Saturday, November 29, 2008

Beijing August 2005

One of the side benefits of traveling to North Korea is that you need to spend several days in Beijing while arranging for your visa and flight to Pyongyang. In August 2005, together with my colleagues Amy and Michael, I was able to enjoy some of the sights around China's  "Northern Capital." As the Forbidden City was just a short walk from our hotel, that was the first place we visited. 

Nearly as famous as the Forbidden City is the Temple of Heaven complex. The area for these temples is actually larger than the Forbidden City but its use was ceremonial. Pictured is the Imperial Vault of Heaven at the center of the temple area. During Beijing's imperial past, this is where the ancestral tablets of the Emperor were kept.

A long, broad paved avenue leads from the Imperial Vault to this impressive gate. As you pass through these arches you enter the grounds surrounding the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests which can be seen in the distance. For five centuries, the Emperor came here annually in grand ceremony to pray for fertility throughout the Middle Kingdom.

And no trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall. When Romans ruled the Mediterranean, large sections of the Great Wall had already been constructed. A million solders guarded its length. Now, on a typical summer weekend such as this, the Emperor's guards have been replaced by thousands of foreigners and, seemingly, much of the population of Beijing. The structure built over the centuries to separate China from the rest of the world is now accepted as a heritage for all mankind. 

As you walk further along the Great Wall the crowds thin out in part due to the distance but also because the climb can be steep. Even a day's hike along the Great Wall takes you only a few thousand yards—a baby step compared to its 4,000 mile length. The scale of this construction, which extends across peaks and valleys as far as the eye can see, overwhelms everyday sensibility and is grasped only by imagination.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Penang Sunset August 2006

Sunsets in Malaysia are spectacular!

When I first arrived in Malaysia as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1970, I was awe-struck by the colors of the sunsets. Growing up in New England, I was accustomed to the lingering twilight of summer with the colors of day gradually dissipating until the world turned gray and dark. However, in Malaysia, just north of the equator, sunset never lasted long. From the end of day until the dark of night was a matter of minutes rather than hours. Yet here the sunlight fought to remain in the sky with shades of pink and cobalt shifting into mauve before giving way to nightfall. 

High on Penang Hill in August 2006 I was surrounded by another wonderful Malaysian sunset. Until you can visit Penang yourself to be bathed in the light of an ochre sunset, I hope you will enjoy these images. (Click the pictures to enlarge.)

Looking out from the garden of the Penang Hill Hotel, you can see the condos that line the shore along Gurney Drive and, in the distance, the lights of Province Wellesley flickering from across Penang harbor.

On the opposite shore far beyond the Penang Hill radio tower, Kedah Peak (Gunung Jerai) rises through the mist. For centuries, this mountain has remained a landmark for sailors traveling through the Straits of Malacca. 

As the sun finally dips below the horizon, clouds capture the red and ochre tones of the rapidly vanishing light that burnishes Georgetown, the harbor and the opposite shore. Just a couple minutes later and the light is gone from the sky. This is the image as captured by my camera without any added color from Photoshop. Such sunsets are wonderful to see and inspiring to experience. 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ankor Wat December 2005

A business trip to Cambodia at the end of 2005 enabled me to spend a Saturday exploring Ankor Wat. This was a trip long delayed. Back in 1971 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia, a group of us had taken the train to Bangkok following our first year of service. After seeing Bangkok's monuments and glittering night life, there was a discussion on what to see next. I was for crossing the border into Cambodia to see Angkor Wat but was outvoted by those wanting to see the Shangri-La of the north, Chiang Mai. "We'll visit Angkor Wat next year," they said. But by 1972 the conflict in Cambodia had taken Angkor Wat off the list of tourist destinations. It was to be many years before anyone would again think of Cambodia as a fun place to visit.

The Angkor Wat complex is surrounded by a large moat bridged by a pedestrian causeway. When I first saw the towers marking the core of the temple the huge scale of the complex became apparent. Completed about 800 years ago, this Hindu monument recreates a vision of heaven on earth. Abandoned for centuries, the temples of Angkor Wat were reclaimed by the surrounding jungle until discovered and described by astonished French explorers in the mid-19th century.

