Saturday, January 31, 2009


When you drive into Vicksburg, site of a Civil War battle, you get a brochure. It mentions Lincoln' words: "Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket." Then you go to the visitors' center, and you hear, "Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket." Afterwards you walk though the small museum to a large map, where the first words you hear are, "Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket."

The National Military Park of Vickburg celebrates the crucial battle that won the west in the American Civil War. But battles are such complicated things, and this one so complicated that students of military history study it assiduously and probably write thousands of dull papers about it, titled things like "Vicksburg, The Key." In order to fully understand it, non-military types must grasp an array of subjects : geography, history, politics, and 19th century technology.

And so, the museum simply beats you over the head with it all. Again and again. Yes, it's somewhat dull at first. But over time, as you drive across the strange, undulating landscape marked by hundreds of memorials—like an elongated graveyard—you begin to understand it all. The parallel lines, the assaults, the redoubts, redans, and lunettes. And you begin to forgive them for their ceaseless repetition of the themes, the dull recounting of facts. It all starts to become clear.

Suddenly, you see the battle in all of its fascinating detail. The Gibraltar of the Mississippi. The fearless and brutal Grant moving his troops at dazzling speed. While Pemberton and Johnston and Jefferson Davis prevaricate and fumble. And then, the guts and determination of Sherman and Porter bring them to heel. The suffering of the people, the righteousness of the victors. It's quite a story, once you get the backstory.

The best part of the park, however, is the restored gunboat Cairo. It was an ironclad river-battle ship, sunk during the war and buried in silt in the Yazoo River. Raised and restored in as much detail as possible, it opens a window on 19th century naval culture and technology. There also is an interesting video about the restoration. Needless to say, it opens with the words, "Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Houston: a million bizarre little pieces

Houston is admittedly an ugly place. From one end to another, it bristles with car dealerships and chain restaurants. People drive in big cars from neighborhoods without sidewalks to malls without sidewalks. They walk (some waddle) into thousands stores, under the lights of a hundred thousand branded signs—ok, enough. Houston is filled with strip malls. It's a picture no one needs to paint.

That said, for all the scorn poured on it, Houston is a surprisingly diverse city—more authentically diverse than, say, Austin. It's also a big food city. There might be strip malls, but a single one can have a Japanese, Vietnamese and Turkish restaurant—many of them really good. There is even a supermarket specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine, the first time I'd ever been in one. We had terrific Thai food and the best bowl of Vietnamese noodles since a hole in the wall in Hue. It was all tasty.

For tourism, we asked my sister for a trip to the National Museum of Funerary History, which was suggested by one of my Facebook friends. It currently has an exhibit of a working 1900-era coffin manufacturer. My sister thought it sounded ghoulish. She had a point (but no imagination).

Instead, she took us to something that is, in a way, even more strange: NASA and the Johnson Space Center. (Pop quiz: why is the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Answer: because then-VP Lyndon B. Johnson put it there.) It's part McDonalds-Playland, and part very serious and sober history of the US Space Program. There are many very cool things: big rockets, full scale models of Skylab, moon rocks, knowledgeable staff—I've never been to a museum where the curators knew so much.

But I have to say there's something very odd about it all. Every single staff member lives convinced that going into space is the apex of human ambition. There is nothing cooler, greater, or more impressive than climbing into a tin can, strapping yourself to a rocket, and blasting into space. I admit it's really cool, and I'd love to take the ride. But if I had to hang out with those people all day I'd never make it. They were so clean cut, so dedicated, so driven, and so thoroughly humorless and boring, that I'd have to shoot myself and several of them long before I made it through the program.

Even so, NASA comes well recommended from me.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Road Trip, Help Wanted

After logging several hundred thousand miles in the last few years, we can find our way to most places without help. But Nicole and I have now plotted a long road trip south, and no one we know believes we can actually bring it to a successful conclusion. Or start, for that matter. Since we've announced our intentions, we have met with a chorus of disbelief.

On the one side are car-skeptics. We're doing the trip in a ten-year-old Toyota, our second car, which I keep meticulously maintained under the hood. It looks terrible, but this really doesn't matter—or so you might think. Those who know us universally believe that the single most important indicator of a car's health is its paint job. Second is upholstery. Our decision to sally forth in a car without leather has been a sore trial for our loved ones.

