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Archive for the ‘Art’

The (real) music of Vietnam

I admit I’m something of a music snob. American pop music (most of it, anyway) has long struck me as gimmicky, predictable, and empty of genuine feeling. Whatever version of pop it is — straight-up ballad, hip hop, R&B, emo/rock, or country — it generally leaves me cold and critical. In the past my musical taste prejudices have put strains on relationships with some of the people I’m closest to. It’s not my most endearing quality. So to anyone I may have offended or grated upon in the past, I extend my sincerest apologies. Until I got to Vietnam, I didn’t realize how good pop music is in the States.

Vietnamese pop basically consists of the following: a backing track of canned drums and synthesized accompaniment; a they’ll-have-to-pry-this-karaoke-mic-from-my-hands singer, dripping with bathos, who churns again and again through the chorus’s five-note melody and lyrical refrain (which I cannot understand, but probably means something like, “I’m trying to drill this into your head, though you might prefer an actual dri-i-ill”); a break for an incongruous and off-key ‘80s hair-metal guitar solo; and finally the coda, which typically signals that the end of the song is near, but in Vietnam it means that the chorus will be repeated and repeated until the singer collapses under the weight of his or her own melodrama. There follows a quiet interlude when the fallen singer is dragged away from the microphone, whence a new one shuffles into place and begins the same song from the top.

I wouldn’t be so tough on Vietnam’s pop if its traditional music weren’t so rich and texturally interesting, with unique, native instruments and beguiling vocal techniques. Unfortunately (for anyone stuck in the back of a Vietnamese taxi during a traffic jam), there is an un-bridged chasm between the complexity and creativity of Vietnam’s traditional music and the enervating drone of its pappy pop. But let’s focus on the positive and take a look at some examples of traditional music…

Here’s a sampling of some music you’ll hear on a visit to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, kicked off by a quicksilvery dàn bâu line:

Next, here’s a musical performance from the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi. The music begins at 0:33. Sorry for the poor quality of the video; I have to practice shaking the camera violently in case I ever get the chance to film Bigfoot.

And a bit more from the water puppet show, with beautiful vocals (and puppets!):

Finally, here’s a bit of video from a traditional dance show we caught in Mai Chau, Vietnam. The bamboo poles — more than merely crushing the bare feet of any misguided tourist who later dared to attempt this dance, cough, cough — provide percussion behind the accordion and mandolin.

Thanks for reading (and watching and listening)!

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Angkor Wat Week! Day four…

I had a long Wednesday ahead of me, and I wanted to get the earliest possible start, so I left the guesthouse at 5 a.m. to find a tuk-tuk driver. Still smarting from nine hours spent on a bike seat the day before, I was really looking forward to the sweet, forgiving padding of a tuk-tuk carriage. I hadn’t walked thirty feet when a driver zoomed up to me. I told him all the places I’d plotted to go, most of which were quite a distance from Siem Reap. There was no way a tuk-tuk could navigate some of the roads we’d have to travel to fit them all in, he told me, so I’d have to go by motorbike or scratch some of the stops. Against the protest of my hind end, I opted for the motorbike. We agreed on a price ($32), borrowed a second helmet from another driver, and tore off into the darkness, leaving the tuk-tuk trailer and its oh-so-sweet, oh-so-soft seat to languish at the side of the road.

[One point of interest: Lonely Planet sorely understates the price of a hiring a driver. You can expect to pay $10-15 for a day’s worth of shuttling around in the vicinity of Angkor Wat by motorbike, $20-25 by tuk-tuk, depending on the distance. As is the way, when gas prices increase, so will these.]

Our first destination was Beng Mealea, an Angkor Wat-era palace more than 70 kilometers from Siem Reap. The first 40 km of the ride saw us speeding down the well-paved and relatively boring National Road 6, until we broke off to the north shortly after sunrise, heading down a cratered, mixed-surface road that connects several tiny villages, where the residents were just beginning to stir. Cico, my driver, had spent his entire life in Siem Reap but had never seen Beng Mealea, and he seemed as eager as I did to tromp around the ruins. Amazingly, on arriving we found we had the place completely to ourselves.

Abandoned for centuries to the closing maw of the forest, Beng Mealea is one of the most ruined of the ruins. Most of the former construction has been reduced to an enormous pile of rubble within the decaying palace walls. What remains standing is grown over with groping tree roots and a brilliant layer of moss. The early morning sunlight slicing through the foliage gave the scene a romantic quality; were there not a long, wooden walkway coursing around the grounds (or a man selling $5 admission tickets at the entrance), it would be easy to trick yourself into believing you had discovered this marvel for yourself. Due to its distance from the main circuit around Angkor Wat, it’s probably the least visited of the ancient sites, but one that’s definitely worth a stop if you have time.

Next we rumbled down rough and muddy roads between Beng Mealea and our second stop, the enchanting river carvings at Kbal Spean. A night of heavy rains had left the last half of the way in awful shape, but Cico managed somehow to keep the tires churning on the four-inch tendons of dry dirt and rock between prodigious pools of sludge. After 90 minutes of repetitive trauma to my hind end, the mile-long hike required to reach the carvings was therapeutic.

The river rocks are engraved with wonderful images of Hindu deities and animals, and Sanskrit inscriptions. Somehow they remain well defined and vivid despite being run over by wind, rain, and river water, not to mention the sediment it carries with it, for hundreds of years. The area isn’t very well marked, and I would have missed most of the carvings had not a guard volunteered to show a few of us around, offering what information he could in broken English. Thanks to him, Kbal Spean was one of the highlights of my trip.

Nearing midday now, the air was as humid as a cloud and the sun oppressively hot, even beneath the forest canopy, so before heading back I stopped for a few minutes at the riverside for some swigs from my water bottle and to shake the crumby remnants of an addled bag of sugar crackers into my mouth. Lunched and refreshed, I rejoined Cico at the trailhead and we motored onward.

Banteay Srei is simply incredible, but I don’t recommend going there in the late morning or early afternoon. It features the most ornate and beautiful relief work of any of the temples I visited, but provides little in the way of shade, and its character gets washed out by the potent midday sun. It’s certainly the calmest time to visit, as most of the tourist groups disappear to Siem Reap during the lunch hours, but there is a reason they do so.

Finally, after failing to make it through the gate the prior day, I rounded this day out with a stop at Ta Prohm. Just in case I ran out of time before I got a chance to go back and see it, I had belittled Ta Prohm in my head as “nothing special, just more crumbling stone blocks and some gnarly trees.” And I was right, except for the “nothing special” part. The place is instantly memorable. The trees are not merely gnarly, but the gnarliest – their gargantuan roots cascade like dam-bursts over the sides of meter-thick sandstone walls, which buckle and crack beneath their weight. If these trees could spring to life and do battle like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ents, we’d all be doomed.

As Wednesday afternoon expired into darkness, likewise did my visitor’s pass pass, so to speak. I was OK with it, though. After three days and more than a dozen temples, I was finally ruined for ruins. Thursday morning would see me to the floating village and flooded forest of Kompong Phhluk. This was feeling more like Lord of the Rings all the time.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day three…

Sorry for the infrequent posting. Angkor Wat Week is turning into Angkor Wat Fortnight due a lack of internet access. Without further ado…

Finding myself to be pretty worthless after a thorough sun-soaking and a stomach full of lunch on my first full day in Siem Reap, I planned an ambitious itinerary for day two, fittingly called Tuesday. I was going to bike what’s known as the Big Circuit, a 26-km loop that starts at the south end of Angkor Wat and connects a dozen or so other major places of interest before returning to the same spot. The last stop on the circuit, and the one I was most excited to see, would be Ta Prohm, a setting so remarkable it was featured prominently in the movie Tomb Raider. Alas, neither the brilliant set location nor Angelina Jolie could redeem the film, which offered less mental nourishment than your average coma.

I won’t bore you by describing all the temples I visited. Seeing temples, even those as astonishing and varied as those around Siem Reap, illustrates a classic Econ-101 concept: diminishing marginal utility. The first temple you see (particularly if, like most people, you begin at Angkor Wat) is revelatory. You are wowed by its vastness, its detail, and the fact that it predates John McCain. You want to spend hours examining every nook and cranny, appreciating its miles of carvings, photographing it from every angle and in every possible light. (These temples give amateur photographers, myself included, a false sense of confidence in their abilities.) But after absorbing the first one, each additional temple you visit, though impressive for all the aforementioned reasons, drops your jaw a little less. Your utility gradually slopes downward, until you’ve reached temple number eight or fifteen or twenty-three and you’re content to give a perfunctory “Wow, that’s really old… and quite ruined,” and simply snap an off-kilter and blurry photo from the seat of your tuk-tuk as you rumble by.

Reading about them one after another, I would imagine, descends a much steeper slope.

[But if you’re going to be in the area, check out Preah Khan (pictured above: look for carved images changed from Buddhist to Hindu when a Hindu devotee became king, and the inscription carved by North Vietnamese soldiers, who hid out here in the early 1970’s), Neak Khan (left: formerly pools where purification rites were performed, check out the ornamental spouts in the shape of an elephant, lion, human, and rhino(?)), Tam So (below left: the tree enveloping the eastern entrance is amazing), and Pre Rup (below right: fabulous complex of stupas that looks stunning in the late afternoon).]

I’d nearly managed to complete the circuit by 2 pm, leaving only the famous Ta Prohm left to see. That’s when I made the regrettable decision to save Ta Prohm for sunset and instead head over to Bakong, a ninth-century temple that’s one of the earliest Khmer constructions, which lay a full twenty kilometers away. It was a decision at which only a drunk or a sunstroke victim would have arrived. I won’t say which I was, but off I went.

Halfway to Bakong a noncommittal shower blew over the area, and I took the meager sprinkle as a sign to stop to fuel up. I hadn’t eaten all day and was dead tired. I bought a pack of imitation-Oreos and a Fanta Orange from a pharmacy – easily the best part of traveling by bicycle is the guiltless justification to eat like a loosed three-year old during the ride and for a few meals afterward – and downed them both in a flash, expecting a reaction in my stomach that would send out a fizzy cataract whence they came in. Disappointingly, one never came.

The rain ceased and I started again toward Bakong, which the pharmacy cashier had told me was a mere five kilometers to the east. In fact it was probably twice that distance. The energy spike from the carbonated-drink-and-cookie porridge didn’t last very long, as it turned out. The kilometers piled up grudgingly on my churning legs, and I began to entertain those thoughts that sprout in your brain when you’re exhausted and not at all sure where you are. Had I missed a sign somewhere? Surely I’ve gone more than five kilometers by now, right? These people don’t even look Cambodian anymore. I must look ready to collapse; these ribby stray dogs keep licking their lips as I pass. Why do these dogs have lips?

At last I saw a sign for Bakong and turned down a narrow, paved road that soon gave way to a smooth, dirt path. I rounded a bend and the tiered figure of Bakong mercifully came into view. In a few moments I was staggering up its steps like Rocky Balboa gone to seed. Unfortunately there was little time for a victory dance upon reaching the top; ominous, charcoal-hued clouds were collecting to the east, and they looked ready to spill their contents as they drifted westward.

After a bit of exploring I abridged my visit to Bakong and got back on the bike, but I was beginning to dread the 20-km ride back to Ta Prohm, especially with a succession of lightning bolts slashing the sky in the distance, when I had the good fortune to meet a couple backpackers willing to let me hop in their tuk-tuk to hitch a ride back to Siem Reap. We made it back to town at about 4:45 p.m.

It appeared that the rain would hold off after all, so, ignoring the discomfort in my haunches, I mounted my metal steed to pedal to Ta Prohm for sunset. Again the rain came; though not sufficiently strong to make me turn back, it was dampening enough to make me doubt my judgment. I should have doubted harder.

I pulled up to Ta Prohm’s gate shortly after 5:30 p.m., which left me about 45 minutes to wander the ruins until sunset. Or so I thought.

Lonely Planet neglects to mention the rather important fact that visitors are not admitted entry into Ta Prohm (et al) after 5:30 p.m., which I found, after unsuccessfully lobbying the security guard to please bend the rule for someone who’d cycled 14 km only to arrive a few minutes late, to be non-negotiable. I had no choice but to climb back on the bike and ride, dispirited and suddenly doubly exhausted, back to town.

On a positive note, being rebuffed at Ta Prohm meant that I was passing by the southern end of Angkor Wat’s lovely moat as the sun sank into the horizon. I stopped for a few moments to take let the scene replenish my spirits – it was nearly as remarkable as the previous day’s sunrise had been – before returning to the road.

Arriving at the guesthouse at dark, I went upstairs and sprawled across the bed, taking stock of the day. My body was completely drained and aching from 80 km of pedaling in Cambodian heat, the last 28 of which were maddeningly for naught. I decided that wherever I was headed the next day, I’d be traveling on a well-padded seat.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day two…

I arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on Sunday afternoon, and after consulting the maps and advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook, I opted to rent a mountain bike for the next couple days to motor myself around the sights. In retrospect I won’t say it’s the optimal way to make the rounds in Cambodian August, but I really enjoyed the freedom to explore areas inaccessible to tuk-tuks and cars, not to mention the exercise. And there is something undeniably magical in approaching one of the vast, crumbling relics with little but your thoughts, the breeze, and the whirring of bike wheels scoring the scene.

Everyone who’s seen it says the sunrise at Angkor Wat is something to behold, a must during a visit to Siem Reap. That’s why, subduing the pull of my sluggish brain to fall back asleep, I tugged myself upright on Monday morning at 4:30, showered and tossed a couple bottles of water and some cookies into my backpack, and cycled across the river bridge and down the linear temple road, its chewed pavement lit only occasionally by the headlights of a passing car or tuk-tuk. Six-plus kilometers (and a $40 three-day pass) later, I pulled up to the entrance as first sunlight began to dissolve the predawn darkness. Across the moat, the looming towers and eight-meter high stone wall were silhouetted black against the sky, offering no glimpse of the immense temple behind them.

It wasn’t until I got beyond the wall that I saw it. At a distance of a few hundred meters, I could make out three jagged bullets rising up from the horizon. The sun was still submerged, but it shone a warm, orange light on the swirling clouds above the towers. I felt my way down the long, uneven, cobbled path, only looking down every few steps when I’d stumble over a proud stone. I paused for a few moments at the lotus pond on the north side of the walkway, where a couple dozen other gawkers were already camped out, some of them staring out from plastic chairs that lined the bank at the water’s edge. The view was mesmerizing: the striking figure of Angkor Wat, still in shadow and bathing in fluorescent sky, married to its perfect, inverted reflection on the serene surface of the pond. It’s one of those rare visions that, even as you experience it, you’re aware of its being indelibly etched into your memory.

As I traced my way around the halls at the perimeter, the accumulating sunlight began to wash over the epic works in bas-relief on the walls. Starting at the eastern entrance and walking clockwise around the palace, the elegant carvings relate the story of the gods creating heaven and earth by churning a sea of milk and follow with depictions of Khmer history, featuring frenetic scenes of war with the rival Chams and of a later civil war among themselves. Most of the carvings, now well into their ninth century in the open air, are remarkably well preserved.

At the interior of the palace, the five conical towers make a quincunx pattern – four towers form a square with the fifth tower, the tallest, at the center of the square. The size and complexity of their design and the intricacy of their detail are even more impressive viewed from up close. Each of the corner towers is accessible by a couple of narrow, worn staircases, but all the entry points were roped off on this particular day. Also, renovations were being undertaken on the middle tower, evidenced by scaffolding left in place on its south side.

After more than three hours at Angkor Wat, and with the sun now beginning to assert itself, I decided to push on toward Bayon, the spectacular and decaying ruins at the southern end of Angkor Thom, just a few kilometers up the road. Bayon is one of the more photogenic sites you’ll ever visit. Everywhere you stand inside its walls, sanguine-looking stone faces peer out at you from contoured towers. Each of the 59 towers features four Buddha images (said to resemble Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who ordered Bayon’s construction) facing north, south, east, and west. The stonework of has been for centuries completely exposed to the elements, and the erosion of the towers and reliefs has given them a kind of grotesque charm. Gaudí would have loved Bayon, pictured below.

A couple hundred meters north lies Baphuon, an enormous temple that will be extremely impressive when it’s put back together, but which is currently scurried over by men in hard hats and overseen by a crane. Whether it will be rebuilt to its former glory is another issue altogether. A restoration project undertaken decades ago saw Baphuon deconstructed and its building blocks carefully catalogued for later re-assemblage, but then the Khmer Rouge came to power and laid waste to the plans. Of course, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian people had bigger fish to fry than reworking some ruins. Among the items on the their to-do lists were avoiding starvation, escaping the arbitrary terror of the ruling party, and burying the millions of their countrymen who hadn’t been able to accomplish the first two.

You could spend an entire day visiting the various temples, terraces, and walkways within the walls of Angkor Thom – it’s nine square kilometers of fascinating history –- but it was nearing lunchtime, and I wanted to make just one last stop before

heading back to Siem Reap for some vittles. I was looking for Preah Palilay, a stupa at the northwest corner of Angkor Thom whose base has been shot through by the growth of several immense trees. On the way I met a wheelchair-bound painter who beckoned me to browse his work.

His name was Kim Leung, he said, and he sells his hand-painted canvases and postcards to support himself and his family. Besides having a personal story that makes you want to fork over your cash, his paintings were quite good, and I left with a sleeve full of postcards.

[Slightly off subject, there are an appalling number of people in Siem Reap – and the rest of Cambodia, I’m sure – whose missing limbs and appendages attest to the existence of leftover landmines in the Cambodian countryside. To learn more about it, visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum or its website.]

Over at Preah Palilay, I tromped up and down the ruins for a few minutes – one of the wonderful things about the Angkor Wat experience is the ability to interact with history, to climb over and run your fingers along it, rather than just stand before it and squint at a placard from ten paces – until my empty stomach gave a loud growl, signaling the end of the morning’s activities. Riding back by Kim Leung again, my front wheel caught on a stubborn tree root and I was flung awkwardly over the handlebars. I got up, mystified and mildly embarrassed, and began to brush myself off. His reaction was polite, even concerned, unlike that of a nearby worker, who’d fallen to his knees, weak with heaving laughter. I pulled the bike upright, climbed on, and hurried off, giggling to myself. It seemed like a good time for a lunch break.

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Flashpacking as art?

[With technology progressing so quickly and relentlessly, it's difficult to keep up with each new device/synergy/application/mashup. I'm still getting over the fact that my cell phone has an alarm clock AND a tip calculator in it...]

On the heels of advances like digital cameras that can geotag the locations where photos were taken, and in the heels (literally) of the latest generation of satellite-trackable athletic gear, GPS technology is now edging forward the boundaries of self-expression as well. But before we get into that, flashpackers, let’s catch up a bit.

