Thursday, August 9, 2012

Paris Through the Night, Part 2

My most surreal / memorable travel experiences: #5 See full map

I couldn't stay under the Eiffel Tower, that was for sure. (Once back in class my French teacher Frédéric was alarmed when I told him what I'd done, given the now-obvious fact that it wasn't the safest area.) I decided to move on but still had several hours to go before sunup. The lawn adjacent to the Eiffel Tower was full of assorted backpacker types attempting to sleep. Suddenly the sprinklers came on, which led to a flurry of activity as everyone scrambled to get out of the spray.

Eventually I made may over to Montmartre. A long funicular railway winds its way up to the church, but the line was of course closed for the night. I had a long walk up the stairs to the top. When I got there, the sun was coming up and this place, the best vantage point in Paris, was deserted.

Apparently a great amusement of Parisian youth is to get staggeringly drunk in front of the church and then smash their beer bottles. The ground was covered with broken glass from the night before. I have never seen so much - it was literally everywhere. I'm not certain what the previous night entailed, but it was probably for the best that I didn't venture there earlier. The only other person with me was an unfortunate city sweeper whose job it was to clean up the mess. So I sat on the steps of the church and watched the city, just me and the sweeper, listening to the sound of broken glass scraping along the stone and watching the sun filling out the spectacular panoramic view with light. I don't remember us acknowledging the other's presence; instead we were silent, both of us fully immersed in the task at hand.

From my perch I could see most of the city spread out before me. The sun came up from the left and made a surprisingly quick ascent through the sky. The whole experience was heightened by the minimal sleep and stupor and the general randomness of the night before, and the knowledge that this was one of the places that people dream of visiting.

I headed back down into the city, which was quiet and cool and still. As I wound my way through the streets on the way to the train station I spied two boys attempting to break into a payphone. When they saw me they temporarily paused their jimmying but quickly resumed, unconcerned by my presence.

I hadn't planned much, I was bone-tired, I had barely spent a day in the city. But sometimes the silliness and impulsiveness is all worth it. On that one random morning, in a completely-clichéd-but-nonetheless-still-true kind of way, Paris was mine.

Back at  Sacré Cœur at night, 9 years later

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Paris Through the Night, Part 1

My most surreal / memorable travel experiences: #5 See full map

I was studying abroad for a summer in Compiègne, France. It was an idyllic time, with days devoted solely to French lessons at the local university and evenings spent back at the international residence abutting the Abbey and a lush park. We would have baguettes with Nutella or fried merguez and then play soccer into the late evenings with all the exchange students from Latin America, and speak hardly a word of French outside of the classroom. Tom from England had an unimaginably cool toy called a MiniDisc player, which could hold something incredible like 80 songs on a single tape! Today people probably have microwave ovens with greater storage capacity and audio fidelity, but it was 2001.

At those latitudes it could stay light until 10 o'clock in the summer, which at first made me think my watch was off, having been used to much earlier sunsets back in the U.S.

I had heard that the Sacré Cœur church atop Montmartre had a lovely vantage point over Paris for watching the sunrise. I decided to take a train there one weekend, with a plan to wander the city overnight and eventually see it for myself. No hostel or arrangements to stay somewhere, just a backpack and a spirit of adventure. So off I went, from Compiègne to Paris Gare du Nord.

I remember distinctly walking through a random part of the city and marveling at the blessing of being 20 years old and able to explore a place I had only heard about. Paris! How fortunate I was. It was special, and I knew it, in the moment.

Towards evening I wandered over to the Champs-Élysées. Despite my best attempts at blending in, my American-ness must have been obvious. A man bounded over, picking me out from all the throng, and asked me in his American English to take a picture for him. My image of myself as a slick traveler, smoothly blending in while the tourists broadcast their cluelessness was duly deflated.

Now I was starting to tire from all the walking, and the full import of a plan that involved wandering a strange city for something approaching 24 hours without anywhere to rest started to hit me. I needed to sit somewhere for a while, and a movie theater seemed like the perfect place to do it. Of all the random films that were showing with appropriate subtitles the best I could do was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, at the time groundbreaking for its expensive fully computer-generated scenes. It had middling reviews and ended up losing a ton of money for its studio, but it was quiet place to sit for a few hours.

My student discount wasn't valid for the showing, but at least I overcame my hesitancy in French to ask for it. The movie was subtitled in French, which provided an unexpected lesson in how to render idioms in different ways that don't really capture the meaning of the original English. Two hours later I was back on the streets, with a long way to go before the sun came up.

In the light of day and in the comfort of a house one has all sorts of wonderful ideas. In the cold of night, in a strange place, reality sets in. Around 2 AM I was really flagging. I wandered over to the Eiffel Tower, with the idea of laying on a park bench underneath it and attempting to nap. 

Do not do this.

Most people would figure it out well in advance of trying something like this, but the area around the Eiffel Tower at night is not a good place to be. I believe someone tried to push some kind of drugs on me, but being familiar neither with the vagaries of illicit substances nor the related French vernacular I'm not entirely sure what our interaction was about.  

While I lay down and attempted to doze (clutching my bag firmly to my chest, for fear of a snatch-and-grab robber) I was aware of the general random activity around me. Most upstanding citizens are not up at 2 AM, nor do they make their way for no apparent purpose to internationally-famous landmarks, which are of course closed for the night.

For some reason Usher’s song U Remind Me was being played on a stereo nearby (this was 2001, after all). To this day, Usher now reminds me of the Eiffel Tower.

Next: climbing Montmartre and seeing it for myself

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Wood House, Mali: Part 2

My most surreal / memorable travel experiences: #6 See full map

One man whom we visited frequently had a house just off the main road, where we could sit and watch people coming and going. His livelihood was gained through uncertain means but delivering random parcels was apparently part of it. He had to courier a small package of medical supplies to a neighboring village and asked if I would like to join. It would be a long distance, by motorcycle, in uncomfortable conditions. Of course I instantly said yes.

Off we went across the long, flat roads towards a village that I learned was actually in Burkina Faso. This being an extremely rural part of the world there were no borders and crossing the frontier went unremarked. On our way there we were struck by a truly torrential thunderstorm. The flat, open savanna made the clouds seem immense.

We arrived in a village where he promptly planted me alone in a random family's courtyard and went about his errands. I sat there and watched the chickens scratching around. I was completely helpless, not knowing where I was or how to communicate with my hosts, who mostly ignored me.

On our return ride we found that a dry road bed that we crossed earlier was now a roiling stream of water around 20 meters across and deep enough that we would have to ford it. My companion was unperturbed. We rolled up our pant legs, took one side of the motorcycle each and walked through in thigh-deep water. This was sufficient to thoroughly flood the engine, which now refused to start. We tipped it high up on its back wheel to let the water drain from the exhaust pipe, and then jogged back and forth with it numerous times trying to get the engine to turn over. At some point a crowd of enthusiastic children joined us, running alongside and no doubt amused by the odd-looking foreigner in their midst.

After several tries the motorcycle finally started with a hack of blue smoke, and we made the rest of the way home easily, none the worse for wear.

One night near the end of my stay we wandered to the home of the village eccentric. My companion asked him if we could enter and he said yes, though I don't remember him actually saying a word. We entered the darkened first floor and climbed up to a rudimentary terrace on the roof, all framed in what looked like driftwood.

Here he had fashioned his own real-life Fortress of Solitude. In silence he watched us with careful eyes. The moon cast shadows that played off the gnarled branches to make fantastic shapes, silhouetted against the sky. It was a fairy tale house brought to life. Branches jutted out of the walls at all angles. He observed us closely, saying nothing. It seemed clear that he was harmless. In the West he might have been a hermit, or institutionalized, but here he had envsioned and fashioned with his own hands one of the strangest things I have ever seen.

The precocious boy whose compound we shared moved with the ease of a child who knew where he stood in the order of things. A grandson of the chief, a bright student, confident in his social standing, he had that self assurance that somewhere else would have made him the big man on campus. "Tu ne reviens plus," he told me with an air of finality on my last night, which even then struck me as being uncommonly mature for a boy to grasp: "You will not come back again."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Wood House, Mali: Part 1

My most surreal / memorable travel experiences: #6 See full map

I was in Mali for five weeks in the summer of 2001 to participate in a training program run by my university's engineering school. We spent several weeks providing instruction in computer hardware repair in French to a small group of locals. I was fluent in neither the subject matter nor the language before starting the project, but of necessity learned quickly. During the final week of our stay, a subset of us opted to join a former Peace Corps volunteer on our team in her former village in a very rural part of the country, near the Burkina Faso border.

Transport to the area was by a minibus that only ran on certain days of the week. This village was named Benin (not to be confused with the nearby country). We stayed in the compound of the chief, a man with four wives and children and grandchildren seemingly everywhere. In a place thoroughly cut off from modern technology - no electricity, plumbing, telecommunications - it was easy to settle into the rhythms of village life. Nights were startling bright, as our stay fortunately coincided with a full moon strong enough to cast shadows, which had the added benefit of enabling us to actually see when we walked. Despite the remoteness, a store in the village had a refrigerator run by generator that held (what else) Coca-Cola, available only slightly cooler than the hot summer day.

On the once-weekly market day I went and sat by the meat stall, where a small herd of living goats were tied to a post, their numbers slowly dwindling throughout the day as they were unceremoniously dispatched and served up roasted. One of the more macabre sights was the line of heads from the butchered goats, which someone had lined up neatly next to the oblivious remaining ones.

During one of our group's meanderings through the village we had seen an older man walking alone, with the tattered clothes and unkempt hair that often mark the homeless in America. My host had known him from her prior work and explained to me that he was a known eccentric. He had a strange fixation on wood, which he collected and tracked meticulously. He would apparently lay claim to particular branches and reacted badly if anyone took a piece that he believed to be his. It was unclear what he needed all of this wood for.

Without constant electronic stimuli and schedules we rose and slept with the sun. At night I remember sitting at the edge of the compound, listening to the deafening sound of frogs croaking. When one of us shifted they would all instantly cease. The silence would hold for a time until a brave frog ventured a croak, whereupon the full chorus would almost instantly resume. I still wonder how they could track our movements in such coordinated fashion.

Next: on a motorcycle delivering medicines to Burkina Faso in a thunderstorm, and a nighttime visit