Day 2: Belize: The Magic Continues

 

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Spaghetti Western on the widescreen in the ceiling of a palapa.

Dawn in Belize is like 4:30am. There is no daylight savings time making it two hours later than Eastern Time US during Daylight Savings. The day begins and ends early with a normal bedtime between 9 and 10 except for young adults. By 6am I am on the computer booking a day trip to Lamanai, a destination suggested by the night-before- Canadians. I book with Lamani EcoAdventures and am assured that I can take the bus that will stop for me on the highway and be dropped off right in front of LEA’s launch spot. This is a river tour to the “ruins” and eats up a good part of the day. 

The Canadians give me a ride to the main road in their filthy four wheel drive rental, barely a word spoken the few miles to the main road. A bus appears just as I alight from the car and I wave frantically as it speeds by. I think of the misery of baking on the shadeless highway for another bus as I cross the highway to the stop. The Canadians pull onto the highway then yell something inaudible out of the car window. They pull over and one jumps out to yell very loudly, “THE BUS STOPPED!” I turn and sure enough about 20 yards ahead the bus has pulled over for me.  I wave farewell to my quiet northern friends and turn south to run to the bus.

Traveling like the locals is fun! It is a slice of normal life in a foreign country that is priceless. The faces and conversations of regular folks getting on with their day. Real life. Plus it is cheap, 3 to 7 Belize dollars. A cab would cost 10 to 20 times that. Car rentals are fairly expensive as well and gas, I am told is outrageous. Not to mention the danger as Monroe Fisher pointed out the night before I left the States.

Busses in Belize are former school busses with no AC and are often packed to the gills with locals. It can get quite close in the tropical heat but makes up for any discomfort with close observation of he faces of the people riding. Belize is a salsa of ethnicities and the people of this part are mostly Creole, a mix of Brits and Africans.  They have gorgeous skin that ranges in color from caramel to a rich blue brown with dark brown almond shaped eyes and luscious black hair.

I get to my stop and go into the outfitters. It is OK but the guys are unorganized and I feel a sense of envy as I look down river to the outfitter next door, Lamanai EcoTours, with its charming palapas, neat pier and better kept boats. I am told I must wait for the next group so after a bit of debate I walk out and down the street to LET. The facilities are nicer and as I walk back to a large covered waiting area there area some guys relaxing and watching a spaghetti western on a flat screen mounted in the top right corner of the palm frond cover. “Fist Full of Dollars?” I say. They look up, beaming with delight at my film knowledge. I am in the right place.  I cancel with the first outfitter and take a tour with LET’s guide Colin and four cruise ship guests.

 

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Above:Waiting area at Lamanai EcoAdventures

Below: Waiting area at Lamanai EcoTours

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Colin is an outstanding guide.  He is knowledgable, funny and mixes a mean rum punch for the boat ride to Lamanai. Well timed information on local flora and fauna sprinkled with historical information between playful boat maneuvers make the ride to Lamanai most enjoyable. A luncheon of spiced chicken over beans and rice with slaw, water melon, corn chips and an onion jalapeño salsa is served under a palapa covered pavilion on real places with stainless steel cutlery. The food is excellent, homemade by the company manager’s wife. Colin guides us through the ruins which are amazing. He makes sure we are positioned to get good photos avoiding the hordes of cruise ship tourists and points out special plants and animals (including a family of howler monkeys!). This is an art I appreciate as I also give tours at a historical landmark in Charlottesville. I cut my kneed climbing up the side of a temple and think about other blood that was spilled at this very same site in the form of human sacrifice.

 

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Outstanding Guide, Colin, explains the purpose of this temple at Lamanai

We are deposited back at the tour company base at 2:45p. The tour group do not wish to share their ride up the highway with me so it the the bus again for me with no designated way back to the village from the highway.  It is hot as the sun beats down on the flat breezeless land. Mic has suggested I hitch a ride to the village which he assures me is totally safe. “The only people coming on that road live here,” he says. Monroe’s “Trust no one” warning pops into my head but as I become draggy from being miserably hot and sweaty on the shadeless road I gleefully accept a ride to the WS visitor center to return Derick’s field glasses. 

The barely chilled Air conditioned interior of the Samaritan’s SUV proves somewhat refreshing. My driver, his shotgun mate and I arrive at the visitor center 5 minutes later without incident.

Derick is not there so I leave the field glasses with Wilhelm, the “ranger” on duty who gives me walking directions to the Crooked Tree Lodge. “Turn at the Cemetery then turn again at the barbershop, landmarks I assume will be apparent to me. As I am being directed, two Britt’s are standing nearby. The man, who later identifies himself as Chris listens closely and starts up a conversation. “What are you doing in Belize?”, he poses. I explain about the SI field station and how I am having trouble securing a boat there. He says that he might be able to help as he lives near Dangriga and would I like to come to a gathering of friends on his organic farm at mile marker 21 on Saturday and then for a hike to an amazing waterfall on Sunday.  I am encouraged by having a new friend who might be able to assist me in my quest to get to Carrie Bow Cay. Chris scratches out his contact information on a piece of paper and I depart on my walk through the village to the lodge.

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Horses eat discarded cashew fruit in the village of Crooked Tree

The streets are a combination of white gravel and fine white dust that poofs a little with each step. The air is thick with the pungent odor of fallen cashew apples and sweet smelling tropical flowers. As we pass, villagers ask, “You OK?” or “Good evening”,which is the Creole way of saying hello regardless of the time of day. I make it to the lodge and get online to see if Derick or Scott from the Field Station have emailed.

Hi Mary,

I wanted to follow up with you to make sure that you received the necessary information from Ryan? Also, when do you plan to be in Belize and when are you planning to take a tour of CBC?


Thank you,
Zach

Hmmmm. How to respond.

“Ryan” has failed to respond to both of my messages, one a month ago and the other early last week, regarding “the necessary information” required to visit CBC. I am already in Belize with an itinerary that is built around getting out to CBC. It is my reason for even coming to the country in the first place so how will I get around this issue of what is essentially permission to go out there as a journalist? I rationalize that tourists are allowed out there with prior arrangement so as a tourist, I should be able to go – thus contact with Island Excursions. I am not going to lie to Zach who has been absolutely wonderful through this entire process and because lying is not in my wheelhouse since I passed the age of 12. I will however do what is easy to do via email, take a cue from my mischievous teenage years and respond to the half of the email to which I can truthfully respond. Childish, I know, but getting out there has now become a test of my luck and wits. It is a mission. If a fellow freelance writer from my town can pull off a similar coop in Panama, then I can do it in Belize.

Here is my Response to Zach who obviously does not have teenagers and was most likely one of those really lovely kids who never did anything bad:

Hey Zach,

I am in Belize already. Am planning to come out to CBC on Sunday. Not sure how yet but that is the plan. 🙂 Does that work for you?

Mary

So sly.

The next step is figuring out how I will get out there. Scott  sends me the name and phone number of a reliable boat captain. I have a few days so I focus on securing transportation to Dangriga from Placencia, my next destination. The bus is cheap but promises to be a 4 to 6 hour hot-sweaty ride. Flying is fast but rather dear. Since I ditched the rental car idea, I have some scratch for some airfare and am able to book a round trip flight for about $210 USD or 420 Belize (dollars – but no one adds the “dollars” word in Belize. You simply say, “That is 10 Belize or 5 US”, is something costs 10 Belize dollars which translates to 5 US dollars). This is expensive but it is still cheaper than a $300 US per week economy rental car. I optimistically book the return flight from Dangriga to Belize International Airport , keeping the faith that I will need to be in Dangriga at the end of my journey to reach Carrie Bow Cay.

Angie, the stunningly beautiful mistress of Crooked Tree Lodge, is a native of the village. She has smooth caramel colored skin that glows with the vibrancy of a person who is truly happy in their heart. Her features are softly African with dark brown perfectly almond shaped eyes. Though her brother, who now resides two houses down the street, was raised in the States, Angie loves this place and would not leave to be educated or otherwise. She tells me she has been picking cashew all day when I see her at the lodge in the late afternoon.  I explain how I would like to taste cashew fruit and cashew wine and she sets out to bring me some to try. 

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Cashew fruit growing along the village road 

Just before dinner time Angie presents a bottle of cashew wine and a bag of freshly acquired cashew apples, the formal name of the fruit of the cashew tree which more closely resembles a bell pepper than an apple. The slices the juice laden fruit and warns me and the other guests, a German couple, to avoid touching the brown “c”shaped blob at the end of the fruit which encapsulates the cashew seed. It contains a toxic resin which can cause a painful burning sensation when it connects with human body parts. The Germans are doing some birding and plan to visit Lamonai while biding their time until the May full moon which apparently signals whale sharks to swim over to Placencia for proverbial procreative flings.

We are all eager to taste cashew fruit.

It has the consistency of bread fruit while being juicer even than mango. The flavor is light like a cucumber but distinctive with notes of yellow bell pepper and pineapple. It is fantastically refreshing and I feel as though I could eat ten of them in that moment but Mic is ready to serve dinner. Mic is a master at presentation. The square white dinner plate features a deep fried whole snapper cleverly angled across the bottom right corner of the plate, a luscious looking artfully arranged, salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and mango with a cilantro vinaigrette.

Following desert of ice cream and bananas, Angie brings out three shot glasses with skull and crossbones dressed as a pirate with bandanna, eye patch and black three cornered hat on a tray with the chilled cashew wine. “It is for sipping, like port,” she explains. “It must be served very cold and sipped or you will have a terrific hangover the next day.”

I am a fan of Port. Not everyone is. So cashew wine suited me just fine. The Germans drank their glasses as well so they must have enjoyed it too.

I paid Angie for the bottle so I could take it home and share this taste sensation with my friends. She gave me some cashew fruit as well which due to its soft juiciness failed to travel even as far as the municipal airport in Belize City the following morning.

Angie offered to drive me to a meeting of the Cashew festival planning committee where I was to meet Ms. Salome Tillet and Mr. Dean Tillet who are not closely related. I remembered as being held in the storm shelter at 7:30pm. The boys piled into the SUV with us to go along for the ride. 

When we arrived at the center which is also, I think, the high school building, the lights were off and no cars in the parking lot. Hmm. While we waited to see if someone would show up, Angie drove around the high school playing field and described the layout of the vendors and events associated with the Cashew Festival. “Over here is where bands play and there is beer drinking,” she points out. Angie is a little skeptical of what the cashew festival has become. Loud music, drunk people, a Miss Cashew beauty contest that has trouble finding women who want to compete, she feels that the event has perhaps lost its heart- celebrating the gifts of the cashew tree.  She recalls the days when it was about tasting the various products, a gathering of residents who have scattered to other parts of the globe and demonstrations of the unique way the residents of Crooked Tree process cashews by hand.

No one comes to the high school. The meeting is obviously not tonight. I am sure it is my mistake. Angie takes me around to find some “cashew seed”, the local moniker for cashew nuts.

You don’t go to the store in Crooked Tree.  You go to people’s private homes to buy stuff. Being a native villager, Angie knows who is likely to have some cashew nut available.  The lights of Angie’s car, wake a mutt sleeping in the driveway. The village is home to many stray dogs which are indistinguishable from owned dogs as they are all allowed to roam collarless and freely. Horses have the same status. They are often free to roam the village and into the Wildlife Sanctuary, much to Dericks’ chagrin. “Some tourists don’t know about horses,” he says. He thinks they scare some tourists.

Angie honks the car horn and yells out of the car window in a sharp Creole. I understand only a couple of words like “cashew seed”.  We stopped at four houses but everyone had already sold their stash of cashew.

We returned to the lodge empty handed but better acquainted.

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Travel Karma: Belize: From Cashews to Carrie Bow Cay

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I have often said to myself and others that I am the luckiest girl on the planet. Now that I am over a certain age, that phrase must be changed to luckiest “woman” on the planet because I have grown-up enough to venture international travel on my own. While I have traveled semi-on my own to Mexico City, Barcelona and Baja California, Mexico, those travels always included meeting with someone I knew once arriving at the destination and having a mapped out agenda that included those contacts. This time, I am completely on my own in Belize without knowing a soul. 

Traveling alone as a middle-aged gringa in a third world country without a guide or travel company babysitting me is a little scary but also liberating. And honestly the worst part of this journey so far has been the night before I left when I made the mistake of answering the telephone call of one Julian Monroe Fisher, an explorer and anthropologist who was offered up as a Belize contact by John Boy of the “John Boy and Billy The Big Show” (which is apparently a nationally syndicated radio program that I had never heard of until meeting JB at a memorial event for my dear friend, Eric Moore, in Charlotte, NC two days before I left for Belize). Monroe splits his time between the relatively untouched jungles of Punta Gorda, Belize and Uganda. He is building some adventure lodge in the wilds in PG and knows his stuff according to JB. Monroe’s jumpy monolog about the dangers of being a white woman alone in Belize and how a woman of my age was just killed a few weeks ago while driving about in a rental car so scared the bejesus out of my less than 12 hours prior to departure that I cancelled my Avis reservation the second I got off the phone with him as Monroe’s last emphatic words to me echoed in my head, “Trust No One!!”. This act left me the interesting chore of solving transportation  problems once on the ground in a country which hadn’t the faintest notion how to navigate.

But I believe in travel magic. And like clapping your hands because you believe in fairies to save Tinkerbell from the jaws of death, having faith that everything will turn out just fine has invoked some of the best travel magic karma one could dream up.

To be fair, I must confess that Monroe’s warning coupled with the muffled brain resulting from about four hours of sleep and a Yellow Cab that showed up almost 30 minutes late in the wee hours of a Charlottesville morning had me nearly wishing that I would miss the plane and save myself the expense and hassle of getting around during this half-baked adventure. Then I started to laugh with the TSA crew of 4 at CHO when they insisted on a pat-down because the electronic scanning system altered at sensing dampness from my wet hair on my clothing. There was one other person in the entire TSA area. I was wearing yoga clothes so they could clearly see the outline of my body but they went through with the cursory pat-down anyway. The female TSA agent doing the dirty job and I both started laughing because it was all so ridiculous. Once the three TSA guys present started to chuckle, I knew everything would be alright.

Both flights were perfectly normal and I made it to Belize City International Airport without incident and without knowing how I would get to Crooked Tree, the tiny village about 33 miles northwest.

While standing in the line for customs, I began chatting with a man who had been on the same flight from Atlanta. Turns out he works for the Nature Conservancy and had rented a car so he could stay at the Black Orchid Inn, an idyllic hideaway about 15 minutes outside of Belize City. He was hoping to get out to see some of the nature of the area and since my first stop was to meet with Derick Hendy, the site manager of the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary to do a little birdwatching we could made a beneficial deal. I invited him to come along to my  visit with Derick if he would give me a ride. Pay Dirt!

Robby was great company! We swapped stories in rapid fire and ate the snacks that Loretta the lovely Belizian woman who sat next to me on the plane gave me as we barreled along the rough highway in his rented economy car to Crooked Tree after dropping off his bags at the Black Orchid.

Derick Hendy is a charming young man who has an enviable passion for his work. Dedicated to preserving the wildlife of his homeland while finding ways to best serve the economy of Crooked Tree is his primary goal in life. I adored him instantly as he began to demonstrate on a map at the Sanctuary’s visitor center how a causeway constructed in the 1980’s has adversely affected the area’s natural habitat.

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Derick Hendy & Robby as we set out to look for birds in Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

He apologized  for the low number of birds we might see during the middle of the day as we took a walk through the forest at 2:30 or so. Robby diligently typed the names of birds we spotted as we strolled along a designated pathway resulting in no less than 27 birds when we were done about 45 minutes later. Derrick is amazing at identifying birds. He would say things like, “Did you see the red ring around it’s neck?” as a blur of a bird whizzed past a few feet in front of us. Besides his obvious love of nature and his homeland, Derick really, really, really wants the people of Crooked Tree to understand the value of he nature around them and to change hold habits for the long term benefit of preserving this incredible habitat. “We must think in the long-term,”he says very seriously. “Instead of just what people want right now.”

On a brief stop at the Visitor’s Center to pick up Robby’s rental car to drive to another locale, I meet Chris, a Brit expat who has an organic farm near Dangriga.  He invites me to a party at his home Saturday night and offers help in getting out to Carrie Bow Cay, the reason I came to Belize in the first place and a trip that is looking more tenuous by the hour. Carrie Bow Cay is an island that is less than an acre in size yet boasts a Smithsonian Institute Field Station where scientists come from all over the world to research things associated with climate and marine life. I learned about it from a man who lives in Charlottesville whose volunteer job is to go out there 4 or 5 times a year to maintain equipment and give tours to visitors. Thinking that this is the coolest volunteer job IN THE WORLD, I checked the place out and decided I had to go there and write a piece about it, preferably for Smithsonian. A writer buddy sent me travel editor’s email and I started pitching because writers have to get permission from SI to interview scientists associated with them and there was only a few weeks of time. Airfare was super cheap on Delta – only $438 US to fly round trip to Belize from Charlottesville, Virginia but I had to act quickly to get that fare. I booked it without a “go” from the editor, SI or any means of getting there. I looked for other interesting story ideas like the cashew economy and festival in Crooked Tree, the bird watching there and other sundry ideas and started sending out pitches to any magazine I could think of. The departure date grew closer and…

Zip. Nada. Nothing.

I contacted the CBC station manager to work the angle that way. Permission still needed. I emailed and followed up the the guy who was to grant permission. No response. I found Island Expeditions, a tour company that takes groups out to the field station and tried that angle. There was a chance I could jump on a tour and stay at one of there camps for a night. Yes! I just needed to sort out details when I arrived in Belize. Good enough. So despite exhaustion, fear and inconvenience I came to Belize.

Derick guided Robby through a maze of white gravel and dust roads to the Crooked Tree Lodge, my home for the next two nights. We said our goodbyes as Derick insisted I hold on to his field glasses for better bird viewing the next morning. I thought about how kind everyone had been so far, so trusting and generous and decided that Monroe’s advice was,

bunk,

at least in Crooked Tree.*

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The Crooked Tree Lodge is located on the lagoon and features un-airconditioned cabana style living quarters for birders who come to CT from all over the world.  Apparently CTWS is one of the best places in all of the Americas to spot birds. Judging from the success of my mid-day excursion I would say this is feasible. There is a large hall there where there is a wide screen TV and dining area, where guests check-in and have access to wi-fi plus a bunch of guide and bird books. When I arrive, I am greeted by a couple of the resident canines including 5 of 7 frolicking black puppies. Corey, the eldest son of owners, Mic and Angie, is watching the big TV as I enter the hall. Things are laid back in Belize. There is little fuss over anything. Mic pops out and shakes hands with Derick and meets Robby who is in awe of my idyllically rustic choice of accommodations.

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I bid my new friends farewell and am escorted past a clever outdoor tiki bar to my cabana. Travel magic karma kicks in as Mic explains I have been upgraded to a larger cabana since it is available. It is a cute little space with a double bed, two Adirondack chairs draped with fluffy sheep skins with a coffee style table situated in between. There is a private bath area with open shower. I ask about scorpions and Mic says there aren’t any because he keeps he grass cut short. I don’t know how the two things relate but trust that that is a good answer. “There are tarantulas,” Mic explains. “But you won’t see any unless you really go looking for them under rocks and such.” Cool.

There are no screens in the windows at CTL so mosquitoes may be a concern though the relatively constant breeze from the lagoon keeps them away.  I think I heard two buzz by my ear over the two nights I was there and left with only one bite welt without wearing any bug spray but in all fairness, mosquitoes generally avoid me. There is a variety of sunscreen and bug spray available in the lodge hall for those who want it.

CTL is a birder’s paradise. I laid out in one of the hammocks and saw at least a dozen different types of birds with zero effort. An easy day trip is to the Lamanai Mayan village to see the remains of a once powerful presence in this area.

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I slept like a baby following a dinner of baked fish and massive salad with the three Canadian guests who had come to Belize to do some scuba diving. The chirp of a resident gecko for a lullaby, bird songs to wake me at dawn to witness the warmth of a rosie sunrise- I am more relaxed than I have been in weeks.

*Please know that Belize can be quite dangerous, particularly for white women traveling alone. Monroe’s warning was made from the heart and from knowledge of the area. A double murder had just been reported when I spoke with Monroe, white tourists in rental car. I also have a friend whose brother-in-law was murdered in Belize several years ago.  I only went places with people with whom I had some connection aka: Robby, another tourist, and I know some of the same people in Northern Virginia. Other people I connected with on this trip were recommended by people I trust.

7 Days in Tibet

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Aurua Tibetan Medicine Billboard in Caojiabao Airport in Xining

A hundred people or so mill drowsily about the baggage claim area at the Caojiabao Airport in Xining, China at 9:45 on a Sunday night waiting for the whirl of the conveyer belt to start again signaling the arrival of more baggage.  Mounted on the wall over the snake-like luggage delivery system hangs a dark red billboard touting  Arura Tibetan Medicines in large yellow characters and Latin letters. Arura with its medical college, traditional Tibetan medical hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturing company, chain of drug stores and Tibetan Cultural Museum is a big dollar industry in these parts and sponsor of my trip to the Tibetan Plateau. As I feebly stand with the group of seven other Americans that are with me on this junket, the effects of the 22 hour trip from Charlottesville and several bottles of water to keep hydrated on the plane take hold and I am called to visit the loo. Twenty feet from the Women’s Restroom door the sour smell of a Chinese bathroom assaults my nostrils and I recall the defining factor of travel in Asia – the toilets, or better put, the lack there of.

China and the United States are located on opposite sides of the planet and in many ways are as opposing in cultures.  What often is considered polite behavior in China is considered vulgar in the U.S. and vice verse. Value of space, time, material objects and food is dispersed differently making travel in each other’s country a mind-blowing experience. It is rather like turning one’s brain inside-out.

For all the differences between the United States and what is called mainland China, echoes of the traditional Tibetan nomadic way of life still heavily influence the social mores of the mixed Chinese/Tibetan populations on the Plateau. Xining is a bustling city that looks like Seattle with an Asian flair.  It is the capital and largest city of the the Qinghai province with a population just shy of 2,300,000 the vast majority of whom live inside the urban area. In fact one distinction of Xining is its lack of suburbs. Four minutes drive outside of the high-rises and one is amongst vast scrub covered fields with brownish mountains looming near by. Impressive in size by day, the city is best viewed at night when its heart is lit as brightly as Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World – a beacon in the vastness of the dark Plateau.

The view from my room at the top rated, Qinghai Hotel (thankfully, outfitted with Western style toilets in the posh marble bathroom) confirmed the density of the city. As a thread of cigarette smoke from a neighboring room sneaks in through my open window, I am reminded that the Chinese smoke like its 1965. Wafts of cigarette smoke are everywhere – restaurants, work spaces, even in elevators. But that doesn’t stop the residents of Xining from healthy activities like exercising which they do each morning and evening in public parks. The Qunghai Hotel is located next door to a major city park which stretches along the banks of the Huangshui River.  At seven in the morning music and news are broadcast all over the city via loudspeakers mounted on buildings marking the start of the day in a Communist Country.  People then flood the parks to power walk, jog, dance, practice tai chi and chi gong before heading to work. But the Chinese, unlike Americans, are much less serious about exercise and much more physically conservative. The gestures of the 100 or so participants  in the outdoor Zumba class I joined one evening, were so conservative the group more closely resembled small children learning ballet than grown women performing steamy Latin dance moves.

Due to its altitude (Xining is 7,464) the Tibetan Plateau is arid, low humidity and fairly cool temperatures so that even in July high temperatures hover between the mid-fifties and low-seventies dropping into the low-forties at night. So jackets and the consumption of several cups of Yak butter tea, a murky concoction that tastes like liquified buttered popcorn and is served everywhere in this part of China, are necessary for comfort.  Since very little vegetation grows in the climate the main native food sources are Yak (which tastes like a cross between beef and venison) and sheep. Even the Buddhist Monks eat loads of Yak and drink rivers of Yak butter tea dispelling a preconceived notion that Buddhists are automatically vegetarians. “What else would we eat, if we didn’t eat Yak?,” laughed our tour facilitator, Dr. Kunchok Gyaltsen, a Tibetan  Monk.

Most Westerners don’t visit Xining when traveling in this part of China usually heading directly to Lhasa but there are a few places that make it a worthwhile destination. One is the Qinghai Tibetan Medicine and Culture Museum which gives the visitor an idea of how the current culture was shaped. The museum houses artifacts like a complete set of Tibetan medical instruments and diorama’s of traditional nomadic life. The most spectacular display however is The Great Thangka, an impossibly long  (618 meter or 2018 feet)  painted history of Tibetan stories, religion, culture, medicine and art. Brilliantly displayed in a winding glass case, this masterpiece took 400 artists 4 years to complete and if one really examined each frame’s intricate details it might take 4 years to view.

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Entrance Hall at the Qinghai Tibetan Medicine and Culture Museum

Another important cultural site is Kumbum Monastery, one of the six most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries located twenty-six kilometers south of Xining. Once housing thousands of Buddhist Monks, Kumbum which means Image of a hundred-thousand Buddhas, is the birthplace of Lhama Tsong-kha-pa (1357 – 1419), the founder of the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect.  Legend has it that a sandalwood tree grew on the spot he was born with an image of the Buddha on each leaf. There is a small temple and incense burning stupa marking the. spot  Squeezing between multiple gaggles of visitors, through the Great Hall of Meditation where silk fabric hangs like Spanish Moss from the cross beams, I think about the 600 monks in current residence and what is must be like to live in such a huge tourist destination. With hundreds of people visiting daily, Kumbum is hardly the isolated, quiet retreat one might envision. In fact most Monks in the crowds surrounding us were quite well connected to the outside world via the magic of iPhones and iPads, the technology of choice due to its Tibetan language option.

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Tibetan Monk, Dr. Kunchok with i Phone at Kumbum

Since most of my time in Xining was spent indoors in meetings with our excellent Arura hosts, it was a wonderful treat to get outside for a lunch in the grasslands and a visit to the Qinghai Lake. On 100 km trip from Xining to “The Blue Lake” we stopped for a traditional Tibetan meal in a yurt-like tent. Tibetans, like many nomadic peoples, are warm, welcoming people who tote little furniture but who love to entertain. We sat on the grass floor of the tent at low tables, the wind flapping the thick canvas walls and were served course after course of Tibetan fare – in this culture more is more when it comes to food. Among the many dishes served up with Yak butter tea were sweet rice, a  rice dish with sugar,  droma (something like bean sized sweet potato) and Yak butter; fruits, vegetables, corn, dumplings with yak meat, lamb dishes and ingredients to make our own tsampa.  Tsampa is a staple of traditional Tibetan diet made from barley flour, yak butter, water or yak butter tea and sugar expertly mixed with the hands into a malleable dough ball and eaten. It is easy to make, portable and durable making it the ideal food for people on the go. Entertainment is an important part of the culture so after lunch we sang (I think there is a version of me trying to teach everyone to sing a round on YouTube somewhere- not worth watching) and learned Tibetan dance moves then took some time just laying in the long soft grass absorbing sunlight as the constant wind blew over our bodies.

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                                On the Tibetan Plateau

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      Making Tsampa at lunch

A short drive to the Blue Lake revealed a huge azure body of water covering over 1700 square miles fed by 23 rivers and streams. Though it was mid July, the water and the air are still too cool for swimming but given the distance of the ocean it is a hot vacation spot.  Though it is not overwhelmingly touristy, there are some hotels and campsites along the water’s edge in places with vendors waiting to take tourists money like any other resort. My favorite were the photo ops with a Yak which sadly I had to forgo in order to get to our farewell dinner back in the city.

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Blue Lake

The next day we began our travel to Lhasa. Many people think that taking the train to Lhasa is a romantic prospect or that a perceived gradual incline of the train route from Xining will help with adjustment to the altitude. Both of these concepts are a myths. For many Westerners who are accustomed to space and privacy, overnight travel on Chinese trains is grueling. Sleeper compartments accommodate six travelers in stacked bunk beds and are open to the hallway (no doors) so that any passer by has access. Toilets, which are thankfully private, are basically steel basins set in the floor that flush onto the train tracks on more modern trains and simply openings in the floor on older ones.  Sinks are in the hallway so that in the morning there is a symphony of loud hocking and spitting, a Chinese ritual for clearing the throat. In terms of altitude adjustment the train moves along at an almost level altitude until about halfway through the journey then makes a rapid ascent to 17,158 feet above sea level at the highest point then lowers to Lhasa (11, 450 feet above sea level) debunking the gradual climb altitude adjustment theory. 

In my case, the 23 hour train ride was booked for our group in order to see the grandeur of the great Tibetan Plateau and the budding of the Himalayas on the planes but at the last minute I was culled and sent on a train solo. Since the journey began at 10:00 o’clock at night, I saw only a few hours of stunning terrain in the morning hours before succumbing to altitude sickness which had me flattened on my middle level bunk without a view for the remaining 9 hours of the trip.

Arriving in Lhasa, I met Dolma, my charming Tibetan guide and chauffeured via van to the stunning St. Regis Lhasa Resort where I was greeted by name by every staff member I saw and escorted by Anthony, my St. Regis Butler, to a beautiful suite with a garden view.  The contrast between this sumptuous hotel and the stark utilitarian feel of the train put me in a state of mild awestruck shock. The St. Regis is a stellar example of how modern luxury can intermingle with native architecture and decor to create a tasteful, respectful environment to house sophisticated travelers. The design of the hotel itself is reminiscent of the Potala Palace with white stucco walls and dark tiled pagoda roof lines and there are gorgeous views of the actual Potala from the large picture windows in the lobby. Tibetan artifacts, Buddha sculptures, a mural of Lhasa and contemporary Tibetan themed paintings grace the lobby area lending a museum-like feel to the experience. A bath in the deep freestanding ceramic bathtub followed by a deep sleep snuggled between high count cotton sheets were much needed perks following the train ride and critical elements in perking me up for the following day’s sight seeing.

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Devotee turning prayer wheels at the Potala

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               Suite in the St. Regis in Lhasa

In the morning I walked with Tibetan Buddhist devotees around the parameters of the Potala, which for centuries was the home of the Dalai Lhama but vacated by the 14th Dalai Lhama who was exhiled duing the Tibetan uprising of 1959. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Potala is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists and several hundred circumambulate clockwise around the base of the palace each day often spinning the large brass prayer wheels that line almost half of the parameter as they go. I was too late to get tickets for an interior tour as they sell out fast so I headed to Jokhang Temple, a Buddhist monastery and sacred site that was once a palace built for the two wives of king Songsten Gampo in the 7th century. Jokhang stands out in the old part of Lhasa with its gleaming white walls and golden rooftop statues of deer flanking a Dharma wheel. Once the visitor enters through the courtyard, the temple becomes a dusky incense cured maze of chapels lined with tongkas and glass cased statues of deities illuminated with yak butter candles and lamps. People bring white or gold silk katas, flowers and money as offerings to the various gods to fulfill prayers. My last stop before a sumptuous traditional Tibetan feast in the Si Zi Kang restaurant at the St. Regis for the day is the Tsamkhung nunnery located on a skinny back street in historic Lhasa. Not a major tourist stop, it is a charming place with cheerful nuns working away at making jewelry and other small items to sell in the gift shop their major source of income yet holds the distinction of housing a precious statue of Gampo who died in 650AD. This is where I did the majority of souvenir shopping for folks back home, picking up some beautiful handmade pieces for considerably less than shops that line the streets or the open market place.

Needing a day of rest before the long journey back to the states, I spent the last day of my time in Tibet luxuriating at the St. Regis. And when it comes to luxury, the St. Regis knows how to do it right.  A tour of the property revealed that the property boasts 22 luxury guest rooms, 28 private villas and 2 very impressive apartment-like suites complete with stunning views, outdoor decks, full kitchens and dining areas and lavish master suites. A rare shallow pond graces the interior courtyard, the ions and humidity emitted from it supposedly offer healing properties in the dry climate. The gold-tiled indoor pool located in the full-service Iridium Spa also purportedly offers healing qualities. I enjoyed a private yoga session in the Spa’s yoga studio then an excellent hot-stone massage at the to get the travel kinks out of my system before embarking on the 32 hour journey back to Charlottesville, Virginia the next day. I ended my day in Decanter, the Haut-Brisson designed wine bar. Good wine is rare in China, thus the Decanter is place to begin my transition back to Western life. Sitting outside on the garden deck, I sip an excellent Bordeaux and contemplate the joys and challenges of the last seven days. A giggle emerges as I realize a newfound appreciation for Western plumbing that will carry me cheerfully through the experience of an airplane restroom on a long flight in the coming hours.

Would I be willing to return to the so-called rooftop of the world despite the sketchy restroom situation? Undoubtedly, yes.

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Tibetan artifacts in the lobby at the St. Regis in Lhasa

Earnestly fun!

The Free Dictionary defines Earnest thusly:

ear·nest 1

(ûr′nĭst)

adj.

Showing or expressing sincerity or seriousness:
The paradox of Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest  is that there is nothing serious about it- except that it is earnestly mocking the shallow social morays of  late 19th century England. The play includes all of the entangling issues of two young gentlemen using false names wish to marry different young ladies while questions of origin and unyielding loyalty to a first name keep them from matrimony.
As expected from the white Wilde, hilarity ensues.  As expected from the company at American Shakespeare Center, that hilarity is deftly executed.
The entire cast was great but my favorite performance was Susie Parr’s Cecily Cardew (odd- since I am partial to Gwendolyn Fairfax whom I depicted in a High School production.) Parr’s delightful innocence and naivete served the play perfectly, making her mercurial moods believable as they are silly.
This is a wonderfully simplified version of a great classic that everyone should see.
More info here.

Cultural Assessment for 2015

Hello Culture Nuts!

Yes, it has been a long time since my last post and I am late with my cultural review for 2015 … please forgive me, I offer the lamest of excuses- I have been really busy.  I finished a ghost writing project (only 2.5 years of work), and started writing some content for a local University’s many publications while holding down a few other jobs and being a single mom.

OK. Enough. We are all busy, I know.

Even though I barely blogged a word last year, I did get a handle on a considerable amount of culture and this year is proving to be just as fabulous so far.  So here is the Culture Maven’s summary of cultural experiences based on the ticket stubs I saved last year.  Of course I attended first Fridays ( local gallery walk in Charlottesville) a few times, hung out at some cool events at the IX Art Park and spent many hours at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson which is right by my house and were I work part time as a guide- but none of those things had ticket stubs.

So here it is:

Last year I attended:

1 film premier (Cheatin’)

1 television show premier (Mercy Street)

visited one historic home that was not Monticello (Montpelier)

1 classical concert (Behzod Abduraimov)

4 regular films -in a real movie theater (fav: Me and Earl and The Dying Girl)

1 MET opera -on screen at a local movie theater (Madoma Butterfly)

3 National Theater Performances -on screen at a movie theater (fav: Coriolanus – AMAZING!!!)

6 museum exhibitions (fav: Rodin at VMFA)

17 plays – live (fav: Patrick Earl as Hamlet at American Shakespeare Center)

I have already seen some great exhibits and plays this year including, Bad Jews at Studio Theatre in DC and The Other Place at Live Arts here in Charlottesville so 2016 is looking like an extra culture-full year.

So I am offering up this challenge- arts and culture journalists excluded- see if you can top me this year.

All best and belated Happy New Year!

The Culture Maven

 

 

 

Brick and Mortar: A Local Restaurant Review

Once upon a time, there was a charming Italian restaurant on the outskirts of a college town where locals could get very good food at a relatively reasonable price. The restaurant was semi-conscious of its vegan and gluten free patrons, offering dining opportunities for each that were both satisfying and tasty. Then one day the owners of that delightful little neighborhood stronghold decided to go “trendy” and changed the restaurant format to poorly executed, ready- to-descend -down-the-bell-curve-of-current-food-trend dishes in an unimaginative atmosphere.

I speak of the tragic transformation of the beloved Pizza Bella on Mill Creek Road in Charlottesville to its new incarnation, Brick and Mortar. Same owners yet a total abandonment from the formula that made Pizza Bella successful.

Let’s start from the beginning…

I entered the half full restaurant and no serving staff greeted me. Strike one – all guests should be warmly greeted in a restaurant. OK, I am not the Queen of England so why should I expect to be noticed -except that I might be a paying customer- whatever.  Once I have the bartender’s/hostess'(?) attention I ask about a table for two but self-select seating at the bar. There is no hook for my purse. I remark on it. The bartender informs me that many people have commented on the lack of purse hook but the GM has ignored the request. How horrifying that such a simple request has been ignored. Strike 2- customers are paramount. I order a Moscow Mule that is presented to me with mint in it which totally screws up the ginger/vodka/lime harmony. It is undrinkable so I ask for a blush vino verde instead. $8 for a few ounces of a consumable yet much less-than-fabulous wine. OK, to be fair, I have probably paid more for worse wines but this is a neighborhood hang out not a four star establishment.

The burger I ordered came with grilled onions, pancetta and cheese (I fail to even recall what type of cheese it was, it was that unmemorable- maybe a swiss?) The onions, watery rather than actually grilled and luke warm rather than hot. The burger was cooked the way I requested and was just fine yet a bit dull in taste (I had to request salt and pepper). The salad that came with it (because there are no gluten free bread options offered) was refrigerator warn, meaning, slightly dried and not exactly fresh. It was served with a common ranch type dressing I could have easily  purchased from the Food Lion next door. When the burger was served, I had to request cutlery even though we had been at the restaurant for at least 20 minutes by that time. Strike 3. The fries…obviously from a previously frozen batch with a smattering of parmesan semi-melted atop were…well….. boring. They reminded me of a very poor version of the amazing parmesan crusted fries drizzled with truffle oil at Keswick Hall. I wonder if the KH fries were the inspiration…?

My dining companion ordered the same burger with the sweet potato wedges. The burger “was a bit bland,” according to her while the wedges were prepared with the skin on and, “mushy with uncooked bits throughout”. The most interesting thing about the meal was a spicy mayo served with the wedges, which my dining mate had to request, even though it is listed on the menu as condiment served with the dish. Strike 4- it is important not to make assumptions about your clientele. I am guessing that the server thought that a kid would dislike a condiment with a kick. Either that or the it was improperly plated in the kitchen.

Overall: My dining experience at Brick and Mortar was as exciting as staring at a brick and mortar wall. It seems to be simply copying the hot items on other successful restaurants in town without the culinary talent or the level of service to complete with them. I hope the owners quickly end this game of dress-up and go back to the yummy Italian food they do so well.

I also felt undervalued as a customer, something that is deadly in a town jam packed with good restaurants.

Ash Lawn Opera’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY flies high

“Get your hankies out,” warned Michele Krisel, Artistic Director of the Ash Lawn Opera, at the end of her curtain speech Sunday afternoon. “It is never too early to start crying during Madama Butterfly.” And she was right.  By the last ten minutes of the performance sniffles could be heard from all over the audience (including several from yours truly).

Once again Krisel and her hand picked artistic team have managed to pull off a champagne experience on a beer budget with this production.  Charles Murdock Lucas’ set is simple yet effective in depicting Cio-Cio San’s Japanese house of paper in which this story of clashing cultures is set. Lauren Gaston’s costumes are effective in developing a contrast between the sumptuous softness of the geishas and the apparent tastelessness of Pinkerton’s American wife.  And Dan Ragazzi’s minimalist direction allows the story to flow through the music- as it should. (I particularly enjoyed his use of ninja’s that flow on and off the set with necessary props.)

Krisel also knows how to cast a show to optimal effect. Pinkerton as played by Jason Slayden is just the kind of handsome devil that could break any girl’s heart.  But the star of this show is clearly Eleni Calenos who plays Butterfly.  Calenos puts forth a beautiful voice and a heart piercing dramatic performance as the naively trusting girl. She had the audience in the palm of her hand in her final tragic aria, To Die With Honor.

If you go, remember to bring tissues.  It is a truly beautiful tragic tale.

Photo by Natalie Krovetz

Photo by Natalie Krovetz

Click here for more information.

White Devils and all

Rene Thornton, Jr. in The White Devil at ASC

Rene Thornton, Jr. in The White Devil at ASC

Tonight, hopefully, I will achieve a goal by seeing the fifth play in the American Shakespeare Center’s Renaissance Season, Daniel Webster’s The White Devil.  And if this play is as good as the season’s other offerings, it should prove to be a good time to be had by all.  By “all” I mean the audience AND the actors.  This particular troupe seems to have gelled quite well (on stage at least as I am incapable of guessing what the behind the scenes situation is) bringing a wonderful sense of fun to The Taming of the Shrew (big shout out to Allison Glenzer for being such a fabulous Kate), Aphra Behn’s The Rover (love, love, love the play and particularly Lauren Ballard and John Harrell’s performances in this show xoxoxoxo), Every Man in His Humor (Patrick Midgley- you are soooo funny when you want to be), and Mother Bombie (not my favorite of the season but they do a good job with it).  Michael Amendola who plays a bunch of parts throughout the season (as does everyone in the troupe), turns every part he “touches” into gold.  His sense of humor is impeccable and I think he is perhaps the best comedic actor I have yet to see tread the Blackfriars recreated boards. And Nathan Crocker goes down smooth as an aged Scotch in every role he depicts.

I was tardy in my report on this season and I apologize but you can still catch all the Ren Season over the next couple of weeks. Plus you will have your chance to catch the cable ASC Touring Company when they return home to roost on April 8th with Hamlet (taking a group of Tibetans with me to see that with me- should prove to be interesting), Doctor Faustus, Much Ado About Nothing and Wittenberg.

See you at the theatre!

The Culture Maven

Writer’s weekend at the Homestead

Here is a great looking retreat for writers at one of my favorite Virginia resorts.

 THE OMNI HOMESTEAD RESORT TO HOST INAUGURAL

“WRITERS’ WEEKEND,” MARCH 21-22

 

Enjoy a weekend of lectures, live demos, book signings, fine dining and more with successful Virginia authors of many genres at the legendary resort  

February 27, 2015 Hot Springs, Va. – The Omni Homestead Resort is celebrating Virginia’s history of great writers with its inaugural Writers’ Weekend, Saturday, March 21 – Sunday, March 22. The thought-provoking program will feature acclaimed authors sharing their personal experiences and insights topped off with a delicious maple-themed dinner amid the beauty of the Allegheny Mountains.

Virginia-based authors who have seen success across several genres will lead the weekend, including:

  • Lynn Seldon began writing while stationed in Germany as a young Army officer. His work has been published in more than 500 publications including Southern Living, TrailBlazer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Charleston Post & Courier and more. Additionally, Seldon has published a half-dozen travel books and his first novel,Virginia’s Ring, was published in 2014. Seldon will lead a Writer’s Session titled “Pat Conroy, Crowdfunding & CreateSpace: How Virginia’s Ring Rang Up Sales” on Saturday at 11 a.m.
  • Learn about the elements of mystery writing from acclaimed writer Mollie Cox Bryan. Author of the Cumberland Creek Scrapbooking Mysteries, the first of which was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel of 2012, Bryan will lead a Writer’s Session titled “Adding Murder to Your Resume” on Saturday at 10 a.m.
  • Kendra Bailey Morris is a food writer, culinary instructor and cooking show host who has been featured in Better Homes and GardensGarden and GunTaste of the South and Richmond Times Dispatch. She also served as a judge for the James Beard Awards and authored The Southern Slow Cooker: Big Flavor, Low-Fuss Recipes for Comfort Food Classics. Morris will lead a culinary demonstration at noon on Saturday where she will share valuable tips, tricks, and recipes. She will also showcase her delectable Slow Cooker Apple Cider Pork BBQ Sandwiches with Creamy Cider Slaw.
  • Beau Beasley‘s Fly Fishing Virginia: A No Nonsense Guide to Top Waters won the prestigious Excellence-in-Craft Award in 2009. He is also the author of Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic and an editor at Eastern Fly Fishing, Fly Fish America, and Southern Trout. Beasley will be leading a Writer’s Session titled “Effect Fly Patterns for the Old Dominion” on Sunday at 10 a.m.

To round out the weekend, participants are invited to celebrate the 57th annual Highland Maple Festival that’s taking place in nearby Highland County, affectionately known as “Virginia’s Sweet Spot.” Guests can take a seat for a Maple Bourbon Dinner in the resort’s Dominion Room and enjoy a four-course menu of savory dishes such as Maple Sugar Dusted Diver Scallop and Cherry Braised Duck Leg with crispy maple Brussels Sprouts. Each course is paired with expertly crafted Woodford Reserve bourbon cocktails.

Special rates for the Writers’ Weekend start at $255 for one night, or $230 for two nights. The weekend’s full schedule can be viewed online here. For more information or to make reservations at The Omni Homestead Resort, please contact (800) 838-1766 or visitwww.thehomestead.com.

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ABCD Photography exhibit opening at The Bridge in Cville

This event intrigues me because I think I might learn something about feeling culturally alienated regardless of a specific background.

This info is taken directly from the Bridge PAI website.

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 February 23, 2015 by 

Photography Exhibition Opening: Friday, March 6 at 5:30

That ABCD Life

ABCD=American Born Confused Desi. That’s what they call American kids of Indian descent. Why are they confused? Are they actually confused? What goes on in the minds of these people, split between two cultures? “That ABCD Life,” a photo exhibit by Madhavi Reddi, seeks to share the sentiments of Indian-Americans from all over the country. Join Madhavi and some of the models in the photos on March 6 and discover what “That ABCD LIfe” is all about.

This exhibition will be open weekdays until March 27.

This program was created in partnership with The Big Read. The Big Read supports organizations across the country in developing community-wide programs which encourage reading and participation by diverse audiences. The current Big Read book is The Namesake By Jhumpa Lahiri. With penetrating insight, Jhumpa Lahiri follows the Ganguli family from their traditional life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans.

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