Sunday, October 4, 2020

Virtual Vacation - Arequipa, Peru


The desert is like a campfire in its ability to empty your mind. Gazing out the windows of the bus, the view constantly changing as we leaned and lurched through curve after unforgiving curve, climbing up into the mountains of southern Peru, I had only two thoughts in my head. One, who on this bus was going to throw up first, and two, was that person sitting directly behind me?

As the land plateaued and the road straightened another question came to mind, one whose answer eluded me for years.

What made the town of Arequipa back there so cool?

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Virtual Vacation - Cañón del Colca, Peru

Depending on who you talk to, the Cañón del Colca in southern Peru is the third or fourth, or maybe the fifth, deepest canyon in the world.

Some say Nepal’s Kali Gandaki Gorge holds the title. Where the river runs between the peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri the elevation difference reaches 5,570 meters (18,275 feet). For others the Tsangpo Canyon in Tibet is the deepest; though listed at 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) deep, at one point the river flows 6,009 meters (19,714 feet) below the land above it.

Then there’s the DenmanGlacier, hidden under the snows of Antarctica. Reaching 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) below sea level doesn’t make it the deepest in relation to the land around it, but it does make this glacier-carved valley the lowest point of dry land on Earth.

Cañón del Colca, then, seems to sit at #3 on the list of World’s Deepest Canyons. With a maximum depth of 3,501 meters, this remarkable hole in the ground is fully twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA.

Which is nice. But that’s not why we’re here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Virtual Vacation - Essaouira, Morocco

From the stone ramparts of the old medina you can watch the waves crash against the rocky islands sitting just off shore. In the maze of narrow alleyways within these walls it’s easy to feel lost, not as one who can’t get home but as one who is so far away from anything resembling home that home might as well not exist anymore.
That long and distant island running off to the left is (probably) the island of Mogador.
The city sits halfway between the stately and tempestuous Strait of Gibraltar and the sandy wasteland of as-Sahra al-Gharbiyah, also known as Western Sahara. The walls can look as old as time itself, making the colors of the carpets displayed on them seem incongruous, even impossible. Half-ajar doors leading to dim rooms and hallways lend as much mystery as closed ones. There are cow’s brain sandwiches for sale.

I arrived in Essaouira not knowing what to expect. I left with what I take from most places I’ve ever visited: spontaneous photos, fragmented memories, and, at best, a rudimentary understanding of what I’d just seen.

Only now, over a decade later, as I search for things to say about a few of my photographs of Essaouira, am I understanding what I saw – and realizing what I missed.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Virtual Vacation - Dakigaeri Valley, Japan

Japanese history – presented in true Japanese form – gives dates of events in terms of eras. So I was intrigued when I read that Dakikaeri Jinja, the modest shrine at the mouth of this Dakigaeri Valley, was established in the thirteenth year of the Kanbun Era (寛文13).

My knowledge of historical Japanese eras mirrors my knowledge of United States Presidents. I am familiar with the first one, the most recent few, and a handful of the more significant ones in between. The rest I may have heard of but don’t know anything about.

In other words, just like I have no idea when Millard Fillmore was president, I had no idea when the Kanbun Era fell in the annals of Japanese history. It could have been two hundred years ago, it could have been two thousand. This shrine in the sticks of Akita Prefecture may have been founded when Jesus was walking the earth or when Lincoln was getting shot. And quite frankly, I liked the idea of not knowing. The mystery adds to the allure.

So I was a tad disappointed to find out 寛文13年 was actually 1673 AD. Sure, this means Dakikaeri Jinja is a century older than the United states. But as old as Japan is, it’s hard to get excited about a shrine that didn’t even exist when Christopher Columbus started slaughtering the Indians.

Call me superficial. I’ve been called much worse.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Virtual Vacation - The Island Town of Burano, Italy

The ancient port town of Altinum in northern Italy was a bustling trade center until the mid-5th Century when ravaging Huns laid the place to waste. The town made a comeback, but when the Lombards began running barbaric roughshod through the region a hundred years later the people put down their pasta and scattered, taking refuge on a series of islands in the Venetian Lagoon. In an interesting mix of nostalgia and tempting fate, these refugee settlers named six of the islands after the six doors that did absolutely no good protecting their now-obliterated city.

One of those islands, Burano, was named after the Porte Boreana, the North Door. Burano is known for having lots of fishermen, dwindling numbers of traditional lace makers, and homes that make Martha Stewart look like a bore.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Virtual Vacation - Mae Salong, Thailand

Mae Salong is a quiet mountain ridge village in the highlands of northern Thailand. Once part of the Golden Triangle opium trade, Mae Salong in 1961 became a refuge for asylum-seeking members of China's anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT) forces. Known today as Santikhiri, Mae Salong is a subtly exotic island in the sky. Getting there on a bicycle is an excruciating kind of fun.

In 1949 approximately 12,000 anti-communist rebels fled the Yunnan Province of China and hid out in Burma before eventually crossing over into Thailand. For a while they supported themselves through their involvement in the healthy opium trade, but in the 1970's the Thai government made them an offer: help the Thai government put down their own communist uprising in exchange for Thai citizenship and a solid pat on the back. One condition of the agreement was that they give up their opium habit and replace it with something more healthy. And the Mae Salong tea industry was born.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Virtual Vacation - Old Town Ljubljana, Slovenia

The symbol of Ljubljana, capital city of Slovenia, is the Ljubljana Dragon. According to myth, the slaying of a dragon brought a bounty of water to the land, ensuring the fertility of the Earth. Oddly, this is said to have also created the Ljubljana Marshes, which periodically threaten Ljubljana with flooding. The people of Slovenia thus have an ancient love-hate kind of thing with their mascot.

The Ljubljanica River may be unimaginatively named, but it has a colorful history. It seems that this river has served as a sort of ritualistic dumping ground for various civilizations over thousands of years. From the Stone Age to the Renaissance the Romans and the Celts and innumerable lesser-known and unnamed peoples have offered their artifacts, dropped their wallets and tossed out their trash in the waters between here and Vrhnika, about twenty kilometers upstream. The inevitable clash between historians and treasure hunters compelled Slovenia's national parliament to declare the river a site of cultural importance, making it illegal to dive without a permit. Swim at your own risk.