As our final destination, we go from the highlands to the Amazon region of Bolivia. What a shock it is to get off the plane in Santa Cruz where it is nearly 100 degrees and very humid. We are definitely over-dressed. After a brief tour of… Read More
As our final destination, we go from the highlands to the Amazon region of Bolivia. What a shock it is to get off the plane in Santa Cruz where it is nearly 100 degrees and very humid. We are definitely over-dressed.
After a brief tour of the city, Bolivia’s financial hub, we spend the next few days in Amboro National Park. It is sublimely beautiful but for the smoky air. Turns out Bolivia has some of the same fire problems as California. We are told that it’s uncommon to have multiple days of unclear air but that’s what we have so unfortunately the photos reflect that.
The Refugio where we stay is in a basin surrounded by straight-up-to the sky mountains. The rock is red and very foliated. We hike through the jungle and gain altitude very quickly, not like the elevations in the highlands, but steep ascents. A lovely and different way to end our magical journey.
We go from sea level in Rapa Nui to the Chilean and Bolivian highlands, first to the Atacama Desert in Chile, the highest and driest desert in the world. It also has one of the darkest night skies, ideal for viewing the stars.
We spend three days exploring this stark, unique environment with its many volcanoes, geysers, mountains, slot canyons, wetlands, and huge rock formations. We hike in three different ecological zones featuring distinctive flora and fauna, with elevations from 9,000 to 14,000 feet. One night we go star-gazing and view Saturn and Jupiter with superb clarity through a high-powered telescope. NASA tested the Mars Rover here.
Then we cross the border into Bolivia where we travel for seven days. Bolivia and Chile share many of the same volcanoes. Most are inactive. The two countries don’t have the warmest of relationships. In their war of 1879, Bolivia lost two of its departments (the equivalent of US states) to Chile including their access to the Pacific coastline, leaving the country landlocked. (Chileans may have a different perspective on this subject)
We are driven on the rockiest of dirt roads along the Cordillera de los Andes, also known as the Vulcan Arc. The light on the mountains is stunning, the sky in some places dark and menacing, in other places the bluest blue, the cloud formations so dramatic.
On our first night in Bolivia, we stay at an elevation of 13,650’, the highest we’ve ever slept. It is impossible to sleep due to the high altitude, and dry air. We awaken the next morning to an early spring snow covering the many surrounding high peaks, absolutely breathtaking.
In both countries, quinoa grown in rock terraces is the main agricultural product. There are llama, vicuña, and dazzling pink flamingos. Our hikes every day are sometimes to heights neither of us has ever reached before. It is at once exhilarating and exhausting.
In Bolivia, we visit lagoons, (some that appear white, green, or red, depending upon the minerals in the water), fumeroles, cathedrals of rock formations, and numerous salt flats. The views are astonishing everywhere we go and we seldom see another person. There are many small communities of indigenous people and we visit a few of them. In one, our very knowledgeable guide takes us to a museum where he explains in detail the history of Bolivia going back 5,000 years and the various ethnic groups that held power and when. We visit a 700 year old Necropolis where important people were buried in tufa tombs (similar to the tufa hoodoos that grow in Mono Lake in California’s eastern Sierra).
One day we have a most memorable adventure driving across the Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat that is 4,085 square miles in size, the largest in the world, and looks like a blazing, endless, white ocean. We’re told that the salt layers are as deep as four hundred feet. After a rain when the salt has a thin layer of water on it, the sky and mountains are reflected, mirror-like, and the effect is magical. There are several islands amid the salt and we hike to the top of one of them, getting a 360 degree view of the scenery. We walk on the salt, have a picnic lunch on the salt, and days later, bike for miles on the salt.Sunset makes the Salar de Uyuni appear pink
On our final day in the highlands, we hike to Apu, at 15,183’ in elevation, it is an outlook to the gorgeous multi-colored Tunupa Volcano that last erupted approximately 1.2 million years ago. The crater collapsed as a result of glacial action and mineral deposits created the colors. From Apu, we also have a panoramic view of the salt flat.
One final note. Throughout our stay in the Andes, a distance of nearly a thousand miles, our drivers or guides play their lengthy rock and roll playlists from the 1960’s that make me joyful, reminding me of my teenage years.
We come to Rapa Nui, a five hour flight west of Santiago Chile, on the first leg of Juliet’s belated surprise 35th birthday trip (she is now 36). This small remote Pacific island (14 miles long by 7 miles wide) is the youngest of the Polynesian Islands. There is uncertainty about when the island was first inhabited, and it is generally thought to have been between 400 and 1200 AD. The settlers, seafarers expanding eastward in the Pacific, named the island Rapa Nui, meaning “the navel of the world.”
There were several distinct periods on the island. One of them was distinguished by the building of rectangular stone platforms called ahu where important people were buried. Statues called moai were carved mainly of volcanic stone in the quarry of Rano Raraku, to commemorate those who had died. The statues are immense, averaging 13 feet in height and weighing 14 tons (although many are considerably taller and heavier). There were more than 1000 carved over the course of a few hundred years with many moved to various places on the island (how this was accomplished given their size, is unimaginable!) and some remaining in the quarry with much of their length buried underground.
A subsequent period was characterized by the Birdman competition, a kind of triathlon that involved representatives from each of twelve tribes swimming out to a small islet in the Pacific. The first competitor to obtain an egg from the nest of a manutara bird would become the chieftain. This competition continued for a few hundred years.
In 1722, a Dutch explorer arrived on Easter Sunday, and named the island Easter. The indigenous people continued to call it Rapa Nui, as they do today. There was no written history before this date. The population grew until the middle of the 19th century when 1500 islanders were taken as slaves to work on other islands and in South America. Most died and when several of them returned, they brought with them smallpox which decimated the population leaving only 111 people on the island. In 1866, a Catholic mission was established and the indigenous people abandoned many of their practices, including the Birdman competition, and converted to Catholicism.
Rapa Nui became part of Chile in 1888. In 1903, a British company established itself on the island and ghettoized the indigenous people of Rapa Nui in the town of Hanga Roa until this company left in 1953, and they were freed. Today, there are about 3,000 Rapa Nuians with a rich culture.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was warfare between the various Rapa Nui tribes and many of the standing moai were knocked over and broken. Starting in the late 1950’s, archeologists from all over the world began studying the statues, carbon-dating them as well as the bones buried beneath them, and then repairing and uprighting them. They are awe-inspiring to behold.
We are privileged to visit this vibrant and beautiful island, and to experience the warmth of its people.
I had never been to the eastern side of the Sierras, the mighty mountains beyond the eastern gate of Yosemite. So, Juliet decided to take me there. She had recently summited Mt. Whitney (14,494’) and was keen to return to the vast stretch of mountains south of the small town of Lee Vining.
In our trips to Yosemite during the past year, I had become accustomed to the architecture of the park-that is, the huge granite massifs standing among thick forests of fir trees, waterfalls, and rivers. There seemed a certain softness and elegance to these vistas. These natural features soothed my eyes and raised my spirits.
What I saw on the eastern side was vastly different- giant walls of jagged, granite monoliths, jutting sharply upward, crowded together for miles, cold, unforgiving, unwelcoming.
We decided to tackle Kearsarge Pass, reportedly a stunning vista, ten miles out and back with a 2,560’ gain in elevation to 11,760’.
To be honest, I had trepidation about doing this hike. I anticipated it would take eight hours, longer than I usually hike, and I was concerned about the elevation gain. In other words, I was afraid I could no longer successfully do something like this. But Juliet cajoled, pushed, and encouraged me, and I finally agreed.
It was perfect! The weather was clear and calm, the temperature moderate; the trail well-graded and maintained. We climbed between the towering, angular peaks, among stunted, wind-blown trees, and frigid clear lakes. Juliet set a reasonable pace. We stopped often enough to catch our breath, drink water, and take in the views.
After four and a half hours, we reached Kearsarge Pass. It was as advertised. I sobbed with relief, gratitude, and awe. Juliet and I hugged tightly, joyful in the sharing of this moment and the beauty of nature surrounding us.
I am very happy to finally be in Ireland! This trip was scheduled in May of 2020 but canceled due to Covid.
My first few days are spent in Belfast where two highlights are a Black Taxi tour of the neighborhoods involved in the Troubles, and a visit to the Titanic Museum.
The Troubles between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Republicans began in 1968 and lasted thirty years. The Unionists wanted Northern Island to remain part of the United Kingdom; the Republicans wanted Northern Ireland to leave the UK and reunite with the Republic of Ireland, and as a minority, they wanted the Protestant Unionist majority to stop discriminating against them. Republicans carried out a bombing campaign against British forces who then retaliated. There were numerous riots, mass protests, and acts of civil disobedience which led to increased segregation of Catholics and Protestants. More than 3,500 people were killed. The peace process that eventually ensued led to cease-fires and talks between the political parties resulting in the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998. The 25th anniversary of that Agreement was just celebrated but the division between Protestants and Catholics remains.
Our guide takes us to the segregated communities, separated by locked gates and a very high “peace wall.” Catholics don’t patronize Protestant establishments and vice versa. The conflict is passed down through generations. Many murals depict the martyrs. Some of those murdered were young children. Even though issues around religion, politics, and class remain, Catholics and Protestants mix in the workplace downtown and in the universities.
In dramatic contrast, yet also sad, is the story of the Titantic, built in Belfast harbor starting in 1908. It was the largest ship in the world at the time, elegantly and luxuriously designed and fitted with the finest materials. The Harland and Wolff shipyard employed 14,000 men to build Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic. It took more than three million rivets to hold the steel plates to the frame of the ship.
Titanic was thought to be “virtually unsinkable” due to its watertight bulkheads. However, the bulkheads only reached ten feet above the waterline, allowing water to get from one compartment into the next. This turned out to be a fatal design flaw. On April 10, 1912, the ship set sail from Southampton England. Just five days later on April 15, she hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic near Newfoundland and within two hours had completely sunk. There were 2240 passengers and crew on board. More than 1500 died.
The architecturally stunning museum beautifully commemorates Titanic, covers her history from the drawing board, through construction, launching, and fateful end, and includes oceanographer Robert Ballard’s search for and ultimate location of the ship in 1985 at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Bonus! Walking by Belfast City Hall, I notice a large crowd watching King Charles’ coronation on a Jumbotron set up on the lawn. There’s a small “throne” on which a “gold crown” sits for onlookers to take turns pretending to be King. The crowd seems to be enjoying the pomp and circumstance while the King looks extremely glum.
Wanting to take a break from the unceasing rain and cold of Northern California, I travel to Mexico for a week to enjoy some warmth and its history, culture, food, and art.
I join a small group in the historic district of Mexico City. What a huge and bustling city! The streets are crowded with people at all hours of the day and night. The Zocalo is the third largest central square in the world (after Tiananmen and Red Squares), and is surrounded by the cathedral and government offices with Aztec ruins just around the corner.
I hope to visit Casa Azul, museum of Frida Kahlo’s work, and am sorely disappointed not to be able to get a ticket. I do see the enormous mural that made Diego Rivera famous, called Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, that reflects the history of Mexico from the Spanish invasion in 1519 to the 1911 Mexican revolution. Below is one third of the mural. Note Frida Kahlo next to the skeleton, and Diego Rivera beneath her.
Next, we travel to Teotihuacan, the largest urban center of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica between 200 bc and 650 ad. At 26 km square, the settlement was believed to have had a population of 250,000 at its zenith, but its origin is uncertain and preceded the Aztecs who arrived in the year 1300. It was then abandoned in 1650, but inhabited by others thereafter. Built by slaves, there are two giant pyramids, temples of the sun and moon, as well as many smaller pyramids in between.
Teotihuacan was known to exist in 1730, yet excavation did not begin until 1890. To date, only 5% has been excavated. Much is unknown as no written history has been discovered. The people who built this city were pioneers who developed aqueducts for storing water and a canal system for irrigation of their crops. It continues as a spiritual center for the Mexican people today.
Near the city of Puebla, we visit Cholula, another partially excavated settlement, the oldest continuously occupied place on the continent beginning in 800 bc. Located at the foot of the still-active Popocatepetl volcano, a pyramid with the largest known base was constructed. Archeologists have determined that the layers of the pyramid are 60 meters below the current surface. A beautiful church built in the 1600’s by the Spanish sits atop what remains of the pyramid.
Our group has a private tour of one of the nine certified Talavera tile makers in Mexico, where we are shown the entire process that begins with a pile of clay and ends with the exquisite finished products for sale. We watch in awe as one of the artists paints several plates using brushes made from the beards of goats and the tails of horses.
We visit a candle-maker, Viviana, who tells her remarkable story, all the while dipping molds into hot pots of wax at her feet, creating flowers for wedding bouquets. Learning from her ancestors, she started doing this work at the age of 10. Now 76, in the last year she has taught classes highlighting her skills in Ohio, Canada, and Iraq.
The Tule tree of Santa Maria, 70 meters wide at its base, is the largest tree width-wise in the world. It is believed to be over 2,000 years old. As you can see, it is colossal and quite a sight to behold (and I thought the Giant Sequoias had the greatest girth!).
And there’s more. In addition to all of these memorable experiences, we visit a weaver and and then a Mezcal distillery, where we are introduced to the 28 different varieties of Agave plants from which the drink is derived.
On the final day, I take a guided tour of the botanical gardens and learn about the thousands of cactus species and other unique flora native to Oaxaca, as well as the garden’s model environmental stewardship.
I would be remiss not to mention the joy I observed in the Zocalo and on the streets of Oaxaca: bands playing Latin salsa and jazz, couples dancing, parades with giant balloons and brass bands. That just might be what sticks with me most from my week of Mexican travel!
Juliet and I decide to revisit Pinnacles after a 10 year hiatus. Its status was changed from National Monument to National Park in 2013 and is located southeast of Oakland, a 2-3 hour drive depending upon traffic.
Pinnacles NP was formed many millions of years ago by volcanic activity on the San Andreas fault. The violent shaking created humongous and delightfully shaped terra cotta-colored boulders, that pile atop one another or jut straight up into the air. It is a great place to hike and explore the otherworldly scenery that includes cliffs and caves.
Pinnacles is also one of the few places where one can see the California Condor, the largest North American bird which has a 9-10 foot wingspan and weighs up to 26 pounds. To put that in perspective, the breadth of its wings can be 3 feet wider than an NBA basketball player is tall!
The species was threatened with extinction due to DDT, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. In 1987, scientists began a captive breeding program with the world’s 22 remaining condors. The program has been considered successful with more than 330 of them currently flying free in California, Arizona, Utah, and Mexico (with 200 more in captivity), although the condor is still listed as critically endangered. A type of vulture, they are scavengers and can live more than 60 years!Please excuse pixilated condor photos taken with my phone
We spend two days hiking among the spires and caves. At the highest point in the park on High Peaks Trail, we are treated to a fabulous display of soaring and gliding California Condors, Turkey Vultures, and Ravens, as well as sensational views. The condors are readily identifiable by their wide wingspans, and the white crests under their feathered wings. We are fortunate to encounter a volunteer with the park’s Condor Conservation program who is monitoring the condors and identifying them by the color of their tags. He is very knowledgeable and answers our many questions.
The winter weather is clear and warm. The park is crowded with many families, hikers, and rock climbers. It is inspiring to see so very many people taking advantage of our wonderful National Parks.
Rwanda is a small east African country located between Uganda and Congo, with a stable (although authoritarian) government. Since the Genocide in 1994, there has been tremendous modernization in infrastructure and the economy. Environmental responsibility is widely practiced. The current population is thirteen million.
It just may be the the greenest place I’ve visited. The grass, the trees, the mountains are splendidly and lushly green. The hills are terraced and farmed with tea plantations, corn, potatoes, and Pyrethrum flowers, used to make pesticides. Growth is robust as a result of the mild climate and abundant rainfall. Such a contrast to eternally-drought-stricken California!
Juliet and I are spending three days in Volcanoes National Park where we’ve come to see Golden Monkeys, Mountain Gorillas and to hike Mt. Bisoke. The elevation is high, 8000 feet and above.
We spend an hour in the forest with the Golden Monkeys, a rare and endangered species. The best part is being up close with them in their favored bamboo habitat where they jump from tree to tree, and playfully chase and wrestle with each other.
Photo courtesy of Juliet
The same night, we experience hours and hours of drenching rain. The following day, we visit the Mountain Gorillas, the most critically endangered apes on earth. We are driven an hour to the trailhead, then walk an hour through the jungle in thick and slippery mud to where the trackers have located the gorilla family we have been assigned. There are thirty-four family members. We see twenty-four of them. They are so close to us. Two of the three silverbacks are present as well as five babies. The others are females or juveniles. One such juvenile plays with us by coming toward us (even brushing by my leg), and then backing off. We watch the youngsters tumble and climb, while others scratch and frolic. The hour goes by quickly and we are thrilled by the experience, recognizing ourselves in their behavior.
Bottom two photos courtesy of Juliet
On our last day, we hike Mt. Bisoke, over 12,000 feet in elevation. It is memorable primarily for its steepness and the colossal amount of mud on the trail. I slip and fall three times. My boots are encased in the wettest, heaviest, and stickiest mud I have ever seen. I turn back at 10,000 feet halfway to the summit. Juliet braves the entire distance and reports it is “type three fun,” otherwise known as no fun at all. Then it starts to rain on our way down! And so it was that we came to understand why our gorilla guide responded to our report that we planned to hike Bisoke with an incredulous why?
Postscript: and at last, we saw rhinos in Akagera National Park!
Juliet and I come to Kenya for the wedding of our dear friend, Sarah. As part of the festivities, we spend three days in Masai Mara National Park, a game reserve in Kenya. It is 583 square miles in size, and along with Serengeti National Park in Tanzania (5700 square miles!), is the location of the Great Migration, an annual round-trip journey of 1.5 million wildebeest, 400,000 zebra, and various other herbivores north to the Mara and south to the Serengeti. It is quite a sight to behold. We last visited in 1996, when Juliet was eight years old! She has certainly changed, but fortunately, at least to my eye, Masai Mara has not.
It is possible to see the so-called Big Five here: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino. On our first morning here, we see all but rhino.
In addition, there are thousands of wildebeest, as well as zebra, waterbuck, topi, hippo, spotted hyena, giraffe, warthog, and a variety of birdlife unique to Africa. The most interesting sight was watching a male lion drag a wildebeest carcass to a hiding place for leftovers later on.
After dinner, as we make our way back to our room, I hear loud crunching noises nearby. It is quite dark but the sound is unmistakable. About ten feet from our balcony, several elephants are chomping loudly on vegetation, mostly leafy branches. Only the faint outlines of their massive bodies and trunks can be seen, but they certainly make quite a racket.
On subsequent days we drive throughout the vast expanse of the savannah on the red dirt roads with its variety of landscapes, lush or dry, bushes and trees or grass, and array of animal residents. A highlight is seeing an elegant cheetah napping in the shade of an acacia tree. We hope to see the animals cross the Mara River, but the wildebeest apparently lack competent leadership and hundreds of them run first towards the river and then in the opposite direction, in what looks like chaos.
As for the rhino, one afternoon we see a mama rhino and her offspring. I say see, using the term loosely, as the two of them are about half a mile away. The description given by the guide went something like this: “do you see the bush over there shaped like bunny ears?” (the bush being one of many, many bushes between us and the animals) “Well, look slightly to the left and way back, and there they are!” It was quite a task for me to follow this explanation and harder still to actually locate them. When finally I did, what I saw was what looked like a very large gray rock with two horns protruding from one end, definitely not picture-worthy!
(featured photo courtesy of Juliet)
Before departing Yosemite prematurely in July due to the Washburn fire, Juliet arranges for a wilderness permit to do the very same hike and camping in September, optimistic that all would be well in the park two months later. This, then, is our return.
Starting at the trailhead on Tioga Pass Road at an elevation of more than 8500’, we descend five miles to an overlook of Half Dome, one of the great features of Yosemite National Park. We have the entire overlook to ourselves. As you can see, it is stunning!
After enjoying the view from every corner of the overlook and basking in its beauty for a few hours, we reluctantly head back up the trail to set up our camp. We arrive at our chosen spot, a wide-open plateau, just before sunset and erect the tent, set up my cot, lay out the sleeping bags, and play cards until it is time to go to sleep.
During the course of the day, we drink liters of water. While the upside is that we stay well-hydrated, the downside is that we have to pee. A lot. We go twice before we retire at 10 pm. Unsurprisingly, I awaken three hours later feeling a great necessity to go again. The problem is, it is very cold (mid-high 30’s). I am snug in Juliet’s down sleeping bag wearing the following clothing: a wool shirt, long underwear, (tops and bottoms) a down jacket, hiking pants, a wool hat, and two pairs of socks. The thought of getting up and going out of the tent in the howling wind, tent sides flapping madly, is the last thing I want to do.
So I wait. I debate. Maybe I can suppress the need. You know, mind over matter. For the next three hours, I try to get up the gumption to go. Finally at 4 am, I can stand it no longer. By this time, Juliet has come to the same conclusion. We go outside. We can hardly stand up straight from the buffeting wind. Job done, we return to our sleeping bags in great relief. We fall back asleep for a few more hours and awaken again to the biting cold. There are definitely no mosquitos. We pile on the remaining clothes we have brought with us, break camp, and head out for another fine day.
Last summer while in New Hampshire, I learned about a botanical garden in Boothbay Harbor Maine that has an installation of enormous wooden trolls. Naturally, I wanted to see them! However, the drive is three and a half hours each way, too long for a day trip. So, in advance of my annual summer return to NH, I contacted my friend, Janet, who lives in Portland, and proposed that we visit the gardens this year. To my great delight, she agreed.
The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is comprised of 248 splendid acres, beautifully designed and lushly planted, alone worth the excursion. But the trolls– these are something else entirely.
Thomas Danbo, a Danish artist, is the creator of these incredible figures. A knowledgeable docent gave us the interesting and serendipitous background of how they came to be there. Thomas met a woman in Barcelona who was from Rye, NH. They married and lived in Copenhagen. Sometime later, the couple came to Rye to attend a wedding. On the way, they stopped to visit a friend of Thomas’ wife who worked at the Botanical Garden. Thomas, who has installed his giant trolls in locations all over the world, determined these gardens would be the perfect setting for his giant creatures.
He designed 5 of them. The heads, hands and feet were constructed at his studio in Denmark and shipped in containers to Maine, where the bodies were constructed. Due to Covid, Thomas’ own crews were unable to travel to the US and a search yielded ten skilled artisans and 100 volunteers to complete the installation in situ, which took two months.
Each of the trolls is 20-25 feet tall. They are constructed from local, recycled materials, the artist’s purpose being to bring attention to the importance of conservation. He is driven by concern about the extinction of trees and the loss of biodiversity.
Without further ado, then, here are Roskva, Lilia, Soren, Gro, and Birk.
Juliet and her friend Courtney went backpacking in Yosemite over the Independence Day weekend. They hiked 28 miles in 2 days under what I was told was a cloud of mosquitoes. So upon Juliet’s return, she suggested that she and I go camping in Yosemite just 4 days later. On the one hand, I was thrilled that she wanted to spend time with me and hike together in one of the most beautiful of our national parks. On the other hand, the thought of camping and mosquitoes wasn’t too appealing. As many of you know, I’m happy to hike all day long. But camping? I prefer a shower and a bed.
Nevertheless, I say yes. Juliet works a half day on Friday. I work a full day. That means we have to wait until about 6:00 pm to leave and avoid traffic. It’s a three-hour drive, at least. I suggest that since our arrival will be so late, perhaps it would be advisable for the first night, to find a place to stay other than the great outdoors. The campground near where we will be hiking is closed requiring us to pitch the tent somewhere out in the dark wilderness in bear country. Juliet isn’t at all fond of the idea of staying in a cabin but she humors me. One night on the hard ground should be plenty.
So on our way to Groveland where we plan to spend the night, I get a text from my friend Sue asking “wondering if you’re still doing Yosemite with the fire that broke out today?” I say out loud “what fire?” We stop and Juliet immediately goes to the CalFire website and learns that the fire is exactly where we plan to hike and sleep the next night. In the morning, she checks a number of webcams that provide air quality and clarity and the verdict is abysmal. The hike she planned for us was to get a spectacular view of Half Dome which she learns is now enshrouded in smoke. It looks as though there will have to be a plan B.
This photo courtesy of Juliet from July 2020 and the view we expect to see.
This is what we see. The arrow points to Half Dome.
Turns out there is no plan B or any other viable alternative. The smoke from the Washburn Fire compromises every view. We drive the entire Tioga Pass Road from one gate to the other searching in vain for a hike that offers a crisp outlook to Half Dome or another iconic viewpoint.
Instead, we content ourselves by taking photos of lovely wildflowers and a placid pond along the road.
Feeling disappointed, and not knowing if the next day will bring clear weather or more smoke, we decide to leave Yosemite a day early and go home. We arrive as the sky turns dark. Juliet sets up the tent and sleeping bags in the backyard and we go camping in Oakland. There are no mosquitoes!
With my recovery from hip replacement surgery finally behind me, I am venturing out on a short trip to Pittsburgh and a visit with Debby, my freshman year roommate at Chatham College. We have been friends since 1967 with a 35 year hiatus between 1971 and 2006 when we reconnected at a reunion. We picked up right where we’d left off and since then, see each other every couple of years.
In addition to spending time in Pittsburgh, we have two outings planned: one to Falling Water, the famously original home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in rural Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh; the other, to Cleveland and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Our visit to Falling Water is preceded by a worthwhile stop at Kentuck Knob, a Usonian home designed by Wright for the Hagen family 20 years subsequent to Falling Water. The Usonian concept was geared toward the middle class and came in three different versions. Kentuck Knob is of the Grand Usonian type.
Every detail was important to Wright: the type and grain of wood or stone that was used in the construction; the angles of the building and its features (he hated right angles); the orientation towards the sun; the integration of the building with the surrounding site and the natural world outside. He was brilliantly creative and notoriously demanding. For instance, Wright refused to make changes that clients wanted. If he visited a client’s home after it was finished and an item that he had placed was moved, he’d return it to its original position.
Falling Water was designed in 1935 for the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh which owned the noted department store by the same name. It does not disappoint. I had longed to see it for many years. It is a stunning home, cantilevered and terraced dramatically over a waterfall and stream called Bear Run. The problem, though, is that it leaked and the interior was terribly damp. Being there on a rainy day, we experience this firsthand. The view from across the stream is iconic and spectacular.
The following day, we visit a third location where there are two Usonian homes, one very basic, the other Grand. The interesting fact about these was that they were disassembled piece-by-piece in Illinois and Minnesota, respectively, and then reassembled in Polymath Park. The process took two years for each of them. This Grand Usonian is particularly lovely, cozier and more inviting to my eye than the others we had seen.
