The Quarantine Makes Us Boring

An Empty Restaurant

Things being as they are, I have a hard time thinking of interesting things to write. During the quarantine, I am involved primarily in four activities: food shopping, cooking, reading, and film viewing. There isn’t much I can write about food shopping and cooking, primarily because of Martine’s irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), most of what I cook is pretty bland. When I cook a dish for myself, I tend to go crazy with spices and chiles—because I can!

I would love to write more about places that I have visited recently. Except I have not visited many places recently. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Restaurants are usually closed, and the weather does not encourage picnicking.
  2. If you have to go to the bathroom, you pretty much have to buy gasoline.

I’d love to go driving in the local deserts, but I am uncertain as to filling these two basic needs which all travelers have. Let’s say I want to go to Boron, California, home of the Twenty-Mule-Team Museum. Not only is the museum closed, but I have no idea where I can get food locally, and whether the local restaurants are serving diners outdoors. There is just too much uncertainty.

Sometime this February, I will pay another visit to my brother in Palm Desert. My last visit there was at the end of October. There are some places we can go, and he knows which local restaurants are serving food. (Though the best food there is likely to be cooked by my brother.) To be sure, I will take my camera and try to find some places I can write about.

Until then, you will hear more about my reading and film viewing.

How Not To Be Mistaken for an American Tourist

Second Class Buses in Antigua Guatemala

If you actually want to look like an American tourist, stay the hell away from me. When you look at me as if I were a fellow gringo, I will answer you in my rather coarse Hungarian. I don’t want to be anywhere near you with your flip flops, fanny packs, baseball caps, and selfie sticks. You will be the target for anyone who can rip you off in broken English, and I don’t want to be a witness to that.

I remember my friend Janice. Her ex-boyfriend took her to Europe, but they didn’t really see anything. He was what I call an “experiential traveler”: “Hey, look at me. I’m walking on the Champs-Elysées” or “Hey, we’re in Amsterdam. Isn’t this cool?” They took pictures of each other in front of various famous locations which they didn’t take the time to visit. If I were her, I would have dumped his inert corpse into the canal.

Early Morning on Laugarvegur in Reykjavík, Iceland

The best way to enjoy strange places is to explore them—and not in large groups. I keep thinking of Rudyard Kipling, no mean traveler himself, who wrote in “The Winner”:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

I have on occasion been tempted to replace the word “fastest” with “farthest.” I have done most of my traveling alone, especially as Martine thinks I am too adventurous for her comfort. On the other hand, I have enjoyed traveling with her and on two separate occasions with my brother. But as soon as I find myself in a large group of Americans, I quickly search for the nearest exit.

When I was in Mexico last year, I frequently hired guides by myself at the various Maya ruins I visited. Rather than joining a group that sauntered around absentmindedly, I enjoyed asking questions of the guides, who invariably knew their stuff. As opposed to the tour guide the parents of one of my friends had in Yucatán: He told his boat people tourists that the Maya ruins were built by Egyptians.

I know I must come across like a horrible grump sometimes, but I have had numerous bad encounters in foreign countries with my fellow Americans. And yet, in 2013, when I went to Iceland for a second time, I helped a couple of French tourists find a hotel in Höfn in the Hornstrandir, where no one spoke their language.

Two Types of Travel Books

The Blue City of Samarkand in Uzbekistan

Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa—these are cities I would dearly love to know more about. So when I read Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road, I looked forward to learning more about these magical places. Alas, I was disappointed: The book was more about a bicycle trip with little attention paid to destinations, and most of the attention paid to the roads connecting the destinations.

I had to remind myself that there are two types of travel books. First, there was my preferred kind, which combines personal experiences with history, literature, art, cuisine, and culture—the whole ball of wax! But there is another kind of travel book as well. Call it adventure travel or experiential travel. All mountain-climbing books fall into this category. They can be excellent reads, such as Jon Kracauer’s Into Thin Air, Alfred Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat, or any of Eric Shipton’s great books on mountains he has climbed.

Tibetan Monastery

Kate Harris and her companion Melissa Yule concentrated all their efforts in surviving a multiple-thousand-mile journey involving multiple mountain ranges and passes. It was quite an accomplishment, but it just left me hungry to learn more about Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa, and points between.

Oh, well, as long as the quarantine and my health last, I’ll have the time to make up that deficit.

A Streetcar Named Canal

The Canal Street Streetcar Line in New Orleans

Although most of the South doesn’t interest me very much, I would love to visit New Orleans during the two or three weeks of the year when the weather isn’t too oppressive. And I would be delighted to skip the crowds of Mardi Gras.

New Orleans started out under the French flag from 1718 to 1763, then under Spain from 1763 to 1802. It returned to France briefly in 1802 until First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte decided to sell it to the fledgling United States of America in 1803 for $15 million, along with a whole lot of other land totaling 828,000 square miles. The only other flag that flew over the Big Easy were the “Stars and Bars” of the Confederate States of America (1861-1862).

Camelback House in New Orleans

What interests me about the city is its rich cultural (and culinary) history. (How many cities in our country have their own cuisine?)

Close to the city are the Cajun parishes of Louisiana, with their own transplanted French Canadian culture. Martine and I have visited the Maritime Provinces of Canada, from where the Cajuns (Acadians) hailed after they were deported following the French and Indian War. In preparation for some future visit to Louisiana, I have been reading the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke. And I am currently in the middle of George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes.

Until the coronavirus quarantine becomes a thing of the past, I won’t be doing much traveling—though I might go to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico to celebrate my brother’s 70th birthday in April. (That, too, is contingent on the virus.)

City of Bones

The Palace (Left) and the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque

One of the most beautiful Maya archeological sites is Palenque in the State of Chiapas. It sits at the edge of the jungle and just before the foothills of the Sierra Madre. My brother Dan and I spent several days there in December 1979. I would give anything to go again.

The name Palenque means “Palisade,” which was given by the Spanish, who saw the ruins as a fortress. By the time the Spanish conquered Mexico, the site had been uninhabited for over eight hundred years. It was around AD 800 that many of the major Maya ceremonial centers were abandoned due to various factors. These included drought, changes in religion and form of government, and other reasons.

Maya Glyphs from Palenque

According to Maya glyphs that have been recently interpreted by scholars, the Maya name for Palenque is actually translated as “City of Bones.” As the great Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier discovered, the Temple of the Inscriptions was the tomb of a powerful ruler named Kʼinich Janaab Pakal. In 1979, Dan and I were able not only to climb the pyramid, but snake our way through the tunnel that contained the site of Pakal’s burial chamber.

The ruins could only be described as beautiful. Only Uxmal in Yucatán could be described as its equal for siting and architecture.

Ruins in the Mist at Palenque

I was surprised that my brother seemed to enjoy Palenque as much as I did. It turns out that the region where the ruins are located is a famous coffee-growing region. So Dan, who is a major coffeeholic, found himself drinking endless cups of the stuff.

We were in town around the Christmas season, where we had the opportunity of seeing the posadas whenever we had dinner in the nearby town of Palenque. At one point, we were having dinner when a shoeshine boy came in and began circulating among the diners. When he approached Dan, my brother quietly slipped off his sandals and proffered a large foot clothed in a fuzzy red wool sock. The whole restaurant erupted in laughter.

Villa 31

View of Apartments in the Villa 31 Shantytown in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 25, 2017

I had a long conversation with my friend Suzanne about the homeless earlier this evening. The increasing poverty displayed by the rising numbers of tent-dwelling homeless bothered both of us, especially as we did not find any easy solution to the situation.

During my travels, I have seen some grinding urban poverty, mostly in Buenos Aires. That was only because the train and bus stations in Retiro border on one of the worst slums in South America, namely Villa 31, one of the Villas Miserias in the Argentine capital. In BA, the ugliest slums tend to be prefaced by the word Villa in their names.

The following YouTube video will give you an idea of the place:

YouTube Video About Villa 31

In 2015, I was at the edge of Villa 31 while walking between the train station and the bus terminal. At the time, I was carrying over $2,000 in Argentinean pesos I had just obtained. A couple in their thirties came up behind me and sprayed me with a combination of steak sauce and mustard. Suddenly, they started wiping the mess with tissues that appeared miraculously in their hands. They tried to get me to go to a restroom where they would help me clean up and strip me of anything of value. But as they were urging me to my left, I suddenly cut right toward a waiting taxi and made my escape. The taxi driver was not happy with a passenger that smelled of steak sauce, but I tipped him well to clean up the upholstery after I left.

I did not visit any of the other famous favelas or shantytowns of South America, but I did get a good look at Villa 31 as my bus sped me toward Puerto Iguazú near the border with Brazil and Paraguay.

The Crowding has Made Villa 31 a Covid-19 Hot Spot

If you have any sort of conscience, you can only feel uncomfortable dealing with so much raw poverty. In the gospels (specifically Matthew 26:11), we are told “The poor you will always have with you.” But we are not told how we can eradicate poverty. Maybe we can’t, but I think it is only right that we be disturbed about it.

Tropical Penguins

Feeding Time for the Humboldt Penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo

I am looking back to a visit Martine and I made to the Santa Barbara Zoo some ten years ago this month. At the time, penguins interested me more and more. In 2006, I had seen some Magellanic penguins at Isla Pájaros on the Beagle Channel in Argentina’s State of Tierra Del Fuego.

In 2010, I had hopes of talking Martine into coming with me to Argentina in 2011 (which she did) and seeing the penguins at Pájaros and Punta del Tombo in the State of Chubut.

The penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo are similar to the Magellanic penguins of Argentina, but they inhabit warmer country, namely the coastal regions of Northern Chile (site of the Atacama Desert) and Peru.

Lone Humboldt Penguin

I have always regarded the penguins at the Santa Barbara Zoo as my favorite exhibit. Clumsy on land, the Humboldts swim with speed, fury, and precision. (For that reason, they are much harder to photograph when they’re in the water.)

Todos Somos Calaveras

Statue of Skeletal Woman at Mérida’s Hotel La Piazzetta

At some time in the 1980s—I disremember the year—I was on a long bus ride between Mazatlán and Durango over the mountains. It was November 2, the Day of the Dead, and the bus was crowded with men, women, and children headed toward distant cemeteries with baskets of food. A young mother with a baby and numerous packages sat down next to me taking the aisle seat. I helped her by holding the child or various packages for a while, until she disappeared at some small town to hold a picnic by the grave of one of her loved ones. Was it her husband? her mother? I never knew.

The following quote is from Elizabeth Sayers and Chloe Sayer’s book The Skeleton at the Feast. It throws some light on the feast day:

In Mexico—to quote Ms Sayer—the first and second of November belong to the dead. According to popular belief, the deceased have divine permission to visit friends and relatives on earth and to share the pleasures of the living. To an outsider the celebrations might seem macabre, but in Mexico death is considered a part of life. A familiar presence, it is portrayed with affection and humor by artists and crafts workers. For the Aztec, as for other ancient peoples, death signified not an end but a stage in a constant cycle. Worship of death involved worship of life, while the skull—the symbol of death—was a promise of resurrection…. The death of the individual was seen as a journey, for which numerous offerings were needed. Life is a fleeting moment—a dream—from which death awakens us.

It is all summarized in the Mexican saying “Todos somos calaveras”—“We are all skeletons.” The candy stores are full of confections shaped like skulls and skeletons. All the energy that we Gringos put into Halloween is directed toward La Dia de los Muertos. I suspect that, perhaps, the Mexican holiday is, all told, more healthy than our Halloween.

More on That Wind

Ontario CA Airport Terminal

The day before yesterday, I posted a description of driving back to L.A. from the desert in a big wind. In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, I discovered just how strong those winds were:

The powerful winds, which included gusts that topped 80 mph in at least one location, toppled big rigs in the Inland Empire [San Bernardino and Riverside Counties] and forced officials to briefly close Ontario International Airport. Don Gregorio, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in San Diego, said gusts at the airport on Monday had clocked in as high as 70 mph.

I was just south of Ontario Airport on Archibald Avenue when I encountered the worst of the winds.

Breaking Quarantine

California Fan Palms Growing from Sulfurous Ponds

This last weekend, I spent a long weekend with my brother and sister-in-law in Palm Desert. Atypically, the weather was perfect. Dan mentioned that until I arrived, the temperature had risen to over 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius) for over 100 days in a row. While I was there, the high was closer to 80° (27° Celsius).

It felt good to see my brother again after 7 months of close quarters in West Los Angeles. We went swimming three days in a row, and even re-visited a couple of local sites.

These included the lovely Thousand Palms oasis and the Sunnylands park on the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage.

One of the Cactus Gardens on the Annenberg Estate

Not all the facilities at both locations were open due to the coronavirus outbreak, but seeing anything beautiful these days is a rare pleasure—especially during a particularly ugly election year.