Category Archives: travel

Taking It All Off in the Caribbean

A couple of years ago, we were headed for a New Year’s party on St. Barth’s, an affair for which we had had to make reservations in April. As we got closer to the date, it turned out that I was in California and my family in Italy, and we’d be flying from opposite directions to meet in the Caribbean. We had a couple of extra days, right at Christmas, and decided to spend them on Sint Maarten, the next island over, where we had previously had a very pleasant vacation.

When you’re trying to reserve a hotel at the last minute in high season, you take pretty much what you can get. But when my travel agent quoted $500 a night, I winced.

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Early Tourist in Nepal

We visited Nepal in 1969 or ’70, when I was about seven years old. The country had only recently been opened to tourism, after a Russian named Boris Lisanevich persuaded the then king that this would be a good source of income for his impoverished country. Boris himself ran the first hotel, called the Palace because it had formerly been one (later, and until his death a few years ago, he ran the famous Yak and Yeti). We were the only guests there in January, so Boris invited us up to his private apartment to celebrate Russian Christmas.

Boris’ apartment was large, with white-uniformed servants everywhere. He had a huge silver artificial Christmas tree loaded with glass ornaments. He also had a snow leopard cub, orphaned by hunters. The cub was small, only about knee-high to me, but well equipped with teeth and claws. It seemed to fear the Nepali servants, perhaps because they reminded it of the hunters who had killed its mother. Because I wasn’t Nepali, or perhaps because I was also small, and generally got along well with cats, it liked me. I spent an ecstatic evening petting and hugging it; it was and probably still is the most beautiful thing I’d ever touched.

The cub only intermittently stayed calmly in my arms, however. At intervals it would go berserk and attack the silver Christmas tree. It would rush up the tree’s skinny metal trunk, so high that the tree would begin to bend under its weight. Then it would knock one of the glass ornaments to the floor, leap down, and eat it. A few minutes later it would vomit up a mess of thin broken glass.

Other memories of Nepal include my first experience of cold weather, and warming up by drinking sweet, milky tea, with arrowroot biscuits dipped in. (Tea seemed to me a very grown-up thing to drink.) And of course I saw Everest – from a distance. I was carsick on the drive up, vomiting out the window all over the side of the black Ambassador car, so I didn’t care very much by the time we got to there. In any case, we could only see a peak like all the others, so far off that it looked disappointingly smaller than many closer peaks.

Years later, in Mussoorie, I met Sir Edmund Hillary, then New Zealand’s Ambassador to India. He had come to see Everest House, a ruin a few kilometers out of town. The house had previously had a different name, but was renamed in honor of George Everest, because he had been living there when he finished the triangulations and calculations to determine that Chomolungma was the world’s highest peak – presumably he then modestly christened it with his own name.

Mar 24, 2004

I later learned that I had unjustly accused George Everest. John Keay’s The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India was Mapped and Everest was Named, explains that the British government named the mountain Everest to honor George Everest’s achievement in completing the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. The data from this survey made it possible to identify the mountain as the world’s highest, but it also made many other things possible – and I highly recommend the book.

(Note: I don’t remember when this post was originally published on my old website – given the additional note at the end, it was clearly before 2004. I’m arbitrarily selecting today’s date in 2002, because it’s definitely one of my earliest posts. If there are any surviving photos of this trip, I don’t have them. Definitely none of the snow leopard, sadly.)

Reflections on Brand and Homogeneity

My daughter’s school year ended in mid-June (with three intense weeks of tests, quizzes, and papers), and we left Milan almost immediately for a trip up the middle of the United States.

We started in Texas, where I have relatives, and pleasant memories from my days at the University of Texas (Austin). I love that part of the country. It’s not stunningly gorgeous, but has a quiet beauty that I find very peaceful. And, our current president notwithstanding, I like the people.

From Austin we flew to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a dear friend of mine lives, then rented a car and drove to Lawrence, Kansas (high school friend) and then to Decorah, Iowa to visit my mother. We flew out of Minneapolis, staying with another high school friend and his family there on the way out.

I didn’t expect the drive to be particularly scenic, nor was it. What struck me was the sameness not only of the scenery (corn, corn, and more corn), but also of the signs. Everywhere you go it’s the same Wal-Mart, Dairy Queen, McDonald’s, etc.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler in Future Shock predicted that Americans would be increasingly mobile, moving from town to town in pursuit of jobs. One effect of this would be the “plug-in” society, where homes, shopping areas, and even social lives are designed for maximum sameness across the country, so that people could make these moves with minimum psychological impact.

Toffler was right: Americans move far more than anyone else in the world, and much of the country has achieved a dreary and disturbing sameness. I can understand the attraction of brands: you always know exactly what you’re getting, even if it’s not very good. McDonalds’ the world over have roughly the same menus, prices, and levels of cleanliness; there are no surprises. I guess that’s why even in Italy, a country famous for its food, McDonald’s is popular with tourists. Many people prefer a certainty of mediocrity to the risk that something might be worse (or better, or merely different!) than they expected.

So America is indeed a plug-in society, where you can travel or even move from one town to another, and never notice a difference. The same chain stores and restaurants will be present, with the same layouts, products, and menus; you never have to learn anything new, it is all comfortingly the same as what you just left.

I experienced this most strongly some years ago, during a whirlwind trip around various parts of the US. At some point I found myself in a shopping mall, thinking: “Here I am in front of a Banana Republic store in a mall. And I have no idea what city I’m in.” I had to stop and think about it for some very long seconds before I remembered where in the world I was.

Coupland, Texas – At Home in the Country

Ross can make friends with anything equine, including Rosie & Bill’s semi-wild donkeys.


Even Bubba, the herd boss, fell to her blandishments.


Maisie was a tougher nut to crack. Here they’re pretending to ignore each other.