Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Land Before Time and After Rhinos

Yes, yes…I’ll get to Ireland, Switzerland and England posts later. In the meantime…

Baobab in Limpopo Province
I pile in the car with Sandie, Jerry and all of our gear including everything from public speaking workshop games to bat research toys. After our 2-hour flight from Cape Town, we tool away from Lanseria Airport near Johannesberg and begin our 4.5-hour drive to the Lapalala Wilderness School in an area known as the Waterberg.

This particular chunk of earth we barrel towards is estimated to be around 2.7 billion years old with the last rocks being laid down around 1.3 billion years ago. The main trades here are tobacco, cattle, game farming/trading and conservation. The three of us are here for the latter.

The Waterberg
Sandie and Jerry (AKA, the Dynamic Duo) are here on bat business. As we whiz past the post-winter, straw-colored landscape, Sandy explains that there are an estimated 60 known species of bat in South Africa and roughly 20 of those can be found in the Lapalala Reserve (36,000 hectares/139 square miles). She chirps through several Latin names and speaks of the particular qualities of roosts and bat scat. I smile, nod and realize that this woman is literally bat-shit crazy. Jerry is a retired engineer who worked for the railways in the UK. They both love dancing (a form known as ceroc), which goes quite well with Sandy’s stint in drama and Jerry’s spell as a figure skater. I can tell the 3 of us are going to be friends. And the best part? They live in my village (Greyton) for half the year.

the perks.
I learn that a select few know the number of white and black rhino in these parts, for the same reason you don’t give your credit card number to strangers or count your money in crowded public places. Poaching here is a very real concern for any reserve manager. With a single rhino horn fetching up to $60,000 per kilogram in Asian markets, reserve managers hold their cards close. As guardians of these epic giants, a fair amount of paranoia is a good thing.

But let’s take a step back. Why am I here? This goes back to my little village. In Greyton, there is a strange concentration of incredible people with legendary life experience from all over the world. One of those individuals is John Hanks. This fellow was the first Director for both the Institute of Natural Resources in KwaZulu-Natal and Peace Parks Foundation. He also has a long history dealing with the issue of rhino conservation through WWF. He is now the chairman of the Lapalala Wilderness School (LWS). Needless to say, he’s been a busy bee for the last (eh-hem) 40+ years. After several conversations, he asks me to come visit LWS in order to observe their programs and work with their small team of educator extraordinaires.

comic relief in public speaking workshop
The day after my arrival, I conduct a 4-hour workshop focused on public presentation skills, and dare I say…it was fun. It comforts me to meet outdoor educators from all over the world and hear about their perspectives. What I am discovering is that the landscape, language and culture varies, but the challenges (underpaid, overworked, khaki pants) and rewards (being in nature and getting others excited about it) are common threads with outdoor educators all over the world. We don’t do this for the money. We don’t do this because we love wearing uniforms. We do this because it (meaning hope for future generations) is just in our blood. We are not obligated; we are compelled.

Over the weekend, I tag along with the Dynamic Duo to search for signs of bat. If you know me, then you know if I am asked to go look for animal poo, I willingly oblige. We bumble and jiggle and bounce about on the trails of the reserve looking for little black, shiny bat droppings in a vast landscape of recovering wilderness. The next day, we make a day trip to the Botswana border through a colossal sea of potholes, which tossed us around like sneakers in a washing machine.
The LWS Gang
Passing through baobab country, you feel the whisper of a people and animal long passed that stored their secrets in the skin-like bark of these ancient trees. The older they get, the more the begin to hollow out from the inside, likely to make space for all the stories. I imagine the redwoods of California and the cypress trees of Iran hold the same data. The more secrets they receive, the larger, taller, or more twisted they grow in order to archive the undocumented.

Can you see the skink and the bat?
 It should be noted here that among the 3 of us, there was a dearth of silence.  Over the course of the week, we strike up conversations about (but not limited to) bat nipples, Sanskrit, recovery of dead bodies, diabetes, liabilities and lawsuits, labor unions, rhino roadblocks, handling black mambas vs. puff adders, intercostal breathing, reserve politics and poaching, the consequences of open windows, fresh muffins and motivated vervet monkeys, religious upbringings, sourcing of local meat, the dangers of white bread, baboon muggings, the history of coffee, US vs. UK colloquialisms, and zebra farts (which are apparently quite common).

On a run to Vaalwater with a willing educator-turned tour guide for the day, I have the great fortune to run into Clive Walker, Founder of the LWS and a respected and well-known conservationist in South Africa and beyond. He and his wife, Conita are having coffee outside the local supermarket. I feel awash in wisdom and life experience just simply being in the presence of these two individuals. They are soft spoken with white hair and casual clothing. As Clive graciously signs a copy of his latest book, The Rhino Keepers, Conita speaks softly of a hippo and rhino she raised. The next day, he spoke to a group of UNISA students and positively captured the room with his his presentation focused on the history and state of rhinos.

that kudu that you do.
As a teacher of public speaking, I am constantly learning from others who create magnificent recipes that capture the hearts of audiences and Clive was a master chef that day. I came here for a short consultation, but what I got was so much more. I made several new friends, learned how to say “how are you” in a language I didn’t even know existed, taught yoga to 4 willing participants, learned about the use of rhino dung as garden fertilizer, applied the brakes to allow a galloping giraffe, trotting warthog and bucking kudu to cross the road, hugged 2 conservation legends, and facilitated 8 hours worth of workshop on a subject that still terrifies me: public speaking.

Me with the Dynamic Duo, Sandie and Jerry
I sit here at the airport waiting for my flight to Cape Town. After a long absence, the sorely needed rain sheets down with accents of lightning and bellows of thunder. I imagine a white rhino and her calf somewhere nearby under the same sky, ears twitching with each drop, horned heads resting closely and calmly under an acacia. Are there poachers out today in this weather? Even if only for a moment, these two relics of a lost world find shelter in the storm from the bi-pedaled shadows that lurk and scheme under the same sky.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Part I: Rome if you want to

This post will be in 4 parts: Italy, Ireland, Switzerland, England.

My first slice of pizza in Rome

Airplanes are magical, aren’t they? About 22 flights ago, I am en route from Houston to Dubai. We are about 9 hours in, and at 2 am we begin to dance with a fair amount of turbulence. In my experience, it is a terrifying amount of turbulence that lasted for 2-3 hours…a geologic amount of time when you are in the air. I checked the in-flight route after checking my pulse (120) and we are somewhere over the Alps. My mind goes instantly to the part in the movie, Alive where the God-forsaken survivors finally succumb to eating the frozen butt cheek meat of their fellow downed passengers. Tears well up and I brace myself by gripping the arm rests and putting my feet against the seat in front of me. The cute little boy-child who shouted incessantly for the previous 9 hours is now screaming every time we hit an air pocket. A fleeting thought enters: “If I survive this thing and we’re stranded, I’m gonna bite his little frozen butt cheek first.” It is a low point. Crew members are asked to cease service and batten themselves in several times. I try my mantra: “rutted road, country bus, rutted road, country bus.” Don’t ask. It works often, but not when your stomach feels like it’s touching your uvula.
In love with the rooftops of Rome

When I get to my modern box of a hotel room in Dubai, I genuflect on the floor, face down and cry. I think of how I could make a life for myself in Dubai. I will not fly to Cape Town. There must be another way. A boat perhaps or maybe now is that moment when I decide to ride a bicycle from Dubai to Cape Town. I make international news, say I am riding for world peace or the Tranquilizers for All Association and no one is the wiser that I am just cycling away from my terror.

I still fly. I can’t say I enjoy it, but it is a bit of a necessary component to international adventure. Recently, I went on a sort of unofficial boot camp to face my fear of flying: 10 flights totaling 30 hours in 20 days. The first stop is London, just for the night. I have my first, and what I believe to be the best, tea and scones with clotted cream & preserves. I don’t make a habit of eating anything with the word “clot” in it, but this is exceptional.

The next morning is flight #2 to Rome. I take one bus and one train to meet my Italian friend that I met in the Bahamas in 2009. If I could have a younger Italian sister, Laila would be my first choice. She is sarcastic, loves pizza and coffee as much as I do, and rolls her eyes every time I try to correctly pronounce scordatelo, which roughly translates to “forget it.” Want to wait in a queue of 400 to go inside the Coliseum? Scordatelo. Want to wait in a queue of 1,053 to walk through St. Peter’s? Scordatelo. Want to buy a rose? A pope keychain? A squishy plastic pig that squeals when you throw it on the ground? Scordatelo. My favorite Italian word by far. I am in Rome for 3 days. While Laila works at the Explora Il Museo Dei Bambini Di Roma, I go on a 5-hour walkabout. Piazza del Popolo yields an array of iPhone-weilding tourists, gelato-eating locals, Michael Jackson impersonators, and teens playing tongue hockey under a sculpture that is most certainly judging them. As I roam through Rome, I cannot help but notice all of the graffiti. Is this not a global mecca for art? The graffiti is lifeless, flat and unintelligent. Banksy needs to organize some kind of intervention. I weave through the Piazza di Spagna like a lonely sardine in a shoal of thousands donning fanny packs, big bellies and fat cameras. 
Piazza di Spagna

After climbing several stairs, and going through the guantlet of smiling Pakistani men selling red roses, I stumble into the Villa Borghese and lie down in the grass. I teach myself a few things from my Italian phrase book that I will never be brave enough to use. I feel that I am ultimately wired like David Sedaris when it comes to language. My heart is in it, but my tongue mangles my well-intended pronunciations. As I butcher Italian under my breath, I ponder the landscape and watch people sitting, walking, riding and running. I watch one particular couple, on a pedal-power quad bike go over a bump in the road, which dislodges an object from the back of the bike. They carry on and I look all over the place to see if anyone witnesses it. My instinct is to yell and get their attention, but pride keeps me silent. I don’t want to give away that I am an American. “Hey y’all! Scusi!” never crossed my lips. I get up and walk over to the object. It is her purse. Again, I canvass my surroundings like a monkey about to take a sandwich off a table. I pick up the purse and bring it back to my tree: phone, ID card, wallet. I wait for an hour to see if they backtrack and then walk on to have a glass of wine on a rooftop bar. Just as I pull out their phone, it rings. A phone call from “My Love.” I answer and a man speaks. I reassure him that the bag is in good hands. We agree to meet at the obelisk, which is the equivalent of saying you will meet someone in Manhattan at the tall building. We are both Rome rookies, so I chug the wine, pay the bill and walk to meet them back in the Piazza del Popolo. I find the happy and relieved couple from Portugal. She is in a sweet white dress above the knee and he in a bowtie. They got married in Rome this morning. I give them both big hugs. We are all smiles for a few photos. He buys me a Pakistani rose and we part ways.
Me and the Newlyweds

In my estimation, I believe I rode the train 10 times, rode on a bus 14 times, traveled in a car 3 times, and walked about 11 miles. I attend one Buddhist meeting and watch an episode of Little House on the Prairie, both of which are in Italian and make me smile. Nothing like hearing Laura say: "Bene, ogni volta che ti infili il naso in aria con me, Nellie Oleson, che sta per ottenere un pugno!"  
Laila and I in an ocean of tourists gathered around the Trevi fountain

The food was by far, the best thing about Rome. Yes, yes, the historical architecture isn’t bad either, but when every landmark is literally crawling with tourists and accented with swindlers dressed in everything from mock Hari Krishna costumes to gladiator apparel…it just makes you want to sit on the steps with another gelato and call it a day. In just 4 short days in Rome, Laila assists me in consuming 9 slices of pizza, 3 bowls of pasta, 12 espressos, one lemon gelato, and 2 supplis (foodgasmic fried balls made of rice and cheese).
My free bag of pasta in San Felice
During my short time in Italy, I stay in Sacrofano with 3 lovely ladies and 4 cats. In Sacrafano, it seems everyone has at least a few olive trees, in which they harvest and take somewhere to get processed. Their 6-7 trees provide them with about 35 liters of oil per year. I stay with Laila and her mom in her hometown of San Felice. If you think of the shape of Italy as a boot, this sweet little coastal town is located near the shin. I buy 2 pairs of crocheted earrings that Laila’s mom made and gladly received a free bag of homemade pasta from a sweet old lady in a white coat. The best parting gifts ever. As I hug Laila good-bye and board my 14th and final Roman bus ride, I think, “How about another plane ride?” And as the Italian stone pines whiz past me on my very fast bus, I say under my breath several times to refine my annunciation and animation, “Scordatelo

Monday, May 6, 2013

Fountain of Youth Discovered in South Africa

Bereaville youth, Jayme-Lee hopped over riverbed rocks to catch up with me. She tapped me on the shoulder and smiled without saying a word. We were on a silent hike for the first 30 minutes. She showed me what she had in her hands. Berna-Lee caught up and we muffled our giggles. She knew I was on the hunt for heart-shaped rocks. She had one…another one weighing about 4 kilos. My backpack was already heavy with at least a dozen heart-shaped rocks. Where I come from, heart rocks are a novelty. Here in South Africa…not so much.

I have a history with rocks. I majored in Environmental Earth Resources at university and people often asked, “what kind of major is that?” And I either said: “it’s mostly geology sautéed in biology with a dash of chemistry and computer science” or, “it’s just a euphemism for oil & gas.” It was through this major that I learned to love rocks.  Most of my classmates dreaded our mineralogy tests and I secretly couldn’t wait for them. I longed to cradle bits of sky blue kyanite and vanadanaite the way that Carrie Bradshaw pined after a pair of Jimmy Choo stilettos. On my runs along the Trinity River in Ft. Worth, TX, I would often stuff bits of ammonite and worm fossils into my sports bra. After getting a flat tire on the Mombassa highway in Kenya, I picked up a couple of bits of basalt. A chunk of shale from Ireland, a piece of limestone from the Marshall Islands, a handful of schist from Massachusetts; they are small earthly reminders that I was there, wherever that was. I have two friends (both mentors) who have a collection of heart-shaped rocks and so, along this dry river bed, I decided to follow suit. As an aside, it is a great activity for kids to practice quiet observation.

The group on our first hike
Kim contemplating the landscape
In a twist of fate, I was asked to fill in as a chaperone on a camping trip with 15 youth from Greyton, Genadendal and Bereaville, located in the Western Cape, South Africa. This trip was sponsored by The Cape Leopard Trust in partnership with ARK (Acts of Random Kindness), Greyton Conservation Society, and Greyton Transition Town. The common link, aside from geography, was a budding interest in the environment and taking up the challenge to get out of our comfort zones. After a 5-hour bus journey to the Cederberg, we arrived at The Cape Leopard Trust on a Friday afternoon. Nicky and Sue situated our vegetarian kitchen and the rest of us set up our tents. Some of these kids had never been camping and they embraced the challenge of not only roughing it in the rain, but also voluntarily giving up their sweets, meats and chips in exchange for vegetarian meals. In the last 15 years of working with youth from all walks of life and several different countries, I can honestly say that this was one of the best youth groups (not to mention camping trips) I have ever experienced. And not to brag too much, but I have worked with some incredible youth in my life. I'm lucky that way.

Tariq sculpting
Over the course of 5 days, we covered a lot of ground…ecologically, historically, creatively, educationally, socially, nutritionally and literally. We hiked over 12 kilometers through rocky riverbeds, meandered through mountain fynbos, scaled incredible sandstone formations and ran along footpaths trying to decipher between types and ages of animal scat. We marveled at rock art, played games, told stories and roasted marshmallows by the fire. On one evening in particular, I was amazed at the dogged patience of 4 youth as they taught me how to count to 20 in Afrikaans. I will forever be working on the proper pronunciation of the number 4. We tried our hands at clay sculpture and using charcoal to depict landscapes and animal skulls. Using our newly acquired compass and orienteering skills, we created a perfect circle, made up of 12 people and 50 meters in diameter. We listened and watched for birds and laughed at the sounds of screaming baboon youth in the cliffs above our camp. We saw signs & tracks of genets, baboons, and klipspringer and learned how to set up a camera trap in hopes of maybe…just maybe catching a glimpse of the ever-elusive cape leopard.  

