Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Back Home In Colorado, The Design Of The Aspen Art Museum, Summer 2015

It is always a bit disorienting to return home after a long trip.
It has taken us more than a week to get over the jet-lag and adjust to the new time zone, the dry mountain air and the high altitude.

The return of my daily nagging worries and petty obsessions is not something that I like to pick up again after traveling, but it happens.
Suddenly I am worried about my weight, about the Greek economy that affects our investments, about all the catastrophes that happen all around the world, away from these quiet vast mountains that I call home.

On the positive side, it is summer in the mountains and the sky is impossibly blue.
The Aspen Music Festival is about to start, and Jules has already booked for us some lovely classical concerts. 

We took out the outdoor furniture that we bought last summer, and placed them on our deck.
Despite logic, it feels so careless to put such nice new outdoor living sofas outdoors, where the chipmunks and lizards, the ants and the cicadas, the deer and the soaring Eagles, can shit or run on it.
After all, since ours is not a covered deck, the furniture just sits out in the open air.

On the other hand, I never felt this way when we had an outdoor wooden dining table and chairs on that deck.
The wood can be hosed down, but these nice sofas and sectional sitting areas seem so lavish to be placed outdoors....

I will have to get over it, because for the first time in years, I have actually been lounging outdoors under the shade of the umbrella and enjoying our surrounding mountains.

During the wintertime, we usually head to Vail to ski, and we ski either in Vail or in Beaver Creek, but in the summertime, we usually head towards Aspen.
We shop for groceries in Basalt, a small town right before Aspen where there is a newly opened Whole Foods supermarket, and we also visit the farmers' market in Glenwood Springs, where we buy fresh produce from the growers.

This week we had a lovely, healthy lunch at the Pyramid Bistro in Aspen and visited 
The new Aspen Art Museum.

For an artist, visiting the art museum was very nourishing.
At times, I look at my art and feel that I have so much room to grow.... So much to express.... So much to say.... Yet the world seems to be interested in other things.... People seem to be struggling just to make a living.... To build a basic life devoid of sickness, boredom, and to find love or some meaning....
It feels too much to ask to try and sell them art....

But I am aware that there are always many sides to my perception, and many ways to look at what I am feeling.
Feelings are often misleading.

Yes, some people suffer, lack and struggle, but others prosper, celebrate, rejoice, enjoy, appreciate and collect art. 

Luckily, this week, despite my jet lag and disorientation, I sold two paintings and spent a few days packing the art carefully and shipping it.
It feels so nice when people appreciate and buy your art... When people choose to buy art and see the value in living with it....  

The collector even told me that when she surprised her husband with the boxed painting, he thought that the box looked too narrow to be a "Tali Landsman," and that it must be some kind of "dumb sporting gear," since they are avid outdoors people.  When he saw the painting, he told her that it was the best gift she had ever given him!

While I was feeling lavish and wasteful sitting on our new outdoor sofas that cost us $4300, I read an article in Forbes Magazine about people who had traveled to Myanmar, Bhutan and Africa on a private jet with top luxury hotels and a private chef onboard.
24 activity-packed days cost them $77,000 per person.... AND they hardly had any time to see all the wonders we just saw.
In the same magazine, a home espresso machine was featured that sells for $7000.

I consoled myself with the fact that our outdoor sofas will last for years and give us many fun days of enjoyment, grilling Paellas outdoors or roasting Moroccan Tajines...

Anyway....The Aspen Art Museum is a delight.
It was designed by the Japanese Architect Shigeru Ban, who designs modern buildings with disposable materials.  

Ban started designing with cardboard rolls when he was helping to restore areas that   suffered from natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding.
In third world countries like Haiti, the people took down the buildings that were built for them, to sell them as construction materials, so Ban used cardboard, which has no value in the secondary market.  

The Aspen Art Museum looks airy and dynamic, spacious and almost floating.
The museum is filled with intelligent, knowledgeable  artistic staff, not with security guards.
The staff comes to you and starts conversing about art and design or architecture.
They are instructed to engage the visitors and converse; what a delight! 

Here is what the Denver Post wrote about the museum:

"Only in Aspen! — surrounded by hills and mountains of money — would the good citizens come together to raise $72 million for a museum with no collection.

