Posted tagged ‘photography’

A Short Trip to Ireland

October 8, 2016

This summer my wife and I took a trip for the first time to the Republic of Ireland.

My wife is Chinese in origin; I am probably of old English stock  with a last name corresponding to a large British city.  Neither of us have any forebears as far as we know from Ireland.

We ended up on an extended week-long tour of the Emerald Isle after giving up on going to St. Petersburg in Russia, my wife’s first choice.  The Russian visa process was alarmingly expensive, and required you to feel like you were being vetted for possible spy duties, given the extensive background information the forms required, back to who your friends were in high school and whether you’d ever viewed any satirical cartoons of Putin.  I exaggerate, but that was the feeling that the bureaucratic invasion of privacy engendered.

After deciding we weren’t going to St. Petersburg, in order not to lose our tour deposit, we looked at our remaining choices and plunked a finger down on the world map and said, “There!”  Ireland.  Just the southern part of the Republic.  We didn’t get to Northern Ireland.

protestant-cathedral-dublin

We landed in Dublin in July and toured our way by bus in a rough circle route, as far east as the Cliffs of Moher, north to Galway, then south to the Ring of Kerry, back through the south towards the east and Waterford and finally back up north to Dublin.

Looking back on it now after several months, my most general impressions are of a startlingly green place, even more so than the “Wet Coast” of Vancouver, a place of extremely variable and often inhospitable weather, and overall basically a very tidy and friendly land.

And everyone spoke English!  This was disconcerting to my wife, who felt afterwards that Ireland just wasn’t very exotic; it didn’t seem foreign enough, and the weather was as bad as rainy Vancouver in the winter.

dublin-pub

Myself, I appreciated the subtle Tolkienesque effect of Gaelic on every sign, the medieval castles we came across, and the impression of a history much more turbulent and freighted with violence than anything anyone, thankfully, has suffered on the west side of Canada.

But we were unlucky with the weather.  Sun and blue skies did appear on our first day in Dublin, but as we made our way across Ireland towards the Cliffs of Moher, one of the scenic highlights of the trip if only we could have seen it, the clouds descended thickly and the rains hurtled down.

Our guide on the bus tour charmingly referred to the torrents as, “Oh, but we’ve got a bit of a mist this morning,” but we got soaked all the same when we did venture out.

Despite that disappointment and the continued gloomy weather as we continued along the Ring Of Kerry, a purportedly scenic and panoramic 100 km drive, afterwards the weather did finally break and become relatively pleasant for the rest of our travels.

We did enjoy the castles and other medieval sites, from Bunratty Castle between Limerick and Ennis, to Blarney Castle near Cork, to Glendalough, the early Christian monastic site in County Wicklow founded in the 6th Century.

The medieval feast at Bunratty Castle was a highlight with costumed entertainment, food consumed completely with our hands, and humorous sing-a-longs.

Of course, Castle Blarney has the Blarney Stone, which is supposed to induce eloquence in all who kiss it.  I am of the view that I could go out into a random field and kiss any old boulder with likely the same effect.

The long line-up to go to the top of the castle, lean out and have yourself anchored by others so you didn’t fall and then smooch above you the rough stone where thousands of predecessors have also so spitted did not appeal to either of us.  (We were assured that as often as four times a day, alcohol is applied to the stone for sanitary reasons.)

But the castle itself is impressive, and as both my wife and I are enthusiastic amateur photographers, we had lots of subject matter.

home-for-the-little-people

Overall, I enjoyed the trip, with my wife somewhat less enthusiastic.  Similarly to the experience we had of Greece and its people in the previous year, I was left with the impression of a hardy people, capable of retaining their culture even after enduring periods of oppression and internal wars.

As an example of specific Irish culture, I found fascinating the widespread enthusiasm for the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football.

Hurling, a game with stick and ball which resembles lacrosse to me, is said to date back to prehistoric times, and may be as much as 3000 years old.

Every county has its own team and the regional competitions are fierce and more interesting for the Irish, it seems, than that of more well-known sports such as soccer (football) or cricket.

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Notes on my photos (from top down):

1. This photo of a Protestant cathedral in Dublin indicates the Irish past of considerable religious strife.  The majority of cathedrals are Protestant rather than Catholic, despite the latter being the predominant flavour of Christianity in Ireland, as a result of the historical suppression of Catholicism by the British.

2. A fairly typical Irish pub in Dublin, with the ubiquitous Guinness signs.

3. A home for the Little People…. At the Irish National Stud Farm, there were a grove of trees with these abodes for the Little People.  The Irish National Stud Farm was on the tour apparently because the Irish are just mad about horses.

Shanghai Before Christmas 2014

December 29, 2014

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton

I’ve become an old China hand, at least in some superficial ways.  I’ve been to Shanghai a number of times over the years, and less frequently to a few other parts of China.  I’ve seen the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors at Xian, the peculiar karst hills of Guilin, the giant Buddhas of the Longmen Grottoes, and stood with the fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple for a special photo.  But sadly I only am able to speak the most limited of Chinese, in stock phrases to smooth my way, and certainly not to converse at any length.

Mostly we go to Shanghai, because that is where my wife’s family lives.  Shanghai has changed a lot in the 20 years or so I’ve been going there on a semi-regular basis.  It’s now a city of high-rises, high-end shopping centres and high-volume car congestion.  Without the Chinese characters there are many places where if you were set down unexpectedly it could be almost any modern city in the world.

Fortunately for me, my in-laws were always cosmopolitan and well-travelled, especially my wife’s mother and father, unexpectedly so in Chinese of their generation.  This befitted their role as medical doctors in demand at international conferences and other gatherings.

In a way they became my second set of parents, after my own passed on many years ago.  They always welcomed me into their relatively humble apartment, where in any conversation one might hear Mandarin, Shanghainese, English and French.  As a Canadian, my high-school French actually became occasionally useful.  And my wife’s dad spoke passable English, which certainly helped.

The reason we went back for only just over a week this time was the final ceremony to lay to rest the ashes of my wife’s mother, who died earlier in 2014.  She was a social live-wire even as she turned 90 years old, but endings find us all.  It’s been very difficult for her husband of almost 70 years, especially since they were closely together all those years not only as partners in life but colleagues in their profession.

I remember her most fondly for her jolliness, her sincerity and her intelligence.  When they last visited us in Vancouver in Canada back when they were young folks in their late seventies and early eighties, they always seemed such accomplished travellers.  Mom always liked to be photographed in front of every tourist sight-seeing mecca.  Dad worried about plane tickets and travel arrangements.

There were the rituals of packing, going to the airport and final waves as they left us each time.  They weren’t able to visit us in the last decade or so — visas were refused due to their increasingly fragile health.  So we — my wife more often of course — went back to see them in Shanghai.

Her father now copes as best he can after his loss with the assistance of the extended family.  Although his health remains relatively good, he doesn’t smile much any more.

But he’s taken up occasionally singing and humming quietly to himself, whether to lift his spirits or as a way to commune with his wife, I don’t know.

As we packed up to return to Vancouver, as we rolled the luggage into the living room and I worriedly checked that I had my passport and our tickets, Dad looked up at me with a brief, clear smile.  There was acknowledgement of past moments together, of getting ready to go.  We are all just travellers here.

—————

Whenever I go away from home, I’m keen to take photographs.  I always hope that like Chesterton above, I will learn to see the places I know when I return with a little bit of that same exotic feeling and a refreshed eye.

Here are a few photos from our trip.  In Shanghai, there are many locals, such as taxi drivers we ran across, who resent Westerners always looking for the run-down parts of Shanghai to take photographs.  They feel insulted by foreigners who don’t have a proper and respectful attitude towards the modernity of present-day China.

But the older, and not always run-down, streets of Shanghai still embody what all the sterile modernity can never do, a sense of community.

More Shanghai photos will be seen on my photo blog, The Suspended Moment, as time goes by….

One short note about the photos: we came across a park where every day in mid-afternoon there would be community dancing.  The local gossip was that many affairs were initiated at these events….

Stepping Lively

Stepping Lively

Sidewalk Cobbler

Sidewalk Cobbler

Shanghai Santa Claus

Shanghai Santa Claus

Shanghai Alley Fancy Entrance

Shanghai Alley Fancy Entrance

New Mexico Pilgrimage

September 27, 2013

We’ve just returned from a trip to New Mexico.

As recounted elsewhere (Of Money, Marriage, Dogs and the Nahanni Valley), my parents first met while attending classes at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  This was not long after the Second World War, in 1947-48 or so.

My father probably arrived direct from Michigan, where our family on his side were mainly farmers, except in the case of my grandfather, who for a time was the owner of a furniture factory.  There’s still a hamlet in Michigan, Bristol Corners, named after those who lived and died there for a few generations.

Dad had returned home after savage fighting as a Marine in the Pacific against the Japanese.   Before the war, he had painted sensitive oils and hunted with a passion.  After the war, damaged in some ways, I think he returned seeking the most peaceful thing he knew, and tried to study art at the University of New Mexico.

My mother was there from her home in Illinois, the daughter of an executive who spent the war in Washington, D.C. as a “dollar a year” man, and of a housewife and church organist.  Political science was her major as befitted an opinionated and socially conscious young woman.

My parents met, and decided they wanted to raise a family rather than wait to complete any degrees.  They married and departed New Mexico, poor as winter, drifting first to San Francisco and then eventually to the Pacific Northwest.

But their photos from that time, and the few items of the southwest we had about us as I grew up — a colorful patterned cloth, a rough Navajo rug, the Hopi prints they gave my grandmother — always seemed to me to be of exotic and adventurous origin.

The few black and white photos especially, the stark shadows and brilliant light on adobe walls graced by noir characters in wide-brimmed hats, have always lurked in my memory.

So when casting about for a new place to have a vacation, the thought of New Mexico, and making it a kind of casual pilgrimage to where my parents once found themselves together, made sense to me.  Both my parents are long gone, my father in his forties and my mother in her early sixties.  The trip in part became a way to reconnect with who they were.

Flowers By the RoadI’ve briefly travelled in neighboring Arizona and did not much like it — too hot and desert desolate for me, at least where we crossed.  But New Mexico, as my wife and I started our journey in Albuquerque and eventually travelled to Santa Fe and Taos, seemed  to be an environment of more interest — nubby pines, occasional rock hills in subtle earthen hues with mountains in the distance, even some greenery and flowers from recent heavy rains and careful irrigation.  And the skies!  The big sparkling blue skies, often filled with the most amazing clouds.

We stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of Old Town in Albuquerque, and took a day to visit the University of New Mexico.   I wanted to see if the university could possibly have any record of my parents.

It’s a big, modern campus: young people scurrying to classes in bright sunshine with iPods and smartphones in hand.  We tried to find an administration building, and finally found an office where I was given a phone number and an email address for an assistant registrar.  In a campus Starbucks, I used my wife’s iPad to introduce myself, and hoped he could check the school’s records.  We didn’t hear anything back immediately, and we went on to explore Old Town for the rest of that day.

(If you ever get to Albuquerque’s Old Town and want a meal, be sure to go to the Church Street Cafe — the best southwestern food we found all trip.  Nothing too fancy or trendy, just tasty and reasonably priced.   Huevos rancheros!)

Eventually we ventured by rental car to Santa Fe for a couple of days, then on up to Taos and the pueblo there, and back to Santa Fe, and then Albuquerque for the flight home.   We enjoyed Santa Fe a lot — there’s a surfeit of art galleries everywhere and we even ventured to narrow Canyon Road and its end-to-end galleries. Santa Fe also has an opera house out of town in the desert.  One of our neighbours, an opera buff, recently attended there for a week of performances in August.   It’s not a huge structure but large enough, with open sides that let the audience take in the sunsets as they watch Madame Butterfly or whatever is being performed.  (I’m not an opera buff.)

And Santa Fe also has the Georgia O’Keefe museum.  Its paintings reflect her passion for the New Mexico landscape, which was a coming home for her to a place she had never seen before.

Taos too had its charms, primarily the pueblo which has had people living in it for roughly 1000 years.

Taos PuebloIn Santa Fe we heard by email from the university registrar.  Their electronic records only went back to 1950.  They would have to search hard copies by hand.  What were my parents’ birthdates?  1918 and 1927, I sent back, a little shocked since not really thinking about those dates for many years, how far back they are now surprised me.  I realized that had my father lived until today, he would be 95.

We’ve returned home now and not heard more from the university, although I hope some young assistant continues to burrow diligently through their dusty records.  But whatever they find, or if they don’t, is not so important.

When my father was in art school there, he seems to have been fascinated by Roman Catholic iconography.  He was not a religious man at all, he had no use for organized spirituality — although I remember he always emphasized that he was agnostic rather than an atheist.  But I recall, and my brothers may still have some samples, the stylized and detailed colored woodblock prints of St. Francis of Assisi and the small squared-off sculptures of St. Francis that he had done and kept for years where we lived.  This is interesting to me, given my father’s necessarily cruel and violent life during the war and his pre-war affinity for hunting juxtaposed against St. Francis’s storied love of man and animals.

I too consider organized religion pernicious, although I have Buddhist and Taoist sympathies, but I made it a point to stand next to the ornate doors of the small St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe and have my photo taken by my wife.  I’m sure my father and mother must have been there at some time.

I like to think my father stood where I stood, and looked out into the New Mexico sunshine.

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Notes:

Photos from top down —

1) Along the road, driving to Santa Fe.

2) The pueblo at Taos.

I will be posting photos from the trip from time to time on my photography blog, The Suspended Moment.