CHRIS ALLEN: London Journal — I Was THIS Close!

Brasenose College, one of the 35 colleges that make up Oxford University, has produced a few distinguished alumni — and probably more dubious ones. Among the more impressive are an archbishop of Canterbury, a prime minister of the United Kingdom and one of Australia, the alleged inventor of rugby, a couple of minor playwrights, some poets, a World War II codebreaker and one of the physicians to King George III, who lost the United States to the revolution.

Brasenose is a Harry Potter-like setting, all ancient stone buildings, heavily timbered ceilings in the dining hall, a soaring chapel with a massive pipe organ, a closely clipped fine grass central green and stolid academic reputation that dates to its beginning in 1509. The history oozes from its walls.

Students on our trip to London get to make a brief tour of the college (which it charges for in an effort to raise cash any way it can), and it’s impressive. At least the first 10 or 12 times, you walk along the preordained path. By the 15th time, a certain sense of sameness sets in and one finds one’s self standing at the door-within-a-gate entry into the college not really wanting to go through it again, even with one’s favorite guide leading the way.

So I didn’t. I watched my students walk into the stately grounds, and I hightailed it around the corner to a covered market that I knew of. Perhaps, I’d find a bit of jewelry to bring home, or a cute, tiny baby outfit for my granddaughter for her birthday. Maybe I’d sit down for a cup of coffee and a great pastry. Or maybe I’d just do some browsing and look at all on offer.

As I neared the market just the next block on, I noticed traffic cones set outside of the opening. As in Omaha, Neb., traffic cones are a common sight in Britain during the summer. But there were a couple of police cars, a very classy silver Jaguar and people milling about as well. There was also a flatbed tow truck whose driver was hooking a cable to the front of a an offending Kia or something like that sitting outside the market.


I walked around all this unchallenged and sauntered into the market. I was at the grocery end of things, so I took my time passing by the fruit and vegetable stands, the fish mongers and the butchers. One of the butchers boasts of owning the oldest ham in existence, a blackened hunk of meat shriveled to a hard slab that looks like an instrument used in some sort of fraternity initiation ritual. Yep, on display, with the whole story, in one of the chill cases.

I wandered back toward the clothing stalls, and I rounded a corner to find a mass of photographers and two videographers. Being a journalism teacher, I realized someone impressive was visiting the Oxford Covered Market. I strained to see who, but I couldn’t see through the somewhat shabbily dressed journalists and the impeccably dressed aides, all of them men, every one men, surrounding the dignitary. I figured it was a foreign ambassador, perhaps from Japan, the Congo, maybe Belarus, come to see the right way to do a covered market. Or perhaps a movie star like Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow or Meryl Streep looking for the proper gifts to take home after filming a few scenes nearby.

I visited a few other spots then came upon them all again as I returned to the front. Again I strained to see. Nope. I last saw the press amoeba moving past the cheese seller, and I almost stopped to  ask who the dignitary was, but the look on their faces warned me against that. Besides the mass was moving toward me and I didn’t want to be absorbed into it and swept away. One last time I tried to see who I was missing. Nada. Oh, there was one young woman in the group, though, and she was the one doing all the explaining to the mystery guests.

So I left the mob and glanced at the Jaguar as I did to see a tall, thin gentlemen dressed in the most splendid blue and red livery, gold tassels hanging from braided ropes looped about his shoulders, pointed hat perched perfectly atop his head. He should have been sitting on a golden carriage holding the reins of a team of horses. Instead, he was climbing into the right side (this “is” Britain) of the Jag only to grip the leather-wrapped steering wheel.

My students arrived at the the university bookstore about 10 minutes after I did, several blocks away from the market. They bought some souvenirs, and we all got back on the coaches to drive on to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of a William Shakespeare, to have a tour of that very spot (I went and had lunch — I’m familiar with that place buy now, too), thence on to Warwick Castle to conclude a full day’s adventure in sightseeing.

About five miles down the road, our guide, Norma, whom I’ve known now for 17 years, said, “Did you see all the traffic around the market?”

“Yes,” I answered, “I was there.”

“Really,” she said. “Did you see who was there?”

“No, I never got a good look.”

“Well one of the shopkeepers told me it was Prince Charles and Camilla.”

“No kidding,” I said. “Nope, I never got a good look. I saw all the press around them. Never saw them.”

