Travel: The modern world rains softly down from the skies
August 4, 2010
Marching around the hills above my house on Missouri Heights early this summer, getting in shape for a hiking trip in Slovakia, I suddenly noticed a profusion of white flowers.I say I “suddenly” noticed the flowers because somehow I had ignored them, overlooked them, as I put in several miles every day through the dry sagebrush hillsides.And then one afternoon, one flower caught my eye. It was beautiful: a perfect disk of delicate white petals, perhaps an inch in diameter. And having noticed that one, suddenly I realized that those flowers were everywhere. There were hundreds, thousands, of them scattered through the sage. Hiding in plain sight.And I thought, of course, of the rooftops of Dubrovnik.I didn’t think of Dubrovnik because there were flowers on those red-tile rooftops (although on the oldest of those roofs, centuries of dirt have accumulated between the curved tiles and tiny little flowers do grow there). No, the flowers on Missouri Heights made me think of the dish antennas on the rooftops of Dubrovnik. Like the flowers, the antennas were round and white – and once you noticed them, they were everywhere.In fact, when I took photos of those rooftops from the high walls that surround Dubrovnik, I didn’t notice the antennas. It was only once I was back home in Colorado, looking at my photos, that I suddenly saw what was there, everywhere: dish antennas.My first reaction was dismay. My wonderful photos of the old city were cluttered by these insidious intrusions of our modern electronic world. But then I realized that the ancient perfection of the walled city – every building within the walls is centuries old – was actually touched by two kinds of abrupt modern intrusions. Forget, for a moment, the antennas. My photos also showed – and this was not something subtle that I had overlooked, that anyone could overlook – that on most of the buildings in the city, the varied, weathered reds of the original tiles have been replaced with the far brighter, uniform red-orange of brand new tiles. The old tiles were handmade. Each one was unique, the curve made by wrapping the clay of the tile over the thigh of the craftsman. The new tiles are perfect, exact, machine-made. They are as alike as the dish antennas that perch atop them.Those new roofs date back just two decades, to the Balkan War of 1991, when the Serbian army and navy shelled Dubrovnik during a siege that lasted for months.Those orange tiles may lack character, but they are testimony to the city’s bravery and endurance.And the white antennas that blossom everywhere, on old roofs and new, are a sign of the modern age that has conquered Dubrovnik with television – and without violence.The modern world colonizes our rooftops and seeps down into our lives.Like any oh-so-thoughtful, concerned modern citizens, my wife and I have been considering solar power of some sort for our home. We got bids on solar photovoltaic cells for our roof that would provide all the electricity we need. (Nope. Too expensive for now.) We looked at solar hot water systems for our roof that would lower our heating bills. (Well, maybe. We’re still thinking.)And I was, again, reminded of rooftops in foreign lands.A few years ago, driving east from Izmir across central Turkey, I was struck by the solar hot-water systems on the roof of almost every little house we passed – no matter how humble. There, of course, the hot water systems were not the thoughtful additions of concerned citizens looking to lower their heating bills in the fierce winters. Temperatures rarely dip below freezing in that part of the world.Those solar systems were there to provide hot water in a land where other sources of power were unavailable or too expensive.The modern world that was settling the rooftops in Turkey was the world of hot water on demand.Just a year ago, in a ragged, rugged village at the edge of the Sahara in Tunisia, we saw a different version of the same phenomenon. Here, the roofs of rough stone buildings, with camels tethered outside, were dotted with solar photovoltaic panels – the same kind we couldn’t afford for our house in Missouri Heights.In Tunisia, the government had decided that for these simple villages, scattered far out at the edge of the desert, it would be easier – and cheaper – to provide electricity directly from the sun, rather than stringing high-tension wires across vast hostile distances.So the government provided the solar cells and again, the modern world descended from the sky.But all these stops were far-flung – either in space or time. Dubrovnik was five years ago; Turkey nearly a decade. And, trust me, the edge of the Sahara in Tunisia is far, far away.On our trip to Slovakia – remember Slovakia? That’s why I was hiking and gazing at little white flowers on Missouri Heights – the modern world was even more pervasive.In Dubrovnik, all those rooftop antennas brought television to people’s homes. The Internet, if you wanted it, was not available in any of our hotels – even the fanciest – but was usually within walking distance at an Internet Caf.But right now, this year, in Slovakia, one of the poorer nations in Europe – not really poor, in Europe its economy ranks right behind the Czech Republic, right ahead of Estonia – we had Internet access everywhere; wi-fi in every hotel room.Actually, one hotel room didn’t have Internet. Not really a hotel, so much as a castle. A somewhat restored 15th-century castle that once belonged to the Blood Countess, Erzabet Bathory. Those echoing halls were not a place for wi-fi access. Especially after an afternoon tour of the torture chamber and secret Knights Templar chapel down in the cellars. This was a place that really ought to be out of touch.But everywhere else, from the simple B&B in the tiny village in the Valley of the River Vh, to, of course, the small elegant hotel in a restored 13th-century building in the old town of Bratislava, there was wireless Internet service in every room.Free wireless Internet service.Usually high-speed.Now, in Slovakia, pretty much no one speaks English. Sure, in Bratislava, the capital (you knew that), they speak English. As a developing tourist destination, they have to – if only to withstand the occasional busload of drunken Brits on a package tour. (Slovakia, curiously, unlike its previously conjoined half-sister, the Czech Republic, does not have great beer. No matter. The Brits – mostly Irish when we were there – don’t mind. They pour a lot of Guinness in Bratislava.)But out in the countryside, in the smaller towns, they just don’t speak English. The people at the hotel desk know perhaps 10 words. Sometimes only two or three, really. And Slovak, their language, has absolutely nothing in common with English. Or French, Spanish, Italian. Or for that matter German. Incomprehension often reigns. What would you do if confronted with a menu that offered “Prolt sprga fstlt sajttal, zldkrettel”?But one word they all know is “Internet.” Another, of course, is “wi-fi.”It’s everywhere.And yet, as I look over my photos from this well-connected trip through Slovakia, I don’t see any dish antennas on the rooftops.There are none showing in my photos. I just wasted a half-hour looking at random photos of Bratislava rooftops on the Internet. (Sometimes, an Internet connection is a real liability.) No one else has dish antennas in their photos either.I expected them to show up, like the antennas in Dubrovnik or the white flowers on Missouri Heights. But somehow the modern world found a different path into the heart and sinews of Slovakia. Perhaps its just the years that have passed. Perhaps Slovakia was a little late to the party and, as a result, got a better result. The roofs are clean and clear. That’s nice. It makes for better photos anyway.But no matter really. Everything changes with time. After all, by the time I got home to Colorado, the seasons had shifted a little – late spring into full summer – and all the white flowers were long gone. Now it’s wild alfalfa, dark purple mixed into the sage. Nature’s own kind of annual modernity. Summer: up to date, up to the minute, once a year every year.Thanks, of course, to solar power.
Andy Stone is travel editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.