Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Travel Writing Treasure Trove: The Outside Archives

Hundreds of articles from back issues of Outside Magazine are available free of charge online. Outside regularly features outstanding travel writing from places mountain ranges away from the nearest beach resort and Holiday Inn. Jon Krakauer's mesmerizing first-hand account of the Mt. Everest disaster is available - just don't make the mistake of reading it at work. I was halfway through the article last Friday when a teacher came by to plan a lesson, and for the next hour I couldn't think of anything but getting back to the drama unfolding on the Summit ridge.

My favorite story is much more light-hearted. It's Just Like Amrika! by Brad Wetzler is a laugh-out-loud hilarious piece about tramping with weekend hobos in the Czech Republic that demonstrates how factual writing can reach heights of ridiculousness that fiction will never scale. Here's an excerpt.

"IF IT'S TRUE that you are what you eat, then I am a big, greasy kielbasa. I brought this on myself: For the past week I have been camping with a dedicated band of carnivores who favor canned meat and an alarming variety of sausages. We're deep in the Brdy Hills, a rolling patch of beech forest as charming as a dream, about 30 miles south of Prague in the czech Republic. The air is full of the smell of honeysuckle, the buzzing of bees, the chirruping of bluebirds, and the sizzling of meat. The only human tracks within sight are our own.

But this is a curious bunch. There is Jerry, the frequently drunk prankster who gets his kicks hiding pinecones in our sleeping bags. He whispers that his real name is Vladimir, but tramps are only supposed to go by their tramping names. Which is why "Jerry" is tattooed in boldface on his right forearm. George, a starry-eyed guitar player, can do a rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" in czech that would make anyone homesick for the hills of central Bohemia. Ace is a private in the czech army who always wears a Daniel Boone–style coonskin cap; he sucked down too much rum last night and, while dancing to George's intoxicating music, fell into the fire. Lucky for him Sheriff Tom was still sober enough to pull him out. A one-armed bear of a man, Sheriff Tom is, at 45, the oldest hobo, and he happens to own the biggest bowie knife, making him the logical choice to be the group's chief law-enforcement officer.

They are also a slovenly bunch. Empty sausage casings litter our campsite. Dirty clothes hang from branches. Camping gear—knapsacks, tarps, cooking kits—is strewn about like leftovers from a yard sale. The tramps themselves lounge in the dirt, sleeping, smoking, singing songs, telling stories...and eating meat. So far this week we've feasted on pork, beef, pork-beef sausage, ham steak, chicken, herring, sardines, smoked oysters, and plain old grilled meat, a gluey pink mush that comes in a can labeled "Grilled Meat." It's dinnertime on my fifth day with this group, and I've had enough—but that's only my opinion. Sheriff Tom insists that I keep up with my compatriots. He catches me sneaking away from the campfire and blocks my path, brandishing a bright-red, footlong salami in his one good hand. He's staring directly into my eyes.

"Very...special...sausage," he says in deliberate, broken, heavily accented English. "You...will...enjoy...very much."

I ask what's in it. Sheriff Tom casts his gaze skyward, as if scanning the animal-cracker-shaped clouds to find the poor beast from which this sausage was rendered. "How you say..." Sheriff Tom says, sounding flustered. "I don't know. It is big, with hooves. Please. Eat!"

He hands me the sausage and motions for me to try it. Hesitant, I oblige, biting into the pasty gristle and rolling it around in my mouth. Then I make myself swallow.

"I know! I know!" Sheriff Tom suddenly blurts out as the sausage slides down my gullet. "It goes, 'Neighhhhhh!'" "

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Cheap Destinations

The only thing better than travel is cheap travel, and the best place to start searching for deals is the award winning site, Tim Leffel's Cheapest Destinations, dedicated to "Places where a fistful of dollars will pay for weeks of hotels, train rides, and meals."

Cheapest Destinations has plenty of practical information, but Leffel also posts frequent essays on the philosophy behind cheap travel. It's not all about saving money - it's about getting off the beaten path, traveling close to the ground and really experiencing a place rather than insulating oneself behind a wall of luxury.

Leffel isn't a budget snob - the kind of backpacker who sneers at anyone who pays for hot water. One of his best essays notes that travel is one of the few things in life that's really worth a splurge, and although it makes sense to go cheap most of the time, there are some experiences (like African ecotourism) where it's essential to break the bank and really do it right.

Here are a couple excerpts:

"Too many people slave away at their job just to build up a bigger pile of stuff. A bigger house, a nicer car, and a fancier watch that ends up not making them a bit happier when it’s all said and done. Sipping a gin and tonic at my sundowner, hearing a chorus of birds and snorting hippos, I saw what you can really do with a pile of money: buy into an experience that will sear itself into your memory for a lifetime."

“At some point you have to take a step back and remember what’s important. It’s fine to save money while you’re on the road, but just remember that you’re not actually travelling to save money.

Put away the competitive spirit, relax, and remember why you left home to start with. I tell people to go to the cheapest countries in the world so they can do more with their money. Flying around the world and then living one small step up from the homeless is missing the point. If you can travel for a year and travel like a pauper, or travel for six months and see and do everything you want, take the latter. Or save more. As soon as you’re back home, working the grind again, you’ll be glad."

Leffel is also the force behind the Perceptive Travel, an excellent travel webzine that I wrote about when it debuted last month. Check it out if you haven't already.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Small Town Story (Vermont)

There are stories littered across the landscape, in every tree trunk, signpost and highway memorial. Digging them out is just a matter of getting to know a place and paying attention long enough to decipher the hidden meaning embedded in objects and buried in the gaps of conversation. Sometimes, the story of an apparently mundane object can tell you more about the character of a place than a whole history book.

Switching hemispheres from my usual tales of Asia, the following story is about a sign on the dead-end dirt road where I grew up, in a rural corner of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. It's called Town Highway Sixteen.

Town Highway Sixteen

Craftsbury Common is a collection of white clapboard houses, a white clapboard church, a white clapboard school, a white clapboard post office, a white clapboard library, a white clapboard Inn and Sterling College, which is having budget problems and whose clapboard buildings need a paint job. All this whiteness encircles a large open field, or Common, which has a baseball field at one end and a white clapboard gazebo at the other. Every spring, husbands of Village Improvement Society members give the wooden fence surrounding the Common a fresh coat of white paint. The effect is quite picturesque. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, airports around the world advertised flights to New England with a poster of our Common in the fall, when the maples turn orange. Mist is rising from the grass, so the photo must have been taken on a cold October morning, the kind of day with clean air and no clouds, good for partridge hunting.

The Common sits on top of a hill, as befits the pretensions of the people who live there. Most are wealthy Protestants, except for the Slaters, who rent the place across from the school and whose large satellite dish infuriates the elderly matrons of the Village Improvement Society. Postcards, maps and the Vermont Tourist Bureau would give you the impression that the Common is the extent of Craftsbury, but in reality the 1,651 people who call this town home are spread across at least five distinct communities that, geographically at least, look up to the shining whiteness on the hill.

Driving up from the south on the way to the Common, you pass through Craftsbury Village, where the Catholics live. Businesses besides Inns are permitted in the Village, in contrast to the Common, where an unspoken ban on commercial activity is as effective as any zoning regulation. The point is largely moot anyway, because apart from a few weeks in October and the prime weekends of ski season, Craftsbury could not support another store. There is already a major rivalry between Ray’s and Kay’s, otherwise known as the Craftsbury General Store and the Historic Craftsbury General Store. The stores are across the street from each other in the Village. Kay has better coffee and relatively fresh food, but Ray has the only gas pump in town and a wider selection of video rentals. When I last came home I learned that Kay has decided to sell her store to newlyweds from Montana, and Ray is hospitalized with terminal cancer. People will adjust.

Collinsville is a cluster of dilapidation west of the Common, strung along the Eden Mountain road that winds up into the foothills of the Lowell Mountains. It is the poorest part of town, populated mainly by French Canadians, who scrape a living from the hills by logging, sugaring, raising cows and selling Christmas trees. Their patriarch is a garrulous grizzly bear of a man named Marcel Leclaire, who teaches hunter education class in the spring time. Marcel’s barn and house burned down five years back, but he recovered splendidly with help from collection jars at Ray’s and Kay’s and several spaghetti suppers. Marcel used the money to buy a herd of goats, and eventually put together enough cash selling their milk to build a new house. His bright roof stands out in this part of town, where most families live in trailers, plastic pulled tight over the windows to hold in heat.

East Craftsbury is home to an odd collection of dairy farmers, witness protection families and middle aged lesbians. The dairy farmers struggle to keep their cows despite regular declines in the price of milk, but the witness protection people always seem to have plenty of money. The lesbians make pottery, and some supplement their income by substitute teaching at Craftsbury Academy. One of the barns out that way has a sign advertising it as a tattoo parlor, but I don’t know who runs the place.

Finally, there is Mill Village, where I live. Way back, this was the busiest part of town, but there hasn’t been a Mill here for a century and the road to East Craftsbury was abandoned years ago when the bridge over the Black River fell in. Every map I’ve seen still has the road confidently marked out in dashed lines, but I have never been able to find so much as a rut past where it dead-ends at Elinor’s Hill. This road, the one I live on, is called Town Highway Sixteen.

About seven years ago last April, every road in town was renamed when the Selectmen decided to switch from a numerical Town Highway system to the names locals had been calling the roads all along – a sweeping reform designed to enable tourists to understand directions when trying to find the Common. Craftsbury tends to have more problems in this regard than most towns in the North Country, in part because there are five distinct villages, but also because of the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, a fitness mecca that attracts endorphin junkies to running, sculling, biking and cross-country ski camps. The Center is off in the woods of North Craftsbury, on a little traveled dirt road near the border with Albany. Several times a year a honeymooning couple or exhausted family from out of state will pull up to the gas pump at Ray’s with the dome light on and an unfolded map spread across the dash. After an interval, the husband will sheepishly emerge from the car and walk into the store, where Ray sits perched on his stool behind the register.

“Sorry to bother you, but I’m afraid we’re a little turned around…”
“No problem at all. You trying to get over to the Center?”
The Center! Civilization! Road signs and maybe a McDonalds for the kids!
“Yeah, that’s it. The Center. Can you get me there?
“Oh the Center’s all the way off on the edge of town. Head on up the hill, go through the Common and down the backside to where the road forks off. Take the dirt road, swing around to the right, go past the lake and turn left at the red barn. It gets a little rough at the top of the hill but keep on straight and you can’t miss it.”
“Got it,” the bewildered man lies. “Thanks for the help. Some packs of jerky for the road, please.”
“Comes to six fifty-eight. Have a good day now.”

When the road signs changed that spring, some were named for the family that had lived there the longest and some were named for prominent natural features, but most simply reverted to names that had evolved in the distant past, and were now fixed beyond question in the collective consciousness of our community. Words attach to places slowly in small towns, and linger long past relevance. Since my road had been known as the road to East Craftsbury before the days of the numbering system, it fell to the neighborhood to think up a new name. We held the meeting at my house.

Everybody came to the meeting. Besides my family, there was Tom and Linda Grant, who live in a red horse barn called Rainbow farm, Albert Strong, an ancient hill-farmer who raises calves, hays and buys up property at bank auctions, Albert’s common law wife, a small nervous woman named Barbara and, notably, the Langer family. This was the first and only time I have seen the Langers. They live next door, but way off the road. The two Langer sons were home-schooled and sent to Princeton. Both still live at home, where they shoot guns most afternoons, big semi-automatics that echo off the far side of the Black River valley. The elder Langer boy is writing an epic science fiction novel. His younger brother recently married a woman from Seoul.

There was little small talk. The neighbors peeled off layers, knocked April slush off their boots, settled in around the fire and got down to business. Several factions soon emerged. The Langers presented a well-researched position paper suggesting the name Cedar Trace. A trace, they pointed out, is a right of way used sparingly by both animals and people. I liked their proposal. When the snow is deep, animals use our road instead of plodding through drifts. Most winter days, only a few cars make it as far as my house, but several groups of deer will slowly pick their way past, hollow brown hairs puffed out against the cold. They freeze on edge, steaming, when my dog barks from the window.

My mom smiled appreciatively for Mrs. Langer, but counter-proposed the name Rainbow Road, which flattered the Grants. Carefully arguing her point, she noted that the Grant’s large red barn is a distinctive feature of the neighborhood, while Rainbow Pond is known for swarms of brook trout and the youth fishing derby held there every June. Her hopeful gaze met with silent grumbles and shifting. Although no one said anything, I figured that only my mom was oblivious to the charged symbolism behind her proposal. This was Mill Village, not East Craftsbury. The idea was quietly abandoned.

Albert Strong, who had been silent so far, muttered something in his thick Vermont accent from where he sat propped up by cushions in a corner of the couch. It sounded like “Bull-a-Vahd.” Albert is the only person I know with a real Vermont accent, the kind that people like me sometimes need to strain to understand. His R’s are as hard as those of any Boston strongman, but with none of the mean saltiness of voices from the Back Bay. Instead, his words emerge in a rough lilting voice cured by wood-smoke and infused with smells of manure and sawdust. The ancient hill-farmer gazed stonily across the room and crossed his legs at the ankles. “Albert Strong Boulevard,” he intoned again, and the room fell silent.

The fire popped like one of the Langer boy’s guns. Albert didn’t budge. He only weighed about 100 pounds by then, emaciated from the effects of bypass surgery and years of heavy smoking. He had hayed this past year as usual, but when he got sick the bales were left to rot in heavy bundles during the fall rains.

No one wanted to challenge Albert; he had been driving his tractor up and down this road for 80 years, and the rest of us were, to varying degrees, flatlanders. But no one had moved to Vermont to live on Albert Strong Boulevard.

Mrs. Langer requested a dictionary. This was a wise maneuver. Instead of rejecting Albert’s proposal personally, a book could deliver the news that our two-mile piece of dead-end dirt was not, had never been and could never be a boulevard.

“Boulevard,” she read, in the sweetly patient yet indisputably authoritative voice of a home-schooling parent. “A broad, often landscaped thoroughfare.” For good measure, she threw in the definition of boulevardier, “a frequenter of the Parisian boulevards.” Everyone looked hopefully at Albert, but his expression did not budge, although his eyes began to survey the room without fixing on anything in particular, resolutely ignoring the look of horror on Barbara’s face.

When the new signposts went up in June, ours was made extra long in order to accommodate all the letters. Personally, the length of the name is my only issue with the selectmen’s decision; they could have just left it as TH 16 instead of forcing us to write out Town Highway Sixteen whenever we order a package. My mom has things sent to our PO Box whenever possible. I doubt if Albert Strong orders anything at all.

Mr. Strong is still hanging on up there. Some people thought the controversy might be enough to do him in, he was so worked up about it. After our meeting, he went down to the town hall to lobby for Albert Strong Boulevard, but was stymied when an anonymous neighbor also approached the selectmen in person. Word of the dispute spread over early morning coffee at Ray’s and in hushed tones at meetings of the Village Improvement Society, and given the circumstances, the final decision was probably for the best. No one on our road was happy, but no one said it was unfair, and the rest of town enjoyed a good laugh at our expense. There’s nothing on our road for anyone to want directions to anyway, which is enough of a blessing.

And Albert has his boulevard. He made two signs of his own that June. Both were carefully stenciled in white lettering on square shingles. One said ALBERT STRONG BOULEVARD and was nailed to a sugar maple at the base of his driveway. The other, slightly bigger, was nailed to the telephone pole right below the new Town Highway Sixteen sign. ALBERT STRONG BOULEVARD it announced: Entrance 1.5 miles.

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Glittering Eyes and Spellbinding Tales...

The following is an excerpt from Jason Wilson's introduction to The Best American Travel Writing 2001.

"Travel writing these days seems to be many things; but in my opinion it is not what usually passes for travel writing. It is not a first-class seat on an airplane, not a week of wine tasting on the Rhine, not a weekend in a luxury hotel. It is not a survey of expensive brunch menus, a search for the perfect margarita, or a roundup of the best health spas in the Southwest. In short, it is not about vacations or holidays, not an adjunct to the public relations industry. Travel writing is certainly not an overedited, reader-friendly text bowdlerized by fact checkers, published with a layout of breathtaking photographs - and heretically, travel writing is not necessarily tasteful, perhaps not even factual, and seldom about pleasure..."

"Travel writing at its best relates a journey of pure discovery that is frequently risky and sometimes grim and often pure horror, with a happy ending: to hell and back. The traveler ends up at home and seizes your wrist with his skinny hand and holds you with his glittering eye and relates his spellbinding tale."

Beautifully expressed - an eloquent companion to Carl Parkes' criticism of the New York Times Travel Section, which I linked to yesterday.

If you aren't familiar with The Best American series, head to the local bookstore. Those books are goldmines.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Introducing a few more links...

I've come across a couple excellent websites today. First off is the blog of a woman living in Siam Reap, Cambodia where she does a bit of writing, a bit of art, a bit of volunteer work and a lot of travel. Check out her piece on riding the train from Phnom Penh to Battambang.

I found the previous site through Carl Parkes, aka "Frisko Dude," a stock broker turned travel writer who pumps out a steady stream of biting, witty and throught provoking pieces at his blog Travelwriters. I especially liked his piece "The New York Times Take on Cambodia". The NYT is a great paper, and I especially admire the writing of Nick Kristof, but any form of media that calls $200 a day LOW budget deserves to be ridiculed. Sorry Mom.

Check out this excerpt from Parkes' article:

"Are you an aspiring travel writer, looking for inspiration and good instructions on the art and craft of the genre? Then run, run, run from anything ever published by the New York Times. Don't believe me? In one of the most arrogant, misguided, self-centered, and off balance travel articles of the year, the NYT wants you to see Cambodia as an ultra-rich tourist, just so you can avoid the realities and wonders of this marvelous country. The attitude is sheer stupidity, overlaid with smug satisfaction that you will be protected by your wealth and never subjected to the long and torturous history of the country, not to mention its perilous present."

Yup. Here's the link
to the original article.

I can feel a rant of my own coming on, but let's save it for another day. Check out those sites.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Horn-kun Portrait and a Nice Review

Setsunai has posted a review of my piece "The Last Festival" that includes some eloquent observations about dying towns in the Northland and poses excellent questions about Hokkaido's history and the mentality of the people who live here.

For those who want a look at Horn-kun, the manic sheep that oversees Utashinai's decline in his official capacity as Town Mascot, his picture is posted below.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Sapporo Snow Festival

The Sapporo Snow Festival is a world famous event that draws around 2 million visitors to Hokkaido every winter. Odori Koen, a long narrow park in the city center, is filled with hundreds of snow and ice sculptures, including some that are built with thousands of truckloads of snow. Dense crowds of tourists walk up one side of the park and down the other, stopping to watch concerts, sip hot chocolate and sweet sake and send their children shooshing down ice slides. After dark, the action shifts south a few blocks to Susukino, the biggest entertainment district north of Tokyo, where pitchers of Sapporo Beer, plates of grilled lamb and bowls of miso ramen help festival-goers ward off the icy chill.

Bright Lights in Susukino

Sound like fun? For many people, it is. But to me, the Snow Festival epitomizes Japanese tourism at its worst. It is a shamelessly commercial spectacle carefully wrapped in tightly scripted schedules and package deals. Every flake of snow in Odori is a marketing tool, every visitor a consumer and the festival itself a product that has been quality controlled, leveraged and promoted to the extent that the experience is as stale as a walk down the aisles of Wal Mart.

This year, the festival was as popular as ever. Walking down Odori was like moving through customs at the airport, except much colder. Heavily made up women with sing-song voices directed traffic over loudspeakers, a never-ending babble of "Thank-you for coming to the world famous Sapporo Snow Festival take care not to slip on the ice the line for photos is to the right thank you for your patronage." While some of the smaller sculptures were cleverly designed, the crowds were so thick it was almost impossible to stop for enough time to take a picture, let alone to admire the quality of construction. There was enough space to linger in front of the larger sculptures, but one might as well have stayed home and watched infomercials instead. Japan Airlines advertised trips to Okinawa, the Taiwan tourist board recreated the famous sites of Taipei and Disney sculpted a scene from the new Narnia blockbuster, supplemented by movie posters lining the icy sidewalks for the length of Odori.

It wasn't always this way. In fact, the origins of the Snow Festival over fifty years ago are heart-warming to relate. It was a hard time for Japan, as the country was only just beginning to recover from the devastation of war and the ignominy of defeat. The nation was depressed, and the long, cold Hokkaido winter only made matters worse. People hurried along Sapporo streets in threadbare coats looking for jobs and hoping for rice. One day, in the depths of winter, a few high-school students began playing in the snow that had piled up in Odori. They made a few snowmen, and then, in a burst of red-cheeked activity, packed snow into a structure that made people stop on the sidewalks and smile. The next day the students brought their friends, and in a few weeks the park was full of sculpted bears, people, temples, cars and mountains. Vendors set up stands serving hot drinks, candles were placed in the snow at night and Sapporo began to reclaim its soul.

The problem, as I see it, arose when the Snow Festival became famous. Japanese culture assigns value to fame to a ludicrous extent, and nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in the tourist industry. Famous places and events are worth going to, while anywhere without a brochure and gift shop is ignored. Once, while planning a hiking trip with some Japanese friends, everyone agreed that Mt. Tokachi would be more beautiful and less crowded, but we ended up going to Mt. Asahi, because, after all, it is the more famous peak. When Japanese tourists arrive at a popular destination and see the crowds, they are relieved and happy to have come to the right place. The commoditization of travel is by no means limited to Japan, but in such a densely populated and wealthy country, it becomes easy to recognize.

Hokkaido is a beautiful place and Sapporo is a wonderful city. It is a tribute to Sapporo that visitors usually end up having a good time despite coming during the Snow Festival. By all means, come visit Sapporo and explore the mountains and coasts of the North Island. But ditch the crowds and give the Snow Festival a pass.

Friday, February 10, 2006


King's Island, my piece on Southwest Cambodia, is featured this week in "Travelmag" Pop the champagne corks.

Update: King's Island is also up at the Reader's Submissions corner of the "Tales of Asia"website.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Last Festival

Somehow the cotton-candy sound of the American pop band Hanson has found its way to Utashinai, a shabby town in the mountains of Hokkaido that is the smallest city in all of Japan and the place where I make my home. Mmmmm-bops and Oh Yeeeaahhs fill the narrow valley as festival workers set up karaoke equipment on a brightly lit stage next to booths offering grilled fish, draft beer and carnival games. It’s a rainy evening, cold for July, but the townspeople are already starting to arrive, unwrapping rice balls and propping umbrellas against their chairs.

Three slim girls in pale blue summer kimonos pick their way past shiny puddles, munching on corn dogs as Hanson blares through the smoky wet air hanging over the community center parking lot. The girls wear colorful sashes that accentuate the curves of their hips and clash mightily with their bright orange hair, frizzed, primped and fussed into radioactive bird nests. They move slowly, in part because the tight folds of the kimonos constrict movement, in part because they are unused to wearing traditional sandals, but mostly to let the construction workers and high school boys in the crowd get a good look at them tripping helplessly through the drizzling rain.

This is the last festival.


“The coal miners drank quite a bit in those days.”

Mr. Tanaka is leaving through a beautifully preserved photo album, thrilled that the museum he curates has attracted a visitor.

“The women would collect their husband’s paycheck every month, because if the men had a chance they would spend all the money in one night at the bars.”

He laughs.

“That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”

“People in Utashinai had to stay cheerful somehow. No one was from Hokkaido back then, so they were all far from home. The work was hard. There were accidents. The town supported the widows and children of dead miners. The festival was joyous because the people needed joy.”


The karaoke contest is about to start. Four community center employees hold a thin rope separating the crowd from the area in front of the stage. One of them is standing next to me. He is very drunk. The rope is looped over his shoulders.

“I forgot my umbrella,” he whines. “This thing is heavy.”

The man spots me standing next to him and grabs my hand, first enthusiastically and then for balance. Four tiny grandmothers grumble as the wet rope digs into their necks.

“Welcome,” says the drunk, still holding my hand, smiling glassily, his face streaked with rain.

“Welcome. Welcome to Utashinai. Welcome.”

He lets go of me and leans over, unsteady but deliberate. The rope dips down too, releasing the old women. He finds a plastic cup on the pavement by his feet and slowly lifts himself back up, the rope rising with him.

“Here,” he smiles, pushing the cup into my chest. The beer tastes warmer than the rain.

I lift my bottle to refill his cup, but he takes it from me and drinks the whole thing, the rope jerking with each swallow.


A 6th grader looks up at me shyly. “Hello,” I say. “How are you?”

“I’m fine thank you, and you?” Her voice is almost lost in the patter raindrops.

The rope jerks towards us, bringing the drunk with it. “Here,” he says, thrusting the empty bottle at the girl. “You. Go and put this in the non-burnable trash bin. The non-burnable, got it?”

She looks up to me, frightened, then runs back to her friends.

“Hell,” says the drunk. “Take this then will you?”

He stumbles off towards the concessions. I am holding the rope. It really is heavy. The four grandmothers give me little bows and apologetic smiles.

“Yoroshiku onegai-simasu,” they say. The phrase, ubiquitous in Japanese, does not translate well to English. American grandmothers might think along similar lines, but would not come out and say something to the effect of, “Please do your best and treat us well.”

Eight high school boys in homemade animal costumes take the stage and perform “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, but a microphone malfunctions and no one can hear the singer, so they go through the whole routine a second time.


“Wait,” I ask. Mr. Tanaka turns back to the previous page of the photo album and squints down at a black and white photograph of six rough looking men standing in front of a coal pile, hands on their hips, grinning broadly. Three of the faces are out of place.

“Soo desu nee,” he says contemplatively. “This was from the time of the Second World War. Americans were here. They worked in the coal mines.”

“How many?” I ask. “Where did they stay?”

“Phhhhh.” Mr. Tanaka sucks air through his front teeth.

“I really don’t know,” he says. “It was…it was…”

We have been speaking Japanese, but now he turns to English.

“It was friendly. Friendly na kanzi datta yo nee.”

“Are there any more pictures?”

“No, just this one.”

I stare hard at the faces of the POWs, trying to see past the smiles, to read something in the faint lines at the edges of their eyes.

“Here, take a look at this,” says Mr. Tanaka, moving to a nearby computer.

“You can play six different games.”

I sit down and examine the menu. The object of each game is to guide a digital boy through the trials of daily life in Utashinai, circa 1940.

Make people dance by banging the taiko drum!

Dodge globs of crow excrement while carrying water from the well to the kitchen!

Find father in the public bath!

Mr. Tanaka chuckles as I double click on the backs of hairy men in an animated steam room.

“It’s important for the children to know their history,” he says.


An electric charge fills the street as the taiko drums usher in a parade of dancers. Old men in shabby raincoats and floppy hats huddle along the sidewalks in the glow of red lanterns and strings of inexplicable tiny European flags.

“Yosakoi, soran, soran, soran, soran.”

The music echoes of the misty valley walls, sending chills down my scalp and through the small of my back. Dancers from all of the neighboring towns are there – even Sapporo has sent a delegation, thirty silk-robed beauties who fly through their routine with the grace and urgency of mating cranes. Each group of dancers is followed by a bull-necked man struggling to hold up a massive flag, taking little wavering steps that send him stumbling from one side of the street to the other as he strains against the rain-soaked banner, every muscle gritted and bone braced as the dancers swirl and the music pours on down.

The dance team from Utashinai brings up the rear of the procession, led by a little girl barely out of kindergarten who doesn’t know the steps. The girl is followed by a teenager shrinking into her kimono and four heavily made-up old women, moving with more dignity than grace. The local flag-bearer is older than his fellows, but does not let his sodden burden touch the asphalt until all the dancers reach the end of the street and the music stops, leaving him slumped against the curb, chest heaving as community center volunteers roll up the banner and take it away out of the rain.


Mr. Tanaka opens the door to a modern sixty-seat movie theatre tucked away in a corner of the museum.

“Because you’ve come all this way,” he says, handing me a pair of 3D glasses and poking at a control panel.

The surround sound announces itself with a whoosh and the movie screen hums to life. A vaguely robotic looking owl swoops into view and announces himself as my guide, and then we are falling down a coal shaft at breakneck speed and emerging into a jungle of giant ferns and palm trees and WOW a long-necked dinosaur spooks the owl and sends us into another free fall in the opposite direction, far out into the atmosphere over rapidly shifting continental plates suddenly recognizable as the islands of Hokkaido and Sakhalin.

Then the owl and I are down in a mining shaft, amid the grunts and clanks of workers earning a living in the bowels of the earth. Those are real people, faces streaked with black dust, hunched over and hacking away at shiny rock walls. The owl moves on.

“Let’s drop in and have a peek at Utashinai today,” it says, and now I am looking at four Japanese girls dressed like Heidi of the German storybook playing Alpenhorns at the base of the town ski hill.


When the coalmines closed fifteen years ago Utashinai was awash with money. The stockmarket bubble was rising to its peak and the banks gave out loans like dancers throwing candy from a festival float. There was no need for coal mining in Japan’s booming high-tech economy, but that hardly seemed to matter. Utashinai would reinvent itself, using public money to transform its homely valley into a tourist attraction for the 21st century. This scruffy mining town would rub off the dust and become a quaint Swiss village.

Architects, city planners, designers, programmers, artists, movie producers and sculptors were hired. Two new lifts went up at the modest ski hill and a Tyrolean Lodge was constructed at its base. New manhole covers reading SWISS LAND UTASHINAI were commissioned and installed on every street, parking lot and drainage ditch. The trains stopped running when the mines closed, but not to worry, in no time a concrete bike path was put in over the old tracks. Visitors might need a rest while using the new path, so beautiful toilets modeled after Swiss chalets were built every kilometer along its length at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars each. The old public bath was torn down and replaced with a soaring Swiss chapel housing a modern hot spring resort named Tyrol. Funds were appropriated the construction of a gleaming new museum and community center. Finally, in order to cement the town’s transformation, the city elders commissioned a team of artists to come up with a mascot for Utashinai that would reflect its Swiss identity. Thus was Horn-kun born into this world.

Horn-kun is an anthropomorphic cartoon sheep with bushy eyebrows and red eyes who favors brown lederhosen, a red and yellow striped vest and a jaunty orange cap. Visitors first encounter Horn-kun on a prominent billboard at the entrance to town. The manic sheep is smiling broadly and raising a hand in greeting while holding a giant Alpenhorn in his other hoof. He looks like a reincarnation of Mark Twain in sheep form with steady access to large quantities of hallucinogenic happy pills. He is quite possibly the worst mascot in the entire world. Yet meetings had been held, a design committee funded and their vision approved. Today Horn-kun smiles gleefully from every street corner and is immortalized in statue form in a fountain in the town park, where no one ever goes.

Just about the time when the orange paint on Horn-kun’s hat was dry, the stockmarket bubble burst. Rose-colored glasses across Japan fell to the floor with a resounding clatter. Residents of Utashinai woke up and saw a bleak picture. They had toilets that played Austrian opera music but no jobs, a new hotel but no tourists, a promotional film but no audience and the ubiquitous presence of an addled sheep whose relentless cheerfulness seemed to mock the townspeople’s plight. Those who could packed their bags and moved to other towns. Before long Utashinai had a grand community center but no community. A city of 50,000 people became a decrepit shell of 5,000 pensioners, single mothers and community center employees.

Next year the highschool will close. Public employees took a 10 percent pay cut in April and there is no money left to maintain the toilets, which are scheduled for removal as soon as the town can afford the demolition fees. There is talk of Utashinai merging with neighboring towns. These days, even Horn-kun looks a little worn down. Tokyo lights will shine on and new skyscrapers are going up in Osaka, but in this part of Hokkaido, a town is breathing its last.


The rain has slowed to a drizzle and fires are lit at the corners of the parking lot. Fathers hoist little boys and girls onto their shoulders and old coalminers rise up on tiptoe to see over the crowd. Music comes through the speakers, plaintive high-pitched singing backed by the heavy beat of the taiko drums. The shrine procession enters the crowd from behind the stage and suddenly everything is pulsing, the people shouting and sparks from the fire shooting high into the night. The shrine bearers march in a circle, chanting, ten strong women straining under the weight of a wooden platform covered in white paper lanterns and red ribbon, at its center a shiny black lump of coal. Two more women balance on top of the platform, bouncing to the rhythm of the chants and waving white paper fans. The shrine makes three trips around the lot and then fireworks explode somewhere in the hills above the coal pits and everyone turns their faces up to the rain until the last crackling burst of light and puff of smoke fades into the dark night sky.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Bill Murray on my Bathroom Wall

I have a shrine in my bathroom to inspiring and beautiful bits of writing. Since my space heater takes a long time to warm up the house and my toilet seat is always warm, these days I spend an inordinate amount of time reading over the clips that have achieved shrine status. The following excerpt enjoys a prime location directly above the toilet paper. It's a story about Bill Murray told by one of his old friends which appeared in a New Yorker article around a year ago.

"One of my favorite Bill Murray stories is about when he went to Bali. I'd spent three weeks there, mostly in the south, where the tourists are. But Bill rode a motorcycle into the interior until the sun went down and got totally lost. He goes into a village store, where they are very surprised to see an American tourist, and starts talking to them in English, going 'Wow! Nice hat! Hey, gimme that hat!'" Ramis's eyes were lighting up. "And he takes the guy's hat and started imitating people, entertaining. Word gets around this hamlet that there's some crazy guy at the grocery and he ended up doing a dumb show with the whole village sitting around laughing as he grabbed the women and tickled the kids. No worry about getting back to a hotel, no need for language, just his presence, and his charisma, and his courage. When you meet the hero, you sure know it."

He smiled. "Bill loves to get lost, to throw the map out the window and drive till you have no idea where you are, just to experience something new."

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Cultivating Loneliness

The following link will take you to an excellent article entitled"Cultivating Loneliness"by Robert Kaplan which was originally published in the Columbia Jounalism Review.

I first found the piece through Rolf Potts.

Kaplan argues that journalists often fail to get at the heart of a story in their rush to meet deadlines and come up with a snazzy headline, whereas travel writers are able to take the time to understand what's really going on, as Emma Larkin did in Finding George Orwell in Burma, which I reviewed yesterday.

This point seems obvious, but is an important thing to keep in mind when traveling, reading and writing.

Kaplan addresses what I was trying to say in earlier posts about the importance of looking for The Silent Language, the collection of common knowledge that defines a community and is utterly inaccessible to a casual visitor.

Here is the opening to Kaplan's article:

"Knowing the future is easy, if only we were willing to see the present. In the 1980s, it was one thing to learn about Afghanistan through fleeting and sporadic news reports; it was another to watch with a relative handful of journalists as Soviet planes and land mines killed ten times more Afghans than all the people killed in Lebanon — a war with which the major news organizations were then obsessed. It was one thing to watch CNN live as the Berlin Wall fell; it was another to hear about it in the then-Yugoslavia, a few hours after watching Albanians throw bottles at Serbian police. It was one thing to hear from academics in the early 1990s about post-cold-war Africa’s encouraging prospects; it was another to spend a day in Conakry, Guinea, searching for a photocopy machine that worked. The most dangerous thing a writer can do sometimes is to describe what he sees in front of his face, for the very ideals and assumptions that many of us live by are dependent upon maintaining a comfortable distance from the evidence."

Book Review: Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin

Finding George Orwell in Burma is a light in the darkness, a collection of images and voices that briefly illuminates a land shrouded in the shady mists of misinformation, uncertainty and fear. Its author has painstakingly constructed a portrait of present-day Burma from a year’s worth of furtive notebook scribbles and nervous conversations. Her finished work, published under the psuedonym Emma Larkin, is a vivid travelogue describing a graceful country slowly choking in the grip of a brutal military dictatorship.

Orwellian is a term that immediately springs to mind in reference to the sort of government that controls Burma today, a paranoid cabal ruling through power, for power, at the expense of human freedom. However, as Larkin notes, the relationship between Orwell and Burma flows in two directions. By reading Orwell, one can begin to understand Burma, and by understanding Burma, one can begin to grasp how and why Orwell developed the feelings of social injustice, political cycnicism and libertarianism that dominate his writings. Finding George Orwell in Burma is in one sense about tracing a path through history by exploring the present and, equally, a story revealing the present by sifting through the prophecies of the past. Taking Orwell as her starting point, Larkin spins her narrative in two different but ultimately convergent directions, forming a circular lens through which the reader can peer through the dual fogs of history and repression to glimpse a lasting image of a country locked in time and a people struggling to find hope and maintain dignity as their future withers away.

Burmese Days is one of Orwell’s first novels, a story based on his experiences in Burma as an agent of the British Empire. As Larkin points out, although the narrative of Burmese Days is fictional, Orwell’s descriptions of characters, places and events were so accurate that his publishers, fearful of libel charges, originally declined to publish the book in England. That being the case, Burmese Days can be read as an historical snapshot, an intimate portrait of ugliness festering at the fringes of Empire. The fact that both British and Burmese readers found fault with the story points to its accuracy. Orwell’s book is far from a Kipling-esque glorification of colonialism, but neither does he romanticize the situation of the Burmese, portraying them alternatively as hopelessly naïve or calculatingly amoral. Larkin quotes Orwell defending his book on the grounds that “much of it is simply reporting what I have seen,” a statement that captures the sort of dogged curiosity he would bring to the alleyways of Paris, the coal mines of Britain and the front lines of the Spanish Civil War.

Much of Larkin’s book is also a report of what she saw (and heard) during her travels, but because she speaks the language and was traveling independently, Finding George Orwell in Burma gives the reader a much more nuanced impression of the country than Orwell’s own Burmese Days. Larkin tries to take it all in, to learn as much as she can and communicate her insights to a broad readership. Where Orwell’s emphasis on the British community ultimately leaves his novel feeling stunted, Larkin’s focus on Orwell actually expands the reach of her book, leading to conversations, comparisions and insights that flesh out her portrait of Burma. Orwell is a tool Larkin uses to dig away at the walls of secrecy that the regime maintains to keep the truth about Burma invisible.

The constant sense of unease hanging over ordinary Burmese as they go about their business in the shadow of surveillance is my lasting impression of Larkin’s book. The fact that she herself was tracked by Big Brother, unable to see what she wanted to see, unable to go where she wanted to go and susceptible at times to paranoia gives the reader a very personal sense of what everyday life must be like for the Burmese. In this sense, Larkin’s narrative is most powerful when she is most frustrated. Her descriptions of trying to catch a glimpse of the Army Parade through barbed wire and trees are more interesting and effective than a first-person all access account of the event itself would have been. As one Burmese friend of Larkin’s explained, it’s only by looking at the gaps in news coverage that one can get an accurate idea of what is going on.

Orwell’s tremendous talent was the ability to make people understand what it might feel like to live in a totaliltarian society. His descriptions are powerful, frightening and accesible, but not beautiful in the sense of the poetry of the words themselves.

Larkin’s writing is beautiful. She describes Burma in colors, smells, sounds, tastes and sensations that bubble up into aching little bursts of recognition, a tremendous accomplishment given that few of her readers have actually been to the places she describes. Like the very best travelogues, Looking For George Orwell in Burma gives the reader a sense that they know Burma while igniting a desire to actually go there themselves. If Larkin lacked the ear of a poet her book would still be interesting and important, but the sheer richness of her words make the story overpowering. It’s the kind of book you want to throw against a wall when it ends because it has penetrated your soul and squeezed something in your gut.

The most poignant moments in Larkin’s book are her descriptions of the small ways her Burmese friends try to maintain their dignity and keep a little beauty in their lifes. Living under tyranny squeezes the space for civility and forces people to abandon the social niceties and luxuries that bring color and richness to their lives, yet the Burmese people cling to their scraps of beauty with a helplessly heartbreaking tenacity. Larkin recognizes this phenomenon, but somehow overlooks the fact Orwell’s literary efforts are devoted to exactly the same cause: the defense of human dignity.

Orwell was a bit of a snob, a characteristic his biographers have had difficulty reconciling with his fierce passion for social justice. Indeed, his hatred of totalitarianism was matched only by his vehement dislike of indecency and vulgarity. Orwell’s aristocratic tendencies make sense in light of his conviction that personal dignity is contingent on personal freedom – the freedom to stand above the crowd and sip sugared tea in the afternoon.

Winston Smith, the main character in 1984, rebels against the Party by buying a beautifully polished paperweight, a useless little luxury, while an old woman Larkin meets, unable to talk with her friends about her hatred of the government, instead shows them her prized piece of antique china.

It’s a shame that Larkin fails to explicitly identify Orwell’s belief that the greatest evil of totalitarianism is its potential to destroy, through fear, the civility that separates men from animals. Orwell understood that holding onto the niceties in life is the last stand a person can take against tyranny, once dismissing a famous nutritionist’s suggestion that the poor give up their small culinary luxuries on the grounds that having a little sugar in one’s tea was vital to maintaining the dignity of a man who has precious little else. In a nightmare land like Burma, it’s those little things that matter more than anywhere else, a point Larkin describes flawlessly but never quite manages to explain. At numerous points in her book Larkin recounts how Burmese men and women who earn $4 a month taking care to order their tea with just the right amount of cream and sugar, the kind of small gesture that affirms their humanity by asserting their ability to choose. Orwell, who once wrote an essay entitled "A Nice Cup of Tea," would surely understand.

Some links:

An interview with Emma Larkin on NPR

Read more reviews and buy the book on Amazon

"A Nice Cup of Tea - no sugar?"