Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ring of Kerry

We're in Ireland for quite some time--a whole month! with a car!--but for the first two weeks we've got shows most nights, so there's a limit to how far we can travel before the chain of performance yanks us back.

Last Sunday, however, we had a full day off, and we used that time for an epic drive from Cork to the famous Ring of Kerry.

We were warned in advance that it would be crazy touristy. That if we wanted "authentic" Ireland we should head to the Dingle or Beara peninsulas. But seeing as how visitors have been swearing by the Ring of Kerry for hundreds of years now (really! it was a hot spot even in Victorian times, though I suspect there were less plastic-shamrocks-made-in-China available for purchase), and armed with Rick Steves' invaluable guidebook and a detailed road atlas, we set our alarms for 7 AM.

(This is the cue for those of you who know us to gasp.)

And off we went!

Although we got a later start than we'd intended. Probably because we'd stayed up until 3 AM. So we weren't actually on the road until 10:45 AM.

(This is the cue for those of you who know us to laugh.)

But goodness! It was beautiful even before we'd gotten anywhere near the Ring.

And driving on the wrong side of the road really isn't so hard. Especially with a patient navigator by your side.

City folks that we are, we were delighted by the many sheep and cows and horses along the way. These ones were loose by the side of the road, so we pulled over to get closer...

They were interested until we pulled out our camera. Then they huffily walked away. Tourists, they bleated.

But listen! Our late start proved to be a blessing. All those huge tour buses roust their elderly inhabitants out of bed at the crack of dawn in order to beat the traffic, so by the time we were sailing around, we had many of the roads to ourselves. And with the midsummer sun (it doesn't get dark until around 11 pm), there was no shortage of sunshine to light our path.

This is a ring fortress built around 500 BC that we had pretty much to ourselves. Well, us and the sheep and the horses and cows.

It's hard to capture in photographs how beautiful the peninsula is.

It's in the way the water meets the rocky shore, and in the variety of textures and colors that make up the rolling patchwork of the countryside.

As my husband said at one scenic overlook, "I need an 180-degree lens."

Everywhere you look you can see the obvious footprints of the glaciers that moved through here and grooved the land.

And the beaches are exquisite. Soft sand beneath your toes, but big hard rocks with cockles and mussels and shallow pools with interesting marine life to explore.

By dinner time, we'd worked up a hearty appetite and ordered dinner at this pub in Portmagee.

Seated at a picnic table alongside the small harbor, we ate big bowls of chowder and a hot seafood sampler and washed it down with a few pints of Harp.

It was delicious.

And I have to say, it didn't feel very "touristy." Everyone else appeared to be locals. And if there are a few more places along the Ring to buy postcards then there are in other parts of Ireland, well, I certainly didn't mind it. Especially since those same places have WCs and tend to sell ice cream.

The only thing that would have made our trip better is if we could have spent the night there and driven back the next day. But a morning technical rehearsal beckoned, so we popped our Chieftans CD back in and continued on our way.

Tourists, said the sheep. Why not Springsteen?

Cause and Effect

My father's wife, Kathy, sent me this enviable picture of her first-class voyage to England.

To quote Kathy, it was "the most amazing trip ever. The seats reclined totally flat and every position in between."

Now, here's a picture of them enjoying the lovely midsummer weather a day or so later.

Look how rested and happy they look!

Clearly, this is scientific proof that my next long voyage needs to be first class...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Big Buddha on Lantau Island

Go to Big Buddha, they said.

Ok, we said.

We took the metro for a 25-minute ride, then got onto this cable car for another 25 minutes.

The view was stunning. In every direction.

Down below we could see the conical hats of fishermen and fisherwomen working on the shore. Were they clamming? Were they crabbing? It was a hot and humid day, and we fanned ourselves as we glided over their toil.

Eventually the Buddha came into view. Can you see it?

There he was, residing over one of the many verdant hills of Lantau Island. The low clouds looked like incense.

To get to the Buddha, you must first pass through a commercial "village" that is packed with gelato shops and restaurants and gift shops and Starbucks.

There is even an interactive ride/show where you can pay to get closer to the Buddha.

It gets worse. There is a fake tree called the Bodhi Wishing Tree, and you can write down a wish and place it there. Which sounds ok, until you read that to get the tag you must spend HK$150 at the gift shop.

I would love to know what the monks at the Po Lin Monastery think of all this.

But once you get past the commercial strip, you arrive at the base of the Buddha, and as yet there are no air-conditioned escalators to whisk you to the top.

It's not such a long walk after all, and at the top there's a cool breeze to reward you for your efforts.

Everyone wants to get their picture taken with the Buddha.

Wouldn't you?

Afterwards we went to the Po Lin Monastery, where the monks are very used to the presence of outsiders.

They served a basic vegetarian meal that happened to include one of my all-time favorite dishes: baby bok choi and mushrooms.

They also served up some wisdom.

After the meal we sat in the courtyard, listening to their chanting and watching the many birds and enormous black butterflies flit around.

Filled up on peace, it was time to head back.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Can You Name the Third Largest City in China?

Shenzhen, China, population 14 million, is one of the largest cities you've probably never heard of. But the electronic goods you are no doubt surrounded by--and perhaps are using to read this very post--most likely were created and assembled here. Motorola, Sony, Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia . . . the list goes on and on.

It's amazing that so few of us westerners have been here or even heard of it, especially considering it's next door to the much-visited Hong Kong. In fact, you can literally take the subway right up to the border, hop off and walk through border control, then hop on the other city's subway on the other side.

But aside from business folk, you don't see too many people doing that. And the portal between the two cities can feel like a passage to another world.

It's a city of the young. As soon as kids are old enough to leave their village, the brightest and most ambitious, most entrepreneurial, flock here to try and make a new life for themselves.

As one person told me, "Shenzhen is where you go to become whoever it is you want to be."

It's part of a Special Economic Zone established by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, as part of the larger "Reform and Opening" initiative. Really, it's capitalism meets communism, and that makes for a wicked, fascinating, hopeful, and often heartbreaking combination.

It's a tale of two cities.

The interior, where we stayed, is bright and modern, with an ultra-sleek subway system, networks of high-end malls, and Starbucks, KFCs, 7-11s and McDonalds spreading everywhere ("like germs," said one local resident).

High-rises are going up--and old ones coming down--everywhere you turn. And in Shenzhen, "old" means more than five years. Consider that in 1979, this place was little more than a fishing village. 30 years and 14 million people later, it feels like everything and everyone was made just yesterday. That's probably because they were. At 32, I'm not just older than this city, I'm also older than most of the people who live here and run this place.

In between all those high-rises it's still China. Fortune tellers dot the sidewalk beside the metro. Old grandmas pull wooden carts loaded with rice and drinking water. Babies wear split britches rather than diapers and are held over bushes when they need to pee. Police officers are everywhere, usually on bikes with flashing red and blue lights.

When Mike and I walk along the side streets, we are the only white faces, even here in the city center. Folks are not shy about staring. One group of school boys called out "hello," and when we said "hello" back they collapsed into giggles.

To live or work in inner Shenzhen, you need special papers. There is a wall that separates inner Shenzhen from outer Shenzhen, which is where all the factories are, and there are a series of checkpoints that locals tell us are becoming less and less strictly enforced. Whenever we drove through them we saw police officers with big machine guns, but were never stopped or saw others being stopped.

Once you pass through to the other side, the construction of roads and building escalates to an unimaginable frenzy. It feels like it's going so fast, there might even be workers five feet ahead of you laying the very cement you'll be driving on.

It also gets considerably less clean.

But everyone is working very, very, very hard to build a better life for themselves.

This obviously bootlegged book was being sold in a stall outside one of the many Wal-Marts in Shenzhen.

And if they can't achieve it in their lifetime, then there is always the hope that maybe it will be different for their children.

Once you go here and meet the people, who are warm and friendly and full of hope, you not only begin to share in that dream--you start to realize the true depth of interconnectivity and responsibility we in the west have to help make those dreams come true.