Monday, October 19, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Final Thoughts on Nepal

A former manager of mine had been to Nepal as a Fulbright Scholar, and he maintained his enthusiasm for the country from grad school through to his recent visit for a different Farmer-to-Farmer assignment. Despite some the initial difficulties, I am happy to report I share his good opinion of Nepal. I will definitely have to come back some day to see more of the country. 

Here are some odds and ends from my visit:
- Diversity: Even when boarding the plane in Dubai, I was struck by the ethnic diversity of Nepalis, just from the sample of overseas workers headed home. In a lineup of agro-vets, individuals could have easily been mistaken for Mexican, Arab, Indian, Greek, Chinese, or Native American. The day I showed up at the office sporting my only salwar kameez (the long shirt, pants, and scarf combo I purchased in India but is also common dress in Nepal), my Winrock colleague told me he nearly mistook me for a Nepali woman. The turnabout was also true. I couldn't stop staring at the Pesticide Registrar when we met because he was a dead ringer for my Filipino uncle. We even joked about it later, as through a translator, he told me he also thought I looked like his relatives! 

- Food: No matter the ethnicity, the staple for Nepalis is dal bhat or dal bhat tarkari. The lentil soup (dal) and steamed rice (bhat) is eaten 2 or 3 times a day. The upgrade includes a vegetable or meat curry (tarkari). The dal bhat tarkari I had with agro-vets was an excellent value for about 150-200 rupees ($1.50-2.00), and that would even come with seconds or thirds if you wanted! ... and instead of bread rolls or chips and salsa, they leave a bowl of popcorn for you to snack on. The fanciest dal bhat tarkari come with multiple curries and spicy pickles in little stainless steel dishes, similar to an Indian thali. When I've been on assignments, the limitations to local cuisine can be monotonous after so many days. Not so in Nepal, where even the dal changes daily or different cooks have different takes on the same lentils or beans. I credit Indian cuisine with teaching me to enjoy vegetables, and its less spicy - though still spiced! - cousin in Nepal was no exception. The veg curries came in varieties of cabbage, carrot, pumpkin, beet, okra, cauliflower, different greens, and even the dreaded bitter melon. Sorry, Mom, I still don't like ampalaya in any form. 

- Logistics: While my Winrock colleagues stuck to US/EU business hours, the government officers in Nepal have shorter days (~ 10 am to - 4:30 pm) but work 6 days a week with only Saturday off. Nepal also has their own calendar, a lunar one in which I believe the current year is 2072? When trying to set up meetings, what really threw me for a loop were Nepali numbers. Zero still looks like an "O," but the script for their 1 and 5 look more like how we write "9" and "4," respectively. Confusing! ...and of course, Nepalis drive on the left-side of the road like the Brits.

- Himalayas: One colleague liked to say that Nepal is not rich in much but mountains. Before this Farmer-to-Farmer assignment, my main interest in coming to Nepal would have been to go trekking in the mountains. As this would take more time than I had, one alternative was to take the Himalaya mountain flight. Catering to tourists, the plane leaves early in the morning and flies for 1 hour over to the mountains. Visibility is always an issue, and even the day, I went the flight was delayed a half hour as they waited for better conditions. Each of the approximately 20 passengers has their own window seat, and the flight attendants come down the aisle to point out Everest and the other tallest mountains in the world. It was something to see, especially since I had no other alternative and none of my commercial flights would have passed by them. However, the price tag is pretty steep at $200/seat and probably would have been better justified if I was a good photographer or had a better camera. We did each get to step inside the cockpit in midflight to see the Himalayas from the pilots' view - something I definitely thought, especially in a post-9/11 world, would never be possible!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Kathmandu and Pokhara (Nepal)

Tacking on a few days for some sightseeing at the end of my assignment, I visited the Boudhanath temple complex in the Kathmandu valley. A UNESCO World Heritage site, entry into the Great Boudha Stupa was closed due to earthquake damage, but the outer buildings are well worth a visit regardless. One of them houses a prayer wheel the size of a car with a big metal rail installed for worshippers to spin it as they circumambulate clockwise. The Guru Lhakhang Monastery was richly decorated with elaborate murals even in the stairwells, colorful hanging textiles, and giant gold statues. A Buddhist monk wrapped a white scarf around my neck and prayed for me in a ritual that involved chanting and throwing rice grains onto the pages of his book?!

Pokhara, only about a half hour by plane from Kathmandu, is a lakeside town framed by mountains. It is a popular stop either before or after trekking the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. Sadly, I didn't have the time or money - or the legs - to do such a thing at the moment. But the hotel arranged a taxi to take me to see one of the sights: the view of the mountain Machhapuchchhre, sacred to the god Shiva and off limits to climbers. It’s best to capture at dawn so I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m., only to find no one else awake besides the security guard. Apparently, I had misunderstood the man at reception and was an hour earlier than I needed to be! They roused the driver, and we drove out in the dark and up the mountainsides. I had expected a hike, but evidently, the driver intended to take me all the way to the viewpoint. It was comically pitch black when we arrived, so after taking in the town lights, we adjourned to a neighboring shack. The proprietor of this makeshift café was just waking up, and yawning in her house dress, she put the kettle on to make us tea. My driver and another who appeared out of nowhere made some lighthearted conversation, probably about the silly foreigner who woke him up in the middle of the night. In the growing light, the site revealed a view of Pokhara’s lake in the distance and the Seti Gandaki ("White River") winding through the valley. With the haze of dawn, I wasn’t sure exactly which of the mountains was the sacred one so I took pictures indiscriminately, along with the rest of the group that had gathered. As with any mountain chain, the cloud cover is unpredictable in the Himalayas. I just had noticed that some of the clouds seemed to have more of a distinct edge to them, when the sun shone through, and we all realized this was actually Machhapuchchhre, rising at least twice as high as the mountains we’d been photographing madly. This makes sense as I later learned there is about a 6500 m change in altitude within this 30 km. Unfortunately, this was the one glimpse we had before the clouds shifted again and we gave up with the full morning upon us. Along the steep road down, we passed small groups of young men running up. They were training in the military. Some of them looked pretty miserable with heavy packs on a strap slung around their forehead, which seems to be the preferred load-bearing style in Nepal. It made me a little relieved I didn’t do the hike.

Pokhara is the second most visited city by tourists in Nepal. The differences were jarring. Every business was either a hotel, restaurant, spa, souvenir shop, or hiking store. I didn't mind so much as it gave me a chance to purchase some fine textiles to bring home. Cashmere, anyone? Seriously, one shopkeeper going through all the grades and mixtures made my head spin. I studiously avoided anything more than window-shopping in the trekking stores as who knew if I could get those flood gates shut in time. As it was, I bought enough to make me nervous about the bag weight coming home. Despite it being off-season, I saw more foreigners than I’d seen in my previous 3 weeks in the country, even chatting to a couple of backpackers in an attempt to share the huge portion I ordered.  Pokhara was virtually untouched by the earthquake, but Nepalis were very concerned – and rightly so – that the international media coverage had scared away all the tourists. The upcoming high season would be the real test: Was the drop in visitors temporary? Or would the blow to this significant part of Nepal’s economy be permanent? Despite my comments about the earthquake damage I’ve seen, it was by far not as widespread as the media let on. It’s a gorgeous country, and I would urge people to still consider going… maybe now might even be the best time!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Lalitpur (Nepal)

Lalitpur, or Patan, is the city adjacent to Kathmandu and actually was the base for the beginning and end of my assignment. Though it has its own square, not much seems to distinguish it from Kathmandu proper, other than you crossing the Bagmati River. My neighborhood was pretty much NGO central (non-governmental organization) with charities, embassies, and the United Nations offices a few blocks away. The number of expats meant a luxury of diverse dining options walking distance from the hotel – Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and even a British pub with a quiz night!

Lalitpur was also the site of our last training stop, in the local DADO. One activity that always hooks people in is a fun game I designed to review pesticide storage problems. The agro-vets are divided into teams, a picture is flashed up, and the first team to identify the problem or problems wins the point. The competition really heats up, and by the end, people are on their feet, shouting out answers or accusing each other of cheating. The game in Lalitpur had an added dimension, as I had taken the problem pictures in Kathmandu shops. Some of the owners of the shops were in the audience, and if not, plenty of other agro-vets could recognize whose shops they were. While I discouraged outright finger-pointing, the activity really got the agro-vets engaged and able to look critically at their neighbors’ and their own practices.

In Lalitpur, I also got to finally try one of the snack boxes the agro-vets were receiving during the afternoon break. The contents included a samosa (an empanda-like pyramid stuffed with spicy vegetable and potato), fried bits like lightly sweet and savory croutons, a banana of a peculiar variety that stays green even when ripe, and a mango juice box. I had seen the agro-vets in Chitwan eating what looked like a boiled egg in a plastic baggie, and they seemed to really enjoy the liquid it was floating in, too. Different strokes for different folks, I figured. When my Lalitpur box arrived with the same, I discovered it wasn't an egg at all! Instead, it's a ball of fresh, mild cheese soaking in sugary syrup, very similar to the Indian dessert I like called ras malai. No wonder they were slurping up the juice! When I told my Winrock colleagues about my mistake, they cried with laughter... evidently the prospect of savoring boiled egg liquid was a ridiculous idea for them, too.

The final days of the assignment were spent debriefing my host, the PEAN board (Pesticide Entrepreneurs’ Association Nepal).  All told, 185 agro-vets received training in the 5 locations. My recommendations to the board members involved actions they could take as an organization to support agro-vets in continuing education and regulatory policies. To express their appreciation for my assistance, the PEAN board members wanted to present me with a “token of love” before I left Nepal. I wasn’t sure what to expect – perhaps a shawl or scarf, which seemed to be a common gift. The PEAN president and secretary arrived at my hotel the night before I left bearing a sizeable red velvet case with gold clasps. If this was the movies, the case would be opened to reveal magnificent jewelry that the heroine would get to wear and feel like a princess for a night. In my case (see that pun!), a personalized plaque was inlaid in the most elaborately carved, dark wood frame. Even the Winrock country director was surprised and impressed, whispering concerns about how to pack it carefully in my baggage. It was certainly a generous gift, and I’ll be happy to display it in the office… although the other décor may look quite shabby by comparison.

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Hetauda, Gai Jatra, and Kavre (Nepal)

In a country that includes the Himalayas, it probably shouldn't have been a surprise that "plains" could be a subjective word. On our drives through the Terai plains, there were definitely hilly sections - I don't think farming on a plain should require terracing, do you? - and portions that would've given the Appalachians a run for their money. Driving from Chitwan to Makwanpur district, I finally saw land that to my Midwestern upbringing resembled flat lands. In this part of the Terai, the indigenous people are Tharu, and as my Tharu colleague from Winrock informed me, they are a different people with their own language, culture, and traditions. He was particularly pleased that recent research may support their belief that Buddha himself was probably Tharu.

This part of the Terai was dotted with peculiarly ornate houses. Three to four-stories with complex tile patterns on the facade are paired with ostentatious columns - everything from classical Greek to ones sculpted to look like tree trunks - and colorful balconies in some other style altogether. The combination made for a dizzying effect.

Shortly after arriving in Hetauda in the Makwanpur district, the local PEAN representative picked us up and took us out for a late bite to eat. Though it was getting quite dark, we could just make out the rubble of whole buildings that had been damaged by the earthquake and aftershocks. The pesticide registrar officer traveling with us related how he (and other government officials) had been pulled into disaster assessment and relief in the months following, and Makwanpur was more severely affected than other places we'd been.

Early the next morning before training commenced, we got to see a bit of Gai Jatra. This festival is when Nepali Hindus remember family members who have died within the past year. Children dress in costume and hold pictures of the departed. They receive small gifts of food - looking not unlike trick-or-treaters - but the items are meant as tribute to the dead. Gai Jatra actually means "cow festival," and a cow (or many) is part of the procession since Hindus believe the animal is holy and will help the decease's journey to heaven. The cow in Hetauda was more of a constructed float on a cart, and my heart went out to an elderly man grimly taking part, holding what was, presumably, a poster of his deceased wife.

Training in Hetauda was at the local DADO, and the PEAN representative warned us attendance would be high as they had originally requested to have 2 sets of training within Makwanpur district. While many of the agro-vets in Chitwan had been fairly young, there was a greater variety of ages in Hetauda. A few of the older gentlemen, dressed in the traditional daura-suruwal (trousers with a longish top under jacket) and Dhaka topi (folded hat in pinkish patterns), were quite open in sharing their experiences implementing and recommending an integrated pest management (IPM) approach. One even shared his successes concocting, using, and selling various extracts as pesticides and fertilizers. I was a little intimidated that a journalist writing for a Kathmandu paper was covering the training, but focusing on technical issues the agro-vets were interested in helped me forget my nerves. In Hetauda, I fielded questions on topics such as viral disease management in tomatoes, club root of Brassicas, and how temperature affects pesticide formulation efficacy and shelf-life.  

The training tour would continue on in a district on the other side of Kathmandu so we had to make a 4 hour journey through the mountains to get back to the capital. For the most part, the road was not in terrible shape, though windy and steep and likely treacherous if raining. We stretched our legs at a fruit stand and enjoyed some dried corn cobs that had been roasted over the fire as a sooty snack.

By the time we got to Kavre, the training ran like a well-oiled machine. Even the blackouts that occurred most of the first day and parts of the second didn't really slow us down. In the middle of the video illustrating proper use of excess pesticides and container disposal, I improvised triple rinsing with a little mime act using my water bottle and an empty 5-gallon drinking jug as the stand-ins for a pesticide bottle and backpack sprayer, respectively. Sitting in a darkened room without fans was a bit of a challenge for the drowsy. It became imperative to get all the agro-vets participating in the exercise to understand exactly how resistance develops in the field. The activity, taken from the playbook of field days we hosted at American Cyanamid in the late 90s, involves nearly as much bobbing up and down as a Catholic mass.

Since Kavre was an easy day trip from the capital, other department of agriculture officers, PEAN board members, and members of the Seed Entrepreneurs' Association Nepal (SEAN) also sat in on the training. The government officials handed out posters and manuals on pesticides registered in Nepal, toxicity classifications, and pre-harvest intervals (the time you need to wait after application before harvesting). During the break, the soon-to-retire pesticide registrar of Nepal got on stage - yes, there was actually a stage - and shared his experiences in agriculture over the long years of his career. Not a bad showing for the final stretch - his or our training plans!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Bharatpur, Janaeu Purnima at Devghat, and Chitwan National Park (Nepal)

The next stop on the training tour was Bharatpur in Chitwan district. Arriving quite late in the evening, we were met by the local PEAN representative, an enthusiastic young man with private school English. A bandh (strike) had been called for in Chitwan, and we were concerned about how it would affect the training. This would mean no motorized traffic, as some of the demonstrations had resulted in vandalism. In the end, my Winrock colleague called it a "mini-bandh," as motorcycles still seemed to be on the road, and many people were out and about. Since the bandh meant closed shops anyway, it may have actually bumped up our attendance numbers. Nearly double the agro-vets expected came! Winrock staff told me I broke a record as I was the first Farmer-to-Farmer consultant to run out of the thick stack of business cards printed for me and needed a second printing.

The training took place in the local district agricultural development office, or DADO. The agro-vets in Chitwan were very receptive, getting into passionate discussions about the support and enforcement they needed from the government, what policies and practices they would like to implement or change, and how they could improve their businesses and services to farmers. One of the videos I like to show is of a farmer going about his normal mixing, applying, and cleaning a backpack sprayer. However, instead of pesticides, his spray solution contains a mixture that glows under blacklight, so afterwards, you can see all of the places that were contaminated on his body, his family, and the environment. Many of the agro-vets were very interested in showing it to their farmer customers. They eagerly copied down websites where they could read pesticide label information, view examples of how to best store and arrange inventory, and buy different kinds of personal protective equipment (PPE). Quite a successful workshop, we even had to get the Winrock office in Kathmandu to air-mail us extra training certificates!

The day we were scheduled to leave Chitwan was a holy day. Hindus wear a sacred red thread around their wrist as a token of familial love and prayers for protection, and Janaeu Purnima is the day they receive new threads. In the morning, we went to Devghat, a religious site at the junction of two rivers, the Seti Gandaki and Krishna Gandaki. Priests blessed and tied on new red threads on my colleagues, and then they performed ablutions in the sacred waters. The crowd also watched with interest as a group donned life-jackets and boarded a raft to be ferried across the swift-flowing junction. The current carried them in a wide arc before the rafters regained control, and everyone onshore breathed a collective sigh of relief. Our crossing via the suspension bridge - rain-slicked and the river visible in the wide gaps between the boards - seemed far safer by comparison. Later, my Winrock colleague kindly invited us to his house to meet his family and have a "snack," which I quickly discovered in Nepal are usually the size of a full meal. This snack included a rice pudding, an excellent fresh cucumber and potato reminiscent of German potato salad, and kwati, a stew made of several beans that is the traditional dish of Janaeu Purnima. With options for second helpings, of course.

Chitwan is most famous for the national park. A favorite hunting ground by the upper classes of Nepal in the past, this UNESCO world heritage site is home to Bengal tigers, leopards, and honey badgers. We didn't have a lot of time to spare before moving on to our next training location, and I could not take part in one of the popular elephant safaris, after having volunteered in a rehabilitation center for elephants who'd been abused in such trekking work (you can read about our wonderful experience at Elephant Nature Park here). However, we did negotiate a 45-minute walk around with a guide for what amounted to $5 for 3 people. In that short amount of time, we hit pay dirt: a one-horned rhinoceros! The rhinos are Chitwan National Park's most famous residents and not always even seen by tourists who've been on several days of safaris. This big guy was calmly chewing on some vegetation and wandered into the little river for a bit of drink and swim. There was a fairly steep bank between us and the hulking beast, but I still asked the guide what we should do if the rhino charged. The response,"Oh, just run over to that tree there and try to climb up it, but if you can't climb, just stand by it," did not inspire great confidence!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Friday, September 25, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Kathmandu and Dhading (Nepal)

A popular street food is panipuri. They are fried dough balls that have been hollowed out, filled with a potato or chickpea mixture, topped with an onion relish, and doused with sauces made with spicy green chilies and tamarind. Having enjoyed the crispy snack in its native India and in a North Carolina restaurant, I was eager to try them in Nepal. Out of concern for my health under the dubious sanitation practices of street vendors, the Winrock country director hospitably invited me to his home, where his wife prepared them carefully. The panipuris - and the rest of the luncheon - were delicious, and later in my trip, I found out I wasn't the only fan. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was on a BBC program introducing panipuris to England!

Saturday, not Sunday, is the day of rest for people in Nepal. My first weekend I was able to visit a Buddhist temple complex. Nepalis are very proud that Buddha was born in Nepal, and although the majority of the population today is Hindu, the influence and intermingling of both religions is such that many temples are shared places of worship. The large white stupa of Swayambhunath with Buddha's eyes painted on the golden spire did sustain some earthquake damage, as evidenced by the filled in cracks of the dome and some fenced off areas. However, the views out over the Kathmandu Valley are lovely, and Swayambhunath's nickname as "Monkey Temple" is well-deserved as these frisky mites clamber and play all over. One of the most sacred sites for Tibetan Buddhists, worshippers spin wooden prayer wheels clockwise as block-printed prayer flags flutter in blue, white, red, green, and yellow above.

After the day out, we headed to the first location on the revised itinerary. Far from the political disturbances in the western Terai, Dhading is only about a couple of hours away so we just drove from the capital each morning. There were many semis hauling goods on the only road out of Kathmandu in that direction. Not unlike the jeepneys of the Philippines, the front of the trucks were elaborately decorated in bright colors... probably all the better to see you as driving in Nepal is one continuous game of Chicken, with vehicles trying to pass each other on the single-lane mountain roads and blind corners. Along for the ride was a plant protection officer from the Pesticide Registrar's office, who ended up being my translator for most of the training days, and board members from my official host PEAN (Pesticide Entrepreneurs' Association Nepal). We visited an agro-vet shop in Dhading, which looked similar to the dozens we'd visited in Kathmandu, except for the fact that an entire room was devoted to the veterinary medicine side of the agro-vet business.

Training in Dhading took place in an empty room at a local hotel/restaurant. Nepalis like to hold to the forms so each meeting starts with greetings and introductions all around, followed by speeches from various esteemed attendees. While this may go on for some time, it is nice that key people are giving their implicit stamp of approval or sharing their expectations for the training. Then the Julie show can go on, with frequent pauses for translation. Based on our earlier meetings with stakeholders, I had prepared a series of presentations on such topics as the various tools of an integrated pest management (IPM) approach, toxicity and pesticide effects on the human health, product stewardship and the environment, etc. The group of agro-vets in Dhading was smaller, but this allowed for greater involvement during discussions and physical activities. Aside from the formal training, there would be many questions for me to field on the fly, or if possible, spend overnight preparing for new topics. For instance, the agro-vets in Dhading were particularly interested in rhizome rot of ginger. As a recent survey showed agro-vets in Nepal were the key influencer of farmers' management decisions over 60% of the time, it is important that the agro-vets are giving recommendations with solid science and understanding. The sessions in Dhading wrapped up with agro-vets receiving training certificates and more speeches by involved parties. On our way out of town, we stopped to check in with some of the local PEAN members to gauge how they felt the training went and next steps they felt the PEAN board could pursue.

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Monday, September 14, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Kathmandu, Part II (Nepal)

The drastic changes in altitude from the valley floors to soaring mountains create microclimates to support a staggering diversity of crops in Nepal. Everything from subtropical lychees to cool-season Brassicas like cabbage and cauliflower are grown on subsistence farms. A colleague told me about one variety of apple grown in the high country because it only produces fruit if the blossoms have been under a blanket of snow for a whole week! Nepalis have a strong preference for fresh produce, which I saw especially on one drive back. Stopping at a roadside stand in the mountains, everyone was excited to buy a giant bag of Asian pears for themselves... then about a half hour later, we stopped again to buy even more because these ones looked bigger. Curious to see what else is in season, I always look forward to visiting fruit and veg markets. It was business, though, that actually brought me to one in Kathmandu.

Kalamati is a wholesale market in Kathmandu. Pyramids of pomegranates, heaps of jackfruit, enormous bundles of long beans, cucumbers thicker than your arms, and baskets of small, fiery chilies were on sale. Fixed price ranges for each crop are posted but fluctuate throughout the day, and the minimum is something like 10 kilos. We were invited to visit the government's on-site laboratory. Last year they started regular testing of samples from different vendors for pesticide residues using a kit developed by the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute and a bench-top spectrophotometer. Depending on the results, the government officers can allow the crop to be sold as safe for consumption, hold it in quarantine, or give the order for the lot to be dumped. Currently, they are only testing for organophosphate and carbamate residues but are looking to expand the program into other insecticides as well as fungicides. While I've some experience with residue testing, we were able to propose bringing in a technical expert with specific background in higher throughput and rapid analysis. As often is the case, one Farmer-to-Farmer assignment begats another!

I had a couple of hours without any meetings so I walked to Durbar Square in Kathmandu. One of the most popular sights to see in the capital, it sustained significant damage from the earthquake and aftershocks earlier this year. As the site of royal palaces of Malla and Shah kings for nearly 1000 years, it is still worth a visit, but I'd be cautious about entering some of the structures. One of the buildings, Kumari Chowk, is home to a living Hindu goddess, Raj Kumari (or rather, a girl chosen as the human incarnation of Durga). The temples are still active, as evidenced by the smears of red powder tikas on the statues and offerings of flowers and fruit placed by worshippers. A pretty fearsome sight is the wall depicting Black (Kala) Bhairav, a manifestation of the god Shiva wielding a sword and wearing human heads around his mid-section. Under such a frightening gaze, you bet I asked the military guard standing opposite for permission before taking a picture!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Friday, September 11, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Kathmandu (Nepal)

Unbeknownst to me, in the roughly 2 days I was en route from the States to Kathmandu, events were happening on the ground that would impact the rest of my time in Nepal. The Parliamentary government has been drafting a new constitution for the last 7 years, and the most recent subject of debate was redrawing of the district lines, similar to state or province borders. From what I could glean, the latest proposals of what is essentially gerrymandering drew criticism, particularly from underrepresented minority groups. As a result, protests and “bandhs” (i.e. strikes) were organized, and some of the demonstrations in the western Terai region turned into violent clashes, damaging property, injuring people, and killing 9. The towns from the news headlines sounded familiar because they were on my proposed schedule to visit. Oh.

With safety and security ever top of mind, the Winrock International team and the local USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) mission were always monitoring the situation and continued to throughout my assignment. Because of their actions and clear communications, I felt completely confident that I was in good hands and never once felt concerned for my safety during my trip... and neither did Rich back home. The local staff did have to scramble a bit, as they hadn't had to deal with something quite like this before... which is saying something, considering that during the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in April this year, they had 3 people in country on assignments (all were completely safe). Also, mine was the first of a series of different Farmer-to-Farmer projects supposed to be based in the western Terai so it was a bit of a test case.

The first few days stuck pretty close to my original schedule, as the plan was to meet with all of the project stakeholders in the capital Kathmandu. For the yogis out there, I learned “Namaste” or “Namaskar” with prayer hands at the heart is the appropriate greeting and goodbye... For the business folk, the exchange of business cards is alive and well in Nepal, but a bit of a tricky juggle at the same time as you're both namaste-ing... and for the Brits, every meeting involves a round or more of tea, usually with milk, and sometimes as masala chai. Cultural matters aside, the local USAID mission is working on the Knowledge-based Integrated Sustainable Agriculture Nutrient (KISAN) Project, and as the local partner, we discussed what issues they saw as most important, their expectations of what I could contribute, and suggestions they had for altering my schedule with the situation in the western Terai. This pretty much was the agenda for all of the stakeholder meetings. I had received a fairly detailed Scope of Work previously, but it is always good to confirm and revise once you get in country.

My host for the project is the Pesticide Entrepreneurs' Association Nepal, or PEAN. They requested technical assistance to increase the capabilities of agro-vets. These are generally small business-owners whose shops sell pesticides, micronutrients and fertilizers, seeds, and veterinary medicines. We visited with dozens of agro-vets so I could get a good idea of what the shops are like and meet the members. PEAN was also very keen to hear about practices, standards, and regulations in the U.S., European Union, and internationally.  

We also met with several people from the Department of Agriculture. There are some issues that PEAN would like the government to consider changing its policies for, and the discussions could get quite heated. Sometimes it felt like a scene from Twelve Angry Men. Not being familiar with Nepali and its cadences, it struck me how sometimes a language can just sound harsher to your foreign ears (*cough* German *cough*). While there was genuine passion about some subjects, I also realized, for instance, that one of the gentlemen who frequently raised his voice is probably hard of hearing, and another time, my interpreter explained all the hullabaloo was for a tangent they went off on. Mostly, the visits to the government offices were by way of introduction and explaining what we were planning to do. Sometimes this meant we even picked up a few more who wanted to sit in on the training!

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Rich and Julie Get A Move On

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Farmer-to-Farmer Program, IV (Nepal)

It's not every day you turn on the television and see a completely new sport. Picture stocky, beefcake men holding hands… in a dodgeball court… playing what looks like Tag… if only one guy was running and everybody else was “It.” Further inquiry informs me that in addition to the one man trying to touch the line for base, he has to do it with the added challenge of not taking more than one breath. The referees can tell this because he has to hum continuously. This explains why full-contact tackling seems to be an effective strategy for making your opponent gasp for air. The sport is kabaddi, and though the match I was watching was between 2 professional Indian teams - Telugu Titans vs. Bengaluru Bulls – it is traditional sport of Nepal. And that's where I am. Not to watch kabbadi, but to take on another USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program assignment.

This is my fourth go-round, though my first in Nepal. The USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program brings technical expertise for specific projects to improve the agribusiness value chain in developing countries. Administered by different organizations in different regions, this is my first time working with them in Asia and with Winrock International. I'll be writing more about my project in Nepal, but you can read about my previous assignments here:

I, Mozambique
II, Nicaragua
III, Senegal

For more about the program in general and Winrock International:
USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Program
Winrock International


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

San Francisco, CA (United States)

San Francisco's Chinatown is the oldest in North America and the largest Chinese community outside Asia. Even without the tiled roofs, watching the ladies doing tai-chi exercises and old men hunched over strange board games in the park makes you feel like you've stepped into another country. Lunch in the business district was tasty with a spicy conch salad, thin-sliced pickled beef, and perfectly steamed baby bok choi. After multiple shots of teas with names like Red Robe and Iron Goddess at a free tasting, we caved to an expensive purchase of a Lapsang Souchong - surprisingly delicate on the smoke - from what must have been the most jaded, yet knowledgeable, barista ever.
Me: “Which one's your favorite?”
Mr. Bore-ista: “This one here. It's not as astringent as the variety usually is.”
Long silence.
Me: “Er, can we try it?”
Long silence.
Mr. Bore-ista sighs.
Long silence.
Mr. Bore-ista: “I guess.”

Not content with your average Alcatraz trip, we opted to see the bay under sail. Eagerly boarding the 135-year-old scow schooner Alma, we learned the commands and helped raise the sails. This was not an easy task even with a dozen people hauling. There's something quite fantastic hearing some old salt roar, “Avast!” on the sea, and I learned “Heave!” and “Ho!” is a thoroughly valid call-and-response onboard. Rich even got to steer the big wheel for a while using that ancient combination of feeling the wind, keeping an eye to the sails, lining her up with coastal landmarks… and an app on a tablet tucked away on a shelf. Besides circumnavigating the prison from The Rock and other films, we also got to watch out for harbor porpoises playing in the bay. The rest of the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park is well-worth a visit, too, as there are other restored ships to see. Like the Balclutha, which hauled cargo like timber to Australia, coal, and Alaskan salmon before her retirement, and on the day we visited, was being painstakingly re-caulked in traditional fashion: a guy on his hands and knees pouring hot tar from a metal pitcher. Sea lions were also resting on the docks with far fewer spectators than the famous ones that took over pier 39.

Further down is tourist central – Fisherman's Wharf. We lingered long enough to fill our bellies with 2 local favorites: sandwich rolls packed with dungeness crab and shrimp and clam chowder in Boudin's sourdough bread bowls. But the real winner for Rich was the Musée Mécanique, a penny arcade filled with antique games. It's clear they were originally intended as adult amusements since a variety of machines showed a gruesome fascination with reproducing different methods of executions with puppetry. The mechanic fortune tellers spit out mixed forecasts of my future, and my luck definitely took a turn for the worse as I lost to Rich at wind-up races for horses, cars, and even firemen going up ladders. Still, a handful of quarters is pretty cheap entertainment by California standards.

Other great deals were nights at the museum. The DeYoung Museum was completely free with an experimental band playing in the hall. The tower afforded lovely views of the San Francisco skyline, and Rich and I got our hands dirty learning to make felt for an interactive project by the artist-in-residence. The California Academy of Sciences Nightlife was a reduced priced ticket for adults only to explore the wonders of the Philippine coral reef exhibit – hey, we just saw those guys! -, wander up the spiral walkway in the glass-encased tropical rainforest, or take in a show at the Planetarium. With the bartenders – or are they all mixologists in San Francisco? - serving up cocktail specials and a rooftop garden, it's the coolest night spot in town. As a nod to the Outside Lands Festival dominating the rest of Golden Gate Park, there were concerts in the back garden and even a DJ inside playing Damon Albarn's funky beats!

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North America

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Yosemite National Park, CA, Part II (United States)

The brochure on Yosemite they hand you at the entrance gives horrifying yet darkly humorous warnings about bears (“Keep food within arm's reach, in a food locker, a bear-resistant canister, or hard-sided hotel room.”) and mountain lions (“Pick up children so they look larger. Attacks are rare, but if you are attacked, fight back.”) But after a good night's sleep in one of the last remaining rooms in nearby Groveland, we discovered the real danger to us was forest fires. If we hadn't seen the line of fire trucks just outside of town, driven past scorched trees and through billowing smoke, a road-side Smokey Bear was holding up a sign with the hazard level marked “High” each day of our visit there.

Though the popular trails can be teeming, Rich was happy to find that taking a side trail, or indeed, any in the high country quickly thinned crowds to a mere handful. The hike to Sentinel Dome was one such and afforded 360-degree views including some of the park's biggest stars: El Capitán, Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Clouds Rest. Man, this place is awesome! ...and I mean that in the truest sense of the word, or as Eddie Izzard puts it, “1000 hot dogs awesome.” Eavesdropping on a big family, the rock climbers in the bunch were regaling their audience with stories of how long it took to find a free climb route up The Nose of El Capitán – 14 years! Evidently, climbers tackling the 3000-ft granite monolith sleep in bivouac sacks anchored to the rock face and wake every couple of hours in the night to put balm on their fingers in an attempt to regrow the skin. Yikes!

Taft Point is an overlook that requires a measure of courage itself. What may look like narrow cracks in the wide expanse of granite are actually deep fissures you can actually see drop down to the valley floor 3500 ft below. You can walk right up to the edge – although crawling is a much, much safer option - to look over the side, at least until the vertigo gets the better of you. A family of Spaniards – I suppose we were visiting in August – were giving their mother panic attacks with their antics. ¡Hostia!

It is, arguably though, a better view than at Glacier Point, which is where all of the coach buses and RVs seem to empty out. Good spot for people-watching. I saw a Japanese tourist taking dozens of photos with a giant lens, which I know a friend once paid $1000 just to rent, then whip out his iPhone for a selfie. Seriously?! We did get to speak to a retired ranger/fire crew boss about the forest fires, and he also shared his ax to grind about another agency – the U.S. Forest Service, which allows logging and mining on the land it manages.

The Mariposa Grove was closed for restoration so we stopped into the Tuolumne Grove to see the giant sequoias. Related to the coastal redwoods we saw in Muir Woods, these titans are even more impressive. Sequoiadendron giganteum, growing up to 85 m (~279 ft) in height and 8 m (~26 ft) in diameter, is the largest living thing in the world. There was one in the grove with an old picture of someone driving a coach and horses through the gap in the bottom! You can crawl through a tunnel created by the hollowed trunk of another felled giant sequoia. Rich took the opportunity to do a Bran Stark impression engulfed in its gnarled roots.

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North America

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Central Valley and Yosemite National Park, CA (United States)

Hearing about the California drought in the news all the time, and people buying up land just for the water rights like a nightmare out of Dune, it was fascinating driving through the agricultural behemoth that is the Central Valley. Farmers here grow over 200 different crops, providing a third of all produce grown in the U.S. We drove past livestock grazing determinedly in yellowed pastures and reservoirs with depths of exposed rock showing shockingly low water from historic levels. The only breaks in the parched earth were patches of directed irrigation to each fruit tree or crop row... and some bastards' houses with suspiciously green lawns. In a landscape that hearkens back to the Dust Bowl, how is that even allowed?!

On a positive note though, we were headed to Yosemite! One of the first National Parks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, people have been lobbying to protect it one way or another since the mid-1800s. Covering roughly 750,000 acres (~300,000 hectares), this huge tract of wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains attracts nearly 4 million tourists each year. Inside there is a free shuttle bus system to the different trail heads and visitor centers, a brilliant idea to cut down the traffic in the park and chaos of finding parking. Following the ranger's suggestion – and what looked like everybody else's plans - we stretched our legs on the hike from Happy Isles to Vernal Fall and onward to Nevada Fall via the Mist Trail. Why they are officially called “Fall” and not “Falls,” I have no idea. The trail follows the Merced River, and even with the drought, the steep drops of the falls are impressive. A good workout, too, as it's about 600 steps in the granite. Random people passing us made references to the Denver Broncos, and it took us a while to solve the mystery. Rich's Durham Bulls cap looked remarkably similar to a Broncos one: Both are animals with steam coming out their nostrils jumping through a big orange D on a blue background. Weird!

After working up a sweat, the open stretches of Emerald Pool and Silver Apron Beach at the midpoint start to look mighty fine for a swim if slipping to your death weren't a real hazard. The scenery flattens out a bit at the top of Vernal Fall in pretty much the idealized version of mountain stream in the woods - an idyllic spot for a picnic and dip for tired feet.  Heading back down via the easier John Muir Trail gave us nice views back toward Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap. Much to our chagrin, the whole loop – only 5.4 miles (~8.7 km) - took us over 6 hours... but, hey, the gain in elevation was 2000 ft (~610 m)!  

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North America

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Stinson Beach and Point Reyes National Seashore, CA (United States)

Feeling a little peckish, we stopped off in Stinson Beach in Marin County. The west coast town reminded us of our favorite Ocracoke with its art galleries, beach-themed shops, and daytrippers headed out to the sand. Lunch was fine, if a bit pricey, and we were pleasantly surprised by the live music. The older gal in flounced skirt, cowboy boots, and black stetson, chatting and making the rounds on the deck, ended up being the frontman of the band. We abandoned our misconceptions when they launched their set. A penchant for Serge Gainsbourg manifested itself in a charming style they were calling “Francobilly.”

Wandering back and forth in a GPS-dead zone, we eventually found Duxbury Reef. The marine protected area is one of the largest shale reefs in North America. We had intended to spend a few hours indulging in a pastime of Rich's childhood that I had never experienced: exploring tidal pools for urchins, starfish, and other sea creatures. Sadly, our delays meant that we arrived to find the tide was up, and there would be nothing to see for hours.

We caught a feel for what we missed in the exhibits at the Bear Valley Visitor Center of the Point Reyes National Seashore. There was even a display of nudibranches, the psychedelic-colored mollusks found at the reef, albeit crocheted versions from some local crafter.  How twee! There are 150 miles of trails at Point Reyes, but we only managed the Earthquake Trail on our brief pit stop. Interpretive signs about plate tectonics and its related damage dot the trail since the park is located on the infamous San Andreas Fault. Blue posts mark where one section of fence jumped 16 feet away in the devastating 1906 quake, which begs the question, "Where is The Rock when you need him?"  

Friday, August 21, 2015

Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods, CA (United States)

We figured the payment for a red-eye flight would come in physical discomfort rather than our wallets. What we didn't bargain for was the additional 1.5 hours in line in the middle of the night at the rental car office at the San Francisco. Why did we even bother making reservations if walk-ins were in the same queue? Their slogan should be “Thrifty - You Get What You Pay For.”

After a few hours of shut eye, we got back into the rental car and headed north. This route actually put us driving onto the Golden Gate Bridge. This icon of San Francisco, of California even, has spanned the 3-mile-long channel between the bay and Pacific Ocean since 1937. The bridge is popular with photographers (of course), pedestrians, bicyclists, and sadly, jumpers. This once longest suspension bridge in the world can also lay dubious claim to second most popular for suicides, since, if impacting the water at 75 mph didn't kill you, the hypothermia will finish the job.

On the other side of the bridge, we observed self-induced personal anguish. Road racers were pedaling up the punishing hills of Marin county. Sure, the scenery was ace with glimpses of the crashing waves on rocky coasts and evergreen forests. But you're still on scorching pavement, being passed none too gently by impatient SUVs and Route 1 convertibles, and going steadily - or more often, very wobbly - uphill. Just witnessing the Sisyphean struggle was akin to the pangs I feel watching those miserable sods who ski cross-country on TV, and those are Olympians!

Muir Woods National Monument - named after naturalist John Muir - was our opportunity to see the old-growth coastal redwoods. We weren't the only ones. The parking lots and subsequent shoulders of the road were packed, and we heard German, Japanese, Spanish, and French in the visitor's center. Amazingly though, most of the crowds heeded the signs for respectful quiet on the trails - even the Filipinos! Of course, there is always that one guy, and curiously enough, tonight's role was played by a Canadian sports fan loudly pontificating on his team's prospects for the season. Aside from this minor disturbance, peace and tranquility reigned in the Bohemian and Cathedral Groves. In the latter, there is even a plaque commemorating an earlier visit from international folks – delegates in town to draft and sign the United Nations Charter - to honor President Franklin Roosevelt, who died shortly before he was to open the conference.

The majestic Sequoia sempervirens can grow up to heights of 115 m, roughly 380 ft, and the trail along the ridgeline offered an interesting perspective. For most trees, it would have been high enough to down onto them, but since these are redwoods, it just meant the neck strain looking up wasn't quite so severe. The cool temperatures under the canopy were such a nice respite from the brutality of a North Carolina summer, and the forest floor was covered in a riot of ferns and clover with leaflets the size of quarters. Maybe it's the jet-lag speaking, but we felt like even the fresh air had a different quality to it, positively exhilarating with all of that photosynthesis pumping oxygen into the environment. The coastal redwoods can live 1200 - 1800 years. It's crazy to think that the entirety of our nation's history could be reduced to only a fraction of their tree rings. Not so crazy – and maybe this is the O2-mainlining talking – to imagine these giant inhabitants as ents from the Lord of the Rings.

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North America

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Chicago, IL (United States)

Growing up in the Midwest, Chicago was the big city. There were regular trips as a child, though most of my memories seem to be of buying in bulk at the Asian grocery stores and bakeries of Chinatown. It's quite a ways from us now, but I still have a fondness for it ...and even better, a free place to stay with family.

Having enjoyed one of the Chicago Architecture Foundation's river cruises in the past (well-worth it but bring sunscreen), we were pleased to hear they also do walking tours. After living in a city popular with tourists for its own distinct architecture, Rich was a little embarrassed to be part of one of those groups with earphones and blocking up the sidewalks. But he got over it, since the opportunity to view skyscrapers in the city of their birth, with a knowledgeable docent explaining what's what, was too good to pass up. Plus, we were a drop in a bucket on the streets, compared to the 70,000 in town with tie-dye shirts and a lingering cloud of marijuana to celebrate the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary 3-day festival.

On the tour, we learned a bit about the Chicago School style, which incorporates large windows for retail at the ground level, then offices in the mid-section with typical 3-part "Chicago windows," and finally, the highest levels capped with a cornice. In the early days, the architects occupied these spaces, and not because they were the luxurious penthouse. Because the public didn't trust that being so high up - say, 10 or 15 stories - was safe! It was surprising to walk around these very functional exteriors and then step into jaw-dropping lobbies of glamour and excess. With elaborate mosaics, Italian marbles, and shiny metal work, the object was to impress clients and investors. The docent pointed out the chandeliers that look like upside-down wedding cake, marble veneers cut so that the corners create diamond patterns, and the motifs so common in Art Deco: owls or eagles with big ol' beefy knees.

The Monadnock, at 17 stories high, was the tallest building with load-bearing masonry walls ever constructed, evidenced by the windows set deep into the 6-ft thick sides of the ground floor. I thought the funny name sounded familiar, only to realize later that my friends moved their offices to it (check'em out here if you are looking for a lawyer).

Our favorite by a landslide was Burnham and Root's Rookery, built in 1888. When we were headed in that direction, my relative said, "Hey, I think we're going to my eye doctor's!" Though there is an optician's, there are plenty of sights to make your eyes open wide. There are crows and pigeons and all manner of ornamentation in the exterior facade of terra cotta, marble, and brick. Frank Lloyd Wright did the redesign of the lobby in 1905, and the effects are breathtaking. Dominated by a courtyard of white marble and a Persian-style filigreed roof, it is filled with natural light. It came as no surprise that many people are interested in renting it out for weddings and special events.

For a walk only slightly less urban, we tried out the new 606 trail. An old train line was converted for walkers, runners, and bikers. Parts of the landscaping had been only recently installed, but the 606 was already becoming very busy. As an elevated path, it was interesting to be able to look at the different houses and peek into backyards. We weren't the only people taking snaps of the neat rows of celebrity chef and Mexican cuisine restaurateur Rick Bayless's beautiful kitchen garden.

My family really likes food. Our short trip to Chicago still afforded many occasions to engage in our collective eating-as-bonding experiences. Comedian Aziz Ansari's raves drove us into the long line at one of the city's 2 locations of Shake Shack, the burger chain New Yorkers go wild over. Boasting fresh ground Angus beef, it was a tasty burger, although the bun may not have quite stood up to the one we picked - topped with a kind of Yankee version of pimento cheese. The dog featured a Publican pork sausage, a local nod to the Second City. The real winner was the caramelized peach shake, which we grudgingly admitted beat out North Carolina's own Cook Out Creamery. Fancy dinner was at Girl & the Goat, reservations at which we had tried to get several times over the years. Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard makes an awesome kohlrabi and fennel salad, delightful stuffed squash blossoms, and a truly refined pan-roasted halibut. There were a few misses among the small plates, but the server was correct that the miso-butterscotch budino (butterscotch pudding, sponge cake, all creamy and crunchy and foamy light) was among the best desserts we've ever eaten. We finished up with that urban favorite: brunch. We got "Dutch babies" in the Gold Coast. The savory version of the German pfannkuchen derivative came filled with veggies and cheese like a quiche and the sweet with strawberries or apples embedded. Yum!

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North America

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Savannah and Tybee Island, GA (United States)

Earlier this year, we decided on a whim to drive the 5 hours south to Savannah for the weekend. We'd never been to this city, the oldest in Georgia and featuring prominently in the bestselling book and film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Southern charm oozes on the streets lined with live oaks, artistically draped with Spanish moss, and any one of the 22 squares in the historic district. These quiet greenspaces are pleasant to walk around, and we even stumbled into some kind of Polish remembrance parade, complete with traditional costumes and brass band around the Casimir Pulaski Monument in Monterey square. In the much larger expanse of Forsyth Park, volunteers were setting up or tearing down the starting line to a 5k race, couples were picnicking and playing frisbee with their dogs, and families were buying fresh vegetables and cheeses in the morning's farmer's market.

Rich found us a room in one of the historic houses functioning as a boutique hotel. Built in 1847 as a private home, the Eliza Thompson House hosts wine and cheese get-togethers for hotel guests in the formal parlour, followed later by desserts and coffee, and port or sherry left out in a crystal decanter for a nightcap. Such posh digs almost compel you to look around for the bell to ring Carson for tea!

You could likely spend a week prowling preserved homes and antique shops should antebellum architecture and history be your passion. We also visited the Owens-Thomas House, as part of our Telfair Museums ticket. Designed by English architect William Jay, the Regency-style neoclassical building functioned as a residence by a wealthy merchant family and then as elegant lodging house, boasting the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette as one of its illustrious guests. We were surprised to see large cisterns and indoor plumbing in such an old house, and even more curious, a humpback bridge connecting the two sides of the top floor! The docent-led tour begins in the intact slave quarters, where remnants of blue paint are visible on the wooden boards. In the Gullah (coastal enslaved Africans) culture, this distinctive haint-blue color was thought to ward off evil spirits.

The other two entries on the Telfair Museums ticket were for the Telfair Academy and the Jepson Center. The former is also a historic home, mostly used to display a selection of nineteenth-century portraits, landscapes, and sculpture. The Jepson Center, on the other hand, is a bright, modern space with contemporary art. On our visit, Andy Warhol was dominant in a pop art exhibit, and another gallery was inspired by jazz and the Harlem Renaissance. The accompanying music was catchy, but I had difficulty convincing Rich to thrown down some lindy hop moves with me in the middle of an art museum. The city is also home to the acclaimed Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Besides passing campus buildings, you can also take a piece home as the gift shop actually sells textiles and other items designed by SCAD students and faculty.

Most visitors to Savannah find themselves along the riverfront. The long stretch along the Savannah River is home to restaurants, pubs, and souvenir shops. A frequent sight among the pedestrians is what is known as “to-go cups.” You can walk up to any bar and order alcohol in a to-go cup and just take it away. No need to confine yourself to one establishment or wait for everyone in your party to finish the round. It was convenient, but as such a novelty to most people, Rich felt the result was far more displays of public drunkenness. At times, the atmosphere could give you flashbacks to college keggers on the lawn.

Amid the candy barrels and demos of how to cook pralines in the brick-and-mortar stores, the riverfront also happened to be the site for a festival of sweets the weekend of our visit. Booths popped up to ply their wares of fancy chocolates, taffy, ice cream, and different honeys. As one charity - leading a small pig in a dress - took the mic on the mainstage, only we seemed to notice the irony of trying to raise awareness for diabetes amidst such sugary sales.

On our way out of town, we stopped off at a couple of places. In Bonaventure Cemetery, ornate Southern Gothic tombstones, statues, and mausoleums are laid out in winding paths on a bluff of the Wilmington River. Famous inhabitants include poet Conrad Aiken, lyricist and Capitol Records founder Johnny Mercer, and - temporarily - naturalist John Muir, who apparently camped out on the graves for several days in his Thousand Mile Walk. Lunch was on Tybee Island, a popular getaway for Savannahians. Enjoying a low country boil of mussels, crawfish, crab legs, shrimps, sausage, corn, and potatoes was an excellent end to our little holiday. 

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North America

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Deep Sea Fishing in the Outer Banks, NC (United States)

We returned to our old haunt in the Outer Banks to try our hand at deep sea fishing. There are several boats available for charter that dock in Silver Lake Harbor on Ocracoke Island. We opted for a half day charter on the boat Drum Stick, which included the licenses, crew, and tackle. To get in the spirit of things, we all got anchor tattoos on our arms... at least, temporary ones. Arrrh, me hearties!

The captain handled the steering and locating the fish, using sonar and radioing with other boats out for the day. The first mate showed us how to cast and baited the lines. The Outer Banks coastline is littered with old shipwrecks, and our first stop was over a wreck where a school of black sea bass had been spotted. Each rod had 2 hooks baited with large chunks of an oily fish that the fishermen deemed only good for bait. As soon as the sinker started dropping into the water, we could feel the fish starting to nibble. Reel in, cast out, reel in, cast out... The fish were biting so quick that Rich's stepdad pointed out there was hardly any sport in it. The limit is 5 black sea bass per person, and we easily caught 3 or 4 times that many if you count the small ones we had to let go. My first keeper (i.e. the sea bass must be at least 13 inches long) actually came as I kept the line dangling in the water, waiting for the first mate to unhook and release a piddly one. Suddenly, a big bass surfaced to gulp down the chunk on the other hook, and I hauled in my first real catch. It wasn't long before we caught our limit... though not before tiring out our arm and shoulder muscles.

Then the first mate baited the trawling lines with lures like shiny spoons, which wriggle and flicker in the water. We watched closely for the tip of the rod to start twitching violently, and then the game was on! One person would grab the rod out of the stand and start cranking the reel as quickly as possible. Sometimes the fish would be fighting so hard you had to jump into the chair to get better leverage and really put your back into it. We only had 2 trawling lines, but inevitably, they would both get a bite at the same time. Adrenaline was pumping all around as 2 people were hauling in the lines with all their might, and fish with razor sharp teeth were flopping around on the deck and spattering blood all over before we could get the hooks out. We caught bonita, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, and albacore. The gorgeous amberjacks had to be released as the minimum take home was at least 27 inches long. Unfortunately, some of our biggest catches and toughest fighters the fishermen told us were only good for bait.

We landed our catch - 30 beauties laid out on the deck for the crowd on the dock to admire. Most of the fish were filleted for us to take home, but we also got a few just descaled and gutted. Whole black sea bass baked in a salt crust dome made for a superb dinner!

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North America

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Final Thoughts on the Philippines

I hadn't been to the Philippines in years, and anxious that Rich should enjoy his first visit, I filled his ears with warnings and forebodings. Other than the ever horrendous Manila traffic, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that most of these dire predictions didn't come true. The shakedowns of petty corruption didn't occur, or at least, not so overtly as I recalled in the past. Most food was served actually hot in restaurants, not merely lukewarm (a pet peeve of Rich's). Squatters, beggars, and all manner of folks living in abject poverty, which before, down every alley and along every railway line, seemed as rampant as in some parts of India, were a far less common sight. Doubtless, we were staying at times in more affluent areas, but perhaps, some of the recent economic gains the country had made that my uncle described had improved their situations as well?

Rich found the the travelling around the Philippines pretty comfortable and relatively easy. The roads were in good condition, transport was easy to hail or organize, and communicating with people was simple. One difficulty, he cited, was in getting commitment out of folks. Since there is a strong cultural reluctance for telling someone, "No," he found the indirect methods - e.g., saying "Yes" to your face, but making you feel uncomfortable for your request and making it feel like a giant inconvenience - a bit annoying. He disliked the over-the-top Las Vegas-style flash, tackiness, and cheesy schtick of a few of the local tourist hotspots. But he loved that going a tiny bit of out of the way from them would land you in pristine, beautiful surroundings.

I was happy to get some of my favorite treats: warm pandesal buns with butter in the morning from the corner store; gorging on ripe Philippine mangoes, hands down the best in the world; and fresh ensaymada (brioche-like bread sprinkled with cheese and sugar on top). One of the highlights of staying at Apulit Island was the daily halo-halo bar. This concoction of candied tropical fruits (jackfruit, young coconut, sweet potato, plantain, etc.), sweet beans, and corn mixed into shaved ice with a shot of evaporated milk, topped with leche flan (Pinoy version of a rich egg custard) and purple yam ice cream, is heavenly and perfect for those hot and humid days. One slight disappointment was our limited seafood. There was one day where we picked out all the shellfish and fish we could wish at the market, but the restaurant we chose to cook them for us ignored our request. Instead of simple preparations (just grilled or steamed, maybe lemon or garlic), the cooks hammered most of it, suffocating them with cheeses, bacon, and overpowering sauce. Culinary crimes! We had better luck elsewhere with traditional dried fish (daeng) and requesting whole fried sweet-and-sour fish.

My palate has come a long way since our last visit so I tried to embrace the bizarre foods of Philippine culture. Woodworm went down. But we had to gird our loins for that most famous of Philippine delicacies. Balut is a half-hatched duck egg. Sold everywhere on street corners, my mom admitted to having a 2 baluts and a Coca-Cola daily habit as a kid. My dad picked up our specimens at the 7/11. The egg looks normal on the outside. I took one bite of the beige egg white inside, and it was oddly tough and chewy. Rich took a slurp of the grayish liquid and recalls it as "probably not disgusting." But we balked when we hit the fetus - and it is recognizably so. With tiny wings and a tiny beak. Defeated, I take great comfort that our other taste tester - Chinese and proudly proclaiming, "We eat everything!" - also didn't finish. My dad said it was a waste of perfectly good food and laughed at all of our turned up noses.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Apulit Island, El Nido, and Manila (Philippines)

We left Apulit Island as we had arrived - to the dulcet tones of the staff serenade and waving. Our transfer this time was through the airport in El Nido, allowing us to get a glimpse of the town proper. With more options for accommodation and dining, it still didn't look terribly overdeveloped, though popular with backpackers, not unlike Ko Tao in Thailand. The airport, on the other hand, was awesome.

We drove down a dirt track, passed a military outpost with fierce-looking firepower, and rolled up to a single strip airfield. It totally looked like we were on location for a movie about drug running and smuggling operations. The terminal was an open thatched-roofed hut on the left. Check-in was a bar top with a few guys looking into your bags. Our boarding passes were tiny wooden boards with the seat numbers carved into them. While we waited, we opened up the sandwiches the resort had packed for us - roast chicken - and helped ourselves to the free refreshments in the hut. There was tea, coffee, fresh squeezed juice, fruit, and suman (sticky rice steamed inside palm leaves and drizzled with coco jam). Periodically, a tricked out bus would rock up unloading passengers, presumably from another one of the El Nido Resorts. Since they do weigh each passenger, we were a little nervous about what kind of plane we would be taking. These fears were unfounded though, as evidently, Palawan's popularity has meant an upgrade in aircraft in recent years. Instead of some kind of Cessna where you're practically sitting in the pilot's lap, ITI now operates a twin turbine 50-seater plane. No worries! To top it off, upon arrival in Manila, we were shown to a comfortable lounge where we were plied with more food and drinks until an airline agent told us, "Sir, ma'am, your bags are ready now. Please come this way."  I could get used to this kinda travel!

Back in Manila, we met up with family again at a restaurant that specializes in a sort of cosplay cabaret experience. To his mortification, Rich was hauled onstage to shake his groove thang with Spiderman, Freddie Kreuger, and V from V for Vendetta. He was a good sport about it, and there were plenty of embarrassing photos to prove it. The schedule streaming on the big screens indicated a different show every half hour - Star Wars, anyone? - and though we watched a tribute to an anime show we'd never heard of, we escaped any more invitations for table top dancing.

We wrapped up our trip, killing time before our flights home wandering around the Mall of Asia. This behemoth is one of the largest in the world, sporting an Olympic-sized ice skating rink, IMAX theaters, science museum, basketball arena, convention center, and Ferris wheel. Filipinos love to shop, as attested by the presence of every global apparel brand we could think of, and the fact that since the mall opened in 2006, it has been eclipsed in size by 2 others in Metro Manila alone! Probably the strangest sight for me - besides hosting an amateur boxing match in the middle of the mall - was the popularity of Cinnabon and North Carolina's own Krispy Kreme Donuts. Why, oh, why?!? The Philippine brands Goldilocks Bakeshop, and Red Ribbon are far, far superior!

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Monday, July 27, 2015

El Nido Resorts Apulit Island (Philippines)

The Philippines has over 7000 islands to its name so when it comes to finding paradise, it just becomes more of the question: "Which one?" On our last visit, the family was well-pleased with the white sand beaches of Boracay - not to mention the fabulous experience we had at the spa there - but rumor has it that the island had become, as one person described it, "Spring Break... but with Australians." The tiny islands off the northern end of Palawan, most of which fall in the municipality of El Nido, however, had not experienced quite that level of development yet. Unfortunately, this means there are limited options for accommodation. You pretty much have to stay in one of the locations of a resort. I know, I know, you must be thinking, "What a rough life!"

[Note: While we usually avoid name-checking specific accommodations, when we were researching options, we found it difficult to get a real feel for how the place we chose compared to other resorts. In addition to Rich and me, the rest of our party was also a well-traveled lot, and having stayed in a full range of swanky establishments, our discussions with them may have veered this post more toward a traditional review.]

We picked El Nido Resorts' Apulit Island. Despite organizing transfers from Puerto Princesa through the resort, it didn't click for most of us until we were actually on our way that this location wasn't in actual El Nido. Apparently, Apulit belonged to a different company and only recently taken over by El Nido Resorts. The trip involved a 2.5 hours in a private van plus a short bangka ride from the fishing port of Taytay. The entire staff turned out at the dock on Apulit, greeting us with a song and dance number, offering cool drinks and puto (sweet, steamed rice flour cakes), and draping handwoven necklaces on our necks.  

All of the rooms were private, thatch-roofed huts over the water, but we decided to splash out for the option with private stairs down to the reef below à la French Polynesia... and what reefs they were! Even around such a tiny island, there were several reefs to choose from so we never felt crowded, and the reefs were so close and waves so calm that even timid swimmers could feel comfortable. The guide even offered to take my nervous folks out, each on their own private snorkeling lessons. Should such gentle handling still cause panic, the water is clear to such depths that just looking off the balcony or dock gives you an excellent view of sea life. We were so fascinated watching 2 small squids moving in and out of hiding, working their camouflage magic, and spraying ink at each other that we nearly missed the gorgeous sunset behind us. The diversity of fish and corals was astounding in what is known as the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area. It was certainly on par with our trips to the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos. Rainbow-colored parrotfish. Blacktip reef shark. Giant clam. What felt like the entire cast of Finding Nemo. To say you're snorkeling through an aquarium is not far from the truth, as NatGeo estimates that the Philippines, along with Indonesia, accounts for 86 percent of aquarium fish sold in the U.S. Rich even followed a super highway of silver fishes to find them all trailing behind a barracuda, sneakily hoping he wouldn't look behind!

Besides sunbathing and relaxing in the infinity pool, there were plenty of adventure sports and activities included to keep one occupied. We went a little crazy and actually had trouble fitting in everything. There were island-hopping tours, sunrise/sunset boat excursions, and more caving. Rich zoomed up the rock face like the pro-climber he is while I predictably waffled and stumbled below. A 60-meter high limestone cliff made for a challenging hike in the blistering sun and an even more exciting rappel down. We ferried my folks around in double kayaks, and Rich decided to solo around the entire island on a whim. I was concerned, as it wasn't until later that we learned that the resort security mans discrete lookouts and would've mounted a rescue should he have run into trouble on the other side of the island. Learning to paddleboard was fun although my attempts at yoga on it were more comical than successful. Luckily, this was also the case with Rich's private windsurfing lesson. One of the best workouts - and most fun - we had was playing beach volleyball with the staff. Filipinos may be short, but we're agile! Predictably, the adventure guides were the May-Walsh tag team of the island with beautiful sets and fierce spikes, but even the tubby guy behind the desk could serve. It was a strange feeling calling balls and lines in tagalog... and even more hilarious listening to the trash talk!

There were some downsides to the resort. It is an island after all... with all that entails. You're stuck there. Some people may find it difficult to live without a TV, but the wi-fi was surprisingly good. Everything needs to be brought in from Taytay, and we're pretty sure our party ate our way through the week's supply of ripe mangoes in a few days. The food was a good buffet with build-your-own whatever station, grilled-to-order flat top, and an abundance of fresh salads and veggies (a real rarity in the Philippines). But it wasn't fine dining, and there aren't other options if it's not to your taste. We liked that the resort is engaged in many kinds of conservation efforts, but some of our party balked when they realized sustainable fishing impacts what seafood shows up at the table. The resort lacked a certain amount of finesse and could use a little more upkeep. Rich was disappointed the Hobie cat was long in need of repair, and there weren't enough life jackets for all the passengers on the trip from Taytay. The only spa treatment on offer was a massage, room service was only available if you were sick, and it could be difficult to catch waitstaff for drinks refills or clean towels. Luxuries, to be sure, but what you would expect for what it costs. At the end of the day though, we felt that the reefs and the personal attention of the guides was what really made the Apulit Island resort special.

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Puerto Princesa and Sabang (Philippines)

Rich firmly believes in being a polite and cooperative passenger so when the flight attendant on Cebu Pacific Airlines turned on the PA system, he was attentive. Thus, he was the only one making eye contact when they announced a prize giveaway. He became alarmed when the flight attendant approached him and demanded he say something like, "Quick kiss quicker kiss." To this day, we have no idea what the tongue twister was, but as the only contestant, Rich took home the "prize" of a Cebu Pacific pencil bag. Woo bloody hoo. Not to be outdone, all passengers exiting the aircraft received a complimentary bag filled with a variety of name brand toiletries. A closer inspection revealed nearly every product included was the whitening formula... and not for teeth.... for skin. Vaseline "Healthy White" lotion. Pond's "White Beauty" for that "translucent pinkish white glow." Facial scrub that color away! Because - in the Philippines, as in many other cultures - lighter, high yellow, mestizo, whatever you call it, is considered more desirable. Sigh.

We arrived on Palawan, a long, thin strip of land west of the Visayas region and north of Malaysian Borneo. Gaining popularity with Philippine tourists for years, Palawan was named the "Best Island in the World" by Condé Nast Traveler readers in 2014. The capital of Puerto Princesa is a nice, compact town, and the most developed part of an island known for its rugged beauty. Having been go go go on the trip so far, the ladies were starved for the things we look forward to on any trip to SE Asia - bargains at the spa and shopping! It's a little hard to turn down 3 hours of foot bath and full-body massage when it's less than $25. Jewelry, wood carvings, and other handicrafts were the earthly delights we descended upon in the market. The Philippines is also known as the "Pearl of the Orient," and its namesake is for sale in abundance - South Sea pearls or cultured, in all shapes and sizes and colors. The wooden handicrafts ranged from small figures to handsomely-carved furniture. Heady with haggling for an hour, my sister only belatedly realized her new, gorgeous inlaid table would require a creative arrangement for shipping. 

The big draw to Puerto Princesa is actually located in Sabang, about 2 hours away. The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. It is immediately evident by the masses waiting at the dock that word has got around. We managed the long wait in the scorching sun, partly soothed by frequent trips to the tropical fruit shake vendors and stands selling banana cue, a delectable Filipino snack of deep-fried bananas caramelized with brown sugar on a stick.

Our group's number was finally called, and we loaded onto traditional bangka boats with colorful streamers to get to the actual park (accessible only with permit). We enjoyed spotting turtles in the clear waters on the way there. Palawan monkeys and big monitor lizards wander freely in the mangrove and beach forests of the park. The guide warned us to be careful of the monkeys, which had been known to scamper off with bags, but we discovered the real danger to tourists was the river itself. While waiting (again) to board canoes, we saw the hungry river claim electronics from 6 different people! Smartphones, tablets, cameras - none of these were safe... and using a selfie stick might as well have been a kiss of death for a watery grave.   

I got my own electronics as the canoe's nominee for holding the spotlight. The local in the boat was both guide and ferryman, directing us to the different formations within the subterranean river cave system. There are sections that look like fruits and vegetables, human body parts, and religious figures. Until 2007, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River was known as the world's longest, at around 24 km long. It's possible to apply for the permit which allows access some 3-4 hours deep into the river, but most folks opt for the 45 minute tour. There are swiftlets by the hundreds darting in and out of the entrance, and the species in Palawan are the ones that create the delicacy known as bird's nest soup highly sought after by the Chinese. Further into the cave, the aroma of guano assailing your nostrils signals the huge bat populations in residence. This place is definitely not for those uncomfortable with the things that go bump - or squeak or whoosh - in the night. In case that isn't enough to give you the willies, you can also try the local Palawan delicacy: raw tamilok. Described as a mollusk, it is more akin to a very long worm, having been pulled out of its burrow in mangroves or water-soaked timber. Even dipping it in hot chilies and calamansi citrus juice, this entomologist and seafood lover had a hard time choking it down!

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