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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Anton and the Bull

A hash is a simple enough concept to understand, I think. It’s a kind of a running club, really. I believe it must be an English tradition as all the members involved in the two hashes with which I was familiar, were from the consulates of Britain and members of the Commonwealth (i.e. Canada and Australia). The course for the run is pre-determined by the five “Hares” each with a delightful nickname (as my shirt will attest) and is marked wherever it turns by painted arrows on the ground. At certain places there will be no arrow marking but a paint mark nonetheless, when the Hares, who are customarily in the front of the run, reach this point they will all run in different directions and the runners must choose a Hare to follow. Eventually the Hare going in the proper direction will blow a siren and anyone who wasn’t following them has to turn back and find them. It goes on like that for a few miles until you reach the endpoint which is generally also the starting point (you run in a big circle, you see?), wherein all involved partake in much enjoyment and beer drinking. The last person to return is customarily forced to sit on a giant block of ice. I don’t know why.
This hash was referred to as the “Full Moon Hash” because it took place at night under a full moon through the streets and alleys of central Chennai. It is in those streets and alleys where this story takes place. I had only been in India one or two weeks, I was living with my Uncle and his soon-to-be-wife and because he was running in the hash, he offered me the chance to as well, so I took him up on the offer. Of course I didn’t know anyone besides the two of them in the entire city, so when he immediately pulled ahead of me running, I took my chances getting to know an older Australian teenager named Anton. Anton was older and in better shape than me and could have been far ahead of me in the hash, but he was a lazy fellow (as teenagers are wont to be) and I think he suffered from the same lack of social networking as I did, so he stuck by me and we ran together. Somewhat near, but not in, the very back of the pack, as it were.
Usually in a hash of this type, the front of the group is well packed with the Hares and the experienced runners and the grouping of runners gets thinner as it goes back. Meaning that little 16 year-old me and this guy Anton were basically running by ourselves through the literally shit covered alleys of this city in southern India. Not to worry though, I had a flashlight to protect me if something happened, and of course there were those useful painted arrows on the corners of streets every few hundred meters or so to keep us on the right track. Oh, the looks that we got running, jogging, and lazily walking past these poor Indian people and their makeshift homes of mismatched wood and aluminum. At one point an auto-rickshaw driver pulled up and asked if we needed a ride, clearly not understanding the purpose of recreational running.
I must explain that for those not particularly into the actual athleticism or competition of the hash, the points where Hares split up and the runners more or less take bets as to which direction to continue running, for those points we just sort of stop. When you don’t feel like running in the first place, there isn’t much reason in running in one direction only to learn you picked the wrong one and you need to run back over your own steps. It was at one of these points where Anton and I were wandering around a back alley behind some shops (I recall clearly one where a wrinkled old Indian man was spot welding some metal together wearing the protection of nothing more than a bit of cloth wrapped around his waist and a giant beard) and we came upon a bull or an ox or some kind of large, male bovine strapped to a post in the ground. We stopped next to this creature, which you recall is sacred in India, to talk and wait for the sound which would inform us of which direction we needed to run towards. Eventually of course, our attention was drawn to the bull and Anton mentioned that he looked bored (which, looking back, indeed he did). I told him that he should go talk to it so Anton walks directly in front of the animal and says quite clearly (though in a charming Australian accent) “Moo”. The bull, not making a sound, lurches forward towards Anton. He, for his part, literally screams and leaps backwards towards me and we both run around the corner and out of sight. It is only after we stop and think about the situation that we realize the bull was tied up and not only was it not chasing us but it probably hadn’t even moved as a result of us. The thing is probably used to carry food and supplies around the city, its as domesticated as my car, its not going to go on a rampage because some idiot Aussie said “moo”. Nonetheless we felt quite heroic for having narrowly survived such an animal attack and it’s a memory that has stuck with me to this day. The story of Anton and the Bull.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


There was a restaurant I liked to go to when I was living in Rome called "The Goose", not "Il Guzzo" or whatever Goose is in Italian [ed: it's Oca, boy I was way off] but "The Goose". I liked it because it was this little bar, down the street from my apartment, half hidden under under a rail bridge, and not even remotely touristy. When I went in the waiter didn't attempt to talk to me in English and when I struggled through the Italian menu on my first visit, rather than help me, he just looked at me with boredom and half-hearted contempt, as I felt a real Italian should. I also liked it because it was poorly lit, and thanks to my penchant for visiting restaurants at off times, almost always empty. Also, I think it might have been a front for the mob.

