Tuesday, February 28, 2017

NGA Super Stars

 No, not a mistake - neither NBA nor even NFL but National Gallery of Art.  And while art stars are  often less heralded than athletes, their actions are no less eye catching. (Literally. ) Two of them  caught the eyes of many people this week at the NGA in Washington - Alexander Calder in his 'tower' and Theaster Gates in another tower, both in the East Building. The museum celebrated both in different ways. Calder's grandson, Alexander "Sandy" Rower, appeared in a 'tete-a'tete' conversation with NGA curator Henry Cooper on Sunday afternoon for a wide ranging discussion focused generally on the issue of preserving his grandfather's memory. A press preview of  Theaster Gates'  first solo exhibit in Washington -  titled 'The Minor Arts' - took place Tuesday ahead of Sunday's March 5 opening (due to run through September 4).  Both men were proudly schooled  long ago in the art of craftsmanship by their fathers  but the connection between the two might seem to end there - at least outwardly, although both are associated with large installations. Even so, a remark by Mr. Rower that as head of the New York-based Calder Foundation he is still 'trying to figure out what' his famous relative was trying to say - almost an offhand comment, possibly meant to quiet any discussion of the subject. (After all, what an artist communicates can be different for different people at different times - and talk of this kind can get to sound very pretentious.)
 If  Calder and his grandson let the artist's work speak for him, Theaster Gates seemed to welcome the opportunity to tackle the challenge. He proved to be an articulate explainer, giving of himself in a manner both direct and theatrical. His work  on show includes a discarded high school gym floor, a pitched wall of slate from a demolished church (each single piece viewed up close could be a painting),  a 'canvas' of naugahyde, copper, and tar, and a stacked library of bound Ebony magazines plus several fetish objects - all reclaimed  first-hand. He spoke of the meaningful "relation between art history and social history"  - messages that are obvious when he mentions his devotion to the craft of roofing, calling it "my MFA."  All objects that "refer to the decline of urban institutions and traditions" - as NGA literature explains it. There is something ominous in the room, some warning notes: witness the axe pinned to an entrance wall and a steady chopping sound in the background.
Calder similarly used everyday materials in his creations, but was he any less 'serious' and solemn even in his so-called playful approach?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Baggallini Broads

It's not for nothing that the savvy merchandizer tags this product "life's a journey."
And this notice really is not an advert for the most-conspicuous item that many women travelers carry with them in foreign climes, though of course it sounds that way. Baggallini does the job: a  lightweight  medium sized strap bag, easily slung over the body and leaving hands free. The cost is relatively low and the shape is somewhat anonymous - call it lack of any real style. Nothing  to entice  thieves who  know real Chanel from a fake. (Women hoping to hide jewelry in their Chanel never would have a Baggallini on their body - unless they were smart.)
We are a club of sorts: owners of the humdrum practical accessory that never fails to do the job of holding just the right amount of items needed during a day on the road or in the air.  It comes in small and larger sizes, in bland gray or smart black. The lining is the bright spot: mine is pink with a detachable change purse within.  I've jammed more goods inside one of these than I thought possible and never lost a single thing. Zipper pockets are a natural organizer. Little pouches that can hold different kinds of money. That are cosmetic carriers. Big enough for notebooks and iPhone. Good looking enough to suffice on an evening out.
 Let's hear it for other traveller tips. Like the savvy experienced adventurer who never fails to turn up in silk blouses that are normally a bother to pack. She rolls them in plastic and on occasion uses steam from a shower to undo wrinkles. Silk can be both warm and cool and it always feels good and looks chic. Plus they are lightweight compared to most cotton. 

A City On the Sea

Dry Tortugas - a real city on an ever-changing sea that was a thriving hub of humanity during the Civil War. As many as 2000 people made a home inside the walls of Fort Jefferson - one of the nation's largest masonry forts - built atop a fragile atoll 70 miles west of Key West, Fla. It is now one of the most unusual National Parks you may never  have heard of and its location one of the strangest, the setting being amidst the third largest reef system in the world. . Named after endangered green sea turtles - loggerheads, to be precise - native to the area, the park is actually a cluster of seven islands made up of coral reefs and sand that once stood as a bulwark protecting valuable shipping lanes between the Gulf of Mexico and the US mainland.  At one time 420 canons were in place around the sides.
Begin in 1846, the fort was made of 15 million bricks in an area first discovered and named by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513. It only became a US protected park in 1992. Visitors today are strictly regulated and, while swimming, birding and snorkeling are permitted, numbers coming ashore at any one time are small. There is a camp site and a beach landing spot for seaplanes. A catamaran leaves early morning from a Key West marina with as many as 200 customers paying $150 minimum for a return trip. Breakfast and lunch are included, with drinks - even alcoholic concoctions sold late day for $5 each on the mid-afternoon run. That is a total of nearly five hours aboard for the experience of having a guided tour of the historic fort as well as time  to splash and explore around the rough white sandy beaches. Showers and changing rooms are available as well as a hose to wash away the offending sand.
The former city's population consisted of military personnel and their families living in close quarters with slaves and a group of prisoners that included the doctor who had treated President Lincoln's assassin - John Wilkes Booth. The doctor was believed to have been among the sympathizers with knowledge ahead about the event. What's left today is whatever the imagination can supply from empty caverns in the fort (including a chapel) and outlines in the center yard of former living quarters. Uniformed park rangers are on duty ten days at a stretch before promised relief time in Key West - a thriving village-cum-city known for easy living where there is a theater, a movie house and two fine bookstores scattered among a multitude of restaurants and bars.
The  park also is home to a ten-year-old salt water crocodile not thought to be aggressive. But beware: this is a wildlife refuge. Native creatures have priority! No wonder Ernest Hemingway wrote about the place.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Astride the Big One

How much does an Asian elephant weigh? The question isn't irrelevant, not when you are riding bareback stop one of them as I recently did some 10 miles outside of Luang Prabang in Laos. Sitting there, a dozen or more feet in the air, plenty more goes through your mind as well. Such as: what happens if I fall?  Will this giant mammal - maybe the second largest on earth after the African elephant - even know I am no longer astride her? After all, it's my puny 100-plus pounds up against her many tons. And the seat, such as it was, is the large bumpy exterior of her very grand head.
Why should she care what happens to me?
My legs were trembling, my throat was dry. The experience was unsettling - the surreal somewhat unnatural quality of it all . I was engaged in pure touristic thrill mongering, of course, though our guide (not the mahout fellow who was actually in charge of my ride) explained nicely that the 17-year-old was merely doing her job. Previously she had been a member of a chain gang of sorts, forced to carry logs out of the forest for a commercial company that had no special regard for her welfare. The non-profit Elephant Village where we were visiting is a rescue operation helping the aged and injured beasts live out their years under better conditions. In return, the 14 elephants in their care take gawkers like me for brief excursions around the settlement - earning their keep so to speak - before being put out to graze. Did I hear it correctly? Each one needs 250 kilos of vegetation  daily?
In exchange, each one receives premier care under the protection of a vet and handlers dedicated to their care.
I had been visiting the toilet for morning ablutions when I was called = come quick = to the staging platform. Others in the group had already taken up their positions with  a mahout riding astride each one. I saw a line of incredibly large animals moving slowly off in a line with my pygmy-sized friends sitting nervously aboard .
We had been told that we would be given an education in elephant lore and learn about handling them, but there was no time for instructions. "Climb up," I was told. I scrambled up the ladder to the platform where the i patient animal waited. "Put your right leg over her neck. Lean forward and put your hands on her head."
I didn't know what to expect. I'd never had the privilege of touching an elephant's head before. I knew virtually nothing about the beasts except their reputation for being famously intelligent and loyal. It was difficult to imagine how my slight frame would communicate anything at all to the three - maybe four - ton creature. My hands touched two hairy humps with a slight indentation between. My feet swung free unless I chose to cling to the side of her body behind those flapping ears. Head and body swayed. I moved in rhythm with them as best I could. I had no idea what was going to happen next. There were no overt commands that I could tell. The mahout did all the 'talking' in ways I found difficult to understand.
I did learn how the trim Laotion guide managed to get up and down so quickly: he tapped her front leg which she then lowered so he could step on the knee, grab one of the great big ears and pull himself up and over. At one point - after we had walked slowly down a steep incline to the river and out into the water - he jumped off (or so it seemed), directing me in gestures to give him my iPhone so he could take a photo of me sitting singularly high and mighty.  Not a bad picture to send home, as the mahout knew well.
We crossed the river for several hundred yards  and climbed up a bank. I was tense, leaning forward, heart in my throat, nervous that I might somehow be conveying a wrong signal.  I  felt the texture of her head, then her ears, both rough to the touch. Our movements were not always aligned but it didn't seem to matter. I couldn't help but think that at any moment she could decide - a joke perhaps - to lower that large gray-brown head and send me packing. Or toss me in the air. I was helpless and knew it, , my inner thighs aching as I sought to stay balanced. Tourist materials usually show people enjoying such a ride while seated in a howdah - the wooden seat holding two people that is strapped beneath the elephant's belly. But not here - the howdahs still are commonplace but the Village forbids them since they are thought to  rub and irritate the animals' skin.
The  trip didn't last long -  20 or 30 minutes at most. I  lost track of time. All I could think was how wondrous was the experience, happening during the month when Ringling Bros. would announced a decision to stop traditional tours. (Already, animal rights protestors had won the battle to keep elephants from performing.) We dismounted  and were asked to buy some bananas and  to feed the elephants = their tip perhaps. It was a relatively short journey but I had already bonded with my lady. She wouldn't mind your caressing her forehead, I was told. I looked into her left eye - a large unblinking saucer outlined with large lashes. She released her trunk - that magnificent feeding machine - and took in all I had to offer.
We would later visit the quarters where records are kept on each animal, having mostly to do with their medical care.  Upstairs was a pictorial display upstairs about the elephants' long and troubled history as indentured servants. But then didn't  elephants also help build Cambodia's Angkor Wat, too?
Our  trip had taken us  from the frenzied and fascinating street life of Hanoi to the relatively serene Buddhist haven of Luang Prabang and  on to Cambodia's tourist-centered Siem Reap  -   key cities in each of three main South Asian countries. Each place  a distinct culture in transition. We had exemplary custom- planned exposure to three different worlds gravely impacted by United States past foreign policies. At no time did we feel hostility though of course negatives are likely to be hidden behind the superlative promise of tourism.
 If such a crash course  by necessity allows only superficial impressions, it also builds strong memories. And even  casual contacts can be lasting .