Europe, Life Skills, Tourist

El Viento

I had been saving a visit to the Alhambra, my only tourism goal of this return to Spain, for the week my Myanmar Travel Companion (MTC) came down from Germany for a visit. Like me, he traveled for an extended time, but he stayed in Southeast Asia, diving and staring at the ocean from Southern Thailand and Malaysia, or partying in Bangkok and Saigon. He left around New Years to return to Germany, and promptly got a string of illnesses clearly caused by post-travel depression, cold weather, and office work.

So when MTC arrived in Sevilla, agitated, irritated, unable to relax or appreciate the sights of Sevilla, I was more than happy to go along with his desire to visit Tarifa, a beach town on the South Coast known for its kite boarding and wind surfing. I would have done anything to uncover the MTC I knew in Myanmar, who gleefully biked through the backroads of Bagan and laughed at the fiasco in which collectors were sent for me on a temple at sunrise . We devised a grand plan: rent a car, head south, spend one night at the beach and then head northeast to Grenada to see the Alhambra.

Of course we got lost driving out of Sevilla, trapped on the ringroad that circles the city, and drove back and forth in a pendulum’s arc around the bottom of the loop before grabbing hold of the road southward. An hour later, down the tollway lined with eucalyptus and divided in the center with oleander, the sides of the road opened. Rows of blooming girasoles tipped their hats to us as we sped by. Above their yellow faces, wind turbines topped rocky hills, turning with increasing fury as we headed south to the sea.

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We checked into the hotel and then headed to the water, the approach to which wasn’t obvious. We got tangled behind some apartment buildings, a soccer field, the Chinese ‘everything for a euro (and up)’ store, and crawled out through a parking lot dotted with camper vans from years long gone, missing paint, plastered with peeling stickers. And then, there we were, next to the magnificent Atlantic, which looked like the gentle Carribean for that day only. The water was in turns clear, then turquoise, then increasingly blue as it pulled out to the sea like the tankers we could see, leaving the safety of the Mediterranean for destinations West, and South.

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It was still hot, being no later than five and Tarifa at a latitude where, mid-June, the sun sets between 9:30 and 10:00 pm. Tourists baked on the sand, feigning interest in shade with small sombrillas and fading coats of sunblock. Couples played in the water, waves poured in, kids built castles in the sand. We took off our shoes and walked almost an hour up the beach before turning back in search of beer, and food.

For dinner, we headed to the other gem of Tarifa: the medina. This was no Moroccan medina. The buildings were white-washed, storefronts wide, and streets clean. Streets that may have once been cobblestone wove through one another around buildings filled with Moroccan jewelry and textiles priced well above their native prices plus the 70 euro ferry trip to Tangier and back. Some sold clothes, others beachtowels with the toro de Espana, others peddled beer to young tourists from Australia, England, and Italy who were here to surf, or pretend that they could. The streets dumped us out next to the Catedral at the bottom of the hill and we looped around it, looking for a way in before giving up and heading to a vegetarian place with four tables.

Like sports towns everywhere, Tarifa is populated by people whose faces have been carved by the weather, the wind shaping their existence as much as it does the line of the shore. They move with a slowness that, even in Spain, is marked by a lack of urgency, a calm that comes with low wages and high levels of activity in something you love, and a tolerance for tourists you accommodate for your survival. People who live in towns like this know the reasons they are here. They aren’t on the search for something they may never find.

In contrast, the MTC and I spend more than half our conversation time trying to ascertain what magnificent, million-euro idea two pedigreed, intelligent, well-traveled individuals can come up with so that we can travel six months of the year. Before we finish dinner, we decide we are skipping the Alhambra and staying here.

The next day breaks so windy that our morning walk on the beach is a sandblasting the likes of which a good hammam could charge a pretty dirham for. Sand from the dry part of the beach races to the ocean, flying across the wet pack to the waves, which appear to turn in slow motion as the wind pushes spray backward off their tops. The neon orange floats that line offshore fishing nets bounce on the water, as do the boats that yesterday so stoically guarded their fish. Our walk is shorter this morning than it was last night.

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We hop in the car and go looking for a beach to sit on. We find perfection ten minutes down the road, at a hotel that is simultaneously expensive and filled with kite boarders and wind surfers. It is tucked into a hillside with a patio partially protected from the wind. We luck into a couple of basket chairs and take them, lounging for hours beneath a partially thatched covering that attempts to shield us from the sun’s heat. Sometimes we are reading, but more than once I catch each of us staring into space, trying to figure it all out. And of course, more than once, I catch each of us checking out a hot Spaniard setting up his board. Eventually the sun burns us out of our seats, and we move to the restaurant where we share tomato salad with salt flakes, and fall asleep on the banquet in the shade.

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After a brief siesta back at our hotel, we drop into the grocery for beer and head to the beach for sunset. Of course, the sun doesn’t set until 9:30 and after ten minutes, the pockets of my shorts and the can from my beer are filled with sand, shoved there by a mischievous wind, so we head to the beach bar just before the poprt. After the sun goes down, all we feel is the wind, and suddenly it is cold. We race back to the hotel through the winding streets of the medina, shivering and laughing at the change in ambiente, to shower and go to dinner.

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On our last morning, the wind is as fierce as it was the day before. It has roared all night, lulling me into sleep through the open window. We detour up the coast for our return trip, driving along a highway that winds through a state park, where wind-molded pinons umbrella over the land. We stop for lunch on the coast, feasting on grilled vegetables and fish before heading home.

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When we return to Sevilla, we leave the car at the train station and grab a cab to my apartment. The heat is heavy here, compared to the coast. Tomorrow, it will be 102. The next day, 104. But we have been scraped clean by the salt, by the sand, by the persistence of our concerns about the future. The wind has carved us, if only slightly, leaving us with our true faces and carrying off the ones we wear to convince the world we are where we need to be.

 

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Europe, Life Skills, South America, Traveling

Nadie Te Quita Lo Bailado

I never realized how much I shop while traveling until I found myself in the sweet little village of Villa de Lleyva, in the Colombian hills. It is a busy weekend destination from Bogota, and I was there during the week, trying to shed The Terror. The shopping was drool-inducing, but my hands were tied: I had an over-full pack, and six months to go before home.

I love giving presents. Though I am famous in my family for hiding one last Christmas present until long after everyone else has finished opening their loot, I’m also known for going a little overboard on the present-giving. It’s not just Christmas. It’s anytime I find something someone I know will like, or has been longing for, or even better will adore even though s/he doesn’t know it’s out there. It’s such a little thing, and the exchange may be material, but the gift is the joy that it brings the recipient, not the object itself.

In the past, I have returned from journeys abroad with presents for my family from the trip, and then gifted them again for their birthdays or holidays with items also bought abroad, socked away until the proper occasion. At some point, I realized I could buy them each just one present on my trip, and gift it at the appropriate occasion, reducing my expenditures and the weight of my pack. My sisters took notice, but a raised eyebrow ended their protest.

Those cobblestone walkways in Villa de Lleyva come back to me now in Sevilla, wanting again to buy a piece of a country and take it home with me. In Colombia, native textiles combined with leather into the most fantastic purses I’d ever seen. Thick, soft wool had been knit into cowl-necked sweaters that could cuddle my sisters through the most vicious of winters. And the jewelry….But it had to be left behind.

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When you can’t shop, what are you taking home with you? Memories. What happens when those memories get confused, and begin to fade? Where was I when I kept getting turned around and winding up in the same marketplace block, with heat bearing down on the smell of the wet market, over and over again? I had to think on this one for 30 minutes to recall it was Cartagena.

In what town did I stay briefly where they had a daily market that I kept failing to make it to, only to happen upon its afternoon remnants on my last afternoon in town? I’ve been thinking about it for two days now, and I can’t remember. But I can still see the empty stalls being broken down on a dusty street, cars again pushing through as they cleared.

Where is the fancy Italian paper store that I am so dead -set on finding again here in Sevilla? I was sure it was on Calle Serpientes, but I’ve walked it four times now to no avail. I don’t even need paper; I just loved that place so much, I wanted to go back.

I took 47 planes, six trains, nine boats, four buses, a couple scary 4WD trips and countless bike, subway, taxi and tram rides on my way round the world in 180 days. I was so alert that each of them has a memory attached to it, but the further I get from each, the more I dip into ‘normal’ life (let’s be honest, this life I’m living now is far from normal), the blurrier the memories get. Misty water-colored memories indeed. If I’m not buying things, and the memories get blurred as time goes by, what do I have left of this marvel of a life I’ve adventured through?

It’s a sentiment. It’s a sensation. It’s a sense memory that lingers in body, muscle, mind and heart, the feeling of it all being new, unknown, still ahead. It’s the knowledge of having done it (for the first time, differently than I will do it the next time). It’s the thrill that comes back, if just for a moment, when I remember climbing to the top of the monastery in Petra and looking out over the valley, or biking through rice paddies in Vietnam, or standing at the base of a glacier in Patagonia. Like muscles, the memory must be exercised to remain strong , so I recall it occasionally, with a glimpse at a picture, a pause of breath, a closure of eyes, to pull myself back to that moment that no one can take away. It is just what a friend said to me before I left, when I worried what would happen when I came back. “Nadie te quita lo bailado.” Nobody takes away from you what you’ve danced.

On top of the monastery in Petra

On top of the monastery in Petra

Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Preparing, South America, Tourist, Traveling, United States

Money Matters: the new New Math

For the last six months, with the exception of one week in March, I have moved every three to four days. I haven’t slept in the same bed for more than a week since last September. While I didn’t change countries every  time I moved, I did manage to make it to 17 of them, only three of which use the same currency. So while everyone thinks I’ve been off on vacation, I’ve in fact been doing some rather intense money math.

Money math should be easy, but it takes quite a bit of preparation. The longer you do it, the quicker the preparation gets, but the harder the math becomes to perform on the fly, an essential skill for effective bargaining –itself an essential skill in almost every country in South America, Asia, Africa, and the Near East. Here’s how it works:

Crisp, clean US dollars

Crisp, clean US dollars

  1. Carry some crisp, new, $100 US bills, and try never to use (or lose) them. (Even if you are from the Euro zone, you should carry US dollars. Your money may be worth more than ours, but people don’t actually want it more.)
  2. Before arriving in a country, go online and determine how many ‘whatevers’ there are to the US dollar.
  3. Remember this rate. If you are bored, practice multiplying and dividing by it so you are acclimated before you arrive at your next destination.
  4. Avoid currency exchange windows, especially at the airport. Instead, make withdrawals from a cash machine in amounts sizeable enough that your improved exchange rate and lack of service fee offset whatever your bank may charge you for daring to make it interact with a foreign country. Careful not to withdraw so much money as to be left with unused bills upon your departure. The rate to sell these back will invariably screw you.
  5. Because the ATM will undoubtedly give you bills of a denomination large enough to render them useless, go directly to the nearest bank or large, busy establishment (or sometimes your hotel desk) and break large bills for ones that won’t encourage the average taxi driver to pull the “I don’t have change” routine.
  6. Rinse, repeat.

It seems simple. But do it three times in a month. I guarantee that at least once, you’ll forget to check the exchange rate before you land somewhere, and find yourself negotiating for a taxi without knowing whether you are arguing over 100 dollars or 100 cents. By time four or five, you will likely forget to take one of your prior currencies out of your wallet, and will find yourself attempting to pay for your pad thai with pho money. Somewhere in this timeframe, you will also realize it’s started to seem completely normal to carry three currencies simultaneously: dollars, currency of current country, and remnants of a country you’re still too close to to miss.

Colombian Pesos

Colombian Pesos

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Bolivian Bolivianos

Chilean Pesos - note the pretty window in some of the bills

Chilean Pesos – note the pretty window in some of the bills

Suppress the temptation to buy one of those lovely leather travel folios that fit your tickets and passport and itinerary, unless you are on the kind of trip where someone else is creating the lovely itinerary for you and handling most of your logistics. Opt instead for something plastic or vinyl, because at some point, you will find yourself in a country with the dirtiest, moldiest, wimpiest, most ripped bills you have ever seen, and you will likely have a lot of them. For me, this country was Myanmar. For you, this will also likely be the country in which you pull out your precious clean US dollars to exchange them on the black market for a rate up to 100 times that you would receive at a bank. If they aren’t pristine, they will be discounted to only 95 times the bank rate – or less.