One reason I liked The Goose so much was that it served the absolute best version of penne all'arrabiatta that I found in Rome. And because Rome is considered the home of that particular type of pasta, let's just say there were a lot of places that sold it. It's my favorite pasta, I still make it at home because I can't find any Italian restaurants here in Ohio that serve it(the one bizarre exception is The Cheesecake Factory, which makes a not unacceptable version of the dish). In a nutshell, it's penne noodles in a spicy marinara. But when made well, it's so much more than that. It's an intricate dance of tomato, pepper, and basil that when done poorly is just spicy spaghetti with penne noodles but when done well...well it's just....I don't know, I'm not a food writer. Let's just say it's real good.

Anyways, whenever I ate at The Goose I ordered this dish and sat in a booth by myself in a dark corner of the restaurant, trying not to look too American. It let me enjoy one of my favorite past-times: people watching, which because the restaurant was almost always empty, typically just involved watching the bored bartender and waiter watching soccer. I mean futbol. So one day as I sat there enjoying my water and waiting for my food, I couldn't help but stare as a group of middle aged Italian men in fine suits came walking through the door. Now, being that I was in Italy, this shouldn't have been terribly surprising, but I had nothing else to do so I watched as the first man in cowed the bartender with a sharp word, and then they all headed into a backroom separated from the main dining area by a curtain. After walking through, they all sat around a large, circular table and proceeded talking in Italian and laughing (also in Italian, I suppose). Both the waiter and bartender having made themselves scarce, I had little else to do than sit in my corner booth and stare curiously at the men in the back room. I became so engrossed in their going-ons that when the waiter appeared with my bowl of pasta he had to get my attention by snapping his fingers in my face. The sound drew the attention of the men in the other room and, with a scowl and quick gesture by the man I'd seen earlier yelling at the bartender (the "mob boss" as it were), someone stood up from their seat to close the curtain and stand in front of it, arms crossed and staring at me. With that foreboding image in the corner of my eye, I tried to enjoy my meal.

I continued to eat at The Goose but never again by myself or at weird hours. I can't say for sure that I had stumbled upon a mob den that day. Indeed, most of that assumption lies on a rather lazy kind of racism on my part. But still...

But still...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Live update from Bangkok

Okay, so I know I haven't written on here in quite awhile. And eventually I am going to finish my three part story of some point. But right now I have a very special opportunity to share with you. For the first time I am updating my travel blog while travelling. Crazy, right? I know. So yeah, obviously full updates to follow when I return with detailed descriptions of my adventures and misadventures complete with some very cool pictures. But for now lets just go over a brief breakdown of what's been happening: I arrived in Bangkok October 25th and with less than a week left in my journey I have, among other things, done the following:
  • Swam with elephants
  • Pet a tiger
  • Met way more Germans than I ever expected
  • Swam in a waterfall
  • Seen more stupas than I can count
  • Rode a bicycle around the ruined city of Sri Satchanalai
  • Got violentally ill
  • Drank beer at a makeshift bar outside of a 7/11
  • Stayed at a floating hotel on the River Kwai
  • Went bamboo rafting
  • Saw the ruins of Angkor Wat
  • Spent three days in Cambodia riding on the back of a motorcycle
  • Much, much more
And now its my last day in Bangkok as tomorrow I leave for Vietnam and by Monday next I shall be back in Ohio. I have to say its been quite the experience. I've grown a beard, I haven't showered in several days and have eaten almost nothing but rice and fried noodles for the last two weeks. Although, in full disclosure I finally broke down yesterday and went to McDonald's. But still, for two weeks that's pretty good. My God, has it really only been two weeks? What a fortnight...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Neapolitan pt 2 or "Mt Bitch"

Derrick and I are screaming in terror. We each turn, look out the window, see another bus careening past, taking a sharp turn, tipping, tipping, righting itself and then continuing down the mountain road. We look back at each other in stunned silence and then begin screaming again. Our driver, Sergio, takes the next corner at high speeds and I can feel the whole van tilting over to the left side. Derrick crashes up against me, crushing me against the window. We speed around the next corner and Derrick is forced up against the window on the opposite side, I avoid falling against him only by holding on to the handle hanging down from my door. Never have I known the “oh shit” handles to be so aptly named. In the row of seats behind us Andy, Alex, and Matt are giggling like little children as they bustle and bump into each other. In the front passenger seat, sitting next to our driver Sergio, Jordan is pale and shaking. He turns back to me, his eyes wide with terror. “Chris,” he says, “how many miles are in a kilometer?”  It’s one of those metric conversions I should really known but I don’t.  “Well how fast is 85 kilometers per hour?” I do actually know the answer to that one and I tell him, “Way too fast!” [ed. It’s a little over 50 mph]
Somehow, against all logic and reason, our van makes it the top of Mt Vesuvius without any casualties. We actually lost a rearview mirror along the way when a tour bus passing by us on its way down tore it off our van, but other than that we made it through relatively unscathed. Shaken and disturbed, the six of us crawled out of the van and collapsed to the dusty ground, overjoyed at being alive and happy to be motionless for a few minutes. 
As the excitement over surviving our precarious mountain drive began to wear off, it was slowly replaced by the realization of where exactly we were now. For we now stood atop the infamous Mt Vesuvius. Okay, we weren’t exactly on top of Mt Vesuvius but we were pretty close. There’s a little parking/drop off area near the top, with a little dirt trail up to the mouth of the volcano. The path only ran about a mile or two but it was enough to give travelers the feeling that they had actually accomplished something, rather than just sitting on a bus the whole way up. Nonetheless, we were now standing at the top (near the top) of Mt Vesuvius, gazing down through clouds at the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as the bustling port of Naples off in the distance.

But there wasn’t much time to stand there and gawk or to celebrate survival. Despite the heart-pounding race up the mountain we still had very little time before it closed for the night. Or forever. That part wasn’t entirely clear to me. Anyways, we still had quite the climb to go and not much time. We collected ourselves at the entrance and started up the path at a heavy run. Well it wasn’t long before we realized what a terrible, terrible idea this was. Now, Mt Vesuvius isn’t the tallest mountain in the world, but you have to realize we’ve just driven from the coast up to somewhere around 4,000 ft in elevation. And now we’re running as fast and as hard as we can. I think I made it about eleven steps before I was completely winded and had to stop. After that we decided maybe it would be best to take our time and just enjoy the view.

At the entrance to the volcano’s summit sat an old man on a stool, a wide smile on his withered old face. At his side lay a pile of long, wooden sticks and at his feet a small box littered with coins of various sizes. Smile still on his face, he handed each of us a walking stick and when I bent down to try and give him a couple euros from my pocket, he smiled even wider and said “No, no, no. When you get back.” Thanking him in turn we continued up the rocky path, glad to have the walking sticks for support in the thin air and in short notice we’d made it to the top. Though the view outward over the Bay of Naples and the surrounding cities was exceptionally beautiful, the view downward into the volcano itself was rather underwhelming.
I don’t recall if I was actually romantic enough in my expectations that I thought I would see some black pit filled with churning lava; spitting flames and noxious fumes into the air. I mean, it was my first volcano but still, they probably don’t let you climb up into volcanoes like that. It’s Mt Vesuvius not Mt Doom, for goodness sake. At any rate, the volcano’s crater was not what you’d call particularly interesting. A rather shallow pit, filled with little gray rocks and dotted with ugly little shrubs. In fact, it looked like little more than a rubble pit.

