Good Newts of Rain

California Newts

California Newts

It’s not easy to find a California newt during a drought, so it has been very satisfying to find a few during some recent rainy evenings.  (Yeah!  Rain!)  They are nocturnal and prefer riparian habitat where they can lay their eggs.

 

These individuals were only about six inches long, which is a typical size for Taricha torosa.  They secrete a potent toxin to protect themselves, and according to Wikipedia it is “hundreds of times more toxic than cyanide.”  whoa.

 

I like to watch them move.  With a sort of sashay, they move their short little legs alternately, creating a sidewise turn as they move forward.  Slowly and deliberately plodding along, they make their way across the wet earth, glistening in the rain.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

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Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco

Haight Street, San Francisco

Haight Street, San Francisco

San Francisco’s famous corner from the 1967 Summer of Love still exists, and as you can see from the first photo, the uniqueness does too.

 

I was there on an October morning last year, and it was not difficult to imagine this scene over 40 years ago because there are still numerous head shops and sidewalk racks of tie-dyed shirts amidst psychedelic murals and full-adult skateboarders.  Funkiness and anarchism still reign in this neighborhood.

 

San Francisco, California

San Francisco, California

There had been a convergence in 1967 of spirited counterculture youths in The Haight neighborhood starting with the Human Be-In a few blocks away on January 14.  Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsburg, The Grateful Dead and many others occupied Golden Gate Park, declaring their ideas for a better world.

 

This evolved further at Haight and Ashbury Streets throughout that summer when tens of thousands of hippies and activists gathered.  They swayed and sang, with or without clothes, usually in a drug-induced haze spreading the message to the world about “making love not war.”

 

Janis Joplin lived near this corner at 122 Lyon Street, she also performed that summer at the Monterey Pop Festival (two hours south) joined by such greats as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Mamas and the Papas, and Otis Redding.  A pilgrimage that instigated the Hippie Revolution, it began here at Haight and Ashbury Streets.

 

Haight-Ashbury-cornerPhoto credit:  Athena Alexander

Elephant Seals on the Beach

Northern Elephant Seals, California Coast

Northern Elephant Seals, California Coast

We found these elephant seals stretched out on the beach along the central California Coast.  On our way south to Cambria, we found a free viewing deck right off of Highway 1.  This beach is protected and is part of the San Simeon Piedras Blancas Rookery, open year round.

 

Elephant Seals

Elephant Seals

The elephant seals pictured here are the Northern species, with males averaging 15 feet in length and weighing over 5,000 pounds each.  Mirounga angustirostris migrate here to breed, molt, and rest.  We visited in May after the breeding season was over, so they are just resting by that time of year.

 

80% of the year the seals are under ocean waters, diving for food.  With special breathing apparatus to assist them in their deep diving (down to 5,800 feet!), they can hold their breath for up to 100 minutes. They eat fish, squid, octopus, small shark, eels, and rays.

 

Every once in a while there was a roar or scuffle, but mostly one or another would just flop a flipper or roll their giant, heavy body over.

 

Whenever I am on a mission to slow down and rejuvenate, I think of the elephant seals in this photo.  I hope you, too, can rest this weekend and just flop a flipper and take in the joys of relaxation.

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Tribal Textiles in Zambia

Elephant, Tribal Textiles

Elephant, Tribal Textiles

I came upon a community of artists in Zambia a few years ago, and thought you would be inspired by their story.

 

We were on a self-made safari adventure in a remote area of Zambia, Africa, visiting South Luangwa National Park.  It was incredibly isolated, I sometimes cannot believe what we went through to get there.  I’ll tell you about that another time.  Like the ferry we used to cross the Zambezi River, a river that in most countries would have a bridge and drivers would be across in less than a minute.  Here some people waited in line two days to cross.

 

Tribal Textiles, Zambia, Africa

Tribal Textiles, Zambia, Africa

One morning before our game drive I complimented the lodge manager on the table linens.  She told us about the shop down the road that made them, suggested we visit the shop, owned and operated by Zambians.  So we carved aside an extra hour from our precious wildlife adventures to stop at this shop on our way to the Mfuwe airport.  I’m so glad we did, for it was one of the brightest moments of the trip, and still brings a sweet smile to my heart.

 

Tribal Textiles art studio

Tribal Textiles art studio

When I stepped across the threshold of Tribal Textiles, it was an oasis of art and human happiness as I have never seen before or since.  The visitor first walks through the artist work area where there are dozens of tables in an orderly section under a corrugated metal “roof,” sans walls.  African tribal music festively sets the scene while Zambian artists sit quietly engaged in their individual hand-painting projects.

 

There were some adobe-like structures for the shop with floors and walls; but most of the space was a working open-air art studio.  Everywhere you could see in this modest complex were colorful textiles displayed on racks or clotheslines, drying in the African breeze.

 

Textiles,-ZambiaEach piece was different in size, shape, and color patterns, usually with African themes.  Designs included safari animals and trees, bright colors as well as earth tones, geometric designs, florals and abstracts, spanning many different tribal motifs.

 

The shop was neat and clean and had electricity, displaying home textiles (table linens, bedspreads, wall hangings) as well as personal textiles (garments and accessories) in several different rooms.  Everywhere there were happy faces offering friendly assistance, industrious workers, and serene artists.

 

African art has long been synonymous with tribal face masks relating to religion, in which the wearer becomes a medium for the spirit.  There is a sense of mysterious voodoo, often dark or other-worldly, and largely male-dominated.  Tribal Textiles art was the antithesis of this traditional art, and one that I thoroughly welcomed.

 

This company and its art is about new life and hope, different in every way from the old African traditions.  Not just men but women too are celebrated artisans, the business is founded and still run by a woman (Gillie Lightfoot) devoted to supporting native professionals in her Zambian community.  And unlike many establishments in Africa, it was clear that every dollar we spent was distributed to the artists and devotees of this well-functioning business, and not caught in the pockets of unknown officials.

 

Lastly, one of the deep troubles with buying art or souvenirs in Africa is the maiming or poaching of animals that still pervades in alarming quantities.  Illegal poaching for art or medicinal purposes and destruction of wildlife is an ugly and abominable act.  This, too, is an old tradition, and one that has grown in epidemic proportions to the point of endangering many of Africa’s most prized natives, the animals.

 

This art was made of cloth (not ivory, rare wood, or animal hide), and decorated with paint rather than animal parts or feathers.  It was designed and created by Zambians under the trees of their village, and we were assured of a brighter future for all concerned.  It is slightly over five years since I made that trip, and I am happy to say the business is still there and continues to flourish.

 

Zebra2Zebras roam freely, while these Zambians are employed and feeding their families.  It’s a shining success story and an inspiring group of people.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Snowcap Hummingbird

Male Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

Male Snowcap Hummingbird, Costa Rica

This zippy little hummingbird is named for the cap that adorns the male’s head.  I saw this individual in Costa Rica on the Caribbean mountain slopes where they are native.  Microchera albocoronata can also be found in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.

 

One of the smallest hummingbirds on earth, it is only 2.5 inches long.   In a dark forest canopy it can be tricky following a dark speedy bird with your eyes, or more difficult, a camera lens; but the bright white cap helps with that.  By staying focused on a zooming white dot, we were rewarded.  Like most hummingbirds, their diet consists of flower nectar and an occasional insect.  Hummingbirds are almost always bright colors like red or emerald or fuchsia, but this unusual species is burgundy.

 

What I liked best about this rare bird was its verve.  You may be familiar with the fierceness of hummingbirds as they zoom around in constant defense of their territory.  For this hummingbird that is roughly the size of your thumb, all the hummingbirds in the forest are bigger.  Even butterflies are bigger!  Yet the snowcap hummingbird charges through the forest like he owns it; extracting nectar on his daily route, squabbling with competitors while getting his needs met, and dazzling tourists too.  I think that’s quite remarkable.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

I had the pleasure of visiting this popular UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.  It is the ancient remnants of an Inca civilization deep in the mountains of Peru, about 50 miles northwest of Cuzco.

 

Nestled between two mountains (Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu) at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet, it was built around the year 1450.  There are numerous speculations as to why it was built, but it is known that after about 100 years the area was abandoned.  Many speculations also exist as to the purpose of it and the people who lived there.  It was a lost civilization for many centuries, invisible under jungle overgrowth; so hidden it escaped destruction in the wave of Pizarro’s Spanish Conquest.  In 1911 Hiram Bingham re-discovered the site and led an archaeological excavation, which resulted in the unearthing of this ancient world.  You can read more about Machu Picchu here.

Machu-Picchu,-B.-Page

For perspective you can see two people in the bottom left hand corner

 

Waiting for the train, that's me with the backpack

Waiting for the train, that’s me with the backpack

There are several ways to get to Machu Picchu, I happened to go by train.  It was a wonderful experience which included an animated albeit unusual fashion show.  Passing through the Sacred Valley of the Incas and paralleling the beautiful Urubamba River, we arrived in Machu Picchu thoroughly entertained.  As it was its own adventure, I will write about it in a future post.  The Inca Trail is also a popular route to the Site, though it is only for the heartiest of hikers and requires strict advanced booking.  Tour operators offer alternative routes as well.

 

View from the train, Urubamba River

View from the train, Urubamba River

Tourism is heavy at this celebrated attraction, but the government has made restrictions which have helped to preserve the area.  I tend to avoid touristy places but I was fortunate that our travel group arranged an overnight up there in the mountains.  This way we could visit the site toward the end of one day and then again first thing in the morning before tourist buses arrived.  That’s why the site photos are relatively peopleless.

 

I was enlightened and moved by this mystical, sacred place.  Fascinating history, remarkable stonework and terracing craftsmanship, and the natural features were breathtaking (literally and figuratively).  It is easy to see why ancient Peruvians mastered the weather extremes and lived in peace on this mountaintop…it’s a step closer to heaven.  MP,-Peru

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Lucy the Elephant

Lucy the Elephant, New Jersey

Lucy the Elephant, New Jersey

I once heard my spouse and an east coast friend reminiscing about Lucy the Elephant, and each had very happy and animated recollections.  I decided I wanted to see this phenomenon someday.  Since then I asked different people from the U.S. east coast if they knew of Lucy the Elephant, and so many people smile broadly!  How can you not smile when you look at this silly beast?

 

An architectural structure made of wood and tin, Lucy is huge.  To be exact:  65 feet tall, 60 feet long, 18 feet wide, weighs 90 tons.  There is a viewing deck on top and you get to it via a spiral staircase in Lucy’s leg.  It was closed that day for Easter, but if you go up to the “howdah” deck on top you can see the Atlantic City skyline and the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Lucy-the-Elephant,-NJOne Easter we took my Philadelphian mother-in-law to Atlantic City, New Jersey, one of her favorite haunts.  Margate City, home of Lucy the Elephant, is not far from Atlantic City so of course we set out on a mission to find it.  Lucy dates back a long way, all the way to 1881.  I wasn’t too sure what to expect, and sometimes these old attractions can turn out sad–battered by dilapidation and neglect.  But it turns out Lucy was dapper, and much larger than I had imagined.

 

Lucy's Toes

Lucy’s Toes

Originally designed as a gimmick to sell real estate, Lucy was built by James V. Lafferty.  He had it built to offer views of the real estate parcels he was selling.   In 1887 a family bought Lucy and maintained it for most of the 20th century.  Eventually it fell into disrepair, then some dedicated locals raised money for refurbishment, and now it is a tourist attraction as well as a National Historic Landmark.

 

When we visited Lucy, my mother-in-law couldn’t believe Lucy was still there; and Lucy, too, was impressed, for not too many 80 year old women come to visit.

 

That was a cold day in March, but whenever I think about it, I smile warmly.  Tell me, dear reader, do you know of Lucy?

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander