2019 BLOG III: Tokyo, Japan

On my Air Asia flight, AA has taken lessons from Ryan Air, I bought a $5 returnable blanket and purchased a breakfast of two slices of carrot, four slices of potato and some pieces of a chicken that had been raised on sawdust and ground Styrofoam marinated in exhaust fumes. There is no other way you could get chicken to taste like that.

I was taking the tiny bolsitas Dr. F had prescribed. They come in a little tube. It requires a lot of shaking at various angles to get them to appear in the palm of your hand. A young woman on the other side of the plane saw this and decided that the little, old lady must be very ill.  She sent the stewardess over to ask if I was all right.

All went smoothly at Narita until I got to Customs. There in, I suppose, the belief that I was a drug mule, they totally disemboweled my small case, putting it empty through X-ray. The large they only partially disemboweled. I was given a very intrusive body check, next door to sexual abuse. I have never, anywhere—North Korea, Saudi Arabia—had a woman guard go inside my bra and touch my genitals.  Indeed, usually the woman guard tries very hard not to touch your genitals.  In this case there was no such pussy footing about. Pun very much intended. It was horrible and humiliating.

However, once out of their unkind hands, all went well. The train was easy. I asked my fellow foreigners for directions. I picked up my rail pass. I found a taxi. He found the hotel. I paid 30US extra to get into my room early. I napped.

After a miserable lunch at the hotel restaurant, I went walking, finding the Roppingi Hills Mall, not that they use that last word. It is beautifully landscaped with lots of green, banks of pink and white petunias, and a Louise Bourgeois lady spider dangling her eggs in a bronze net above your head. She looks very pleased to be among the petunias.

Before I got into my room, I had a pleasant talk with a black, American man, originally from North Carolina, who admits to being a nomad.  He’s been in South Korea for a number of years.  Interesting.

The only glitch is, and I am embarrassed to admit it, that there are some toilets I have not been able to flush. You can have music, a heated seat–I love this—a bidet, a shower which saves toilet paper, but on two toilets encountered I could not find the flush among the multitude of options.

I bought a chit the next morning for breakfast in the hotel restaurant. There are the usual East-West anomalies.  Ham is labeled bacon. There is chicken fried in armor batter. The coffee comes from a machine; oddly the cappuccino is better and stronger than the café au lait.

I received a subway map and instructions from the staff at the front desk and took off making mistakes along the way. I realized, fortunately, that I should have retrieved my ticket when it popped up from a second slot, which I hadn’t seen, because I was going to need it to exit the station. A staff member got it for me. I took the train in the wrong direction, rites of passage in a new city in an unknown country.

Coming above ground I found there were lots of signs and followed them. I do think it is charming of the Japanese to tell you how many meters you are from your destination. I knew I was in the right place because I was walking beside a dark wall of massive stones. I turned into an entrance that lead me across a park to a view of a graceful bridge, the elegant upper stories of a tower and the massive, guarded gate of the palace. I don’t care how grand or elegant these places are, they are prisons for the inhabitants.

There were tourists of all varieties, as well as Japanese but, unlike Barcelona there was no sense of being overwhelmed. From the Palace gate I went on to the East Garden, which has renovated buildings, gardens, moats and those walls made from huge dark blocks over which trees drape their green branches. Ferns sprout in the crevices, not for long though, I suspect, since the Japanese believe in housekeeping nature.

There was a small house with an exhibition of flower paintings on porcelain and screens. Two poppy paintings by Tsuchida Bakusen on hanging scrolls from 1929 were superb. I found postcards.  The first I had seen.

The East Garden includes a number of interesting buildings; various guard houses, one enormously long one, where the entourages of visiting nobles await their masters’ return. This brought to mind the rowdy followers of Lear in his daughter’s castle. A tower fortress on a hill is handsome, solid and graceful. Trees are everywhere. Then there were the gardens—an area of trees, each given by it prefecture—a small waterfall in a cave of trees, a pond with lilies, iris along the shore, the usual humpbacked bridge with koi swimming in many colors on either side of it. The only disappointment was the bamboo grove, which was small and sparse.

At this point I badly needed a drink preferably with some sugar in it. Just then I came upon a “rest house” which unlike the other rest houses I’d seen had vending machines in it. As I groped for money, a Western man also examining the offerings in the machines, began discussing our options. I said I wanted something with sugar but not Coke.  He bought one of the Japanese drinks and handed it to me. I took it, although startled. I was a huge help. I finished up walking along the moat with the wall dark and towering behind it.

Coming out I had no idea where I was, but started walking and recognized things. A crossing-guard with some English, confirmed my sense of direction. At a place that looked like a restaurant I entered with a Western couple. We both lost interest when we found the menu was a series of quiches.

I found my subway, discovering along the way a fine view of the old railway station. I came out at my stop and decided to try a gyoza restaurant.  It was cheap, and the gyoza were very good indeed.

A Japanese sound I like a lot, the hollow clack of wooden clogs on concrete subway floors. I have seen geishas in my neighborhood but they don’t like being looked at, which considering the Western view of geishas is quite understandable.

Having breakfast in the hotel attached restaurant I looked in the kitchen and saw the “chef” pouring scrambled eggs from a large commercial plastic bag into the serving dish. Were they even made out of eggs?  I stayed away from them from then on. I tried the miso soup for which you spoon dried seaweed and dried tofu into a bowl and then put your bowl under the dispenser for the soup. I don’t know whether it is loaded with MSG or it is just the quantity of sodium but I now only eat eggs, salad, yogurt and salad for breakfast because I was getting odd effects two or three hours after breakfast. Also I would develop a monster thirst.

I was trying to catch the language of the foursome sitting next to me.  It sounded as though it might be Spanish. Finally I asked.  They were three Romanians and one Canadian.

Following directions from the front desk, I descended into the subway and with no difficulty arrived at Asakusa.  There was a way to come back by boat on the river but by that time I had lost my adventure energy. Getting out at Asakusa it was difficult to get oriented and find the temple.  There are lots of shopping streets in this area.  I walked one to the temple, Senso-Ji. The shops, since they were my first, were fascinating.  The best was an antique shop with woodblock prints cheap (5 to 10US). But they were crude prints.  He also had three of the sort of doll I’m interested in but they were not the right kind.  But just seeing them was exciting.

The temple itself is large and imposing.  The big red gate, the Kaminari-mon, has a monster lantern in its center in black and red, contributed by the geisha association.  The main building, the Kanondo Hall, has a spectacular roof with a long low sweep.  You can only stand at the entrance. The statue of the Kannon is supposedly buried beneath the hall and, therefore, not seeable.

The Five Storied Pagoda, rebuilt in 1973, is a towering eminence. There are some big and small halls dotted about with sculptures and lanterns among them, all beautiful in their reddish wood and upturned eaves.  One hall, it may be Awashimado, has a female image to which women offered, once a year, their worn needles suck in cubes of tofu.

Nearby, on top of an artificial mound, is a wrenching bronze of a crowd of men in some sort of near death situation, faces agonized.  I looked for an explanation but found no sign.

There is a hall where you can get a scarlet seal stamped in a book that you keep for this purpose and another with wooden plaques hanging outside it. There are two, difficult to see, dusty but superb statues on either side of the Niten-mon Gate, so protected by chicken wire that you can barely make them out.  They are vigorous, dancing gods both holding what in Tibet would be called dorjes.

At first I thought, there were a lot of geishas but slowly I realized young women rent kimonos and obis to wear to the temple.  The men sometimes also wore kimonos. The girls posed in outfits of their mothers’ day with elaborate hairdos and dangling ornaments but not as the Chinese pose. They are natural and a bit giggly, whereas the Chinese are all earnest Powers or Ford models. There were Japanese tourists of all ages, perhaps more than foreign tourists, a nice demographic. The temple was certainly tourist central.

I was delighted to find that the word toilet is universally understood and found one after three or four inquiries.

It was raining lightly the next morning but I decided against my poncho, although it was cold enough to pull out my down coat.

I found my way to the subway stop for the Nezu museum, changing trains. In the subway as I bought my ticket, I was helped by a young woman in a natty little uniform.  She was definitely a help, but the constant smile is a strain to both the giver and receiver.

The walk to the museum is through a nice, pricy neighborhood—Prada and such– but in a leafy atmosphere.  The museum was closed and will be until the beginning of June.  Never, of course, would it occur to me to look on line to see if a museum was open.  There were two young American women also out of luck for the museum. We talked and they urged me to go to a museum island near Kyoto.  I have read about this.  I told them I thought it was hype.  To my surprise they could see my point.

I walked back through the elegant barrio and went, again having to change lines—this time I went in the wrong direction one stop—to the Ukio-e Ota Museum of Art which has a collection of woodblock prints. I found a sign that gave me the distance to the museum in meters.  When I felt I’d reached that distance I stopped and looked about.  A fellow grey haired woman came up to me and in small English and gestures asked what I was looking for.  I pronounced the name as best I could and she pointed me up hill on a lane.  However, when I made a wrong turn she came running up behind me to set me right.  It turned out she was meeting a man and going to the museum.

It is a delightful small place with three floors.  They were showing prints and etchings by Hokusai.  Among the delights: roofs and kites, a red Fuji with white icing drizzling down its sides, a men riding bullocks, a long print of a waterfall with a burdened man on a path before it, a man under a tree with one leg partially extended conversing with five rats, Fuji through the circle of a tub under construction; clam diggers and Fuji in the angle of a Toriij; at Ejiri a wind blowing hats and papers while men bend against it; Fuji in the angle of some kind of construction with lots of triangles right down to the teeth of the saws; Fuji under the arch of water pouring from a pipe; Fuji seen between the naked legs of a workman.

He is really brilliant in his echoing of shapes and forms. Also he has a sense of humor.

When I left I saw a line of young people—the sign of a popular restaurant.  I wandered looking for a place, crossed the big street and came down the other side where I stopped to read a menu.  A chubby woman with practically no English who was leaving, with smiles and gestures urged me in, even pointing out what she had eaten.  I went in and ate what she had eaten.  It was a good Chinese restaurant.

The next morning I took a cab to Tokyo Station but once there had no idea where to go. An English woman, a guide with a fist full of passports, explained the system.  I had coffee and a sweet potato pastry while waiting at the gate to enter the platform for the bullet train.

I noticed an American man in matching pink hat and belt, a New York Times under his arm.  The Bullet Train is pretty impressive.  Next to me sat a Japanese woman who tried to converse but we were mutually unintelligible. The man I’d noticed with the pink accessories sat on the other side of her.  He was from outside of Boston—this was not apparent until he said the word “water”, as my New York accent shows up in “coffee”—and did better at conversing with her through an audio app on his phone.  She pointed out Fuji but it was swathed—head to toe—in voluminous clouds.

Arriving in Kyoto, I found a taxi and my hotel. I went to a small restaurant down the street run by a brother and sister.  The sister, the waitress, was amazed I travel alone, amazed at my age, amazed I ate with chopsticks.  Her brother, the chef, seeing I was reading Mishima told me of a bookstore nearby with English books.

I am largely over my fear and into my stride.

2019 BLOG II: Bangkok, Thailand

T and W picked me up for lunch at his school friend’s restaurant beside the klong. We ate as though we were in danger of imminent starvation—an excellent green curry, a rice dish with a spidery green vegetable, eggplant with mackerel, a disappointing crab omelet that was bland and boring, a pomello salad with a little too much sauce for my taste and two more things I can’t remember. For dessert we had melon and toast, which sounds odd and uninteresting.  The melon was thickened to an avocado consistency, very sweet but good, a bit like jam.  But the meal was oddly off register, like one of those colored pictures in a childhood book, because the owner wasn’t there.  She keeps things in true.

W mentioned that his mother has stopped going to the gym and now needs a nap in the morning as well as one in the afternoon. This does not bode well but perhaps she is ready to leave the party.  That’s okay.

Their son is going to be doing an MA in architecture at Columbia.  He’s an ambitious man and works hard to find his luck.

As we talked, outside the window of the restaurant I could see the tops of passing boats and the arched branch of a flame tree covered with blooms as though a host of scarlet butterflies hovered above the dark, crooked joints of the bark.

The next day I had lunch with M who, she really is amazing, has been offered a position as financial officer with a Japanese firm.  She has no training in this field; although over the years, as she and J have run restaurants, she has learned accounting, but this position, I think, includes financial planning.  She trained as a university teacher of English. I admire the two of them because they are always willing to reinvent themselves. And they have had to.  The failure of their last venture and a rascally partner has left them in debt.

But I am amused at her.  She is always asking, “Why?  Why did this happen to me?” I point out to her that it’s a silly question, that there is no answer. Apparently J responds similarly. They are both willing and open; therefore they see opportunities others would not.

I washed my hair when I came home.  As I was rinsing it with my eyes clamped tight against the invasion of soapy water, I felt something scamper across my right foot.  Startled, I opened my eyes to see a midsized American Water Bug, this is different from the little kitchen roach, struggling to safety through the rising waters across my toes. Unfortunately, he died anyway.  I found him in a crevice near the door lintel of the bathroom.

I grew up with the usual American bug phobia but one year when I stayed into the monsoon season in Bangkok I realized I had better get over it since large bugs are part of monsoon life.

I really got over it when I went on a boat from the coast of Sumatra to the island of Nias. Susan, with whom I was traveling, and I paid for the use of the first mate’s cabin, a space you could not stand up in, its floor covered with coconut matting, its windows unglazed and open to the sea.  It seemed okay and a good enough place to sleep in since we wouldn’t arrive in Nias until the next morning. But once the little ship started to move everyone who had been hiding in the woodwork had to come out or be crushed by the movement of the ship’s timbers. Susan and I discovered that we were in the company of a multitude of large roaches.  I pointed out to her, seeing she was on the brink of a good scream, that there was no point in reacting emotionally to this.  It just was.  She, agreeing, pointed out in turn how the crew, whom we could see working in the cabin in front of our room, ignored the bugs who walked over their feet or landed on their shoulders.  They just shrugged them off.

It was still unnerving to watch them marching back and forth about four inches above our heads, searching for a safe place to hide.  Somehow we did sleep that night but it was a very tense sleep.

It had been another 100-degree day.  The coronation ceremony, therefore, took place at night.  Everything everyone was wearing was warm and heavy. There was a sort of garden of hats. There are the common military hats but also bright blue, black and red modified busbies, not bear skin, not as large as the British original, but certainly not air-conditioned. Some of the troops wear black and gold hats in the bud shape that is the leitmotif, or so it seems to me, of the coronation.

The King, of course, had the most spectacular headgear.  There was a picture on the front page of the Bangkok Post of him in a towering, many tiered, gold, naturally, intricately figured affair with a strap under his chin.  You would need that strap and perhaps other help to keep the tower, about three or four feet of it, from crashing down to the front, back or to either side.

Last night on the procession from Wat Phra Keow to Wat Rachabopit, at an incredibly slow, stiff, ceremonial march—even the horses are trained to walk at a slow, slow pace—with soldiers before and behind him, he rode seated on a gold chair, on a palanquin supported on the shoulders of twelve men.  He wore scarlet stockings below gold embroidered traditional trousers that end just at the knee and a heavily gold encrusted black coat. Topping it all off was a black wide brimmed sort of cowboy hat—surely this is not an ancient part of his outfit—with a gold rim around the brim and a waving white plume. The band that accompanied him had Western instruments, its red and black uniforms with red busbies, rather English. On either side, and a little behind the palanquin, were men each with a gold palm leaf on a long staff.  From time to time they would swing the palm leaf around.  This was not to fan the King, just a ceremonial gesture.

The crowds on either side of the street in yellow shirts waved Thai flags and the yellow flag of the monarchy.  They all smiled for the camera.

The next day I had lunch with Kai who is semi-retired, at one of his favorite Japanese restaurants in the Paragon’s basement. He and Noi went to Germany and Switzerland this spring. They had a good time but, as Kai said, they “traveled like maharajas,” spending too much money.  Kai is still struggling to separate from his business. How do you give up being the most famous couturier in Thailand? The saddest thing he said was, “You can’t love anyone for your whole life.” That isn’t true but many people find they can’t.

I spent the rest of the day rearranging my entry into Japan.  I thought I was coming into Narita at 10:30 in the evening, which would mean I would never get to the hotel in Roppongi before midnight.  I canceled my first night at the hotel in Roppongi and Daryl, my HK travel agent, got me a reservation at a hotel at the airport, Narita. I also had an acute spasm of angst because I received a notification about a hotel in Kyoto where I thought I had cancelled my reservation.  Why they notify you about a reservation you have cancelled I can’t fathom. It was all very stressful.

At the gym I ended up in conversation with two of the steady exercisers and learned their names—Muu and Lek. Muu studied in the US where she had a roommate who renamed her Jessica. I suspect the name Muu was too much for young Americans. The other is Lek, easy to remember because I lived next door to the Lek Guesthouse in the days when I stayed in Banglampoo. Lek, which means small, was the baby of the family. She is a businesswoman and asked me what my business had been. When I told her I had taught at university and had written, she was taken aback. I don’t think she can imagine anyone NOT being in business. Probably like someone I know in the US, she can’t believe that people are paid to write. They gave me their emails.

In the newspapers I saw at the gym there were pictures of regular elephants and the white elephants doing obeisance to the King.  One of the mahouts was a woman.

I went to BNH, got my Prolea shot for my osteoporosis and was charged $500 for it and a lecture from the doctor about side effects. N is going to look into this charge. It is outrageous, but I need that shot. They give you the shot in your stomach.  It doesn’t hurt, but the nurse, very young, with big round steel framed glasses said, “One, two three,” before jabbing me.

I had a comedy at the Kiehl’s counter in the Paragon.  I wanted a bottle of hair conditioner but they had pasted a notice in Thai over the English instructions—after all they didn’t need them. I wouldn’t buy the conditioner unless I read the instructions. We went through all the available bottles.  All had the sticker. Finally, we peeled the sticker off one and I bought it.

The next day I went to the airport in plenty of time for my 2 pm plane to Tokyo to find that it had left at 2 am. I have done this once before, the first time I went to Thailand. In that case I arrived a full day after I was supposed to leave. Such are the wages of Fear. I got a new ticket to leave that night at 10:55, found a place where I could rent by the hour a room to sleep in. It was air-conditioned to an Antarctic state but I slept for four hours, lay about for two and got on my plane for Tokyo.

2019 BLOG I: Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok has been a steady 40 C, 100 F, for days. But before I get into my days and the TV coverage of the coronation, I want to set up the psychological scaffolding of this trip.

I am now 82. I have traveled in SE Asia for 35 years, almost always alone. There are three things that are a bit different on this trip. One is being alone on the road at 82. The second is that I am going to two previously unknown, un-experienced cultures—Japan and French Polynesia. New cultures are always a challenge and require you to be psychologically limber. The third is the combination of the previous two, which has produced in me slurry of slimy paranoid fear.

What I know about fear is that it is the enemy, that the only way to deal with it is to walk through it—weep, scream, shit in your pants, but walk through it.  If you don’t it will come sit next to you on the sofa and become your best friend forever.

A fourth factor is that a year and a half ago I had pneumonia in London, was hospitalized for 17 days, 10 of them in intensive care. Those 10 days are gone, without a scintilla of memory. I am about three quarters back physically but my immune system is debilitated and I have often caught cold with pulmonary problems on flights since then. I went to an immunologist in BCN who prescribed pill upon pill as well as teeny pills, bolsitas, that slip through your fingers, to take– five every hour while in the air. However, the pharmacy did not give me the full compliment of the regular pills and I didn’t count. So I may have enough or maybe not.  But I had no ill effects from the Helsinki-Bangkok flight. So far so good.

Another presence, a sort of shadow in the background, is the cultural attitude toward older women who travel.  One man, who didn’t know I’d heard, said, “What’s amazing is that she can do it at all.” His remark calls up Dr. Johnson’s quip on women preachers being in the category of a dog walking on its hind legs. It is almost always a bad idea to obey your culture but going against it also requires a certain gritting of the molars.

That is the emotional landscape of this trip.

I had a window seat from BCN to Helsinki. That landscape beneath me was mountainous, not the Alps, but with grand ridges in perhaps Germany or further east in Hungary, serene in snow, with almost black valleys, usually with a river.  Squiggly paths led up the mountainsides, contouring them before disappearing into snow on which clouds lay their dark palms of shadow.

Coming down to Helsinki we had views of the islands covered with firs and the solitary house by the shore. Once over land, firs enclosed occasional green pillows of fields. The flight to Bangkok was a smooth ride over the vastness of Russia.

As we came down to land at Suvarnabhumi Airport, I remembered my first flight to BKK in the late 80´s. I looked down on a vast expanse of irregular squares and rectangles of a green vivid to the point of being electric. Now houses, factories, highways have replaced the paddies.

I should have objected when I got my taxi slip and found it was for a large taxi.  Instead I had an argument, a mild one, with the driver about whether to go on the new highway or not.  I decided to go his way finally and it was fine, although since it was a large taxi everything was more, tolls, the amount on the meter, the luggage fee.  But I do think this time the highway was better. We only hit two serious jams.

When I got down from the taxi on Soi Kasemsan, almost as grave a descent as coming down from a truck cab, Khun Fai came out the door with a Cheshire Cat grin and the handyman whisked my bags away from the driver to take them through the door. I wanted to hug everyone including the landlady who showed up almost immediately and her son who has a new, awful, unbecoming haircut.  It’s supposed to be spiky but it flops. But this is Thailand, a no touch culture, so there were no hugs.

After an hour’s nap, which my landlady insisted on, I Sky Trained one stop to the Paragon to become a mall rat and go to the Gourmet Market. I walked by the durian display inhaling intensely.  Others may despise that odor but it makes me salivate. I tried some herbal soup—not bad but you wouldn’t want it often—popcorn and caramel drizzled rice cakes with cashew nuts.

I had an excellent lunch at Taling Ping (I just discovered through Thai friends that I have been misnaming this restaurant for years as Ping Ling—language should be protected from foreigners and the dyslexic) of pork and shrimp dumplings, hot crab curry, cappuccino and a small chocolate meringue cake.  As I consumed this I watched a woman across the way making some kind of dessert of excess calories. After I paid my bill, I went to see what it was. She had started with a core I couldn’t identify, dribbling it with syrup, topping it with whipped cream, and showering it with almond confetti.

When I went over I found the reality less enticing.  The core is soft white bread cubes which is then drizzled with a dark syrup, little beads the size of salmon caviar, which must be sugar, in screaming pink, or orange or brown, topped by whipped cream and the slivered almonds.

This spring in New York I found I was walking up sometimes 20 flights a day. Here there are not as many flights but they are longer—fifty steps up are usual. Good exercise, although the air one is breathing in kills brain cells.

When I came back from the Paragon I gave the diminutive girl who had taken both my big bags up stairs to my room 20 baht, less than a dollar. She was, at first, terrified of accepting it.  Khun Fai urged her and she finally did take it.

I am now arranged, unpacked and almost adjusted to that first extra high step on the A One stairs.

Khun Toi and Khun Jean, apparently pronounced, Yean, were at the gym this morning so we had a reunion.  I saw Ahmor, I don’t think I’ve got the name quite right, who is negotiating with the powers that be about my gym fee this year.

I tried to reach my dressmaker, Moon, but couldn’t get through to her, the same for Kai.  I was getting a message in Thai on the phone. Over lunch at the Coffee Club by the Sky Train station at Sala Dang I had the waiter look at the message.  Very simple. I had run out of money. So the waiter kindly let me use his phone to contact Moon. You can always work something out in BKK. I tipped him 40 baht, about $1.20, which caused him proxims of ecstasy.

Moon’s sister is as scary a driver as ever.  She took us by back lanes through, what I think of as, two-story BKK where there are lots of old teak houses, some well groomed, painted, with glass windows and shutters but there are a few with boarded window in a derelict state. We moved from the SUV to the house/factory through the god-awful gap of 100-degree heat. It was like breathing in an oven.

On the road we could see occasional swirls of dust. It is dangerous to breathe this and when there is a lot, people stay indoors. More I could not learn but I think it comes down from the north and is, at least partially, the result of fields being burned off.

Moon and her sister are going to give up the factory, running the business out of their home so as not to pay rent. They hope this will enable them to finish paying off the debt the husband or son incurred during his womanizing-gambling fling with the bank’s money.  Moon told me, “I want my old age to be debt free.” They also complained, practically in unison, about how much the coronation is costing.

I have been watching it on TV at the A One. Today it was taking place inside the palace in rooms I’ve seen when on the walk around the Grand Palace. Gold is the coronation color. The flower bud shape is very prevalent, stylized in a variety of ways, and used in decoration or as the shape of objects whose use I don’t know. There may be no use, just a symbolic meaning.

The participants, largely older men and their wives, all looked desperately bored.  The men were in white uniforms with row of ribboned medals across their chests and then below and dotted about, starburst orders or decorations in gold and enamel or encrusted with gems.  The wives wore the tight Thai top and skirt with a sash across from shoulder to waist. Officials and officiators walked on their knees on the well-carpeted floor, scarlet, of course. The women’s jewelry was exciting—in particular a stunning pair of emerald drop earrings, greener than a cat’s eye. I presume that room was air-conditioned, since it was 100 outside.  The monks in orange robes chanted and looked cooler than the other participants.

The to be King had not yet mounted the stairs to the throne, gold adorned with nine umbrellas over it.  There were many gold objects about. The Queen, Khun Toi said with disgust and contempt, “That’s our Queen,” pointing at a picture in the newspaper, is good looking.  She had on a pair of open heart shaped earrings in good-sized diamonds, certainly a carat each. She’s good but tough looking, muscled like a rock. She was the King’s bodyguard.  

And so, after much pageantry, to bed.

 

A little bit about me . . .

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Poet or a traveller? Neither are professions or skills that receive grave nods of recognition at cocktail parties. But they are the two prongs of my plug-in to the world. One is all about language and the other often requires a leap over the head of language into mime. Their electric current has charged the writings and readings listed below but lead also to other illuminations.

As a member of PEN America in my frequent visits to Asia I met with the Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer then still under house arrest in Jakarta, worked for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, also under house arrest at that time in Yangon as well as other Burmese writers, attempted unsuccessfully to locate a writer in a Laotian re-education camp, and found myself sneaker to cowboy boot toes with the extremely hostile Director of North American Affairs from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry when I tried to find out which Vietnamese writers were still in prison in that country. I was able to get into Cambodia before it was legally open and interviewed one of the three writers who had survived Pol Pot’s terror. I met with the Board of Human Rights Watch concerning my time in Vietnam and Cambodia as well as reporting to the Freedom to Write Committee of PEN.

I was able through the IRC and UNBRO to visit the Cambodian camps around Aranyaprathet in 1991—Khao I Dang, Site II and Site VIII, the Khmer Rouge Camp.  A few years later I also, unofficially and illegally was able to get to the Burmese refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border.

After my trips to Tibet I have usually reported to PEN on the situation there.

In 1998 I spent a month working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the dying Destitute in Calcutta.

I don’t know that these forays into dictatorships have ever resulted in benefits to those in prison but they have certainly educated me about systematic evil and the unquenchableness of the human desire for freedom. Making me, perhaps, a better poet and a better traveler.

CHRISTMAS BLOG 2018

Friday, December 28, 2018

The receptionist at the hotel, Rhama, also serving as the concierge, who arranged our drive to the archeological site of Volubilis, had told us it was only a half hour drive. I had not been very enthusiastic about this trip. I was wrong. However, it took us an hour and a half to get there but driving through the countryside, which we had not seen, more than made up for the time. Our driver stopped at a place full of tables and little stalls selling things that had a view out over a dammed lake to the mountains. The valley is not only beautiful but also extraordinarily fertile with the kind of rich dark soil I know from North Dakota where it is called Dakota Gumbo. Wheat had been planted and was springing up vividly green against the black earth. There were orange trees and olives as well as almonds in bloom. They have an extraordinary scent.

My best experience of this was driving north in California with Mount Shasta ahead of me—when I first noticed the mountain I mistook it for a cloud but when it remained statically in the same shape over many miles I reidentified it as a mountain—with almond orchards on either side of me. Their scent made the drive a sensual orgy.

Our driver, Mohamed, drove on the two-lane road at a speed that made me fasten my seat belt firmly. Since I spent six year driving back and forth across the U.S. ten times, I am a critical observer of other’s driving skills.

As we descended further into the valley, on our left we saw the roofless pillars and arches of Volubilis. The Blue Guide calls this “breath taking,” with their unerring capacity for cliché. It isn’t quite that but it is certainly a view that focuses you. There is quite a lot of Volubilis to see and we spent three hours doing it. It falls roughly into two categories, buildings: the Basilica, Forum and Capitol, floor mosaics: Hercules´s Labors, Wild Animals, House of the Acrobats and a number of others. There is a route to follow and you are given a nice little map with everything labeled in English and Arabic.

As we got in line to buy our tickets, I heard the man in front of me say to his wife, “They charge local people less. I think I could pass for a local. ¨

To this she replied, “You could but you could pass for quite a few things. You could be a Turk.”

I looked at his swarthy bearded face. Indeed, he could have been local or a Turk. “Where do you come from?” I asked.

“From Persia,” he answered. I am always amused by this euphemism for Iran or perhaps I am envious that I have no such euphemism for the U.S., that allows me to detach slightly from my country, but I was delighted to run into an Iranian and get news of things there, not that news is very good from anywhere these days. But the line moved swiftly and we didn’t have a chance to get very deeply into connections we might have.

It was cold, but the architectural remains are beautiful to walk among. The isolated arches with their keystones look precarious but are undoubtedly firm. The pillars have that sturdy Roman quality. “Here stood a civilization you could count on,” they seem to say. On top of one, as though endorsing this statement there was a large stork’s nest, a sort of porcupine bun of twigs. The mosaic floors are charming—the fish gracefully arching their tails, an octopus looking quite spider like, a man riding backwards on what is, I suppose a donkey but could easily be a long legged anteater, the people often round-eyed and startled looking, Hercules doing well as he wrestles with the lion. It has a cozy feel to it.

When we finished at the last arch it was three o’clock and getting colder. We hurried back, but could not find Mohammed because neither of us remembered that he had told us to look for him in the coffee shop. Kathy called our hotel and all was well.

He drove us through the green valley where small flocks of sheep were being herded home for the night. At the gate, Bab Bou Jeloud, he deposited us. We hurried off, very hungry now, since it was four and we had had no lunch, to the Clock Restaurant where we had an okay but not super meal. Kathy had an orange cake either this time or before that was a wonder and flourless.

It was getting dark as we walked home and the atmosphere in the Medina was different as people closed their shops. I did not feel as safe as I had during our daily walks. I had the sense that “nice” women were not unaccompanied by a man at night in Fez.

Home in our beautiful hotel we paid our bill, packed, and then, although quite full from our late lunch at the Clock, dutifully ate our eggplant salad. There wasn’t much room for it but I also knew that this was the best eggplant salad I was going to have for many years. It was going to be a high bar.

In my elegant room, carved and painted ceiling overhead, great arched windows shuttered, silk curtain pulled across the door, I packed up. Fez had been interesting but a quiet interesting, not the cymbals and trumpets of Istanbul.

CHRISTMAS BLOG 2018

Thursday, December 27, 2018

It has, since seeing the Chergui mansion, occurred to me that what the tourist bureau in Fez should do, since non-Muslims are not allowed in mosques and most medresas, is to, forgive this very suburban thought, have house tours. Our hotel and the Chergui mansion were very satisfying to see and a half dozen such establishments would take up the slack left by the unseeable mosques.

We walked to the Bab Bou Jeloud Gate, there was no demonstration this time, perhaps the Swiss man accused of the murders of the young women had already been arrested, stopping for coffee at one of a number of cafés before the gate. It had an open area upstairs where we could look down on the constant movement of men and women shopping or engaging in pushing things for sale hither and thither on donkeys or a variety of carts. Although there were certainly tourists, it was not by any means all tourists. Below us in a wheelchair was a man with an intelligent, very well shaved face who looked as though he had had a stroke. His face was twisted and he either could not speak or spoke with great difficulty but his companions spoke to him and he watched the scene around him with interested eyes.

We came down stairs, paid our bill and walked to the Botanical Garden with no difficulty. Norman, our morning waiter with braces, had suggested it as a destination. It has a pleasant pond with egrets, ducks and geese on its far edge. There are streams leading to the pond with pretty bridges over them. Huge trees tower over you, bright beds of flowers, herbs of various kinds and fountains lead you from area to area. There is also a cactus garden with aloes and those cacti that seem to be composed of green plates connected edge on edge. Not thrilling but pleasant.

We ate on the terrace of the restaurant where we had stopped for coffee not a very good lunch. I think we both felt rather as though we were kicking a can down a dusty road. This was not high thrill tourism.

I think it was this afternoon on the way back that we stopped at the medresa across from the water clock that we had not been able to see before. It is pretty with warm cedar woodwork but not exceptional. However, it was full of an international gaggle of tourists, a number of whom were Chinese, many honeymooning couples, leading me to contemplate the fact that if you are a Chinese husband you must also be a fashion photographer. The young Chinese women, usually with their intensely black hair let down posed in 1920’s dance postures—one knee up, head with sweeping hair bent over it with arms and fingers outspread to the sides. Their husbands dutifully recorded these inappropriate poses, kneeling, bending twisting to get the right angle.

On our way back to Derb al Horra I noticed a shop with a pretty swing coat embroidered white on black. I don’t think I would have gone in but looking inside I saw a number of Japanese couples shopping. The Chinese will go into any shop. If you see Japanese it is probable that the shop is of interest since they shop stylish, high end.

It turned out to be a good place full of interesting things, clothing, shoes, inexpensive jewelry, scarves. To my delight I, who am not in favor of tee shirts ever, found a tee shirt with a camel, ruminating on his cud in a fez, looking out from under high grade eye lashes at you with that hauteur which is intrinsic to camels, The following legend marched below, “ Un chameau, c’est un cheval dessiné par une commission d’éxperts.” I bought it for my grandson.

And so home, first for mint tea and then for eggplant salad. The hotel had filled up a bit by this time. Besides Kathy and me there were three gay couples. Unfortunately we couldn’t pass as a lesbian couple as we had separate rooms.

CHRISTMAS BLOG 2018

Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018

We decided to go further afield, to the area known as Fez el Andalous, which meant coming down Tala’a Kbira and crossing the river. I am not sure which bridge we crossed over. Unfortunately the river has had a concrete channel created for it, making me think of the Los Angeles River which is more concrete than river, but the Fez River in its present state is a major triumph of a local young woman educated at Columbia and Harvard, Aziza Chaouni. She was the driving force, which helped the local government to turn the river from a lethally polluted sewer into a now largely un-littered stream. It had been covered over with concrete because its fumes were so noxious. Not only did the raw sewerage of the Medina flow into it but all of the chemicals from the tanneries, infiltrating the water table. It may not be a green place yet but it is a triumph none-the-less.

The buildings around the river are recent and are decorated with modern tiles that are cheerful and brilliant against their tan background. This was also the area of the university, a famous institution in its day. It has not returned.

El Andalous, or al Andalous is an area settled by Andalucians, Moslems who left Spain in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella reconquering Spain declared it an exclusively Christian country.

We walked up the hill to the Mosque Andalous, which we could not enter, through streets that felt totally different from those on the other side of the river. There seemed to be more space, more air, a lighter sense of life here. People talked or shouted greetings to each other. They seemed in less of a hurry. We walked into the court of something, probably a mosque, where a woman motioned to us that we could not enter but gave us each a small, white candle as a consolation prize.

We came back across the river. Climbing up Tala ‘a Kbira, we came to a shop we had noticed in our previous perambulations because its lamps were more interesting than most. I have been enamored of the Moroccan pierced brass lamp and the Moroccan stained glass lamp since I first saw them. I carried one of the stained glass variety all the way back to the US with me on my first trip to Morocco in 1960. Unfortunately, it was squashed by the heavy plaster cartouche it was attached to in my Brooklyn house when the cartouche detached itself from the ceiling one night and descended via the electric wires of the lamp to the floor. The shop was large and full of lamps casting, from their piercings, flecks of lights like swarms of insects to dance among the shadows of the shop. Kathy bought a gorgeous one shaped, most unusually, like a doughnut, that when not on looks unpierced but in darkness when illuminated casts a complex and delicate dance of patterns shinning from its piercings.

Kathy asked the older man who was obviously in charge why his lamps were better. He told her proudly, “Because I employ designers.” He also said that he designs many of them himself. The workmanship is quite fantastic.

I showed him the card of the jewelry shop we had seen with our guide. He drew a map, which amazingly we were able to follow. They remembered us at the shop. I searched out the green necklace; Kathy, still feeling dubious about the quality of the moonstones looked them over again. There are seemingly endless cases displaying necklaces, earrings, and bracelets.

We both bought after bargaining quite well. I got him down the equivalent of a hundred euros.

We had a late lunch at the Clock Restaurant, on the top floor with views out to various solid, square minarets. I had an excellent couscous with delicious roast chicken that looked as though it had been lacquered. Getting up those stairs to the roof was a real haul but worth it.

We walked home through the familiar streets but on the lane, Derb al Horra, that took us from Tala’a Kbira to Tala’a Sghira a man stepped out of a door way and motioned us in. This is one of those situations where being two is a godsend. Alone I would never have followed the man, in working clothes and his better dressed companion into the dark entry way and corridor that led into the house. The companion asked for an entry fee of about 2.50 U.S. The better-dressed man tried to explain to us in French where we were and what we were looking at.

What we entered was an old house, in a terrible state of abandonment and decay, called Dar Ba Mohammed Chergui, Chergui for short. It was straight out of Omar Khayyam,

“They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:”

Well, maybe not the Lion but certainly that Lizard and all his relations. The garden was hip high in grass and smelled of jasmine. The fountain’s tile work was barely discernable, it was so engulfed in weeds and white banks of jasmine. A few orange trees laden with glowing globes struggled against the encroachment of their wilder neighbors. Some windows were broken; others still shown with brilliant reds and yellows. A chandelier dangled its wires, its arms askew. Shutters, ceilings, walls were painted with entrancing designs or vases of flowers. Archways were filigrees of white honeycombs or exuberant stalactites of many colors. Everything was vivid with color and design.

With limited French we understood that the house had belonged to a man with three wives but it had been bought by someone from Qatar who could not get money into the country to fund the renovation because of “political” problems. We later saw a huge poster advertising a new hotel to be constructed from the Chergui and another mansion. It certainly will be grand if it ever happens. In the meantime the Lizard is in possession.

We were greeted at our hotel’s outer door by our plume-tailed friend. I begged permission for his entry. He came and sat with us over tea.