25 July 2014

Peking Opera and More ...

Entertainment in China. Entertainment for tourists. An assortment of cultural experiences in March of 2014.
The story begins
Peking Opera is a highly stylized theatre medium. Doesn't everyone know that before they go? Apparently not. The traditional stories and characters are well-known to native audiences, although it seems that performances are not attracting the younger generations so much. Our audience was perhaps half tourists and half Beijing residents. I'd been forewarned that Chinese audiences were restless and could be distracting.

The beautifully costumed performers gave us a one-hour rendition of a classic story; the colourful, intricate makeup and masks were dazzling. So foreign to our eyes and ears. The costumes and the movements were of great interest to me, the one and only time I would ever have this experience. But from the beginning, it was not the Chinese who distracted us. Some of the tourist audience began an exodus quite soon, a few people at a time the music and characters were too foreign for them lurching up in the dark, shuffling their belongings, stepping on someone's feet, yapping out loud. Travel buddy and I became (a) increasingly indignant and (b) deeply mortified at the boorishness of fellow westerners.
Xu Chenghei, Peking Opera: The Performance behind the Painted Faces p. 80
Nonetheless, when the lead female singer began, it was rather shattering. I can't think of another word for that fricative, ear-piercing voice. Did we leave? No way. The performers were doing what they do best and deserved our respect; it's not like we were trapped for hours on end. Quite an experience, alright ... black eye, you yahoos. Presumably they wouldn't be so disruptive at home. Or maybe they would.

One evening we saw the Tang Dynasty Show at a dinner theatre in Xi'an (home of the Terra Cotta Warriors). Also featuring a Special Dumpling Dinner: no-one was going to walk out on this one! A multitude of servers hustled back and forth through the "Ancient Capital Theatre" venue with stacked steamers. As we sampled about thirteen varieties of ornately created dumplings, their poetic names were flashed on a giant video screen. "Sailing boat-shaped steamed Jiaozi" was one. Don't ask, I wish I'd made a note of them all. After dinner, traditional music and dancing entertained us. Lovely dancers and a woman on a zither-like instrument, also an amazing guy playing a strange horn, great fun.

Without a doubt, the highlight was Impression Liu San Jie in Yangshuo by the Li River. Created by the man who did China's Olympic opening ceremonies, much anticipation on my part. Yangshuo itself is a small town in terms of Chinese population, a domestic tourist destination because of its unusual scenery. Hundreds (thousands?) of dramatic limestone peaks (karsts) punctuate the countryside in the Guilin and Li River region.
Yangshuo, photo Wikipedia
To reach the outdoor show area was quite a trek, along with huge throngs of people; apparently every night of the week is the same. It was the only time we experienced such an intimidating mass of people. The real threat of rain deterred many of our group. Plastic rain covers were provided by the venue but happily, no downpour. The bad news was that cameras were almost useless in capturing the scenes.
  What a reward ... mastery of illusion! The performance was staged on a "lake" predicated on mind-bending, optical effects. Neither before nor after was there a hint of what would or did unfold. Hundreds of performers made patterns across and over the lake as a female singer played out daily vignettes of river people. Her voice was a pleasure. Being subsumed into the extravagant breadth and dimensions of music, costumes, movement, was everything. Truly a unique spectacle. Post-facto, I realized we'd been sitting, watching, under one of the striking peaks that loomed over us. In my peripheral vision, in the dark, I imagined it to be a large tree. Such a tantalizing mystery how the man created it all, whether the "lake" was real, how the actors could move on it, how the necessary "back stage" was so hidden, and so on.
Later our guide Michael told us there are six hundred in the cast; most come from neighbouring farms and are paid a pittance. Next day we were promised a revealing daylight view of the "lake" site while on a river cruise. The river master foiled us. Needing to control excessive water flow, he prevented all boats from going upriver. Illusion intact!
Numerous shall I say lesser entertainments were on the agenda during the 24-day tour of China.
Acrobats in Shanghai; Yangtze cruise ship performers; the daily graceful exercises performed en masse in parks; the celebrated Hong Kong skyline laser show (NOT! ... cancelled at the last minute because it was Earth Hour!). Instead, travel buddy and I lucked into a wild phenomenon, a majestic show by nature herself.

