The area, now full of street art, galleries and restaurants used to be an area you would have been hesitant to drive a car through. In fact, most of Miami was that way.
Hell, there are still plenty of alleys you do not want to walk up after the sun goes down but it isn't what it was. There are people out and about and while there is justifiable concern over the effect of such artistic gentrification (several visiting artists commented on it to me in 2011), the area still seems to have, in some ways maintained its former character while becoming a bit less "stabby."
The art itself reflects different strata of society. There is some that screams "high art" and others that hails to old school street art and still more that is simple, old fashioned advertising. Garbage cans, polls and posters all contribute as do "off the rack" decals (which some may regard as street art cheating).
Not all of the pieces you see out in this area are self consciously trying to bend into a fine art mold. Most of it is just what it is--decoration for buildings whose character would be otherwise undefined. It is a poor city that, in these days, doesn't recognize that the art of the people doesn't add to community and character. And this doesn't refer to someone with a marker scratching out a tag. That is for those with a middle school mentality, those small minded folks who want their name to be the point.
And sometimes it is about tow trucks and guns and honky tonks (the honky tonk part seeming to be a tad surreal in Miami)
And other times you just don't have anyplace else to sleep.
Whenever I come back to my home state of Florida I make an effort to visit the Everglades, one of the natural wonders of the world--and a place where natives rarely bother to go. There are a number of ways to visit the Everglades and one of the best--for starters--is to visit Shark Valley. There are two main ways to go about seeing Shark Valley; you can take a tram tour or ride/ rent a bicycle.
First of all the trams. I recommend this if you are the sort who likes a tour guide or if you are not physically fit. Otherwise? You will be riding in a tram with tourists, often too fat to walk, or with school tour groups. It might be informative but it is not the best way to really get a feeling for the Everglades. And the noisy tram is not native to the swamp. The critters sometimes make themselves scarce and unless you have great vision you might not be able to see some of the smaller ones.
When it comes to bicycles, you can rent them on site. These are not fine Italian racing bikes. They are beat up rickety bikes that still suffice for the 15 miles or so you will need to ride to get through the park. If you have a bike or can rent or borrow one elsewhere, bring it with you. When you go by bike you will get a better sense of the serenity and the true nature of the Everglades.
There are alligators, birds, turtles as well as other flora and fauna you will get only a passing glance at from the tram (and much of it you won't see at all from the tram). There are also short, often beautiful, side trails you will not see from the tram. Familiarize yourself with the birds of the area. Some of them, like Woodstorks, are endangered, and stand a meter tall. Others, perhaps not endangered, but beautiful. On this trip there were Roseate Spoonbill , beautiful birds that, were too far away to get a decent photo.
_When you first start on your trek through Shark Valley you will be amazed when you see large gators sitting right on the side of the road, paying no mind to human visitors. By the time you get to the observation tower (dedicated during the Truman Administration) alligators will seem somewhat passe.
Don't worry, these gators are not likely to attack, unprovoked, a full grown person. But do not approach these wild animals. Also do not let children wander off alone here. While alligators are unlikely to attack full grown people, kids are another matter. I would advice against bringing small children.
When you enter the park you can buy a year pass that will allow you, and anyone in the car with you, to get into the park free. It is a good investment if you visit the park even twice in a year. Also, do not even think about visiting during the summer--unless you like bugs and brutal heat. The ideal time to visit is between December and the end of February. You can visit during the Spring and not suffer too much.
Pay attention to the weather and be sure to bring water, even in the winter.
Whenever I go to the Everglades I wear long pants. I recommend the same to others; wear light colored, light fabric, long pants. Bug repellent is a good idea even in the winter. Your shirt should also be light colored. There is evidence to suggest mosquitoes are attracted to black or dark fabric.
Shark Valley is not really roughing it. It is a nice day trip in the winter and a good place to start exploring the Everglades. Go early, take your time, walk or ride a bike as much as you can. If you like what you see there are other options for you to visit that are more off the beaten path.
Vacationers, revelers, and visitors coming to Chicago should save a day to take in “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago running till October 3. Featuring almost 300 photographs, the exhibit covers Cartier-Bresson’s work from the end of the 1930s through the 1950s.
I did know much about C-B prior to spending an afternoon with his photos at the Art Institute, but he certainly enjoyed a life lived large. As a young man, he was smitten with the Parisian café scene of the 1920s, and he flirted with the idea of becoming a painter. He was drawn to the Surrealist movement, which dominated the artistic air of Paris during that decade of bohemians, expatriates, and modernists. I was immediately drawn to this part of C-B’s life, because, after all, what writer, artist, or maverick isn’t charmed by Paris in the 1920s, but later, while looking at his photographs, I realized that knowing his influences gave me a window into his style and content.
Cartier-Bresson finally found his calling in 1932 when he picked up a Leica camera. Small and lightweight with a sharp, fast lens, the Leica made it possible to capture spontaneous action—a woman caught in an offhand moment, a group in conversation, an event in progress. Many of C-B’s photos freeze these moments of time in the most exquisite of compositions--like capturing the poetry of human encounters and giving it visual expression. Art historians have dubbed this “catching the decisive moment.”
A huge timeline on the walls of one room of the exhibition details C-B’s many travels and photographic expeditions. I was impressed with his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time in regard to world events. During the 1930s, he traveled through Spain capturing the people in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, which gave him a taste for photojournalism. World War II and a stint as a P.O.W. interrupted his career, but after his release, he quickly returned to photographing life in the 20th century, with the world as his beat.
Henri Cartier-Bresson Photos in The Art Institute of Chicago Collection. Click on photos to go to AIC site.
Though grounded in an authentic sense of place and time, C-B’s early photos reflect his Surrealist influence—something I would not have noticed without having read about his background. Surrealism was all about the irrational juxtaposition of images to express or reveal interior states. Many of C-B’s photos could easily be described this way. One of my favorites was taken in Greenfield, Indiana, in 1960. It depicts two matronly women dressed in fake American Indian garb that has been gussied up with rhinestones and spangles as they walk out of a storefront. The windows of the storefront display poster-size photos of Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge. I don’t think I have ever seen a photo capture the conservatism of the Heartland better, especially Indiana.
In 1947, C-B joined together with several photojournalists, including Robert Capa, to form the Magnum photo agency. Magnum regularly served such publications as Life and Paris Match, which were so dependent on images that they were called picture magazines. This type of agency protected the photographers’ creative control over their work by forbidding clients to crop the photos without consent. One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was a corner in one room where a handful of cropped versions of C-B’s photos were hung. The photos demonstrated how cropping a picture can ruin its impact and even alter its subtext.
The exhibit features several decades of photographs, including an extensive series from Communist China during the 1950s when Mao led the country on a drive toward industrialization and a series from Russia in the wake of Stalin’s death. One gallery is devoted to portraits of famous writers, celebrities, and artists, which was my favorite. Cartier-Bresson felt that photography had wrested portraiture from painting because the equipment could render a technically accurate likeness while the photographer could use lighting, pose, and mood to capture the inner life of his subject. One of the portraits is of Truman Capote, whose very name brings to mind that image of the middle-aged fuddy-duddy with the high-pitched lisp. However, C-B’s photo of a young, attractive Capote surrounded by an exotic tropical plant and looking confidently into the camera brings out another side to his personality--sensuality.
For me, the most thought-provoking part of the exhibit were the collections of picture magazines on display, with pages opened to spreads featuring C-B’s photos so viewers can see them in context. It reminded me that 50 years ago, the average person accessed the events of history and the giants of culture through picture magazines filled with photos taken by artists who shaped the content through their artistic and political perspectives. The photos were presented in lay-outs that were organized and designed by professionals. The captions may have been written by the photographers, but they were shaped and copyedited by editors—still the unsung heroes of the print world because they are the last line of defense against inaccuracy, unintentional meaning, bad grammar, and poor punctuation. Back then, I am sure the everyday reader took Life, Look, Paris Match, and other picture magazines—which they could relax and read anywhere—for granted.
For several days after seeing the exhibit, I couldn’t help but compare picture magazines with photos by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson to the Internet as a medium of news and current events. I seemed more aware of the unedited garbage, poorly written stories, garish celebrity photography, and generic stock shots that my computer screen spit at me under the guise of news or commentary on world events. It made me melancholy.
Most of you may know that a couchette is a sleeping compartment on a train. It appears to be a normal 4 to 6 person compartment, but the seats and their backs can be converted into beds. They enable you to sleep on an overnight train trip laying down, rather than trying to do it sitting up. Of course, you pay extra for this comfort.
Often travel writers will romanticize traveling by train at night. My guess is they're Brits for the most part. They compare train travel at night to traveling by ship at sea. The gentle rhythm of the rail. That kind of crap. What they don't tell you about is stopping at numerous stations at night with bright lights, loud speakers and noisy people getting on and off the train. They never mention your train stopping in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night(we light sleepers are awakened by the cessation of the rhythm of the rails), only to have the silence of the countryside broken by having a much faster express train roar by you like a cyclone. And, they don't mention border crossings.
While I have spent a number of nights sleeping on trains, only in the past 5 years have I become soft enough and had a surplus of cash to travel by couchette. I can remember 4 trips by couchette, although I have more in the near future. I hope my luck improves.
My first two couchette experiences were on a train trip from Prague to Istanbul in the spring of 2002. From Prague to Budapest, a short night anyway, midnight to 7am, we crossed six borders. How did we cross 6 borders in 7 hours when the train passed through only 3 countries? A question I asked myself each time there was a knock on the door by some official wanting to see my passport. As near as I can understand, the railroad was built sometime before current borders were established, so the train entered, left and re-entered the same countries. In any event, 6 passport checks in 7 hours made sleep that night impossible.
The next overnight journey was from Bucharest, Romania into Istanbul. The weather was typical for Central Europe, cold with drizzle alternating with a hard driving rain. Train cars are as well insulated as a tin can. My compartment was freezing. A side of beef would have been very comfortable swinging back and forth in there. I had multiple layers of clothes on underneath wool blankets hoping to survive the night. About 4 am, the train stopped at the Turkish border. Every passenger on the train was required to disembark and stand in line in the rain for passport and visa control. The Turkish officials must have decided that the comfort of travelers entering their country was less important than this procedure and convenience (for them).
After standing in line wet and freezing, I came to its head. All I could think about was returning to my meat locker to put on dry clothes. The official looked at my passport, looked at me, shook his head and said I had to go to another line to get a tax stamp, which I did, at the end of the line of course. When I got to the head of that line, the official said that I had to pay 5 euro for my stamp. I had not been in any countries that were on the euro, so I had none. I did have plenty of dollars and assorted other currencies. But, the official would only accept Euros. I asked him where I was supposed to get Euros at 4 am. He said there was a currency exchange office around the building. So, Back out in the rain, running around a building in the wee hours, starting to worry about getting back on the train before it left. Naturally, the exchange was not open at such an hour. I was starting to get worried. When I went back to speak with the official, I bumped into a German man in the next compartment to me on the train. We had chatted a little earlier in the day. When I explained my predicament, he gave me the 5 Euros and I was saved.
After getting back on the train, changing out of my wet clothes, but not getting warmer. The conductor came by to ask if I wanted breakfast. I thought that warm food was just what I needed. When it arrived, it consisted of a large piece of bread that had the flavor and consistency of an adobe brick, a few sausages drowned in grease and a large tube of white stuff. The white stuff looked and felt like lard. It smelled worse. I can't comment on the flavor. My experience was not quite like the Orient Express.
The third couchette ride was from Saigon to Nha Trang. On it, a daypack with my camera and other assorted things was stolen in the middle of the night. Remarkable, since the bag was no more than 3 inches from my head. I'm glad whoever took it wasn't inclined to cut my throat while they were at their business. The adventures had with the Vietnamese policy is another story, but very interesting.
The most recent ride was a few days ago from Budapest to Warsaw. The usual noises and distractions, but only 2 border crossings. The first, into Slovenia, came early enough that it was not inconvenient. The second, into Poland, came in the middle of the night. I was sound asleep when the knock came. It was very chilly in the car. I had left my window open for some fresh air, but there are mountains at the border of the 2 countries. I answered the door in my underwear. The trip from Prague to Budapest had taught me that there was little sense getting dressed every time they wanted to see a passport. Border guards were all men any way. Until I got to Poland. I opened the door and I swear there a blond goddess in a uniform wanting to see my passport. Even though I had been asleep only seconds before, I was immediately having thoughts of her searching me for contraband. But, given the temperature in the compartment and the fact that I was standing there in my under shorts, it was obvious that the only thing that I could be smuggling into Poland that might necessitate a "pat down", would be a Vienna Sausage, which apparently was not on the contraband list.
Bruce Warner On Kracow And The Dangers Of Generosity
Krakow is one of the more beautiful cities in Europe. It is the only major Polish city not destroyed in WWII. The city also has special significance to the Poles as it was their capital for near 400 years. All of the kings of Poland were crowned there and many are buried there. It is also the home of the Cathedral in which Pope John Paul II was Arch-bishop before becoming the Pope.
For those of you that have visited Prague, Krakow is quite similar. For those of you that plan to visit Prague, Krakow is not too far away. Both cities have an old town with a picturesque castle on a hill They both claim that their town square is the largest in Eastern Europe if not all of Europe. The Rynek Glowny, the square in Krakow is 200 meters by 200 meters, which I think is around 400,000 square feet.
In the square, there is a beautiful old church, St. Mary's. There are two interesting stories tied to this church. It has two towers, one taller and more elaborate than the other. Two brothers were the architects of the church in the 14th century. The older brother seeing that his younger brother had the capability of building the highest tower, in a rage of jealousy murdered him, so that his tower would be the best. But later, torn by the guilt of what he had done, threw himself from the larger tower, that he had constructed.
Today, every hour a fireman climbs up the tallest tower and plays a tune on the bugle. The tune is the same and is always cut off in mid note. This is to commemorate another fireman, who were also night watchman in the middle ages, who seeing the approach of the marauding Tater hordes blew his bugle as a warning, but was hit in the throat by an arrow before he completed. He was like the Gunga Din of Poland. Looking at the positioning of the tower and the old city walls, this shot would have had to go through an open window, 200 feet from the ground, shot from outside those walls which are at least 500 meters away from the tower. This shot could not have been made by Robin Hood with a laser guided arrow. So, I tend to subscribe to the belief that this story was made up by a drunken American journalist in 1929.
The first King of Poland to be coronated in Krakow was Wladaslaw "the Short", aka Wladaslaw "the elbow high". For those of you who work for Wells Fargo, we can also refer to him as Wladaslaw "the Skolnik". For those of you who don't work for Wells, this will make no sense. It is an inside joke.
Most people will agree that it is always good to be the king. So, why did Wladaslaw allow people to refer to him as "the short" or "the elbow high" ? It will remain one of the mysteries of history. If I were Wladaslaw, I would of required everyone to "duck walk" in my presence.
One of the first Universities of Europe is located in Krakow, along with nine others. With a population of around 750,000, the city has 150,000 college students. Most of them on break prior to exams. If you combine this with the many Brits that go to Krakow for weekends or pre-wedding parties because of cheap flights and cheaper beer. It is a place of great mirth and frivolity.
The other night, while eating al fresco on the Rynek Glowny, a very short, but stout woman appeared as if from nowhere on my left side. The woman was not much taller standing than I was seated. She said something forcefully, but incomprehensibly to me. Of course, all Polish is incomprehensible to me. I guessed that she was asking for some spare change. Since she had pierced my defenses and launched a surprise attack, I felt compelled to cooperate. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a coin. Without looking at it, I gave it to her. Polish coins come in denominations of 1, 2 and 5 zlotys, as well as, a variety of groschen, which are 1/100th of a zloty.A zloty is about 30 cents.
Apparently, I gave her a 5 zloty coin. She must have felt like she hit the jackpot because she hollered something like, CANCUN YEA! , grabbed both of my ears in each of her ham like hands, turned my head, and laid a big wet kiss right in the middle of my face. The kiss was so fervent that she actually engulfed my entire nose in her mouth. She then waddled off continuing to turn and shout, "CANCUN YEA!", every few feet. While this incident was cause of much amusement for the other patrons of the restaurant, it ended my enjoyment of dinner. Every bite after that tasted like the smell of her fetid, alcoholic breath. As soon as I got home, I swabbed out my nose with Purell with the hope of killing 99.8% of the germs that cause nosemonia, noseitosis, noselio and God nose what else.
Our next trip, in fact early the next morning, took us from Savanakhet to Vientiane. It was a local bus. There were no "tourist" buses on this route, unless we would spend the day in Savanakhet and take another overnight bus. There was nothing, nothing, there to tempt us to stay any longer than necessary, so a 7 a.m. local seemed our best alternative. The local buses stop everywhere, not just at bus stops and stations, but wherever any passenger wants to get off and wherever a prospective passenger might be standing along the road. It seemed as if we stopped near 600 times.
The bus had two conductors, both barefoot. At a stop, they would help the passengers off, get their luggage and send them on their way. They would then re-arrange the passengers on the bus by giving seats to those sitting in plastic chairs in the aisles and moving the aisle sitters further back to fill up any empty space. They would do this by moving from when end of the bus to the other by walking on the backs of the seats with their bare feet. They had to do this since the aisles were full of passengers. They could move from when end of the bus to the other this way faster than I could walk down the aisle. For the 10 hour trip, neither stopped smiling. Their speed and efficiency made the frequent stops entertaining. In fact, they moved so fast through the bus, I could not get a picture of them in the act.
As the day wore on, the bus became very hot. The Lao people in the aisle gave no thought to leaning on strangers and falling asleep. It was near impossible to stay awake in the heat. For the Laos in the aisle, it made no difference if they were leaning on other Laos or foreigners, they would just fall asleep leaning against whatever was available. In one case, it was the shoulder of my brother, Kenny. I thought the Lao man and Kenny were very cute couple, but I don't think my brother was amused.
Our last trip in Laos was from Vientiane toLuong Prabang. Another all day trip through the beautiful mountains and jungles of North Central Laos. We were excited about the trip since it was on a VIP bus, a double decker with air con and movies. Luxury travel for the spoiled foreigners at last.
Like any bus in this part of the world there were a few issues with the VIP type. The AC would work only when the bus went downhill. Since we were climbing into the mountains, there were not a lot of downhill stretches. Unlike, the non-VIP buses without AC, the windows could not be opened. So while a non-VIP bus would swelter. In the VIP bus, you would smother. We learned not to complain about the intermittent air conditioning when it stopped completely. In fact, we were lucky that the bus made the trip. It broke down 4 times on the way. Fortunately, the multi-skilled conductors were also mechanics and were able to keep the bus moving to our destination. The breakdowns were actually welcomed by most of us. It gave us an opportunity to get o-f of the bus to breathe. While it was well in the 90's outside the bus. It was not as hot as in the bus.
One couple told us of their trip from Hanoi to Vientiane, which is a grueling 24 hour ride under the best of circumstances. Their journey was far from the best. Their bus broke down repeatedly not far out of Hanoi. After 12 hours of travel, they were told that they were only 3 hours outside of Hanoi. Eventually, the bus was unable to continue. The young couple had to travel with 7 other passengers in the back of a pickup truck to the border where they could catch a local bus.. It took them 47 hours to get to Vientiane.
