Archive for October, 2011

On the road XII — On top of the world on the Megabus

October 28, 2011

(After a brief electronic detour to Israel)

The shortest distance between two points often passes through Chinatown. And it can be the cheapest way to go.

That was what my husband and I discovered about ten years ago when our son-in-law recommended “the Chinatown bus” for a trip from Boston to New York.

So for years we made the trip on the Fung Wah bus, which was originally established in the 1990s (so my husband was told by a regular commuter) as a van service to connect grandmothers with their families in the Chinatowns of Boston and New York.

Fung Wah expanded and soon had competition from another Chinatown line, Lucky Star. The two were about half the price of Greyhound, and much cheaper than planes or trains.

Now the two Chinatown buses have stiff competition from another two lines, Bolt Bus and Megabus, and in addition to the venerable Greyhound and Peter Pan. These no-frills bus lines now travel routes in other parts of the country as well.

This time we decided to ride the Megabus to New York, not only because it’s a double-decker, but because it stops in New York at a location that is more convenient for us, 7th Avenue and 28th Street. And if you know your travel dates in advance, you can ride for next to nothing on the Megabus, which claims to have rates as low as $1. (The lowest I found on a quick search was Boston to Baltimore for $5.) Our trip to New York, booked one day in advance, cost just $25 each, roundtrip.

But the real advantage of the Megabus is that if you’re first in line you can sit in the front seat of the upper level. That’s what we did, both ways. Not only did we have a first-rate view of each city’s architecture, we were able to see the fall foliage, which had appeared seemingly overnight. On the way to New York, we saw yellow and orange leaves sparkling in the sunlight, and on the way back the following day we saw deep reds that we swore were not there the day before. Also, because the side windows are tinted, only the view from the front allowed us to see the true colors.

It’s one of the best bargains in the United States!

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No portion of this text may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Esther Hecht. The author has no connection of any kind with Megabus or any other of the lines mentioned in this post.

Group strips for art and tourism at the Dead Sea

October 26, 2011

A new day dawns at the Dead Sea with more then 1,200 nude people floating in its healing waters. (Spencer Tunick)

More than 1,200 people ― from Israel and abroad ― stripped and floated in unison last month in the Dead Sea for an art project titled “Naked Sea,” by artist Spencer Tunick. Since 1992, Tunick has organized and photographed individual and group nude scenes in such locations as London’s Selfridges department store, Buffalo’s old central train station, and the Aletsch Glacier (the largest glacier in the Alps).

His latest installation, at the lowest point on earth, was created at dawn on September 17 to promote voting for the Dead Sea as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature (a contest that ends on November 11, 2011).

Tunick has said about his installations that “the individuals en masse, without their clothing, grouped together metamorphose into a new shape. The bodies extend into and upon the landscape like a substance. These grouped masses which do not underscore sexuality become abstractions that challenge or reconfigure one’s views of nudity and privacy.”

Of his latest project, which I previewed last May, he said that Israel was the only country in the Middle East where he could create such art and that it would give the world “a new image of Israel as an open and vibrant democracy.”

Years before Tunick’s Israeli shoot, Israeli artist Sigalit Landau created art videos in which she appears nude in the Dead Sea. The first, DeadSee (2005) shows Landau floating in a spiral of watermelons that slowly unwinds. Another, Stranded on a Water Melon in the Dead Sea (2009), shows her trying to maintain her balance on a watermelon. Her work has appeared in such major art venues as New York’s MoMa, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and the Venice Biennale.

Running for peace and tourism

Sprinter Giusy Versace, who lost her legs in a car accident, hands the peace torch to Israel Tourism Ministry Deputy Director-General Ahuva Zaken as they leave Bethlehem. (Israeli Tourism Ministry)

Several hundred Israel, Palestinian, and Italian runners took part in the John Paul II Bethlehem-Jerusalem Peace Run, on October 24. The run was organized by the Vatican pilgrimage organization Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi and Israel’s Tourism Ministry. The run began at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, pausing at Rachel’s Crossing for a soccer tournament between the Italian, Palestinian, and Israeli runners. Then the marathon continued to the Notre Dame Church in Jerusalem.

Among the runners was Giusy Versace, a sprinter who lost her legs in a car accident and runs with prosthetics. Participants also included Italian football stars Albertini Demetrio, Di Biagio Luigi, Tommasi Damiano, Peruzzi Angelo, and Bonavina Diego.

