Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lake Baikal: Siberia’s Blue Eye

It’s easy to understand why the Russians called Lake Baikal “The Holy Sea” when they first encountered it - it’s a motherlode teeming with life, over eighty percent of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It’s also the world’s oldest and deepest lake at over 1600 meters. From the rare golomyanka - which gives birth to its young fully formed - to freshwater seals, Baikal is an oasis in the middle of Siberia, a “blue eye” radiating light from the surrounding hardscrabble tundra.

We arrived in the village of Listvyanka by bus from Irkutsk taking just over an hour. Our hotel - U Ozera (near the lake) - is right across from Baikal. We had a perfect view from our cabin, decorated much like a mountain chalet. I had a big dinner - the local omur - a salty white fish, BBQed and stuffed with dill and pine nuts, with potatoes and a salad.

After dinner, I watched the moon rise and the sun set over the lake and met a couple of guys from Uzbekistan who were working at the hotel, one as a cook the other as a driver. The cook was making about US $600 a month, the driver $300. They were both muslims. Lora or Lorissa, the receptionist soon joined us. She is a Buryat and a graduate in English from the university in Irkutsk. She looked Chinese and in fact the Buryats - the local indigenous people - are descended from the Mongolians. They actually have a “republic” based in the city of Ulan Ude.

Next morning I woke and ran across the street for a dip into Baikal - cold! My legs were stinging from the chill so I jumped out as quickly as I’d hopped in. Bliss!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Far East: Vladivostok

We arrived into Vladivostok by plane via Beijing and met a security guard who helped us get a bus into the city (about 90 minutes). He saw my guitar and when I told him I was from Canada he said he loved Nickelback....I smiled and said “right on.” At least it wasn't Celine Dion?

We checked into the Primorye Hotel around 5pm and then checked out the city. We were staying around the corner and up the hill from the train station. It's a nice area and there's always a scattering of people selling fresh fruit and veggies - the smell of dill filled the air as we passed cups overflowing with blueberries, grapes and gooseberries.

We walked up the hill, passing Yul Brynner's childhood home, towards Vladivostok's "Arbat", a pedestrian street called Fukina. Lots of people were strolling around amid shops and restaurants. We followed it to the waterfront where there was a carnival with lots of cotton candy, popcorn and game stalls. The weather was warm, but windy and cloudy. It made for a beautiful scene with the gun metal grey sky bearing down on the harbour.

This being Russia there's no shortage of Lenin statues and squares, Karl Marx boulevards and proletarian reminders of glory days gone by...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rapa Nui: An Enchanted Solitude

I've got a new article in the Georgia Straight this week just as a total eclipse of the sun passed over Easter Island (Rapa Nui) on Sunday.
“That’s the travelling moai—he’s been to the Osaka expo,” says our guide, Tuhi. She’s referring to Marotiri, the statue that greets visitors at Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island. Fifteen of his brethren stand apart from him, silhouetted against the Pacific Ocean on the edge of this island, which is also known by its indigenous name, Rapa Nui.

Thought to have been carved between the 10th and 16th centuries, the statues lay toppled over until 1992, when a Japanese company offered support for their restoration. Now all 16 have been successfully raised, some weighing over 40 tonnes and many standing nine metres high. As Tuhi, my wife Yuko, and I walk across the tawny field, the wind whips off the ocean and clouds obscure the sun. It feels like the elements are conspiring, like some magic is afoot.

Yuko and I arrived on the island the day before after a five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile. Located in the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific, Easter Island is one of those rare destinations that feels like an enchanted wilderness, tattooed with mysterious petroglyphs and stuffed with angular stone heads sprouting mid-thought from the ground. The next habitable island, Pitcairn, is 2,200 kilometres away. At 165 square kilometres, Easter Island is roughly the size of Salt Spring Island. At any one time, its population is approximately 5,000—half residents of Polynesian descent and half “continental” residents and tourists. There are plenty of hotels and B&Bs, ranging from luxurious suites to campsites, most in the vicinity of the village of Hanga Roa.

The current theory is that the island’s statues were carved as guardians or protectors, but were also considered to be sacred, totemic figures. Most were carved in a horizontal position out of tuff rock before being raised and “walked” from Rano Raraku to their platforms, which are located in various places around the island. There are about 900 statues in total on the island—not all standing, and in a variety of conditions.

Cut off from the outside world for centuries, Easter Island saw its first European explorers when Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen arrived with his expedition on Easter Sunday in 1722, giving rise to the name. Rather than a tropical paradise, he found a civilization on the brink. The splendid isolation that gave rise to one of the world’s most mysterious cultures has also been blamed for its destruction. (In his 2005 bestseller Collapse, Jared Diamond discussed the environmental devastation and internecine conflict the islanders wrought upon themselves.)

Outside influence proved to be just as destructive. The population was almost completely wiped out after European contact led to smallpox, syphilis, and forced relocations to Peru’s Chincha Islands and later Tahiti.

In recent years, there has been an influx of tourists. Last year alone, 70,000 tourists visited the island, a fivefold increase from just a decade ago. It has become so bad that last summer a group of locals shut down the island’s only airport for three days in protest. Much of the inhabitants’ discontent has to do with what they feel is a lack of control over their own destiny and the “Chileanization” of Easter Island.

Calls for a system to control tourist numbers are gaining traction. In 2009, UNESCO and then Chilean president Michelle Bachelet announced the creation of a sustainable-tourism program funded by the Japanese government to develop tourism strategies with respect to Rapa Nui National Park. But Tuhi worries that irreparable damage has already been done to the island’s precious cultural heritage. While we were there, we saw some careless tourists step on unfinished moai around the crater.

Later that day, we attend a dance performance in town by the local group, Matato’a. As we settle into our seats, a group of young men and women bound onto the stage and begin an energy-packed celebration of Rapa Nui culture. Adorned with native costumes, it soon becomes obvious that this isn’t your typical tourist pap. Sweat pours off their bodies as they put on a visceral and at times sensual performance.

When it ends, we emerge into the cool evening under a shimmering sky and head to our hotel. Walking through Hanga Roa we pass by the village’s lone moai, which the night has transformed into a darkened silhouette. Even after days of exploring the island, its stony silence still beckons us with its mystery.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Ariel Pink: Sickly Euphoric

Once in while a new album drops that perfectly captures the zeitgeist, coalesces disparate patterns into a harmonious form and gives thought to expression. That just happened - it's Before Today by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti.

Ariel Pink (ne Rosenberg) has been around for a while, at least since 1996 before being "discovered" by Animal Collective in 2003. I just picked up his latest and it's like a helium high - light, airy and sickly euphoric. There are splashes of hot neon, a gooey gloss of disco and a slacker's love of the louche. The New York Times has made reference to Pink's "half-remembered melodies" and they're scattered throughout the album like glowing vapor trails pointing towards some larger community of song. I hear traces of Prince, Stevie Wonder and yacht rock faves like Quarterflash, Hall & Oates and Toto.

But it's not all breezy, feathery tones; there's something eating away beneath the sheen adding a bit of grit and a little disease to the celebrations. It's not quite decadence, but something more damaged, sort of like a mangy, neglected dog shivering in the a space suit. It's that tension that distinguishes the music, setting it apart from Daft Punk or M83 raves. As Pink sings in "Round And Round" - "we die and we live and we're born again." He dazzles by giving new life to old forms...

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Sacred & Profane: Siena's Palio

Molti corrono al palio, ma uno ‘e quello che’l prende.” (“Many race for the palio, but just one takes it.”) — Dante Alighieri
Few events combine the sacred and profane to such dramatic effect as the Corsa di Palio festival in Siena, Italy. In a horserace dedicated to the Virgin Mary, jockeys (fantini) riding bareback use a whip (nerbo) made from a calf's phallus to whack their opponents into submission and their horses to victory. The Italians of Tuscany call a nail without a head a “chiodo Sanese”, or “Siense nail” for a reason: people from Siena have a reputation for losing their heads.

The Palio resembles a medieval heraldic ritual encased in amber that melts into life to parade through Siena's winding, cobblestone streets twice every summer on July 2 and August 16. Dating from at least the 13th century, thousands gather from all over the world to watch ten horses race for ninety seconds around the city's main square.

Siena is located about 2 hours from Florence in the center of Tuscany. The city is carved into 17 competing neighbourhoods known as contrade, forming the basis for the rivalries that infuse the entire event. Every contrada has its own colors and totemic symbol, usually an animal like a dolphin (Onda) or goose (Oca). Loyalties run very deep and a person must be born or marry into a contrada to claim membership -- a change of address just won't do it.

A few years ago, I hopped on a train bound for the festival and was soon cutting through summer fields of droopy sunflowers and beautiful Tuscan vistas on my way to Siena, a town like Rome, built on seven hills. As I entered the city gates, it felt as though some magical threshold between the pastoral countryside and an enchanted medieval pageant had been crossed -- colorful flags rippled in the gentle breeze and banners fluttered from open windows.

The races take place in Siena's Piazza Del Campo, a large shell-shaped square with the 14th century Mangia Tower soaring 300 feet above. As I passed through one of the arches that open onto the square, the clear blue sky unfurled before me. The Sienese have a saying, "la terra in Piazza," which literally means "dirt in the main square" and refers to a party or celebration. As I walked over the spongy, amber soil the air was thick with chatter and the pungent spices wafting out from the surrounding cafes. Anticipation for the next day's final was tangible.

Apart from the official races, five trials also take place in the days before the finals. These dress rehearsals give the jockeys a chance to practice with their horses and negotiate deals with the other riders. In a practice dating back centuries, the jockeys are drafted from outside of Siena to prevent messy tangles of crossed loyalties from influencing their resolve to win. As an Italian proverb goes "money is the shit of the devil" and as in life, it remains a very real distraction in the festival. Some jockeys have been known to throw a race for a lucrative sum. As a result, each contrada fiercely guards their jockey so they are said to not even be able to even dream in peace. The leaders of each contrade keep a sharp eye out, even using binoculars to try and lip-read what may be transpiring during the trials.

On the day of the race I woke up early and began looking for a contrada to call my own. The streets were quiet, but I soon noticed a group of people spilling out into the street from a small pub. A couple of young guys invited me to sit down and we introduced ourselves with giddy attempts at English and Italian. Everyone seemed to be wearing some sign of the Onda (wave) contrada. Men brandished tattoos of their totemic dolphin and women wore scarves or skirts regaled in blue and white. A large bottle of Moretti beer was set up for me and someone wrapped an Onda scarf around my neck -- I had found my contrada.

I soon learned that the Onda had not won a Palio since 1995 and everyone was thirsty for a win. Soon we began to make our way towards the neighborhood chapel where ritual blessings of the horse and jockey were soon to be made. One of the men ushered me through the crowd and up a small flight of stairs past a dolphin fountain. He spoke of good luck signs, one being if the horse shat inside the church. "Look for it," he said, "it's a good omen."

Amid hushes and sighs a horse draped in an ornately designed blue and white cloth was led to the center of the chapel. The jockey stood to its left decked out in his racing uniform. The priest gave a short blessing and sprinkled both with holy water as the crowd erupted into a cheer. I took a whiff and looked to the floor, but couldn't see any sign of the good luck brown.

We spilled out into the street and returned to the pub for more drinks and songs. At about 4 it was time for the beginning ceremony. I said my "ciaos" and made my way through the few blocks to the Campo. I had paid US$250 for my seat, which wasn't too bad considering some go for as high as $800. There are free seats called the "dogs' area" located in the center of the Campo, but it provides very limited views.

Once seated, I had a perfect view of the parade where the official delegations from each contrada entered to shouts and cheers. Everyone seemed to have lost their heads, and the crowd was a sea of frenzied bliss. At twilight, the horses and the jockeys gathered before the rope stretching across the track. They lined up again and again for what seemed like an eternity of false starts. It felt like we were playing a part in a Pirandello play -- a crowd in search of a spectacle. My fellow audience members assured me that this was absolutely normal and sometimes it was known to go on for longer.

Then suddenly the rope dropped and the group lunged forward. They crowd lurched and we all shouted together; the Palio had begun! As the horses shot around the dangerous St. Martino and Casato curves one of the jockeys almost dropped from his horse; another could be seen throttling an opponent with his whip. After 90 seconds it was all over and the crowd flooded onto the track. The Palio had a winner -- the blue and yellow of the Tartuca (tortoise) contrada.

After sunset, the Tartuca team marched around the Campo with their prize banner. Some sucked on pacifiers to symbolize rebirth for winning. For this night everyone became a "Tartuchini," or member of the Tortoise contrada, just to partake in the rare feeling of a victorious Palio celebration.

That night no one got much sleep and the festivities continued until dawn. The next morning, I walked through the Campo one last time. The dirt was being removed with shovels, trucks and high-powered water jets and all the magic of the previous days seemed to be draining away. I climbed up the Mangia Tower and took in the sun drenched view of Siena and the surrounding countryside. As long as the Sienese continue to throw the terra in the piazza, there will always be more celebrations to come.