Balls and broomsticks

When I think of Cambridge, I think of earnest young brains who are preparing themselves to lead the world in their various fields and fancies. I think of high-tech, bespectacled minds whose brain power is the stuff movies are made about. I think of rowers, racquetballers, and rugby players: fit, muscly types who have broken the three-minute mile a hundred times over. The last thing I think about is Harry Potter.

Enjoying the unseasonable warmth of a 22-degree October Saturday in Cambridge a few weeks back, I was still fixating on my visit to Harvard and bemused by the fact that Cambridge is not in Boston – it is a separate city on the other side of the Charles River. With our bank-side view of the Head of the Charles Regatta, we were wandering up towards the starting line to see just how many boats were in the water when we came across a large group of 20-somethings engaged in what looked vaguely like it could be a team sport.

IMG_5701 (800x600)About half a dozen teams were taking part, judging by the different jerseys, and they all seemed to be taking their sport very seriously indeed. There were three hoops, one large one, offset by a smaller one on either side. There were a number balls that looked a little heavier than your average soccer ball. And everyone on the pitch had a stick between their legs – like, well, like a broomstick, without the brushy part.

IMG_5695 (800x600)Yep – they were playing quidditch. Does JK Rowling realise what she’s done? Her fictional sport has been lifted from the pages of her Harry Potter books and brought to life. More than 300 mixed-gender teams in over 20 countries around the world play this Contact sport – and that’s Contact with a capital C. They had a world championship earlier this year, in Canada, with seven countries competing. The USA took the gold; Australia, the silver, and Canada, the bronze. Mexico, Belgium, the UK, and France have to wait till next time to feature.

And it has rules!

A unique mix of elements from rugby, dodgeball, and tag, teams of seven  play with brooms between their legs at all times. Each team can have a maximum of four players who identify with the same gender, excluding the seeker. Note the word ‘gender’. This is important. It is not necessarily the same as ‘sex’.

Three chasers score goals worth 10 points each with a volleyball called the quaffle. They advance the ball down the field by running with it, passing it to teammates, or kicking it. Each team has a keeper who defends the goal hoops. Two beaters use dodgeballs called bludgers to disrupt the flow of the game by “knocking out” other players. Any player hit by a bludger is out of play until they touch their own goals. Each team also has a seeker who tries to catch the snitch. The snitch is a ball attached to the waistband of the snitch runner, a neutral athlete in a yellow uniform who uses any means to avoid capture. The snitch is worth 30 points and its capture ends the game. If the score is tied after the snitch catch, the game proceeds into overtime.

One hundred metres up the river, my jaw was still hanging open as I wondered, not for the first time, at the rather sheltered life I lead. Every day, it would seem, unearths something even weirder than what went before it. Quidditch anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

Brains, butts, and boats

People wonder why so many smart people come out of Harvard. It’s not rocket science, says Edward de Bono, it’s because so many smart people go in! Duh. I have a thing for old and famous universities, one I’d perhaps never admit to in public. I’m strangely cowed by alpha-intellect and have been known to sit quietly over lunch with PhD’d acquaintances, too uncertain to open my mouth and contribute anything to the conversation, all the while wishing silently that they might start to talk about something normal, like the state of democracy in Hungary or Coronation Street. I don’t know why this is. I’m far from stupid and yet when I hear the words ‘he went to Yale’ or ‘she went to Harvard’, I seem to lose the power of speech or anything that approaches intelligent conversation.

IMG_5589 (800x600)IMG_5601 (597x800)I’d been to Harvard before – many years ago  – when I was in Cambridge for some meeting or other and I was duly impressed. I went again a few weeks ago and decided that I could spend an entire day, all 24 hours of it, in the Harvard bookstore. I was in heaven. I had forgotten that the campus is accessed by a number of gates, each one bearing the load of someone else’s wisdom. We found the gate that said: ENTER NOW TO GROW IN WISDOM.  We did and I, for one, am none the wiser – perhaps you have to enter repeatedly, unlike Johnston Gate which is closed most of the year. And for good reason – the Crimsons are a superstitious lot apparently because they believe that students should only pass through it twice – when they first arrive as Freshmen and when they graduate. Any other time and it’s bad luck. If it were down to being superstitious, I’d definitely be accepted.

And then there are tIMG_5599 (2572x1918)he lectures and the talks, each designed to make you think. Had I the money to do it all without the weighty responsibility of student loans, I might consider it, presupposing of course that they’d have me anyway. But IMG_5607 (2592x1944)something has been lost in the years since I was first there. The romantic notions I have of shaping the world over a few beers in a smokey student bar, when idealism  hasn’t yet turn to cynicism and hope is still winning its eternal fight with reality, are gone. Today, Harvard is a tobacco-free zone. Now, I’m not for a minute saying that all intelligent people smoke cigarettes or whacky baccy – but there is a certain O’Toolish charm about the gangly, corduroyed, loafered collegiate that I find particularly endearing (and yes, I know I’m nouning (?) that adjective; I mentioned that I wasn’t stupid, didn’t I 🙂 ).

IMG_5603 (2592x1944)When the great fathers decided that they could no longer leave the country’s future in the hands of the churches and founded the University back in the 1600s, I wonder if they could have envisaged the PRIMAL SCREAM that would be a mainstay of student life in the twenty-first century.

At the end of every semester, as the clock strikes midnight on the first day of finals, Harvard students strip down to their birthday suits and run laps around Harvard Yard, screaming as loud as they can to relieve that pre-exam tension.

The mind boggles. But hey, whatever floats your boat.

IMG_5635 (2592x1944)And speaking of boats, our weekend in Boston coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Head of the Charles Regatta. The world’s largest annual two-day regatta, it attracts about 11 000 competitors and 400 000 spectators. It was impressive to see the seniors in action – amazingly fit people who were within an oar’s ripple of inspiring me to do more exercise. I’ve always quite fancied rowing and once tried it in the gym. Mind you, the only way I could keep the rhythm was to incant the Hare Krishna chant and then pull in time. I wonder how that would look on my application form…

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Tea parties and hookers

I’ve been to Boston a few times but I must have spent most of that time hanging out in pubs as I have little recollection of doing anything touristy. One of my oldest mates, one of those who knows me inside and out, and accepts me and my myriad foibles and still loves me anyway has lived there for years and it’s where I gravitate to when I’m in need of a massive hug – he’s a massive guy.

IMG_5556 (600x800)Perhaps because I had the lovely GZs  with me, he felt the need to point out the touristy things we could do – and so we took ourselves off to the Boston Tea Party living history museum. I love amateur dramatics. I love a bit of acting. And when that acting is combined with historical fact, I’m in heaven.

We got the full story in just under two hours and, had we so desired, we could have thrown some tea into the harbour. My history is nearly as bad as my geography so I learned a lot – and felt the stirring of what could only be called pride in the sisters when I heard of the part women played in the shenanigans. IMG_5559 (800x225)Typically the ones who decided what was bought for the house and from whom, the women of the day made their presence felt through their purse strings. Impressive. It was the birth of the ‘no taxation without representation’ movement and its legacy is still felt today. The mystery that has surrounded Paul Revere and his midnight ride was unveiled and for a while I was back in the 1700s, living it all.

IMG_5574 (800x598)IMG_5573 (800x600)We were staying in the North End (where Mr Revere was born), where the price of a one-bedroom flat brought me out in a cold sweat. To have to pay $3000  a month in rent, what would I have to earn? We took a drive up Beacon Hill and saw the secret service agents outside John Carey’s house. The golden dome of the State Capitol was curious but not nearly as curious as the sign on the gate for the general hooker entrance. This made the case for my min-cap theory (use as few initial caps as possible) – had it read General Hooker entrance, I might have cottoned on to the fact that General Hooker was a person and not a classification of ladies of the night. And Joseph Hooker was indeed a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

The queues at the local Starbucks on Sunday were out the door – $50, $60 spent on coffees and croissants. Not a bad life, if you can afford it. And yes, I ignored my self-imposed boycott of the chain because I so desperately wanted a decent cup of coffee. Who’d have though such a thing was so hard to find in North America?

IMG_5513 (800x556)IMG_5518 (800x600)IMG_5526 (800x600)The Boston skyline is compact. The financial district is walkable, as is the city itself. The Big Dig, so prominent the last few times I’ve been there, had finally been dug and the parks that came in its wake are beautiful. The city is made for walking. The harbour is lovely with its restaurants peopled with style icons that for me are so American. It was like being in a sitcom. I’ve slept in beds that are older than the city and yet had to admire how it preserves its youthful age and simply builds around it.

We passed St Stephen’s, the last remaining church in Boston built by Charles Bulfinch. I’ve made a note that I need to go back when it’s open. We passed underneath the archway of the Boston Harbour Hotel and wondered fleetingly how much damage a night there would do to our wallets. I would love, just for a week, to have so much money that such things didn’t bother me. I would love, just for a week, to see what life might be like for those who call it their home. And yes, people do live in that hotel. Amazing.

I had forgotten how much I like the city, and yet I wonder how much of my liking of it has to do with the fact that it’s where MR calls home. Were I to live in America again, I could think of worse places to live. Mind you, I’d only be able to afford a shoebox.

 

2014 Grateful 9

There was a stage in my life when I would drive the length and breadth of Ireland to see a fortune teller. I was fascinated, obsessed even, with the future and what it held. Not known for my patience, I wanted to know today what I could expect tomorrow. I went to markets, caravans sites, suburban houses – and sat in line with scores of others curious to know what life had in store.

The same when I lived in the States. I remember once, in San Diego, going to see a fortune teller with two friends. We drew lots to see who’d go in first. I was in the middle. Both the others had readings they were happy with – but me? She refused to read me at all. In South Carolina, I saw a chap who predicted three outlandish things. I remember walking away chastising myself for wasting my money, resolving to give it all up. And then each of the three things came true. Can I remember his name or what city I was in? Nope!

IMG_5509 (600x800)I’d been looking forward to visiting Salem, MA. Of all the places we’d planned (or not planned) to visit on this trip, this was the one I most wanted to see. I’d been there years ago and wanted to revisit. It was here, in 1692, that about 150 people were accused of witchcraft and 19 were convicted and hanged for their sins. It was here that Mary Bradbury, on trial for witchery, uttered the words ‘wholly innocent’ a term still used today. The Salem Witch Trials are still frightening to read about – especially knowing that the essence of human nature has remained unchanged, and such things could likely happen again, if there was enough momentum and mass delusion.

IMG_5504 (595x800)But I also wanted to have my fortune told. It’s been a while, you see, since I’ve been read – I think the last time money changed hands was in Tatabanya, here in Hungary,  some years ago when a gypsy woman told me I needed to get out of the convent  and start to be more feminine. Mind you, she was speaking in Hungarian and I was relying on a male friend of mine to translate. I have no doubts at all about his fluency in Hungarian; it was the missing female nuances that concerned me.

But it was pouring with rain that day in Salem. Torrential. We had made the mistake of heading to Salem NH and in the traffic that had ground to a crawl with the poor visibility, time wasn’t on our side. So by the time we got to Salem, MA, instead of having the afternoon, we had about 45 minutes. And did I mention it was pouring?

IMG_5503 (800x600)I found the witches and wizards school (I kid you not) and found the famous FT that the likes of Charlie Sheen and such rely on, but she wasn’t there that day. The rates had gone up, too – $90 for 30 minutes. Was I really that interested?

It’s hard being a Catholic who cannot number patience among her (many?) virtues. Do I believe in a divine plan? In the gift of unanswered prayers? In the certainty that what is for me won’t pass me? Of course I do – without reserve. It’s just that I want it all to happen today or at least, to know by when I should expect it, so that I can decide what I want to do while I’m waiting.

Two weeks later though, I’m grateful that I didn’t get a reading. There’s lots of stuff up in the air right now, a lot of balls floating around taking their sweet time to land. And had I been told they might land in a certain way, I might be even more unbearable to live with (tolerance levels are at an all-time low as I’m punch-drunk with tiredness). There’s knowing and there’s knowing. And with knowing comes the need for decisions and decisiveness isn’t my forte, especially  if I’m given any time at all to think. Am best with empty-handed leaps of faith than planned, orchestrated design – so why then the fascination with fortune tellers? I tell you – at times I confuse myself.

Another friend of mine died last week. Unexpectedly. And with every one who passes, I’m reminded even more forcefully that time is of the essence – we never know the day or the hour and we shouldn’t waste what time we have. But then I remember that I can’t make the grass grow any quicker by pulling on it. The divine plan will unfold at its own pace – and while I might be chomping at the bit, I need to take a deep breath and hold fast to the faith.

Mind you, I couldn’t resist buying a spell-infused candle… which lands me front and centre of the pick-and-mix Catholic brigade. Ah, the confusion of it all. But still, I’m grateful that I can at times even amuse myself with my figaries.

 

Live free or die

I’ve never quite known what to make of New Hampshire’s state motto but have concluded, on my own, without asking anyone, not even Google, that it has something to do with the fact that the state doesn’t have any sales tax – the live free thing has to be tax related. It’s an improvement on that I thought the first time I was there many years ago. Then I was sure it referred to guns and radicals and anti-everythings. It was, after all, the first state to declare its independence six months before the Declaration was signed. [Turns out my initial opinion is closer to the mark.] I was ambivalent about going back but I am glad I did.

It was here that the first potato ever was planted in the USA, back in 1719. It’s also home to the first free public library in the country. And it was where the first legal lottery was adopted in the 1960s. In 1828, it saw the first American women’s strike in the country. And perhaps, most endearingly, it’s the birthplace of Sarah Josepha Hale, she who penned ‘Mary had a little lamb’ (which, incidentally, was what Bono wrote on a scrap of paper back in 1983 when he gave me his autograph in the TV Club in Harcourt St., in Dublin; that I hadn’t a clue who he was is neither here nor there).

IMG_5464 (800x600) (2)Having woefully overestimated the size of New England, we decided to stay two consecutive nights in the suspiciously named Swiss Chalets. It is owned and operated by a native of Mumbai who had arrived in the States 23 years ago and, via Texas, had made it to the back end of North Conway – the embodiment of the American dream. And it worked.

IMG_5459 (800x600) (2)IMG_5470 (800x600)Our plan was to spend a day driving through White Mountain National Forest and its 48 mountains which are at least 4000 feet high – the tallest being Mount Washington. It was here that New England in the Fall demystified itself and after the somewhat IMG_5436 (800x597)wishy-washy experience that was Maine, it felt like we were driving through God’s own country. Having failed spectacularly, through no fault of our own, to sit in a room where political history had been made, we decided to try once more.  This time, we were headed for Dixville Notch, where, on the eve of each US election, 100% of the town’s electorate gathers in the Balsams (a hotel) to cast their vote. We drove for hours to have  coffee in this ballroom and when we got there, it was closed for renovation – by a business man from Maine. And not just the room – but the entire hotel.

IMG_5430 (800x575)IMG_5451 (800x600)Undaunted, we continued on our way, heading towards the Vermont border where the map promised a Marian Shrine. And I was in need of some prayer and devotion to lighten my soul. But would you believe, it too was closed. For good. We could still visit but the Oblate Fathers are no longer maintaining it and the hundreds of bikers who used to come here every June to have their bikes blessed will have to look for another venue.

The Canterbury Shaker Village was open though – but on a day, the only day, where we had torrential rain. And not even my innate curiosity could make me brave the floods and risk having to drive while drenched. I had met the Shakers before while in Kentucky last year with the late, great RB. And though they’re dying out, too, with very few remaining, their skill with wood is still something to behold.

It was North Conway though that got my vote. If circumstance dictated that I had to live in New Hampshire, that’s where I’d choose. A mountain resort town with good restaurants, a thriving antique trade, not one but two theatres, and an interesting looking main street. It has quite an arty feel to it and is busy enough to satisfy my temporary need for people and yet remote enough for me to be on my own. Perfect.

 

 

One tree too many?

Em…. how many states make up New England again? I can’t believe I had to ask that question. I suppose I didn’t HAVE to ask it. Knowing the answer didn’t immeasurably change my life in any deep and meaningful way, but there’s a curious streak in me that has to know the facts, even if I rarely retain them. For a few minutes, or hours, or sometimes even a day, I feel as if I’m in the know.

IMG_5376 (800x600)Maine is definitely in New England. That much I knew. Driving across the Canadian border was quite the experience and this was even before the current low in US/Hungarian relations. The immigration guys weren’t interested in me – even though I’d handed them the wrong passport and there was no evidence of my ever having entered Canada on the one I showed them, but they didn’t seem at all concerned. They were more bothered with visa waivers. It could have been worse. Six dollars and 30 minutes, we were on our way.

