Dune Bashing

I’ve been in Doha, Qatar since the start of the new year running a conference for work.  As part of an effort to let attendees relax and get to know the country better, our partners organized a caravan of off-road vehicles to take us romping around the desert near the Saudi border.  The ride was actually quite gentle compared to my past experience, but it was still thrilling to cruise along the very edge of a dune, and bounce around the desert for a while.

Arab men smoking and drinking tea in a tent in Doha, Qatar the Middle East
Drinking tea at the letting-tire-out-of-the-tires place.


Cars in dunes in the desert in Qatar in the Middle East
The angle was actually even crazier because I was also in a car at an angle, and didn’t have the good sense to use my new camera’s internal level to straighten out the horizon (which also had its own slopes.)
A US dollar on the mirror and oil rigs in the background.
Eventually we got out, and it was only a matter of time before the participants started going down the dunes.
Jumping clear off the dune!
Me and Maja, one of the fellows, rocking our work sweatshirts. I think this is one of only two pictures of me in Qatar.
Holding hands seemed to be a popular method, but it led to a lot of people face-planting.  After falling, the girl on the left sand-angeled her way to the bottom.  The bottom is actually part of an inland sea, which fills when the tide comes in.
After a week of sunshine and 70s, it was windy and chilly in the desert.
It’s hard to get a sense of scale and distance, but check out how George, the man in the middle, is the size of the guy on the left’s foot.
We stopped on the way back to have some tea and dip our feet in the Gulf.
Qatar tends to be ironically slow on the uptake when it comes to facilitating spending, and recently these places to fill your tires back up with air have sprung up.
Camel crossing? I only saw two camels in Qatar, and they were being rented for laughably short rides a the tent at the edge of the desert.

This experience of course reminded me of our full-day swimming, romping and dune-boarding adventure in Egypt.  While this trip was shorter due to time constraints, it was great to see some more of Qatar.  I think everyone who came was happy to get out of the city (I am a city girl but I need frequent doses of nature), and more importantly, to get away from the conference center and have a few laughs without spending half their rent on a glass of wine.


Cuba and the US to Normalize Relations

As myself and basically anyone else paying attention has long said, President Barack Obama is officially going to normalize relations with Cuba. This goes much farther than his previous attempts to relax restrictions and warm up relations between the two countries.  I think this is an excellent use of the lame duck portion of a second term–perhaps clean up the drone and torture programs and fix students loans and immigration on your way out and we’ll be square, Mr. President.

Here are my biggest take aways from the speech:

    • The Pope was instrumental in this negotiation.  The Pope has always had great popularity in Cuba, and his predecessor’s visit there was seen as an acceptance of Afro-Cuban religions that riff on Catholicism.  The papacy continues its legacy of advocating for the release of political prisoners, and for greater respect of human rights.
    • Some campaneros stroll past a propoganda mural of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and
      Some campaneros stroll past a propoganda mural of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos.

      The US Special Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy will become a true US Embassy once again.  Will workers there no longer receive hazard pay?  We should expect to see an influx of official visits from American politicians, although there have been some already.

    • I’m not surprised that the release of Alan Gross and the remaining Cuban 5 (Los Cinco Heroes) were major points in bargaining (along with an unnamed US operative), although Obama chose to refer to the 5 as agents, continuing the US government’s stance in the face of pretty compelling evidence. To learn more about the Cuban 5, check out the movie The Trial (El Proceso.)
    • Cuba’s placement on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorists will be re-examined by State.  Relations could never fully normalize without this step, and more importantly, it has not been a fact-based assessment of the Cuban government for a long time, if ever.
    • A Cuban skates in Havana on the Prado
      A Cuban skates in Havana on the Prado

      The US backing off on telecom restrictions means that the US will no longer be the reason that internet access is so fractured and slow.  Will this lead to the Cuban government relaxing their own restrictions on access to the internet and cell phones?  Soon they won’t be able to blame this on anyone but themselves.

    • Americans will be able to import certain goods, with restrictions.  Well hello there, Havana Club!  I expect to see cigars and rum at a huge markup soon.  Authorize American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba
      • Tourists will be able to spend US dollars and use US debit cards.  But don’t think that means you can just carry plastic around.  Cuba is almost entirely a cash economy.  I’m waiting to hear whether Cuba will removed the tax on USD that artificially pegs the dollar to the CUC (the more expensive of the two currencies.)
    • Cuban baseball havana industriales
      Cuban baseball havana industriales

      General Licenses to travel to Cuba have been expanded.  This type of license is far less paperwork (and potentially money), has fewer time and other restrictions, and now covers Family visits, Journalism, Educational and research activities, religious activities, Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations, humanitarian projects, artistic or athletic activity, information sharing, certain types of commerce, private foundations, and the appropriately vague  “support for the Cuban people.”

    • President Obama still needs Congress to officially remove the embargo, which is a Treasury issue, as opposed to normalizing diplomatic relations, which falls directly under the president’s purview in the Constitution.  Until the embargo is lifted, there is still a punishment in place for spending USD or trading with Cuba.
    • The Malecon, the seawall in Havana.
      The Malecon, the seawall in Havana.

      There will no longer be caps on remittances sent to Cuba, which means investments, medicine, medical equipment, staple foods and textbooks will be able to make their way to the island, along with other goods.  I hope there isn’t too much price gauging, although in the past the US sold these things for cash upfront at a markup, so market price will probably be a relief.

    • 53 political prisoners are being released in Cuba.
    • I’m glad to hear Obama acknowledge Cuba’s amazing health care, as well as their role in Ebola prevention and care, something mainstream media in the US has shied away from.
  • A girl dances to guitar in Trinidad.  I'm feeling like her after hearing this news!
    A girl dances to guitar in Trinidad. I’m feeling like her after hearing this news!

    President Obama’s research team was on point–referencing Jose Martí was a great way to show some amount of understanding of Cuban culture.

Lack of relations with Cuba has been absurd for a long time.  As the president points out, our relationships with China and Vietnam make this look absurd.  I am also absolutely still cautious about what this means for Cuba.  There are aspects of materialism and tourism there already, but like anyone who loves the island, I’m wary of anything that could harm its natural beauty or cannibalize it economically.

How soon can I get back there?  It’s already been a year and a half, and I would love to witness how these changes continue to change Cuba.

What are your thoughts on the President’s announcement?

Blitzfest in Perry Park

A few weeks ago, I got to see some friends play their music outside on an unseasonably warm October afternoon. Perry Park in Somerville has never had live music before, but that didn’t stop Wolf Blitzer (the band) from organizing the event, which some affectionately called #Blitzfest. Inspired by Porchfest, a much-beloved music festival held on the porches of private homes throughout Somerville, Nick Canton of Wolf Blitzer got the proper permission from local authorities and tapped some friends to fill out the schedule.

One of my favorite things about living in Somerville is that there is always something interesting happening somewhere, and so many of the people who live here are invested in the place.  Throughout the day, neighbors came by to check out the music, and families with young kids who frequent the playground got their first taste of hipsters and alt rock.

Carolyn enjoys some playground equipment.
Fans wait patiently while the band set up.
Harry Swyter of The Salem Wolves tells the crowd a story or two.
Cayla and Nick of Wolf Blitzer watch the Salem Wolves play.
The newlyweds (my brother and Michelle) sneak a kiss between songs.
The newlyweds (my brother and Michelle) sneak a kiss between songs.
Gray and Harry of The Salem Wolves.


The coolest part of the day was seeing the performances mix right into the usual aspects of the park.

Priorities, or Death When You’re Away

Nana and I
Nana and I

Enough people have died when I travel for it to give me pause.  When I was twelve and in Colorado for a school trip, my dad took me away from my friends to his hotel room to tell me: “Sister Peggy passed away.”  He exhaled it all at once like he had been holding it in since the phone call, trying not to let is slip out in front of everyone.  Sister Peggy was my great-aunt, my Nana’s sister as well as a nun (Sisters of Notre Dame) and she had died five months after my Nana, almost to the minute, of a very similar complication.  My dad hugged me and told me we would miss the services.  Sometime later, perhaps when she took me to the grave so I could finally feel like it was real, my mother said she never would have told me if I’d been on the trip alone.  Without my dad there to look after me, the news would have kept till I was back in Massachusetts.

This picture of Terry, my mother and I hung on Terry's fridge for years.
This picture of Terry, my mother and I hung on Terry’s fridge for years.

I was blessed with an abundance of grandparents, both biological and honorary.  When I was in Rouen, France five years later on a short-term high school exchange, I only talked to my parents three times.  The final time, just a day or two before I flew home, I remember hanging up and thinking about that time in Colorado.  I knew my parents wouldn’t have told me if something terrible had happened, if someone had died, and I went to sleep uneasy.  On the ride home from the airport they told me Bud had passed away, one of my grandparents of the honorary variety.  There’s something extra-special about people who don’t have to love you but choose to anyway, not out of any sort of obligation but the one they feel in their heart.

My father, my Gram and I.  She is 84 and still going strong!
My father, my Gram and I. She is 84 and still going strong!

Just over a year ago, I went to a party at a friend’s house in my hometown.  We had known for a while that my next door neighbor, Carolyn, was dying.  There had been several phone calls over the past few months with updates on her health, but mostly as a gentle nudge to say my goodbyes.  I had a feeling that this one last nudge was the right one though, and I went to the party planning to be at my parents’ house the next day.  I had a feeling she wouldn’t be there to see me anymore.  I was right, and I expected to feel guilt or regret, but I honestly don’t.

Cousins at the MS Walk in Portsmouth
Cousins at the MS Walk in Portsmouth

Four years ago, one of my mother’s favorite cousins finally succumbed to a long and difficult illness at the end of a brief and happy, but incredibly difficult, life.  My mom decided she was done saying her goodbyes at wakes and funerals, or even at hospital bedsides.  Of course I wouldn’t hear about this decision for another month or so since I was in Cuba for the first time, but when I did I thoroughly agreed.  I had come to the same conclusion when a close relative was diagnosed with a degenerative condition.  What was the point of missing a fun dinner for yet another protracted club meeting?  In the grand scheme of things, what was the cost of missing a meeting here or there, versus the cost of missing out on time with a loved one?  What was the point of ever missing an opportunity to see the people we love when we know we could lose them soon?

Carolyn at my dad's birthday party.
Carolyn at my dad’s birthday party.

So that’s how I had been with Carolyn.  I had spent many afternoons at her house since we moved to the Terrace during the early 1990s.  What art skills I have came from her, and she made my American Girl Doll clothes more beautiful than anything in a catalogue.  She tailored a bridesmade dress for me, which is when I found her cheat sheet: Kevin: boy, tall, brown hair.  Delia, girl, brown hair, glasses.  I saw her in her hospice bed, many times.  I held her hand, and told her stories even when she didn’t know my name.  I delighted on the days her face lit up with recognition of mine.  As my mother said, I was done waiting for people to die to miss them.  I was determined to enjoy them while they were still here.

At a family reunion.
At a family reunion.

And that’s how we came to miss a funeral of one of my mother’s relatives, even though I was in the country.  We sailed right past the exit toward Terry and Bud’s house.  While he had died in 2006 when I was in France, we had seven more great years with Terry.  Bud’s funeral was also when I decided to go to college in Boston.  My older brother had been forced to miss it and it pained him, and I decided I didn’t want that.  I wanted to be able to go the things that mattered to me.  Terry mattered to us, an awful lot, so I found myself in Hyde Park on a bunch of days off with my mum.

We would drink tea, eat tune salad sandwiches, and talk about books, Boston politics, JFK and feminism.  I found myself ditching work a couple of times to go to Block Island with her and the rest of her family, who rather generously made room in the family roster for my parents, brother and I.  I remember dumb things, like giving her my cone when hers broke one night that last summer, knowing she would be gone soon and that I would wish I had given it to her.  And rubbing the dry skin on her hands with lotion on the last day I saw her alive, taking photos of her with my mother because I knew she would want them.  Looking back, I remember thinking god, how pissed would I be if I missed Block Island with Terry to work a shift at Kohl’s?  How pissed would I be if I missed this because I didn’t have the guts to ask for a day off from my job, a job which wouldn’t even exist six months later.  I look back and thank god I traded whatever day to day crap I was supposed to do for all those afternoons in Hyde Park and long weekends on the Island.

It’s how I knew the answer, right away, when my mother asked me if I could afford to go to the funeral of another honorary grandparent, my Nana’s cousin Fritz.  Sure, I missed yet another Arabic class and had a job interview that I rushed to afterwards.  I  ended up with a C for the semester.  But those wheels were already in motion–it’s not like I could trade the funeral for an A.  And how much would it suck to miss the funeral and get that grade anyway?  Some things matter more than others, and while Arabic class mattered in the aggregate, Fritz’s funeral mattered, period.  Besides, I got the job, which sent me to Greece.

If travel is your life, inevitably, you will experience all aspects of your life in connection to it.  Travel bloggers don’t usually write about death.  The usual stance on missing out on home is that you should just go because you won’t miss anything worthwhile; everything and everyone will be the same when you come home.  That’s mostly true, except for when it’s not.  And it means when you’re home you have to make a bigger effort to see the people who matter, since you don’t have as much margin for error.

Team Rojo in the Dominican Republic
Team Rojo in the Dominican Republic

Of course my philosophy isn’t perfect.  It’s much harder to prioritize people who are young and healthy, especially when everyone is so busy and there are so many friends criss-crossing the country and the globe.  I genuinely have no idea when the last time was that I saw my friend Naman, who died at 21.  I’d like to think it wasn’t when we left the Dominican Republic, but it could be.  For whatever reason I spent the next few semesters too caught up in the bubble of my daily life and my ex-boyfriend’s friends, people who I haven’t seen in years now, to spend time with one of the best groups of people I’ve ever traveled with.  To spend time with a perfectly healthy 21 year old who was taken well before his time.

