Petra: A Portal in Time

Gulf of Suez,
In queue to enter the Canal
En route to Israel
60 years – 1 day

Our stops throughout this journey have been at points of intersection, where waves of successive cultures left their marks on local histories, sometimes in still distinct layers, others as ingredients in various exotic mixtures.

All have been remarkable, but none more so than our most recent waypoint — Petra, in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan… which we experienced as an opening of time itself, into an exotic past. Continue reading

A Hope for Growth

Travel of this sort is not at all about movement from A to B, or principally about the pleasures of the diversions along the way. (Note: they have been very nice however.)

It’s highest purpose is to grab you by the shoulders, shaking loose and casting off the set perspective of your world view, with its various filters, simplifying categories, and established story lines, allowing you to see places and people, if only in glimpses, as they truly are… not trapped in someone else’s framings or narratives.

You hope that the revealed clarities, and more importantly the ways of seeing that lead to them, will linger beyond the journey. You hope for the kind of growth that can only come from genuinely fresh (occasionally shocking) experiences, and the ample time needed to allow them to cohere into a wider and perhaps somewhat wiser view of the world’s workings.

This trip is well on its way toward fullfilling those hopes.

Reflections on Oman, and Leadership

At Sea
1 Day out of Salālah
En Route to Aqaba, Jordan*

With no waking witness, the first milky light of day notched into the cabin around the time our ship slipped into port. A short time later, when the door chime announced breakfast’s arrival, the living room was fully lit in a diffuse glow.

Salalah Oman lay just outside, and a half day’s exploring it just ahead.

As Ellie poured strong coffee, I pulled the curtains fully aside, uncovering a view of docks, and container vessels, and cranes in methodical operation, and limestone quarries crossed by trails of dust, and busses all in a row, and workers busy sweeping in a choreographed procession to clear the after effects of a day-earlier sandstorm we found to be the reason the day’s light had its particular character upon our arrival.

Cleaning up after the sand storm

Cleaning up after the sand storm

Throughout the day, the cloudless sky never turned blue, and the air carried a dust so fine as to escape any direct observation. All we saw was its veil-like effect on the light, and its remains on flat surfaces. It added nicely to the sense of the exotic, in this, our first visit to the Sultanate of Oman. Continue reading

Postcard from Mangalore

Arabian Sea
2nd day at Sea, En Route to Salilah, Oman

Our second of three stops as we traveled north on the Malabar Coast was at Mangalore, a medium sized trade and commercial hub, in the state of Karnataka… and a place of no particular distinction. (When I asked our guide to describe what made this place special, he hesitated at great length, and then answered something involving hotel chains founded here and ‘warm people.’)

Therein lies its value to the traveler. It provides, it seemed to me, a lens into ‘average India,’ if there is such a thing. Continue reading

Postcard from Kochi

After only the briefest of stays, in three port regions scattered across the western shores of this vast land, it’s impossible of course to give a fair accounting of a sprawling country of 1.3 billion, with a rich history that spans millennia — from before recorded time to today’s headlines.

What is possible however, and what I’ll attempt in this and two following “postcards”, is to share a tiny sample of impressions and refractions from images captured and notes taken during my time in Cochin, Mangalore, and Mumbai India.

India’s is a history comprising both the actions of a highly varied indigenous set of peoples, and the numerous layered footprints of cultures from afar, with the passing centuries bringing influence from Arabs and Persians, then Europeans… and now from the inexorable forces of globalization.

What Ellie, our fellow travelers, and I experienced during our several landings was thus an assembly across time, blending cultures as they were across various ‘thens,’ crafted by many hands.

These visits, our first to the sub-continent, accomplished for me what one hopes for through such an undertaking: the immediate visceral experience of wonder, leading to passing phases of disorientation and confusion, on the way to humility, respect, just a bit of understanding, and an opening up of personal perspectives.

Perhaps what I share here will offer some pleasing echoes of that journey toward appreciation, and the encouragement you need to set out on your own comparable adventure. Come along, and let me tell you a few stories…

Continue reading

Reflections on Yangon Part II

Reporting from somewhere in the Bay of Bengal…

There are three seasons in Myanmar: Summer (damn hot), Rainy (damn hot and wet), Winter (pretty damn hot). We visited in Summer. Of course.

That’s among the things I learned on our second day in country.

Again as yesterday, my education was aided by a guide — this time not a politically charged up young man — rather a charming, giggling between every other sentence, young woman.

Our Guide

Our Guide

Among other tidbits I came to know through her, and via my keen powers of observation:

  • The bottled “drinks” displayed in vertical wooden racks by vendors all along the road to Yangon are in fact filled not with lemon soda or iced tea as the vessles and labels would imply, but rather with petrol… to top up the tanks of the sea of motorbikes that ply the route.
  • The rise of a monied class of business people working in Yangon, along with rapidly escalating prices downtown, has led to a surge in upscale housing development in the city’s surrounding regions. Think: ’80s style condo complexes sitting hard alongside miles of shacks as context. As I commented yesterday, it’s a land of mixing realities.
  • Monks are required to go barefoot across the scalding ground when they make their daily rounds seeking alms (donations of food), so that they are viscerally reminded to stay in touch with the problems of everyday people. (Question: Could this work for Members of Congress in search of campaign contributions?)
  • Aggressive drivers are the same the world over. The captain of our coach showed great enthusiasm for the use of his horn, and would turn to glare over his shoulder at length, with menace and incredulity, at all who failed to live up to his standards of suitable road etiquette.

Some brief notes and observations from the day’s program follow…

We arrived back at Shwedagon Pagoda just in time to witness a coming of age initiation ceremony, with featured participants aged eight to eighteen, (the youngest crying, the eldest glowering) proudly accompanied by their relatives. I learned that it’s common to set the qualifying age so as to ensure that grandparents are able to witness the ceremony from this world, rather than the next.

Initiation ceremony

Initiation ceremony

It’s amusing to be the subject of reverse tourism. Ellie and I, seeking shade, found ourselves sitting alongside a group of local teenagers… who, with hesitancy that gave way to courage, proceeded to document us at great length with their mobile phone cameras as, presumably, examples of an exotic species from a far off land.

Next stop was at a downtown open air market, timed most cleverly to coincide with the peak heat of the day. Our guide suggested caution regarding the provenance and quality of goods on offer, and expanded, “The ‘Government Registered’ designation you’ll see on many shops means that they are selling what they claim, but carries no assurances on authenticity or quality.” Crystal clear.


Ellie showed her creative pluck by entering one of the very few air conditioned shops, at the peripheray of the market, and negotiating — very slowly — without any intent of positive outcome — for the non-purchase of a piece of jade (a $2300 hand cooler of no distinguishing merit)… giving just enough time for the outflow of sweat from my brow to slow.

Our transition to the day’s next stop, lunch at the Shangri-La Hotel, was delayed by fifteen minutes (felt longer in the tepid coach atmosphere), by a couple who got caught up in an extended negotation toward the purchase of some local fabric. Their arrival back at the coach was met with steely glares.

That lunch, a buffet, memorable for its excellent food, blessed AC, and very pleasant chat with the Seabourn Sojourn’s captain’s wife, gave us the strength to power through the balance of the afternoon… which featured…

A photo stop at the larger of two downtown lakes in Yangon… cleaner for the workings of a pair of machines donated by the Japanese.

Lake in Yangon, view to Shwedagon Pagoda

Lake in Yangon, view to Shwedagon Pagoda

…The National Museum, with its modest but proud exhibits of early life in Myanmar…

… and a pavilion built to house “the fifth largest reclining Buddha” (one of three canonical poses).

