Wednesday, November 19, 2008

U.S.A., Oregon, Portland

I took a train yesterday through the Cascade Mountains. Trees and gorges and lakes, the bridges, the tunnels. In the long tunnels, the train fills with diesel smoke.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

U.S.A., Oregon, Portland

As I got settled in my seat, I remarked inwardly how nice it was, on 2008 November 5, to be on Alaska Air Flight 32 from Boston to Portland, Oregon, because it must be a plane filled with people who voted for Obama. Then the attendant made an announcement regarding the flight’s continuation, after an hour’s layover in Portland, on to Anchorage.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Poland, Krakow

I'll tell you stories of cars and guns and motorcycles and cops; of Siberia and Mexico and New York City; of horses, Mongolia, archaeology, and invading armies; ships and danger; jungles and the cold, cold winter.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Poland, Krakow

and the chocolates and the sausages and the beers and the cheeses and the stews and the breads and the peaches. Architecture. Medieval history (the Teutonic Knights, the Mongol invasion), WWII history (Resistance, Auschwitz). Polish literature, poetry, cinema.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Poland, Krakow

It is staggering how far you can travel in a day. You can’t get to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia from Boston in a day, but you can get to Krakow, Poland from Boston, in a day.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Costa Rica, San Jose

Sitting on a stool in a corner of one of the common rooms of the tastefully decorated Hostal El Chante Limitada, which was opened in July by a group of fashionable Costa Rican women in their early 20's, is an electric IBM typewriter. Massive and metal and battered, its presence succeeds in giving the room an air of antique charm. It is the same model of typewriter upon which I learned to type in high school.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Costa Rica, San Jose

It’s the low season. There’s rum-and-Coke in the fridge and the “Drunkenness Prohibited” sign has fallen down and no one has bothered to hang it back up.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Costa Rica, San Jose

The Alliance Francaise has a giant, uncharacteristically diffident billboard in Spanish:
“Speaking two languages is not sufficient preparation for your future.
When are you beginning your French classes?”

Graffiti on the National Museum of Costa Rica, in Spanish:
“Land and Liberty
Zapata Lives”
Stepping closer for a better look, I unexpectedly glimpsed, concealed in a construction pit, an unkempt man, without pants, apparently just concluding defecating. I quickly turned and went away.

Costa Rica, San Jose



Casa Ridgway, Martin Luther King, Jr. room

Friday, August 29, 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

U.S.A., North Dakota

I went by bus from Phoenix to North Dakota.

In Dickinson, in western North Dakota, the bus stopped for forty minutes. There was a little cafe next to the station, and I had breakfast there.

Getting back onto the bus, I found a woman sitting in my seat. I pointed this out, she reacted, and I said, "No, no, that's okay. I'll take this seat. It's no big deal. The bus is empty."

Of course the bus was empty; we were in North Dakota. Everything in North Dakota is empty.

When I had pointed at the seat and said my first words, her wide-eyed, bustling reaction, her movements, had made me think she was not American; I guessed she might be Japanese. As I sat down in the seat directly behind her, I asked, "Where are you from?"

She twisted in the seat to look at me. "Mongolia."

"What?" I said.

She spoke with effort, emphatically pronouncing the syllables: "I am from Mongolia."

I busted out laughing. I looked at her and opened my mouth and, as I tried to shift my mind into Mongolian, I couldn't say anything. Finally I managed, "Tiim uu?"

She looked at me with complete incomprehension.

"Ta mongol khun uu?"

"I am sor-ry."

"Ta mongol khel yaridag uu? Mongol khel?"

A bizarre expression seized her face.

"I live in Ulaanbaatar," I said, still in Mongolian.

And we fell to talking excitedly. Her name was Oyunaa.

She had come to visit her daughter, who was studying at Dickinson State University. I had come from (of all places) Mongolia to (of all places) North Dakota, to find (of all things) a Mongolian in my seat on the bus, and I couldn't stop laughing.

Before the bus got underway, her daughter got on and sat next to her. They were on their way to Chicago to visit more family.

"There's lots of Mongolians in Chicago," I offered.

"And in Denver."

"Yes, in Denver." Colorado resembles Mongolia geographically.

Western North Dakota does as well; the daughter said that twelve Mongolians were studying in Dickinson.

"North Dakota is a strange place."

"Yes. It's all white people."

Oyunaa had flown into L.A., and had already been through the Bay Area and Denver on the way to North Dakota.

"Well, there are the Sioux, and the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikawa. But they and the white people live apart from each other, and they don't like each other."

I thought then of the flak I have caught in Mongolia for daring to be a white guy in Mongolia.

But how many thousand Mongolians are living in the United States? Not counting the Peace Corps volunteers and international aid workers and missionaries, who are all temporary, the other Americans I know living in Mongolia I can count on the fingers of one hand.

I got off the bus in Bismarck, which is only an hour and a half or so from Dickinson. Oyunaa got off the bus with me and helped me with my bags. She bore an enormous, face-breaking smile as we said good-bye in the terminal.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

U.S.A., Arizona, Goodyear

The suburbs of Phoenix look like they were built yesterday.

National Geographic magazine recently featured an article about the drying out of the western United States. The 20th Century was a wet century, with unusually high rainfall. Phoenix is built in a desert. And it has golf courses. And urinals that use 3.8 liters of water per flush.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mexico, Quintana Roo, Cancun

Cancun is very loud, a constant roar in the ears of traffic and music through loudspeakers.

Friday, April 18, 2008

U.S.A., New York, Slaterville Springs

I don’t know why I even bother with the East Coast. Space and time are at such a premium; everything is crowded and rushed.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar

There’s an okay pizza joint across from the big MobiCom center named Broadway Pizza. Last week, while going to eat at a Zochin Buuz on Peace Avenue, across from the Russian embassy, I had one of those sudden, embarrassing moments of comprehension about something that I had seen countless times but never mentally processed. Next to that Zochin Buuz location is a small entrance with a sign “Broadway Pizza,” in the same wood-beam style as the MobiCom location. So last night for dinner I stepped inside. A large staircase led down to a huge, posh subterranean bar, full of Mongolian yuppies and a few foreigners. I took a stool at the end of the bar and ordered my pizza. Off to my left was a table speaking Russian; off to my right, a table speaking French; in front of me, the bar staff were speaking Mongolian... and I couldn’t understand why English was so strong in my head, until I realized that the sound system was playing American pop-rock music. A waitress told me that a table had cleared, but I opted to stay at the bar so that I could continue exchanging glances with one of the French-speaking women.