Wednesday, March 7, 2012

From Lotos To Cherry Blossom - Early 20th Century Travel Memoir

This is a beautiful morning, the kind of morning when "the only real things in the world are crystal seas, clean-swept decks, soft rugs, warm sunshine, the smell of salt in the air, and fathomless, futile indolence. 

Still being in the midst of winter doldrums, I find myself continuing to dive into travel books and inspiring bios - the travel books for my wanderlust, the bios to hopefully give me a kick in the pants in my own life, get me pumped about spring, new beginnings, new opportunities. I'm always curious how successful people get where they are. Many times it's a matter of knowing the right people or happy accidents but I read for the stories of the people that worked from the ground up with the same kind of resources around me. 

I recently finished up From Lotos To Cherry Blossom (not a typo on Lotos, actually spelled that way on the cover) by Sarah Graham Morrison. I originally picked the book up from the good ole secondhand shop because I thought it would be about some aspect of Japanese history (I'm a total history junkie and Asian history is some of my favorite).  It turns out this is basically the author's travel journey from her trip around the world for 6 months, starting in December 1906 in New York, ending back in her hometown of Chicago on June 7, 1907.  I'm guessing she booked the tour with Colliver Tours Company of Boston since there's an antique ad for them in the back of this edition I have (from that era). Couldn't find anything about them so I'm assuming the company is now defunct.  She tours a number of countries via cruise and cargo ships with friends she brings with her and others she meets along the way. 

** one I missed - During her travels through the Bay of Bengal, Morrison was also aboard the S.S. Tara for a bit. She also travels on the Santa Fe Railroad on her trip back to Chicago**

Chicago born Morrison takes along her girl bestie, only refered to as "Lady Betty" and later on meets a handsome single man she merely refers to as "Kentucky" or "The Kentuckian". She doesn't say outright anywhere in this book, but judging from the undertones around her writings regarding him, either there was a budding romance there or she was at least hoping for one!

S.S. Oceana, where Morrison met her friend she
simply refers to as "Kentucky"

Inside the S.S. Oceana
Morrison describes boarding the ship:
"Just think! A whole week of lazy afternoons, when wrapped up 
in my big coat and steamer rug, I had nothing to do but to tastethe salt in the air and go to sleep to the deep-toned engines. Awakening,what weird pictures in the skies! Then the sunset -- banks of clouds with edgings
of orange-gold and washes of sea-green in the background; or a mass of
grays and violets, with one long line of burnished copper."

how cool is this! the turn of the century gym inside the S.S. Oceana

Dakota wreck Morrison sailed past

The element that stands out most in this book is Morrison's gorgeous, painting-like descriptions of places. Knowing nothing about this woman, I couldn't stop reading about this journey because she made it so alive! How did so many people of this era seem to exhibit this talent?? Her impressions of NYC at Christmastime (before boarding her first ship): 

New York was bright and sunny; but cold and windy, especially in the "Flatiron District". Waiting on the corner of Broadway for a car, we looked down the alley of high buildings, glanced at the graves of old Trinity while chimes sounded from above, and had a fellow-feeling with the man who said he would rather be a lamp-post in New York lighted once a month than a whole galaxy of electric lights in any other city. The stores were in the freshness of their Christmas gaiety. The brilliantly-colored toy shops were especially alluring; the book stores more seductive than ever; and stations; out in the streets, the vendors with cheap furs; the man hammering white taffy; the crippled with shoestrings; the old woman with lead pencils. At "the rush hour" the advancing army of the morning seemed more eager to retreat. The driveways were a confusion, through which pedestrians tried to make their way, helped by husky, sturdy policeman, hindered by strong winds that twisted their skirts and dusted their eyes. A curiously blended medley filled the air -- clang of trolley bells, staccato crack of whips, an undertone of human voices, once, a motor-car whizzing around the corner, sounded by the clear, sweet tones of a siren whistle. It was the melody of commerce and traffic; of "humanity, with its many colored appeal.

First stop on the tour is France, visiting all the usuals - Palais de Longchamps, the Louvre, Marseilles, etc... 

One one of their first stops, the group visits the Gallerie des Beaux Arts in France and comment on seeing
the painting above:
"In the Gallerie des Beaux Arts, Nattier's beautiful portrait of 
Madame de la Pompadour as Diana echoed the colors 
of the outdoor world."

