Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Reclining Buddha

June 25, 2015


Uncover your head. Remove your shoes and place them in the provided bag. Now, as your soles touch the cool marble floor, look up and be amazed at the pure size of the thing.


The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok is 105 feet long and 50 feet high. It fills the entire building – from end to end and from floor to ceiling, with narrow a passageway on either side so you can make your way around it, admiring the satiny gold plating, the liquid lines, the huge feet.


Painted pillars give the impression of a cage, as if the Buddha were a specimen in a zoo. But he doesn’t seem to mind. He smiles serenely, right hand propping up his head. That right hand, I’ve since learned, means this isn’t an the Buddha on his death bed, as I’d thought. It’s the Buddha encountering the giant Asurindarahu. When the giant refused to bow to the Buddha, the Buddha made himself appear enormous, and then showed the giant the enormity of the heavens. Asurindarahu was duly humbled, as is the visitor to Wat Pho.

But it’s not just the scale that moves you. There’s a stillness here, and a coolness. Especially after the heat and hubbub outside. And soon you become aware of an ethereal music. Metallic percussion. Bells, maybe. Some notes are higher, some lower, some louder, some softer. But there’s no discernible melody. The rhythm is irregular, but each note has the same tone. It’s the way stars might sound, if you could hear them flickering.


Fill your ears with the sound as you make your way around the Buddha’s tall feet (undergoing restoration during our visit, a sign regrets to inform us). Start up the far side of the temple, and you discover the source of the music. And realize it’s not music at all. At least, not intentional music. Lining the wall behind the Buddha are identical metal bowls. One hundred eight  — one for each of the auspicious characteristics depicted in mother of pearl on the soles of the feet we can’t see. For 20 Thai Baht, or about 70 U.S. cents, you can buy a dish holding 108 metal tokens, one to drop into each bowl.


I paid my 20 Baht, and contributed to the music, making myself, for the time that it took to return to the Buddha’s head, a part of the sacred architecture.


Only Connnect

October 23, 2013


We didn’t plan to attend Mass at the Cathedral of Barcelona. But there we were on Sunday afternoon, needing to sit down after a long walk around the old city, when they started closing the doors for 5:00 mass. So we stayed, and watched the ancient building we had come to visit as a museum turn into a living spiritual home.

The spoken parts of the service were in Catalan, the singing in Latin. I don’t know either language. But by picking out a word here and there –sacrificat, kyrie – and remembering my years as a Catholic school librarian, I could more or less follow. It was satisfying to suss out the meaning of what I was seeing. And it helped me feel less foreign.

Feeling less foreign is my underlying goal whenever I travel. It’s not that I want to take home with me – strolling around Barcelona, the last thing I wanted to see was another Starbucks, Subway, or the franchise known in Spain as Dunkin’ Coffee. It’s more that I crave a sense of belonging – of feeling connected to my surroundings.

This isn’t a conscious goal, but trying to achieve it can be deliberate. Why else – if not to find my place in the city – did I spend so long, that Sunday afternoon, searching the twisting cobblestone passageways of the old city for traces of El Call – a once-flourishing Jewish quarter that was purged of Jews, demolished and rebuilt as a Christian neighborhood 600 years ago?

That night at dinner, something about our server seemed vaguely familiar. She spoke perfect English, but with a heavy Spanish accent. More than that, though, she got us – our little jokes, the fact that we intended to taste each other’s dishes, why I wanted to hold onto my empty plate until David had finished. While she refilled our water, she asked how we liked the city, and David asked if she was from here. No, she said. Buenos Aires.  That’s when it hit me.

“Buenos Aires,” I whispered to David after she’d left. “She’s Jewish.”

The more I watched her, the more certain I became. I kept waiting for her to return to our table so we could talk more, and trying to figure out a tactful way to test my theory. But a different server took over, so I’ll never know if I guessed right.

I was sorry I couldn’t verify our common background. But the most satisfying moments of connection are the ones that happen on their own. The trick is to recognize them when they do.

Take, for example, our dinner the next night, at a different restaurant. First, as we settled into our seats in the tree-lined sidewalk square, the server suggested I put my purse under the table, rather than on the chair beside me (Barcelona being known for its vibrant pick-pocket culture). Then, before we had even opened our menus, one of the birds in one of the aforementioned trees dropped two bright white spots of shit on our table (convincing us to move inside). Finally, just as we were tucking into our appetizers, a very sickly mouse staggered across the dining room floor (whereupon a man hurried out of the kitchen with a dustpan and broom and swept the creature up).

You might read this as a traveler’s nightmare. But it didn’t feel that way to me. I felt welcomed and at home, buoyed by the bond that was forged as the mouse was swept away. That’s when David commented to our hostess, “That’s not good for business.”

She smiled, shaking her head. “No, it’s not good for business,” she agreed.

That good-natured acknowledgement made us – if only for as long as dinner lasted – family. And that made all the difference.

We had five breakfasts in Barcelona. We ate the first two at the “gastro-pub” across the street from our hotel – faux-distressed walls and leather club chairs, Odetta on the sound system, menus in four languages, tourists and local hipsters studying their smartphones while sipping their coffee.

On our third morning, we decided to try the Patisserie around the corner. There were no tourists or hipsters here, just housewives buying desserts from the glass cases out front, and in back a handful of Formica tables and plastic chairs where people on their way to work were eating breakfast rolls and ham sandwiches. The woman behind the counter smiled warmly, but called over her English-speaking co-worker – a young man with curly brown hair and half-inch plugs in his earlobes – to negotiate our order.

We returned to the patisserie two days later – our last morning in Barcelona. It was early, and the only employee in evidence was the woman with the warm smile who didn’t speak any English. But between our fractured Catalan and with much pointing and pantomiming and laughing good will all around, we managed to convey our order. Half an hour later, as we were settling our bill (with more gestures and pointing), the young man with the ear-plugs arrived. As we were leaving, he called after us what sounded like, “Ah-vey-o!”

We hadn’t heard the word before, but understood that he was saying, “Adieu,” and read into his greeting so much more – that he remembered us happily from the other day, that most of the people they served were regulars, and if we came back another time or two, we could become regulars, too.

“Ah-vey-o!” We called back, sorry that we wouldn’t have a chance to use our newly learned word with him again.

The cabbie who drove us to the airport was eager to practice his English. He was very good at it, and where he lacked the vocabulary, he compensated with eloquent sound effects and skits. Speeding along the highway, shifting lanes and dodging traffic, he kissed his steering wheel to help convey how glad he was to have a job in this economic climate, and thumbed through the screens on his phone to show us a photo of a newspaper story about the 100-kilo wild boars that recently come down out of the mountains to forage through the trash in a local suburb.

As we neared the airport, he discussed the travesty of building it on the river delta, a “water land” where countless species of birds once stopped as they migrated from Africa to northern Europe.

“Now a different kind of bird stops here,” I said. “Big ones!”

It took a moment, but then he got it. “Yes!” he said, laughing triumphantly. “There is a 747! I can tell by the shape of its bill!”

After he’d unloaded our luggage at the curb and we’d paid our fare, he shook our hands and said he was to have met us.

Inside the airport, the atmosphere wasn’t nearly so friendly. The security line was a mess, with minimal signage and no people to tell anyone what to do. We tried to figure out the local rules by watching the passengers ahead of us. But there wasn’t any pattern. A few people took their shoes off, but most didn’t. Some people removed their laptops from their bags, but others didn’t. We took off our shoes but left our laptops in our bags.

David passed through the metal detector and collected his bag from the conveyor belt without incident, but when I tried to collect my bags, the woman in the uniform called out to me in a scolding voice. “Lady! Computer!” and pointed to the back of the line. I took my computer out and walked back through security area, where I had to squeeze back in among the crush of passengers.

I ended up behind an elderly man. As he stood inside the metal detector, a second security agent, this one a burly man, planted himself in directly in front of him and made a series of faces at him. After what felt like a painfully long time, the agent asked, “Why are you waiting?” and the humiliated passenger hurried on his way.

Both agents were making themselves perfectly clear, in a universal language. They were saying, “We have all the power here, and take great pleasure in exercising it for its own sake. Our goal isn’t to keep the skies safe, but to keep you in your place.”

That was also a form of connection.

How I’ve Been Spending My Summer Vacation

August 5, 2013

Why, yes. I have been gone quite a while. Thanks for noticing. It’s not that I’ve forgotten you or lost interest in writing. Quite the contrary. I have started an abandoned half a dozen posts since the beginning of the summer. The problem is that life has been moving so fast – each time I’ve stepped back to put an experience into words, the next one has come along and swept me with it.

Since I last posted here, I have, among other things:


Taken a train through the Austrian Alps;


Spent a week at a Central Eurpean resort with a punny name…


… and a fairy tale lake;Image

Found a picture I painted when I was five hanging in my uncle’s apartment in Vienna;


Played with my Indian grandfather-in-law’s shooting stick on a trail in Colorado;


Attended my first rodeo;


and returned to Vermont to spend a weekend getting my writing batteries recharged, so I can begin to think about how to turn all this material into stories.


February 28, 2013


Last week, David and I were in New Orleans. He was presenting a paper about disagreement and rational belief. I was being a tourist. And we both got to see a dear old friend from David’s grad school days. Back in the 1980s, we were all very close. He dandled our daughter when she was a baby, and David and I flew across the continent to be at his wedding. But we hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade, and have only sporadically kept in touch.

One afternoon, while David was presenting his paper, Martin and I went sightseeing. Since it was Martin’s first time in New Orleans and my third, he deferred to me. I suggested taking the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District. David and I had done that the last time we’d been in town, maybe 20 years earlier. We had walked down leafy streets lined with beautiful old homes, and explored a cool old cemetery.

I kept my guide book and map in my bag, as Martin and I caught up. But as our streetcar rattled past stately houses that looked like the neighborhood I remembered, it occurred to me that I was the tour guide. After a quick check of the map, I yanked the bell, and we hopped off at the next stop.

Looking back at the map, it was easy enough to find the cemetery. There was a grey rectangle filled with crosses on Washington Avenue, just a few blocks away. We blithely headed off in that direction, happily chatting about my son’s job and his daughter’s high school.

But something wasn’t right. The buildings we were passing were much more modest than I’d expected. Paint was peeling. Porches sagged. Yards were strewn with litter. In another block, more and more houses were more than neglected. They were abandoned. One was boarded up, the plywood spray-painted with a black x. I remembered seeing photographs of those markings after Katrina. They were FEMA’s way of showing which houses they had searched, and whether they’d found bodies. But that was seven years ago. And now, between the broken houses, we were passing empty lots. And where were the people? Not a single car had gone by since we’d turned up the street. And other than one old man sitting on a stoop and a group of young men standing on a side street, we had hardly seen a soul.

“I’m not sure about this neighborhood,” I told Martin.

“It seems okay to me,” he said. “But I’m Canadian, so you’re probably more culturally attuned.”

When someone questions my instincts, my automatic response is to doubt my judgment. And I know that travel plays havoc with my instincts. Being in a new place, removed from my routine, observing my surroundings through the lens of my camera, makes the world seem romantic. Unreal. This air of unreality can convey a false sense of immunity.

So why couldn’t it also do the opposite—create an exaggerated sense of danger? Could I be unconsciously guarding against a  false sense of security by putting myself on higher alert than was justified?

And was something else going on here? Martin and I are both white, and the few people we had seen since turning off  St. Charles Avenue were all black. How much of my unease was being fueled by latent racism? This last question made me even more uneasy, and cast doubt on all my instincts.

“It’s just a few more blocks,” I told Martin, and we continued.

One block up and across the street, we reached a patch of green surrounded by a tall fence. A sign on the fence said Lafayette Cemetery #2. I tried to square what we were seeing with what I remembered. Had that chained link fence been there? With that barbed wire? Had the gate been padlocked? Was the grass that overgrown? The mausoleums that decrepit? The whole place such a wreck? Cemeteries are supposed to be sad. This was a whole different level of sadness.

We walked back toward St. Charles on the opposite side of the street.

“Are there any dominoes down there?” A man called from a balcony.

“No,” I called back without thinking. Then I noticed the men sitting around a table in the yard, and felt like a fool. But no one seemed to have heard me.

A few doors down, a woman said, “Excuse me.” She was sitting on a porch with a few other people, and she was definitely talking to us. “Would y’all like a dog?” Or maybe she said puppy.

It was a little dog, on a leash. Schnauzer? Terrier? The kind of dog a certain kind of person carries around like a fashion accessory, and dolls up with an argyle vest or a silly bow. This dog wasn’t dolled up. Its fur was matted and filthy.

They had found the dog wandering around, and couldn’t keep it, the woman was saying. Would we take it?

We couldn’t. “It looks like a nice dog though,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s alright,” she answered. She may or may not have told us to have a nice day. Either way, I felt as if she had.

When we reached St. Charles Avenue, we figured out our mistake. The cemetery we’d wanted, the one the guide books promote and tourists flock to, is also on Washington Avenue. But on the other side of St. Charles. Literally, the other side of the tracks. We had been looking for Lafayette Cemetery #1, and had found Lafayette Cemetery #2.

