Monday, March 23, 2009

36 Views of Mount Fuji

What I love about Hokusai’s series of woodcuts titled '36 Views of Mount Fuji’ is that there are actually 46 of them. The master loved the series so much that even after the 36, he kept making more of them.

Professor Cathy Davidson has titled her book after those woodcuts. The book is a series of vignettes about her 4 different trips to Japan, the first one in 1980, staying and teaching English to young women in a Japan university.

If you travel to enough places, you will surely end up in places that don’t live up to their reputations. For some people, Paris won’t quite be Paris. When it comes to countries like Japan that are a bit more inscrutable for passing outsiders, a book like 36 Views of Mount Fuji almost beats going to Japan. In many ways, reading this book is better than even a week spent visiting Japan, though neither should be missed.

In my current thinking, I am beginning to believe that an author’s vulnerability adds considerably to the quality of a book. Our stereotypes of successful university professors are of people who have everything under control at all times. However, personal tragedies occur while she and her husband are spending a year teaching in Japan, and she writes about those experiences candidly.

After being floored by the affection and sympathy she and her husband were shown after a family death, she begins to wonder what happened to the ‘rules’ that govern everything in Japan. She writes, “Rules are very important to us,” Professor Sano says, smiling. “But sometimes foreigners don’t understand that we have rules for how to break the rules too.”

Cathy Davidson’s keen observations and vast background knowledge means that we vicariously participate in rituals, college classroom discussions, communal baths and temple visits. As readers we share her enjoyment when she gets included and feel her disappointment when she gets shut out because to an extent, she will always be a stranger.

This graceful and rich book, full of emotional empathy and apparent contradictions gives us an access to the people of Japan that we simply wouldn’t have even if we spent days staying at a hotel in Tokyo or Kyoto and wandering about the sights.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Border Crossing at Prezemysl

My heart sank when I saw the crowd of nearly 200 people, mostly old women, waiting patiently to cross the land border into Ukraine. It was already nearing sunset, and it would take us hours to get across.

We had arrived at the Polish town of Prezemysl by train from Krakow, and had been hoping to reach the tourist-friendly town of Lvov, by nightfall, after clearing immigration into Ukraine.

Just as we reached the end of the long line, we noticed a border patrol official at the very front waving us over, asking to step forward. To our surprise, the whole sea of babushkas parted for us obediently, and like Moses we walked ahead.

We had been promoted right to the head of the queue, and none of the others seemed to mind. Once we were inside the small building for exiting Poland, we were handed paperwork to fill out.

Looking out the window, I started to understand what was happening. On our way here from the railway station, we had seen several of these babushkas selling one or two bottles of vodka to young men in jumpsuits who were buying them up in large numbers. I even saw one babushka reach inside her dress and pull out two bottles from somewhere near her waist. She collected some money and turned back.

Every lady we saw was holding one carton of cigarettes. I had read that things were a lot more expensive in Poland compared to Ukraine. Vodka and cigarettes especially had big price differences.

And so, all day long, these ladies were crossing and re-crossing the border, to bring and sell vodka and cigarettes to eager buyers on the Poland-side. The transaction only took a few seconds, and then they went back to standing in line for the slow trip back. Since we were genuine tourists, we had been allowed to preempt these regulars, without having to endure the wait.

This constant flow of people moving goods because of the price difference reminded me of how the yachts crossed the locks at Lockport or Sault Ste. Marie. Due to the water level difference, all the water wanted to rush in one direction, and the locks served as gates to let the crossings happen in an orderly manner.

In the land between the two countries, there were two parallel corridors, separated by barbed wire fences. One corridor (ours) was for people heading to Ukraine, and the other one was for people heading the other way, to Poland. I saw one lady on the Ukrainian side of the fence, trying to toss a big box over the fence to another lady who was on our side.

I stood and watched. It was a shrink-wrapped box of cigarettes, smaller than a carry-on sized suitcase. I counted 20 cartons of cigarettes. 20 per pack x 20 packs per cartons x 20 cartons in one box = 8000 cigarettes. Boxes like these were entering Poland one at a time. (Lung cancer in a box, anyone?)

Rather than crossing two buildings in each direction for one round trip (leave Ukraine, enter Poland, sell, leave Poland, enter Ukraine), these resourceful ladies had figured out a way to meet here, exchange goods and head back the way each had come.

The level of commerce here was unlike any we had seen in other borders in Europe or Asia. I was tempted to linger, watch and learn more, but it was getting late. My wife had walked ahead.

After a few more minutes of paperwork at the Ukrainian side, we had entered Ukraine. Our destination for the night, Lvov, was still 2-3 hours away, and so we hurried on to catch the yellow bus that was waiting.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Look in your Kimnata, Sir

The bathrooms were all located in the corridor, outside the rooms in Hotel George, a reasonably posh hotel in Lvov, Ukraine. For some reason, they only had sinks inside the rooms. I walked into our bathroom and very fortunately happened to check for toilet paper. There wasn't any to be found. I was very surprised that for all the money that we were paying (rates quoted in Euros and comparable to mid-range US hotels) they hadn't even provided toilet paper.

So I decided to go looking for the hotel janitor's closet where they might be storing extra rolls. I tentatively opened a few unmarked doors in our floor. It was past 11pm but somehow a floor attendant spotted me trying the handle of an unmarked door and rushed over angrily. I didn't understand a word of what he was saying (in Ukrainian) but it was clear from his tone that he didn't want me snooping around. There was no way I could explain to him, so I took him back to the bathroom and pointed to the empty toilet roll holder.

"Kimnata, kimnata" he said, pointing back. I figured he wanted me to go downstairs to the reception desk and ask for toilet paper. I walked back to our room, dejected at the prospect of having to face the receptionist again.

And just as I entered our room, I saw the two neatly wrapped rolls of toilet paper they’d kept for us. Later, in our guidebook I read that Kimnata meant Room in Ukrainian.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Getting a room in Lvov, Ukraine

One day last July, we crossed the land border from Poland into Ukraine. We then boarded a bus to the town of Lvov, knowing that we’d be spending the night there.

We don’t usually book accommodations ahead. The guidebook had good things to say about Hotel George and so that’s where we went. It was a huge hotel that must have been the place to stay during the Soviet years. It was ornate and gilded, with high ceilings, but everything looked worn. The hotel was very quiet and we didn’t see other tourists.

We liked it but the rate quoted to us was quite high – it was higher than what we would pay for a hotel room in Chicago. Since this was Ukraine and things weren't supposed to be that expensive, we told the receptionist that we'd think about it and would come back if we decided to take it.

The receptionist didn't like this at all, and managed to convey it in the brusque manner in which she took back the room key.

It was past 10pm but we were not very tired. We had spent most of the afternoon sitting in a train and then in a bus, so we decided to go check a couple of other hotel options nearby.

But none of the other hotels were comparable to Hotel George, so we were back in 30 minutes to face the receptionist.

"Go there and wait. I have to check if any room is still available. " she said, pointing to a sofa by the side.

There was no way that all the rooms were taken. We could even see that there were dozens of keys still hanging in the rack behind her.

For over ten minutes the receptionist ignored us and went about her work. I am always a little amused by what I think of as the 'pettiness of those in small pockets of power.’ When they do get a chance to flex their muscles, they will do so, to feel important.

She wasn't checking if the room was available, she just wanted to teach us a lesson, to punish us for not taking the room right away.

"Give your passports," she said suddenly. In a few minutes we got the room, the exact same room she'd shown us earlier.