Sunday, July 21, 2013

In London, a find unlike any other

LONDON – I went out for a run in East London’s Canary Wharf fairly recently, and I wasn’t in a great mood. I had hoped to run with a friend (hello, Megan!) but she was injured and couldn’t make it. And the area seemed to be surrounded by industrial parks and highways along the River Thames.

Indeed, I started out along the Thames for five minutes before hitting a highway and then reversed course. I hit a few more dead-ends after that, and finally smartened up: I spied another runner and followed him away from the river; local runners always know the best routes. He led me through a warren of narrow streets, until finally I was running along the river again, in an area with a great name:

The Isle of Dogs.

The name alone put me in a better mood. I knew there must be great convoluted history behind it, likely going back centuries (and there is), and kept running alongside working-class-looking apartments that I was sure likely went for a half-million pounds each.

I passed a little park (with a few dogs) and then came upon a mini-brick domed structure, which rose about  three stories high.


It looked like the top of a buried building. As I stopped, a couple of bicyclists emerged from one side of the building. Then a few more came out, and a few more, totaling eight or nine in all.

Where had they come from?

The round building had an elevator with a wide door, as well as an internal spiral staircase. I descended down the stairway.


I went down, down, down, for two minutes, until I reached a landing and then turned a corner.

There, in front of me, was a tunnel!


I realized I was underneath the Thames. So I ran.

I felt like I was entering a time from an earlier century. The tunnel was not high – maybe eight feet at most – and it was dank and poorly lit. It was wide enough – maybe nine or 10 feet – for two lanes. That was a good thing as a string of bikers was headed my way. 

The tunnel descended and then ascended – it must have been a quarter mile long, long enough so that I couldn’t see the end – and I raced through it with the joy of a boy who had just discovered something magical. (And perhaps the fear of a man who can feel slightly claustrophobic.) I reached the end and ran up the spiral staircase and exited on the other side of the Thames. I had to see the view. The brownish river was in front of me, a park behind me, and more bikers headed my way. I reversed course, and ran through the old tunnel again.

Two weeks later, I was telling the story to our neighbors, Gerry and Deb, both Brits. Deb knew about the tunnel immediately, and Gerry pulled out his iPad and confirmed where I had been: the Greenwich foot tunnel.

We learned that tunnel construction started in 1899 and was finished in 1902; its purpose was to replace an “expensive and and sometimes unreliable ferry service” for workers on the south side of the Thames to get to London docks and shipyards around the Isle of Dogs. The person who pushed it through was a politician with the memorable name of Will Crooks.


Thank you, Mr. Crooks. Your long-ago political maneuverings have benefitted many on a daily basis for more than a century, including giving me an unexpected find on a summer morning.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The difference of 25 years: Backpacking then, presidential palace today

SANTIAGO, Chile – The temperature in early morning was no more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, as I put on a long-sleeve shirt. It felt like an indulgence after weeks of hot weather in Washington. But it was cold enough that I pulled the sleeves over my hands to keep them warm.

I crossed a highway and a bridge over the Maponcho River, which ran fast and was hemmed in by concrete walls, a protection against flooding. I ran along the left bank, heading in the same direction as the river, toward the city center.

At 6 a.m., it was dark, and I was on guard, for my footing and for people in the shadows. The path was uneven close to the river and I could make out shapes of men along the way. I couldn’t tell what they were doing so I maneuvered to a path to my left, which was close to the road. Near one intersection, three rangy, old German shepherds crawled out of makeshift tents and barked at me. One hobbled after my heels, his barks as menacing as a 90-year-old man, woof woof woof. Still, he made me scoot.

I eventually found a straight path with picturesque little lanterns on poles every 10 yards lighting my way. I could almost imagine myself running in a Parisian park. More than that, though, the light freed me to think about something other than falling or falling in the hands of others.

As my mind wandered, I remembered my first trip to Chile – some 25 years ago with my wife, Laura, on our honeymoon. We backpacked for about six months along the spine of the Andes, starting in Quito, Ecuador, and eventually ending in Torres del Paine in southern Chile.

The two of us stopped in Santiago for a few days, arriving on a long-haul, air-conditioned bus that we boarded near the desert region along the Peru-Chile border. At the border, we were reminded that we were entering the Pinochet dictatorship; the guards pawed through all our belongings, pulling out our books and leafing through them. They took one – Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. Maybe they thought Brautigan, shown in the cover photo, looked subversive.  
         In Santiago, we checked out a couple of hotels. At the first one, we asked about the rate, and the person behind the counter said: How many hours? I thought I heard him wrong, replying, “Well, 24?” He looked at me oddly. “We rent by the hour,” he said. We looked more closely at our surroundings, at the bustle in the lobby, and burst out laughing. We went looking for a place that rented by the day.

Santiago was gray and dirty then, but it had newsstands that sold some American newspapers, and a colorful movie marquee advertising recent blockbluster action films. We loved the countryside outside of the city, where we had picnics of cheese, fresh bread, and wine in a cardboard box, something we had never seen before. While the city was fast-paced and full of army and suspicion, the countryside was leisurely and lovely.

On my run, I returned to the present moment and replayed arriving in Santiago from Lima the day before. A police escort took us straight to our hotel and then to an official meeting in La Moneda, the presidential palace.
There was a press conference in the palace and later we were guests at a dinner hosted by the finance minister and the captains of industry. (Almost all were men; there were just three women among the group of 75.) In a grand room, with a ceiling 20 foot high and walls painted red and adorned with over-sized life portraits of Chile’s leaders in the 19th century, white-gloved waiters served us fine Pinot Noir wine (in glass bottles).

I thought: boxed wine in the park when we were young, and Pinot Noir in the presidential palace in middle age. I thought again: arriving unawares into a house of ill repute, and being escorted into the house of power. The contrasts made me smile. The experiences were both memorable. As I finished my run, with the first light appearing to the east above the Andes, I thought that I likely will still remember the visit during the days of Pinochet, the visit with the shared wine poured from a cardboard spout, more vividly. That wine, among other things, was a revelation.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Running with surfers on my left

LIMA, Peru – It is winter here, which means a series of cloudy days and temperatures in the 50s and 60s. But this morning, as I wiped the condensation from my hotel window overlooking the Pacific Ocean (see the view above), I saw a startling sight: the sun.

I quickly got out the door and headed north, knowing it was so because the ocean was on my left.

We are staying in Miraflores, a wealthy part of a city in a country that seems to get wealthier by the year. As a taxi driver told me: “The middle class in Peru is exploding.”

It certainly felt that way on the running trail high above the Pacific, built by the city to include parks, exercise stations and even fenced-in places for dogs to run. Scores of runners, bikers, walkers, and groups doing Tai Chi were everywhere (I always want to stop and look at groups doing Tai Chi – there’s something spellbinding about the concentration and deliberate movements.)

Wearing shorts and a T-short, I could see a few miles ahead of the Pacific Ocean, dotted by surfers in wet suits paddling out to catch winter waves. The path zig-zagged from the road into small parks that had sculptures and exercise benches as their centerpieces. One sculpture, called “The Embrace,” showed a larger-than-life couple intertwined. (Still, it was nowhere near as compelling to me as those doing Tai Chi.)

These fast city runs, to be honest, are usually fairly grim. Sometimes, like on a day in London recently (more on that soon), I run along a mixture of industrial parks and busy highways and wonder what am I doing here. Sometimes I take a third or fourth turn on a run and wonder if I ever will find my way back. Sometimes I stumble on curbs. Sometimes dogs bark and I jump.

Almost never is the ocean on my left, the temperature just right, and the early morning sun casting a long shadow of my silhouette, making me seem much taller (and thinner) than I am. So no wonder this is my third morning in a row running in Miraflores, cooled by seaside breezes, pretending I’m on vacation, and dreaming of the old days when I could run for hours.

Next: Chile.