Pipe Dreams of Daddy

I can still smell it now – that pungent, sweet odor of tobacco emanating from its pouch.
It overpowered other aromas also his: oil paints, old leather rucksacks, and film developer.
In my mind’s eye is a row of brown briar wood pipes sitting next to a sketchpad.
Sometimes there’d also be a corncob pipe, looking so much like summertime.
That was the one I swore I’d use when old enough to smoke at his side.

I find myself in his lap, watching intently as he tamps the dried leaves into the pipe’s bowl.
When I look up, his dark eyes are dancing, playful thoughts abounding.
I’m four and a half. He’s in his mid-40s, and we have an understanding.
Neither of us will tell Mommy that he’s kept me up way beyond my bedtime
So that we can play uninterruptedly while she’s out at her meeting.

Nor will he let on that he knows I cheat when we play Concentration.
I can tell the value of the cards before they’re turned over:
The queen of spades is missing a corner and the ten of hearts is creased down the middle.
And the one that looks like it was stepped on while lying on a gravel walkway, that’s the jack of diamonds.
Daddy can’t remember their markings like I can. After all, he’s an adult.

That was then, more than two generations ago…

It was when he covered blank canvases with oils and watercolors,
Creating vibrant landscapes of pine forest, granite shoreline and blue-grey Atlantic Ocean.
It was when he took us on long walks through the woods and along rivers crisscrossed with logs, testing our knowledge of red oak, maple and hickory.
And when he played recorder and read James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks to his children.

Two days ago he would have turned one hundred. While fifty years gone, I sense him now.
He would still be puffing on one of those pipes, preparing to tell a story
Of sailing the Mediterranean, painting in Persia, or glissading down the French Alps.
Or he’d sing Yo ho ho, the wind blows free… Oh for the life on the rolling sea…”
His spirit enthralls me, his art surrounds me, and his deep love continues to embrace me.

Daddy and me

Herzl and Abi


Herzl Rome

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Car Free or Carbon Free: A Day to Choose

bikedayOriginally posted at http://rachelsnetwork.org/carfree/ under the title                     “Going the Extra Mile on Car Free Day with Abigail Rome”

I’ve just signed the pledge to leave my car in the driveway on September 22. Have you?  Maybe you’ve not heard of the annual World Car Free Day. Now 20 years old, its multi-purpose mission is to raise awareness about alternative transportation methods; reduce traffic congestion and fossil fuel usage; and improve air quality.

These are all important and necessary goals, but I think Car Free Day can do even more for those of us ready to aspire to loftier goals. Taking a car-free pledge offers an opportunity for us to consider not only how and when we use our automobiles, but also how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change on a much larger scale.

Recent news reports spur me to action. This week the World Meteorological Organization announced that the rate of greenhouse gas emissions has reached a historic high and that 2013’s contribution was twice that of years past. And the leaked draft of the next IPCC report, scheduled to come out in late 2014, states that “continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”  This is scary.

Is riding my bicycle and taking public transportation more often going to make a difference given the specter of these predictions? Even if I gave up using my car 365 days a year, it wouldn’t make a dent, especially considering that my mileage is significantly less than the American average of 12,000 miles/year, and that I drive a Prius which uses about half the amount of gas as the average road vehicle.

I – dare I say ‘we?’ – must do a lot more in order to have a real impact. As I prepare to attend the September 21st People’s Climate March in New York City, projected to be the largest and most diverse mobilization to address climate change ever, I consider how I can best help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So in addition to signing up for Car Free Day, I take two additional pledges:

My first pledge is to fight for a national carbon fee and dividend policy that would increase the cost of products and services that rely on gas, oil, coal, etc. This market-based approach will stimulate the renewable energy industry. And the revenue generated from the charge will be returned to each American on an equal basis, helping offset higher costs of items and services that continue to rely on fossil fuels for their production or operation.

My second pledge is to support the divest-invest movement, a campaign to reduce the amount of private investment in the fossil fuel industry and to channel financing into renewable energy and other solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This strategy also acts as a hedge against predicted declines in the value of fossil fuel assets when companies realize that they cannot extract reserves without irreparably destroying our climate and ecosystem. Divestment is an antidote to the power that fossil fuel companies have to influence elections, political decision-making and the granting of subsidies.

So on September 22, I make more than the Car Free Day pledge. But even if we only choose to leave our cars in the driveway for one extra day, we’ll have taken the first step.  And in our own small way we’ll have also reduced traffic congestion, considered alternative means of transport, and maybe even gotten a bit more exercise by walking or biking. That’s icing on the carbon-free cake.

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Tears in my Garden

The summer brings chbean plantsange, so unlike my usual travelogues,
here’s a poem I just wrote.  Feel free to comment with your
reactions and realizations.


Tears in my Garden

I water the plants in my yard on a perfect-weather morning in August.
The sun shines clear and bright under an azure sky.
Humidity is low, and the Carolina wren sings amongst blue jay squawks.
I breathe deep to savor the crisp air, the sprouting beans,
And the knowledge that I am safe, healthy and beloved.

Meanwhile, newspapers report Russian troops entering Ukraine
And the plights of three million refugees who’ve fled war-torn Syria.
The Ebola virus infects 20,000 in West Africa and there’s no end in sight.
Drought in Central America starves and impoverishes southern neighbors
While a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza brings only faint glimmers of hope.

How do I abide by these tragedies, knowing that the specter of climate change
Plays its ruthless role in these conflicts and others to come?
What can I, with my bountiful life, do to confront the suffering
And loss among those less fortunate, those who simply yearn
To water their gardens and experience respite of peace and well-being?

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Death Valley: Where Unencumbered Geology and Yogis Are One

Artist's palette

Artist’s palette

Death Valley – the hottest place on earth.  Where temperatures have reached 134°F and where one summer it didn’t get below 100° for 154 days.  It sounds ominous, doesn’t it?   You expect to see vast stretches of white sand; crusty old salt flats; drab, bone-dry mountains devoid of vegetation; and piles of sun-baked bones scattered across the desert floor.  You expect to feel uncomfortable, possibly bored, and certainly underwhelmed by the lack of life in the driest desert in North America.  At least I did before Eileen and I arrived there with ten other hikers on the second to last day of 2013.

My expectations weren’t completely off.  After all, we did find a shriveled-up bobcat carcass that had remained in place for at least five years.  And, the vast salt flats – called the Devil’s Golf Course – went on for miles.  The rocks were rough and sharp to the touch, scoured by wind, not softened by water.  Most of the plants were small shrubs with grey or whitened leaves that crackled upon touch, and signs warned visitors about dehydration and sunburn.  That said, temperatures reached a comfortable daily high of 65°; the canyon walls and on mountain slopes glistened in subtle shades of red, yellow, tan, green, grey and dark black; and millions of years of geologic history displayed themselves shamelessly on multi-layered cliffs of rock.  Views included snow-capped peaks, windswept sandstone, and even a few wildflowers daring to bloom in mid-winter.

Dried Bobcat

Dried Bobcat

To tell you the truth, I didn’t really know what to expect when we booked a five-day hiking trip to Death Valley with REI Adventures.  I just knew that I wanted to go somewhere warm – somewhere different from my usual tropical forest, coral-covered island, Appalachian mountain or coastal New England retreat – and I wanted hike.  Eileen didn’t want to have to drive or plan activities, so we joined a tour.  We had no idea that we’d have an award-winning guide, with 26 years of experience.  Nor, that our group of late 40 and 50-somethings would be among the most in-shape, well-traveled, highly compatible and easy-going travelers than I’ve ever been with.  In fact, everyone was so good-natured that by the end I felt I had to file a complaint:  “I haven’t heard one complaint on this trip.”

Spikey cactus and Tina

Spikey cactus and Tina

While amazingly compatible, we had some distinctive individuals.  One man, with a stable home in Virginia Beach, travels for a week or more every single month, and has been to 79 countries.  Another recently accomplished his goal of visiting all 59 National Parks in the U.S. and its territories, including the one in Western Samoa.  The Ohioan wears her hair in spikes in honor of her profession – volleyball coach and club owner – and colors daily it to match her clothing.  And, a surprising number of us could spontaneously break out into yoga poses – Utthita Hasta Padangustasana and Utthita Parsvakonasana, in particular – on any scenic mountaintop or precarious rock outcrop.

Abi, Ellen and Eileen in Vasisthasana

Abi, Ellen and Eileen in Vasisthasana

So what kind of hiking did we do in this death-defying place?  Most every kind.  On the first day we did ten-mile, downhill walk that started at Hole in the Wall where we found 500 million year-old fossils indicating the presence of an ancient sea.  Our walk took us from Mars to Venus – at least that’s how our guide described the different surfaces we  walked on – past sand pillars and rock spires, ending with a canyon lined with red and yellow mudstones.  The next day we scampered up a canyon to go rock climbing – as in real rock climbing, where you need to belly up along a rock face, search for hand and foot holds, and pray that the one centimeter-wide ledge will, indeed, hold you.

Then there was the ridge walk beginning at Dante’s View (at 5480 feet above sea level) with views of the great salt valley, snow-capped Telescope Peak (the highest point in the park at over 11,000 ft.)  And another day, a steep climb to Thimble Peak where we could see both the lowest point in North America – Badwater at -282 ft. – and the highest point – Mt. Whitney at 14,505 ft.  And finally, so as not get bored with walking, we tramped out to the sand dunes – not an easy endeavor – and went sand boarding.  As I had never used a snowboard before, I chose the toboggan technique, which was neither less fast nor less sandy when I tipped and crashed.  I ended the day with grains of sand in my mouth, nose and ears, as well as beneath the insoles of my shoes and in every seam and pocket.

Abi doing Utthita Hasta Padangustasana

Abi doing Utthita Hasta Padangustasana

Our guide Steve was not only fun-loving – playing tricks on us whenever he could get away with it – but knowledgeable.  He related stories of the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who have wintered in the area for over 1000 years, but whose homes and spiritual sites were repeatedly razed by government officials.  And of the 49-ers who got lost in Death Valley on their way to the California gold rush and, upon their departure, gave the place its name by saying, “Goodbye Death Valley.”  (The 400 extant Timbisha refute the name, as they found life, not death, in the valley’s spring waters.)  Then, there were the 19th century borax miners who eventually made the place famous and alluring.  Do you, perhaps, remember those 20 Mule Team Borax containers sitting next to your mom’s washing machine?  Death Valley is where the white odor-eating, stain-removing stuff came from.

The Jumping Scorpians

The Jumping Scorpians

We heard tales of rogue miners who made millions on false claims of lead, silver and gold.  And of one who conned his millionaire boyfriend (that’s the rumor, at least) into building a $2 million castle (we’re talking 1920s dollars) in the desert and naming it after him. Then there was the story – or should I call it an admonition? – of Jerkyman, who tried to walk across the salt flats and was found totally desiccated, as light as a feather, with half a bottle of water by his side.  On a happier note, we learned about the beginnings of Death Valley tourism in the late 1920s, promoted by the Pacific Coast Borax Company who, when the mines dried up, built the Furnace Creek Inn – now a quite fancy but tasteful resort.  To ensure the success of their hotel, they did what any big company would:  they used their political connections to lobby the government to establish Death Valley National Park.  Success was slow in coming.  In 1933, Death Valley was given National Monument status and then, 61 years later, it finally became a National Park.

Layering and uplifting on canyon walls

Layering and uplifting on canyon walls

And, this is only the human history of the area.  The geology, which Steve was equallyconversant with, spans over 1.5 billion years and includes ancient seas, compression and uplifting of tectonic plates, faulting, volcanic activity, more faulting, erosion, and salt deposition – much too complex for me to grasp.  The cool thing, though, is that you can see it all, unencumbered.  There are no trees, and few shrubs or herbaceous plants to get in the way – at least in the wintertime.  Only a few brightly-colored lichens and some cryptobiotic soil, that crusty desert-loving mix of algae, fungi and other primitive life that retains moisture in the soil and allows higher plants to take root.  Mostly what’s before you is rock and its byproducts, displayed in fantastic swirls, layers, pinnacles, and canyon walls of varying shades, colors and textures.  It’s the Earth exposed, a demonstration of how alive our planet is – all in a misnomer of a place called Death Valley.

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Rosh Hashanah: A New Year to Pedal My Thoughts and Wishes

Abi sitting on Downeast Sunrise Trail  526

Abi enjoying the Sunrise Trail in Downeast Maine

As many of us are about to ring in a new year, I wanted to reach out.

First, I want to wish you a Shana Tovah (a Happy New Year) – a year of health, fruitfulness and affection.

And second, I want to speak about challenges and goals.  Diana Nyad comes immediately to mind.  At age 64, after four previous attempts spanning 35 years, she succeeded in swimming from Cuba to Miami – 110 miles, 53 consecutive hours in the water!   She had a goal and she set her mind to it, determined to overcome the challenges.  She didn’t let her age, nor the immense discomforts during the swim, stop her.  Now, I’m no Diana Nyad, but I’ve set myself a challenge with a goal.

For five days near the beginning of this new year, I will be participating in The Climate Ride.  I will ride my bicycle for five days, over 300 miles (not all flat ones, either) from New York City to Washington, DC.  I will be with 200+ other cyclists, all of us inspired bythe joys of bicycling the mid-Atlantic countryside, as well as our mission to raise awareness about environmental causes and sustainability.  More personally, I’m doing it:

  • because, like Diana, I want to prove that I can undertake a physical challenge and succeed at it.  I understand, as she did, that my trials will more likely be mental rather than physical, and that makes it all the sweeter.
  • because I believe that I, and all of us on this earth, need to address the specter of the changing climate and the many not-so-nice and downright dangerous impacts that it will have.  So, I am raising funds for organizations working to stave off climate change and reduce its impacts.  I welcome your support via my fundraising webpage.
  • and, because many of you – 46, thus far – have, indeed, contributed to my campaign.  I am riding because I know that you are behind me, and that you believe that I, and all of us, can be strong and victorious in the challenges we face.   I thank you for your confidence and for your generosity.
My bicycle enjoying the scenery

My bicycle enjoying the scenery

What better way is there to begin a new year with the love, support and trust of those who know you.  I wish the same for everyone, whether or not Rosh Hashanah has personal meaning or just serves as a convenient time to show and feel appreciation.



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In Memory: A Friend and Neighbor Too Full of Life to Ever Die

CocoRay, as bright as she could be

CocoRay, as bright as she could be
(photo courtesy of Ann-Marie)

CocoRay:  my neighbor, my friend, a bright star in my life here on Ray Drive.   Her name wasn’t really CocoRay,  It was Kim.  But Kim is such a quiet, calm name – a demure name, and she was anything but demure.  CocoRay was the life of any party, and she knew at least something about everything.  She loved to cook and to garden, to entertain and to teach, to create art and to help those around her.  And, she adored her cats, whom she took for walks up and down the street.  One of them, Coconuthead, was my inspiration for renaming her.  Kim’s email address was Coconuthead, and since we lived on Ray Drive, why not call her CocoRay, a much more glamorous name than the one she had been born with?

I remember our meeting:

I met Kim (her name as introduced) even before I moved into my house.  I had come by to see my future home while the renters were still living there.  Upon leaving, I noticed a large, blond woman sitting on the porch across the street.  What better way to get a sense of the neighborhood than to ask a neighbor, I thought.  So, I approached with some hesitation, wondering whether this woman would be willing to share her impressions with a stranger, and whether she’d be someone who saw things the way I did.  Her flaxen hair was loose and tousled, she dressed in old clothes, had a paperback by her side, and talked to her cats.

It turned out that this larger-than-life woman was not only a gorgeous blond who knew how to spiff herself up for any occasion, but she was well-read, vivacious, perceptive and kindhearted.  CocoRay could talk intelligently about the latest popular musicians, obscure television shows and actors, the classics of literature, epidemiology of tropical diseases, the geography and cuisine of Tunisia, and the detailed history of local landmarks.  Little did I think that someone who, on the outside, was so different from my skinny, little Jewish self, could become such a faithful friend and source of cheer.

I remember her love of creating fine food and drink:

Almost from the minute we met, she told me about her chocolate martinis.  I barely knew what a martini was, and was leery about a cold mixed drink containing chocolate.  Soon enough, though, she invited me over, pulled out her martini-shaped cocktail glasses, vodka and chocolate liquor, and mixed up a heavenly concoction.  For CocoRay, presentation was key, so before filling each glass she dipped the rims in cocoa and carefully poured the mixture so as not to muss up her artistry.  From then on, it was bottoms up, followed by gaiety and tales of love and life, sprinkled with tidbits of erudition.

CocoRay and Max at a paint-me-turquoise party

CocoRay and Max at a paint-me-turquoise party

Once she asked me if she could use my kitchen to make a fancy chocolate dessert – an elaborate recipe that required making cups out of dark chocolate and filling them with other forms of chocolaty decadence.  For some reason, her kitchen was off-limits (or maybe it she was making a surprise for her roommates) and since I was away, she assumed that I wouldn’t be inconvenienced.  Well, not only did she make my kitchen her home for the afternoon, so did the chocolate.  Somehow the melted chocolate erupted beyond the confines of its pot and sprayed the ceiling, the walls, the floor, and even the kitchen curtains some six feet away.  Even  though Kit cleaned as assiduously as she could, I came home to little brown dots spattered about the room.  My only regret was that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t…) lick the walls and drapery to savor every last spattering of rich dark chocolate.

I remember her passion for gardening:

Often, our conversations would take us to the bounties of nature, especially the flowers and lush edible produce in CocoRay’s backyard garden.  She’d plant all manner of greens, juicy red tomatoes, mile-high fennel plants, and fields of catnip that her cats would bask in.  If you wanted to see a tripped-out, perfectly cool cat, her backyard in mid-summer was the place to be.  And, not only were the flowerbeds filled with verdant leaves and blossoms, her entire deck was lined with potted plants, some of which I’d never seen before.  She’d have a story and factual information about each one, and was always more than willing to dole out the equivalent of a Master Gardener’s database of gardening tips.

I remember her taste for the bizarre:

CocoRay had a favorite insect – none other than the praying mantis.  When she found one Praying mantis on displayon her window screens or hidden among her chard leaves, she’d bring it inside and scrutinize it.    She’d explain her fascination by describing their predatory habits; their ability to camouflage themselves or mimic their environment; their compound eyes composed of tens of thousands of photoreceptor cells; the female’s tendency to cannibalize males when mating; their dance-like threat displays when provoked; and their use as a form of biological pest control.  You never left CocoRay without some newfound and intriguing bit of wisdom.

I remember her appreciation of history:

CocoRay introduced me to Forest Glen Seminary in Silver Spring (MD), one of her favorite haunts and a place that was (at the time) a truly haunting relic of the late 19th century and the early 20th.  Forest Glen had been a dairy farm, a resort hotel, a finishing school for girls, and an army hospital.  When she and I visited it in 1999 or 2000, it was clearly neglected –  an unkempt forest, formal garden beds in disarray, broken statues, and a sundry assortment of dilapidated buildings.  Each edifice was of a unique architectural style, including a Japanese pagoda, Swiss chalet, Italian villa, American bungalow and English castle.

CocoRay told me that the owners of the finishing school had chosen to create a whimsical campus by making each sorority clubhouse different.  On our walking tour, she regaled me with stories of the girls – so very refined, but naughty, at times – who attended the finishing school, and of the grand balls that took place in the sumptuous ballroom.  Since we could only peek through dust-covered windows to see rotting wood floors and moldy walls of this once-ornate great hall, we had to rely on our imaginations to envision the spectacle some 100 years before.

I remember her sense of adventure:

One bright fall day, CocoRay asked me to go apple-picking with her.  Sure, I said, thinking we’d go to one of the “pick-your-own” farms in the western part of the county.  No, she had a more unusual place – one where you could take all the apples you wanted for free.  And, where thousands of perfectly good apples languished on the ground, ready to turn into mush unless someone collected them.  It was a private farm where hundreds of trees were grown for espalier, the practice of training woody plants to grow into flat two-dimensional forms, to be planted against walls and for other decorative purposes.  Who knew of such a thing?  CocoRay, of course!

She drove us north on New Hampshire Ave., so far away that it became a country road, seemingly a country apart from nation’s capitol.  And, she snuck us in among the rows and rows of fruit trees.  We were trespassing, of course, but there was not a soul in sight.  We gorged on apples, filling our bags until they ripped, and we danced in the autumn sunlight.  I still remember the photo I took of her – dressed in blue overalls and a crimson bandana, her lush blond hair flowing, a huge grin on her face, displaying her bounty of bright red fruit.  She was the epitome of abundance.

I remember her love of romance:

CocoRay at our wedding

She would tell me of her past and current loves, and I would listen, wishful for some of the same.  Three years after meeting CocoRay, I met Eileen – through a friend of CocoRay’s, actually.  Eileen and I became friends – two women who went hiking, biking, and camping together – just friends, for a year and a half before we became partners.  When we finally discovered our love, we were excited to tell CocoRay.  We invited her over and built up the suspense about our news.  Her response, though full of joy and good wishes, surprised us.  “Oh, I’ve known that for a long time,” she said.  “It was obvious.”  Not to me, it wasn’t.  Just goes to show how love is blind, and how perceptive a good friend like CocoRay can be.

Seven years later, when we told her that we were getting married, she became very excited.  She was full of ideas for how we could dress, decorate the venue, and show off our love for each other during the ceremony.  Most of all, though, she insisted on having a role.  She chose one we hadn’t even considered – one that perfectly matched her exuberance and fun-loving spirit.  She told us she would decorate our car and chauffeur us to our nuptial bed.  So, she came to the wedding as the most stylishly dressed guest there – in a black and white dress, shockingly red high heels and purse, and orange hair.   Near the end of the evening, she single-handedly blew up 25 red and white heart-shaped balloons, and stuffed my car full of them.  She covered the windows with ‘Just Married’ signs, attached streamers to the bumpers, and set out a box chocolate for us.  When we finally emerged from all the festivities, she crammed us into the back seat and drove us to our Bed & Breakfast.  In no way did its historic dinginess match the buoyancy and pizzazz CocoRay had created for us.

I remember, and will always remember, her sunny spirit, her melodic laugh, and her loud and loving embrace.  And I know that there is a praying mantis guarding her joyful spirit.

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The Dilemma of Authenticity in Tourism Destinations: Colombia, as a Case in Point

Church in Salento

Church in Salento

If you read my previous blog post (about Jardin, Colombia) and you know what I do, you may be thinking that I’m being hypocritical.  I’ll explain.  You may remember that I started my article by saying that what I loved about my recent trip to Colombia was its authenticity.  I remarked that most of the towns and villages that we (I and several ecotourists that I assembled) visited hadn’t been tidied up or embellished for tourists, and as a result, I felt as though I experienced a more traditional Colombian lifestyle than what one sees in more highly visited places.  It was a contrast to tourism sites around the world that have significant numbers of visitors – where locals often find themselves serving and trying to please outsiders, rather than just being themselves.  And, it was a contrast to places where the natural and cultural attractions have been cleaned up, roped in and/or hardened to withstand tourist pressure.

Frailejone = Espeletia sp.

Frailejone = Espeletia sp.

So far so good, right?  But, remember – or, if you don’t know this already – that I am an ecotourim operator.  That is, I take travelers to visit unique and often out-of-the-way natural and cultural sites.  And when we travel, we require a modicum of tourism infrastructure.  We create a demand for comfortable lodging, appealing food, sufficient transport, visitable attractions, informed guides, etc.   On the one hand, this is a good thing because the act of planning and establishing tourism infrastructure stimulates the local economy and provides jobs.  But, at the same time, it can produce social and cultural changes that dilute or, in some cases, obliterate the original attractions and qualities that brought tourists there in the first place.  It’s those changes that I tend to shy away from.

I admit that I don’t have an answer to this dilemma.  In fact, the issue of how much to develop and thus, change a place in order to make it easier for more people to appreciate (and often help conserve) it, is a sticking point, one that all of us who work in sustainable tourism understand and need to address.  As we encourage travelers to visit iconic sites and cultures around the world and to learn about their unique environment, heritage, social and cultural features, we impact what we have come to see and the people who live nearby.  And our impacts are not always for the better.

Colombian tamale

Colombian tamale

The salient question we must ask is whether the tourism we engage in results in more benefit than harm.  Where do the scales balance out?  On one side are the potential benefits:  income for local people, conservation of unique resources and attractions, raising the awareness of tourists, as well as local peoples, about unique and valuable resources, etc.  On the other are the social, environmental, cultural and economic ills that may be caused by overdevelopment, imposition of standards and norms of other cultures, and economic inequities exposed and/or caused by the presence of tourists.  We can hope and work for the former, but the final reckoning won’t be clear until many years from now.

In the case of Colombia, the jury is still out.  At this point, the country sees relatively few foreign tourists, apart from some a small number of visitors from adjacent countries.  You can probably guess why – because of its former reputation as being dangerous due to the 40 (+/-) year conflict between guerillas, paramilitary and government officials.  However, that’s history.   Violence is way, way down and Colombia is a safe and wonderful place to explore.  In saying this, I realize that I am guilty of opening the door just a bit wider for foreign tourists to visit and gradually impact local communities in ways that I don’t always like.  At the same time, I have another objective in my role as an ecotourism operator:  to help tourists and tourism providers to share and conserve sites with cultural and natural heritage.  And, Colombia is a good place for this.

Painting of Tayrona indigenous people

Painting of Tayrona indigenous people

The country and its visitors can benefit tremendously by taking a careful and measured approach to increasing international tourism.  It really shouldn’t be that difficult as the infrastructure is already there, serving the many Colombians who travel extensively within their own country.  And, the fact that significant numbers of Colombians choose to travel in their own country is a good thing.  It indicates that Colombians are attracted to and proud of their country, and want to get to know it better and protect its assets.  And, it means that tourism entrepreneurs haven’t yet set up artificial dog and pony shows just to please foreigners.

May this authenticity survive and prosper – for the benefit of visitors, residents and Colombia’s diverse natural, cultural and socio-economic resources.

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A Quintessential Garden: Jardin, Colombia

Enjoying tintos in Jardin's main plaza

Enjoying tintos in Jardin’s main plaza

What I love about Colombia – or, the Colombia that I saw last month – is its authenticity.  During my three-week trip I found relatively few places that had been gussied up for tourists, or that were overrun by them.  At least, not yet.  Instead, I saw and experienced life as it is for everyday Colombians going about their normal lives, rather than concerning themselves with serving and pleasing visitors from other countries and cultures.  I’d like to describe one example:  Jardin, an attractive Andean town in southern Antioquia (in the same department as Medellin) on the northern edge of the coffee growing region.

With a population of fewer than 20,000, it doesn’t stand out on countrywide maps.  Nor, is it in the Lonely Planet guide (I’m repeating an oft-remarked accolade here).   All the more reason for me to bring my small group of ecotourists there on our tour to natural areas in the central Andes and Caribbean coast.

So, what is Jardin is all about?  In one word: coffee.  Producing, selling AND drinking coffee.  In fact, within our first hour there, we received a presentation on coffee-growing and preparation, viewed a video, and, of course, smelled raw and roasted beans and tasted some brew.  Our consensus:  well, the jury is still out…  If caffeination upon arrival wasn’t enough to convince you of coffee’s import, one only needs to take a look at Jardin’s main plaza.  It is packed with groupings of small wooden tables and simple wood chairs with leather seats and backs, each of which is a separate café with its own color scheme.  When you scan the square from above, as we did from the second story balcony of our hotel, you see blocks of orange and green, red and yellow, or blue and white.

Cafe by the church

Cafe by the church

These cafes are certainly not just for show.  All day long and far into the night, locals sit and sip, chatting with family, friends and neighbors as they drink their tintos (small cups of black coffee).  Some, including the wizened, cane-carrying old man in a grey poncho, take special pains to maximize their comfort by tipping the small upright seats so that that they balance on two feet against a wall (my mother would be aghast!).   And, a woman I spoke to when buying bus tickets told me that in Jardin, “Madrugamos para tintear.” (We wake up early in order to drink coffee.)  I love it that they’ve turned the word coffee into an active verb!

Why, other than the caffeine, would one want to hang out in Jardin?  Well, the town is charming, and very colonial.  Its plaza is dominated by a neogothic church made of brown bricks with white mortar and tall spires covered in aluminum.  And, the rest of the buildings, whether business or residential, are white with brightly colored doors, window frames and second story patios.  Balconies overflow with hanging flowers, and the streets are clean and well-cared for, a sign of local pride.  Surrounding the town, which sits on a mesa, are green hills covered by trees, coffee plantations, pasturelands and farm crops.  Trout ponds fed by cool, free-flowing rivers abound – thus the preponderance of the fish on local restaurant menus.

A main street in Jardin

A main street in Jardin

And, for those of us who like to pray, enjoy nature and/or walk through the countryside, a 5-minute cable car can transport you to an adjacent hilltop where a Jesus, carved in white stone, blesses the masses.  While I only qualify for only two of the three aforementioned reasons, I took the gondola to enjoy views of the village and its surrounding hillsides, and then stroll back leisurely looking a scarlet-rumped tanagers and other avian delights.

One of the other highlights is the Cueva del Esplendor, a semi-enclosed cave with an opening in its roof.  What makes it so splendid?  The gushing, sunlit waterfall that pours through the hole into a shaded pool, perfect for swimming in if you can stand the cold.  This natural attraction is about 12 km from town, and is accessed from a finca (small farm) owned by the family of one of Jardin’s most gregarious residents – Jaime, a buoyant middle-aged man in a well-worn striped straw sombrero.  He’s the type of person who talks to everyone as if he’s known them for ages and often seems a bit tipsy (though I believe that’s just his manner…).  We found him at the base of the cable car after asking the giggly staff at our hotel about a guide for our hike to the cave the next day.

La Cueva del Esplendor

La Cueva del Esplendor

Jaime was more than happy to help us, trying at first to convince us to ride his horses even though we said we preferred to walk.  A bit of salesman so, I admit, not a perfect example of the authenticity I noted elsewhere in town, but he was a man of his word.  He offered us the services of his 20 year-old son Sebastian for the six-hour hike the next day, secured a Willy Jeep to transport us, and engaged his wife to prepare fiambre for us to take along for lunch.  Never mind that we weren’t actually sure what fiambre was…

The hike started at the finca, where Jaime’s family had dairy cows, a small plantation of gulupa (one of the many edible and delicious passion fruits), and horses to rent.  The 6 km (each way) trek took us up a short steep hill, across pastures with views of hazy green mountains, across a river or two, and eventually into a dark forest.  Along the way, we watched yellow-tailed oropendolas fly in and out of long hanging basket-like nests and identified several migratory warblers, some of which will soon be arriving in my backyard in Maryland.

Orange flowered plant in caper family

Orange flowered plant in caper family

And we argued over a bright orange flowering shrub related to capers – which (in case you didn’t know) are actually pickled flower buds – until we had to assign all of our attention to the steep descent into the forested river valley.  After rock hopping across the river a couple of times, we arrived at the dark atrium of the cave – a temple of sorts, its walls carpeted in lush green vegetation and its altarpiece the sunbathed waterfall.

What more could we ask for?  Only the fiambre, the Antioquian meal for those who need



sustenance when miles (or kilometers) away from a kitchen:  a chicken leg, hard-boiled egg, mashed potatoes, boiled potato, yucca, and plantain on a bed of rice, all wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with a string.  It forms a self-contained packet, and is a perfect, albeit carbo-loaded, meal take along on an excursion.   In fact, even after the hike back to the finca, the ride to Jardin, and a subsequent walk to experience noisy and brilliantly red, grey and black Cocks-of-the-rock on the edge of town, we still felt well nourished.  The local trout on our dinner plates was just icing on our cake of authenticity.  As was the free, all-you-can-drink coffee in the silver urn in our hotel lobby, the tastiest in town, in my humble opinion…

Chairs of Jardin

Chairs of Jardin

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Day One in Colombia: I’m Keen on Medellin

Woman with mirror, by Fernando Botero

Woman with mirror, by Fernando Botero

On the first day of my recent trip to South America I found myself in some unusual positions.  I caressed the shiny butt of a rotund woman who was glancing at herself in a hand mirror.  I floated in mid-air above hundreds of red brick homes perched on the hillside while gazing at three large, fearsome, black boulders that house a neighborhood library.  And, I walked on a pre-Hispanic road nearly 7000 feet above sea level, as a local guide recounted its history as a major trade route for gold and salt mined nearby.

I had started the day eating yellow corn arepas with uchuva jam (also known as tomatillo – of the genus Physalis, the same family as tomato, potato and eggplant), and ended it in one of the trendy restaurants in the leafy neighborhood of Poblado.   While I can’t speak highly of the Lebanese cuisine I ordered, the trout at our table was a welcome harbinger of many tasty fishes to come during the two-week ecotour that I organized for a small group of nature-lovers/biologists.

I was in Medellin, Colombia, once the capital of drug cartels, but now one of three most innovative cities in the world (per an Urban Land Institute survey).   It’s highly livable, clean, strong in education, booming economically and culturally, and has a perfect climate.   Even its nicknames – the City of Everlasting Spring and the City of Flowers – suggest growth, prosperity and tranquility.   Its people, the paisas, are rightfully proud of their city for its many cultural centers, public spaces, bustling commerce, and prime location in the Aburrá valley at 1500 feet above sea level.

Cable car and library, Medellin

Cable car and library, Medellin

One of the city’s most praiseworthy features is its public transportation system.  It has a modern, very popular Metro system that has reduced CO2 emissions tremendously; three aerial cable car lines that reach even the poorest barrios; a bike-sharing program, and a Sunday Ciclovia (where streets closed to cars and open to bikes, roller blades, walking, etc.).  And, there are large well-maintained public parks, and safe, well-patrolled streets.  All of this I experienced in our scant 24 hours in Colombia’s second largest metropolis.

While we could easily have stayed longer, we had many other fish to fry (and to consume) on our tour of Medellin, the coffee-growing area to the south, and Cartagena, an historic colonial city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.  However, before I lead you away, I owe you some explanations:  the oversized derriere that I found myself fingering was a sculpture

Ice cream vendors in Parque de las Esculturas

Ice cream vendors in Parque de las Esculturas

by Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist renowned for his paintings and sculptures of voluminous people.  It was downtown in the Parque de las Esculturas, which also features brightly dressed ice cream vendors, purveyors of straw hats, local families out for a stroll, and very few foreigners other than us.  My aerial encounter was aboard the cable cars on our way to Parque Arvi, one of the newest and largest parks in the department (i.e., state) of Antioquia.  And, the ancient trade route traverses the park.

So, there was Day One of my three-week Colombian Adventure of 2013.  This is only the beginning of what I have to say.  I will write more, but (thankfully) won’t subject you to a day-by-day account.  Instead, I will write around several different themes (many yet unrealized), and do so sporadically.  Be patient and stay tuned.  Colombia is definitely a country worth learning about, as well as one to be visited sooner rather than later.  Why?  Stay tuned, I repeat, as I expound on my two-week ecotour, as well as the additional week that Eileen and I spent vacationing on two Colombian islands in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

Downtown Medellin

Downtown Medellin

(Did you think you had caught an inconsistency in my writing – re the length of my trip?  If so, thanks for your careful reading.  I’m honored that you’re following along with exactitude, and hope you’ll come back for the fish stories to come.)

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Awed by Joy Generated by My Third Marriage to the Same Woman (and a Personal Primer on Marriage Equality)

Our Jewish wedding, with our ketubah (Jewish marriage contract)

Our Jewish wedding, with our ketubah (Jewish marriage contract)

On New Year’s Day, my wife Eileen and I received so many congratulations and expressions of good will that I felt like we had just gotten married.   In fact, we had – and for the third time, no less.  We’d held two wedding ceremonies in 2011 – one in Washington, DC, where same-sex marriage has been legal since early 2010, and then a traditional Jewish wedding in Maryland.  This time, however, there was no ceremony; no exchange of vows nor signing of documents; no blessings over wine nor stomping on wine glasses.

This wedding occurred quietly, with the gentle tick of the clock, at the moment the date changed to January 1, 2013.  Same-sex marriage had just become legal in the state of Maryland, and our DC marriage certificate would now be recognized in the state we live in.  How wonderful it felt!  It was time to celebrate.  Of course, we had already rejoiced on Election Night when the votes came in indicating passage of the referendum to uphold the Marriage Civil Marriage Protection Act of 2012.  And eight months earlier, we had partied with Governor Martin O’Malley after attending the bill signing ceremony.  But this time, we wanted to celebrate with our close friends and neighbors.

Our wedding, with the Washington, DC marriage certificate

Our wedding, with the Washington, DC marriage certificate

So, we threw a party, an Open House, on New Year’s Day.  What surprised me – at this gathering as well as beforehand – was the high degree of enthusiasm generated by our newly recognized status.  It felt like we were our friends’ poster children for marriage equality.  We are their living example (should I call us a live specimen? J)  of why gays and lesbians should be able to wed each other.  I have no problem with this.  In fact, I enjoy the attention of being what they consider trailblazers.  It’s just that I don’t feel I’ve done anything cutting edge.  In fact, my coming out and my decision to marry my wife have been relatively easy for me because of all the LGBT advocacy of thousands of people before me.  And, on a personal level, because of my friends’ and family’s support.

You ask how I’ve felt the love and encouragement?  Here are a few examples.  After Election Day I received emails from friends across the country saying they were thinking of us when the heard results of the Maryland vote.  On the day the law went into effect, we were showered with wine, flowers (first time I’ve ever received a bouquet of flowers via FTD!), cards and kisses.  Not only that, when the Washington Post printed a photo of the Governor at the bill signing, Yours Truly were in the background.  Alas, had we known that we’d be on half a million breakfast tables on January 1st, we’d have looked up a few seconds sooner.  [I guess we’re not such good poster children, after all…]

Photo in Washington Post on 1/1/13:  Gov. O'Malley signing the Civil Marriage Protection Act of 2012

Photo in Washington Post on 1/1/13: Gov. O’Malley signing the Civil Marriage Protection Act of 2012

I send thanks to those of you have offered such warm words and gestures.   You are my heroes, even while I (or we) seem to be yours…

And now, a note to anyone who questions the fanfare:

While writing the above, I realize that the majority of Americans, including many Marylanders, could care less about the change in our marriage law.  Some don’t know about it, and most will not be affected by it.  Understandably so:  they’re straight so it doesn’t pertain to them; they don’t know people who want to marry and couldn’t or still can’t, if they live in the any of the 41 states that don’t allow same-sex marriage; they’re gay and never planned on getting married; or they just don’t realize the importance of having the freedom to marry anyone you choose.

If you’re in the latter category, I’ll share a few reasons why this freedom is one worth fighting for, why I and thousands of other Marylanders spent many hours on the phones and in the street campaigning for marriage equality.  Under this law, we now receive many of the legal benefits that other married couples in Maryland have, including being able to make health care decisions about our partner if she is not able to; tax-free inheritance of property when one of us dies; and joint health insurance coverage on Eileen’s health plan (which, in our case, did not come without much persistence).

More importantly, it means that we can now shed that inkling of ambiguity about our marriage – that feeling that our matrimony is not as valid as those of our heterosexual friends.  For even though we stood in front of a rabbi and nearly 100 people on May 1, 2011 and stated our commitments to love and care for each other “’til death do us part” (or something to that effect), we were seen as different from most other married couples.  Our commitment was not deemed legitimate by the state.  In effect, it was considered second class.  [Of course, it still is in the eyes of the federal government.  But we have high hopes that this will change in the upcoming Supreme Court session when the Defense of Marriage Act is addressed.]

Most importantly, marriage equality is a step towards ensuring equal rights for all Americans – and eventually, all people.  It’s an official statement that marriage is a gift that anyone, no matter her gender preference, should be able to partake in and receive the legal and economic benefits of.  In short, LGBT people should have the same rights as all Americans.  Amen, I say (while realizing the irony of using a word appropriated by religious bodies, some of whom are opposed to all I have said…).

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