Friday, July 30, 2010

Dallas and Deep Ellum After Dark

I come from a lineage that fervently skews towards being at home "after dark." Nothing but trouble lurks in the streets after the sun goes down, they say. Not to mention that it is harder to see and drive at night and, while convenient for some, nothing is in the stores that cannot wait until daylight to be purchased. Be home after dark.

I contend that that Dallas has a skyline that is world class, beautiful both day and night. I had never known a city before Dallas to purposely illuminate its skyline beyond the clutch of office lights burning the midnight oil. The red Mobil Oil "Pegasus" symbol used to light the way home for weary travelers on the highways leading to town but today the massive and mesmerizing green neon Bank of America tower now ably, if, some would say, pretentiously serves that purpose. The question for me was how to develop my own photography skills and find a unique angle to capture the city at the same time.

Heaven knows Dallas has been photographed by far greater talent from virtually every conceivable angle. The trick was to keep my eye on late night traffic and drunken revelers while scouting for suitable new angles. At the same time, being alone during the witching hour I had to watch for Dallas' denizens and other run of the mill miscreants with less than honorable purposes on their minds regarding my person and property. Dallas remains one of those cities that shuts down on the weekends so it is all too easy to spot a car or body out of place in an empty parking lot or public park. Neither did I want to be questioned by Dallas' finest, either, regarding my own intentions in some quiet part of town at that hour of the night!

An empty parking lot on the outskirts of the West End entertainment district served for the shot included here. It was windy so a tripod would have been fairly useless compared to the top of my car which helped here. Moving on from here I found City Hall sitting quietly on a bluff above the lower part of downtown for the next shot. Some electric and heated battles have been waged within the chambers of this building though the structure itself is sadly more interesting than most of the "work" performed inside. From here my last stop, Deep Ellum, would surely not disappoint for color at all hours of the day and night.

Most highway overpasses are places for birds to aim hi-level doo-doo bombs at unsuspecting passers-by. Them, the stench of urine and uncollected trash along with homeless people and everyday addicts urge most people to enter and exit the area post haste. I was one of those, heading for the nightclub section of the area on the far side when, while stopped at a traffic light for some reason I looked over my shoulder and saw these. Flood lit and landscaped, with new condos and townhouses edging along the west side, these art slabs are hand painted and stand nearly six feet tall. I could not at first understand what they were doing under the over pass but quickly found a parking lot, double checked my car and headed for them, my original destination dismissed from my mind.

Who decorates fallow ground under a ten-lane overpass? Above me rumbled late night traffic at the spot where I-45 ends its run north from Houston and US-75 becomes "Central Expressway" through Dallas to the northern suburbs of Plano and McKinney towards Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tons of commerce and thousands of travelers overhead every day head to points elsewhere completely unconcerned with the attempt to beautify the land beneath their tires. Deep Ellum has long been known as the edgy art district of Dallas, where free-spirits and non-conformists have always felt right at home creating unconventional art and sound. Murals dot the buildings to rival Haight-Ashbury so this Under the Overpass Exhibit simply adds to a long tradition of local vitality and recreation.

Where Deep Ellum was a deep local secret best kept out of sight from prying eyes it blossomed in the late 80s and early 90s in to the hottest of the weekend hotspots before its edgy nature went over the edge in violence and drugs. It has never, however, been counted out. Like so many album covers waiting for music to go with them, I instantly felt the exhibit resonates better at night than in the daylight, exactly the way Deep Ellum always has.

They were, after all, under an overpass.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Big Lick, the Magic City

Roanoke, Virginia was first and still sentimentally called Big Lick. The name derives from the massive salt lick that attracted local animals to the Roanoke River for which the city was later permanently named, today the home of nearly 300,000 people in the metro area.

My daddy's daddy brought six children in to the world here as a railroad porter before moving them to southern Illinois where the last four were born. My parents met in Roanoke, where my mother had moved to from her home in the country about 80 miles away. My older sister was born here while I was less than a year old my association with Roanoke began.

In a pattern already established in my family, dad was on his way to Germany with the military and moved his young family from Kansas where I was born to stay in Roanoke until he could get base housing for us to join him. Prior to leaving, however, and knowing he might not witness me taking my first steps he insisted on carrying me to the family barber for the ritual of my first haircut, which my mother says my unruly hair and tender headed self needed even if I wasn't quite a year old at the time.

Other early memories include "Mama Nell," my oldest aunt caring for me when I was about four, having just returned from our tour of Germany, and later listening to Al Green on the radio, all the rage in the early 70s and still today one of her favorite artists of all time.

