31 July 2018

Back To A Familiar Light

Yesterday I pedaled the 140 km to and from my apartment and Greenwich, Connecticut.  Although it's the longest ride I've done in three weeks, it actually seemed almost easy, even when I was climbing the ridge at the state line.  

One reason for that, of course, is that I was riding one of my own bikes:  Dee Lilah, my new Mercian Vincitore Special.  Plus, although the day was warm, it wasn't nearly as hot--or humid--as what I experienced in Cambodia and Laos.  

Even more to the point, the sun was much less intense.  I didn't think of it until I got to Greenwich and sat in the Common, by the Veterans' memorial.  Normally, I wear sunglasses any time I'm outdoors:  something my opthamologist recommends.  But, as I was sitting on that bench in the Common, I took off my shades.  The green of the leaves, and the pinks, purples, yellows, oranges and other hues of the flowers seemed soft, almost cool.

Not only did I have to remind myself to wear my shades, I also had to remember to put on some sunscreen.  Even when it was overcast, I could feel the sun's heat and radiation on my skin.  So I didn't forget to massage myself with protective lotion, or to wear my broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses.  Even so, at the end of the day, I would feel the kind of tiredness I experience after spending time in the sun--say, at the beach or after a bike ride.  Then again, I spent much of my time outdoors, looking at temple sites and landscapes.

I now realize that yesterday and the day before, I was experiencing, more or less, what I experienced when I've gone to France or northern Europe in the summer:  longer hours of softer light.  I believe, though, the difference is even greater between here and Southeast Asia than between here and Europe.

In any event, I enjoyed the ride, as I almost always do.  And it is nice to be my age and not feel tired after a 140 km ride!

30 July 2018

To The Reservoir

You come back from a trip like none you took before.  You wish you were still on it.  So what do you do?

Well, heading back to Cambodia and Laos right now isn't very feasible, at least not at this moment.  I am determined, however, to return.

So what to do in the meantime?  Well, I can take other shorter, less exotic journeys.  That's an especially good strategy when you go to someplace that, though near, you've never visited before.

That's what I did yesterday, with Bill and his girlfriend Cindy.  We went to Croton Gorge Park, about 75 kilometers from my apartment.  

Now, you don't go to a place like that for cultural experiences,  or exotic architecture or natural scenery.  You go for the same reason city folk like us were there on a nearly-perfect summer day:  It's a pleasant way to spend a weekend day.

From the main parking lot, you can ride a dirt-and-gravel trail up the hill to the aqueduct.  A lot of people think you "need" a mountain bike, but I had no trouble with it while pedaling Arielle, my Mercian Audax, shod with 700 X 28C Continental Gatorskin tires.  Bill didn't have any problem, either, on his Trek road bike.  Cindy rode a Fuji Sagres with Pasela 700 X 28 tires; she slowed down in a couple of spots only because of her inexperience in riding in such conditions.

At the aqueduct, there is a beautiful road--which, at times, turns into a wide hard-packed trail--that more or less follows the shoreline of the "lake".  Part of the road has "lake" in its name; indeed, many people refer to the reservoir as a lake because it's easy to forget that it's a manmade body of water.

The "falls" under the aqueduct were designed to stream the water, by gravity, to Manhattan.  Built between 1837 and 1842, it's believed to be the first municipal water system of its type in the United States.  At that time, most New Yorkers got their water from wells and springs, almost all of which have been filled in.  (Chances are, if a New York street name has "Brook", "River" or some other body of water in its name, it probably was just that.)  By the time the Croton system was being built, most of those water sources were already tainted, and people made the water palatable--if not safe--by adding spirits to it. (An early emphasis of the temperance movement was the provision of fresh water to the poor.) Not surprisingly, New York had rates of cholera and other water-borne diseases on par with those of places like Bombay (Mumbai).

Anyway, a short ride along New York State Road 129 took us to something called the North Country Trail, of which we rode part.  We weren't surprised to see many other cyclists, as well as hikers, along the way.  

We've made plans to go back.  I'd really like to ride the area in the fall.  

(Bill took the photos of me and Cindy; I took the others.)

29 July 2018

Can They Carry Stuff On A "Muscle" Bike?

When I was a kid, "muscle bikes" became popular.  They were meant to emulate "muscle cars" like the 1967-74 era Chevy Camaro RS, Ford Mustang Mach 1 and Dodge Challenger SE or racing motorcycles.  Mainly, what bicycles like the ones from the Raleigh Chopper and Schwinn Krate series had in common with those machines were flashy graphics and stick shifters.  

One difference is that the "muscle cars" were designed to appeal to their drivers' desire to feel more powerful and virile (They didn't have Viagra in those days!), while the placement of the "stick" shifter on the bicycle imitators seemed chosen specifically to decrease the fertility rate of a generation of young boys.

Many an adult expressed umbrage at those bikes, mainly because they were garish rather than for dangers like the "stick" shifters. (Those same adults almost always expressed concern for their kids' safety!)  I think the best reason to disapprove of those bikes, though, was that they taught kids that their bikes were just "stepping stones" to the "bigger and better" machines they would drive when they became of age.

One thing I can say about them, though, is that kids usually enjoyed them:  There was no pretense to practicality about them.  Which begs the question (for me, anyway):  Can a kids' bike be whimsical and practical at the same time?

28 July 2018

How Much Will It Cost?

How much is that bike-ee in the window?

You've heard the saying, "If you have to ask what it costs, you can't afford it."  Well, somehow I don't think someone in San Diego asked "how much?" about the Moots in the Adams Avenue Bicycles window.  Maybe he already knew its price--or had an idea of what it was worth.  

That probably explains why he pried the bars off the window and smashed the glass.

By the way, the price tag on that bike was $8639.99.  The thief left it behind--along with the image on the store's surveillance camera.

I'd be interested to see what it costs him--if and when he's caught.

27 July 2018

How Old Is That Bike?

While in Cambodia and Laos, I visited temples lorded over by statues of Buddha and decorated with carvings of Hindu deities, natural and mythical animals, dancers and other people engaged in tasks as well as celebrations.

(About the dancers:  Since those carvings are centuries old, many are worn in spots, if not wholly.  A guide told me that much of that wear is caused by visitors' touches.  That made sense when I saw that on some of the dancers, a particular body part--a pair, actually--suffered the most erosion.  As Stuart, who accompanied me on the Grasshopper tour, said, "Stones don't lie.")

What I didn't see, though, were depictions of cyclists.  Of course, I wasn't expecting to see them:  Bicycles, at least as most of us would define them, have been around for a century and a half; the temples have stood for centuries, and even a milennia, longer than that.  

So how is it that a carving of a bicycle was found in the Panchavarnaswamy Temple, built over 1300 years ago in India?

At least, that's what Praveen Mohan, host of the "Phenomenal Travel Videos" Youtube channel, claims to have found. 

Of course, he's not the first person to find an anachronistic depiction of technology:  Sometimes I think one of the reasons why Shakespeare's Julius Caesar isn't taught or performed more often (I confess:  I've never taught it!) is that none of us wants to deal with a smart-aleck student who wonders aloud, "What's a clock doing in this play?"  It's hard to answer that one without sounding like, well, an English teacher.  

(Then again, almost no one ever notices the discrepancy of Hamlet going to study at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, which didn't open its doors until three centuries after the time in which the play is set!)

We all know that Shakespeare is allowed to do things like that because of poetic license or dramatic license or because, well, he's Shakespeare and we're not.  But how does one explain an image of a bicycle in a temple built more than a milennium ago?

Since Mohan made his claim, some have tried to discredit it by saying that the temple is really only a century old.  Such is a possibility when you realize that many temples and cathedrals are not, in fact, "original".  As an example, St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican was built during the 16th Century.  At least, the one standing today dates from that time.  Other structures bearing the same name, however, have stood on that site at least since the 4th Century CE.

So, it could be that the current Panchavarnaswamy Temple is not the "origninal" or first built on the site.  Almost nobody with any knowledge of it, however, believes that this is the case:  It's generally agreed that the temple dates to the 7th Century CE or thereabouts.  

The more logical explanation is that the bicycle depiction was added during a renovation.  According to records, one took place early in the 20th Century, when the bicycle was a common mode of transportation in India as well as its colonial overlord, England. 

That explanation makes sense when you realize that "modern touches" are often added to renovations of ancient sites.  For example, a photo of an "ancient astronaut" on the wall of a medieval Spanish cathedral has circulated for years.  But even Erich von Daniken would have trouble believing that someone in the 12th Century would have depicted something that looks like a modern space explorer.  That "ancient astronaut" was most likely an astronaut:  The image was added during a 1990s renovation.  

26 July 2018

Not Going Anywhere--Well, Not Really!

Marleee won't let me go!