I was that close, and I didn’t actually see them. I wish I’d tried harder, but I didn’t. I just wasn’t that interested in seeing the ambassador from Belarus. Damn.

But here’s the thing: I was dressed in casual slacks, a slightly rumpled UNO polo shirt, a red-and-black field jacket that’s been around the world but still holds its own and New Balance shoes.

The heir to the throne was in the covered market. There were a couple of officers outside. Nothing was blocked off. People were coming and going, as I was. There was no security checkpoint, people were carrying bags and purses, women and men were transacting business, all while the next King of England was looking at stinky cheese. No one panicked, no one overreacted, no one brandished any sort of firearm in defense of the prince. No one had to.

The English are so dignified.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Lure Of Angor Wat

When discussing with Jen what I wanted to do in Cambodia, I made it clear that my first priority was to be of service to the Young Adult in Global Mission program and to her in any way possible and that I had no reconceived expectations.

That said, I added, if it worked out, I would really love to see Angor Wat. Jen responded by telling me that the Cambodians she knew would be most upset if I visited their country and did not get a chance to tour Angor Wat, a place of majesty and beauty that is rightfully a source of great national pride.

We set off for Angor Wat, a 350-kilometer, 6½-hour ride by bus. The buses in Cambodia are of varying quality, but I have by in large been impressed by them, their frequency and efficiency. Because of timing, we took the cheaper ($6) bus there and were the only Westerners, returning on a fancier $15 bus with reclining seats and wifi that had more of the backpacking crowd. Both were great, however.

Angor Wat is located near Siem Reap, a lovely tourist mecca that has a great vibe. There are numerous upscale hotels but also a great market area and lower budget “hang-out” place in the neighborhood of Old Market. We had a great meal and then bargained our way through the market as I bought items to share with others upon my return. Jen is much better at bargaining than I, so I got a few great deals, I think. I am not made for bargaining.

Our hotel was incredible — for $20 a night we had a lovely room with a king bed and a double, breakfast, free transport to and from the airport or bus station, two 30-minute massages and free dinner one night. Oh, and the place had a pool.  With a fine meal for two including beer running about $8, Cambodia is definitely a good stop for a budget traveler.

We arranged with a tuk tuk driver to leave the next morning at 5 a.m. so we could head out to the ticket area to buy tickets — an incredibly organized affair where they process thousands of tickets with your photo on them in short order — and then out to Angor Wat.

Angor Wat is the name of the both the Archeological Park and what is often the first, and most well-known, stops within the park. A Wat is a seminary, or monastery, where priests gather and study. These temple-like structures were built by each ruler as a sign of their connection with God, with high stupas that reach toward the heavens, where the ruler’s cremated remains are placed after their death. Each Wat in the area we visited seemed to get larger with each ensuing ruler, with Angor Wat being the largest.

As we approached it, the iconic spires set against the rising sun gave off one of those views that is every bit as amazing as you would expect it to be. There were some clouds in the area that allowed for shades of pink and yellow that added to the glory.

People arrive at sunrise largely for two reasons. One is because with the sunrise behind it, Angor Wat is astounding at that hour, and the light hits the whole area in a magical way. The other is practical — it is HOT and the humidity is stifling so one wears down quickly with a heat index that goes over 100 degrees early in the day. It isn’t cool in the morning by a long shot, but it is slightly less oppressive.

After walking though the Wat once on our own, I opted to hire a guide because I find that you get insight you would not otherwise receive, and I preferred to have it told to me as opposed to looking up and down from a guide book. I am glad I did.

The guide we hired was helpful in giving us the history of Angor Wat and pointing out details that I would have otherwise missed. One of my favorite facts was that if a Wat was not complete before the ruler died, his successor might finish off the external structure — like finishing  a spire — but not the decorative pieces, like the astounding bas reliefs on the walls. Most of them were complete, but there were spots when you could see the stenciling that had been done prior to the carving that was never complete.

Built in the 12th century, Angor Wat is the largest religious temple in the world.  However, when the rulers of the Khmer Kingdom moved  the capital south to Phnom Penh, in part to get away from continuous wars with nearby Siam (Thailand) and in part to be better positioned for agriculture production and transportation on the Mekong River, the place fell into disrepair and faded into the jungle. It was never completely abandoned, unlike some of the other spots we visited on our tour, but it nonetheless bore the effects of time, weather and neglect.

It largely remained intact during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, although they used whatever wood remained. Even though Pol Pot sought to destroy anything connected with religion, Angor Wat was a symbol of the power and ingenuity of the Khmer people.

It was during the Vietnamese rule and the civil wars in the 1980s and early ’90s when smugglers came in and lopped the heads off of many of the Buddhas and statues of the gods because they are easier to carry. The temple was originally created to honor the Hindu god, Vishnu, but as Cambodia became a Buddhist nation, the temple became a  home to Buddhist monks.

The tour was fascinating, and the view from the top spire was astounding. Well worth the steps up to the top. The reliefs told stories of Hindu gods, and our guide helped us understand them more, which was definitely value added.

After our tour — we were there over three hours — we had breakfast. I was amused that the breakfast spots, which was a series of little restaurants linked together under a tent, had funky names. We ate at Harry Potter, Spiderman and Lady Gaga. Jen said it was the way the propieters got you to remember their names when they accosted you as you entered the park. “Come back and eat at Angelina Jolie. I give you a good deal.”

I did find the vendors particularly aggressive around this space, but that makes sense. It’s a place rife with tourists. They encourage you at every stop not to buy from children as it encourages them to sell and not be in school. That was good to see but didn’t affect a rather strong child marketing campaign.

From Angor Wat, our tuk tuk driver took us to a series of archeological sites throughout the park. We saw the main town (the Wat is always away from the town) and  several temples in various states of repair. They each had their own unique character. Most visits involved a lot of climbing on sometimes precarious stairs or steps but the view was always worth the risk. They each had their own

One of the temples had been painfully taken apart for restoration in the 1960s because overgrowth and erosion had sunk it into the earth. But before it could be restored, the Khmer Rouge took over and although they didn’t destroy the spot, they destroyed the plans and maps of how to put the rocks back together, so countless cleaned and numbered stones lay around, as no one knew how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Jen and I were well matched for our tour, since we both have active imaginations and a love for stores like “The Chronicles on Narnia,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” As a result, we really enjoyed the various entryways, catacomb-like spaces and portals and often kept looking for the magical ones that would take us back in time — perhaps a time before Trump first declared his candidacy — to warn people.

It was hot and exhausting, so we would at times have to sit down and catch our breath (OK, I had to. Jen is much younger.) On one such occasion, I sat down on a rock that I failed to see was covered in red ants. When they started biting, I leaped up.

Throwing modesty to the wind, I threw up my skirt to remove some from my torso as Jen removed them from my socks. For the next while, we kept intermittently stopping as I felt a bit, and we found another ant, and after that was done, more “ghost feelings” of bites and crawling of ants that weren’t there.

Our last stop was Ta Prohm, the site where the movie “Tomb Raider” was filmed.  It was my favorite stop, with overgrown trees that literally encompassed the ruins in their roots. It all felt very surreal. Except for being a bit bothered by a European family that spent over 10 minutes literally doing their own photo shoot at a spot where I wanted to take a photo (reminding me that tourists can be real jerks), it was a truly astounding and peaceful place for a last stop of the day, as I sought out spaces where it was quiet and I could be alone to soak up the majesty, mystery and magic of not just Ta Prohm but all of Angor Wat Archeological Park.

As I was leaving the temple near the end of my tour, I slipped on a wet stone and slowly fell to my knees — my legs weary from the nearly 12 miles we had walked in the past 11 hours — and it felt like an apt metaphor for this amazing, spiritual journey through Angkorean Temples. The place literally brought me to my knees.

RUSS HONS: Photo Gallery — Cabo San Lucas

Cabo San Lucas, a resort city on the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, is a popular destination for travelers during the winter months. Cabo is known for its beaches, water-based activities and nightlife. Photographer Russ Hons and his wife, Paulette, recently spent some time there. These are some of the sights they saw. (Check out more photos from Russ Hons here.)



XIAO ZHANG: Up The Mountain, Load By Load

So there they were, taking each step slowly and with great care. They usually put one hand on the iron chains that run along the steep path that goes up the mountain, while leaving the other hand on the carrying pole on their shoulder for balance. From a few steps behind, you could hear them breathe, heavily: One step they would inhale; the next, exhale.

The porters are an amazing sight on Mount Hua in western China. They climb the mountain with at least 110 pounds of goods on their backs every day, rain or shine. And on this snowy day in March 2011, I got to watch in awe how they trek some of the most dangerous trails I had ever seen.

Some 75 miles from China’s ancient capital Xi’An, Mount Hua is known as one of the Five Great Mountains in China and is famous for its Daoist traditions. It is also famous for having some of the most hazardous trails in China — steep, narrow and often exposed on bare rocks.

Sure, there are stairs running up the mountain, as in many of the country’s mountains, but some patches of the pathways go up almost vertically, and climbers have to hold on tight to the handrails or iron chains for their dear life and slant their feet to increase contact with the tiny and uneven stone stairs. One misstep, and the hiker could fall into the abyss.

The climb up Mount Hua is exhausting and risky for even day hikers carrying only a light backpack containing water and a few snacks. But porters have to balance more than 100 pounds of goods on their shoulders while making the same trip, day after day, sometimes in bad weather conditions, often with swarms of sightseers trying to pass them and hurry on to the next site.

On the day I went, the snow started in the early morning but got heavier as the day went by. Fresh snow on the mountain paths was especially sticky and slippery. Some of the more stunning sites were closed out of safety concerns; and by midafternoon the mixture on the ground had turned into a combination of snow, ice and slush.

It was under such dicey conditions when I caught up with a group of porters. Their yokes stretched across the path and on them were boxes of beer, cooking oil, instant noodles and whatever else needed by the hotels up the mountain. Every few minutes, they would shift the wooden pole from one shoulder to another.

There’s a silent rhythm among the group: they trekked slowly but steadily, as if they had measured with precision the time to spend on each step. But they hardly stopped to have a rest. I guess when you are carrying such a heavy load, it’s hard to get the momentum going once you stop.

But during the few breaks they did take, I learned a few things about them. A porter typically carries more than 50 kilograms of goods (about 110 pounds), and gets paid Rmb0.8 for each kilogram he moves up the mountain. Most of them make just one trip up the mountain each day, which gets them a little more than Rmb40 (around $6), about half the price a tourist pays to ride the cable up to the north peak, or probably just enough to buy a couple of beers served by the shops on the mountain. If they work every day, their monthly wage would be about Rmb1,200 to Rmb1,500, much less than the national average for migrant workers in 2011 (around Rmb2,000). And the porters don’t get paid extra in bad weather conditions. (All the numbers mentioned were from 2011.)

None of the porters I ran into was young — the younger generation tends to be better educated than their fathers, allowing them to get better-paying jobs; and unlike their fathers, they have no appetite for such grueling work.

One man going up the mountain by himself looked older than the groups of porters I saw (probably in his late 50s) and walked at a much slower pace. He was carrying 50 kilograms of cement up for some pathway being built — to make the mountain more accessible to tourists like me, I suppose — and got a slightly better rate of Rmb1 per kilogram, i.e., he would make Rmb50 or $7-plus for the day. But he started his day at 5 a.m. and hadn’t even reached his destination by the time I ran into him at around noon.

The man was from the neighboring Sichuan province and told me that he had hardly taken a day off in the 10-plus years that he had been doing this. “Yesterday, the snow was even worse than today,” he said. “And a lot of people (porters) took the day off. But I carried 75 kilograms of cement up the mountain.”

He said he has a wife and a child back home in Sichuan and that he misses them very much.

Walking behind these porters, I slowly acquired their rhythm. Not too fast, I told myself constantly. And going slowly allowed me to always feel a certain level of energy hidden inside me, ready to be drawn upon at all times.

I was more than annoyed when tourists passed the porters without care — sometimes a hiker’s shoulder touched the load a porter was carrying, breaking his balance. To do this on a steep, narrow mountain trail was not only careless but also disrespectful for others’ lives.

Most of the time, though, the porters were left alone to walk. Their steps were slow, measured and solid. But once in a while, they paused to regain balance on a particularly slippery patch.

And each time a porter faltered to find his balance, I felt as if my heart quivered. I was afraid they might fall backward onto me, knocking me off the trail and into the abyss. But even if they just accidentally broke a bottle of beer or crushed some instant noodles they were carrying, it would create no small hardship for them.

Xiao Zhang initially wrote this story in March 2011 following her trip to Xi’An, Shaanxi Province in western China; she revised it this week for 

RUSS HONS: Photo Gallery — Duluth Canal Park

Grand Forks photographer Russ Hons recently spent a weekend in Duluth, and among the sights he took in was Canal Park, a tourist and recreation-oriented district of the northeastern Minnesota city. Situated across the Interstate 35  freeway from the downtown,  it is connected by the famous Aerial Lift Bridge to the Park Point sandbar and neighborhood. Canal Park originally was an old warehouse district that has been transformed into restaurants, shops, cafes and hotels. The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, now connected to the new AMSOIL Arena, is also located in the district. Other attractions include a 4.2-mile long lakewalk, a lighthouse pier, the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, the Great Lakes Aquarium and the William A. Irvin floating ship museum.

JEFF OLSON: Photo Gallery — Biltmore Estate And Gardens

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Alexandria, Va., photographer Jeff Olson recently had the opportunity to visit one of the top tourist attractions in Ashville, N.C., the Biltmore Estate. Biltmore House, the main house on the estate, is a Chateauesque-styled mansion built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately owned house in the United States, at 178,926 square feet of floor space (135,280 square feet of living area). The grounds, which includes a densely filled lane with natural and uncultivated looking foliage and shrubbery to provide a relaxing journey for guests, was designed Frederick Law Olmsted, who is popularly considered to be the father of American landscape architecture. (Olmsted was famous for co-designing many public parks, including New York City’s Central Park.) The grounds also include 75 acres of formal gardens — including an Italian formal garden, a walled garden, a shrub and rose garden — directly surrounding the house, fountains and a conservatory with individual rooms for palms and orchids. Biltmore Estate is still owned by one of Vanderbilt’s descendants.

JOE GREENWOOD: 20,000 Leagues Into The Sky — A Drive Through Pembina Gorge

A wintry February drive through the Pembina Gorge in northeastern North Dakota entertains this midday respite, listening to French-Canadian radio via Manitoba airwaves. Le touriste, indeed!

Damien Robitaille – Le Touriste du Temps

Le touriste du temps
S’promène sur le calendrier
Hier, vers le futur
Demain, vers le passé
S’il passe par mon époque, qu’il vienne frapper à ma porte
Qu’on jase de ma jeunesse
Et de ma destinée.

Je veux faire mes éloges
Au hors-la-loi de l’horloge.
Il bondit d’ère en ère
Sans peur du décalage horaire
Visionnaire nostalgique
Sans sens chronologique.
Ta présence manque au présent
Repose-toi un instant…

Le touriste du temps
Se promène sur le calendrier
Hier, vers le futur
Demain, vers le passé
S’il passe par mon époque, j’espère qu’il frappe à ma porte
Qu’on jase de ma jeunesse
Et de ma destinée.

J’expédie un message
À lui qui évite son âge
Tu dois avoir un choc
Quand tu rock around les époques?
Oublie pas ta famille
Tes amis, aujourd’hui…
Ta présence manque au présent…
Le bon vieux temps courant!

Arrête de fuir
Ces années ont tant à t’offrir
Reviens nous voir
Dans notre coin de l’histoire.


Le touriste du temps
Le touriste du temps
Le touriste, le touriste, le touriste du temps…


Ta présence manque au présent…

Translated to English by Google:

The tourist of time
A walk on the calendar
Yesterday to the Future
Tomorrow, to the Past
If it goes through my day, he comes knocking on my door
That chatters of my youth
And my destiny.

I want to do my praise
The off-the-law of the clock.
He jumped era Era
Without fear of jet lag
Nostalgic vision
Without chronological sense.
Your presence in this lack
Rest a moment …

The tourist time
Walks on the calendar
Yesterday to the Future
Tomorrow, to the Past
If it goes through my day, I hope it strikes at my door
That chatters of my youth
And my destiny.

I am sending a message
To him avoiding his age
You must be a shock
When you rock around the times?
Forget not your family
Friends, today …
Your presence in this lack …
The good old current time!

Stop leak
These years have so much to offer you
Come see us
In our part of the story.


The tourist time
The tourist time
The tourist, tourists, tourists of time …


Your presence in this lack ..

“I am sending a message, to him avoiding his age, you must be a shock when you rock around the times?
Forget not your family, friends, today … Your presence here lacks … the good old current time!”

Well, I’ve only been gone a few minutes. Okay, I will be returning soon!

Also playing in the video is “La Que Me Gusta” by Los Amigos Invisibles.