Thursday, July 2, 2020

Stopped by Corona in the Cote d’Ivoire

        Sarah and Gabe were five months into their hitchhiking adventure through Africa when the pandemic flared up. Until then people had greeted them with curiosity and generosity. But the vibe was changing. “People were mean-mugging us…” No one would sit with them on busses. Whispers accused the White people of bringing the virus to Africa. When they arrived late one night in Monrovia, Liberia it all became apparent. Unable to reach their Coachsurfing host, they hailed a taxi to go to the meet up point. The driver was cautious. “When we arrived on Benson Street with its completely dark streets packed with people and littered with garbage, I understood his concern,” Sarah wrote on her blog ( They settled in to wait under a streetlight. “Usually the attention you receive is innocent curiosity or a desire to sell you something…” But in this sketchy part of town with all of their belongings in tow, they were concerned about drawing the wrong kind of attention. “It wasn’t long before we were spotted by a stocky and staggering man with a glass eye and a stutter…I thought he was drunk but he presented us with a tattered and faded ID card that read DEA Agent.” “What are you doing here?” he demanded. “We are waiting on a friend,” they responded. A crowd formed. One man shouted to defend them. “You want to hit me?!” the DEA Agent spat. The crowd got more vocal. Had Sarah and Gabe had been tested? Quarantined? Where had they come from? Finally their host sped up in a car. “… we grabbed our things and ran towards the car, shoving ourselves in as quickly as possible. The DEA man grabbed the door and began to force his way into the car. All of a sudden, we saw a wave of hands grab the man…and pull him off the car. We slammed the door and drove down side street to escape. Welcome to Monrovia.”

        Border began to close. They hoped to go to Ghana where they had a Coachsurfing host and potential job waiting. But they had to cross through Cote d’Ivoire. “The borders close tomorrow,” they were told as they entered Cote d’Ivoire, “Ghana will be closed at 6pm.” They had 24 hours to make it. It was thirteen hours away. If they travelled all night, they had a chance. When a delivery van offered a lift, a motorcycle cop pulled up. “I wouldn’t take them all the way. They could have the virus,” he warned. Ignoring him, the friendly driver turned up his French rock tunes and took them to Abidjan anyway. He even bought them Chika, a local specialty of fish and couscous. They checked into The Elephant’s Nest hostel and hoped for a grace period at the Ghanaian border the next day.

Sarah Saunders from the Isle of Palms had been travelling and working her way through Asia when she met Gabe Foulkes from Canada in Cambodia in 2018. She says that they “bonded over adventure, politics, beer, and sunshine.” Gabe had been travelling, mostly barefooted, for over seven years. They continued together through Southeast Asia, Vancouver, Alaska and New York, stopping to visit parents Margaret and Brandt on the Isle of Palms before heading to Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea and Liberia. In her blog Sarah writes, “We recognized that we had the opportunity to use our privilege to … alleviate the fears people have about travelling… in places often unfairly stigmatized as unsafe to visit.”

The next morning they began the 5-hour journey to the Ghanaian border. Cars sped by and shot them wary looks. It seemed hopeless until a trucker picked them up. He even insisted on hosting them for lunch. Four rides and a rainstorm later, they arrived at the border soaking wet but optimistic only to be told, “Nope, get out. Leave now. The border is closed.”
Waiting out the rain. Waiting for a ride. 

So since late March they’ve been at the Elephant’s Nest in Cote d’Ivoire. Although the interruption to their adventure has been a huge blow, Sarah also describes the down time as “liberating, a time of exploration“. She’s learning new skills like gardening, resourceful cooking, motorcycle repair and meditation. They’ve become certified in teaching English as a second language. The airport is still closed so their next destination is uncertain, perhaps inexpensive Cambodia to teach English. Their wander lust is
unquenched and she doesn’t miss much. Just her parents. Also the Southern pork BBQ since they’re in a mostly Moslem country. And “If we could just find some grits, we’d be in good shape.”

Follow them on social media:

Sunday, June 7, 2020

America Sings For You

       I love that transcendent moment when the curtain goes up and the air is electric with anticipation. But nothing was like the opening of “Hamilton”. In-your-face lyrics asked who the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore… dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean…” could “grow up to be a scholar?” And then, tauntingly: “what’s your name, man?” A diminutive actor emerged from the ensemble and meekly recited, “Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton.” That’s when the audience went wild, especially the teenagers. A Beyonce concert, screaming kind of wild. Why all of this excitement for parts of US history that bored us in high school? Clearly this is not just another Broadway show. It’s a cultural phenomenon.

       Our mom took my two sisters and me to dozens of Broadway shows growing up. We still burst into song upon mention of “The Music Man” or “West Side Story”. Family occasions often include parodies with costumes and props (which scared off a few would-be boyfriends back in the day). So travelling to Nashville to see “Hamilton” was a good reason for a trip together. But I wasn’t sure I’d like the show. I’d heard the acclaim. But rap music? History? How good could it be? Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s originator, elicited the same reaction when he previewed the work in process at the White House in 2009. “I’m working on a hip hop album about the life of someone who embodies hip hop…. Alexander Hamilton.” Curious chuckles rippled through the audience. But he explained that this “young, scrappy” man who codified so much of our nation’s fundamental concepts “embodies the word’s ability to make a difference.” A few years later the show was a block buster and Michelle was one of its biggest fans. “Hamilton, I’m pretty sure, is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I agree on,” President Obama joked. “This show brings unlikely folks together. And, Lin-Manuel, if you have any ideas about a show about Congress…now is your chance. We can use the help.”
 Over wine and cheese in our wonderful Airbnb we listened to the show’s recording and studied up. Printed lyrics prepared us for the rapid fire renditions from the stage. We read interviews and debated themes. We were especially intrigued by Miranda’s inspirations which included his father and Tupac Shakur. Luis Miranda was an ambitious Puerto Rican who moved to New York after graduating college at age 18. He went on to serve as an adviser on Hispanic affairs to Mayor Koch before starting a political consulting company. Tupac, the rapper who was shot to death in 1996, reminded Miranda of Hamilton because both were brilliant writers who incited animosity and jealousy. Also, neither knew when enough was enough. We debated whether the non-White cast constituted cultural appropriation which led us to understand Miranda’s intention to get the audience, and especially the non-White youthful audience, to relate to the story. Instead of harpsichords, there is hip-hop. Miranda wants us all to picture ourselves in America’s still-evolving story.
       As first and second generation Americans, we identified with this “quintessentially American story,” as Obama described it. “In the character of Hamilton -- a striving immigrant who escaped poverty, made his way to the New World, climbed to the top by sheer force of will and pluck and determination-- Lin-Manuel saw something of his own family, and every immigrant family.” The glow of patriotic pride followed us from the theater as we imagined our nascent country floundering and fighting for freedom. It’s our grandparents’ story too. They risked everything to come here. The cast sings, “When you’re living on your knees, you rise up. Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up, Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up, When are these colonies gonna rise up?”
   The unconventional music also struck me as a moment of cultural transformation. Like other innovations, it raised alarms. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” premier caused a riot. Gershwin was called a poser and a Tin Pan Alley hack when he wrote “Rhapsody in Blue.” Even Miranda’s mentor Steven Sondheim cautioned him that an evening of relentless rap might get monotonous. Only a few glimpsed the potential. Rob Chernow, author of the biography that the play is based upon, heard a preview and said, "He sat on my living room couch, began to snap his fingers, then sang the opening song of the show. When he finished, he asked me what I thought. And I said, 'I think that's the most astonishing thing I've ever heard in my life.' He had accurately condensed the first 40 pages of my book into a four-minute song."
       The show is the colorful, exuberant, youthful, messy, ever-evolving, radiant history of America. As President Obama said, “we hear the debates that shaped our nation … with a cast as diverse as America itself … the show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men -- and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us.”

If You Go: Shows begin in several U.S. cities this summer including Atlanta in August and Charlotte in January of 2021. Coming to Charleston in 2021, date tba.