As soon as I walked into my apartment, she was at my feet.  As soon as I sat down, she sat on me and would not get up for anything--not even the promise of a can of tuna.

I was away for two weeks. She probably thinks that if I get up and out the door, I'll be gone for a long time, again.  I have a dentists' appointment. Really, I do.  I'll be back in a couple of hours.

I actually do have a dentists' appointment.  But I just might sneak out for a bike ride.  Dear readers, please don't tell her!  

25 July 2018

I'll Be Back, I Hope!

All things must come to pass.

Yeah, I know.  But I really don't want this trip to end.  Now I'll lapse into another cliche, this one from a living person:  I'll be back!

At least, I hope I will.  In any event, late the other day I returned to Siam Reap, Cambodia.  Yesterday I said "goodbye"--at least, I hope, for now--in the most appropriate way I could:  with one last look at the Angkor Wat.

It still functions as a Buddhist temple, so I wasn't surprised to see a mini-service at one of the shrines

or groups of novitiate monks walking around.

Even though this is a sacred site, the folks in charge know it's important to keep the king--and tourists--entertained:

Since I won't be able to see much besides clouds once my flight is en route, I made a point of giving myself another aerial view

and one from the ground--or, at least the second mezzanine.  After all, you haven't been in a place until you've put your feet (yes, bike tire treads count) on the ground.  

Or touch something or someone you never could have touched at home.  That's one of the things that has made this trip special.

24 July 2018

Mind Your Signs Behind You

We all know that things are sometimes lost in translation, and other times meanings are added unintentionally.

If you've been on the London Underground, you've seen the "Mind The Gap" signs.  What they're telling you, of course, is not to step into the space between the train and platform.

Apparently, the person who created that sign was hired for this:

Ironic, isn't it, that it's on the grounds of a Buddhist monastery?  "Mind your head":  Is that what it means to be "mindful"?

On the other hand, this sounds painful:

and could lead to this

which is what might have happened to me if my surgery had been botched.  

OK, I'll stop with the cheap jokes.  Luang Prabang is a wonderful place.  

23 July 2018

Tell Them About Your Commute

The next time you complain about your commute, reflect on these young women:

If you are my age, you might be lamenting "today's young people" who don't look up from their phones.  But they did talk to me.

Their commute starts like this

and continues with this

and goes up even further

until, finally, they reach the top of the hill and have all of the best views of Luang Prabang.  

Hoiko, Pamela and I cycled across that bridge yesterday.

As nice as the view is, I''ll bet they don't think much about it.  That's what happens when something becomes a part of your work routine:  It wouldn't surprise me to know that waiters and other workers in Windows on the World stopped noticing the view, if they ever cared about it in the first place.

Maybe they laugh at folks like me who trudge up those stairs as part of their "vacation"

 or pay 50000 kip (about $6) to release two young birds into the air from the viewing area.

Or maybe they don't. Either way, I have respect for them because, even though there are two ways you can ascend or descend Pho Si, neither involves an elevator (lift) or escalator (moving stairs).  One route, on Thanon Phousi, includes several viewpoints "manned" by statues along its 355 stairs. The other, which starts on Sisavangvong Road (opposite the Royal Palace Museum) takes 328 steps.  That's the way I came down; I went up the Thanon Phousi.

It makes perfect sense that those statues, and other images of Buddha, are found on the hill:  Phou Si's literal meaning is "sacred mountain".  Some people climb it to watch sunsets.  Yesterday I couldn't get there in time; on the two previous days, the weather didn't cooperate.  To me, the walk up and the view were rewarding.  And I'll never, ever complain about my commute again!

22 July 2018

Did Buddha Sleep Here?

In a way, Luang Prabang reminds me of Florence:  It's not very big, with only four major streets, all of which run the length of the peninsula.  This means that if you're on a bike, no place is more than a few minutes from anyplace else.  

Another thing the onetime capital of Laos has in common with the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance is that it's full of artistic and cultural treasures.  Not surprisingly, both cities are UNESCO World Heritage sites and attract visitors from far and wide.

One difference to me, though, is that I felt the presence of those travelers much more in Florence than I do here.  Granted, there aren't as many tourists here as there were in Venice, in part because this isn't the peak tourist season in most of Southeast Asia and, perhaps, because Luang Prabang isn't quite as well-known as Florence. But visitors here don't seem to fill up the narrow streets and to simply "take over" as they do in the Italian city.  So, everything seems so much less pressured here:  the "vibe", if you will, is actually quite calm.

I was mulling this comparison on my way to a shop that rents bikes when I bumped into Heiko and Pamela, two German tourists.  The shop wanted our passports as a "deposit"; we all agreed that we don't hand our passports to anyone who isn't a border control agent of a country we are entering.  As far as I know, no such international boundary exists around that shop.

So I suggested that we take a walk down a street called "Utopia" (really!) I had walked it yesterday, and I seemed to recall seeing a rental shop or two. Whether they would demand our passports, I didn't know.

As we were walking, Heiko articulated exactly what I had been thinking about Luang Prabang. "It's interesting, but so peaceful," he said.  "People don't seem to get upset or impatient."

We wondered whether it might have something to do with all of those monks and meditations in Luang Prabang.  Everywhere you turn, you see the monks, some of whom look too young for puberty, in their saffron robes.  And those temples are all over the city.

The cycling was really good, especially after we crossed this wooden bridge 

leading out of the city and into the countryside.

It was calm there, too, but that wasn't a surprise given what we've experienced here. Why, there's even a place in the city that's decorated in gold and red felt as if it were bluer than the Blue Mosque:

Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, referred to as simply the Wat Mai, is so calm that, behind the Buddha that stands over everything, I found this:

No wonder this city can "slow your pulse," as the editors Lonely Planet claim.

21 July 2018

Big Buddha, Muddy Water And Sticky Rice (It's Better Than It Sounds)

Forget about Big Brother.  In this city

Big Buddha is...well, I don't know whether he's watching you.  From what I know about him, and what I understand about Buddhism (which, I admit, isn't much), I don't think he would want to.

Still, it's hard to deny that the man taught much by example.  I would say that even if he weren't about 20 times my size!

You can find that statue of him--the largest in this city, and one of the largest in the world

in the Wat Wison Narath, the oldest operating Buddhist temple in this city--Luang Prabang, Laos.  I arrived here last night in a heavy rain that didn't let up until late this afternoon.  This original temple on this site was completed in 1513, burned in 1887 and rebuilt.  Although it charges a small admission fee (20,000 kp:  about $2.50 at current exchange rates), it still operates as a temple and thus, visitors are told, a procession of monks might enter the premises.  And, as in other functioning Buddhist temples, visitors are required to leave their shoes and hats at the door.  Also, silence and modesty (no revealing garments) are expected.

I must admit that, if nothing else, I felt very relaxed, as I wasn't thinking about the things I normally think about.  In fact, I wasn't thinking at all.  I didn't try to achieve that: It just sort of happened.  Maybe it had to do with the calm in that place. 

The funny thing is, I've felt really calm since I've been here--even in the central part of town, where most of the shops (and tourists) are.  Maybe it has to do with all of the temples in this town:  There seems to be one on every other block. 

The guest house in which I'm staying is on the Nam Khan River.  This city is built on a peninsula.  At the tip of it, the Nam Khan merges with the Mekong, one of the world's mightiest rivers.

I haven't been to China, and won't make it there on this trip.  But if it's any part of it is like Laos or Cambodia, it makes perfect sense to me now that one of its major rivers is called the Yellow River:  waterways in this part of the world seem muddier than in other places I've seen.  Part of the reason was literally at my feet when I descended some stone steps used by fishermen to the shore of the Meking, probably no more than 100 meters below the Nam Kahn confluence.

Speaking of fishermen, one waved to me and didn't seem to mind that I was photographing him.

The fishing might be the easier part of his job:  I can only imagine what it's like to navigate his boat--not much different from what his forebears used centuries ago--in the raging waters.  (I must say that this is the first time I've seen muddy waters with such a visibly strong current!)

Later, after the rain stopped, a couple of streets in the center of town were closed off to make the Night Market, a kind of bazaar with tents overhead.  This city is justly famous for its fabrics:  Local artisans pride themselves on their skills in weaving and coloring silk, cotton and wool.  

Before I headed down the aisles, I snacked on something called "coconut pancakes".  They are about the size of small macarons, and their insides have an almost custard-like texture.  They're served in a "cup" made of banana leaves and were well worth the calories!

I did a bit of a splurge, buying a sarong skirt, a pair of shorts that look like they could pass a sarong, a scarf, two zippered pouches and a batik collage fabric figure of a cat I probably will give to my friend Mildred, who is caring for Marlee while I'm away.  I bought an embroidered patch of the Laotian flag and a refrigerator magnet.  The total?  257,000 kip.  The current rate is around 8500 kip to the dollar. I'll let you do the math, since you probably are better at it than I am.

