Category Archives: travel

Flipside of Seasons

In two days, on December 13, it will be St. Lucia’s Day- the patron saint of light, which I mentioned in a post from about this time last year.

As the Northern Hemisphere plunges into its darkest time of year, I’m once again thinking lightward, but this time in visions of this past summer:

Montauk, Long Island

Montauk, Long Island

Montauk, Long Island

Montauk, Long Island


Long Lake, NY

Long Lake, NY


Buttermilk Falls, NY

Buttermilk Falls, NY


Raquette River, NY

Raquette River, NY

Buttermilk Falls, NY

Buttermilk Falls, NY

Raquette River, NY

Raquette River, NY


Long Lake, NY

Long Lake, NY

Tarrytown, NY

Tarrytown, NY

Tarrytown, NY

Tarrytown, NY


These were taken throughout the Adirondacks and Hudson Valley of New York during the summer of 2012 – Velvia 100 (water-damaged) in a Holga.

Here are a couple of related posts:












postcards from the womb of the skyscraper – Chicago, November, 2012

Two related songs:

Chasing Waterfalls and Fleeing Lightning – Adventures in an Adirondack Kayak

Be it by canoe or kayak, there’s something expeditionary about paddling –
When exploring unknown waters in a regular boat, you need bearings, knowledge of depth soundings, – and for most of the world, these factors have already had the mystery mapped out of them.

Not so with a kayak.  Moving in one, you can actually get into nooks and crannies unknown to others.  Making tiny discoviers that are yours alone.  And like an ancinet mariner, you guide journeys on speculation, word of mouth, and sheer curiosity.

The narrow brook rumored “to empty into the west side of the lake some miles northward, and is filled with turtles you can’t really see elsewhere in such numbers”, becomes, in a mini-way, a challenge to confirm or discomfirm; to see with one’s own eyes and report back- as if no one had before tested those waters.  A small island you come upon unexpectedly becomes a place to land and roam.  A place to plant your imaginary flag and claim as your own.

And when you come home, you have all the land marks plotted in your memory.  You also return with stories – of ghostly abandoned settlements on the shore, of the enormous heron that flew suddenly at your head –  of the beavers that met you at the banks of the river, and with whom you traded lonesome stares.

All this talk is grandiose, but these are the sorts of thoughts that begin to enter the head after hours on the open water, monotonously paddling, alone with the scenery and with your flighty mind.

Succinctly put:—  there is always something unexpected that happens when embarking on a kayak expedition, and sometimes that something can be truly magical.

-Especially in the Adirondacks – that rough, boreal range.  Mountains once the size of the Himalaya, all but their hardest stone worn away by the eons.  Ancient peaks scatter about the landscape and, in between them: timelessly dark and forbidding forests, and vast, twisted networks of lakes, marshes, and streams.  It is possible up here to journey hundreds of miles by canoe or kayak.  Even all the way north to the mighty St. Lawrence River; and conceivably all the way to Montreal.  This eroded dome of the northern sky has eluded the not-distant cities so much so that it remained virgin until the late 1800’s; — and even still, has parts that are yet to be really explored.

Today the goal is a waterfall south of the lake, on the Raquette River, a flow often referred to as the aquatic highway of the Adirondack.  We set off from town with the following words as our sole naviational aid: “move south as far as you can go – when the lake narrows you will see a small island, which is a nice place to rest upon; after this, you will see marshy areas: steer ’round the rock outcropping and enter the river.  Keep upstream until you reach a landing marked with a white ‘X’.”

It is a great feeling to be floating atop this vast and synaptic network of streams and lakes.  We hit the lake with confidence-  taken with our easy glide through the water.  No sooner had we settled into this lovely, jaunty pace, when a great wind pressed directly before us.  Our progress challenged, we began to bear down.  And as the wind ceased to let up, we ceased to let up; and strained against it for hours, even as whitecaps overswept our bows.

Remembering a landmark from years ago, we cut across the center of the breezy lake and fought around a rocky point and finally into a marshy cove, sheltered from the wind.  Now stopping to rest for the first time after maniacally pressing forward, the mind began to entertain thoughts of going back – of cruising that great wind back to the comfort of home, and to a nice lunch; but —–  also to regret and “what if”.

