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Guyana-Hopping Home

We arrived in Brasilia and were confronted with the question of how to get to the airport hotel, easily visible from the arrivals curb. One could take a taxi (which would have set us back about ten dollars). One could walk (but we didn’t know there was a sidewalk the whole way). The correct answer was to take a shuttle bus, but there was no apparent information telling us that the bus was up on the departures level. We finally found an Avis representative who could actually speak English (most airport staff can’t, and there was no information kiosk for the airport that we could see.) He directed us up to the bus, and then we got to the hotel right away. The hotel itself was fairly unremarkable, except in being a cheap airport hotel. I am afraid to look at how much the Hyatt in Orlando costs. We got up and headed to Belem.

On our entire trip through Brazil we would occasionally talk to people, those who speak English, about life there. Life right now is very difficult and unpleasant: the previous president, Lula, a socialist hope for all, turned out to be even more corrupt than many who had gone before. The current one is not much better. People don’t feel very optimistic, and this results in many parts of many cities being unsafe to walk around in with fancy cameras and tourist garb. The neighborhood we were in in Belem came with such warnings, though mostly for just at night. The hotel was French, and was quite cute. It was small, several rooms on two levels around a courtyard with an empty swimming pool, and a little French restaurant. Belem is on the mouth of the next river down from the Amazon, but it is definitely part of Amazonia (the states of Amazonas and Para). We had gone there because some said it had the best food in Brazil, which it turns out we had tasted when were in Manaus: tacaca, a soup made with tucupi, a gooey cassava paste, and jambu, a tongue-numbing herb similar in effect to Sichuan peppercorns. We went to the post office to buy stamps, found a philatelic desk with an extremely friendly agent, and walked out with lots of pretty stamps. Later, for dinner, we walked to Estacão das Docas, (station of docks), which were two warehouses next to former docks that had been converted into super-touristy shopping and restaurant spaces. The warehouse’s ceiling cranes had been converted into a platform for musicians, which moved back and forth above the audience during their sets.

We ate at La em Casa and had sampler plates, featuring a few different Amazonian fishes fixed in various ways; a few different grades of toasted manioc flour, one, farinha d’agua, was extremely crunchy. We had a few different juices of fruits which we hadn’t heard of (it turns out it’s hard to beat papaya, mango, passion fruit, and guava, probably because they are sweeter than the unknown ones). We had duck with tucupi and jambu. It was all quite delicious. Afterwards we went to the Amazon Beer microbrewery in the next warehouse and had a delicious IPA and listened to the guitar player floating overhead, singing the Brazilian equivalent of early Simon and Garfunkel.

Tuesday we started with lunch at Remanso do Bosque, a reputed fancy restaurant serving the Amazon cuisine. I’d kind of expected a tasting menu, but it was lunchtime and had an a la carte menu, so we ordered a few things. Before anything arrived, I noticed I didn’t have my phone. I launched Find iPhone on Ray’s phone, and watched my phone driving off with the taxi, getting further and further away. I decided to chase after it, and grabbed another taxi to try to track it down. Ultimately, after putting it in Lock Mode with Ray’s phone number displayed on the front, a manager of a glasses shop took it from the taxi, called the number, and soon I got it back. I had assumed it was still in the taxi; if I’d checked shops based on the location, I might have found it. One major problem with Find iPhone is that it shows you where the phone is but doesn’t show where you are, so as you walk to where it is, it’s quite awkward. I guess I’ll have to see if it’s in the new version before I report it as a bug. I got back to the restaurant and Ray was ready to call the tourist police, since he had heard nothing in the hour I’d been gone. He’d saved half of all the food, which was delicious. I guess everyone needs to have a spare phone in addition to their normal one, to deal with situations like this. Maybe three. After lunch we walked around the adjacent park, which turned out to be more of a zoo. A sudden storm cut that short; we had some sixty-cent raincoats we’d bought during a similar downpour in São Paulo, and were able to keep dry. The park downpour also served to get a number of pairs of lovebirds into artificial caves and other secluded areas. There was the definite impression that the park is where you went to get away from your parents for 2 reais.

Wednesday we got up at 2:30am for our 5:30am flight to Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. French Guiana is actually part of France, just like Guadeloupe and Martinique and the Pyrenees. They use Euros. They have a space center there which they refer to as being on European soil. Cayenne seemed much cleaner than Georgetown and Belem, and felt much safer. The architecture wasn’t all that exciting; one got the impression there were no tourists. The tourist offices were both closed, with no hours posted.

While walking around town trying to find the location of the closed or nonexistent tourist offices, we happened on a small museum-in-progress. They are trying to raise funds for the real museum, which is on the site of an old hospital. (The theme of repurposed hospitals seems to keep coming up. One in the heart of São Paulo is turning into a mega-development. Are old hospitals designed that badly that they can’t be updated? Do people no longer get sick?) Part of the museum-in-progress was about museuming. They had displays of the tools used to restore paintings, repair books, fix old taxidermy, and all the bad things that can happen to wood — not the sort of thing that is usually the text of a museum.

We gave up on tourist office hunting, and went to the Best Western on the theory that there would be travel agencies there. There was one, nextdoor. We had a question of how to get to the space center in Kourou, 60km away, to tour it the next morning (you can reserve on line), and the tourist agency pointed us to a super-cheap rental car company a block from our wonderful little airbnb. (One day rental was barely more than one-way airport taxi). After we picked up the car, we went to see a photographic exhibition which had been advertised around town, featuring photos taken by a local photographer who is now very old. One wall had hundreds of portraits from his studio, and the others had large artistic pieces. Mostly people, mostly the 1970’s. A fellow working the show was explaining to a batch of students how a Nikon F worked, with the lever to advance the film, and all.

We ate that night at Paris Cayenne, a French restaurant which prepared local ingredients. We had ravioli with atipa, a “walking catfish” which we’d seen at the little museum earlier in the day. We had guinea fowl, Pintade de toucoupi bredmafanes, they called it. Bredmafanes was French for jambu and we actually got to see a garnish of the little yellow flowers and leaves that tingle your tongue a few seconds. We also had “blaff”, which featured jumbo shrimps in broth which you stirred the crunchy toasted manioc flour into. It was a lovely place, with a series of artworks inspired by “Portrait d’une Negresse”, a painting in the Louvre. Each piece, painted on wood, featured someone sitting the same way as the original, but there were men as well as women posing, with varying degrees of accuracy and irony. The owner was quite engaging. So was one of the guests, with a long gray ponytail, whose ancestors had lived in the French Caribbean for three hundred years.

Thursday we left the house at 7am to get to our tour of the Centre Spatial de Guyane. Because French Guyana is only five degrees north of the equator, there is a substantial extra acceleration available to launched spacecraft compared with more distant bases like Cape Canaveral. It is quite a busy place, with a launch happening about every two weeks. They launch three different sizes of rocket: Ariane 5, a large rocket with two solid-fuel boosters, which generally launches two satellites at the same time; Soyuz, an old Russian workhorse which can launch one medium satellite; and Vega, a small solid-fuel rocket used for small satellites. They drove us in a bus (they’d assembled maybe 40 space geeks for the tour) to the Soyuz launch site, and the Ariane/Vega control center. Unfortunately, the tour was conducted in French, though occasionally the guides would speak in English to the 15 or so of us who didn’t understand the rapid commentary in French. Still it was all quite interesting: it was nice to see things; the information can always come from the Internet. After we got back to Cayenne, we went to a small Creole restaurant for lunch, and had armadillo stew, and boudin. It’s a bit complicated to take apart an armadillo. The museum lady from the previous day had suggested that eating it was forbidden, but we figured it must be OK, since it’s a restaurant operating openly. It was quite tasty. Since we still had the car for a few hours, we drove to a local trail where it was suggested we might see sloths in the trees. Indeed we did, two of them. We could count the toes on one of them (three). We also saw a tribe of monkeys jumping from one tree to another, and a little bird flying into a bush to feed its tiny chicks.

Friday a taxi picked us up at 5:30am to get to the airport for a 7:45 flight to Paramaribo. It took 20 minutes, we were there at 5:50. It turns out nothing happens at the airport that early and if we’d waited we wouldn’t have been charged night rates, either. At 6:30, the check-in counter for our flight opened. The agent complained that our hand luggage was too heavy (11kg instead of 8kg), so we checked another bag (free) and shuffled stuff around. Then we waited for immigration to open, which it did at 7am. Then we waited in the departure lounge, and 7:45 came and went with no information and no gate agent. Sometime around 8am, someone came and told us the flight was delayed because of the weather in Paramaribo. Soon they did let the eight or so of us join the people flying from Belem on the flight, and soon thereafter we were in Paramaribo. We ended up sharing a taxi for 15 euros each, for a one-hour ride into town. Paramaribo isn’t a terribly exciting place. There is lots of interesting colonial architecture, and a stunning wooden church. But people on the street were generally not friendly; many were drunk and many called us the usual names. I assume that the ones who say Santa Claus seem less aggressive than the ones who say Ho Ho Ho. I’m ready to go home, although being home is no guarantee of smooth sailing, with winter coming and rumors of strife among the housemates.

We did have some good food: Baka Foto is a view restaurant but their French chef does a great job with the local ingredients. (The best thing was the amuse-bouche, a little fish dumpling with jalapeno mayonnaise, and a pile of alfalfa sprouts mixed with orange peel.) There was a friendly guitar and pan pipe player from Peru, who played that one song that everyone associates with Peru and pan pipes. Apparently it is an authentically Peruvian song, before Simon and Garfunkel the media picked it up. We saw him again around town the next day. We also saw a guy who had been on the plane from Belem and the Space center tour. He has been on the road for 6 months with his camera, and has a way better blog than we do. We met him when he walked into Zus & Zo, where we were rehydrating and re-sugaring, and then again at Souposo. Souposo serves soup: we had a tasty crunchy peanut soup, with bits of chicken and salty meat, and a mustard soup, which didn’t taste that much like mustard but was still good. We spent Saturday afternoon on postcards and blogging, and went back to Zus and Zo for yet another soup and some North African beef.

Sunday we woke up at 4:30am to get picked up at 4:45 to be at the airport by 5:45 for our 7:15 flight. Unlike Cayenne, the Paramaribo airport was open that early and there was a long line of people waiting to check in. The line moved absurdly slowly, and I worried that we’d miss the flight, or that it would be delayed so that we’d miss the connection to Miami. (Ray attributed my worry to not having had coffee.) But as things got closer to the deadline, somehow they figured out how to make the line move faster. We flew 2.5 hours to Curaçao, where there was an absurdly long but somewhat quick-moving security line for passengers in transit (not entering the country), and then an absurdly slow-moving line at the transit desk to get boarding passes (since we weren’t given them in Paramaribo as we should have been.)

The pressure was relieved somewhat by the flight being delayed by half an hour, and we arrived successfully in Miami. E-Z Rent-A-Car looked somewhat cheesy, and there was an argument with the client next to me about the company policies for customers paying cash: he had a wad of $100 bills but no card with enough credit to fund his rental. The car we ended up with is very nice, some kind of Kia with enough room for all the luggage. TimeOut showed us a couple of arty things to do, so we drove (avoiding tolls by taking a route through the passenger drop-off zone) to Wynwood Walls, a trendy street art neighborhood in one of the rougher areas in Miami. All the parking there is PayByPhone, charging 24/7. We parked a block away for free, and walked around and saw many cute murals. We had a salmon Reuben from a Jewish bakery, and headed to the next place, Perez Art Museum. There were several good pieces there, we needed a bit more than the two hours we had. TimeOut then recommended NIU Kitchen, a tiny Catalan tapas place downtown which probably had the best food of the trip: watermelon soup, marlin carpaccio, baby back ribs, and two delicious cheap Spanish house reds. As I had surrendered to the Uber force earlier in the trip, I surrendered to the PayByPhone force in order to park anywhere near the restaurant. Turns out it’s kind of cool, in that you can “feed the meter” without walking to your car. They need that in Edinburgh.

On the last day of the trip, we sat in the same airbnb we went to last February, and posted the blog for the last month of the trip. We went to Cilantro’s Cafeteria and Juice Bar for some authentic Cuban lunch, and then drove around the 50s architecture of north Miami, up Miami Beach, then around Fort Lauderdale on local roads. Florida is making it harder and harder to avoid tolls. At one point I stopped in a pay parking zone to let Ray mail some letters, then I noticed a “parking enforcement” car drive by with cameras mounted on top. What is this world coming to? I’ll see if I get any tickets from that, via the car rental company with a $25 administrative fee. We killed a bit more time in a very cute state park, where we saw a kingfisher, a couple large iguanas, and an enormous cargo ship leaving the port after having dropped off its load. We returned the car, boarded the plane (both TSA Pre this time, yay), and sat on the tarmac while they removed all of the luggage so they could get to the cargo and remove it, a half-hour delay.

Now we are home, and will return to our routine until the next trip, in about three months. Stay tuned.

Mining and Art

Tuesday we took an early Uber to the airport, and flew up to Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais. And general mining is in fact what happens there. In fact, just days before, a mine dam had broken and wiped out a village just up the road from where we were to stay. But this was not presented to the tourists. We picked up our wimpy little Fiat Way, and headed to Ouro Preto, where we had what turned out to be a wonderful airbnb: an entire house, with no one else staying in it. We put the car in the garage and it stayed there until we left two days later.

Ouro Preto, which means “black gold”, not to be confused with the kind on the Beverly Hillbillies, is a famous home of revolutionaries in the late 18th century advocating for Brazil’s independence from Portugal. It didn’t happen then, and they were all executed, but people still remember them with museums. The town square, Praca de Tiradentes, “Tooth Puller Plaza”, is named after the nickname of the most famous of them. Ouro Preto was once the capital of Minas Gerais, but it was relocated to Belo Horizonte, which may have been an important cause of a freeze in development there: there are no buildings which look like they were built in the 20th century. They have a strong Architectural Standards Review Board or something which prevents anything the disturb the preservation. The roads are quite steep, and are frequently paved with somewhat sharp rocks that provide excellent traction as you walk or drive up or down. Or they are paved with flat bricks. Once you get in town, you see no smooth asphalt, or even concrete sidewalks: those are made out of big flat stones.

In our two full days there, we visited several churches. They were all different, of course, but there was a basic layout they all shared which we haven’t seen anywhere else. They were all fairly small; the nave was generally surrounded by six little altars, each generally containing several statues. The main altar in the chancel looked like a wedding cake, with seven levels or so, and a large statue of the person for whom the church was named standing on the top. Jesus on the cross might have been mounted on a pole far below, in front of the altar. There was often but not always elaborate decoration on the sides of the chancel, and on both ceilings. One sculptor, Antonio Francisco Lisboa, known as Aleijadinho, was responsible for making or inspiring much of the sculpture in all these churches, and is a town hero for that. (As with many town heroes, there is doubt that he existed, or executed all the works attributed to him, or became the victim of leprosy or syphilis and worked till the end of his life with brushes and chisels strapped to the stumps of his hands.)

We went to the historical museum, and also the Museu do Oratorios, which housed an interesting collection of little shrine boxes people had. The bottom floor contained oratorios carried by travelers, many in the shape of a cylinder, which swung open to reveal the saints and angels inside. The middle floor showed oratorios that would be at normal people’s homes; the most interesting of those were the Afro-Brazilian ones which combined items from everyday life with the spiritual icons. The upper floor had elaborate artistic oratorios kept by members of the upper class. We walked through a cute park, Vale do Cantos, with a long trail. It does a good job of hiding the town even though it goes directly through the center of it.

On Friday we drove through Congonhas, a bleak mining town with a small seminary containing a the most famous set of statues made by Aleijadinho, sort of his Burghers of Calais. I am sorry to say that Google Maps does not do a good job of guiding through Congonhas. We walked the last 200 meters because the road had turned to 4WD boulders in a bleak neighborhood. Upon arrival there, it looked as if another road could have got us there without difficulty, but we had to go back the way we came.

Then we headed directly to Inhotim, an amazing art park next to Brumadinho, another mining town. Inhotim is impeccably landscaped, and would function well as a botanic garden even if there were no art at all: they have the largest collection of palm trees in the world, for example, and there were plenty of birds to watch. But there was plenty of art, all of it of the “large” variety. Tunga, mentioned above, had gotten the mining magnate in Brumadinho interested in collecting art, and creating this park to house it in was the logical next step. Many artists had individual pieces: a 12-foot statue here, a glass triangular building there, a huge kaleidoscope on a stand elsewhere. And there were many galleries, many permanent built specifically around a specific large work, and some which presumably have rotating exhibitions showing smaller pieces of several artists. Matthew Barney had a giant earthmover holding a white plastic tree inside a glass geodesic dome; Doug Aitken had a “sonic pavilion” playing sounds from deep in the earth in real time; Chris Burden had dropped huge construction beams into a just-poured concrete platform. There was a room playing a performance of a 40-person choir, each singer through an individual speaker. There was a gallery showing slides of 70s musicians’ LP covers used to serve cocaine, in comfortable rooms, one with mattresses, one with hammocks, one with a swimming pool (this would make an excellent party space). And those are just a few highlights. We spent 13 hours there across three days (we got half-price tickets because we are over 60!), but didn’t feel worn out like we do after two hours in SFMOMA, because the pieces were few and large, and they were broken up by walking and birdwatching and lunch.

We stayed in a little hostel in Brumhadinho, which had a jabuticada tree in the backyard, which mostly grows in Minas Gerais. It is a pine tree whose trunks are covered with little purple fruits, which you can eat but which are mostly used to make jam and liqueur. Apparently they had a festival just outside town while we were there, but we didn’t end up going.

On Sunday, after our final hours at Inhotim seeing the one section we hadn’t gotten to, we went to another CCBB branch in Belo Horizonte. This was hosting a show of artists from Berlin, including Thomas Rentmeister. His piece was in the first room of the show, consisting of maybe 4×9 meters of one-liter need-not-refrigerate milk cartons laid out on the floor. The curator said he was delighted when he was installing the work, since the dimensions exactly matched the parquetry on the floor. A film we’d seen in Berlin’s gay museum, “Deep Gold”, was also being shown in this exhibition, and we had a chance to see the whole 18 minutes of it this time. In the courtyard of the building, an exhibit called “Standard Time” featured a crew of workers with ladders. Every minute they’d rearrange planks on a set of struts so that the planks would indicate the current time. A video feed showed the same thing happening at another location outside somewhere as well. Yelp Nearby Open Now pointed us to a little place a block away serving perfectly grilled Brazilian river fish, where we had lunch. (It’s a good thing we did, because the hotel in Brasilia only had a buffet, which was getting pretty tired-looking by 10pm.)

Friends in São Paulo

Thursday we left Manaus and flew to São Paulo. The taxis from the airport are about $40; we shared one with the satellite engineer I sat next to on the plane, and his company paid the fare to his hotel; we paid the “delta-fare” on the meter to ours. It was more like $15, much more reasonable, though the overall ride was around two hours at evening rush hour. We checked into the hotel, and found that the room cards which must be inserted in the elevator to go to your room will only allow you to get off on that floor. If you have friends in the hotel on other floors, you have to use the stairs or perform other tricks to see them. Lame.

In the evening we were picked up by our local friend Sandro we’d met at the studio in Berlin. He and his dancer girlfriend Lara took us to a “performance” at a space called Epicentro Cultural featuring a dancer friend of hers. The two dancers in the show had animal heads, one with horns, one just with ears, and body suits. They crawled and bent around slowly down the hall into the performance space, where there were two projectors illuminating pieces of string. Once they got close enough, they started pulling on the string, and the images showed the moving string. Each projector had a large spool of string, strung where the film would go. Meanwhile, I became entranced when I noticed a “noise” musician using an amplified antenna, a violin bow, and looping electronics to provide a soundtrack which was vaguely reminiscent of harmonica. (One of my coworkers in CA has been performing and recording “noise” music for decades, and was just featured with a retrospective on our local college radio station.) The dancers continued to pull on the string, and to wrap themselves with it. One of them walked up the stairs next to much of the audience, we were down on the floor. After about 15 minutes, one of the projectors got pulled onto the floor, and made much more noise as the motor inside which would have moved the film caused something to scrape against the floor, adding much different noise to that of the musician. Finally the dancer unplugged that projector. After 10 more minutes or so, the other projector came down also. The dancers gradually faded back down the hallway, the music continued for awhile, stopped abruptly, and that was that. We went outside, mostly so Sandro could smoke, and talked to people. Sandro introduced us to Tunga, who he said has an entire pavilion at Imhotim, and is one of the most important artists in Brazil. We went back inside and yet another noise musician was performing. We listened for a few minutes, then left for food and drinks. We’d had a couple slices of pizza before the show, so we had room for some actual food. At Sabiá, we had caipirinhas with much more cachaça than the ones we’d had in the rainforest or anywhere in America, and several delicious bar snacks: meatballs, rice balls, sausage casserole, shrimp pies, etc.

Friday we went to the Mercado Municipal and were herded by Dennis, the groom, past the hundreds of stands with beautiful sausages and fruits and cheeses, many with free samples, upstairs to a food court and to a table containing several wedding guests at a little place specializing in Enormous Bologna Sandwiches. They had other choices; the one we ordered turned out to be an Enormous Incredibly Salty Corned Beef Sandwich. The day had just begun and already our stomachs were full of uninteresting food, precluding the possibility of having anything interesting for awhile. When we were done we went back down and looked around. A fruit stand had mangosteens, which made us very happy and which we immediately bought a box of. Then we went to Sandro’s studio, trying to use a taxi to take us there. We couldn’t really understand anything the driver said besides “No”, so I asked Dennis if he could use his Uber powers to get us there. Once we arrived we got on Sandro’s WiFi, and I downloaded the app for the first time, so I wouldn’t be stuck like that again. It came in quite handy since then, even though the traffic has been awful the whole time; Google Maps has never recommended taking the metro so we haven’t bothered.

Sandro shares his studio with some partners. A photographer was doing a shoot of a naked woman who had folded herself up into a ball. Another guy was working on the computer, assembling pictures of insects out of pictures of leaves. Sandro had many of his pieces sitting around, plus many piles of posters he brought back from Berlin, to be used in future pieces. The studio had lots of 50s furniture, which they’d gotten from a friend who had closed his furniture shop. A Polaroid camera turned into a toilet paper dispenser was in the bathroom. The view out the window features a building with a large Jesus Christ head picture on top of it, providing inspiration to all.

We drove over to Sandro’s house, which he’s only been in for a few weeks. It’s a really nice ground floor apartment with a big terrace. We walked around the neighborhood, and saw the gray sunset from a bar straddling a large street that you can’t get to from the bar and you have to walk back up the hill. After having some wine with Lara, I called my first Uber, and got a ride back to the hotel.

We left soon for the bachelor party pub crawl, which was a bit silly. There were 11 guys, and it was not easy to keep them all herded and on track to the same place. We’d decided to walk two kilometers to a particular bar, but the walk seemed to have taken three hours by the time we actually got there. Members of the party kept meeting people and chatting and getting invited to other parties, which nobody fortunately went to since they would have been drugged and kidnapped like happens in movies. Meanwhile, Sandro was texting that we weren’t in a safe section of town.

And then most of the guys didn’t really like where we ended up. Ray and I sat upstairs and had a bit of food, fielding the usual celebrity questions from drunk people about how long we had been growing our beards. I can really understand the desire for a celebrity terminal at LAX. Imagine if we, specifically, had ever actually done anything of note; the attention all day long would be incapacitating and we would never want to leave Topanga Canyon.

The party moved on from there, though we went back to the hotel; they ended up at a place called Love Story, open until 8am. It sounds like kind of a crazy place, probably São Paulo’s Berghain, though with prostitutes instead of leathermen (I haven’t been to either place, I’m guessing based on Internet descriptions, always the best way to form opinions).

On Saturday the wedding guests were encouraged to meet at an all-you-can-eat buffet and grill chain called Bovinu’s. There were many good things there, especially the meat and the desserts. We were set for the day, food-wise. Afterwards we did a bit of shopping, and then went to meet Sandro at his friend’s birthday party at Chez Oscar, a club quite close to our hotel. We invited Tibi, the best man, to go with us; he’d just gotten over some food poisoning, and it was good to see that he was back to normal. After the continual warnings about how dangerous it is to walk, we went there with the minimum: cash, phone, and room key. So the first thing they asked for was an ID. Fortunately, they used data on the phone to constitute that requirement. Finally we got up to the party, where we had fun for four hours, drinking caipirinhas and talking to several of the dozens of party guests as well as strangers who thought we were ZZ Top and Tibi our native Brazilian bodyguard who is pretending to be Romanian. Tibi has a good ear for dialect, possibly even better than the parrot at the village in the várzea; people tend to assume he is a local.

Sunday we decided to go see the Museu Arte Contemporaneo, which something on the Internet told me was on the University of São Paulo campus. When we got there, it looked pretty abandoned; the grass hadn’t been mowed for months, everything was locked. Oops — it has moved across town, and we didn’t have time to chase it down before the wedding. We did stumble onto a little art fair where galleries had booths and were offering many things for sale. It was fun to walk around for an hour or so, although we looked foolish for bad planning, in front of Dennis’s parents, who came with us.

We put on our nicest clothes, carried thousands of miles for the occasion, and headed to the wedding. It was in a cute little event space. The ceremony itself was presided over by a brother of the bride, speaking in Portuguese, and a brother of the groom, speaking in English. Both needed subtitles. We missed lots of laugh lines. Afterwards there was a continuous stream of Brazilian hors d’oeuvres, lots of champagne, beer, and caipirinhas, and a DJ playing a wide mix of non-Brazilian popular music.