Goofing around with my brother and cousins on Christmas morning.
Goofing around with my brother and cousins on Christmas morning.

It gets harder as life gets busier, and as the competing offers get more interesting, to see in the moment which choice you will thank yourself for later at a funeral.  Every time I find myself thinking, “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” I try to remember that really, we’re all just one complication or offer too good to pass up away from missing even the most important events.  That’s what I was thinking about when I woke up early this morning for Terry and Bud’s memorial mass: not just to remember the people I miss, but to spend more time with everyone else I love who misses them so much.  And it’s what I think about every time I spend Friday night with my 9 and 12 year old cousins.  Sure, they can’t have a beer with me for another decade or so, but it’s important to me.  Some day, when they look at the sum total of their lives, they will remember that in spite of how often I left the country, I was always there, the whole time they were growing up.

Surfing in Ireland

Surfing Lesson in Castlegregory, Ireland
The wind was so strong that day that I could barely get myself and the board to the water without becoming a sail and blowing away. Photo by Peggy Harrington

On our way toward Dingle, Ireland we stopped in Castlegregory for the opportunity to take a surfing lesson.  Yes, surfing.  In Ireland.  It was a dreary, disgusting day, and I was not surprised that only three of us wanted to go–my brother, one half of a nice young couple who got stuck traveling with us, and me.  Luckily, our traveling companions were more than happy to cheer us on from shore and take pictures.  Even in the cold, Brandon Bay in County Kerry is a lovely place to spend a few hours.  It was cold and rainy, and I have a feeling we were warmer than them in our wet suits and booties.

Surfing Lesson in Castlegregory, Ireland
My father trying to stay warm while getting some pictures of us. Photo by Michelle Duffy.

Our instructor, Jamie Knox of Jamie Knox Water Sports, was very understanding with my brother’s and my status as complete beginners.   He went over safety rules and explained a few different technique we would use, and focused on getting us in the water early and often, to make the most of our lesson.   Both my brother and I have terrible vision (I clock in at -8.00) and I can’t imagine that helps us in our aquatic adventures.  Kevin was flying blind, and I wore some outdated contacts.  There were several times when Jamie would be gesturing and we just looked at each other and shrugged because we had no clue what he was trying to say, but nobody got hurt so I guess it turned out fine.

We were given foam boards to practice on, because obviously we would be smacking ourselves in the heads quite a few times, so we may as well get hit with foam.  We learned the basics of timing and actually catching a wave on our stomachs.

Surfing Lesson in Castlegregory, Ireland
Learning the basics. Photo by Michelle Duffy.

I had a ton of fun pulling myself up on the board and learning to steer and control my own speed.  It was pretty easy and it felt amazing to glide along the water so quickly.  We were called out of the water to learn how to stand on the board.  My brother Kevin and I shared a look like hey, this is wicked fun, why ruin a good thing?  Plus, that looks really hard.

And it was really hard.  I am quite a bit smaller than the other two, and I spent most of my time getting tossed around and trying to get back on my feet and be in some sort of a position to actually catch a wave.   By the last half hour or so, my arms were so tired that I could barely pull myself to the front of the board, nevermind paddle.  Luckily, our instructor could see my struggle and would help launch me so I could keep trying to stand up on the board.

Surfing Lesson in Castlegregory, Ireland
Obviously my brother and I share a family trait: grace. Photo by Michelle Duffy

I did finally get up standing on the board, on my very last run of the day.  Of course, our audience had gotten bored, and one of the downsides of being the only single person on a trip is that no one is particularly invested in photos or videos of you, so there is sadly no proof of my triumph.  I can’t wait to try surfing again, although I think I need to seriously improve my arm strength if I plan to be out there for more than a couple of hours.

2-hour beginner surf lessons are €35 per person for adults, € 25 for under 18s, and includes rental of board, wetsuit, booties and hood.  If you find cheaper surf lessons in Co. Kerry, they’ll match the price.  They also offer windsurfing and stand up paddle boarding as well as surf camps for youngsters and family packages.


On Monday, my laptop, external hard drive, and ipod were all stolen from my office at my new job.  It happened in the middle of the day, while other people were in our suite, which is tucked away in a rarely-visited corner.  I was only gone for about half an hour.  Luckily no one else lost anything, no one got hurt, and I had my phone and wallet with me.  I kept hoping there was some other explanation–that I had left my laptop at home, or a coworker had moved my ipod.  Yes, I did everything I was supposed to do, from filing a report to changing my passwords.  I know people mean well, but I’m not all that interested in advice that would require time travel for me to carry it out.

