Posted by: sharemore1 | October 7, 2014

Whales, Bears and Stormy Seas, Part 4

[This concludes the posts on my summer vacation.]

Part 4:  Rescued

Goodbye to Pt. Adolphus

Goodbye to Pt. Adolphus

The  weather forecast was ominous, promising more rain accompanied by strong winds.   We decided to travel back to Hoonah in two days, instead of one, to give us a better chance of paddling the difficult stretches during slack tide, when the seas were more likely calm.

Kelly wanted to join us on the first leg of our trip.   As a solo kayaker, responsible for his own safety, he erred on the side of caution. “I’m a stand up paddler,” he joked. “I stay near the shore so I can stand up if I tip over.” It was comforting to have him along.

As we left Point Adolphus the next morning, a humpback gave us a dramatic sendoff by rolling and slapping the water, sending up a big splash.   The whale blew out a column of air and hit the water again and again, sometimes with its tail and other times with its flipper.

After we’d paddled about nine miles, the skies began to darken and the wind picked up.  We ducked in behind Burger Point in Flynn Cove, a sheltered spot with camping sites.

In a steady rain, we set up our tents, strung three tarps and collected wood for a fire.  After eating dinner together, we gave Kelly the extra food we would no longer need.  Wet and tired, we crawled into our tents looking forward to a hot shower in Hoonah the next day .

As I lay in my tent listening to the wind, I remembered our earlier trip on the east coast of Chichagof Island. The shore had been rocky and the water dotted with sea stacks—high, craggy pillars sculpted by water over the centuries. With breaking waves crashing in from the ocean, we had to paddle single file between the sea stacks and the rocky shore so our boats wouldn’t smack against each other.

Barbara, a strong paddler, had led the way. Sarah and I watched a wave sweep over her from behind. While Barbara struggled to stay upright, Sarah, who was only 14, powered through the channel. I followed, with one eye on Sarah and the other looking for Barbara. We all made it through safely but couldn’t stop until we reached Elfin Cove.  There we learned it had been too rough for the fishing boats to go out that day.

I had vowed never to venture out in such weather again, especially with my granddaughter. Yet here we were, five years later, in the same situation. If we couldn’t get to Hoonah in time we’d miss our Bellingham ferry, which only ran once a week.

The next morning we awoke to yet more rain and wind.   Almost everything was wet: the tents, the tarps, the dry bags and our rain gear. Craig had put his rainfly on upside down and spent the night with water seeping into the corners of his tent. When Kelly drained a puddle from one of the tarps, he accidently sent a cascade of water streaming down Peggy’s neck and into her boots. When he drained another puddle, he put out the fire. Nothing was going well that morning.

Yet we continued to make preparations for leaving. As we loaded the kayaks, we noticed three fishing boats anchored in Flynn Cove, seeking shelter. The official weather report reinforced our fears, predicting winds up to 23 knots. We tied up the boats and left them on the beach.   Since our top speed is about four knots and the channel was too rough for commercial fishers, we knew we could not paddle.  Kelly concurred.

Pondering our Options

Pondering our Options

We returned to camp, rehung two tarps and pondered our options.  Desperate to get out that day, I looked over at the boats in the cove. Maybe one would give us a lift. No harm in asking.  Craig and I climbed into a double kayak and paddled out to the St. James, anchored at the far end of the cove.

“Ahoy, St. James. Ahoy St. James,” I shouted, hoping that was indeed how you summoned the captain.   When a man stepped groggily onto the deck in his bathrobe, I explained our predicament and asked if he could help us. “I’m not going that way,” was his terse reply. I apologized for waking him and we moved on to the next boat.

The Shelikov

The Shelikov

This time I dispensed with the ahoying, as the captain of the Shelikov was out on deck having a smoke .  I explained there were five of us in three kayaks who desperately needed a lift to Hoonah.   “The water is too rough for us to paddle and we want to catch a ferry,” I explained.

“We weren’t heading toward Hoonah,” he said. “We haven’t decided what we’re doing today.” It was the last day of a short King Salmon season; perhaps he hoped to fish if the wind died down.  Just then his wife stuck her head out of the cabin window. I muttered something about my granddaughter being along and told them we’d be happy to pay for their time and fuel.

“We don’t want to be paid,” he said.  “We just need to figure out what we’re going to do.  Call me on your VHF radio at 2:00.”

Craig and I paddled back to the others with our report.   We sat near the fire that Kelly had quickly restarted, drinking coffee and hot chocolate while we waited.   We took back some of the food we had given Kelly so we could make a real lunch.

Promptly at 2:00 I called the Shelikov. “We’ll take you now,” the captain said. We cheered, took down the tarps and scrambled to our boats. We rolled the loaded kayaks down the beach on four small logs, as Kelly had taught us.   We had never gotten underway so quickly.

Paddling to the Shelikov

Paddling to the Shelikov

When Barbara got to the fishing boat, the captain, Roger, and his wife, Zona, helped her climb onto the deck. They hoisted her boat up and urged her to take a seat in the cabin.   When Craig and I got there, I was sent inside and Craig was enlisted to help haul the heavy kayaks. Peggy was hurried inside as well, but Sarah stayed out to help lift the last boat onto the deck. The captain had quickly identified the power lifters in our group.

Roger invited Craig to join him in the wheelhouse, where he talked about helping his father guide bear hunting trips. He recalled the time a bear kept coming at them after being shot in both shoulders. “We finally dropped him when he was only eight feet away,” Roger remembered. I’m glad Craig was safely onboard when he heard that bear story.

With our wet paddling clothes piled in the middle of the cabin, Barbara, Peggy, Sarah and I sat comfortably around a table drinking hot coffee.   Zona said she’d been relieved when we’d asked for a ride.   She had already taken note of our kayaks so she could notify the Coast Guard if we got in trouble. She dismissed our offers to pay them for the trip. “Just pay it forward,” Zona urged. “You’ll find someone who needs your help.”

