent that I had been lucky to be hired after layoffs, spared an additional round, but that the end was clearly visible; even if I hadn't actually accomplished anything yet. I hoped to prolong the inevitable as long as possible after I got a VPN key and a blackberry that let me keep up with the office chatter without having to be sitting in my chair pretending to smile. I started to appreciate the people I liked and forget the incidental office gremlins I didn't.
Still the stress of trying to keep everything together was getting to me. I didn't really like anything about my life, it was just an experiment in finally doing the thing that I was supposed to in the first place. I missed trying to survive in foreign countries. I hated having to do the same things everyday with no variation.
Initially the idea was to travel with Niki, a fixed gear head I'd done the R1 with in 2005. He's now a lead developer at a video game company in NYC and, as it happened, also needed a vacation. Our birthdays are both in March and we agreed it was time to escape the GRAY city, GRAY offices and go somewhere shockingly different.
Since my wine expert friend is always waxing poetic on the wonders of Spain, I thought I might drop in on the Madrid boys from the last adventure. Niki was up for it and we planned a Madrid-Barcelona tour until the weather reports issued a depressing GRAY forecast. At about that time, the Icelandic economy and political structure became a dissolving meteor before the world stage. My various pals in fashion photography and other hipsters couldn't shut up about how great it is. I obsessively checked internet sites before proposing a change in venue. Niki was down.
Unfortunately so was his new girlfriend.
We tried to meet up as a three legged albatross with the idea of a 'group trip,' but in their new love they were impossibly smitten teenagers and my bitter old lady persona couldn't stomach it. Whatever it was, it wasn't working and suddenly the great idea of an expensive vacation split with a charming travel companion was bust.
I printed up a map of the country and affixed it above my office phone, made the tiled background of my corporate laptop a misty picture of the blue lagoon and started collecting maps, books, PDF's and other research materials that I promptly left in a mad rush to make it to the airport after work on a Friday. My manager had already left and benevolently let me leave early as well.
I was off to the land of Bjork, elves and glaciers! HOORAY!
Monday, October 13, 2008
Alibagh to Mumbai
Thursday, October 09, 2008
Mahad to Alibagh
Though it took most teams several days to get into the mindset of traveling and living in India as long haul autorickshaw drivers, by day 13 everyone had grown nostalgic and a little disappointed that it would all end so soon and regular life would take its’ place. Luckily there was also a fantastic extra excursion to Kulaba (Island) Fort in Alibagh Beach after the flag down.
Day 13 was like the last week of school before summer vacation: no one who isn't valedictorian gives a shit about anything except partying and trying to get with that one girl. I'm not naming names, but apparently the holiday hook ups had already turned into something of a soap/pop drama. Funny. I was busy figuring out international calling on the 40INR crap cell phone I'd been saddled with. The hotel was a disappointment in terms of food and the bar was like a foot locker filled with dirty old men, a place even foreign white women were not welcome. I decided to extract my revenge on Aravind by ordering the most expensive food and drinking as much booze as possible. Pretty much everyone knew things were a bit... unhinged.
The funniest part came when I opened the door to the room I had to share with the little brown butter ball. It was the honeymoon suite, complete with a heart shaped bed and hand embroidered coverlet. Where I there with a lover, I would have been delighted. Given the circumstances, I had us moved immediately and asked for the beds to be moved to opposite ends of the room. Then I had to figure out some scores, all of which were mostly ridiculous.
Some people cared too much, most not at all. The sheets had been lost for the first teams back in Hassan, which had the effect of kicking the strongest teams down to a big pack of whatever. But it was almost over. People wanted a winner, they wanted the idea that if they just do something fantastic tomorrow, they might walk back into their offices with a ridiculous trophy and some artificial pride at having conquered the subcontinent, again. The wanted a rocky. Unfortunately as things looked according to good behavior and luck, it was down to the british tuxedo kids and the creepy kiwi couple, who having shunned everyone the entire trip began being painfully friendly -at the last possible moment when it was announced that you get points for being liked. Hm.
