Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lucky Woman

Mama & Baby (Tanzania)
On two occasions I've had the rare -- but oh so wonderful -- experience of being on safari with no other folks sharing the safari vehicle.  This may not sound like such a big deal so first let me explain the best and the worst of strangers in closed spaces.

The best of stranger safari companions come from Australia.  I've experienced this ilk twice -- once at Chief's Camp in Botswana (more about those folks in a bit) and once at Serengeti under Canvas in Tanzania last year.  Julia (my niece) and I had just landed at a bush airstrip where we shared cookies and cakes while waiting for our Aussie jeep mates.  Trevor, Louise, and Liz arrived and we were off to the camp in a burst of dust.  Given the prevalence of rather large guns at the airstrip (something about the government picking up taxes?!?!), I was quite glad to get going.  We chatted amiably as our driver took the leisurely route back to the camp.  Treating us to cheetahs, vultures, and assorted small sightings on a bumpy ride through the Serengeti.

Vulture Preening (Tanzania)
The threesome were two sisters and a very funny partner of one who were on an African adventure together. I think it was Liz who had been the year before and fallen in love with Africa.  Just as I had back in 1994 on my first trip to Malawi and Zimbabwe.  Their itinerary pretty much mirrored ours with a substitution of the camp featuring the tree-climbing lions for our choice of that paradise found that is Mnemba.  Safari jeeps are pretty close quarters for strangers but these were the most wonderful of strangers -- very funny and also very mindful of the sharing of space when trying to get that perfect shot of lion cubs playing in the tall grass.

Lone 'Grumpy' Bull Elephant (Tanzania)
Our stay at Chief's Camp in Botswana had the best and the worst of companions in a jeep.  The worst were an American couple on their honeymoon.  Let's call them E&E for short.  It was his second and her first marriage.  It was Julia's and my very first safari stop on our run through southern Africa in 2007 and so we were not quite up on the protocol.  We would show up at the jeep on time and climb into the very back seat.  It offered a fine view out the back of the jeep and although a bit bumpy we didn't particularly mind. E&E were always early and always in the front when we arrived.  The best were the Australian couple -- another Liz and, sad to say, I've forgotten his name.  They were from Melbourne and Liz in particular had a wry sense of humor that made for lighthearted going.  On one drive, Liz asked about switching seats.  We declined.  E&E grumbled but eventually exchanged seats.  The next day, E&E were early and again in the front seats and no offer to switch was forthcoming that day.  I've since learned that the protocol is to rotate through the front seats so all get a chance at what is considered the most comfortable seats and the best view.

Baby Giraffe (Tanzania)
The worst thing about them was the patter though out.  "I missed that with my video, can you make the animals move again?"  "Are you sure I can't take those bones home in my luggage?"  "We're done you can leave now."  (Thanks goodness for Liz because she would say gently, "maybe we should see if Nancy and Julia are done" which always incurred a scowl from E-femme.  When a lion would roar, our guide Ali would sit and listen and then ask if we were ready to go South  to see if we could find it.  E-femme would point off in the distance and say it's over there and Ali would gently correct her.   Perhaps my favorite exchange occurred on our last morning when we were filling out our "check lists of animals and birds we had seen" and Liz asked Ali -- "Ali, did I see a kangaroo on this trip?" with a quiet smile and a gentle lilt to her voice.  E femme without batting an eye said -- "NO, you did not see a kangaroo.  Those are only in Australia."  Liz's response, priceless.  "You don't say?"

Mother Love (Tanzania)
It was that same trip in 2007 where Julia and I also encountered what I thought was a once in a lifetime experience at the Ivory Lodge in the Lion Sands Private Game Reserve in South Africa.  On that trip we had been  building to this moment (as orchestrated by Joel Zack and his team at Heritage Tours Private Travel) of total decadent luxury.  Little did we know how luxurious.  We arrived to find that a company had taken over the other camp in the reserve for a corporate outing.  Although there were a few guests staying at our lodge -- all meals and all drives were staged out of the other.  This meant that we had a driver and guide to ourselves as well as memorable breakfast and lunch buffets.  The highlight of that time alone in a jeep was when we stopped in the midst of the great plain of South Africa with the milky way spread out above us.  Silence.  The smell of wood smoke.  Memory made.  No camera needed.  It was here that we rounded out our big five with hippos, a Rhino and a leopard sighting.

Yawning (Tanzania)
Last year at Klein's Camp we had the camp virtually to ourselves on the first night and again had that glorious experience of having a guide (Rabin) and tracker to ourselves which meant we could choose where we wanted to go and set our own pace.  It was quiet at Klein's Camp -- the Wildebeest migration had long gone and the season was winding down.  We spent our morning drives in leisurely searches for lion cubs, herds of buffalo, elephants, and various assorted hoofed creatures.  We took a bush walk and learned about how the Masai and others would use the many plants and examined the damage that a herd of elephants could do a grove of trees as it methodically stripped the trunks of their bark.  And we saw an elegant giraffe in the distance.  On one glorious day, Rabin drove us to the Mara Mara to see the hippos and the giant crocodiles.  We enjoyed a picnic lunch by the side of river.  Peaceful and alone in the glorious African landscape.

One could get a little spoiled having the luxury of a jeep and guide to oneself.  This is, after all, something that most safari lodges will offer for a price.  And I've experienced it twice -- for free.  I am a lucky woman.

Flamingo Reflections (Tanzania)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Short Burst: Fall in Central Park

It's been an odd fall here in the North East weather wise.  There was a freak snowstorm the last weekend of October and the weather has been unseasonably warm these last couple of weeks.  We seem to have finally turned the corner into crisper weather -- the kind of weather that invites curling up in an overheated apartment (this is NYC after all) with a good book and a cup of tea.

Despite the up and down weather, the colors in the park have been nothing short of spectacular, drawing out the leaf peeping paparazzi in droves.   Cameras and cell phones of all sizes have been clicking away as we each sought to capture that perfect fall picture.

I don't know if these are perfect fall pictures but they remind me of some lovely 2011 walks in my back yard.




Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Island of Misfit Toys

the King of the Jungle (Tanzania(?))
Recently, I changed my blogger moniker to Moonracer and that is not because of Moon Racer the transformer (who only appeared once in the animated series and then underwent a name change due to some trademark issues when she got to the toy stage).  Think small female warrior for that character.

No, the inspiration came from a book by Brad Thor (Full Black) where one of the characters (a spy who is also a dwarf) asked for Moonracer to be his code name because of King Moonracer on the Island of Misfit Toys.  Kudos to Brad Thor for a brilliant code name that suited the character (as an aside, the book is a good, fast read if you like spy novels).  The name resonated and when it come to blogging (since I am not building a brand here given that I've done just about everything wrong on that front), it seemed like a good choice -- at least for the time being.

Mama Love (Tanzania)
I am currently home on a rainy night that follows a period of excessively warm weather for this time of year.  For once, I remembered to hit record on the DVR and have just enjoyed Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  A confession -- it is always a bit weird to watch this show in technicolor having grown up with it in black and white.   As the show started, I checked in on Wikipedia (I get the limitations on Wikipedia as a trusted source) but here are a couple of facts worth noting:
  • Rudolph first appeared in a coloring book created by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward in 1939.    The store traditionally purchased and gave away coloring books for the holidays and commissioned this book as a cost-saving measure.  That first year, they gave away 2.4 million copies!
  • The television show first appeared in 1964 (I was five) and has been aired (in one form or another) annually since 1964 -- making it the longest running Christmas TV special -- EVER!
  • It's one of only four 1960s Christmas specials still being telecast -- the others being A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman.  
One of a Kind ((not really) Tanzania)
Having done this bit of research -- I can only say that ALL these television shows must have imprinted on me when I was just a wee small child watching them for the first time.  How else to explain that they remain among my favorites?

As to those misfit toys -- the island was NOT in the coloring book.  It was introduced in the stop-motion television special and Wikipedia (in an article that is not well-verified) reports that the ending (where Santa  picks up the toys for distribution on that stormy night) was added after the first broadcast when the 1964 audience expressed its dislike that Rudolph had forgotten his promise to speak to Santa. 

The Rudolph tale, through adult eyes, is really a rather sad commentary on the value we put on conforming to some set of standards that society has put in place.  It showcases parents who don't accept their children for who they are, a patriarchal figure (Santa) who dismisses the young Rudolph as an aberration with no future on his sleigh, and a coach who leads the charge on ostracising Rudolph from participating in the reindeer games.  It's a short version of Lord of the Flies (another coming of age story with a much less happy ending for the main protagonist).

The Real King of the Jungle (Botswana)
Of the non-misfits, the only character with any courage to embrace someone who is different is that soft-eyed little doe with the long lashes, Clarice.  She tells Rudolph from the get go that she likes him and that she likes his nose!  Now that is very cool.  It is also very cool (albeit potentially catastrophic) that Rudolph and Hermey the elf who would be a dentist (also introduced for tv and also bullied by an adult -- the Head Elf) recognize that they ARE different and they set out to make their way in the world (OK, they were pursuing fame and fortune but that is another blog post).  Brave youngsters getting out of Dodge before Rudolph gets a nose job and the desire to be a dentist is verbally beaten out of Hermey.

Shadows (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Among their first stops is the Island of Misfit Toys which is governed by King Moonracer, a lion with wings.  The King spends his nights flying the world to rescue misfit toys so that may come to live on the island.  It is a forlorn lot of toys -- a bird that swims, a charlie in the box (instead of jack) -- all of whom are looking for just one child to love them.  the King's day job as governor of the island is determining who should live there (he rejects Rudolph and Hermey).

On the face of it, I think that the story resonates for me precisely because the misfits recognize who they are and they basically set out to create their own destiny.  I like the Moonracer character (obviously) -- he is a rescuer and a bit of a fair judge.  After hearing their case, he offers Hermey, Rudolph, and Yukon Cornelius, their traveling companion, a night on the island and plans to send them away in the morning.  This is a fair decision.  After all, they are not misfit toys and don't really fit with the reason the island exists.  i suppose that the three travelers would add to the diversity of the crew but let's face it Rudolph is an hour-long show and if Moonracer let them stay, there would be no embracing of diversity by the larger society and NO rescue of the misfit toys!  Sometimes you have to let a story be as it was intended to be.

So do I still love Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer after watching it with the overly critical eyes of a middle-aged adult?  At the end of the day, yes.  It's a story about allowing yourself to be yourself and that doing that allows people to love you for who you are.  Does it make me sad that the story portrays a society that demands conformity rather than individuality.  for sure.  But the most riveting fiction is often about strong portrayals and a good story line.  And the best literature (or movie) puts a mirror up to reality and asks us to take a look at ourselves.

Finery (Tanzania)
As for me, I remarked to a friend who asked me where I had come up with this new blogger name that it had resonated in Brad Thor's book and it resonated with who I was as a child.  That period in my life where I struggled with the inner drive to be me (embrace what makes me different) and the external pressure to conform to some set of standards that society had for me.  These are not the standards that pertain to doing well in school or being well-behaved.  I aced those (hmm, the first one but not so much the second).  They are the standards that are most embodied in the cruelty of children -- maybe it's not having the right clothes or not being friends with the right people.  I struggled mightily with those standards -- finding individuals (instead of packs of individuals) who could be my friends around something two or a bare few of us loved and found entertaining. Finding people who liked themselves and who liked me -- just the way we were.   
And, in a nutshell, that is the essence of Moonracer.  He finds toys and provides a safe refuge.  He doesn't try and fix them -- he just leads them in hoping that being a bit different will, ultimately, OK.

Pretty advanced thinking for a lion with wings! 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Final Resting Spots

The view from my Parents' plot in Washington, CT
I just spent the day on an expedition to put plants on the graves of my grandparents, aunt, and father.  They are buried in Washington, CT in a lovely cemetery just before you hit the Washington, Depot.  Their graves  look out over the rolling hills of Litchfield county and it's a quiet spot to lay one's weary head after a life well-lived.

It's always a little jarring to see my father's headstone.  For three reasons.  First, my mother -- ever the thrifty one -- had her name and birth date engraved on the headstone when it was carved for my father.  But there she was, sitting in the front seat of the big Dodge SUV that I had rented, alive and kicking.  The second reason is that on the back of the headstone she engraved the names of the kids that they had brought into this world.  There we are -- my sister Mary, my brothers JT and Peter, and me Nancy.  And then, at the very top of the list is Baby Boy -- my still born older brother.  I know she put us in birth order but it does seem odd to me that he would have top billing.

And then there is the third reason --- I could be buried in this same cemetery if I so desire.  Given that my father was cremated and my mother likely will be what was planned a grave for two can now easily accommodate three.  My mother, planning ahead as it were, has gotten a letter from the cemetery managers that states that yes, three people can be buried there.  I have a copy someplace even if I'm not really sure this is what I want.  It's a little morbid to think about where I might want to spend eternity but every time I visit, that is what I do.  I check out the view, I think about eternity in close proximity to my mother and father, and I contemplate alternative scenarios.  Ones that don't involve marble headstones and long drives to bring flowers.

I am late in life to this responsibility for the graves and I share it with my brother JT these days.  My sister Mary and niece Julia were always the ones who went to take care of the graves each time the seasons changed.  They would go with my father and my mother and visit not only this cemetery but also the one where my father's parents are buried in Warren, CT.  That cemetery, unlike this one, is a scary place my sister used to say.  Kind of dark and creepy with overgrown trees..  I've never been.
Recoleta (Argentina)

Cemeteries in the US are generally quiet places and today was no different.  Aside from some workers spreading dirt and a woman who blew in after us and rolled further down the hill, we were alone.  The flags were still waving marking the graves of the veterans but otherwise the monuments were pretty sparse when it came to flowers or other decorations.

I remember very well my first foray into a cemetery in a country other than my own.  It was on my second trip to Italy -- the one focused solely on getting to know Venice.  I had set out to visit Murano and the cemetery island of San Michele that day.  On Murano, after enduring the obligatory glass blowing demonstration, I wandered further inland down a tidy little lane.  Congratulating myself for escaping the stores, restaurants, and glass-blowing factories that ring the docks.  I remember walking and thinking how peaceful it was on this island.  And then I came to the cemetery -- obviously loved and functioning almost like a town square might.  Almost every grave had fresh flowers.  It was clear that people gathered here as friends greeted each other and families said hello to their departed loved ones.  I never did make it to Isola San Michele -- the oft-visited cemetery island of Venice which houses Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky among other long-departed Venetians.  It just didn't seem necessary after having visited this quiet gathering place on a sunny late fall afternoon.
One of the most beautiful cemeteries that I've visited has to be Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It's a well known stop on the tourist circuit as folks make their way to visit Eva Peron's (Evita) grave.  It is usually decorated with roses and perpetually surrounded by a small crowd snapping photos.  Recoleta is a big cemetery and one can easily get lost among the mausoleums that were built to honor the dead.  Perhaps the saddest are those for the babies and children where tiny coffins can be seen through Plexiglas windows.  Like that cemetery that I wandered so many years ago, there is a local life here that goes beyond us tourists wandering with our cameras as once again families are visiting with their dead.

Municipal Cemetery
Punta Arenas, Chile
At the end of the South America -- in Chile's Punta Arenas -- the Municipal Cemetery is a walled off sanctuary for the living and the dead.  Wandering the neatly tended rows one is likely to come upon a picnicking family purchased on the edge of a raised grave and enjoying a laugh with a long lost relative.  What is striking about the graves here is that most have shadow boxes with photos and mementos of  loved ones who have passed on.  Like Recoleta, there are walls of stacked crypts towering above the rest of the cemetery.

Its hard to believe but in NYC, up on Riverside Drive, the grave of five-year old St. Claire Pollock is marked by a monument to the Amiable Child.  His is one of the few private graves on public property -- a small child who is said to have died from a fall from the cliffs overlooking the Hudson River.  Located at 123rd Street and Riverside Drive, it's a small testimony to our collective desire to create a permanent resting spot for those who have died.  It is said that that neighbors still leave flowers on the anniversary of St. Claire's death even though it's been two centuries since he died.

And therein lies the rub about this offer of a final resting spot in Washington, CT.  It's a beautiful cemetery, lovely views as I remarked to my mother today.  It's just may not be the place for me.  You see, I've always thought it would be kind of nice to be scattered at sea so that my ashes could continue to travel to new places and maybe visit some old favorites as well.

I suppose I should make up my mind one of these days but that seems so final, so permanent -- like death itself.  So, I'll just continue to consider the views from that pristine little cemetery outside the Depot.  No need to make any hasty decisions on this one.

Traveling the World on Ocean Tides?
(Easter Island)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Short Burst: Golden Ginkgoes

Glowing Ginkgoes
The ginkgoes of New York have turned to gold -- right on schedule despite the freak snow storm that painted the city white at the end of October.  

Ginkgoes have been around for 7 million years -- surviving the ice age and more recently the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  Legend has it that Buddhist monks in China saved them from extinction and that ginkgoes were a favorite tree of Frank Lloyd Wright.   There are those who hate the smell of the female ginkgo (yes, there are male and female ginkgoes) -- it emanates from the seed shells and has caused some cities to eradicate  their ginkgo trees or spray the trees as Washington, DC did this past spring in order to reduce the odor.

It's sad to think that we've chopped down trees because we don't like the way they smell.  That stands in stark contrast to those monks who nourished and planted the species in their gardens.  Says something about our disposable culture.  

Fall is a magical time of year in New York -- a city that takes its street trees and plantings seriously (the last street tree census reported almost 593,000 trees across the city) and there are several beautiful ginkgoes on my street that add to that count.  Those are easy to spot.  Its finding a burst of golden yellow among the glorious colors in Central Park that is a bit more of a challenge.  The hunt is worth it though.  Depending on the light, the leaves can take on an orange hue against the deep blue of the sky or a pale yellow against the reds and oranges of neighboring trees.  

A few (or more) of my favorite tree during one of my favorite times of year......

Gingko Leaves in Reverse

A Favorite Ginkgo Tree

Deep Yellow Gingko

Yellow and Blue


Leaves on the Cusp of turning

Yellow Creeping

Black & White Gingko

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Short Burst: October Snow

The morning after the storm
There was a rare snowstorm on October 29th -- a nor'easter with lots of wet snow.  Enough wet snow to take out 1,000 trees in New York's Central Park and leave swaths of the northeast without power for days.  In Farmington, CT -- where my Mom now lives -- the power is still out.  Her assisted living facility has two generators going and reports that all residents are doing OK.

I took a short stroll in Central Park during the height of the storm.  I could hear the crack of the trees as branches big and small snapped off.  It felt a bit like I was a storm chaser -- you know those people who chase tornadoes across the mid-West -- except there was no speeding car or fancy equipment.  Just me, other walkers, and some intrepid runners making our way through a quiet Central Park.  Good to know I wasn't the only idiot who thought a jaunt in the park as branches were falling was a good thing.

The storm didn't pile much snow on the Park (about 3 inches I think) but it was a wet snow on top of lots of leaves still on the trees.  The estimate is that 1,000 trees were lost and the areas of the Park not in play for   the New York City marathon are still littered with branches.
The day after the storm there was still snow on the ground in shady spots -- a fitting background for the leaves and branches that were strewn about.  Not quite the fall foliage adventure I was expecting that day -- yet there was a certain beauty amid the destruction.  And despite a loss of limbs and leaves, my favorite Ginkgoa -- scattered across the West side of the park -- are still standing. 

Perfectly Paired
Starting to Melt
Bow Tie

Storm Damage
Ice Leave

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Short Burst: Beach Umbrellas

Snorkeling off the Big Island
On the morning after the October 2011 N'Easter, it only seems fitting to be thinking about warmer climes and more specifically about beach umbrellas and the endless search for shade.  I love the beach but I am of a certain complexion (fair) and shade ranks high on my list of requirements when traveling to the beach or sitting by the pool.  Things can get pretty ugly on the shade circuit.  Particularly when there is a distinct lack of umbrellas -- NONE -- as was the case at the large pool at the Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island of Hawaii.   The resort has umbrellas and shade chaises by its man-made lagoon but get there VERY early if you want to score one of those.   For such a large resort -- clearly not enough shade to go around.

Fortunately, the resort will run you over to the Marriott which sits on the Anaeho'omalu Bay beach. A lovely, quiet spot with chaises, a gentle surf (at least in June), and enough shade to go around.  A great place to relax, read a book, and watch the world go by.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Short Burst: Mad about Fall Ginkgoes

Gingko & Friends
I love writing and sinking my teeth into a post and letting the words carry me where they may.  This results in longer posts (it's like I'm channeling Charles Dickens and getting paid by the word).   For the next couple of weeks, I'm going to try writing in short bursts about something that's on my mind.

It's the last week in October and I'm aflutter with anticipation -- the ginkgos that dot the streets of NY and Central Park have already begun to turn and these next two weekends should mark that glorious time of year when green turns to yellow and leaves start to flutter gently to the ground.  It's among my favorite times of year in NYC.  Looking forward to a ramble in Central Park with my camera on Sunday -- one among many who are stalking the vibrant colors.  The only snag in the plan may be the wet snow and rain forecast for Saturday.  

A smattering from Octobers past.

Branches amidst Yellow
Some Leaves Never Grow Up
Gingko Leaf Blanket