Hiking California’s Anza Borrego Desert in Bloom

DSC_0055We 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, and grab your attention as you hike in the many canyons on a quest to see the desert in bloom.

DSC_0126Arriving 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 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, DSC_0012hot, 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.

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.

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.

DSC_0881

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.

IMG_3664

 

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.

Cuba2007 223 copy

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.

Cuba2007 133-3 copy

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.

DSC_0281

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

DSC_0287.JPG

 

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.

DSC_0011

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.

DSC_0104

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.

Lionglove

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

DSC_0474

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

DSC_0958

 

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.

DSC_0955

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.

DSC_0024_2

 

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

DSC_0116

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

IMG_2666

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.