Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ice Khaus

Ice Khaus


February 2003, St. Petersburg, Russia – The mood of the crowd on the banks of the Neva River was jovial, despite the freezing temperatures. Reminiscent of previous times, St. Petersburg residents had donned their furry hats and heavy coats to stand in line – but this time, they waited not for bread, but for art. Frozen art.


Ten teams from Europe and Russia participated in St. Petersburg’s international ice sculpture competition. Now the masterpieces were on display in a giant walk-in freezer known as the “Ice House”. This temporary tent-like structure stood on the embankment in front of the 18th-century Peter and Paul Fortress, the birthplace of the city itself.


Spirits were high on this special occasion, the first of many events planned for this year’s 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg’s founding. Enthusiasts paraded across the Neva to join the line of frozen-art lovers (or frozen art-lovers). Kids constructed their own creations from the ubiquitous snow and ice and snow and ice.


Of course the Neva was frozen solid, except for one 12-square-meter pool formed by a large hole in the ice. This was the plunge pool for the local “Walrus Cub”, a group of hearty souls who exhort the health benefits of taking a daily dip. Many of the ice swimmers, know as morzhi, or walruses, have been paying regular visits to this spot for fifteen or twenty years. They claim the practice prevents colds, eliminates back and muscle pains and boosts energy.


On this gray day in February, a young “first-timer” stripped down to his shorts and took the plunge. He emerged from the icy waters and stood proudly with his arms above his head in the sign for Victory. He triumphed – not over a runny nose or back pain – but over his two buddies, who had just lost a bet. Snug in sheepskin jackets and snapping photos, the walrus’ pals agreed it was worth the fifty dollars to see their friend’s feat.


Inside the Ice House, the crowds were reviewing the results of the international ice sculpture competition. The contest invited competitors to sculpt on the theme of a “view”. They had three days to work with chainsaws and chisels, bottles of hot water, and 60 tons of ice imported from Sweden. (According to one Swedish representative, “the water of the Tormo [River] is very clean, which is why the cubes are so transparent.”)


The results ranged from the ancient to the abstract. Two teams portrayed Medusa of Gorgon, the feared Greek goddess whose icy stare turned subjects to stone. Other entries were more conceptual, such as the Czech piece Through my Window, which depicted an eye riding a wave of ice through a broken window.


Although temperatures in the Ice House were held between minus five and minus eight degrees Celsius, visitors strolled through as if they were at the Hermitage, admiring and critiquing each piece.


“My favorite sculpture is definitely Freedom,” said one guest, referring to the third-place winner, a Swedish depiction of a prisoner breaking his solid ice chains. “It is such a dramatic image, a metaphor for what has happened in our country in the last ten years.”


Another young woman scowled at the German sculpture entitled In order to See: “That giant eye is not beautiful. In fact it is scary!”


The judges, who were mainly city officials, awarded the top prize to a sculpture called Flight over the Neva. A slender ballerina balanced in a graceful arabesque on the crest of a wave. She held in her hand an ornate fan, carved in intricate detail. That the sculpture bore no relation to the contest’s official theme scandalized some artists and critics. But at least the winning team was Russian.


After surveying the gallery, art lovers warmed up at the ice bar, where vodka was being served – chilled, of course – in solid ice glasses. “At least we can do something with all this ice other than slipping and falling on it!” observed one happy patron.


The Ice House, open from February 1 to March 15, was a gift from Sweden to St. Petersburg for the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding. The location was appropriate, as the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1703 marked the founding: having captured the formerly Swedish outpost on the Neva, Peter the Great thus staked his claim to the northwestern region. He then set to turn the outpost into a modern western city, named for the tsar’s patron saint.


Unfortunately, the chosen location on the Neva was a swamp; the climate was harsh and conditions were primitive. Forced labor – mostly peasants and soldiers – was used first to construct the fortress and later to dig canals. In the process, thousands died from disease, malnourishment and exhaustion.


Come 1712, however, the tsar declared St. Petersburg to be the new capital, forcing thousands of government officials to resettle. The city became a center of shipbuilding and Russia’s Baltic fleet achieved acclaim in the Great Northern War. In 1714, the winter Palace was built on the banks of the Neva. Gradually, St. Petersburg transitioned from a swampy backwater to a modern European city, Russia’s “window to the west”.


Unlike Moscow’s red bricks and onion domes, Petersburg’s network of canals and baroque architecture gave the city a European flavor, no less because it was built by Italian architects. During the 18th and 19th centuries, aristocratic families spoke French and German interchangeably with Russian. Tchaikovsky’s ballets and Mussorgsky’s operas, which originated in Petersburg, were at the forefront of European culture during this period.


Today, this window to the west is open again. And the tercenary is providing ample opportunity to celebrate this relationship:



  • French-sponsored exhibits include “Russia – France, A Century of Friendship” in May, and “Three Centuries of French Presence” at the Russian Museum in September.

  • A street festival in May will recreate “Italy on Italianskaya Street”.

  • An event “Remembering the Strauss Ball”

  • Scotland, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands have each designated a special week to promote their cultural and business ties with St. Petersburg.

  • A series of photography exhibits will explore British, Swedish and Italian Petersburg.

  • Respective consulates and cultural institutions are sponsoring Polish, French, British and Norwegian film festivals.

  • These European-flavored events are in addition to the myriad of festivals and fireworks that the city has planned for itself.

Petersburg is the birthplace – both physically and politically – of President Putin. The city has not forgotten its favorite son, with election results and polls here continuing to show overwhelming support for him. Likewise, Putin holds his hometown close to his heart, which is also where he keeps his wallet: the celebration of St. Petersburg’s birthday is receiving ample support from Moscow.


Although the celebratory events are taking place throughout the year, St. Petersburg’s official anniversary celebration is scheduled for the last week in May. Plans for high-level visitors and closed ceremonial events are discouraging some local residents, who anticipate closed roads and crowded venues. In fact, the local Pulkovo airport recently announced that all flights scheduled to arrive or depart between May 20 and June 2 would be cancelled. Many residents plan to spend the week at the dacha to escape the crowds and chaos.


Those who stay in town, however, will be invited to daily festivals featuring open-air concerts, parades, regattas and fireworks. One day dedicated to sports will feature football matches and chess tournaments, while the following day a theater festival will host performances on the city streets. Special exhibits at museums and galleries throughout the city will be open to the public free of charge.



The Mad Monk

I signed the contract with mixed feelings. With it, I signed on to two months of battling with babushkas, waking up with hangovers and schlepping around with about a hundred pounds of extra clothing. Two months in Mother Russia.

I wondered, yet again, why I did not consider climate and cuisine when I was choosing a regional expertise. Nonetheless, I would be returning to Russia in the upcoming months, so I reached for the Moscow News to catch up on the latest scandals, fiascos and highlights making news back in the land of Putin and permafrost.

A story about a new cultural attraction in St Petersburg caught my eye. A unique museum was opening amidst much fanfare with a controversial exhibit featuring Russia’s most legendary letch and holy man, Grigory Rasputin. `Now this is the Russia I fell in love with,’ I remembered, as my thoughts drifted to my own close encounter with the infamous Mad Monk.

I was living in Yekaterinburg, Russia, a gritty industrial and mining town in the Ural Mountains (like Pittsburgh, without the glitz). I was one of a handful of ex-patriot Americans and Brits working on developing markets, exporting consumerism, and other diplomatic business. Winter nights were long and cold, but we made do, sweating it out in the banya and swizzling Baltika beers.

When the snow finally melted and the sun started to warm this forlorn place, we decided to take a road trip. We would journey east from Yekaterinburg, across the thawing tundra, to Tobolsk, once the capital of Siberia. We would stop along the way in the tiny village of Pokrovskoe, the hometown of Grigory Rasputin.

At the turn of the 20th century, Rasputin was a local mystic with the powers of a seer and healer. He preached (and practiced) that the way to divine grace was through sin and redemption. That means getting rip-roaring drunk and engaging in sexual orgies, and then praying for forgiveness and giving thanks. Then doing it again. Go figure, the doctrine was a hit. Rasputin attracted quite a following, and it was only a matter of time before he took his show on the road to the capital.

In St Petersburg, high society was receptive to Rasputin's teachings. Despite his heavy drinking and sexual scandals – or perhaps because of them – he earned the adoration of an army of aristocratic ladies. Even more notable, Rasputin endeared himself to Tsar Nicholas II. The healer seemed to have the power to ease the pain of his son Alexei, the heir to the throne, who suffered from hemophilia. It was also rumored that the tsar's wife Alexandra became one of Rasputin's devotees.

We were not sure what to expect in Pokrovskoe, but it was worth a short detour to investigate the humble roots of this peasant-turned-priest who was at one time the most powerful man in the Russian Empire.

Jimmy agreed to drive as a way to get out of taking the train. He was used to traveling in high style and he liked his creature comforts. (He normally spent his vacations in Paris, recuperating from Russia with expensive French champagne and stylish French boys. Clearly, sharing a grungy toilet with a train car full of strangers was out of the question.) And so we piled into Jimmy’s maroon Toyota packed with food and alcohol to last us the duration of our journey.

Bob rode shotgun because he was the navigator. Bob was a natural leader - a real Boy Scout type - who was constantly organizing adventures for us. His Russian was flawless and he seemed to have friends and acquaintances everywhere we went. I rode in the back with Lady Caroline. She was not really royalty, but her Queen's English and fabulous parties had earned her the nickname.

Our foursome had perfect driving weather. In mid-May, it was the first weekend when it really felt like spring. The sun was shining, the snow had melted and the trees were beginning to bud. As we rolled across the countryside, vast fields had been ploughed and planted, but the new life was still hidden underground, awaiting some assurance that warmer temperatures were here to stay.

As Bob and Jimmy disputed which dirt road was the correct turn off the highway, Caroline and I were in the backseat engaged in a much more important task - recalling the lyrics of the silly 1970s song by the Euro disco phenom Boney M.

Rah Rah Rasputin, Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat that was really
gone
Rah Rah Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine
It was a shame how
he carried on.


The bumpy, narrow road finally emerged out of the woods, and we followed it across an overgrown field to a cluster of little wooden cottages. This was vintage Siberia. The dusty road was lined on both sides with log cabins that appeared to be still standing from Rasputin’s day. Some were colorfully painted with patterns stenciled on the shutters and potted plants in the windows. Others looked like they would not survive another Siberian winter.

Our car crept slowly through the village, and we peered out, looking for some sign of life. Chickens darted across the road; alas, there was not a human soul in sight. Caroline spotted a lone man in a field behind his house. He had stopped his work, and was standing – hoe in hand – staring suspiciously at our foreign vehicle full of foreign people.

Bob rolled down his window: `Is this Pokrovskoe?’ The slack-jawed farmer just nodded. `Isn’t it the birthplace of Rasputin?’ Bob queried further. Another hesitant nod. `Well, is there some museum or something to see?’

The farmer finally found his vocal chords and directed us toward the end of the street. `There is some kind of house-museum,’ he confirmed, `but I think it is closed.’

We parked our car in front of a large but dilapidated wooden house surrounded by a high fence. Jimmy did not want to get mud on his Hugo Boss jeans so he refused to get out of his car. The rest of us piled out and peeked over the fence: the yard was overgrown with weeds and littered with bottles and trash; the house was badly in need of a paint job, not to mention some new windows and a roof repair. A huge padlock decorated the front door. The place was not only closed, it was completely abandoned.

`It’s probably closed for Sanitation Day,’ I remarked, referring to the very Soviet system of randomly closing museums for cleaning every month.

We circled the house, but found no trace of the magic that fueled Rasputin’s mystique. Disappointed, we climbed back into the car. But before Jimmy could turn the car around, Caroline again spotted our farmer friend, running down the road toward us, wildly waving his arms to get our attention. `Wait,’ he implored, as he approached the car. `Wait five minutes, and you will meet Rasputin himself!’

With the promise of lunch, Jimmy was persuaded to wait five minutes. The guys unpacked our picnic and sent Caroline and me off in search of drinks. Our friendly neighborhood farmer promised there was a cafeteria on the next street, so we wandered among the little houses, smiling politely at the curious faces that were now appearing at windows and in yards.

Sure enough, we found the cafeteria on the next street. It looked much like the other houses in the village; we recognized it only by the sign above the door. A half dozen goats grazed in the front yard. They looked up lazily as we approached, but did not budge from their tasty patch of grass. The door was open, so Caroline and I paid the goats no heed and went inside. Apparently, the cafeteria was not open for business: the counter was bare; a few chairs were upended in the corner; and a lone goat feasted on a pile of garbage. Appetizing.

So we left the goats in peace and made our way back to our friends, who were already wolfing down the cheese and salami sandwiches we had brought with us. We were so distracted by our feast, that we did not notice the dirty, disheveled peasant who approached. He tapped on my window, and suddenly I was staring into the maniacal eyes of the Mad Monk!

`Excuse me, please,’ the peasant apologized. He introduced himself as Viktor, but he was a dead ringer for Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin.


Sandwiches in hand, we clambered out of the car to meet the modern-day mystic. He extended a grubby hand to me. I had no choice but to give him my sandwich, which he grabbed with two paws and devoured.

Viktor had a mangy head of dark hair and a full black beard. Both were peppered with sticks and leaves and other unidentifiable scraps. He was dressed too warmly for the spring day in heavy boots and a worn, quilted jacket that was tied with a rope belt. His smile glinted with gold, and he reeked of body odor and alcohol.

The only characteristic that was not consistent was that Rasputin was known to be some six and a half feet tall, while this guy, at five-foot-four, was shorter than I. He ushered us into the gated yard and stood up on the doorstep.

Now he towered a head above us: `That’s more like it,’ we agreed.

There lived a certain man in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his
eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with
fear
But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear.


From his perch on the doorstep, Viktor proceeded to regale us with stories about his licentious look-alike. `This is where Grigory Yefimovich was born,’ announced Viktor. `It was actually his aunt’s house, but his mother gave birth in this room right here.’ He pointed to a window on the second floor, through which nothing was visible except an empty vodka bottle sitting on the sill. Apparently, the communists - fearing competing cults - had long since torn down Rasputin's home, which had been across the street.

`It is no coincidence that I resemble Grigory Yefimovich,’ our friend explained. `You see, my great-grandmother was a maid in the Rasputin family house.’ His eyes twinkled. `So more than likely, he is my biological great-grandfather.’ I couldn’t tell if he really believed it, but it was hard to argue this claim.

Rasputin is notorious for being a ladies' man. That he was the `lover of the Russian queen’ may not be historically documented fact, but there is no question that he had a cotillion of classy chicks – high-society types – who were seduced by his animal magnetism and charismatic personality. And perhaps by some other charms.

Viktor lowered his voice. `Of course you have heard about his penis?’ We shook our heads; we had not heard. Viktor’s eyes widened. `The penis of Grigory Yefimovich was 30 centimeters long,’ he claimed. We all paused while mentally calculating the conversion from the metric system. I will spare you getting out your calculator: it’s 11.8 inches, just a hair under a foot long. Jimmy let out a low whistle.

We were all impressed but I was skeptical: `How do they know that?’

Viktor smiled. It was the perfect segue to the gory tale of Rasputin’s demise. The holy man’s scandalous behavior and his influence over the queen had invoked the ire of some of St Petersburg’s aristocracy. The powerful Prince Yusupov and a few other upper-crust cronies decided that the Siberian peasant must be stopped. They invited him over and plied him with wine and cakes that were laced with potassium cyanide. Strangely, the poison had no apparent effect. The murderers then resorted to Plan B, shooting the mystic three times and leaving him to die. But Rasputin still managed to rouse himself and attempt escape. Finally, Plan C, he was bludgeoned, tied up in a sheet and dropped into the icy Neva River, where he finally drowned.

We all knew this story; but we didn’t know that the dirty deed also involved castration. Apparently, the Yusupov’s maid found Rasputin’s oversized organ when cleaning the apartment after the murder. As Viktor astutely observed: `It was not only political power that Prince Yusupov was jealous of…’

`This man’s just got to go!’ declared his enemies
But the ladies begged
`Don’t try to do it, Please!’
No doubt this Rasputin had lots of hidden
charms
Though he was a brute they just fell into his arms…


Finally, Viktor offered to take us inside the house. `There is not a lot of see,’ he warned. `The house has been ransacked repeatedly, ever since the Bolsheviks did it the first time.’ He led us around back, where the door was hanging off its hinge. He pushed his way through the narrow doorway and we followed, emerging into a dark, dusty, nearly empty room. Sunlight filtered through a window and reflected off the particles that floated through the air. A shaft of light fell on one piece of furniture in the room: an old, decrepit wooden armchair.

`It’s amazing,’ Viktor observed, `Of everything that was taken over the years, that this chair remains.’ It did not seem amazing to me that nobody would bother to take a rickety old chair. The seat was badly worn and several rungs were broken; it looked like it would hardly withstand my weight.

`This is one of two chairs remaining from a set made by Grigory Yefimovich,’ Viktor explained. `The other is on display in a museum in Tyumen. They say,' he paused dramatically, `that is imbued with Rasputin’s magical powers.’ I could hardly imagine how this chair might heal hemophilia but we listened intently as our raconteur continued. `A sportsman was in Tyumen for a wrestling tournament. He was not competitive and kept losing his matches. After the first day, he visited the museum, where he sat in the magical chair; only a few moments infused him with the strength of an ox. After that, he won every match and he won the tournament.’

We were mildly amused. Viktor continued: `This chair guarantees not only physical strength but also sexual prowess. Anyone who sits in this chair will never have trouble with the ladies.’ He raised his eyebrows. `Nu, shto? How about it, gentlemen? One hundred rubles?’ Bob rolled his eyes and walked away. Viktor turned to Jimmy. `What about you, my friend? For fifty rubles, you will have all the ladies in your lap!'

`What about the guys?' Jimmy asked mischievously. Viktor was stumped. `I think I'll pass.'

`Now it is time to leave,’ Viktor announced. `But first, we must pay our respects to Grigory Yefimovich.’ He motioned to Bob, who was carrying the remains of our picnic lunch. Bob looked confused. `Tradition says we must drink a toast,’ Viktor implored, eyeing the bag of goodies. Bob acquiesced by pulling out a bottle of vodka and cracking it open. Viktor’s eyes lit up. `Who will give a toast?'

Graceful as always, Lady Caroline volunteered. She looked at me knowingly, and together, we burst into song:

Rah Rah Rasputin, Lover of the Russian Queen
They put some poison in his
wine
Rah Rah Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine
He drank it all and
he said `I feel fine.’


So ended our brief encounter with `Russia’s greatest love machine'. Viktor requested a tip for his efforts. Impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit, we gave him 100 rubles and the remainder of the vodka bottle. At the time, 100 rubles was worth about $18, so we thought it was a generous offering. But Viktor was not impressed and he pressed us for more – a harsh reminder that this was post-Communist Russia, and 100 rubles did not go as far as it did in Rasputin’s day. So things come full circle. With the passing of communism, clever capitalists profit from a newfound fascination with Russia’s pre-Revolutionary roots.

So I was not surprised when I read the story in the Moscow Times about the so-called museum of erotica, recently founded in St Petersburg by the head of prostate research at the Russian Academy of Sciences. (Apparently the Academy is also exploring some alternative sources of funding.) The exhibit’s prize artifact is indeed Rasputin’s preserved penis, reappearing after all these years. Remarkably, even in its detached state, the Mad Monk’s massive member is still making headlines.

Rah Rah Rasputin, Lover of the Russian Queen
They didn’t quit, they
wanted his head
Rah Rah Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine
And so
they shot him till he was dead.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Tri Training in Russia



From The Risks of Sunbathing Topless and Other Funny Stories from the Road

Accompanying my husband on a four-month stint in St. Petersburg, Russia was an enticing prospect. It was 2003, the city's tercentenary, and a big, blow-out birthday bash was taking place all year long. The exquisite baroque buildings were receiving fresh coats of paint and special events were scheduled throughout the year. I anticipated exploring the endless art collection in the Hermitage, watching nimble ballerinas dance in Swan Lake, and finally finishing War and Peace.


We had spent enough time in Russia in years past so I was familiar with the country's climate and cuisine issues. But this time, living in Russia would present additional challenges. I vowed the trip would not disrupt my goals for the year -- one of which was to test my stamina, raise money for a good cause and bond with my fellow woman-beings in an all-female sprint triathlon back home in Boston.


That is how I found myself getting ready to train for a triathlon amidst the imperial grandeur, socialist grit and nouveau glitz of Russia’s second capital. I knew it wouldn't be easy. Physical fitness is not exactly a priority in Russia, where beer is considered a breakfast drink and a pint of sour cream sits atop every entrée. Exercise is reserved for Olympic athletes, sportsmen and soldiers. Not women. Somebody running on the street is invariably trying to catch a bus.


Just when I needed to immerse myself in Swim! Bike! Run! I found myself in the workout underworld, the antithesis to Wellville. But I was determined. The triathlon was mere weeks after our return from St. Petersburg, and I had my heart set on racing.


My first stop was the public swimming pool, located just outside the imposing walls of the Peter and Paul fortress, the site where Peter the Great founded his new capital 300 years ago. The sun glinted off the gold spire of the cathedral, the most majestic building inside the fortress. I tromped across the snow-covered grounds, where Peter himself was posing for photos in full regalia.

Nearby, a small crowd had gathered on the banks of the Neva River. Of course the river was frozen solid, except for a 12-square-meter pool formed by a large hole in the ice. The crowd was watching a gangly teenager as he stripped down to his shorts and plunged into the ice bath. He emerged from the frigid waters and stood proudly with his arms above his head in the sign for Victory. Here was the newest member of the local Walrus Cub, a group of hearty souls who exhort the health benefits of taking a daily dip. Many of the ice swimmers, known as morzhi, or walruses, have been paying regular visits to this spot for twenty years.

Thankfully, this frigid pool was not the one I was looking for. I pulled my fur-lined coat tighter around my shivering body, and continued on my way to the more conventional, eight-lane, 25-meter facility across the street. Entry into the swimming pool required a doctor’s written permission, which could be obtained from the pool’s resident MD after a physical examination. Having heard more than a few horror stories about germ-filled Russian medical facilities, I entered the doctor’s office with trepidation.

Behind the desk sat the platinum blonde, white-smocked doctor, busily filling out forms. "Ahem," I said, as I carefully cased the room for used syringes. "I'm here for a physical."
"I know," she replied, reaching for a blank form. "Name? Birthday?" She duly recorded my replies. The doctor glanced up briefly. "Sixty rubles," she announced, handing me a spravka, or permission slip.
"That's all?" I asked, relieved but puzzled. "Shouldn't I even take off my coat?"

"Why? Are you ill?" The money was quickly deposited in her smock.

"Not at all," I hastened to answer and retreated out the door.
One legacy of the Soviet period is that older women in frumpy uniforms are stationed in all public facilities to shush, scold and tell people nyet. The pool’s babushka was different only in that she sported a hot pink tracksuit to go with the standard-issue cold stare. She enforced a seemingly infinite and ever-changing list of rules.

One of the most important required everyone to take a soapy shower without a bathing suit before entering the pool. Bold signs emphasizing this rule were posted everywhere, and the point was evidently made. The shower room hosted a perpetual performance of splashing suds, flailing limbs, swinging breasts and bouncing buttocks.

The irony was that once you actually made it past all these rules and into the swimming pool, chaos reigned. Standard activities in the lanes included old folks practicing water aerobics; girls gathering mid-lane to gossip; and teenagers diving on your head. On a day that I finally had a lane to myself, the surly babushka in pink interrupted my workout by splashing a kickboard in my face. “Lane one is open,” she barked, pointing to a lane already full of two heavyset ladies and an elderly man.
I looked longingly at the other near-empty lanes. “Only lane one?”

"Only one!” she snarled, and turned to yell at somebody else. Russian service sector workers are notorious for their short tempers and rude remarks. I reflected, as I resumed my swim in the crowded lane, that the public pool is probably the one place where Pinky can exert such authority and others must comply. Such hostile behavior, I thought, is a weapon of the weak.
Eventually, I figured out that the most effective response was not to cower in fear or to yell back. Rather, a smile and a nod are so unexpected, that the perpetrator can’t help but respond in kind. Which does not mean she stopped yelling at me. During my time at the Russian pool, I discovered a whole slew of activities that get you in trouble: wearing shoes in the locker room; entering the pool area without a bathing cap; swimming too fast near the lady with the broken foot; and so on.
After one workout, I was sitting on the edge of the pool when I saw Pinky headed my way. "Don't sit there, young lady," she reprimanded. I smiled weakly, clueless as to what I might be doing wrong. "Don't you want to have children some day? That cold concrete will make you infertile!" Perhaps not scientifically sound, but at least the rule had a reason - for once!
But Pinky and her rigid pool rules were remnants of old Russia. New Russia is a whole different beast, as I discovered when a friend invited me to check out the private sports club where he was a member. Angry babushkas were not welcome here. Instead we were greeted by smiling, trim, young women who seemed genuinely happy to see us. They tried to accommodate every request. And they never yelled.
Members of the gym tended to be well-manicured women who got lots of calls on their cell phones: Russia’s beautiful people. Their hair looked better in aerobics class than mine did at my wedding. The locker room resembled a Victoria Secret catalogue shoot: matching lacy bra and panties seemed to be a prerequisite for club membership.
Planet Fitness had all the features of Bally’s or Gold’s Gym: shiny weight machines, treadmills with heart rate monitors, spinning classes, pilates, towel service, juice bar, jacuzzis… and a hefty $100 per month price tag. That’s a lot of cabbage in a country where the average salary is a meager $300 per month. Most important for my purposes, Planet Fitness had a fully equipped cardio room, complete with stationary bikes. My swimming training was going reasonably well, but this was a triathlon, after all. And how else - when the city was buried in snow - could I bust a move on a bike?

St Petersburg’s river was frozen solid. The wide path along the riverbank, an attractive biking trail in other seasons, was now hidden under several feet of windswept snow. The embankment was deserted, except for the occasional dog walker, hidden by fur coat and hat. Yet here I was, pedaling a 60-minute endurance course, protected by a thick pane of glass that blocked out the howling wind and bitter cold.

On the day we visited Planet Fitness, my friend and I had the cardio room to ourselves, save a jacked trainer assisting a young woman on a Stairmaster. A dozen stationary bikes were lined up like racers awaiting the start gun. The sun shone through the giant windows overlooking the Neva River. The chrome on the bikes glistened in the bright winter light. Outside, icebreakers cut a path through the frozen river and glided past the ironclad battleship Aurora, whose mutinous sailors had started a revolution in 1917. Inside, the room pulsated to a techno beat. I admired the view from my perch atop my stationary bike and anticipated a long soak in the Jacuzzi.

After a while, my friend went to the weight room and left me to pedal it out against the blinking red dot on my bike’s digital display. The muscle-bound trainer seized the opportunity and came over to chat me up. "Can I please to meet with you?" I was never sure how to respond to this ubiquitous pick-up line. "You are foreign lady, no?"
I smiled. "You are Russian, yes?"

He was not discouraged. "I know you are foreign because I see your shoes," he explained, pointing out that we were both wearing New Balance sneakers. He was clearly impressed, as the brand was a rare find in Russia. “I buy them on Regent Street in London,” he boasted. “One hundred pounds.”

“Mine are factory outlet seconds from Boston,” I shot back. “Half price.” Muscles frowned. In new Russia, price is a direct indicator of desirability, so he was unimpressed with my bargain-hunting skills. My fit friend quickly returned his attentions to his trainee. I made a mental note of this effective strategy for deterring unwanted attention from Russian men and pedaled on.


In April, the snow finally began to melt. Local residents emerged from tiny apartments, populating the local parks and gardens and squares when it was still too cold to be comfortable. Art-lovers meandered through the Mikhailovsky Gardens, admiring the handsome façade of the Russian Museum. Mars Field -- traditionally the military parade grounds -- became parade grounds for flirty young girls and nervy boys. The lime trees in the formal Summer Gardens began to bud, adding a touch of green to the fountains and pavilions that had been bare for months.
I longed to take my exercise outdoors, but the thaw was a gradual process. Like an archaeological excavation, each day uncovered a new layer of the winter's history: sleds that were left outside during a storm in February; vodka bottles thrown out after the New Year celebrations; gloves that had been lost since December. The ground was finally visible by the month's end, so I decided to lace up my running shoes and take them for a spin in Tauride Gardens.
Catherine the Great had built the fabulous baroque palace for Grigory Potemkin, a famed general and one of her many lovers. Once the romping grounds of the tsarina, the palace gardens had since become – in true Soviet style -- a park for the people. I thought the tree-lined dirt paths crisscrossing the landscaped park and circling a picturesque pond would make an ideal setting for my triathlon training.

It is an understatement to say that a runner on the street or in the park is an unfamiliar sight in Russia. Even the act of wearing running shorts is bound to attract stares -- ironic in this country where women in midsummer wear little more than lacy undergarments and a pair of heels. A German friend had recounted tales of her jogging adventures in St Petersburg. When she ran past some teenage boys sitting on a park bench drinking beer, they were so amused that they chased after her, poking and taunting. Finally, they could not keep up with her, so they just threw their empty bottles at her. My friend was so distraught that she ran straight home. With this harrowing tale in mind, I arrived at Tauride Gardens in my spandex tights and running shoes, prepared but wary.

A sign on the gate declared that the park was closed for prosushka, or “a thorough drying out”. How appropriate, I thought, this whole country needs a prosushka. But I could see a few folks wandering around inside, most of them pushing baby strollers or, yes, drinking beer.


A park worker sat lackadaisically near the gate and opened it to allow patrons to exit. He would not let me enter. “The park is closed.”

“How did all these people get inside if the park is closed?” I questioned.


“They went in through the entrance on Paradnaya Street,” he said matter-of-factly, pointing across the way. Another group of people left and he locked the gate behind them.
“The park is closed but the other entrance is open?” He did not seem to notice the inherent contradiction.

I trotted a half-mile down the sidewalk and around the corner to see for myself. Sure enough, mothers with children, teenagers with beers, workers with tools – everybody was walking freely in and out of the park. I established a jogging route around the perimeter of the park. I picked up my pace as I ran past ungainly groups of teenage boys clustered on the benches. But they just strummed their guitars and sang their raucous songs, having a ball and paying me no heed. I was also wary of the workers, who could at any moment tire of all these people interfering with their work on the park and expel us. But they also ignored me, concentrating on laying sod and planting flowers.

Kids climbed on the playground while their mothers observed. Artists captured in watercolor the palace’s reflection in the pond. Lovers embraced underneath the trees. The sun shone down on the people and-- despite their defiance of the proposed prosushka-- dried out their park.
After a week or two, emboldened by my success, I took to the streets. I dodged the jovial youths spilling out of sidewalk cafes and wizened women selling produce from their stalls. They stared, but they got out of my way. I cruised past tsars’ grandiose palaces, Lenin’s revolutionary haunts and Dostoevsky’s inspiring canals, exploring St. Petersburg by sneaker.

* * *


At the end of my time in Russia, I was pleased with my training progress. The wrath of the swimming pool babushka had abated as I established my place as a regular in the lanes. My sprints around the city increased in number so I was confident I could outrun any drunken teenager or angry worker. I would have liked to spend more time at Planet Fitness – on the bikes and in the whirlpool – but my friend was out of free guest passes, and I felt fortunate even for my brief stint as one of the beautiful people.

During my last week in Russia, I paid a final visit to the swimming pool. I was wistful as I watched the kids competing in breath-holding contests and women doing sidestroke. I spent a few minutes stretching, partly hoping they would leave the lane, partly hoping, for old times’ sake, that they would not.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my nemesis, the steely-eyed babushka, heading my way. I wondered what crime I might be guilty of. “What are you doing?” she queried. I explained in the most pleasant voice I could muster that I needed to stretch before commencing my workout.

Her face softened. “You are a sportswoman?” Intrigued, she started questioning me about what kinds of workouts I did and what I was training for. She wanted to know all about the triathlon circuit – who organized such events and who competed. This cold, scary woman who had been the source of nightmares became warm, friendly, and downright enthusiastic about my triathlon prospects.

Before I knew it, she was yelling at the old folks and young kids in lane two. “This lane is closed now,” she bellowed. “Move into another lane.” The swimmers looked around in confusion, but crowded into the other lanes without protest.

The babushka turned to me and smiled. “Lane two is yours."

Mara Vorhees is a freelance writer living in Somerville, Massachusetts. She has co-authored guidebooks to destinations as diverse as Russia, Poland and Morocco. She has participated in sprint and Olympic-distance triathlons around New England.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Three Trains






From Lonely Planet On the Road, April 2002.






Russia. Kilometre 5477.

We shared the train cabin with a Russian woman, Liuda, and her coquettish 4-year-old daughter, who were on their way from Vladivostok to Kyrgyzstan. They were going on their fourth day on the train. At Irkutsk they would change trains and then spend another four days going south through Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. They travelled for free, since Liuda worked for the railroad in Vladivostok.




We had gotten on the train in the morning, and the little girl was eating Ramen noodles for breakfast. Now it was lunchtime, and she stared at a second bowl of noodles as if it were her worst enemy. I imagined she had been eating Ramen noodles for four days.




The pair was going to visit Liuda's Kyrgyz husband. 'I could never live there,' she confided in me. 'It's hot like the desert and my mother-in-law is bossy.' She talked to me like an old friend. Liuda was overweight and weary looking. I was surprised to learn she was 30, the same age as I.



The train rolled on through the Selenga river valley, speeding past village after village of quaint cottages with painted shutters and overflowing gardens. On either side of the river, pine and birch covered hills stretched forever.



Suddenly, the northern side of the train opened up to reveal the huge expanse of Lake Baikal, vast and blue. In the distance, sharp, rocky cliffs marked the other side of this 'Pearl of Siberia'. Up and down the train, passengers had their faces pressed up against the window to catch that first glimpse of the lake that takes your breath away.



When the train stopped in Mysovaya, Liuda bought a salty dried fish, omul, from the babushkas on the platform. Even Ramen noodles would be more appealing, I thought, than this scaly, dead fish with empty eyeholes. But when Liuda cut the fish open and removed its bones, her daughter enthusiastically picked pieces of fish, scraped them out of the skin with her fingers and ate them up.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Contradictory Casa

Contradictory Casa




From Boston Globe Travel, January 9, 2005




Casablanca, Morocco -- Passengers landing at Mohammed V International Airport might hope to spot Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart embracing on the tarmac in a cloud of mist. But westerners who visit Casablanca for romantic reasons associated with the classic film are likely to be sorely disappointed by this brash, modern metropolis. First impressions of "Casa", as it is fondly called, are often about unkempt buildings, traffic jams and noise pollution, rather than moonlit nights and starry eyes.


The juxtaposition between Casa's romantic image and its jarring reality is just one of many contrasts that define Morocco's largest city and economic center. From religious monuments to beach cafés, from traditional culture to modern nightlife, Casablanca is a jumble of curiosities and contradictions that somehow fit together into one surprising package. Which is precisely what make this legendary place so intriguing.


The top attraction in Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque, opened in 1993 to commemorate the former king’s 60th birthday. A hard-line autocrat who ruled for over 40 years, Hassan II was nonetheless beloved by his people, who contributed in public subscription much of the $600 million that built his namesake monument.


Using state-of-the-art architectural design, its construction employed over 6000 traditional Moroccan artisans. Its soaring minaret calls the faithful to daily prayer -- and sprays laser beams across the night sky toward Mecca. Its spectacular setting overlooking the Atlantic Ocean is the site of a former city slum, whose residents were displaced without compensation.
Symbolism aside, the mosque is remarkable. Designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau, it can hold 25,000 worshippers: 20,000 men in the vast prayer hall and 5,000 women in the balconies above. It is said to be the world's third-largest religious structure, large enough to house St. Peter's Cathedral with room to spare. The 210-meter minaret is the highest in the world.


If the exterior is French-inspired, the interior is all Moroccan: cedar from the Middle Atlas for the ceilings; marble from Agadir for the floors; and granite from Tafraoute for the columns. The best master craftsmen in the country applied their skills to produce spectacular woodcarving, tile work and stucco molding. No less impressive are the mosque's high-tech features, which include a centrally heated floor and a retractable roof.


The Hassan II Mosque is also the only mosque in Morocco that is open to non-Muslims. One-hour tours in the language of your choice include the prayer hall, ablution rooms and hammam (traditional bathhouse). It is a striking reminder that cosmopolitan Casa has not forsaken its traditional Moroccan and devout Muslim roots.


In the suburb of Oasis, the Jewish Museum of Casablanca sheds light on a less prominent religious tradition in Morocco. Judaism came to Morocco in the 15th century, when thousands of refugees fled Andalusian Spain after the Christian Reconquista. Andalusian exiles settled in Morocco's larger cities, many of which still have a mellah, or Jewish quarter.


Muslim-Jewish relations in Morocco have traditionally been cordial. Jews enjoyed the favor of the sultan and repaid him with their loyalty in times of conflict. During WWII, the monarchy protected 300,000 Jews and helped those escaping persecution in Europe to head to America.

After Israeli independence in 1948, the number of Jewish residents plummeted. In the late 1960s, Moroccans showed solidarity with fellow Arabs during the Six Day War, causing heightened tensions, and many Jews emigrated to Israel or France. By the end of the 20th century, the Jewish population in Morocco had declined from 300,000 to 3,500 residents.
Muslim-Jewish relations suffered a damaging blow on May 16, 2003, when Casablanca was rocked by a series of explosions carried out by suicide bombers. The attack was planned for five simultaneous bombings, targeting Jewish- and European-frequented locales around the city. Over 40 people were killed, including 12 attackers.
Investigators blamed Salafia Jihadia, a loosely organized radical Islamic group with suspected international ties. The bombers, however, were all young Moroccan men, aged 20-24 years, many from an impoverished district on the outskirts of Casablanca. But while these acts were carried out in the name of Allah, an overwhelming majority of Moroccan Muslims condemned the violence.

The inauguration of the Jewish Museum, just one year earlier in 2002, is symbolic of the country's commitment to remain one of the world's most tolerant Islamic societies. In fact, it is the only Jewish museum in the Muslim world. Set in a modern villa surrounded by lush gardens, museum exhibits include artifacts like historic documents, traditional clothing and ceremonial items. An excellent exhibit by Canadian photographer D.R. Crowles documents the synagogues and mellahs that remain as witness to Morocco's Jewish history.
The perfect antidote for a traveler exhausted by religious history and architecture is the beachside Boulevard de la Corniche, five kilometers southwest of the center. Lined with four-star hotels, up-market restaurants, coffee shops and nightclubs, the fashionable fairway feels closer to Mediterranean Europe than North Africa. Here young professionals jog along the boardwalk and chic Casablancans come to see and be seen. This is the hottest spot in the city for a day out in the sun or a night out on the town.

The best place to catch some rays is at one of the boulevard's beach clubs, such as Miami Plage. The private clubs charge an entrance fee, but it's worth it to find an empty strip of sand, not to mention the other amenities like swimming pools, beach umbrellas and tiki bars.
After a day at the beach, sun worshippers cool off at the Palais des Glaces, a parlor that has been scooping up ice cream for 125 years. Even for those not indulging in the creamy concoctions, it is a perfect perch from which to watch the beautiful people on the Corniche.

And what would a trendy, oceanfront neighborhood be without a few top-notch seafood restaurants with spectacular sea views? The Corniche also boasts the freshest catch of the day. Several options are gathered around the El-Hank Lighthouse at the east end of the boulevard.
At La Mer, seafood specialties are prepared with the utmost care: service is very refined and very French. The feast is served on fine china and white linens while the waves of the Atlantic crash upon the rocks below.

Another excellent restaurant nearby -- this one with an ultra-trendy lounge upstairs -- is La Petite Roche. The popular bar is strewn with pillows and lit by candles, creating a laid-back but exotic atmosphere enjoyed by a mostly Moroccan crowd. The highlight is the fantastic view across the bay to the Hassan II Mosque.
The setting captures just a few of the contradictions that define Casablanca: traditional yet trendy, decadent yet devout, cosmopolitan yet exotic. Visitors to this perplexing place do not always find what they expect, but they do delight in finding the unexpected.
Even fervent film buffs and diehard romantics. New last spring, Rick's Cafe is an elegant restaurant and piano bar in a white stucco villa opposite the port. American owner Kathy Kriger watched Casablanca hundreds of times to recreate the décor and atmosphere of the legendary café. The concept is long overdue and it's sure to be a hit -- as time goes by.

Modern Women in Old Fes







FES, Morocco -- Before setting off on our tour of Fès el-Bali (Old Fès), I suggest to my guide that we stop for a cup of mint tea. Amina Zakkari looks at me mischievously and leads me into a dark, divey café. "This is a men's café," she giggles. Indeed, it is filled with men and only men, who stare at us ominously, but leave us to sip our tea in peace.


Amina confesses that she would never patronize such a place on her own; but in the company of a foreign client she is exempt from some of the informal rules of café culture. I, too, would not bear the scrutiny of the cafe's clientele without the protection of a local guide. But together we have the confidence to down a few glasses of "Moroccan whiskey" with the boys.

Unlike the regulars, we do not spend all day mulling over our minty brew, as I have hired Amina to lead me through the age-old alleyways and crumbling courtyards of eighth-century Fès el-Bali.
We enter through the main gate -- the exquisite, tiled Bab Bou Jeloud -- into a swarm of sights, sounds and smells. Artisans hammer away at ceramic tiles; women laden with shopping bags inspect fresh produce; shopkeepers beckon customers from behind mountains of olives, nuts and figs; butchers swat flies off of sides of beef; chickens nervously strut to and fro; cats keep a watchful eye from drooping rooftops. The occasional cry of "Balek!" sends everyone scurrying to the sidelines, as a muleteer drives his beast of burden through the barrage. "It means 'Look out!'" Amina explains, "and they mean it."
The Fès medina is one of the world's largest living medieval cities. Within the walls of the old town lies a maze of nine thousand winding alleys, blind turns and unseen souqs. Its labyrinthine lanes are crammed with workshops and markets, ancient mosques and hidden palaces. For the uninitiated, it is virtually impossible to navigate.

Amina weaves her way through the narrow, crowded streets, dressed in a traditional hooded robe, or jellaba, that swishes around her ankles as she steers left and right. I follow close behind, wary of losing my guide. She darts around a corner and down an alley, and suddenly we are in an oasis of calm: a quiet, overgrown courtyard.

The facade of the town house is just a plain, mud-colored wall, and the only opening is the entrance door. But the inner courtyard is flooded with light and drowning in bougainvillea. It is surrounded on all sides by shaded alcoves, once sumptuous and still adorned with corroded muqarna stucco work and chipped zelij tiles.

Pastel-veiled women, watching their children play, smile at us shyly. Amina explains that most women are more comfortable relaxing and socializing in the privacy of such spots, off the streets and away from leering eyes. I couldn't agree more.
Despite her appearance and the setting, Amina is a modern woman. She is single and childless -- rare for a woman in her early thirties -- and she is career-minded. Females represent only a small percentage of "official" guides, who must study for several years and pass a vigorous examination to obtain the license to work with tourists. Female guides are controversial, as the strictest interpretations of Islam forbid women from interacting with men, especially foreign men. Amina was forced to break off her first engagement, she confides, because her would-be in-laws did not approve of her career.
We leave the courtyard sanctuary and reenter the chaos. Again, I stay close on Amina's heels as she navigates the serpentine streets: through the henna souq, the historic market for the red-brown dye that women use to emblazon patterns on their hands and feet; past the ninth-century Kairaouine University, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the Muslim world.
We emerge onto a large square, the Place an-Nejjarine, dominated by a fantastic fountain of colored tiles under a carved canopy of cedar. An old inn for traveling merchants has been restored and transformed into the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts. We peak inside to admire detailed designs carved into furniture, tools and musical instruments. The nearby Carpenters Souq is not part of a museum, although I would not know it, as I watch the craftsmen putting finishing touches on the glittering thrones that are used in traditional wedding ceremonies.

We stop in front of a cell-like electronics shop. "This is my future husband," Amina whispers. The handsome shopkeeper seems happy to see her, but I cannot tell if she is speaking factually or wishfully.

After four weeks in Morocco, I am used to the relentless stares of men on the streets. I have come to recognize that the unsolicited attention is annoying, but rarely dangerous. Nonetheless, I feel protected by Amina's presence -- especially when an idle male bystander beckons to her and she snaps "Get back to work and stop harassing women!" Only after he protests does Amina realize he is an acquaintance who was extending a friendly greeting. She laughs but is unapologetic. "I walk around the medina everyday," she explains. "I have to be tough."
Amina is struggling to maintain a delicate balance, preserving traditional Muslim values but also forging a meaningful career. It is a struggle that is taking place -- to varying degrees -- across society. Not the least, the progressive monarch has weighed in on the subject. In 2002, King Mohammed VI married Salma Bennani, a computer engineer, symbolizing women's changing role.

Even more notable, this year the government adopted landmark changes to the Moudawana, or Family Law. According to the new legislation, a wife is no longer obliged to obey her husband. Both women and men have the right to seek a divorce in case of wrongdoing. After a divorce, a husband is obliged to continue to support his children. Women have also gained the right to an equal share of an inheritance.

Such revolutionary changes are controversial, but the king has decreed them. Mohammed VI may seem progressive, but he retains near-absolute power in Morocco. His political authority is enforced by a religious belief that the royal family are direct descendents of the prophet Mohammed and therefore rule by divine right. So even controversial legislation does not receive much criticism.
Amina ducks under a bar meant to keep out mules, and heads down a narrow lane. Stalls are piled high with candles and offerings, as we approach the Zawiya Moulay Idriss II -- a shrine to the founder of Fès and the spiritual heart of the city. As a non-Muslim, I cannot enter the shrine. But I peak into the courtyard, which is bathed in sunlight and floor-to-ceiling tiles. A pilgrim is washing his feet in the central fountain.
Non-Muslims are welcome to enter one of many medersas, or Quranic schools that were built by the Merenid dynasty in the 14th century. From the roof of the Medersa el-Attarine, we watch an orange sun drop behind green rooftops. For the fifth time that day, the voice of the imam sounds across the medina: Ashhadu an la Ilah ila Allah...Ashhadu an Mohammedan rasul Allah...Haya ala as-sala... The voice is calling the faithful to prayer. Moroccans of all ages retreat into the mosque, and a relative calm settles over the medina.
We end our tour at Amina's home, located in the French-built ville nouvelle, or new town. The men of the family are away, but the house is filled with the activity of three generations of women: Amina and her three sisters, her proud mother and her wizened grandmother.
The youngest generation is non-stop busy, serving tea, preparing dinner and calling out comments from the kitchen. Only Amina is allowed to rest because she works outside the house and contributes her earnings to the family's income. She and I sit between her mother and grandmother, who grill me about my family life back home.
As the evening wears on, plates of salads and grilled vegetables appear before me, followed by a steaming tajine with chicken and lemon. We dip into the common pot with morsels of bread to pick out the choice pieces of meat and soak up the rich juices. The women chat about the news of the day and gossip about Amina's love interest. And I settle into the warm and welcoming female camaraderie of a Moroccan family.

Mara Vorhees is a freelance writer living in Somerville, MA. She is co-author of the forthcoming Lonely Planet guide to Morocco.

















Golden Ring

Moscow - Yaroslavl Station. Next stop: Vastness.

This is the starting point for trains heading east over the Urals Mountains to Siberia and points beyond. My destination is not so distant: a clutch of provincial towns north-east of Moscow that comprise the “Golden Ring”, the cradle of Russian history.

Founded in the 11th and 12th centuries, the towns of the Golden Ring once served as the seats of power in a network of northern Slavic principalities. For over 300 years, they jousted for power before finally giving way to upstart Muscovy. Today, the region boasts archetypal art and architecture, the remnants of Russia’s medieval past.

On the platform, I push past travelers weighted down with suitcases, babushkas hawking homemade pastries and stray dogs and children sniffing for scraps. I finally settle into my compartment, shared with a Russian man and his young son. They pull out a portable chessboard, and I pull out Anna Karenina. Before finishing my second page, the boy declares checkmate. “It’s always the same,” mutters his father as they reset the board.

***

In the early 12th century, Prince Vladimir Monomakh founded the fortress city of Vladimir as the eastern outpost of his domain. He entrusted these lands to his youngest son, Yury Dolgoruky. When Yury became Grand Prince, the region emerged as the political center of the northern Slavs. In 1157, Yury's son, Andrei Bogolyubsky moved the throne from Kyiv to the city-state of Vladimir.

High up on Vladimir’s slope above the Klyazma River sits the solemnly majestic Assumption Cathedral, built to announce Vladimir’s claim as capital of Rus. The Cathedral’s white stone walls and detailed carving are the distinctive northern adaptation of Kyiv’s Byzantine style.

Assumption Cathedral once housed the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God, Russia’s most revered image, which was brought from Kyiv and later moved to Moscow. Today, I can still make out the 15th-century frescoes painted by Andrey Rublyov and Daniil Chyorny, medieval Russia’s foremost icon painters, whose work is notable for humanistic depictions of the saintly.

Thirty-five kilometers to the north lies the enchanting village of Suzdal. The winding Kamenka River, flower-drenched meadows and dome-spotted skyline make this medieval capital the perfect fairytale setting.

Suzdal has earned a federally protected status, which has limited development in the area. As a result, its main features are its abundance of ancient architectural gems and its decidedly rural atmosphere. Judging from the spires and cupolas, Suzdal may have as many churches as people.

Although one can sup at the refectory in the Intercession Convent, I have arranged to have a meal with my host Liudmila Ivanovna. Liudmila runs the Likhoninsky Dom, a charming 17th-century house-turned-inn.

The table is set with steaming borsht, roasted vegetables and the typically Russian meat-filled dumplings, or pelmeni. Liudmila Ivanovna watches me devour the feast. A longhaired cat curls up at my feet.

I compliment Liudmila on her efforts to maintain the historic inn. “Preserving traditions is very important,” she agrees. “Especially in times of turmoil, like we have now, we must remember and learn from our history.”

The earthen ramparts of Suzdal’s kremlin date to the 12th century, when this was the capital of the principality. Peaking over the kremlin walls are the star-spangled domes of the village’s oldest church, the 1220 Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral. A walk along the ramparts reveals magnificent views of three monasteries, two convents and some thirty smaller churches. I spend the afternoon taking in the timeless treasures of this wonderland.

A local specialty in Suzdal is medovukha, a mildly alcoholic honey drink. Bees buzz around the babushkas who are selling bottles on the street. I give a few rubles to one woman, her wrinkled face wrapped in a floral scarf, and she thanks me with a gold-toothed smile.

I take my medovukha to the steps of the trading arcades for happy hour, Suzdal-style. A group of teenagers is nearby, slugging back the sweet stuff, and singing along with one fellow’s guitar. I sit in the sun, watch the river wind below and sip the preferred brew of medieval Russian princes.

***

For someplace called Rostov-Veliky, or ‘Rostov the Great’, this place gives the impression of a sleepy village. Yet it once served as the seat of the Grand Prince. The Rostov kremlin is breathtaking, catching me off-guard when its silver domes and white-washed stone walls appear amidst the dusty streets.

I wander around the outside of the kremlin toward the shore of Lake Nero. The road winds its way between tiny houses, decorated with traditional carved wooden trim, and tidy gardens, blooming with roses and dogwoods. A painted sign in front of one of the houses offers lodging to ‘artists passing through’. This remote spot seems an unlikely setting for an art gallery. I ring the bell.

Named for a pagan sun god, the Khors gallery and studio is owned by enamel artist Mikhail Selishchev. Although he is originally from Kiev, it seemed only natural that he should settle in Rostov, a long-time center in Russia for enamel artistry, or finift. Legend has it that an exiled Italian master introduced this craft to local icon painters in the 1730s, and Rostov artisans have been practicing the craft ever since.

Selishchev takes this ancient religious craft to a new level, incorporating wood, metal and stone into colorful, primitive enamel designs. “It gives fresh breath to traditional techniques,” he explains.

Upstairs, two sunlit rooms house the gallery, where the bold enamel colors stand out against clean white walls and open space. Downstairs is the studio and a small apartment, where visiting artists stay while learning the craft.

Selishchev expounds on the philosophy behind the studio setup. “An artist is a child of his times,” he explains. “With whom and what we surround ourselves in life is very important. That is why I have created this space and I try to fill it with talented people.”

The chiming of bells calls me back to the kremlin. A small crowd has gathered in the courtyard next to the 16th-century Assumption Cathedral. Everyone is looking up at the belfry, where two monks are giving a concert on the thirteen bells.

The peals -- not exactly melodic but certainly harmonious -- carry across the courtyard, over the kremlin walls and out into the surrounding town.

***

My last stop is Sergiev Posad, the town surrounding the 14th-century Monastery of St. Sergius. It is only 60 km from Moscow, close enough that you would not normally spend the night. But I have arrived late in the day and book a room.

To be fair, the woman at the front desk warned me the hotel has no hot water. She did not mention, however, that there is no heat. It is May, so you may not think that heat would be necessary. But it is also snowing.
I crawl under the covers. Anna Karenina keeps me company until dark, when I discover that my lamp has no light bulb. When the knob of the television comes off in my hand, I give up and wait for sleep.

St. Sergius of Radonezh began his calling as a hermit monk in the forest wilderness. In 1340 he founded the monastery, which soon became the spiritual center of Russian Orthodoxy. Prince Dmitry Donskoy’s improbable victory in battle against the Mongols in 1380 was credited to the blessing of Sergius. Soon after his death at the age of 78, Sergius was named the patron state of all of Russia.

Since the 14th century, pilgrims have been journeying to this place to pay homage to St. Sergius. His tomb sits in the corner of the somber Trinity Cathedral, where a memorial service goes on throughout the day. The cathedral is crowded with a shuffling procession of worshipers, who approach the tomb, light candles and recite prayers.

The gilded interior is lit only by oil lamps and prayer candles. I wait for my eyes to adjust to the dimness before examining the iconostasis, another masterpiece by Andrei Rublyov. The eyes of the saints are sympathetic, and I ponder the Orthodox belief that the icon embodies the spirit of the saint depicted.

Outside, the sun is bright, reflecting off the gold and star-spangled domes of the surrounding churches. There is no sign of the snow from the previous evening. Monks swish by in their black robes. The monastery is bustling.

A long line of people snakes through the main courtyard to the Chapel-at-the-Well. Though reminiscent of Soviet times, this line is different. These are believers. Seeking inspiration and comfort from historic heroics, they wait to fill their plastic bottles with holy water.
Don’t Worry ‘bout a Thing


Caye Caulker - “No Shirt, No Shoes… No Problem.” So goes the motto at Caye Caulker’s favorite restaurant and watering hole, Rasta Pasta. Nothing seems to be a problem at Rasta Pasta or, indeed, anywhere on this tiny Belizean island, where mangy dogs nap in the middle of the dirt road and suntanned cyclists pedal around them. The only traffic sign on the island instructs golf carts and bicycles to “Go slow,” a directive that is taken seriously.

The one thousand residents of this tiny island have traditionally made their living from the sea, specifically from the spiny lobsters and red snapper that inhabit its warm waters. In recent years, the primary economy has shifted but it still depends on the sea: now it attracts tourists, who flock to the island for windsurfing, sea kayaking and snorkeling.

Caye Caulker offers fewer amenities than a typical Caribbean resort, but that is part of the charm of this place. Of twenty or so guesthouses, all are privately owned and most have less than a dozen rooms to let. As such, the island enjoys the friendliness of a village, as opposed to the formality of a resort.

Island residents wouldn’t have it any other way. “How you feelin’, mon?” a local asks a passerby. He is sitting in a lawn chair along the main drag, a dirt road known as Front Street, with his shirt open and dreadlocks draping across his shoulders. The sunburned, sandals-clad tourist smiles back, giving his new acquaintance a two-handed point, a la Manny Ramirez. “Alright, my friend, you feelin’ fine.”

The easygoing attitude is due in part to the thriving Rastafarian culture on the Caye, which pulses to a reggae beat. If it’s not Bob Marley blaring from a boom box on the beach, it’s the latest in punta rock, an eclectic blend of Garifuna drum rhythms. Drumming groups gather on the beach and at local bars to get their Afro-Caribbean groove on. They play for themselves, but anybody is welcome to gather round and soak up the good vibes.

The quintessential Caye Caulker bar is the Lazy Lizard, “a sunny spot for shady people.” The simple, tin-roofed structure is located at the northern end of town, overlooking a swift-moving channel called the Split. The Split was formed in 1961, when Hurricane Hattie whipped through here and cut off the northern tip from the rest of the island. Now, it is one of the preferred spots on Caye Caulker for swimming and snorkeling.

It’s not much as a beach – a small patch of sand strewn with rubble. But this is the center of island culture, where sunbathers lounge on a crumbling seawall, kids play with makeshift toys scavenged from the trash, and fishing boats slowly motor past.

From his perch at the bar of the Lazy Lizard, a friendly local named Greek surveys the scene. His matted hair hangs down his bare back, while a knit cap – the symbolic red, yellow, green and black – rests on top. He sips the local brew, Belikin beer. “Hey Ras,” he calls out to a tourist who has dreads to rival his own. “Stick around. We goin’ to have some drinks and check out the sun set.” Indeed, round about 6:00 pm, there is no better place to watch the fiery ball of sun, as it turns the sky an orangey-pink and drops into the clear green sea.

As in the rest of the Belize, the population of Caye Caulker is a mix of Mestizos and Creoles, plus a disproportionate percentage of Europeans and Americans (who came to visit the Caye and never left). Among the latter is Nara Belle Rosser, who moved here last year from the States. "I escaped the rat race," she laughs.

Nara conducts morning classes in kripalu yoga on a small private beach at the Iguana Reef Inn. At $200 per night, the Iguana Reef is by far the most luxurious accommodation on the island. But the yoga classes are open to anyone, and they usually attract both guests and non-guests, including a few local women. The beach faces west. Nonetheless, the breeze off the water, the fishing boats bobbing on the bay and the frigate birds soaring overhead make for an inspirational setting for sun salutations.

Caye Caulker's top tourist attraction is the barrier reef. About a mile off the island’s shore, it is the longest coral reef in the western hemisphere, much of it protected by a marine reserve. Carlos Ayala is one of several guides who take small groups out to the reef on his boat Gypsy. Carlos is a trained marine biologist, which you might not guess from his sun-streaked hair and ultra-cool demeanor. But his expertise is apparent when he talks about the reef.

"The reef is fragile," he reminds his clients. "The coral is composed of individual polyps -- living creatures. If you step on the coral, or even touch it, you destroy their protective cells. The coral becomes susceptible to invasions by algae and other bacteria."

His patrons, equipped with snorkels and masks, jump over the side of the boat and enter an unbelievable fantasy world of vibrant colors and exotic shapes. The reef itself is takes the form of a head of lettuce, or elk horns, or a brain. The life it supports is infinite, which is clear from the first descent underwater. Schools of golden-finned, blued-striped grunts swim by, seemingly inviting snorkelers to join them. The fluorescent pink and green stoplight parrotfish is not so social, but he’s not hard to find lurking under rocks. Bright blue tangs, striped angelfish and domineering bar jacks come and go. Suddenly, the fish disperse, as a slick, silver barracuda zips across the reef, then disappears into deeper waters. A sense of calm resumes on the reef.

A snorkeler frantically summons her guide when she spots the dark shadow of a shark lurking under the boat. Carlos reassures her that the nurse sharks are harmless. Indeed, later in the day, at a location known as Shark Alley, Carlos will catch a nurse shark and allow his clients to touch her soft underbelly.

Not surprisingly, most restaurant menus on Caye Caulker feature a variety of these creatures of the sea, with lobster playing the starring role. Distinguished from their New England brethren by their lack of claws, the Caribbean crustaceans are no less divine, especially when grilled and served with a Belikin beer.

The closest thing to upscale on the island is Habaneros, a thatch-roof cabana with a wide verandah. Guests dine by candlelight, feasting on “Surf & surf” – a grilled lobster tail and garlic shrimp served with a spicy papaya dipping sauce. Dessert is creamy, tart "Caye lime pie" topped with a scoop of rich, homemade frozen yogurt.

End to end, Caye Caulker is only a few miles long, and it's a half-mile across at its widest point. For its small size, it has no shortage of things to do, from sunrise yoga to snorkeling to seafood feasts. The appeal of Caye Caulker, however, lies in the revelation that it is not necessary to do anything, except relish the sun on your face and the breeze off the sea.

If you go...

How to get there
US Airways and American Airlines fly from Boston to Belize City for about $600. Water taxis make the 45-minute from Belize City to Caye Caulker every two hours for $10 each way.

What to do
Carlos Eco Tours (tel 011-501-600-1654, Front Street, Caye Caulker) One of several guides offering trips to the reef. All-day tours - offering snorkeling three different locations and a visit to nearby Ambergris Caye - are $45 per person, including equipment and marine reserve fees.

Where to stay
Iguana Reef Inn (tel 011-501-226-0213, www.iguanareefinn.com) This small resort offers a private beach, an excellent open-air restaurant and fabulous sunset views. A dozen comfortable rooms are decorated in bright colors with rustic furniture and local artwork. Double rooms including continental breakfast are $90-140, depending on the season.

Treetops Hotel (tel 011-501-226-0240, www.treetopsbelize.com) Treetops fronts the beach on the east side of the island, allowing its rooms to catch a breeze off the sea. The place is immaculate and efficient, thanks to the watchful eye of its owners, Terry and Doris, and their Boston terriers. Spotless rooms with shared bath are $40-50, while the rooftop suite is $80-85.

Where to eat
Habaneros (tel 011-501-226-0487) The wide verandah overlooking Caye Caulker's main drag is a romantic spot for dinner. Choose from a rotating menu of seafood specials and delicious desserts. Reservations are recommended. Meals $20-30 per person.

Rasta Pasta (tel 011-501-206-0356) Come for lunch and stay all afternoon at this friendly beachfront restaurant and bar. Specialties of the house include huge seafood burritos and spicy ginger beer. Meals $10-15 per person.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Belize is for the Birds

ORANGE WALK, BELIZE -- The less-than-sonorous squawk of parrots woke me at dawn. Although the Hotel St Christopher is located on the edge of Orange Walk, a town about 65 miles northwest of Belize City, it sounded like we were on the edge of the jungle. Indeed, in Belize, the edge of town is the edge of the jungle.

Belize boasts the highest percentage of protected land in the western hemisphere: almost half of its 8800 square miles is protected by the country’s network of national parks and nature reserves. Of a territory that is roughly the same size as Massachusetts, vast stretches of rainforest are virtually untouched by human hands.

While tourism is the mainstay of the economy, the focus is on ecotourism, an attempt to use tourist dollars to preserve these natural resources. The idea is that small-scale, non-intrusive tourism adds value to wildlife conservation, while contributing directly to local communities. I was about to experience firsthand what ecotourism is all about.

My wake-up call, I thought, was an auspicious start to the day. I had come to Belize in hopes of catching a glimpse of its national bird, the famous keel-billed toucan. We've all seen this big-beaked buzzard following his nose in search of breakfast cereal, but I wanted to spot the real deal, ramphastos sulfuratus, in his natural habitat in the wilds of the Belizean rainforest. Of course a parrot is not a toucan, but I thought the rowdy flock of green parakeets boded well for sightings of other exotic species.

The setting for my search: the slow-moving New River, a lazy waterway winding through miles of Atlantic rainforest and teeming with wildlife. By all accounts, it was a birder's paradise. My guide: Orlando the ornithologist, so dubbed for his amazing ability to identify – down to the species, gender and age – just about every bird sighted along the river. Orlando claims an intimate knowledge of 98 species of tropical birds; in one day, we would see more than 30.

My companions: Sharon, a professional bird trainer at an aviary in Salt Lake City, and her husband Michael. It was Sharon who spotted, within two minutes of our departure, the awkward northern jacana, strutting his stuff across the lily pads. Sharon explained that the bird’s disproportionately long toes allow it to walk on floating vegetation and to feast on the bugs and mollusks living there. I was impressed, both by the jacana and by Sharon's knowledge. “Yes, my wife is a bird-nerd,” Michael boasted.

Our destination: Lamanai, a remote archeological site containing the ruins of hundreds of Mayan temples. Lamanai comes from the original Maya name, Lama’an ayin, meaning “submerged crocodile”. This name would prove appropriate.

The 30-mile journey from Orange Walk to Lamanai normally takes about an hour, but our trip turned into a three-hour odyssey, as Orlando indulged his bird-loving clients. He steered the six-seat motorboat around the twists and turns of the jungle river, stopping to point out an elegant anhinga posed on the riverbank, its long neck curved in a graceful S. He spotted a coy grey-neck wood rail hiding amongst the reeds. Our boat drifted close enough for us to catch the shy guy's pink legs, yellow beak and blue-brown feathers on film. At one point, Orlando insisted that we keep our eyes on an overhang that was apparently void of fauna. Our boat floated within a few feet, and the tree’s bark erupted, as dozens of startled proboscis bats fluttered into our faces and dispersed.

The only development along the river between Orange Walk and Lamanai is a Mennonite farm. A Germanic religious group that eschews modern conveniences and military service, the Mennonites found their way to Belize in 1958 (then British Honduras). Having come into conflict with governments in Mexico, Canada and several European countries, they were eager to settle in a place where they would be able to work the land and live out their conservative values, without outside interference. Belize turned out to be a good fit. Today, the 15,000 Mennonites in Belize constitute about 4% of the population, yet they produce almost half of the food consumed in this country.

A lone man sat on the dock at the Mennonite settlement outside of Orange Walk. Dressed in overalls and a floppy hat, he could have been Pa Ingalls, straight from the Little House on the Prairie. He observed us as curiously as we observed him, while we slowly motored past.

We spent several minutes idling, trying to get a good look at a boatbill heron. Bluish in color and squat in stature, he stood in stark contrast to his more elegant heron cousins. As Orlando finally allowed the boat to drift away, Michael gasped “A baby croc!” The young reptile was inches from our boat, camouflaged amongst the reeds and lilies, exposed only by his enormous eyeballs and spiny snout. It was the “submerged crocodile” to which the Maya referred. This baby was too small to be scary, unlike the morelot crocodile we would see on our return trip, sitting on a log with his jaw stretched open wide, waiting to snap at any prey that came close.

As we neared Lamanai, Orlando directed our attention to a tall palm tree that was about 100 yards inland. It was just possible to make out a massive nest in the upper branches. With the aid of binoculars, its resident was clearly visible: an enormous jabiru stork. With a wingspan up to eight feet, the jabiru is the largest flying bird in the western hemisphere.

We finally arrived at Lamanai, which is a part of the Rio Bravo Conservation Area. Archeologists believe that the site contains hundreds of Mayan temples, only a few of which have been excavated. Orlando explained that the area is normally flat lowlands; each mound we climbed was another temple, covered over by hundreds of years of growth. Largely unexcavated and surrounded by rain forest, Lamanai is an Indiana Jones movie waiting to happen. The temples – pyramid-shaped structures with no apparent interior – invite climbing and exploring and gazing over the treetops.

A deep howl resounded in the air, making me think we had entered a haunted forest. I felt a shiver run down my spine, but Orlando just smiled. "Howler monkeys," he explained. Their namesake howl, audible for miles around, warns competing troops away from their territory. We could not see them, but they made their presence known. The howler, in fact, is the loudest land animal.

We clambered over 100 feet to the top of the High Temple for a panoramic view of the New River Lagoon. When it was built in 100 BC, the High Temple was the tallest structure in the Mayan world. It might have been called the steep temple, I thought, as I stared straight down at Orlando, who was tiny at the base of the structure, and wondered how I would get down.

We examined up-close a replica of Stela 9, a detailed stone carving of the Maya chief Lord Smoking Shell in all his royal regalia; we climbed the giant Jaguar Temple, named for the majestic symbol of Mayan royalty that inhabits the Belizean forests; and we posed in front of the magnificent Mask Temple, featuring a frightening, 13-foot, carved stone face, adorned with a headdress.

Exhausted from our day of exploration, we sat on the lower steps of the Mask Temple, hoping for one last wildlife sighting -- a grand finale -- before we returned to Orange Walk. We could hear two howler monkeys sharing a feast in the treetops, but they were barely visible through the branches. Suddenly I noticed a rustle of leaves, a flash of black -- was the howlers? I stared at the dark figure, not a mammal but a bird, complete with vibrant yellow chest and Fruit Loop-colored beak. It was none other than the keel-billed toucan. He hopped around the heights of the mango tree, enjoying a late lunch with his mate.

I waved over my travel companions. Sharon gazed through her binoculars, marveling at the toucans' rainbow of colors in the dark green canopy. "Look at you, gorgeous," she crooned, "frolicking in the wild, just as you are meant to." And that is what ecotourism is all about.


If you go...

How to get there

American Airlines and US Airways fly to Belize City, from where buses run every hour to Orange Walk. Try to get on an express bus, or you may stop at every mile along the 65-mile journey.

What to do

Make arrangements for your trip to Lamanai through the Hotel St. Christopher or Lamanai Outpost Lodge, or through an independent tour guide.

Jungle River Tours (tel 011-501-302-2293, e-mail lamanaimayatour@btl.net) An excellent independent tour operator offering daytrips for $40-50 per person. Day trips depart from Orange Walk at 9:00 am.

Where to Stay

Hotel St. Christopher (tel 011-512-322-2420, 10 Main Street, Orange Walk) Clean rooms with private bathrooms are $40 for a double. The accommodation is basic, but the grounds abound with blooming trees and squawking parrots. The motel's setting on the banks of the New River allows tour boats to provide door-to-door service.

Lamanai Outpost Lodge (tel 1-888-733-7864, http://www.lamanai.com/) Spend the night in the jungle, in style. Luxurious, thatch-roof cabanas are set amidst lush gardens on the New River Lagoon, just east of the archaeological site. The lodge offers excellent guided tours, including nighttime safaris, visits to the Mennonite settlement and wildlife canoe trips. Daily rates - including all meals, transfer to and from Belize City Airport, and guided tours - run $312 per person from May to November, and $450-512 per person from December to April. Daily rates decrease for longer stays.