Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rangoon Spider Horror Ride

It was just another normal Thursday morning. We thought.

Well, it was a little abnormal maybe, because Ursula was sick, and wouldn’t be going to school this day in our adopted city, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).

Mom and I climbed into Thaung Tun’s white Toyota ProBox station wagon, and headed for school, leaving Ursula behind in our house on Yadanar Street with Dad. Thaung Tun is our driver. Yadanar means “treasure” in Burmese, by the way.

Just as we reached the edge of Inya Lake and turned left on Kabar Pagoda Road, Thaung Tun yelled out: “Danger! Danger!”

I looked out the rain-streaked windows to see what he was talking about. Then mom saw it and gasped. It was inside. I screamed.

It was……………well, I’ll tell you later.

Ok fine. It was a GIANT yellow spider, lowering itself fast from the rearview mirror on what must have been a very strong strand of silk.

Now we’ve all seen big spiders. But let me tell you what I mean by “giant.”

It was as big as my hand with all five fingers spread. I mean, this spider was more crab-size than spider-size. I mean, it must have been six inches from the tip of one articulating leg to another. I’m not exaggerating.

As we made a sharp left in heavy traffic, the change of direction caused the enormous arachnid to swing wildly, in an ellipsis. It arced close to the neck of the usually unflappable Thaung Tun, who leaned away. Mom and I were in the back, preparing to eject ourselves from the still moving vehicle, if necessary.

Increasingly, it appeared to be necessary.  

“Thaung Tun was pretty freaked. We were all freaked,” Mom would say later. "It was by far the largest spider I've ever seen in my life."

As the spider reached lap level, Thaung Tun’s superhero driving skills kicked in. With one hand on the wheel he completed the turn and steered the car to a stop while procuring a green rag from nowhere with the other. He then attempted -- but failed -- to scoop up the spider before its eight long legs latched onto the center console in front of us.

Now, it was Mom’s turn to scream.

“Get out of the car!” she yelled, crouching by the door on her side, but not actually getting out. She was on the traffic side and couldn’t easily evacuate. And moving over to my side would have meant passing closer to the spider, now hiding somewhere in the bric-a-brac of the console. So she remained frozen, huddled in her corner. As for me: I leaped out into the rain, no further discussion required.

Thaung Tun somehow caught the monster with his rag and opened the driver’s side door (which would actually be the passenger side in American cars) to shake it out into a stream of gutter water. I gladly climbed back in and shut the door, watching the spider rush into the road with the current.  Ha, I thought.

After we started moving again, I became uneasy. What if there were more spiders? Believe me, I couldn’t wait to get to school!

Story written by Gryffyn M. May and Tahra J. May. Editing by Timothy D. May.

Gryffyn's life-size sketch of the yellow spider.

Thaung Tun demonstrates just how large the spider looked to him.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

London for Cheapskates Part 3: Spit, Iron and Gold at the British Library

Above: a statue of Newton in the courtyard of the British Library.

At Victoria Station, swaddled in my second-hand parka, I descended again into the Underground, quickening my pace as I joined the strong-flowing current of fellow commuters. My destination: the British Library at St Pancras. As an English major whose mother presented me at varying points in my youth with sets of Shakespeare, Tolkien and Arthur Conan Doyle, and who was engrossed by adventure novels penned by British islanders like Swift, Defoe and Stevenson, and later, the darker work of Dickens and Austen, I couldn’t skip a chance to geek out in one of the oldest, largest and greatest vaults of literature assembled in human history. Additionally, by means of a benign online subterfuge, in which I posed as a freelance writer researching unusual and interesting free things to do in Britain’s capital, I had succeeded in wangling the  final remaining ticket for a behind-the-scenes look inside the library’s Centre for Conservation, which opens its three locked sets of double doors only one Thursday each month for a small, always-filled group tour of its workshop, located in a climate-and-light-controlled studio behind an empty courtyard camouflaged by potted plants. And did I mention the tour is free? I was excited. There exist only a handful of national libraries in the world that house more books and manuscripts than the BL, which was founded in 1753 and now holds more than 16 million works, including priceless and famous objects on display such as the Magna Carta and DaVinci’s notebooks, the original Beowulf, the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio.  (The Library of Congress in the U.S. is the largest, with 30 million books, followed by national libraries in Germany, Canada and Russia.)

I arrived early enough to look around before my tour. The library provides free wireless Internet for visitors and has a nice café, with a few hundred small tables scattered around large open spaces. In the middle of a weekday, every table was occupied, and not by latte-sipping tourists taking a break from shopping, like me. These people seemed to be working – actively writing or engaged in what sounded to my unpracticed ear to be serious adult conversation. Were they actually discussing literature and writing, books? I swear on the Gutenberg that I witnessed several people writing longhand on paper with actual pencils. I saw a man and woman scrolling through a document on a Mac and speaking in a very animated way about something important to them – a thought, idea, word? Apparently there are still places in the world where the physical presence of books serves as a magnet for imagination, sucking people in for research and review and provoking face-to-face discussion. All around me, intense, private conversations were humming in hushed library tones, and I had the feeling that for many of these fellow pilgrims, simply being under the same roof with 16 million books was contributing to a powerful creative flow and sense of collective possibility. With no literary masterwork of my own in which to invest brainpower, I contented myself with a coffee and then strolled through an awesome special exhibit of Mughal art and literature, as well as a free exhibit showcasing the most famous and inventive mystery writers since the genre was invented. At 2 p.m., I found my way out back to the Conservation Centre.
Above: the King's Library looms overhead as scribes and scholars take advantage of one of the most important collections of written works in the world.
We are ushered inside by Robert Brodie, Conservation Team Leader, after being instructed not to take photographs, touch anything or disturb the lab techs. Purses and packs are checked at reception. Today we are especially lucky, Brodie informs us. The lab’s gold leaf finisher happens to be working on some restorative work, re-embossing spines of very old and valuable books; it is a rare occasion in a place of rare works. As we enter the one-story lab, a door opens from a subterranean elevator shaft. A pair of techs emerge pushing a cart of large dusty tomes bearing the title “Near India Office Records.” We step aside as the patients are rolled slowly into the south-facing workshop, designed to enable an elite corps of craftsmen and women to take advantage of daylight streaming in through large windows. The setup reminds me a bit of a newsroom – open and casual, people working with their heads down, hardly taking note of those entering and leaving – except there are no computers on the desks. Instead there are stacks of Japanese mulberry bush paper, parchment paper, leather strips and buckram; special glues made of sturgeon; thick books and manuscripts jumbled among strange and well-worn hand tools, along with wooden vises, presses and small wooden structures called tappers, loaded with dead weights, that resemble miniature looms. Here, someone is working on the original notebooks of Virginia Woolf. There is a collection of rare Soviet political leaflets requiring restoration. On that desk, the papers of William Trumbull, circa 1635 – the most expensive section of the most expensive archive ever purchased by the library. On that desk is sitting an original work of the Georgian poet Lascelles Abercrombie. Across the way, an expert bookbinder is using a large needle and a technique called French sewing to re-bind very, very old sheets of music.  The lab is a beautiful mess, a rehabilitation centre for priceless literature and written works of art, littered with yellowing, rusting, moldering relics representing some of the most culturally and historically important work of mankind.
Brodie's conservators are in such high demand that the Centre uses an estimating and bidding system, in which the curatorial staff from various departments annually submit their priorities for restoration, logging the information into a database. The database has a scoring system agreed upon by the Heads of Collection that includes factors such as the condition of the book, its rarity, level of use, and whether the item is part of the National Published Archive. How often is the damaged work actually read? Is the work scheduled to be digitized? How extensive is the repair required? Is the book or object scheduled to be included soon in a special exhibit? “To guard it, fold it, bind it, it could take us 300 hours,” Brodie says. “Six people in a unit here can do 5,194 hours of work in a year.” Once items are scored, an estimate is provided of the length of time the work will take, balanced against the work capacity of the conservators. “I have 50 people. They are the rock stars of conservation,” but they can only do so much work in a year.

