Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Journey to the East

Travel is fatal to prejudice.
—Mark Twain

By the time we got home from our journey to the East, Eva already made the figure skating synchro team, one of only 3 freshmen, where her daily routine will be getting to the rink by 7 am for practice 3 or 4 days a week. Little did she know that Boston University actually has some of the better skaters in the region, many that hold Olympic level credentials.  Eva hasn't skated often since a foot injury derailed her jumping ability, but she can probably do all of the synchro moves, and she simply loves being on the ice.  She's still looking for a job, where she hopes to find a paying tutoring job, as otherwise it's working in a food court.  Her roommate is something of a rich girl from Connecticut, who's apparently bringing her own flatscreen TV, but they seem to be getting along, at least initially.  The dorms were quite small, and in an old building, where a heat wave could cause many to swelter, but it's in the center of the campus with the train right across the street, making it easy to get places. 

Other than taking Eva to college, which is certainly a sign of a new beginning, our visit to the East was uneventful, as I've simply never found the region remotely accessible, despite the friendliness of most all of the people we encountered.  Outside of Cairo, Egypt, which supposedly has the worst drivers on the planet, they are among the worst I've ever seen, as drivers routinely pull into oncoming traffic from side roads and expect others to slow down and let them in.  This happened literally hundreds of time, where they don't wait for an opening, they just bully their way in, causing other drivers to slam on their brakes or swerve to avoid a collision.  Same thing with entrance ramps onto thoroughfares, where they don't yield, as the sign instructs them to do, but pull into moving traffic, often without even looking, and expect the "other" traffic to get out of their way.  I don't know how many times cars literally came within inches of hitting me, as they refused to slow down, and there was traffic both in front and behind me, so there was literally no room, but they budge in anyway and expect you to make the adjustments.  I really tired of this behavior, which only existed in Boston, the Cape, and the Eastern seaboard region of Massachusetts. People do the same thing changing lanes without using turn signals, even when there's no room for them to pull into, so they just force you to continually slam on your brakes due to what can only be described as overly aggressive and reckless behavior.  I don't know the origin of this behavior, but I found it surprising, especially as it was so regional.  I don't know if this was always the case, or if it's part of the city/sports rivalry with New Yorkers to be the most obnoxious and super aggressive people on the planet.  The East coast also has rotaries, which can be 5 or 6 roads intersecting in the same spot, using a circular entranceway where all incoming traffic supposedly yields before entering and then exits at whatever one of the roads they need.  This seems to inspire chaos, as there's little order to the madness. 

On the other hand, our food experience included plenty of lobster, clams, shrimp, halibut, haddock, hake, and scallops, pretty much whatever we wanted on any given night, where we could order at shack counters and eat outside or take home, or also search out various restaurants.  We were never disappointed, though Lynn was expecting a $9.99 lobster that only materialized at the end of the trip.  Otherwise it was pretty standard on the Cape that a pound and a quarter steamed lobster was going for about $22, which usually came with corn on the cob, which worked for us.  Many of these joints also had a gigantic ice cream selection as well.  We rented a house in South Wellfleet bordering a bird sanctuary where the backyard was a large marsh, where we did see an egret and a blue heron, though it was standard crows that ruled the roost in the heat of the summertime, where it often felt like the tropics, hot and humid.  We did get out and take walks on nice days, where we were equidistant between the ocean and Cape Cod Bay, each less than a mile away.  There are 40 miles of uninterrupted white sandy beaches from the tip at Provincetown to Chatham, supposedly walked by Thoreau on several occasions, also the Bay side as well, while now there is car access only at designated beaches, though there is endless sand between them.  Where we were staying, if you walked to the beach, you'd come to a steep cliff overlook, where you'd have to backtrack to a bike or auto path to gain access.  Most of the days were gray and dreary, with bits of fog and rain, where the sun would pop out unexpectedly, offering choice time for hikes, which could be through forests or swamps right alongside the beach, or through the heart of the bird sanctuary which would take you on boardwalks across wet bogs or allow you to choose from about a half dozen other trails, one of which led to an undisturbed beach at the Cape Cod Bay, or to overlooks of the marsh where you'd find herons and egrets in the tiny lakes.  One heron flew directly overhead with its giant wingspan, where it was literally a few feet away before flying away, making a loud screech.  When I approached a few people on the trail and mentioned I saw a crane, I was corrected by the volunteer from the Audubon society, who pulled out her bird book, thinking it was an egret (white), but as it was brown, she concluded it was a blue heron, claiming there were a few that lived nearby.  We actually saw it on several occasions, as it was the largest bird in the sky.  Very impressive, as was the calmness and serenity of the undisturbed beach where solitary figures could be seen alone with their thoughts. You have to be careful with bird sanctuaries, however, as the world of birds is also the habitat for insects and bugs.   

As Wellfleet is midway between the 40 mile stretch, it was easy to visit Provincetown for some of our better dinners, right on the harbor, literally packed with people, where the restaurants were a nice reflection of local clientele along with a mix of people like us who came from afar.  Food and drinks were superb, while parking was ridiculously impossible, especially as you are crawling down these narrow streets packed with pedestrians and people whizzing by on bikes, where the place resembles New Orleans or Coney Island, as there were a zillion stores, arthouses, restaurants, various inns, and condo units, where the streets were wall to wall people, some walking their dogs, apparently living nearby, while most were simply observing who and what there was to be seen outdoors.  It's a very friendly atmosphere, one of the most gay friendly towns in America, but I didn't detect a hint of snobbishness or elitism, where people instead exhibited a wonderful sense of openness and tolerance for others, where literally anyone was welcome.  There were break dancers to be seen, along with plenty of couples, party revelers, and the usual drunks, but the most vivid activity was simply being on the street. Very different than anyplace else on the Cape, mostly due to the sophistication factor, as there are plenty of upscale choices with bars literally spilling over with loud chatter, and with a population of only about 3000 people, there's a thriving energy that exists similar to cities with millions.  The rest of the Cape is literally sleepy by comparison, like Truro, a town in between, Thoreau's home base while at the Cape, where today citizens are completely off the streets by 8 o'clock at night, where the identifying characteristic is the deserted silence in the stillness of the night.  There were a couple packed restaurants to be found however, one of which resembles being served in a reconverted barn, where farm implements lined the walls, and people sit on simple wooden tables much like the Amish might use, and all the servers wear Dansko shoes. Again, people couldn't have been more friendly, but even here, the bar had football playing on the television, something we saw everywhere, as the region, like Wisconsin, is football crazy. 

Venturing to Rockport in the Northeast corner of Massachusetts known as the Cape Ann region is like returning to home, as we've stayed there frequently, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic ocean, a former fishing community that was devastated by storms, converting the old fishing shacks to artist studios, where it's now a thriving tourist business with art galleries, knick knack shops, fudge and ice cream parlors, as well as upscale jewelry and clothing shops, all generating plenty of street activity during the day (looking something like this: 1,280 × 850 pixels, where there is also a blog: http://octoberfarm.blogspot.com/2010/10/rockport-and-new-recipe.html), but unlike Provincetown, no activity whatsoever after 8 pm when the town literally shuts down.  Our vantage point was overlooking the inner harbor with a view of  Motif #1, a fishing shack well known to students of art, distinguished for being "the most often painted building in America," as it was generally the first subject to be painted whenever artists or art students would come to Rockport to paint in the summer, but it's also one of the most photographed.  Like some kind of Mecca for aspiring photographers, this site lured literally hundreds of photographers every day, some bearing tripods, and some would literally shoot for hours, as it's known for changing its complexity with the altering light.  We found this ridiculously hilarious, as the numbers of worshippers on this pilgrimage kept on growing, where new groups were continually gathering for their shots of the site. More interesting to us was the activity of the fisher boats in the harbor, with names like Risky Business, Kathryn Rose, Sweden, Windy, Gussie's Girls, Aimé, The Hard Shell, or New Horizons, which were out at sea daily, leaving at first light where their rowboats were left behind at their docking sites, but bringing in their catch of the day, unloaded right on the dock, some brought on hand carts to the local fishmonger, while others were loaded directly onto refrigerated trucks that deliver fish all across the country.  As the deal in this town was 3 lobsters for $30, each at least a pound and a quarter, where we were told many of these lobsters were only out of the ocean for less than 10 hours.  In the tanks, these are extremely aggressive creatures, even with their claws tied together, where we were informed "those are not grocery store lobsters."  They steam them right on site, even make helpful cracks to the shell to make it easier to get at, and offer clam chowder for sale as well - - probably the best deal in town.  That was our final night meal, which couldn't have been better, though we also visited a clam shack in nearby Essex that was one of Lynn's favorites, arguably the best fried clams in the business, as the nearby growing region thrives with clams.               