After all that, I went to a restaruant called the for a traditional Lao meal.  Laap consists of marinated meat, with a combination greens and spices.  Sometimes the marinating "cooks" the chicken and it is served cold: something like an Asian ceviche  It can also be cooked after marinating and served hot, as mine was.  My laap had chicken, lemongrass and, according to the waiter, "morning glory."  Surely he didn't mean the flower, did he?  No, not quite:  He meant the shoots and leaves of a flowering plant that's often called "water morning glory" or "river spinach" in English.  

In any event, it was served--like most Lao dishes--with sticky rice.  It's actually a different species from the rice most other people know:  Its grains are shorter and it has a higher starch content--but no gluten.  Although it's usually associated with Northern Thai food, its true origins are in Laos.  As it happens, Northern Thailand has almost as many ethnic Lao people as Laos itself, so much of what is called "Northern Thai" or simply "Thai" in the US and other countries is really Laotian.

When I asked for chopsticks, the waiter gave me a somewhat condescending smile.  So did a waitress who happened to overhear the conversation.  You're really supposed to eat sticky rice with your hands and, in fact, use it as a utensil to scoop up your laap (or whatever else you're eating) much as Ethipians use injera, their pita-like bread.

This trip is proving to be educational in all sorts of ways!

20 July 2018

To The Temple Of Women

Nobody here should be impressed with me. (Actually, I don't think anybody should be impressed with me.)  But the people I've talked to all seem to look up to me, and not because I'm taller than they are.  

Sometimes it's because I'm a professor (university lecturer, actually), as educators and, more important, education are revered here because so many can't get it, or get enough.  A couple of people were in awe when I did something a lady isn't supposed to do:  reveal my age.  One woman--about whom I'll say more later--said her mother is ten years younger and "looks older."  Days spent in hard, repetitive tasks in the sun, heat and humidity will do that to you. And then there are those who think I'm other-worldly because I live in New York City.

Sokhana (sp?), who works at Green Park Village, the hotel where I'm staying, was simply astounded that I rode a bike about 85 kilometers.  She simply had to tell her co-workers, the manager and everyone about it.  If you've been reading this blog, you know that I've done much longer rides than that.  If anything, if they want to admire me, it should be for going that distance (about 53 miles) on the bike I borrowed from the hotel.  Yes, that one. And, perhaps, that someone from a temperate climate pedaled through the heat, humidity and rain (late in the afternoon).

I could have taken the tuk-tuk.  I'm sure the driver would have known how to get to the Banteay Srei temple.  But I simply felt like riding.

The town and district are named for Banteay Srei, hence the name of the Butterfly Centre I mentioned in yesterday's post.  My ride took me into the countryside, much like the PURE bicycle tour I took.  A curious visitor ambled up to the side of the road:

Just meters away, a farmer waded through a rice paddy, barefoot.  His manner of growing the grain, and the ways in which he tended the cow (if indeed the cow was his) probably don't differ much from those of farmers at the time the Banteay Srei temple was built, in the 10th Century CE.

The temple is known as the "Citadel of Women."  There are indeed many carvings of female figures, but they are mainly divine nymphs or celestial dancing girls knows as aspara or minor female deities, shown standing and called devata. 

The real reason why it's known as "The Citadel of Women," though, would not pass today's standards of political correctness:  It's because of the temple's small size, at least compared to Angkor Wat or Bayon, and the intricacy of its carvings, which have survived remarkably well.  

That detail was possible, in part, because most of the temple was built from red sandstone, which lends itself to such work and at times looks like wood. So, although it is relatively small, the reddish color and those details, visible from a pretty fair distance, give Banteay Srei a striking, unique experience.  You might say that if Angkor Wat is the virtuoso and Bayon is the show-stopper, then Banteay Srei is the crowd-pleaser.

And, yes, you can enter it with a valid Angkor Wat pass. 

On my way back, I passed the Butterfly Center and stopped at the Landmine Museum, but not to look at the exhibits.  The young woman at the admission desk remembered me and allowed me in when I asked to see another young woman who works in the gift shop.  An Youn and I had a very friendly talk when I first visited, and she really liked the pendant I was wearing.  This time, I gave it to her.  Rarely has anyone been so happy for such a small favor from me.

Of course, I didn't tell her the real reason I gave it to her:  I was trying to lighten up the load for the rest of my ride back to the hotel! ;-)