Next, we head over to talk to Doug Mitchell, a gold leaf finisher who is working alone in his own secure lab. Mitchell has been a bookbinder for 40 years. He uses albumin glaze crystals, 23-and-a-half carat gold and false gold foil to make the mix he needs. Right now, he is re-numbering in gold leaf a set of large, leather-bound historical volumes known as the Portland Papers. He uses his own spit to test the heat on a miniature iron hot plate, which is heating up a tiny branding iron he will use to press the numbers. “If there are no bubbles it’s about right,” he says. He preps the leather first by rubbing it with a clear liquid to fill the leather’s pores, then quickly presses his tiny iron into the spine in a series of strokes as he retools the binding, finishing up by swiping a solvent called Hexane over the numbers to gently polish the new gold work on the spine. Spit, iron and 23-carat gold. “Done it this way since the 1400s,” Mitchell says.
Dizzy and famished by my prolonged exposure to so many books, I headed out of the library and into the Tube again in search of gustatory nourishment, emerging this time in Soho for an early dinner at the hottest cheap restaurant in London, an Italian bacaro on Beak Street called Polpo, located in a building where the Venetian painter Canaletto once lived. Polpo showed up on everybody's lists of the top 10 cheapest gourmet eats in London, so it was an easy choice, though I was worried I might not be able to get a table. At 630 pm, I had no trouble finding a seat at the bar, though by 730 the tiny eatery was jammed to the gills. This busy little gem serves really good early wines and delectable, simple Italian fare at easy prices. I ordered a glass of Valpolicella Classico La Giaretta, 2011 (11 pounds) with a bowl of spicy pork and fennel meatballs (6 pounds), followed by a plate of mackerel tartare, horseradish and carta di musica (Mediterannean flatbread) at 7 pounds and a glass of Barbera Riva Leone 2011 (9 pounds), and that was enough for me. A swanky dinner out in Soho, wine included, for under $50, not bad considering I skipped lunch and spent nothing at the library, except for a coffee. I tubed back to Battersea and collapsed, Day 1 of my London trip in the books.
Meatballs, mackerel and a couple of Italian reds at Polpo, in Soho, provided the perfect finish to Day 1 of London on the Cheap.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