This respite cut short by biting flies, we pushed onward, and came upon a small island (“…you will see a small island“…) Relief.  Then not terribly later, the wind turned merciful, and the landing marked with the white “X” appeared, at the base of an impassable rocky cascade.

Now a mile hike – to the Falls.

“There is always something unexpected that happens when embarking on a kayak expedition, and sometimes that something can be truly magical.”
We were elated to make the falls – lunch tasted so good, like it always does after succeeding a challenge.  The water was running low, and other travelers were swimming in the rapids of its outflow, bouncing all about the submerged boulders, and jumping from cliffs into frothy maelstroms.  We saw a man basking at the foot of the waterfall.

“I want to go where that guy is”

We clamored into the pool near the base of the cascade, wading into the surging whitewater, careful of boulders and the current.  We found a perch at the very foot of the falls.  An incessant blast of water.  There’s no natural power quite like it.  This was the reward.  The unexpected magic.  Full enchantment.   These turbulent pools became an oasis of innocense- none of us had had this experience ever before.

Happily having forgotten time, we indulged our reluctance to get on our way and leave the wonderful torrent.

Our inner clocks had stopped, and we’d neglected the minutes.

But now we were behind schedule and the weather beginning to foul. We sprinted back under a darkening sky and fickle gusts.  Trying to find the direction of the wind with wet fingers and monitoring flags on the rocky shore, wishing for a thread to tie on as a telltale.

Forks of lightning flashed in the distance.  The water, steely by the hazed sun that remained, turned metallic and alien.  The chop became chaotic.  We, out here in the middle, unprotected.  Fighting to get close to shore.

Then, the wind got itself organized and turned suddenly to the east.  By some ancient instinct, you know what this change of weather means –  you’ve now undoubtedly entered the storm.  The peaceful sojourn in the narrow, clean currents of the now far off Raquette River have turned into a jelly-muscled full-on push, and an ever-growing fear of the lightning.  By this point there were not many worse places to be than here on open water.

The wind was taking control of the kayak, despite my fight.  A sense of powerlessness crept in.   I was beginning to find myself helpless to the unharnessed forces around me.

Nature trumps all.
All of us, long since having lost each other, by some providence reunited near where when had started out.  Now there was huge rain, a terrific gale-  the middle of the storm.  Lying low in the boat, avoiding the lightning with a feeling of futility, we raced home.

Finally docking, ecstatic and adrenalined by the experience, now in the warm comfort of dry indoors, we reveled, like the ancient explorers, in recounting our legends –  The biting wind, the thoughts of turning back, the cavalier way of navigating, the frustration, fatigue, and how we were schooled by that damn storm.

But –  where our excitement really lied, was not in our travails, but in what we’d found.  The rest was great adventure, but every great adventure needs a discovery.  And for all the curses yelled into the weather out there, the fact was – we  discovered, by our design, luck, and folly, a place where we could swim under a waterfall for the first time in our lives, laughing with those closest to us.

More on the Adirondacks:

One Day on Isla Mujeres

The origin of the name Isla Mujeres is debated-  some theories assert that the name comes from the statues of the medicine and childbirth goddess, Ixchel, found at a Mayan temple on the south of the island.  Others say that the name comes from the fact that the Spanish explorers left their womenfolk on the island before heading into the Yucatán.

No matter the nomenclature, the island is truly beautiful.  Sitting offshore, it has maintained its incredibly chill vibe despite the proximity of frenetic Cancún.  It’s a decidedly Caribbean place, where the pace is determined by the sea and sand.

First, Playa Norte-

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

… it’s a gem of a beach.   Just off the main town, it is very well appointed with bars and bathrooms nearby.   For 150 pesos (13 dollars or so) you can rent a pair of lounge chairs and umbrella at the edge of the water for the entire day. You’d think there’d be a crowd here, but the place was wide open- at times I was the only one swimming.

The water is impossibly clear and blue, and very swimmable, despite a strong side current.  Towards evening a school of thousands of tropical fish appeared, racing along at crazy speed around my legs.

It feels as though one could spend an eternity here.


As evening begins to fall and the heat becomes bearable again, people start lazily coming off the beach and into the town.  In the narrow streets, small restaurants begin opening their doors while street vendors, selling everything from jewelry to plastic toys, try to snag would-be shoppers.  Bicycles and golf carts (some packed to the brim) abound on the narrow, colorful streets filled with lazy markets and passers-by.

