by Karen Rubin,
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine welcomed in the New Year and a new decade as it has since 1984, with a concert devoted to Peace. The people who fill this enormous space, coming in many cases year after year, come for the solace the concert always brings, the re-commitment to a world of tolerance, acceptance, that comes together in peace and good will to resolve conflicts.
The Cathedral Choirs joined forces under the leadership of Kent Tritle, Director of Cathedral Music and one of America’s leading choral conductors. This signature event is one of many comprising the 2019–2020 season of Great Music in a Great Space.
When the first concert for peace was offered, in 1973 at its
sister cathedral in Washington DC, America was at war, an election had been
decided, but Leonard Bernstein inaugurated the New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace
in 1984, years after the Vietnam War was concluded, because in the world, there
has never been a time without conflict.
Even though technically, America is not at war, there is war raging in the land. “Americans are our own enemy, one against another,” Reverend Canon Patrick Malloy said. But every culture has the means to bring light out of darkness. “The world is varied and venerable ways, strikes fire, refuses to surrender to the dark.”
This year, the Cathedral Choir and Orchestra performed music
ranging from Baroque works of Handel and Bach to contemporary works of artist-in-residence,
organist David Briggs and Lee Hoiby’s poignant setting of ”Last Letter Home.”
This work is based on a letter sent by Jesse Givens, Private First Class, U.S.
Army, who drowned in the Euphrates River on May 1, 2003 in the service of his
country. His letter to his wife Melissa was sent with the directions, “Please,
only read if I don’t come home.”
The Cathedral Choir’s own Jamet Pittman again led the
audience in “This Little Light of Mine” as the assembled in the sanctuary lit
candles to welcome the new year with hope, joy, and affirmation.
The night also featured special guest appearances and
performances by Judy Collins, who sang her iconic “Both Sides Now,” and “Amazing
Grace” her voice ringing through this soaring space; saxophonist and artist-in-residence Paul
Winter performed Paul Halley’s “Winter’s Dream”; artist-in-residence Jason Robert Brown, performed
with his wife and daughters, “Sanctuary,” a song which Brown wrote especially
for this concert; and host Harry Smith, the renowned journalist, who has hosted
the Peace concert for some 30 years.
Reflecting on recent events, Smith said, “two-thirds of
millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was; four out of 10 adults don’t know. So
when things happen like what happened last weekend in a suburb of New York, we
With that in mind, the Cathedral Choir offered an addition
to its program, singing “Oseh Shalom”.
“The real news is terrible – also known as fake news. Mass
shootings…Despair of an economy that works really well for a few. Wars
without end, conflicts without resolution. It’s why so many of us show up here
for New Year’s Eve…
“’We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the
change we seek,’ said Barack Obama,” Smith said to applause.
The atmosphere in the Cathedral Church of St. John the
Divine (not to mention the acoustics) is spectacular. You think you have been
plunked down in Europe in a building 1000 years old – this grand Gothic stone
structure with soaring arches 177 feet high. The original design, in the Byzantine Revival and Romanesque Revival
styles, was begun in 1892, but after the opening of the crossing in 1909,
the overall plan was changed to a Gothic Revival design. Actually,
the building was never finished – it is still only two-thirds complete. After a
fire damaged part of the cathedral in 2001, it was renovated and rededicated in
2008. Even without being fully built, it is the fifth largest church in the
world, based on area (121,000 sq. ft.)
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is the Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. It is chartered as a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership. People from many faiths and communities worship together in services held more than 30 times a week; the soup kitchen serves roughly 25,000 meals annually; social service outreach has an increasingly varied roster of programs; the distinguished Cathedral School prepares young students to be future leaders; Adults and Children in Trust, the renowned preschool, after-school and summer program, offers diverse educational and nurturing experiences; the outstanding Textile Conservation Lab preserves world treasures; concerts, exhibitions, performances and civic gatherings allow conversation, celebration, reflection and remembrance—such is the joyfully busy life of this beloved and venerated Cathedral.
The Cathedral is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visit stjohndivine.org for more information and a schedule of public programs including concerts, among them the Cathedral Choir and Orchestra performing J.S. Bach’s monumental “St. John Passion,” on March 31, 2020 at 7:30 pm.
Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
One of my earliest memories of New York theater is of seeing the D’oyly Carte production of “The Mikado,” one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most iconic works. So I am jarred when the curtain rises on a very different production –a first scene which I don’t recall, in which composer Arthur Sullivan, librettist William S. Gilbert and producer Richard D’Oyly Carte himself appear, reflect on the new exhibit of Japanese art at Knightsbridge, and Gilbert imagines a new opera set in Japan. When the curtain rises on the fictional town of Titipu, instead of elaborate Japanese kimonos, the Gentlemen of Japan look a lot like Englishmen with odd hats and outfits, and so do the ladies when they appeared in their modified flowing dresses.
I soon appreciate the bold innovation including the new opening scene and characters, and costumes that make clear these are Victorian Englishmen pretending to be Japanese – as the new character of Gilbert says “They dress like us,” except with bright colors. The device, to address the sensibilities of a modern audience, puts the focus of Mikado properly where it should be: a satire on human nature. And in revising the work in this way, a new generation can be delighted by the magnificent music and ingenious lyrics. If anything makes us laugh, especially at ourselves, that is a gift.
Indeed, Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas – basically inventing today’s musical theater form – are on par with Shakespeare and similarly deserve to be tweaked and reinterpreted, just as “Much Ado About Nothing” was at this year’s Public Theater production, and performed generation after generation.
This production, was first introduced in 2016 as a response to an outcry from New York’s Asian-American community in 2015 over the political incorrectness and insensitivity of the original, regularly performed with Caucasian actors in yellowish makeup and taped-back eyelids. There is no danger of that: this cast is multi-racial.
“NYGASP listened for a simple reason – it was the right thing to do. One year later we created an imaginative new production which all communities, audiences and artists could embrace,” the program notes. The show opened to sold-out crowds and critical acclaim in December 2016; this is its second New York City run. Run to see it before the season concludes, January 5.
The new opening scene and costuming make sure there is no confusion that the Mikado represents Englishmen satirizing Victorian society and politics, capitalizing on British fascination with all things Japanese in the 1880s, to defuse the pointed references that might have gotten Gilbert & Sullivan, who were under censorship of Lord Chamberlain, into trouble. And frankly, the depiction of The Mikado (who doesn’t even appear for the first 2 ½ hours of the three-hour show) as a cruel but ridiculous tyrant is reminiscent of how the Red Queen is depicted in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865). If anything, that character is more relevant today than in 2015 or even 1885.
Of course British audiences of 1885
could have cared less about “political correctness.” The object of Gilbert
& Sullivan’s satire was British society and human nature and the human
condition, and they created their fictional Titipu, Japan, to make their satire
We take advantage of seeing the December 30 afternoon “Grandparents” performance, geared to families, which features a before-show talk introducing the plot and music and an after-show backstage tour in the company with the players.
During the talk, by the Conductor and Musical Director Albert Bergeret, who founded the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players 45 years ago, I learn that my comparison of “Mikado” for Gilbert & Sullivan to “Madame Butterfly” by Puccini is not entirely unfounded. While the music that Sullivan composed runs the gamut of British musical styles (ballad, madrigal, march), he incorporates the Japanese five-note scale and an actual Japanese folk song, Miya-sama (though for this production, new English lyrics are substituted for the Japanese) – music which Puccini also expropriates in “Madame Butterfly.”
“We took out what’s incomprehensible or inappropriate,” Bergeret says, who adds that Sullivan was a brilliant, classically trained musician who was well versed in all genres of music and composers from around the world. In “Mikado” Sullivan demonstrates his virtuosity in writing in many different forms.
Just as Gilbert incorporated contemporaneous digs, so too does this Ko-Ko, a common tailor taken from the county jail (for flirting) and elevated to Lord High Executioner, update his “List” of those who shan’t be missed, to be as current has yesterday’s tweet, changing it each performance, surprising even the rest of the cast.
Ko-Ko, brilliantly played by David Macaluso, includes “the wealthy narcisscist, he never will be missed” on his list and manages to spell out T-R-U-M-P in the subheads of the long, long list as the scroll unfurls.
The premise of “The Mikado,” is a
society under the thumb of an all-powerful sadistic but ridiculous ruler who
makes ridiculous but cruel laws on a whim: flirting as a capital offense, then
demanding to know why no executions have been carried out.
The Mikado, played by David Wannen,
exclaims, “My object all sublime/I shall achieve in time/ to let the punishment
fit the crime.. And make each prisoner pent/Unwillingly
represent/A source of innocent merriment.”
The Mikado’s updated
list of who to punish and how, includes the instagrammer “made to endure a
dungeon cell without not one cellular bar” and “political pundits, who must
sail for weeks on a boat full of leaks on a sea of alternative facts.” (That
gets tremendous laughs.)
They do manage to slip in a few names, carefully spreading their barbs more or less equally: but one placement in particular is rich – Pooh-Bah, marvelously played by Matthew Wages, signs the execution order with all his official positions, but adds to the list signing of those supposedly witnessed Nanki-Poo’s execution Attorney General William Barr and the chair of the Judiciary Committee (balance).
The Mikado then looks to execute Ko-Ko (the Lord High Executioner), Pooh-Bah (the “Lord High Everything”) and Pitti-Sing (one of the “three little maids from school” and Ko-Ko’s wards, played by Amy Maude Helfer) for carrying out the Mikado’s orders to execute somebody but unwittingly executing the heir to the throne. The Mikado appreciates the effort (he only wishes he could have witnessed the execution) but insists they still should be executed for, well, killing the heir and looks for the entertainment value in their lingering death.
The Mikado justifies killing the three because, after all, this is an unfair world where the virtuous suffer and the undeserving succeed. This leads to the song that probably best sums up the moral of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado,” in which the three condemned sing, “See how the Fates their gifts allot/For A is happy, B is not/Yet B is worthy, I dare say/Of more prosperity than A…If I were Fortune which I’m not/B should enjoy A’s happy lot/And A should die in miserie/That is, assuming I am B.”
In the end The Mikado is less a jab at all-powerful monarchal misrule, than a comic contemplation of what human beings do when in that situation. Their focus is on human nature and the human condition. In Mikado, we see self-preservation – even by Yum-Yum who is willing to marry Nanki-Poo who loves her so much he is willing to be executed after just a month, until she realizes that as the wife of an executed man, she would be buried alive.
This production makes another change at the end, stopping the show for a return to the Gilbert & Sullivan characters trying to figure out an ending that would not rely on a magical or fantastical device like the “magic lozenge” they used in their 1877 opera “The Sorcerer” and almost breaks up their collaboration. (Gilbert finally gets to use the device in “The Mountebanks,” written with Alfred Cellier in 1892). Instead, Gilbert comes up with an argument that actually makes sense given the circumstance: Any order by the Mikado must be carried out, so having given the order, it must have been carried out (not much more absurd than “He was too stupid to know withholding military aid to a vulnerable ally in exchange for political favor was illegal”).
Another part that young
people might assume was added as a nod to “Me Too” to make relevant, is Katisha
espousing on ‘beauty’ –her face might not be much (and doesn’t cruelty hold
some allure?), but she has a shoulder blade, a right elbow, and a heel that
admirers come miles to see.
“The Mikado,” the ninth of 14 collaborations between Gilbert & Sullivan, was immensely popular when it opened on March 14 1885 in London, running for 672 performances, the second longest run for any musical theater production. By the end of 1885, some 150 companies in Europe and America were performing the operetta. It even was widely performed in Japan (apparently they took no offense).
There were decades when a
production of Mikado could be seen somewhere in the English speaking world any
day of the year. Performed for the last 135 years, some of its word inventions
have entered the lexicon, such as “the grand Poo-Bah” and “Let the punishment
fit the crime.”
The new Prologue, written by NYGASP Director and Choreographer David Auxier-Loyola (who also plays W.S. Gilbert and Pish-Tush), appears actually a distillation of the actual background (or rather the mythology) to Gilbert & Sullivan creating “The Mikado,” especially their references to avoiding a similar plot solution of a magic lozenge. Apparently, the Knightsbridge exhibition of Japanese art came after Mikado opened, though British fascination in Japan had built up from the 1860s and 1870s, after Japan opened to Western trade in 1854. (The 1999 film “Topsy Turvy” is a marvelous film depicting their lives around this time.)
Gilbert & Sullivan actually invented musical theater. At the time Gilbert & Sullivan were writing, there were opera, light opera and music hall theatricals, but nothing like a musical show with story – music that had both class and pop – with real story lines, music advanced the story, Bergeret tells us. This is where musical theater started,. Watching “Mikado” you see a straight line to Rogers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim.
that are being presented this season are family friendly, but some have special
events attached. We had the marvelous experience of attending a “Grandparents”
performance which featured a before-show talk introducing the show (especially
to children), and a most marvelous after-show backstage tour with cast members.
(David Auxler, who plays the Gilbert character said they only had five
rehearsals) and so enjoyed going backstage with David Macaluso (Ko-Ko), who
showed us the various props including his giant executioner’s ax.
This not-to-be-missed production of the iconic comic opera is fabulous, featuring original choreography and direction by NYGASP Associate Stage Director David Auxier, who also authored the show’s prologue and plays Gilbert and Pish-Tush, and Assistant Direction by Broadway performer/director Kelvin Moon Loh.
The show’s sensational cast includes: dynamic bass David Wannen as The Mikado; clever patter man and comic David Macaluso as Sullivan and Ko-Ko; blustering Matthew Wages as Richard D’Oyly Carte and the pompous Pooh-Bah; creative David Auxier as author Gilbert and town leader Pish-Tush; charming tenor John Charles McLaughlin as romantic hero Nanki-Poo; formidable Caitlin Burke as lovelorn and overbearing Katisha; beautiful soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith as self-aware Yum Yum; Rebecca Hargrove as maiden sister Peep-Bo, and mellifluous mezzo Amy Maude Helfer as adventurous Pitti-Sing.
The production showcases
magnificent scenery designed by Anshuman Bhatia, costumes by Quinto Ott and
lighting by Benjamin Weill. The
Mikado is produced by
NYGASP Executive Director David Wannen.
Since its founding in 1974, the New
York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) has presented more than 2,000
performances of the Gilbert & Sullivan masterpieces throughout the United
States, Canada and England, captivating audiences of all ages.
NYGASP has been hailed as “the leading custodian of the G&S classics” by New York Magazine and has created its own special niche in the cultural mosaic of New York City and the nation. According to the Company’s Founder/Artistic Director/General Manager Albert Bergeret, NYGASP’s mission is “giving vitality to the living legacy of Gilbert & Sullivan.”
“Everyone loves The Mikado and our new production, with its celebrated premise of imagination, keeps the revered story alive and colorful,” he says. “I’m delighted to once more be involved in elevating the humor and musical values of this evolving and very theatrical production, while alternating on the conductor’s podium with my colleague, Joseph Rubin, as part of NYGASP’s commitment to the future development of the Company”.
“The Mikado” is the showpiece of NYGASP’s 45th season, presenting eight family friendly performances after Christmas, Dec. 27 through Jan. 5, 2020 at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. An encore Family Overture presentation will take place at 12:45 pm before the Jan. 4 Saturday matinee at 2 pm which features a musical introduction and plot summary made entertaining for the whole family (free to all ticket holders).
Tickets are $95/orchestra, $50/balcony; $25/rear balcony; special discounts: 50% off for children 12 and under accompanied by an adult, 10% off for seniors 65 and older;order by phone: 212-772-4448, order pnline: www.nygasp.org, or purchase in person at the box office (Monday-Friday, noon-7pm).
The next NYGASP production is Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers,” April 18-19, 2020.
The Kaye Playhouse, 68th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.
entertainer Ben Vereen, honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Gold
Coast Arts Center, Long Island, at the opening of its 9th Annual
Gold Coast International Film Festival, Nov. 4, 2019, brings a spiritual message to the arts which
explains why he has been such a strong advocate for arts education, mentor and
“If you would ask, ‘Why
is life so important to you?’ I would say, ‘In the beginning God created.’ It’s
not ‘in the beginning God manufactured’. We are living, walking, talking art pieces
of the One who created us. Our job is not just performing arts, but one aspect
of life itself. Life is an art piece for everybody to see. We’re supposed to
care for each other, love each other, show the wonders of creation – this
building, these seats – didn’t just come here, they came from thought. A thought
and we bring forth that which is manifested.
“Arts have saved people
throughout the centuries. Art has calmed people from war. Art is here to
embrace our lives. We are healed through the arts.”
Vereen tells the
audience which included the young people from Uniondale High School who
performed in their nationally acclaimed choir, Rhythm of the Knight, “Go play
in hospitals. When someone would come to do art, music, singing, the vibration
in building is higher. It’s important we support – we call it the arts- what it
really is is ‘Let’s support life,’” he said to applause.
“The arts. Change the name
to life – arts of life, the teaching part of life, the engineering part of life
is all art.
If we give our children
arts from the beginning, they will be better at school.”
And what do you tell a young
person about pursuing a career in arts? Dilla asked. “Know thyself, study you,
who you are, you are that art you would bring forth. Be conscious of who you
are. It’s okay to take baby steps, eventually you will get you there. Don’t
take rejection as a ‘no’ to your life – your life isn’t over, just a
steppingstone to your higher self. Keep stepping up.
“We need you. Your form
of art may not be on stage, it may be going to government. Your art might not
be an interviewer like Frank Dilella, it might be to head a country and make
the world a better place for everybody. Know thyself and to thine own self be
offered insights into his life in a conversation with Frank DiLella, Emmy Award
winning host of On Stage on Spectrum News NY1.
was honored for his epic performances that have been woven into the fabric of
the nation’s artistic legacy – first coming to worldwide attention as Chicken
George in the ground-breaking television series, Roots for which he won an Emmy nomination in 1977. He won a Tony
Award as well as the Drama Desk Award for Best Actor in A Musical in 1973 for Pippin; and starred in Jesus Christ Superstar, Fosse, Hair, Jelly’s
Last Jam, Chicago, I’m Not Rappaport and Wicked; and films including Sweet
Charity and All that Jazz.
recent projects include the TV series Bull
and Magnum PI, FOX’s Star, produced by Lee Daniels, Sneaky Pete with Bryan Cranston, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Time Out of Mind with Richard Gere, and Top Five with Chris Rock. He is
currently working on his new Broadway musical, Reflections, written by Joe Calarco, to be directed by Tony nominee
Josh Bergasse with music by Stephen Schwartz.
is heralded for promoting the talents and careers of young people – through
education and access to the arts – wherever he gives concerts he holds master
classes and in past concerts has provided the opportunity for a talented
newcomer to make their debut on stage with him – and for his humanitarian work
for which he has received numerous awards including Israel’s Cultural and
Humanitarian Award, three NAACP Image Awards, Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian
Award and a Victory Award.
2016, he signed with Americans for the Arts, the largest advocacy group of Arts
in America and has spoken before Congress defending funding for the National
endowment for the Arts.
Vereen spoke of his career and his calling in a conversation with Frank
about how he got started in show business, a boy of modest means from Brooklyn,
he said, “This career chose me.
“This career was handed
to me. In my community in Brooklyn going to the High School of Performing Arts was
like being a prodigal son. It is hard to say when I chose this, because it
chose me. I would never have left Brooklyn except for performing arts school –
–known as the Fame School.
Apparently he got into
trouble, because he was placed in a so-called “three-digit school”.
“I was placed in class with Mr. Hill, the director of theater.
I was with guys named Killer, Shank Diablo. Mr. Hill said he wanted me to do King and I. I went to the Brooklyn
Academy of Music – they had an all-African American company – 100 musicians – and
did King and I. That was it – that
was the bug.
Vereen attended the High
School of Performing Arts from the age of 14 – where he studied dancing with
stellar choreographers Martha Graham, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
He was 18 years old when he made his New York
stage debut off-off-Broadway in The Prodigal Son at the
Greenwich Mews Theater. The following year he was in Las Vegas performing in
Bob Fosse’s production of Sweet Charity.
He describes the
audition for Sweet Charity.”Every
dancer was on stage to audition – Bob Fosse was the coolest, he moved so
smooth. He did the combination, smoked cigarettes, the ashes wouldn’t fall. He made
the cut of dancers. Then it was time to sing. I had never seen a Broadway show.”
He had nothing prepared but mimicked another and got the part anyway, going on
to tour with the production from 1967-68.
He made his Broadway
debut in original production of Hair. “It was a groundbreaking show, it made
A real breakthrough was
meeting Sammy Davis Jr. He reflected how important an influence Sammy Davis Jr.
was to him. “Sammy was the first African American that I watched on tv. My
father loved tv. One night Sammy was on the Ed Sullivan show.
Sammy saw Vereen at an
audition. “I had attitude – Sammy Davis Jr saw it. He invited me to have dinner
and hired me for Golden Boy. That’s
where it began. I followed him, wanted to be like him, dress like him, the
coolest cat. He loved everybody. People don’t give Sammy enough credit – he
wasn’t just a song and dance man, but a great humanitarian. He died penniless
because gave all his money to everybody.”
Davis took him on tour
of Golden Boy to London when he was
25. That’s when he discovered he was adopted by James and
Pauline Vereen, when he applied for a passport.
went on to be cast opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in the film version of Sweet
Charity, and then as Davis’ understudy in Golden Boy in England.
life changed – and nearly ended – on one fateful day in 1992 when he had three
accidents the same day that put him in an ICU for 42 days when doctors thought
he might never walk again.
don’t remember being hit
by a car. The interesting thing about the spirit which inhabits this body, it
decides to take a break, ‘but I’ll be back’. All I remember – Pamela [Cooper, his
manager] told me this – I was driving and hit a tree, which damaged an artery
in my brain. I was walking home, got a stroke, and was hit by an SUV.
Amazingly, it was somebody I knew – David Foster, who I had met in Canada, a
famous songwriter who wrote for Whitney Huston, Celine Dion, who had said, “We
should get together.’ He could have left
me and I wouldn’t be sitting here today but he stayed; he called 911, cradled
me, waited for paramedics. They flew me to the hospital ICU. They told me I had
a broken my left leg, suffered a stroke on right side, took out my spleen, I
had an apparatus attached to my head, and a trach. The last thing I remember
was getting into my car.”
“[In my mind I am
thinking] what happened, why am I here? I can’t talk. All these things are going
through your mind – this can’t be happening, I have show on Saturday.
“They told me it will be
at least three years if you’ll ever walk again. At that point, I had just met a
wonderful woman, Rev. Doctor Johnnie Coleman in Chicago [known as the “First
Lady of the New Thought Christian Community] who taught metaphysics and would say, ‘Whenever you have something negative coming
at you, learn this mantra, Cancel. That’s only man’s perception. Cancel.”
Meanwhile, he reflected, people crowded the hospital lobby praying for him. “There were letters, boxes of letters come in. Looking at boxes, thinking were bills, but they were from you [the fans].”
“[The doctors were
saying] ‘We think you should think about another occupation.’ So when they sent
in an occupational therapist, I thought they were to get me a new occupation
instead of teaching me fine motor skills. Cancel, Cancel – I couldn’t talk.
“I said to myself if I
can’t walk again, Lord, whatever you want me to do I’ll do… I had to show up – I
couldn’t just lay there and ask God to heal me. I got to show up.”
“The thing about prayer,
how it works – the doctor instinctively knew where to cut- spirit is always
working in our favor. Steven Hawkins became my hero – if you can do that with Steven
Hawkins, here I am.”
At the rehabilitation
center in Kessler, NJ, he recalls, “There was a young man who had been shot
named Michael Jackson, an orderly called Juice because he delivered the juice
but his real name was Glen Miller, a therapist named Jerry Lewis.
“You don’t have the
luxury of a negative thought. But I did what no one thought I could do, get
back on Broadway.”
He was told there would
be a part for him in Jelly’s Last Jam
if he could be ready.
The therapists from
Kessler went to show, and said, “We can do this, and a few months later, I walked
on stage in Jelly’s Last Jam.
“Hear what that story is
really about: the inner spirit is stronger than our physical human
understanding of who we are. The idea, called surrender, take me as I am, I
what he considers the highlight of his career, he reflects back to Roots.
“I heard about a show, Roots. Every African American in the
world wanted to be a part of that. I go back to the same agent who said Pippin
won’t make it and told him ABC was brave enough to put on show, Roots and I wanted
to be a part. ‘Be real,’ he said. ‘They’re looking for actors. You’re song and
dance man. So I went to Chicago –I was introducing Sister Sledge – then went to
Savannah,Georgia. I did a character Bert Williams – African Americans in show
business had to wear blackface and Williams made it art form. I did a tribute
to him. [Roots’ producer] Stan Margulies knocked on my door and said he loved
the show. ‘We’re shooting Roots for ABC, I want you to be my Chicken George.’ I
fired my agent and off to Hollywood I went.”
In being awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gold Coast Arts Center, Ben Vereen is in good company. Previous honorees and special guests of the Gold Coast International Film Festival include film industry VIPs Francis Ford Coppola, Hugh Grant, Robert Wagner, Jill St. John, Baz Luhrmann, Brian Dennehy, Paul Sorvino, Ed Burns, Bruce Dern, Isabella Rossellini, Lou Diamond Phillips, Morgan Spurlock, Eli Wallach, Gabriel Byrne, Jacques Pepin, Bill Plympton, Phil Donahue, Phylicia Rashaad, Joan Allen, Jay McInerney and Michael Cuesta, as well as composer Morton Gould, artists James Rosenquist, Oleg Cassini, Edwina SandysandBob Gruen, comedian Susie Essman, Broadway stars Kelli O’Hara, Melissa Errico andSavion Glover, and 4-time Oscar winner for production and costume design Catherine Martin.
The 9th annual Gold Coast International Film
Festival taking place From November 4-13, 2019, presents more than 80
feature-length and short films in venues throughout North Hempstead, Long
Island and an opportunity to
This year’s highlights
include The Two Popes, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan
Pryce; which will be the Festival’s Closing Night Spotlight Film. Other films
of note this year include Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and
Adam Driver, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the winner of the Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and Clemency, starring Alfre Woodard, which won the Grand Jury Prize at
the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
The Festival will also be screening By the Grace of God, the
Grand Jury Prize winner at the 2019
Berlin International Film Festival.
“Films are a unique
art form, bringing together drama, dance, music, art in 90 minutes. It’s one of
the most accessible and affordable art forms. You come together with 200
others, smile, laugh, cry, think, learn, and sometimes be moved to action. How
often do you get to hear from artists and creators how and why they made the
film?” reflected Caroline Sorokoff, the festival director.
Among the narrative
films that will provoke thought and action, “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste”
from executive producer Anthony Bourdain, co-sponsored by Island Harvest, the
first film in a new Gold Coast series spotlighting social issues of concern to
The Gold Coast Arts
Center is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to promoting the
arts through education, exhibition, performance, and outreach. Located on
the North Shore of Long Island, it has brought the arts to tens of thousands of
people from toddlers, tweens, teens to totterers throughout the region for 25
years. Among the Center’s offerings are its School for the Arts, which
holds year-round classes in visual and performing arts for students of all ages
and abilities; a free public art gallery; concerts and lectures; film
screenings and discussions; the annual Gold Coast International Film Festival;
and initiatives that focus on senior citizens and underserved communities.
These initiatives include artist residencies, after-school programs, school
assemblies, teacher-training workshops, and parent-child workshops. The Gold
Coast Arts Center is an affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the
Performing Arts Partners in Education program, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. More information can
be found at www.goldcoastarts.org.
For information about
upcoming films in the Festival’s year-round film screening program plus the
latest news on the 2019 Festival visit www.goldcoastfilmfestival.org 516-829-2570.
