Listening to Humpbacks with Gotham Whale: Fall Whale Watching in New York City

 

Artie Raslich shooting for Gotham Whale and Maurice on the American Princess. October 18, 2014

Artie Raslich shooting for Gotham Whale and Mourrice Papi on the American Princess. October 18, 2014

“You think we’ll see some whales today? I ask. “I know we will,” says Artie. Of course I believe him. He’s charismatic enough to be written up in the New Yorker, and judging from the shots he’s getting out here, he knows a thing or two about these whales.

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We are on the American Princess with a greyed-haired Captain named Tom, Artie Raslich, the official photographer from Gotham Whale, and a couple of researchers trying to record the underwater musings of humpbacks. Kristi Collom, the graduate researcher from Hunter College determined to listen in on the whales is also certain; “We saw 75 common dolphins and 3 humpbacks last week. I’m sure we’ll see some more.” Aboard are other “citizen scientists” keeping their eyes on the water, ready to witness, photograph, record and otherwise delight in the antics of marine mammals.

We boarded this Princess (the only NOAA certified boat in New York) at Riis Landing, an unassuming dock in Queens in front of Breezy Point, and shortly after noon we are heading around the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula into the open waters five or six miles off New York City’s coastline.

Kristi starts working, getting technical help from her partner Mourrice Papi, and they rig a hydrphone with a long lead cord able to descend to a depth of at least 30 feet.DSC_0125

We were taking wagers (no money involved) on the exact timing of our would-be encounter. We have a while to wait. Passing the time I ask Artie how he got his celebrated shot of the humpback he named Jerry, surprisingly framed within the outline of the Empire State Building. He was trying for a better composition, he explains, with the whale between the Empire State and the Citibank building. But Jerry breaching the water straight under the Empire State made an indelible impression that turned Gotham’s visiting marine mammals into celebrities. At one point, Artie gesticulates, “He was four feet from the boat with one big eye looking at me. I think he wanted to see who was blasting the Grateful Dead this loud out here.” Clearly Jerry was curious about a Dead Head in a 26-foot long boat. The whale was too close for Artie to get that shot; he couldn’t change lenses fast enough.

After three and half hours most of the predictions are well out of the running, as are some seasick passengers. But 2:30 proves to be the magical moment. Artie scrambles to pick up his camera. Mourrice somehow contains his shock of dark corkscrews in a knitted cap for warmth, and the rest of us tumble out onto the deck to see two humpbacks gliding alongside the boat, about 100 yards to the south of us. They appear intermittently, their sleek dark bodies revealing distinctive spinal notches when their backs peek rhythmically on the surface. Another whale joins them, and they come considerably closer.

Photo by Guy Robinson

Photo by Guy Robinson

The whales twirl, repeatedly heaving their long white flippers out of the choppy waters. Once in the air they hold them straight up, pausing to point to Far Rockaway, clearly in view off the starboard side. As the humpbacks flirt with our 95-foot boat we wait for the next flipper to slap onto the water with a huge, loud splash. As it does a group cheer of admiration rolls off the boat and over the water. Artie clicks furiously and we rush from port to starboard following their spouts and shimmering footprints as they surface and re submerge in a synchronous duet.

Everything about the whales visiting Gotham is exciting and mysterious. Though they are thought to be solitary animals, Artie recognizes our two companions; “Those two have been hanging out together here for more than two weeks.” A decade ago only a couple of whales would be spotted, “Now we’re seeing 8, 9, 10 every year.” Captain Tom tells us. “The numbers keep going up.”

Environmental activism and regulation have reversed the long history of maritime exploitation, and the once depleted fisheries in and around New York have rebound. The biological food chain now supports a diverse ecology including marine mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales

DSC_0280They’ve attracted fans and watchers, and the group of citizen scientists tracking their movements and surprising behaviors calls itself Gotham Whale.

University based scientists are also on the trail of Gotham’s humpbacks. Kristi is working with PhD candidate Eric Angel Ramos out of Diana Reiss‘ lab where she studies animal behavior, cognition and communication.

The unusual mixing of maritime adventure, animal encounter and marine mammal DSC_0273research is somewhat disarming when Captain Tom cuts the engine and we sit several miles off shore in 80 feet of water, rocking in the long, rolling swells finally reaching us from a southern storm. Engine sounds would overpower the ethereal, underwater utterances of the whales. After the excitement of the humpbacks, this extended quiet is eerily calm. Kristi and Mourrice plunge the hydrophone as deep as they dare beneath the water’s choppy surface. We wait and hope their ingenious rigging will let us all in on the private conversations of our curious companions.

We’re late getting back. The whales follow us for a time but as the boat heads toward shallow waters, Captain Tom instructs over the PA, “Say goodbye to the DSC_0266whales.” On cue, waving, an entire boat full of people do exactly that.

Our weekend was to be the last excursion for the season, but because the whales are still visiting you’ve got another chance to see them this season. The American Princess will go out again Saturday and Sunday, November 1st and 2nd, 2014. Be at Riis Landing to board at least ½ hour early, by 11:30, and shove off at noon.

 

 

Experiencing the Amboseli Drought of 2009

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The worst travel experience I ever had should have been the adventure of a lifetime. I can still see the landscape of East Africa as we flew low over the bush in the four-seater Cessna. I can feel the sudden jolt downward as we lost altitude hitting the warmer air plunging down into the Rift Valley. We were on our way from Nairobi to Ambosli Game Park in Kenya and the DSC_0271memories are still vivid.  I had never experienced the game parks of Kenya, though I had toured six of them in Tanzania the year before. The charismatic large game of Africa and the landscapes they inhabit send me on a trip back in time, and give me a magical sense of what the early days of being human might have been like.

 

It was 2009, and Amboseli was experiencing the final days of a severe summer drought. We had heard it was bad before we left Nairobi. In fact the pilot of our small craft, David Western from the African Conservation Center, who had helped establish the Amboseli reserve, was on his way to see how bad things really were there, and he asked if we’d like to go along. My husband Guy could help with an inventory of the herds as a team of conservationists tried to document how many animals were at risk. I was in Nairobi to give a workshop to humanitarian aide workers on media strategies during disasters.

We were the first to arrive, and our job was reconnaissance. We needed to decide where best to place the food for the starvingDSC_0010 animals. Jonah had already arranged for bails of hay to be trucked into the park.

But when we arrived there was no need. We could see the tender shoots of green emerging from the now moist, barren ground. The swamp of Amboseli had receded to a small pool, and though a few live water buffalo and elephants waded into the water, the park was littered with dozens of carcasses of dead animals.

The zebra herd was down to less than 85 individuals and there were even fewer DSC_0055wildabeests. The herds had numbered in the hundreds at the beginning of the summer. The surviving animals were thin and weak, but at least now they were eating. So few animals remained at this point that they all had enough food from the tiny sprouts bringing new life to the dusty plains of Africa.

 

The herds would come back. There were enough remaining animals to replenish their numbers. The social structures of the elephants would be more damaged, and take longer to recover.

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The experience of life and death of large charismatic animals was for me a lesson about survival in general terms. More specifically, what we know is that Climate Change is responsible for extreme weather, manifesting as drought in some places and increased storms and rainfall in other regions. Sadly, East Africa, home to some of the most magnificent animals left on the globe, is experiencing climate change in the form of decreased rainfall in the already arid lands, making it all the most urgent that we take action to reduce emission of green house gasses.

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Taking on the Invasive Lionfish in the Waters off Grand Cayman

Photo by Elliott Jessup

Photo by Elliott Jessup

 

It’s not surprising to meet an unusual cast of characters at a diving lodge, especially an ecofriendly one, but as we chat that evening, occasionally looking up from computer screens, the three divers tell me they are spearing lionfish and emptying out the contents IMG_3805of their stomachs. The culling part makes sense, many divers are gleefully bringing up lionfish on the end of their spears, selling them to local restaurants, or filleting them on their own. They are beautiful but invasive fish, with no natural predators, feasting on indigenous reef fish and doing an untold amount of damage in the Caribbean. But tearing out their guts to take a look? I hadn’t heard that one before. When I ask why they tell me, “We need to know what they’re eating.” So, they’re curious about their food—and I wonder why.

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Photo by Elliott Jessup

I discover that the team is from the California Academy of Sciences, and their research will reveal if the culling efforts by divers to clear the invaders from the reef is working. The team wants to know if the lions are feeding in shallow waters, or deeper down the reef walls. If the fish can easily change depth, they can avoid the culling efforts done in shallow waters. They want to know if the larger fish they see in deeper waters move up to shallow areas, or stay at lower depths and breed there.

Elliott Jessup the Diving Safety member of the team is the one who documents their IMG_3877underwater adventures, and has the wonderful title of “explorer.” His experience with deep water diving began when he trained in Egypt’s Red Sea. Now managing the highly specialized diving equipment—the closed circuit re-breathing units—he explains how they can plunge much lower than average recreational divers. They are collecting lionfish at depths ranging from 200 to 400 feet.

I ask the ichthyologist on the team Luiz Rocha, why he wants to know what the lions are eating. “We need to know the species of fish,” he tells me. The prey fish the invaders are going after will need some protection. Know what fish they are eating will also give them information about where they are feeding.

These science divers are also taking DNA samples of the fish back to the lab in California. Lionfish most likely arrived in the Caribbean after being released by private aquarium owners. DNA testing will show where the fish actually come from.

I’ve seen lionfish on the menus of Cayman’s finest eaters, and some chefs are joining in

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

the culling efforts, providing a market for what is said to be a fine light, white fish. But I’ve never tried it.

“We’re giving the fish to the lodge and they’re going to serve it tonight,” Elliott tells me. Indeed, lionfish turns out to be the catch of the day at dinner at the Cobalt Coast. I’ve never tried it before, but I’m willing to take a chance.

I order lionfish ceviche and it is spectacular; the perfect balance of texture and flavor.IMG_3866

In case you find some fresh lionfish on your travels, here is a cookbook created especially to turn lionfish into a culinary delicacy. Creating a demand for it may encourage more large-scale extraction of the fish, the strategy most likely to be effective at removing the unwelcome invader from the waters of the Caribbean. So eat up!

 

Sunset Cruisin with Red Sail in Grand Cayman

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We headed out for a sunset cruise of the North Sound, our consolation for missing the popular Stingray City. It was too windy that afternoon and the choppy waters prevented us from communing with the impressively, large winged rays. But our more intimate sail with the crew and only a few guests of Red Sail was much more than only compensation. AfterDSC_0464 all, my husband Guy took the helm and sailed our sleek, nearly empty catamaran.

I forget how it all started; probably the last hints of Guy’s British accent. I don’t hear it anymore, he’s been in the states for so long. But Ben, our captain, heard it. He was born in France and raised in England so he caught a whiff, and they were off. I heard some of the chat carried on the wind, old stories of school, and the many previous lives of people who couldn’t stay in one place.

DSC_0466Ben had worked for the British postal service, but couldn’t look out a window all day. Guy, once a motorcycle messenger in London, now a field biologist, needs to dig around in the dirt and uncover the bones of large extinct mammals.

DSC_0463I was having my own fun talking to Jeff, who seemed to know everything about this island, and was very good at mixing the rum punch even in rough seas! Ben and Jeff are characters straight out of central casting; outgoing adventurers with big spirits, who of course have not escaped the attention of other writers.

DSC_0494We angled back into the dock loaded with more than just big fish stories as the moon moved our our sails.

I’d heard from Jeff that he DJs at one of clubs on 7 Mile Beach, and I can’t wait to hear him spin some Beach House!

Turtle Whispering at the Cayman Island Turtle Farm

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I didn’t know turtles could be so much fun before we visited the Cayman Island Turtle Farm. They are large, enchanting creatures that live up to 150 years and can grow up to 600 pounds. They put all that weight on with a diet of sea grasses. At the Turtle Farm they eat three times a day; they crowd together and spout water through their noses when they do.  You’re allowed to handle yearlings at the Touch Tanks. That was the real treat.

 

Benny, our guide, showed us how to hold a young turtle by the shell with both hands and DSC_0987rub under its neck with your fingers at the same time. My once wriggling little ball of flapping fins was transformed into a docile, contented little tyke. I felt like a turtle whisperer.

 

It’s also fascinating to see them in the many “ponds,” where young turtles in different stages of development hang out together.

 

When sighting Little Cayman and Cayman Brac in 1503, Columbus was struck by the DSC_0980abundance of green sea turtles in the surrounding waters, and so the Cayman Islands were first called Las Tortugas (The Turtles). In 2004 the green sea turtle was listed as an endangered species, and the turtle farm is a major conservation effort and the only one of its kind in the Caribbean.

 

We also met Sparky, the grande dame of the farm; a 65-year old female who laid 25,684 eggs during her long reproductive years, and now hangs out in a tank with the little ones in her retirement. (I wonder what she’s telling them?!)

 

Over 31,000 turtle have been successfully released into the wild from here. The educational center explains the history and development of the farm’s hatchery and release programs. Another mascot is the famous Sir Thomas Turtleton, who was released (with a tracking devise) after 30 years at the farm and made it all the way down to Honduras.

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Over the years this unique park has added meandering garden trails and multiple exhibits about Cayman heritage, wildlife and island ecosystems. You can swim in Breaker’s Lagoon and hide under its cascading falls; snorkel in the salt-water Boatswain’s Lagoon, which meanders though the property and contains a rich sampling of coastal sea life. Get a thrill in front of the viewing panels that reveal Predator Reef where you’ll see barracudas, tarpons, and grey sharks that glide ominously on the prowl.

 

DSC_0050_2In the aviary there are birds from all over the Caribbean.  The Cayman Islands’ National Bird is the Green Parrot and they like to squawk. The small busy colorful Honey Creepers might fly over your head, and the striking Scarlet Ibis; the National Bird of Trinidad certainly made its presence known.

Cayman cultural and social life is also part of this “farm.” In fact, the wooden rafters of the high ceiling in the reception building are reminiscent of the ribs of an upside-down catboat, a traditional boat used by local fisherman. Cayman Street, a street with replicas of Caymanian wooden houses, complete with the “caboose,” an outdoor kitchen.

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Some people call this place a marine park, others a living museum, and still others a zoo. DSC_0054_2Caymaninas call it the Turtle Farm, and you can see why they love their turtles and are devoted to their conservation and their island ecosystem.

 

 

A Farwell to HBO’s Treme: The Series About Post-Katrina New Orleans Brought Us Music, Food, & Friends

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Last night was the final episode of Treme after 3 seasons. The 5 final episodes, a shortened season 4,  aired in December and wrapped up some of the story lines. In an interview in New Orleans just before the premier of season 2, creator and executive producer, David Simon told me he needed 5 seasons to develop the characters and tell the story of post-Katrina New Orleans. There are no doubt multiple reasons for shortening the series, but 2 weeks ago he joked that HBO has an odd idea that their programming needs viewers. I’ve joked for some time, when asked what I’m working on, that I’m writing about the best TV series no one is watching. Treme is destined to become a cult classic, and may live a long and fruitful life in syndication. I hope so. This series deserves to be watched.

I have no doubt that we will continue to talk about the unique space the city of New Orleans occupies in American culture in a post-Treme television universe. The final song of the final episode expressed the sentiment I already feel; to Miss New Orleans.  I will miss this raucous indulgence in food and music (and other things).

Featuring food and music as major characters on television wasn’t easy, though they DSC_0031made it look that way. The variety of bands and performers, clubs and buskers that appeared on the program was a musical phenomenon in itself. Some of the most stunning sequences on Treme were performances shot on location at many of the smaller music venues, most outside of the well-known tourist spots on Bourbon Street. Frenchmen Street is currently the place to go for some of the most vibrant music and the jazz at Snug Harbor and other clubs took the program to creative realms wholly different from the confines of ordinary television. This kind of on-location TV that collects vast amounts of talented local musicians (and extras) is expensive and complicated to film and choreograph. Treme was quality television of the first order.

DSC_0314Many NOLA musicians appeared on the program, and their lives and music were major inspirations for key fictional portrayals on Treme. The character of Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) is loosely based on New Orleans saxophone player Donald Harrison Jr., who like Delmond, divides his artistic life between the Big Easy and the Big Apple. Harrison is also the son of legendary Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., long-time leader of the Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, Guardians of the Flame. Harrison consulted on costume design for Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters)DSC_0076 and offered instruction on how to move in the magnificent suits that can weigh over 150 pounds.

There is so much more to say about the music, and the culture of Mardi Gras Indians, and I will linger there in future posts, but food also played a major role in evoking New Orleans DSC_0036as a place and a culture, and deserves a mention in this tribute.

Speaking at the 92 Street Y on December 13, 2013, David Simon and executive producer Nina Noble, explained how food is central to the unique identity of New Orleans. Just as music took the series to new creative heights, so did the presentation of food. In visually rendering New Orleans cuisine, its chefs and restaurants, the writers, directors and cinematographers advanced the art of presenting food on camera, and food took its rightful place in narrative drama.

There was much to learn about filming real food. The use of fake food would have been, well, fake. If scenes took too long, the dishes would have to be replaced. In the first few episodes shot in kitchens where dialogue and interactions were also occurring between characters, the camera focused on the people and the food sometimes didn’t make it on screen. But by the second-to-last episode when chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) shares an extended moment with D.J. Davis (Steve Zahn) in her kitchen, the scene is an intoxicating blend of food and visual storytelling. The sequence ends when Janette offers Davis a perfect omelet for his 40th birthday. We see every aspect of her preparation and when she handed him the plate, I could almost smell it. Food as an extension of character and expression of emotion reached it full impact at that moment.

That December night at the 92 Street Y, one of the most renowned BBQ chefs in NOLA, the author and story editor for Treme, Lolis Eric Elie, joined in the discussion and talked about the important role New Orleans’ cuisine played in the series. He spoke lovingly about food, his family’s recipes, and the sense of identity that comes from cooking, from simple rice and red beans, to gumbo. If you’ve ever eaten in the city, you understand, and you will certainly miss New Orleans until you can get back for another plate of gumbo.

Related:

Mediating the Past: Treme and the Stories of the Storm

By Robin Andersen

Fall in The Northeast: The Place to Be

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I wasn’t born in New York. I am a migrant, and like many transplants I suffer from the perpetual sense that I should be somewhere else – a place that feels more like home. It’s still surprising for me to land in New York whenever I travel. It feels like it should be another stop on my itinerary, not my final destination. But not in the fall – autumn is a different story.IMG_2678 New York is where I want to be.

There is no better place to be than The Northeast when the trees light up.  Sugar maples are the first to announce cooler air and less humidity. They stand against a sky of polished glass.  The hickories are also early. They insist on a single hue of bright yellow.  After these early harbingers of change, all the trees soon release a progression of color that makes each day another adventure in sight. The Japanese maples are last, with the deepest reds, corals and pinks. For weeks, gusty winds toss the lazy grounded leaves up and swirl them back down and around in circles.

I never saw The Northeast in the fall until well after my college days in Southern California. Home was where the beach was. But at this time of year, home is a multihued landscape where the leaves float down and the backyard fire keeps my IMG_2677hands warm, where the days are a little shorter but the season stretches out and you don’t want to miss a minute of its gaudy display.

Trinidad on My Mind

 

DSCN4905My left hand found a hole in the wet limestone wall and the rushing water came closer as I clamped my fingers into it and moved up a little.  My right leg was still searching for an outcropping, a small indentation, anything my foot could settle into to take some weight off the left quad that was now burning above the pool of white water below.  I nestled my toes into a dimple in the wall hoping to find a bit of horizontal rock so I could use my foot and shift some weight. No way, my toes hit the wall before the ball of my foot found any purchase. At least I was attached with 3 limbs but I couldn’t move. The holes within my reach on the face of this waterfall were too high. I couldn’t position my legs to do the work and push me up. My muscular thighs have always been the strongest part of my body, probably from riding my horse bareback all through my teens. My upper body strength is a different story. My arms would never pull me straight up. I reached my right leg long, almost straight out, and tried anyway, wobbled a little and was still stuck midway up the side of the waterfall.

I looked down over my shoulder to assess the situation. The water in the pool created by the falls wasn’t angry or threatening. In fact it was looking more and more inviting. I had been on this wall for what seemed like an hour, but was probably was less then 10 DSCN4913 minutes. I could easily push hard away from the limestone and hit the calmer part of the pool feet first. It was plenty deep. There would be no headline in the travel section reporting, Frommer’s guidebook writer fatally injured in a climbing accident in Trinidad. As it turned out I didn’t have to jump.

This Trinidadian adventure has come back to me while I am sitting in an airy, whimsical restaurant waiting to interview the owner Alvin Clayton, who is from Trinidad. The walls are covered with Matisse inspired paintings. I’ve heard he did them all. It’s quite an oeuvre.  He named his restaurant Alvin & Friends because, after all, isn’t it nicer to share a meal with friends than eat alone? I’m not the first writer to come through these glass DSCN6138doors that open invitingly onto the small plaza in front. A New York City anchorwomen Sade Baderinwa, came all the way up to the suburbs to get a taste of Alvin’s Po Boy sandwich. I’m intrigued by what I’ve read and the local buzz that surrounds this place. I might be missing Trinidad a little too.

The manager looks embarrassed and tells me Alvin’s been delayed. He offers a rum punch and I’m happy. Almost every review includes the detail that Alvin got into the business when he partnered with Denzel Washington and others, to open a restaurant in Los Angeles called Georgia. On the south side of Melrose, It became a celebrity hangout and lasted for seven years. That was his first experience with the fusion cuisine that merges Trinidadian cooking with the favorite recipes of the American south.

When Alvin walks in I recognize him from pictures and his reputation as a former model. DSCN6126The man couldn’t take a bad picture. While we chat he adjusts the sound system with his cell phone, altering the volume and music, and changing the mood of the restaurant. He tells me, “If the music is wrong it’s just any ordinary place to eat.” The demi-walls of paneled glass that evoke the feeling of openness and seclusion at the same time are also his design.

In Trinidad, where steelpan drums originated, I began to loose track of how many different people and cultures passed through, stayed, or somehow left their mark on the island. Exploring the Caribbean gave Alex Stankie from Islands Magazine learns to play the Seal Drumsme a real taste for the mashup of people and history that is so much a part of the islands. The early history that created these fusions wasn’t so happy, especially after the arrival of Columbus, who encountered Trinidad in 1498. Beginning in the 1530s the Spanish were bent on conquering the Arawakan and Cariban speak peoples, and like most of the inhabitants of the Caribbean after colonial contact, they were very nearly wiped out. For the next 4 centuries, as Europeans vied for arable land, wealth and resources, different waves of peoples and cultures tossed up on Trinidad’s shores. By 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh (who introduced tobacco to England) showed up to attack the Spanish in his quest for El Dorado – the famed “City of Gold.” After the French revolution the arrival of plantation owners and their slaves from Martinique led to an agriculture-based economy of cocoa and sugar. But Trinidad remained a Spanish colony until 1797 when the British fleet sent 18 warships to take the island away from the Spanish.

The abolition of slavery on Trinidad in 1838 presented a problem for the powerful plantation owners, who then devised a system of “indenture” for Indian workers. From 1845 to 1917, they brought almost 150,000 East Indians to work on the sugarcane
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Today Indian food is a major ingredient of Trinidadian cuisine. The first thing I ate when I got off the plane was a Roti. I remember the smells and smoke from the vendor’s carts on an evening walk through Independence Square in the heart of Port of Spain where the classic “double” was in great demand. We waited in line to be served the hand-held treat made of coco bread and stuffed with curried chickpeas and a little hot sauce.

I am reminded of the smells and sounds of Trinidad having dinner at Alvin’s after my interview with him. What a great adventure it was all around. I finally did get off the waterfall, by the way. I grabbed the rope attached to the top of the rock wall, held onto it tight with both hands, and walked straight up the rest of the wet limestone, all the way to the top. The really fun part was coming down!

 

Life and Death on Mott Street in New York City’s Chinatown

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“Remember to wear the same clothes you wore the first time,” the email said. I had to return to the gaming arcade in Chinatown to redo an interview I’d done 3 weeks before. I found the jacket I wore in the back seat of the car. It never made it to the cleaners. I ran the iron IMG_0486over it, wondered if I’d gotten the hair cut before or after the last interview, looked at a picture I’d taken with the crew to see what earrings I was wearing that day and set out for 8 Mott Street in Manhattan. After a Metro North ride and a hike from the Canal St. exit of the 6 train, I arrived sweaty and late.

The answers were easier to come up with this time. The producer of a Norwegian TV series on global cultures of death was keen on including the endless, mindless killing done in the virtual war worlds of videogames in him programs. My ruminations on the emotionally detached thrills of cyber death were apparently important enough to rent the Family Fair IMG_0478Fun Center a second time. The Danish cameraman was grateful and apologized effusively for shooting me out of focus the first time around. I was relieved when he turned off the lights and unhooked the tiny microphone from my now dirtier jacket. I walked out onto Mott Street and an intermittent drizzle and looked forward to exploring the people and shops of Chinatown.

Up the street Pings offered Dim Sum and Peking Duck and the first thing I did was eat. The IMG_0602dumplings were hot off the rolling steam tray and I managed to pack away three different varieties – pork, shrimp and chives, and crab – each with a different texture inside the soft sculpted shell. I drank more tea. I sat next to Spaniards who, not thinking anyone understood, said the woman walking out the door was fat – gordita.

A man with a shaved head dressed all in black walked up the steps into the dinning room carrying his crutches. Getting to the top, he limped over to a table on an artificial leg and sat down on a pillow. The Asian woman and little girl with him reminded me of all the documentaries IMG_0616I’ve seen about the Vietnam War. They were happy together and the child grabbed his shoulder affectionately as they ordered.

The Spaniards ordered Sprit and wanted salt, which I had to translate for the waiter who pointed to the soy sauce on their table. They weren’t satisfied.

Back out on the sidewalk I walked north up the narrow street and was pleased that the
threat of rain kept the crowds away. A manikin                  in bright red silk looked down from a shop
IMG_0635 window and curios of all sorts pushed out of their stalls. A trading company with a
reproduction of a saddled horse from the Tang Dynasty caught my eye and I opened the shop door entering into a riot of ceramics. “Why do you only have numbers on the stuff in the window,” I asked the Chinese man watching TV behind the counter. He surprised me as he said, “It’s an old trick to get you into the store,” sounding like any average New IMG_0630Yorker. “You were born here,” I observed a little later. “Yes,” he said, “I grew up right here next to the Italians and went to the church school across the street. He told me how Mott Street had changed over the years, from mostly little restaurants to all these curio shops. I told him what I was doing in the neighborhood and he said that before it was a gaming arcade, the Family Fair Fun Center was much different and used to have a huge dragon that popped out a
IMG_0626box and scared him as a kid. Our conversation was wide-ranging, from the art in his shop to his relief that he and his wife never moved to New Jersey, something they contemplated once to raise their girls. “But we would have been stuck in the suburbs wearing designer clothes and mowing a lawn.” Since I live in the suburbs of New York City, I felt somewhat defensive and explained that I moved to New York from Southern California, which was very suburban. I moved to the suburbs because it was what I was used to, and it was only a half hour out of the city on Metro North. I mentioned my garden, which most people embrace readily, but I IMG_0628trailed off and asked if the 88 year old
shop had a website. Surprisingly, it did not, and yet it remained a viable business still owned by his in-laws. I admired a green rooster that he told me symbolized prosperity.  I wished him that and left.

Back on Mott I wanted to find the Vegetarian Restaurant that I hadn’t been to in years, and to my surprise it was still there. I loved the chicken made of yams. The food stalls carried IMG_0656everything from sweets, to oysters to huge pinkish-red Dragon Fruits. I wondered what the hairy-looking brown fruit was until I saw one opened up. Litchi! My favorite! I bought a pound and she raised 4 fingers. I gave her four dollars.

The neighborhood park was full of people, ambling and lingering under trees and on benches. Some women sat around a table that held a large book.  Some sat outside the fence with their chairs tilted forward as they peered through the iron grates. I heard the music and went around to see the long handled string instruments with tiny bowls at the bottom. The high-pitched lament of what seemed a melancholy ode fascinated me.

Video: Music in the park

After a while I headed once again toward Canal Street, and once again was distracted by food when I IMG_0659passed Mulberry Street and saw the Italian ices in the long refrigerated case on the sidewalk. I bought a double scoop; hazelnut and peach. The cup was tiny and the afternoon was now hot and I couldn’t eat it fast enough to stop it from dripping down into the sleeve of my jacket. The lining stuck to the skin on the inside of my forearm until the air conditioning dried the air as the train sped back to suburbs. I would finally have to get this jacket to the cleaners.

 

The Art of Recycling: Glass Blowing at Maho Bay Eco-Village, St. John, USVI

The tent village at Maho Bay is one of the best examples of green travel in the Caribbean. The wood-framed canvas tents surrounded by forest are breezy and light, and have no DSCN5478running water. Most refreshing is the lack of bottled water. We filled our big container with drinking water from a communal spigot everyday, and walked to the bathrooms and showers around the grounds. Recycling is always a problem, especially on an island and it was a relief not worry about where the constant stream of plastic water bottles (so prevalent at tourist destinations) would end up. But I hadn’t expected that glass recycling would be so much a part of what makes Maho Bay a prime example of sustainable travel. It was a main attraction most evenings, and certainly part of the entertainment.

As you know or can imagine, glass blowing is an art that requires many talents – from DSCN5378creativity to courage. Working with dangerous amounts of heat, fire and molten sand takes a certain kind of temperament. Blowing into a long metal tube at the exact moment when the glowing, undefined blob at the other end is the most pliable requires equals measures of faith and experience.  As we sat in the reflected glow of the furnace watching the glass blowers, I learned that knowing how to dance is also part of the skill set.

The movements of the three glassblowers were confined to a small radius from the stove’s door with its sporadic roar of flames when opened, to the low table holding the shaping tools across the concrete floor. DSCN5390A slight amount of wiggle room was available on either side. A sink and cooling oven formed the boundary on the back wall, and we, the spectators sat in front and watched. A molten chunk hung to the end of an impossibly long rod each time it was pulled out of the furnace. Getting it to the other side involved a choreography of stepping back, balancing and reeling around so that the chunk ended up 180 degrees from where it started. The process demanded a smooth, fluid movement, one able to convince the unformed glass to stay attached to the other end of the pole. Of course the young, agile women could not open and close the oven door, and so she must also avoid hitting her teammate, the door opener, with the dangerous, unwieldy thing. For his part, the door opener would twist slightly and step back following her lead, the long wand serving as a conductor’s baton. They waltzed around the floor that way for the better part of an evening. 

The third member of the team was actually a visiting artist sharing his expertise as a temporary Maho Bay resident. Most of the time he sat in an iron arm chair and rolled the DSCN5385pole along the arms, coaxing a design out of the chunk and instructing the young woman when to give it more air. A blowtorch also helped coax the molten sand into a desirable shape. For its part the piece of recycled art rose and fell, was fashioned and refashioned, expanded and contracted and transformed many times before it achieved its final form as a flower surrounded in its own vase. Video: Click here for a quick peek at the action.

By the way, the furnace is heated using recycled cooking oil.