Although the site itself wasn’t as dramatic as I’d hoped, the six of us were still giddy from the experience and the lack of oxygen and Matt was quick to point out how we’d “Made Mt Vesuvius our bitch.” We took advantage of our short time at the summit by wandering around, cracking jokes, and throwing rocks into the crater. The two most exciting moments of the whole experience were when a low cloud passed through the mountain, engulfing us in a very cold, very wet fog for a few short moments. When it passed again we were blessed with our clearest view yet of the surrounding Italian landscape and for the first time I was actually struck by the dizzying height and majestic position of this mountain. Vesuvius stood above an otherwise flat coastal landscape like Gulliver amongst the Lilliputians. Standing atop the mountain now I imagined the power its sheer size must have held over the imaginations of the citizens of Pompeii living in its dreadful shadow.
The second exciting event, though less philosophical, occurred when we noticed a pile of rocks, jutting out from the wall of the crater begin to smoke. Finally, I thought, here was the kind of volcanic activity I had been hoping for! Sulfurous fumes billowing out of solid rock, poisoning the air and killing us all. Yes, this was the adventure I had been craving. Of course, we didn’t die, unfortunately. In fact, I would be very much surprised if the cloud we saw coming out of the crater was even remotely dangerous and not just condensed air or something equally mundane. Nonetheless, for a few short moments it enthralled us as the most exciting thing that the volcano had done.

While I had been peering over the lip of the crater, contemplating Gulliver’s Travels and the many ways that I wished this volcano could be more exciting, dangerous, and violent, Matt was next to me entertaining himself by throwing rocks into the air and hitting them with his walking stick, baseball style down into the crater. He’d been doing this for awhile to growing cheers from the other members of our travel party when I heard a loud crack and looked up to see Matt staring wide-eyed at the broken piece of wood in his hand. About two-thirds of the walking stick had flown off into the crater with the baseball rocks he’d been hitting, leaving him with nothing but a sad looking little bit of broken wood. Perhaps to rid himself of any evidence of wrong-doing he chucked this piece with all his might off the side of the volcano. It disappeared into the clouds and, hopefully, hit some unsuspecting bystander right in the head. Not that I wish death or bodily harm on some other poor tourist just trying to enjoy their time in southern Italy. It’s just that would be really funny. When we returned to the smiling old man who had rented us our walking sticks, the five of us returned them and dropped some change into the box at his feet. When Matt walked up sans stick, the old man’s face slipped from its broad grin to a look of tragic disappointment so heartbreaking I couldn’t bear to look at him. Matt, looking strangely unheartbroken, simply made a sheepish gesture, stammered something about not getting one, then changing his lie to something about losing his walking stick, then awkwardly gave the old man several euro coins and ran away.
Sergio, who had apparently spent the entire time of our Vesuvius adventure leaning casually against his van and chain smoking, literally greeted us with open arms. I’ll admit I half expected him to be gone when we got back but when he saw us coming down the mountain path towards him he emitted a loud, strangely high pitch laugh and then shouted at us in unintelligible but clearly friendly Italian. He waved us forward, asked us what we thought about the volcano without leaving us the slightest bit of time to answer and then hopped back into the van. On the drive up I had excused the reckless driving and casual endangerment of us and everyone around us to the fact that we were short on time. Yet on the way back down, with no rush whatsoever, I discovered that this was simply the way Sergio preferred to drive. Without any reasonable motive we still took the mountain turns at frightful speeds, we still passed other cars and tour buses on roads that hardly seemed wide enough to hold one vehicle, let alone two side by side, and still Sergio spent most of the drive looking back at his passengers and making casual conversation.
He now asked us what our plans were, specifically if we were staying here in Herculaneum for the night. I’ve often asked myself since this moment if we’d said yes if he would have offered to let us stay with him, it’s just always felt to me like that’s where the conversation was headed. At any rate, we weren’t staying. I’d booked us a couple of beds in a hostel in a small town outside Naples called Portici. Perhaps a bit of background before I go further in this vein:
Out of the six of us on this trip, I was the most experienced in international travel but even I had never travelled on my own like this before. Certainly none of us had ever stayed in a hostel before. In fact we weren’t entirely sure what the hell a hostel was. For most of us the only knowledge we had of European hostels came from the film Hostel which had been playing for some reason on the plane ride over from the United States. I’d found this particular hostel online from what I assumed was a reputable website. It was in a small town none of us had ever heard of before. And it was going to be well past dark by the time we arrived there. Needless to say, we were a little wary of the whole experience.
So it was not comforting that when I told Sergio about our plans for the night, he nearly crashed us into a wall. Looking back at me with terror in his eyes and shouting “Portici? Portici? No, no, no signore. You no go to Portici.” And now we were scared. “Why?” I asked, “What’s wrong with Portici?” He was talking rapidly in Italian now, utterly incomprehensible to any of us. The other guys kept looking at me and asking what he was saying but I couldn’t understand a word of his Italian ramblings. Finally, as he was struggling with the words he couldn’t find in English I caught the words, “terrible,” “dangerous,” and, most clear of all, he stared deep into my eyes and slowly drew a finger across his throat. Fantastic, I thought, Mt Vesuvius was a dud and now we’re all going to die in some stupid Italian slum.
Stay tuned for the gripping conclusion of our adventures in southern Italy on the next installment of Life, etc. But first one last view from the top of Mt Vesuvius:

As always, check out my shutterfly site to see all the photos from this trip at full resolution.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Neapolitan pt 1 or "Why I hate everyone"

It was like a mini-train platform. The grimy apartment buildings rose up on either side of us, elevated so that the floor for them composed steep walls for us. It kept us locked in this little rail area. So that should we want to escape the platform for some reason, for the company of other humans perhaps, or to buy a Fanta, it was absurdly difficult for us to do so. So here we were stuck on this mini-train platform, waiting impatiently for a train that, by all reason should have been by a long time ago. The six of us were crowded together on it and nobody was in a good mood, least of all me. It wasn’t my fault we were lost. Okay, so maybe I had the map, maybe I was the only one who spoke or read Italian at a passing level, and maybe I had planned this trip, but it sure as hell wasn’t my fault. It was Italy’s fault! Why would they name a city Sarno so close to Sorrento that are on completely different rail lines? It’s Italy’s fault we were lost and stuck on this stupid mini-train platform.

It was our first weekend excursion out of Rome and it had already started off so badly. It had been my idea, not to get out, we’d been there a month and we all needed to get out of Rome for a couple days. No, it was my idea for this trip. I had mapped it all out, picked the sites, bought the train tickets, booked the hostel rooms. This was my trip, my chance to show everyone how completely necessary I was to their having fun. All they had to do was show up on time, but could they manage that? Well, it wouldn’t be as interesting a story if they could. There were six of us going, all guys, the girls had their own trip this weekend. So it was the six of us: Derrick, Jordan, Alex, Andy, Matt, and me. Half of us were on time. The other half apparently forgot to pack ahead of time. Shouting and gesturing to my watch, I suggested that they could just stay home if they so chose. By the time we made it to the bus which would take us from our apartment, a stone’s throw away from the Vatican, to the train station, in the center of Rome, I was literally counting every second that we spent in transit. I cursed silently at every other commuter who dared to flag down our bus, and cursed quite loudly at every car and vespa that cut us off in traffic. Staring at the hands spin around my watch face, I couldn’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been faster to simply jog the whole way. The bus let us off at what seemed to be the furthest point possible from the train station and, pushing the elderly out of my way, I burst through the doors and went sprinting through the parking lot, the other five guys struggling to keep up with me, with my inhuman speed powered by frustration and an obsessive sense of punctuality. Not waiting for the automatic doors to slide open for me, I literally kicked them wide, eliciting plenty of stares and even a gasp or two, but I was deaf to everything around me except for my train. Somewhere deep inside I knew that after all this, after the delayed start, the late bus with its many, many stops, and that stupid automatic door, there was no way our train would still be there waiting at its platform. And yet there it was, the uniformed conductor smiling pleasantly and beckoning us forward. Safe and comfortable inside our train compartment, everyone relaxed after the stress of our morning, it was a long train ride to Naples. I pulled out my travel clock and set the alarm so I could catch some sleep myself. Then I laughed. For the first time that day I smiled and laughed and laughed and laughed. “Hey guys,” I said, “My watch is twenty minutes fast.”

