Finding Paradise

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                                                            N’allez Pas Trop Vite” Marcel Proust, 1919

I’m sleepy, just waking up, still in bed. Guy has brought me a cup of tea and I’m listening as he tells me about the conversations he’s having with his mom. They’re reading Proust together. He’s trying to help jog her failing memory after surgery. I knew Sonia loved to read the French novelist, if one can call what he writes novels. Just last month, when we stayed in Sonia’s downstairs guestroom in her masterfully fenestrated Georgian house in Winchester, we found three different editions of every volume Proust wrote. At this point Guy is three weeks into their discussions, and of course, we are now talking about Proust.

I have things to do, I have to get up, I have a book to write about my latest project—searching for paradise—but Proust has a tendency to slow everything down. Guy starts reading a passage from “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” a valiant attempt at interpreting the author by Alain de Botton—which proclaims under the title, Not A Novel. De Botton is recounting an exchange between Proust and an American Diplomat in Paris at the end of the Great War. The American, Harold Nicolson, writes in his memoir, “Proust is white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced,” and goes on to tell of his conversation with him. Nicolson is asked about the peace meetings he’s been attending, telling Proust, “Well, we generally meet at 10:00, there are secretaries behind…”  These words elicit from the grubby Frenchman a barrage of complaints and demands for more detail, “Mais non, recommencez. Vous prenez la voiture de la Delegation. Vous descendez au Quai d’Orsay. Vous montez l’escalier. Vous entrez dans la Salle. Et alors? …Mais precisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas trop vite.”  Proust’s entreaties are to slow down, take your time, tell me about the car you came in, the stairs you walked up. Don’t go so fast.

As my mind wonders I hear Guy say, “I’ve been finding if you do slow down and start by recalling details, things start to come back to you. I’ve been remembering things about traveling across the Sahara I had forgotten.” Long ago Guy told me about hitchhiking from England to West Africa and back. It was 1974 and he would turn 20 later that year. He still has the old Michelin map of Africa. He pulls it off a cluttered shelf in his office now and then and unfolds it, and one can see the route he took in demarcated jagged lines and circles where he stayed. Over the years I’ve heard only snippets of this adventure. I know he stayed in Nigeria for two months and almost got a job teaching English. On his way back someone stole his boots one night when he was sleeping, even though he buried them in the sand. By then he had run out of money and had only flip-flops to wear as he pushed north through Franco’s Spain during the winter. One of the most surprising things he ever told me was that some years later, he threw away the journal he wrote while he was traveling. “Wait! What!? Why?” I shrieked. To this day he has never come up with an adequate explanation.

Now he starts telling the story.

“I left Algiers and traveled south across the Atlas mountains by bus—at night in a lightning storm. At daybreak we came down from the mountains onto the desert floor, and 200 kilometers or so later we arrived at Ghardaia. I was looking around the town that lay in a depression in the desert.” He gestures by dipping his hand in the air saying. “A soft valley. The houses and buildings were made of mud and everything was a faded white.” He tells me, “I hadn’t been there long when I met 3 young Europeans traveling together.”

Once again my mind wonders, this time to Tony Judt, and his book The Memory Chalet. Judt, the wonderful historian and political essayist, wrote the book in his last days while suffering from ALS. Paralyzed and unable physically to write, we would lay in bed and search through what he called his Memory Chalet. By walking through the doors and entering the ordered rooms of a Swiss Chalet, now in his mind, he would retrieve his early experiences. In the morning Judt would recount the reconstructed memories to the young woman writing them down. I think to myself, Guy’s been searching through his Memory Kasbah.

Screen Shot 2018-03-21 at 1.14.06 PM“Who were these people you met there?” I ask him.

“They were English and Dutch and had been traveling together for a while,” he says. “They knew each other pretty well. I can’t remember how we met, but we started doing things together. They spoke French pretty well and had gotten to know a merchant in the town who sold local wares, things like baskets and sandals, rugs made of camel hair, and dates, of course. One night the merchant invited us to his home for dinner,” he says, then pauses.

I ask, “What happened?”

Looking thoughtful, he tells me, “We found ourselves in a walled garden where palm trees grew. We ate outside on a low table, and the man brought out platters of couscous and little dishes of dates and nuts. It was the first time I ever ate couscous.” He paused again before saying, “We were in the middle of the desert in the middle of this town sitting in a walled-garden eating couscous under the moon shadows of date palms,” he repeats with amazement. “One of the fellows I was with was so moved, as I was, that he looked around marveling, swept his arm across the setting, and said to our host, ‘C’est un Paradis.’”

As he speaks it strikes me that Guy’s words sound as if they’re coming off the page of a travel journal, a record of his thoughts and impressions. Yet these are the reflections of a different kind of journey, one to the past, to the deep and pleasant moonlit night in a Saharan oasis located now firmly in his memory. Inspired by Proust, he found Paradise hiding there in the past. He walked through the once faded alley ways of his own magical Kasbah, and pieced together the fragments of time. And now he was able to return to that place, as if he had taken a little taste of the madeleine that transported Proust back to the sensations of his childhood home in Combray.

He says, “After stressing out getting through France, Spain, Morocco and northern Algeria, it was suddenly OK to slow down.”

I ask him “Why were you rushing so much?”

“I was reading a lot of Kerouac then, and I must have been influenced by his maniacal intensity to just keep going—It’s all about getting to the next place. He pays no attention to anything on the way.” (Ironically, Kerouac’s main character in On the Road is Sal Paradise.)

“But suddenly none of us were in a hurry anymore. I had enough money at that point to stay there for a few more days, so I did. The people were reserved, but they were gentle and friendly too. I also needed to figure out how to cross the desert. After Ghardaia there was no public transport south through the Sahara.”

 

Since then Ghardaia, Algeria, the town Simon de Beauvoir once described as a Cubist painting, has been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site. The inhabitants of the city that Guy moved among so many years ago are known as the Mzab people who fled to Ghardaia in the 10th century to escape persecution in the north. He never again saw the three young travelers he met there.

We look up the word Paradise and though it is attributed first to middle French, then lower Latin then to Greek, if you go back far enough you find the word’s origins to be Avestan, one of the two ancient languages of old Iranian, (the language that documents the sacred books of Zoroastrianism). The meaning of Paradise in Persian refers specifically to a walled garden.

Guy says, “I’ll have to tell my mom that Proust is helping me remember things I had forgotten about my trip to Africa.” Guy told me his mom never understood why he decided to hitchhike to Africa, especially since most of his friends were going to India to visit Ashrams and find enlightenment, on a journey his Dad used to call the hash trail to the east. I tell Guy, “You crossed the Sahara and found Paradise instead.”

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Hunte’s Garden in Barbados is a World Apart

As soon as you pass through the gates at Hunte’s Garden you are in a magical place where every pathway leads to a surprise—a terrace with seating for two, a spectacular planting of blooms, a laughing Buddha.

img_5688Up the hill from the surf beach aptly named Soup Bowl in Barbados, we almost missed the entrance into Hunte’s Garden on our adventure to meet Anthony and experience the delights of his garden, which he describes as his hobby. Making a sharp right, we braked suddenly at the garden entrance, backed out and parked on the road. We were soon greeted by our host who instructed us to follow the stone pathways down into the sink hole, a huge cave dug in the limestone that once had a roof, but after thousands of years of thinning, finally fell to the ground

img_5695The result is a deep crevasse in the landscape that with Anthony’s touch is transformed into one of the main garden attractions in the West Indies.

img_5903-2As we followed fanciful footpaths down the green walls meandering through palms, orchids and urns, piano sonatas floated out of hidden speakers created an intoxicating and sensual mix sights and sounds.

img_5713After the botanical delights of the garden we had cocktails with our host who served rum punch and sat with all his guests on a charming balcony covered in plants, pottery and paintings amid the lively chatter of like-minded, international strangers enchanted by Anthony, his stories, garden, hospitality and gentle genus for conversation.

Anthony talks to a young horticultural intern visiting the Hunte's Garden

Anthony talks to a young horticultural intern visiting Hunte’s Garden

 

City of Gold: A Food Writer’s Portrait of Los Angeles

 

jonathan-gold-1In City of Gold we ride in the cab alongside Jonathan Gold as he cruises LA avenues pointing out small community cafés, strip-mall hideaways and taco trucks. The film is a splash of colorful plates we drink in with our eyes, it’s an audio mix of eighteenth century opera (Gold was trained as a classical cellist) and punk rock, it’s a sidewalk that shimmers in evening light where he parks his truck and climbs out to peer into a food wagon. We see kitchens big and small, some with woks ablaze, others with tattooed chefs serving up lamb bites, and toward the end of the film, even a hot dog off a grill in South LA. We watch him eat, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of food writers, editors and novelists. We see him from the inside, from the point of view of the cook who takes his order, we see him sit at his dinning room table and watch his fingers meander aimlessly over a computer’s keyboard with an empty screen, we see books piled up on each stair all the way to the second floor of his modest LA home. The film tells the behind-the-scenes story of the cultural food mosaic hidden under LA’s bright sun, of the kitchens where immigrants carry out the full power of their culinary creativity, of the back-story of Jonathan Gold’s food writing as he procrastinates (though he publishes 150,000 words a year) by reading a book or two before he starts. It’s a film whose main purpose is to shine a very bright light on the power of the word.

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His words translate the cultural meanings of food, they map LA neighborhoods and their histories, they describe the dance of diversity that allows readers (and now, viewers) to see LA in an entirely different light, even though this documentary also grounds itself at one point under the huge white Hollywood sign on the hillside. While it illuminates the brilliance that won Gold the first Pulitzer Prize for food writing in 2007, City of Gold captures the tastes of LA so vividly you can almost smell them. It’s a full sensory experience.Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 10.05.58 AM

In a film as much about Gold as the LA Food scene, the narratives converge with great uplift at times. A review by Gold can rescue a small eatery from financial disaster, such as the Ethiopian restaurant Meals by Genet whose clientele fell off disastrously after 9/11. One review by Gold and it thrived. (But viewers are left to wonder about negative reviews.)

Gold’s environmentalists brother Mark, finally convinces him to help save endangered sharks. When he does, California passes legislation banning their sale. This is the text shown highlighted on the screen;

But as much as you may love conpoy, dried flotation bladders, crab eggs, braised fish cheeks and the other esoterica of Cantonese seafood cooking, it is hard to work up an appetite for the bitter taste of extinction.

In a year when Hollywood lost itself in glaring whiteness, City of Gold explodes with tastes and color and an unlikely hero who writes it all down.

The New York Times Says St. John is No. 4 on Top Places to Visit: And It’s Better At Concordia Eco-Resort

 

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By the time The Virgin Island’s Daily News carried the front-page story from the New York Times listing Coral Bay in St. John no. 4 on its 52 places to go in 2016, we had already discovered the magic of the place. We were here to get far, far away, and very close to the sounds, smells and feel of a small Caribbean island. So we booked into a cliff-side eco-resort with screened tents, low lights, solar showers and unimpaired ocean vistas.

Getting There

After a flight from New York and a journey across 2 islands, we arrived at Concordia at dinnertime with grumbling stomachs and big appetites. Hot sun and sea breezes hit us on the deck of the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John. From Cruz Bay the open-air, Soca-blasting taxi hugged steep cliffs along the coast road—at times the wide truck body occupying both lanes of the narrow mountain switchbacks. When oIMG_4319ur rolling adventure descended back down to sea level, views of the perfect Coral Bay crescent shimmered in the sunlight. Back up the hill we continued on to the eastern reaches of the island.

After checking in at Concordia and leaving bags in our eco-tent—all the while marveling at the stunning seascapes from seemingly every point on the property—we headed straight for food.

Open Mic Night

By some cosmic good fortune it was Monday night at Cafe Concordia; open mic night—misnamed because the local musician who host the night, John “Johnny B” Bullock and Lauren Magnee, are anything but amateurs. They play here with lots of friends once a week and are so accomplished they effortlessly jam with musical guests visiting the island.

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Café Concordia

We settled in at one of the high 2-tops that looked straight into the kitchen and perused menu offerings of appetizers and specialty cocktails, keeping an eye on the chef as happy hour segued into dinner against the rhythms of rock and soul. The chef’s name was Treva, and he moved in the kitchen with unruffled confidence, managing sauté pans on open flames, pulling roasted fare out of the oven, and ladling generous portions of rice from aDSC_0211 huge pot. The low sun cast long rays of light across Salt Pond Bay, through the dining room, and straight into the kitchen. Treva hit the bell for each dish in sunglasses. Without them the old-fashioned paper tickets would have been back lit and unreadable.

So good was the food and varied the offerings, I was eager to find out more about the café and the people who created this extraordinary delight in a remote corner of the Caribbean. I got a sense of it when Joe Feraco the manager, ended the evening by thanking each of the staff by name. They worked together as a team, that much was clear. And Joe was not a stand-around kind of guy; he bused tables and worked the floor every night we were there, taking a seat only after most of the guests had walked off into the star-filled night.

Joe Feraco, hands-on manager of Cafe Concordia

Joe Feraco, hands-on manager of Cafe Concordia

Everything about this place was as surprising and extraordinary as the musicians and the food.

The Chef

When I got a few minutes to chat with Treva, he told me he was cooking for roughnecks on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico when he got a call from his friend Kim, who organizes Concordia’s daytime food and beverage. She told him Joe was looking for a new chef.

Treva’s first job in a restaurant was washing dishes. Then he moved on to waiting tables and ended up at Arnauds in NOLA setting Bananas Foster aflame. My guess is he would have stayed in the Crescent City, even with the steep competition for all positions food related, but as he said, “Katrina happened.” Migrating north like so many, he eventually ended up in the kitchen of the Chicago Marriott, where he learned from a talented team how to deliver massive amounts of specialty meals at break-neck speed. There he added sashimi to his growing culinary repertoire.

Concordia General Manager Wayne Lloyd and his wife Roxanne  dining at the Cafe Concordia

Concordia General Manager Wayne Lloyd and his wife Rosanne dining at the Cafe Concordia

 

Chef Treva Porche's Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette

Chef Treva Porche’s Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette

Watching Treva serve up Shrimp Creole, Po’boys, red beans, rice and Andouille sausage, I wondered how such southern classics came to share the menu with Tamarind Chicken Wings, Tempura Coconut Shrimp and Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette. Treva told me he came from the deep south, a Louisiana parish called Terrebonne – he spelled it for me. Googling it I saw what he meant. It’s a little outpost sitting on the edge of the gulf coast. His time in New Orleans

Roasted Beet Salad with tomatoe, fresh mozzarella, balsamic reduction, and Josephine's local organic greens

Roasted Beet Salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella, balsamic reduction, and Josephine’s local organic greens

had been a later stop on his culinary journey—the tastes and smells of southern cuisine had left an early craving on his pallet.

 

 

 

There is much more to be said about the character and attitude of this island hideaway. And the rest of Concordia Eco-Resort is as creative, innovative and satisfying as the Café. I’ll tell you about all of it in future posts.

Salt Pond Bay is a short hike down the hill from Concordia Eco-Resort and is wonderful swimming!

Salt Pond Bay is a short hike down the hill from Concordia Eco-Resort and is a wonderful place to swim!

Hiking California’s Anza Borrego Desert in Bloom

 

DSC_0972We got our first glimpse of Anza Borrego winding down the steep 7-mile grade of Banner Pass that takes you from the mountains to the desert floor. The blooming desert lilacs shed a light blue hue over the surrounding hillsides as we descended. It was the middle of March, the time when wildflowers create fields of color at the base of the mountains, DSC_0126and grab your attention as you hike in the many canyons on a quest to see the desert in bloom.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we took a swim in the hotel pool and ate an early dinner on the veranda. The fronds on the tops of the tall palms rustled in the breeze that

One of five refreshing pools at La Casa Del Zorro

One of five refreshing pools at La Casa Del Zorro

cools the hot daytime temperatures of the desert. There are few pleasures lovelier than sitting in that breeze with a cold drink at the end of a long, hot, arid day.

When I told my friends we were going to the Anza Borrego Desert for spring break, no one knew where that was. Not surprising for Northeasterners. After all, it lies east of San Diego and is part of the Senora desert ecosystem, all the way across the country and an hour or 2 away from a major airport.

Blooming Brittle Bush and Beavertail Cactus on the way to Big Spring in Tubb Canyon

Blooming Brittle Bush and Beavertail Cactus on the way to Big Spring in Tubb Canyon

I visited the place a couple times in college and wanted to share it with my partner who was born in Oxford, England and loves the sense of space not possible on a small island; only a large continent offers that. And a desert is full of space—especially this one. It’s big sky country too. Borrego Springs is one of only 9 international “dark sky” communities. The lights are muted and low and the effect is dramatic; at night the sky is alight with constellations.

Hiking on the many trails in this expansive 600,000 acres protected area reveals vast landscapes and stunning vistas. It is the second largest state park in the “lower 48.” (The 6 million arches of “forever wild” forest in Adirondack State Park makes it the largest publically protected area in the contiguous United States.)

A moment of Zen as hikers listen to the chattering desert wrens and the traveling waters of Big Spring in a desert Oasis.

A moment of Zen as hikers listen to the chattering desert wrens and the traveling waters of Big Spring in a desert Oasis.

But the experience of Anza Borrego is truly unique; an area called a desert, yet so full of life.

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Though they look real, these  horses are just some of the many fanciful animal sculptures by artist Ricardo Breceda in Galleta Meadows. His work turns Borrego Springs into a magical landscape.

Creating an Eco-lodge for Divers on Grand Cayman: Arie Barendrecht Knows How to Do It.

(author’s note: I covered Cayman for Frommer’s last year and found many wonders that didn’t fit in a guidebook! Here’s one.)

Arie Barendrecht has agreed to talk to me about what it takes to run his popular dive lodge, the Cobalt Coast on Grand Cayman, as a Green Globe certified ecolodge.DSC_0873

We sit in the shady breezeway of the lodge, perched on the iron shore of West Bay as the sun glistens on the sea. The Dutch-born owner with the piercing blue eyes pats the large three-ringed binder on the table. “This is my green book,” he says. The over-stuffed binder is filled with receipts, documentation, calculations, and all his notes about what he’s done to, what we might call—go green. After all, he’s been on the cutting-edge of earth-friendly initiatives on the island for years. He started recycling, using non-disposables, cutting energy use, and saving water long before others ever uttered the words, sustainable travel.

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

We just get chatting and he jumps up to bid a guest a safe trip home and help load luggage into a van. Arie’s really an old fashion hotelier who seems to have a calling for hospitality. But for years he’s also been figuring how to overcome any number of hurdles to make this place green. He’s had to become an expert in what might seem to be mundane trivia like how to combine the best non-phosphate laundry detergent with fabric softner, because he says, “You know conditioners and whiteners don’t mix.” He’s not one to give up easily. He’s found a powered detergent that seems to do the trick. Who would have guessed such little things would make a big impact.

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After another break for Arie to greet new guests, he explains the complicated procedures of saving water by recycling and reusing every little drop, even drip water, and using it multiple times. He talks about changing incandescent bulbs at the inn with LEDs. This is not a cheap process; some cost as much as $13 a piece. Nor is he content to stick with the cold-feeling blue-light bulbs, now known to be missing the warm yellows of the light spectrum. The good ones are a bit more expensive, but he found them. On the bright side he says, the new bulbs last longer and he doesn’t have to walk around with the ladder as much as he used to. The light at the Cobalt Inn is warm and saturated, just like the sea and the overall feel of the place.

Changing light bulbs seems like a small step, but together, his small steps constitute a considerable lowering of energy use. Of course he is well aware that the shallow reefs of the Cayman Islands are particularly susceptible to the bleaching that comes with warmer water temperatures cause by climate change.

At times he does get discouraged about the problem of endless waste, but he usually DSC_0863finds a way to deal with it. Take for example paper recycling—there is none on the island, yet. He knows how much ink is in a phonebook and how toxic it can be, so he’s found a repurposing for old books and other paper by taking them to the local animal shelter where they are used again.

Recently the government of Grand Cayman recognized his efforts with a Governor’s Conservation Award. He and the staff of the inn sponsored an aluminum can recycling drive at the local Primary School. He describes working with the children and how motivated they get about the work. His example has inspired local gradeschoolers, as the award states, “to become lifelong stewards of the environment.”

 

I complain that the website doesn’t have any information about the award, and maybe it needs an update. But he’s a graceful European not given to boasting. He’s concerned with other things. Every detail of this cozy, ecoldge has been carefully planned, from the architectural design of the intimate 2-story structure with huge windows, to the imported Finish textiles that decorate the rooms.

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe CertifiedAccommodations such as these with the upscale resort feel attract a wide range of clients and about a third of the guests are non-divers. As a Green Globe certified lodge, it is also a favorite of international travelers of the green persuasion.  I grill him on his many names given for the Cobalt Coast—an inn, a hotel an ecolodge, a resort, and tell him in my overconfident way, that he’s diluting his brand. I ask if he’s thought of settling on one description, but he gives me his knowing grin and shrugs. He cares little for such marketing nonsense. He knows what it takes to make it all come together in unconventional ways. After all, if he stuck to conventional ways he never would have tried, or succeeded, in passing the stringent certification standards required by Green Globe, something other have tried and failed to do. Arie wrote the book on green, or at least he put it together in a large green binder.

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Adventures in Cuba: My Last Cab Ride

Standing in the street in front of a line of cabs in old Havana, I tell my Cuban travel minder, “It’s not my fault I missed the bus, it never came to my hotel this morning,” Cuba2007 011 copy“You have to take a cab now and pay the driver the 20 dollar fare to the airport,” she insists.

“But I don’t have the money,” I exclaim.

Through a bit of bad planning and a bunch of plastic cards that are worthless in Cuba, I have only one twenty-dollar bill left in my bag for the airport tax. But it seems I need $40. I can’t quite imagine her letting me miss my plane. Is she really willing to be responsible for a hapless American getting stuck in Cuba? I’m figuring she’s going to relent and get me to the airport somehow. But this friendly negotiation is taking time. She insists that she’s got no available drivers and there is no other way to get there in time.

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Sunset in Trinidad, Cuba

In the backseat of the cab I see beautiful old Havana speeding past. Leaving Cuba is hard anyway. I’ve explored only a small part of it. Taking a bus on my own down to Trinidad, one the most well preserved colonial towns in the Caribbean, I felt like I time-jumped into the 1930s. The cobblestone streets are faced with huge old wooden doors that open onto secret interior courtyards where families chat in gardens, and in my case greet their guests. After getting off the bus finding which door to knock on was an adventure in itself. I asked a food vendor, the one giving grilled meat to a cowboy who just got off his horse. The grizzled meat vendor directed me up the next street, to the house on the corner of the square. Evenings there emitted an atmosphere of people, stone walkways, smoke, outdoor music, and dancing of course. The steps were classic salsa, but the pace twice as fast as I’d ever tried. Life seemed to have a different pace and purpose here; to take it in through every sense, intensely, relentlessly and doused in a good deal of sweat.

But I didn’t think it would be literally difficult to get off the island. “You can get another foreigner at the airport to give you the twenty dollars for the exit tax,” the driver tells me, expecting me to give him my last $20.

I can’t imagine begging for money at the airport, or anyone actually giving it to me. “I can get the money to you right away,” I promise. “I know people coming down next month on a delegation.” He resists that idea with a skeptical shake of his head. We’re half way to the airport – it’s getting dire.

I study him, wracking my brain. It’s hard to read the face I see in the rear-view mirror with the dark glasses. He’s a think, dark, handsome man. I see he’s wearing a gold neck chain and get an idea. I reach into the back of the car and struggle with my suitcase, turning it so I can reach the zipper. Once open, I dig through it.

“Do you have a girlfriend,” I ask. “No, I have a lot of lady friends,” he says. “Not a favorite one?” I suggest. “Maybe,” he says. “Do you give her presents?” I query tentatively. “No, I don’t need to,” he says. “Well, maybe that’s why you don’t have a girlfriend,” I say boldly. I lean forward and reach my outstretched arm between the seats so he can see my open hand. I ask, “Why don’t you give her a pair of these.”

About 5 pairs of earrings are tangled on my palm. “Choose a pair you think she’ll like,” I say encouragingly. He looks but hesitates. Undaunted, I continue, “Look, here’s a lovely pair of silver ones I got in New Mexico. They’re made by Native Americans.” His head shacks again, more slowly this time.

All at once I realize my mistake, but it’s too late.

At the airport I get out of the cab and he comes around to say goodbye. I thank him, and we smile slowly at each other. Five pairs of earrings makes this an expensive ride, but worth it because I can still pay the airport tax and get back to New York. And he won’t have to choose just one girlfriend now for a while.

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One of the many all-inclusive resorts along the beach at Veradero that Americans have been unable to enjoy all these years. I’m glad this will change!

 

 

 

 

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. Their Director of Education Merryl Kafka was on board with lots of tidbits about the extraordinary lives of whales.

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!