Tag: #travel

There I Go. Part II.

600x450 marcus asmus

Truckin’ Like The Doodah Man.

As Jane Austen’s novel, Pride And Prejudice, works so deliciously toward its satisfying conclusion, Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper says of Darcy’s sister, “. . . and so accomplished!-She plays and sings all day long.”

Also true of my Albuquerque sister, Linda.  But playing and singing is just the beginning.  Yes, she’s good on the piano and guitar. And she’s sung in choral groups that have taken on some of the most demanding works in the repertoire.

She’s also multilingual, including fluent Swahili.  During her career teaching English as a second language, heaven only knows how many languages she picked up.

A serious birder, she has somewhere near near 6,000 species, of the world’s 10,500, on her life list.  A good enough seamstress, in her younger years, to make her husband, Jim, a work suit.  (My wife’s also very good, but that’s something she never even attempted.)

And, something I particularly admire, she’s given to hospitality with their elegant adobe style home that she largely decorated.

After retirement, and nearly single handedly, she ran a school for children in Tanzania for several years. She’d gone there originally to climb 19,340 foot Mt. Kilimanjaro-which she did.  But she fell in love with the people of Tanzania.  However, this was where the force of her irresistible personality ran up against the rock of African corruption.  Despite hiring a personal guard, the rock prevailed.

She wrote a book about getting up the mountain called, Climbing Kili.   She still writes.  But, now I think, mostly indignant letters to the editor about Trump, guns, and New Mexico’s notorious drunk drivers.

Did I mention that she and Jim are inveterate world travelers?  Oh, yeah.  I did.

I could go on.  But I’ll leave it at this:  of us four siblings, Linda best fits “and so accomplished!”

On To Taos.

But I get ahead of myself; I haven’t even gotten to Taos.  Let alone Albuquerque.

From Cimarron and lunch at the St. James, I headed west and then turned right on 38 to drive the northern half of the loop around the state’s highest peak, Mt. Wheeler.  The shortest day of the trip, it was a scenic cruise to my room at the Taos Inn, where they’ve been welcoming guests since 1936.

Not sure what came over me, but while at the Inn, I sprang for a whimsical, colorful painting by Mark Asmus of a matador leading a parade of bulls past the Taos library.  Entitled Mayhemit was one of a series based on quirky police blotter reports.  Marleen wasn’t amused.  When will I ever learn?

Going Nuclear.

The next morning, and at Linda’s suggestion, I headed northwest from Taos on US 64.  Good thing, too.  Otherwise, I might’ve missed the “High Bridge” over the thin, green ribbon of the Rio Grande, an airy 800 feet below where I iPhoned this picture.

Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande Gorge

That third day was the longest of the trip.  A favorite among bikers, I saw more motorcycles on the sensuous two lane road than cars.  Punctuated by views that seemed to stretch out forever, by the time I’d loped around to Española, my right knee was feeling every inch of it.  Badly in need of a break, I pulled into a taco joint that, at best, looked greasy.  But, apparently, it’s tough to get a bad Mexican meal in New Mexico; the food was fine.

The couple in the next booth, although a bit rough rough around the edges, were very friendly.  When I started off with, “You look like you know your way around here.  How do I get to Los Alamos?”, he was ready with an answer. “No problem. Go left out of the parking lot, take another left at the first light, and then go left at the highway.  That’ll take you right up to Los Alamos.”

Model of the Gadget

Model of the Gadget

Forty-five minutes later, I was standing in front of a mock up of “The Gadget,” the nuclear bomb that had been built at Los Alamos and then tested in the New Mexican desert.  And which, thankfully, brought World War II to a swift conclusion, sparing American and Japanese casualties that some have estimated could have run into the millions.

Road’s End.

Given the highly toxic and sometimes dangerous experiments that took place at Los Alamos, Santa Fe seems a bare hop, skip and a jump down the hill from where the nuclear age dawned.