Global Scavenger Hunt teams arrive in New York City for the last leg of the
Global Scavenger Hunt, a mystery tour that has taken us to 10 countries in 23
Chalmers, the ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of this around-the-world
mystery tour, has designed the rules, challenges and scavenges to get us out of
our comfort zone and immerse us in a culture, fine-tune our skills as world
travelers, and most significantly, “trust in the kindness of strangers.”
in New York, he is delighted all 10 teams circumnavigated the world “in one
piece” without dramatic incident, in this, the 15th annual
Global Scavenger Hunt competition.
There is one more challenge in New York (an easy urban Par 1), and even though, based on points and placement, the winners of the 15th annual, 2019 edition of the Global Scavenger Hunt have been determined, still the teams go out and give it their all. The four teams still in contention must complete at least one of the scavenges in New York, and complete their time sheet and hand in by the 4 pm deadline.
Examples of the scavenges: take in a Yankees game or a Broadway show (actually difficult because of the deadline of 4 pm); have one of each of following: a New York bagel, a New York hot dog, a New York deli sandwich, a slice of New York pizza, New York cheesecake, a New York egg cream, or an old-fashion Manhattan; locate five pieces from five of the nations you just visited in the Met; visit Strawberry Fields to pay John Lennon tribute; do one scavenge in each of the five boroughs of New York City.
A native New Yorker, this is really
my turf, though there is the oddest sensation of feeling like I am in a foreign
place, reminding myself of what is familiar and not having to think twice about
things like language, currency, drinking water from the tap, eating raw
vegetable, the street grid).
fact, that is the genius of the way the Global Scavenger Hunt is designed – we
are supposed to feel off-balance, disoriented because that’s when you focus
most, the experiences are more intense, you are out of your comfort zone and
need to rely on the kindness of strangers, as opposed to the style of travel
where you stay long enough to become familiar, comfortable in a place so it (and
you) no longer feels foreign.
I elect to take up the challenge of going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to seek out objects from five of the countries we visited (Canada, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, Greece, Morocco, Gibraltar, Portugal, Spain). Greece will be easy, of course, but Morocco and Jordan (Petra), Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) are trickier. It is Chalmers’ way of making us experience things on a different level, and for me, it brings together so much of what we’ve seen, learned and experienced along the way. I have a context in which to appreciate the artifacts, dare I say a personal connection. Indeed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art enables you to travel around the world, be transported over millennia, within the confines of its walls.
I first join a docent-led Highlights
Tour, knowing from past experience that these always lead me to parts of the
museum I am unfamiliar with, and enlighten me about aspects of art and culture
with the in-depth discussion of the pieces the docents select to discuss.
The docent, Alan, begins in the
Greco-Roman exhibit with a stunning marble sculpture of the Three Graces,
showing how this theme – essentially copied from the Greek bronzes (which no
longer exist because the bronze was valuable and melted down for military use)
– was repeated over the eons, into the Renaissance and even beyond. Greece. One
finding an object from Greece would be easy, and I hope to find objects from
Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand in the Asia wing where there is a
massive collection of Buddhist art (it proves just a tad more difficult, but I
and Jordan (Petra) prove trickier than I expected, but bring me to an
astonishing, landmark exhibit, “The World Between Empires: Art and
Identity in the Ancient Middle East,” with an extraordinary focus on
the territories and trading networks of the Middle East that were contested
between the Roman and Parthian Empires (ca. 100 BC and AD 250) “yet across the
region life was not defined by these two superpowers alone. Local cultural and
religious traditions flourished and sculptures, wall paintings, jewelry and
other objects reveal how ancient identities were expressed through art.”
This is a goldmine for my hunt.
Featuring 190 works from museums in the Middle East, Europe and the United
States, the exhibition follows the great incense and silk routes that connected
cities in southwestern Arabia, Nabataea, Judea, Syria and Mesopotamia, that
made the region a center of global trade along with spreading ideas, spurring
innovations (such as in water control), and spawning art and culture. It is a
treasure trove for my scavenger hunt.
It is the most incredible feeling to come upon the objects from Petra, having visited the site (was it only 10 days ago?) and having a context for seeing these isolated objects on display. I recall seeing their counterparts in the newly opened Archaeological Museum at Petra.
The World Between Empires
landmark exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in
the Ancient Middle East (unfortunately it is only on view through June
23, 2019), focuses on the remarkable cultural, religious and commercial
exchange that took place in cities including Petra, Baalbek, Palmyra and Hatra
between 100 B.C. and A.D. 250. “During this transformative period, the Middle
East was the center of global commerce and the meeting point of two powerful
empires—Parthian Iran in the east and Rome in the west—that struggled for
Among the highlights is a Nabataean
religious shrine, reconstructed from architectural elements in collections in
the United States and Jordan; the unique Magdala Stone, discovered in a
first-century synagogue at Migdal (ancient Magdala) with imagery that refers to
the Temple in Jerusalem; and wall paintings from a church in Dura-Europos that
are the earliest securely dated images of Jesus.
Sculptures from Baalbek illuminate
religious traditions at one of the greatest sanctuaries in the ancient Middle
East, and funerary portraits from Palmyra bring visitors face to face with
ancient people. The exhibition also examines important contemporary
issues—above all, the deliberate destruction and looting of sites including
Palmyra, Dura-Europos, and Hatra.
“The compelling works of art in this
exhibition offer a view into how people in the ancient Middle East sought to
define themselves during a time of tremendous religious, creative, and
political activity, revealing aspects of their lives and communities that
resonate some two millennia later,” stated Max Hollein, Director, The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a video that accompanies the exhibit. “Further,
in focusing on an area of the world that has been deeply affected by recent
conflicts and the destruction of sites, monuments, and objects, this show also
engages with complex questions about the preservation of cultural heritage.”
The exhibition evokes a journey
along ancient trade routes, beginning in the southwestern Arabian kingdoms that
grew rich from the caravan trade in frankincense and myrrh harvested there and
used throughout the ancient world. Camel caravans crossed the desert to the
Nabataean kingdom, with its spectacular capital city of Petra, which I have
just visited, walking through very much as the caravan travelers would have.
From here, goods traveled west to
the Mediterranean and north and east through regions including Judaea and the
Phoenician coast and across the Syrian desert, where the oasis city of Palmyra
controlled trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world to Mesopotamia
and Iran and ultimately China. In Mesopotamia, merchants transported cargoes
down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf, where they joined
maritime trade routes to India. These connections transcended the borders of
empires, forming networks that linked cities and individuals over vast
“Across the entire region, diverse
local political and religious identities were expressed in art. Artifacts from
Judaea give a powerful sense of ancient Jewish identity during a critical
period of struggle with Roman rule. Architectural sculptures from the colossal
sanctuary at Baalbek and statuettes of its deities reveal the intertwined
nature of Roman and ancient Middle Eastern religious practices. Funerary
portraits from Palmyra represent the elite of an important hub of global trade.
Wall paintings and sculptures from Dura-Europos on the River Euphrates
illustrate the striking religious diversity of a settlement at the imperial
frontier. And in Mesopotamia, texts from the last Babylonian cuneiform
libraries show how ancient temple institutions waned and finally disappeared
during this transformative period.”
From my visits in Athens and Petra,
particularly, I appreciate this synergy between trade, migration, environmental
sustainability and technology (in Petra’s Archaeology Museum, you learn how the
ability to control water supply was key to the city’s development) and the
links to economic prosperity and political power, and the rise of art, culture,
and community. (I recall the notes from the National Archaeology Museum in
Athens that made this very point.)
It is rare (if ever) for the
Metropolitan Museum to venture into the political, but a key topic within the
exhibition is the impact of recent armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen on
archaeological sites, monuments, and museums, including deliberate destruction
and looting. Some of the most iconic sites affected—Palmyra, Hatra, and
Dura-Europos—are featured in the exhibition, which discusses this damage and
raises questions regarding current and future responses to the destruction of
heritage. Should the sites be restored or will they now only exist “on paper”?
How much money and resources should go to restoring or excavation when villages
and homes for people to live in also need to be rebuilt?
There is a fascinating, if frantic,
presentation of three archaeologist/historians speaking about what the
destruction by ISIS and Islamic fundamentalists of Palmyra, Eura-Europos and
Hatra – what it means to destroy a people’s heritage, their cultural identity.
“It may seem frivolous to focus on [archaeological sites] when people are
enslaved, killed…but to wipe out, destroy culture is a way of destroying
Happening upon this exhibit made the
travel experiences we had to these extraordinary places all the more precious.
It is a humbling experience, to be
sure, to go to the origins of the great civilizations, fast forward to today.
How did they become great? How did they fall? Greatness is not inevitable or
forever. Empires rise and fall. Rulers use religion, art and monuments to
establish their credibility and credentials to rule; successors blot out the culture
and re-write history.
I peek out from the American Café windows to Central Park and see sun and the early spring blossoms on the trees, and dash out to walk through my other favorite New York City place. There is nothing more beautiful than New York City in the spring – brides are out in force taking photos; there are musicians and entertainers. There is a festive atmosphere as I walk through the park toward the Palace Hotel in time for our 4:30 pm meeting.
And now, drumroll please, Chalmers
announces the winner of the 2019 Global Scavenger Hunt: “Only one team wins.
The competition was fierce.”
third place is Order & Chaos, Sal Iaquinta & Vivian Reyes,
doctors from San Francisco.
second place, Lazy Monday, Eric & Kathryn Verwillow, computer networking
and think tank professional of Palo Alto, California “I am in awe of how hard
working, beginning to end – embracing the spirit,” Chalmers says.
the World’s Greatest Travelers of 2019: Lawyers Without Borders, Rainey
Booth and Zoe Littlepage of Houston, who have competed in the Global Scavenger
Hunt 12 times, and win it for their 6th time. “You
embody the spirit of the event, to go out of your comfort zone.” (You can
follow Zoe’s blog of her experience to get a sense of how strenuous,
outrageous, and determined the team was in accumulating their points: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019)
We celebrate at a final bon voyage
The Global Scavenger Hunt is the
brainchild of Bill and Pamela Chalmers, who in addition to forging
understanding and bonds among travelers and the people in the destinations
visited, use the program to raise money for the GreatEscape Foundation and
promote voluntourism – one of the scavenges in Yangon, Myanmar is to volunteer
at an orphanage or school; past GSH travelers visited and helped out at Tibetan
refugee camps in Nepal, orphanages in Laos, hospitals in Cambodia, homeless
schools in India, hospices in Manila, disabled facilities in Sri Lanka,
Ethiopian schools, the slums of Nairobi.
“The foundation is one of main
reasons we do the event,” Chalmers says at our final meeting before going out
for a celebration dinner. The foundation has raised money to build 12 schools
(1 each in Niger, Haiti, Ecuador, India & Ethiopia; 2 each in Sri Lanka
& Sierra Leone, and 3 in Kenya), helped build the Tamensa Medical Clinic in
Niger for migrating Tuareg nomads which serves as a midwives & nurse
training center too. “We know that we saved lives and bettered the lives of
hundreds. We have helped over 2400 families in more than 60 countries (mostly
women entrepreneurs) with our interest and fee free micro-loans (96% of which
have gone to women with a 99% repayment).”
Through the event this and last
year, the foundation will build 2 more co-ed elementary schools , in Ethiopia
Global Scavenger Hunt Set for April 17-May 9
Chalmers has just set the dates for the 23-day
2020 Global Scavenger Hunt: April 17-May 9, 2020. Entry applications are now
Eager Indiana Jones-types of adventurers and curious travelers wanting to test their travel IQ against other travelers in an extraordinary around-the-world travel adventure competition that crowns The World’s Greatest Travelers, can apply at GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
The 2020 event will pit savvy international travelers against each other by taking them on A Blind Date with the World, visiting ten secret destinations without any prior preparation, and then have them unravel a constant blitz of highly authentic, participatory and challenging culturally-oriented scavenges along the way, like: meditating with monks, training elephants, taking flamenco lessons, cooking local dishes with local chefs, searching out Lost Cities, cracking sacred temple mysteries, joining in local celebrations, and learning local languages enough to decipher their scavenger hunt clues. Trusting strangers in strange lands will be their focus as they circle the globe for three weeks. Over the past 15 years, the event has touched foot in 85 countries.
The title of The World’s Greatest Travelers and free trip around the world to defend their titles in the 2021 event await the travelers worthy enough to win the 16th edition of the world travel championship.
Event participation is open but limited; the $25,000 per team entry fee includes all international airfare, First Class hotels, 40% of meals, and special event travel gear. All travelers are interviewed for suitability and single travelers are welcome to apply. For additional information visitGlobalScavengerHunt.com, or contact GreatEscape Adventures Inc. at 310-281-7809.
Bill Chalmers, the “ringmaster” and
CEO (Chief Experience Officer) of the Global Scavenger Hunt, launches us our
biggest, most ambitious and difficult leg of the 23-day, around-the-world
mystery tour: a Par 6, in which our challenge is to get from Marrakesh through
four countries – Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal with scavenges in each
to win points – in five days, meeting at 11:30 am in Porto, Portugal, when we
will fly out to New York, our final destination and the final and decisive leg
of the competition to be crowned “World’s Best Traveler”.
for your final exam, when all the skills you have learned come together while
your situational awareness is peaking and the Travel IQ ready for action,”
Chalmers tells us as we gather together in the lobby of the Savoy Le Grand in
Marrakesh, Morocco. “The Big multi-country adventure of the Par 6 North
Africa/Iberian Peninsula leg.
are over 150 scavenges with 19 Bonuses, 3 Team Challenges and a whole lotta
good eating; six exciting days of buses, trains, ferries, camels, trams, bikes
and funiculars; four diverse country stops over 1,400 km (870 miles) lay
between here in Marrakesh and there in Porto. Oh yea, did I mention May Day!?”
are handled $300 to cover their best-guess transportation costs and told we are
required to secure our own lodgings for three nights (we are given an allowance
of $200 per team per night) “all depending on your risk/reward course of
action. We will see you Friday at 11:30AM in the lobby of our Porto, Portugal
hotel. Good luck to everyone, be safe, be smart.”
Chalmers allows these rule changes for this climatic leg:
1) Teaming up allowed, but only in Morocco!
2) Car rentals allowed, but only once, and only within one single country where
the rental must be both picked-up & returned.
3) Use of smartphones allowed.
4) Airbnb & Uber allowed.
are some 150 scavenges in this leg (a challenge is to figure which ones to do
for points and logistics), including mandatory ones like #51 (“Within the
bowels of Fes el-Bali, visit the Baab Bou Jeloud gate”). It is also mandatory
to complete at least one scavenge in all four primary countries: Morocco,
Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal. Other mandatory challenges have to do with
eating, since food is such a window to culture and tradition, and also brings
are scavenges that earn bonuses. In Morocco: either camp out in the desert one
night or stay in traditional riad; venture to the Atlas mountains to visit
Berber villages, Ait Souka/Kasbah Dutoubkal, or Aghmat/Oureka; visit the blue
city of Chefchaouen; visit Volubilis to see something old & Roman; visit
nearby sacred village Moulay Idriss.
We have arrived at Savoy Le Grand – a massive modern resort-style hotel with multiple pools, sandwiched between a major modern mall and a casino, about a half-mile from the gate to Marrakesh’s Old City – at midnight local time, about 2 am for us having come from Athens. Bill recognizes the need for a break so essentially gives us the morning off, so we can meet at 11:30 am in the lobby to launch us on the challenge he has termed “our final exam.”
The hotel is a bit garish (it makes me think of the Concord in the Catskills) but actually quite nice. Still, Bill actually apologizes that he couldn’t get us into something more “authentic”. Because of the wedding between British actor Idris Elba and model Sabrina Dhowre (former Miss Vancouver), they had to research over 50 properties before they could get us into Savoy Le Grand Hotel for two nights.
My teammate, Margo, and I are not
competing so have the advantage of being able to get advice from the concierge and
use hotels.com to book hotels in the places we want to overnight. Even so, it
takes from noon to about 5:30 pm to work out an outline for how we will cover
the distance – set up the first train ticket from Marrakesh to Fez (we give the
concierge the money to buy the ticket) and book hotels in Fez and Gibraltar
(another team has gotten names for a traditional riad in Fez and a hotel in
Gibraltar which three teams decide to book).
Margo decides to spend an extra day
in Porto, Portugal, but I set my sights on Seville, and organize a hotel there
and a flight from Seville to Porto (which wouldn’t be allowed if I were
competing), so we will travel together from Marrakesh to Fez to Gibraltar and
then travel independently until Porto (if we were competing, we would have to
do everything as a team).
By 5:30 pm, I still haven’t figured
out how to get from Fez to Gibraltar and Gibraltar to Seville, but I am
frustrated and angry not actually seeing Marrakesh, and drop everything so we
go into the Old City. The other two teams which are following much the same
itinerary are content to just wing it once we get to Fez.
Right at the gate to the old city is the famous, five-star La Mamounia Palace hotel – a hotel since 1923, but with a history that extends back to the 12th century. Its magnificent gardens were a wedding gift to Prince Al Mamoun in the 18th century.
Margo and I walk to the famous Koutoubia Grand Mosque that so dominates the city (It turns out that everything we do could earn scavenge points). The largest mosque in Marrakesh, the Koutoubia is not only its spiritual center but an architectural trend-setter. that was adopted in buildings in Spain (Giralda of Seville) and Rabat (Hassan Tower), which were built in the same period.
The mosque is ornamented with curved windows, a band of ceramic inlay, pointed merlons, and decorative arches; it has a large plaza with gardens, and is floodlit at night. The minaret tower, standing 253 feet high, has a spire and orbs. The mosque was completed under the reign of the Berber Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (1184 to 1199).
Founded in 1062, Marrakesh was once the capital of a vast trading empire that stretched from Toledo to Senegal. You get a sense of this at Marrakesh’s main square, Jemaa el Fna, which I learn, was once a medieval trading square where public executions took place (why it is called the Assembly of the Dead).
As soon as we enter the massive square, there is a cacophony of sounds, a blur of motion and color. And activity – snake charmers, acrobats, henna artists, musicians, Berbers (who demand money for photo even if you only look at them), merchants hawking every kind of item – snake-oil salesman selling men’s fertility.
are scores of “restaurants” – stalls, really, with long tables under canvas
like picnics, with their representatives with numbered signs identifying their
location, recruiting new customers – when one sits down, they serenade in
souks radiate off the square with tiny alleyways.
Before it gets too dark, we make our way through the souks to find the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue (which happens also to be one of the scavenges).
We weave through the maze – asking people who point us in a direction (just as we are supposed to do under the Global Scavenger Hunt) – a kindly fellow leaves his stall to lead us down narrow alleyway to Laazama Synagogue, which is still a functioning synagogue but also serves as the city’s Jewish Museum.
After Jews were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492, Rabbi Yitzhag Daloya came to Marrakesh. He became president of the court and head of the “deportee” community in Marrakesh and founded the “Tzlat Laazama,” Synagogue of Deportees”, shortly after his arrival.
But the Moroccan Jewish community is much older than the Spanish Inquisition– dating back to King Solomon and the Roman period. Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by Joseph Ibn Tasifin, ruler of the Halmorabidim, who allowed Jewish settlement in the city. The Jewish community was “renewed” in 1269, headed by Rabbi Yahuda Jian, originally from southern Spain. The Atlas Jews remained the majority of the community even after the Jews from Spain and Portugal settled in Marrakesh.
situation changed in the 16th century when Marrakesh became a major
center for Marranos (secret Jews) who wished to practice Judaism openly.
Spanish and Portuguese Marrakesh Jews lived in their own neighborhoods until
all local Jews, some 35,000, were collected by order of the King, in 1557, and
resettled in the Mellah (a walled community). In the 19th century,
the population increased in the Mellah after refugees from the Atlas Mountains
arrived, becoming the largest Jewish community in Morocco. At one time, there
were 40 synagogues here.
synagogue is beautifully decorated with tile, a courtyard ringed with study
rooms, a music room, living quarters. There is a video about history of Jewish
community in Marrakesh. The photos on the walls are interesting – the faces of
the Moroccan Jews are indistinguishable from the Arab Moroccans.
Jews have also left the country – the Moroccan Jewish Diaspora counts more than
1 million members in four corners of the world, “a diaspora that continues to
cultivate ties to their homeland, Morocco.” Indeed, we come upon a woman with
her sister-in-law and mother who left Marrakesh first for Casablanca and now
lives in Paris; her brother is still a member of the synagogue’s leadership –
she shows us his chair. Her grandfather is buried in the nearby Jewish
From the synagogue, we walk to the Jewish cemetery, Beth Mo’ed Le’kol Chai, which should have been closed, but the guard lets us in.
in 1537, the cemetery spans 52 hectares and is the largest Jewish burial site
in Morocco, with some 20,000 tombs including tombs of 60 “saints” and devotees
who taught Torah to the communities of Marrakesh and throughout Morocco.
arrangement of the graves is “unique” to the city of Marrakesh. There is a
children’s section, where 7000 children who died of Typhus are buried; a
separate men’s section and a woman’s section while around the perimeter are
graves of the pious, the judges and scholars of the city who are believed to
provide protection for all those buried.
hails a taxi to head back to the hotel, and I walk back to the main square
through the markets (the tricky part is less about getting lost than avoiding
the scooters that speed through the narrow alleyways), and get the real flavor
of this exotic place and dusk turns to darkness and the neon-colored lights
Here you can see a huge variety of Moroccan craftsmen and
tradesmen, organized by profession, under a roof of reeds, hawking leather
goods, fabrics, kettles, pottery. The Dyers’ Souk, has colorful skeins of wool
hanging out to dry on its walls, while the Blacksmiths’ Souk (souk Haddadine)
displays a wide variety of metalwork.
Back in the bustling Jemaa el Fnasquare, I see a crowd of men gathered around one fellow with a lizard, selling a miracle cure. When I ask a fellow what it is about, he grins and I get the idea. No different than the snake-oil salesmen of old.
dinner time, neon lights have come on, and I go to the section of the
square where there are dozens of outdoor
restaurants. Guys wave a placard with their stall number which are their ID and
do a sales pitch (“Remember #1, Remember 35”, “Air-Conditioned!” they say with
a grin). Then when you stop, fellows come by and sing to draw in customers. It
is all very good natured. I find a stall to have dinner – seated on a bench
with others who have come here from around the world and local neighborhoods.
should be noted that Marrakesh has bike share, bike lanes, pedestrian
crossings, is clean, with lots of police and auxiliary, striking new buildings,
and the people are very helpful and hospitable.
Marrakesh, a thousand-year old city,has just been designated African Capital of Culture 2020, a a showcase of today’s urban Africa, highlighting the diversity of African culture.
next day we are up at 4:30 am, breakfast is delivered at 5 am, and we take a
five-minute cab ride to a gorgeous train station, to catch the 6 am train, riding in a first-class
compartment for a wonderful 6 ½ hour trip to Fez.
The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.
Abu Dhabi is one of those places
where the impression you have is either completely wrong or nonexistent. At
least for me. Coming here on the Global Scavenger Hunt is yet another instance
of proving what travel is all about: seeing, learning, connecting for yourself,
and undoing stereotypes and caricatures.
Yes, Abu Dhabi is about conspicuous
ostentation. That part of the pre-conception seems validated.
But what I appreciate now is how an
entire nation state was built relatively recently out of a chunk of desert. The
skyscrapers and structures have grown up here in a matter of decades, not
My first awareness comes visiting
Fort Hassan, the original defensive fort and government building, and later the
sheik’s residence built around (it reminds me of the White House, which is both
the home of the head of government and government office). Fort Hassan has been
restored (not rebuilt) and only opened to the public in December 2018. It
provides the history of Abu Dhabi (https://qasralhosn.ae)
Qasr al Hosn, as it is properly called, is the oldest and
most significant building in Abu Dhabi, holding the city’s first permanent
structure; the watchtower. Built around the 1790’s, the commanding structure
overlooked the coastal trade routes and protected the growing settlement
established on the island.
It consists of two major buildings: the Inner Fort (originally
constructed in 1795) and the Outer Palace (1939-45). Over the centuries, it has
been home to the ruling family, the seat of government, a consultative council
and a national archive; it now stands as the nation’s living memorial and the
narrator of Abu Dhabi’s history.
Transformed into a museum in 2018 after more than 11 years
of intensive conservation and restoration work, Qasr Al Hosn is a national
monument that encapsulates the development of Abu Dhabi from a settlement
reliant on fishing and pearling in the 18th century, to a modern, global metropolis,
with displays of artifacts and archival materials dating back to as far as 6000
You see photos of how the
fort/palace looked in 1904, with nothing but desert and a couple of palm trees
around it. Today, it is ringed (yet not overwhelmed) by a plethora of
skyscrapers, each seeming to rival the next for most creative, most gravity-defying,
most odd and artful shape. It is like a gallery of skyscrapers (New York City
Museum of Skyscrapers take note: there should be an exhibit) – for both their
art and engineering. I note though that as modern as these structures are, they
basically pick up and mimic some of the pattern in the old fort. And the
building boom just seems to be going on.
And then you consider this: it’s all
built on sand (and oil). “In 500 years from now, will these be here?” Bill
Chalmers, the organizer of the Global Scavenger Hunt for the past 15 years,
remarks. We had just come for Bagan, Myanmar, where the temples have been
standing since the 11th century despite earthquakes and world
events, and Yangon, where we visited the Schwedagon Pagoda that dates back
There is also a Hall of Artisans
which begins with an excellent video showing how the crafts reflected the
materials that were at hand (eventually also obtained through trade) and then
you see women demonstrating the various crafts, like weaving. (Indoors, with
very comfortable air-conditioning and facilities.)
From there, I walk to a “souk” at
the World Trade Center that had stalls of some traditional items – wonderful
spices for example – but in a modern (air-conditioned comfort!) setting, and
directly across the street from a major modern mall promising some 270
different brand shops. Souks are aplenty here.
My walk lets me revel in the
skyscape. I come upon an intriguing road sign pointing toward the Federal
Authority for Nuclear Regulation.
I find myself dashing to get to the
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, where I had pre-booked the 2 pm tour. I didn’t
realize how far it is from downtown – a 35-minute drive. The taxi driver, who I
learn was recruited to come work in Abu Dhabi from his home in Ghana along with
many other young men, and lives in an apartment building with other migrant
workers, has to stop for gas and I worry I will miss the tour altogether.
The visit to the Falcon Hospital is
truly a highlight of a visit to Abu Dhabi. It is fascinating to learn how these
prized birds are handled. We are taken into the treatment area, surprised to
see a couple of dozen hooded falcons, waiting patiently in what is a waiting
room for their “appointment”. Their owners drop them off for the day for
whatever checkup or healthcare they require; others stay in the falcon hospital
(the biggest in Abu Dhabi and one of the biggest in the world), for months
during their moulting season, when, as wild falcons, they would otherwise live
in the mountains for six months. They are provided the perfect cool temperatures
they would have in that habitat, before coming to the desert in spring to hunt,
and later to breed.
We get to watch a falcon being
anesthesized – they quickly pull off his hood, at which point he digs his claws
into the gloved hand holding him, and his face is quickly stuffed into the mask
and put to sleep. His claws, which normally would be shaved down in the wild,
become dangerously overgrown in captivity; the falcon doctor also shows how
they can replace a feather that has become damaged, possibly impeding the
bird’s ability to fly or hunt (they can carry prey four times their weight).
The feather has to be an exact match, which they match from the collection of
feathers from previous moultings. Then we get to hold a falcon. Not
surprisingly this is one of the scavenges on the Global Scavenger Hunt (worth
35 points in the contest to be named “World’s Greatest Traveler”).
We learn that the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) is the
first public institution in the United Arab Emirates providing comprehensive
veterinary health care services exclusively for falcons. It was established by
the Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency and opened in October 1999. The Abu
Dhabi Falcon Hospital has become the largest falcon hospital in the United Arab
Emirates and in the world, caring for 11,000 falcons a year and more than
110,000 patients since its opening.
From being established as a purely veterinary facility,
the ADFH has expanded in the fields of education and awareness, training and
research. Due to the huge demand the falcon hospital has became a full-fledged
specialized avian hospital for all kinds of birds and poultry species in 2006.
In 2007, it added services for a wide variety of VIP pets and in 2010 opened an
animal shelter. In 2011, it began its own falcon breeding program and breeds
Saker falcons for the H.H. The Late Shk Zayed Falcon Release Program.
2007, ADFH opened its doors to what has become an award-winning tourism program
and has become the most important tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi – for good
It is a thrilling and unique
experience. I meet a woman from Switzerland who is engaged in a four-week
internship at the falcon hospital, learning how to handle and care for the
falcons – information she will bring back as a high school teacher. She tells
me the falcons are very kind and gentle and bond with their owner. The feeling
is clearly reciprocal – these prized falcons, which can cost up to $1 million,
can fly on an airplane in the first class cabin with their owner (they have to
have their own passport to prevent illegal trafficking), have their own seat
and their own menu (fresh killed meat).
The Grand Mosque
Next I go to the Sheikh Zayed Grand
Mosque – an experience that is not to be believed. If you thought the Taj Mahal
was magnificent, a wonder of the world, the Grand Mosque which was built in
1999 and uses some of the same architectural and decorative design concepts,
vastly surpasses it, in architectural scale and in artistic detail. Not to
mention the Taj Mahal is basically a mausoleum, while the Grand Mosque is a
religious center that can accommodate 7800 worshippers in its main sanctuary,
31,000 in the courtyard and altogether up to 51,000 worshippers for such high
holy days as Ramadan. At more than 55,000 sq. meters it is the largest mosque
in the United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world. And every
cubic meter of it spectacularly decorated – the courtyard is one of the largest
mosaics in the world.
I time the visit to arrive about
4:30 pm in order to be there at dusk and sunset – and go first to what is
labeled “the Visitors Happiness Desk” – how could I resist? The two gentlemen
who manned the desk (surprisingly who are natives of Abu Dhabi when 88 percent
of the population here come from some place else) are extremely well suited to
their role – extremely friendly, helpful. As I am asking my questions, who
should come down the escalator but my Global Scavenger Hunt teammate (small
world!), so we visit together.
The experience of visiting is
surprisingly pleasant, comfortable, welcoming – not austere as I expected
(especially after having visited Buddhist temples in Myanmar where even when
the stones are hot enough to fry an egg, you have to walk completely barefoot).
Women must be fully covered, including hair, but they provide a robe (free). (I
look like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)
Indeed, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque “aims to cultivate interaction between Islam and world cultures… Sheikh Zayed’s vision for the Grand Mosque was to incorporate architectural styles from different Muslim civilizations and celebrate cultural diversity by creating a haven that is truly diverse and inspirational in its foundation. The mosque’s architects were British, Italian and Emirati, and drew design inspiration from Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt among other Islamic countries, to create this glistening architectural marvel accommodating 40,000 worshippers and visitors at a time.
“The open-door policy invites tourists and celebrants from all around the world who can witness the spectacular onion-top domes, the reflective pools that engulf the courtyard and the iconic prayer hall, which not only overflows with blissful sunlight, but also houses the world’s biggest chandelier and carpet, both meticulously handmade. Be sure to spot the calligraphy encircling the hollows of the domes, etched with verses from the Quran and painted with gold leaves in An-Naskh lettering.”
When you arrive at the Visitors
Center, which is at some distance from the mosque, you walk underground to where
there is an air-conditioned mall, with restaurants and shops, then go through a
tunnel like an airport (an electric cart is available for those who can’t walk
distances; it kind of reminded me of how Disney moves its visitors into its
The public tour (an absolute must)
is also free, indeed, the admission ticket to the Grand Mosque is free.
(Fortunately, Margo manages to get us on the last public tour of the day which
had already left, getting the guard to let us slip under a barrier.) Our guide
is a delightful young woman who cheerily walks us through and points out the
amazing art and details. The mosque is massively large in scale, but looks
Just as we leave a touch of sunlight
breaking through clouds that make the structures even more beautiful, if that
were possible. By the time we get outside, the lights have come on (www.szgmc.gov.ae/en/Home ).
I ask the Happiness guys where to go
for the best view of the Grand Mosque after dark, and, instead of the adjacent
hotel where I had first been directed, they point us to The Souk at Qaryat (Al
Beri), just across the water from the mosque. Sure enough, the view is
Global Scavenger Hunt Challenges
We had arrived in Abu Dhabi about
midnight local time the night before, after having left our hotel in Myanmar at
5:15 am, flying an hour to Bangkok where we had an eight-hour layover challenge
(I only managed to do a water taxi on the canal and explore the Golden Mountain
and some buildings and watched preparations for the King’s coronation (I later
heard it was for a parade that day). Then flew six hours to Abu Dhabi where we
gained 3 hours (that is how we make up the day we lost crossing the
International Dateline and why it is so hard to keep track of what day or time it
is), so for us, midnight was 3 am. Bill Chalmers, the organizer, ringmaster and
Chief Experience Officer of the Global Scavenger Hunt tells us this was the
most arduous travel day we would have (and the 18 hours travel from Vancouver
to Vietnam was the longest airline trip).
We have had a full day in Abu Dhabi
to do our scavenges. Tonight’s scavenger hunt deadline is 10 pm, when we will
learn where our next destination will be on the 23-day day mystery tour. Only
five of the original nine teams are still in contention to win the title,
“World’s Best Traveler” (and free trip to defend the title next year).
The scavenges are designed to give
us travel experiences that take us out of our comfort zone, bring us closer to
people and immerse us in cultures. In Abu Dhabi, one of the experiences that
would earn 100 points is to be invited for dinner with a family in their home.
“It is always a good thing to be invited for dinner with a family in their
home. If you are, and you do – please do bring something nice for them, be
patient and be gracious. Of course, we want proof.”
Another is to “hold an informal
majlis with actual locals (people actually from UAE and not at any hotel) over
an Arabica coffee; talk about a few things like the future of Abu Dhabi, oil,
tourism, arranged marriages, Western values, etc.” That would earn 35 points.
Other possibilities: ride “the
world’s fastest rollercoaster” (75 points – Paula and Tom, the SLO Folks and
returning champions, did that and said it felt like 4G force); walk the
Emirates Palace from end to end and have a “golden cappuccino” (they literally
put gold flakes in the cappuccino, this is Abu Dhabi after all) for 35 points;
take in the grandeur of the Presidential Palace, only recently opened to the
public, and visit Qasr Al Watan, a building within the compound dubbed “’Palace of the
Nation” (complete with huge white domes,
lush gardens and dramatic chandeliers, the new landmark is intended to give
visitors a stronger understanding of the UAE’s governing traditions and values.
There is also a spectacular nightly show.) (50 points).
Many of the scavenges (including
mandatory ones) have to do with local food, because foods and food preparations
are so connected to heritage, culture and environment and bring people
together. One of the scavenges here is to assemble three flavors of camel milk
from a grocery store and do a blind taste test (35 points).
Unfortunately, an attraction we all
wanted to visit, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was closed. The museum, which opened in
November 2017, is a collaboration with the famous Louvre of Paris, France, and
intended to be a “universal museum in the Arab World,” focusing on “what unites
us: the stories of human creativity that transcend individual cultures or
civilizations, times or places.”
The pioneering cultural project
combines “the UAE’s bold vision of cultural progression and openness with
France’s expertise in the world of art and museums.” The museum was expected to
exhibit Leonard Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, considered the most expensive
painting in the world (purchased for $450 million at auction in November 2017,
believed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sulman), but delayed the exhibition.
A lasting impression that I will
carry away from this brief visit to Abu Dhabi is that its theme this year is
“Year of Tolerance” which also goes to what we have experienced here:
attractions and programs intended to promote understanding of Islamic history,
heritage and culture.
Our accommodation in Abu Dhabi is
the five-star St. Regis (just about all the accommodations arranged for the
Global Scavenger Hunt are five-star), which serves the most extravagant
breakfast. Purposefully, our ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer, Bill
Chalmers, has arranged it so we will have two, lavish breakfasts here, much to
our collective delight.
The hotel has a stunning rooftop
pool and bar (what a view!) and is connected by a tunnel under the busy
boulevard to the beach on the Persian Gulf.
We gather together at 10 pm in the
lavish lobby of the St. Regis, excitedly trade stories about our travel
adventures during the day. Inevitably, I am jealous of the things I didn’t do,
couldn’t fit in to do – like visiting the Fish Market, the Iranian Souk, the
Presidential Palace! (can’t believe I missed that), built for the tidy sum of
$5 billion (open til 7 pm, then a lightshow at 7:30 pm).
And then we learn where we are going
perfect day in Myanmar – our fourth and final day on Leg 3 of the Global
Scavenger Hunt, in which we set out from Yangon to travel about the country,
making a triangle that takes me to Bagan and Inle Lake and back to Yangon to
fulfill the Par 5 challenge on this a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour.
45-minute taxi ride from the delightful, five-star Sanctum Inle Resort on Inle
Lake is wonderful – I catch people driving oxcarts and donkey carts and people
riding the backs of trucks, villages and pagodas. But I have some trepidation
about Heho Airport because of the snafu in booking my ticket, resolved
long-distance by text to my son in New York to phone the online booking agent,
as I bounced around on the overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. But I arrive,
am checked in to Golden Airlines without incident, and relax during the
45-minute flight back to Yangon.
morning flight gives me time to explore Yangon which I didn’t have when we
first arrived on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt from Vietnam, and were
given our challenges, to travel around Myanmar and return to the Sule Sangri-la
Hotel by the 6 pm deadline.
the airport, I attempt to take the public bus back into downtown, but after two
buses pass me by, I take a taxi instead.
back, I review a brochure I picked up at the airport which mentions a synagogue
in Yangon – in fact, the last synagogue in Myanmar. So I resolve to find it.
turns out it is only a 15-minute walk from our hotel, the Sule Sangri-la,
bringing me through various bustling market streets and shopping districts. The
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue itself is set on a busy market street where there are
chickens and fish for sale – the chickens clucking, the fish squirming to get
out of their container (I see one jump out of its container), the rich scent of
spices, and every other manner of item you can imagine.
the time I arrive at Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, it is 1:40 pm – which proves
extremely lucky because it closes to visits at 2 pm (open daily except Sunday).
Inside, it is a lovely synagogue in the Sephardic style, built in 1896. At one
point, the Jewish community in Yangon numbered 2500 before the mass migration
of WWII; today, there are only 5 families (about 30 people). The Samuels, one
of the last remaining Jewish families, has maintained the synagogue for
generations, a plaque notes.
not surprising, a short distance from the synagogue is Bogyoke Aung San Market,
which since 1926 has been the city’s major marketplace. I am surprised to see
all the sellers of jade and jewelry (which is what the market is known for), as
well as traditional longyi, and just about anything else you can think of. I come
upon a seller of interesting post cards, and find the post office on the third
level (one of my traditions of travel is to send home postcards, which not only
have stamps, but mark the date and give some visual and personal notes). Also,
I have been impressed by the absolute lack of political messaging in the streets,
but here in the market is one art seller who has images of Myanmar’s most
famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Wondering about the name, I later learn that Bogyoke
Aung San market is named for her father, Bogyoke (General) Aung
walk back to the hotel, just a few blocks away, to refresh (it is 104 degrees),
in order to prepare for a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, which I have been saving
for the late afternoon (one of the mandatory scavenges of the Global Scavenger
Hunt is to visit at dawn or dusk), so that I will be there at dusk (but back at
the hotel by the 6 pm deadline for the scavenges), but nothing could have
prepared me for the experience of seeing it.
as I am about to leave, my teammate, Margo, who had traveled to Mandalay when I
went on to Inle Lake, walks in. She relates that after a snafu with her airline
ticket, she had to hire a taxi to drive her back to Yangon (ironic because I
couldn’t get the airline to cancel my ticket when I changed my plan to go to
Inle Lake instead, but such mishaps turn into marvelous adventures). We go off
together to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is located west of the Royal
Lake, on the vast, 114 -acre Singuttara Hill.
cleverly hires a guide to show us around this vast, vast complex and it is
fascinating: this was the first pagoda in the world, he tells us.
the Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred and impressive
Buddhist site. Dating back almost 2500 years, the pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other
holy relics. It is breathtaking.
The Shwedagon Pagoda stands 326
feet high, its dome covered in 60 tons of gold (we watch workmen on scaffolding replacing some of the
gold plates). At the very top, too small to be appreciated from where we stand
at the base, is an orb, 22 inches high and 11-inches wide, encrusted with 4531
diamonds, the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond. The base is
surrounded by 64 small pagodas with four larger ones in the center of each side.
There also are four sphinxes, one at each corner, with six leogryphs (a lion-like
creature). Projecting beyond the base of the Pagoda. are Tazaungs (shrines) in
which are images of the Buddha and where offerings are made.
There are also figures of elephants crouching
and men kneeling and pedestals for offerings all around the base. In front of
the 72 shrines surrounding the base of the Pagoda, there are images of lions,
serpents, ogres, yogis, spirits, or Wathundari. Among the most dazzling art is
a Jade Buddha. There are also mystical and mysterious places, like the well
where Buddha’s sacred hair was washed and Buddha’s foot print.
the highest achievements of Myanmar’s sculpture, architecture and art, there
are hundreds of colorful temples, stupas and statues spanning nearly 2500 years. It
is known as Shwedagon, “the Sanctuary of the Four,” because it contains relics
of four Buddhas who had attained Enlightenment.
We move among the bustling
activity of devotees and monks washing the statues, offering flowers,
worshiping, and meditating.
interesting is coming upon a procession of families celebrating the induction
of two young boys into the monastery.
Sule Pagoda which I visited the evening we arrived in Yangon – was it just four
days ago? – was also magnificent, but Shwedagon is on a different scale of magnificent.)
could easily spend hours here, but we must dash back in a taxi to get back to
the Global Scavenger Hunt group, arriving a few minutes past the 6 pm deadline
(we aren’t competing to win the challenge to be the “World’s Best Travelers,”
so we did not have to turn in our scorecards documenting our scavenges, though,
in fact, we have been doing as many as we can.
a hosted dinner at a Japanese restaurant, all of us trade our stories of adventure
and exploration from Yangon and some combination of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle
Lake. One of the scavenges invited the teams to take part in a volunteering
opportunity and Lawyers Without Borders, the team from Houston, volunteered at a
Youth Development monastery in Yangon. “The monks take in, house,
feed and educate orphans from far-flung and remote villages around the
country,” Zoe Littlepage writes on her blog (http://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com). “My favorite
part was eating lunch with the kids. They sing their prayers before they
can start eating.. magical.” (Zoe Littlepage and Rainey Booth, of Houston, are
on their 12th Global Scavenger Hunt, and are five-time champions,
and their law firm helps support the philanthropic works of the Global
Scavenger Hunt Foundation.)
return to the hotel to get our four-hour notice and learn where our 23-day
“Blind Date with the World” mystery tour continues next: an eight-hour layover
challenge in Bangkok and then on to Abu Dhabi – essentially having breakfast in
Myanmar, lunch in Thailand and dinner (or nightcap?) in the United Arab Emirates.
are out the door at 5:15 am (the hotel sends us off with breakfast boxes), to
get to the airport.
is worth noting that in addition to having a unique alphabet and language,
Myanmar (formerly Burma) asserts its identity by keeping its clocks half-hour
different from its timezone.
realize that time is really fluid – not really stable or fixed ordering our day,
a concept rather than an invention. We lost a full day crossing the timezone
during that first flight of more than 14 hours, and have been picking up an
hour or so here as we go.
end of this Par 5, Leg 3 dash through Myanmar, SLO Folks, a team
from central California who are the returning champions from last year’s Global
Scavenger Hunt, earned the second most points with 37 scavenges in Yangon,
Bagan and the point rich area of Inle Lake for 2,055 points; and Lawyers Without
Border, a team from Houston on their 12th Hunt (they have won it
five times) had the most, completing 52 scavenges in Yangon, Bagan & Inle
Lake earning 2,745 points.
perfect day in Inle Lake, Myanmar, on Leg 3 of the Global Scavenger Hunt, a
23-day around-the-world mystery tour, begins the night before, on the JJ
Express bus that leaves the temple city of Bagan at 10 pm and arrives at the
bus stop (literally in the middle of the street in a small village) at 4:30 am.
It is complete darkness, not a sound or stirring besides ourselves as the bus
pulls away, leaving us there. For a moment, we feel stranded. Then, out of the
shadows, two tiny jitneys – like small tut-tut open-back vehicles – appear. The
drivers ask which hotels we are bound for so we divide up based on which side
of Inle Lake we are staying. We settle the fare (we are in a very limited
position to negotiate) and climb in.
jitney drops us at the Sanctum Inle Resort at 5:30 am, where the kindly hotel
clerk calls in housekeeping early so we could get into our rooms by 6 am (when
2 pm would have been normal check-in time). This five-star resort makes me feel
like I have been dropped into paradise.
am traveling on my own at this point, though at least one other of the 10 teams,
SLO Folks, on the Global Scavenger Hunt are here – my teammate went on to Mandalay with
another team who decided not to compete for points. SLO Folks (last year’s “World’s
Greatest Travelers” GSH champion) has been scrupulous about following rules of
the contest (no using computer or cell phone to make bookings or to get
information; the trip is designed to “trust strangers” and engage with local
people) so they arrive in Inle with no hotel, not even a decent map to start
planning how they will attack the scavenges (challenges) and accrue the most
points in the limited amount of time.
this challenge, Leg 3 of our trip, is to depart Yangon (the city formerly known
as Rangoon when the former British colony was known as Burma) and complete a
triangle of cities (Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake), allowing only two legs by air and
return to Yangon by 6 pm on Saturday, making our own arrangements for
transportation and hotel (we are reimbursed $200/night/team). I had planned to
go from Bagan to Mandalay with my teammate, but after hearing about Inle Lake
from another team (Lawyers Without Borders, a Houston team that has done the
Global Scavenger Hunt 12 times) who had been here before, I was enchanted to
see it; then, overhearing SLO Folks planning to take the overnight bus, I was
determined to see it for myself.
The description enchanted me: Located in the middle of Myanmar,
in the Shan State, Inle Lake is set in a valley
between two mountain ranges, with whole villages of wooden houses built on
stilts in the middle of the lake, floating gardens, boatmen who steer standing
up, wrapping one leg around a tall oar. There are 10 different Shan
ethnic groups living around the lake and the surrounding hills, home to many
different minorities who come down to sell their goods in the villages – like
the Long Neck Ladies. Inle Lake was designated a wetland wildlife sanctuary in
Inle Lake feels like a different world to the rest of Myanmar,
indeed, it seems like an enchanted Sangri-la.
Sanctum Hotel (Maing Thauk Village, Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe, Myanmar) is on the
list of suggested accommodations provided by the GSH “ringmaster” and Chief
Experience Officer, Bill Chalmers, and because I am not competing, have booked
on hotels.com ($101 for the night). I am delighted to find it is an absolutely
gorgeous five-star luxury resort (the infinity pool on the grounds with views
to the lake is breathtaking), and just being here fills me with a contented
peace. But that is only the beginning.
kindness of the hotel manager is immensely appreciated. For me, it means I am
able to take advantage of the hotel’s 8 am boat tour (that means a traditional
wooden boat with the modern convenience of a power motor as well as the
boatman’s long oar) because most of Inle Lake’s special attractions are
literally on the lake – whole villages, in fact, are built on stilts on the
lake; there are floating gardens which are really aquatic farms; floating
markets; the fishermen fish in a distinctive fashion with nets and the boatmen
paddle standing up, with their leg wrapped around the tall oar. The temples and
other major attractions – silversmiths, weavers, boatmakers – are all reached
by the boat.
full-day tour will take me to the Five Day Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Inn
Paw Khone Village, Ywa Ma Village, Nam Pan Village (where we visit workshops to
see crafts – silversmithing, weaving, boatmaking), Floating Gardens, Nge’ Phe’
Chaung Monastery and Indein Pagoda – essentially enabling me to see all Inle
Lake’s highlights in a one-day visit ($35), though there is so much to see,
Inle Lake is worth a two or three day stay.
Sanctum Inle Resort is situated on the bank of Inle lake – a shallow lake
that’s over 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide – and to begin the tour I
have booked (because I’m not competing, I can book a hotel tour, while the
competing team cannot, so they go off to find where the boatmen keep their
boats), I am escorted down to the hotel’s dock where the boat and the boatman
is waiting. It turns out I am the only one, so this is essentially a private
tour. The boatman, a young fellow named Wei Mo, speaks only limited English –
enough to tell me where I am going – but it is sufficient, I just don’t expect
to get any commentary.
is an amazing experience – gliding across the lake, the fresh air and cool
breeze rushing over me, especially after the debilitating 108-degree heat of
Bagan. Inle Lake is notable for the Intha, lake dwellers who have a distinctive
way rowing their wooden boats by wrapping their leg around a tall oar. At
first, the mechanics make no sense. But I realize it is a way of standing and
using such a tall oar and keeping the weight balanced on the tiny boats.
the course of the boat tour, I encounter a young fellow fishing (though you
have to get out pretty much at sunrise to see the fishermen), boat people
harvesting from the lake, go through an entire village built on stilts, where
there are also numerous craftsmen and workshops we visit. One stop provides an
opportunity to visit with the Long-Neck Ladies (actually only one), who come
down from their secluded village to pose for photos with tourists for money. We
also visit important pagodas and temples on the lake.
is remarkable to see how the Inthar make the most out of the lake – even
creating farmland where none existed. They build floating gardens out of
lake-bottom weeds and water hyacinth and grow crops like squash and tomatoes,
anchoring them with bamboo poles. I learn that these
floating islands can be cut, dragged by boats and even sold like a plot of
land. Floating gardens can be found mostly in Kaylar, Inchan and Zayatgyi
I love visiting the various workshops in the various villages
– it seems each has a specialty. We visit a silversmith workshop where I watch
the intricate process before being led into (what else) an elaborate shop,
filled with stunning creations.
pulls up to Inn Paw Khone Village, famous for
its weaving workshops, but most notably, weaving silk from lotus. Silk
weaving in Inn Paw Khon began 100 years ago. At first, they wove from cotton
fiber and then changed to silk and finally lotus fiber. and I am told that the
technique of making silk from lotus was begun by a woman now more than a
century old. I get to watch how a woman
delicately pulls a strand from the lotus plant which is wound on a spindle into
the boatmakers, I learn how each one is designed differently for their purpose
– a family boat, a fishing boat (7.8 meters), a boat designed for the Long Neck
people. “A boat lasts 25 years. Only men make the boats, they need to be
strong. It takes 20 days to make a boat; they make lacquer from a tree to
paint, wood powder and cotton. It takes two people to cut the teakwood,” she
tells me. There are absolutely stunning wood carvings to purchase. But I must
stop in several of the region’s most important pagodas.
Indein Pagoda is the most impressive of the attractions visited. You walk up a
covered walkway lined with beautifully painted columns, up a hill, flanked by
an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist stupas, some of stone, some intricately carved,
some gilded. Many have been restored but you also see many crumbling with age
and being reclaimed by the jungle. (There
is a camera fee, 500 kyat, which works out to about 30 cents).
to atlasobscurba.com, “These structures date from the 14th to the 18th
centuries and are typical of Burmese zedi. Like others found
across the region, the stupas feature fantastical creatures like chinthe –
mythic lion-like beings that protect sacred spaces. These were (and remain)
sites for contemplation and meditation and many contain relics inside their
bases. The first stupas at Indein were likely commissioned during the reign
of King Narapatisithu, although according to legend, it was King Ashoka – the
Indian emperor responsible for spreading Buddhism across much of Asia – who
first designated this as a site of particular spiritual importance. Hundreds of
years later, that distinction is completely obvious. The sea of ornate spires
coupled with the view over the lake and surrounding calm lend this spot an
unquestionably mystic, reflective air.” (www.atlasobscura.com/places/shwe-indein-pagoda) It is
breathtaking to see. Inside, people are gathering for a communal feast.
come Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, one of the famous principal
shrines in Myanmar, just crammed with boats and worshippers. The pagoda houses
five small Buddha images which are much revered by the lake-dwellers. Once a
year, in late September-early October, there is a pagoda festival when four of
the five Buddha images are taken on an elaborately decorated barge towed
by several boats of leg-rowers, rowing in unison, and other accompanying boats,
making an impressive procession on the water.
Ngaphechaung Monastery is a
beautiful wooden monastery built on stilts over the lake at the end of the
1850s, the biggest and oldest monastery on the lake. The
monastery is known for a collection of old Myanmar’s Buddha images from
different eras. It is also notable because the monks have taught a few of
the many cats living with them to jump through hoops (that is the reputation,
but I don’t get to see any cats).
skip stopping for lunch so am able to condense the tour somewhat, which brings
me back to the hotel at 2:30 pm.
I indulge in Sanctum Inle Resort’s utterly stunning pool – I would rank one of the best resort pools in the world – an infinity pool of black and silver that shimmers as you swim, magnificently set with a view down to the lake, richly landscaped, a great size for actually swimming as well as playing around. It is also one of the most magnificent places just to lounge. I meet families from around the world.
am back in my room by 5 pm, to walk about a mile up the road from the resort
into the nearby village of Maing Thauk. I am bound for the Friendship Bridge
where one of the scavenges is to watch the sunset. I love to see the Burmese alphabet,
with its circles and curley-cues, on signs (few have English translation,
except for the Noble Aim PreSchool, my Rosetta Stone, and a traffic sign with a
drawing of a parent holding a child’s hand, indicating a school crossing). I
come upon a school holding a sports competition that has drawn a tremendous
audience. Even though hardly anyone speaks English, we manage to chat
(icebreaker: What is going on? Where is the bridge?). It’s a good thing I ask
the fellow if I was going the right way to get to the Friendship Bridge I am
looking for, because he directs me to turn left on the next corner (I would
have gone straight).
Bridge connects many structures and from which people can get onto the scores
of wooden boats that gather here, especially to offer sunset “cruises”, as well
as walk to several restaurants. The views and the evening activity are just
magnificent. It’s like watching the entire community walk by.
I’ve noticed during this incredibly brief visit is exactly what GSH’s organizer
Bill Chalmers had hoped when he dealt with a question of whether we should be
in a place that has earned worldwide condemnation for human rights abuses.
Travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding of one
another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly, not
seeing others as “other”, which works both ways. In very real ways (and
especially now), travelers are ambassadors, no less than diplomats. Boycotting
destinations because of their governments, isolating people from one another,
cutting off the exchange of ideas and people-to-people engagements is not how
change happens – that only hardens points of view, and makes people susceptible
to fear-mongering and all the bad things that have happened throughout human
history as a result. “See for yourself,” Chalmers tells us.
I see in the people I’ve encountered is a kindness, a warmth of spirit, a
sweetness among the people here. I see it in how parents hold their children,
how the boatman, Wei Moi, shows such etiquette among the other boatmen, how
helpful people are. And how readily they
leg has been a Par 5 in difficulty (Par 6 being the most difficult during this,
the 15th Global Scavenger Hunt) – which has entailed us going out of
Yangon to Bagan, Mandalay and/or Inle Lake (many more rules on top of that,
including no more than 2 flights), taking overnight bus or hiring a taxi or
train, and so forth. But Chalmers devious design has worked – in just these
four days, we really do immerse ourselves in Myanmar, though our itinerary most
properly should be done in 11 days (there are several operators who offer such
challenge of the Global Scavenger Hunt is important to mention because Inle
Lake is worth at least a two or three day stay to be completely immersed in its
spell. There is a tremendous amount to do and experience.
can reach Inle Lake by air, bus (Joyous Journey Express, known as JJ Express,
provided excellent service; travel on the first-class bus geared to tourists,
www.jjexpress.net), or hire a driver to Inle Lake from various other major destinations
in Myanmar (Bagan, Mandalay, Yangon). The closest airport to Inle Lake is Heho
airport (HEH) which is 45 minutes away from the lake.
final challenge of this leg is to get back to our hotel, the Sule Shangri-la,
in Yangon by 6 pm, and for those competing to hand in their scorecards and
proof of completing the scavenges. That’s when we will learn where in the world
we will go next, and where we will all compare experiences.
Global Scavenger Hunt teams arrive in New York City for the last leg of the
Global Scavenger Hunt that has taken us to 10 countries in 23 days. Bill
Chalmers, the ringmaster and Chief Experience Officer of this around-the-world
mystery tour, in which the challenges and scavenges are designed to get us out
of our comfort zone and immerse us in a culture, fine-tune our skills as world
travelers, and most significantly, “trust in the kindness of strangers.” Back
in New York, he is delighted all 10 teams circumnavigated the world “in one
piece” without dramatic incident, in this, the 15th annual Global
Scavenger Hunt competition.
leading teams vying for the title of “World’s Greatest Travelers” as we enter
this final leg of the contest in 4th place, SLO Folks from
California with 96 points (where the low-score wins); in 3rd, Order
& Chaos, doctors from San Francisco with 81 points; in 2nd
place, Lazy Monday, computer networking consultant and think tank professional
from California with 46 points, and Lawyers Without Borders, from Houston, with
33 points, five-time winners who are competing in the Global Scavenger Hunt for
the 12th time.
is one more challenge in New York (an easy urban Par 1), and even though, based
on points and placement, the winners of the 15th annual, 2019
edition of the Global Scavenger Hunt have been determined, still the teams go
out and give it their all. Those in contention must complete at least one of
the scavenges in New York, and complete their time sheet and hand in by the 4
of the scavenges: take in a
Yankees game or a Broadway show; have one of each of following: a New
York bagel, a New York hot dog, a New York deli sandwich, a slice of New York
pizza, New York cheesecake, a New York egg cream, or an old-fashion Manhattan; -locate
five pieces from five of the nations you just visited in the Met; visit
Strawberry Fields, pay John Lennon tribute; do one scavenge in each of
the five boroughs of New York City.
native New Yorker, this is really my turf (though there is the oddest sensation
of feeling like I am in a foreign place, reminding myself of what is familiar
like language, money, streets, drink water, eat salad), and I delight in
walking up Madison Avenue to 82nd Street to the Metropolitan Museum
of Art on Fifth Avenue.
elect to take up the challenge of going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to
seek out objects from five of the countries we visited (Canada, Vietnam,
Myanmar, Thailand, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, Greece, Morocco, Gibraltar, Portugal,
Spain). Greece will be easy, of course, but Morocco and Jordan (Petra), Vietnam
and Myanmar (Burma) are just a bit trickier. It is Chalmers’ way of making us
experience things on a different level, and for me, it brings together so much
of what we’ve seen, learned and experienced along the way.
first join a docent-led Highlights Tour, knowing from past experience that
these always lead me to parts of the museum I am unfamiliar with, and enlighten
about aspects of art and culture with the in-depth discussion of the pieces the
docents select to discuss.
docent, Alan, begins in the Greco-Roman exhibit with a stunning marble
sculpture of the Three Graces, showing how this theme – essentially copied from
the Greek bronzes (which no longer exist because the bronze was valuable and
melted down for military use) – was repeated over the eons, into the
Renaissance and even beyond.
Obviously, finding an object from Greece is going to be easy, and I hope to find objects from Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand in the Asia wing where there is a massive collection of Buddhist art (it proves just a tad more difficult, but I succeed). Morocco and Jordan (Petra) proved trickier than I expected, but brought me to an astonishing exhibit, “The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East,” with an extraordinary focus on the territories and trading networks of the Middle East that were contested between the Roman and Parthian Empires (ca. 100 BC and AD 250). “yet across the region life was not defined by these two superpowers alone. Local cultural and religious traditions flourished and sculptures, wall paintings, jewelry and other objects reveal how ancient identities were expressed through art.”
exhibit features 190 works from museums in the Middle East, Europe and the
United States in an exhibition that follows the great incense and silk routes
that connected cities in southwestern Arabia, Nabataea, Judea, Syria and
Mesopotamia, that made the region a center of global trade along with spreading
ideas, spurring innovations (such as in water control), and spawning art and
was the most incredible feeling to come upon the objects from Petra, having
visited the site (was it only 10 days ago?) and having a context for seeing these
isolated objects on display.
The World between Empires
The landmark exhibition The World between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East, which is on view through June 23, 2019, focuses on the remarkable cultural, religious and commercial exchange that took place in cities including Petra, Baalbek, Palmyra and Hatra between 100 B.C. and A.D. 250. “During this transformative period, the Middle East was the center of global commerce and the meeting point of two powerful empires—Parthian Iran in the east and Rome in the west—that struggled for regional control.”
The exhibition focuses on the diverse and distinctive
cities and people that flourished in this environment by featuring 190 outstanding
examples of stone and bronze sculpture, wall paintings, jewelry, and other
objects from museums in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.
Among the highlights is a Nabataean religious shrine,
reconstructed from architectural elements in collections in the United States
and Jordan; the unique Magdala Stone, discovered in a first-century synagogue
at Migdal (ancient Magdala) and whose imagery refers to the Temple in
Jerusalem; and wall paintings from a church in Dura-Europos that are the
earliest securely dated images of Jesus. Sculptures from Baalbek illuminate
religious traditions at one of the greatest sanctuaries in the ancient Middle
East, and funerary portraits from Palmyra bring visitors face to face with
ancient people. The exhibition also examines important contemporary
issues—above all, the deliberate destruction and looting of sites including
Palmyra, Dura-Europos, and Hatra.
“The compelling works of art in this exhibition
offer a view into how people in the ancient Middle East sought to define
themselves during a time of tremendous religious, creative, and political
activity, revealing aspects of their lives and communities that resonate some
two millennia later,” said Max Hollein, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Further,
in focusing on an area of the world that has been deeply affected by recent
conflicts and the destruction of sites, monuments, and objects, this show also
engages with complex questions about the preservation of cultural heritage.”
The exhibition evokes a journey along ancient trade routes,
beginning in the southwestern Arabian kingdoms that grew rich from the caravan
trade in frankincense and myrrh harvested there and used throughout the ancient
world. Camel caravans crossed the desert to the Nabataean kingdom, with its
spectacular capital city of Petra, which I had just visited, walking through
very much as the caravan travelers would have.
From here, goods traveled west to the Mediterranean and north and
east through regions including Judaea and the Phoenician coast and across the
Syrian desert, where the oasis city of Palmyra controlled trade routes that
connected the Mediterranean world to Mesopotamia and Iran and ultimately China.
In Mesopotamia, merchants transported cargoes down the Tigris and Euphrates
rivers to the Persian Gulf, where they joined maritime trade routes to India.
These connections transcended the borders of empires, forming networks that
linked cities and individuals over vast distances.
Across the entire region, diverse local political and religious
identities were expressed in art. Artifacts from Judaea give a powerful sense
of ancient Jewish identity during a critical period of struggle with Roman
rule. Architectural sculptures from the colossal sanctuary at Baalbek and
statuettes of its deities reveal the intertwined nature of Roman and ancient
Middle Eastern religious practices. Funerary portraits from Palmyra represent
the elite of an important hub of global trade. Wall paintings and sculptures
from Dura-Europos on the River Euphrates illustrate the striking religious
diversity of a settlement at the imperial frontier. And in Mesopotamia, texts
from the last Babylonian cuneiform libraries show how ancient temple
institutions waned and finally disappeared during this transformative period.
In Athens and Petra, particularly, you appreciate this synergy
between trade, migration, environmental sustainability and technology (in
Petra, the ability to control water supply was key), economic prosperity and
political power, and the rise of art, culture, and community.
It is rare (if ever ) for the Metropolitan Museum to venture into
the political, but a key topic within the exhibition is the impact of recent
armed conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen on archaeological sites, monuments,
and museums, including deliberate destruction and looting. Some of the most
iconic sites affected—Palmyra, Hatra, and Dura-Europos—are featured in the
exhibition, which discusses this damage and raises questions regarding current
and future responses to the destruction of heritage. Should the sites be
restored or will they now only exist “on paper”? How much money and resources
should go to restoring or excavation when villages and homes for people to live
in also need to be rebuilt?
There is a fascinating, if frantic, presentation of three archaeologist/historians speaking about what the destruction by ISIS and Islamic fundamentalists of Palmyra, Eura-Europos and Hatra – what it means to destroy a people’s heritage, their cultural identity. “It may seem frivolous to focus on [archaeological sites] when people are enslaved, killed…but to wipe out, destroy culture is a way of destroying people.”
upon this exhibit made the travel experiences we had to these extraordinary
places all the more precious.
is a humbling experience, to be sure, to go to the origins of the great
civilizations, fast forward to today. How did they become great? How did they
fall? Greatness is not inevitable or forever. Empires rise and fall. Rulers use religion,
art and monuments to establish their credibility and credentials to rule;
successors blot out the culture and re-write history.
out from the American Café windows to Central Park and see sun and the early
spring blossoms on the trees, and dash out to walk through my other favorite
New York City place. There is nothing more beautiful than New York City in the
spring – brides are out in force taking photos; there are musicians and
entertainers. There is a festive atmosphere as I walk through the park toward
the Palace Hotel in time for our 4:30 pm meeting.
And now, drumroll please, Chalmers announces the
winner of the 2019 Global Scavenger Hunt: “Only one team wins. The competition
3rd – Order & Chaos, Sal Iaquinta & Vivian Reyes, doctors from San
2nd – Lazy Monday, Eric & Kathryn
Verwillow, computer networking and think tank professional of Palo Alto, California
(“I am in awe of how hard worked beginning to end – embraced the spirit,”
1st Lawyers Without Borders, Rainey Booth and Zoe Littlepage of Houston, who have competed in the Global Scavenger Hunt 12 times, and won it for the 6th time. “You embody the spirit of the event, to go out of your comfort zone.” (You can follow Zoe’s blog of her experience to get a sense of how strenuous, outrageous, and determined the team was in accumulating their points: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019)
We celebrate at a final bon voyage dinner.
The Global Scavenger Hunt is the brainchild of Bill and
Pamela Chalmers, who in addition to forging understanding and bonds among
travelers and the people in the destinations visited, use the program to promote
voluntourism (one of the scavenges is to volunteer at an orphanage or school
during our stay in Yangon, Myanmar, and in the past travelers visited & helped out at: Tibetan
refugee camps in Nepal, orphanages in Laos, hospitals in Cambodia, homeless
schools in India, hospices in Manila, disabled facilities in Sri Lanka,
Ethiopian schools, the slums of Nairobi) and raised money for the
“The foundation is one of main reasons we do the event,”
Chalmers says. The foundation has raised money to build 12 schools (1 each in Niger, Haiti, Ecuador, India & Ethiopia; 2
each in Sri Lanka & Sierra Leone, and 3 in Kenya), helped build the Tamensa Medical Clinic in Niger for migrating
Tuareg nomads which serves as a midwives & nurse training center too. “We
know that we saved lives and bettered the lives of hundreds. We have helped
over 2400 families in more than 60 countries (mostly women entrepreneurs) with
our interest and fee free micro-loans (96% of which have gone to women with a
Through the event this and last year, the
foundation will build 2 more co-ed elementary schools , in Ethiopia and Haiti.
TheGlobal Scavenger Hunt travel
adventure competition is aimed at returning the romance of travel while testing
IQ of the most travel savvy of globetrotters. The travelers
(who must apply and be accepted to compete) completed a series of highly
participatory, authentic and challenging cultural site-doing scavenges
in ten secret countries over a 23-day circumnavigation between April 12 and May
4, 2019 designed to bring people out of their comfort zone and trust strangers
in strange lands.
“The Global Scavenger Hunt covers a lot of
extraordinary travel bases,” says Chalmers, who dubs his mystery tour, “A blind
date with the world.”
Imagine a structure 120 feet high that can fit 2000 people for a concert, but that can move, expand, shrink or be completely removed to expose an open-air plaza. An “anti-institution” cultural institution to provide a home and nurture the full spectrum of the arts, where emerging artists, local artists, and established artists have parity, and audiences represent the diversity and inclusivity of New York with low-priced ticket holders dispersed throughout the house.
This is The Shed, the
newest cultural center to open in a city which prides culture above all, sure
to be gain a place among the pantheon of iconic art institutions, along with
its leading-edge approach to harnessing the arts as a force for social action
and public good, its astonishing architecture, flexible, versatile and
adaptable enough to enable artists of today and tomorrow and fulfill their
vision to be a platform across multi-disciplines.
It’s “the Swiss army knife” of culture,” said Daniel L. Doctoroff, chair of the board, during a press preview prior to the April 5 grand opening, when the principals involved with the genesis of the project spoke of what The Shed, and its mission, meant to the city and society.
Indeed, they noted, in a city of 1200 cultural attractions, The Shed had to be different, beginning with its commitment to commissioning new works, creating a platform – the space and place – for artists across disciplines, engaging audiences across a spectrum of backgrounds and interests, but most significantly, creating a building, that like a “living organism” would keep morphing to accommodate artists’ visions today and decades from now, accommodating the unimaginable ways art and culture might change over time.
Six and a half years ago, after seeing a 60-second animation of what The Shed could be, purpose-built to house various forms of culture and building would move, John Tisch, vice chair of the new institution, told his wife, “The Shed is about future of NYC and we need to be involved.”
“6 ½ years later, here
we are discovering the future of NYC and how we as citizens and creators of
this institution will discuss culture and humanity, how we all need to be
together in the 21st century in NYC.
“There are many cultural institutions – many are about the past. The Shed is about the future.”
“The dictionary defines ‘shed’ as an opened-ended structure with tools,” said Doctoroff. “We designed The Shed as a platform, uniquely adaptable, to liberate artists to fulfill their dreams.”
More than a dozen years
ago, Doctoroff said, The Shed “started as small square on map, a placeholder
for To Be Determined cultural institution.
“Mayor Bloomberg said ‘Make
it different from anything else in New York City.’ That’s not easy in a town of
1200 cultural institutions. It had to play a role in a new edge of New York
City, keeping New York City as leading edge of the cultural world.”
Liz Diller of Diller
Scofidio + Renfro, lead architect, and David Rockwell of Rockwell Group, collaborating
architect, responded to the mandate for flexibility, a one-of-a-kind structure.
“Just as it was to be designed
to be flexible, we wanted it to be of and for our time and inclusive of artists
across all disciplines,” Doctoroff said. “We proposed commissions of emerging
artists across all art forms – the mission drives our work.
“It is a remarkable
public/private investment of $500 million to design and construct building and
create original works of art.
“New York City continues
to be perfect partner under Mayor DiBlasio. The city provided $75 million and
“We are standing in The McCourt,
a spectacular space that can do anything an artist can imagine. It was named
for the Board member who gave $45 million.
“Griffin Theater was named
for one of most generous philanthropists, Ken Griffin, who gave $25 million.
“Altice USA is the
founding fiber network partner – so that The Shed is an accessible arts
organization with global reach, the first cultural institution with connectivity
“Above all, Mayor
Bloomberg, who had vision to transform West Side and create cultural
institution as beating heart. The Shed is housed the Bloomberg Building, named
for Mayor Bloomberg.
“It’s been a 14-year
journey – kind of crazy, new kind of cultural institution in a completely new
building in new part of town, new board, new team, performing miracles every
day, producing our own work.
demands great purpose,” Doctoroff said.
Alex Poots, the Artistic Director and CEO, said, “I started to imagine the possibilities: a flexible building, built on city land. That was the draw to lure me from England –a public purpose. It was a no brainer, building on what I had been doing for 15 years. [Poots is also involved with the Manchester Festival and with the Park Avenue Armory.]
“Parity among art forms;
the ability to commission art – visual and performing arts. And it would not
matter if the artist were emerging, established, or a community artist – we don’t
need a false hierarchy.
“The Shed is place for
invention, curiosity where all artists and audiences can meet.
Alongside all the
venerable institutions of city, we hope The Shed can add something.
“It’s rare for a place to be open in the day as a
museum, and in the evening a performance center.”
Poots introduced the 2019 inaugural season’s first commissions (and the press were able to watch some rehearsals):
a new live production celebrating the unrivaled impact of African American
music on art and popular culture over the past 100 years, conceived by
acclaimed filmmaker and artist Steve McQueenand developed with music visionaries and academic experts
including Quincy Jones, Maureen Mahon, Dion ‘No I.D.’ Wilson, Tunji Balogun and
Greg Philliganes, is a five-night concert series (April 5-14) celebrating the
unrivaled impact of African American music on contemporary culture, with performances
by emerging musicians.
a live performance/exhibition pairing works by master painter Gerhard
Richter with a new composition by Steve Reich and an extant
composition by Arvo Pärt, performed by The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
(April 6-June 2).
Jeane Baker of Troy, a reinvention of Euripides’ Helen by
poet Anne Carson, starring Ben Whishaw and the opera singer, Renée
Fleming (April 6-May 19).
Björk’s Cornucopia, the
multidisciplinary artist’s most elaborate staged concert to date, directed by
Lucrecia Martel (May 6-June 1).
Dragon Spring Phoenix
futuristic kung fu musical conceived by Chen Shi-Zheng and Kung Fu
Panda screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, with
songs by Sia, choreography by Akram Khan, and production design
and costumes by Tim Yip (June 22–July 27);
There are also, expansive exhibitions devoted to
extant and newly commissioned work by trailblazing artists Trisha Donnelly and
Agnes Denes; and an unprecedented opportunity for New York City-based
emerging artists of all disciplines to develop and showcase their work
throughout The Shed’s spaces via an Open Call commissioning program.
Beneath the stands and
stage in The McCourt is the only permanent art installation, “In Front of
Itself,” a large-scale, site-specific work by artist Lawrence Weiner embedded
into the plaza. It serves as a walkable outdoor area when the movable shell is
nested over the fixed building, or as the base of The McCourt when the shell is
extended to the east. The 20,000-sq. ft. work features the phrase, “In front of
itself” in 12-foot high letters fabricated with custom paving stones.
These first commissions,
Poots said, “shows the range of The Shed.” The flexibility of the building
makes it possible to transform from one show to the next in just two days.
Art as Social Action
Tamara McCaw, Chief Program Civic Officer, is responsible for fulfilling the mission of The Shed to use art as social action.
“It is my responsibility
to serve the community, particularly those under stress or have barriers [to
artistic expression]. ]
McCaw oversees the Open
Call program, an unprecedented opportunity for 52 New York City-based emerging
artists and collectives to develop and showcase their work throughout The
Shed’s primary spaces, free to the public (May 30-August 25) and continuing in
The 52 artists were
selected from 930 applications in its first open call. Alex Poots said that The
Shed will embark on its next round of emerging talent in 5-6 months.
The Shed has year round
social justice residencies, serving 700 students a year
“We are providing a platform for local and
emerging artists – selected by diverse panel and Shed staff (2 are on the panel
– to present in principal spaces, plaza, theater.” These performances and
exhibits will be free to public.
“It is our civic
responsibility to reflect, respond to the diverse communities of NYC – with
affordable tickets ($10; free for 18 year olds and under and CUNY students),
and reserve 10% of low-income seats that will be distributed throughout house
(not the back or nosebleed section)
Addressing how The Shed
intends to be responsive to diverse audiences, Doctoroff noted that the
building is open – the restaurant, café and lobby. Anyone can come through
without a ticket, and every gallery and theater can be separately ticketed. The
goal is to make access to exhibits and performers and accessible as possible.
McCaw added, “People
from public housing are already are coming because they are of process. We did
outreach for open call. There are artists who live in public housing here. When
you come with respect, people want to be involved.
“We are creating inventive
new work, supporting creative expression, cultural equity and belief in power
of art to effect social change.”
Ticket prices are
intentionally low. Every gallery show – except Richter – is $10 ticket and free
for those under 18. Open call programs are free (18 weeks of programming)
At the end of the first
year, he expects that half the entire
audience will be admitted for $10 or free.
The Shed, a
not-for-profit arts institution, expects to operate at a loss.
“That means we have to
raise money,” Doctoroff said. “But we regard it as investing in society, not as
a loss. The less box office, the more generous we are. There are high ticket
prices for those who can afford it and low for those who can’t – low cost
tickets are equally dispersed through theater, to promote equity.”
A good source of real
money, though, could be in renting out space in The Lizzie and
Jonathan Tisch Skylights and The Tisch Lab on the top floor, Level 8, where there is a
1,700-square-foot creative lab for local artists, a 3,300-square-foot rehearsal
space, and a 9,500-square-foot flexible, multipurpose space for events.
“The Top floor is engine
for that flexible space – dinners, small performances – will be rented year
round while operating as not-for-profit art center.”
Frank H. McCourt Jr., Shed board member and entrepreneur, reflected, “There is something else here – civic imagination, ideas put into action to serve people – address societal issues, change lives, make a better nation, a better humankind.
“It is artistic creation
but also social innovation. Human creativity for the greater good. My hope for The
Shed is that it is home for both art and other intellectual activities. This
place, including the institution created to animate it, is a bold, living
example of civic action. An idea put into action for greater good.
“It’s not finished, just
getting started. This week a milestone. In a world replete with cynicism, The
Shed is the opposite.”
An Architectural Marvel
“We started the project 11 years ago – when it was a dotted line on a satellite photo and a question mark. It was the 2008 recession,” reflected Liz Diller, lead architect, who described what it was like to design a building around a mission.
“Arts in New York are
siloed – dance, theater, music, visual. That’s not how artists think today, but
how will artists think in one or two decades? We can’t know. We started a project
without a client, an anti-institution institution, to serve artists of all
kinds in a future we could not predict.
“How could architecture
not get in the way of that? Art is in flux, so the building had to be able to change
on demand, be flexible without defaulting.”
What she and collaborating
architect David Rockwell devised is a fixed building with column-free exhibit
and performance space, the Bloomberg Building.
Shed’s Bloomberg Building—an innovative 200,000-square-foot structure designed
by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Lead Architect, and Rockwell Group, Collaborating
Architect—can physically transform to support artists’ most ambitious ideas.
Its eight-level base building includes two levels of gallery space; the
versatile Griffin Theater; and The Tisch Skylights, which comprise a
rehearsal space, a creative lab for local artists, and a skylit event space.
an iconic space for large-scale performances, installations, and events, is
formed when The Shed’s telescoping outer shell is deployed from over the base
building and glides along rails onto the adjoining plaza. The McCourt can have theater seating for 1400,
or open the glass wall to expose the balcony for 300 seated and have 2000 on
When the movable shell is nested over the base building, the 20,000-square-foot
Plaza will be open public space that also can be used for outdoor programming;
the eastern façade can serve as a backdrop for projection with lighting and
sound support. The Plaza is equipped with a distributed power supply for
outdoor functions. Oversize deliveries can be brought by truck up Hudson Yards
Boulevard and loaded directly onto The Plaza and into the base building or the
shell when deployed. Those doors can be opened while the audience is under
cover, for an open-air effect.
“It is the architecture
of infrastructure: all muscle, no fat,”
Diller said. “Alex, an inspirational alchemical force, challenged the building
to be smarter, more flexible, agile. This is a perpetual work in progress –
always getting smarter more agile.
It will respond to the challenge
of artists and challenge the artists back.”
“New York is so defined by art and its artists. Art creates community, at its best, and empathy with audiences,” said Architect David Rockwell.
“What we created
is a Swiss Army knife of culture,” said Doctoroff. “A beautiful design with
practicality to respond to the notion that we don’t know where art will go, or
where artists will be in 200 years.”
eight-level base building includes two expansive, column-free galleries
totaling 25,000 square feet of museum-quality space; a 500-seat theater that
can be subdivided into even more intimate spaces; event and rehearsal space;
and a creative lab.
outer shell can double the building’s footprint when deployed over the
adjoining plaza to create a 17,000-square-foot light-, sound-, and
temperature-controlled space, named The McCourt, for large-scale performances,
installations, and events for audiences ranging from 1,250 seated to 3,000
standing (when combined with space in the two adjoining galleries of the base
building). When space is not needed, the movable shell can nest over the base
building, opening up the plaza for outdoor use and programming.
explained how the movable shell travels on a double-wheel track based on gantry
crane technology commonly found in shipping ports and railway systems. A
rack-and-pinion drive moves the shell forward and back on four single-axle and
two double axle bogie wheels that measure six feet in diameter; the deployment
of the shell takes approximately five minutes.
exposed steel diagrid frame of the movable shell is clad in translucent pillows
of durable and lightweight Teflon-based polymer, called ethylene
tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). With the thermal properties of insulating glass
at 1/100th of the weight, the
translucent ETFE allows light to pass through and can withstand hurricane-force
winds. Measuring almost 70 feet in length in some areas, The Shed’s ETFE panels
are some of the largest ever produced.
“Systems were adapted from
other things but it is novel in the way we put together,” Diller said, adding
that the architecture is “based on industrial crane technology, brought to 21st century”
with an emphasis on functionality. But there were no real models among arts
“It was a constant process
of invention, reinvention,” said Doctoroff. “We have 14 blackout shades. We had
to rethink the system of shades – particularly when Alex came and knew he wanted
concerts. They needed to also provide sound protection. We went to the sailmakers
who designed sails for America’s Cup boats to design shade system. Extra
performance capability of holding back 108 decibels (loud). The thickness,
density had to be able to roll up.”
Asked why New York needed another cultural institution, Doctoroff retorted, “Why have we been so successful raising money? Because people sense New York does need this. The criteria was that this had to be different from anything else in New York. We went to talk to artists and leaders of cultural institutions around the world to ask what do they not have and need. There were similar themes –the internet era gives artists the capacity of collaborating across distances and disciplines, but also producing work that didn’t fit in traditional institutions. Out of that came idea of flexibility.
“This is different: our
mission of inclusivity embedded in value system,” said Doctoroff, said in a
small discussion group with journalists.
“We prove it every day.
This is personal for me: 36 years ago I imagined a new West Side – saving the
Highline [now one of the most popular attractions in NYC, with 8 million visits
a year], the subway. I always believed having a cultural heart to the new West
Side was critical and would need to change over time to keep New York leading
edge in culture. I believe cultural institutions are critical to New York,”
said Doctoroff, who is also chairman and CEO of Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet
company that looks at sustainable solutions to designing urban communities.
“The Shed will never be
finished,” said Doctoroff. “The word ‘unfinished’ ends with ‘shed’. It will
always be evolving because what we’ve done is created a platform for artists to
use as their own. The building enables their vision – they will push, stretch
us in ways we can’t imagine, they can’t imagine today. The Shed is an organism
that keeps morphing.”
And that’s how Liz
Diller expects not to go through post partum blues. “We will respond to the
challenge of artists and challenge artists back.”