While I brought a selection of books to read, they were secondary to what I found on the shelves in the rented home where we stayed, where in particular I could not put down Tim Cahill's edited selection of The Best American Travel Writing in 2006, where he concludes:

Outdoor and adventure literature is, in fact, American literature and always has been. James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Faulkner, Thoreau, Hemingway were all outdoor writers of a sort. It is a great stain that runs through classic American literature. 

A brief comment on the offerings can be viewed here:  http://agoodstoppingpoint.wordpress.com/2010/03/07/the-best-american-travel-writing-2006/.  Of what I could find, as I could not access Ian Frazier's Out of Ohio from The New Yorker, some essays are still available online, like LiYun Li's poignant Passing Through, which is available here:  Passing Through - New York Times or here: Passing Through_Yiyun Li.pdf, David Sedaris's hilarious take on airline travel Turbulence can be seen here: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/06/13/050613sh_shouts, Kira Salak's Lawrence of Arabia style travel adventure Rediscovering Libya, which is extremely rare insight, especially considering the frowned upon view of women in the area, is here: Kira Salak: Rediscovering Libya, while Caitlan Flanagan's satiric slant on Hawaiian vacations The Price of Paradise can be seen here: THE PRICE OF PARADISE; ANNALS OF VACATIONS.  Sean Flynn's astute look at the sex tourism industry of Costa Rica, Where They Love Americans...For a Living, where prostitution is legal, is here: The Sex Trade, Part III: Where They Love Americans…For a Living, Tad Friend's The Parachute Artist, a look at the man-on-the-scene influence of the popular guide book The Lonely Planet is here, THE PARACHUTE ARTIST - The New Yorker,

Cairo is “no more than a winter suburb of London,” an 1898 Cook’s Tours pamphlet assured tourists. Richard Bangs, the co-founder of Mountain Travel Sobek, the adventure travel company, says that Lonely Planet travellers “like to think they’re out there on the edge, but they’re all reading the bible and moving in big flocks.”

Yet Tony Wheeler’s most important advice—reprinted in the guides until last year’s relaunch—was “Just go!” Don’t book hotels, don’t worry unduly about shots and itineraries or even buying a guidebook—just go. This was an existential call to arms that amounted to a politics and even a morality: more than one Lonely Planet author told me that had George W. Bush ever really travelled abroad the United States would not have invaded Iraq.

and Pico Iyer's extraordinary glimpse which comes by simply stepping outside the door of a single block in Japan, Our Lady of Lawson, couldn't be more relevant and heartfelt, seen here:  Eat, Memory: Our Lady of Lawson - The New York Times.  George Saunders offers a hilarious but scathing take on the lavish extravagance and wealth of Dubai in The New Mecca, seen here:  The New Mecca - GQ.com, describing one of the opulent hotels, the Emirates Towers.  

I decide to go in but can't locate the pedestrian entrance. The idea, I come to understand, after fifteen minutes of high-attentiveness searching, is to discourage foot traffic. Anybody who belongs in there will drive in and valet park. 

Finally I locate the entrance: an unmarked, concealed, marble staircase with wide, stately steps fifty feet across. Going up, I pass a lone Indian guy hand-squeegeeing the thirty-three (I count them) steps. 

How long will this take you? I ask. All afternoon? 

I think so, he says sweetly. 

Part of me wants to offer to help. But that would be, of course, ridiculous, melodramatic. He washes these stairs every day. It's not my job to hand-wash stairs. It's his job to hand-wash stairs. My job is to observe him hand-washing the stairs, then go inside the air-conditioned lobby and order a cold beer and take notes about his stair-washing so I can go home and write about it, making more for writing about it than he'll make in many, many years of doing it. 

Part of me wanted to stop this ridiculous Rockport trek to Motif #1, to inform photographers that the actual shack was destroyed in the blizzard of 1978, that this is really a reconstructed replica.  Go home, and take your tripods with you.  But that would deny the individual satisfaction that each and every one of them must feel first of all just finding this place in a relatively uninhabited region, then being drawn to the Motif like a magnet, as if this constitutes communing with Thoreau in some strangely personal transcendental experience.  Of course the rocky landscape with its mix of sand and natural forest is much more picturesque than this fish shack, which does, by the way, continue to store various fishermen's equipment inside. But if truth be told, travel is an individual experience best left open ended and undefined, where sprawling thoughts and unlimited energy continue to accumulate long after one returns to the inevitable rhythms and routines back home, where some of those highway exits would look pretty good right about now, as everything here has that familiar pattern of sameness. 

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