Sunday, November 29, 2009

No Dogs were Harmed During the Making of this Meal

We had Thanksgiving this year again at Ken's place, though this time we moved all the tables into the room with the heater so we wouldn't be so cold. We did it pot luck style again with everyone bringing something. We asked Spring, Steve's wife, not to bring anything again, last year she completely ignored us on that one. We thought she'd probably just bring stuff anyways this time too but she actually stuck to it and only brought over one dish. There was of course way too much food anyways, can it really be Thanksgiving without it. This great picture was taken by Sarah, and reported here without permission. Pretty much everyone who was there is in the picture besides Sarah who was taking the picture, and Mike, Steve's son, who was in a bit of a mood and didn't feel like leaning forward. I made mashed potatoes again, they came out much better this year thanks to the masher I got from the US and the fact that instead of much milk I added a really ridiculous amount of butter and some garlic to them. Ken made stuffing again which was definitly better than last year thanks to drying out the bread first. The real stars of the show were Sean and Sarah though who do an absolutely amazing job with their little toaster oven. They made green bean casserole and stuffed mushrooms that were out of this world. They also deviled about 3 dozen eggs. The best part was the desert though which consisted of cup cakes and an amazingly good apple crisp. Ken joked that we should have just given money to Sean and Sarah and had them cook all the Thanksgiving food. We had KFC as the turkey again despite some jokes about going for the dog meat.

Having Thanksgiving this year was both similar and different to last year. The actual meal was pretty similar, though with better cooking thanks to Sean and Sarah, but the people were different. Dave is back in the US and Clark is over in Shanghai, and even Amy who was hear in the second semester is gone. Looking back on my old posts from last Thanksgiving I'm reminded of feeling homesick around that time. It's not really in the post but I can just remember feeling it as I was writing. What's interesting this year is that I don't feel as homesick. It feels like I just got back to China even though the semester is almost done. Maybe I'm just getting used to missing holidays I don't know. When I used to live in Belgium I made up a word, distance Americans, it refereed to people who were technically Americans, but had lived so little of their life in the US that they came across as more European than anything. I wonder if I'm going to be like that some day. I wonder if I spend enough time away from the US will I lose my connection to it. I'm not sure if this is good or bad I just don't know. Already I know less about US pop culture than I would if I lived in the US. How long will it be before people will ask me questions about what's big in the US and I'll have no idea. I've always prided myself on my ability to predict political trends but I wonder if that too is eroded by losing some of my connection to the US. Part of me wants to visit every country, see every sight like I was collecting them, but it seems that the old ones slip away though my fingers the longer I am gone from them. By the time I've seen everything will I need to start again to see how everything's changed? I just wonder if I'm losing my country, and if that's a good or bad thing.

I'm going to end this post the way I ended my post last year and the way my dad begins every Thanksgiving meal, because traditions can be important when they bring us closer together, by saying what I'm thankful for this year. I'm thankful to have friends in China with whom I can spend a nice Thanksgiving. I'm thankful to have friends with whom I can travel to strange and interesting places with. I'm thankful for having this blog as, at very least, a record of what I've been doing that even I already need to look back on. I'm thankful for all the support I've gotten from friends and family in the US, I know not all families are as supportive of such wanderings as mine is. I'm thankful for having this opportunity to gallivant around the world. I'm thankful that my mother and my grandfather are feeling better, and I hope for continued good health in the coming year. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More Mao

Besides seeing the Great Wall we also took some time to see the stuff around Tienanmen Square including the Forbidden City and my favorite, preserved Mao. Much like Ho Chi Minh Mao despite leaving explicit orders that he be cremated was preserved in the creepy Soviet style immediately following his death. Much of the technique came from the Soviets through Vietnam as the Chinese and Russians weren't on great terms at the time. Mao's mausoleum is a lot like Ho Chi Minh's except bigger. The line wraps around three sides of the gigantic structure in the middle of Tienanmen Square, and even with all that requires that the line fold in on itself several times. Being in China this of course means that there are constantly people trying to cut in line. Chinese line cutters aren't really like the ones you might find in America either. In America once a security guard caught you trying to cut in line you would probably be ashamed and go back to the end, but not in China. In China people had to be basically forcibly ejected from line and there were endless arguments with the various guards. If people were forcibly stopped they would often just try to find another spot to cut in. This constant back and forth combined with the already huge size of the line made the wait about two hours.

This contrast pretty sharply with what I saw in Vietnam where the whole atmosphere around the tomb was pretty somber and there were probably as many guards as people. Once you finally got near the entrance there was a place selling flowers, which were then deposited about five feet away near a big portrait of Mao, and I'm sure collected and resold. People always wonder how China's economy can grow so fast, honestly I think a big part of it is that the Chinese just naturally take to capitalism in a way you don't see in many countries. I've been to the tomb of Mao and Sun Yat-sen probably the two most venerated figures in China, and they were selling junk at each place. Inside the huge mausoleum the first room has flowers and some big pictures but is pretty uninteresting. When I finally go into the room with Mao it was again a lot like in Vietnam. Mao was behind several layers of glass and his lower body was covered with a big flag. Again I don't really know what a person whose been dead that long should look like, but he didn't look great. Maybe it's that he was never as good looking in life as Ho Chi Minh but he just looked old and sick behind all that glass. Having waited so long to finally get to the room with the body I walked really slowly through the room. One of the guards made a hurry up motion to me, but in good Chinese fashion I just ignored him and took my time.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Million Maos

Most of the stuff I saw with my parents in Shanghai was stuff that I'd already seen before at some point. The one exception was the Propaganda Art Museum which was recommended to me by Dave before he left. The Propaganda Art Museum was really hard to find despite some good directions. Basically we had to take a taxi to this one really random building in the city not particularly near anything. Then we just wandered around confused for a while before a guard at the entrance to a little housing complex came out a gave us a card that had directions on exactly where to go on it, I think he knew who we were by the fact that we were the confused looking foreigners. Even with the little card we walked by the building we were supposed to go into a couple of times before finally finding it after about 15 minutes. In the building we went down to what was basically the sub basement where we finally came to the Propaganda Art Museum. The museum was basically in a couple of small rooms. Each room was filled to the brink with old propaganda posters from the 40's-70's. The posters were really amazing both as historical relics of an amazingly crazy time and also for there interesting artistic quality. The signs around the museum explained how the different styles of the time and the different people in charge effected the look and composition of the posters.

The small museum was divided by the dates the different posters came out and didn't really have much to it besides wall after wall packed full of posters. It was still an amazing find. In a country that usually so quick to brush over it past flings with radicalism I suppose it's the fact that the communist part can't really write off Mao who they depend on for so much of there legitimacy that allows a place like this to exist even if it's in the basement of a housing building. As we were walking over to the gift shop we met the owner and collector of the place. He said that they didn't really have a specific problem with the government but that it was just his personal side project and they didn't have much money so they were in the little building. That being said I've seen the big and famous museums of Shanghai and there was nothing 1/10th as memorable in them as what was in the little Propaganda Art Museum. The gift shop alone was worth going to check out as they sold tons of original propaganda pieces. They're somewhat rare since not many were kept but because of the huge quantities made at the time they have enough extra to frame and sell some to pay for the rest of the museum. I went a little wild as there were a lot of things in there I had been looking for. I got a great English version of Mao's little red book. I got a Red Army jacket and a Red Guard arm band. I got a hilarious teaching English book from the Cultural Revolution where every practice sentence just praised Mao.

I also got two small old propaganda posters one extolling the people to harvest wheat and the other wishing Mao a long life. I love them and they are incredibly interesting to me. I'm a little conflicted on the Mao one since I consider Mao a really evil figure and I wouldn't exactly display an old picture of Hitler on my wall. But I suppose his picture is still so prevalent here it's not like I'm exactly reopening old wounds. My dad talked to the owner for a while and when he heard that my dad was a reporter he got excited and offered to show us some more stuff. He had another sort of storage room with a huge pile of plastic Mao busts and other posters. The most interesting stuff though was old sheets of really big paper from the Cultural Revolution where people had written messages criticizing various people. What was really interesting is that messages would be crossed out and new things written over them. It sort of made a back and forth discussion in big angry words. The owner noted that he had seen the posters years ago and hated them. But after seeing them more recently he realized that they had a odd artistic value as sort of a mass generated art. I suppose I've never thought of the Cultural Revolution for it's artistic value before. I'd recommend going to the Propaganda Art Museum as the best stop in Shanghai for anyone traveling there.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Back to China

The very next day after I got back from my trip down to New Orleans, we did the driving in two day though most of it was done on the first day, I was off again to China with my parents. They had wanted to visit China and since I didn't have classes starting until early September it was a good time. In the end they almost weren't able to come though and the Visa took a really long time since China is not exactly super friendly to journalists. In the end all they were able to get was a Visa that was only half as long as the normal Visa and China even likes the Wall Street Journal. Also speaking of great moments in censorship Obama is in China and during one of his speeches called on the Chinese government to uncensored the internet, a comment that was promptly censored in all the Chinese sources. In China we went to Shanghai, Changzhou, Beijing, and then to Chengdu to see the Pandas, I'm again not going to do every day from the trip. I think I'm going to do one post of Shanghai, one on the Great Wall, one on the Forbidden City, and one on the Panda preserves until I'm finally up to the point where I was back in Changzhou.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Big Easy (New Orleans Part 2)

I can't remember exactly what we had for breakfast the next day but we certainly had a number of beignets while we were there. Beignets are a popular New Orleans snack food that are basically just fried dough with a bunch of powdered sugar on top. The only thing that makes them a little different from normal fried dough is that they are sort of puffed up with air in the middle giving them a vaguely round shape. They seemed to sell them pretty much everywhere in the French Quarter and at all the coffee shops in the city. There was a big placed just called Cafe Beignet down near the river which seemed to really only sell beignets. I think the place was pretty famous as it was always pretty full even with a large number of outdoor tables under a big awning. All the food we had in New Orleans was really good. We ate one night at the nice restaurant in a different Hilton in the city, there were about four within walking distance. Mike was even able to get us a discount in the restaurant since he worked at a Hilton. The food there was really good including a soft shelled crab that was so big I almost made myself sick trying to finish it. That was actually one of the few meals where we didn't just order a few things and share everything. Harry and Mike loved doing that but it's just never been what I'm used to so I wasn't quite so gung ho about it.

We had gotten a flier the previous day for a brewery tour of a local Rum company. It seemed as good a thing as any to do so we got a taxi out to where the warehouse/brewery was. The thing was that we didn't exactly read the brochure very carefully since what we thought it said was that there were tours from 11am - 3pm what it actually said was that there were tours at 11am 1pm and 3pm. So we ended up arriving about 30 minutes too late for one tour and 2 hours too early for another. The place wasn't close to anything either it was basically in an industrial area of the town with nothing much around but warehouses and construction yards. The people at the rum place though were really nice to us once we all realized our mistake. We didn't have much to do so we basically just say down and waited for whenever the next tour would be. They had some rum cake out from the last tour also which was really good, and seemed to include more rum than cake. They also had a big dispenser full of one of there rums and iced tea which went really well together in the heat. I'm not usually much of a fan of iced tea but with rum it was really good. We talked some with the people there and read through some of their literature. The rum company seemed to be pretty recent but they already had a number of different types of rum.

After not too long the guy who does the tours came by and just figured since we were there he might as well do a tour then. The tour was pretty short, the whole brewery basically fit into one small warehouse and you could see the whole thing practically from the door. He showed us a little about how rum is made, which since it involves brewing is pretty much the same as how any alcohol is made. What was interesting is that when the brewing process is over the rum it makes is like 80-90% pure alcohol so they have to delude it with water to get it down to a drinkable level. The other really interesting thing is the guy showed us the water line from where the water got to during the hurricane Katrina flood. The mark was really high up but the guy said that the water was actually higher than that and the stain on the wood was from the level it settee at for a while. They said that they actually hadn't lost that much in the flood because of where a lot of the barrels were placed but had lost some stuff. After that we got to do a rum tasting which was a lot fun. They had about five different types of rum including some that were made to be especially good with tea. Harry and Mike bought more than I did but I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to get it back to China.

Later that evening we went out to dinner in the city again and this time I was sure to get some gumbo and some jambalaya since they are such famous local foods. Gumbo is good it's basically a thick seafood stew but I really liked jambalaya since it's basically just paella with slightly different spices. After dinner me and Harry got in line for a famous Preservation Hall jazz club. I think you can tell a lot by a place by what sort of atmosphere it has. Some places charge a big cover and have fancy tables and food and what not. Preservation Hall has no food, no drinks, about enough benches for 1/5th the number of people packed into the little room, no air conditioning, and a line out the door that stretches down the block. Preservation Hall actually became famous partially because of all this. At a time when other jazz clubs were adding lots of dancing room and what not Preservation Hall just focused on jazz and little else. The place was packed way before the musicians showed up. The set up was simple with a trumpet and trombone a bass and a piano. They played a few songs then then brought in an older guy who did some singing. He was good but being what looked like 90 he didn't exactly have a loud voice and simply the whirred of the fans almost drowned him out.

They divided the time up with several sets and the low admission price allowed you to stay for as long as you wanted. The last set was the most fun as the final song they did involved the trombone played marching around the room and doing what must be the longest trombone solo on record. At one point he was even able to get down on the floor while playing it and get back up. After the music was done we went out to the bars for a while. Harry and Mike were still really excited about the lack of open container laws but coming from China where the laws about alcohol are simply nonexistent it wasn't as much fun for me. There is a certain fun in breaking the rules and carrying beer outside sort of has that feeling but it's a lot less when you get used to it. The most interesting thing about the bars was that they would often have two bars in them, a nicer one upfront and a cheaper one in the back for people like us. This almost made the bars into two places at once a dive bar and a more respectable place. The bar tender at one of the back bars we visited had just been in a car accident of some kind and seemed so spacey we wondered if he had a concussion, I think he eventually went to the hospital to check it out. As we were leaving one place we noticed a University of Wisconsin flag. We asked around and found out that it was simply that one of the residence had been a badger. You never know where you're going to find people.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Voodoo Doctors for Ron Paul (New Orleans Part 1)

We spent about two or three days in New Orleans and while there are too many stories for one post I'm not going to break them up exactly according to day, that being said it is going to follow the general outline of my time there with just a few events moved around for the sake of brevity and clarity. The first morning there we left our hotel which was nicely located just about three blocks from the French Quarter and walked down into the city to get some breakfast. After looking around for a while we just picked on place essentially at random and went to get something to eat. Despite how hot it was out it wasn't so bad in the shade, and I was outvoted, so we sat outside in a courtyard area that had the look of being unchanged for the past hundred years. The food was good, and we ordered entirely too much of it, Harry and Mike each got a sandwich so big that finishing half of it was difficult, but the most remarkable thing was our waiter who had such the accent and mannerisms of the old South that it felt like we had become unstuck in time. Breakfast being at about noon we also stopped and tried some of the local beers which were pretty good. After breakfast we just sort of wandered around the historic streets of the French Quarter.

The buildings in all of the French Quarter were beautiful old stone and brick buildings with balconies on every level and with plants and people leisurely sitting taking in the day. I've heard the criticism that New Orleans has become so focused on tourists that what you see there today is more an image of what used to be there than the actual culture, but it did just seem like everyone was quietly going about there lives and while there was definitly a lot of stuff catering to tourists the city wasn't exactly overrun. I think some of that had to do with the fact that we were there during a lower season, as the heat and hurricanes that come in the summer tend to make spring and winter bigger tourist seasons. We walked around a lot, which is always a good way to see any city. We passed a number of parks and came down near the river to what was essentially the heart of the city. Harry wanted to look up some local artist that his parents and some of his Aunts and Uncles knew. He gave him a call and we went looking for him finding him sitting outside near one of the parks with a bunch of his art put up for display and sale. The art itself was really colorful stuff mostly being impressionist type works about jazz. In a number of the paintings that frames themselves were painted as well as if the color had just spilled out off the canvas.

One of Harry's relatives had offered to put some money toward a painting as a housewarming gift for his new condo so Harry talked to the guy for a while and eventually picked out some paintings that he really liked. He had been looking at one of the larger ones but Harry eventually decided to go with a series of three smaller ones that made there own little jazz band, with a pianist in one, a saxophone player in another, and a drummer and singer in the third. The artist was an interesting guy to he had lived in New Orleans forever and some of his work was in local galleries. He was older now so I think he mostly just took it easy sitting out by a park with some of his stuff. After Harry paid him we took the paintings over to a post office to get a bunch of bubble wrap and boxes to put them in. After using what seemed like ten pounds of bubble wrap we put them in a box. Harry decided not to mail them though since we had driven and they would be safe wrapped up in the trunk of the car. While we were doing all this though it had started to pour outside so we were sort of stuck looking for a taxi. After not being able to find one for a while we just eventually put some plastic bags over the top of the box and carried it back to the hotel in the rain.

After spending a little time in the hotel the rain let up. Mike was taking a nap so me and Harry just went out to walk around New Orleans a little more. We walked over toward something one of the guide maps just described as a Voodoo Museum. On our way there we walked down the famous Bourbon street which had literally nothing besides strip clubs and bars. Harry's dad had once called Bourbon street the "Disneyland of Sex," and I think that's pretty accurate. Whatever once had been there the whole place now was just a monument to tourism, overpriced beer, and strippers. What's more it lacked the honest sleaziness of some of the more unseemly parts of cities like Bangkok as it had all been done up in neon to give it a more friendly atmosphere for tourists. I did stop and take a picture holding a sign which simply read "Huge Ass Beers to Go" as New Orleans doesn't have any open container laws so people can get there alcoholic beverage of choice and carry it around with them as long as they don't have glass. There were a lot of places actually that sold what looked like basically alcoholic Slurpees.

When I had head about a Voodoo Museum I imagined something formal with a more anthropological take on Voodoo, what I got was a shrine for the true believers. The guy at the front desk, who I believe was the only one working that day at the little place, looked about as little like a Voodoo Doctor as you could imagine. He was a middle age, maybe late 40's early 50's, overweight white guy sitting behind this desk wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. We had some time to wait there as we called Mike and told him we had found the place and it took him a while to make his way down to where we were. As we were waiting we started to talk to the guy as we were the only people in the whole place. This guy may have looked like a joke but he took his Voodoo about as seriously as anyone I've ever meet took anything. He talked at first in a bit of a whisper so we had to lean in a bit to hear what he was actually saying. I asked him some questions about Voodoo and he told us a bit of his life story, how his family had been at one point in the past big plantation owners in Louisiana and Virginia and that people in his family had started to learn Voodoo from there black servants. He told us that he had been to Africa at one point to do some Voodoo initiation ritual.

If this just sounds like the guy was having us on, or essentially conning us, I can't prove that anything he was saying was true but it was just something about the earnestness with which he talked about it or the way he despised people who made light of Voodoo that made him sound extremely credible. And while he was pretty dressed down at the time there was a quite creepy picture of him wearing a robe and holding a snake. Besides telling us about Voodoo he loved to name drop and talk about the museum. I think we heard about every celebrity who ever came in there and exactly how respectful, or not, they were to Voodoo. He described Brad Pitt as something of an air head, and Angelina Jolie as like a dominatrix. I don't remember exactly how we started talking about politics, I think he asked us what we did and Harry mentioned he worked for a Senator, but the political conversation was certainly interesting. I was going on with something about single payer health care, which he didn't seem to be very interested in, when out of no where he just turns to me and goes, "Are you gay?" For a second I was just confused wondering if he was joking or what exactly brought on this question. I just turned back to him and said no and he sort of continued on. Harry joked later that I must have been promoting the homosexual agenda and Mike wondered if it was a pick up line.

After talking about politics for a while he said that the only candidate he really liked was Ron Paul. For those of you who don't know who Dr. Congressmen Ron Paul is he's a former OB/GYN from Texas and long serving member of congress who ran for the Republic nomination on a campaign that basically defines the term grass-roots. Paul basically didn't do any of his fund raising or spending, instead having people basically raise there own money and decide how to spend it. I don't think anyone was more suppressed than Paul when his little campaign took off finishing third and even once I believe second in a large number of primaries. Paul who is sometimes known as Doctor No for basically voting against everything in Congress ran on a platform of basically shrinking the federal government as much as possible and attracted support from everyone from hippies to CEOs. At one point his supporters even raised enough money to have a blimp advertise his candidacy. Hearing that the white New Orleans Voodoo Doctor is a big Ron Paul booster is just about a perfect as you can get. The Voodoo Museum itself wasn't that big or interesting but I considered coming back for a Voodoo reading but could just never really get my head into it enough.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Gay Time in Old Savannah

The first major stop of the trip was in Savannah Georgia. I had never really heard of the town but apparently Harry's parents spent some time there once and Harry has always been impressed with the stories they tell about how nice and interesting it was. We stayed in a nice hotel downtown thanks to Mike's hook up and our room basically opened onto a pool. Savannah's not that big so we spent most of our time there, really just about one full day, walking around the whole place. The streets were very wide in the old style that you might call a boulevard. The street only tended to be two lanes but with two more for parking and a big area with grass and trees in the middle it was about the width of what could have been six lanes. This is about as different as possible from China were they would have squeezed eight lanes into that space. The streets were also made beautiful by the big green trees which hung over all of them giving the whole street a lot of shade. There was some kind of moss hanging from the trees which might have been an invasive species but actually made it more beautiful by giving all the trees a sort of fuzzy look. The town had a lot of historical buildings and signs all throughout it and over the course of the day we actually walked through a good portion of the whole town.

Besides a number of nice old buildings and statues we went into a number of really nice little stores. The first one we went to was a sort of Willy Wanka like chocolate and candy store. One of the big things they made in the store was taffy which you could see going from being stretched by a machine to being separated wrapped and moved by conveyor belt to were it was sold. The whole thing made a funny little process that I took a video of. The store also sold all sorts of candied apples and chocolate. Harry saw that they had a bunch of old time lunch boxes like we used to have when we were kids with pictures of transformers of GI Joe on them. The deal was that if you bought one of these lunch boxes you could get all the taffy you could fit in it for free. Harry liked the idea of taking his lunch into work in a kids lunch box so he got one and a bunch of taffy. We walked around some more and came to this very odd little store selling basically only honey. I never knew there were so many kinds of honey or that you could base a whole store around it. The best part was the honey tasting that they did were you could try a little spoonful of different kinds on honey.

They actually had pretty different tastes and while I forgot most of the explanation of why that was the honey was really good. They also had what was basically part of a bee hive with waxy walls and all that you could eat with apples. The honey was good but the hive stuff was basically just to sticky and messy. They had one whole wall of honeys like you might see displayed with wine. The prices were also in line with the sort of place that could support a store only devoted to honey and while it was good, there's only so much I'm willing to spend for something I use as little as honey. The only thing any of us actually bought in there was tea made with the honey which was good as well. We walked along more looking for different stores and stuff to see. We walked down to the docks by the river and back up into the heart of the town. There were some interesting historical markers like a house where Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, stayed. What was really interesting about that sign was that it was erected in '56 and I wonder if it was partially put up as a response to early civil rights issues. All the signs had the year they were erected and the name of the historical society. It was also interesting to see the name change with time.

The most interesting thing we saw was one of the oldest synagogue in the country. The congregation was established in 1733 only about five months after Georgia itself was colonized. The synagogue we went to see was built in 1878 and is more notable for its style than for being old. Standing at the corner of square that looked like many of the grassy squares around the city the synagogue is in the exact style of a Gothic revival church. Steeple and all if it weren't for the few small star's of David you would never be able to tell that it wasn't like one of the numerous other churches in the city. We knocked on the door fearing it might be closed for visitors since it was Saturday a guy opened the door and told us it was closed since it was Saturday we said we knew and he looked at us and let us in. I can't tell if he actually knew we were Jewish or not, he was black also and definitly not Ethiopian or anything like that, but I guess in a synagogue that looks like a church in the deep South anything is possible. He brought us in to the main room and put on a little tape of the history of the place while he went to do some work. The history was pretty basic stuff about how old the synagogue was and so on, it had been one of the earlier US synagogues to become Reformed, but there was really very little as to why it looked like a church besides saying that Gothic revival was really popular when it was built and the people wanted to fit in.

I'm not really in any position to criticize Jews in 1800's Georgia but the whole thing just seemed distasteful to me. Reformed synagogues already share too much in common with Christian churches from organ music to simple call and response style of prayer. To have the synagogue look exactly like a church is going beyond fitting in it's basically trying to be Christian. The inside looked just like a church as well with pews and vaulted ceilings. After looking around the interior some, stained glass windows and all, we were told there was a little museum upstairs which we went to check out. It had some interesting stuff including a Torah that may have been more than 500 years old and letters commending the congregation from various US presidents including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, FDR, and the most recent four or five including Nixon who didn't ever really like Jews much. They also had some interesting books that mentioned the synagogue. Some were historical but one was basically a autobiography which included some really harsh things about the synagogue including wondering when a big cross would be erected and the transformation would finally be complete. I have to give them credit for not only having this book but for excerpting the part that was really critical about them.

My favorite thing in there was a picture of an old ceremonial shoe used in a ceremony that took place if one brother refused to marry his brother's widow. This was actually my Torah portion when I was Bar-Mitzvahed but I never knew that it actually took place in modern times. The Torah holds that if the brother refuses to marry his brother's widow she is supposed to take off his shoe, throw it into the desert, spit in his face, and then it says something like, "and he shall go into Israel as the unsandaled one." Apparently it was done in modern times basically to avoid the biblical proclamation that the brother marry his brother's widow. In fact it may actually have been done while the first brother was alive just in case. I have a picture of it on flickr but I didn't put it here since it didn't come out too well. As we were leaving the synagogue we saw a bunch of people and what sort of looked like a festival going on in a really big park nearby. What became apparent as we got to it was that it was a big gay pride event. We walked around for a while and someone stopped us and gave us some fliers for some sort of gay camp sight. He specifically mentioned that there was a nude pool area. I just couldn't decide what the right thing to say was. It seemed rude not to take the fliers but were we also taking them under false pretenses. It wasn't like he was out of line giving the fliers to three guys walking around a gay pride event, but it seemed as odd to take them as to not take them. I wonder what miss manners would say. Should we have just said sorry you're barking up the wrong tree and moved on or would that have been even more rude. Well at least we certainly had a gay time in old Savannah.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On the Road

During the whole trip we had a lot of time sitting in the car. There were more days when we drive for seven or more hours than when we didn't. To make matters worse I felt pretty bad for the beginning of the trip. I'm not sure what it was exactly but something I ate really didn't agree with me and I had a stomach ache for a number of days. It could have been just the amount of time we spent moving or all the deep fried foods. The very first place we stopped was a pancake place that served more food for about five dollars than I think I've ever seen. Besides the big places we stopped we also stopped at a number of smaller places to break up the drive. A couple of the towns we stopped in really had nothing more than about three stores, though we did go into a shockingly large number of antique stores. Mike who likes to drive much more than me or Harry, of course more than zero isn't saying much, did literally all the driving making us paying extra for Harry to be on the insurance seem like a waste. We listened to some different music during the trip. Luckily all our tastes are fairly similar so no one objected to the best hits of the 70's and 80's. Mike who works for Hilton got us good rates on a number of hotels.

Coming back form China though all the prices in the US were shockingly expensive to me. This was the cause of some friction as I kept balking at prices thinking just how far that ten dollars would go in China. There was also some disagreement about how much to go out drinking as for Harry and Mike this was a vacation, a time to cut loose, but for me it was basically just another trip on what had sort of become one summer of endless trips. During that Summer I went from China to Korea, back to the US, up to New York, down to New Orleans, back to China where I went to Beijing and Chengdu. And than not long after I got back there were just more and more trips. But we got along pretty well in the end. The itinerary for the trip had been reached by consensus and I think we were all pretty interested in the things we were going to see. In the car after the first day or so I think we basically had gone through all the music everyone really wanted to listen to so Mike had smartly brought some books on tape. I had my new Kindle with me so I sat in the back and Mike and Harry sat in the front with the volume set up to them. I actually got through more than two entire books during the ride and would really highly recommend Born to Run to anyone especially anyone who jogs or runs.

My favorite short stop we made was probably the one I had the least interest in. I'm generally not a huge fan of beaches. I like them fine but I tend to get bored in about 15 minutes and I can't stand lying out in the sun. We stopped near Pensacola Florida at a little beach and went swimming for a few minutes. After a bit Mike noticed that there was a jet ski and other water equipment rental place down the beach and we went over to check it out. At first I was pretty put off by the price for even a half an hour rental but in the ended I decided just to go with it and try it out as I'd never been jet skiing and it looked like a lot of fun. They basically told me how the jet ski worked, pull the handles down to go there are no breaks, and told me not to go near other boats and I was off. Mike and Harry got sea kayaks and paddled around while I was doing this. The jet ski was way more powerful than I initially thought. The first time I revved it up at all I felt I was going to go flying off it. At first I thought that I was never going to go past half the top speed. It was terrifying. The feeling was like being on a motorcycle instead of a car. The amount of speed I experienced made it seem like I was going even faster than I was. Turing also took some getting used to as it again felt like I was going to get kicked off every time I turned it around and at first I was turning at near idling speeds.

After a while though I started to get more confident on it letting the speed build up while I was hanging on for deer life. I even felt more comfortable to turn without totally stopping. It was hot out so when I'd go really fast for a moment than stop the water would splash up over me and cool me off. Eventually I found that the real fun was finding more waves made by a boat that had passed and getting some speed up to go over those. Even if they were pretty small at the high speeds I was bouncing all over the place and while I don't really know if I got any air a couple of time I head the propeller make a sound like it was out of the water. If the waves were going in the same direction as me I could slow down and actually get pushed along surfing on the waves. Sometimes I'd make circles so that I could try to jump over my own waved but they usually had died down by the time I got back around. I don't know how long they actually let me stay out there or whether the time just passed more slowly since I was having fun but it seemed like far more than half an hour had passed by the time I was called in.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

South of the Border

We stopped a few little places along the way for breakfast or what not but the biggest place we stopped at by far on the first leg of our trip was some place called, South of the Border. I had never heard of it before but a friend of Mike's who had been down that way before said that we had to stop and check it out. Little did I know that it was famous in the Carolinas and that back in the day the current head of the Fed Ben Bernakie had worked there as a kid before becoming a Wall Street big shot. We didn't know exactly what it was except for the name but we saw signs for it coming up for more than a hundred miles before we got there. The signs were the most stereotypical Mexican take offs I've ever seen. Every picture had a little Mexican person in a big sombrero and a bunch of colorful nick naks. Of curse this just made me want to see it more. I told Harry that I hoped that it would be just as tacky as all the signs seemed to suggest. The first note that we were finally getting to South of the Border came when a huge sombrero maybe a hundred feet of the ground came into view over the horizon. If your hoping for a Mecca to tackiness nothing can be a better sign than what might be the worlds largest sombrero.

As we pulled up we saw a veritable cornucopia of tackiness. There were more than a dozen brightly colored buildings all arranged around both sides of a street to make a sort of Disney's main street sort of a feel but only of run down brightly painted buildings with names like "El Drug Store" on them. We parked and started to look around. What became increasingly clear was that besides being tacky the main purpose of the place was to sell fireworks. About half of the stores seemed to be selling nothing but fireworks and the other half seemed to be either closed or restaurants for tourists. The name it seemed came from the fact that it was in South Carolina just across the border from North Carolina. I gather that it must have started to sell fireworks to people from all around. We went inside a few of the stores one seemed to sell nothing but party hats. Which we dutifully tried on but did not buy, another store sold beer and cigarettes in amazingly large quantities. We tried a few of the other stores but they were either closed or uninteresting. We did stop along with most of the other people there to take a picture while standing under the legs of a giant sombrero wearing sign holding mascot. I can only imagine how many people over the years have take exactly the same picture. You could probably do a great through the years montage of people all standing under this thing.

Eventually we headed across the street to the hundred foot high sombrero we had seen driving up in the hopes that there would be some sort of elevator to the top. What we found at the bottom was an arcade filled with all the sorts of games I loved as a kid. There was skiball and airhocky, as well as foosball and a whole lot of old arcade games. I don't think they were exactly going for a retro look as much as the things in there were just very old. We had a great time playing a bunch of the different games for just a few dollars in quarters. They also did have a ride to the top which we went on. The elevator up had an operator whose job seemed to consist of taking our tickets then pressing the up button before he went back to his book. The top presented a great view of the nothing which stretched around for miles. The top was also filled with so much graffiti that some of it must have been there for years. On the ride down we were accompanied by a bunch of complaining kids who added nicely to the smell of rotten eggs in the elevator. We eventually stopped playing and engaged in what I'm not proud to say was probably a five minute discussion about how to spend are small number of prize tickets before someone noticed a kid waiting to spend his tickets and we just gave ours to him. A lot of other countries have tacky things but I don't think anyone does it as well or as big as America.

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