Exploring the 42nd floor of our hotel, the thunderstorm that threatened all day finally exploded. There we were on an enclosed catwalk between two towers glass floor, glass windows, glass ceiling, completely surrounded by the flash and deafening noise and vibration of the storm. One mother of a storm. Half scared to death! Totally thrilling moments and again, impossible to capture on film. Beats a laser show any night.
A photo from our hotel room will have to do ... before the storm!
© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

20 July 2014

Wadi Rum, Jordan 2008

In the year 2008, visiting Petra was not my last camel experience.

If you could have but one camel ride in your lifetime ~ should you be so inclined ~ I strongly recommend you book yourself to Jordan and the Wadi Rum desert. On a scale of 1 to 10, although considering I haven't been everywhere yet, Wadi Rum is a 10.
My second visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan preceded widespread events of the "Arab Spring." Writing of it at the time, I had (and have) faith that Jordan will retain its stability in the unpredictable Middle East. Better scribes than I have written glowingly of Jordan’s magnetism. A relatively new nation, the country includes some of the world’s oldest inhabited sites. It’s not only on the ancient Fertile Crescent, it’s also on the Rift Valley.

If you are into archaeological, if you are into biblical, if you are into cultural, if you are into photography, or just plain scenic awe, the country amazes from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. Truly majestic.

Wadi Rum desert is in the south; descending into it from a plateau is spectacular, certainly one of the world’s most extraordinary places. We cross part of the railway line famously bombed by T.E. Lawrence in 1917, to access the modest Welcome Centre in the protected area. One of the local women’s co-op handicrafts shop is here. The tiny support village is full of camels.
What do most tour companies offer, encouraged by entrepreneurial young village men? Careening across the sand in a 4-wheel-drive jeep or truck lacking shock absorbers. Go figure! Environmental irony. Camels were not on our tour's agenda but I had persisted.
Like most Jordan women, our guide Nadine spurns the hijab. Myself is wrapped up more than she is, against the sun and the possibility of blowing sand. We go well beyond any sign of civilization and on my behalf she bargains fiercely with some camel handlers in Arabic. Nadine does everything fiercely, including telling raucous jokes.

Finally. The others tear off in their kidney-splitting jeep to bash some dunes and inspect ancient inscriptions. I get a couple of hours as Queen of the Desert. 
The arrangement involves a female and her baby who must not be separated. This tells me the colt is less than five years old. The boy who leads me is very serious in his responsibility for the animals. Good thing he’s along because he knows where we are going. All is sandy desert in every direction to the horizon, with gigantic mystical rock outcroppings here and there. If by some flight of imagination I were allowed to trek alone — unthinkable of course — no question I would soon be lost, wandering between one isolated cliff to the next, until someone finds my dessicated corpse splayed across the hump of a steadfast camel.

The boy-who-won’t-tell-me-his-name (not understanding the question) disapproves whenever I lean to touch the baby. Experimenting with saddle positions also earns me scowls and rapid verbal orders. I am so relaxed I don’t even try to decipher. Nevertheless I want to practice the leg-hook favoured by camel police and born-to-it Bedouin. Baby’s hair on the hump — which is as far as I can reach without falling off and disgracing myself — looks bristly but feels soft. Of course! That’s why we humans have cold-weather coats made of camel’s hair.

My guide stops remonstrating with me. I am one with the stately undulation of my steed and her sidekick. “Oh the desert is lovely in its restfulness. The great brooding stillness over and through everything ...”.[1]

We are in the heart of silence. Separation from everything in routine life! No cares. Just be. Another writer put it well: "Breathing is easier out there. There is something particularly powerful about the desert scenery, it extends your horizon endlessly, and cleans your soul like a strong wind, deprives it of everything that’s not important."[2]
Bedouin tribal memory still reveres Lawrence here in places where he camped. “To those bred under an elaborate social order few such moments of exhilaration can come as that which stands at the threshold of wild travel. The gates of the enclosed garden are thrown open... and behold! the immeasurable world.”[3] Yes. “Wild” in that special sense of the unfamiliar becoming a momentary, thrilling gateway.
It had to end. Dismount at a Bedouin camp. Until the next camel experience, insh’allah.