Safe, warm and dry, I began to reflect on our trip. We had paddled among humpback whales, faced down a bear and survived stormy seas, all with the help of strangers who appeared when we needed them. When I began this adventure I wondered if it might be my last trip, but already I was imagining where we might go next year.

Peggy, Barbara, Craig, Sharon and Sarah

Peggy, Barbara, Craig, Sharon and Sarah

Posted by: sharemore1 | October 6, 2014

Whales, Bears and Stormy Seas, Part 3

[This is the third installment of a four part blog on how I spent my summer vacation.]

Part 3:  Kayak Kelly

Tent in the Devil's Club

Tent in the Devil’s Club

Listening to raindrops ping off our tents, we took our time getting up the next morning.   Nestled under the shelter of hemlock and spruce boughs, we mourned for the sunny weather.  Finally we pulled on rain jackets and rain pants over long underwear, which soon became our daily uniform.   We added another tarp to the kitchen area and adjusted its slope.

Under the tarps, we had front row seats for a daily parade. Humpback whales cruised for small fish beyond the kelp beds. Voracious sea lions twisted their bodies and dove with a splash, surfacing with salmon in their mouths. Harbor seals popped up to check us out, and otters did the backstroke with babies on their bellies. Porpoises swam by like little whales, and ravens provided the sound track as they klonked in the woods.

When the rain let up, we explored our neighborhood. The forest had a spongy floor and was decorated in shades of green, with yellowish moss on fallen logs, light green lichen clinging to trees and hunter green needles overhead. On the beach the rocks were as hard underfoot as the forest was soft and offered a different palette: black, charcoal, light gray and white, with splashes of red and yellow.

Shades of Green

Shades of Green

After dinner, as dusk enveloped us, we watched a lone kayaker paddle toward Point Adolphus. “Don’t stop here,” we quietly urged. Already we considered the campsite ours and didn’t want to share it.   Little did we know how much we would learn from this stranger.

The next morning we met our new neighbor, who had stopped before the point and set up his tent next to a big rock. Kayak Kelly, as he called himself, had been paddling in S.E. Alaska for the last 10 years. Eager to learn more, we invited him to lunch.

The fifty-something Kelly had a brown ponytail, mustache and a beard flecked with gray.   Originally from Santa Cruz, he now makes his home in S.E. Alaska, where he paddles solo half the year.  Living frugally, he fishes, hunts and forages for food. During the winter he works, doing odd jobs, house sitting and making jewelry from shells, antlers and fossilized ivory.

Kelly the Firestarter_6697

Kayak Kelly

We told him we yearned for a fire but feared the wood was too wet to burn.  Kelly quietly headed into the woods. Soon he returned with branches filled with sap that would burn quickly. We found some dry kindling, and with a little blowing and fanning made an excellent fire. Sarah and Peggy became experts in identifying the best branches for burning.

Later Craig and Kelly climbed into a double kayak and trolled for fish.   Apparently the sea lion had gotten to the salmon first, but the paddlers came back with two small rockfish to supplement the vegetarian pizza Barbara was planning for dinner.   Kelly wandered into the woods and gathered mushrooms to add to the meal.

Suddenly we saw a young brown bear heading our way. We consider ourselves guests in bear territory and get out of their way whenever possible, which has worked well with the dozens of wild bears we have encountered.   Since Kelly travels solo, and often has fish or deer meat in camp, he believes in staking out his territory and forcing the bear to move on.

Backed up against a rocky point with the intruder heading toward our food, we had no choice but to adopt Kelly’s approach.   We armed ourselves with pepper spray, grabbed the flare gun and blew on our air horns. With Kelly and Craig in the lead, we marched forward.  But the bear didn’t stop.

Although bears rarely approach such large groups, this one didn’t seem to know better. Finally after much shouting and horn blowing, we drove it into the woods. Kelly ran back to his camp for a rifle and followed the animal. He soon returned, saying the bear had moved on.

Bear Tracks

Bear Tracks

We learned much from that brief encounter. Craig, whose fear had almost kept him from going on the trip, helped lead the charge against the bear. Our air horns made little impression on the interloper. I, who had carried the flare gun on countless trips, didn’t know how to load it quickly.   And not all of us had our bear spray handy. We hoped, at least, that the bear had learned to be more wary of humans.

With the bear gone, we returned to our dinner. After finishing every bite of grilled fish and Barbara’s red pepper and mushroom pizza, we ended the day with a campfire on the beach. I read aloud “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London, about an Alaskan who nearly died because his hands were too frozen to strike a match.  We thought about the determination and skills required to survive in the wilderness–skills, it turned out, we were still learning.

Reading by the Fire_6726

Reading by the Fire

Posted by: sharemore1 | October 3, 2014

Whales, Bears and Stormy Seas: Kayaking in Alaska, Part 2

[This is the second installment of a four part blog on how I spent my summer vacation.]

Part 2:  Paddling to Point Adolphus

We were eager to reach Point Adolphus, summer home of the humpback whales, after months of planning and preparation.   Two trips in Hoonah’s only taxi brought us back to the ferry terminal, where we’d stashed the boats behind a fence.

Now we had to get the kayaks down a rocky incline to the water.  The only way was to lower them one at a time, being careful not to slip on the loose stones.  Once the boats were down, we formed a gear bag brigade, passing our paraphernalia from one person to the next down the steep slope until everything was on the beach. We stuffed the kayaks to the gunwales and strapped the overflow on the decks.

Loading the Boats_6658

Skies were clear and the water smooth when we finally paddled out of Hoonah Harbor.  At Cannery Point we felt tiny next to an idling cruise ship.  Its passengers were exploring “authentic remote Alaska” at a fish processing plant turned into a museum and cruise ship destination.

