Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lost and found in Latvia

I must admit, when I thought of the Baltic states I remembered Estonia and Lithuania. Estonia because of the composer Arvo Part and Lithuania, I am not sure why I remember it. I thought it was that Lithuania got into the world cup but I stand corrected by a reader. But Latvia? I thought it was the country ruled by Doctor Doom, the arch enemy of the Fantastic Four. Well Doctor Doom comes from the fictitious country of Latveria... see?!?!? And the closest thing that came to my mind about Riga, was the final Boss Ryga, in an interplanetary version of Street Fighter. Ok, you can see how lame my knowledge is and where I spent my time becoming so lame.

So I really did not know what to expect from Latvia. It rhymes with Bavaria, so should I expect something Germanic. Well, as it turns out, Riga, the captial, started as a German colony for the conversion of the local populace to Christianity. So there is a German link. And Riga was an important European port, with lots of rich merchants and a cosmopolitan population. The tradition carries on now with a surprsing number of Japanese restaurants in Riga.

What I can say now is that the old town of Riga is definitely more grand than Vilnius. They have refurbished some of the merchants' guilds in Riga, and boy are they showy. The churches are pretty nice too, large but not too overly ornate and complex inside the churches. I like that. I also found an unexpectedly good restaurant at a reasonable price called Le Crabe! Yes, I am looking after myself.

But Riga is not just the medieval old town. It has several outrageous Art Nouveau houses to the north of the old town. I have seen a lot ornate buildings in my time, but these buildings really left me gob smacked! And I kind of like that style, very sexy!

So after a good time with good food in Riga, I take a bus along the coast of Riga to Cape Kolka. Cape Kolka, or Kolkas Rags, is in between the Baltic sea to the west and the Gulf of Riga to the east. It does not have a high cliff at the point but it does really look like the end of the earth. And the clouds all around are always spectacular. It is still warm enough to take a swim in the sea when the sun is up. And it has relatively fewer tourists here than on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania. I think that it is just harder to get to Kolka than Nida in Lithuania. And Kolka is in the Slitere National Park, with wonderful forests and old Livonian towns. I cycled 45km today to see some of the sights. This really tired me out, but it was worth it. I think if someone wants to do a sword and sorcery epic, Slitere Natioanl park would be the perfect place to film it.

I am so glad that I am having this opportunity to explore the Baltic states. And as much as I love the romance of old towns, the beauty of nature is having an effect on me. It kinds of puts into perspective what is important in life and it is not the rat race.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Laughter in Lithuania

When I was in Warsaw, I met a very unpleasant French man who simply said that he disliked the Baltic states. He did not specify why when I asked him, but he just did. He made some rude remarks about me as well and his wife was embarrassed. But I think he was wrong on both counts.

My first stop in Lithuania was its capital, Vilnius. It has a nice personable old town, with several churches. It amused me that the Soviets used one of the churches to be a church of atheism. The Lithuanians were definitely not convinced.

I must admit, after traveling for several months, old castles, museums and churches were not high on my lists of to dos. The nicest church was one that was changing hands and was almost empty. There was still a few pictures of the Virgin and Christ. This seems the most honest to me. But I did visit some of the churches like the Gates of Dawn, where they have the Black Madonna. And the Choral Synangogue too.

What did leave a mark on me was the Museum for the victims of Genocide. Here was the history of how the Soviets signed a secret pact with Hitler to divide up the region. How the Soviets annexed Lithuania together with the other two Baltic states. The Germans broke the pact and took over Lithuania for about four years and then were driven out by the Russians again. The Lithuanians and countries like the United States always considered this an unlawful occupation. But Stalin wanted the Baltic states. Many Lithuanians were sent to hard labour in distant places in Russia. A lot of people were kept, tortured and killed in the Soviet run prisons in Lithuania. The west did nothing. I am not sure why, maybe after fighting Germany, the west had no stomach to take on the Soviet Union. Life just ain't fair.

But you have to like the Lithuanians, because they are the most humorous bunch of people I have met. In Vilnius, a group of artists have declared their own independence in a district called Uzupio. They have a hilarious constitution which says things like 'You can die, but you are not obliged to'.

Vilnius is not as grand as the old cities of Poland, but it is very charming in it's own right. There is a road on Literatu street where there is an open air gallery celebrating the literature of Lithuania. Beautiful work.

I went to the port town of Klaipeda, which is the connection to the Curonian Spit. The spit is a 140km sand dune with the Baltic sea on one side and a large lagoon on the other side. Half of the spit is owned by Lithuania and the other half is owned by the Soviets. The old town of Klaipeda is small, charming in its own right. Its old buildings have interesting wooden beams as support. The buildings used to be warehouses for the shipping trade. Can you believe it, out of the 11 tourist sights in the old town, one is a sculpture of a mouse and another is a sculpture of a cat.

The Curonian Spit though is simply breathtaking. It does not seem like much to look at the sea. But when you see the Baltic sea coming ashore, you really get to see the majesty of the sea, of nature. And along the long long beach, Lithuanians and tourists have fun sunning themselves. Quite a few people go nude! Talk about a sense of freedom.

I ended my travels in Lithuania with a short visit to Siauliai. I did not really sight see in Siauliai as it seems more like an industrial town. But what is amazing is the Hill of Crosses which is about 15km out of town. Just thousands and thousands of crosses. The Soviets tried to destroy this religious site, but the Lithuanians kept putting up new crosses. Most of my friends know that I am not a believer, but the sight of so much spontaneous religious expression is impressive.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An observation from the journey

This trip is truly liberating. to climb mountains, to walk in the falling snow, to swim in the Mediterranean sea, to dance in the moonlight, to travel vast distances and watch the scenery change from dessert to mountain to plains to lakes to towns to cities to the sea.

There are limits to what we can do, but within these limits, there is a great range of possibilities. To live fully takes courage, determination, a positive attitude and flexibility.

I met nomads in Mongolia who lost a lot of their livestock in the last winter, one of the harshest winters Mongolia has ever had. One nomad simply agreed that he had lost many livestock and noted that he would have to rear more. In Poland, they were affected by huge floods, but as a visitor you could hardly tell. They carried on with life. What I see on this trip is resilience and people able to continue not just to survive, but find joy in life.

We have to say 'no' to energy sapping negative people. Live within the law, but live outside constraining social norms. Above all, be true to yourself. Never be afraid to express joy, delight and love. Express anger when absolutely necessary, but discard it as soon as possible, or it poisons one's heart.

Give time, love and support to the young, for the are the future. Give time, love, support and thanks to the old, for without them we would not be. Spread good ideas and happiness to those around us, for we have the world in our car for now. We have to do a good job for those who come after us. Don't be afraid to admit mistakes and change for the better. Consequences are larger than our egos. Don't regret things done in ignorance, we can only know so much. But try not to repeat the same mistake over and over again.

We have to walk in the mountains sometimes, it shows us how small we are. Then we realize that we live on a planet that is insignificant in the vastness of space. This is why we need to come together as a planet. We need to stop the hate, we need to stop the rape of the earth. We are like ants, alone one can do little. In a colony, mountains can be moved.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Walking Berlin

Berlin was on my trip because I wanted to visit my friend Dimitra, whom I met at London Contemporary Dance School. It was ten years since I was last in Berlin and seen her. How time flies! I realise that I have been a busy boy in the last ten years. I liked Berlin when I visited it ten years ago, I like it even more now.

Having been to Berlin once and since it was a trip to visit a friend, I did not do any planning at all about what to do there. One thing was for sure, I did not want to see any more castles, old masters or crosses. On the way to my hotel, I saw there was a Magnum photography retrospective at a place called CO Berlin. I asked the lady at my hotel where this museum was and she showed me on a free map giving out by Sandeman, a walking tour company. What caught my eye was an alternative tour of Berlin, showing squats, street art, protest points, things you would not see in a regular city tour. And where does the tour start? CO Berlin, where the photographic exhibition was held!

I spent the morning going through the Magnum exhibition and bought a documentary on Magnum. The exhibition showed classics from the founders and newer work by photographers like Paolo Pelegrin and Alex Soth. It was trying to show how Magnum started as a photo journalists collective and how it is developing today in a market where the photo journalistic market has collapsed. Many of the young photographers are journalists/artists. They think as much as doing exhibitions and selling prints as they do of getting their work published in newspapers or magazines. Enlightening.

I had a quick lunch and joined the alternative Berlin walking tour. The guide was an Irishman, Finn, whom was very interested in graffiti artists. The first stop was an artists' squat in east Berlin called Tacheles. Apparently, it will be evacuated and turned into a luxury hotel at any moment, so I was very lucky to see this piece of free Berlin history. As we went along this tour, we were introduced to various forms of street art and their creators. It is interesting that billboards is not a very effective form of advertising in Berlin and major companies have now started to use street artists to paint ads street style. How commerce works eh?

The really surprising thing to me is that Berlin as a city, is 67 million euros in debt. This, the capital of capitalist superstar Germany! But Berlin is a city for artists, with very little industry going on. There are many development plans, but no money to get them going. One quarter of Berlin's property is empty! Hmmm... sounds like my city to do a photographic residency!!! :)

After the great tour I met my friend Dimitra for dinner. Ten years ago she took me for a Viennese Schnitzel that was simply amazing. I tried getting a good schnitzel in Vienna but failed. We went back to the same restaurant and had the schnitzel again. To me, this is the best schnitzel in the world.

I enjoyed the alternative Berlin tour so much that I convinced Dimitra to follow me for the free Berlin tour. And she has lived in Berlin for twelve years. But the guide, Sam, a Cambridge graduate, was great. He was knowledgeable and he could put things across well. Dimitra was impressed by how he compressed German history into 16 minutes. The highlights of the tour for me was the monument to the Jews killed in the second world war and a monument to a massive book burning exercise at Humbolt University. The Jewish monument is thousands and thousands of cement blocks. I did not take a picture of the monument to the burned books, but it is an underground room made of four walls of white bookshelves. These works kind of blew my mind.

The evening was finished with Taffelspitz at another Austrian restaurant. It is boiled beef and does not sound that fantastic. But it is served with horseradish that really makes this a special treat.

So two great days in Berlin and meeting an old friend.

I am now going into the last part of my overland journey, the Baltic states. I am writing this post in Warsaw, on my way to Vilnius in Lithuania. I am still being surprised and educated, but I am a bit tired. I am looking forward to returning to London and sleeping in a familiar bed.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Passing Kolo - From my diary

Living in Singapore, a city state, we always get the feeling we are in Singapore. And although Singapore is just a little red dot on the world map, we have a much larger presence in world consciousness than other cities in larger countries. I think people all over the world would have heard much less of Port Klang than they have of Singapore. What would the profile and wealth of Singapore have been like if we had stayed in the Malaysian federation? I wonder.

But as I pass the town of Kolo in Poland on the train, a town I have never heard of, have no idea at all what it is about, filled with people speaking a language I do not comprehend. I realise how distance divides human kind, how politics divides human kind, how language divides human kind, how religion defines human kind. It is strange that things that help bind a certain group of humans together, also causes boundaries to other groups of humans.

We benefit and are victims of our circumstances. Where and when we are born. Who are our parents and what is their legacy for us. There are only a handful of people like Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, the president of the United States, that can truly become part of the world consciousness. And there are still large groups of people who have no interest in Shakespeare, Lao Tzu or the president of the United States.

For better or worse, English is the most widely used language today. And to be brought up in an English speaking society is the key to a huge library of information and ideas. We can always debate the pros and cons of colonialism, but the proliferation of the English language makes important knowledge available for understanding the world and getting things done. For example, if I lived in Ulaanbaatar, had fast internet access, but could only read and speak in Mongolia, the range of information available to me would be much smaller than if I lived in the outback of Australia but understood English.

We like to think that we can do anything we set out minds to. But the truth is, it is several times harder to be a fashion photographer in Chicago than New York. You can actually be a great photographer but if you cannot make it to a fashion capital, you have nothing to work on or work for and you are up shit creek. Closer to home in Singapore, our safe, comfortable country is not the place to get a world press award or a Pulitzer. Your chances increase the closer you get to a major conflict zone. Access is a key to certain industries and oppotunities. Having access is a privilege some people are born with, and some people can get if they work hard, and others are completely denied. I remember watching a documentary on children beggars in Indonesia. When asked what their dreams were, one said that he wanted to be a doctor...

Our parent's legacy to us, forming our world view, our beliefs and our character in engaging with others. Some of us are brought up with more self-contained world view, which makes it hard to engage with others, to take in new information. Others are brought up more liberal, with a willingness to take in new ideas. This is a key in enabling us to either take advantage of the opportunities offered to us, or bar ourselves from these opportunities.

The world, with the aeroplane and the internet has become a smaller place. But still, circumstances and surrounding are key to one's life.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Polish Summer - Wroclaw and Warsaw

It was the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski that made me expect a drab, grey, decaying Poland. What can you say to a city that has a fountain topped by a nude fencer and has gnomes spread throughout the city. Wroclaw, like other Polish cities has had its share of hardship and pain. But the gnomes are inspired by the gnomes drawn by the Orange alternative over places where the communist government had censored anti-goverment slogans. The gnomes are cute nowadays for tourist, but are a reminder of how the Polish used humour and ridicule to combat the oppressive communist regime. On this score alone, one should not look down on the Polish.

The town square, or Rynek, is the second largest in Europe, after Krakow. But it is much prettier to me. The facades of the buildings are more colourful and ornate. The old town is surrounded by a river and there several islands with churches on them. The islands are very pretty but also has the magical Botanical gardens. It really does look like a place that I would expect to see fairies and gnomes come out. At the very least, the gardens is well kept and labelled, you can tell that it is a labour of love.

Also between the islands is a bridge, where lovers hang a lock as a token of their love. This is almost too sweet, but when you see a punk couple putting up their lock and chain, you realise that these people have remained romantic and oh so human in spite of the communist regime.

And I stayed at probably the best hotel on this trip, the Art Hotel. Even though it looks really posh, it was in the middle range of hotels. It was worth the money. The room, bed and toilet were all great. And you cannot beat the location within the old town.

I guess that I am gushing, but even though there are prettier towns in Tuscany and in France, there is something magic about Wroclaw.

So I save the city that was voted Europe's ugliest city for the last. But to counter that I am staying in the Old Town too. Which is quite pretty. I can see in the rest of Warsaw, there are some ugly Soviet style buildings, but there are also some new moderm buildings popping up here and there.

I also spent time at Lazienkowski park which has a summer palace and Wilanowski Park with a baroque palace. Newr Lazienkowski park is the Centre for Contemporary Art housed in Ujazdowski Palace. And next to Wilanowski palace, is the Poster Museum. The two palaces are nicer and prettier than the Royal Palace in the old town. Actually the entire Old Town was destroyed by the Nazi's in retalliation for the Warsaw uprising. So the palace in the old town is actually quite new. But the two palaces in the parks are more original, and the settings are gorgeous.

After traveling so long, I get a bit spaced out looking at palaces and churches. There is a kind of sameness to it all. But I go through them just in case there is something that may strike me like at the hermitage. But thank goodness for the contemporary art museum and the poster museum. They add a different dimension and bring new creative ideas to my attention.

The highlights of Wroclaw and Warsaw and sad stores of moments of courage and sacrifice by the Polish people who were time and again invaded by the Germans and the Russians. In Wroclaw, they have the panorama of Raclawicka. This is a unique panoramic painting housed in its own circular building depicting a defeat of the Russian army by Polish peasants. This was short lived as the Russian army defeated the Polish. But this incident forever inspires the Polish people. In Warsaw, there is the fabulous Warsaw Uprising museum, dedicated to telling the true story of the Warsaw uprising. Towards the end of the second world war, when Hitler was beginning to loose the war, the Polish people started an uprising in Warsaw to overthrow the Germans. They were hoping for help from the allies. Unfortunately, the British and Americans did not send much aid. The Russians acted as they were going to help, but let the Germans bomb the hell out of Warsaw and then took the opportunity to disarm the polish Hoem Army and turn Poland into a communist state. The stories are sad, the saddest I have heard in Europe. So if Polish people do seem cynical sometimes, you can see why.

Anyway, I did not know what to expect of Poland before I started this trip, but I certainly have some fond memories of this country.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Krakow, Poland - Getting there and being there

Poland is simply one of those countries that does not get to the top of the list when visiting Europe. I called my sister from Warsaw and told her I was in Poland because my brother-in-law is half polish. My sister was unimpressed. I told her I was on the way to Krakow and she said that was better than Warsaw...

Well, I must admit that the state of the buildings in the countryside of Poland is depressing. Things are run down. I was coming from Switzerland with its picture postcard houses and passing through Germany with its solid state of the art buildings. Getting into Warsaw, I was too late to catch my connecting train to Krakow. Fortunately, it was simple to change my ticket to a later train and this gave me a couple of hours to kill in Warsaw. I was able to book all my train tickets for Poland as well as a train to Berlin and another connection from Berlin to Vilnius in Lithunia. The missed connection was a blessing in disguise. But the look of the train station, with underground tunnels linking looked like dungeons.

Arriving in Krakow, I was greeted by drab looking communist housing. Or if the housing was older, it was also run down. My hotel, was at the edge of the old town. It was in the walk into the Rynek Glowny, the largest town square in Europe, that things started to look different. The buildings started looking spruced up and had more interesting detailing like other charming European cities. The town square was bustling with activity. Lots of cafes, restaurants and shops. The centre of the town hall was something called the Cloth Hall, now a large tourist souvenir mall. It is a bit like Convent Garden, but not so hip. Ok, this was not an Italian piazza, but it had a charm of its own. It was a bit spoiled by the obvious tourist nature of the whole thing.

I spent the next two days going to Wawel Hill, where there is an old castle. I visit the church there. I walk around the cobbled streets of old town Krakow. I check off the tourist to-do list and feel a little bit like I am in a less cheesy version of Disneyland. The most engaging event was a retrospective of American photographer Andreas Feininger at the International Cultural Centre. I must say though that the St. Mary's Church interior was impressive. The artwork was not refined like Italian churches, but the colours and styling was bold! Krakow was not bad, but not great.

Then on the third day, I decide to visit the Jewish quarter, also known as Kazimierz, and this seemed a little more 'real'. It was still touristy, but the people there were locals too. I visited on a Saturday, which is not good for visiting the synagogues, but I did visit one that had been converted into a museum. There was an interesting exhibition of old pictures of Jewish people, in their traditional clothing. I enjoyed that.

Then I went to the Krakus mound which is south of Kazimierz. This is the oldest structure in Krakow, a mound that is man made but who's history is lost in time. It was a nice walk to the mound and a little climb up the hill. The view of Krakow was pretty nice. And then I spotted the Libany quarry. This is an abandoned quarry which started off as being owned by a couple of Jewish men. But during the second world war the Nazi's forced Jewish people to work in the quarry. So it was a place where there was painful memories as well. And apparently, when Steven Speilberg filmed Shindler's list, he built sets in Libany quarry instead of using the actual sites of concentration camps. So there is some traces of film sets mixed with the actually quarry remains. I really could not tell which is which. But I found a way into the quarry which is now overrun with wild life. Fish and ducks in the ponds. Butterflies amongst the grass growing around the old quarry equipment. I had a fun afternoon exploring this space. I felt only slightly uncomfortable but did not get any of those hair standing on the back on my neck moments. But I did get caught in the rain.

The food in Krakow up to now had been somewhat decent if a bit overpriced. And then I tried Pod Aniolami. The prices were not cheap, but I thought why not? And it turned out to be one of the top three meals on my overland journey, the other two being Peking duck in Beijing and Duck at the Pushkin restaurant in Moscow. I had meat dumplings to start with and trout as a main course. The flavours were just amazing in my mouth. They were confident flavours, but not overpowering. I am not so much a fish man, but this trout, with horseradish sauce, rocks. I paid like fifty Singaporean dollars for the meal and it was worth every cent.

The meal took longer than I took and I was slightly upset to have missed my last chance of attending a performance of the Krakow Jazz festival. But as I walked about in the town square, an open air concert and dance was going on. It was like a Spanish folk group playing simple dance music and the crowd was loving it. Large groups of people were joining in. I took lots of pictures. And even though it felt kind of silly dancing by myself, I danced a couple of dances too. This was really a great end to a great day in Krakow. And I know that because of the third day, I will not forget Krakow.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Short stop in Switzerland

I went to Bern to visit my friend, Marian, whom I met in dance school. I had once visited her before in Bern and it turns out that it was ten years ago! How time flies.

Now Marian is married to Roland and has two children, Sedonia and Mauruss. The kids are quite a handful and Roland is a forty-seven year old mountain boy! Marian and her husband are just extremely fit. I went with the family to Marian's childhood village, Grindelwald, which is up in the mountains. And they took me hiking in the foothills. While I had to take a lift half way up the mountain and then walk up further by myself, Roland would walk up from the bottom for the mountain with his son strapped to his back! And then in the descent, Marian would bring Mauruss down. Did I say this family was fit? But it was very enjoyable to spend time with Marian and her family. Even though I could not speak any Swiss German, I made friends with the kids.

Bern is a lovely little city as it always is. I did not know that it was the capital of Switzerland. I always thought it was Zurich for some reason. I walked around for a day exploring the shops in the old town. Beautiful things at expensive prices. In my personal experience, Switzerland is an expensive country.

In Bern I did go to Zentrum Paul Klee, a museum dedicated to the famous Swiss painter. It is a wonderful space in the shape of a wave. And Paul Klee's paintings are beautiful too.

Grindelwald is the picture perfect Swiss mountain village. We stayed in Marian's brother's house. We were lucky to get two good days of sunshine and was able to hike on those days. It was the Swiss national day on the 1st of August. There was meant to be loads of celebrations and parades but the rain kind of dampened that. There was a small procession which we joined in. Sedonia was dressed in a traditional Swiss outfit. And there were fireworks at night. The bangs reverberated through the mountains.

And it was surprising how many Japanese there were up in the Swiss mountains. The mayor of Grindelwald spoke in Japanese during the National Day speech!! Unbelievable.

Well. It was a nice short stop in Switzerland and good to catch up with an old friend.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Milan - Always a photography city for me

Milan was more like a pit stop for me. And I was fortunate that my friend Mario put me up for my stay there.

I was in Milan the year before and saw some great exhibitions and bought some wonderful photographic books. The same happened this year. I saw exhibitions by Phil Stern, Irwin Olaf, Eikoh Hose and Francesca Woodman. And I bought a book by Shirin Neshat. I have been looking for books by this wonderful Iranian artist for a long time but the few books I found on the internet were way too expensive. And I found a great book of hers at 10 Corso Como.

I also finally managed to see the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci. This fragile masterpiece, is very subtle. The guide was informative. But, I had to book my ticket two months beforehand online. There is very little chance of going on the day and getting in.

Italy has so many wonderful cities with so much to do and see. Milan kind of gets lost amongst the other cities, but after a while, I think it can grow on you.