Rendering the entrance to Angkor Wat as a sepia-toned image somehow captures the aura of mystery and  ancient beauty one senses while approaching the central temple.

Galleries are found along the outside walls of the temple. As you walk along the outer wall every inch is covered by bias-relief carvings illuminating Hindu beliefs.

Before my visit, I had thought I would be seeing just Angkor Wat, a temple that has become the symbol of Cambodia to the world. But the area north of the town Siem Reap is an immense archeological park--some 400 square kilometers--where the number and variety of Kymer temples is beyond counting.  There are more temples than you could explore in a day or even see in a month.

While I saw many temples throughout my day at Angkor Wat, many had become more jungle than building. This temple was somewhat unique not only for being freed from the surrounding forest but also for its modest scale and wonderful color.

Detail from Angkor Wat Aspera (temple nymph). 

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

California Vacation February 2008

San Francisco in February is brisk and misty. We walked all over the city to stay warm while we saw the sights. No matter how often we visit, however, we always find a new vista. From the top of Coit Tower we had this dramatic view of San Francisco's unmatched skyline.

At the Palace of the Legion of Honor the line to get in the museum snaked around the building. So we just wandered over the grounds and admired the outdoor sculpture.

From San Francisco we traveled to San Diego to visit some friends working at San Diego State University. They took us to nearby La Jolla where seals and their pups had taken over the beach. At this time of year, they're able to have the beach all to themselves.

In February, New York's Central Park is slippery with snow and slush. Balboa Park in San Diego, however, is still a garden in bloom. Orchids, palms and other exotic plants fill the Botanical Building.

Between the Botanical Building and the Museum of San Diego History is this lovely Lily Pond. On the day we were there, a film crew was setting up in a grassy area nearby to record an interview. We didn't stay, however, to see who the local celebrity would be.

On our way back to northern California we spent several days exploring the Central Coast around Paso Robles. The area is often overlooked in the rush of traffic traveling between LA and San Francisco. But for those who take the time to slow down and look, there is a landscape that inspires. During the Great Depression, while William Randolph Hearst ruled his world from a mountaintop castle, children in the nearby village of San Simeon learned their ABCs in this one room school house.

Some 20 miles south of San Simeon is the community of Moro Bay. This town has one of the safest anchorages in California with Moro Rock standing as sentinel to protect the harbor entrance.

While less well known than Napa and Sonoma, the Central Coast has become one of California's premier wine growing areas. Over 100 wineries can be found in the greater Paso Robles area. One of the best wineries for Pinot Noir is located in nearby Templeton—Wild Horse Vineyards. It was cold and cloudy the day we arrived but the winery staff's hospitality made our visit enjoyable. The conversation among the guests was friendly and the wine was wonderful. Just outside the tasting room I took this photo of the stormy sky.

We ended our California sojourn in the Sacramento River valley. While most states talk about renewable energy, in California the hillside windmills capture electricity for the future.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

PCV Reunion in Vermont August 2007

A long time ago in a country far away, a group of new college graduates found themselves learning Malay and finding out how they could adapt to a strange and wonderful culture. In 1970, we first gathered from around the country to a "staging" in San Jose, California to find out about the country where we would spend the next two years as Peace Corps Volunteers. Malaysia was a place few of us were familiar with. In a  short time, however, we would all come to love Malaysia as a second home.

Our flight from San Francisco to Tokyo was aboard a PanAm 747. The first 747s had only recently been introduced six months earlier. None of us had ever seen one let alone flown on one. Our jet dwarfed everything else on the runway. Taking our seats in its expansive interior added to the thrill, and trepidation, we felt leaving the USA for two years of Peace Corps service.

In the early 1970s there were about 400 PCVs scattered across Malaysia. Some of us were sent to isolated kampongs while others lived in major cities such as Kuala Lumpur (affectionately known as KL) and Ipoh. But no matter where you were, you were never far from other PCVs. Phones were not always available and, of course, there was no email. So we wrote to each other or, more commonly, just dropped by unannounced. On weekends, when PCVs got together, we could always find something to do—bike over to Kajang for satay, take a bus to visit Batu Caves, or just find a quiet beach for swimming. After a year in Malaysia, a few of us went on vacation to Thailand: Dick and Roberta, Susan, and me. On that trip we got to know each other very well.

When we finished our Peace Corps service, we thought we would stay in touch but somehow over the years as we went to grad school, got jobs, married and raised kids, moved from state to state or even country to country, we lost track of each other. Within the last decade, however, thanks to the wonders of the internet, we've been successful in finding many Malaysia PCV Group 29 alumni. Susan has been the key organizer in pulling our group back together for mini-reunions. 

In the summer of 2007, Susan began planning a weekend in Vermont for those of us in the Northeast. Dick and Roberta still live in Vermont. Though divorced, they remain neighbors on the same country road. Dick farms and preaches. Roberta teaches. Also invited were Mel and Kathy who live in Pennsylvania. As it turned out, on that weekend, Mel and Kathy were unable to join us and Dick was away in Massachusetts awaiting the birth of another grandchild. Roberta stayed back, however, to be our hostess and show us a little bit of Vermont.

I had not seen Roberta since she and Dick left Malaysia in 1972. Roberta's voice and her captivating enthusiasm had not changed. It was a joy seeing her again after so many years. Although my wife Jee had heard about Roberta and had talked to her on the phone, they had never met. However, when they got together they found they had much in common from teaching to a love of cooking and handicrafts.

Roberta thinks that when she retires from teaching she may rejoin the Peace Corps. While Malaysia is no longer a Peace Corps country, there are many other places Roberta thinks she would enjoy serving as a volunteer. For Susan, who since leaving Malaysia has had a career in research biology, the idea of international living has never gone away. As her husband is from India, she regularly visits family in South Asia and travels to such picturesque destinations as China, Cambodia and Brazil. As for myself, I nearly didn't leave Malaysia. I extended my Peace Corps service in Malaysia an additional year to court Jee.  As Jee is from Penang, an island that remains one of Malaysia's most enjoyable destinations, it was hard to go. But in 1973 we returned to America so I could enter graduate school. My first job after that was back in Southeast Asia, initially in the Philippines and then in Indonesia. Later, Jee and I lived in Cameroon and Somalia. In all, we spent 10 years working overseas before we finally returned to New England to settle.

For each of us at this mini-reunion, our experience in Malaysia has become a touchstone that we use to compare all our lives since that magical time.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Scenes from New Mexico April 2007

Taos Door

Santa Fe's Trading Post

The Landscape near Acoma Pueblo

Burro Alley Santa Fe

Coyote Cafe Santa Fe

Santa Fe & Taos April 2007

We felt we had hardly explored the Albuquerque area before we had to move on to our next destinations: Taos and Santa Fe. From Albuquerque, we followed the Turquoise Trail north. The road wove its way through a host of small mountain communities, each with its own charm. In Chimayo, we visited the famous Sanctuary where pilgrims have come for nearly 200 years seeking miraculous cures and forgiveness of sins. The church itself is a weathered building of ancient boards and adobe walls with bell towers flanking the entry. A mass was in progress when we arrived. We stayed and listened to the sermon for a while before mid-day hunger led us to a nearby restaurant famous for its flavorful tamales. We were not disappointed. Dona Leona's tamales were worth a special trip to Chimayo on their own. Yet El Santuario and Leona's were not the only attractions in Chimayo. This village is also the home of Ortega's weaving shop. The Ortega family has been weaving in Chimayo since the early 1700s. Their distinctive garments are famous not just in New Mexico but around the world. While there were many beautiful items in the shop, particularly the rugs with detailed patterns and high prices, I could not resist getting my wife a warm wool vest, especially since it fit her so well.