The worst bus trip I have taken in this part of the world was what was on what we, unlovingly, call the "death bus". The trip was from Bangkok to Siem Riep , Cambodia. It was our plan to visit Angkor Wat , which is the largest religious complex in the world and truly one of the world's wonders. The trip from Bangkok to Poipet on the border was by mini-bus, efficient and uneventful. Crossing the border at Poipet was a zoo, but many crossings are similar. Once into Cambodia, we were herded on to old school buses that were meant for young Asian children. This meant that there was no leg room for the average sized foreigner and there was no room for luggage which was packed in the front of the bus by the doors. It was packed so high and deep that you had to enter and exit the bus via the windows. The bus, of course, was fully packed with people in the aisles and in every small, hard, seat.
The road from Poipet to Siem Riep was dirt and still may be since it was on the same route the next year. It was full of a pot holes that could have been bomb craters remaining from the war which ended in 1989. They were so big that a vehicle could not go down in many of them with much hope of re-emerging from the other side. So, any car, bus or truck had to drive around the holes which meant that no one was ever driving in a straight line. That our fully loaded bus was able to avoid a broken axle was a minor miracle.
The cost of the death bus was incredibly low $3-10, depending on where you purchased your ticket. The drivers make money by stopping at their brothers, cousins, and friends restaurants and shops along the road. Presumably, they get a cut of any sales. At each stop, people would come out with plastic chairs to assist all of us climbing out of the windows and, climbing back into the bus when we would leave on the road of craters once again.
Another way that the bus companies make money on these extremely cheap trips is that when you arrive at your destination, which is in the middle of the night, they stop at the family guesthouse. Since , you do not know where you are and it is quite late most often you will stay. So far, I have been fortunate and these guest houses have been acceptable, but none will be awarded a Michelin star anytime soon.
All of this seemed very amusing and exotic for the first 4 or 5 hours. Particularly, when it was still light and you could see the countryside and the people along the road. It was so exotic that you didn't notice the heat or care so much about the red dust billowing in the windows and covering everything in the bus.
Passengers started to get cranky after dark. It was hot, there was nothing to see and with the dust, mosquitos were now coming through the windows. At regular intervals, some one would shout to close the windows because they couldn't stand the dust and bugs. Then after a while someone else would shout to open the windows because they could not stand the heat any longer.
To compound our torture, in the front of the bus was a large clock which actually worked. It was the only lit thing we could see besides the lights of our bus and other vehicles which were barely visible in the fog like dust. In the Cambodian countryside there was no electricity. Early in the evening you might see a kerosene lamp or a cooking fire, but later there was nothing but the clock. It would seem like I had not looked at it for at least an hour when I would break down, sneak a peek only to see that 5 minutes had passed since I had last looked. This made time stand still which is not your preference when you are being tortured. The trip, from the border to Siem Riep, which was a distance of 150 miles, took 9 hours.
The return trip, during the day, was relatively uneventful, but for the heat and accident. Our bus overheated. The radiator cap was by the driver in the interior of the bus. He opened the radiator cap to check the water level. Of course, when he did this, steam and boiling water sprayed out. The driver burned a good bit of skin on one of his arms. The passengers were saved by the pile of luggage at the front of the bus. If not for the luggage, many of us would have been burned. The bus companies response to the accident was to send out another bus for the passengers. The injured driver who seemed to be in shock and had boiled flesh hanging from one arm was left behind with the broken down bus.
Lest you think that this type of travel is nothing but dire, the advantages are seeing the beautiful countryside, traditional towns and villages that you pass through allowing you to be a voyeur of the day to day activities of the people who live in these places. And ,of course, the wonderful people that you meet along the way, as mentioned previously. We have met and made friends with people from all walks of life from all over the world. For me, I hope to always trade some convenience and comfort for the experience that goes with this kind of travel. If I want convenience and comfort, I will stay home.
To travel by bus in Southeast Asia requires a masochist with a sense of adventure and a great deal of patience. Every trip I have taken on a bus in this part of the world has provided adventure and much discomfort. If it wasn't for the fact that it was a great way to see the people and the countryside, I would never do it again. You also get to know many interesting fellow travelers when you are in a bus with them for 12 to 24 hours.
Tourists travel on special buses called VIP or tourist buses. They don't want the tourists to experience the discomforts that go along with travel by local buses. For the local buses to be any more uncomfortable, the passengers would have to be like galley slaves, perhaps running on a treadmill to power the bus, while someone beats a drum to set the cadences and another person mans the whip. To avoid the galley slave experience, locals also take the "tourist" buses. In fact, often there are more locals than tourists. It is a system that makes little sense.
To give you a feel of what these trips are like, I will share a few of them with you. The trip from Hanoi to Hue in Vietnam on the tourist bus is an overnight trip that if all goes well should take about 14 hours. In Vietnam, long distance buses are at night. During the day, the traffic is so bad and there are so many people walking on the highways that progress is slow. Most of my trips begin with a functionary that we call the "collector". This person’s job is to drive around in a car or mini-van and gather passengers to be delivered to the bus. Many of which are owned by tour companies, so they don't leave from a bus station. For this trip, the "collector" was to pick us up at 5:30 p.m. for a 7:00 p.m. bus. The collectors are never on time, but in this case, he was over an hour late. The hotel staff told us repeatedly, "Don't worry he is on the way". He finally walked into the hotel at 6:45 p.m.
He told us to follow him. He led us to a taxi. We got in to the cab. The collector sent us on our way to an unknown destination without a ticket. We were not much comforted by his assurances.
We arrived at a bus parked by the side of the road in front of a small travel agency. It was obvious that the bus was quite full with a crowd of Vietnamese clambering to board. When we got out of the taxi a small, Vietnamese women fought her way through the crowd to lead us to the bus where we stored our luggage and then we were taken to the front of the line. We told the woman that we had no tickets, but were told not to worry just get on the bus. We didn't worry for about 30 seconds then the conductor would not let us board without tickets. The woman who had helped us had inconveniently disappeared. The crowd behind us(who we bypassed) was getting increasingly vociferous because they were not able to enter the bus past us. In what seemed to be a long while, the first woman returned still without tickets to explain to the conductor that we should be permitted to get on the bus. As we climbed the steps, the crowd behind us surged forward. I had something very hard on each side of my legs which nearly caused me to fall into the bus. It was a man carrying a wooden chair on the bus. His purpose was momentarily unclear. When we got into the aisle, we quickly saw that there were only two seats left which they must have been holding for us. The man's chair was his seat in the aisle. In a short time, accompanying him in the aisle was a man and a young girl, both laying on straw mats spread on the floor. The remainder of the aisle was taken up by hammock hanging from a metal frame. It was for the driver and co-driver, so they can could take turns sleeping on the 14 hour over night ride.
Buses in Southeast Asia seldom depart or arrive on time. They do not leave any space on the bus unoccupied. It is filled with cargo human or otherwise. The buses do not leave until they are packed. The good news is they are cheap; although no one seems to pay the same price. They charge whatever they think they can get. Often prices can vary 20 to 200% depending on where you buy your ticket.
My next trip was from Hue to Savanakhet, Laos. The road was Highway 9, just south of the DMZ. Some of the biggest battles of the American War, as the Vietnamese call it, occurred near this route. Much of the countryside is mountainous and covered with thick vegetation, where we did not defoliate it.
Our "collector' was to pick us up at 6:30 a.m., early, but at least it was not another overnight trip. The "collector" in his mini-van had to take us to another town nearly 1 !/2 hours away to catch the bus to Laos. On the bus with us were three monks. The assistant collector asked me to sit in the front with the driver, a preferred seat often offered to "honored" foreigners. One of the monks had positioned himself to sit in the favored "shotgun" seat, but he was asked to move. His response was in English, "I think I would prefer to stay here." This was fine with me. I was a little embarrassed being offered the better seat. A short while later, the monk, who I had named Fred, complained to the driver about the air conditioner not working. I thought his behavior to be very un-monk like.
Shortly, Fred the monk, turned to me and asked me where I was from. He told me that he was from Nepal. He and his fellow monks, who were Thai, were traveling around Asia. They would stay in monasteries, where they were fed, so they were able to travel very cheaply. We got to talking about two of the most common sects of Buddhist monks in that part of the world. We will call them the "red" and the "yellow" monks for the color of the robes that they wore. The yellow monks were clearly predominant. I asked about the difference expecting some complicated doctrinal response that someone not well versed in Buddhism would have no hope of understanding. His response was simply, "We(the yellow monks) do not eat after mid day. They ( the red monks) do."
I did not find this explanation difficult to understand. I didn't ask him why this was, but a much more banal. "Do you get hungry?" He replied, "At first, when we were young novices, but now it is not difficult." Then with a slight grin, he said, "After all we really don't work very hard."
The bus to Laos was oversold as usual. Some were leaving the bus and making other travel arrangements. One couple, who looked very unhappy, seemed not to be able to decide if they should get on the bus. They did join the rest of us, but they were not overjoyed by the situation. In fact, the man looked like he might vomit. My brother and I felt sorry for them and offered them our seats by moving to the last row bench seat occupied by three Lao men and a lot of motorbike parts. The couple were very thankful because he was ill and was not sure if he was up to the trip. We became friends with them, both from Australia and a couple of young Brits, also trapped in the back of the bus. We all had dinner together in various places in Laos as our paths kept crossing again and again.
Of course, the aisle of the bus was filled with luggage and passengers in little red plastic chairs, no more than 18 inches high which were common on these buses. There was no air conditioning for our 12 hour bus ride, but at least the Aussie couple bought us a beer for surrendering our seats to them.
A Laos Wat (although in Vientiane not necessarily the one mentioned!
One day while walking through a Wat in Vientiane, Laos, I encountered a few novice monks. A wat is a Buddhist temple. This particular Wat is quite famous in the area. It is the home of the Great Patriarch of Lao Buddhism and it appears on the seal of the country of Laos. A novice monk is a young man who enters a monastery between the ages of 9 to 11 usually. They study Buddhism, as well as, other topics including English. If they behave correctly and are not expelled from the monastery they become monks between the ages of 19 and 21. To live and study in this particular wat, is a great honor.
One of the novices, whose name is Vikorn, after the usual questions of "Where are you from?, How do you like Lao?, How long will you be in Lao?, asked me if I could explain some American slang that he had heard often in American movies. I told him that I would try. He asked me the meaning of the word, "fonk". My worst fear had been realized. How the "fonk" do you explain the word "fonk" to a soon to be monk and his friends. I delayed by asking of some examples of how the word was used in the movies. He could not provide any context. I made some suggestions, for example, "fonk you", What the "fonk"?, I even tried "motherfonk". Of course, he answered in the. affirmative to all.
I explained to Vikorn and his monk buddies that "fonk" was an impolite word for the sex act and that it should not be used in public if at all by novices. My response resulted in some very embarrassed giggling by the young men who covered the faces to hide their embarrassment. It is good to know that people from all parts of the world and all walks of life watch our movies and learn important things about our culture.
One night in Bangkok, my friend Mike and I were walking back to our hotel after dinner. We were taking in all the sights and sounds of the street where so many people live and work after dark because of the midday heat. Most streets and sidewalks are circuses until well after midnight.
On the sidewalk in front of us there was some bottleneck for pedestrians. This is not at all unusual. On the sidewalks, there a multiple businesses, restaurants, clothing stores, bookstores, barbershops, dentists, and a great variety of . The show is endless but walking, while always entertaining, can be a challenge. We worked our way up to the impediment in our way, but not paying much attention. When I was about 5 feet away, I noticed that the sidewalk was blocked by an elephant, something you don't see everyday in Colorado. I mentioned to Mike that there was an elephant in our path. He asked where. I pointed to the elephant. He still could not see it. When he was only a few feet from walking into the elephant, he realized what was in front of him. It takes a special kind of detachment to not notice an elephant close enough to touch. While he is a great travel companion, I don't think I will go on a safari with him.
-In Laos and Cambodia, there are a number of restaurants that serve "happy" pizza. If such a product were to be introduced to the U. S. market, pizza sales would hit new highs.
-In Thailand, they have a mode of public conveyance called "tuk-tuks". The are like a small pickup or rickshaw pulled by a motorcycle. Ever tuk-tuk ride is a great adventure. In Bangkok traffic, you risk your life in them. If the other vehicles don't kill you the exhaust from the infamous traffic will. I was once in the back of a tuk-tuk in a terrible traffic jam, gagging on fumes from a bus next to us when I noticed that the driver and a sign hanging from the roof that said, "Thank you for not smoking".
If you survive a tuk-tuk ride, you can be guaranteed to never be taken where you want to go. You will always be taken where they are paid for delivering you. So, you will see silk stores, jewelry stores, massage parlors, and tailors, when you wanted to go see the Happy Buddha or go to the train station.
-In Thailand, there are many transsexuals and transvestites. They are commonly called ladyboys and are readily accepted by Thais. They are just one of the girls. Some of the most attractive females you see in public are not, which can be disconcerting for those of us from cultures where ladyboys are very uncommon.
My friend, Mike, and I have game we play that is a takeoff on the books for children called, "Where's Waldo?". We call it, "Where's ladyboy"? We have developed the following criteria:
If the woman is taller than 5 feet, 2 inches, she may be a ladyboy; If the woman has "man hands"(or feet), she may be a ladyboy; If the woman wears too much makeup, she may be a ladyboy; If a woman has a pronounced "adams apple", she may be a ladyboy; If the woman, speaks in a baritone, she may be a ladyboy.
My apologies to any of you that may be transvestites.
The Video is illustrative--not taken by Bruce Warner
The photo below WAS taken by Bruce Warner and may well be of the curious monks.
One of the thousands of bunkers that dot the landscape to protect them from an invasion by presumably the Italians.
A furgon is a mini bus that is the most common form of transportation in Albania. They are not very accessible to tourists because they have no fixed schedule or station. They leave when they are full and the locals know where to find them. But they are very cheap and the fastest way to get from one town to the other, once they get started.
Chicken soup is the code name that Linda Jo and I have for some one for whom the efficacy of their last shower and/or deodorant has expired.
To make my escape from Tirana and Albania, I had intended to take a train to Shkodra. From there, the info was sketchy. I could take a bus or furgon to the border at Han i Hoti and then, if lucky, once in Montengro catch a bus through the mountains to the coast, but no schedules of course. The taxi driver who was taking me to the train in a conversation that was mostly in sign language, pigeon English, Albanian with a pinch of Italian told me the trains were terrible. Rather than the posted 3 hours, it would take 4 or 5. A furgon would have me there in 1 1/2 hours. Since, the furgon would give me more time to plan my next move in Shkodra, it seemed clearly the way to go.
My furgon had 13 people on it. Remember, this is a mini-bus/van. Of the 12 passengers on the furgon, only one was not a gypsy. For those of you wondering, I am not a gypsy. As soon as I was crammed into the side bench seat with no back, the chattering among the gypsies got louder as they furtively and sometimes not so furtively eyed me. I assumed they were dividing up my worldly goods. In the conversations, as they checked me out, I would hear the words: Inglander, Finn, Deutsch, etc. They were trying to determine were I was from. Eventually, the matriarch of the gypsies pokes me and says something that I assumed was an inquiry regarding my country of origin. When I said, "American", the chatter rose to a fever pitch. My guess was they were calculating the size of the ransom I would command. My attempt to diffuse the situation with a little humor, by telling her that I assumed she was from Sweden, failed.
As we traveled along, the odor of chicken soup in the furgon was overwhelming. It was mitigated only by the constant cigarette smoke. Each time, I opened a window, even a crack, a gypsy would poke me and point to the one baby on the bus. Apparently, it was Ok for the baby to be marinated in chicken soup fumes, breathing nothing but secondary smoke, and burst into flames on a warm day, but fresh air would be harmful.
When we get to Shkodra, I am debating leaving my pack and running. Perhaps they will be satisfied with my things and forget about the ransom. All the gypsies get off the bus first to await my exit. The furgon driver signals to me to stay on the furgon while he drives away. He takes me to a friend, who, like all Albanians, except for gypsies, has a Mercedes. The friend for a reasonable fee (to get out of town, any fee would have been acceptable), takes me to Budva on the coast of Montenegro. Apparently, the taxi driver in Tirana told the furgon driver my intended destination.
By the time, the train would have reached Shkodra, I was in a beautiful beach town. My hotel room was large, painted white and blue with a big window that looked directly out on the old walled town and the Med. Today, the travel Gods smiled on me, but I don't think I will be having chicken for dinner.
This is the President of Albania's reserved parking space. I am sure Obama has one as well. You would hate to have the President show up for work when there is a national crisis and not find a parking place.
Bruce Warner talks about his foray into Albania in two pieces. In this one he starts with a bulleted list of historical and cultural bits and pieces the traveler to Albania might want to bear in mind.
Odds And Ends Of Albania
-Albania has been the most backward country in Europe for over 500 years
-King Zog was their only king. He is still venerated even though he left the country with much of their national treasury
-Albania is the only country that was first Stalinist, then Maoist
-Albania was officially an athiest country
-Albania had its own Cultural Revolution sending city bureaucrats and intelligentsia to the fields to become farmers
-As part of their national defense system, they built 700,000 cement bunkers around the country with gun slits. This is one bunker for every 5 people. To put it in perspective, the US would have to build 60,000,000 bunkers to have as many per capita. I am considering buying a lot of these bunkers and turning them into time shares before real estate here booms. I dream of becoming a hole mogul.
-Tirane is the most polluted capital in Europe and the 9th most polluted in the world.
-Their biggest exports are their people (20% of the work force works abroad) and stolen cars(see below)
-Their biggest import is stolen cars. It has been estimated that the Albanian mafia has stolen over 300, 000 cars bringing them to Albania and then sending them to E. Europe and the Mid East. Even though it is a very poor country, it seems as if 75% of the cars are Mercedes.
-Parts of the country still live by the Korun (The Code). It has nearly 1300 separate rules, but honor, family and hospitality are paramount. If a member of their family is injured or insulted a blood-feud can result. The feuds can last until there are no male members of the family left alive. The good news is they are compelled to shower their guest with food, drink and other displays of hospitality. Unfortunately, that means I get all of the goat entrails I can eat washed down with moonshine made from mulberries. If I am killed while a guest, a blood feud must ensue. At least, I will be avenged.
-To make things particularly confusing, they shake their heads side to side for yes and nod it up and down for no. Until I got used to this, I bought 3 cartons of cigarettes, 10 cds of Albanianfolk music, and 6 large helium filled Sponge Bob balloons. Albania Is Worth The Visit In Any Case
Despite all of this, I find the place very amusing. The people are very friendly and are well disposed towards Americans. When I checked into my hotel yesterday, the front desk staff insisted upon looking at my house on Google Earth. Few people speak English, but those that do seem very excited when they find out I am an American. They get very few tourists here, let alone Americans. In fact, I have not identified another tourist here in Tirana. There were a few on the coast, but mostly day trippers from Greece.
They have nice beaches by Euro standards on the coast and things a very cheap. Hotels are $10 to $15 on the water. Transportation is practically free. A bus from one end of the country to another is around $15, although the buses are slow and uncomfortable. The limited train system is even cheaper and more uncomfortable.
That being said, I have planned my escape to the relatively civilized Montegro in the morning. I can’t get any bus info, but I can take a train to a town in the north and then if am lucky a bus to Bar, but no one knows for sure. At least, I will be able to take bus, furgon (overloaded mini bus) or taxi to the border and improvise from there.
by Bruce Warner or Patrick Ogle (except where noted) Bruce and the other writers own all these words and we are using them with permission. Don't even think about stealing them. I will find you. I will.