Outside the stores on the corner, people congregate for evening chats.  There’s a certain endearing eccentricity to this place-  at one point a beat-up old humvee rolled up, coughing diesel, driven by a huge shirtless guy with scraggly long hair.  He stopped to talk a while and then moved on.  Meanwhile, just out of view, local teenagers with a laptop were trying to tap into a rogue wireless signal…


It was a really nice ride back to the mainland-


The scene felt like one giant sigh that comes after a day at the beach- huge extended families covering 3 generations posed for pictures, while couples stared up and watched the stars begin to appear.  The ship’s lights illuminating the bright blue water around us.   At some point between Isla Mujeres and Cancún -the lights of both twinkling far in opposite distances- in the middle of the dark bay, a salty breeze kicked up.  Above all the festivities and the blaring Mexican pop music and satiated joy, you could just make out the eternal serenity of a calm sea under moonlight.

Sunset, Isla Mujeres


Undead – Mt Saint Helens

In true Pacific Northwest fashion, it was impossibly damp, and as the morning rolled in, the fog covering the nearby peaks above Yale Lake created a scene reminiscent of some German Romantic landscape painting. Completely still and almost smothered in a heavy blanket of silence, the night had been spent under a dark cathedral of dripping-wet evergreens. The dense air bore the sort of earthy, tree-y smell that is hard to ever forget.

We warmed up the car, rented a few days before on a blistering August day at the Portland, Oregon, Rent-a-Wreck. The speedometer on the beat-up, early-90’s Plymouth Acclaim didn’t register – there was no real way of counting our speed on the lonely back roads, as we burned a crazed line through the dried brushlands of Maupin and Madras, the rainforests of Silver Falls, the stunning Columbia River Gorge, the humid cold-water coast of Cannon Beach and Astoria. The previous night, we’d pushed the old boat to her limits, careening around the close turns of the Cascade foothills, blowing past the countless espresso stands that dot this region.

Now, on this heavy-aired morning, we were chugging up a steep, steep gravel road that seemed to hang half-way off the cliff- the view plunged downward into grey obscurity. The first hour or so on the trail was a deeply forested ramble. It is said that wildlife goes quiet just before a natural cataclysm, and so the eeriness of the foggy, lonesome silence was knowingly palpable. We began to feel the volcano beneath. Not far under our very feet magma was flowing- a fact completely lost on the still pine woods.

Mt. St. Helens timberline

It was much that way in this forest a little more than 30 years ago, right before the mountain blew up. Back then, the area was an idyllic retreat of cabins, lakes, and scenery. Mt. St. Helens’ perfect, snow-capped cone had been known as “the Fuji of America”. Magma had flowed underneath back then as well, but not many had paid it much mind for centuries.

Soon the trail abruptly emerged from the forest – the treeline. Now the mountain began to bare its volcano-ness. A great wall of boulders and pumice spread out before us, sloping into the clouds. Sitting on some rocks, seeing nothing but quickly moving fog (now we were truly in the sky), we lunched on a healthy assortment of Chef Boyardee, granola bars, and Red Bull. Scavenging chipmunks, the only discernable form of animal life at this desolate height, pressed against our legs hoping for a scrap of the processed American food of the world below.

When Mt. St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, tons and tons and tons of rock were immediately pulverized, cast into the atmosphere, or sent roaring down into the untouched forests below. Summer homes, unfortunate outdoorsmen who disregarded evacuation warnings, scientists, and an entire lake, disappeared without a trace. The ash cloud, which was just minutes before sold mountain rock, darkened the Northwest. Riding by cab at 2am, a few weeks before our climb, coming from the airport to my friend’s place in Portland, the driver told of the cloud. How everyone was told to stay inside, how the ash was possibly fatal to inhale, how it looked like a snow storm, how the falling fertilizer made everyone’s lawns spectacular that summer.

Now the trail itself became an immense field of ash – the remnants of the peak that was. An endless dune extending beyond sight. Here we forgot about the magma and the evidence of earth’s explosive power surrounding us. There is always the point during any climb when the romance falls away and the journey becomes a test of will. Here on the snow and ash, we came to that point. Everything was powder, and every step resulted in a Sisyphean slide backwards. The air was thinner now than we coastal dwellers were used to, and the pauses became more and more frequent.

The summit and crater rim

Then finally the summit. Though, it could hardly be called a summit in the normal sense. It was really just the highest point along the crater rim. The true summit had been blown away years ago. There was no rewarding view – we were still in the clouds. We worked up the courage to peer over the crater rim and looked into a great foggy abyss, like the edge of the earth. Though we couldn’t see it, we knew that thousands of feet straight below, a new dome was forming- the molten stone building anew, ready to thrust another summit slowly into the clouds. To have it explode again hundreds or thousands of years from now. To see a volcano in this state is a rare privilege of place and time. Afterall, for most of its life, a volcano is just a mountain, alive surely, but not true to its nature until it convulses and discharges and rebuilds. A release it must wait centuries for, the power of the ages sent spewing out in a flicker of a moment.

(From an alternate perspective, a volcano is pretty much an earth zit, building until the pressure is just too unbearable…)

After a considerable rest, some snacks, and an ill-advised cigarette, we started back down. As we did, the sky began to break and a glorious, though short-lived, view of the green distantly below finally tempered the barren world we’d been traversing the entire day.

Entering New York, by bus, from New Jersey – northbound

The scenery of the southern New Jersey Turnpike is horrifically boring.  All endless, uniform, monotonous forest.

But then gradually, from inside the rocking white-noise silence of the bus, the landscape begins to show evidence of a great metropolis – giant warehouses and factories appear, their numbers growing slowly more dense.

Once upon a time, coming from the south, the first visible signs of New York City were the small boxy silhouettes of the monolithic Twin Towers way in the distance.  Today the new World Trade Center has become the new beacon, announcing Manhattan across scores of miles.

The Meadowlands – marsh, straight marsh…  squeezed between Newark and the cliffs lining the Hudson River, fighting heavy industry for scraps of waterlogged earth.  Enormous steel skyways arc impossibly, hundreds of feet above –  arteries feeding the great city.

The diminutive skyline of Newark, New Jersey, shirks huddled in the northwest, as planes taxi and take off from its airport along the turnpike, receiving and discharging people from every corner of the globe.

Now – paralleling the ridge of the southern Palisades, the entire breadth of Manhattan becomes abundantly clear.  You can pick out more of the skyscrapers now – the Time Warner Center, Worldwide Plaza, the Chrysler, the Empire, 40 Wall, the AIG Building, the World Trade….

Here the highway turns eastward and begins to trench through the ridge; the skyline mysteriously disappearing as the road burrows through primal granite.

And then emerging back into the wide open air, suddenly the view becomes total Manhattan, the skyline, right in your face, just across a thin stretch of the Hudson River.  Arrival.

The bus curves around the Helix, and then quickly into the Lincoln Tunnel, plunging under the river and straight into the into the very shadow of the Empire State Building –  a tower you’ve been tracking from afar for many minutes.

“counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike…”:

(Granted – this journey is far less magical in heavy traffic.)

Climbing Mt. Washington by Leg

Once in awhile, one sees a bumper sticker that reads: “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington”.


Screw that, these legs climbed Mt. Washington.

It’s the highest peak in the northeastern United States, and was first recorded by the explorer, Giovanni Verrazano, who spotted it from the Atlantic in 1524.

However, at 6, 098 feet, Mt. Washington’s height is quite low.

which is deceiving….


for Mt. Washington is considered one of the most dangerous mountains in the U.S..

It’s the weather.  The peak is uniquely situated along a weather system that makes for some of the most unpredictable weather around.  At times, it can be moderate and calm; but at others, it is viciously cold, icy, and WINDY.  In fact, the most powerful sustained surface wind ever recorded on Earth (231mph, on April 12, 1934) was at the weather observatory on the summit.  On average, the top of the mountain experiences hurricane-force winds for almost a third of the year.

Luckily, we were greeted with the gentler disposition of the peak.

After a long drive through the night from New York City, we slept a bit at a hotel, and hit the trail early the next morning.  Though it was late May, the trail was snow-covered – packed down by a long, long winter.  It was the Tuckerman Ravine trail-  the most common route to the summit.  Initially, the trail was filled with skiers, many French-Canadians among them.  The Tuckerman Ravine is a famous spot for free, facility-less skiing.  Pretty soon, the skiers veer off onto a sidetrail, and the forest begins to thin out.  The path becomes steeper, and in spots, one has to pass precariously along narrow footholds covered in snow.

Then you pass the treeline and clamor up rocks to Lion’s Head, an outcropping about halfway up the mountain.  The weather was fine this day- a light, chilly wind, with a clear view of the surrounding countryside.  Lunching at Lion’s Head, we spied upon the distant skiers in Tuckerman Ravine below, who were meer dots cruising down the sheer snow-fields.  Next, we passed relatively level ground  through the “Alpine Garden”  – covered with wind- and cold-swept lichen and icy meltwater.

Beyond, is a steep snow-covered slope, and above that are large boulders, spotted with navigational cairns.  Here is where you really begin to appreciate how far above the Northeastern U.S. you are.  The close clouds and the sheer rim surrounding the Ravine take on an alpine feel.  The wind picks up on the blank, rocky face.  Then finally, in a surreal moment, you emerge onto a road – the famous vehicle route to the top.  It’s only a few more meters to the true summit.

While it was springlike and mild at the trailhead, here it is freezing, and windy.

It was before tourist season, and the Road wasn’t open yet (it opens after Memorial Day) – the summit belonged to the climbers.  As mentioned above, the numerical altitude here is nothing at all to write home about.  However, given that the surrounding landscape is rather flat, the majesty of the scene is undeniable.  Part of the weather station is chained strongly to the the rocks, evidence of the possibly extreme wind up here.

The obligatory summit picture, and then the descent.

We returned to the trailhead around sunset, and drove off to our campsite in the deep dark of the White Mountains.  Along the way, a van in front of us with Quebec plates, stopped short – immediately before us was a towering moose, crossing across the road anxiously, glaring at us crazedly from the other side of the windshield.

The next morning, legs sore, we drove the long drive back to the city, with dreams of bare tundra landscapes on the surface of our minds.

just above Lion Head

– Being late May, we did not expect to encounter such a significant amount of snow.  Winter dies hard here – so plan accordingly.  Also – keep track of the weather reports.  Our climb was unusually blessed with mild conditions.  However, given the mountain’s record, this is not a landscape to take flippantly.   It is truly one of the few places in the East below deep-Canada to have such harshness.


“Where are you going?”, says the parking lot attendant.  We’d just ridden down the hill to the ferry terminal, trying to beat time.  The night before was a late one.  After a drenching day in the mountains and rainforest, there had been many cigars, much swimming, and much rum.  Much rum.

“To the Culebra ferry”

It’s a bleary, stuffy, morning and the hazy sun promises overbearing heat.

“Go! Go! Go! What are you doing standing here?!”

Stray dogs in the terminal.   The sun too jarring.  U.S. agents checking for who knows what.  Board the boat, and push off to sea, watching Fajardo fade away.

Fajardo, Puerto Rico

Ten minutes on, the ferry is heaving and rolling.  It’s too early to be doing this shit.   The breakfast of black hotel coffee has become regrettable.  Churn.  Attendants walk the aisles with barf bags for the imminently ill.  But the real smasher is the dramamine.  It helps seasickness (much needed on this morning) surely, but the things it does to the mind are warped.  Thoughts become soggy, everything is distant.  You speak, but don’t connect your mind to the words.  Despite your outward lucidity, you can’t seem to keep track of the present.  How is this stuff legal to sell over the counter?

Ferry landing at Culebra

We arrive, and after a much needed stop at an empanada stand, we hop a colectivo and ride to Playa Flamenco.  The island is barren, sun-parched – the sky is huge in the way it is always huge on small islands.  The driver has a beer.

Playa Flamenco

Playa Flamenco is a secluded cove.  Other than a few makeshift facilities and a few food stands, the beach is wild.  And stunning.  Seawater cannot get any clearer than the seawater here.  The smell of grilling wafts by occasionally.  The food is delicious.

Some distance away are a couple of armored tanks, leftover from the days when the U.S. military used this shore as a firing range and training ground.  Rusted hulks half buried in the sand, every last inch of them covered in painting.

Tank at Playa Flamenco

You could disappear on this island for a longtime. To camp for a couple of months here would be a dream.

But we had to catch the last ferry back.

