Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Blogg-o Last-Resort-o: All-Inclusive? Too Exlusive!

My blog is primarily about travel, but I write about other subjects too - the symphony, for example, and since the rise of Old King Trump, politics. 

Why other subjects? Let's face it, I can't afford to travel as often as I'd like, and since I just turned 70, maybe for not quite as long as I'd like...after all, la vita e troppo breve...

That word "long" in this case, as Dottore Gianni has just whispered in my ear, can be read in two (and maybe more?) different ways. First, I am able to travel for relatively long periods of time, for unlike you working stiffs, I am retired. However not only does the money run out sooner than I'd like, but at my age I find that my stamina runs out as well. I try to really "attack" a place when I visit - see as much of it as possible in all too short a time, generally. But in recent trips I find that I am taking longer rests midday in the hotel, and that I'm not staying out late at night, as I enjoyed doing in years past.

Second, life really IS growing short. The age of 70, for the good doctor and me at least, implies that MAYBE I have ten years of travel left...maybe a bit more than that, but let's just say the writing is on the wall (not just in my posts - ba-da-bing!).

I'm sure I have written before in this blog that ever since my 40th birthday I have given myself a once-every-decade birthday present: a trip abroad. First it was London and Stratford-Upon-Avon - I happily admit that I'm a very theatrical fella. at year 50 I meant to spend a week in Florence, having already been to Rome, but for reasons I've explained in at least one earlier post, Florence turned into a fiasco, and on my second day in Italy I flew to Rome and spent the rest of my trip there. 60 was blissful - classical Greece: Athens, Delfi, Mycenae and Epidauros the last two from the wonderful Venetian town of Napflio) - it was unusually warm there for January and sunny throughout. 

For the celebration of my 70th I planned - exhaustively, for four solid months - a new adventure: Portugal (for the first time) and Southern Spain (also a first as I had already spent time in Barcelona, Madrid, Segovia, Avila, but only got as far south as Toledo). But several factors combined into a perfect storm that rendered me unable to make the trip. Most were physical: I experienced lower back issues, a chronic nosebleed (in spite of a cauterization!) and at the last minute a nasty virus. I also confess to having become a victim of over-planning. I pushed too much activity and too much distance (especially between Portugal and Spain. It's more difficult to get from one to another by public transport than any two other Western European countries to which I've traveled) into 20 days. I overwhelmed myself. Maybe that's why I got the virus?

A day after my proposed departure to Europe, after a restless and sleep-deprived night, I determined that I simply MUST go somewhere abroad to celebrate 70. I looked at several options, including Peru and Mexico, and decided on the latter. So! On the day before my birthday I flew to Cancun. 

My hotel - not the giant on the left,
the comparatively little one, to its right

Cancun? I have been told by people in the "know" that Cancun is not Mexico - it's a multinational hotel zone that happens to be set in a gorgeous part of the Yucatan peninsula. And they are right! I booked for the first, and I'm fairly certain for the last, time, at an "all-inclusive" resort. I'm not going to name it as I don't want people to think ill of a specific hotel. In fact I have a feeling that as "all-inclusives" go, it's pretty nice.

The view from my room, looking right. You'd ce correct to note that the Caribbean is impossibly blue
As a solo traveler, however, and as one for whom the sun does not necessarily signify fun, even though I was nearly surrounded by a lagoon and the Caribbean, I felt like a fish out of water.

The view from my room to the left - the lagoon, and hotel after hotel after hotel
Everyone on the staff was nice. Exceedingly so, almost frighteningly so. The cynical part of me began quickly to think that this attitude may have been simply a ploy for garnering tips, in fact I was convinced of it in one case, but I gradually discovered that most of the staff that helped me did so authentically, and in a very friendly manner.

Aside: All-inclusives say that you don't have to tip, but from researching on-line travel forums (not the ideal research sources, but...) I discovered that most people carry at least $100 in one and five dollar bills and tip just about everyone. So I did too. Exit, stage left, aside.

I arrived ready to exchange money, dollars to pesos - by the way the current rate is approximately one dollar to 20 or 21 pesos (since Trump's election/coronation the peso has dropped 13% against the dollar - I wonder why?). But I soon found that the US dollar seems almighty in the hotel zone. So I used the USD to tip the fellow that drove me from the airport to the hotel (an expensive service arranged by the hotel itself), I tipped the guy who took my bags up, I left two dollars a day on a pillow for the custodial staff. Every time I asked for anything at the concierge desk I tipped. I tipped at the buffet breakfasts, and more for meals where waiters actually served me food. I can't think who I didn't tip really.

Aside: If any of my readers are regulars at all-inclusives, or any other exclusive resort/hotel, they will probably be grumbling, "Of course you tip! It's the way of that world. But you see my world (of travel) is not their world. When I fly to Europe I stay at decent hotels in the centers of great cities that almost always cost under $100 a night. Yes, you can find them, yes it's the only way I can afford to travel, and yes I really enjoy my stay in most of them. In these establishments there are no concierge desks, no one carries your luggage anywhere. I do leave a little money at my breakfast table - most of the hotels I stay at come with breakfast, instead of charging something ludicrous like $21 for a mediocre spread, as is the custom in most US hotels - and I always leave a bit for the custodial staff on the morning of my departure, but never more than that. Such is my experience of travel, and so ends this aside.

Two of the three pools, taken from the edge of the third
I also travel to dig deep into places I've not seen before, not to enjoy a luxurious experience at a classy hotel. I use the hotel as a place to rest at night, to regroup for an hour or so in the afternoons (as I wrote already in my first paragraph, an increasing necessity for me, alas), nothing more than that. It's a great and relatively inexpensive way to travel, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

Except that for compleanno numero 70 at the last minute I went all-inclusive. Every day each guest is given a sheet of paper with the schedule for the day. I saved one from the trip:

9:30 am - yoga at the gym

10 am - guessing game (? your guess as good as mine ?)

11 am - beach volleyball

12 pm - aqua gym in the pool (well, in one of three pools)

1 pm - ping-pong tournament in Bar One

2 pm - water volleyball in the pool(s)

3 pm - bingo (bingo???) poolside

4 pm - blackjack (???) poolside (???)

8 pm - resident DJ (a must) in Bar One

9 pm - Las Divas (???), also in Bar One

10 pm - Flair show (who knows?) yet again in Bar One

If you have any time left over or can sandwich in
you eat...and eat...and eat.

Also you drink...and drink...and drink.

And then presumably you sleep, dreaming of the next day's schedule!

You may have guessed by now that I engaged in exactly none of these activities, except for the last, eating and drinking, both of those liberally. So much for fish-out-of-water Dr Jack at the all-inclusive.

However, the escapes from the all-inclusive were sublime. On my birthday seeing the coral reef from a yellow submarine, on the day after Chichen Itza, and on the day after that Tulum (the last two excellent Mayan ruins). But for the escapes you must read my next blog post(s)!

Bloggo Orchestravo: A Fine pair of Russians and an Inspiration for Dottore Gianni

On Sunday 6 November 2016 I attended the Greenville Symphony concert titled "Genius Against Tyrant". It featured two pieces by two famous Russians, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich. The concert featured the excellent young pianist and rising star, Dmitri Levkovich. When you add Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel to that mix, it equals quite the quartet of talented Slavs! 

The first part of the program featured Levkovich in Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43 by Rachmaninoff. Neither the good doctor nor I had never heard it played through, but as we listened to the 24 variations based on the work of the brilliant 19th century violinist Paganini, even we musical know-littles recognized two themes, one fairly well known at the very beginning, the other (variation 18) one of the most beautiful and recognizable melodies that the composer ever penned. And, as Dottore Gianni asked me to point out, Rachmaninoff is no slouch at gorgeous melodies. Okay Dottore? Satisfied.

We'll move on. Tchivzhel manages to bring very fine  guest artists in to play with the orchestra, and of the three or four guest pianists in the four years of my subscription since my arrival in the "Upcountry," Levkovich is perhaps the finest. Young, assured, powerful. I have mentioned in previous posts that the orchestra tends at times to outdo the soloist, not in terms of talent but in terms of volume, so that, while the live audience can SEE the work done by the pianist, one hears only portions. 'Tis pity, but there you have it. Not, however, in this case. And the orchestra rose to the talent of the usually dressed youthful soloist, so that every variation was a pleasure.

The work itself was outdone only by the encores, two pieces that the good doctor and I had heard before, but as usual with musical hacks, could remember neither name of work or composer. Suffice to say the audience was transported.

As people were heading for bar or restroom or both at intermission I heard on either side of me comments such as "Well, that was worth the entire concert."  Well-meant of course, but the comments did not end here. They were a comparison before the deed, as on both my left and right that sentiment was followed by grumbled lines that went something like this: "Shostakovich is NOT my favorite composer!" They seemed to be saying that they were willing to sit through part two, but that it was going to be tedious compared to the more easily digested part one. 

But oh how wrong they were! The work was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, and written in 1953, it was by his own admission about Josef Stalin and his nightmarish years in power. One of the greatest monsters of the 20th century, Stalin died that year, and only then was it possible for the artist (the "genius" of the program's title) to revenge himself on Stalin (the "tyrant" of the program's title), and he did so in a furious, brilliant musical tirade. The relationship between Stalin and Shostakovich was absolutely terrifying for the latter, a microcosmic look at the fear Stalin provoked in other artists, as well as in millions of Russians.

The symphony outdid itself, as it occasionally does, in the playing of this difficult piece, urged on no doubt for Tchivzhel, who has personal reasons for hating the dictator. I suspect that for some in the audience it WAS a letdown, but not for me. Instead I viewed it as one of the finest concert pieces they played in my four years of listening. Others in the audience must have thought so too, for the ovation was tremendous.

The 10th took on special significance for me, as I was hoping that a current tyrant, Donald Trump, would be soundly defeated. Alas it was not to be. I began writing this post before the election, and after it I could not continue, so disgusted was I at the nightmare of his coming to power. It was as if Shostakovich had stopped writing after the third movement, as the first three are all frightening musically, as they focus on the nightmare that was Stalin.

I write now, on the last day of January 2017, still stunned by the rise of Trump, angry not just at his self-seeking, mean-spirited self, but at his refusal to listen as the new Stalin, Vladimir Putin, was clearly implicated in disturbing our elections. I'm even more irate at Trump's more recent atrocities, especially the sudden ban on immigrants and refugees. 

But I needed to write it down, to complete the post, and now I have. I had intended to tell the story of a play written late in the last century, called Quartet if I remember correctly, in which Stalin calls in the panicked composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and gives them a music lesson. I'm afraid I'm not up to that, in fact I've depressed myself while writing a relatively short rendition of the extensive praise I wanted to heap on Shostakovich, the 10th symphony and the brilliant performance of it by the GSO.

I wish you could have heard it. I was exhilarated - and then the Donald won.