Friday, March 30, 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Kauffman Center

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is destined to become a Kansas City icon.   Over the last several years I have watched this building rise during my annual visits there.   Now completed, I am awed by its beauty.   The Kauffman was designed by Moshe Safdie who has built other icons throughout the world like the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.  Closer to home I discovered he is the architect for the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, so this building has been pushed to the top of my "must see" list the next time I go down there.
The exterior surfaces are all glass, concrete and stainless steel.  There are 27 cables holding up the glass front of the lobby.  What I find amazing is how the building fans to look like an accordion.  Set among the old historic brick buildings of Kansas City, it softens the skyline with its sensuous curves.

Inside, there are two performing halls, rehearsal spaces, warm-up rooms and dressing rooms.  On my next visit I must make it a point to see a performance of the Kansas City Ballet.
The landscaping resembles the prairies of Kansas, which again softens the over all effect.  Safdie is indeed a genius.  I applaud Kansas City for its vision. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Infamous Marble Barge

While we were at the Summer Palace, the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi (or more commonly referred to as Cixi) was talked about throughout the tour.  Our guides painted her as the Wicked Witch of the East and I made a note in my travel journal to read more about her when I returned to the states.  They showed us the building where she imprisoned her own son, the Emperor.  They talked about how this concubine murdered and seduced her way to the top of the throne.   But the worst act was her embezzling funds from the royal navy to build the above marble boat. "This was the reason China lost the war to Japan," our guide said.  "She bankrupted the navy."    Wow!  I had to get her biography!

Well, seven years later, I finally managed to read one.  I just finished Sterling Seagrave's Dragon Lady.  The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China, and she was not the monster that the tour guides so colorfully maintained.  It is a book to read slowly because the history of China is so rich and complex.  I want to share with you a quote from the book:

"Prince Chun had made extravagant plans to complete the restoration of one wing of the Summer Palace as Tzu Hsi's principal residence in retirement, and put the arm on Li for the necessary funds. . . Instead of going to foreign banks for a loan, Li launched a discreet money-raising campaign disguised as a secret navy defense fund drive. . .It was later said that Tzu Hsi squandered all the money set aside for the improvement of China's navy to build a Marble Barge on Lake Kunming, a charge that has been repeated dogmatically in both popular and scholarly works.  The truth is that the Marble Barge was built by Emperor Chien Lung a century earlier, not by Tzu Hsi, and after being defaced by the Allies in 1860 it was restored cosmetically on the orders of Prince Chun as a way to flatter her."

The myths we were fed on the tour were debunked by Sterling one by one.

"How could they not know this?" I asked my travel buddy.  "Were they deliberately lying or just trying to be entertaining?"

"I don't know.  We were fed a lot of propaganda on that tour."

I write this as a reminder to myself to always question what I am told.  Read more history.  Educate myself before I travel, not after.  

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Summer Palace

The Summer Palace and Imperial Garden in Beijing is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was one of my favorite places to visit on the tour of China we took in 2005.  Although the air was thick with smog, it gave the place a magical ambiance.  The imperial rulers of China moved here during the summer to escape the heat.  Lake Kunming is man-made but very beautiful with bridges spanning the water, and a variety of pagodas and palaces lining its shore.  The buildings had wonderful names like Cloud-Dispelling Hall, Temple of Buddhist Virtue and Sea of Wisdom Temple.

I lagged far behind my tour group when I walked through the long corridor to the lake.  The painted ceilings were exquisite.  I could have spent hours here studying the paintings and the intricate designs.  My guide had to backtrack to find me and was very upset.  "Time to go, time to go," he insisted.   This is precisely why I prefer independent travel over tours.  Although we have no regrets taking this whirlwind tour, my travel buddy and I have decided that we will avoid them in the future.  "Quality over quantity" is our motto from now on!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Celestial Instruments

Spring is here and Mimi couldn't wait for me to unpack my warm weather clothes.  She immediately put on the Babette Stars and Orbs top.  For me, it brought back memories of our trip to Beijing.  On our first "free" day of our tour, we wandered around the vicinity of our hotel and stumbled upon an ancient observatory and museum.  It was built in 1422 and sits atop the city's wall at Jinguo Gate.  It was renovated in the 1980's.

There were eight bronzed astronomical instruments on the rooftop.  They were exquisitely carved and seemed more like works of art than scientific instruments used to measure coordinates of celestial bodies.  I was utterly fascinated by them.  When I read they were presents from the Jesuit missionaries in the 1600's and 1700's, my interest piqued.  The Jesuits traveled to China in the 17th century in order to bring Christianity to this vast empire.  They failed in that mission, but excelled in another:  bringing western science to China.  They assisted in updating the Chinese lunar calendar.  They pressed the Vatican for astronomical information and went back and forth to Europe to track down scientific books.  This was the time of Galileo and Kepler, who sent the Jesuits astronomical tables to help them in their endeavor.

 Below the observatory was a small museum, which gives the traveler a clearer understanding of what the Jesuits were faced with:  The Theory of Canopy Heavens and the Theory of Expounding Appearance in the Night Sky--ancient theories that were based on conjecture and superstition.  The architecture and the surrounding gardens were lovely.  I'm so happy we discovered this place!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Andreini Coffee House

Favorite Pit Stops

When we are driving North on 101, my travel buddy and I are ready for a pit stop about an hour and a half later, especially if we get an early start.  Another good strong cup of coffee is needed!  We discovered Cafe Andreini on Branch Street in Arroyo Grande several years ago and now make it part of our travel routine.  We order coffee and select one of the delicious pastries from the assortment in their glass case.  If we're not in a hurry, we will grab a table and enjoy the old world ambiance.  I love the old stone building and the interior is filled with local art work and interesting gifts to purchase. Really charming!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Soledad Mission

Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad was considered a hardship post by the Franciscans.   Many of them asked to be reassigned to a more temperate, hospitable mission.  This was the 13th of the California missions, founded by Father Francisco de Lasuen in 1791.  It took six years for the church to be built because of constant flooding from the Salinas River.  I can understand why the good padres complained of rheumatism and poor health.  On the day we visited this "wilderness outpost" it was chilly and the wind was biting.  Even today, the mission is surrounded by farms giving the traveler a good sense of the isolation they must have felt.

The Soledad Mission had one of the smallest populations.  Although the goal of the fathers was to convert the Esselen natives, they were required to live on site after they were baptized.   For this hunter-gatherer tribe, this was a major lifestyle change.  Although they learned to grow barley, wheat and corn, the agricultural output was low.  This mission eventually excelled in livestock because of the grasslands surrounding it.  It reached its peak in 1831 with 6,500 head of cattle, 6,500 sheep and 1,000 horses.  Three years later, like most of the missions, it was secularized and abandoned.

The chapel attached to the side of the mission is small and simply decorated.  Although this is not an active parish, the chapel does hold services throughout the year and is a popular place for weddings.  The 14 Stations of the Cross are worth studying.  These are old paintings dating back to the mission period, which were returned when it was restored in 1955.

There is also a small museum on site with an interesting period of  the mission's history--that of the Spanish ranchers and the "hide and tallow" trade.  In 1841, the Soledad Mission was sold for $800 to Feliciano Soberanes and used as a ranch house.  The natives returned to become laborers on this ranch, and it became an important part of the west coast trading industry.  In 1859, however, it was returned to the Catholic Church and finally deserted.

The original adobe ruins are behind the restored mission.  There are signs pointing out the various locations of the workshops, but you have to use your imagine to picture them.   It's a lovely mission steeped in sadness and hardship ,but serene and beautiful nevertheless.
Feliciano Soberanes