[1] Terry Kelhawk, “Skirts on Camels: Early Women Travel Writers,” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ : accessed 24 October 2010); citing Lilias Trotter, Journal 1885.
[2] Ivana Perić, "I fell under the spell of Wadi Rum," 18 June 2014, Your Middle East (www.yourmiddleeast.com/travel : accessed 27 June 2014).
[3] Gertrude Bell, The Desert and the Sown (London: William Heinneman Ltd., 1907).

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.
labels: camels, Jordan, Bedouin, Wadi Rum 

14 July 2014

TRACKS: The Book and the Film

Last September I had the pleasure of seeing, at the Toronto International Film Festival, the feature-length movie "Tracks" based on the book of the same name by Robyn Davidson.[1] Just having viewed the film for a second time, I appreciated the cinematography even more, if possible. Mia Wasikowska does a great job portraying Robyn Davidson, the determined woman on a true-story mad adventure across 1,700 miles of lonely, difficult terrain.

A few years ago, a chance reference to the book Tracks made me itch with impatience for my very own copy to arrive. A crazy woman walking across the vast Australian outback desert? With camels as companions? Certainly captured my imagination. Even then, in 1977, the antipodean continent was beginning to experience the explosion of feral camels that thrive in the desert.

What Davidson did was learn how to train some feral camels as pack animals. The camels carried essential supplies that had to be supplemented by wild plants and game. The preparation took two years of enormous physical work. Accepting a come-lately offer from National Geographic caused her much ambivalence: she needed money for provisions but hated the notion of public exposure. She didn't want to share her personal journey while it was happening.

Obviously Davidson lived to tell the tale the superbly written tale. I was not prepared for the exceptional writing skill; the humour; the fits of self-examination; the immediacies of survival that transport the reader right into the grit and sweat of her days. Her four camels quickly became individual personalities.

Her first thoughts after agreeing to allow photography at certain points:
Suddenly it seemed as if this trip belonged to everybody except me. Never mind, I said. When you leave Alice Springs [to begin] it will all be over. No more loved ones to care about, no more ties, no more duties, no more people needing you to be one thing or another, no more conundrums, no more politics, just you and the desert, baby. And so I pushed it all down into the dim recesses of my mind, there to fester and grow like botulism. (105)

The journey itself took nine months from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Along the way her communion became near-perfect with her animal companions, the Aborigines, and the astonishingly diverse landscape. This is not to say she didn't go mad and panic at times. Or get lost. Or lose her gun. Or lose the camels, the worst fear of all in empty country. Threats to her animals from predators meant she had to use the gun. Their care and feeding was paramount through sand, rain, mud, rocks, canyons, wadis, insects, snakes, and above all a scorching sun. Avoiding the occasional curious passerby was easier than fending off the penultimate publicity she so did not want.
 What was the journey really about? The few excerpts here hint at the internal journey Davidson freely expresses and ultimately felt was successful. Her dog and her camels sustained any need for companionship as she shed the stresses of modern life. Any reader with the slightest sensitivity is drawn into her awakening existential freedom.

On eventually allowing "social custom" to fall away:
On the one hand, I didn't want to be anywhere but in this desert and on my own; on the other, I was running very low on food, my last meal before I got there being dog-biscuits liberally laced with custard powder, sugar, milk and water. And I was nervous about seeing people again. By now I was utterly deprogrammed. I walked along naked usually, clothes being not only putrid but unnecessary. My skin had been baked a deep terra-cotta brown and was the constituency of harness leather. The sun no longer penetrated it. (211-212)

On achieving her goal:
I had discovered capabilities and strengths I would not have imagined possible in those distant dream-like days before the trip. ... That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one's weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. ... To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe. I had learnt to use my fears as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, and best of all I had learnt to laugh. (222)

Reference to the abysmal plight of the Aborigines was inevitable; Davidson was crossing a great deal of reservation land. Encounters with their settlements and one particular elder who voluntarily accompanied her for several days mid-trip provide some of the most vivid moments. As she struggled with the Pitjanjara language, there is more about Aboriginal linkage to their always shrinking Land and the energies left on earth by their dream-heroes. All the more poignant her: "The Aborigines do not have much time. They are dying."

Tracks is one crazy, chilling, joyful, hair-raising, inspiring story, completely full of life, courage, despair, and love.

Stacking up a movie against the book it was based on is probably a fool's exercise. But we do it anyway, don't we? Both portray the story of a personal challenge, an extreme way to "find" oneself.

The film "Tracks" is gorgeous Australian landscape at its best, and Wasikowska fits the part perfectly. It gives more time and space to the NatGeo photographer than he warrants in the book. I would not have chosen the nerdy Adam Driver to play the part, but no-one asked me. Was John Cusack not available?! The "bit" parts are done by wonderful Oz character actors.

What's lacking, of course, is Davidson's rich prose and memorable insights, although her approval of the production was sought and given. We seem to get little idea of her motivation, with a couple of somewhat confusing scenes of family and friends seeing her off. Those vivid moments in the rich depth of her association with Charlie, the Aboriginal, get scant attention.

Wasikowska, co-star Driver, and director John Curran made a brief appearance on stage before the screening at the Film Festival. None of the camels showed up.

Davidson at the 2013 Adelaide Film Festival
photo: 1233 ABC Newcastle, New South Wales
Robyn Davidson is a prolific writer of further travel adventures around the globe. Her thoughts on the movie are given here. 

[1] Robyn Davidson, Tracks (1980; reprint, USA: First Vintage Books, 1995).

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

08 July 2014

BVI Bareboating

A bareboat sail in the British Virgin Islands ranks among the world’s best adventure vacations. Bareboating means you do it all yourself, no outside crew, no guide. Of our two holidaying couples, only one was a real sailor. Our good friend N had certification papers, thus the creds to rent the boat and automatically claim the captaincy ... and our loyal admiration over months of advance expectations. The crew was completed with one semi-experienced sailor and two female dogsbodies, who almost knew what a jib is.
Virgin Gorda, BVI
 We took possession of the 43' boat on Virgin Gorda and loaded up with grub and refreshments from the island’s limited provisions shop. Captain N, familiar with the surroundings, directed the shopping. The Captain signed all the paperwork including instructions from the charter company where and when NOT to sail in the BVI on pain of death or massive insurance claims, whichever came first.

Good, they supplied a charcoal barbecue for the deck. There was only one Captain and he expected barbecue. We were about to learn the Power of Captain. No action photographs exist because each of us only had two hands that were constantly clenching something other than a camera.

All went well for a couple of days as Captain N's firm hand ruled our waking hours. The first mate learned the ropes, literally, and the two galley slaves wrestled with the barbecue. But rewards came: some dinners ashore at fine island resorts in the middle of nowhere. Although for some reason each experience involved wading through the sea shallows from the boat to the beach to enter an exclusive club with dripping dresses.

Feeling his oats, the Captain (we thought was our friend) forced us to sail to Anegada, the biggest do not go there on our instruction list. No discussion. Never, ever, question the Captain.

Thank you, Wikipedia
Anegada is out in the real-time Atlantic ocean, surrounded by shallow wreckedy reefs not to be navigated by dumbass tourists. Close in, three of us had to spot by hanging over the gunwales. A barrage of contradictory bellows and nervous shrieks were aimed at the Captain who barked back shut the f*ck up. The unprofessional shouting match was observed by an astonished lone fisherman on the beach. We anchored close enough to swim to shore where he invited us to join him in his fresh seafood cookout over an old oil drum.