IMG_5340 (800x289)I’d wanted to go on this trip to see New England in the fall, something that’s been on my bucket list forever. But I think I picked up an acute case of Stendhal syndrome in Cape Breton. There’s only so much beauty I can marvel at without lapsing into a sort of vague acceptance of it all. I swear I lost millimeters from my chin given the number of times my jaw dropped open in awe, but by the time we got to Maine, I was as full as I’d ever be with leaves.

IMG_5358 (800x600)We overnighted outside Bangor in a place called Brewer and the next day headed off to see Bar Harbor. Back in its day, it was the holiday choice of gentry and today, it’s still pretty, in a twee’ish sort of way. TripAdvisor says there are 102 things to do there… IMG_5373 (800x597)alongside the 102 000 other people visiting for the day, most of whom were either shopping or sitting. Soon after, though, we discovered one of Maine’s delights – the names it has chosen for its towns. Having failed spectacularly to find Belfast on PEI, we just had to detour to see what Maine had to offer in its version. A lovely spot, notable for its marked absence of pubs. But it did have its own brewing company and a very impressive two-storey bridge.

IMG_5374 (800x600)IMG_5395 (800x600)On the road again, we passed through towns with all sorts of associations. We’d been through Mexico before we realised it and the anticipated shot of tequila never came to pass. Massive wooden houses set off against a backdrop of mountain ridges and fall IMG_5403 (800x600) (2)foliage did their best to blend in and not for the first time I found myself wondering what everyone does for a living in this part of the world. The few people we did see seemed to spend their time watching the world go by from the vantage point of their front porch. I think we might have been the first foreigners ever to stop at the River Valley diner – but it made my day to see a typically southern chicken-fried steak on the menu so I didn’t mind the looks. I think that if I lived in the state long enough, I’d become paranoid.

IMG_5481 (800x600)We made it as far as Kennebunkport (only 35 things to do!), too, not to pay tribute to George W., but to find some reference to Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote fame. Jessica lives in a fictitious town of Cabot Cove which, we thought, was in Kennebunkport. And it sort of is… [there are many theories as to where it might be] but no one in the town realises it. Not usually shy about cashing in on tenuous links to international TV, this was more than surprising. But perhaps, with George W. paraphernalia on sale, the down doesn’t have room for another hero. But it was the price of seafood that nearly brought on the heart-attack. Outrageous.

IMG_5409 (800x600) (800x600)I struggled for a day or so to figure out why I wasn’t getting that nice, homely feeling I normally have in the US of A. I’d been to Maine before, briefly, to shop, and perhaps I’d been too concerned with testing the limits of my credit card to pay much attention to how I felt about the state, but I simply wasn’t doing it for me. And then I realised … there was very little red. No maple trees. Lots of yellows and greens but none of the richness I’d grown used to over the past week and that had somehow upset my kilter.

That said, our best hotel of the trip, the Senator Inn in Augusta [the state capitol, settled by the English in 1607], also had a great little restaurant and a fantastic bathroom. Getting excited about the size of a bathroom is a sure sign that I’ve been on the road too long. Changing hotel rooms every night can take its toll. And as I said, there’s only so much leaves a gal can swoon over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2013 Grateful 23

I’ve often wondered how Las Vegas came to be Las Vegas. What attracted all those casino magnates to the city? What prompted the glitz and the glamour?Vegas was born in the early 1900s, and in 1911, Nevada was the place to go for a quickie divorce. If you lived there for six weeks, you were eligible for one. These short-term, divorce-seeking, residents holed up at dude ranches, forerunners to the Strip’s hotels.  Who’d have thought?

In 1931, construction on the Hoover Dam brought an influx of workers and a boom to the local economy. And with all that money floating around, it was time to legalise gambling. The first few motels/casinos that opened had a distinctive western theme, like the El Rancho on Highway 91 which opened in 1941. This was followed by the El Cortez Hotel –  the first casino in downtown Las Vegas, and in 1942, the Last Frontier.

The glitz and the glamour didn’t arrive until St Stephen’s Day in 1946 – the day after Christmas, when Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo opened. Supposedly named after his girlfriend Virginia Hill (she had long legs that reminded him of a flamingo), the hotel was a flop; it closed for three months to regroup and reopened in March 1947. I’d love to know what they learned in that time. Whatever it was, it worked. The hotel turned a profit in its first month and is still going today.

But all this was happening in the desert – and it wasn’t until Siegel was murdered that the press came to see what was going on in the sand. Liberace made his debut there in 1944, Frank Sinatra arrived in 1951, and the rest, as they say, is history.

IMG_6451 (800x600)I first visited Vegas back in 1991 – and then I was enthralled. It was smaller then, more manageable. Action concentrated on the strip – the old strip. You had your plastic bucket to collect your quarters from the slots. You could spend a dollar or two on the roulette tables, or eke out your rent money playing blackjack. A breakfast of steak and eggs might set you back a fin. Waitresses were plentiful and the drinks, although watered down, kept coming. People dressed up to gamble.

IMG_6457 (800x600)Fast forward twenty-two years and the scene is a lot different. No more coins from the slots – now you get an electronic receipt you can cash in. Minimum bets are $5, show tickets start at $200, and a poolside chair will set you back $30. And yet the place is heaving. Air-conditioned walkways link the hotels so there is no need to walk the streets. Hundreds of young women in Vegas for hen parties queue up to see the Australian Chippendales. Hundreds more married women in their 40s and 50s escaping the humdrum of domesticity for a weekend, put on their glad rags and take to the town. Loud jocks and golf-shirted weekday dads walk around with jugs of beer – looking cool. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

IMG_6465 (800x600) (800x598)At night, it all looks great. But in the sober light of day, you see that the marble isn’t marble. The brick isn’t brick. The statues aren’t granite. It’s all fake, a front; there’s nothing real about it. I love to gamble and previous trips to Vegas and Tahoe and Biloxi saw many a happy hour at the tables. But this time around, something had changed. Just as I no longer felt the need to have my cards read in Madrid, my half-hearted attempt at the slots soon gave way to lethargy. I simply wasn’t interested.

IMG_6483 (800x594)This week, as temperatures in Budapest tip 40, I’m writing the last of a series of posts on my US road-trip. It was an amazing few weeks. I caught up with old friends and made new ones. I revisited places I’d been to before and discovered others I’d never heard of. With plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of life as we ate up mile after mile of asphalt, the trip gave me time to think. To evaluate. To see how I’ve changed. To remember what matters. For this I’m truly thankful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

A hole in the ground

Why, I asked. Why would you want to see the Grand Canyon – it’s just a massive hole in the ground. That said, I did take that detour to see meteor crater, so that in itself makes me a bit of a hypocrite. And I hadn’t been to the Grand Canyon since the early 1990s and back then, when I looked over the edge it was impressive, yes. But I’ve been more impressed by smaller stuff.

IMG_6300 (800x600)On the website, the tour looked amazing. Ah the power of advertising and advertorials. Collected from hotel in Vegas, bussed to airport to catch a plane, then a helicopter, then rafting down the Colorado River, then lunch with the Indians and then back to the hotel via plane and bus. A little over seven hours in total. What wasn’t to like? If you’re going to do something, I say, do it in style.

IMG_6336 (800x600)That I was on the wrong side of the plane going out and didn’t see the Hoover Dam was a tad upsetting and no one’s fault but my own. We were weighed and seated according to weight. That the helicopter ride took all of ten minutes (at a stretch) was a little disappointing. That the rafting was more like a sedate float down the river without shade in 117 degree weather was a trifle discomfiting. That the lunch was bagged salad, frozen veg, packet mash, and a piece of chicken was torturous. All in all, having been picked up at 6.30 am, we’d done it all by 10.30 and didn’t get back to the hotel until after 3. Tired, cranky, and feeling more than a little cheated.

IMG_6334 (800x599)On reflection – was the tour worth it? Absolutely not. Next time (and I’d go again to this huge hole in the ground) I’d drive. And take my time. And pack my own lunch. I’d do the helicopter thing again – but for longer – and only that. Mind you, there were so many choppers in the sky it is a wonder more accidents don’t happen. Apparently someone falls into it every 2-3 months and in a country where Health and Safety are king and queen, there wasn’t a railing in sight. Great for the natural look, I say. Not so great for human stupidity. But the view the from air was magnificent.

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IMG_6339 (800x600)The canyon is 4 to 18 miles wide (6 – 28km) and is 277 river miles long (445km). In places it’s half a kilometre deep. It’s tilted – the northern rim is 1200 ft higher than the southern rim. It took the Colorado River 3-6 million years to carve it out (there’s patience for you!) Over 800 million gallons of water flow through it each day.

IMG_6343 (800x600)I listened to the facts being recited, by rote, both on the recorded spiel on the plane and by the boat guy, and then looked at those walls and wondered at the power of nature. How could we ever think, as mere mortals, that we could tame her?

I’ve spent many an afternoon on the flat of my back on the grass looking up at the clouds in the sky, fancying that I see a pig or a boat or a slice of pizza. I like to do the same with rocks and boulders, and when in South Africa a couple of years ago, I became all too familiar with the Lion Rock  and how deceptive nature’s shapes and shadows can be. So the highlight for me was Eagle Point and the fantastic natural shape of the rock.  That made it all worth while.

IMG_6367 (800x598)The outdoor exhibition of various Indian huts was interesting enough. But my heart went out to the trio who were dancing a tribal dance to an empty amphitheatre. Somewhere along the line, the lines between tourism and taste were crossed. There’s a lot to be said for knowing your audience. And while I would like very much to take part in a real Indian dance night, this was just a tad too twee, even for me.

IMG_6377 (800x600)IMG_6384 (800x600)IMG_6382 (800x600)And yet, had I been there sans the masses, and had I the quiet and the solitude all to myself and a few crows, it would have been quite special. But that’s the Catch 22, isn’t it. Discover and share – or keep to yourself and enjoy.

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From boomtown to the boonies

I can’t get a handle on GPS. Being a moving blue dot on a screen just doesn’t do it for me. That annoying turn left, turn right, go straight is enough to drive me to distraction. So we navigated our way across the Mojave desert using a hand-drawn map that spanned 200 miles. There were times I wondered if we’d taken a wrong turn but there had been no wrong turns to take. For miles and miles, all we could see was road, and desert.

IMG_6252 (800x591)IMG_6246 (800x577) (800x577)Lines of lonely mailboxes were clear indicators of the inhabitants and the houses that blended in so perfectly with their surrounds that they were invisible. We drove and drove and nothing much changed. And then we happened across Kelso Depot. Marked with an X on our map, it was somewhere to stop, to break the monotony.

Once a boomtown, Kelso is now home to a renovated train station that houses a museum and a café – a café run by a chap called Mike who wants to sell out and retire, yet again. The 2013 version of this town is a far cry from the 1943 version when troops, tanks, and trucks were shipped through here by rail, creating a hive of activity that begot buildings, people, and commerce. All was well until 1985, when Union Pacific pulled out and the trains stopped pulling in.

IMG_6274 (800x600) (800x600)The old jail – a two-cell steel contraption – was used to house those who caused a ruckus after a few beers on a Friday night. Open to the elements, no one spent more than a night here – anything more would have been close to torture. The town was called after a railroad worker who won a competition to have it named after him. Its main claim to fame in the 1970s was that it was a town without television. Now its main claim to fame is that it breaks the journey across the desert and offers root-beer floats to thirsty travellers.

IMG_6278 (800x600) (800x600)I’d forgotten what root beer tasted like. But the concept of a root beer float (vanilla ice-cream floating in a glass of soda) was too all-American to pass up. And the decor, with its bar counter and  high stools, looked as if it had come off a TV set for a 1960s American sitcom. So we tried them. And didn’t like them. But struggled through. If you’re wondering what root beer tastes like, it’s remarkably similar to that horrible eucalyptus toothpaste – the pink stuff.  Bless him though, Mike didn’t want to take our money. But traffic was light that day so we compromised and paid just $5 for the experience.

IMG_6276 (591x800)America isn’t just big cities, skyscrapers, and football stadiums. At its backbone are people like Mike, ordinary people, trying to eke a living from the cards they’ve been dealt. America is more attitude than atmosphere. That instant familiarity can take a little getting used to but then you stop for sustenance in the boonies and spend a pleasant half hour talking about nothing with someone you know you’ll never see again. And that someone, that stranger, does something nice – like buy you a root-beer float – then you get it. However superficial it might seem, America has an abiding interest in other people’s business, a curiosity about the world outside, and a opinion on just about everything. And when you strip away the commercialism, the bright lights, the designer labels, and stumble across places like the Beanery, and see small-town America for what it is, the kindness comes out.

Getting from A to B

Someone commented once that all too often we are so preoccupied with the destination that we forget to enjoy the journey. We’re so focused on getting from A to B that we don’t see what’s around us. I’ve been arguing for years that life plans don’t suit me – I’m too afraid that I’d miss myriad opportunities were I to focus on one end goal. Granted, I have had one plan in life – when I was 17. I was going to be a teacher, marry a teacher, have two kids (boy and a girl, Tadhg and Maud) by the age of 27, and be ready to retire and travel by the age of 50. When I read that back, I see that my grand plan comprises a number of separate plans, not one of which has materialised. I failed from the outset because I didn’t get into Teacher Training College. I fell at the first hurdle. Never made the first milestone on my Gantt chart. Once I’d gotten over that disappointment (and it was a big one), I resolved that, in future, my plan would simply be to have no plan. And it’s worked – so far. When I travel, I might have a destination in mind, but I’m permanently on the look-out for some place interesting to stop along the way.

IMG_6207 (800x600)The city of Twentynine Palms in California is notable for three reasons. It’s home to the HQ of the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s home to the 932-square-mile Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command – the largest Marine Corps training base in the world. And it’s home to my mate AP’s brother.

The plan was to meet A&R for lunch and then head across the Mojave desert on the four-hour drive to Las Vegas. I was expecting a catch-up and a good lunch. I got both. What I wasn’t expecting was to find  the MAGTFTC and its 10 000 + military residents. I was fascinated and found myself talking in a rapid-fire parody of an AK47. Who? Why? Where? When?

IMG_6210 (800x598)Since falling for the man of all men, Jack Reacher, he of the Lee Child novels, I’ve had a fascination with Marine life. I would love to take a tour of a base and see for myself what I expect to be true – that they’re mini-towns complete with all the modern conveniences that any thriving town would have – cinemas, bowling alleys, shops, restaurants, etc., and there’s no real reason for anyone on them to leave. In Twentynine Palms, Marines get to train to be better Marines. A simulated rehearsal of sorts. Rumour has it that so real are their simulations, they actually go to Hollywood and hire extras so that the city/culture they’re simulating is accurately represented. Makes sense. But it could go horribly wrong. They would get some shock if they invaded Ireland expecting everyone to have red hair and freckles and talk like Tom Cruise in Far and Away. [I know I could pick ten bad Hollywood Irish accents but Cruise is the focus of my ire these days because he has the nerve to think that he can do justice to my hero Jack Reacher.]

So I read up on it a little and discovered that this place in Twentynine Palms provides training for any size unit from individual to regiment, for any warfighting discipline from infantry to logistics, and from all parts of the combat spectrum from full scale war to establishing local governance. And I found myself thinking how I’d like it if all that was going on in my back yard. But then I remembered the 6000 or so locals employed in civilian capacity on the base and figured that the US Marine Corps is just like another huge corporation … and Twentynine Palms is, in effect, a company town.

IMG_6213 (800x600)Now, I’m a peace-loving gal at heart. The closest I get to war is reading about it. My opinions on the subject can’t be boxed with any regimental accuracy. Yes, it fascinates me. In my darker hours, I see it as a great evolutionary joke  – we used to send our best and brightest way to fight our great wars and what was left behind added to the gene pool. I’ve written recently about the USA and its outward display of respect and appreciation for its troops and while the individual should be applauded rather than maligned for fighting for their country, those in charge occasionally leave some doubt in my mind as to their credentials.

The closest I’ve come to the US Military scene is a friendship with a couple of Coasties in Alaska, a date or three with a Army reservist in LA, and a quick conversation with a retired Marine here in BP some months back. Other American and Australian friends have sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and parents in the service and I know that this blood tie gives them a different perspective, one I can never appreciate fully.

I am curious though – so curious – about a living a life that has unquestioned obedience at its core. To my mind, with that obedience has to come an irrefutable trust in those higher up the command chain – trust that they’re making the right decisions for the right reasons in the best interests of all concerned. In what some might seem a little strange, I have no problem believing in God but I simply cannot get my head around blind trust from a military perspective. The invocation ‘following orders’ brings me out in a cold sweat.

Twentynine Palms was simply a stop along the way – but it now has me questioning so much. As Henry Miller said:  One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. Let the journey continue.

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