Not that the  Aspen Art Museum isn't worth the attention. 
Its roster of rotating exhibitions, sometimes difficult, routinely ground-breaking, make it a national leader in contemporary art.

And not that its new, $45 million building, opening with a 24-hour celebration Aug. 9, isn't a prized possession. 

The place is a modern wonder, a  mind-bending box, covered top to bottom in a screen of wood strips woven together like a basket, and designed by Shigeru Ban, the top architect in the world right now.

Still, it takes a civic sensibility specific to this mountain town — flashy, spendy, grateful and generous — to pull off an effort this size. 

Consider: The entire museum was funded by private donations, with 27 local moguls and lucky trustfunders writing checks for $1 million or more each.

That will leave the AAM (Aspen Art Museum) with a tidy endowment of about $27 million to help cover operations for decades to come.

"There's not a single tax dollar, not a single dollar of public money," said  Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, the powerhouse director who spent eight years leading the charge for the new museum, battling opponents who thought the building might be too large and out-of character for a town that remains cozy on its surface....

.....There are a variety of cardboard tubes at the AAM, some the size of packing tape rolls, and others wrapping paper rolls. 
They are fashioned into benches and line a stairway ceiling. 
Overall though, the interior is mostly free of extreme ornamentation. 

It's not for traditionalists — and Aspenites will be watching to see how much shade the building casts on the downtown in the winter when all sunlight is precious — but it likely will please the art aficionados who paid for it. 

They are a varied but intent group, with significant representation on the annual "Top 200" international collectors list published by the prestigious "Art in America" magazine.

"Of the 200, 22 have homes here in Aspen, and they know the value of art" said board member Nancy Magoon. 
She and her husband, Bob, gave more than $2 million, and she was a key fundraiser for the effort overall.

Many of Aspen's wealthier residents live in the town part-time with permanent homes, and philanthropic demands, in places like Dallas or Los Angeles where they reside the rest of the year. 

"This is everybody's second museum," Magoon said. "But I wasn't turned down by a single one of them."

To read more of the article visit: http://www.denverpost.com/entertainment/ci_26269483/new-aspen-art-museum-big-money-meets-big

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon, Myanmar - Trip Notes 

From Heho airport near Inle lake, we flew on KBZ Airlines to Yangon.

Yangon used to be called Rangoon during the British occupation, and "Dagon" before that.  Yangon means "A peaceful place," or a place with no more wars.

We stayed for five days in the historic Strand Hotel, housed in one of the many old colonial buildings that still stand in this city.
It is a classic luxury boutique hotel, with a butler service on each of its two floors that delivered tea and cookies, fruit and English newspapers to our room at any time of day, and at no extra charge.

The waterfront of downtown Yangon is occupied by ugly customs warehouses and shipping buildings, and the waters of the Yangon River are not even visible through the dense and busy port.

There are many beautiful buildings from the colonial era that are still standing.  
Some have been renovated, but most are in various stages of disintegration.

The cost of renovating the block-long colonial buildings is enormous, and developers would rather invest their money in new construction in the greener, cleaner and nicer suburbs, than take on a hundred million U.S. Dollar renovation of one of these massive old buildings in the grimy downtown.

The downtown is crowded, and the old sewer system is antiquated and very inadequate.
The sewers and gutters run in open channels right below concrete pavers that serve as sidewalks.

The concrete pavers are not fastened down, because they need to be removed often to clear up the blocked sewer, and you can see huge rats run in and out of the sewer, darting between food vendors, looking for opportunities to grab some food.

We heard that Yangon is being rapidly built up with drug money, invested by drug lords who are looking for ways to launder and invest their money.

The city might be in the process of rejuvenation, but it is still very much in transition.
There is a large middle class that lives in nice houses, shops in air conditioned malls and dines in pleasant modern restaurants that serve pricy cocktails and sushi, but there are also slums in the middle of the city everywhere, where people live in dirty conditions with muddy lanes and exposed sewers that run by their makeshift houses.

The streets of Yangon are also one big marketplace that goes on day and night.
Vendors cram the narrow sidewalks, nearly blocking the entrances to the shops, who also spill their merchandise out onto the streets.  
What space is not taken up by the vendors' stalls is occupied by electricity generators that stand in front of every building, to provide back-up power to counter frequent outages.  
There is very little room left for pedestrians.

The street vendors sell food, shoes, belts, bags, sunglasses, clothing, lottery tickets, betel nut chews, photos of Buddhist teachers and monks, and books that were photocopied from the originals and are bound together right there on the streets. 

Yangon has a more diverse ethnic population and variety of religions which we did not see in other parts of the country.
There are a few Hindu temples and a few Chinese temples in Chinatown, many Muslim Mosques and even one Jewish Synagogue.

The Buddhist pagodas are very impressive.

We visited the Sule' Pagoda, which is located right in the middle of town at a very busy traffic roundabout.

The Botataung Pagoda is a famous pagoda with relics found in a sealed cave located in downtown Yangon, on the waterfront, near the Yangon river.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is the country's pride, and it is heavily gilded with gold leaf.
Some of the Burmese rulers have increased the height of the pagoda, and some royals, politicians and celebrities have donated their weight in gold to decorate the pagoda.

I joked with Jules that if he were the king, I could almost see him looking after every bite of food I put in my mouth, and saying with a disheartened voice:
"Really dear, must you eat so much? Can't you try to lose fifteen pounds, this is going to cost me a FORTUNE...."

The Shwedagon Pagoda complex has many halls and smaller pagodas, and it houses a hair and a tooth relic of the Buddha.
There are corners in the pagoda dedicated to each day of the week, and devotees pour water on top of the Buddha that is situated on the corner where their birth day occurred.

My birth was on a Sunday, and Jules was born on a Thursday.
Like all the locals, we poured cups of water on those Sunday and Thursday Buddhas.

Shwedagon has a very impressive collection of Burmese architecture, religious designs and amazing carvings and craftsmanship. 

At the Bogyoke Market, we browsed the many fabrics that come from all over Myanmar to be sold in this busy bazaar.
There are not many tourists visiting the bazar, but it is completely packed with locals.

Beside fabrics, the Bazar sell mostly gold jewelry, and in a culture where people do not trust the banking system, gold jewelry is a common investment.

At the market I found some fabrics that I liked and the friendly seller promised to make me two dresses in two and a half days.
The price for each dress including the fabric, was $18.
I asked for simple summer dresses that are very easy to make and that are not constraining, but feel almost like wearing a T-shirt.

A visit to the produce market in the city left us not wanting to eat anything at all in Yangon!  Everything - the shrimp, the fish, the chicken, the meat, the fruit, the vegetables and all the sweets - was covered with huge green flies.

We were not tempted to try anything from any of the street food stalls either, because everything was either covered with flies or with diesel fumes and smoke, plus we could see the rats running fearlessly everywhere....

The busy streets of Chinatown become a night food market every evening, and the streets become crowded with food vendors and diners.
We squeezed onto the tiny walking path left on the sidewalks between vendors frying food and sellers of Mangosteen, giant Durian and mango fruit.

We enjoyed breakfasts in our hotel, which is where I tried the local Mohinga noodles in a cleaner environment.
Mohinga noodles are made with rice noodles in a aromatic fish curry soup with lemongrass, ginger and herbs, and it is served with a patty of fried chickpeas, a boiled egg, fried shallots and crushed peanuts.
It was very good, but most mornings we just had fresh fruit juices, a plate of fresh fruit, and a slice of toasted farmer's bread with watermelon jam.

There are numerous newly opened restaurants around the city that offer good food in a pleasant environment.
The prices at those restaurants are marked in U.S. Dollars and the food is as pricy as you will find in Europe and the USA. 

The choice of better dining does exist all over the city, including some upscale French garden restaurants around Inlay lake in the northern suburbs of the city, but with the late afternoon and evening monsoon rains already upon us, we stayed in the vicinity of the downtown, and dined very well.

At "Gekko," a modern Japanese restaurant on Merchant Street, we had fresh juices and good Yakitori vegetables grilled on a Robbata grill. 

At the "Rangoon Tea House," an elegantly renovated informal restaurant on Pansodan Street that serves good Burmese and Indian food, we had fresh smoothies with pea Parathas and an eggplant and cauliflower curry.

At the "Union Bar and Grill," on Strand Street, we had thin crust veg pizza and good fresh green salads, as well as lime sodas with fresh celery juice, which tasted very refreshing.

I am not sad to say goodbye to Yangon. 
If I had to do it over again, I would have spent less time in this city and instead visited the southern beaches, or I would have gone to Bago, to see some of the beautiful treasures found in that region.

Our journey through Myanmar is over.
We start a long schedule of flights to go home to Colorado.
Unfortunately...because we booked those flights separately, in each port we have to clear customs and immigration and move on to the next flight...

From Yangon we fly to Bangkok.
From Bangkok we fly to Sydney, Australia and then on to Auckland, NZ.
From Auckland we fly to San Francisco, and then on to Denver.
We will stay a night or two in Denver and shop for groceries, before heading back into my beloved Rocky Mountains where the air is thin and clean and our home awaits us....

Monday, June 8, 2015

Inle Lake, Myanmar


Inle Lake, Myanmar- Trip Notes

Nestled in the Shan Mountains, Inle Lake (also Inlay lake) is a shallow lake in the middle of Myanmar, south-east of Mandalay.  

It took us about eight hair-raising hours to get to the Lake from Bagan, with a driver who made the journey unnecessarily stressful.
It could have been a fun drive.
When we entered the Shan Mountains, the summer heat dropped to pleasant temperatures and the mountains were green and lush.

There are many lovely resorts servicing the many tourists who come to enjoy the Lake.
We chose to stay at the Novotel Inle Lake Hotel, which is almost brand new development.  
They have done an amazing job in designing luxurious villas on the Lake, surrounded by lotus flowers and water gardens.

Our villa was fabulous, with a dreamy bed covered with jasmine flowers and crisp white sheets with a romantic mosquito netting, which we did not need, since the villa had great air conditioning and no bugs.

We had a lovely living room with modern furnishings and two big screen TVs, as well as a floating bathtub, his and hers walk-in closets and muted earth tones that feel like we were no longer in Myanmar, but in some luxury resort in the sky, floating on a fluffy cloud...

To get to our room, we were driven in golf carts on charming bridges and walkways decorated with potted plants.

The next two days of our stay, we hired a wooden long boat to take us on tours of Inle Lake.

Our boat was a narrow wooden canoe, and came equipped with wooden chairs, placed one behind the other, for Jules and myself.
Each chair had cushions on it, and they also gave us big bottles of water, wet towels, umbrellas to shield us from the sun, and raincoats, just in case it rained.

The locals who ride these longboats sit on wooden floorboards, one behind the other, with their legs crossed.

Two local men were manning our boat, alternating between the position of navigator at the fore and engine man at the stern.

Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar, with an estimated surface area of 45 square miles (116 km2), and it's also one of the highest, at an elevation of 2,900 feet (880 m). 

The lake is not very deep.
During the dry season it is about 7 feet (2.1 m) to 12 feet (3.7 m) deep, but during the monsoon season, it can reach 17 feet in depth.

The lake has many channels and canals, and it is densely inhabited by many different tribes.

The people around Inle Lake are called the Intha, but there are also the Shan people, the Taungyo, the Taungthu, the Danu, The Kayah, The Danaw and the Bamar tribes.

Each tribe has its own colorful, traditional clothing and head gear, and its own unique food and traditions, although they are all devout Buddhists, and you can see many beautiful temples and pagodas dotting the lake and glistening in the surrounding mountains.

The people live in numerous small villages along the lake, many with no road access. 
There are newly made signs indicating which village you are entering when you arrive by boat.

The people live in simple houses of wood, woven bamboo and corrugated iron which are situated high on stilts. 
72 percent of these houses have no toilets, and the human waste as well as the grey water go straight into the lake.

This does not deter the people from bathing in the lake and washing their children, drinking the lake water and cooking their food in it.

Many are fishermen and farmers, but quite a few cottage industries have developed on the lake over the years.

One of the most wonderful practices that is done around Inle Lake is Lotus Weaving.
It starts by gathering the stems of lotus flowers that grow abundantly along the shallow edges of the lake during the summer months, between June and November.

Young girls sit and cut small pieces of the stems to extract the fiber in the middle of the lotus plant.
They then roll it on a hard surface while it is still wet, and the pieces adhere to one another to create a long thread. 
The thread is strong and fibrous, and it is either woven in its natural color, or is dyed using Mango tree bark, Jackfruit tree bark or Inle Lake Tree bark.

This unique fabric from lotus plant fibers is produced only at Inle lake and is used for weaving special robes for the Buddha images, called "Padonma Kyathingan" (Lotus Robe).

It takes six thousands lotus stems to create one single scarf, after more than weeks of preparations.

Because the lotus fabric is not very soft, it is often blended with silk, to create softer feeling scarves and clothing.

Silk-weaving is another important industry at Inle Lake, using silk that comes from Mandalay.  Many houses around the lake engage in producing high-quality hand-woven silk fabrics, used for clothing with a distinctive design called "Inle Longyi."  

At "Inn Paw Khon village," we were fascinated by the process of lotus weaving and even though we do not need any more scarves, we bought two of the lotus blended with silk scarves, to support these hard working wonderful people who do such soulful handicraft.

Most transportation on the lake is traditionally by small boats, or by somewhat larger boats fitted with single cylinder outboard Diesel engines. 

The local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the very stern of the canoe on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the wooden oar. 

This unique style of rowing evolved because the lake is covered by reeds, lotus and floating plants, which make it difficult to see above them while sitting. 

Standing provides the rower with a clearer view beyond the reeds.
The engagement of the leg allows them to row easier through muddy water, or water thick with water plants. 

Another reason for the "leg rowing," is because the fishermen often need their hands free to cast the nets or pull the lines.
Leg rowing is a style practiced only by men, while women row in the customary style, holding the oar with their hands, sitting cross legged at the stern.

We saw many very young school kids in white and green uniforms row to school by themselves in shorter canoes.
Of course none of the kids wore life vests, they are capable strong kids who are raised to become self sufficient, coordinated and fit adults.
Even the old people are strong and capable, rowing for hours sitting crossed legged on the edge of their canoes.

In a large portion of the lake, they have created an island on which they grow sweet tomato plants.
This floating tomato garden is a successful initiative to provide these self sufficient farmers with land for their crops.

The farmers gather up soil and weeds from the deeper parts of the lake, bring them back in boats and make them into floating garden beds, anchored by bamboo poles. 
These gardens rise and fall with changes in the water level, and so are resistant to flooding. 

The constant availability of nutrient-laden fertilizers from the lake, results in these gardens being incredibly fertile.

Our boatmen stopped at "Nam Pan Cheroot manufacturing" where they make cheroots, the Burmese sweet cigars made from rolling star anise, honey and tobacco in a cheroot leaf.
They use the husk of corn plants as the cigar's filter.

There are many homes which operate as shops selling goods for local use, and many convenience stores selling candy, dry goods, snacks and food.

There are also services like boat engine repair, and home shops selling tools, carvings and other ornamental objects.

Most of the shopping is done in the city of Nyaung Shwe, where there is a large local market that serves most of the major shopping needs of the restaurants and hotels on the lake. 

There is also a daily floating market, but its location changes daily among five different sites around the lake area, thus each of them hosts this itinerant market every fifth day. 
When the market is held on the lake itself, trading is conducted from small boats.

The Inle lake area is renowned for its weaving industry. 
When we walked around the big market in Nyaung Shwe, we saw a large selection of "Shan bags," which are made from woven fabric that is sewed into a square bag, with a long shoulder strap.
These Shan Bags are used daily by many Burmese men and women as a tote-bag, and are produced in large quantities here.

While we were on the lake, we saw fishermen fishing from their canoes.
They threw in the nets and with their wooden oar, they smacked the water a few times, to try to scare fish into their nets. 

The local fish which the fishermen catch is called "Nga Hpein," and it is a staple of the local diet. 
An introduction of the fresh water carp has been too successful, and the proliferation of the carp has meant that the local fish is often eaten by the carp.

After using the toilets and seeing the waste run directly into the lake, we had no intentions of trying the local fish, but we did eat "Hnapyan Gyaw," which is twice fried Shan tofu that tastes like crisps.
We also tried a popular local dish that is made form fermented rice kneaded with potato. 

We visited the "Taung To Temple Complex," and marveled at the beautiful old pagodas.
The caretaker and his wife were having lunch sitting on the temple floor.
We answered the usual: "Hello, where you from? Mangallawa! (Welcome!)"

I bought from the smiling couple an old and much used monk's handheld "Toddy Palm Fan."
Toddy palm or cloth is used to make fans for the monks. 
The color is usually dark maroon, to match the color of the robes of the monks. 
It is used to shade the bare-shaved heads of the monks, who go barefoot, when they go around the villages under the hot morning sun to accept offerings of food and alms. 

The fan is big enough to offer protection from a drizzle, and the name of donors are usually printed on one side of the fan.

These Buddhist monks' fans are also used by monks during temple rituals of chanting and giving blessings.
The monk usually holds the circular fan in front of his face to shield himself from losing his attention by focusing on people's faces, and to symbolize that the words that he speaks, come from the wisdom of the teaching, and not from his ego self.

We visited the oldest monastery on the lake, called "Nga Hpae Chaung" which is commonly known as the "Jumping cat monastery."

In the old days, the monks trained this temple's cats to jump through hoops, giving the old temple its name.
But nowadays nobody trains the cats to jump, and as I scratched the head of one of the cats who sat on the temple's window, there were no signs of any inherited hoop-jumping-genetic-ability in it....

We took a long boat ride south of the lake to the Kyauk Daing pottery village.
It is a small village, with many houses and a population of about a hundred families.
Eighty of the families have engaged in making pottery for hundreds of years.
They process the yellow-red clay soil in their area using water buffaloes, who grind the soil into a fine clay.
In the lower level of each house, we saw women making pots on hand operated pottery wheels made of stone.

They all seemed so friendly and happy to see visitors.
I have heard that during the high season, when the lake gets loads of tourists, the whole experience that we were having with almost nobody else around, would be very different...

At "Yawama village," we visited shops where they make silver jewelry from locally found silver, and we saw two long neck ladies weaving fabric that is used for scarves and the local Shan Bags.

At "Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda" we encountered our first lake traffic jam, with so many boats parked in front of the temple complex, that we had to climb from boat to boat in order to reach the shore.

The temple was having a major celebration with visiting dignitaries, and we stood among many school kids and army personnel and listened to the local music played on handmade instruments, including a very long drum that is carried by two people.

Inside the temple on the main altar stood five golden rocks.
They were once five Buddha images, but the public, who keeps on adding gold leaf to the statues, has made them unrecognizable as human figures.
Around the main hall, there is a market selling traditional clothing and fabric.

At that market, we bought the local fisherman pants, which are designed to have the room to row with one leg extended sideways.
They look like yoga pants, but are very cool.

I loved the days we spent on the lake.
I loved seeing the people bathing in the lake and washing their kids and their dishes...Collecting lotus stems or dying the yarn that they have spun on makeshift bicycle wheels, and drying the yarn under their houses.

Inle lake reminded me of the floating village that we visited in Cambodia years ago, but in many ways the two are not at all alike.

In Cambodia the people were from the same tribe, but here at Inle lake, many tribes have gathered to live on the lake, creating an amazing mixture of cultures and different skills, making this place a fascinating one.

In Nyaung Shwe we ate a wood oven fired pizza in a Burmese family restaurant.
Despite the fact that the family and staff were eating Burmese food, we ordered the vegetable pizza because we needed a break from the green vegetable curries that we had been eating every night at our hotel.
It wasn't great, and so for dinner, we collected at the market some huge dragon fruit, a delicious mango and some sweet bananas.

A walk in the central market of Nyaung Shwe was a feast for the eyes, seeing people of different ethnicities selling flowers, fruit, or handmade bags, or just shopping, walking around in their colorful woven clothing and beautiful hats.

It is hard for me to believe that anyone can prefer to be surrounded with people who think, look and act like them.   
To me, there is real harmony in diversity....