By the end of the week, the evil Captain Bligh decided to run Sir Francis Drake Channel. Naturally, he chose a day when the wind and the waves were higher than the do not sail on our instructions. Overpowering wind. Raging wind. Huge swells. Two rebellious voices went unheard — by now the first mate was truly onboard the power train ship. The superheroes commenced tacking our suicide course full tilt down (or up?) the channel with the spinnaker taut as a drum.

Dogsbodies clutched each other on the rolling back deck screaming their brains out. Body parts sprouted bruises like black plague boils.

Teeth-gritting between howls
Or perhaps relief in the form of rum at the end

There were compensations. One of them was Peter Island, I think, where we anchored peacefully one evening, feeling more or less stable underfoot. The spirit of truce had descended between labour and leadership factions. Wrinkled from sensational snorkelling in the transparent waters, we awaited our barbecued steaks. On the clear air came drifting the harmonious, softly-thrilling tones of the pipes. Over there, the sole yacht anchored in the distance. A solitary piper on deck saluting the sunset. Bliss. Doesn’t get any better. 

Seems to me we did it again with four couples and two boats and two shipshape captains.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

27 June 2014

Petra, Jordan 2008

2008 was a banner year for perfect camel riding. A half day on our own in this ancient Nabatean World Heritage site, my travel buddy begins her walk back along the main trail. The plan is for her to perch somewhere along the way and photograph me as I ride gloriously by. I give her some time to get settled in advance.

Then I haggle for a camel. A few camel rides under my belt and trekking Petra trails for the third time gives me confidence. Some German tourists are pondering the same thing. A woman about to mount says she paid (Jordanian dollars) $JD25 for a camel, way too much, and heard me starting at $JD10. She starts yelling nastily at me I shouldn’t do it for less than $JD25. The camel owners are enjoying their unexpected advocate. Because of her I have to settle for $JD20 which is more than par, wounding my hard-earned bargaining skills.
Zsou Zsou greets me
Nevertheless, I choose a large camel named Zou-Zou for her height. Like me, she shows a bit of age. Unlike me, she does not look excited about going for a walk. However, she does not snuffle or bawl which could portend well for her character. Her handler Mahmoud starts out walking behind us, or so I think. What I am really thinking is that Mahmoud recognizes an experienced rider. For example, I know the back end goes up first. A few people on donkeys are way below me. They have a boy more or less herding them.

I’m trying to take photos as I go. Capture the Bedouin women selling trinkets. It’s tricky juggling a camera since one hand is often on the pommel grip—a certain relentless, swaying, circular motion is involved (not appealing to everyone, but it’s a big part of the whole mystique). Not much later I notice Mahmoud is no longer with us. 

Boy tending donkeys doesn’t respond to sign language about whether he might be in charge of me. Evidently not. I become fully aware of this when Zou-Zou ploughs right into a gaggle of tourists before we round the first bend. Maybe she is blind? The rope in my hand is connected to her primitive halter that seems to have no possible steering effect. Therefore I must put my camera away and be alert for pedestrians. Her pace increases. 

Zou-Zou my runaway camel and I spend twenty-five minutes on our own, scattering many people and knocking over vendor displays. Maybe her urgency indicates hunger and she’s heading for the barn? In my limited experience this is not a usual camel. Nonetheless, one is above one’s surroundings and the show must go on in dignified fashion. Concentrating on the job at hand, I can’t frequently admire the amazing, towering cliffs and colours, but then I did get photographs last year. 
Zou-Zou breaks into a canter at one point — what absolutely great fun! Lawrence couldn’t have had it any better! Wouldn’t you know, this happens just about the time we pass my travel buddy and a few of our tour group. They are sipping tea at a rest stop, mostly too stunned (I like to think jaw-droppingly impressed) to photograph me. No time for designated photographer to lift her camera. I hardly see them, as I am exuberantly shouting “Watch out! Achtung! Camel coming through!”
Only one swift fellow with a camera catches me disappearing ... gaily trying to wave my hat at them. 

As we reach the Siq, it comes to an end. Mahmoud, of course, is nowhere in sight. Zou-Zou slows to a halt in recognition as an appointed boy comes to intercept. He seems surprised to hear that we knocked over postcard stands and wants to know if the vendors are angry. How would I know? My arthritic neck seldom permits posterior viewing of collateral damage, especially on the fly. For part of the $JD20 it must be his luckless job to mollify any business repercussions. 

Zou-Zou will go to wait at the camel station for another tourist. She shows no regret at my dismounting. They say camels do have distinctive personalities but I need more evidence.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

22 June 2014

MERS (2)

As laboratory studies continue, scientists now believe that camels are an intermediate host for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus.[1] Bats native to the region are being studied, while other animals such as rats, cats, and dogs have been suggested as study targets.

While Saudi Arabia has been the central and major location of human infection, the virus has also proven present in camels of the Levant and Africa. It seems camels do not die from the virus. But they are confirmed as a source of human infection.[2] The transmission element from camel to humans is still unclear.

As for human-to-human, some people recover apparently because they have natural antibodies. So far there is little evidence available to study in this regard, but scientists in many different laboratories across the world are working on it.
The scientists cited evidence that the MERS virus did not transmit readily from camel to human or from human to human — at least in November 2013. Three of the patient's friends report having visited the camels daily with the victim, and were uninfected. The victim's 18-year-old daughter developed cold symptoms shortly after he was hospitalized, but was also found to have been uninfected.[3]

David Swerdlow, M.D., of the Center for Disease Control who is leading CDC’s MERS-CoV response: “It’s possible that as the investigation continues others may also test positive for MERS-CoV infection but not get sick. Along with state and local health experts, CDC will investigate those initial cases and if new information is learned that requires us to change our prevention recommendations, we can do so.”[4]

There is some question about unpasteurized camel milk as a MERS transmission factor.

Optimistically, "The World Health Organisation said on Tuesday [17 June 2014] that the recent surge of the respiratory disease in Saudi Arabia appears to be abating but warned that the deadly Mers virus remains a serious public health problem, especially with the approach of haj pilgrimages."[5]

See frequently asked MERS questions and answers at the Center for Disease Control. The CDC is saying, among other recommendations:
CDC currently does not recommend that anyone change their travel plans.  If you are traveling to countries in or near the Arabian Peninsula, CDC recommends that you pay attention to your health during and after your trip. The CDC travel notice for MERS-CoV was upgraded to a level 2 alert. The travel notice advises people traveling to the Arabian Peninsula for health care work to follow CDC’s recommendations for infection control, and other travelers to the Arabian Peninsula to take general steps to protect their health.

Unfortunately, some camels are dying but the cause is a "mystery bug" as reported in the United Arab Emirates.[6] Further news about this can be expected.

[1] Melissa Healey, "Camels transmitted MERS to humans but virus probably came from bats," 4 June 2014, Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/science/la-sci-sn-camels-mers-bats-20140604-story.html : accessed 7 June 2014).
[2] "Camels Confirmed as MERS Virus Source in Humans," 5 June 2014, Newsmatch Health (newsmaxhealth.com/newswidget/camels-MERS-virus-source/2014/06/05/id/575292/?promo_code=12390-1 accessed 13 June 2014). See also "Evidence for Camel-to-Human Transmission of MERS Coronavirus," 4 June 2014, New England Journal of Medicine (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1401505?query=featured_home& : accessed 7 June 2014).
[3] Healey, ibid.
[4] "US: Coordinating CDC's emergency response to MERS," 20 May 2014, H5N1 (http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0517-mers.html : accessed 23 May 2014).
[5] Sajila Sasseendram, "Dubai tests 1,000 camels to conduct Mers study," 18 June 2014, Khaleej Times (http://www.khaleejtimes.com/kt-article-display-1.asp? accessed 21 June 2014).xfile=data/nationhealth/2014/June/nationhealth_June25.xml&section=nationhealth
[6] Samir Salama, "Wastewater treatment, mystery camel killer disease high on FNC agenda," 14 June 2014, Gulf News (gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/government/wastewater-treatment-mystery-camel-killer-disease-high-on-fnc-agenda-1.1347068 : accessed 21 June 2014).

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman