Here to There
In 36 hours I went from my apartment in one low-to-the-ground, brown, sprawling river city to my hotel in another low-to-the-ground, brown, sprawling river city. Albuquerque to Bamako. From walking the green Bosque of the Rio Grande to looking down at the great green trees on the River Niger. I AM SO HAPPY. My brother and I talk about how we miss the highs and even the lows of youth. How our emotions and passions seem to live along a satisfactory but not particularly exciting median. But then I arrive in Africa, this time in Mali, and I look out my hotel window at the RIVER NIGER and the flat line effect is gone, disappeared by the event of travel to Africa.
I am in Mali for 8th edition of Danse l’Afrique danse!, a magnificent series of festivals held biennually throughout the African continent and supported by each country in turn, by the French government and by various African and European government agencies and corporations. Here are a few cogent words from the Ministre de la Culture du Mali, Mot de Mohamed Elmoctar. (Why can nearly every country in the world have a ministry of culture except us? Just asking!)
The Minister says:
Dear choreographers and dancers,
Today Africa is in Bamako, through dance and in dance.
This is the appointed time and place for you to express the many facets of Africa, as you project them into the world, a reflection of your art.
Show us this choreographic art, as you create it here and now.
Shape what we see; make us travel and dream; take us with you in the performances of your respective artistic creations.
Show us the creation’s path and let us share your disturbing works, perplexing to our novice eyes.
Show us how you create, so that your artistic approach finds its place on the continent and the world. (Italics mine: they express so clearly what GLOBAL DANCEFEST is meant to be)
Dance from Mali, Congo, Madagascar, Mozambique, Kenya, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Benin, Nigeria, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and Ghana. Companies, solos, experience, emerging, men, women, explosive, contemplative. It is a feast, a true feast for the eyes and ears and heart and brain. Did I mention I feel so very lucky to be here?
From the Sublime to the Mundane
I had to get here—ah yes ‘there’s the rub’ as the expression goes. You must fly. In a dirty airplane frequently. I am thinking of submitting a suggestion to the airlines—500 frequent flyer miles if you clean out the seat pocket and another 500 if you pick up the trash along the edge of the floor, no I think that’s a free round trip to Vegas, it’s nasty down there. At least it was on Delta to Paris! And the food. OMG. Food on all US airlines is quite awful—of course I’m talking about overseas flights since there is no more in-country food—which is really just as well.
But on a long overseas flight food is a good thing to keep us from getting too cranky or bored. Passes the time, provides a break in the monotony, etc. HOWEVER. I just had two comparable meals. Vegetarian pasta and vegetarian risotto, salad, bread and cake on Delta to Paris and Air France to Bamako. There were no more expensive ingredients in one than the other. Delta’s meal was INEDIBLE. Air France’s actually enjoyable. On the latter, the mushroom risotto was creamy, not dried out and hot only around the edges; the little pasta tomato salad contained no wilted lettuce and the bread was a crusty baguette with real butter. I broke my ‘no drinking on the plane’ rule by celebrating French food with some nice French red wine.
In defense of US airlines. They are cheap. Comparatively. So…will it kill you to go eight hours without food!
I am here. It is Africa. I am content. From the Hotel El Farouk on the banks of the River Niger. A lovely poem.
Description of the Geni Baana from Gibbal’s Genii of the River Niger
He is afraid neither of God or of
the Prophet… Neither is he afraid
of lightning bolts nor of lightning,
because he is their master and
unleashes them at will. He comes
during times of storm, dressed all
in black. He announces the tempest
following him. When the storm
explodes, he is crazy with happiness.
He screams facing the sky, against
which he is seen in profile, his two
arms outstretched. One of his favourite
slogans is…“Baana, if the sky rumbles,
it is because you have unleashed the
lightning by beating your chest.” And,
people add “If the rain falls, it’s also
thanks to you, Baana.”
The River Niger (All of this River Niger info from Panda.org and Wikipedia. Org)
In the floodplains and delta wetlands along the river, a specialised flora has evolved that is adapted to extreme fluctuations in water levels. These communities also support a wide variety of fascinating animals. Black-crowned cranes, a regional symbol of beauty and authority, rely on floodplain wetland habitat throughout the basin. In addition, the braided wetlands that form Niger’s “Inner Delta” in Mali support hundreds of thousands of transmigratory birds. Manatees can still be found in several pockets of suitable habitat that still remain along the river. Mythology indicates that these gentle giants appeared on Earth when a woman bathing by a river was startled by strangers and jumped into the water to hide. Hippopotami and crocodiles are still present in the Niger, and can sometimes pose danger to those who trespass unaware. The river’s true delta in Nigeria contains West Africa’s largest mangrove forest.