After a day back in Pittsburgh, we drive to Cleveland, where I have never been. It had not occurred to me to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but when Debby suggested it, I immediately said yes. And what a trip! We spend four hours experiencing the greatest music of our generation, and to top it off, there is a Beatles exhibit that includes excerpts of Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary and the final Beatles concert on the roof of their Apple studio. There are also film clips of the remaining band members performing with other major musicians at various RRHF inductions. As we used to say, what a gas!
My friend, Sue, and I are off on another adventure, this time in Kauai. The weather forecast is grim, rainy. Surprisingly, it turns out to be spectacularly sunny, allowing us to hike, kayak, and bike with joy.
Due to the fact that it rains a great deal in Kauai, trails are often muddy and slippery. This is something we experience on two successive hikes. This is the brief story about one of them.
We drive to Waimea Canyon on the western side of the island to hike the Pihea Trail. I have explored the Canyon on foot during previous trips but this trail is very different. It overlooks the breathtaking Kalalau Valley on the Na Pali Coast. The trail map warns that while it is scenic, “sections can be very dangerous due to slick mud.” Good shoes and walking sticks are recommended and “there are many sprained ankles due to the trail’s conditions.” The Pihea Overlook, the highest point on the rim of the Valley, is described as a “short but grueling climb.” Frankly, we expect the mud. But “grueling”? Good grief!
The description turns out to be entirely accurate. It is necessary to focus on my footing every step of the way, constantly having to figure out the least unsafe place to put my feet and my poles. The path undulates steeply up and down, and almost everywhere, there are deep gooey ruts to be avoided. This can only be done at times by leaping over the puddles, or clinging to tree roots or limbs to hoist oneself around or above them. This is exhausting, yet somehow exhilarating.
The views are sublime.
Three hours later, we arrive safely back at the trailhead where we understand why there are a screw driver, a pick, and some brushes to dig out the accumulated mud from the treads of our boots. The only cure for the mud on our bodies and shorts, however, is a long shower and some strong detergent!
As many of you know, I have a love of New Hampshire that is long and deep. Starting as a camper on Newfound Lake in 1962, I have returned again and again over the many years since. The lake is wondrous with its ever-changing moods and vistas dictated by climate and season. So, at last, I own a little piece of this place. In late August, Juliet and I bought a condo in a very small development right on the lake. It is the unit I have been renting for three weeks each summer since 2016, so owning it is a dream come true.
It has been thirty eight years, however, since I last experienced the glory of high autumn in New Hampshire, and Juliet had never done so. It was with great enthusiasm, then, that we came to spend twelve days in our new home to see the fall foliage ablaze. It does not disappoint.
The daytime temperatures are surprisingly warm, the evenings unsurprisingly chilly. The colors around the lake are still muted, but elsewhere, as we visit other parts of the state and neighboring Vermont, we are awed over and over at the displays of red, yellow, and orange as we traverse the quiet country roads and hike in the mountains.
I am here on Cape Cod in the picturesque village of Chatham with eight friends. We were supposed to be here last year at this time, but you know what happened to those plans.
Beginning in 2008, this group began getting together every few years for a reunion in a different part of the United States. Previously, we’ve been to Park City, Utah; Boulder, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve been the organizer and each time, I have been fortunate to find a small inn that we take over for three or four nights. It’s such fun to explore the environs, but mostly to catch up. We never stop talking and laughing (even without any artificial stimulants)!
We have known each other since 1967 when we were first year students at Chatham, then a women’s-only college located in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, on the old and splendid Andrew Mellon Estate. (Hence the choice of Chatham on the Cape. It seemed rather fitting.)
The weather here is not at all what I anticipate. Coming from summer in the Bay Area with its copious amounts of fog and drizzle, I was looking forward to sunshine and warmth. So far, there has been a copious amount of fog and drizzle! That has not put a damper on our spirits or activities. Several of us go for a walk, two of us go for a nineteen mile bike ride on the exceptional bike trails that branch out all across the Cape.
One of the most spectacular features at this time of year are the hydrangeas that adorn gardens everywhere. Deep blue, purple, pink and white, the multitudinous flowers are in full bloom, perfectly formed and just bursting with good health and cheer.
The weather improves! Five of us go to a wildlife preserve run by the Audubon Society in Wellfleet and walk through a woodland forest and some grassy marshlands close to the ocean. The other four tour various beaches and towns by car.
On our last full day, the sun shines brightly, there’s a soft breeze, and I get to walk on the beach. How could I come to the Cape and not walk on the beach? The water is cool on my toes and I can’t imagine getting any additional parts of my body wet. Besides, Chatham Beach is known to attract Great White Sharks due to the presence of a thriving local seal population. A menacing sign makes that clear.
Old friends are special. We share a unique history born of a tumultuous time in our country, and in our own personal growth. And what I’ve found is that we’re still friends because of that solid foundation. We have more than memories and continue to listen to and learn from one another.
This time, wearing the face shield and KN95 mask, I fly knowing I’m Covid negative (that is a requirement in order to enter Hawaii and not have to quarantine for ten days), and partially protected from the virus having had my first Moderna shot two weeks ago. Who knew how thrilled one could be to get a shot in the arm?
So Juliet and I go to the Kona side of the big Island for a week. We arrive at the airport and have to prove that we have tested negative within the previous 72 hours by showing a QR code and presenting ID to an army of workers there for this purpose. We fill out some forms and then get Covid tested again! We’re told if we don’t hear anything in two hours, we’re fine. What an organized and efficacious way of controlling the pandemic in the islands.
The big island is huge and has many contrasting climates and landscapes. The Kona side of the island is dry and sunny most of the time. Thick black lava extends for miles, the result of continuous eruptions over the course of centuries from the very active Kilauea volcano, the most active volcano in the world. Much of the lava has little foliage growing on it and vast swaths are vacant and jumbled.
The Hilo side of the island is rainy and grey most of the time. The landscape is dense with vegetation, tangled and wild. Plants and trees grow to enormous dimensions.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is in the center of the island. The highest elevations get as much as one hundred fifty inches of rain per year and the temperature can be very chilly. The weather forecast during our stay is basically the same every day: scattered showers. We choose a day that appears to be slightly drier.
We depart Waikoloa on the sunny side at 8:30 am for the two hour drive. It is a glorious day and 78 degrees. However, we come prepared with several warm layers, rain jackets and gloves. We arrive at the visitor center in a downpour and it is 53 degrees. I spend time with a friendly park ranger and we discuss options for the day. He tells me it would probably be best for us to drive the Chain of Craters Road to its terminus at the Pacific Ocean about twenty miles away where it is warmer and drier, and work our way back up to the summit with the hope of improved weather later in the day.
At the ocean, it is 81, sunny and windy. We visit Petroglyphs National Monument, where Native Hawaiians carved symbols into the volcanic rock eight hundred years ago. On the drive back up to the summit, in intermittent rain showers and sun, we make a number of stops and hike to sites of previous eruptions marked by fissures, craters, and various lava formations left behind by the flows. I had very much hoped to see lava flowing into the sea but Kilauea suddenly stopped erupting two months ago. Instead, after sunset under driving rain, I see the eery red glow of the lava bed in the Kilauea crater reflected in the steam and clouds above it.
On a lighter note, we have an interesting encounter with wildlife in our hotel rooms. We enjoy leaving the terrace doors open to get the cool sea breeze and avoid using air conditioning. One evening, late, I am in my room reading. I hear Juliet calling me in a small, urgent voice “come here, right this minute.” I enter her room and she is standing on the bed hyperventilating, looking terrified. She points to the wall opposite where the biggest cockroach I have ever seen is moving rapidly, and then shockingly, it flies! We scream. I call the front desk. When I explain, the woman says, “we call that a B52.” She sends someone to take care of it. He enters the room and it flies again. He says “we call that a 747.” You get the picture. I know roaches live in the tropics, but still….
Once again I don an NK95 mask and face shield, this time to fly to Mexico for a week of snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding and hiking with a group of eleven on the Sea of Cortez.
The Sea of Cortez is a large inland body of salt water, eight hundred miles long and two hundred miles wide located between Baja and mainland Mexico. It empties into the Pacific Ocean at the southern tip of Baja. The surrounding mountains are desert terrain, mainly browns and oranges with a smattering of scrubby green brush adjacent to turquoise water of various shades.
For five days and nights we stay in tents on the beach at one of the nine hundred islands that populate the Sea. It is called Isla Espiritu Santo and is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It feels like a sanctuary. Nobody else is nearby. The only sound at night is the soft rolling of the waves against the sand; the only light from the millions of stars that crowd the sky.
We go by boat to a small island called Los Islotes where over eight hundred California sea lions live and breed.
They bark noisily as we approach; we are the first to arrive. We have come to snorkel with the sea lions! We are told by our guides to avoid the huge males as they can be territorial and hope instead to encounter the pups which are curious and playful. And are they ever! One sees a life ring with a long rope and treats it like a toy, in and out of the ring it goes happily grabbing the rope in its mouth and tugging. At one point it comes right over and gives me a whiskery kiss!
The air temperature is very hot. The sun bakes our tents during the day and in mid-afternoon I stay away. The benefit however, is that everything dries almost instantly. The temperature of the water is surprisingly cool and I am happy to have taken our leader’s suggestion to use a thicker wetsuit than the one I have brought with me.
One afternoon I take a paddle-board out on the bay in front of our tents, the sea glassy and transparent below my feet. I see colorful fish darting in and around the bright coral as I glide smoothly over the water. Another afternoon, a group of us take the kayaks for a spin into an adjacent bay where the bird life is rich with herons, egrets, pelicans, ospreys, and others whose names I don’t recognize. Four different kinds of bright green mangroves line the shore in stark contrast to the dry earth behind them. The next day we kayak to a different bay and see quite a show put on by feeding pelicans, terns, and cormorants. The pelicans, spying fish from on high, dive-bomb their prey making a big splash into the water while scooping up the tasty morsels they have speared in their huge bills.
At nearly every meal we have local fish caught and delivered to our camp by two brothers who have fished these waters for eighty years. We’re told Mario is eighty-eight and Santiago is ninety-two, although apparently their ages vary with the telling. Their faces show a weathered history.
On Thanksgiving, we revisit Los Islotes and have an experience I will never forget. We are surrounded by at least three sea lion pups which this time, seem to think we are the toys. They climb all over us, nipping and grabbing at our snorkels, our caps, and our wetsuits. It is hilarious and joyful and a little scary– after all, they are wild animals! They stay with us for a long time, exploring each of us with wonder and what feels like love.
That afternoon we take a hike into an other-worldly landscape, seemingly sculpted in an alien universe. As we return, we face a splendid sunset—massive, rolling grey clouds infused with shards of the waning sun glowing on the sea below.
This is a Thanksgiving like no other. While I am unable to join my usual celebration with extended family and friends, I am exceedingly grateful to be healthy and to be able to spend this time in nature, an opportunity to restore the spirit.
It is the last one. Hike, that is. The day before, I had hiked 10 miles over eight hours on Mt. Carrigain; Juliet had hiked 12 miles over nine hours, Elwell to Mt. Oregon. We were pooped. But how could we not squeeze in one more on our last day in New Hampshire?
The alarm goes off at 5:30. The sun rising, creeping over the mountains across the lake, crystal clear.
Coincidentally, it also is my friend Sue’s last day in New Hampshire, and she has agreed to one more. At 7:00, we meet at the trailhead, none of us feeling especially energetic. Juliet, uncharacteristically, begins whinging about her sore feet, her banged up legs, how tired she is, how boring the terrain, and how she wishes she were at the beach. She implores that we skip the loop and summit just one of the two short mountains. But I am resolute. After all, it’s just going to be three and a half hours—a hike we have done many times before.
Following a mile or so of typical White Mountain hiking (lots of rocks and roots and some medium steep climbing), we are faced with a choice on Mt. Morgan: ladders or cliffs. This is news to me. I didn’t know there was a trail with ladders! Juliet perks up. She immediately chooses the ladders. I remonstrate weakly, but Sue, like Juliet, much bolder than I, is all in. The ladders, though, are just the beginning. Once I manage to climb these, there are huge boulders to contend with. I put aside my poles so that I can use my hands to hoist myself up and over. Surprisingly, I am having fun!“This is ridiculous. I think I’m too old to be crawling through things like this.”
Then it was on to Mt. Percival, Juliet having given up on her demand to skip the second summit with its lovely view of Squam Lake.
Descending, we continue to follow the yellow blazes and come to another choice: cliffs or caves. Again I am puzzled, having been previously unaware of any caves. Now emboldened, I agree to the caves. Why not? We laugh hysterically, having to contort our bodies into pretzels to navigate the tiny spaces.
All of this strategizing takes a lot of time and the hike clocks in at five hours rather than the anticipated three and a half. But what an unexpected delight!
To go or not to go? Grappling with that dilemma for months, I get tested ten days before departure to assist with the decision-making but receive no results. To go or not to go? I have masks, a face shield, blue rubber gloves, wipes and sanitizer, for protection against the unknown, unseen, virus. Is it too risky? Too foolish? Too selfish? I long for a change of scenery, the draw of the mountains that I love, the lake that I know so well. To go or not to go?
I go. Everything seems foreign. On Wednesday, during what used to be the early morning commute, the BART parking lot has few cars. I take the train to the airport. Those on board are wearing masks. No one makes eye contact, all looking down at their phones. SFO is like a ghost town. No lines; no waits. The plane is empty. Juliet sits in the adjacent seat. The remainder of our row as well as rows behind and in front of us are vacant. I am masked and shielded, feeling confined and mute. With my wipe, I methodically scour every surface I might conceivably touch. There are no other aircraft waiting on the tarmac for takeoff. It is as though the traveling world as I have experienced it has vanished.
In advance, I vow not to eat or drink. Hungry, I reconsider and consume the pb&j sandwich I packed just in case. I pull down the mask and leave the shield in place. Each time I go to take a bite, I hit the shield instead of my mouth. In order to drink from my small bottle of water, a gift from the airline, I have to tip my head far back to get a sip. When I remove the shield briefly to relieve the headache it has caused, I notice the sticky smudges of peanut butter on the corners of the plastic.
I hold out as long as possible before deciding to make my way down the empty rows of seats to the bathroom. But just then, the seatbelt sign is suddenly illuminated, and I miss my chance. Sometime later, a flight attendant announces that there are thirty nine minutes left to the flight and the seat belt sign is turned off. I am happy to take advantage of this opportunity.
Was it worth it? We arrive in Boston in the late afternoon, the sun bright, the air cool. We take a walk beside the Garden, the Common, through Beacon Hill, the North End, Government Center. Sitting on a park bench at dusk, Juliet and I share a hearty and delicious lobster roll. Memories of the getting here recede amidst the joy of being here. Anticipation of three weeks in New Hampshire fills my heart. Yes, I believe it was worth it.
I expected to be in Ireland this month, visiting Belfast and Dublin, hiking the west coast north to south. Instead, I am in Oakland, closely observing details that I have often overlooked or didn’t stop to experience.
It is currently early morning on Memorial Day. The weather is fine, none of that heavy wet fog that sometimes plagues holiday weekends in the Bay Area, times when I envy those who live in places where instead, it feels like summer. I listen to the birdsong in the quiet. So sweet, such variety! I also hear the incessant and annoying gobble of the now-resident wild turkeys, fearless and aggressive.
At midnight, while reading in bed, windows wide open to enjoy the warm air, I heard goings-on in the garden. I grabbed my flashlight and rushed to see what was causing the ruckus. I was not surprised to see two playful raccoons. At first, they are lying in the birdbath, quite a hilarious sight as they are both quite rotund, and the birdbath is quite small. I imagine they are grateful for the cool water. Next, they are cavorting on the tiny lawn, running circles around each other, wrestling and playing like the youngsters they may be. Or perhaps they are not young but playful nonetheless, enjoying the garden, undisturbed.
Morning progresses, the light on the trees is soft. I move outdoors to take it all in. A bird skitters across the deck. A deer grazes just outside the fence. The smell of roses brings joy. I explore my garden anew, the spring growth, light green, fresh.
Back inside, the cat demands breakfast. Satiated, she sits guard by the screen door to the deck. Making chirping sounds, she watches intently as a squirrel runs across the deck railing after which she retires to her tent for a nap.
Always on the lookout for interesting places to travel, I am in Jordan, a small country wedged between Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. Its land mass is just under 35,000 square miles, landlocked but for 16 miles along the Gulf of Aqaba. There is evidence of human activity dating back many thousands of years; human figures from 7500 BC.
Originally settled by Bedouins, Jordan came under Greek, Roman, and Turkish influence. It became a British mandate in 1916, and ultimately won independence in 1946. The population is currently 10 million of whom 92% are Muslim and 8% Christian. Jordan has been a refuge for many people from Palestine, Egypt, and Syria, fleeing violence and persecution. It is a stable democracy, one of the few in the Middle East. Literacy is high at above 90%. Healthcare is available to all. As in California, water is scarce.
Our group of eight and a guide begin our journey in the capital, Amman, a lovely city of 4 million people, constructed on 23 hills. We walk everywhere through a variety of neighborhoods and visit a mosque, Roman ruins, museums, a farmer’s market, and eat some tasty local food.
We travel north to Jerash and roam about through the extensive ruins of this first century Roman city. Olive trees dot the hillsides above the Jordan Valley where much of the country’s fruit and vegetables is grown.
Next, we head south for six days of hiking including three nights of camping. Camping, really? I’d sworn off sleeping on the ground long ago. On the first night after 12 miles of hiking with an elevation gain of 4800 feet, my body is dead tired. I am sticky with sweat from the arduous activity but skip the cold water bucket shower for obvious reasons. The campsite sits on a ledge overlooking some glorious scenery.
I lie in my tent on a mat with warm furry blankets. The moon is full. Dogs are barking and donkeys braying somewhere far away. Overnight the donkey that accompanies us to carry extra water, runs away. He clearly wasn’t happy climbing some of the more difficult parts of the mountain. The next day we have a new donkey that is far more cooperative.
After the next hike, I break down and take the cold water bucket shower. I discover why I skipped the first one. The others who are within earshot count the number of times I yell as the cold water hits my body. The second campsite, in a setting even more beautiful than the first, is in a valley surrounded by rock formations that resemble Hobbit dwellings.
The following day’s hike ends in Little Petra, a Nabataean settlement dating to the year 300 BC whose specific purpose is unknown as there is no historical record. It is posited that it served as a spa to Petra, a much larger (and infinitely more famous) city located a few miles away. We are followed to our third campsite by a cheerful fluffy white dog, and visited at dinner by a hungry feral cat.
The third night of camping is something else, quite a change from our relatively peaceful previous nights. The wind chaotically whips our tents making sleep sporadic at best. But that is mild compared to what we experience in Petra the following day. More on that in a minute.
Petra was originally settled by Arabian Bedouins, and in the first century BC, became an important overland trading hub located at the convergence of several trade routes. The Nabataean development of sophisticated water systems enabled them to control the region and establish a flourishing kingdom. As the practice of agriculture increased, Petra became economically powerful. Magnificent buildings and tombs were carved into the mountain faces. Women had high status, could inherit and bequeath land, and own businesses. The Nabataean dominance ended at the beginning of the second century AD when the economy declined due to the loss of overland trade routes and Roman occupation. An earthquake in AD 363 destroyed much of Petra, which was then abandoned several centuries later. It was rediscovered in 1826, with the first archeological excavations occurring a century later. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
Now about what happened to us in Petra. Knowing about the forecast of high winds and drenching rain, we leave camp early, arriving at the city gate at 7:15 am. In five hours and at a quick pace, we are able to see most of the significant sites spread out over the expansive mountainous landscape including the Treasury, the Monastery, “downtown”, and the many tombs.
The wind is so fierce that my eyes and ears fill with stinging sand. Items at souvenir stands fly through the air and crash to the ground. Debris is everywhere. Then the authorities do something rare. They order Petra closed and evacuate the entire population of visitors because the high, narrow canyons in the city are prone to flash flooding. Unable to navigate the disorganized crowds waiting for buses to take us out, our group fast walks three kilometers up the steep hills to the city gate, all the while dodging fleeing camels, donkeys and vehicles. Quite an exciting experience!
My stay in Jordan concludes with a jeep ride in the back of a pickup truck through the photogenic red desert of Wadi Rum, and memories of a unique and historic country.
I land at the airport in Bozeman Montana. There is much snow on the ground, high up on buildings, covering parked cars. Visibility is poor due to very foggy conditions. I am told that last week, the weather was sunny and balmy (relatively speaking) until the day before I arrive when a huge storm brought lots of snow and frigid temperatures. And for the fourth time in two years, I am in an environment that makes me numb.
I haven’t been in Yellowstone, America’s first national park (dedicated March 1, 1872), since 1976 on a cross-country drive. Now nearly forty five years later, I figure I am long overdue for another visit. In three hours, I am transported by shuttle to the northeastern area of the park where I spend the next three days learning about wolves and biodiversity through the Yellowstone Institute’s Wolf Discovery program. I am here with a group of twelve and a naturalist guide.
On our first day in the park, we are on the road at 6:30 am. It is freezing. I am wearing everything I’ve brought with me and still it’s not enough. We don’t see any wolves but we do see great herds of bison; bull elk crowned with huge antlers, sometimes weighing more than twenty pounds; coyotes (easily mistaken for wolves by certain city slickers), a beautiful red fox with a long bushy tail; and a very large otter eating the fish that it has caught in the icy river. We go snowshoeing in the afternoon when the sun finally appears making the landscape even lovelier, but sadly still doesn’t warm my toes.
I learn that 96% of the park is in Wyoming, 3% in Montana, and 1% in Idaho. Nevertheless, Montana claims it as its own! The park is twenty million acres in size and currently home to stable populations of wolves, elk, bison, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, coyote, red fox, moose, bear, eagles, beaver, among others. Yellowstone is a scientific research laboratory. We’re told three hundred fifty seven research permits have been issued in the last year for all sorts of projects.
Wolves were removed from Yellowstone by 1926 because then current science said eliminating these predators would be good for the elk, deer and bison populations. This turned out not to be the case when the entire ecosystem was disrupted. As a result, wolves were reintroduced from Canada in 1995 and again in 1996, a total of 31, with great success. The wolf population now numbers 101.
When we depart at 6:30 on the second day, it is 19 degrees below zero. The sky is crystal clear. The sun has not yet risen. Wolves had been seen late the previous afternoon (unfortunately, not by us). So we return to the area where they had been seen and spend the next four hours (!) looking for them. Using a long distance scope, the guide shows us a wolf lying down in the snow two miles away. In my opinion, this doesn’t count. We decide not to snowshoe because it is too cold and continue to look for wildlife instead. We are rewarded with moose and bighorn sheep. Before calling it a day, we return to the “wolf sighting spot” to check again for wolves and learn that just fifteen minutes before, fourteen of the pack had walked by. As proof, we are shown a video taken by the lucky observer.
Day three, same routine, same viewing spot. And the wolves are there! Well, they’re still two miles away. But, I can see them through the scope, eight or more, moving around. It’s snowing pretty hard though and visibility gets so bad that they can’t be seen anymore. The last afternoon, we go snowshoeing under falling snow in the silent, still majesty of midwinter in Yellowstone.
How lucky I am to be able to experience Yellowstone, its splendid scenery, and abundant wildlife in a variety of weather-grey skies, brilliant sunshine, and falling snow- and to learn about the complex ecosystem and the many flora and fauna that make it work.
And cold. Ever cold. I think I’m finally done with cold climate destinations. But I know I’ve said that before. I guess we’ll just see.
Today is my seventieth birthday. There, I’ve said it. I have to admit, it’s a number that has been difficult to embrace. I gave some thought to going somewhere special, and in the end, I did. Right here in California.
Juliet planned a surprise hike to a place neither of us had been before. We left the house at 6:15 this morning. With Juliet dictating directions, I drove two hours north from Oakland to the Sonoma Coast. We arrived in dense fog, just as the ranger opened the gate.
Juliet didn’t tell me how long the hike would be or how far. A good thing because had she done so, I undoubtably would have protested!
It was indeed long and far. We came out from under the fog into blazing sunshine, the earth parched, the grasses golden, typical California landscape at this time of year.
The goal was the summit of Mt. Pole, a rather uninspired name for a mountain, I must say, but the view was dazzling in every direction. There were many ups and downs, the elevation gain more than thirty-six hundred feet. After more than fifteen miles and almost eight hours, we happily returned to the car, took off our boots and drove home, admiring the coastline, tired and fulfilled. It was a birthday to remember.
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago located north of the Arctic Circle, east of Greenland and about eight hundred miles south of the North Pole. The official discovery in 1596 was by the Dutch, who called it Spitsbergen meaning Pointed Mountains. In addition to the Dutch, the English, Russians, and Norwegians established whaling, hunting, and mining industries, followed by polar expeditions and scientific research. As a result of the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty originally signed by nine nations, the archipelago was made Norwegian territory and renamed Svalbard, Norse for Cold Edge. I wanted to go while there still are ice and polar bears.
In Longyearbyen, the largest town with a population of 2,040, Juliet and I board the Ocean Nova, a small ship welcoming seventy passengers, for an eleven day expedition partially circumnavigating the group of islands that comprise Svalbard. Located from approximately 76° to 80° N latitude and because it is almost the summer solstice, we have twenty-four hours of daylight.
It is cold and snowy here. Back home in Oakland, it is 80 degrees and sunny. I keep asking myself why I come to these frozen climates when I don’t like the cold!
What I see on day one is the answer: a huge cream-colored polar bear stretched out in the snow, blissfully cooling himself, rear legs and big brown paws splayed out behind him.
Two great brown walruses cuddling up on the ice and another two hundred cuddling up on the sand.
A pod of snow white beluga whales, maybe thirty of them, feeding and diving just off the edge of the ice. Bright orange and yellow-beaked puffins skittering low across the water. Fulmars (members of the Albatross family) gliding on air currents alongside the ship, details of their wings and eyes so clear. Massive glaciers sliding down to the fjords, sun slipping through heavy cloud cover, glistening on the water.
We hike through deep crunchy snow on an island where marble was quarried (unsuccessfully, we’re told) in the early twentieth century and see remnants of the mining paraphernalia and basic dwellings of the miners.
We zodiac along the faces of several towering glaciers and ride over the crackling brash ice below, which has been swept together by the wind, creating quite a visual and aural riot.
A polar bear is sighted at least a mile away and we go out on deck hoping that he will come toward the ship which is locked in an ice floe. Slowly, he makes his way across the vast expanse of white, stopping to look and sniff the air as if wondering what this large obstacle in front of him could be.Photo courtesy of Juliet Nellis
It is fascinating to watch his approach through binoculars and finally to photograph him as he gets nearer.
On another hike through heavy wet snow, some of us sink in hip deep. We see Arctic foxes shedding their white winter coats for darker summer coats and looking rather tatty in the transition. What looks like a male ptarmigan sitting quietly on the tundra like a giant cotton ball turns out to be a fox still in its winter whites curled up with its tail in front of its face. A single grey reindeer is feeding on whatever he can find on the dry rocky earth. Alas, these critters are shy and too far away to be photographed.
On nearly every hike, we traverse different terrain: glacial moraine, glacial ice, snow, and mud—often very steep, boggy, or both. We trek to a Little Auk colony of fifty thousand breeding pairs of birds. They fly in loops, shrieking until the foxes looking to eat their eggs go away.
When not out on the zodiacs or exploring on foot, we are treated to a curriculum of history, geology, glaciology, ornithology, and marine biology by the knowledgeable and entertaining guides. Toward the end of the voyage, they give us a quiz to find out just how much we’ve been paying attention!
The scenery everywhere is splendid and yet the future based on recent observed changes is dire. The amount of sea ice is rapidly decreasing. The extent of it in April 2019 was the lowest ever recorded. Thick old sea ice is diminishing, and complete loss is now expected between 2035 and 2040. Glaciers have retreated dramatically. The implications of these changes is of great consequence not only environmentally, but also politically, socially, economically, and existentially. While there are many climatic conditions humans can’t control, we can control the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Studies show that human-caused release of CO2 is far greater than that caused by natural phenomena such as volcanoes and is the most significant cause of climatic degradation. We have the ability. We just have to have the will.
We spend three days in Kyoto, an exciting city teeming with life and energy, streets crowded with residents and visitors hurrying in every direction. We visit famous temples, palaces, and gardens. Loveliest, though, is the Philosopher’s Walk, a two km path running alongside a canal lined with cherry trees in full bloom and so named for a famous Japanese philosopher who reputedly did his most creative thinking while taking his morning constitutional here.
Most memorable, however, is a tea ceremony demonstration at the tea house of a Swiss expat master tea maker named Michael.
Last fall, I planned a solo three week trip to Japan, a rather ambitious, complicated, itinerary covering quite a bit of geography. Although I’ve traveled alone many times, it has generally been on an organized trip or to see friends. So I had some trepidation about executing all the details by myself. Thus I was delighted when my friends, Debbie and Mike, enthusiastically agreed to join me. As it turns out, this was well-advised. I need supervision. Over the course of just the first few days, I leave my purse on a bench (luckily Mike notices), I obliviously walk away from my suitcase in a train station (Debbie calls my attention to this omission), I nearly knock a conductor off the platform barreling along in a hurry not to miss a train, I mistake a passenger who wants the seat next to me for the conductor collecting tickets, I misplace train tickets and keys to hotel rooms, and lose my gloves! We sure laugh a lot.
I am in Sydney for five days. The weather is perfect (apologies to those of you who are suffering the vicissitudes of winter). The city is urban, attractive and surrounded by water. Ferries and pleasure craft are everywhere. There is no doubt that for me, the standout is the Sydney Opera House, gorgeous and innovative architecturally, situated on a promontory at the edge of Sydney Harbor that was originally a meeting place for indigenous people. While I have seen photos of this iconic building over the years, viewing it in person at different times of the day in changing light, is mesmerizing.
Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon in the 1950s after an international competition, the plans were considered by some too forward-thinking and were initially discarded, only to be retrieved later due to promises of a three year construction schedule at a relatively modest $7 million. Alas, as with so many projects, there was insufficient consideration given to engineering issues which caused the design to change continually. The bottom line is that it took ten thousand workers fifteen years at a cost of $107 million to complete the ten sails made up of one million self-cleaning ceramic tiles. Finally opening in 1973, the structure has six different theaters, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is almost universally acclaimed as one of the most stunning and creative buildings anywhere.
Adjacent to and nearly surrounding the Opera House is the Royal Botanical Gardens, an Eden between the tall city buildings and the Harbor. Having a tropical climate, Sydney’s foliage grows bounteously and the trees, in particular, are commanding and capacious.
For the last portion of my Australian journey, I fly to Melbourne from where I am driven three hours to The Great Otway National Park in the state of Victoria. There I meet up with four other hikers (three Aussies and a Brit) and two guides, for a four day hike called The Twelve Apostles Walk.
Before we begin the Walk, we’re given gators. I think we must be in for wet weather, but no, the gators are to protect ankles from snake bites as all snakes in the area are venomous! We’re told to watch out for jumping ants as they have a nasty sting and for a variety of spiders that are also poisonous. I begin to have second thoughts about this hike.
The trail hugs the ocean coast for a distance of one hundred km. We walk just under fifty of them, the path undulating through bushes and trees shaped by salt air and wind.
I keep my eyes on the roiling, foamy sea below, endlessly stretching wide and wild, finally dropping down beside it to tramp across the soft, white sand.
We see kangaroos and wallabies by the road, on the path, on the beach.
Clouds, dark and darker, fill the sky, the sun casting its rays randomly on the water; the crack of the breaking waves in the distance a constant companion.
And on the final day of the Walk, we reach the Twelve Apostles, although there aren’t twelve and never have been! Originally, there were nine that were called Sow and Pigs by the local farmers. Not being all that catchy, it was changed in the mid-twentieth century to its current name, apparently a good marketing move as it then became a popular tourist destination. There are now seven limestone stacks (two collapsed due to erosion) and they are quite a sight from the trail, the beach, and most spectacularly, from a helicopter.
I happily conclude my first time in Australia having visited with old friends, gained some new ones, and walked some dramatic landscapes.
Tasmania (February 2019)
I am in Tasmania (Tassie, as it is called locally), the largest Australian island south of the Australian mainland. It is mainly wild and uninhabited, especially in the west. Hobart, in the far southeast, is the capital, and is a lovely, cultured city.
In 1803, Britain invaded Tasmania and outsourced their convicts to eleven penal colonies in Australia, among which was Port Arthur, established as a prison in 1833.
The treatment of prisoners was brutal. The offenses that brought them to Port Arthur were often ridiculously minor, horse theft as an example. The philosophy of correction was to “grind rogues into honest men” by requiring them to work twelve-hour days, six days a week, doing back-breaking labor while manacled one to another by heavy chains. At night, after work, they were required to attend classes and spend Sundays in church. Their living quarters were tiny cells, damp and inhumane quarters in inhospitable climate. It is no wonder that many men were broken. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it makes for sober viewing.
There are a number of adorable animals here in Tasmania: the wombat, a small bear-like creature that looks very cuddly; the Tasmanian Devil, sadly being eradicated by a cancer-like tumor that is spread when the Devils bite each other in the face; the platypus, an incredibly cute member of the monotreme family that has a duck-like bill, big webbed feet and a soft, roundish body; and the Bennetts wallaby, a kind-of junior-size kangaroo. Regretfully, I haven’t seen any of these critters in the bush, only taxidermied in the Hobart Museum. Hoping to see them on The Three Capes Walk, I have no luck.
Speaking of that Walk (what Australians call a hike), I join a group of twelve (eight Australians, three other Americans) and three guides for a four day hut-to-hut traverse across the Tasman Peninsula.
We hike 16-21 km a day through varied terrain, including dolerite cliffs
and a eucalypt forest.
Unlike in California where a single species of eucalyptus tree was introduced and is nothing more than a messy nuisance and a fire hazard, there are one hundred and thirty varieties here, many of which have colorful bark and flowers.
The Three Capes are called Raoul, Pillar, and Hauy and each offers stunning views across the great Southern Ocean where the next land mass south is Antarctica.
The first two days of the Walk are sunny and warm. The third day is full-on Tassie weather. We set out all bundled up in driving rain and gale-force winds, pushing forward, huddled over protectively. Then at about noon, the sky clears and the sun comes out but the wind doesn’t diminish. It blows steadily with gusts of up to 70 or 80 km per hour. This is serious wind!
On our final morning, we are required to wake up at 6:00 am and be on the trail by 7:00 as this is the longest hiking day yet: 21 km. The wind is less severe but it is awfully cold. I put on every stitch of clothing I brought with me. It is not enough.
Once again we see beautiful ocean landscapes juxtaposed with dolerite columns soaring from the sea.
The highlight, though, is a silent walk through the rainforest on Mount Fortescue, the highest point on the Tasman Peninsula. I am alone among the canopy of trees,
five-trunked Myrtles, giant ferns, rocks and fallen tree trunks smothered in thick green moss.
The forest floor is carpeted with leaves and bark. The hush is disturbed only by birdsong and the rustling wind. I am aware of all my senses, completely present in this intimate environment. Such a magnificent way to finish an unforgettable adventure!
Churchill Manitoba Canada (2018)
The flight from Winnipeg to Churchill Manitoba is two and a half hours long, a distance of one thousand km, and a world away. Winnipeg is a vibrant, urban city of more than 750,000 people. Churchill, located on the western shore of Hudson Bay, has a population of eight hundred and is accessible only by air and rail. The population increases many fold during six weeks in October and November when the polar bears gather in and around Hudson Bay and visitors from all over the world come to see them.
Polar bears are marine mammals that live in the Arctic regions of five countries: Canada, the U.S., Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Currently, there are twenty to thirty thousand globally but they are at serious risk of decline due to loss of polar ice. While there are nineteen different polar bear populations in these five countries, sixty percent live in Canada, with more than one thousand in Churchill. Water conditions here cause ice to form first and melt last. Polar bears are not adapted to eat on land. The ice serves as platforms for the bears to hunt ring seals, their primary food source. Polar bears are uniquely suited to the extreme climate in the Arctic regions. In fact, they can’t easily survive in temperatures above freezing. They have two coats of dense fur and eleven centimeters of fat as insulation against the cold. Large furry paws keep them warm and claws help them walk over thin ice to reach their prey. They can live thirty years in the wild.
I am here in Mid-November, the fifth of the six-week season. It is very cold, below zero with a substantial wind chill. I’m told snow has been on the ground for the past three weeks or so. On our first day in Churchill as our group approaches town from the airport, we see a beautiful polar bear mom and cub also approaching town, something that is strongly disapproved of for safety reasons. The polar bear patrol shoots cracker shells in the air to discourage them and they run away in the opposite direction.
The next day, we head out to the tundra on a special vehicle called a polar rover designed to traverse the difficult terrain that is thick with tundra grass, rock, snow and ice.
Early on, we see a polar bear hunkered down in some scrubby willows apparently avoiding the harsh wind. Conditions rapidly deteriorate to blizzard white-out and we can no longer see anything. I go out on the back deck of the rover to experience twenty degrees below zero and feel my face get numb.
I have a conversation with the driver asking him how he can possibly navigate in zero visibility. He tells me about landmarks that he uses as well as the fact that he comes from Churchill and knows the contours of the land well. Then he promptly gets lost! It is quite hilarious. We stop a number of times waiting for the weather to clear. When it does late in the afternoon, we are at an overlook of Hudson Bay. To our surprise and delight, we see an Arctic Fox curled up in a ball and an Arctic Hare lying in some stunted willows, each as white as the snow in which they are camouflaged, sleeping peacefully.
Our second and last day on the rover, there is thankfully no blizzard. We’re shown a weather map that indicates how far the ice has grown in magnitude over the last few days, from just along the shore of Hudson Bay to four miles out. This means that in that period of time, most of the bears have gone from Churchill for the season and we’re likely to see only stragglers. And we do! For a long time we watch a bear quite far out on the ice as it moves back and forth, sniffing the air, it’s long neck stretched out, then lying down to rest and up again to explore.
In addition to our group guide who has told us a tremendous amount about polar bears, we are fortunate to have a polar bear scientist from the World Wildlife Fund on board who shares with us her extensive knowledge from years of study. And we’re not finished yet! We see ptarmigans resplendent in their winter white.
Then there is the polar bear jail. As I mentioned earlier, the polar bear authority wants to keep people and polar bears apart. When the bears get into Churchill, an emergency call goes out and the polar bear patrol gets to the location of the wayward bear, tranquilizes it and has it taken to jail where it is incarcerated a few days to a month depending upon the seriousness of the infraction. Once paroled, the bear is released onto the ice, perhaps deterred from future town incursions.
Halloween in Churchill is a unique production. Given the polar bear issue, trick-or-treaters must be protected. This involves a helicopter, police, northern rangers, fire fighters and conservation officers, twenty four men and two helicopter pilots in all. This to make sure that one hundred sixty Churchill kids get to fill their bags with candy and be safe from polar bears!
On the day of our return to Winnipeg, the weather in Churchill is the most extreme yet. Taking a photo requires glove removal. By the time that thirty-seconds has elapsed, my fingers burn with the cold. My toes are so painful that it takes hours indoors for them to thaw out. And it’s only November. It is quite apparent that Churchill is for far hardier folks than me!
Featured photo is courtesy of Amy McCawley.
By the time we drop the car in Inverness, Juliet has driven one thousand seventy miles. I think she is very happy to leave the driving to someone else going forward. We meet our fellow hikers and guides on a brilliantly warm and sunny day and set off for two weeks of adventure in Scotland. I have yet to figure out how much hiking I will or should do.
Scotland has more than six million inhabitants of whom the vast majority live in the central part of the country between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Outside of the mainland, there are seven hundred ninety islands of which ninety-four have a permanent population. There are few trees anywhere because, as in Iceland, the Vikings cut them down and used the wood to build boats and houses. In the western Highlands where we are spending most of our time, the average annual rainfall is one hundred eighty inches, one of the wettest places in Europe. It’s no wonder everything is so green! There are thousands of sheep that keep the grasslands under control. The landscape is stark and rugged.
Soon enough, the gorgeous weather is replaced by heavy rain, cold temperatures and howling wind. We are told this is normal. After doing a five mile hike one day, carefully watching the placement of my right foot with every step, I take the next day off. This turns out to be a very wise decision when the group returns seven hours later, soaking wet and reporting gale force winds and terrible footing. Meanwhile, I have spent the day reading in the great room of our lodge sitting by a roaring fire!
We take a ferry across the Hebridean Sea from the mainland to the Outer Hebrides and, on the Isle of Lewis, walk along the coastal cliffs high above the sea to the Butt of Lewis (no kidding). The grass is soft beneath my feet. The wind blows fierce, the sun sparkles despite a gloomy forecast. The water crashes violently against the giant rock formations spraying foam all around us.
Our able guides tell us about the long and sometimes brutal history of Scotland as we visit the remains of important historical sites.
Another day, on the Isle of Harris (home of Harris Tweed woolens) we hike a short but steep mountain called Toehead that is smothered in heather—purple, pink, orange, yellow.
Going up is manageable, going down not so much, the poor toe twisting and turning in my boot. In addition to being mindful about where I put my right foot, I have mud and sheep poop to negotiate. All of this takes a lot of energy. So I skip the following day reputed to be the hardest hike on the trip and instead meander around the tiny town of Tarbert where we are staying.
Then the weather takes a turn for the worse. We take a ferry to the Isle of Skye and hike all day in a downpour through moody and misty volcanic scenery. Thankfully afterwards, we stop at a picturesque hotel and drink local whisky at the art-filled bar.
Our final hike on a mountain called Cairngorm, located in a large National Park of the same name, involves a very steep uphill climb in incredible wind with gusts of sixty miles an hour. I wear four layers of clothing and can barely stand up straight. In fact, the last bit has us clinging to a rope while we traverse ice-covered stones and try to remain upright. At which point, I turn around and go back to avoid what surely will be a calamity for my battered toe. I then make a very slow descent over the precipitous rocky terrain to safety. What a relief!
I am happy I decided to come to Scotland in spite of my fractured toe. It became a different trip than I expected and my experiences were different from those I would have had had I not been hobbled. It proves true for me yet again that the unanticipated often makes the more memorable adventure.
Things aren’t quite turning out as planned. While packing to leave the home of our friends, I trip on my massively heavy, bulky duffel and immediately feel searing pain in my right pinky toe. Unlike after similar incidents, the pain doesn’t subside. The following day, I go to Urgent Care in a small Yorkshire village hospital and learn I have fractured the toe. I am strongly advised not to go on the hiking trip in the Scottish Highlands.
Terribly disappointed and in need of something cheery, Juliet and I decide the only logical thing to do is engage in some garden therapy. So we go to Castle Howard where I hobble around the spectacularly beautiful gardens at this massive estate fifteen miles north of York, owned and occupied by the Howard family for three hundred years. The “house”
is situated amidst thousands of acres planned with the utmost aesthetic care. Towering trees frame tranquil lakes. Formal gardens encircle fabulous fountains. A walled garden, while formal in style, is filled with a riot of flowers of every imaginable color.
Emerald lawns gently slope towards forests and waterways. Grand statues stand sentinel. Oh, to have such space!
The next day we go to Helmsley Walled Garden, another revelation. Entirely different from Castle Howard, it feels more like a garden a non-noble would have. It is much more manageable in size and less formal. In addition to the variety of plants, colors, and textures, there is a wildness, a denseness, a kind of unruliness that I love.
And the fruit trees, laden with red and green apples and the most perfect pears!
Before leaving, we have a chat with a volunteer gardener who tells us about a gem of a garden in a village on our way to the Lake District that is a must-see. And so we stop at Millgate House and explore an enchanting cloistered hillside garden crowded with small trees, flowering shrubs, and potted plants, rangy and untamed, covering every spot of earth.
Oh, what can be accomplished in little space!
After spending several delightful hours being inspired, we make the slow and scenic drive to the Lake District, arriving in the golden hour when the softening light makes the landscape radiant.
The hillsides are luscious and green, the trees perfectly shaped, the gardens immaculate, the sky punctuated by dramatic grey and white clouds.
After a day witnessing such beauty and grace, the broken toe seems of less consequence. And we have many new ideas to bring to our garden at home!
London England (August 2018)
So Juliet and I arrive at Gatwick Airport near London. We’re planning to drive around the countryside in England for nine days before dropping the car off in Inverness, northern Scotland, where we will meet up with a group and hike for fifteen days.
We get to the rental desk where I expect to pick up the midsize car with automatic transmission that I had reserved. The first surprise is when Kareem, the very personable agent, announces that I had not arranged to drop the car in Inverness, but rather, to return it to Gatwick. I’m told the drop-off fee is an additional 30 pounds. I’m not happy but I can deal with that. The second surprise is when Kareem states I had arranged for a car with manual transmission! How could this be? Juliet had volunteered to drive because I hadn’t ever driven on the left side of the road and wasn’t keen to do so. But she hadn’t either AND she hardly knows how to drive a car with a stick shift!
This is a horrifying development. Kareem then declares there are no cars available with automatic transmission unless I want a premium car that costs an extra 50 pounds per day! This is ridiculous and, to make matters worse, Juliet repeats over and over again a kind of mantra “this will be fine. I can do this.”
At this point, Kareem’s eyebrows elevate quite a bit, his eyes grow very wide. Is it disbelief? amusement? I say I need some water and he returns with three cups, apparently needing one as well. I am thinking I need something much stronger than water! Being such a kind man (or simply out of his mind), he offers to drive around the lot with Juliet while she “practices.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Kareem then disappears again and comes back with a set of keys in his hand saying he “found” an automatic for us. I think he’s kidding. Where this car suddenly materializes from, I haven’t a clue. Maybe from some unfortunate tourist who hasn’t yet arrived and will be in for the shock of her life when she finds out the only car available is one with a stick shift!
We get in the car, an enormous SUV, a further complication. The last thing Kareem warns us about is the pole that stands extremely close to the front of the car. After several maneuvers back and forth, Juliet is able to extricate the vehicle from its tiny space in the under-size parking lot, wend her way around the many tightly packed-in autos and pull into the travel way. She merges into one round-about after another, slightly on edge as round-abouts are always a challenge especially when seeming to drive the wrong way.
There is much traffic going up to Northamptonshire, a three-hour journey, where we will be staying with friends the first few nights. But Juliet gets us there without a hitch: on time, without getting lost, and in one piece, a heroic accomplishment. Mercifully, we weren’t subjected to the prospect of her driving a car with a stick shift!
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
I’m sitting on the top deck of the twenty-seven meter Indonesian-constructed schooner called Shakti, my home for twelve days.
The boat gently plies the Indo-Pacific water of the Muluku Sea in which Raja Ampat, a province of Papua, sits. Raja Ampat, meaning Four Kings, is located in the far northeast of Indonesia, and is comprised of over six hundred islands out of the seventeen hundred island chain that makes up Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world with 230 million inhabitants. It covers one seventh of the equator’s length!
There are nine of us plus seven crew, three guides and a dog. We are here to snorkel one of the most remote and spectacular coral reefs on earth and see some of the three thousand species of fish that live here. It does not disappoint. We snorkel twice a day, each time for approximately two hours, each time in a different place, characterized by different coral. Raja Ampat has optimal conditions for the growth of coral: year-round sea temperature from seventy to eighty-five degrees and plenty of sunshine for photosynthesis. There are hard and soft corals in various colors. Some look like tubes or horns,
others like branches of trees, brains, elegant fans,
or exquisite pottery.
It is as though a most creative landscape architect designed acre upon acre of the lushest and loveliest underwater botanical gardens. I am mesmerized.
There are so many different kinds of fish that it takes the lead guide several evenings of slide shows to get through all the descriptions! There are butterfly, angel, and trigger fish, damsels, fusiliers, groupers, puffers, and my personal favorite, sweet lips, among many more.
Their adornment and color dazzle the eyes. Pink, red, orange, blue, green.
Some are outlined in the most gorgeous shades of aquamarine or neon yellow.
Stripes, dots, zig-zags. Pointed snouts, sloped heads, disc shaped. Algae eaters, coral cleaners, predators. Where some reefs might have seven varieties of a particular species, Raja Ampat has fifty!
My cabin is located under the galley and my daily alarm clock is the clanging of pots and pans above at 5:00 am. I’m grateful to be awakened early so that I can enjoy the quiet before sunrise up on the deck. The only sounds are the bird calls across the inlets where Shakti is moored at night.
Although the air and water temperatures are in the eighties, I get cold easily. So to snorkel, I wear a full-length body skin and on top of that, my shortie wetsuit. It’s near impossible for me to get into the latter by myself due to it being very tight so I have one of the crew give me an assist by hoisting it up while I jump in the air, a ridiculous sight!
While snorkeling, I see a huge black manta ray gliding gracefully below me, a large frilly woebbegong shark rousted out of its sandy hiding place by a curious guide, a long black-tipped reef shark cruising away,
a hawkbill turtle startled by onlookers and fleeing to safety.
And the giant clams! Multicolored, mammoth, some five feet across, maybe hundreds of years old.
In the lagoons where we snorkel, the sea floor is a multitude of depths and is densely foliated with a plethora of textures and shapes in the most stunning shades of magenta, mauve, purple, aubergine, turquoise, royal blue, light blue, lemon, peach, and sea green. This palette of color makes me think of Monet’s water lilies paintings.
Floating just a few inches above the various corals allows me to be as close as possible to the fish swimming in and around the branches and anemones.
I hike to the top of a few of the many mushroom-shaped limestone karsts that rise up vertically in the lagoons and am treated to magazine-cover views of the surrounding areas.
I paddle board and kayak on the placid aquamarine water. I love seeing the landscape from every available vantage point.
And yet the best is saved for last. The final two snorkel outings are, simply put, awesome. Here in the vast deep blue sea swim millions of fish, no exaggeration. It is difficult to take it all in. School after school pass by: barracuda;
bream; surgeon; unicorn;
squirrel; halfbeak; sargent; wrasse; giant bumphead parrot fish. One guide counted seventy-three of the latter.
The only comparison that comes to mind is the great migration on land from the Serengeti in northern Tanzania to Masai Mara in southern Kenya. The fish surround me, every color, shape and size. Such an unforgettable and sensational finish.
The temperature varies from -2 to 0 degrees Celsius, which isn’t ridiculously cold until the wind chill is factored in. The wind typically blows anywhere from 10-30 knots, making for fairly frigid circumstances as far as I’m concerned. I use hand warmers in my mittens and toe warmers on my socks. The problem is that I can’t take photos in mittens and when I remove them to do just that, I can no longer feel my fingers, likewise making it difficult to photograph. My toes have been so cold that it’s taken me more than 30 minutes on the exercise bike at a good clip before they begin to thaw out.
Sea ice forms on the surface of the ocean.
It is transitory but can be several meters thick and become pack ice for which a ship with ice-breaker capability is required. On the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, wind patterns can cause the pack ice to become impassable and the captain constantly must monitor the tides, wind and ice so that the ship doesn’t get trapped. After all, there’s no road-service equivalent to call for a tow!
The expedition leader, a most competent and personable man, nightly informs the passengers about plans for the following day with a caveat: “weather-permitting.” And occasionally, weather does not permit.
One day in the Erebus and Terror Gulf, pack ice almost completely surrounds the ship and we don’t move for many hours.
The captain and his crew along with the expedition leader make various calculations until conditions are favorable to break through.
The following morning when the ship finally exits the ice-clogged channel,
we awaken to snowfall and the crew shoveling snow off the deck.
Soon after, the sun comes through the cloud cover warming me nicely, the landscape blindingly bright and spectacular.
The next day under calm and clear sky it is so warm that I take off all of my layers and hike (briefly) in a tank top.
Dinner is served al fresco on the sixth and seventh decks, the sun still high and the vistas commanding. Imagine having a meal outdoors in Antarctica!
I would be remiss if I did’t mention the wild ride we have through the Drake Passage on the way back to Ushuaia. It begins in the middle of the night when the ship starts rolling. I decide I should get up when I am nearly thrown out of bed by the force of a wave. It gets worse from there.
Yoga under these circumstances can only be described as interesting. My core gets quite a workout. The furniture that is not anchored slides back and forth across the floor threatening the students prone on their mats.
At lunch the drawers full of glasses and plates slide out to their extreme open position with a huge bang. The ship rolls away and back and the ocean drenches the dining room windows. I juggle the silverware to keep it from falling in my lap but am nevertheless stabbed by a dull knife on its way to the floor. I now understand why all the chairs are chained down.
I go out on the rear deck to see the sea up close. It is rollicking.
All the outdoor furniture is tied together at the stern.
Did I mention how challenging it is to walk, passengers staggering around grasping whatever is within hands reach?
When I return to my cabin everything is on the carpet: tissue boxes, magazines, bottles of lotion. All the clothing hanging on wall hooks sways, the porthole creaks, the ship shudders. Although risky, I decide to take a shower. I wedge a foot where the wall and floor meet and lean away from the curtain which seems determined to stick to me. I fear the trash can may join me at any moment. At dinner, two knives and two glasses of red wine cartwheel off the table and onto the windowsill. We are told this is a standard crossing!
Here in the Antarctic, you just never know what the weather will bring.
Western Antarctic Peninsula
Finally, the shift in wind direction arrives to clear our passage and we escape! It takes six days for the ship to be able to leave Prince Gustav Channel and the James Ross Island environment. Sea ice blocks all five possible avenues to the Antarctic Sound, the body of water that will take us to the Western Antarctic Peninsula, our overdue destination. The ship pitches and rolls through the open Sound, an all-day journey, but I am looking forward to different landscape and wildlife on the western side. On the way, we’re called to the deck to see dozens of orca, fin, and humpback whales in a krill feeding-frenzy all around the vessel. We can see no land (or ice) anywhere.
It is snowing on the first morning of our arrival on the west side. The zodiacs take us to Cuverville Island, the home of the largest Gentoo penguin colony (over 9,000 breeding pairs) in Antarctica. There to welcome us when we step on land are thousands of Gentoos as well as fur and Weddell seals, cormorants, skuas, and Antarctic terns, which we see frolicking on the rock-strewn ground, in the snow and in the water.
Also greeting us is the now-familiar pungent aroma of penguin poop. The landscape is indeed different from what we saw of the east side. The glacier-covered mountains rise precipitously from water’s edge creating canyons that dwarf our ten-passenger boats as we make our way around the island admiring the views and the leopard seal that playfully glides among the zodiacs, around and under our boat.
Later in the day, we set foot on Useful Island, so named because the expedition that discovered it found it useful for cartographic reasons. Here we see more Gentoo penguins and some Chinstrap penguins. These little guys look like they’re wearing helmets with the straps too tight under their chins.
And the amount of poop- unbelievable! It is red because the penguin diet consists largely of krill, an orange-colored crustacean. It is everywhere and, mixed with the melting snow, makes one helluva soupy mess. The guides stand by the zodiacs with scrub brushes to remove it from our boots before we sully the boats with it. And the smell follows us everywhere.
So making up for time lost, we are offered a third zodiac cruise the same day. Having just finished a shower in hope of purging myself of the penguin poop aroma, I am not entirely up for putting on the awful-smelling outer gear yet again. I consider going to the yoga studio to do some stretching as a more attractive alternative. But wait, I think. I am in Antarctica. I can do yoga in Oakland. So I go, a very good decision as it turns out.
The evening is quiet, the sunset scarlet and tangerine, bathing the water in soft shades of pink and peach. The silence is broken by the sound of heavy breathing, plumes of mist all around the small boat. The humpbacks are lunge-feeding krill.
Their cavernous mouths open above the surface. Flippers, fins and flukes are everywhere. For an hour we are transfixed by their display of hunger and power. And then daylight gone, nature’s show at an end, we return to the ship feeling elated.
And on our final night of this outstanding voyage, before making the two day journey through the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia, I go up to the top deck after midnight to view the stars. The sky still has some brightness (is it the end of sunset or the beginning of sunrise?) and is a stunning finish to a remarkable expedition.
Eastern Antarctic Peninsula
I had right shoulder replacement surgery in October and took three months off from travel to rehab. Now, much to my delight, I’m on the road again for three-weeks in Antarctica, a slightly odd choice given my aversion to cold weather! In Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, I board the Ocean Endeavor, a 200-passenger expedition ship heading to the Antarctic Peninsula. The first hurdle is crossing the Drake Passage, 900 km of treacherous open water in the Southern Ocean. We are told it can be a terrible crossing with much sea-sickness and misery for passengers but as the expedition leader tells us, we “dodged a bullet” experiencing neither fierce winds nor rough sea but rather relatively calm conditions.
From the fine, knowledgeable, and entertaining staff, we are plied with facts about Antarctica, penguins, ice, Antarctic expeditions, and so much more. For example, there are nineteen islands that surround the seventh continent; there are eighteen varieties of penguins, not all of which are found in Antarctica; once the ship crosses the Antarctic Convergence, the temperature of the water drops four degrees Celsius with a corresponding lowering of air temperature and changes in sea life.
We arrive at Elephant Island where 28 members of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition survived until rescued five months after their ship, The Endurance, was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea. The expedition leader calls us to the deck to see dozens of Fin whales surrounding the ship. Well, most aren’t too close and we can’t see much of their bodies (unfortunate, because they are second in size only to Blue whales), but we can see lots of plumes from their blowholes!
On the same day we see a tabular iceberg called B09F, a huge perfectly flat piece of ice originally 154 km long that broke off from the Ross Ice Shelf in 1987 and has been drifting in the Southern Ocean breaking into smaller pieces and melting ever since. We are told 28 meters lie above the water surface and another 200 or so meters below. The crew are joyful to see this, having not had the opportunity previously since most expeditions do not visit the eastern Antarctic Peninsula.
We disembark the ship and travel by zodiac among the icebergs to Heroina, one of the Danger Islands, and see many of the 3,000,000 Adelie Penguins, the largest such colony in the world. The smell of penguin guano precedes our arrival. Our guide tells us only one ship per year is able to reach these islands because of adverse weather and ice.
Moving through the cold, clear ocean by zodiac, ice crunching beneath the boat, I am tickled at the sight of penguins at eye level, watching them waddle across the frozen surface and then slip effortlessly into the sea, swimming in large groups up and down in and out, then popping out again like toast, so charming and funny.
We alight from the zodiac on Paulet Island and spend time with many of the 100,000 Adelie penguins that inhabit this barren volcanic mountain. We come away with our clothes reeking of penguin poop! The zodiac takes us to a large sea ice floe (frozen sea water) where we play like children in the snow, mimicking penguin behavior.
And I have now hiked in Antarctica-twice! We zodiac over to James Ross Island and hike in the snow to a high ridge affording excellent views of the Prince Gustav Channel below, surrounded by huge ice caps and glaciers on a gorgeous sunlit day. The following day we step foot on the Antarctic continent (as distinguished from the various islands we’ve visited) at Camp Hill and hike to a viewpoint of stunning beauty, the ocean and mountains drenched in sun, the glassy water sparkling below reflecting the landscape above. On the way back to the ship, we are thrilled to see humpback whales, and leopard and crab-eater seals so close to the zodiac.
I take yoga classes each day and marvel at being in Warrior II pose while gazing at icebergs slowly passing by outside the windows. Living a city life, I am moved by the solitude in being on the only ship, among the only humans, in this vast, cold, dramatically white and wild place.
Water, water everywhere. Glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, fjords, lakes, and the Atlantic Ocean. We encounter all of them and are awed by their power and beauty.
First and foremost for me are the waterfalls. In my pre-Iceland life, more often than not, my reaction to them was generally meh (with the notable exception of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe). But in Iceland, I see them as exuberant, muscular, deafening, formidable. Here are a few examples:
Then there are the glaciers. They are ubiquitous, winding around mountains, peaking through clouds, tongues ending in rivers, moraines of boulders or icebergs strewn in their receding paths. Can you imagine the largest glacier is the size of Holland? We touch the toes of two of them. Here is some of what we saw:
And then there is the lake full of icebergs rushing to the Atlantic, simply jaw-dropping:
So, Juliet’s thirtieth birthday is on August 19. I decided to surprise her with a trip, somewhere neither of us had been before and wanted to visit, a place that would be easy to reach by air from Boston after our stay in New Hampshire. Iceland met all of these criteria, just a five-hour flight away. Of course, Juliet had to know there was going to be a trip so she could arrange for time off from work. The challenge was to keep the destination a secret from when I hatched the plan in December 2016. There were an assortment of near-giveaways, such as my announcing in conversations Juliet overheard that there would be internet, thereby eliminating a number of less-developed countries; or my naming destinations I hoped to explore, from which Juliet deduced “well, I guess we’re not going there for my birthday!” I also made the mistake of telling a lot of my friends about it, and then I couldn’t remember whom I told, and I had to remind everyone who might come into contact with Juliet anytime over the seven months beforehand not to spill the beans.
But I managed to keep it from her until I had to share too much information the day before we left New Hampshire for Reykjavik. I planned to send a box home with unnecessary items of clothing. I had been watching the weather forecast for a week before our departure and knew we wouldn’t need shorts or tank tops, the maximum daily high in Reykjavik being 53 degrees. So I told Juliet to put all of that stuff in the box, and when we arrived at the IcelandAir terminal at Logan Airport the next day, her suspicions were confirmed. I asked her what her thoughts had been over the course of the many months she had known about the mystery trip and she said she had concluded we were going to go to Portugal—a baffling conclusion from my viewpoint!
Iceland is a country about the size of Kentucky but with a population of only 330,000 people. It is a stable democracy, and the politics are largely progressive with little or no gender gap. The drivers of the economy are tourism and fishing.
Iceland has approximately 130 volcanos, thirty of which are active. Earthquakes are common occurrences. Twelve percent of the land is covered in ice caps and glaciers, 63 percent in lava and otherworldly terrain. The rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates is several feet wide and stretches from one end of the country to the other.
Summer is like a Bay Area winter. Rains a lot; temperatures in the forties and fifties; and when there is occasional sunshine, fog crawls over the mountains as it does in San Francisco. And boy, is it windy!
We hike over vast expanses of lava
in a multitude of formations during downpours or pea-soup fog (sometimes both), and occasionally in brilliant sunshine. We go whale-watching in the chilly North Atlantic, see pods of humpback whales close to the boat, and fish for cod. (Juliet catches a fish; she names it Harold and releases it, saying at least he will live to die another day!)
We bathe in hot springs. We drive over teeth-rattling dirt roads to remote parts of Iceland as well as on freshly-surfaced roads through rural farming and fishing communities. We shop for local clothing made from Icelandic wool. We eat herring and salmon and cod. And we enjoy the warmth and welcoming spirit of the Icelandic people.
*Featured image by Juliet Nellis
After a week of challenging hikes in Alaska’s magnificent Denali National Park (the featured photo on this postcard is of Mount Denali reflected in Wonder Lake on a dazzling day), I change gears and head to Homer, a small town 123 miles (as the crow flies) southwest of Anchorage, to go on a bear excursion.
Our journey begins at the minuscule Homer airport where nine of us and two pilot guides don hip-high waders and board two six-passenger prop planes for the thirty minute flight to Lake Clark National Park located across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula. The planes land on the beach at low tide in a blustery wind. After alighting onto the sand, I add a fleece vest and a windbreaker to the wool shirt and down jacket I am already wearing, and also put on a hat and gloves. It is mighty cold.
Lake Clark National Park is home to two or three thousand coastal brown bears (known as grizzlies inland). Almost at once we spy a pair of siblings far away where the tide has gone out. We walk single file through the shallow muddy water a respectable distance from the bears and stand still while watching them dig energetically for razor clams,
one of the three foods they endlessly consume over the short Alaskan summer in order to bulk up for the long Alaskan winter. They saunter within a few feet of us with hardly a glance in our direction.
After awhile, we change venues, leaving the beach for a broad open meadow covered in sedge, a grasslike plant that is the second of the three foods* the bears devour ceaselessly for hours (and I know this because we watch for hours!). At first, we are entranced by a solitary bear munching the wet sedge,
when our attention is drawn to three bears grazing together, a mama and her two cubs. They likewise pay us no mind as they come very close to us.
No sooner do we settle in to gaze at this threesome than we become mesmerized by a mother and her two tiny four-month-old cubs
(cubs are born each year in February in the den during hibernation) that are cavorting at the other end of the meadow. They are just adorable.
All told, there are as many as eleven bears at once in our view, although the singletons do not interact with any of the others nor do the threesomes socialize with the different families. It is quite an afternoon!
*The third food is salmon which won’t be available until after spawning in early August.
Guilin, Yangshuo, China
Guilin and Yangshuo are cities in Guangxi Province in the southwest of China. They are known for their fascinating landscapes, most notably the weathered limestone formations called karsts. Stone mountains covered in lush green vegetation, they randomly dot the land, suddenly rising and falling steeply for miles around.
The Li River cruise is a four hour excursion beginning in Guilin and ending in Yangshuo, the purpose of which is to marvel at these natural creations that line the river. On the day I took this cruise it was raining. The wind was blowing hard enough to continually turn my umbrella inside out while I stood on the top deck being mesmerized by the fantastical shapes.
While the experience would have been entirely different had the sun been shining brightly and the sky a clear blue, what I loved so much was the mist billowing between and around the karsts, giving the scenery a moody, mysterious feeling.
I couldn’t look away, the girth and height and proximity of one to another constantly changing.
There are two departure terminals, one for Chinese-speakers; the other for foreigners. One hundred boats each carrying one hundred passengers make this trip each morning, whatever the weather. The river is full of other boats too, water taxis and smaller sight-seeing vessels.
Waterfalls come rushing down the mountainsides.
All of it is magical, different from any scenery I have previously seen.
There are 8 of us and a guide who travel through the primarily rural province of Guizhou in southwest China for seven days. The majority of the people living here are Miao (pronounced “meow”), also known as Hmong. As a minority, their ancestors came to this region from far in the north of China more than 3,000 years ago to escape oppression by the Han majority. There are many different Miao villages, each with distinct dialects, clothing, food, and customs. We visit a number of them, some located in remote mountain areas accessible only by long, winding, roads. Many inhabitants are farmers and rice is their main crop. The landscape is steep, lusciously green, and terraced with rice fields, stunning to behold.
We walk through villages called Long Skirt and Short Skirt (the Long Skirts look down on the Short Skirts because years ago, the latter took land from the former. Intermarriage between the two is frowned upon). Miao villagers are friendly and often invite us into their homes for a meal. The dark brown houses built of stone, brick and wood, have roofs covered with deep charcoal-colored tiles that are locally made and lovely to look at, high up in the verdant mountains. We see rice barns standing on stilts in the water to keep the rats from getting into the rice.
We visit Dong villages whose residents came from southeast China at about the same time as the Miao arrived in Guizhou and for the same reason. One village, Zhanli Dong, is called the “birth control village” due to its long-standing rule prohibiting a couple from having more than two children. What makes this especially interesting is there is an herbalist who assists in determining the sex of each child. Several months before wishing to become pregnant, the woman drinks from one of two wells: acidic if a girl is desired; alkaline if a boy. The herbalist tells the woman what to eat during the same time frame depending upon the desired outcome. Her accuracy rate is said to be 98%. That is, 98% of couples have the desired one boy and one girl families!
We drive on high speed freeways built only recently, tunnels bored through the many karsts (weathered limestone formations) that stud the land. Our guide tells us how quickly China has changed, sky-high skyscrapers springing up at record speed transforming what was farmland 20 or 30 years ago into modern cities of 4 million or more today. Softening the edges, roses of every imaginable color line the roadway medians, a delight for the senses.
We learn about Mao, how he was both good and bad for China. As Chairman, he distributed land to the millions of impoverished farmers to enable them to have a better life, something for which they and their descendants are still grateful. At his direction, intellectuals and landlords, among others, were imprisoned or murdered during the Cultural Revolution, a terrible disaster for the country, by most accounts.
You know how sometimes you learn about a movie or a book and are so eager to see or read it that expectations are sky high? And then the reality doesn’t meet expectations because they had become so unrealistic? I had concern that seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an could be one of those experiences for me. But it wasn’t. It made me cry.
Here’s the back story. In 221 BC, a king named Qui Shi Huang became the first emperor of China. He was 39 years old. His dynasty was called Qui (pronounced Ching). There were then 20,000,000 people living in China (today, there are 1.3 billion). Qui was powerful and charismatic. He unified all of China with written language and currency. It was very important to him to protect his afterlife, so at the age of 13 when he became king, he began construction of what would become a 56 square kilometer burial site consisting of his tomb (what appears to be a mound of grass-covered earth originally 120 meters high), and 600 satellite tombs. The written history tells us that 720,000 forced laborers constructed this enormous undertaking that included 8,000 clay warriors of various ranks, as well as clay horses and 40,000 weapons.
One day in 1974, a few local farmers were digging a well and accidentally came upon a startling discovery. They found what would turn out to be the Terra Cotta Army! Excavation began immediately. What archeologists exhumed were fragments of clay soldiers and horses. It turns out after Qui died of mercury poisoning at the age of 50, a general ransacked the satellite tombs destroying the soldiers and taking the weapons. Apparently, he didn’t want Qui to have such a fabulous afterlife. And obviously, Qui’s unification of the country wasn’t as successful as Qui thought! The tomb itself, however, has never been opened as it was dug so deeply underground.
To date, 1,000 warriors and horses have been reconstructed.
Archeologists painstakingly put the fragments back together like jigsaw puzzles and placed the reassembled figures as they originally stood.
Each laborer was an artisan who created a soldier in his own likeness, only taller. Individual warriors took 3 months to make and are entirely unique with carefully detailed hairstyles, facial hair, fingernails and clothing.
The figures were then painted but the archeologists made a mistake back in 1974. As soon as the 5-meter-deep pits were opened and were exposed to air, the paint oxidized and faded immediately.
I felt awed and touched by this magnificent display of art, culture and history so beautifully and lovingly restored.
The Great Wall, Beijing, China
Almost everything in Beijing is on a large scale: the size of the city, the population, the public spaces. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are two of the most prominent examples, both immense and fascinating. And even more so is the Great Wall, a part of which I had the pleasure of hiking this week.
The Great Wall was built continuously from the 14th through the 17th centuries during the Ming Dynasty in order to protect China from Mongol and later, Manchurian invaders. It runs a distance of 8,850 kilometers east to west. Of that, where the physical terrain was barrier enough, wall was not constructed. So the actual man-made portion is 6,230 km long. The builders were military men and paid laborers.
Construction materials included mud, brick and rock. In some areas, the new wall incorporated previously built walls from 1,000 years earlier. New material was simply added on top of what was already there. On one brick, our guide pointed out an insignia which showed (in Chinese, naturally), the year (1579) of construction and the name of the unit that built that particular tower.
There are 600 kilometers of the Wall located in the vicinity of Beijing. The section I visited is 130 km northeast of the city. Called Pan Long in Chinese, meaning Winding Dragon, it is aptly named as it curvaceously crosses the expansive mountainous terrain. And now in spring, trees and shrubs are newly leafed out and there is a profusion of wildflowers.
Our small group traverses approximately 9 km, passing through twenty or so guard towers in various states of disrepair. This section of wall has not been renovated and the footing is challenging due to the many missing bricks and stones. In fact, during the Cultural Revolution, the government encouraged farmers living in proximity to the Wall to remove bricks and stones to build farmhouses. Likely because of the condition, this section of the Wall is sparsely touristed. We see only a handful of other hikers during the afternoon.
The only unfortunate thing, if one can really complain about anything while on the Great Wall, is that an unexpected dust storm blew in overnight from the Gobi Desert north of us making the air thick, yellow, and murky. The result was restricted visibility and it was difficult to see the contrast between the wall and its surroundings. Even so, I could not go too far without stopping often to admire and to reflect upon the accomplishment of this remarkable endeavor.
After two days of bird-watching and visiting Mayan ruins in the flat, dry savannah of Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, and two days of bird-watching and hiking in the mountainous jungle of Bocawina National Park, I have arrived in paradise on Tobacco Caye, a small island located fifteen miles east of mainland Belize in the Caribbean Sea. There are twelve hundred such cayes along this coast, the second longest barrier reef in the world. For three days I am staying in an adorable bungalow whose front porch is in the sand and whose back porch is in the sea.
While sitting in an Adirondack chair out back, I am transfixed by the turquoise water and the wildlife passing by. There is a parade of large flat sting rays in various shades of gray, gracefully gliding along; dozens of frigate birds, identifiable by their forked tails, flying effortlessly on the warm air currents; and a brown pelican having spied an afternoon snack, diving into the water and coming up with its catch, hungrily gulping it down its wide gullet.
I go snorkeling and see trumpet fish, clown fish and other beauties, one school of parrot fish camouflaged like the sea bottom by their grey and pink coloring. There is a four-foot nurse shark lazing under a huge brain coral, its unblinking beady eyes staring straight ahead. Fan corals, lavender and taupe, lacy and delicate, wave in the current as do the lanky branches of sea plants enveloping an abundance of silver fish edged in gold. Indeed, I have never before seen such sea life. The reef is an underwater forest: dense, alive, abundant, gorgeous, filled with variety, texture and color.
After sunset, I try night snorkeling. Armed with a high-power under-water flashlight, I see menacing-looking barracuda hanging motionless in the water; a giant crab covered in barnacles, creeping along unevenly, one leg at a time; a spotted eel open-mouthed, displaying sharp, pointy teeth; a yellow ray slinking along the sea floor; a green spiny lobster; fat sea cucumbers; black sea urchins, and anemones whose many tentacles dance under the bright light. How vivid the sea looks!
On another day, I go sea kayaking. I paddle three miles to Man ‘O War Caye, a nesting place for hundreds of frigate birds, drawn to this small uninhabited island, safe from snakes who, elsewhere, would devour the birds’ eggs and their young. The males court the females by expanding their throats into what look like bright red balloons. Apparently females are attracted to the biggest, reddest balloons!
Belize is a land of many cultures. Most recently, it was a British colony from which it became independent in 1981. However, it was settled thousands of years ago by Mayans, and beginning in 1797, by an African-Caribbean people called Garifuna. During my visit here, I have been introduced to some of their history and customs by knowledgeable and companionable guides.
Newfound Lake, New Hampshire
It was quite an ordeal to get here. One flight cancelled, then a second. Blizzard in Boston closed down the airport. Will I make it? I’ve never been to Newfound Lake in the winter, and now my opportunity is being jeopardized.
I finally arrive at Logan but the buses to Concord, New Hampshire are canceled due to the weather. I stay at an airport hotel overnight and take a bus at 6:45 the next morning. My friend, Audrey, meets me at the bus depot and takes me to her condo on Newfound, just steps from the lake. The view, sparkling in summer, is now magnificent wrapped in snow.
The temperature is 9 degrees with a substantial wind chill. We head over to Sugar Loaf, a low mountain across the lake, one I have hiked many times. We strap on snow shoes and begin to hike in the hushed, pristine woods. There is no other human or animal presence. We get to the outlook on Little Sugar Loaf. The view is perfectly clear and crisp, much of the lake frozen. The contrast between the blue of the partially frozen lake and the surrounding ice is dazzling.
After two hours, we are back down at the lake. It is dotted with fishing huts, such an unusual sight. I’m told they have heaters and even televisions for the fishermen who spend hours patiently waiting for a catch. I walk on the frozen surface of the lake. The wind is howling, blowing the snow off the surface in great white sheets. I clutch at my coat, fighting to keep the hood over my ears. This is joy to me.
The next day, we drive up to the Mt. Washington Hotel, an historic, elegant, and grand old hotel, distinctively white with a red roof, located at the base of the iconic mountain whose name it bears.
We rent skis, boots and poles and go cross-country skiing in the fresh, powdery snow. It is a winter wonderland, as we glide almost silently among the pine trees, hearing only the sound of the skis going swish in the snow.
My expectations of this winter visit are exceeded. Newfound in winter is stunning and peaceful, worth the wait.
It’s good for me to go outside my comfort zone and try new things: a zip line in northern Thailand, crossing a raging river in Slovakia or Ecuador, teetering on the edge of a cliff in Montenegro. My adventure in a slot-canyon in Mecca Hills Painted Canyon was the most recent and definitely one of the scariest.
I’m not a daredevil. Frankly, I’m kind of a wuss. But I don’t like that about myself and try to press the envelope, at least occasionally, and challenge myself to do something I’d really rather not do. So it was when Juliet and I chose to go to a remote location about forty miles from Palm Springs, California, and hike in a slot canyon.
A slot canyon is a very narrow canyon that starts as a crack in the rock and, as a result of millions of years of rain, wind and erosion, is sculpted into a gorge considerably narrower than it is deep. I’d hiked in slot canyons in Death Valley and Zion, but this one was very different from them.
The one in Mecca Hills requires you to hoist yourself straight up several tall, smooth, rock faces using a rope tethered at the top and hanging free. There are occasional footholds, otherwise you’re walking up the slippery rock wall, pulling yourself up hand-over-hand as you go and then shimmying over the top on your belly, the rock crumbling beneath you as you move. Other spots involve contorting your body in ways you didn’t know possible so that you can squeeze through the smallest of spaces and come out dust-covered and bleeding on the other side.
When I saw that first vertical rock face with its free-swinging rope, I was shocked. The hike description hadn’t said a thing about this. I thought “I can’t do this.” My right shoulder has no more cartilage and doesn’t function like it used to. I walked up and grabbed the rope and said aloud “I can’t do this.” Juliet, an adept and graceful athlete and also a rock-climber, reconnoitered the situation by trying it out herself. She came back down and spotted me, giving me encouragement. I managed to do it but felt shaken, vulnerable, and frankly, terrified. Immediately after, there were two spots with no ropes and what appeared to be impossible configurations of rock requiring strength and coordination I thought I no longer had. With Juliet’s optimism and reassurance, I got through these as well, wondering all the while why I had subjected myself to what felt like torture. Further along, there was one more place similar to the first and then we were done, at least with that slot.
After exiting, we walked for what seemed like miles through rocky, barren terrain, unsure where to go due to a complete lack of signage and not encountering another person to ask for direction. We discussed turning back and retracing our steps if we didn’t reach a way soon that would lead us back to the trailhead. But the thought of having to redo the slot in reverse was so alarming to me that we kept plodding on against better judgment. Finally in desperation, Juliet climbed to a higher point to observe the situation. Relieved to see other people on the next ridge, we scrambled up the hill and caught up with them. Like us, they didn’t know where they were going, but we figured if we remained lost, at least we would have company. We found the slot we were looking for and descended through it by way of steep, vertical ladders which seemed easy after what we had already done.
So how did I feel at the end of the day? Exhilarated! Grateful that I had made it. Thrilled at sharing this with Juliet without whose confidence I most certainly would not have attempted it. But when she said to me “this was so much fun, I could do it again tomorrow”, I told her she would be doing it alone!
Liberty Island, New York
It is Election Day. I don’t know about you, but for me, the campaign has been too lengthy, too unpleasant, and not informative enough about meaningful issues.
So being in New York, I decided to spend this important day away from all the noise and visit Miss Liberty,
a beacon of hope, of strength, and of light to so many: Americans, soon-to-be/Americans, and visitors from all over the world.
The weather is warm, the blue sky cloudless. There are many people filling the ferry, the plaza, the pedestal. I am aware of the multitude of languages, of dress, of facial features, and of skin color. And nearly everyone is taking photographs of Lady Liberty, her copper robe brightly lit by the sun, her golden torch held high above her head, beaming brilliantly.
I feel emotional at the pleasure of her company, what she represents, a welcome symbol to all, irrespective of class, culture, religion, and race.
On this day especially, I want to work to be open-hearted and open-minded, to be respectful of others whose views are different from mine, and to try to gain a better understanding of their beliefs.
It began a long time ago. That is, an intense desire to see a moose. It’s not as if I had never seen one. Many years ago, I saw two off the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. Before that, I spotted a few in a bog in rural Maine. I saw some in Alaska back in 1994. But all of that was ancient history. I wanted to see one now in the worst way.
In recent years, every time I visited New Hampshire, I looked and wished. My daughter, Juliet, told me that because I wanted to see one so desperately, I wouldn’t. Apparently, she was right. This last summer, some friends as well as Juliet and I went on a four-and-a-half-hour nighttime “moose tour” in northern NH. We had fleeting glimpses of two moose, hardly something to satisfy my moose craving. Sadly, we learned that thousands of moose there have been dying due to moose ticks. It was clear, then, that I should have gone on this tour years ago when chances were much better.
But all that changed near Piney Lake in Colorado. My friend Sue and I had come to the Vail area to hike for a few days. She, like me, had longed to see a moose, and likewise, had been sorely disappointed with our NH moose tour. So she asked someone in Avon where we were staying if there was any place local where we might see moose. The woman confidently told us to go to Piney Lake, a forty-minute drive from Vail on a narrow, rutted dirt road where, she informed us, 80% of the people she sent there had success. That sounded like our kind of odds. So we decided to go.
Instead of forty minutes, the drive took an hour and a half. The posted speed limit was 20; we were lucky to go 10. Of course the fact that it had snowed the night before and was thirty-three degrees when we started out at 4:00 in the afternoon probably didn’t help.
When we arrived at the lake, there wasn’t a soul around. The fresh snow was undisturbed.
The lake resort was all locked up. The moose must have left along with everyone else. We searched the lovely lake, our eyes straining for moose.
We felt crestfallen when none appeared. We had convinced ourselves that this would be our lucky day, that the lake would be teeming with moose just waiting for us. Disconsolate, we left for the long, cold, bumpy ride out.
But wait! Ahead, just alongside the road was a large dark brown animal. It had antlers. Could it be? We slowly approached. As we were admiring this handsome male moose,
another one ran out from the other side of the road right in front of our car and joined his friend.
We were beside ourselves with joy. Both moose slowly walked into the woods parallel to the road. We followed them, taking pictures and congratulating ourselves on our good fortune. After they disappeared, we whooped and high-fived as though something truly magical had happened. And for us, it had!
The Dolomites, Italy
Here’s a bit of historical background before I tell my story: The Dolomites are in the Italian Alps. Prior to World War I, they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italy waged a fierce battle for the region during three years of war in which thousands on both sides died. The fighting ended in a stalemate. By treaty, this mountainous area became part of the South Tyrol region in Italy. Much of the population is culturally Austrian and speaks German.
The Dolomites were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 because of their natural beauty and unique formations. There are nine different areas of note and all have distinct and dramatic shapes and colors. On each of our hikes, we saw stunning and extraordinary landscapes. And on the day of our fifth hike, we experienced the unexpected.
For the first two hikes, the weather was splendid, sunny, and warm, the scenery unsurpassed, the trails challenging.
The second two hikes were all of the above except rather than sunny and warm, the weather was cool, overcast, misty and moody.
The night before our fifth hike, we stayed at a hotel located in a pass 7,345 feet in elevation. Rain had threatened all day but we finished our hike without a drop falling. While having dinner, it started to pour, the temperature turning very cold with snow threatening. The plan for the following day was to hike to the highest point on the trip, a summit of 10,334 feet. Since there was a very real possibility of snow overnight, the group came up with a few alternative ideas just in case. Jokingly, I suggested bowling, and was told that indeed, there was a bowling alley in the next village. Bowling in the Alps-who knew? But I digress.
When I awakened in the morning and looked out the window, this is what I saw.
Yes, a winter wonderland in mid-September! Clearly, an alternate plan for the day’s activities was in order. Some of us thought this would be a nice opportunity to curl up with a good book by a warm fire in the hotel, but our most able guides, Tomi and Claudia, had a more energetic solution: we would hike in the snow! So we bundled up in our warmest clothing and carefully exited the hotel on foot.
We started gradually going uphill in the wet slush. After visiting a war memorial to local soldiers who died in World War I, we crossed the road and walked single file on a very muddy, slippery trail. We saw a large herd of dirty, wet sheep vacate a patch of ground where they had spent the night and decided that would be the most direct path to our ultimate destination, a gondola that would take us down the mountain to the town of Araba where we were to have lunch. This trek entailed stepping in vast quantities of sheep poop which, along with the mud, made for some very messy boots.
Then it was onto a steep gravel path that seemed endless. When it looked as though we had finally arrived at the gondola, we were extremely dismayed to find out that this was not the correct one and that we had another 1500 feet of elevation to gain. By now we were hiking in deeper snow and the going was increasingly arduous.
We arrived breathless at the gondola station. The thing was that our dear guides had neglected to inform us in advance about the precipitous grade, likely out of fear we would resist such a plan given the weather conditions.
Meanwhile, on the bright side, the clouds had lifted somewhat. The views to the surrounding peaks, including Marmolada, the highest mountain and the only large glacier in the Dolomites, and also Piz Boe, the summit we were supposed to reach had it not snowed, were quite sensational.
And the entire experience, while demanding, was also so much fun. For me, this was the most unforgettable day of the trip because it was delightfully unexpected!
I decided to take the train. Perhaps not as efficient as flying, I nevertheless thought it would be a nice diversion to make the final leg of my journey by rail. As it turns out, the three and a half hour excursion from Zurich to Innsbruck was lovely.
For miles, the track runs alongside the Bodensee, a huge Swiss lake. (I know the name because I asked a rail employee in my rudimentary German. This pleased me immensely!) The weather is warm and there are plenty of sunbathers, swimmers, paddle boarders and boaters enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. The landscape surrounding the lake is vibrantly green, the hills dotted with tidy-looking homes and farms.
Further along, the train rushes by a more beautiful lake (or is it the same one-there is no one to ask) with tall mountains jutting straight up from the aquamarine water, the serrated summits getting lost in the clouds. This is definitely picture postcard country but the train is going too fast to take pictures. I had planned to continue reading my book but I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenes outside the window.
The train makes a number of stops. They are carefully documented on screens hung from the ceiling of the rail car at regular intervals. The times of arrival and departure at each station are noted and when the train is early or late to a stop, the expected time has a line drawn through it with the actual time listed underneath. I find this incredibly compulsive yet endearing.
I haven’t spent much time in Western Europe in recent years, preferring to visit more remote locales. Looking at these sublime vistas from the train, I am reminded how much I enjoyed long-ago trips to Switzerland and Austria and how little has changed here in the countryside in the intervening years.
The mountains become taller, craggier, more massive, seeming to confine the train. Villages, some large, others tiny, are tucked into crevices high up on the slopes. As the light fades, shafts of sun light up a single dwelling or a grove of trees on the steep hillsides.
The clouds thicken, darken, and it begins to rain. And all too soon this sweet sojourn ends in Innsbruck.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
I had decided not to write about this hiking trip to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. It was not that it wasn’t wonderful or beautiful, because it was both. I just didn’t feel inspired to write. Until something very unique and special happened.
We were a group of eight with two guides, Jeff and Tamara, both excellent and thoughtful leaders. They are also professional musicians: he on the saxophone, she on the violin. At our request, they had agreed to play for us. I had presumed it would be at the gorgeous lodge high up in the La Sal Mountains where we were staying. But they had something else in mind.
It was on our fifth and final hike. They carried their instruments deep into the region of Canyonlands called The Needles, a place of spires, turrets and fins carved by nature from sandstone of various colors and compounds. Jeff guided us to a naturally-formed amphitheater, expansive and magnificent. We sat down on the slickrock and he walked some distance away. Slowly, he began to play, just a few notes at first and then more. Every note echoed in the canyon. It was stunning.
After awhile, Tamara joined him, and they played together, the sound extraordinary in this physically and acoustically perfect setting.
Then he stopped and she played alone.
Their concert brought tears to my eyes as it reminded me how precious such moments are and how joy can be found in the most unexpected ways.
The Sahara, Morocco
Four of us and a guide, another Abdou, leave Marrakech heading south. We cross a pass in the High Atlas Mountains different from where we’ve been before. The road has many switchbacks as it climbs higher and higher. The air is cold and the wind is very strong. It begins to snow. The next day, we learn that the pass has been closed to traffic due to heavy snowfall.
The landscape south of the mountains is scorched, the color of copper. We visit locations where the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator, among others, were filmed. There are occasional oases that are filled with trees—date palm, olive, walnut, plum, fig, apricot, apple, pomegranate. We take a hike through one of them near the village of Skoura.
The fruit trees are starting to flower, others just leafing out. The green is deep and bold, such a contrast to the red earth. We drive through the Anti Atlas Mountains to the Draa Valley further south and walk through an even larger oasis where the vegetation is lusher due to the warmer climate. We tour kasbahs where pashas of old lived in luxury, having accumulated wealth and power. Some have been converted to hotels and are lovely.
And then into the Sahara, dusty and windblown.
We drive through a village, isolated and remote. The school children run to our vehicle waving and shouting, perhaps the high point of their day. We walk into a fierce wind, stop for tea in another small village where the women come out and display their handmade colorful scarves, little camel figurines, and jewelry. All of us buy several scarves to wrap around our heads and faces against the sand.
We arrive at our camp for the night, a spectacularly beautiful place, tents all set up, and watch the sunset in a marvelous sky so full of clouds, so free of any impurities. A magical day.
We ride camels for seven and a half hours deeper into the Sahara, first heading south toward the Algerian border then east.
I alternate one hour on the camel with one hour of walking to avoid the mishap I had the last time I rode a camel for two hours straight: a saddle sore that lingered for ten days! The heat is intense, the land parched; dunes butternut squash orange; hillocks with tufted grass, the color of straw mixed with green; thorn acacia trees, scrubby for lack of rain.
There are no villages here. We reach our second camp and later see a glorious night sky filled with countless stars, there being no light sources to diminish their brilliance.
We spend five days in the desert riding camels and walking (mostly the latter for me), hiking the largest ergs (sand dunes), and camping four nights, each night at a different scenic location. Juliet and I regret saying goodbye to our camels, Mr. Camel and Bernie, respectively (the names we gave them, of course!), and ending our journey in the Sahara.
High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Such contrast in Morocco!
The night we arrived, we were lost in the Souks of the Medina in Marrakech. I mean, literally. Juliet and I left our lovely riad to wander the narrow streets and alleys of the bustling old city. We enjoyed a tasty French-Moroccan meal and then set out for our temporary home. After two hours of walking in circles and getting variations on go straight and take your second left, we reached the riad. What a relief!
The next day, we were driven to the High Atlas mountain village of Imlil and then hiked with our guide Abdou and a mule carrying our belongings to the Kasbah du Toubkal. What a gorgeous place it is, situated with snow-covered Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, as its backdrop.
After a warm-up hike to and through the picturesque neighboring village of Armad, we drank “Berber whiskey” (mint tea) on the rooftop terrace of the Kasbah, watching the sun soften on Mount Toubkal, and then took a steam bath in the hammam. It was heaven.
Another day, we hiked to a saddle above the town of Tamatert, where we had a commanding view of the Imlil and Imnan valleys and were treated to a delicious picnic lunch at an elevation of 2,480 meters. The mountains are steep, the color of cumin, a spice often used in Moroccan cooking. The architecture is stark, the simple buildings painted in muted browns and pinks. The combination is utterly compelling.
Next, we trekked more than sixteen kilometers with a great deal of elevation changes from Imlil to our destination for the next two nights, the village of Ait Id Issa in the Azzaden Valley, a considerably less touristed place where life is much harsher, our lodging very rustic. Electricity came to this valley in 2006. Outside our window we hear barking, bleating, braying, mooing, crowing, chirping, and the Muslim call to prayer.
On our fourth day in the mountains, Abdou took us through five of the villages in this valley. The houses are carved into the steep hillsides, built of the earthen material on which they sit, shades of red, brown, and grey.
The highlight of the day was a visit to the home of Abdou’s cousin who welcomed us with a meal of home-baked bread, home-churned butter, freshly laid eggs (cooked, of course!), and Berber whiskey. It was most interesting to be invited into a typical Berber home and experience such warm hospitality!
Our final day in the High Atlas Mountains began with a trek straight up from our lodge to the Tizi Oudit Pass. We descended into the Matat Vallley and enjoyed a leisurely lunch along a gently flowing river. We were sad to leave these breathtakingly beautiful peaks after such an extraordinary visit.
It’s easy to see why Kauai is called The Garden Isle. On the north part of the island, Princeville, Hanalei, and all the way to the end of the road at Ke’e Beach, the flora is dense, green and lush. The leaves are huge, the foliage thick, impenetrable.
It rains a lot up here. A lot. The second wettest place on earth is nearby. Mount Waialeale gets an average of 450 inches a year. The day may start out sunny and warm but before you know it, it’s pouring. A few minutes later the sun is shining and there is a glorious rainbow.
This constantly changing weather happens all day long. While you are in your room slathering yourself with sunscreen, the fat gray clouds move in and the heavens open up.
The only way to avoid this is to go someplace else in Kauai. A good choice is the south of the island.
Poipu for example. While it is raining cats and dogs up north, it’s balmy and dry there. Everyone is on the beach or snorkeling in the temperate Pacific. Or you can go hiking in Waimea Canyon. Some say it’s more scenic than the Grand Canyon.
But the thing is, there’s something special about the north end with its narrow roads and one lane bridges, Hanalei and its hippie vibe, surf shops and muumuu stores. There’s a lot of wildlife too. Chickens are everywhere, strutting and crowing (well the roosters are). And the Nene, the state bird, stakes out its territory and chases you away with tongue sticking out, hissing all the while.
At the Kilauea Lighthouse, albatross, red-footed boobies, and frigate birds nest. And you’re in luck if you see an endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal or two.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
It rains but not on our parade. That is, the other night it poured but not until we were returning from dinner. One morning at six, there was a downpour (even though the weather app on my iPad told me it was fair in Hoi An- so much for accuracy), but an hour and a half later, it was a glorious day.
It matters because this is a bicycling trip. There was one drizzly morning but otherwise it has been clear and so hot (ninety degrees and very humid), that when the group stops for a break, I look like a greased pig, sweat sliding off my body in sheets. The sweat mixed with sunscreen dripping into my eyes makes for very challenging navigating. We stopped by Red Beach (where the American troops landed in the War), China Beach (where they went for R&R), and one of the many areas thick with vegetation (where the Vietcong hid from them).
The terrain is mostly flat and our riding takes us through country
and seaside villages, alike.
Thankfully, the traffic is less daunting than it was in Hanoi although I feel a little intimidated when a noisy truck comes up behind me, passes too close, and then leaves a belch of black exhaust in its wake.
One thing there are a lot of are cemeteries. They are huge and seem to take up more real estate than any other enterprise. And they are beautiful.
The ordinary Vietnamese house is modest but the mausoleums are imposing with many columns and colorful tile work. There were over two million people who left the country on boats after 1975 to escape starvation and persecution. Many went to America, Australia and Canada. They were largely poor and uneducated but worked very hard at labor-intensive jobs and sent money back (hidden in umbrellas or wrapped in tobacco leaves, to avoid confiscation upon arrival) to their families who used it to build the burial chambers. This was a very important value to that generation, reverence for the dead. Now, however, according to our guides, the children of the boat people, educated and affluent, are motivated by prestige, and send back money in order to build the most impressive funeral edifices (perhaps the local version of keeping up with the Joneses!).
Our last stop, Saigon (the Vietnamese still call it Saigon even though the official name has been Ho Chi Minh City since 1976), is a world-class city.
Cosmopolitan, it is filled with skyscrapers, traffic, expensive shops and restaurants. In fact, it feels like New York to me, quite a surprise.
One day, we cycle in the Mekong Delta, the rice basket of Vietnam, through rice paddies
and dragon fruit plantations.
Another day, we ride to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the system of underground tunnels, 250 km in length, built over a twenty-year period (1948-68) by the Vietcong guerrilla fighters and used by them in the wars first against the French and then against the Americans. We had the good fortune of learning about this from Mr. Tam, a seventy year old former member of the Vietcong, who lived in the tunnels and lost an arm and an eye fighting the Americans. We then saw some of the tunnels themselves.
And amazingly, after having been on my bicycle for more than 161 miles, I find myself comfortably flowing with the traffic. There is a fluidity to the way the vehicles move with one another as though choreographed. There is something beautiful about it, like dancing, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.
We left Taormino on a sunny, warm morning and arrived in Ragusa under a dark sky. In the afternoon, our guides gave us a dos-and-don’ts-while-riding lecture while the clouds got blacker, the thunder louder, and the temperature lower. Just as we began our warm-up ride, it began to pour. I soldiered on, sneakers turning into sponges, helmet dripping rain water into my eyes. You get the picture.
But it got worse, and I’m not only talking about the storm. I got lost. How this could happen on such a straightforward ride is hard to imagine. Except for the fact that I have a history in this regard. In any event, suffice it to say that I spent even more time than necessary in the downpour because of this. Not an auspicious beginning.
But with a new day come new possibilities! The next day, it did not rain. In fact, the weather was sunny and perfect for riding.
Of course I did spend many hours the night before with the hair dryer and my sneakers, bike shorts, gloves, etc, so they would be serviceable. And, then I rode 60 km and did not get lost, not once, while cycling through verdant countryside
and beside the sea.
Being so thrilled about all of this, I celebrated with a delicious scoop of gelato, my first in Sicily.
Sicily was conquered thirteen times by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Spanish, among many others. The influence of these various cultures is evidenced in the food, architecture and customs. In 1492 when Sicily was part of the Spanish empire, the Jews were expelled from Italy. All that remains of the Jewish quarter in cities such as Modica and Siracusa are the narrow winding alleys they called home. In 1693, there was a tremendous earthquake that leveled much of southeastern Sicily. Cities were rebuilt in grand Baroque style soon after and many of the ones we visited like Modica, Noto, Ragusa Ibla, and Siracusa, are now designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
As to the cycling, the brochures and the guides are adept in the practice of euphemism. They talk about gentle rolling hills. Well there was nothing gentle about them for this girl! I labored up the many hills (there seemed to be considerably fewer downs than ups), struggling for breath while using “granny gears.” One day, my butt hurt so much after pedaling 57 km, that I chose to walk the final 2 km to our hotel (out in the middle of nowhere). Meanwhile, my face was a human windshield for bugs.
The cycling was Interspersed with various cultural activities. These included visits to a chocolatier where we sampled many different flavors, an olive oil factory that smelled divine and a cooking demonstration that featured eggplant parmigiana and cannoli. I’ve eaten the freshest fish, luscious tomatoes, delicious cheeses, perfect pasta and imbibed some lovely wines.
All told, I pedaled 283 km (175 miles) in five days and managed not to fall off the bike or injure myself (other than a few bruises and scrapes).
And then it was on to Siracusa, specifically the island of Ortygia, where we had a tour highlighting historic ruins that were discovered serendipitously under modern structures. These buildings (now ruins) were often constructed by Greeks, modified by Romans, Arabs and Normans, converted from synagogues to churches to mosques and back to churches again depending upon the religious predilection of the conquerer.
One particularly interesting discovery in the Giudecca (Jewish) quarter involved a woman who bought a spacious home about twenty-five years ago. When she began to convert it into a hotel, she came upon steps buried in the basement. Over a two-year excavation period, she (and archeologists) were amazed to find a mikveh, a ritual bath in which Jews purified themselves. The mikveh, believed to be the oldest in Europe (fifth century), was carved into limestone more than twenty meters below ground level.
So, with just one last day in Sicily, I will visit the city of Piazza Armerina and its fourth century Roman Villa, known for its grand size and splendid mosaic floors.
And then, sadly, I must bid this fascinating place arrivederci.
Mt. Etna, Sicily
The plane approaches Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean. I see Mount Etna, the most active volcano in Europe, covered in snow, looming above the cloud cover.
The island is remarkably developed with urban pockets among the green tracts of farmland and vineyards.
The first stop is Taormina, a typical European city characterized by narrow streets, Greek and Roman ruins, and buildings inhabited since the fourteenth century. It is lovely. I hike up to Castelmola, a mountaintop town high above Taormina, offering panoramic views of the city and the sea.
But actually, I wasn’t going to send a postcard just yet. After all, I’ve been in Sicily just two days and the bike trip hasn’t even started! But today was so much fun that I wanted to tell you about it while the I am still feeling the excitement.
I hiked Mount Etna. What a very different experience from any I’ve ever had. I mean hiking to the top of an active volcano. Really? The mountain is huge: 1200 square kilometers. Until 1911, there was only one active crater. Since then, there have been four and hundreds of eruptions. The volcano erupts at least once a year and twice so far in 2015.
From the base of the mountain, a cable car takes me up to an altitude of 2,500 meters. From there, a special bus with oversized wheels transports me through black lava fields as far as the eye can see.
The bus leaves me in this desolate place from where I hike to an elevation of 3,300 meters (just under 11,000 feet) and close to the current “top” of the mountain (which changes as a result of every eruption).
I hike (in a group led by a volcanologist) up very steep slopes, almost all snow-covered, in the thin air.
As I reach the central crater, Bocca Nuova, my senses are assaulted by a sickly sulphur smell smacking me in the face courtesy of the gusting wind. I begin to cough and my eyes start to water. The crater is obscured by clouds but I hear the crack of the explosions nearby. This is a bit unnerving. I place my hand by a fumarole, hot and humid (not to mention smelly). It warms my very cold hand.
I am now wearing all the layers I’ve brought with me and stopping too long cools my sweat and makes me shiver.
The group leaves this active crater and hikes to other craters that are now quiet, sunken hundreds of meters into the mountain. We descend on even steeper terrain, slipping and sliding in the snow, at one point on my butt all the way down a pass.
I laugh at how silly I feel (and undoubtedly look) but it is a blast.
After four hours of hiking, knees very shaky, legs like pudding, I’m on the cable car again, back to where this day’s adventure began. What a unique and fascinating time I have had!
I hadn’t been to Santorini since 1978, a whopping 37 years ago. I remembered it being a sleepy place with not much going on: a few shops in Fira and Oia, a handful of hotels. Today, it is unrecognizable to me. These two towns are now jammed with tourists, shops, hotels and restaurants. It appears that the $5 rooms offered by homeowners to travelers just off the boat from Piraeus are long gone, replaced by all manner of fancier accommodations. And the traffic: unbelievable! The roads are a jumble of tiny streets, pedestrians darting out with no warning, ATVs moving slowly, buses traveling at breakneck speed, vehicles going in opposite directions eking by each other in order not to crash. Not to mention driving an unfamiliar car with standard transmission. And this was supposed to be the relaxing part of the trip!
After the challenges of a days driving in Fira and Oia, my daughter and I decide to stick to more manageable places. We go to Red Beach, aptly named as the beach is dominated by a huge red lava wall (signs warn of the danger of falling rocks)
and the ground itself is comprised of various sized red gravel and what appears to be sawdust or mulch. Shortly after a swim in the Aegean (from which we emerge covered in bits of sawdust), we depart for Perissa. It is a very long beach of black volcanic rock worn to small round pebbles that exfoliate and massage your feet simultaneously, a delicious experience.
Here the Aegean Sea is sublime, a beautiful clear azure and perfectly temperate, my kind of swimming conditions!
On another day, we visit Akrotiri, a recently excavated ancient community that was destroyed by earthquake and volcanoes several times since its founding, finally being buried in ash and abandoned centuries ago. At its most populous, there were 30,000 inhabitants and it is historically unclear whether they fled before the last eruption or died as a result of it.
We go to the highest spot on the island, a monastery that is remote and quiet and is a fantastic viewpoint for sunset.
Travels to the villages of Pyrgos and Meligachori (where we stay) feel like the more authentic Greece with far fewer tourists and a much more leisurely pace.
And so a wonderful ending to this adventure.
Spring Green, Wisconsin (Taliesen)
I took a twentieth century architecture class in my senior year of college. There were some outstanding architects of that era: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Antoni Gaudi, Louis Sullivan. My favorite was Frank Lloyd Wright. It was then that I learned about Taliesen, his home, studio and architecture school in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and decided I must visit one day.
Forty five years later, I did.
Every two years, I organize a get-together of college friends. This year, I lobbied for Madison, Wisconsin, thirty five miles from Spring Green, where a tour of Taliesen would be the focal point of the weekend (in addition, of course, to great conversation, good food, and lots of laughter with dear old friends).
We set out for Spring Green very early Saturday morning in splendid Indian Summer weather. We drove along two-lane country roads through wide-open pasture lands and farms, occasionally passing through tiny towns with their general stores and feed lots. It seemed there must be plenty of rainfall here as green was the primary color of the landscape.
When we arrived at Taliesen, we were greeted by our guide, Margaret, a beautiful and spry seventy-eight-year-old actress who shared with us her considerable knowledge and deep love for all things FLW. Although she had been giving these tours for seventeen years, her presentation was as fresh as though we were her very first tour group. Her enthusiasm was contagious. There wasn’t a question she couldn’t answer.
The four hours flew by as we visited the buildings that exemplified Wright’s meticulous design principles and his emphasis on air, light and space. We toured the School of Architecture; the dining hall with its Wright-designed furniture and lighting fixtures; the theater attached just behind it with its stage curtain representing many of his life stories; his home designed in the Prairie style for which he was so famous, every detail purposeful and beautiful to my eye.
Sometimes we long to see something over a great period of time and when we finally do, we are disappointed because the experience can’t possibly live up to the anticipation. For me, this was not the case with Taliesen. I felt rewarded after waiting so many years to visit and found my expectations exceeded.
As an additional pleasure, I recommend reading The Women, by T.C.Boyle and Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan.
Departing Sarajevo early in the morning, we enter Montenegro and begin driving on the road toward Durmitor National Park, our destination for the next four days.
Passing through 66 tunnels blasted out of limestone, we travel beside Lake Pivsko, an other-worldly sapphire.
Our first hike in the Unesco World Heritage site of Durmitor Park is around Black Lake, obviously a popular place. It seems like there are more people in this part of the park than we saw in all of Bosnia! Very different indeed.
Our second hike, to Savin Kuk (7,586 feet), is steep and full of scree. It takes five hours, and frankly, it is hard work and does not offer the beauty, the wild flowers, the variety of topography that Bosnia offers. Still, the view is panoramic, the weather perfect.
Our third hike to Prutas Peak and back is six hours across great rolling green and yellow hills punctuated by huge limestone massifs.
The trail is treeless, entirely exposed. There are few other hikers and the only sounds we hear are humming insects and the whispering wind. In some spots, the path is only about ten inches wide; in others, rock scrambling is required and the drop-offs appear to be straight down thousands of feet on either side. These test my tolerance for fear of falling, but I grit my teeth and soldier on! From the summit (7,851 feet), we have a 360-degree view including Mount Maglic in Bosnia (our hike three days earlier), Savin Kuk Peak (the previous day’s destination), and Bobotov Kuk (the upcoming hike).
Our fourth and final hike is to the aforementioned Bobotov Peak (8,277 feet), the highest mountain in Montenegro.
The climb takes seven and a half hours. The day is perfect, the hike arduous. Like several of the others, it is characterized by long, steep ascents and descents of scree as well as rock scrambling. This one has the scariest exposure yet, which requires me to face the rock wall as I try to find the safest footing on tiny rock ledges and avoid looking at the tremendous amount of air space between myself and the ground far below. The view at the top is breathtaking and makes the treacherous trip worthwhile!
It’s a very good thing our hikes are done, because my feet want nothing to do with hiking boots. For our last adventure, we go rafting on the Tara River. The rafts go in the water in Montenegro and we ford the rapids for twenty kilometers down the river back into Bosnia. The water is so clean that one can drink straight from it! It is so clear, that one can see many meters down to the bottom.
The depth of the canyon in which the Tara runs is 1,300 meters from the top of the mountains that line its sides to the water level.
It is a glorious day and such a lovely change from what has gone before.
And so now on to Santorini.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
I expected Bosnia to be interesting and beautiful, but a great gastronomic destination? Not really. So I was in for quite a surprise with our welcome dinner at a winery in Sarajevo!
At 7:00 pm, we traveled to a hillside high above the city. Our group of ten was greeted warmly by the owner of Hedona Wine Club, Arman Galicic. The architecture of the building looked as if it would fit right into Napa or Sonoma wine country. Arman ushered us into a glass-enclosed dining room with a stunning view of Sarajevo, all dressed up in evening light.
The table was elegantly set and we spent the next four hours over a seven-course meal paired with complementary wines. Now I don’t ordinarily write about such events; indeed, I don’t ordinarily experience them on my hiking trips. But this was something special. Delicious slow-cooked food; wonderful wine made from grapes grown right here in Bosnia; stimulating conversation and much good cheer. Definitely a night to remember.
And then early the next morning, my birthday in fact, we set out for our warm-up hike in the rocky mountains surrounding Sarajevo. We hiked for three and a half hours to the two-hundred-year-old village of Luka Mira, remote and picturesque.
Members of one of the two resident families made a lunch for us of potato and cheese pies from locally grown potatoes and cheese from sheep raised by the family, very different fare and atmosphere from the previous evening’s dinner, but just as satisfying.
The next two days involved hikes of five and ten hours each. Both hikes took place in Sutjeska National Park. The first was a loop taking us to Ugljesin Peak (6,095 feet), continuing on a high ridge trail with unobstructed views of the magnificent surrounding mountains and valleys.
The second, also a loop, was extremely strenuous featuring hand-over-hand rock scrambling, ridge hiking and a very steep descent on slippery scree. The highlights were summiting the tallest peak in Bosnia, Mount Maglic, (7,828 feet)
and viewing the glorious Trnovoacko Lake. It was a good thing we had great visibility during the first hike as Mount Maglic and the ridge were almost entirely enshrouded in clouds, shafts of sunlight occasionally shining through. Mist from the Lake rose ethereally, making the scenery magical.
What a wonderful place Bosnia is for hiking and without any crowds!
Next we are off to Montenegro.
Yosemite National Park, California
Where to start? I really wasn’t going to write again this year about hiking in the High Sierra, but how could I not when what happened was so unexpected?
After driving from Oakland to Yosemite and taking a three mile hike to Dog Lake and back to acclimatize to the elevation, my friend and I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge just as it began to rain. More rain was predicted the following day, an 80% chance. However, when we set out early the next morning for Vogelsang, our first camp, the expansive blue sky was filled with dramatic white cumulus clouds, a beautiful day.
Until the thunderheads rolled in. Fast. We put on our rain gear and made haste to the camp as raindrops started to fall. No sooner had we walked into the reception tent when the downpour began. First heavy rain, then pea-sized hail. Lots of it. Pools of water flooded the tent floor, dripped from the roof. The noise was deafening; we couldn’t hear each other speak. Outside the door, four inches of hail accumulated and stuck.
The staff built a rock path for us hikers so that we could get to our tents. Inside our tent, my friend immediately started building a fire in the wood stove. The tent promptly filled with thick gray smoke setting off the fire alarm and a staccato voice repeating “fire, fire.”
It rained and hailed for hours. A staff member who had worked there for years said he had never experienced anything like this. But then, just after dinner, it stopped. The sky filled with light and the remaining sun found the tips of the mountains
Perhaps the next day would be different.
But this was not to be. Although the weather was initially fair, it quickly became evident that we were in for more precipitation. The sky grew dark and glowering.
We donned our rain gear once again and just in time. But being pelted with rain and hail was not what distinguished this hike from any other. What set this one apart was the amount of water surging down the mountains, engorging the once quiet creeks that crossed and recrossed the trail. And we had to cross these now swollen creeks again and again! Each time we came to a crossing, we had to examine the possibilities and find the least dangerous alternative. At the widest and most treacherous spot, the choices were bad and worse. My friend decided the best option was to walk across on a fallen tree that connected both banks. The distance between the banks was about twenty feet, the tree at least ten feet above the raging waters below. I thought this was a terrible idea and beseeched her not to do this. I couldn’t imagine even watching her do it and she wisely decided against it. We finally crossed on submerged rocks and parts of fallen trees, the water rushing over and around our feet, my heart in my mouth the entire time. We arrived at Merced Lake camp cold, tired and wet. What would the upcoming day bring?
Sunshine. Cool breezes. Fine weather brought us to Sunrise camp where the temperature was cold but our hike and our stay were remarkably free of any adversity or drama. Conditions were likewise favorable for our hike back to Tuolumne Meadows on our last day. The morning light was soft, the air filled with the musical sounds of song birds and the tinkling of the now tranquil creeks. Still, what I will long remember is the tumult of the storm and the thrill of this adventure.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
We reach the Navajo Bridge built in 1928, four hundred and seventy feet above the Colorado River, the first bridge across the Grand Canyon. It remained the only bridge until the late 1960’s, when a new one was built just next to it to carry the increased vehicle traffic. The original then became designated for foot traffic only.
We drive along the Vermillion Cliffs to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon through scrubby desert and Ponderosa pine forest. The bark is the color of cinnamon and smells faintly of vanilla.
A practice hike of five miles along the northeastern-most rim of the Canyon warms up our muscles for what is to come.
The quaking aspens are just leafing out, citronelle and ethereal.
My alarm goes off at 4:30 am. After a quick breakfast, our hike on the North Kaibab Trail down to Phantom Ranch begins at 5:45. Our journey takes us fourteen miles into the Canyon (plus a one-mile detour to Ribbon Falls),
a drop in elevation of nearly six thousand feet. We hike at comparative break-neck speed through colorful layers of sedimentary rock formed over many millions of years.
We arrive at our destination ten and a half hours later. I am foot-sore and weary and yet thrilled that I could experience one of the worlds great hikes.
During our “rest day” at Phantom Ranch, we hike to an overlook one thousand feet above the Colorado, a magnificent viewpoint to the mighty River far below.
Two bridges close to Phantom Ranch cross the Colorado, one for the mule trains that carry supplies, the other for hikers. We cross both, experiencing the River from each side. Later, we put on water shoes and hike in a bracingly cold tributary of Bright Angel Creek to a cave where delicate angel hair ferns grow underneath a waterfall. We are told the normal temperature in the Canyon in May is one hundred degrees. Instead, it is in the fifties with thunderstorms.
As our guide told us, what goes down the Canyon must come up. So once again, we get a 4:30 am wake-up call and set out at 5:45 on the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a ten-mile hike from Phantom Ranch.
The elevation gain is nearly five thousand feet. The weather is cool and cloudy. As we ascend via steep switchbacks, the air becomes colder and heavy with moisture, a weak sun occasionally peaking through the clouds.
By the time we reach mile eight, it is pouring and the temperature is fifty-one degrees! We arrive at the South Rim seven hours after we began, soaking wet, and it is forty-six degrees! Not exactly as predicted. And yet I can’t imagine having done this hike under a scorching hundred-degree sun.
How bountiful our country is in stunning natural beauty. I am eager to explore more of it.
Zion National Park, Utah
I am in Zion National Park, my first visit here since 1984. I thought it time to experience its abundance again after more than half a lifetime. It does not disappoint. In fact, its majesty is far greater than I remember. I am with my daughter, a great joy.
We hike to Observation Point, an eight-mile journey that is a visual feast, nourishment for the body and spirit. Fortresses of rust-colored Navajo sandstone rise from the desert in fascinating forms.
Jagged rocks jutting out angularly that put me in mind of great white shark teeth,
smoothly layered rocks with delicately scalloped curves,
boulders cut through as though sliced by a knife, a dizzying array of striations and crenellated formations. A profusion of wildflowers in fuchsia and violet sprouting from every cleft, softening the edges, prickly pear cacti blooming in shades of hot pink and pale yellow.
Trees with leaves of the brightest green to the deepest hunter, a multitude of textures and contours.
On another day we drive to a less touristed part of Zion, Kolob Canyon. There, we hike a more modest five miles along the lovely Taylor Creek to gigantic double arches that soar far above the trees and surrounding landscape dwarfing us humans by their size and grandeur.
We decide we could spend a week exploring the wonders of Zion, but it is time for us to meet up with a group of fellow travelers to hike the Grand Canyon.
Music. Architecture. Dancing. Cars. Heat. Rum. Lobster. Mountains. Forests. Beaches. These are just some of the things I experienced in Cuba.
In Trinidad, a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial town with cobbled streets, stunning architecture, and cotton-candy-colored buildings, we visit the Plaza Mayor, the main square. For lunch, we eat sublime lobster tails grilled in butter and garlic while the breeze moves softly through the huge open windows of the paladare. Afterwards, we listen to wonderful Cuban music and drink seven-year-old rum.
Next, it’s off to Topes de Collantes, a national park in the Sierra del Escambray mountains, where we hike in the dense forest and see the luscious local flora. Near the end of the hike, we come upon a pig roasting over an open fire.
Imagine my surprise when the pig is served for lunch a few minutes later!
During the next few days, we go to an environmental center, an elementary school, a neighborhood party, a farmers’ collective, a sugar cane plantation, and learn about Cuban culture, economy, and politics. We visit the Che memorial and museum
and watch a one-woman play written and performed by one of our group at an LGBT Center in the city of Santa Clara. We spend two nights at a resort on the Atlantic that is more like Miami Beach than Cuba (not so great), but has a white sand beach and clear, warm, turquoise water (pretty great).
In contrast, we visit Remedios, a fifteenth century colonial town that is authentic Cuba.
And then, finally, we arrive in Havana and it seems like all that went before was just a warm-up. What a breathtaking city it is! Colonial buildings, some in decay, others beautifully renovated.
Likewise the cars, so many Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks from the fifties and early sixties, some in dire need of body work, others in cherry condition, such fun to ride in either way.
Our education about Cuba continues with a thoughtful and informative lecture on where Cuba has been and what the future holds, especially in light of the recent easing of travel restrictions and a possible end to the embargo. We watch a pop-opera performed by a group of talented young singers and dancers and are lucky to attend a performance of the National Ballet of Cuba. We go to museums highlighting Cuban art and walk all over this most photogenic place. And what a privilege it is to hear music everywhere, in jazz clubs, in restaurants, and on street corners,
something that sets this country apart from all others I have visited. I look forward to returning.
The adventure begins very early in the day on two six-seater Piper-Cherokee airplanes that take nine travelers from an airfield in San Diego to Las Animas Preserve located about half way down the Baja Peninsula on the Sea of Cortez. The weather is clear and warm. We fly over a desert landscape, stark mountains rising more than ten thousand feet, to an airstrip in a tiny town a five hour drive from the next nearest town. We then board a small boat that bumps and speeds past guano-covered islands populated by gulls, cormorants, blue-footed boobies, red-billed oyster-catchers and pelicans, to a pristine white sand beach where our lodging for the next three nights is situated. There are eight rustic yurts and a main yurt, the gathering place for meals.
I begin to unwind, easily leaving city life behind in this remote and beautiful place.
I awaken to a riot of sounds outside my door: the cawing and screeching of birds, the barking of sea animals, the gentle rolling of waves. When I open my eyes and sit up in bed, I see the sun rising over the water between the mountains.
The days are leisurely but active. Hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding.
One morning, I put on two wetsuits, hood and gloves to swim with the sea lions in the bracing sixty five degree water. The sea lions dart and bolt all around me, graceful, acrobatic. We make eye contact. Their gentle gaze and kind faces make me feel that they are enjoying my company as much as I am theirs. Another morning, we go by boat to a mangrove stand, unique in a desert environment. Nearby, we search for oysters and dig for clams that we bring back with us for the cook to fix for tonights dinner. Some of the group go fishing and catch barracuda, grouper, and ling cod, also deliciously prepared for us.
On the fourth morning, we fly west across the Baja Peninsula to a town called Guerrero Negro on the Pacific Coast. Here, we spend three days at Ojo de Liebre, one of the three lagoons to which grey whales come from Alaska at this time of year to mate or give birth.
What an experience this is! Each panga carries five of us and the boat operator. The water teems with dozens and dozens of whales mostly mothers and their calves.
They are everywhere heaving their huge bodies to the surface to breathe, gliding side-by-side, moms and babies, coming oh-so-close to the boat, spraying us with their breath. Where to look? There’s one spy-hopping.
Another one appears to be waving at us with her flipper. A baby comes up and shows her sweet face. A huge one shows her fluke as she passes beneath the front of the boat.
And finally, the piece de resistance. That for which I was most hoping. We go out again this morning, all nine of us, our guide and the panga operator, to a different part of the lagoon. Again, we see many, many whales. Most swim parallel to the boat or swim away. Then unexpectedly, a mother and her calf swim directly to the boat.
They let us pet and kiss them!
We are beyond thrilled. They stay a very long time. Unbelievably, they are joined by another mother and her baby. We are surrounded by these huge mammals. And I feel a tremendous exchange of affection and trust between the species. Unforgettable.
Here are some facts you may not know: there are seven million people living in Hanoi. Of these, four million have motorbikes. I believe I saw most of them in one day. And the drivers operate them as though there was no other traffic, either vehicular or pedestrian. They do not yield to anyone. Good luck crossing the street. They park on every sidewalk. You have to walk in the street in order to avoid them, a hair-raising experience as, at any moment, you might get side-swiped by one of them. Our guide says that after a few months, you get used to this.
Ah, now, Halong Bay is another story entirely. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Halong Bay is located about three hours northeast of Hanoi. Three hundred sixty hectares in size, it has nineteen hundred and sixty-eight limestone islands or karsts of varying sizes and shapes rising straight up from the Bay, a very dramatic sight! Gently moving amongst and between them on a Vietnamese junk and by kayak is magical. Doing tai chi on the boat deck just after sunrise is an experience I won’t soon forget.
Back in Hanoi, I begin my day at six in the morning with a laughing yoga class on a downtown street. There must have been fifty or more laughing yogis, led by a charismatic teacher who had us doing the funniest movements with much laughter. It looked to me as though half were tourists and half local people. What a wonderful way to begin the day! And such a model for intercultural relationships. If everyone started their day with laughing yoga, there would be a lot less conflict in the world and a realization that we have more in common with each other than we have differences.
The day continues with a visit to the home and workplace of Ho Chi Minh, the revered former leader of South Vietnam, and finally, to the “Hanoi Hilton,” a prison whose actual name is Hoa Lo. It was built by the French in 1896 to house political prisoners and then used by the North Vietnamese to house, torture and interrogate captured American POWs during the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam).
How strange it is to be a tourist in this now lovely place, long-associated with war and marches on Washington.
White Mountains, New Hampshire
I went to camp in New Hampshire, starting when I was 12 in 1962. It was an all-girls camp. Still is. Located on Newfound Lake in the Lakes Region in the foothills of the glorious White Mountains.
Wednesday was trip day. Often, that meant a hike. Mt. Cardigan. Mt. Mooselauke. Mt. Washington. I didn’t like it at all. We weren’t allowed to sit down or drink water. We campers believed it was possibly because the counselors thought if we sat down, we’d never get up to finish the hike. And if we drank too much water, we’d have to pee.
But somewhere along the line, I started to like hiking. Maybe it was the first time I climbed Mt. Washington. At 6288 feet, it is the tallest mountain in New England, not very tall by Rocky Mountain standards but challenging nonetheless in that the tree-line is at 4,000 feet, at which elevation the topography and weather become Arctic-like.
So, all my life, I have come back to New Hampshire to hike in the summer. To see the layers of mountains from a summit.
To explore the forests. To drive the billboard-less highways. To swim in the clear, clean water of Newfound.
To experience a place so different from my native New York City and my Bay Area home. To have my daughter grow up there and share my love of this special place.
New Hampshire is where my heart it.
I’m out on Dana Point. An estuary connects the harbor with the ocean. There are thousands of boats in their slips in the harbor. In the estuary, there are competitive canoers, kayakers, paddle boarders. Along the path, there are runners, walkers and many, many dogs. The sun is beginning to break through the overcast leading to what will undoubtedly be another glorious day.
On the way back to the hotel, I climb a steep set of stairs and come upon a yoga class of dozens practicing under some shade trees in Lantern Bay Park to the sound of drums.
As I get closer, I realize that the drumming has nothing to do with the yoga class but is from a Hindu wedding that is taking place at the hotel. There are hundreds of guests dressed in beautiful Indian saris and a horse decorated in finery. These are definitely not the things that I see on an early morning walk in Oakland!
Yosemite National Park, California
How can it be that I had never been to the High Sierra? I have lived in California for 43 years. It brought to mind that I had never visited the Statue of Liberty until after moving to California although I had grown up in Brooklyn.
I had explored Yosemite Valley a few times many years ago but wasn’t really aware that there was a whole other aspect to Yosemite. Until I went. What a revelation! I was familiar with large-scale granite landscapes from hiking in New Hampshire (The Granite State) since I was a kid. But this was something else again. Giant slabs of grey and beige rock rolling into enormous cliffs or boulders, mountains or ledges.
Gorgeous grassy meadows filled with purple Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, yellow daisies and so many other wild flowers. Quiet forests majestic with redwoods. Placid rivers turning into roaring waterfalls.
And then there are the High Sierra camps, six of them, comprising a rough circle half above and half below Highway 120, each approximately a seven to nine mile hike from one another. With their rustic tents and community dining rooms, there is no internet. Conversation between strangers is animated and wide-ranging, sometimes turning into acquaintanceships or even friendships.
As day turns into evening, the sky darkens with dramatic cumulonimbus clouds. The last rays of the sun cast the high peaks in red and gold.
And I have found a place close to home to which I hope to return and explore soon again.
As day turns to night, the sky becomes menacing. The clouds are slate gray. Streaks of lightening slash the sky followed by great claps of thunder that fill the heavy air. The wind howls and the rain crashes against the windows.
The storm is short-lived. It passes quickly and a full moon lights up the lake. The water shimmers in its glow.
While lying in bed, I hear the waves on the lake lapping softly against the shore below the window. I hear the loons calling way in the distance, the breeze rustling the trees nearby.
In the morning, I awaken to sun shining on the mountains across the lake and I know this is a hiking day. I grab my day pack and drive up to the trailhead forty five minutes away. The weather is cool and clear, the ride north on Route 25 to Wentworth and then east on 25a is beautiful, the surrounding hillsides so green, the clapboard buildings charming. Today I will hike to the summit of Mt, Cube, a new one for me.
The trail is a bit muddy from the recent rain and I watch my footing. I climb steadily upward, gaining elevation, through thick fir trees. Along the way there are a few glimpses through the forest to the stunning mountains beyond.
I reach the summit shortly after 11:00 am. The sky is a deep blue unsullied by any pollutants and filled with New England’s signature gray and white cumulus clouds. I meet three young women and two dogs. I am invited to join them for some snacks. One of them offers to paint my face and I happily agree. I have seldom had my face painted and never before on a mountain top!
I return to the house, a lovely place right on the water. I sit on a rock that slopes into the lake. I contemplate this stunning day, this special place. And I am grateful.
Kazaringa National Park, India
Elephants. Many elephants. Looks like mamas, grandmas, toddlers, teenagers. Lumbering along. Mix and match. Where are they all going? Oh wait! I see. Between the trees. They are climbing up and over a small hump in the brown earth and then making a splash.
But I am too far away. I want to be closer. The guide drives up onto a slatted wooden bridge. And there below on both sides in a lovely pond just filled with pink water hyacinths in riotous bloom, the elephants are having a pool party.
Walking, swimming, eating, playing.
Part in, part out of the water, they look half black and half white.
Some have vegetation sticking to their heads, their massive backs.
They yank big clumps of vines from the water and swing them to and fro with their trunks, freeing the greens of mud and dirt. Perfect for feasting. Must be joyous for them. I know it’s joyous to watch.
Kazaringa National Park, India
I have never really thought about rhinos skipping. You know what I mean, skipping like children do. But I saw it with my own eyes.
The mother rhino crossed the road right behind her baby. You could tell she was a baby. She just had that cute, mischievous look in her eyes.
And she was happy. Happy to be free, to roam in wide open spaces, to have plenty to eat and to play. And then it started. She was skipping, running around like crazy. Back and forth, running circles around her mother. All four feet off the ground at once.
Mom had that look on her face, tolerant but put upon, as if to say “those kids!” This went on for quite some time, baby going in bigger and bigger circles, until finally, exhausted, she sidled up to her mother and resumed walking, blase, just as though nothing had ever happened.
I am in Delhi, the capital. It is Election Day. Election Day is different in each of the thirty-one Indian States although they all take place within one month. Everyone over eighteen must register to vote and is given a voting ID card. There are many polling stations, one on nearly every street staffed by poll workers making it easy to cast a vote. And it is a holiday so the normally gridlocked streets are quieter, more manageable. Nevertheless, the city is alive with cars and buses honking, the clatter of rickshaws operated by foot or motor,
ubiquitous yellow and green three-wheeled taxis,
bicyclists, carts pulled by humans or horses,
pedestrians carrying all manner of goods on their shoulders, on their heads, all vying for the same limited space.
Women in beautiful saris, so much color, turquoise, purple, coral, red, bright yellow, bangles, rings.
The smell of spices fills the air- cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, fennel- and mixes with the smell of sweat.
I fly to Jodhpur, the blue city, so called because the rich painted their houses blue. This sight is wonderful to behold from the Mehrangarh Fort high above the city.
The Fort has been run by the Maharaja of Jodhpur since the 1500’s and is filled with the trappings of Indian royalty.
During the long drive to the rural city of Siana, there are cows in the road standing stock still,
standing, smoking, cow dung, garbage, dust, potholes, speed bumps, slow-moving buses and trucks over-loaded, precariously overtaking each other, sometimes three abreast.
On Pradeep’s farm where I stay, the evening is breezy, early morning cool. I am awakened by the cacophony of peacocks screaming, horses whinnying, monkeys in the trees calling, dogs barking, farm equipment working, birds singing. Later, it gets hot, very hot. Feet burn, throat is parched. I ride a camel for two hours through the desert to the remote sheep herder town of Nabi and visit with the villagers, the school children.
Each of these experiences reminds me of the joy of travel, the thrill of being in worlds so very different from my own.
In Agra, I visit the Taj Mahal (Crown Palace) at sunrise and again at sunset. It is magnificent.
Designed by three architects and built for Emperor Shah Jahan over twenty-two years ending in the 1660’s, it was a mausoleum in honor of his Queen, Mumtaz Mahal. It was constructed of locally quarried white marble found nowhere else in the world, decorated with semi-precious stones (long-since plundered) and her gravesite itself was covered in a blanket of emeralds (also long gone). The building is entirely symmetric in every aspect with one exception. The Queen’s grave is in the exact center of the building. The Emperor’s was placed to the left of it. He had also had a huge mosque built on one side of the Palace and in order to keep things in symmetry, he had an exact copy built on the other side! Obviously, money was no object.
Now I am in Kanha National Park, an hours flight west of Kolkata. The purpose here is to see tigers. The size of the park is 1945 square kilometers of which twenty percent is accessible to visitors. There are ninety-six tigers living here. Not great odds of seeing one. After four visits, I had seen claw marks in a tree where a tiger marked it’s territory. I had seen fresh paw prints in the sand.
I had seen no tiger. However, there was high drama on the fifth visit. The jeep in which I was riding approached two other jeeps that were already parked on the road in front of a forested area. The guides signaled my guide to cut the engine and be silent. We waited expectantly as more jeeps arrived and then sat quietly. We waited and waited. The tension mounted. There was a tiger in there just a few meters from us. Would she come out? Would she cross the road? I struggled to see her. I could just make out some stripes, a face camouflaged by the foliage. And then, oh no! she arose and sauntered deeper into the woods away from the waiting throng. Well, I almost saw a tiger. Maybe next time!
Kanha National Park, India
So, yes, I saw a tiger. Two in fact. It was 6:30 am, just after arriving in the park. I was with three guides in the jeep: Devend, Guddu and Akbar. Just the four of us. They were looking at tracks in the sand. They saw some in both directions on the road. Which way to go? They chose. We saw that another jeep had already parked. The guide in that jeep signaled “tiger.” Guddu cut the engine. There were only the two jeeps there, them and us.
A few minutes passed and out of the woods from our right came a handsome, powerful-looking male tiger.
He walked away from us on the road, in no hurry.
He then entered the woods to our left and lay down.
He stayed there but a short while and then got up and entered the road again heading straight for us, so close Guddu had to back the jeep up. We made eye contact, the tiger and I. He looked serious, regal, intimidating.
All the while we snapped pictures, the guides and I. It was thrilling, unforgettable. A while later, the tiger’s two and a half-year-old nearly-grown cub made a brief appearance.
But it was his dad I will never forget.
Wind: Wild. Fierce. Edifice-rattling. Extreme. Gale-force. Bone-chilling. Relentless. These are the adjectives that come to mind in describing the wind conditions in Chilean Patagonia. Imagine hiking and being buffeted back and forth, nearly knocked off your feet, slapped in the face by the howling gales. What an experience!
Ah, but the mountains and the lakes, the dramatic cloud formations, the glaciers, all are simply spectacular.
I’ve just hiked the “W” in Torres Del Paine National Park, a four day Refugio-to-Refugio adventure featuring 30 hours of challenging hikes and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. Our first day involved a 9 hour hike over rugged terrain to the famous Torres del Paine, the three signature towers sitting above a teal-green glacial lake.
Although it is summer here, the day featured all four seasons including the above-mentioned wind at what seemed like hurricane intensity, rain, snow, and sun.
The second day was a more leisurely 6 hour hike along the shore of Lago Nordenskjold, on a crystal clear, almost windless day.
Our third day was a 14 mile, 10 hour, affair into the French Valley with amazing views of Paine Grande, at more than 3,000 meters, the highest peak in the Paine Range. Snow-covered with hanging glaciers and rhime ice at the cloud-covered summit, it was mesmerizing to eat lunch and gaze at the mountain while sitting in a spot temporarily sheltered from the onslaught of the almost ever-present wind.
And the fourth day began with a 5 hour hike to Lago Grey. The wind was so fierce that our guide instructed us to duck down when instructed so as not to be swept off our feet or, if the situation became too extreme, the group members would have to hike holding hands. Fortunately, neither of those measures became necessary.
When we arrived at the lake, we boarded a boat that took us up close to the Grey Glacier whose three tongues come right to the water.
The captain took us way up close to the glacier and let us touch an iceberg, the bluest of blues in color and magnificently carved by nature.
It was touch and go right up to the last minute whether this boat trip could occur due to, you probably guessed, the severity of the wind.
And now I am looking forward to giving my hiking boots and feet a badly needed day off before we continue the adventure in Argentinian Patagonia!
The week in Argentina began with a hike on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glacieres National Park. The scale of the glacier was only put into perspective when, as we approached it by boat, the people hiking on it looked to be the size of insects.
The guide told us that the visible part of the glacier is more than 300 feet high and the ice near the face of it is more than 400 years old. Our boots were fitted with crampons and we were instructed to walk uphill on the ice Charlie Chaplin style. We hiked up and down the hilly ice along deeply etched crevasses and pools of cerulean ice-melt sculpted like beautiful vases.
The water is so pure, we could replenish our bottles straight from the running ice melt. At the end of the hour and a half hike which was thrilling, a bar was set up on the glacier and we were offered glasses of whiskey with glacial ice! Although it was a rainy day, it was a most memorable experience.
And then the weather changed! The wind disappeared. The rain went away. No more clouds even. The sun shined brilliantly. Instead of windburn, we had to contend with sunburn. Our guide told us these last three days have been the first good days of summer for hiking and mountaineering. If someone had told me in Chile that I’d be hiking a few days later in shorts, I wouldn’t have believed it. So we’ve had three glorious (and very strenuous) days of hiking: 41 miles in 27 hours. We had 9 and 10 hour hikes (15 and 14 miles, respectively) to see different views of Chalten (also known as Fitzroy), the signature peak pictured here. There are numerous glaciers below the peak and also, as you can see, the bluest of lakes.
Today, we had a 12 mile hike to get a closer look at Cerro Torre, another most dramatic and imposing range of mountain peaks. We ate our lunch facing the massif with it’s sea-green lake full of icebergs calved from the glaciers above it. These are some of the most compelling vistas I’ve ever seen.
Now it’s off to Buenos Aires where I hope to rest my very weary feet and see the sights before heading home.
Brooklyn, New York
I was born and raised in New York, Brooklyn to be specific. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Flatbush that was surprisingly diverse given that it was in the 1950’s and 60’s. I remember playing stickball in the street and mumbly-peg with the neighborhood kids. In the summer, the Good Humor truck would come by every evening after dinner with it’s signature bells announcing its arrival. All of us kids would run down the street chasing after it to buy ice cream on a stick for fifteen cents when our parents allowed it. We would marvel at the lightening bugs flashing in front of our eyes and catch them, put them in jars.
In winter, when there was a snowstorm, my father and I would go out with our shovels and start clearing the sidewalk around our house. We would bring Reggie, our English Bulldog. It was one of the few times he was allowed out without a leash. I always told my father I thought it was pretty dumb to shovel since the snow would continue to fall all night and we’d just have to do it again in the morning. He responded that there would be less to shovel in the morning if we started when it did. What I think is that he just loved being outdoors in the beauty, in the hush, in the still of the night. And I loved being right there with him.
November 22,1963 is seared in my memory as it undoubtedly is for everyone who is old enough to remember that horrifying day. I was a freshman in high school. A classmate came running into homeroom and announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated. We were sent home. No one on the subway train was talking. Everyone seemed turned inward. Most of us were crying. My first experience with tragedy, I still grapple with feelings of loss and thoughts of how things might have been different had this awful thing never happened.
There was a famous (or maybe it was infamous) black-out in 1965. I was in the subway, the BMT line, (sadly now just a line with a number or a letter), coming home from school. A train was coming into the station when suddenly, all the lights went out, the train stopped. The sea of people formed a human chain, holding onto one another, the only safe way to climb the stairs and exit into the outside. A few if us friends from school gathered at the house of an acquaintance where her mother allowed us to roast tiny marshmallows over lighted candles. Later that night, my father came and drove me and a few friends home through the pitch-black streets lit softly by candles shining dimly in windows. It was magic.
My father bought an old wooden boat, a Chris-Craft. He named it the Del-Nor after me and my brother. How he loved that boat. In the winter, it was taken out of the water in Sheepshead Bay, and put in dry-dock. One year, my father determined it was too much work to strip and sand the mahogany and then stain and varnish it every year. So he decided to fiberglass and paint it instead. I was his assistant. What a chore that was. It took many weekends to accomplish. I had fiberglass particles embedded in my fingers for months after. And truth be told, the old boat never looked as good again.
Fairy chimneys. That’s what they’re called. Fascinating volcanic rock formations fashioned through centuries of wind, rain and river flow.
Cream colored, pink, yellow even. Many are caves that were lived in by hermits long ago, later by Christians who carved monasteries into the caves, painted beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceilings, often still perfectly intact today. Other caves were bedrooms, kitchens, wineries and granaries. Little covered ledges were carved into the sides of the rocks for pigeons to roost, the dung collected by farmers to fertilize their crops planted around and between the rock formations. Long, thin slits were cut into the stone for bees to nest, producing honey for the local people.
Elsewhere, vast underground cities connected by extensive tunnels, led to living quarters, stables, ventilation systems and wells, eight stories deep.
These housed as many as 60,000 Christians who sought refuge from invading Arabs for up to three months at a time.
This is Cappadocia, a magical place in central Turkey, an hour’s flight from Istanbul. Here, you can hike in the valleys, climbing onto the rocks and into the caves, imagining what life was like one thousand years ago.
You can go up in a hot-air balloon at sunrise and get yet another perspective of this whimsical-looking place, where you are aloft with dozens of other brightly colored balloons, rising up and then descending into the valleys on the air currents, so quiet and serene.
Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
It is a quiet Sunday morning. Your guide collects you at the hacienda where you have spent the night and drives you to Isinlivi, the starting point of the Quilotoa Loop trek. You will hike 35 kilometers over the next three days through the Andean highlands.
You begin walking downhill through the Rio Toachi Canyon, admiring beautiful farmlands, a green patchwork of shapes and sizes growing corn, potatoes, fava beans and purple lupine.
You walk along the rushing water of the Toachi River
and then up steeply through sleepy villages where the only people are your guide, your friend and you. The villagers are away at church or at the weekly market.
After 6 hours of many such ups and downs, you reach Chugchuilan, your destination for the night, at 10,499′. It is the end of the day and the Sunday market is still going strong. You see the indigenous Kichwa residents, the women so handsome with their long black braids, their fedora-like hats and colorful clothing.
Some of them are selling locally-grown fruits and vegetables,
others are stirring great cauldrons of sheep stew.
Teenagers are kicking a ball and listening to music. You sleep at Mama Hilda’s Hostel.
The next day, you set off early to hike up to Quilotoa at 12,796′, the location of the magnificent crater lake you have heard so much about and long to see. As you trek higher and higher into the clouds, the mist becomes thicker and turns into rain. The climb is very steep. The rain gets heavier. You put on what rain gear you have with you but you are soaked through and through. Finally you reach the rim of the crater and the fog precludes any view. After two more hours, you arrive at this evening’s hostel, chilled to the bone.
Tuesday arrives clearer. You go to a lookout point and see what you have missed the day before, the magnificent Quilotoa Lake, a deep green and, according to local myth, bottomless.
After breakfast, you descend 1,000′, again reaching the Toachi River. You climb steeply out of the canyon and reach a plateau and a hacienda where you shed your muddy boots and reflect on your memorable journey.
The Galapagos Islands
The early morning is warm, breezy, overcast. You carry your kayak across the beach to the clear cool Pacific. You step around the sleeping sea lions and put your boat in the water. You paddle four miles past the local fishermen, the silent cruise ships, the lava rocks, the barren landscape, heading north along the coast of San Cristobal Island.
A motor boat collects you and speeds toward a small island populated by sea lions and marine iguanas, the latter endemic to the Galapagos.
You squeeze into your wetsuit, don your snorkeling gear and jump into the bracing ocean. There, you swim with the sea lions. They chase one another playfully, dodging around you. The tropical fish are colorful, beautiful.
Next, you motor to a secluded beach, empty, pristine. You see mangroves, some a tumble of dead wood caused by the tsunami that arrived 14 hours after the recent earthquake in Japan. You walk the white sand and marvel at the dramatic sky filled with great rolling white and grey clouds.
Afterwards, the boat takes you six miles out to Kicker Rock, an imposing vertical wall rising 300 feet above you, made of lava ash. It is cleaved in two.
You prepare to snorkel once again but this will be unlike any other snorkeling experience you’ve had.
The water is 100 feet deep, a dark emerald in color. You swim between the two parts of the wall only 30 feet separating them. And them you see them, the long sleek bodies of the Galapagos Sharks, the huge expanses of the Spotted Eagle Rays, the enormous shells of the green sea turtles, swimming slowly below you.
You see thousands of fish being tossed by the current, you feel the stinging of tiny jelly fish on your bare legs. You see the walls of Kicker Rock going endlessly down covered in coral, starfish and other living creatures.
When you get back in the boat, chilly and contemplating this wondrous day, you think there is not another thing that could make this day more special. But then the crew call out “dolphins”, and you rush to the front of the boat in time to see a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins, 50 to 60 strong swimming alongside. They stay with you for half an hour, gracefully moving under and over the water as if they are traveling together with you on the same journey.
St. John, US Virgin Islands
The quiet bays are edged in turquoise. The sand is white, soft and sensual.
The water is immaculate, clear and warm. There is no airport here, no golf course. There are only two hotels on the island. All the beaches are public. Only 700 cars, 4700 residents, 20 square miles in area, smaller than Manhattan.
St. John in the American Virgin Islands is almost entirely National Park. One can hike, snorkel, dive, sail. In Cruz Bay where the ferries arrive from St. Thomas, one hears music and the lilting sound of Caribbean English.
And then the dark clouds roll in. The wind whips the palm trees and roils the once placid sea.
Tropical Storm Isaac dumps great squalls of rain, sheets of water streaming from the sky. Such a different look to this place. How interesting to experience the different moods.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Physically challenging, remarkably beautiful, awe-inspiring, with an amazing payoff. I have just spent the last four days hiking the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu.
The trek was approximately 26 miles long. The first day was deceptively easy, the night at the campsite very cold.
The second day was the most difficult and exhausting hike I have ever done. It involved an elevation gain of four thousand feet before reaching Dead Woman’s Pass at 14,000 feet.
The trek down to the second camp was steep and tough on my feet. I arrived at the campsite and literally collapsed in the tent. The night there at 12,000 feet was even colder than the first night had been.
The third day was unforgettable, the scenery diverse and magnificent. The hike was longer than the one the day before, and difficult as well, but I saw snow-capped mountains, lovely flora, and walked on original Inka steps and stones.
Along the way, I also saw several Inkan ruins including beautifully constructed look-outs, ceremonial sites, and terraces that were used for agricultural purposes.
The third campsite at 8,000 feet was warmer and a two-hour trek to Machu Picchu. I awoke on the fourth day at 3:30 AM and set out an hour later, wearing a miner’s headlamp, in order to reach the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu in time for sunrise. It was disappointing to arrive there and find the entire city enshrouded in fog!
As I descended the trail into this most famous Inkan site, the fog lifted and revealed a place like no other I have ever seen.
Immense buildings and towers, temples and plazas, constructed in the 15th century and inhabited for only 100 years before being abandoned by the Inkas shortly after 1532 when the Spanish conquered Peru. But the site is remarkable not only for its buildings but also for its situation, set as it is on a mountain top encircled by tall and imposing mountains.
Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish invaders and thus the original architecture and stonework remained and could be restored to splendor after Hiram Bingham “discovered” the city in 1911.
I am weary and sore but thrilled to have had this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
My daughter studied in Chicago for five years earning undergraduate and masters degrees. This turned out to be wonderful for both of us. She loved the University of Chicago and I loved visiting her.
While she was there, I think I went fourteen times. Of course I never went in the winter. I did go in March one year. It was so cold and windy I decided thereafter to go no later than October and no earlier than April. Even then, you couldn’t be sure. One Memorial Day weekend, it was 80 degrees and, one evening, within five minutes, the temperature dropped thirty degrees and gale-force winds blew in off Lake Michigan. You just never knew.
The campus of the University is Gothic, gorgeous. Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, is elegant with its stately old homes and tree-lined streets. And the city is full of interesting things to do. I’ll mention three.
First are the Chicago Architectural Foundation architecture tours. There are walking, biking and segway tours, but my favorite is the Chicago River tour. Many important and architecturally significant buildings are visible by boat. The knowledgeable guides inform and amaze with their stories of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, and others, who so beautifully designed many of the iconic edifices.
Second, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the City closes Lakeshore Drive to vehicular traffic from 5:00-10:00 am and opens Bike the Drive. Thousands come to ride their bikes on this most scenic roadway alongside Lake Michigan. Many ride in costume, some on what appear to be home-made or otherwise unorthodox looking bicycles. You can ride for miles right through downtown with its towering skyscrapers. It’s fantastic!
Third, is a tour of Wright-designed buildings. The Robie House is right on the U of C campus.
Many homes that Wright designed can be seen in his very own neighborhood of Oak Park, a close-in suburb. In addition you can visit his home and studio and learn a great deal about his life and work. You can also buy two excellent books: The Women and Loving Frank, both of which are fascinating.
I would be remiss not to mention Millennium Park downtown where you can gaze at the crowds (and yourself) in Cloud Gate (a sculpture locally known as the bean),
and see the Frank Gehry-designed bandshell, maybe even hear a concert.
The Park is located across the street from and accessible by a walking bridge to the Art Institute and also across Lakeshore Drive from the Lake where you can walk the attractive lakeside path.
Chicago is a world-class city, definitely worth a detour!
A few years ago, my husband and I went to spring training. We went specifically to see the Oakland A’s. This was when Yoenis Cespedes was a rookie, newly arrived from Cuba. He made quite an impression.
After a few days, we drove to Sedona, a few hours from Phoenix but a world away. Where Phoenix is largely flat and commercial, Sedona is stunning with its red mountains in various gigantic formations.
I signed us up for a pink jeep tour. It’s not unlike a roller-coaster in an amusement park. The jeep is indeed pink and hurtles up and down the steep red rocks throwing passengers here and there inside the spartan vehicle. No wonder management prohibits people with bad backs or who are pregnant!
The views are pretty fantastic, though. I remember commenting to our driver/guide how impressed I was with Sedona in March and wondered what other times of the year would be nice to visit. He told me October is good except for one thing: it’s tarantula mating season and tarantulas are copulating all over the sidewalks. I decided I probably wouldn’t visit in October.
Sedona attracts some odd-ball people. There’s quite a myth about experiencing the vortex. I’d read about it but didn’t quite understand. Something about a spiritual awakening. So one evening we went to a remote place to see the sunset. The night before we had gone to a not-at-all remote place and watched the sun set with what seemed like half the population of Sedona. But on this second evening, it was just Ken, myself, a woman with her dog and someone I can only describe as this hippie dude (boy, am I getting old). Anyway, this very sincere fellow starts telling me how I’d come to the right place to experience the vortex. As the sun was setting, leaving a golden hue over the very red mountains, he told me he was feeling the vortex and wondered if I was, too. Truth be told, I was not. But I sure found Sedona to be an interesting place.
Cape Town, South Africa
How magnificent were the last few days, perfect for touring the Cape Peninsula and for wine-tasting in the Winelands. But today is different. Cool, cloudy, moody. Appropriate for the journey at hand. Because today we are going to Robben Island.
We take the ferry from Jetty No. 1 under a low-hanging sky. It is very cold and windy.
We arrive at the gate and are greeted by Thulani Mabaso.
He escorts us through the maximum security prison where he once was a political prisoner, an inmate along with Nelson Mandela and other ANC founders, for over ten years.
His crime? Protesting the hateful, oppressive apartheid regime. He tells us about the torture and the cruelty that the prisoners endured, and he speaks of the secret plans Mr. Mandela and the others made for the future of South Africa. He describes their high morale under the brilliant leadership of that singularly inspirational man.
At night, we go with Thandis, our guide, to Langa, the oldest black township in Cape Town, home to more than one million black South Africans. He introduces us to a woman who sells sheep heads called “smileys” (so called because the lips, when boiled, shrink back from the teeth to expose an unearthly grin). She stands by an open fire pit on the street for eleven hours a day, six days a week, in order to pay for her two daughters’ education.
We visit a pub–a tar-paper shack, really–where men socialize over a bucket-full of beer, home-brewed from sorghum and maize.
We talk to several of them, each of us eager to find out more about the other.
We meet Mvelli, a young man studying IT at a university in Cape Town, who hopes to have his own business one day. He takes us to some of the different kinds of homes in the township, where some families share one bed in a single room and others live in a single-family home. Finally, we have dinner at Vicky’s, the first township B&B–what the owner calls, “The Smallest Hotel in South Africa”.
We welcome the opportunity to meet people in places that sometimes feel off-limits or uninviting and to bridge the perceived divisions between races and cultures.
Another wake-up in the dark and cold requiring many layers of clothing. A quick breakfast and then off to Sossusvlei before 6:00 am. A lot of fog, just like home, only unexpected. The sun comes up making the dunes–many of them 1000 feet tall–appear blood red, creating graceful shadows on the curvaceous mounds of sand. One after another, different shapes and sizes, all huge.
Regan, our guide, parks the Land Rover. The trek up Big Daddy, one of the largest of the dunes, begins. The climb is strenuous but lovely, barefoot in the silky sand.
Up and up we go, walking along the knife-edge where the sides of the dune meet, feeling that familiar fear of falling, concentrating on each footstep, just what is immediately ahead.
Stopping to take in the gorgeous views all around, the multitude of colors. Arriving at the top and the stunning panorama, one of the most beautiful sights ever. Staying a long while, drinking it all in, not wanting to leave, not wanting to break the spell.
Unaware of time, being entirely present in the moment, wanting to be nowhere else in the world. Still cold and cloudy, unusual for Namibia even in winter. Storms in Cape Town ride the cold Benguela Current affecting the climate here.
The trip down is totally different, delightfully fun, running down the steep face of the dune, laughing all the way, giggling like a kid.
The huge pan of the Dead Vlei is below, dotted with dead acacia trees said to be five hundred years old. Wonderfully picturesque.
Six hours later, back at the beginning. Words cannot express what I have seen, what I have experienced. Simply put, this has been one of the finest mornings of my life.
Bwinde Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
The alarm goes off. It is 5:00 AM. Too dark. Too cold. You dress, still sleepy. You climb into the Land Cruiser for the two-hour drive to Ruhija. It is not an easy drive. The road is dusty, rutted, and potholed, only 42 kilometers from Buhoma where you are staying. But very slow. You skip breakfast. It is too early to eat, and anyway, you suspect you’d never be able to keep it down on this roller-coaster ride.
The sun is rising red. You see the mist in the mountains surrounding you. It is quiet, beautiful. People are beginning to stir in the villages you pass. Men and women and children fill the road. Children run barefoot in the clay, dressed in their colorful school uniforms. They wave madly at you as you pass, yell Hello! and give you a wide smile. The adults carry all manner of material on their heads–baskets, water jugs, wood, farming implements, bananas. It amazes you, as always.
You arrive in Ruhija and check in. You meet your assigned group. It is called Orozogo. There are eight of you, the maximum allowed. Your guide, Obed, gives you instructions: Speak softly. No sudden movements. No flash photography.
You begin the trek, steeply downhill, and then the same uphill. You are glad to have walking sticks. After some time, the trackers stop and listen. They are waiting for a special sound. They hear what they are waiting for and abruptly turn off the trail. Then you are bush-whacking. The trackers use their razor-sharp machetes to chop the vines and stinging nettles from in front of you. The terrain is very difficult, so hard to get your footing. After all, this is Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest, so aptly named.
After two and a half hours, Obed tells you to stop. Drop your sticks. Leave your packs. Follow the trackers a bit further. And then you see one: what you came for. A huge head covered in thick black fur. A face so human, so expressive. And a hand, fingers, so much like your own–only much, much bigger. Massive shoulders.
You hear what sounds like a bark, and you back away. Is this a charge? You follow Obed’s directions exactly. The silverback runs away.
You spend the next hour following the family. You never stop whacking bushes. You never stop moving. You see a young one climbing in a tree eating the fruit.
You see an adult female pulling on a big tree, enjoying its leaves.
After six hours, you return weary but fulfilled. You have seen the elusive mountain gorillas of Uganda.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Sua s’dei (hello) from Siem Reap Cambodia
Now you are in Siem Reap which means “Siamese defeated” and refers to the Khmer victory over the Siamese in the 17th century. In Siem Reap, you visit the many antiquities, most notably the Angkor Wat complex.
You explore these remarkable places on foot and by bicycle over the course of 3 very full days. You do so with a guide who has a compelling history. In 1975 at the age of 7, he and his educated parents were moved by the Khmer Rouge from the city where they lived to the countryside. Rith was separated from his parents who were then killed.
He was made to collect dung and if he was unable to, he was not fed. In 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were finally overthrown by the Vietnamese, more than 3,500,000 people had lost their lives in the killing fields. Rith was educated by the government because he was an orphan. He never again saw any member of his family.
In the temples, the carvings on the walls depict religious stories and life in the 12th century. At the height of the Angkor period between the years 1113 and 1150, there were more than a million people living in Angkor Wat and 40,000 working elephants. It is the largest religious structure in the world, considered by some to be the eighth wonder.
You marvel at the size, the architecture, the detail, how much of it remains. You walk on the same stones as the people did nearly 1000 years ago.
Aw kohn (thank you).
Luang Prabang, Laos
Sabaydee (hello) from Ventiane Laos,
The fog lies heavy on the Mekong River. The Mekong conjures up many thoughts of another era, war and destruction. It is remarkable to be here. As the fog lifts, you cross by boat from Thailand to Lao PDR. You begin your journey in Laos and it is a revelation, much different than you expected. It is lush and green and very mountainous.
It is dotted with many villages, homes of thatch and bamboo.
You hike in Luang Namtha province through thick jungle and steep paths used for centuries by the Lanten and Khmu people. They have their own languages and are animists. You cycle to Wat (temples) and stupas (shrines) in the countryside.
Then you spend three memorable days in Luang Prabang, once the capital of Laos when it was a French colony and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, a beautiful place, quiet and elegant. You rise at 5:30 am to see the monks in their orange robes leaving early morning prayers and being offered alms by the citizens of the city.
You cycle to a far-off waterfall and swim in the blue water, a welcome cooling-off after a very hot and challenging ride.
You take a long boat on the Nam Khan to a trailhead and hike to the remote villages of the Hmong people. You watch them harvest rice in the fields and weave bamboo. You see the children play and giggle, so different, yet the same as children everywhere.
You continue to marvel at the variety of people and cultures you are seeing every day.
Khawp jai (thank you).
Sawasdee (hello) from Chiang Mai Thailand
Now imagine staying on a working elephant farm and you are temporarily part of the staff. The national symbol of Thailand is the Asian elephant, traditionally used in war and as a beast of burden. One hundred years ago, there were 300,000 elephants in Thailand. Today, there are only 3,500 of which 1,500 live in the wild. A Thai man decides to keep alive the tradition of elephants as working animals and begins a rescue and breeding program. There are approximately 90 elephants on the farm, a huge tract of land. You stay for 3 days. You are partnered with an 80 year old retired female elephant named Dokma. You help prepare elephant food, feed the animals (they eat A LOT), clean up after them (there’s A LOT to clean up), give them exercise twice a day by riding them (you sit on the neck, the mahout directly behind you) through the streets of Ayuthaya
and into the river for a cool bath (needless to say, the elephant, the mahout and you all get the bath).
You play with the 17-day-old baby named Opal; she is absolutely precious.
You watch Peter the elephant paint you a picture.
You watch the mahouts expertly direct the elephants to load and unload tons of grasses, bananas and pineapples. It is an unforgettable experience.
You take an overnight train to Chiang Mai and begin a trek to the hill tribe country north of Chiang Mai. It is mountainous and cool. The trekking is challenging. You are carrying all that you need for 3 days on your back. You stay in different villages each night. The people are from the Karen tribe, originally from Tibet.
They establish villages in the mountains of northernThailand. Just 15 years ago, they are recognized by the Thai government and become citizens. Their lives have changed little. They subsist by growing and harvesting rice. They weave and make jewelry. They open their simple bamboo homes to guests. You bathe in the river. You visit the local school and sing songs with the young children. They know the same songs you sang as a child. It is memorable.
Each day, you feel so lucky to be traveling, learning and living.
Kob Koon Ka (Thank you)
Kuzoozanpo la (hello) from Paro Bhutan!
Imagine driving for hundreds of kilometers on a road so winding your speed averages 30 kmph. The drop-offs are heart-stopping. There are no guardrails. It is the only east-west highway in the country. It hugs every mountain curve. There are no flat or straight places. The road is so narrow, opposing traffic is often in your lane. You reach the village of Shingkhar, the easternmost village in central Bhutan, altitude 11,500 feet. Nothing has changed here in hundreds of years except that recently, cell phones have brought communication from the outside world. There is no electricity. Heating is by wood burning stove. Warmth in your bed is provided by hot water bottles.
Early in the morning, you awaken to have a hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs, toast and tea. You walk to the local elementary school and watch the children in their traditional dress of ghos and kiras sing at assembly.
Your daughter reads to a class from books she has brought from home to give to the children.
