Archive for January, 2009

A quintessential Western journey

January 28, 2009

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Dec. 21, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

I went on an almost identical trip with my parents when I was around 11, but driving west from North Carolina. The grand Western scenery made a lasting impression.

Jeanne (left) and Harvey Hansen at the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon in Yellowstone National Park

Jeanne and Harvey Hansen at the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon in Yellowstone National Park

WHO: Jeanne, 58, and Harvey Hansen, 61, of Arlington, Mass.

WHERE: Western United States.

WHEN: 11 days in June and July.

WHY: “We love seeing new states, and we’ve always wanted to see Yellowstone and Rushmore,” Jeanne Hansen said.

RODEO ROMANCE: The couple flew into Billings, Mont., and rented a car, which they put 1,300 miles on. In Cody, Wyo., where they stayed with friends, they had a pleasant surprise. “They took us to the rodeo, and at first we thought, whatever, we’ll go because it’s there. It’s every night in the summer. But it was really fun and it was quite interesting to experience another way of life. They involve children, and the riders showed a lot of skill and courage.”

BUSES, BISON, BEAR … : Only an hour away was Yellowstone National Park, where they stayed at the historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel. “There was a lovely dining room, but you have to make a reservation months in advance,” she said, and they missed out. They took two park tours, one exploring geysers and hot springs, including Old Faithful, and the other wildlife. “Last year they started using 1936-37 vintage buses for the tours, which was very cool. They draw a lot of attention.” The couple saw bison, bear, coyote, elk, and big horn sheep.

Panoramic view of the Grand Tetons

Panoramic view of the Grand Tetons

TWISTS AND TURNS: From Yellowstone they drove toward the Teton Mountains. “We went to Moose, [Wyo.], and had dinner at Dornan’s, a restaurant with a lot of windows where the Tetons are right in your face. They’re magnificent.” Snow left from last winter and miles of hairpin turns greeted them on Beartooth Highway heading out of Yellowstone. “You definitely need to be a good driver,” said Hansen, who let her husband take the wheel. “It’s exhausting. I think he even took an Excedrin afterward.” They stopped in Red Lodge, Mont., “a funky little town with lots of shops and restaurants. The flower baskets were magnificent.”

BADLANDS EFFECT: In Rapid City, S.D., they stayed at the historic Alex Johnson Hotel. “It was very pretty and reasonable.” The town near Mount Rushmore is erecting statues of all the US presidents. It’s also near Badlands National Park, which they visited. “The Badlands is so massive, and you feel like you’re on the moon. It was different from anything we’ve seen.”

RUSHMORE HIGHLIGHTS: The most thrilling point of the trip was watching fireworks explode over Mount Rushmore on July 3. “It’s a really big deal there. They have events all day. They drop the fireworks in by helicopter and they go off by a computerized system. We took a bus because there’s no parking. There were about 35,000 people up there. It was just spectacular, a real highlight, and a great way to end the trip.”



A bird’s guide to drip-drying

January 26, 2009

Double-crested cormorant (adult non-breeding plumage) is drying its wings

Wessel gives us this dispatch from Florida:

Kayaking has become one of our favorite pastimes over the past two years. It’s pleasant because it allows a look at the world from a different much lower angle at a pace that’s much slower than usual. Probably because of this much humbler behavior wildlife seems to tolerate kayaking humans better than humans in walking or cycling mode. During our last visit to Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., in December we ventured out on the Intracoastal Waterway. That is to say we stayed on the sidelines, to keep a safe distance from the actual Intracoastal Highway where boats speed by and create impressive wakes.


The full drying stretch

There’s a surprising amount of wildlife. On our trip we saw great blue herons, egrets, and even a dolphin. I tried to take a photo of the dolphin but it tricked me swimming in random directions during 20-25 second dives before re-emerging. I was much more successful with a cormorant perched on a pole with its wings stretched and exposed to the sun. Apparently cormorants need to dry their plumage because they do not have oil in their skin to protect their feathers from getting wet like ducks and other water birds do.

Cormorant's green eyes

Cormorants have intense green eyes

I am a casual bird watcher and didn’t know  much about cormorants. Someone had recently mentioned that cormorants have intense green eyes. This can be seen when the photo is enlarged. When reading about cormorants I learned that the green part is the iris. The extremely constricted pupil is as small as the head of a pin and is hardly visible in my photo. Many other diving birds (e.g. penguins, loons, grebes) also have intensely colored eyes, in all cases due to a combined effect of iris color and constricted pupil. The pupil dilates to a large aperture in the low-light conditions underwater. Unfortunately I don’t have photos to prove that statement.

Obamarama: a year of Durham, NC, images

January 20, 2009

From Durham, North Carolina, we salute Barack Obama, our nation’s first African-American president. In my 51 years, never have I seen such excitement about a president taking the oath of office. And let’s not forget Barack’s awesome partner, Michelle. The entire to-do is electric, unforgettable, and over-the-top exciting. Thank you MLK, and everyone who played a part. (I must add that Mother Nature is celebrating by giving us a white Inauguration Day — our first measurable snowfall here in a few years!)

Beyond color, we honor a person we think is a wonderful leader, someone who has the opportunity to take this country boldly into the 21st century in a way that hasn’t yet been accomplished.

In the spirit of Obamania, here are a few photos Wessel has taken over the past year:

NC License Plate B OBAMA

NC license plate seen in Goldsboro (OK, not Durham but close)


Homemade sign in Watts-Hillandale neighborhood

Obama windscreen cover

Creative use of windshield shade spotted on Morgan Street

People in downtown Durham

Election-night party in downtown Durham; Obama was leading

This T-shirt was a hot commodity in Durham

Blue Coffee Cafe T-shirt was a hot commodity in "the Bull City"

Inauguration traffic blues

Inauguration excitement reaches I-85 in Durham

Is that a bike in your pocket?

January 19, 2009
This folding bike can be fit into a suitcase to take on an airplane

A folded Downtube

Deciding that we were going to buy folding bicycles for our birthdays was the easy part for Wessel and me. Choosing the bikes is the challenge. For those of you who have never seen or heard of a folding bicycle, the name pretty much sums it up. Some fold quicker than others, some are more comfortable for long-distance riding, some are lighter, some fold smaller. Prices range from $400 to $4,000 and up. So many options, so many opinions! Argh….Some people use their folders for mostly commuting — hopping on and off buses and trains with their bikes in hand. Wessel and I are more interested in having them for our many travels, especially when we fly, whether domestically or overseas. The money we fork over for the occasional rental or oversized luggage shipping of our own bikes could pay for folding bikes in five years or so.

Bruce Hermann from Neighborhood Transportation came to Durham with several Bike Friday models

Bruce Hermann sets up shop

While there are many good folders out there, the Bike Friday brand in Portland, Eugene, Ore., always rises to the top. The closest BF dealer to us, Neighborhood Transportation, is a couple hours away, near Winston-Salem. So we brought the store to us and made a party out of it. Owner Bruce Hermann was kind enough to bring several bikes for us to try out in exchange for me inviting the local cycling community. Think of it as the bike version of a Tupperware party.


Diane tests a BF road bike

This Bike Friday Pocket Rocket Pro rides like a standard road bike

Folding-bike types can be a little, um, zealous, about their bikes, and so we had a nice supply of zealots on hand as well, who brought these makes: Dahon, Xootr (the scooter not the bike), Mobiky, Strida, and Downtube. Bruce also brought a Breezer folder, and our pals at Cycle 9 in Carrboro, who are Downtube dealers, showed up later in the afternoon with several models. A handful of Bike Friday models were on hand. Perhaps the star attraction was the “tikit,” which BF hawks as the fastest folder available, and geared toward the urban commuter. Did I forget anyone? (A link at the end of this leads to more photos.)

Bruce’s other thing is recumbent bikes, those low-riders that stretch your legs and let the rest of you rest, so he brought a few of those as well, both two wheel and three-wheel models. I loved the three-wheeler. No balance needed! I have several friends who ride recumbents in traffic, but I’m still not up for being that down.

Diane likes this BF New World Tourist

Diane likes this BF New World Tourist

For overall style, I loved the Bike Friday Pocket Rocket Pro, which really is more a road bike than touring bike, and I really need a touring bike that can go on a variety of terrains. So forget the Pocket Rocket, which starts at $1,700. Just as well. For me it’s down to the New World Tourist, which starts at $1,100 and the Pocket Crusoe, which starts at $1,400. The PC does a little more of what I want, but, oh, I just can’t decide. Much customization is available, meaning more options. ARGH…. Custom colors are another $150, which I think is way too much. But I so prefer purple to red. The only way I can justify any of this spending is to not look at my end-of-year financial statements. I will add that cycling is by far my top activity, and my newest bike is 12 years old. Does that help? Of course I could check out used BFs, which means even more research. Maybe by my next birthday I’ll have my folding bike.

Wessel, who is both more budget-minded and less name-brand inclined, is likely going with one of the Downtubes, which costs around $400. And it’s orange! Of course it would make so much more sense if we both had the same bike, but since when do we do things because they make the most sense?

Click here for more photos of folders, recumbents, and friendly folks modeling during our folding fest.

They were Hungary for wine

January 15, 2009

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published Dec. 7, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

 This was one of those “we laughed, we cried” trips. Fun at times, and very solemn intense at others.
Linda (left) and Harvey Weiner at Zakopane, Poland, beginning a hike up the High Tatras.

Linda (left) and Harvey Weiner at Zakopane, Poland, beginning a hike up the High Tatras.

WHO: Linda, 64, and Harvey Weiner, 66, of Newton, Mass.

WHERE: Eastern Europe.

WHEN: Two weeks in July.

WHY: “I’d always wanted to make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, near Krakow,” Harvey said. “I feel it’s an obligation of everyone to go there. We love to hike, and Linda found an organized hiking trip with Backroads from Budapest to Krakow.” Linda was a little hesitant about visiting the concentration camps. “I kept telling myself that I had the easy part by observing.”

TOOLS OF TERROR: The couple spent a few days in Budapest before the tour. “We visited the opera house and the Parliament, but the House of Terror was the most interesting,” Harvey said. “It was the party headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis and later the communist KGB. You see torture chambers, gallows, racks. There’s also the Holocaust Memorial Center, which is noteworthy in sharing blame with passive civilian onlookers.”

Linda (center) and Harvey (right) at wine tasting at the Rokoczi wine cellar, Takoj, Hungary

Linda (center) and Harvey at wine tasting at the Rokoczi wine cellar, Takoj, Hungary

SWEET AND HIGH UP: Backroads took them and eight other hikers into Hungarian wine country and the High Tatras mountains of Slovakia and Poland. “The initial couple of hikes were short warm- ups around vineyards and the countryside and then it got more strenuous in the mountains,” Harvey said. In the Tokaj wine region of Hungary they tasted dessert wines at the Rakoczi Cellar at Sarospatak. “Some people liked them, but they were too sweet for us,” he said.

Harvey and Linda hiking in Tacal, Hungarian wine country.

Harvey and Linda during a hike in Tacal, Hungarian wine country.

SEASONED TRAVELERS: “There were a lot of local families and even nuns in full habit with backpacks and walking sticks.” Linda noticed that many women had “paprika colored hair. They must have dyed it themselves. It was funny because Hungary is known for paprika.” One night, in Javorina, Slovakia, they stayed at Hotel Kolowrat. “It used to be for the communist elite,” Linda said. “It had funky ’50s architecture, a great view of the mountains, and a bowling alley.”

NOT A DAY TRIP: In Krakow, where the tour ended, Harvey wanted to go to Auschwitz by train instead of on a bus tour. “I didn’t want to treat it as a tourist attraction,” he said. Once they were in Oswiecim, they managed to reach the site, though there are no signs pointing the way. “There are two camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau. Auschwitz is set up as a museum, with two barracks. They still have evidence of people: toothbrushes, glasses, human hair, which they sold to make into fabric.” “The room that really got me was where the so-called beds were,” Linda said. “A whole wall was filled with children’s shoes.” At Birkenau they saw ruins of gas showers and crematoriums. They also spent a few days touring Krakow. “It’s a gorgeous city that survived World World II, unlike its Jewish population,” Harvey said.

Can strawberries earn dividend miles?

January 13, 2009
Moveable Feasts paperback cover art

"Moveable Feasts" paperback cover art

I’ve been meaning to write about “Moveable Feasts,” for, um, more than a year. This wonderful book recently came out in paperback, so there’s my hook. It’s a travel book, food book, history book, and transportation book all stirred into one sophisticated stew. Subtitle: “From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat.” The author, Sarah Murray, a regular Financial Times contributor, has a longtime fascination with shipping containers and the transport of goods. While that may sound odd, think of it this way: look around you and consider how probably everything within your sight was shipped in from somewhere. Now can you understand her fascination? She said she wrote about the shipment of food because it’s a tangible thing everyone can related to.

Moveable Feasts by Sarah Morgan

Murray’s book coincidentally came out when the notion of “food miles” — that is the distance that food is shipped — was starting to be talked up. Two beliefs that have come out of that movement are that having food shipped in instead of locally grown is a modern concept, and that the miles food travels is of the utmost factor in regards to environmental issues. While Murray wasn’t out to counter those arguments, two points she makes in her book in effect do. Food has been transported for centuries, including the ancient Romans shipping in olive oil from other Mediterranean areas. And individuals driving their cars to farmers markets, for instance, potentially produce more carbon than one large food-filled shipping container crossing the ocean. I’m not asking you to buy that one without more information, but it’s an interesting point to ponder.

Sarah Murray; photo Paul Morgan

Sarah Murray; photo Paul Morgan

But what I love most about “Moveable Feasts” are the stories Murray shares from around the world, from the crazy and efficient lunchbox distribution system in India to the harvesting of strawberries in space and the travels of Norwegian salmon to China for deboning before being shipped back to Norway for eating. I also enjoyed the chapters on grain elevators and modern design, old Soviet planes being used to deliver  UN aid food to southern Sudan, and airplane food in general. An aside in the airline chapter really resonated with me — an observation by flight attendants that passengers, whose palates are dulled by flying, break out of their normal drinking habits, often by drinking Bloody Mary mix or tomato juice. Indeed, on every flight, Wessel orders tomato juice. I’ve not seen him drink it anywhere else, and we’ve never had it at home. I’ve always thought that was so weird. Now I discover that his quirk is hardly unique. Too funny.

I attended a reading by Murray in Durham at the Regulator and was riveted by her show-and-tell presentation. She started with a “tiffin tin,” the Indian lunchbox, and I was hooked from there. She told us her next project is a book on funerary customs around the world, which includes not only funerals but the set of beliefs and practices a culture uses to honor and remember the dead.

I emailed her about her progress not long ago and got this reply: “I’ve been doing a lot of travelling for the new book — Mexico for Day of the Dead, Bali for the most spectacular royal cremation; Palermo, Sicily, to a macabre catacomb of fully dressed 19th-century Italian mummies! And next, to Iran for the Ashura mourning festival and the ancient Zoroastrian Towers of Silence.” OK, Sarah, get that book finished so we can read it!

Van harte gefeliciteerd, Wessel!

January 9, 2009
Wessel blows candles of birthday cake in 2008

Wessel blows candles of birthday cake in 2008

As faithful readers know, the Dutch go crazy for their birthdays. They congratulate not only the birthday boy/girl, but parents, siblings, and spouses. Wessel’s parents made their birthday call this morning from the Netherlands, bright and early, as always. :O They congratulated me as well. And now I must say, gefeliciteerd to you, too, familie Kok! Being someone who has always sought birthday attention (OK, fine, all attention), I love this Dutch tradition.

So each time there’s a birthday in our immediate Dutch family, Wessel and I do a blog posting with photos. Now the sad thing is this: I wanted this post to surprise Wessel, but he’s the photo editor. So, my dear partner in life, you’re going to have to later add your favorite photos to this. Sorry!

Maroccan medley, the 2008 birthday dinner

Moroccan Medley, the 2008 birthday dinner

This year Wessel and I decided to gift ourselves folding bicycles for our birthdays (mine was last month.) So we are still in the process of shopping around. We’re mostly fixating on Bike Friday, arguably the best folding bike maker but of course also the most expensive. I’m looking forward to the end of the shopping process and the purchase of our bikes!

Diane prepares Fish in a bag, the 2007 birtday special

Diane prepares Fish in a Bag, the 2007 birthday special

As usual, I’ll be making birthday dinner for Wessel. It’s a major production, especially since I have to do a practice run each year. Here’s the lineup since we’ve lived together: Brunswick Stew, Chicken Pudding, Roast, Fish in a Bag (from “Seasoned in the South” ), Moroccan Medley (thanks to Barry Yeoman), and, this year, the sixth, he again requested vegetarian. I finally decided on Moosewood’s Risotto with Spinach and Artichokes (I’m throwing in mushrooms too), as well as some side dishes, natch, and a cake (not sure which one yet) with 45 candles.

Dear Wessel, here are 17 things I love about you:

Your genuine kindness and concern for all living creatures, including humans.
Your photo skills, from execution to organization.
Your sense of humor, including bad puns and jokes.
Your firm buttocks and shapely calves.
Your physical fitness.
Your ability to change bicycle tires much quicker than I can.
Your command of several languages.
Your healthy appetite.
Your intellectual and constant thirst for knowledge.
Your affection for your annoying cat and your care for my dogs that you could easily live without.
Your willingness to fairly divide chores.
Your total, unwavering support of me.
Your many sides.
Your adventurousness.
Your honesty.
Your willingness to be vulnerable.
Your undying love for me.


your adoring wife

Manatee mania in Florida

January 6, 2009
Mother and baby manatee as seen from bridge

Mother and calf manatee as seen from a bridge in Crystal River, FL

“Oh how beautiful, oh baby. Hey baby.”

I cracked up when I heard a fellow kayaker say that to a manatee. These sea creatures are huge, with wrinkly noses that look like a elephant’s snout without a trunk. From above, their bodies look like, well, giant floating turds. But they do have that “hey, baby” effect on people. On Wessel and me, too.

We couldn’t get enough of the mammals last month in Florida, when we went to Citrus County, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico, which could be renamed Manateeland, USA. Crystal River/Kings Bay is the winter home to hundreds of manatees. When the weather cools down, manatees, which need warm water to survive gather at the natural springs in the Crystal River area, which maintain a water temperature of 72 degrees (22°C) year round.

Manatee as Christmas tree ornament

Manatee as Christmas tree decoration

We saw manatee signs, trinkets, mailboxes, license plates, statues, Christmas decorations, and, of course, the celebrities themselves. We watched rehabilitated captive manatees being fed (they’re herbivores) at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, viewed groups of them, often a mother and calf, from a bridge in Crystal River, and were surrounded by them during our “Do Not Disturb” kayak trip through Save the Manatee Club. Having a manatee glide right under your kayak just below the water is quite the experience!! The average adult manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.

Matt Clemons (standing) during kayak trip convinced Diane to not swim with manatees

Matt Clemons (standing) during kayak trip convinced Diane to not swim with manatees

Our trip was led by one of the state’s top manatee advocates, Matt Clemons of Aardvark’s Florida Kayak Company, which donates 50 percent of the cost of the trip to Save the Manatee Club. In some ways, the manatees are being loved to death. There are now a slew of outfitters that take people out to snorkel around them, which means a couple dozen humans are descending on a pod of manatees. Some people say that the playful creatures initiate touching and appreciate human contact. Others say that touching manatees, even when the manatee goes first, upsets their natural balance in many ways unnoticed by the average person. Worse, they say, some snorkelers all out harass the endangered species, chasing them, blocking them, and even trying to ride them. I’ll be writing about this more in my upcoming story about them for the Boston Globe.

As I told Matt, I was annoyed with him because before I started reading up on the issue on his and the Save the Manatee website, I was very excited to “swim with the manatees.” Though I’d wanted to do it for years, I did have a nagging feeling all the while that it seem quite right. Matt and others confirmed that hunch, damn them!

Diane `swims` with manatee

Diane `swims` with the manatees after all

Actually, Wessel and I did end up swimming with the manatees, but not really in the conventional way, as you can see here. We also “adopted” Lily, a lovely lady who lives in Blue Spring State Park in Orange City. We didn’t make it to visit her this trip, because I needed to spend time with human relatives, but it’s on the list. If you’re interested in seeing manatees, here are some great spots to go in Florida. Just view from afar, please! And click here to see more of Wessel’s amazing manatee photos.