And, after a restful night at the elegant Four Kachinas B&B in Santa Fe, it was not much further to Albuquerque. Where I dropped off my six banger Camry at Hertz. And where Linda picked me up.  What’s the saying?  “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  Probably not the smartest thing to have flit across one’s mind when visiting your sister. But it was going to be tough to top the journey.

However, if anyone could do it, Linda and Jim could.  They’d gotten a jump on it early that morning by taking Marleen on a day long excursion to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Reserve for bird watching on the lower Rio Grande.

And they were just getting started.

Quo Vadis Greece? Part II.

spencer swalm and friends in Greece

With some fellow Road Scholars at the amphitheater of Epidaurus, the center of the Greek healing arts.

Still Jet Lagged After All These Days.

Finally.  This morning was better.  I didn’t wake up until 4 a.m.  Rather than-boing!-bolt upright, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to be “up and at ’em” at 2:30.  Yuck.

So, rather than lying futilely in bed, I got up at 4:30, watched some of Sense and Sensibility while I made the elliptical go ’round, showered, and had a bite of breakfast.  And then crawled back in bed for an 8:30 nap.  This, needless to say, this is no way to run a railroad.

I don’t, for the life of me, see how my sister and her husband do it.  World travelers par excellence. I almost never know, literally, where in the world they’re at.  Home an extended layover; jet lag as a life style.

And, when we talked about my Greece trip the other day, she told me it’s only gotten worse for her with the passing years.  Since I don’t believe I’m getting any younger, it makes me sorta wonder if my travelin’ days are over.  Is the pain worth the gain?  Brilliant suggestions welcome.

Anyhoo.  Enough of my aberrant sleep cycles.

Looking Back.

One of the ancient sites we “Road Scholars” visited as we bussed around mainland Greece was The Oracle of Delphi.  For those of you who’ve driven I-70 west of Denver, picture Glenwood Canyon-except with the ruins of a medium size town clinging to its rocky heights.  A good good size “church” (the unusual circular temple and where the priestess received ambiguous text messages from the gods), open air amphitheater (á la Red Rocks), a full service-including pool-gymnasium, a stadium/chariot racing track.  And so on and so forth.  A marvel of engineering and testament to the genius of the ancient Greeks.  Not to mention their dogged determination-it’s built entirely of stones, countless of which weigh tons.  Which had to be, somehow, quarried, bullied, and dragged to the site from miles around.

Serpent column delphi in Greece

The Serpent Column at Delphi

For my money, one of the more significant monuments at the site was the bronze Serpent Column.  Made by twisting together a large tripod that was used by the Greeks in their sacrificial rites to the gods, the column commemorates the united front the 31 fractious Greek city states presented to the invading Persian hordes in 479-480 BC to finally put an end to their predations.  First, at the land battles of Plataea and Mycale.  And then the decisive Greek naval victory in the Straits of Salamis.   Thus were the Persians prevented from strangling the nascent idea of democracy in it’s Greek cradle.

Looking Ahead.

But why is this ancient, bronze column, even in it’s less than perfectly preserved state, still significant? Because Greece, and the priceless heritage of Western Civilization that it represents, is under assault again.

Consider Lesbos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea, just off the coast of Turkey-the same land where the ancient Persian hordes came from.  Although the demographics of the latest wave of invaders may be in dispute, (Are they predominantly young males?  Or more diverse?), there’s no question that Greece is being invaded again.  And Lesbos is bearing the brunt of the invasion.

But the swarms of immigrants inevitably spill over into mainland Greece.  My friend, Dean, who arrived in Athens a week before me, spoke to a resentful young bus driver as he explored the city.  “I can’t,” he confided to Dean, “afford to get married or have children because the European Union forces us to take better care of foreigners than it does of our own citizens.”

Just the calumny of a bitter loser?  I doubt it.  Eleni, our very knowledgeable guide,  described the youthful brain drain from her county.  Greece has a dismal 24% unemployment rate; of those, 60% are young.  The country is only slowly healing from the 2007-2008 financial crisis; abandoned, graffiti scarred buildings pockmark the face of Athens.

The Real Crisis?

But, perhaps, money isn’t everything.   Nor are invasions.  Greece, and its culture, didn’t just endure 400 years of occupation by the Ottoman Turks.  It thrived.  It stubbornly retained it’s distinctive identity, which was rooted in the Greek Orthodox Church and, even further back, the Classical Hellenic legacy that it had bequeathed to Western Civilization.

Calling on these moral reserves and against long odds, Greeks repelled Italian aggression at the outset of World War II.  It was a point of honor to Eleni, our guide, that Greece fended off the Facist thugs of Germany and Italy longer than France did.  Thus delaying the Nazi’s invasion of Russia.  And which Hitler himself blamed for the German army being turned back, catastrophically, at the gates of Moscow in December of 1941 by the Russian winter.

Greece, in other words, is no stranger to invasion and tough times.  I discussed this with Dean.  “Perhaps things aren’t as bad as they appear in Greece. And even Europe.  They’ve done it before.  Perhaps they can turn back the invading hordes from the Muslim world again this time.”

“But,” he replied, “things might be different this time.”

The Serpent Column Today.

To put a contemporary “twist” on the Serpent Column, let’s imagine that the column represents not unified Greek city states, but a tripod of faith, the economy, and the government.  So, how are the legs holding up some 2500 years later?

I’m no expert on the Orthodox church.  But I do know that early on, as a result of Paul’s missionary journeys, the Hellenic world of the eastern Mediterranean was where Christianity first took root-and spread like wild fire.  Greek was also the language of the New Testament.

interior of greek orthodox church

The ornate, beautiful interior of one of the many small Greek Orthodox chapels scattered throughout the country.

But when I asked our guide, Eleni, about the current spiritual health of her national church, her answer was telling.  “It played an important role in helping our nation survive the 400 year occupation by the Ottomans.  But now,” she continued, “not so much.  Most homes, like ours, have a shrine to a favorite saint that we light candles to on festival days.  But the churches are largely empty.”

The second leg of the economy?  I’ve talked about that.  And, as you have no doubt heard, the picture isn’t pretty.

But the economic picture is probably made even uglier since Greece joined the European Union in 2001.   By becoming a member, Greece surrendered its ability to control its own currency, the drachma.  Thus, when the financial crisis of 2007 clobbered the economy, Greece was incapable of devaluing its currency-a commonly used response to an economic depression that attempts to jump start the economy by making exports less expensive for customers in other countries.  But with EU bureaucrats in Brussels calling the shots in Athens, no such luck.

And the government?  Well, let’s leave it at this:  even if the government is rock solid, when you kick out two legs of a three legged stool, you’re not left with much.  And that’s not even counting the scars left by the savage civil war of 1946-1949 and the military coup of 1967-1974.

 A Resilience We Don’t Understand?

One of the books on our “required reading” list for us Roads Scholars was Modern Greece:    What Everyone Needs To Know by Yale historian and professor Stathis Kalyvas.  A Greek himself, Kalyvas admits to being, on occasion, puzzled by the resilience his nation has displayed time and again in the face of invasion, economic collapse, and civil strife.

So, what can you say?  Perhaps the Greeks are just too hard headed to know when they’re licked.  Can the same be said, more broadly, of Western Civilization?  One can only hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s All Greek To Me. Part I.

Greece - Swalm 1

On As A Passenger.  Off As Cargo.

I just returned from my trip to Greece.  As you may remember from a previous post, I went with Dean, an old friend.  A few, quick reflections.

Go If You Can.  And, For My Money, A Good Touring Company Is Worth It.

We went with Road Scholar, a pun that says a good deal about the sort of people who sign up for the trips this company leads around the world: retired college professors, libriarians, and such like.  But there wasn’t a final exam on the vast amount of information that our extremely knowledgeable and friendly Greek guide, Eleni Petroutsou, imparted to us during the course of the week we spent with her bussing around the mainland. And then continued aboard the smallish ship, Aegean Odyssey,  cruising from island to lovely island for the following week.

Greece sunset view

No, the real exam came months earlier:  our bank accounts.  And it was a tough one.  On more than one occasion I heard the old gag, “We’re spending our children’s inheritance.” But, since I estimate that at least 60% of our 30 some Road Scholar participants were retired government workers (Dean estimated more like 90%), they might just as well have said, “We’re spending the inheritance of the children of the taxpayers who are so generously supporting us.”  But who would snicker at that?

Your Required Reading.

Well in advance of the trip, the company sent us a hefty list of suggested books on Greece.  I ordered most of them.  And read most of those. Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi left me cold.  So did Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, which surprised me given its exalted reputation.  Of these two books, I followed the sage advice that I heard somewhere not long ago, “There are too many good books to spend time on ones you don’t like.”

By now, you know I’m a sucker for history.  A couple of the books I’d recommend would be Modern Greece, What Everyone Needs to Know and Introducing the Ancient Greeks, From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind.  

Modern Greece was particularly interesting.  Like many others, I suppose, I’d imagined that Greek history ended pretty much ended 2400 years ago with the close of the classical Golden Age and didn’t start again until the financial crisis of 2008.  Wrong.  Before winning its War of Independence from the Ottomans in 1821, Greece endured 400 years of Ottoman/Turk occupation.  While our guide Elani did her best to play things down the middle, there was little question as to where she stood in regards to Greece’s long and glorious, but at times, tormented history.

For those really interested in cramming, here are some of the others:  The Parthenon, Athens, The Greeks, An Illustrated History, Greek Mythology, A Traveler’s Guide.  (I gave this one a pass also; seemed like a bunch of implausible fairy tales.  Although our expert guide made a good case that these apparently anarchic stories often go a long way toward explaining the more obscure aspects of the prehistoric Greek world.)

On my own, I also took the new Kindle my wife gave me for Christmas for a spin, rereading Zorba the Greek (the first time was decades ago).  I should have listened to my own better angels and quit long before I reached the bitter end; talk about unbridled nihilism.   Why this book is so widely praised is a mystery to me.  Well, not really.  It must be for many of the same reasons that Hollywood cranks out so many profitable stinkers.

And the worst of it?  It didn’t even have the courtesy to lull me to sleep on the excruciatingly painful and interminable flights to and from Zorba land.  Airlines!  Where they keep making the seats smaller.  And the people bigger.

Cruisin’

On the last day of the trip, I was savoring breakfast on the sun drenched fantail of the Odyssey in the port of Piraeus.  You know, my usual morning fare: an unlimited selection of eggs, meats, fruits, cereals, cheeses, grilled vegetables, juices, desserts, etc., etc.

Now, does that goofy headline make sense?  “The kind of cruise where you get on as a passenger.  And get off as cargo.”  Remarkably, however, when I fearfully stepped on the scale on my return home, I actually seemed to have lost a bit of weight.  Guess that airline food is good for something.

That morning was also a last chance to visit with some of my fellow Scholars. Among them was a woman, Kristen, from Telluride, Colorado.  She and I had a tenuous connection through my cousin’s daughter, Denver chef Carrie Baird.  Carrie was a near finalist in this year’s Top Chef Colorado show.  At least one episode had been filmed in Telluride.  Kristen had seen some of the shoot.  You heard it here: six degrees must be a reality.

As we lingered over breakfast, a cruise ship about the size of a small-correction, medium-sized city shoe horned it’s way into port and pulled into a slip to our right.  The monster towered above our heads and took at least five minutes to lumber past us.  Lilliputian by comparison, I don’t doubt that our vessel would have been able to cut neat figure eights in the leviathon’s swimming pool.

And that was the beauty of the Aegean Odyssey.  Plenty big enough for all the creature comforts.  But small enough that our relatively modest passenger manifest didn’t completely overwhelm the equally smallish, quaint island villages where we made landfall.

And Eleni wasn’t just a smart cookie.  She also had sharp enough elbows to make sure that we got into town, saw the antiquities, and did our scholarly thing ahead of the leviathons’ mobs that usually followed so closely on our heels.

 

 

 

 

Old Dog, New Tricks

uber 650x400

In my last post, I discussed my recent trip to Washington for the Colorado Capital Conference.  While the event was interesting, it was also disheartening to marinate in the unhealthy atmosphere of the D.C. political miasma-even for a few days.

However, on the last night of the event, a “happy mistake” at the hotel caused me to miss the scheduled trip to watch the famed Evening Parade at the Marine Corps Barracks.  In truth, I was not too downcast; I had to catch an early flight the next morning and the Parade would run late.  Maybe next time.

Instead, I asked the concierge for his recommendation for a good place to get oysters.  After all, D.C. is a lot closer to the Chesapeake Bay than Denver is; how could I go wrong?

He recommended Hank’s Oyster Bar.  So, after a short cab ride, I found myself at a quiet table on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.  The concierge knew what he was talking about; Hank’s slippery little rascals went down very satisfactorily.

But as I sat waiting for my dinner to come, I began thinking about getting back to the hotel.  And giving Uber a try.  After all, my kids use it routinely and like it.  And when I had been in the Legislature, I had enthusiastically supported allowing it and Lyft to compete with traditional cab companies.

Thus, old dog and grandpa that I may be, I went to the App Store on my iPhone and loaded up the Uber app.  If my kids could see me now!

So, when dinner was over, I put in a request for my first Uber ride.  And there, as I watched transfixed, the little car icon on my phone began making its way toward me.  Soon enough, the real thing pulled up in front of the restaurant.  I got in and was back at the hotel in about the same amount of time as the taxi ride in the other direction.  But at a lower price and without the hassle of having to dig out my wallet for the cash or a credit card to pay the fare; all that was built right into the app.

I repeated the process well before the crack of dawn the next day for the ride to Dulles. With the same satisfactory results.

Would I use Uber or Lyft again?  Absolutely.  Now if I can just persuade my skeptical wife to give it a try on our upcoming visit to Boston.

 

Into the Swamp

Capital Washington DC

I had breakfast with Joe Rice last winter; it had been quite a while since we had seen one another.  We served together in the Legislature for two years.  While we didn’t always see eye to eye-he’s a Democrat-Joe was a good legislator.

But he was also, perhaps, foolhardy at times.  He sponsored the bill to raise car registration fees for highway improvements.  It was an end run around TABOR, the provision in the Colorado constitution that requires voter approval for tax increases.  Drivers-voters, in other words-hated it.  So they threw Joe out after only one term.  I never quite figured out why Democratic leaders allowed Joe, who represented a very competitive district, to carry the bill.

But, then again, Joe’s a Colonel in the Army who’s done several tours in Iraq.  I don’t imagine that angry voters put much of a scare in him.

Over breakfast, Joe suggested that I apply for the 2017 Capital Conference in Washington.  I did, was accepted (I suspect that Joe had his thumb on the scale on my behalf), and so, I  recently found myself in the D.C. swamp.  When they describe the place as a swamp, it’s both literally and figuratively true:  while the temperature was in the 90’s during the conference, with the humidity, the heat index said it was in the 100’s.  By the time we finished the three block death march from our downtown hotel to the Capital, men were sweating through their suit coats.

The figurative swamp is harder to describe.  Let alone understand.  And that’s just what Washington politicians and bureaucrats, no doubt, intend: like mushrooms, they do their best to keep the rest of us in the dark and under a pile of manure.  Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts.

The event was co-hosted by Colorado’s two U.S. Senators, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner.  At the opening reception, we got a load of happy talk by members of our Congressional delegation about how bipartisanship guides “the important work” of what gets done in Washington. While I’m sure that many of those at the conference like to think that’s how things operate, I suspect that a good deal fewer really believed it.  Especially given the toxic nature of politics in our country these days.

Questions about “why can’t Washington get anything done?” were common.

For my money, Senator Bennet gave the best answer:  “It’s supposed to be hard to get things done,” he replied.  “That’s the whole point of the separation of powers and the checks and balances set out in the Constitution.”  I expect what attendees really meant when they asked the question is, “Why aren’t they passing the legislation want.”

Conspicuous by their absence were questions about how much longer we are going to be fighting bloody, costly wars all over the world. Wars that, if nearly 20 years of futility is long enough to judge, we aren’t going to win and which are doing little more than kicking over more hornets’ nests.

Madeline Albright, the former Secretary State, was one of the speakers.  It’s not infrequently that I suffer from delayed intelligence.  And during the brief Q&A following her talk that the syndrome hit me again: I didn’t think of asking the war question of someone who was pretty well qualified to address the issue until the opportunity was gone.

But during a break I did have the chance to pull Senator Gardner aside and ask him, “How much longer are we going to be fighting all these crazy wars?”  I have a bit of an in with Cory; he and I served two years together in the Colorado House.  “I’ve talked,” I told him, “with several other people here at the conference and we just don’t get the point of these endless wars.”  Although I didn’t mention it to Cory, a couple of the people at the conference who agreed with me was a prominent Denver businessman who has made a fortune selling furniture and a Fountain rancher whose missing finger tip was mute testimony to his work around farm equipment.

“Spencer,” Cory responded, his face clouded over with its characteristic intensity,  “if you knew what we know, what we hear about in our secret briefings here at the Capital” (he gestured vaguely to his left), “you would understand.”

No, I’m sorry, I don’t understand.  Our government has had us continuously fighting wars for over 16 years and they can’t tell us “Why?”  Preposterous is not a strong enough.  Given the staggering costs in terms of broken bodies, minds, and families, inexcusable is probably more like it.

Unfortunately, however, the hits just kept on coming.

On the next day, we were addressed by the South Korean Ambassador to the U.S., Awn Ho-young.  He touted, of course, the warm relationship between his country and the U.S.  He highlighted the bloody price American G.I.s played in saving his country from communist aggression when the North swarmed across the 38th parallel in 1950.  “When we were invaded,” said the Ambassador, “we were the poorest country in the world.  We badly needed your help.”

It got creepy, therefore, when Mr. Ho-young to told us how important it is that the close military ties between his country and the U.S. be continued.

“Now,” he boasted, apparently not recognizing how weird his argument was, “South Korea’s GDP is just behind Japan’s-and we’re gaining on them quickly.”  But if that’s true, why do we still have nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea?

Is the ambassador anticipating a military confrontation with Japan?  Hardly.  It’s North Korea’s nut job dictator, Kim Jong-un, as we hear in the news almost daily, that’s rattling the saber.  But by comparison with North Korea’s 90 pound weakling economy, South Korea’s is now a muscle bound Charles Atlas.  And the same is true when you compare the two nations’ populations, military expenditures, and per capita GDPs.

The signature campaign issue that propelled President Trump to a stunning upset victory was his promise to build the Mexican wall to defend the U.S. border.  Not defend a Korean border half a world away from our shores.

Would it make sense for this county to have a robust missile defense system to protect the continental U.S. from the North Korean dictator’s insane threats?  Absolutely.  But the 30,000 U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula probably look like no more than a tempting target to the mad man.  Especially given that the newly elected South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has suspended the deployment of a U.S. antimissile system in South Korea that could defend our troops.

How weird is this?  Putting thousands of American lives at risk for a country that refuses to give them the tools to defend themselves?

For my money?  Come home America.  And quit letting establishment political hacks in the Washington swamp, both Republican and Democrat, keep dragging us into costly, bloody, futile wars.