June 11, 2012
Some scholars say Bermuda inspired Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Others claim it was modeled on the Mediterranean’s Corfu. But I’m pretty sure that the exiled Duke of Milan turned sorcerer in the South Pacific. “Be not afraid, the isle if full of noises,” says Prospero’s woebegotten slave Caliban, a description that admirably suits the island of Huahine about 110 miles northwest of Tahiti.
It’s a mecca for the sunburned, barefoot crew who drop out for a spell to pilot sailboats among the 130 islets that make up French Polynesia. Otherwise, most tourists head for Bora Bora with its fabled lagoon or the diver’s paradise of Rangiroa, leaving Huahine a lazy, slow-lane, off-the-beaten-track South Pacific backwater with only a handful of resorts, a half dozen sleepy villages chiefly populated by mangy dogs and one main town, Fare, where there’s a ferry port, airstrip and hordes of mosquitoes.
Huahine is actually two islands—Huahine Nui, the bigger one, and littler Huahini Iti—connected by a bridge. Both are ringed by skinny sand spits known as motus, where islanders grow watermelons with sweet, yellow meat. The interior is all volcanic mountains carpeted in tropical jungle that can only be broached with machetes, where early settlers, possibly from Samoa, built temples—or marae. Now atmospheric ruins covered in creepers, they are the island’s only tourist attraction, apart from yacht harbors, wild beaches and noises that I started to hear almost as soon as I got there.
I hove-to in a perfect Lord Jim sort of place, the Pension Enite outside Fare, where the room rate included a perfect French Polynesian dinner, headlined by steamed clams, sautéed fish and a half carafe of table wine from Burgundy or the Rhone; oenophiles are lucky for whatever they get on Huahine. My room in a garden-framed bungalow had well-mopped linoleum floors, Polynesian fabric curtains and a slowly circling ceiling fan. Still, it was hot, so I left the door open.
I was in the middle of a Jungian dream about my childhood when the sound of heavy breathing made me rise up from unconsciousness and open my eyes to see two bare feet underneath the curtain at the room’s entrance. Size 3, maybe. Then a little hand reached to the hook just inside the door, where most guests must have left valuables in the past, though I didn’t. My money belt was under my pillow and I still marvel over the instinct that brought me out of a deep, tropical sleep to shriek get out of here in high-school French.
Pat, pat, pat went the little feet, in retreat. The next morning, I told the pension’s unflappable French proprietor about it and found that the little sneak thief had made off with the lower half of my two-piece swimming suit, which I’d left to dry on a line outside. God knows what he wanted with my bikini bottom.
After that a lot more weird things happened to me on Huahine, not least getting chased by a pack of wild dogs on a path leading through the jungle to temple ruins and some misadventures on a motor-scooter ride around Huahini Nui. I could tell you about them, but instead will call to mind what Prospero said at the end of the play: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”
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.
April 20, 2012
When my editor at Smithsonian asked me to write a story about “The 10 Best Small Towns in America” for the magazine’s May issue, I didn’t expect an outpouring of responses: Facebook “Likes” and “Tweets” in the tens of thousands along with hundreds of very thoughtful e-mail comments, many of them from people happy to see their hometowns included. I also didn’t expect my research—hugely aided by Esri, a California-based geographic information systems company—to uncover towns of such widely differing character.
Small town meant just one thing to me: “Our Town,” the place described in Thornton Wilder’s classic American play as Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Remember how it begins with the Stage Manager pointing out its main street, drugstore, hitching posts and Congregational church? Later in Act I, the editor of the local newspaper makes his own assessment: Very ordinary town, if you ask me. Little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller. But our young people seem to like it well enough: 90 percent of ’em graduating from high school settle down right here to live—even when they’ve been away to college.
There’s also an old James Taylor song I think of: “Letter in the Mail,” about what’s happened to small towns in the American hinterland as jobs dry up and people leave them.
I guess it never was much to look at
Just a one-horse town
The kind of place young people want to leave today
Store fronts pretty much boarded-up
Main Street pretty much closed-down
So, for me, it was an eye-opening pleasure to find that lots of small towns are thriving in ways unpredicted by the old model. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, for example, which claimed the top spot on our list, still evokes Grover’s Corners, with its white-steepled churches and doughnut bakeries. But you don’t have to live there to see that the town has changed, welcoming new immigrant groups and coming up with schemes like minting its own local currency to keep it vital.
My visit to Naples, Florida, another Smithsonian small town, underscored the way economy drives culture. As a second-home enclave for retired CEOs, it has the revenue to support a world-class symphony orchestra, art museum and theaters. With cultural institutions like those, no one has to sit home at night watching reality TV.
Gig Harbor, Washington, a working fishing village on the west edge of Puget Sound, was another story, perhaps the least reconstituted town on the list, which is actually its best feature. But with outlanders discovering its charms—a picture-perfect harbor and still relatively affordable waterfront property, not to mention very fresh fish—the town finds itself in a precarious place. Its effort to strike a balance between letting development in and staying the same requires thinking outside the box, protecting a traditional, low-tech industry that could die out as more lucrative enterprises come in.
In the end, writing the story showed me that every little town has its own distinctions, and challenges. No two are the same and there’s no single prescription for survival. I still dream about Grover’s Corners and can list any number of New England towns that recall it: bucolically beautiful Cornwall Bridge on the Housatonic River in the northwest corner of Connecticut; Cohasset, Massachusetts, just south of Boston; Hancock, New Hampshire, incorporated in 1779.
But in each case, if you look beyond the pretty picture, you find a tangle of small-town dynamics: conservation versus economic development, income inequality, environmental protection, public fund allotment—all driven by people with different agendas, intent on writing the continuing story of the place where they live.
I’m a city girl by nature, apt to romanticize dots on the maps with names like Menomonie and Siloam Springs—long may they live, all of them “Our Town.”
April 11, 2012
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano’s recent visit to Vernazza—one of five villages along Liguria’s fabled Cinque Terre coast—signaled a comeback for a region devastated by flooding and mudslides last fall. On October 25, 2011, the delicate and precious little Cinque Terre, strung along approximately ten miles of heavenly Italian littoral between the towns of La Spezia and Levanto, received a pounding 20 inches of rain that turned streets into raging rivers, filled homes and businesses with debris, swept away mudslide barriers and obliterated sections of the beloved coastal path that connects the hamlets of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. In Vernazza, three people died and the village was temporarily evacuated. After the disaster it seemed unlikely that spring and the visitors it brings would ever return to the Cinque Terre.
But spring has come, along with crimson poppies on the shoulders of the Via dell’Amore path. Vineyards that cling to steep cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea are greening, promising a fine fall harvest of the grapes used in the region‘s sweet, golden Sciacchetrà wine. Olive trees are unfolding, ready for their annual pruning. Work to rebuild the damaged villages and erect protective mudslide barriers continues, but many townspeople have moved back into their homes and businesses have rushed to reopen for the spring tourist season.
One of the happiest chapters in the story of Cinque Terre’s renewal is the effort made by three American women—Ruth Manfred, Michele Lilley and Michele Sherman—longtime Vernazza residents, to get the news out about the disaster and raise funds for relief. Shortly after the floods, they launched Save Vernazza ONLUS, a not-for-profit organization that has received almost $200,000 in donations to be used for rebuilding Vernazza’s historic center, restoring the scenic trail system and replacing the dry stone walls that are an integral feature of the landscape. Beyond rebuilding, the hope is to promote sustainable tourism in the heavily visited Cinque Terre. “We are making Vernazza more beautiful than before,” Mayor Vincenzo Resasco said, though I don’t know how that could ever be so.
Starting from Montorosso, I walked the via dell’Amore 20 years ago, before the Cinque Terre became an Italian national park and Unesco World Heritage site. It was early spring and I had the whole coast to myself, it seemed. Near Vernazza I climbed onto a boulder just above the sea to work on my tan, then lunched in Corniglia, filling my canteen with leftover wine to take me on to Riomaggiore. That day exists in my memory like one of those old colorized photos that give the places they depict an air of fragile permanence. Let’s hope that, come wind and rain, that air persists in the Cinque Terre.
April 6, 2012
Procida is less well-known than Capri and other islands in the glorious Bay of Naples, chiefly favored by Italians, a scant 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland and barely a half square mile in size. On Easter weekend, though, the ferries are full because Procida’s Mysteries of the Dead Christ processional—begun in 1754 as a macabre march of flagellants—is one of the most colorful in Italy.
I was there to see it a few years ago and brought back pictures: