Travel

The Everglades, that Mysterious Park

I’ve written before about my tendency to grab old guide books of the kind you’d pick up at a random visitor center from my parents’ house, and I’ve also mentioned my delight with books about lands I don’t really know.

Well, today’s entry does a bit of both.

Although I’ve lived in Miami, and been to many other places in Florida, I have no real knowledge of the Everglades. Evidently, though, my parents must have been in or around the park in the early 1980s because they grabbed the book above, Everglades – The Story Behind the Scenery by Jack de Golia. Knowing my parents, they likely grabbed this one on their visit to the Park (and they probably took me with them, but I was too young to remember, apparently).

Though the book is still in print, the version I read is the Second Printing from 1979, so much of the human impact on the Everglades that it describes is likely out of date, but the new version (pictured and linked) likely addresses this shortcoming.

But this book isn’t about the activist portion, at least not for me. The magic comes from reading about the unique geographical, hydrological and ecological attractions of the Everglades and the National Park that protects the ecosystem.

Perhaps the most important thing about this book is that it demystifies a landscape I never think about in the least, and brings it to life, creating a much richer picture in my head to fill in one of the blank spaces on my mental map.

I’ll probably keep grabbing those travel books from that old pile. They are nearly as good at transporting me to a different time and place as any novel… and I learn stuff, too.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a romp through the Ural mountains with hungry monsters on your tail. Whether those monsters are genetically modified dinosaurs, enormous arachnids or something else, they’re all out for one thing: human blood. You can check out Test Site Horror here.

Traveling During a Pandemic – One Writer’s Thoughts

I traveled internationally during the pandemic.

Leaving aside the inevitable argument about whether that was right or wrong, moral or immoral, shocking or perfectly normal (you can argue about that endlessly online, but I’m not really into that particular discussion), the truth was that it was interesting. And I’m always into interesting.

I went to Buenos Aires airport without any real expectations except that this one was going to be different from my other trips. It was October, and the first time I’d left the city proper in a motorized vehicle since March (Argentina did the world a huge favor by proving that long lockdowns and strict quarantine are completely useless in dealing with this disease unless you force the public to stay inside by putting armed troops on the streets with orders and authority to shoot to kill).

The airport doors were closed and people for the two flights that were leaving the country that day (think about that for a second… two flights) were all packed around the door.

Eventually, we got onto the airplane, which was fully booked. Every single seat was occupied, including the middles. Social distancing, apparently, is not necessary on airplanes according to international regulations.

Another interesting thing was contrasting Miami airport with JFK in New York. Miami was open to business, and the airport was crowded, happy and alive, even though everyone was wearing a mask. JFK was surreal. I had entire waiting rooms and long, empty corridors to myself at two o’clock on a Saturday.

But the truly interesting thing was being in another country (the US in this case) and listening to cab drivers, hotel employees and other people I could chat with essentially say the same thing: “Now that we understand the pandemic better than we did, it’s time to open things back up.”

I found that educational. In Argentina, people saw that the government had no clue what to do about the pandemic except to take away our normal lives, and most people began ignoring the lockdown about a month into it. Even the people who were saying “you need to stay inside to take care of your neighbors” were outside.

But that’s Argentina. We’re used to the government taking measures that no one will ever comply with… we’ve learned that ignoring such undemocratic noise is pretty much necessary. So, just like when the government says “you can’t have savings in dollars” and everyone saves in dollars, when the government says “you have to stay inside”, we gave them a chance to show us they knew what they were doing… and when it became obvious they didn’t, the population moved onto the next step: ignoring the decree completely.

I thought the US would be different, though. US democracy is much stronger than that of other countries (and yes, I know that the US is in the middle of a very difficult election cycle right now, but in general, this above is true). One thing the US is famed for worldwide is that it defends the rights of people to do what they want.

So to hear every single person spoke to say that the restrictions should be dropped was a shock, mainly because the restrictions haven’t been.

Now I’m sure that there are many people who prefer to leave the restrictions in place, but in light of my very informal polling, it would be truly hard to convince me that they are a majority. It really looks like the population at large is against them.

