Poetic madness: The House on the Rock

I first heard about the House on the Rock in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.

Not that I would ever need prompting to want to road trip – anywhere but especially in the US – but Gaiman’s book taps into and is a wonderful reminder of one aspect of what I’m looking for out here on the road – unexpected magic, myth and beauty in my home country.

The novel’s image of the meeting of old, forgotten gods in the carousel room stuck with me, and I felt like I hit the road-trip-jackpot when I was flipping through a road trip book to get ideas for our route to Wisconsin, and I happened to notice that the House was more or less along the way to our destination.

The House on the Rock sort of defies explanation. The place itself offers a video biography of the House’s creator, but never really manages to delve into the why. Here’s their website if you want to learn more, but this is one of those places that you have to just see to believe, and even then, the why will probably remain elusive.

The world’s largest carousel is only one part of the entire experience of the place. But of everything we saw, it was for me the most overwhelmingly jaw-dropping. It is insane. It is beautiful. It is haunting. It is awesome in the old-school definition of the word.

I will borrow from Neil Gaiman’s book/blog – why bother when such an amazing writer has already described the place. 😉 Photos are from the carousel as well as other parts of the House.

The largest carousel in the world – barely fit my camera lens!

From American Gods, Chapter Five:

Calliope music played: a Strauss waltz, stirring and occasionally discordant. The wall as they entered was hung with antique carousel horses, hundreds of them, some in need of a lick of paint, others in need of a good dusting; above them hung dozens of winged angels constructed rather obviously from female store-window mannequins; some of them bared their sexless breasts; some had lost their wigs and stared baldly and blindly down from the darkness.

The photos are not the best – it was tricky capturing moving objects in a dimly lit room…

And then there was the carousel.

A sign proclaimed it was the largest in the world, said how much it weighed, how many thousand lightbulbs were to be found in the chandeliers that hung from it in gothic profusion, and forbade anyone from climbing on it or from riding on the animals.

And such animals! Shadow stared, impressed in spite of himself, at the hundreds of full-sized creatures who circled on the platform of the carousel. Real creatures, imaginary creatures, and transformations of the two: each creature was different – he saw mermaid and merman, centaur and unicorn, elephants (one huge, one tiny), bulldog, frog and phoenix, zebra, tiger, manticore and basilisk, swans pulling a carriage, a white ox, a fox, twin walruses, even a sea serpent, all of them brightly coloured and more than real: each rode the platform as the waltz came to an end and a new waltz began. The carousel did not even slow down.

“What’s it for?” asked Shadow. “I mean, okay, world’s biggest, hundreds of animals, thousands of lightbulbs, and it goes around all the time, and no-one ever rides it.”

“It’s not there to be ridden, not by people,” said Wednesday. “It’s there to be admired. It’s there to be.”

* * *

No photo can do the carousel justice. No video either – and this one is extra grainy (had to make it small, or else I’d be uploading for another month with our current internet), but this might give a bit more of a feel:

Another room in the House. Steam-punk paradise…

Among other themes, the House has a vast collection of circus miniatures…

Would love to know the story behind this antique woman’s prosthetic leg/pistol holder!

There’s also a doll carousel. Spot the skeleton… 🙂


If you are ever in Southwestern Wisconsin and have a couple hours to spare, visit the House on the Rock. I can’t say if you’ll love it or hate it, but you’ll definitely NEVER see anything like it!

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First, somewhat random, notes from Cambodia

We’ve been in Cambodia for a bit over a week now. The first few days were spent in Kratie, a small city about halfway between the four thousand islands in Laos and Phnom Penh.

Now we’ve made it to Cambodia’s capital, just as initial hearings against four top leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime are kicking off. We’ve been reading about it in the international press; as tourists in the city there’s no indication that anything special is going on. Later we’ll be visiting TuolSleng, the genocide museum where many of the crimes these people are accused of were committed.

I’ll write more specifically about Kratie and Phnom Penh later. For now though, here are some first impressions and random bits and pieces.

Back story

Having finished “Cambodia’s Curse” before leaving Laos, it’s been a bit tough not to arrive in the country with a few pre-conceived notions in my head. I’m not sure if I was noticing more differences because of the book. It repeatedly describes the desperate living conditions for many of Cambodia’s poor, the shoddy state of the country’s infrastructure (i.e. roads) and the self-interested power plays of the leading political parties (who seem to have offices everywhere, especially the CPP, even in the scruffiest scrap of a village.

Taking my own impressions with a grain of salt then, it was still interesting for me to observe things that corresponded with the book as our bus drove through the rugged-feeling province of Stung Trent towards Kratie.

Right off the bat there was evidence of poor government planning: the border crossing was one massive, muddy construction site. No provision had been made for through traffic during the rainy season. Our bus was spinning its wheels in thick mud in no time, and everyone had to climb out until a combined effort of digging and pushing got us going again. A fun welcome into our newest country! 🙂

Bus with a view

The villages and homes we saw in Laos were simple, but had a feeling of rural charm and simplicity. Compared to the scattered dwellings we passed in the Stung Treng province, they came across as neater and more cohesive. Gazing out the window as the bus bumped along, the houses seemed scrappier (mis-matched or poorly trimmed walls; more use of plastic as a building material, corrugated iron older and rustier), the towns dirtier, the land less cultivated by comparison. Naked or half clothed young children were not uncommon, something we hadn’t seen in Laos (in “Cambodia’s Curse”, the author notes this is because parents can’t afford diapers). There were definitely less satellite dishes than we’d seen in Laos; I wonder how many of the homes we passed are without electricity.

The bus ride between Kratie and Phnom Penh offered different sights. It seems much more of the land in the Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces is cultivated. The land is relatively flat, and we drove through areas filled with line after perfectly parallel line of rubber trees and acres of flat rice paddies accentuated with thin palms stretching out towards the distant horizon.

Passing through these apparently more productive, populated areas, the villages still struck me as somewhat rough around the edges, and also somehow lop-sided – larger, modern homes that we didn’t see often see in Laos were often flanked by patch-work houses of bamboo, wood, palm leaves and plastic.

This impression continued as we entered into Phnom Penh. The bus drove through rough neighborhoods with even shoddier looking housing, only to turn a corner onto a broad boulevard with proper sidewalks, orderly patches of green grass modern high rises and attractive hotels and restaurants.  The neighborhood we are staying is lovely – tons of good food, pretty buildings, and lots of thick walls topped with heavy coils barbed wire. So far, Cambodia gives the impression of being a country of especially strong contrasts.

Photos taken from the bus with my iPhone – quality is not the greatest

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Rice fields with palms

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Houses made of wood, thatch, iron

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Even nearing Phnom Penh, the state of the roads isn’t great

Easing in to opening

I’m still getting my head round the energy of the people here. Laos and the lovely people we met there melted my heart completely. My experiences with Cambodians so far are not as straight forward.

The scrum of hotel touts that met us as we climbed off the bus in Kratie or the ceaseless and ceaselessly “charming’ propositions from drivers in Phnom Penh that start the second we walk out of our hotel (Clapping to get our attention, “Hey!”, “Lady! Lady, tuk tuk!?!” “Tuk tuk, ok???”) has got me started with my defences slightly raised.

When I’ve let them down though, I’ve had some amazing, open interactions people. I’ll write more about them later, but in the mean time, it’s food for though.

Random: Currency

One of the first things I like to do when we get to a new country is check out the currency. It’s just something I like. 🙂 Laos’ money (the kip) had some great illustrations; women farming and my favorite water buffalo feature on some of the smaller notes. China (bills picked up during my stop over in Shanghai) highlights some of its beautiful scenery on the nation’s currency; in Thailand the baht, not surprisingly, seems to be all about its royalty, with various kings highlighted on different notes.

Arriving in Cambodia, I checked out the first riel I got my hands on. The country’s famous temples feature heavily, but each note has something different going on. Kids going to school on the 100 note seemed pretty standard fare, but something on the 500 riel note really caught my eye. Is it just me, or is it a Porsche driving over that bridge? A week in, we’ve seen plenty of school houses and temples; however we have yet to encounter a Porsche in Cambodia. 😉

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Women farming, cows and buffalo on the kip

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Chinese landscape on the yuan

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King Bhumibol Adulyadej, apparently also a photographer, on the 1000 baht note

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Cambodian school and school children

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Nice bridge; even nicer car!

One Beerlao for the road

There’s still more Laos back-filling to do on this blog, not to speak of Thailand and even Myanmar, but for now I want to look forward to our next stop.

Tonight’s our last night in Laos. We’re currently at pretty much the southern most point in the country, a cluster of islands on the Mekong river called Si Phan Don (the four thousand islands).

We’ve had a lovely day and a half here, enjoying Laos up to the last moment our visa remains valid. Bike and boat tours have brought us even closer to, a figurative arm’s reach away from, our next destination: Cambodia.

Tomorrow morning we’ll board a bus that will take us across the border and on to Kratie, our first stop in the new country.

Travel homework

I’ve always tried to do a bit of reading ahead about where we’re going to next, at the very least picking my way through the introductory chapters of the Lonely Planet. But I knew just enough about Cambodia’s recent history to realize I needed to know more before we got there. I wanted to be an informed visitor, but, having heard about people’s impressions of places like the genocide museum and killing fields, I also wanted to know how much I might need to brace myself.

I’ve been reading Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley.

(Side “gear” note – most books I read are on my iPhone – although it will never be the same as reading a physical book, you just can’t beat that for portability! The other downside – the limited selection and not always being able to preview books in Apple’s online store. There may be better books on Cambodia out there, but this seemed to be one of the most recent, and most relevant to what I wanted to learn about.)

I’m well more than three-fourths of the way through at this point. So far it’s provided an overview of the country’s history – ancient, the events leading up to and during Khmer Rouge times and, foremost, what’s been happening since then. One of the book’s main thrusts seems to be that the massively corrupt government has been and continues to be enabled and condoned by the international community for multiple reasons. Throughout the chapters runs a litany of horrific crimes committed against the Cambodian people – post the Khmer Rouge regime. I’m more or less up to 2008 in the chronology and I’m beginning to give up my hopes for some sort of “happy” ending to the book.

Homework round 2

I know though it’s always best to take everything with a grain of salt (just take a look at all the comments about Cambodia’s Curse in the link), and reading all this has only made me more curious to see the country and its people for myself. Brinkley makes comparisons between Cambodia and Myanmar (a country with an even worse rap than Cambodia that we are SO glad we visited) and Thailand and Vietnam feature regularly in the book, but Laos is hardly ever mentioned.

Laos has had its own share of hardships – it’s been eye-opening to learn about the bombings that took place here during the Vietnam war (apparently it is the most bombed country in the entire world. See some quick facts here.) – yet most of the Laotians we met have been among the most welcoming, easy-going folks we’ve encountered on our trip so far and while there is no doubt it’s a poor country, it has felt, to us at least, safe and not without its dignity, despite the poverty.

So, I wanted to get some additional context beyond the utterly bleak picture painted in the book. Statistics may be flat compared to the stories Brinkley recounted – and I don’t in any way discount the suffering he describes – but it was still interesting to learn that in terms of figures, Laos and Cambodia seem to be running a tight race.

Just the facts

Both countries have a very young population (a median age of 22.9 in Cambodia, compared to 21 in Laos) with a similar life expectancy of around 62.5 years – the lowest among all their neighbors, including Myanmar. Both countries also have higher infant mortality rates than their neighbors (Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam).

In fact both countries are by and large markedly worse off than those neighbors, except in certain areas where Myanmar is in similar or worse shape (i.e. unemployment – 5.7% in Myanmar versus 3.5% in Cambodia and 2.5% in Laos. Myanmar also tops the list of the largest chunk of the population under the poverty line – 32.7%. No wonder since their GDP per capita is also the lowest, at USD 1,400 per year. In Cambodia it’s USD 2,100, in Thailand USD 8,700).

