Jonathan Franzen Travels to Antarctica

Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) went on a three-week expedition to Antarctica and wrote about his experience in the latest issue of The New Yorker. I’ve always liked Franzen’s depictions of life, and this piece delivers:

I’d never before had the experience of beholding scenic beauty so dazzling that I couldn’t process it, couldn’t get it to register as something real. A trip that had seemed unreal to me beforehand had taken me to a place that likewise seemed unreal, albeit in a better way. Global warming may be endangering the continent’s western ice sheet, but Antarctica is still far from having melted. On either side of the Lemaire Channel were spiky black mountains, extremely tall but still not so tall as to be merely snow-covered; they were buried in wind-carved snowdrift, all the way to their peaks, with rock exposed only on the most vertical cliffs. Sheltered from wind, the water was glassy, and under a solidly gray sky it was absolutely black, pristinely black, like outer space. Amid the monochromes, the endless black and white and gray, was the jarring blue of glacial ice. No matter the shade of it—the bluish tinge of the growlers bobbing in our wake, the intensely deep blue of the arched and chambered floating ice castles, the Styrofoamish powder blue of calving glaciers—I couldn’t make my eyes believe that they were seeing a color from nature. Again and again, I nearly laughed in disbelief. Immanuel Kant had connected the sublime with terror, but as I experienced it in Antarctica, from the safe vantage of a ship with a glass-and-brass elevator and first-rate espresso, it was more like a mixture of beauty and absurdity.

This commemoration of Ernest Shackleton on the voyage seems excessive:

There wasn’t even a good field guide to Antarctic wildlife in the Orion’s library. Instead, there were dozens of books about South Polar explorers, notably Ernest Shackleton—a figure scarcely less fetishized onboard than the Lindblad experience itself. Sewed onto the left sleeve of my company-issued orange parka was a badge with Shackleton’s portrait, commemorating the centennial of his epic open-boat voyage from Elephant Island. We were given a book about Shackleton, PowerPoint lectures about Shackleton, special tours to Shackleton-related sites, a screening of a long film about a re-creation of Shackleton’s voyage, and a chance to hike three miles of the arduous trail that Shackleton had survived at the end of it. (Late in the trip, under the gaze of our videographer, we would all be herded to the grave of Shackleton, handed shot glasses of Irish whiskey, and invited to join in a toast to him.) The message seemed to be that we, on our Lindblad, were not un-Shackletonian ourselves. Failing to feel heroic on the Orion was a recipe for loneliness.

And this encounter with an Emperor Penguin:

I fetched Captain Graser, who took one look through the scope and let out a whoop. “Ja,ja,” he said, “emperor penguin! Emperor penguin! Just like I was hoping!”

I’d already made a quiet, alienated resolution not to take a single picture on the trip. And here was an image so indelible that no camera was needed to capture it: the emperor penguin appeared to be holding a press conference. While a cluster of Adélies came up from behind it, observing like support staff, the emperor faced the press corps in a posture of calm dignity. After a while, it gave its neck a leisurely stretch. Demonstrating its masterly balance and flexibility, and yet without seeming to show off, it scratched behind its ear with one foot while standing fully erect on the other. And then, as if to underline how comfortable it felt with us, it fell asleep.

The piece reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s epic essay on his first time experiencing a cruise.

Sarah Marquis, Modern Day Ultra Adventurer

The New York Times has an incredible profile of Sarah Marquis, an uber-adventurer who’s walked more than 10,000 miles, solo:

But then there’s Sarah Marquis, who perhaps should be seen as an explorer like Scott, born in the wrong age. She is 42 and Swiss, and has spent three of the past four years walking about 10,000 miles by herself, from Siberia through the Gobi Desert, China, Laos and Thailand, then taking a cargo boat to Brisbane, Australia, and walking across that continent. Along the way, like Scott, she has starved, she has frozen, she has (wo)man-hauled. She has pushed herself at great physical cost to places she wanted to love but ended up feeling, as Scott wrote of the South Pole in his journal: “Great God! This is an awful place.” Despite planning a ludicrous trip, and dying on it, Scott became beloved and, somewhat improbably, hugely respected. Marquis, meanwhile, can be confounding. “You tell people what you’re doing, and they say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Marquis told me. “It’s never: ‘Cool project, Sarah! Go for it.’ ” Perhaps this is because the territory Marquis explores is really internal — the nature of fear, the limits of stamina and self-reliance and the meaning of traveling in nature as a female human animal, alone.

I’ve read before about the human ability to become hyper-aware in severely stressed environments, but this is on another level:

Eventually, however, Marquis passed out of Mongol territory. The washing-machine cycle ended. Her body changed, and her mind changed, too. Her senses sharpened to the point that she could smell shampoo on a tourist’s hair from a mile away. “One day you walk 12 hours, and you don’t feel pain,” Marquis said. The past and present telescope down to an all-consuming now. “There is no before or after. The intellect doesn’t drive you anymore. It doesn’t exist anymore. You become what nature needs you to be: this wild thing.”

Worth clicking through for the read and the embedded videos.

The Three Week OKCupid Date Across Europe

Clara Bensen shares the story of how she met a guy on OKCupid and decided to go with him for a three week travel adventure across Europe. The catch? They would wear the same clothing during the entire trip and bring no luggage:

Our no-luggage journey began with the buzzing protest energy of Istanbul and from there it zigzagged wildly across the European continent. There were no plans. With no stuff, moving to the next destination was as simple as getting out of bed and pointing to a dot on the map. We jumped from city to city using almost every mode of transportation on earth: an old train along the Turkish coast, a giant ferry across the Aegean, a cramped bus through the Balkans, a series of hitches through Croatia, a flight to Edinburgh, and a pair of bikes in London. From baristas and dancers to investment bankers and Cambridge professors, we wandered the streets with guides who were as varied as the urban landscapes we were moving through.

Looks like they survived and bonded (though it’s not clear from the story whether Jeff and Clara are still dating):

We ended our journey after eight countries, 3,500 miles and 21 days in the same clothes. Our romantic relationship intact, Jeff and I boarded the Heathrow return flight as closer friends than ever (despite the questionable state of our undergarments). Materially speaking I was as empty-handed as the day we started, but I actually carried a great deal back home across the Atlantic. Traveling with no luggage and no plans was much more than a minimalist lesson in living well with less. It was an intense, in-your-face invitation to the unknown. There’s a truly magnificent side to the unknown, but we aren’t taught how to welcome it, let alone explore the breadth of its possibilities.

Did our luggage-less dance with uncertainty lead to some kind of travel nirvana? Yes and no. We careered through time and space at a fiendish pace and experienced all the blood, sweat and exhaustion that might be expected. At the same time, we were vividly present in the midst of a disorienting cloud of city grids, metro stops and incomprehensible dialects that shape-shifted with every border crossing. We were alive. And every so often the intensity was punctuated with time-crushing moments that were so staggeringly beautiful and strange that even now I’m not sure they occurred at all.

Still. A very cool story.

A Hotel Room With 140 Characters

I can’t decide whether this idea for a “140 Character Hotel” is genius (or ridiculous):

The first “Twitter experience hotel” (aka Sol Wave House) was introduced this summer in Majorca, Spain, where guests can ping requests to a “Twitter concierge” using hashtags like #fillmyfridge; flirt from poolside Bali beds by tweeting numbers printed atop the beds, like “How’s it going #balibed10?”; and sip cocktails while checking their smartphones for a live feed of virtual conversations bubbling up from every corner of the hotel.

Meliá Hotels International, which owns more than 350 properties, including Sol Wave House, is pioneering the concept amid the still rising popularity of smartphones and social networking. The Internet is in more pockets today than ever before. In July the International Data Corporation, a research group, said the worldwide smartphone market experienced 52.3 percent year-over-year growth. (In the United States, 56 percent of adults own a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project surveys.)

That sandbox includes a Twitter concierge that guests can instruct via tweet to “Get the Cava on ice” followed by “1 bottle, 4 glasses to the solarium,” as one visitor did last month. There are images of mustaches on mirrors in the rooms, encouraging guests to tweet goofy selfies. And on Friday afternoons at the height of the season, the concierge uses a pool party hashtag (#twitterpoolparty) to summon sun worshipers.

On second thought: the few times I’ve stayed in hotels and had a negative experience, tweeting something publicly was the fastest way to get an amicable resolution.

This is an actual line used in the Times article: “For the foreseeable future, though, the Twitter hotel is #heretostay.”

The Weirdest Game to Be Seen at Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan

The New York Times profiles the city of Astana, Kazakhstan. In the article, we learn about the national sport of the country called kokpar (which is equestrian in nature, but… played with a carcass of a headless goat). Also known as buzkashi:

Recently, on the outskirts of the city at a stadium slick with rain and mud, the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, an equestrian sport, was in full swing.

Mr. Nazarbayev’s capital seemed a world away. Kokpar, known as buzkashi in Afghanistan, is a tough version of that gentlemanly game, polo. Instead of playing from the back of a horse with wooden mallets and a ball, riders use their bare hands and lean to pick up a headless sheep or goat from the ground. They then race to the goal clutching the dead animal.

Instead of goal posts, large caldrons, a bit like inflatable backyard swimming pools, serve as goals. Riders score by heaving the dead animal over the rim of the goal.

Each team plays four riders on horses, and the scrum of horses and riders pushing, colliding and surging around the goal with whips cracking creates a rough and violent contact sport.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

“It’s a kind of cruel game playing with a dead sheep, but in our country it’s normal,” said Marat Baytugelov, a retired player, who was watching from the stands as the home team routed the players from Tajikistan. (In the old days, villagers would cluster on hilltops to get a better view.) “The most difficult thing is getting the goal. You have to have strong arms, strong stamina, and you must ride the horse well.”

The animal carcass, he added, cannot be just any weight. Heft is mandatory. It must weigh at least 30 kilograms, or 66 pounds.

The Central Asian tournament was organized as a prelude to Expo 2017, when Astana will be the host city. Kokpar is expected to be a star attraction, at least for the Central Asian crowd, and even for fans farther afield.

Wikipedia adds that Kazakhstan had a commission in the 1950s to set the rules of the sport:

  1. There are two teams with 10 participants in each
  2. Only 4 players a team are allowed to play on a field at a given time
  3. Teams are allowed to substitute players or their horses
  4. Game is played on a field of 200 meters long and 80 meters wide
  5. Two kazans – big goals with a diameter of 3.6 meters and 1.5 meter high are placed on opposite sides of a field
  6. A goal is scored each time a kokpar (goat carcass) is placed in an opponent’s kazan.
  7. A kokpar is brought to the field center after scoring a goal

You learn something new every day.

Hyder, Alaska: The Only U.S. City That’s Secretly Canadian

This is a bizarre story in Bloomberg on the small town of Hyder, Alaska which is, in secret, effectively Canadian. The town takes Canadian dollars in stores, gets electricity sourced from Canada, and even uses a Canadian area code:

• Hyder, population 87, is Alaska’s easternmost town, a tiny town surrounded by lofty, glacier-covered peaks at the corner of the Alaska Panhandle. The town boomed in the early 20th century when gold and silver were discovered nearby, but is now so small that residents bill it as “Alaska’s friendliest ghost town.” The ferry to Ketchikan, the nearest Alaskan city, stopped running more than a decade ago.

• What’s interesting about the residents of Hyder is that their only neighbors for miles and miles in any direction are the good people of Stewart, just ten minutes away—but across the border into British Columbia. Stewart, as if you didn’t know, is internationally famous as “Canada’s most northerly ice-free port!” (Remember, the vast majority of Canada is a frigid, uninhabitable wasteland of no interest to anyone, even Canadians.)

• As a result of its geographic isolation, Hyder functions as America’s only de facto outpost of Canada. All businesses (except the post office) price stuff in Canadian dollars, and take “Victoria Day” and “Boxing Day” off every year. Clocks are set to British Columbia time, the electricity comes from a B.C. utility, and the nearest police are Mounties. It’s the only place in Alaska not to use the state’s 907 area code—even Hyder’s phone numbers have joined in the open treason, and begin with a Canadian code, 250. Kids can be taught at home or bundled off to boarding school in Ketchikan, but many parents choose the dubious indoctrination of the Canadian public school system instead, especially up to the sixth grade.

There’s no way to prove that this is the only store in America that takes Canadian dollars, but is this the only city in America with a Canadian area code? If you know, sound off in the comments!

Traveling Around the World For Free with Google+

Twenty-eight year old Michael Lee Johnson, hailing from England, writes about his experience of traveling around the world relying only on one social network: Google+. The catch? He wanted to do it for free:

On July 26th (just over a month ago), I asked the question; Is it possible to travel across the world for FREE using nothing but +Google+  and a whole lot of hugs? 

Why? Because I wanted to show the world that #GooglePlusIsNotAGhostTown and why this platform is different than all of the others. I was just sick and tired of all those news articles and people saying that nobody uses this platform. That nobody is here. 

If nobody is here… Who am I? Who are you? And who the hell is nobody? 

It is now September 6th and so far I have been to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Harderwijk, Emsdetten, Munster, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Milan, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Athens, courtesy of Google+ users from one side of the world to the other. 

I have stayed at multiple peoples houses, in hotels and bed & breakfasts. Travelled across countries via cars, buses and trains. Met lots of awesome people, made new friends, visited multiple Google offices and had an absolutely AMAZING TIME in the process. I have experienced humanity for what it truly is. Thoughtful. Caring. Hospitable. Amazing. – That doesn’t mean I haven’t had problems… I have had plenty of problems, but overall, the experience has been life changing.

As an introvert, he claims that it’s hard for him to reach out to people and ask for help. So this is an experience:

So far I have spent about 10 euros on food and water in the past 5 weeks. I have eaten 3/4/5x per day. People have cooked for me. Taken me to restaurants. Bought me food on the street and taken me out for drinks. Introduced me to their friends and family, and made me feel at home. Showed me around their cities and gone out of their way. They have been there for me. They have trusted me in their homes. They have written all sorts of nice things about me. 

Google+ came through. The people. The place. My life has been turned upside down. As of writing this message my follower count is growing at nearly 1000 users per day. I am getting lots of lovely messages and a fair few horrible messages. (You can’t please everyone). – That’s life.

Pretty cool, if you ask me.