Wednesday, October 1, 2014

LA to the scented forest

"The olfactory portrait I draw up in the laboratory later won't be a reproduction of what I smell here, but the image of that smell committed to memory."  Jean-Claude Ellena, Portrait of a Nose.

It's no coincidence I wear a perfume that is its own travel journal. Hermes Un Jardin en Méditerranée evokes shade, water and light, a fig tree in the morning washed with gentle waves of Mediterranean citrus and sea salt. It is a creation of Ellena, who speaks of memory above, and it is while reading his diary, I think back to the fragrances that mark my own travel journals. Big Sur in particular, and the smell of woods, coast and shrub, bathed in sunlight and washed with rain. 

I needed to travel to San Francisco for several meetings. Or retrospectively as I found out, I needed to visit Big Sur, and setting up these meetings gave me the right to travel.  I've always suspected that I'd be happier in north Cali; it's big, beautiful city has a similar energy to Wellington, New Zealand's harbour-side captial.

Much needed rains had arrived, and I was checking road conditions frequently to reassure myself Highway 1 was still open.  The stretch through Big Sur is notorious for slips.  Luck was with me, the way was clear. Picking up the Pacific Coast Highway, as the 1 is known through Malibu, I coasted upstream listening to a reading of Donna Tartt's excellent 'The Goldfinch'.  The pacific blue stretched on, until I turned inland and took the fast road to San Luis Obispo.

As the road started to climb, the Santa Lucia Mountains rising sharply to my right, I pulled off across the two lane highway and onto one of the many coastal-view rest stops.  Inhaling deeply, I breathed in the lightly salted air, laced delicately with an aromatic herbal edge.  I looked around to find the origin of the scent and I found it  - bushes of Californian sagebrush, a kind of shabby lavender-like leaf, road dusty and largely unremarkable.  Crushing a few of the delicate, spine-shaped leaves in my fingers confirmed the origin of the smell. It was wonderful. I picked a few twigs and placed them on my sunlit dashboard, hoping to bring the outside, in.

As I started the ascent towards Big Sur, the sunshine that had followed me from Los Angeles flickered and was gone, replaced by a violet dusk. A big rolling fog moved in, bringing with it light rain showers that speckled my windscreen. After 7 hours on the road, night was certainly falling, and fast. A familiar, but unexpected sound surprised me from outside the car and I rolled the passenger side window down to decipher it. To my total delight, choruses of frogs creaked at me from the deeper bends, happy in fresh roadside puddles.  What a welcome, I thought. Bliss.

Night had well and truly fallen, when I left the coast road and entered the Big Sur stretch of the 1.  I was driving blind, my headlights picking out forest shapes in the gloom. The scent of wet pine and redwood greeted me in the night air. I almost missed my bed for the night, the map on my iphone had given up hours ago when the internet disappeared.  I pulled off the road, and up to a wood cabin, glowing with light from the inside. Deetjens was the place I had picked to lay my head down.  The cheapest and smallest room was mine, just $90 plus tax for a sweet little nest.  Single bed, lush linens, with 1930s oil colours on the walls and an ancient sink in the corner.  The floor boards creaked and groaned.  5 rooms were my neighbours, sharing two elderly bathrooms, with no locks on doors, one big happy communal cabin of wonder.

After stowing my gear, I asked my hosts to point me in the direction of a local drinking establishment and headed back out into the wet night.   I continued up the 1, slowly, slowly on the bendy road, my vision impaired by rain, night, and fog.  Thank goodness I was driving slowly as young deer appeared in my headlights, standing on the road unfussed by my motor.  It was wild.

I found my watering hole.  Perching at the bar of Fernwood, a camping ground, bar and general store on the banks of the Big Sur river, nestled in amongst the redwoods, I sipped a local ale and kept an eye on the Olympics playing on the tv in the corner.  I soon found myself in conversation with the bartender, and a slightly grizzly export from Brazil, now a local.

The ale stood me in good stead, and sleep came easily that night.   In the morning I had an opportunity to see where I had stayed the night. I went for a prowl around the property.   Camellia and blossom trees nestling the cabins were taken over by redwoods.  I climbed a misty path that wound up through the trees and came out above them.  The sea was only just visible through the sea fog that was clinging to the coast.  But boy, did it smell wonderful.  All that damp had unlocked the piney resiny perfumed glory of the ancient trees.


Country life

I’ve woken up in an English village. Just a small one, and one that feels like it’s about to get swallowed by the ever-growing periphery of money-ed St Albans, but a village just the same. It has quaint farm buildings, a local shop selling pastries, a post man, boys on bikes, dog walkers, a kitchen garden, a crumbling pub.  Just through the church yard, two doors down, there’s a path that leads to ever-changing fields and hedgerows.  I took a walk through these yesterday.  I always get a faint sense of unease when walking alone - too many British crime dramas - but after I push my imagination away I settle in to listening and noticing what’s around me.   Squirrels chasing each other overhead and through the underbrush, a falcon circling high overhead, the remains of a bird on the leaf littered floor. A fox, I think. I see badger trails lope under the hedge line following the woods.  There’s a bustle of activity in the air, just sitting atop the stillness.

 When I break free of the woods, I hit a broad, sweeping tilled field up to my right.  This was covered with a yellow expanse of rapeseed during high summer, but now is a gentle brown, balayaged by the early autumn sunshine.  Farmer’s homes and a few odd trees dot the horizon, and a neighbour’s plane circles overhead.  I only see one or two dog walkers, and I always give them a hearty, neighbourly hello - just so if the police need to retrace my path, I’ll have witnesses. 

Dinner last night was in the local pub... badly over fried cod and some chips. Proper English fare. You don't see this in the gastro-pubs of London anymore. The place was heaving. Quiz night brought out every pensioner in the village, and boy was the quiz hard.  I left after the first round - bed was calling, and the house would still be warm from the fire I had lit earlier. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Anne Frank: "I want to live beyond my death". Oh, you do...

Still life with the remains of a tuna sandwich. Eaten at the Museum of Tolerance while contemplating the conversations I'd just had with two #Holocaust survivors. 

One spent her time in a concentration camp on her own at age 7, perilously dependent on (quite literally) the warmth and generosity of older women who saw a child in desperate need. She recounted a story of how her mother, having hid her toddler daughter in a basket from the police, came back to find her.  On return, the wee girl asked her mother where she herself had hidden, and her mother replied; "I hid in the elevator shaft."  "But weren't you scared?" asked the little girl.  "No..." her mother replied, "...because I knew I had to come back to get you." 

Not long after, her mother was shot on the road as they fled.  The little girl spent two years in a concentration camp on her own.  Happily, after liberation, she was able to be reunited with her father.  And to this day, the first thing she sees when she wakes in the morning is a portrait of her mother.

The other survivor I spoke with, a Czechoslovakian Jew, spent an hour twisting and winding his way through a circular personal narrative that quite understandably avoided mentions of his time spent surviving key years. It wasn't until the end of our conversation that his story, and the gasping extent of his bravery revealed itself, and only because I pointedly asked him to clarify something... He explained that he had been able to obtain fake papers, and leveraging his grey-eyed aryan features, had joined the German army. He then used this position of power to rescue Jews in custody while facilitating the Underground resistance in Hungary. 

And if those two conversations were not heart-wrenching enough, I also took the time to visit the extraordinary Anne Frank exhibition that's been showing since late last year.  That child, that courageous, hopeful child, has so much to teach us now. I must say, kudos to the experience itself, it was both sensory and moving - it really has done its precious subject proud. 

Particularly poignant - a portrait of Anne now gazes out through a window towards the Hollywood hills, a place she always dreamt of visiting while locked away in her secret annex - that place with views of a chestnut tree that told the time by the seasons and where the chimes of a local clock tower reassured her of her ongoing existence.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Vintage pick - Persia and it's People: Women travelers in the Middle East

This post is a repost of a much older piece of mine, from a time when I used to work part time in the glorious Moufflon bookshop in Nicosia, Cyprus. I used to treasure the beautiful books there, and always went looking for the stories that went beyond the book's pages. 

