June 25, 2012
It isn’t the biggest, shiniest, most up-to-date and detailed globe in the world. But the American Geographical Society’s 18-inch Rand McNally Terrestrial Globe is doubtless the most precious because it was signed by 85 of the greatest explorers in modern times: from Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart to Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. Not only did they sign it when they got back from netherlands (and netherworlds), they charted their courses on it in wavering ink lines across oceans and continents.
The Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, as it’s called, sits beneath a dark cloth, like a covered bird cage, in the Brooklyn home of the AGS, the oldest national geographical organization in the U.S. Founded in 1851, the AGS devotes itself to geographical research and education, sponsoring expeditions, supporting studies and disseminating information to laypeople with a strong interest in geography. As such, it takes a somewhat more scholarly approach than the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Society, which tends to focus more on photography and popular geography.
The AGS may not publish glossy magazines and make television specials, but it has the prized globe, given to the society by John H. Finley, a former society president and editor in chief of the New York Times. Finley kept the globe in his office at the paper, inviting newsmakers back from the jungles and poles to sign it. In 1929 he gave the globe to the society, which continued the tradition up to the present day.
In April at the St. Petersburg home of the Russian Geographical Society, two more John Hancocks were added to the globe, those of Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman cosmonaut in 1963) and Alexei Leonov (a 1965 space walk pioneer). It was the first time the globe had been taken outside the U.S., making it far less well-traveled than its signers, for an occasion marking the 75th anniversary of Russian aviator Valery Chkalov’s pioneering transpolar flight from Moscow to Washington, D.C., in 1937. Chkalov died the following year, piloting a prototype fighter plane, but both his grandson and great-grandson were on hand for the ceremony.
The U.S. and Russia have a surprisingly long history of geographical cooperation. In 1912 Russian scholars joined the 13,000-mile AGS Transcontinental Excursion; others later took part in the society’s Latin America mapping effort; more recently Russian geographer and businessman Mikhail Slipenchuk offered to underwrite the creation of 12 replicas of the Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, one of which now stands next to the original at the AGS in Brooklyn.
June 7, 2012
Did anybody else see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the Memorial Day weekend? Somebody must have because the film, which opened on May 4, continues to do well at the box office, and that’s compared with a slew of big-budget blockbusters—Men in Black 3, Battleship, The Avengers—that have come along since then. Marigold’s popularity has been credited to John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love, and to its 24-karat gold cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, all of them over 60. (The film is based on These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach about a group of English oldsters who move to a retirement hotel in India.) But the movie’s reception is also seen as proof that there’s a market for movies about people who aren’t young and beautiful, just interesting—as are the characters in Marigold, coping with end-of-life transitions in a drastically foreign place.
And let’s not forget another major factor in Marigold’s success: India, specifically the western state of Rajasthan, long a favorite with travelers for its mighty hill forts, bedizened palaces, teeming markets and lost desert villages. The hotel in the book—Moggach called it the Dunroamin—is located in the dreamy lake city of Udaipur, though the movie was filmed in Jaipur to the north. I recognized the setting immediately because I began a tour of Rajasthan there ten years ago.
It was in Jaipur—known as the Pink City for the color it was painted when England’s Prince Albert came to visit in 1876—that I learned how to take wild rides in auto-rickshaws without fear, tasted my spinach paneer at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, climbed to Amber Palace built by Raja Man Singh in 1592, and had a fine gin and tonic in the style of Prince Albert at the Polo Bar in the Rambagh Palace Hotel, where the Maharani of Jaipur lived until 1957. And I only have to look as far as my bedroom to remember a daylong shopping expedition aimed at finding the perfect quilted cotton spread, decorated in woodblock prints, a specialty in Jaipur. Mine is in shades of blue—soft and beautiful, albeit somewhat threadbare now.
I went on from there to Udaipur, the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Fort and Jaisalmer, the last Thar Desert outpost before the Pakistani border. But Jaipur remains most deeply etched in my memory, which is why I took so much pleasure in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The $13 ticket price is a small amount to pay for a trip to Rajasthan.
May 2, 2012
When a storm dumped eight inches of snow on Rome this winter, I pored over photographs of the coated Colosseum, Forum and Piazza San Pietro, thrilled to reports of Romans shoveling streets with wooden spatulas, and above all wished I’d been there to see it. My friends in Rome reported frustration over coping with the deluge, and while there were no fatalities, the storm snarled traffic and stunned a city that thinks it only rains in winter. It made me remember the old story about how the site for Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was chosen when the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius on the night of August 4, 352, telling him to build a church where a patch of snow appeared the following morning. Santa Maria della Neve, as the basilica was originally called, duly rose on the Esquiline Hill, ever after the scene of an August 5 pontifical Mass celebrating the miracle.
Snow when you least expect it—divine apparitions notwithstanding—always seems a miracle to me, even when it wreaks havoc for travelers. My brother and I once went back-roading in northern Baja’s Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. Stuck in a four-wheel drive vehicle on a rutted track leading toward 10,157-foot Picacho del Diablo, we set up camp, hoping to hike out for help the next morning. It had been a beautiful, sunny day, warm enough for shirt sleeves, but that night it snowed, leaving the two of us to shiver in front of a feisty little campfire until morning.
We’d forgotten a simple truth of geography and meteorology: the higher the elevation, the more likelihood there is of snow, in any season. It doesn’t take a genius to know that, but I forgot again on a trip to the Canary Islands, where I’d gone seeking sunshine while living in Europe a few winters ago—not an outlandish plan given that the Spanish archipelago is 100 miles off the coast of Africa at about the same latitude as the Sahara Desert.
My plane landed late at night on the main island of Tenerife, where I rented a little tin can of an economy-class car and set off for the Parador de las Cañadas del Teide on the flank of 12,200-foot Mount Teide, a 40-mile drive from the airport.
Up I went on a switchbacking road through lush forests of Canary Island pines that eventually yielded to ground-hugging broom and juniper, crossing razor-back ridges lined by steep precipices that offered heart-stopping views of lighted towns on the coast below.
Then it started to snow, at first softly and prettily. Alone on the road, I counted my blessings to be there to see it. But the dusting thickened and soon I was driving through whiteout conditions. I couldn’t believe it, but kept creeping along, eyes straining, fists glued to the wheel as the windshield wipers fought vainly against the onslaught and the car skidded. When another vehicle finally came by, headed down the mountain, I pulled over, flagged it down and hopped in the back seat, abandoning the rental to a snow bank and myself to the kindness of strangers. My saviors were a young man and woman who gave me a drink of good Spanish red wine to calm my nerves and ultimately deposited me in a hotel on the coast. I awoke the next morning to balmy blue skies, wondering if I’d only dreamed of snow. But the rental agency told me I was lucky to have made it down the mountain because the Teide road was closed, meaning I had to wait another day to reclaim the car in a tow truck.
Memory, which has some of the same white-washing propensities as snow, has resolved the nightmarish events of that night into an amazing adventure. I still tend to forget that winter is a frequent visitor at high elevations. And finding myself in snow when I least expect it will always seem to me the same kind of miracle that told a fourth-century pope where to build the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
April 26, 2012
In 2006 when the People’s Republic of China started railroad service from Beijing to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa—a 2,525-mile route cresting at 16,640-foot Tanggula Pass—people like me got in line. Though critics have seen it as yet another means for China to despoil Tibet’s cultural and mineral riches, I was studying Mandarin in Beijing and I couldn’t pass up the chance to take the railroad trip of a lifetime. I did think about waiting because I’d heard there were plans for a luxury version of the train, managed by Kempinski Hotels, with private-bath suites, elegant dining cars and window-lined lounges.
Then spring break came around and I couldn’t wait any longer. I flew to Lhasa and got a train ticket back to Beijing in a four-berth soft sleeper; it had pressed cotton sheets, pillows, comforters, TV monitors with headsets and oxygen canisters for victims of altitude sickness. All quite congenial at first. But it’s a 40-hour trip, so conditions deteriorated along the way (especially in the restrooms). At mealtime, passengers filed into the dining car for unappetizing food or bought noodles on the platform during brief stops.
I’d have been miserable, but every time I found myself wishing for a cup of coffee or a hot bath, all I had to do to raise my spirits was press my nose to the window. The first day we crossed the Tibetan Plateau, which looks like Utah with Alaska on top. Nameless ranges of snowcapped peaks passed by; fur-clad villagers stared at railroad crossings and yaks bolted off the tracks. The Chinese government spent millions to cross the plateau by rail, piping liquid nitrogen through the tracks to keep them from buckling during a thaw and building underpasses for wildlife.
I fell asleep after a 30-minute stop in the lonely mining town of Golmud, then woke the next morning in the heart of the Middle Kingdom, decorated with sunshine and cherry blossoms. I remember passing through Xi’an, home of the terra-cotta warriors, before tucking in the second night, followed by wake-up the next morning at Beijing’s West Station.
In retrospect, I’m glad I made the trip when I did because the 5-star Beijing-Lhasa train is on what looks like permanent hold. Fifty percent owned by the flush Chinese electronic company Huawei, it’s still being touted. But Kempinski has bowed out and the perhaps too fast-and-furiously growing Chinese railway system has suffered setbacks: to wit, an accident last July on a new high-speed line in eastern China that killed 43 people and the imprisonment of the nation’s railway minister, suspected of graft.
So don’t wait for amenities on the railroad that crosses the Middle Kingdom to the Tibetan Plateau. Question your soul about the political correctness of taking a PRC train to embattled Tibet. And then, if you ask me, go.
April 19, 2012
In the run-up to the April 22 French presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy has been promising a referendum to loosen labor policies he blames for the high unemployment rate in France. The goal is to emulate Germany, an idea that once would have seemed incroyable in a country where worker protections are as sacred as wine with dinner.
But people who love all things French—including the millions of travelers who continue to make France the number one tourist destination in the world—might be interested to note this trio of developments suggesting that change is on the horizon:
A few months ago, on February 7 to be exact, the franc officially went out of circulation. Introduced by French monarch Jean le Bon (1319-1364), it remained the coin of the realm—with occasional modifications, like the addition of the Vichy seal during the World War II German occupation—until 2002 when France adopted the (now distressed) euro. At that time a ten-year grace period went into effect so that people who stashed old bills under the mattress could exchange them for euros at a locked-in value of 6.56 francs for 1 euro, the going rate when France joined the European Union in 1999. But now hoarders and travelers who accumulated francs left over from past trips are stuck with them. Remember Antoine de Saint Exupéry and “The Little Prince” on the old 50-franc bill? Think of it as a souvenir.
The French honorific mademoiselle went the way of the franc last month when government offices were instructed to remove it from official documents because of sexist overtones inherent in a form of address based on marital status. With the single female distinction excised, only two choices remain: monsieur and madame. Whether common parlance comes to reflect mademoiselle’s demise is another question, not least because it’s sometimes used as a form of flattery for older women.
Yves Jégo, the mayor of Montereau-Fault-Yonne, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Paris, is attempting to raise $255 million to construct a theme park based on the life and times of Napoleon. If his dream becomes a reality, Napoleonland will break ground in 2014 and go head-to-head with nearby Disneyland Paris, which opened in 1992 to cries of sacré bleu from cultural purists but has since become Europe‘s top tourist site, visited by 15.6 million people last year. Given “Boney’s” stature and the pressing need for jobs in France, Napoleonland may get a warmer welcome, though it’s hard to imagine the attractions. The 100 Days in miniature? A Battle of the Nile son et lumière? The Bonaparte family on parade?
Honestly, the more things change in France, the more they really change.