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I was sitting in the Speakers Corner Café in the stunning (and unexpected) Parliament House in Darwin, a rare marriage between a Southeast Asian bungalow and a po-mo shout in light and glass; all around-as everywhere in central Darwin-were plaques recalling the Japanese air raids on the place in February 1942, and markers announcing, "An enemy bomb fell here and killed 10 people." The biographies of some of the employees of Darwin's post office who were lost in the attack were on prominent display on every side. And Sachiko Hirayama, a sweet, elegant and determined young woman from Nagasaki was telling me about how she was hoping to bring Japanese tour groups here to visit the sites where they had lost loved ones and so put old fears to rest.
Hirayama had been appointed by the Northern Territory's new Chief Minister, Terry Mills, to act as a liaison with Japan-and such is the strangeness of the small town set amidst a huge territory thirty times the size of the Netherlands (with 1/60th of the population) that, within less than 24 hours of my return to Darwin last August, I bumped into Mills at a little café. Just one day before, he had been named Chief Minister and brought the Country Liberal Party back into power in the Top End after 11 years. We exchanged pleasantries, and he asked me where I lived.
"Japan," I said, and his eyes lit up. "The second call of congratulations I received was from the Consul-General of Japan. I am really interested in Japan. Seriously!" The fact that Japan is the Territory's largest trading partner-and that the Japanese oil development company INPEX had already sunk $100 million into the exploration of gas fields nearby--was surely one reason; but it really did seem as if Darwin was suddenly realizing how well-placed it was to become a global player.
"Darwin is closer to Jakarta than to Canberra," Mills went on, pointing out to a local journalist that he wasn't "fluent" in Bahasa Indonesia, but had studied it at university in Jakarta. Then he began talking about his work with the "traditional owners" of the Territory.
Paris, Rio, Kyoto: We know pretty well what we're going to encounter (or at least to savor) as soon as we set foot in any of those cities; part of their gift, polished over centuries, is for knowing how to play themselves to perfection and how to give every visitor just what she wants and expects. Such places are the equivalent of the traveling world's celebrities, used to projecting themselves compellingly even off-screen. But there's a different kind of charm in those lesser-known towns that will never be regarded as stars, but that can take on almost any role you ask of them: the character actors among sites, you could say. They offer you unexpectedness.
Take -- of all places -- Little Rock, Arkansas (yes, take it, please, as a New York comedian might say). If I knew anything about the capital of the "Natural State" before I went there recently, it was that it was small, forgettable, and, as one distinguished travel-writer had written to me, "intriguingly forlorn and melancholy." Bill Clinton started his political life there, I knew, but that seemed the exception that proved the rule; like many people, I had driven through it on the huge freeway I-40, going across the U.S., and like most people I had taken pains not to stay there.
In short, Little Rock was perfectly positioned to disarm and entertain me as well-worn Paris, Rio, and Kyoto perhaps never could. The first two people I met after I left my hotel turned out to be serious students of Buddhism, one of whom knew and had studied under the one Zen master I happen to know in Kyoto. A brawny guy from Memphis stopped me on the street, outside the Arkansas Literary Festival, and asked me which of Graham Greene's novels I thought his best. Most wonderfully of all, the town I saw turned out to be an unlikely center of irony, and even self-mockery; at the stately Old State House, the proud and distinguished building from 1842 where Clinton had held his victory celebrations, one whole room was devoted to the history of "Bubbas and hillbillies."
Men came up to me outside the airport -- and it was a dumpy airport then, worthy of an almost forgotten country -- brandishing pictures of women in bikinis and rooms whose beds seemed to move like the heavens (now those pictures would be much more graphic -- and available to a certain kind of visitor before he'd left home, on the Net). There was a smell of jasmine -- of spices and gasoline and all of them mixed together -- as I headed off in the dusk and clambered into a minivan for the long, long ride into the city. I'd never really set foot in a five-star hotel before when I deposited my luggage with a towering Sikh doorman at the Oriental Hotel and set off into the dark.
The neon was flashing evilly, and irresistibly then. A young woman was stringing her thin arms around me and cooing things in the universal language of desire (for what I represented, if not for me). A Filipino man in the basement of a four-star hotel was singing Grateful Dead ditties on request. No one had heard of Patpong then, or told me that the most alluring women in the street were men.
I asked if she had a room available for the first weekend in November.
"Of course," came the trilling answer. "Would you like a Western room or a Japanese?"
"Western," I said, remembering too many nights sneezing on tatami mats.
"Okay. I'll be waiting for you!"
Was that all, I wondered? Was something wrong? I queried her some more, and she said, in the most lilting and almost hypnotic English I'd heard in months, "Our rooms are very small, I'm afraid, but our food is good. I'll be waiting for you."