Slouching Towards Johannesburg

Disclaimer: no photos in this post, since we haven’t yet been much of anyplace other then the inside of an airplane or the interior of an airport hotel in Johannesburg. I’ll resume my usual photo essay style once I, well, have some photos.

I have discovered that a 15 hour plane ride (New York to Jo’burg) makes me feel like a superhero, though not in any useful way. In particular:

(1) The constant vibration and low level noise feels over the great length of the flight as though it ought to be resonating my connective tissue and most of cell walls into a protoplasmic stew. Somehow this does not happen, which makes me think that I am secretly related to Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, the Scarlet Speedster himself, who can among other useful skills vibrate himself through solid objects.  I believe I felt myself actually merging with my seat cushion.  (As an aside, props to South African Airways for providing about 2″ more legroom than most American carriers in economy class. The Flash never worries about legroom because he can run fast enough to transport himself into parallel universes. I’m sure that at least one of those universes has airlines that only offer lots of legroom.)

(2) I develop Super Hearing, although it only works for slightly annoying sounds. It struck me that that the masking effect of the whooshing ventilation system combined with the engine rumble (see Vibrational Superpower above) makes everything sound a little muffled. Everything, that is, except for a ubiquitous crackling sound that, on reflection, turned out to be many of the 300 passengers randomly opening cellophane packages of whatever. Somehow every crinkle and crackle penetrates the vaguely subterranean roar that otherwise permeates the cabin. It actually sounds a bit like the popcorn-like snickity-snick sound that pervades tropical reefs when you go snorkeling: that is caused by parrotfish nibbling on coral. (At this point, if this were some kind of self-help book, I would helpfully observe that the similarity makes me feel like I am diving in a tropical lagoon even while crammed into an airline economy seat. News flash: it doesn’t.)

Even so, it could have been worse. Our 15 hour flight from New York was originally scheduled as a 16 hour flight from Atlanta. Since we were to fly out of Baltimore to Atlanta, and Hurricane Irma seemed to have that part of the country in her sights, we were understandably nervous about actually making our connection. My BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie assured me that I had nothing to worry, that she would on my behalf invoke pagan magical powers to ensure that Irma would not torpedo our itinerary. By way of proof she reminded me that it was due to her ministrations that our annual company summer picnic has enjoyed good weather every single year since she joined the firm.

All Angie required were some crow feathers and some other magical ingredients, unknown to me, but which I assume one does not normally obtain at an office supply store. So I gave her the go-ahead, thanked her in advance for her efforts… and with just a twinge of guilt changed our itinerary to connect through New York instead of Atlanta. And then —

If you’ve been following the Irma drama, you know that the storm weakened significantly and veered west. We would in fact have made our original connection. (Angie has forgiven me for my lack of faith, but I am going to have to bring back something nice from Namibia if I am to avoid a punishing round of I-told-you-sos.

The upshot is that we arrived in Johannesburg this morning at about 7:45 AM local time, slightly ahead of schedule, and after enduring a very long line at passport control were picked up and driven the short distance to our airport hotel. We are here for only tonight before flying to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, tomorrow.

Johannesburg — universally dubbed Jo’burg in conversation — is a large, dusty, hollow city of 4.4 million, plus another 2 million in the suburbs. By “hollow” I mean that the city center is built up but largely unoccupied, a grid of tall office buildings that give the city a Potemkin skyline because such a large fraction of them are empty. Business fled as one of the major revenue streams — gold mining — dried up, and as a result the downtown is now a crime-ridden warren of abandoned buildings. Downtown is ringed by residential areas as well as enormous sprawling shantytowns, largely devoid of electricity or plumbing and dotted by Port-a-Potties supplied by the local government councils. In short, Jo’burg is a decidedly unsafe metropolis where barbed wire and steel shutters are the ubiquitous decor, even on residences. We were told not to go anywhere on our own.

The one thing that we did do — and pretty much the only thing we had time for before dropping from exhaustion — was  visit the Apartheid Museum, which is an extremely worthwhile place to spend 2-3 hours. It is a modern building, marked by steel beams and rock walls on the outside as a reminder of the harsh conditions in the mines that so many black laborers endured. The inside is a maze-like self-guided tour through the entire history of apartheid from the 1940’s through its dissolution in the 1990’s, replete with oral histories, newsreel clips, photo displays, and documentary footage from the heartrending Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, in which government-sponsored torturers and willfully blind bureaucrats sought amnesty for their immoral activities under apartheid, in part by confessing their crimes to their victims.  The entire museum was informative and powerful, reminding me in some ways of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

We returned to our hotel, the O.R. Tambo Protea, to start meeting up with the rest of our group, starting with two of our previous traveling companions Steve and Thumper (who flew for about a billion hours to get here from San Francisco). The Protea is comfortable, with an excellent restaurant, the odd note being its neo-Mad Max architectural style, in which every surface is either an I-beam or corrugated aluminum, and where the lobby and bar are gaily decorated in machine tools, stacks of tires, and engine blocks. They really need to introduce a dress code requiring spiked leather collars at a minimum.

Tomorrow: Windhoek.

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Namibia on the Horizon

We leave for Namibia in a week, an exotic destination whose name commonly elicits this reaction from a large fraction of Americans: “Where? Is that a country?”

Yes, it’s a country, located in the southwest corner of Africa, west of Botswana and north of South Africa. I’ll make this easy:

2017-09-03 17_10_07-Namibia - Google Maps

In fact, it used to be called South West Africa, annexed by Germany as a colony in about 1890. We all know how well European colonization of Africa has worked out, and this was no exception: The Germans spent about a dozen years suppressing uprisings by the indigenous Herero and Namas tribes, wiping out about 80% of the former before throwing in the towel and ceding the territory to South Africa in 1915. The League of Nations made it official in 1920, but the UN changed direction and tried to pull it under a UN trusteeship in 1946. South Africa was not happy and refused to let go, leading to the usual 20-year long series of strongly-worded letters and, in 1966, an armed liberation movement.

The South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) eventually prevailed, and Namibia became independent in 1990. Today it has a parliamentary government with three branches and a bicameral legislature, like the US. Dissent is tolerated and there are multiple political parties, but it is also true that SWAPO has won every national-level election since independence. The country has a reputation for being media- and ecotourism-friendly.

For purposes of our trip, there are three regions of touristic interest: the Namib Desert (in case you were wondering where the country’s name came from); the Skeleton Coast, and Damaraland, the savannah.

  • The Namib is known for its extensive dune fields, home to a species of oryx that lives among them.
  • The Skeleton Coast is so named because of the whale and seal bones that littered the shore during whaling days, as well as for the many shipwrecks from the same era.
  • Damaraland is considered one of Africa’s last true wildernesses and is known for its large population of elephants. We’ll be doing our game-viewing there.

I mention all this now, a week in advance, because with a population of only 2.5 million and most of the attendant problems of a developing nation, Namibia is probably not going to offer much in the way of communications infrastructure. So although I will keep a journal I suspect that I will not be posting a lot of day-to-day blog updates; I will post them as Internet connectivity allows.

So I will leave you now with this image of Namibia’s coat of arms, that only one that I know of that has an oryx on it.

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I was also going to close with some clever remark translated into Ovambo, the most widely-spoken Namibian tribal dialect, but, well, even Google Translate doesn’t know it.

 

 

 

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Nerdstock: Eclipse-o-Mania

Well, the eclipse has most spectacularly come and gone, and as you can see we were dressed for success: 2017-08-21 08.49.13

 

Anyone who sees this picture — notice the NASA logo on my left arm — immediately recognizes that we are serious people who are not to be trifled with. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Having made the wise decision to push on to our B&B in Bend on Saturday night, we could take a relaxed approach to our preparations on Sunday morning while keeping an eye on traffic via Google Maps. The normal drive time from Bend to Madras is about 50 minutes, and we figured we’d hit the road once we saw that number starting to creep up.

Our warm and wonderful B&B hosts, Deb and Kevin — seriously, look for Duck Hollow if you ever overnight in Bend, Oregon — equipped us with pillows, blankets, sleeping bags and a backpack filled with utensils, paper plates, etc., to help us weather the ardors of sleeping in our Macho Mobile out in the desert with a gazillion other people. They bid us a cheery “Namaste” (they’re like that, and this is Oregon) and off we went at 10:15 AM.

And a good thing too, because our traffic planning turned out to be just right, and had we left even an hour or two later we would have gotten badly bogged down in Traffic Hell. Alas, our exotic travel buddies Steve and Thumper (the “exotic” applies to both “travel” and “buddies”) were an hour or two behind us and ended up bailing out before ever reaching the parking area in Madras, opting instead to find an “unofficial” field or parking lot a bit further south in which to overnight. But we did successfully connect with my old astronomer friend/colleague/grad school flatmate John, who drove up from San Francisco with his partner Marianne and his telescope. Here’s the man, the setup, and the setting, about an hour before the eclipse started:

Solar Eclipse 2017-015 You will immediately note three things: (1) John looks like Santa Claus; (2) there are a lot of cars; and (3) there are clouds in the sky. The latter mostly disappeared in the nick of time, fortunately. As for the cars, yes, there were a whole lot of them, and quite the panoply of people as well, e.g.,

Solar Eclipse 2017-020

Solar Eclipse 2017-019

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That’s Mt Jefferson (10,495′ / 3200 m) in the background in the middle photo. The bottom photo (taken by Marianne) speaks for itself. I’m not sure what it’s saying, or who those people are, but it definitely speaks for itself. Note that in addition to the metal hats and ray guns, the three men are all wearing metallic, um, crotch protectors. They explained the choice thusly: “It’s to protect future generations.” All righty, then.

You can tell from the photos that the terrain was basically a fallow field. Well, not basically: it was a fallow farm field, three of them in fact, all baked to dust in the high desert sun, with endless row of shallow farrows stretching to infinity. They covered about 100 acres (40 hectares) in total and held row after row of cars, the occasional food stand, and the definitely-too-occasional portable toilet. By the time we arrived, the first two fields were full and we were one of the first arrivals in the third.

The temperature was broiling in the midday sun, the air filled with lightly blowing fine dust that got into absolutely everything… and the sky was cloudy and smoky. Oregon has been plagued by serious wildfires whose smoke has blanketed parts of the state, and there was a real worry that our view of the sun would be impeded by it. Happily, it blew away overnight with a change in the wind. But smoke or no smoke, the atmosphere was nerdily festive to the point of surrealism (see “protect future generations” photo above). There was a nearby small airport housing a skydiving school and a collection of World War II warplanes, and we were treated to both: large teams of skydivers (nearly 20 at one point) periodically dropped from the sky to land in a field diagonally across the street from us, and we were occasionally overflown by squadrons of WW II warbirds, half a dozen 1940’s fighters and bombers circling the sky above us.

I found the WW II planes kind of reassuring, Nazis being a thing again these days, apparently. You can’t be too sure.

We were comfortably ensconced in the Macho Mobile with our blankets, sleeping bags, and a few kilos of windblown dust, but it was not a comfortable night. A goodly fraction of those thousands of cars were rentals (including ours), operated by people who were not yet accustomed to all the little buttons on their car key fobs. And thus the desert night was punctuated by one or another car alarm going off about every five minutes, as some hapless driver attempted to exit his or her vehicle in search of a Port-a-Potty, pressing the panic button instead of the unlock button. (Full disclosure: I was one of these.)

But we survived the night, and the day dawned clear. We joined up with John and Marianne (and several members of her family) and set up our equipment together. My camera having a big snazzy looking lens, and John’s telescope being snazzy in all respects, we attracted the occasional onlooker, most gratifyingly a gaggle of three seriously cute twenty-something girls who were dazzled enough by our gear, astronomy pedigrees, and our advanced conversational skills to hang around with us for the duration of the event.  (It has been decades since cute twenty-something girls thought I was cool. In fact, it may never have happened before. I can recommend it highly.)

The onset of eclipse arrived quite exactly on schedule at 9:06 AM. (Eclipses are notoriously punctual.) The moment when the moon’s shadow first impinges on the solar disk is called First Contact (no, not the Carl Sagan sci-fi novel or subsequent Jodie Foster movie). And here it is, taking a little nibble out of the upper right part of the sun:

Solar Eclipse 2017-062

Yes, those are clusters of sunspots, four near the middle of the disk, and two more at lower left, near “7:00”.

Thirty-five minutes later, the Dragon God had consumed those central sunspots and advanced significantly further:

Solar Eclipse 2017-065

Thirty-five minutes after that. things started to get really interesting. The sky darkened and Venus and the bright star Regulus (in the constellation of Leo) appeared. The lighting was like a deep twilight, and the air temperature, which had been dropping slowly, nosedived another 10 F (~5 C). An orange sunset glow began to envelop the entire horizon — a 360° sunset! — and the sun looked like this:

Solar Eclipse 2017-081

That reddish glow around the slim crescent of the sun is not a camera artifact: it is real, a part of the sun’s atmosphere, normally invisible to the eye, called the chromosphere. A few moments later it was more pronounced:

Solar Eclipse 2017-082

Notice also how the crescent is petering out into a sort of dotted line at the edges. That’s real too: you are peeking in between the mountains on the horizon of the moon!

And then: the moment of totality! Here is my awesome photo of it.

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Gentle readers, I blew it. Because if there is one thing that anyone photographing a total eclipse must remember, it is to remove the solar filter from the camera lens during totality. Even in the late partial phase, the sun is very, very bright, and you continue to use a filter — like those goofy solar sunglasses for your eyes — until the last minute. Only during totality is the scene dim enough to safely behold with the naked eye — or camera lens.

And I forgot. I was so excited by the reality of the thing itself — the corona, the red splash of color in the chromosphere, the sharpness of the shadow disk — that I just plain forgot to remove the filter. I clicked the shutter a few times then looked down at my review screen to see the picture, and was instantly discombobulated to see that it was black. I spent about 30 seconds fiddling around with various settings in a desperate attempt to figure out what was wrong, never even noticing the obvious. So I gave it up.

And you know what? I’m disappointed but not crushed. The actual fact of the matter is that with rare exceptions everyone’s totality images, taken with decent equipment and preparation, look pretty much alike. And so mine would too. The important thing was seeing it, experiencing the chill and the sheer other-worldliness of it all. I am more distressed about having wasted a solid 30 seconds or more of a two-minute event than I am of having blown the shot. Those were precious seconds, but I’m happy with what I got.

Once totality passed — 2 minutes and 3 seconds at our location — it was though it had never happened. The sky brightened immediately, the desert temperatures returned with their dusty teeth, the horizon glow vanished… and a whole lot of cars sprinted for the exits.

We knew in advance that that would be a pointless endeavor, so we hunkered down in the car — sweating and roasting in the sun — until the traffic thinned a bit. Even so, it took us over three hours to get back to the B&B, where Deb and Kevin namaste’d us home, listened to our stories — they had watched it from a kayak in the middle of a lake, and more power to them — and encouraged us into the hot tub. Which, after visiting one of Bend’s countless legal marijuana dispensaries, we did.

(Weed dispensaries are as ubiquitous as Starbucks here, with cutesy names like Doctor Jolly’s, Oregrown, Cannacopia, etc. They sell the traditional dried plant, oils, and assorted edible forms such as mints and chocolate bars. And they are staffed by cheerful — really cheerful — twentysomethings who happily explain that this type makes you mellow, and this type makes you energetic, and this type does something else, and on and on. It’s a total hoot.)

And so our day, and principal motivation of this sojourn, ended. The next total solar eclipse visible in the continental US is nearly seven years from now, on April 8, 2024. Like this one, its swath will include a significant fraction of the populated area of the country, though on a path running northeast from Texas to Maine. And, health and circumstances even remotely allowing, you had better believe that we are going to be somewhere along that path.

 

 

 

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Eclipse-ward, Ho!

By now, unless you have been living in an undersea lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, you are aware that there will be a total solar eclipse tomorrow, August 21st. We have planned our eclipse expedition for about a year and a half and have made our way to central Oregon, since the state is more or less bisected by the totality path.  We flew into Portland last night and made the three hour drive to our unexpectedly lovely AirBnB in Bend, which is about 40 miles south of the center of the totality path. Later today we will make our way to the normally sleepy hamlet of Madras, which happens to be almost dead center on the totality path and is expecting its normal population of 6500 to swell to slightly under 11 billion. See the map!

Totality Map

Oregon and neighboring Washington (part of our flight route) are home to a number of famous peaks, starting with the iconic Mt Ranier, which practically waved to us as we flew over it yesterday. Here’s Alice’s photo of it, taken with her cell phone:

Oregon Mts-1

More notoriously, Washington hosts Mt Saint Helens, which famously blew its top in 1980, killing 57 people and destroying hundreds of homes.  Here was our view of the guilty — and clearly headless — volcano.

Oregon Mts-2

Prior to our departure from Victoria, the local TV newspeople insisted on regaling us with horror stories about the crowds descending upon Oregon to view the eclipse. Thirty mile traffic backups! Cannibalism in the airport! We witnessed none of this. The airport was certainly busy, but not pathologically so, and the good folks at Enterprise Rentals had laid in a large supply of extra cars so that we were even able to upgrade our vehicle.

That last was not a trivial consideration. Traffic between Bend and Madras tonight and tomorrow is pretty certain to fulfill all the dire warnings, so we have elected to get there a day early and sleep in our car tonight. This put a premium on obtaining a comfortable vehicle, and the Enterprise folks delivered in spades. We are now the proud renters of a jet black Dodge Durango, a hulking 23 mile-per-gallon behemoth that has its own telephone area code and is fueled by testosterone instead of gasoline.

With reluctance we will shortly depart our comfy B&B in Bend, called Duck Hollow, operated by the delightfully New Age-y Debbie and Kevin. We have our own good-sized paneled cabin with a full kitchen and sitting room, and a hot tub. Not so easy to trade for the back seat of the ManlyMobile, but we’ll be back tomorrow night. (Debbie and Kevin have kindly supplied us with sleeping bags for our night in the car.)

That’s about it for now, since I doubt I will be able to post from Madras, whose communications infrastructure is likely to be strained to the breaking point. But before I go, please bear in mind these Important Eclipse Safety Tips:

  • Smear SPF 50 sunscreen on your eyeballs so that you can look safely at the sun. (Ignore the stinging, burning sensation: that just means its working.)
  • Remember that water magnifies sunlight, so do not drink any liquids during the eclipse. Also, if you have goldfish, wrap the bowl in tinfoil.
  • Remember that the demon god Zuul demands blood sacrifice in order not to permanently consume the Sun. Sharpen a big knife, find a slow neighbor, and get busy.

Hey, stop looking at me like that. These aren’t any dumber than a lot of stuff that’s circulating on the web.

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Victoria, Victoria

The waterfront city of Victoria (population 86,000 in the city proper) is the capital of British Columbia and sits on Vancouver Island, about 30 miles south of Vancouver city across the Strait of Georgia.  I mention the distinction since most Americans can barely find Canada on a map, and a large majority in a recent survey identified Argentina as “a kind of dessert.”

It’s a gorgeous 1 1/2 hour ferry ride across the strait, threading among dozens of verdant islands, each a few miles across, most nearly uninhabited. The terminus is Swartz Bay near the resort town of Sidney, where our old friends Larry and Jean met us.

Victoria is a cheerful seaside town whose ambiance is a genial hybrid of British government colony and American seaside resort, the former generally classing up the latter. The waterfront area is overlooked by assorted government buildings sporting ornate Victorian architecture, but the piers themselves are dotted by both fishing and pleasure boats of various sizes — including lots of open-air whale watching boats — as well as street artists and restaurants. Seaplanes buzz surrealistically back and forth overhead and land and takeoff theatrically in the middle of all the port activity. (We watched one seaplane have to taxi out of the way of the departing Seattle ferry.)

A mile or so further up the coast is Fisherman’s Wharf, which is a whole lot smaller but rather more charming than the identically named tourist trap mecca in San Francisco. It sports a number of floating restaurants, including the heavenly-anointed Barb’s Fish and Chips, which serves that and little else, and rightly so.

Fisherman’s Wharf’s most unusual feature is its houseboats, which are not what you think of when you see the word. I think of a houseboat as a boat that has been retrofitted into house-like living quarters; these, however, look more like houses that have been retrofitted to float, e.g.:

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“Honey, the roof and the floor are both leaking again.”

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Most are two stories tall as you can see, and they vary somewhat in floor area but ~900 square feet (~ 81 sq m) is pretty typical. You can pick one up for roughly US$350,000. The property taxes are very low, there not being any actual land underneath them, but be prepared to shell out six or seven thousand dollars a year in moorage fees (yes, really), plus an unknown amount for seasickness tablets. And for God’s sake don’t try and install a man cave in the basement.

Another lively Victoria neighborhood is (inevitably) Chinatown, the oldest one in Canada. Like every other Chinatown in western North America, it dates from the mid-19th century Gold Rush.

Victoria BC 2017-014 Victoria BC 2017-015

In addition to the expected panoply of Chinese restaurants, temples, produce stores, and souvenir shops, Victoria’s Chinatown boasts a number New Age-y innovative art galleries and non-Chinese restaurants in a maze of hip-looking side streets like this one.

Victoria BC 2017-027-Edit

Larry and I got very excited when one of these — a chocolate and sweets store — trumpeted “Creamsicles” on the advertising blackboard in front of the store. This was very exciting because Creamsicles were treasured icons of our childhood: a Popsicle-like ice cream bar consisting of highly artificial and suspect vanilla ice cream coated in a shell of some kind of petrochemical-based orange sherbet. They were wonderful (and may even still exist), so we skipped happily through the door.

But alas. This sweets shop was far too progressive for our childhood tastes. The beloved additive-laced artificial-everything treat from our boyhood had in this particular establishment been replaced by a politically-correct adjective-laden impostor: vegan, fair trade, non-GMO, artisanal. We didn’t have time to take the sensitivity and diversity training courses that were required to actually eat the things — plus they were made sacrilegiously with coconut instead of vanilla ice cream — so we went Full Curmudgeon and left. (Now get those damn kids of my lawn!)

This being an island, another important feature of Victoria is of course the beach. Views from the coast are all striking: deep blue water, crystalline sky, and — on the eastern-facing coast — the Olympic  Mountains lining the horizon, some 40 miles away.

Victoria BC 2017-003-Edit

(This photo was taken yesterday; the sky was cloudless today.) The beach itself is not the white sand strand of, say, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, being more pebbly than sandy and heavily strewn with bleached driftwood.

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Victoria BC 2017-039-Edit

The ubiquity of driftwood — and the impossibility of building sand castles — does not deter the locals (and countless vacationing mainland Canadians) from sunning themselves, jogging, and doing all the usual beach stuff. This does not include a lot of swimming, though: the water temperature is a blue-lipped 53 F (12 C).

But we were here to stroll, not swim, and it was a beautiful sunny day. So I’ll close with a shot of my own personal total solar eclipse, four days early thanks to a gentleman on the earthbound end of about four very impressive kites.

Victoria BC 2017-037

 

 

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Running for Vancouver

We were in Vancouver, British Columbia for all of half a day before continuing on to Victoria to stay with friends, but even a whirlwind 4-hour city tour is enough to whet our appetite for the place. Vancouver is ranked as the 4th most livable city in the world (“Hey! Let’s move here!”)… accompanied by the 6th most expensive real estate in the world (“Hey, Let’s each sell a kidney and move here!”). So there went that fantasy in a hurry. Still, it’s a gorgeous, diverse, and generally interesting place.

Vancouver BC 2017-003-EditI shot the cityscape above looking across Coal Harbour from Stanley Park, one of the most popular green spaces in the city. It’s named after Lord Frederick Stanley of Preston, Canada’s first Governor General and the man after whom professional hockey’s Stanley Cup is named. (His lordship would not be pleased to know that it has been 25 years since a Canadian team actually won his eponymous cup.)

Stanley Park includes an aquarium, horse-drawn carriage tours, bike paths, and similar idyllic activities, none of which we had time for on our flash tour. It also boasts a pretty cool collection of nine totem poles, carved out of red cedar by artisans of several indigenous tribes (known in Canada as the First Nations) whose territory included this area. The totem-makers’ tribes include the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Watuth, which I include because the names are cool to type and make me sound erudite. Here are a couple of examples from the park.

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In addition to Stanley Park, one of Vancouver’s other iconic locales is the Lion’s Gate Bridge, which connects the city proper to the mountainous area to the north. You can see the bridge for many vantage points around the city, but this one, near the north end of Stanley Park, gives a good sense of the stunning local geography. You can see the bridge on the right.

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As you look out over the bay, the sky is occasionally crisscrossed not only by the usual big jets, but but by small seaplanes ferrying passengers to Victoria (to the west), Seattle (to the south), and Whistler ski resort to the north.

Vancouver BC 2017-048

Vancouver is very much a city of neighborhoods, which include the original part of the city (Gastown, now a trendy, restaurant-rich area) and an extensive Chinatown, second only in size to San Francisco’s in the Western Hemisphere.  One could actually make a case that the entire city is Chinatown: due in part to a large influx of Chinese after the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997, nearly 30% of the 2.3 million population of greater Vancouver is ethnic Chinese. (If you include South Asian as well, e.g., Indian and Pakistani, the fraction goes up to 40%.) The suburb of Richmond, where the airport resides, is so heavily Chinese that almost all of the business signage is in both English and Chinese; as the airport shuttle took us to our hotel, I briefly wondered if we had been diverted to Hong Kong.

Sadly, among all this demographic tumult, only about 2% of the population is First Nation. Such is the way of the world, it seems.

Another trendy neighborhood is Granville Island, a former industrial area that has been hipsterized and gentrified till it begs for mercy, much like similar harbor areas in Baltimore, Cleveland, Capetown, and I suppose lots of other places as well. It was a fishing area for the First Nations but in the early 20th century became a factory area: machine shops, corrugated tin manufacturing, and other non-Starbucks businesses. Today the only remnant of that era is an appropriately — and literally — gritty cement factory immediately adjacent to all the shops, art galleries, and so forth.

Vancouver BC 2017-050But notice those cement silos to the left of the tower. They’ve gotten into the local artistic swing of things too:

Vancouver BC 2017-052

The local cafés and shops operate literally in the shadow of the Granville Street Bridge, giving the area an unmistakable but pleasant Urban Hipster Tourists Welcome vibe.

Vancouver BC 2017-056My snark notwithstanding, it’s a fun place, with a large indoor farmer’s market whose outdoor seating area is adjacent to the False Creek canal, bustling with colorful “Aquabus” water taxis.

Our final stop was the Vancouver Lookout, a 553 ft (169 m) tower and rotating restaurant that affords a 360° view of the city with its impressive mountain vistas. (The white tent-like structure in the panorama below is the cruise ship terminal. The fan-like white pattern at lower right is the heliport.)

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So there are our four hours in Vancouver. On to Victoria!

Vancouver BC 2017-017

 

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Sons at the Beach

For about the past 30 years, my family has enjoyed a reunion week at the beach. The gathering has near-religious significance; we didn’t even miss the year my father died. It’s very gratifying to watch the family grow over the years — we’re up to four generations now — and since this year is Alice’s and my 20th wedding anniversary we splurged on a more elaborate setting, an 11-bedroom house right on the dunes at Virginia Beach. Here is our temporary Gatsby-esque mansion:

Virginia Beach 2017-031-Edit

How did this whole vacation-at-the-beach thing start, anyway? (I mean the whole cultural concept, not just my family.) Turns out it’s mostly a phenomenon of the past couple of hundred years. Although there are records of elite ancient Romans taking the waters at the coast, the historical reputation of the ocean was traditionally a little dark and intimidating: mariners lost at sea, biblical Jonah-eating whales, and so forth.  Plus, for most of recorded history, outside of Polynesia the hoi polloi were too busy starving and/or dying of the pestilence du jour to do a lot of vacation planning or practice body surfing.

But when it comes to not fearing the sea, it’s hard to beat the Dutch — they’ve basically fought it to a standstill for the last several centuries — and it was Dutch landscape artists of the early 17th century whose pastoral seaside imagery started establishing the beach as an attractive place to visit.

Things really stated rolling in 1778 when French nobleman and chemist Antoine Lavoisier discovered oxygen. Yes, really. Assorted hucksters and promoters of the day seized on the discovery: oxygen is good for you! And the sea air has more and better oxygen than whatever hovel you’re occupying at home, so come to the beach! Oddly enough, there was some truth to this, the Industrial Revolution having recently taken hold, and the air quality in cities like London ranking somewhere between “toxic” and “carbonaceous solid”.

So here we are. Virginia Beach is officially the largest city in Virginia, with a population of about a half a million, but it has grown largely by accretion, having absorbed a number smaller seaside suburbs. There is a downtown resort area with a big boardwalk, but we are a little farther down the coast in an area called Sandbridge, on the northern end of an enormous barrier island that extends southward for roughly 150 miles (250 km) down through North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  The Guinness people cite it as the longest pleasure beach on the planet.

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Barrier islands, as you probably know, are threatened by the rising oceans, “threatened” in this case being the reassuring first cousin of the more accurate “doomed”. They are designed by nature to be ephemeral: sand and silt accumulate on the inland side as the ocean washes away the shoreline, causing them to migrate inland and merge with the mainland as the tide creates replacement islands further out to sea. Beach houses are not so mobile, however, so every property owner is fighting what must ultimately be a losing battle against flooding.

A related problem, of course, are storms. Virginia Beach is extremely lucky in that regard, being generally far enough north to be mostly out of reach of the tropical-forming hurricanes, and too far south to be touched by northern storms. So it is in a meteorological “Goldilocks zone”, being jusssst in the right place to perpetually avoid being blown away. (The rising seas will still get it in the end, though.)

Our weather this week has been mostly good, if a little windy on the beach. That can be good news if you’re flying a suitably heavy kite.

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We’ve also had one or two ominous looking days, which if nothing else make for nice dramatic photos… black and white of course.

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Virginia Beach 2017-057-Edit

 

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Round and Round We Go

First off, a hearty welcome to the nearly 200 (!) of you who started following this blog in the past few days. WordPress picked up my Finger Lakes post about waterfalls in Watkins Glen, NY as one of their “Discover” favorites (see the cute little medallion at right), whereupon my email inbox immediately exploded with hundreds of views, “likes”, comments, and subscriptions from an astounding 41 countries. The power of the Web! But now I feel obliged to feed the proverbial beast with a new post.

If I had been alive in about 1890, I might have had the insight that people would pay money to get a panoramic birds-eye view of their surroundings. And so I would have built an open-frame tower with some kind of elevator-like platform. People would buy a ticket and I would hoist them up and down maybe a half dozen times. Maybe I’d called it “Rich’s Tower”.

One day, a guy named George Ferris might come along, ride up and down a few times, then come up to me and say, “You know what, Rich? You’ve got the right idea but you are a moron.” Then he’d punch me in the nose and go invent the Ferris wheel.

Natl Harbor DC Ferris Wheel-001

Well, the last four words of that tale are basically true. George Washington Ferris , Jr. (1859-1896) did in fact invent the modern version of the Ferris wheel, building a 264 ft (80.4 m) iron behemoth for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. He was motivated by wanting to “out-Eiffel” Gustave Eiffel, whose eponymous tower (which is much taller) had opened in Paris four years earlier. Ferris’s original wheel could carry over 2100 people at a time.

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So-called “pleasure wheels” had actually been around for centuries, made mostly of wood and usually quite small by modern standards. Ferris’s contribution was an all-iron design and construction — particularly the central axle — that could support much more weight and thus be made much bigger. Here’s a view of a contemporary bit of Ferris’s handiwork, the hub of the 180 ft (54 m) “Capital Wheel” just outside Washington DC. (All of the photos in this post are from that wheel, which is about a half hour drive from our home.)

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Ferris’s name is thus famous throughout the English-speaking world, entirely because of its association with his wheel. But most other countries have left him out of the nomenclatural picture: in most languages, the object is simply called the equivalent of “giant wheel”, or something similar. One of the exceptions is Spanish, in which it is a rueda de ferris. But as for most of the others, see for yourself:

  • Dutch/German:        Reuzenrad/Riesenrad
  • French:                      Grand roue
  • Italian:                       Ruota panoramica
  • Russian:                     колесо обозрения (koleso obozreniya, “overview wheel”)
  • Japanese:                   観覧車 (kanran-sha, “viewing wheel”)

…and so on. But my favorite is definitely Farsi, in which it is چرخ فلک, pronounced charkhe-falak. It means “wheel of the universe”, which I find very poetic. (Shout-out to my friend Mo K for telling me this!)

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The name notwithstanding, the world seems to be engaged in some kind of Ferris wheel arms race to see who can build the biggest one. The famous London Eye, built for the Y2K millennium celebrations in 1999, was a wonder of the world at the time, 443 ft (135 m) high, but has since been eclipsed by 476 ft (145 m)  and 525 ft (160 m) ones in China and a 541 ft (165 m) giant in Singapore. But this is America, dammit, and if we’re going to Make America Great Again we need the biggest Ferris wheel on the planet. Which is why the tallest in the world at this moment, at a stratospheric 550 ft (167.6 m), is in… Las Vegas! It is called the High Roller, which I must grudgingly admit is extremely clever. But there’s an even taller one being planned for New York City.

Of course, the world being what it is, this won’t last. As I type this, the oil-rich sheikhs in the Middle East are with characteristic understatement constructing the Dubai Eye, which will give a panoramic view of sand — lots and lots of sand — from a dizzying 690 ft (210 m) height.

Alice and I are Ferris wheel fans, though not obsessively so. We’ve been on a few famous ones, e.g., in Vienna (which has appeared in a number of movies), Santa Monica, and Capetown. As it happens we will be in London in late September and will certainly ride on the Eye. So I will close with this shot from the Capital Wheel, in which a (literally) reflective Alice surveys her domain from on high.

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Art and Watercraft

In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, anthropologist Jared Diamond makes a case that geography is destiny, i.e. that a lot of the major currents of history (such as the conquest of the Meso-americans by the Spanish) were consequences of geographical particulars. In the case of the Finger Lakes, the argument would be that geography is demographics. That is to say, the fecundity of the soil and glacier-flattened terrain makes this good dairy farming country — there are ice cream stores everywhere — which for reasons I do not pretend to understand seems to be associated with a politically conservative mindset. At the same time the bucolic setting attracts a lot of artists, who tend to be at the other end of the political spectrum. Then of course there are the wine growers — no idea where your typical vintner sits on the ideological spectrum — and the harsh winters, which attract rugged individualists, which is to say oddballs.

The upshot is that the Finger Lakes are a place where you can attend an art festival (as we did, in the town of Penn Yan on the northern end of Keuka Lake) that includes a collection of vintage trucks…

… and truck engines, here being admired by some locals who at the risk of stereotyping I somehow doubt voted for Hillary Clinton:

At the same time — and at the same arts festival — it is easy to find some local color of a more charmingly outré nature, like this retro-looking young woman:

She is no doubt on her way to visit the artists’ kiosks exhibiting carved cutting boards, sculptures crafted from farm implements, and — this seems to be a local thing — jewelry made from antique buttons.

We spent a pleasant hour or two at the festival before making our way south back to the town of Watkins Glen at the lower end of Seneca Lake. Our goal this time was not the state park with its many waterfalls, but rather the lake itself, or more accurately a boat ride on it. But here’s a relaxing view of the lake from the southern docks. You should now be hearing Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay…” in your head.

Our conveyance was the beautiful teak two-masted schooner True Love, operated by  Schooner Excursions out of Watkins Glen. At $45 for a two-hour tour (yes, yes, you can start singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song now) it was a great deal and a wonderful outing on a warm sunny day blessed with scenery like this:

One of the things that struck me during the trip is that the water seemed a lot clearer than I remembered it from when I lived here in the 1970’s. (Indeed, I made a remark in my last post about how silty it was.) Turns out that this was not my imagination: our crew members/tour guides informed us that the dreaded zebra mussels have arrived: that highly invasive, prolific, and aggressive freshwater species that has become the scourge of North American freshwater bodies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders — they feed by pumping water through their bodies and extracting microorganisms, algae, plankton, etc., along the way. As you would suppose, this causes the water to become very clear, which sounds great but which is actually terrible because said water is also now nutrient-free. As a result, Finger Lakes fish populations — notably freshwater trout — have plummeted. Remarkably, this has all happened in 25 years: the first zebra mussels were discovered here in 1992. So if you’ve ever wondered how long it takes to completely filter 3.5 trillion gallons of water (which is the actual volume of Seneca Lake), the answer is 25 years if you have enough zebra mussels.

The True Love itself (which is not the small sailboat in the above photo) has an interesting history of its own. It was built in 1922 and appeared in the 1956 movie “High Society” starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. (Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong also make appearances.) Here’s Bing Crosby serenading Grace Kelly aboard the boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ1ZLiyGrE0.  You can see the ship itself in the first few seconds.

There was not a lot of serenading going on during our outing, which is probably just as well, but it was an idyllic way to close out a long weekend.

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Gorging on Waterfalls

I mentioned yesterday that the Finger Lakes were formed during the last ice age and are thus quite young: a few tens of thousands of years. But they have company, in the form of a number of spectacular narrow gorges. The best known of these is Watkins Glen at the foot of Seneca Lake. It’s an insanely photogenic canyon, 400 ft (120 m) deep and about a mile and a half (2.5 km) long. If you walk the whole length — we did about half — you’ll go up and down something like 890 steps, and you’l see 19 waterfalls.

The geology of the gorges is interesting. They are sedimentary rock, a mix of shale, limestone, and sandstone. These differ a great deal in their hardness and thus their rates of erosion, resulting in a number of natural staircase-like rock formations.

That’s today’s geology lesson, so here are some photos from today’s hike:

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Pretty cool, huh?

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