So another interesting thing I’ve found is that the world’s leading democracy is criminalizing behavior things that a majority is in favor of. Like the 55 Mph speed limit, it’s an antidemocratic law; you can’t be a democracy and be against the public at the same time: you have to choose one. So it will be interesting to see how this evolves as politicians remove heads from asses and see that everyone hates the restrictions and will immediately go back to normal if permitted. I predict another round of fun fights online.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the trip was that everyone is sure that the next flu season will be interesting. Not because of covid itself, but because of the flu. People seem to believe that no one will have an immune system left at the end of this.

I have no clue if the science backs that up, but it does mesh with the sense that I’ve had of the helicopter-parent society being crappy for the long-term development of children. All this antibacterial soap probably won’t lead to robust, healthy adults with well-developed immune systems. Luckily, I’m not a doctor, so I won’t be advising anyone else on this topic.

It was an interesting trip… and my conclusion is that the world will be fine. Covid won’t destroy our lives. Hell, it won’t even change them that much because, like me, most people are willing to risk it for themselves but also respect other peoples’ requests to take care of themselves. That means that those who want to go back to normal (knowing there’s a risk) will likely be able to do so… and those who want to take extra care will be respected.

That’s the way it should be, and I think humans are, as a species, much better than the twitterverse makes them out to be.

Gustavo Bondoni loves to see places. New or well-known, there is always something to discover. That passion is expressed in its full dimension in his collection Off the Beaten Path. These are fantasy and science fiction stories for readers who want to be transported to places you don’t always read about, outside the usual European or North American settings. You can check it out here.

Marco Polo, Still Fascinating Nearly a Thousand Years Later

I stumbled over The Travels of Marco Polo almost by accident. If you’d asked me, I would have stated my intention of reading it someday, but whenever I’m off buying books, I never seem to think of it.

But a friend was clearing out her library (she said that, at eighty, there are a few books in there she probably won’t read again), and this was one of the ones she gifted me.

The Barnes & Noble edition I received is a hefty book, coming in at around 600 pages, of which 400 is the actual text of the book. The fact that you have 200 pages of end notes tells you a bit about the edition: it’s a heavily annotated and explained version, with every place name and custom given a clarification.

But that doesn’t tell you everything. This is a reprint of an early 20th-century edition, doesn’t affect the main text–it’s a very good translation–but the end notes refer to place names that are no longer recognizable, uses other medieval travelers as corroborative evidence and treats much of Asia as terra incognita. It’s probably a wonderful resource for comparative cartographers, but not for a general reader. In the end, I only used the end notes to try to figure out where in Asia Marco was at any given time (this is not easy sometimes, solely from the notes).

But that puzzling editorial oddity (I’m pretty sure there are modernized editions out there, but maybe B&N didn’t want to pay copyright fees on an eight hundred year old classic) aside, this is a wonderful book. Marco’s look at cultures, peoples and places is marvelous. Of course, some of it is apocryphal hearsay and all of it is affected by his medieval preconceptions… but it reads in a surprisingly modern way (the end notes are much more arcane in text style).

My entire conception of the world east of Constantinople during the reign of Kublai Khan was modified… and, unless your a scholar or enthusiast of non-European medieval cultures, I would bet yours will change as well.

Definitely worth the read. You’ll be transported to a place that was wondrous and a time where if something seemed magical, you were permitted to believe it was. A wonderful follow-up to the Shackleton book.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina. He loves spending time (real or imaginary) in faraway places, which is why he eventually ended up with enough published stories for a collection of tales set outside of European or US settings. Off the Beaten Path is a wondrous journey to the far corners of the globe, and you can check it out here.

A Couple of Hours in the Eternal City

Every once in a while, I enjoy grabbing an tourist book from my parents’ collection.  You know the kind I mean: the ones sold in shops aimed at tourists and museum gift shops in the major travel destinations.

They’re usually dismissed as fluff for the tourist trade, but the truth is that they are equally often well-researched information sources with unexpected depth.  A couple of years ago, I read the one about Florence which surprised me because it was a spectacularly in-depth history of the golden age of the city and well worth reading.

ROME THE VATICAN AND THE SISTINA - Sergio Cartocci

The Roman volume in my parents’ stash is more in line with what one would expect.  A well-written intro to each major attraction followed by a number of well-captioned photographs.

This particular volume is worth the price of admission because it covers is great detail the sistine chapel and Raphael rooms in the Vatican even though it is less concerned with the rest of the city and pretty much says nothing about Roman history in general.