The day itself was peaceful, the roads became less densely covered by jungle and more agriculture, towns and open spaces filled the view. Still overcast in the wake of the passing monsoon, the island was still not reachable by 4pm, the time when the tide should have gone out. The two usual options for making it out to Kulaba Island are simply waiting for low tide and walking, or taking one of the horse carts. With storm clouds threatening, it became obvious that only the poor swimming horses would be able to make it, even at the lowest tide.
Good God, I've lived in rural Romania and my former shock at the poverty of those animals is entirely eclipsed by the poor beasts that pulled these ghastly little wood carts through freezing monsoon tidewaters. The tide still deep, yet people paid to have them make the attempt and the poor little bastards had to swim before mostly giving up -only at the urging of the tourists who couldn't watch it anymore. I was disappointed, but the horror of it and the cold wind made me happy to just go back to the hotel and try to catch some of the olympics that might be on the big screen in the dining hall. We gave the Spaniards a ride back & Abdul got lost. It was funny & I was determined to ride with them on the trip into Mumbai. Those guys are nuts!
This is one of those moments, when you realize how delicate nature is and even when something is repeated, like the CEAT Mumbai Xpress, nature often makes each experience totally unique. Last year there were hardly any monsoons, as the CEAT Mumbai Xpress 2007 chased the lingering monsoons. This year we were right in the middle of their fury. A wild and intense experience, but unfortunately not so good for the view this time around.
Luckily the Hotel RaviKiran had a flat screen television in the restaurant and teams got to soak in the Olympic fever with beers and local cuisine before resting up for their final day on the road to Mumbai. Before leaving the next morning the scores were posted. In the competition category, team 15 Wheelie Wheelie Mad from New Zealand was clearly in the lead, but with competition only counting for 55% of the total scores, who would be the winner? The question lingered on everyone’s minds.
The other thing about that night, besides getting a surprise international call and staying up all night doing the accounting for the scores that would wind up being largely arbitrary anyway, was how happy I was with the hot water. No, really. I had a great time in the shower with the bright blue tiles and the candy colored plastic bucket. Not the nicest shower at all. But I guess by day 12, hot water alone is enough to make you sing in the shower.
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Ratnagiri to Mahad
The morning flag off started with a group photo, The Engine team 13’s Steven and David in Sari’s borrowed from Team Compact Pussycats.Their lovely imitation of a traditional dance in the girl's fake neon Saree's left everyone coughing with laughter and hoping that the locals would be flabbergasted enough not to do anything. India, for all the male hugging & affection, is enormously homophobic. Would they not understand? Would they give the paying white tourists a pass? I briefly looked around in case. Thankfully, the only thing that happened was their repertoire of dance moves to imitate came to an end and with that everyone shoved off. Somewhere it's on video.
Without any late sleeping officials to flag us off we enjoyed careening out of the hotel flagged off by the mechanics. Everyone, but the Spanish Team #16’s the Thirsty Riders, took off with a roar. With the bad mechanical luck and good humor that had brought them along this far, they were just about to experience their best mechanical accident
yet: a flipped rickshaw landing both of them into a very muddy ditch.
When the mechanical team arrived, they appeared to be covered head to toe in mud yelling at each other like creatures from the black lagoon. Eventually, even they found it quite funny.
The biggest adventure each day, from the pace car, is where to eat lunch. Though there are not many variables in outcome. Still somethings like the euphemistically named Swiss Restaurant are a good time while today's was a red earth, brutal chicken hut with omshanti played on repeat, until nauseous, on the inside of a dirty porch eating the usual spiced dishes and trying not to worry about Hannes, murder Aravind with a blunt object or start crying over one of the impossibly poor and skinny children working like a pack horse. The intensity of everything required long stretches of silence, but Aravind kept yaking away about his incredible knowledge of everything. Checking the blog comments. Abdul, the ever silent driver was my solace. At least he knew how to appreciate the scenery and shut the fuck up.
Despite the rains, teams had a fairly easy day and everyone arrived to the flag down in time to visit the incredible Raigarh Fort at Mahad. Lost in a deep mist with scattered rains, a vast rock face covered in lemongrass, moss and gently swaying greenery that appeared almost electric in color, the fort is at the very top.
Teams climbed into precarious little boxes on the rope way that leads up in groups of 8 or 9. Despite the hilarity of arranging transportation in regular jeeps that broke down anyway (thanks team 6!) and the mysterious Indian fees for things you never imagined for things from parking to gate fees, taxes, entry, etc. It was incredible, the stuff of fantastical medieval movies and dreams. Waterfalls gushed out of the green mountains everywhere with delicate little flowers struggling against the elements on impossible slopes.
The fort itself was huge, covered in moss and filled with rainwater. The throne and various look outs called for more exploration, though the fog was so thick you could only hear the voices and steps of friends nearby but anything more than 10 or 15 meters disappeared.
The nice people at the Hotel Kuber Palace assured us that there would be a pool next year, though we aren’t so sure that’s the improvement we’d most like to see. Still the people were very nice, the service was unusually good and the restaurant was really what you’d want to tell people about when describing the more exotic experiences along the way.
I liked that the hotel had an extensive walkway of shades that kept most of the monsoon rains out. That was nice. The bedbugs? Not so much. The restaurant staff was the fastest, most accurate & helpful of any so far.
Sunday, October 05, 2008
Tarkali to Ratnigiri
After the extreme monsoon, driving, accidents and late night the teams started off humbled and determined to get to the evening’s hotel with as few breakdowns and
problems as possible.
I had become, not unsurprisingly, sick. Possibly it was the damn Indian moonshine whiskey, but later in the day it was confirmed to have been simply being stressed out in the middle of a monsoon, freezing and later being locked outside while my fat little Indian boss refused to get off the crapper to let me into the beach front hut room. I remember wonder
ing if, after the day I had, I was more or less able to physically beat him to death. No, better to wait for a hotel with nice ammenities.
Thankfully the weather and the roads seemed to hold out. Waterfalls made regular appearances and so did troops of monkeys.
Sitting in the pace car, happy to not be in an autorickshaw, happy to not be in the monsoon, I was happy I'd gone shopping in Goa. The resistance to all things India was broken. I began wearing the traditional clothes, starting with the blue and gold salwar suit. Kausar became more friendly and the pretty sash was a nice distraction to meditate on.
I sat in the passenger seat and concentrated on the absorbing everything that could be seen. The road and water. The million shades of green and the strange new variations that each village had. Goa had looked like the army base it had been, covered in black and green fungus. The jungle villages began in much the same way that other south Indian villages did, but there were always small variations. We stopped at a clinic for more medicines. The building felt like a dark doll house, an old woman quietly sitting in the front room looking out. How often is there something to see?
Close to the final destination the route took us past some of the largest mango plantations on the planet, but in the heavy greenery of the season, it was hard to make out what could have been a mango tree and what was part of the kaleidoscope of green that covered the earth. To consider that only in a few months time the whole scene should change to fire tones of yellows, oranges and reds seem almost incomprehensible. Though there may not be active nightlife in the villages, it’s easy to see that the seasonal cycles provide enough distraction to remain fascinating.
It's true. The landscape changed in that day, from being under the canopy of jungles to being in the rolling hills, which though lush and green bore the faintest look of what the hot dry season might bring. Changing of the season, watching the earth go through the season remains one of life's greatest pleasures, a rare phenomenon after years in New York City. Though I'm grateful to be passing through, I want to return to this spot to see these trees become pregnant with fruit, see the harvest and understand what survival feels like here. Presumably at some point it even stops raining.
In happy contrast to the day before, everyone made it to the Flag down on time. Several participants rushed out to the pool with a huge twisted red slide and a hot tub that overlooked epic cliffs and the beach view from the Hotel Kohinoor Samudhra. The storm clouds gathered again and most made it back to the nice hotel rooms or dining hall while a few stayed back to experience sitting in a hot tub on a cliff in monsoon rains, which is different than sitting in an autorickshaw.