Musing from the Courtyard At the Casa Marina Hotel

                It’s a balmy night.  The Rum Old Fashioneds in Casa Marina’s Penthouse Lounge made it even sultrier.  From this perch, lively with the hubbub of a suntanned crowd, I marveled at the sunset on Jacksonville Beach and eavesdropped on the last few dances of the glamorous wedding in the hotel’s courtyard below.  Now I’ve come downstairs to the breezy patio where, in 1925, the hotel’s grand opening was celebrated.  As they do today, guests admired its Spanish Mediterranean design.   It was also the area’s first fire proof building which insured its survival through several fires as nearby hotels burned down.  I’m wondering who else has sat right here listening to the waves.

                Al Capone did.  Prohibition was a boon time in Florida.  Jacksonville was known as “the playground for the rich and famous” attracting gangsters, royalty and tourists many of whom took the new cross country train to spend evenings strolling on the boardwalk and riding the famous Ferris wheel.  Dashing along the coast on his 32-foot powerboat Flying Cloud, Al Capone ran rum from the Caribbean.    The Casa Marina was where he rendezvoused with the movie star Jean Harlow who described her allure: “Men like me because I don’t wear a brassiere.  Women like me because I don’t look like a girl who would steal a husband.  At least not for long.”  Capone’s Florida syndicate included the popular John B. Hysler, nicknamed “Liquor King”.  He was gunned down by federal agents as he was picking up some illegal hooch.  Fifteen hundred people mourned him at the funeral where a local told a reporter: “He was a good Joe, ya know?  So he ran some shiner around these parts.  Folks gotta survive.  Them Yankees pay real good money for that Cuban rum I hear.  Shoot, he even was bringin’ in some real classy folks—some of them Italians from Chicago.  “Member that boss?  That flashy guy named Al?” (Ennis Davis, Jacksonville Metro).  There’s a bullet hole in the breakfast bar at the Casa Marina.  No one is telling me why.  

     Just up the beach is The Jacksonville Beach Lifesaving Corp.  Its members have been saving lives and dispensing gallons of sunscreen to clueless tourists since 1912.  I would have loved to have seen the looks on the faces of the lifeguards when Jean or the other movie stars sashayed by.  Mary Pickford, Clara Bow and even Katharine Hepburn may have caught their eye.  Jacksonville was the “winter film capital of the world” with 30 movie studios in the 1900’s.
                  During World War II, the Casa Marina was appropriated by the government for military housing. This cloudless night has me imagining the stealthy Nazi infiltrators creeping onto this beach with destruction in mind. In 1942 four German spies slid into the shallows by submarine and concealed explosive materials in the sand with the intention of crippling the production of aluminum and magnesium plants.  The infiltrators had lived in the U.S. awhile to become familiar with the society and how to blend in undetected.  But their plot was discovered by soldiers, perhaps those staying right in the rooms here, and they were later sentenced to death. 
                When World War II ended 50,000 people filled the Boardwalk and pier to celebrate Independence Day.   There were dances, beauty contests and parades.  I watched fishermen reeling in their catch along that pier earlier today but a towering Margaritaville Hotel is rising where the Boardwalk closed in 1964. The pier still hosts a party each year when  Sterling Joyce, the Casa Marina’s debonair Maitre’ D, holds a birthday party to benefit a local charity.  People dance there as they have for almost 100 years. 

                The Casa Marina Hotel is most well known for being the venue for over one hundred weddings a year.  It’s such a romantic setting with its intimate beachside ceremonies and the ocean front bridal suite. The hotel’s rich history adds character.  The wedding tonight was elegant.  The joy radiated all the way up to my penthouse viewpoint.  There’s the new couple now, walking hand in hand on the shore.  She’s still in her wedding dress.  They’re kissing as the waves wash around their ankles. 

Brooke Images

If You Go:



Friday, April 17, 2020

It’s Time For a Bath

Along the Awendaw Passage on the Palmetto Trail

The Japanese have a lovely tradition: forest bathing. It’s beautifully described in an excerpt from this poem by Betsy Hughes:
You stand beneath this canopy of trees,
surrender will, hold still. You close your eyes
and listen as the rustling of the leaves
and lapping breeze-blown waters tranquilize.
Inhaling deeply, you can breathe the smell
of dew-damp soil, the scent of pungent pine,
organic emanations. All is well,

    The beautiful natural areas that surround us are beckoning. That elusive feeling of calm and serenity we all need so badly is there waiting.  Even with many areas closed to the public, these have remained open and sparsely visited.  They’re all within an hour’s drive.

Best Short Walk in the forest: The I’On Swamp Trail is an easy 2.5 mile walking loop in the
Emilia and Lana Rose O'Donnell enjoy
the I'On Swamp Trail. 

Francis Marion Forest. Embankments, some from the 1700’s, are remnants of the patchwork of fields built by enslaved people for rice cultivation. Interpretive signage describes the history and ecology of the area. Easy and close-by. To reach the trailhead, turn left exactly across Highway 17 from the Sewee Education Center onto Forest Road 228 and drive 2 miles to the parking lot.

Best place to spot birds and alligators: The South Tibwin trail is about 5 miles long, perfect for a short bike ride or long hike. Bird watchers from around the world come to this well managed area of hardwood bottomlands, pine uplands, tidal marshes and freshwater ponds. A scenic duck blind is an exciting place to spot alligators while you eat a picnic. Directions: From the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center, take Highway 17 North toward McClellanville for 11.4 miles. Look for the forest sign and iron pipe gate on the right.

 Best walk for Lowcountry beauty: If you want to impress visitors or just need a little reminder of our gorgeous region, head to the Awendaw Canoe Launch (boat launch is under repair and closed as of this writing) at the end of Rosa Green Road in Awendaw. The trail meanders along Awendaw Creek, twisting back into the forest, over wooden bridges and ends at Buck Hall Landing, five miles away. It’s the most scenic section of the Palmetto Trail (which goes across the whole state) that I’ve found. Rest at one of the little benches along the creek and just breathe. You can walk as far as you’d like before doubling back or put another car at Buck Hall and walk the whole 5 miles.

Best place to remember the Swamp Fox: The longest section of the Palmetto Trail, 47 miles, begins here. It traverses four ecosystems through the Francis Marion Forest including swamps that were hide-outs for the Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. It’s a bumpy bike ride or easy walk through mature long-leaf pine forests and grassy savannas. Walk or ride awhile and then double back or put another car at Halfway Creek Campground, about 5 miles away. Directions: Take US Hwy 17 to intersection with Steed Creek Road (S-10-1032). Trailhead and parking are 0.25 miles north of Steed Creek Road.
Lillies blooming along the boardwalk in the
Santee Coastal Reserve. 

Best all-day adventure in the wilds: When I have all day and plenty of energy, I take my fat-tire
Santee Coastal Reserve.
bike to the Santee Coastal Reserve just north of McClellanville. The 24,000 acres of diverse habitats are managed by the DNR and the Nature Conservancy for the benefit of wildlife and birds. You can roam all day by bike or foot. Highlights are the Washoo Reserve, the scenic boardwalk and the Cape Trail.  Gorgeous and highly recommended. Directions: From McClellanville travel North on SC Hwy 17 toward Georgetown. Approximately 3 miles out of McClellanville, turn right onto South Santee Road. Travel for about 3 miles and then turn right onto Santee Gun Club Road adjacent to the St. James Community Center.  There’s an easy to miss sign there pointing down a dirt road  adjacent to the St. James Community Center. Pass the first kiosk and proceed 2.5 miles to the camping and picnic area where many trails begin.

Best place to be alone in nature: The huge ACE Basin has remained open to recreation throughout the pandemic and offers many options for biking and hiking. In particular, the trails that begin near the Grove Plantation (building is closed) are easily accessible and scenic. Take a picnic and sit by the manse before riding or hiking along grassy, stony and paved trails. Don’t miss the vine-covered old silo on Silo Road. Directions: From Charleston, drive south on US 17 to SC 174. Go left and follow the signs to the ACE Basin Edisto Unit.
The Governor’s “Stay at Home” order specifically includes outdoor exercise as an essential activity. Surprisingly few folks go to these places so social distancing is easy. Let the pandemic be your excuse to discover them. Perhaps like me, you’ll go back many times.

As the breeze-blown waters tranquilize, you can exhale to the feeling: all is well.

If You Go:

Take: Wide-tire bike, strong bug spray, printed color coded maps

More Information: For ACE Basin:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,  Swamp Fox Trail  South Tibwin Trail and Santee Coastal Reserve

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Caribbean Carnival

     We scrambled out of bed before 6 AM to join the street party that had started at 2 AM. It was easy to find by following the pounding calypso backbeat blaring across downtown Roseau. A trailer was piled high with speakers and a canon that fired eruptions of foam onto the heads of dancing revelers, covering them in bubbles. Another guy flung handfuls of colored powder. Little tie-dyed clouds wafted and then settled into puddles of beer where chickens skittered. Carnival on the island of Dominica.

  As Mark and I joined the street “jump-up”, we were transfixed by little dramas in the parades that went by: dead looking man being carried in a coffin, a guy in a Donald Trump mask, a scene of a taskmaster beating his slaves, huge contingents of villagers all dressed as convicts, skimpily dressed women of all shapes busting their moves and especially the hundreds of astounding “bwa-bwa” stilt dancers. 
 They gyrated down the street on perches way above our heads. Even some children had mastered the tricky balancing act. Other villages paraded as traditional “sensays” in costumes made from crocus bags, banana leaves, frayed rope and cloth draped in multiple layers around the entire body. Large horned hats completed the look which is somehow supposed
to represent chickens. Maybe chickens from some nightmare fantasy, we thought, especially the ones wearing platform shoes and carrying whips. What impressed us the most was how uncommercialized the outfits were. Most all looked homemade; 
marvels of ingenuity. A contingent of pageant winners from across the island featured young women with ingeniously engineered headdresses that formed a globe, or wings, or encircled them in spirals. One gorgeous ensemble was made entirely of wrapping paper including her dress, necklace and hat. 
   The day was a kaleidoscope of color and pageantry. An adorable promenade of kids pushing their little homemade trucks filled the streets in the afternoon. 
Some rode in cardboard police cars and fire engines. They wore simple matching outfits made from cut-up t-shirts with paper pirate hats. Along the street booths sold drinks, roast chicken and “goat water”, a Caribbean stew. It was funny to us that the parades didn’t go from point A to point B; they simply circled around downtown over and over.    
     Dominica’s Carnival is known for holding true to the island’s French, Caribbean and African traditions. It takes place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday after months of preparation. Even Hurricane Maria didn’t stop the festivities from taking place in 2018. It’s known to be one of the safest Carnival celebrations. We saw plenty of security to balance out the debauchery and even though we were obvious tourists as some of the few White people there, the vibe was welcoming and electrifying. Everyone we asked was happy to pose for photos and seemed genuinely glad to share the festivities.  
            Located in the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles (and not to be confused with the Dominican Republic), Dominica is an independent country lovingly called the Nature Island. Two-thirds of its 290 square miles is covered with lush rainforests that blanket the mountains right down to the rocky, black sand coasts. English is the official language although most islanders also speak a Creole.  Despite being ranked as the top sustainable island in the Caribbean by National Geographic, it is the least visited one.  For Carnival we stayed at the upscale Fort Young Hotel which is steps away from the festivities.  From our ocean front balcony, we enjoyed watching cruise ships docking and scuba divers embarking.   
        For lovers of authenticity and cultural expression like us, experiencing Dominica’s Carnival was the ultimate.  It is a dazzling display of social solidarity and boundless creativity set to a pounding rhythm, calypso music and dance. 

If You Go
Carnival in Dominica will be Feb. 24 and 25, 2020
For more information:

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Lessons from our Mother

                Mom taught my two sisters and me that any trip wasn’t all it could be unless you were arrested, got lost or injured and we’ve taken that lesson to heart.  “We’re not lost, we’re having an unexpected adventure,” she’ll say.  We often return pock marked with bruises from biking, hiking, sledding, skating, and Segwaying in her wake.  As far as I know she’s never been arrested (except for a night on Sullivan’s Island involving fireworks which came close).  It’s probably still on her wish list. 
Image result for salt mine tour salzburg austria                Stamina is her secret weapon so we prepare for trips with her like marathons.   “You should see all that is happening here,” she boasted about her hometown of Detroit, “it’s a real renaissance.”  Why did I challenge her? My exhausting tour began when I arrived at the airport and actually included   two symphony concerts in the same day, an eerily empty people-mover, ramshackle houses covered with polka-dots by an outsider artist and lunch at her favorite dive in a neighborhood that’s the kind of place moms usually warn their daughters not to go.
                Follow the crowd?  She doesn’t do that.  And so, one Christmas Day in Austria she, my daughter and I ended up on a boat floating on an underground river to a sound track of blaring yodeling.  A few Japanese tourists and the three of us had zipped ourselves into white coveralls, straddled a long pole, held onto each other’s waists and slid down deep into the earth.  Ahh, Christmas in the salt mines.    Afterwards we slogged through the snowy streets searching for an open cafĂ©.   The only one we found was full of a Swedish youth group eating hot dogs.  Mom taught them “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain”.  We sang together with gusto trying to drown out the ear worm of yodeling that the Japanese had loved so much they’d bought the CD. 
           She abhors shopping but obscure art attractions are her passion.  She said that Columbus, Indiana had been on her wish list for years.  Being obedient daughters, we didn’t question her, we just went.   There we found a treasure trove of architectural wonders and site specific art that amazed us.  Using my travel writer cred, I had arranged for the curator to tour us around.  He didn’t seem too happy about it at first but by the end of the morning he was dazzled by mom’s charm and her enthusiasm for everything he’d told us.  So we invited him to lunch at Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor where we turned on the ornate antique orchestrion and he filmed Mom dancing with the waitresses. 
                Feisty is a trait she’s passed down to us.  At a posh spa in Miami several years ago, our waiter asked about our dietary goals.   Many people had come to lose weight.  At Mom’s instigation we’d smuggled in bottles of wine, cookies and snacks.  “Stand up Lila,” mom commanded.  “Look at this woman.  Does she need to lose weight? No!” she said to the waiter, “Now heap those plates and keep ‘em comin’.”  After a few beauty treatments and exercise classes Mom motioned us aside, “Psst, let’s make a break for it.”  We ditched the terry cloth bathrobes, slipped into party dresses and hightailed it across the golf course to a nearby hotel where we danced with conventioneers and drank martinis until  
                She’s insatiably curious and will talk to anyone about anything (any everything embarrassingly enough).  So that’s how I was able to prank her, my sisters and niece during a trip to Chicago.  Somehow with all the city has to offer, Mom was most looking forward to the Polish parade.   “It’s the biggest in the country!”   I handed out official looking PRESS badges to each of them. “My editor has assigned us to better understand Polish wisdom by asking people to explain these quotes.”    I gave them pithy phrases I’d culled from the closest thing I had, a book of Yiddish Wisdom: “A fool falls on his back and bruises his nose…”  “If you have money, you are wise and good-looking and sing well too…”  “It is easier to guard a sack of fleas than a girl in love…”  Immediately on task, Mom started interviewing people in the elevator.  She accosted people all along the street and by the end of the day was surrounded by new circle of laughing Polish friends.
           Mom says that the secret to aging is to learn something new every day.  We try to follow her example by drinking deeply from the experiences she leads us to.  And from the wine that helps us recover from those experiences.  She smiles with pride when we share our exploits of clandestine skinny dipping or wedding crashing but we know who’s to blame.  Our mother made us do it.