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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Be Forever Falling

May 22, 2013 | by

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(Artistic license taken with shoe color.)

On my second day in Jakarta, an exhilarating, traffic-choked terror of a city, I’m walking through the Garden District of Grand Indonesia Shopping Town. Grand Indonesia Shopping Town claims to be one of the largest upscale shopping centers in Southeast Asia, and it’s here, with a view from half a dozen stories up down to the luxury car parked outside a showroom on the ground floor, that a frightening, familiar, visceral impulse nearly gets the best of me. As I’ve learned from talking to friends and near-strangers, it’s an impulse shared by many people, and, though the consequences of ever following through on it would suggest otherwise, not a suicidal one. I have to grip the railing that separates me from the shaft of empty space running from the top of the building to the bottom—the shaft that provides a view between floors, a vertical column boring through what would otherwise be a flat, dangerless circuit of shopping opportunities—because some part of me wants, more than it wants any other thing, to fling itself over the edge.

I remember a friend in New Zealand, goaded into conversation about this impulse, saying that it may “fall” into the same family of impulses as the one that drives us, as toddlers, to touch a hot stove. Driven by a basic instinct for discovery and, ironically, survival—a need to methodically taste-test the environment in which we are to go on living. But as an adult I only occasionally have to restrain myself from bringing my hand down on a hot grill. I often cling to a wall in the fear that I might actually, if I let my guard down, follow through on the impulse to fling. It’s as though the overriding, rational mental jury that keeps me from known harm remains undecided on the subject of sheer drops.     

Some shopper, some shopping Muslim woman in a stylish hijab at Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, must see me pulling myself away from the railing carefully—carefully but forcefully, as though I am one man physically restraining another. She must wonder. Unless she understands.

Even on the second floor of the courtyard at my guesthouse in Menteng, the Jakarta neighborhood where Barack Obama spent part of his childhood (a statue of Barack as a boy stands outside of State Elementary School 01 Menteng, moved there after its original installment in Menteng Park incited protests), I gingerly bounce my fingertips against the stone wall to combat the impulse as I walk to my room.

A month ago, in Auckland, I nearly broke down on a visit to the observation deck of the Sky Tower, 610 feet above street level. The edge of the observation deck, up against a wrap-around window providing panoramic views, also features panels of glass flooring one-and-a-half inches thick. I more or less lurched over these, fearful not that I would fall through—clearly, there was no risk of that—but that the unruly, violent, psychotic and child-like impulse would finally wear me down, and I would hurl my body against the protective glass, just to see what happened.    

Not that street level in Jakarta lacks for potentially perilous excitement. In a place where the mere city proper’s population tops ten million, it really is an adventure just crossing the street. Locals step into ceaseless traffic with one hand held out in a “stop” gesture, presumably hoping for the best as they ford each new roaring river of transport. After losing almost an entire day to cab rides in order to visit Kota, the derelict remains of sixteenth-century Dutch walled compound Batavia, I mostly stick to Menteng, striking out on foot. Because I want to flaunt a handsome new pair of navy leather Fred Perry shoes picked up in Sydney, I give myself painful blisters exploring the neighborhood. I make frequent stops at Indonesian coffee shops filled with cigarette smoke and chattering, stylish young people, and at the many local 7-Elevens that seem to be, with their European-style outdoor café seating, hugely popular social destinations. My heels throb with pain, lacerated by the offending shoes, but I’m charmed by life on the ground, where I can eat nasi goreng and never even think about throwing myself over a ledge.

This oddly innocent, feverishly suppressed impulse returns later, though, and with maximum intensity, at SKYE Bar, a fifty-sixth floor rooftop venue offering views of the Jakarta skyline. The bar also offers an all-too-imaginable fatal drop, which appears to me to be kept from patrons by only an admittedly discouraging band of decorative plant-life. I don’t dare investigate the truth of this statement more closely, but my old friend and city contact, Dan, concurs that there is probably no significant railing, then hands me a beer.

“Has anyone ever fallen off of it, do you think?” I ask.

“Probably not,” says Dan’s co-worker. “It’s only been open for three months.”

Another of Dan’s co-workers wonders out loud whether anyone has ever thrown a beer bottle over the edge.

“Can you imagine, if you threw a bottle off this building, what would happen if it hit a car in the street below?” I ask. “God. It would be like a meteor.”

Conversation moves on to the recent meteor event in Russia, but I’m only half-listening, the other half of me grappling with the terrible impulse to take a running jump from SKYE Bar. The immediate possibility, visible from where we stand, of a fifty-six story free fall, pulls at my body with a magnetism so nearly irresistible that my legs begin to tremble. Before too long we gravitate away from the edge, back towards the bar, where I’m certain more than a few beads of the sweat under my arms have nothing to do with the humidity here on the island of Java.    

The day before I leave for Phnom Penh, I fail to muster the taxi-taking fortitude to visit Taman Mini, a theme park east of Jakarta full of pavilions encapsulating Indonesian life, including examples of the building styles and architecture of this country’s many and diverse provinces. Instead, I take a taxi to and from the post office, an errand that takes a few hours. Friends and acquaintances in Jakarta tell me that giving up on one’s ambitions for the day after running a single errand is not uncommon. (Though I don’t stay in town long enough to do it the right way, which requires purchasing entire pirated seasons of TV shows on DVD in exasperation and retreating to ones apartment, defeated by the city.) I go to the post office to send some gifts back to America by sea mail, and to get rid of the handsome, offending Fred Perry shoes that so cut up and blistered my heels.

A lithe, quick-moving young Indonesian man who may or may not work for the post office scares up a ragged cardboard box to use for packing. I sit and watch as, cigarette hanging between his lips, he stuffs in my fabrics and trinkets and the offending shoes, then uses a length of black plastic thread tied to a spear-like piece of metal to encase the parcel, with zigzagging stitches, in a layer of protective tarp. Soon the things I want to get rid of are safely hemmed in, the stitching as quaintly and monstrously uneven as on an old rag doll. The young man, still smoking, scribbles something on a scrap of cardboard, then hands it to me.

I understand this to mean the package will arrive in two to three units of time, though I don’t know what bulan means. Months, probably. It could be years. Lifetimes. I don’t really care. More than the gifts, I want the shoes gone. Blisters aside, that’s one less pair of shoes in which I could, in a moment of incomprehensible, raging curiosity, take a running leap from a Southeast Asian skyscraper, or topple to my demise from the food court at Grand Indonesia.

I nod my assent, and he hauls the thing away.

Evan James is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Sun, and elsewhere. He is writing a novel. He is also on Twitter.

 

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A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 1

May 17, 2013 | by

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Patrick Leigh Fermor, center, with members of the team that abducted General Heinrich Kreipe: George Tyrakis, W. Stanley Moss, Manoli Paterakis, and Antoni Papaleonidas.

It has been said of Ulysses that, were Dublin ever obliterated, the city could be substantially rebuilt by consulting its pages. Along these lines, if all Europe were, God forbid, laid waste tomorrow, one might do worse than attempt to recreate it, or at least to preserve some sense of its historical splendor and variety, by immersing oneself in the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Patrick who? Although popular both in his native England, where his books are available in Penguin paperback, and in many other countries—he has been translated into any number of languages—Leigh Fermor (who died in 2011) is known to only a devout few in this country, where, scandalously, his work is not distributed. I myself came to him three years ago, when a friend pressed me to seek out A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the first two volumes of a projected trilogy about his teenage walk across Europe in the early thirties. By chance, that very week I stumbled across a used copy of A Time of Gifts. I began reading straightaway, but after a few pages stopped and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. It couldn’t be this good. The narrative was captivating, the erudition vast, the comedy by turns light and uproarious, and the prose strikingly individual—at once exquisite and offhand, sweeping yet intimate, with a cadence all its own. Perhaps even more startling was the thickness of detail, and the way in which imagination infallibly brought these million specificities to life. In the book’s three hundred or so pages, scarcely a paragraph was less than spirited, cornucopian, and virtuosic.

I am not given to idolizing writers or reading them entire, but this was a special case. Before long I had tracked down, whenever possible in their beautiful John Murray hardback editions, not only Between the Woods and the Water (which sees Leigh Fermor as far as the Iron Gates of the Danube) but also his remaining work—two travel books about Greece, one each about the Caribbean and Peru, a slim volume on monasteries, and a novella. Having devoured these, I started trying to find out more about Leigh Fermor himself. Piecing together information from his books and other sources, I came up with the following.

A clever but unruly student, Leigh Fermor was expelled from a series of schools and at sixteen dropped out altogether. After a period in London halfheartedly cramming for Sandhurst and (far more eagerly) partying with the last of the Bright Young People, he set out in December 1933 on his journey to Istanbul, which took him over a year. At this point the picture grew vague; there was some improbable story about his tagging along with a Greek royalist army as it quashed a rebellion, another about his falling in love with a Romanian princess. Read More »

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No Amusement May Be Made

April 10, 2013 | by

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“I forgot my camera,” I said to Wayan, the tour guide on our bicycle trip. He had, moments earlier, announced “Kodak moment!” as we slowed for our first stop—a lookout point over a mist-filled valley of tiered rice terraces. Two Swedish girls, two Dutch girls, and an English girl posed at the precipice, photographing themselves with evidence of having been to a beautiful vista in northeastern Bali.

“Oh no,” said Wayan. “Well, you will keep it in your head.”  

My head already resembled a home interior from the TV show Hoarders, more so now that the compulsive caretakers within had made it their mission to collect as many Indonesian words as possible. I knew the word for “beautiful,” but lacked the impulse to document beauty. If I had to build a new mental wing to house the active volcano Mount Batur, so be it.

Still, imagined disappointment from intimates ate at me. It seemed I could not cement a solid habit of picture-taking, and in this way I felt I failed the demands of our time at every picturesque turn, successful only in my failure to do the thing I should have, in retrospect, done—done for friends, for family, for Facebook.

The feeling left me as the day progressed. The Swedish girls took cheeky snapshots of themselves knee-deep in the mud of a rice paddy outside a small village. “Dirty feet!” they cried, flashing smiles.

“It’s like a spa treatment,” one joked, stepping out with wet muck on her calves.

“I used to help my father do this when I was a boy,” said Wayan. He crouched down to plant a few sprouted seedlings.

“It must be kind of fun for little kids to be in the mud and the water,” said one of the Swedes. “Like playing.”

When we stopped at a coffee plantation, the Dutch girls took pictures of a caged civet, whose digestion and excretion of raw beans is essential to the production of expensive, earthy kopi luwak. Pictures of old Balinese women in their family compounds chopping and peeling bamboo into usable strips. Pictures of a five-hundred-year-old banyan tree. I would later persuade my fellow tourists to e-mail me these pictures, so that I could pass them off as my own when I returned.

At a particularly stunning view of the volcano, the English girl said to me, “Bet you wish you’d brought your camera now.”

“There’s a lot of things I wish,” I said in my head, keeping that there as well.

“What do you do all day? Just sit around?” Read More »

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Car Trouble, Part 2

March 28, 2013 | by

Blacksheep1Read part 1 here.

I owned a car that I couldn’t drive.

After the “Possession at Devil’s Bridge,” as we’d started calling it, Phil had parked the Mini alongside my cottage before roaring back to campus in her reliable yellow Renault. The following morning I went out and stood beside it, wondering what to do next. Any car’s speedometer cable could snap, but not just any car’s cable would have so profound a sense of timing as to do it at midnight, atop Devil’s Bridge, on its first outing with a new owner.

Appropriately enough, the Mini and I were in Wales: home of Arthur and Merlin, breeding ground of the fabulous. In one of the old Welsh wondertales, black sheep that cross a magical river turn white, and white sheep turn black. The Mini’s color remained mushroom grey, but something similar, if more subtle, had happened as it crossed the Mynach. On the far side of the river the Mini had been cheap, utilitarian transportation; on my side, it had already become a character in a story. In Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald says we all have a heroic period in our lives. The Mini came into mine just as one of these phases was beginning (I don’t see why we can’t have more than one), and promptly took its place in the pantheon of memory.

My next-door neighbor appeared and found me stroking my fingers through beads of dew on its roof. Read More »

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Think of Me Fondly

March 19, 2013 | by

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I was waiting for a friend on the steps of the Palais Garnier, pacing impatiently between the marble columns, when I noticed a paperback book sitting nearby: Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. Certainly not a random encounter, I thought, as the book is set in (and beneath) the home of the Opéra national de Paris. I opened it up, and found a note.

“I am not lost!” it said. “This book was left here to find a new reader.”

As it turns out, the Web site www.bookcrossing.com tracks books in their travels around the world. After you run across one of the traveling books, log the discovery on the Web site, post a review, and leave it somewhere else for a new reader to find. I sent mine on its next adventure not far from the Pont Neuf.

 

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Essex Girl

February 21, 2013 | by

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We traveled from East London in a Zipcar, beating the traffic bound for Lakeside, the out-of-town shopping center. The pier car park was sparsely filled with cars. Abandoned in a corner was a statue of the Virgin Mary the size of an umbrella stand. Out of season, the Essex archipelago lures only the most hardened. By October, the weather is spitting and icy, and its landscape is too bleak and monotonous to qualify as ruggedly beautiful. A Wikipedia entry had told us there are nineteen islands off the coast of Essex, most of them owned by the British Ministry of Defence and contracted to private companies testing ammunitions. The individual entries were nearly all stubs, waiting to be filled in. An archipelago struck a curious exotic note in a place associated mostly with commuting, military test sites, and, most recently, “constructed reality” television.

American import Jersey Shore inspired The Only Way is Essex, a show similarly centered on the intricate love lives of pneumatic people living in an area derided for being culturally bankrupt, despite its proximity to one of the most exciting cities in the world. Jersey’s Essex County was even named after the UK’s own historical Essex, in 1683. Maybe there’s no need to make analogies between the UK’s Essex and anywhere else because its reputation is internationally bad, and we don’t defend it. The county town Chelmsford, where I was born, was voted eighth best place to live in the UK on the prerecession property-porn show Location Location Location. Residents promptly rang in to call it soulless; flashy on one hand and tedious on the other, like a nouveau riche neighbor with dull preoccupations. Read More »

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