The run provided a rare opportunity for Israelis to visit Bethlehem. Though tourists can move freely between Israel and the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, for years the Israeli government has forbidden the entry of Israelis into Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza. Similarly, Palestinian entry to Israeli-controlled areas has been severely limited.

It would be nice to think that the run was a first step toward a time when not only tourists, but Israelis and Palestinians too can move freely between the two parts of the tiny piece of real estate both groups call home.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. Photograph of Naked Sea courtesy of Spencer Tunick. Photograph of the John Paul II Bethlehem-Jerusalem Peace Run. No portion of this text may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of Esther Hecht. No portion of these photographs may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Spencer Tunick or the Israel Tourism Ministry, respectively.

On the road XI ― From Lookout Campground to Lake Tahoe

October 23, 2011

The boulders at tiny Buck Beach were brought there eons ago by glaciers.

An old teahouse is visible on Lake Tahoe's only island, in Emerald Bay.

A one-mile hike leads to a secluded beach where two kayakers stop to chat.

Breaking camp is even harder than setting up. Each of the three sleeping bags has to be shaken out and rolled tightly. The tent floor has to be swept clean.

The tent is large, and while doing the initial folding, on the ground, we try not to step on it and track dirt onto it. We’re not entirely successful. The large wooden camp table turns out to be an ideal surface for the final folds, and though we’re not Chinese factory workers we manage to squeeze the tent and all its parts back into the flexible carry bag. But try as we might, we can’t fit the new air mattress back in the box it came in, even though we’ve deflated it completely and folded it carefully.

Two hours later, our camping equipment is ready to be packed away until next year’s trip, the campsite is cleaned for its next visitor, and we’ve warmed up and are ready for our next adventure. Now we head for Lake Tahoe, which we’ve passed before but have never visited.

Many campgrounds shaded by towering pine and fir trees surround the lake, but we’re ready for some creature comforts, especially a shower. The only problem is that even the cheaper motels are beyond our budget. Then, at a visitor information center, we stumble on an affordable option. The fancy Tahoe Biltmore Lodge and Casino in Crystal Bay, at the northern end of the lake, has bought an old motel across the street, now used mainly by construction workers.

There is no lake view from the room (what can you expect for $44 a night), but when we go out for a walk, we meet a woman who leads us to the secluded Buck Beach. So much snow fell last winter that the lake is higher than usual, reducing the beach to a tiny crescent with a few rounded boulders shoved there by ancient glaciers. At sunset, the boulders in the water make a dramatic tableau, past which young people glide by on surfboards, paddling gently.

In the evening, the Biltmore casino’s café turns out to have very affordable and tasty meals. Of course, we have to pass all the slots and the roulette tables, but we keep our hands in our pockets to avoid temptation.

The following day we drive around the lake – the second deepest in the United States (after Crater Lake) – discovering both its most beautiful parts (especially Emerald Bay) and its less beautiful ones (the large town at the southern tip).

A mile-long hike on the lake’s northeastern side brings us to a secluded beach where we find a deserted makeshift hut with a sign announcing that it was once the Freedom Bar. Two men in kayaks paddle by, stopping to chat a bit. The world seems very far away, though the road is just a hundred feet above us.

At a state park on the western side, we stop for a picnic lunch and encounter two colorfully dressed women engaged in some kind of worship. A sign at the rest rooms provides a clue: Part of the lake is closed to the public for an annual meeting of the Washoe Indian tribe, to whom the lake is sacred.

We feel that we could spend more time in this exquisite place, but we must return to civilization, and the following morning we leave for San Francisco.

Text and photographs copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No portion of this text or photographs may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Esther Hecht.

On the road X ― So what do you do all day in the woods?

October 9, 2011

Prospecting for crystals on Crystal Peak; the serious diggers had picks, shovels, and axes.

The view was spectacular, but we found only slim pickings on Crystal Peak.

Our first night in the Sierras I slept poorly. The woman at the Forest Service office had warned us about mountain lions, and the Forest Service man we’d met at the campground said this is definitely bear country, though there hadn’t been any sightings.

The first night, we made sure to put all our food and cooking gear into the car, so as not to attract unwanted animals.
But as I lay in the tent trying to fall asleep, I wondered whether the rumble I heard was a loud snore from a nearby campsite or a bear’s growl. And later, when I heard light footsteps outside the tent just behind my head, I lay perfectly still, hoping the mountain lion out there wouldn’t notice me.

The following day we read and relaxed, and it appeared that the light footsteps in the night had been those of a squirrel. There was no rush to go anywhere, and that night I slept well.

The third day we decided to explore our surroundings. The Forest Service woman had told us about Crystal Peak, a quarter of a mile away, where we might want to poke around for some crystals.

So we set out with a single bottle of water. After all, a quarter mile is not very far. But we should have been forewarned from our previous experience with her advice about water. From our campsite it turned out to be at least a mile and a quarter, most of it uphill.

When we arrived at what is marked as a crystal mine, we saw that we were the only people who had hiked in. The others had arrived in 4X4s with picks and shovels and axes. Clearly, they meant business.

We followed them to the top of the hill, wishing we had walking sticks as we slipped on the gravelly rocks. One couple who had a more modest set of tools but had already found two small crystals told us that the site had originally been a gold mine, and that the hill we were standing on was just a pile of leavings from that mine.

The walk back, downhill, was easy enough, but it was wonderful to arrive “home” again at our campsite. But then we discovered the real animal dangers at Lookout Campground.

We had sighted some deer in the early morning, but it looked as though squirrels had taken a shine to the small bag of coffee we had forgotten to put away. How odd, I thought, that a chipmunk in the Sierras should have a yen for Turkish coffee.

The day passes quickly, especially if you don’t get up until 8:30, you don’t finish the breakfast cleanup until 10, you have a gripping book, and it’s dark by 8.

But by 8 our cooking fire is burning down to embers, and we sit at the fireplace watching the stars, talking about the books we’re reading. And as we talk, each of us takes a stick and pokes at the embers, playing like little kids, and we laugh at ourselves for the sheer joy of it.

Text and photographs copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No portion of this text or photographs may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Esther Hecht.

On the road IX ― Fire and water in the Sierras

October 5, 2011

The grate was a little too high for boiling water but with foil to keep soot off the pots it turned out to be perfect for slow cooking.

Chopped vegetables were for soup to warm us after the sun set.

Sorry, folks, we didn't take pix of ourselves in our nighttime gear, but this shows evening attire and the Goldstar cap that doubled as a nightcap.

Because we weren’t prepared to have to boil our drinking water in Lookout Campground, we brought with us only enough propane canisters for regular cooking.

Luckily, there is a large fireplace more than a yard wide that looks like the bottom half of a huge iron barrel. The quarter-size holes punched about a foot apart halfway up the side provide a steady supply of oxygen for the fire.

Signs everywhere warn against cutting firewood; the Forest Service sells trees for firewood, and you can see the markings on trees that have been sold. When my father was a young man in Vienna, he was in the lumber business, and my late cousin Nuel remembered going out as a little boy into the forest with him to select and mark the trees that were to be chopped down.

Despite all the warnings here against cutting firewood, there are none against gathering it. At an empty campsite we find a trove of thick branches. And everywhere there are chips, twigs, bits of bark, and dried pine needles for kindling.

Shraga gets the fire going and we cover the grate with aluminum foil, to keep the soot off the pots, and anchor the foil with rocks. The grate is a little too high above the fire, so the water takes forever to boil. But the extra height makes the grate perfect for slow cooking, and I prepare soup, rice, and steamed vegetables on it.

After dinner and the long cleanup, when it is too dark to read, we sit close to the fire, warming ourselves and stirring the embers to create spark showers, and watching the stars appear above. We are too close to Reno for the night sky to have all the brilliance it might have in New Mexico, but it is impressive enough for us city slickers.

We talk about the camper we will buy someday so that we can go camping for months at a time (it’s the same camper and the same trip that we’ve been talking about for years), and we talk about how much our grandchildren would love to run around here and gather firewood with us.

Finally we douse the fire (it’s so dry here that a single spark could cause disaster) and though it’s only 9 p.m., we go to bed.

Text and photographs copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No portion of this text or photographs may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Esther Hecht.

On the road VIII ― The rituals of Paradise

October 4, 2011

Paradise on earth is not entirely free of constraints.

Camping means breaking the shackles of the city and seeking freedom in nature. Yet, paradoxically, rituals are a large part of life in the outdoors.

Unlike religious rituals, these have an irrefutable logic: Violate them and you’ll be miserable.

One ritual is anchoring the tent. Knocking in the pegs (especially if you’ve forgotten to bring along a hammer) is a nuisance, especially after you’ve struggled to get the tent up in gusting wind. But skip a peg or two and the whole tent may fly away.

I’ve also figured out how to set up our bedding: Unzip all three sleeping bags; lay one flat, lay a duvet cover on it with the open end where our heads will be, lay another sleeping bag flat on top of that, and finally lay the third sleeping bag on top. Zip the top and bottom bags together and you have super-warm bedding that will hold together all night.

Before I figured out this arrangement, I would put the middle sleeping bag on top of the two zipped-together ones. It would keep slipping off and we would freeze.

In the Sierras, even the zipped-inside bedding arrangement is not enough (at least not with our less-than-great sleeping bags). So now we have a bedtime dressing ritual. For Shraga it means putting on his bikers’ thermal long johns, socks, and a hooded sweatshirt.

For me it means putting on an old cotton-knit turtleneck and pants, my socks plus Shraga’s silk-and-angora winter socks, a nightgown, and … a fleece hat with the logo of our favorite Israeli beer. The hat was a last-minute addition after I discovered that all of my body was warm but my ears were freezing. Also, with the brim pulled low over my eyes, it kept the sun out and let me sleep long past sunrise.

Sexy? Warm and sexy. Do we look funny? We look like a couple of aliens. But then, you might say, we are aliens, just passing through. Aliens with rituals.

Text and photograph copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No portion of this text or photograph may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Esther Hecht.

On the road VII ― Near-disaster in Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest

October 1, 2011

Putting up a tent in Paradise; it helps if you remember to bring a hammer.

We leave Winnemucca, where we have spent the night in yet another dreary motel, and continue west on Interstate 80. At the rest areas, signs describe the hardships of the pioneers, especially as they crossed the 40-mile desert to reach the Sierras, their final obstacle.

One pioneer is quoted as saying he was so thirsty his tongue and lips were cracked and bleeding, and that he lay down and was ready to die. But somehow he gathered the strength to continue.

In Sparks, which appears to be a separate city on the map but has sprawled into Reno, we consult the office of the Forest Supervisor about camping opportunities in the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest. The friendly woman there makes some inquiries and informs us that all but one of the forest campgrounds are already closed―not because it’s too cold, but because the Forest Service doesn’t have the budget to keep them open longer.

Lookout Campground, which is still open, has 22 sites and vaulted toilets. And yes, she says in answer to my question, it has drinking water, though she’s not sure it has shade trees. And getting to it involves driving several miles on a dirt road. But she assures us that the roads are well maintained.

Following her directions, we drive north on 395, stopping at a supermarket on the way to buy food and ice. We are down to our last small bottle of water, but we’re not worried. Soon there will be plenty of fresh water.

The road to the campground is not marked.

“Just turn left after the Smokey the Bear sign,” a young man at a gas station in Bordertown tells us.

We turn left and start driving. And driving. And driving. The road is not bad for part of the way, but our low-slung Camry is no match for some of the ruts, and it emits ominous grunts as its body hits the rocks. There are many confusing turnoffs, but we just keep going straight. There is no one to ask, and there are no signs. Finally, when we think we will never find the campground, a pickup comes toward us and its driver assures us we’re almost there.

Half a mile later (almost an eternity at 10 mph), we see a tiny sign with yellow letters: Lookout Campground.

I am so relieved. We are down to one-quarter of a bottle of water, and after last year’s bout of high-altitude dehydration that landed me in the hospital, all I want is to replenish our water supply.

We can see immediately that this is a beautiful place, with tall pines and firs, and we feel as though we’ve entered Paradise. And then we see the hand-lettered sign:

Non Potable WATER
Use this water to put out campfires

The campground appears empty, and we drive around it looking for the drinking water. We see a pipe with a faucet, but the faucet is dry. Then we see a camper and some movement inside. I call to out to ask where there is drinking water.

“There isn’t any,” a man answers tersely.

There is nothing to do but to drive on. It is already 4 p.m., too late to find another campground. Another night in a dreary motel awaits us.

Just as we are about to leave, a Forest Service pickup appears. We explain our predicament to the driver, who seems sympathetic, especially when he hears how far we are from home.

He asks who told us there would be drinking water here, and he immediately calls the office to set her straight. She apologizes profusely, but this doesn’t help us.

Then he explains that the “not potable water” used to be the drinking water, but that it did not pass some stringent tests
“Just boil it and you’ll be fine,” he says.

Then he gives us a map of the area, and as a parting gesture he offers us a gallon of bottled water.

It seems like a miracle. Our thirst will be quenched. This is Paradise after all.

Text and photograph copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No portion of this text or photograph may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Esther Hecht.