Tag Archives: trains

A city so nice I went thrice, then I went again.

NYC graffitti covered van

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The first time I went to NYC was in 1986 when I was 19 years old. It was the 100-year anniversary of the Statue of Liberty and a big celebration was planned. I was supposed to meet a friend who flew in from Detroit ahead of me, but we didn’t connect. There I was, alone at the airport, without a place to stay. Luckily my mom had given me my cousin’s phone number, “just in case.” I put a coin in the payphone and crossed my fingers he was home. He was. I got on a graffiti covered subway car, then transferred to another one just as gritty, and climbed a set of stairs out into the lower eastside of Manhattan.

It was late, but people were everywhere, many sitting on blankets on the sidewalks selling all manner of things. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a night bazaar. I quickly realized most were probably homeless and earning money so they could at least eat.

My cousin lived in a small cellar studio apartment. It was crammed full of everything, including a girlfriend. She took my surprise visit well, and we three walked to the firework mega-display together. What a blast that was.

pproseThe next time I came to NYC was 1997. I came in on the Amtrak from Lamy, New Mexico, arriving on my 30th birthday with the intention of living in the big city. A friend met me at the station and gave me the welcome gift of a taxi ride to my new digs on the upper west side. I was to stay with a friend’s grandmother, a 90-year old Hungarian Jew named Rose who would prove to be quite the hardcore character. She enjoyed her vodka and beer, and moving furniture around by herself. The pre-war apartment was spacious, and there was a doorman. The upper west side felt like a world away from where my cousin lived on the lower east side. His part of town was where the actors and artists struggling to make ends meet lived; this neighborhood was much more affluent.

New York in the mid-90s was a transformed world from the mid-80s. I remember the moment I realized this was fact. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I was walking from a friend’s house in Greenwich Village and wandered under an archway into a big public park. People were picnicking, playing Hacky Sack, and hanging out listening to the live music of a lone saxophone player. The water splashing from a large fountain reflected the bright sunlight. The sky was blue. It was an idyllic environment.

ppmanwithbananasThen it hit me: I was in Washington Square Park! Ten years prior this place had been full of drug dealers offering me every kind of substance at a good price. I couldn’t believe it! The change was astounding. I knew it was due to the new policies under the new mayor, a man called Giuliani. But where did all the homeless people go? And the drug dealers? It was like they had vanished without a trace.

The last time I had been in New York City was in 2001. I had moved there once again from New Mexico. I left on Buddha’s birthday – May 5th. From the moment I arrived I noticed the city felt different. The usual vibrancy of New York and its people seemed off, subdued somehow; a negative energy was palpable. I kept saying to a friend: It feels like the apocalypse has happened, but no one knows it yet. I wanted to leave immediately. I stayed only two months before I drove with a friend to Burning Man out in the desert of Nevada, then onward to San Francisco. It was there that I awoke to the news that the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. The horror and sadness I felt was only intensified by the fact that I had walked those streets so recently. I wondered if the unsettled feeling I had experienced in New York was some eerie premonition of 9/11.

NYC graffitiBut now it was 2015. And I wanted to go, just because I could. So I did.

To my eye, Manhattan was the same as it ever was – lots of people of every demographic and ethnicity, some in penthouses, others on the street. Though this time the homeless looked young, as I noticed they did in Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. Like always, people played chess in the parks and sold used books on the sidewalks. Drivers honked horns impatiently when traffic stopped too long, and ambulances still had to squeeze their way through the congestion. And I caught whiffs of garbage as I walked down streets. But the subways were cleaner, and there was less graffiti. When I searched out remnants of old New York I found them – old bakeries, 24-hour delis, produce stands, street musicians, repertory theatres, and museums.

Chinatown NYC

I didn’t see too many signs of what I had been reading in magazines and hearing from friends – that NYC was now more for the wealthy than for the everyday person. Maybe the change is subtle, like in the cost of living rather than an increase of blatant bling. But in Chinatown I did see the encroachment of boutique stores, and in the Bowery I found the legendary music venue CBGB’s was now a high-end men’s clothing store.

church with rainbow flagThe biggest difference I noticed between my short stint in 2001 and this one in 2015 was that people seemed more relaxed and nicer to each other. I was able to make eye contact and engage in a little conversation with strangers on the subway, merchants in stores, and lovers of music hanging out in parks. I had the sense that a lingering residue of 9/11 hung in the air, reminding people that life is precious. I felt more a part of the big family of humanity living together in the Big Apple than I ever had before. It felt good.

einstein at the highline NYC

this article was edited by Christopher Ross and was first published in the women’s travel magazine Pink Pangea

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Detroit, Chapter Two, A Blue Moon in China

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Detroit 1987

A Blue Moon in China

Chapter Two

Detroit

It had been easy to pack my bag and leave my hometown behind. I had already lived in nine different homes, in two different countries, and in three different states. I had gone to nine different schools. I had two fathers; one who was deceased. And, I felt born with the apparent inability to commit to the status quo.

My mother was from a small French settlement in Michigan. Her ethics were soundly Mid-Western. Her father had been born and raised in a log cabin. He left home at 18 to work in a factory building cars: 14 hour days standing, six days a week, no vacation, no benefits. My grandmother gave birth fifteen times. Of the twelve who survived, my mother was the second youngest.

As a young woman, my mother made her great escape to California and met my Mexican father on a blind date. When I was four he moved us all – my pregnant mother, my two-year old sister, and me – from Los Angeles to Mexico City.

The fates warned me early on not to become complacent and feel too settled: less than a year after we moved to Mexico, my father caught a cold and never got out of bed again. Etched into my memory is the white sundress patterned with bright red strawberries and green leaves that I wore the last time I saw him alive.

My mother moved us back to Michigan, and fared well on another blind date, marrying a disciplined man of Polish descent. His example was a devout sense of right and wrong, coupled with an unwavering commitment to helping the less fortunate.

Thus twists and turns brought me a new father, and to a new city: Detroit. I came of age there neither black nor white, rich nor poor, growing up on the Detroit side of Mack Avenue – “across the tracks” from the affluent who had ensconced themselves along the water’s edge in Grosse Pointe, and next door to those who struggled to make ends meet.

Detroit had experienced many incarnations since the French built a settlement along the strait in 1701. Fur trading came first for the settlers, then lumber gave the few their fortune.

With the rise of riches came world-renowned architects who designed beautiful buildings with complex stone lineaments and ornamental sculptures gracing exteriors. Grand lobbies boasted ceilings of carved wood, stamped copper, and murals of pictures or geometric patterns. Byzantine deco gave splendor to the landscape with colorful mosaics accented in gold and leaded glass windows in harlequin design, glistening in sunlight. The proliferation of theatres, museums, libraries, and universities gave evidence of the city’s burgeoning wealth. Doorman in white gloves once held open glass doors with polished brass handles for women in furs who walked red carpets to shop. The city was known as the Paris of the Midwest.

Diego Rivera was given the four walls of a cavernous room to do with what he pleased. Many were insulted by the political and religious overtones of his work. A favorite urban legend my mother would tell was how Henry Ford’s only son stood guard, rifle in hand, protecting the priceless murals from anti-communist madmen and religious fanatics threatened by the pictures painted into plaster. The legend wasn’t true, though Edsel Ford did issue a proclamation to leave the murals alone. It worked. They were saved.

Profound impacts upon the world at large emanated from the city. The assembly line spewed out automobiles, and Detroit became the Motor City. Unions for workers finally formed after years of struggle, riots, and strikes. Detroit stood proud as the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II as an army of Rosie the Riveters built big bomber planes. Blacks emigrated from the South, and with them came their music, and from the music came Motown.

Soon though, whole neighborhoods were wiped out for freeways. Racial tensions erupted into riots in ‘43 and ‘67, exacerbating the “White Flight” to the suburbs. In the ‘60s, Rosa Parks relocated to Detroit; Martin Luther King, Jr. first gave his “I have a Dream…” speech there, and Malcolm X was known as Detroit Red. The crash of the economy in the early ‘70s drastically downsized factories. Jobs were lost and the population dwindled further.

In the last decades of the 20th century Detroit had become a desolate wasteland: tumbleweeds blew across the wide boulevards as nature reclaimed vacant lots. Drug addicts and the homeless found shelter from the bitter winter wind within the crumbling walls of long-abandoned Victorian mansions. The city became a free zone – as long as you weren’t shooting someone the cops left you alone. Expansive freedom was found in the anarchy, and creativity flourished. Die-hard hippies planted community gardens, weeding out used heroin needles and painting bright murals to ward off despair. Musicians played on discarded engine parts that filled venues with the odor of gasoline. A new dance music, soon to be known as Techno, was being created on keyboards spread out in rooms overlooking the city’s ruins. My own creative expression was to walk the deserted streets and to discover beauty in the decay. I collected stained glass from a burned out church and trudged across fields of tall grass searching for treasure, artifacts of a prosperity long gone.

I loved the city. It was fascinating how affluent culture and ghetto poverty stood side by side, yet a world apart. But I found myself questioning the incongruity of the haves and have-nots. I was disappointed by the imbalance between those concerned with the welfare of people and the much larger group preoccupied with Wrestlemania. I wanted to seek out a world beyond these paradoxes. And far away from heartbreak.

Thus, a year before I stepped off the train in Guangzhou, China, I boarded a train in Windsor, Canada, on the south side of the river from Detroit.

Across Canada I went, figuring out along the way what to do next. It was simple – the train would drop me off in some small town, and friendly people would direct me to shelter. Not much happens in Canada to be afraid of: it’s a land of prairies and plains where people with guns go hunting for food rather than for revenge as so many did in the United States. I hitched a ride through the magnificent Canadian Rockies, singing the songs of Vera Lynn with a family from Scotland. I touched the cold Pacific waters off the Vancouver shoreline, and bid my new friends farewell.

A bus took me back across the border, and to my mother’s sister in Seattle. I “relative-hopped” down the West Coast, from the Michigan side of my family to the Mexican. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and played chess with hippies. I learned about political prisoners and drank my first cappuccino. I made my way down the coast to the Los Angeles basin, the land where I was born.

Los Angeles constantly showed itself to be too varied and spread out to pin down in a singular description. The air was fresh by the sparkling ocean, and smelled of urine downtown. The city boasted every demographic, but the mansions of Beverly Hills were another world from the soul food of Compton. It was a city of palm trees with blue skies offering the world in success and Skid Row in failure.

From there it was onward to Arizona and the deserts of the Southwest. My grandmother was up from Mexico, living with my aunt and uncle who welcomed me into their home; it was a moment to be seized.

I fell in love with the desert, the monsoons, the zigzag lightning strikes shooting down one after another, and the boom of thunder. I loved how the rain would approach from the horizon, how the long dark silver brushstrokes descended at an angle from a line of gray clouds. The storms struck in torrents, flooding the parched land. After they passed, the air was pungent with the sweet scent of sage.

I rode a blue 1950s bicycle across that desert full of cacti hundreds of years old to a community college out on the Pima Indian Reservation. I studied. I painted. I contemplated the atom, and looked up at the stars. I was exposed to New Age philosophy, full of glamour and promise, and its credo of creative visualization. I learned about medicine women, the Age of Aquarius, and that the Mayan’s calendar was coming full circle to an apparent end. I read Native American lore about the Great Purification soon to wipe the slate of the world’s sins clean. I began to feel scared and apathetic. I felt the end was near. I wondered what the point was… of anything. I pondered fate, destiny, and how free will fit into the puzzle of life.

Then one day my art professor told the class of the annual trip he had been taking to Bali for the last 20 years. I was intrigued by the prospect of worlds unknown to me. I decided if he could do it, I could do it.

The adventure that had brought me to Arizona had begun with an urge to head west. It was a desire to find my roots, and to seek the answer to the meaning of life. But thus far my transcontinental introspection had yielded few answers. I wrestled with purpose. I felt lazy. I didn’t want to be pinned down by society’s – or anybody’s – expectations of me. But I didn’t have any tangible expectations for myself. I wanted to expand my paradigms. I wanted to be justified in my romantic notions. I wanted to feel magic, breathe in Spirit, see God in everything.

I knew I was one of the few very privileged people in the world; I was well fed, I was educated, I was an American. I enjoyed freedoms most people can hardly dream of, freedoms I often took for granted. I felt blessed to be in a position of choice. I believed there was more to life than getting a job, getting married, and having kids. I just didn’t know what.

So, on that epic sunshine day, staring out the classroom window at the desert horizon and listening to tales of faraway lands, it may well have been an existential crisis I was experiencing – a crisis of my place in the world, that led my to where I now stood: China

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A Blue Moon in China  There are 18 black and white photographs; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map.
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Author’s Note:  I grew up with the urban legend that Edsel Ford stood guard with a rifle protecting Diego Rivera’s murals, thus saving them.  Neither my editor nor I could find substantial evidence for it’s truth. I insisted it remain in the story as it was part of my psyche. I have learned since that it was workers from the factories, the very men depicted by Diego Rivera in his masterpiece, who stood guard protecting “… the priceless murals from anti-communist madmen and religious fanatics threatened by the pictures painted into plaster.” I give love and gratitude to them as well. A Blue Moon in China is my just released memoir about the two months I traveled through China in 1988. I went alone with $400 in my pocket…

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Map of my trip through China

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hand-drawn map by elizabeth pilar 2014

Chronology:

A comfortable train out of Hong Kong into the port city of Guangzhou. From there the journey through the mainland began with an overnight boat ride up the Yi River and all day on a local bus across to Yangshuo. Departure was in early morning on a different boat to arrive in Guilin by the early afternoon. The first train adventure begins – and defines hard-seat-style – going west across the south via Guiyang to the city of Kunming in the providence called Yunnan. It took over 48 hours to arrive. Buses became the mode of travel for the next round of movement. Three days local-style to go further south to Jinghong and the Autonomous Region of Xishuangbanna. And back. Another two buses to Lijiang located in the foothills of the Himalayans Mountains. A couple more to another destination and back. The final bus ride was ten hours to a train station… somewhere. The second train adventure began with an overnight north to Chengdu, and 12 hours more to the city of Chongqing on the shores of the Yangtze River. Three days on a boat down to Wuhan. Less than 24 hours on a train north to Beijing. An overnight back down to Guangzhou. And then outward to Hong Kong.

A good way to look at the landmass of China – it’s slightly bigger than the United States of America.

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 In the book, there are 18 black and white photographs I took while there; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map.

Library Journal‘s verdict was that it’s a “nice addition to women’s studies readings as it chronicles the kind of travel undertaken with a tattered map and the recommendations of students met on trains.”

Feel free to contact me: elizabeth@elizabethpilar.com 

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