It serves best as a record of how these paintings looked in the early eighties (they have since been restored) and as a repository of pictures of Rome in the late sixties.  Wonderfully atmospheric, reasonably educational but–confirming the touristy stereotype–perhaps not as much depth as one would prefer.

Anyway, if you collect books on Rome, this one is interesting for the Vatican painting sections.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose love of travel is reflected in all his work, but perhaps most particularly in his ebook thriller Timeless, the bulk of which takes place on Mount Athos in Greece (a monastic hub which even in the modern day doesn’t allow women to set foot on it… which is bad news for the female main character) and southern Italy.  You can check it out here.

A Book about England by the Man Who Scooped the King Tut Tomb Opening

I bought a bunch of used books at my local Anglican church about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been working my way through the ones I decided to keep.  The nice part about doing this kind of thing is that I invariably end up with loads of books I would never have bought anywhere else.  Lesser work by authors I’m already familiar with (such as Barnaby Rudge or Silas Marner) and books by writers I’d never heard of before lead the list.

Today’s entry is of the second kind.  When I picked up In Search of England, by H.V. (Henry Volland) Morton, I had never heard of book or author.  But I can’t resist a book which promised a tour of the English countryside, so I saved it as a keeper.

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It was a good choice.  The first thing I noticed is that, unlike Laurens van der Post, who was a workmanlike writer with an emotional bent that makes his work special, Morton is a virtuoso of the pen whose broad historical background made me (as a writer), shake my head in admiration.

But even if he’d been a lesser mortal, the subject is so charming that it would have warranted a place on my shelves.

The story is an account of an automobile journey that Morton undertook around 1926 (the book itself was published in 1927) which started in London and followed, roughly, the contour of England (it ventured into Scotland only following an interesting historical anomaly and only for a few miles).

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Avoiding many of today’s tourist traps, the narrative focuses on the villages and unique quirks that make England so special.  The Furry Dance in Helston (there are no people dressed as animals, strangely), and the Chester Rows are prime examples, as are churches large and small and the Bristol Camera Obscura, which I need to write a detective story about.

Of course, he also covers the larger stuff such as Bath or Hadrian’s wall, but he does so with a historian’s eye to minutiae that others would simply pass by.  In each place, he endeavors to tell us something that the average tourist would never learn… and it’s wonderful.

The most poignant part of it all is when he stands on Hadrian’s wall and looks out over Scotland.  You can almost feel the weight of the Roman Empire pushing on your back, and the darkness of the unknown ahead.  Immensely good writing.

As a travel journal, it still holds up today.  By concentrating on things with roots deep in history, Morton manages to avoid the problems of old guide books.  He almost doesn’t mention hotels, gas stations or other stuff that have been superseded by modern life.

It was only after I finished reading and went onto the internet to investigate his life did I learn that both Morton and his “In search of…” series were (or are, depending on your interests) very famous.

Morton, it turns out, was the journalist on the scene when King Tut’s tomb was first opened, and managed to scoop the Times.  In 1923 scooping The Times was a big deal… and Morton became an instant celebrity.  That’s the kind of serendipitous discovery you never make when buying on Amazon or B&N… and it means I’ll continue to peruse the shelves of unlikely places for overlooked gems.

And the series? It was a bestseller in its day and is still in print today.

Well-deserved.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with hundreds of published stories to his name, as well as several books.  His latest book is perfect for anyone who loves to discover relatively unknown quirks of distant cultures. It’s called Pale Reflection, and Morton would have loved it.  We think you will, too, so check it out here.

 

 

A Trip I’d Take in a Heartbeat

Imagine the following: you hop on a local train in Boston and, a few weeks later, hop off a train in Patagonia.  It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, doesn’t it?

Well, it kinda is, except for the fact that it isn’t, technically, possible; not only is the Darien Gap still alive and well, but there are other spots where the train system is disconnected in the middle of the journey.  That, of course, didn’t stop Paul Theroux from getting as close as possible in 1979.

Now, I don’t normally read travel books of any kind (though we do sometimes have travel writers here), but I’d read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast in high school (it wasn’t assigned reading, but I used to sit in the back row and I had a locker just behind me.  Another class was reading this, and I was bored in class, so I read it while my classmates were slowly discussing Shakespeare plays that I’d already finished reading), so I decided to give this one a shot.  Plus, I got the book for free…

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

The Old Patagonian Express tells the story of an adventure which, even in the limited form that Theroux attempted, is no longer possible.  The final legs of the train journey, within Argentina, no longer exist (they may, again, someday – the missing link has recently reopened for cargo trains… here’s hoping passenger service will resume someday).

It also tells the story from a point of view that is almost forty years old.  Yes, I know that most Americans are still just as provincial in their outlook today as they were in 1979, but now the WAY they are provincial has swapped around.  Today, an American traveler might be surprised that countries on the other side of their border are not as politically correct and don’t really care for American’s sensibilities…

Trochita - Expreso Patagónico - Patagonian Express

But in 1979 it was very different.  Theroux might have been a world traveler and an enlightened exponent of his age, but he still looks at the people in Latin America without romanticizing them, and generalizes about their habits and activities in a way that would cause shock and outrage if published today.

The net effect of this is… refreshing and likely more accurate.  Much of what he says isn’t exactly gentle and “nice”, but it is supremely accurate.  Someone using this as a field guide for Latin American countries might find that a lot has changed, but might still find a more realistic description of the people one will encounter along the way than if you look at a modern equivalent.  Seems that modern authors will never let you know when a certain town in Costa Rica is populated almost exclusively by people who hate tourists and look to rob them whenever possible.

Now, the question is: is accuracy a sacrifice that it’s reasonable to make in the name of cultural sensitivity?  When does political correctness cross the line from a necessary buffer to avoid prejudice to outright lying in order to soften a hard truth.

I don’t have the answer to that, but I recommend reading this book if you’re interested in the question.  It will make you think, and possibly to question.

And besides, it tells about a fascinating adventure which, in itself is more than enough to justify the purchase price.  Also, we like trains.

Definitely one to read if you can.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most popular novel, Siege, is available here.

 

 

The Rich Tapestry of a Small Island

A you may have surmised from this blog, I am not exactly someone who has their finger on the pulse of popular culture.  In fact–and we need to have this discussion someday–if I’m sitting at a table with people discussing famous actors, pretty models who are married to sporting figures or the latest diet craze, I’m usually the guy in the corner rolling his eyes and wondering how 21st century civilization manages to survive if its citizens are concerned about those things.

A few exceptions exist, usually literary.  I read The Da Vinci Code when everyone was reading it (I happen to like that kind of thing and turn a blind eye to the obvious shortcomings) and also read and watched the Harry Potter series in nearly real time (I began with the first movie).

That’s not normally the case. I usually sneer at popular culture as the modern equivalent of the prefrontal lobotomy.

But sometimes–not always, or even usually, but sometimes–popular culture ends up becoming part of the canon and it’s nice to be beaten over the head with it and discovering it twenty years later (twenty years seems to be the benchmark–if it dies before the 20 years are up, it wasn’t really worth much, was it?).

Notes From a Small Island - Folio Society Edition - Bill Bryson

I frequent a few of those places where popular culture makes the transition to high culture and I discover things that I might have missed.  One of those places, strangely enough, is the Folio Society website.  Yes, the Folio Society is mainly known for its pretty editions of classics, but they also have a fine sense of when a book or author is making that transition between the popular and the canon.  If your book becomes a Folio edition, you have, in a real sense not necessarily measured in dollars, arrived.

For readers like myself, who are often have no way of telling the popular culture wheat from the chaff, it’s a great place to find out what is making that transition and to discover authors that everyone but I have already heard of.

To that list, I have now added Bill Bryson, and specifically his amazing book Notes From a Small Island.  For those who are as sadly clueless as I was, Bryson is an American journalist who lived in Britain for many years.  Before returning to his homeland, he decided to take a sort of Grand Tour of the Isles and write it up.  The result is a delightful, often laugh-out-loud-funny, and affectionate glimpse at Britain through the eyes of someone who can tell what is so funny about it and make us understand.

It’s one of those delightful books that definitely make life richer.  If you haven’t read it, track down a copy–you won’t regret it.

In fact, finding things like this is almost enough to make one want to pay more attention to what is going on in popular media, or even to pay attention to what the people around you are discussing at lunch.

Almost.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and insufferable elitist who expounds his unsustainable worldview in a number of novels and collections which he only wishes would become a part of popular culture and make him a millionaire.  Branch is a novella about evolution in the next few years and, as a shorter work, is probably a good introduction to his oeuvre.  

The Razor’s Edge

Our guest blogger today is Clinton A. Harris, a travel writer who also writes fiction. You can check out his blog, Getting Out More, right here.  He is the author of Song of the Cinder.

The Razor's Edge - Somerset Maugham

The Razor’s Edge.

I have tried to read this book. Yes, I have an English BA, I am a writer, I have read many of the classics with varying degrees of difficulty, subtext, and mechanical artistry that make them nearly opaque. But for whatever reason W. Somerset Maugham’s story of Larry Darrell begins with the author himself standing right in the way, like someone with a really big hat sitting in front of you at the theatre, and he just never gets out of the way. So, I’m going to talk about the Bill Murray version of the movie instead.

Decades before Lost in Translation, this was his first serious role. Rumor has it that Bill Murray held out on taking the starring role in Ghostbusters just so this movie could be made. I read it on Wikipedia, so it must be true. Larry Darrell (Murray) is a member of the Chicago aristocracy. He is engaged to be married to Isabel Bradley and everything seems great until war breaks out in Europe. Like many of his peers, Larry volunteers for the war effort and finds himself postponing his marriage so he can be an ambulance driver on the Western Front. There, we get to see the absurdity of war as well as the tragedy of how easily human life is wasted. At a pivotal scene, Larry is riding shotgun in his ambulance, as Piedmont (played by real-life brother Brian Doyle-Murray), sings a flat, monotone rendition of Frere Jacques to the dying men as the Germans lob artillery shells at them.

The Razor's Edge Film 1984

The World War I scenes are marvelous, and often echo the expatriate tales of disenfranchisement started by writers of the Lost Generation such as Hemingway, who himself was an ambulance driver in Europe during the war. The scenes of battle, loss, heartbreak and disillusionment are nearly cut and pasted from this film into the widely more popular film which launched Brad Pitt’s career ten years later: Legends of the Fall.

Piedmont’s cynicism is infectious and after his death and the war, Larry returns home changed. Isabel and his socialite friends haven’t missed a step, however Larry’s best friend, Gray, seems to have taken a liking to his betrothed, much to Sophie’s chagrin, as she was Gray’s fiancée herself. Larry seems indifferent to all this. Something inside of him has been lost since the war and so he decides to take some time to get his head back together. He goes to Paris where he lives in squalor, works menial labor jobs, and reads. Isabel makes a surprise visit one day and after seeing the state of Larry’s living conditions, she bolts and presumably gets more chummy with Gray. Larry is even more indifferent and so after being introduced to the Upanishads by a coal miner, he decides to go to India, then to the Himalayas.

The ahah! Moment hits Larry as he is freezing to death on top of a mountain where he has been reading and searching for answers in himself. Bill Murray captures this moment perfectly, in such a subtle way that makes the 1946 version of this movie so melodramatic and heavy-handed. You truly get to see Murray’s genius in this moment. He lets go and just starts burning the pages of the book he is reading for warmth. He had lost himself in the quest to find himself and has come through to the other side.
Returning to the world of his old peers, Larry seems relaxed. He has learned that Gray and Isabel are married, Sophie is an alcoholic prostitute, well, really a flapper, but potato-potahto. He doesn’t seem bothered by any of it. He takes in Sophie, gets her cleaned up and begins a romantic relationship with her, which pisses Isabel off to no end. The film ends in more tragedy, and even though Larry is saddened by it, he continues on. The years of his life and the pain being so many pages going up in flames. He isn’t lost or ruined. Larry continues on in spite of the way things have turned out.

I would consider this movie to be more of a travelogue than anything else. In his travels, Larry realizes that the person he is has been with him all along, but in his journey, he has lost so much of what has burdened him along the way. I think it is a story of survival as well as revelation, and would put it in the same category as Laura Hillenbrand’s novel, Unbroken, about Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini who was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II, and also Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is a story of overcoming addiction and self-destruction and finding oneself at the other end of a long, difficult journey.

Those stories, as well as The Razor’s Edge are played off as victories, unlike the narrative of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated, yet fairy predictable tale told by Krakauer in Into the Wild, which though fascinating, is much more suited to the sub-genre of something more like Titanic or White Squall. A car-crash in slow-motion we continue to watch, but cannot pull ourselves away. We are at first wowed by the wonders and then tradegy brings it all into focus, rather than emerging from the chaos to find a sort of truth.

Stories like these are cathartic. The climax of the story is often reached when the protagonist learns a vital truth about themselves or the world and is better for it. Why did I drag everyone through this analysis of a 1984 movie? Because as a person who wants to write about traveling to places, I want to convey the spirit of the experience. How in leaving the comfort of our own homes and regions, we not only explore these places we are seeing, but also how we fit into the large scheme of things. By being open to new experiences we often reach a moment of catharsis. We lose something of what we once knew or held as sacrosanct and it is lost, yet replaced with something new. A broader perspective.

In writing fiction, you often take a kernel of truth and surround it with a fictional universe, or at least one that is somewhat recognizable. In writing about travel, you are drilling down through the layers to find that kernel and bring it into the light. An “enlightenment” in a very real sense. Sometimes our adventures are a mess and sometimes they are a way to find peace. The reality of both is being able to look into these experiences and gain from them, rather than detract. Anyway, that’s what I’m going with.

The TD;DR is This is Larry. Larry went through some bad times. Now Larry is happy. Be like Larry.

 

New kid on the Block

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Being a global citizen is emphatically not an exclusively Western thing, particularly over the past few decades, where India and especially China have become huge drivers of the world’s population and economy.  Today’s guest writer, Vero Nica, spent a long time in China.  Unlike most Westerners who visit China, she wasn’t “just looking”, so to speak – she moved there, and had to work to make ends meet.  As you can imagine, she has amassed a wealth of amazing stories and insights and, better still, has agreed to share some of them with us.  Enjoy!

I arrived in Beijing in November 2006, with a job as an English teacher. I had the right qualifications for the job. Mainly, I looked foreign. This leads us to an interesting insight into the imagery of the Chinese population: all foreigners speak English. Therefore, the main characteristic needed to teach English at that time was to look foreign. Nationality, education and actual level of English were rather distant second considerations. However, I hear that has changed now, as you are expected to have a passport from an English-speaking country – and preferably, look foreign.

I felt in a different world. I had studied Chinese for a year, but quickly realized it was nowhere near enough the level I thought it was (particularly my pronunciation of the infamous 5 tones). It was surprising, though, how far the words “this”, “that”, “thank you” and “how much is it?” took me those first few weeks. Anyway, the first few days I didn’t explore much, as I was adjusting to the time zone, the college (a joint Canadian-Chinese venture), the job, the apartment, etc. I did, however, need to eat and clean the apartment, so I ventured out to get the necessary supplies.

The staff at the school had provided teachers with a computer-generated map to a supermarket catering to foreigners (meaning, expensive imported stuff, but in a language you could actually understand), and I headed that way. It was just two blocks away, but when I got to the first corner, I found a biggish sort of obstacle. It was the meeting of two two-way streets, and was fairly busy by my standards.

I stood there waiting for the light, and started to cross. And I was surprised to see that cars did not seem to respect the traffic light a whole lot. I made  to the other side in one piece, but the episode left me confused. A bit of background is in order here, I think.

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I have lived most of my life in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Why is this important? Well, I am completely used to being on the receiving end of aggressive driving and having drivers treat traffic lights, speed limit and driving regulations as suggestions, as opposed to something that actually needs to be respected*. Still, cars can only advance – in any direction – when the light is green (with the exception of the usual homicidal/suicidal rascal who goes on ahead regardless of said traffic lights, other cars/pedestrians and anything else that might prevent them from gaining those precious thirty seconds). If you are big into survival skills, I do advise a trip to downtown Buenos Aires during rush hour. For the complete ninja experience, try a busy crossing with no traffic light. I have been to other places where driving rules are different, but they weren’t as notorious since drivers STOP for pedestrians. But I digress.

After a few more tries, I figured it out. There WAS a traffic light, and it worked,and people respected it, but traffic seemed to pour continuously into the street. Why? Well, I discovered that cars/motorcycles/mopeds/buses/etc. can always turn right, without having to wait for the traffic light, as do bicycles. At the same time, when the traffic light was green, oncoming traffic could turn left onto the street I was trying to cross.  None of this is legal where I come from, and made for some interesting/crowded moments, and made me feel like an owl every time I stepped off the sidewalk.

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Chinese drivers have a few saving graces, though: they don’t drive fast, and they usually signal their actions. Not only with their lights. If they drive into the “turn” lane, they will turn. This, of course, is radically different from my native country, and initially added to the confusion.

The important thing is not to panic, grab your towel, do as the Romans do, and submerge yourself in the challenge (and the smog, as it was) of opening your mind.

*I am usually a pedestrian or obnoxious cyclist. I do turn into a wilder beast behind the steering wheel.

Aerobics for My Brain

Open Road Canada

Today’s entry continues our series of guest blogs, and is perhaps the one (so far), that best summarizes what this site is all about.  Our guest today, Ace Lightning is a woman of many, many talents (as the piece itself will hint), having been everything from a Wiccan priestess to a broadcast engineer – which is a scope that is impressive even by the standards of this blog!  It tells of a familiar feeling for world travelers, and one that never gets old.  Enjoy!

 

My second language, after English, is Spanish, with French a very poor third (some random phrases I picked up when I worked at UN Radio – they inexplicably placed me in a French-speaking studio – and culinary terms). I live in the New York metropolitan area, and it’s easy to reach southeastern Canada from here. I had been to the cities of Montréal and Québec, and enjoyed both greatly. In Québec, I had occasionally had to resort to my fractured French, but as soon as I mentioned that I was American, not Anglophone Canadian, everything was all right.

Welcome to Quebec

When my son was in his early teens, we decided to take a family vacation along the St. Lawrence River. Neither my husband nor our son speaks a word of French, although we all speak Spanish. I was hoping I’d be able to see the Northern Lights (an obsession of mine); my son wanted to see moose in the Parc Gaspésie; and my husband was interested in seeing what Canada was like outside of the major cities. We flew into Montréal, rented a car and drove to Québec, then drove out along the river, staying overnight in a different place each night. Our accommodations ranged from a rather nice hotel in Montréal, to a rustic motel in Rimouski that had a door which opened out directly onto the beach of the river. The further away from the major cities we got, the less English people spoke; I soon found myself having to do most of the communicating. I had to teach the menfolk a few phrases, such as “Je suis Américain“, “Je ne parle pas français“, and “Où sont les toilettes?” I also watched French TV in our hotel rooms – usually MéteoMedia, the Canadian weather channel. Soon I was able to order meals for three people, buy petrol, and ask for (and even occasionally understand) driving directions. Everywhere we stopped, one of us would ask, “Do you speak English?”, and someone would reply “A leetle beet!”… which turned out to be the extent of their English. It was often frustrating, but also fun. (My husband and son just found it frustrating, although my son was often amused as well.)

We stopped in Cap-Chat, because I was especially interested in Éole – a huge vertical-shaft wind-powered generating plant, built as a “proof of concept”. I was immensely fascinated and impressed by the simplicity of its engineering. The tours were only given in French, and I wished I was able to ask more questions, but I still learned a lot. (Note: Éole is no longer in operation, although the structure is still there; the site is now an education center concerning wind-powered and other alternative sources of electricity.)

eole cap chat

We went all the way out to Gaspé, stayed for two days, and drove back to Montréal. I insisted on stopping at Éole again – this time they found someone who could describe some of the machinery in English. We also visited the site of an old copper mine, which had been made into a historical center, although we didn’t have time to take the tour of the mine itself. We made our way back to Montréal and flew home to New Jersey.

A day or two after we got home, I was describing this adventure to a friend, who said, “That must have been awful! Weren’t you terrified, being in a completely unfamiliar place, and forced to try to communicate in a language you barely know?” I said that, on the contrary, it had been positively exhilarating – I described it as being “like aerobics for my brain”. My friend couldn’t grok that at all; my mere description of the experience gave him a panic attack. Then I described it to another friend, a White Russian who had been raised in Paris and spoke something like 103 languages. He grinned and said, “Oh, yes, that’s always so much fun! But there aren’t many places where I can’t make myself understood.”

Next time, I want to try something really difficult, like trying to find my way around in Finland or China.