London for Cheapskates -- Part 2 - Thrifty Lodgings, Food and Outerwear

To be alone among the confusion is perhaps the single most piercing emotion of any stranger in the city.” – Peter Ackroyd, London: A Biography
I stepped outside the dry cleaners into the cold London morning, accompanied by a small plume of starchy-smelling steam. A few yards in front of me, rush-hour traffic moved slowly down the wrong side of the street in Battersea Park, a suburb south of Chelsea across the River Thames, over which I had just comfortably and affordably glided in a huge red double-decker bus, accidentally getting off two stops too early. I consulted my small black moleskine notebook, which contained detailed scribbled notes and directions for my self-suggested three-day itinerary for London. Out of the dry cleaners, I had instructed myself to turn right, then right, then right onto Prince of Wales Drive. My destination: a ridiculously inexpensive $66-a-night Airbnb flat located inside the opulent-sounding Albert Palace Mansions in Lurline Gardens.
I found it easily: a red brick-faced building, four stories high, embedded in a stolid bank of similar buildings fronting a narrow one-way lane lined with cars, with inset courtyard entrances spilling over with shrubbery and overwintered flowers. It is an apartment complex today, but like everything in London, Albert Palace Mansions started life as something else, and, like everything in London, has an interesting history. These buildings, I later learned, were once part of a massive late nineteenth century indoor/outdoor amusement complex, the centerpiece of which was the famous Albert Palace, a magnificent iron-and-glass structure originally built to house the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865, and then dismantled, shipped to London and rebuilt on the edge of the gardens next to Battersea Park (which actually is a giant, municipal park). The central part of the palace comprised a 473-foot nave for a permanent orchestra, with a giant organ and concert hall at one end and a tea room at the other. Indoor attractions included exhibition booths, an aquarium, picture galleries and bars, as well as an “Indian village” featuring silk spinners, a sitar maker, singers and snake-charmers; there also were cat, bird and flower shows, and the Viennese Ladies Orchestra had a standing gig. Eventually though the enterprise went under and the land and buildings were sold to developers; over a century later, this vestige of Victorian recreation is filled with middle-class Londoners living in two- and three-bedroom flats, such as the one I now trudged up four flights of spiraling stairs to temporarily occupy.
To my relief, the apartment was just as advertised: clean, neat and bright, high-ceilinged with large windows and transoms over thick wooden doors. There was a tiny but functional modern kitchen, a tidy tiled bathroom, a light-filled living room occupied by a piano, comfy couch and a large TV, with some handsome antiques scattered about. My bedroom was cozy with comfortable goose-down bedding and a large armoire, carpeted and quiet. That’ll do, pig, I thought to myself. Hmm yes, for three days in London, that’ll do quite nicely.
It was only 9 a.m. and though I had just traveled 24 mostly sleepless hours from East Africa, taken a long train ride from Heathrow and then a bus to find a dry cleaners and lodgings, my adrenalin was pumping. London. London! Rapidly, I unpacked my backpack, containing just enough clean clothes for three days (I had previously checked my big suitcase at the Britishly-named “Left Baggage” concession at Heathrow) plus my laptop, iPad and toiletries. After a shower and change of clothes, I was back outside, having consulted my moleskine, along with a detailed London map left for me in absentia by my thoughtful Airbnb hosts, both of whom were at work. There were no Tube stops close by, but an overland rail station, accessible to me with my Day Pass, was just up the street and would get me to Victoria Station just one stop away, from which I could access the Underground. First though: food.
Just across the entrance to the rail station, a whiff of fried sausage drew my attention to a stream of fluorescent green and orange-jacketed police and workmen heading in and out of a tiny diner tucked under a dingy brown trestle. Busting out my Sherlock, I made a deduction: police and workmen = always hungry + usually in a hurry + budget-minded = high probability of cheap and tasty food, fast. By Jove, I was not disappointed. For under five British pounds, I soon found myself scuppering a lake of English breakfast food that made the Grand Slam at Denny’s seem like a foul bunt. Twenty minutes later, after a few baked bean burps washed down with the last sips of an OK café-au-lait, I was on my way, re-provisioned and ready.
Above: a working man's breakfast at Bridge the Gap, Battersea Park. Below, the always-bustling Victoria Station. 

First stop: the British Red Cross Thrift Store. With my sub-Saharan wardrobe of tee-shirts, thin cotton dress shirts and summer-weight trousers, I was ill prepared for London in late winter. Research revealed a number of highly-touted second-hand clothing shops in the vicinity of Victoria Station. I lucked out at the Red Cross store, where, after trying out a Rod Stewarty full-length black leather trench, I found a thick, down-filled parka with enormous snapping pockets and plenty of room to secret an iPad Mini, moleskine and ballpoint pen, sunglasses, wallet, fat London street map and a digital camera, in just the right size. Yes, it smelled a bit like another man, but not in a bad way, and it only cost me 40 pounds, or about $61 USD – a little more than I’d wanted to spend but hey, this is London and proceeds would theoretically go to a good cause. And on Saturday, I was scheduled to be sitting and/or standing outside for hours, exposed to the natural elements and potentially, showers of soda launched by hooligans in the crowd at the Chelsea match disappointed in the performance of one squad or the other, and I was sure I’d be glad then of my 40-pound purchase.
I stopped next at a touristy knick-knack shop and picked up a cheap knit hat and pair of fleece gloves, unaware until that evening when I emptied my pockets that the cheeky storekeeper, who cleverly pegged me for a dumb American, returned my change in Mexican pesos. At the time, though, I felt extremely satisfied with myself for successfully locating the dry cleaners, checking into my Airbnb flat, finding a good local breakfast dive and obtaining inexpensive winter wear, all before lunchtime on my first day in London. Congratulating myself on my adroitness as a traveler on the cheap, I jingled pesos in my coat pocket as I walked to the Tube station in advance of my next adventure: a behind-the-scenes tour of the clandestine conservation laboratory at the world-famous British Library in St Pancras. I was about to meet the global rock stars of book conservation in their seldom-seen command centre, and it wouldn’t cost me a peso.

Above: The BL's Centre for Conservation: the Langley of the secret world of book and manuscript preservation and restoration