In the town, teenagers dive off the pier, swimming as the sunset begins.  The departing ferries are a zoo.  The end of the President’s Day weekend – hoards of high-schoolers singing along to Spanish rock savoring every last minute of the holiday.     Loudly.  One of those  “Shut the hell up!” moments.  But you can’t say it, because you’re kind of there too.  Your insides softly lamenting the passage of time while still trying to wrench out all the last juice.

No matter.  That night we ate, and swam, and smoked, and drank, and talked outside for hours.  The next morning we left Puerto Rico for the barren and cold north.

Amsterdam! Amsterdam!

To a vast number of people, the name “Amsterdam” conjures up visions of a rampant emporium of drugs and sex.  Rest assured, the vice is here in ample supply, but if you have even a tad of interest beyond getting royally knackered in a red-light district, then it will be clear to you that there’s so so much more going for this city.

Amsterdam is a grande dame of sorts – sophisticated in taste, and refined by prosperous centuries.  However, despite having impeccable table manners, she hasn’t forgotten how to be warm and precocious – to get down on the floor and play with the kids a bit.

It is appropriate then that Amsterdam has been a mother city:  a mother of modern capitalism, a mother of tolerance, a mother of the modern republic, and for a New Yorker, still fondly remembered as the mother city of NYC.

Begijnhof of Amsterdam

It’s a proud city- full of life, confidence, positivity and openness – a rare place of  “live and let live”- Though, truth be told, like any metropolis, it’s not without its downsides.  Organized crime has taken hold of the town’s legal vice “industry”, most heinously in the red light district, where it engages in human trafficking and exploitation.  And, for all the city’s openness, I know of someone who was attacked on the street because he was gay.  Bad things happen everywhere, unfortunately.

The neighborhood around the train station is best missed. This is where the unadventurous, hedonistic day-trippers hang out:  Stumble off the train, get stoned, get laid, come-to in the morning and stumble back on the train.  On weekends, mobs of drunken, young, British men make a zoo of his area.

The further one heads into the tangles of street and rings of canal, the more even-keeled the place becomes – hidden little squares of book sellers, cloistered medieval convents, the famous Bloemenmarkt (tulips!), stately churches, modest cafes and bars, and of course, the magnificent houses of the Golden Age’s well-to-do.

It’s an ambling sort of city – no straight lines, no hard angles – even the old mansions lean forward slightly to facilitate the hauling up of goods to upper-floor storerooms.  The canals wrap around the cityscape in tree-lined ribbons of water.  Without the canals, the city would be impossibly cramped and dark – The presence of so much water gives the place gills –  breathing room and light.

(Speaking of canals, someone has to clean them, especially all the bikes that fall in)

Bikes dominate the streets here. When you see them piled up in squares or along canal fences, tangled all together, it's not hard to think that Amsterdam might have more bikes than residents. No one locks them up, because everyone has one. In order to recognize theirs among all the others, some cyclists take to decorating their vehicles in unique ways. When they move, they move in swarms, plying the streets silently, ready to take down the next clueless pedestrian, tram, or car.

Quiet conversation emerges from cafes and weed smoke occasionally wafts from a coffeeshop.  The daytime is certainly not lazy, but definitely not hectic.

Amsterdam, in general, is full of sensuality, but the night bears it especially well.  In one venerable sidestreet bar, old men may be drinking jenever, and in another place, ramshackle bookshelves and colorful art may line the walls…  The streets themselves are an enticing labyrinth by night, with lights reflecting off the canals, and hundreds of dark nooks.  And the red light district…

De Wallen has been catering to the carnality of the waterfront for centuries.  It’s a strange spectacle – women writhing in windows, while hundreds gawk in curiosity and desire.  The scene is made all the more surreal by the tower of Oude Kerk (built 1306)  looking down from on-high.  This is the heart of the old city, and nearby also stand De Waag, Nieuwmarkt, and other medieval locales.

Not far from here is the Begijnhof, a line of homes surrounding a large courtyard completely cut off from the rest of the city.  Dating from some time around the Black Death, it was a home for widowed and single women of the church who, while not sequestered nuns, did charitable works and took vows of chastity.  When we passed through, the morning before leaving, there was a soprano duo singing at the altar of the church here – –  piano and crystal clear singing.  Sobering and sublime.


Amsterdam had one of the greatest runs in history.  It’s a relatively new city- settled around the 1200’s, when the Amstel River was dammed.  (The place of “The Dam” still exists).  It remained relatively obscure for a few centuries, and so, was never a center of Medieval culture, and thus, never firmly established the feudal institutions and extreme religion of that age.

The city didn’t rise to prominence until after 1588, when the Dutch Republic drove out the Spanish Empire during the Eighty Years War.  As the first modern Republic, it was not bound by a totalitarian religious and political regime.  Its policy of relative religious freedom drew in Europe’s misfits- Huguenots, Jews, and traders and artists driven out of the cities of Southern Netherlands (modern Belgium), especially from the formerly prosperous Antwerp.

Its policy of free trade inspired the city to become an economic powerhouse- the first major mercantile city of the Modern era.  It spread its influence far and wide, establishing bases and colonies in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas.  At its height, it was the most prosperous city on Earth.  The magnitude of the city’s wealth at this time can still be seen along the canal rings, where the houses of the merchant class still stand proudly.  Its stock market, founded in 1602, is the oldest continually operating exchange in the world.  Accordingly, it was also an intellectual and artistic center of Europe- the home of painters such as Rembrandt, and philosophers such as Spinoza.

In 1609, the Dutch West India Company, one of two major arms of Dutch trade, hired the English explorer, Henry Hudson, to find a northerly route to Asia.  Instead, he found the American river that still bears his name.  In 1624, on an island where that river meets the sea, a colony was established called New Amsterdam, which eventually became a city that had its own unprecedented run in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Dutch only held New Amsterdam for a few decades, but the similarities between the mother and its child are striking.  Historical Amsterdam is huddled around a ring of canals and has a bustling, congested feel, full of pedestrians, trams, cars, and bicycles darting here and there.  In its heyday, the city was the preeminent commercial city of the world, much as New York was in its prime.  Amsterdam drew the misfits of the world under a spirit of openness, much like NYC has done.  As an artistic and intellectual center, it is home to world-class museums and orchestras, as well as ambitious and successful artists.  The two cities also draw a constellation of tourists.

sunset birds – San Juan

sunset birds
a gathering collective
a glance of breeze
two be one
 a meeting of minds
and alone together
an old house in a new world.

please bless us
us who sit in  the changing light
and hope for all hopes
that serenity comes to those
who dream.

and us who strain in all that longs
for peace to grace those who
 refuse to leave the light

-san juan rooftop, feb. 15, 2008

If you arrive in Old San Juan in the middle of the night, with men sleeping on the dark silent sidewalks and the smell of piss in the dank air, the first morning is brilliant.

Old San Juan

Bright sky and the comforting blanket of vegetal heat.  Color splashes everywhere – aquamarine water, shaded gardens, sea-weathered walls, and pastel on every building in sight.   The green carpet of El Morro’s vast Campo.  The paving stones, carried over as ballast on colonial Spanish ships, are a metallic blue.

The smell of coffee and breakfast pepper the air, mixing with the scent of sea and earth.

The city was founded only 16 years after Columbus’s first voyage, by Juan Ponce de León, the man who searched for the Fountain of Youth.  For centuries, it was a stopover on the Spanish galleon routes, and an occasional target of English pirates and privateers.  In testament to the city’s former stature,  Old San Juan is surrounded by a wall and protected by two mighty forts.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Evening in San Juan is golden light, ice cream, and cigars in parks.  The breeze becomes sublime as the sun drops in glorious orange and yellow.

Night in San Juan is music and life.  Restaurants overflow.  Teenagers fill corner stores, drinking rum punch from “Capri-sun” pouches.  Salsa pours out of the Nuyorican Cafe, bomba y plena from hidden bars and at outdoor parties.  (Bomba y plena is a precursor to salsa using a variety of hand percussion and call-response singing.  It is not so much performed as played communally.  The dancing interacts intimately with the rhythm and the melodies are thrillingly hypnotic.)

At the impromptu party on the waterfront, cake is passed out liberally to guests and by-standers alike.  The experience of San Juan is not observational.  When you’re here, you become a part of the town’s fabric.

Rum is everywhere.  Bacardi, of course, but also del Barrilito, Palo Viejo, Don Q, and scores of others fill supermarket shelves and stock bars.  They well fuel mojitos – but it’s most tasty on the rocks, as in Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary.