Friday, September 30, 2011

Urban Adventures in Asia: Kathmandu, Nepal

This Urban Decay decay essay will take you about as far from New York City as possible: about 180 degrees in longitude around the world, 1300m higher in elevation, no ocean, 2000 years older, and vastly different in culture. Our destination is Kathmandu, the bustling landlocked capital of Nepal, a mountainous country squeezed between Tibet and India and dominated by the Himalaya. Kathmandu is an urban area of about 1.5 million inhabitants in the Kathmandu Valley in central Nepal, along the Bagmati River. Because of the fertile, well-watered land and the relatively comfortable climate (cooler than the sweltering Indian lowlands and warmer than the high Himalaya), the valley has been inhabited for millenia. As you can see from the signpost (photographed at the Kathmandu Guest House, a fun place to stay in the Thamel District), it is a long way from anywhere.

To reach Kathmandu, you fly from a US gateway city, cross the Atlantic or Pacific, wait at an Asian gateway city for hours, and then fly again, on and on and on. You finally reach Tribhuvan International Airport very grubby and jet-lagged and feeling pretty beat up. Your fellow passengers largely fit into three groups: local citizens (often workers on their way home from jobs in the Gulf states), hikers and climbers, and "adventure" travelers. The latter are the type who wear safari clothing and multi-pocket travelers' vests (but nothing is in the pockets), and have more luggage than the true climbers.

Most tourists stay in or congregate in the Thamel District. This was a popular stop-over on the Asia circuit in the 1970s. Hippies loved it because living was cheap, drugs were cheap and readily available, and it was trendy ("I'm going to be creative and unique and go to Nepal along with thousands of other hippies."). Oddly, some are still around, but a bit grayer and chubbier now. The district throbs with discos (yes, disco still lives), internet cafes, restaurants, shops, and bars. They even have their own Barnes & Noble book house. The pharmacies are well-equipped and most chemicals are sold without prescription. The supermarkets sell chocolates from around the world; the bookstores stock magazines and books in many languages. Another oddity: Nepal's time zone is GMT +5:45 hours (15 min different than India). This is the link to Google maps: Thamel.

Everything about Kathmandu is a visual delight. The buildings are colorful, rather funky, and have a somewhat makeshift look to them. Parts have been added to parts, colors are all over the spectrum, and the glass box monstrosities of US and European cities are largely absent.

Don't look too closely at the electrical wiring. Some of the outlets are the odd triple prong type used in India, others are the narrow dual-prong from Europe. The electricity was dependable during my visits.

The people are absolutely wonderful. This little girl kept her father company in his fabric shop.

Kathmandu is a city of shops, and you can find almost anything you need with a bit of hunting. But many vendors are out in the street. Pay attention when you walk on a sidewalk or you will fall over a merchant or stomp on his display.

The people I met were unfailingly friendly and gracious. They are alert and energetic. The ladies are petite and sophisticated.

(More Nepal in future essays. All 2007 photographs taken with an Olympus E-330 digital camera or a Fuji F31fd compact.)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

New York and the World Trade Center: the Late Years and Destruction

This is the second of a two-part series on my memories of New York City and the World Trade Center.
Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway
Right half of undated stereo card of Brooklyn Bridge, from  the Boston Public Library digital archives
After visiting New York in the early 1970s, ten years passed before I returned. I recall a snowy stop-over in 1982, but did not make it to lower Manhattan that time. A decade later, professional duties took me to the Big Apple three or four times per year. I really enjoyed these trips; the people were nice, food great, and there was always something interesting to see or do. On 1994, after a long, dull day of meetings, I decided to clear my brain and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It's a great walk on a brisk day, and the view is spectacular, but the ambiance is marred by the constant traffic directly below the walking deck. This first photograph shows the view looking west while walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The twin towers are off to the left (south) of the bridge axis.
The second photograph shows the view north, with the Empire State Building beyond the historic Manhattan Bridge (opened to traffic on December 31, 1909). These were taken with Kodak Gold 100 film, which worked well on gloomy days and scans well.
In 1995, the family and I stayed in the Vista International Hotel at 3 World Trade Center. It was a 22-story steel-framed building, said to be the first hotel to open in Lower Manhattan since 1836 (is this possible?). It was badly damaged by the truck bomb that terrorists set off in the underground parking garage in 1993, but had been renovated and reopened. The hotel was convenient because you could pass through enclosed walkways into the lobbies of the north and south Trade Center towers. I recall one of the lobbies had a ticket office where you could buy half-price tickets for Broadway and off-Broadway productions. One evening, we went to the top floor of the hotel, and one of the stairways had an unlocked access door to the roof. The view of the south tower was awesome. It loomed up into the foggy night sky seemingly forever. Some employees were toiling away late in their offices. On September 11, the hotel was almost totally crushed, and 40 people lost their lives.
In 1997, I attended a meeting in a NY State Department of State office building at 212 Broadway. The meeting was on the top floor, and once again, an access door to the roof was unlocked. This was too good to resist and I took a panorama of the World Trade Center building using a 35 mm Olympus shift lens (in this case, shifting the lens vertically).
Panorama of four Rolleiflex exposures on 120-size film.
On April 29, 2001, I spent another day in meetings. It was a gorgeous clear day, and when I escaped, there were still two hours of daylight left. I had never been to the rooftop observation deck, and this was a perfect chance. Although being quite expensive, I recall thinking I might not have another opportunity. The Top of the World observation deck was on the 107th floor of 2 World Trade Center (the South Tower), and stairs went up to the open roof (open only on calm days). Amazingly, there was absolutely no wind that afternoon. Tourists from Germany and other countries were taking self-portraits with the spectacular view of Manhattan in the background (I confess, I took the obligatory dorky picture, too). The panorama looking north and east shows the north tower and Manhattan spread out across the horizon. The metal frame at the lower right is the rail system for the window-washing machines. The tourist gallery was set back, and you could not look down at a steep angle and see the streets immediately below. The panorama consists of four Rolleiflex (120-size film) frames merged together. Being a large film size, the original prints contain an astonishing amount of detail.
Card by Mayor Rudi Giuliana, from the Leica Gallery
Mayor Rudi Giuliani was a talented Leica photographer. I saw a sign at the Leica Gallery that the mayor always took his Leica with him when he made rounds around the city.
Federal Plaza from World Trade Center, April 29, 2001
Antennas and equipment on the roof of the North Tower, April 29, 2001
The view of Federal Plaza shows the amazing vista from the enclosed Top of the World observation level. The banal rectangle building in the center is the Jacob Javits Federal Building. The 1913-vintage Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway is in the lower right. The tall windowless red/brown edifice to the left is the former AT&T Long Lines Building. According to Wikipedia, it was designed to be self-sufficient and protected from nuclear fallout for up to two weeks after a nuclear blast. The East River is in the background.

Then the unimaginable happened. Five months after visiting the observation deck, the towers were destroyed. My coworkers and I watched television in our Vicksburg office transfixed as we saw the towers implode and throw up an immense dust cloud.
NASA photograph iss003e5388_232021.
This amazing NASA photograph from the International Space Station, taken by astronaut Frank Culberston, shows the dust plume rising into a clear sky (photograph iss003e5388_232021).

The next time I had business in New York was on December 19, 2001. Work crews had already cleared out an amazing amount of the rubble and twisted metal, but as the photographs show, some gutted buildings were still standing. I could not enter the demolition site, but the views past the truck entrances were horrifying. Two of my coworkers told me that was the first day they did not smell fumes from the underground fires. Before then, fumes were sucked into the ventilation system of the Jacob Javits Federal building, causing severe headaches for some workers.
This was the remains of the Winter Garden, across West Street from the Trade Center Plaza. It once housed beautiful palm trees.
Very moving were the impromptu memorials of flowers, notes, letters, and photographs of loved ones who had perished. Fortunately, none of my coworkers were hurt, but all knew someone or were connected via a friend or neighbor to someone who died.
MTA route map, December 2001
The December 2001 MTA route map shows how four subway stations were out of commission after the disaster. The WTC station was destroyed and had to be rebuilt.

I took the black and white photographs with Kodak CN400 film using my 1949-vintage Leica IIIC camera with a 5 cm ƒ/3.5 Red Dot Elmar lens. This was the post-war coated version of the famous Elmar lens, in production until the 1960s. This, as well as the later ƒ/2.8 version, are wonderful performers when adapted to Leica, Micro 4/3, or Fuji X digital cameras (and, of course, are best on film). My IIIC is still in regular use, but I sold the Red Dot Elmar lens.

Updated August 15, 2014, with added photograph.
Updated October 2018: added MTA map.
Update March 12, 2020: Mr Michael Hertz, whose design studio created the iconic NY Transit Map, died on February 28, 2020.
Update July 12, 2020: Added early-1900s stereo card of the Brooklyn Bridge