Literacy in both places is the lowest of the five countries at around 73% (the neighbors are at around 90% or higher). Cambodia provides safe drinking water to more of its population than Laos; Laos has got Cambodia firmly beat for sanitation facility access however. Around 87% of Laos’ roads are unpaved; in Cambodia it’s around 92%.

(PS – thanks to the CIA World Factbook for all those figures.)

So what

I am no statistician and can’t and don’t want to read too much into those figures. But I’m glad I’m aware of them if only for the reason that they are reminding me to keep my eyes and heart open. If the figures for Laos are so poor and yet this country and the people we’ve met here have been so beautiful and uplifting, what can expect of Cambodia? We’ll see how it goes once we’re there, but I suppose the (informed) answer for now is: nothing and everything.

In the mean time, farewell for now Laos, and thanks for all the beer! 😉

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Our last Beerlao in Laos!

A weekend in Mumbai – part two

We spent most of our time in Mumbai on foot strolling around the neighborhoods of Churchgate, Fort and Colaba.

The Gateway of India was photogenic but not as eye-catching as the gaudy metallic horse-drawn carriages that were picking up tourists on the street leading to it. The carriages were especially impressive (i.e. tacky!) when lit up – imagine flashing fairy lights in five different colors. Quite a sight, but sad as well – the horses all looked so underfed and overworked.

We passed a lovely hour hanging out in the simple but good-sized park in front of the High Court called Oval Maidan, where there were probably about 25 cricket games of varying seriousness and skill being played simultaneously. Great fun to watch, although the game still confuses the heck out of me! Also neat were the bells from the court’s clock tower announcing the quarter hours – a sound we haven’t heard since we’ve left Switzerland.

We’d seen street cricket in Delhi and Varanasi, and I’d witnessed a couple of determined joggers amongst all the picnickers and people strolling in Delhi’s Lodi Park. So it made a change to see so much sport going on in Mumbai. We had a view of Marine Drive from our ‘penthouse’ terrace and I could see folks jogging along the water in the early morning. When we took our own constitutional further up the drive, after visiting Chowpatty Beach, I was happy to see that some of the joggers were even women in form-fitting workout clothes none-the-less! Mumbai definitely is different.

Chowpatty Beach was fun to visit. It was sun-drenched, full of people and colorful. After having read in Lonely Planet that the water of Back Bay is toxic, I was impressed to see some Indian people enjoying the surf – albeit just at the water’s edge; no one was swimming or in deeper than waist level.

It was also funny to see the place for myself after having read the novel Shantaram (which takes place mostly in Mumbai), comparing what the mind has conjured up versus reality. Of course the picture in my head was completely different. We also popped our heads into Leopold’s bar, which was the Shantaram cast’s main hangout. Also completely different from how I had imagined. 🙂 We didn’t stay for a drink though as it was absolutely packed and I was desperate for dinner at that point. 😉

Other Mumbai bits and pieces

-Bat watching from our hotel roof at night. There were a few absolutely massive bats (we think fruit bats) that staked out the long avenue below our hotel every night. The biggest one was around the size of a small cat with a correspondingly impressive wingspan. Incredible to see them gliding above the cars.

-I got a real kick out of the street vendors handling in massive, neon-colored balloons. Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera on me when we saw them. The balloons were similar in shape to a butternut squash and probably about four feet tall. As the hawkers said, “Big balloon!”

-I also didn’t have my camera to be able to take shots of the banyan trees at night. I an’t do it justice with words but they were beautifully eerie in the dark with their vines backlit by street lamps.

Mumbai pics

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Neighborhood in the Fort area of Mumbai; black and yellow cabs

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View from inside a black and yellow cab

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Cab detail

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On Marine Drive

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Chowpatty Beach and Mumbai skyline

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Chowpatty colors

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The shore and sky line along Marine Drive

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If you need balloons, you can call this guy

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Spiral staircase behind our hotel

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Mickey welcomes you to the office on our hotel’s first floor