Pulse of West Africa
The Niger River shapes a corridor of productivity that has, for thousands of years, provided people with dynamic and rich livelihoods, and has made human survival possible even in times of desolate drought. People have always followed the rhythms of the rivers flow, which can sometimes vary dramatically from year to year. Within the harsh and frequently unpredictable Sahelian climate, people wove their productive activities together in patterns that were compatible with the environment and mutually reinforcing. Floodplain pastures of bourgou grass supported livestock, wildlife and nurseries for fish. Harvested rice fields were grazed by livestock, which in turn fertilised the fields with their manure. Farming of millet, vegetables and rice; livestock herding; fishing, hunting and gathering of wild plants to use as food and medicine co-existed, waxing and waning in response to changes in climate and river flows.
The Niger River system has also sustained remarkable biological communities. The river harbours 36 families and nearly 250 species of freshwater fish, of which 20 are found nowhere else on Earth. Eleven of the 18 families of freshwater fish that are endemic to Africa are represented in the Niger River.
To travel widely is to feel at home in the world—at least this is the effect travel is having on me. Growing up in an isolated cabin in the snows of Minnesota apparently instilled in me a deep desire to connect with the rest of the world—to areas as different from Koochiching County as possible such as the African continent—and to places quite similar such as Norway and my heritage—then on to every country in the world…!
This summer I reveled in the Scandinavian traditions of family in South Dakota and Minnesota. Now, this fall, a very special treat has come my way—a visit from Norwegian cousins. Arne Neset, my second cousin, and Aslaug Neset, his beautiful wife. Arne is a retired professor and a writer (Arcadian Waters and Wanton Seas: The Iconology of Waterscapes in Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Culture) and Aslaug is a retired public relations official. They are very smart and funny and well-traveled. How absolutely lovely this visit has been. It is further connecting me to the world, to my heritage and to a warm and interesting and accomplished new family. It is exciting to have African friends and Norwegian family.
ROBERT AND MARSHA IN GRAND RAPIDS
The intent was to write a warm and fuzzy profile of my brother and sister-in-law with whom I spent a lovely late August week. Alas…I did not get it done before this very busy time and big travels that begin later this month. Instead…here’s a photo album from my week with Rob and Marsha in green and summer-lush Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Next there will be a visit to the old home and the old neighborhood. The Life with Robert story will be a future blog installment.
This series of blog posts is all about my sentimental summer journey—as you may have noticed. Home and family. Two or so more of these and then I move on to Bamako, Mali and dance and, if I can figure out how to get there, Timbuktu. But for now, back to Summer 2010.
I’m on my way to my cousin Audrey’s on dad’s side of the family—Audrey’s mom, Helen, was the youngest sister, born in Minnesota, a few years after the family journey from Norway. Audrey my childhood hero, a teenager when I was only a scrawny 7 year- old. She loved riding horseback and took me with her although I was pretty disappointing as a horsewoman—I really only liked to read about horses, not actually hang around with them. Mom got pretty black Queenie for me when I was seven or eight but I just never connected with her. Audrey took me bareback riding on her pinto or on Queenie. Apparently I liked to run around the warm summer farm in my faded little hand-sewn dresses without underpants because I have one of those snapshot memories of Audrey refusing to take me riding until I put some pants on!
Aunt Helen seemed very glamorous to me as a kid. When I stayed with her I got to read the True Romance magazines of which she had many and eat store-bought breads. While my mother’s breads and cinnamon rolls were suburb still…they were homemade. And while Helen could bake with the best she did keep those Bismarcks around that, for me, had that city-aura attached to them!
Audrey was beautiful. Robert and I thought she was the most beautiful and the most fun person we knew. When at age 17, she married Otis, we were devastated. Felt like an old guy (after all he was all of six or so years older than Audrey) had robbed us of our best friend.
Audrey and Otis have led eventful lives. I have stayed with them many times from early days when Otis worked in the wood and the kids were little and Audrey baked chocolate cakes all dark and moist with strange ingredients like tomato soup and mayonnaise. I think I was supposed to help with the kids but really I just wanted to hang around with my idol. There were years of moving back and forth to Montana, Washington and Alaska with Helen and Lloyd and Delores (also my cousin and Audrey’s big sister) when Audrey was a kid and then years of lumberjacking, ranching, gold-mining, farming in Alaska, Wyoming but mostly Minnesota after she was married.
Audrey and Otis bought the farm at Gemmell where Randy, David, Linda and Terri grew up. Otis had a perfect lawn bordered with the offspring of Mom’s white, burgundy and rose-pink peonies and a glorious raspberry patch. He wrote two books about his Alaska adventures and built all manner of wooden crafts when he retired. Audrey worked with developmentally disabled adults in Northome nursing home’s ICF-MR program before ailments from those camp cooking, horseback riding years forced her to retire.
Physically the farm got to be too much for the two of them and they were forced to move out of their beloved north woods where wolves howled nearby, bears with cubs trailing behind crossed Highway 71 every now and then within sight of the house, and it was easy for Otis to get up to his fishing spot on the Bigfork River and Audrey to go drink coffee with Violet. They wound up in the pleasant little Canadian border town of Roseau where Terri, the youngest, and most settled child lives.
I spent a lot of time with Audrey and Otis over the years, once living in a tiny bedroom in their Gemmell house with my worldly possessions, mostly books, a giant old computer and border collie Max crowded in about me. This was a lost time between my San Francisco, Minneapolis and San Diego lives—all taking place during the ten years between my Albuquerque lives! It was a favorite time; I wrote and wrote and lived on bread and raspberry jam and Otis’ pancakes or, best of all, those deep-fried golden flaky breakfast walleye. Eventually I had to go back to real work and move on but it truly was great while it lasted.
August 2010: That was then. This is now. Driving north from Sioux Falls, hugging the Minnesota-Dakota (south and north) border but staying on the Minnesota side. It is pretty much all corn all of the time with soybeans for variety. Nice, neat stereotypical farms. Like farms are intended to be. This is not MY Minnesota of woods and lakes but I am happy just to be here. It is truly a good thing to be a Minnesotan I believe.
Roseau is a fairly typical small town known primarily as the birthplace of the snowmobile and Polaris industries. You can take a tour of the plant responsible for many of the world’s truly obnoxious additions to forest trails, winter or summer, if you so choose. Or you can just appreciate the fact that Polaris may be almost-singlehandedly responsible for the economic well-being of this area and appreciate the process if not necessarily the product.
According to the official City of Roseau website this is called an environmental transitional area where the north woods of poplar and spruce meets the prairies of the Red River Valley and the tamarack bogs which stretch north into Canada.
Audrey lives in a retirement apartment complex; Otis nearby in a nursing home. Years of hard physical work have taken a toll on their bodies and Otis has some form of Alzheimer’s or dementia that is slowly taking him into another fog-filled kind of world. However Terri and her family are always about and the other kids visit when they can.
It’s good to be here. We spend happy hours times talking about the pleasures of aging, about the dastardly deeds of Republicans and about our kids and my brother and her sister.
A treat that I always hope for on my trips up here is the walleye dinner out at Terri’s. Huge platters of the world’s greatest fish (I may have already said that once or twice in this blog!) and a chance to see the babies and horses that have arrived or grown since my last visit. What a lovely bunch they are. Teri’s kids are well and happy and prospering and daughter, Niki, has her own two babies, Landon and Clara. MANY pictures of Clara are included here because she is a sort of magic child, looking like baby Viking princesses must have looked. Clara does have a healthy dose of Scandinavian blood and her grandma and mom are north-country blondes so she’s obviously following in their footsteps. Terri and husband, Brian, are serious horse people so three sleek steeds in shades of black, red and cream occupy the green pastures surrounding their comfortable ranch home.
And a lovely time was had by all—especially me. Tomorrow I will turn south into the woods and lakes leading to Grand Rapids. And brother Robert and sister-in-law, Marsha.
ART DAY in Sioux Falls
MORNING WITH SCULPTURE
Phillips Avenue is busy this morning—what with the kids blocking foot traffic to stroke the tiger and her cub, so deceptively friendly—before she pounces. Funny she’s not interested in the sheep so close by. Probably waiting to attack the kid just lying there in the middle of the street reading, she’ll only have to carry her prey down the block to feed her baby.
Historical, whimsical and mysterious characters greet us as we stroll along Sioux Fall’s main street. Canteen Lady only takes us back to WWII but Robert the Bruce recalls times of yore and then Abel offers something for the faithful and Bacchus for wine lovers. Cabin Fever is me as a kid and it’s January in Minnesota.
SculptureWalk is a politically-correct mix of representational and abstract sculpture with many pieces that do not quite fit either category. In the nonfigurative category, I am thrilled to find two pieces by Albuquerque artist Joe Sackett. Joe is an interesting and eclectic guy and his work reflects those qualities: Twenty-Seven (China) is a cube made out of 27 steel handlebars of Chinese made bicycles around a hub of smaller bike parts and Persona offers a personal statement about core personalities constrained by societal expectations and regulations.
SculptureWalk must be unique in the US; a deliciously diverse collection of sculpture by artists across the country who loan the pieces to the exhibit for one year. Anyone can vote for the “People’s Choice Award” which is then purchased as part of the City’s permanent collection, and a number of the sculptures are purchased by the various sponsoring businesses for display at their sites.
It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood. August; sunny; friendly, admiring and amused pre-lunch strollers in a downtown trying to hang on like so many others all across the country. The stores sell quality-of-life kinds of things such as boutique clothing, antiques, souvenirs and books; the restaurants become jazz bars in the evenings and I’m told there are new apartment buildings as well, all hoping to attract youth and life back to a low-key but potentially lively city center.
Cousins Vivian and Marty (Richard’s wife’s; she was the Register of Deeds in Sioux Falls for many years and one of my mom’s favorite people in the world) and I eat ordinary sandwiches and then go to the sweet shop for extraordinary desserts of caramel and cheesecake and oozing chocolate topped off with giant cups of coffee. Back to the car, stopping to pat one of my favorites, the friendly musk ox, Tundra, patiently waiting to get the year over with and get back to—the tundra. Although the artist is from Maryland so maybe he’s always restricted to city streets. No wonder he appears a little sad.
AFTERNOON WITH CREATURES
Time to leave the heart of artful Sioux Falls and head west on I-90 to Montrose and the Porter Sculpture Park. In an article in the Argus Leader, Peter Harriman describes the park like this: …”dozens of quirky metal sculptures constructed of old farm implements, water tanks and railroad steel plate.” He also says meeting the artist, Wayne Porter, is “…like running across Michelangelo at Wall Drug.” (Wall Drug started out as an ordinary drugstore in a very small South Dakota town and grew into a sort of shopping mall/western heritage museum, etc. about 60 miles from the Black Hills. It is primarily famous for its many billboards throughout South Dakota and beyond which, like Burma Shave signs, became an experience onto themselves.).
The Porter Sculpture Park is on a prairie hilltop so the visitor is always viewing the quirky creatures birthed in Porter’s fertile imagination against the backdrop of grazing lands, fields of corn and the occasional farm—or perhaps that’s the lair to which these strange and engaging beings retire at night. This is one of those magical places, like Christiania in Copenhagen or the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo where everyday experiences and things aren’t welcome.
There’s a golf cart for transportation or you can walk. Not many people. Wander. Connect with your inner child or inner demon or inner photographer.
The signature creature is a Bull Head which Porter says represents “an extinct Egyptian Long Horn…made mostly out of railroad plates welded together.” Bull Head is huge, overseeing the I-90 traffic, sympathizing perhaps with all the beef cattle within his purview that will soon be somebody’s steak, guarding the entrance to this netherworld of odd companions.
Coming down on the train from northern Minnesota when I was a kid, Sioux Falls represented THE CITY and the little house on Van Eps, the cousins, mom and aunt Mabel being sad with each other—unfaithful husband or hard times on the Minnesota farm stories, big meals with jovial uncle George teasing me, the smell of the Morrell meat packing plant where some relatives worked. I had no idea that in the future South Dakota would mean land of George McGovern and Sioux Falls would mean ART.
August 22nd. Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Cousin Vivian’s guest bedroom which I share with an overabundance of Elvis memorabilia. It’s so sticky stifling hot in Sioux Falls…not the cool rainy weather for which I am always and forever longing. The fan runs, it is four am, have slept myself out in the 30 hours since I arrived.
This is a Family trip. Family is Family and blood is probably thicker than water. I’m proud of us. Solid working class immigrant stock. No one ever became rich or famous—not that that would be a bad thing. But what a lively collection of bakers and bus drivers, gold miners and lumberjacks, cooks and farmers, highwaymen (the kind driving snowplows and MNDOT vehicles) and enlisted men and policemen, ranchers and roustabouts. I have friends with amazingly intricate and even illustrious family backgrounds and histories. Their stories are fascinating, like visiting a foreign country. In comparison my family is so straight forward, so uncomplicated. Working class Americans and okay with that. They did what immigrants were supposed to do—and are still doing, working hard for little money. The old American Dream was alive and well with them but apparently there was no gene pool of great ambition, no longing for mansions or lavish lifestyles. The kids went a little further in school with each generation…and the Nesets and Florens and Tacks and Wolfes and Hahns and Lowreys and Gingeriches (no relation to Newt) moved ever so slowly into the lower middle class of teachers and nurses and managers, white collars overtaking blue, and there was migration from the Minnesota, Dakota and Montana bases. Now there are new ethnicities and races and languages in the family, another result of the American dream. College degrees are proliferating and the new and next generations already or soon will include engineers, social workers and entrepreneurs. Even now there may be a grandchild or great-grandchild among us with dreams of corporate takeovers or huge political victories but she hasn’t been identified yet.
The two cousins I will visit, one from my mom’s side of the family, one from my dad’s, nicely represent the first-born American generation. One worked at a bakery for more than 30 years; one cooked and baked in Yukon restaurants and Alaska gold mines and then worked as a caregiver for mentally disabled adults. One had two unsatisfactory husbands; one just one, mostly satisfactory. Each had two girl and two boy children who mostly do well or very well, except for one death. Most of the kids from that generation went to high school—only a few all the way to college.
So—in a neighborhood just hanging on to respectability in Sioux Falls SD and a retirement apartment on the almost-prairies of Roseau MN—they live their lives. Day to day it is all about family, friends, the weather, doctors, grocery and discount stores. From time to time it’s about war or politics or crime or natural disasters like tornados and floods. In other words they’re pretty much like everybody else. One sincerely believes all politicians are corrupt and barely tolerates my need to check in with CNN occasionally. She is a Democrat, or at least this is what I choose to believe, because she does not actually say anything good about either party. Like most working class older Americans she leads a modestly comfortable retirement thanks to the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Johnson! The other cousin, an outspoken Democrat, does pay attention to the political news and is more than a little disappointed with Obama, figuring that some of his pronouncements or lack thereof are handing the next election to the evil ones. She is also quite angry about the mosque being located near the world trade center site, first because she thinks it is just the wrong place at the wrong time, and also because she thinks it is yet another thing the Republicans can use against Obama. Whatever their misgivings about the political world, both cousins (and my whole family) appear to be generally free of the racism, nativism and general meanness that fuels the Republican Tea Party. People of the far northern plains and forests are a slightly different breed than the mid-Midwesterners—more of a frontier mindset. They have less of a quarrel with those who are ‘different.’ Maybe because the lumber camps and northern wheat fields were largely settled and worked by misplaced and misfits, wanderers and outlaws of every color and belief, from every part of the world.
I will have lunches and dinners with some of the children and grandchildren. Jobs, babies, colleges, horses, walleye, mashed potatoes, Grain belt beer, pie and coffee and coffee and coffee, old photographs. Family. So grounding, humbling, reassuring. I take great pride and pleasure in it all.
AUGUST 22 – 24. MOM’S SIDE/SOUTH DAKOTA
Vivi and I visit the Floren and Wolfe family graves at the Pioneer Cemetery, just outside of Baltic, my mom’s hometown. This cemetery walk, paying tribute to our elders, is a biannual tradition. Grandma Magnhild Strom was born in Sweden on October 18, 1873. The family came to America, to Madison and then Baltic, South Dakota when she eight years old. She eventually married Ole Floren who came from Norway. (Dad always claimed Mom’s stubbornness came from the quarter-Swede blood.) Grandpa Ole Floren built their farm in the rich bottomland of the Sioux River Valley and then dropped dead of a heart attack when his baby, my mother, was two. Everyone said he killed himself working morning, noon and night. They are both buried here. My cousin Richard is here too. He is the cousin with whom I fought and argued from the time we met until the last time I saw him before he was killed when a prairie tornado upended his truck on a highway just outside of Sioux Falls. It’s not that we didn’t like each, those battles were just so much fun and the competition to win was fierce although I don’t remember either of us ever admitting defeat. Cousin Vivian’s daughter, Linda, is buried here—dead from devil cancer. We pull a weed here and there and amble about the top of this windy hill, visiting the neighbors including Berthine B. Fersdahl, the daughter of John and Kirsti Thompson, according to her gravestone “The first white child born in Minnehaha County.” Whether that was a good thing is probably still debatable among the Lakota, Dakota and Sioux who were already being born here.
Sometimes we also go by the farm Ole Floren built—which my mother probably loved better than any place on earth. Her idea of how people should live was formed here. Work hard, worship god, take care of the land and the animals, and ‘do onto others as you would have them do onto you.’ The sturdy white house and big barn, sheltered by a healthy grove of cottonwoods, nestled among the corn fields, near the green-moist banks of the Sioux river. How could it not breed and sustain all of those good Midwestern, immigrant, and farm family values? Nothing is ever as it seems or should be though, is it? Ole died young, Magnhild kept the farm as long as she could but mom’s siblings Olaf and Mabel did not take to farming, the hired men drank, and eventually the farm was lost to the bank. Family farm good. Bank bad. Unfortunately most people who knew that truth deep in their bones and could vote accordingly are old or dead.
My route on the way home to Minnesota was carefully selected to avoid the land of commercial/corporate farming as much as possible so all through Nebraska, South Dakota and eastern Minnesota I traversed ranches and farms that at least give the appearance of not having fallen under the total control of Wall Street/Bank Street/Realtor Street. Although apparently all of the crops are planted with seeds genetically created, altered, controlled by the big guys like Cargill. Should I make a disclaimer here? My first job after high school was at Cargill’s Wayzata headquarter as a board marker—I was one of the girls, fresh into the big city, who wrote the grain quotes coming off the ticker tape machines onto the big blackboard for Oscar the grain buyer. Has the same ring as being a Rosie the Riveter doesn’t it? Out of a history book. I suppose I am old.
It is so comfortable here with Vivi. She is doing well, fairly happy and fairly healthy. Goes to her weight watchers weigh-in weekly and has largely banned Hershey bars from the house. She cares for her blind dog and glossy black cat. Bookkeeps for one son, worries about the other and talks daily to her daughter, a long-time employee of Caterpillar, who is truly the family financial success story—making serious money by any standard and roving about the world for the company. Vivi may be the kindest person I know. She is also the first person I ever heard say the word ‘fuck’—undoubtedly referring to one of her no-good husbands. And the only person in the family who can still make mom’s special brand of chicken and dumplings.
Ovidia’s Chicken and Dumplings:
Cook the chicken in boiling water in a pot filled with carrots and celery. When chicken is fairly tender, put it in a frying pan with BUTTER and brown. Then cover it with CREAM flavored with allspice and simmer until it is fall-off-the-bone tender. Meanwhile make dumpling dough and drop into the pot of chicken broth and veggies. Dumplings should be chewy NOT all light and fluffy.
“EAT.” “The dumplings are too heavy aren’t they?” “I’m glad you like them, eat more.” “No, you have to eat more than that.” “Don’t you like them…you only had one helping?” “Eat more, we don’t want any leftovers.” “EAT.”
Is there any action in the world that more represents personal freedom than getting in your car at an hour you have selected with the knowledge that you are about to drive away to a destination of your choice on roads you and only you have selected, you will stop to eat when and what you want, pee when the urge first occurs, nap if you feel like it, pick a motel based on your own requirements (wifi, next to a Starbucks, doesn’t have that cheap hotel smell) and drive at a speed you (and state laws) have determined? My definition of unalloyed freedom.
I like to travel with others on occasion, maybe a son or grandchild or possibly another family member, or a friend with whom I am very comfortable. Generally, however I prefer to travel alone and observe the world through my own eyes and ears and history.
When flying or training or bussing very many of the conditions of the journey are determined by others. The solo road trip is the only instance (besides hiking) where the traveler is mostly in charge.
Up early, throw last things in the car. Might need that sweater or want to read that book. Two vente skim lattes and a berry cake please. Odometer on 61451.
VIVA LA ROAD TRIP!
Late August 2010. Americans are angry or disappointed, the weather is hot, half the world’s children are hungry, work seems too much like work—must be time to drive the back-highways to Minnesota and contemplate all of that in the peace and quiet of my trusty Mazda, against a background of rolling rangeland, flat-out prairie, woods, farms, ranches, small towns and Dairy Queens. During the trip I stayed in Longmont, Colorado; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Roseau, Minnesota; Grand Rapids, Minnesota and overnight, on the way home, in Emporia, Kansas. I spent most of that time on the road visiting with myself—a mixed blessing, and the time at my various destinations with friends, cousins and brother and sister-in-law (Democrats all—although one has some Republican in her background—which we don’t talk about). We ate and talked and visited other relatives and looked at art and George Clooney. I drove 3,666 miles.
August 20th: I left Albuquerque with a case of the ‘blues,’ nothing serious, just that melancholic veil that occasionally falls between you and life. The blues can be caused by a myriad of things large or small and everyone has their own solution to drive them away. I once walked a couple of month funk away on Oceanside Beach in southern California. This time I would drive to a new state of mind on country roads. However, since the first day was all I-25 all of the time, including rush hour through Denver, I had a chance to wallow in this piteous condition for an extra day before driving the cure.
Actually it turned out to be impossible to maintain a bad mood while spending the evening and night with my favorite young friends in their gracious Longmont apartment. They represent the best of the generation that will soon be running things—worldly, well-traveled, smart, concerned with people, not so much with money, idealistic but comfortable with both humor and cynicism. They took me for my first visit to Boulder, home of all that is pleasant and politically-correct. I was a little suspicious—Boulder is touted as the only salvageable island in a sea of dreary suburbs metastasizing up the sides of the front range—almost too good to be true. It turns out to be a real place of real people. Pleasant rather than elegant. More comfortable than chic. We went to a Boulder International Fringe Festival dance event that was not at all ‘fringe’, and then we ate imaginatively concocted crab, corn and goat cheese pizza at a cozy corner table on a sidewalk full of attractive people under a warm summer moon enjoying comradely conversation. Auspicious beginning for any trip.
August 21st: Nice breakfast, perfect morning temperature and clear morning skies—what if my bad mood’s already gone before backroads therapy kicks in? I head north on I-25 to Fort Collins and then began my happiness quest on 14 East. It worked. Open land, two-lane highway, thinking, problem-solving without consciously doing so, resolutions emerge. Write every day. Go to the gym every day. Never eat too much butter or drink too much wine. Understand that now that the car is paid for it will demand repairs. 80 miles, three gallons of gas—I am already better and it is so much cheaper than that other kind of therapy. Nice.
14 East runs straight east from Fort Collins to Sterling. Land gently rolling and maybe greener than usual for this time of year. Corn fields which will provide much of my viewing pleasure all of the way to the Canadian border, horses and black angus cattle everywhere everywhere—but since there are few more gorgeous sights than multi-colored herds of slick horses and fat black cattle I never tire of the view. Country flattens out as the road skirts the Pawnee National Grasslands. There is an entire alternate almost invisible world all around us—that is the Native American past and present. So many place names acknowledging its existence, so little recognition of its strength and diversity. When I drive through the southwest or Midwest I sense the presence of this world so vividly—like mirages just over there on the horizon—or there—or there.
Mid-morning I reach Sterling, Colorado, then take I-76 to Ogallala, Nebraska where it’s back to country roads—Highway 61 to be exact. Best road of this whole 3,666 miles. From Ogallala around the end of a large lake on the North Platte river 35 miles to Arthur, 33 miles to Hyannis, 67 miles to Merriman and then 19 miles to Martin, South Dakota, around a bend and up Highway 73, 46 miles to I-90. I love this road. Fairly narrow two-lane, those dusty villages (where you still fill up your car and then go inside to pay—remember that?), seeing almost no signs, passing about 10 ranches and meeting 20 or so cars all the way.
Rolling rangeland, herds of horses—shaped and colored and named so beautifully. Black beauties and copper-red sorrels and strawberry roans, reddish-brown bays and golden palominos with their black manes and tails, and those silvery dapple grays—pointillist visions in horseflesh. When I was a kid I drove my mother crazy begging for “Western Horsemen” magazines whenever they came out, expensive magazines that I only occasionally got! Those were the days when I walked up and down the lane to our house dreaming endlessly of the ranch in the west on which I would one day live. Downtown Albuquerque is my grown-up version of that dream. But I digress.
The cattle I see are most clustered around the windmill-fed water tanks and now there are more Herefords than Angus. Stocky red with white heads instead of the shiny jet-black. I know the names of many breeds from growing up on a farm where my mom, the farmer in the family, knew and studied these things. Our small Minnesota herd had neither of these common western types which are raised for beef. We had milk cows including Chickadee, the pretty black and white Holstein; Rosie, “the friendly cow all red and white…,” probably a Shorthorn; Shorty, a big fat fawn Guernsey. My mom was as strong and determined a woman as I’ve ever known but she also had a very large sentimental side which included her love for pretty much all living creatures (except spiders and mean people) and poems about them. In honor of mom then:
The friendly cow all red and white,
I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with apple-tart.
She wanders lowing here and there,
And yet she cannot stray,
All in the pleasant open air,
The pleasant light of day;
And blown by all the winds that pass
And wet with all the showers,
She walks among the meadow grass
And eats the meadow flowers.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Chapter I of my summer vacation ends as I cross through through the Badlands on Highway 73 and catch I-90 into Sioux Falls where my cousin waits up with milk and doughnuts.
The nice thing about little out of the way hotels is that they have few high-tech controls on anything. So my room can be turned on freezing at night and a heavy blanket goes on …and instantly warmed with almost-liquid tropical air by the time my morning instant Folgers is ready—even I could decipher the sign of the thermometer and the little off-on button above it. My perfect environment then—Minnesota winter night and the accompanying heavy quilts, and Philippine Island days of moving slowly through the heat—the moist heat—not the dry-roast oven heat of the southwestern US.
Yesterday in Singapore. I felt obligated to place myself at the heart of this island nation. I do not have much time here and some of it is taken up with adjusting to my halfway-around-the-world (almost) time zone (i.e. sleeping) and seeing work in the evening. So yesterday was devoted to my version of fully-experiencing Singapore. It’s the SHOPPING, stupid. This is shopping-land plus. My little guidebook says walk down Orchard Road for the full flavor of it all so I did. Started at 9am, walked for two hours, down a wide mostly tree-lined street. Each side bordered with SHOPPING CENTERS. Not stores most of the way…rather multi-story CENTERS. MANY OF THEM. And more often than not comprised of all of the high-end stuff of high-end spenders and skinny young women and slightly sinister-looking young or not-so-young men. I always think of Rodeo Drive in Santa Monica as the epitome of high-fashion spending. Singapore is Rodeo Drive on speed, steroids, whatever—each high-rise mall with its own Gucci’s—the mall air, seriously refrigerated, is wafting out into the street laden with sneeze-inducing expensive scents. Two hours then down and two hours back—and too past-the-age when any thoughts of how much better I would look in something more pricey than a Dillard’s sale to even be tempted.
Made it to my destination. A bookstore. Of course. Select Books. A lovely quiet book place where I could find a stool to drag around to the different shelves and ponder the likelihood of reading something enough to carry it home. Finally nine books later I made my way back to the by now very hot and crowded street. All books by Asian writers or about and from Asia. A few very well-reviewed novels, travel lit by Peter Hessler, Country Driving: a Chinese Road Trip and yes, a new police/detective/crime novel from this part of the world, part of the Inspector Singh series. By Shamini Flint of Singapore. I would have liked some political/social/histories but the only ones I found were written by World Bank economists or started out as doctoral theses so I will have to look further in that vein. I know there isn’t a book yet written which probably can’t be ordered through Amazon, B & N, etc. but how do you know what’s out there without hanging out in bookstores. Browsing on line is really quite unsatisfactory. I once ordered a book about Mozambique and hauled it with me there only to find out I hadn’t read the description closely enough and it was actually written by missionaries out to convert them and us.
Then…the reason I am here…the Singapore Festival of the Arts and a performance of Cool by the Beijing Paper Tiger Theater Studio. Physical theater is probably the most apt description. An excellent experience. I am sure this company must have toured in the states—I simply haven’t known of them before. This was a quite gripping tableau of violence—the kind of plain old ordinary everyday violence we inflict upon each other routinely—not big-issue violence. Six actors of varying theatrical/dance backgrounds moved to a most demanding choreography and with quite a lot of improvisation. Afterward the director said that there was more improv than usual because of Singaporean rules and regs. Not sure what that means as “regulated Singapore” isn’t easy to observe—pleasant clean Singapore is what we see. Anyway here’s a description from the program. This performance piece, which includes installations, body work and strong visual elements, is considered to be ‘a Representative of the contemporary cruel theatre’. Its aesthetics of crudity and paradox, and the interpretation of the mediocre reality which presents you with neither the past nor the future, collides with the contemporary urban landscape of the rapidly developing China and the power behind this parvenu.
This would be another perfect piece to present in cooperation with Albuquerque’s Revolutions Theater Festival. Two images from Cool: 1) a big butcher’s table. Some characters are chopping chopping chopping all manner of vegetables…then through a hole in the center one of the actor’s (who has been crouching under the table) head comes up. It is a bloody hacked mask which looks to have been gouged and destroyed to get inside to the brains. At least this is my interpretation based on something I once read about a practice of the Chinese royalty, trapping a live monkey under the table, its head held in a hole in the middle and its brains eaten out by those sitting around the table while it was still alive. Yeah, well… and 2) same table but this time several of the actors are crouched under it, the table is wrapped in cellophane and smoke is pumped in so the image of the writhing bodies being suffocated is pretty graphic. Smog in Chinese cities?
After the performance, during a discussion period, the director was asked several questions about whether he was depicting life as currently lived in China. He said ‘well, he was maybe representing life everywhere wasn’t he?’ True enough since the factor of violence in our lives seems to grow and multiply on a daily basis. Also, since Singapore is 70-80% Chinese (and the most densely populated country in the world after Monaco—thanks Google) the issue of we Chinese and you Chinese is always present I suppose. Imagine it’s way more so in Taiwan. He was asked if the piece bothered the authorities and he said “you’d have to ask them…” with a bit of edge to his voice.
Now on with Sunday. Perhaps a Singapore Sling.
5:30 AM in Singapore. 3:30 PM in Albuquerque. And a day later here. Right? Thought my travels had made me very savvy about time zones and currency. Instead this crossing of the International Date Line has completely confused me…However, I’ve made it through my first day and night in Singapore so feel quite on track with art and walking and the very nice coffee/breakfast in the Raffles Hotel. Will have a Singapore Sling there before I leave. In honor of you, Marsha…and that long ago pretty red drink and I think you had on a blue-flowered sundress and became engulfed with giggles in the bar at Raffles. AS I remember Robert and I tried our best to share the joyful results of drinking Singapore Slings with our own special Norwegian version of effervescence. Here’s to travel then…
I am sad for the loss of Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter. And my daughter-in-law’s father is dying now as well. And although he is quite elderly and has lived a long and positive life the process of becoming an orphan is—for every child—full of regret for any missed opportunities of love, and great loneliness for someone you will never see again. Sandra is a believer, a devout Catholic, and I think that mediates the loss a little. I hope that is true for her; she’s been a very good and attentive daughter.
I’ve turned off the AC and am letting the muggy tropical dawn creep in and moisten my dry New Mexican skin. I do love that. I forget that the Africa I usually visit is not tropical so this for a humidity-lover is a rare treat.
Last night, first Singapore Festival of the Arts performance. A somewhat odd but overall quite pleasing event. Cargo Kuala Lumpur-Singapore by a Swiss-German company Rimini Protokoll. A perfect Revolutions Theater Festival piece actually, live performance/documentary/site-specific. The audience sits in a converted cargo truck on bleachers looking out through side windows that are covered with a screen upon which a truckers’ journey from KL to Singapore is shown in live-documentary format, or open to the passing real live scene as we are driven around Singapore, especially around the port/shipping area. It is all very low-key. The two prime “drivers” are actually truck drivers of Indian origin who live and work in Malaysia. The “story” is about the lives of the workers who service Singapore in one way or the other. They tell their tales and those of other workers licensed as the workforce for the very rich and bustling city-state of Singapore. At one time we drove past the dormitories where the itinerant workers live sans family and privacy. Only different from the barracks around Johannesburg in degree of comfort (a very little more) and violence (probably a little less).
The piece is cleverly done with equal parts humor (out of nowhere—in a car park, along the roadside, in a passing car—a singer performs a popular song, or the frequent teasing of the drivers); road trip realities (availability of showers, overnight border stops, prepared lunches versus fast road food) and sobering facts about the lives of migrant laborers wherever such labor is used and abused.
The show is two hours of driving about the city, rather like one of those tourist double-decker bus tours with a little of the local dark side thrown in. The guy next to me was falling asleep so I offered him a piece of gum. He said, “Thanks so much…you know this is in short supply around here.” I then remembered reading years ago of a ban on chewing gum in the city because of the nastiness of its chewed presence stuck on benches, shoe bottoms, etc. Really don’t know if that still exists…am I smuggling illicit substances?
After the performance I walked back to my perfectly okay little cheap Chinese hotel through the warm soft night enjoying the lights of a big bold Asian city. Thought about how strange it would be to live in a city that has no countryside to which you can escape (without your passport in hand). It would be much like a friend described living in Hawaii—golden cage kind of feeling, I suppose.
I may meet some artists today, I will definitely find what is described as a great bookstore which focuses on the fiction and non-fiction of this region of the world. And I will find Sara a key chain. And have a Singapore Sling. All before tonight’s performance which is described as “representative of the contemporary cruel theater.” A company from Beijing.