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Living, loving and leaving

April 27, 2014

file under…? Three guesses, and the first two don’t count!

I have been having a love affair with leaves this month.

I watch intently for those first little bitty tinges of red, the blush before trees reveal their intentions so completely, so publicly. My anticipation mounts upon seeing at a distance the hint in the tree lines of that squeaky new green that intoxicates, teases, and promises even more excitement. And finally, finally, after months of stick grey verticals, I revel in their unfolding, happily, by the thousands and millions.

In full force, the maples spread a fluttery pattern against the sky. Dandelion leaves emerge overnight from nowhere and everywhere, reaching for the sun; falling short, they create their own. Oaks unfurl slowly, infant ear curls of pink and red.

The painted blue metal fingers of my rake uncover moist brown dirt as I scrape under azalea bushes. Leftovers of an earlier generation lie quietly in flattened, blackened layers after the commotion of autumn. Momentarily I am sober, reminded of the temporary nature of leaves and loves, of our own seasonal existences. And then, looking up, I cannot help but smile and begin to flirt again.

I giggle as seedpods do their helicopter twirl to the deck and driveway. I swoon during commutes on highways draped once more in green. And I relax at the end of the day, grateful for the return of shade and tree shadow.

Welcome back, leaves. Your absence certainly made my heart grow fonder.


April 13, 2014

File under BLACK and WHITE, of course

My weekends lately have had a tinge of pandemonium about them.

Not in the Miltonian origins of the term but simply a Webster-like sense of “lots of commotion” or “a wild uproar.”

Charlottesville’s downtown block party—part of a contemporary celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s April 13 birthday called the Tom Tom Founders Festival—drew not only crowds, but large numbers of fire dancers, food trucks, entrepreneurs and musicians this past weekend.

Our fair city’s Saturday morning farmer’s market is in full swing again, drawing shoulder-to-shoulder throngs. This early in the season they come in search of bedding plants, pies, earrings, orchids, olive oil soap, coffee, tacos and friends. (Truth be told, all summer long our market is as much about friends as it is farmers.)


bannerTTFFNight lights


lettuce oliveoil




Next weekend, my daughter and I will be renting a commercial version of a monster truck to drive it over the river and through the woods to her grandmother’s house before said house goes on the market after 51 years in the family. Furniture and memorabilia distribution has a kind of pandemonium about it, too.

living room stuff

All these events offer productivity and social rewards despite their associated tumult. But I have decided my preferred pace involves what I’m calling the pandamonium that occurred when I took a trip through Giant Panda land last weekend at the National Zoo.

I missed most of the local, national and international excitement when little Bao Bao, (meaning “precious”) was born late in August. She made her public debut with zoo visitors in January.

But because Bao Bao only this month began to make her first forays into the outdoor portions of the Giant Panda habitat at her Washington D.C. home, crowds form quickly behind the friendly and well-informed guides on the Asia Trail. All are eager to see the 20-plus-pound toddler and her parents. If you go visiting anytime soon, however, don’t be disappointed if you don’t see Bao Bao. Like a lot of babies, she sleeps a lot, something like 20 hours a day.

Visitors of all ages and stripes are captivated by these furry, big-headed bumbling black and white bears who have become the internationally recognized symbol of endangered species and conservation efforts.

Through the Looking Glass

Mei Xiang: Through the Looking Glass

(Coca-Cola tries hard to make animated polar bears look equally loveable, but somehow in real life the arctic bears present as fearsome creatures, while the live, lumbering pandas still look like something to snuggle.)

The folks at our National Zoological Park (NZP) take panda preservation seriously though—they are among the rarest of our land animals— with as few as 1,600 giant pandas left living in the mountain forests of their native China, and only 300 some living in zoos worldwide.

This gives poignant meaning, in my mind, to the promise of Papa Bear Tian Tian, whose name means “more and more.” A zoologist’s wishful thinking times two. Tian Tian’s and his designated mate’s bi-annual procreational abilities have been likened to birth watches among royalty or celebrity types for the media attention they generate.

(Bao Bao’s mother is called Mei Xiang, a name that supposedly translates as “beautiful fragrance” but given that pandas are, after all, bears, I’m guessing not so much.)

Through educational videos, prolific signage, panda cams, web pages, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, the NZP capitalizes on the craze for all things panda. With the outpouring of public support, the zoo aims to improve poor panda demographics. Bao Bao will be returned to her native China at age four under agreements signed in 2011 as part of the Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement between the Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

The David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat has been enlarged recently, according to the NZP web pages, with an indoor portion that now contains “four exhibit rooms, four dens, increased visitor viewing space, new informational exhibits, additional space for keepers, and a humidified storage building for fresh bamboo, complete with windows for visitors to see just how much bamboo the pandas consume in a day.”

Long lines and crowds being what they are, I was able to see how much bamboo an adult female can consume in something less than 10 minutes.

Other panda stats and facts suggest their “bold coloring provides effective camouflage into their shade-dappled snowy and rocky surroundings” and that their heads are extra large in part to allow for the “large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles” they need for crushing tough bamboo, which makes up 99 percent of their diet in the wild.

“In zoos, giant pandas eat bamboo, sugar cane, rice gruel, a special high-fiber biscuit, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes,” according to the NZP.

Probably not Panda Popcorn, though.

I didn’t try it either.

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No more foolin’

April 1, 2014

file under WHITE for snow storms and the bright dresses of Bahian women 

April 1 and only today did it feel safe to put away the snow shovel.

December 17 I was still wearing the flip-flops and short skirts from my Semester in Summertime. Winter has been a long time ending this year. Seeing good friends and neighbors, though, softened my abrupt transition from ship to shore, from summer to winter, each visit a bright holiday ornament for the Christmas tree I didn’t put up.

Plus a steady selection of familiar faces from the ship—my constant companions for nigh on four months—appeared in living rooms, restaurants and all over the Internetworks in the weeks after the M.V. Explorer docked in Ft. Lauderdale.

New Year’s to St. Patrick’s Day was also interspersed with an abundance of family interludes: a mother-daughter trip to Ohio to see a mother-Grandmother; a rainy ride to Pennsylvania with a sister-in-law for a bridal shower of a cousin’s daughter. Nephews, brothers, daughters and more cousins all received hugs and overdue telephone calls.

I threw a Solstice party and a potluck dinner at my house. Trekked out in the country for a Saturday morning hike and later a Mardi Gras party. I bought tickets to a book festival and a new temporary membership to a gym. (With a salt-water pool! Ha!) I’ve been to lunches and dinners and brunches and movies with friends. Even an outdoor winter wedding where the groomsmen all wore kilts.

The need to stay in motion is real after four months at sea. A counterbalance to the Monday-through-Friday, nine-to-five, sit-at-a-desk routines that wear poorly on most of us, much less a traveler. Still, through it all—December, January, February, March—I couldn’t write.

Since leaving Buenos Aires in late November I haven’t written much of anything. Perhaps because by then I was cup-overfloweth-memory-cards full with new sights, new ports, new thoughts and new currencies. I didn’t stop taking pictures, or stop trying to absorb where I was, I just couldn’t write about it anymore. Besides, Natalie joined my journey in Argentina, and my blog-style sharing seemed less critical when I had a member of the family nearby to swap stories with each evening.

I still marveled at the Carnival costume constructions in progress that we saw in Rio and took silly, maybe even sacrilegious selfies in front of Christ the Redeemer. I delighted in the colored ribbons and brilliantly white dresses worn for dia da consciência negra, the Bahia Brazilian holiday commemorating the region’s African heritage on November 20. I relished my day-before-Thanksgiving swim at the beaches near Salvador. But with a final port and winter temperatures looming, I was beginning to enter a state of mental dormancy.

But Cuba? Why did I get writer’s block in Cuba of all places?

This week, after two consecutive days in the 70s and April dates on the calendar, I am more than just home again. The weekly snowstorms have subsided. Colors are returning to the black-and-white and grey-and-brown Virginia landscapes. I have seen purple crocus, yellow daffodils and red maple buds. I threw a brightly flowered cover over the picnic table out back.

It’s time to emerge again. Words and all.

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Living a Posh Life — on the Starboard Side

November 30, 2013

file under whatever color for you means NOT true

The following etymological story was making the rounds of our shipboard community last week, which entranced many of us, living in one of the rare phases of life when there is someone to make your bed for you every morning. (Thanks, Sotero!)

Here’s the version as it appears online:

The origin of the English word POSH is interesting. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the thing to do for Englishmen (and women) to go to India for holiday (vacation). They went by steamship. In those days, having a tan was not meant for the upper class, because it meant that one was a manual laborer or field worker.

 The route to India meant that the ship went out with the afternoon sun (the hottest and most likely to tan one) on the right or starboard side. And returning from India the afternoon sun was on the left or port side. To avoid the tanning sun (and paying for the more expensive side) a wealthy person would ask for a ticket “portside out starboard home”. The ticket person would stamp P.O.S.H. on the ticket. Eventually, one had only to ask for POSH. Thus, the word became part of the language to mean better accommodations… for a price.

But, of course, all good stories deserve a check-in with before sharing too widely, and sadly, this one doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny.


But if it had been true, I would have to say I’m traveling S.O.S.H. as my starboard cabin on Deck 4 is mine for the entire voyage. (Which currently means the sun is in a perfect position to force its equatorial brightness between the slit in my blackout curtains—e.g. sunrise came at 4:57 this morning as we travel north toward the mouth of the Amazon River; not a typical November morning for this native of the Northern Hemisphere. But then little has been normal about the past four months.)

Still, SOSH or POSH, here’s a chance for me to publicly salute the daily efforts and constant smiles of my cabin stewards: Julius (who departed in Cape Town, South Africa, for a much deserved break and visit with his family in the Phillipines after his eight-month contract was up) and his replacement, Sotero, who joined our 182-member crew to begin a new eight-month contract on the MV Explorer.

Photo Sharing – Part 2

November 26, 2013

file under ORANGE for Trevor Fairbank’s ostrich photo, the last in this series of Semester at Sea student photos

I chose not to climb or ride the cable cars to Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, in part because my visual memory cards were mostly full after so much honest-to-goodness sight seeing at that point in our common journey. (My camera is busy filling a third 8 GB card, too, so it’s not like I’ve stopped taking pictures.)

But sometimes it’s just easier and more appropriate to share the riches.

Beads, Baubles and the Tiles of Lisbon

November 23, 2013

file under GREEN for leftover beer and wine bottles

As members of the Semester at Sea community, students, staff and faculty have the opportunity to sign up (and pay for) organized tours that leave from the ports where the Explorer docks. Large, well-appointed tour buses pull up outside our gangway and, carrying cameras, water bottles, note pads and local currency, we head off for pre-planned day and overnight trips, feeling somewhat despairingly like tourists, but happy for the security of vetted drivers, air conditioning and the comfort of exploring with our friends.

I try to balance each port visit with a mixture of SAS-planned excursions and solo explorations.

The convenience of having an experienced tour guide paid off in St. Petersburg when I was introduced to highlights and backstories of the Hermitage that I would have never discovered on my own. But I also like to visit some of those same places that SAS has identified, but I walk, take a train, bus or taxi to allow for more or less time at my destination than a group field program might accommodate.

In Portugal, I was intrigued by descriptions of the city’s ceramic tile museum, but not interested in the organized tour’s schedule. Mesmerized by the architectural use of ceramic tiles up and down the cobblestoned streets of Lisbon during my first two days of wandering, I chose to find the museum on my own, and ultimately spent an overcast and rainy afternoon at the lovely Museu Nacional do Azulejo, or National Tile Museum. SAS trip participants had a chance to try their hand at decorating a tile of their own; I, instead, wandered lazily through the displays and chatted with two vacationing Swedish sisters over a late lunch in the beautifully tiled, blue-and-white museum cafe. An enjoyable Portuguese afternoon both ways.

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A month later, just before leaving Ghana in sub-Sahara west Africa, I decided I would enjoy taking the SAS-coordinated trip to the Cedi Bead Factory. At this open-air workshop, our small group created a half-dozen beads created from the crushed glass pieces and powders of used wine and other beverage bottles. Mr. Cedi, our skilled host and Ghanaian entrepreneur-slash-businessman, was quick to teach us how he transformed the broken glass into beads using outdoor kilns made from the red mud of African termite hills (Their saliva, mixed with the mud, creates a composite that withstands especially high temperatures.) Our beads were soon firing in the small kilns, fueled with local firewood, and tended by locally hired and trained Ghanaians in this outdoor recycling “factory.” Meanwhile our hired tour guide gave us a detailed explanation of how Ghanaians have traditionally used all parts of the prodigious and ubiquitous date palm trees. The date fruits and its oil are used in cooking; palm fronds are still commonly seen as a resource for roofs. Once the tree’s fruit producing life has ended, the trunk is processed and tapped to create a popular local palm wine; that same sap when distilled, creates a potent liquor (nicknamed “kill me quickly”). After that, the trunk is often used for firewood, as much of rural Ghana still cooks meals over open fires.

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The element of design in stronger in some places than others. I will never forget seeing Barcelona, on my first SAS voyage, a city just oozing with Gaudi and art, though the graphics and textile works of Buenos Aires stand out in my mind and memory this month. Still arts and crafts abound in all our ports. For example, in Cape Town, South Africa, the animals abound under the vendors’ tents as well as on the game reserves.

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Those among us looking for more than postcards, magnets and keychains would find these decorative art pieces frequently at street markets, sometimes in retail stores, and sometimes in shops ala the Ten Thousand Villages model.

In Buenos Aires, I took an SAS sponsored tour of street art and graffitti, then pealed off to travel independently with others that afternoon and the next day without a set itinerary. Looking for local color was never so easy: bright barrettes, and earth-toned carved gourds in Palermo, pastel palettes of colored wax-covered necklaces and bold prints in La Boca; and two special favorites: intricate copper wire trees and the black, white and red wire mobiles from street vendors. You have to see the mobiles in motion to fully appreciate them; I so wish I could have brought the piano player home with me.

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Not your usual party animals

November 18, 2013

November 10, 2013file under TAWNY; for the lion we could barely see

We, the shipmates of Semester at Sea’s Fall 2013 voyage, are entering the third phase of our trip: we’ve been to two continents, and are only several days away from the third.

Europe’s iconic images are largely familiar to travelers — the ticketed type as well as the armchair and keyboard variety. Africa’s landmarks are less iconic, but its animals are not. Postcards and T-shirts in the souvenir shops of South Africa promote the “Big Five.” (Who among my readers know which “celebrities” make the list?)

One of the authors I had my writing students read early in the semester (Nelson H.H.Graburn on “Secular Ritual: A General Theory of Tourism”) pens that “tourism experiences are meaningful because of their difference from the ordinary” – that “tourism is best understood as a kind of ritual, one in which the special occasions of leisure and travel stand in opposition to everyday life at home and work” — reversals of of their “everyday home life.”

I think my signing up for a safari in South Africa fits this category.

I was conflicted originally about this kind of a side trip out of the port. I’m not fond of circuses based on my understanding of how the animals are treated. I’m okay with the mission of zoos, but really don’t like the ambience of cages, even for animals. And the long-term association of big game hunters and safaris appalls me. But. I was in Africa, and this was a day trip. I wouldn’t have to lie somewhere in the dark wondering about prowling lions at least.

So the compromise of a trip to a game reserve some three hours inland from Cape Town was booked. Because I suspect my blog audience is looking both for confirmation that their expectations of a place are accurate, and titillation by seeing things they don’t expect, I took pictures of animals we were told we were likely to see from the Jeep-like, multi-seated wagon.

You’ll notice I saw many stereotypical African animals, though fewer than some of my colleagues who traveled even farther. I asked one traveler who flew inland if she saw giraffes. (I didn’t, to my great disappointment, being more inclined to view a tall vegetarian than a fast-moving carnivore.)

“Oh, yeah,” she shrugged. “Giraffes were like squirrels, we saw so many of them.”


 See, I told you I was conflicted about this. But none of us can do it, or see it, all. There’s a saying on board that though we are all on the same ship, we are all on a different voyage.

Now without further ado, let me introduce you to some of who and what I saw in Africa. Well, specifically on the Aquila game reserve, home of the Big Five and what I also like to call the Next Five.*

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And then, also from Africa, including creatures seen during my stops in Morocco and Ghana, my Favorite Nine, seen truly living free in their environments. (Well, maybe not the burro, but surely the dung beetle, and believe or not, the baboons!)

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And finally, in the mindset of saving the best for last, from Boulder’s Beach, Simon’s Town, South Africa:

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Disclaimer: the cheetahs and the leopard were rescue animals, in a healing sanctuary situation. Thus, in this case some cages. With wire openings large enough for my zoom lens. Still, I saw them.