It’s so strange to not have a “when it happened” moment.  I have been robbed before, but in this instance there was no action, just a realization that I didn’t have my things and it wasn’t a mistake.  There’s also some irony in that these objects have been with me all over the world, and yet they were taken from my posh new job at home.  I keep hoping that maybe the thief will see the laptop is a pc, and ditch it.  Or that they’ll have a heart when they see the hard drive is just a terabyte of images, and will turn it in as though they found it.  I would honestly let them keep the stuff if they offered to give back the data.  But I know none of that is realistic.  As the cop said, my things are gone forever.

I’m honestly not that bothered by losing the stuff.  They are just things, and while I’d rather not drop $1,000 or so to replace them, they are replaceable.  What breaks my heart is all the data that cannot be recovered, especially the photos.  Conservatively, it’s at least 50,000 images.  Basically every image I took from 2012-2014 is now gone forever, which includes almost every image I shot on my dSLR, and basically all of the photos that were any good.  Ireland, India, most of Cuba, everything that happened in Boston last April, as well as thousands of family photos and quite a few events are all gone.  What I can recover is mostly not RAW files, meaning they are lower quality and completely useless for some purposes.  The ten posts about Ireland that were queued up to have images added and be posted over the next three or four weeks now seem sad and boring, a little reminder of what I do not have.

I know I have some things backed up on the cloud, and older stuff (like Benin, Egypt, and my first three months in Cuba) on my other hard drive, but to be honest I don’t even have the heart to look and see what I have left.  I really just don’t feel like remembering again of what is lost.  I spent a whole day fixated on the hard drive and therefore thinking that at least I still had my India pictures, and then I remembered that my laptop was also taken, and India is gone too.  Every couple of minutes I remember again that it’s all gone, and the idea of setting about to pick up the pieces holds no appeal.

I certainly have a lot of regrets, like not separating my backup from my originals, not uploading the images to the Ireland posts this past weekend, not having everything on the cloud, and not locking my door in what I thought was a safe office suite.  I wish I had just eaten the lunch I brought from home, and of course I wish the two office guard dogs had been there to scare the thief away.  But mostly I’m just sad.  I think of all the memories that are gone, images, writing and songs going back to high school and in some cases middle school.  I think of the years of hard work, all the hundreds of hours that went into those thousands and thousands of images.  It’s all gone, and I don’t think I have it in me to start again.

The top photo is one of the few India photos that was sitting in the cloud, albeit in a crappy, overly-small jpeg.  It’s also a picture of trust, trust that no one will take your shoes while you go inside the temple, and sometimes it’s nice to remember that.  

A New View of Ireland: Kayaking in Dingle Bay

Kayaking in Dingle Bay Ireland with Irish Adventures
Kevin and Michelle, my brother and future sister-in-law, in Dingle Bay.

One of the things the drew us to Vagabond Tours was the kayaking option in Dingle.  We are an outdoorsy crew, owning two canoes and a kayak back home.  We knew we were going to be kayaking this trip, come hell or high water.  It was also one of the keys to a successful family trip–you are who you are, no matter where in the world you go.

Irish Adventures was right on the waterfront in downtown Dingle.  Our guide, Noel, was funny and informative.  He also took some great images, although he didn’t seem to understand why it would pain me not to be able to take them myself.  Someday, I would love to have a camera or rig that can survive kayaking, but this was not that day.

Kayaking in Dingle Bay Ireland with Irish Adventures
Here I am, with beautiful Dingle in the background.

A few people were in tandem kayaks, but most were solo.  There was a quick lesson and continued instruction for those brand new to kayaking.  Michelle was a compete newcomer to it but she was able to learn the techniques quickly from Noel and had no problem with the paddle.  We paddled along the bay in search of the famed Fungi the Dolphin.  I had read about him ahead of time and my bullshit detector lead me to believe there were a  few dolphins off the coast and on the rare occasion one was spotted, they were called Fungi.  Or that Fungi was a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts or a child’s goldfish, secretly replaced every time he passed on.  It turns out there was no need for the cynicism–Fungi is the rare lone dolphin, and he has been alive for over 20 years.  Like all Irish folks, he is quite friendly and regularly gets close to passing boats, including kayaks.  The closest we got was about 50 yards away, which was a bummer for myself and the other animal loved on the trip, but it was still pretty cool..

Kayaking in Dingle Bay Ireland with Irish Adventures
My parents, who are still married after sharing a tandem kayak.

After the excitement of Fungi, we got to explore the nuances of the Dingle Peninsula’s photogenic coast.  We even paddled through a few caves getting a chance to see the aquatic wildlife in the clear water.  Starfish, sea anemones and various fish were everywhere.  We had been in Ireland for about a week already, but this was the first time we were seeing cliffs up close, and from water level.  We also learned more about the area’s history and some of the local creatures of the land and air as well.

Kayaking in Dingle Bay Ireland with Irish Adventures
A gorgeous shot from inside one of many caves.

The paddle back was against the wind and tide, and also the day after Kev and I went surfing.  Unless you’ve got Michelle Obama arms, I do not recommend so many arm-straining activities in quick succession.  But such is life for a world traveler 🙂  I absolutely recommend Irish Adventures to anybody from a newbie to experienced kayaker.  It’s a great way to see something different.  Noel was a great guide and the experience of exploring sea caves was unlike any other view of Ireland.


There are half-day (3 hours) and full-day tours available.  Half-day tours like mine are 3 hours and available to paddlers age 12+ of all levels.  Cost €50 adult, €45 teenagers, €40 under 12’s.  Full day paddles are from €85 to €100.  They are categorized as Medium (5+ hours, open to all 14+) and Hard (5-6 hours, age 16+.)  You will need to bring swimwear and a towel.  Wet suits and all other equipment are provided.

All photos courtesy of Irish Adventures.  

Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

En route to Ganvie.
En route to Ganvie.

It’s rare for people to write about Ganvie, or really any part of Benin, but when they do it churns my stomach.  Romantic, they write.  Mystical, inviting, the Venice of Africa.

None of this is what I saw in Ganvie.

We got to the stilt village in the middle of Nokué Lake, not far from Cotonou,  Moving in a pair of long motorboats we passed fish farms and what looked like the invasive species water hyacinth along the way.  Because we were a human services group, someone asked the obvious question of whether the men who brought us there were from the community, and the answer was hand-waved away with a probably.  When we arrived, we got out to find a small, angry monkey chained to a post, setting the tone for our visit.

The only monkey I saw in three weeks in Benin.
The only monkey I saw in three weeks in Benin.

Reasons given for the existence of the village are varied, from the villagers themselves as well as the internet.  Some claim it started 400 years ago, others say the 16th or 17th century.  The Tofinu people were running from enslavement by either the Fon or Dahomey tribe.  Or was it the Portuguese?  Some claim it’s the only one in the world, or perhaps the biggest.

Everything felt uneasy there.

A woman screamed at us in a tribal language as we came to a shop.  Throughout the day, children and adults would curse, yell and point at us as they passed on their completely non-mechanized boats.  Even for those who didn’t speak French, it still had a chilling effect.  We found ourselves lowering or hiding our cameras, not meeting each other’s eyes or theirs.

A local boat
A local boat

After I made my purchases I was tired of being pressed further, so I went to the porch to watch some kids splash around.  They were all quite small and in various states of undress, but were too engrossed n their play to bother with another bunch of yovos.  I took a couple of pictures, as did some others, but one of our flashes went off and a little boy put his hand over his genitals.  In French he yelled that he would only remove it for money, which horrified us.  Then he said we should really pay so we can have National Geographic pictures, and I was horrified for a different reason.  This kid knew our number, knew the number of everyone who pays a boat to take them out there.  We wanted something gritty, graphic, exotic and strange.  Something that looked like a poor, primeval stereotype of Africa.

Typical houses in the village.

We were brought from one building to the next, and it quickly became clear that there would be no talk on the history or culture of Ganvie.  Just a lot of wooden statues, wind chimes, and toy cars for sale.

Some students began to get seasick from getting in and out of the boats so often, and others were nervous about a couple of the buildings that seemed to bounce and sway a little too much, where we could see the water beneath our feet through the cracks and holes in the floor.  A chatty group, we got more sullen and silent in the face of a strange and incredibly un-fun shopping trip.  The less we bought, the more agitated the shopkeepers, boat captains and other locals would get.  Some people tried to explain that every shop sold the same thing, or that we were but poor students, but there was little sympathy to be found.

Fish farming plots.
Fish farming plots.

Someone in charge heavily insinuated that it was an obligation to buy things, since we had shown up as voyeuristic little tourists, never mind that these same people in charge brought us here with little warning and no option to stay behind.  We came to wonder if the men who brought us there were from the community, how the community felt about our presence (though I think we knew) and who actually owned those motorboats.

Sometimes I think of Ganvie, and it always makes me uncomfortable.  It’s one of those places I hardly ever discuss.  It felt wrong to be there, but also wrong to take away the much-needed tourism dollars.  It was disappointing not to learn more about the logistics of their way of life, but it seems entitled to be disappointed that strangers don’t take time out of their day to entertain me and answer my questions.  Some people complain that the locals are too unfriendly–how dare they not smile for us, not open up their homes for us.  Most of all, I think about how young the naked boy must have been to already understand exactly how the world sees him, and what it expects of him.  He didn’t do anything wrong–in fact he was being a clever entrepreneur.  It’s just so unsettling that his venture is successful.

Animal Abuse and Tourism: Where do we Draw the Line?

elephants tourism travel animal abuse
Not so picturesque

Like walking into a guide book, we ran into “domesticated” elephants several times now in Kerala, always completely by accident.  Well, by accident or unknowing on our part.  But the two times when we saw elephants at or near hotels were certainly no accident.  I quote the word domesticated because I’m not convinced that such an animal can be domesticated.  And if it can, surely this cannot happen over the course of one lifetime–isn’t true domestication a multi-generation process, a form of contrived evolution?

Elephant animal abuse India temple Kerala
Is this worth it?

According to EleAid, India has some of the strictest laws in Asia governing domesticated elephants, but the laws aren’t enforced.  City life is completely unsuited to what elephants need, and some elephants used in tourism or in temples are known for being chained to one spot their whole life or completely over-worked.

As a person who loves animals (and used to spend quite a bit of time with science), I find myself pulled between two poles: I want to both be with animals and see them able to live their lives naturally.  As interesting as it was to spot a bear on a neighbor’s porch in Maine, for example, it was sad to realize that this animal had acquired a taste for human food and was bold enough to walk up to someone’s house and take it.  This means that it is likely that bear will someday die because of something it eats or because it

IMG_3052On our seventh official day of the Kerala Blog Express, we got to take a boat ride in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (*Tigers not Guaranteed.)  This area is only accessible by boat, and is the first place I’ve seen in India with zero trash.  The animals have substantial protected acreage at their disposal, and their lives appear to transpire without human interference, other than boats that watch from a safe distance.  To me, this is how nature was meant to be observed: from a safe distance, in a respectful way, and in controlled numbers (of humans.)

We were able to see elephants again in Wayanad by driving through Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.  We were not permitted to drive through the rest of the sanctuary as planned because the weather was making the animals nervous.  I was glad to hear that we were not being allowed to do something that would jeopardize our (and in turn the animals’) well-being.  To me, the surest sign of a good sanctuary or preserve is that they use the word ‘no.’  There should not be a dollar amount that will assuage concerns for the animals’ well being.

Elephants wild Wayanad Kerala India
In Wayanad

As much as we love the magic and intensity (and let’s not forget the profile pics and blog posts) of witnessing a wild animal at close range, it isn’t natural.  They aren’t meant to bend to our will, to eat our food, or to carry us around.  They need space, not chains, and reputable research and preservation organizations need our money more than sketchy places that drug or otherwise abuse the animals do.  It’s not satisfying and it won’t boost my page views, but participating in the mistreatment of animals is not what’s best for those animals.  Neither is going on an elephant ride (or playing with tiger cubs), getting the cool photos, and then writing a contrite, hand-wringing post after the fact to retroactively atone for our participation.  Unfortunately that seems to be the preferred route for travelers with a conscience, myself included: get the snaps, then talk about how messed up it is afterwards.

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A little one in the wild of Wayanad

Beyond the ethics of it, animals are far more interesting when they are behaving as they choose.  As fellow member of the Kerala Blog Express Daniel said on Instagram, seeing a mother and baby elephant interacting in the wild is far better than watching one perform for us on paved city streets.  It was amazing to see a small herd of elephants quietly going about their business this afternoon, not bothered by our presence, not decorated by anything other than mud and their own skin, and completely free of chains.

I hope that governments and tourists alike will help make it easier for letting animals be wild to be an easy choice, one that is rewarded with good publicity and plenty of business.  I hope that consumers become more aware of the power of their dollars, their presence and their photos, and wield them accordingly.  I hope elephants and other, less PR-friendly animals are still around in the wild for generations to come.

Periyar Tiger Reserve wild elephants elephant travel tourism india kerala
Doesn’t this look better than chains and decorations? In the Periyar Tiger Reserve

Want to learn more about how to help animals and make humane decisions?  Try some of these resources below.

Disclaimer: I was in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  They gave no input on my posts or their subject.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Boston Marathon Tributes

I was hoping to post something on Wednesday with my thoughts on the marathon a year out, but Tuesday night’s events left me exhausted in more ways than one.  I’m glad no one got hurt and that there was no actual potential for violence, and I hope he finds the help that he needs.  I also hope his family gets some privacy and the support that they surely need as well.  There’s a lot out there on the marathon, some better than others.  Here’s a round-up of some of my favorite marathon-related things hanging around the internet.

Jeff Bauman, seen by many as the face (along with Carlos Arredondo, he of the cowboy hat) of the Boston Marathon survivors wrote a great piece at the Guardian explaining how he feels about the famous wheelchair photo, and how he hopes we’ll view it.  I think it’s incredibly powerful for him to take charge of his own narrative and of this devastating thing that was inflicted upon him.  It’s also fascinating from the standpoint of photography and journalism to think about whether taking this photo was a good idea, and to hear Jeff’s thoughts about the image and the man responsible.  If you didn’t see the coverage at the time, you’ll also note that most people who weren’t on twitter at the time or actively seeking it out haven’t seen the complete image, in a self-imposed censorship similar to the images of people jumping from the twin towers.  The images are seen as too much, and too damaging a way for  a loved one to get bad news (as Jeff’s parents did) and too inescapable to be fair to those who suffered.  If you enjoy Jeff’s perspective, check out his book Stronger, out now.

I’m a big fan of charity that harnesses the consumerism of the US.  It’s not going away, so at least let’s harness it for good.  These bracelets, made of last year’s marathon street banners benefit the One Fund and can also lend a sense of solidarity.  A shout out to John Hancock for covering the administrative and production costs of the bracelets, so 100% of the cost goes to the fund.  Over $30,000 has been raised so far, but you can only get the bracelets until Sunday at 6 pm.

I have to mention that the Boston Globe won a Pulitzer for their coverage last year.  There was a lot of terrible coverage (“It’s almost as if a bomb went off…”–someone on CNN) so I’m glad they were recognized for not falling for conspiracy theories (what’s up, Anonymous’s completely inaccurate reporting, say hi to your mother for me), racism, or just blaming random people.  Congratulations, and thank you.

If you liked their coverage, you’ll probably also enjoy their One Year, One City interactive story, as well as the behind the scenes footage.

The great image at the top of this post was designed by Northeastern alums and good friends of mine Jack and Kate of Union Jack Creative.  You can support local art and a local small business by purchasing the poster online, and charity runners get a discount, in honor of Kate’s two years as a Boston Marathon charity runner for the Boston Debate League, a great organization teaching inner city kids about debate and inspiring confidence and academic improvement everywhere they go.

Fellow NU grad, traveler, and partner in crime Kade Krichko was able to interview fellow Reading resident Mark Fucarile, survivor, about his experience getting back to skiing after he lost his right leg above the knee.  I love stories showing people with hindered physical or mental abilities living full lives, not being held back.  You may recognize Fucarile from the stories about his fantastic all-expenses paid Fenway Park wedding to his long-time girlfriend.  They arrived via blue and yellow duckboats, because Boston.

If you have the time, check out WBUR’s Oral History Project on the Marathon.  It’s a mix of famous and not so famous storytellers sharing their experience.  In a similar and somewhat-connected, Northeastern University is collecting a digital archive, including some of my images from NUPR’s special online edition.  It’s called “Our Marathon” and can be seen in part through May 2nd in International Village, which is behind Ruggles and next to the police station.  You can contribute to Our Marathon or the Oral History Project online.

The afternoon memorial was lovely, and I think Patrick Downes had the best speech of the day.  It must be hard on a bunch o regular people, who did not lead public lives, to suddenly be thrust in the spotlight.  People suddenly want them to make speeches, write books, even comfort them, regardless of the fact that they don’t necessarily have any training in any of these areas.  Patrick makes what must have been a very emotional day look grateful and easy.

If you’re looking to contribute to a charity runner, I personally know 3 who are running for great causes, with amazing stories.  Jordyn Parsons is my former roommate and a Northeastern student, and she’s running for the Melanoma Foundation of New England.  She currently needs a little less than $2,000 to reach her goal of $7,500.

Elizabeth Shea, who is from my home town went to Mass General’s Pediatric Oncology Center with hystiocytosis.  Someone ran the marathon in her honor as part of the patient-partner program.  It meant so much to her that once she was healthy, she wanted to pay it forward.   Her dad was also inspired, and ran four Boston Marathons in her name, raising thousands of dollars for childhood cancer research.   She ran the marathon last year with her father but was stopped at mile 25.5, and is looking to complete the journey on Monday.   Donate to her efforts here.

Laura Williams went to high school and college with me, as did her older brother Chris, who passed away from Cystic Fibrosis three years ago.  She is running in his honor for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and she needs to raise just under $1,000 to meet her goal of $10,000.   You can also buy a shirt to benefit her efforts.

What’s your favorite coverage of the one year anniversary?  Feel free to share links, images, or your own stories and experiences in the comments.

See you on race day.

Photography, culture and adventure travel from a social justice perspective.