Opening up a new shipment of books from England today, I was treated to the sight of some quite rare and beautifully-bound books filled with stories from the Middle East written around the turn of the last century. Startlingly, several of these early colonial travelogues were written by women, who at the time were accompanying husbands and brothers sent to further British colonial interests in the region as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling.

Travel literature flourished in the Victorian period due to the interest generated by the far flung places incorporated into an expanding Empire. While men wrote the majority of these books, there are a few female names that shine through. These books are important as women travelers were sometimes able to access locales and environments not open to men, as well as attempting to address themes not normally awarded value within the patriarchal social understanding of the world at that time. Although in saying this, these women were still seeing through the same lenses, as yet critically unaltered by the feminisim and reflexivity to come later in the century.

Nonetheless the women I’m referring to – Freya Stark, Lady Anne Blunt and Ella C. Sykes – were pioneers in their own right. Learning Arabic, exhaustively traveling and documenting the Middle East with their male compatriots, these women provide an alternative nuanced voice and vision of their time.We have a 1st edition, author-signed copy of Ella Sykes’ Persia and it’s People (1910) for sale. It’s a beautiful tome, hard back, blue cloth cover, 356 pages, illustrated with black and white photographs taken from Sykes’ brother’s collection. In the book, Sykes describes life in Persia based on her observations from two visits that extended over a period of three years under sections that include religion, government, travel, country life, Persian men, women and the city of Mashrad.

Interested in more information? Contact Ruth at Moufflon – - the book may still be there....

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The sweet high desert

This post continues on from this one.

By now I'm driving through the last opalescent light of the day. The road out of Palm Springs takes me through a valley lined with row upon row of ghostly wind turbines and up and over the Morongo Canyon.  I'm chasing the light, and as the sun goes down behind the San Jacinto mountains, it's bathing the canyon before me in ethereal broad strokes.  I'm busting through, pushing on through, while the outside desert air is still and clear and quiet.

Night is falling.  I'm driving through Yucca valley now, along the highway.  The land is increasingly dotted with desert natives, Mohave Yucca, Desert Willow and Californian Juniper, but it's the Joshua trees with their startling, Suess-like appearance, that demand your attention.

I pull off into a suburban side road to pursue a photo of a pair of young Mormons on their bikes on the road to nowhere. I'm entranced with a glimpse into other peoples lives, their dusty gardens lined with sentinel Cypress trees.  I like this place. It's small town America, big car, high desert, seemingly quiet on the surface...

Joshua Trees dot the spacious, dusty suburbs of Yucca Valley.

I make it up the last mile of windy road to reach the gateway to the Joshua Tree National Park.  Only one corner of the sky is pink. I've made it to a late blooming sunset in Joshua Tree. The sky has one more gift for me tonight. That final pink corner lights right up across that big old desert sky, turning it into a spectacular hued playground before finally falling dark.   The desert is as absolutely beautiful as I remember.  It's quiet - oh so quiet - but so alive!

This is the land of jack rabbits and coyotes and I strain to see or hear them, in the end my perseverance is rewarded with a sighting of a little antelope squirrel, running full tilt across the black top, picked out by my headlights as I swoop out of the park.

I need to find accommodation for the night and decide to head on to 29 Palms, to the 29 Palms Inn, based at a different Park entrance, one that I'll enter the park through on the morrow.  Arriving in pitch black, I have no idea where I am or what to expect.  My room for the night turns out to be an adobe cabin looking out to the high desert and a night sky full of glorious stars.   This wee gem of a motel just happens to have a bar, restaurant and band playing beside a fire pit. I sink a few and dive into a lovely evening getting to know the mostly local cliental that are either working behind or hanging out at the bar.  The cast of characters includes a helicopter pilot marine, a woman whose husband is in Afghanistan and a young gay woman.  I couldn't help but ask about what it's like to be gay in a small desert town. Fine, she replied, no problems.  This is a surprise and it makes me happy.