On Monday, most of the wedding guests left for their next destinations. Dennis and Tibi and Klaus and Lisa came with us to meet Sandro at the CCBB, the Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil, in downtown São Paulo. Ray had noticed in an inflight magazine that there was an exhibition of an artist he’d recently heard of, Patricia Piccinini. There are artists like Ron Mueck who make super-realistic sculptures of people, down to individual hairs. She is just as super-realistic, but she essentially makes monsters, or flowers made from things that kind of look like body parts. The curator’s statements say her work is a comment on modern society and genetic manipulation. The curators talk too much on their little cards and one of the best things about foreign museums is that you can’t read their cant.

I thought it was a lot of fun, but most of our friends with us didn’t like it at all. Sigh. From there we walked around downtown for awhile, finding a cute very colorful church, and then seeing the huge very austere cathedral. Also a glorious snack bar, Casa Godinho, which has been in business forever. In the evening, after stopping to have Chilean empanadas, we went to hear some music. We arrived at the location, and saw nothing other than what looked like two guys talking across the street, presumably about a drug deal. After looking more closely, one of the guys was paying the cover charge for the club, which had absolutely no sign or light or anything other than the address. We went in, and watched the band gradually arrive and warm up. A string of players sitting in a line against the wall: three percussionists (one playing the cuíca, a very melodic drum), a ukulele, a guitar, and a trombone. The ukulele and guitar played perfectly, establishing an interesting harmonic framework for all the music. The percussionists as well. The singing was occasionally pitch-challenged, but everyone was smiling and having lots of fun doing it. Adriana Moreira was the featured name, and while she often sung, she seemed to be more of a bandleader. Sandro came by for a minute and said goodbye to us.

The Flooded Forest

Thursday and Friday were the next pair of stupid travel days. First we boarded a van along with nine other passengers and two staff, and drove four hours on a not-great-not-horrible dirt road to Lethem, the Guyanese town on the Brazil border. We cleared customs, and decided to walk across the border. In Guyana, they drive on the left; elsewhere in South America, they drive on the right. There was a little overpass where the lanes switched right before going over the river bridge into Brazil. We cleared customs, and noted that taxis are expensive. Basically, they are little SUVs that like to charge about $65 for the trip to Boa Vista; we got ours filled up with five passengers. In Boa Vista, I changed some money with some effort to pay for the taxi, who dropped us off at the bus station.

We had tried to book bus tickets to Manaus way before we left, but the website of Eucatur, the preferred company, was hostile to non-Brazilians, asking in particular for the name of our neighborhood. Of course I could make up a neighborhood (Sky Londa) but my credit card company doesn’t know about that, and the card kept coming back as invalid. I called one travel specialist in Los Angeles a few months back but she said they don’t do buses. At the bus station we headed to Eucatur but they were entirely sold out, even on the extra buses they’d added for the Day of the Dead holiday weekend. A Eucatur representative said they were aware of the website problem.

We found that Amatur had some space left on the 8:30 bus, the last of the day, and bought tickets. We were left with six or so hours to kill before the bus left; we found a bit of grilled sausage and kebabs across the street, but mostly just sat around. No post cards at the bus station. Two of our taximates had gotten a hotel room, which probably would have been a better idea. The bus itself was pretty nice. The seats are spaced well apart and recline quite far, and a pivoting platform supports your legs. For me, the only problem was that my seat would not sit up straight — as soon as I leaned back, it reclined. Fortunately it didn’t bother the guy behind me, but it was a bit annoying. I took an Ambien and slept peacefully until the bus stopped at 3:30am at some roadside checkpoint where the military police wanted to record the passport info of all travelers. Dumb. We arrived in Manaus 11.5 hours after we left, at 8am. We found a taxi to the airport ($12.50 for 7km), and took our little flight to Tefé. We and five other lodge guests were greeted at the airport, taken to a nice little cafe for lunch, and then taken to the dock for the one-hour boat ride to Uakari Lodge.

The Amazon River is the conjunction of two other great rivers, Rio Negro and Rio Solimões, which meet at Manaus. Tefé is upstream from Manaus, on the Solimões. Uakari Lodge is a little further upstream in the Mamiraua protected area, which is between the Solimões and Japura rivers. It is located in the várzea, or “flooded forest”. In the wet season, especially June and July, the river rises 12 meters and covers all the land, leaving only the treetops uncovered. The trees all have this level marked with mud and dead branches.

The lodge floats on the river; many of the communities in the area have houses built on stilts which are above the water. Unfortunately, last year, the water rose 15 meters, and many of those structures were under water. Only species which can live in the trees for a few months do well in this environment. For example, the mosquitoes which transmit malaria cannot live there, so the residents don’t have to worry about that. (There are plenty of other mosquito species who do just fine, however.) As we entered the little canal leading to the lodge, there were suddenly great numbers of birds. Cormorants and anhinga were fishing and drying their wings in great numbers. There were many egrets and jacanas. And there were hundreds of long-billed terns, birds you’d expect to see in Antarctica, but with beaks more adapted to river fish. Ringed and Amazonian kingfishers flew back and forth. The eyes of several caiman protruded from the water as they swam around.

After checking in, we met the staff. André was in charge, a young biologist who spoke great English, and did a great job of identifying wildlife and managing tourists over the next several days. The other guides are all from communities in the area, and all are very familiar with the wildlife, but are still learning to speak English; only one of them could really talk to us. There were many birds and fish in the immediate area of the lodge: rufescent tiger herons and striated herons and kingfishers would sit on the railings; we saw many fish jumping, including the two-foot-long monkeyfish and the two-meter-long pirarucu. Since the oxygen level is often low in the river, these fish have lungs as well as gills, and jump so they can breathe. We boarded a little boat which took us to a trail (all excursions start on a boat, since the lodge is floating on the river), where we walked around and saw more birds and a few monkeys. After dinner, there was a video of the activities of the Mamiraua conservation area, which were basically the same as the ones we saw at Iwokrama (except that there is no logging). The video was much more polished, and perhaps Iwokrama will adopt that format at some point.

The meals at the lodge were quite consistent and consistently good: for lunch and dinner there was always salad, rice, beans, vegetables, starch, fish, and chicken. But other than the rice, each of the items were completely different at every meal. Breakfast was fruit and a cake, with eggs or tapioca pancakes served to order. All meals had juices, almost all of which were made from obscure native fruits. None of them were very sweet, and they were all pretty thin, but they were all quite interesting. And the desserts for lunch and dinner were all delicious: one of the most memorable was some pineapples cooked in caramelized sugar, which were completely brown and sweet.

Saturday morning we took a boat to a nearby community for a visit. That is where we learned about how they are rebuilding their houses even higher to deal with the increased rise of the river during the wet season. We met their pet parrot, who regaled us with human laughter and crowing rooster (to which other roosters replied — why don’t they take parrots on birdwatching trips?) and a little turtle that they are protecting from people who would eat it before it reproduces. The village is giving the turtles a chance to grow. They sold a few trinkets, and we returned for lunch. Late in the afternoon, we headed out to Lake Mamiraua, getting to the end of it and staying to watch the sunset. On the way, we saw hoatzin, a pretty crazy-looking bird, and learned to see the several hawks in the area, including black-collared hawks (the collar is very minimal, mostly you see their white heads and brown bodies) and yellow caracara and osprey. Just before sunset, all the trees on an island got filled with cormorants and egrets roosting for the night. We were wondering how we were going to find our way back in the dark, since it was a little over an hour back to the lodge. Not to worry — they pulled out lights and started looking for more nighttime wildlife; there were lots of caiman eyes reflecting their lights, as well as a couple of common potoos, birds we’d seen at night in Trinidad. We’d seen a boat-billed heron sleeping during the day in Guyana; here there was one who was down next to the water, doing his nighttime fishing. We saw some spectacled caiman, who were white rather than dark gray, only two meters long, and sitting on the bank rather than swimming. After dinner, one of the researchers gave a presentation on the shrinking habitat of jaguars, and the work he has done over the last ten years to track a few of them in the area near the lodge.

Since we had expressed more interest in birdwatching than other group members, we got to team up on Sunday with another guest Chris, who is quite an avid birdwatcher, had all the right equipment and his own bird book, and was already familiar with many of the birds. There was a bit of rain in the morning, but it quickly tapered off and we were able to go on a nice hike in the forest. We were warned not to touch the trees because they had spiders. We saw several birds darting around and often getting a nice glimpse in the binoculars before they flew away. One of the most spectacular was the scarlet-crowned barbet, which I discovered sitting on a branch about ten feet away. Yellow-rumped cacique and black nunbirds were easy to see. A blue-crowned trogon was also quite beautiful. There were a few squirrel monkeys jumping around in the trees as well. In the afternoon we went on a boat ride, along with another guest Antonio, whose ability to speak Portuguese to guides, French to his wife, and English to us, came in very handy. The highlight of that trip was probably the crane hawk, pretty much solid gray with a white band on the tail, and beautiful long orange legs. There were some bushes filled with yellow-headed blackbirds. We also caught a view of a couple more sunbitterns like we’d seen in Guyana.

On Monday we were greeted with pouring rain for several hours. It was supposed to be the day when many of the guests who arrived with us would leave, and fifteen others would arrive later in the day. But the flight from Manaus to Tefé and back was canceled. Someone supposed that it was because of the thunderstorms, and Tefé’s lack of an instrument landing system. We found out a few days later that it had been canceled for lack of interest; only thirty people had bought tickets and it’s only profitable when there are 65 or more. So the departing guests were stuck in Tefé for the night, missing their connections, and the arriving guests were stuck in Manaus for the night, missing one day at the lodge. Sigh. We missed a morning of activity because of the rain, but it cleared up at lunchtime, and we went on a little canoe trip, allowing for quieter approaches and potentially being able to see more birds. I’m not sure that really happened in practice, though. Still it was nice silently gliding along on the canoe. The idea was that the guide would paddle and we would watch, but Ray insisted on making it an exercise opportunity, doing half the paddling himself. I enjoyed watching.

Tuesday we took a pair of hikes with the only two other guests left, Antonio and Martine. The morning one was supposed to be to a “beach”, to see sandpipers and things. But the river had risen, and the sand was all covered up; we landed on grass and walked into a soft forest. The afternoon hike returned to the island across from the lodge, and the mission was to see the Uacari monkey, white with a red face. Indeed, when we arrived, the guide picked up a piece of fruit and told us that this is the kind of fruit this monkey eats, and that it had been eaten very recently. We set off looking for it, but never found it. We did see a group of red howler monkeys, and one of them descended the tree a bit and had a nice 30-second stare at us staring right back at him. There were also several groups of squirrel monkeys. We started hearing extremely ominous thunder-and-lightning sounds, and half the sky got really dark. As a beautiful brown bird landed right next to me (later postulated to be a strong-billed woodcreeper), the rain began, and we made a beeline down the trail, emerging from the forest across from the lodge. The boat wasn’t there; we yelled and about ten minutes later it crossed over and picked us up. The fifteen new guests had arrived (having not been trained to report when people are yelling at you from across the river, in case they need to be picked up). It would be a completely different experience for André, dealing with 15 young men and women, instead of the eight of us mostly over 40 who had been there.

Wednesday was our day to leave Uakari. We boarded a fast boat to Tefé, and immediately after leaving the lodge some insect or debris flew into my eye. So much for getting in some last snapshots or even binocular views as we left the beautiful forest. (It took a couple of hours for it to finally wash out.) Some researchers from Barcelona who recorded at the lodge using underwater microphones, with automatic analysis of the recorded audio, shared this boat trip, and refunded half of what we’d paid for it. I accepted the refund and handed it back to the lodge staff to use as tips, which we’d forgotten to leave in the bustle of departure. The airline staff couldn’t really speak English to us (they were just trying to say “boarding starts at 12:20”) hooked us up with an airplane mechanic who had become a US citizen, and had served in the US Army fixing aircraft, to do translation. He was the one who told us Monday’s flight had been canceled because of undersubscription instead of weather. We landed in Manaus, paid the exorbitant $18 for the 7km taxi ride to our hotel downtown, dropped off the luggage, and explored the main town square a block away. The main feature was the Teatro Amazonas, built at the end of the 19th century to be a place where rich people could show off their wealth. We were able to catch a 4:15 English-language tour. The fresco on the ceiling was meant to look like you were standing under the Eiffel Tower. There were five levels of box seats; the highest ones were the most expensive. Though they provided the worst views of the opera, the point was being noticed as someone who could afford to sit in them. It was a beautiful building, and it is still used; the next opera will be performed early next week.

2% Of The Rainforest Is Protected

Friday and Saturday were both available for walking around Georgetown. We went to the hotel breakfast which despite the fanciness and relative high price of the hotel, was exceedingly minimal. There were three tables set up, and each of them was almost empty. One had a dish of fruit salad. One had toast. And one had coffee and pineapple juice. The coffee was the “brown water” described in the Guyana guidebook, also quite popular across most of America, at least before the era of Peets and Starbucks. Sigh. I suffered through the coffee and we got ready to go explore.

The UK Foreign Office website expresses concern about the safety of its citizens in Georgetown, listing areas where one shouldn’t walk. (They weren’t concerned about Sebring, Florida, which actually had pipe bombs.) The lady at the hotel mentioned that indeed one of the areas the UK mentioned was a bit rough, and identified a street not to walk past in order to stay out of it. We never saw or had any problems in our walks around town, although the newspaper mentioned that a man had been murdered by the mall at 3 AM the day before we walked past there.

The downtown has quite a bit of colonial architecture, also showing quite a bit of fading in its glory. We walked to the Iwokrama office and paid for our transport to the lodge; looked at a lighthouse but were told the stairs were broken and that there were no tours; visited the museum of anthropology; couldn’t find our way into Promenade Gardens; found the Oasis Cafe. The Oasis Cafe is just that, a nice little place with not only air conditioning but also an espresso machine, and decent brewed coffee and a nice selection of pastries and sandwiches as well. After we stepped out of the Oasis back into the humid desert, we saw the cathedral, claiming to be the world’s largest wooden church. Wooden flying buttresses and all. And it may well be. From there we found the philatelic desk and bought some postcard stamps, and explored the National Museum of Guyana, which was mostly natural history with a few other knickknacks like a description of the magenta penny stamp which is now worth $9M US, and the printing press on which it was struck. They also have a full size model of a Megatherium, and in a back room which wasn’t locked but wasn’t advertised either, a stack of portraits including one of the Queen of England as a young woman, in which she is depicted wearing hot pink lipstick. It’s an official looking portrait but with this weird touch of Andy Warhol. No idea where it came from.

We found the gate into Promenade Gardens, and after a brief promenade and watching kiskadees bathe, we went to Shanta’s, a delightful Indian-food lunch counter, where we had a fish curry and rice cooked up with calaloo, a local vegetable. I had mauby drink, made from a bitter bark, but with plenty of sugar added. It was quite unusual.

Saturday we started out at Oasis cafe, bypassing the hotel breakfast. We briefly walked through the colonial-style Stabroek market, then found ourselves on the main shopping street, then walked out to the 1763 monument, then walked around the botanical gardens, which were well-enough attended that the UK’s warning about them seemed like it wouldn’t apply. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the room, and had the hotel’s dinner, a simple rice cook-up with some grilled fish. We went to sleep early.

Sunday we set the alarm for 5:30am, as our ride to Iwokrama River Lodge arrived at 6. Andre took us in his 4×4 on a drive originally advertised as 8hr which ended up taking 6hr. The first 1.5 hours were on decent paved roads and went by easily; the next 2.5 hours were on a rutted dirt road, and were somewhat annoying, at least for Andre. The last two hours were on a completely smooth dirt road capable of supporting 50mph with few exceptions. The road led to the bank of the Essequibo river, Guyana’s largest and longest, and the third longest river in South America, after the Amazon and the Orinoco. A boat from the lodge, located just across the river, came and picked us up, and soon we were ensconced in our room and then presented with lunch.

Iwokrama is a million-hectare plot of land in the Guyanese rainforest, whose mission basically seems to be to preserve it. Ecotourism is one way of doing this, and sustainable logging appears to be another. Who knows which is actually less damaging to the forest. We juggled our schedule a bit to fit in a visit: the previous few days they were full. It turns out that the four nights we are here that we are the only guests. That worked OK in Botswana, but it seems weird here. There’s a special table that serves meals to guests, and there is enough food for maybe four guests, and the two plates for just us to fill up. There’s another person staffing the bar at dinnertime, in case someone orders drinks (we didn’t the first two nights). Anyway, we do have our guide’s undivided attention, which is nice. Sunday afternoon we took a short walk before sunset on a trail by the lodge; we didn’t see much, especially because it got dark rather quickly.

Monday started with a one-hour drive to the Canopy Walkway, an attraction at a nearby lodge located on Iwokrama land. There were several birds spotted by the driver and guide along the way, which we noted. As we walked to the canopy, there were a few birds to see, especially the white-plumed antbird, which has a spectacular vertical white plume behind its face. The Canopy Walkway used to be four platforms high in the trees, connected by bridges. Unfortunately, a recent rainstorm felled the third platform, so now there are only two platforms to go see. Unlike our previous canopy walk in Tasmania, we were able to see many birds up on this one. Even our young guide, who has been doing this for two years, saw two species he hadn’t seen before. One viewable from the canopy was the Screaming Piha, which we heard constantly all the way up to the canopy, and on the walk the next day as well.

After coming back down from the canopy, we drove a bit further south to the Cock of the Rock trail. The Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock is an entirely bright orange bird with a comical head in the shape of a vertical disc. It is somewhat reclusive, and one going to see it is by no means guaranteed that they will see one. They tend to live near large rock formations, where they build nests. We walked up to the big rock formation, and our guide played little recordings of its mating sound over and over, and not one but four of these strange birds showed up to see if there actually was a hen around. (The guide said he also saw a hen flying around.) We marveled at them, took some pictures, and went back to the lodge for a very late lunch, followed soon afterwards by dinner.

Most of Tuesday was spent on a walk up Turtle Mountain. A boat took us down the river a ways, including through a small navigable rapids. We saw three kinds of kingfishers and several other birds from the boat. It was a nice three-mile walk up to the top, seeing several birds along the way. From the top there was an amazing view of the top of the rainforest on both sides of the river, and a beautiful orange-breasted falcon was enticed to join us as well. After another late lunch, we got back in the boat just before sunset, saw some petroglyphs in nearby rocks, mostly describing the fishing conditions and warning about dangerous rapids just upstream. Kids from a village played in those rapids, and the peacefulness of the river and beauty of the sunset made for a nice ride back. It was also Ray’s birthday.

Wednesday was a day off. Early in the morning we walked along the trail close to the lodge, hoping to see capuchin birds. We heard some, but ended up not really seeing anything. We spent the rest of the day relaxing. Ray wrote postcards. In the evening, we met with Kevin, the tourism director of the Iwokrama institute who showed us a PowerPoint presentation of the projects they do, including not only ecotourism and sustainable logging, but also serving as a model for the other 98% of the Guyanese rainforest, which faces much pressure to allow mining and logging and fishing. They also provide training to people interested in conservation or tour guiding or whatever. The presentation was very interesting, but could probably use a bit of editing.


We got to the airport, got a transit card, and found a hotel using the absolutely novel method of going to the tourist desk and having a person find us a hotel. (She used, though.) After taking two buses to get to our hotel, we took a third to meet our friend Samuel at the Winding Stair for another of their delicious meals, especially the smoked fish plate and the cheese plate.

Samuel told us that the Charleville Lodge, into which we had been randomly booked at the airport, was in the middle of a huge flame war. A hotel flame war has to be pretty huge for a local person to have any awareness of it. Hotels are usually off the radar for locals. I read up on it a bit and couldn’t figure out the problem. It’s an ordinary two and a half star hotel and the guests seemed overly picky and the owner seems overly feisty and defensive.

Tuesday we made a pilgrimage to see a plaque over Broombridge, a minor bridge next to a rail stop. The plaque celebrated the mathematician Hamilton’s insight about quaternions, which he had while walking over it. Then we walked to the nearby Glasnevin Cemetery, signed up for a tour, and thereby got a strong dose of Irish history, starting with a spirited recitation of the call to arms given at the funeral of a fallen Irish nationalist. No funerals of nationalists were allowed by the British after that. The tour visited several important graves, including Roger Casement, and Charles Parnell, whose grave, and commemorative rock, sit atop the “cholera pit”, where thousands of poor Irishmen who had died of cholera had been buried in a mass grave. There are more people buried in that cemetery than are alive in Dublin now. The tour saved the grave of Michael Collins for last. Afterwards we had dinner at Camden Kitchen, which seemed a bit lonely because we were seated upstairs, which was almost entirely empty.

Wednesday and Thursday were another pair of stupid travel days. We returned to the airport; the stupid airport bus was running more than half an hour late but we’d allowed lots of time. After checking our bag, we went through security and then through US Customs and Immigration. Unlike the previous time we’d done that, there was virtually nobody there; this time I was happy to be lonely. So we had lots of time to sit and wait for our plane to Orlando, which took us there on time and without incident. The inflight entertainment system even worked; I watched a cute movie called Dope, and finally watched The Notebook. I think both movies deserved at least the seven inch screen they were given. We landed at Orlando around sunset, got the rental car, and headed to Sebring, about 90 minutes away. The car was a total piece of crap — no central locking, even, and it was very loud when driving over 30mph, as if a small plane were trailing overhead. We were somewhat jetlagged; it was 8pm and it felt to us as if it were 1am, having gotten up at 7am. Ray called our friends Mike and Nancy who pointed out that the roads had been closed earlier in the day when someone was caught placing pipe bombs, but by the time we arrived, everything was open again. We met Mike and Nancy for burgers at Five Guys, a fairly decent hamburger chain which gives you peanuts while you wait, and all the toppings are free (they don’t stock avocado). They even are in the Bay Area; perhaps I’ll check them out there. We stayed at the Kenilworth Lodge, a faded glorious hotel from 1916. They still fill up when there is a race.

Thursday we drove to Miami, stopping for a few errands along the way, including sending our fleece jackets and warm hats home since we won’t need them in Brazil. We flew to Curaçao, and on from there to Georgetown, Guyana, arriving at 11:30pm, still somewhat jetlagged. The hotel had sent someone to pick us up (it might have been polite if they’d mentioned the cost up front, but it wasn’t that much more than the Internet said taxis cost). The airport is an hour out of town; it was explained that everything closer to town was already built up, and they didn’t think of invoking eminent domain to clear out a space.

Boycott Edinburgh

We headed north, just past Edinburgh across the Forth River Bridge to the Queensferry Hotel, just next to the north end of the bridge in the Kingdom of Fife, where we would stay for the next four nights, and where we had come to see the Blessing of the wedding we’d attended in Seattle. The hotel wasn’t particularly close to much, but we used the Internet to find Ashiq’s, an interesting Indian restaurant about seven miles away in Dunfermline, one of the major towns in Fife. One of Ray’s ancestors was born in Dunfermline.

On Friday, after a morning spent in Dunfermline doing laundry and having coffee, we explored Edinburgh. We probably should have left the car at the hotel and taken the train (or cheaper, at the free park and ride at the airport and taken the tram), because after our first 56-minute walk around we returned to the car to find a parking attendant who had finished writing a ticket (we’d paid for 44 minutes) and was about to put it on his car. I told him that this was the primary memory we would have of Edinburgh; to the extent he was “just doing his job”, his employer, the Council of Edinburgh, can take the blame for ruining his experience there. I really hope to dissuade enough people from visiting Edinburgh, depriving the Council of enough tourist tax income to offset the amount I had to pay for the parking ticket, about $50. I created a “” email address to use to tell them where to send the receipt. After this incident we visited two lackluster galleries, and returned to Fife for a delightful dinner with Katie and Andrew, the bride and groom, and Steve and Lorraine, the bride’s parents, at The Wee Restaurant in North Queensferry, in the tiny community near the hotel.

Saturday we woke up somewhat early so we could give Steve and Lorraine a ride to Leven, the town on the Fife coast where the blessing was to take place later in the day. They had much setting up to do. We whiled away the hours by driving up to St. Andrew’s, which has always had important churches, and is now known as the “home of golf”, with an international golf club which has authority of rules in most of the world (not the US) and several popular courses. We walked around downtown, buying some delicious cheese and tasting some “velvet” chocolate. St. Andrew’s Cathedral turns out to be a ruin, reminding us of the missions we visited in Paraguay, with a few stone walls still standing in a well-manicured green lawn. There were many gravestones on the lawn as well, including one from the nineteenth century featuring a man swinging a golf club. We walked to the St. Andrew’s Castle, which looked similar, a few stone walls on a lawn, and didn’t go inside. We returned to Leven via the popular Anstruther Fish Bar, and had haddock and chips (hold the chips), with the haddock having been caught that morning just offshore.

The blessing was an opportunity for Katie and Andrew to celebrate with their friends. Katie has been out here for ten years, and Andrew grew up here. And they have a lot of friends: there were probably 300 people in the “afternoon tea” after the blessing, and 200 at the party at the hotel. The blessing referred heavily to the wedding in Seattle; though only a few of us had actually been there, many people had watched the live video stream. The “tea” featured egg salad sandwiches (and other varieties) and lots of sweets. We went to a little homemade banquet dinner at a nearby church, then back to the Queensferry Hotel for the reception. There was an excellent trio who played guitar, violin, saxophone, and occasionally bagpipes. There were lots of dances which clearly were the historical basis for American “square dancing”. There was a table full of bad American candy, just in time for Halloween. And five hours of frivolity, with Scottish beer and whiskey.

Sunday we said goodbye to the party guests who’d stayed at the hotel, and drove west towards Glasgow. First we saw The Kelpies, enormous statues of two mythical demons taking the form of horses. Apparently they get lit up at night. From there we went to the Falkirk Wheel, an interesting modern attraction which swaps boats between the Forth and Clyde Canal, and the Union Canal. Perhaps there are some actual private boats which need to be transferred between the two canals, which run very near each other but are 24 meters apart in elevation. Most of the traffic functions as a ferris wheel, with visitors lifted or lowered from one canal to the other. If this had been made in the nineteenth century, or were actually useful today, it would have been a bit more impressive. Nearby was another Roman wall, which we took a quick walk along. We went to Ubiquitous Chip, a recommended restaurant in Glasgow. Apparently it is often recommended to tourists, since none of the people within earshot spoke Scottish; everyone was American or perhaps Spanish. Even the sommelier was from Kentucky. Everybody is from Kentucky this trip. The food was all very nice.

Monday we filled up the car with gas, the first time since we’d gotten it, on the way to return it at the Edinburgh airport. We carefully weighed all our luggage to make sure it was within the Ryanair limits, and checked the bag. We eventually boarded and sat down in the plane, sardine-style, for the 50 minute flight to Dublin.

The Wall

At the Newcastle station, we found a seasoned Virgin Trains agent on the sidewalk who gave us directions to the Europcar office a few blocks away. The compact car we’d requested had been upgraded to a Nissan Qashqai, a “compact crossover” not offered in the US. I felt a little trepidation about such a relatively huge car in Europe, and indeed some traffic lanes were somewhat narrow for it, but it worked out OK. It had an incredible amount of technology I’d never seen before. It beeped at me when I slightly strayed from traffic lanes; it showed me the current speed limit; it beeped at me when a speed camera was nearby; when parking it showed me a rear view with my steering-dependent trajectory overlaid, and a constructed “top view” showing me clearly where I was located relative to the lines of a parking space. So despite its size it wasn’t that hard to get into parking spaces with. I did have to look up “default speeds” in the UK, which turn out to be 30mph in town, 50mph on a single carriageway, 60mph on a double, and 70mph on a motorway. The signs which show “Speed Camera” and a circle with a slash don’t mean “end of speed camera zone”, they mean “beginning of speed camera zone at the default speed limit”.

We spent the afternoon seeing some attractions in the area. First, we went to the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, a former flour mill which had some very large exhibits. In particular, there was a very long semi-trailer named “The Great Whale Jonah” with some cute sea creatures made out of glass inside. The interesting question was how they got it inside. There is apparently a lift so enormous at one end of the building that it can lift a truck containing a large or valuable piece of art to the intended level, which comes in handy if there is raining or looting going on outside. My favorite work of art in the museum was the pair of mirrors at the top and bottom of the stairs, called “Heaven and Hell” — the stairs extended up and down forever. Then we walked across the Gateshead Millenium Bridge, a cute modern curved bridge which tilts in order to let boats underneath. It is lit up in various colors at night. Then we drove just south of town to the Angel of the North, a massive steel statue of an angel with very straight wings, kind of like an airplane.

By then Jonathan, who we’d met on the 2006 Niger eclipse expedition, had gotten home from work, and we went to his house where he’d very kindly offered us his guest room. From there we walked to a pub, where I expected to have an English bitter, but it seemed the thing to have was an IPA. Such a small world. From there we walked to The Broad Chare, another pub with a very good restaurant upstairs. We had a selection of “bar snacks”, Ray had the “pork and pease pudding” special, and I had crab on toast. Everything was delightful and shall I return to Newcastle it’s likely I’ll head directly there.

Thursday morning Jonathan fixed us breakfast and headed to work, and we headed to Hadrian’s Wall, a Roman ruin of a wall which extended across one of the narrowest sections of Great Britain. We went on a three-mile walk along the wall (or The Wall as I referred to it in a Facebook post: Game of Thrones has been interpreted by some as an allegory of modern Britain). There were increasingly good views of a lake and the surrounding countryside as the fog cleared as the morning went on. We drove to Vindolanda, a ruin of a Roman fort and village, not that different than other ruins of Roman forts we’d seen all over the empire. The anaerobic soil had preserved hundreds of wooden tablets which recorded many details of everyday life, many of which were displayed in the nearby museum, among them a birthday invitation which is the oldest for sure women’s handwriting sample in the Western World.

Walking instead of Taking The Bus

The airbnb was a tiny three-story house surrounded by huge housing blocks. I arrived with Ray about 2am, and the Colombian women who live there were having a party with music and dancing and several friends. We were too tired to join it, but Ray had brought back a tin of patisserie desserts from Romania which weren’t going to last more than a day, and this was a perfect opportunity to share them while we still could, so I went down and had a local Stella and a nice chat with a guy named Sadik. It was quite inexpensive, and they say it is rented pretty much every day of the year. That will happen when you have a place in a city with a low price.

Sunday we planned to meet our friend Frank for an afternoon meal. We stopped in a cafe for breakfast, and then decided that rather than take the bus and decide what to do, there was plenty of time to walk. The walk took us past Battersea Power Station, defunct for 20 years but still standing, which is in the midst of becoming a huge development with many large new apartment buildings (and probably no new parking). We walked through Battersea Park and across the Albert Bridge to where Frank is now living, with his mother. An art-curator friend of theirs from Kentucky was there, Frank fixed a great meal of roast lamb and vegetables, and we listened to their grandly gossipy Kentucky tales. We did take the bus home.

We spent most of Monday at Tate Britain, where Ray wanted to see a couple paintings by Henry Scott Tuke. Wonder why. There’s lots of stuff there from the last 200 years, and we walked past much of it. Then we went up to Mayfair to see some Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs. Inasmuch as candid photography is either illegal, greatly frowned upon, or subject to endless litigation about privacy and ownership of image now-a-days, most of his most famous photos could not be taken in 2015, unless they were taken by security cameras, which capture every movement in urban England with no restrictions whatever.

There were tons of galleries there, and we happened on some other interesting places as well.

We met Val and Sue, who we’d gone birdwatching with in Trinidad in February, and had Indian food and then a little tour by car: I had no idea they’d rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe on its original site, and that London has the tallest building in Europe, the Shard. When Dubai purchases London, it will make a nice atrium piece in a building ten times the size, as with the Shot Tower in Melbourne.

There was no obvious thing to do on Tuesday. I took Ray down to Brixton Village for breakfast; it is difficult to find people who actually squeeze oranges in London. A little Jamaican health food place turned out to do that, and Ray found a place which sells outsider art and bought outsider post cards. We’d written down names of some other interesting shows posted on Time Out, and headed for the Royal Observatory where there was a nice exhibition of the winners of the Astronomical Photographer contest. The photos were all shown in a darkened room on really nice monitors; there were several really good ones. I was impressed by how much dust there is in Orion and how convenient it is to be able to take a 300 hour of the course of several months and matte the resultant images using software.

We spent quite a while looking at them. The Prime Meridian is still out of kilter with WGS84.

We took the Docklands Light Rail to the Museum of London Docklands, which has two floors of exhibits of the history of London and the docks area, arranged in an annoying Ikea-style maze; we had gone there to see a photography exhibition and it took awhile to bail from the history section. IKEA has had a baleful influence on the designs of many spaces. The exhibition was about Christina Broom, a photographer in the early 20th century known for taking pictures of soldiers before and during World War I, and for documenting the suffragette movement. We tried to go to a third gallery located in a university, but we’d gone to the wrong campus. It wasn’t that far from where we were meeting our friend David and his family for dinner, so once again, we took the opportunity to walk there. We met them at Il Bacio, a Sardinian restaurant in Stoke Newington. His kids Zac and Jacob are a lot of fun.

Wednesday we headed to Kings Cross, a single subway journey from our airbnb, and boarded a Virgin train to Newcastle.

Uncompromising Hospitality

I left the Rentmeister loft on Monday morning before dawn, to go to the airport for my flight to Bucharest via Dusseldorf. I have a great prejudice against flying backwards on a connection, but it was only 80 euros. Germanwings charged me another 30 for checked baggage, which I hadn’t read in the fine print. A more correct flight would have been 200. All the connections worked and no luggage was lost and I arrived at Bucharest in the late afternoon.

The first thing you must know about the airport in Romania is that the ATMs don’t work. And of course no airport in the world is suitable for changing cash. However, you can buy a bus ticket to Gara de Nord and a train ticket to anywhere using your credit card. And, for some reason, the train ticket that I bought from the train office at Coanda Airport, for Craiova, with a credit card, was only 39 lei, while the ticket back from Craiova to Bucharest two days later, was 62.

That was second class. It was filled with workers headed for the suburbs of Bucharest. They disappeared and after that it was pretty empty and the passengers looked at me to figure out why I was there and I looked at them to see if they could be trusted. One guy in particular had the look that in Nancy Drew novels is called “swarthy”, and observantly arched eyebrows. I wished Mort Drucker were here to draw him.

The trip to Craiova, where my friends Dan and Cristi and all live, takes about three hours. I got off the train to be greeted by Dan and Laura and Andrei, who is 5. Andrei immediately told them that I was Santa Claus, and what did I bring him? I will have to work on that. Andrei is way cute. It also turns out he is a dancer. Laura has even put him in a dancing class for kindergarteners.

They all took me to my motel, and then to dinner. I wanted to split the check so I would have at least the opportunity to get cash that way; but nothing is more persistent than a Romanian who has decided to pay for your snacks.

Europeca is a gleaming budget hotel. The hotel I used to stay at, Jiul, has been turned into a Ramada. Craiova is trying to improve its image.

The next day, Dan and Laura had planned a full day tour of the nearest foothills of the Carpathians. Two caves, two monasteries. Lots of driving, for Dan. I never know what to say to thank them. The first cave, called the Women’s Cave for neolithic reasons, was a problem for visitors. There is nobody at the front door of the cave, and it’s locked. The cave attendant appears only on the hour (or slightly late) for a few minutes, to take everyone who has had the faith to wait at the front gate inside for a 45 minute tour. It’s about 800 meters long, the part that is configured for guests. We got there and left and had tea at a cafe and went back and waited and Dan called a number that didn’t answer and we were about to leave again when the attendant appeared. This should remind you have a Sufi tale about the gates of Heaven. (I am impressed that Andrei never melted down, at all this adult waiting.) The cave had all the usual cave features, various flows, fanciful names. Bats. There is something very right about bats in a cave in the Carpathians.

Near the cave is a monastery. It was very pretty in the afternoon light. I think the Romanians would like it to be part of the UNESCO presence in Romania, and to this end they have crafted a logo which looks much like the squared-circle logo of UNESCO, and they mark their national historic sites with it as a kind of sympathetic magic. I bought some post cards from a nun. The post cards showed the iconostasis which you aren’t supposed to photograph. The iconoclasts will never rest, not ISIS nor their brothers in image destroying, RIAA and Disney lawyers.

After that we drove to another cave. This cave was more self-serve; we walked in and walked out. It’s only half as long but at least you can stand up the whole way. The first cave requires lots of bending over. And after that, another monastery. This one had impressive murals all over the walls of the church, and an attendant about as old as the murals who could recite their history in English and also turned on the lights for me.

I asked Dan how come the monasteries weren’t destroyed by the Communists. Dan said “They were people.” Being a dad has made him so philosophical and even optimistic. Andrei runs all over him, you won’t be surprised to learn. Dan drove back. The Romanian countryside is as it ever was.

When the State department and the travel guides tell Americans not to drive in a country after dark, they mean that Americans lack the concentration to pilot a car at the level of detail of Romanian drivers. Avoiding cows, dogs, babushkas, donkey wagons, potholes, all while conversing, texting, and in many cases drinking. Dan doesn’t drink ever or text while driving, but the opposing drivers do. Romanian drivers (and Indians, and Guyanans) are actually paying attention to their surroundings. It looks like magic to us, that any of them make it to their destinations ever, in one piece. Americans drive with all the concern with which they await notification from UPS that a package they don’t care about has made it to Lexington, Kentucky. They expect the car and the road to send them an email alert, when it becomes important. It would not occur to a Romanian company to try to develop a self-driving car, in this century. The problem of driving in Silicon Valley is simpler.

When we got back to Craiova, it was late again. We went to a Romanian Restaurant. Their cousin Edy was there. I always like to see Edy. I always like to see all of them. Edy asked me what I thought had changed in Craiova and I said “nothing”, but that was before they took me to Santana Row.

By this, I mean that Craiova is trying for the title of European Culture City of the Year in 2021, an honor which no major city would want, or if they did want it, it would end competition, so it is left for the Fort Waynes and Fresnos of the world to battle over the title. This is were Hotel Europeca comes in, and Romanian Restaurants with singers whose vibrato subsumes Yma Sumac’s entire range. Also loud. I theorize, the band plays loud to give a break to Romanians speaking to their foreign guests. Most older Romanians learned Russian and now they have to negotiate in English with Germans.

The ciorba was not sour. Cristi said he didn’t like sour soup and neither did a lot of Romanian kids so the restaurants have been toning it down — expecting you to add vinegar at the end. Arrggh. This is what happens to all foreign restaurants in new countries, even when the foreign country is the past. The mamaliga was good to touch base with though it was drowned in meat and tomato sauce which would have been OK had there been less than a pound of it. Less than a quarter pound, say.

And then, a walk in Santana Row. In order to impress the Europeans that Romania is a worthy part of Europe, the city of Craiova has torn down a bunch of blocks downtown. It’s no different from what Ceausescu did, but instead of putting up Stalinist Georgian palaces, they have expanded the fountain square to read: Europe. There are now two or three blocks of mall along the lines of Disney Downtown, or maybe Santana Row, generic Belle-Epoque, shops with houses above. Nobody really goes there. Some gypsy girls wanted us in their picture. Craiova has done this with a 24% local tax on everything. Holy Cow. It doesn’t look so bad, in that Santana Row sort of way; I think it could become popular, but, Craiova? Craiova actually has a look, already.

The next morning, I went with Dan to one of his job sites while he directed preparations for a concrete pour. Again, Andrei showed no signs of boredom. Also we went to Dan’s maternal grandmother’s house, that he built for her. She gave me a quince. Raw quinces are not exactly road food. We had lunch next to the office of Cristi and Ana-Maria’s newspaper.

I got on the train to Bucharest at 2 and was there by 5. Checked into the Hello Hotel. The Hello Hotel is probably the best value for money hotel in the world. It is a full-on business hotel, with all the Wifi and USB and a real desk and a real bed and real staff speaking real English and en suite bathroom facilities and it’s only about 30 Euros a night. And, it’s 400 meters from the train station.

Bucharest turned out to be a night off from Romanian Friend tourism. Bogdan was in the middle of a severe family emergency: his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s had turned violent, he couldn’t be left alone for a minute, and he needed to assist in placing him in an asylum in the morning. The grandfather doesn’t recognize anyone, or speak, any longer. The whole thing is an awful tragedy.

I got on the late morning train to Iasi the next day. It was nice. The train sellers are of the type who lay a bunch of key chains and playing cards down on the seat, walk away, and when they come back, they see if you have taken anything and charge you for it. A hotel mini-bar, in essence. (Fantasy of an American train: the sellers come into your compartment and instead of laying down cards and cigarette lighters and pens, they lay out founder’s stock, lip rings, memory sticks, Adderal, iPhones, guns, and friend requests.)

Butza picked me up from Pascani near sunset. Pascani is the convenient stop to go to Iasi without changing trains. Convenient for me, for him it’s a drive of 50 or 60 kilometers but as I have mentioned every time I go there, it is impossible to get any of my Romanian friends to compromise on anything when it comes to hospitality. Or on entertainment, which is unnecessary as I am already entertained. They also have cute kids, Luka and Sofia, and parents who are doing interesting things with polymers.

Iasi was setting up for St. Parascheva. I have been to that celebration before. The town fills up with pilgrims, sleeping in their cars and waiting for hours in lines to see the relics. The residents of Iasi make them food. Some of it is free but there are scads of sellers. I missed it this year, but I saw lots of the kiosks being set up selling furs and icons.

Nicoleta has opened up a second branch of her pastry shop. There must be some trick to making perfect little petit-fours. It would take a real person about 45 minutes to assemble each one and most of them would be wrecked anyway and she makes hundreds per day.

We went to a place called Pink Elephant that has 500 kinds of beer. The descriptions are given in English, in many instances. I had one that was GM-hoppy it was so intense.

The last day I suddenly became so full I couldn’t eat any more, not of anything, hardly even water. It was bound to happen. I skipped the last meal, just staring stolidly at a Frenchish sort of restaurant as every else managed to put it somewhere in them. I really don’t understand people. They aren’t fat. They aren’t digging ditches, and they are eating constantly as the default social interaction.

And so to the airport. Iasi is still working on upgrading its departure lounge and runways. The current departure lounge has no signs at all. Plenty of ads, for the mall that Radu might have to go manage. But no board anywhere upstairs that indicates where a flight might depart from, whether it is on time, where it is going, any of the things that departure boards have indicated over the years through evolving technologies. Ultimately I just surreptitiously glanced at other people’s tickets and found the ones who were going to Luton. The flight to Luton got me on the ground about 2300 and on the last train into London and to the airbnb about 0200 on Sunday. A big party was going on. I didn’t feel like going, so I sent Dave with the pound of sweets that Nicoleta had insisted I take with me.