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  • Contemporary Art in a Spectacular Setting

    In a quiet corner of Sonoma, on a private ranch, you’ll find some amazing works of art. It is not that easy to see these works because Oliver Ranch is a privately owned estate. Over the years the owner, Steve Oliver, commissioned  site-specific art installations, working with each artist to ensure the pieces fit well with the land. He allows nonprofit organizations access to the land for several weeks during the year. I was lucky enough to secure a spot on a fundraising tour for the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

    The two-and-a-half hour tour covers 18 artworks, from a very disturbing sound installation to a concrete tower/performance space whose interior consists of a double-helix staircase. 

    When I arrived, I was drawn in by the peacefulness of the small lake and the abundance of yellow flowers, but I was also disturbed on a visceral level. I sensed that Mother Earth was angry, as I heard intermittent grumbling from the ground, similar to the violent fumaroles in Yellowstone National Park. That sound turned out to be one of the art installations. Although a clever idea, I wished that the sound were more tonal and musical—something that soothed rather than disturbed.

    The other art pieces were unique and wonderful to experience. Each has a story of how the artist was commissioned by Steve Oliver and how the piece was constructed. Fortunately Mr. Oliver is in the construction business, so making white concrete or super dense steel or building a concrete tower were challenges that he was able to solve for the artists. This gave each artist tremendous freedom to create. (Photo: The reflection in the pool at the bottom of The Tower.)

    Because each piece is so unique, it’s difficult for me to rate one over he other. Rather, each allows you to explore the background of the artist and the artist’s perception of the ranch. It is difficult, though, not to be drawn in by the Tower, a piece you can experience inside and out. I hope to return one day for a performance in this space. 

    The ranch also as an award-winning guest house. The clever design gives maximum privacy to guests while still enabling them to experience the serenity of the outdoor landscape. (Photo: Looking inside the guest house, with reflection of the tour group.)

    I had the option to take the stairs to the main road or ride the bus. I, along with most of my fellow travelers, chose to take the 300 stairs of uneven height, and without a handrail. Like all the art at Oliver, the stairs are designed to complement the land. When the slope calls for a tall step, the step is tall. When the slope is more gentle, the stair height is shorter. The varying height made me focus on each step, slowing me down to appreciate the artistic aspect of the stairs as I was delighted by the verdant landscape.

    If you love contemporary art, find a way to secure a spot on an Oliver Ranch tour. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes, otherwise you might end up in the same position as this woman.

  • A Cosmic Adventure

    More than 20 years ago Comet Hyakutake graced the skies of Earth, passing closer than any other comet had passed in 200 years. It was a spectacular sight, made even better because it appeared to pass through the handle of the Big Dipper. This photo, taken by Glen Gould and stitched together by me, is the result of quest that took persistence and creativity.

    Seattle is not a very reliable place to see stellar events and March 1996 was typically cloudy. We knew we had to travel somewhere to photograph the comet. But where? Many of our usual viewing sites in eastern Washington were covered in snow, so we decided to head to Othello. To our surprise, there was as much light pollution in this sparsely populated area as in a big city. Each small farm had two to three unshielded mercury vapor lights perched on tall poles. Light lessens the ability to see the stars and makes it impossible to capture a comet on film. 

    Defeated, we spent the night in a hotel and set off to eastern Oregon the next morning, hoping that the rain shadow of Mt. Hood would be clear and dark. That night we found a small spot by a river to pitch our tent. Soon after, light clouds started to gather but our hope did not wane. We set an hourly alarm so we could jump out of the tent and assess the sky throughout the night. No luck. By the morning snow started falling. Disappointed, we headed back to Seattle.

    After arriving home around 2:00 PM, we decided to look at the national weather map to find a place with clear skies. We chose Las Vegas. That might sound strange given the vast amount of light pollution, but we know the area outside Las Vegas well. The desert is deserted and there are enough mountains around that is it possible to mask the glow of Las Vegas lights. Besides, there are not many places where there are frequent flights and seats available on short notice. We packed up the camera equipment and headed to the airport.

    At the ticket counter we explained our desperate need to get to Las Vegas. The agent assumed we were eloping, took pity, and got us the last two seats on the plane. Fortunately all this happened in the pre 9-11 days, as the apparatus needed to photograph the comet would never have gotten through security. 

    Photographing stars and comets requires a long exposure. The Earth is constantly rotating, so it is necessary to compensate by using a device called a star tracker. The tracker moves the camera to match the rotation of the Earth. The photo will then capture stars as pinpoints and not as smears of light. 

    We didn’t have the money to buy a motorized star tracker, so Glen built a manual one. He used a very large barn door hinge, a paint stick, a small LED clock, the numbered part of a mechanical kitchen timer, a small battery-operated gooseneck lamp with a red filter, a straw, and some assorted screws. The camera gets mounted on the hinge. The paint stick becomes a crank. The numbers on the timer guide the manual turning of the crank. The turning rate is monitored using the LED stopwatch and the lamp. Turning the crank causes the hinge to open, thus changing the angle of the camera. With a steady hand, it is possible to match the rotational speed of the Earth. (Build your own, see these instructions.)

    We arrived in Las Vegas at 10 PM, rented a car, and drove north for an hour an a half. Then we pulled to the side of the road and set up the apparatus. Glen positioned himself on the ground in cranking position and I stayed on the lookout for the occasional car. Each exposure took up to 10 minutes. When I announced a car in the distance, Glen put a black card in front of the lens until the car passed. All the while he would continue to crank the apparatus. 

    It turned out to be an beautiful night and the end to an amazing cosmic adventure.

  • A Surrealistic Afternoon in Monterey

    Salvador Dali spent several years in Monterey, California during the 1940’s. Perhaps it is fitting that the largest private collection of his works in the US are available for viewing in a permanent exhibit only steps from Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. 

    Like most people, I am quite familiar with Persistence of Memory, with its melting watches. What I didn’t know was that Dali illustrated a wide variety of stories from the Bible to Alice in Wonderland to Dante’s Inferno to a few stories with sexual themes, including copulating beans. I hadn’t realized what a creative illustrator he was.

    Dali also created illustrations for Tarot cards and another series for the Apostles which look instead like the Knights of the Round Table.

    It is an amazing exhibit that is not to be missed if you go to Monterey Bay.

  • Where Neon Signs Retire

    The Neon Boneyard is home to more than 200 signs from Las Vegas hotels, motels, and businesses. As neon gave way to LED signs and uplighting on buildings, the signs disappeared one by one. In 1996 the Neon Museum formed and started rescuing old signs, preserving them from further decay and restoring a few of them. 

    The outdoor boneyard has more than 200 signs on display in a site that is two acres. The signs sit on the ground arranged closely to each other. The huge signs at eye level in a tight space provide a warped perspective that makes the signs look like pop art. At night, the color-wheel spotlights further enhance the effect. 

    The collection has a few signs that aren’t neon. One is the pirate head from the original Treasure Island Hotel, which opened in 1993. That’s the decade that casinos started to turn from neon to other ways of attracting attention—the Treasure Island pirate head and ships, the Excalibur castle architecture, the New York New York iconic skyline, the MGM Grand lion entrance. So far, the pirate is the only sign of that era in the boneyard. The head is so large that its smiling teeth are visible in maps apps using satellite view.

    Old neon signs require a lot of money to restore, which is why only a handful in the boneyard are working. Some signs, like the Yucca Hotel, have intricately arranged, hand-bent neon tubing that would be difficult to fix. Others are salvaged parts of larger signs and will never be seen whole again. 

    The museum has a number of signs that are fully operational so they haven’t been retired to the boneyard. You can see these at various locations on the meridian of Las Vegas Blvd. The Sliver Slipper slipper and the Bow and Arrow Motel sign are closest to the museum’s visitor center. 

    Check out my photos of the boneyard. If you decide to visit the Neon Museum, you must book a tour in advance. Night tours are best. These sell out two weeks or more in advance. Don’t just show up at the museum hoping to get on a tour. When I was there, I saw 11 people get turned away.

  • Seeing the Small: Eric Betzig at STARMUS 2016

    STARMUS 2016 featured many talks about the cosmos and using sophisticated instruments, like LIGOS, to peer backward in time. Just as fascinating was a talk by Eric Betzig, whose quest is to image the very small—that is, living cells. 

    A challenge for biologists is to see 3D images inside live cells and at the resolution of a molecule. There are many obstacles to this type of imaging, including something called the diffraction limit which restricts how close two things can be and still be imaged sharply. Another problem is that the amount of light needed to see small things results in phototoxicity—damage to the cells. Although it can be useful to look at dead cells, real insights will come from looking inside living cells and observing how they operate.

    Dr. Betzig found ways to get around the imaging obstacles. First with photo activated localization microscopy (PALM) and later with Lattice Light Sheet Microcopy and Structured Illumination Microscopy (SIM). 

    Brightly illuminating a cell causes the substructures to reflect light back such that the light from one substructure interferes with the one next to it. To get around this, Dr. Betzig found that he could build up an image by using a random process to illuminate small parts of the cell. If you do this enough times, you’ll eventually illuminate each part. No more interference. The image is sharp. This is essentially the PALM approach.

    His later approaches use more sophisticated techniques to illuminate cells and minimize the instantaneous power directed at a cell. This allows him to image living cells in stunning detail. He showed a movie of a lysosome in action inside a cell. Quite amazing. 

    Dr. Betzig won the nobel prize in 2014 for his early work. At STARMUS 2016 he said this was not his best work—as he feels his best is yet to come. I can’t wait to see what else he does!

    Take a look at:

    Imaging Life at High Spatiotemporal Resolution

     

  • Paleoastronomy: Why Fish Left the Sea

    At STARMUS 2016, Steve Balbus, Ph.D. (Theoretical Astrophysics) stepped outside of his main field of study—magneto rotational instability—to explain his theory of why fish grew legs and left the sea. He pointed to two main factors—geography and tides. 

    In the Devonian period (roughly 417 to 350 million years ago) the continents as we know them today did not exist. Back then there were only two continents, and they were moving towards each other. As they got closer, there was a narrow channel of water between them. That’s where the tide comes in. (Image: Map of the continents as they looked 370 million years ago. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Author: Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc.)

     

    Tides are caused by forces exerted on the Earth by the moon and the sun. High tides occur twice a day (as do low tides), but there are times when the high tide is highest. Tides are highest when the sun and moon align in a straight line. The scientific word for this is syzygy. This happens during a new moon and again during a full moon. The force of the sun reinforces the tidal force of the moon. (You can view a simulation of tides on the Science Rocks website provided by Everett Meredith Middle School.)

    In narrow channels, the effect of a tide is more dramatic. The highest high tide is even higher, flowing inland even farther. If you are a fish traveling with one of these high tides in a narrow channel, you have a chance of getting stranded in a tidal pool that’s far inland. Until there is another very high tide like the one that stranded you, you will be trapped. If this happens enough times, there is evolutionary pressure to do something about it. Upgrade your fins to legs!

    Sounds easy, but with anything evolutionary it takes a  l o n g  time. 

    Professor Balbus points out that the moon and sun have the same angullar radii. That means when you look into the sky, the sun and the moon look about equal in size. Of course we know they are not, but the fact their angualr radii are equal means their tidal forces are equal. When these two celestial bodies line up, the tidal force doubles. Trapping fish in tidal pools might not have happened if our moon had a smaller angular radius with respect to the sun. There were other other factors at play to encourage the evolution of tetrapods, but he makes a convincing argument for tides having a major role.

    For details, see:

    Dynamical, biological, and anthropic consequences of equal lunar and solar angular radii, 2014, Steven A.Balbus, Proceedings of the Royal Society. 

  • From Pagan Angel to Anathema: STARMUS 2016 Featured Performers

    Reading the history of the band Anathema is a course in music history in and of itself. Started in 1990 under the name Pagan Angel, it was a death-doom band whose core was the Cavanagh siblings—Vincent, Daniel, and Jamie. The continual evolution morphed the name from Pagan Angel to Anathema, and the sound from death-doom to alternative. 

    I first listened to the band when they showed up on the program for STARMUS 2016. Two of the Cavanaghs—Vincent and Daniel—are still with the band. They are joined by John and Lee Douglas and Daniel Cardosa. Anathema band at a concert in Mega Club in Katowice, Poland 2004. From left: Les Smith; Daniel, Vincent & Jamie Cavanagh. (Image under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Courtesy of Krzysztof Raś.)

    Ariel, from the album Distant Satellites, and Thin Air, from A Sort of Homecoming, convinced me that the music at STARMUS will be stellar!  Check them out on iTunes.

    Ariel

    I found you in the dark
    Don't leave me here
    Don't leave me staring at the sun
    Love is so strong, that it hurts
    I dreamed of you in the dark
    You spoke to me from afar
    What you mean to me is clear
    And I'll always be near
    I found you in the dark
    Don't leave me here
    Don't leave me staring at the sun
    Love is so strong, that it hurts
    Look into your eyes
    See my life's defined
    Look into your eyes
    See a heart of mine

     

  • Adventures at the Ends of Chromosomes: Elizabeth Blackburn to Speak at STARMUS 2016

    At first glance, I thought Dr. Blackburn’s research was a bit esoteric. Telomerase? Telomere? What are these things and why should I care? Then I began digging into these terms and her work. I now care, perhaps you should too!

    Telomerase is an enzyme that elongates telomeres. Telomeres are repetitive sequences at the end of a chromosome that keep the ends from deteriorating. It’s not good for your chromosomes to unravel at the ends. If the ends are damaged, the chromosome can’t replicate properly. Your cells are going to die, and so will you. 

    Dr. Blackburn and Carol Greider discovered telomerase in 1984. How do you find something like that? They used  substances labeled with radioactivity to permeate the cells they were studying. The radioactive substances distributed themselves such that they were able to see patterns of telomerase activity—the telomerase enzyme reaction. Not to worry about the radioactive substances, you need to be careful with them, but they aren’t going to kill you unless you ingest them. The radioactivity creates an image on an emulsion that is similar to a photograph, but it is called an autoradiograph. It’s a technique used a lot in biological research. (Image under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, by Bengt Oberger.)

    As cool as this research seems, I was struggling to find how this particular discovery might impact my life. Then I found a paper with Dr. Blackburn as fifth author: Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. That got my attention! If mindfulness meditation can slow my cells from aging, sign me up!

    Perhaps this excerpt will entice you to read the entire article:

    We review data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and present new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.“

    Dr. Blackburn is a great champion of science. In 2002 she was a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. However, because she opposed the Bush Administration, she was taken off the council n 2004. 

    "There is a growing sense that scientific research—which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth—is being manipulated for political ends” ~ Elizabeth Blackburn

  • Music for Spaceports: Brian Eno to Keynote STARMUS 2016

    By the time the 21st Century arrived, I had thought that Brian Eno would have written Music for Spaceports, and that I would be listening to it while waiting for a shuttle to Mars. While the Earth has muddled along—progressing in some sectors and not so much in others—Brian Eno has been evolving his art. I’m thrilled to see that he is a keynote presenter at STARMUS 2016

    When it was first released, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports was one of the most talked about albums in my music circles. Classical musicians didn’t want to recognize that album as music, while others thought it was brilliant. I enjoyed the debate about the music-worthiness of the album as much as the album itself. Good art stretches the boundaries of definition. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.)

    Now that I am researching Mr. Eno’s music in preparation for my trip to STARMUS in the Canary Islands, I realize how much I’ve missed his and other experimental music. It’s a treat to be reunited once again and to listen to his more recent work, like The Ship. This, in turn, inspired me to see what’s up with people like Ellen Furman, Pauline Oliveros, and Alvin Lucier, all of whom I’ve heard perform in person, and who, along with Brian Eno, taught me to listen deeply and appreciate the nuance of tones and textures. 

    Why did I fall of out touch with experimental music? I moved to Silicon Valley in the late 1990’s where the culture is fast paced and high-tech with a bias towards pop. Ambient and slow change music could not exist here, where the space between words and the pause at the end of a sentence are opportunities for someone to interject more words. The start-up culture doesn’t have the word sustain in its vocabulary, much less patience for any tone that would last more than 250 milliseconds or a song longer than 4 minutes. Yet albums like The Ship are just what we in high tech need as an antidote to our hyperdrive living. 

    Explore These

    The Ship, Brian Eno

    The Difference Between Hearing and Listening, Pauline Oliveros

    Long Strings Performance, Ellen Furman

    I Am Sitting in a Room, Alvin Lucier

  • The Universe Waved and We Heard It

    More than 100 years ago Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime, where space is stretched in one direction and compressed in the other. The prediction is a consequence of his theory of general relativity, fitting nicely with his mathematical model. It wasn’t until September 14, 2015 that anyone observed a gravitational wave. It’s not that the Earth hasn’t been hit by them. We haven’t had a way to detect them. Gravitational waves are very tiny. Really tiny. Like 1/1000 the diameter of a proton. To measure something like that, you need a very special instrument—an interferometer, and not just an off-the-shelf model. 

    The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is designed specifically to detect these waves. The project is a collaboration of many scientists, technicians, colleges, and universities. LIGO uses two interferometers, one located in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Each is identical, even in its orientation.  They are very large instruments, as you can see in these images (courtesy of LIGO CalTech). This is the Hanford site. The next image is the Livingston site.

    When a gravitational wave encounters the Earth, it will reach one of the locations first. This gives scientists clues to the origin of the wave. When the wave arrived on September 14, it was seen at both locations, but with a 7 millisecond difference—the time it took for the wave to travel from one location to the other. 

    The wave is so tiny that you might wonder if LIGO really detected a gravitational wave. They weren’t sure either, which is why they did not announce their finding until February 11, 2016. This gave scientists a chance to complete various verification protocols that gave the confidence of almost 100% that they did indeed observe a gravitational wave. 

    It is an extraordinary observation considering that footsteps, storms, traffic, ambient temperature, and just about anything else you can think of that causes motion can be detected by LIGO. It is an incredibly sensitive instrument. So sensitive, it can detect the motion of ocean waves during a storm. The scientists use a variety of techniques to tease out the signal of a gravitational wave from the noise of everything else. For example, to subtract out the ground vibrations contributed at each location, they place an array of 100 seismic detectors at each interferometer site. Using the seismic signals and machine learning techniques (statistics) scientists can figure out which vibrational “squiggles” are from the site and which are not. They have to use a different technique for each type of unwanted noise source. 

    What is actual signal like? It’s a short chirp. 

    This is relatively old news, so why am I writing about it? Barry Barish is speaking at STARMUS 2016 on “Einstein, Black Holes and a Cosmic Chirp.” I will be attending STARMUS and decided to find out what role Barry Barish had in the discovery.  

    The National Science Foundation first funded exploratory studies in 1980. By 1989 the project started in in full force, more or less.  An experiment of this magnitude requires a special person to run the project. It’s a big budget, with personnel and instruments spread over several locations. It’s cutting edge science. It had to be precisely executed. The people in charge, though extremely smart and well meaning, weren’t able to make sufficient progress. It wasn’t until Barry Barish was appointed laboratory director in 1994 that LIGO took off. One person can make a difference. I look forward to his talk.

  • Canaries, Wild and Free

    Although the Canary Islands are home to the wild canary, the islands were not named after the bird. It’s the other way around.  Canary Islands, or Islas Canarias, actually means Island of the Dogs. So the  bird is named after an island named after dogs. Why dogs? No one is quite sure whether there were actually large dogs on the island at one time, a cult of dog worshippers, mummified dogs, or sailors who mistook monk seals for dogs. (Image from Wikimedia, by Juan Emilio. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

    There are no more monk seals on the islands. I’ll find out about the dogs when I arrive at Tenerife for STARMUS 2016 at the end of June. I'm excited that I’ll finally get to see canaries, wild and free, as they should be. 

  • Good Vibrations: Brian Greene and String Theory

    At STARMUS 2016 Brian Greene will tell us about String Theory and the Nature of Reality. He will do this in just 20 minutes. So I’ll try to explain it to you in just a few paragraphs but from the perspective of a non-physicist.

    String theory rose from the quest to explain inconsistencies in existing theories in physics. Gravity seems to be the bad boy that doesn’t fall in line with quantum physics and general relativity. If scientists could reconcile that, they might even have the holy grail—one theory that explains everything in the physical universe. 

    The idea of unifying explanations of the universe is laudable, but the “stringicists” have given rise to even more theories—strings, superstrings, supersymmetry, branes, m-branes, and more. They  generated so many types of string theories—Type 1, Type IIA, Type IIB, Type HO, Type HE, and so on—that they themselves had to devise a unified theory of string theory call M-Theory (the mother of all string theories). 

    So what’s it all about? Strings are tiny, one-dimensional vibrating entities. The vibrational state of the string manifests itself as different physical particles. We don’t see a string, but we can observe ordinary particles and measure the particle’s mass and charge. But under the hood, that particle is just vibrations. The apple in the image is, ultimately, good vibrations! (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

    Scientific theories are supposed to have predictive power—you should be able to predict a consequence of the theory and then measure those consequences in the real world. So far nothing has panned out for string theory, which is why some people refer to it as a “theoretical framework.” There are some elegant mathematics behind strings, which is the primary reason why this area of study has survived from 1960’s until now. That and the fact it has cool jargon.

    For more information, see Brian Greene's TED Talk on string theory. 

  • Asymptotic Freedom: David Gross

    The STARMUS Festival in the Canary Islands claims to make “the most universal science and art accessible to the public.” The speakers are some of the best in their field and include physicists, astrophysicists, chemists, biochemists, biologists, neuroscientists, and economists. Many of them are nobel laureates. Although the festival claims to be aimed at the “public”, I suspect that many of those brainy nobel laureates don’t have a good idea of where the intellect of the pubic lays. That’s why I am looking at the conference program now to investigate some of the conference speakers’ areas of expertise. I hope that by knowing a bit more about some of the speakers’ interests, I’ll get more out of the conference.

    On the first day David Gross, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004, will discuss the great challenges faced by physics. One of his challenges was explaining the behavior of quarks by introducing the property of asymptotic freedom, an explanation for which he (and two others) received the Nobel prize. 

    What exactly is asymptotic freedom, or AF as I’ll call it? It doesn’t sound too daunting. I know what freedom is—being free to do or think what you want without being constrained. I know what an asymptote is—a line that approaches a curve but does not meet is. How does that relate to physics? Why would someone get a nobel prize for that?

    To understand AF, you need to have a basic understanding of atoms, those tiny things that make up matter. Atoms in turn are made up of subatomic particles—protons, neutrons, and electrons. While most of us are worried about how to keep our lives togethers, people like David Gross are concerned with how an atom keeps itself together. Physicists know there is a strong nuclear force that holds protons and neutrons in place in an atom, but they wanted to know more about that force, as it is one of the four fundamental forces in the universe. (The other forces are electromagnetic, weak, and gravitational.) 

    How strong is the strong force? Over very tiny distances—atomic nucleus sized—the strong force is 100 times stronger than the electromagnetic force that repels positively charged protons. That’s why an atomic nucleus stays together under normal circumstances.

    Both protons and neutrons are themselves made up of quarks—precisely three quarks. These days, quarks are assigned “colors”, either red, green or blue. This might see like an homage to the pixel, but using color as a metaphor in physics helps to explain a lot of subatomic particle interactions that I’m not going to explain in this discussion. (I’ll also ignore quark “flavors.”) Suffice it to say that subatomic particle interactions have to result in white. Red, green, and blue combine to white.  (Image from Wiki Commons.)

    So far you know that the quarks are held in place by a strong force. The theory behind this strong force is named quantum chromodynamics (QCD) because of the arbitrary use of color. That finally brings us to AF.

    AF is important because it explains some baffling behavior of quarks. You can’t see quarks, which indicates they are trapped in matter by the strong force. If they weren’t confined, you’d be able to see them, right?  Yet a big smash up at the linear accelerator down the road from me—Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC)—showed that in a high-energy reaction  the force between the quarks weakens and the distance between them decreases asymptotically. That is, they get closer and closer, but don’t run into each other.

    What  it boils down to is that quarks have two phases—confinement and AF. Much like water and steam, the phases depend on temperature. In the case of quarks, temperature (which is really energy) is measured in Mega electron Volts, or MeV. The phase change occurs at 160 MeV. Quarks are mostly confined below that energy level, and mostly have asymptotic freedom above that level.

    So what’s the lesson for the lay person? Although your personal life may seem to be falling apart, take comfort in the fact that the atoms around you are quite stable. You might need to expend a lot of energy to keep things together, but atoms are just the opposite.  

    AF isn’t all that Dr. Gross is known for. He is one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.

  • STARMUS 2016: Taking a Chance on a Warm Weather Vacation

    If you look at some of the places I’ve traveled—Jukkasjärvi, Barrow, Fairbanks, Puntas Arenas, Patagonia, Andes, Himalaya, and Antarctica—you might conclude that I am a cold weather person. I’m not. But when it comes to a vacation, the idea of sitting around on a beach might sound idyllic, bur for a week I think it would be quite boring. That’s what attracts me to STARMUS.

    STARMUS is a biennial festival celebrating astronomy, art, and music. Held in the Canary Islands, the festival is aimed at the public, but the speakers are luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Brian May (astrophysicist and guitarist in Queen), Jill Tarter (astrophysicist), and Roger Penrose (mathematical physicist). The conference sessions get underway at 3:00 PM each day and end at 8:00 PM. The parties start at 9:30 PM and last until 1:00 AM. There is just enough time in the late morning to sit by the sea, but not so much time that I’ll get bored. Most of my time in this warm weather destination will be spent doing interesting things. Or at least I hope so.

    The conference takes place June 27 to July 2. Between now and then I plan to do a little background reading so I can get the most out of the conference. Although I know who many of the speakers are, there are many whose names are unknown to me. It’s time to find out who they are! 

    This video from STARMUS 2014 gives an idea of what goes on at this festival.

  • Wild Cars and Climate Change in Texas

    I really had no idea what I was getting into when I made my way to the Art Car Museum  in Houston. I expected to see painted and decorated cars, but I found much more. 

    Located in a nondescript area of Houston, from the outside the museum looks more like a garage than a museum. When I arrived, there was a very hairy, friendly guy who turned out to be the art car mechanic. Most of the cars require special care and maintenance, especially when getting ready for a parade.

    When I entered the museum I learned that any donations would be given to the victims of the recent Texas floods. I also found out that although the museum has cars in it, there weren’t as many as I thought. About half the space is given over to rotating contemporary art exhibits. The cars themselves are a rotating exhibit. Only some of the several dozen available to show are actually in the museum at any one time.

    This day the museum had about 7 cars, including a Prius painted with flora and fauna found on the owner’s property, a two-seater clad in metal and with menacing faces, a sea-shell encrusted car, a bat mobile, and one that looked like my worst nightmare. The mechanic, who kindly gave me a tour, said some of the hoods is quite heavy and require several people to pop them open. 

    The non-car exhibits were just as intriguing. Mark Chen showed a series of lenticular art pieces—To Inhabit—which have a climate change theme. As I walked from side-to-side images changed from what we see today to what we will see when sea levels rise. Central Park to a Central Lake. Times Square with taxi cars to Times Square with taxi boats.

    Ken Watkins’ collection of photos of random people from Main Street in Houston presented an interesting slice of life in a Texas city. The art car photos of Irvin Tepper made the perfect backdrop to the art car space.

    The museum employees guaranteed that next time I’m in Houston, everything in the museum is sure to be different. I might just go there again, or better yet, make it to Texas for the Houston Art Car Parade where I’ll be able to see the cars in action.

  • Cozy in a Container

    I never thought I’d be sleeping in a shipping container. Yet here I am and I am grateful. We are at over 4,000 m (13,123 feet). The wind blows harder as the sun begins to set. It’s cold. One of our traveling companions is fixated on measuring the temperature. She reports it in Celsius. I am tired of doing the conversion. I ask her “What does that mean. Do you feel cold or warm?” 

    I’m feeling a little cold, but when I step into my container room I warm up. It is a small container, split in two. My half has enough room for two sleeping cots, one night stand, and a small crate that can hold one suitcase. There are eight hooks, which come in handy for hanging coats and day packs. There is a door and a small vent. The container doesn’t have any heat, but it has an LED light and a jug of water. That’s it. 

    As the wind picks up, I appreciate the windowless container even more. It is air tight and great protection from the wind. After a few hours, the heat exuded from two people noticeably warm the container. I am thankful we don’t have to stay in a tent. 

    This is really a small container “village.” Each of the two couples on this trip gets a container room for sleeping. A separate container contains the bathroom. Each couple gets their own bathroom with a flush toilet, sink, and shower. There is hot and cold running water. The bathroom has a gas lantern. It provides light as well as heat. I wonder why we don’t have one in our bedroom, but I know why. The altitude is so high that a gas lantern would use too much oxygen for living quarters. As no one stays in the bathroom too long, I assume having a bit less oxygen is okay. But I wouldn’t want to lose any oxygen in my sleeping area.

    There is a kitchen container that we gather in for meals. I really like the compactness of it. There is everything a chef needs to cook—pans, spices, gas stove, and sink. We sit at a table with bench seating. It is all quite civilized. I am amazed at the supplies they bring. This is far better than backpacking fare. We have hors d’ouvres of empañadas followed by homemade soup followed by an entree of quinoa and dried llama. Finally a fruit desert. Those who like to drink at high altitude can enjoy wine. I avoid the wine in favor of a better night’s sleep at altitude. Our French-Canadian travel companions opt for wine and end up complaining about a poor night’s sleep.

    After dinner, we were sent to our container bedrooms with a hot water bottle. It amazed me how long that bottle felt hot. It warmed the sleeping bag so much that I didn’t miss the lack of heat. I was quite cozy in the bag.  (All photos courtesy of Glen Gould.)

  • Crossing to Bolivia

    San Pedro de Atacama is about one hour driving time from the border with Bolivia. I wondered why our van had to stop in San Pedro to complete the exit paperwork for Chile. My guide said that someone who lived up the road, let’s say a half hour towards the border, would have to drive to San Pedro to complete the paperwork. Only then could that person turn back proceed to the border. How inconvenient for the traveller!  

    I wondered why border control wasn’t close to the border. But when I arrived at the Chilean-Bolivian border I understood completely. There is absolutely nothing there except a hut for the Bolivian border control personnel and a few modest one-story buildings which I assume are for the border people who drew the lot to be stationed at this outpost. 

    The altitude is high enough for me to feel, so I assume it is at least 3,657 m (12,000 ft). The wind is blowing, and the cold biting. The door to the border control office is wide open. Two men sit at a modest wooden table. I can’t imagine working in an unheated building in this cold, but they seem to manage. I present my paperwork for them to stamp. 

    Outside, our Chilean driver stays on the Chilean side of the border. He unloads our van and passes our luggage and supplies to our Bolivian driver. This exchange makes me feel as if I am a spy being passed from one country to another. But it is all for the good. From this point on, the road system is pretty much non-existent. Our Bolivian driver is supposed to be one of the best. I’ve been told he has memorized the entire countryside—every rut and every crevice—and he can navigate from point to point without GPS. Let’s hope this is true. 

    When all of our crew—Oscar our guide  and my three traveling companions—are finished with the border control paperwork we hop into the van with our new driver, Felix. 

    I see ten different vans at the border control. I assume we’ll leapfrog each other as we get farther and farther into Bolivia. But is turns out that we will never see these people again. From here on out, there isn't a road as I know it. (Try to find one in this image.) You have to wend your way through the altiplano. Felix seems to know routes that no one else takes. The Bolivian adventure begins!

  • A Tale of Two Salars

    Every great adventure starts with a flat tire. Or at least that what I hoped. We drove for an hour and a half south of San Pedro de Atacama to hike to two different salars—Salar de Talar and Salar de Capur. While I was gazing at a nearby volcano, the van stopped. The driver announced we had a flat tire.

    I find myself standing outside well above 4,000 m (13,100 ft) pummeled by a biting cold wind. It is sunny and I am surrounded by incredible beauty. Our group of five is anxious to get to the start of the hike. We know it is only a few miles away. But the tire must be fixed first. The roads are so rough around here, or at least the roads we take, that flats are common. It takes our guide and driver about 20 minutes to make the fix, and we are on our way.

    The wind seems to be a constant factor in Atacama, as are sunny, cloudless skies during the day. I put on my windbreaker and set out with my companions to the first salar—Salar de Talar. The cold wind tricks me into thinking I see snow in the distance. I remind myself this is salt.  As I descend towards the plain, I spy a lone vicuña. That’s unusual because they typically travel in groups. Maybe this one is antisocial. 

    The brown-and-white landscape is broken by pink dots. As I get closer, I realize I am looking at flamingos. There are a couple of species in Chile—James, Andean, Chilean. You need to get a good look at the feet and head markings to identify each. Our guide explains the difference, but I know I will not remember once I get home. So I appreciate gazing at the birds and appreciating their ability to exist in this environment. 

    When we’ve walked from one end to the other of Salar de Talar, we start an uphill walk to the crest of a distant hill. The altitude is noticeable, but it’s not too taxing. As we ascend, the wind becomes much stronger. As I fight the head wind, I wonder if the compression of the air results in getting more oxygen. Probably not, but I tell myself it does. That helps me appreciate the fierceness of the wind.

    As I come over the crest of the hill, I see an amazing sight—Salar de Capur. It’s pure white basin contrasts with delicately hued mountains. No one is here except us. It seems as if we are on another planet.

    We’ve been hiking for some time, and I’m hungry. Farther down the hill, our van and driver appear. He sets up a buffet lunch in the windshadow of the van. Spectacular view, wonderful food. A great adventure indeed!

  • The Valley of the Moon (or is it Mars?)

    I’ve never been to the moon, and I doubt whoever named this valley has been there either. In fact, I am certain that Valley of Mars would be a better name. Parts of this landscape are remarkably similar to the photos taken by the Mars rover and are in the book Mars 3D. 

    The Valley of the Moon is one of most popular sites in Atacama. It’s close to San Pedro de Atacama, so just about every tourist makes the drive to the most scenic viewpoint to snap a photo at sunset. My guide is determined that our group of seven will have a wilderness experience and not see anyone. 

    We leave from the hotel at 5:00 PM. As instructed, I have a windbreaker and a warm coat in my backpack. Oscar, our guide, says the temperature drops and wind increases at sunset. I also have a buff to wear around my mouth. It is already windy and the sand is blowing. I don’t want a mouthful of the desert.

    The van drives us into the park. We pass tour groups until we get to a stretch of the road where we don’t see anyone. We hop out of the van and start claiming up a dune. The van pulls away. 

    The sun is still illuminating this otherworldly landscape, creating sharp shadows as we hike up and down the ancient dunes and through the salt studded, cracked earth. When the sun starts to dip towards the horizon, we climb a dune and see the Licancabur volcano in the distance. But we don’t see any people.

    We perch ourselves on the edge of the dune, sun behind us, and watch the landscape change from brownish hues to bright red. The sun sets. The wind becomes gale force. The temperature starts to drop. That’s our cue to descend from the dune. It’s easy and fun to run down the dune. There is also a bit less wind below. In the distance, I see a van. It’s ours. 

    It takes the van about 45 minutes to wend its way in the dark over the rutted landscape and get to a real road. I begin to appreciate how important it is to have a skilled off-road driver and a solid vehicle in this part of the world.

  • Gateway to the Atacama Desert: San Pedro de Atacama

    Most trips to the Atacama Desert start in Calama, the closest airport and mining town. My trip was no different. And, like most tourists, my primary objective after collecting my luggage was to get out of Calama as fast as possible. Located at 2,280 m (7,400 ft) it’s dry, not particularly scenic, and rooted in mining. 

    A few minutes into the one-hour-and-twenty-minute drive to San Pedro de Atacama, it is apparent to me that Atacama is desolate. Desolate, but with a stark beauty that intrigues me. As we start gaining altitude, I notice what appears to be snow scattered on the ground and in the distant mountains. But it’s not snow. It is salt. It’s so dry here that the salt grows up from the ground. If the climate wasn’t so dry, rain would dissolve the salt and it would re-form into a smooth plain like the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA. It doesn’t do that here.

    As we drop down over the first mountain range, the straight road gets a few curves. Every curve seems to be littered with truck or car wrecks. Really nasty ones. The accident debris remains, perhaps as a reminder, but perhaps because of the remoteness. I see a load of five-gallon water jugs scattered next to the road. I imagine a water truck taking the curve too fast, its load going one way while the truck continues another. There is nothing out here. No houses, no businesses, no people. I wonder why they build a straight road. It is so straight most of the time that the curves seem a cruel joke.

    Out of the salt-peppered brown-and-pink landscape I finally see a swath of green. It’s San Pedro de Atacama—the destination of most tourists who visit the desert. The altitude is just a bit higher than Calama—2,400 m (7,900 ft). So far, I don’t feel any effects.

    We drive through town and arrive at Explora Atacama, a hotel just outside of town whose aim is to help visitors detach from their busy world and immerse themselves in nature. They have an army of guides who are prepared to take from one to eight visitors at a time on an “exploration.” I hope to do a lot of hiking in this area. After which I’ll head to Boliva. 

    Now it’s time to unpack and get settled. (The photo is the view from one of the windows in my room.)

  • Our Lady of Cell Service

    On a cloudy day in Santiago, there are no lines for the funicular in Parque Metropolitano. The park is one of the largest in the world—almost 1800 acres while Central Park in New York City is only 843. When it’s sunny, the  San Cristóbal summit affords spectacular views of Santiago. Although I haven’t been able to confirm that claim, I did find the cloudy view was pretty good.  



    Like many South American cities, hills always seem to have a huge statue at the top. San Cristóbal is no exception—Our Lady of Cell Service guards one of Santiago’s cell towers, ensuring text messages and selfies created on the summit are transmitted safely to their destination.

  • The Three Faces of Everest

    For eons Mt. Everest presided over the landscape without humans setting foot on it. It was a sacred mountain, revered by those who lived in its shadow. All that changed when the British arrived in the area. With a penchant for measuring everything, the Great Trigonometrical Survey was the first to establish the height of Everest as 29,002 feet. That was in 1856, back when the mountain was referred to as Sagarmāthā by the Nepalese and Chomolungma by the Tibetans. Surveyor Andrew Waugh claimed there were even more local names than those two. Rather than choose one of the local names, which he reasoned might be confusing, he convinced the Royal Geographical Society to name the mountain after Sir George Everest. That gave the mountain yet another name, but it was one that the British could pronounce.

    When word got out of the magnificence of the mountain, a group of British—the Mount Everest Committee—hatched plans to climb the mountain. It would be the ultimate conquest. The committee formed in 1921 and the first attempt on Everest occurred in 1922. The climbing team approached from the north, through Tibet, starting at the Rongbuk Glacier. The 1922 attempt failed as did all other attempts prior to the time China invaded Tibet. When the Chinese took over Tibet in 1950, it closed foreign access to the mountain. It wouldn't be opened again until 1980.

    During the time Tibet was open to foreign climbers, Nepal was not. But when Tibet closed its borders in 1950, Nepal opened its borders. In 1953, the British team that included Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit. Thus began the popularity of the southeast route to Everest. (The upper southwest face. Image by Pavel Novak, CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons.)

    In 1960, a Chinese team summited using the northern route.  (Routes up the north face. Image by Luca Galuzzi - www.galuzzi.itUser:Kassander der Minoer at de.wikipediam, CC BY-SA 2.5 from Wikimedia Commons.)

    Kangshung, the most secluded face of Everest, remained unclimbed. Explorers had seen this side of Everest prior to the time China closed the borders, but those who saw it concluded the route would be too difficult. And so it is. The route is insanely steep. It requires lots of vertical climbing, technical skill, and sheer tenacity. There are perilously large overhanging blocks of ice, some house-sized, that are prone to breaking off. Those who climb need to be self sufficient, and that includes climbing without the aid of sherpas and into the death zone without oxygen. 

    Who would do this?  In 1988, a team of four succeeded—Stephen Venables (UK), Robert Anderson (USA), Ed Webster (USA), and Paul Teare (Canada). Mr. Venables' account of the expedition is riveting. Everest, Kangsung Face not only recounts the perils and joys of this adventure, but his book is full of photos of the climb that will make your heart race. Ed Webster, the photographer, lost several toes and fingers in his pursuit of capturing the climb. (Kangshung face from space. Image by Dan Bursch, NASA Astronaut. NASA Earth Observatory, Public domain, through Wikimedia Commons.)

    Unlike the more than 4,000 people who have seen the world from Everest’s summit, I have no desire to climb it. I’m content to stand at the base of a mountain and appreciate its greatness. In my research to get to Everest's base, I learned that most trekkers, like climbers, choose the southern route to Everest. There are more than 35,000 trekkers per season to the southern face. Kangshung remains the route barely traveled. That’s the side of Everest I want to gaze at.

    September 23 was to be the day I’d arrive in China to start a trek to the Kangshung face. After completing the trek, the group was to drive to the north face, near the Rongbuk glacier. The trip was to conclude with a drive from China to Kathnamdu, Nepal. The recent earthquake in Nepal caused enough damage, including closing the road on the border, that many of the people who signed up for the trek cancelled. That, in turn, caused the trip to be cancelled. 

    I’m keeping Everest on my bucket list. Perhaps next year, or the year after.

    If you are interested in trekking to Kangshung, see Kangshung Face of Everest Trek.

    To get an idea of what the area around Kangshung looks like, see Best of Kangshung Face Expedition, by Cathy O’Dowd. Cathy is the first woman to successfully climb the northern and southern routes. Her team did not succeed in its 2003 attempt of the Kangshung Face. She did, however, take some great photos as well as write an account of her team’s attempt.

    Her team might not have been successful, but they had solitude, which is something no longer possible when climbing from the south. Maxed Out on Everest describes the what it's like to climb "bumper to bumper at 27,000 feet." The photos show why it's possible to freeze to death waiting in line at the Hillary Step. 

    Everest's height? The Great Trigonometrical Survey value is a bit off. The current height is  29,029 feet (8,848 meters).

  • Rwanda, Water, and Me

    When I visited Rwanda, I became aware of the plight of women who have to walk miles each day to fetch water. I was aware of water and sanitation issues in developing countries on an intellectual level. But I wasn't emotionally touched by these issues until I saw first hand what that meant. 

    This is a typical house in the Rwandan countryside. It doesn't have running water. The woman of the house has to walk long distances every day to get water. She typically carries the water balanced on her head. 

    After returning from Rwanda, I vowed to do something. I decided to start this blog and dedicate myself to writing about water and related issues for one year. 

    Awareness simply won't fix the problem. It takes money. I've researched many organization and decided to promote two. Please consider making a donation either to the Blue Planet Run Foundation or Water For People.

  • "I'd Walk a Mile for a Camel"

    Back in the 1970's R.J. Reynolds used this slogan to push their cigarettes. I doubt, however, that any cigarette smoker would have walked 6 kilometers (4 miles) for a cigarette. Yet this is the distance that women in developing countries, on average, walk to fetch water each day.

    Could you do that? A liter of water weights 2.2 pounds. How many liters of water does your family use in a day?

    In Rwanda, I saw women walking to get water. They walk bare footed, on rocky and uneven terrain. They don't have any high-tech gear from REI to distribute the weight of what they carry. They don't have a wagon to pull or a bike to ride. In fact, women typically carry loads on their heads. The average load being 20 kilograms (44 pounds).

    I took this photo in Tanzania. You can get an idea of the sort of loads women carry.

  • Why Aren't These Children in School?

    These Andean children are looking through a window into their schoolhouse. I'm inside; they are not. Seems like it should be the other way around, but this particular day is not a school day. It is an extremely rainy day. Just a few miles from here, the trail ascends to a 15,000 foot pass where it's snowing fiercely. Our guide doesn't want us to cross in those conditions. He negotiated with the small village to let our group of adventure travelers use the one-room schoolhouse until the weather breaks. For the children, this is a novelty.

    I saw a lot of children while hiking in the Peruvian Andes. Most of them were also hiking, but they were hiking to school. Some people live within the bounds of a small village, but many families are isolated, quite distant from the school. The children I saw seemed to enjoy hiking several miles—big wide smiles on their faces. But perhaps they were smiling because I and my companions were an odd-looking group of tall people with hiking sticks, funny hats, and big boots.

    Peru education attendance:

    • Ages 6 - 11: 92% ages 6-11
    • Ages 12-16: 66%
    • Literacy--96% in urban areas, 80% in rural areas.

    What about water? See Peru: Water Isn't for Everyone. A few excerpts . . .

    "Water is not only in short supply in Peru, but it is also poorly distributed in relation to the population. Seventy percent of the people live in the arid strip along the Pacific Ocean, where just 1.8 percent of the country's freshwater supply is found."

    "According to the Oxfam report, more than half of Peru's rivers with highest demand for use are severely polluted: the Chira, Piura, Llaunaco, Santa and Huallaga rivers in the north; the Chillón, Yauli and Mantaro in the central region; and the Chili River in the south."

  • Long-Distance Outhouse

    This piglet was having a grand time in the mud next to the outhouse I was using in the Sacred Valley in Peru. The ground you see surrounding the piglet is pretty similar to what I saw inside the outhouse, except that the outhouse has a hole dug into the dirt. I have pretty decent balance, which is a good thing. You certainly wouldn't want to slip and end up with a foot in the hole.

    Many Peruvians are upgrading their pit latrines to flush latrine. Instead of a dirt hole, there is a tile with a hole in it. The tile hole leads to a pipeline that's up to 5 meters long and ends in a sanitary pit. This set up is sort of a long-distance outhouse that keeps the smells and insects at bay. You might think that a flush latrine has running water piped in like we do in the US. That's not necessarily the case. One of the flush latrines that I used had a bucket of water for manually flushing.

    The big advantage over flush latrines from the one I used next to the friendly piglet, is that having water available for flushing means you also have water available for hand washing. Clean hands prevent disease!

    See Families in the Andes opt for flush latrines

  • Recycling Urine

    A weaver in the Peruvian Andes explained to me how she she raises sheep, sheers them, then washes, cards, combs, spins, dyes, and weaves the wool.  She dyes the wool using natural materials. 

    She makes the dyes using urine. Find that odd? Read "Urine, Fleece, and Natural Dyes. Apparently this is an age-old method, although I doubt you'll find it much in practice in the USA.

    While outside the weaver's home, I noticed a bucket underneath the house. I found out that is the pee bucket. When there is enough urine, the weaver empties it into her dye pot. Now that's recycling!

  • Aren't all children clever?

    A few years ago I travelled to Rwanda for an encounter with mountain gorillas. The drill is the same for all tourists. You stay in the Gorilla's Nest Hotel or similar modest lodging, your designated escort picks you up in the morning and drives you to the national park, and you get assigned to a group of 8 tourists.

    Your group walks with a park guide and an armed escort to a specific troupe of gorillas. They make a big deal out of having to find the gorillas, but in reality they track the troupes pretty well, so chances are you will get a close encounter with gorillas. It's awesome!

    This adventure is supposed to protect the gorillas from poaching and contribute to the economy of the country. At $350 per person per encounter, gorillas bring in quite a lot of money. I think it's helping the gorillas, but I'm not so sure about the people.

    The road from the hotel to the park is extremely rough, sort of like the rock bed of a river, only dry. The countryside along the way is extremely lush, with rich volcanic soil that's planted with a variety of produce. It seemed like paradise to me until I noticed that the fields are tilled by women using hand implements. That's right, no John Deere tractors here. I didn't even see oxen or horses. Women who aren't tilling can be seen walking on the side of the road, barefoot, carrying large loads of potatoes and other produce on their heads to market, or carrying large vessels to fetch water. No running water here.

    The men, by the way, all seemed to have shoes on and they weren't doing any obvious hard labor like the women.

    The children are what really tore at my heart. Lots of children standing by the side of the road, staring at our jeep. Some with open hands, but most just looking. So many had sores on their skin and unclear eyes indicative of disease. "What about schooling? Shouldn't these children be in school?" I asked our driver. He said yes, there was schooling for children, but only for the clever ones.

    Clever? Aren't all children clever? Shouldn't all children be given a chance at education?


    Orphans of Rwanda says that more than 400,000 children are out of school.

    UNICEF says:

    • Of the children who enroll in school, half do not complete the primary cycle (through 6th grade).
    • Some 100,000 orphans live in child-headed households.
    • Close to half of all children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition.
    • More than 80 per cent of all diseases that affect children are water-borne.
  • The Man Who Paints With His Nose

    Not too long ago I was walking on the Santa Monica boardwalk in California when I ran into a man who paints with his nose—Gille Legacy. No kidding. All my nose can do is run. His creates beautiful paintings. He first caught my eye because I noticed he was operating his iPhone with his nose. Intrigued, I came closer and noticed he had an assortment of paintings and cards her created and was selling on the boardwalk. He was the most creative artist I saw on the boardwalk.

    Gille was born with cerebral palsy. His doctors thought he would die in infancy. But he defied them. Although he can't use his arms or legs, he knows no bounds with his nose! Check out his website

  • From Great Britain: Hands in the North are Dirtier Than Hands in the South

    I'm in London, reading a disturbing article from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The article is one-year old, so I am hoping that the coming and going of two Global Handwashing Day events has helped clean up the situation in Great Britain!

    Here's the article. Any advice for me? I've got a few more days here.

    The further north you go, the more likely you are to have faecal bacteria on your hands, especially if you are a man, according to a preliminary study conducted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

    But women living in the South and Wales have little to feel smug about. In London, they are three times as likely as their men folk to have dirty hands, and in Cardiff, twice as likely. The men of London registered the most impressive score among all those surveyed, with a mere 6% found to have faecal bugs on their hands. Overall more than one on four commuters have bacteria which come from faeces on their hands.

    The Dirty Hands Study was conducted in order to provide a snapshot of the nation's hand hygiene habits, as part of the world's first Global Handwashing Day today. Commuters' hands were swabbed at bus stops outside five train stations around the UK (Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham, Euston and Cardiff).

    The results indicated that commuters in Newcastle were up to three times more likely than those in London to have faecal bacteria on their hands (44% compared to 13%) while those in Birmingham and Cardiff were roughly equal in the hand hygiene stakes (23% and 24% respectively). Commuters in Liverpool also registered a high score for faecal bacteria, with a contamination rate of 34%.

    In Newcastle and Liverpool, men were more likely than women to show contamination (53% of men compared to 30% of women in Newcastle, and 36% of men compared to 31% of women in Liverpool), although in the other three centres, the women's hands were dirtier. Almost twice as many women than men in Cardiff were found to have contamination (29% compared to 15 %) while in Euston, they were more than three times likelier than the men to have faecal bacteria on their hands (the men here registered an impressive 6%, compared to a rate of 21% in the women). In Birmingham, the rate for women was slightly higher than the men (26% compared to 21%).

    The bacteria that were found are all from the gut, and do not necessarily always cause disease, although they do indicate that hands have not been washed properly.

    Dr Val Curtis, Director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, comments: 'We were flabbergasted by the finding that so many people had faecal bugs on their hands. The figures were far higher than we had anticipated, and suggest that there is a real problem with people washing their hands in the UK. If any of these people had been suffering from a diarrhoeal disease, the potential for it to be passed around would be greatly increased by their failure to wash their hands after going to the toilet'.

    For the source, see Northerners' hands up to three times dirtier than those living in the South.

  • Observing Earth

    The Center of Tropical Forest Science has a program called "Earth Observatory." Scientists observe changes in the tree populations of three continents to get a better understand of climate change and forest ecosystems. Barro Colorado Nature Monument is one of the sites that participate in Earth Observatory. The nature monument is in the center of Panama (in the canal). It includes one large island (Barro Colorado) and five peninsulas. The island is home to five species of monkeys and lots of insects and birds. You have to love ants if visit them because there are 225 species of them. This is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island, Panama


    The boasts as being "one of the most studied places on Earth and has become a prototype for measuring diversity of plant and animal life around the world." I'll be in Panama soon and hope to tour the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's facilities on Barro Colorado island. Stay tuned for stories and photos!

  • Bioprospecting

    Gamboa is on the east bank of the Panama Canal and north of the Chagres River. It's also next to Soberania National Park, a tropical forest. The Panama International Cooperative Biodiversity Group combs the park looking for plants, algae, and invertebrate marine life that might have healing properties for tropical diseases. This practice is referred to as bioprospecting. Besides the obvious benefits to finding treatments for such diseases as dengue fever, Chagas disease, and malaria, bioprospecting also helps conserve the environment that medicinal plants grow in.

    Bioprospecting is not without controversy. Some claim that bioprospecting is biopiracy. "The word 'biopiracy' was coined by the North American advocacy group, Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) — formerly known as Rural Advancement Foundation International — to refer to the uncompensated commercial use of biological resources or associated TK from developing countries, as well as the patenting by corporations of claimed inventions based on such resources or knowledge."

    Find out more about the controversy. Read Bioprospecting: legitimate research or 'biopiracy'?

  • No Cure for Yellow Fever

    As I flew home from Panama yesterday, with my yellow fever immunization document tucked away with my travel documents, I was confident that I was going home disease free. Even without the immunization, I really don't need to worry because yellow fever was virtually wiped out of the canal zone in Panama early the 20th century. But it used to be one of the top killers in that area. Many workers lost their lives to yellow fever while building the Panama canal.


    Today there are 44 countries where you can find pockets of yellow fever. More than 200,000 people still catch the disease today; 30,000 of them die from it. It's pretty nasty.

    Mosquitos transmit this viral disease. The first symptoms are fever, pain, extreme shivers, headache, and nausea. If those pass, you might be one of the lucky survivors, but you might be one of the 15% for whom fever returns, whose skin turn yellow, who bleed from the mouth, noses eyes or stomach, and whose kidneys stop working properly. If you are one of the unlucky ones, you are likely to die from the disease.

    The yellow fever virus (arbovirus of flavivirus genus) infects monkeys as well as humans. Mosquitos can pick up the virus from a monkey and transmit it to other monkeys as well as to humans. There are lots of New World monkeys in Panama. Fortunately all the ones I saw during my trip looked pretty healthy!

    Find out more from the World Health Organization.

  • Panama: Canal, Noriega, and Some Brit

    On the morning of November 19, 2009, my knowledge of Panama could be summed up with these words—canal, Noriega, and John Darwin, the Brit who faked his death and hid in Panama until he was caught. After 10 days in Panama and after plowing through David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas, I found a country I loved and a history I had never known. Throughout the next few months I'll share some of my experiences. Today I'll summarize the story of how the canal came into existence and why the US ended up building it.


    I really didn't know much about the locks when I stepped onto the observation deck at Milaflores. The date on the locks is 1913. What that date doesn't reflect is that the building of the Panama canal started in 1870. For as long as sailors were sailing to the Americas (over 400 years), they dreamed of a canal. Who wouldn't. The Pacific and the Atlantic are so close at the isthmus. Without a canal, ships had to go around the bottom of South America and brave the waters of Cape Horn.

    Back when Panama was part of Columbia, the French negotiated a treaty that gave them the right to carve a canal into Panama. The head of the canal company -- Ferdinand de Lesseps -- did not have any engineering background, but he was a terrific PR person. He convinced everyone to build a sea level canal in Panama. He had overseen the building of the Suez canal and concluded that because a sea level canal worked in the desert, it would work in the jungle.

    Work went on for years despite the insurmountable engineering problems. There were almost 22,000 deaths from yellow fever, malaria, cholera, and other tropical diseases. The French were building the canal years before the mosquito had been implicated, and accepted, as the culprit who passed along tropical diseases so no one really knew how to prevent sickness. France lost many top engineers to yellow fever. The canal administrators found a way to profit from the deaths of some of the unknown workers with no families. They pickled the bodies and sold the cadavers to major medical institutions for study.

    As part of his compelling publicity campaign, Ferdinand de Lesseps published a canal newsletter to update his shareholders. Its purpose was to keep them confident in the project. He used it to lie about the situation -- either by omission or misstating the facts. At first shareholders weren't aware of the magnitude of the deaths. It was easy to cover up the deaths of non-Caucasians because frankly, if you weren't white, your death was not entered in the books. But when top engineers left France and didn't return. Well, that was difficult to cover up. People started to get suspicious.

    There were a lot of fancy dealings in France to finance the canal. Mr. de Lesseps was a precursor to Madoff. He convinced thousands of ordinary French citizens, many of them women, to invest in his canal company. Years later, when the canal company went bankrupt, all these people lost their life savings. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

    The French Panama canal ended in the biggest political and financial scandal of the 19th century. David McCullough sums it up nicely in his book "The Pathway Between the Seas."

    Within four months after the scandal became public, "the French government fell, three former premiers had been named in the plot, along with two former ministers and two prominent senators; more than a hundred deputies or former deputies stood accused of taking payoffs; there had been one probable suicide; a panic on the Bourse (French stock exchange) and a much publicized duel."

    Even Mr. Eiffel of the tower fame was involved in the scam!

    The US wasn't idly sitting by. They, too, wanted to build a canal. But we were convinced that Nicaragua was the best place. Take a look at a map on the left. To me, it is a no brainer that Panama is better. Panama has a few huge lakes. That means you simply have to put in a few locks, and cut out one or two sections and you have a canal.

    Well, that's what I thought until I looked at the map on the right from the1800's. Lake Gatun and Madden Lake did not exist. They were created as part of the canal project. It turns out that you really do need a lake or two to control the water level of the canal. That's one of the reasons that Nicaragua looked so appealing to the US.

    The US Congress was embroiled in one of their seemingly endless debates about where to build a canal when the French decided to sell their canal rights and equipment at a bargain price to recoup some of their losses. Some old southern senator had it stuck in his brain that the only place for a canal was Nicaragua. He wasn't an engineer but he was a formidable presence in the senate. He used his influence to hold up the process.

    By this time all the US engineers decided Panama was a better choice. They could build on the work of the French -- but make a canal with locks instead of a sea level one. Panama had a railway next to the canal site. Nicaragua didn't. The French already cleared a lot of the jungle, and therefore a lot of the disease was under control. The clearing made it easy to survey and measure distances. Nicaragua was still a jungle and was impossible to site through. There were simply too many unknowns there.

    The debate went on and on and on in Congress. One day, Nicaraguan volcanoes erupted, there were earthquakes. This became further evidence of the unsuitability of Nicaragua. But Nicaraguan officials sent a telegram to the US denying the eruptions and earthquakes. The southern senator claimed his foes made up the natural disasters. The truth was that they didn't. In fact one popular Nicaraguan postage stamp was engraved with a fuming volcano. One of the proponents of building a canal in Panama sent every senator one of those stamps. When the vote was taken, it was close, but Panama finally won out.

    Negotiations between Columbia and the US began. It's a pretty involved story, so let me just say that two envoys to the US quit, one of them went insane, and the Columbian congress got caught up in debates and would not ratify the treaty as presented. Teddy Roosevelt was incensed. This is when he started to speak softly and carry a big stick.

    Meanwhile, clandestine operations were going on in a few different circles. The short version is that Panama -- remember it was part of Columbia back then -- staged a revolt in 1903. The US Navy just happened to show up a day before the revolt. Panamanians got a hold of a lot of foreign money to bribe police and military to allow the coup to happen. As soon as Panama declared its independence, the US recognized Panama as a sovereign country.

    The success of the coup was due in a large part to the quantity of bribe money provided by a Frenchman who was determined to see the canal finished. He insisted that in exchange he must be appointed the Panamanian envoy to the US. Sounds strange, but the Panamanians really had no choice if they didn't want the Columbian military to take them back.

    The Frenchman wrote the treaty between the US and Panama, giving the US the right to build the canal and to rule, in perpetuity, the 10-mile swath of Panama surrounding the canal. He and a US official signed the treaty and got Congress to ratify it just 40 minutes before a Panamanian delegation arrived in Washington, D.C. They were enraged. They had not intended such a liberal treaty. At this point, there was nothing they could do if they wanted continued US protection. Shortly thereafter, the Frenchman resigned his post and returned to France.

    The Torrijo-Carter treaties, signed in 1977, changed the perpetuity agreement. The US still has a permanent right to defend the canal from any action that could compromise its neutrality. But on January 1, 2000, the Panamanians became the owners and operators of the canal and got back the swath of land that the US previously controlled. 50,000 US citizens left the canal zone on that day.

  • Barro Colorado: From Hill Top to Island to Research Institute

    How does a hill become an island? Before 1911, the Chagres River cut through the Panama rainforest. After the excavation of the canal, the Chagres river basin was flooded to create Lake Gatun. By 1914 the lake had flooded the old railway and several small towns on the hill whose top is now Barro Colorado. In 1923 the Barro Colorado island was declared a biological reserver. In 1946 the Smithsonian Institute took over the island for research. As of today, more then 10,000 research papers have been published as the result of research undertaken by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


    Last month I spent a day on the island along with 9 other people and a guide. As we walked through the thick vegetation, we came across markers, net baskets, and an assorted of strange looking contraptions each of which was set up to collect some sort of data for a research project. I even saw a tiny poison dart frog.


    The jungle was pulsating with life -- birds, insects, and howler monkeys created a din even though we rarely saw them. The plants were growing all over each other. Vines looked like snakes. Trees with buttress roots towered over the forest. Lots of miniature fungus and frogs on the forest floor. We found bats sleeping on the bark of trees. We came across one of the rarest mammals of all on the island—the primate Scientificus Researheraceros!



  • Rough Water: Crossing the Drake Passage

    The Drake Passage is the 600 mile wide channel between the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and the South Shetland Islands. It connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Until the Panama Canal was built, ships had to travel around Cape Horn to get from one ocean to the other.

    The Drake is notorious for rough water. When I left Ushuaia, Argentina on December 19 for Antarctica, I was apprehensive about the passage. Would I encounter fierce storms or "Drake Lake?" Like my shipmates, I slapped on a seasick-prevention patch as soon as the ship set out in the Beagle channel and hoped for the best.

    Although I thought I had secured everything in the cabin, I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of various items rolling and crashing about the the cabin. I couldn't walk because of the roll of the ship, so I crawled from my bed to gather and secure the items. I learned never to leave the lid of the toilet open on a ship, lest the medicine cabinet fly open and empty its contents into it!

    When morning came (which is difficult to tell with the nearly constant daylight), the rolling lessened just a bit. I crawled to the couch and shot some video. My cabin was on deck 5 in the bow of the ship, so the windows point slightly skyward. So when sitting on the couch in a calm sea, I should see only the sky. As you can see in the video, I was able to see sky and sea alternating. That gives you an idea of the roll of the ship. You can also get an idea of the roll by the movement of the sunlight through the window.

    I later checked with the bridge and found out that the worst roll that night was 30 degrees to each side, with waves as much as 6 meters. The wind was a Force 8 gale on the Beaufort scale. The Drake wasn't as bad as it could have been, but I was happy I put the seasick-prevention patch on.

    Our Captain adjusted our course, changing the itinerary, so that the ship (M/V Polar Star) was going with the sea rather than against it. That smoothed out the rest of the passage considerably.

    The passage on the way back from Antarctica was essentially smooth, the waves being only 3 to 4 meters. and the wind a Force 6 strong breeze.

  • The Southern Ocean

    Until a few months ago, I thought the Earth had four oceans: Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Indian. Then I found out about the Southern Ocean—the sea that surrounds the continent of Antarctica. You could claim that the waters in the area belong to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. But there is a boundary that separates the Southern ocean from its northern siblings—the Antarctic convergence. On my recent trip to Antarctica, I not only saw the Southern ocean but I stepped into it each time I took a Zodiac to the shore.

    The Antarctic convergence is the place where cold water from Antarctica meets the warmer northern waters. Unlike a land boundary, the convergence zone fluctuates somewhat throughout the year. The icy cold water moves towards the bottom of the sea, sliding under the warmer water. It's at this point where the climate changes and along with it the marine and bird life. Although I couldn't see the exact point at which the Southern ocean began, it was obvious I was in a new ocean after our ship (M/V Polar Star) had entered it. The outside temperature was noticeably colder. Albatrosses and petrels followed the ship. Icebergs began to show on the horizon. We spotted fin whales.

    When you look at the map of the Southern ocean, you'll notice that the band of water circles the globe. Because the ocean is unconstrained by land, the waves can get quite wild. The open ocean and temperature differences create intense cyclones that travel eastward around the continent. Fortunately I didn't encounter any cyclones during my trip.

  • Verdansky: Where the Ozone Hole Was Discovered

    The Antarctic ozone hole was discovered in 1985 by British scientists Joesph Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin of the British Antarctic Survey. I recently had the opportunity to visit the scientific station where the discovery took place. As you can see in the photo, the station proudly advertises its discovery with a sign in the main hallway.

    Verdansky base (also known as Faraday)—now owned by the Ukranian government—has a long history. It has been populated for the past 63 years (to the day—starting in 07 Jan 1947). The British occupied the station until 1996 when it was sold for a nominal fee to the Ukranians. The spot is particularly good for observing the ionosphere and performing meteorlogical and geophysical studies because it is located at a high geographic latitude and a low magnetic latitude.

    The Ukranians are not restricting their activities to research. They make vodka, have a gift shop, and run a post office. You'll hear more about their vodka bar in a future post.

  • Verdansky: The Southernmost Bar (and Bra?)

    That's not a misspelling. The bar and bra have a connection. Read on and you'll find out.

     The Verdansky Antarctic scientific station has a few side businesses that open only when tourist ships visit the area—a Post Office, a souvenir shop, and the Faraday Bar. They claim the souvenir shop and bar are the most southern. I'm not sure I believe them. It seems McMurdo must have some enterprising scientists there as well.

    If you mail a postcard, keep in mind that your mail first goes to the Ukraine before going to its intended destination. I chose not to use their P.O. and instead waited to mail letters from Port Lockroy, the British station. Port Lockroy sends their mail to England first, which is much closer to any of the destinations that I addressed my mail to.

    The souvenir shop is the most high-priced on the Antarctic peninsula. There are two other souvenir shops—one run by the Polish and the other by the British. Verdansky was our first stop at a scientific station, so I didn't have that bit of knowledge at the time, but now I can pass it on to you! The prices are from 50 to 100 percent over similar things in the states. Someone pointed out to me that the markup was likely due to transportation costs. Before I disembarked to take a Zodiac to the station, I noticed a few boxes near the gangway on our ship that were labeled "souvenirs." I suspect that our ship delivered the packages to the Ukrainians so they could have us buy them and bring them back to the ship! If so, doesn't that warrant a discount? Avoid the Ukranian shop. The British shop is best, so hold out for Port Lockroy and much less expensive. 

    The Ukrainians make their own vodka and sell shots at Faraday Bar. We arrived at Verdansky at 9:00 AM—a little early in the day for drinking vodka. But in a place where the sun never sets, the exact time matters less and less as one bright day slips into the next. (The Ukrainian scientists drink only once a week, I'm told. The bar is closed until a ship shows up.)

    You have two options for paying for a shot.  Either you leave a bra at the bar or you pay $2. I saw two bras hanging there. Notice the red one in the photo, just to the right of the younger man's shoulder. The other bra (not in the photo) was left by a senior woman on a previous Polar Star cruise. Judging by the fact the bra was hung in the window as a sort of curtain, I'd have to conclude that it was a rather large woman who left the bra.

    Leave a bra or pay $2? I didn't think this one over too long. It was an easy choice. Pay the $2. My bras are worth at least $20 each. I would expect that one of them would be worth enough to buy a round for my best buddies on the ship.  I paid the $2 and tossed the vodka. I made the right choice. It was tasty vodka, but certainly not worth $20 a shot. At $2, however, it is the best deal on the base. If you go, drink up!

    (Verdanksy is where the ozone hole was discovered.)

  • An Octopus in Antarctica: Do you recognize it?

    I don't know what to say about this creature. The expedition staff on our cruise had never seen an octopus in Antarctica. This one was in the shallow water near Port Lockroy. If you have any ideas on what species it is, please let me know. I saw this octopus in the swallow water of Port Lockroy. (Photos courtesy of Glen Gould.)

    The octopus swims away.

    NOTE: After first posting this, Dr. Brian Grieg Fry (http://www.venomdoc.com/) suggested "Little hard to tell from the photo, but based on your description of size (most Antarctic specces are quite small), I’d say most likely Megaleledone setebos They get much larger than that."

  • Royal Albatross: A Constant Companion in the Southern Ocean

    One of the ways to tell that you've passed from the Atlantic Ocean into the Southern Ocean is the appearance of albatrosses. This Royal Albatross is one of the several kinds of sea birds that became constant companions to the Polar Star during my recent expedition to Antarctica. (Photo copyright Glen Gould.)

    Like many living creatures on earth, the albatross faces many threats. 100,000 albatrosses die each year from ingesting fish hooks. Most of the hooks are discarded by fishing boats when the fisherman toss out waste and bait. BirdLife International is trying to stop these deaths with their Save the Albatross campaign. Check it out.

  • Humpback Whale Teases Tourists

    That's what it felt like during my recent trip to Antarctica. A tail here, a fin there, and the occasional glimpse of a blow hole or mouth. My companions and I wanted to see more.


    We were sitting in a small Zodiac boat in icy cold water watching mammals that are 50 feet long. What if one came up under the boat? I guess we trusted the whales knew what they were doing. They trusted we weren't going to harpoon them.


    You might have seen photos of whales jumping out of the water. That's what we wanted to see. But these whales were feeding. Feeding humpbacks don't do that, which made watching them a challenge. The whales typically approach a large gathering of krill from below, then drive them towards the surface, with mouth open. The whale engulfs the krill, snaps its mouth shut, and squishes the water out. A tasty meal. (First three photos copyright Glen Gould.)


    A humpback whale mouth. Photo courtesy of the Polar Star staff.

  • Polar Bears in Antarctica?

    A few people asked me if I saw any polar bears during my recent trip to Antarctica. No, I didn't. Polar bears live in the Arctic. If you want to see them, either go to Canada (where 60% of them live) or get to some other Arctic location, like Point Barrow, Alaska. Find out more about them and their melting habitat on David Suzuki's website.

    One person asked me if I met any Antarctica natives. In fact, I met several thousands of them. They live there only part of the year, so you might argue they don't qualify as natives. Unfortunately we had a big communication problem. I don't speak penguin. Penguins are very communicative with each other. After watching them for awhile, I could understand their primary motivation in life—fish and reproduction. A few seem to have some other interests, like racing! This photo shows a Chinstrap and an Adele penguin raceing. (All photos copyright Glen Gould 2010.)

  • A Penguin in Your Zodiac?

    What do you do when a penguin jumps in your boat? Snap a photo of the penguin if the boat is landed. If you are in the boat and a leopard seal is chasing the penguin, toss the penguin back into the water—FAST! You don't want a hungry leopard seal in the boat. The seal will grab the penguin by its feet and smack it around until it's dead.

    Leopard seals supposedly perform some fancy flipping maneuver that effectively skins the penguin, but I've also read the seal simply keeps flailing the penguin until it gets ripped into eatable pieces. The prospect of such a gruesome death is probably why a penguin flees so fast and will take the opportunity to jump into a Zodiac if it happens to be around. The Adelie penguin in this photo is just curious. No one chasing him. (Photo courtesy of Polar Star expedition staff.)

  • Striped Icebergs?

    When I was in Antarctica, I saw a few icebergs that had linear voids where ice melted out. These were typically icebergs that flipped or tipped on their side. The sections melted when that part of the iceberg was underwater. These voids can fill up with sea water that's rich in algae, creating the striped effect you see in this image.

    For more information, see Snopes on Striped Icebergs.

    Thanks to The Wanderer for this tip!

  • Egyptian Police Double as Photography Consultants

    On Sunday, January 23 I returned from a journey to Egypt, just days before the unrest sparked by Tunisia erupted into major protests on the streets of Cairo. I arrived in Egypt on January 9th, two days before joining a group tour run by Wilderness Travel. The day before the official tour began, my husband, Glen, and I walked to the Giza pyramids on our own. It was on that day that I learned that Egypt's "tourism" police had photography skills.

    Tourism police watch the monuments of Egypt. At times, there seems to be an excess of police assigned to a particular post. I'm inclined to be on my best behavior around police, particularly foreign ones. Didn't some tourist in the USA get killed because he ran from the police instead of obeying their commands? So when two tourism police motioned for me and Glen to walk over to them, we did. It turns out that they wanted to give us some photography advice.

    One of the cops pointed to a spot and motioned for me to take a photo. I had already taken dozens of photos of the Great Pyramid and really didn't want another one, but I appeased him. Then he motioned for me to give him my camera and proceeded to take several photos of me and Glen in a variety of police-directed poses. He and his buddy had us raise our hands, first separately and then together. I couldn't figure out what they were doing. Finally I said "enough!" I really didn't want any of these photos. I took my camera back and walked away.

    The two police quickly pursued us and insisted we give them money for the service of taking photos. We handed them the smallest bill we had—a 10 pound note, and walked away. Take a look at the photo. Do you think it was worth it? Now I understand the strange poses!

    After that, other police tried the same thing, but I refused to acknowledge them. The police annoyed me so much that I finally put on sunglasses and looked straight ahead to avoid eye contact. To be fair, the police weren't the only ones playing photography consultant. The Giza pyramids were full of horse and camel riders who were as persistent and annoying as flies at a picnic. If I had taken everyone's "advice" who approached me, I'd be out at least $50 USD.

    The police trapped us once more, inside a small tomb on the back side of one of the pyramids, a little off the beaten path. While we were inside looking around, a tourism police approached us with some "helpful advice" to crouch into a small passageway that led to a sarcophagus. I sensed this would cost a "tip" so I responded that I wasn't interested. After walking around the tomb, the cop approached again, insisting that it was safe to enter the small passageway. Safety wasn't my concern; I didn't want to get shaken down for more money. He continued to insist and my curiosity got the best of me. When I crawled out of the passageway after viewing the sarcophagus (which was very cool), he asked me for money. I threw up my hands, said "I have no money", and walked quickly out of the tomb. Glen did the same.

    Someone told me that the Egyptian police are not paid very much. Perhaps that's why the police give photography and sightseeing "advice" to earn more money.

    Egypt is full of poverty and illiteracy. I could sense the hopeless lethargy in the air when I was there. I'm not surprised at the events unfolding this week.

  • The Sardine Catch

    When I jumped out of our vehicle and starting walking towards a flock of frenzied seagulls, I wondered if I was destined for a fate similar to Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcock thriller The Birds. My guide, Abudullah al Shuhi, reassured me that the seagulls signaled a rare site—a sardine catch. The seagulls were after the fish, not me.

    Abdullah explained that each coastal town has a designated lookout person for sardines, whose silver glint is unmistakable as a school approaches the surface of the water. Today was a lucky day for the small village of Taqah. The sardines were shoaling close to shore.

    When sardines are spotted, the men from town drive or run to the water's edge and get to work. Some men throw out a net. Others struggle to keep the net in place, trapping the sardines as they swim into it. The fishermen scoop the captured sardines into bags and haul them back to town.

    The seagulls see the catch as a fine opportunity to fill their bellies. As the fishermen are hard at work, every local seagull swoops down to grab sardines. Meanwhile, the poor sardines are frantically trying to get away from the nets and the birds. The fish jump out of the water, and even swim directly to the shore.

    I got as close as I could to the activity, even standing in the water. Bird wings grazed my head while sardines slapped against my ankles.

    All this activity took place in the muslim country of Oman—a country where I was told to be careful about taking photographs of people. (Most people do not want their photograph taken, especially women.) But the sardine catch created a festive mood, so photography was okay. A few fishermen asked me to take their photos, others gave me a thumbs up, and one man stuck out his tongue in jest.

    I amused the fishermen as much as they amazed me. I didn't know whether to take video or stills, so I took both. At one point I squatted to get a sea-level view of the activity. Then a wave swamped me. We all laughed as bags and bags and bags of squirming sardines were hauled off to town.

    Watch the sardine catch video on YouTube.

  • Trash of the Pharaohs

    The word "pyramid" always painted a picture of a pristine sandscape with towering stone tetrahedrons breaking the monotony of the sand. I was not disappointed when I opened the balcony window in my room at Oberoi Mena House in Cairo. There it was, my first face-to-face encounter with one of the great Giza pyramids.

    I arrived at Mena House two days before I would meet up with the Wonders of Egypt tour I signed on with. I couldn't wait that long. I had to experience the great pyramids more closely. So I walked the short distance from Mena House to the pyramids. Walking gave me the chance to exercise and get a feeling for the streets—something you can't get from the sheltered environment of Mena House. Walking also gave me a unique view of the pyramids, one that isn't as obvious from a tourist bus.

    Just outside the gate to the pyramids is a large staging area for the horses and camels used for tourist rides. It is also a place for dumping trash. The problem isn't confined to outside the pyramid. Trash is everywhere on the grounds themselves. If you are with a tour group you are likely to be herded from a bus to a photo stop, back to the bus, then to a line for a pyramid, then back to the bus, and so on. But if you are an independent traveler, it doesn't take any sleuth work to encounter old sandals, water bottles, candy wrappers, cigarette boxes, and more.

    One issue is that there aren't any visible trash cans at the Giza pyramids. I spent some time observing the tourists to see who was tossing trash on the ground. The guides I've met have been quite conscientious about making sure their charges were clean and respectful. Tourists aren't the problem. The trinket vendors, along with the camel and horse people who work at the pyramid site, are the culprits.

    When I toured the rest of Egypt, I realized that trash is as pervasive as the poverty. Travel photographers, reporters, and Egyptologists overlook the trash. Who want's to see it? Certainly not the armchair traveler.

    At the end of the day, I mentioned the trash and the bribery (see related post Egyptian Police Double as Photography Consultants) to one of the staff at Mena House. He was shocked that I ventured out on my own. Wouldn't it be best if tourists leave Egypt with the same impression they would get sitting in an armchair at home watching Zawi Hawass on a travel channel? I don't think so. I travel to experience the reality of an area. Despite the trash, the pyramids still amaze me. I am amazed even more now that I see how well they are preserved amid the poverty and problems that Egypt has. (Note: I left Egypt just days before the January, 2011 revolution.)

  • A Schoolhouse in Peru

    These Andean children are looking through a window into their schoolhouse. I'm inside; they are not. Seems like it should be the other way around, but this particular day is not a school day. It is an extremely rainy day. Just a few miles from here, the trail ascends to a 15,000 foot pass where it's snowing fiercely. Our guide doesn't want us to cross in those conditions. He negotiated with the small village to let our group of adventure travelers use the one-room schoolhouse until the weather breaks. For the children, this is a novelty.

    I saw a lot of children while hiking in the Peruvian Andes. Most of them were also hiking, but they were hiking to school. Some people live within the bounds of a small village, but many families are isolated, quite distant from the school. The children I saw seemed to enjoy hiking several miles—big wide smiles on their faces. But perhaps they were smiling because I and my companions were an odd-looking group of tall people with hiking sticks, funny hats, and big boots.

    Peru education attendance:

    • Ages 6 - 11: 92% ages 6-11
    • Ages 12-16: 66%
    • Literacy--96% in urban areas, 80% in rural areas.
  • Bhutan: The Dragon Kingdom

    The Himalayan mountain range, the tallest on the planet, always held my fascination. At long last I was able to experience them and from a little known country—Bhutan—that has a magic and charm of its own. 

     

    I traveled to Bhutan rather than Tibet or Nepal because fewer people go there. Bhutan considers mountains to be sacred, so you can't climb them. You can only gaze at them from their base and appreciate their majesty. There aren't any mountain climbers, rescue helicopters, or base camps full of technical equipment and satellite radios. Trekkers in Bhutan look for serenity, not the glory of conquering mountain tops.

    An Overlooked Country

    Many people haven't heard of Bhutan. It is a small country tucked between China to the north and east, and India to the south and west. The country is so small and so agrarian that it’s amazing that neither China nor India have tried to annex it. Bhutan does not have any formal diplomatic association with China, but it is closely connected to India through economic and military ties.

    Bhutan exports 75% of its hydroelectric power to India while India supplies a transient work force to Bhutan for construction and road repair jobs. As I rode through the country I saw many Indian work crews living in small shacks on the side of the road. Men, women, and children were on those crews.

    The small Bhutanese army is trained by the Indian Army and relies on the Indian Air Force for air assistance. I saw a number of Indian troops at many of the small army outposts I passed on our trek. I wasn't allowed to take any photographs of the army outposts, which were modest compounds that didn't appear to be equipped with much more than a few people who could serve as a checkpoint.

     

    A Challenging Landing

    Bhutan sits on the slopes of the eastern Himalayan mountains. The terrain consists of hills, mountains, and valleys, with most people living in the valleys where they can grow crops. There really aren’t any wide open plains like the midwest in the United States. Being landlocked, Bhutan doesn’t have a coastline.

    With no open, flat spaces, it is not easy for jet planes to get into and out of the country. The Paro valley where the airport is located isn’t very long and it is often subject to high winds. Planes must weave their way between mountains as they descend towards the airport. The runway never really comes into view until the last turn around the last set of mountains. Then, it’s time to straighten out the plane for the landing. At that point, the plane is only a few hundred feet off the ground.

    From the passengers perspective, the wings look dangerously close to the trees. It’s because of these physical challenges that pilots can land only during the day and when the weather is good so they can have a clear view of the landing. All planes going to Bhutan first stop in India or Bangladesh. (My plane stopped in Bangladesh.) Then, if conditions are good for a visual landing, the plane continues. Only eight pilots are certified to land there. And only one airline, Drukair, flies there.

    To get an idea of what it is like to fly into Bhutan, see this video:

    Real Paro Bhutan Landing 15 A319 Cockpit

    Despite the fact the landing video gives me chills every time I see it, I must admit that I enjoyed the actual landing. It was the beginning of a dream trip for me. As I saw the houses and trees flying by, my thoughts were occupied with the adventure I was about to begin.

    Travel Info

    I traveled with Geographic Expeditions on the Sacred Summits of Bhutan trip. This 14-day journey includes 8 nights on the trail and several days before and after the trek to experience the life and culture of the Bhutanese people.

  • Thailand: A Short Stay and Lots of Music

    Thailand should be a destination in an of itself. But for me, Bangkok turned out to be a three-night, two-day stopover on the way to Bhutan. Other than a plane change in Hong Kong, this was my first stop in southeast Asia. It pained me to limit my visit to only two days.

     

    I arranged this portion of the trip for me, my husband, and niece, through the Internet. After a 14 hour flight from the United States, I knew we would need some serious down time when we arrived. I wanted comfort, quiet, and darkness. So I booked a hotel with a great reputation—the Banyan Tree. I also knew that after we got recharged from the flight we'd want to pack in as much as possible. That's why I hired a private tour guide.

    We saw all the highlights of Bangkok that any first time visitor should see—the temple, the palace, the emerald Buddha, the reclining Buddha, the solid gold Buddha, and the many colorful markets—flower, railway, meat, sundry, and floating markets. It's all wrapped up in a video posted to my You Tube channel. Take a look at Thailand.

    A Country With a Rich Musical Heritage

    When I travel, I enjoy researching the music of the country, both traditional and modern. Thailand is represented by a variety of music, the most famous of which is perhaps that of the King of Thailand. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also referred to as the King of Swing, composes and performs jazz music. On the other side of the music spectrum is the Thai Hip Hop phenom, Joey Boy. The rhythmic patter of Hip hop in Thai sounds amazing. In between there is Luk Thung, music of the countryside, and the gamelan ensemble. I've just touched the surface of Thai music!

    Music Info

    Thailand's Monarch is Ruler, Jazz Musician, an article from the Washington Post

    Candlelight Blues / Music: King Bhumibol, King of Thailand, a video on YouTube

    Joey Boy's official website

    Joey Boy: Fun Fun Fun, a video on YouTube

    Travel Info

    Banyan Tree Bangkok: Rooftop With a View (review)
    We stayed in a two-bedroom suite in the Banyan Tree. By prepaying, the rate was the same as booking two standard rooms. It was a great deal.

    Private Thai Tour Guide: A Recommendation With Caveats (review)

  • Trekking in Bhutan: Day 1 from Drukyel Dzong

    It’s amazing to think about the amount of people, horses, and equipment that is needed to take 8 Americans on a 9-day trek. Besides our trip leader, Tashi, and our guide, Pema, we had 10 camp staff. Some dedicated to us and some dedicated to managing the 28 horses who carried our packs, food, tents, stove, cooking fuel, and other essentials. Some of the horses who carried our gear.

     

    After the warm up hike to the Tiger’s Nest on the previous day, we were all ready to begin our adventure. We started from Drukyel Dzong at an elevation just over 8,200 feet. Today's hike was an easy 11.2 miles; it had an elevation gain of only 1,624 feet. Much the hike was on dirt roads through small villages.

    Children Learn English

    After only a few miles of walking past homesteads, we came upon a school. The children happened to be on a break. Many of them were running out the door of the school to play or visit the small store across the street. When they saw us, they ran to the fence to greet us with a big "Hello." One girl saluted.

     

    Most of them were eager to pose for our cameras and even more delighted when we showed them their image on the camera's LCD screen. 

    Red Rice is the Staple of the Diet

    We walked past fields and fields of red rice. Along with hot peppers, this is one of the everyday foods eaten by the Bhutanese. So, too, it became one of the staples of our diet on this trek. I often had the opportunity to eat red rice twice a day. It is served rather bland, with no flavoring, but serves to cut the heat of the pepper and cheese dish that is also commonly served on a daily basis.

     

    As I walked, I heard a continuous whirring sound. It got louder with every step until I finally came upon the source. It was a foot-powered thresher. Entire families—men, women, and children were in the rice fields harvesting. One person would constantly pump the thresher while others cut large bundles of rice and brought them to the thresher where the grain was separated from the rest of the plant. 

     

    Outdoing the Aussies

    I lied before when I said the horses were carrying essentials. At our first lunch stop on this trek I discovered that some of the items weren't really essential. Like the table and chairs that appeared at the lunch stop and every lunch stop thereafter.
    On this portion of the trek, we seemed to be playing leap frog with an Aussie group. They'd take a break and we would pass them. Then we would take a break, and they'd pass us. We walked pass them when they were sitting on the damp ground eating lunch. Just a few hundred feet from them we came upon a table with pots of food, and a line of chairs which were waiting for us. We waved at the Aussies.

    It was the beginning of a great trek.

    Thanks to Glen Gould for photos used in this post. 

  • Trek Day 2: Shana to Sot Thangthanka

    Mountains are imposing entities. They inspire those seeking to gaze upon their majesty, but they annoy those who merely want to be on the other side of them. I am in the gazing category.

    Mountains are also notorious cloud collectors that love to hide themselves. I prepared myself mentally for the possibility that the Himalayas would never show their face on this trek. Today, I started to believe that might be the case.

    It was drizzly and gray, so gray that the weather seemed to be on the precipice of getting worse. We heard a rumor that it was snowing on the pass, and that one group was turned back. I feared the entire trek might be like this.

    A Muddy Trail

    Today we had to hike 14.5 Miles with an elevation gain of 2,438 ft. The trail was very muddy, wet, and steep. There was a lot of horse traffic and they get the right of way, which makes the walking slow. Just when I thought I was making progress, I'd hear the yell of "horse," which meant I had to quickly find a place to perch myself as 5, 10, or more horses went up or down the trail. It was amazing to see how sure-footed they were in the mud.

    The horses' hooves chewed up the trail badly, so I had to pay careful attention to my footing. I appreciated the fact that I brought gators, otherwise I would have been a muddy mess. There was a technique to hiking this stretch of the trail. I had to find rocks and tree roots in the mud and the hop from one to the other. Otherwise I risked stepping ankle or knee deep in the mud.

    No Photos Today

    When I managed to look up, I saw beautiful green scenery. The temperature was comfortable, so I didn't find it that bad walking in the drizzle. But the deep mud that was a bit distressing.

    I was told that we wouldn't be within range of seeing the Himalayas until we reached our campsite. I tried to replace my fears of constant bad weather with the hope for clear skies in the evening or by morning.

    I regret that I didn't pull out my camera on this portion of the trek. But my hands were occupied with the two hiking poles I used to feel my way through the mud. I also didn't want to get my camera wet.

  • Trek Day 3: Soi Thangthangka to Jangothand

    When I signed up for this trek, I knew that I would be close to nature, but I didn’t expect to be this close to yaks, horses, and dogs. It is obvious that the land belongs to them, not us. Yaks run through the camp. Horses wander. Stray dogs follow us. As you might imagine, there is yak dung and horse poop all over. Bhutan is not a place to be barefoot.

     

    After yesterday’s drizzly day, this day is starting off promising. When I woke up, the sky was cloudy, but it cleared just before we left. It’s a good thing because this is day that we’ll arrive at Chomolhari Base camp, elevation 13,268 feet. Our hike is almost 12 miles, but our elevation gain is only 1,348 ft. Tashi, our trip leader, told us the trail conditions will be much better today.

     

  • Trek Day 4: Chomolhari Base Camp

    The problem with Chomolhari is that it is big and beautiful. It can’t help but to dominate the landscape. It draws our attention and compels us to take photos and videos as if somehow we could capture its essence and bring it home with us. Is it more beautiful in the twilight, the early morning, or the full sun? It’s difficult to decide, but one thing is for certain—we are very lucky with the weather. Like most mountains, Chomolhari can be a magnet for clouds. So far, except for a few clouds that quickly disappeared, it’s clear.

     

    The morning starts out frosty with the sun casting a subtle pink hue on the face of the mountain. Today is a layover day. Base camp is relatively crowded, with about 4 or 5 groups camping in the vicinity along with some local yak herders and the usual trekking horses, yaks, and stray dogs.

    Last night while we were trying to sleep, we were awoken by a snorting noise coming from an animal that was running in our direction. It stopped directly outside our tent. We were too afraid to look outside, so we yelled at it to go away. It moved on to the tent next to us. Was it an angry yak? The animals all look so peaceful this morning that it's impossible to tell which one is the culprit.

     

    Layover Day Lets Us Explore the Area

    It is a fine day for a hike. Five of us decide to take the option to get a closer look at Chomolhari while three of our group are staying at camp to rest. We hike uphill behind the camp and cut across a ridge, passing a large herd of blue sheep.

     

    The ridge is very windy, but it affords a 360 degree view with mountains in all directions. There is a beautiful valley at the base of Chomolhari. Yaks graze in the distance. After exploring a small river that runs through the valley, we make our way back to camp where solar-heated showers and tea await.

    Koren, Taski, and Pema on a day hike from base camp.

  • Trek Day 5: Jangothang to Tso Phu

    After a day’s layover, we are well rested, clean, and ready to move on. It’s a short hike to our next campsite—less than 5 miles. The campsite is near two lakes, at an altitude of 14,100 feet. It’s time to say goodbye to Chomolhari, and hello to Jitchu Drake, a mountain we saw earlier on our hike, but that fell our of view at base camp except for a tiny peak. This morning, before everyone else was up, we hiked a bit out of camp to catch a glimpse it. We’ll see more later when we ascend to higher ground. Before we begin our ascent, we are going to visit the home of a yak herder and his family.

     

    The yak herder family—a woman and her two children—graciously welcome us into their home. It is a traditional two-story Bhutanese home on a large plot of land with a stable and grazing areas. The home is comfortably furnished. In addition to the sleeping, cooking, and living room areas, it has a small area dedicated to Buddha. There are offerings, multicolored flags/banners, and butter lamps.

    Jitchu Drake Appears

    After leaving the yak herder's home, we head uphill. The higher we climb, the more Jitchu Drake unfolds itself. The scenery at the top of our climb is spectacular because there we can see both Jitchu Drake and Chomolhari. Several of us have a difficult time leaving this vantage point. We just can’t pull ourselves away. We linger while the others rush on to camp. When we finally get to camp, it is quite windy and cold, but like most days, have a tent with a view.

     

    Mixed with the sound of the wind is the sound of a bell. It is ringing constantly. It sounds like the same incessant ringing we’ve heard for the past two nights when we were trying to sleep. I track down the sound to a horse. She is eating, constantly chewing. With every bite the bell around her neck rings. I find out from the horseman that a horse with a bell is a problem horse--typically a wanderer who needs to be kept track of.

     

    The temperature drops around dinner time. The staff make hot water bottles for each of us to keep down the chill of the night. It is the coldest night, but it turns out to be crystal clear and one of the most beautiful nights of the trek.

     

  • Trek Day 6: Tso Phu to Chorapang

    This is the day of the big pass—Bang Tue La at 15,700 feet. I set my alarm and get up before everyone else because I am still obsessed with Chomolhari and Jitchu Drake. I want to see the early morning sun on them. It takes me a long to warm up and motivate myself to leave the tent. But it is worth the effort. It’s crystal clear and the view is, once again, spectacular.

     

    When the pink is gone from the mountains, I head back to camp to pack up and join the others in the trek to the pass. I use my typical strategy to get up the pass—one foot in front of the other at a steady pace I can maintain. Koren and Bill make it up first. Then Glen and I. Then the others. Our guides are amazed. They allotted 2 hours for the final climb, but we made it in under an hour.

    Prayer Flags at the Pass

    It is windy but clear at the pass. I feel great. We linger to take in the view. Koren, Glen, and I brought prayer flags that we had blessed by a Buddhist monk before we set out on our trek. Koren hangs the flags we brought in memory of her mother, my sister, who died just two weeks before we left the country. Glen hangs the flags we brought in memory of his mother, who died last year.

     

    We modified the prayer flag tradition a bit be cause white vertical flags—108 of them—are traditionally placed on poles to remember the dead. The horizontal colored flags are hung to increase life, fortune, health, and wealth to all sentient beings. The flags will unravel slowly in the wind, thread by thread, over time. These threads carry good fortune and for us, they also carry the memory of Elizabeth and Juanita.

    We don’t have much farther to go to our next camp, and we need to drop more than 2,600 feet. The trail is sharply downhill. We come over the crest of a ridge and see our lunch spot—an open meadow surrounded by the Lesser Himalayan range. As usual, the cook and horseman are already at the site. The table is set up with hot tea, rice, and other food. No doubt we'll have spicy peppers and cheese, a Bhutanese staple, with our meal.

     

    We hike a short distance after lunch, and can already see our camp in the distance. Chorapang, our destination is at an elevation of 12,300 feet.

  • Trek Day 7: Chorapang to Thangbue

    Today we cross our second highest pass, Takalung La at 14,400 feet. After yesterday’s success, my feeling is that Takalung La is just another hill with a view. I remind myself that the pass is as high as Mount Rainier and only 100 feet short of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental US.

     

    It’s another relatively short hike, less than 7 miles, which allows us to start a bit later and take a tea break before we hike up the pass.

    Takalung La has a spectacular 360 degree view. We yell the traditional Lha Gey Lo!, which is a requirement for every pass, then we hang a few prayer flags and enjoy the view. It is typical for passes to have such high wind that hikers aren’t allowed to linger. The fact that we could stay awhile at yesterday’s and today’s passes is quite unusual.

     

    Our camp tonight is in a remote yak herding area. We find a few buildings that are used seasonally, but the yaks and the herders aren’t here. Only the yak dung remains.

    A mist rolls in can gives the camp an ethereal look. It's difficult to believe that we've been on the trek for 7 days. We have only a few more days in this spectacular part of Bhutan.

  • Trek Day 8: Thangbue to Shana

    Today our chef seems to have gone all our for breakfast. He added french fries to our usual fare of cereal, eggs, peanut butter, and leathery bacon. This is our last day of hiking. Our trip leader modified the itinerary so that we don’t do any hiking tomorrow. I’m not sure how that will work, but it could mean that we are hiking more than the 9 miles slated for today. We begin our hike with an easy uphill walk over a small pass.

     

    The next part of our hike is across a ridge with views in each direction. We see the China side of Chomolhari at one point, that’s how close we are to the border. The ridge hiking is easy. When we get to the downhill part, we put our cameras away. It is steep and relentless. We drop 4,500 feet in not that many miles.

     

    I am happy that it is not raining because parts of the trail are so deeply rutted by people and animals that the ruts have turned in to canyons the width of a horse and about three feet deep. I imagine these turn into chutes of raging water during the rainy season. Most of the rest of us take our time. We take so much time that we are about an hour late for lunch. The head horsemen worries so much that he starts hiking uphill to check on us.

    When I finally arrive for lunch, I am relieved the downhill has ended. After this, it us a short, flat hike to our final camping spot.

     

  • Trek Day 9: Shana to Paro and Thimpu

    I wake up a little sad that we aren’t hiking today. My spirits are lifted when I see crepuscular rays. One of this phenomenon’s common names is Buddha Ray’s so it’s fitting that in this Buddhist land, on the last morning of the trek, that I see this spectacular sight.

    The camp is so close to where the horseman lives, that the horses are restless. They had to be tied up last night so they didn’t run home. I imagine that after hauling our things for so many days, the horses are ready for a rest. Today they appear to be discussing plans for their time off.

     

    A bus arrives to take us to Paro and on to Thimpu for cultural touring. First, we stop at Drukyel Dzong, where we began the trek. We are greeted with ceremonial white scarves, tea, beer, and momos. It was a fabulous trek.

     

  • Taken for a Ride in Thailand

    The question was innocent enough. Would you like to see Asian elephants on your way back to the hotel? I was at the floating market outside Bangkok when Mr. George, our Thai guide, made the inquiry. I am not sure why I said yes. Being so close to Bangkok, the elephants couldn't be wild. I'm not a fan of seeing captive animals.

    When I arrived at the elephant place, I found out it was a "ride-an-elephant" attraction. After handing over the fee to ride and another fee to cover bananas for the elephant, I climbed up a set of stairs to the elephant-mounting platform. They are big, friendly beasts who don't seem to mind taking on passengers. Perhaps it's the bananas they enjoy most.

    The padding on the seat was so worn that the seat back was really a metal bar, a bit uncomfortable. Still, it was an amazing feeling—and fun—to be jostled back and forth as our elephant ambled along. Taking photos is a challenge; no image stabilizer lens would be able to compensate for this motion.

    At the start of the ride, I was feeling that our guide might have been "given an incentive" by the elephant concession to side-trip his clients there. I felt trapped. But after I met my elephant, my heart warmed. I hoped my money was keeping the elephant employed in the outdoors and happy. But then, halfway through the ride, my driver stopped the elephant, turned around, and offered to sell me ivory jewelry. This ivory, of course, was supposed to be "legal" ivory. After declining, the ride continued.

    I'll be a bit more wary next time I'm offered a side trip.

  • A Tale of Two Archers

    When I shoot an arrow, I stand about 30 feet from the target. Otherwise, I don't have a chance at hitting it. So I was amazed to watch an archery match in Bhutan, where the archer stands more than 400 feet from the target. That's not a typo—I really meant 400 feet. An American football field is 360 feet.

    I was excited to get a new target this year. It's four feet in diameter and made of special material that makes it easy to pull out arrows. A Bhutan target is 11 inches wide and made of wood. It's so difficult to pull out the arrows, that the archer often unscrews the tip and uses a pliers.

    My archery lessons included detailed instruction on safety. Never stand or walk on the archery field until all arrows have been shot. Then, and only then, do you walk on the field. Not in Bhutan. Each team stands next to the target while the other team shoots, from that 400-foot distance, at the target.

    My upbringing stressed the importance of good sportsmanship. Archers in Bhutan are expected to taunt each other in an effort to unnerve the opposition. When someone hits the target, his team mates run in front of the target singing and dancing in mockery of the other team.

    Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. Archery is so important, that despite the low per capita income ($1400 USD), people take out loans to purchase high-end compound bows that can cost as much as a year's salary.

  • The Ice Hotel

    Ever since I heard of the existence of the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, I wanted to visit it. I'm not sure why, because I'm not particularly fond of the cold. I must be drawn to the beauty of ice and snow, particularly when it sparkles in either sun or moon light.

    The Ice Hotel is in northern Sweden (image from Wiki). Since 1990–the official start of the Ice Hotel—numerous other copycats have arrived on the scene. Canada, Norway, Finland, and Fairbanks, Alaska all have ice structures, while Harbin, China hosts the "world's fair" of ice display. None of these hold the fascination for me as does the one in Sweden.

    The Ice Hotel is rebuilt annually, starting in November, when ice blocks are cut from the local Torne river. The hotel gets bigger each week, reaching full capacity in February, and then melting in the spring.

    I wrote this post before I left for the Ice Hotel. I am staying in the actual Ice Hotel for two nights, and warm accommodations across the street for three nights. When I return, I'll have a first-hand account.

  • When Minus 5 Degrees C Feels Warm

    Jukkasjärvi, Sweden is far north, close to where Norway, Finland, and Sweden intersect. If it weren't for the Ice Hotel, very few people would know of, or care about, this small village. The Sami (Sweden's native people) named the town and have inhabited the land for generations before anyone ever thought of building the hotel.

    I traveled to Jukkasjärvi thinking the trip would be all about the hotel—the experience of tossing back a vodka in the Ice Bar, of crawling into a cold bed, and of perhaps seeing the aurora. There was so much more. Yes, the hotel is amazing. It was much bigger than I expected. the hotel is built around a long hall, with chandelier and siting areas that most people don't sit in because they are ice.

    There are six corridors off the main hall, each with about 12 rooms. Half the rooms are standard ice rooms. They are each decorated with the same small ice sculptures. So each room looks alike, much as you'd expect in a Hilton, but with ice.

    The other half of the rooms are art suites. Each one is designed by an artist from around the world. Each features a unique, elaborate design. One night I stayed in the Dragon Suite. Another the Bedroom Story suite. To get an idea of what it looks like, watch this music video of the Ice Hotel that I made.

    The bed is a normal mattress that's placed on wood slats and then covered with reindeer skin. The room is "yours" between 6 PM and 10 AM, which is when tours for non guests are over. In reality, no one stays in the room unless they are taking photos or in a sleeping bag.

    The outside temperature in Jukkasjärvi varied between –25 and –30 Celsius, so the the inside temperature of –5 degrees C felt relatively warm when I first went into the ice building. Still, –5 is pretty cold. The trick to being perfectly comfortable when sleeping is to wear long, wool underwear, socks, and a hat to bed, and nothing more. Otherwise it's too hot. I got my sleeping bag from the warm hotel when I was ready to sleep. That way, the sleeping bag was warm when I crawled into it. It stayed warm all night from my body heat. In the morning, a staff member woke me with a cup of hot lingonberry juice.

    I found two "problems" sleeping in the cold hotel. The first is that the room is so beautiful that I found it difficult not to want to stay up and gaze at the art. The second problem is needing to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, which I did on both nights. There are no toilets in the cold hotel, so I had to walk to the warm hotel. It's not that far, but the thought of leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag can make it difficult to get up. My advice: Just do it and get it over with. When I got up on the second night, I noticed the aurora, so I went to the roof of the ice hotel where they have an aurora-viewing porch. Spectacular.

    What I didn't expect on this trip was to learn so much about the Sami. I went horseback riding twice with Sami women and reindeer mushing one day with a Sami man. Those stories I'll leave for another post.

  • Getting a Reindeer to Pull a Sled

    First you have to catch one, which turns out to be pretty easy if the reindeer are in a corral. The Sami people of Sweden have an agreement with the reindeer. They track and tag the wild heard year round—thousands of them. In the winter, when it's more difficult for the reindeer to survive, the Sami take in the weaker and older reindeer. The reindeer stay in a corral and are fed by the Sami. In exchange, some of the reindeer pull sleds.

    In times past, the Sami actually used reindeer to pull loads from place to place. Nowadays, reindeer sledding is a tourist activity, done to educate people like me about native life. Reindeer aren't inclined to pull a sled. They will do it only if there is a set track. Otherwise, I think the reindeer would just run off in some random direction.

    My Sami guide handed me a rope and led me into the corral with the reindeer. After he lassoed one by the antlers, I had to attach my rope to the reindeer's collar. Then I carefully led the reindeer to a sled. The guide's assistants attached the reindeer to the sled, and I was told to stand firmly on the brake and not let the reindeer take off. My reindeer didn't actually seem like he was going to run off anywhere, but I didn't want to find out.

    To drive the reindeer, the driver stands at the back of the sled, on the runners. The rope serves as a way to coax the reindeer, although it's difficult to see how such a lightweight rope can be felt through the thick skin of a reindeer. Mostly the driver shouts "Hut, Hut" at the reindeer and hope he goes. You need a lot of hope to get a reindeer going!


    The track was several miles long. It went through woods and out onto a plain flooded with sunlight and pristine, sparkling snow. The scenery was spectacular. At first I wondered how I would stay on the back of the sled, but my reindeer slow. He was so slow that I jumped off the sled and pushed occasionally—not so much to help the reindeer as it was to keep myself warm in –30 Celsius. When I finally got my reindeer to speed up, I realized it wasn't anything I was doing. The corral was in sight. He wanted to be home.

    After the one-and-a-half-hour sledding adventure, our Sami guide took us to a canvas tepee and cooked a lunch of reindeer meat served with lingonberries on traditional Sami bread. Delicious!

  • The Vanishing Town of Kiruna

    Every place that draws travelers, like the Ice Hotel, has a main attraction and at least one lesser known back story. Kiruna is the small town that you fly into to get to the Ice Hotel. Like me, most people hop off the plane, walk past the "welcome" ice sculpture, and into baggage claim. Then, after collecting luggage, they get into a bus or taxi and leave Kiruna behind. Kiruna, however, is also leaving itself behind. I learned this from a Saami guide who drove us between the Ice Hotel and her farm on two different days so we could horseback ride and learn about Saami culture. The story I relate comes mostly from the guide, a young (20-something) woman whose family has been living in this area for generations, along with other Saami.

    The life of the Saami is inextricably bound to the wild reindeer of Sweden. The animals (estimated to be more than 10,000) migrate throughout Scandinavia. The Saami follow the migration, managing the herd in the process. In the old days, they followed the reindeer on foot. The Saami would gather and corral the reindeer, mark them as to which family managed them, count the herd, and kill what they needed to survive. The reindeer are used for meat and clothing. The Saami traveled in the back country for long periods of time following the reindeer.

    With the introduction of the snowmobile, the Saami have a much easier time of managing the herd. They don't need to be away from their family for so long. The migration of the reindeer has also speeded up. When the Saami were on foot, they steered the reindeer at walking pace. With snowmobiles, the reindeer are allowed to move more quickly.

    The Saami don't feel they own reindeer. Nor do they feel they own the land. So years ago, when the King at the time tired to give the Saami land, they replied that they don't own the land. The King either didn't understand this noble philosophy or chose to take advantage of it. He gave the land around Kiruna—or at least the mining rights—to Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB), a Swedish mining company. Started in the 1890's, the ming produces iron ore pellets. Since the mid 20th century, the company is owned by the Swedish government.

    I sat in stunned disbelief when my Saami guide told me how much iron ore leaves the mine each day. But with a revenue of 31.133 billion SEK, that comes out to more than 82 million SEK per day (13 million USD), with the net profit of one-third that.

    Imagine how much iron ore has come out of the ground over the past 125 years. It is so much that the mine has been extracting from under the town and plans to continually expand under the town. Hence the need to move the entire town. In fact, LKAB is in the process of buying the town, home-by-home, a process that has been going on for a few years and will continue until each property is bought. One of the main highways will close soon due to undermining.

    The Saami aren't happy with the mine and town move because it interferes with their age-old reindeer herding practices. It's my understanding that the vibrations, land deformation, and other mining side effects disturb reindeer migration routes. Saami won't be allowed to herd in these areas.

    My Saami guide has been fighting as best she can against the unstoppable forces of mining and the Swedish government. It was heart breaking for me to hear her tell of when she learned her father took a job in the mine so he could make a better life for his family. He did this while she was away at school. I'm sure it tore him apart to do it. He is probably like many Saami of his generation.

    I admire my guide's courage and spirit. I hope she continues to fight for her culture.

    More on Kiruna and the Mine

    Sweden: Saami communities say NO to mining on traditional lands
    Entire City of Kiruna, Sweden to Relocate
    LKAB Mining Company
    Saami Council

  • The Flight to Hong Kong

    It's minus 63 degrees outside. We are flying into a 110 MPH head wind, which probably explains why it takes almost 15 hours to get to Hong Kong, I try not to think about the thin wall of composite separating me from the subzero air.

    My seat is angled to face the windows. I can see through three of them. Through the left window I see a massive engine. It doesn't appear to have any moving parts, yet I know the fan blades are creating the thrust to keep this can of 350 people at 38,000 feet.

    The engine hangs forward of the wing. I'm not sure how it's fastened. It doesn't look as if anything much it holding it in place. There is only one engine on this side. What if the engine on the other side stops? Could we fly on just this one? I suspect so, but it would take some precise piloting to control the lopsided thrust.

    A flight attendant brings me a cognac—Hine "Rare and Delicate." The quotes are theirs, not mine. I don't know much about cognac, but I do know this one is smooth and tasty. Cognac service signals cabin sunset. The lights dim as passengers pull out comforters and convert their upright seats to the bed position. I, too, settle into slumber.

    Flying always brings an uneasy sleep, even in a bed. I notice when the background noise of the jets change. At times they purr. At times they roar. The seatbelt sign comes and goes with the changes. But even the turbulent times on this flight are smoother than driving down the 101 in the Bay Area. And fortunately there isn't any side-to-side rolling, like on that trip across the Drake Passage on the Polar Star.

    I put my nose on one of the windows to get a glimpse of the sky. I can't connect the dots into any familiar shape. If only the plane had an observation bubble I might be able to get my bearings. We are over Japan now. Maybe I'd never get my bearings at this latitude and longitude.

    After dinner, a six-hour sleep, a movie (Another Earth), reading, and a long conversation with Glen, the trip info screen shows another three and a half hours to go. The images from the belly-side camera are black. Will the sun rise before we get to Hong Kong? Will we ever get to Hong Kong? It's a long flight. Hong Kong isn't even my final destination. It's the transfer point for Ho Chi Minh City.

  • Surviving the Streets of Ho Chi Minh City

    My jet-lagged eyes recoil from the light when I step outdoors. My hotel, the Caravelle, is in the center of Ho Chi Minh City. It's hazy, but bright. I see a huge group of motorcycles, ten abreast and I don't know how many deep, waiting with engines running. It must be a race. They take off all at once, zig zagging around the few cars on the street and narrowly missing each other as some go straight and some veer to the left and right. Pedestrians attempt to dart through the buzzing bikes. To my amazement there are no collisions.

    The light bulb over my head illuminates. This isn't a race. It's normal traffic and I, the zombie tourist who can't think straight because I am in a different time zone, must negotiate my way through the sea of motorbikes if I want to get to the traditional market. In fact, I have to cross six or seven streets to get to the market. Will I survive?

    I try several strategies.

    Wait for a clear path across the street. This doesn't work. I wait and a path through the traffic never presents itself. Even when it seems promising, as soon as I step off the curb, the path disappears and I jump back.

    Tail a local. I wait for a person who looks Vietnamese and follow him. I look like a stalker. Then I realize the locals have more nerve than I do. I make it across the street, but I think I'm going to die from fright. This isn't sustainable.

    Don't look any drivers in the eye. Then maybe they'll avoid me. I get halfway across the street, look up, see how much traffic there is and realize this is a very bad idea. I run back to the curb and think of another strategy. Just when I get my wits together, there is a collision. No one is hurt, but the traffic pauses long enough for me to run across the street. The wait-for-a-collision strategy, while successful, isn't one I want to count on.

    I finally find the best strategy. Wait for a family with small children. Moms have an innate sense of what's safe. Drivers hold back a bit for babies and toddlers. I start shadowing families. I smile and say "cute baby" to remove the appearance of stalking.

    I'm back at the hotel sipping a drink from the rooftop bar. I look down on the mass of motorbikes and the haze of river mist and bike pollution. Some bikes have one rider. Many have two. Others carry families of three and four. It's cost effective. Bikes are so maneuverable that the traffic always moves.

  • Investing in Vietnam: An Unhappy Tale

    About 20 minutes outside Ho Chi Minh City I find myself on a highway in the midst of rice fields stretched to the horizon. I'm on my way to the Mekong Delta, another hour or so from here, where I will board a boat. The highway is built up several meters above the land out of necessity. The land is wet and soft, perfect for rice. Not so good for building. Anything concrete requires bringing in sand to compact the earth and build it up around the surrounding wet land.

    I notice a round, concrete structure in the distance—an odd view to see in a sea of rice fields. My guide John (Americanized version of Drang) tells me it is the remnants of Happy Land, whose most famous investor is Joe Jackson. That's right, Michael's Dad.

    I've been here for only two days, but I already know a Happy Land couldn't survive. The Vietnamese people don't have the money for what would have to be a high admission fee. The location, although 20 minutes from HCM City, is not ideal for the Vietnamese either. It's 20 minutes by fast car. I can't imagine putting my family of four on a motor bike and making the trek out here. I don't think the tourists would do it either.

    Joe Jackson pulled out shortly after he learned of the bribery structure in Vietnam. Bribes are roughly one-third the cost of the project, and Joe refused. The project went bankrupt. They managed to bring in the sand to build up the land for the park, forever making those hectares unusable for rice farming. And they managed to build the round concrete Epcot-center-wannabe. But that's it.

    And so goes the unhappy tale of Happy Land.

  • Standing Face to Face With Death

    The tank before me is rusted and punctured by bullet holes. Any part that could be removed is gone. About 40 years ago the tank rolled over a booby trap that destroyed its tread. Unable to move, it became a sitting target. After a battle of unknown length, the Americans inside were killed and their effects taken. Later, villagers stripped what they could of the metal. Then they refashioned the scraps into barbed stakes used for a wide variety of traps that maimed soldiers. I see replicas of traps designed to damage armpits, pierce the chest, tear apart legs, and puncture backs. These are gruesome.

    It's an easy walk on this path. But around me there are signs of past struggles. Bomb craters, trenches for fighting, fake termite mounds used to conceal air vents for underground tunnels, and the tunnels themselves. Up to 250 kilometers I'm told.

    I follow a solider through a tunnel. I duck walk and it's a tight fit. Forty meters later, I emerge, thankful that today's tunnel has lighting and a fan-powered ventilation system. The Vietnamese soldiers and villagers didn't have lighting. Their ventilation system was marginal. The tunnels were narrower, having been widened only recently to allow for tourists to fit through without panicking.

    This photo is a re-creation of a booby trap. After stepping on false ground, the soldier is impaled on underground spikes. (Photo by Glen Gould.)

     

    I step into an underground room used for surgeries. I visit another used by the blacksmiths who repaired guns, made bombs, and forged barbed stakes. I see the kitchen used to cook meals, the smoke piped 15 meters away to minimize detection.

    The history fascinates and disgusts me. I am fascinated by the cleverness of the villagers who built the underground network, by their resourcefulness of using American G.I. cigarettes and sweaty clothes to confuse the dogs who were sent to sniff out the tunnels, and the way soldier and villager worked together against an army whose help they never asked for.

    I am disgusted by the loss of life on both sides, by the fact that our men were sent into a foreign environment to do something none of us are raised to do, fighting for a cause that was born from a few paranoid politicians.

    I stand here in 2013 wishing that a time machine could be a reality, regretting that a time machine wasn't a reality here in Chu Chi during the Vietnam War.

  • A Lesson in Meditation: Vipassana Dhurak Buddhist Centre of Cambodia

    My quadriceps protest the position I put them in. I am seated on the floor, legs crossed yogi style, attempting to sit up straight. I imagine a string that's attached at one end to the temple ceiling and the other end to the top of my head. I pretend it is straightening my spine, but I still feel as if I am going to fall over backwards. Breathe slowly, I tell myself. Relax the knees. Don't think about the tight muscles. Clear my mind. Listen to the wind through the temple doors, Think of the calm of the surrounding hills. After about ten minutes, I open my eyes. This isn't working.

    The monk smiles as I get up. I walk quietly around this new temple so I don't disturb my guide and Glen. Neither one of them is grimacing in pain. I am impressed they took to meditating so easily.


    The colorful panels that tell of Buddha's life cover the walls and ceiling. It's a tall building. I bend back as far as I can so I can see everything above me. The temple is so new that there are a few details left to finish it. Two empty niches in the back might be for lighting or speakers. i'm not sure. A pile of marble tiles wait to be installed on the terrace.

    The Buddha is made of many polished stones pieced together. It's unusual because all other Buddha's I've seen have been solid—gold or jade or concrete. These stones are from Cambodia, all cut and polished by Cambodian women. The wall behind the Buddha is painted with a gigantic bodhi tree whose crown reaches the ceiling. The leaves continue on the ceiling, over the Buddha.

    The temple is elevated. It's doors open to show many other buildings at the complex—some house the monks, some are used for study. There is a another temple for a reclining Buddha, another for a set of figures I'm unfamiliar with. There is a reservoir. In the center is a huge figure of a woman standing on a crocodile. The grounds are impeccably manicured with flowering trees and bushes. The two flag poles near the entrance are each easily 100 feet tall. It is an impressive complex.

    As large as this Buddhist center is, I see no one except the monk in the temple. He is pleased that we all sat and meditated (or attempted to). He now gives me pointers in breathing and sitting so that I can continue the practice of meditation on my own.

  • Eating My Way Through Vietnam and Cambodia

    My mouth waters when the waiter sets down a steaming bowl of noodle soup. Bits of fresh vegetables and chicken float in the broth, The wide rice noodles are the perfect texture. I squeeze fresh lime over the soup. The broth is one of the most flavorful I've ever tasted. Tiny red chiles add enough of a bite that my nose runs and eyes water. The chiles are spicy but they don't mask the other flavors.

    It's breakfast. I love that I can eat pho or dim sum or fried rice or some other Asian food early in the morning. Both here and in Vietnam, the breakfast buffets are amazing—cooked-to-order pancakes, waffles, eggs Benedict, omelets, and pho; homemade jams, jellies, nut butters, and pastries; tropical fruits; freshly pressed watermelon, guava, orange, carrot, and green monster juices; smoked mackerel and salmon. Vietnam had a bit more variety and included such things as stir-fried beef, sautéed frogs legs, and sushi.

    One of the best meals I've had so far was close to the Mekong River in Vietnam. I hopped off a boat and took a short walk through the vegetation that ended in a French colonial style house. After a tasty five-vegetable soup, a fried elephant-eared fish arrived at the table. It was propped upright, still smiling, as it if never left the ocean. The server then proceeded to pick off pieces which she added to lettuce and herbs, rolling the whole concoction into a fresh rice roll wrapper.

    When the fish was nothing but a skeleton, a clay pot of Vietnamese pork arrived with a side of rice. I managed to consume most of it before fresh, full cream yogurt and tropical fruits appeared.

    In the USA I eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a bowl of soup or a salad for lunch and, on most days, a modest dinner of vegetables and fish or meat. Here I eat only two meals a day, but I'll still probably come home with a few more pounds than I left with. There are so many things to try.

  • Sunrise at Angkor Wat

    I am wearing a light jacket. I wish it was made of fleece. Chugging along at 30 mph in a tuk tuk makes 15 degrees C seem much colder, The "RealFeel", as perceived temperature is referred to around here, seems to be around 11 C. It's dark. I'm in one of a long line of tuk tuks and buses making a predawn trek to Angkor Wat.

    I follow my photography guide—Eric de Vries—through the main gate. We fall in with the crowd for only a short while when he steps off the main path onto one lit only by moonlight. I follow him closely to avoid making a misstep. We are in stealth mode. We don't have a light, so the masses aren't likely to follow us to this off-the-beaten-path location.

    We are the first to arrive at a small pond on the right side of the Angkor complex. The complex is far enough away that I should be able to fit it all into one frame along with its reflection in the pond. I look at my camera's LCD. It is still too dark for an image to form.

    A few small groups join us at our site, but from the glow of flashlights I can see that the left side of Angkor has the large masses. I hear murmurs as we await the sunrise.

    The first bit of light starts to show. Eric instructs me not to use my tripod and instead use an ASA of 2500. While the sun is rising in the sky, he tells me I should decrease the ASA each minute to compensate for the increasing light. I'm skeptical about the no-tripod instruction. I hauled this thing more than 7,800 miles and now I'm not going to use it. But he's correct. The first image forms and looks great. I keep decreasing the ASA, and the images get even better.

    In my photos Angkor Wat is silhouetted against the sky. The technique Eric shared with me hides the large section of scaffolding that covers part of the temple. I look around and see that people using point-and-shoots or who are not adjusting their fancy cameras are getting ever brighter photos that show ugly tarps and the metal of the scaffold.

    We move to the crowded side. The temple is also lovely from this view, with the orange ball of the sun just now visible over the temple wall. There are so many people that it is almost impossible to get a shot of Angkor without also including part of the crowd. I stand on my tiptoes, hold my camera high over my head, aim as best I can, and click. After five or six tries, I succeed.

    I walk to one of the many outdoor restaurants next to the crowd. I warm my hands on a cup of hot, sweet coffee. It's an amazing start to the day.

  • The Killing Fields of Cambodia

    "In 1978, the Khmer Rouge killed my father and uncles. Five men in my family, all killed," my guide explains before we set off in his tuk tuk to the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh. It is just one site of many all over Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge rounded up people in a truck, telling them they were taking them to a better place to live and work. On arrival, they imprisoned them, but not for long.

     

    At night, the Khmer Rouge would play revolutionary songs loudly, over speakers. The screeching songs, mixed with the sound of the diesel generator, drowned out the screams of the prisoners as they were bludgeoned to death. The bodies were then thrown into a mass grave and sprinkled with DDT. Those who weren't dead by the bludgeoning were finished off with the DDT, which also helped to control the stench of the decaying bodies.

    I arrive at the site. It looks peaceful, surrounded by rice paddies. Then I see the craters, each one indicative of a mass grave. Bones protrude from the ground, as do pieces of clothing. The rainy season uncovers these artifacts. Each month volunteers collect what gets unearthed. In the center of the site is a towering stupa. I must tip my head back to see to the top because it is so tall. It's filled with skulls and large bones. There are so many bones that the small ones could not be placed inside this memorial.

    I see the Killing Tree. When first discovered after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there were bits of brain and skin embedded in the blood stained bark. This tree was where the Khmer Rouge smashed the heads of babies and small children.

    There are small plots of dirt cordoned off and shaded by a roof at which my audio tour tells stories of what happened. It's a somber place. Everyone wants to turn back time and bring these people back. The posts around these plots are filled with peace bracelets. People have also thrown bracelets and money on the dirt itself. I can tell these plots are treated with respect because the money I see is deteriorating in place. No one dares to remove it. I recognize some of the money. I am surprised to see Ben Franklin's face on a rotting $100 bill. That's a month's wage here, yet no one will remove that bill.

    The Khmer Rouge took advantage of a cruel and corrupt government to put in place an even crueler government. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, although educated, sought out and tortured or killed every person with an education. He killed all the doctors he could find, the teachers, anyone who wore glasses, anyone who read, who owned books. He broke families apart, taking the children and turning them into soldiers for the cause, soldiers who were then willing to kill their own family if necessary. He forced everyone living in Phnom Penh to leave the city and move into the countryside to farm the land. Those who didn't die of starvation and disease were tortured, many killed.

    One out of four Cambodians died at the hand of the Khmer Rouge. Bullets were precious, which is why bludgeoning was preferred. I saw the cracked skulls and the smashed jaws. Pregnant women were not immune. Fetuses were cut from their bellies and hung up on tree branches.

    It's gruesome. It's an unbelievably cruel story, one that the world watched from the outside. And a story that continues to this day. There are still Khmer Rouge awaiting trial for war crimes. The trials get delayed, which is no relief to the victims' families.

    Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister of Cambodia, was a Battalion Commander for the Khmer Rouge. When he saw their fall coming, he fled to Vietnam and led the rebel army that was sponsored by the Vietnamese to take down the Khmer Rouge. Hun has been Primer Minister for decades, and refuses to give up the position. He appointed many Khmer Rouge to government posts.

    Hun Sen never had to answer for his actions as Battalion Commander for the Khmer Rouge. Would the world have turned Germany over to one of Hitler's commanders to rule? I think not. I understand why the Cambodians are dismayed at having this dictator in power.

    Many in the world support Hun Sen because they think he is a better alternative than anyone the opposition can put forward. The Hun Sen supporters are not the people who lost family under the Khmer Rouge.

  • Cao Dài Temple: The Great Religion of the Third Period of Revelation and Salvation

    I am in front of a magnificent building in the town of Tây Ninh in southern Vietnam. It is the Holy See of the Cao Dài religion—a relatively new religion that started in 1926 right where I am standing. Like all religions, it began with a hallucination. Its disciples received instructions directly from God to establish Cao Dài.

    I see a mixture of symbols on the outside of the temple—figures representative of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. I see dragons, a flying goose, and even Joan of Arc. There is a giant eye on the outer wall. It reminds me of the one on the US dollar, only colorful.

    The front door is reserved for entry by the religion’s followers. It’s not quite noon; many disciples have already arrived. I walk to the side of the temple, leave my shoes on the street, and enter through the visitor’s door.

    The disciples, all clothed in pure white robes, are seated in the back vestibule—the women on one side and the men on the other. They must wait there until the monks arrive. Then they can enter the main hall and sit in the area reserved for them.

    As a visitor I am allowed to roam the outer aisles of the temple until it’s time to start the service. I am not allowed to walk into the center, nor am I allowed to take photos that include non disciples. Oddly enough, it is perfectly okay to take photos of the disciples and monks both before and during the service.

    The place is colorful. Really colorful. The style of the carvings and the bright colors remind me of a carousel. I see eyes all over—they are the windows to the temple. I see dragons and stars and planets. The altar is so far back in the temple that it’s difficult to make out what it is when I first enter. When I walk closer, I see there a gigantic round planet with an eye painted on it. It is the eye that oversees the universe.

    My guide says it is time for me to go upstairs to view the ceremony. The white-clad disciples file in and sit on the sides. The monks, dressed in primary colors, walk in next. Only a few walk past the midpoint of the temple. No one gets close to the altar. Where you sit is determined by the your level of mastery of the principles. All disciples must adopt ethical principles that include nonviolence, vegetarianism, prayer, and veneration of ancestors. But there are also many scriptures for them to study and learn.

    In the back is a musicians’ loft. Five or six young women (all supposedly virgins) sing while a group of men sit and play traditional instruments. Then it’s silent and everyone sits, adopting a posture of meditation. It’s now very quiet in the temple. My guide says “They are going to stay that way for hours.” I still watch. Once in awhile a gong sounds, the musicians start up, then there is silence again. Sometimes the gong sounds once, sometimes several times in a row. Not knowing the religion, I don’t understand the ritual, but it is beautiful and restful.

    After awhile I leave the disciples to their meditation.

    The Cao Dài followers believe there are 72 planets that have intelligent life. Planet number 1 is closest to heaven and planet 72 is closest to Hell. Earth is number 68. I am thankful that Earth is considered one of the planets with intelligent life, because at times I wonder how intelligent we really are.

    For more information on the practice of Cao Dài, see http://www.caodai.org/. Its full name is Dai Dao Tam Ky Pho Do, the Great Religion of the Third Period of Revelation and Salvation.

  • Disrupting a School Day in Cambodia

    I just finished a picnic lunch in the countryside outside Siem Reap. I am sitting under a tree next to a Buddhist temple. Two sad, dirt covered dogs gaze at me while a puppy jumps playfully at the table hoping for some scraps. He gets them. My guide says, “There’s a school a short walk away. Let’s visit the classroom.”

    If I tried to pop into a classroom in the USA unannounced, I’d likely be arrested. So I am a little concerned. I say, “Are you sure we can just walk into a classroom?” He says, “Yes. They will love it.” So we walk on.

    As I approach the school yard, I notice that some children are outside, some inside. I hear excited murmurs. When we get to the classroom I don’t see a teacher anywhere. To my surprise, there are children seated at the desks.

     

    We enter and most of the children jump up and run towards us. They see cameras and want photos taken. Many keep flashing peace signs, so much so that it makes it difficult to get a good shot without having fingers in front of someone’s face. There is so much movement, it’s also difficult to focus. Clearly this is the highlight of their day.

    A few children sit at their place, looking shy and reserved. I take one of the shy girl’s photos. She smiles when I show her image to her. Other children surround me so they too can see her image. Now everyone wants to see their image in my camera.

    This goes on for at least ten minutes before the teacher arrives. We wish her a good day and leave, the children waving at us as we make a quiet getaway.

    There are schools all over the countryside. Most, but not all, children attend. It’s easy to see who attends by the fact the children wear uniforms. As I walk through other parts of this rural area, I see children who appear to be school age, but are helping tend livestock or work in the fields. The literacy rate in rural areas is about 74% compared to urban areas, which is about 90%.

  • Trying to Get a Cup of Coffee in San Francisco

    I had been warned that a cup of siphon coffee would set me back seven dollars or so. If the line into Blue Bottle Coffee weren't so long, I don't think having a cup of siphon would have intrigued me. It's true that most people in the line weren't getting siphon. Blue Bottle is also famous for all the other kinds of coffee they serve—lattes, espresso, cold brewed coffee, and more.


    What’s a siphon? A true siphon causes liquid to move from one location to another using gravitational force. Let’s say you have a 5,000 gallon tank of water and you want to move it to a tank that’s located downhill. You can place one end of a tube in the top tank and the other in the bottom tank. The water will first go upwards through the tube to get over the edge of the upper tank, then travel down to lower tank. All due to gravity

    Siphon coffee doesn’t work that way, so it is not really a siphon. The water for siphon coffee starts in a lower chamber of a two-chamber device. When heated, the water flows upwards through a tube to the upper chamber. It’s not gravity that’s responsible. It’s vapor pressure. When the water in the lower chamber (which is closed) is heated, the vapor pressure increases. The upper chamber is open, so it’s at normal atmospheric pressure. When the difference is big enough, the water gets sucked to the upper chamber. That’s when you add coffee grounds, wait precisely one minute and ten seconds, remove from the heat, and then watch the coffee drain to the lower chamber as the vapor pressure decreases.

    Siphon coffee operates on the same principle of the percolated coffee of the past. Percolated coffee recirculates over the grounds while siphon soaks the grounds.

    Now that you know the science, here’s the ordeal of getting a cup of siphon joe.

    Day 1. I decide I’ll walk over to Blue Bottle, grab a siphon to go, and get back to hear a talk at a conference that I’m attending. I allot a half hour. After 20 minutes of waiting I haven't quite reached the front door so I bail in time to get back to the conference.

    Day 2. I realize I need to allot more time to stand in line. I figure I'll pop in early in the morning on the way to the conference, grab a siphon to go, and get to the conference on time. I leave 45 minutes. Within 20 minutes I get to the cash register, but I notice that the menu mentions that customers are expected to drink the siphon on the premises. It’s part of the ritual. 

    I was prepared to break protocol and ask for a siphon to go. When I arrived at the counter and requested a siphon, I was told it would be at least 20 minutes before the Siphonista would be able to start making the siphon. It was too long so I ordered a latte. It was the most beautiful latte I've ever had, and tasty too. The latte was worth the 10 minute wait. The artful design on the frothed milk was so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to use a to-go lid. The design persisted even as I drank, a testament to the thick, foamy milk  Best ever! Now I really wanted to try the siphon.


    Day 3. I allocated 90 minutes in my schedule to wait in line, wait for the Siphonista to catch up with the orders, and to enjoy the complete ritual on the Blue Bottle premises. The line was not quite as long, so I was very hopeful. I reached the counter within 15 minutes. I had my siphon flavor picked out—the special Panama with hints of chocolate and berries. My mouth was watering. I ordered. The hostess said "I'm sorry but the Siphonista is not here now.” “Could anyone else make it?” I asked. Of course not. This method of boiling water is so special that it requires a barista with a specialization in siphon, hence the occupation of Siphonista. Disappointed, I settled for a latte to accompany a breakfast of eggs and cauliflower.

    Perhaps on my next trip to San Francisco.

    If you want to try making siphon coffee at home, Blue Bottle Coffee provides complete instructions.