I fall into bed smelling like wood smoke.

The last wash of lights transforms the desert sky over the national park (see below). 

I force myself to wake at 6am to admire the dawn sky and then drift back off to sleep. Later, I grab a hurried breakfast, and take a walk around the Inn. Little did I know that I had stayed at an actual desert Oasis - the Mara Oasis.  Mara, a Serrano word,  means "the place of little springs and much grass." It was the Serrano that planted the 29 palms that surround the spring that gives the town its name.  One for each new baby boy born.  These palms provided the Serrano with food, clothing, cooking implements, and housing.  It's so pretty.

Mara Oasis, 29 Palms Inn.

Morning light through my shower curtain.

I set off for the park. $15 for 7 day access sounds like a steal for me. I'm pushed for time, so it's a whirlwind drive through, with stops to pause and breathe.  The desert is so so quiet, still, seemingly deserted. But I know it isn't.  Three distinct ecosystems meet here. The Colorado desert in the south eastern part, the Mohave to the north and the Joshua Tree to the west make for a rich diversity of plant and animal life including 6 species of rattle snake!  If you look long enough you start to see movement.  A bounding black-tailed jack rabbit.  A road runner. Under a rock is a busy ants nest. Golden eagles hunt regularly in the skies above. 

And then there's the geology.  Sweeping rock formations called Monozogranite populate the park.  I drove on through - luckily for me and my old man's bladder there's a variety of restrooms and camp grounds available for visitors.  I see a truck driver asleep at the wheel of his parked up rig.  I brazenly get close to have a look at his slumber. I move on. 
Truck stop, Joshua Tree National Park. 

Back on the freeways, leaving the desert behind me, I reenter the Los Angeles fray. 


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mastering freeways and desert missions

I'm newly arrived in LA and I have slight culture shock.  It's giddily warm, lush with plants and totally alien.  Grey was the signature colour of my 5 years in London, and now I have the wide pale expanse of Santa Monica beach and the transformative blues of both ocean and sky at my doorstep.  

First things first. One must drive and be brave and ruthless on LA's freeways. No room for tentativeness here. It's the wrong side of the road and I haven't been a frequent driver in England due to (outstanding) public transport and the ease of communal cars (thanks Zip Car!). Do note, that was an rather undisguised wee gripe... more of those to come, because as we know, America is no longer the land of milk and honey.  

I pick up my rental car from Hertz.  I have her for a month. She's a relatively unresponsive 2014 Chevvy, but she'll more than do. I'm very happy to be nestled in behind the wheel again.  Slowly, slowly, I gain confidence on the streets of Santa Monica.  I'm now confident at turning into lanes, automatically watchful for pedestrians and have the hang of first come, first served intersections. 

The freeway beckons.  Now that's a big old step. Six lanes across at 70 miles an hour? I wake one morning with an idea. The only thing that's going to get me on those freeways is a mission. And I know what that is. 

The desert.  Palm Springs.  Joshua Tree. Only 2-3 hours from Santa Monica. 

The trip's a blast. I feel at ease on the freeways.  Although, LA drivers - you have got to check your blind spot!  I stop at the Morongo Indian Reservation and pay a visit to their quiet little museum. Dusty shelves reveal elder stories and exquisite basket craft.  I bump into one of the community's several pastors and she takes me for a walk around the community's teaching garden. I crush black and white sage between my fingers and inhale the scent. All of the plants here have their uses.  For a sample, have a read of this selection of regional ethnobotanical plants

She gives me an insight into how the reservation-built casino has changed the lives of the 1000 or so tribal members.   A huge influx of cash flow into the community means different choices for young people on the reservation.  Very few apparently take advantage of available collage scholarships.  Mulling on this, I thank her for her time and head back out to the freeway, saying 'bye to the elderly cop who allowed me entry. 

I drive on to Palm Springs, but don't stop there.  After a tasty, health conscious lunch at Palm Greens Cafe, I take stock of my remaining daylight hours. I have just enough left to reach Joshua Tree National Park. I want to be in the high desert as night falls. 

Continued here