on a trip to the Ukraine right now & will try to post something later
Please excuse lack of paragraphs - they got lost on the way from Word to here. (Apparently "you can't get there from here.")
Please also see Russia 2009 photo album, in the column to the left.
Friday 14 August 09 Flight & Moscow Took a Lufthansa flight (used USAir miles) Business class (the way to go!!!) to Frankfurt, then Moscow. Arrived about 4:30 & waited at the airport for Tanya to come “pick me up.” Tanya is engaged to Nick – they will be marrying sometime next summer, which will make him an automatic dad to 14-yr-old Anton, her son. And me an automatic grandma! I am staying a couple of days with them before meeting up with a tour group. We took the train into Moscow & then the red-line metro out to her neighborhood, which is the end of the line. About a 10-15 minute walk to her apt, which is on the 9th floor of a large complex – fortunately there’s an elevator. It’s in an area with a lot of trees and a small playground. The apt is small, but has only one family in it, Tanya & her son Anton. (I found out later that in St Petersburg, about 10-15% of the housing is still multifamily.) Anton has his own bedroom, and Tanya sleeps on the sofa bed in the living room area, which has pretty fancy shelving & a desk for their computer. There is a small entry area (full of shoes since you have to take your shoes off when you come into a Russian home), which also holds the refrigerator. The “bathroom” is two separate rooms, one with the shower/tub & sink, the other with the toilet, all by itself. There is a small kitchen. Large windows overlook the playground area. Tanya made us a nice dinner of salad & pasta with tomato sauce. We planned what to see while I was visiting them, according to what was open Sat, Sun, & Mon. Then I crashed since I hadn’t slept much on the flights. Slept till about 10 am, then we hit the ground running. We had a lot of things to see!
Saturday 15 Aug Moscow First we took a river boat cruise of the city along the Moscow River. It was really a good way to see a lot of things. We cruised past Moscow University, large city parks & an amusement park, the huge & bizarre statue of Peter the Great, floating restaurants, all kinds of government buildings, the Kremlin, monasteries with gold onion domes - you name it, we saw it! Next, lunch at Grabli, which means “rake.” It’s a place where you walk from one station to another to choose the food on display, which means you get wayyyyy too much food. It was all good though! I bought lunch to try to help with expenses – Tanya got me a metro card & turns out to buy a lot of the admissions. Then we visited the Andrei Rublyov Monastery. He’s a hugely famous iconographer, but the museum here has none of his works – guess his name is on it for recognition factor, and because he did work here a while, doing some original frescoes I think inside a small church on the grounds – it was beautiful, taller than it was wide! Anyway, the museum. My first experience of 3 Russian truths: 1. You have to pay extra if you want to take photos in a museum. 2. Foreigners pay 3-10 times more than Russians for entry into museums. After this experience we decided I’d keep my mouth shut & let them get the tickets, just not mentioning that I’m not Russian. The way they manage the higher price is that the prices on the wall listed in English are for foreigners, and the Russian text lists their price, but foreigners can’t read it. Tricky. 3. Babushki. Every museum has an old lady in every room, who keeps an eye on the “guests” to make sure they don’t misbehave. These ladies are intimidating! Eagle-eyed. Not hesitant to speak their minds. At one point one told us “You’d get through here faster if you didn’t talk so much!” Focus! They also decide when it’s time to close up shop, usually at least 30 mins before official closing time. If you don’t leave when they say “time to go,” they turn the lights off on you! We enjoyed the icons in the museum. A number of them were “the life & trials of St George.” I thought he just killed the dragon, but around his large central image were boxes showing different things that happened to him – being crushed under a big rock, getting burned, etc. On the top floor was an exhibit of frescoes from a church in the countryside, forgot the name. The church was going to be flooded because of a dam on some river, so the frescoes were removed & brought here. The babushka in this room was nice & told us the story & what some of the images were about. The monastery closed at 6. We considered staying & walking around the grounds a bit, but seeing a guard with a rifle made us reconsider. “What part of closed at 6 don’t you understand?” Then we walked back toward the metro by way of a converted wine factory called Vinoteka (I think?) that’s now made into galleries & shops. We looked at a gallery showing of a photographer who had images of the Middle East, Afghanistan, etc. one we liked had a row of young boys looking off into the distance at a row of young soldiers in battle gear – looking at their future probably. In the garage area of the winery was a flea market, lots of handmade things & clever stuff. One funny thing was book covers that said things like “War & Peace” (in Russian of course) to put on your current book so no one can see you’re reading trash. I bought a t–shirt with a saying by Chekov “It’s never too early to ask yourself if you’re spending your time wisely” or something like that. We went by the grocery store on the way home. It seemed weird to me – small, almost like a convenience store, with tired produce that Tanya said has no taste, and she never buys it there. It was an economy place, so you do your own bagging. We got cheese & bread & milk. Got home about 10 & visited a while, then crashed about 12:30.
Sunday 16 Aug Moscow Another late start! Our goal today is the “Old” Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow’s fine arts museum. Going to it we took the same metro as yesterday & even walked past Grabli. This time I kept my mouth shut & got in for the Russian price. The museum is huge and full of works by Russian masters. I was especially taken with the huge Repin oil showing Ivan the Terrible cradling his son Ivan, whom he had just killed in a fit of rage, both covered in blood. Also a statue of Ivan the T on his throne, looking haunted. Apparently he had wild outbursts of temper (and violence), then was overcome by remorse. There were also a good number of paintings based on traditional tales, romanticized Russian history going back to the Rus, etc. And the icons were amazing – we didn’t have time to do them justice, so I would like to return. Afterwards we headed for the Arbat, a pedestrian street now aimed at tourists. I bought a couple of small watercolors from one of the artists displaying his stuff, along with that of his father & grandfather – one for me & one for Nick. We ate lunch at the Mu-Mu, which has a cow motif for some reason. It’s the same concept as Grabli, but the food costs more for smaller portions & there is one line that you have to go through, like a cafeteria. Tosha wanted beef stroganoff, and the portion was so small both Tanya & I looked at it with our mouths open – “huh?” but the serving lady said yeah, that’s it. Then we went to the Statue Park, but that’s not the name of it. It is full of statues of Soviet heroes that were taken down after the “fall” of communism in the 90s – Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, etc. The most interesting part was a statue of Stalin (nose broken off), surrounded by faceless, sometimes formless people. Behind him he is circled by a wooden frame fronted by bars & barbed wire, full of human heads, each a different shape or color or type of stone. It was very creepy, which is probably appropriate. We headed to Red Square to visit the GUM, previously a big department store in Soviet times, now a mall a lot like Houston’s Galleria, with fancy international big- name expensive stores. It is quite massive, filling the side of Red Square directly across from Lenin’s tomb. We walked around & decided to get a late supper (very late, almost 10 pm!) at Stolovaya No 57, based on the canteen-type eateries that were put in factories when women came to work there, so that they could have a hot meal and to make their lives easier. We had cold veggie soup, salads, & small desserts, all traditional Russian food & the kind of thing served at the stalovayas. Note: I have been studying Russian a bit with Nick, in Continuing Education at Rice. SO I know some words & grammar, and can certainly read the alphabet. But it’s a real struggle. I have figured out that part of the reason I am so TIRED on this trip, besides so much walking on apparently bad shoes, is that I am trying to read every sign I see, to see if I can read it, if I know the words, any of the words, or at least the case they are in. That will wear you out real quick. Again we got back home pretty late. Tanya has to go to work tomorrow, but first she is taking me to the hotel where I will meet my tour group tonight. We are going to drop off my luggage there so that I can meet Tosha to do a few things, then we will meet her for a late lunch.
Monday 17 Aug Moscow So we left the house before 7 (tough since we’ve been sleeping till 10!) since it will take ~ 1 ½ hrs to get to the hotel via the metro – the city is that big. A metro train comes about every minute, you never have to wait, but there can be quite a bit of walking & up & down stairs between stations. At the hotel they never heard of me, but that seems to be about the way things work here (more on that later). Finally we just left my luggage there & hoped for the best. She took the metro to her office (American Embassy), and I met Tosha at another metro station. We went to see the Mayakovsky museum. He was an early ardent supporter of socialism, a poet & artist (posters etc) who traveled around the world using his artistic status to promote the cause. He later became a bit disillusioned about it all, apparently. The museum is housed in a building where he had an apt, where he committed suicide. The room where it happened is left as it was, but the rest is just a riot of color & artifacts – books, drawings, furniture, letters, etc – that covers several floors in a huge, well, jumble – but an intentional jumble. At the top, where the apt is, we ran into a babushka who was washing the floor with a mop & pail (looks like after hours would be a better time?), but she put it all aside to tell everything she knew about M to Tosha, in big chunks of talk. Then she would stop & point at me & say “Tell her!” He was very respectful & did as he was instructed. She WAS a babushka, after all. All in all it was a pretty amazing place. We met Tanya at one of the metro stations, and then walked to a favorite restaurant, a Belgian place. Nice lunch! Then Tosha went home, having done his duty with the guest, and Tanya & I walked to a “factory” (just a couple of rooms, really) where they make dolls in traditional garb of all sorts – all very accurate. She knew I would like the place because she saw the Mexican ceramic calavera couples at my house & figured I needed a Russian couple too. It was tough to choose, but I settled for a guy playing an accordion & his wife & baby. Tanya had to get back to work, & we said our goodbyes - I hit the metro to head to my hotel. When I got there they STILL didn’t know who I (or my tour group) was & sent me to a tourist agency desk in another hotel, but they never heard of me or my tour group either. Part of the problem is that nobody heads to Russian without a visa, & to get that you have to work through a booking agency that has nothing to do with your trip, but is just a name to put on the application. The information the agency gives you about hotels you will stay in etc may be wrong, but it has to be put on the visa application anyway. It’s like a strange game. So when you show up at a hotel, you may have been booked under an agency’s name that you don’t even know. Some other folks were having the same problem, so I didn’t feel too bad, but I was wayyyyy tired & wanted to clean up & maybe lie down. Instead I dragged back & forth between hotels hoping someone could help. Finally after a couple of hours they figured it all out. Whew. My roommate turned out to be a German woman named Brigitte. We got along fine. She is a teacher of music & German. We talked about Russian music & I asked her if she was familiar with Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky. She never heard of it, which turned out to be funny because the rest of the week we ran into statues, plaques, even a St Petersburg metro station named for him. We met the group about an hour later, heard the intro talk, then went back to the room since neither of us wanted to go to dinner en masse. It turned out that through the whole trip we both snacked in the room at night instead of going to dinner. I brought granola & dried fruit, & we both grabbed things like juice or yogurt at a shop during the day, and it worked out fine. By this time I was working up some pretty ferocious blisters. I wore my old shoes that have never given me any trouble (tromped all over Spain a couple of weeks earlier, no problem), but perhaps they’re just worn out. I’ve resoled them twice, but maybe the support part is shot. Will have to figure this out!
Tuesday 18 Aug Moscow We got an early start today to go to Red Square & the Kremlin. We lined up an hour before Lenin’s tomb opens so that we could avoid a big crowd. Pretty soon the line stretched out across the entrance to Red Square. It’s only open 10-2 Tues-Thurs. You have to leave any packages, cameras, etc outside at a checked-parcel place. Our tour leader Efrat (a woman from Israel) kept all our bags so we wouldn’t have to do that checking part. Before going into the tomb they run you through a metal detector. Checking the bags & the detectors slow up the process a bit. Before you get to the tomb/ mausoleum you pass through an area with the graves of lots of heroes of the revolution, and busts of folks like Stalin. (Not sure if he’s buried there or not?!?!) Entering the mausoleum you walk down several flights of steps, soldierly guys with guns shhh-shing you all the way. It’s like a religious service, except you can’t even whisper! You walk ¾ way around the glassed-in case. Past his right side, feet, left side, then out. He actually looks pretty good considering he’s been dead 80+ years, but kinda waxy. Interesting. Next we headed to the Kremlin. We met our local guide (Tanya?), who took us through the area. I was glad to have her when the guards didn’t want to let me through – they said my camera was too big. She argued with them, we looked at the lens size (72 mm), which apparently let me squeak through. Inside the Kremlin we saw the government buildings, the place where the Supreme Soviet used to meet (all from the outside), the Tsars’ cannon (I think?), which was the biggest ever but never fired. Also a monster bell, with a piece cracked off – never rung. And lots of churches, which we went into – I think 5 or 6? Ended up at the Armory, which I decided to pay 700 rubles (almost $20!) to see. It was worth it though. (No photos! No photos! Don’t even look like you might take a picture or a babushka will take your head off!!!) The thing about this museum is that every room is filled filled filled with items that would be the centerpiece of any other museum – only there are dozens, scores, hundreds of those items. And rooms and rooms of them. For example, Faberge eggs – probably 20 or so. Royal carriages, armor, weapons, crowns, clothing, jewelry, gifts in silver & gold for the royal family. Just amazing. I considered buying a book from the store, but figured it would be too heavy to tote all over Russia, heavy slick pages with photos of the objects. Oh well. Next, Red Square. I headed for St Basil’s, the last big item on my Moscow must-see list. It was very interesting, some pretty steep steps at several points but I made it up! There were a lot of interesting frescoes, but really it’s the outside that’s amazing, colors that you can’t believe. Unfortunately I ran out of battery on my camera. I hadn’t had lunch, just an ice cream, so I headed to the GUM to see if I could find something. Ended up back at Stolovaya 57. Went back to the hotel on the metro, buying some yogurt & OJ on the way to the room for breakfast the next morning. The hotel was called Ismailovo because it’s right next to the famous Ismailovo Market, a big flea-market place where you can get anything souvenir-y, apparently including being pick-pocketed. It was built for the Moscow Olympics, and has over 8000 beds. It’s divided into several separate buildings, alpha-beta-gamma-delta etc. It was easily the nicest hotel on the trip, even had a water dispenser on our floor. (In Russia you can’t drink the tap water – it needs to be boiled or seriously filtered.) But this was our last night here!
Wednesday 19 Aug Vladimir & Suzdal Today we left our luggage at the hotel & just took a small bag of clothes (although my bag was mostly camera & computer. When it turned out to be cold I didn’t even have a sweater, br-r-r-r-r. We took a bus to Vladimir. We were there just an hour waiting for a van to come take us to Suzdal, so Efrat said Why don’t you go look at that church (pointing off in the distance), it’s the only thing to see here. We asked How do we get there? & she said It’s just up that way – but don’t be late getting back. So we set out. Fortunately I could ask a few questions in Russian & had a xeroxed map – we finally got to the Assumption Cathedral, which was amazing inside – a service was going on. No one went in but me. I had on long pants & a lady just inside handed me a wrap-around skirt to put on. I just stayed a few minutes, but between the icons & frescoes & incense & chanting it was quite an experience. We had to head right back since it had taken ~30 mins to get there. Vladimir was the original capital of Russia, before it got moved to Moscow. There were several mentions of Alexander Nevsky, old Russian hero, since he was a local boy, prince of Vladimir & also Novgorod I think. Suzdal is another old city, full of churches. Here we learned from the guide that in this part of the country many churches have two buildings – a summer church & a winter ones. We toured the Monastery of St Euthymius, founded in the 14th c to help protect the town. (Often monasteries were built into the protective walls, & were places people could go during attacks.) Ivan the Terrible was one of the benefactors of the monastery. We heard a bell concert from the bell tower – a little touristy, but hey, we’re tourists. Then inside one of the churches was a short performance by monks, looking for donations or for you to buy their CD. We also visited the Torgovaya Ploschad, Trade Square, where there were handicrafts & a farmer’s market where I bought some berries, a tomato, & 2 cucumbers. The food I’m eating doesn’t include enough vegetables or fruits, so I’m trying to make up for it. Another high point was the Cathedral Nativity of the Virgin. Beautiful blue starry onion domes & inside, gold-on-copper doors with biblical scenes and frescoes. This is inside the original Kremlin walls, which were piled-up dirt – you can still see them. There is a wooden church St Nicholas right outside. I didn’t get to see the Alexandrovsky Convent, set up by you-know-who for widows of the wars with the Mongols, or the Intercession Convent, established for the cast-off wives of tsars. Very interesting was the Museum of Wooden Architecture, which shows how traditional Russian villages were built – several types of houses, two churches, and even a couple of windmills. The shapes of roofs on the churches were beautiful. Some people in traditional costumes were at the monastery & this museum. They seemed to be tourists (but Russians), but for some reason were all dressed up in long skirts & lots of embroidery. We stayed in a traditional wooden house, kinda dacha-looking – taking off our shoes at the door, as you always do in a Russian house. We walked about 100 miles to eat dinner in a local house, with lots of shots of vodka, a traditional potato-peas-carrots etc salad, & something in individual pots with broth & potatoes & chicken. Fortunately we got the van to carry us back to the house or else I’d’ve had to spend the night with the lady.
Thursday 20 Aug Night train to Novgorod Bus back to Moscow, 4 hrs?, then metro to the hotel to pick up our bags, metro to the train station, where we caught a night train to Novgorod. Our group is 12 people + the leader = 13. The train cabins had 4 beds, and she had tickets for 4, 4, 3, 1, & 1. I volunteered to be one of the singles who would go in with strangers, and Efrat ended up to trade with someone so it was 4, 4, 4, and me with 3 Russians. I ended up with a babushka named Zinaida (Zina) and 2 young engineers named Artyom (Tyoma) and Alexei (Alyosha). The guys slept on the top bunks. We tried ever so hard to talk, but …! I struggled & struggled, then would curse under my breath and say Shit or Damn it and they’d say ‘We know THAT word!’ Communication! Eventually they got in their bunks & stripped (whoo, whoo!) and the babushka had night clothes she wore. It was altogether very strange. But fun.
Friday 21 Aug Novgorod Novgorod was beautiful. I just loved it. Fortunately the weather was sunny & warm & dry, so I was in heaven. Mellow, mellow, mellow. We explored inside the Kremlin (called for some reason the detinets), which still has brick walls intact, and across the river around the old commercial area called Yaroslav’s court. There were several weddings while we were there. After getting hitched, the couple is followed all over town by their guests – they have photo ops & some kind of games/entertainment & food in the parks, kinda strange. But good for photos. In the commercial area we learned that only churches were important enough to be made of stone, other buildings were all wood and the city was plagued by fires. The businessmen wanted to protect their goods, so they built church-shaped things that they used as warehouses. Sometimes on the top floor they’d put in a small chapel for their own use so that the “church” designation was sorta legitimate & their stuff was protected too. There are still a number of these standing (of course! They’re made of wood so they didn’t burn down!) Inside the Kremlin I visited the Cathedral of St Sophia, one of the oldest buildings in Russia (from the 1000s). The onion domes aren’t original; they were added as a modification later. The first roofs on the steeples were designed by folks who didn’t understand Russian winters, and held too much snow. The onion domes take care of that problem. These are thought to be perhaps the first ones. Inside the church is the most important icon in the city – Our Lady of the Sign, which is said to have saved the city in 1170 when folks from Suzdal were attacking. The bishop had a vision that the virgin would save the city, so they put the icon on the city walls. It was hit by an arrow & this blasphemy caused darkness to fall. The Suzdal warriors fell into confusion & the Novgorod folks beat them. The icon still has a nick over its left eye. Hmmmm. No photos allowed in the church but I saw a scene that I just had to shoot. Best photo of the whole trip. On a side note, this incident is portrayed on an icon in the city museum, in 3 levels – putting the icon out, getting hit by the arrow, & the defeat. One of the first icons to display an actual event. The museum is both history & art, in one area showing all kinds of wooden bits, birch-bark letters folks wrote to each other before paper was available, and then a series of rooms full of icons and another for wooden religious carvings. Also interesting is the Millennium Bell/Monument, a huge sculpture from the 1860s which celebrated 1000 years of Novgorod history. It’s in several levels, altogether looking like a bell, depicting incidents in the city’s history, important personages like you-know-who, Peter & Catherine the Greats, etc. We had dinner together as a group tonight at a local fancy restaurant inside the Kremlin, Restoran Detinets. Most folks were disappointed at the size of servings, but I got some stuffed cabbage leaves that were yummy.
Saturday 22 Aug St Petersburg Up early today to catch a train to St Petersburg, our last stop on the trip, about 4 hrs? We had a quick city tour showing us some odds & ends, then ended up at a pirogi place for a late afternoon snack. This is a kind of pastry stuffed with all kinds of fruits or meats or veggies. I had mushroom & a cup of tea, nice. This evening we visited with a young local family to have tea & blini, a crepe you eat with sour cream and/or sweetened condensed milk. I almost didn’t go because I was so tired & my blisters were horrible, but I’m glad I went. It was interesting to talk with them about child care, role of women, government support, etc, and since we were from US, Germany, Singapore, & Australia, everyone had different experiences to add to the conversation. A funny (well, not really) thing happened on the way to their apt, in the metro. We were in the Alexander Nevskaya (or whatever) station & Brigitte wanted to take a photo of the beautiful mosaic of him, since we’d been seeing him all week. As soon as her flash went off, a militsia was all over her & she got a ticket for 100 rubles. The funny thing is I’d taken photos in the Moscow metro several days in a row, some with militsia hanging out, & nobody ever said anything to me. Although I never use flash, my camera’s certainly big enough to draw attention, and … nothing. I never tried it in the St P metro; perhaps they’re more cranky about it there.
Sunday 23 Aug St Petersburg Today was devoted to the Hermitage, St P’s (well, probably Russia’s) premier museum. A bit of disappointment is that there are no Russian works here, you have to go to the other museum for that – these are all European. The collection was started by the Greats, then added to & added to over the years. It has zillions of pieces of art, only about 20% on display. Apparently the museum’s holdings really grew during the communist era, when private collections were confiscated for the enjoyment of the masses. I bought a ticket online, which is good for skipping the long entry line. I decided to take the 12:00 guided tour in English, which was a good thing because she took us through & showed us the high points – once you get all that out of the way, you can wander around & fill in the blanks by yourself. One interesting detail she showed was in one of the ballrooms, where the parquet floor mirrored the relief carvings on the ceiling, with 2 exceptions – the St George & the double eagle, which you don’t want to walk on, out of respect. The museum is actually 5 different buildings, each a warren of rooms. You find yourself wandering around just looking for room numbers so you can head to where you actually want to be. There is an amazing bunch of stuff here – Spanish paintings, of course lots fewer than the Prado, but probably the best group to be found outside of Spain. Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian. 2 Da Vincis, a Michelangelo statue, Caravaggios, etc. After 5 hours I was about done. Lots more to see, but my feet were shot. And moving from here to there in the museum I had moved through some of the rooms many times and it was déjà vu all over again. And again. And again. I hoped to make it to the Blockade Museum but got there too late, so I just headed back to the room to pack. My plane was at 6 am, so I had a cab at 3 am & wanted to get to bed early – so I skipped the group dinner. Good flight back home, then back to work!!!
Saturday 6 September - Monday 8 September
Good flight over to Amsterdam - got a row of 3 seats by myself. Not by chance, worked hard at it at the airport but . it worked! So I slept about 5 - 6 hrs, hooray. Amsterdam - Helsinki uneventful.
I'm meeting my friend Ronnie Kerbow, who decided to come along on the trip with me since he's never seen this part of the world either. It will be a kinda quick "if it's Tuesday this must be Belgium" kind of trip, 6 countries in 2 wks. Whew, I'm tired already. It's with an Australian company called Intrepid, very socially-conscious, green, use local transport, homestays sometimes, etc. They don't drag you all around either, but just get you from point A to point B (often the hardest part of a trip), then give you a short orientation tour once you get where you're going, maybe arrange one dinner, but mostly leave you to do what you're interested in before it's time to get to the next place.
We walked around a lot the first day, before we met up with the group that night. We wandered around the Lutheran Cathedral, which is on the main square with the government palace & main bldg of the Helsinki university - a statue of Tsar Alexander 2 here, surrounded by figures symbolizing law, peace, work, & light - all big green muscular Finnish people. The law figure is a woman wearing a bearskin, the head on top of hers so it looks like she's being eaten. Kinda ferocious. You see her all over the place.
The cathedral itself is pretty on the outside but very plain inside, as you would expect from an outfit named after Martin Luther. White walls, plain pews, a couple of angel statues, simple altar with a cross of two straight bits of metal.
We went down to part of the harbor where there's an open market area, pretty busy on this Sunday afternoon. Fruits & veggies, mostly berries of all kinds (including lingonberries, yum) and mushrooms like you wouldn't believe! All from the Finnish forests. Then also for sale handmade items - knitwear, stuff out of sheep's wool (I got a felt hat), fox & mink fur items (it DOES get cold here), and all kinds of reindeer merchandise. Only Laps (Sami) can own reindeer legally, but in the market you can get antlers, pelts, and food. For lunch we had reindeer meatballs & reindeer sausage with potatoes & pickles & berry preserves. Can't get much more Finnish than that cuisine-wise.
The city is partially on the land & also spread across a number of islands, some of them quite tiny We walked across a bridge to an island called Katajanokka, where we went through the local Russian Orthodox church, Uspenski Cathedral. Inside it wasn't really that big but the custodian guy I talked to said that on a holiday like Easter there are 1000 people inside, totally illegally according to fire laws, everybody milling around (no seats, just open, like in Russia) holding candles for heaven's sake. Photos not allowed but I snuck a couple.
Then we walked around the island, which is known for its Art Deco buildings. Lots of interesting architectural details - some of the doors made it look like trolls lived there!
Back onto the mainland then to walk to the oldest church (Vanha Kirkko, Lutheran of course & only from 1820s, but it is wooden), which was actually closed but there was a wedding rehearsal going on so we walked into the back to look around; that was fun, giggling bridesmaids, solemn groom, weepy parents.
Finland went back & forth between belonging to Sweden & Russia forever, so both are strong influences here. the street signs & everything kinda official has to be in both Finnish & Swedish, although Swedes are less than 10% of the population, so that's kinda weird, but because of it you can see how really different the 2 languages are. Swedish with the vowels that have circles over them, finnish with the double dots.
lintujen ruokkminen kelletty (left out the dots)
forgjudt att mata faglar (left out the circles)
don't feed the birds
neither of them is a short-spoken language either - words are hugely-long & i guess combined, like German. here's the name of a bus stop:
that's just the Finnish! We haven't had any trouble with people not speaking English, which is a great relief since Finnish is not intuitive!
the weather hasn't been much to brag about, only about 15 minutes of sun.ÿ but it only rained at night, so that's something.ÿ i think it's in the 50s.
everything is really expensive here, even more so with the exchange rate.ÿ tram ride = 2 euros, cup of tea 2.20, entree at a restaurant ~ 25 euros. internet 2 euros for 30 mins!
We met with the group that night. A couple in their 60s from Australia, Al from Connecticut, retired from IBM, the rest in their 30s I think - two youngish girl cousins from Australia, a single Australian guy who's working in London right now, a Canadian who's working in NY state, the tour leader Amanda from London. Everyone seems nice & I think we'll all get along. We went to a restaurant that features tractor parts, something left over from Soviet times. I ate blini with mushrooms, and Ronnie had them with roe, which was marvelously crunchy red fish eggs that broke open when you bit down, with an explosion of taste. (Obviously he let me try them.) I thought the blini would be thin pancakes things, but they were more like the way we make cornbread, in a hot iron skillet. About the same texture too. But with sour cream. Everyone but me had Finnish beer, which they declared to be excellent.
Today we went by ferry to another couple of islands, site of a fort now called Suomenlinna, originally called Sveaborg by the Swedes who built it in the 1740s to protect themselves (Finland was Swedish then) from a sea attack by the Russians. Building the fort is what really made the town of Helsinki, which was just some rundown shacks until the big dream construction job came. Here's something funny. The Finns pronounced Sveaborg "Viapori." No wonder things are so confusing around here. Something else funny. When the Russians finally attacked the fort, it was by land, just lobbing cannon shells from the mainland - they were outnumbered by the Swedes, who gave the fortress up anyway. Huh? A bit of infamous Swedish history there. Anyway, it's all a UNESCO World Heritage site now, all cobblestones and old buildings, lots made into restaurants. A couple thousand people still live here. They also have a brewery; guess that's keeping your priorities straight.
We then went back to town & visited two interesting things - a church hewn - fancy word, hewn - right out of the rock that the town seems to be built over. Temppeliauko Church, built 1969. The walls are just natural granite, with a low glass ceiling. Supposedly great acoustics. (Will hear tomorrow, Ronnie & Al are going to a saxophone concert there tonight I'm staying in cuz it's raining again). While we sat there taking it in, a Japanese tour group came in, trooped in really, chatter chatter, all took each other's photos, then left. Check that site off the "to do" list. Different approach.
Next we went to the Sibelius monument. We're both music fans, so we wanted to see the memorial to the probably-most-famous native son, a composer. It was a bunch of tubes like on an organ, with different lengths & decorations, and across the way a bust of Sibelius, all in a silvery metal. Someone had taken a magic marker & made him look cross-eyed, hmmm.
Ferry across the Gulf of Finland? Baltic Sea? & Tallinn Estonia
Tuesday September 9 - Wednesday September 10
This morning we took a tram to the Viking Line terminal on Katajanokka, leaving e hotel about 9:15 for an 11:00 ferry. This ferry is called the Xprs or something like that, it just high-tails it across between Helsinki & Tallinn every day. Apparently there's quite a bit of back-and-forth of people and goods. Didn't realize that last part until we docked in Tallinn, and saw a huge 3-story door open at the bottom of the ship & dozens of cars, trucks, even 18-wheelers drive off. The ship seemed brand-spanking new, everything shiny & shipshape. There were 10 decks, 2 at the top pretty open for people to sit about in the sun on nice days (& that would be REALLY nice, but not the kind of weather we were having), a couple for crew, 1 with cabins for rich folks so they didn't have to mingle, 2 for regular passengers to mill about in, and I think 3 for cargo. The passenger decks have all kinds of restaurants, cafeterias, bars, coffee shops, and seating areas. You could even stretch out on padded benches, and there was a play room for kids & each floor had 1-2 smoking rooms. One of the bar areas had live music, and another had dance tunes and a dance floor. There was also a duty free store with liquor, candy, perfume, etc, and an area with conference rooms for business people.
The crossing took 3 hours and was a little rocky, a couple of our folks got whoopsie, but I didn't really notice it except when crashing into the walls while walking around! I didn't realize it till a day or so later, but . I don't think it was this line, but a ferry like this sunk a few years back, with almost 900 people dying. Worst ferry disaster in history or something.
When we got to Tallinn, it was - raining of course, but we did the orientation walk anyway. Amanda zipped us through the Old Town so we could get an idea of where things were, then we broke up, got a bite to eat, and crashed at our hotel.
This hotel, which is called G9, is really funky. It's in a Soviet-era-looking rectangular concrete building, no elevator, on the 3rd floor up huge wide industrial-strength concrete stairs. The rooms have beds that are narrow & lumpy, with the shower just a curtain separating one half of the little bathroom from the part with the toilet & sink - until you figure it out, water goes everywhere. But at least there's a bathroom in the room, so that's something. It's about a 10-min walk from the Old Town, which is where the action is.
And there is lots of action - in addition to being full of curvy narrow cobblestone streets, every building is either a museum, restaurant, coffee shop, souvenir place, pastry shop, nightclub, or historic site. And a puppet theater! All pretty much surrounded by old town walls & towers. The city's been here since about the 9th c, and although Tallinn was heavily bombed in WW2, they have carefully restored the Old Town & it's a World Heritage Site.
I mentioned how Finland went back & forth between the Swedes & Russians - so did Estonia, but add into the mix Danes & Germans. They were independent 1918 - 1939, when the Nazis signed an agreement with Russia that handed Estonia over to the Soviets. Devastation resulted, with tens of thousands shipped off to labor camps in Siberia, including children. Then the Nazis moved in, with A lot of people's support, thinking that would get their freedom, but no. Germans executed 75,000 people, then Russians bombed the heck out of the country & swept back in. With the executions, deportations, and those who fled, Estonia lost more than 280,000. Now the Russians were back & the problems began in earnest.
Funny thing - singing Estonian folk songs was a big part of the resistance, also the same with Latvia & Lithuania. Eg, in 1988 250,000 Estonians gathered to sing in Tallinn. Amazing how these folks kept their identities after being occupied through most of their history. The most recent occupier of all 3 countries was Russia, so they pushed for & got independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart. All 3 are members of the EU, but not using euros yet, so every couple of days we have to change $$,
These countries still have lots of Russians (the Estonian city of Narva is over 90% Russian), but it's kinda payback time since they didn't automatically make these Russian-speaking folks citizens. Instead, they have to learn Estonian and pass a test on the language. They are very cranky about it in Estonia & don't even want Russian language used at all, although you do see it here & there.
Well anyway, we went back to town the next day, when there was still no sun but at least it has pretty much stopped raining. Here are some things we saw:
Wednesday September 10 - Thursday September 11
Got up quite early to leave the hotel at 6, catching a bus at 7 & have ~15 min to walk to the station. This bus is pretty damn nice - bathroom! Dispenses coffee! Has wireless internet access! Estonia totally kicks butt in the area of technology. Skype was developed here. I read that they pay parking meters via their cell phones.
Of course after all the rainy & gray weather that made pictures so crummy in Tallinn, once we're on the bus it clears up & we have 4 hrs of beautiful sunny skies while we watch the bucolic landscape roll by. Then when we get to Riga it has clouded up again, but at least it's not raining.
Check into the hotel, which is a cute one. Intrepid pretty much goes for 2-stars, which is fine with me, but there can be a pretty wide variation in that category. This one is not the commie-era style, but newish & traditional. Another climb to the 3rd floor with my luggage, but it's a nicer staircase, so that's got to count for something!
After we settle in we bundle up & head for the market to collect something for a quick bite. I say collect because the market is in 5 old buildings used to house zeppelins in WW1, cavernous & filled with stalls, each with a kind of specialty - meats in this one, fish in another, then breads, veggies in the next, etc. so to collect a meal of all food groups you have to move between the buildings. I was taking some photos of the produce & a stern guard came up & shook his finger at me (state secrets possibly hidden in the tomatoes?) - Ronnie said "our first brush with the KGB." Then when I wanted to buy some grapes & pointed to them the harsh-looking woman said in russian nyet nyet nyet! Translation: you can't buy just a handful, you have to buy this whole crate of them. No grapes for me.
Then we wandered over to the opera house, very nice building, to meet our guide Alex. He was about 55, very nice & said "there are no secrets" so we were able to ask him a few things. On the soviet occupation, he admitted that although things are better now, that in some ways it was easier then - medical care was free, as was university, etc. now you have to have $$ to survive because you have to pay for everything. He said it's hard to find work if you don't have a degree, and it's easier if you are a smart woman with a degree & long legs. Joke? He also said that they still have to be careful around Russia, because that's where they get their oil & gas - Latvia has none of its own. So "instead of growling & barking really big, we can only yip-yip.yip."
I was surprised to see how beautiful this city is. It seems maybe a bit nondescript in guidebooks, but it has beautiful parks with canals running through, the old town is interesting, and the people seem pretty modern (unless you count the babushka types begging on the street. Women were very fashionably dressed, lots of long legs showing under very short skirts, and a few women even had their hair dyed (at least in streaks) that matched their clothes, boots, purses - I particularly noticed fire-engine red & purple. Strange.
Although the old town in pretty interesting, I'd like to just comment on a couple of things.
art nouveau buildings were prominent in the old town - strange mix with buildings from the 1600s. and several traditional buildings had people in casual poses on top - not stiff statues of martin luther, but like a kid sitting on the edge with his knees crossed, looking at the bottom of a foot. Never heard what that was about.
The museum of occupation. Amazing collection of info about the 1st & 2nd Russian occupations, as well as the Nazis in between. Our second day it was clear (finally) & I could have been out taking decent photos, but stayed in the museum almost 3 hrs. as you leave you learn that 550,000 latvians were lost, executed, deported, disappeared during this time. here are some bits of info:
I had no idea how extensive the Russian gulag system was, or how many people were deported for virtually no reason to work in these camps. There was a model of a barracks from these camps - just slats of wood in 2-3 levels for sleeping, no heat, few blankets, little food etc, people's hair froze to the planks overnight, an oil drum cut in half in the corner for a toilet, which seemed to be the most degrading part. People dropped like flies & when someone died the workers tried to keep it secret by hiding the bodies so that the now-extra food rations could be shared. See gulag map. Much of the exhibit was personal items from these camps - scraps of cloth on which women had embroidered names of their co-workers so they could remember them - maybe a handkerchief from home, embroidered with a homemade needle with bits of thread pulled out of clothes; bits of bark used as paper to write on, scraps of paper thrown off of the transport trains hoping someone would let their families know they had been taken, handmade quilted masks with eyeholes & mouth cut out to protect their faces from working in cold about 40 below; drawings of home & loved ones they made on bits of paper, etc.
Also striking were stories of how any spark of independence was squashed. Eg, a group of high school boys had a Free Latvia society (secret no doubt) that was discovered. They were arrested & imprisoned & a number died there. The "before" and "after" photos were sad - high school photos of handsome young men shown next to their booking photos - heads shaved, beat up, holding numbers.
When WW2 came the Latvians were "liberated" by the Germans, who were looked on with hope initially, then turned into a new kind of nightmare. The creepiest part was that they went all around digging up bodies from mass executions that the Russians had done - there were plenty available - then blamed the killings on the jews. And of course killed most of the Latvian jews.
Another interesting thing was a photo of the new theater built about that time, fully draped in nazi flags.
Ran back to the hotel to get some lunch before leaving, & squeezed into a table in the corner of the small caf‚ in the hotel. They graciously let us eat there - the place was set up for a wedding luncheon, and the party came in while we were there. Good greek salad & eggplant with tomatoes & cheese like we fix at home. Yummm.
We left Riga about 4pm on a bus to Klaipeda, on the Baltic in Lithuania. This is the longest bus ride we have, about 5 « hrs. at first it was as if it were a normal bus that took people on & off-loaded them at regular bus stations, but then it started picking people up along the road & letting them off just anywhere. So people got off in the middle of the forest in the pitch black. One girl got off & jumped onto a tractor someone had driven to pick her up.
We got there with enough time left over to change $ again. This trip has 6 countries and 5 monetary systems, so we're always changing $. As I said, lthough the Baltics are part of the EU, they haven't been approved for euros yet.
Estonia kroon (on signs it is called eek, cuz Estonia is eesti)
Klaipeda & Neringa Lithuania
Friday September 12 - Saturday September 13
Tiny little room, turn around & you trip over something, but nice enough. Good hot water! There is a breakfast, which is nice - the last place we had to buy it. There is no dining room though, so they bring you a little basket with a carton of juice, a few bits of bread, cheese, butter, & jam. There's an electric kettle in the room, so you can make your own hot drink.
This morning we walked over to the dock area to take a ferry to the Curonian spit, a long thin bit of a sandbar that's now forested & has several small towns. It has the Baltic Sea on one side & the Curonian Lagoon on the other. The about half of the spit belongs to Lithuania, the other half to Russia, with the Lithuanian part called Neringa. This part is about 1 hr long by bus. It is totally composed of sand dunes, but most are stable enough that there are forests all over. Other parts are unstable, and there was a town called Nagliai that moved 4-5 times between 1675 & 1834, running away from the shifting dunes; eventually they just gave up & left.
We are met by our guide, whose first name is Algus-something. Like Alex, he seems willing to talk. His English is . interesting, so that you can understand about 2/3 of what he says, making for some strange guide-type information. His take on the soviet occupation was that they're much better off now. No one could speak freely because you never knew who was an informant - he knew several people who were arrested & imprisoned for years for expressing an opinion. Although education was free, it was not for everyone - there were quotas of how many would go to college, how many be laborers, etc, and you had to please the folks who had that power over you. He was a good student but his teacher didn't like him, so he didn't get good grades - but went to the university by paying a big bribe to bureaucrats at the school. They had to go into the Russian army for 2 years at 18, and he went to Afghanistan, He still wakes up screaming because of things that happened there, he said. Lithuania has a volunteer, professional army, no compulsory service.
Neringa is beautiful. The first thing we saw was Witches' Hill, which is a nice walk in the woods past wooden sculptures that depict Lithuanian fairy tales. Trees are birches & pines, & there are mushrooms here & there. The first, going up, part of the walk is statues of things like "the storyteller" who was punished by the gods, a giant lady named Neringa & her husband; Egle, "queen of serpents" in which 3 sisters go swimming, a snake gets in the shirt of Egle, & forces her to marry him, turns out to be handsome prince (of course), they marry & live at the bottom of the sea, then when she takes her kids home to visit "the family," her 12 brothers trick her daughter into telling the secret password that calls her snky husband from the sea, they kill him, in grief she turns herself & her kids into trees. The going-down part of the walk was witches & devils (with horns & hooves, but looking like people) casting spells, playing cards, dancing etc.
This area of Lithuania was originally German, and the houses have a kind of Bavarian look, with thatched roofs. Lots of Germans still like to visit here. The people for a long time were kinda a mix of the two groups, called Lietuvninkai, but gradually the Germans got richer & more bossy. In 1872 it was specified that there would be no Lithuanian in schools.
The Baltics in general are known for amber - they were on the "Amber Road" until they got fished-out, so to speak. You can still buy amber here, it's the big Baltic souvenir, stores are everywhere, but it comes from somewhere else. I did get a couple of amber things to bring home.
When the Russians owned this area after WW2 they planted ICBM missile silos & other military stuff all around. You sure couldn't tell it to look at it now - it's quite picturesque. We were in shouting distance of the Russian area called Kaliningrad (a tiny bit right under Lithuania that Russia kept to maintain some sea access). There used to be flags planted very so often along the dunes marking the border between Lith & Russia. At night the Russians would come out & move them a few yards to give Russia more territory, then the next night the Liths came out & moved "the border" just that much more into Russian territory!
The folks who live here were initially fishermen who went out in kurenas, shallow wooden boats that held ~ 5 people and cost as much as a house. Officials in the Curonean Lagoon decided that they needed to track who was fishing where, to run off the ones who had drifted into another area's territory, to control amt of fishing & identify boats, so they specified that boats had to have weathervanes - these early primitive ones eventually became highly decorated with symbols for personal info, like married/single, children, where his house was, flag of his town, etc, and very colorful - black & white with bits of green, red, & blue. Now of course you can buy them as a tourist item, & I would have bought one if I could have figured out how to carry it back.
As we were walking around in Nida, the last town on the Lith part, I noticed that, although there was water all around, there was no salty smell. Then I read that most sea water is ~ 3.5% salt, but the Baltic is only 0.1 - 0.8%. wonder why?
Sunday September 14 - Monday September 15
4 hr bus to Vilnius, a woman was sprawled across the seats Ronnie & I were assigned to, who wouldn't move & indicated we should sit somewhere else. Not speaking Lith, we couldn't effectively argue, so we did find other seats - fortunately no one else got on later who wanted our seats.
The city was supposedly founded in 1320 when on a hunting trip Grand Duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf that howled with the voices of 100 wolves, to him an obvious sign that he was intended to build a great city there. It did turn out pretty great, one of the largest in E Europe into the 1600s.
Vilnius Univ was founded in 1579, the first in E Europe. (The Russians shut it down 1832 - 1919 because of pesky Lith students etc. making too much trouble.
The Vilnius Cathedral is on a large square, with one of the paving stones being a glass tile marked stebuklas (miracles). This was where the human chain of 2 million people that stretched through Lithuania & Latvia to Tallinn Estonia began. The chain was built in 1989 to protest soviet occupation. This was to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement, in which Germany & Russia secretly divided up much of Europe. You stand on the tile & turn (3 times? well, at least once) clockwise while making a wish.
Incidentally, I should mention the Singing Revolution. During the second Russian occupation, after WW2, much of the protest against the Soviets took place by the singing of traditional songs in the Baltics. Singing is REALLY big here, they always win worldwide competitions, and all 3 countries had huge sing-ins, I guess you might say, of about a quarter-million people. Eventually with the fall of the iron curtain in 1991, dreams of independence came true, with Lithuania in the forefront and the other 2 close behind.
Back to the cathedral. It was originally a pagan temple to the thunder god Perkunas. Lithuanians were the last people in Europe to become Christians, in ~1400. They still seem to be very nature-oriented. Alongside the cathedral is a statue of Grand Duke Gediminas and the iron wolf.
Vilnius has lots of churches, about one per corner it seems, but now also lots of strip clubs & escort services. Westernization. Progress? One of the most famous is St Anne's, built in the 1500s. Supposedly Napoleon was so enchanted by it that he wanted to take it back to Paris with him.
We had dinner the first night at a restaurant that had a bear out front, in one of the oldest buildings in the city (?), that served traditional food. We were entertained by 3 strolloing musicians (all-kinds-of-percussion guy, accordion, and a strange almost-clarinet). They got us into the spirit by handing out triangle, bells, clappers, etc & having us join in. then we danced a song that involved taping feet, clunking shoulders & butts, & got faster & faster. My partner was Brendan, the 25-yr-old redhead from Australia.
Most of my time in Vilnius, though, was taken up by depressing themes. Having seen the Occupation museum in Riga, I was interested to see what the Russian/German story was in this area. I & 3 others from our group (Al, Ronnie, & Brendan) took a private tour of Jewish Vilnius - you have to be shown where things were because there's virtually nothing left. Besides the obvious Nazi destruction, the Russians finished the job by pulling down huge swaths of the city's old buildings, including in the Jewish areas, to put in parks & apt buildings.
So we met our guide Amalia, who is not Jewish but is very interested in the history of her city, especially the Jewish part since one of her grandmothers was Jewish.
Vilnius was a major Jewish center, known as Jerusalem of the North. Jews first came at the invitation of guess who? Grand Duke Gediminas, the wolf-man. He promised religious freedom, and it worked out fine until after WW1, when Poland took over (pretty famous for anti-Semitism), then of course WW2, goes without saying. Vilnius was a center of Yiddish study, and was chosen over Warsaw & NYC to be the location of the Yiddish language center YIVO in 1925. before WW2 there were 104 synagogues, theaters, and 6 daily newspapers. It was also the home of famous anti-Hassidism teacher Gaon Elijahu Zalman in the 1700s (famous for reciting the Talmud by heart at 6). Now pretty much all that's left are a couple of street names - Gaono & Zydu ("Jewish").
Most dramatic, we went to the Paneriai Forest, where tens of thousands of Jews, Poles, Liths, etc were taken to be killed. Before the Germans took over the area, the Russians had dug large pits lined with stones for the storage of fuel (?), but never used them because the Germans took the area in June 1941. They were herded onto trains, which transported them into the forest, lined up at the pits, shot, & tossed in. About 70,000 Jews were killed. When the Germans realized they were losing & the Russians were coming, they destroyed the evidence. 14 young Jewish boys were made to unload the pits (in the process coming across the bodies of friends, neighbors, & family members) & make pyramids with stacks of bodies, wood between the layers, then douse it all with fuel & set the pyramid on fire. After the pyramids burned down, they broke up the bones with hammers. While they were working, they dug a tunnel from one of the pits to escape since they knew they would be killed when done, carrying the dirt out in their pockets. They made their escape, but all but 3 were killed by running over land mines. We saw one of the pits that remain and a number of memorials. Creepy & sad to think what happened in such a lovely forest area, covered with pine needles, dotted with mushrooms & bushes with bright red berries.
We saw a memorial to a Japanese embassy guy who stayed behind when the Russians came to sign 7000 visas for Jews to help them escape. Also 2 apt buildings built by a rich guy named Baron Hirsch for impoverished Jews, where 400 were executed and buried in their own yard.
Also visited a new cemetery where a lot of bodies were moved when the Russians plowed up the older Jewish cemeteries. They used the gravestones for paving & building steps for new buildings. Eventually some of these were rescued & put in a memorial area where some bodies have been placed. The new cemetery has the new burial site of Gaon Elijahu.
Vilnius had 2 ghettos, called the Small Ghetto (lasted about 6 wks, after which 11,000 were killed), and the Large Ghetto (36,000 people) which lasted until the general liquidation of ghettos in late 1943.
We visited the only synagogue left, overlooked in the general destruction because it was being used for storage. The caretaker guy who let us in spoke with us a bit, and said that on a good day about 17 people attend prayers - there were 4 there when we were inside. During major holidays they max out at about 50, but the numbers are dropping as young people move, mostly to isreal.
We asked her why the Russians deported so many people (more in a minute). She said very briefly "no people, no problems" - they wanted the place but the people were just extraneous & a bit of a pain in the butt with demands for independence etc.
Before leaving we ran down to the Museum of Genocide Victims, which is about the Russian occupation - also called the KGB Museum. What a grim place! (about 200,000 Liths imprisoned across the country by Russians, this is just an example of what the prisons were like). An execution chamber where 1000 were killed, that had a sloped floor down to the back where blood drained out yuk. Padded interrogation cells. 2 rooms whose floor was flooded with freezing water, in the winter turned to ice, with a small metal platform (~1 ft diameter) you could stand on as long as you could balance to stay out of the water. Cells ~12 ft square for dozens of prisoners. Exercise yard with walled in area about as large as the cells, where they could exercise for ~ 15 min a day, walking in circles with hands behind their backs, no talking, patrolled by walkways above). They got a showers once a month, the note said the jailers often turned on only hot or cold, for fun.
Also were exhibits about the deportations - people were wakened in the middle of the night, given about an hour to gather some things, each got 1 piece of luggage, but they didn't know where they were going or what to take. The deportees were taken from lists of intellectuals and other sorts of troublemakers, like farmers who refused to join the collective farms. Whole families were shipped out, parents & kids, grandparents, etc. Women & kids were sent to resettlement towns in Russia, men to work camps. About 120,000 were deported. No people, no problems.
Another area of the museums was about the partisans, freedom fighters who hid out in the woods & tried to fight the communists & make contact with the West so that people would know what was happening. This futile effort was based on a comment/document by Churchill & Roosevelt in Aug 1941, that self-government of nations was what the war was about. Will have to look this up, it's been mentioned several times.
Ginuciu Lithuania in Aukstaitija National Park
Tuesday September 16 - Wednesday September 17
2 hr train to Ignalina right after the museum trip, and then picked up by a kayaking outfit to be taken to the house where we will have a homestay for 2 nights. Threw our stuff down, then put on lots of warm clothes since it's about 50 degrees & no sun - thermometer at the train station said 9! So I put on long underwear, turtleneck shirt, jeans, two hats.
So we went kayaking about 3 hrs in Aukstaitija National Park - our guide was named Edmundos, and he called us all "dears" - "Everyone all right, dears? Shall we go, dears?" partway through we climbed a very very steep hill to have a look around at all the surrounding lakes. He explained the importance of nature worship for Liths - the goddess who was the mother of all other gods, of the earth, thunder, etc. he said to be healthy you should hug the oak tree that was alone on the top of the hill, he did it & closed his eyes in ecstacy! so I did, and it did feel pretty good.
We returned to an amazing dinner - mushroom soup, cold fried fish, shredded cucumber salad, tomatoes, pork wrapped around dressing with raisins, potatoes, etc. the rest of the house is so cold that we stayed in the dining area where the fireplace is. We were talking about any- & everything, ending up on English & Australian slang. They are familiar with & understand American slang because of movies, but we don't get theirs at all. to Australians, the English are Poms (because they came from England with overalls with Prisoner of Her Majesty on the back), faffing around (piddling, which they use to mean pissing), alcohol is plonk, & it's sold in bottle stores, bathing suits are swimming costumes or cozzies,
Slept well, 10 hrs!!! pretty cold, but 2 blankets.
Next day we went on a 2-hr hike to a small but really pleasant bee museum. Lots of flowers, vertical & horizontal tree trunks for bee hives, wood carvings like on Witches' Hill, but . no bees!!!! Back to a nice lunch with lots of bread, meat, cheese, and apple cake.
Afternoon off, I've been typing this up for hours! Some went into the sauna (most every house in the Balkans seems to have a sauna), then jumped in the lake, then back in the sauna, etc etc. A very Baltic thing to do. The sauna is a small room, about 8x10, all surfaces covered in wood, with a step-like set of three seats on one side. Across from that is a huge pile of VERY hot stones. To disperse the heat through the room better you toss a bit of water in a saucepan onto the stones. The thermometer on the wall read 65 degrees - Celcius! which is about 150 Fahrenheit. The lady of the house, Regina, was drying rings of apples in there, and when everyone clears out she will use it for a clothes dryer.
Thursday September 18 - Friday September 19
Hope to add something here soon
Saturday September 20 - Sunday September 21
Houston – Los Angeles, 7 hr layover, LA – Nadi Fiji , 8 hr layover, 2 massages (neck/back, leg/foot), Nadi – Honiara Guadalcanal Solomons, then to the “best” hotel on the islands (Kitano Mendana), which was crap, with hardly-working AC, mold, construction underway, but at least hot water. We crossed the International Date Line, but just barely, so we traveled “2 days.” The time difference is 20 hrs, counting the IDL.
8-9 Aug Wednesday & Thursday, Honiara Guadalcanal Solomons
We crashed Tuesday night then Wednesday went for 2 dives here on Guadalcanal – 2 Japanese transports (marus). My first buddy was Cheryl, but she tarried a lot for photos so I changed to Ed. He is a good dive buddy because we go about the same speed. The bay area outside Honiara is called Iron Bottom Sound since there are so many ships, airplanes, etc down there. 67 warships & transports. The dives were interesting but you couldn’t see the shape of the ships so much – it’s more like an artificial reef covered in coral & fishies.
We are being taken around by a local dive company – our leader is Luke, a very interesting guy. He’s from the Solomons, but lives mostly in Australia now. He was a professional rugby player in France for 3 years, and has also played in Australia. He works as a dive master here, and travels back to Australia several times a month to be with his wife & kids. His accent is very aussie, for ATM he says “ITM”.
In addition to diving, they’re taking us to see a few things. We’ve seen the American WW2 memorial on the island, then Red Beach, where a huge assault of Americans onto a Guadalcanal beach into entrenched Japanese gunmen ended up in a big bloody mess, they said. That may not be it, because there’s also White Beach & Blue Beach.
My favorite was a “museum” of Am & Jap planes & guns out in the jungle in the middle of nowhere, called the Vilu War Museum. A guy who lived there threw on a shirt & showed us around in a pretty-unintelligible English. We had to keep translating for each other. I loved this place. Rusted torn up machines of war, with the bits remaining placed so you could tell what the whole thing had been, with wildflowers growing all around and the damp dark green jungle encroaching. Memorial plaques by Americans, Aussies, and Japanese, falling into disrepair. I imagine these war sites would be better maintained if more Aussies had been involved in the fighting here. I think just one of their ships (Canberra) was involved.
More on WW2 later.
Luke talked a lot about “the Tension.” This was a recent skirmish that went on a long time between local Guadalcanal folks & people from Malaita, the next island over. These people have come to Honiara for better jobs, which the locals resent, so each side started gathering up arms & taking potshots at each other – Solomons version of Jets vs Sharks, Guadalcanal Freedom Fighters vs Honiara Eagle Force, or something like that. It kept things so disrupted, with people’s housing being destroyed etc that the Australians sent soldiers in to break it up. They pretty much came in & said, “OK lay down your weapons, kiss & make up, or we will take you all out.” Discretion WAS the better part of valor & most everyone complied. The Aussies are still there, soldiers in full camo with machine guns wandering about.
It seems that the relationships between the smaller countries (Solomons, Fiji, etc) and Australia & New Zealand is a bit rocky. They know the bigger boys are needed to keep the peace & help with infrastructure (roads etc) but at the same time they are resented. A little like “Thanks for the help but who do you think you are? You’re not the boss of me!”
Thursday night we got onto the dive boat, the Bilikiki. We were met by the leaders, Liz & Josh. She’s English & he’s an Aussie. They showed us around the boat & explained about dive times, meals, which water you could drink, conserving fresh water during showers, etc. We were assigned cabins & my usual roomie Cheryl & I were surprised to each have a room instead of bunking together. Good thing cuz the cabins are pretty small. Mine is up at the end of the hall (#9), right by where the anchor goes up & down – pretty loud! But the cabin has 2 shelves for clothes & 3 hooks, so I’m happy. Each cabin has its own shower/toilet – fabulous! There are 10 cabins & we are the only group on board.
10-21 August Friday – Tuesday, on board the dive boat Bilikiki
We have time between dives to read (as well as eat!). The boat has a lending library of novels and there is an extensive library of fish books (for recording in your dive book what you spotted) and books on the Solomons & WW2 battles in the Pacific. These are very interesting & I want to record a few of the quotes from the soldiers who wrote about it.
Guadalcanal was the site of a huge air, land, & sea battle that turned the tide of the war against the Japanese for the first time. The island was nothing special until an airfield was built there by the Japanese & the Americans had to take it from the Japanese to protect Vanuatu, Fiji, Australia & NZ. The battles lasted about 6 months, starting in August 1942. The guys who were about to land there saw what looked like an island paradise of greenery, beaches, and palm trees. Then after they got to land, it turned out to be “a pestilential hellhole.” Hot, humid, torrents of rain, skin infections, fungus, slimy mud, rotting vegetation, Kunai grass that cut like a knife, snakes, scorpions, spiders, malaria, and dysentery. “If God ever created a hell-on-earth contest, the island would have made it to the finals.”
Right as the Allies were landing, the Japanese snuck up on them by night & sank 4 heavy warships, with about 1300 sailors lost – some eaten by sharks as they hit the water. This Battle of Savo is the worst-ever US naval defeat. The Japanese owned the night around here, sneaking in cargoes of men & supplies so successfully it was called the Tokyo Express, doing guerilla warfare, etc.
“Beginning at Guadalcanal the war in the Pacific would be a war without quarter. Prisoners were rarely taken & atrocities were answered in kind… Marines were told that mutilation was a court-martial offense, but … Halsey was putting billboards all over the Solomons that said Kill Japs Kill Japs Kill More Japs.”
The local people gave excellent support to the Allies because the Japanese were here first & treated them very badly, stealing from churches, taking all their food, using them as forced labor, etc. So they did scouting & had some guerrilla operations of their own, as well as rescuing pilots who were shot down, etc.
Enough about the war! Let’s go diving. Daily schedule on the boat:
7am get up
6am – 8am breakfast (breaky) (toast, fruit, cereal, eggs, etc)
8am first dive
9:30ish snack after first dive (two of: fresh cookies, fruit, and popcorn)
11am second dive
12:30pm lunch (soup & what we would call a full meal)
2pm third dive
3:30ish snack after second dive (again two of: fresh cookies, fruit, and popcorn)
5pm fourth dive
6pm appetizers on the upper deck to watch the sunset (cheese, crackers, raw veggies & coconut)
7pm dinner (meat, 3 usually-local veggies, salad, bread, dessert)
8:30pm night dive (I NEVER do night dives)
The difference in lunch & dinner is soup at lunch & dessert at dinner. They often do an interesting fruit salad in addition to a lettuce salad – watermelon or pineapple or papaya with green onion and dressing and a local nut called ngali. No one is going hungry here. We are all going to have gained about 10 pounds on the boat.
One morning one of the dive guys went fishing & invited anyone who wanted to come along, and several folks took him up on it. This was at Mary’s Island, which is apparently in the middle of nowhere (it ALL looks in the middle of nowhere to me) and is unoccupied, so there’s no problem fishing there. No poles, just a hook on a line. They caught 2 tunas & a rainbow runner (whatever that is), so that night for appetizers we had tuna sashimi with wasabi, ginger, and soy sauce. I don’t usually go for raw fish, but it was yummmmmy.
They used the rainbow runner for the crew’s dinner because it has too many bones to be considered “appropriate” for “guests.” There are 16 of us & 14 crew people, Liz & Josh & cooks & room cleaners & boat guys & general dive boys who wrestle gear on & off the tenders (which they all call “tinnies” cuz they‘re made of something like tin. So every day 30 people have to be fed out of a tiny kitchen about 12 ft square.
The most interesting thing to me is that we buy food from the villagers as we move through the islands. If there is a village locally, folks come out in dugout canoes to sell coconuts, watermelons, greens, eggplants, & nuts. Liz & a crewman talk with them & take what’s needed, usually all they have. The prices are pretty well set beforehand, so there’s no haggling. 1 coconut, $1 S ($1 Solomon is about 13 cents). I’ve gotten some pretty good pictures of the canoe folks. They don’t mind the photo-taking at all & are very friendly & smiling.
The Lonely Planet volume (very thin!) on the Solomons, dated 1997, says that the 992 islands receive about 4000 tourists a year – maybe that’s why they’re so friendly. We’re almost as unusual to them as they are to us.
Australian words they use on the boat –
Breaky – breakfast
Mozzies – mosquitoes (important word because of malaria)
Sepos – Americans (from septic tanks, rhymes with yanks, don’t ask me)
Guts-ache – someone who’s a pain in the butt, but it’s affectionate? (that’s what Josh (Josho) called me)
Pijin = Pidgin English. Every day with our first dive briefing we have a Solomons pijin lesson. Examples:
Iumi go dive – let’s go diving
Tanggio tumas – thanks a lot
Staka fis – a lot of fish
Hao mas nao fo diswan? – how much does this cost?
Nem blong mi Donna – my name is Donna
Mi no laekem rain – I don’t like the rain (we thought this one sounded like Tonto)
Wetsuit blong mi hemi smel pi – my wetsuit smells of pee (!)
Fud hemi gud tumas – the food’s really good
Blong seems to be an all-purpose possessive and preposition for with, for, of, belong to, etc. Liz has added a couple of funny ones as a sidebar:
Basket blong titi – bra
Plastik blong pushpush – condom
On a related theme, Solomons folks have an idea that everyone who speaks the same language has an inherent interest in each other – probably because they speak a couple of hundred in addition to Pijin. One of the boat guys, Tim, is from the island called Choiseul, and he says they have 8 native languages there that are all unintelligible to each other. Anyone who speaks your language or dialect is a member of your “wontak” (one-talk) & you must help them & maintain interest in their welfare. An Australian girl was hit by a car in Honiara & the locals called another Australian woman to the TV every time something was on about the accident. “Your wontak, your wontak!” They just couldn’t get that in a country of 20 million you might not know or care about someone just because they talk like you do.
In the Solomons people are responsible for supporting their families (& members of their wontak) to the Nth degree. If you have something & a family member asks for it – aunt, uncle, cousin of whatever distance - you have to give it to him or her. Hospitality is very important too. Anyone coming by your place needing somewhere to stay, or food, gets it. Apparently to the point that a family can be bankrupted by it.
A lot of the people, especially the kids (pikaninnis in pijin) have blond hair – very strong black facial characteristics with broad flat noses etc, but topped by beautiful curly blond hair. I asked Liz about it & she was going on about gene pools, but Josh broke in to clarify by saying “it’s from the missionaries – teaching them the missionary position.”
Josh explained about paying for the right to dive in the Solomons. Each dive site belongs to a person or family because that’s where they’ve fished or made sacrifices or whatever historically. They have to keep track of how many divers go in at each site, and the info is tabulated & about once a month they pay SD 11 per diver per site to the “owners,” who may not even live on the island anymore, but in Honiara.
The Solomons folks are over 95% Christian, with the biggest groups being the Church of Melanesia (offshoot of the Church of England) and Catholic - although some traditional patterns appear to remain in place, like custom money (kastom mani). This is special money that is used not to buy food or clothes or to pay rent, but for ceremonial purposes. It is primarily used for bride price, an amount paid to a woman’s family by a man who wants to marry her, and for resolution of disputes. Tim said that a bride costs one – five pieces of money on his island, and that if a man “does something bad to your wife” he has to pay you up to 20 of them, or you can kill him! Custom money differs from one place to another – on some islands it’s a large flat clam shell shaped like a flat donut, about 6-7 inches in diameter. That piece is worth SD 1000, and a wife would cost one or two. On Tim’s island it’s a cylinder (“like a cup, but open at both ends”). On Guadalcanal it’s disks made from shells that are strung like necklaces, with the red ones worth more than the white or black ones. Another type is a forehead decoration made of shells & animal teeth.
We are having programs occasionally at night – I was the first show, a talk on how to take better pictures. In my talk I included a “what’s wrong with this picture?” section so people could critique some of my pix. We will also have “How tech is tech diving?” by Eric, one on how air compression & purification works by Jess, and another one I don’t remember. Ann arranged with us beforehand to do these talks.
One day we visited an island village called Karumalun. The boat had arranged for us to visit, so when we got there we were greeted by the chief, Raymond, who took us over to a group of children who were carrying leis made of plumerias, white & pink. They put one on each of us, and then took us to our seats for a special show.
The women danced first, singing in beautiful harmonies. There were 4 lines of 4 women each, with the front left-hand woman calling out which song & setting the tune. They were wearing “grass skirts” around their bosoms and belted at their waists. Some had chains of shells or beads, another a shiny multicolor string of plastic stuff in her hair. They carried double staffs wrapped around with colorful fluffy something, I couldn’t tell what. Sometimes in the midst of the song they would stop and stomp their feet rhythmically, then start again.
Then the men came on, painted all over with a white chalky paint - their chests with ships, their faces looking like shells, and symbols up & down their legs and arms. They were wearing loin cloths, some with briefs on underneath, others … not! A few of them had painted their butt cheeks black! They carried wooden shields & hatchets (ceremonial, not real)that they whacked each other with occasionally. There were about a dozen of them who danced in 2 lines. They also sang, but most of their numbers were either war chants or humorous.
At the end of the show almost the whole village got together to sing a couple of numbers, even the kids – very cute! They had some of the moves & others not at all, but kept after it. Then Raymond took us on a short tour – I guess there were about 100 people in 20-something houses, as well as a church. They had swept the sand around the village so it would look tidy for the visitors. Rachel gave some of the kids individual hard candies, which they put their mouths without taking off the paper, so she had to pull them out of their mouths to unwrap them.
Speaking of mouths - Just about everyone chews beetlenuts, so their teeth are red & half rotted-away. They seem a bit self-conscious of their teeth, because folks with the mega-red rotted ones are not likely to smile for a photo, even if you joke with them.
Back on the boat
I have never taken medicine for a trip before but when I went on the CDC site listing disease problems in the S Pacific/Australia area, it mentions malaria & says “don’t mess with it, it will kill you.” Then it lists the places malaria isn’t a problem, a list as long as your arm – Fiji etc – and afterwards a very short list of where it’s a real problem – Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, & … Solomons. So I called the dr & got the medicine. You have to take it 2-3 days before getting to the area, every day when you’re there, & 5 days afterwards. Lots of folks get back & aren’t sick so they stop taking it, but the mosquito (mozzie) larvae live in you a few days before you come down with it. Anyway, the interesting thing about the medicine is that supposedly it can give you nightmares, but I’ve just had very vivid exciting dreams with complex storylines & bright images. I look forward to the show every night.
Some of the most interesting dives have been on the WW2 wrecks, at White Beach & some other sites. White Beach was a staging area I think where men & supplies were moved through. There are 4 pontoons still there, some peeking up out of the water, and all sorts of materiel – jeeps, a tank, munitions, old (very old) Coke bottles - under the water. is so strange to see these ”implements of war” with corals & other animals & plants growing on them. Fish schooling in & out, starfish, seasnakes skittering about, anemones dancing in the currents. Something like the planes & machine guns at the jungle war museum, surrounded by wildflowers. There was a very well preserved Japanese seaplane, only one wing broken off, where you could see the propellers & camera area (used for spying) and even the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats and yokes. It seems that the wrecks are always at a depth & in a type of terrain that is murky & silty, so they really look like ghosts looming up from the bottom are you approach them from the surface. Fascinating.
One of the memorial stones at the jungle museum on Guadalcanal begins with the statement “Governments declare wars but young men must fight them,” which was very perceptive & personal when you compare it to the overblown & high-faluting memorials you usually see. Much of the area around here feels much like that – an acute awareness that men really did die here in the struggle to bring to a halt the Japanese advance across the Pacific. About 7-8,000 Allies & even more disastrously, over 24,000 Japanese. Many of these casualties were from disease & starvation, thousands of men coming to an obscure corner of the world to die, all in the name of patriotism & love of country.
It has been interesting to talk to Josh about Australia. First of all, he sounds like he’s from Boston almost, dropping all Rs but the ones at the front of a word. “Rs are overrated” in his opinion, so sometimes we have “tukah” (tucker = food) or go out to see “shahks.” But he spent some time diving in Cozumel, so he ran into enough Texans that when he says something and gets a blank look, he repeats it in a Texas accent and everybody says Oh! That’s what you said! We’ve also picked up a couple of sayings from him –“rare as rocking horse shit” and “harder to pick than a broken nose” (for predicting a winning horse or what a current will be like once you get underwater).
We have discussed a bit the Australian policies about the Aborigines. One thing was the White Australia policy from the 30s to the 50s, according to which aborigine kids were taken from their families to be raised by whites, with the idea that they wouldn’t “breed” because of being isolated from each other and even if they got together with a white, the result after a few generations would still be that Australia would be an all-white country. (as in the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence) This was all done away with in the 50s and in the 70s or so there were official apologies that people could sign, called the “sorry books.”
Also Australia’s had lots of back & forth over how aborigines can prove they own the land, since they were nomadic & never built any buildings or fences or cultivated any land. Eventually it’s been worked out that “crown land” that’s not owned by any individuals can be claimed by them. So some groups are living on land almost like a reservation. Not too good, but it seems they are very unhappy in the cities & have a lot of problems with alcohol & “petrol” (sniffing gasoline).
Aug 21 Tuesday back to Honiara … and to Houston. A very L O N G day
Our last day in Honiara, after we left the boat, some of us ate lunch in the Lime Lounge, on the corner of the street where the Am Consulate is (also the Melanesian handicraft center, which we enjoyed so much that a number of people needed also the services of the DHL next door). The lounge is a hang out for expats (most were Austr & NZs) & also cops! Anyway, I started talking to 2 guys who were obviously Australian police, although their arm patches said Participating Forces on the top & Helpem fren on the bottom, pijin for helping friend or some such. Wayne & Shane, from the Queensland & Tasmanian State Police respectively, were on loan to the Solomons because of what they called “the troubles,” the Tension. They are advisors to local police forces & help maintain order – although not in quite the same way as the soldiers you see around town. The Frens are made up of state federal & local cops from Australia, New Zealand, & even Fiji & Tonga, serving on mixed teams. They live in Honiara 2-3 months, then are home a month, then back to the Solomons.
The thing they said that really made us laugh was that Australians call Tasmanians “Mexicans” because it is the most “under” state in the Down Under. What would possess them to bring Mexicans into it, in this far corner of the world? Strange.
Well, we got back home after ~30 hours of traveling, back across the Date Line. The only excitement (besides the Fiji – LA flight being an hr late & almost missing the LA – Houston connection) was that we had a bit of a layover, & had to get off the plane in Vanuatu briefly, so now I can add another country to my list.
Thanks for listening!
Donna & Nick visit Greece, 2007
a week on the clipper ship Star Flyer & 4 days in Athens area
Saturday 12 May
Not much to tell about getting here, a zillion hours of flying & waiting around in airports, Houston – JFK – Milan – Athens. Left the house at 8 am Friday, got to the ship at 4 pm Sat, even minus the 8 hour time difference = lots of time in transit.
We were taken to the port of Piraeus and checked in by ship personnel that we didn’t know then but became very familiar with as the week progressed. funny how strangers soon become friends whose names (& eccentricities!) you know, accents you understand (!), origins you find out about – Goa India, Philippines, Germany, Sweden, Indonesia, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, etc. Interesting that the crew & guests were from all over the world, & so used English as their lingua franca since it was the only language they had at all in common, however strangely they spoke it.
the way the personnel broke down was also interesting. Service people who cleaned cabins & served as waiters etc were Indonesians; cooks, purser & other office-type people Filipinos; wine stewards Turks; maitre’d Croatian; sports team Swedes (very blond & very tanned) & a German; cruise director a Bavarian who sounded a bit like Ahnold Swartzenegger if he were a lawyer with a blond ponytail; crew Goans; officers Russians & Ukrainians; and captain a Pole.
the organization of the ship’s crew was : captain – first officer/chief – 2 second officers – crew chief/bosun – 5 or 6 ABSs (able-bodied seamen) - 5 or 6 OSs (ordinary seamen). the officers were always in charge of the watches, the sailing of the ship, and had specific other duties as well – ship security & safety (life boats, life vests, muster calls, etc. there were also people below the decks that we hardly ever saw, an engineer & his guys who kept the engines going, etc.
I said engines, but don’t think that the ship used them much for sailing, they were really used to run generators for the electricity on board. the sailing was done by ... sails! this was a true clipper ship built to the standard of 5 main (square) sails & about a dozen triangular sails whose names I forget. Almost all of these were raised & lowered by hand (or I should say, by strong arms – they got the passengers to help out if they wanted, not such very strong arms but enthusiastic anyway).
Our cabin was in the cheap seats – only 4 cabins on board had no window & that was us, in the bowels of the ship! I think we were the only passengers in that part. With the lights off it was REALLY dark & we had to look at the clock to see if it was night or day. It was good for us though because well, it was cheaper, and also most of the cabins had fixed double beds, and ours was a bunk-bed setup, just right. There was a curtain you could pull to separate the tiny floor space, which we used so that we could both get dressed. The bathroom was about 3 sq ft, a toilet, tiny sink, and mini-shower with the floor slanted down to the drain rather than any separation from the rest of the room. The dining room was on the floor above us, & the lower deck (& bar!) above that, with the 2 top decks where the sails, bridge, anchors, & steering wheel (?) were above it all.
I have so many photos of sails. I love the way the sun shines on them & through them, their shapes, their stitching patterns, their creamy white against the blue sky. Also all the rigging – you never saw so many ropes of different types & sizes & uses. Also the pulleys that the ropes ran on – a few shiny metal ones, but mostly beautiful dark wood, with a metal triangle in the middle showing their year of installation.
According to where the sails needed to be positioned, folks in deck chairs had to get up & get out of the way of the process of pulling them in, letting them out, moving them from one side to another to catch the wind. During the day the crew would put up blue canvas covers to make shade on deck & I had my best afternoon of all there on Monday, reading a book for 20 minutes & then dozing for 2 hrs in the wake of monster jet lag.
Sunday 13 May
The first day on board was spent just sailing from Piraeus (the port of Athens) towards the eastern Aegean islands, where we spent most of the trip. We spent that time exploring the ship, resting, & …eating (well, it was a cruise after all). right after breakfast was a muster, where you have to wear your life vest & show up at your correct station to practice what to do if there is an emergency. Safety first.
Then the captain said a few words & introduced the main players – officers, sports team, etc – until he had to dash off & make some sailing corrections because we were going about 14 knots, which is mighty fast, so some of the sails had to come down. Then there was a meeting of anyone interested in diving, which ended up changing nick’s plans for the week.
I intended to dive & brought some of my own stuff (although of course not enough to avoid the equipment charge for each dive). I asked nick if he wanted to come to the meeting since they had a “try out diving” program that let you get in the water once without being certified, after a bit of an introduction to the equipment, safety, etc. I thought it might be fun for him to jump into the Aegean, and he agreed. So we filled out the paperwork & arranged for his training session the next day. (Turned out he really liked it & decided to get certified while on board, which required diving every day. So I dived every day too to be his moral support. More on that later.)
Then lunch. A goofy golf game on the 2 top deck levels, a massage, hanging out, then dinner, then early to bed after such an exhausting day.
Monday 14 May
Kusadasi, Turkey & Ephesus
Every day during the main part of the trip there’s an excursion in the morning if you want to do it, or you can go to the local town for shopping strolling etc, or you can go to the local beaches. You get to the excursion/town on a tender, a covered boat with space for about 30 people, or to the beaches on a zodiac, a motorboat with rubbery pontoon sides. The sports team runs this, as well as helping people with windsurfing, sailing, kayaking, and of course diving.
Nick went to the Ephesus tour & I stayed on board to nap in a deck chair since I saw Ephesus a couple of years ago & was trying to save a BIT of $$$. The napping in the sea breeze on deck was a high point of the trip anyway, it was so luxurious. Especially since I could have been at work on a Monday instead!
Nick had his first dive instruction after lunch. There are 2 tiny pools on the ship, about 4 ft deep & filled with fresh sea water every morning. He had to put on a wetsuit & get in, put on a BCD vest, regulator, etc., and learn some diving skills. The most fortuitous thing of the week happened at that point – a young (~14) German named Leon showed up too (more later). They worked together with Katharina, the German dive instructor from the sports team. She was an interesting combination of the strict German you’ve-got-to-do-things-by-the-rules and a looser well-it’s-close-enough-for-government-work attitude that was perfect for learning diving in a very constrained situation onboard without an Olympic sized pool with a 10’ deep end.
He was so cold he was shaking, a disadvantage of having so little body fat (about the only one, I imagine). The Aegean is quite cold in May – on the dives I registered 63-66 degrees. The coldest I’d done before this was in Fiji, about 75, & the Caribbean is in the 80s, which has American divers quite spoiled. During our dives we wore a 3mm long wetsuit with a 7mm hooded short suit over it. And still we were freezing, esp at the end of a 40 minute dive. It was like water out of the refrigerator. But excellent visibility.
Well! After that we were ready for an afternoon snack. On the ship in addition to huge breakfasts lunches & dinners there’s a snack in the afternoon & at midnight. No one goes hungry.
More lounging then dinner. Dinner is always 7:30 – 10, and it takes that long because there is a menu with several choices for appetizer, salad, entrée, & dessert, and serving individual orders to about 130 passengers takes a while. But it’s ok because you’re visiting. It turns out that Leon’s family adopted us & we were together for the rest of the week & visited & laughed through every dinner. The dad Guido was born in Egypt, he & Leon have eyes that disappear into slits when they smile – both look so merry - the mom and 16-yr-old daughter (just forgot their names) beautiful delicate & blue-eyed. Very intelligent, well-traveled, interesting & talented people. Our friends for the week, perhaps for life.
After dinner there is always some kind of activity. One night a fashion show (the shop lady asked nick to be in it as her escort, so he was on the stage), “frog races, quiz show, crew performances, etc.
Other typical activities – in the morning while the ship is docked, the cruise director Peter gives a talk about the area, its history, what it’s famous for, etc., and also a bit about sailing ships. In the evening before dinner there’s also a talk about the sea, sailing history, etc. these are very interesting & well-attended. And of course every evening you also can watch the ship pull the anchor up & set the sails, helping if you want.
Tuesday 15 May
This morning we took the excision to Samos, legendary birthplace of Zeus’s wife Hera and also real birthplace of Pythagoras of a-squared-plus-b-squared-equals-c-squared fame.
We anchored in the harbor at Pythagorio – except for Kusadasi & Piraeus, the ship stays in the harbor’s open water & you can see if from all around the island you’re on. A friendly sight.
We visited the Sanctuary of Hera, built in the 6th c BC by the tyrant Polycrates, who Pythagoras hated so much he left the island forever to live in Italy and found a math school there. This sanctuary (called the Ireon) has the typical structure of a sacred way (originally lined with lots of statues etc donated by wealthy folks), an altar for animal sacrifices, a temple, etc. it has fallen into mostly rubble, only one column still standing after centuries of earthquakes & the plundering typical of all ancient ruins – once they’re not in use people start taking a shine to this statue or that slab of marble, we could make it into a coffee table & wouldn’t they look great in the living room? But even the rubble is beautiful at this time of year, covered with all kinds of wildflowers, swept with a fabulous sea breeze.
Then we rode around the island past the main town (also called Samos, confusing) to a little seaside village Agios Constantinos for local wine & appetizers. We walked around a bit, then back to the ship. These islands are so small that around every corner you see the beautiful blue blue sea.
That afternoon our first dive. The water was shockingly cold so that as soon as you hit it you ripped out your regulator & shouted a few curses to ease the pain. Without result. Katharina worked with Nick & Leon on some skills & I just cruised around. There’s not much to see in a tropical-water sense of colorful corals & fish – mostly rock & grasses, with a few sea urchins & tiny shells. But the visibility is amazing. And you’re in the Aegean, where Odysseus sailed the wine-dark sea and saw the rosy-fingered dawn. what more can you ask for? Leon found a tiny bit of pottery with blue markings, which we immediately declared ancient. Nick ran out of air really fast, typical for a new diver since he didn’t know how to move through the water efficiently, and with his long legs kept getting ahead & then turning around to come back to the group – he swam about twice as far as everybody else. But at least he was checking his gauge & realized it. He enjoyed himself enough to go to the next level, which involved more training that night & another dive the next day – good for him!
Wednesday 16 May
Well I am so excited to be here since it’s where the original Greeks in Houston all came from. This tiny island of 3000 people, about 5 miles long by 3 miles at its widest point, is shaped a bit like a seahorse, with its tail cut off. We anchored near the port of Skala, which is at his waist. (By the way, almost all Greek islands have a capital city called Hora, and so does Patmos.)
Patmos is of course famous for something else besides the Houston Greek pioneers – it’s where St John the Divine/the Theologian wrote the biblical book of Revelations, here called the Apokalypso. He was an original disciple who was exiled to this prison island by the roman emperor Domitian, and lived here in a cave. The voice of God came to him in a big boom that split the roof of the cave & he recited the revelations to his helper (name forgotten by me, not by the tour guide Nicholas, a very enthusiastic & devout Athenian with soft brown eyes). You can visit the cave & its tiny attached chapel and see the spot where John rested, the rock ledge where the helper recorded his visions, the split that quite conveniently forms three pieces (trinities are everywhere in Greece), etc.
We also went to visit the Monastery of St John, at the top of the island & a fortress besides. The island was granted by the church to a monk in the 11th century to build this monastery, which has a smallish chapel and excellent museum if you like that sort of thing, which we both do – icons, manuscripts, statues, carvings in marble, etc. There are 25 monks currently living here, & you could see them wandering about in their long black robes & almost-as-long beards. We talked to the monk named Constantine in the “gift shop” a bit – the conversation started when I said to him “Jersey?” and he replied, “No, Manhattan.” No language problems! To support the monastery I bought an icon of the virgin kissing the baby Jesus painted by one of the monks. Sorry George, another icon.
That afternoon the second dive. Just as cold. Nick stayed down longer this time. Afterwards Katharina said tomorrow you stay with your mom; don’t get ahead of her, pace yourself to her swimming. Of course that’s not what happened, but it was a good concept. “The boys” worked on more skills & I wandered about again. More dive theory training for nick & Leon back at the ship. I’ve been watching the videos with them for a review. It’s always good to stay up on dive theory & skills. The alternative is to take a nap in a deck chair. Decisions decisions.
Thursday 17 May
Delos & Mykonos
Delos is in the center of the Cyclades islands, physically & historically. It’s the mythical birthplace of the famous twins Apollo & Artemis, and as such was the site of temples galore, dating from the 8th c BC. Eventually Athens established something called the Delian League whose treasury was on the island, and which Athens ended up to control (duh).
As a holy place no one was allowed to defile it by giving birth or dying there – the person had to leave if either was about to happen. It was a huge settlement, with banking, shipping, trade, religious ceremonies, slave trade, etc and had I think about 50,000 residents at one time. The area was settled by people from all over, with Egyptian, Italian, Syrian, Jewish etc neighborhoods, each with their own agora (marketplace) & temples. It was razed in 88 BC by some pirates hired by the Romans, then there was an earthquake, then of course followed centuries of pillaging. Today it’s just an archaeological site, with a few workers living in cabins. There is also a nice museum holding things that were left behind by the looters.
This was such a lovely site – wildflowers everywhere! I took to photographing columns & rubble only if there were pretty flowers alongside, which was not at all hard to find.
Our guide was George, a knowledgeable fellow who studied metallurgy at U Chicago and archaeology in Lyon, so his English was beautiful, & French too I imagine, but what do I know? It sounded good to me. Nick ended up talking to him quite a bit, so we found out that he’s also a jewelry maker (metallurgy angle) of Delian designs (archaeology connection). He told nick where to find the shop that shows his jewelry in Mykonos. Uh-oh.
That afternoon’s dive was the coldest, 63 chilly degrees. We didn’t stay down toooooo long, about 25 mins, we were all shivering even in the heavy suits. It was a nice dive though, pretty rocks & a nice swim-though. The guys did more skills and are almost done with their certifications, just need one more dive.
Only last year Greece finally opened its waters to non-Greek diving schools, but only schools rather than individual divers. You have to receive permission to dive at an island from the harbormaster. We were told very specifically where to dive this afternoon because Mykonos & Delos are very close together & no one can go in the Delian waters because it’s an archaeology site, even including the water.
After the dive we headed to Mykonos to check it out. Its harbor has some famous windmills, which we visited before just wandering about. They look pretty much like the ones in Spain, in La Mancha.
This was the first island where we really saw 100% the famous Greek whitewashed houses with blue doors & windows, although there was a bit of brown trim mixed in as well. All the islands have had small churches every few steps, and Mykonos is no exception. Narrow alleyways surrounded by white walls, bougainvillea and roses everywhere. Tons of shops, since this is a mega-mega-touristy island. T-shirts, jewelry, shoes, art, you name it. Restaurants, bars, tavernas. We saw an octopus hanging outside one restaurant as well as fresh fish displayed on ice everywhere. It reminded me of Venice, which is appropriate since the area around the harbor is called “Little Venice.”
As we waited for the tender to come pick us up I walked about taking photos of boats in the harbor. Nick had forgotten to bring the card about George’s jewelry store, but at the last minute saw it on the harbor, so we dashed in to look. The proprietress (is that a word?) Dimitra showed us his stuff, and it was very nice, heavy silver in ancient Delian abstract forms that look modern, as does much of the prehistoric Cycladic art. So I bought a couple of things. Well, all right, a bracelet & a ring & 2 pairs of earrings. Nick tried on a ring like “mine” & liked it, but vacillated. He can’t be rushed, and the tender was docking. Later he was sorry, and might contact the store via the internet to get the ring anyway.
Friday 18 May
Sifnos, no make that Milos
This morning we were at Sifnos, but not for long because the winds were just too strong, so the ship headed for Milos instead so that people could at least get off the boat & wander around a bit. This caused trouble in our little scuba world though because the Milos harbormaster would not allow diving. He was not familiar with the new laws that allowed it, & couldn’t be swayed. So Katharina will get nick in touch with a dive school in the Athens area for his last dive & they will issue his certification. Good thing we have a free day Monday so that he can do it.
We explored Milos a bit, but it wasn’t anything special after the other islands we had seen. Back to the boat for nick’s final written exam for certification. Katharina gave him his paperwork & instructions about where to go in Athens, and we had our last dinner with the Germans (sniff sniff, lots of hugs all around), then went to the last activity, a talent show of the crew & passengers. We had found out during the week that Leon is the #2 young break-dancer in Germany (from a contest last year) and pushed him into performing, which we all enjoyed a lot. He hooked up his iPod to the sound system & danced to one of his “rangy-tangy” songs, as my mother-in-law would say.
Then packing, ugh. Nick skipped that part & until 1 am visited in the bar with the German kids & the sports team, Katharina & the 3 Swedes, Hakam, Niklas, & Johan. I have really enjoyed these Swedes this week. They have a great sense of humor & are not as … hmmm, lockstep as our kids. After high school they have worked in factories, on ships, as helpers for home-bound old people, etc., and are just now at the ages of 24 or so going to start university. Of course they’re big skiers & great athletes, which makes the water sports a natural fit.
Saturday 20 May
Piraeus again, this time getting off instead of on
Now we’re going to be in Athens for 4 days, with side trips into the countryside. We disembark & at 8:30 load on a bus for a city & Acropolis tour. The acropolis is amazing, something I’ve always wanted to see – should have come 20 yrs ago, just before they closed off entry into the Parthenon. Now you can only walk around the outside of this probably most-famous-building-of-the-world, but still … wow!
It threatened rain, but the rain held off until we got finished, so we’ve had good luck weather-wise. As nick said, the black grumbly clouds made you think that Zeus was right at hand, so the ambience was appropriate.
Like Rome, Athens has 7 hills (more like mountains), one of them being the huge mound of stone called the acropolis, which means high city. You can see it from just about everywhere in Athens, and is especially noticeable at night when it’s lighted.
Well, I’ve been writing while Nick’s been at his check-out dive, and he’s just back - got certified! – so we’ll go look at some more ruins. Will try to write more later.
Saturday 19 May Athens, continued
You never know what to expect when you’re going to see something so famous, that you’ve seen photos of your whole life. You’re excited to see it in the flesh so to speak, but will it live up to expectations or be just so-so? Nothing so-so here, it was ever-so-much-huger than imagined and also surrounded by mounds of marble that they haven’t put back in place yet – piles of rubble with this overwhelming but proportionally perfect building rising out of it. Excellent!
I’ve mentioned pillaging of ancient sites, and the Parthenon pillage was the most extreme & perhaps public of all. while Greece was under the Turks, the ambassador from England was lord Elgin, who took a shine to all the statuary on the pediments etc and asked the Turks if he could have them. They wanted to stay in England’s good graces, and besides what did they care about that crazy Greek building, so they said help yourself. And he did. Took almost all of it. It’s ended up in the British Museum, along with other similarly snatched antiquities from all over the world. This is getting to be a big deal FINALLY, with some museums returning some antiquities to their originating countries, but it seems that possession IS 9/10ths and after so many years the Brits get to keep what are called “the Elgin marbles” regardless of how many times the Greeks ask for them back.
There are more ruins up on the acropolis, the main one being the Erechtheion, which is the location of the famous caryatids, monster statues of women used as columns to hold up a porch roof. Well, in Texas we would call it a porch, it probably has a technical name. One of the big ladies was stolen too, by … guess who? Elgin. So only 5 originals remain. In a way this is the most sacred spot on the acropolis, since it’s where Athena & Poseidon had a contest to see who would be the main god in these parts, with humans deciding who gave the best gift. Athena presented an olive tree, and Poseidon hit the rock with his trident & brought forth a spring of water. Athena won & had a big-big-big statue in the Parthenon & the city named for her too. Greeks have been kinda queer for olive trees ever since. I read that the planting of so many trees has contributed to bad soil erosion throughout the country because they don’t have a spreading root system that holds the soil in place.
By the way, most of the things I’m writing about were built during Greece’s “golden age,” about 500 BC.
Along on the tour was a cute French couple named Georges & Marie-Therese, about 80. They kept heading off in the wrong direction & Nick would go corral them back. There were only about 10 folks on the tour, all English-speakers except them – Georges spoke enough to follow along, but his wife none at all. He explained to Nick “She doesn’t understand all the English talking, so she gets bored & wanders off.” Nick took to watching out for them & they took a shine to him too. He’s obviously a good boy!
After the tour we went to our hotel, which is modern & recently renovated, yet a couple of blocks from the ancient area that includes the acropolis, agora, and theater of Dionysus. So it’s real handy for trudging back & forth, also easy access to the Plaka neighborhood, winding streets & restaurants & junky souvenir shops, everything a tourist needs.
Sunday 20 May
First thing this morning we leave for a trip to Delphi, one of the most impressive ancient sites in Greece. This is where people would come to ask advice from the virgins. (Whoops that just reminded me of a great line in the movie Clueless – the friend says, “Why should I listen to you , a virgin who can’t drive?” and she pouts & says “that was WAY harsh!”) Well, back to prehistoric Greece. NO first, the chaos with the bus.
Our piece of paper said 8am pickup, but the bus driver showed up at 7:25 and insisted we were wrong. We being me & Nick (not ready yet) and a couple from Shreveport (he wasn’t ready either). The hotel people sided with him (!?!?!, I guess we’re there a few days but they have to get along with the tour agencies forever. Anyway there was a lot of indignation on both sides until I went to the room for the paper, when the driver said Tell you what do we a favor cuz I’ve got to go to other hotels – meet me in 30 mins at the corner of this & that street, so it worked out in the end. Nobody got left.
By the way, street signs in Athens & road signs throughout Greece are in yellow in the Greek alphabet, transliterated immediately below into white Roman letters. So someone can say “Go to Papadopoulos street & you will find it even if you can’t read Greek. It will say Παπαδωπουλος then underneath Papadopoulos. Handy. Same for road signs to different towns. Δελφί then Delphi.
Right, Delphi. First off, Zeus released an eagle from each side of the world & they came together here, so he declared it the center (bellybutton!) of the world & put a big rock here to mark the exact spot.
Meanwhile, Apollo left Delos on the back of a dolphin (delphi in Greek) & came to this place, killed the then-current head god, a serpent called Python, son of the earth mother Gea, established a new order of reason & balance & nothing-in-excess, etc etc. So everybody came here to the temple of Apollo to ask what they should do about this or that, after sacrificing an animal of course. And after standing in a long long line waiting their turn to listen to the mumbles of the drugged-up virgin, who had chewed on laurel leaves, drunk from a sacred stream, and sniffed the gases escaping from a hole in the ground to get ready to sit on a tripod & pass Apollo’s’ advice along to humans. Her mumbles were interpreted by temple priests, who always put the answers into a form that could be interpreted several ways (and seemed to sound like Yoda talking too – succeed you must etc), so they were never wrong.
Well folks were so pleased with the good advice they got that they had celebratory statues put up, cities raised buildings called treasuries filled with well, treasures, etc. the one remaining kinda complete one (minus treasures of course) was put up by Athens after their victory at Marathon – you can just hear them now, “We’re number 1, we’re number 1!”
The site also had other temples, a gymnasium, a stadium, & a theater. After a tough day waiting in line, sacrificing, listening to mumbles & trying to figure out what it all meant, you could catch a show or hit the sauna.
Speaking of the line, it was interesting that the people from the island of Chios didn’t have to mess with the line, they could cut right in up front because they paid for the altar. There’s even a notice on the corner of the altar that says the ancient Greek version of “Chiotes can take a cut, the oracle says so.”
The remaining statues & bits of columns, treasures, gold silver & bronze items are in the museum, which was excellent. There is a room full of stuff from the treasury of Sifnos, the island we missed, all fabulous stuff. But the most famous piece, because it’s amazingly complete, is a bronze charioteer – his chariot & horses are gone, but he’s standing tall & elegant. He gets a whole room to himself.
That night we wandered around Plaka, scoping out the tourist shops to find some odds & ends to bring home (no more icons, no more jewelry). We ended up at a café called Xenios Zeus (or something like that), whose proprietor snagged us by saying “Very good food. Good view. You’re from US? My restaurant 26 days in USA Today.” What for, we never found out. But we ate Greek salad, tzatziki (yogurt, garlic, cucumbers, dill), fried potatoes Pablo Neruda (we had to get that in honor of the Chilean poet, who mentioned them in a poem or something (fries, garlic, lemon juice, sprinkles of cheese), eggplant & zucchini croquette things, and bottled water. We rolled out, rather than walked, alongside the bottom of the acropolis hill back to our hotel.
Monday 21 May
This is our day “at leisure” in Athens, so we have to get a lot done. Nick is up & out early to get to his final/certification dive in a town south of Athens called Glyfada. I take the opportunity to sleep late, get up about 9:30 and start writing about the trip. I’ve been wanting to do this for days, but have just been too busy. He comes in about 2:30 and we head out to see some more rubble around the city.
First, the theater of Dionysus. You may (or may not) recall that theater, plays, etc originally came from the worship of the wine god. Turns out this is the oldest extant theater in Greece, at the base of the acropolis & about 2 blocks from our hotel. It was amazing to sit on the benches where the plays of Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Sophocles & Euripides were first performed. Right here, right where we are sitting. Wow. In front of the regular bleacher seats are the ones for the VIPs, with backs on them & their names engraved in the marble.
Next, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, just across the main drag from the acropolis. This was the largest temple with any parts left standing, and the scale of it is amazing. It took several hundred years to build (ran out of $$ in the middle of the project, as so often happens in real life), & was finally finished by decree of Hadrian, in about 180 AD, when worship of the Olympian gods was kinda on the way out.
Then off to see the agora, the Athenian marketplace where everybody hung out doing retail therapy & visiting. The place to see & be seen. The best parts here were the Temple of Hephaestus, the most complete remaining Doric temple (that means the columns are plain up top, not like Corinthian temples, which had columns with fancy tops of acanthus leaves); a 10th c church built on the agora grounds, and the restored Stoa of Attalos, which now holds the agora museum. It was late in the afternoon by this time, so the shadows were long & the light getting soft. Good photo ops! They had to run us out.
At these ancient sites there are guards wandering around whose job it is to keep people out of they shouldn’t be, off of the stones, on the paths, etc. If hollering doesn’t work, they blow a whistle at you. Not that I would know from personal experience of course.
We chose this as the night for our celebratory dinner, since we’ve got another tour out of town tomorrow & also will have to pack. A cab is picking us up to go to the airport at 3:30 am for a 630 am flight, & we want to get a couple of hours of sleep anyway. So we made reservations to go to a restaurant called Kalokerinos, which was recommended by a coworker of Nick’s. In addition to dinner they have a show with traditional music, singing, dancing in costumes, belly dancing, what have you. It’s a bit expensive because the show is included, so they get you either coming or going, probably both. We enjoyed it though, until they got to the part where they were dragging people out of the audience to dance on stage with them – it got a bit tedious watching clumsy people shouting Opa, so we left just before the end (you knew it was the last number cuz it was the Zorba song, the crowd-pleaser) and wound back through Plaka to get “home.”
Tuesday 22 May
Mycenae & Epidauros
Today we went to a site discovered by Schliemann, the non-archaeologist business guy with tons of $$ who found Troy in the 19th c because he thought it was historic while everybody else thought it was just legend. To have a matching set he had to find Mycenae too.
Why? Because the big fighters against the Trojans were the Myceneans, the House of Atreus folks whose family started the whole expedition cuz Menelaus of Sparta lost his wife Helen to Paris (not Hilton, but the prince of Troy – Orlando Bloom in the movie), so he called on his brother Agamemnon king of Mycenae to help him kick some Trojan butt. While they were at war 10 yrs, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra had an affair & with her lover Aegisthus killed him when he inconveniently showed back up, then their son Orestes had to kill his mom to right the wrong, got chased by the Furies, etc etc going on & on, one of the huge sagas in Greek mythology – or was it really real instead of a myth? If this is Mycenae, it probably was. Even if it’s going over the top to say “this is Agamemnon’s tomb,” etc, still the circumstantial evidence looks strong. The site dates from at least 1500 BC, which is when it’s thought the events of the Homeric epics Iliad & Odyssey “happened.” It’s very primitive but quite dramatic, high up on a mountain & surrounded by walls built of huge stones. When unearthed it was still full of gold masks & bronze weapons (now in the Athens Archaeological Museum), despite centuries of … of course, pillaging.
It was a beautiful day to be there, very sunny & hot but with a nice breeze. Afterwards we went to Epidaurus, site of the worship of Apollo’s son Asclepius the healing guy, folks came here from all over to get cured & to take in the theatrical performances.
We skipped the rubble at the temple area, but went to the theater, which is the best-preserved from ancient Greece and has perfect acoustics so that you can hear everything on the “stage” from even the very top row. No microphones needed, even though it’s open-air, no top to hold the sound in, can even hear a coin dropped. (Good place for the commercial “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?”) It’s preserved because the Romans respected the acoustics & decided not to turn it into a place for animal shows & other Roman please-the-crowds tomfoolery. As we got there a group of French were singing the Marseilles, we spoke a few words, I sang a bit, then a bunch of Germans showed up who took all the fun out by quoting at great Teutonic length from books they brought for the purpose. Aeschylus translated into German or some crazy thing. Nevertheless a fabulous experience to see this theater.
Got “home,” wandered about the Plaka a bit more for final touristy souvenirs, ate dinner & decided to just go to bed & pack in the morning, get up at 2 instead of 2:30. Dinner in Athens is like in Spain, you don’t start it till 9 or 10, so it was about midnight when we fell into bed. In the morning, packed up & took a hair-raising ride to the airport – the cabbie took advantage of the empty streets to go 160-170 kmph, which translates to about 100 mph. Got shut down by a Porsche though.
I’m writing this at airports & on the plane, will close down now before the battery shuts ME down.
Saturday 27 January
On the way back to Delhi
On the bus our guide named kumar (not his real name, he said it’s too hard to pronounce, so that’s kind of his stage name) calls a bathroom stop a “technical stop.” It took us a while to figure out what he meant, so now he says a pee-pee stop.
One thing I would like to mention is how much India is a live & let live place. People are just hanging out going about their lives, and I haven’t really seen one argument or public spectacle. The attitude here is called chalta hai, which means (American translation) “what are you gonna do? Shit happens.”
New developments in the mass-murderer pedophile case. After their initial hearing, the former MP & his also-implicated servant were attacked by a crowd (one account says by a bunch of lawyers?!?!?) & were sent to the hospital. This required all kinds of security barriers and a lot of people couldn’t get in, a 2-yr-old boy who fell on the stove in his house died of his burns for lack of care.
Another three news items:
Bombay High Court has ruled that a muslim man saying I divorce you three times (talaq talaq talaq) is not enough for a divorce, that arbitration should be tried first. The case is of a man who said the triple talaq & paid his wife the requisite 600 rupees for the iddat, her 3 menstrual periods after pronouncement of talaq. That’s about $14. maybe if a husband talaqs you & you’re menopausal you get paid forever? The court is saying that’s not good enough. Interesting case of religion v state.
A servant is protesting that the Rs1.5 lahk (lahk = 100,000 rupees) she was promised for her kidney was not paid by her employers, who only came up with 60,000 rupees (less than $1400). By the way, 1 crore = 10 million rupees. Interesting how they lump larger amounts under different names.
A couple of teenagers kidnapped a 6-yr-old boy to get enough ransom to buy a motorscooter, but killed the boy because he didn’t know his home phone or his mother’s cell number.
On the road: The country people use cow dung for fuel. They mix dry grass in & pat it into cakes about 8” across and then put it out to dry when it’s dry they use the cakes stacked up for fences, walls, etc., or display it on the roof in an overlapping circle that looks like the top of a fancy pear tart. They also stack it into beehive shapes – sometimes almost as tall as a person.
The weather was very foggy/smoky this morning & as we were driving, honking constantly of course, I was thinking that in this situation we often get huge chain-accident pileups. Sure enough, about 2 minutes later we drove past a 4-car pileup, with people pulled out of the cars lying on the median.
By the way, people passing through toll booths on camels have to pay the same toll as cars.
We will spend one night in delhi, then catch the plane back at midnight Sunday. Don’t know what we will do between checkout time & the flight.
This is probably my last message. I have really been impressed with this country & how friendly the people are despite their often dire circumstances. A smile and hello is enough to get a positive response from just about anyone. The sensory overload of colors smells tastes sounds & crush of people & animals was just amazing. I will be happy to get home where it’s clean & QUIET. And will not eat Indian food for a good while. I’m up for a lot of salads & a hamburger.
Friday 26 January
National Day – Indian independence
This is india’s 4th of july and the main effect that my fellow travelers have noticed is that it’s a dry day and the only drinks to be had are in the minibar. Lots of people were out today at the Red Fort of Agra, most of the ladies in saris that look like they’re for dress-up - Sunday-go-to-meeting outfits. Yes, another red fort.
After the fort we took horse carriages meant for two riders & a driver. In our case, 4 riders & 2 drivers to balance the weight forward a bit. I don’t know how the horse survived it. I don’t know how we survived it! We went to the opposite side of the river from the Taj Mahal and the streets are narrow & can’t be maneuvered by a bus. The drivers said heh heh to the horse and touched the top of his neck, perhaps a veiled threat that more stern measures were possible if he didn’t keep moving. At one point the two people in the back had to get out because he couldn’t get enough momentum going to get up an incline.
I was in the front, in the driver’s seat, and he (actually they) sat on the cross members of the cart. So I saw all the oncoming traffic, which was great. We’ve seen the traffic from high up in the bus and at street level trying to dash across, but have never been in the flow of traffic as today. When we were going down particularly narrow streets the driver would wave his arms and holler at oncoming bull carts to move over, give him room (this is what I sounded like to me anyhow). At one point a motorized tricycle cart didn’t move over enough & ran into us, but it was no harm done except a lot of shouting. (By the way, these trikes are designed for two riders behind & one driver up front, but I’ve seen up to 8 people in them – wild!
Some news items of interest:
A series of disappearances of children and young women turned out to be at the hands of a serial killer who took 38 victims. He chose very carefully the kids of poor families, so the cops ignored the accusations, telling the distraught parents that their kid probably ran off or eloped. Some directly accused the fellow in whose house & grounds were found the bones of the victims, but … it didn’t hurt that he was a former member of parliament either. Same all over the world huh?
Farmers are up in arms in an agricultural area where the govt has exercised eminent domain to take their land & make it available for india’s biggest car maker, Tata. Tata reps have come back with the real zinger – “what do these people want? We paid them 70 rupees a day to build the wall around our site.” That’s about $1.50. “Guess we’ll be eating cars from now on,” said a spokesperson for the farmers.
A british reality TV show called Big Brother was in the news when the “white trash” brits living in the house being filmed 24/7 said ugly things to the 2nd rate Indian movie star who was invited on the show (for several hundred thou), calling her a Paki and a dog. The main tormentor is named Jade Goody, and she’s made millions getting famous in the show, including promoting a perfume … that’s bottled in India!!! Whoops.
Their newspapers are different from ours in at least two ways – they’re all in color, with lots of photos, and they are a mixture of our “serious” papers and the supermarket celebrity rags.
My favorite part of the Sunday paper though was the Matrimonials, 12 full pages of families seeking appropriate matches for their children, about 3000 entries. About 90% of marriages are still arranged here, so it can be a bit of a struggle to find the right person. The ads are arranged by language, by city, by ethnic group, by religion, and by caste. Here’s an example: “KKB 29/5’7” v h’some IIT MBA worked in Infosys well-placed Seeks b’ful qlfd girl from cultured Brahmin family” a lot of the ads ask for a beautiful homely girl, by which I guess they mean a homebody as opposed to a career woman. They often say caste no barrier or no dowry.
Bedtime! Tomorrow we bus back to Delhi, so it’s time to pack, again.
Thursday 25 January
Agra – Taj Mahal, the Resplendent Immortal Teardrop on the Cheek of Time!
We got up very early to catch a 6am bus to get the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It was so beautiful (duh) and a lot larger than you think from pictures. You also never really see the gardens & side buildings – a mosque, a guest house (17th c Motel 6) that flank the Taj, two other smaller buildings, and an elaborate entry gate. There are lots of workers who keep it immaculate.
The Taj Mahal is the burial tomb of the “beloved” wife of Shah Jahan, the grandson of Akbar the Great. She died in 1631 having her 14th child (I guess he really DID love her, yikes!), and was buried someplace else for 22 years while he had thousands of workers construct the tomb. It’s all marble-faced, most of it elaborately carved with flowers & geometric designs, and vast sections inlaid with semiprecious stone like lapis. The workers who did the inlay still live in Agra (well, their descendents I should say) and their work is famous all over.
We came back to the hotel about 9 for breakfast & a nap, then went back about 4 to see e Tajit in the afternoon light – a much warmer look. At 6:30 there weren’t too many people there, but in the afternoon it was packed – families lounging on the grass or on the flat walkway around the Taj, lovers, tourists of all nationalities, mostly Indians though.
I read on a sign that in 1810 an Englishman came up with the idea of tearing the Taj down to salvage the marble. Wow! What a concept. Fortunately he didn’t get very far with his plan.
When you enter any historical site in India you have to go through a security line – actually there are two, one for “ladies” and one for “gents.” (How English is that?) the ladies’ line ends up in a screened-off area so strangers won’t get a thrill watching you being frisked. How different is that from the bathing pool at the temple where the women were wandering around half naked?
Speaking of contradictions, someone in our group took a great picture – two signs right next to each other, one saying “Remove shoes here,” and the other “Do not remove shoes here.” That’s India all wrapped up in one image.
A few interesting things. Mothballs in the sink drains to keep bathroom smells down – or to overpower them actually. Women in saris wearing helmets over their scarves as they zip in & out of traffic on motorscooters. Vendors shouting “hallo, hallo!” to get your attention – again very british. Children putting together the fingers of one hand and moving it toward their mouth over & over to indicate that they want money for food. No concept of littering as a bad thing – no public receptacles and everything just gets dropped. You may remember the ad with the American Indian with a tear on his cheek, if he were an Indian from around here he’d be sobbing.
The honking on the road drives you nuts but it’s actually a polite beep-beep rather than our angry ho-o-o-n-n-n-k-k-k. The driver uses it to warn the person in front that they’re back there. Trucks even have signs painted on the back that say Honk Please. I don’t know why no one can use a rear-view mirror! And considering all the traffic on the road, the honking, although polite, is continuous. I thought that our bus honked about every minute, then started counting between honking “events” to confirm it. Turns out that the longest he ever went was 16 seconds. Multiply by everything on the road & you can imagine.
Smells are really loud here too. Incense, food cooking, animal “waste,” the crush of other people, public “bathrooms” that are just a u-shaped square faced by a wall – no water it seems, not to mention cows, dogs, goats, and monkeys wandering loose.
None of this compares to the loud colors though – the women’s saris are beautiful! Spangly, or with stripes or fancy borders, or all three at once. Flowers for sale everywhere to offer in the temples – very bright colors like marigolds & that deep purple cockscomb? lion’s something? And since most folks are vegetarians, vegetable stands everywhere full of red & yellow & green. Their carrots are red by the way not orange like ours.
Thanks for listening!