From there, you set off on a trek through the village and up into the inner Himalaya mountains. The trek is steep. The horses carrying the tents, food and supplies have a hard time with their footing. You arrive at the pass, the tents are pitched, the fog rolls in. It is very cold. There is a bonfire and dinner, stars in the heavens like you’ve never seen before. You are at 12,700 feet. You crawl into your sleeping bag, difficult to find any warmth.
You are awakened at 3AM. You have breakfast and set off at 4AM with your flashlight to be at the summit at sunrise. You trek through a frozen rhododendron forest. It is 0 degrees C; 16 degrees F. You reach what feels like the top of the world. You can see all of Bhutan from the 14,000 foot summit. Layer upon layer of mountains: the lesser, inner and greater Himalayas, rising to over 28,000 feet. The sky is cloudless. It brings tears to your eyes. You are so grateful to witness this; you feel lucky to be here.
The trek down is steep and beautiful. After 7 hours, you return to the earth.
Another day, you leave from the village of Phobjikha on an even windier unpaved road. Your speed is steady at 5 kmph. You arrive at the trailhead and trek 5 hours to the summer home of a former government minister. Elegant and fit at the age of 69, Mr. Lahtu invites you into his home as a welcome guest.
No western traveler has ever been to his home or his village of Khotokoa. He gives you delicious food and homemade drink. You meet his grandchildren who are beautiful and full of joy.
You go back to your tent satiated and amazed, once again, at your good fortune to be experiencing Bhutan from the inside.
There is so much more to tell. But I have given you the essence. It is a place like no other.
Kaadinchhey la (thankyou).
The hiking trip concluded in Krakow two days ago with a city tour. Alas, our last 2 hikes were not in sunshine. In fact, the last hike was in much rain and mud. I called the hike “Chutes and Ladders” after that famous childhood game most of us remember. It involved traversing waterfalls and gorges on chutes and vertical ladders.
It has rained so much that there was a great deal of water everywhere. This was another terrifying experience for your friend. Next time I contemplate a hiking trip, I’m going to have to inquire first about the fear factor. This hike also included some ridge and forest hiking and finally, some of the most sticky and disgusting mud I’ve ever hiked in.
We had a fine carnivorous feast for a farewell dinner here in Krakow and then we were on our own again. Yesterday, we went to a museum and saw the paintings of a fine Polish painter named Stanislaw Wyspianski. Then we walked over to Kazimierz, the former Jewish section of Krakow.
As you undoubtedly know, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe (3,500,000) prior to World War II with many of them living here. Now, there are only a few hundred Jews living in Krakow. However, because it was Rosh Hashonah, the synagogues and cemeteries were closed so we were unable to view them.
Today, we went to Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Actually, we somewhat dreaded going, fearful of the strong emotions this would stir up for us. Surprisingly, we were not touched as deeply as we expected, much less so than by some of the books we’ve read (e.g. Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice”) and movies we’ve seen (e.g.”Schindler’s List”, “Playing For Time.”) Although the exhibitions were very interesting, it was like a museum, cleaned up and sanitized. Indeed, it was, for once, a beautiful sunny day. Perhaps had we gone on the bleakest of winter days without crowds, it would have felt more authentic. One deeply moving exhibit, though, was thousands of suitcases in a huge display case. Many of them had the names, countries of origin and dates of birth of their owners. Very, very sad.
It is hard to believe I have been in Europe for one week already. My journey across was relatively uneventful and I arrived in Freiburg Germany on 28 Aug. it was wonderful being reunited with Juliet after she had been in Germany for nearly 8 weeks. I stayed in her apartment, saw where she went to school, had meals with her and her friends and did her laundry (some things don’t change!).
We took an overnight train to Vienna on 30 Aug and someone from the University of Vienna came to the train station the following morning and collected Juliet’s gargantuan suitcases (I was so happy we were relieved of those) and we took another train to Budapest right away. We spent 2 full days and nights there and had a wonderful time. We walked for miles and saw, among other things, the ornate neoGothic Parliament,
the House of Terror (the building where both the Nazis and then the Communists conducted their oppressive and violent regimes against the Hungarians), Castle Hill (the elegant and lovely hill area of Buda that overlooks Pest and the surrounding areas), the Chain Bridge,
and the Great Synogogue (the largest in all of Europe, second only to the one in Manhattan). We went to the thermal Szechenyi Baths where the locals hang out
and also had some excellent meals and local Hungarian wines.
Yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, our Wilderness Travel group (6 others, 3 guides and us) left for Eger, a small town about 2 hours east of Budapest where today, we took our first hike. It was a relatively mild but enjoyable hike of 8 miles through the vineyards, forests and hills in the Eger area.
At the end of the hike when we were having a picnic lunch, Juliet was bitten by a horse! It was quite something. She was petting the horse and the horse seemed to be enjoying it when suddenly it bit her in the stomach. Quite a memorable experience; fortunately, we’ve been laughing about it all day!
Tomorrow, we will spend the morning hiking and wine tasting (not at the same time) at our last stop in Hungary in the village of Tokay and then we’ll be off to Slovakia.
High Tatras, Slovakia
The most remarkable thing about this trip is the weather. I chose early September because I was told that’s the best time to go : the weather is grand and the tourists are gone. What really happened: We have hiked the last 3 days, each day 9-10 miles, 6-7 hours, and it has snowed or rained every day, all day. At home, I would take one look at such weather and decide to do something cozy indoors. But here, this may be our only opportunity to hike in these dramatic mountains, so off we’ve gone every day.
Friday, we hiked on the Polish side of the High Tatras. Although we had been told the night before we wouldn’t be able to hike up because of the snow, we were able to do so. We hiked up to one of the wonderful huts often found in European mountains and then on to a lake through snowdrifts and slush.
The altitude was just under 5,000 feet. Saturday, we hiked through a mountain pass at about 5,400 feet and encountered 4 avalanches several feet deep and trails with snowpack of 2-3 feet. I wished I’d had snowshoes! And the most amazing thing is that we never saw where we were hiking. It was a winter wonderland in pea soup fog.
Today, just Juliet and I went with one of our guides to a hut at about 6,100 feet. It was a challenging, steep climb and the top third was in a driving snowstorm. The temperature was about 32 degrees. Juliet dressed smartly in shorts! Her legs were bright red from the biting cold and wind.
However, before encountering near white-out conditions, we did manage to see the jagged, stark, vertical high peaks of the Tatras.
So, you might ask “are you having fun?” It is a blast; totally memorable and significantly different from the warm weather hiking in tee-shirts I was expecting. Now that we’ve hiked in every weather condition, we’re wondering if either of our last 2 hikes will be in the one we’ve missed so far: sun.
Prague, Czech Republic
I have one word to describe Prague: WOW! I’d heard it was beautiful, but it is way beyond my expectations. It is a feast for the eyes; an architectural delight.
I have been constantly surprised by the magnificence of one building after another. On several occasions, I have turned a corner and gasped out loud at the wondrous sights. Prague is particularly known for Art Nouveau.
Tonight, we went to a concert in the amazing Municipal House said to be the “pearl of Czech Art Nouveau.” We have walked and walked through every quarter of the city and viewed it from as many angles as possible. We have been on Castle Hill,
in the Jewish quarter
and in the Old Town Square. It is a place in which I could spend days and would like very much to return.
High Tatras, Poland
Greetings from snowy Poland!
No, that isn’t a typo or mistake. We are in the high Tatras and the snow is 2-3 feet deep.
Our hike tomorrow was supposed to be one of the best but we can’t go because of the snow. We’ll have to hike down rather than up!
The last 2 days, we stayed in the walled city of Levoca Slovakia. The weather was cold and rainy but we had a marvelous hike in Slovensky Raj (Slovak Paradise). We hiked about 10 miles. This included terrifying sections where we were suspended from cliffs on what looked like oven shelves above a raging river.
When we got to the highest point, the temperature was in the 30’s with a howling wind. It was desirable to keep moving, as you might imagine.
Today, we visited Spissky Hrad, a castle built in the 15th century holding a commanding view atop a hillside overlooking the beautiful Slovakian countryside.
We then took a lovely hike from the castle to a town called Zehra, another picturesque village.
The adventure continues tomorrow. Who knows what that will bring? One thing I do know: travel is exciting and often involves the unexpected.
New Zealand, South Island
My daughter and I went on a two-week trip to New Zealand in her senior year of high school. She took an extra week of spring-break. Except for a few days in Wellington on the North Island, we spent most of our time on the South Island. It was the time of “The Lord of the Rings” craze and Juliet was a devotee. She even spoke Elvish. So our itinerary included visits to some of the filming locations. From our vehicle, we even saw Peter Jackson’s Oscar sitting on a window sill in his house!
We also hiked the three-day Routeburn Track, an exquisite 26-mile hut-to-hut trek that in addition to its beauty, was known for its colossal amount of rainfall, reputedly three to nine feet a year. How lucky we were, then, when we had nary a drop.
Another highlight was a two-night home stay on a sheep farm. There was a great deal of land, very hilly and overlooking a large bay. We stayed in the home of the farmer, his wife, and their children. The farm had four thousand sheep and three sheep-herding dogs to manage them.
We were given Wellies to wear on our feet. The ground was challenging to navigate due to the undulating landscape and the extraordinary amounts of sticky black mud everywhere. We followed the farmer and the dogs as they directed the sheep from place to place. When the farmer was finished with the outdoor sheep chores, he gave the dogs some signals and they expertly corralled the sheep into a huge barn where they were channeled down various chutes and branded with different paint colors depending upon the length of their wool. This, in turn, dictated which sheep were ready to be shorn.
This was definitely a new (and memorable) experience for us city-folk!
One day, Juliet and I are in a very small boat, big enough for just us and the boat operator. We are on the Rufiji River. We see two very special things. In the mud banks of the river, there are hundreds of small holes. As we get closer, we see that in those holes are White-Fronted Bee Eaters chirping madly. But the most spectacular part is the color of these birds: iridescent green wings, yellow chests, scarlet and navy blue stripes on their necks and faces. So many all at once in the same place!
Later on as dusk approaches, we notice a large herd of elephants gathering on one side of the river. They line up trunk-to-tail, about twenty in all. What are they doing? The boat driver tells us to watch carefully and we do. What we see next is astonishing. The elephants enter the water right in front of the boat and swim across the river! The river is deep and wide. The elephants are not walking. They remain attached to one another the entire swim. Only when they get to the other side and are safely on the bank do they detach themselves from one another. This is truly awesome to behold. The boatman tells us this happens every day.
That night after dinner, we are standing by the river in our camp feeling the silken air and gazing at the full orange moon hanging low in the sky as it casts a soft glow over this quiet, remote place. We retire to our rock hut and prepare for sleep. As we get comfortable in our beds we see something in the corner of the ceiling. It is moving. It takes us a moment to realize what it is: a large, long, thick snake slithering in and out of the rock construction. It is a scary proposition falling asleep I can tell you.
I was going to Zambia and Tanzania in their winter and was told I had to take anti-malarial medication. I thought this was entirely unnecessary since I had been to Africa in July twice before and had never seen any mosquitos. But my doctor insisted. So I was prescribed Larium, the once-a-week pill that I had taken the previous two trips. I took the first dose a week before departure as directed.
It happened our second night in Zambia. My fifteen-year-old daughter and I were the only guests in a sixteen-tent camp. We were zipped into our tent. There was no one around. There was no electricity. There was no flashlight. It was very cold and silent. We decided to go to sleep. It was 10:00 pm.
I awakened terrified. I looked at the clock. It was midnight. It felt as though the walls of the tent were closing in around me. I thought mosquitos were attacking me and I buried myself deeper in the covers, pulling them over my head. I heard the sound of buzzing and wondered if I was going crazy. Then my arms below the elbows all the way to the tips of my fingers became numb. There was no way I could go back to sleep with all this pandemonium going on.
Yet I didn’t want to alarm my daughter. I waited and waited, hoping the terror would subside. It didn’t. I looked at the clock again. 3:00 am. I needed help right away. I began to mutter out loud finally awakening Juliet. She was not happy as evidenced by her grumpy remarks. What I said to her was this: “I don’t want to alarm you but I think I’m losing my mind. We have to go home tomorrow.”
I told her what was happening to me. She reacted with aplomb and with what seemed like extraordinary maturity beyond her tender years. While quietly reassuring me, she pulled back the curtains from around the screens to give the illusion of letting in light. She gave me her Walkman with music from Lord of the Rings to soothe me.
Although insomnia prevented me from further sleep, I started thinking. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. I was a pretty level-headed person. But wait! I suddenly remembered the pharmacy instructions about Larium that I had briefly glanced at weeks earlier. Possible side-effects included paranoia, insomnia, numbness below the elbows, and suicide! I was experiencing most of these symptoms.
This realization gave me some comfort. And I made a decision then and there: I would rather die from malaria than have this experience again. So I didn’t take another dose on that trip and, needless to say, since then, any time my travel plans have called for an anti-malarial drug, I have chosen anything but Larium.
My daughter and I flew to Lusaka one summer, to begin a walking safari in Zambia and southern Tanzania. We arrived late at night. Although Lusaka is Zambia’s capitol, the airport was not much to speak of. There were no hotels or amenities. Ours was the only plane to arrive at that hour.
We collected our bags and went outside to find our pre-arranged transport to the hotel where we were scheduled to stay for the few hours left that night. As is customary, there were a number of drivers holding signs to alert their parties of their rides. We expected to see someone holding a sign with our names but we did not. After awhile, all the passengers and drivers were gone. This was disturbing, to say the least.
I went to a bank to change money. The man there was closing and wouldn’t make the transaction. I went to a travel agency where the agent was just leaving. I asked to use her phone. She refused. What was I to do? I felt the edges of panic begin to creep in.
We went outside once more. There was a lone man standing there with a sign listing the names of people who apparently hadn’t arrived. I went up to him and asked if he could take us to our hotel since he was a driver without passengers and we were passengers without a driver. This was against my better judgment but what could I do?
The man took us to a bus with no identifying information written on its side. Was this really a vehicle meant to transport tourists? I admit it, I knew this was foolish, a very poor model for my fifteen year old. We got in. The driver told us he would have to stop and change to a smaller car. Oh my God!
The night was very dark. There were no street lights. We were in the middle of nowhere once we left the airport. After about an hour, we drove into what I can only describe as a junkyard with several menacing-looking guard dogs straining at the chains around their necks, barking madly. I thought of the Jim Croce song “Bad, bad Leroy Brown.” I also thought that if this came to no good, no one would ever know what happened to us.
We switched into a compact car and set out again. More time elapsed. My fear increased. We arrived at our hotel at about 2:00 in the morning. A driver was to come get us just a few hours later at 6:00 am to take us to our next destination. And he did. It was the very same one. There had been a mistake. He had been misinformed about the identity of the passengers he was supposed to pick up. It was us all along!
My two favorite places in Costa Rica were Arenal Volcano and Corcovado. Both involved horseback riding.
The day we rode horses around the periphery of the volcano was sunny and bright. One drawback, though, was the sulphuric smell emanating from the always-slightly-erupting mountain. Another challenge was having to direct the horses away from the untethered bovines that stubbornly stood unmoving in our way. Having little experience as horse folk, our tepid pleas and kicks did little to affect the behavior of the horses and nothing to affect the behavior of the cows. Like much in Costa Rica, they moved in “tico time.”
The second of the horseback experiences was quite surprising for its contrasts. My daughter and I were staying at a tent camp on the beach in Corcovado, the warm, clear water of the Pacific just a few feet from our tent. Our riding guide was a small, grizzled old man who spoke no English.
We set out on the beach late in the afternoon, just the three of us on our horses, at what can only be described as a glacial pace. The guide kept asking us in Spanish if we wanted to go faster. Our consistent response was “si.” Nothing changed. We left the beach and traveled along a river where we saw people panning for gold. The horses seemed as bored as we were. After a while, at a sleepy command from the old man, the horses turned around and headed back to the beach. It was nearing sunset, the sky softly lit with shades of red, purple and peach.
Suddenly and without warning or command, the horses began galloping as though fleeing some disaster. Juliet’s hat flew off her head. She screamed “how do I make it stop?” Holding on for dear life myself, I could give her no advice. My only thought was if I were to fall off, it wouldn’t be that far and maybe the sand would provide a soft landing.
And then just as suddenly as they had begun, the horses came to a dead stop. They seemed to know they were close to the barn and could rid themselves of their noisy riders and go eat some hay. This was exhilarating, scary and hilarious all at once.
The old man never said a word.
In Kathmandu, I don’t have a clue how to cross the street. There is never a break in the mass of cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, motorcycles and rickshaws. There aren’t any traffic signals and no stop signs. I figure the safest thing to do is to stand very close to someone who appears to live there and cross when he or she does.
There are many temples, Hindu and Buddhist. We see holy men and beggars. Funerals are taking place by the Bagmati River evidenced by the large burning pyres. The smell of smoke and incense fills the air.
We are flying to Pokhara, the jumping-off point for a trek in the Annapurna Circuit. The weather is not good. In fact, it looks like pea soup. We are in a small plane, two single rows of passengers divided by a narrow aisle. I know we are surrounded by 26,000 foot mountains but I can’t see them. Neither can the pilot. I am sweating. I am terrified. We had been told that the flight from Kathmandu was to take half an hour. It was definitely taking longer than that. And then suddenly the plane slips out of the clouds. I see the city. But wait. It looks just like Kathmandu. Did they have the same architect? It is Kathmandu. Unable to land in Pokhara because of the weather, we had returned. We stay in the small domestic Kathmandu airport for hours waiting for the weather to clear. Finally, we are able to fly to Pokhara and then the next day, on to Jomsom. We tour the tiny town of Jomsom, remote and desolate. We visit a small hotel whose claim to fame is that Jimi Hendrix once stayed there and “his” room is decked out with various Hendrix memorabilia. We begin three days of trekking at just under 10,000 feet in elevation. Our wonderful guide, Mani Rai, assures us it never rains on the Jomsom side because it is in the rain shadow of the mighty Himalaya. It then rains for the next three days.
The only means of travel in this area is by foot or horse. As a result, we see people transporting unbelievable things on their backs: a washing machine; a cageful of chickens; a two by twelve board that is twenty feet long requiring the bearer of it to walk along the path sideways! We stay in a place that is so cold, the only source of heat is a small stove located underneath the table in the dining room. The bedrooms are unheated. We spend a great deal of time at this table trying to keep warm with the help of home-made peach schnapps that tastes terrible.
We then move to the Ghandruk side of the Annapurna Circuit and trek the 23,000 steps to the small hamlet of Ghandruk, at the foot of Machhapuchchhre, the “fishtail” mountain. Who counted the number of steps is unknown (I certainly did not but can attest that there were many). We traverse hanging bridges that sway in the wind as we cross. The porters run across them carrying their heavy loads while wearing just flip flops. They seem other-worldly, never appearing to tire.
Our journey ends at the Rum Doodle Bar in the Thamel district of Kathmandu, a gathering place for trekkers, where we toast our good fortune in having experienced the beauty and culture of Nepal.
We were in Botswana in the Okavango Delta. Unlike most rivers, the Okavango does not drain into a body of water such as an ocean, but rather drains into its own delta, a wide, fertile triangle, home to much African wildlife.
As distinguished from many places in Africa where one drives from place to place to see animals, here you take a motorboat or canoe-like vehicle called a Mokoro from one island in the Delta to another and then walk around looking for animals.
So it was on a July day that we went with our guide, Robert, to Buffalo Island to explore. Guns were prohibited and Robert was armed with only a walking stick. We alighted from the motorboat and began walking. There were impalas and giraffes and warthogs, all of whom ran from us once they caught our scent. It felt very different being on foot as compared to riding in a jeep. In a vehicle, the animals don’t smell humans. They are habituated to the vehicles and don’t run from them.
Suddenly, Robert put his index finger to his lips signaling for quiet. He whispered that their was an elephant just around the bend. How he knew this I have no idea but indeed there was. A huge bull, ten feet tall, all alone grazing on a tree not too far away. Being reared on Disney movies, I felt no fear. This was just like Dumbo.
I took plenty of time to put the 400 mm lens on my Minolta and focus. Robert said “take your picture.” Still I fiddled. Until Robert said with urgency “RUN.” He instructed us to zig-zag to confuse the elephant. We were running in sand. The camera equipment was very heavy around my neck. I should have thrown it off. Robert and my daughter disappeared way ahead. My husband was in front of me. My throat was burning. I didn’t think I could continue. But I had very compelling motivation. The sound of the elephant trumpeting so loud, so close, right behind me. I was afraid to look how close. Finally, we caught up with Robert and collapsed panting. The elephant had turned in another direction.
And since then, that trumpeting sound has never seemed the same to me. Every time, it conjures my being chased by an elephant.
Summer in Alaska is so short and full of light. Literally. In mid-July, it never really gets dark. There’s a seaside path in Anchorage where I went for a walk at eleven pm and there was a huge crowd of people walking, running, biking, skateboarding, enjoying the beautiful weather, the sun high in the sky. I guess when you live in a place that’s totally dark for three months, you want to spend as much time in the light as you can when you have it.
There are flowers everywhere. Juneau, surrounded with dramatic mountains rising straight up, has wooden flower boxes all over the city, planted with bright colorful annuals. Hot pink Fireweed grows wild and makes a wonderful contrast to the nearby glaciers, so broad and white.
We take a float plane to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island, to see brown bears. There they are in the river snapping up fish just like in a National Geographic movie. And there are so many eagles, talons entwined, flying upside down, in their unique mating dance.
We travel the Alaska Marine Highway from Juneau to Haines and on to Skagway. It is hot and sunny. I have not brought shorts because I expected it to be cold and rainy. I sit on the deck of the boat mesmerized by the snow-covered mountains that are everywhere I look. On the way to Sitka I see what passes for sunrise at four in the morning, the sky a brilliant red.
In Glacier Bay, we see pods of killer whales blowing, surfacing, breaching; icebergs with seals playfully jumping on and off. On the shoreline, there are mother bears supervising their cubs; in the treetops, eagles perched majestically on high seeming to survey their kingdom (we are told to look for golfballs in the trees).
And then to Denali National Park. We stay at a Bed and Breakfast that keeps sled dogs. There are lots of them. Each has his or her own dog-house to which it is tied. Most of them lie on the roofs. Several times each night as though in a symphony orchestra, the dogs begin howling in perfect unison and then stop on the same note, as if led by a conductor.
We take a bus sixteen miles into the Park. There are grizzly bears with their golden coats and caribou with their imposing antlers. Most fascinating, we see a lone wolf stalking a moose. It is early August and already the ground-cover on the tundra is telegraphing the coming autumn. I see red and orange and yellow foliage. There is a chill in the air. The glorious Alaskan summer is quickly coming to an end.
I imagine a visit to Egypt is different today than it was in 1983 when I visited. Society there was secular then. Men wore mustaches; the only beard I saw was my on the face of my husband, Ken. The primary mode of dress was western. I remember dressing modestly in a skirt that hung below my knees and a shirt that covered my shoulders, but the outfit was largely turquoise and my hair was in its poodle phase, as my daughter, Juliet, so kindly puts it. We definitely didn’t physically blend in but nevertheless were warmly welcomed by Egyptians.
When we arrived at the airport in Cairo, we took a city bus to the central Tahir Square. This was no ordinary experience. At home, we sedately wait on line to board a bus or train. There, the doors opened and all the passengers rushed to climb in the windows. We were left behind on the street pretty astonished. When we arrived in the Square, the same thing happened in reverse: everyone climbed out the windows.
Next we were faced with the challenging prospect of crossing from the Square to the opposite sidewalk which was separated by a multi-lane roadway that had a never-ending stream of cars, buses and trucks zooming along. We must have looked pathetic standing there wondering how to navigate when a well-dressed man asked if he could help. When we confessed our fear about getting to the other side, he gamely picked up my suitcase and told us to follow him as he stepped boldly into the chaotic traffic. After safely arriving, he asked if we had a hotel reservation. I told him yes but that since the street signs were all written in Arabic, I couldn’t read them and therefore wouldn’t be able to find the hotel. He asked the hotel name and was familiar with its location so he took us there, apparently not trusting that the two of us could find it on our own.
Next, it was time to go to the Pyramids of Giza. While waiting for the public shared car to take us there, several locals struck up a conversation with us and were so thrilled to learn we were American that they insisted on paying our fare. We had another surprise in store when we arrived at the pyramids and were shocked to see that they were surrounded on three sides by apartment buildings and trees. A hotel coffee shop was located just across the street. I had imagined they would be located in the middle of the desert surrounded by nothing but sand! Well, that was true on one side where all of the photos must have been taken.
Later on in the trip, we flew to the Valley of the Kings where the Temple of Luxor and many temples, tombs, and antiquities are situated. There we rented bicycles for three days and visited the tombs of Queen Hatshepsut, and the boy King Tut, among many others. Along the way, we met a twelve-year-old boy, Ali, who impressed us with his knowledge of English and all things American. He was a delight to talk to.
The singularity of my experiences in Egypt makes them as fresh and enjoyable today as they were then.
I am a cultural Jew. What that means to me is that I don’t adhere to the religious part but relate to other less well-defined but recognizable aspects of being Jewish. It’s really hard to explain.
In any event, I went to Israel for the first time in 1978. I came by boat from Piraeus in Greece. As the boat approached Haifa harbor, I saw many steel grey ships of varying sizes. While this did not seem particularly remarkable, there was one difference here. The writing emblazoned on the bows of these ships was in Hebrew.
I started to cry. For the first time in my life, it felt like I was part of the majority culture.
(featured photo courtesy of Juliet)
Yellowstone National Park Feb 2-6, 2020
Tasmania (February 2019)
Churchill Manitoba Canada (2018)
London England (August 2018)
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Western Antarctic Peninsula
Eastern Antarctic Peninsula
Guilin, Yangshuo, China
The Great Wall, Beijing, China
Newfound Lake, New Hampshire
Liberty Island, New York
The Dolomites, Italy
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The Sahara, Morocco
High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Mt. Etna, Sicily
Spring Green, Wisconsin (Taliesen)
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Yosemite National Park, California
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Zion National Park, Utah
White Mountains, New Hampshire
Dana Point, California
Yosemite National Park, California
Kazaringa National Park, India
Kazaringa National Park, India
Kanha National Park, India
Brooklyn, New York
Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands
St. John, US Virgin Islands
Machu Picchu, Peru
Cape Town, South Africa
Bwinde Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Luang Prabang, Laos
High Tatras, Slovakia
Prague, Czech Republic
High Tatras, Poland
New Zealand, South Island
Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
Okavanga Delta, Botswana
Egypt (May 1983)
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