Thursday, March 8, 2018

Our Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

            The morning began with frantic and panic, the top two ways you don’t want to feel when you start a trip.  In the interest of marital harmony, I won’t recount the reasons but suffice it to say that we were running quite late for the early morning flight. Our misadventure had begun when my husband Mark surprised and delighted me with his wild idea to dash down to Fort Lauderdale to see a Shakira concert. I was enthusiastic about a stadium full of twerking fans and fiery Latin pop music. It totally played into my oft-repeated adage that if you’re not the oldest one in the room, you’re not where the fun is. A light drizzle didn’t help our timing in the predawn dash to the airport. But Jet Blue begrudgingly allowed our bag to be checked with a large sticker marked “LATE” which seemed to predict it not arriving. We raced to the security line.  Just as it was about to be our turn, I asked Mark, “where is your backpack?”  It was in the car.  Acres away.  Good thing he’s a runner. Our tickets said that the gate was going to close in 3 minutes and I was still standing in line alone when Mark breathlessly sprinted up.  Polite Charlestonians allowed us to apologize our way to the front of the security line; we got through with the required hassle, ran to the gate as they were calling our names on the loudspeaker and, PHEW, they let us on.  Not a good start.  After the requisite wifely rehash, I practiced some Lamaze breathing and when we landed about an hour later my pulse was almost normal.
            The rest of the day proceeded as delightfully as planned.  We explored the “Venice of America” on a lovely boat cruise and checked into our charming Air BnB in Lauderdale by the Sea. By that evening we were glamorously adorned.  All panic and frantic had blown away on the ocean breezes.  I had feathers in my hair, a sparkly dress; Mark was in a flashy t-shirt he’d bought especially for the occasion. Cocktails in hand, we waited for our UBER driver on the patio.  “Here’s a toast to Shakira,” I said, “Our muse for the fabulous evening ahead.” Our friendly driver was amused as we chided each other and recounted our day. We talked about his new (legal) marijuana related enterprise, marital harmony, rock and roll. By the time we finished the 45 minute drive, we’d bonded and he was excited for us as we approached the huge BB&T center where 20,000 music fans were expected. But as we pulled off the highway into the parking area we were shocked to find that we were the only ones there! A scrawled sign blithely informed us “Shakira Concert Postponed”.  What??? How could everyone have known this but us?  Ticketmaster had my email address.

             Groans and incredulity followed.  Our driver felt so sorry for us.  He scrambled to conjure up a Plan B and dropped us off at a crowded bar within walking distance to our cottage where our sparkle and glitter clashed with our moods and the blue-jeaned crowd.  We told our story to anyone who would listen over the volume of the local rock band which, thankfully, did not play any Shakira. 
            The next day we regrouped.  “I’m going to wear that dress again tonight and we’re going to go find a place to dance where we’re the oldest ones in the room. That’s what we came for and that’s what we’re going to do!”  I insisted. “That’s the spirit!” my ever-willing partner rejoined.  Scouring the local events paper, I cross referenced a nearby dance club with a Youtube video of the band playing that night.  It looked promising.  Glamorously dressed once again, filled with expectation, we optimistically headed out.
            The dance club was above an Italian Restaurant.  From the entryway we could hear the band and it sounded pretty good in a wedding band sort of way.  “Time to get down and get funky!” I shouted as we climbed the stairs to discover that, no, we were not the oldest ones in the room.  In fact we were among the youngest!  A couple of men crept to their tables with walkers.  Dancing couples leaned heavily on each other as they slowly swayed despite the backbeat.  Not a twerker for miles.   What could we do but dance anyway? And have a few drinks.

            So my glittery dress is hanging disconsolately in my closet, waiting for the next opportunity to be the oldest ones in the room.  I’m not giving up on that mantra.  But next time, not with Shakira. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Connecting Cultures through Music

             My family of friends often says that we raised our kids at the LEAF Festival. Over the decades these twice-a-year treks to Black Mt. N.C. have been a musical balm; a time-out with a soundtrack ranging from banjos to balalaikas. It was there that we first heard an African rock ‘n roll band and the doors to world music opened.  But it is only recently that I learned about the opportunities to visit the ten countries where LEAF International works with culture keepers to keep alive the musical traditions that are in danger of disappearing due to globalization. 
Bequia kids come to LEAF. 
         Projects often begin with a spark from LEAF’s visionary leader Jennifer Pickering.  In 2006, she visited Bequia and asked someone “How many kids on this island are learning the local steel pan tradition?”  She was told there was only one: the governor’s daughter.  Jennifer found local musicians who were willing to be teaching artists and partners to make steel pans. Now they’ve taught over 70 children.  Impressed by the success, the local government donated a building so the program can expand.
            Unlike the approach many organizations take when serving abroad, LEAF collaborates with existing community initiatives.  “All LEAF International programs are carried out in partnership with already existing, local organizations where we work collaboratively to set up traditional music and dance programs. While LEAF International acts as a catalyst to create and support the programs, these programs are not ours: rather, they are community-owned and community-led....”
Jairo and his drum. 
Learning the rhythms at Jairo's family's home. 
      About a dozen of us, including three adventurous children, visited the program in Costa Rica where LEAF works with the indigenous Bri Bri.  Previously only three people in the community held knowledge of the drumming tradition.  Jairo, whose grandfather had been a drum maker, was selling trinkets to tourists.  With LEAF’s help Jairo is now hewing drums from logs and covering them with snake skin.  We visited him and his family in their conical thatched hut and learned some of the dances and rhythms just as his dozens of students do each week.“I feel like I am making a positive difference in my community through this program because it is like building a bridge between the young and the elders.”  

            At the May and October festivals, LEAF brings young students and their teachers from the partner countries to perform at the festival and in school auditoriums in Asheville.  It’s often their first time out of their countries; their first time to meet children from the U.S and international musicians. It’s a peak experience that has lasting impact on them.   “My favorite moment at the festival was every moment,” said Brian Linus, a LEAF International Tanzania student. “We now have friends in Haiti, Malawi, America and many other countries.  This was my dream and it has come true.”  
             In October 2007 Jean Paul Samputu performed at LEAF with the Mizero Children of Rwanda.  I was awestruck by his message of reconciliation coming from a man whose country had endured unimaginable genocide.  In fact many of the children in the troupe were orphaned.  David Kwizera was one.  “I was born in 1989, in
The Mizero Children of Rwanda.
Gisenyi. I grew up without my parents. I was living with an older woman who I considered was my grandmother. She found me abandoned in a field. When I was 10, thieves invaded our house, took our belongings and killed my Grandmother. Left with no family, I ended up living on the streets. Life on the street was tough. I ended up in Kigali. I was lucky to meet with LEAF International who has helped me get music and dance training and accommodations.” LEAF has helped the troupe of formerly homeless orphans move into a house and gain musicianship. They even tour internationally. “We dream to have work, and when we can sustain ourselves, we wish to take in other kids from the streets.  We want to empower other kids the way that we were empowered.  We will work hard to help the youth of Rwanda,” David said.
The teaching center in Guatemala. 
  “Your traditions are very important.  It’s like you forget who you are if you don’t know your traditions,” says Bois Bris a teaching artist in  Haiti.  When you meet the culture keepers and their students you feel the powerful way that music connects us to our past, to each other and to the world. Three trips are planned in 2018 accompanied by LEAF staff and teaching artists:  Jan. 30 to Feb. 4 to Guatemala, in July to Haiti and later in the year to Costa Rica.  You’ll come home inspired like this Rwandan student who said, “The music has changed us.  We now feel proud and have hope. Through music and performances, we are example students to the rest of our community and our country.”
All photos provided by LEAF.      

Find out more here: 

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.

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,”  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: