Thursday, November 3, 2016

#19: Portugal. The Mariners.

Portugal is a proud country. At the westernmost expanse of the European continent, the Portuguese were among the first to look out at the Atlantic in wonder and build ships to weather the seas and sail west and south into the unknown. They discovered Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde, islands all to which it took days to sail, in a time when most of the world believed sailing west from Europe was a trip to your doom: either into an impossibly long voyage toward Asia, or even off of an abrupt end to a flat and finite earth.

The Portuguese challenged this idea, they began making ships designed to sail for months into the sea, taking men where no one had gone before, exploring places which were believed to contain only savages or were too harsh for humans to endure. For this curiosity in defying common beliefs of the day, men like Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco de Gama sailed into the southern sea and made voyages thought to be impossible. They proved that the world possessed a southern hemisphere which an adept sailor could venture down into and go east to the land of spices, gold, and silk. To the chagrin of wealthy Venetian merchants, the Portuguese proved that the Silk Road was an unnecessary venture when ships could sail around the Cape of Good Hope to ports of call like Mumbai, Calcutta, and Shanghai.

Today, Portugal is a far cry from its former self. Not that its people have changed. That spirit of the Portuguesa, the one that inspired the likes of de Gama, Magellan, and Dias, you can still see it in the them. It was in the voice of the girl working at Quinto de Crasto, who explained that Portugal is retaking their wine industry from the old days of the British dominated port trade, and how in just a few decades Portuguese wine will be among the best in the world; it was in the eyes of the Rodrigo the guy who led us around Lisbon, who took so much pride in everything Portuguese, but had not one positive thing to say of his government; or the bartender who politely informed me that you shouldn't ever lead with Spanish when speaking to a Portuguesa, after all, they have a language of their own. Over and over again, I heard a Portuguesa lament over their ineffective leaders. How their economy is in stagnation, unemployment staggeringly high, and how decent hardworking people nearly starve on the streets. Today Portugal joins its once mighty neighbor Spain as one of the most languishing economies of Europe. If nothing else, it was all sad to me. I remember standing in the Plaça de Comercio in Lisbon, to this day one of the largest public squares in all of Europe with one long side on the banks of the Rio Tejo, and an enormous bronze statue of King Jose I on horseback in its center. I stood there looking out at the water picturing massive caravels moored at the docks, unloading nutmeg, pepper, cardamom, and cloves - just grocery store commodities today, but were luxuries that made the Portuguese the most privileged people of Europe in the 16th century. This plaza was converted to a parking lot in the 1950's and has only recently been reclaimed as a monument to Portugal's past. Today tourists buzz around the square and it has the same feel of any other big European plaza, if not for the conspicuously empty side facing the water which once drove Portugal's economy.

I left Portugal with a sense that its people had a bad case of 'small dog syndrome,' overshadowed by its much larger Iberian neighbor which despite its own economic woes seems to dominate it these days in every way. But I've realized that this is oversimplified. In a country which has played such a dominant part in world history, it must be ashamedly humbling to make headlines these days only for being the 'P' in PIGS (the convenient porcine mnemonic device referring to the worst economies of Europe). The golden age of Portugal is long in its past, but when you stand on its western cliffs and look out on the ocean, when you consider the innovations its people brought to this world which are taken for granted today - ships that could sail across oceans and into the wind, maritime devices which could pinpoint your location simply by looking at the sun - it's easy to picture the time in which it was great.

I'll admit, I'm much more taken by Spain than Portugal. We even escaped to Spain for one night when we were close as if to take a breath of fresh air away from the unfamiliar accents and weird 'ç' and 'x' pronunciations on road signs we didn't understand and often got us (me) lost. But I've never met a person that went to Portugal or has Portuguese roots that didn't just spill out this Portuguese pride in every word they spoke about the place - and it's worth the trip because you can feel it when you're there. It's no longer dominating the world economy like it was centuries ago, but in many ways its people still live like they do... even so, they manage to maintain a laid back demeanor which is enviable in today's world. No, you won't find a Portuguesa donning a cap demanding that Portugal be made great again, I think they are at peace that those days are over, but what you will find is a sense of nationalism, pride and unity which was borne out of necessity over the centuries as its people stood cut off from Europe, looking west out into the ocean.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

#18: Canada.The Layover; Second Edition.

My journey is now winding down to an end. The countries that remain on my list to which I’ve ventured (excluding those other countries in which I didn’t leave the airport such as Taiwan, the UK, and Texas, for example) are few. The next is one which I can barely count, but since I have a passport stamp, I will. Layovers are interesting birds. Do I bother exploring? Should I just rest in the airport? Should it be as short as possible? An extended stop; even a destination in and of itself?

Just as it would be unheard of to live in a neighborhood your whole life and not bother to pay a visit to the family next door, our decision as to this matter on this particular trip was equally as obligatory (and influenced slightly by Air Canada’s offering the cheapest flights to Portugal). Las Vegas to Lisbon. By way of Vancouver, Glasgow and London. Yes. We truly do hold out for the absolutely cheapest flight. But hey, free(ish) trip to Vancouver! So Canada, here we come!

Yes, I’ve marveled at the Discovery Channel specials about the Canadian Rockies. I’ve spent many an hour veg-ing out watching Ice Road Truckers… and a good bit of my childhood prospecting for gold in the Yukon Territory in one of the few computer games available to me from the tiny shelf dedicated to Mac users of the 90’s (problems of your mom being a graphic designer) – oh and yes, you heard me right, I had a Macintosh before it was cool... But I digress. While I did all these things, Canada has always remained to me as… well quite frankly… just the leftovers for the British of what didn’t fall within the purview of USA’s “Manifest Destiny.” Stuff that we could have had if we wanted, but it was just too damn cold so we didn’t bother. This is how Canada lived in my mind for most of my life. And as I considered the prospect an extended layover in Vancouver, my main thought was “I’ve been to Seattle, so what could be the big deal about Vancouver?” A typical American superiority complex, I admit. And so with this in mind, our short trip began.

But as this fabulous election season has reminded me… sometimes, you just need a break from the ‘ol US of A. No, not the Alec Baldwin, “I’m moving to Canada if so and so wins” break, but just a break from the assumptions and judgments we as Americans tend to pass on our fellow citizens; from the constant concern over what this politician is doing, or how this policy is affecting my city. To put it bluntly, walking around Vancouver was great because I didn’t care about any of this here, because hey, I got no skin in the game. You want to legalize crack Canada? Super! I’ll be gone before the crackheads wake up for the day! You want the government deliver your Pizza Hut? Maybe I’ll just steer clear of pizza the next few hours! You want to require citizens to pay tribute to the Vancouver Canucks? Imma just get back on this plane!

As was the case with my brief Amsterdam layover a few years back (and those of my avid followers will remember from a former poetic blog post), not much can be said of an entire country from only a few hours. Stereotypes can be confirmed or shattered, first impressions can be made, and a few snapshots can be taken to help pause the blur if only for 1/1000th of a second at a time. In Amsterdam, this indeed was a time of confirmed stereotypes; not long after I had got off train, the sweet, skunky smell of Mary Jane was drifting up my nostrils, and I was passing wooden shoe shops by the dozen while munching on my fresh pickled herring sandwich and dodging the bikers who dominated all the streets. All that I had imagined about Amsterdam was confirmed in the course of my first hour. True? I don’t know. But it sure seemed like it in the first few minutes. Vancouver in a way was no different. No, I didn’t encounter mounties eating gravy fries, or a hockey player offering free healthcare, but it was about the people themselves: they are freaking nice. Like a whole difference category of nice. Awkward nice.

We got off the subway in downtown Vancouver with that slight look of perplexion which I suppose evident in every first time tourist’s face. Where should we go next? I wonder what’s cool to see around here? Well, no sooner than these thought danced in our heads for the first time than they were met with:

“Hey! What are you folks looking to see?” Oh great, I thought, I wonder what he wants.

Begrudgingly I said something like, “Oh I don’t know”, and started to move along and with a Pavlov’s Dog like reflex reached out my hand for the flier I was surely about to be handed. But it didn’t come.

A big smile came across his face, “Vancouver’s such a great place! You folks just looking to walk around? Eat? Go to a museum?” he asked like an eager dog.

I was a little taken aback. “Well, all that seems nice, and we are hungry, but we’re only here for a few hours, so…”

He cut me off. “OK, in a few hours, here’s what you can do...” As if reading off the introductory section to a Rick Steve’s guidebook, he rattled off several possible itineraries which would work within our time constraints, complete with restaurant recommendations, suggestions of parks, even bicycle rentals.

I was still slightly worried that he had some ulterior motive. I’ve been to too many places where someone won’t give you the time of day except for a buck or two.

“Well, Joey’s sounds good,” referring to one of his several restaurant recommendations, “and then we could walk around and watch the seaplanes, I guess.”

“Excellent choices!” He said like a waiter satisfied with some solid meal recommendation he’d made. “Well have a good one, eh?”

He must have been a tour guide, or at least obviously somebody in the hospitality industry, I thought. One of those guys who is just wired to behave that way even when they’re off duty. Nope. A few strides to the side and he got into a UPS truck. Curious, I thought.

We got on our way toward Joey’s but after about a block, heard a shouting behind us.

“Hey, Hey!” Up was running UPS guy. OK. Here it comes, the flyer, the solicitation… whatever.

“So… I forgot…” He said, out of breath, “Joey’s. You see that white tower down there? The one with the curvy top?” he said, pointing down the street to the west.


“Joey’s in just off of the lobby of that building, just wanted to be sure you’d be OK finding it!” He said with a wink. Then he ran back to his truck and was on his way.

My wife and I looked at each other, and couldn’t help but just laugh.

We didn’t do much in Vancouver. We watched seaplanes take off and land in the harbor, strolled down the sea wall and napped in the shade of a maple tree in Stanley Park, and of course, Joey’s (all per UPS guy’s itinerary). In three hours we were headed back to our plane. Out of YVR, over the Canadian Rockies (startlingly close beneath us on our ascent, I might add), and on our way to Scotland, then England, then Portugal. A short stay, but not one without memories.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

#17b: Vietnam. The South.

And so, we went south. We boarded a plane and landed just outside of Hue, the old capital of Vietnam. In many ways, Hue turned out to be forgettable city. Its urban center non-existent. Many historical landmarks barely recognizable as anything more than piles of old rocks. But Hue does have a story to tell. American soldiers once held this city against a furious North Vietnamese (NVA) attack. In hopes to protect their positions, both American and NVA forces ordered artillery to fall indiscriminately over the entire city, leaving nothing but rubble and corpses afterwards.

As we walked the streets of Hue, this was still very evident. Green grass gives way to piles of rubble and stone... women dance in long blue dresses in front of the partially destroyed ancient temples, pirouetting around the dark recent past of Hue, the massacres of epic proportions from which the defending Americans eventually had to flee.

Most tourists do not come to Hue to relive these memories. They come because it has a vibrant history as the romantic capital of Vietnam's past. It is built along an ancient river and the Vietnamese have revered it for hundreds of years before the recent war made it notorious. Unfortunately one who arrives now arrives as a witness to destruction... A place undergoing a rebirth which is not complete. Hue is not a beautiful city, although one can imagine a time in which it was.... It is a testament to war. A war which has left visible scars which Americans should see.... Not because it is our fault, but because our fathers lived through it. Our uncles, our brothers fought here for a cause they probably did not understand, but died for nonetheless. Hue is a memory of this tragic past.

On our final day, we got into a car which drove south. The driver was friendly, and told us stories of the Vietnam countryside as we moved. He was proud of his country, except when we were pulled over at what seemed like a pointless checkpoint. The car slowed, and the driver got out at an officer's demand. This went on for several minutes while my wife and I waited confused in back of the car. Finally the driver came back.

"Thank god this happened in the south" he said, "In the north, we may have been in real trouble!"

I wasn't sure was he was implying, but I smiled and said something stupid like "Oh, I know!" and we got on our way.

He told us that when cops see you have tourists in your car, you get pulled over and have to pay money. Simple as that. "It's a tax." He said. I felt bad, was confused, but decided I'd tip him nicely. Maybe it was a tactic of his. And if it was, it worked.

When we finally arrived in Hoi An we were tired from the long drive and the whole ordeal and settled into our hotel. I guess we'd taken a liking to Vietnam's French history by this time, and Hoi An was no exception. The Ha Na hotel was an old French colonial house. We strode through grassy courtyard, the hammocks and the ivy covered walls and the Vietnamese woman at the front told us to have a vieux carré while we waited for our room.

On the way in, I'd seen that the shop across the street sold Vietnamese wine for only a few bucks. Impressed, I slipped across as we waited and got their finest bottle in anticipation of having something special with my wife as we lounged on the hammocks in the courtyard later that evening. Ill bet you didn't even know that Vietnam made wine... neither did I! That evening I learned why. My wife refused to drink it after half of one glass, and after mine I decided I'd rather stick with French wine.

The next day we finally got out into Hoi An. It was hot. Sweat ran down my face and we walked down the streets dodging the sunlight as if it was poisonous (which I suppose it actually is). I bought a children's shirt in a store as a handkerchief to dry off as we walked. But amidst the heat, we found that Hoi An knows its place when it comes to tourism during any time of year. Shops boast custom made suits, dresses, shoes, ties. Anything. If you are in the mood for spending money, Hoi An will take it - which we learned the hard way. My advice to travelers: if you NEED a new suit, by all means go to Hoi An and get one. But if not. Flee. This city will convince you that you need one one in short order. The guide books tell you. The pretty ladies that make them are friendly and convincing and verbose about their families that need the money. And the shops are nice looking and on every block.

But the beaches which are a 20 minute ride away are a piece of heaven. We spent two days in the city before going to the beach. The room was spartan. It had a bed, a hammock in a small yard in front and a sandy path which led to the South China Sea. But there was a peace which one rarely finds anywhere in the world. After a day of tiger beers and beach time, we walked to dinner down the beach to an expat bar with nice drinks and Europeans lounging on couches looking out to the sea.

We had a nice meal, and just before we paid, I felt my pockets and realized I'd left my wallet in the room. Oh no. The only solution was to go get it.... Maybe a mile back down the beach. I told my wife I'd go and let her wait there. The road though town was quicker than the beach so I made my way back on the pavement in the night. The first few houses were clearly those of the expats, large and with porches overlooking the sea; laughter and conversation echoed in the hot evening air, lit by their spirits and their floodlights pointing towards the beach... It was a life which I admit that I began to envy as I walked. To live a live of luxury in a foreign and beautiful place at such a reasonable price! (These Vietnamese palatial houses on the beach went for about the price of a mid-size two bedroom home outside of Denver. Yes. I checked.) But then by the hundreds: small cinder block squares with large open rectangles as front doors and thatched palm roofs; whole families lying down on uncarpeted cement floors with no furniture watching a tiny TV. House after house I passed this after the few opulent expat mansions by the bar. This was the real Hoi An. Not the shops, the fancy hotels - the restaurants which served Phó in many different varieties. This was Vietnam. Where the per capita GDP is less than $2,000. But finally, I arrived at the hotel.

I opened the safe, retrieved my credit card, and decided I'd head back to the bar via the beach in the dark instead of witnessing all that again. Because after all... What could I do?