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

On the way back to port, our guide elaborated on the astrologically focused, mystical side, of her country…

…How the week day of one’s birth (there are eight in Myanmar, with Wednesday being divided into AM and PM) carries great import in determining your nature. Each is aligned with a corresponding creature. I’m a Tuesday baby (a Lion), reportedly ambitious by nature, but marked by a ‘sharp tongue.’ I’m shocked and appalled…

…How baby’s names are traditionally chosen based on the alignment of letters of the local alphabet with those days…

…How a first born Saturday baby (‘Tar Tei Sa Nay Thar’) is thought to bring great risk to its parents, given its supernatural powers…

…How the truth of all of this was driven home for our guide by the fact that her astrologer fortold the need for her to deliver her baby by C-section.

We left Myanmar much richer for the brief time spent there.

The experiences we had over this past weekend, while packaged and choreographed (as these sort of things always are), will live on in our memories for a very long time as not just fascinating, but as deeply revealing of human realities, and fundamentally real in all of their complexity.

Reflections on Yangon Part I

13.793595 N, 92.890955 E
Bay of Bengal
Sailing just north of the Adaman and Nicobar Islands
En route to Kochi, India, one and a half days out of Yangon…

Looking down from my vantage point ten decks above, at the waters flowing by our ship at the deep sea port of Thilawa, on the Yangon branch of the Irrawaddy River delta, I noticed that they run in swirling striations of blue and brown, in proportions depending on the motions of the large tides that characterize the region… mostly blue when flowing in from the Adaman Sea, muddy brown when ebbing in the other direction.

Irrawaddy River Delta

Irrawaddy River Delta

I found that similar flows and mixings define the cultural, political, and social situation in the country of Myanmar, sitting as it does at a crossroads of diverse cultures, at a time of shifting balances between tradition and modernism, differing views of governance, and things essentially local or global.

The visit we just concluded would not have been possible only a few short years ago… Let me tell you just a little bit about what I saw, heard, and experienced…

Originally a monarchy, then a British colony, Myanmar gained independence in 1948, with a government marked by strongman, socialist, and rather eccentric military rule, in which its back was turned to the world. It opened up to that world in 2010. Elections, generally characterized as fair, were held two years later, and yielded a sweeping victory for the dominant opposition party.

Foreign investments, and the global tourist trade, began to arrive in its wake… but not so rapidly, or so powerfully, as to push earlier times and their ways to the margins, at least not yet.

And so it is a fascinating place, and time, to visit. Like most places of intersection, it is rich with life, and the change and growth that defines life.

Our first evening’s tour guide, on the bumpy 15 mile bus ride over privately built, privately tolled, roads from port to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and back, shared his perspectives on his homeland and peoples, openly, often with a healthy dose of passion, sometimes intense, sometime leavened with a far-off look…

Our Guide

Our Guide

We learned from him about:

  • The many, some rather extraordinary, excesses of the former military ruling regime — from vast deforestation, to radical manipulation of taxes on automobiles, to the choice of mystically inspired currency denominations (based on combinations around the leader’s personal lucky number, nine), to overnight decisions to change the side of the road on which one drives (and how that requires most larger vehicles, the majority of which are imported from Japan with right side drive, to have a second person help the driver navigate the resulting mis-match of road and vehicle).
  • How the locally lagging economy, and traditional Chinese rote-based education system, was creating a brain drain. His brother is making 20x as an engineer in Singapore, compared to what he could make here ($50K vs. $2.5K per year). He expressed whistful hope that this flow could be reversed (“brain drain becomes brain gain”) through more enlightened education and economic reforms.
  • How long-time dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was, in his view, more effective under house arrest, before reforms and the resulting elections allowed her a place in government… and about the bizarre constitution that bars widows with foreign offspring to hold the position of president… a provision blatantly written with her in mind.
  • About the uncertainties of how coming elections (fall, 2015) will play out, given fears of the re-assertion of military power. (Tides reverse regularly after all.)
  • How there are 135 distinct ethnic groups in the country, with generally peaceful co-existance among them, as well as between the followers of many of the world’s major religions (but for an exception near the border with Bangldesh, and its overwhelmingly Muslim population). 80% of the country is Buddhist.
  • How (in great detail) one grows poppy for opium production, how profitable it can be compared to other crops — and how efforts to create counter-incentives designed to curb production have not yet worked. (Without much apparent reservation, he explained that he and his father proposed to join his neighbor, in the “Golden Triangle” region to the north, in such production. His mother forbade it.)
  • How the coming of social media and internet connectivity has been a mixed influence, amplifying ethnic tensions,  previously muted or locally contained. (Smart phones are everywhere.)
  • How the people of Myanmar feel tiny, squeezed in between its giant powerful neighbors of India and China. Commenting on border tensions with the latter, he said a common joke is that “If war with China would ever come, all they would have to do is to get their people to all piss in our direction, and we’d be washed out to sea!”
  • How China is looking to create influence and leverage, not make war, through development assistance. The main bridge from port over the Yangon river was donated by the Chinese.

Continue reading

Fishing Boats, Car People, and Creative Fiscal Measures

Captree Car Meet 6

They start arriving an hour or so after sunrise, to a place where fisherman gather well earlier still. But their interest lies not in boats and tackle. They are car people, drawn to this place by the love of fast, exotic, beautiful or otherwise interesting machines, and by the others who share their passion.

Captree Car Meet 5 Some roll up in Porsches, others in Ferraris, many in vintage examples of American muscle. Some of their rides are fresh from a showroom, others lovingly restored. Some stock, some customized. Some old, others new. All reflect the pride of their owners as clearly as they do the bright morning light on this Sunday in April.

I've been to more than a few motor sports events, on both coasts. (I'm a car guy too.) While the spoken accents and event incidentals vary, it's a fact that car people are, well, car people.

At The Quail in Carmel Valley, the dress runs from California upscale casual to dead-on period costume, food is served by a half dozen area gourmet restaurants accompanied by champagne and martinis (before noon — very civilized). Vintage fighter planes do flyovers and music from a quartet of bands plays throughout the day.

Captree Car Meet 3 (1) Captree Car Meet 4 (1)

Here, in the parking lot at Captree State Park, on Long Island's south shore, the dress tends toward leather jackets and wind-breakers, the bagels and bialeys from the facility's cafeteria style restaurant are washed down by coffee appreciated as much for its hand warming properties as its taste, and the side show is of late-starting fishing boats leaving to try their luck on today's catch.

But, whether holding flutes of bubbly or carrying their "cawfee," car folks at these meets do pretty much the same thing.

Captree Car Meet 4
First, they arrange for a suitable spot to display their toy. In The Quail, that's all set in advance, and events personnel guide the way. Here, it's first come, first serve for the best spots (although one imagines that the regulars may have the benefit of an understanding on certain of those — and groups of friends will stake out adjacent slots for their later-to-arrive buddies.)

Then, folding chairs are deployed. Even those are the subject of mutual interest and individual pride. "Look, it comes with this attachment for your stuff, and folds into the size of a laptop," explained the fellow three slots to the west, upon erecting a particulary impressive model, just withdrawn from the front compartment of his maroon Ferrari 460.

Polishing comes next, always polishing. On this day I was a bit self-concious at this stage, since my friend Tim's suggestion to participate arrived too late the evening before, by txt, to allow for the washing away of the effects of last week's rain. Photoshop, in this record of events, serves as a handy alternative: Captree Car Meet 3

Strolling about, by participants and visitors grouping and re-grouping into small circles to talk cars and equipment, thenCaptree Car Meet 2 commences and continues for the two hours of the event, a sort of unofficial duration here. A longer, more officially delimited period exists at the decidedly professionally produced event in California. Among the regulars, there's an easy camaraderie. Newcomers, like me, are accepted warmly.


Captree Car Meet 1

On this particular day, a less welcome element was added to the routine. Presumably driven by a desire to do their regiment's bit in reducing New York State's impressive deficit, four or five state troopers, deployed in a phalanx near the entrance to the facility, busied themselves pulling over arriving participants who failed to have mounted the front license plate mandatory here. Easy pickings, since very few of us like to see the frontal aspect of our babies defaced with government signage.

"Want one? They're giving them away for free," explained another Ferrari owner, unfolding the white rectangular summons for examination.

"Hot car tax," commented a Porsche owner, another beneficiary of state attention.

The best social commentary award, actually said with a smile and genuine good humor in an accent fresh from Brooklyn, went to another, who added definitively, "They found the bodies of four young women buried in the sand a few miles up the road. Case still not solved…. and they're here, doing this?" (True story, sadly.)

It proved to be that comments on priorities were best kept to among friends. One unlucky fellow, apparently upon opining to "his" officer directly, found his prize vehicle being readied for flat-bed transport to a state lock-up shortly after.

Captree Car Meet 8

But the best response of all, one in keeping with the "boys and their toys" spirit of the event, went to the owner of a brand new red Porsche Boxter Spyder, who proudly spent the morning showing off his remote-controlled front license place retractor. Driving around town or at the meet? Keep the plate tucked away out of sight, neatly folded in below the air dam. At risk of official attention? Press the button on your key fob, and the plate slides up into place. Nice, a bit reminiscent of Bond:


Since I wasn't 100% sure of the legal situation as would relate to my California-registered and rear-only plated car, I decided to take advantage of a peak in enforcement activity occupying the entire local contingent in upholding the laws of the land, to make my exit. The morning was getting late, and I had to get the car washed anyway…

Captree Car Meet 9


Later that afternoon, at an upscale shopping area on Long Island's north shore, about to get into my car to retrieve Ellie from the other end of the complex, I was interrupted (pleasantly) by an older couple, who wanted to know about it, how I thought it handled compared to related models, and to let me know that there is a concours at the center in October. As I said, car people are car people…

Trains, Then and Now

I've been an unreliable correspondent recently. Sorry. Busy. Jumped on a high speed train in December and haven't pulled into a station since. Need to find a new writing pattern. I figure that this slot, on the 6:05 from Smithtown to NY Penn Station, is likely what will work on a regular cadence, so here we go.

Back in the day, the Long Island Railroad's slogan was "The Route of the Dashing Dan." I remember that because the name my dad (a long time LIRR commuter) went by wasn't his first, Maurice, but his middle, Daniel. "Dan" to mom and his friends.

Before taking this job with NCR I used the train only occasionally. Not to say without impact however, since on one of those occasions I met my future wife, somewhere between Kings Park, where she boarded, and Jamaica, where we changed trains to catch the one bound for Penn. (In those days, before electrification was completed all the way to Port Jefferson, the eastern terminus of this line, you had to do that, since diesel locomotives couldn't travel through the tunnel under the East River.)

On that November day in 1976, a Saturday I think, I was headed into Manhattan to go to the ski show held at the beginning of each season to allow the industry to hawk its wares to enthusiasts (I was one) eager for a taste of their favorite sport after the long break.

I noticed Ellie right away when she took a seat directly in front of mine. Estee' Lauder's "Youth Dew" helped. Her mom worked there at the time, I learned sometime later that day.

It was only after we changed trains however, Ellie now sitting one row ahead and across the aisle, that I saw that she was reading a "how to" ski paperback. Fate… and all the encouragement I needed to overcome my shyness. I said something about where I was headed, Ellie said she was too, and asked if I knew how to get to the show.

The exuberant one word call that Marv Albert used when a NY Knick shot found the basket at a big moment, "YES!" came to mind, with both its connotations in play.

We spent the rest of the day together. By the time we parted company, we'd agreed to a follow-on date, specifics not set. Ellie thought I wouldn't call.

I did.

We had dinner at a restaurant then called "Gentleman Farmer" that later changed hands to become Casa Rustica, an Italian place that became a favorite for many years to come, and still one to this day. (It's now run by the son of one of the two then owners.)

This last September 2nd, Ellie and I celebrated our 31st anniversary.

And now, as we've heard happens by about this time in life, I'm becoming my father. Commenting on my three quarter profile from behind the other day, Ellie said, "You look just like dad from this angle." Shaving this morning, I realize that I look quite a bit like him head on as well. And now I catch the LIRR from Smithtown, (dad's station too) each morning for a job in the city, just like all the other later day Dashing Dans around me.

Lirr dashing dan