Santa Fe awaited us at the end of the Turquoise Trail. We stayed at the Pueblo Bonito, a small B&B just a short walk from Santa Fe's Plaza. Each room at Pueblo Bonito was named after one of the state's many pueblos. Our room was Acoma, which was fitting as it was the only pueblo we visited during our trip. Decorated with native pottery and drums, our room kept us in a New Mexico frame of mind.

In Santa Fe, history is ever-present but it flavors rather than dominates the day. On the north side of the Plaza, under the awning of the Palace of the Governors, native Americans sell jewelry, pottery and other arts that represent centuries of tradition. While admiring their handicrafts you can learn much as each artisan describes what they have made and the meanings of the designs. It's hard to look over their work and not purchase at least a modest souvenir.

Not only is Santa Fe rich in history, it also has a wealth of museums. On our first day in Santa Fe we spent some time visiting the Georgia O'Keeffe museum. While the exhibition space in the museum is relatively small, the works on display by this renowned artist were breathtaking. Her paintings of flowers and landscapes used brilliant coloring and simplicity of form to create an emotional impact. Also on exhibition were some abstract paintings and sculpture by Sherrie Levine who drew inspiration from O'Keeffe. We loved O'Keeffe's works but were often puzzled by Levine's.

We took a walking tour of Santa Fe and learned more about its history and architecture. Our tour ended at the chapel with the miraculous staircase--truly a wonder of craftsmanship. Constructed in the early 1800s by an itinerant carpenter who took no payment for his work, the wooden stairway is built without a central support yet makes two complete 360-degree turns as it spirals from the chapel floor to the choir loft. Often studied but never duplicated, the faithful of Santa Fe consider the stairway a gift from God. 

After two days of shopping, museums and wonderful New Mexican food, we left Santa Fe and drove north to Taos. Known both as an artist colony and skier's paradise, Taos seemed a quiet place after the many galleries, shops and historical buildings that held our interest in Santa Fe. North of town, we took the road to the Taos Ski Valley. Winding ever higher, the road traced its way alongside a stream until eventually we arrived at the ski village. The village stood at 10,000 feet but the surrounding peaks were half a mile higher. In April, little snow remained on the slopes; the chair lifts were idle, swaying slightly in the breeze. We didn't stay very long but tried to imagine how the trails must look at the height of the season when skiers track through fresh powder.

From the heights of the Taos Ski Valley we drove to the Rio Grande gorge. Route 64 crosses over the Rio Grande northwest of town. We parked just before the bridge and walked to the middle of the span. Far below, the river shimmered from a chasm now in shadow as the late afternoon sun dropped lower in the sky. From the bridge to the river is more than 600 feet. I'm told that during the summer you can bungee jump into the gorge. Those who do must be braver or more foolhardy than me. Just looking over the bridge and bracing against the wind whistling down the gorge was sufficiently thrilling for both of us.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Albuquerque April 2007

This was our first visit to New Mexico. While we had talked many times about traveling to New Mexico, in the spring of 2007 we decided to act on an open invitation to visit from a high school classmate. Peter had moved to New Mexico nearly 20 years ago. He and his wife built a beautiful home in the shadow of Sandia Peak. "When we came, there were few other homes in the area," Peter noted. Now the area where Peter and his wife live is considered one of Albuquerque's best.

While spending two days in the Albuquerque area visiting with Peter and his wife we also caught up with a couple former colleagues. John came out to Albuquerque over 10 years ago as the regional head for an international charity. He later developed and came to lead a local non-profit for addressing children's needs. David, who also worked for the same charity, came to Albuquerque to take over the regional position that John had held earlier.

All three of our friends encouraged us to stay in New Mexico. Each in their own way told us how they loved living in the area not only for its beautiful landscape and picture perfect four-season climate but especially for its vibrant culture and international outlook. A few days around Albuquerque helped us understand their enthusiasm. Whether wandering through the colorful streets of Old Town Albuquerque or touring Acoma Pueblo, the oldest inhabited community in the United States, it quickly became apparent why New Mexico is the "Land of Enchantment."