Category Archives: Travel

Kings of Bavaria

Americans like me probably know Bavaria best as the “B” in BMW. Its biggest single tourist attraction is a legacy from an arguably-crazy nineteenth-century king.

The border between Germany and Austria is where the rolling hills and forests of the German state of Bavaria run into the northern edge of the Alps. A big tourist destination here is a set of castles built in the 1800s by the then-King of Bavaria, Ludwig II. The most famous castle (the big grey one above) is Schloss Neuschwanstein – built in the 1800s in a medieval style more befitting the 1200s. It is supposedly the model for the “Sleeping Beauty” castle that’s the centerpiece of Disneyland.

Legend has it that Ludwig was crazy. His eccentricity surely reinforced that idea. Besides castle-building, he was apparently obsessed with the 18th Century French monarchy and meticulously modeled himself and some of his palaces after that — notwithstanding the conspicuously unhappy ending the French monarchy had just faced. He also had a weird obsession with the famous German opera composer, Richard Wagner.  Some of his letters suggested that he was building these castles in hopes that Wagner would come to visit and stay with him there. Some of the rooms were modeled after scenes from Wagner operas.

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Ludwig spent so much on his crazy castles he essentially bankrupted himself and lost power. He was dethroned based on his alleged insanity at age 41, and “mysteriously” found dead in a lake a few days later.

Ludwig lived in an era when Europe’s centuries of rule by monarchs were about to come to end no matter what he did. He had no heirs except his genuinely crazy brother Otto, so he spent everything he had on castles.  Building the castles has given him a legacy much more famous than any sensible king would have had.  To this day, millions of people come to southern Bavaria from all over the world to see those crazy castles – and to talk about the nutty King who was foolish enough to build them.  I think “crazy” King Ludwig got the last laugh.

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My friend (formerly one of my Gibbs & Bruns law partners) Jeff Kubin met me in Zurich and joined me on a few days of my European adventure — mostly through the German, Austrian, Italian and Swiss Alps. Ludwig’s Bavaria was our first, touristy stop before heading south and west.  That’s Jeff K in a picture below. I loaned him a camera and subjected him to photography lessons. The other shots below are his. Not bad!

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A Longish London Layover

With just a day and a half of jet-lagged layover in London on the way to points further east, I don’t have many stories to tell.  It was my first visit to England, so I mostly hit the most touristy of spots, timing my outdoor excursions between episodes of drizzly rain.

 

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Despite the supposedly-shared language, London can seem just as foreign at times as any other major European City.  Unlike the rest of the world, when the Brits speak English, they didn’t learn it from American television and music, so their accents are often harder to understand than the English you’ll hear in much more exotic-sounding destinations.  A few times I would have sworn I was in a Monty Python sketch.  My favorite amusement:  My hotel room had a set of bathroom scales, which clearly displayed my weight as about 10.5 stone.

 

 

 

 You probably recognize Big Ben — it’s the clocktower at the House of Parliament.  My hotel was very close to it — thus all the pictures.  The place (just above) with the flowers, all the British flags, and of course the Beaver-hatted guards is Buckingham Palace.  The high-up views are from the Tower Bridge and from St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The big Ferris Wheel is called the London eye.  The church you see pictured from the outside is Westminster Abbey.  The statuesque fellow riding horseback wielding a sword is Richard the Lionhearted.  I didn’t know the happy Asian couple strolling around the Tower Bridge in their wedding wear.

 

Yellowstone: 35 Years Later

A quick trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons with my Uncle Tommy and Aunt Barb

 

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It was my uncle Tommy McCreight who first put a real camera in my hands — back in the 1970s.  And by bringing me along on their family car trips to places like Yellowstone, it was Tommy and my aunt Barb who taught me to travel.  As someone who now spends fully half his time traveling the earth with cameras in his hands, it’s fair to say those two made a big impact.

Every August, Barb would load up their green Ford van with her own kids (Dede and Dana), my sister and me, some of her inlaws and usually another kid or two.  This fact should figure prominently in Barb’s application for sainthood.  Tommy would load an arsenal of cameras, and we’d all hit the highways.   Tommy took pride in the astounding distances we could cover, so the days started early.  I don’t think we ever had an advance reservation at a hotel or motel; we never knew where we’d wind up, but as often as not, it was Yellowstone.  Tommy says he’s been there 23 times.

My cousin Dede emailed me a week ago, inviting me to join them (Tommy, Barb, Dede, Dana, Dana’s three kids, and Dannon’s boyfriend, Garrett Ford) on their first trip to Yellowstone in at least a decade.  I hadn’t been since about 1978!  I’ll surely never be able to repay Tommy and Barb for the patience and generosity it took to invite my sister and me along back when we were kids, so instead I just got to tag along with them one more time, 35 years later.

We had a great time.  It had been a long time since I had the chance to spend more than a couple of hours at a time with Tommy, Barb and my McCreight girl-cousins.  Dede and Dana are now Dr. Dede (physician) and Dr. Dana (dentist).  We laughed about all the things that had changed in the last 35 years — and laughed even more about all the things that hadn’t really changed a bit.

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I generally lack the both the know-how and the heavy-duty equipment for serious wildlife photography, but the McCreights are huge wildlife lovers, so I had to give it a try.  Results were mixed:  for some reason my pictures of relatively docile grazing animals are conspicuously better than my more-distant shots of flesh-eating predator species.  The coyote you see was eating a baby elk – nature at its goriest.  The curly-horned animals are bighorn sheep – not to be confused with Rocky Mountain goats.  We spotted that Moose out the window of a restaurant at lunch.   The waterfall you see in multiple shots is Lower Falls.  The steamiest pictures are at the Grand Prismatic Spring, which is an amazing sight that was almost entirely hidden by foggy steam on the cool day we were there.

Photo credit for the shot with me in it goes to my cousin and long-time fellow photographer, Dana (McCreight) Ellis.  I must have been standing uphill from Tommy and Barb because I’m not as tall as it looks there.  Dana was mostly successful in her scheme to avoid being photographed herself.  That’s Dede in the orange coat.  Creighton is in stripes.  Dannon and Taegen are the twins:  Dannon is in the tan coat, usually standing next to Garrett (who is often in camouflage). 

Cuba 2013, Part 3: A Return to Havana

This is the last of my posts from a May 2013 trip to Cuba.  The first was here.  The ten posts (with tons more pictures) from my 2012 trip started here, and ended here.  Most of what you see below are just typical sights on the streets of Havana.  They are not odd, atypical spots.  The rooftop shots are Parc Central,  but regular street scenes you see are what virtually all the streets look like.

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After my 2012 trip to Cuba, I had separate posts highlighting the classic cars that roam the streets, the glamorous Tropicana, Cuban “patriotism” and education, a rooftop ritual, Cuban athletics and just everyday life in Havana.   Returning to Havana just a year later, I necessarily saw many of the same sights, as the pictures above reflect.

The most important “new” feature of the trip this time was the opportunity to see some of it through the eyes of a Cuban-American woman– “Didi” — whose family was very involved in the turmoil of the Revolutionary period, and who was visiting Cuba for the first time.

Didi’s parents left Cuba in the early 1970s – escaping first to Spain and then to the United States.  She had an uncle who was a political prisoner of Castro for more than a decade – apparently because he worked for a telephone company.  Her father faced a regime firing squad but was somehow spared at the last minute and sent back to work.  A close family member escaped to Florida on a raft.  An aunt was evacuated by the American CIA and the Catholic Church in the “Peter Pan” project – where parents gave up their children and sent them to the U.S. because they believed (rightly or wrongly) the kids would otherwise be forcibly interned by the Cuban Revolutionary government.  The family friend who was to have been the organist at her parents’ wedding was shot – apparently by government forces — on the church steps a day before the ceremony.

Americans who think all Revolutions are hip and who flippantly don “Che” Guevara T-shirts ought to spend a few minutes with a family like that.

Didi had never been to Cuba, and was on a personal mission to visit her family’s old apartment, her parents’ church, and her father’s school.  Mostly she wanted to see the country that her parents lived in and left – the world that she’d have grown up in had her family not been brave and determined enough to find a way out.  We saw in Havana the three-room concrete-floor apartment where she would likely have grown up.  We saw the kids in the street and the people on the balconies — living the life she most likely would have had to live.  She cried a lot; I tried not to cry along.  I know it was a profound experience for her, because it was deeply moving even for an Oklahoma boy who had no stake or connection to Cuba (except for his new friend Didi).

Didi is now a 30-something pediatric ICU physician, married to a pediatric oncologist.  Her brother is a successful lawyer in a Washington DC firm.  If she’d lived in Cuba, she would have grown up going to a school where she had to stand up every day and pledge allegiance to the Communist regime.  And she’d probably be making about $25 a month, working in whichever government job the regime instructed her to work.

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The first shot just above is Didi’s family’s apartment; my ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger than it really was.  The second shot is during the May Day parade (about which I did a prior post).  I was not yet aware of her family’s history when I yelled “come with me” and led her into the midst of a few thousand Cuban military — I can only imagine how crazy that must have felt.  The dark shot at the Tropicana has Didi on the right, with our mutual friend Patricia, who — like me — was privileged to share some of Didi’s quest, on the left.  The other shots are just a couple of strangers she met and embraced (literally) along the way.

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A year ago, I wrote a post about the American embargo against Cuba.  The embargo (“El Bloqueo”) continues to be an enormous focus of attention.  My thoughts a year later are, hopefully, clearer and deeper, but ultimately the same:  You can legitimately debate the embargo’s ongoing rationale and effectiveness, but its roots and goals are noble.  More critically, it is not to blame for Cuba’s pitiful situation.  It is not America’s fault that a chaotically organized socialist economy that is based on governmental control and oppression operates very poorly and impoverishes its people.  Policy change is definitely needed – but it will have to start in Havana.

Cuba 2013 Part 2: Viñales

I don’t smoke.  Won’t smoke.  And even the smell of cigar smoke makes me nauseous.*  But when a very, very nice Cuban farmer in the middle of a field pulls tobacco leaves from his pocket, rolls you a cigar on his pants leg as a welcome gesture and lights it up for you with matches he pulls out of his hat, you should bite your lip a little, accept it graciously, and try not to hurl.

 

This was my second trip to Vinales – a small town west of Havana in the tobacco-growing region of Cuba.  This time I wandered the outskirts of the small town with a new friend, Didi, a member of my photo group who is Cuban-American (more on her story later).  As we wander down a tiny lane and started taking some pictures of the fields and mountains, we see a farmer coming toward us, planting melangas (potato-like root vegetables common in Cuba) one by one.

His clothes are tattered and caked in dirt (an occupational hazard for one hand-planting root vegetables).  His hands were so covered with mud he offers only a fist when I try to shake hands.  My pitiful Spanish-speaking skill let me engage in some superficial “Olas” and “mucho gustos” and very basic introductions.  Didi, on the other hand, is a fluent native Spanish speaker who engages — deeply and sincerely — with everyone we run across.  This farmer (“Marcello”) was no exception; he seemed to love her, despite the generation gap between them.  We take lots of pictures, of course.

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After a few minutes, he pulls from his pocket something I soon recognize as a wad of tobacco leaves, and starts to tear and organize them.  He looks up at me a couple of times during this process, and I realize he is rolling ME a cigar.  Yikes.  The fact that his hands were too dirty to shake my hand does not deter him from using those same hands to make something I’m supposed to put in my mouth.  He’s using his mud-caked pants leg as a rolling table; a neighbor walks up and offers his relatively-clean pants leg, but Marcello declines the assistance.  Sure enough, he finishes up and presents it to me.  My hope that I could graciously accept it and carry it off unlit was dashed immediately:  Marcello produced a box of matches (stored on top of his head inside his straw hat) and struck the first match as he instructed me to bite the end off the cigar.

I thought of Bill Clinton – trying to do what’s expected without actually inhaling.  This was only modestly successful.  It won’t really stay lit without actual puffing, so Marcello takes it and puts it in his mouth and puffs it to a gentle smolder.  Then he gives it back.  I keep faking it.  Thankfully, the cheap, dry tobacco leaves he had (probably scavenged from the edge of a neighbor’s field) were of such poor quality they’re practically odorless and tasteless.  I may as well be smoking elm leaves.  It just smelled like a campfire – smoky and unpleasant, but not nauseating – and tasted like nothing.

We thank him; he hugs Didi; he hugs Didi again.  He goes back to work and we head on down the lane.  I let the cigar go out and then stuck it in my camera bag after we left Marcello.  Then I forgot about it.  So I actually (accidentally!) carried one illegal Cuban cigar (such as it was) through U.S. customs (without declaring it).  Oops.

 

As we continued wandering through the Vinales countryside, we got multiple invitations to come inside the modest homes along the dirt roads and paths.  We were offered seats, food, coffee, and (most importantly) directions back to town.  One thatch-roofed wooden hut was oozing smoke; inside we found three ladies roasting coffee in a small pan over an indoor fire.  The women said they took turns inside the hut because it was so miserable.  It wasn’t clear to me why this had to be done indoors.  It looked like a lot of trouble for a few cups of coffee.

 

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*Honestly, I’d rather smell a fart than cigar smoke.  At least farts are usually unintentional, so they’re obnoxious only on the olfactory level.  Curiously, Cigar smokers seem to think they look very sophisticated with a six-inch-long cylinder in their mouth.  Be warned that if you’re blowing cigar smoke anywhere near me, I’ll be doing all I can to send a retaliatory “fart in your general direction.”