From France the group moves on to Egypt, where they take their time exploring the exotic bazaars, the ancient city of On (Heliopolis to Greece) and, of course, the pyramids. 

On first seeing the pyramids, Morrison describes " Westward, the somnolent gray pyramids rose above distant palms; in the south, the white sails of the Nile glistened luminously; but think of a quiet hour in the checkered shade of the garden of the Pharoah's daughter, under vine-laden trellises, where every faint zephyr left in its train the fragrance of the rose and narcissus. Bulrushes no longer flap and rustle about the cove where once nestled the Hebrew woman's ark. Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled -- " the reeds by the rivers of Egypt shall wither and be no more." They also visited the tomb of Caliph Omar, "by whose edict the great Alexandrine library was burned because of the all-sufficient Koran".

Ghezireh Palace, Cairo - one place where 
Morrison and friends stayed while in Egypt

They also stayed at the Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo

The party moves on to India. Though not mentioned in the title, India is where a large part of her trip takes place. They view the stunning architecture - one stop being one of my dream places to see, the Taj Mahal. They mention staying at the Bombay Hotel which could be the modern day Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. Other stops include Victoria Gardens, Victoria Memorial (aka "White Palace" and Victoria Station (both named after Queen Victoria), the Albert Museum (named after Victoria's husband), Diwan-i-am Palace, Red Temple Fort in Agra, La Martiniere (one of the oldest colleges in India), and the Towers of Silence in Mumbai, India.They visit the shop in Agra where Ganeshi Lall, the shopkeep, tells them the coronation gown of Empress Alexandra was made. They even attended a Parsee wedding. 

Towers of Silence, Mumbai, India -
a sacred Parsee place where Parsee take their dead.

Morrison and friends were only allowed to view the Towers site from a distance because of its sacredness. In another location, another funeral ritual is witnessed by the group, leaving Morrison appalled at the sight of the deceased, the wailing cries of the survivors and the smoke surrounding the ghats. Morrison later reflects:

More to our liking were the Botanical Gardens where we delighted in panbaris filled with orchids and ferns; magnolias and Palmyra palms; where we drank our tea under the spreading almond-trees by the river side, as  we watched the country boats drift by; where we marveled at the largest tree in the world, the great banyan... 
Well, yeaaaa! Who WOULDN'T prefer that to a funeral :-P People are funny sometimes!

Parsee wedding ceremony

The happy bridegroom, as he came through the door with half a dozen friends, was retiring to put on his white suit, garlands of jasmine about his neck, a bouquet of roses in one hand and a cocoanut in the other, seemed to be in a trance. He was seated on one of the central chairs; the sponsors and priests took their places at the side and in front of him and stretched a great sheet before him. Then the bride sat down, facing him on the other side of the sheet, and the ceremony began by them actually  being tied together with a cord seven times. The minute this was finished there was a great laugh. The bride had suceeded in throwing rice at the groom before he could throw any at her, which meant that she would be the one to rule the new household. :-)


Above: Coronation gown and train of Empress Alexandra

"One cannot travel in India and not acquire a love for ornament and jewels,"
says Morrison. 

Merina Beach, Madras, India
photo by thanigaiarasu, from
"Space, green, white and scarlet and yellow blossom on the trees, the night-breeze from the sea" -- that is Madras, where one drives between avenues of banyan, down colonnades of palms; where people have room to live; where the nights are jeweled and the noons white. 

>>> FUN FACT:  Madras (aka Chennai) is the hometown of Top Chef judge, Padma Lakshmi -- interesting to learn she was once married to Salman Rushdie

Padma with octopus on Top Chef
crazy amount of natural beauty there!

Red Temple Fort in Agra, India

Morrison visits Samman Burj (Jasmine Tower) -

"an octagonal bastion projecting over the river, on whose slender colonettes 
creep delicate, sinuous stems upholding flowers of turquoise and amethyst; on 
whose marble walls are trained rows of chiselled lilies and carelessly
drooping tulips, which the cool breezes floating in from the river have so
intertwined and interwoven that there is no disentanglement. This room, the
gem of the palace, was the boudoir of Mumtaz Mahal, the lady of
the Taj; and like her tomb, though encrusted with jewels, is so simply and
perfectly proportioned that its outlines, its tones, its lights, are all in
perfect harmony. 

The traveling companions visitied the various temples in Benares, India dedicated to cows, monkeys and other animals but Morrison was clearly not impressed! It was this excerpt among others, that (at least to me) hinted that Morrison might be of the class of women of her era that were priveleged financially but sheltered in worldly matters, tending to come off as bratty, spoiled, overly - whiney creatures. If you're going to take a world tour, you have to figure other cultures are not going to be just like your own neck of the woods! There are also clues in her casual use of derogatory terms, almost as if she's never been taught that saying such things is offensive but rather only natural! She speaks of "loathsome beggars" and "cluttered, gaudy temples" (the beggars were getting food at temples, the temples have systems similar to soup kitchens in the U.S.) I found this behavior particularly surprising once Morrison mentioned that she herself was a graduate of Stanford University - you'd think such an education would leave a person more open minded.... 

At Benares, everything specially nasty and repulsive is protected by the cloak of sanctity. This Hindu Mecca is an awful place. Nothing I have ever read gave me any idea of its loathsome mess; nothing I ever encountered smelled as foul.

There are a few worse "damn, girl!" moments. This is just one example. There are gentler, less offensive ways to say one's town was not your favorite stop on the tour lol.

The tour moves out of India and over to the beautiful island of Myanmar, another place on my to see list. The main tour is in and around Shwe Dagon, the Golden Pagoda of Rangoon (this town is now known as Yangon). They also check out Amarapura, The Immortal City, Dalhousie Park and Royal Lake in Burma

Morrison gives a good description of the building below, but also displays a need for some worldly enlightenment. There's a hint of close-mindedness here:

The Golden Monastery is the finest structure of its kind in Burma. It is old and wonderful, but does not in the least suggest a monastery, carved as it is from the lowest step to the topmost spire and covered for the most part with a faded gilt. The roof is a mass of eaves upon eaves, symbolic of royal dignity; ornaments laden the gables; myriad gold spires spring from the steeples. It is indeed a golden monastery, and prowling around the dusty yard beneath the dust-laden palms are monks in dirty yellow robes of silk which harmonize with their bronze skins. Their heads, shaved and uncovered, are protected by the great parasols of heavy yellow paper. For the most part their faces are repulsive, to me they seemed a lot of lazy idlers, who neither worked for their food nor bought it, but begged it, and that in no cringing manner, but with an arrogance that was curious to behold. 
Though she does show signs of epiphany when she reflect:

"Religion, religion and more religion -- French Catholicism, the ancient Egyptian sun-worship, Mohammedanism in Cairo and Delhi, the fire-worshippers of Bombay, Brahamanism at Benares in Southern India, Buddhism in Burma! What a study! What differences, yet what similarities! What an evolution! We have been investigating creeds at first hand in the great labratory of the world, and found all peoples believing in a higher power, though worshipping it in varying manifestations; but all groping for light and peace, for the light that brings peace; all striving to reach a Heaven, but the passports differ as widely as the travelers. 
From Burma, the tour moves to Nepal, visiting the town of Darjeeling (famous for some pretty tasty tea). The highlight of this part is Morrison seeing the Himalayas and especially, one morning, being able to watch the sun rise over Mount Everest. Can you imagine?!

Mt. Everest (the snow capped one in the back)

Sounds like paradise!
(Ceylon background courtesy of JBoss Community)

While in the area, the group visits the Dambulla Temple in Sri Lanka - never heard of this place before reading this book but damn! Impressive!! (Though that door looks a bit like the entrance to a casino or fun house to me... :-S)

While in the neighborhood, they also checked out:

Adam's Peak, Sri Lanka - believed to be the site of Buddha's ascension 
(there's an impression in the rock at the peak of the mtn believed to be the footprint of Buddha)
You can read more about this spiritual, sacred place here

Once filled on these sites, the group heads over to China. Starting in Penang and moving through Singapore, staying at the Raffles Hotel. Morrison and her friends takes in the sights of Hong Kong, which I learned in this book, translates to "fragrant streams". Macao, China, is described as "a quaint bit of ancient Portugal dropped down in China" (understandable, when one learns Macao has a centuries old Portuguese settlement) while their trip to Canton - now known as the city of Guangzhou -- sounded much like their experience in Benares, India. Morrison says the locals of Canton behaved as if it was still 12th century B.C. , working constantly, never having fun, existing in extreme filth and squalor.  

Photo by ska.travels @

modern day Canton - looks like times have changed! 

"...the beautiful Yomei-mon, a gate so exsquisitely beautiful that the builder purposely carved the pattern upside down on one column lest the flawless perfection of the whole thing might bring misfortune on the House of Tokugawa by exciting the jealousy of Heaven."

 the Macao of today looks more like Vegas!

The group's travels start to come to a close, but not before stopping by the beautiful island of Japan, staying at a number of picturesque hotels: the Fujiya Hotel in Miyanoshita, Japan -- a place with many years of serving as a popular summer resort for the wealthy; the Mikado Hotel in Kobe; the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo; the Grand Hotel in Yokohama.

 Fujiya Hotel  - still operating today 

Stops on the Japan itinerary included the town of Odaware, Kyoto-Kinakuji (Golden Pavillion) Gardens, Mt. Fuji, Ushiku Daibutsu Statue, Nagoya Castle, Nagasaki Peace Park, and demonstrations of the cha-no-yu tea ceremony and traditional dances such as the kagura, miyako, and the nagoya (cherry blossom). 

That week, full of the "murmurs and scents of the Infinite Sea" was most memorable ; for in it we added to our length of days by crossing the 180th meridian, which caused us to have two Tuesdays in one week. 

Osaka, Japan - described in this book as "the Venice, the Glasgow, the Chicago of Japan"

stunning statue in Nagasaki Peace Park

Odawara, Japan
Photo by shinnygogo on

Ushiku Daibutsu Statue -
 I believe Morrison said this was either the largest or
one of the largest Buddhas in the world. 

tea ceremony scene from Karate Kid 2

Before leaving Japan, Morrison writes something that struck me as eerie because it was written well before our involvement with Japan in World War II, even before World War I, but it has an interesting correlation to the events that were to come:

...the land of the Rising Sun, whose symbol is the sacred dragon.. the dragon reveals himself only to vanish. Coiling again and again on his strength, he sheds his crusted skin amid the battle of the elements, and for an instant stands half-revealed by the brilliant shimmer of his scales. He strikes not until his throat is touched. Then woe to him who dallies  with the terrible one! Such is Japan, especially modern Japan, shaking off customs hoary with age and absorbing what is best that appeals to her in the life of every other nation. Time and again in her history, she has drawn up her forces to fight China and for an instant has revealed an unexpected brilliancy. She is not hunting for war with the United States, but if we touch her in a vital spot, she will strike will all the force she can acquire. 

Remember, this was written by a woman in 1907, merely pondering on her travels and experiences. Weird, huh!

So that's about it for Ms. Morrison, newly-minted world traveler. She makes a brief pit stop, a sort of vacation from her vacation, in Hawaii, visiting schools, the various islands, the former Royal Palace (briefly touching upon the displacement of the queen).  She travels to California to visit the earthquake ravaged streets of San Francisco and Palo Alto, before boarding a train on the Santa Fe Railroad headed back home to Chicago. By the end of the journal she seemed a bit wiser, more educated, a wee less naieve about the world in general but still optimistic about the general good of people. A nice place to leave it I thought, since Morrison, from the tone of her writing, appeared to be probably in her early 20s, not yet really experiencing all that much that might cause her to be jaded towards the world. 

In closing, this more lengthy than usual post (there were just too many good quotes not to share though!) I leave you with the fortune Morrison received from a Hindu fortune - teller, something that can give us all something to hope for for ourselves:

By a wall where trailing vines mingle with falling rose leaves, a solemn-faced Hindu sat at our feet and from the lines on our hands foretold what of good, what of ill, lay hidden in the years to come. Dreamlike his melodious cadences fell -- "You live many years -- very old, lady, and travel in many countries, all countries, lady. You understand? Very good hand, lady. You see -- you will know many strange things while you live. You so very rich some day; People you know now will not believe." Surely fairy stories come true sometimes. 

Reading that excerpt, I had a curiosity to know what happened to Sarah Graham Morrison, how closely did her life match the fortune? Sadly, I wasn't able to find much, but I did find a blurb about her here, which includes pics of her trip that are featured in the book.  She did go on to write a few other books about Egypt and the Taj Mahal -- wonder if in those she hints at any further wooing between her and "Kentucky" :-) Hard not to be a sucker for a happy ending!