Next comes the trip itself. How shall we go? One might think that we would have the good sense to consult a map. But who needs a map when you have relatives? My in-laws each possess a remarkably detailed internal map of the entire tri-state area. Ask them how to go anywhere—no, don't bother asking, simply tell them you're going somewhere, and a remarkable stream of information will pour forth.

"Ok, you need to take the 143, then get on to the Taconic, go south until you hit the Henry Hudson, then go onto the Parkway—no, you're going in the morning, so there's construction on the Parkway. Sorry, stay on the Henry Hudson until the Bridge, get off at Tappan Zee, turn into Reed's Ice Cream, go through the parking lot, and take the right exit in front of the white house with the purple cow in front, and then get onto the Turnpike, which should take you down to 81."

For fun, you ask, "Are you sure the cow is purple?"

"They've had that cow—it's ceramic—since 2004, but if they've removed it or painted it some other color, just look for Moorpark."

"Is that a nursing home?"

"No, it's a Jewish deli. They have great rye bagels, you should pick some up for the road. Actually, come to think of it, if you want some great rye bagels…"

"I don't want rye bagels."

"You should not get off at Tappan Zee, but instead stay on the Connector until you get to Elizabethtown…"

In my inlaws' defense, I have never endured traffic during hundreds of trips with them through some of worst stretches of New York highways. But I simply don't care as much as they do about avoiding traffic. (Come to think of it, I don't think I care about any single thing on God's great green earth as much as they do about avoiding traffic).

So you see, we set off armed with a set of these directions—but immediately dropped them in favor of a Rand McNally road atlas. It guided us along a similar route down through New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and then Texas.

There, we picked up an entirely different set of directions, this time from my beloved relative. She has lived in Houston for almost 13 years and has learned to navigate it—I can only surmise-by getting lost in it most of the time. She's a geophysicist and only moderately absentminded as those people go. Still, she can get up from a dinner party, head towards the bathroom, return somehow with a handful of laundry, pass back by the dinner party wondering what all the people are doing there, put the wash in, wander back to the kitchen, remove a leftover bowl of fried rice from the fridge, take a few bites, and then suddenly remember the dinner party. She'll then rush back to her guests, sit down, when she realizes she has to get up again to go to the bathroom.

Her instructions had an ethereal quality.

"Ok where are you? Are you on Merchant St?"


"Ok, when you pass the pizza place, go to the 2nd or 3rd light and turn left at the next street. I think it's Pine-something."

You continue on. The second light is for Wetherford St., the third is for Courtland Court. The fourth is for Nottingham Oaks Blvd. Then you pass over some railroad tracks into a business district. Finally you say, "We did pass a Nottingham Oaks."

"Yes, that's it! Pine, Oaks, what's the difference. I knew it was a tree."

In this way we arrived safely in Houston. We got a warm welcome. Then somebody may have said, "You drove from Connecticut? It's amazing you got all that way without leather."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

To Omotepe

(image is Nicole, swaddled in gnats, with her game face on).

The volcanic island that looms out of Lake Nicaragua has been described as one of the most magical and fantastical places on earth. The trip to get there, however, is an all too familiar slog through the vagaries of the underdeveloped Nicaraguan tourist industry.

A minibus (which costs $15) drove us to the dock at San Jorge, where the driver (who had no $5 bills) took payment. I was able to pay only by emptying my pockets of every spare dollar and piece of Nicaraguan money I had. That left me on the dock of a small, poor town with a $20 bill—a fantastical sum, considering that the boat itself cost less than $1 and they had no change.

Enter Juan, a pint-sized man who offered to help us with everything. He showed us where the boat would come, how much it would cost, and then tried to find some change for us. There were no money changers near the docks, but there were stores. Soon, Juan was running along the street with our $20 bill, going into every place looking to buy a bottle of water. Finally we watched in dismay as he ran up a hill and out of sight. We figured we'd never see our $20 again.

In all our travels we've only been robbed once. (Unless you count taxi drivers. Once, we were lost in China, for example, and needed a ride to see the terra cotta warriors. A taxi driver, scratched his head, made a great show of calculation, and said "Five dollar." We agreed, got into his car, and he drove us exactly 100 yards to the gate, which was just out of view. With much laughter, we paid him in full.).

But not this time. We waited ten minutes and he soon appeared, sprinting down the hill with our water bottle and change. "A tip?" he asked. We gave him about $7. He seemed happy.

The boat ride was hot and fly-ridden. By fly-ridden, I mean that we were, quite literally, covered in tiny flies. They didn't bite, but they were good at attaching themselves to us and drowning in our sweat. Nicole found this particularly unpleasant, Needless to say, we arrived in a terrific mood.

Hotel Terrasol: Grenada

Year ago, I was attending a business meeting with a client in Silicon Valley. He was from out of town, but he had formerly lived in San Jose, and like many Californians, was obsessed with food. During his brief visit, he insisted on revisiting all of his favorite culinary haunts, one of which, oddly enough, was Dragers Supermarket in Los Altos. We ended up talking business at a card table in the parking lot, while he shoveled down a quart of chicken salad with a plastic fork.

Flash forward to today. We are staying at the Hotel Terrasol, where the restaurant serves up California-style cuisine using fresh, local Nicaraguan ingredients. For two days, we feasted on octopus pasta, chicken in papaya and rum sauce with peppers, and pork with cilantro and sour orange. I spent some time talking with Victor, the chef, and, to make the very obvious point being labored to death here, he was the executive chef at Dragers at the very time I was dragged to that weird parking lot lunch.

In any case, when in Grenada, you must eat at the Hotel Terrasol. Stay there too, it's quite nice.

Grenada, Nicaragua

You can spend an exceptionally long time in Latin America without admiring a building. This isn't a statement of prejudice, but of fact. The Spanish conquistadors built beastly churches and vast public squares that look like they were designed chiefly for executing heretics (this was one of their functions). The newly independent countries complimented them with ponderous Neo-classical buildings and ghastly Beaux-Arts opera houses. Seeing them, you must always be ready with words like "stately," "impressive," and "imaginative." I'd advise staying away from more accurate adjectives like "overbearing," "squat," and "horrid." Your fellow travelers, mostly eager 20 year old backpackers and beaded retirees, will think that you have no sensitivity for other cultures.

Nicaragua's jewel city Grenada is the exception that proves the rule. We dropped our things at our hotel and sauntered out into a hot, steamy afternoon. The town square was small and was not particularly suited for beheadings. In each of its four corners, it had a pleasant tree bower where you could get a vigoron, a dish of steamed plantains, salad, and pork rind, served on a banana leaf. This was good stuff, even though they didn't serve beer.

"It's a family park," explained the restaurant proprietor.

Grenada is filled with little colonnades and arcades, brightly painted churches and courtyard buildings that burst from the inside with lush gardens. It's a clean, peaceful town that wears its age well.

Road to Grenada

Crossing to Nicaragua was a long, hot, and dull process, punctuated by endless polite no-thank-you's to men who changed money, women who made cheese tortillas, and children who wanted a peso for no particular reason at all.

One feature of the border deserves comment. When you pass through Nicaraguan customs, you stand in line before a customs official, who sits at a small table. On top of it sits a regulation-sized stoplight. You hand him your declaration, he looks it over, and then directs you to push a button. At the point, the stoplight changes from red to green, and you can go. Don't try to dispense with the custom, it doesn't work.

Then it was on to Nicaragua, which is completely different. Most of my countrymen believe that below the United States are a large number of exactly similar countries, with borders arbitrarily drawn between them. You can't really blame them. Mostly we only see them in the context of a storm or war, which tends to blur finer cultural distinctions.

For the record, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are entirely different places. Nicaraguans (Nicos) despise Costa Ricans (Ticos). Ticos return the insult with interest by ignoring their northern neighbors. Ticos shop in bland, orderly Western supermarkets. Nicos shop in bazaars to the deafening sound of dozens of stereo systems. Tican towns are well built, with lots of stone, tiled roofs, and gardens. Nicos have a lot less money, so they build with tin and baling wire.

When you cross the border, even the landscape changes from a dry jungle to more open spaces of poor ranches and sparse trees. Soon, on the right, Lake Nicaragua heaves into view: beautiful, black as you might imagine, with the twin volcanic island Ometepe looming up like a just awakened giant.