The fake Burberry pouch I bought to be my moldy Myanmese kyat wallet

The fake Burberry pouch I bought to be my moldy Myanmese kyat wallet

Due to the exchange rate, I bought this plastic pouch to carry the the hundreds of notes that make up $100 USD

Due to the exchange rate, I bought this plastic pouch to carry the the hundreds of notes that make up $100 USD

Until I found this wallet in Cambodia, which I am still using.

Until I found this wallet in Cambodia, which I am still using. It has the added benefits of water resistance and multiple currency pockets.

If you have chosen to skip step (1), above, you will find yourself doing things like going to a bank machine in Bangkok to pull out baht and take them to the exchange window to buy dollars, just so that you can carry them (new, unbent, untorn) to Myanmar to buy flimsy, delicate kyat. In other words, even your lovely new dollar bills will be double-discounted by your own disregard for the international exchange scheme of tourism.

By the time you’ve been through this rigmarole four times, the preparation part becomes old hat. You are much less likely to forget to look up the exchange rate and land someplace unprepared. (Don’t bother with cash in any country where you’re laying over in the airport. Just use a credit card, or you’ll be left with 30 random Australian dollars and nothing to show for them.)

Australian dollars - for the 15 hours I spent in the Sydney airport

Australian dollars – for the 15 hours I spent in the Sydney airport

 

Note to self: when you find yourself taking money out of the ATM in the Colombo airport at 3 a.m., chances are you don't need it, and you should find an empty chair and go to sleep.

Note to self: chances are you don’t need those rupees you’re taking out of the ATM in the Colombo airport at 3 a.m. Resist the temptation, find the nearest prayer room, and go to sleep.

What becomes more difficult as time goes on is adjusting to the mental money math that accompanies these exchanges. In one week, you may transition from dividing all prices in kyat by 971 to figure out actual cost, to dividing by 3,954 riel to dividing by 21,097 dong. Give or take some zeros depending on how recently a country has revalued its own currency, or whether it has recalled its former currency from circulation and bothered to print up something new. In addition to a language barrier, you are now facing an economic translation grey zone in which you and your provider may be using two different bases on which to settle your accounts, and they differ by a factor of 100.

I shared a cab with a woman in Santiago. She took out bills completely unfamiliar to me, despite my having been in the country for almost two weeks. I asked her where they were from, and she looked at me oddly and said, "here."

I shared a cab with a woman in Santiago. She took out bills completely unfamiliar to me, despite my having been in the country for almost two weeks. I asked her where they were from, and she looked at me oddly and said, “here.”

Now start bargaining. You aren’t used to that in your home country? That’s a shame, because it’s fun. It’s friendly, and vigorous, and slightly different everywhere you go. The whole process will start to seem like a game, in part because the money feels fake: it’s a different color, or size, or weight than you are used to. It has unfamiliar pictures and in some cases doesn’t even use European numerals, so you can’t be sure what numbers you are looking at when you at last agree on a price and pull out your Monopoly bills to pay for things. It will make you long for expensive Europe, where you will be astounded at what it costs to buy coffee but are willing to pay anything just to multiply by 1.4 instead of dividing by 758. Money Matters: the new New Math.

Dear Jordan: I love your country, and I can't for my life tell how much money this is.

Dear Jordan: I love your country, and I can’t for my life tell how much money this is.

 

For the fun of it, more pictures of some foreign currency are below. They are mangled and messy in real life so the pictures aren’t the clearest, but you’ll get an idea of what it’s like to have carried about 15 currencies in six months:

 

Europe, Life Skills, Uncategorized

The Van Gogh You Know

You think you know Van Gogh. Don’t we all? His sunflowers, the time in Arles, his self portraits, and of course, the dreadful ear. Maybe you’ve heard about the recently discovered Sunset at Montmajour, or the record-setting price ($39.9MM) Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers won at auction in 1987. This is the Van Gogh that most of us know. In Amsterdam, however, here’s what I learned: we don’t know Van Gogh.