Back in Rhode Island, I did some research. The neighborhood where we’d been walking is called Central City. “In mid-2006,” I read, “the area was considered the most dangerous part of the city.” After Katrina, I learned, Central City became notorious as a place where rival gangs and drug dealers exchanged gunfire in the streets. The crime rate has gone down since then, but Wikitravel advises that the neighborhood is still “not recommended for casual visitors.”

So my judgment was correct. But was it justified?

That afternoon, I didn’t know anything about crime hot spots. I just knew that after we crossed St. Charles Avenue, we entered a different world. Lush trees lined the streets. Impeccable gardens surrounded stately homes. Everything was opulent, clean and well-kempt. Cars and pedestrians quietly came and went. Just about everyone we saw was white. And I felt perfectly safe.


Sound Track

August 17, 2012

First Car

Across the aisle and one row ahead of me the other day, on the Long Island Railroad from Manhasset to Penn Station: a forty-something woman and her teenage daughter. Heavy Long Island accents. Voices loud enough to carry from one end of the car to the other. Mom is complaining at length about Grandma, who’d bought a train ticket she didn’t have to buy, or something.

Mom: Am I right? Or do you think I’m being unfair?

Daughter: No, you’re right. Grandma’s always doing stuff like that.

They go on to list the various similar crimes Grandma has committed, corroborating each other’s evidence, egging each other on, their voices getting louder and louder, until they run out of anti-Grandma venom, and turn their attention to Grandpa. Daughter can’t believe he called her to ask which station she was getting off at.

Daughter: Why would he do that? He wasn’t even going to be the one picking us up.

Mom: I know. It would be different if he was picking you up. But he wasn’t. I don’t know why he always has to butt in like that.

Next up: Uncle Phil, who sits on the couch all day, watching TV. He doesn’t go to school or have a job, and plus, he smells.

Mom: Did you see where he hung his underwear to dry?

Daughter: I know, right?

Mom: Six people to one bathroom does not work.

Daughter: I don’t know why they can’t go to a motel, or something.

Last on the list, Daughter’s sister Juliana.

Daughter: She is such a brat. She always embarrasses me in front of my friends.

Mom: I know. What did she do this time?

Between Cars

Sitting opposite me in the Amtrak waiting area at Penn Station: Grandma and Granddaughter, who is maybe 6 years old. They’re giggling and whispering happily, until Grandma notices that the child, who has curled up in her seat, resting her cheek against her pink backpack, has made herself more comfortable by unbuttoning the top of her pants.

Grandma: What did you do that for? Put those right this minute. You don’t do that here. That is not a necessary activity. That is not a necessary activity. That is not necessary here.

Granddaughter, chagrined, struggles to do her pants.

Grandma: See? You made it all funny. Go on and put it right.

At last the girl succeeds, and she and Grandma resume their whispering and giggling.

Second Car

Across the aisle and one row behind me on the Amtrak from Penn Station to Providence: woman I can’t see, but can hear all too well. She’s talking on her phone in a voice loud enough to fill the entire car, in which she’s the only person speaking. She has a heavy Boston accent and the husky voice of a smoker. Within the first half hour of the trip, she talks first to her husband, and then to her friend about her husband, and then to her husband again. Anyone who cares to listen learns:

— that she and her husband have been apart for four days, although they got married about a week ago. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. But he gave her a diamond. “I got the diamond, and that’s what I wanted,” she tells her friend.

— that she has a daughter, whose name she has to repeat to her husband three times before he gets who she means.

— That there’s another man in the picture, but her husband shouldn’t worry, because she has a restraining order out on him.

— that when she gets to South Station, she’s going to get some fries and some wings.

— that she wants her husband to meet her at the station, and he doesn’t understand why.

She says:

Because I want to feel the love.

I need to feel the love, baby.

I’m not feeling it, baby.

I need to feel it.

I don’t feel it. I don’t think I’ll even go back home. Why should I?

I said, I don’t think I’ll go home. This isn’t working.

I said, this isn’t working.

Don’t be like that.

Stop it.

Stop it, Greg.

Stop it.

I said, stop it.

Stop it now.

Don’t do that.

Don’t do that, Greg.

Stop it.

Just calm down already.

Would you calm down?

Calm down, Greg.

I said, calm down.

Can’t you calm down already? It’s okay.

I said it’s okay.

I want you to say it.

Say it.

I don’t want to read it.

