Mary Clark, Traveler

Thanksgiving in New York City – Then and Now

Power Ranger in Thanksgiving Parade

End of Thanksgiving Parade in NYC

Beginning of Thanksgiving Parade in NYC

Watching the Thanksgiving Parade in NYC

It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, my daughter, her family, my husband and I were in New York City for the Thanksgiving holiday, worrying only about catching a cab or where to have breakfast before our visit to the Metropolitan Museum. Crowds were expected and we learned how to weave through them even after the Rockettes Christmas show let out.  I didn’t love the closeness of so many people but checked it off as an authentic NYC experience.  Today, I would give anything to feel safe in such a street scene.

In front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC

I do love NYC, having visited many times, primarily because of a sister-in-law who lived on East 52nd and freely offered her pull-out couch to us. Our children had taken turns staying with their aunt when they were 10 and had the same great memories of Central Park, Broadway plays, climbing the Statue of Liberty, and eating in the Deli around the corner.  Our daughter wanted her children to have those same experiences and so the Thanksgiving trip was placed on the calendar.

First up was the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, more exciting in person. Our view was from a side window in our hotel room ten stories up.  That morning we had exchanged pleasantries with other guests in the coffee room downstairs who were from all over the country, brought together by a singular 96-year-old event.  From on high we could see what was not shown on TV as a line of policemen walked the route ahead of the parade to clear the path.  Clowns did donuts in the streets in their tiny cars.  Jugglers on stilts entertained.  We heard the beginning of the parade before we could see it – a roar from the crowd as it approached.  By keeping the TV on, we knew which stars and performers were passing by.  Occasionally a float or band would pause and perform.  And the big balloons floating just below us thrilled all.  Our only worry was the strong wind.

The scene after the parade reflected the true size of the crowd.  We walked to the nearby Empire State Building and held hands to stay together.  At my eye level, only backs could be seen.  I trusted my tall husband to navigate forward.  The river of people quickly passed by as we exited at the building’s entrance and were swooped into the lobby, relieved to have some space.

View from Empire State Building

Lobby of Empire State Building

 

r that afternoon, I felt compelled to go to Macy’s because, well, because it was Thanksgiving and I wanted to have that experience.  Again, the numbers of patrons in the aisles was staggering – young women 4 or 5 deep trying to buy purses that were on sale.  At the top of the escalators Macy employees pulled patrons forward so they would not get run over by the persons behind them.  I didn’t even think about buying something, not even the Macy’s Christmas ornament.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Excepting the parade crowd and Black Friday’s shopping hordes, NYC was surprisingly explorable.  Ice skating at Bryant Parks introduced our grandsons to the iced rink with only the help of their parents who were uneven themselves.  We each had one Broadway play experience – ours being “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Ed Harris.  Thanksgiving dinner was at a small French restaurant.  On one of our days, my husband and I rode the subways with grandkids, explored the Natural History Museum, ate pizza at a traditional Italian restaurant, and caught one of the five Christmas Rockette performances that day.  The grands learned to hail cabs and how to start conversations with the drivers.  By evening, all were tired and content to play cards in the hotel room.

Today, the scene in NYC is dramatically different.  Restaurants are closed or are limited to 25% capacity, Broadway shows are postponed for at least another year and riding subways is riskier because of the possible virus exposure.  Tickets for the Rockette show that I enjoyed more than I expected, are for the year 2021. The Macy parade will be virtual for most people. Parade participants have been reduced by 75%, the bands’ invitations extended for a year, parade route shortened and all performances only in front of Macy’s flagship store. Tickets are still available at the Empire State Building and Metropolitan Museum of Art, but visitors are warned they have to quarantine for 14 days if they arrived from a restricted state such as Texas.  Hopefully, the stunning Christmas store windows will still be available for viewing.

It is strange to be nostalgic for crowds, or at least to not worry about catching a fatal virus from the surrounding humanity.  But NYC without the lively throngs is not the NYC we all love.  I know they will be back.  A vaccine will become available. Events will open up. Sidewalks will fill.  And I will never complain about crowds again.

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November 15th is 75th anniversary of the ending of the WWII “ Hump” transport operation over the Himalaya Mountains and it is still remembered in Kunming, China

My father at the Kunming Control Tower, destination of most Hump flights

Thanks to its temperate climate and mile high altitude, Kunming is known to Chinese citizens as the city of eternal spring. Now numbering 7 million residents, it is a governmental and manufacturing center for the region. But in WWII, it was bustling with American and Allied pilots, the destination of most flights flying “The Hump”, the moniker given to the treacherous  transport operation over the Himalayas from India to western China bringing fuel for the American and Chinese armies fighting the Japanese.  On November 15, 1945, the WWII Hump operation closed, three months after the official ending of the war.  Additional time was required to move troops and equipment back from China and India and planes continued to fly that treacherous route.

More Americans are familiar with the Flying Tigers led by Texas born General Chennault who commanded an early small group of fighter pilots to attack Japanese Zero fighters harassing Kunming, China.  The Hump operation is not as widely known but is respected by WWII buffs.  In contrast, Chinese citizens and their government remember our help well and have found ways to commemorate it, especially in Kunming.

The Hump was considered one of the most dangerous flying routes in the world and American pilots flew in what would be considered primitive planes today, C46s, C47s and C54s.  They wore uncomfortable oxygen masks, guided by basic instruments with little knowledge of the weather’s forecast.  Cold Siberian winds collided with warm, wet fronts from the Bay of Bengal, causing dangerous wind currents and icing.  Overloaded planes crashed.  Fuel barrels exploded in midair.  Inexperienced pilots lost their way. Over 600 planes and 1300 crew members were lost. My farmer father flew that route 150 times in 1945.

On a visit to Kunming to follow my father’s WWII footsteps as a Hump pilot, I was touched by the ways the citizens honor this operation, beginning with a driver named Happy Jack who couldn’t get over having a Hump Pilot’s child in his van.  “Your country helped us,” he repeated often.  He took us to a restaurant called The Hump.  Attached to the outside wall was an airplane propeller with globe lights above outlining the Hump flight pattern over silhouetted mountains and a sign that read, “The Hump since 2000.”  Inside, manager Mr. Wong welcomed us and gave a history of the restaurant and the pilot veterans he had welcomed since 2000.  His father remembered running from the Japanese when their airplanes approached and was one of many who were saved by the appearance of the Flying Tigers and who remained hopeful because of The Hump operation.  War memorabilia and photos decorated the interior as the young clientele drank coffee and visited.  Mr. Wong paid tribute to my visit, saying, “Your father helped our country.”

At the Kunming City Museum, the American Volunteer Group Memorial Hall is next to the Dinosaur Fossil Exhibition.  Expecting a display or two, I was stunned by the rooms filled with war memorabilia, photos and details of the Allied presence in China during the war.  Kunming is especially respectful towards General Chennault and his Flying Tigers but towards the end of this section were displays honoring those who flew The Hump.  A parachute survival kit included a watch, knife, needle pliers, an AAF stereoscope used for map reading, an AAF Hump Pilot map, a survival book for the jungle and first aid packet, equipment that would help a downed pilot walk the thin line between life and death.

Hump Monument Dedicated to WWII pilots

The largest acknowledgment of the importance of The Hump operation is still the Hump Monument opened in 1993 and built to “commemorate this daring feat in the history of aviation and friendship between Sino-American soldiers and civilians fighting shoulder to shoulder in the anti-fascist battle.”  Made of white marble the thoughtful design has three layers of meaning – an outline of a plane merged with two mountain tops with a large H blended in – H for the Hump,  mountains reflecting the Himalayas and the plane for the transport.  A history of the Hump and the part that the Chinese people played in its operation were recorded in a nearby display.  Photos of the rock of the airfields being crushed under large concrete rollers pulled and pushed by individual Chinese was a reminder of the combined efforts in the air and on the ground to make the Hump operation successful.  Happy Jack read every word of the display and continuously thanked me for my father’s service.

Prior to arriving in Kunming, I had visited my father’s base in the Assam valley of India where little note is made of its wartime importance.  The reception in Kunming countered that indifference with much appreciation for his work, a recognition of a time when Americans and Chinese worked together, an appreciation that has survived for 75 years.

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“G’day, mate” and more Australian talk

Bathrooms in the Outback – Sheilas and Blokes

I’ve always loved the Australian accent. Despite being perceived as descended from the Royal British dialect, it really comes from more modest beginnings and has its own distinctive pronunciation. This shouldn’t be a surprise as immigrants to Australia came from Ireland, Scotland, and different parts of England. Kel Richards has studied and interpreted the language’s history and documented it in his book, The Story of Australian English. “It emerged from a process called levelling down”, he said with the first immigrants who came here on 11 ships from different regional dialect areas finding a common denominator. It could be confusing for us as the pronunciation of number “six” resembles our pronunciation of “sex”, causing some uncomfortable moments.

But what was particularly fun after arriving in Brisbane was hearing a whole slew of descriptive words and phrases that had to be interpreted. First, they really do say mate, cheerio, and g’day.    I like the idea of being a “mate” or using it to describe a friend as an old mate of mine.  Some “guy” becomes some “bloke” down under and the women’s restrooms beckon all “sheilas”.

Veterans Day cookie AKA Anzac biscuit

In Brisbane, we were invited to a neighbor’s home for a “spot of tea”.  I said yes to the offer of crackers and noted the cookies I got instead.  If I wanted crackers, the formal term is biscuits but it has been shortened in Australia to bickey.  So, always say yes to crackers if you want a dessert and yes to bickeys if you want some crackers with your cheese.  Got it?  Definitely say yes to an offer of a spider which has nothing to do with the insect and everything to do with an ice cream float.

At the neighbor’s house, the discussion came round to snakes as there are many in Australia and if one gets on your patio, especially the rafters, as had happened recently to these neighbors, you just call the “snake man”, who will move the snakes far away.  There’s also the “possum man” for the 28 varieties of possums and their first cousins, gliders, found in Australia who might show up in your trees.

The Aussies do love to shorten their nouns.  Those we heard often were “uni” for a university, “tats” for tattoos, and “sunnies” for sunglasses.  Looking for a “park” can be confusing as I’m scanning the scene for playgrounds and walking paths and my hostess just needs a parking spot.

The beach is a good place to “diddle away” some time.  You’ll need togs (bathing suits), a chili bin (ice chest), tucker bag (for your food) and maybe a swag (sleeping bag).  I was unaware of the history and emotion associated with the word “swag” until listening to the famous Australian ballad from 1894, “Waltzing Matilda.”  It has become an unofficial national anthem, sung by soldiers marching to war, in concert halls, and before rugby games. It has nothing to do with dancing or a woman named Matilda.  It has everything to do with a swagman (itinerant worker) waltzing (traveling by foot) with his Matilda (swag/bedroll), killing a jumbuch (sheep) and jumping into a billabong (watering hole) to avoid capture by the sheep’s owner. What saves the song is its tune and marching beat with a bit of social justice thrown in.  Google it.  You can’t help but sing along.

If I did something cool, I was greeted with “good on you” but if I suggested something strange, the response was ”don’t be mad”.  Universal use of the word, “reckon” for think, as in “I reckon so”, surprised me as I had always associated that word with my grandmother or the Appalachians. We had to frock up (dress up) to go to a play where we met other gray nomads (traveling seniors) who had taken a volunteer redundancy (retired early for a payout).  After a meal in a restaurant, we had to “settle up” the bill and ask for a “takeaway” box.

A particularly confusing area is football related sports.  We attended a “Footy” or Australian Football League (AFL) game, an event that will fill a stadium with 100,000 passionate fans. Our game was the West Coast vs. the Blues with most spectators dressed in their team colors.  The AFL is unique to Australia and seemed a cross between rugby, basketball, soccer and our football – very fast paced with the ball being tossed often.  There’s also Rugby Union (considered for the elite), League Rugby for the working class, and association football or soccer. One fan tried to distinguish the rules of the two rugby leagues and my eyes glazed over.

The Australian turn of phrase and distinct accent kept us entertained, especially after a schooner of beer.  But I had to learn to take my “shout” to buy drinks for the group.  Otherwise, I would be an obvious “blow in” or newcomer. But I’m pretty sure my accent gave me away before the shouting began.

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Buddhists Amongst Hindus Amongst Muslims in the Assam Valley of India

With Buddhist monk at Tai Phakes monastery in Namphake, Assam Valley, India with my brother and sister-in-law and my husband.

With Buddhist monk at Tai Phakes monastery in Namphake, Assam Valley, India with my brother and sister-in-law, Mack and Jan Walker and my husband, Ed Clark.

Except for tea buyers, few visitors have discovered the remote Assam Valley of India, the country’s appendix in the far northeast corner surrounded by Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar.  In this ancient state, layers of religious beliefs gradually revealed themselves as we moved through the state.

The diversity of religions was not unexpected.  With even a cursory knowledge of India’s spiritual past, one knows Hinduism dominates the country of over one billion residents, claiming 80% of the population.  Despite the exit of most of the country’s Muslims in the partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh, many remain in India proper.  Buddhism’s numbers are small.  And Christians claim only 2.3% of the population and yet that number yields a healthy 28 million followers, including a large following of Baptists in Nagaland.  We experienced all of these during our visit to the state of Assam.

Baptist Church in Nagaland, India

On our first day of driving from the Guwahati airport, we saw banners of the recent Diwali Festival of Lights, a Hindu celebration of the victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.  New posters promoted the upcoming Raas Festival, another Hindu festival centered in Assam, where stories from Hindu mythology are acted out. Christmas lights decorated the outside of many homes. And a quick glance into a lit garage revealed women practicing their dances to be performed at the event.

India’s tallest Shiva temple, in honor of a second major Hindu deity, is in the Assam town of Sivasagar

But suddenly, the human landscape changed.  Muslim men in white cotton kufi skull caps and long flowing robes walked to the side of the road.  Women wore head coverings, including some covered by a burka or complete covering.  Fewer saris were spotted as a small neighborhood mosque appeared.  Assam has a larger percentage of Muslims than most of India due in part to immigrants from Bangladesh looking for work in the tea plantations and Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.  Just as quickly, we were back in Hindu territory with a new town and temple built for Vishnu.  We were to pass in and out of Moslem communities all through the visit.

 

Two-thirds of Assam is Hindu, most followers of Vaishnavism that venerates the god, Vishnu, a fighter of evil.  But India’s tallest Shiva temple, in honor of a second major Hindu deity, is in the Assam town of Sivasagar.  We approached this temple in late afternoon, the outside lit by strung red lights and the inside by candles.  A temple priest wearing dark rimmed glasses, looking more like a businessman than a priest, sat cross legged in the center beside the Shiva Linga or representation of Shiva, awaiting any who longed for a blessing.  Never to pass an opportunity to be blessed, I sat before him as he touched my forehead and recited a prayer in the Assamese language that God will fulfill our desires and protect me and my loved ones.  An earthen bowl, filled with small bills, awaited offerings.  We contributed and walked out into a beautiful sunset over the adjoining lake.

 

Towards the end of our time in Assam, we visited Namphake, home to the 1850 Tai Phakes monastery and Buddhist community with ties to the Tai people of Thailand fame. For a religion that began in India, it’s surprising that only .7% of the country are followers.

Inside the temple, a collection of Buddha statues from the world’s visitors clustered around a large golden replica of the enlightened Buddha. A young smiling monk clad in the traditional saffron robe, showed us around. Testimonials to the healing powers of Buddhist enlightenment filled a bulletin board. Outside the monastery grounds, an equally friendly couple rallied to our guide’s surprise request for a meal and serve us traditional banana leaf wrapped tamales.  It seemed as serene an environment as India has to offer.

I would think of our peaceful encounters with the varied religions of the region upon later hearing of the large protests against a law passed last December to weed out certain migrants in Assam.  The highly contentious Indian Citizens Amendment Act (CAA), favors citizenship for religious refugee immigrant Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhist, Christians, Parsis, and Jains who arrived in India before December 31, 2014, over mostly Muslim refuges arriving from Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka, a clear discrimination.  It becomes even more complicated in Assam as tea growers want the Bangladesh immigrants to work in the tea fields, some of the Bengalis are Hindus, and established Muslims want to exclude the more recent immigrants to protect their own status.

When I travel, I often feel a complex history simmering around me, unspoken but known by those who live in the country.  As tourists, we can be coddled by guides who reveal only the past and not the precarious present.  Our guides know the layers of meaning but must be encouraged to share them honestly.  Today, I am in touch with one of our guides in Assam who protested the law’s unequal treatment of Muslim immigrants in Assam even though he is Hindu. The protests were violent in certain parts of the country.  And, yet, I can only think of the peaceful Buddhist and Moslem communities that we passed through and lovely temples of Hindu worship we viewed.  India has some nasty history of Hindu and Moslems fighting but in Assam, many of both religions were working together to set aside an unfair law.  I am grateful to have experienced the faiths living serenely side by side. It can be done.

 

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Kaziranga National Park – Are We in Africa?

   

If I were to describe the experience of riding on an elephant in search of rhinos and tigers, where would you first guess I was traveling?  Probably Africa with its plentiful wildlife safaris.  But in truth, I was in the far northeast of India – the Assam Valley – at the Kaziranga National Park.  Other than the cost of travel, this park provided many of the thrills of wildlife viewing with much less expense.

My husband and I were on a trip to follow my father’s WWII footsteps to India and China where he had flown supplies from his base in India to Kunming, China over the Himalaya Mountains.  Thanks to a suggestion from our Assamese travel agency, we detoured slightly to the Kaziranga National Park, that began as a national preserve in 1904 and is one of over 100 national parks in India. Flooding from the adjacent Brahmaputra River is an occasional threat and the park owns additional higher land for animals to escape to from rising water.

After an early rise and sustained only by a cup of tea, we drove into the park for our scheduled ride on Asian elephants, smaller than their African counterparts.  While waiting, we watched a mother elephant and baby near a stream and learned the mother was recovering from an attack by a one-horned rhinoceros on a ride just a few days before.  No human was hurt by the endangered breed as the elephant had taken the brunt of the charge.  The guide explained this to reassure our worried faces.

Riding an elephant requires climbing to an elevated platform and waiting for your animal to move forward to the front, like a line of taxis slowly advancing.  Many of the elephants had babies nearby, some attempting to feed while the mother awaited her turn.  Ours had one who followed us throughout the ride.

Our mahout, or driver, directed the elephant with his feet behind her ears and gratefully didn’t seem to need the metal hook that he carried.  They have worked together since she was young and she easily followed his hidden commands.  A few mahouts carried guns in case of a rhino attack.  We were searching for the endangered one-horn rhinoceros amongst the high grasses. While approximately 2,000 live in the park, two-thirds of the world’s population, they are still targeted by poachers for their horns used in Tibetan and Chinese medicine.

In the soft morning light, our group of 10 elephants moved out in an expanding circle until one spotted a rhino, the mahout sending out a melodic message that one had been found.  The other elephants silently made their way to the discovery.  We were lucky to see several rhinos including a mother and baby.  None of the rhinos could have been easily seen except from the perch on an elephant.

Later that afternoon, we used an open-air jeep to search for more animals.  Mostly Asians filled the other jeeps with only occasional Europeans.  On our drive, we watched a rhino cross the road, seemingly oblivious to our presence and paused at a river crossing to follow a troop of Macau monkeys play along the banks.  Evidence of wild hogs reminded me of home.  We had seen swamp deer from atop the elephant and more deer grazed close enough for viewing from the jeep.  Wild water buffalos could be seen at a distance.  The beautiful pink spider flower that grows in the rhino’s dung, indicated some lived nearby.

A Bengal tiger sighting is rare. They only emerge in late evening and prowl during the night.  One had been spotted the day before and our guide took us to that location overlooking a river.  As the sun descended, more birds and animals gathered for an evening drink.  The monkeys were back.  A snake bird flitted across the water, diving now and then.  My husband recorded new birds in his life book such as the Indian Roller and Indian Robin.  Only a hammock was missing to properly enjoy the scene.

There were no tiger sightings that evening.   Gratefully, we also missed two of the world’s largest snakes – both pythons.  And the park’s small leopard population stayed out of sight.  But thinking back to the morning elephant ride, as we swayed with the big footsteps, watching the morning fog lift from the hills, enjoying the quiet broken on occasion by bird songs,  I couldn’t imagine Africa offering much more charm.

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Elbert Nance, WWII Cryptographer

Elbert Nance with his 75 year old war journal

 

Last month I wrote a story of a travel experience in Nagaland, India when I was following my father’s WWII footsteps from the Assam Valley, India to Kunming, China.  Afterwards, I learned a friend, Elbert Nance, had also been posted in the Assam Valley during the war. He had been astounded to read of our connection as was I and we quickly arranged a time to compare stories.  What I found was a 99-year-old veteran who remembered everything about his war experience.

Elbert Nance is a modest man, wanting at first to deflect questions about himself but we soon were deep into WWII history.  Elbert joined the U.S. Army on July 1st, 1942 after finishing Paris Junior College, and was posted overseas to Cairo, Egypt in January, 1943. He didn’t return home for over two years.

He served as a cryptographer (code translator) during the war, not because of any prior knowledge of the skill but because he could pass a background check before being allowed to learn the codes. Since radio messages could be intercepted, plans, orders and reports had to be transmitted in secret codes.  His primary job was to send and receive coded messages to and from bombers about where and when to bomb as well as results from the bombing.  He used code books to do this although the Sigaba machine became available later in the war, allowing instructions to be typed in.  After being trained in Cairo by the British, his instructor told him, “you have the most important job in the service.”

Elbert Nance’s shadow box

Nance worked with the British, Canadians and Americans serving in Cairo, Egypt, Benghazi, Libya and Sicily and Naples, Italy.  He particularly enjoyed the British with their need for tea breaks.  Some Americans had left his British friends baseball equipment, but they didn’t know how to play.  Nance tried to explain the rules in a condensed fashion.  When they played, he got a “home run” by running the bases as the British players over-threw every base.  In the telling of the story, Elbert was smiling in remembrance of a good time.

While in Italy, he got orders for the Assam Valley.  In consulting his 75-year-old diary, Nance confirmed departing Italy in February, 1944.   His journey to the Assam valley was quite different from my father’s who, as a pilot, was able to fly in short stints over the Middle East and India.  Nance began in a truck to the Mediterranean Sea, then a British boat to Cairo, another British boat to Bombay (now Mumbai), five days on a wooden bench sitting straight up on an Indian train to Calcutta (now Kolkata), three days on the roof top of an overloaded boat up the Brahmaputra River, another truck ride, finally arriving in Jorhat in March, 1944. He would be there for a year encoding messages to and from the pilots of the B-29s, the long-range bombers whose targets were in Japan.

We began comparing stories.  My father flew the Hump over the Himalaya mountains from India into Kunming, China bringing fuel to American and Chinese armies.  Nance was aware of the Hump pilots and their dangerous operation, but they were not based where he was, and he never made that flight. Their two bases were only 120 miles apart.

However, they shared some experiences, including primitive living conditions.  Nance worked eight-hour shifts or more and the operation was open 24 hours a day.  My father had to fly missions every 36 hours and the operation was open 24 hours a day.  Elbert arrived just as the Monsoon season began and my father also served through the Monsoon season a year later.  Nance was issued rubber boots to manage the muddy ground, lived in barracks that had quickly been set up in the middle of a field, showered and shaved in cold water and ate dehydrated eggs and potatoes and Spam – the classic C-rations.   My father would have identified with these experiences, too.  Nance did secure a jeep for his use but was warned, “don’t get close to any cow.”

Nance made his way back to the U.S. in March, 1945, this time passing through Australia to California.  He had been around the world.  Returning to Paris, he continued his education, became a civil engineer, worked for an oil company for 36 years, and returned to Paris to work as a surveyor.  He and his wife, Nancy have been married for 69 years.

Those war years are now 75 years old but in Elbert Nance’s mind, they are as clear as yesterday.  As with other WWII veterans I was able to interview for my book, I felt grateful for the opportunity to hear one more story, one of very few available to be told.

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Books should be arriving soon

My initial copies have finally arrived but they were ordered before others. It was very exciting to finally hold a copy and I’m anxious for my friends to get their own copies. My publisher is as frustrated as I am with the slowness in delivery. Amazon orders seem to be prioritized with the delivery services and UPS, etc. are already under a lot of pressure because of COVID19 and sick employees. Hopefully, next week. For any who have read the book, I would greatly appreciate a review on Amazon.

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Nagaland and WWII

Men of the Konyak Tribe in Nagaland, India

During WWII, my father flew The Hump, the moniker given to the air lift operation that carried gasoline and other supplies from the Assam Valley of India to Kunming, China over the Himalayas.  It was a challenging and dangerous operation with many planes and crew members lost because of weather and mechanical failures.  Three years ago, I followed his WWII footsteps, starting in India and ending in China.  An unusual task I had given myself on the trip was to seek out and thank the Nagaland people for their help in saving downed pilots during the war. They were a small but important connection to the Hump operation. Stories were told of pilots appearing at American bases in the Assam Valley weeks after they had been assumed dead, accompanied by native warriors. Tribes were paid one hundred silver rupees by the Allies for each airman returned.

Typical Baptist Church in Nagaland, India

Fortunately, my father never needed their services, yet it was comforting to know that help would have been there had his plane gone down. These former headhunters had a fierce reputation a century and a half ago; today they are mostly Baptists — an unexpected transformation. Their conversion began in 1872 with the arrival of Baptist missionaries. It took many years for all the Naga tribes to convert, a process that continued during the World War II years. Every village now has a Southern Baptist-style church with an adjoining pastor’s home.

Nagaland is its own separate Indian state, barely accessible by one of the worst roads of my traveling career. We arrived in Mon in the Naga Hills at night after eight hours on a pothole-filled road, making the final third of the drive in a dense fog. There were neither street signs nor streetlights in the town of twenty-six thousand.  The next morning was to be our excursion to Longa, a nearby village of the Konyak tribe.

 

The birds awakened us at 5:30 a.m., not long before a nearby radio began blasting a country and western song with English lyrics: “I got you. You got me. We got love.” A solitary church bell rang, and soon a pig began rooting. With all that noise, it was easy to be up early and ready for the trip to Longa. At breakfast, we visited with a couple from England who were also in Nagaland to retrace a father’s footsteps in World War II, a surprising coincidence that led to comparing stories over several cups of coffee.

Chief of local tribe near Mon, Nagaland

The ride to Longa was much easier than our trek to Mon had been. The day before we had stopped at a liquor store for bottles of wine for the village chief. In exchange we would be given private time with him and his six elderly warriors, primarily to photograph a disappearing generation. We arrived in thirty minutes and were taken to the village chief’s home, where a group of elderly men sat in a semicircle around an open fire, their reddish smiles revealing longtime use of the betel nut. Except for his gray synthetic polo shirt, the chief was dressed royally, wearing eight strands of large orange beads with four brass heads, each supposedly representing the head of a person killed by the warrior. The ends of small animal tusks disappeared into his elongated earlobes. He also wore large bone bracelets. The chief spelled his name in English for us: King Tuwing. Kota, the oldest of the men, was one hundred, while the king was the youngest at eighty-five. All were heavily tattooed on their faces and bodies with blood and vegetable dyes, a method that is no longer practiced.

Women of the Konyak Tribe near Mon, Nagaland, India

Four wives joined the men and sat on a side bench, smiling readily. I noted their confidence and ease in wanting to be a part of the gathering. They wore coral bead necklaces with turquoise beads scattered in between. The chief’s wife gently pulled up her skirt to reveal a tattoo just below her knee, a lace-looking ring around her leg. All the tattoos were fading as is the tradition. A young woman served us three pineapples.

I had brought small pins with me of our Eiffel tower topped with a red cowboy hat. When I travel, I often give them to people I meet, making me a kind of roving ambassador for Paris, Texas — the small town with the great name. As I slowly pinned one on each of the men’s shirts, they laughed heartily. I wasn’t sure whether they understood the humor of the Texas cowboy hat atop the French Eiffel Tower or just thought it a funny thing to give them, or both. It all contributed to a cheerful ambiance.

With the aid of our interpreter, I told the king of my father’s job as a Hump pilot and thanked his people for their help in saving some of our pilots and crew during World War II. Because of the advanced age of the men around the fire, they all would have been alive during the war years. The king nodded.  He made no reply, not exactly the engaged response I had been hoping for, where we would admire each other’s people and I would hear stories of pilots found. My offer of thanks was barely acknowledged, maybe because he had not been a part of that operation or because that is their way of receiving gratitude. It was still a special moment.

As we left, our guide was excited that we got to see the chief and elders, as they were not always available. Their generation is dying out and soon none will remain with the tribe’s headhunter history. I felt the same about my father’s history; few remain to tell the story that was rapidly sinking until my journey began.

This story is an excerpt from Mary Clark’s book, “Landing in My Present,” about the premature loss of her flying father and details her trip to follow his WWII footsteps in India and China.  It is now available through Hellgate Press, Amazon, and other book outlets.   She may be contacted at maryclarktraveler@gmail.com.

 

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My book is available for pre-order

It’s really happening! My book about my emotional journey to rediscover my flying father through retracing his WWII footsteps in India and China is close to publication. “Landing in My Present” is now available for pre-sale at my publisher’s website.  You can also read the first 25 pages there. The price is discounted by 30% off the list price.  The book and ebook will be on Amazon and other book platforms within the week and I’ll let you know when that happens.  I can’t believe the finish line is in sight.

https://www.hellgatepress.com/product/landing-in-my-present-mary-walker-clark/

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La Feria and Chocolate con Churros

I don’t eat much fried food.  For some reason, it’s always been easy for me to avoid the array of fried sweets at county fairs.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love sweets but it’s the fried part that’s not enticing.  This righteous attitude changed in Seville, Spain when I was introduced to the Chocolate con Churros, a local favorite.

Seville is one of the most beautiful towns in Spain with its narrow streets, white washed buildings and flowers trailing off of balconies. It hosts two major events – Holy Week and La Feria.  Many more tourists come for the Holy Week parades than La Feria which allows the fair to be more of a local event. Without prior planning, we learned on a walking tour of Seville that La Feria was opening that April evening and we should not miss it.  Our guide instructed us to “dress up”, wear our finest, and to get ready to dance.

Following instructions, we pulled out the fanciest clothes we could muster from our carry-on suitcases, meaning slacks and a scarf.  Buses took participants from town center to the fairgrounds.  Our guide had warned us that the festivities didn’t start until midnight but to get there by 10 in order to eat and wander. Of course, 10 pm is late for us to even be up, much less beginning an evening out, but we were getting used to the later nights in Spain.

On the bus, local women were decked out in long flowing skirts and flowers in their hair, an early indication of what was to come.

Caseta at La Feria

Una Caseta at La Feria

The Seville fairgrounds are transformed during La Feria.  Hundreds of individual casetas or tented spaces are set up side by side, some sponsored by families, some by businesses.  Inside were the invited, seated at long tables, being served the traditional fair food of a Pescaito dinner of fried prawns, baby squids and clams and rebujito drinks made from Manzanilla Sherry and lemonade, an easy drink to down. Guide books warned that the drink is deceptively strong and to drink cautiously.  We peered in through the openings of the tied back door curtains, wishing it were our families enjoying the meal.   As visitors, we could join in the public booths, serving the same foods and pitchers of rebujitos but without the need for an invitation.

About 11:45 pm, the fifteen streets of the fairgrounds began to fill with those who had finished their meals.  The local orchestra played its last piece and members dispersed.  Overhead, I could see many lights strung across the streets but they remained unlit.  At the stroke of midnight, a great cheer rang out as the switch was pulled and lights everywhere came on, as if the night were dawning.  And the real music and dancing began.

I do love Flamenco dancing.  Its sensuous twirls require delicate hand movements reaching in the air, clapping, fingers snapping following the beat of the singer, guitar and sometime the beat of a seco or dry stick.  Heals click against the floors. It can be performed alone or with a male or female partner.  I have paid to see professional Flamenco dancers and singers but at la Feria, much of the dancing was in the streets, available for all to see or even join in.  We stopped wherever the crowd circled around dancers, clapping and swaying with the singing.  Women dancing with women was more common and the dance easily accommodates this arrangement.  In the larger, corporate casetas, bands played and guests stuck their heels on dance floors.

It was a wondrous evening and most participants seemed prepared to dance through the night.  By 2 a.m. however, it was enough for us and we rode the bus back into the city.  As we left the bus, there it was, on the street corner, a lit oasis, a Chocolateria, a portable food stand that follows the fairs all over Spain selling Chocolate con Churros.  It was industrial size and would be open all night, catching the party crowd as they headed home, hoping they were as hungry as we were.  As a chocoholic, my husband was in heaven.  We all ordered the traditional Chocolate con Churros.  Note it was chocolate with churros, not churros with chocolate.  This meant an emphasis on the chocolate, a thick creamy cup of dark chocolate made for dipping the freshly fried donut like churros.  We didn’t even think about the calories.

 

It was after 3 before we got back to our apartment, tired but full.  La Feria would continue every night that week, a testament to the dedication of the Sevillan people to a good time.  We were happy to have experienced such an evening, but it was the chocolate con churros that we would continue to search for during the remainder of our Spain trip even if it meant staying up half the night.  They were that good.

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