In the past couple of years, digicam producers have been constantly innovative. It seems like every week, new models are released that up the industry standards for megapixels, zoom, video capture, auto-adjustment, even adorability. One of the more flashpacker-relevant advances is the fusion of digital cameras with global positioning systems. The first devices began to appear a couple years ago; accessories like the Sony GPS-CS1 could sync up with digicams to geotag (or identify GPS coordinates of) locations where photos were taken. The newest generation of cameras includes built-in GPS for geotagging on the fly: the GE E1050 and the upcoming Altek camera.

Moving into the athletic realm, Nike and Apple recently teamed up to give you the Nike + ipod. The Nike ‘+’ shoes have a tiny slot carved out in the heel of the left one, beneath the insert, into which you slide a sensor that communicates wirelessly with your ipod. As you run satellites relay information to the ipod, which displays your pace, distance, and calories burned, all the while continuously tickling your auditory nerve with your chosen workout jams. Pretty amazing.

Out-hustled but not outdone, Adidas has joined forces with a Japanese mobile service provider to counter with the GPS Run, an armband with a pouch that cradles your cell phone, whose function is analogous to the ipod in the above description, except that the phone is GPS-enabled. Strapped to your arm as you scurry about, the phone receives real-time information not only on your pace and distance, but also on your route. Assuming your phone also has mp3 playback, it’s a slight step up from the Nike + ipod, albeit one that’s currently only available in Japan.

OK, so we’ve covered digital cameras with built-in GPS and athletic equipment that communicates with satellites as you move around; where does the titularly promised ‘art’ come in? Here.

“Position art” is a concept created for Nokia’s N82 cellphone marketing campaign — I’m not shilling for Nokia, here, I just think it’s an interesting idea — and its occasionally hilarious, eccentric, self-styled genius mascot, Stavros.

Mating modern mapping technology with the human yens to explore and to create, position art turns human beings into paintbrushes, our movements into brush strokes, the planet into a canvas.

Here are some other examples of position art, some more rudimentary than others. But hey, as with all art, my ‘rudimentary’ might be your ‘devastatingly brilliant’.

To find out how to create position art using an N82, check out this blog.

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Flamenco lives!

A week into our family Barcelona trip, Whitney and I broke off to have Friday evening to ourselves. With the afternoon winding down, we stuffed a hip-pack full of books and took the metro to the Ramblas. We wandered around for a while before finding a suitable café with sidewalk seating. For more than two hours we chatted idly and read our books at the table, enjoying the lazing sun, polishing off a plate of assorted cheeses and bread and a bottle of red table wine. Ah, the life of a Spaniard.

Departing the café shortly after eight p.m., we had yet to choose the night’s next stop, so we meandered down the Ramblas in the direction of a metro station. We remembered a nearby club, Jazz Sí, and found our way there. Throughout the week Jazz Sí features live music performances by ensembles of university-student players. We had come to the club earlier in the week and listened to a competent four-piece jazz band, which started out quite well and sounded even better after a bottle of Estrella or two. The club was intimate, comprising maybe thirty sardine-tight seats downstairs, a small balcony (in reality little more than a walkway), and a stage not much larger than a billiards table.

Tonight’s music offering was flamenco, and the show would start at 8:45. We were just in time, and luckily so; the place was packed. I approached the bar to get a couple glasses of wine, throwing an elbow or two for prime positioning, and we set off to find seats, drinks in hand. The entire downstairs had already filled; Whit and I eventually improvised some seats on the floor of the balcony, our legs dangling freely above the crowd. Mildly besotted already from the afternoon’s vino, I wrapped an arm around a balcony rail and held my wine glass in the other, and I became suddenly aware of the possibility of dropping my glass on an surprised onlooker. I visualized myself being ripped from the balcony by my spindly legs, then dragged outside and assaulted with Spanish fists and salty language. I tightened my grip on my glass just as lights went down.

The emcee came to the stage to introduce the musicians to the audience. While my Spanish is generally sufficient to order entrees and find the nearest fire station, I had trouble understanding much of his introduction; the gist of it was that the musicians were students who came from longstanding flamenco families and who understood the music’s rich tradition. From the moment the trio (a singer, a guitarist, and a percussionist) took the stage, one thing was obvious: these were just kids. They couldn’t have been more than sixty-years old, combined. I braced for what might lie ahead.

Rather than grinding my teeth for the duration of the show, I listened intently, my mouth agape in amazement. These kids could really play! A guitar player myself, I couldn’t believe the sounds this young guitarist was coaxing out of his instrument. He colored the songs with left-handed flourishes up the fretboard and propelled them forward with rapid finger-picking and strumming with his right. The singer yowled with such passion and skill that he seemed to inhabit the words and melodies even as he shared them with a rapt crowd. They played for less than a half-hour, then left the stage to enthusiastic applause.

After the intermission they confidently took the stage again, now accompanied by a female dancer. Draped a bright, flowing, floor-length dress, she moved deftly across the stage for the entire second half, locked in with the rising and falling of the music. It was almost too much to take in one sitting. The music itself was overwhelming; the combination of music and dance brought tears to my eyes. To see these big-city university students performing cherished folk music, and performing it authentically and with humility and faith in the centuries-old tradition, was a moving testament to the flamenco’s enduring power.

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Let your ears wander (and your body will follow…)

Few things put me in a traveling frame of mind more readily than exotic music. You can show me pictures or tell me stories all day long, but the very moment I hear the deep, resonant tones of an mbira, the pliant harmonics of a dàn bau, or the droning of a sitar, I experience the sensation of being in a foreign place. Such is the power of music.

Before you take your next trip, or to lose yourself in reminiscence on a previous one, check out the National Geographic World Music archive. While it’s not an exhaustive compilation of musical styles, it does offer a substantial selection, searchable by artist, genre, or region. If you find something you fall in love with, you can purchase individual tracks for a buck apiece.

Whit and I have also invested in a handful of Rough Guide compilations, which are fantastic. They tend to feature a wide variety of styles and artists, and the liner notes are well-written and informative. If you’re looking for ways to satisfy your inner vagabond, music is a nice place to start, and it’s much cheaper than a plane ticket.

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Milonga: the late-night passion of Buenos Aires

Approaching midnight on our final day in Buenos Aires, Whitney and I put on our last remaining clean clothes, flagged down a taxi, and gave the driver an address on the other side of the city. “¿Van a Torquato Tasso?” he asked. “Sí,” I replied. This must be a popular spot, I thought. Or perhaps it was the only reasonable tourist destination this late on a Sunday night.

Two nights before we had been to a proper tango show a few blocks away at Bar Sur, with live music and professional dancers, handsomely attired and serious about their craft. Tonight we were headed to a milonga, one of BA’s most cherished traditions, where the people, rather than the professionals, come to tango.

We entered Torquato Tasso and skirted the edges of the dance floor, weaving haltingly between dancing duos, to reach the bar at the back of the room. There was no live band tonight, just four overhead speakers spilling out music and offering cues to the dancers below. The dance floor is about 40-feet wide by 25-feet long, and there are probably 100 feet gliding and spinning gracefully across it during a tango song. At the end of a set — about four songs in ten minutes — the dance partners break and return to tables scattered around the room.

During the break there is little verbal interaction between dancers. Instead the men silently look around the room, trying to catch a woman’s eyes. If they make eye contact, he invites her to dance with a tilt of his head and a subtle facial expression; this is called the cabezazo. If she returns the glance, she accepts his invitation. If she declines, he looks elsewhere. When the tango begins again, the floor quickly fills to capacity with newly-formed pairs of dancers of all ages and skill levels.

One of the interesting aspects of tango is how interpretive and communicative it is. If you watch ten different pairs of dancers, you’ll see ten different styles and steps. Some move brashly across the room, clinging loosely to one another and charging in bold steps through the crowd. Others lock in a tight embrace and revolve carefully around a small patch of floor. I also noticed several older men paired up with very young, inexperienced women. They would begin with a cordial introduction and some tentative steps; after a couple songs he would be deftly leading her through some very difficult-looking maneuvers.

It’s easy to see why tango is a national passion in Argentina. It’s a beautiful thing to watch: an intimate moment between complete strangers, designed and carried out by the slightest suggestions of their bodies, tender and forceful at the same time.

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53 Places to go in 2008

For a flashpacker, timing is everything. You want to hit destinations that still have some undiscovered gems, but a few fantastic restaurants and a great spa never hurt either. Forget the “hot” destination du jour, you need something fresh-faced and bushy-tailed.

The NY Times put out it’s 53 places to go in 2008 list and they’re really a mix of some hot spots, newcomers, less touristy alternatives and a few head-scratchers (Malawi, for real? I know Peace Corps volunteers that didn’t find it appealing). I’ve been to 11 on the list and a few more have been on my I-have-to-go-but-can’t-convince-anyone-else-to-come-with list. So, I thought I’d start a loose series on some of these 53 places and whether or not I thought they should be the “It” kids of 2008.

The first I want to explore is Essaouira, which I bypassed while traveling through Morocco when it wasn’t all that hot. The Times is pumping Essaouira as an alternative to overly-touristy Marrakesh with a popular hippie music and friendship festival that seems to be getting a lot of traction (the Times called it “a kind of Burning Man of Morocco”). I think the Times is on to something: festivals = authentic culture (as opposed to the throwback snake charmers of Marrakesh). No matter how charming a place’s history, you need an injection of au courant to keep the cheese factor at a minimum.

While Essaouira lacks the mad throngs, it still has the beach, the history (the medina is a UNESCO site, which is a plus in my book), the architecture, and, most importantly, it’s still Morocco and not Europe.


Another fantastic music festival I’ve always wanted to participate in is the World Sacred Music Festival in nearby Fes. Like Marrakesh, Fes can be overpopulated and overly touristy. On the other hand, it’s a gorgeous place and very unique. There’re still activities that remain daily rituals (mint tea at a cafe, a bath in a traditional hammam) and make the whole experience worth it. If you can time your trip to coincide with one of these festivals you might feel like you’ve dived into a fresh cultural milieu instead of a static recreation picture of Morocco in the Middle Ages.


Picture of the World Sacred Music Festival from the blog “A View from Fez

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Bookworms abroad

I pack my bags a heck of a lot. So much so that the pre-trip packing is not exciting in the least. For me, little induces dread like hauling my suitcase out of the attic. The one pre-trip ritual that I still absolutely love, though, is picking out the books I’m going to take. I usually try to take along literature from the country or region I’m visiting. Slightly geeky, yes. But, I always end up making a connection in art, culture, history, etc that I would have never found in-country if I hadn’t gone the immersion route.

So, I was excited to come across the site The Literary Traveler. This site is from a husband and wife team that bases loose tour itineraries around famous authors and their work. They also post articles about connections of great works of literature with sites.

While I love the theme, their focus is a little too Anglo-, Euro-centric for my travel tastes. (Who doesn’t make the connection between Dickens and London). Some of my recent travel reading has been Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina and tales about folk hero Xieng Mieng in Laos. Where can you go to get the good stuff?

Well, I found one site focusing on South Africa, which dug deeper than Mandela. I wish I had seen this site before I visited! The New Zealand Book Council provides nifty interactive map where you can click on a part of the country and see which authors are associated with the region.

The ultimate site is Biblio Travel. You simply put in the name of the city where you’re going and it spits out a list of books that take place in that city. I tried a few off the beaten path places and the site delivered — 3 books that take place in Timbuktu! Go check it out and start anticipating your next trip. It’s the best part of packing…

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