What we saw of Naples, that is to say, the train station, was far from inspiring. We had our lunch there in the train station at a McDonald’s. And so, without a single picture taken of the famed city, I ushered us all onto a different platform where we waited to board yet another train. I don’t recall now what I had been expecting to see when we reached Pompeii. No, that’s not true. In all that I’d read of Pompeii, including fantastic descriptions of the city by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, I had heard it described as a city “frozen in time”. Reading about it, I’d always pictured in my mind an exact replica of an ancient Roman town, a bit dusty, perhaps, a bit covered in ash, but otherwise exactly as it had been two millennia ago. After all, hadn’t the eruption caught everyone so unawares that people were perfectly frozen in ash, doing whatever they’d been doing at the time? Well that’s not exactly what the city of Pompeii looks like today. In fact, I rather think that it’s a problem of representation. The romanticized notion, which I’d succumbed to, of a city frozen in time, is nice but misleading. More accurate would be to say that Pompeii is a city completely destroyed by a fucking volcano. Pictured: hopefully not what Roman towns looked like.
Okay, I’m being unfair. And in fact, once I’d got over the initial shock that Pompeii wasn’t a literal time machine to the first century AD, I could really savor the beauty and mystique of what the city is and what it means for historians. So for those of you unfamiliar with the true story, Pompeii was a vibrant and bustling city in the Roman Republic and, later, the Roman Empire. It was where many wealthy Romans kept their vacation homes. In the year 79 AD, however, the volcano Vesuvius erupted suddenly, instantly killing the inhabitants of the city and covering a vast swath of territory around the mountain in a thick layer of ash and soil. The city was not instantly forgotten but was in fact lost to memory over the long passing of the centuries and only rediscovered by accident in 1599. Today much of the city, along with its less famous but equally important sisters (Herculaneum, Oplonti, et al) has been uncovered. The near instantaneous destruction of the city continues to provide archaeologists and historians with a look at what Roman life looked like at the city’s height. It also makes for a delightful afternoon of sightseeing.
We were immediately greeted upon leaving our train by souvenir vendors hawking little plaster penises with wings, decorative vases of all different sizes featuring penises with wings, coins, mini-frescoes, and parchments all decorated with little flying penises. This I was not prepared for. I opted instead for a full-color information booklet and map of the city and a bottle of water. I bought the six of us our entrance tickets and, leading the way under a marble arch and into the city, adopted my best tour guide voice: “Gentlemen,” I said, “Welcome to the lost city of Pompeii.” To which my five partners generously greeted me with oohs and aahs.
Once inside the city I stuck the over-priced map I’d bought into my pocket where I promptly forgot about it and we spent the next several hours wandering aimlessly through the magnificent city of ruins. We explored the ruins at our own relaxed pace managing to mix in the typical sightseeing of temples, villas, and fora with the more eccentric travel games of six college students running on a lack of sleep. And so as we ambled down the 2000 year old roads we made fun of the tourists in their sun hats and fanny packs. We made a habit of naming every one of the many stray dogs we found along the way and experimented with how many ruins we could climb on before being yelled at by security (answer: 2). Somewhere along the way we managed to stumble upon a magnificent assortment of ruins, beautiful in their own special, decaying way. I was stunned by the bodies on display, mummified in ash and frozen mid-scream, writhing forever silently, motionless in pain. The frescoes on many of the walls were remarkably well preserved, the colors as bright as anything I’d seen during my time in Rome. The faces in the paintings were strikingly beautiful and life-like.
I have no doubt we didn’t give the ruins all the time they deserved that day and I know there were many great sites we didn’t see, but in our defense it was obscenely hot that day and the six of us were sharing two bottles of water. Plus we had a lot more adventuring to do that day. We were going to climb Mt Vesuvius.
Back on the train we made the short hop from Pompeii to Ercolano (Herculaneum) at the foot of the volcano. This was actually as far as my preparations had gotten me. I know that this was the town where you started your trip up to the rim of the volcano but I didn’t actually have the slightest idea how one goes about climbing a volcano. I mean, it’s not like the train let us off at the literal foot of the volcano. No, we were in the middle of the town, a rather small, dirty looking town, the volcano towered above us but it was a good several miles away. Eventually we found ourselves in the town’s tourism center, a tiny little hole of an office in a back alley somewhere where I asked the man behind the counter how we get to the volcano. He looked at me like one would look at a small child asking where the bathroom is. My Italian being as simple as it was, I’m sure he actually thought I was asking where the volcano was, a rather easy question to answer. Finally exhausted from dealing with me, he gestured to a man standing outside the building smoking a cigarette and yelled “Sergio!” Sergio looked up and waved at us so we walked out to talk to him instead. Through my mangled Italian and Sergio’s mangled English I got across the point that we wanted to climb to the top of the volcano. “Ah!” He said finally understanding. He smiled. I smiled. The other five guys smiled. “You can’t,” he said. I was no longer smiling. “Pardon?” I asked. After more torturing of our languages he informed me that the volcano closed in about an hour and a half (“The volcano closes?” Matt asked) and that it would take at least two days to walk from here to the top of the volcano by which point the volcano would be closed. Twice. Instead, and boy was this a convenience, we could pay him to drive us up the mountain where we’d only have to hike the last mile up to the rim of the volcano. “I geet yoo,” he said smiling broadly, “beefoor eet closses.” I looked back at the guys and shrugged. We had to get to the top of that volcano today. “Okay,” I said, “Let’s do it.”

Stay tuned for part two of our adventures in southern Italy where we almost die climbing Mt Vesuvius only to be horribly murdered in Portici. And, as always, check out my shutterfly page for all my travel photos in full resolution.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ronda: A Story of Failure and Success

I'd first read about Ronda while working on a research paper about the Spanish Civil War. In Ernest Hemingway's novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, one of the characters reminisces about how the revolutionaries in her town imprisoned together all the priests and nuns of their city, ransacked and burnt the churches and idols, and then tortured these men and women before forcing them off the sheer cliffs upon which their town stood. Looking into this event further I discovered it was based on true events that took place in the town of Ronda, in Southern Spain, which stands atop a nauseatingly steep cliffside.
By a delightful coincidence, I happened to spend that following summer studying in southern Spain. So it was only natural when I was planning my weekend trips that I should decide to visit Ronda for myself. I planned it about as well as I plan any of my trips, through books and the internet I determined the best way to get there (train) and the most important sites to see while there. I booked my train tickets for early one saturday morning so that I could spend a whole day in the city, returning that evening.
Being the punctual (read: obsessive) person I am, on the morning of my trip I got up extra early, caught the bus to the train station and found myself a seat on the platform a good half hour before my train was set to leave. Waiting with a book I'd selected just for this trip (Thud! by Terry Pratchett) I listened to the announcements in Spanish over the speakers and waited for my train to arrive. I decided it was weird that there was already a train where my train should be pulling up any second so I went up to the conductor and asked in my flawless Spanish, "A donde va este tren?" "Algeciras," he replied. Algeciras, I knew, is a small town at the southern tip of Spain, and typically the launching point for the ferry from Spain to Morocco. "Ah" I said and returned to my seat and my book. After a minute or two the train to Algeciras pulled out of the station and I got up to wait for my train to Ronda to come in.
If you don't know what's coming next, then you're not nearly observant enough of foreshadowing. Well, in short, my train never appeared. Fifteen minutes, half an hour, then forty five minutes late. I returned to that same conductor and asked where my train, the train to Ronda, was. With a quizzical look, he gestured at the long gone train and answered that that was the train to Ronda. "No, no, no, no", I said, in both spanish and english. "Me dijo que estuvo el tren al Algeciras." "Si," he said, Ronda is a stop on the way to Algeciras. Well fuck me.
Long story short, the conductor told me to go in and talk to the ticketing guy, explain what happened and they'd transfer my ticket for the next train to Ronda/Algeciras. Shaking his head in pity, the ticketing guy did in fact do this. Only problem was the next train didn't leave until 4 pm. If I hadn't mentioned already it was about 9 in the morning by this point. My return ticket from Ronda was for 7:30 pm. It's about a 3 hour train ride. So much for my full day in Ronda. I spent the next 6 hours hanging out by the train station taking pictures of oversized flags.

I did manage to get on the train at 4:00 without incident and without a doubt, the train ride from Granada to Ronda is entirely worth the ticket price for the scenery alone. The rolling hills, the seemingly endless olive groves, the spectacular greens and dazzling blues of the world outside my train window for the next three hours are among the highlights of my entire summer in Spain. It is among the most beautiful places I've ever seen and I assure you, dear reader, I've seen some beautiful places in my years of travel.


As luck would have it, my train arrived somewhat ahead of schedule, granting me an entire forty minutes to spend in Ronda before I needed to be on my returning train. I stepped out of the station expecting to find myself a yard or so away from the towering cliffs I'd read about only to find myself in what looked like every other neighborhood I'd seen in Spain thus far. Flat, white buildings crowded together on streets aligned with no obvious pattern. I took a glance at what appeared to be a map of Ronda outside the train station and sprinted off in the direction I thought might take me to "Old Town" with its picturesque position. And just when I thought I had no time left and I'd have to return to the train station without a single view of the cliff that killed all those priests, I turned around a corner, saw a park, and at the edge of the park this:
Yeah, that's what I came here for. I stood at the edge of the cliff and looked around, wishing I could capture every beautiful detail that I could see from that height. It was not the terrifying site of wanton torture and death I'd been expecting. It showed no remnance of the violence of the Spanish Civil War. There was no way of knowing that this was the town I'd read about in Hemingway. This was spectactular. It was beautiful. It was stunning and remains truly beyond words to describe properly. I turned around a corner and saw this:
It wasn't what I had come to see but it was so much better than anything I'd imagined.
Unfortunately, I couldn't spend much more time there for fear that I miss another train this day. So I turned and I walked back to the train station, my back to this beautiful landscape. This was all I would see that day but I'd remember it and tell of it to everyone I knew that it was perhaps the most beautiful town I'd ever seen.
I'd return a few weeks later, again with an early ticket to Ronda and a late ticket back. I'd make both trains and spend a long, entertaining wandering the old part of Ronda; visiting its beautiful Romanesque churches, Moorish palaces, and its museum of hunting. A beautiful place with a fascinating history that marked itself indelibly in my mind for its history, its beauty, and its ability to completely disrupt my travel plans.

View all my photos from both trips to Ronda in full resolution at my shutterfly site.

Monday, August 30, 2010


One of the few things I've managed to be proud of in my life, however reluctantly, is my travel photography. I prefer to add that description to it because I am no photographer. I've never taken a photography class, I couldn't develop actual film if life depended on it (you just throw the roll into a vat of acid, right? and then it turns into a picture?) I've never spent more than $250 on a camera. I'm still not sure what an SLR is but I know I want one for some reason. All this to say that I am no real photographer, neither professionally nor amateurly, I don't try to be artsy or unique in anyway. I like to travel to interesting places and take pictures of things that have been photographed ad nauseum since photography was invented long ago by the Greeks (or something). I rarely take pictures of people because I feel awkward doing so. I take pictures of art and architecture mostly, sometimes natural landscapes; churches, mountains, trees, paintings, government buildings, sunsets, life, etc.

Hence the title of my newest blog, "Life, etc." Once a week (or whenever) I will post one of my favorite pictures accompanied with a story or background information on it. Don't expect photography details, shutter rate, lens aperture, and other terms listed on my camera that I don't understand. This blog is about the life of each photo. In short, the life of me.

I begin tomorrow with one of my favorite pictures and stories from my summer abroad in Spain two years ago.