I got your text, but I don’t want to read it.

Because I want to hear it.

Because I want to hear it, Greg.

I want to hear it.

Just say it.

Say it, Greg.

Say it.

Can’t you say it?

You can’t say it.

Then say it.

Say it, Greg.

Say it.

Third Car

Directly in front of me, in the car I move to when I can’t stand listening to Greg’s bride any longer: two teenage girls, who are swiping through the 1000+ pictures on one of the girls’ phones.

Girl one: My hair looks bad there.

Girl one: Oh my God, my hair!

Girl two: You look so cute there.

Girl one: Look at my hair!

Rinse and repeat.

Getting There

June 24, 2011

The cabbie who collected us at our home in Providence was the king of multitasking, sort of. He talked non-stop (mostly about his Bolivian ex-fiancee, who’s sitting in a Spanish jail because while she was in her friend’s apartment, her friend received a delivery of some number of kilos of cocaine), while acting as dispatcher (no, we don’t have any drivers available, no we can’t call you back, you call us), and deftly driving us – not to the Peter Pan bus depot, our intended destination, but to the train station. Well, no matter. He got us to the bus station eventually, and without missing a beat in his narrative. He was so keen on telling his story, in fact that when we got to the bus station, he got out of the car – not to unload out luggage from the trunk, but to finish his sentence.

At Logan, two Air France flights were checking in at adjacent counters – ours to Paris, and another to Cape Verde. Our flight was delayed by three and a half hours because of a maintenance workers’ strike in Paris. Although we were the third people in line, our line didn’t move for one hour. The Cape Verde line beside us slowly snaked forward. It was filled with family groups dressed like people going to a party. And it seemed to be the same party. They all seemed to know each other, and as each new group arrived, people who were already in line greeted them hugs and kisses.

The Cape Verde flight was also delayed. The airport where they were scheduled to land was closed. By 1 am, just about the only passengers still waiting to take off were ours and theirs. While we scattered around the terminal in our sedate, separate groups, they circulated, shared food, gossiped and passed sleeping babies arm to arm. I watched a short woman with a cap of curly hair and a pretty flowered dress chat and share a bag of chips with the women across from us. It was like a huge family picnic.

Is Cape Verde really so small? Were they all going to the same event? We couldn’t tell. The older people spoke in what we assumed was Portuguese. The younger people spoke in English, but mostly about boyfriends and dance clubs.

When their flight was finally called, the women across from us were so caught up in their conversation they didn’t hear the announcement. Eventually an Air France attendant came to tell them in person. They gathered up their babies and their baggage and hurried to the gate.

Our plane boarded around 1:30 in the morning. As we were walking down the jetway, the Air France people suddenly went into a panic. “She’s already on the plane!” One man shouted, and sprinted past us. When everyone was seated, the crew asked passenger Maria Something to identify herself, and then they walked up and down the rows asking each one of us if we were this Maria Something. They finally found her, a few rows ahead of us. They took her carry-on from the overhead and escorted her off the plane. It was our friend with the close-cropped curls and the flowered dress. She’d boarded the wrong plane.

Hours later, after the six-hour flight and the long walk through Charles De Gaulle and the long line for train tickets, after the train that took us as far as Gare du Nord and then suddenly stopped – railroad workers strike – after finding a metro and getting our bearings and rolling our carry-ons up Blvd St. Michel, after checking into our hotel and showering and changing, we wandered out into the neighborhood to find dinner.

We made our way to Rue Mouffetard, where a different band was playing at top volume on just about every corner, and the streets were crowded with mostly young people laughing and strolling, the older young people were carrying around glasses of beer, and the younger ones were squirting each other with Silly String.

It was a Tuesday. Do they do this every night? We wondered. Don’t they have jobs? Don’t these children have school? Is it because of Solstice? (It was the annual, national Festive of Music, we eventually learned.)

We found a restaurant, where the proprietor sat us beside an American student – originally from Pennsylvania, he told us, going to school in the UK, in Paris for a few days to do research. He didn’t tell us what sort of research. Between courses, he was reading Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful.

“Evenings are my chance to see Paris,” he said. “It’s a pretty library, it’s nice to get out.”

Does he dress like that every night? We wondered, eyeing his brand new sport coat and vest, his pocket watch and chain. He and the waiter had a running joke about his dinner costing a million dollars. When the check came, he took a piece of paper and a fountain pen from his computer case, and wrote out an IOU for a million dollars. His cursive was impeccable.