Saturday, March 3, 2018

Paradise Found, Or Not

The sun was setting behind billowing clouds. The mountains separating Haiti from the Dominican Republic outlined the horizon. Children played on the sandy beach and a young couple splashed in the crashing surf. My waiter brought a locally-made Presidente beer and poured it neatly into a glass. He looked out to the azure sea and smiled when he looked back at me.

“Me gustaria la Cajon Sea Bass, por favor?” I asked, especially proud of the only Spanish phrase I’d mastered. “Si,” he replied, “Would you like French fries, mash potatoes or rice?” I smiled in my head at the familiar punch line. This is a classic tourist joke, a cliché for most world travelers. Speak English and the native will banter you with his language. Speak his language and he will be proud to practice his English with you.

Two days earlier I had arrived in Santo Domingo from a rainy, 48-degree New York. It was the wanting Got-To-Go-To-Hawaii miracle, from freezing hell to nurturing paradise. What’s this? What’s this? The air feels much too warm and the people warm and friendly!

Tourists come here to relax and go slow so the authorities help by starting you out with a two-hour turtle crawl through the immigration line.

My travel consultant recommended I pop for the extra 1000 pesos ($20) and have a taxi from the hotel meet me at the airport. The pleasure and relief I felt seeing my name neatly printed on a piece of paper held by a smart-looking gentleman was priceless. He didn’t speak English and I needed no Spanish. We both knew where we were going. The boutique hotel was airy with tiled floors and beautiful art on the walls. The assistant manager, Balex, greeted me at the door with good English. As I filled out the registration card another young man appeared and presented me with a cold mason jar filled with juice, ice and a straw. “Please, for you….” In the morning, the manager, Ramón, ran the breakfast service on the patio with four female assistants. Meals were custom made, so yes I ordered a fruit pancake, bacon, poached eggs, and coffee with steamed milk. No problema.

Around here paradise comes encircled with iron fences topped with barbed wire. That’s how you know you’re in paradise. Then again, that’s how you know you’re in a prison. The prison of paradise. For details check the story of the Buddha Siddhartha.

The historical area where I stayed is named the Zona Colonial. It’s the tourist bubble which is most likely why Christopher Columbus stopped here. The shopping promenade reminded me of Tijuana. Lots of street vendors, artists, hustlers, shouting taxi drivers, beggars, families, running children, and buskers. 

The first music I heard was Hotel California. Just a wiry guy strumming a guitar and playing the melody on a harmonica. Simple, beautiful and as haunting as the song’s designed to be. I stopped and listened. The words sung in my head as I observed the scene. Such a lovely place, such a lovely face… You can check out but you can never leave.

I tipped him a US fiver and communicated in sign language that I also played the harmonica. He spoke enthusiastically, “En Español decimos tremolo.”  “Tremolo,” I repeated and smiled in my head. Tremolo is the type of harmonica he was playing. I play a diatonic and Ray Charles plays a chromatic. There’s really no Spanish word for harmonica, you just drop the first letter and add an acute accent, armónica. “Tremolo” I agreed, “si, muy bien!, gracias.” As I walked away he shouted, “Mucho gusto!”

I was feeling the “hangries.” That’s when a traveler becomes angry because he/she/they are very hungry. Choosing a restaurant this time was easy: the place with baseball on the telly! …and I’m guessing, also a bar and servers with a bit of English skills. I wasn’t sure so spoke slowly. “Rum?” “Coca-Cola?” “Uhhh, with a lime?…” The waitress responded unsure, “Cuba Libre?” Haha! Of course! I forgot what world I was in! “Viva la Cuba Libre!” I replied dramatically and she danced back to the bar.

Columbus sail the ocean blue in 1492 and on his return trip in1494 he found the island of Hispaniola and founded the town that became Santo Domingo. His son later became Governor and about 500 years later, the fort, palace, cathedral and circling wall still stand—more or less.

Of course Chris didn’t actually discover the Americas. He was just the first imperialist to start doing business there. Poor guy. Revered and hated just for trying to make a buck.

Yes, he never landed in America, if by America one means the terra-firma of the United States. No doubt once in Cuba drinking a Cuba Libre, Chris saw little appeal with Florida. But on his third of four round trip voyages he “discovered” Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela and lots of natives already living there. In Panama he met a shady native hustler who offered a special taxi ride so Chris could also discover a brand new ocean. Mr. Columbus turned him down, even when offered a lower price. Chris didn’t know he was sick with malaria and suspected it to be just another tourist scam, Discover New World and New Ocean! 2 for 1! Special Price for First-time Visitors!

Columbus unknowingly brought disease, but so did every other foreigner. He really didn’t want to hurt anybody; he was no murderer. Judge Judy would find him guilty only of involuntary indigenous slaughter.

People traveling from China arrived in America across the frozen Bering Strait about 10,000 years ago. From Alaska they journeyed 4,000 years to homestead in Peru and raise llamas. And on most every day of their travels, these nomads “discovered” a new land. No records exist but it’s easy to imagine their daily routine. “Hey lookee over there! No one’s never seen that before. I’m goin’ call that new found land Idaho!” “Eyes here! Eyes here! See that big desert? I just discovered Albuquerque!”

The Vikings camped out in Newfoundland in the AD900s. Not much to plunder or trade so most caught the boat back to Iceland—though there is anecdotal evidence that a few Vikings may have actually stayed, eventually settling in the Caribbean.

The next day I took a taxi to the city bus station and the bus five hours to the north coast beach town of Puerto Plata. I was nervous to be on my own immersed in the public Spanish world but the locals were always pleased and eager to help. All I needed was lots of Por Favor, Gracias and Mucho Gustos.

Taxiing through the city to the bus station was like one of the best Disneyland rides. Every other moment it looked like we were going to crash into something; cars seem to wander with no lane discipline, scooters weaved in and out, hawkers and beggars stood in the street. A cement truck merged blindly from the right and just then a woman on a scooter zoomed between us, steering with one hand and holding her baby with the other. It must be a cosmic traffic dance because everything flowed without collision or injury.

My driver started telling me about the places we were passing but I didn’t understand. “Habla usted Inglés?” “No,” he replied and continued his guided tour in Spanish.  He seemed very happy to be talking so I supported him with a running commentary, “Si.” “Si.” “Si.” “Si.” “Si.” We passed the President’s grand palace—presidente I understood. “White house, white house,” he said and we both laughed. Then he tried some more English, “Where you from?” and got my usual reply, “California, San Francisco.”

He smiled, “California? Hotel California?” Interesting, another native who knows the tune. I replied with a bit of melody, “…many a room at the Hotel California…” He was embolden and sung a verse of the song in broken English with beautiful tone. I joined in. It felt like I was in a screwball comedy.

·       Bus station, loud stinky engines roaring, cackling crowds, foreign signs, long lines at seven windows. My feet wanted to run away so I sat on a metal bench in the shade. A couple deep breaths and I spied the information booth. Scene Two: Man Abnegates Ego and Asks For Help—Don’t Tell Wife. “Habla Inglés?” I asked and got a finger pointing to the booth next door. New agent, same trusted phrase, “Habla Inglés?” She smiled casually, “Where do you want to go?” Thirty minutes later I was on the bus to Puerto Plata and the paradise beaches of the north coast.

The bus’s air conditioning was set to freezing, as I had been warned in my research, so I donned the sweatshirt I had brought along. However, the local man across the aisle from me looked quite content in shorts and a T-shirt.

Two hours into the chilly ride the bus decelerated quickly, then stopped. As the bus slowly crept forward again my woo-woo cosmic dance metaphor was shattered. Police lights, overturned auto, dented truck, downed motorcycle, dead man in shorts on the road, face covered with a torn piece of black plastic. I observed the tragic scene through my portal of safety glass, feeling the comfort of my seat and the hefty power of the purring bus. Soon the dead man’s family will have their hearts broken and children will cry. I shivered in my chilled box, but with no complaints. Sometimes paradise needs to be a bit too cold.

Otherwise, deep breath, the ride was lovely, up over the lush green mountains and then down to the coast. Typical tropical sights except for one: baseball fields! Everywhere. More professional baseball players come from the Dominican Republic than any other non-USA country.

I have played, coached, umpired and watched many baseball games. A baseball field is sacred, filled with hope. Once when I was umpiring a Little League game, an awkward boy stepped up to the plate and swung wildly at the first pitch. “Strike!” I called. He looked back at me, “Don’t worry Blue, I always strike out.” Just eleven years old and convinced he is a failure in life. With the next pitch I saw the batter was closing his eyes when he swung. “Strike two!” He looked at me again, his eyes saying: see, I told you so. With the god-like power that umpires wield, I ordered him directly, “Open your eyes when you swing.” On the next pitch he did and fouled the ball off to the right into the stands. As the pitcher wound up to deliver strike three, I saw my meek batter now standing tall, waving his bat in the air, unblinking. The pitch came and the ball flew away—into center field for a standup double. The boy-failure had transformed into a winner. He danced on second base and gave me a wave. Paradise can be found on a baseball field.

In Puerto Plata a motorcycle taxi driver asked if I needed a lift or if I needed marijuana—both equally dangerous around here. One of the good things about hustlers is that they speak very good English. “No thanks, I have my own marijuana… from California. Where is your weed from?” He got excited and proudly pulled out his cellphone to show me pictures of his product. “Ummm, very nice buds,” I cooed. He asked the standard question, “Where are you from?” “San Francisco.” He then broke into a toothy grin, “Do you know what my American name is?” I tried to remember the names of Giants players from the Dominican Republic, Cueto or Marichal maybe? but I didn’t want to spoil his story, “No, what is it?” He could hardly contain his laughter, “Kruk ’n Kuip!” (the Giants announcers). We laughed together and bonded over baseball. A new friend in the underworld.

The sun set, the Cajon sea bass delicious, the Presidentes inebriating, the air still balmy and the streets now dark with shadowy figures blurring about. A group of motorcycles raced by loudly and my nerves crept in as I tried to find the way back to my hotel. Suddenly it no longer felt like paradise. I had to backtrack twice before discovering my hotel. I’d like to think Christopher had the same problem. A wave of relief washed my worries when I rang the bell at the small gate in the barbed-wire-topped-iron-fence-wall—my portal back to paradise. The skinny dark-skinned guard opened the gate and greeted me with a smile and by name, “Hola, Mister James.” He wore shorts but no shirt, flip-flops and a St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat. In his right hand he wielded a pistol-grip shotgun, his finger near the trigger. “Buenas noches,” I said and he smiled again, “Have a good night.” 

And I did, safe in my paradise prison. No problema.

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Friday, February 2, 2018

In the Winter, When it Drizzles

I love Paris in the winter!

The Louvre Palace is free of tourist crowds but filled with the unofficial bird of the City of Light. When Paris fell under siege during the war of 1870-71 the first public "air mail" postal service was created. Hot air balloons carried the mail out of Paris and carrier pigeons brought the messages back into the walled city.

Winter is a quiet time, a time for reflection.

The Seine, like Ol' Man River, keeps rollin'' along. Always on the move, forever changing, yet always the same river that flows eternal.

A time to look for the future. (If you can find it!)

Then the sun shows itself and it's a time for celebration. La joie de la vie!

During the Paris winter every moment of sunshine is joy — a treasure to be honored with an act of wild abandonment.

– Michael Saint James in Paris, France

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Wandering Limerick: King John's Castle and the Orange Cow

Wandering is the best way to discover the unique beauty and secret wonders of a land. J.R.R. Tolkien said "Not all those who wander are lost." I would suggest that no wanderer is ever lost because wandering is about traveling with no destination in mind. If I have no destination then how could I be lost? 

Wandering around I discovered this life-size statue that honors the Bard of Thomond, Michael Hogan. A bard is a professional storyteller, verse-maker and music composer—the radio and television of medieval Gaelic and British culture. Hogan was a popular political satirist whose writings lampooned prominent figures in the city—Limerick's 19th-century's version of Saturday Night LiveHe and his family also endured the ravages of the Great Irish Famine of 1845–1848. 
But who was the artist that painted the side of the house? Banksy? Carrico? Some secrets history never reveals.

Why is there a life-size orange cow statue in downtown Limerick? 

Some questions have simple answers. It stands outside a popular restaurant and culinary school where teaching beef is their specialty. They do teach classes such as Healthy Eating and Modern Vegetarian but the most popular is their Whole Cow class, bovine cuisine from ear to tail.

"I once met a laddy from Limerick…"
Limericks don't come from Limerick. They first showed up in 12th-century France and 400 years later the great Bard of Avon, ol' Willie Shakespeare, coined a few. The rhythmic language structure became popular in the 19th-century when a bounty of limerick books were published. That's when Mark Twain coined a few.

I bet you can already recite a limerick from memory. We all know a limerick or two. They're part of our deep cultural heritage.

King John's Castle
You know him as Prince John from the stories of Robin Hood. His dad, King Richard the Lionhearted, was off on a crusade so John tried to claim the kingdom as his own but was outwitted by Mr. Hood and then everyone lived happily ever after. Unfortunate for the happy ones, history marched on. Richard finally died and John became a cruel king anyways. King John never visited Limerick but they named this castle after him. Construction began in 1212.

The Shannon River flows from Limerick to the Atlantic, making the city an international trading port with great political influence over the southwest part of the island. Limerick was a lively modern city in Medieval times.

The castle's buildings above ground have been rebuilt to look as they did hundreds of years ago. The stone ruins below are all original.

History reminds us of kings, castles and great battles but I like to image the life of a common person of the time. Perhaps a farmer or merchant who had wandered into the courtyard on market day. Kids running around, ships from distant lands unloading exotic goods, fresh meat cooking over a fire, the smell of bread from an oven, buying a new dress or your first shoes, getting that ax or plow repaired by the smith, listening to the bard tell bawdy tales, swapping news with people from faraway. It was a joyful social environment.

And for those trouble-makers, the law enforcement department:

The Irish flag flies over the ruins today but the castle was never Irish. No castle in Ireland was build or controlled by the Irish—they're all British.

Westerly view of the Shannon River from the castle tower.

St. Mary's Cathedral is nearby, constructed 44 years before John's castle was begun. It's one of the oldest buildings still in daily use today. In Medieval times you might have travelled there by horse and buggy. 

And you can do the same today. Some things never change.

– Michael Saint James wandering in Limerick, Ireland

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Rain today with scattered sunshine

That's the actual weather report from the little man on the tele. It's been raining a lot. No one around here complains, after all, rain is why we have the Emerald Isle. The locals just say, "I's a bit'a ran tada," which means bring a good umbrella or stay inside and nurture pints. "A lovely d'y" is still cloudy but with no drops, drizzle or mist. A good time for a walk on the beach.

When the clouds do part and the sun does shine, it pours. A sunbreak as the folks in Seattle say. "Just grand," is how the Irish express it.

Dingle is the quintessential seaport village, located on the Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland. Home to less than 2,000 souls and visited by over a million tourists each year. Even Christopher Columbus came to visit in 1477 before he sailed Stateside. 

When you order the famed fish'n'chips, this is how it comes: out of the sea and into a delivery truck,

then driven across the street and cooked into the traditional gastronomic delight.

The quiet, colorful streets seem to glow.

All beautiful days come to an end. Rain is on its way. Time to dream of more scattered sunshine!

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Last Rose of Summer

Tralee, Trá lí, is the big city of Co. Kerry but not much of a tourist destination. Popular in Medieval times, now it's fame comes from the Rose of Tralee International Festival which includes a beauty pageant where the rose of the year is crowned. The bronze statue in Rose Park sets the standard.

This year's rose is Jenifer Byrne, a black-haired beauty that topped the red-hair competition. OMG!

While the judging is long complete, I still offer my pick for the best rose of the year:

It was the last blooming rose I could find in the park. 

Which reminded me of Thomas Moore's poem written in 1805 while he was visiting Kilkenny, Ireland:

The Last Rose of Summer

'Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.

I'll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o'er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love's shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Camino Starts Here

There are many caminos to the Cathedral of Santiago in Galicia, Spain. It doesn't matter where you start, only that you go, and follow your heart. For some, one day is enough. Many pilgrims choose to walk the last 100 kilometers (62 miles), known as the French Way, in 5–7 days. Some spend months on the sojourn, starting in places like Budapest, Prague, Amsterdam and Dingle. The Irish pilgrims begin at the most westerly starting point in all Europe, St. James Church on Main St. in Dingle, Co. Kerry.

But they don't walk far. Just down the street to the docks and board a boat sailing to Corona, in Northwest Spain. Then about 15 hours of walking brings them into Santiago de Compostela.

I always thought the Irish pilgrims would have traveled first to Dublin, through St. James Gate, and cross the Irish Sea to Wales then stroll across England and cross the Channel to northern France, trekking all the way south and over the Pyrenees into Spain. Nope. They just took a boat. (no one said you had to walk!)

And it makes sense when looking closer at a map of Europe's west coast. Dingle and Santiago have nearly the same longitude!

The Spanish and Irish have a Celtic–Gaelic connection going back to 300 BCE.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017