When I was young, my father brought me a poster from a Van Gogh exhibit. It was the ubiquitous painting Bedroom in Arles, and I loved it. I found peace in its broad brush strokes and strong outlines, both hallmark Van Gogh, and the unapologetic use of color, which in this piece, he specifically chose, “to suggest a certain rest or dream,” as he noted in a letter to his brother. And of course, I loved that the blond wood frame bed closely resembled my own bunkbeds, recently unstacked to accommodate my imminent adolescence.

Bedroom in Arles

Bedroom in Arles

For years since then, I have still loved Van Gogh for the same reasons – his boldness, his outlines, his color. The crazy flawed humanity that accompanies the desire to remove one’s own ear. At some point in college, I learned where he fit in the larger canon of artists and I’m sure that it made perfect sense, but over time, those are the things I forget. The color, the vision, and the sense of calm they bring are a sense memory that sticks with me.

What I got when I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was far more than I expected. With so many of his the works so close together, I could understand the development of Van Gogh as an artist – one, I learned, who died when he was only 37, and was most prolific during the last decade of his life, which ended in 1890. While I recognize him for these more well known works that have been easily accessible to me, I discovered much more of his beauty in smaller, quiet pieces, like Sloping Path in Montmarte.

Sloping Path in Montmarte

Sloping Path in Montmarte

I gleaned a bit of his sense of humor in his Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, which is familiar now as the cover of the David Sedaris book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. When I learned that the details of cadavers (anatomically accurate) were part of Van Gogh’s art schooling, and that he added the smoke as a humorous act of rebellion or boredom, I enjoyed him – and this painting – even more. How Sedaris must have loved learning this fact given his own adoration of smoking and his exclamation that he loved Paris because you could smoke everywhere, including the waiting room of the hospital. I loved it for entirely different reasons: I could imagine my grandfather, an accomplished painter and irreverent soul, doing the same. And there I am, closer even still to this painter who died a century before I graduated high school.

Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette

Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette

 

Where the museum really wins is in the science. Want to know how art historians determine whether the artist was mixing his paints and creating his works plen air or back in the studio? It may be something that never occurred to you, but even those who aren’t into art will love the pigment analyses and microscope images of sand grains embedded in the art that help determine where it was created, and with what. It’s common knowledge that artists reused their boards or canvases, but in Amsterdam, you can see the x-ray photographs of cross sections of canvases revealing multiple layers of paint that confirm more than just the masterpiece on the surface, and you can view the recto and verso of boards with practice paintings, including some of the many birds nest series.

This is barely scratching the surface. Speaking of surface scratches, want to know how different an art may look over time, or how it is restored after years of exposure damage the paint? There’s an app for that. Really, there is. In the museum, there is an iPad set up with my beloved Bedroom in Arles, and on multiple touch points I could be enlightened about restoration work, letters about the painting between Van Gogh and his brother, and see the Yellow House in Arles in which the bedroom lay. The app is available for free in the App store; just search for Touch Van Gogh (there is also an android version for the rebels out there).

I suppose I could learn all of this by reading the beautiful coffee table book on Van Gogh that I have in storage, but it isn’t the same. There’s a magic to playing with these interactive exhibits and then walking out into Museumplein to catch the tram home down Marnixstraat, with the canal at your side. If you can catch a glimpse of a windmill in the distance you can imagine the reapers who may have worked beneath it. It’s part of the magic of the place, and brings with it the magic of the person who created the art. And that, my friends, is worth the $39.9 million, but costs a whole lot less.

 

Tree-Roots, van Gogh's last and unfinished work

Tree-Roots, van Gogh’s last and unfinished work

 

Europe, Life Skills

The Yoda You Know

Paris just redeemed itself by allowing me to do something unbelievably American and dorky, which turned out also to be fascinating and valuable. It was a great reminder that behind every blah façade, there’s a nook or cranny you’re bound to love. (Cue the Parisian outrage.)

Twenty years ago, I didn’t make it to the New Year’s Rave at DV8 before it hit capacity. Shut out of the fun for a couple of hours, two friends and I wandered south of Market Street in San Francisco (before it was posh, had a W hotel, or was called SOMA). We happened upon a black tie mafia wedding in a hotel, and stood before a cigarette machine in the hallway, paying homage to that device in the last moments of its legal life in California, as hours earlier it had been outlawed, and would soon be removed. And then….then we struck gold.

Coming around the corner of the newly-opened Yerba Buena Arts Center, I looked up and saw a Storm Trooper on a Speeder Bike, the kind that is ridden heart-racingly among the redwoods in the Ewoks’ forest (aka, Marin). It was the Star Wars exhibit: costumes, robots, models, storyboards – every little thing my Star Wars-loving heart could want. Three days later, we returned to drool over all of it.

So when I looked up on the Paris metro and saw this: imageYou can imagine my glee. I mean, Louvre, Rodin, Orangerie, blah blah blah. But storm troopers? Darth Vader? Bring on the nostalgia! Bring on the original trilogy crush! Bring on the hive of villainy, the nerfherders, and “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

I bought tickets online, and the site was in French. Since I don’t speak French, I  actually wasn’t sure exactly what I was buying tickets to. Unlike the original exhibit, this one went far beyond displaying the makings of a movie. Instead, it was an investigation of the creation of identity. At the entrance, I was given an earpiece and smart wristband. The earpiece activates automatically in areas of the exhibit that discuss the physical and emotional development of the characters and of humans in general, either via costumes and storyboards, or short movies about aspects of identity.

The smartband, when held up to 10 octagonal pads along the exhibit, stores information I put into it based on choices I made as I learned more about certain facets of identity. It started with simple concepts, like choosing your gender, home planet, and occupation, and moved toward more complex ideas, like how you respond to certain situations, to help demarcate ‘your’ personality along the Big Five – the five broad categories: openness, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. Not at all surprising: C3P-0 scored off the charts on neuroticism, and Darth Vadar is highly conscientious (which is defined as being a planner – something may be lost in translation here). (Pardon the poor images – hard to take an image of a screen with twelve people pushing you.)

Neuroticism: off the charts

Neuroticism: off the charts

Someone likes to plan his evil doings

Someone likes to plan his evil doings

Discussion topics in the exhibit included parenting style (on a two-dimensional scale with control or demand on one axis and responsiveness on the other; mentors

Accumulating Yoda's knowledge to pass on to mentee, Luke

Accumulating Yoda’s knowledge to pass on to mentee, Luke

which included noting how it’s been physiologically determined we are in fact never too old for new tricks, using painting as an example and I’m 99% sure using a Bob Ross sillouette as the mentor; influences, i.e., your friends, and I’m sad to say Jabba the Hut has only two – Boba Fett and someone else;

Friends

Friends

pivotal experiences (like losing your mother); and your values, of which there were ten, including stimulation, power, benevolence, hedonism, and self direction. Don’t worry about Jabba, though – the discussion of his layer was titled “Gangster’s Paradise,” so at least he has a sweet pad. Again, no surprises: Darth values Power, Han Solo needs stimulation. “Don’t ever tell me the odds.”

POWER

POWER

STIMULATION

STIMULATION

I loved this exhibit for the way it addressed theories we all know are behind the original trilogy – the influence of eastern philosophy, Native American culture, and the values of equality and diversity that were persistent in a movie that presented non-humans as completely normal participants in our daily existence. Between two drafts of the film, Lucas debated transitioning Luke to a female character, and his refusal to let go of the female character is in part what led to Luke and Leia as twins.

I imagine this exhibit was headier than most of the parents present bargained for. How do you explain to your five year old that his mom could die soon, or that later in life, her friends may need to be ditched in favor of better influences? “Mama, what’s neurosis?” I felt for them. Yet as much glee as I get out of seeing models of the Millennium Falcon

Millennium Falcon

Millennium Falcon

and an imperial cruiser,

Imperial Cruiser

Imperial Cruiser

it solidified for me that Lucas wimped out in the sequel series. How can a creator who was so committed to diversity, to the complexity of human spirit, to exploring the forces that guide us, how can that man create Jar-Jar Binks?

No, seriously…I don’t get it.

What I look like as a Wookie from Tattooine who is friends with Leia

What I look like as a Wookie from Tattooine who is friends with Leia