Category Archives: NORTH AMERICA

Extreme Travel: Gypsies and Rubber Tramps

hippie vanBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

What does a scaler of Everest have in common with a guy sitting on a piece of driftwood on the Oregon shore who hasn’t climbed ten feet above sea level for years? They’re both extreme travelers.

For a lot of people, “extreme” doesn’t necessarily mean going to a remote place, or performing impressive physical deeds, or even seeking a particular kind of thrill. For some, travel is not an occasional luxury, or even a periodic obligation, but a way of life. The “extreme” part is the unending duration of it, and the danger that isn’t sought but that comes anyway.

America has its share of eternally restless wanderers who make their homes in old buses, vans, and even cars. Sooner or later, most of them pass through Venice, California. This piece looks at a few of them, who were featured in Rubber Tramps, a documentary directed by Max Koetter and produced by Kenny Rosen. The film crew started in Venice and worked its way up the California coastline to Oregon, interviewing and immortalizing a fascinating array of road folks such as these:

Ceramic artist Patty has run afoul of the rules governing sales on the boardwalk…During the filming of Rubber Tramps, Patty’s home on wheels was destroyed by fire, and the filmmakers gave her one of their buses. RomTom has spent plenty of time in Venice during his travels, and wrote a good portion of his book Comporting Roadwise in a local cafe.

For a fuller look at the “cast,” the film’s MySpace page shows the whole spectrum: the Vietnam veteran and his son; the Deadhead; the schizophrenic; the Greyhound employee; the aging black bluesman; the various troubadours and philosophers whose words and lives make this such an inspiring chronicle of alternative lifestyles. The film is stitched together with segments of a Ken Kesey interview, as the grand old man tromps around his Oregon farm. It was the last major film project of Kesey’s life. There’s even some antique footage of beat icon Neal Cassady driving the Merry Pranksters’ bus, Furthur.

The ability to be at home anywhere is, nowadays, an extreme life skill. But it used to be the only game in town, back when there was no town. Our roaming hunter-gatherer ancestors knew how to make the whole world their comfort zone. It’s genetic, mostly dormant, but still active in the true Gypsies. The Romany people have been persecuted for centuries, forced into urban ghettos to put an end to their roving, and then persecuted some more. In Europe and the United Kingdom they’re marginalized, and even tolerant Canada is undergoing a wave of Romophobia. In the Czech Republic alone, there have been at least 35 racially motivated murders of Gypsies in the past 20 years. In The Star, Rosie Dimanno, who writes prolifically about the world political scene, provides a summary of the current situation.

At the end of July, 150 Romanian gypsies showed up in Prague because a 17-year-old said to be the “prince” was in the hospital and not expected to live. (It should be noted that one of the gypsy secrets, revealed by a trustworthy source, is that there’s no such thing as Gypsy royalty, it’s just public relations BS to fool the gajos.) They camped someplace, and there were no problems. Then, the public health officials got involved, because to cook out in the open is unsanitary. The Gypsies camped someplace else, but got kicked out of there because it’s a natural heritage site. Then they camped somewhere else…

Well, the young man died. The Gypsies didn’t have enough money to transport the body back to Romania. Not even a third of it. So they hit up the Prague city fathers and the Romanian embassy, which said it would let them know in a couple of weeks. At another campground, the city declined to provide the Gypsies with portable toilets or tanks of drinking water. They might like it too much and decide to stay. They are the archetypal NIMBY triggers. (Somewhat like halfway houses, recycling plants, and various other things that are recognized as good, but to which the average urban dweller is likely to object, saying “not in my back yard.”) Civilized people think the Rom should just get over themselves and settle down. But in some other back yard.

photo courtesy of Dennis Wong , used under this Creative Commons license

Pagan Travel Writers Share the Sublime

Glastonbury_TorBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Third Degree Wiccan Priestesses like to recount their experiences, too, which is lucky for all of us. As Lady Branwenn WhiteRaven, a.k.a. Paula Jean West, says:

I love being a Pagan travel writer on the Internet. I’ve always wanted to take everyone with me on my travels and now I can…. Doing travel writing for our community and for all the earth-centered, eco-conscious communities has become one of the best things that ever happened to me.

WhiteRaven has Examined a long series of events, every one of which sounds absolutely fascinating. She is also responsible for the exhaustively complete Pagan Festival Schedule 2009-2010. She says the number of Pagans worldwide doubles every year and a half, so we will be seeing more of these festivals, and more attendees. The planet abounds with various kinds of Pagans, including Discordians, Druids, Shamans, Kabbalah people, and Asatru (the Norse).

Patti Wigington, another Third Degree High Priestess and tarot card reader, gives a hand up to neophytes with a series of “Pagan Travel 101” guides to matters of festival etiquette. “Don’t throw anything into a ritual fire unless you are specifically invited to do so,” is a standard of civilized paganfest behavior. And because local laws vary, and you don’t want to get the event organizers fined or jailed, “Pay attention to rules regarding nudity.” Also Wigington warns us that, unless you are specifically invited, it’s very uncool to pick up or touch another person’s magical tool. Their, uh, wand, for instance, or their athame, which is a ritual knife carried by a witch. All good, practical advice.

Overcoming some local opposition, Dover, Delaware, recently hosted the Delmarva Pagan Pride Festival, organized by Ivo Dominguez Jr. and sponsored by The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel. (Delmarva, by the way, is a peninsula that includes parts of three different states. How odd.) Bell, Book and Candle, a shop specializing in candles, books and bells, posted some very nice pictures of this event, which appears to be in a city park and everyone seems to be having a very pleasant time. The Pagans of Delmarva and the travelers who arrived for the occasion enjoyed the drum circle and the kids’ activities, as well as the live music and the words of the teachers who came to discuss esoteric spiritual matters.

“Sacred Sites of England” is not a festival, but a tour that people can pay to join up with. We don’t know the proprietors, although they both practice fascinating specialties. Karen Rae Wilson’s credentials include the titles of Celtic Mystic, Peace Troubadour, Wisdom Keeper, Shaman and Catalyst for Social Change. Paddy Baillie is a sacred sound healer who works through the medium or instrument of singing bowls made from clear quartz crystal.

West_Kennet_Long_BarrowWe like the Sacred Earth Journeys site because it provides a neat capsule description of why each and every destination on their list is a meaningful place, from the spiritual/historical point of view. Somerset for example is “considered the legendary heart center of the world,” and West Kennet Longbarrow is the entrance to the earth’s womb. Getting up close and personal with Mother Earth, here. One blogger complains of visiting there only to be given the hairy eyeball by pagans who were conducting a ceremony, but that’s understandable. They seem to generally be a pretty friendly bunch.

Avalon is where the Lady of the Lake hung out, and Chalice Well runs with healing waters. The itinerary includes numerous holy stones, and three different sites frequented by King Arthur, namely Glastonbury Abbey and the castles known as Cadbury and Tintagel.

But this tour is not just about seeing sights. It’s about empowerment, which is stimulated by the Grail Initiation Ceremony, and it’s about finding the Sacred Feminine and Sacred Masculine tucked away within the traveler’s own identity. Remember the novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s word “karass,” the group of people you’re cosmically, karmically linked with? There’s an old Celtic phrase for that, the “Anam Cara.” The idea here is, signing up for this kind of tour might be a good way to connect with soul friends and kindred spirits. Well, that happens on all the best journeys, doesn’t it? Otherwise, why bother?

We are, of course, soliciting reader opinion on recommended sacred sites.

Glastonbury Tor photo courtesy of kurtthomashunt, used under this Creative Commons license; West Kennet Long Barrow photo courtesy of treehouse1977, used under this Creative Commons license


Travel Writers Unleashed: The Smithsonian Six

News Editor

Jan Morris, author of 40 books about travel and history, reflects on the current relevance of travel writing in Smithsonian Magazine by way of introducing the project it instituted. The September issue is devoted to the dream destinations of six name-brand travel writers. Morris tells why these folks are top-notch. Among other things, she says:

They are recording the effects of places or movements upon their own particular temperaments-recording the experience rather than the event, as they might make literary use of a love affair, an enigma or a tragedy… It is not invention that you will find in these pages, but something subtler: the alliance of knowledge and sensation, nature and intellect, sight and interpretation, instinct and logic. It is more real than fiction, but more genuine than mere fact, too.

Paul Theroux has said the greatest reward of travel is not so much in seeing exotic things, but in experiencing everyday things for the first time. Travel writers are addicted to the unfamiliar and the new — but only in their own self-defined ways. Theroux, for instance, says it is against his temperament to go sightseeing. His choice for the Smithsonian assignment was to drive across the United States, a journey he had never made before, and which he approached in I-Am-a-Camera mode. In “Taking the Great American Roadtrip” Theroux says, “My idea was not to linger anywhere, but to keep on the move, as though to create in my mind one long panning shot…” The cross-country drive led to his being chosen to write the foreword for Joseph Sohm’s Visions of America, a book of classic photographs, as reported by Alyce of At Home With Books.

Frances Mayes is a very well known writer about the Italian region called Tuscany. For this challenge, she chose Poland. Her husband and a lot of other people in his hometown were of Polish descent, and they had employed some very nice Polish builders in Italy. Geoff Ward, we are told, grew up in India, and went back many times as an adult, but had never visited the Punjab region. Susan Orlean chose Morocco, and Caroline Alexander made a return trip to Jamaica to see the fabulous botanical gardens of a village called Bath. Francine Prose decided to report on the western coast of Japan.

Now, here’s the question you just had to know was coming: What would be your dream destination, and why?

photo courtesy of Gret@Lorenz, used under this Creative Commons license

Woodstock and Other Music Festivals of the World

News Editor

A mainstay of World Hum and the Matador Network, Eva Holland went to Woodstock’s 40th anniversary bash in upstate New York. Born 13 years after the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, Holland admits to liking the music of her parents’ generation better than her own, especially the Woodstock album. It was the siren lure of those musicians that inspired her to attend the commemorative version of the legendary happening. In a piece titled “Back to the Garden?” she describes the journey, which was almost in the nature of a pilgrimage:

At one point, I noticed a homemade peace sign by the side of the road. It read, “40 Years: The Message is Still the Same.” I wondered if it was intended as a hopeful or a cynical comment…For a moment, trapped in my own, much smaller patch of gridlock, I felt closer to those legendary half-a-million hippies than I ever had before.

After idling in traffic for too long, Holland arrived at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, parked, and bought a ticket. She mentions the extensive police presence, and the copious amount of Official Merchandise. Original Woodstock bands Ten Years After and Canned Heat were satisfying. What emerges as the important thing about the four-decades-ago festival is its significance as a social phenomenon and a political statement. Why did so many people show up for this thing, back in the day? And what brought the people who showed up this time? (Feel free, by the way, to send us your own interpretation of the significance of these questions.)

One of the nicest things about The Third Tower Up From the Road is that Kevin doesn’t only describe the sights, and the history, and whoever happens to be hanging around on the scene with the spare time to humor a foreigner who specializes in off-the-wall conversational gambits. Everywhere he visits, if any kind of music is audible, we are sure to hear about it. His awareness extends to the musical nerve center of a given city, the place where the real musicians buy their reeds and strings and try out attractive new percussion instruments. During trips by automobile, particularly in America, matching the music to the landscape is a preoccupation of his. He embraces the universal truth that “mornings are particularly hard on bluesmen.”

Don’t you love being reminded of events you missed? A slew of music fests were conducted over the summer, any one of which might someday turn out to be as legendary as Woodstock, or the 1963 Newport Folk Festival (when Bob Dylan “went from zero to hero in the course of a weekend,” in the words of Rowland Scherman.)

It wasn’t all youth culture material, either. The Copenhagen Summer Festival consisted of twelve nights of chamber music. There was the Byblos summer festival in Lebanon, and the Istanbul Jazz Festival and International Music Festival. People flocked to Lyon, France, for the National Music Festival, while Aix-en-Provence hosted a festival with the theme of ancient mythology, featuring Götterdämmerung. Amsterdam had its Dance Event (which also encompasses electronic music), and presented the week-long Grachtenfestival of classical music.

This one is coming up in October and it sure sounds interesting: the Rajasthan International Music Festival in Jodhpur, India, whose mission is to:

…revive dying folk musical genres of the state and will promote the traditional music of the European gypsies, who are said to have migrated from Rajasthan at least 1,000 years ago… A delegation of musicians from Spain’s biggest institute of gypsy music Instituto Gitane will take part in the festival.

One last word: Jeremy Kressmann of Gadling has compiled a stunning list of desirable music-oriented destinations, including both festivals and ongoing music scenes that are not to be missed.

And here’s another question. What music event in the coming season do you consider essential?

photo courtesy of Patti Haskins, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writer P.J. O’Rourke Talks Cars

O'RourkedetroitBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

When Americans think “travel,” they think “car.” Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. So, what happens when you get a rather cynical and acerbic, yet wickedly funny, travel writer, together with an automobile? You get P.J. O’Rourke, as interviewed by Peter Kadzis, that’s what.

O’Rourke, who served as Rolling Stone foreign correspondent from the ’80s through 2001, was of course associated with the National Lampoon, and in fact cars were on his mind way back then, too, as in the 1979 piece, “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink.” So you see we are dealing with a certain level of expertise here. O’Rourkian humor runs along the lines of this succinct remark: “In Japan people drive on the left. In China people drive on the right. In Vietnam it doesn’t matter.” In this current Boston Phoenix Q&A, Kadzis introduces him thusly:

At first glance, Driving like Crazy (Atlantic Monthly Press) might appear to be a compendium of P.J. O’Rourke’s entertaining, first-person automotive journalism. But crack the spine and dig inside and you’ll see that the book transcends the genre. Driving is travel writing in the classic tradition….

Kadzis, by the way, is a journalist who specializes in personalities as varied as Allen Ginsberg, Salman Rushdie, and Joseph Stiglitz. (If you’re in the Boston area on Sept. 17, check out his and Wendy Kaminer’s upcoming appearance at Suffolk University. It’s Freedom of Expression time, folks. Time to brush the dust off the First Amendment.)

So, what does P.J. O’Rourke have to say about cars and driving? Well, he laments and deplores the state of the automotive industry, for one thing. This is really a very funny article, so we won’t spoil it by quoting, because then you miss the momentum. Just check it out, okay? O’Rourke meditates on his working-class roots, and the relationships between the United Auto Workers and the manufacturers, and benefit packages, and the politics of buying a foreign vs. a U.S.-made car, and the machismo ramifications of brand choice.

In the travel area, Kadzis asks O’Rourke for the scariest place he’s ever driven a car, but we’re not going to reveal that either, except to say it’s not Detroit. Of course, we were inspired to scout around a bit, to try and determine the world’s scariest place to drive, and came across this assessment by a traveler named Morgan Hewland, who says “Cairo is a crazy city, where drivers make six lanes out of a four-lane road…” and decided not to delve any further into that particular can of worms.

P.S. What is the world’s worst place to drive?

photo courtesy of mick62, used under this Creative Commons license

Travel Writer Finds Treats for Anglophone Brainiacs

News Editor

At BBC News Online, Zoe Kleinman introduces John Graham-Cumming, author of a wonderful resource for a certain kind of traveler: the unabashed geek. While visiting Munich, Germany, casting about for something to absorb an afternoon’s worth of time, Graham-Cumming learned of the Deutches Museum, and the rest is history. (We’re going for the prize offered for the 30-millionth iteration of that particular overused phrase.) It became the first entry in his nascent Geek Atlas, which has now gone from being a gleam in its creator’s eye to an actual book. Kleinman says:

The main criteria for inclusion in the resulting atlas were that each attraction had to be open, interesting and accessible to English speakers… He admits the ones he chose are more a reflection of his own travels than a comprehensive global guide.

Graham-Cumming had thought that perhaps the Lonely Planet series might have a guidebook for the science-oriented traveler, but on learning that no such guide existed, he began composing his own. He ended up with a compendium of 46 institutions in the US, 45 in the United Kingdom, and 12 in France. He provides the addresses couched as geographical coordinates, so a global positioning device is an indispensable aid to the book.

A bonus on the page is a video clip where Kleinman chats with the author at the Hunterian Museum. Located in London, this is the repository of the Royal College of Surgeons’ collection of body parts preserved in jars, and its vast array of surgical instruments from past eras. A nice virtual tour of the Hunterian is available online. It also houses half of the brain of Charles Babbage, widely regarded as the father of the computer. (The other half is in a different institution, the Science Museum.) Babbage is a true hero to Graham-Cumming, who experienced an emotional moment when viewing the inventor’s Difference Engine No 2 at a museum.

Graham-Cumming is a big fan of Munich’s Deutsches Museum, which may or may not be the world’s largest museum of technology and science, but it does draw more than a million visitors a year. He is also very fond of the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland, maintained by the U.S. National Security Agency. It is the American intelligence community’s first and only public museum.

Is there a science museum in The Third Tower Up From the Road? Sort of. It’s not hard-core, it’s fun, with 600 interactive experiences to be had , and it’s in Södertälje, Sweden. Kevin says:

Tom Tit’s Experiment is named after a fictional character, the alter ego of a French scientist who wrote books and articles very popular in Sweden… the kind of place your nice and somewhat ditzy aunt would put together if she had the money and the inclination.

Giant soap bubbles big enough to hold a person inside. Scale models of human fetuses that you can take out, unfold, refold, and put back in again. A rat circus in the Periodic Table Theatre (he tells where the best seats are). And best of all, a thing you can stick your head in and scream as loud as you want. Compared to that, what is Babbage’s brain?

photo courtesy of lorentey, used under this Creative Commons license

Arts, Old and New, in the Czech Republic

hip hip.By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Over in Moscow, graffiti artists had the chance to lay aside their outlaw status for a while, and join with art students and students of all kinds to embellish dozens of heating units throughout Russia’s capitol. Ksenia Galouchko tells us in The Moscow Times:

Heating units can be found in most courtyards and are usually squat, drab, utilitarian buildings with little architectural value. The only people attracted to the buildings seem to be the homeless and graffiti artists whose art work has never, until today, found favor with the energy companies who own the buildings.

This time the spray paint has been deployed with official approval, and each contestant hopes for a very special prize: passage to the Czech Republic, where the team will represent their country at an international music and lifestyle festival. The Czech city of Hradec Kralove is gearing up for the onslaught of thousands of energetic kids for the annual Hip Hop Kemp, scheduled this year for August 20-22, with plenty of allowance on both sides for before-parties and after-parties.

An artist herself, Ksenia Galouchko also writes for The Stanford Daily and is a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority, as well as treasurer and V.P. of Artspan, a program for underprivileged and developmentally challenged children.

But now, to an older art form, in nearby Prague. I found a mystery in The Third Tower Up From the Road. When Kevin Dolgin went to Prague, he saw the Orloj, or astronomical clock, a very fancy timepiece with many moving figures, including the Christian Apostles and a skeleton (representing Death). This incredible piece of technology/art was created back in the year 1410. That’s almost 600 years ago. Anyway, here’s the interesting part. Quoting Kevin,

Legend says that Ruze’s eyes were put out after he finished so that he could never build a clock that would rival it. No one else ever did.

Yikes! However, closer attention reveals that Jan Ruze didn’t build the clock, and nobody put his eyes out. That’s why they call it a legend.

The point is, when I was a little kid, one of the standard family excursions was a trip to the museum in Buffalo, NY, 20 miles away, to see a clock very much like this one. Was there really never another clock like the Prague Orloj? Could it have been sent over to the States on loan? Because, going by the description, this clock sounded a lot like that one.

But no, this is not the same clock at all. A little research shows that the Prague Orloj is outdoors, for heaven’s sake. It’s a permanent installation. And it was attacked by tanks in World War II. And it’s a different shape. (Here’s a cool animated computer model of how the dials move.)Orloj The picture here is of a couple of the figures, and part of the dials.

The astronomical clock in the museum of my youth was housed in a wooden cabinet, like your standard-issue grandfather clock. The apostles were on a circular track and they came out from the interior of the clock’s case, past the figure of Jesus in the middle, which they all bowed to, except one. And Satan popped out like a cuckoo, from a little door. That’s how I remember it, anyway. As it turns out, there is such a clock. Myles Hughes built it, nowhere near 600 years ago.

There’s another Apostle Clock in Oshkosh , Wisconsin, pretty much like the one Hughes spent 35 years building, only this one was built by Mathias Kitz and it only took him six years. And it has an angel instead of the devil. And here it is not Peter who turns away, but Judas, bag of silver coins in hand. In the United States, about 25 of these “monumental clocks” were made altogether.

Also in Prague, the Kafka Musuem has opened, and you might be interested to know that the great author referred to his hometown as “a dear little mother with claws.” Last month, the cinephiles of Prague were delighted to welcome John Malkovich to the 44th International Film Festival where he taught a master class and received a Crystal Globe Award. Another festival, the Prague Biennale, has lost all its funding and the spring 2009 edition was sponsored by artists and curators. On the positive side, amazingly, Bernard’s Summer School of Irish Dancing is enjoying its successful 9th year in Prague.

Hip hop photo courtesy of .:martu:. , used under this Creative Commons license, Figures photo courtesy of Jorge-11, used under this Creative Commons license, Clock face photo courtesy of Jorge-11, used under this Creative Commons license