Desi helping to set the camera trap
The compost toilets, bucket showers, and late night baboon hooting reminded all of us that we were far from home, but close to something special…maybe a moment or two that we will fondly recall decades from now. Who can really know when passions are galvanized, when we make a change in our habits, form lifelong friendships, or a giant collection of rocks? All we can do is work to create these opportunities for challenge, exposure, growth, and character building for youth, and not to mention, adults.

This journey gave me a sorely needed boost of hope. With the recent crime wave in Greyton and Genadendal, I have twice been a victim of burglary in the last 3 months. Everyone seems to have a theory as to why it is happening, who is doing it, and when (if ever) it will die down. A popular theory is that this is the work of youth serving as puppets for older individuals with a tick problem (AKA, meth). It is easy to hand myself over to feelings of negativity, cynicism, and general distrust in my species. And while statistics offer some comfort, the pressing question is, what does it mean for me to feel safe? And how much am I willing/forced to alter and morph my daily operations to create a sense of safety for myself? I got to thinking, a sometimes-dangerous hobby, and I wondered about these kids on my camping trip; not only them, but ALL kids. What does it mean for them to feel safe? Do they feel safe at home? At school? Did they feel safe hiking with me and being far away from what they know as home? What part do I play as an (gasp) adult in creating a safer and more joyful world for children, but especially teens?

Orienteering to build our perfect circle
Drawing skulls is not easy
I heard a recent episode of This American Life about Harper High School in the south side of, Chicago, Illinois. I was listening to the story, happily chopping vegetables while my dog dreamt peacefully on the floor. And there in my little Greyton kitchen, I began to sob. This particular high school, with a population of 506, saw 21 students wounded by gunshot and 8 murders in 2012 alone. And often these shootings are over petty things. If you are a boy living in this 2 square mile neighborhood, you are born into one of 15 gangs based on the street where you live. It isn’t a choice, it is an assignment, whether you want it or not. Even police officers claim that kids do not have the choice to opt out of gang affiliation. “We feel safer like this. We never like to walk past trees and stuff. There’s too much stuff (shootings) goin’ on,” replied a girl when asked why she and her friends walk to school down the middle of the street. I encourage you to listen to this 2-part story, moreover to be a regular listener of TAL. No matter where you come from, this show is incredibly eye opening and educational.

I was taking a walk through the Gobos River the other morning pondering the recent and rampant burglaries on my street. I felt thankful that I wasn’t present for either of my burglaries, but angry at the violation; the poaching of my safe space. And then, in that moment, I stepped on a heart-shaped rock. I found 4 more after that. One of the social workers at Harper High school told the interviewer, “I need to see where education works. And I need to see where success happens.” I could not have expressed it better myself. So far, I have collected 15 heart rocks, one for each teen that was on the trip. 
Last Day
My goal is to collect one heart rock for each young person who gives me hope and create a heart rock sanctuary in my garden. These rocks will serve as a solid reminder that when you look for the good happening in any community, you will find it. Often, these rocks will be extremely hard to find depending on where I am physically and mentally, but I believe that once I’ve trained my heart and mind to look for them, they will become easier to find.

Add caption

I am still a newcomer to South Africa and I have so much to learn in terms of history, culture and politics, but one thing I know is that every human being has basic needs. Food, water, and shelter are obvious, but I think safety, moreover community, useful contribution and joy are often seen as luxuries in many communities around the world. I want to be a part of changing this. Because there is a difference between surviving, which is what I feel so many children are trying to do, and thriving, which is what children have the right to do.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Mama in the Motherland

I was born under a waxing crescent moon to a single mother. I am from a small town known as Deal Island, close to Chance and Dames Quarters in Somerset County, Maryland. Cradled in the Chesapeake Bay, my hometown was frequented by pirates, most famously, Blackbeard. It has been said that I descended from a pirate known as “3-Legs McHagee” who, after becoming consumed in foraging for menhaden, was left behind by his ship. Oddly enough, my grandfather, an actor, played a character loosely based on 3-Legs in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean
Grandfather as "Prison Dog" in Pirates of the Caribbean
Obviously I can’t prove it, but that’s the story. On the same pirate note, one of Blackbeard's ships was the Troubadour. It just so happens that my full name is Hugo Otis Troubadour, the Island Wonder Puppy, but my mom said the namesake was unintentional. Still. Legend goes that 3-Legs met and married a native girl, also abandoned by her lot. They made a life by the sea. He fished for menhaden & blue crab and she dug for oysters and razor clams. But, I digress…back to my story.

My mom was a small town girl and was likely wooed by some rich Baltimore city slicker who charmed her pants off (not that she was wearing any to begin with). Anyway, I don’t know him, but some said he was handsome.  There have been a few times when I thought I saw him—in a park,  on a Travelers Insurance commercial or passing on the street—our eyes meet briefly as if looking into a reflection, but I just kept walking and so did he.  

She became pregnant and her caretaker, the local drug dealer, made an untimely visit to prison, which left her out on the street.  She, ever brave and strong, had my siblings and me somewhere along Deal Island Road.  I guess if one is born in Deal Island, you are born on one side of Deal Island Road or the other.  Within a couple of months, I took to catching flies and digging for razor clams. Drinking from the stream was one of my favorite past times until a ornery little turtle bit the end of my nose—scared the bejesus out of me. I’m on guard every time I sip water, even out of my bowl.  And I don’t go near toilets.

We lived in the woods & wetlands for a few months and then my mom got the call. She went back to the drug dealer and we followed, as we tend to do.  Before we knew it, we were in the back of a pick-up truck headed for New Jersey to be sold, leaving my mother behind.  As she faded into the distance, I sighed and resigned myself to the bed of the truck. We stopped for fuel at Lucky’s and as my brothers and sisters milled about, I propped myself up on the wheel well as something caught my eye. It was a yellow bug—they always came out with the sunshine and I was obsessed with them. So, I hopped over the edge and chased after it into the woods. A month later, I was found behind Lucky’s, just a wee bit skinny for my own good. I discovered that the yellow bugs are immune to being caught and flies provide only small amounts of protein. I was also really thirsty, for obvious reasons.

Jamaica Pond in Jamaica Plain, MA
I spent the night in a bathroom of a nice woman’s house. The next day, her Aunt Becca opened the door and put me in her car.  We drove 8 hours to Boston and I slept the whole way.  I spent the next few days in her kitchen. On the third morning, I heard the front door open and peeped around the corner. There she was, a young woman with long brown hair and rosy cheeks, just smiling at me.  With head bowed and tail wagging, I bounded towards her. She sat down on the kitchen floor and I sat in her lap and just leaned into her, my new mom. I was home.

Me in training. This one is called "Circus".
We went for lots of walks around Jamaica Pond. She let me chase the ducks, but only sometimes. She never let me chase the white squirrel—said it was too risky—even though I have never caught a squirrel in my life. She taught me a lot of things about the difference between greeting people versus greeting dogs. She taught me how to sit, spin, hide, and how to tell between my right and left paws. She’s tried to help me work through my fear of reflective water bowls, but she understands the trauma of turtles and promised never to bring one into the house. She says that I have taught her a lot about life…about letting go, being present, savoring every treat, walking slower, running faster, dreaming loudly, and how to give more hugs. 

She has left me a couple of times claiming that it was too complicated to bring me along. And I missed her, but being the present canine I am, I just kept living and fully embracing all of those who cared for me. I spent a lot of time in Texas with my grandparents, running through bluebonnets and along the Buffalo Bayou, chasing rabbits, squirrels and herons and tiptoeing past mini mine fields of alligator gars and turtles.

My crate, which I hate.
And then, just one week ago, my grandparents put me in a crate, which was put on to a plane bound for Amsterdam.  Molly, a Bernese Mountain dog, was in the crate next to mine. We sniffed at each other through the side grates and sighed in simultaneous resignation to the present moment, which was in the cargo hold of a 737. It was her 9th flight. Her parents were in oil & gas, so she moved often, but still hated the sounds of jet engines. We talked about our families. She asked me why I was traveling to Amsterdam and I told her it was a life-long dream of mine to go on a cheese & raw herring tour. But in truth, I had no idea why I was going to Amsterdam. She said the pet hotel was a bit dark and the food sucked, but judging by her Hermes collar, I got the feeling she never spent a night in the woods in her life. I assumed the pet hotel would suit me just fine.

After a smooth landing, we were offloaded and carted to the hotel.  I spent the day there and due to some hiccup with my passport, I was informed that there would be no raw herring and cheese tour; maybe next time.

The following morning, I reluctantly entered my crate again and overheard that I was on a 12-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa. My ears perked up and I thought; now I am on an adventure! My mom always said I was pretty perceptive and from what I could figure, I was flying over Libya, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to be reunited with MY MOM.

I slept for most of the trip as I was next to an incredibly aloof Great Dane who insisted he was directly descended from wolves. I cocked my head politely—I didn’t have the heart (or the energy) to tell him that we were ALL descended from wolves. Sometimes you just have to let someone feel distinctive—no fur off my back. Feelings of entitlement is a pure bred thing, and that’s fine.  I also didn’t tell him I was descended from pirates as I thought he would assume I meant modern North African pirates and force an emergency landing. Prudence before pride, as my birth mother always told me.

We landed in Cape Town. It was dark and I was disoriented.  The guys in cargo were really sweet to me. One of them in particular, said “Hello Hugo” in his soothing, syrupy Xhosa accent. I couldn’t help but wag my tail at the sound of his voice. And then I heard a familiar voice. She said “Hey Buddy” and before I could see her, I knew she had come for me. As the crate slowly opened, I pushed my way out into the arms of my mama in the Motherland. And we both said, at the same time to each other: “Now I’m home."
My first pic in front of Table Mountain.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mess With Texas & Keep Austin Normal

Allens Boots
As you shunt off the main artery, I-10 onto State Highway 71, one can begin to feel the pulse of Texas again.  The Industrial Country Market describes itself as, and I quote, “asustainablealternativeretailsurplusgardeningartsynativefolkfunplace”.  If you pass the solar panels and the glass bottle & bowling ball trees, you should turn around. It’s worth it. There are hydroponic gardens and greenhouses accented with recycled art and local products. It may be the only place in the world where you can buy a Mexican blanket, Indian curry products, Texas-made earrings as well as take a solar power education course and compost your own poop all in one stop. The woman at the counter fanned out a deck of cards and said with a smile, "pick a card." I picked the 10 of Spades. "Look at that," she said, "you get a 10% discount!"
reused circuit board ceiling of the composting toilet outhouse
And this is what makes me feel good about Texas all over again: people who pull themselves up by their locally-made, reused leather bootstraps and do some good in this beautifully-shaped state. 

If you have been to or live in Austin, you are familiar with the ever-popular slogan, “Keep Austin Weird”.  I’m going to let you in on a little secret…Austin is not weird. Austin, in fact, is the southern poster child for the new normal. 

You know what’s weird? Driving up, down and across most of the major highways in the US and repeating the same commercial mantra every 5-20 miles: McDonald’s, Chik-Fil-Gay, Bass Pro Shops, Cracker Barrel, Shell, BP, Cracker Barrel, outlet mall, Panera…did I mention Cracker Barrel? Homogenous landscapes are WEIRD to me. The feeling you get is not carsickness; it is an overdose of corporate déjà vu. This country is in serious need of a local injection...and it's happening...slowly.  Austin is the epitome of local. In fact, the "Keep Austin Weird" campaign was started by the AIBA (Austin Independent Business Alliance) in an effort to support small business. BookPeople, Allens Boots, Waterloo Records, the Mighty Cone, Austintatious Blind & Shutters, Wheatsville Co-op, and Deep Eddy Vodka are just a drop in the ocean of small/local businesses endemic to Austin. It was refreshing, for once, to have to really look for national brands. I was so enraptured in local fare that I barely even felt the 10 straight days of 105 degree heat.  I managed to get a few runs in while I was there, but I soon learned that any run after 8 am was out of the question. During these runs, I heard a lot of squawking, and just assumed that there were an unusually large number of parrot owners in Hyde Park, where I stayed. As I ran to the UT intramural fields, however, I discovered hundreds of Quaker Parrots (Monk parakeets) foraging in the fields and nesting in the stadium lights. Named for their modest shade of green, these feral birds have also taken up residence in Brooklyn, Chicago (also in Hyde Park), and Miami. Apparently, they have been here since the 60's.  How they got from Argentina to Austin is still in question, but whatever the case, they're local now.

My deep connection to Texas is in the Hill Country just outside of Austin. Many childhood memories were engraved in Wimberley. My grandmother, Gammy lived on Collins Court--named after her because she was the only one on the street.  The population has increased 10-fold to 4,000 since I was a kid. Although I went to a new restaurant called The Leaning Pear, my old haunt was the Cypress Creek Cafe.  The last time I went there (several years ago), I ordered a beer and was asked if I had a drinking license. That's right, before 2008 you needed a license or "membership" to drink, some of which cost a whopping $1.00 for the year. Since then, there have been a slew of wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms that have infiltrated Wimberley. And many of these wines are damn good, which is not surprising as Texas is one of the oldest wine growing states in the US. However, Texas is STILL recovering from the effects of Prohibition with 25% of 254 Texas counties still not legally able to whet their whistles. A little known fact among common folk like myself is that the Texas wine industry saved the French wine industry from going belly up in the late 1800's. A beautifully named, but devastating little pest called phylloxera took hold and laid waste to about 40% of french grapes in about 15 years. Enter Texas-based horticulturalist, Tom Munson who worked with France by sending phylloxera-resistant root stock where it was grafted onto french vines. Apparently, it is still done to this day. Frexan wine, anyone?
I stopped just outside of Boerne to visit Cave Without a Name--one of about 7 Texas caves open to the public. CWaN has been open  since 1939 and despite (or even because of) the curmudgeons who tour groups through, it's worth a visit.  Lots of stalactites, stalagmites, drapery, soda straws and all kinds of other fantastical formations. Crazy things happen when you add a little carbonic and sulfuric acid.
Junior bull ridin'

Smokey, the high-diving mule
The Bandera rodeo was my next stop. I have wanted to visit the self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World for many years and it was everything I hoped it would be.  Technically in Pipe Creek, TX at Lightning Ranch, the Friday night rodeo cost me $3. It was refreshing to be in a place where the people and bullshit are real. It began with mutton bustin’ which is basic training for aspiring bull riders. Manic sheep are donned with brave little 5 year-old boys and released into the arena. There were about 10 of them--all fell off in the first second except for the last one who stayed on for at least 6 seconds. He was about 2 feet tall and bullet-proof, with his cowboy hat and tiny little chaps. I fell in love.  Other events included team roping, barrel racing, Peruvian horse routines choreographed to a remake of "Footloose", junior bull riding, sheep scrambles, a magic show involving a toy poodle and a llama and a grand finale of Smokey the high diving mule bravely cannon-balling into a pool of water. I was terrified, but soon comforted as Smokey casually trotted down the ramp, shook it off and chomped willingly on his post-dive carrot. I was brokenhearted to find that the jersey shore hair had, in fact, made it's way into the small town Texas teenage girl's coiffure. But it made me reminisce about the good old days of primping with my curling iron and Final Net hair spray, blue eye liner, and mini skirts...and all in the name of boys. I watched these two little blond girls attempting to lean casually against the gate, as close to the teenage boy bull riders as possible, but strategically looking off in the other direction at nothing in particular.
I ventured to Garden Ridge, TX in order to see the largest congregation of mammals on the planet.  There is a population of Mexican free-tailed bats (one of the 1,250 species worldwide) in Bracken Cave, which is located on land owned by Bat Conservation International.  There are between 20-40 million bats here. Twenty to forty MILLION.  This was a completely magical experience. I was with a group of about 20 other tourists and when the bats came out at dusk. We were so quiet you could hear a pin drop...or in this case, the beat of a bats' wings. The size of a key lime, each bat weighs as much as a dozen paper clips. The collective beating of millions of tiny wings was so soothing. I've never heard anything quite like it--almost like the sound of millions of hands rubbing together. I wanted to camp right there among the live oak, limestone and thunder...forever.
Bracken Bats
This summer, I spent a lot of long overdue time meandering around my state, my origin, my home place. When I was a teen I truly thought that there was no place for me in Texas. People seemed close-minded, big-headed and too afraid to challenge convention. Every place started to look the same--too hot, too crowded, and too predictable. But over time I realized that I was the close-minded, predictable one. I just didn't want to believe that Texas was big enough for every kind of person and that I didn't have to go to the rainforests of Brazil to be surrounded by biodiversity. It's been here all along.  I guess it has taken me 15 years of traveling all over the world to realize that somewhere between the cowboys and the hippies lies a cozy limestone hollow just for me. This is my home...y'all.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Family in Florida

Saturday pancakes
Three kids rush in the door with bags full of candy that they bought with their “Bible dollars” from Camp Extreme.

Rhys, the youngest of the 3 screams, “Hi Sunnye!”
“Hi Rhys!” I exclaim.
Suspiciously, Rhys inquires, “How do you know my name?”
“You just look like a Rhys.” I say.
“Oh. Do you have any Skittles?”

What would Jesus do?  Clearly, Jesus would eat Skittles.
Bat Hugo with Rhys

Since entering my full-throttle, vagabond lifestyle, I have waded through waterfalls, taught kids about sea turtles & whales, and seen my first sperm whale in Dominica. I have experienced the worst turbulence of my life over the Alps. I have learned how to drive stick shift and hung out with baboons in South Africa.  I have swum with dolphins, taken my first helicopter ride and seen my first whale shark and manta ray in Mozambique. I have renewed my love for rocks, had a close encounter with wild horses, been to the driest vineyard in the world, walked with penguins, eaten 75 oysters and hiked the dunes in Namibia. I have given the scariest and best speech of my life at my brother’s wedding and run the 10K Pride Run in Los Angeles, CA. I have hiked 8 miles along the beach, saw my first rattlesnake and received my yoga teacher training certification in Baja,Mexico. I have reunited with old friends, taught my first yoga class at a warehouse that assembles guitar amps, and renewed my love for margaritas, peacocks, and alligator gars in Houston, TX.  And the adventure continues in the exotic coastal village of Tampa, Florida.

Sunnye, Kristi and a giant horchata at the Taco Bus
Why Tampa, you ask?  I have family there. Someone told me recently that you can’t choose your family and my response was…  “The hell I can.” So, I went to visit a chunk of adopted family members known as The Bennett’s.  I have known the Bennett’s for about 12 years when they were just 3 (Rick, Kristi and their dog, Marley).  Since meeting them in Houston, living near them in Boston and now visiting them in Florida, they have grown to 6 with the help of their kids: Gillian (10), Aedan (9) and Rhys (5).  As a side note, I was present for the birth of Aedan so I feel particularly indebted to Rick, Kristi, and Aedan for allowing me to witness such a life-changing natural event!

To borrow the phrase from my former supervisor, the Bennett household (especially when adding me and my dog, Hugo to the mix) is in a fairly consistent state of “controlled chaos.”  There were so many hilarious things said during my two-week stay. I tried to capture a good sample:

Gillian: “I don’t have time to play Minecraft (iPhone game) every second of my life! Aedan is being dramatical.”
Kristi: “Is Dramatical a word? (No answer) IS DRAMATICAL A WORD?!!
Gillian: “No.”
Kristi: “Good. I was testing you. Now, go apologize to your brother.”

Rhys: “Sunnye, next time will you tell us a story from your mouth and not from your computer?”

(After bring on the toilet for several minutes…)
Rhys: “I think I’m pooping.”
Kristi: “I know when poop is comin’ outta my butt. So you better know too.”

Aedan: “You know what I say? When something is broken, you should just break it more…or sell it at a thrift store.”
One of the many formidable Florida thunderstorms

After Gillian played with my Blackberry for several minutes, I later noticed that I had a few texts and a missed call from Katniss Everdeen.

Sunnye: “You spend way too much time on that brain-sucking iPad.”
Rhys: “But I love the brain-sucking iPad.”

To satiate a desire to manipulate a 5-year-old, I had the following conversation:
Sunnye: “Rhys, will you buy me dinner?
Rhys: “No!”
Aedan in Padmasana
Sunnye: “But why not? Pleeeeaaase?”
Rhys: “But I don’t even know how to buy dinner!”
Sunnye: (curling her lip looking helpless) “So, I don’t get to eat? But I’m so hungry…”
Rhys: “Ohhhh, you always make that face. Ok, fine I’ll buy you dinner, but I don’t even know how.”

We shared meals, watched movies, went to the beach, hung out with cool neighbors, drank craft beer served by hipsters, and dodged thunderstorms. Two of my favorite activities were morning runs with Hugo and yoga practice teaching with Kristi. Aedan even took about 20 minutes of instruction from me and retained a shockingly large yogic vocabulary in that time. Adho Mukah Svanasana, Dandasana, Tadasana, Balasana, Urdhva Mukah Svanasana, Samasthiti. His mind was a steel trap for Sanskrit.  


Watching the gators
Brainstorming story ideas on the Weedon Island boardwalk
Leaving the shells & taking the trash at Shell Key
During my second week I held the 1st Annual 2012 Sunnye’s Movable Ecology Camp with Gillian, Aedan, and neighbor, Julia as my first campers.  I looked back to my ETL grad school journals for planning and guidance.  I created mini field guides of Florida birds, butterflies & insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and trees.  Over 3 days, we visited 3 sites: John Sargeant Park near the Hillsborough River, Weedon Island in Tampa Bay and Shell Key, one of the barrier islands near St. Pete. 

Gillian was a genius storyteller, Aedan was a master birder, and Julia was the frog finding princess. We found tiny toads peppering every trail, alligators meandering in the creek, herons and ibises perched in the mangrove and cypress forests, gopher tortoises digging burrows, raccoon scat filled with seeds and crab claws, plastics on beaches, and a love for snorkeling even when the visibility was crap.  We wrote in our journals, did leaf rubbings under a pavilion while the rain drenched the world around us and even got a wee bit lost on the Boy Scout Trail at Weedon Island. We got tired and thirsty and refused to eat our sandwiches, but we created stories from our experiences all the same. 

Despite the rain that came every day, we had fun and we hiked a total of 6 miles to boot. We had dinner, a slide show and read our stories aloud on the last night. And as graduation presents, I gave them goodie bags donated by my friend, Cheryl who works for NOAA.  Aedan was so excited about his new water bottle and North Atlantic right whale figurine that he decided to build his own right whale out of Legos. Can your iPad do that? I didn't think so. As far as I know, there is no (nor will there ever be) an App for Nature or Family.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bajasana: Yoga in Mexico

Singing bowls at the last Satsang
 Everything Oms
There is an Om in every ocean wave
Curl and crash on the exhale
There is an Om with the sun
Inhale over mountain, breathe through palms
There is an Om in grains of sand
As they recreate earth under feet
There is an Om in the rattlesnake
Gliding peacefully across my path
There is an Om in my breakfast
Papaya, ginger and lime melt in my mouth
There is an Om with night crickets
Collective chirps turn to one
There is an Om as my feet root down
Realizing I am one of many rocks on this mountain
There is an Om with pelican’s last breath
Returning itself back to the earth 

One of the many pelicans I saw perish  due to lack of fish

There is an Om in every step
Constantly renewing my relationship with gravity
There is an Om in complete silence
As the world around me speaks
There is an Om in my hard-boiled egg
Cracking its secret bit by bit
There is an Om in the airplane
Flying through clouds above
There is an Om with presence
I am here between past and future
There is an Om in the breeze
Animating every leaf
There is an Om in this space of bare attention
As I allow space for all that is
To simply be.


Partner yoga with April

It’s official. I am a certified yoga teacher.  Last   Tuesday, I completed 200 hours of training through the Yandara Institute in Baja, Mexico.  I am forever indebted to 3 of the best teachers on the planet: Allison, Kim and Sumitra.  As an educator, they reminded me how powerful a learning experience can be when you have a variety of worldviews and teaching styles present.  There were 9 others in my group, each of us ranging in age from 23-50.  For 17 days, I rose at 5:50 am, attended 2.5 hours of breathing, meditation and flow, followed by half an hour of papaya, oatmeal and tea.  

Mineral patterns on my 7.5 hour walking meditation
Another 3 hours breaking down the postures was followed by lunch and another 2 hours of practice teaching or philosophy.  Every other day we had Satya (truth) with our group on the beach—each of us having a turn to respond to questions posed by Allison.  Dinner was at 6:00 followed by Satsang (community meeting) involving singing, chanting, and even a little dancing sometimes until 9:00 pm.  I happily surrendered to my tent and pillow under the stars around 10:00.  I would wake up with a smile and do it all over again. Overall, it was a well-rounded program providing exposure to not simply yoga postures (asanas), but the entire lifestyle of yoga. I have never been a big “Om-er”, but after doing it roughly 190 times (I did the math), I love it…. especially when it comes from the belly. On the 11th day, each of us meditated in silence for 8 hours. I began walking up the beach at 5:45 am and didn't stop for 7.5 hours. I just mapped it and discovered that I peacefully walked almost 10 miles in the sand--present, peaceful and full of gratitude.

The stuff of yoga

To me, Hatha Yoga (asanas/postures/breathing/meditation) along with the other paths of yoga…is the practice of process.  There is no end point and no higher goal other than meeting yourself each day for the imperfectly perfect union of movement and breath, heart and mind, body and soul. I can proudly say that I will be working on Tadasana (Mountain pose), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) and every posture in between for the rest of my life. And now that I am certified to teach, my intention is to work with others who want to practice their process.  Helping others become more aware of their breath, their process and their potential sounds like a pretty good gig to me.

Summer 2012, 16-day group
Our Beach