Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Top 7 Locales of 2007.

2007 has been an incredible year. It was a year of multiple residences, and a year of long travels in strange lands, both familiar and exotic. It was a year in which I was exposed to the wonders of Southeast Asia, and in which I came to grasp the beauty of my own dessert home. This list doesn't represent everywhere I visited this year, or even everywhere that touched me- notably absent are Cambodia, Cape Town, Taos, and a number of spots around Thailand. This list is simply a collection of the places that affected me the most, and have lingered in my mind the longest.

7. Gauteng. The placement of Gauteng at the bottom of my list represents, to a degree, my ambivalence about the place. The social character among many people is of fear: they've built up massive shopping malls and walled-in squares, where they can safely avoid having ever to go outdoors. In 2007 I spent a little time exploring Johannesburg on my own, and for the first time visited Pretoria. The architecture of the two cities cannot easily be described as beautiful, but has an odd ironic appeal. They're an uncomfortable mix of styles that represents so much about the contradicting values in South African culture: from the conservative monuments and boulevards of Pretoria, to burgeoning Urban redevelopment in a downtown Joburg reborn. Yet Gauteng is perhaps the most African of South African landscapes: a rapidly developing center that represents- both symbolically and literally- the financial aims of the continent. Perhaps as a result, one can see a distinctively African modern style in Gauteng, perhaps more easily than in Cape Town. For this reason, Egoli keeps me intrigued, and hopefully I will return to see more.

6. Southern Colorado. I visited Southern Colorado often as a child. Just several hours north of my home in New Mexico, it was an easy destination for weekends away or short family trips. But never before this visit have I been so astounded by what a place it is. Perhaps it was seeing through the lens of my foreign traveling companion, or a filter gained from years abroad; either way, Colorado seemed to me a distillation of all the classic images of America, free and glorious. There were horses running in wild overgrown fields, tremendous storms, and ice capped mountains crashing over the horizon of pine trees.

5. Ho Chi Minh City. The home that almost was. For a week I struggled in Ho Chi Minh, worrying about finding work and a place to live. It wasn't until just before I left to return to Bangkok that I was able to see what a truly beautiful, graceful city it is. Where Bangkok is tropical in its steamy, swampy overgrowth, Ho Chi Minh has refined its tropical heat into an elegant style, with pale painted walls, and ornately shuttered windows. The frantic pace of the city is visible in the motorbikes that swarm the street, and yet relaxation is offered in discretely hidden cafes, and in leafy courtyard restaurants. And though I had to choose not to live there in the end, it was undoubtedly one of the most intriguing cities I was lucky enough to visit in 2007.

4. The Deserts of Southwestern USA. On our way from Los Angeles to New Mexico, Bordeaux and I passed through the great deserts of the American Southwest. While it was in many ways a home-coming for me, I was struck for the first time what a bizarre and unusual landscape it was. I revisited some places, like Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, but I also searched out new places I had never been to: Salton Sea, the mission at San Xavier, Sonoma, Organ Pipe National Park. I explored abandoned motels, drove through thunder storms, and slept under the gaze of kitt fox and kangaroo rats. From the neon wasteland of Las Vegas, to the austere grace of Spanish mission cathedrals, to wonderland cactus gardens, I came to see how the desert Southwest is undoubtedly one of the most exotic landscapes in the world.

3. The Mekong River. The exotic pleasures of Southeast Asia are given form in the meandering brown river called the Mekong. For almost a month we followed the river, from the overgrown hills of Northern Thailand, through the Oriental splendor of Laos, into the wild, dusty landscapes of Cambodia. The river is home to such incredible places as the elegant village of Louang Phrabang, the stylishly mod capital of Vientiane, and the frontier town of Kompong Cham. It was for me a river of untamed jungles, golden temples, and painted blue shutters. And traveling for two days on a slowboat, through tall lush forest and tiny bamboo-and-thatch villages, is unquestionably an experience that will stay with me long after 2007 has passed.

2. Los Angeles. It may seem odd to make a city where I lived from 2001 to 2005 my #2 spot for 2007, but I have reason. I spent most of 2006 in Cape Town; and though I love the Cape, I thought often of LA. I remembered places I missed, thought of neighborhoods I never got to explore, and lamented the fact that I had taken no photographs of the city. I had lived in LA while going to college, but I had never really gotten to know the city, never became a local. So when I returned to the US in late December, I took it as my second chance to get to know Los Angeles. I arrived in California on New Year's Eve, ready to start 2007 in LA. I got to know the city in ways I never had, discovering the styles of midtown, the charms of Little Ethiopia, and the grungy pleasures of Echo Park. I shopped at farmer's markets, used public transport, become a local at several cafes. I came to really enjoy the way that life existed somehow between asphalt reality and a fantasy vision that Hollywood had created of itself. In 2007, Los Angeles emerged for me as a place not just where I went to college, but as a city that I really know; a city from which I draw inspiration; and a city that I now think of as a distant, beckoning home.

1. Bangkok. The number one place for 2007 was, without question, Thailand's capital city. With it's addictive flavors, hip urban culture, and lush concrete landscapes, Bangkok grabbed me in a way no other city has. I arrived in Bangkok unsure of what to expect, prepared to hate the city. I had been told for years that the best strategy when traveling in Thailand was to fly into Bangkok, and quickly get out to anywhere else. But the moment my airplane lowered below the clouds and I took in the towering sky-scrapers, piercing wats, and python-curves of the Chao Phraya river, I was entranced, and I've only grown more fascinated since.


Anonymous said...

Thailand here I come!
After my contract ends here I may come to teach English in Thailand, give it a try for six months to see if I like it. You're photos and writing are definitely selling me on the place. Merci!


JHill said...

this is wonderful. happy new year!

Prêt à Voyager said...

What an incredible year and an amazing (and insightful) collection of places and memories.

Happy 2008! I'm excited to see what this year holds!