It’s that time of year, when only the locals are out, doing what they do best. Shot with point & shoot, unfortunately. But sand is the worst thing ever to happen to a SLR.
Maybe this is what happened with Guka and me (reference to a previous post). On several occasions, I said more than she was comfortable with, and we lost respect for each other because of it. I know I disappointed her when I didn’t like Almaty. When I kept one foot in Bukhara during my visit. I tried, but Almaty is a very Soviet city (Russians call it Alma-Ata) infused with new oil money. It is what it is. It certainly wasn’t her.
But what happened with Guka is not the point. For years, I’ve wanted to explain something that happened there, when we went hiking in the mountains outside Almaty with a group of her friends. I’m not sure how many creative people feel this way, but I have so many photos sitting waiting to be edited and seen, so many stories unwritten, that I feel in some way I can’t move on creatively until they are tended. It makes me apprehensive. Apprehensive about jumping into more, though of course I have. Though in that, too, something feels unresolved, unworked through, unseen. Something I’ve wanted to process has been ignored.
And so, in February of 2009, I began to go through 100s of old CDs full of digital photos. I love to clean, organize, and get rid of things (you don’t? Call me). I organized them down to a few DVDs, then decided to send off all my negs and chromes to India to be scanned. This I documented closely, as it was an endeavor. (It’s archived in the scancafe category.) When I got them back, I started archiving and tagging them in Lightrooom. It was amazing, cathartic, and tedious as hell. I also started uploading selects to Flickr, so they can be viewed.
Why? To make them conscious. So I know what’s there. Some of those images are printed. Most of them sit in archival boxes. Many are not, particularly the chromes. They are all but impossible to look at. So, I had them scanned. Why scan 7,000 old photos? So I know what’s there. And so others can see them if they desire. So they don’t sit in boxes in the back of my mind, like stories untold.
So finally, two and a half years later, I am uploading the 2004 selects to flickr. I will shut up, sit down, and finally write the story about that day at Chimbulak. Even though in words, it seems like nothing.
Chimbulak is a ski resort outside Almaty in the Tien Shan Mountains. We went there in the August for a hike and some fresh air. There were eight of us. It was an easy hike, but we were all at different levels, and two were kids. About half way to the top, at the base of the ski lift, the Soviet-built, terrifyingly-rickety ski lift, there was a resort where we stopped for lunch and some liquid courage (vodka). It was typical Russian fare. I enjoyed myself. We laughed and had fun.
After the lift was a short climb. It wasn’t difficult, but we’d had plenty of vodka and were soon tired, but we pushed on. As we neared the top, we did something I’ve never seen in my years of hiking. Something Americans would never do. We linked hands. It wasn’t unusual to them in the least. We held hands and helped each other up the rest of the mountain. To the stubbornly independent American, it seemed not only strange, but not that helpful.
But it was. Even if you were toward the top of the chain, doing most of the work, the linking woke us up and brought us together. The last bit of the hike though the clouds was easy, coming together as one.
As we did this, my thoughts went, “What are you doing? That’s silly. This will impede everyone. What the hell? Keep your mouth shut. You are a guest here. Wait. Wait. How strange. This is nice. I’m being pulled, gently. I’m gently pulling. We are helping each other, and we are lighter, and faster, and efficient.”
It was not the way I was used to, but it worked. Magically. And with that realization, it hit me just how different Kazakh, and Central Asian, culture is. Yes, of course I knew it, understood it conceptually. But before this, I didn’t feel it or understand it on a cellular level. I didn’t feel it to be true. I just knew it intellectually.
And perhaps this seems simple, or obvious, or like nothing, but after fifteen years of foreign travel, I finally truly understood how some cultures rely on each other much more intrinsically than we do in the U.S. We frown up on it here, to the point that so many people are alienated and alone, with no idea how to truly connect to another person. We are afraid it means we are needy or weak, or will be trapped in some sort of needy abyss (ours or another’s). But it doesn’t mean any of this.
At the top, we sprawled out in the grass for a rest.
To see all the photos from the day at Chimbulak, go to flickr.
We don’t really go that far into other people, even when we think we do. We hardly ever go in and bring them out. We just stand at the jaws of the cave, and strike a match, and quickly ask if anybody’s there. ~Martin Amis
This installment gets into favorite treks, neighborhoods, and a few sites. I’ll add photos tonight, as (surprise!) I’m having troubles accessing them through scancafe. (The box of images and DVDs was returned today. I’ll see them tonight!)
♥ Coney Island to Brighton Beach. This walk is one of my favorites. I drag friends out here and show them Coney (pictured above), then take them down the boardwalk to Little Odessa, where Russians (and other ex-Soviets) have made their home. In the winter, the old ladies sit on benches in their furs and kvetch about their children. In the summer, everyone frolics in the sea, while Russo-Brooklyn’s finest drink beers in the boardwalk cafés, e.g. Tatiana, and stare. Then it’s to some bookstores and shops on Brighton Beach Avenue, and lunch or dinner at Gina’s Cafe or Cafe Glechik. Neither have great food, but Gina’s has that post-Soviet wanna-be-hip cafe ambiance that will make a traveler nostalgic, and Glechik is typical heavy Russian fare. It’s BYO, so grab $2 Baltika beers in the Pakistani Deli next door. The neighborhood feels more like the ex-Soviet Union than Russia does, because the immigrants have hung on to what feels like home, for better or worse. If you’re seeking the Russian gangster experience, head for one of the restaurant nightclubs, like Odessa or National (pictured below). The dancing, costumes, and shows are totally over the top. Это здорово. Bring lots of cash. Far too many born and bred New Yorkers have not had this experience. What a shame.
♥ Astoria. In 1999-2000, I lived on 33rd Ave, near 29th St and Broadway in Astoria. I loved it there. Astoria is known for its Greek community, but also has lots of Eastern Europeans (especially Bosnians) and Egyptians, which makes for a lively stroll through the neighborhood. There are great Greek cafes and lots of good Thai, Egyptian, and Colombian places. A favorite is Uncle George’s, on Broadway, a grungy Greek taverna open 24/7. No coffee is served. Neither is breakfast. Just the regular, greasy, lamb-laden menu all around the clock. (Touristy? How many “fodor’s-lugging tourists” trek out to Queens?) They serve extremely garlicky fare, with cheap carafes of house wine. The food is certainly not refined, but the experience is very Astoria, and good fun. Another favorite Euro-Astoria experience: Zlata Praha, for Slovak and Czech food and décor.
♥ On at least one occasion I walked from Astoria to Jackson Heights, to get a feel for Queens. I also adore Jackson Heights, though I recommend taking the train over walking. Some Indian friends refuse to go because it’s “dirty,” but I love the trip out to eat, shop, and enjoy. The main strip is full of South Asian restaurants, sari boutiques, jewelry stores (gold, lots of gold), music shops, and sweet stalls. There’s a huge grocery store, Patel Brothers, with great bargains on rice, spices, tiger biscuits, you name it. My favorite restaurant closed, so try your luck where you may.
♥ Staten Island Ferry to Little Sri Lanka. This is a more recent favorite. The Staten Island Ferry is delightful. I take visitors on it at least four times a year. It was always a bit of a drag in Staten Island, because the turnaround often meant an annoying wait in a nasty room, but the terminals have been refurbished on both sides, making the journey more pleasant. And I’ve found San Rasa, a Sri Lankan restaurant that’s a 10-minute walk from the Ferry. There’s a Sri Lankan neighborhood with more groceries and restaurants a further 10-minute walk up Victory Street (around Cebra St). That makes for a long return, so I usually stick with San Rasa. If you want to try Sri Lankan food, which well-prepared is amazing, without the trek, Sigiri in the East Village is worth a visit. Both are B.Y.O.
♥ Fort Tryon Park/Cloisters. If you want a break from the city but can’t make it out of town, take the A train up to Fort Tryon Park. The gardens have faded over the last few years, but the views of the Hudson River and the Palisades are stunning, and the air feels cleaner here than further downtown. The Cloisters (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) are a quiet, gorgeous escape from the bustle of Manhattan. There are plenty of cafes around for lunch—New Leaf in the park, and a few on 187th Street. Or grab some sandwiches at Frank’s Market and have a picnic in the park.
Okay, long enough. The third and last part of “I <3 NY” will mention the obligatory NY cultural faves as well as our biggest draw, NY moments.