Even from the water we could see that the passengers were hardly having an authentic Alaskan experience.   For $92 passengers could take a 90-second ride on the world’s longest zip line.  They could visit a free museum displaying plastic fish with realistic blood and guts and spend more money on flightseeing, whale watching or brown bear tours.

Kayakers, however, were not welcome. This was made clear when we stopped there to adjust our rudders before crossing Port Frederick.   As soon as we crunched ashore on the gravelly point, a Native Alaskan guard came down and ordered us to move on. “You’re on private property,” he informed us. “The Coast Guard doesn’t allow you to be here.”

“We’re not staying,” I explained, “just getting out of our boats to fix our rudders. It’s a safety issue.”  Although I doubted the Coast Guard cared whether we landed there or not, I knew we couldn’t be turned away if we had safety concerns.  Dubious, he hovered over us, walkie-talkie in hand, as we quickly adjusted the foot braces and pushed our kayaks back into the water.

As we glided past the cruise ship, we saw our first whale.  The humpback arched a dorsal fin six feet out of the water and dove in search of small fish and krill. The whale was far enough away that its 30-ton body didn’t intimidate us, yet close enough to appreciate how smoothly it cut through the water.  We had a private show while the cruise ship passengers were occupied in the museum and souvenir shops.

With many miles to go we couldn’t dally.  We got into a paddling rhythm as we struggled against the current flooding toward us. The water stayed calm, the sun shone and we slowly passed the waypoints entered into our GPS.  Except for 19-year-old Sarah, we ranged in age from the late 50s to the early 70s. Our aching muscles and joints complained as we pulled our heavily laden boats forward, one stroke at a time.

At Pinta Cove, we heeded the advice we’d been given and pushed on toward Point Adolphus.  Just then the bulbous kelp began streaming toward the point, a sure sign the current had turned in our favor.   Before we had been straining to make three knots; now we were easily paddling more than four.

Reaching our campsite by late afternoon, we found it had everything the Hoonah teacher on the ferry had promised: a relatively smooth beach, campsites in the forest and a fresh water stream. Ben hadn’t even mentioned the outhouse, or more accurately “outbox,” a hand-hewn throne with a toilet seat tucked away in the woods.

Pt. Adolphus Outhouse

Pt. Adolphus Outhouse

This was a luxury we hadn’t anticipated.

We erected our tents in the forest surrounded by devil’s club. With their giant green leaves and sharp spiny stems, the tall plants formed a protective barrier around us. Sarah set up our tent fly so taut that rain would bounce off it, a skill she learned at a co-ed Boy Scout adventure camp

We created a kitchen area beyond the little creek to put distance between the tents and the food.  Sitting on the beach, I cooked minestrone soup, made with vegetables I had dried at home: red and orange peppers, yellow squash, beans and onions. I added a dollop of pesto to the soup and served a kale and date salad to complete the meal.  Although cruise ship passengers have more comfortable accommodations, we can’t imagine they have better food.

Sharon Cooking Dinner

Sharon Cooking Dinner

After dinner we scurried to wash the dishes and hang food and other “smellables” in the trees as the light dimmed. Already the lantern was coming in handy.  Once the chores were done, we relaxed with a swig of Scotch, proud that we had reached Point Adolphus in one day.  We felt confident we were prepared for the challenges ahead.

Sunset at Pt. Adolphus_6668

Sunset at Pt. Adolphus

Posted by: sharemore1 | September 30, 2014

Whales, Bears and Stormy Seas: Kayaking in Alaska, Part 1

[This is the first installment of a four part blog on how I spent my summer vacation.]

Part 1:  To Hoonah by Ferry

Cruising the Inside Passage

Cruising the Inside Passage

In August we took off on another Alaskan adventure. No cruise ships for us, with the prospect of lounging by the pool, dining in elegance and sleeping in a stateroom between crisp sheets. Instead, we traveled in the solarium of the ferry Columbia, dined out of our cooler and spent the night in sleeping bags on plastic lawn chairs.

After nearly 30 years of paddling and camping in remote Alaska, from the Chukchi Sea to the Aleutian Islands, I couldn’t help wondering if this trip would be my last.  At 72, I knew that eventually the rigors of such adventures would be too much.  While I still could, I wanted to return to Point Adolphus in S.E. Alaska, summer home of humpback whales.

Five years ago, my friend Barbara, granddaughter Sarah and I had watched those whales leap into the air and flop down with a crack like a gunshot. In the night we heard them growl and roar, like bears in the woods. Their deep bass tones reverberated across Icy Strait. Now we wanted to share the experience with friends.

Peggy was eager to go, but Craig had his doubts. The area is densely populated with brown bears and Craig was not keen to encounter them in the wilderness. “We’ll be fine,” I assured him. “We’re bringing bear-proof containers, air horns, pepper spray and a flare gun.” Craig finally decided to come along, with an extra can of pepper spray just in case.

Sarah, Sharon, Peggy & Craig on the Ferry

Sarah, Sharon, Peggy & Craig on the Ferry

Four of us boarded the ferry in Bellingham, while Barbara would fly into Juneau.  As we cruised the Inside Passage we slept on the deck, napped without guilt and read for pleasure. We marked waypoints on our charts and reviewed our route to Pt. Adolphus.

Lounging on the Deck

Lounging on the Deck

We couldn’t get an updated weather report, but the last forecast had called for rain every day of the trip.  We weren’t worried. Experienced campers, we had come well prepared with rain jackets, waterproof pants, boots and tarps.

Then we landed in Ketchikan, our first stop. Lulled by weeks of sunny, dry weather at home, we left our boots and rain pants on the ferry. It rained over three inches that day, more than we’d seen in Seattle all summer, and we all got wet. When the wind began to blow, we hurried back just in time to help secure other passengers’ tents that were skittering across the deck. Southeast Alaska had put us on notice.

Tents on the Ferry

Tents on the Ferry

Disembarking in Juneau, we met Barbara and retrieved our rental kayaks in nearby Auk Bay.  We loaded the boats and a dozen bags on the ferry LaConte that was headed for Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Tlingit village.   There we would begin kayaking northwest along Chichagof Island.

Loading a Kayak on the Ferry

Loading a Kayak on the Ferry

As we settled in for the three-hour ride, Ben, a Hoonah science teacher, approached us. “Looks like you’re going kayaking,” he commented.   We soon discovered that he and his wife had paddled much of that area. Always eager to benefit from local knowledge, we pulled out our charts and questioned him about currents, winds, potential hazards and the best camping spots.

Ben told us that Pinta Cove, where we’d considered camping, had two problems. It was located near a mosquito pond and was a frequent stopping place for kayak tour groups. If we pushed on beyond Pt. Adolphus, we’d find a private beach, with woodland campsites and a fresh water stream. It would mean an 18-mile paddle, but we thought we could do it.

Ben reassured Craig about the bears. “They’re after salmon this time of year,” he said. “Pt. Adolphus has plenty of whales but no salmon streams.”

Barbara and Craig with Our Gear

Barbara and Craig with Our Gear

Hoonah’s only taxi had to make two trips to get us and our bags to the Icy Strait Lodge.  There we spread out in the narrow entryway to stuff everything into drybags. “It looks like R.E.I. barfed in the lobby,” commented one of the guests as she made her way among our mounds of gear.

Soon we realized that not everything would fit in the boats. Slowly the “leave behind” pile grew: the box of red wine, our camp chairs, my favorite little teakettle, the shovel and large water containers. Will we really use the lantern? How much extra rope do we need?   Do I take my heavy Nikon or my new small GoPro? These were hard choices.

It was midnight before all five of us squeezed into one room, like college students on a field trip. Our second room had been given to someone else by mistake.   We hoped to catch a few hours sleep before our 5:00 a.m. wake up call. To reach Pt. Adolphus would require at least seven hours of kayaking, more than any of us had paddled in years.

[to be continued]

Posted by: sharemore1 | July 22, 2014

Two Neighbors: Peace through the Eye of a Needle


Working TogetherIsraelis and Palestinians are two wary neighbors with a wall between them.  For more than a decade these neighbors have grown farther apart until today residents of Gaza are shooting rockets deep into Israel, and Israel is responding with air strikes and an invasion. Children have been kidnapped and murdered on both sides.

At risk to their safety and standing in their communities, a small group of Israeli and Palestinian women are working together on a joint project:  to create beautiful fashions that combine traditional Palestinian embroidery with modern Israeli fabric and design.

The concept seems simple: employ Palestinian women to embroider fabric and Israeli women to sew it into dresses and fashion accessories.  But to make this happen, within the political and economic realities of the two countries, is anything but simple.  Yet nothing seems to deter these women from reaching their goal.

“Two Neighbors:  Peace through the Eye of a Needle” <twoneighbors.com> was started four years ago by a retired American couple from Idaho, Whit and Paula Jones, and their partner, Andy McCluskey. Despite the escalating conflict between leaders of Israel and the West Bank, they believed that people within the region could work toward common goals.  They set up a self-sustaining business that would also address social problems: the lack of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians and limited employment opportunities for Palestinian women.

The Americans sought out women on both sides of the border who could think creatively about how to address these problems.  Segal Kirsch, an energetic Israeli math teacher, and Maram Issa, a Palestinian international development specialist, agreed to coordinate the project.

Maram worked with Rehan Abu Sabha, skilled in traditional embroidery, who could design patterns and train women to stitch them on the fabric.  Segal discovered Miriam Givon, a young Israeli designer who had studied in Paris, and found Israeli seamstresses who could work with her. Yet even after the participants were identified, developing a business partnership was a challenge.

Where could they meet?   Some areas of the West Bank are closed to Israelis and others are closed to Palestinians.  Even working with Israelis could be dangerous for the Palestinian women, who might be accused of collaborating with the enemy.  The women chose to meet in Beit Jala, a small community near Bethlehem, one of the few places where people from both sides can be together.

How could they communicate?  The Israelis spoke Hebrew and the Palestinians spoke Arabic.  They settled on English, which a few of the women could speak, with translation and gestures filling in the gaps.

The original project started small, with the women embroidering cup sleeves to hold steaming cups of coffee or tea.  When they found they could not sell them at a price that would cover their costs, they considered table cloths or bedspreads.  Finally they decided to create women’s fashion, beginning with dresses and tote bags.

Miriam designed long and short dresses and black bags that would be embroidered in different colors.  She made patterns, obtained the fabric and cut out the dresses, which were then delivered to the Palestinian women to be embroidered.  Finally the fabric was taken back to Israel to be sewn into the final product and marketed internationally.

“These dresses represent two worlds that are very far part, but they come together on the dresses in perfect harmony,” says Segal.  “Each dress has a lot of soul,”  says Miriam.  They are handmade, with no two just alike.

The Palestinian seamstresses are paid for each piece they embroider.   For some it’s the first money they have ever earned.  One woman used her money for a dress to attend her sister’s wedding and another planned a trip to Jerusalem  to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.  The Israeli seamstresses, also paid by the piece, use the money to supplement their income.

More than 18 months after the current team came together, and four years after the Americans conceived of the project, they reached a major milestone.  Through a Kickstarter campaign, they attracted 137 backers, including the Israeli singer, Achinoam Nini, who will wear one of the dresses onstage.  The campaign ended in May, bringing in $10,598, enabling Two Neighbors to begin to produce, market and sell their hand-embroidered products.

Embroidered Dresses

Embroidered Dresses

To celebrate their success and preview the dresses, the women traveled to Jaffa on the Mediterranean Sea.  That simple journey demonstrates how far apart their worlds are.  The Israeli army had to approve travel for each of the Palestinian women, a process that took two weeks.  At the last minute, one woman was denied entry because of a mistake on her application.  The other women were fingerprinted as they filed through the Israeli checkpoint.

Once on the bus, the women were as excited as school children on a field trip, many seeing the sea for the first time despite living only 30 miles away.  Fifty-one-year-old Neema shrieked with delight when she first saw the deep blue water fade to a light green and spill on the sand in a frothy white foam.  “I don’t want just to see the sea, I want to hold it,” she said.  The other Palestinian women shared her joy as they all jumped into the water fully clothed, their colorful headscarves floating on the waves. They scoured the beach for shells to take home as souvenirs.

Seamstress in the Sea

Seamstress in the Sea

Dinner was held at a kosher restaurant to accommodate the Israeli seamstresses who follow Jewish dietary laws.  There the Palestinian and Israeli seamstresses, project coordinators and American backers came together to see, touch and admire the collection they had created.  Speaking in three languages, but one voice, they were proud of what they had accomplished.   “God willing,” said Kefah Al-Adara, “this project between us and the Israeli women will create friendship and affection between the two nations.”

Their joy was short lived. Less than two weeks after their Kickstarter campaign ended, three young Israelis were kidnapped and murdered after they hitched a ride home from a Jewish religious school in the West Bank.  During the 18 days it took to discover their bodies, movement in and out of the village of al-Atwani, where the Palestinian seamstresses live, was restricted.  It was impossible to get fabric to the women or get their embroidery out.

They surmounted this obstacle by using taxis to transfer the fabric to the Palestinian women and obtain their finished work.  “We are not able to meet with them,” Segal said.  “These are very difficult days for everyone. For the first time I couldn’t overcome my fear of driving to Beit Jala.  I tried very hard not letting the fear take over, but eventually called Maram and told her that I didn’t feel safe ”  They immediately agreed on an alternate meeting place.

Marketing efforts have been overshadowed by the horrific events of the current conflict.  An interview about the project on a local television station occurred the same day a young Palestinian boy was abducted on his way to morning prayers, then beaten and burned alive.

Despite the fear and animosity surrounding them, the women are not giving up.  “I think the best thing for Two Neighbors at these times is to concentrate on our work and our amazing personal relationships,” said Segal.  They are determined to show the world that Israeli and Palestinian women can create beauty through the eye of the needle, even if peace currently eludes them.

 

The Two Neighbors Team

The Two Neighbors Team

 

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Disclosure:  I am proud to say that Segal Kirsch is my stepdaughter.  Follow their progress and buy a dress through at <www.facebook.com/twoneighbors>.

Posted by: sharemore1 | March 11, 2014

Hanoi Traffic: Frightening and Fascinating

What I hate most about living in Hanoi is the traffic.  It’s noisy, polluting and often terrifying, whether you are on foot or in a vehicle.

What I love most about living in Hanoi is the traffic.  The city’s four million motorbikes create a captivating show as they transport everything from washing machines to a family of five.

Family Station Wagon

Family Station Wagon

How can I simultaneously hold such contradictory views?

Let’s start with the hate part.  It took me years to learn to cross the street in Hanoi without heart palpitations.  There are few stoplights and crosswalks are ignored.  The only way to get to the other side is to wade into the stream of traffic and let it flow around you.  This New York Times video demonstrates the challenges: <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/world/asia/hanoi-traffic-daunts-tourists.html?_r=0>

Eventually I learned to walk slowly and predictably, so the drivers could move around me.  It is essential to keep going forward and never stop or turn around.   A tourist was killed when she suddenly remembered she had left her purse in the hotel and went back to retrieve it.

Sitting on the back of a motorbike doesn’t feel much safer.  During rush hour I don’t casually ride sidesaddle in short skirts and high heels like many Vietnamese women; rather, I cling tightly as the driver maneuvers between cars, trucks and buses, hops onto the sidewalk or goes against traffic to avoid clogged streets.

Sharon in Traffic

Sharon in Traffic

Even traveling in a car can be dangerous.  At intersections with no traffic lights, cars move in all directions at once, weaving around each other as they get to the other side.  Making a u-turn in front of oncoming traffic is a common maneuver, one I can only tolerate with my eyes shut.

Once I felt the thud as our taxi hit a motorbike that was squeezed between us and another vehicle. I was relieved when the driver picked himself up and drove off.

Drivers slowly thread their way through tangled traffic by anticipating what the other drivers will do and signaling them with a horn.  The beeps from motorbikes, blares from cars and baritone blasts from trucks create a discordant symphony.

The heavy traffic helps make Hanoi one of the most polluted cities in the world.  Drivers often wear facemasks to filter out the exhaust.  “Are they all dentists?” my four-year-old granddaughter wondered when she came to visit.  These masks have not prevented an increase in pulmonary disease and asthma, which researchers at the Hanoi University of Medicine attribute to air pollution.

Now that I’ve made my case for the danger, noise and pollution caused by Vietnamese traffic, what’s to love about it?

Egg Delivery

Egg Delivery

For me, the traffic is an endless source of entertainment.  I sometimes get up early just to watch the daily deliveries.  I’ve stared in wonder at motorbikes carrying 1,000 fresh eggs piled high in open flats or two squealing hogs in a crate surrounded by bulging bags and bundles of animal feed.

I’ve walked cautiously around a bicycle transporting five hives of angry bees in homemade containers that looked like mesh screens stitched onto pieces of tarp.

Bees on a Bike

Bees on a Bike

Near our apartment is a row of small furniture shops where I can watch men load furniture twice as high or twice as long as the bike that will deliver them to their destination.

Moving Van

Moving Van

In the Bat Trang pottery village, I looked on with trepidation as a man balanced four expensive five-foot tall vases on his bike, two on each side.

Vases

Delicate Cargo

The pottery seller in our neighborhood loads her bicycle with fragile cups, teapots, vases and bowls that she hawks from the mobile shop she pushes up and down the street.

Bicycle Load of Pottery_3375

Portable Pottery Shop

Sometimes bikes are so heavily laden that it can be difficult to see either the vehicle or the driver.

Where's the Motorbike?

Find the Bike

Ever have trouble bringing home that perfect Christmas tree?  Think about transporting a live tree full of tiny oranges for the Tet holiday.  As usual, the trick is to hoist it on the back of the motorbike and balance carefully.

Bringing Home the Tree

Bringing Home the Tree

Watching traffic in Hanoi feels like being a spectator at the Indianapolis 500.  You admire the skill of the drivers but fear that at any moment they will crash into each other.   Accidents do happen.  I’ve heard about, but never seen, a deliveryman tip over with a tower of eggs that went splat on the road.

Once I sat at a sidewalk café as a young man drove by with six crates of beer.  As he turned a corner he toppled over, scattering the bottles.  I’ve heard about bystanders rushing in and snatching the beer, leaving the poor driver responsible to pay for the missing load.  Fortunately, this time two men helped the driver return the bottles to the crates and attach them more securely.

Accidents Do Happen

Accidents Do Happen

Observing the Vietnamese negotiate traffic helps me understand how they meet other challenges in life.  The way may be difficult, but somehow they manage.  They maneuver around obstacles, moving a little to the left, a little to the right until they find an opening to squeeze through, doing this again and again until they reach their goal.

Most people in the United States would find that journey impossible, but somehow the Vietnamese manage, with good humor and without complaining.  It’s a show I watch in awe.

[We are back in the U.S. now and these posts are based on our recent visits to Viet Nam.]

Posted by: sharemore1 | February 25, 2014

Fool Me Once

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The Forbidden City

“Fool me once, shame on you,” George W. Bush said, then got famously lost in the witticism and stammered, “you can’t get fooled again.”

How I wish that were true.  My husband and I are experienced travelers, often logging in more than 20,000 international air miles a year.  We know the usual scams:  taxi drivers with spinning meters, young men who jostle you and steal your wallet, and friendly people who approach you on the street wanting to be helpful.   Yet somehow our scam detectors were turned off in China last year.

In June, my husband Moshe was alone in Shanghai, doing what he loves best:  exploring the city on public transportation, which is safer, he feels, than trusting tricky taxi drivers.   As he emerged from the YuYuan subway station, a young Chinese couple approached him speaking fluent English and introduced themselves as Wang Xi and Ji Beibei.   With small backpacks, they looked like the students they claimed to be.  Visitors from Beijing, they said they were looking for a traditional tea ceremony.  Would he care to join them?  As a mathematics professor, he enjoys  Chinese students.  Why not, he thought.  He had the next two hours free and had no interest in visiting the Starbucks and other touristy destinations in the YuYuan market.

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YuYuan Market

The couple led him down an alley and into a small shop, where a young woman in a red silk robe greeted them. “Over 3,000 types of tea are grown in China,” she explained in Chinese, which Moshe’s new friends translated into English.  As they sampled six different types of tea in tiny cups, the woman told stories about each one.

Moshe was captivated by a flowering tea ball, made from leaves picked in the early morning dew.  The leaves had been sewn with cotton thread into different shapes and then dried.  When the tea ball was covered with steaming water, it grew a yellow stem and slowly blossomed into a stunning red flower. Moshe also enjoyed watching a teapot and cups with dragons that changed from black to red when filled with hot tea.

It was a pleasant afternoon, the students were good company, and they promised to e-mail him the pictures they took.  When the ceremony was over, the guests were encouraged to buy something to take home.  Moshe chose a two-ounce dragon teapot with tiny cups and a container of the flower tea, both of which he wanted me to see.  One of the students gave Moshe a tin of fruit tea as a present.

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Chinese Teapot and Cups Next to an American Cup

All went well until Moshe got the bill.  He was shocked.  Moshe’s share came to 1,660 RMB, about $280.  He didn’t have that much cash on him, so he paid with a credit card.  Wang Xi also produced a credit card for his share of the bill, but Moshe later realized that he never saw him sign a receipt.  It had been an expensive afternoon.  Fool me once.

The second incident occurred in late December, when Moshe and I stayed overnight in Beijing as we traveled from Hanoi to Seattle.  He was eager to take me to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which he had visited three months earlier.  By the time we made our way to the square on public transportation it was 8:00 pm.  it was dark and cold, and everything was closed.

Yet the buildings were lit and we could see the 109-acre Tiananmen Square, where a million Chinese led by students had gathered nearly 25 years ago to demand a more democratic government, and where many hundreds were killed when the military brutally evicted them from the square they had occupied for seven weeks.

As we walked across the broad street separating Tiananmen Square from the Forbidden City, my thoughts were on the brave students who had stood up to their government.   Once the home of emperors, the Forbidden City was now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, housing the world’s largest collection of ancient wooden structures.   Like commoners of old, we were barred from entering the city, which was locked up tight and patrolled by guards.

Hungry and cold, we began to search for the restaurant Moshe had found on his earlier visit.  Two friendly young women asked if they could help us.  “We’re looking for a place to eat,” we told them. “What would you suggest?”

“We can show you a place,” they offered, guiding us around the eastern walls of the Forbidden City, the opposite direction from where they had been going.  As we walked one said she was a kindergarten teacher and the other was a computer science student.  “Where were you going on this cold night before you joined us?”  I asked.   They muttered something about being out for a walk.

We followed them into a small bar and were shown to a back room.  It didn’t seem like a place that served food, but the girls assured us we could get something to eat.  They suggested we have a stir fry.  At that point anything hot sounded good, so that’s what we ordered. They also recommended we drink some hot tea and we readily agreed.  The waitress bought a pot of tea and some tiny cups, which we began to sip.

Eventually the food arrived, which was served unceremoniously in Styrofoam containers accompanied by chopsticks.  How tacky, I thought, but still did not suspect anything amiss.

The teacher who sat next to me eagerly talked about her pupils and showed us how to write our names in Chinese.  Moshe had more difficulty making conversation with the computer science student, who seemed uncomfortable and had no interest in discussing her major.

They insisted we try another kind of tea even though we hadn’t finished the first pot.  We didn’t know how to turn off the waitress, who, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, kept returning with more pots of tea for us to sample.

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Expensive Dinner

Then the teacher proposed we share a bottle of wine; it was the custom in their country to drink wine with new friends, she said.  She had found my weakness.  I had been in Asia for a month and was missing my nightly glass of red wine.  The food had been quite ordinary, and I was already tired of the tea.  I might as well get something out of the evening.  She flashed the wine list, but the Chinese description and prices made no sense to me so I agreed to the French wine she suggested.

After drinking the wine, we were ready to head back to the hotel and Moshe asked for the check.  Even the experience in Shanghai hadn’t prepared him for the shocking bottom line: 1550 RMD, about $250.  This time the girls didn’t even pretend to split the cost.  Those little pots of tea were $25 each and the four glasses of wine came to over $100.  Since we were leaving the country the next morning, we felt we had no choice but to pay the bill.

We learned an expensive lesson, which in retrospect seems so obvious.  In both cases, the scammers were appealing young people who readily engaged us in conversation.  Our faces turned red when we read on Trip Advisor that we had been easy prey for these con artists, who frequent the tourist areas of China’s two largest cities.

Moshe added our voices to those online warning of such scams:  Don’t follow strangers into shops they pick; don’t let them make choices for you; and always find out the price first.

George Bush was wrong.  You can get fooled again.

Posted by: sharemore1 | February 24, 2014

Naps: Not Just for Babies

Naptime180_4987

Ever since I first learned how to climb out of my crib, I’ve thought that naps were for babies.  Until I started spending time in Viet Nam, that is.  The Vietnamese traditionally catch forty winks or more after lunch.  But since home is often a long motorbike ride away, they manage to sleep wherever they are; no dimly lit room or memory foam mattresses required.

Sleeping on the job is accepted just about everywhere.  At the university, students and faculty rest on a table or a couple of chairs pushed together.  In modern office buildings, I’ve seen workers napping in the back stairways.

Sleeping in the Aisle180_1313

The Don Xuan wholesale market in Hanoi starts early, with customers arriving before dawn to buy products they resell during the day.  If you try to shop in the early afternoon, you’ll think you’ve arrived at a preschool during nap time, with the young sales people sleeping peacefully on colorful blankets in the aisles.

Nap on the Bike180_1630

When they feel a snooze coming on, motorbike taxi drivers put down their kickstands, lean back on their seats and scrunch their legs up over the handlebars.  They pull a baseball cap over their eyes and fall asleep, balanced on their two-wheeled vehicles.  If a customer comes along they can be ready to go in moments.

Students Napping180_1687

Once several students came to our house for a party after finishing a final exam in the morning.  Like most undergraduates, they hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before and promptly dozed off on our couch.

Midday rests seem most common in warmer climates as a way to avoid working during the hottest part of the day.  In Spanish-speaking countries, the siesta has traditionally been built into the workday, with shops, restaurants and museums closing midday, so the workers can go home for a long lunch and short nap.

My husband Moshe says that when he grew up in Israel, his father would come home for lunch and a snooze.  At that time all businesses would close at 1:00 and not reopen until 4:00.   Once when he was four and supposed to be playing outside, he remembers interrupting his parents doing more than sleeping during their nap.

Although public sleeping is frowned upon in our culture, would we be better off if we took short naps during the day?  According to the National Sleep Foundation <http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/napping>, most mammals are polyphasic, which means they take many short naps during the day.  My dog, Toby, is catching some zzz’s as I write.  Humans are monophasic, with two distinct periods of sleep and wakefulness.

Napping by the Road180_5317

The Sleep Foundation says that most Americans don’t get enough sleep at night.  Although it’s not clear whether short naps can compensate for this sleep deficit or confer definitive health benefits, they have been shown to improve mood, alertness and performance.

If you’re planning to nap, the Foundation calls for a room with a comfortable bed, cool temperature and little noise or light.  I wonder what they’d think of someone sleeping outdoors in a hammock or on a motorbike with the traffic whizzing by?

The Foundation also cautions against driving when drowsy.   Its guidelines urge us to pull over to a safe area, imbibe some caffeine and take a short rest.  Here the Vietnamese are way ahead of us.   The long north-south highway that bisects their country has many rest stops just off the road.   You can park your vehicle, get a snack or a drink and take a real nap in one of many brightly colored hammocks strung between poles.  Now that was more like it.  Although I don’t think we could sleep in the middle of a market or on a motorbike, Moshe and I found the hammocks quite satisfactory.

Sharon and Moshe Snooze180_9156

Maybe naps aren’t just for babies after all.

Posted by: sharemore1 | December 3, 2012

12th Century Pagodas and 21st Century People

Buddha and Choco Pies_2099

Offerings to Buddha: Fruit and Choco Pies

A week of Teachers’ Day celebrations culminated in a road trip with Hanoi University of Science faculty.  We travelled to Bac Giang Province, about 40 kilometers north of Hanoi, to visit pagodas from the 12th century and earlier.

Jeans and Keens_2120

Jeans and Keens

As we reached our first pagoda, I wondered if I would be admitted.  The posted rules required that visitors be civilized, elegant, well-dressed and “speak in a timorous way.”  I was quite sure that my jeans and Keens did not meet the criteria. Uncertain about my dress, I must have projected a lack of confidence that allowed me to pass the timorous test.  No one stopped me.

As much as I enjoyed visiting the pagodas and imagining what life was like when the local king and monks brought Buddhist teachings to the hilly countryside, what caught my eye were the people we encountered along the way.  A few seemed to belong more to the 19th century than the 21st.

Along with the faculty, two thoroughly modern young children were on our trip.  Although they were certainly well dressed, they didn’t seem to have gotten the message about being timorous.  They ran around boisterously, curious about everything.  The little boy especially enjoyed an exhibit of ancient weapons.

Girl in Purple Hoodie

Girl in Fuscia Hoodie

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Curious Boy

While the boy examined the spears, I watched the workers—a habit from my occupational safety and health days.  One man seemed able to squat forever as he applied mortar to a brick wall he was building.  We would call this an awkward posture (it certainly would be for me), but he seemed comfortable.  Nearby, a woman shoveled sand into a wheelbarrow while the men looked on.  It is not unusual for Vietnamese women to have physically demanding jobs.

Brick Layer

Brick Layer

Woman Construction Worker

Woman Construction Worker

Our lunch stop was at a restaurant in one of the villages.  After climbing three flights of stairs, we saw the food laid out on two rows of tables a few inches off the floor.  As the Vietnamese faculty took their places and sat cross-legged on the floor, my husband Moshe realized that his knees wouldn’t bend that way.   He immediately went in search of a chair and brought back two low stools, which he stacked one on top of the other to lift himself off the floor.

Seated for Lunch

Seated for Lunch

After lunch we wandered around the village.  We poked our heads in at the local equivalent of a mini-mart, which sold gas, tomatoes, eggs and snacks.   I hope it’s only motorbikes, and not tourist buses, that try to fill their tanks at the miniature, 4-liter pump.  In a scene out of the 19th century, a man led his young buffalo hitched to a cartload of wood down the main road.

Mini Mart

Mini Mart

Buffalo Cart

Buffalo Cart

A young woman pushed her rusty blue bicycle up a hill, a high stack of cardboard secured to the back.   She wore a conical hat and the typical facemask women wear to protect themselves both from pollution and the sun.  She had ridden her bicycle through the village to collect discarded paper she could recycle for a few dollars a day.   As we caught each other’s eye, I wondered if she were as curious about my life as I was about hers.

Recycling Cardboard

Recycling Cardboard

Our next stop was an erstwhile waterfall that had been damned to block even a trickle of water from pouring over the rocks.  There we spied a young bride and groom having their pictures taken.  In Viet Nam young couples like to have photographs taken in their wedding finery at historic and natural sites.   After seeing many such photo shoots, I’ve often wondered whether couples have to send their clothes to the dry cleaners before their wedding day.  We could see that this bride wore jeans under her wedding dress as she clamored over the rocks.

Bride and Groom

Bride and Groom

Elderly (meaning even older than I am) women  often welcomed us to pagodas.  One woman folded her tiny self into a tiny space as she squatted and shuffled papers at the entrance.   Another woman grinned broadly as we entered her pagoda.  Her colorful clothes—peach, magenta, blue, orange and black—contrasted with her striking black teeth.  When she was growing up, young girls lacquered their teeth with tree resin.  It was applied in layers and later repeated to assure that the dye was very black and permanent.  This was an important cultural practice as well as a fashion statement, like tattoos today.

Working at the Pagoda

Working at the Pagoda

Big Smile, Black Teeth

Big Smile, Black Teeth

With dusk fast approaching we visited Bo Da pagoda, first built in the 11th century during the golden age of Buddhism in Viet Nam.  As we neared the pagoda we heard gongs reverberate through the late afternoon, providing ambient music for a monk chanting his prayers.  Once inside the packed earth walls, we wandered through a maze of rooms, one opening into the next.  Inside was a library of over 2,000 woodblocks that preserve Buddhist teachings.

Bo Da Pagoda

Bo Da Pagoda

Outside the wall was a field of tombs that, like the woodblocks, help document the history of Vietnamese Buddhism.   The stone and brick structures, called stupas in other parts of Asia, contain the ashes of more than 1,000 monks and are inscribed with their names and dates of birth and death.

Field of Tombs

Field of Tombs

This Teachers’ Day trip to rural Viet Nam was a chance for us to become students.  We learned about Buddhist history and culture and got a glimpse of life in the countryside today.

Posted by: sharemore1 | November 28, 2012

Respect for Teachers…and its Limits

In “Showered with Flowers” (12/14/10) I described a typical Teachers’ Day in Viet Nam.  It’s better for florists than Valentine’s Day, as students honor their current and former teachers—from elementary school to the university—with songs and flowers.

Flowers for the Teacher

This year Moshe’s students had something special for him, and much more to his taste than flowers and a tie.  They gave him a laser pointer, which he’s already found indispensable.  On Saturday they came to our apartment to…(if you’ve been following my blog you already know the answer)…cook dinner.

Students Cooking on the Floor

Since it takes time to cook for 20 people in a small kitchen, the students worked in shifts.   As usual, they used all available spaces, including the floor.   They made rice chips, pork kabobs and dozens and dozens of spring rolls, some fresh, some fried, with appropriate dipping sauces.   For dessert they made fruit kabobs and fruit cups with papaya, pineapple and watermelon.  Afterwards everyone pitched in and cleaned the kitchen.

Making Dessert

While some students cooked, others played Qwirkle and one student serenaded us with his guitar.  Teachers are highly respected in Viet Nam—mentioning your profession might get you a discount at a local shop and even a break on a traffic ticket.  But respect has its limits.   The students give no quarter when it comes to playing games, and beating Moshe gives them a special thrill.

Some Play, Others Work

We also attended a party for graduating seniors, commuting to the party on the back of motorbikes during rush hour traffic.  Our drivers skillfully wove through the cars, buses, bicycles and other motorbikes, while we clutched on behind, kneecap to kneecap with other riders.

Astride a Motorbike

The students also honored us at the party.  They gave Moshe and me gifts and thanked us for coming to Viet Nam to work with them.  Formalities dispensed with, they insisted I compete in a contest to impersonate a chicken laying an egg.  So there I was onstage, dignity discarded, squawking and squatting and laying an imaginary egg.  By acclamation, I was named the best mother hen.

Laying an Egg

As I said, respect has its limits.

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