My mother's family are country people, tobacco farmers while my father's family were city people, children of the railroad which Roanoke was famous up and down the coast for as a major center connecting Pennsylvania and Ohio with the Carolinas and Tennessee.

As I was driving to the area for a family visit with my mother I pondered Roanoke the same as I do many towns across the country: What is it that keeps people in the area after the original industry has gone?

Built around wood furniture, textiles and coal mining from nearby West Virginia, each of these industries have faded since the 1960s, gradually reducing the rail volume to the point of not even passenger service after 1979. Why, then, are so many people still here?

Roanoke was named the "Magic City" in 1884 shortly after being incorporated because it seemingly sprang up overnight. Today the main employers are in health care and education although most jump ship for Washington, DC, Charlotte and Atlanta for much of the upper end careers. Where Eastern Airlines and Piedmont once controlled the skies over the city it is now UPS that has picked up where both airlines and the railroads have left off.

On a recent tour with my mother she showed me the areas of town that were thriving and central to her life while she was just starting out on her own, including the house where she stayed and those of her friends and relatives in the area. She pointed out where the good clubs were, including the old Dumas Hotel along old Henry Street, literally across the tracks from "proper" society and how the tracks divided the city between white and black neighborhoods. The Dumas saw Count Basie, Ethel Waters, Satchmo and Nat King Cole back in the day.

Today all is hidden away from the larger nation as Interstate 81 carries trade and traffic about five miles outside of town to the west, a handful of exits pointing to the proud history and culture of the area, a part of the country where evangelists rule Sunday morning programming and pre-paying for gasoline is not quite the norm it is elsewhere. Few people stop in Roanoke on their way to parts elsewhere as other towns that straddle I-81 have captured much of the transient traffic. History, culture and pride nonetheless keep the city alive, vital and hopeful.

Roanoke is not quite a place where only the locals tend to go but it deserves to be more than a place few other than locals know exists.

Gotta go.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Oriole Optimism

Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992 as part of a master plan for Baltimore and set a new standard in baseball stadiums across the country, most flatteringly imitated brick by brick in Arlington, Texas. Camden Yards, the original and still the best of the bunch, features a glorious promenade at the edge of right field boasting concessions of local foods and team merchandise the likes of which had never been seen before. Out in the open air, wide walkways contribute to a party atmosphere that blends in with the environment of the game itself.

Where football games are most often best viewed at home baseball games are the ones to watch at the stadium itself under gorgeous skies, mild temperatures and relaxed energy all around. Baltimore delivered with a spring day right out of central casting. Not a cloud in the sky, maybe 72 degrees and the early season hopes of a city in love with its team, win or lose. Hope springs eternal and this April day was charged with drink and dreams as the O's and rival RedSox took the field.

There was reason for the O's faithful to be filled with hope and desire this day. The Orioles typically come out swinging early in the season, at or near the top of the division standings but not this year. Sadly, the 2010 season is thus far dead on arrival, the team in last place and standing double digits in games out of the lead. We were going nowhere fast and facing a season barely started but already over. In to this heady mixture of cheerful weather, pride and trepidation comes Boston, not too far removed from their first world championship but also not doing much better in this season's scheme of things. We wanted blood.

Up two to nothing in only the first inning we wanted to scream and shout but nine innings can take a long, long time to play. Like our cousins the Chicago Cubs we sat back and waited for the inevitable lead to fritter away in bad defense and generous pitching. Two to one, then three to one, the O's teased the Red Sox until the 8th inning when, tied at 3-3, Boston slammed a go ahead home run to make it 4-3. Some but not all started heading for the exits after the count was two outs and the first two strikes coming in quick order.

Third Baseman MiguelTejada was at bat, however, and everyone, including a stadium uncomfortably full of traveling "BoSox" fans were on their feet waiting for the last pitch. Crack! ROAR! A single homer to tie the game. Oh heaven above please let the defense hold through the ninth. Both sides had been praying because the ninth went scoreless and in to the tenth we went.

Only Boston forgot to keep praying. They went three and out, then allowed two Orioles on first and second base before Tejada came to the plate again. A single up the middle past the second baseman, the winning run flies around the bases and the entire city blew up in cries of elation, tears of absolution and just plain exhaustion. The O's had just dealt Boston its first losing April in recent memory and would go on to sweep the series, their first of the season. The only downside was the hour and a half it took the light rail to get us back to our car that night, a trip that normally takes less than half an hour.

It was good to be at home, at that game, in that weather and in that moment, 15 rows behind home plate, with my dad.

Gotta go.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mulling Over Monticello

I had been promising over the years to take my mother and any other family who wanted to come along on a day trip to Monticello, situated just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Life, laziness and things in general conspired in the usual ways to delay the plans but finally the day arrived, a Thursday.

Home on vacation to visit family in the deep country of rural Virginia, at the end of the trip the five hour drive back to Washington/Baltimore lay in front of us with all day to get there. It was just Mom and I in Dad's Lincoln after we loaded our cobbler stuffed bodies in to the car for a leisurely drive north along US Highway 29. Monticello would serve as a commitment fulfilled and a nice mid-point break in the journey.

The estate sits on top of an impressive hill, almost alpine in the twisting narrow gauge of the road we learned it took Jefferson four days to get to from DC. A fairly fat admission fee, a stop at the restroom and up some stairs to wait for the shuttle to carry us to the main grounds of the 5,000 acre estate. The sky above could not have been any bluer.

We had decided before boarding the shuttle to take the Plantation Tour. There was an option to tour the interior of the house but Mom and I felt the more meaningful hour would be learning what life was like for the slaves. We also hoped to learn more about the legendary Sally Hemings, the slave girl with whom Thomas Jefferson allegedly fathered several children.

Guide Lady showed up on schedule and apart from tending to speak a tad too softly and monotone certainly knew her material quite well. The leisurely stroll along "Mulberry Lane," just to the south of the main house and parade grounds included the foundations of former slave cabins, workshops and other structures. "House" family anecdotes were shared as Guide Lady weaved the somewhat surprising story of the estate, including the indebted state of the Jefferson family at the time of Thomas' death.

Where I took exception to the narrative of Guide Lady was the overtly apologetic account of the life and treatment of slaves at Monticello. They were treated somewhat better here, she essentially said, having freedom of movement, permission to marry and even negotiate the purchase of loved ones from other plantations.

"A slave still has to return to his master," an uncle once said. "A free man walks where he will." Jefferson owned roughly 600 slaves at Monticello, beat only a handful, sold fewer still for only the most grievous of offenses and stated on record that he hated the peculiar institution. Nobody else in local legislature agreed with him, however, so he kept his just the same.

The main house is stunningly small, not necessarily much bigger than the image stamped on the back of the American nickel. Spreading from the back portico is a large expanse of green lined with large shade trees for strolling and entertaining. The setting, landscaping and architecture were breathtaking, including my instant favorite, white gossamer tulips whose bells cupped sunlight as a child might hold a wondrous new toy.

The family cemetery is just down the hill and still in use today though restricted from tourists and the subject of controversy from Ms. Hemings' descendents wishing to be interred there like any other blood relative. Genetic testing has proven a link to the Jefferson family but period gossip is "hearsay" that does not hold up in court. Any seadog lawyer will tell you DNA testing merely places several Jefferson men of the time in the room but none of them in particular in her bed.

Back at the parking lot is a small patch of enclosed forest holding the unmarked graves of some 40 slaves. Some Hemings are here but Sally is not among them. She supposedly lies at rest under the parking lot of the Main Street Hampton Inn in downtown Charlottesville.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Mother's House

It is sometimes cold and remote to refer to families in terms of numbers but here are a few to start with. The Hairston clan emigrated from Scotland by way of Ireland to the United States, settling in Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi, running at least nine plantations across that swath of country. Under their ownership were over 5,500 slaves through the course of their run as the most powerful single farming clan in the nation through cotton and tobacco. My mother's grandmother came from this history as well but those numbers are murky. What I do know if from the union of my maternal grandparents came 12 children of which my mother is the fifth, 39 grandchildren of which I am one and 52 great-grandchildren, some of whom themselves are starting families of their own.

Where did all of this start? I have, of course, long known where my maternal family hails from, having traveled to the area since before I could walk. Many are the time and tales of playing with my cousins in the tobacco barn, imagining it to be some great fort on the frontier against enemies, or in abandoned tractors and trucks, believing our young selves to be new rulers of the road. We used to stand on the fence of the hog enclosure in amazement at the great floppy eared beasts as they wallowed in mud, ate anything that landed in their trough, my citified self not quite putting the puzzle together that this noisy, grunting animal would soon be my own dinner come "hog killin' time."

The house I have always known as my grandmother's home was in fact the second one for her family. When it was built in 1952 there was no indoor plumbing while two wooden stoves, one in the front living room and the other in the kitchen served to heat the house. By then, however, my own mother had graduated from high school and moved away to start her own life, leaving me curious but not fully comprehending what her own home must have been like and where it was. She always told me it was just "down the road" but never took me there and I never pressed the matter.

This past April was the occasion of yet another trip "down home" to visit aunts, uncles and cousins in the area. This time, after years of curiosity, it was time to see where my mother was born and raised. And it was just down the road from all that I had ever known as my maternal family home. We turned on to a dirt road beside a small church to the left with what is basically the family cemetery just above it on a small hill to the right hand side. We drove a little further back in to the deep woods to a large clearing.

In the clearing just off to the left were the ruins of a foundation and brick chimney which, my mother explained, was her grandmother's home. Memories flooded back to her of the days spent running back and forth between the two houses along with the hours spent at the edge of the trees , one for each child to rule as their own. My awe and amazement of this woman I had never known now standing before me was growing with every minute. This history I was not aware of. The earliest childhood of any parent is foreign territory to their own children, something beyond both time and comprehension. All flooded back to her with knowing smiles and joy of good times gone by. But where was her house?

"It's over there," she said, pointing just down the hill to the right, maybe two hundred yards off. "Where," I asked. She had told me before that it was no longer standing but that remained an abstract thought in my mind until right then. "There," she said again, "where the tree is." A large tree with a bent branch stood taller than any other around it. Only the foundation remains where the tree is today, growing right up through the middle of the place where my mother was born, the 5th child and third daughter.

I was dumbstruck. No stone foundations or trees growing up through the middle of the plantation houses where my family once worked. Here, in land slowly but surely reclaimed by nature there was a fresh water creek further down the hill, she recounted, that they used to carry water up to their house and her grandmother's. They had to walk the length of the road we had just driven, then walk some two miles further to their elementary school. When they weren't in school they walked up the hill to the main road and at least a mile in the other direction to work the tobacco fields their father sharecropped. Though there was a roof, the stars were visible in good weather while the rains came through at other times. Her house is gone but Mama tells me it was fairly similar to this one, owned by an uncle of hers, abandoned but still in the family today.

We didn't go over to where the house once stood though my mother has returned there before. This was spring time and the grasses were tall, rife with ticks, field mice and cottonmouths down by the creek. I stood along the road in silence, taking it all in. I was overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings at seeing where my mother came in to the world, growing ever more emotional considering how far she has travelled since. What would the lives of her children be had she never left the area?

I can only share my own stories today because she did move away. Thanks, Mama!

Gotta go.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Berry Hill Road: Through Settled Eyes

There is a winding two lane country road west of Danville, Virginia. It is County Road #863, known as Berry Hill Road. Along this lonely road one afternoon my mother took me past four former plantation homes nestled in field and forest along the North Carolina border. Three of them belonged to the Hairstons. Another, the main Hairston home of "Oak Hill," we did not see as it had burned down a few years ago under mysterious circumstances. The ones we did see that sunny April spring day, "Oak Ridge" and "Berry Hill" among them and pictured here, were mere satellite holdings.

In my mind, of all the names Blacks in America have been identified with, Afro-American, Negro, Colored, etc. the least specific and probably worst of the bunch is "African-American." It does not equate to Italian-American, Mexican-American or Japanese-American simply in that Africa is not a country. Africa the continent is home to some one billion people living in 54 distinct countries who speak a whopping 2,000 languages. All of that is before even considering the numerous social and religious cultures, native, colonial and expatriate that co-exist on the 2nd largest land mass of the planet. No way am I hereditarily connected to all of that history, culture and spoken word. "African-American" overstates one aspect of the Black experience and disregards several others.

In the history of the Golden Triangle trade routes between Europe, Africa and the Americas the greatest tragedy has been not merely the loss of life or independence but the loss of culture and sense of family. So scattered and blended were the slaves of the day, each forced to learn the language and religion of their masters that over time their descendants lost all sense of exactly which tribe and nation they originated from. Alex Haley illustrated this pain and bittersweet discovery in his master work "Roots" but so few Black Americans (notice the nomenclature I'm using) had or have the wealth, resources and time he did to discover their own past.

Today through ancestral websites and genetic testing some of us are finally able to reverse the "Middle Passage" over the Atlantic with at least some hint of where our families came from. Like most Black Americans my family came to the United States via the bulge of West Africa from not one, however, but three different countries. On top of that, while my mother's family has managed to trace their history by name back to the last years of slavery something even more astonishing recently occurred. In February of 2000 Henry Wiencek published a book entitled "The Hairstons: A Family in Black and White."

It is the story of my family. Literally of thousands of families now spread across the country but all tracing back to this one Scot-Irish clan that established itself in Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi through tobacco and cotton farming. My direct ancestors, out of over 5,500 slaves who came in to the possession of this powerful clan, go back at least to the 1800s whose name we carry and whose holdings once stretched the length of South Central Virginia and down in to the Mt. Airy region of North Carolina.

As we drove away I mentioned to my mother that it was good for me to have waited until this time in my life to discover and see these ancient homes. As a young child I would have been bored, petulant and disengaged other than to run and play by the river or the grasses of the fields, some of which are still worked to this day. Teenagers tend to be too self-absorbed to find such things anything other than boring while young adults carry latent hormonal "anger" in to the world. Fresh with newfound and uncompromising convictions I might have turned my back on this historical reality and never returned to the scene again.

I looked at each of these three institutions of bondage through "settled eyes" with mixed feelings. The homes were stately indeed, the history behind them tragic but each stood quiet, almost fallow, grand reminders of a bygone era. My mother, her siblings and parents were all sharecroppers so it didn't take much to imagine them working the fields surrounding these homes. It didn't take much to feel a twinge of anger/sadness well up inside me, either but I remembered what year it was and thought of my life, career, experiences and friends that were born of these very walls. I think of all the things I am able to do because they were here before me. I think of all that I do not have to endure because they were here before me.

Some time ago I started to write a piece of fiction entitled, "I'm From Burkina-Faso" that I would end with the sentence "but I don't really know." Today through DNA validation I can factually say that my family amalgam includes Mauritania (Islamic desert nomads), Equatorial Guinea (island fisher folk) and Sierra Leone (village hunter-gatherers). I am also part of this family of farmers, landed gentry of Ireland by way of Scotland and late of Southern Virginia, the Carolinas and Mississippi. I still need to explore the side that includes Cherokee and possibly Seminole lineage as well.

I am a Hairston. And these plantations are where my family started out here in America. African American? To a degree but "Black American" works just fine for me. Each word is as true as the other with no embellishments or further explanations needed.

And all this I surely know.

Gotta go.

Friday, July 16, 2010

At Peace in Phuket

Once upon a time I viewed with scorn and derision those who traveled great lengths of the world to do nothing more than bake on the beach of some faraway getaway. beaches at home? Not even a backyard hammock or public park to just put up the feet and sleep the day away, they have to go to Bali, Tahiti, Fiji and the Seychelles just to get a tan? Feh!

I didn't understand it then but I kind of do now.

Work in 2007 was stressing me out beyond anything I'd ever experienced and I needed desperately to get away. Because I was in retail I didn't have much time as everything at work was always urgent, a priority, just around the corner and almost here. Including the days scheduled for travel I had ten days in July of that year to experience Thailand for the first time though only six usable days on the ground once I'd arrived. This time around, for the first time in my life, I was going to schedule in some much needed "down time" to do exactly what I had always viewed to be a complete waste of money and time on vacation: sleep.

After the first three days exploring Bangkok, Ayutthaya and Kanchanaburi I found a Southwest-style fare on Air Asia for about $100 round trip between Bangkok and the resort island of Phuket, 60 minutes south of the capital. In a country loaded with seaside nooks and crannies to explore or just chill and enjoy, Phuket is the place to be.

I did not know until then that Phuket was an island. Instead of building any anticipation for the next three days of sun and sand ahead of me the hour long bus ride from the airport at the northern end of the island got me to thinking about travel time to get back for the long journey home. Come on, bus!

July is the monsoon season and thus the "low-season" for travel to Thailand. It is equally rainy and extremely hot and humid - the monsoon of 2004 did considerable damage to the local infrastructure and confidence of foreign travelers that Phuket depends on. For these reasons the Best Western Karon Beach that I chose was offering a rate of only $37 per night, a major factor in my choosing to visit Thailand in the first place. The entire country was on sale and once I arrived at my resort I do not exaggerate in saying that I and maybe 10 other guests had the entire property and accompanying beach to ourselves.

There were taxi offers to drive up to Patong for only $5 whenever I wanted to partake of the Miami Beach style nightlife there; I didn't. There were other offers to drive to some view point farther south for a glorious ocean sunset; ANYWHERE on the beaches of the Andaman Sea offer glorious sunsets, so I didn't. Numerous boating, fishing and sailing tours were on offer as well, some including a day trip to the famous "Scaramanga's Island" where scenes from the James Bond thriller "The Man with the Golden Gun" were shot but I passed again. Exotic and nearby, yes, but it wasn't the best of the Roger Moore films, anyway. I walked a bit within the village and almost bought the then newly released final Harry Potter book to have something to read on the flight home but figured I could get it cheaper when I got back.

However inexpensive the tours or tempting the trinkets I was done spending money. I was through ripping and running trying to get the most of every day touring, taking pictures and waking first thing in the morning. My room was comfortable, the property beautiful and the beach was all mine. In two more days I would begin the grueling flight home, so as much as I needed to get away from work and after three days of taking in the sights, it was time, finally time, to kick back, relax and enjoy the beach, the ocean and the sunset. Hmmm, this do-nothing seaside holiday thing wasn't so bad after all!

Like I promised myself I would that first day at the beach, I slept. For eleven hours.........without sunscreen.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Burma Railway

High prowed "long-tail" boats buzzed up and down the River Kwai, carrying villagers, livestock and other goods and adding to the exotic surroundings I found myself in on a day trip to Kanchanaburi, Thailand. My purpose was to see the famous World War II bridge over this river that served as part of the "Burma Railway" supply route for the Japanese but I had also never seen a long-tail either. In this case it was little more than a wooden canoe with a car engine and drive shaft and a propeller stuck on the end. Strange, yes, loud, definitely but it works.

After leaving the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery I pressed on to the north towards my goal of "Bridge #277" as the Japanese called it during the war. Over 240,000 indigenous laborers and allied prisoners of war constructed a 260-mile railroad supply line between Bangkok and Rangoon when the Japanese believed this route to be easier to protect in their campaign to control Burma. Disease, starvation and brutality killed many of these workers, including more than 350 Americans.

At the end of the war Japan was ordered to rebuild the bridge in reparations to Thailand after allied bombing raids had destroyed the middle portion of the structure. Before I got to the bridge however there was a simple, square park next to the road known as the War Reparations Memorial, built by the Japanese where an annual ceremony is held in atonement for the atrocities committed over the length of the project. Right around the corner from here sits a museum as chilling as any commemorative exhibit associated with the war anywhere in the world.

The Thai-Burma Railway Museum displays artifacts of clothing, weapons, tools, supplies, mess kits and other items discovered, left behind or donated by survivors of the construction project. Guard towers, a push-car and examples of living quarters for both overlord and laborer are also on display including a brooding hulk of a rail engine, rusting but still imposing as the unforgiving and unfeeling monster the laborers were pressed to serve. Then there were the models, life-sized recreations of gaunt, unkempt and malnourished men engaged in various stages of work, exhaustion and death. Wearing hardly so much as a loin cloth it required very little imagining of the sweltering heat, festering wounds and biting insects every day of every week these lost souls endured.

Only 80 miles of this rail line are usable today. Access to "Hellfire Pass," so named because much of the work in cutting this pass through the mountain was done under torch light at night, farther along but still well within Thai territory is possible via walking trails from nearby camp grounds and river hotels. When the properties themselves say that getting to them is "well worth the effort" it becomes clear that heat, bugs and bad memories keep all but the most intrepid tourists out of this part of the country.

If there were a way to expand the museum and de-commercialize what the bridge has become today the entire experience would have a stronger emotional impact. Today's bridge looks like any rail trestle one might find in the Southern United States with arched and squared supports over concrete stands holding an iron and steel rail bed. The exhibits around the eastern shore are placed for maximum information, aesthetics and commercial dining and shopping including ticket sales for a tourist train to trundle across the bridge, ride about 15 miles of rail on the other side and return. Spoon-fed tourists with cameras and misbehaving children gleefully riding the rails with little sense of place? I wasn't about to "honor" horrible suffering in such a Disney-fied fashion and abstained.

It was time to go home.

Gotta go.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Catching Kanchanaburi

This time it was on a bus. Once again in the wee hours of the morning I asked the reception desk how to get to ... and they pointed me this time in the direction of the main bus station for the city of Bangkok. Here is perhaps where my greatest moment of apprehension occurred: I'm in Southeast Asia relying on the honesty of a local cab driver to take me to a bus station that does not normally cater to western travelers which led me to believe that few if any signs would be in English nor would there necessarily be anyone on staff familiar with my language. Be that as it may, I said to me self, I was going to Kanchanaburi with no more thought about it. At least I wouldn't have to transfer on the way.

There were signs in English and the ticket attendant knew enough to get the foreigner, me, situated. Not knowing how or if services were announced or called for boarding I stood on the platform where my bus was supposed to be, ticket in hand like a two-year old and waited for the number on the bus to match the one on my ticket, boarding when everyone else did. Before long we were all bouncing along Highway #323 heading west out of the capital, across the first of many rivers and into the rice field and cow pasture countryside.

Towns and villages with colorful names like Tha Pha and Saen To rolled past the window with signs for active and ancient Buddhist temples running nearly as close together as mile markers under the rolling storm clouds threatening a deluge if I so much as dared to look at them. I just wanted not to sleep through my stop but I needn't have worried; Kanchanaburi rolled up soon enough and it was the turnaround point for the bus back to Bangkok. Did I mention that it was July, the height of the rainy season?

The Burma Railway is not infamous to many Americans as it is to the Dutch, British and Australians. This 260 mile line was to be the main supply route in to Burma from Japanese bases along the River Kwai during the Second World War but it first had to be built. Some 240,000 local workers and prisoners of war from Thailand, the Dutch East Indies, Hong Kong and Singapore were pressed in to service under vicious task masters in the thick of horrendous conditions through the jungle, mountains and rain forests near the river and, worst of all, through the high country between Thailand and Burma.

Bridge #277 as it was identified by the Japanese at the time is the "Bridge over the River Kwai," the most famous and easily accessed part of this link between Bangkok and Rangoon. Walking steadily towards this goal I chanced upon an unexpected yet compelling part of this history at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Here almost 7,000 ANZAC, Canadian, British and Dutch men rest in peace. Anything from murder at the hands of their overlords to death from cholera, dysentery, starvation and sheer exhaustion felled these men, some in mass graves, some "Known unto God" and others like Private H. J. Lampard of the 2/29th Australian Infantry Battalion at least as young as 21 years of age.

Even more wrenching discoveries lay further up the road to the bridge.

Gotta go.

Friday, July 9, 2010

All The Way To Ayutthaya

Ayutthayah lies in Thailand a couple of hours to the north by train from the capital of Bangkok on the main line to Chiang Mai. What a difference time and distance can make from how the city looks now to what it once was roughly 350 years ago and at least a full century before Anna Leonowens arrived on the scene. I had spent the day before, my first day in Thailand exploring the contemporary, cutting edge version of the country in touring the capital city. Day Two in Thailand began very early the next morning through the help of the reception desk at the hotel in catching an 8AM train north to the heart of the country.

At the main station and not completely knowing what I was getting in to I took the cheapest option for Train #75 which was a round trip ticket there and back for the astounding total of 40 Baht or about $1.25 in U.S. dollars. I mean, seriously, who passes up a two hour train ride in to the countryside for the equivalent of a fare on the subway? Track 11 was empty when I arrived at the platform but provided an interesting mix for people watching as westernized Thai mingled with saffron robed monks, villagers and foreigners cooled their heels as well as possible in the morning heat.

Soon enough the train pulled in to the station and I boarded my car and found the reason for the cheap fare: bench seating and no air conditioning. Oh me, oh my. I managed to snag a window seat and opened this as wide as possible for whatever breeze the journey would create. Despite a shower that morning I knew it wouldn't be long before the Right Guard went left on me but hey, I was alone on vacation and nobody else on that train would care or smell any better.

In its heyday Ayutthaya was once likened to Paris in size and beauty. Reaching a population of nearly 1 million strong the city hosted trade compounds on its outskirts for major Asian and European cultures, from Japan to Portugal and had strong ties to Louis XIV of France. The people called themselves "Tai," hence the current name of the country. All this whetted the appetite with visions of grand palaces, temple complexes and elaborate carvings and architecture as far as the eye could see. Instead of a major rail terminus, however, we pulled in to a three-track thru station on the edge of a town best described as a combination of boiling hot and yet simultaneously dusty beyond reason at the same time.

Ayutthaya today is like Thebes in Greece. Where both were phenomenally powerful centers of culture and commerce each is today a near completely forgotten backwater, way posts on the road to somewhere else, Ayutthaya home to 55,000 while Thebes is barely half of that. Gone, too, were the thoughts of an immense and well preserved ancient ghost town Ephesus-style as I paid a small fee to cross the river in to the heart of the city.

Several unique compounds were in fact dotted around the city and in various states of preservation behind walled grounds and offered unobstructed, full access views of the buildings. No gift shops or guided tours, the size of each building and a few informational signs provided the only indication of history and purpose. Sometimes that is the best way to really explore and imagine the scene around you. After a few hours I began to discern different architectural styles and cultural influences out of what at first seemed to be one after another of the same thing. And thanks to the walking tour of living temples in Bangkok only the day before, I could recognize different areas of a complex and understand what they were for, from a bell-shaped "chedi" to what once must have been a splendid Hall of Buddhas." Right out of Disney's "Pocahontas," however, was the highlight of the day for me in seeing a carved Buddha face in the trunk of a massive tree on the grounds of the Wat Mahathat, once the ritual center of the city. It looked for all the world like of "Grandmother Willow."

This was surely an adventure that would have been far more enlightening and enjoyable with more time, research and company. I felt satisfied in skipping over the kitschy attractions such as elephant rides and enjoyed making the most of the history all around me. I only had a day available and a train to catch back to the city but with more time and planning, Ayutthaya is a corner of the world that deserves more than just a day out of the way.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Krung Thep For Short

I couldn't believe that I was actually, finally, in Bangkok, a small trading post turned in to a metro area of over 11 million people. After 25 years since I'd first heard of the place and over 30 hours of flying I woke up that first morning in Thailand to a massive urban expanse stretching to the horizon, the Chao Phraya river snaking to the southeast through the heart of the city with glass skyscrapers and Buddhist temples all fighting for the eye's attention. The full name of the city in the local language almost requires a complete article in itself but suffice to say that "Krung Thep," the much shortened version, means "City of the Deity" in Thai.

For my first day I planned an easy walking tour around the main tourism district of the city which also housed the most appealing concentration of sights, attractions and venues, none more than three miles in any one direction and edged by the river to the west. Patpong, Pattaya and other infamous red-light districts and sex resorts were not on the list of objectives - I'm not that kind of tourist.

The photo opportunities started right at the steps of my hotel, the Prince Palace where a lively street market was in full swing. The ordinary people buy everything off of the street bazaar style, leaving the high end shops to the hoi polloi and foreigners unfamiliar with the language who also don't know any better. Just about everywhere there was a tall, flat surface were massive portraits and renderings of Rama IX, the beloved King of Thailand and his wife, he bearing a striking resemblance to the Canadian actor Victor Garber. Universally adored by the people of Thailand, the wise tourist says nothing disparaging about the royal family.

After fending off a few "friendly" cab and "tuk-tuk" drivers trying to pick me up as an easy mark for a day tour fare around town, I continued my walking tour. A Buddhist temple is called a "Wat" and the first on the tour was the "Wat Sraket," meaning "Hair Washing" because King Rama I built the entire complex as a place to bathe and pray on his way back to Ayutthaya after returning from the fighting in neighboring Cambodia! And I had stopped merely because of the striking oranges, greens and gold in the architecture.

The nearby Golden Mountain was added later and contains over 300 stairs to the top for an impressive view of complex and the surrounding area. From here it was a leisurely walk down Thanon Ratchadamnoen Boulevard to the Democracy Monument. The circular structure with four arching wings was commissioned in 1939 as a symbolic representation of the first constitution following a 1932 coup d'etat that created a constitutional monarchy that still governs the country today. The monument and the ceremonial boulevard it sits astride are not unlike the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe of Paris.

The Grand Palace is a mixture of temples, colors and architectural styles, simply being added on to through the ages by the royals that once called the place home. It's most famous attraction is the Emerald Buddha, a foot and a half tall, clothed in gold and requiring an admission fee (foreigners have separate entrances and unique fees to just about everything related to temples and palaces). I only had one day in Bangkok and more to see so I passed.

Lunch by the river featured a spectacular view of the "Wat Arun" or Temple of the Dawn, the landmark temple complex on the river that just oozes old world Siam. Nearly 300 feet tall, much of the exterior is decorated with sea shells and porcelain which give it a glowing pearl sheen when the morning sun lights up the entire complex.

By now I was well and truly tired from travel, jet lag and a solid eight hours of walking in what is actually a very small part of Rattanakosin Island or the "Old Town" area wedged between Chinatown to the east and the river to the west. I was technically lost but I had a tourist map to guide me home for the "rest of the day at leisure." Most of what draws almost 12 million tourists a year (3rd behind London and Paris) is concentrated in this area so for a one day self-guided city tour I felt that I had largely done what I came to see and do.

On the way back I passed Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha but decided to press on to the hotel. If I had actually paid to go in and seen his 150-foot body all stretched out I might have fallen asleep right beside him.

Gotta go.