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

Monday, June 11, 2012

Los Diablos y Los Angeles

Don’t get me wrong, I love the sunshine, the cool nights, the hipsters glasses, and all the sneaker color combinations you can conjure. BUT, Los Angeles and I have a past.

I came here one month after I graduated from college. I was on a dating show, flew back to Houston and then a month later drove with a Chevy truckload of stuff to Orange County.  I stayed with family friends in Balboa and worked part time as an outdoor educator and in surf retail. I rode my bike to the ferry each day, hopped the ferry from the peninsula to Balboa Island, ate flautas and chocolate covered bananas, taught kids about estuaries, painted the surf shop’s floor and life was grand. I migrated north to LA for a few months to live with my boyfriend. I temped for an infomercial company in Beverly Hills and was robbed at gunpoint in Los Feliz.  He stole my car keys, hairdryer, a change of clothes and the last bible I ever owned (my parents gave it to me when I was 12). He left me with my truck and a rush of adrenaline followed by several months of episodic rage at the world. The people I met and experiences I had there shaped a large part of who I am today. So, for better or for worse, I am indebted to LA. Just as I am indebted to anyone who teaches me anything of value—anything that helps me grow and shift. 
I came here because of my brother who has lived and worked as a personal trainer in LA for the last decade.  He married my new sister-in-law, Sonia yesterday.  The last 5 days have been interesting as I have traveled here with my parents and shared a suite with them. Due to the fact that I am 35 years old and used to traveling and living alone…this arrangement has been challenging.  When I am stressed, I am less like a prairie dog seeking comfort in community and more like a bull elephant charging into the nearest forest for a little solitude. And this is where I now find myself…alone for a few hours in the hotel lobby.
This week has brought up a lot of stuff for me, as I am very torn about the institution of marriage. But, for some reason, I have been moved to post the 5-minute speech I gave last night at the reception.  So, here it goes:

“My name is Sunnye and I am Todd’s favorite sister.  I have had the incredible opportunity to travel around Southern Africa for the first part of this year. And all along the way, I was thinking of a gift for Todd and Sonia. I decided on baskets.  There are 4 other people involved in the giving of these baskets, so when I call your name, please give the basket to them. All of these baskets represent the idea of nurturing space, resilience, and cycles.

Bram (man of honor): This is a Zulu basket form South Africa.  I hope that this basket will remind you of the tightly woven bond between you, but also of the space between. The elegance and grace of this vessel should remind you that each of you alone, but more so together, can withstand heavy loads and are designed to last if cared for properly.  Obviously the basket itself is beautiful and unique, but so is the space inside of it and in between the fibers that allows it to be what it is. So should you be with each other—allow space for each other…to vent or to be silent…to be sane or crazy…to celebrate or grieve…to just be…so that ultimately that space will strengthen your tie to one another.
 Marco & Emily (Friends): The Himba basket is a symbol of resilience.  And resilience is defined as the ability to come back to your original form—to recover. The Himba people are an ethnic group in Namibia made up of roughly 40,000 people. They have endured guerrilla warfare, attempted genocide and in the 1980’s it was thought that the Himba would be wiped out all together after a massive drought killed 90% of their cattle.  But they recovered, continuing their traditional lifestyle and even becoming activists to protect their ancestral lands from environmental threat. So, I hope that you put your car keys in this basket so that every day you have a subliminal reminder to be resilient, when you walk out the door into the world and when you come back home—to help each other come back to your original form and recover from whatever you face in this lifetime.
Sonia’s Dad: This last basket is my favorite and it is a symbol of cycles.  I am of the mindset that relationships are cyclical and not linear.  If we see them as linear—with a beginning and an end, then we are subject to slow and gradual decline in energy with everyone we know and love.  Taking the attitude that things just eventually fall apart. But if we view each relationship as a series of cycles, we can be renewed like a backyard garden in Montreal. So, when you grow weary of yourself or of each other (because it will happen), re-purpose or compost your relationship into something new and nourishing. The women’s co-op in Namibia that created this basket literally took control of the pollution and garbage around them by wrapping colorful plastic bags around their more traditional reeds that they use for basket making. So just as these women used their creativity, resourcefulness and hope to create wealth in their lives, do they same with each other. My new proverb for you is, “when life gives you garbage, make baskets.” Take control of what troubles you and make it work to your benefit.

In closing…Todd. Sonia. You both inspire me and I am proud to have both of you as my family.  And although it is said that you are a product of your environment I think that more so (and as you can see around you), your environment is a product of you. You both have such incredible power to positively effect and inspire those around you and I think I can speak for everyone by saying that we are thankful to be a part of that environment.”

I am not quite sure where this came from--apparently some very deep part of my heart & soul where I store wisdom and advice that even I can't access until the moment calls for it. Guarded by both my angels and demons, this inner space is complex system that (from what I can gather) funnels data from all experiences in my life in order to create wisdom.  I have not really been able to wrap my head around how someone like me could ever give relationship advice, but I did. And I gave it in my own words.  And what I said wasn't a blubbering disaster.  And because of this, I have hope.  Hope for any of us who feel a bit beyond repair, lonely, despondent, listless...whatever it may be; we can embrace this, learn from all of it and make it work to enrich us (and dare I say) others around us. Cheers.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Namibia: Diamonds on the soles of my shoes, Part II

“In the wildest parts of one of the most desolate and useless tracts of land which earth can show, bare surfaces of rock thickly studded with lustrous gems as the showcases of a jeweler’s window, surely put to shame even the celebrated legends of Sinbad the Sailor. It is almost as if Nature, conscious of her injustice to this portion of the African continent had added the diamonds as an afterthought by way of making amends.”
 P.A. Wagner, geologist

I sit silently and alone in the historical Felsenkirche, Church of the Rock and wonder about all the souls that have entered this building over the last 100 years. What troubles and insecurities weighed on them?  When diamonds revealed themselves beneath the desolate dunes, did the people of Luderitz feel remembered and blessed by God? Or with the greed and tragedy that shadows diamonds, did they feel even more forsaken? 

One of the many signs stating the obvious

I have been in Luderitz for 10 days. This is about 9.5 days longer than most visitors stay. I have had 9 cappuccinos and 75 oysters—one of the few fresh, local foods in Luderitz.  A wise woman just wrote to me and said: “When I am reborn I will be a grain of sand, which blows all over the world...”.  I loved the idea of this, and apparently there are bazillions of sand grains, which are quite content right here on the coast.  When these little grains aren’t forming the landscape and hiding diamonds, they will take the paint off your car in a strong wind. It is because of these winds that Luderitz and Walvis Bay have become meccas for champion kite surfers and speed sailors.

 Because this desert landscape is littered with diamonds, the little town of Luderitz is brimming with history*—much of it tragic.  Before it became a German colony in 1884, Namibia belonged to an array of native Africans: The Bushmen (San), Ovambo, Nama (Hottentots), Herero, and others.  Many ships have come and gone from Luderitz Bay over the centuries. Oddly enough, even the CSS Alabama used neighboring Shark Island as a base during the US Civil War. It pirated a ship, Seabride and just as Captain Griffith decided to take the booty and head to Madagascar, the Vanderbilt from the Northern States caught up with him, seized the ship and executed him as a traitor.

When diamonds were discovered in the late 1800’s, it would not have been unusual to see lines of men inching across the sand on their stomachs in search of these tiny sparkling stones.  Some valleys, one of them known as Marchental or Fairy tail valley, yielded stones as large as 53 carats. Emil Kreplin and August Stauch were 2 of the many high rollers during the diamond boom in the early 1900’s even though Zacharias Lewala (working for Stauch) was the first to actually find a diamond.

August Stauch
Zacharias Lewala
Emil was a blacksmith and later became the mayor of Luderitz, providing horses for both racing and diamond mining.  In fact, some of the wild horses today are believed to be descendants of his original stud farm.  August was a humble railway worker just outside of Luderitz who, in 2 years time returned to Germany as a diamond millionaire in 1908.  Both of them were immensely successful, but as with anyone who dabbles in diamonds, tragedy and loss were mainstays in their lives. Mo’ diamonds, mo’ problems.  Emil, penniless, shot himself and August, although he lived until 1947, died broke. And the diamonds? Who knows where they have all ended up over the years, but if those stones could speak…oh, they stories they would tell.

Luderitz from the view of the church. Emil Kreplin's house is the baby blue one.

4 of the hundreds of African penguins as seen from the boat
About 200 years ago it was discovered that islands along the Namibian coast were home to large numbers of sea birds, including the charismatic African penguin. Imagine a pile of bird doo-doo 75-feet deep blanketing each island.  Rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, bird guano was a hot commodity for the fertilizer market.  At one point, warships were sent in to maintain law & order as reports were coming in of men (6,000 of them) not only throwing penguin eggs, but also beating each other with dead penguins.  In a matter of a few years, the nutrient-rich, nest- building guano was scraped clean, like frosting off a cupcake.  Today, in addition to the dilapidated houses, the Ministry of Fisheries has implemented half-buried garbage bins and stacked tires for the penguins to use as nesting sites on Mercury Island.  New England Aquarium Education folks: work that story into your next penguin talk! 

 Despite the gale force winds, lack of rain (about 1” annually) and the moonscape that surrounds Luderitz, it is blessed with amazing, yet fragile biodiversity.  Halifax, Ichaboe, Possessions and Mercury Island host most of the Namibian population of African Penguins, Cape Gannets, and almost 80% of the global population of Bank Cormorants.  The nimble and endemic Haviside dolphins as well as bottlenose dolphins, swift terns, Cape fur seals, humpbacks and Southern right whales navigate these chilly nutrient-rich waters. Often there are giant smacks of jellyfish, which in turn attracts leatherback turtles to gorge on the gelatinous buffet.
Diorama of Luderitz Bay at the one room museum

The sun breathes light into portraits all around me.  One of them depicts Peter grasping the gown of Jesus. He is sinking in the Sea of Galilee while Jesus defies gravity on the surface. Another illuminates the story of Jesus with the woman at the well—the theme of water resonates. It makes me think of everyone who has tried to make it here in this isolated and unforgiving habitat…the bitterly cold bay that still keeps most people away, but gives life to everything beneath and the fresh water that at one point was more expensive than beer and champagne during the diamond boom.  As I make my way down the hill, everything seems to sparkle. Glimmers of mica in granite and on the ground bedazzle my slow walk back to the hotel.  The saying should go, “granite is a girl’s best friend” because diamonds always seem to stab you in the back in the end.  With that, I pick up a tiny chunk of granite, slip it into my pocket and suddenly, I’m not so lonely anymore.

*Most of the history from this entry originated from the fantastic book by Olga Levinson called Diamonds in the Desert: The story of August Stauch and his times.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Namibia: Diamonds on the soles of my shoes, Part I

Dead Vlei

Have you ever thought about landscapes reflecting your personality? I wonder if that’s why we are each attracted to certain kinds of surroundings. Crossing the Orange River into Namibia was like accessing a chunk of my soul that I never knew existed. This country is not what I expected...sort of like my life.  It's vast and complicated, solitary yet symbiotic, constantly changing but at times stagnant and aimless. Just when you think you are familiar, something completely different comes along, like a river after miles of boulder fields, or dusty gravel plains after a frigid rock pool. We are so similar to landscapes—all of us.What is yours?
Quiver tree
I am here. I am in this place—known by some as “the smile on the face of Africa”. And I find this humorous because I did nothing but frown as a child. I think, subconsciously, my parents had no choice but to name me Sunnye. You can’t frown forever with a name like mine. 

I have been in my "soul country" for 2 weeks and I am going to write about this in 2 entries. Part II will be centered on the small diamond-mining town of Luderitz, so stay tuned. 

Namibia is a pinch larger than Texas and hosts a whopping 2 million residents. This is mind blowing for me since my home “village” of Houston alone pulses with the same number of people. New York City has just over 8 million.  And you immediately feel this dearth of humanness as you drive through the south since most of the population lives in the north where there is more rainfall. It is understandable why we only saw a car every 2-3 hours.

Went for a refreshing swim in the Fish River
For better or worse, Namibia was put on the map of many American minds when “Brangelina” decided to have one of their 95 babies in Walvis Bay/Swakopmund area—basically the central west coast. However, Namibia has been the darling of the geologic paparazzi for eons.  If the break-up of Gondwanaland was a rock concert, Namibia was in the mosh pit. As a geeky rock and mineral collector, I look at every landscape here and wonder what the story is.  There’s folding, subduction, mud cracking, tilting, dune and mountain building, rivers, boulder piles, canyons, weathering, endless gravel plains and badlands. The list goes on…for millions of years.  Every time I look out the car window, the land is reading a different chapter of the story of this land.  My most frequent comment when looking out the window is: “Huh, wonder what happened there.”

The border: we arrived at the border at 11:30 pm—a posh little outpost in the middle of nowhere with AC courtesy of the World Cup in 2010.  The Namibian woman who stamped my passport would have fit right in at City Hall in Boston.  Give me your passport—I’m not here to chat—it’s 11:30—GFY…in the nicest possible way.  At the Amanzi Trails River Camp, a spotted owl and a wide-eyed border collie with a mutilated soccer ball greeted us.  The next morning, I awoke to the Orange River gently flowing and dividing South Africa and Namibia. I noticed instantly that my skin was beginning to mimic the environment. I saw tiny gullies and canyons forming on the backs of my hands and a mud-cracked sheen over my arms and legs as the opportunistic atmosphere sucked water from every possible source, including my body.

Aus: This is a tiny little sparkle on the map that is known for its horses. And although these horses are considered wild, I never would have known this after my encounter with them just off the highway. In my defense, I was reading about the horses when I saw them and I did not learn (until after the fact) that approaching them is discouraged. Oops.

The total population of wild horses ranges from 90-200, depending on the season. I have never had a moment in the wild when I said, “I want to see (enter wildlife’s name)” and then they magically appear. But there they were—about 8-10 of them grazing 50 yards from the fence (which isn’t a true fence because it does eventually peter out).
Wild Namib Horses in Aus

I crossed the road, approached slowly and quietly as they were all keenly alert to my presence. Once I reached the fence, stood still and cocked my head to the left and said hello…the first one started coming. And then…the rest slowly followed behind. They seemed fairly confident and it made me back up a bit. Horse bites don’t feel good—this I know.  But I came back and we danced back and forth a bit on that fragile line of trust.

I cannot tell you why, but I started humming and then singing…a medley from The Sound of Music. Yeah. The WHOA (Wild Horses of Aus) seemed aware of my singing—all ears perked like stumpy antennae.  And then the bold one put her head over the fence. I held my hand open just below her giant contracting nostrils.  And we did this for a while. I talked she listened. She talked I listened. Another approached, but she just couldn’t bring herself to the fence—too risky.

And then, I held up my open hand…just inches away from her forehead. And she slowly, gently pressed her forehead into the palm of my hand.  I scratched a little, she pressed in a little. And after 30 minutes, I peeled my heart off the hot Namibian highway and drove on.  Wild dolphins AND horses…all in a period of 4 months?

That night I slept under a giant weaver nest and a cool, crisp quilt of stars. I remember these stars from my childhood in Wimberley, Texas. I remember night skies being so much darker as a child. And it made me realize that artificial light has slowly crept into my life.  I wonder if with each new generation, we are slowly losing the instinct to look up at night simply because there is less to see.  But I digress.

Weaver nest above with a downed chunk on the left
I woke up to a cackle of squeaky toys the next morning. Sociable weavers, along with other species of weavers in Namibia have painstakingly build nests large enough to host 30-100 breeding pairs.  These winged zealots often build to the point of collapse as I saw downed clumps of nest near the tree on several occasions.  In the nest above my campsite, I counted at least 32 “doors” in which these tiny blue-beaked creatures would pop in and out to fetch more material for the nest. Their work ethic was inspiring, but like us, they also do not seem to know when to stop and just be happy with the size of their nest.

Naukluft Mountains: I had the opportunity to visit Neuras Winery, the driest vineyard in the world. They make only 3,500 bottles a year of syrah and a red blend.  The zoologist who is surveying the surrounding land warned me before I went on a self- guided tour to avoid going into the reeds surrounding the vineyard as they were teeming with black mambas, Cape cobras, and spitting cobras. No big deal.

Solitaire: This, as the name implies, was a raging metropolis consisting of a gas station, café, convenient store, and German bakery all owned and operated by a bearded white Zambian named “Moose.” The best apple strudel and open air showers that Namibia has to offer are in Solitaire.
Sunset in Solitaire

Swakopmund: Driving through badlands, Kuiseb River valley and unnervingly barren gravel plains, we arrived in Swakopmund. After sleeping under the stars in the desert for a week, Swakop invites you to switch gears and eat all the soft pretzel and spaeztle you can before hitting the road again. You feel the German influence in Swakop. Everything is quaint, clean and organized.  They have a small theater and my friend and I were the only people in the theater to see The Lorax and I am not sure if it is because we were in the middle of nowhere or because the movie was horrible.  Either way, I enjoyed my popcorn.

Sandwich Harbor, Walvis Bay

Walvis Bay: Just 20 miles south of Swakop lies “Whale Bay”. And because the two towns lie so close together on the map, it seems only human that a bit of a rivalry simmers between them.  From my humble perspective, I think they both have something great to offer any visitor.  Swakop has great people, pretzels, handmade rugs & kudu leather boots, architecture, and oysters. Walvis has great family feel, waterfront area, and calamari. I loved them both!  Staying with an actual family in Walvis certainly accounted for more of a family feel to my experience. They were the warmest and most generous people I have met in Namibia.  We explored the dunes peppered with pelicans, jackals, seal skeletons and jellyfish in Sandwich Harbor and I had what I would consider the best calamari in the world.  They were the size of onion rings and an “OMG” buttery texture that you could easily cut with a fork.
Sandwich Harbor, Walvis Bay

Mud cracks at Sossusvlei
Sossusvlei: The red dunes are probably one of the most popular attractions in Namibia. Tour buses full of cameras attached to people from all over the world come to see this landscape particularly at sunrise and sunset. Dead Vlei is a valley of dead trees nestled in symmetrically cracked clay. It is surrounded by red dunes and is a photo lover’s dream. Surprisingly, we were the only ones there for a couple of hours, which made the feeling of being on another planet even more intense.  I walked barefoot through this bygone arbor and the cool clay under my feet combined with the relentless sun on my head kept me at the perfect temperature.  An oryx, just a black spec against red backdrop fed in the distance and reminded to put my camera away and just be there.
And then came Luderitz, but more on that in the next entry.