Friday, December 14, 2012

Yikes, This is Real!

Nic always despairs that I rarely get overexcited or overemotional about things. He explains it as being a product of my British upbringing. My being "mildly enthusiastic" is what he hopes for, since he knows I'm not about to jump, scream, and generally carry on.

So of course he was out of town on business all this week, in particular at 2.30am this morning when full on panic finally set in.

I'm going to Africa in a little over 6 weeks.

On my own.


As the dogs lay snuggled in the bed, I was pacing until I decided I felt too jittery to pace. I was hungry so I ate some peanut butter which I promptly threw up. There then followed 20 minutes or so of "This is really happening!"

This unexpected attack of panic made me realize one thing. It has been far too long since I've traveled on my own. Not traveled as in going somewhere on my own, I still do that fairly regularly. I mean going somewhere outside my usual comfort zone. Somewhere completely new, where I don't know anyone and have no idea what to expect. In fact, I haven't done that since I moved to Japan back in 1995. Moving to the US wasn't exactly a bold leap, but this....

This is really going to happen...and after a few hours of sleep, I felt very excited this morning as I drove to the doctor's surgery to get my first two hepatitis shots, plus a prescription for malaria pills and one for antibiotics. (Good tip: Take a course of antibiotics with you when traveling somewhere out of the ordinary. It can help you cope with a whole range of ailments, if needed.)

I'm going to Africa in a little over 6 weeks. On my own. I have no idea what to expect, but I know it will be an incredible experience.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Splendid Isolation

I wanna live all alone in the desert
I wanna be like Georgia O'Keeffe
I wanna live on the Upper East Side
And never go down to the street.
"Splendid Isolation" by Warren Zevon

I admit it - I like my own company. And while I'm not quite the hermit my husband likes to think I am, we all need human contact after all, I do enjoy working, traveling, and living alone. It's why I don't mind so much when he has to travel for work, but also why I am happy to see him when he gets home again.

Photo courtesy of

As I prepare to go to South Africa, one of the questions I am asked most often is whether Nic is going with me, followed by whether I'm scared about going on my own. 

Not at all.

In fact, that's part of what is so invigorating about it, and a little scary at the same time because it has been a while since I traveled somewhere new alone.

I'm used to traveling alone and I have found it opens up some wonderful possibilities, and allows you to discover incredible things about the world around you and about yourself. Some of my favorite memories from solo travel include:
  • Going to Germany after high school to spend three months working on a mountain hut. One way day's hiking trip I was adopted by a Romanian couple who called me their daughter of the Edelweiss. They spoke no English; I spoke no Romanian, but we were able to communicate through French.
  • Moving to live in rural Japan. The first few weeks were incredibly lonely, but I started to pick up the language and become known in my little town. Neighbors and farmers took me under their wing, and soon I'd find myself arriving home from a simple walk armed with fresh produce from their gardens.
  • During a solo trip to the Japanese coast, I loved walking and people watching. One evening, I was the only customer in a small Italian restaurant. The chef opened a bottle of wine and joined me for dinner.
  • On a train ride around the western US, I met a group of women on their way to see Oprah, an elderly woman who had grown up in an earth house on the North Dakota plains, hiked in Marin County, and more.

Now any of those experiences could have happened if I had been traveling with someone, but chances are they wouldn't have been so memorable. When you're traveling in a group, it's easy to be less adventurous, to go with the crowd, to have little to no interaction with locals. 
So when I think about my upcoming trip, am I nervous? Of course. But I am also exhilarated by the knowledge that I will rediscover strengths I didn't know I had. And that's part of the fun of travel.

To contribute to my IndieGoGo campaign, click here

Monday, November 19, 2012

You've Got Questions...

And I'm here with the answers.

Since launching my IndieGoGo Campaign earlier this month, I've been asked a number of questions so here is my attempt at providing a few answers.

Why South Africa?

Not as simple as you might first think. You see at the end of this year, I will be celebrating a birthday (one that starts with 4 and ends with 0). Back in the spring, I was suffering a certain feeling of impeding doom accompanied by the inevitable sense of "What have I done with my life?" This coincided with my family starting to think how they could help me best celebrate my birthday and Christmas. The result, they decided, was to help me go on a trip to do something I had always wanted to do.

Thus Africa.

Once we started looking and gasping at the expense of some locations, my sister found Original Volunteers, a UK-based organization with a program in South Africa working with primates. Great! A little more digging and I learned that Jane Goodall's Chimp Eden Sanctuary was also nearby.

And as they would say on the A-Team, "I love it when a plan comes together!"

Why Pay to Volunteer?

This is a question that frequently comes up. If you're volunteering, why do you have to pay? There are some programs out there that charge through the roof, we're talking more than $1000 a week, for the opportunity to volunteer. The programs I have chosen are incredibly reasonable by comparison since I am paying purely for basic room and board.

So What Else Do You Have to Pay For?

While the program costs are relatively low, there are other expenses involved in my trip. Insurance is a biggie, particularly given that I will be working on another continent with wild animals. Another expense is vaccinations - more about that later. And of course, flights to South Africa.

What Exactly Will You Be Doing?

Fulfilling a dream!
Making a difference!

Ok, you want a bit more, I know. The work is not glamorous. If you think I'll be spending all day cuddling baby monkeys, sorry to disappoint. At each location, I will be working five days a week, helping to build and repair enclosures, cleaning enclosures, preparing food for the animals, and so on.

At Chimp Eden, I can also undertake a week long program geared to teaching me about chimps, their habitat, conservation issues and so on.

During my time off at weekends, I plan to visit Kruger National Park, Pretoria, and other surrounding areas.

Is It Safe?

Safety is obviously a huge issue. How safe is it to be working with primates? And how safe is South Africa? Let's deal with the latter question first.

A few years ago, when I traveled to Mexico, everyone kept asking us if we were worried about going there, especially since we'd be going through Juarez and Chihuahua. Once there and later, I heard from Mexicans who asked how did I feel safe in the US, where people have guns.

It's all about perspective. And a good measure of common sense. In Mexico, I was not walking around  unfamiliar city streets after dark. But then, I probably wouldn't do the same in LA, DC, or many other US cities.

When I arrive at Johannesburg, the organization will be meeting me to take me to the sanctuary. I will be doing some travel but will be following the same common sense tips that I would use anywhere.

Now about the animals. Chimp Eden was in the news earlier this year when a visiting student was horrifically attacked by a chimp. We all heard about the woman in the US who was mauled several years ago. As a teen, the zoo near my home has an incident where a keeper lost his arm.

All primates are wild animals. It is all to easy to look at a cute monkey and think they are cuddly. Think again. They are not pets. They are not a source of entertainment. They should be treated with caution and respect at ALL times. Chimp Eden has a strict no contact policy. The goal is for the chimps to live as they would in the wild, which means with minimal human contact. We observe. We learn. We do NOT touch.

So About Those Vaccinations...

I don't like needles any more than the average person, but if I want to go to Africa, they are a necessity. My TB should be up to date but I will need shots for cholera and rabies, probably hepatitis too. The information I've received for malaria is conflicting so I will be checking with several experts, but I will probably need anti-malaria pills on the grounds of better safe than sorry.

Then What?

I expect this trip to be more than a vacation. I will be using it as a chance to learn and study as much as I can. Once I return, I plan to compile a collection of photos, and a nonfiction work. I also hope to sell some articles to magazines. Finally, I will be preparing a presentation to offer to local schools about my experiences. My niece's school in England has already asked if I can speak to them.

I will also be blogging about my experiences.

Hopefully, this answered most of your questions, but if not,, leave a comment and I will answer ASAP.

If you would like to make a contribution to my trip, please visit I'm Not Monkeying Around.

Friday, November 9, 2012

One Crazy Day in Kyoto - Part Three

We'd been to temples; we'd had monkey encounters; and now evening was drawing close. New Year's Eve. What to do?

We both knew this would be our last New Year in Japan. My first year there, I saw in New Year avoiding cockroaches at my landlord's house as I fielded the advances of his drunken son-in-law and the conversation of his senile mother. The following year, I celebrated in New Zealand, having spent the day before (my birthday) stuck atop a volcano during a cyclone. It seemed I had created a trend of interesting ways to say goodbye to the year and this would prove no different.

Despite being in historic Kyoto, Nic and I thought it would be fun to have a little English-speaking company. A glance through one of the free tourist guides led us to a country and western bar, which was, according to the paper, very popular with gaijin. Perfect!

And so we made our way to Hillbilly Heaven. Yep, that was its name.

Sadly, our only picture of our country and western escapade.

It looked promising, even the signs on the door were in English. We waited outside for a while, hoping to see some other non-Japanese but soon decided to just go on in and join the fun.

Remember the famous phrase from the movie Field of Dreams? "If you build it, they will come." Looking back, I wonder if that was the inspiration behind the signs. If we put up signs in English, foreigners will come. 

The marketing trick hadn't worked.

As we entered Hillbilly heaven, the music stopped and all eyes turned upon us. All Japanese eyes. All dressed in the most elaborate and no doubt expensive urban cowboy gear either of us had ever seen. Hats, spurs, waistcoats, top to toe designer duds, complete with the obligatory (and so practical in the Wild West) fringe. I do not believe a Westerner had ever set foot in Hillbilly Heaven until now...and boy were they overjoyed to see us. 

The owner's wife bustled over and showed us to a free table, conveniently within view of everyone. Feeling that it would be incredibly rude to leave, we ordered a few beers and a pizza. Conversation resumed and soon the excitement began to grow. It was time for the promised New Year's Eve live musical entertainment. I cast an eye around the place, not seeing any signs of a band nor the space for them to set up. What was I thinking?

After a quick announcement, our entertainment arrived. Onto the tiny stage walked a little Japanese woman, dressed in a silver sequined cowgirl outfit, with matching hat and fringe. Her accompaniment? A small electronic synthesizer. 

There then followed a series of well-known Western classics, sung in terrible English. It was only 8 o'clock. Could we really stand another four hours of this. Worse still was the fact that everyone kept looking to us to make sure we liked each song and found it authentically American. 

After an hour or so, our musical star performed a rendition of Dolly Parton's "I Wiru Aruways Rub Youuuuu" that haunts me to this day. It was getting increasingly hard not to laugh and we desperately did not want to offend anyone. Making our excuses about another party, we thanked everyone for a wonderful evening and left, waiting until we reached the car to burst out into a quick verse or two.

Back to the ryokan, only to spend time hiding in our room from the owner who desperately wanted to feed us mochi. (Small children can choke on that stuff!)

By eleven, we decided to head back out in search of revelry and entertainment, or a temple. Yet we could find nothing. We wandered aimlessly through the streets of downtown Kyoto when suddenly we chanced a purely magical scene. A choir in the middle of a square. We decided to join the small gathering of onlookers. As the countdown to midnight and a new year began, the choir burst into song. Fireworks erupted at midnight to the exquisite strains of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Nic and I hugged and kissed, while those around us, amused by our actions, wanted to hug us as well. They handed us mugs of warm amazake and we shared traditions in a beautiful moment of friendship that remains with me to this day. 

A perfect ending to a perfect day. A joyful start to a joyful new year. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

One Crazy Kyoto Day - Part Two

So yesterday, I left us in Kyoto on New Year's Eve, visiting temples in the surrounding areas. What I didn't mention was the monkey population.

You didn't think I'd leave out monkeys, did you?

These two are Japanese macaques, also known as the Nihonzaru (Japanese monkey) or the snow monkey. They are the world's most northern living primate (with the exception of humans) and you may have seen pics of them enjoying a nice hot onsen in the snows of northern Honshu. They also have incredible swimming abilities.

Now, living in rural Japan for three years had taught us that occasionally the Japanese displayed odd behavior when it came to animals. When reports of a bear surfaced in the mountains near my school, children were given tambourines to carry with them as they walked home, the rationale being that the noise would scare the bear away. The neighboring town experienced complete mayhem one day when a wild boar came into town, raced along Main Street, through the small department store, and off again. Time for those tambourines and whistles again! My school went into lockdown one day because of a small snake outside the main door. Finally, the vice-principal snorted and braved the harmless grass snake, tossing him down a drain.

So when we saw a sign warning of dangerous monkeys, Nic and I honestly did not take it too seriously. NB: For those of you wondering about my suitability to be near primates in South Africa, please know that this happened 15 years ago and I have learned much since then.

The sign certainly seemed all the more implausible as we drove further up the road and passed several macaques waiting patiently in the bus stop.

Look at the warning sign and now look at the guy below....

Kind of looks like all he's killing is time, waiting on that bus.

A few hundred yards or so further along the road, we came to a parking lot for a scenic look out, and a host of monkeys. Given the empty bags of corn chips and candy laying around, it seemed obvious that ignoring the directive not to feed the monkeys was being routinely ignored. Please, people, do NOT feed them. It is irresponsible, bad for their health, and potentially dangerous for you and the monkey.

Being mindful of the signs, I did, however, want to take some pictures. So we got out of the car and I started snapping away, being sure to keep a safe distance.

Unfortunately, we had not counted on the ingenuity of these little guys, or on the attractive smell of a tin of Band-Aids in our car. Despite it being New Year's Eve, the weather was cool and sunny, so we had left the windows wound down...which meant we turned back to the car to find one sneaky macaque exiting the back window, clutching the tin in the happy bliss of successful thievery.

Inspecting his booty.

At this point, I panicked. If they opened them and tried to eat them they could choke and die. The last thing I wanted on my conscience was having caused mass monkey death by Band-Aid!

What to do?

Enter Nic. My brave beau Nic.

Out of concern for me or the monkeys, I'm not sure which, he understood the need to retrieve the tin. So he calmly approached the happy bandit and raised his arms. The plan worked. Monkey dropped tin. Monkey left. Nic picked up tin.

Except monkey wasn't quite ready to give up, just yet.

He came back...with two buddies. Now in the picture above, Mr. Macaque doesn't look too big does he? His friends were bigger. And once they all reared up, arms above their heads, they looked significantly more like their friend on the warning sign.

One Nic. Three unhappy monkeys.

Nic chose the sensible plan. He dropped the tin, ran back to the car and we continued on our way to the temple.

When we drove back the same way later, we noticed that fortunately the monkeys had not eaten the Band-Aids. Instead, wrappers lay scattered everywhere while the three males strutted around with little stripey plasters attached to their fur. It added an extra dimension of fearsomeness.

Meanwhile, the women and kids were still waiting for that bus.

Wondering how the day could get any crazier? We haven't seen in the New Year yet. Come back tomorrow for the third and final installment, complete with cowboys, fireworks, and a rendition of Dolly Parton that will never be forgotten.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One Crazy Kyoto Day - Part One

As a break from talking about monkeys and apes, I plan to spend the next few days sharing the crazy events that all fell into one day back in 1997, while Nic and I were in Japan. Looking back through some old photos brought back a bunch of memories, and I promise, this all happened in one day.

Let me start with a little background. After college, I spent three years in Yamanashi, Japan, on the JET programme. I was in a wonderful small rural town, and taught at a junior high school there. During my time in Japan, I met my now-husband Nic. He was also on the JET programme in Yamanashi. In 1997, we decided to take a trip down to Kyoto after Christmas. Kyoto is an absolutely wonderful city. Some people prefer the 24 hour nonstop atmosphere of Tokyo, but for me, you can't beat Kyoto with its sense of history.

So there we were, New Year's Eve, 1997...

I should start by saying that we had driven to Kyoto, a fact that caused our Japanese friends to pause in amazement. Why not just take the train? For the simple reason that this gave us a bit more freedom to explore the city's surroundings. If you drive up into the mountains around Kyoto, you come across some delightful villages and temples which you would miss if you had to rely purely on public transport.

Yes, I had much less hair then.
We did spend quite a bit of time exploring the city, famous for its numerous temples. My advice if you ever visit: by all means, take some time to see the "big" ones - Kiyomizudera (Pure Water), Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Sanjusandgendo, for starters; each has a flavor all of its own and to just visit one would be to miss out. But also take the time to visit some of the lesser known ones. I followed the tradition of many Japanese tourists and purchased a goshuin, a small book in which you can collect calligraphy and stamps at each temple. During my time in Japan, I amassed several of these small books. They are easy to pack and carry, and you have a wonderful souvenir of the individual stamps from each temple you visit.

And Nic had a little more hair back then.

We also spent some time happily wandering around the old street of the Gion district, catching the occasional glimpse of a geiko (the local name for geisha) rushing between appointments in the rain.

But since it was to be our final New Year in Japan, we decided to drive up into the hills to see some of the other temples and shrines as they prepared for New Year.

So armed with a map and a sense of adventure, off we went....

Now I will tell you about the drive there and back tomorrow, because that is a story in itself, but for now, I will leave you with a few photos of the preparations for New Year.

Ringing the bell as a prayer offering

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 - there'll be monkeys....

Many thanks to those who have already donated to my IndieGoGo campaign for primate volunteer work in South Africa. To read more about the project, or to donate, click here

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Why Primates? Why me? Why Now?

Image courtesy of

Did you have a passion as a kid? Mine was apes. I could spend hours watching the gorillas and chimps at the Aspinall parks in Kent, where I grew up. I wanted to learn more about them. My college friends even said that I was most likely to be trekking in the jungles saving apes in my future.
But I didn't believe in myself enough to follow that path. Instead, I went to grad school, worked, married, and settled down. Admittedly, I didn't exactly do that in a conventional way, but I knew I wasn't a scientist so what could I do?
As it turns out, I could and can do a lot. You see I write. I write for a living. I write about things that fascinate me. And I write to teach others. I've authored several books, written for encylopedias, magazines, and more. 
So now it's time.
It's time to believe in myself, believe in my dreams, and write about apes. 
I'm heading to South Africa. That's an important point - no matter how much funding I am able to raise here, I am going to South Africa in the spring of 2013 and I will be volunteering at a primate rescue facility. 
So where does IndieGoGo come in? Simple.
I can afford to spend some time at one facility, but the more I raise, the longer I can stay and the more research I can. Raising extra funds will allow me to spend time at two facilities, including Jane Goodall's Chimp Eden, where I can not only volunteer but undertake an in-depth primate education program, learning about chimp habitats, rehabilitation, conservation, and so on.
With that extra time, experience, and research, I can produce a better result:
  • a book of photographs from my stay, illustrating conservation programes in South Africa
  • a non-fiction book about my time there and about the importance of primate conservation programs 
  • a slideshow and educational program which I can give at local schools and community groups
To learn more about my IndieGoGo campaign, click here

I'll be posting updates on this blog in the coming months, and will be starting a private blog for funders during my trip.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Get Ready for Something Big

I haven't been posting here much lately because I have been busy researching and making plans. As you may remember, earlier this year I was feeling quite down about my recent lack of travel, an impeding 40th birthday, and a sense that I have not followed many of my dreams.

I am please to tell you that I have decided to put some plans into action, and on Thursday, November 1, I will be making an announcement about future plans. It will involve some serious travel and some serious fun, not to mention some serious dreams coming true.

So be sure to check back then and in the coming months for updates.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Hotel Mirador, Mexico's Copper Canyon

Few hotels inspire you to sleep with the curtains open, let alone to get up before the crack of dawn while you’re on vacation. But you won’t want to miss the sunrise if you are staying at the Hotel Mirador in Mexico’s Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon).

Watching the sunrise from our room.

Built into the wall of one of the area’s multiple canyons, all rooms at the Mirador face the same way, providing magnificent views that stretch for miles. The décor is simple and comfortable, designed to reflect the local style; but it is the region’s nature that makes a stay here feel truly luxurious. From the break of day, when sounds begin to carry up from the Tarahumara houses scattered in the valleys below, to the stillness of evening, when it is hard to tell if a voice comes from just below or from miles away, the tranquility of the canyon makes it hard to leave.

Tarahumara Homes

Numerous hiking trails lead from the hotel, and cycling or horse riding are also available nearby. A small Tarahumara settlement is within easy walking distance, although tourists should remember that these are people’s private homes. On the other hand, you may choose to just stay put, enjoy the views from the balcony, and experience a peace unknown elsewhere.

Hotel Mirador

Thursday, July 12, 2012

South of the Border: Ex-Pats in Mexico Share Their Thoughts About Safety

 I wrote the piece below last year but it was never published due to closures in the magazine industry.

Headlines warn to stay away from Mexico, telling of drug cartels that roam the streets, killing anyone who gets in their way… including tourists. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle reported the violence has escalated. With killings in Acapulco and the bombing of a Guadalajara nightclub, the message is clear: visitors are also in danger.
Yet Mexico remains a popular destination for those relocating from the United States. I spoke with a number of expats to get their feelings about the dangers of Mexico. Did safety concerns play a part in their decision to move to Mexico, or their choice of location? Has the violence created any problems in their daily life? Their answers offered an interesting contrast to what the media has been saying.

Baja California (Photo courtesy of
When people think of Baja, they think of Tijuana. But author Melinda Bates has lived in Baja California since 2006, and loves it: “It's beautiful, affordable, and has a different rhythm of life.” Baja California Sur is one of the lowest crime spots in Mexico. In addition to the tourist spots of Los Cabos, the region offers art, history, diving, hot springs, and hiking. Is there crime? Of course, but not enough to interfere with Melinda’s enjoyment of Mexican life.
Then there are the expats who have chosen to live in Tijuana itself. Mary-Ellen* moved across the border from San Diego just six months ago. A single female, nearing sixty, many would say that she is mad, but Mary-Ellen doubts that she will ever return to the States. As for safety: “I drive a car and use public transportation and had no problems. I have encountered more weirdos when using the San Diego trolley.”
The sense of safety is universal among the expats I spoke to. Sid Grosvenor, a former Dallas cop, moved to Guadalajara after the death of his first wife. He remarried and moved to Lake Chapala where he works as a realtor in the expat community. He comments, “As a former police officer I was impressed with the low crime rate at Lake Chapala. I spend more time explaining that the Lake Chapala area is still very safe. Our ladies here feel safe to walk in our towns and villages alone (even after dark).” Most locals he knows are horrified by the violence in the US, and he recalls how his Mexican mother-in-law would insist on praying over him before he traveled north to visit family and friends.
Michele Kinnon and her husband felt safe enough to move their entire family to Mexico. In 2004, they came to Playa del Carmen with their young children. The attractions were numerous: an investment in a growing city, a global atmosphere in which to raise their children, and an overall higher standard of living. Years later, they still do not regret their decision. “As a woman and a mother, at no time have I felt unsafe or concerned for the well-being of my children.” Michele works as a realtor. Although she has seen a few people decide against relocation to Mexico, the effect on her business has been minimal. “Most of our buyers are already familiar with this region and realize that drug violence in Monterrey will have no impact on their lifestyle in Playa del Carmen.”

The Mayan Riviera (Photo courtesy of
Everyone I spoke with agreed that the media has failed to put the crime in Mexico within any larger context. Melinda Bates says, “The media has been very irresponsible in their reporting of violence in Mexico. They seem to think all places are the same, when in fact Mexico is a very large country. There is crime where I live now - just as there was crime where I lived in Washington DC - but no one says ‘don't go to Washington 'cause it's so dangerous!’”
There is also a sense that they are not at risk from drug cartels: “Since I'm not planning to be in East Tijuana at 3am in a Hummer trying to score dope, I feel quite safe!” (Melinda Bates)
Michele adds, “Is there violence in Mexico? Yes. Thinking that crime does not exist in any country would be naïve and unrealistic.” Nevertheless, the crime she has witnessed has been limited to petty theft. At no time has she ever felt that her children’s safety might be threatened.
So what tips would these expats offer to anyone considering a move to Mexico?
Melinda suggests, “We live a low key life, drive an old car, don't flash money around, don't wear much jewelry. That would be good advice for many places.”
Sid Grosvenor agrees: “The usual tips apply here (don't flash money, lock your homes, be alert to your surroundings.) Use common sense, but don't live in fear.”
Michele Kinnon offers the same advice that she would offer anywhere: “Doing your homework before you move your family anywhere in the world is a good investment of your time. Making sure the area you move to is safe and will provide you with the level of infrastructure that your family needs to live happily is essential.”

* Requested that last name be withheld.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Back in the CCCP

Those of you familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet will know that CCCP stands for Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик (or as we know it, the USSR). The Soviet Union may be long gone, but its varied peoples and cultures live on. 

In the past decade or so, Thanet has seen a large influx of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants from the former Soviet nations, but it was during my recent trip back to England that I really saw evidence of their culture putting down new roots. Two trips to weekend markets revealed stalls selling baklava and other Eastern European pastries, but it was a casual walk from my parent's house to town which offered the greatest revelation - a parked car emblazoned with advertising for CCCP, a new restaurant. Ever eager for a new culinary experience, I stopped by with Nic and my parents for lunch on New Year's Eve.

The restaurant itself is fairly small, and seems to have been segmented into three tiny rooms, no doubt a result of adding on more space as the neighboring properties became available. The television played what appeared to be a form of talent show, with small children singing alongside a group of grannies in traditional garb. We were mesmerized.

In chatting to our waiter/barman/owner, we discovered that the restaurant was owned by Belarussian immigrants. He was keen to make suggestions regarding the menu, and we were eager to follow his advice. Mum and I each had the wild mushroom soup, followed by a shared Farmer's Snack platter of bread, meats, and pickles. Much as I love mushrooms, my previous experience of mushroom soup was limited to something from a can. This freshly-made soup, however, was delicious - creamy, full of flavor. Nic, realizing that this may be his only chance to visit the restaurant during his trip, decided to try the Wild Boar, while my dad had the pork fillet. We all had nothing but praise for the food. And to drink? Despite the extensive selection of vodka and brandy, we knew that we would be celebrating New Year later and so chose to wash everything down with giant mugs of kvass, a bread beer which has an overwhelmingly yeasty smell but a surprisingly refreshing flavor. 

After posing for a pic (they like to post pics of their happy customers on their Facebook page), we were off on our merry way again, bellies full of good food and ready to tell everyone that they needed to cast aside their images of borscht and cold potatoes to visit CCCP for some delicious cultural education.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

That was then; this is now.

I've been pondering how to write this for the last week or so, but the confusion intensified when I came across some pictures taken during a trip to Paris back in 1999. Yes, that's me in the photo below, cooling off outside the Louvre.

I have many photos and stories from that trip, so many years ago, that I would love to share with you. I also have so many stories from Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand and other spots I've been lucky enough to see. Then there are the tales from my recent trip to England, including the influx of Russian culture and cuisine to my hometown, and an expert-guided behind the scenes tour of the Ray Harryhausen exhibition in London. I am dying to tell you how safe Mexico is, and to share with you a New Year's Eve in an isolated Japanese country-western bar (think silver tassels and a bizarre rendition of "I Will Always Love You").

But a part of me feels like a fraud. Much of this has been triggered by my approaching 40th birthday, which has set me thinking about where I thought I would be by now. Fortunately, I realized that the corporate life was not for me and escaped before even entering it, disregarding career advice to become an accountant because it was a "nice secure job until I had kids". Instead, I have carved my own path, a curvy non-traditional path that has included travel, academia, teaching, coaching, and now writing. Along the way, I have experienced things that many never will, and for that I am ever grateful.

So why the fraud?

Part of that curvy path has included marriage (to a wonderful man who "gets" me), a mortgage, and two dogs. One of the consequences has been an inability to travel as much as I would have liked in recent years, or at least the inability to travel other than around the U.S. and home to England. Mexico was a pleasant exception.

So now I am feeling that I still have so many places to go and see, and I have been pondering ways to make that happen while still making space for husband's job (which keeps us tied to one location) and mortgage payments.

Over the last few weeks, Nic and I have been looking at ways for me to travel more and to see some of the things I have dreamed of: sunrise over the Ganges from a train on my way to Darjeeling, the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, the frescoes of Florence. It has been rather overwhelming to consider all the possibilities, until my ever-sensible hubby reminded me that I don't have to try and do it ALL in one trip.

In college, when we were wondering about our futures, one friend labelled me most likely to be found among the gorillas in Africa. My love for all things primate-related is the reason I visit the Aspinall parks back in England and spend hours watching the chimps and gorillas. It is the reason I read anything I can get my hands on by key anthropologists in the world of primatology. It is the reason Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall are my heroes, and why hearing Jane Goodall speak last year was an absolute highlight.

And so, that is the dream I am hoping to make reality within the next year or so. I am looking into several options, considering funding, potential for writing, and most importantly, potential for me to feel as if I am once more a true traveler. I am also considering some other temporary work options, which may come to fruition, but in the meantime, expect to see updates over the next few months as I investigate ways in which I can make my dream come true.

Monday, April 16, 2012

May Be Smaller Than They Appear

I've been putting off writing for several months because it always feels a little odd to be writing about a visit to my hometown from the perspective of a traveler. However, it is time to get back into the swing of things and today the topic is art.

When traveling, I always try to make time to find and view art that moves me, whether that is a trip to the Louvre or simply wandering through an exhibition at a local library. And over the years, I have typically found that it is the lesser-known pieces which inspire me the most. In fact, some of the most "sought-after" tourist must-sees are often the least impressive. During a visit to the aforementioned Louvre, some twelve years ago, we made the obligatory pass by of the Mona Lisa. When I finally was able to fight through the crowd, my first though was, "It's so small." The canvas is much smaller than you anticipate and, to be brutally honest, it's not that incredible a painting. My favorite part of the Louvre were the sculpture rooms; many were completely deserted and offered a delightfully peaceful opportunity to enjoy the art on display.

My husband had a similar experience several years ago in Brussels, when he felt obliged to locate the Mannekin Pis, only to later call me and disappointedly note how small it was.

But back to art and my recent trip to Thanet. One of the primary local controversies over the past few years has been the use of exhorbitant amounts of taxpayer money to build the Turner Contemporary along the Margate seafront. Regardless of whether you approve or disapprove of its construction, let alone its architectural design, the Turner Contemporary is open and claims to be doing a booming trade educating the artistically starved Thanet residents.

Margate's Turner Contemporary

Before traveling home, my family decided that they should visit the museum to see what all the fuss was about. After all, it seemed wrong to criticize unless they had seen it for themselves. This led to a disgusted phone call from my mother, not to mention an equally disgusted letter from my young niece, both of whom shared the verdict that if this was modern art, it could go back to where the sun doesn't shine. My mother then insisted that I visit it, to see if I agreed with her assessment.

And so I found myself walking along the Margate seafront one cold January morning, my mother and another niece in tow. Fifteen minutes later, we were walking back the other way. Yes, that is how long it took us to explore the artistic treasures of the Turner Contemporary (including a restroom stop).

So what exactly did I find inside? I was fairly excited since the local media had been promoting a new exhibition, Walk by Hamish Fulton (on display until May 7, if you feel so inclined). I needn't have bothered. Upon entering the museum, my eye was drawn to what, in retrospect, was the only piece on display worth seeing - Rodin's The Kiss. The only problem with this was that I saw an incredibly beautiful bronze of the same piece in the Rodin Garden at Stanford just a few years ago. Still, this was in a rather nice setting, in front of a large circular window with views across the English Channel.

Kissing by the Sea
I attempted to explore this floor further only to find a locked door, the bathrooms, and a classroom where there appeared to be some sort of workshop going on. Upstairs, then.

Upon arriving upstairs, we encountered a wall with several arrows painted on it, informing us of the  distance and direction to London and Eastbourne. Further round the corner was the exhibition: a large wall painted with random facts about walking. On another wall was a television screen showing a video of people walking around and round in a square on Margate beach. Hmmmm..... In the middle of all this, sat a member of staff who did not acknowledge us but instead continued to read her book. We tried the doors to the other galleries but they were also locked and again, the incredibly unhelpful staff made no attempt to interact with us.

So that was our very brief (and oh so uninspiring) visit to the Turner Contemporary. I saw much more of artistic merit on the walk from the bus stop to the museum, than I did inside this multimillion pound structure's walls. (For the record, my mother was even more furious, proclaiming that it now contained fewer exhibits than it had on her previous visit).

To be fair, we later learned that the main gallery was locked in preparation for an upcoming exhibition of Turner seascapes. All the same, the most popular part of the museum was the tearoom. During my six week visit, I encountered many people who said they love to visit the tearoom but have no interest in the museum.

Fortunately, I did come across some much more interesting and inspiring art a week or so later, during a blustery walk along the Ramsgate seafront. Bordering a large area that is currently under construction, I came across a series of murals dedicated to the town, all painted by local artists, both amateur and professional. From paintings by schoolchildren to a piece charting the history of the town library, destroyed by arson a few years ago and now rebuilt, the artwork here was personal, full of life, and showed the interaction of art and local community. Sadly, I did not have my camera with me and I flew back to Kentucky the next day, but I hope it is still there on my next visit as it represented what I feel art should be.