Thursday, October 19, 2017

Home Sweet Homestay



             Apropos of the connectivity of our world today, I booked a home stay with a Quechua family in Ecuador through Airbnb. From my first-world home on Sullivan’s Island, it seemed like a soft adventure for solo travel and a good way to practice speaking Spanish. Especially for $10 a night. But as I rambled into the dark countryside in a cab that kept stopping to ask directions, I became concerned. 
Especially when my cabbie gave up.  He hailed another driver and directed me to “Get in his cab. Maybe he can find it.”  I was  dropped off at a steep rock staircase.   On a boulder, the words Loma Wasi and “welcome” in three languages were scrawled in chipped paint.  I bolstered my courage and schlepped my suitcase up the stairs. “Hola,” I called as I entered the courtyard full of hanging laundry.   Puppies scampered underfoot.  A tarp covered with corn husks covered the ground.  Mercedes, the family matriarch, greeted me as she fed stalks into a smoky fireplace and mixed dough to make tortillas. Diana, her daughter, was grinding roasted pumpkin seeds with a mortar and pestle to make a sauce for purple potatoes.  I offered to help and soon we all sat around the dinner table:  a family of 4 visiting from Quebec, a volunteer from Toronto and the five family members.
My comfortable room.
            After dinner, they showed me to my room.  I had a comfortable bed, a private bathroom with a flush toilet and a shower with occasional hot water.  The silhouette of Imbabura Volcano filled my window, the town’s lights far below.  Piles of finely woven Ecuadorian blankets covered the bed.  Although it was July, I needed them all.  There was even strong Wi-Fi.  But that night, loud skittering sounds from inside my ceiling made me pull the blankets over my head.  “I may leave early,” I wrote in my journal.  “I draw the line at rats.”    
       But the next day I mellowed. Andy, the volunteer, admonished me about the rats “That’s life on a farm!”  The family entranced me.  They never stopped working.  They swept the dusty courtyard, did washtubs full of laundry by hand and tended animals. Making breakfast involved picking fruit to juice, milking the cow for coffee, gathering eggs for omelets and (if it was the right weekday) hiking up the hill to the neighbors to get fresh bread. Then it was time to start dinner. One day Andy was tasked with moving big boulders from the garden, putting them in a wheelbarrow and dumping them across the yard.  As he began, Mercedes filled a burlap sack with boulders and slung it heavily over her shoulder.  “Isn’t there something easier you can do today Mercedes?” he asked her.  But she kept on.
             Mario, the patriarch, was proud of his youthful travels to Europe with his pan flute band and his ability to cure diseases through shamanic ceremonies involving guinea pigs. A box of the squealers was in the backyard awaiting roasting on special occasions.  On a particularly clear day he took us up the hill to see Cotacachi Volcano.  It’s said that the snow on its peak means that the mountain had sex with Imbabura Volcano.  “Don’t go in that ravine at night,” he pointed out along the route, “there is bad energy there.” He told us about a guy who followed a blond gringa and went missing for fifteen days.  Phantoms roam the mountainsides. 
Bricks in process.
            The surrounding community of Tunibamba builds bricks. Along the one-hour walk into the nearest town, I saw several pits from which clay has been excavated.  Cows are yoked together to stomp and mix the ingredients. Then blocks are cut, often by families including children, and left to dry in the sun.  Occasional trucks grunt up the hill to carry them away.  But at Loma Wasi, they had begun this home stay enterprise instead.  An English speaking relative made them a slick website and took care of the bookings.   His responsiveness was much better than the lackadaisical approach I found at many tourist offices in the country.  Appreciative comments by visitors from around the world attest to their success. 
I spread a little tattoo love.
            We were mutually curious.  Mercedes and I discovered that we were both grandmothers about the same age.  “Tell me about your animals,” she asked.  “I have none,” I replied which left her wondering if I was really as rich as she supposed. One night in a bit of exuberance fueled by a little rum another visitor had brought, I instigated a dance session toUptown Funk.  Diana was so amused, she videoed it and showed it to the neighbors.

            I was glad I had bucked up and had such an authentic experience. “This is a crazy special opportunity to see a different world,” I wrote in my journal.   Isn’t that the goal of traveling?

If You Go:







Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Dominica, the Nature Island

Link to my story about this island that's the least visited and most natural in the Caribbean. 


http://internationalopulence.com/dominica-nature-island/

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Lock it Up!


            It was a surreal image:  our pontoon boat floating 76 feet above the Tail Race Canal on a wall of water held in place by the Pinopolis Dam’s massive metal doors.   In the next 20 minutes, six million gallons of water drained to lower us from Lake Moultrie’s height.  What a marvel of engineering.  My sister and I couldn’t believe we were having such an adventure just an hour from Charleston.
            The day began as all good outings should:  with a nice meal.  Gilligan’s Seafood is conveniently located at the docks in Moncks Corner where the excursion departs.  The al fresco seafood lunch set the tone for our Lowcountry experience. Fisheagle Tours only offers the lock trips Wednesdays through Saturdays in October, departing at 10AM and 2 PM.  They last about 2 ½ hours.  Since we’re both prone to sea-sickness, we were concerned but the wide pontoon boat navigated the calm water smoothly.  There’s also a cover for sun and rain.  Besides the technological wonders, there was plenty to see. The captain kept us peering through binoculars as he pointed out migrating birds and nests and explained the history of the area. 

            When the dam began construction in the 1940’s, only 3% of the state’s residents had electricity.  The Great Depression had decimated the country’s economy.  Roosevelt’s “New Deal” included several initiatives to bring electricity to populous areas of the country and South Carolina’s leaders, including Strom Thurmond and Charleston mayor Burnet Maybank, saw that as an opportunity for economic development for our state also. Building the lakes, dams and dikes would also provide a navigation route from Columbia to Charleston, a plan that had been abandoned when the depression began. Nearly 13,000 workers (many taken from relief rolls) used raw muscle, mules and machines to clear swamps and woods to begin building the dikes, dams and lakes.  Entire communities were relocated, forced by eminent domain and enticed by new homes with screened porches (a big incentive in this mosquito infested area), $12 per acre and 100 chickens per family.  Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War hero, was in one of the displaced families.  Thousands of graves were relocated but some eerily remain below the murky water.  Two million board feet of timber was harvested but branches of nearly indestructible cypress trees still pock mark the surface.  It took only 27 months to turn 161,000 acres into Lakes Marion and Moultrie and install the Pinopolis Power Plant’s five hydroelectric units. Spillways with 62 gates were constructed to control the overflow of water.  The project required over 3 million cubic yards of concrete. It was the largest land-clearing project in U.S. history and the highest single lift lock in the world when it was completed. Using the new route for navigation never panned out.  The Tail Race Canal proved unsuitable for larger ships, railroads improved, but the power plant began generating electricity in 1942 and ultimately served cooperatives in 46 counties. The lock now serves pleasure crafts all year.  
      Fisheagle Tours’ new owner, Kathie Livingston has worked in outdoor education for over 20 years.  Her company also includes a kayak and canoe outfit at   Santee State Park and a Nature Adventure Center in Awendaw.  After buying Fisheagle Tours in 2015, she completely renovated the boats and searched for qualified captains.  The lock tour takes place on a modernized 30 passenger quad-pontoon boat with a bathroom and handicap access.  After a few interviews, she found Captain Rick who “really knows his history.” Beyond the sensation of being lifted and lowered between the Tail Race Canal and Lake Moultrie, the tours are popular because of their hands-on educational appeal for school groups and visitors.  Images of the dam’s history, bird and Indian relics are passed around and a huge alligator head is a popular artifact.  Reviewers rave about the species of birds they see and the historic knowledge shared by Captain Rick.  They even have a Spanish speaking guide who comes along as needed. 
 
            It was a wonderful way for my sister and me to see a distinctly different aspect of South Carolina, away from the beach and tourist areas.  As we drifted along, we admired the scattered family vacation houses, waved at fishermen and spotted majestic osprey. But what has remained with me until now is the incredible sensation of a flood of water sending our boat aloft and then draining out again, the massive doors and walls of the dam as they closed around us, and the impressive history and engineering that made it all possible. 
           
If You Go





Thursday, August 24, 2017

World-Wide Free Tours

            


            I really should have known about this already.  On the last day of my month-long trip to Ecuador, I had one day to explore Quito. The sprawling UNESCO World Heritage city confused me.  Where to begin? Googling among the many tours and options I stumbled upon Free Walking Tours.  “Free?  What’s the catch?” I wondered.  But reviewers wrote about the guides’ passion, authenticity and knowledge as they explored “some great places…that we wouldn't have otherwise come across.”  I figured I had nothing to lose. I could just split off if it was a waste of time.
            Apparently I was late to the game here because at the appointed hour I was one of 42 travelers who assembled in the lobby of a lively youth hostel. Two young local guys welcomed us in excellent  English.  Half of us went with Betto, a bearded Ecuadorian of contagious energy.  I was the only traveler from the US although everyone spoke English.The first thing he showed us was how to safely cross a street.  I wish I had learned it when I’d arrived:  you look the driver in the eye and give them a forceful thumbs-up.  Magically, the cars part like the Red Sea.  First stop was the city’s central market.  Surrounded by towering mounds of tropical produce, street food, heaps of roses and hooks of fresh meat, Betto plucked out unfamiliar fruits. He introduced us to babacoa which resembles a papaya, a tomate de arbol also called tamarillo and a naranilla that looked like an orange until he cut it open to reveal its green, bitter fruit.  Suddenly more informed, we ordered blended juices and took a few photos.  I was amused by some of the menu translations that hung above the stalls:  “Potatoes with booklet”, “Rice with leather”…


       For three hours we walked through the historic district as he told stories. Betto’s pride in his city was evident.    Ecuador was the first South American country to declare independence from Spain.  They’ve welcomed 400,000 Venezuelan refugees.  Their instant citizenship for immigrants includes free health care and has made it the #1 place in the world for US ex-pats according to International Living Magazine.  He spoke candidly about the country’s political upheavals.  Some of its 44 presidents served only a few days or months. One was air lifted out of the country as thousands of demonstrators stormed the palace.  I was fascinated to learn the history of the dollarization of the economy.  Since 2000, US currency is the only legal tender in the country, a controversial situation that our country had a strong hand in creating. 
       After a coffee break, we sat on the steps of a cathedral that was once an Incan temple. “For Incas,
Quito was like Mecca, like Jerusalem,” Betto said. Because the city is 10,000 feet in altitude and at the widest point on the planet, the solstice is particularly evident here.  There are no obstructions to the sun’s rays and no shadows.  Natives still blow conch shells to commemorate it. All around us brightly clothed indigenous Ecuadorians mingled with tourists and businessmen as past and present melded.   
      I had the impression from my trip that Ecuador was experiencing a surge of grass-roots entrepreneurism and Betto was an example.  Would you say that Ecuador is prospering now?” I asked him.  A new president had just been elected and people were hopeful.  “Have you seen anybody sleeping in the streets while you’ve been here?” I hadn’t.  “How many do you see in your big cities?”   Point taken. “Free” really means “pay what you will”. At the end of the tour, Betto gently suggested that the usual tip was $10 to $20.    The website explained, “…the power is yours.  You decide what the tour was worth or what you can afford, if anything.” Almost everyone slipped a bill or two into his bag. With over 20 people on my tour and two tours a day, he probably does well.  I hope so.  He certainly earned it.
            I was amazed to discover that there are free walking tours in hundreds of cities all over the world.  Even in Charleston.  In Prague they “mix fantasy fairy-tale settings and modernity”; in Poznan, Poland you can meet the city’s “fearless pranger” and Bamber Lady; in New York you can choose from 30 free tours that cover everything from Harlem to Ground Zero.  There are pub crawls, bike tours, ghost stories, history and art tours …all free.  “The mission is to make real local culture and authentic, quality experiences easily accessible for more travelers,” Freetour.com  says.  A traveler’s review puts it this way: “Since I discovered the free tours, I do it every time I travel and it’s always really interesting.”  Now that I know, I will too. 
           
If You Go:


Monday, June 26, 2017

Eat With An Local



Provided by EatWith
Provided by EatWith

      My best travel memories are the times I’ve connected with locals: tea at an Arab home in Jerusalem, being a house guest in Peru, joining a camping group in France…Making friends, not just photographs. The burgeoning sharing economy has made these sorts of opportunities as easy as a mouse click. Launched in 2012, EatWith is now the largest global marketplace of communal dining. In just five years, over 80,000 travelers have dined at over 11,000 home cooked meals all over the world. Their colorful website profiles over five hundred home chefs in 150 cities eager to share a seat at their kitchen table. Susan Kim, EatWith’s CEO, describes, “Through communal dining, we’re facilitating meaningful human connections for locals and travelers, while creating economic impact on the lives of the chefs…”
       I’ve made the website part of my travel planning whenever I’m going to a big city. Even arm-chair travelling their menus is fun: how about an Argentine BBQ with Malbec in Buenos Aires, an 8-course “Drunken Vegan Feast” in Montreal, homemade bacon and prosciutto in Croatia, a traditional Sabbath dinner in Jerusalem or a 7-course Cambodian feast in Hong Kong starring banana blossom salad? I’m eager to try them all after the impressive dinner that my mom, sisters and I had in Washington, D.C. at the home of Catherine Nissen. She describes her life as “socializing around food” gained from her cosmopolitan travels and living in Laos where her family owns a farm. “When I cook, I strive to fuse the original four culinary pillars (Chinese, Indian, Ottoman and Italian) into an
alluring, delightful meal.”  The menu we booked, Summer on the Silk Road, is her most popular although she happily made a few adjustments to accommodate my sister’s gluten-free diet We were immediately entranced by her light filled, artistic apartment where she also creates commissioned portraits. A nearly finished one rested on an easel. An array of dignitary-filled travel photos filled a wall. “My philosophy when it comes to food is the fewer ingredients the better,” she explained as she began the four courses and poured us each wine. We perched on stools to watch her confidently cook. All the EatWith hosts have to adhere to safety and cleanliness standards and pass a review process and demonstration before they’re accepted. We began with what she calls a Faux Caesar Salad anointed with her “Elixir of Life” special olive oil. As we munched and chatted, she expertly molded lentil and feta cheese topped with shiitake mushrooms, pomegranate vinegar and walnut oil inside round metal rings. A beautiful presentation resulted when  
she deftly lifted off the rings to reveal colorful round layers of complex tastes and textures. As she seared the fresh salmon, we noticed that she oiled the fish, not the pan and added the glazed sauce after the fish was cooked. “We’re all good cooks but we all learned something,” my mom later commented. After an almond cake dessert, amuse-bouche candies and plenty more wine, we were satiated. We all agreed it was a fun way to spend the evening, so much better than a restaurant.
      Another meal sharing website, Traveling Spoon, provided Jeff, Meryl and their children with a travel highlight in Bali. The patriarch of their host family is a master gardener and began their day by pointing out the provenance of the ingredients as he drove them to his family’s compound. They spent hours around an open fire with generations of family members who live there together. As logs were fed into the flames, they ground, chopped and grated to create an expansive meal. All the while, they chatted with their hosts and learned about their daily lives. Family members don’t typically eat together in the evening, they were told. When they get home from work, they’re too stressed so they eat whenever they’d like and then join together as a family later in the evening. It was a lot of enjoyable work, Meryl said, particularly since one of the family members who was expected to help was away at a “tooth pulling ceremony”. These authentic experiences are the hidden gems of traveling.
      Most EatWith meals are communal and available on advertised dates but you can also request a date to suit your schedule as we did. The menus are the allure but the experiences transcend the food. Travelers get an inside glimpse into the hosts’ lives, meet interesting people, share stories and learn foodie wisdom. Jose, a chef in Mexico, describes the encounters beautifully: “Every time we have an EatWith dinner, our table turns into that very special place in the world where strangers become friends — distances between cultures and countries get reduced across a 28-inch table.”



If You Go:

https://www.eatwith.com/

https://www.travelingspoon.com



   




Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Where Did They Come Up With That?



            When Thomas Edison needed ideas for his brilliant inventions, he dozed with ball bearings in each hand and pie plates at his feet.  As his fists unclenched, the balls crashed, awakening him to write down what he was thinking at that instant. How do artists come up with their strange and wonderful ideas? In fascinating interviews, I learned some of their secrets.
            The world is full of ideas, they told me.  Picking the right ones is the hard part.  “I have more ideas then I can do in a lifetime.  I wish I could stop it sometimes,” said Mary Edna Fraser, Charleston’s premier batik artist and painter.  She takes hundreds of aerial photographs and might choose just one.  Mark Down whose company Blind Summit Theatre is bringing the show The Table to Spoleto this year said, “Inspiration for a puppet can come from anywhere…a book, a commission, television, in our sleep.  Once it came from a magic tree. Sometimes you have this big puppet and you don’t know why you made it so then you start a journey of discovering what to use it for.”  That was actually the genesis for The Table.  The main puppet character was created for an earlier commission.  Later, it led Mark’s curious mind along a path that meandered from Moses to Samuel Beckett and eventually to this show.

      Sometimes a compelling message is translated through their genre such as in Hillel Kogan’s dance piece     We Love Arabs at the Spoleto Festival.  “Usually I do have an idea before I start the creation.  Through improvisation I discover the way to talk through the body.” His piece is a depiction of how Jews see Arabs and the social codes in Israel. But artistry made it approachable.  “Regarding ethnic conflict, especially in the Middle East, the approach is very serious, melancholic. Humor is a tool to enable us to take some distance. The effect is that it holds down the hard feeling.  Humor is my language.”  After the Mother 
Emanuel tragedy, local artists called Cookie Washington helplessly asking, “What should we do?” “Go make art,” she replied.  She sewed her grief into a provocative quilt. David Boatwright has created.  
      Sometimes commercial interests initiate the project as in many of the commissioned murals.  “My responsibility is to come up with an image that’s not aggressive marketing.” On Queen Street, the mural “Wine” began as an advertisement for a wine distributor but the finished image, a mural David is most proud of, is the result of “being hemmed in by good taste”: the wall backed up to the Gibbes Art Gallery.  A parody of Renoir’s “Boat Party” and an homage to the Charleston’s culinary community was the creative result.  
             Ideas are elusive so the artists need systems to capture them.  Hillel Kogan decries videotaping as he improvises because it “destroys something”.  He trusts what feels right and uses assistants to give feedback.  Charleston’s poet laureate Marcus Amaker always carries a notebook of unfinished poems; Blind Summit puppet theater uses workshops of “brainstormy, anything goes, chaos” to get feedback from colleagues. Despite her excellent visual memory, Mary Edna catalogues every photo and location she shoots.
            And then there’s the hard won element of artistic intuition.  Sometimes too much time is spent on what turns out to be a bad idea.  “My whole life is like that,” quipped Mark Down of Blind Summit Theatre. Cookie Washington calls these “UFO’s:  Unfinished Objects under the bed”.  Hillel Kogan describes the culling process:  “The largest part is the unused parts.  Very little of it will stay.  It’s all about looking for something you don’t know what it is, like fishing.  There is more water than fish.”  As Marcus Amaker edits his poems he’s learned “… to keep those ‘scraps’. There’s beauty in that process.”  Abstract painter Susan Altman said, “I live in a dream state. A lot of art is not making it happen but recognizing when it does. I let the painting direct me.”

            Success often comes from combining ideas.  “The big work is to connect, to link the ideas” said Hillel Kogan.  “The search for unity is much more demanding than the search for good ideas.” Mark Down agreed: “I always know something is good when ideas are kaleidoscoping into each other.”  Marcus Amaker’s poem The New Foundation “…was birthed when I saw a direct parallel between architecture and personal growth. Sometimes a poem will take me where it wants me to go and I just have to be open and listen.”   
            “It’s a discipline,” Greg Tavares of the “The Have Nots” said of his quick-fire ability to instantaneously come up with improv skits.  What audiences enjoy is the result of years spent acquiring skills and honing intuition: competency. Greg describes it as “The difference between learning the steps and waltzing.”

For More Information:


Spoleto Festival: May 26 to June 11 https://spoletousa.org

Marcus Amaker, poet: http://marcusamaker.com/poems/

Mary Edna Fraser: studio open by appointment http://maryedna.com/

David Boatwright: http://www.luckyboyart.com/

Susan Altman: http://www.susanaltmanfineart.com/

The Have Nots: http://www.theatre99.com/






Friday, April 21, 2017

Charleston’s First Arts Renaissance




"Fields Prepared For Planting" by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, 

courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art


          With apologies to one of my heartfelt heroes, Gian Carlo Menotti, the artistic revitalization of Charleston began long before he got here.  During a walking tour led by Lee Ann Bain for Piccolo Spoleto and the Preservation Society, I learned about some of the visionaries that laid the groundwork for the vibrant creative scene we enjoy today.  Pointing out places in the historic district, she told us stories of how the artistic community of one hundred years ago used their ingenuity to overcome poverty, attract cultural tourists and form institutions that infused the city with creative energy. 
          When Mayor Joe Riley brought us Spoleto, he was not the first one to recognize the power of the arts to create prosperity. After Reconstruction, when the devastating effects of civil war were lingering and the First World War loomed, Charleston’s economy was in shambles. The Charleston Renaissance grew from that necessity, inspiring poets, writers, musicians and artists to boot-strap themselves and the city out of poverty.   
          Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was widowed with no income and an aristocratic background. She became a largely self-taught artist who worked 12 hours a day to support herself.  Experimenting in a variety of media, she became noted for her colorful etchings and later her watercolors. Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, was one of her students.  Alice nostalgically depicted the rural life of the vanishing rice plantations, a past when families like hers reaped prosperity based upon slavery. Talk of romanticizing the past follows her work today but back then she said, “It is useless to try and relive the past just as it is unnecessary to discard everything that came before us.” Together with other women artists, she began the precedent for today’s art walks by printing maps of artists’ studios for patrons to tour on Sunday strolls. Their seductive depictions of the Lowcountry drew tourists, just as similar images do today. The women served tea, entertained the guests and gently sold art. Lee Ann explained that no money could be exchanged on Sundays so patrons had to return the next day to transact the sales.
        Innovative programs like “Engaging Creative Minds” provide arts infusion to schools here today but they owe a debt of gratitude to Laura Bragg. In 1920, she became the first women to run an American museum when she was hired as the director of the Charleston Museum. One year later, against the directive of the museum’s trustees, she welcomed African Americans into the museum. Another of her innovative ideas was “Braggy Boxes”, over 5 dozen hinged crates that opened to display dioramas. They travelled to outlying schools along with instructional materials. Today, her inspiration is evident in the thousands of students who come to festival performances and visit museums, well informed by background information.

           "Boone Hall" by Edwin Harleston" courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art



        Today we celebrate artists like Jonathan Greene who depict colorful Gullah life but that road was paved by African American artist Edwin Harleston. A man of illustrious background, he was valedictorian at Avery Normal Institute and earned degrees in chemistry and sociology under W. E. B. Du Bose at Atlanta University. He was also the first president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP. He chose to study art rather than accepting admission to Harvard University but joined his family’s funeral home business in Charleston in 1913. Snatching what time he could from his daily obligations, he became a leading portrait painter and portrayer of the rising Black middle class. Despite his talent, he was spurned by the white arts community. DuBose Heyward based a character on him in Mamba’s Daughters without ever meeting him; he lost commissions because of racial prejudice; Laura Bragg was thwarted when she tried to stage an exhibition of his work. But now he is recognized as a cornerstone of the Charleston Renaissance and his portraits are on permanent display at the Gibbes Museum, a change that Lee Ann calls “reclaiming our heritage”.
         Lee Ann’s company began when the Preservation Society asked her and Carol Ezell Gilson to develop a tour about the Grimke sisters three years ago. The popularity of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings about these suffragists made it quite popular, spurring a company that includes a variety of specialized one-mile walking tours on subjects from graveyards to ironwork to the great earthquake. There’s even an historical treasure hunt for students. Before her extensive research on the Charleston Renaissance Lee Ann “…didn’t know these people existed and what they did for Charleston and what they did to get Charleston back on its feet. There would be no Gibbes or Spoleto without these people,” she pointed out. Now, as I walk the quaint streets of our city, especially during the festival, I am grateful for their contributions.


If You Go:

www.walkcharlestonhistory.com

https://www.preservationsociety.org/

Several Tours will be offered throughout Piccolo Spoleto, May 25 to June 10