A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

Leopard Correct 2

Leopard at Mala Mala

Nature has never been “my thing.” I’m more in tune with books and technology – a Kindle freak and a camera junkie. Our kids had the usual assortment of pets – from dogs and cats to rabbits and hamsters. Our family frequented zoos, of course, and even took a photographic safari to Mala Mala in Africa, but actually seeking out animals in the wild on my own was absolutely foreign to me. The closest I ever came to nature was when a wood duck plummeted down our fireplace chimney in Minnesota and had to be rescued.

Eventually we moved to Texas and I was forced to confront nature in the raw. When a wolf spider the size of my fist decided to explore my VW convertible, I exploded from the car screaming, “Ragno, Ragno –Aiuto! Aiuto!” I couldn’t think of “spider” or “help” in Spanish and reverted to Italian; the Hispanic groundskeepers at our office looked heavenward for spiritual succor and hastily backed away from the hysterical woman screaming in a foreign language!

At times baby copperheads slithered down the hall outside my office, fire ants found me particularly delectable, and once a Portuguese Man-o-War wrapped itself around my thigh at the Galveston beach. I learned to check out my surroundings in Texas.

But now I live in Southwest Florida. Sometimes when I sit on our lanai in the early morning, I feel as though I am channeling Walt Disney! As the sun brightens the treetops, baby bunnies and squirrels have been known to peer through the screen at me, owls hoot in the nearby nature preserve, anhingas pose on the creekbed rocks behind our condo and stretch their wings to dry. The setting is so idyllic that when I rouse myself to refill my coffee mug, I would not be surprised if bluebirds tied an apron around my waist and told Cinderella to get to work!

Not HONY, but AOSWF

Having lived mostly in “the North,” I am enamored by the Animals of Southwest Florida. My camera (a Nikon P600) has been key to helping me discover nature in detail. With its 60X optical zoom, I see things through the camera that I could never see otherwise. I love shelling at Barefoot Beach where osprey shelter their young 30 feet above me on nesting platforms.Osprey (Once a friend and I watched a young osprey learning to fly in fits and spurts; I was so mesmerized that I forgot to take pictures!) Sometimes I use the camera on my phone to photograph the shore birds as they snatch minnows and crabs in the ripples. Gopher tortoises poke their heads out of their burrows, then emerge to stroll to nearby grasses for a leisurely snack. Cranes, herons and pelicans eye fisherman and try to steal their bait.

Egrets fish and ibis grub in our back yard. Dolphins gambol in the wake of the pontoon boat ferrying us to an island beach, where even the jellyfish are Disney benign!Dolphin A couple of weeks ago, I saw the beach rangers  gently carrying platter-sized jelly fish from the shallows back into the waves. I could feel those burning man-o-war tentacles grasping my thigh as I remonstrated with the rangers – surely they should at least have gloves and shirts on their bare hands and arms! But, no, they patiently explained, these were moon jellies and not dangerous to humans.

Birds, dolphins, jellyfish were all good subjects, of course, but I was eager to photograph an alligator in the wild. Our neighbors regaled us with tales of eight foot gators sauntering down the road in front of our condo; but when pinned down, they confessed that it was five or six or maybe ten years ago – not recently. I went on lengthy walks, checked out ponds, looked in reeds for sleeping logs, but to no avail. The keepers at the Naples Zoo told us that alligators feed at night, that they were uninterested in humans unless someone had been foolish enough to feed them. Regretfully I concluded that gators were unlikely to be cruising my suburban neighborhood. I was ten years too late.

Call of the Wild

Our young grandson loves netting minnows in the creek behind our condo – hanging on to tree branches to get a longer reach into the brackish, murky water. Our son-in-law (he of intrepid driver fame in a previous blog) likes to cast for bass from the bank and has caught some big ones.

Late one afternoon I heard a call, “Cyndee, better get your camera!” I ran to the creek before the big one got away. A cast – SNAP! An unseen fish grabbed the shiny lure, then spit it back into the water! Another cast – another snap! Only this time the “fish” was visible – a log with sharp teeth, beady eyes and large nostrils. And it looked annoyed that the shiny lure was not a silvery bass!Alligator

I took lots of pictures of our creek visitor, but I confess that I am no longer quite so carefree about walking near the ponds and reeds looking for wild life in the neighborhood. I’ve photographed more gators lurking in the water and sunning themselves on the shore of the nature preserve during the day, but I remain reading my Kindle comfortably on the lanai at night. I’m still channeling Walt Disney, of course, but in the evening I’m more in tune with Peter Pan and the ticking croc, than with Cinderella and the bluebirds!

NORTH TO ALASKA: Two if by Sea

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

PART TWO: Two if by Sea

Disclaimer: Neither Dina nor I have ever been on a cruise (not counting the Staten Island Ferry) – and never harbored any desire to do so.

At the Whittier dock we stood in line with hundreds of other people readying to board the Coral Princess. My violently shaking right hand held my boarding pass. Canadian Customs officials eyed me suspiciously as I approached. You could read their mind – “Is it contagious?” “Should he be quarantined?” Much to my surprise the official in charge asked, “Have you ever been on a cruise before?” I answered “No” and his body language eased. Just another cruise newbie.

The Coral Princess can accommodate 1,974 passengers, has 14 decks, 1398 staterooms/suites, 9 restaurants, 4 performance spaces, numerous bars, a casino, outdoor pool, sports deck, hot tubs, an outdoor movie theatre and is 964 ft. long. It’s an ocean going hotel. As long as you have a Coral Princess ID card the world, or in this case the Coral Princess, is your oyster.Coral Princess Card

Most cruise ships stop at different ports during the day so passengers can go on day excursions and cruise to the next port at night. Excursions are a huge money-maker for cruise lines. The premise is once you have the cow, or in this case passengers, milk the heck out of them. As soon as you sign up for a cruise, information regarding various available excursions floods your in-box and doesn’t stop – whale watching, scenic train rides, glacier landings, high-speed power boat river rides, nature adventures, dog sledding, salmon fishing, visits to totem pole parks…

SkagwayOur ports of call were Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan with a final destination of Vancouver. The main industry in the first three (discounting Vancouver) is tourism. All towns were no more than a five minute walk from our docked ship, and each had its overwhelming number of discount jewelry, t-shirt, Harley Davidson and tchotchke shops. So much so that I felt that the real towns were hiding a few miles away and we were exploring sets built for the tourists.

Glacier BayOn our way to Skagway we spent an amazing afternoon cruising Glacier Bay National Park, which is on Alaska’s Inside Passage and covers some 3.3 million acres. Glaciers are constantly moving masses of ice under tremendous amounts of pressure. As tidewater glaciers reach the water, large pieces break off, or calve, and form icebergs. The sound of these massive chunks of ice plummeting into the water around us was thunderous and eerie.

Our first port of call was Skagway, a town founded in 1897 at the head of the Taiya Inlet – the northern most point of the Inside Passage. After having our fill of tourist shops we boarded the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway for the 40-mile White Pass Summit Excursion. White Pass TrainThe breath taking ride in vintage passenger coaches took us along wild flower festooned valleys, mile high waterfalls, mammoth glaciers, snow peaked mountains, and part of the original Klondike Trail, a narrow trail where countless lives were lost in the search for gold.

Our next port of call was Juneau, founded in 1890 and the capital of Alaska. It has the distinction of being the only U.S. state capital with no road access. Could its founding fathers have needed their “alone time”? If you want to get to Juneau you either fly or sail in. (Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita than any other U.S. state)

By this point in the trip, with passengers having gone on numerous excursions, a game of one-upmanship commenced. During communal meals claims like “I saw 2 bear”, or “Well, I saw 7 moose”, and “Big deal – I saw 6 bald eagles” were common. I found myself being swept up in the moment. Up until that point Dina and I had only seen 3 moose and some spawning salmon but out of my mouth came “Well, we’ve seen 4 black bears, 6 whales, 9 moose, 8 bald eagles and 3 squirrels”. Ooops. What does a kid from Brooklyn know about animals in the Northern wild? While in Juneau, however, Dina and I went on a whale watch and spotted numerous humpback whales breaching and sea lions sunning themselves along deserted beaches. We were ready to play the game again! Emergency Sign

Food is served 24-hours a day on a cruise ship and you’re never farther than 3-minutes from a meal. Passengers have their choice of Anytime, Traditional, or Buffet style dining. For an additional charge you can have dinner at one of the ship’s five Specialty Restaurants (remember the cow theory). If that were not enough, you can also graze at The Grill & Bar, Ice Cream Bar, Princess Pizzeria, and International Pastry & Coffee Bar.

At home, except for dinner, our meals are simple and quick. I boarded the ship determined to hold to the same regimen. Keep in mind that one of the big activities on a cruise ship is eating – and most passengers whole-heartedly embrace the activity. Suffice to say that I left the ship weighing an additional 5 lbs.

SelfieWe chose Anytime dining for meals. Now we had the option of eating by ourselves or at a communal table. The first night we chose to dine alone. Were we embracing the Alaskan concept of “alone time”? Or was it that I like people only when I’m in the mood? During dinner we struck up a conversation with a couple at the next table. Steve and Barbara from Arizona were in their mid 80’s and had gotten married in the last year. We had a pleasant conversation which led us to choose communal dining from that point on.

Over the next 6 days we ate with roughly 144 interesting people and heard some fascinating stories. We met a husband and wife from Burbank, CA who collect and restore 1956 Cadillacs, a couple from Australia who take 3-month vacations several times a year, and a woman from South Africa who ended up becoming sick on vacation in Russia and convalescing in a hospital there. (Here’s a shout-out to Tom and Paula from Delaware and Jack and Judy from Colorado. It was great meeting you!) I truly enjoyed taking my meals and talking with many of the 144 people – except for one right wing wing-nut from Ohio. Maybe it was the fact that I’ve worked alone at home for the past 21 years and needed some time around people.

Ketchikan, the least touristy town of the three, was our next port. By that time we had our fill of excursions so we just meandered around. The highlight of the day was visiting Burger Queen on Water Street – an excellent burger joint with killer malteds. It was the best malted I’ve had since living in the East Village. I suggest the pistachio – even with a hamburger. Some women like to buy jewelry on vacation. What was my wife’s treasured purchase? A 3” tall pewter moose purchased in Ketchikan that now sits proudly on our living room mantel.Moose

Vancouver was the final destination. By that time we both needed our “alone time” so we stayed for 3 days and shunned people. Did I have a good vacation? I had a great vacation! Did I enjoy the cruise? Most definitely! Would I do another cruise? Probably not, but I did confront my fears and the nightmares have finally stopped!

Cheers! A Toast to Wine Glasses

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur from Our Apartment

We are ensconced in our apartment in Montmartre, with its incredible view of the Sacre Coeur and the rooftops of Paris. At night music and cigarette smoke drift through the open balcony doors from the Square de Willette seven floors below.  Like Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I am quite sure that Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and Sartre are driving about the streets, and I will run into them around the next corner!

The apartment is everything that it was advertised to be on the Vacation Rentals by Owner Website (VRBO). We have two bedrooms, a separate water closet, a dishwasher, and even a washing machine! But what we didn’t have was an extra supply of wine glasses for entertaining our family. Since the apartment had been recently refurbished with IKEA home design, we decided to buy some matching glassware. The nearest IKEA was in Roissy, at the Parc des Expositions. We felt very global – Americans searching out a Swedish store in France. But getting there without a car was the challenge!

From Hemingway to Hamlet

We consulted the Website for public transport directions: first a Metro, then a train, then a local bus.  We’re Metro pro’s now, so we were soon at Gare du Nord, one of the major train stations. Buying a train ticket presented the first predicament – the automatic machines took only coins, and we had bills. After fierce negotiations with the official at the Bureau de Change whose job, he reiterated emphatically, was to exchange foreign currency NOT Euro’s, we emerged victorious having traded our Euro paper for Euro coins.  We popped our money into the machine, and out popped two tickets.

To Go … or Not to Go?

Looping our way through the throngs, we arrived at the designated platform. A train was waiting … but was it ours?  As we puzzled through the list of stations searching for “Expositions,” the warning bell rang. To go … or not to go… that was the question!

Passengers crowded forward.  The bell rang again, and the doors began to close. We shrugged, and with inches to spare, we leaped aboard. What did we have to lose? If the train wasn’t going where we wanted to go, we could just get a return ticket at the “unknown destination.” Or, if the unknown destination turned out to be fun, perhaps we would buy a toothbrush and stay there for a day or two!

The train interior was utilitarian, with plush seats worn to a hard glaze. Outside, the cinder track beds ran alongside each other; power lines rusted overhead. I thought of black/white movies of troop trains going through a gray and rain-soaked Europe, but the houses along the track had colorful window boxes behind the hedges and shutters thrown wide to catch the afternoon sun. I wondered how they had looked when my uncles were part of the liberation in 1945.

How Do You Say IKEA?

IKEA at Roissy

After screeching stops at various stations, the train surprisingly halted at Parc des Expositions! We scrambled out of our seats and on to the platform. The Website had suggested bus number 640 or 23; each had its own bay and we settled uneasily between the two, ready to board quickly when one or the other arrived. Bus 640 rolled in and I approached the driver, “Est-ce quec’est  l’autobus du magasin …?”  I hesitated.  How do you say “IKEA” in French? I substituted. “…du magasin de la Suede? …Does this bus go to the store from Sweden?” The driver grinned. “Oui, madame. Cet autobus va EYE-KEY’-AH” . It sounded like the IKEA in Minneapolis, Houston, Denver, and probably in Sweden as well! He made sure we got off at the right stop.

Cheers!

Far more confident and many Euro’s less, we returned by bus, train and metro to the apartment … bearing wine glasses and other impulse purchases. We were impressed with ourselves – especially with our spontaneous decision to jump on the train to nowhere at the last minute! If we had ended up on the Riviera or in the Dordogne Valley, we would have bought toothbrushes. We have all the time in the world … or at least six more weeks!

We filled our glasses, stood on the balcony and saluted the Sacre Coeur with a good chardonnay!

Bourgeois, but Still “Adorable”

“You ride the Metro?!”  Parisian friends had been aghast that we would be so common, but then fearing they had offended us quickly modified their stance. “Well, I guess it works very well for tourists and students to get around Paris.” It also works very well for those of us who have decided to live the life of a Montmartre local for two months.

Anvers Metro

Friends also advised us that if we were determined to live local, we should buy a month’s metro pass which allowed unlimited rides. Key to its purchase was an “official” photo taken in one of the kiosks at a train station; the photo instructions were very clear: we were forbidden to smile, wear glasses, have any hair over our faces and we MUST look straight at the camera. The result was a true mug shot (missing the ID numbers) and worthy of a “most wanted” poster hanging in US Post Offices of yore. Perk looked particularly degenerate in his picture (I realized that I rarely see him without a smile!)

Worth 10,000 Words

With photos in hand we stood in line behind 30 or so others at the ticket/information booth at Gare du Nord .Only one attendant was on duty; we marveled aloud at his patience as he sold train tickets to London, answered questions about Metro connections, explained the value of Euros, sympathized with a couple who had missed their train to Amsterdam.  The blonde university student behind us in the queue listened to Perk and me chatter, and then asked in broken English why we had the photos. We explained about the month’s pass.

As the queue wound slowly forward, Perk worked with her to figure out which would be the most economical package for her three-week stay in Paris. (You know how he LOVES numbers!)  She decided on the month’s pass, but needed to get her picture taken. At least thirty more people had joined the queue behind us. She pondered. Were the savings worth losing her place in line?

“You get your picture taken, and we’ll save your spot,” we volunteered. The students behind her agreed to the plan and she loped toward the nearby kiosk.

Inspector Clouseau

Soon she was engaged in an argument with a uniformed agent. He kept shaking his head forcefully, “No, No, NO!” She kept arguing, gesturing toward Perk and me.  “Yes, Yes, YES!” The uniform eyed us suspiciously as she kept talking. What was she telling him? Why did he keep looking at us? Did he think we were smugglers, terrorists?  Had he seen Perk’s picture?

Perk’s Paris Metro Pass

The ticket line moved forward as they argued. Only two groups were ahead of us. Finally he shrugged, and she dodged into the photo booth; the uniform continued to watch us closely.

Within minutes and pictures in hand, she jumped into line behind us. The agent grimaced and moved away.

“Thank you,” she gasped.  “The kiosk attendant wanted to work on the machine. He said he would take 30 minutes. I said, ‘No, I must have my picture taken NOW.’ He argued.

“I said, ‘My parents are waiting in line for me. See, they are over there. I must hurry.’ He still didn’t believe me. ‘They will be angry if they have to get out of line after waiting so long. If you don’t believe they are my parents, go ask them!’”

“I know it was not nice of me to say such a lie. But I knew you would help me out. You are so gentille.”

“Adorable” in the US. “Gentille” in France. Either will do.

A Colorful Tale

Cornfields

Cornfields: With Permission from Todd Huffman

I learned at an early age that travel is filled with surprises – some bad, some good.  Growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, just slightly west and across the state line from Lake Woebegone, my childhood was an episode from Prairie Home Companion. No surprises…until I was about four years old…

One of my favorite playthings was a table-top wooden map of the US, with each state cut separately and painted a bright color – the better to distinguish it from its neighbors. I loved putting the map together, hearing the slap of wood against wood as I plunked the states into place in the frame.

I always started with the easiest piece, Florida’s dangling peninsula; it was bright orange – a perfect color choice since oranges came from there. Blue California next to the ocean was second, then butter-bright Texas with its yellow roses. One-by-one I slipped the states next to each other until I had a paint-palette of geography. One day I overheard my mother and a friend discussing the Arizona desert. NOW I understood why the Arizona piece was tan!

South Dakota was deep green, of course – thick grass grew in our yard, leaf canopies shaded our house, and July’s knee-high corn covered the fields outside of town. Yes, the South Dakota puzzle piece was a satisfying, lush, expected green.

Are we there yet?

One summer evening, my parents announced that we were going to Iowa for the first time, and to see my grandparents who lived on a farm. My mother painted glorious pictures – I would be able to ride a horse, pick berries and go wading in the creek. Even so, my evident excitement surprised her. She had to make a calendar count-down to manage my enthusiasm!  Finally the last calendar number was torn away, and we were in the car. Hardly out of the driveway, I started the questions:

  • How long before we got to Iowa?
  • How far away would we be before I could see it?
  • How much further did we have to go?
  • Was it over the next hill?
  • Would I need sunglasses?

My parents were confused; Iowa was not a big deal. Why was I so excited?  And sunglasses?  I watched cornfields go by, regularly punctuated by the dwindling mile markers – Five miles to go, Four, Three – I was bouncing in my seat! Two, One!

“Here it is!” my mother exclaimed, looking at me expectantly … and I burst into tears.

Iowa was NOT pink!

The key to traveling anywhere in the world is simply to love the experience. I got over that Iowa was disappointingly green. I had a wonderful time riding the horses, picking berries and wading in the Chickasaw Creek. Since that fateful trip, I have learned a lot of travel lessons, most of which have been a result of making the wrong assumptions, not following directions, or just being too eager to jump into the middle of things.

Decades later, my first travel lesson has not been forgotten:

When I have unrealistic expectations about a travel adventure, I’m likely to be disappointed … but as soon as I “get over it,”  I have a great time!